My Last Day Without You
Chapter 8: Collide

by Quinn D.K.

For a moment, Henrik couldn't speak or breathe. A hand tugged on his and he came spiraling back down to earth.

"We have to go," Ezra said. He pulled Henrik away from the lobby vestibule and into an adjacent corridor. The furious snaps of camera shutters shrieked behind them like thousands of cockroaches scuttling across a linoleum floor.

"Where?" He tried not to let the sound get under his skin.

"Out the back. Through the parking lot." Ezra spoke with more focus than Henrik had ever heard from him before. He led them both through a winding maze of hallways toward a windowless door down a short flight of stairs. They stopped in front of it. "It's exit only. They probably don't know we can get out this way. Fuck, how did the paps get my address?"

Henrik deepened his tone. "Our friend in the courtyard probably couldn't keep it to himself."

"How is this not illegal?"

"It only becomes illegal if they enter your premises. That's why they're staying on the street."

Ezra pushed the hair off his forehead with a frustrated grunt. Henrik squeezed his shoulder. "If you don't want to do this, I'll understand."

"No, I still do. Better than sitting around and waiting for the bad guys to go away."

Henrik nodded. "What's our game plan, then?"

"We'll cross the parking lot and take a couple of side streets on the way to Bloor. I can try to call a cab. They won't see us if we're quick."

Henrik agreed. Ezra edged the exit door open and peered into the empty parking lot. He shot outside a moment later, faster than anyone Henrik had ever seen who wasn't wearing a pair of skates.

Henrik kept an eye out for any stray photographers or fans but it seemed like they'd only clustered the front side of the building and left the parking lot alone. That was fine by him. The easier they'd get out of this mess, the better.

He followed Ezra across the adjoining road and into a quiet, residential street. A family in an SUV drove by and disappeared around the intersection. They were alone.

Ezra continued forward and tapped number onto his phone's screen. "I'll get a taxi waiting when we get to Bloor."

"Wait," Henrik brought out his Blackberry. "Can't believe I didn't think of this before. I'll just call Ned. My driver, remember? If he's not still passed out at the wheel..."

"Huh. I hope he liked the tiramisu I left him."

Henrik dialed the chauffeur's number and thankfully, the call connected. Henrik walked and talked, assuring Ned that he and Ezra were still alive, then agreeing on a nearby intersection for them to be picked up.

Barely a second after Henrik said goodbye, he heard the quick patter of footsteps rushing them to their left. Henrik's instinct to bodycheck the figure kicked into high gear but he managed to stop himself right before contact. Their perpetrator wasn't some big bruiser, but a short, squat man in a backwards cap and thick glasses. He held a camcorder in front of his plump, greasy face.

"Henrik! Henrik!" the man shouted, "This is for TMZ. Henrik! I'm with TMZ, wanna chat for a second?"

"Fuck." He was so sure no one saw them. Henrik gently pressed into Ezra's back and increased their pace. "Come on, just don't look at him."

Mr. TMZ followed. He never took his eyes off the screen. "Henrik, where are you two going? On a date? Going to Church Street? JustJared says you two only met this morning, is that true? Have you two been dating longer than that? How many professional athletes do you think are currently in the closet? Any words of encouragement for them? Were you inspired by your NFL counterpart Michael Sam? What do you think of the U.S. Senate passing House Bill 1523?"

Henrik's free hand closed into a fist. "Get out of my face and leave us alone. I'm only going to say it once." It wasn't a threat, but a statement.

Mr. TMZ changed tactics and skipped to the other side of the pair. He centered his lens over Ezra's mortified face. "Hey, Ezra? Why did PopViral fire you earlier today? Was leaking that picture on their Twitter account your way of getting revenge on them? Ezra?"

"Hey." Henrik blocked the younger man with his body. His patience was wearing down to a razor thin edge. "You don't talk to him, you understand me? Get that camera out of his face and walk away."

"$10,000," Mr. TMZ said.


"Give me $10,000 and I'll turn this off. That's how much they're gonna pay me for this story."

"You've got to be kidding me."

"Hey, your salary is public knowledge, man. I know you can afford a hell of a lot more than that."

Henrik moved forward with a furious glare, getting in the paparazzi's face. He wasn't above using his size to intimidate someone. "What I can afford is none of your fucking business."

"Uh, Viking," Ezra touched his arm. "Let's go. This isn't worth it."

Mr. TMZ flipped his lens back at the other subject. "Ezra, a lot of our gay readers want to know- you're the bottom in this relationship, right?"

That was it. That was all the justification Henrik needed. Before Mr. TMZ could even understand what was happening, Henrik grabbed the camcorder out of his grubby little hands and flung it onto the sidewalk. The device shattered into shards of jagged plastic and glass across the concrete.

"My camera!" the pap cried. He dropped and raked his fingers through the useless, broken pieces. "What the fuck, bro?!"

Henrik took Ezra's hand and continued down the street. "Send the bill to my manager," he called over his shoulder.


"Jesus, Henrik! That guy could sue you, you know that?" Ezra struggled to keep up as they crossed the street toward Bloor. It was funny how quickly their roles had reversed once they left his apartment.

"I didn't like the way he was talking to you," Henrik said plainly.

"Hey." Ezra stopped them both. "If we run into any more of those guys, you can't just break all their cameras, okay?"

"But I can't let them say things like that and do nothing."

Ezra remembered Henrik saying he got into fights on the ice all the time. If he could take down guys even bigger than him with no problem, Ezra shuddered to think what could happen to one of those schlubby photographers.

He tugged the lapel of Henrik's suit jacket and lowered his voice. "I know, Viking. But you're gonna have to hold back for my sake. Please?"

Henrik's eyes lingered on Ezra's hand against his chest. He softened. "Only because you asked so nicely." A car idling at the end of block suddenly honked at them - a familiar, charcoal-colored Cadillac SUV.

"Ned," Henrik realized. They ran the short length down the street and Ezra slipped into the vehicle, still jumpy with adrenaline. Henrik followed inside and closed the door. He acknowledged Ned with a quick nod.

"Thanks for meeting us here," Henrik said.

"You really saved us a trip," Ezra agreed. "Thank you, really."

Ned tipped his hat from the driver's seat. "I should be thanking you for the tiramisu, lad. You two been staying out of trouble?"

Ezra exchanged a sideways glance with Henrik. Ned didn't seem too aware of their current predicament. "Yeah. I'm making sure of it."

A grin creased Henrik's face. He didn't argue.

Traffic was surprisingly light considering it was rush hour on a Friday. Ned dropped them off at PopViral's office in the financial district not long after leaving Bloor street. Ezra craned his neck to scan the intimidating skyscraper up to its highest point. Henrik squeezed his shoulder. "Are you ready for this?"

He didn't think he was, in all honesty. His nerves were starting to get the better of him. But I've come this far, haven't I?

Ezra checked Twitter from his phone to make sure that picture was still live on PopViral's account. It was. Reminding himself of the damn thing was enough to stoke his conviction. "Yeah," Ezra replied. "I'm ready."

They entered the building's ornate marble lobby. As Ezra called an elevator he noticed the scrutinizing eyes of a nearby security guard. Henrik noticed him too and shot the man a curt, daunting glare. The guard weakly cleared his throat and looked down at his shoes.

The elevator doors parted to reveal a tired janitor leaning against a mop handle. He mumbled a greeting as they entered. Ezra pressed PopViral's floor number and exhaled.

"Hey," Henrik said. "You got this, alright? I'll be right there with you."

God, if the janitor hadn't been standing in the corner, Ezra would have jumped the man right then and there.

What is it with the two of us and the elevators here?

Ezra smiled. "Thanks. That's all I need."

"If anyone tries to film us, I could smash their camera."


"Come on, that was funny!"

Henrik was only trying to calm him down, just as Ezra had done for him after their confrontation with Mr. TMZ. It was working.

The elevator dinged at their stop and Ezra stepped into the hall, centered and focused.


"PopViral Toronto, can you hold? Thank you. PopViral Toronto, please hold. Thank you. PopViral Toront- ohh. Shit."

The receptionist stared slackjawed as Ezra and Henrik stepped into the office entrance. She lost her grip on the phone and dropped it onto her desk.

"Ezra- you shouldn't- are you- did you have- why are-?"

"Is Heather still in?" Ezra didn't blink. He was ready to have a nice, long chat with his former manager.

The receptionist swallowed. "If you left anything at your desk, we'll courier it to you by Monday."

"Is she in or not?"

"Yes, but-"

"Great!" Ezra idly slapped his hands against his thighs. "You know, it's passed 5 pm, you really should be getting home." He marched by the reception desk and into the office. Henrik shrugged at her, mildly apologetic, and followed.

Ezra walked into the open plan section of the office and quickly understood that the receptionist was not, in fact, the only employee putting in extra time. The entire space was a flurry of activity, with voices shouting into phones, fingers rapidly typing on keyboards, and his former coworkers clumping together in groups of two and three to engage in deep, animated conversation. The Foosball table, for once, was silent and still.

"Christ," Ezra said under his breath. He thought another scandal had broken out - maybe Taylor Swift had been caught making out with Sean Penn or something - but a quick glance at the various laptops around the room put that theory to rest. Photos of Henrik and Ezra were everywhere, plastering not only digital screens but the office walls as well. There were images from Ezra's public Instagram and Facebook accounts, profile pictures and dumb selfies with friends and Rhubarb. Henrik's visual presence was even more prominent - the staff had gotten hold of his NHL head shots, team photos, sports magazine spreads, and screencaps from interviews.

PopViral wasn't just owning the scandal, they were dedicating themselves to it.

"People. People!" a voice from the crowd emerged. Henrik and Ezra - who still hadn't been noticed by anyone - looked up along with everybody else to find his former manager, Heather. She was a tall woman with curly red hair and a pinched face. "People, I just want to thank you all for your hard work. Leveraging what could have been a serious PR disaster has actually been the greatest boon for PopViral all year. It's barely been a day and ad revenue has already increased 500% up from last month alone. And we have Hezra to thank for it."

A chorus of hollers followed a round of applause. A sudden coldness hit Ezra's core. He couldn't believe what he was seeing or hearing.

"What's 'Hezra'?" Henrik whispered.

"Fuck. I think that's our super-couple name. Like Brangelina," Ezra whispered back.

"I know we've all put in a long day already," Heather continued, "But we can't control the zeitgeist, we can only ride it until it bucks us off. How are we doing with interview requests? Follow up?"

A young woman Ezra knew from marketing raised her hand. "Nobody from the Portland Knights has gotten back to us, we've tried publicity and management and even the owners. But a tipster got us Coach Joseph Taggert's direct number. When we called he- um- told us to fuck ourselves with a broom handle."

Henrik snorted softly.

"What about our former golden boy?" Heather asked. "Who's tried to get a hold of Ezra Grayson?"

"Ezra hasn't said shit all day," a man from business development said. "Hasn't returned our calls, his voicemail is full, and all his social accounts have been radio silent."

Heather crossed her arms, thinking. "How do we incentivize Ezra to give us the first interview? Before Gawker, before Entertainment Tonight Canada, before all those guys try to get to him first?"

Ezra heard enough. A bold new feeling flooded him. "I'll give you all a statement right now."

Every head in the office turned in unison. Ezra's posture grew rigid - He never liked having a room's collective attention. But he couldn't back down now.

"Jesus," Heather pressed a hand against her heart. "How long have you been standing there?" The nervous eyes of PopViral's staff ping-ponged from Ezra to Henrik and back again.

"You want me to talk?" Ezra's voice reached a volume he'd never used at work before, "I'll talk! In the span of one hour, you miserable assholes have turned my life into a complete circus, so yeah, I'm very interested in letting you all know what's on my mind!"

Heather raised her palm. "Ezra. I understand you may feel upset at what the situation has become, but you need to lower your voice. You're an adult in a professional office. Conduct yourself like one."

He couldn't hold it in. Every angry, toxic thought he had about PopViral, every clenched stomach, bitten lower lip, all the shit he had to take, all the questionable practices he'd been forced to turn a blind eye to - it all spewed forth in one ugly geyser.

"No, you don't get to tell me what to do anymore. I'm not your employee. And thank you, by the way, for releasing me from this pit of despair. Truly the nicest thing you could've done. I don't have to sit through any more soul-destroying meetings where you force everyone to pitch the same vapid, brain-dead pieces about Kylie Jenner or the dog who looks just like that idiot who went viral for setting his farts on fire in a Wendy's bathroom. And by the way? Throwing two sentences in with a collection of stupid gifs isn't an article. Asking Hillary Clinton who her 'bae' is doesn't qualify as an informative interview. Forcing your unpaid interns to pick up workloads heavier than your paid staff isn't ethical employment. I mean, god, if the journalists who invented the modern conception of news knew that you'd be fucking and disfiguring their corpses beyond all recognition, they'd have begged to be cremated!"

If the room was quiet before, there was a complete and utter absence of sound now. It reminded Ezra of outer space - an airless vacuum where life wasn't possible. He meant to start off with a firm but polite request to take his picture down from their Twitter account, but what ended up coming out of his month was a year's worth of repressed frustration and anger.

Lovely. They're sure to honor any plea I have now that I've been so kind and delicate.

Heather spoke after a very long and very awkward pause. "I'm not sure what you came here for, Ezra. Some sort of moral victory? Have that, if you want. You're right. You're better than us. If that helps you sleep at night, you can take it."

"No. I came here to ask you to take the picture down."

A few mild titters from the crowd. Heather stared at him. "The picture you tweeted from our account, you mean?"

"That was an accident," Henrik said. A few eyes in the crowd widened upon hearing the hockey captain speak for the first time. Despite the thick tension, a handful of women still lustfully gawked at the man.

Heather narrowed her eyes at Henrik before turning back to Ezra. "I suggest you read your employment contract again, Mr. Grayson. We own the rights to any original visual media our staff uploads to any PopViral branded social media channel."

"But I wasn't an employee when it was posted!"

"Is that the card you want to play? Acts of revenge or sabotage by former staff are not protected."

Ezra stopped himself from laughing in disbelief. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

"Do you realize that we could sue you for what you've done, Mr. Grayson? By owning your mistake, your 'accident', as it were - we're actually protecting you from severe legal repercussions. Do you understand that?"

"He's not the only one involved in this," Henrik said. "Ezra wouldn't risk his reputation or mine for what you're accusing him of." The anger vibrating off him was tangible. He was definitely holding back.

Heather raised her chin. "I'm not afraid of you or the Portland Knights, Mr. Ford. I have nothing more to say on this but if you'd like to talk further, we have a retainer of lawyers who'd be more than happy to take your call."

Amused smirks and snickering spread through the room. Heather turned away with a knowing look and disappeared back into her office. One by one, the rest of the staff returned to their jobs as well.

Henrik and Ezra stood rooted to the spot, unable to process what had just happened. Josh from sports approached them with a too-casual nod. "Hey! Great game last night, Viking! I'm a huge fan."

The frosty Swede in Henrik bore down on him with the coldest glare Ezra had ever seen. Josh scampered off a second later. "Nice meeting you!"


The fortress Ezra was so intent on storming had a better line of defense than he expected.

Shaken, the twosome gathered in the hall outside the office. Henrik pushed the elevator button and shook his head. "You have no idea how much I wanted to lay into those bastards. When someone would send me one of those PopViral quizzes or articles, I never thought much of it. I just thought that it was some cute little distraction written by a bunch of carefree hipsters. But, Christ almighty, these people have no journalistic integrity."

Ezra pressed a fist against his forehead and leaned into a wall. "I can't believe I just did that. I walked in so cocky and so sanctimonious."

"Listen." Henrik pulled him away from the wall. "The Knights have lawyers on retainer too. They'll figure something out."

"Heather's right. They actually could have sued me for uploading that picture, accident or not. I don't have a job, I can't afford to be sued! I can't even afford rent after March! I shouldn't have come here. Fuck, what was I thinking?"

The elevator dinged. Ezra and Henrik entered, the mood dark and somber.

"We tried," Henrik offered. "Doesn't that count for something?"

Ezra wanted to come up with an answer but fell short. As the elevator doors slid back shut, Henrik hit the emergency stop button. A loud buzz locked the cabin in place.

"What are you doing?"

Henrik stared into his eyes. "I don't want you walking out of here feeling like you lost."

Ezra's whole being felt deflated, airless. "Let's just forget this. It was stupid."

"No, it wasn't. And I mean it. They're gonna say whatever they need to get their clicks and their ad revenue. But you've still got your dignity. That's what you were fighting for. That's what you can leave with."

Ezra wished that he could've made the last twenty minutes - hell, the last hour - disappear. But when his gaze met Henrik's brave, assured face, he knew he was right.

"You're really good at talking people down from the ledge, you know that?" Ezra moved closer.

"I've had some experience," Henrik admitted. "Can't tell you how many times Xavier's wanted to quit the team. Plus, I don't like seeing you upset."

"This whole situation was my fault. I just wanted to make it right."

"Well, you said you wanted to let them know how you felt. I think they got that message loud and clear."

Ezra laughed. "That's one mission accomplished, then." He was more than thankful that he had Henrik's warmth and stability to anchor him. If this whole media blitz was threatening to spin him out of orbit, at least Henrik would be spinning with him.

Henrik looked around. "I think this is the same elevator car we were in this morning."

"Oh, right." Ezra followed his gaze. "God, that feels like forever ago. I can't believe how shy you were."

"I was trying to be a gentleman." Their chests were practically touching.

"I'm glad you got over that," Ezra grinned.

"Take that back," Henrik said playfully. He leaned in and brushed his face against Ezra's.

Ezra breathed in Henrik's cologne and touched the man's chest. "You know I'm kidding. You're the sweetest guy I've ever met."



"You sure about that?" Henrik's furry mouth was tantalizingly close to his. "Because certain wingers I've punched during games have described me as a grizzly bear on ice."

"Oh, your opponents might think you're scary, but I know the truth."

Henrik looked at him, deeply and sincerely. "I'm really glad we gave this thing a second shot."

"Me too."

Their lips pressed together. Whatever was happening around them right now was too complicated to dissect - the only thing that felt right was Henrik, his wolf grin, his rough hands, his deep and comforting voice.

"This is all I want," Ezra murmured into the kiss, barely aware that he'd spoken at all. Henrik's mouth closed over his and softly bit his quivering lower lip. Ezra groaned and pushed into Henrik's body, backing them both into a wall. Henrik's thick erection shifted against Ezra's stomach. Skin prickled as the friction between them grew more feverish, desperate. Before he could even process what he was doing, Ezra's hand was down Henrik's pants and groping his bulge. Henrik returned the favor by stroking his palm against Ezra's denim-covered crotch. Both men were rock hard. At Ezra's gasp, Henrik lifted the younger man's shirt, exposing his flat stomach and two pert, red nipples. Henrik took one in his mouth and sucked. Ezra's back arch and his entire body surged with pleasure. Henrik moved to the other nipple and did the same, licking and biting ever so gently, letting the stray hairs of his beard graze the sensitive skin.

Jesus. Ezra didn't know what possessed either of them. Were they really in this exact same elevator this morning? And neither of them were bold enough to make the first move? That seemed like forever ago. In a different life, almost.

Henrik's eager mouth traveled up Ezra's chest and toward his neck. He wet the skin with his tongue, relishing Ezra's taste. Ezra groaned and deepened his strokes against the man's swollen cock. Henrik's teeth lightly dragged across the creamy smooth curve of Ezra's neck.

"Oh my god," Ezra exhaled. "Don't stop." He shut his eyes and saw fireworks exploding in the darkness of his mind. The friction of Henrik's hot mouth on his skin made his nerve endings tingle and stir. He bunched his fingers into the back of Henrik's hair, slowly and subtly guiding the man along his neck and up to Ezra's mouth. They kissed again, tongues dancing in and out, dampening each other with saliva, intense and sloppy and neither of them caring.

A loud crackle of static made them jump apart like two kids caught playing seven minutes in heaven.

"Uh, hello?" a fizzy, distorted voice said from the elevator panel's audio speaker. "This is building maintenance. Did somebody press the emergency stop button? Is everything okay in there?"

"We're fine!" Henrik shouted. His face was still red with passion. "We hit it by accident. Sorry about that."

After a moment, the elevator car hummed back to life and started its descent to the ground floor. The two men exchanged an embarrassed smile.

"Hey, Ezra?"


"Can you do me a small favor?"

Ezra nodded. "What is it?"

"You might want to get your hand off my cock before we hit the lobby." He pointed to his crotch.

"Oh." Ezra released the man's girth. "Sorry."

Henrik chuckled as he readjusted things and zipped back up. "This elevator's got a damn dangerous hold on us."

Ezra wiped a bead of sweat off the side of his forehead. He wasn't kidding.


Henrik escorted Ezra out of the office building without any further incident. No photographers or fans had followed them to PopViral, thankfully, and they managed to find their way back to Ned's car up the street within moments.

"Where to now, gentlemen?"

Ned's question caught both of them off guard. Henrik glanced at his watch. It was nearly 6 pm.

Fuck. Presser in two hours. And Coach Taggert is going to ream me out for at least an hour before it gets started...

His flight back to Portland was at 6:30 am sharp which only added to his anxiety. It was unlikely that he'd get any sleep tonight even though he was exhausted. His eyebrows pinched together. A headache was coming on.

Ezra's inquisitive young eyes searched him. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Just thinking about everything I have to do tonight."

"Right. Of course." Ezra drew in a shaky breath. "I should get back to my sister's and let Rhubarb off her hands."

"Where does she live, sir?" Ned asked.

"North York, right by Hendon Park. I hope that's not too far?"

"Not at all, sir." Ned started the engine and peeled back onto the street.

"If it's too much trouble I could just hop the subway, or something," Ezra proposed.

Henrik shook his head. "I'm not sending you back out there with those vultures. If they followed you home, who knows what else they'd be willing to do. I'm coming with you."

"What about your conference? Don't you need to start prepping for it?"

"I'll crash it late if I have to. Fuck, I'd drop out altogether if it wasn't part of my contract."

Ezra offered a sympathetic look. "I stand by my earlier advice, you know. Just launch a hockey puck at the first journalist who tries to talk shit."

"Yeah. I was starting to wish I had one back at PopViral..."

A clutch of anger took him over. Listening to that awful Heather condescend and dismiss Ezra's feelings, watching the entire staff gloat and pat themselves on the back for sensationalizing someone else's mistake... urgh. He controlled himself for Ezra's sake, but god damn, he really wanted to flip over a few tables in that joint.

Henrik raised Ezra's hand to his lips and kissed it. The surprised, appreciative smile and subtle goosebumping of his skin calmed Henrik instantly. Before the first league game Henrik ever played, he was so nervous that it took a stiff swig of whiskey to stop his hands from shaking so he could tie his skates. It did the trick. He decided quickly after that he couldn't take a drink every time the Knights had a match - he'd never be able to skate in a straight line. Kissing Ezra before every game, however, seemed like a much better alternative to soothe his nerves.

Ned drove them north from the downtown core, through midtown and up into North York. Henrik watched Ezra's boyish face survey his window. He hoped - prayed - that they'd both make it through this day. There was so much he wanted them to do and experience together. Henrik just didn't want the media circus that surrounded them to be the tipping point. Not just for Ezra, but for Henrik himself. There had already been a few uncomfortable instances that reminded him of the fallout from his relationship with Patrick...

No, Henrik warned himself. You're not gonna think about that right now. Ezra's nothing like Patrick.

As true as that may have been, the circumstances around both relationships were frighteningly similar. Patrick had started as a whirlwind romance too, and once the media started catching on to what might have been happening in Henrik's still-closeted

"Henrik- hey-?"

"What?" Henrik's breaths came quick as he emerged from the memory. His mouth felt like sandpaper.

"You're squeezing my hand kind of hard. It's starting to hurt."

Henrik let go immediately. "Shit, I'm sorry." He didn't know his own strength sometimes. "Are you alright?"

Ezra flexed his fingers. "Nothing a little reconstructive surgery won't fix." Henrik's features tightened. "Relax! Dude, I'm kidding. This press conference is really bugging you, isn't it?"

"Just a little bit." Henrik ran his sweaty palms up and down his lap and stared out of the car window.


Ned dropped the pair off at Violet's townhouse, which was a warm brick building at the end of a quiet, neighborly road. North York, while still an official part of Toronto, had a distinctly suburban vibe to it. No rushing cars, no screaming crowds, and definitely no paparazzi hordes.

Ezra knocked on Violet's door as Henrik hung back in the driveway to speak with Ned. His sister answered barely a second later and threw her arms around him.

"Ez, holy shit, I am so sorry about everything," Violet squeezed out in one breath.

"Jesus, nobody died, Vi. I'm fine."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. But, uh, between us, I am a little worried about..." He nudged his head toward Henrik, who was now bidding Ned farewell as the Cadillac backed out the driveway and into the street.

"Ah," Violet caught on. "The big guy."

Henrik walked up to them, sighing. "Ned just got an emergency call from another client. He had to go. If we need to get back, I can just grab a taxi." He turned to Ezra's sister. "Violet, hi. Thank you so much for-"

Violet grabbed him in a hug and squeezed for dear life. Ezra almost laughed. Aside from family, she almost never hugged anyone.

Henrik's innately awkward Swede surfaced again. "Oh, er. That's, uh, that's nice. Thanks."

Violet invited them inside. Her townhouse was impeccably furnished, modern but warm, stylish but not remotely pretentious - the home of a fashionista who valued comfort. Ezra always liked visiting, it was certainly a nice change of pace from his hum-drum Ikea apartment.

"I just came to get Rhubarb," Ezra said. "Really, I don't want to put you out too much."

"No way. You guys are staying for dinner. Henrik, you in?" Violet rested her hands on her hips. "I've got every decent Indian place in the city in my contacts list."

"Sure," Henrik answered, but his attention was on the townhouse. "Your place is really beautiful."

"Wow. It's actually quite nice to hear that from a man who doesn't want to sleep with me, for once." Violet grinned and patted Henrik's considerable chest as she walked by. "I'm just gonna grab a few menus from my office. Ez, you wanna help, or can I just order goat with everything?"

"God, not again," Ezra rolled his eyes and started to follow her. Weird, how quickly he fell back into his role as put-upon little brother when they were together.

"Henrik, make yourself at home!" Violet trilled. "You're welcome to anything in the fridge!"

Without waiting for Henrik to respond, Violet yanked Ezra into her office den and closed the door. The shrill smile on her face vanished. "Okay, tell me everything."

"Vi," Ezra groaned.

"Not everything-everything, obviously. That picture of you two really set a scene. But just give me enough to fill in the blanks."

Rhubarb emerged from his resting place under Violet's desk and ran as fast as his stubby paws could take him to his owner. "Rhubarb! You little bread loaf with legs!" Ezra scooped the excited little guy into his arms. Rhubarb gave his owner his requited three licks before the dog started sniffing maniacally around his neck.

Ezra colored. Rhubarb could probably smell Henrik all over him.

"Hey, hey," Violet snapped her fingers. "Eyes on me. You're not getting out of this house until I get the lost chapter of the Hezra story."

Ezra sighed heavily. She could be such a gossip hen sometimes, a trait passed down from their scandal-loving dad and soap opera aficionado mom. He took a moment to thank whatever deity was listening for their parents being in Italy on vacation. He doubted anyone in Milan knew or gave a shit about what a Swedish-American hockey player was doing with an unemployed Canadian.

"Fine," he conceded. Rhubarb jumped from his arms to the makeshift blanket pile he'd been sleeping on.

Ezra told Violet the whole damn saga: accidentally snapping the photo, having a deep heart-to-heart with Henrik about their future and agreeing to see each other again, the photographer in the courtyard, discovering the photo had been posted to Twitter, the mob of paparazzi outside his building, Henrik breaking Mr. TMZ's camera, confronting PopViral with no real success...

He had to admit that unloading the full, strange narrative on someone else had a therapeutic effect on him. By the time he finished, Ezra's joints relaxed, his muscles unclenched, and his jaw didn't feel quite as tight. It happened, it was real, and now it was all out in the open.

"Fuck my life," Violet eventually said. "Do you realize that, like, an entire year's worth of normal-people-stuff has happened to you in the span of nine hours?"

"It's occurred to me," he noted flatly. "But I don't think the paparazzi mob falls under the realm of normal-people-stuff."

Violet took a seat at her work desk. "And what about the big guy? You said you were worried about him?"

"A little bit." Ezra settled onto a day bed across the room. "I mean, I still feel awful. I'm the reason this shitstorm is happening."

"He didn't seem mad at you."

"He's not. At least, I don't think. But since we left PopViral he's been a little... distant... and quiet. I don't want to prod him too much. He's supposed to speak to the press tonight about last night's game but they're just gonna rake him through the coals over this. Over something I did." Ezra pushed a frustrated sigh out of his throat. "Do you think I fucked this up, Vi?"

"Do you think Henrik is the kind of guy who wouldn't be honest with you?"

"Well... I don't think so but I haven't known him that long."

"Doesn't matter. What do you feel in your gut? If he wasn't an honest guy, he wouldn't have said he wanted to keep seeing you after today. Which is something I could have told your dumb ass and I'd only just met the man. Ez, he's crazy about you. You see that, right? He stuck by you after the picture leaked. He followed you on that insane crusade to your former office and then all the way up here to North York."

She was right. He knew it, deep down.

Violet continued, "If he seems a little detached right now, that's fine. It's his life, too. I've dated my share of jocks, they're not the quickest on their feet when it comes to expressing themselves. The man probably just didn't get a chance to process what's been happening until now."

Ezra's gaze lifted to meet hers. "Did I mention before how weird it is when you say wise shit like that? Seriously, stop it."

Violet flung a throw pillow at him. Ezra dodged a second too late, laughing. Rhubarb yipped from his blanket.

She grabbed her phone. "Now help me choose which curries to order before I throw my chair at you next."


Henrik walked into Violet's surprisingly large backyard and breathed in the cool outdoor air. He couldn't remember the last time he had a quiet moment like this to himself. Lord knows he needed it.

He sat at the stoop of Violet's porch and ran a hand over his beard, the way he always did when he felt tense. Patrick had been hanging over his thoughts lately like a grey cloud thick with rain. Henrik truly wanted to believe that Ezra was nothing like his former lover. Patrick was a horribly manipulative opportunist, a selfish man who saw Henrik as his meal ticket. Henrik was ashamed that he never saw any of it coming - the man had withheld his true intentions until the worst possible moment.

Urgh. Henrik used to be so god damn taken with Patrick. He thought he actually loved him. Henrik spent his teen years and early twenties dating women and was terrified of letting another man into his life. And when he finally took the chance, well...

Henrik shut his eyes. It didn't take long for his mind to transport him back into that stuffy press room within Portland's Rose Garden Arena. He remembered how thick with dread the air felt that day, two damn years ago, as he solemnly took his seat before a row of microphones. The unnerving chorus of camera clicks and flashes only made the situation one thousand times more surreal. They all knew why they were in the room. They'd all heard the same rumor, seen the same grainy nighttime photos of an unidentified man - Patrick - leaving his penthouse at 3 am one night. It struck him as funny, how the press had all seen Patrick's face but they knew nothing about him. They certainly didn't know about the horrible threat Patrick imposed on him the night before.

"Before we start questions, I would like to make a statement regarding a persistent rumor that's been making the trades these past couple of weeks."

Damn. Henrik still knew every word of that speech. Every syllable, every pause, every nervous breath was embedded in his mind.

"My name is Henrik Ford. I'm 28 years old, I've been playing for the Portland Knights for eight years now. I was named captain two years ago and it changed my life. I got where I am today by working hard for it, by taking matters into my own hands. And that's what I'm doing today. I'm addressing this rumor and laying all the speculation to rest. I am a gay man."

What happened after those five words left his mouth, Henrik didn't know. That was the only part of the day he couldn't recall. Adrenaline, fear, and relief did wild things to a person's memory, and all three sensations had clouded the aftermath of his announcement. He was the first and only man in the National Hockey League's history to come out of the closet. That was huge. But his real reason for coming out was his greatest shame, a blade in his gut that dug just a little deeper every time someone called him a 'hero' of the gay community.

Henrik's mind propelled him back one day before the announcement. He was in his penthouse now, staring at Portland's city lights from his terrace. It was midnight and cold as hell. Patrick walked in, a sharp, handsome sight as always. He worked for the district attorney and never looked less than perfect. Henrik thought they were going to discuss Valentine's Day plans, but the tight, drawn look on Patrick's face was anything but romantic. Apparently, Patrick had been biding his time. Waiting for the right moment to strike. And that night, he decided to drop the bomb.

"Either you tell the press you're in a relationship with me, or I take these pictures to Gawker."

Henrik was sick with confusion. "What pictures? Patrick, if you're talking about the pap who caught you leaving my place-"

"I'm talking about these, you moron." Patrick meant the private pictures he'd taken on his phone. Intimate, revealing moments Henrik thought nobody else would ever see. "You know how much Gawker will give me for these? I'll never have to work again." Patrick offered him a day to think about it. Henrik threw him out of his penthouse right then and there.

Shaking with a fury he'd never known before, Henrik sat down and wrote the coming out statement that he'd recite to press the very next day. Valentine's Day. As a 'fuck you', Henrik made sure Patrick's name was nowhere to be found in it. Patrick wanted recognition and fame, which the bastard received for a short time after a high profile tell-all interview with Dateline. He never ended up leaking those pictures after Henrik's announcement, but the emotional and psychological damage had already been done.

The whole world saw Henrik's declaration as brave, fearless, and proud. But only he knew the truth: he'd been threatened into revealing he was gay and he only did it out of fear. He never once felt like a hero.

Something small hit his foot. Henrik opened his eyes again and squinted in the early evening light. It took him a moment to re-emerge from memory lane.

"Mister!" a kid's voice called. "Can you throw back our ball?"

Henrik looked down and saw bright orange rubber ball by his left shoe. Violet's backyard didn't have a fence and it opened out into a road where a group of 6- or 7-year-old kids had gathered for a game of street hockey.

He picked up the ball and rose to stand. The shortest kid in the group actually gasped. "He's like a million feet tall!"

Smirking, Henrik bowled the rubber ball in their direction. One of the kids trapped it with his hockey stick. Another shouted his thanks, while the shortest kid took a second glance at Henrik. Something approaching recognition washed over his face.

"Hey," the half pint yelled. "Are you like a hockey player or something?"

If only all fan interactions were like this. My life would be so much easier.

"Yeah. Something like that," Henrik replied.

The children returned to their game. He had to admit some of them weren't half bad as players.

"Hey, Henrik?" Violet called from the house. He turned to see her sticking her head out of the sliding patio door. She looked as uncomfortable as she sounded. "Your driver, Ned? He just came back. There's someone with him and he, uh, wants to talk to you."

He frowned. "Who?"

Violet stepped aside to reveal a bald, severe man wearing a Portland Knights hoodie. Henrik recognized him right away.

"Son," Coach Taggert said in his rough, Texan drawl. "You and I need to have a little chat."

End of Chapter 8
To Be Continued

Sorry for the delay! The next chapters will coming out much quicker. Thanks for sticking with Henrik and Ezra.

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