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Laura’s a cool girlfriend because she’s really hot and good at video games, but also because she’s super chill about it when Paul tells her that he made out with his teammate again on their last roadie.

“Was he a good kisser?” is all she says, not Paul, you asshole, or so are you gay now, or even any crying, which isn’t super great for Paul’s ego, upon further thought, but is still probably better than he expected.

“Why, do you want to kiss him?” he retorts.

Laura doesn’t even respond. Doesn’t even look away from the screen.

Paul sighs.

“Yeah, he was fine,” he says, reloading his ammo and charging after Laura’s avatar. “I figured you’d be more mad.”

Laura shrugs. “Are you mad I made out with Andrew?”

“Not adult braces Andrew, right?” Paul asks, making a face. Laura’s dating him, she has to have better taste than adult braces Andrew.

“Jesus, no,” Laura says, and she looks offended for the first time. “Short-shorts Andrew, obviously, Paul.”

“Well, how would I know?” Paul says, a little bit sulky, but he gets distracted pretty quick when they get ambushed, and then they win and high five; and then he gets re-distracted by thinking of short-shorts Andrew and his weirdly big thighs.

“Was he a good kisser?”

Laura glances at him and raises an eyebrow, clicking through the cutscene. “Why, do you want to kiss him?”

“Maybe I do,” Paul says.

Laura rolls her eyes, and-

See, thing is, if Paul was the kind of guy to self-reflect, he doesn’t think there’d be a ton to see.

That’s not a diss. He’s a pretty normal dude. More than pretty normal, when it comes to hockey players: grew up in a small town, helped his dad at the family business. Set the North-Western Ontario Minor Midget Hockey League on fire, enough to get drafted for juniors. Scouts call him stuff like a ‘bruiser’, which he doesn’t love, and ‘a character guy’, which he sort of does.

It’s like ticking off a checklist. He loves his mom, looks out for his little brothers. Hangs out with his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend whose dad happens to be Paul’s coach from peewee.

It’s normal, see. Really, truly, just normal.

Coach would probably not be psyched if he knew about the open thing Paul and Laura have going.

Or about how Paul has made out with three dudes in the past year.

Or how Paul owns a hoodie that says ‘heteroflexible’ because he thought it was funny and kind of accurate, or the Other Stuff, because there’s-

There’s a decent amount of Other Stuff.

But Laura rolls her eyes when he says that about kissing short-shorts Andrew, and Paul can’t tell if she believes him or not, but she also lets him tug her in for cuddles and possibly also sex, at some point, so it doesn’t really matter, he figures.

Stuff’s normal, mostly.

---

“Benny,” Paul says, when he gets back onto the bus for their first roadie after thanksgiving.

“’sup,” Ben says, and once Paul’s done messing up the hair of every guy he passes, they do their handshake, then Ben shuffles over so Paul can take the seat next to him. The bus is loud, guys catching up like it’s been months instead of three days that they haven’t seen each other. It’s fun. Nothing’s better than hanging with the boys, Paul doesn’t think. Four years here, an A on his jersey, shit still hasn’t gotten old.

Ben’s kind of scowling, but it’s normal Benny scowling instead of actually-upset Ben scowling, so Paul bites the bullet and brings it up, because he’s been kind of dwelling.

“So your tongue was in my mouth again,” he says; real casual, he thinks, only Ben just gives him this look, like really.

“Worst possible way you could’ve opened this conversation, you fuckin’ tire fire of a human,” Ben says.

Paul plows forward. “I didn’t hate it,” he says.

Ben snorts. “Yeah, I got that from when you screamed ‘Just kissed Benny!’ to the whole room after.”

Paul takes a moment to reflect on that – embarrassing, but he’s done way, way worse – and thinks Ben’s probably doing the same. Rum and Cokes, man. “Jeez.”

“Yep.” Ben’s not even looking at him anymore, digging in his pocket for his headphones and muttering a curse when he pulls them out tangled in a huge knot. It’s a ‘leave me alone’ if Paul’s ever seen one, but they’ve been friends for long enough that he knows that Benny knows he’s absolutely not going to, not when he’s got more shit to say.

“We were pretty drunk, eh?” he prompts, elbowing Ben, light.

“Oh, fuckin’ sloshed.” Ben agrees, and grins like he’s reminiscing, then meets Paul’s eye and leans back in his seat. “Don’t you dare kiss me this early in the morning.”

“Fuck you, I wasn’t going to!” Paul protests – he wasn’t! – but Benny looks skeptical.

“Kinda looked like it.”

“Chode,” Paul says, and Ben rolls his eyes, just keeps untangling his headphones.

It’s not enough. Like, Benny’s pretty chill usually, but Paul needs-

He doesn’t know.

He flicks at Ben’s ear, drags his hand along where his hair’s buzzed real short. “So you’re for sure bi, man, or like...”

Ben shrugs, ducking out from under Paul’s hand. “Y’know,” he says, which- no, Ben, Paul doesn’t fucking know, that’s why he’s asking, Jesus god.

He’s pretty sure Benny’s bi. They all met his ex-boyfriend after a game last year. All had to deal with three entire months of Benny being a complete dickheaded jerk when him and Kev broke up. So Paul knows, pretty much. It would still be nice to- to hear it. Get some confirmation, or something.

Ben’s still going. “Doesn’t really matter? Not like I’m the only guy you’ve kissed.”

Paul shrugs. Ben takes it the wrong way.

“Holy shit,” Benny says, mouth dropping open. “Was I your, like, queer awakening? This is fuckin’ great, am I that good at kissing?” He looks as happy as Paul’s ever seen him.

“You wish, asshole,” Paul retorts, because he has some dignity, thanks. “And, like. No, for the record. You aren’t the only dude I’ve kissed.”

It’s not a big deal, like, universally, but it still kind of feels like a big deal to say out loud for the first time. Benny just rolls with it, because he’s a decent guy like that. “Cool,” he says. “So you’re bi, too, then?”

Paul shrugs again. “Y’know.”

It’s not-

Bi sounds right. It does, honestly, he just isn’t sure it’s quite everything, because there’s still the Other Stuff, and thinking about the Other Stuff makes Paul’s heart rate pick up, and he’s not even entirely sure he can do the Other Stuff and still be bi, and he’s not about dealing with emotional crises for a six hour bus ride, so he steals one of Ben’s headphones and settles back into his seat.

Listening to Benny’s hipster rock helps enough that, by the time they’re leaving the city limits and all the rookies are bickering over what movie to watch, he can ask, mostly joking, “Does this mean I have to get rid of my ‘heteroflexible’ sweater?”

Ben scoffs, but kind of fondly. “What, I’m the bi police now?” he asks. “The sweater’s pretty stupid anyways.”

“It absolutely isn’t,” Paul says, indignant. “You’re just jealous because I’m a Leaf.”

“Okay, one, you got drafted by the Leafs, that doesn’t mean anything,” Ben says, and it’s bullshit, of course. Benny got drafted by Minnesota, Paul knows for a goddamn fact that he’s jealous. “Two, fuck right off.”

See? Jealous.

He gets Benny in a headlock, because that’s what they do. It kind of picks up, both of them laughing and grappling around until Coach Bennet has to yell at them to sit down, and Channer’s throwing them dirty looks over the back of his seat like they’re disrupting him doing his homework on purpose, and it’s good, like being home.

---

It’s early enough in the season that there’s still a lot to get used to. It goes well, mostly. Paul and Chris are finally starting to gel as lineys, and yeah, they lose to the Knights, because fuck the Knights, but the rest of the roadie is good and then they’re at home for five straight.

Paul helps rake the leaves with his billet sister, chokes down his nasty-healthy protein shakes. Calls his mom every day and lets her fuss over him.

He keeps waiting to have, like, a gay panic, but it never really comes. He can deal with being bisexual, he thinks. It makes sense. Like- he’s pretty down to fool around with anyone, theoretically and also practically, because he trades platonic handies with Benny on Friday then super non-platonically sexts with Laura on Monday, and neither thing is better than the other, just good in different ways.

He keeps the ‘heteroflexible’ hoodie. It’s a sick hoodie.

He tells his parents, and they’re fine with it; then Laura maybe a week later, just drops it nice and casual while they’re spamming each other with memes, hey im bi btw. She just replies cool, and it’s probably lame that it, like, warms Paul’s heart, but it does, so he sends a heart emoji and babeeee; smiles at his phone when he gets ur a dork back.

They lose to Hamilton, crush the Otters. Normal stuff, and it stays normal right all the way to November, when they finally have a Friday night without a game the next day and Coop’s girlfriend’s parents are out of town, which means pretty much the whole team ends up bussing to her place.

The party’s already going full swing when they arrive. Mostly college kids, all mature and whatever, but being maybe-almost-someday pro athletes is cool enough that Paul’s got a beer in his hand before he even has to ask.

It’s decent, as far as parties go. Paul has fun, because he has fun pretty much everywhere. He laughs at all the guys still in school getting hammered off, like, two Natty Lights and strutting around trying to impress the local girls; dominates at pong with some guy in a Bruins t-shirt, then spends a solid forty minutes bickering with the same guy about supporting the fucking Bruins, because really.

Bruins guy turns out to be pretty cool, aside from the obvious, and he kind of trails along with Paul when they get their refills and wander toward the noise of the living room. And, like, ‘noise’ is an understatement, here: there’s a group of people up at the front of the room screech-singing Celine Dion into these little plastic mics.

“Oh my god, they’re doing karaoke,” Bruins guy says, rolling his eyes. “So lame, right?”

“Very,” Paul agrees. “Excuse me.”

Turns out, Paul is pleased to learn, that his rendition of Baby One More Time still brings the house down. The key is how he takes his shirt off for the last chorus, he thinks. Fuckin’- asset management, or whatever.

“You’re a child,” Coop says, when Paul collapses onto the nearest couch next to him and his girlfriend. “An actual shameless child.”

Paul got three phone numbers and approximately a million high fives on the way here, so he feels justified ignoring him.

Rose tucks her legs up under her to make room, all giggly. “You’re still my favourite, Paul.”

Paul offers the best sitting-down bow he can. “You’re still amazingly out of Cooper’s league, Rose,” he says, and Rose laughs while Coop flips him off good-naturedly and gets an arm around her.

All their knees are already touching, but they have to budge up even closer together when Ben hurtles the back of the couch to land halfway on top of Paul.

“Bro,” Paul says, appreciative, because he’s drunk enough that clearing a couch seems like a pretty incredible gymnastic feat.

“Bro,” Benny agrees, dragging a hand along the top of his head. Hammered, utterly hammered. “Daryl puked in the tub.”

“Not even a little bit my problem,” Paul says, and wrinkles his nose. “Also, nasty.”

“Way to be responsible, Cap,” Cooper snarks, and Paul just snorts a laugh, ignores the little part of him that takes it personal. Daryl’s seventeen, not five, it’s not his problem.

“Assistant Cap, to you,” is all he says, grinning. Benny laughs, which- it wasn’t actually that funny, and he wouldn’t be that supportive sober, but Paul appreciates it anyways.

“Tell your teammate that better be cleaned up before my parents are back,” Rose is threatening, utterly missing whatever tiny moment of tension just happened. “I mean it, Evan.”

They don’t even get a chance to roast Coop for his girlfriend calling him Evan, because one of Rose’s friends swoops in and perches on her lap, and the couch goes from too crowded to figuratively and also literally suffocating.

“Rosieee,” she says, flinging her arms around Rose. “I’m bored.”

“Hi bored, I’m Paul,” Paul says, pushing new girl’s hair out of the way so it won’t go in his mouth. Benny cuffs him on the back of the head, but the others ignore him, and new girl flips her hair right back into his face.

“How can you be bored at a house full of people, Liz?” Rose asks, exasperated.

“Ask Pauly to do his thing,” Coop suggests, and Paul’s heart does that weird little skip thing again, then Benny immediately perks up.

Yes, holy shit!” He hits the arm of the couch, craning his neck to look around. “Speersy! Find us a skirt!”

“Wait, what’s his thing?” Rose asks, looking around all confused, and Coop answers before Paul can.

“Get ready, it’s hilarious.”

And, like, the thing is, about the Other Stuff, is Coop’s not wrong. Paul knows he’s funny under regular circumstances, and like, get him in a dress and a wig and everyone’s eyes on him, he’s fucking amazing.

He’s done it a couple times. At first only when he was totally wasted, eventually just when the guys ask. The dressing up is a fun thing, always has been, and tonight’s no exception. Paul really hams it up, strutting around and shaking his ass and getting all up in Benny’s lap, the kind of dumb bro flirting that people eat up, and Paul can’t help but kind of get lost in it, and she-

Paul falters, stumbles over the words for just a second before getting back on track.

No one even notices.

The skirt’s too small, tight around his ass.

The thing about the Other Stuff is that it’s a joke, mostly, until it’s not.

---

Paul’s fallen in love three times, his whole life. The most recent was Laura, and the first was hockey, but the middle one, the Other Stuff one, the one no one else really knows about, happened because a video of a drag queen was trending on YouTube and Paul clicked it.

The internet is cool, for that kind of thing.

Paul was maybe like ten years old when he watched that video, and then a bunch more. A lot of it was really mainstream drag at first, like, RuPaul or whoever, and then he finished all of those and got to the other videos, the ones not always in HD or with the noise of the audience cheering and clapping and whatever, but a million times more real.

Some of the queens were really pretty, like, stunning, but Paul’s favourites were – still are – the funny ones. He’d get home from practice and watch again and again ‘til he could do their routines along with them, and he’d stare at the way their legs looked in heels for probably hours, just like. Enthralled.

Paul fell hard.

He gets that drag’s a thing that doesn’t quite mesh, with hockey. Not that it couldn’t, he doesn’t think, ‘cause the guys have always been decent enough when Paul does his thing, just. There’s kind of a line somewhere, a line made of ‘just joking’ and tradition and manly stuff Paul isn’t sure he wants to cross.

He realized he had a real shot at playing pro hockey when he was fourteen. By that point, he was kind of a pro at balancing stuff. He got the C on his jersey, enjoyed that small-town fame that comes with being part of a winning team. Kissed a guy on a dare. Read online forums and watched makeup tutorials and thought about what he’d call himself, if he did drag.

He always got stuck on that part. Couldn’t get past Paul.

The people on the message boards were really nice and encouraging. Only so many videos you can watch, they’d say when the millionth nervous observer would ask how to get started. Best way to learn is to go out and do it, girl!

Easier said than done, in Paul’s opinion.

And he’s not a nervous dude, nothing close, but he feels nervous when he thinks about going out and being one of the people in the videos. Not in a joking party way, for real.

Not bad nervous, just. Jumpy.

It’s a big deal, he thinks, and it’s not because he thinks drag is scary, because he doesn’t, it makes sense like hardly anything makes sense to him, just-

The drag stuff stopped being a joke a while back, probably.

---

Paul doesn’t own any makeup, and he stands in the aisle at Shoppers staring at mascara for a solid fifteen minutes before the saleslady asks if he needs help. He wimps out and tells her he’s looking for the shampoo, like a dumbass.

So no makeup, then, and none of his friends either, ‘cause this is something Paul’s got to do himself. He’s got it all figured out: he waits ‘til the team’s got two days off in a row, tells his billet parents he’s sleeping over at Benny’s and gets permission to use the car, then drives an hour and a half to the gay bar in London that’s hosting a drag night.

He stands outside the door for ages.

He’s not nervous. Paul never gets nervous, never gets shy, just. There’s a difference between being a bi person who occasionally cross-dresses at parties and being a bi person who like, actively Does Drag.

He’d maybe stand there all night, shivering in the cold in a skirt too short for him, but then he hears voices coming up behind him, more people showing up for the event, and Paul turns around and it’s like he hears fucking angel choirs or something.

He’s never seen people in drag in real life. It’s this weirdly surreal moment, where he knows he’s staring but can’t make himself stop. He’s suddenly very aware of himself standing here in cheap clothes, no makeup or wig or anything, next to two drag queens who look like actual, real-life drag queens, like, ridiculously gorgeous and confident and comfortable in their skin. And, like, obviously Paul knew they existed, but they’re here right in front of him, and he’s here too-

“...Hi?” One of them says, really confused, because yeah, Paul’s been staring for a while. “Are you like, the bouncer, or...”

“Oh!” Paul leaps out of the way of the door. “No, I- sorry, no, I’m actually here for the-” he gestures at them, then at himself. “Like, obviously I don’t look, like. Y’know. I mostly do sports?”

The one who spoke elbows the other one, not even a little bit subtly, and she sort of looks like she’s trying not to laugh, but her friend smiles at Paul, all kind.

“You want to walk in with us?” she offers, and Paul, like, audibly exhales.

“Yes please,” Paul says, and holds his hand out to shake. “I’m Paul, by the way.”

“Charlotte,” the friendly queen shakes his hand. “Charlotte Webb.”

“Like the pig book?” Paul asks without thinking, and he realizes too late that that was probably mildly offensive, but the other two just laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world, and Charlotte’s friend claps her hands.

“I fucking told you,” she says to Charlotte, delighted. “No one thinks of the spider-”

“I think of the spider!” Charlotte protests, laughing, and Paul gets the feeling this is an argument they’ve had before. “It’s sexy!”

Paul grins, tentative, and Charlotte just links her arm with his and pushes open the door before he has a chance to get nervous again.

The place isn’t particularly full. Paul’s been to busier house parties, even, but there’s a decent amount of people chatting in groups, a couple girls laughing it up with the bartender. Music playing, nice and loud.

Charlotte looks around, seems to find someone she recognizes, then tugs Paul over to join the group of people chatting. “Ladies, this is Paul, it’s her first time-”

The group looks at him, and it’s all friendly smiles and exclamations, but Paul blanches at the ‘her’, barely even hears anything the rest of them say.

It’s like- his brain’s doing two things at once, ‘cause on the one hand this is what he wanted, why he drove all the way out here; but on the other hand, on a bunch of other hands, all he can imagine is his dad’s face if he heard people calling Paul ‘she’, the kind of politely confused eyebrow raise like he’s waiting to be brought in on the joke. Only this stuff isn’t Other Stuff here; it’s not a joke, not for anyone here, and it doesn’t feel like a joke for Paul, and he’s just-

She’s just-

“Sorry,” Paul says, “I just need to-”

He, like, sprints out of the place. Doesn’t even get a drink or anything.

He was inside for all of thirty seconds.

He’s such a dumbass.

He feels all weird and tense the whole drive home, takes ‘til he’s almost in his billet’s driveway before he remembers he’s supposed to be sleeping at Benny’s, which he obviously isn’t, and he can’t show up there now, close to one in the morning.

He ends up parking in a Loblaws parking lot, leaning the seat back as far as it’ll go so he can try to sleep, because he didn’t actually plan this far, because again, dumbass.

Almost three hours driving, and he wimped out.

Paul covers his eyes, breathes out, long and a little shaky.

“It’s her first time,” Charlotte said. Her, her, her.

Paul really, really liked it.

---

The good thing about the season getting into full swing is that Paul doesn’t have a ton of time to think. He- like, it’s cool, internet drag stuff got him to this point, it can get him through now, and he steadily ignores the little part of his brain that insists he’s missing out on something.

They win five of six going into the holidays, and Paul gets home with two days break before Christmas. He helps his brothers decorate the tree, has to wrestle both of them when they make fun of him for the ornament with the picture of him dressed as an elf when he was two. Just chills and plays video games, mostly. He finds a book called ‘How To Support Your Bisexual Child’ in a pile of his mom’s stuff, so coming out to his parents went about as well as he could’ve expected.

Stuff’s fine. Normal.

Boxing Day, he gets on his boots and gloves and treks the fifteen minutes out of town to Laura’s place for dinner with her family.

‘Town’ is maybe relative. It’s two restaurants, a grocery store, a church, and the arena. They all had to bus to school. Paul thought Sarnia was a big city, when he first got to the O.

Mrs. Carson gives him a big hug when she opens the door, and Coach drags him into a firm handshake.

“I caught those last couple games,” he says, approving. “Really starting to use that body, huh?”

“Hey, you taught me everything I know, Coach,” Paul jokes, gamely enough, and Coach laughs.

“’Atta boy,” he grins. “You hang on to this one, eh, Laura?”

“Thanks, dad,” Laura says, dry, but she’s smiling when Paul leans down to kiss her cheek.

Paul eats probably way too much dinner, three helpings of leftover stuffing. Totally worth the extra gym time, hundred percent. He does the small talk thing with Laura’s parents as they eat, keeps the word ‘bisexual’ firmly out of the conversation ‘til he and Laura can escape downstairs to play video games.

They kill hours like that, the way they always have, sprawled out together and giving each other shit when they make some dumb mistake ‘til Laura’s mom drops off extra blankets and a pillow for Paul, rattles around pointedly upstairs until Laura sighs and goes up to her room.

Paul makes up the couch for himself, plays on his phone ‘til the house is quiet, then Laura texts him the okay and he sneaks upstairs, skipping over the creaky step that got them grounded in high school.

“Hey,” he says, really quiet, once they’re both in Laura’s bed. “Merry Christmas.”

“You’re late,” Laura whispers back, and Paul could look at the glint in her eye for a million years and not get sick of it, but that’s not really an option, so he just kisses her as good as he can, the next best thing. He knows what she likes, at this point, how to touch her ‘til she’s shaking under his hand, breath catching in her throat.

“Too much, do you, do you-” she orders, all overwhelmed and flushed, and Paul grins, presses a kiss to her shoulder. He’s pretty close just from making out and he doesn’t last long before he’s picking up the pace, pressing his face into the pillow so he won’t make noise. Laura swats his hand away, takes over and gets him off painfully slow, teasing; kisses Paul through it when he comes.

It’s nice. Nothing fancy, not this late and not when they have to be this quiet, but still good, and they lie there for a while, just cuddled up together, this close, intimate thing. Laura yawns, tucks her toes between Paul’s legs. She’s always sleepy, after.

Paul mops himself up with Kleenex, wriggles out of bed. “Babe,” he whispers. “I’m gonna go piss.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” Laura deadpans, except it’s mostly just mumbled because she’s pretty much asleep. Paul flips her off, gets a tired laugh in return, then tucks the covers up a little more around her as her eyes flutter shut. She looks really cute when she sleeps. Which- yeah, so do deadly lions, probably. Still. Her face goes all soft. Gentle, almost.

Paul loves her a whole fucking lot.

He feels his way out of the room; stubs his toe on the dresser along the way and has to bite back a curse. The hallway’s easier, just carpet, and he makes his way to the bathroom, shuts the door and fumbles for the light switch in the dark.

It’s kind of a mess, Laura’s makeup and toothbrush and the little plastic case that holds her retainer all scattered across the counter, a pile of clothes by the shower. The kind of untidy that’d make Paul’s mom tsk disapprovingly.

He finds himself staring at the makeup, right all the way through ‘til he’s washing his hands. There’s a lot of it.

Only so many videos you can watch, someone said on one of the message boards, and the whole house is dead quiet. He can hear Coach snoring.

Only so many videos you can watch.

So. Paul puts on lipstick.

It doesn’t feel like a big thing at all, just easy. He only remembers after that that’s the wrong order to do stuff in, that it’s supposed to be face then lips. Still. He doesn’t hate how his mouth looks, all coloured and standing out more than it usually does.

It really doesn’t look terrible, Paul thinks, through butterflies in his stomach. It’s like- it’s this weird adrenaline rush, something thrilling, and there’s still all the other stuff on the counter, and he just. Doesn’t stop.

It’s harder than it looks in the tutorials, remembering how he’s supposed to do everything, and even when he remembers, it doesn’t look like how it did in the videos. Probably something to do with it being mostly drugstore makeup instead of the heavy duty drag stuff. Still fun to play around with.

Paul’s got, like, a decent amount of stuff done when he starts trying to do his eyes. It promptly goes to shit, then, because he stabs himself in the eye with the little mascara brush and he’s squinting, his eye watering as he tries to find a towel or something, and then the door’s creaking open.

“I forgot my re-” Laura starts, mid-yawn, and then she freezes in the doorway, and Paul freezes where he’s standing, and they’re just staring at each other.

Shit.

Paul’s never been speechless, before. First time for everything.

“If you fucked up my mascara brush I’m going to be pissed,” Laura snarks, then clamps her mouth shut and kind of winces. The snark was possibly kind of a nervous reflex. Paul doesn’t blame her.

“I didn’t,” he says, when he can get his mouth to work. “I...”

He trails off. He doesn’t know where the fuck he goes from here, and judging by the look on Laura’s face, she doesn’t either.

“If this is where we have an emotional conversation about you being trans, I might need a second to like, wake up,” she says, closing the door behind her, really careful. It sounds like a question.

“Um,” Paul says, and if there was any chance of brushing this thing off as some weird joke, the look on his face must be enough of a doozy to get rid of it because Laura just sits straight down on the bath mat and drags a hand through her hair like standing up is a big ask right now.

Paul sits down across from her, cross-legged so there’s space between them. He swears to god he can feel every, like, speck of makeup on his face, like a fucking beacon.

It takes a while for Laura to ask. “Are you?”

“No,” Paul says, fast. And it’s not a lie, but he’s not done yet. He talks without knowing what he’s going to say. “But I’m not- like, I don’t feel like a girl all the time, I just- I don’t not, sometimes? Like- drag?”

“Okay,” Laura says, and it comes out really unsure, and Paul’s fucking this up, he’s not doing this right.

“I-” he tries, and it comes out all shaky. “I just like it, Laur.”

He feels like crying. It’s not enough, he’s not- she won’t get it, like this. He feels stupid, and, like, humiliated, sitting there on the bathroom floor in his girlfriend’s lipstick and foundation too light for him. He reaches up to try and smudge it off, pressing hard.

Laura grabs his hand, pulling it away from his face. “Stop, that only works in movies,” she says, and it’s the most normal she’s sounded this whole time. “You need makeup remover.”

“Fuck,” Paul says, baffled, because yeah, the YouTube people used wipes and shit, but he figured that was an extra bonus step. “I can’t do the Mulan thing?”

Laura shakes her head.

“Well, shit,” Paul says, and Laura does this weird, nervous laugh that he can’t help but copy, only it fades real fast.

He wipes at his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m such a fucking loser.”

“I wouldn’t be dating you if you were a loser,” Laura says. She doesn’t even hesitate.

Paul knows she probably means it, is the thing. That time they had a fight in high school she dated the captain of the school soccer team for two weeks, and her boyfriend before Paul was some rich European from the boarding school half an hour away. Her being out of his league and Paul loving her more than she loves him is just kind of inevitable, he figures, and he’s always been cool with that.

That’s probably why he’s so thrown for a loop when Laura reaches out and gets a hand on his cheek, gentle as anything, tilting his head so he’ll meet her eyes.

“You look really hot,” she says. “Okay?”

Paul nods, after a second.

He- like, he knows he doesn’t actually look hot right now, because he’s never done makeup before and it’s close to three in the morning, but Laura’s looking at him the same as she always has, like she sees something there she likes, and that means just about everything, now.

It’s this weird, tender moment, and it’s over just as soon as it begins. Laura leans on his knee to get up, rummaging through the stuff on the counter to get him something to remove the makeup. Paul takes a second, then gets up as well. It’s cramped, both of them standing in the tiny bathroom. They’re real close together, almost touching, and neither moves out of the way.

They get set for bed together. Paul’s face is all red from scrubbing at it with makeup wipes, and Laura kind of lisps when she talks, once she has her retainer in. Things still feel a little uncertain, something out there that wasn’t before, but Laura trails him down the stairs, squishes up next to him on the couch to sleep.

Paul gets an arm around her, tentative.

“You still want to date,” he says, just to confirm.

“Do you?” Laura asks.

“Yeah,” he says, because it’s the truth.

“Cool,” Laura says.

“Cool,” Paul whispers, after a second.

He exhales.

---

It’s nearly a month before the game schedule lines up with another drag event, but this time, Paul shows up with actual makeup on, gets checked out at least once when he walks across the room, and spends maybe half the event staring at himself in the bathroom mirror and sending selfies to Laura, because he looks like someone who could actually belong here.

“Paul,” he says, when someone asks his name. “You can say ‘she’.”

And she feels fucking awesome.

---

Later part of the season’s a fucking roller coaster. The good kind, the kind that only goes up.

Makeup’s the sort of thing that gets easier with practice. Not that different from hockey, actually, ‘cause it’s mostly muscle memory, trying to get faster and more confident. Paul does drag stuff whenever he gets the chance. She actually gets chatted up, like, more than once at a bunch of them; has a ton more non-flirty but still fun conversations with everyone there.

It just- it makes sense. Paul’s always been sort of larger than life and it works here, like something that was always supposed to fit. She does her Baby One More Time, really gets into it, and gets a room full of people laughing and cheering her along. It’s the best feeling in the world.

‘Course, free time kind of disappears, down the stretch. Coaching staff pushes the guys hard, and Paul still doesn’t think the A on his jersey is the Commander In Chief thing that some of the guys seem to think it is, but it does mean something, so he goes hard every shift, fits in drag stuff in around games and practices.

It’s not, like. One big moment when he tells the boys. Just the kind of thing that gradually gets out, them spending all their time together. Most of them have seen him do it before, one way or another. No one’s really surprised.

Well, Chris is surprised, blinking when Paul mentions everything and saying “Wait, Paul does drag?”; all confused because that’s what he gets for not going out with the boys, but other than Chris, no one’s surprised.

“So you do this as like, an actual thing,” Benny says, when they’re showering after practice, like he’s clarifying. “Not a joke.”

“Not a joke,” Paul confirms. “Can I use your soap?”

Ben tosses it over. “Sorry I joked about it,” he says, real sincere.

“What am I, the drag police?” Paul asks, teasing so Benny’ll know they’re cool – they’re the first seed in the playoffs, Paul knows his priorities.

It’s a bigger deal when other people find out. Matter of time, probably, then someone makes the connection between Paul and the drag performer in everyone’s stories after they sweep the Storm, and-

Yeah, turns out some people are surprised.

Paul didn’t expect it to be as much news as it is, spends ages kind of just scrolling through Twtitter and seeing what people are saying, fascinated. There’re a lot of huge dramatic declarations of either support or people being shitty, which are entertaining. A bunch of wannabe comedians saying stuff like how is his makeup better than mine and gonna be the first girl in the nhl, which are kind of uncomfy but not terrible-terrible; then one that sticks in his head, do u think his girlfriend knew?

Paul doesn’t know why he remembers that one, exactly, but he does.

He never responds, not even to the nice ones. Not his fucking job. Like he said: roller coaster, only going up.

---

It takes Paul a solid week to hear properly again after he gets crushed under the dogpile when they win the league. Turns out twenty giant dudes screaming at the top of their lungs have approximately the volume of a jet plane – who’d have known?

Worth it, though, totally fucking worth it.

Laura and Benny team up and roast him about his kissing skills, and he helps Coop do what is potentially the most epic goalie kegstand in the history of junior hockey, and even Channer comes out and hugs Paul back when Paul hugs him for maybe the tenth time that night, because Paul has two arms and a fuckton of love for his lineys and his team and everyone in his immediate vicinity.

Fuck, winning feels good.

They all drag themselves out of bed a couple days later, scramble to figure out who’s got the trophy – the coaches, thank god for adult supervision – and traipse down to the arena for end-of-season interviews and locker cleanout.

Interviews are pretty chill. They ask if Paul’s wig from his last insta post was in Leafs colours on purpose – it totally fucking is – then if he’s okay after getting ran into the boards in Game Six – yes, even though his entire side is black and blue – then:

‘How has life been, since you came out?”

“Uh,” Paul scratches the back of his neck, glancing over at where Ben’s chatting with the coaches, only half-paying attention. “I was never really in?”

“Are you going to be attending Pride in Toronto?”

Paul almost laughs. “Summer’s usually for chilling at home, so. Doubtful.”

The interviewer kind of raises an eyebrow, and Paul doesn’t really get that reaction, but. Whatever.

“Did your old girlfriend respond well to the sort of hectic season you’ve had?”

That one catches Paul off guard. “She’s not- Laura’s still my girlfriend?”

“Oh,” the interviewer says, and he looks downright surprised now, nothing subtle about it. “That’s- that’s good.”

And, see, Paul’s not the kind of guy to get annoyed at stuff, and he’s even more not the kind of guy to stay annoyed at stuff, but it’s just like- Laura was on the ice when they got the trophy, just like every other girlfriend and significant other. Only difference is Paul’s drag, which-

Look, he gets that it’s unusual that he’s dating a girl. Not, like, unheard of, but mostly every other person Paul meets at drag stuff has been totally gay, and that’s cool and all, but Paul just isn’t.

It just sucks that people assume shit. Like, he does drag and he’s bi, so fucking what. He doesn’t need people questioning shit about him. Fuck knows he does enough of that himself, recently.

He wonders if people ask Laura these types of questions.

“Yo, Pauly!” Daryl calls from across the room. “Get ready, we’re all going to my pool!”

Paul snaps himself out of his funk, gives a little salute.

He doesn’t dwell.

---

Weather’s really warm, for June. Paul graduated last year, so he doesn’t even have exams or anything to worry about, can spend his afternoons playing water guns with the twins, leaping commando-style around the backyard and generally being the coolest big brother ever; his nights watching movies or trying and failing not to let Laura kick his ass at COD.

He works with his dad in the garage; texts Benny a bunch on his breaks and listens to him bitch about the heat and the latest girl he’s fallen in love with and other dumb Benny stuff, rants right back to him about finally mastering the smokey eye and the new stick he got and other dumb Paul stuff. He attends the Leafs’ prospect camp, too. Ends up one of the older guys there, but he thinks he’s got a decent chance going into actual camp in September.

Summer rolls along, days stretching out long and full ‘til he’s all freckled from the sun.

They do a big Sunday dinner for Canada Day, barbequing and listening to the first stray fireworks while they eat out on the deck.

Paul just sits back and enjoys the food, listens to his mom fussing about how skinny he is – “I swear, munchkin, I’m moving down there to feed you myself” – the twins bickering about who’s going to finish with the highest mark in their math class. It’s a sleepy kind of familiar, the kind of thing he took for granted before moving away from home.

“I was thinking we’d go for a drive into the city, they’re doing a big fireworks show at the park,” his mom brings up, eventually. “There’s cake and everything.”

“I’ll probably pass,” Paul says. “Laura was gonna come over to try the new Tomb Raider DLC later.”

“Oh,” his mom says, real polite, the way she usually gets when Laura’s brought up. She’s never really liked her, just the dumb reputation stuff that gets spread around in a small town. “You two are still friends?”

Paul shovels salad into his mouth, kind of laughs. “I mean, we’re dating, so. Yeah?”

“Don’t you like, dress like a girl now?” Jonah asks, conversational, spearing a piece of pepper with his fork.

“So what?” Paul asks. He’s not- they haven’t really talked about his drag stuff. “That doesn’t affect anything.”

“I would think it might,” his mom says, real curt. “I’d think that your girlfriend would maybe have some opinions-”

The way she says that. It’s different from her usual disapproving Laura voice. “What does that mean?” Paul asks, this bad feeling dawning on him.

“Chicken, please,” his dad says, too loud, reaching out for someone to hand him the plate. They all ignore him.

“Don’t lead that girl on, Paul,” his mom says, and Paul could almost laugh, because now, now she decides she’s going to be Laura’s white knight, here, of course it comes back to this.

“Why does everyone think I’m leading her on?” he demands, frustrated. “Or that she’d let me? We both want to be with each other still, I-”

“There was a picture of you kissing a guy on twitter,” Jacob pipes up helpfully. “Everyone saw. Your dress was really short.”

Their dad coughs, red around the collar. “Could you pass the chicken, please, Karen?”

Mom ignores him.

Jacob’s still going strong. “Cameron from school said it’s just because you’re slutty.”

“Like your girlfriend,” Jonah adds, and the two of them giggle like hyenas, and Paul’s going to fucking murder his brothers before they make it to twelve.

Mom,” he demands, “Are you just going to let them-”

His mom puts down her napkin, two patches of red on her cheeks. “I don’t know what you want me to do for you, Paul, you make your choices, you face the consequences.”

Paul flinches. Actually, physically flinches, and it feels like he just got hit.

The table is dead silent, nothing except crickets humming from out in the yard. The twins exchange a look.

“Someone mind passing the chicken?” his dad asks, audibly strained.

Paul pushes his chair back, doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “May I please be excused?”

“Paul,” his mom says, really quiet, and Paul doesn’t wait for an apology, just pushes his chair back and heads inside. He slams the door behind him, escapes to the bathroom and locks the door in case anyone gets any ideas about following him.

He’s out of breath, worse than after a game.

He knows his parents have never been huge fans of Laura, and that they’re probably even less huge fans of their oldest kid being a woman a couple nights a week, because it’s not the kind of thing they can talk about at refreshments after church. He also knows that they love him and that’s never something he’s had to question. And it’s not like he’s questioning it now, but it’s just- knowing they love him is one thing, and feeling completely and utterly judged is a whole different one, and they can both exist at the same time.

He knows how gossip works. Knows that his mom has probably had to hear people spout a lot of shit about him, recently, and he gets that that’s hard for her to get her head around, but she doesn’t get to bring Paul’s girlfriend into it, to act like he’s doing something wrong here.

It’s his business. His shit to deal with, this affects him.

Him and Laura.

He wonders if her parents have heard the stuff his brothers mentioned. Coach works at the school, he definitely has. Laura hasn’t mentioned anything about it, hasn’t complained once.

They haven’t had sex in a while.

Paul doesn’t know why that springs into his head now, doesn’t know whose fault it is. Maybe his, mostly, because they’ve kissed and touched and whatever, but he can’t- he doesn’t think he’s imagining Laura being tentative, and he’s not about to do something they don’t both really want. And Paul obviously wants to, it’s just that Laura only likes guys and maybe Paul isn’t always what she likes, now, and he’s just scared to, like, ask her about that flat out, because-

He’s fucking terrified of losing her. She’s his best friend, and Paul’s stupid attracted to her but he’s stupid attracted to a lot of people, and everyone keeps acting like Laura’s something from the past, and Paul-

He doesn’t know. Stuff’s better than it was, before he started doing drag, but it’s a lot harder too, and that doesn’t seem like how it’s supposed to be.

Paul feels weird in his skin, like he’s watching someone else in his body, standing there in front of the mirror and the toiletries cabinet and the little painting of Jesus’ face that they always had to cover when the twins were little because they were scared it was watching them pee.

Paul doesn’t know.

He wants to get kissed. He wants things to be simple.

‘He’ doesn’t sound quite right, tonight.

Paul’s not smart enough to deal with this shit.

---

It takes him ages to work up the courage to knock at Laura’s door.

She opens it, smiles when she sees it’s him and doesn’t manage to hide it, and Paul doesn’t turn around and sprint right back down the gravel driveway, but it’s a close thing.

“Dude, you know my parents aren’t home,” Laura says, instead of hello. “You didn’t have to knock.”

“Yeah,” Paul says, and he tries to smile, but can’t quite manage it. “Can we like. Talk?”

Laura’s already turned around, heading into the kitchen, and Paul follows her, shuts the door behind him.

“I was just making lunch,” Laura’s saying, “but we can watch a movie or something downstairs after, I think my mom rented-”

“I think we should break up,” Paul blurts, because he can’t do this, stand here and make her think stuff’s normal and fine.

Laura, like, visibly tenses up, and Paul’s just standing there in the doorway maybe five feet away from her, and it’s silent like a fucking tomb.

“It’s not because of you,” he says, fast. “It’s the opposite of because of you, you’re- like, I love you, I’m just an incredibly shitty person to date, right now?”

Laura looks at Paul, utterly expressionless. The silence stretches out to ten seconds, ten days, a decade. “What does that even mean?” she asks, quiet.

Paul shoves his hands in his pockets, helpless. “I just- it’s not fair to you,” he says. “But I need to figure out gender shit, and decide what the fuck I’m doing, ‘cause I’ve kissed guys but what if I want to do more than kissing? And what if I- like, you agreed to date a guy, and I don’t even know if I’m that anymore, fully; and I know you’re okay with me doing stuff with other people, but I can’t do that and be a good boyfr- or, significant other, and it’s important to me to be good at that, and I can’t right now.”

He’s rambling, cuts himself off and still feels like he hasn’t explained anything.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Laura’s mouth is a straight line the whole time he’s talking. She blinks.

“Fine,” she says.

And that’s- “Fine?”

“Yeah, whatever,” she says, flat, and then turns and heads to the fridge like Paul didn’t even speak.

Paul... should probably feel more relieved than he does. He was expecting- like, something. Not just this silence, not after almost six years. Still. Laura doesn’t really do emotional stuff, maybe this is just. That.

“You still aren’t mad,” he says, slow. Testing, a little bit.

“What do you want me to do, Paul, throw something?” Laura asks, without looking at him. Her voice sounds weird, strung really tight.

“I mean, not at me,” Paul says, awkward. He feels at a loss, kind of unsure where to go from here. “Can we still be friends? And hug and stuff?”

“Whatever,” Laura says again.

“Cool,” Paul says, only time keeps passing and Laura’s still standing there with her back to him, the fridge door between them like she’s hiding, and- but no, she wouldn’t be-

“Wait, are you crying?” Paul asks, horrified.

No,” Laura says, but it comes out really thick, and she sniffs right after. “Fuck off.”

Oh, shit.

“Dude, you are,” Paul gapes at her, and this is just the worst thing ever to happen, ever, he’s a massive garbage human. “Oh, shit.”

“Stop looking at me like that,” Laura snaps, but her shoulders are shaking. “I just got dumped, what, am I supposed to be smiling?”

“I didn’t think you actually cared about me,” Paul says, stunned. It’s the truth – he knows Laura likes him, or liked him, at least as much as she liked anybody, but she was still Laura, all sharp edges and barbed words. “Laura-”

Laura wheels around and throws a grape at his head. It misses completely and squishes against the doorframe.

“You’re mad now, huh?” Paul asks.

“You still haven’t fucked off, huh?” Laura asks, not quite sharp. “See, usually when you break up with someone, you fuck off after, it’s a courtesy thing, maybe you haven’t heard.”

She’s trying so, so hard to not be crying, but she is, and she looks small like how Paul’s hardly ever seen her, and he’s crossing the kitchen before he even knows what he’s doing.

“Laur,” he says, helpless, coming around the fridge so he can finally see her face, but only for a second, because he hugs her and, after a moment, she hugs him back, really tight. Paul just holds onto her. He feels her tears wet on his shirt, which is kind of gross but mostly just makes him feel like the world’s biggest douchebag. He has tears in his eyes too, a massive lump in his throat – Laura’s basically his really sexy bro that he hangs out with all the time, and they’ve been together since middle school, plus they, like, love each other and whatever.

He really, really loves her.

What the fuck is he thinking?

They stand there for a long time, hugging each other and letting all the cold out of the fridge. Maybe crying, a little, both of them.

“This is the worst breakup,” Paul says, wiping at his eyes and kind of laughing at himself. He makes it a joke, because that’s what he does. “I did not think I’d be this bad at this.”

Laura laughs all snuffly, and Paul is ninety percent sure she blows her nose on his sleeve, which, yeah, he probably deserves.

He almost starts crying all over again when they pull back and look at each other. It’s like something’s cracked open in the middle of them, scary and new. It’s the right choice, Paul knows this is the right choice, but-

“Want to get back together?” he asks, only half joking, and Laura blinks, looks at him really hard.

“Go figure your shit out, Paul,” she says, and it’s not permission, exactly, but- it’s something.

---

Everything’s different.

No Laura, is the biggest thing, and Paul’s pretty sure his mom still feels bad about their argument, because she makes all his favourite foods, even yells at the twins when they make fun of him for listening to his sad music playlist for a week straight. He can’t even play video games to distract himself.

It’s a relief when training camp starts, because it means the season starts right after.

The AHL is a million steps up from the O, and the Marlies put Paul right on the second line. Thrown to the fuckin’ wolves, and it’s awesome. The hockey is legit, real pro stuff, so Paul has to think fast and play fast and go up against guys better than him almost every night. Hell of a learning curve, on and off the ice.

Toronto’s a city. Like, skyscrapers and the CN tower and everything. Everywhere Paul goes, he sees someone in a Leafs shirt or hat or jersey, and he gets to catch a Raptors game for the first time in his life, and his new teammate Amir promises to take him to the Jays once the season starts.

There’s also the fact that Paul’s apparently a gay icon now, which is fun.

Turns out people give more of a shit about him, now he’s a pro. More people approach him about his drag than about his hockey, which is kind of new, and he doesn’t exactly know what to do with it until he gets the chance to see Church and Wellesley. And there’s a pun somewhere about church but Paul can’t even get to it, because there’s gay shit everywhere, and it’s beautiful, and when he sees a little bi flag waving at him from a window, he has to fight off this surprisingly strong urge to wave back.

He doesn’t think it can get any better, and then he goes to his first Toronto drag event. And, like, all due respect to the Sarnia drag scene, but like, these girls look legit, and Paul feels like she’s one of a crowd for the first time ever, and it’s fucking spectacular. It’s like something addictive, being in a room full of people like her, people who look good and make her feel like she looks good.

He feels like he’s dreaming, sometimes. He’s playing for the organization he loves, one step down from the NHL, and people compliment her drag and buy her drinks and even talk hockey, a few times, and it’s all within a twenty minute drive. For every shitty comment Paul gets online about ‘should someone be promoting this lifestyle’, he gets a high five walking down the street, or something quieter, like Steven the team stats guy who wears a little rainbow pin on his lanyard and always smiles at Paul when they pass in the hall.

Toronto’s got a learning curve, and Paul never, never wants to stop.

---

His mom calls and gives him the full run down of this week’s Bachelor episode, and Paul can’t interrupt her because things have been a little rocky with them since summer, so he ends up nearly running late for his interview, dashing out the door in jeans and his ‘heteroflexible’ hoodie.

It’s not super accurate, hasn’t been for a while, but the camera guys get a kick out of it, and it hides the mic okay. The set-up’s pretty casual, anyhow, just a sit-down one-on-one for the team channel. It’s pretty standard stuff, talking about his family and how he started playing the game. It sort of throws Paul when the interviewer asks him to talk about “the challenges you’ve made it through to get to this point,” and then Paul just kind of nopes, because the angsty shit hurts, and he doesn’t want to deal with that.

“It’s like, a fun thing,” he shrugs, and grins at the camera. “It’s not that deep, I promise. Want to talk about hockey, now?”

---

The place makes a whole big thing of it, ‘You Won’t Be-Leaf Who’s Performing Tonight’, even though Paul made it pretty clear he’s not actually on the Leafs, yet. Doesn’t really make a difference – hockey player turned drag artist is apparently a pretty huge draw, which is possibly the most cartoonishly Toronto thing ever, but Paul loves it, and the crowd loves her.

One of the girls who was on stage before her comes over and makes conversation after, squealing over how adorable Paul apparently is, which is a first, but she’ll take it. Adorable’s okay.

“So you started drag when?” Angelica asks, tilting her head in front of the mirror. She’s showing Paul how she does her eyebrows while Paul tries to, like, mentally take notes, because Angelica makes it look unfairly easy.

“I mean, like, officially?” Paul shrugs. “Little more than a year, I guess. Year and a half.”

“Oh my god, you are a baby!” Angelica looks thrilled.

“Does that make you, like, drag Yoda?” Paul asks, and it’s half sincere question, half roast.

Angelica shrieks with laughter, so Paul assumes she passed the test to become, like, drag Luke.

Drag Leia? Whatever.

Angelica insists on dragging Paul out to meet her boyfriend after the show, taking her hand and tugging her towards a guy in a patterned dress shirt nursing a beer.

“Darling, love of my life,” she drapes her arms around his shoulders and presses a kiss to his cheek. “Paul, this is Jordan; Jordan, meet Paul. She plays hockey, isn’t that precious?”

Jordan looks at Paul. “Yeah, I’ve heard of you,” he says, and his voice is cold. “You’re the ‘it’s not that deep’ guy, right?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Paul says, a little blindsided, because while not strictly inaccurate, she doesn’t usually get recognized based on something she said in some random interview. Still- she’s not that deep, and she’s definitely not easily offended, so she lets it go.

And keeps letting it go, again and again, because it keeps fucking happening for the next forty minutes, by the end of which she’s fairly certain that Jordan’s either a genius or an asshole or both, because he’s sure acting like it.

“Dude, do we have an issue?” Paul finally asks, when Jordan rolls his eyes for the fifth time in as many minutes.

“No issue, dude,” he retorts, and Paul’s back kind of goes up at that, because people say dude all the time, but this one feels like a very specific kind of ‘dude’, the kind that usually gets followed up with a rude comment about being a guy in a dress. “As long as you’re having fun, right?”

“Jordan,” Angelica says, tugging on his arm, and he ignores her.

“This is fun,” Paul says, ‘cause she squares up with 200 pound hockey players on the regular, she’s not that easy to intimidate. “Maybe consider that?”

“Or maybe,” Jordan says, eyes narrowed, “You’re an ignorant jock who’s playing around with a culture you haven’t bothered to understand because you’re white and straight enough to be immune to the consequences.”

“That’s not,” Paul starts, but she trails off. It’s that word again, ‘consequences’, following her around, and she can’t- she’s not straight, the heteroflexible thing is a fucking joke, and drag is supposed to be fun and an escape and not some skinny-ass nerd telling her she’s playing around, because she’s not.

Angelica looks mortified, scolding Jordan all quiet, and Paul wants to bounce back, lighten the mood like always, but she just feels off. This guy’s wrong, she’s not- she’s not ignorant.

Paul’s embarrassed. She shouldn’t be, not because of this asshole, but she feels embarrassed, like a hockey player wearing too much makeup, completely out of his depth.

---

Steven from stats invites Paul out after they play Iowa – a bunch of the guys are getting dinner to celebrate Sam from physio’s birthday – but Paul begs out of it, ditches the Marlies to head to Benny’s place.

It’s the best thing in the world to see him again, or it should be, except that Paul’s in his own head. Has been since Jordan, entirely off and full of pent up something, annoyance or guilt or-

Something.

It’s bothering him, still, and he fucking hates it. Not being happy is like- Paul’s bad at it, feels it ugly in his whole body.

He tries his best to ignore it, doesn’t want to let it ruin the night. Benny’s sharing a condo with one of the vets on his team, a nice enough guy, and they make conversation before escaping to Ben’s room, at which point Paul gets tackled onto the bed.

“Asshole!” he laughs in spite of himself, and grapples Ben ‘til he gets on top of him, then Ben kisses him and it’s fun and easy and affectionate, months and months of being in different countries dissolving in between them.

Paul tries so, so hard to just enjoy this. He lets Ben kiss him real deep, tries to make his brain shut the fuck up and just be here, but the whole time it’s like ignorant ignorant ignorant on repeat, and Paul must not be as good at hiding it as he thinks, because Ben pulls back and looks at him, frowning.

“You okay, man?”

“Fine,” Paul says, too quick. “Wanna do butt stuff?”

“We never did that before,” Ben says, kind of surprised, and Paul shrugs.

“So?”

Ben raises an eyebrow. “So is this, like, an ‘ignore emotions with bad anal’ thing?”

“It might be good anal,” Paul retorts. “Hasn’t happened yet. Don’t assume, bro.”

That’s probably what does it.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Ben orders.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Paul tries, and Benny doesn’t buy it for a second.

“Tell me or I promise I’m never touching your dick ever again,” Ben says, all bossy, and Paul knows from experience that arguing is pointless.

He flops back on the mattress and sighs.

“DoyouthinkI’mignorant?” he mumbles, and Ben frowns.

“What?”

Paul sighs again, big and dramatic. “I said, do you think I’m ignorant?”

Benny doesn’t respond right away, and when Paul looks over at him, he looks thoughtful. “If this is you wanting me to, like, educate you as your only black queer friend-”

“I know other black people,” Paul says, defensive. Ben rolls his eyes – which, fair, Paul did technically just ‘I have a black friend’ him – and Paul struggles to find better words. “I just- someone said I’m ignorant and it’s not like I’m trying to be?” He hugs a pillow. “I don’t know what people want. I’m not gay enough for gay people, and I’m far too gay for straight people, and then even hockey people want me to be some kind of role model, and I’m- like, fuck, I’m apparently too fucking stupid to even do that right.”

He smushes the pillow into his face, despairing.

“You’re legit upset about this,” Ben says, and he sounds surprised.

Yes,” Paul says emphatically, right into his pillow. He wishes he never even discovered drag. Stupid fucking YouTube.

“Quit hiding, dude.”

“No.”

Ben wrestles the pillow away from him. Paul hates him.

“Okay,” Ben says. “Look, don’t get an ego about this, but you’re a big deal.”

“I’m still in the minors,” Paul says, and Ben whacks him with the pillow. “Hey!”

“You’re a pro athlete that does drag, Paul, you’re a big fucking deal,” Ben says, exasperated. “Like, you’re the first one out like this. It matters.”

Paul pouts. “If I matter so much why do people keep saying mean shit?”

Ben looks like he’s the one searching for the right words, now. “Okay,” he says, slow. “Okay, so try and see it from their angle. Like, people finally get someone in the league who’s supposed to be one of them, and it’s this really bro-looking guy, with a girlfriend – I know you guys aren’t dating anymore, let me finish – who gets interviewed and kind of disses Pride then dismisses the drag thing as, like, a fun pastime.”

“I didn’t mean to dismiss it,” Paul says, and Ben shakes his head.

“I said let me finish, you’re- it’s not just that, it’s people want someone to speak on their behalf, only the only time people see that part of you you’re partying and shit-”

And Paul knows he’s not supposed to interrupt anymore, but now he sits up, offended. “It’s drag, am I supposed to be in a fucking quilting circle?!”

“I’m not saying it’s fair, man,” Ben says, placating. “It’s kind of bullshit, that it’s a responsibility thing, but that’s what happens when you’re the only one, and- like, I get that it’s your thing, and it’s kind of hard if it’s just fun for you-”

“It’s not just anything,” Paul says, forceful. “It’s- it’s me, I don’t know how I’m supposed to- like, yeah, it’s fun, but it’s not, like. Playing Monopoly kind of fun.”

And the moment’s tense, borderline upset, but because it’s him and Benny, it doesn’t stay that way for longer than a second.

“Monopoly? Your example of a fun thing is fucking Monopoly?” Ben asks, all incredulous, exactly the same as he’s been as long as Paul’s known him. It’s grounding, kind of, like bringing things back to earth, and Paul kind of grins in spite of himself.

He punches Ben’s leg, gentle, and Ben punches him back, like a truce, and for a couple minutes, it’s quiet.

Paul never really thought about it, the way Benny said it.

He fidgets with the corner of the pillowcase between them. “It’s important,” he says, quiet. “I- doing drag and being bi are important, for me. I didn’t mean to make people think they weren’t.”

“Okay,” Ben says, simple, and Paul meets his eyes.

“I can’t- like. I’m not the guy who people look up to.”

“Yeah, except you are, so.”

Paul rubs his eyes, overwhelmed. “I don’t want to fuck this up.”

“That probably counts for something, right?” Ben says. “Willingness to learn, or whatever.”

Paul shrugs, and Ben tugs the pillow out of the way, leans in and hugs him. Paul leans into it. “You’re a really good friend, Benny.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Ben says, and pulls back just enough to kiss Paul’s forehead, really soft in, like, a platonic way.

Probably in a platonic way? “Are we secretly in love?” Paul asks.

“No,” Ben says, without hesitating. “You’re a mess and not even a little bit my type. But I still love you.”

“You too, man,” Paul says, and when he smiles at him, it’s real. “You’re a fuckin’ catch.”

Ben scoffs. “I’m going to die alone, but thanks.”

“Dude,” Paul says, eyebrows flying up, because that didn’t sound like a joke, really.

“It’s not a big deal,” Ben deflects, and he shoves Paul back, hard, when Paul kicks at his leg. “It’s not.” He lies back on the bed, scoots over to make room when Paul lies down next to him.

Paul waits. Doesn’t look at him, ‘cause Benny won’t talk if he feels like Paul’s making him.

Ben sighs. “Just- travelling all the time, everyone does the casual fuckbuddies thing and I’m here like-” he breaks off, shrugs kind of uncomfortable. “Fuckin’- someone buy a dog with me or something, y’know? I’m so sick of casual.”

“Sorry, man,” Paul says. He didn’t even ask before showing up, just sort of-

Ben shakes his head. “Not you, you’re- we’re not fuckbuddies, we’re buddies who fuck around sometimes.”

And it’s kind of a meaningless clarification, by most standards, but Paul gets it, because Benny’s always been his boy. They get each other. Always have, even now that they’re playing in different countries, seeing each other twice a season.

God, Paul misses his best friend.

“Life was easier when we were sixteen, eh?” he asks, turning to look at Ben.

“A-fucking-men,” Ben agrees, and Paul almost makes a joking about fucking men, but doesn’t, which he thinks means he’s growing up, possibly.

“C’mere,” he says instead, holding out his arms. “You’re getting little spooned.”

Ben looks at him, flat. “No way.”

Paul drags him into a hug, flings his leg over Ben’s. “Embrace the healing power of my cut-as-hell abs, bro.”

“You’re such a dumbass,” Ben grumbles, long-suffering, but he snuggles up and relaxes against Paul, and they don’t actually get around to having sex, but Paul’s pretty sure that they both feel better than they did when the night started, so that’s got to count for something.

He thinks about it a lot, on the bus back to Toronto. Takes out his phone and re-watches his interviews for the first time. And Paul’s not the kind of guy to self-reflect, never has been, but he tries. He thinks about himself on the bus back in Sarnia, trying to get Benny to say the word ‘bisexual’ out loud, not sure why it mattered so much. Thinks about himself scared to use ‘she’ when he started drag.

He’s got a good handle on the bi thing, Paul thinks. The gender stuff and the public speaking and the responsibility thing are maybe still a bunch of question marks, but he can learn.

Paul’s going to learn.

---

He gets a library card before the next roadie. He’s never really liked libraries, because they’re too quiet and too full of shit that makes him feel dumb, but he goes to his local branch and takes out the first book on drag stuff he finds.

It’s a pretty cool read. Not too wordy or anything, but it explains a lot, and it tells the history like it’s a story, and there are a bunch of paragraphs where it’s like ‘hey, that’s me!’, this little thrill of recognition. And that’s kind of supposed to be it, but then the book keeps referencing all this stuff about trans people, so when they get back to Toronto, Paul has to take out another couple books about that, and then the bibliography recommends all these books about gender, and that’s about when he realizes that getting educated is possibly going to take longer than he expected.

Paul hits eighteen goals on the season. Figures out how to do winged eyeliner properly, and does it every time he goes out for, like, a week, he’s that proud of himself.

His next major breakthrough is discovering audiobooks. He can have someone reading along with him, or listen to someone talking while he’s working out, which is pretty lit, because workout mixes on Spotify get old sometimes. It’s like everything he learns, there’s two more things left, like- like drag is this one thing that he’s always known, but underneath it there’re a million different issues and stories that spill over into each other, stuff he can’t even recognize.

Their ride to Syracuse, he’s reading bell hooks on the bus, which is a trip and a fuckin’ half, in Paul’s opinion, and Amir is naive enough to ask what he’s doing.

“This gender shit’s wild,” Paul says, wide-eyed. “Like, did you know capitalism supports the patriarchy? Because I didn’t.”

“I genuinely did not think you could read,” Amir chirps, after a second, and Paul throws his bookmark at him while he laughs at his own joke.

He gets through the book by the time they’re home, then spends like, a week reading everything he can find about the word ‘bigender’, because that rings some bells, and then there’s a group of teenagers in his jersey at a home game, right by the glass, and Paul wants to, like, excessively hug them all, so he gets home and emails his agent to talk about doing the Player’s Tribune.

They send him a ghostwriter, which is, disappointingly, nothing to do with ghosts and is actually just a journalist named Alyssa with a tape recorder. Alyssa turns out okay – she’s really friendly, and helps Paul make his thoughts go in an order that makes sense in writing, asking questions and stuff to prompt him.

“You mentioned that you took the criticism pretty hard,” she says, careful. “Do you think that was coming from, just, lack of experience, or seeing how you interacted with drag on social media, or...”

This one, Paul’s thought about. “I think drag is- like, for a lot of people, it’s performance,” he says. “Art, or whatever, and I guess the partying thing is a part of it, music and dancing and everything. So, yeah, I like that part.” He shrugs. “It takes a ton of skill, and I don’t think people should dismiss it outright.”

“But there’s also- like, it’s normal, for me? I have my career, and relationships and stuff. My family. Like, it’s not some totally out there thing. It just kind of feels right, for me. It’s good.”

Alyssa’s nodding, typing something on her laptop, really fast. “What would you say, then, to the young athlete who sees you and recognizes something about themselves? Or their life?”

And Paul swears to god he can hear Ben’s voice, like, you matter, in the back of his head, and the realization hits him that oh shit, someone out there is going to read this and think Paul’s qualified to tell them how to make it, or whatever.

His brain kind of goes blank, and he says the first advice that comes to mind. “Uh. Get good grades in school and don’t do drugs, and stuff.”

Can’t go wrong there, right?

Alyssa looks like she’s trying not to laugh, but not in a mean way. “Alright,” she says, and pats his arm, kind. “We can work with that.”

Paul sighs, relieved. The responsibility thing is still weird.

It’s a start.

---

They get back late from playing Laval, stuck in traffic after a blizzard. The bus ride’s not bad – Paul’s reading this collection of essays about the queer history of Toronto – but his eyes are heavy by the time they’re home, and the conversation’s at a minimum as guys shuffle toward their cars.

Paul takes his time, helps the goalie coach clear the snow off his car, ‘cause it’s tough on his back, so by the time he gets his own stuff, the lot’s almost empty, just a couple guys lingering by the bus.

It’s Paul’s own fault for not paying attention – he slips on a patch of black ice, manages to catch his balance but not to avoid dropping everything he’s holding. He sighs, kneels down to gather his stuff. Least nothing broke, with the snow as a cushion.

He reaches out to pick up his book, but someone else grabs it first, knelt down to help.

“Thanks,” Paul says, automatic, and looks up to meet the eyes of stats guy Steven with his rainbow lanyard pin.

 “Wow,” says Steven. He sounds impressed, staring at the cover of Paul’s book. “You’re like, super embracing the culture, huh?”

“Fuckin’ right,” Paul says, friendly, and offers a fist bump once they’re both standing up again.

Steven grins like he finds that funny and touches his knuckles to Paul’s. He’s got a nice smile, really straight teeth. “How bad will you judge me if I have no idea what that book’s about?”

“We can talk about it sometime, if you want,” Paul offers without really thinking about it. It’s a cool book. He’s got hella opinions.

“I’d like that,” Steven says, and something about it- they’re standing there smiling at each other, like, a foot apart in the quiet parking lot, and Paul’s so cold he’s shivering, but he thinks, fuck it.

“In a date way, by the way,” he says. “I’m asking you to talk about books with me in a gay dating way, to be clear.”

He’s got a fifty-fifty chance, he figures, and then Steven laughs and even blushes a little, and Paul’s no stats guy, but he likes his odds.

---

Dating a dude is awesome.

Like- new, really new, because Paul’s only ever been with Laura and no one’s Laura, but Steven’s Steven, and that’s a whole lot of cool things, too. Steven’s smart, like, has two different degrees smart, and he does his own taxes and reads books for fun; takes ‘til the third date to kiss Paul and then doesn’t really stop because fuck, can the two of them ever kiss.

A lot of it is really convenient. They’re coworkers, technically, so they know all the same people, and Steven can talk about hockey from all these different analytics angles that Paul never really considered.

A lot of it is less convenient, at first. Paul gets the impression that Steven’s kind of weirded out by the drag thing, because it takes ages to convince him to tag along to a show. Once they’re out, though, it takes maybe twenty minutes for Paul to suspect that that it’s more the crowds and loud music that freak Steven out than the fact that his boyfriend’s a girl, sometimes.

Paul can work with that.

“Are we going out?” Steven asks, maybe a week later, when Paul comes out to his living room in full drag. He worked extra hard on it, went with glitter eyeshadow for maximum impact, because go big or go home, probably.

“Nope,” she says, simple, and tugs Steven’s laptop away, gentle. “Staying in.”

“You carry yourself differently, when you’re all-” Steven gestures at Paul. “It’s kind of interesting.”

“Interesting,” Paul echoes, and takes advantage of the laptop-free space to straddle Steven’s lap, bracketed over him. She’s careful about it, real aware of the fact that she’s got maybe fifty pounds on him, but Steven doesn’t seem to mind, eyes going all dark when Paul gets close.

“Good interesting,” Steven clarifies, and Paul’s smiling when she leans down to kiss him, slow but building, ‘til they’re rocking up against each other. Everything feels quiet and new, just the two of them, and it’s not what Paul usually associates with her drag, but it’s the good kind of new, the good kind of quiet.

“This good?” Paul asks.

“Yeah,” Steven breathes, and he doesn’t even open his eyes, just leans in to try and kiss Paul again, all eager.

Paul grins. “Yeah?” she gets out, and then Steven’s kissing her again, hard.

“My babcia would be psyched to see me getting freaky with a woman,” Steven says, kind of out of breath next time they break apart, and it’s kind of- Paul makes a face, and watches Steven realize what he said and look mortified. “...Please pretend I didn’t just mention my homophobic grandmother when we’re about to have sex.”

Paul tries so, so hard not to laugh, and does not even come close to succeeding.

“You’re such a dork,” she gasps out, wiping at her eyes. “Fuck, was that supposed to be dirty talk?”

“No,” Steven says, all flustered, but he’s laughing too, just a little, in a distraught kind of way. “I- you’re so hot, this isn’t fair.”

And Paul has always been a sucker for flattery.

“Maybe less talking, more kissing?” she suggests, brushing Steven’s hair back from his forehead, and Steven’s flushed bright red, but he nods, and yeah, they can work with this.

Paul’s got Ben sending disbelieving texts, how the FUCK did you get a steady boyfriend before me; and he starts getting more time on the powerplay; and he spends a decent chunk of his time feeling all smooshy and warm inside when they’re on the couch watching whatever documentary Steven’s been wanting to watch; and it is, all in all, pretty rad, if Paul does say so himself.

He kind of fucking loves working with this.

---

It’s a busy few days. They’re leaving for a three-in-three tomorrow morning, and the boys from the O are playing Sauga tonight, so Paul strong-arms Chris into meeting him later so he can make sure the kid’s still doing okay out from under Paul’s protective and super muscular wings. Like he said: busy, but Paul gets the call and drives out to Oakville anyways, following the instructions on his GPS ‘til he finds himself outside an apartment building just off the main road.

Laura’s easy to find, sitting outside, looking at her phone and sitting on a plastic-wrapped couch.

“Hey, hot stuff,” Paul calls, and Laura’s head whips up like she’s ready to cuss him out. She sees it’s him and looks relieved, but cusses him out anyways.

“Catcall me again, Paul, I swear to fucking god-”

Paul grins, lifts her off her feet for a hug while she laughs. He’s seen her on Instagram and stuff, and they’ve texted every so often, but it’s not the same as in person. Laura looks good, her hair cut by her shoulders, curling just a little at the ends. Shorter than it was before.

Paul does a little mock bow. “You needed to move a couch?”

“The delivery people wouldn’t bring it upstairs, and my roommate’s a dick,” Laura says, and anyone else, it’d be apologetic, but it’s her, so it’s just vaguely annoyed. “I didn’t have anyone else to ask.”

She says that last part like it’s admitting something, like it’s embarrassing, but Paul gets it. It’s one of those weird little quirks about the city, millions and millions of people around him at any given moment, but there’re still these little moments, sitting alone in his apartment or talking to the twins on the phone, lonely like he never was back home.

The couch isn’t particularly heavy, but getting it around the corners in the spiral staircase is an adventure. It takes the two of them nearly forty minutes to manoeuvre up the stairs, occasionally interrupted by other college-looking people squeezing around them. Paul does the ‘pivot’ bit from Friends and then they have to stop midway up the staircase while they both try not to drop the couch from laughing. It’s borderline a disaster, but they make it, and the couch eventually ends up in the middle of the living room of a really small apartment on the eleventh floor.

Paul looks around, curious. There’s music from behind a closed door – dick roommate, probably – and a bunch of textbooks on the counter, a sink mostly full of dirty dishes. Little Laura stuff he recognizes.

“Nice place,” Paul says.

“Yeah, right,” Laura snorts, and collapses onto the couch. The plastic wrap crinkles under her.

Paul sits next to her, stretches out his legs. “How’s school?”

Laura makes a face. “Hard. I got a job at this bar by campus, that’s the good part.” She nudges his knee. “How about you, though, with the pretty new boyfriend? You have a type.”

“Oh my god,” Paul groans, but he’s kind of laughing, kind of blushing. Like, whatever, he likes short brunettes, sue him. He chirps back, “What, let me guess, you found another hockey player who does drag? If we’re talking about types-”

“The ego on this guy, unbelievable.”

“-yours is a fuckin’ doozy, that’s all I’m saying.”

Laura’s laughing, kind of hiding her face. “Shut up, I’m not even dating anyone.”

Paul maybe looks surprised – he doesn’t mean to – because Laura shrugs.

“I’ve been with guys non-stop since I was six,” she explains. “I’m taking a break. Discovering myself, or whatever the fuck.”

She says it kind of self-deprecating, but Paul punches her arm in a way that he hopes conveys sincere congratulations, ‘cause he means them. “That’s badass, Laur.”

Laura rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I’d still rather be having sex,” she says, dry. “But hey, instead I get to sit with my ex and tell him about the glamorous world of an office administration diploma, so.”

She kind of blanches at the end of her sentence, and Paul can’t figure out why, until:

“I didn’t even ask,” she says. “If ‘he’ is still good, or- sorry, that’s-”

“It’s okay,” Paul cuts her off, reassuring. “Like, ‘he’ is still really good, that’s- it’s drag, I’m still a dude, usually. Maybe a kind of bigender one?”

“Usually,” Laura echoes, and- yeah, it’s understandable, because last time they really talked about this stuff Paul was in full-on crisis mode, just a confused mess.

“It’s like,” he says, slow. “Like, there’s so much shit I have to do, for the guy thing? And I’m good at it, and I don’t mind it, but sometimes it’s just. Nice to focus on something else.” He shrugs. “’specially if that something is a jacked as hell version of performative femininity.”

Laura looks at him, sort of bemused. “Only you would become a pro athlete then start saying shit like ‘performative femininity’.”

“It’s fun,” Paul says. “I’m really happy, here.”

“That’s badass,” Laura says, and Paul kind of laughs. “I’m serious.”

“Yeah, well,” Paul deflects, because they’re hovering at the edge of something sincere. “The glamorous world of minor league hockey slash drag, I guess.”

Laura laughs, and Paul grins at her, and it’s this companionable sort of moment, the two of them side by side like a million times before.

It’s weird, not touching her like he used to.

Laura leans her head on his shoulder, just for a second. Just friendly.

“Thanks for helping with the couch,” she says, quiet.

“’Course,” Paul says; then, because it’s practically an inside joke, at this point, “Wanna get back together?”

“Idiot,” Laura says, fond, and shoves at his arm, so Paul shoves her back.

He’s really got to go, soon, to meet Chris, and Steven’ll give him shit if he’s late.

He sits there with Laura for a while longer, anyways.

---

They go deep into the playoffs, but not deep enough.

It- well, it blows, frankly, especially after winning it all last year, but it’s only Paul’s first year and they played fucking amazing, so he goes around the room cheering guys up, manages to get a smile out of nearly everyone by the time they leave.

It always kind of snowballs, the way the season ends. Like, one second it’s pure adrenaline, nothing but hockey every second of every day, and the next there’s an entire offseason stretching out in front of them.

Amir makes Paul promise to come visit his cottage, and the coaching staff shake his hand and thank him for taking a leadership role, which- sure, why the fuck not. Paul doesn’t make any plans, not yet. His foreseeable future is napping for about forty-eight hours straight, then chilling in the city, catching up on all the drag he missed during playoffs. He’ll bring Steven to a beach somewhere, maybe go to Pride together. Hopefully introduce him to his parents, at some point.

He gets the napping part done, at least.

The good thing is, Paul’s track record for breakups is really good, two-for-two for being generally pleasant experiences, minus the breakup part.

The bad thing is-

Yeah, that.

It’s worse when he’s the one getting dumped, which Paul probably should have expected, but he’s just sort of blindsided by the whole thing. He thought it was going so well.

“It was!” Steven says, apologetic, when Paul mentions that. “No, it really was, and you’re such a nice person. We just want different things, and I think it’s best if we leave it here before things get any more serious. We still have to work together, y’know?”

It’s not like Paul can argue with him, not when he says it real reasonable like that.

“Oh,” he says instead, which, yeah, way to go, Paul.

“I’m sorry,” Steven says, and he looks really genuinely torn, so Paul shakes his head, fast, because guilt-tripping is shitty.

“No, hey, it’s not your fault,” he says, then, “Well, it is, technically, but. Y’know.”

“Yeah,” Steven says, and reaches out and takes his hand.

It occurs to Paul, kind of unwillingly, that he might’ve liked Steven more than Steven liked him. He can’t even be mad about it, Steven’s such a decent guy, but like.

Fuck, it hurts.

Steven squeezes his hand. “Thanks for teaching me how to do a jello shot,” he says.

“Thanks for showing me all those Netflix documentaries,” Paul says, sincere, and squeezes his hand back, gives the best smile he can manage. “Hey, say hi to babcia for me, okay?”

It’s like-

It’s underwhelming, how it ends. Just real pleasant, Steven lingering for a few minutes of conversation before heading out of the apartment, and then Paul’s sitting there alone, his first real boyfriend here and gone in not even six months.

Paul waits to cry, but it doesn’t happen. He feels like he should be crying, ‘cause he’s sure as fuck sad enough, but nothing comes, and he’s just by himself.

He makes himself a bowl of popcorn, eats most of it in bed, then calls his mom, because this is the kind of thing he just needs his mom for.

“Is everything okay?” she asks, as soon as she picks up, like she read his mind. “No one is hurt, right?”

Paul shrugs, and he’s not sure why, but those tears from before are coming now. “I got dumped,” he says; then, “I’m just really bummed about it, I guess.”

His mom doesn’t say anything about consequences, not even a question about dating a dude or leading anyone on or anything. Just, “Oh, munchkin,” Paul’s dumb baby nickname same as always, and he squeezes his eyes shut real tight.

“I think I’ll come home tomorrow,” Paul says. “If that’s okay.” It’s been a while. It’s been a long while.

“Very okay,” his mom says, and it’s a phone call, so she can’t see him, but Paul nods.

---

Getting broken up with fucked up Paul’s summer plans, a little. A lot.

It’s not terrible, being home. There’s nothing drag related anywhere close, but he’s got a car, and it’s not like he doesn’t have time to spare. He drives out to stay with Benny for a couple of days.

That stuff helps.

He hangs out with Jacob and Jonah a lot. His little brothers are weirdly smart, to be related to him, actually studying for school and stuff – which, what the fuck – but they look at him like he’s cool and they wear their Marlies shirts all the time.

Paul gives them so much shit for it. Sneaks in and puts the picture of bathroom Jesus in their room one night, just to fuck with them, because he’s still their big brother and that’s basically his job.

That helps, too.

He’s out fixing the Robinsons’ car with his dad one day, the garage door open to try and tempt a breeze, the radio playing in the background.

His dad wipes his hands on his jeans, leaving a grease stain. “You’re doing alright out there?” he asks, apropos of literally nothing. Paul wonders if his mom told him about him getting dumped.

Maybe he’s just talking about hockey. There’s a decent chance.

“Yeah,” Paul says. “I’m alright. Are you doing alright here?”

“Yeah,” his dad says, then furrows his brow. “Try and start it now.”

Paul turns the key in the ignition.

That’s about as deep as either of them gets, usually.

It works, for them. It’s not how Paul is, with most people, and it’s maybe not how he thinks people should be, maybe some stuff about masculinity and lack of communication or whatever, but it works for them. They’re both pretty simple guys, in different ways.

Paul’s not lying. He’s alright. He’s good.

---

He works out in the evenings, once the sun’s down and it’s cooler out. Good thing about living in the middle of nowhere is the roads are usually quiet, just fields and the occasional fence or signpost, and Paul can run for ages listening to music or an audiobook.

He’s on his run one night, heading home, when he recognizes Laura walking toward him from way far away, when she’s just a silhouette.

“Hey, Laur,” he says, taking out his headphones once they get close. He wasn’t expecting to bump into anyone, this late.

“Hi,” Laura says. She looks happy to see him, which is a nice thing. “Working out, huh?”

“Live for the gainz,” Paul quips, grinning. “You?”

Laura holds up a plastic bag. “Ran out of coffee.”

“Ah,” Paul says, and there’s a second of quiet, not-quite awkward. “Can I walk you home?”

“You don’t have to,” Laura says.

“I was heading that way,” Paul says. It’s, like, a blatant fucking lie, because they both saw him jogging towards home, but Laura doesn’t call him out on it, which means she wants the company, and they fall into step next to each other easily enough.

“Sorry I’m all sweaty,” Paul says, glancing down at his joggers and tank top.

Laura raises an eyebrow, gives him a side-eye. “I knew you during puberty, Paul, this is nothing.”

“O-kay,” Paul laughs, taken aback. Middle school Paul did two periods of gym class and hockey practice every day after school, sweat was- like, yeah, it was an issue, one he mostly solved with Axe body spray. “That’s how it is?”

“That’s how it is,” Laura says, and she’s smirking all smug, and Paul can take it, sure, but he can also dish it out.

“Fine, bro, let’s chat about your braces,” he says, and he can basically hear the ‘Kill Bill’ sirens going off in Laura’s head as her eyes widen.

“Don’t you dare,” she says, Paul skips ahead, innocent.

“Those pink elastics, though-”

Laura shoves at him, hard, and it barely shifts him off balance, but he’s laughing hard enough that it may as well. “Fight me.”

“Any day, Carson,” Paul promises, and Laura shakes her head, exasperated, but they’re both smiling and the night feels lighter, any awkwardness that was there long gone.

He shoves his hands in his pockets as they walk. “How’s your mom and Coach?”

Laura shrugs. There’s a lot in that shrug, Paul thinks.

“Sorry,” he says. “If I made things harder for you.”

“It wasn’t just you,” Laura says, but before Paul can really figure that one out, “My dad’s an asshole. Doesn’t matter.” She glances over at Paul, wry. “He gave your brothers detention, last week of school. Did you hear what they did to Souza’s computer?”

It’s a subject change, and an obvious one, but Paul rolls with it. “No, I- wait, Mr. Souza still teaches?” he asks, floored. “What the fuck, he’s gotta be 90 years old.”

“I know,” Laura says. “I saw him in the store, he looks like a literal raisin.”

“Oh my god,” Paul snorts, because the raisin thing was true five years ago, let alone now. “D’you remember when he was chaperoning the Valentines dance, and he did the fucking ‘leave room for Jesus’ thing? Like that was even a real thing?”

Laura grins, and between making fun of their old teachers and gossiping about his brothers’ weird genius delinquent pranks, the rest of the walk feels like it takes seconds.

They stand at the end of Laura’s driveway, where the road turns into gravel, and Paul’s pretty decently sure he’s not the only one lingering.

“You done school?” he asks, and Laura shakes her head.

“I’m doing some online courses,” she says, casual as anything. “Catch-up stuff. So.”

“Yeah,” Paul says. “That’s good. Busy.”

“Really busy, yeah,” Laura says, and glances at her house. She still doesn’t move.

Paul’s never done the smart thing in his life, and he doesn’t start now.

“Wanna come over and play Tomb Raider?” he asks, and Laura doesn’t even hesitate.

“Yes,” she says. “Yeah.”

It’s all the way dark out, now, and they have to walk back the way they came, and Paul still gets his ass kicked at the video game he’s owned since he was fourteen.

It’s the best night he’s had in ages.

---

Summer gets a whole lot better, after that. Paul’s not sure if he can chalk that up to Laura or just time smoothing things over. Maybe a bit of both.

They text each other a bunch, him and Laura. More than they did before, and she comes over for video games a bunch, and Paul’s mom is even nice to her, which has got to count as progress.

Paul gets into sort of a routine: training’s not super intense yet, so he keeps workouts simple, mostly spends time he’s not gaming working on drag stuff. She ends up at the same show as Angelica a couple of times, gets her look dissed in, like, a helpful, drag Yoda way. Paul focused a lot on makeup, before, but she starts working on hair stuff, splurges with some of her signing bonus money and gets some really nice wigs. They look good, Paul thinks.

“They grow up so fast,” Angelica says, wiping a fake tear from her eye, and Paul laughs, flips her hair and poses all exaggerated.

He reads more about the bigender thing, too, trying to figure out where the line is between being a girl when she does drag and doing drag because she feels like a girl. It’s weird, trying to unravel that. Not particularly easy, either.

“Plants have two genders,” Jonah says when Paul brings it up one day, spinning around in Paul’s old desk chair. “Well. Two different sex organs. Not really the same.”

“Not really,” Paul says. He spins the chair some more with his foot, peeks over at where Jacob’s standing by his dresser. “Kinda cool, though.”

“I did a project on it,” Jonah goes on, oblivious. “Intersex isn’t the same as drag, right?”

“Nah, bud,” Paul says, patient.

Jacob finally turns around and beams at them, showing off the moustache he drew on with Paul’s eyeliner. “Makeup’s actually really cool, guys.”

“If you fucked that up I’ll be pissed,” Paul threatens half-heartedly, and the twins flip him off in unison. Brats, he thinks, fond.

‘He’ is still good, most of the time. Mostly what he calls himself in his head, when he’s just hanging out. That probably means the bigender thing is a no, Paul decides. A mostly no?

Still. Progress.

---

It’s a mild enough August day, the sun shining down, and Paul’s stretched out in the backyard, quizzing Laura for her final next week.

He’s never been happier that the hockey thing worked out, honestly, ‘cause he can’t picture himself doing this, making flashcards and trying to remember a million little details about really official sounding, really boring stuff.

He can feel Laura getting stressed trying to list the stuff he asks, because memorizing has never really been her thing. It’s building for a while, and then she messes up the workplace safety stuff for the third time and makes this disgusted sound.

“I’m stupid,” she says, all annoyed, rubbing at her temples. “It’s fucking college, I can’t even- hey.” She ducks out of the way of the handful of grass Paul tosses at her head.

“Dude,” he says, primed to throw another. “No offense, but shut your face, you’re smart as hell.”

Laura flicks the grass out of her hair. “Don’t tell me to shut my face, you fucking gender studies major.” She throws more grass right back, and a bunch gets in Paul’s mouth, which – not the greatest taste, probably.

He makes a face. “Don’t call yourself stupid,” he retorts, trying to scrape the grass off his tongue, and picking up the flashcards. “C’mon, do the WHMIS stuff again, from the top.”

Laura glares at him, but Paul doesn’t back off, and she does it, gets through the whole acronym and every point on the card.

“Okay,” Paul says, encouraging. “Now the true or false stuff, keep going.” He treats it like practice, a little, running drills, focused on the big ideas. Not getting caught up in being tired of it.

They make it through. They make it through the entire stack of flashcards, and Laura lists off every single thing she has to know like some kind of super genius, and Paul is so fucking proud.

“Yes!” Paul throws the cards into the air like confetti, tackle-hugs Laura into the lawn. “You did it!”

Laura looks torn between trying to look irritated and beaming at him. “I got it?”

“Every single fucking step,” Paul confirms, holding up his hand for a high five. “You nailed it, ba-”

He clamps his mouth shut before he can finish. Laura doesn’t notice, he doesn’t think, just high fives him and lays back on the grass, laughing up into the sun. Her hair’s all splayed out under her, like something in an old painting.

It’s dumb. They broke up for a bunch of reasons, and the him stuff isn’t as much a concern anymore, but the Laura stuff – like, Paul doesn’t even know if she’s attracted to him. They’re friends. They’re friends, and it’s great.

He almost calls her ‘babe’, though.

It’s right there, on the tip of his tongue, easy as anything.

---

Paul’s mom comes down to Toronto to help him move into his new place, and it’s going good, moving boxes and stuff, and then he turns around and she’s holding this little piece of paper and his whole brain is like – shit.

It’s one of his favourite pictures. She’s standing there, hair and makeup done up, posing with a hockey stick and a bunch of girls laughing right on the edge of the frame. It’s a tiny little Polaroid, really low quality, one of those free souvenir things.

He doesn’t think his mom’s ever seen a picture of him in full drag, not posing like that, right in front of her face. She’s just staring, visibly surprised.

“They did, like. A polaroids event,” Paul explains. He keeps his voice real light on purpose, doesn’t let himself feel nervous. Millions of people know what he does, he loves what he does, that’s- it’s not a nervousness thing. “Like vintage themed.”

“Vintage,” his mom scoffs, and Paul has half a second to be offended before he realizes she’s being disapproving about something other than him. “We had polaroids when I was growing up, they aren’t vintage.”

Paul grins, laughs a little. His mom still looks thoughtful, still holding the picture.

“Y’know, I didn’t know what drag queens were ‘til I was 25,” she says. “I thought it was a Las Vegas, very city kind of thing.” She sighs, doing one of her monologue things, like when she’s recounting some story on the phone. “And I mean- of course I wondered, because you always had your certain way about you, and then you went to live away from us when you were still so young-”

“Sarnia didn’t make me do drag, mom,” Paul interrupts, firm. Fuckin’- queer hub, Sarnia, Ontario, population 70,000. “Or be bi.”

“I didn’t mean that,” his mom says, but it’s really defensive, and the moment’s just incredibly not great, and Paul’s that really shitty kind of tense that he hasn’t been in months, but then-

His mom sighs. “Sorry.”

Paul blinks. He doesn’t think his mom’s apologized to him ever, not once in his life. Not either of his parents, actually.

He picks at the corner of one of the boxes, just for something to do. “You’re fine, mom.”

“It wasn’t,” his mom says, and she’s playing with her crucifix necklace, almost nervous. “I- I’m trying to be better about things, I promise, it’s just- you know it’s very new for me.”

“For me too,” Paul says.

The quiet’s, less terrible, this time. Still really loaded.

“I watched some of those interviews you did,” his mom says eventually, a little tentative. “It’ll mean a lot to someone, having a role model like you.”

Paul scoffs, wry. “Feel bad for them, if I’m their role model,” he says. “Kinda scraping the barrel.”

“You’ve had a letter on your chest every year since you were nine,” his mom says. “They could do worse.”

It’s a peace offering, an obvious one. Not one Paul would’ve expected to get from her, six months, a year, most of the last ten years ago. It’s not- like, objectively it’s not enough, but it’s her trying, and she’s his mom, and maybe combined those things are okay, for today.

“Want me to show you how to contour?” Paul asks, kind of as a peace offering, mostly just to see his mom’s reaction. A little bit teasing.

“Oh, lord,” she says, all flustered, but also tangibly relieved. “I do not have the cheekbones for that.”

Paul bumps his shoulder up against hers, gentle. “You got pretty decent cheekbones, mom.”

“Hm,” she says, trying to be disapproving, but Paul catches her tilting her head and looking at her reflection in the TV screen.

She’s trying. It’s something.

---

Paul’s ready to start the season with a bang.

He’s living on his own for the first time, which is weird, and it’s maybe a little awkward the first time he sees Steven at the rink, but Paul plows through it with a smile, determined for this year to be a good one. He knows what to expect in Toronto, now, Marlies and AHL and drag and everything, and he’s going to have an awesome season, no drama. Just steady.

Then a Leafs’ fourth-liner shatters his tibia five minutes into the pre-season, Paul gets called up to the big club, and everything changes all over again.

His phone’s absolutely blowing up as soon as the news comes out, Steven and Benny and even Chris from all the way in San Jose texting him congratulations. Paul answers their messages with shaky fingers, texts Laura IM A MAPLE LEAF FUCKFUCKFUKC, then calls his parents and mostly just screams into the phone.

His family must break every traffic law ever invented, but they make it to the city for his first game, and they get to watch Paul play in the NHL.

Because that’s a thing that happens. Paul plays in the fucking National Hockey League.

It doesn’t really hit him the whole game – like, he touches the puck at some point, he’s pretty sure? – or even after, not the whole rest of the preseason ‘til he’s on the Leafs’ private plane flying to Montreal for the actual opener, and then his whole brain just kind of explodes.

He doesn’t stop smiling for, like, an entire week, not even when it starts to get normal.

It does get normal, though. Most things do, eventually. Paul plays, like, five minutes a night, gets out of breath trying to keep up with the first and second liners in practice. Scores a goal in his third game, and he’s living his childhood dream, repping the blue and white.

Benny’s jealous as hell. Keeps sending Paul links to articles about him with a bunch of frowny faces.

That’s another thing, actually. The media stuff. Paul doesn’t realize how much of his Marlies-related attention was kind of confined to the GTA before Leafs-related attention starts, and blows everything prior out of the water. Turns out lots more people give a shit about the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a bunch more people give a shit about the bisexual drag queen who plays for them, and what all that means is that Paul takes more selfies than he thought was even humanly possible.

He doesn’t mind the attention. Not even when they ask him a bunch of deep questions and shit, because he’s been a Leaf for maybe three weeks when some kid comes up to him, maybe eleven or twelve years old. Her jersey looks like a dress on her.

“Are you trans?” she asks, blunt like only little kids really are.

“I don’t think so,” Paul says, honest. “I thought maybe, for a while? I feel like a girl sometimes, when I do drag. But also still a guy, most of the time.”

“Oh,” the kid says. “I don’t usually do all the pretty makeup and stuff like you. But I am trans. All the time.”

“That’s pretty rad,” Paul says, holding up his hand for a high five. “Makeup’s a lot of work, anyways. You play hockey?”

“I play so much hockey,” the little girl gushes, and Paul returns her smile, because it’s kind of contagious.

He’s still kind of- not uncomfortable, exactly, more just. Aware. He feels the weight of it, when he talks to a kid like that, or to the older couple that comes up to talk to him in the street, because that’s a lot of people, looking at him like he’s supposed to know what the hell he’s doing.

Paul thinks he gets what Benny meant, now. How much this matters, and all.

‘Character guy’, is what people have always said, and what they’re saying now, and there’s a lot there, Paul thinks, but- he can own it.

---

It takes ‘til late November, when exams and everything are done, but the notice is a good thing, because Paul has time to get Laura the best seat he can find, and to get a jersey in her size. It’s an okay game – he notches an assist, even if it’s only on an empty netter – and he’s kind of wiped after, because obviously, but he finds Laura and drives them to one of his favourite bars.

It’s a cozy kind of place, mostly serving local brews for university students and people their age, and Paul takes a while to puzzle about why Laura looks disappointed.

“I figured you were going to take me to one of your drag things,” she says, when Paul asks, and Paul blinks, incredulous.

“I,” he says, and he’s about to continue ‘didn’t think you’d want to’, but he changes course halfway through. “I don’t usually bring my stuff to games.”

Laura grins.

The thing is, Paul reflects, when they’re hogging the bar’s bathroom mirror, the entire contents of Laura’s purse on the counter in front of them, he didn’t mean the ‘didn’t think you’d want to’ thing in a self-deprecating kind of way. He just- like, Laura’s always known him as dude-Paul, ‘cept for that one Boxing Day in her bathroom, and he gets that it’s kind of trippy for people to wrap their heads around this other side of him, let alone actively interact with it. So obviously he brought them to a quiet, dude-Paul kind of bar.

But like. They’re here, putting on makeup, and Paul’s kind of- it’s not drag, because it’s way too subtle for that, but it’s also him doing this pretty non dude-Paul thing, and Laura’s still being normal, which is to say, kind of a sarcastic jerk.

“Not your colour,” she shakes her head, frowning at Paul’s lipstick. “No, you gotta- I have lipgloss somewhere, use that instead.”

Paul kind of loves her.

“How the fuck do you carry all this around?” Paul asks, amazed. “Like, and your wallet and train ticket and everything, you should be friggin’ ripped.”

“How are you that good at winged eyeliner?” Laura retorts, bumping Paul with her hip so he’ll let her look in the mirror. “I’ve been trying since middle school and I still suck, and you barely had a couple years to practice.”

“The key is not caring whether or not you poke your eye out,” Paul advises. “I’m talking balls to the wall, ‘you only live once’ kind of commitment.”

“Balls to the wall,” Laura echoes, skeptical.

“Balls. To. The wall,” Paul repeats, as serious as he can, and meets Laura’s eyes in the mirror. They both burst out laughing at the same time.

The dance floor’s tiny, more a courtesy than anything else, but they get out there anyways. No leaving room for Jesus, either – they get some looks, more curious than anything else, and Paul leans in real close, whispers in Laura’s ear, “They’re just jealous ‘cause I don’t have to pad my ass.”

Laura cackles.

It’s getting late, and cold out, and Paul’s fucking exhausted, but he doesn’t want the night to end, so they dawdle after they leave the bar, walking around and talking ‘til his fingertips are blue and they duck into this overpriced little dessert restaurant.

It’s a nice place – Paul sticks to coffee, because none of this shit is even remotely on his diet plan, but Laura gets an oreo sundae and doesn’t even give him too much shit when he starts stealing bites.

He loses track of how long they sit there at this table by the window, watching people pass. They’re a million miles from home, it feels like, a million miles from one main street and a sky so clear the stars are better than streetlights.

“You figure out the school stuff?” Paul asks.

“The work part still blows,” Laura shrugs. “I’m graduating in April, though. Might get a new roommate. The Argos quarterback DM-ed me a bunch. The usual.”

“He’s hot,” Paul says, impressed.

Really small dick,” Laura informs him, scooping up a spoonful of hot fudge and oreo pieces while Paul laughs, and the conversation lulls into something almost thoughtful.

It’s this bizarre moment of self-awareness: Paul’s sitting here in Toronto with his face half-made up and his hair still a mess from his post-game shower, talking about a CFLer’s dick with his former girlfriend. Like. This is his life.

“Is it weird for you?” Paul asks, and he doesn’t have clarify what he means.

Laura shrugs. “Should it be?”

And, like, the right answer is no, objectively, but it’s not always that simple. “I know it’s a lot,” Paul says. “I know drag is kind of-”

“I like it,” Laura interrupts, meeting his gaze and not looking away. “I really liked seeing you like that.”

“Yeah?” Paul asks, Laura nods, and like, he believes her, a hundred percent, because they don’t bullshit with each other, but-

There’s something about how she said it, something nagging somewhere in Paul’s brain. Taking a break from guys, she said before; and in summer, what she said about Coach, it’s not just you. It’s like- not hope, exactly, but maybe something close.

“Like you liked seeing me happy?” Paul asks, carefully neutral. “Or...”

“Like I liked it,” Laura says, and – Paul has to blink – her cheeks are pink, a little, and she’s not looking at him anymore, just determinedly stirring at her ice cream even though it’s already mostly mush.

It’s not just you.

“Oh,” Paul says. He has to work real hard to keep his voice sounding normal.

See, Paul’s not that bright about a lot of stuff, but he’s pretty okay at reading people, and if he’s reading this right, which he’s pretty sure he is, then it sounds like Laura’s saying what he thinks she’s saying, which is that she likes him. Likes all of him.

Like. Like-likes? He shouldn’t assume, obviously, but-

But he’s pretty sure.

Paul wants to stand up and celly like he just won a cup, fist pumps and everything. He doesn’t, just nudges Laura’s ankle under the table, and she nudges him right back.

---

If Paul was the kind of person to be more considered, real careful about stuff, he’d leave it at that; he’d call it a night and maybe spend some time thinking on it and wouldn’t push his luck.

He’s not that kind of person, though, and Laura isn’t either, and what that amounts to is this:

Laura’s lips taste like chocolate when they kiss, sticky sweet up against Paul’s.

Toronto’s noisy around them, and he can hear voices from inside the kitchen, just ignores them and presses Laura into the brick wall behind the restaurant. Her hand’s in his hair, holding him close, and she tugs on Paul’s lower lip, like a dare. It’s too heated for the fact that they’re technically in public, too heated for how tired Paul is, but it’s good, familiar and new all at the same time.

They’re both breathing heavy when they break apart. Whatever was left of Paul’s lipstick is smudged a little under Laura’s mouth, and it’s snowing a little, pinpricks of white settling in her hair that melt when Paul touches them. It’s cold enough that he can see their breath in little puffs of white.

“Let me take you out for dinner,” he says, quiet so it’s just the two of them. “Somewhere really nice, we’ll get lobster or caviar or something. I get NHL money now.” He brushes his nose against hers. “Anything you want, Laur.”

Laura chews her lip, but it’s not a no, not really anything. “I don’t want to get broken up with again,” she says. “That really sucked, Paul.”

“I know,” Paul ducks his head. “I- making you cry is the worst thing I ever did, literally ever.” He plays with the sleeve of her coat, runs his thumb along the stitching.

“I had- it felt like everything was changing, and I got in my head that you wouldn’t want me, and that was literally terrifying, but I just- I think it was also a good thing? ‘Cause I still don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing, but I’m like- I’m getting there, and I’m a ton better now, and I swear to god I’ll never make you cry again.”

And he really fucking means it, is the thing, means it with everything in him, only the second he’s done talking Laura’s eyes are welling up with tears, all shiny.

“I- you’re crying?” Paul asks, entirely at a loss. They didn’t even break up, this time. “No, that wasn’t- What did I do?”

Laura shakes her head, letting out a shaky breath and wiping at her eyes. She doesn’t look sad, Paul doesn’t think, just kind of overwhelmed, looking at him like she’s searching for something.

“I don’t even know why you like me,” she says, like she’s genuinely confused. “I’m like, an asshole, and you have such a big-”

Paul raises an eyebrow.

“-heart,” Laura finishes, and now she’s laughing and crying at the same time, which is an improvement over just crying, at least. “Such a big heart, oh my god, Paul.”

And Paul laughs, small, reaches up and tries to smudge away some of the wetness under Laura’s eyes. It’s- he knows he’s got a big heart, because it fucking hurts sometimes, but it’s also the best thing about him, except for his amazing abs and awesome sense of humour and being a hockey god.

It’s nice to hear. Important, from someone so important to him.

He feels like he’s in grade eight again, asking out the ninth grade girl a million times too pretty for him. He figured best he could do was make her laugh, back then, and she’s still probably the prettiest human he’s ever seen, still knows him inside out, but he doesn’t try to make her laugh, now, just grabs her hand in both of his and puts it over his heart.

“Wanna know what my big heart says?” Paul asks. “About why I like you?”

Laura makes a face. “This is really dumb,” she says, but she doesn’t pull away.

“You wanna know?” Paul asks, ‘cause some things are worth looking dumb about.

Laura nods.

“It says you’re the most amazing person I ever met,” Paul says, earnest. “It says you’re funny and cool and sexy and also extremely lame sometimes, but in, like, a loveable way.”

Laura kind of laughs, and blinks tears out of her eyes, snowflakes landing in her eyelashes.

“It says I want to take you on a date,” Paul goes on. “On lots of dates. And like, play Tomb Raider for six hours straight, and do that thing we’re you’re all mean but it kinda gets me going? And- and be girlfriend and boyfriend, and girlfriends, and fuckin’- best friends who love each other, ‘cause you are, Laur. You’re my best friend.”

It hangs there between them, big and important, and Paul’s breath comes out in a little cloud of ice.

So like, he’s pretty proud of himself for how wildly fucking romantic that was, but then he remembers and tacks on: “That was also- all that was also stuff my heart says, in case I forgot to say, at the end. I- you get it.”

“I get it,” Laura says, and Paul doesn’t really know what the look on her face means, but then she hugs him, real tight, and he hugs her back, so he figures it must’ve been okay.

For a long time, it’s quiet. There are cars going past, little snippets of conversation as people walk along. Snow coming down, pretty heavy.

“My heart likes you too,” Laura says eventually, mostly into Paul’s jacket. He gets it, because this is more emotions than Laura ever really does, and it’s the kind of thing that takes a lot. “And you’re also weird and sexy.”

“Thanks,” Paul says, just soft, and Laura grips the back of his coat, tight.

“Wanna get back together?” she asks, so quiet he can hardly hear her.

Paul nods, presses his face into Laura’s hat. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I want that.”

“Cool,” Laura says, after a second.

“Cool,” Paul agrees, and they’re both kind of giggling and he’s so fucking happy and yeah, it’s really, really cool.

It feels a little like being at home. Normal as breathing.

---

---

---

The league sends out an email saying that the dress code for their Pride float is ‘subtle and supportive’.

Paul goes all out: full drag, enough body glitter to be seen from space, and a bedazzled Leafs jersey, because subtle’s never really been her style.

One out of two is still a pass, she figures.

People keep stopping her for pictures, so it takes forever for her to meet up with everyone. Paul wades through the crowd of players and staff, looking for someone to tell her where she’s supposed to be, and finds Steven, who grins when their eyes meet.

“Morning,” Steven says, with his lanyard and little rainbow pin and a plain white You Can Play t-shirt. “I saw, like, seven people in your jersey on the way here, this is incredible.”

“Fucking right,” Paul beams, proud. “You seen this place, though? I didn’t know this many people even existed.”

“You’re such a hick,” Steven laughs, and Paul’s about to retort, but she catches sight of a familiar name on a green jersey and gets tunnel vision.

“Benny, you came!” Paul hollers, and jumps on his back, trapping him in a headlock while Steven inches out of the way. “You want a real jersey, buddy, or-”

“Oh, fuck you,” Ben shakes Paul off and elbows her affectionately, which is as good a hello as anything. He looks Paul up and down, tugs on her hair. “You’re looking good, eh?”

“You have no idea how heavy these fucking eyelashes are,” Paul complains, “The stories I could tell-”

“Riveting,” Ben says, deadpan, only Steven says the exact same thing at the exact same time, and they look at each other, surprised, noticing each other for the first time.

“Hi,” Steven says, after a second.

“Hey,” Ben says, then blinks, shakes his head a little. “Uh. Hi.”

Oh, Paul thinks, and then she’s getting tugged away for more pictures, but when she gets free again ten minutes later, Ben and Steven are still bent together, talking intently and utterly ignoring the crowd around them. Paul has to turn so they won’t see her smiling, because- maybe.

She knows without looking that it’s Laura who grabs her hand. Some stuff you learn to recognize, after almost eight years.

“Thank god you’re tall,” Laura says, not bothering with a ‘hello’. She parked okay, then. “This crowd is ridiculous.”

Paul laces their fingers and twirls Laura around appreciatively, because she’s the hottest girlfriend in the city and also almost certainly the planet.

“Sick jersey, babe,” Paul says. She’s got to speak loud to be audible over the crowd and the music, getting louder every second.

Laura beams, does a little pose. “Thanks,” she says, then, goofy, “It’s actually autographed, y’know?”

“Oh, yeah?” Paul plays along, swinging their joined hands and smiling so big her cheeks hurt. “By a Maple Leaf? Sounds pretty valuable.”

“Yeah,” Laura says, and she’s teasing but totally straight-faced, the way Paul can never quite manage. “Like, ten dollars, at least. Maybe twelve.”

“Aw, shit,” Paul says, impressed. “Big bucks.”

“Makin’ it rain,” Laura agrees, and Paul’s the first one to crack, laughing out loud, and Laura looks all proud of herself.

“You,” Paul says, getting her hands on Laura’s hips and tugging her in, “are the girl of my fucking dreams.”

“Same,” Laura says, simple, and she only rolls her eyes a little when Paul kisses her on the tip of her nose, does a really awful job of hiding a smile. “We doing this thing?”

Paul nods. “We’re doing this thing.”

Pride is everything Paul wanted it to be, exuberant and bright and a million things at once. The whole day feels like something in a movie, colours more saturated than usual, the sun shining down on them.

And Paul’s never been scared of attention and she isn’t now, not when there’re people in her jersey grinning at her from the sidewalk, a whole bunch more people not in her jersey grinning just because she looks good; there’re kids pointing her out to their parents, out of everyone in the parade, all excited. She feels on top of the world, the people she loves, her team pressed up at her side.

This time, when she sees a million different coloured flags waving at her, Paul waves back.