Teemu is sprawled sideways across the bed, slack-jawed and tangled in the sheets like some Greek statue that decided to step off its pedestal and promptly tripped over the ells of its toga. The bedside clock reads 9:35 AM.
"Teemu," Paul says. His own voice sounds like sandpaper. "Teemu, wake up."
"Mmrrgh," Teemu replies, when Paul thumps on his pillow. The seismicity finally makes him crack open one eye. Half-asleep and hungover as he is, Teemu's first reaction is still to grin at him. "Hey, beautiful."
"Seriously? Are you so used to waking up with half-naked girls in your hotel room that it doesn't even register anymore?"
Teemu bats at his hand. "You not a girl." Then he lifts his head to leer at Paul. "But are you naked?"
He rolls away, snickering, as Paul tries to smother him with his pillow.
"What the hell happened?" Paul asks, when Teemu finally deigns to sit upright, pulling the sheets with him like a makeshift cape.
Teemu rubs his face, shrugs. "You passed out? I think."
"I passed out on your floor and you just left me there?"
"It is carpet," Teemu observes, yawning hugely. "Good for your back." He stretches, dislodging the covers from his shoulders. His hair is a nested mess; he brushes the strands out of his eyes and looks up to find Paul staring at him. "What?"
"Why are you wearing my shirt?"
Teemu looks down sharply; the faded blue t-shirt is stretched tight across his chest, and emblazoned on it is University of Maine, 1865. He looks back up, takes in the fact that Paul is wearing only an open dress shirt and boxer shorts.
"Wow," says Teemu. "How drunk were we?"
"You tell me." Paul tries crossing his arms, can't quite make his limbs coordinate, and ends up kind of hugging his own elbows. "You're the one who decided I needed to loosen up."
"Because we are in Vegas," Teemu grumbles. "Anyway, you agreed. Apparently."
"Apparently." Paul slumps into one of the armchairs. Goosebumps rise all over his bare legs. "Did we— Jesus. You don't think we—?"
"We what?" Teemu returns Paul's horrified expression with a wounded one. "Is sex with me that bad to think about?"
Thinking and doing are very different things — and, okay, no way is he saying that out loud. He must still be a little drunk, if that thought's even crossing his mind. Paul rubs his eyes, pressing hard at his temples in some hope that maybe this madness will go away along with the headache.
"Not like you are married," he hears Teemu grumble. The sheets rustle, Teemu mutters something about needing to shower, more rustling of sheets, a crackle like the snap of newspaper pages — and one of these things is not like the others.
Paul opens his eyes to see Teemu pulling a half-torn piece of paper out from the mess of the bed. Teemu frowns at it for a long minute. Then his expression goes blank.
"Paulie," he says. "This t-shirt — you would say it is borrowed? For me?"
"...Sure? I mean, I do want it back—"
"And it is blue. And something old."
"What are you—" Paul starts, and then it hits him.
Teemu holds out the battered piece of paper. "I married you."
Paul snatches the marriage certificate from Teemu's hand — because yes, that's exactly what it is. With both their names on it and everything.
"Oh my god." Paul sits down on the bed, because his knees refuse to hold him up anymore. He stares at Teemu, at his t-shirt, at the hotel room and back at the paper in his hands. "Oh my god."
Twenty minutes, a hasty shower and change of clothes later, Teemu feels even less connected to reality than when he'd woken up, if possible. He returns from the bathroom to find Paul still sitting on the bed, staring at the floor as if it will offer up some answers if he waits patiently enough.
"Coffee?" Teemu offers. And, when Paul doesn't respond, "Or something stronger?"
Paul makes a strangled sound. "Strong enough to make me forget all of this, so I can lie convincingly when Michiko asks me what the hell happened this weekend?"
Teemu turns on the coffee maker. "You do not have to tell her," he ventures. "Nobody knows, right? She does not have to find out."
"Have you met my sister?" Paul asks bleakly. "She'll find out. God, how did you even get me that drunk?"
"You drink like little girl," Teemu retorts, and something chimes from the depths of the rumpled bedspread. He shoos Paul aside and digs through the folds to unearth his ringing cell phone. "And I have met your sister. She is not capable of murder." He frowns at the caller ID, flips open the phone with a cautious, "Hello?"
"Oh, you're out of bed already! Or — well, I suppose if you are still in bed, that's only to be expected. Is Paul there with you? I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
Paul gives him a quizzical expression when Teemu bolts for the bathroom and locks the door behind him. He leans against the wall, takes a deep breath before raising the phone to his ear again.
"—Teemu? Hello? Are you there?"
"Mom," he hisses back, in Finnish. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, darling, it's okay. I know what that's like, when everything's so new and wonderful. Anyway, you promised you'd call again in the morning since you were — otherwise occupied."
His reflection in the mirror makes a horrified face. "When did I call you?"
"Well, I was at Paavo's, so I only got your message just now. I wish you'd thought to call your brother," Liisa says, faintly scolding. "It's only right to share the good news with your whole family, you know, since you didn't even invite any of us to the ceremony."
Teemu's hand slips and knocks the hairdryer to the floor.
"You okay in there?" comes Paul's worried voice, even as his mother echoes the same sentiment over a long-distance call that's going to cost more than his entire wedding — which, dear god.
"I'm fine," he yells through the door, then to his mother, "Okay, mom, I think there's been a misunderstanding, you see—"
"Oh, it's all right. I'm not really upset with you. I mean, yes, I would have liked you two to come home and have a proper ceremony, but I suppose if the time was right, then the time was right."
"Yeah, well." Teemu sits down on the toilet. There's still a light fog in the air from his shower, and through the closed door there's nothing but silence now. Maybe Paul has left. He'd be within his rights, Teemu supposes. He sighs, more to himself than anyone else, "He did say yes."
"Of course he did," Liisa says warmly. She sounds a little choked up; Teemu winces inwardly, because making his mother cry is one thing — making her cry over this is probably some wholly uncharted territory of punishable sin.
"And you're going to be so happy together," she continues, and really, what son would have the heart to tell her otherwise? "Oh, listen to me going off like a leaky spout again. I'm just so happy for you, Teemu. Don't take it the wrong way, but I thought — you're not that young anymore, you know? And I thought maybe you weren't going to settle down, but now you have Paul, my little baby is married and I'm just so, so happy for you both."
Paul holds the phone at arm's length. His sister's incredulous screech fades into a tinny sort of whine, which would be almost bearable, if he didn't have to go back in and explain the rest of the story.
He should have listened to Teemu: Michiko didn't need to know. Paul should have just sat still, waited for Teemu to come back from the bathroom, and then they could have had their coffee and agreed to never speak of this again. Except — he heard just enough, through the bathroom door, to know that Teemu was talking to his mother.
Calling his own family seemed like the right thing to do.
By the time he returns the phone to his ear, Michiko has moved on from insulting his dubious parentage and mental faculties to rattling off an exhaustive list of questions on where he was, where they'd gone, who was with them, who might have seen them, anyone they might have given their names to, the exact date and time and issue of their marriage license, and where, exactly, he is right now.
"I'm with Teemu," Paul says, because there doesn't seem any point lying about that. "And, look, can you not — don't tell mom just yet, okay?"
"Like hell I am." Paul can hear her flipping through files, papers, a cabinet slamming. "Before you get any ideas, nobody's telling her anything. This is going away, and by that I mean it never existed, understand?"
"Right," Paul agrees on reflex. "Well. Except..."
"I said I'd visit this week. But — you know I can't lie to mom. I have to tell her something. Or at least make up an excuse for why I can't see her right now."
There's a long pause, at the end of which Michiko sighs,
"God, I wish Steve had made it instead of you."
"Oh, that's what you're choosing to get riled up about?" Michiko sighs again. "Jesus. All right. Look. I'll talk to mom. I'll tell her — I don't know, I guess I'll just have to tell her the truth."
"No, you can't tell her I—"
"I'm not telling her you married Teemu Selanne," Michiko snaps. "Which, by the way, we are going to discuss later. But if you insist on being a poor liar, then I'm telling mom that you and some of the guys thought it'd be funny to go to a chapel on a bet, and now you have some legal paperwork to sort out. All right?"
Paul turns that over in his mind. "Yeah, okay. I can work with that."
"You'd better. Now try not to marry anybody else before I get you out of this one."
"Do you need me to do anything?"
"Besides disown yourself so I don't have to deal with this?"
"Well, I could—"
"I'll take care of it," Michiko says shortly, and hangs up.
The dial tone flatlines in his ear. Paul puts the phone down on the table, and puts his head in his hands.
The bathroom door opens quietly on its hinges.
"I overheard," Teemu says. "Did they yell at you?"
Paul shrugs into his hands. "Michiko wants my head on a plate, and all things considered, I'm inclined to agree with her. But she said she'll take care of it." He closes his eyes. "At least that's over."
The silence goes on too long to be companionable agreement.
"About that," Teemu says. "You know. I should mention, maybe."
Paul looks up slowly. "What?"
"I have a family, too."
"And they want to meet you?"
"Me?" Paul stares. "They want to meet me?"
"Unless you know somebody else my mother means by son-in-law." Teemu examines the wallpaper. "I don't marry everybody I meet, you know."
"What did you tell your mother?" Paul manages, finally, after a long struggle with his vocal cords.
Teemu shrugs. "I called her last night. Apparently. And she is very happy for us. And she wants to meet you, and — you know. I said I will ask you."
The only thing that comes to Paul's mind is, "Why?"
"Paulie, do you know my mother?" Teemu sounds vaguely pained. "She cries at everything. The first time I score a goal in NHL, Paavo tells me she cried so much the neighbors were sending flowers because they think somebody died."
"So you want me to, what, go to Helsinki with you and pretend like we're married?"
"We are married," Teemu points out.
Paul drops his face back into his hands. "Why is any of this happening."
"Because you eloped with me and cheated my mother of the big wedding she always wanted for her favorite son?"
Paul glares at him through his fingers. Teemu shrugs, grins — almost sheepish, if not completely apologetic — and goes to pour himself a cup of coffee.
"By the way," Teemu asks casually, "do you have preference for indoor or outdoor events?"
Paul thinks about it, starts to weigh the pros and cons of each — then catches himself. He frowns. "Why?"
"I told my mother she can plan the reception, since she missed the wedding."
Paul stares at him.
Teemu sips his coffee.
"My life is over," Paul declares to the ceiling, flopping back onto the bed in a gesture of utter defeat.
Teemu pats his knee, en route to the mini fridge for some milk. "I'll let you sleep on it."
In the end, he chickens out and leaves Michiko a voicemail thirty minutes before boarding the flight. Then he turns off his cell phone, stuffs it into the depths of his carry-on, and follows Teemu down to Gate C.
It's not until they're in their seats, engines humming as the plane moves into position on the runway, that Paul notices.
"You got a new charm?" At Teemu's quizzical look, Paul points, "Your necklace."
Teemu pauses. "Oh." He finishes undoing the top two buttons, settles back in his seat. "Yeah. You bought it."
Paul scoffs. "I think I'd get you something nicer than—" He nudges aside Teemu's loose collar to get a better look, "—a plastic surfboard? This is like something you get at a hotel gift shop."
"Well, not many options at a gift shop."
Paul waits for the punchline. "Seriously? I bought that?"
A corner of Teemu's lip quirks upward; he shrugs. "Something new, I guess. To go with something blue."
The intercom pings just then, and on all the video screens the flight safety video begins to play. Paul buckles his seat belt, wondering if there's any way his silence can be taken as anything but avoidance. By the time he glances back up, Teemu is looking out the window.
In the rounded pane of glass, asphalt and airport give way to sea and sky.
The view is of uninterrupted cumulus and blue by the time Paul ventures, "So, you should probably fill me in on your family."
Teemu smiles at him, raising one eyebrow. "Why?"
"One should always make a good first impression on the in-laws," Paul deadpans. "First tenet of Canadianism."
Teemu snorts. "I am sure." His smile doesn't fade, though. "Well, you know about my brothers. And my mother, Liisa. You will like her. My cousins — I do not know who will be there, but there's Idde, Arvo, Anica — oh, and Sofia..."
Paul sits back and listens to Teemu rattling off names and anecdotes. Only half the syllables and familial relationships stick in Paul's head, if even that, but he supposes Teemu won't mind a retelling or two. It's a long flight to Helsinki, and there are only so many movies you can watch. Besides, Paul knows, Teemu would always rather tell a story than sit still long enough to be told one himself.
Paul already has the overhead compartment open and one hand on his carry-on when Teemu hisses,
The lady waiting to disembark behind them makes a pointed noise, and Paul squeezes back into the row of seats at Teemu's frantic gesticulating, mostly in hopes of making said gesticulating stop, because now they're just causing a scene.
"What?" he hisses, crouched back down in seat 18C. "I already filled out both our customs forms, in case you were wondering, so you don't need to—"
"No, it's not — wait, how come you filled out mine?"
"Burdens of matrimony. And you were asleep."
Teemu gives him a blank look. "Oh." He blinks himself out of whatever stupor's been affecting him ever since his unscheduled nap. "Okay. Anyway, here. You also need this, plus the forms."
With that, Teemu unceremoniously grabs his wrist and slides a ring onto his finger. It matches one that Teemu's already wearing; the metal is cool on his skin, and Paul jerks his hand back as if he's been burned.
"Sorry," Teemu says after an awkward moment, and, "Burdens of matrimony."
He picks up both their carry-ons, and Paul follows him down the now-empty aisle.
Liisa tears up as soon as she opens the door to welcome them into her home, enveloping Teemu in a hug that makes Paul vaguely worried for his own ribcage; but Liisa only grasps his hand, somewhere between a handshake and benediction, smiling hard enough to bring a fresh mistiness to her eyes.
In the kitchen, while Liisa turns her back to fetch some refreshments and wipe her eyes on a dish towel, Teemu mouths, I told you. Paul makes a face at him, then quickly replaces his expression with a smile when Liisa returns with a pitcher of lemonade.
And he's proven right, repeatedly, over the next hour or so. Liisa tears up when Teemu shows her the wedding rings. And when Paul reaches for a refill of lemonade at the same time as Teemu, and Teemu takes the opportunity to turn a brush of hands into a loose but lingering clasp. And again, minutes later, when Panu and Paavo arrive, with back-thumping hugs for their brother and a basket of fruit and wine for their mother.
Panu's handshake is firm enough to make Paul wish he were wearing wrist braces. "We hear a lot about you. From Teemu."
His tone isn't overtly friendly, but then, maybe it's because of the direct contrast to Liisa. "Yeah, same here," Paul replies. "Teemu talks a lot about the people he cares about."
Panu studies him at that; Paul looks him in the eye, returning the handshake grip for grip — and Panu's expression breaks into a wry grin even as Teemu calls from the sink,
"Oy! I already said — nobody gives the ‘you break his heart I break your face' speech."
Panu snorts. "You say that to Paavo because he punch like a rabbit." He claps Paul on the shoulder, one final grin before he goes to help Liisa fetch glasses from a high shelf, and Paul lets some of the tension go with a long breath.
The feeling of having passed some sort of test quickly disappears, however, when Paavo appears at his side a split second later.
"Relax," Paavo says, handing him a glass of wine. "You want to sit?"
Paul glances around the empty living room. From the kitchen, he can hear Liisa clucking over her sons and Teemu's laughing replies. "I'm fine, actually. Long flight, you know? Kind of sore. From the flight, I mean." He ducks his head to taste the wine.
He glances back up to find Paavo looking at his left hand — and Paul realizes he'd been fidgeting with the ring on his finger. He tucks his hand in his pocket.
"So how long are you staying?" Paavo asks next.
Paul swallows a gulp of wine. "Just 'til Thursday."
"Plans for the weekend?"
"Yeah, I need to go see my family up in Vancouver."
"Teemu is not going with you?"
Hidden in his pocket, flush against his skin, the ring still feels cold enough to choke. Paul looks around for somewhere to put down his glass. "No, I mean, it was all kind of last minute." Which doesn't sound too good. "We're both pretty busy." Which sounds even worse.
He's saved by the doorbell ringing twice, thrice in quick succession, followed by a rapid knocking and the muffled sound of voices laughing and calling for Liisa. The matron in question bustles from the kitchen to the door, wiping her hands on her apron and motioning for Paavo to come with her.
The sound of voices crescendo into welcomes as the door opens. Paul is just wondering if maybe Liisa meant for him to follow her as well, when he feels a light touch on the small of his back, sliding down toward the back pocket of his jeans.
"Ready to make your good Canadian impression?" Teemu asks, smiling and very, very close.
"Are you feeling me up in your mother's living room?"
"Depends." Teemu's hand settles at his hip, his smiling mouth just shy of pressing a kiss to Paul's cheek. "Would you prefer the kitchen?"
"There you are!"
Paul feels Teemu's hand tighten at his waist, presumably to keep him from bolting, as a half dozen people pour into the living room, Liisa beaming over the whole gathering. Paul finds himself shaking hands and nodding to a hubbub of introductions, half in English, half in Finnish, while Teemu's hand remains right where it is.
"Aunt Ingiara," Teemu translates eventually, when Paul has to apologetically asks a diminutive woman with greying hair for her name a second time. "Paul, Auntie. Auntie, Paul. And this," to a dark-haired woman in professional clothes, "is Cousin Idde. Where's your husband?"
"Home with the kids," Idde replies breezily, giving Paul a quick handshake. "Better, trust me. You don't want him here for cooking."
Ingiara makes a noise of agreement, then stage whispers something to Liisa that sets all the women laughing. Paul looks to Teemu, who's barely managing to hold back laughter of his own.
"What?" Paul asks.
Teemu clears his throat. "She said only women allowed in the kitchen when they make, um, a traditional dish. For the party tomorrow."
"Bring luck to your wedding bed!" someone interjects.
Giggles ripple from the living room to the kitchen, where several cousins — along with Paavo, under Aunt Ingiara's watchful eye — are already setting out pots and pans and clearing away counter space. Paul gives Teemu a look, and gets a shrug in return.
"They joke," Teemu grins. He pauses to give Paul a once-over. "But you do have very good hips." He snickers when Paul shoves him away.
Liisa bustles past with a fond expression. She says something in Finnish to Teemu, then makes a little shooing motion at Paul as well. "You tired, yes?" she adds.
"We can go upstairs and unpack," Teemu translates. Liisa says something else, gesturing to the kitchen. "They have it under control here."
"Oh. All right, sure." Paul looks around. "I think — did we leave the luggage at the door?"
"Yeah, it's right over — wait, äiti!" Teemu rushes after his mother, who's disappeared down the hall; Teemu's frantic protest is quickly echoed down to the kitchen, and seconds later, Liisa is ushered back to the living room empty-handed while Idde and Anica, carrying a suitcase apiece, wave Teemu back toward Paul.
"You take care of him," he hears Idde say, "we take care of this."
Liisa follows after them, still determined to conduct the affair even though she's clearly been forbidden to lift a finger in the presence of younger and haler souls. Teemu gives Paul a helpless sort of shrug, and they follow the women upstairs.
Fifteen minutes later, including a minor luggage mishap and a thorough tour of the guest room — replete with new everything, from curtains to chairs to plush towels in the en suite — Liisa finally acquiesces and allows Idde and Anica to lead her back downstairs, leaving Teemu with a quick peck on the cheek and one final, fond look for Paul.
The door shuts after them in sudden silence, like curtains falling on a one-act play.
Paul exchanges a glance with Teemu, and finds him grinning from ear to ear. "Welcome to my family."
"It actually explains a lot about you."
Teemu just grins wider. "Naturally, I am the most charming of all of them, yes?"
"Naturally." Paul sits down on the bed, and the firm mattress is softened by what must be several layers of blankets and down comforters. He touches one of the pillows plumped beneath the covers, and the creeping shame creases suddenly in his chest. They'd gone to all this trouble and even bought a brand new bed for the room — for him, really, because he's supposed to be their new son.
He can still hear faint laughter drifting up from the kitchen; what sounds like Paavo's long-suffering protests, and Liisa's chiding voice.
The bed dips a little when Teemu sits beside him. "I know they are a little bit much. But you will like them, after you get used to it. Maybe in a few days."
Paul snorts. "I've had eight years to get used to you and you're still a bit much."
Teemu elbows him. "But that is why you married me, eh?"
Paul doesn't elbow him back.
"When are you going to tell them?" he asks instead.
There's a long pause. When he rubs his wrist, the ring on his finger feels almost as cold as the skin of his palm.
"Not right now," Teemu says eventually. "They are too happy. And anyway, it is not your responsibility to worry about."
"Yeah, except it kind of is. Considering."
Teemu grasps his hand without needing to be asked. "This is not your fault, Paulo. So you do not apologize."
It's what he needed to hear, Paul knows. And Teemu knows, as well, because he's Teemu, and they've never been anything if not attached at the hip and practically melded mind to mind.
"Let's unpack first," Teemu says. "We can go downstairs later, if you want."
Paul squeezes his hand back. "Yeah. Okay."
And even if it is what he needed to hear, it still doesn't stop him from lying awake half the night, Teemu a warm lump in the bed beside him, wondering why it's true: he doesn't want to apologize, absurd as it is; he never wants to apologize or retract or go back — not on this.
He wakes up the next morning to a soft knocking at the door.
"Teemu," Paul hisses, as Liisa's voice filters through, "Wake up."
Liisa knocks again, louder this time, and repeats what she asked earlier — or, at least, Paul thinks it's the same. He slightly regrets not taking up Teemu's offer to teach him the language, all those years ago, when Teemu used to joke that one day they'll end up in Finland.
Though, in his defense, whatever hockey terms Teemu might have taught him probably wouldn't help in the current situation.
A grumble, followed by Teemu's bleary head popping out from beneath the covers. He blinks at Paul, blinks at the door — mumbles something at Liisa, and burrows back into the pillows.
Paul listens for Liisa to start knocking again. She doesn't.
He shakes Teemu until he gets another garbled grumble. "What did your mother say? Does she want us to go downstairs?"
"Asking if we're awake," Teemu mutters, curling up to hog even more of the covers. "I said we're having sex."
He yelps when Paul abruptly yanks the covers back. "You told her what?"
Teemu gives him a sleepily reproachful look. "She thinks it anyway."
"Why would she— Okay, but you still didn't need to—"
"Paul." Teemu stops him with a hand firm on his shoulder. His expression is serious. Right up until, "Just be glad she knocked."
"We weren't doing anything!"
Teemu rolls out of bed, still snickering to himself. Apparently awake now, his face transforms into that familiar grin as he stretches with exaggerated lewdness. "What a considerate lover you are, Paulie. I don't even feel it."
He ducks the pillow Paul launches at his face, and darts into the bathroom before Paul can find a heavier projectile.
Paul flops back in bed, kicking the blankets down to his knees. If he spreads his arms a little, he can still feel the spot of warmth where Teemu was. It should be weirder, probably, he thinks, to share a fake marriage bed with your teammate and best friend and then start off the morning after with a sex joke. The fact that it's not weirder speaks volumes to the persistent lack of personal space with which Teemu Selanne has treated him from the very first day they met.
Between sharing meals and hotel rooms, sharing drinks and clothes and any number of horrendously invasive personal questions and answers over too many years and late nights to count — in the grand scheme of things, sharing a bed probably doesn't even rank in the top ten of Things Paul and Teemu Have Done That Other People Would Find Weird.
Considering things like how, when they finally go downstairs for breakfast, Teemu presses his hand low on the small of his back to usher Paul into a seat between Paavo and some of the cousins who showed up early to help out with party preparations. Paavo gives his brother a vaguely disapproving look, but Liisa beams at the two of them so hard, Paul is half-tempted to offer her his napkin as a preemptive measure.
It is unusual, probably, that all he and Teemu need to pass for a married couple are two rings and one mother's palpable blessing. But then, Paul reasons, Teemu has never been anything if not an exception to every rule.
And he can't explain it any better than that, except maybe in the way Teemu grins at him across the table, pours a steaming cup of coffee, and asks — perfectly deadpan — if Paul would like a seat cushion to soften the wooden chair. Paavo chokes on a sip of water; Paul kicks Teemu under the table, deflects Liisa's inquisitive look with a smile, and passes the bread along to the cousin sitting on his left.
"Teemu," Liisa calls, carrying a salad bowl the size of one of the little cousins currently running about the grassy pavilion, "Teemu, voitko tuoda enemmän lusikoita?"
Paul gives Teemu a quizzical glance when he says something back, only to receive a shooing sound from Liisa and a nod toward the house.
Teemu pats Paul's arm, says, "I'll be right back. They won't bite you," and disappears through the patio doors.
Which leaves Paul standing in the middle of his own wedding reception, surrounded by Teemu's extended family, with not a clue as to what to do next. Especially as one of the cousins, a girl of maybe five or six, tugs insistently at his sleeve and rattles off something that's definitely not in English.
"Um, sorry," Paul tries, a little disconcerted by how much her stubborn look of determination reminds him of his own sisters. "I didn't catch that?"
She sticks out her tongue at him, then repeats what she said — still in Finnish.
"Aali!" A blonde woman appears to scoop the girl up in her arms. To Paul, she offers an apologetic smile, "Sorry, my daughter — did she bother you? Aali, say sorry to uncle."
"Saw-ri," Aali sing-songs dutifully. Then she throws her arms around her mother's neck and lapses back into Finnish, looking expectantly from her mother to Paul and back.
"I'm afraid I'm not holding up my end of the conversation," Paul ventures. "What did she say?"
The woman laughs. "She asks if you are so psychic with Teemu because you are married. Aali watches too much hockey already."
"Oh." Paul scratches his head, feeling a wry grin creep across his face. "Well, I don't think marrying him changed that, either way. We've pretty much always been able to read each other's minds."
Aali listens to the translation of his answer, then adds an observation that makes her mother burst out laughing.
"Aali says maybe your other teammates also get married, so they play better like you." She grins and offers her hand. "I am Sofia, by the way."
"Nice to meet you. And you, Miss Aali."
Her curiosity apparently satisfied for the time being, Aali squirms in her mother's arms and points toward the long table where dinner is being laid out under Liisa's watchful eye. With a cheerful, "Talk to you later," Sofia lets her daughter steer her toward the spread.
He jumps when a pair of arms wrap around him from behind.
"Relax," Teemu says, head resting happily on Paul's shoulder, "we're married."
"Go fuck yourself," Paul tells him, and if it comes out more fondly than intended, it's probably so the children won't notice.
Teemu pinches him through his shirt. "I see you didn't wither away while I'm gone."
"No. I just got terrorized by one of your little cousins."
"Aali? She is five years old."
"She wanted to know if being married makes better hockey players."
"Oh my god." Teemu snickers against his neck. "What did you say to her?"
"The truth. Doesn't really matter, either way, we were always pretty much perfect together." On the ice, he means, but somehow it seems inappropriate to tag that on, just now.
It's probably his imagination that Teemu's arms tighten around him at that.
"Good," says Teemu, which doesn't really make sense. Paul doesn't get much time to parse that one, however, as Teemu pushes him toward the table. "Now come on, I'm starved. Have you had reindeer steak before?"
"So the whole winter, he goes around the house wearing dress and saying, ‘Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi'!"
Their end of the table explodes into laughter as Liisa finishes the story of how Teemu, age eight, had asked for a princess dress and a plastic lightsaber for Christmas. Teemu hides his face in his hands, shoulders shaking with laughter.
Paul elbows him. "So, should I dress up as Han Solo for Halloween?"
"Yeah, you laugh," Teemu retorts, "but I know you slept with a teddy bear until you're sixteen."
Someone to their left lets out an audible "aww", Paul makes a face at Teemu, and then passes the salad.
It could have been much, much worse, all things considered. The meal is plentiful and informal; Liisa had started things off with a quick toast and a blanket declaration that anybody else who wants to make a speech can throw their own wedding party. It's greeted by a round of laughter and general agreement that toasts could wait when there's food to be eaten and embarrassing stories to be told over many glasses of sparkling wine.
Teemu takes it upon himself to serve them both from the dishes passed around the table, keeping up an impressive monologue on the virtues of his mother's cooking while simultaneously stealing a bite of everything he puts on Paul's plate. Liisa alternates between scolding Teemu for bad habits and urging Paul to eat more — more salad, more casserole, more of the steak that's every bit as good as Teemu said it would be.
Just as Paul thinks he can't possibly manage another bite, Panu and Sofia return from the kitchen with a cake the size of a small snowdrift topped with a mountain of fresh raspberries.
"Come on, Han Solo," Teemu grins, accepting the cake knife from his brother, "smile for the photos."
Paul lets him cover his hands with his own, somebody wolf-whistles as they cut the cake together, and the berries leave a red stain on Teemu's smiling mouth when Paul feeds him the first bite.
The late-setting sun is low on the horizon by the time the plates are finally cleared. A handful of cousins build up a bonfire while others set up their equipment on a makeshift stage. Paavo turns on the fairy lights strung all over the pavilion, the band strikes up a lilting waltz, and Teemu grabs Paul by the hand.
"Okay, seriously," Paul protests as Teemu drags him to the dance floor. "Isn't this a bit much?"
Teemu just grins. His hands settle around Paul's hips. "Can't sit out of your own wedding."
It speaks to the amount of heady food and wine that Paul has just consumed, probably, that he lets that reason be enough to rest his hands on Teemu's shoulders and be led through the steps of the dance.
When the music changes to something more up-tempo, Teemu trades him off to the nearest cousin while he himself steals a dance with Liisa. Idde gives him an encouraging smile — "You two do look good together," — before passing him off to his next partner without missing a beat.
He loses track of Teemu somewhere in the midst of dancing with the entirety of the extended family, and it almost doesn't matter, because he finds an echo of Teemu's sunny smile in the face of every cousin and aunt who takes his hand.
Eventually he ends up with Panu, who gives Paul a quick grin before sweeping him around in a disorienting spin. Paul nearly trips over his own feet, and by the time he's regained his balance, Sofia has hold of his other arm and the two of them are dragging Paul into the house.
He barely has time to register his alarm before Sofia giggles in his ear, "Don't worry, you'll like this part."
Paul blinks at the sudden darkness of the kitchen, the only light what's reflected through the patio doors. Outside, the music stops, and a ripple of laughter takes its place. Sofia beckons him over to peer through the glass at the scene. The remaining relatives have formed a half-circle around Teemu, who's holding a mic and looking vaguely chagrined.
"He has to sing to get you back," Sofia explains. "It's traditional to steal the bride."
It takes Paul a second to think that over. "How come I'm the bride?"
"Harder to get Teemu drunk," Panu says, pouring a shot of something that Paul suspects is at least 90 proof. "One every time he messes up."
Paul takes the glass. "He's not going to mess up."
Sofia just gives him a knowing look, and pats his arm.
Three shots and an improbable number of karaoke blunders later, Paul cracks open the patio door to shout at Teemu, "Sing it right this time, you asshole!"
To which Teemu responds by falling dramatically to his knees, crying, "Oh, my bride! What song is good enough for you?"
Sofia drags Paul back inside, giggling against his sleeve. Panu pours them all another shot.
Teemu has to practically catch him to keep him upright by the time Panu and Sofia finally let him back outside. "You're the worst wedding singer ever," Paul mutters into his shoulder.
"And you are very drunk." Teemu doesn't let him go. "One more dance? With me?"
"You're lucky I like you." Paul lets Teemu pull him along. The music is slow enough that Paul can keep up. It occurs to him that he's not even moving his feet that much, just kind of swaying against Teemu. Which feels nice, actually.
"I know," Teemu answers quietly. "I am the luckiest man."
He's going to kill Panu, Teemu thinks, and not for the first time. Wedding games are one thing; getting Paul so drunk that Teemu has to practically carry him upstairs is quite another.
Paul flops onto the bed and kicks feebly at his own shoes, trying to dislodge them without much success. Teemu unlaces them for him.
"Thanks," Paul mumbles. Or at least Teemu thinks that's what he's trying to say; it's hard to tell when his face is pressed into the blankets.
He shrugs off his own jacket and goes to the dresser for a change of clothes. "You should drink some water."
"Nope," comes the muffled reply. "M'fine. I don't drink."
Teemu pulls on a worn old t-shirt. He sits down slowly on the bed, carefully touches the back of Paul's neck; his skin is shockingly warm, but his heart rate seems normal enough.
"You sure you're okay?"
Paul makes a contented sound, and Teemu catches himself caressing the nape of his neck. He pauses, but that just elicits a faint grumble from Paul, and his instinct is telling him to resume by running his fingers through Paul's hair.
Paul hums again, and leans into his touch.
"Move over," Teemu hears himself say after too long a pause. "You're taking up all the bed."
Paul grumbles and does so — but only about halfway. Teemu studies the space and decides to hell with it, he's slept in narrower seats on team buses and planes. He turns off the lamp and squeezes in.
He's not entirely prepared for Paul to throw an arm around him and plant his face against Teemu's chest. He's shaking — with laughter, Teemu realizes after a second. Laughing to himself over something, which turns out to be,
"Hey, you're not my teddy bear."
He laughs harder when Teemu tries to tickle him into submission.
"I married the world's biggest dork," Teemu sighs into the dark.
"Mmm. And I married the luckiest man in the world."
Teemu can hear the grin in his voice, and Paul's face is suddenly very, very close. His fingers tighten in the fabric of Paul's shirt.
"What are you doing?"
"Agreeing with you," Paul says, and kisses him.
His mother greets him with a huge smile when he wanders into the kitchen, the original plan of sleeping in abandoned as a lost cause. Paavo is up already, as well. Teemu pulls up a seat at the table, and Liisa asks if he wants fruit or salad with his breakfast.
"Just toast," Teemu replies. "Thanks, mom."
"You never eat enough in the off season," Liisa clucks, cracking another egg into the pan. "Is Paul joining us?"
Teemu pours himself a coffee. "He's still asleep."
"Did you tire him out?" Paavo returns Teemu's glare with a placid expression, takes another bite of his fruit salad. "Just asking."
"Why? That curious about what it'd be like with a guy?"
"No more than you."
"Wouldn't tell that to your girlfriend."
"I won't tell Paul if you won't tell her," Paavo answers, and Teemu considers that perhaps he should have spent more of their childhood making Paavo cry when he had the chance.
Liisa brings Teemu a heaping plate of eggs and toast. "Here we are. Now you just start with that, there's plenty more on the stove."
"Save some for Paul," Paavo suggests. "He'll need his stamina."
Before Teemu can say anything truly unfortunate, Liisa interjects, "Paavo, why don't you drive them up to the lake later? You don't have anything planned, do you?"
Teemu shrugs. "Depends on when Paul wakes up."
"It's not too far," Liisa says. "The boat's going to waste with no one using it, anyway. You can show Paul around."
"Or we could go skating," Paavo says off-hand.
Teemu stares his brother down. "We are not going skating."
"Did you check with Paul on that?"
"Oh, you two still bicker like children," Liisa chides. She whisks Paavo's plate out from under his nose, ignoring his incipient protest. "Now, before you go, can one of you boys take the car and fetch me some things from the market?"
"Sure," Teemu replies immediately, at the same time Paavo says, "I'll drive." Paavo raises one eyebrow at the look on Teemu's face. "Let me get the keys. Won't be a minute."
Teemu listens to his footsteps fade up the creaky stairs. He pushes a bit of egg around the plate, then puts down his fork, rubs his face. The coffee isn't doing much to wake him up. More importantly, it's doing nothing to rid him of the memory of Paul's lips on his.
It doesn't help that Paul likely won't even remember, if his previous track record of drunken factual retention is anything to go by. So Teemu should be glad, probably, that Paul fell asleep before it got much further than it did.
He downs the rest of his coffee and wonders if his mother would frown upon him asking for a bit of brandy to go with a second cup.
Liisa returns from the sink, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. She looks from Teemu's half-eaten breakfast to the empty coffee cup, and pulls up a chair.
"You know Paavo's just teasing, don't you? He'll be glad to spend some time with you and Paul."
"It's fine, I know." Teemu picks up his fork again.
His mother's hand on his stops him. "Teemu. What's wrong?"
"Nothing." The dregs of coffee leave a dark ring inside the cup, a black splotch on the rim. "It's been a long season."
She squeezes his hand. "Have you thought more about it?"
"The rest of your life," Liisa says. "I know you want to be with Paul, especially now, but you also have to take care of yourself."
Teemu shrugs. He looks out the kitchen window; the summer sun is already high and bright in the curtained panes. From here, the whole world looks blue and warm.
"It was supposed to be better, you know," he says quietly. "Colorado and — all of it. I had it all planned out."
"You can't plan everything, darling," Liisa says. "But you have Paul. And you can plan for that."
She brushes her thumb over the wedding ring on his finger, and her smile holds such faith that Teemu has to look away.
"Yeah," he says. "At least there's that."
Paavo does end up driving, mostly because Teemu had to go back upstairs to change — carefully, so as not to wake Paul — thereby allowing Paavo to get to the car first.
"Did you bring the list?" Paavo asks, about five minutes in.
Teemu blinks at the passing scenery. "Oh." He checks his pockets, though he already knows they're empty. "Should we go back? I think I remember most of it. Tomatoes, garlic... apples?"
"Cheese." Paavo fishes a slip of paper from his own pocket. "What would you do without me, brother of mine?"
"Die of calcium deficiency?" Teemu looks over their mother's neat handwriting. "But hey, I survived this long without you in America. I might surprise you."
"Guess it's what you do best."
"If you're going to make a point, just say it."
"I'm not making a point, I just have questions."
"Like what you're hoping to accomplish."
"Well, there's the Stanley Cup. World Championships. Olympic gold would be nice, too, but I'm not pushing my luck."
Paavo gives him one of his patented long-suffering looks. "I meant with Paul."
"I want to accomplish those things with him, too."
"Teemu, stop being obtuse."
"See, I know that's one of the big words you tried to teach me in primary school, but I never actually studied any of those flashcards."
The car bumps to a sudden stop on the unpaved shoulder of the road. Paavo throws on the emergency brake, turns to him and says,
"Do you really think putting a ring on his finger will magically make him love you back?"
Teemu glares in return. "I don't remember asking for your advice."
"And I don't remember asking for a brother-in-law, but here we are. Because you're just full of surprises like that." Paavo makes an aborted attempt at throwing his hands up; his wrist bumps against the console for lack of space. "Teemu, what the hell were you thinking? You can't marry someone first and then hope they'll say yes!"
"I don't need a damn marriage certificate to know he feels the same way," Teemu spits back.
"Do you? Really?"
"He's here, isn't he?" Teemu looks away, out the window to a view uninterrupted by ice or weights or a thousand media obligations. "You know how long it's been since the last time he took a vacation? He works so hard all the damn time, he doesn't even have time to think about anything besides hockey."
"Maybe he doesn't want to."
"Well, too bad. Because I do."
The silence goes on and on. When Teemu refuses to offer any further words of explanation, Paavo sighs. Starts the car again and steers it gently back onto the road.
"For what it's worth, I hope you're right," Paavo says. "Mom really likes him."
They take the boat out onto water that reflects a perfect summer day. Paavo's disapproval is writ plain on his face for Teemu to read, but then, Teemu has had a long time to learn his brother like an open book. Paul doesn't seem to notice, sitting at the helm with Paavo, who's taking their mother's word a bit too literally and dutifully playing tour guide to his new brother-in-law.
Teemu perches at the bow and counts each gentle wave rolling underneath.
In the midst of a still afternoon, they drop their fishing lines over the side. Paavo cracks open a couple of beers.
"Bring me one, will you?" Teemu calls.
"I can do that," Paul offers immediately, but Paavo has had just as long to get to know his own brother. He hands Paul his beer and urges him to relax; fishing isn't supposed to be stressful.
Teemu accepts the cold bottle and catches Paavo's hand along with it. "I need to talk to him."
"Then talk to him."
Teemu stares him down until realization dawns on Paavo's face. It's quickly followed by a withering glare.
"You couldn't have decided this before we set off?"
"The water's not that cold."
"After you, then."
"I need to talk to him." The bottle is icy against both their palms. "Please."
After a long moment, Paavo sighs. "You owe me so, so much."
"Always," Teemu says, and finally releases his hand. He calls to Paul, in English, "Hey, Paavo's going for a swim! How much will you bet his nuts freeze off before getting to the shore?"
Paavo gives him a poisonous look even as he strips off his shirt.
It's a warm day, but surely not that warm. When Paul voices this concern, however, Paavo just shrugs. "It's summer. In Finland." And apparently that's an acceptable reason, if Teemu's nonchalance is anything to go by. He watches Paavo dive into the water; he resurfaces with a slight yelp.
"You sure you're okay?" Paul calls.
Paavo gives them a slightly jerky wave. "Fine! See you back at the dock!" He takes off without a backward glance. Within a minute, he's a speck on the glimmering lake.
"And I thought you were the crazy one in the family."
Teemu drinks his beer.
Paul hazards a glance over when there's no quick, laughing retort. Teemu is still watching the lake, though by now Paavo has all but disappeared from sight. The distance between them would be comfortable, reasonable even, were it anybody else but Teemu on the boat with him.
"So," he tries, "you going for a swim as well?"
"Nah," Teemu says dismissively. "One of us needs to continue the family name."
Paul snorts. "Oh, right. How could I forget. You only wedded me for my childbearing hips."
Teemu grins at that, but the smile still doesn't reach his eyes.
They sit and watch the fishing lines. Paul's beer sweats condensation onto the scuffed white deck, and the absolute stillness of the lake makes every silence seem magnified.
"When we get back stateside," Paul says. "You know. I'm thinking we should be able to get an annulment. It'd be faster. And better, overall. Probably."
Teemu drinks his beer.
"I can get Michiko to prepare the paperwork."
"If that's what you want," is Teemu's reply.
Paul watches him watch the lake, and considers the possibility that, all told, it's only ever been one of them who knows how to make the other smile. Even if they're here — even if Liisa pats his hand, at breakfast, lingering over the ring on his finger with a hint of tears in her eyes — even if he remembers how Teemu danced with him, laughed with him, eating cake that turned his smiling mouth red — even if he remembers nothing but an overwhelming sense of peace, falling asleep still in his clothes and waking up alone but not lonely — even so. Teemu deserves better.
"I did not understand it," Teemu says, "when my parents divorced. I know what it means, technically. But I thought, they were together for so long. If you stay with someone then surely that means you love them. So when they said to us, they waited for us to grow up before getting the divorce, I thought, one of those things is a lie."
It's Paul's turn to drink his now-lukewarm beer. While he tries to think of something to say, Teemu continues,
"Right after, I proposed to my girlfriend." Teemu smiles to himself at the memory. "I did not even have money for a ring, but I told my father, I'm marrying this girl."
"And she said yes?"
"She should have said no." Teemu trails his hand over the side of the boat. His fingertips leave ripples that echo and disappear. "I learned that you should not pretend to love someone to prove a point."
"No," Paul agrees. His throat feels dry, but the taste of beer just makes it worse. "I understand. Like I said, as soon as we get back—"
"You kissed me last night."
The apology dies on his lips. "What?"
"You don't remember, do you?"
"I— ...no?" His face feels hot, in stark contrast to the cold flush prickling at his hands. Paul grips the beer bottle harder; it doesn't make a difference. "I was pretty drunk."
"You were more drunk when you married me," Teemu points out. "It does not change a person. You only do things you tell yourself you should not, usually."
"Maybe." Paul doesn't add that this is exactly why he doesn't drink. It seems superfluous, considering. "But what do you want me to say? I swear I'm not trying to make your life difficult, if that's what you think."
"No, I do not think that," Teemu says, still so unbearably gentle, as if his words could break bones. "What I am telling you is, I would not marry just anybody. No matter how drunk I am. And I do not think you would, either."
The pause goes on forever, while Paul tries to think of a reply. Nothing comes. Because there's nothing to say. Except,
"I can't be married to you."
"Because." It's obvious, isn't it? But Teemu does this sometimes, Paul knows, pretends not to understand when the answer is plain for everyone to see. He shakes his head, as much to clear his own mind as anything else. "This is insane."
"This is not a joke to me."
"Then maybe look harder for a punch line!" Paul nearly shouts. He sucks in a breath, checks himself. "This isn't real, and we're getting an annulment. End of discussion."
Paul nearly trips over a coil of rope as he removes himself from Teemu's vicinity, sitting as far astern as the boat will allow. When he looks back, Teemu's whole body is tight with anger, the kind that Paul has seen only once, maybe, in all the time they've known each other.
Teemu yanks the fishing lines from the water, empty.
Neither of them says a word the whole way back to shore.
The door opens even as he fits the key into the lock.
Paul stares at Michiko, who gives him a flat look and walks back to the kitchen table piled with neat stacks of manila folders and neatly-clipped documents in triplicate. Paul steps into his own house.
Neither of them says hello. Neither of them says anything, until Michiko puts together a sheaf of papers and walks over to the marble-top island that Paul never uses.
"And how are you, Michiko?" she prompts on his behalf. "Oh, I'm fine, thanks for asking. I had a wonderful week as well, while you were adventuring off in Scandinavia. Spent some really quality afternoons and mornings and midnights working on procuring legal documents without leaving any identifiable trace, but that's because I'm a great sister and what's family if you can't depend on them for everything up to and including an accidental marriage?"
"I'm taking back my key," Paul tells her. He dumps his carry-on at the sofa and wheels his suitcase toward the bedroom. "Can we do this after I've gotten some sleep?"
Michiko ignores him. She places a pen atop the papers. "Sign where I marked. I'll run these down to the clerk — who, I might add, was extremely generous to allow you to file in absentia. I'll get Teemu's signature on the way down. And you owe me $5,000."
"For organizing your life, and bribing a judge."
"You did what?"
"I did nothing, as far as you know." She snatches the suitcase from his hands. "And you also didn't marry anybody in Vegas, because plausible deniability is still alive even if your brain cells aren't."
"I asked you to do me a favor, not barge into my house and lecture me."
"I'll unpack," Michiko continues as if she can't even hear him. "When I come back, those better be signed."
She disappears into the bedroom before he can think of a retort.
He goes to the island, sits on one of the inconveniently high bar stools that Michiko insisted he needed for a house like this, picks up the first page of the annulment form and reads the neat boxes filled with his sister's handwriting but his own name and future.
He puts the paper back down.
It's a damnably long flight, Helsinki to California, made longer by the utterly polite silence that Teemu treated him to. They'd managed, somehow, the rest of their stay in Liisa's house; Paul watched TV with Paavo while Teemu went out for a long drive ("I get to spend the rest of my life with him," he quipped to Liisa's pointed question of where her middle son thought he was going, "you guys enjoy him for a while") — but eleven hours of sleepless, motionless drifting across the Atlantic was another kind of impossible altogether.
Standing in front of the taxi that would take him home, Paul turned back to Teemu. Who was no longer wearing the ring. Paul twisted the metal band off his own finger as well.
"Keep it," Teemu said before Paul could offer any words of his own. "I won't need it."
He's still thinking about the way Teemu stuck his hands in his pockets, the shape of his shoulders as he disappeared into the crowd in search of a ride of his own — when Michiko returns to the kitchen. She takes one look at the untouched pile of papers.
"Have you forgotten your own name while you were away?"
"Have you lost your soul while I was away?" Michiko's answering glare makes him want to hide his face in his hands. Paul pushes away from the counter. "I don't want to do this right now, okay? I'll come up to Vancouver this weekend, and you can cross my t's and dot my i's for me then."
"Why are you fighting me on this?" She sounds somewhere between angry and bewildered. "You're the one who asked me to take care of it."
"Yeah, well — maybe I changed my mind."
"I don't want you to take care of it, or anything, and especially not my life, so can you just get out of my house and leave me the hell alone?"
"Why?" Michiko practically shouts. "Because you have such a great track record of making good decisions about your nonexistent life outside of hockey? Or so you can stay pretend-married to your pretend-boyfriend for another two days? Because that is just beyond sad!"
"You know what? Fine." Michiko grabs her purse. Her heels clack across white tiled floor. "But you'd better remember, and remember why and how — I'm the one in your corner. And I'm the only one."
The door slams in her wake.
Sleep doesn't come, no matter how still he lies or how many breathing exercises he does. Every muscle in his body aches with some nameless frustration that refuses to quiet down. It's nothing new, not exactly, but it rattles him, it always does, when his body won't do as his mind wants.
Around four, he grabs his skates and goes down to the rink. He has a key, because management got tired of sending someone to let him in at all hours of the day and night. Paul likes the arrangement just fine.
He yanks the laces a little too tight, realizes he left his gloves in his other bag, and then realizes he doesn't care. The ice feels buttery smooth. He cuts crisp figure eights until his breath steams in the cold and ridges of slush mar the rink from end to end.
He pushes the blades in deeper, turns sharper, faster, crossing and recrossing until his left skate skids on a torn-up patch and he falls on his ass.
His breath fogs under the floodlights. The cold seeps through his jeans. He can feel the cut-up ice beneath his fingers, and feels the way its harsh edges will never fit perfectly in his hands.
He goes home for a change of clothes, calls his mother, and watches dawn break through a circular window aboard the first flight out to Vancouver.
Four hours later, he sits in the kitchen that remains unchanged from his childhood. It doesn't feel smaller; the only thing that feels different is him. Sharon puts on the kettle and asks if he's had breakfast.
"I'm fine, mom, really," he says for maybe the third or fourth time when she pokes her head back into the fridge.
She sighs at him but brings just two mugs of tea, to set on matching knit coasters. Paul recognizes his grandmother's handiwork; something in him quails at that.
"I thought you were coming up with Michiko tomorrow," Sharon says. Then, when Paul lets the pause between question and answer linger a little too long, "Did you two have a fight?"
"No," comes the automatic response, and Paul winces inwardly at childish habits. "No. We — had a difference of opinion."
"Nothing wrong with having an opinion."
"Tell that to her."
He's being petulant, he knows, and it doesn't help that the only sleep he's had since leaving Helsinki was the fitful two-hour nap on the flight here. He hurts in a way that has nothing to do with exercise or jet lag, and when he peers down at his tea the steam prickles at his skin and the corners of his eyes.
"Paul," he hears his mother ask, "what's this all about?"
He thinks about saying, My sister has a better handle on my life than I do, or maybe, I married my best friend and I don't even remember saying yes, or even, There's a little girl in Finland who thinks love is the same thing as success.
What he says, instead, is,
A truck goes by, outside. In the neighbor's yard a dog barks and a child's voice follows before it fades. The fridge hums and rusty pipes cough in the recesses of this old house. When Paul looks up, his mother is watching him — not with judgment, or disgust, or confusion. She looks, oddly, worried. As if he's gone and fallen off his bike or gotten into a fight with someone twice his size even though she was forever reminding him to be careful because he'd always been one of the tiniest kids in every age group, even before they moved him up to teams that matched his skill rather than his years.
She says, "Paul, sweetheart," like it's breaking her heart as well, "you know you can't tell anyone else."
He knows. Of course he knows, because how can he not? Still, it's harder than it should be to answer, "Yeah," and, "I wanted to tell you, at least."
She reaches over and grasps his hand, her own fingers warm from the mug and gripping his just a little too tight. "Oh, sweetheart. Is that what you've been worrying about? You know I love you, so much, and this was never something to worry about."
It takes a second for the meaning to process. "Wait." He blinks at her. "You already knew?"
They stare at each other for a second. Then she gives him a wry grin. "I'm your mother, aren't I? And I have eyes."
And — well. Paul can't help but smile back, an echo of hers. It seems a little absurd, suddenly, to think he could carry a secret alone. And it was never his own, anyway, even if Michiko finding out had been more of a necessity than anything else.
"Figures," he says, "Michiko wasn't that surprised, either," — and the thought that follows on its heels makes his stomach flip and his throat close up again.
Sharon's brow furrows. "Is that what your fight was about? I assumed she'd be supportive."
"No. She's known for a while."
"Oh. Good. I mean, I'd hoped she would be, though we've never spoken—"
"Did dad know?" Paul asks before he loses his nerve.
Sharon doesn't let go of his hand, her eyes crinkled somewhere between tears and a smile. "Your father was so, so proud of you. He had a hard time saying it, but he loved you, too."
It's not an answer, and they're both aware, but in a way that's answer enough. Paul withdraws his hand to curl around his rapidly cooling mug.
"So, who do I have left to tell?" It sounds like a plausible enough continuation to be natural. "I kind of assumed Michiko told Steve, and Noriko would have gotten it out of him in five seconds flat."
"No, I don't think so. Noriko — well, you know how she is."
"Yeah. So what's one more reason for her to hate me?"
Sharon is silent for a moment. "You can't tell your grandmother. You know that, don't you?"
Her eyes are imploring for him to agree, and he should, he knows. He knows. And yet.
"It would kill her," Sharon continues when he doesn't say yes. "Baa-chan is still coming around to the idea that you might not get married before she dies, and I think she's only okay with it because she believes one day you will."
"But I am married," Paul points out. "She just doesn't know."
It gets him a disapproving look, and deservedly.
Sharon sighs. "I want you to be happy — we all do, but you also have to give yourself a chance. Putting obstacles in your own way isn't going to accomplish that. And you've never been able to make it easy on yourself, I know, but just this once, sweetheart. Please."
Her voice is unbearably gentle, and he can hear how much she wants it to be his truth; and he can understand, even if he can't accept.
So he says, "I know, mom," and, "I'm sorry," and, "I don't mean to make you worry."
Sharon abandons her seat to hug him; Paul remembers a time when he would have had to stand up to make up the height difference, but now, he wraps his arm around his mother's shoulders with ease.
"I know you must be going through so much. But I know you'll get this all sorted out, and who knows? It'll be different someday. And once you're done playing, you won't have to worry about the media or management or any of that, and Michiko might even take a day off."
Paul snorts at that, and Sharon laughs as well.
"You'll meet someone, Paul," she adds, and fondness nearly makes up for certainty. "You will. You deserve it."
No one answers when he rings the bell. Paul peers over the hydrangeas into a dark living room window. None of the lights are on, but then, it's not actually dark enough for that. He knocks at the door, in case the bell isn't working, and is just thinking about going around back to the patio door when he hears the lock turn.
"Hey," he starts to say, and the rest of the explanation he thought up — for why he's here, unannounced, with his carry-on still in his hands — dies when he sees who just opened the door.
Michiko looks at him like he's something particularly unpleasant she just found on the bottom of her shoe. "What are you doing here?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
"I'm here to save you from your latest bad decision, and," she adds, looking him up and down, "preempting your next one, apparently. Have you even slept?"
"Yes. Not that it's any of your business."
"What, I'm not supposed to care about my brother's health and happiness?"
"Michiko—" Paul just stops himself from clutching at his own hair, because it's not like a fitful nap on the flight down did his hair any favors in the first place. "I think I know better than you what's good for me, all right? Also, what are you doing here?"
Michiko opens her mouth to reply, and a voice behind her says,
Teemu looks like he's slept even less than Paul has, if possible. He moves slowly down the hallway to the door, glancing between the two siblings as if unsure who's more likely to bite his head off for interrupting.
"Good timing," Michiko says, not even looking at Teemu. "Sign the forms, Paul. So we can all get this over with."
"What?" Paul asks, and then notices the papers Teemu is holding. A pen is in his other hand, and he hands both over while Paul searches for the right question, the explanation that had been crystallizing even as he sat in his mother's kitchen, not eight hours ago.
Finally, he manages, "Can you give us a minute?" and closes Teemu's own front door in his face.
The hydrangeas are blue and sweet in failing afternoon light. Michiko crosses her arms.
"Leave," Paul tells her. "Please."
"As soon as you sign those."
Paul clips the pen to the topmost page, folds the entire sheaf in half in complete disregard of how legal documentation should be mailed and filed in oversized envelopes so as not to crease or otherwise damage them in any way.
"I'm not signing anything. So you can just go now."
Michiko keeps her arms crossed. "I was having a very nice chat with Teemu, you know. Before you got here."
"Good for you?"
"He didn't seem too surprised when I showed up," Michiko continues. "Though of course, I called ahead, like normal people would. And as normal people would, he agrees that the sooner you get this annulled, the better."
The paper crumples slightly in Paul's fist. "He did not. Why would he say that?"
Michiko throws up her hands. "Because anything else would be completely stupid?" She sighs, and her expression changes to something softer, sadder. "Paul, you guys can't be married. You can't be together, do you understand? I don't care if you think you're prepared, because trust me, you are not."
"You don't know that."
"I know you think you've had an epiphany or something. And I know Teemu hasn't got a disingenuous bone in his entire being, and he can't lie for shit, so I'm not even going to ask what happened in Finland because it doesn't matter — you just can't." Michiko reaches for his hands. "I am sorry, but that doesn't change facts."
Paul watches her slim fingers close around his. He squeezes back, lightly, then presses the crumpled annulment forms into her hands.
"Here are some facts, then," he says quietly. "You once told me you'd have my back no matter what, even if I'm gay, because I'm still your favorite brother. And I believed you, though it didn't matter until now. I've been careful. I've been discreet, and I swear to you that's not going to change. But this is the no matter what you promised me, Michiko. And I need you to have my back."
"Paul," she starts, and he shakes his head, cutting her off.
"I'm probably not prepared, you're right. But that's what I have you for, and that's — what I need him for, too." Paul doesn't let go of his sister's hands. "I wouldn't marry just anybody, you know that. He knows it, too. So please. Let me give myself a chance on this."
The silence goes on forever. Shadows stretch across the face of Teemu's house, turning green grass blue to match the hydrangeas' rustling.
"Well, you're wrong about one thing," Michiko says, just a little thickly. "Steve's my favorite brother."
"When's the last time you even talked to Steve?"
"Oh, shut up." And then she's hugging him, her arms clinging just a bit too tight to be completely comforting; but then, Paul figures, a little desperation is probably called for, all things considered.
"I'll call you later," he promises as she turns away in the half light, furtively wiping her eyes.
Michiko snorts at him, "Yeah, you'd better," and, softer, "Good luck."
Paul stands on the front step, hands in his pockets, and watches his sister get into her car and drive away. The headlights cut a white path through purple dusk. Behind him, the door opens.
He turns around, slowly; Teemu has one hand on the doorframe, the other on the door, knuckles white as if he's using both to hold himself up.
And the sudden thump in Paul's chest has nothing to do with jet lag or anxiety — and really, it shouldn't have taken him this long to realize it.
"You heard all that," he says, and it's not a question.
Teemu looks straight at him. "Yes."
Paul takes a deep breath. "I meant what I said."
"Yes. I know."
"Okay. So. Is that — you agree with all those things, then?"
"Yeah," Teemu says, grin crooked and creasing the corners of his eyes, "I do."
Paul steps over the threshold and kisses him.
Teemu's hands fall away from the door to Paul's hips. In the failing light, the house is dark with shadows, but Teemu's mouth is soft and insistent on his, and it's been years since either of them needed to look to know what the other wants.
When Teemu steps back, question unspoken in the tilt of his body, Paul simply takes his hand, and follows.
"So," Teemu asks, later, languid and sleepy against the sheets, "can I ask you something?"
Paul traces a lazy pattern across his chest, along the curve of muscles to the necklace coiled below his throat. The plastic surfboard pendant is incongruous with 14 karat gold; he kind of likes how it stands out.
"Anything you want," he replies.
Teemu catches his hand when it starts to wander lower. "Paul."
"I am asking a serious question."
Paul kisses his shoulder. "Okay."
"Is this how you are going to be now, all the time?"
"I don't know." Paul presses his mouth to one sharp collarbone, feels Teemu shiver when he uses a bit of teeth. "Do you want me to be?"
"I want you all the time. Ever since first time I saw you."
"I'm that hot, huh?"
Teemu snorts. "You are that hard to get."
Paul pulls himself up until his arms are bracketing Teemu's face. His shadow falls across lips already bitten red, so really, what's another bite mark or two?
"I'm actually pretty easy," Paul says, when he has room for words again. "But usually I don't realize it."
Teemu smiles up at him. His palm is warm against Paul's cheek.
"What changed your mind?" Teemu asks.
"I mean, when I asked you — after I made Paavo swim so I can talk to you. You seemed very sure."
The afternoon on the lake already feels like a distant memory, blurred around the edges. "I panicked," Paul says softly. "I don't know. Maybe because it's easier than dealing with suddenly getting offered something you never thought you'd have."
"So what changed?"
"I've wanted you for as long as I've known you." He presses a kiss to the palm of Teemu's hand. "That never changed. I just suck at realizing things, that's all. It took me a couple days."
"You should have realized I wanted you," Teemu observes. "I mean, I was feeling you up in my mother's kitchen."
Paul snorts. "You know, I don't know if most people would agree that's the romantic gesture you seem to think it is."
"Well, most people — they are not me."
Teemu's grin is patently obnoxious, to go with a patently obnoxious line. But his eyes are soft, and the words are all the louder for being unspoken.
So it's okay, Paul decides, to want to kiss him again right then, obnoxious grin and all. And if he'll probably want to for the rest of his life, well, that's probably okay, too.
"So," Teemu asks, sometime later, "what do we do next?"
Paul tucks his head against Teemu's shoulder. He can hear the yawn threatening his own voice when he says, "Not that catching up on years of awesome sex isn't great or anything. But we could also save some for tomorrow."
He feels more than hears Teemu laugh. "I didn't mean that."
"Oh." Paul yawns. "Good. Because I'm probably gonna fall asleep on you."
"I meant," Teemu continues, "what happens next. With this."
"What happens next year." Teemu's voice is suddenly quiet, too serious. It sets off some instinctive alarm bell inside Paul's head, and he opens his eyes as Teemu continues, "What happens if — when we're not together."
Paul blinks at the ceiling for a second. Hockey, it takes him a second to realize — to remember. And that's interesting, all on its own. But neither here nor there.
He reaches for Teemu's hand. "Nothing happens. I'm not going anywhere."
"I know, but—"
"No, I mean." Paul sits up, so he can see Teemu's face. "It doesn't matter. I'll go with you. If you want to go back to Finland, for next year or—"
"What if I don't play?"
They both look down at Teemu's knee at the same time.
Paul tightens his grip on Teemu's hand.
"You do whatever you need to do. I'll be there. I mean it."
The sadness in Teemu's smile looks so out of place. "You can't just say that, Paulie."
Sure I can, Paul wants to say, because what can't they do, the two of them together? Whether or not there are skates strapped to their feet is irrelevant. It's never just been about that.
There's a certain reckless joy in the thought, but it doesn't translate well into words. Instead, Paul kisses Teemu, hard and quick, and hops off the bed to look for his clothes.
"No, just stay there," he amends, when Teemu starts to get up after him. Paul pulls on his shorts and finds his trousers draped over a chair. One pocket yields a handful of Canadian coins. The other — "Right, okay."
Teemu scrambles back a bit to avoid being sat on when Paul bounds back into bed. "What," he starts to ask, before Paul cuts him off,
"This." He holds up their wedding ring. "I know I don't remember, and when you gave this to me I thought it was just to fool your family. But it's real, now. And always will be, whatever happens next."
Teemu says nothing when Paul takes his hand, says nothing when Paul slides the ring onto his finger.
"I know we can't wear them in public or anything," Paul continues, "but whatever happens next year, or however long it takes — wherever we go or whatever we have to do to get there. I signed this contract for life."
And I intend to see it out, he doesn't add. Doesn't need to, judging by the look on Teemu's face; his mouth curves in that way Paul knows, when he's trying to hold back a smile, and the glimmer in his eye marks him as his mother's son after all.
"Well," Teemu says, when he's done kissing Paul breathless, "not the longest I have waited, for your holdouts."
It takes Paul a second to get the joke.
Then he shoves at Teemu, who just laughs, and laughs harder when Paul tickles him to get enough leverage to flip them over. Teemu touches his cheek, reverent, possessive, the ring a flicker of cold against his skin.
"I love you, you know," Teemu says.
Paul kisses him. "I know."
More Than Meets The Eye
Paul Kariya confident that Nashville is the right choice for more than one reason
August 8, 2005 | Donna Pusheen | Times Staff Writer
Everything happens for a reason. That's the way Paul Kariya sees it.
With the season-long lockout finally coming to an end, rumors turned from when NHL play would resume to who would lead the way when it did.
And after a subpar season with the Colorado Avalanche, Kariya was ready to make his case that he's still one of the best in the business. But where would he stage his comeback? Los Angeles? Toronto? New York?
That’s right. Nashville.
"You can't judge everything just by the way it looks," Kariya said when asked about his surprising new contract. "Nashville is a really good, young hockey club and they're only going to get better. I have a lot of respect for the way they play and the smart management. This is the right decision for me, for a lot of reasons."
It's not the first time Kariya has shocked the league with a move that nobody expected. You might even say this is Kariya's signature move: the last time he swapped team colors, he took a record $8.8-million pay cut to join Colorado after nine years as the beloved face of the Mighty Ducks franchise.
A major part of that decision was the chance to play with his close friend and hockey soulmate, Teemu Selanne. But after their ill-fated stint with the Avs, you have to ask: is Kariya making another mistake with the Predators?
Ask that to Kariya, however, and he'll just give you a patient smile.
"Everything happens for a reason. Even though I was injured, I cherish the time I got to spend playing with an incredible team. You had to be there to understand it, maybe. But I don’t regret my decision to go to Colorado with Teemu."
Speaking of which, Selanne might be the only other person unsurprised by this week's headline.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Selanne said. “You maybe don’t understand at first, but you always see he makes the right decision.”
A biased opinion? Consider that odd rumor from last week: that Selanne and Kariya — who, obviously, have never heard the saying "lightning doesn't strike twice" — are angling to, once again, sign for the same team.
It sounds wildly improbable. Almost, you might say, as unbelievable as Paul Kariya playing for the Nashville Predators.
If Kariya is eager to prove himself, then Selanne is desperate. The nine-time All-Star forward has recaptured some momentum playing in Finland last year. But the road back is long yet. How and where he plays next season will be pivotal.
And Nashville, with an attack-minded philosophy and nothing to lose, might not be the most illogical choice.
But whether a reunion is in the cards or not, for the time being, Selanne is keeping those cards close to his chest.
"What happens, happens," Selanne said with a trademark smile. "Paul has my support, and I have his. Whatever happens, that's all you can ask for."