My Last Day Without You
Chapter 4: Interference

by Quinn D.K.

Ezra couldn't even look at the ice arena clerk as Henrik tried in vain to explain the accident. There was some back and forth about insurance, contacting the Knights' management or owners, and money - lots of money - in amounts that Ezra knew he'd never have in his entire life. Henrik agreed to pay for the damage in full. Thankfully he didn't mention what led to his distraction and the Zamboni itself only had a few scuffs to show for their little escapade. The goaltender net, however, was a lost cause.

Ezra's guilt was so heavy that he couldn't lift his eyes off the ground until he and Henrik left the arena. "I'm not usually this expensive of a date," he said, forcing a mortified smile.

"It was my fault. I was driving," Henrik assured him. "And I don't mind, I've offered to make a donation to the arena in addition to the damage fees. I think they could use an outdoor rink and maybe some recreational programs in the winter. You know, for kids."

Ezra might have been all thumbs when it came to sports but he was aware of how obscene a professional athlete's salary was. Their whole afternoon's worth of activities probably wasn't even a dent in Henrik's wallet. "That's really sweet of you," Ezra finally said, feeling a tiny bit lame.

Henrik nodded and looked skyward, squinting at the sun in the clear winter sky. It was unusually warm for a February day. "Would you like me to escort you back home?"

Ezra's heart sunk. "Oh, uh- are we- is this... done?"

Henrik started down the steps of the arena entrance, bashful. "I didn't want to take up too much of your time, in case you were getting tired of me."

Bewildered but amused, Ezra laughed. "Did I seem tired when we were on that Zamboni?"

A knowing smile creased Henrik's face. "Not to my recollection..."

Ezra reached the last step and took the hockey captain's hand. Their skin warmed against each other. "If I wanted our date to end, I'd tell you. I promise. But I'm not ready for that yet."

Henrik's hand squeezed over his. "Neither am I."

"Good." Ezra enjoyed the kind, silent moment between them, understanding that they wouldn't be allowed many more soon.


"Hey, what about this store?"

Ezra and Henrik had been walking down Queen Street for a good fifteen minutes with no real concrete plan - just talking and enjoying the weather. Ezra mentioned in passing that he'd moved into his current apartment two months ago, which in Henrik's opinion was still early enough to earn a housewarming present. Ezra didn't think the man was being serious until they stopped in front of a novelty gift shop.

"What about this store?" Ezra blinked. A row of hipster-Canadiana trinkets were on display behind the glass: t-shirts of stylized lumberjacks, coffee mugs featuring sunglass-clad moose, beanies and toques, vintage Toronto maps.

"Anything catch your eye?" Henrik leaned in and squinted at the array of gifts. "I think every new apartment needs a thermos covered in cartoon Mountie figures."

Ezra laughed and playfully shoved Henrik in the side, not all that surprised that the big lug didn't even budge.

"Come on, I'm serious," Henrik said. "I want to get you something for your new place."

"It's a nice thought," Ezra sighed. "But I don't know if it'll even be my place that much longer." Henrik began to reply but Ezra stopped him. "Which is okay. I mean, if this continues through March and April and I have to move back in with my mom, it won't be that big of a deal. A blow to my independence and sanity, maybe..."

Henrik thought for a moment. "How much does this place cost?"

Ezra's fingers danced against the shop window. "Without a job, pretty much any place is out of my range. Really, you don't need to get me a housewarming present. It'd just be a waste."

Henrik didn't seem dismayed. He pushed open the shop door and motioned for Ezra to step inside. "Let me be the one to do the wasting, then."

"Ha. Who says romance is dead?" Ezra stepped into the store and was surprised to find the shop's eclectic offerings also included an array of flowers and plants. Henrik followed him in and marveled at the selection.

"You know," Ezra's voice had a hint of conspiracy, "This gift-giving scheme is an awfully sneaky way for you to come and see my place for yourself."

Henrik affected mock-surprise. "Oh? I never even considered that.."

Ezra drew closer, his hand creeping up the lapel of Henrik's suit jacket. "But you're more than welcome, if you have the time to spare."

"I definitely do." The way Henrik growled out the words made the soft hairs on Ezra's arms stick straight up. "Hope that's not too pushy of me."

"I don't mind pushy... for today, at least," Ezra said.

"Then I'm all yours. Until the press conference, I should say."

"Press conference?"

"Me and the other guys blew off the press after last night's game to go celebrate, so management set up another conference tonight. Answer questions about our technique, settle trade rumors, give our usual post-game comments, that type of thing. I know it sounds like a drag but it's part of the profession."

Ezra tried not to frown. "And attendance is mandatory?"

"For the team captain, unfortunately. It's at 8 sharp."

Ezra glanced at his phone and saw it was nearly 3 pm. Five more hours. Bummer, he thought glumly. But hey, you're not allowed to be disappointed. No unrealistic expectations means no huge disappointments.

His phone buzzed before he had a chance to slip it back into his pocket. "That's probably my sister." Ezra had been playing phone tag with her all day, the two of them missing each other's calls by mere seconds. She was only a year older than him and they talked to each other about everything. The fact that they hadn't connected yet over his newly forced retirement was odd.

"Spoke too soon," Ezra said, deflated. His phone didn't display a text message, but a Twitter notification. "Ah, shit."

"What's wrong?" Henrik said from somewhere in the shop.

"It's a Twitter notification but it's from my work account. Former work account, I mean."


"Yeah, I was in charge of the Entertainment handle. They haven't changed passwords yet. That's pretty damn dangerous of them."

"How so?"

Ezra shrugged and scanned the account's recent tweets. They were all written by him. "PopViralEnt has over 75 thousand followers and a disgruntled ex-employee still has keys to the castle."

"So you could, uh, Rickroll them? You know, out of revenge?"

Ezra suppressed a chuckle. Somehow it made perfect sense that Henrik's frame of reference for memes was a little outdated. "And while I'm back in 2007, I'll just warn everyone about the impending global financial crisis."

"I think it might actually be too late by then."

Ezra looked up but couldn't see the man anywhere. "Marco?"


Ezra spun around to find Henrik peeking through the lush leaves of a potted houseplant. The sight of the towering hockey captain attempting to camouflage himself was odd enough to make Ezra laugh. "I hate to say it, but you're too tall to be stealthy."

Henrik lifted the plant from its base and cradled the pot in his arms. "What do you think of this for your place? A housewarming plant is a symbol of good fortune."

"Yeah?" Ezra smiled. "I could use a bit of good fortune. But I still feel like it's too late to call it a housewarming."

"Please," Henrik carried the plant to the cashier desk. "In Sweden, you don't normally buy gifts for new homeowners until long after they're moved in and settled. I've been living in Portland for five years and my parents only just sent a card last week."

That made Ezra laugh again. He ignored the insistent buzzing of his phone, figuring it was just the PopViral Twitter account again. Eh, it's not my problem. Let them figure out they haven't changed the password. Who gave a shit? He wasn't responsible for it anymore.

Henrik finished paying for the plant and carried it out of the shop with Ezra at his side.


"Toronto actually reminds me a lot of Brooklyn," Henrik said as they made their way through the crowded streets of Chinatown. He was quite a sight, this colossal man in a sharp blue suit supporting a potted plant in one arm like a sleeping child.

"I know, right? I say that to everyone," Ezra nodded. "I visited Brooklyn last summer and it's all I could think about. It was like an alternate universe - a Toronto where everyone has asymmetrical haircuts and fixed gear bikes."

Henrik chuckled. "Do you travel a lot?"

"Oh, god no. Never had the money for it. When I have a day off I usually just sleep for 14 hours."

"Do you want to travel?" Henrik's tone aimed for casual but Ezra heard hints of a hopeful suggestion.

"Well, sure. But want and can are two very separate things for me right now."

They stopped at a Chinese pastry stand and picked up a bag full of sweet buns: taro, red bean, pineapple, sesame. Ezra insisted on paying. Two bucks was the least he could do, considering how much had already been spent on him.

"Try the taro," Ezra said with his mouthful. They weren't even a few steps away from the pastry stand and he'd already destroyed an entire bun. "It's sweet, but a little nutty and starchy, too."

"It looks delicious, but my trainer would kill me." Henrik patted his stomach, which Ezra could tell was flat and defined, even through his suit jacket. He wanted to make a crack about Henrik being so precious about his brawny figure when a man's voice interrupted them.

"Hank! Bonjour!"

Ezra thought it was a hockey fan at first - a French hockey fan? - but quickly realized the two men knew each other.

"Xavier," Henrik said, clearly baffled. The man, Xavier, ran to catch up with them and slapped the hockey captain clean across his back.

They've got to be teammates.

That much was apparent in Xavier's casual Portland Knights branded sweatshirt, and the fact that Xavier was just as giant as Henrik, albeit leaner and lankier. Both men were gorgeous, but Xavier looked more like a classic male model - with dark, striking good looks. Even the frenchman's somewhat ridiculous mustache suited his face.

Henrik cocked an eyebrow. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Such a warm greeting for your favorite defenceman, non?" Xavier grinned and slung a brotherly arm around Henrik's massive shoulders. He seemed a little tipsy.

"Had a liquid lunch, Xav?"

"Très intelligent," Xavier replied. "The rest of the team is back at the hotel. I just needed a walkabout. Some fresh air."

"Can't get any fresher than downtown Toronto," Ezra piped up. "We're only second to Hong Kong in air quality."

Xavier's chocolate brown eyes flickered from his teammate to the younger man. It was a little hard to read his expression, but he seemed impressed. "Hank, you are being so rude. Why haven't I been introduced to your beau compagnon?"

"Right, of course." Henrik burned bright red like he was fending off an embarrassing relative at a wedding. "Ezra, this is Xavier Brunner. Greatest defenceman on the Knights and yet also the worst karaoke singer."

"And your lumberjack ass' best friend!" Xavier drove a knuckle into one of Henrik's ribs which made the captain slap his hand away. "Ezra, how do you and the Swedish Paul Bunyan here know each other?"

It didn't occur to Ezra until then how odd the two of them must have looked together. He opted for the honest answer. "Henrik saved me from a line cutter at a cafe. The rest is history."

"Line cutters. Truly the worst type of evil." Xavier beamed at his friend. "Awww. You're such a man of chivalry, Hank."

Henrik spoke through gritted teeth, not at all concerned with hiding his impatience. "You ought to try it sometime, Xav."

Before the defenceman could slur a witty comeback, his cell rang. Xavier squinted at the display before answering it. "Bonjour? Ah, yes- Taggert- yes, Hank's right here with me-"

Henrik's face turned to stone. "Shit. What does he want?" He noticed Ezra's confusion. "Taggert's our coach. My phone's been off all day. He's probably been asking around for me, wants to go over what we'll say to the press tonight."

Xavier handed him the cell phone. "Boudine, Hank. Not only can your beard safely house a family of birds, but you're psychic, too."

Henrik took the phone and excused himself. Xavier watched him duck under the hood of a nearby fruit stand and then turned back to Ezra with a low, raspy whisper.

"So you're who Hank's been swooning over all morning, eh?"

Ezra's eyes widened. "I'm what?"

"Oh, shit." Xavier immediately recognized his error. "I don't think I should be talking to you. Hank doesn't really like his two worlds colliding. Not since Patrick, anyway. Now that was a mistake."

"Who's Patrick?"

"Oh, shit," Xavier repeated, his panic deeper.

"I'm not supposed to talk about Hank's last boyfriend. I mean, his only boyfriend. I mean-"

"Wait, what?"

Xavier cringed. "This is why Hank doesn't like when I talk. Je suis ivre. Vraiment désolé." He reached an arm around Ezra and grabbed him in a clumsy half-embrace. "I have to give that big oaf some credit. Tu as de très beaux yeux." Xavier leaned closer to admire his confused eyes. "They are so very green."

Ezra squirmed under the frenchman's drunk scrutiny. "You know that Henrik and I aren't actually dating, right? We're just hanging out."

Xavier chuckled in a conspiratorial, you're-hiding-something kind of way. But there really wasn't more to him and the hockey captain than that. Ezra was being honest. Right?


"Xavier, can I ask you something?" Ezra kept one eye on Henrik as he spoke. "You're in the NHL, you're traveling all the time. What's dating like for you?"

Xavier, a little taken aback by the question, took a long pause. "I am quite flattered, my boy, but I'm not really looking right now. If I ever decide to experiment-"

"Oh, jeez," Ezra groaned as he pushed the defenceman off him. "I'm asking in a general sense. Do hockey players have relationships? Or do you guys just keep it casual?"

Xavier's lips curled. "Hockey players date, oui. Hank, though? The man may as well be a monk."

Ezra's gaze on Henrik lingered. "I know he hasn't been out of the closet that long, but a monk? Really? Guys must throw themselves at him all the time."

"Hank is the greatest man I know, and I know him very well. He's private but he's verrrrry easy to read. If he so much as makes eye contact with a joli garcon, it's on his face like a magazine headline. Trust me, before this morning I hadn't seen that look on him in years."

"This morning?"

"Oui. After he told me about... you."

Ezra's heart jumped. A warmth, a longing, a shivering thrill of something he'd never felt before started to blossom. It was new and a little scary - and definitely not the kind of feelings other men inspired in him. He did his best to fight through it, clearing his throat before he responded to Xavier.

"So, you're saying that Henrik isn't really a one-night-stand kind of guy?"

"Hmm. Not in my opinion. But that doesn't mean Hank isn't capable of trying something new." Xavier noticed Ezra's sudden apprehension. "Is this a bad thing?"

"No..." Ezra started. "I mean, I don't know yet. I'm not entirely sure what I want either. I thought I did. I even asked Henrik and we both said we were on the same page. But I'm starting to..."

Diarrhea of the mouth was one of Ezra's many bad social habits. He didn't know what compelled to be so honest with a relative stranger, but he couldn't wave a magic wand and make the words disappear.

Xavier's dark eyebrows raised to his forehead. "Starting to...?"

"Starting to what?" a deep voice asked.

Xavier and Ezra turned in unison as Henrik walked up to them. He tossed Xavier his cell phone and readjusted the potted plant in his arms.

"I hope Taggert left you with a little dignity intact," Xavier said, distracting him from Ezra's last words.

Henrik only shrugged. "I told Taggert that if he wanted to tell me exactly what to say to the press tonight he should just fax me a goddamn script. Then he told me to go back to my day job as a member of ABBA."

Xavier snorted. "He's in a good mood. He's only called me a soap dodger once today." His dark eyes shot back to Ezra. "Speaking of which, I'm due for a shower. I should head back to the hotel. Hank - you ready for tonight?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," Henrik said evenly. His eyes narrowed a little, sensing the tension in the air, but unable to articulate it. "We'll meet up before the conference, alright?"


Xavier bid them farewell with kisses to both their faces and left. Ezra wondered, watching the frenchman leave, if he could ever summon the strength to be as honest with Henrik as he just was with the man's friend.


Henrik saw little flashes of recognition cross a few faces as he and Ezra made their way through Toronto, but they were brief and fleeting.

That was the strange but welcome thing about being a sports celebrity. Unlike actors or singers, many people don't immediately recognize you if you're only walking down the street. They usually needed a few long glances before they realized who they were seeing. Yet even then, many second-guessed their own ability to recognize him. He'd heard a thousand variations of You look just like... or I think I know you from somewhere...

Henrik wasn't about to complain.

The prospect of getting some alone time with Ezra at his apartment gave Henrik a little spring in his step. He let the younger man lead the way, partially because he enjoyed watching Ezra walk. He had to admit that openly devouring the sight of Ezra's high, tight buttocks flexing under his slim-fit pants wasn't exactly chivalrous. But surely there was no harm in looking, and he'd been conducting himself fairly well all day.

Well, most of the day. He fondly recalled their hot and heavy kissing on the Zamboni, how Ezra moaned into his mouth, the fresh scent of his shampoo, the way Ezra's thighs rubbed his lap...

"Almost there," Ezra said. "It's just that white building at the end of the block."

He couldn't help but notice that Ezra was fidgeting with his hands. In fact, he seemed markedly uncomfortable ever since their encounter with Xavier, a complete contrast to how free spirited and open Ezra had been with him for most of the day.

They entered the vestibule of the condo building and Ezra fussed with his keys to find the entry fob. Henrik placed a hand over his Ezra's and was surprised to find the younger man's skin was ice cold.

"Hey. Is everything alright with you?"

Ezra froze for a moment. He turned over his hands so Henrik's large fingers could easily slip over and warm up his skin.

Henrik's voice dropped to a low, concerned half-whisper. "If you don't want me to come inside, I won't."

"No," Ezra said, his eyes swimming with unease. "I want you to come in."

"Then what's wrong? Did Xavier say something? I know he can be a little-"

"It's not anything he said. I'm fine."

Henrik wasn't sure if he believed that but he didn't want to push the boy if he didn't feel like talking.

"Really." Ezra's smile was reserved as he brushed a few fingers across Henrik's beard. "Let's just enjoy the time we have left, okay?"

"Okay. Sounds fair to me." Henrik hated the nagging suspicion that they were avoiding an honest (if difficult) conversation, but Ezra was right in a way. Why darken the mood of the few hours they had left with each other? Maybe it was better that they leave certain things off the table.

Even if it's obvious what those certain things are, Henrik's mind nipped. He's getting attached, Viking. And that doesn't seem like something he wants...

His palms moistened against the plant's ceramic holder. Ezra unlocked the vestibule door and led them both inside, neither of them saying what they were thinking.


Ezra only lived on the second floor so he opted for the stairs instead of the elevator, with Henrik dutifully following. His keys stabbed the flesh of his hand as he closed a nervous fist over them. His heart pounded against his chest as they moved toward his apartment door.

His fleeting conversation with Xavier may have frayed his nerves but Ezra couldn't exactly blame the man. Henrik's teammate didn't exactly say anything that Ezra wouldn't have been able to find out on his own (though he did think Xavier could use a little work on keeping his best friend's secrets hush-hush). Still, the fact that Henrik hadn't taken a lover since the mysterious, briefly mentioned 'Patrick' seemed strange. Not that Ezra was judging - but it did put a certain amount of pressure on him.

Ezra unlocked the door and felt Henrik's warm, reassuring hand stroke the back of his neck. Ezra dropped his shoulders and let himself relax. Mmmph. How could another man's touch calm him this quickly?

"You're still fine?" Henrik asked. That voice. That deep, Swedish-accented baritone drove him crazy. If anything about their situation was uncomplicated and straight-forward, it was their intense, crushing attraction - as raw and real as anything Ezra had felt before.

He locked eyes with Henrik and gently tugged his silk tie, beckoning him to come closer. Reaching behind him, Ezra pushed his apartment door open and pulled the hockey captain inside. As soon as the door swung shut, Ezra kissed Henrik deeply, hungrily. The potted plant fell from Henrik's grasp and landed on the foyer floor, dashing soil across the doormat and over their shoes.

Neither of them cared.

Henrik slid one beefy arm around Ezra's waist so their bodies were in complete contact from the waist down. Ezra's senses flared in anticipation as their mouths closed together. The athlete's hands traveled from the small of Ezra's back down to his butt, cupping his cheeks lightly at first and then squeezing them as their hard bodies pressed together. Ezra surrendered completely to the shivery excitement of it, Henrik's scruffy mouth tickling his lips, those big hands kneading and massaging his ass.

Henrik pulled away to catch his breath. "This is some apartment you have here."

"Yeah, uh huh." Ezra was just as out of breath. "The foyer is... lovely, isn't it?"

"It's not the foyer I'm looking at." Henrik's hands squeezed over Ezra's butt again. Then with no effort at all he lifted the younger man off his feet until Ezra's legs wrapped around Henrik's waist. Ezra's breath caught in his throat.

"Is this okay?" He knew the answer as soon as Ezra kissed him again. Henrik opened his mouth and their tongues danced together, inciting deep, urgent moaning. Ezra's back hit a wall, not hard enough to hurt, but with enough force to make Henrik's surfacing desires more than obvious. The hockey captain's strong body vibrated with need and Ezra twinged, feeling a mammoth bulge pressing against the seat of his pants. Not only was Henrik's cock long and thick, it was hard as a rock. The thought of pulling those pants off him and taking that warm girth in his hands made Ezra groan with yearning.

"I kinda want to fuck you like this," Henrik whispered into his ear. Ezra's grip tightened over his bulging arms. He'd never heard a man talk to him like that and he liked it. A lot.

"I definitely want you to fuck me like this," Ezra whispered back. A challenge.

"God damn." Henrik's lips, wet with Ezra's saliva, curled to a dangerous smile. "Right here? Against the wall?"

Ezra's voice dropped even lower. "Don't make me beg." He was barely able to finish the sentence before Henrik devoured him in a kiss, ravenous for his taste and touch and scent, Ezra lost in a flood of ecstasy, his whole body aching to be filled.

Henrik looked up suddenly and stared at something behind Ezra. "I thought you said you lived by yourself?"

"What?" Ezra crinkled his brow, his face flush and sweaty. "I do."

"Then I think a very pretty burglar broke into your home."

Ezra turned his head to find a beautiful woman - with long, golden brown hair and the trendiest, most fashion-forward clothes money could buy - nervously waving at them from the living room entrance. His sister, Violet.

Startled, Ezra unwrapped his legs from Henrik's body and smoothed out his wrinkled shirt. Not only had his sister never met anyone he'd dated before, she'd never even seen him hold hands with another man. This leap forward was a little too forward for him.

"Vi!" he cried, hoping his cheeks weren't as burning red as they felt. "What are you doing here?"

Violet tapped the screen of her phone. "I guess you didn't get my volley of texts. Just wanted to see how my little brother was handling his first few hours of unemployment." Her sparkling eyes went from her brother, to the tall man, and back again. She smiled wide. "I guess that answers that."

Rhubarb padded into the hall and sat at Violet's feet, wagging his tail. Guilt immediately hit Ezra. He'd forgotten all about his dog during his little distraction with Henrik at the door. Pet owner of the year, I am clearly not.

Henrik cleared his throat in an effort to move the conversation along. His hair was a complete mess thanks to Ezra's groping hands. "I'm Henrik. Nice to meet you."

"Violet," she said. Her eyes crept floor-to-ceiling to take in the man's 6-foot-5 frame. "I'm Ezra's sister. It's really nice to meet you too."

Henrik offered his hand. Violet laughed, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I can't shake a hand that was just on my brother's ass."

"Vi!" Ezra wouldn't have objected to a meteor striking his apartment at that moment. The larger, the better.

Violet's eyes lit up mischievously. "What? It was just a joke."

"Can I talk to you, please?" Ezra grabbed her hand without waiting for her to answer and started toward the living room.

"Uh oh, you've got mom voice," Violet sighed.

"Henrik, would you excuse us for just a second?"

"Sure," Henrik shrugged. He poked at the spilled soil from the plant with his shoe. "Take your time. I'll get this cleaned up for you."

Rhubarb stared suspiciously at the stranger in the foyer.

"Hello...?" Henrik waved two fingers at the hesitant dog.

Rhubarb started to growl.


"Wow," Violet exhaled as Ezra pushed her into the living room. "Where'd you find him, Jack? Up the beanstalk?"

"Hilarious. I gave you a set of keys for emergencies only."

"My baby brother being fired for the first time qualifies as an emergency." Violet crossed her arms with a knowing smirk. "And can you blame me for not predicting the very unexpected scenario I walked into just now?"

"Why aren't you at work?" Ezra asked as he started cleaning up the room. It wasn't messy but he needed to do something with his hands to settle his nerves.

"I worked from home today. And you can't dance around the very handsome elephant in the room forever."

"You underestimate my stamina."


He threw a stack of magazines onto his coffee table with an impatient sigh. "Look, no one's more surprised about this than I am. I met Henrik this morning and things kind of... what do you call it when something becomes an avalanche? 'It avalanched' doesn't sound right."

"It snowballed?"

"That sounds... less wrong."

"So who is this guy? What does he do? Is he nice?"

"Now who's got mom voice?"

"Handsome elephant: still in the room and not budging."

Ezra leaned into the hall to make sure Henrik wasn't listened. He heard rustling noises from the kitchen and a few low growls. "Rhubarb! Be nice!" He looked back at his sister. "He's a hockey player, alright?"

"Ding dong!" Violet raised her arms in victory. "Lord Jesus, I am delivered!"


"Ez, a hockey player? You won the boyfriend lottery."

Ezra crossed the room and collapsed into his sofa. "He's not my boyfriend. Henrik lives in Portland, he's only in Toronto for the day."

Violet joined him. Sensing his concern, she ran her hand through his messy, golden brown hair. "And... you're not exactly happy with that arrangement, I take it."

"I don't know yet. This whole day has been moving at one hundred miles an hour and I haven't been able to stop and catch my breath." Ezra looked her in the eyes, the same sparkling emerald green as his. "I like him, Vi. I know he looks like he should be living in the woods but he's the sweetest person. He's interesting and easy to talk to. You remember what mom always said whenever The Princess Bride was on TV?"

Violet grinned at the memory. "She said Cary Elwes was her knight in shining armor."

Ezra smiled, too, but with an undercurrent of darkness. "That's what Henrik's been to me. I never thought anyone like him would even look at me twice."

Violet pulled her legs up onto the sofa and crossed them. "Have you guys talked about seeing each other again?" She watched her brother's face tighten. "I know, I know. You don't do the long distance thing. But couldn't you make an exception for... your knight in shining armor?"

"But if it doesn't work out, it'll just be one big waste of time and a lot of hurt feelings."

"That's dating, Ezra!" Violet playfully smacked the side of his head. "That's every relationship ever! Every couple runs that risk!"

"This is different!" Ezra objected. "He's got such a high stakes career, he hasn't been out of the closet that long. And what do I have to offer? I've only had a big boy job for a grand total of one year and they just sacked me. There's so many things that can go wrong here."

"But if you want to be with him and you choose not to, you have to ask yourself if you're willing to live with that regret."

Ezra weighed his sister words, understanding their importance. Eventually, he sighed. "I hate when you do that."

"Do what?"

"When you say something wise. It's unnatural, like those YouTube videos of animals saying 'I love you'."

Violet smacked the side of his head again, laughing. Ezra pushed back, "Hey! Stay away from the face!"

"Listen, I've got an idea." Violet picked up a gift basket beside the sofa that Ezra hadn't noticed - it was garishly girly, bursting with pink and red ribbons. "Derek overnighted this to me. He's still pretending we're not in a fight."

Violet's on-again off-again relationship with Derek - a bro-y guy who once told him that the movie Inception was 'too confusing' - was always a bit of a sore spot for her.

She hefted the gift basket between her arms. "When I heard about your unemployment, I came right over with this bad boy to help make it your funemployment. But now that you've got company... I'm thinking it'll have other uses too."

Ezra pinned her with a skeptical look as she dropped the basket into his arms. "Like what?"

"It's Valentine's Day-themed."

"Uh, why, exactly?"

Violet huffed. "Good god, Millenials are so out of touch these days."

"You're a year older than me, Vi."

"Valentine's Day is tomorrow, genius. And since you and Henrik won't be spending it together, maybe you two can enjoy the basket... today."

"Oh, fuck." Ezra completely forgot. He wasn't the type to bemoan being single on Valentine's Day, but he still would have preferred to remain ignorant. His eyes sifted through the basket's contents: heart-shaped chocolates, a bottle of champagne, a pink teddy bear, fuzzy handcuffs (Oh, god, why did my sister give me this?), and a mysterious rectangular box in red wrapping paper.

Rhubarb's loud, sharp bark pierced the air. Ezra's head snapped toward the hallway. "Rhubarb? Stop!"

Henrik, flustered, poked his head into the living room "Very sorry to interrupt, but I think your dog hates me or wants me dead."

Ezra stood, concerned. "That's... weird. Rhubarb usually likes everyone."

"I think he's made an exception. He's, uh, cute though?"

Another angry bark from the hallway made him jump. Ezra had to admit - seeing Henrik shaken by a normally docile dog was pretty adorable.

"I have an idea," Violet said, her voice sneaky and suggestive. "Why don't I take Rhubarb for the day? I'd be happy go into Auntie Violet mode."

"Oh, really," Ezra said flatly. He was onto her.

"Sure! I still have all the treats and the food from the last time I dog-sat, remember? Plus I've got a yard." Violet located Rhubarb's leash on the coffee table and snatched it up before her brother could object.

"That's very nice of you," Henrik said. He was relieved but trying not to show it.

"I am very nice," Violet winked.

Ezra frowned. "Just... for the day, I guess. But if he's too much of a handful, call me."

"Who, Rhubarb? He's a sweetheart. And my Instagram 'likes' go through the roof when I snap selfies with him, so I'm getting something out of it too."

Still skeptical but nonetheless relenting, Ezra kissed her on the cheek goodbye. She demurely waved to Henrik, who waved back with a genuine smile. Moments later, they heard the front door close. Violet and an excited Rhubarb were gone.

Ezra drew in a nervous breath as he took in the living room. "I'm sorry that was so weird," he said. "My sister walking in on us is emphatically not the introduction I wanted you to have for my apartment."

"Come on, she was nice," Henrik said. "Looks a lot like you, too."

Ezra sat again and picked through the contents of the gift basket. "It's really just in the eyes. And the lips, I think."

"What do you have there?" Henrik took a seat and slipped a hand over one of Ezra's thighs.

Ezra allowed himself a moment to enjoy his touch before he answered. "Just a dumb re-gift from Violet's boyfriend. It's mostly candy and flowers."

Henrik kissed Ezra's shoulder and let his lips linger on the fabric. Mmm. Even through his shirt, Ezra could feel the man's stubbly beard - which he definitely didn't object to.

Henrik reached into the basket and pulled out the red-wrapped box. "What's this?"

Ezra shook his head. "No idea."

"Should we open it?" Henrik turned it over in his hands. There was something loose inside - it sounded like paper or pieces of plastic.

"I don't see why not..." Ezra had to admit he was curious.

"That's the spirit," Henrik smiled proudly. He tore through the wrapping paper to reveal what looked like a board game. "Uh. Wow." His piercing eyes scanned the silhouette of a naked couple, photoshopped crudely on the cover.

Ezra read the game title aloud. "Strip Truth or Dare. The Naughty Game for Naughtier Adults."

They stared at each other, hearts racing and minds buzzing, an identical flush of adventure appearing on both their faces.

Did I remember to wear underwear today? Ezra swallowed a lump in his throat.

End of Chapter 4
To Be Continued

I've really enjoyed reading and responding to everyone's emails on the story's progress so far. Your words really do encourage me to keep writing!

What do you think this friendly game of Strip Truth or Dare will lead to? Send me your thoughts: