Sam Miller did not like noise.
There were several reasons for this, the main one being, of course, his boisterous little brother. Billy had spent the majority of their childhood yelling, shouting and crying – whatever the situation demanded to give him the attention of parents, teachers or other grownups. However, as Sam moved on to law school, it was no longer his brother who caused the most noise, but the other students. No human alive could possibly keep track of all the nights Sam had woken up in his small student apartment to the sound of parties being thrown, involving just about any activity that was loud enough to disturb everyone living within three blocks. This had often resulted in other kinds of sounds, like that of police sirens, fire alarms going off, or screeching tires outside on the street when yet another car had to break hard to avoid hitting the drunk youngsters staggering home.
One would perhaps have thought that law students did not have the time or energy for this kind of pastime, but they did. University was not very different.
Maybe it had been a vain thought to think that all of that would end as soon as he got his degree and his diploma, that when he had left the world of education behind he would also, finally, be able to enjoy the kind of peaceful and quiet life he had been wanting ever since his brother was born. It was not as if the partying or the students followed him to his new apartment, no, but there were other people with other parties. There were barking dogs. There was the man in the apartment below who played the trombone.
And, of course, all the people.
He had gotten hold of an internship at a rather prestigious law firm, six months which could easily be prolonged to as much as three years if he did a good job. This, however, included meeting a lot of people. The firm was owned by two persons and employed another four lawyers. Every one of the six had one secretary and one intern, and with the two extra people running around copying papers and filing things, they were twenty people all in all. With the steady flow of messengers and clients, Sam estimated that he met at least sixty people every day and shook hands with at least thirty of them. When he went home in the evenings his head buzzed with conversations and jokes, the beeps of microwave ovens or the ringtones of forty different cell phones. The copying machine was perhaps the worst fiend in the entire office, going off into a deep rumble whenever it was forced to copy anything and finishing the work with something that could only be described as a moan. One of the assistants had jokingly named the machine The Woman, a joke which Sam could understand but not fully appreciate.
Perhaps it was lucky that his busy days at the firm kept him from dating much. A potential boyfriend would have had to have been either very understanding, very persuasive or very mute to fit into Sam's life at that time. Not that he did not try to keep his love life going. There was Jeff, who studied art, and David who had a big, nervous Rottweiler, and Noah who loved Elvis. They were all very nice and Sam had a good time with them, but it never lasted very long. It did not necessarily have to do with noise, even though Jeff sung false whenever he mixed his paint and David's dog wailed unhappily whenever it was not allowed into the bedroom with them and Noah played the King breakfast, lunch and dinner, every hour of every day. It could also have something to do with Jeff's tendency to bring over random guys to pose naked for him, or David's flamboyant way of dressing, or Noah's infinite and destructive love for alcohol.
Whatever the reasons, the relationships ended and Sam was alone in his apartment again, in silence.
Everything changed when he met Eric.
He had left internship many years ago and had recently been made partner of the small but successful law firm in Toronto where he had been working for a few years. With a steady number of clients hiring him for their different troubles, he was perhaps not a rising star in the world of law, but very well a steady, trustworthy transatlantic cruise ship. Whatever storm would rise, he was competent enough to ride through it. Maybe that was why the Leafs were assigned to him.
It was not what he had intended to do. He did not even like sports very much – it probably had to do with the level of noise at practices and games – and hockey was just about as uninteresting as any other sport. However, the Leafs were attractive clients and when they came to the firm looking for a new legal counselor Sam was practically forced to offer his services by his colleagues. For some reason he could no longer remember, he had done so and had been found fit for the job. It was not a very demanding task and as his coworkers had said, it was a good name to put on the résumé. In many ways, the Leafs were just another client.
Then he got a phone call.
He had been on one of his rare lunch breaks, for once having the time to eat a proper meal instead of regular plain sandwich. His phone was on, as usual, he could not really afford to turn it off, and when it rang it was one of the Leafs' board members. There's been an accident, he had said. I need you to check up on our liability and how to make sure this doesn't end up badly.
There was not much else to do. Sam had assembled copies of contracts and agreements, he had discussed it with one of his colleagues who specialized in employee versus employer type of cases, and he had spent two hours reading briefs of similar episodes that had come to court. After that, he was summoned to the hospital where the player was being treated.
Sam's knowledge about Eric McNally was rudimentary, at best. He knew from the newspapers that the man was one of the stars in the world of hockey, and from the talk with his colleague that he was apparently handsome but somewhat haughty in his T.V. appearances. From the contract, Sam also knew that he had been signed to the Leafs for almost four years and that the total sum of his salary and provision per goal in game was… quite impressive.
As it was, Sam arrived to the hospital with a somewhat incomplete but still vivid picture of the man he was going to meet. Some beefy jock booming with confidence, angrily accusing everyone of wrong except himself; someone who would – perhaps unknowingly, but still – terrorize Sam and everyone else until his ego had been justly satisfied.
What he saw was an unconscious man, with a drawn face and pale skin. He was muscular, yes, but not beefy – in fact, was he not a bit too lean to be a hockey player? He looked small and vulnerable in the hospital bed, not at all fierce or in any way intimidating. Sam could almost feel his prejudices falling to the floor. He had barely been in the room for a minute when the coach, Furnham, decided to go and get them some coffee.
"He seems to be about to wake up" the coach said before leaving, "so keep an eye on him, will you?"
It was not as if there was much else to look at, so even though it felt like an intrusion he watched the still frame in the bed. Except the hockey player did not remain still. There was a mask of pain contorting his face. Sam stepped out of the room and almost stumbled upon a nurse.
"Excuse me, I think we need some more pain killers in here."
"Yes. Thank you."
The nurse seemed eager to help and it was only a matter of moments before she had pushed a button and the pain in the hockey player's face was soon replaced by a much more relaxed look. It was almost as if he was smiling.
"He will probably sleep another hour" the nurse said after she had made sure to check the patient's vitals. Then her eyes narrowed and she gave Sam a closer look, after which she stated: "You're not the coach."
"No" Sam said with a small laugh, "no, I'm the lawyer. Coach Furnham went to find some coffee."
"Oh. Well, I'm sorry that I made him fall asleep again" she said with an apologetic face.
"Don't worry about that" he said reassuringly, though of course it was a bit disturbing. Luckily, his schedule for the day was quite loose and without other meetings, but one hour was an irritating time loss. He could not very well go back to the office: he would barely make it there before it was time go back to the hospital again. On the other hand, one hour in a hospital was a long time.
Still… he cast a glance on the peaceful face of the sleeping hockey player. He would manage.
It was the coach who first noticed when McNally woke up for the second time. He and Sam had been discussing the coming season and what McNally's injury would mean for the team – well, the coach had been preaching and Sam had been an attentive listener, nodding and agreeing when it seemed appropriate. The coach must have had supernatural hearing because he was sitting with his back towards the bed and still managed to hear something that indicated that his wounded star player had returned from his morphine induced sleep.
"McNally, you alive there? Get the nurse."
Since there was no one else in the room for whom the order could be meant, Sam rose from his seat and went to find a nurse a second time. This time, too, a nurse seemed to appear just outside the door. It was not the same nurse as before and she did not appear as enthusiastic about the patient being Eric McNally as the first one, but she quickly entered and started her check up. Her touch seemed to make the man wake up properly, because he opened his eyes.
They were a bright, startling blue.
"What the hell just happened?" he said, the voice a mixture of drug induced sleepiness and confusion. Even so, it was a voice that would have sent shivers down Sam's spine if he had heard it in a situation more intimate than this.
"Your shoulder is broken, sir. In four places."
"Is that a bad thing?" The question was almost funny, because any normal person would probably consider a broken shoulder a pretty bad thing. On the other hand, the man in the bed was several units of morphine from normal.
"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 and he appeared to be genuinely worried. "He'll be able to continue, right?"
"That is for the doctor to say" the nurse replied in a cool, unwavering voice, "as well as time and patience. I will get the doctor to come as soon as she can."
The nurse left the room without another word and coach Furnham looked after her for several long seconds before exclaiming: "What is this, an all female institution?"
"I believe doctor Tomlinson is something of an expert on shoulder injuries" Sam said, unable to withhold himself from the general conversation any longer. He had, after all, waited at the hospital for more than an hour just to be there when McNally woke up. To keep him from suing, of course, Sam had thought to himself. However, while his words had been meant as a discreet jab at the coach sexist comment, they caused something else to happen as well. The hockey player looked at him.
If those eyes had seemed bright blue before, it was nothing compared to when they were actually aimed at you. They seemed to examine him from top to toe, taking in his entire being and… appreciating it? No, seriously? He could not possibly be gay? This was-
"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."
This presentation gave Sam a few more moments to collect himself. As the coach said, he was here on business. Better prepare for the administrative mess of law-bending… But the hockey player's next words took him completely by surprise.
"What, you think I want to sue someone? Who even rammed into 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?"
And the coach left, leaving Sam there with a perfect stranger who had, almost certainly, checked him out in the same way he himself had checked out the hockey player earlier. It was a bit awkward and McNally looked just as pale now. Not that that was very surprising, he had been through a rather serious ordeal after all.
"Do you want me to leave, too?" Sam asked, deliberately assuming a more formal way of speech. Lawyer, remember. "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."
Huh. Was not that a surprise? Not only was Eric McNally not a buff macho type, he also seemed kind of shy. Sam could not help but smile.
"Ah. I believe there is a button just by your right hand that should- yes, that's the one."
The other man had found the button that Sam and the coach had been instructed was connected to the morphine – though the doses would not be strong enough to knock anyone out. It seemed to do the trick however, because McNally seemed to relax again.
"You look like you're enjoying that a bit too much" Sam said, again, unable to keep himself from smiling – though only a little. Lawyer. Business, not pleasure.
"Come back when you've had your shoulder smashed to pieces, you'll know bliss." This was interesting – the jock was not monosyllabic after all.
"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?"
Sam took his refuge in formality.
"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."
He was, after all, the team's lawyer – if McNally decided to take legal action against the team Sam could not represent both sides.
"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" Sam said, remembering vividly the description he had been given by the coach only half an hour earlier. Phil Rivers was, it was to be understood, heavier, and since he had come crashing into McNally at full speed, the force of impact had been great. McNally did not seem very bothered by the description.
"So, I should have moved. It wasn't Rivers fault, or anyone's for that matter. Except maybe for the kid…"
Once again, this surprised Sam.
"The kid?" he asked, wondering if maybe there had been something wrong with the star center before the game even began. He seemed a bit embarrassed, but not reluctant, when he elaborated.
"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?" Sam could not help but adding some mockery. "Imagine the headlines: Star player floored by child – should they be banned from games?"
And much to his surprise, McNally smiled. It was impossible not to return it, even though he really should stay professional.
"Is there anything I can help you with, other than the legal actions you don't want to take?"
Well, kind of professional. Right?
"Well, eh, you don't happen to know where they've put my things? I should probably call my sister."
He did not have a clue, but he was probably in a better state to find out than the hockey player himself. And that smile had done some serious damage to his professionalism.
"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."
While Sam under normal circumstances would have mentally listed about seven other things which were truly great, all he could do now was step up to the bed and extend his hand to the man in it. After all, they had not greeted each other properly, right? And the hand which accepted his was unexpectedly warm.
"Nice to meet you Eric" Sam said, trying not to imagine the feel of those mildly calloused hands on his skin.
"Yeah, you too."
They let go of each other's hands and Sam went to leave the room and return to his office. However, the man in the bed called out for him.
"Oh, there was one more thing."
"Yes?" Sam said as he turned towards the bed again, curious as to what this other thing might be.
"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" he said, smiling as he left the room. As he left the hospital, got into his car and drove back to the office – even as he sat down in his chair and started his computer, he could feel the warmth of Eric McNally's hand. It was nice.
As the days passed, Sam found himself thinking about Eric McNally far more often than it was called for. He had called the man's sister and it had felt fairly odd introducing himself to her, as if he knew her brother, when the full extent of their one and only conversation had lasted no more than ten minutes at the most. Thankfully, the label 'lawyer' did not call for many questions and except for the fact that he had been forced to tell her that her brother was injured and under hospital care, it had been a fairly pleasant call.
It had been four days when he finally got the time to go to the hospital again, between two other appointments. Luckily there were no other visitors and the athlete looked quite healthy, especially since most of his bruised shoulder was hidden beneath a light blue shirt.
"How are you feeling today?" he asked after the initial greeting. "Not in the mood for suing, I hope."
"Nope, not today, thank you."
"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 the other man, then provided one of the firm's black fountain pens for the actual signing. "There is a lot of fine print but it more or less says that you do not hold the team or 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."
While there was a really a lot of papers, it was not very difficult paperwork. In fact, it was all just about making sure that McNally had understood his privileges and would not press charges against his employer. It did not take long until all the papers were skimmed through – did he really appear that trustworthy? Would Eric have signed anything as long as Sam said it was a good thing to do? – and signed. He was just stuffing the stack back into the briefcase when he was asked a rather interesting question.
"So, do you like hockey?"
"Not very much, actually" Sam replied, not trying to hide his surprise at this rather sharp conversational turn. "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?"
He appeared genuinely interested and Sam smiled. He was, of course, not supposed to talk about the free tickets (that he never used) or the semiannual dinner party to which he was always invited (but never attended). To mention the prestige of the team name on the résumé was not good either, so he just raised the stack of papers slightly and rustled them a bit.
"Twenty four autographs by the Leafs' star player. These might be valuable some day."
"If I can come back" the hockey player said, looking a bit reserved at the possible prospect of not being able to continue his career.
"When you do your comeback" Sam said, wanting to encourage the man. "And then maybe, just maybe, I'll have to go to a game."
It was not until he had already arrived at his next appointment before he realized that his pen was still in Eric McNally's hospital room. The thought made him smile.
As per the usual when work was concerned, it was all or nothing. Some weeks brought almost empty schedules, with long gaps of unplanned time between morning, lunch and going home. Other weeks were crammed from dawn till dusk with meetings, preparations, court… Sam was looking, not so much forward to but rather at, such a period. For almost two weeks his work load had been increasing exponentially and even a quick look into his planner was enough to give him a headache. The coming month would be a nightmare.
He was practically living in his office, returning home only to shower and change clothes. There was no time, or rather, no peace of mind, to cook food and he frequented the deli shops close to the office and home just to be able to eat something other than Chinese or pizza. He had just been out to lunch with some of his colleagues when his cell phone rang, the number unfamiliar.
"This is Sam speaking."
"Oh, it's Sam Miller, right? The lawyer?" It was a woman calling and she sounded somewhat distraught. There was screaming in the background, not as if there was a fight but rather- Oh. Of course. A child.
"Yes, that's correct. And you are-"
"Joan. I'm Eric McNally's sister" the woman said, which of course made him remember her voice. He closed the door to his office and sat down, adjusting the phone. Considering the child the call would not be very long, but he might as well make himself comfortable.
"How can I help you?"
"Well, it's just- There you go Hank… Sorry. Well, I was just wondering if you had happened to meet my brother since he left the hospital? He doesn't answer my calls and since I don't live in the city…"
"I'm sorry" he replied, "but I haven't seen him. Is there reason to worry?"
"Well, since he's survived this long he's obviously not entirely incapable of taking care of himself I guess" she said and appeared to sigh, maybe leaning on a counter or something. "I wouldn't worry if he would only answer when I call him."
Sam was quite good at reading people. While this was not a request to him it was a wish that there was someone else to turn to, someone whom she could actually ask to go see if her brother was still alive and well. The realization that there was no such person, because then she would have called that person and not Sam, settled the matter.
"Why don't you give me the address and I'll drop by?" he said, reaching for his notepad and a pen. The relief in the woman's voice was evident when she provided the details and Sam noticed, with some surprise, that it was not far from where he lived, not really on the way between work and home, but almost. Therefore he could answer her next question truthfully. "No, no, don't worry about it – it's no problem."
Well, he would not be able to stay late in the office preparing for Monday's hearing, but then he had been working late every other night this week and it was Friday after all. He was entitled to one night off. He had earned it.
"So… do you think he's in danger of starving?"
So it was that he was standing in the building where Eric McNally lived with two brown paper bags of groceries. He had stopped by at home first to park the car, shower and change into something else than the suit, then walked to the address. The groceries were bought nearby and he was actually feeling a bit nervous about the whole thing. There was simply no way he could justify this as strictly professional, and even if he could, he could not deny that something in him had been begging for a reason to see this man again.
But no one opened the door. This would have been acceptable, since Sam came unannounced, if it was not for the fact that he could hear the sound muffled sound of a television in there. He knocked again, then said:
"I know you're in there, I can hear the T.V."
Interestingly enough, it took no more than half a minute before the door was unlocked an opened, revealing Eric McNally in nothing more than a pair of sweat pants. His left shoulder was still patched up and the arm in a sling, but the bruises had faded almost entirely.
Right, business first.
"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."
Well, that was not exactly true, but it was good enough and it seemed to fly because the other man stepped back and let him into the apartment. It was evidently a bachelor's pad, with basic furniture and some hockey posters on the walls, but no feeling of a home. In the kitchen, which he located soon enough, a small heap of dishes occupied the sink. Judging by the state of things, cleaning had not been a top priority in Eric's life for the last couple of weeks. Considering the fact that he was not supposed to strain his shoulde, that was probably a good thing.
"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" Sam said, amused at how nervous the other man seemed. Was it because he felt uncomfortable with Sam's presence? No, not only, and not because of his half-dressed state either. "Can I put it here? Do you need any help unpacking?"
"Uh, yeah, sure. What have you bought anyway?"
Sam shrugged, it was nothing fancy, just rudimentary survival food. It was not an easy thing shopping for a stranger. He did not mind the challenge though.
"Some turkey, chicken, bread… bananas, orange juice… peanuts."
"Peanuts!" Eric exclaimed. "That's perfect, you know, the game's just started and- Oh, right, you're not really interested in hockey."
Even though the emotion showing in Eric's face was not disappointment but simply realization, it was enough to draw out every inch of loving care in Sam's body. It was not starvation from lack of food but from lack of company. And there was something else too. As if now that he was here, it was obvious that Sam should stay.
Well, he had taken the evening off, right?
"Well no, 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" he added with something of a smile.
"More like stumbling, but yeah." Oh, he had realized that as well? His self awareness was strangely attractive. "If you want to."
"Could be nice for a change. Should I pour those peanuts or are you going to keep hugging them?"
Eric released the bag and Sam found a bowl to put the snacks in. After finding out that Eric had not yet eaten any decent evening meal he also made some sandwiches while the hockey player went in search for a t-shirt. They sat down in the sofa, opened their beers – Sam drank his from a glass, thank you very much, there were limits to his manliness – and watched the game. It was quite fun actually, not so much because of the game itself but because Eric was very knowledgeable. Well, it was his team playing, so he really should, but he was familiar with the other team as well and recognized their strategies, deducing how the players on the ice would react to them and which individual traits would cause things to happen. Most of the time, he was right on the mark and Sam found himself fascinated by the fact that someone would not only be interested in knowing these things but actually talk about it like one would of a field of study. Sam could be as passionate explaining the finer qualities of a particular law.
Another aspect of the evening was even more to Sam's amusement. Eric was perhaps unaware of it, but he refrained from any kind of physical contact. That was an interesting thing because it was unnatural. Sam liked to study people and their behaviors but even if he had not, he still knew that physical contact was something that just happened. You shook hands or bumped shoulders incidentally, or if you sat next to each other in a couch, like Sam and Eric did now, your knees would inadvertently brush. But no such thing happened. Eric kept his distance, and even if he perhaps did not notice it himself, it was yet another piece for Sam to add to the puzzle. His image of the hockey player was becoming fuller.
Even so, the evening ended as the game did. Sam took the empty bottles and dishes into the kitchen, but resisted the impulse to take care of the washing up, and headed for the door. It had been a nice few hours, a welcome and well-earned break from work. Not very professional, not at all, but nice. As he put his jacket and shoes back on he thought that maybe he could find an excuse of his own to meet Eric again some other day, without help from the sister. However, as he was dressed and ready to go, he found himself exchanging looks with the other man. Silence surrounded them, even the T.V. was turned off. It was no more than a few moments, but there was something in Eric's eyes, something…
"So, um, thanks for dropping by and- shit, your money. Let me just get my checkbook-"
Sam put his hand on Eric's right arm, preventing him from going anywhere, and their eyes met and yes, Sam was sure of it. If something was to happen, he had to initiate it. So he did. He leaned in and placed a kiss on those impossibly soft lips.
It was nothing but a small peck, a hint of what could be, but as he drew back he could see that, indeed, Eric was not about to hit him or throw a tantrum. He smiled as the other man opened his eyes.
"I'm not going to be sorry for that" he said, still feeling the echo of Eric's lips on his own.
"Don't be" Eric said and leaned in for yet another kiss.
A long while later, Eric adjusted his position and placed his head on Sam's shoulder. He seemed relaxed and satisfied, which was just about how Sam felt about how the evening had turned out. They had been forced to consider Eric's shoulder, of course, but it had not stopped them from enjoying each other's bodies with almost no reserve. This was not something he had expected when he went to the hospital that first time. Now here he was, spent, and he would be happy to fall asleep just like this, caressing Eric's stomach with slow, gentle strokes.
"Who would have known" he said in a low whisper close to Eric's ear, could almost hear his own smile in the words, "that the Leafs' great star would be gay?"
The reaction was instantaneous. Eric tensed up, like a spring, ready to snap at any time.
"I'm not-" he said, fumbling for words. "I'm not-"
"Eric, you just sucked my dick after I fucked you really hard. Twice. That is about as gay as it gets."
Maybe the phrasing was a bit blunt, but it was true.
"What's your point?" Eric asked, and it was obvious that he was struggling – but against what? Emotions? Thoughts?
"Nothing" Sam said in full honesty. "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. "No one told me anything and I am not planning to use this in any way whatsoever. Why on earth should I?"
Honestly, why? It was not as if he was out on some celebrity-fucking-spree and what could he possibly gain from outing Eric?
"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 left his lips as he explained the matter.
"It wasn't much of a risk. My gaydar" he could notice Eric flinching at the word, "is in excellent shape and is capable of finding even the most discreet closet cases."
Eric had checked him out in the hospital, no doubt about it. Not to mention all the other clues.
"So why did you do this? Just to fuck a celebrity?" Eric's voice was as dry as desert sand and it made Sam sad to hear him like that. As if he thought that there was nothing more to him than his name.
"Eric, no. That's not why…" Sam said, his voice soft as he stroked the other man's cheek tenderly. "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…" Eric seemed a little taken aback by this confession. The only word he managed to find was "so…"
"I'm not here to abuse you in any way" Sam said, adding as an afterthought, "well, I guess you will be a bit sore tomorrow, but no worse than you already were."
He could not help but feel satisfaction at this accomplishment. It had been a bit surprising but Eric had been submissive in the bed department. Not passive, but… submissive. And then, just then, he was struck by a somewhat unwanted thought.
"Hey, do you want me to leave?"
The question appeared to jolt Eric's mind just as much as it had Sam's, but the hockey player's body responded before there were words: Eric relaxed into his embrace as if subconsciously asking him to remain exactly where he was.
"No" came Eric's words, "no, just…stay. Please?"
It sounded almost like the prayer of a child, triggering a memory Billy as he had been once, calm and quiet and scared of the dark. Now, Eric did not resemble Billy even remotely, and Sam did not want to leave in any case, but it was a nice feeling to hear that word.
"I would very much like that" Sam replied, "but Eric?"
"Would you please let go of my hand before you crush it?"
His hand was released immediately, causing his skin to prickle when the blood flowed freely again. Apparently Eric had not been aware that he had been squeezing it, quite firmly at that, throughout their conversation. He looked almost sheepish.
"Sorry, I- um…" his voice trailed off.
"Don't worry about it" Sam said, smiling. "Now, will you lie down or are you going to spend the night lying on your one good arm?"
Somehow, Sam must have been awake before he actually woke up. The moment he could feel movement next to him he knew exactly where he was and with whom, and even with that knowledge he felt completely relaxed, as if it was perfectly normal for him to sleep in an almost stranger's bed, naked. The movement in question was that of a hand on his arm and his automatic reaction was to intertwine their fingers and mumbling a morning greeting.
"Mornin'. Hey, eh, Sam, I have to... you know. Would you-?"
"Hm? Oh, yeah, sure."
He let go of Eric's hand again, retracted it to let him loose – apparently they had remained in the same position as the one they fell asleep in, with Sam's arm around Eric's waist – but not without fondling that very flat stomach in the passing. He smiled to himself as he heard Eric get out of the bed and away towards the bathroom, his steps a little stiff. Well, it had been an eventful night.
However, Sam did not stay in bed for very long. He got up, stretched a little before reaching for his clothes. He had stacked them neatly last night, when it had been Eric's turn to clean himself up in the bathroom, an obsession rather than a force of habit. He did not dislike things, not really, but he disliked clutter and especially tossed clothes. It was probably a sane reaction to having Billy as a brother.
His thoughts were interrupted when Eric returned into the room, looking a bit surprised by the fact that Sam was half-dressed already.
"Don't tell me you expected some action" Sam said with a quick smile. "You don't seem like the kind of guy who wants to do it in the morning."
This was, apparently, a correct assumption, as Eric looked almost… relieved.
"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 another neatly stacked pile of clothes. He could not help it – it was a force of habit! Though, of course, he had to justify this quite intimate action to the man who was just now looking at him in a very questioning way.
"Yeah, about that" he fastened his belt as he answered, "I just don't like it when clothes are scattered all around."
He had expected some sort of question at this, or a reaction – after all, most normal people did not fold other people's clothes in the middle of the night, right? Especially not if they barely knew each other. But Eric simply nodded.
Breakfast was kind of relaxed as well. Sam had made himself at home in the kitchen again, rummaging through Eric's cupboards and assembling a breakfast for the two of them. It was a much for his own sake as for Eric's, actually – he felt as if he had not had a proper breakfast for at least two weeks. Coffee had many fine points, but it was not yet the one and only fuel for Sam's body and he was thoroughly enjoying his sandwiches and cereal. He even had a newspaper – somehow he had not expected Eric to be subscribed to one – and he allowed himself to actually read the articles instead of just searching the headlines for the most rudimentary information. Meanwhile, Eric sat opposite him, engulfed in the sports pages. It was all very peaceful, as if imported straight from a 50's advertisement, with orange juice and coffee and even a bit of sun shining in through the window. Except of course for the fact that gay people were at that time considered mentally disturbed and would never be pictured as peaceful or normal, if pictured at all.
In the middle of that interesting but somewhat unnerving train of thought, Eric's voice demanded his attention.
"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, unsure not so much about the question itself but rather Eric's intentions in asking it.
"Us, already?" Eric said dryly, but his words became more insecure as he continued: "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" Sam said, hardly even raising an eyebrow as he spoke. "That would make everything clear as day and it would only require a minute of your time."
Not as if he actually thought Eric would do that. If those actions were an option, Eric would have done it long ago. But the question had been asked earnestly and Sam should answer it with the same honesty, so he did, feeling his voice and features soften as he laid the options out for the other man.
"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."
They sat in silence for a few moments, Eric obviously turning the matter over in his head.
"If we should… continue… this" he said after a while, obviously choosing each word with utmost care, "then no one can know about it. Do you understand? No one."
Sam could not help but cock an eyebrow at this demand. It had been obvious from the beginning that Eric was not out of the closet, unlike Sam. While he never forced his sexuality on others, he had seldom found reason to withhold from anyone that he was gay, so most people in his daily life knew about it. None of his colleagues or friends would shun him if he turned up with another man to dinners or parties. Eric was evidently not as lucky.
"Is the reason for this ultimatum professional or personal?" Sam said in a tone as indifferent as he could manage, 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 retorted, sounding almost offended. "I know I'm… Well, I know I'm gay but-"
"But you haven't left the closet yet" Sam concluded. "Okay. I can live with that."
Judging by the surprise in Eric's voice he had not been prepared for calm acceptance of his demand. To be honest, Sam was quite surprised himself.
"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 laughed at this and the smile he saw on Eric's face made him warm on the inside. He folded the newspaper into its original shape, putting it down on the table.
"So what are the rules?" he asked. "What are the dos and don'ts?"
"Well" Eric began, "no kissing, obviously. No hugs. Just… nothing… gay."
Well, that was to be expected, Sam thought to himself, then reached out with his hand to touch Eric's, pressing small circles in the other man's palm.
"What about touching?"
"No." Eric sounded a little distracted and Sam tried not to smile at this.
"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?"
It took two full seconds before Eric seemed to understand the sarcasm, but he reacted honorably.
"No, at home is… fine, just fine."
"Even better then" Sam said. He let go of Eric's hand and smiled at him before rising from the chair and taking his cup to the counter by the sink. Still at the table was Eric who looked mildly disoriented.
"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."
He had written it while making the coffee. Now he adjusted his shirt and sweater to make them look a bit more decent, and then walked over to where Eric was sitting. He placed one hand on the uninjured shoulder and leaned down for a quick kiss, savoring the hint of coffee on the other man's lips.
He could hardly wait for more.
Unfortunately, he was in for a lot of waiting. Had it not been for Sam's immense workload, this period would have been perfect for him and Eric to spend time together and get to know one another, since Eric was temporarily removed from the eyes of media and team mates. However, there was little time for anything other than sleep and nutrition in Sam's life. He was invited over to Eric's place at two occasions but was so exhausted that he practically collapsed in bed, merely managing a kiss good night. This made him feel bad but when he made his excuses, Eric brushed them aside as if it was not a problem.
The first time, the dismissal felt like a rejection, though Sam took great care not to let it show. When it happened a second time, he understood from Eric's soft smile that perhaps it really was okay. It just felt weird.
That was the reason why he invited Eric over as soon as the hectic period was over. He had taken the afternoon of – he deserved it – and tidied up the apartment until it was spotless, like he wanted it. He had done some shopping, prepared the food and set the table before entering the shower. While he enjoyed the hot water on his body he allowed himself some daydreaming about the evening. He had decided to make a very simple dish for dinner, not because it took less effort – it did not – but because he thought it would appeal to his date.
He smiled at the words, feeling like a nervous teenager again. Really, this should not be very different from the times he had stayed over at Eric's. They had eaten those times as well, and shared a bed. Tonight would not be very different, in any fundamental way. But then, his inner lawyer pointed out, it was all about the intention. And it was different.
When the doorbell rang he was dressed and as mentally prepared as one could be the first time a date came over to your house. The dinner was still cooking in the oven but that was intentional and Eric was right on time and he looked every part of the handsome stranger.
Except he was not a stranger and Sam was more than happy to let him in.
Eric looked healthy – not that he had been looking sick last time they met – and agile. His movements were smooth and even though Sam had never actually seen him skate he could see some of the ease of the skating as Eric took of his jacket and followed Sam on the inevitable tour of the apartment. There was a flow in his motions and Sam admired it. That was, until they came to the living room. It was impossible to misunderstand the look of confusion in Eric's face and Sam had to hold back a laugh.
"I don't watch television" Sam said. "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 into the one room they had not yet been to: the bedroom. Like the rest of his home, Sam liked to keep his bedroom tidy, and he was of a sort of minimalistic mindset. The screen he used for movies was installed into one of the closets just opposite the bed, conveniently hidden when not in use. But whatever comment he had anticipated on this, it was certainly not the one that he was actually given.
"So this is where you watch your gay porn?"
The question took Sam completely by surprise and it was apparent from the look on Eric's face that this was something he had not intended to say. However, what else could you do but laugh?
"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?" Eric's words were spoken in jest and serenity at the same time and Sam took this to heart.
"Good point" he said, shrugging as he led the way out of the bedroom again. "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?" It was not really a guess: it was obvious from Eric's hesitant reply.
"I guess, but I like wine once in a while."
"I think you'll like this one."
It was one of Sam's personal favorites, a full-bodied red wine with rich flavor and a hint of fruitiness, and it was best enjoyed in large glasses. Even Eric seemed to appreciate it, and appeared surprised by it, but it made Sam feel good – that he had been able to find a wine that suited even a beer-enthusiastic sports jock. And it was a very nice wine.
They had made a toast, without specifying what they toasted to, and as the clinking of their glasses had faded there was only the sound of the jazz from the living room for a few moments. That was, until Eric said:
"So, you like decorating?"
He made a gesture that seemed to include not only the kitchen in which they were standing but the entire apartment and Sam was, truth to be told, impressed by the other man's sense of perception. Or maybe he just thought that every gay man who was not busy fortifying their closets spent their time rearranging their cushions?
"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."
It was, truly, and it was a good way to make a living. He preferred it to arranging cushions.
"Even when you're working with sports teams?"
"Even then. And there's a lot of work so I'm never without occupation."
Another very true statement. If nothing else, the last four weeks were proof of that. But enough about him now.
"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?" He was sincerely interested, because to him it was almost unbelievable that someone would actually devote their life to play a sport. It obviously paid out, but still…
"Not that I can remember" Eric replied, but then he shrugged. "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."
"Was?" Sam cocked his eyebrow.
They smiled at each other and had some more wine. An appetizing smell made its way from the oven, and this appeared to have some effect on Eric, whose stomach suddenly made a growling noise. Sam laughed at the sound and put his glass down at the counter, amused when he noticed that Eric did not seem embarrassed by the incident.
"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.
"Push-ups?" he asked, as if he had misheard it.
"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?" Eric's voice still held humor but Sam could tell that he did not follow the train of thought and that it bothered him. However, to make him end up at the right conclusion, there were a few more steps to take. Therefore, Sam said nothing more than a simple:
"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 could see his words sink in, see the moment Eric realized the turn of the conversation – laughing as he did – at which point Sam said "I hope you don't mind that kind of workout?"
And lo and behold, this made Eric blush.
"No, I don't mind" Eric replied, his voice a little lower now.
"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…"
He moved to the oven and retracted the dish, which looked even better than usual and smelled mouth-watering. As he put it down onto the table mat, Eric asked:
"Is that what I think it is?"
"If what you think is shepherd's pie, then yes."
"It smells delicious… Hey, are we supposed to drink wine to this?"
The first part was great feedback, telling Sam that he had made a good choice concerning what kind of food to make, but the other part was just funny. As if it was impossible to have wine with shepherd's pie. Well, seeing as it kind of was, Sam had prepared for this as well and he went to the refrigerator to collect two bottles which he presented to his guest.
"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."
And Eric did, and he seemed to enjoy it. It was a very satisfying feeling to see Eric eat, a feeling Sam could only smile and shake his head at, and he made sure that Eric was really full before he was allowed to put the cutlery down. He had of course eaten his share as well, but not nearly as much as the athlete, and this amused him. It had been a wild guess, but as he found out during the meal, Eric really was of Irish descent. His grandfather had migrated to America in search for work and had ended up in Canada, where he married a girl and settled. While Eric had no contact with any family in Ireland, he had grown up with stories about the green island and whenever he had been to visit his grandparents there had always been traditionally Irish dishes on the table. Sam enjoyed hearing the other man talk. His voice was lighter than Sam's own, but it was smooth and very enticing. It was a noise he did not mind.
When they had finished eating they cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher, then sat down in the couch in the living room, listening to one of Sam's jazz records. They were back on the wine again and all in all, it was very relaxing just sitting there together. Eric seemed to think so too, in fact, he looked almost as if he was about to fall asleep… How sweet.
But then, something clouded the peaceful look on Eric's face and Sam could not stop himself from asking "What is it?"
"Hm?" Eric opened his eyes, seemingly not understanding what Sam was asking about, so he explained.
"You had a look of utter satisfaction just a second ago, then it changed as if you were bothered by something."
"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."
Well, was that interesting or what? Sam took a sip of wine before asking "Why is that?"
Eric seemed to ponder the question for a few moments, turning it over carefully in his mind before answering.
"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?"
Even if he had, Eric obviously did now, because it was a few moments before he asked:
"Are you always taking things slow or is it just me?"
"It depends on the person" Sam said, "but I wouldn't say that I've been taking it slow with you."
That was very true. Even though they had not had sex since their first night together, it had only been the third time they had ever met – the two previous meetings with Eric in a hospital bed. One could even claim that they had jumped each other, and that person would not be entirely wrong. It was an awkward truth, but even so, the truth.
"But yes" Sam continued, as if he had never paused; he had 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, and for a few moments they both remained silent. The music filled the room, improvising as it went along. Just like we do, Sam thought to himself. When he started to talk, so did Eric.
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."
Sam could feel the question in his own smile. He did not know Eric well enough to know if this was an actual invitation to further intimacies in the bedroom department, or if Eric was simply interested in one of the paintings on the wall. However, there was no other way of knowing than ask.
"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."
Indeed he did. 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."
Actually, Billy had made quite a lot of fuss, until their paternal grandfather, one of the Shoah survivors, had shook his head and said in a very quiet voice that there were worse things in life than love, and that Billy would do well to remember that. And just like that, they had resumed the Sabbath and their lives.
"You lucky bastard…" Eric mumbled words made Sam squeeze his hand gently, reassuringly.
"Was it difficult for you?"he asked.
"Ha, isn't it obvious?" The words were dripping bitterness. "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 and Sam could feel the touch of the other man's thumb as it stroke his hand, could hear him swallow as if that would make the words easier to say.
"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?"
More silence, and not of the comfortable kind. Suddenly Sam felt that it was not very strange if Eric was on edge about people knowing about his sexuality if he had never told anyone about it. Not his family, not his friends… with so many people not knowing, how hard must it not be to look yourself in the mirror every morning? He pulled the other man closer and felt Eric leaning into the embrace. Then, as if the sheer proximity had cancelled the qualms, words came.
"I can't" Eric whispered, and the words were so filled with emotions that they seemed as if they would break at any moment. "I can't. Not even in front of myself."
"You don't have to" Sam whispered back, his lips close to Eric's ear. "There's no rush. I'm right here. One person who found the backdoor to your closet fortress."
A faint chuckle from Eric's lips.
"The backdoor, huh?" Sam could hear the smile on Eric's face in his voice. "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 they got to know each other even better. Eric spent his days exercising and Sam's work schedule became more normal, allowing them to meet several nights a week. Sometimes they would go out to one bar another, just to grab a drink and hang out, but more often they would meet in one of the apartments and spend the night there. Sam noticed that being in privacy at home had a much more relaxing effect on Eric and it was also good because it made it easier for them to relocate to the bedroom whenever they felt that the time was right. Sex was fun and relaxing, as it turned out. They discovered each other's preferences and sensitive points, but there was never any pressure to perform or do anything other than giving each other pleasure. No shrewd fantasies to fulfill, no strange toys – just the two of them. The only thing Sam ever reacted on was that Eric never wanted to claim dominance in bed. While he could initiate new things or make demands, he would always submit. It was only after Sam had suggested they reverse the roles and Eric actually blushed that Sam took it to heart. Eric preferred it that way, just like how he liked being held or resting his head on Sam's shoulder. That was just the way it was, and Sam did not mind. Fact was, he loved it. Loved to feel Eric, hear him moan or pant heavily, or cry out Sam's name just before he came and crumbled. Loved to fuck him until he was satisfied and at ease.
This was the situation one particular night. It was late: Sam had been occupied by work longer than usual so they had not been able to meet at the usual time. Now, he held Eric who lay nestled closely to him and seemed about to fall asleep any minute. Sam would have let him do so, had it not been for the once injured shoulder that was right in front of him. It showed no sign of bruising anymore and one could never have guessed that only a few months ago it had been broken. Still, he had noticed that Eric would still, at times, favor it, or massage it absently, as if it still hurt.
"How is it?" Sam asked, his voice low and soft so as not to break the velvet mood.
"Mending" Eric replied softly. "Slowly, but it's mending."
"That's good to hear" Sam whispered and pressed his lips to the skin, gently. It was. He was happy for Eric's sake, and relieved that the damage was healing.
There was no immediate answer and Sam wondered if he had not detected a tone of hesitation in the other man's voice. As if this was a subject he was unsure of whether or not he actually wanted to bring up. But then, Eric spoke, and something seemed broken in his voice as he said:
"What if I can't go back? What if I can never play pro again?"
"What makes you say that?" Sam wondered.
"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."
Indeed, there were many, many months before anyone would expect anything of Eric in terms of professional hockey. It was a wonder that the injury had not been worse and that he had recuperated so well, and he had plenty of time to get in even better shape. A good enough shape to get back on the ice and perhaps be slammed into the boards again, perhaps breaking something more serious than his left shoulder.
"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, which almost but not quite surprised Sam. He knew that he had snapped, that he had probably said that in an unnecessary sharp tone, but he could not help it. Even so, he had to reawaken his own sleepy mind and meet Eric's fiery gaze for what it was.
"Sam, I've chosen hockey." Eric's voice was hard and determined. "Getting hurt is part of the deal."
"It's a bad deal then."
"Just like sex, then" Eric replied. As he understood that Sam did not follow, he continued: "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."
And he did not want to do it. He did not want to fight, or quarrel. He wanted to make Eric relax again, so that they could fall asleep and then wake up together the next day. But he also wanted Eric to understand that he was concerned, and worried. Still, this was not the right way to do it.
"You're right" he said, and when Eric did nothing but blink, he continued, "I'm sorry Eric."
This caused an odd reaction in the other man. At first he seemed almost dumbfounded, as if he could not understand what was happening, and then he relaxed and put his hand on Sam's chest.
"Don't be" Eric said. "Please. And please don't worry about me either."
"Then what should I do, to make you understand that I care about you?" Sam asked, and was given a smile in return.
"You could kiss me."
Sam almost laughed at this cute, almost innocent approach. It was sweet and endearing, and very irresistible.
"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's way of falling into line in the conversation was yet another indicator on just how well they had gotten to know each other. Instead of reprimanding Sam, demanding the kiss and then be done with it, he went along, played the part. He would receive a handsome reward for that, yes he would.
But not just yet.
"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?"
Sam had made every kiss real as he accounted for them but now, he let his lips move slowly just above Eric's face, down, towards the mouth. He did not kiss the other man though, and it was just a moment of silence before Eric asked in whisper, just barely audible:
"And on the lips?"
"Soft at first" small kisses, mere caresses over his lips, "then deeper", the tip of the tongue gently urging the other man to open his mouth, a last soft whisper: "until it's all just very French."
They did not continue it for very long but it was breathtaking nonetheless. Again Eric rested close to Sam, both of their bodies relaxing at the proximity and familiar warmth.
"You're very knowledgeable when it comes to kisses" Eric said drowsily.
"And I still haven't shown you the best parts" Sam mumbled, drifting towards sleep as well.
"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, sounding almost eager. "Hey, Sam?"
"Mm?" Sam managed, inches from Neverland.
"Good night Eric. Sweet dreams."
As hockey season ended, things were only getting better. Eric's health was still improving and he was almost always in a good mood, optimistic about his training and next season and everything. He was still stiff and super-macho-straight whenever they were out of the house and it made Sam sad to see him try so hard to uphold something that should never need to exist. Still, he said nothing about it and tried not to be bothered by it. After all, he had agreed to Eric's terms, and since everything else was working out so nicely, why should he try and change it?
They were even doing couple-y things together. There had been a jazz concert which they had gone to, and they also went to a few movies together. 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 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. Maybe it was because he had had a long, hard day, and maybe it was because he was looking forward to spending the night with Eric – maybe his subconscious was sick and tired of maintaining a façade he had never wanted in his entire life. Whatever the reason, as they left the restaurant he put his arm around Eric's shoulders and kissed his cheek.
It was like lighting a match in a room filled with gas. It exploded in his face.
"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."
This outburst took Sam completely by surprise. Like, this was Eric. Super-closeted, hockey-star, macho-maniac Eric. And he was standing in the middle of the street, yelling about the nature of their relationship, as if he did not care about anyone hearing about it as long as they did not see it. What was he supposed to reply?
"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 only gaped at him, as if the words had been a slap in the face. And if Sam had been a violent man, then maybe that would have been the case. However, he was not violent, but he was more than ready for this discussion, more so than he could have ever anticipated. He was tired of this charade. Tired of never getting to hold hands, of never touching Eric in any other way than a hand on the back or handing him a bottle of beer from the bar. Fuck, he was not a show-off in any way, no more keen on public make-out sessions than Eric was, but to never be allowed to do or say anything that could in any way be interpreted in a gay way…
And Eric seemed to be at a lack for words, so Sam went on.
"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. "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 in order to collect himself, resuming his speech in only seconds – seconds in which Eric thankfully remained silent. When he started talking again, Sam had assumed the role and voice of an attorney, cool and to the point, trying to keep the lid on the big pot of feelings boiling just underneath.
"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 just as much as he wanted Eric to follow him, just as relieved was he not to hear the other man's footsteps behind him. He wanted to be alone and he wanted to make up and he wanted – fuck – he wanted to erase the last few minutes and make it all right. But it was too late for that and Eric did not follow him, so Sam went home, alone.
He did not sleep that night.
He had hoped to hear from Eric the next day, but there was no phone call, no message, nothing. He waited for it to happen, whether it was a text message or an email or flowers delivered to his door – anything, really, good or bad, as long as it was something. But it did not happen, it did not show up. And Sam started to notice the noise again.
It was as if he could not tune out all that clatter and chatter which any grown up person learns to sort away. All the small things, from the buzz of the computer or clicking of heels on the floor to the sound of people laughing as they talked to each other or sorted papers, he could not ignore them. It was like being back in high school again, or university, only now he knew that all the sounds around him were not unnatural or caused by rowdy teenagers. He knew that it was just him, stressing out, and that all this hypersensitivity was only because he was straining himself trying to hear the only sound that was not there: the sound of Eric's voice.
Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe he needed to calm down, see other people. Be on his own for a while. Yes. Maybe it was all for the best. Especially since it seemed like Billy was heading home for a while. Billy was like a force majeure, impossible to predict or control but always creating chaos. It was not really a question about if he would bring disaster, but when it would happen, and perhaps it was just a good thing if Eric was out of the picture.
Because Sam would not try and bring Eric into the picture again, oh no. The responsibility was Eric's, no doubt about that. He was the one who should make contact. There could be no misunderstanding on that point.
Only there was no contact, and the noises never tuned out.
And Billy showed up, as boisterous as ever, speaking loudly of injustice and dictatorship and corrupt governments to anyone who happened to be in his vicinity. There was some trouble with his papers, no doubt due to his own carelessness, and of course he expected help from his lawyer brother – for free, with food and a place to stay included. It was exhausting to say the least and now, not even his own home provided peace or quiet from the constant buzz that surrounded him. He made it through five days. Then he ordered his brother into a hotel and out of the way.
Hockey season was just around the corner. There was a big feature in the sports pages about Eric McNally and whether or not he would be able to make his comeback in the league. Apparently there was a practice game coming up, the first of the season, and Sam realized with burning clarity that it had been a year since Eric was injured. One whole year. It was almost like an anniversary.
He closed the paper and headed to work.
"Come on Sammy, you know I'm pressed for time."
As always, Billy sounded like a child, unable to understand that there might just be something out there which was more important than his problems. Like paid work. Like taking care of your own business so as not to inconvenience others. And who was he to talk about time and pressure, who had spent the last two weeks leisurely moving from one bar to another, flirting with new women every night and then sleeping in really late in the mornings, missing every appointment Sam set up for him, and who had been half an hour late for this very dinner?
"I'm not a machine Billy, and you can't expect me to clean up your mess every time you make it."
"I told you, it wasn't like that!"
"Then how was it, huh?"
Billy opened his mouth to retort but was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell from the gate towards the street. It was a high, clear tone, interrupting their argument as well as disturbing the jazz record that Sam had put on earlier, in a vain attempt to remain calm throughout the evening.
"Sam?" came an unmistakable voice from the speaker by the landline. "Sam, let me in."
"Who's that?" Billy asked as Sam did nothing to go over to the machine and press the button that would actually open the gate. He had asked the landlord to change the pass code only a few days ago. Just in case.
In case of what?
In case he did not want an unexpected visit from someone whose voice still made him weak to the knees, whose voice reawakened memories of pleasant nights and sounded desperate and earnest, someone who was very, very sorely missed.
"It's Eric" he said, feeling the weight of the name as he spoke it. "We've been going out."
"But now you're not?" Billy seemed to have forgotten about his own problems for a while.
"I don't know."
The doorbell rang again. And again. And again.
"Aren't you going to open?"
"I don't know."
Maybe Eric would go away if he did not answer. He did not want to ignore Eric but he did not want to have him and Billy in the same room, or even the same apartment. But he could not make Billy go and let Eric in, even if he wanted to. So the doorbell kept on ringing, over and over again. He wanted to see him. Wanted to see him so badly, his fingers were just itching to press that button and let him in.
"Sam, for fuck's sake, I know you're home."
How could he be so sure about that? And what with the desperate tone of voice, and why now?
Billy stared at him.
The doorbell rang again.
"THE LIGHT'S ARE ON, LET ME IN."
It took no more than two seconds for Sam to go to the machine and press the button. He could not keep Eric out anymore. Not when he knew, just as well as Eric did, that among Sam's small obsessions he would never leave the lights on in his apartment if he was not in it. He gave Billy a stern look.
"You stay in here. I mean it. Don't you dare leave this room."
Then he went out into the hallway, waiting for the sound of steps outside the door, silently counting seconds. As soon as he heard those steps, he lost track of time and he opened the door.
His face was flushed with color and his eyes were a brighter blue than Sam remembered them. As if he had been out in the cold for a very long time – which was, in some way, true – and oh, how Sam wanted to let him in. But then there was Billy.
"This is a bad time Eric."
"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, trying to make up his mind. No option was a good one, so which one was worst? Then he took a step back. Eric stepped inside in no more than a second, as if he feared that Sam would change his mind. As soon as he had taken off his shoes Sam urged him into the study. Maybe they could get some privacy there. He closed the door behind them and turned towards Eric, trying to remain calm.
"I'm sorry I haven't called or texted or… anything" he began, but Sam did not reply. That was not the matter, not really, and they both knew it. "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, but Sam would not get him the satisfaction of a smile, even though he wanted to do just that. As he also wanted to throw something at the other man for being such a stupid coward, Sam thought it best to remain silent and wait for the rest to come.
And it did.
"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."
It was a horrible picture that Eric painted, but Sam watched it all the same: watched it and believed it.
"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."
Was that really it? A subconscious cry for help, for a drastic change to alter the world that he had built for himself? Sam did not know.
"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 before he continued.
"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."
This was Sam's cue. He knew that. But the words did not come out easily and then, just as he opened his mouth to speak, the door to the study opened and Billy burst in, vibrant and loud and totally oblivious to the mood.
The words he had meant to speak were changed due to the change in circumstances. They became an introduction.
"Billy, this is Eric whom I told you about. Eric, this is Billy, my brother."
Eric looked absolutely perplexed, as if he could not believe what Sam had just told him. Billy, on the other hand, was of course completely unshaken, having done his grand entry.
"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." He had not even thought the words before he spoke them, but they were probably the best, truest, words he had said all day.
"What? No, no, hey, I'm starving, I've been travelling all day-"
"There is an excellent restaurant only two blocks away" Sam cut him off. "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?"
At this point, Sam had no patience whatsoever for his brother's stupid problems. And he did not care if Billy actually did go to the restaurant or if he went to some woman's bed, it did not matter, as long as he got out and fast at that.
"Billy…" Sam said in a strained voice. "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."
Billy, actually, caught the drift. He left, after telling Sam not to call him too early, muttering curses as he went. Sam turned to Eric, who appeared almost nervous. Well, no better than he deserved.
"You think you love me?" he asked.
"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 dared to smile.
"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 Sam returned the smile.
"So, can I come in?"
"Sure. Dinner is almost ready."
"Can I stay?"
"Yes" Sam said. "Please stay."
And all the noise died out.
"Eric…" Sam whispered, unsure of whether or not Eric had already fallen asleep in his arms.
"Do I really bring color to your life?"
Eric chuckled and though Sam was not quite sure what that was supposed to mean he pressed a little tighter to the other man's body and adjusted his arm that rested across Eric's stomach.
"Yes" Eric 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 of course, Sam did not really mind.