For the longest time, Eric had lived his life in a grey zone. As if everything, from the moment he opened his eyes in the morning until he closed them at night, was covered in different nuances between black and white but no matter how hard he tried he could never figure out how to get to either end of the scale. Nor did he know which end he really wanted to reach.
Living was actually not the hardest part. In fact, that was probably the easiest thing to do. Just find a routine and repeat it, day after day. Wake up, go to practice, practice. Go out with the other team members, grab a few beers, maybe watch a game, go home, go to sleep. Rewind the tape, press play. The only real exceptions were the games, they messed up the schedule a bit, but nothing was ever out of the ordinary. A sort of safe kind of existence. He knew who he was and what he was doing. He also knew that some things were never spoken of, never acted on, and he knew that the best way to keep things going, to keep himself afloat, was to just go on. Forward. What did it matter if every day was the same old, dusty grey? Things were okay. He was okay. That was all that mattered.
Until the accident.
It was not so much the hit in the back, nor the sound – the feel – of bones breaking in what felt like the entire upper body. Being knocked unconscious by the impact was not so bad either. What was bad, what really hurt, was the sight of the little kid he had so brusquely brushed off before the practice game. The picture of himself in match gear, the one he had refused to sign, had now been replaced by a simple paper, "You suck" written all over it in bold, black letters. He saw them, dancing in front of him, heard the boy scream it at him with so much vehemence it seemed to seep out onto the ice. It was the only thing he saw, the only thing he heard, when the tackle hit him from behind and he could feel his shoulder crumble under the impact. As he fell down on the ice, hitting his head, he could still hear the boy's chant and he thought to himself: He's right. He's absolutely right.
His first conscious thought was to close his eyes against the bright light before them. His second thought was, wait a minute, my eyes are closed. Then he became aware of the slow but steady hum of several machines nearby, and then intense, searing pain in his left shoulder. As soon as he located the pain, his mind engaged in it completely and he felt his own face contort with it – just make it go away, please God, I'll do anything, just make the pain-
"… some more… yes, thank you…"
He did not recognize the soft, somewhat nervous voice that seemed to belong somewhere to his right, but he did feel the fuzzy, cotton-soft wave that spilled over him only seconds later. His muscles relaxed and his thoughts sank lazily into the soft cushioning. Soon, he was mercifully asleep.
His next awakening was somewhat more… orderly.
Slowly he became aware of his surroundings in that dull, stupid way that always follows a black out. There was that hum of machines, there were starched sheets under and over his body – which hurt, badly, by the way – and when he opened his eyes the bright white light just above him made him squeeze them tightly shut again. However, he was not fast enough.
"McNally, you alive there? Get the nurse!"
He recognized the voice as the team coach, and just as if they were on the ice, someone obeyed him within seconds and within a flutter of moments his hands and torso were touched gently by cool hands. It was hard, but he managed to force his eyes open.
"What the hell just happened?" he grumbled, angry with himself that he sounded so weak.
"Your shoulder is broken, sir" replied an unfamiliar voice from uncomfortably close – the nurse, probably. "In four places."
"Is that a bad thing?" The fact that he had never been in so much pain as right now should have been a clue, as well as that he had never been aware of that you could actually break a shoulder in as many as four places, without it being referred to as crushed or damaged beyond recognition or repair.
"If you let it rest properly and follow the rehabilitation exercises you should be able to use it just fine."
"What about professional hockey?" the coach said. "He'll be able to continue, right?"
"That is for the doctor to say" the nurse replied in a voice as cool as her hands, "as well as time and patience. I will get the doctor to come as soon as she can."
"What is this, an all female institution?" said the coach as soon as the nurse had left the room. He was a large man, not fat but tall and broad, like a brick wall you really did not want to hit, and he had a booming voice that did nothing to conceal the fact that he thought Eric McNally a very lucky man. Female nurses and doctors coming into his room and feeling him up, what could possibly be better? Except from being less injured, perhaps.
"I believe doctor Tomlinson is something of an expert on shoulder injuries."
This was said by the third man in the room, the only other one except the coach and Eric himself. His spoke in a low and soft tone, but there was a small edge to his voice, hardly discernible, which caught Eric's attention. Otherwise, the man was almost plain. He seemed to be close to Eric in length, maybe even a tad bit taller, but with a slender build. His hair was so dark it was almost black, but his eyes were a pearly blue. He was an absolute stranger, yet he looked strangely familiar.
"Eric McNally, this is Sam Miller, our lawyer. He is supposed to help you with any legal complaints you have and to sort out, you know, all the paperwork."
Indeed, the stranger – Sam – did carry a black briefcase. And he was dressed in a suit. Very much lawyer-like. Still, Eric did not quite get what his purpose was and looked to the coach for answers.
"What, you think I want to sue someone? Who even rammed me in the first place?"
"Rivers. And I'm not saying you should sue him, fuck no, I want to get in on paper that you do not want to sue anyone. At least any one of us, you know. Feel free to do whatever to the rink janitor or whomever. Hey, I've got to go, but just give me a call and we'll talk about getting you back on the team as soon as possible, all right?"
"Right, sure" Eric replied, his head swimming with the words and must-dos. The coach left the room, leaving Sam the lawyer, who looked at Eric a bit awkwardly.
"Do you want me to leave, too? You look a bit pale – I can come by some other time."
"No, no, it's okay, it's just, er, I'm kind of feeling my mortality here."
"Ah. I believe there is a button just by your right hand that should- yes, that's the one."
Sweet morphine rolled over Eric in a soft wave once again, though not enough to knock him out this time. However, it did ease the burning, thundering sensation in his shoulder.
"You look like you're enjoying that a bit too much" remarked the lawyer with a faint trace of a smile.
"Come back when you've had your shoulder smashed to pieces, you'll know bliss."
"That would be an interesting experience. But that's not my top priority."
"Good call. It sucks. So, okay, what are you really supposed to do?"
"As coach Furnham said, I am supposed to make sure that you do not want to press any charges against your team. If you do, I will arrange for another lawyer for you, unless you have one already – though in that case, I must inform you, the terms of your contract with the Leafs will be rendered void – including healthcare."
"Yeah, well, I don't want to press charges. Being tackled sort of comes with the job."
"I understand it was more like a wrecking ball attempting to push you through the side of the rink."
"So, I should have moved. It wasn't Rivers fault, or anyone's for that matter. Except maybe for the kid…"
"The kid?" He looked surprised, the lawyer, as if this was the first thing in their conversation that he had not anticipated. And Eric had not intended to mention it in the first place. It must have been the morphine…
"Yeah, there was this kid by the side of the rink. You know, we invite the schools to our practice games once in a while and there was this kid who sort of distracted me."
"A child distracted our great center? Imagine the headlines: Star player floored by child – should they be banned from games?"
Eric could not help but smile at this dry humor, a smile which the lawyer returned before asking:
"Is there anything I can help you with, other than the legal actions you don't want to take?"
"Well, eh, you don't happen to know where they've put my things? I should probably call my sister."
"I can take care of that for you. It seems like you will be here for a few days so I will come by another day with some papers I need you to sign and then everything should be okay."
"Okay, sounds great."
That sounded a bit too happy to be okay under the circumstances, but Eric thought that maybe he could blame that on the morphine as well. The lawyer did not seem to mind though, and he actually stepped up to the bed and held out his hand for Eric to shake – which he did, although a bit awkwardly since it felt weird doing it while laying down.
"Nice to meet you Eric, and I will see you again soon."
"Yeah, you too."
They let go of each other's hands at the same time, gazes unlocked, and the lawyer turned and started for the door. He had almost reached it when Eric called out for him, surprising even himself in doing so.
"Oh, there was one more thing."
"It'd be kind if you did not mention this to the newspapers. We couldn't risk losing our greatest fans, right?"
"My lips are sealed" said the lawyer with a smile, and left. Alone in the hospital room was Eric, with a body pleasantly full of morphine, a mashed to pieces shoulder, and a strange but nice sensation in his right hand.
The next few days passed by in a blur of nurses, doctors' visits and tasteless hospital food. Since he was under strict directives not to move about, not even to go to the bathroom – and the shoulder hurt like hell if he so much as tried to move a muscle in his left hand – Eric was soon bored and frustrated with the lack of stimulation. While the running of the hospital, with its strict and repetitive timetables, should have been comfortingly similar to Eric's own everyday life, it was so profoundly different and lacking in any variation whatsoever, that the boredom got the better of him and he slept the days away. His sister, having received the lawyer's call – coach Furnham would never have thought of contacting her – came to visit, accompanied by her young, but thankfully sleeping, son. She displayed every possible nuance of feeling, from worry and sympathy to relief and even amusement, and she provided him with the sport newspapers of the last few days to keep him up to date. There was only little mention of his own injury, thank heavens, and not a word about a certain kid. Even so, his making the newspaper headlines made Eric the joke of all the team members' comments as they came to visit him, one by one or in small groups.
It was not until the fourth day that Sam the lawyer showed up, with a new shirt and tie and a new suit, but the same briefcase – though today it appeared to be somewhat fuller than Eric remembered from last time.
"How are you feeling today? Not in the mood for suing, I hope."
"Nope, not today, thank you." In fact, he felt fine. All he wanted right now was to get home – if he was supposed to stay still and eat unhealthy, tasteless food, he might as well do it at home.
"Excellent, that makes my work much easier. Now, here are the papers I need you to sign…" He pulled out a thick pile of papers from his briefcase and put them on the table in front of Eric, then provided a black fountain pen with the discreet logo of the law firm on top. Classy. "… there is a lot of fine print but it more or less says that you do not hold the team nor its sponsors responsible for the accident. There is also a copy of your contract as well as a specific paper on what amount of healthcare and rehabilitation the team will provide. You have to sign that as well."
There really were a lot of papers but they were easy enough to understand and of course even easier to sign. As he put down the pen and watched as Sam put the papers back into the file in his briefcase, Eric found himself asking:
"So, do you like hockey?"
"Not very much, actually" the lawyer replied and appeared kind of surprised by the question. "Why?"
"Well, I just thought, since you're working for the Leafs and all that, it'd just make sense."
"One of several clients. Though it does have its benefits."
"Yeah, like what?"
The lawyer gave him that smile again, one that looked almost dorky and yet at the same time, almost ironic, and made the pile of papers move a little in his hand.
"Twenty four autographs by the Leafs' star player. These might be valuable some day."
"If I can come back" Eric said, not wanting to jinx the future.
"When you do your comeback" replied the suited man with an emphasis on the first word and closed the briefcase. "And then maybe, just maybe, I'll have to go to a hockey game."
It was not until he had left that Eric realized that he still had the black fountain pen.
Several more days passed, each as boring as the day before, and Eric had been at the hospital for almost two weeks before he was deemed stable enough to go home. The long stay had no doubt been a courtesy of the team health insurance, but even so it was a thrill to go home. His left arm and shoulder were of course of no use whatsoever, but he could manage to perform all the necessary actions in order to get along. Shopping was a hassle, of course, more so than usual not because of his arm, really, but because suddenly everyone – not only the sports fans, but everyone – recognized him as Eric McNally. Not everyone approached him directly, but he could feel and see their stares, hear them mentioning him in hushed whispers to one another, and it was all he could do not to scream out loud and beg them all to just leave him alone. The meds unfortunately kept him on the right side of borderline crazy, so in the end, he just secluded himself from the rest of the world, with the T.V. as his foremost company.
That was why he did not expect any visitors, especially not on a Friday night. As a matter of fact he was more than ready for some quality alone time – compared to the no-quality alone time of daytime television – with some beer and snacks in front of tonight's game, when there was a knock on the door. At first he ignored it, thinking that if it was Joan she would either keep knocking or call out for him in an angry voice, and anyone else might as well just leave anyway. However, the knocking continued and when a voice finally called out, it did not belong to his sister. It belonged to a man.
"I know you're in there, I can hear the T.V."
Eric surprised himself in how fast he managed to transport himself between the sofa and the door, realizing only as he opened it that he was in nothing more than a pair of worn sweat pants. Quite unlike Sam at the other side of the door.
The lawyer was nowhere to be seen tonight, though he was not in any way unlike himself. The suit-shirt-tie-combo had been replaced by jeans and a simple light blue cotton shirt, only the collar visible under a dark navy blue sweater and a black leather jacket. He looked relaxed, not really as if he was going out somewhere but rather like someone would do if they were going to a café in a Sunday afternoon. Not that Eric had ever done that, but it looked like that. Additionally, he was carrying two paper bags and held one of them out for Eric to take.
"Hi. Sorry to just drop by like this without notice. Your sister called me and asked me to do some grocery shopping for you. She was worried you weren't eating properly."
It was like some sort of meltdown in Eric's brain, because the only thing he could think of was that he was practically naked, and that his apartment looked more like pigsty than a home. Still, he stepped aside to let the other man in and in an instant his brain started to work again – at double speed and without thinking ahead.
"Ah… no problem, just… sorry about the mess, I – did you say my sister called you? Sorry about that, she has no respect for- wait, how much did you put out for me? I don't have cash right now but I can write you a check…"
"No rush" replied the leisurely dressed but still lawyer, "can I put it here? Do you need any help unpacking?"
They had somehow made it into the kitchen already and Eric felt a bit overwhelmed by the fact that he had absolutely no control over what was going on. Like, his sister called his lawyer to make sure he ate properly? He did not even know where to begin pondering that thought.
"Uh, yeah, sure. What have you bought anyway?"
"Some turkey, chicken, bread… bananas, orange juice… peanuts."
"Peanuts! That's perfect, you know, the game's just started and- Oh, right, you're not really interested in hockey."
"Well no" Sam said, "but I don't really have anywhere else to be. If that was your subtle way of inviting me to stay and watch the game, that is."
"More like stumbling, but yeah. If you want to."
"Could be nice for a change. Should I pour those peanuts or are you going to keep hugging them?"
As it happened, Sam took of his leather jacket and his shoes, poured the peanuts into a bowl – where did he find it? – and made chicken sandwiches which he practically forced Eric to eat in between explaining game strategy and special techniques. He drank his beer from a glass, rather than from the bottle, and even though he had never been there before, he seemed to belong.
Eric was not sure exactly how it happened or why he accepted it when it happened, but it was oddly impossible to deny Sam access to his fridge or his cupboards, or to keep him from clearing off the side table of its dishes after the game was over. He felt strangely useless in his own home, yet not overrun like he sometimes did when Joan decided to come over to "bring order into this mess". It was strange but he had a good time and for the first time since he got home from the hospital, he barely even thought about the injured shoulder. However, the game was over, it was kind of late and Sam (Eric could not really consider him a lawyer anymore, not in jeans and a sweater in the middle of a Friday night) was getting ready to go. Eric followed him to the door, watched him put the leather jacket and the shoes back on, and then there they were, his own clear blue eyes locked in Sam's darker ones, standing opposite each other just waiting for the other to say something. At last, Eric shouldered the responsibility, feeling yet again his brain at work at double speed.
"So, um, thanks for dropping by and- shit, your money. Let me just get my checkbook-"
It was the touch of a hand upon his arm – the right one, thank heavens – that stopped both his words and his motion to go and find the book. It was Sam's hand, resting just above the wrist, and Eric looked from it and up to those pearly blue eyes that leaned closer, and closer, until he could feel soft lips against his own, with just a tiny hint of beer and salt. It was no more than that, lips brushing, a small peck, yet he had felt his heart stop.
He opened his eyes, only to meet that smile again, small, yet somehow smug.
"I'm not going to be sorry for that" the devious, smug, grocery shopping, non-hockey-fan, looking awesome in navy blue lawyer said, with a hint of humor in his voice.
"Don't be" Eric whispered and leaned in for yet another kiss.
A long while later, Eric adjusted himself on the bed so that he could lean his head on Sam's shoulder, without disturbing his own. The smell of sex lay heavy in the room and he could hardly remember when it had last been in his bedroom. A year ago? More? Too long, in any case. Now, for just a little while, he let himself relax into the feeling of the other man's body beside him, the caress of a hand upon his stomach, just below where his own passive hand was resting.
"Who would have known" Sam said in a low voice so close to Eric's ear that it almost tickled, "that the Leafs' great star would be gay?"
This made Eric tense up more than enough to relieve him of all the relaxation he had only recently soaked in.
"I'm not-" he started, feeling as if the metaphorical ground beneath him was crumbling away, "I'm not-"
"Eric, you just sucked my dick after I fucked you really hard. Twice. That is about as gay as it gets."
As surprised as Eric was at this sudden raw speech after the usual, carefully picked words of a lawyer, the words in themselves caused a small storm within him. Pleasure, satisfaction, even some sort of feeling of having really earned those moments in Sam's care, mingled with the old, familiar fear.
"What's your point?" he asked, voice strained to keep an even tone.
"Nothing, I was just surprised to find that you played for another team. What?"
Eric had caught Sam's hand with his left hand and now hoisted himself to his right side on the bed, his eyes drilling into Sam's as he asked:
"Did anyone tell you about me? Who? I swear to God, if you take this to the media I will sue you for slander and breaching client confidentiality."
"Whoa, whoa!" Sam raised his free hand in an attempt for the universal not-guilty gesture and looked genuinely startled by the accusation. "No one told me anything and I am not planning to use this in any way whatsoever. Why on earth should I?"
The simple honesty in Sam's voice and in his eyes rendered Eric dumbfounded. But… how…?
"Then… how did you… what if I hadn't been… I could've just punched you for kissing me. Why would you risk that?"
A smile traced Sam's lips, and something not quite a sigh.
"It wasn't much of a risk. My gaydar" Eric felt himself flinch at the word and apparently, Sam noticed it too, but did not let it stop his words "is in excellent shape and is capable of finding even the most discreet closet cases."
"So why did you do this? Just to fuck a celebrity?" It was not a hard feat to remember all the references to his position in the team, or his fame, or those damned "autographs". His voice felt dry and all the nice relaxation from just a few minutes ago was completely gone.
"Eric, no. That's not why." His voice seemed even softer than usual and soon his hand stroke Eric's cheek gently. "It's because you're sexy as hell and because I feel attracted to you. If we knew each other better I would say something about your personality, but we don't. I want to get to know you though, if you'll let me."
"Oh…" Many things could be said about Eric's experience in matters of the heart, but he was not in any way prepared for this sweet talk. "So…"
"I'm not here to abuse you in any way. Well, I guess you will be a bit sore tomorrow, but no worse than you already were." Sam's smile showed that he was clearly quite satisfied with his own accomplishments, but then faded, as if he had suddenly been struck by a not very comfortable thought. "Hey, do you want me to leave?"
Eric's mind jolted at the question. He had no idea what time it was but it was surely long after midnight. More than so, with Sam's insurances that their recent rumblings in the metaphorical hay would not be made public knowledge he felt himself relax into the other man's embrace once again, unwilling to be abandoned by it.
"No. No, just…stay. Please?" It was all so weird. He had never asked a man to stay over before. Maybe because he had never had a man over before. What were you supposed to say? A soft chuckle escaped the other man's lips and Eric felt shivers of expectation all over his body. Sam's eyes seemed to sparkle slightly in the dim light of the lamp on the night stand.
"I would very much like that" replied the lawyer by day, gay sex genius by night. "But Eric?"
"Would you please let go of my hand before you crush it?"
Eric's left hand released the hand in question as if he had been burned by it. He had not been aware that he had held on to it throughout the conversation, but now as he let it go he realized that he had indeed held it very hard – his hand ached from the strain.
"Sorry, I- um…" his voice trailed off.
"Don't worry about it. Now, will you lie down or are you going to spend the night lying on your one good arm?"
Much to his surprise, Eric slept well throughout the night. His shoulder had started to itch in the most annoying way, often waking him up from deep sleep and keeping him awake for hours – but not this night. When he woke up, dim morning light seeping through the window blinds, he felt rested and calm in a way he did not experience very often. Next to him, lying on his side, was Sam, eyes closed in sleep and one arm draped across Eric's stomach. Eric could feel his scent, a dash of soap and clean cotton with just a hint of aftershave as well as a thin sheen of musky sweat, a reminder of their proximity last night. For a moment, Eric mused what would have happened if he had told Sam to go away. Bad sleep, followed by a bad case of post-sex hangover, probably, and some angst-filled promise to never do something that stupid again.
But he had not asked Sam to leave, he had asked him to stay. More than that, he had wanted Sam to stay. Waking up next to him made him remember last night in a good way instead of a bad and he felt ridiculously comfortable like this, feeling anchored to one place, one person, instead of aimlessly drifting. The only problem was that he had an urgent need to go to the bathroom.
There was no way he could just ease out of the bed unnoticed, not with Sam's arm around his waist, and while he did not want to wake the other man, he really had to get up. Maybe, if he could just… but as he tried to gently move Sam's hand, the other man's fingers caught his own in a soft but firm grip. A mumbled 'good morning' tickled his ear.
"Mornin'. Hey, eh, Sam, I have to... you know. Would you-?"
"Hm? Oh, yeah, sure."
The grip on Eric's fingers loosened and Sam retracted his hand, though not without caressing Eric's stomach in the process. A surge of anticipation streamed through Eric's body but he decidedly pushed the thoughts away and got out of bed. His shoulder ached and he felt a familiar, yet not experienced for a long time, pain in his lower regions as he made his way towards the bathroom, the door to which he closed only barely before using the toilet.
Surprisingly enough, he felt good. Actually, he felt very good – better than in a long time. For the first time since the accident, no, since even longer, the met his own eyes in the mirror, instead of looking away.
That, however, did not change the fact that he was unused to, and uncomfortable with, going stark naked out into his bedroom where an equally naked man was lying in his bed. Oh lord… He was no good at pillow-talk. All he wanted right now was coffee and toast. Even so, he went into the bedroom again, only to find that Sam had gotten out of bed and was currently in the process of getting dressed. As Eric came into the room, he looked up and gave a quick smile.
"Don't tell me you expected some action. You don't seem like the kind of guy who wants to do it in the morning."
"No, that's okay. Well, you're right. About me. That. Eh, you wouldn't know what happened to my shorts, would you?"
"Right there" Sam answered and pointed to a small pile of clothes that Eric had no recollection of. Then he noticed that Sam's clothes were all in a pile too. Odd, very odd. Clothes tended to make nests, or mountains, in his room, not orderly piles. Even his sweat pants were neatly folded. He gave Sam a questioning look.
"Yeah, about that…" Sam put on his jeans and fastened them with a leather belt. "I just don't like it when clothes are scattered all around."
Eric simply nodded.
In many ways it was the strangest morning after sex that Eric had ever experienced. It was the first time he ever had a man over in his own home and he had little to none experience in being the guest of someone in a situation such as this – often attempting to go home as soon as possible. As for women… Well, there had been a period in his life where women had played a part, but it had never ended well. Or rather, it had never begun well. While the act in itself had been only been a small problem, he had never wanted them close to him afterwards. Them being female, he could not very well kick them out, but he had never had a good night's sleep while sleeping next to a woman, annoyed with the proximity of their bodies and the sweet, often flowery, scents of shampoo and perfume that emanated from them. More often than not had he felt their unspoken expectation that he should hold them close through the night, and in the morning that he was to act like some sort of gentleman, serving them whatever they wanted. It was sexist.
He looked up from his newspaper – the sports pages, the only interesting part – to see Sam sitting opposite of him, a cup of coffee held in mid-air as if he had half forgotten about it in the reading of some interesting article. He looked just as relaxed as the evening before, though his clothes were a bit more wrinkled, and he had assembled an impressive breakfast after rummaging through Eric's kitchen cabinets. Most of the things were of course those brought by Sam, but there was bread and sliced turkey, orange juice, cereal – and of course, thankfully, coffee. Sam had put it all together, ignoring Eric's plea to save himself the trouble, and now sat there as if it was just another Saturday morning and he was going to rush off to the office for some extra work any minute.
And he had held Eric close through the night.
Eric was unsure whether or not he liked it. Not being held in particular, he had enjoyed the arm around his waist, the feeling of being anchored – the smell and sensation of Sam so close to him – but the fact that he was being treated in a way that he himself did not like to treat other people. As if they were vulnerable or unable to take care of themselves, stand on their own two feet. Though, of course, that was perhaps true in his case.
Anyway, that was not the most important question. The question was:
"So what does this mean? What happens now?"
Sam looked up over the edge of his newspaper with a quizzical brow, then put his cup down on the table.
"With us?" he asked, slowly, as if he was unsure not of the question but Eric's intention with it.
"Us, already?" Eric said in a voice more dry than he had intended it to be. "But yes, yeah, I guess. It's just that- I don't do this very often, in fact, I never do it, and I just need to know what the options are."
"Well, you could always throw me out, call me a fucking faggot and sue me. That would make everything clear as day and it would only require a minute of your time."
How he managed to say that with a straight (ha ha) face, Eric did not know. He could not possibly think that that was actually an option? If so, Eric would have done it a long time ago. Apparently, Sam understood this, because he continued, now with a softer expression:
"We don't have to do anything differently, if you don't want to. If you just want to put this behind you, I'll respect that and we won't talk about it again. On the other hand, if you want to… I don't know, continue, then we do that."
"And you're just fine either way?"
"I told you already: I find you very attractive and I want to get to know you better. Does that sound anything at all like I regret the entire thing, please forget me and move on with your life as if nothing happened?"
"Er, no, I guess not."
"Then there's your answer."
Eric let out a sigh and sat in silence for a few moments. So he did not want to throw Sam out and just ignore everything. He had done that several times before and the simple fact that he had not done that already was a clear indicator that there was something more to this man than Eric had understood at first glance. Or second. Or fiftieth, for that matter. But on the other hand, to continue… whatever you put into the word… that was something else entirely.
And it was not easy.
"If we should… continue… this" Eric said, choosing each word carefully as one would the steps on a minefield, "then no one can know about it. Do you understand? No one."
Sam raised an eyebrow at this and Eric could not even imagine what thoughts flew through the lawyer's head. He must appear severely disturbed, mentally instable – someone you did not want to share a breakfast with and certainly not start an undefined relationship with.
"Is the reason for this ultimatum professional or personal?" Sam said in an indifferent tone after a few moments of silence, and then, when he realized that Eric did not follow his train of thought, "Is this because you don't want to be seen as gay, being a professional hockey player, or is it because you're still in denial over your sexuality? Because I refuse to believe it's because you don't want to be seen with me."
"I'm not in denial" Eric replied, somewhat offended. "I know I'm… Well, I know I'm gay but-"
"But you haven't left the closet yet. Okay. I can live with that."
"You can?" Eric could not help but sounding a bit astonished at this acceptance. On the other hand, Sam was a lawyer, so maybe he had a better understanding of the necessity of discretion than most people.
"Yes, sure. As long as we both know which lines not to cross. Because we could still go out and do things together, right? Having a beer, go bowling or whatever."
"Yeah, I guess. Well, yes, yes, of course we could. Well, bowling would probably have to wait a while."
Sam made a laughing sound at this and Eric found himself smiling in return. At the same time, small alarm bells were ringing in his head: this went too fast, too soon. What was he thinking? He could not live a gay fucking life and play professional hockey at the same time. Big no-no. If anyone found out, no, if someone as much as suspected that Eric played for a different team altogether, he needed a damn miracle to not be kicked out of the team, or ostracized by it – or lynched in the papers. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
And then there was Sam, who folded his newspaper into the same neat square as it had arrived in and put it down on the table. Who, even now, stirred something between anticipation and expectation in Eric's chest.
"So what are the rules?" he asked, as if he had simply asked Eric about today's weather forecast. "What are the dos and don'ts?"
"Well" Eric began, struggling to get the order of things straight. "No kissing, obviously. No hugs. Just… nothing… gay."
"What about touching?"
The question could have been innocent enough, had it not been accompanied by a hand that touched Eric's hand in a most suggestive way that immediately made him recall what that hand had done during the night. Very pleasant, but very distracting.
"Not at all?"
"Eh… handshakes are okay."
"Great. And these rules, do they apply to all our interaction or just when we're among people?"
How did he do that? He said the most outrageous, stupid things with a completely serious face – because certainly he did not expect that Eric was after a relationship with no physical interaction at all, except the sex? Or maybe that was exactly what he thought? Eric just did not know.
"No, at home is… fine, just fine."
"Even better then."
And just like that, he let go of Eric's hand and smiled at him, lifted the cup of coffee to his mouth and emptied it as if he had not at all intended the innuendo that his hand-touching-thing had been. Then he got up from his seat and moved the cup to the counter by the sink.
"I'm really sorry about rushing away like this, but I have a court case on Monday and I have some reading to do until then. Do you want me to clear the table before I go?"
"I'm not paralyzed, I think I can clear the table just fine."
"I leave it in your capable hands then. I left a note with my numbers on the counter, if you feel like sending me a text."
While he talked, Sam had adjusted his shirt and sweater and now he came to where Eric was sitting, one hand on the uninjured shoulder as he leaned down to place a kiss on Eric's lips. It was quick, tasted of coffee and buttered toast, and just like the caress on his hand earlier, it made him remember and it made him long for more.
He could not remember the last time someone had made him feel that way.
After that, the days moved at a somewhat faster pace. However, they never assumed the same steady, dull beat that they had had before the accident. Slowly Eric began exercising again, a smaller and less thorough program than usual, but enough to keep him going and with every aching muscle remember how very human he was.
One would have perhaps thought that this time, while Eric recuperated and no one expected anything from him, would be a perfect time for him and Sam to get together and get to know one another. However, Sam had several demanding cases and appeared to do little else than shower and change clothes in between his office and the court house. He came to Eric's apartment two nights but had energy for nothing more than to eat and then fall abruptly asleep, something he was very sorry for in the morning before he rushed off to the office or court house again. Eric did not really mind – he had been without a steady relationship for long enough not to grieve the lack of sex. Perhaps it was a sign, something telling him that he was getting old, but he felt perfectly satisfied lying next to Sam in the bed, hearing his soft and even breathing and feeling the warmth of his skin. It was all right.
Slowly time passed and days turned into weeks, and sooner than Eric had thought possible he received a clean bill of health from doctor Tomlinson. That did not mean that he was fit for the ice – the muscles on the left side of his torso were weak and tired easily and he had lost his stamina during the many weeks of complete stillness. While he was using the same gym facilities as the rest of the team, he could not partake in their training since he could only manage a fraction of his earlier performance and it hurt like hell every time he did something that could in the least affect his shoulder. It was all he could do not to cry out in pain, or just cry for that matter, and when Sam invited him over for dinner it was the beacon of light in a sea of dark despair.
It had been more than a month since they had agreed on their… agreement, yet this was the first time that Eric came over to Sam's place. He had put some effort into it, of course, with a shower and an extra shave, new black chinos and a dark green shirt. As it turned out, Sam's flat was within walking distance from where Eric lived and so he decided to take a walk there. The weather was nice and the air was cool in his lungs, so it did not take long until he found the right building and then the right apartment.
The time between pressing the doorbell, hearing the buzz that announced it unlocked, taking the stairs up to the right floor and waiting for the apartment door to open until it actually opened felt something like high school all over again. Nervousness and stupid thoughts tumbled around in Eric's mind, like what if this was just a prank and it would not be Sam who opened the door but someone from a newspaper, or T.V., and it was all a trick just to force him to admit that he was… what he was. Before his mind managed to make him do something really stupid, the door was thankfully opened, and it really was Sam standing there. For the first time in weeks he did not look as if he could fall over from stress any minute, it was rather as if he glowed – especially as he smiled towards Eric and asked him to come inside in a semi-formal, semi-cordial tone. He let Eric step inside and remove his jacket before guiding him through the apartment.
It was an old house and Sam's apartment managed to be both old and modern at the same time. The living room, connected to kitchen, had large furniture in light wood and sturdy but elegant fabrics, but it had no T.V. Eric turned to his host in mock alarm.
"I don't watch television" Sam replied with laughter in his voice. "Why should I have a T.V?"
"But don't you ever watch movies or news?"
"I read the newspapers for news. And as for the movies… come over here."
With a small jerk of the head Sam indicated for Eric to follow him through a door which could lead to no other place than the bedroom, a prospect which made Eric a bit weak to the knees. As it turned out, it was no big deal. The bedroom, like the rest of the apartment, was tastefully decorated with beautiful furniture, expensive linen and little else. Hidden in one of the closets just opposite of the bed was a large screen, connected to a DVD-player. Perfect for watching movies in bed.
"So this is where you watch your gay porn?" Eric found himself asking before he had a chance to realize what he had just said.
Fortunately, Sam did not seem too offended. He laughed.
"It has been known to happen. Though I prefer the actual sex to watching actors do it on a screen."
"Is there a man alive who doesn't?"
"Good point. Well, now that you have seen where the action takes place, can I offer you something to drink? A glass of wine?"
"Uh, yes, thank you."
"You're more of a beer drinker, aren't you?"
"I guess, but I like wine once in a while."
"I think you'll like this one."
The wine was served in large glasses and was rich in flavor, a full bodied wine with only a hint of fruitiness. Eric was surprised at the taste but took another sip just to be able to fully appreciate its dimensions, something which earned him a smile from Sam. They had toasted, though no one had specified to what, and then their gazes locked with one another for a few long seconds.
"So, you like decorating?" Eric asked, making a gesture that included the not only where they were currently standing – in the kitchen – but the entire apartment, which had an evidently thorough and secure style.
"Yes, I do" Sam said with a smile and a small nod. "I was considering applying for a course in interior design when I was younger, but I realized that I didn't want to work with it professionally. And law is very fascinating."
"Even when you're working with sports teams?"
"Even then. And there's a lot of work so I'm never without occupation."
That appeared to be true. While Eric had only known him for about two months it had never seemed as if Sam had little to do, always carrying his briefcase around and constantly moving between office and court. How did he keep up, mentally if not physically? Before he found an answer, a new question demanded his attention.
"How about you? Has it always been hockey?"
"Hockey" Eric replied with a smile. "Always hockey. Eight hours a day, six days a week since I quit high school. Though to be fair a large part of that time is spent in the gym or jogging, or stretching or discussing diet plans or strategies."
"Did you ever consider doing anything else?"
"Not that I can remember. I mean, I probably did, because you can't count on being able to make a living out of it, but I've never done anything else."
"So you were just lucky to get a place in the team?"
"No, I was one of the best players in all of Toronto."
They smiled at each other and had some more wine. An appetizing smell made its way from the oven and Eric realized how hungry he was – a sensation which was enhanced by his suddenly growling stomach. Sam laughed at the sound and put his glass down.
"Give it a few more minutes and then I'll feed you."
"Sounds good, but what am I supposed to do during that time?"
"How about push-ups?"
Eric raised a questioning eyebrow. While his shoulder had healed, he was not exactly mentally prepared to start exercising in Sam's kitchen.
"Okay, not push-ups. Chin-ups? No, can't do that here. Sit-ups?"
"What is this, do I have to work out for food?"
"There was nothing about this in the invitation."
"Clearly you have to start thinking as a lawyer. Always read between the lines, always read the fine print."
"In a text message?"
"What, you thought that a late dinner, on a Saturday night, did not include sex?" Sam's voice had that straight-face tone again, but as his words sank in and Eric understood the turn of the conversation, he laughed. "I hope you don't mind that kind of workout?"
It was disturbingly embarrassing, but Eric blushed.
"No, I don't mind."
"That's a relief then" Sam said, just as a timer rang. "See, no more time for you to warm up. Just a moment. Now, you must understand that it's nothing fancy…"
"Is this what I think it is?" Eric asked as he eyed the dish that Sam placed on the table. He could feel his mouth watering.
"If what you think is shepherd's pie, then yes."
"It smells delicious… Hey, are we supposed to drink wine to this?"
Sam laughed, then went to the refrigerator and pulled out two black bottles.
"I hope Guinness is okay?"
"More than okay, it's the only acceptable option when you're eating something Irish."
"Thought so. Please, help yourself."
So he did. The pie was hot and just as tasty as it had seemed. It had been years since he had a homemade shepherd's pie and he told Sam this. Served with a cold Guinness it was a heavenly meal and he ate until he was so full he wondered how he was ever going to perform anything in the bedroom department. But it was a comfortable feeling and Sam had practically forced food down his throat as if he was worried that Eric did not get enough to eat, so it was not entirely Eric's fault if he proved worthless tonight.
Even so, he managed to get up on his feet and assist Sam in clearing the table, as well as loading the dishwasher. After that, Sam put on a record and they both collapsed into the soda. Soft jazz filled the living room and Eric wondered whether this was all a setup to make him fall asleep. It felt that way.
It was strange but he actually felt very relaxed sitting there in Sam's couch with a glass of red wine, jazz, and a pleasantly full stomach. More so than he could ever have imagined. His experience in relationships, or even dating, was very limited and there had always been a sort of heavy expectation in the air – every minute not spent with sex was a minute wasted. Not now, not with Sam. Sure, he had said in a very explicit way that sex was an expected part of their evening together, but it was not a responsibility he had to shoulder and there was no stress that they had to engage in it right away.
Oh lord, maybe he was getting old.
"What is it?"
"Hm?" Eric opened his eyes only to find Sam giving him a curious and somewhat worried glance.
"You had a look of utter satisfaction just a second ago, then it changed as if you were bothered by something."
Hm, he was extremely perceptive. Maybe that was one of his lawyer traits?
"I am satisfied" Eric said. "I've had a great, home cooked meal, I feel relaxed…"
"No buts. I was just thinking that maybe I am getting old."
Sam met his gaze with an amused look on his face, and took a sip of wine before asking:
"Why is that?"
How was he supposed to explain this?
"Well, I don't know, only ten years ago I would never have waited an entire dinner to even kiss the person I was seeing. And even if I had wanted to wait, I would have felt compelled to. Though, to be fair, I was never very good at dinner dates at all" he added as an afterthought.
"And instead of thinking that the difference lies with your dates, you take the blame yourself. That's interesting."
"How do you mean?"
"Maybe it's not about you, maybe it's about me. Did you ever consider that?"
Actually, he had. It had been more than a month since they reached their understanding – Eric did not really want to call it dating – and, sure, they had not really done a lot of things together and had only met at Eric's apartment, but there had never been any pressure to perform. He was thankful for that. Even tonight, as he had entered Sam's flat, there had not been any kissing, or hugging – and it had not felt bad or empty or at all disturbing. Not as if he did not want it, quite the opposite actually, but things went slowly. It was nice.
"Are you always taking things slow or is it just me?" he asked, sincerely interested. Sam smiled at him, shook his head just a little as if indicating that it was hard to give an exact answer.
"It depends on the person" he said, "but I wouldn't say that I've been taking it slow with you."
That was almost disturbingly true. The night they had sex had been the third time they had ever met – the two previous meetings having been in a hospital over the signing of papers. No, maybe that was not very slow. But the weeks since then… Well, Sam had had a lot of work and little time. Maybe they could be referred to as mere circumstances?
"But yes" Sam continued, as if he had never paused; only slowed down in order to collect his thoughts, "maybe we are both taking it slow. I don't mind though. It might have to do with age but there are other things to life than sex."
He drank the last of his wine and Eric followed his example, then put his glass on the small table. For a few moments the music was the only thing that filled the air, along with the unspoken question: what would those things be? Music? Drinks? Good company? And at the same time, Eric could feel some familiar tension creeping up his thighs. When he began to speak, so did Sam.
A small, nervous laughter came from both of them.
"Go on" Eric said, motioning for Sam to speak.
"Do you want some more of that wine?"
"Actually, what I was going to suggest was that we move into the bedroom."
The corner of Sam's mouth went up as he gave a small, questioning smile, as if he liked the suggestion but was unsure of what it actually entailed.
"Are you saying you would prefer a more intimate environment than my living room?"
"Something like that, yes."
"And more specifically?"
Eric got up from the sofa, nodded towards the bedroom door.
"Maybe you would like to show me some of that actual sex that you prefer to porn flicks."
Sam's smile went full scale with satisfaction and he too left the couch to join Eric. On the table, their two glasses remained empty, and the jazz music continued to play even as there was no one to listen to it.
Afterwards, as they lay next to each other in Sam's bed, Eric's head on Sam's shoulder and their fingers interlocked, none of them ready to sleep, they began to talk. Softly spoken words floated between them among the sheets and pillows.
"When did you realize that… you know?"
"That I was gay? I think I was ten, maybe eleven. It was no big thing for me. My brother was the only one who made a fuss and he's just stupid."
"You lucky bastard…" Eric mumbled, only to feel Sam gently squeezing his hand.
"Was it difficult for you?"
"Ha, isn't it obvious?" Eric could not help the bitterness in his voice. "If there really is such a thing as a closet, then mine is a fortress, complete with moats and everything, but it's invisible – kind of like that castle you know, Hog-something…"
"Hogwarts, from the books?" Sam supplied.
"Yeah. Only instead of seeing ruins, people see this…"
"Successful, macho, super straight hockey star" Sam filled in when Eric struggled to find words. "That's because that's the image you project. Is that what you want?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything else."
"So when did you realize that you were gay?"
Eric sighed, stroke Sam's hand with his thumb, stared at the painting hanging on the wall. It was a city at night, large black shapes dotted and lined with white and yellow squares and stripes. Windows and streetlights, passing cars. He swallowed.
"I don't know. I spent so many years lying to myself that I believed it. I wanted to believe it."
"What about when you came out?"
"Eric… does anyone know? Have you told anyone at all?"
He could not answer. His lips refused to form that simple, common word, one single syllable. It was as if saying it, not the 'no' in itself but the big word, the coming-out word, would cause something uncontrollable. Like a flood, an unstoppable force that would wreck anything beyond recognition. And even if he said it, who would listen? Who would accept it, when he hardly accepted it himself?
Sam's arm pulled him a little closer and he leaned in to the touch, the warmth.
"I can't" he said, feeling the rush of emotions just waiting behind the words, ready to flood the dam, tear down every wall he had built so carefully. "I can't. Not even in front of myself."
"You don't have to" Sam whispered, his lips so close to his ear that Eric could feel his breath. "There's no rush. I'm right here. One person who found the backdoor to your closet fortress."
Eric could not help but chuckle, in spite of everything.
"The backdoor, huh?" He could feel Sam's smile, really feel it, its warmth close to his ear and cheek. "Hey, would you mind showing yourself in one more time?"
"Not at all" replied Sam and placed a kiss on Eric's temple. "Not at all."
As the weeks passed Eric's shoulder got better and better. He endured longer and harder intervals in the gym, he could skate again without grimacing in pain at every stroke over the ice, but his muscles still ached and there was stiffness in his shoulder that would not go away. He and Sam met several nights every week, sometimes out in different bars just to grab a beer but more often in each other's apartments. Eric felt more comfortable that way and even though there was never any rush from either of them, sex was of course an important feature as their relationship matured. Never experimental in any odd sense, thankfully, since Eric appreciated the comforts and ordinariness that their companionship provided – even if only in the privacy of their homes – and because Eric still insisted to maintain his image as a macho, straight guy. He could not walk into the gym where the other team members were, looking freshly fucked. Sam had suggested they reverse the roles, he did not mind, but Eric had turned down the offer. Dominating the sex was something his macho self would do, struggling to maintain the straight charade – his gay self, having lived in the shadows of his being for so long, was submissive and relished in being so.
Or, in simpler terms: He loved it when Sam fucked him.
That was exactly what he had enjoyed one late night and he lay in bed next to Sam feeling very relaxed and almost sleepy. It was no wonder, it had been a long day with training, stretching and massage of aching muscles, more training, and then Sam had been caught up in his office with court preparations, so they had not been able to meet up until late. Now, Eric felt more than ready to go to sleep, safely cradled in Sam's arms and the soft sheets of his bed, but he was held back by the stroke of fingers over his once broken, still sore, shoulder.
"How is it?" Sam asked, his voice low and soft so as not to break the velvet mood.
"Mending" Eric replied, thinking to himself that while it was indeed getting better day by day, it still hurt like hell whenever he happened to strain it, and that it tensed almost twice as fast as the right shoulder – making every visit to the massage therapist into a small but intense torture session. "Slowly, but it's mending."
"That's good to hear" Sam whispered and pressed his lips to the skin, the gentle touch both a caress and a bruise on the sensitive body part.
Eric hesitated. This thought had been nagging him for several months now and he needed to talk to someone about it. It was not pillow talk, certainly not, but some things had to be aired.
"What if I can't go back?" he asked. "What if I can never play pro again?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Just… pessimism, I guess. But seriously Sam, what if?"
"Eric, the season is almost over. You have plenty of time to get back in shape before next season and no one expects more than that."
"Yeah, I know…"
"Don't push yourself too hard" Sam said in a low voice. "I don't want you to break again."
"It's hockey. It's not the first time I've broken something."
"Still, that doesn't make it better."
At this, Eric turned around in bed so as to be able to face the other man. Sam looked just about as tired as Eric felt, he had probably had a just as exhausting day, but he had sounded a bit put off and as Eric turned he appeared to have been jolted into being awake again.
"Sam, I've chosen hockey. Getting hurt is part of the deal."
"It's a bad deal then."
"Just like sex, then" Eric replied and was able to enjoy the look of confusion on Sam's face. "Just because it can be painful doesn't mean it can't bring pleasure. Playing hockey makes me feel good Sam, it makes me feel alive. And in its odd ways, I met you because of it. So please, don't frown on it, okay?"
"It's also one of the things that keep you from being who you really are" Sam pointed out. "And that makes you miserable."
"So it's difficult. That doesn't mean it's not right. Please Sam, don't do this."
He really did not want this. A quarrel with Sam was furthest down on his list of things he wanted and especially now, when they had had some really good sex and were both tired and in need of comfort and sleep. Damn, he knew he should not have brought this subject up. But now it was too late. The discussion would just escalate into a fight and he would either be forced to sleep out on the couch or worse, go home, and then-
Eric blinked. Say what?
"I'm sorry Eric."
This was completely unforeseen. Eric was not used to be the one being apologized to in a discussion and he had certainly not expected it now. Even so, the apology did not actually make him feel better, only… sad. He forced his body to relax and placed his hand on Sam's chest, trying to recreate the peaceful, soft atmosphere that had been there only minutes ago.
"Don't be" he said. "Please. And please don't worry about me either."
"Then what should I do, to make you understand that I care about you?"
He almost wanted to say that nothing needed to be done – that he understood that just fine from the sound of Sam's voice or the touch of his hand. But to say 'nothing' sounded harsh and unfriendly, even in his own thoughts, so he gave a small smile instead.
"You could kiss me."
He smiled as he saw silent laughter in Sam's eyes. He did that sometimes, it lit up his face and eyes as if he was laughing, but no sound was heard. It was charming.
"Oh? And what kind of kiss would you prefer?"
"What do you mean; what kind of kiss?"
"Didn't I tell you once already? You have to start thinking as a lawyer. Every kind of human interaction can be graded by degrees of intimacy, mutual consent or social acceptance. There are several types of kisses."
"Really? Then, why don't you tell me about them?" Eric said, struggling to keep his smile in check. They had come to know each other well enough for Eric to realize this seemingly strange turn of conversation as Sam's way of putting their minds on ease again, rather than just deliver the kiss. That way, Eric suspected, they would be focused on other things than their previous discussion when time came to actually sleep. Not a bad idea.
"Well, there's the formal kiss on the hand" Sam started, performing the kiss after he had explained it, and he continued to do so as he went down the list. "A friendly peck on the cheek-"
"How about the more affectionate kisses?"
"That's a bit demanding, don't you think?"
"Very well then. There are the flirty, carefully placed kisses on the arm, or the intimate kiss on the collar bone. Or maybe you prefer a nibble on your earlobe? Soft brushes against your eyelids?"
Eric had closed his eyes when Sam's lips touched them and he kept them closed as he felt the other man's lips travel towards his own. However, they did not meet, and Eric dared a whisper.
"And on the lips?"
"Soft at first" small kisses, mere caresses over his lips, "then deeper", the tip of a tongue gently urging him to open his mouth, a last soft whisper: "until it's all just very French."
They did not continue it for very long but Eric was still out of breath when their lips parted. Again he lay down close to Sam's body, again relaxing as he felt the warmth and the mingled smell of the other man's sweat, soap and sex.
"You're very knowledgeable when it comes to kisses" Eric said drowsily with a small smile as he closed his eyes again, feeling deeply satisfied.
"And I still haven't shown you the best parts" Sam mumbled, sounding just as ready to sleep as Eric felt. Still, that comment required a question.
"Oh? What are those then?"
"Let's just say it's below the neck and that it should be experienced in an earlier stage of hay-rumbling. Oh, and there is this very sensual thing by the fingertips. If you're good I'll show you one day."
"Sounds good" Eric said, enjoying the prospect. "Hey, Sam?"
"Mm?" came the muffled reply, confirming that Sam was indeed falling fast asleep.
"Good night Eric. Sweet dreams."
Hockey season ended. The public interest in hockey decreased by the day and soon Eric could leave the house without a baseball cap and dark shades, not risking being stared at by people. However, practice did not end – there was not even a small break. Eric could feel his shoulder become stronger and more enduring, and with every mile he jogged, every rep he did in the gym, he could feel himself heal. It felt good. He felt good.
What felt even better was his relationship with Sam – he had finally gotten around to call it that. Of course, it was all still in that fortress-closet of his, limited to their respective apartments, but they had gone to a jazz concert that Sam was interested in, and to the movies a few times. Several nights a week they would meet up at a bar located between their homes, Sam often a bit stressed from having rushed over from his office and Eric completely flat after an entire day of sweating and working out in the gym or on the ice. Sometimes they would go their separate ways, but most of the nights they would retire to whichever apartment felt best and spend the night together. Some of Eric's things moved to Sam's apartment, and Sam always kept clean clothes in Eric's flat so as to save time in the mornings. They cooked together, read passages from books to each other or discussed the news over the breakfast table. Their lives intertwined and became a routine, never entirely constant – it always retained a degree of flexibility – but always reliable.
They even went on a small vacation together: one precious week in New York where no one knew them and even Eric managed to relax a little when they were out in public. No hugging or kissing of course, but holding hands was okay, and in the darkness of the crowded theatres, while watching one musical or concert or another, Eric would let his hand trace the thigh of Sam's trousers very gently, then squeeze ever so slightly – and they barely made it into the hotel room afterwards before those very same trousers lay discarded on the floor – Sam's obsession about orderliness temporarily forgotten.
It was a wonderful time and before they knew it, it was over. Hockey season was about to begin and while Eric's exercise and practice intensified, Sam's amount of work almost doubled – not only because of the hockey but also due to other cases which left him as worn and tired as a washed and wringed cloth, hanged out to dry. Come night, they collapsed next to each other in bed, too tired to entertain the thought of doing anything more in it than sleep. It all culminated one night when they had decided to eat out.
They were in a Greek restaurant because Sam had been dying for some proper souvlaki with tzatziki and that particular retzina wine served in that particular place. It was late when they got there and even later when they left, headed for Sam's apartment. Eric had not minded, nor had he cared that Sam had come there straight from the office where he had worked since early morning. What he did mind, however, was Sam's arm around his shoulders and the stolen kiss just outside the restaurant.
Maybe it was because it was late and he was tired. Maybe it was because he had a practice game coming up and was stressed about it. Maybe it was because the team mates he had been hanging out with so much before his injury, and who he now only went out with when he did not have plans with Sam, had been asking questions about who it was he was dating – because it was apparently apparent that he was – and he had been unable to give an answer that would satisfy them and not be a lie. Maybe it was all of those things combined. Either way, this was the last drop of water to a goblet that had been perilously close to spill for several days. It was the flame that lit the fuse. And the water spilled. The bomb exploded.
"Lay off it!"
"What? What are you-"
"Don't you ever do that again! I've told you, don't touch me, don't hug me and don't you fucking kiss me."
Had he stopped to consider things for a second, Eric might have realized that to keep a gay life style incognito, exploding in a public street in front of an open restaurant might not be the smartest move. However, he did not stop to think and thankfully, there was no one else out on the street in that particular moment.
"Eric, I- For God's sake it was just a kiss."
"I know what it was! Just don't do it!"
"It's not like I have never done anything worse than that!"
Eric gaped. What the actual fuck? He could have accepted this if Sam had been wasted – something he had never seen and was actually kind of curious about – but they had shared a bottle of wine and that was it. And it was not the influence of alcohol that made Sam look so very flustered and frustrated. It was Eric.
"Come on Eric, we've been seeing each other for almost a year! When am I supposed to get to call you my boyfriend? When can I introduce you to my friends or my idiotic brother? How can we go on like this?"
"I told you in the beginning" Eric protested, for the moment not caring to defend himself. Right now, there was no one else around to recognize him so there was no immediate need to protect his reputation. Fuck, no one had seen that kiss, why had he flown off the handle? This was not something that could be smoothed over by soft kisses at home, in bed – he knew that perfectly well. But still, why did he not try? "You know I'm not ready for that!"
"Bullshit" Sam spat. "You're gay Eric. Just as gay as I am, and you know it. You may think that you're not ready but that's not it – you're just scared. Scared shitless that you will actually have to stand for it. You've hid behind your hockey all your life and you fear that it won't be enough anymore, that it can't protect you from your own, coward self."
Sam took a deep breath and seemed to collect himself, resuming his speech in only seconds – seconds in which Eric found himself unable to come up with anything to say in reply. When he started talking again, Sam's voice was that of an attorney, cool and to the point, but boiling underneath with force and feeling.
"I can't do this anymore. I want to have you in my life but it can't continue like this. It just can't."
And with that, he turned and began to walk, and Eric could tell from the other man's shoulders that he was not expected, no, not supposed – no, not allowed – to follow. It was with heavy steps he made his way to his own flat, Sam's words echoing in his ears.
He did not sleep that night.
When he woke up in his bed the next day – the bed which seemed too large for only one person and which did not smell pleasantly of Sam's aftershave – the morning outside his bedroom window was grey. There was simply no other way to describe it. The street with its parked cars, the buildings with blinded windows, even the people walking their dogs and strollers: everything was in different shades of black and white. And of course, to top it all off, the sky was filled with thick, heavy grey clouds promising a just as heavy and grey rainfall later in the day. It was depressing. All Eric wanted to do was to stay in bed and sleep through it, but his alarm beeped incessantly, urging him to get up and go to work and it was like a knife to his consciousness.
So he got up. He went to work.
He jogged. He lifted weights. He had lunch. He spent an hour in the assistant coach's office getting a plan worked out for him with meals and calories and training sessions. He spent two hours on the ice working on the strategies and the passes and the speed and the shots. He took a shower. He went to a bar with some of his fellow team mates. He went home. He fell asleep in his bed which was too large for only one person.
Rewind the tape, press play.
It was a routine and even though he had been abstaining from it for almost a year, his body and soul remembered it perfectly. It was so easy. So safe. No surprises, no changes.
Maybe he should have called, but there was nothing he could say. He had to maintain focus, eat healthy, exercise, sharpen his reflexes, go pro. Season was almost upon them. The first practice game of the season was coming up. No, it was good what had happened. There was nothing more to say.
So he opened another beer and watched the game, closing that particular door so as to keep any unwanted thoughts, any distraction, at a safe distance. Watch that shot go. Find the routine. Rewind the tape, press play.
And it was all grey.
"Ladies! I won't lie: this is not a big game. But, that doesn't mean you get to slack off. Williams, I want to see you on your best today, and that goes for you too, Thomson. Rivers, you make sure that McNally gets some shots; it's his big day you know. Okay everyone, we're game in five!"
The coach left the locker room and it was as if someone had turned up the chatter to max – everyone started talking to each other or yelling back and forth over stupid little things, often friendly insults in order to raise the fighting spirit. It was time for the first practice game of the season and even though the audience would be small, a few grade school classes, it was still a taste of the big games waiting just ahead of them.
Eric did not take part of the bickering. He had only just realized that this was the starting point. One year ago, he had been in this exact locker room with its unwavering stench of sweat and deodorant and moist towels, with the same crowd of people, preparing for this very game. The first practice game of the season. It was like déjà vu. As if in just a few minutes he would go out on that ice, that very same rink, and break his shoulder all over again.
"Hey McNally, you okay?"
"Yeah, just… no, it's okay" he said, dismissing the questioning looks Thomson gave him, standing up and heading for the door. "Let's do this."
The crowd cheered as they made their way onto the ice, drowning the sound of the referee in the speakers in spite of the small number of people. The ice felt good under the skates, his body felt good on the ice. Smooth movements, every limb performing its duty without aches or stiffness. He was in as good a shape as he had ever been, maybe even better than ever before. Around him on the ice circled the other team members, showing off in front of the juniors, the fans, splitting into their respective teams with smiles on their faces, a few last insults. This was fun, this was just what it was called. Just a game.
And then the whistle blew.
Eric knew the game. He had played it for almost as long as he had known how to stand on his own two feet. He belonged on the ice, every muscle of his body worked with him as he skated on the smooth, cool surface. One year ago, he had played it so well that he had even fallen for it himself.
Now, his feet refused to move. Now, while everyone else skated effortlessly on the ice, he stood perfectly still. Everything was grey, and everything was as clear as crystal. As clear as ice.
He left the rink, ignoring the surprised silence that occurred when children and players and a very loudmouthed coach suddenly went quiet. His ears thrummed with noise: thoughts, images, all whizzing by so fast that he could barely make them out as he practically tore off his gear. He was almost out of the locker room when the assistant coach appeared in the doorway, looking very stressed and almost scared, as if he had suspected finding Eric having hanged himself from the water pipes.
"Mr. McNally" – always so polite – "where are- what are you- but what about the game?"
"The game is over" Eric said and pushed him out of the way.
He pressed the doorbell for what must be the twentieth time, stomping his feet on the stone steps. Still no answer, no buzz to let him know the door was opened from the inside. Someone had made sure to change the code into the building since he was last here. And it was freezing cold! He rubbed his hands together, had forgotten his gloves in the rush and the chaos of crashing thoughts. One more time he pressed the doorbell, this time shouting into the speaker phone:
"Sam, for fuck's sake, I know you're home."
He pressed the doorbell again.
"THE LIGHT'S ARE ON, LET ME IN."
A raw, technologically guttural, buzz let him know that the door had magically opened. Not a moment was spared as Eric took the stairs two at the time, thanking whatever deity that had kept watch over him tonight – or rather, the night when he had found out that while Sam loved small lamps for their decorative values, he would never forgive himself for leaving them on if he left the apartment. And certainly, there was jazz playing in the other side of the apartment door, and maybe a small hint of spices as if something warm and nice and very homely was being cooked in there. Eric wanted to just open the door and get inside like he had done so many times before, but he restrained himself and his cold hands. He lowered his head, sighed, and raised his hands to knock on the door – when he was almost knocked over himself when it opened.
It was Sam, of course. Thank gods it was Sam and no one else. What on earth would he have done if it had been someone else?
But what did it mean, that look on his face? He looked older, or maybe just more serious. The way he would look when he read through his notes on court cases in the mornings. And he was dressed up. Not extremely fancy, just one of the shirts that were too colorful for work, and he looked good.
"This is a bad time Eric" he said, and Eric got the impression that this was the reason why Sam won his cases at court. The voice he had used just now was impossible to argue with. If Sam had accused him of murder in that tone, it would have become true. Any time but now.
"No" Eric said. "No, actually, this is a good time. The best time. I fucked up Sam. I know it. And I'm sorry. So sorry."
Sam eyed him for a moment and Eric felt ready to admit any crime he might be accused of, if only he could come inside. But there were no accusations. Sam just took a step back and seemed to mentally cross himself for doing so. Afraid that he might change his mind, Eric stepped inside and took off his shoes – another of Sam's pet peeves – only to be shooed into the study. Sam closed the door behind them and turned towards Eric, his posture still reserved. Eric was on his own here.
"I'm sorry I haven't called or texted or… anything" he began, but knew from the unresponsive facial expression on Sam's face that those things did not matter. Well, he had figured out as much. "I should have. I just didn't know what to say, because there was nothing to say, because… Well, because I didn't realize. But I did today. Realize, that is. And it was- Shit, this is going to sound so gay. I mean, really, really gay, with glitter make up and rainbows and everything, but… You gave my life color."
He paused for a moment, looking to Sam for a reaction: a smile, a furrowed brow – anything! – that might indicate what he was thinking. But there was nothing, damn that bloody lawyer, and Eric had to go on, blindfolded.
"Before I met you, before the accident, my life was about as exciting as watching a snail move across an old, rarely used road. You know that an oncoming car might kill it but there are no cars and it takes such a long time for the snail to actually make it across, so you just fall asleep three inches from the start and wake up and leave without knowing how far it actually went or if it gave up and turned back. That was my life. I played hockey. I watched hockey. And every-fucking-day was just the same as the one before, and the one before that. It was dull and empty and you know the worst part? I didn't even notice."
He had not even noticed as it became that way again. He had just fallen right back into that safe and well-known existence without a question or a fight.
"I had given up on myself. I ignored who I was, who I am, because if I had not ignored being gay then I would have lost hockey and I would have been left with nothing. But you see… When I went out on the ice today, I think I realized all this once before. I think, maybe, I wanted that accident to happen. I pushed it, pushed everyone on my team, I was such a macho badass just begging for someone to ram me. That was my car. I was so tired of trying to get over that fucking road, I just created my own escape. Away from hockey, away from myself."
And when hockey was gone, when he was practically forbidden from it, life presented him with Sam. That withered, ignored part of him was nurtured, watered, loved, and it flowered and prospered in the protected environment of their closed off companionship. But it was not true strength. That touch outside the restaurant, the kiss, those were mere breezes – but not to a sheltered, spoiled plant.
"And I found you. Well, to be fair, you found me. And you took care of me, you really did. In more ways than one. I never gave you credit for that. Again, maybe I didn't realize that until today…"
He looked down, thumbs fiddling for a few seconds before he straightened up again, his gaze again at Sam's face which still did not give away any clues.
"The thing is… The thing is Sam, that I'm not a good boyfriend. I might never be. Just the thought of kissing in public or walking through the park hand in hand scares the shit out of me. But I think I love you and if I have you… then that's all I really need."
For a second it looked as if Sam was about to say something. Then the door to the study was forcefully opened by a wannabe-Latino playboy in tight jeans and a very white shirt that showed off his deep tan and dark chest hair. During a brief moment he looked absolutely nonplussed, then he leaned against the doorframe and eyed Eric with open curiosity, asking in a very strange voice if this was a client of Sam's and why he was here at this hour.
During that time, Eric had connected all the dots and saw the full picture. Sam in his nice shirt. The smell of food cooking. Jazz playing in the background. This is not a good time Eric.
A date. This was Sam's date and Eric was the rabid ex trying to get things back together without even realizing that Sam had obviously moved on. He wanted to die, or at least sink through the floor. Maybe Wonderland had an empty spot he could fill? Gay, socially inept hockey player. He could play croquet with flamingoes the rest of his life.
Sam opened his mouth to speak. This was the moment. Where was the hole, the portal that would transport him to a parallel universe? He did so not need to hear this.
"Billy, this is Eric whom I told you about. Eric, this is Billy, my brother."
Eric could only gape. Billy? The stupid fuck-up brother who was ever only mentioned in passing, the one who was constantly lost somewhere south of Mexico? That Billy?
'That Billy' did not seem as surprised though, or if he was, he showed it differently than Eric did.
"Ah, Eric, claro. Nice to meet you Eric."
"Uh, yeah, you too" Eric managed to say before Sam broke it off.
"That's enough. Billy, I'm sorry, but dinner's off."
"What? No, no, hey, I'm starving, I've been travelling all day-"
"There is an excellent restaurant only two blocks away, they will surely meet your standards."
"Hey, that's mean!"
"I'll call you tomorrow."
"So this dude is more important than your brother, huh? What about my documents?"
"Billy…" Sam said in a strained voice which Eric recognized as the one without any patience whatsoever. "If you haven't left this apartment within thirty seconds I will make sure that you get stuck in Alaska for the rest of your life."
There was no need to add something like 'I'm not kidding', Billy evidently knew the tone of voice just as well as Eric did. He left only moments later, telling Sam not to call him too early and then leaving, muttering something which clearly contained the words "fucking faggots" and "bloody lawyers". As the door fell closed behind him, effectively blocking out his tirade, silence fell in the study. Eric swallowed before meeting Sam's gaze, unsure what to find there.
"You think you love me?"
"And you think you might be able to accept yourself as gay?"
"What about hockey?"
"I don't know. I don't even know if I can really go pro again."
"Do you want to?"
"I don't know. But I don't want to do it if I can't have you at the same time. I couldn't do it."
"And your fortress-closet?"
"I could use some help dismantling it. You know, take down the crossbows and filling the moats… it might take some time though. It's pretty well armed. It would be easier getting out of it if it was just an ordinary closet."
"Even if it included meeting my friends and family?"
"I already met Billy, right?"
"Well, Billy is an asshole so that doesn't really count."
Here, finally, Sam smiled. It was tender, almost fragile, and for the first time Eric realized that maybe, just maybe, he had not been the only one who had suffered since the quarrel. Maybe, just maybe… Sam had had grey days as well.
"Yes" Eric said softly. "Even if it includes meeting your family and your friends. And maybe even your neighbors, if it's absolutely necessary."
"As my boyfriend?"
They were only a few meters apart, standing there amidst the binders and the stacks of paper, the heavy books of law and order, but it felt closer than that. Eric smiled and was given a smile in return.
"So, can I come in?"
"Sure. Dinner is almost ready."
"Can I stay?"
"Yes. Please stay."
Rewind the tape. Press record.
"Mm?" Eric mumbled, floating pleasantly close to sleep in the familiar comfort of Sam's arms, covered in soft linen.
"Do I really bring color to your life?"
He could not help but chuckle to himself, a small, silent laughter. There was a faint rustle of the bedding and he could feel Sam's body pressing a bit tighter, one arm across his stomach, anchoring him.
"Yes" he replied softly, intertwining his finger's with Sam's and pressing them gently.
"You were right."
"That is probably the gayest thing I've ever heard."
And judging from the satisfaction in Sam's voice, he did not really mind.