Master post – http://alexjane.info/rainbow-
Chapter 1 – Levi
“Are you actually coming back?” Tanner called from the doorstep.
I sighed with frustration at my brother. No one was supposed to be following me out of the house—I’d specifically said my goodbyes, accepted all the hugs and pats, and closed the front door behind me. I’d avoided saying a single thing that would mean people followed.
I’ve decided I’m going to visit a friend. Just for a day. I’ll be back for Christmas. I just need some peace. I’m okay.
Everyone wanted me to have a family Christmas at my folks’ place in Anaheim — time to reconnect with the family, but it hadn’t been a family fun Christmas at all so far. Somehow, since I’d battled with cancer, Mom’s connection to praying had developed into a kind of mania and she reassured me on more than one occasion that she was praying away my pain. I loved her so much, but her way of dealing with one of her sons being ill had been to place her faith in some higher power to fix me, and it was wearing thin. She’d spent all morning talking at me about my future and my plans and how wonderful it was that I got to spend Christmas with the extended family, including Aunt Vera, who Mom had collected from her home just so she’d get to see me.
Aunt Vera had been sleeping most of the morning in her chair in the corner, or at least pretending to sleep from the way she winked at me when I sank to the sofa for a one-minute break. Maybe I should follow her suit, close my eyes, pretend I was sleeping the day away—only, of course, it wouldn’t work for me. I’d be prodded, poked, asked if I was okay, asked if I was hungry, tired, thirsty, or worse, did I need to go to hospital?
I wasn’t sure at what point I’d had enough—it could have been the very first moment I stepped inside the house, when Mom hugged me for so long my arm started to go numb, or maybe it was after the tenth time of my niece asking me if I was going to die. It didn’t matter how many times my oldest brother, Alfie, pulled her away, and sent me sympathetic looks, the question still hung in the air, and it was the one everybody wanted to ask me but was afraid to.
Apart from Tanner. My little brother asked questions other people avoided. I loved him for being blunt with me, but I hated that the kid who used to put me on a pedestal was now holding me up in case I fell. It was Tanner who had followed me outside now, and it was him I had to turn and face. His team had played the Raptors last night, another loss for the Railers that was sitting hard on him. He blamed himself—told me in no uncertain terms he wasn’t in the right headspace to be effective—and if he thought I’d tell him he shouldn’t take the blame, then he was wrong. I’d watched the game, saw the way his defense partner had done most of the work, digging them out of corners they should never find themselves in to start with. I’d seen the hit that come from nowhere, the puck that had caught his partner’s ankle, but I didn’t have it in me to support Tanner as he dissected what had gone wrong.
That was James who had gotten hurt. James who Tanner had hung out to dry.
James ‘Westy’ Sato-West, Railers D-man.
The only man I’d ever allowed myself to love.
I couldn’t think about James right now. I didn’t have it in me to support anyone. I’m a fucking mess.
Everything going wrong on the ice for my little brother linked back to me being ill, because with only ten months between us, we shared a school year, training, playing the game, like twins almost, and I knew he was feeling what happened the most. But my sympathy for him was mixed up with the anger I felt for myself. The Bonetti brothers, me, him, and Alfie had put everything into making it into the NHL, and Tanner was out there messing up a perfectly good career being scared for me, and it was also pissing me off. His love for me was valid, and I accepted his fears were valid. I was never gonna take that away from him, but my illness destroying his career wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave.
“I won’t be here for Christmas, no.”
“You told everyone you’d be back—”
“Stop.” I held up a hand, and he subsided as if the bottom had fallen out of his world. Heartbreak was written into every line of him and his shoulders slumped.
I hadn’t been so honest with the rest of the family who thought I was just going to visit a friend and would be back in a few hours. They didn’t know I had a bag in the trunk, or that I planned on heading to the family’s cabin in Big Bear, which was where I intended to spend Christmas and into the New Year. Away from the questions, and the sympathy, and the love that was stifling me.
“Okay, but if you give me five, I’ll come with you.” Tanner sounded hopeful, but he had a game in two days, a defense partner who was now off the ice, and I needed him to get back in the game—for me. I knew I hadn’t come to terms with the fact my career was over—if anyone asked, I would always say I had every hope of getting back on the ice and they didn’t have to know I was lying.
“Fix your game, Tanner,” I said without hesitation. “Get your head straight, because right now you’re fucking things up for the Railers.”
He winced. “What am I supposed to do…?”
“Not fuck up your career for a start, just because of me,” I replied, and sounded so damn tired. He could defend himself and say that he was playing like shit for any other reason than his worries for me, but he didn’t. Tanner was always honest about everything.
“That’s not fair, you’re my brother and I can’t stop—”
“I’ve had the operation,” I interrupted before he told me all the reasons he felt the way he did.
Everyone’s feelings are valid, Tanner. But you can be angry at them at the same time. Your feelings are valid as well.
Valid was a word my therapist threw around like confetti at a wedding. It was valid for my family to feel bereft. It was valid my mom sought comfort in faith. It was valid my big brother had turned into an angry wrecking ball on the ice, and it was valid my younger brother had lost focus. None of that made me feel any less guilty about how everything was so messed up because of me.
“I’ve done my time with the hospital,” I reassured Tanner. “My voice is almost back to normal, and I’m feeling good. So, you can stop worrying, but actually, there’s two things you can do for me now that would help.”
“First up, I need you to have my back with the family. Explain that actually I’m spending Christmas at the cabin, that I just need some peace to think things through, okay. Tell them not to worry. Reassure them I’m all good.”
“Okay, but —”
“And second, get your head back in the game and stop fucking up your career before the Railers dump your sorry ass and you end up getting sent down, or worse, traded. That’s not who you are—you’re a Bonetti brother, and we don’t give up without a fight.”
He winced at the cold, calculating way in which I’d summed up the situation—but I was tired of being the one who had to watch my family disintegrate around me. Tired of bearing the weight of everyone else’s worries and fears, tired of answering questions about myself.
“Levi?” Tanner asked after a pause.
“Look, I’m sorry about what happened to James on my watch. He’s my defensive partner, and I should have paid more attention and not let him throw himself into harm’s way to defend me.”
“It's not me you need to apologize to,” I muttered.
Tanner was the only other person who knew what had gone down with me and James when we were teenagers on the cusp of new and exciting NHL careers, but I didn’t need an apology for Tanner fucking up and allowing James to get hurt.
“It was all my fault.” Tanner sounded so miserable, but he was right, at least he accepted that. “Now he’s out for God knows how long. The team hates me and —”
“I have my own problems,” I reminded him, my voice sounding husky even to my own ears.
He took a couple of steps toward me, his face scarlet. “Shit, I’m sorry, I know you do.”
“We always promised each other that if only one of us made it to the NHL, we’d fight enough for both of us. You’re breaking that promise, Tanner.”
“We were ten when we —”
“Don’t break the promise. With James out, my best guess is that they’ll pull up Lars Forsberg from the Rush to partner you for the Seattle game on the twenty-eighth. He’s just a kid, likes to get fancy with his moves, but he goes hard in the corners. He’ll be good for you. Promise me you’ll get your head out of your ass and, and you’ll work with him better than you did James.”
Tanner hunched, and after a momentary pause, he nodded his head. “I promise.”
“I’ll watch the game.” Unspoken was the hidden threat I would see what he was doing with his new D partner. “Don’t fuck up, okay?”
He nodded, but he looked so beaten down, and fuck, I loved my brother—I loved both of my brothers, the idiots. I knew what was happening to me was happening to them too, but I needed them to be different. I needed them to do all the things I couldn’t right now. That would be the best present of all. Tanner stepped forward and pulled me into a hug, and for a moment I just wanted to stand there and be held. But I extricated myself before the hug went on too long and I ended up staying on my parent’s driveway, and then we exchanged meaningful nods, filled with love, and support, and understanding.
“What do you want me to tell everyone?”
“That I just needed some time to decompress. That I’m fine. That I have my cell on me, and they can call me if they want any time of the day, but while I would love talking to them all, what I really want them to do is to give me space.”
“Got it.” He nodded. “Leave you alone.” At least he was smiling now, and maybe I should have been this honest with him six months ago, or a year ago, and then maybe he wouldn’t have got inside his head so badly, and maybe James wouldn’t have been hurt.
It’s not on me.
I climbed into my F40—a reminder of better times when the local dealership had cut a deal with a hot, rising tattooed bad-boy hockey star just signed with LA. I’d done their cheesy adverts, mentioned them in all my socials, and for that I had this beautiful truck, and it was all mine. I bet they didn’t even regret it, because the photo that accompanied the breaking news of my diagnosis with thyroid cancer was of me climbing into said truck outside the doctor’s office. For them it was a win-win, as the photo of me looking shocked and near-devastated, circled the web, with the dealership logo right by my shoulder.
The dealership sent me a pre-printed card of condolence.
It came with a voucher for a one-hundred-dollar engine check discount.
The joke was on them, because I’d spent the last year learning how to do stuff for myself—anything to take my mind off of the big C—and that included buying a program that did my engine diagnostics. In fact, I’d spent a shit ton of money this year on things that would give me complete independence from having to rely on anyone. Part of me wondered if maybe I was turning into an off-gridder as a defense mechanism, a way to stop people from being around me so that I had fewer faces up in my business. My counsellor was still working her way through that one.
Freud would have a field day in my brain.
The journey between my parents’ place and our cabin in Big Bear took just over two hours, and my phone hadn’t stopped buzzing. I only pulled over once at a convenience store outside of Big Bear, picking up enough snacks to last me for at least a day, until I could get groceries for real. I glanced at my phone, then before I could second-guess myself, I sent a generic reply to everybody, along with the usual Christmas greetings, pretending everything was okay.
The only message I didn’t look at was the one from team management, because I already knew they wanted an informal progress chat to discuss my future with the team. I’d been on long-term injured reserve for the end part of last season, and for the start of the new, but there was no point in me being there if I wasn’t going back.
Spoiler, I would not be able to go back. The team knew it, my doctors knew it. Now I needed a few days to come to terms with it myself before we filled in the paperwork and created a press release. Maybe I’d go into coaching, or maybe I’d find a way of moving forward in the world where hockey didn’t play a part. Who knew? Because I didn’t.
I silenced my phone, turned up the music, and kept on going.
The cabin was as I remembered it, and after I parked up, I sat in my truck, fingers laced on the steering wheel, gazing out at the extensive buildings and the trees behind. I had some wonderful memories of this place, with the small pond out the back, the shiny wooden floors perfect for sock hockey as a kid, and the big lake only a quick dash across a quiet road. We spent so many summers here as kids, and some Christmases when there was snow on the ground, and the tiny pond tried to freeze over.
It was quiet, and I felt a tug of something like peace.
“Okay, let’s do this thing,” I told my quiet phone, grabbed it and my bags from the trunk, and headed inside.
By the time it grew dark, I had the contents of my bag packed away in the bedroom I’d used as a kid. I’d had a shower, done all the usual staying-in-the-cabin checks, cleared out the back gutter that always got blocked by falling leaves, and then there was nothing else to do except sit and read or download a movie to watch, or maybe sit and think. Tension left me, one slow moment at a time, and finally I felt as if this might be the space where I could find my peace.
When I woke in a chilly front room, I was disorientated, startled, a dream where I was skating on an endless frozen lake, the windchill biting at my skin ending sharply.
A glance at my watch and I saw it was five a.m., but I didn’t know what had woken me so suddenly.
And then I heard it again, and my heart sank. Someone was at my fucking door, and I bet it was Tanner.
“Tanner! I swear to god if you’ve followed me here!”
Chapter 2 – James
Amazingly, or not, considering how loud any of the Bonetti boys were, I could clearly hear Levi bellowing at Tanner. Through the door. In one way it made me happy to hear that snark back in Levi’s voice. In another way it made me mad as I was standing out here in the snow and cold after a bouncy flight from the east coast followed by trying to find a rental car this close to Christmas while hobbling about in a snazzy boot. Since I was cold, tired, and the chipped bone in my ankle throbbed like a sore tooth, I slid into mad and used my single crutch to hammer on the door louder.
Levi threw the door open with a snarl. I tucked my crutch back under my arm as his face morphed from angry to shocked in a split second.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked as tiny white flakes fell from a thickening sky.
“Rude.” I nudged past him, my duffel on my shoulder, and gimped my way into the spacious cabin. “Dude, this place is freezing.”
“I just woke up. Give me a second.” He fumbled around, tossing a few round logs into the stove, then lighting it. The flames roared to life rather quickly and soon a snapping fire crackled in the wood stove. The inside of the cabin was solid wood, rustic beauty. Big glass windows, masculine decorations and themes from a mounted elk head on the wall to a chandelier make of antlers over the big dining room table with views out over a frozen lake. Outside the windows, snow drifted downward. I sighed at the warmth and the sight of a sectional sofa that called my name. Nothing like flying economy with a leg in a cast. Talk about ultimate comfort. “I know that your mother raised you with better manners.”
I threw him an over-the-shoulder glance before clumping down into the sunken living room. The door closed with a snick. Eyes on my surroundings, I made my way around a coffee table and dropped my bag on the couch before I peeled off my winter coat.
“Sorry, no, I just…” He ran a hand over his hair, mussing it terribly. That rumpled, just-out-of-bed look worked for Levi. In all honesty, I’d never seen a look that didn’t work for the man. Tall, dark, handsome, tatted. Yep. Give me a triple scoop of that deliciousness. “What are you doing here? I thought you were injured.”
I waved a hand at the boot on my left ankle.
“Ah, sure,” he mumbled, his nice little trip to the mountains to sulk—according to his brothers who would not lie to me because they knew I’d take them down and whale on them as I had done when we were all younger—had been interrupted. Too bad. So sad. Damn, my ankle ached. I really needed to get it up and take a few Advil. “Sorry about that. My brother should have had his head in the game. That’s on me.”
I flung my coat to the sofa, spun—or tried to spin, which was more of an awkward flail—and stared at him as if he had a salamander Mariachi band playing ‘El Son de la Negra’ atop his head.
“How, exactly, is that on you?” I asked, because I needed to know. I rested on my crutch, waiting for this stellar explanation. “Were you on the ice? Did you shoot the puck? Was it you who stuck his foot out to block the shot?”
“Well, no, but—”
“No buts, Levi, you had nothing to do with it. Shit happens. It’s hockey. I got injured. I’ll be back on the ice in four weeks. Stop carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Just tote your own burdens.”
He folded his arms over his chest, forearms bared to the elbow, showing off all that ink. If I’d not been so exhausted and achy, I’d drool. Which would be bad. We weren’t that. Not that I didn’t want to be that with him. We’d known each other for years. Billeted together as young teens. We sniped like brothers, but there had always been a spark between us on the ice and off. We’d been a little more than team mates back when we were billeting together. Again, that spark had brought us together as young adults, both of us queer, both hockey players, both horny as spring rams. We’d fooled around a bit. Lots of making out, frottage, a few hand jobs. And even though we were still lusting for each other, we decided we should cool it. A few close calls with our billeting family nearly catching us with our hands down each other’s pants and our tongues down each other’s throats scared us straight. Well, not really, but it scared us enough to pull back and focus on the sport. We lived in dread of being caught and having to come out in high school. No kid should be forced to come out before they’re ready.
He huffed. He did that when he was confronted with a solid practical statement of fact that went against whatever guilt train he was engineering. I liked the guy. A lot. More than I should, but I was too sore and weary to engage in all the angst.
“You’re such a dick,” he countered with which made me snicker despite myself. “Sit down before you fall over. I’ll make coffee.”
“Thanks.” I did as requested, dropping into the blue sectional like a stone, my grunt bouncing off the soft, buttery, oaken walls. “Why is this place so quiet?”
“Better to sulk,” he tossed out as he exited the living room to enter the kitchen.
“Are you sulking or are you examining life options? Your older brother said life options, your younger said sulking. Or was that the other way around?” I eased my leg up on the couch, scooting around to get my back against one arm. I left my other foot on the floor. I was too damned lazy to bend down to untie my hiking boot. I pulled a few throw pillows down from the other end of the sofa, then shoved one under my ankle and two behind me.
“I wish my family would stop calling you every time I get a hangnail,” he shouted from the kitchen, the smell of coffee brewing riding the warm air currents to tease my nose. God, I loved coffee. I would marry Juan Valdez if he were real.
“They know you won’t listen to anyone else,” I called back, easing down into the pillows behind me, the heat of the fire seeping into my bones.
“Did you bring any of those butter cookies your grandmother makes?”
“Maybe.” I sank deeper into the pillows, smiling at the mental image of my grandmother filling a tin of hato subare cookies for me to haul across the country to that poor sick Levi in California. I didn’t hold it against him for asking. My grandmother made the best cookies. Ever. I loved her dearly and visited her as often as my schedule allowed. She lived with my mother and father outside of Philly in the suburb of Warminster. She’d brought her baking skills with her when she had left Japan with my grandfather, a US serviceman who had helped to establish a base on Okinawa at the end of World War II, and had returned to America as his wife.
To say she faced some shit was putting it mildly, but they’d both given middle fingers to the haters and had set up a small TV repair business in Bucks County, which was a train ride away from East Passyunk where my grandfather had grown up. Grandpa had suspected that those newfangled television contraptions would be a big thing and someone would need to know how to repair them. Closing my eyes as my body finally unclenched, I drew in a deep breath, let it out, and let the memories of playing in Grandpa’s store as a little kid flow over me.
The brush of something on my face woke me up. I flapped a hand, my eyes blinking open, to find Levi standing over with a blanket in his hands. He tugged the plush green throw down a bit to ease the covering off my chin.
“Shit,” I grumbled, sitting up then glancing around. The room was the same, but the sun was now out. “I must have fallen asleep.”
“Yeah, you did. I was going to cover you up and let you sleep.” I squinted at the snowy windows. The sun off the snow was blinding.
I rubbed at my eyes with the tips of my fingers. “How long did I sleep?”
“A few hours.” He sat on the coffee table. Good thing it was a sturdy wooden one that was handcrafted from a slab of soft maple. Lord knows Levi and I were not tiny guys. The wood glowed in the dying firelight, as did Levi’s stunning eyes. “I drank your coffee.”
“S’kay,” I muttered, trying to shake the fog from my brain. “I didn’t mean to drop off. It’s been a day. Well, it’s been a couple of days. I guess I didn’t realize how stressed I was until I was somewhere peaceful.”
Levi nodded. He knew. He got it. This cabin in the woods had always been his escape. He’d talked about it when we were kids, then when we were reconnected after Tanner signed with the Railers. We’d been so close then we’d drifted apart and now we were reunited. And yeah, it felt pretty damn good. I’d never really gotten over him. Sure, there had been men and women who’d come into my bed, but none of them stuck. Not like Levi.
“Yeah, me and stress are old buddies,” he commented. It was made with a joking tone and a shrug, but I knew it was no joke. My friend had been through a shitstorm. Even now I could see the lingering effects of all those treatments. He looked good now, healthy, but there was a fragility he’d not had before. I think that dancing so close to something that was trying to kill him had given him a newfound sense of his own mortality. I mean, we’re young men in our prime. We think of ourselves as bulletproof. But when a silent menace like cancer rises in someone so young and strong… well, it knocks you off-balance. I know his diagnosis sure floored me. And yeah, it made me realize I wasn’t Superman. No bullets would bounce off my chest.
I took a chance and reached for his hand. His eyes flared. We’d not been touchy-feely since we’d reconnected. Deep down, I think we knew that if we started touching, that old flame would rekindle. But would that really be so bad?
“Tell me you’re here to get your head on straight and not to fall into any kind of depressive episode.”
“Like I can predict a depressive episode.” He shook his head in amusement. “You always were a dork.”
I flipped him off. “Sorry, I’m not really with it yet. I guess that was stupid.” I tossed my feet from the sofa, grimacing at the twinge when one ankle clonked into the other. “Ouch. Fuck.”
“You should take something for the pain then go to bed,” he said, worry marring his scruffy face. Damn, but he looked good unshaven. My beard was hit or miss, mostly miss. I’d been teased by Adler Lockhart about my skimpy playoff beard. So I’d colored in the splotchy parts with an eyebrow pencil I’d borrowed from Trent Hanson, a figure skater who was engaged to one of the Railers. That had made Lockhart howl in amusement.
“Yeah probably.” I shimmied to the end of the sofa. Levi handed me my crutch. “Nah, I’m shit at navigating steps with that thing.”
“You can sleep here,” he offered. “Its super comfortable.”
“Nope, I don’t want to interrupt your daytime TV viewing. I know you live for The View.” I pushed to my feet. My ankle disliked the pressure, and I eased off a bit, putting more weight on my uninjured side.
“Asshole,” he mumbled as he rose, his hands out to catch me if I fell. Levi was a sturdy guy, a hockey player, and even though he’d lost some weight, I had no doubts he could catch me if I lost my balance. “You know I’ve had a thing for Whoopi Goldberg ever since Sister Act.”
That made me snort. God, he had loved that damn movie. As teens, we’d watch it over and over and over until I demanded a turn picking something else. Like anything else! Nothing against Whoopie but a dude can only watch a movie about nuns for so long before the guilt started to seep in. And I wasn’t even Catholic, but I knew the ladies in the black and white suspected what me and Levi were getting up to when the lights went out.
I steadied myself with a hand on his shoulder. His fingers cradled my elbow. And there we stood, two dipshits, both hurting and healing, staring at each other as if we’d not seen the other person for centuries. I gave his shoulder a squeeze.
“You should think about calling your family. Reassure them you’re okay.” His dark eyes rolled. “I know, I know. It’s been all Bonetti all the time since you were diagnosed. But they love you, and they’re only worrying out of love.”
“I know. I do, I really know that. I just… needed some alone time. I have some life decisions ahead of me. I need to work through shit.” I tipped my head, trying to flesh out what was gnawing at him, but he shuttered down any hints that might have been in his eyes.
“I can leave.” It was a sincere offer. I’d arrived unannounced and, it seemed, unwanted, so I could drive my rental back to the airport and fly home. My folks would love to have me at the table for Christmas dinner. They’d been saddened by me leaving so suddenly. They understood my worry over Levi, but with the injury, they sensed I was down. Hell, maybe I needed to get away from Harrisburg for a little while. Perhaps that was why I’d leapt at the chance to fly out and come here. Sure, I could say it was for Levi, and it was, but there was also a part of me that was mourning a massive loss of ice time. I hated being hurt. All athletes do. It just chafes to have to sit and watch your team win or lose and not being out there to contribute.
“No, you really can’t.” He took my elbow, then slowly turned me towards the stairs leading to the second floor. “What you can do is pick a room and get some rest. You look like a dead carp.”
“Dude, that is so fishist,” I bantered back. He chuckled, the sound a warm and familiar one that lifted my dismal spirits a bit. Levi was good for me. He always had been. “I’ll take the room with the best view. Wake me up for lunch, okay? If I sleep all day, I’ll be up all night.”
“That would suck. What the hell would we do all night up here in the snow-covered wilds?” He looked at me with utter innocence, but I knew better.
Fucker. He had to say that. Now I’d be having dirty dreams about him and me naked on a bearskin rug. Not that the cabin even had a bearskin rug—none of the Bonettis hunted, to my knowledge. Alfie couldn’t even put a worm on a hook—but the fantasy would play out just the same. Maybe I’d take one of the stronger pain meds from the ER doctor instead of an Advil. Being knocked out would be preferable to trying to sleep with a boner.
Chapter 3 – Levi
The last person I wanted around me right now was James, with his casual comments, his jokes, and his beautiful eyes. I’d expected peace. In fact, I told both my brothers I wanted to be alone, yet somehow, it was James at my door, and it seemed he wasn’t leaving. I watched him hobble up the stairs, wondering what he’d say when he realized I’d already taken the best room—the one with the view over the lake? I wonder if he’d be grumpy, or he’d smile at seeing my things strewn around the room. I had packed nothing away—it was supposed to be my next job, but then sleep had happened.
“Now what?” I asked the logs crackling in the stove. I’d planned to read, catch up on movies, anything but thinking about James being in the house with me. I know he was here as a friend, someone shoved in my direction by my interfering brothers, but there was a reason I’d spent the last few years avoiding even thinking about him, let alone talking to him. The few times the LA Storm had met up with the Railers, we’d avoided each other with great care, although given he was my brother’s defense partner it was difficult to avoid him completely.
Like last January, the week before my diagnosis, the last few days before my world was turned upside down—the Railers had been in town. They’d taken the win, and I’d played like shit, unable to find my second wind, gassed, my legs heavy, exhausted, and that had been the first sign I was ill. I’d bowed out of the after-game dinner, citing a stomach upset, and I must have appeared bad because Coach sent me to the team doctor. The doc referred me for tests, but I’d thought nothing of it, and I’d attempted to act normal at the captain’s popular barbecue the next day. If normal meant I’d spent the entirety of it avoiding James. He’d looked so damn good in shorts and a see-through white shirt, and I couldn’t bear to see him when I felt so shit. Instead, I’d found a cool corner where I could sip water and commiserate with myself over why the fuck I was so out of shape. I’d worked my way through to analyzing the ratio of chicken to fish I’d eaten during the week, wondering if that had had an effect, when James had found me.
There was no flirting. Instead, he told me I’d played like shit, that I was slow, that I was pale—and before I could defend myself, he’d gone to a crouch next to me and asked me if I felt okay.
I’d lied then, and I lied again to him, plus my entire family, when I’d gotten the first test results. After that, when everybody had found out, he’d messaged me, and we’d exchanged a few texts, but I’d left him in no doubt that I didn’t want to see or talk to him, and I didn’t want his pity or fear. Hell, I had enough of that from my family. We’d made a promise way back that we’d stay away from each other, and I wasn’t breaking it for any reason just to find comfort in his arms.
That would have been more fucking dangerous than cancer.
But now he was here, in my space, and I didn’t know what to do. I traced the latest of my tattoos, a small bird flying from a cage, a testament to the desperate need in me to break free of the pain and medicines that left me tied to a dark place. It was right below the crossed sticks—my first ever tattoo, and gotten after James had dared me. I hated getting the marks on my skin for all of ten minutes, and then it had become my addiction, and I had nearly full sleeves, some on my throat down to my chest, and plans for a big tattoo on my back. I’d intended it to be a storm as a nod to the team I played for—the LA Storm—but also because the intensity of thunder, and the power of lightning, along with the steady fall of rain, was my happy place. The drawing the artist had made was amazing, designed to spread from one shoulder to another, dripping with raindrops to the swell of my ass.
I’d cancelled it all. And what was the point of acknowledging a team after they explained they needed me to consider my options?
What options? It was walk or be pushed. Hell, being traded wasn’t even on the table. Who wanted someone as out of shape as me, even if I’d had the all-clear I was still a pale shadow of what I’d been before.
“Jesus, Levi, get your head out of your ass.”
The snow had stopped; the temperature rising enough for me to bundle up in a coat and head out to the woods behind the house. With the electric saw in my hand, safety on, I trudged through the snow up the bank, and found the small stand of pine trees. It used to be that I was shorter than them. But the one I had my eye on a few inches shorter than me and would be a perfect fit in the corner of the front room. It took only a little maneuvering to cut the tree down, but it was a lot harder to drag it back to the house. By the time I reached the door, my breathing was shallow and my chest was tight. That was the worst part about this last year—I was used to being fit to where I could have run all day and not stopped, and then the big C happened, and my body had fought itself, and it sucked.
I shut the door behind me, propping the tree against the wall in the boot room, and eyeing it critically from my vantage point on the bench opposite. That was as far as I’d made it, and even though I really wanted a hot drink, it wasn’t a strong enough desire for to get me up and stumble into the kitchen, which was two entire rooms over. After what seemed like an eternity, I had some energy back, and I leaned the tree in the same place my parents had always used, then dragged out the decorations from the cupboard under the stairs. It didn’t take long to get the tree in the stand, or for the scent of pine to fill the area, and it brought back so many memories of Christmases I’d spent here—my moronic brothers doing idiot things, my parents kissing in the kitchen, gifts under the tree, even tobogganing down Tribbett Hill, which was only a short walk from here. I’d seen the toboggans in the garage, but the thought of putting myself in a position where all the delicate reconstruction in my body could be destroyed made me shudder. I wasn’t ready to take a risk everything for momentary excitement right now. I needed to be careful.
To stay safe in my world as I let myself come to terms with what I’d lost and how best to handle the rest of my life alone.
Hot chocolate to one side, I pulled out baubles and strings of glitter, handmade decorations from the three of us Bonetti boys, plus the hand-painted ceramics that Mom had created each year with our names and ages. It never failed to amaze me how bland my snowman or gingerbread painting was compared to Alfie and Tanner. Being the middle kid sucked sometimes—I wasn’t the cute baby brother like Tanner, or the confident big brother like Alfie—I was the one in the middle who fought for my place. I was still fighting now, only it wasn’t for extra cookies or stolen marshmallows. It was for a future that wasn’t anything like I had expected.
I couldn’t quite string the lights the way I wanted. It would have meant standing on a stool, and right now that wasn’t on my to-do list. Still, with James here, I could get him to do it before he left.
If he left.
The baubles and tinsel were nice though, and I sank into the sofa cushions and smiled. Texts and messages buzzed, and I didn’t have to look to know that it was Alfie and Tanner, checking up on whether James had made it. I sent both of them a series of emojis that would have left them in no doubt how pissed off I was that they’d arrange this. Alfie sent back a kiss, Tanner sent me a sad face, and then, to my relief, he added a middle finger emoji. From the two of them, it was Tanner who’d taken me being ill the hardest, and the result of his inattention on the ice was sleeping upstairs in one of the bedrooms. I felt guilty, whatever James said. After all, it was because of me that Tanner was so messed up, and now because he’d been covering Tanner’s back, James was out of the game for at least a month, I was sure.
I shook my head to clear the cobwebs of guilt and headed into the kitchen. It was just before one p.m. Snow clouds were gathering again and casting an eerie glow into the cabin, and I felt hungry. I guess the physical exercise of dragging the tree in had given me an appetite. Go figure. I wasn’t sure what I was going to make for me or my guest, but I had bread, peanut butter, and jelly, plus cocoa powder, and tiny marshmallows.
PB&J and a hot drink—the lunch of champions.
First, though, I felt compelled to check on James — he’d arrived and was clearly in a lot of pain, and I didn’t know what medication he was taking, nor did I know the extent of his injury, but whatever it was he was hurting. I wouldn’t be a good host if he was upstairs in pain, and I hadn’t helped. At least, that was the lie I told myself. Actually, I was curious to see where he was and I headed upstairs, listening for anything that might show which room he was in. True to form, when I followed his soft snores, there he was in the largest bedroom, the one with a view, sprawled on his back, all the things that I’d tossed on the bed shoved off onto the floor. The asshole had taken my bedroom.
Not only that, but he’d pushed his jeans off to pool at his feet, blocked by his boots which were on the white covers, and in just boxers and a worn Railers T-shirt, his package was right there, with his breathing peaceful and even. I noticed the stronger painkillers on his bedside cabinet, picked them up, seeing how heavy the bottle was, and knowing him so well I bet he hadn’t even taken one. That was confirmed when I saw the Advil on the other side, along with a glass of water. Typical hockey player, it didn’t matter how hurt we were, and it didn’t matter what we were prescribed, we would go a million miles out of our way to pretend nothing hurt.
Hell, that was exactly what I’d done for most of this year.
“You staring at me? Freak!” he muttered and turned his head to face me, blinking up at me, spaced out and smirking like a smirky thing.
“You’re in my room, asshole,” I snapped.
“I called dibs.”
“No, what you did was shove my stuff onto the floor. I was here first—this is my peace you’re fucking with, and I think you’ll find I called dibs.” It was a familiar argument from when we used to room together; he always wanted to bed I’d chosen, and we’d bickered like small kids, until I’d back down, at which point he then decided he didn’t want the bed at all. I think he just wanted to argue, as if he enjoyed the confrontation in which we would shove and push and wrestle for dominance. And if occasionally the wrestling turned to something more, with added kisses and orgasms, then for two horny teenage kids, that was kind of perfect.
“Wrestle me for it?” He chuckled and dared me to take him on with a flash of defiance in his eyes.
“What are we? Sixteen again? Get out of my fucking bed and sling your crusty ass in one of the others.”
“There’s nothing crusty about this,” he leered, and cupped his package theatrically, along with a dramatic gasp. Fuck. Then he moved as careful as he could with his injured leg and sighed. “I can’t get my jeans off.”
I was incandescent with rage. Either that or I was more turned on than I’d been in forever. I helped him off with his boot, and eased the jeans off, because I wasn’t an asshole, but I was still pissed. “Get out of my bed.”
“Nope, I like this one the best.” He windmilled his arms like he was making a snow angel before pulling another pillow over and plumping it and placing it under his head. My pillow—the ones I was supposed to be using tonight. I was so tempted to stuff the pillow over his face and hold tight. “So comfortable,” he muttered.
I probably had the upper hand right now; I might be weaker than I used to be, but I knew he couldn’t bear to be tickled, and I knew I had only to poke him where it hurt, and he’d be rolling off the bed in agony. I could win a fight with the big lug for the first time. Ever.
Instead, when exhaustion poked at me, I slapped his belly, which was rock hard. He winced and when he stretched, his T-shirt rode up to expose all that creamy skin, and I had my first sight of his happy trail in five years. He knew I was staring, and adjusted his cock in his jersey boxers again before winking at me.
“Why don’t you fix the quilt, and we could climb inside together and snuggle?” He waggled his eyebrows.
“I’m not snuggling with you. I have lunch, get your ass downstairs, and string the freaking lights for me.” It occurred to me that maybe he wouldn’t be able to get on the stool any more than I could, and maybe I should get over myself and balance to string the lights. I was tall—taller than that damn tree—so why was I even hesitating?
Before he could say anything, I turned and left the room, stepping over my possessions strewn on the floor and heading downstairs to the kitchen. I’d finished making both the PB and J’s, plus warmed milk for new hot chocolate, and I wasn’t staring at him as he hobbled into the room. Okay, so maybe there was a bit of staring, and some side-eyeing, maybe a bit of appreciation, but I wasn’t here to get carnal with the ghost of my past, I wasn’t ready to break all the blood oath promises that still made perfect sense today.
We want to be the best. We don’t have time to mess things up. We need to stay apart. No more kissing. No more blow jobs. And no interesting application of lube.
“Mmm, peanut butter,” James said, and helped himself to the nearest plate plus a mug of hot chocolate with their small floating islands of marshmallow. “Gotta love Christmas.” He took a sip of the chocolate and sighed dramatically. “Do you remember the night we camped out in the garden, and it was freezing cold, and the hot chocolate turn solid because we ignored it to kiss?”
“Fuck you,” I muttered. “You promised me you’d stay away. I promised you I’d stay away. So what the fuck are you doing here, getting up in my business, and trying to push old memories at me, that we promised we’d forget?”
He muttered something under his breath I didn’t catch, and then he took his plate and mug and headed for the sofa, coming to such an abrupt halt that I nearly walked into the back of him.
“What’s that?” He was incredulous.
I peered past him, wondering what had caught his attention. “Well, duh, it’s clearly a Christmas tree.
Placing his food and drink on the side table he then hobble-limped over to the sad tree in the corner, and ran his hand over the branch, smelling his fingers and sneezing—he’d always had this allergy to pine, but it usually subsided after the first day.
“This, my friend, is not a Christmas tree. It’s a sorry approximation of a Christmas tree. I mean, it’s crooked, and there are no lights.”
“I’m not getting up on a stool to feed lights around it,” I said, and the tone I used was one where I expected him to understand why was being careful.
Instead, he side-eyed me and rolled his eyes. “It won’t kill you to string some lights,” he muttered, then winced as he likely realized what he’d said—he seemed to do a lot of wincing at the moment, and I hated he was policing his normal speech because of me.
I hated everyone did it.
I just wanted people to be normal with me, but leave me alone.
Was that too much to ask? To feel normal, but alone and at peace?
“Okay then,” he announced. “Let me do it.”
I held the stepstool steady as he climbed on it, ended up face-to-face with his hockey ass, now covered in loose sweats, and wondering how it had come to this. He wobbled. I steadied him with my hands on his hips, but then he turned on the stool, and now instead of being face-to-face with his ass, I was this close to his cock. This close to everything I’d wanted for so long and had thrown away for reasons that made no sense.
“Little James missed you,” he teased.
My poor, sad cock rose to attention. “‘Little James’? For fuck’s sake, how old are you?”
“He’s missed you sooo much.”
Fuck. I’d seen nothing like action for god knows how long, and he was right there, inches away from me tasting. Why would I even do that? After all this time of avoiding each other, why would I chance everything in one stupid moment to destroy it all? There was a reason we’d backed off—he was way up in Pennsylvania; I was in L.A. We had careers. We had lives… and now I had nothing to give anyone, let alone James.
Wait. I’d had a career. I’d nearly lost my life. What was I doing? I couldn’t do this with him right now, not when I had my future in fractured pieces waiting for me to assemble them into something that made sense.
“Yeah,” he murmured, and pressed his hips forward. “You still want it.”
“What am I looking at?” I peered at his package like some myopic senior citizen. “Does someone have a magnifying glass?” Shit, why did I even say that? It was too much like flirting, and I wasn’t there to flirt with him, or suggest that it was appropriate for me to have a close look at his cock.
I could feel his gaze on me, and I knew if I glanced up, I would be consumed by the heat in his eyes. This was how it always went when we were together alone. He’d say something inappropriate, and I’d just… fall at his feet and beg to suck him.
My fingers were locked in place on his hips—holding him so he wouldn’t fall, or holding him still—I wish I knew.
I couldn’t have this—it wasn’t fair on him—he shouldn’t have to be saddled with all my issues, and the chances of cancer coming back and…
He hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his sweats, easing them down just a little so I could see more of his happy trail and the tip of his erection. This was everything I remembered — the scent of him, the size, the way the tip glistened with pre-cum, the way… shit… he was more of a man now, bigger, his stomach flat, and then, when I couldn’t stare anymore, I made the mistake of glancing up.
The expression darkening his eyes was one I was familiar with—something I craved at the darkest of times and on the brightest of snowy days.
Even if I’d promised myself I’d never do this again.
Maybe this could be a goodbye of sorts? One last time? For old time’s sake?
It didn’t have to mean anything.
Watch out for part 2 in Levi and James' story from VL Locey, vllocey.com