My Last Day Without You
Chapter 7: About Time

by Quinn D.K.

Violet coughed up her mouthful of tea.

She thought her eyes were deceiving her at first, the byproduct of her lack of sleep and concentration. What was supposed to be a relaxing day working at home became damage control for her little brother's sudden loss of a job, which then evolved into a full afternoon of dogsitting a very, very energetic young corgi.

So when Violet thought she saw an article on TMZ with the frenzied headline 'GAY HOCKEY CAPTAIN CAUGHT IN SEX SCANDAL WITH FORMER POPVIRAL JOURNALIST', she couldn't blame herself for thinking she'd fallen into a bizarre, backwards daydream.

Her heart racing, Violet pulled the iPad closer to her face and squinted in the dim late afternoon light of her den. Below the headline was a picture of two men, shirtless from what she could see, affectionately embracing on a bed. Her brother Ezra was on the right, his face frozen in a very unfortunate scowl. Henrik, the very tall and very hirsute man she met a mere hour ago, was cuddled beside him. There was no denying how intimate the two of them looked (Ezra's unattractive expression aside).

She knew immediately that the photo wasn't a fake. For one, she had quite the talented eye for such things as a retoucher for Elle Canada magazine. But more importantly, she recognized the ugly plaid pattern of the bedspread in the picture. Violet detested the thing and offered to buy Ezra higher quality bedding nearly every time she visited. And there it was. Plain as day. The backdrop of her little brother's sex scandal.

"Jesus Christ," she said aloud. At her feet, Rhubarb perked up - perhaps sensing that his owner was in the news. "Not you, Rhubarb. You're gonna want to sit this one out."

Hoping to find some logical explanation, Violet read the full article, her eyes feverishly combing every word and comma. Her palms were so moist with sweat that the iPad was slipping from her fingers.

She didn't even bother to read the article's comments, which had already tallied into the late hundreds and were likely full of braindead, homophobic rhetoric. After a quick search Violet found that numerous other sites had picked up the story, too: Gawker, Deadspin, Perez Hilton, ESPN, news outlets both local and American. Memes were already spreading. Many inexplicably depicted Henrik and Ezra as SpongeBob characters.

Fucking internet weirdos.

Leaving Ezra and Henrik alone with that Valentine's gift basket wasn't an accident on her part. She was a modern woman, damn it. She was sex positive. And Ezra deserved to relax. She just hadn't anticipated that a revealing memento of his afternoon would go goddamn viral.

Violet replaced her iPad with her phone and hit speed dial on Ezra's number. The call connected almost immediately to voicemail. It was already full.


Rhubarb let out a confused yip as his tall ears perked. Violet pulled him onto her lap. "Sorry, boy. I'm okay. I'm okay." She stroked his cinnamon-colored fur, her tense eyes staring right through him.

It's your owner I'm worried about...


Ezra scooped out the last of the double chocolate chip cookie dough and gently slid the baking sheet into the hot oven. Henrik was just getting out of the shower and Ezra wanted to surprise him with a few baked goods. A friend who was currently enrolled in culinary school as a pastry chef taught him the recipe. Seemed simple enough, plus there
was something about home baked cookies tasted better when they were being shared.

"Found this on your dresser," Henrik announced as he entered the kitchen. A towel was draped around his waist but he was otherwise naked, his wet hair handsomely combed back. Ezra was so overloaded with renewed lust that he almost didn't see his brown leather artist portfolio in Henrik's hands.

"Oh, that? It's just for my sketches. They're not very good."

Henrik leaned against the counter. "Your art, you mean? Can I see?"

It was hard to say no to a man in a towel, he had to admit. "Did I mention they're not very good?"

"One of my guys on the Knights, Lukas Bjornlund? Great man and very modest, almost to a fault. Always talking down his offensive play. Thing is, he's by far the best center on the team. The most creative, too. So pardon me for saying that I don't believe you," Henrik handed the portfolio back to him. "You don't have to show me if you don't want to. But I'd really love to see your favourites, at least."

"Alright, alright," Ezra relented. He never shared his drawings with anyone other than his sister and a few friends. Pushing his nervousness away, Ezra laid his portfolio open and flipped through the pages. "It's mostly character sketches. Faces, different angles, things like that."

He pointed out drawings of famous actors and musicians, public figures, friends, iconic fictional characters. Henrik nodded along, eyes wide, mumbling with astonishment.

"They look so real," he almost touched a page but didn't. "Like I could just reach into the paper and touch their faces."


Ezra wanted to explain that photorealism was something most artists could do - it was putting one's own unique spin on something that proved hardest to master. He flipped over to a section of his more cartoony work. His most detailed drawing was the Sailor Scouts reimagined as post-apocalyptic Mad Max warriors. Unlike his previous artwork, the realism was pared down to an exaggerated, animation-like style.

"These girls are my favourites. How familiar are the Swedes with Sailor Moon?"

Henrik laughed. "My little cousins in Philadelphia love Sailor Moon. But I don't think they've ever seen them like this before."

Smiling, Ezra showed him more: Wonder Woman as a rowdy 1920s-era flapper girl, Luke Skywalker updated into a Brooklyn hipster, the Power Rangers revised as archetypes from the Final Fantasy series. "This is the stuff I love doing," Ezra explained. "I call it reinventive fanart."

"It's fucking brilliant." Henrik's eyes scanned the edge of the page and saw a figure he didn't recognize. "Who's this guy?" He tapped a finger against a tall man wearing goggles and a futuristic, neon exoskeleton over a flight suit. Clutched in one hand was a simple Victorian pocket watch.

"Ah," Ezra's face went red. "I don't have a name for that guy yet. He's an original."


"Kinda. The pocket watch gives him the power to travel through time and space. He's using it to find his lost love. It's still a rough concept but I'd like to develop it more. I don't know yet."

Henrik stood behind Ezra and wrapped his big arms around the boy, holding him close against his damp skin.

Ezra's entire body warmed. "What's this for?"

"You should see yourself when you talk about your art. You get so excited. It's cute."

"Wow, he thinks I'm cute. Sir, you are as bold as brass."

Henrik squeezed him tighter. "You should be sending your stuff out to comic book publishers. I'm serious."

Ezra turned, the hockey captain's arms still entwined around his waist. "You think so? I don't know if my stuff is ready."

"Looks ready to me."

"I don't think I'm prepared for all those rejection letters just yet."

Henrik frowned. "You won't know until you do it, right? And if someone like Marvel or DC doesn't hire you right away, there's always those smaller companies. I'm sure they have apprenticeship programs for new artists."

Ezra's eyes clouded with uncertainty. Taking such big risks was never his thing, especially for something as high stakes as a new career.

"It's just a thought," Henrik added.

"Yeah, maybe. Who knows."

They kissed lightly, then again with more urgency. Mmm. Something about it felt strangely (but agreeably) domestic. A man in a towel holding him in his kitchen, cookies in the oven...

Cookies. His mind snapped to the forgotten treats. In the oven. Is something burning...?

"Shit!" Ezra broke their embrace and switched the oven light on. "I forgot to set the timer. Fuck, fuck, fuck."

"I was, uh, just about to ask what that smell was."

Coughing, Ezra removed the baking sheet from the oven. All but one cookie was burnt to a blackened, useless crisp. "Ah, that's just fantastic." His culinary school friend would have had raked him over the coals for wasting perfectly good dough.

Henrik chuckled as he nudged a burnt edge. "This was going to be our post-coital snack, I take it?"

"Man, I never forget the timer. That was dumb."

"I was distracting you."

"Well." Ezra slid his hands up the man's biceps and then around his neck. "You're very good at doing that." Their lips met again and Ezra melted into it, moaning softly. It was the best possible compromise - Henrik was one thousand times more delicious than any cookie.

Henrik looked up suddenly. "Hey, what time is it?"

Ezra glanced at the oven's digital clock. "It's quarter to five. Do you have to go?"

"Not yet, no. I just thought it was later."

"You're not worried about the press conference, are you?" It was hard to imagine Henrik worried about anything, the man was so solid and self-assured.

"No matter how well you do in a game, these reporters still find a hardball or two or three to throw at you. I've done hundreds of these damn things and I still hate them. Wanna know the funny thing? I've gotten into fistfights during games with guys who have a hundred pounds on me yet nothing makes me more nervous than the press box."

Ezra frowned. "They can be that cruel, huh?"

"Wouldn't say cruel, but they're definitely not here to kiss your ass. A lot of them are more interested in getting a reaction than an honest interview."

"You know what I think you should do tonight?" Ezra grabbed a burnt cookie and placed it on the counter. "Put a hockey puck on the table in front of you. Announce to every reporter in that room that every time someone asks you a question you don't like..." Ezra smacked the cookie into the sink with a butter knife. "'ll whack it with your hockey stick right into their stupid fucking faces."

"I like it," Henrik said with a great laugh. "That's the best advice I could ask for. Shame you can't be with me for all my conferences."

Ezra paused a second longer than he should have. "Yeah," he managed. "Right."

A corner of Henrik's furry mouth tugged down. "Sorry. Was that a weird thing to say?"

"No! Not at all." His voice made him want to cringe - it got all high and weird when he was trying too hard to sound casual. Ezra released his arms from the man's neck and swallowed a hard lump in his throat. "I'm just going to go throw on some pants."

Ezra clapped a hand against his bare thigh as he slipped into the hallway. After their shower he slipped into a t-shirt with a pair of underwear and stopped there. Now, he was grateful for the excuse.


Henrik dropped his towel and pulled on the pieces of his suit that he'd discarded in the living room. The mood in the apartment had dropped considerably and he knew that it was his own damn fault. Ezra had disappeared into his bedroom ten minutes ago and still hadn't come out.

That's what you get for trying to be funny, Viking. Glowering, he zipped up his pants.

The two of them came to an understanding earlier that day. They were 'on the same page', as they called it. Whatever happened between them wouldn't go beyond Henrik's time in Toronto. Ezra didn't want the long distance thing. That was fine, he wasn't fond of it either. If Henrik was going to dive into a relationship after years of being out of practice, he definitely wanted it to be with someone he didn't need a plane ticket to spend time with.

And yet...

The other guys in the Knights knew that Henrik was one extremely perceptive captain. "Perceptive in a spooky way," goalie Nicholas McCullough said once. If someone had just broken up with their girlfriend, Henrik knew, because it lent a very specific sloppiness to a man's skating pattern. If the wingers weren't getting along with each other? Henrik knew that, too, because those foggy, annoyed looks on their faces screwed up their aiming.

Suffice it to say, Henrik suspected something had been up with Ezra all day. A kind of push and pull had developed between them, a yearning to get closer, then a resistance. Their tense moment in the kitchen only confirmed what he'd already been thinking.

And you're relieved, aren't you? Because you've been feeling the same goddamn way as him and you were too scared of being the first one to say it.

Henrik buttoned up his shirt and caught the reflection of his solemn, serious face in the surface of the living room television. He couldn't deny it anymore. Henrik didn't want his time with Ezra to end after tonight. He didn't want today to be the last day he'd hear Ezra's voice, kiss his beautiful lips, or run his fingers through that soft head of hair.

As much as it pained him to admit, Xavier had been right when they spoke earlier that morning. Since that fateful day two years ago when Henrik admitted to a roomful of slackjawed journalists that he was gay, his focus had been entirely on his career. It was really his way of compensating. The buzz from his announcement focused solely on his sexuality, not his accomplishments as an athlete or his continued charity work with Portland's Stand for Children Leadership Program. So he doubled down on his role as a captain and mentor - and his personal life suffered for it. The nights he didn't spend with his team or the charity were empty and quiet. There was no one to hold, watch a dumb movie with, take to a nice restaurant...

He'd spent so long telling himself that was all okay. But it became increasingly difficult to ignore the truth: it wasn't making him happy.

And now, there was one person who did.


A rustle of wind blew Ezra's hair from his face as he surveyed the courtyard below his building. He'd been standing in the small outdoor balcony off his bedroom for about ten minutes before he debated going back inside. He wasn't sure he wanted to. The things Ezra had been terrified of all day were bubbling to the surface and he didn't know if he'd be able to face Henrik without completely breaking down.

Time's running out, his mind chastised. You can't brood outside forever.

Before he could argue any further with himself, the balcony door slid open and Henrik stepped out. He was back in his handsome blue suit again.

"Took me a moment to realize you had a balcony," Henrik said sheepishly. "I didn't notice it from your bedroom before."

"Well, we were a little busy last time." Ezra tried to sound like his old cheery self but he didn't think it worked.

Henrik put his hands in his pockets and joined Ezra by the terrace. He watched the trees sway in the cold wind below. "Should I comment on the view? Or should we... start talking?"

Ezra's stomach did backflips. In the distance, cars trapped in traffic honked their horns, drowning his fears in a sea of noise. "Maybe we should talk."

"I think so too. You remember back in the ice rink? What we both said to each other?"

"'If we're both on the same page then no one gets hurt' and 'Whatever happens today won't mean anything.' I remember." Ezra couldn't even look at him. God, this is awful.

"Do you think that's still true?"

Ezra couldn't avoid this forever. "No, I don't."

Henrik breathed like a crushing weight had finally lifted. "Yeah, I don't think so either."

"So where does that leave us? What does it mean?"

"It means I want to see you again, Ezra. And you want to see me too... I think."

Ezra's brows furrowed. "Of course I do. Fuck, I really, really do. Are you kidding? This has been the weirdest, most ridiculous, and flat-out greatest day of my life." The encouraging smile on Henrik's face only made what he was about to say that much harder. "But that doesn't change how I feel about dating someone who lives on the other side of the continent. And in another country!"

"I know," Henrik said quickly. "I get it, absolutely. I feel the same way. But what if this is actually worth taking the chance? It's just like your drawings. You won't know until you actually start sending them out."


The hockey captain moved closer. "If you want this just as much as I do, why are you fighting it?"

Ezra's lips parted but no words came out. He turned away, his face burning, his eyes watering. Crying in front of Henrik was the last possible way he wanted their day to end.

"Well. I'm scared."

Fuck. I sound like a little kid.

"Scared of what?"

"I'm scared that we'll try to make something between us happen and we'll fail. And then today, this perfect day, will become an ugly dark stain that I won't be able to think about without remembering that failure."

Henrik allowed himself a moment to absorb the words. "I don't think you're scared of us failing. I think you're scared of letting yourself be happy."


"Because if you're happy and something does go wrong, it'll hurt that much worse, right?"

"Well... yes."

"But that's a risk we all have to take, Ezra. That's a risk I'm taking, too. You don't think I'm scared? You don't think this is all new for me as well? I promise I'm just as terrified as you are. More, actually."

Ezra couldn't respond. He wanted nothing more than to hide. Hide from what he was feeling, hide from the reality before him, hide from the future in front of them.

Henrik grasped both of Ezra's upper arms and stared down into his face. "I don't ever plan on doing anything that would ruin your memories of today. I promise."

Ezra's lips curled into a gloomy grin, his voice resigned and knowing. "But you don't know the future, Viking."

Henrik's eyes sparked. An idea formed. "You know what? Hold that thought, I'll be right back."

Bewildered, he watched Henrik disappear into the bedroom and shut the curtain behind him. A minute or so passed until the man re-emerged with a scarf wrapped around his neck and mouth and Ezra's bicycle goggles covering his eyes. The impromptu disguise was so ridiculous that Ezra couldn't help but laugh.

"You don't recognize me?" Henrik lifted his arms did a slow turn. "I'm your time traveler. The one you sketched but don't have a name for yet. I left the pocket watch in my other suit."

"What are you doing?"

"You said I didn't know the future," Henrik pulled the scarf off his mouth and lifted the goggles to his forehead. "But I've traveled all the way here from the year 2082 to give you a message."

Ezra stared at him with simultaneous disbelief and wonder. He decided, for the sake of the conversation, to play along. "And what message do you bring me from 2082, oh wise traveler?"

"Your future self sent me here," Henrik began. "To tell you it's useless to worry about what comes next. To just let things happen."

"Ah. I see I've mellowed out in my old age."

"He - or, actually, you - said that even in his advanced years, he's never stopped thinking about today. It's never stopped being perfect. And he doesn't regret a thing about it."

Ah. Shit. Here it comes. Ezra blinked the tears out of his eyes. He couldn't tell if he was sad or happy. He hoped for the latter.

Henrik was closer now, one hand on the small of Ezra's back. "Your future self went on to say you're about to enter some of the best years of your life. That stuff with your job, your career, you don't need to worry. It'll fall into place if you let it."

Ezra wiped his face, nodding. "Did my future self happen to tell you this from his crystal throne in his airship palace?"

"One of his airship palaces," Henrik corrected.

Ezra laughed again. His heart rate began returning to normal. "And did he - I mean I - mention anything about the two of us?"

"Oh, he forbid me to talk about that. Said it would tear the fabric of time and space if everything was revealed too soon. But he did say something very important."

"What was it?"

Henrik bent until his forehead softly nudged Ezra's. "That whatever happens after today? It's all up to you."

Ezra's hands squeezed around the man's firm, hairy forearms. "You make a very convincing time traveler, you know that?" They kissed long and soft and deep. "But if you don't mind, I'd like Henrik back now."

Henrik obliged, removing the goggles and scarf. "Same old captain, at your service. Look, Ezra. If it's the travel logistics that you're worried about, I'll be taking care of it. I'll pay for all the airfare. If want to visit me but you don't feel comfortable staying at my place, that's cool. I'll get you the best hotel room in the city. I'm good friends with the manager at the Portland Hilton. And if I'm on the road-"

Ezra pressed a finger against the man's furry mouth. "Henrik."

"I'm talking too much, aren't I?"

"We can figure all of that out later."

Henrik picked up on the wording. "You just said later. Did I hear that right?"


"Does that mean you and I have a... 'later'?"

Summoning all the courage he had, Ezra smiled. "Yes."

Henrik strong arms pulled Ezra off the ground spun them both in a joyously sloppy circle. Ezra laughed into his shoulder. "What's this for?"

"Just happy," Henrik murmured as he kissed Ezra's hair. "Happy we're getting a 'later'."

"You're such a bleeding heart romantic."

Henrik's grin returned. "Oh, you haven't seen anything yet."

Their mouths met for another hot, wet kiss. Tongues danced against each other, fingers dug into shirt fabric, and low, happy moans simmered between lips.

Henrik broke off to catch his breath. "Guess this means we're back on the same page, huh?"

"I think we've always been on the same page," Ezra said. "It just happens to be in a different book now."

They leaned in for another kiss when Ezra heard something close by the balcony. It sounded like a high, mechanical snap. "Did you hear that?"

Henrik's eyebrows knitted together. "I did. It sounded like-" He saw it before Ezra did. Henrik grabbed him and pulled them both to the balcony floor, shielding themselves behind the terrace.

"What-?" Ezra's heart pounded in his throat. "Henrik, you're freaking me out."

Henrik exhaled sharply. "I saw a camera. With a long white lens. There's a paparazzi photographer in the courtyard and he saw us."

"Paparazzi? Here? How? Why?"

"All very good questions." Henrik lifted his face above the terrace edge. His blue eyes darkened, turned to stone. "He's still there. We need to get back inside."

Ezra followed him into the apartment, both of them bending low in a strange half-lurch. After locking his balcony door and drawing the blackout curtains, he whispered a silent, thankful prayer that they'd been closed their earlier escapade.

Henrik sat on the edge of the bed, silent. The grim frown on his ruddy face said everything for him.

"What should we do?"

"I don't know yet."

"I mean, does this happen a lot? I didn't know hockey players got hounded like this by photographers."

"We don't. Not unless..." Henrik drifted off.

"Not unless what?"

The man's steel eyes raised to meet his. "Someone tailed us because I'm with you. There's no other reason. If a pap sees just one player by himself, that's not much of a story. But if that player just so happens to be the only openly gay man in the league and he's photographed holding hands or kissing someone..."

He finished Henrik's thought for him. "...then that becomes the story of the year."

Fuck. Dread sank into the pit of Ezra's stomach. This must have been the ultimate nightmare for someone as press and media-averse as Henrik.

Ezra sat beside him. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I just- I just need to think for a moment."

Ezra didn't - couldn't think of the implications of those photos leaking. About a year ago for a work function, Ezra was forced to give a short introductory speech in front of an auditorium that had to be the size of a small country. Being under the spotlight then was enough to make him hyperventilate. The thought of his picture circulating every sports (and possibly mainstream) news outlet outright made him want to empty the contents of his stomach.

After an uncomfortably long pause, Henrik spoke. "I should call management. No, my coach. Give him a heads up on what... might be coming. My phone's been off all day." His voice was curt, all business.

"Yeah," Ezra nodded quickly. "I should check my phone too."

Henrik left the bedroom as Ezra grabbed his iPhone, still in the same position on his bed. Pressing the home button only produced a black screen. The battery was dead.

Weird, he frowned. Could've sworn it was on a full charge last time I checked it.

Ezra once interviewed an up-and-coming pop singer who said that a minorly controversial Facebook update managed to yield an astonishing number of notifications for her in only a few minutes. The near-constant deluge of pushes to her phone sapped the battery almost immediately. The anecdote had always stuck with him, but surely nothing of the sort was the reason why his iPhone was currently dead.


As he searched for the charger, his mind raced. Even if the paparazzi's photos managed to take the world by storm only in the last several moments, could the Internet have connected his name to it that quickly? He wasn't a celebrity or a public figure, unlike Henrik.

Okay, just stop, you're making yourself paranoid.

Finding the white cable, he plugged his phone into the wall and tried to control his breathing. In the living room he heard Henrik's deep voice speaking urgently. The walls muffled him but the speed of Henrik's words made that pit of dread grow even larger. He checked his phone. Still in its initial charging phase, a blinking battery icon surrounded by black.

Come on. Come on.

Henrik's voice stopped suddenly, like someone pressed pause or mute. The silence worried him.

"Henrik?" He called at his open bedroom door. No answer. Ezra pressed his sweaty palms into his jeans, taking a moment to clear his mind before stepping into the hallway.

His anxiety grew as he reached the living room. Henrik was on the sofa and had one arm propped on his knee while he massaged his temple. In his other hand was a Blackberry phone, dangling precariously from his fingers. Ezra saw a blank, slack look on Henrik's face he didn't know the man was even capable of.

"Henrik? Hey, talk to me. What happened? "

Henrik glanced up, almost surprised, as if hearing his voice from far away. "That was my coach. I think you should check your phone."

"It's charging. Can you please tell me what's wrong? You're scaring me."

Henrik switched his Blackberry on and tapped something. He used slow, careful movements, like he was on autopilot. Saying nothing, he handed the device over.

Ezra blinked once, twice, at the screen, then a third time. By the fourth blink, he started to understand that what he was seeing wasn't a horrible dream, but a mistake. His mistake, on display for the entire world to see. 15,000 retweets of a PopViral Entertainment tweet. No text. Only the somewhat blurred image of Ezra and Henrik in bed together, reacting in two very different ways to his iPhone's camera flash.

The arm that held Henrik's Blackberry started to shake. Ezra's entire body turned both cold and hot, dry and sweaty, drowsy and hyper alert, all at once.

"I had a dozen voicemails when I turned my phone back on," Henrik said. "Only reason I don't have more is my phone ran out of room. My text messages aren't working anymore, I think I've gotten so many it's actually overloaded the server, or whatever. Coach thought someone was trying to sabotage me, make me look like a fool. He thought it was some local Toronto hacker who developed a grudge after we beat the Leafs."

Henrik wasn't relaying any of this angrily or even sadly. If anything, he spoke with the distant, faraway voice of a shellshocked man.

Ezra pushed the words from his throat with great effort. "Henrik. I- I'm so sorry. Jesus Christ, I don't know how this happened. I- I'll delete it. I'll delete the tweet right now. I still have the account password. I can fix this!" He took off toward the bedroom. His feet moved as quickly as his heartbeat.

Henrik followed. "It's too late to do anything about it."

Ezra knew that was true. The internet was written in ink, not pencil. The picture was no doubt already on Tumblr, Facebook, everywhere. But he couldn't just let the damn thing stay up in its original form. Hands trembling, he took his iPhone and pressed home. The device blinked back to life. He was right - it had been slammed with notifications, calls, texts, and voicemails.


"I- it must have been right before we went to shower. I was fumbling around with Siri, I couldn't see what I was doing. I thought I saw the Twitter app open but I couldn't- I didn't know-"

"Ezra," Henrik said again. "You have to stop and think."

Ezra reopened the Twitter app but a pop-up notification stopped him cold. "You no longer have permission to access this account," he read aloud, each word more panic-inducing than the last. "So now PopViral decides to change the password? Now?! And the goddamn picture is still up? Why haven't they deleted it yet?!"

"Hey." Henrik snatched the phone from him and threw it back onto the bed. "There's nothing you can do now, okay?"

Ezra looped around the room, breathing hard, raking his fingers through his hair. "Henrik, you have to believe me, it was an accident. I know I've fucked a lot of things up but I never meant this to happen."

"Stop. Hey, stop." Henrik took his arms, not roughly, but with enough of a grip to make the younger man pay attention. "You need to calm down. I'm not mad at you, okay?"

"Okay," Ezra said, nodding, composing himself. He was calmer when he spoke again. "Okay. But I am sorry. What are we going to do?"

"I don't know. Coach Taggert said he's been talking with PR for the past 20 minutes to see if they can spin this in any way that's positive. Highly doubt they can, though."

Ezra shook his head. "I still don't understand why PopViral hasn't taken it down. They made us sit through this godawful seminar with the head of Human Resources on how to handle situations like this. The first line of defense is to change every social media account password and delete the offending post. Why would they do one and not the other? What makes this one picture so special?"

"Come here."

They sat down together. Henrik put one big arm around Ezra's shoulders and pulled him close.

"Did I mention how sorry I am?" Ezra murmured.

"It was an accident," Henrik said, a heavy sigh under his words. "You don't need to be sorry. We'll get through this."

"Yeah," Ezra said quietly. "I'm with you." He was glad Henrik wasn't angry with him, though the man still seemed on edge. Not that he could be blamed.

"Gotta say, though," Henrik inhaled. "Never heard Taggert scream that loud before. Not since we missed the playoffs in 2012."

"Is he mad at you?"

"Oh, he's fucking furious. No coach wants a media scandal for his team. But that's for me to deal with, not you."

Damn it. Ezra hated hearing that. Henrik was already catching shit for something entirely out of his hands. "God, I really wish I could do something," he sighed, frustrated. "Some way I could make it right. Like one of those medieval knights charging up on his horse."

Henrik squeezed his shoulder. "If only there was some kind of fortress to storm."

"Right..." Ezra glanced at his phone again. The thought of the medieval knight made him recall the creative fiction seminar he went to in university. The lecturer told him something about a story's hero that always stuck with him: heroes are the characters that make choices that change the direction of the plot.

'They don't sit around in their castles waiting for something to happen,' she said. 'They take action. If they're not happy with their situation, they go out of their way to change it. If a hero is embroiled in a war, they're the person who leads the charge against the enemy.'

A light bulb went off in his head. He stood and zipped across his room, a new, manic energy taking over his body. The words echoed in his mind. They're the person who leads the charge against the enemy... Ezra pulled on socks, took his phone, and slipped into his jacket.

Henrik squinted. "What are you doing?"

"I'm storming the fortress," Ezra said boldly.

"What are you talking about?"

"I know why PopViral is leaving that tweet up. They're a petty, immature company, Henrik. They're trying to humiliate me. They expect me to sit back and say nothing because hey, that's just the type of employee I was. But that's not who I am now, and I'm gonna say that to their faces." Ezra stepped into a pair of sneakers and laced them up.

"Wait," Henrik held his hand up. "You're going back to the PopViral office? Are you sure that's... what if they-?"

"It may be too late to stop the media shitstorm but I need to let them know I'm not taking this lying down." He shrugged. "It's not like they can fire my sorry ass a second time. What do I have to lose?"

Henrik rose from the bed. "Then I'm coming with you."

Ezra started scanning the room for his keys. "No, you've already been through enough because of me."

"I'm not letting you do this alone. You're not the only one PopViral is humiliating." It wasn't a suggestion, but a confident command, a matter of pride. It wasn't hard for Ezra to see why an entire team of grown men looked to Henrik as a leader.

"Then let's storm the fortress together," Ezra said with a hopeful nod.


Ezra closed the apartment door behind him and locked it. As he and Henrik approached the building stairwell at the end of the hall, Ezra's phone buzzed. He was almost too scared to look at the call display but he when he saw the name, he relaxed.


"Ez!" his sister cried from the other end of call, "Jesus ball-punching Christ are you okay? I've been calling and calling and calling."

"I'm okay," Ezra said in his calmest register. "Me and Henrik just found everything out about five minutes ago."

"Where are you? Are you safe?"

He started down the stairs with Henrik following close behind him. "We're still at my building but I'm on my way to PopViral."

"What? Why?" From somewhere in Violet's house, Rhubarb barked.

"I'm going to see my former manager in person and tell her to take the fucking picture down already."

A pause. "Oh, god, Ez, I don't know. What if you two get swarmed by the paparazzi on your way there? That might just make things worse."

They reached the stairwell landing and entered the ground level lobby. "There was someone taking our picture in the courtyard a while ago but he was by himself. We can handle it. I promise."

"Do you need me to do anything?"

Now it was Ezra's turn to pause. The concern in his sister's voice made him want to crumble. Swallowing a lump, he tried his damnedest to hold it together. "Tell me I'm not being crazy."

"You're always crazy," Violet said.

"Oh, pfft. Thanks." Weirdly, it's exactly what he needed to hear. "I'll call you back in a bit."

"I'm here," she said. "I'm always here. You know that."

They said their goodbyes. Henrik touched his elbow. "You alright?"

"I think so," Ezra took in a smooth, even breath. They walked to the vestibule, ready and eager to leave. They only managed a few steps before they saw the street outside the building.

Or, rather, the lack of a street.

An immense sea of paparazzi photographers and hockey fans dressed in Portland Knights jerseys jammed the sidewalk and road, an impossibly intimidating wall of excited, screaming faces. A titanic chorus of voices, camera snaps, and blinding flashes rose into the air like a stadium chant as Henrik and Ezra stood numb behind the glass doors.

The lone paparazzi photographer from the courtyard was now a dim, distant threat compared to the circus outside.

"Okay," a frightened Ezra whispered. "Time for a Plan B."

End of Chapter 7
To Be Continued

Welp. The buzz about Henrik and Ezra isn't a secret anymore!

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