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petit soleil II (the rewrite)

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“Are you excited?”

“I should be.”

“That doesn’t sound too promising.”

“No, I am. I mean, if I don’t fuck up, I’m guaranteed one million dollars this year. And I don’t have to find my own house. I’ll be able to afford haircuts.”

The therapist looked at Keegan carefully, as if he was a bucket of gasoline that someone was dangling a match over. She had the right to look at him that way.

“You’re not excited because you get to do what you love?”

He sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, obviously I’m excited about that.”

Keegan was almost positive that therapists weren’t supposed to be so sarcastic. She probably should have reminded him of a very inspiring story about a young man that was forced to grow up playing women’s hockey until a scout took him seriously. She should’ve been able to tell that he was nervous with the idea of leaving a group of guys that had somehow become family, even though it had been terribly unhealthy.

The Birkenstocks and socks no longer felt appropriate for the situation he was in. It had been an ironic choice that morning, paired with linen shorts and a floral-patterned shirt that made him look like he was on vacation. It probably came across as a cry for help, now that he thought about it.

“Yeah. I’m excited about it.”

--

His forty-five minute run turned into an hour simply because Keegan was avoiding the airport. His bags weren’t packed; they would probably never be packed if he didn’t just run home, but God forbid he end up having to wait too long at the airport and start to have a panic attack. Or just run away from all responsibilities altogether.

None of his old suits fit after his Super Special Summer Training. He packed them anyway. The only workout clothes that looked like they had cost him an impressive amount of money had a large killer whale on the front. He packed them anyway.

The cab driver appeared to have a death wish, weaving between cyclists and cars to a very loud soundtrack of Justin Bieber, and it was the first time Keegan let out a genuine smile in a month.

If anyone had told Keegan Stewart that he would be on an airplane headed toward Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the age of twenty-three, he would’ve told them that he was planning on jumping off a cliff by the time he was twenty. He would’ve been disappointed that Vancouver was not the last stop on the professional hockey train. He also would’ve told them that he was deathly afraid of flying. None of it would have added up in his brain, even though nothing seemed to be adding up the past few months.

The phone call had come from nowhere. Keegan had missed a season due to rehab and general depression, so the last thing he’d been expecting was the Penguins’ GM to phone him asking his availability. As if he was interviewing a candidate for a retail job, not attempting to finish a trade for an already washed up player that had a prior cocaine addiction and a very public affair with a married man.

The plane bumped aggressively. A child screamed.

That seemed like a good way to sum up Keegan’s current emotions.

--

The airport was busy enough that he wasn’t recognized, allowing him to sneak outside for a quick cry.

He wiped his eyes after his chest had relaxed and looked around for his ride. There had been a text lighting up his phone as soon as the plane had landed telling him that a car would be out front. Probably an intern, or someone who was putting off having to drive the NHL pariah.

It was almost an hour before a pair of shoes interrupted the cement he’d been staring at. Keegan’s gaze moved up slowly, the sun bombarding his eyeballs to the point where there was only a silhouette in front of him.

“You’re Keegan?” The voice was strangely familiar. “Sorry, traffic’s a shitshow this time of day. Especially in the summer. I also drive like a grandpa.”

“It happens.” Keegan shrugged and held his hand out. The man shook it, a smile spreading across his face. “Nice to meet you.”

“Max Talbot.”

It took about two milliseconds for Keegan to realize they had played against each other multiple times, stared down the same line during many faceoffs and touched lightly during busier brawls. “Oh. Oh, fuck. I’m sorry, man, it’s been awhile since I—”

Max lifted his finger to his lips, shaking his head. “Don’t worry. I did somehow manage to get handsomer than the last time we would’ve met.”

He grabbed Keegan’s bags, even after he had insisted it was okay. A few people looked at them as they got into the very expensive car, but Keegan didn’t mind. He almost felt important.

“Why you?” He blurted, causing a laugh from Max as they pulled away.

“Pardon?”

“No, like… why would they send you and not an intern? Or a cab?”

“They did tell me they had sent the bus ticket, but I guess you never received it.”

Keegan raised his eyebrows before a very wonderful smirk made him let out a giggle.

“Sometimes we pick up our own here. Be happy you didn’t get Sid.”

Much of the conversation centered around the warm weather and the unsatisfactory plane ride. Keegan probably uttered three words within twenty minutes, however; it was finally hitting him that he was in Pittsburgh. He was about to play with Sidney Crosby. He had no friends, no idea where his house was or where to buy the best pasta, and absolutely no clue on how he was going to play NHL hockey again. Max must have noticed the silence, and after a short pause turned the radio up to hum along to an old pop song.

The busier traffic signaled the start of a new talking point.

“So, the big wigs have you up in a hotel until they can point you in the direction of a house. It’s nice, stayed there myself.” Max glanced over with a grin. “Giant pool. Close to everything you need.”

Vancouver had given him a shitty hotel that was annoyingly out of the way. “I’ll basically have a pool in my house.”

“You might as well just stay there. Can’t beat that in Pittsburgh,” Max chuckled.

The silence got more comfortable after that.

The hotel was, in fact, incredibly fancy. A man with a funny hat stood out front of ornate golden doors, nodding in the direction of the car as they pulled up.

“Holy shit.”

“Thought you’d like it.”

Max caught Keegan’s gaze. It was the first time they had made true eye contact, and it left Keegan feeling vulnerable. Vulnerable with a large ray of sunshine in his stomach. There was another silence after they had grabbed his bags. Max’s hands were shoved in his short’s pockets, weight alternating between each leg as he watched Keegan struggle with getting his duffel onto his shoulder. Keegan chuckled at himself, if only to make things less weird.

“You know, you can come in for a coffee if you want. I mean, I don’t know if there will be coffee, but if there is.”

“I would say yes, but I have some errands to run.” Max gave him a look that could only be read as awkward.

Keegan realized that the first thing the other man had probably heard about him was the very gay, very public teammate affair, and how his question must have sounded. “Oh! I, uh, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant like, as friends? As a thank you? even though it wouldn’t be my coffee I would be giving you?”

“It’s fine, really,” Max had an amused tone, “I know what you mean. I really do have errands to run.”

“Oh. Yeah. Good.”

He shut the trunk slowly, giving Keegan a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll see you on Thursday, okay?”

Keegan toyed with his duffel bag strap at the reminder of his first practice.

“Hey, don’t be worried. I’ve seen you play, remember? You’re good.” A smile to that calmed his nerves. “I’m happy you’re here.”

“Thank you for the ride. Way better than a cab.” He allowed himself to smile. “See you soon.”

Max pulled his beanie off his head, giving him a very dramatic bow before hopping into the car.

Keegan had just begun his stroll to the doors when a horn made him practically jump out of his pants.

“Hey! You have a nickname, yes?" Max was leaning out the window, looking a bit like a puppy.

He opened his mouth, frowning. He’d only ever had one, a negative name turned into something only slightly comforting once he’d started playing with the women. “They call me Stew. But if you come up with something better, I’ll happily take it.”

Max laughed. “Oh, and early breakfast before practice! Meet me there!”

It wasn’t until his car was gone that Keegan realized how desperate he was for a nap.

--

Five in the morning. It had been awhile since five in the morning had had a purpose.

They had sent another car for him that morning, although there were no lone hockey players commandeering it that time. Just a polite man that hauled his bag into the trunk and drove a decent speed through the empty streets.

Another polite man said he would take care of Keegan’s equipment, pointing him toward the player’s entrance. Without anything to distract his hands, he ended up running his hands through his hair obsessively while trying to build up the nerve to enter the building.

He sent a quick text to Max, an attempt at casually asking him to escort the mess of a man through the what was sure to be winding hallways of the Consol Center.

A few deep breaths got him through the doors and down one of the halls. He was wearing new sneakers he’d bought the day before, and they somehow managed to squeak through the whole building as he looked for an important looking door.

Said door was only a few steps away. The code he’d been given worked on the third try, and the door was a surprisingly heavy wood that gave him a homey feeling. The room was slightly bigger than Vancouver’s, with warm colours and bright lights that inspired an energy that was contagious. His was the only locker that hadn’t been fully organized, his bag laid on the floor and the practice jersey hung limply underneath a sign that read his last name and number.

The lounge was just as bright and modern. The fridge called his name, and, without a text from Max, Keegan decided to dig into a very healthy-looking fruit salad at the kitchen island.

Eventually a group of men made their way into the kitchen area, pouring cups of coffee and yawning while making jokes that Keegan had yet to understand. Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Ben Lovejoy (all names that he had never thought would begin to feel familiar) all laughed heartily at the possibility of Max showing up early for anything. Letang, Malkin, and Crosby were some of the last ones to come into the kitchen, giving Keegan a quick nod before joining in on the fun. He continued to eat his fruit salad, feeling relatively less alone.

It became glaringly apparent that he had yet to learn everyone’s schedule when he ended up being the only one left in the kitchen, and he practically sprinted into the locker room to start changing.

“Hey, Keegan.”

“Sorry, is this your locker? I thought it was empty, so I kinda just spread out—” Keegan was met with the eyes of Sidney Crosby. It was hard to not feel silly after being confronted with the surprisingly large man. “Hi, Captain.”

“You know you don’t have to call me that,” Sidney said, his eyes twinkling with humour.

“I don’t mind.”

“That’s Crosby for ‘don’t call me that,’” someone chimed in from beside him.

“Sorry.”

Sidney smiled kindly. “Nothing to be sorry about. I just wanted to check in, make sure you’re finding everything okay. And to let you know that we are very excited to have you.”

Keegan let his shoulders relax and sat down to start taping his socks. “Yeah, I’m enjoying the east coast life so far. I’m sure that won’t change at all.”

The man beside him laughed, and Keegan glanced over to see who was admiring his humour. Someone about his age with childlike features and an impressive head of hair smiled back at him.

“This is Schultzy. He’s a BC boy, too,” Sidney nodded toward him.

“Justin,” the other man held out his gloved hand, and Keegan shook his finger, “good to meet you.”

Sidney was obviously happy with his friendship-making skills and let the two discuss how shitty their hometown was in peace. It was nice to already have someone that understood how difficult it was to not only grow up somewhere that was so obsessed with hockey, but to have to leave that place to start an intense career. Justin was perfectly sarcastic, and Keegan lost track of time with him until it was time to get onto the ice.

It was true what everyone said about Penguins practices: if they weren’t going as hard as they would in a game, it wasn’t good enough. Keegan’s legs were burning within the first five minutes and he was sure he sounded like a dying cow during laps. It was fun, though, to feel like he was a professional again. His body just had to get on board.

He was tentatively placed on a line with Sidney and Malkin for a short scrimmage. His heart was beating so hard he felt like it might jump out his chest, and not just from the workout. The two men were completely in sync, there was barely any conversation needed to get what they wanted, and Keegan found himself scrambling to show he was just as good as they were.

A stick poked his shoulder on the bench, causing him to look around before seeing Max’s devilish smile a couple of men down.

“They’re showing off for you,” he nodded toward Keegan’s linemates. “I haven’t seen anything that fancy since the playoffs last year.”

Sid shimmied awkwardly at the mention of playoffs, his arm grazing Keegan’s slightly. His face was neutral. Keegan looked back at Max and rolled his eyes.

“Maybe my talent is rubbing off on them.”

“Oh! Real cocky from the rookie,” Max laughed.

“Thanks for leaving me hanging this morning, by the way.”

Max’s face softened. “Hey, I’m sorry. I should’ve texted.”

Keegan shrugged, grinning when he realized Max was thoroughly disappointed in himself. “I probably had more fun with myself, anyway.”

Before Max could respond, their line was up. Keegan swore he could hear his laugh as they skated away, though.

---

You see that kid play?

Marc nodded slowly. He was in the middle of painfully twisting his body in an attempt to scratch the middle of his back.

“He was just as good as Sid and G. He hasn’t played pro in a year.”

“I’m sure he played at some point.”

Max frowned at him. “What’s with the negative vibes?”

Marc couldn’t help but let out a laugh, shaking his head before continuing to take off his gear.

Most of the room had cleared out except for the new kid and Phil. Phil was surprisingly tentative around Keegan, even though his place on Sid’s line was in jeopardy. Not that it was one of those teams, but there was usually some sort of joke involved when it came to him.

Keegan headed toward the door, fiddling with his blazer, and Marc had to force himself not to let his eyes follow.

“Hey, Stew.”

“Really? You couldn’t come up with anything else?” Keegan sighed. He seemed antsy to leave.

Max placed his hand on his shoulder. “You shouldn’t have told me if you didn’t want to hear it. Anyway, dinner tomorrow. My place.”

Marc’s chest tightened. The dinner had been between the two of them, something to mark another year of being friends and a superstition neither of them could quit. Max, although kind, was never the kind of person to go out of his way to change a superstition.

“I don’t know.” Keegan ran his hand through his hair. His curls bounced as he shook his head. “I need to start moving into my new place…”

“You should come. I’d like you to come.”

Max raised his eyebrow at Marc, who was in the middle of blushing his head off. He had no idea why he opened his mouth.

Keegan looked between the two of them, the gears in his head obviously turning. The silence between the trio was enough to make Marc want to slit his throat with his skate blade.

“Um, yeah, okay. Sure, I’ll come.”

Max, being the kind person he was, saved his burst of laughter for when the door closed.

Chapter Text

The only light in the living room came from the TV, illuminating an otherwise very bland room. There was only a couch and a small table. No pictures hung on the wall.

Keegan had yet to purchase a bed, something he probably should’ve done before getting the couch. The house was so large that any common sense had been thrown out the window when it came to decorating. He had no idea how to even begin living somewhere that large when he was that alone.

Kevin had texted him around midnight wishing him luck on his first game. Tanner had congratulated him on the decent contract. Xavier had sent him an eggplant emoji. Only one of those conversations had been replied to, and it was, of course, the one that Keegan regretted the most at four in the morning.

He should’ve been sleeping. It was his last day off; after that, everything was happening for real. There was no way he would be ready for that on an hour of sleep.

Xavier’s name lit up the screen once again. The message would be no surprise.

It wasn’t fun to pretend that Keegan wasn’t hurt by him. There had been nothing glamourous about the bruises and screaming and watching a family implode because of him. There was no reason for him to continue playing a back-and-forth of dick pics and apologies and looking at a bottle but never drinking it.

Yet he still did.

A shirtless picture filled his screen, and he slowly set his phone facedown onto the table. The news channel he’d been watching had turned into static, so he chose to stare at the wall.

---

“Do you even know if he likes… this?” Marc prodded at the plate in front of him, his face contorted into some sort of horror. He had no idea what it was.

“It’s spaghetti.”

“It sure as fuck doesn’t look like it.”

“It sure as fuck will taste fantastic and you will sure as fuck be sorry.” Max whipped a spoon at him, turning back to the stove where multiple pots were boiling over.

“Are you sure you need to make all this?”

No response. Marc sighed and sipped his water.

It didn’t take long for Max to stop stirring everything in front of him. He set his wooden spoon down on the counter, hands on either side of the stove and head down.

“I really did make too much, didn’t I?”

“Yes.” Marc smiled at the back of his head. “Yes, you did.”

---

Kevin’s laugh echoed through the house (no, it was practically a mansion) and it felt like the only noise Keegan wanted to hear.

“It’s too much then?”

Kevin shook his head so frantically that Keegan’s phone couldn’t keep up, causing a lag that made him laugh even more.

“I like it with the blazer.”

Keegan frowned at his mirror. The black cut-off overalls and orange shirt were already screaming for attention.

“That’s too much. They know I’m gay, but I don’t need to be that gay.”

Kevin made a noise of disagreement.

“Why did I say I would do this? I need to buy a fucking bed.”

“They’re cute?”

“Juice, I swear to God.”

Kevin and Keegan had gotten along immediately. They had roomed together in Vancouver as soon as Keegan had arrived, and he was the first one that knew everything. However, he was still painfully bad at fashion.

“Your wife is home?”

“Ha. Nope, you’re stuck with me.”

Keegan threw his blazer onto the couch. “I’m going without. I look like a three-year-old going to church.”

His hands shook slightly as he wandered around the living room. He had never been good at spontaneous socializing. Especially with two people that were already best friends.

“Are you… nervous?” Kevin’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts.

“Nervous?” Keegan scoffed. “I’m not fucking nervous. I’m terrified.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Thank you.” Keegan’s shoulders dropped in an attempt to relax.

“You’ll be fine as long as you wear the blazer.”

---

It was too hot to be wearing a blazer, and the plaid was clashing terribly with the orange shirt, but Marc was still stunned when Keegan walked through the door.

He cleared his throat immediately, gaze turned toward whatever sport was playing on the TV. Max was going on about something, detailing the vegan experiment that had almost ended in the house burning down, but it only sounded like white noise.

“Hey.”

Marc looked directly into diamond blue eyes, and they both looked down at the counter right after.

“What’s up?”

“Well, I’m here. That’s what’s up,” Keegan snorted, then brought his hand to his hair. “Sorry, that was a joke.”

He could feel Max’s presence at the end of the island, looking between the two of them as if he was at the zoo. Marc forced himself to let out the smile he’d been hiding.

“Did you want something to drink?”

Max opened the cupboard before Keegan could say anything, motioning to the wide array of teas he had stocked on the top shelf. “I remember you mentioning tea.”

“Oh, yeah. Earl grey, if you have it.”

The year before Max and Marc had sat at the kitchen island and gotten so food-drunk that they deliriously laughed at anything that was said. They’d fallen asleep on the couch beside each other while watching Superbad (which was, in Marc’s opinion, actually super bad) and woken up a little too late for them to be on time for practice.

That year they were both watching a younger man sip his tea while talking about the weather in Vancouver. Yet they all seemed content.

“You’ve lived here for awhile?” Keegan asked. His eyes wandered around what he could see of the house, and Marc was suddenly aware of the large hamper of laundry he’d left by the bathroom door. “It’s a great place.”

“I chose it.” Max raised his head proudly.

“And you live together?”

“Not like that,” Marc said with a raised hand.

Max smacked his shoulder and frowned. “Not like what, Flower?”

Keegan was hyper focused on his mug, which was a good thing considering how hot Marc’s face had gotten.

“I didn’t mean it like—”

“Okaaay, I’m going to get some plates started.”

“It’s fine.” Keegan spoke up, but his head was still down. “I get that it’s probably weird to some people, having me—”

“Don’t say that.” Marc slid his hand closer to the other man. He wasn’t sure what he was trying to accomplish. “I really didn’t mean anything by that.”

“He just wanted you to know he’s single,” Max said as he put down a couple of bowls of pasta.

That got Keegan to sit up straighter. They shared a kind smile, and neither of them looked away that time.

Max’s barstool squeaked against the floor when he sat down, and he cleared his throat dramatically while passing the others their cutlery. Keegan started eating as soon as the fork was in his hand, making approving noises.

“So, Mr. Stew. Vancouver.”

“Fuck, Max.”

Max raised his hands in surrender. “I’m just curious.”

“Go for it. Not much of it’s a secret, anyway.”

There was something about the tone of his voice that made Marc want to reach his hand out again.

“So, did they really send you off? After everything went down?”

Keegan nodded while swallowing some pasta.

“What part of it made them go ‘hey, maybe we should get rid of this kid’?”

“Probably the drugs.” Keegan looked at the ceiling, pursing his lips in thought. “Or the homosexual relations. Or the terrible choices on the ice.”

“None of that sounds that bad.”

“When it’s all at once, though…” Keegan smirked. “I wasn’t the easiest to be around. A lot of sticks lost their lives that season.”

Marc wanted to ask about Xavier.

“And you, what, just moved home after?”

“Yeah. Played on a rec league.”

The last time they had played against each other, Keegan had scored a breakaway goal against him. Xavier had grabbed him tight in the corner, his glove resting against Keegan’s jawbone, and told him that he was the sexiest man in the room in French. Keegan went on to score once more that night during the second overtime.

No one seemed to remember that, though.

“We usually watch a shitty movie after dinner.”

Marc blinked quickly, trying to seem as though his brain wasn’t envisioning a jawline as sharp as a knife.

Keegan smiled. “Comedy? Reality TV?”

Max’s eyebrows raised, and he looked over at Marc with wide eyes. “I never even thought of reality TV.”

“Cooking shows?”

“Oh my God, this kid is a genius!”

Marc rolled his eyes. “I volunteered that baking show a lot of times.”

“It’s because I said it.” Keegan grinned. His eyes lingered on Marc’s.

The rest of dinner was full of tentative glances across the island, hands brushing against each other as they cleared the table, laughs a little louder thanks to the other man beside them. Usually their dinners felt a little depressing, but Keegan brought a calm light to the room.

They ended up watching the baking show until late in the night. Marc turned around from his place on the floor after an especially impressive cake design, but he wasn’t met with excited faces. Instead, the two had fallen asleep on their respective sides of the couch.

Max had his head leaning against the back cushion, mouth open wide and small snores that would soon sound giant filling the room. Keegan had rolled onto his side. His hands were under his head, and Marc couldn’t help but watch his sides rise and fall with his soft breathing.

Marc left the show on and walked to the hall. Three blankets filled his arms, and he placed one on each of the men before wrapping his own around his shoulders and curling up on one of the side chairs.

He woke up in the same place the next morning. The couch was half-empty.

---

Geno’s knee was locked.

It was a common occurrence after the hit. That didn’t mean it was any easier to get out of bed.

“Sid.”

A long groan came from the body underneath a mountain of blankets.

“Sid. Am stuck.”

Muffled words that he couldn’t understand.

Geno inhaled loudly, about to yell anything to get Sid to move. The other man got the hint, removing the blankets and rolling over just enough to glare at him.

“You’re not stuck.”

“Knee is stuck.”

“It’s just tight from sleeping.”

“I’m do opposite of sleep.”

Sid sighed dramatically at the smug look on Geno’s face. “Just rub it a bit.”

“Is what you say—”

“G, please. Stop.”

Geno’s smile faded. Sid had his head back under the duvet, only a tuft of brown hair poking out.

“Sid? You okay?”

The lump of blankets moved until Sid had appeared from underneath, his bare back turned to the other man. Geno could make out some scratches from the previous night.

“Is about scratches? Can say you with pretty girl.”

The muscles in his back tightened. “I don’t want to say I was with a pretty girl.”

“Fine. I say you with pretty girl.”

“I don’t want anyone in this room to be with a pretty girl!” Sid stood up, hands in the air. “I don’t want to have to say anything!”

Sometimes it was like that. They would have a fun night together, nothing harmful. And then, suddenly, Sid would erupt into hysterics the next morning, arms flailing and voice cracking, and Geno would get even more butterflies at the fact that a beautiful man felt so strongly about what they were doing that he would react in that way. And then he would feel bad about feeling good about Sid feeling bad.

“Say nothing.” Geno shrugged. He brought his hand to his knee, thumb rubbing tight circles into the hard muscle. “Is no problem.”

Sid huffed his way to the bathroom. The shower turned on, filling Geno’s room with the sound.

After ten minutes, Sid returned fully clothed, his car keys in hand.

“I’m going now.”

“Have three hour.”

“I’m. Going.” Sid leaned against the wall. “We can’t show up together.”

“I’m not say that.” Geno’s knee was still in incredible pain, but he managed to wander over to where Sid was. He planted a slobbery kiss on Sid’s forehead. “Stay. I make breakfast.”

Sid’s hands were on his chest, pushing him far enough away that they could look at each other.

“I don’t want to hide.”

Geno had heard those words plenty of times. In Russia, in Canada, in Pittsburgh. Many men had had those words fall out of their mouth. Every time, Geno wished they would just keep it in.

Even Anna had uttered that terrible sentence at dinner the year before, over a plate of something microwaved and a glass of red wine. And he had nodded along and told her he felt the same. Neither of them could leave their situation, though. It wasn’t safe for anybody involved.

“I don’t want you to have to hide.”

Sid’s eyes were glossing over, headed to another fit if Geno didn’t say something.

“Yes.”

“That’s it? That’s really all you have to say?”

It was all he could ever say.

“We have the league’s first openly gay player on our team. He’s still playing. He’s still living his life.” Sid shook his head. “Why can’t we do that?”

“He lose lots. I not want to lose.”

The shorter man looked down, obviously defeated, and made his way toward the door.

“I would lose a lot, too.”

---

“Waiting for someone?”

Kris’s voice pulled Keegan’s eyes away from the door. His face immediately turned red when he saw the cheeky grin on Letang’s face.

“I, uh... I left my watch at Max’s house.”

Kris leaned against Justin’s locker; his head tilted toward him. “That’s all?”

Keegan frowned. “Yeah. Why?”

Letang leaned down, tapping Keegan’s right wrist where his watch sat.

“You might want to take that off before you work out. Wouldn’t want you to lose it.”

He practically skipped away.

---

Their first game was against Ottawa, which Keegan was grateful for. He had never lost a game against them and wasn’t about to start in Pittsburgh. He was second line, which was much better than he’d been anticipating. Nothing compared to playing alongside Sid and Geno, but still exciting.

The first period was relatively dull. Both teams were obviously trying to get back into the rhythm of playing an actual game, and neither scored. The physical game that Keegan was used to playing wasn’t an option, since it seemed like everyone had decided that a non-contact approach was the way to go. Max made a point of goofing around as much as possible, which lightened the bench in a perfect way.

Keegan found his gaze getting stuck on their own end, however.

Marc was playing a fantastic game, in his element and a complete powerhouse. It was inspiring, but it was more than that at the same time…

His freckles had distracted Keegan as soon as he’d seen him sitting at that kitchen island. It was almost a joke, how perfectly that little feature described the kind of person he was. Fun, light, airy. He gave off the vibe of someone who would be fun even when they were angry.

So, the complete opposite of what Keegan usually went for.

And his fucking laugh. Even his laugh was good.

A very loud whistle pulled him out of his funk long enough to jump over the boards. The faceoff was in their end, and Keegan happily leaned over for the faceoff. Even if he couldn’t have the goalie, he could still show off.

---

“Who gets a hat trick in their first fucking game? Nobody. Ever.”

“I feel like that’s inaccurate.”

“Whatever, man.” Max raised his glass of water toward the roof. “This kid is a saviour.”

Keegan looked down at his plate. He’d been smiling for hours, even during the awkward post-game interview. Max had insisted that some of the guys take him out for a quick drink to celebrate.

Sid was picking at his salad, eyes trained on the bar. Well, the very tall Russian Penguin that had been at the bar the entire time.

“Is he okay?” Keegan whispered, leaning into Marc just a bit more than was normal.

Marc shared a look with Max before shrugging. “Probably focused on the next game. It’s all he ever thinks about, you know. Like a hockey robot.” With that, he flicked a crouton at their captain, who frowned before continuing to eat.

“Thank you for doing this.” Keegan looked around the table. “It means a lot.”

Kris, Phil, and Justin all nodded, while Sid smiled as he continued to shove lettuce in his mouth.

“What you say?” Geno asked, setting down a glass of wine in front of Sid and sipping his own.

“It’s too late for me to drink,” Sid mumbled.

“Talbo say we go out for drink! I’m drink!”

Max cleared his throat. “Stew was just thanking us for taking him out.”

“Can you really not come up with a better name?”

Kris chuckled. “What? I like Stew.”

“Don’t you start calling me that, too.”

“What do we have to do to be allowed to call you Stew?” Marc turned to look at him, a playful smile on his face.

Keegan felt his heartrate quicken. He swallowed. “Something pretty major, probably.”

Geno practically slammed his fork down, his own smile forming. “I make you food for year.”

“Any food?”

“Russian best. Make vegan for you.”

Keegan pursed his lips and looked at Sid. “Is he good?”

“He’s really good.”

Marc snorted.

“Okay. But I get a trial run.”

Geno held up his fork in victory. Sid shook his head and Marc let out a laugh.

“And he’s the only one.” Keegan pointed his finger at Max, then at Kris. “No one else.”

“If I had known all it would take was vegan Russian cuisine…”

“What? What would you have done, Kris?”

“I would’ve called Geno.”

Chapter Text

The fourth practice was the easiest.

Keegan’s legs no longer burned, and his lungs were becoming more accustomed to the level of skating. He was also starting to bond more with the guys, which allowed him to goof off and not feel guilty.

Geno had taken quite a liking to him since their Russian Cuisine Experience had begun. The two would meet for lunch often, and Keegan happily explained some of the lingo that G had yet to understand. In exchange, Geno told him many secrets and inside jokes from the years he’d been in Pittsburgh.

It was after that practice that Keegan decided it was time to talk about the elephant in the locker room.

“So, I assume you’re okay with me?”

Geno frowned at him, coffee mug covering half his face, and tilted his head to the left.

“Like, you know…”

“Why not okay with you?” Geno gave him a smile, but it was bordering on concerned. “Is fine. Like being with you.”

Keegan sighed in frustration. His legs were bouncing, shaking the table as if he was his own mini earthquake. “You know what I mean.”

Geno simply shrugged and chose to dig into his croissant. He ate as if his life depended on it, food flying an impressive distance given how small the pastry was.

“Geno.”

“I’m not understand the question.”

Keegan groaned and laid his head on the table.

“Not have to die, Stew. Explain question.”

“Fine.” He looked up slowly, running his hands down his face. “Are you okay with the fact that I’m… not straight?”

Another frown. “Why?”

“Oh my God.” Keegan ran his tongue over his lips to keep from saying something he’d regret. “Because you happen to be from a place that isn’t okay with that?”

To his surprise, Geno laughed. More food flew from his mouth, causing Keegan to crack a smile along with him.

“I not Russia. Don’t think like them. Never have, never will.”

The two shared a look, something that portrayed a feeling neither could explain in words. Keegan found his hand reaching toward Geno’s, if only to feel that he wasn’t the only human being in the world. He hadn’t realized how lonely he’d been.

“I’m always think you’re good person. Even with Canucks. I’m understand why you… do those things. No other choice.” Geno squeezed his hand. “Happy you’re on team.”

Keegan’s eyes started watering. Geno chuckled softly, tapping his thumb on Keegan’s hand before going back to his croissant.

“Thank you, G.”

He waved his hand nonchalantly. “Is what I do.”

---

Sid knew he was being too picky about which tie to wear that night, but the alternative was to invite Geno over. And that would lead to sex, which would lead to yet another existential crisis and awkward goodbye.

It was always harder to ignore on the road, when the threat of Anna’s disappointed glare was miles and miles away. Geno was usually rooming with him, or at least rooming beside him, and no one ever noticed when the two snuck away from dinner.

They had shown up to Philly early. It was dangerous to go out for a team dinner in their foe’s city, but most of the guys had too much energy to care. They were playing well, getting along well, and wanted to party well. Sid had never really been one to party, but a night out was what he needed to forget about how Geno’s hands felt.

Three knocks on the door pulled him away from his ties. Max stood in front of him, holding up a bag of gummy worms. He had on some very old sweatpants.

“I’m going to put these in Flower’s bed while they’re out. Wanna join?”

“You’re not going out?” Sid leaned against the doorframe, toying with the buttons on his shirt.

Max shrugged, popping a worm in his mouth. He offered Sid one.

“No, thanks.”

“Listen, I may be young and beautiful, but I am also tired. I’m just here to prank Flower and go to bed.”

Sid patted his shoulder. “I’m going out. Ask Keegan.”

“He’s going out, too! Even the guys with kids are going!”

“Maybe you should go, then.”

Max rolled his eyes and walked away without a word.

By the time they had made it to the incredibly fancy restaurant, Sid was sick of people. Everyone was looking at them, some asked for photos, and the voices were too loud for Sid to even think. Geno, of course, was having the time of his life at the bar with a young woman.

“You okay?” Keegan leaned over from his place across the table.

“Yeah, just tired.”

He pushed his tea toward Sid, holding his hand out. “Have some.”

Although not a huge fan of tea, Sid took it just to seem busy.

“Do you think Max will be awake by the time we get back?” Keegan was now leaning toward Marc, his hand under his chin and a devilish smile lighting up the booth.

“No. He usually gets naked and falls asleep.”

Keegan raised his eyebrows. “Interesting…”

Sid let out a short laugh. “What are you thinking?”

“Does Sidney Crosby want to prank someone?” Marc mimicked Keegan’s pose. “Are you… asking to be a part of our prank?”

“I think it’s my prank. I’m the one that brought it up.”

Marc shook his head. “I’m the prank master.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Sid slid the mug of tea back to Keegan. “I’m on his side, Flower. The kid’s got that look.”

Marc yelled something in French toward the pool tables, where Tanger and Pascal had challenged the rookies to a game. Tanger leaned on his pool cue with an amused look on his face.

“Tanger’s on my team.” Marc puffed his chest out proudly.

“Well, Sid’s on mine. That means I get Geno.” Keegan stuck his tongue out as he got up from the table. He strolled over to the bar, wrapping his arm around Geno’s waist and talking to him excitedly.

Sid was happy they were friends. It didn't feel great that Geno never pulled away from his embrace, though.

“How are you doing?”

He turned to see Marc’s trademark grin had been replaced with a concerned frown. Sid tried his best to shrug nonchalantly.

“You know I know.”

“And you know that I don’t want to talk about it.” Sid’s voice was whinier than he would’ve liked. “I’m just tired. I shouldn’t have come out.”

“It’s six PM.”

Sid rolled his eyes.

After their last game of the playoffs the year before, Sid had drunkenly declared to a half-asleep Marc that he had, in his own words, ‘taken it up the butt by Evgeni Malkin.’ He was sure that the goalie wouldn’t remember a thing, but of course he had questioned him obsessively until it was confirmed. Geno spending a month with Sid at his cabin hadn’t made him question any less.

When Geno had phoned him days before training camp with the news that he and Anna were engaged, Sid had spent another drunken night on Marc’s couch watching and rewatching Sex and the City.

“He’s just… such a flirt,” Sid sighed.

Marc nodded slowly, taking a sip of his beer. He was watching Geno and Keegan closely, eyes moving up and down both of their bodies as they jokingly danced.

“At least both of them are on your team.”

“What’s your plan?” Sid changed the subject. He was met with a shrug. “Come on, there has to be something.”

“Why would I tell you my secrets?”

“Group prank.”

Marc raised his eyebrows. “Nice. I knew there was a reason they made you captain.”

Keegan had happily chosen the role of hiding in the closet with a mask on, awaiting Max’s eventual sleepwalk toward the bathroom. After jumping out, Marc would pour a bucket of ice down his back. Tanger would wait for Max in the bathroom and do something to make him ‘piss everywhere.’

“It’ll be hilarious.”

“Does that really need to be a part of it?” Keegan sighed. “The poor housekeeper…”

“We’ll tip well.”

Geno had already slipped the concierge to come up to the room and complain about the noise, threatening to kick them all out.

Sid was just going to film, because he hadn’t really wanted to be a part of it to begin with.

The group paid their bill and made their way back to the hotel. Keegan and Marc were laughing about something, Tanger was speaking frantic French to his iPhone. Geno’s long stride meant Sid was in the back.

“So slow, Sid,” Geno called. “I die before you catch up.”

“I’m trying to digest,” he said, mostly as an excuse for the two of them to trail behind the group. It worked, Geno waiting for Sid’s steps to match his own.

“You barely eat.”

Geno’s hand brushed Sid’s in the most tantalizing way, fingers dancing against each other. Sid grabbed on for a second before realizing where and who they were.

“Let’s skip out on the prank.”

Geno’s eyes widened. “I’m… You want…”

“I want you to stay the night,” Sid whispered. His eyes were focused on the group in front of them.

“Better than floor with Tanger and Duper.”

Sid snorted.

---

“How are we all getting in there without waking him up?” Keegan’s voice sounded too loud in the hallway. “We’re gonna have to open doors and—”

“Yeah, we didn’t think that through.” Kris leaned against the wall. “I’m not drunk enough to be doing this.”

Marc smacked them both on the arm. “He’s a heavy sleeper. Get in there.”

Keegan was the first one to sneak in. He found his place in the closet strangely comfortable, even with the stupid plastic mask they’d picked up from the party store. His breath seemed to echo through the small room. Light footsteps signaled the other men getting into place, and Keegan cracked the door just enough to have a clear view of Max’s sleeping form. Marc was laying on the floor behind the opposite bed, in just the right position so Max wouldn’t see a thing.

Keegan watched his hands carefully. Marc was stretching his fingers out, tapping them lightly on the carpet every couple of seconds. He wished he was the carpet, fingertips floating lightly over the skin of his back, the back of his head and into his curls…

Max rolled over, and it suddenly felt as if they were in some sort of world war.

Keegan could hear his feet hitting the carpet, a small groan as he stretched. Keegan’s muscles tensed as he prepared to jump.

Max stood up, his bare ass seemingly reflecting the light from the TV. Keegan coughed to keep from laughing, which was also a bad idea.

“Qu'est-ce que ...” Max looked around. His hands automatically went to cover his junk halfheartedly, which was also incredibly hilarious.

Suddenly, one of the lamps had been turned on. Keegan squinted against the brightness.

“Le visser!” Marc yelled, jumping up and swinging the bucket of ice at his friend.

“Dude! Ow!”

Keegan had opened the door just in time to see Max on the ground. He’d managed to pull one of the duvets over his body, but the look of anger on his face was embarrassing enough.

He went off on a very long and very French rant, finger pointed at Marc as if it was a gun. Kris snuck out from the bathroom and immediately started laughing.

“It was a joke.”

Max swung his head around to look at the other man. “What the fuck were you doing?”

Kris raised his hands, backing out of the room slowly.

“That fucking hurt, man!” Max stood up. His finger was now pointing at the both of them. “That wasn’t funny!”

“I’m sorry if we scared you—”

“You threw a fucking bucket at me! It’s a little more than being scared.” Max grabbed his pants. “I’m staying with Tanger.”

“He was part of it,” Keegan spoke up. He was ignored completely, a door slamming almost immediately after he’d taken his mask off.

Marc looked at him, eyebrows raised and face slightly flushed. “He never does that.”

“You threw the bucket?”

“I didn’t mean to. I panicked.” A smile appeared on his face. “I should’ve chosen one with a handle.”

Keegan burst into laughter. He wasn’t sure if it was the look on Marc’s face or the energy of the night catching up to him, but he felt so happy to be there that he didn’t care either way. Marc joining him only added to the humour.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Keegan calmed down enough to set his mask down on the desk. The chair was rickety, but he sat down anyway.

“Probably should’ve mentioned he doesn’t wake up well.” Marc snorted. “He’ll forget it tomorrow.”

Keegan nodded. He leaned back, hands resting on his stomach. The thought of going back to his room was lonely, even though he knew Schultzy would be there.

“You probably want to head back.”

Marc was watching him carefully. The energy in the room had changed drastically; something heavier than air was sitting between them.

“I’m fine here.” It was hard to say while looking in his eyes. “If that’s fine.”

Marc nodded slowly. His hands tapped against his thighs as he looked around the room before he settled on grabbing the remote and sitting on Max’s bed.

“You watch anything?”

“Do I watch anything?” Keegan couldn’t help but chuckle. “Yeah, I watch things. Friends is usually on by now.”

Marc had a slight blush when he handed the remote to him. It was incredibly adorable.

After finding the channel, Keegan wheeled his desk chair beside Max’s bed. He brought his legs up to his chest, arms wrapped around them tightly. Something to distract him from the warmth that was radiating from the man beside him.

“Can I tell you something?”

Keegan’s stomach did a flip. “Yeah.”

“I’ve never watched Friends.”

“You’ve never—really? How?” Keegan grinned. “There’s no way.”

“I have no idea what’s happening.” Marc squinted at Joey, who had a turkey on his head.

“You want me to—”

“Yes. Please.”

That began the very long and torturous explanation of every plot, character, inside joke, and setting of one of Keegan’s favourite shows. He could tell almost immediately that Marc couldn’t have cared less, but the mischievous twinkle in his eyes kept Keegan going long after the episode had finished and even longer than that. By the third episode, Marc had started to laugh along.

At some point, Keegan had let his arm fall from its place around his legs, just enough to brush against Marc’s side. Neither of them moved, as if they were afraid time would start up again if anything changed.

“Can I tell you something now?”

He could tell Marc was looking at him then, but he continued to watch the TV.

“Yes.”

Keegan licked his lips. “I’ve never had this much fun on a road trip. Sober, at least.”

“Me neither.” Marc’s voice cracked slightly, shoulder leaning closer to the desk chair.

“Thank you.”

Their hands touched.

“I should thank you.”

Fingers grasped each other as if it was the last time that they’d hold hands.

“Why?”

Marc squeezed his hand. “I haven’t felt like this in awhile.”

Keegan wasn’t sure how to respond. Even if he did know what to say, he wouldn’t have been able to say it. The last time he’d heard those words rang through his head like an alarm, a warning not to get caught up in what he’d so gratefully accepted years before.

Xavier had been holding him when the sentence had slipped out of his mouth, something so effortless that it was obvious he hadn’t thought it over. His fingers had caressed the back of Keegan’s head like it was familiar. In reality, that fuck had been the first of many, all varying in emotion and sobriety. All with different meanings.

Those words meant that they would remain hidden for as long as possible. There was no such thing as a proud, openly gay NHL player and there never would be without some sort of consequence.

Keegan squeezed his hand back, anyway.

“You’re staying here tonight?”

No straight man would say that in that tone.

“I guess.” Keegan gulped. He had no idea where to go from there.

Marc let go of his hand, wrapping his arm around the back of the desk chair and spinning Keegan to face him. Keegan’s legs fell to their natural sitting position, Marc’s knees between them.

“Is this okay?” Marc’s voice was shaky, knuckles white from gripping their arm rests.

Keegan could only nod as the hands made their way down to his thighs. Fingers tapping like they had on the carpet what felt like days before.

“What are we…”

“Whatever you want.” Marc looked down at his chest. “Until it doesn’t feel right.”

The kiss was the most natural part. Anything leading up to it had just felt like a tentative excuse. Their lips fell together perfectly, tongues and teeth playfully involved as they got into a rhythm.

At some point, Keegan had gotten out of the chair and onto Marc’s lap. Their hands wandered quickly until Marc pulled away.

“Doesn’t feel right?” Keegan’s voice was surprisingly calm given how disappointed he felt.

“No, no. I just… Max was naked in these sheets. Feels weird.”

Keegan chuckled, running his hands down Marc’s chest. “Good thing there’s another bed, then.”

Marc picked up him up surprisingly easy. Keegan felt like a princess. They dodged the desk chair, and Keegan was smothered in the best way by Marc’s weight. The kissing continued, his hands trying to memorize the muscles in the other man’s back, the way they flexed as they pushed up his shirt—

“What’s that?”

Keegan brought his lips away from Marc’s neck. “What’s what?”

“That thing poking my…”

“Actually?” Keegan snorted.

“No, not like… I know you don’t… Yeah, that thing.” Marc had dragged Keegan’s hand along the side of his body until it was touching something small and hard.

“It feels like a screw.”

“Maybe we should just get up.”

Marc got off him, lifting the corner of the blanket just enough to look under. Keegan jumped when he laughed.

“What? What’s wrong?” He stood up, and they both tore the blanket off the bed.

There sat what looked like hundreds of gummy worms, hardened from how long they’d been sitting out.

---

“Was it good?”

“Can you remind me why you called?”

Xavier laughed. The sound of him inhaling sharply filled Keegan’s headphones, and he winced until the volume was appropriate.

“You still smoke?”

“Tabernac, is pot.”

Keegan rolled his eyes. Why he had answered the phone on his walk home from the café, he had no idea. He would like to say that the loss against Philly had damaged him enough to answer his ex’s call, but the game had been so close that it had still felt like a win.

“Was it good?”

“I told you, we didn’t do anything. We made out and ate gummy worms. The concierge came up and asked for an autograph. We fell asleep facing away from each other.” He sighed. “It was just two lonely people trying to feel less lonely for a second.”

“He could’ve made it with anyone.”

“He knows I’m gay.”

Xavier’s laugh turned into an even louder cough. “Mon dieu, tu es tellement stupide.”

“I will hang up on you.”

The following silence was enough for Keegan to remember why he wasn’t supposed to talk to Xavier anymore. All those things that he never said or said too much of.

“If I was him, no stopping.” Xavier coughed again. “Would’ve done so much for you. Anything you wanted.”

“Listen, I have to go. I’ll call you next week.”

The cry escaped from his lips before he hung up. Keegan grabbed onto the first thing he could; a particularly sticky pole was the only thing keeping him from falling to the ground from the force of his memories.

Chapter Text

“Okay, but something happened.”

“Is now really the best time for this conversation?” He didn’t mean for it to come out as a question, so Marc smacked his stick against Max’s leg for good measure.

“When else would we talk about this?” Max jumped as a puck headed toward them, blocking Marc’s view. He raised his hands as the puck trickled past the goal line.

“It’s a good distraction,” he continued with a slight hip shimmy when Phil scored again, “so I can look like I’m doing something.”

“Nothing happened.”

He wasn’t ashamed. The last thing he wanted was to feel any sort of shame surrounding a teammate. There was nothing to feel. It was a quick romp that had ended abruptly with no words spoken, something to be taken as lightly as the way Keegan had pressed his lips against Marc’s—

“See, when you get that look on your face, it tells me something happened.”

“I spy two Frenchmen whispering in the corner.” Keegan’s voice made the pair swing around. “What? Am I interrupting?”

Marc was sure the look on both of their faces said enough, but he couldn’t let the silence go any longer. “We were talking about a prank. On Geno.”

“We’re stealing his clothes and hanging them from the rafters,” Max chimed in.

Keegan snorted. “That’s a good one.”

Marc had never tried so hard to smile like a normal person. He’d never tried to be normal ever, when he thought about it. But every time he looked at that short little ray of fucking sunshine, he couldn’t help but think about what the week could’ve been like if there hadn’t been any gummy bears in his bed.

They could’ve talked about it already. They could’ve sat down and figured it out instead of bottling up so tight that they both looked like they were about to blow up from the mere mention of each other’s names.

Keegan gave Marc a smile and a pat on the shoulder in lieu of anything more. Max frowned as he skated away.

“Something definitely happened.”

---

Carolina conveniently decided to beat Keegan up around the same time that his crush on the goalie became too much to handle.

Every hit was from a man one hundred pounds heavier than he was, full force with an elbow to the ribs for good measure. Sticks were practically thrown in his direction as soon as his blade touched the ice. Words that he hadn’t heard since middle school were thrown around so effortlessly that they started to lose their meaning.

Anyone could tell he had had enough with all of it. Vancouver had known Keegan for his physical game more than anything else (a gram of cocaine a day certainly helped that), but Pittsburgh had yet to see much of anything from him since his first game. It was daunting, the amount of expectations that had been laid out in front of him since signing that contract. More than daunting, it was a piss off.

He started throwing words back late in the second period. Neither team had scored, so no ammo there. He didn’t know much about the bunch of rookies that made up the Hurricanes, other than the fact Don Cherry didn’t like them. Don Cherry didn’t like him either, though, so that didn’t matter much.

It turned into elbows early in the third. There was nothing else for him to do, other than throw his weight around as much as possible. It kept them out of the Penguins’ end just fine.

His last faceoff of the game had him staring down a kid who should’ve still been in high school. It was a stupid comment, whatever the kid had said. Something to do with Xavier throwing him around, how badly he must want that from his new team. Equal parts homophobic and just plain asshole.

“What the fuck did you say?”

The kid smirked, for fuck’s sake. He wasn’t trying to hide anything.

“Simmer down.” The ref, some new guy that probably knew Keegan just as well as the kid did, frowned at them.

“Did you not just fucking hear what he—”

The ref waved Phil into the faceoff, which was probably better anyway, but Keegan remained where he was.

“Are you listening?”

“We’re trying to play a game here, kid. Get out of the circle.”

Keegan stared in his eyes, memorized his smile lines and crow’s feet. Thought about the kids he probably had and the home that was waiting for him after the game.

Phil tapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, it’s fine.”

It wasn’t fine.

As soon as the puck dropped, Keegan lunged for the kid. He was expecting it, of course, so it wasn’t terrible. They circled around each other like sharks fighting for a meal (if sharks did that) and pulled at each other’s lapels until the crowd got bored and started booing.

They both skated off with no scratches.

He didn’t play for the rest of the game, however, thanks to a sudden and overwhelming anxiety attack that came from deep in his stomach.

---

“I told you, I’m fine.”

The team doctor didn’t seem convinced but nodded anyway. “I know, but we want to make sure you’re walking into the optimal environment given your… situation.”

Keegan smiled. “I get that, I just don’t know what the fuck kind of ‘optimal environment’ could be waiting for me in the hallway of an empty arena. I just want out of my gear.”

One of the EMTs let out a short laugh. She received a glare from the doctor.

“There were people out there who thought you were having a heart attack. We want to make sure everyone has settled down before allowing you back into a space that might overload your senses.”

“What overloaded my senses was the homophobic piece of shit standing in front of me in that faceoff. Not my teammates being worried about me.”

The EMT checked his heartrate again, then gave a curt nod to the doctor. “He’s fine. Let him go.”

The hallways were incredibly empty. Keegan’s skates had been thrown off at some point during the attack and were leaning against the wall. They looked lonely. He picked them up and, for some reason, dusted them off as if there was anything to make them dirty to begin with.

“You’re alive.”

Keegan, startled as all hell, almost threw his skates at the very well-dressed goalie in front of him.

“Sorry.” Marc grinned. “I heard your rant about the, what was it, ‘optimal environment?’ I guess I’m not living up to that.”

Keegan’s heart was racing again. In the best way.

“Some of the guys wanted to go out for a bit. Coach’s orders to have some fun.” Marc raised his eyebrows. “We won, by the way.”

“Oh, shit. That’s good.” Keegan shuffled his weight from one socked foot to the other. All his sweat had dried under his pads, allowing him to feel how gross he probably looked. “I was just gonna get changed, head home. Sleep.”

Marc looked down; an understanding smile directed at the concrete. “Yeah, I get that.”

Their silence in the change room was much needed. Keegan pulled his jersey off with an elaborate sigh, feeling somewhat free from the night’s stressors. He pretended that Marc wasn’t watching as he ripped the Velcro undone on his shoulder pads and tore off his shirt.

Most people didn’t mention the scars on his chest. Marc was no exception. He stared, sure. A lot longer than anyone else had. But he didn’t say anything, didn’t even twitch an eyebrow. He understood too well.

“I’m sorry we haven’t talked much.” It was all Keegan could say, given the eyes that were burning holes into his shirtless body. “I should’ve said something.”

“You said something.” Marc looked up at his eyes. “Lots of somethings.”

“No, like, about… you know.”

Marc stood up from his locker across the room, slow strides that eventually led him to be centimetres from Keegan’s nervous energy. He was much taller in that position, a solid foot above Keegan’s head, and a little more intimidating when the room was empty.

“What did he say to you?”

Keegan felt his lip quivering and looked away quickly. “The usual shit. Nothing worse than what anyone else said. I don’t know why, but it got me.”

“I’m sorry.” Marc lifted his hand to Keegan’s cheek. Their skin never touched, but it was enough.

“Maybe I should come out tonight.”

Marc’s face lit up. “Yeah. You should.”

The majority of the bar ignored the pair’s entrance, save for a few stray tables that gawked in awe. A very loud group occupied the back half of the building, and it didn’t take much detective work for Keegan to realize that was where they were headed. A few of their teammates leaned lazily against pool cues, tossing jokes at each other with ease. Above the shelves of liquor at the bar were gigantic TVs, all of which were reviewing that night’s game. Keegan felt his face warm up at the sight of his failed fight.

Marc whispered something to Max as soon as they had joined the rest of the group.

There were three options for Keegan. Join Marc and Max at the bar and stay within his safe bubble of socializing, relive his glory days and party it up with some of the rookies at a booth in the back, or get out of his comfort zone and attempt to join in on what looked like an intense pool tournament. He took the first option.

Keegan’s face was on all three of the TV screens by the time he sat down on a barstool.

“Well, you’re popular.” Max joked, his elbow poking into Keegan’s side.

“Apparently.”

Max took to elbowing him whenever he was on screen, even tipped the bartender extra to turn the volume up, and Keegan was sure he was forming a bruise not even twenty minutes in.

It didn’t take long for the older men to dissipate. The once lively back of the bar turned into a small gathering of stragglers at their booth, the captain and his alternate sitting at their own table, and three in-betweeners turned away from the TVs. Their elbows rested on the bar top, legs swinging just above the ground.

“Is he always like that?”

Both Max and Marc chuckled when they realized Keegan was looking at Sid. The captain was frowning in concentration as he waved his hands around, a wild attempt at getting his point across to the man across from him.

“He’s never not passionate. Gotta get the facts straight.”

Sid continued to wave about.

Marc pulled out his wallet with a childish grin. “How much you want to bet he’ll knock that glass over?”

Keegan swiped the five-dollar bill that Marc had dangled in front of his face. “There’s no bet. It’ll be across the room in ten minutes, tops.”

After a fit of laughter, the three sipped their beverages in relative silence. The TV droned on behind them.

“… the fact is, he knows what he’s doing wrong, and he’s taking all of this for granted anyway! Look at the situation in Vancouver, that is a great example of a player that is not in this for the hockey—"

“You could argue the same thing about anyone in this league!”

“Jesus Christ,” Marc muttered in response to the television’s voice. None of them turned around.

Max looked at him, his expression softened drastically. “Do you miss it? Being there?”

“Not one bit.”

“Is it true? Everything that happened with… and the partying?”

“Max, we’ve been through this.” Marc smacked his arm.

“Most of it is.” Keegan cleared what felt like an army of frogs from his throat. “I went batshit every night. We started losing games, I thought it was all me. Obviously, it’s never just one person, but at the time… it felt like it was all me. I mean, I would spend hours curled up with a two-six of vodka watching and re-watching and re-re-watching those games and pick out every little thing I did wrong. I knew what they’d say in video half the time.”

“Fuck.”

“And I—I thought I deserved that. No one made me feel any different.”

Marc looked at him the way most people did. Half pity, half respect. His hand was clenching his glass of water as if it was about to run away from Keegan’s terrible life choices.

“So many of those guys live that lifestyle and are completely fine.” Keegan laughed to himself. “Well, either that or they end up killing themselves. I got stuck in between, as usual.”

Max was watching his feet dangle off the stool. “Well, we’re happy you’re here now.”

Embarrassed with his outburst of emotion, and thoroughly afraid of how unstable he seemed to Marc, Keegan got up from his seat. His glass made a small thud when he set it down on the counter, a decent sized bill underneath it.

“I’m gonna head out, I think.”

It wasn’t how he’d wanted the night to end, with two men pitying his every move and unsure if they would ever talk to him again.

However, Marc got up from his own seat; a head nod toward the door signalled more to the conversation. Max waved his hand with a gentle smile.

“See you tomorrow, Stew.”

Marc’s hand was on the small of Keegan’s back by the time they reached the parking lot.

“I really am sorry.”

Keegan shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from grabbing Marc’s hand. "You don't have to keep saying that."

“I had no idea what it was like… and what that fuckface said to you tonight…”

“It’s fine. Really.”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you.”

It was a weird sentence to hear. There was no malicious intent, Keegan would’ve been able to spy that a mile away. It was full of sadness and confusion, a small hint of longing. That look in the other man’s eyes that was usually reserved for abused puppies or kids in commercials about malnutrition. A fucked up, misunderstood situation that Keegan didn’t want to relive.

The feeling in his chest from earlier returned full force, and he felt himself pull away.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“What happened with us…” Keegan’s voice shook as he paced along the parking stall lines. “What happened there was a lack of judgement, and loneliness, and me taking advantage of a good time. I didn’t want to turn this into some sort of weird soap opera fantasy where you end up liking me in spite of my past. I don’t want you to like me in spite of anything.”

Marc’s frown was infuriating. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t have to pretend to be attracted to me. I’m not a ticking gay timebomb that’s about to blow up in your hands. I can handle rejection from a straight man.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Marc put his hands in his pockets. He was withdrawing from the situation as much as possible. “I don’t think of you like that. I don’t see you like how you think I see you. No one does.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“You think everyone sees you as that gay kid from Vancouver that fucked his team’s captain and got skates thrown at him by the dude’s wife. You think people only see the drugs and the fucking and your… your being trans, but literally no one thinks of you that way anymore. Pour l'amour de Dieu, vous êtes fort! You are so fucking strong!” Marc’s hands were out of their pockets and in the air. “Vous nous faites ressembler à des bébés, comparés à ce que vous avez vécu!”

Keegan’s own hands were shaking, whether out of fear or anger he couldn’t tell.

“I don’t see you like that, Keegan.” Marc took a deep breath. He grabbed the shaking hands like it wasn’t a big deal.

“What am I, then?” No one had said the T word in front of him in years. “What do you see me as?”

“A man. A shining star d'un homme.” A squeeze of his hands that brought Keegan back down to Earth. “Like if the sun came in a small package. Petit soleil.”

Keegan was vaguely aware of the tears that had betrayed him and made their way down his cheeks. He was also aware of the unfamiliar hand that reached out to wipe them away, slightly calloused from stopping rubber death-discs all day.

No one had ever thought of him as Light before. He was always Darkness, or, even worse, Nothing at All.

“Bold of you to compare me to a large ball of gas.”

It was said with humour, and they both laughed, but the two men in the middle of the parking lot knew damn well that they had just crossed a line that they couldn’t come back from.

---

Geno had always been the kind of guy to jump between seats on the plane. He didn’t like to conform to anyone seating arrangement; sometimes he was playing cards with the guys in the back, sometimes reading books with the Ivy Leaguers in the middle. Occasionally he allowed himself to sit behind Sid and Flower’s front row seats.

The plane ride to Los Angeles was different. He knew about Marc and Keegan on that plane ride.

He and Sid hadn’t meant to overhear their conversation. They were headed to their cars, being a little handsy since most of the guys had left by that point, when Sid had pointed out the figures that were in front of his car door.

It was only natural that they waited in silence until the men were done.

Keegan already had his headphones in, knees pulled up to his chest. An attempt to remain alone throughout the flight.

Geno cleared his throat. “Free?”

He motioned to the aisle seat, and Keegan watched his hand as if it alone had a deadly plague that would kill them all.

“Um… yeah, sure.” He offered a small smile and left his headphones out when Geno sat down.

“Thanks.” Geno pulled out his phone to try and buffer the conversation. “Is too early.”

“I kinda like it. I always feel better when I’m up early.”

“No, is too early.”

Keegan looked concerned until Geno grinned.

Much to Geno’s chagrin, the two didn’t talk for the rest of the flight. They simply accepted each other’s company. Keegan even closed his eyes at one point, head tilting further and further toward Geno’s shoulder before finally resting carefully on the bone. He made sure not to move his arm too much while he played his phone games.

The plane hitting the tarmac caused them both to look up. Keegan was obviously embarrassed with the lack of personal space.

“Is fine. I’m sleep on most of team,” Geno joked.

“I didn’t think I was that tired—”

“No, is fine.” Geno nodded his head to emphasize his point. “I’m like sitting with you.”

And he really had enjoyed it. Much more than the card games and pretend-reading English novels. They both carried the burden of big secrets, which they could let go of when together. He liked that.

---

Sid had poached some of the newer guys in order to not eat his five PM sandwich alone. That meant Keegan was left with Kris in the locker room.

They didn’t hate each other, they never had. The lack of communication had come purely from necessity. If they were to get close, secrets would come out that neither of them wanted to think about.

Xavier had mentioned in passing early on in their relationship that a certain guy named Kris Letang was his wife’s brother. Keegan had chuckled, since the two looked like twins, but hadn’t thought much of it past that. He had always assumed he would never see Xavier 2.0 up close and personal outside of the ice.

Kris was leaning back in his locker, phone balanced precariously on his thigh while he pulled on a hoodie. All his body language screamed ‘DON’T COME NEAR ME’.

“Hey.”

Kris frowned as he fixed his hair.

Keegan, unsure of where to go from there, shrugged his arms and gave a smile. “How are you?”

His brows remained close together as he got up, brushing off some sort of imaginary dust from his joggers and hoodie. Geno’s head popped into the locker room, relieving some of the tension.

“Need someone for game. Tanger.”

“I’ll be out in a bit.”

The door closing brought back Keegan’s tense hands. He ran his palms over his thighs in order to keep his fingernails from digging in. Kris’s back faced him.

“They tried their best to forgive you. I hope you know that.”

Keegan racked his brain for some sort of excuse, a response that was lighthearted enough for them to remain teammates but serious enough that Kris knew he meant it. Nothing came out.

“You ruined their lives, man.” Kris turned around. His gaze felt like daggers. “You ruined my sister’s family… my best friend’s family… for what? A quick fuck?”

Keegan’s jaw had clenched sometime between sentences. It felt like all his teeth were going to crack and crumble out his mouth.

“I have been trying to hard to ignore it. I want to be nice to you, really. But every time I look at your fucking face, I think about what he should’ve said about you to the press. What you deserve to have written about you.”

The space between them had diminished drastically. Keegan could feel his breath on his face, the heat radiating off his body. The fact that they both knew Keegan wouldn’t win any sort of fight between them. His finger came up to the shorter man’s face.

“Vous êtes un putain de merde, vous le savez? Tu ne mérites pas d'être ici. Tu ne mérites pas ça!”

Keegan backed into his stall, hoping the wooden barriers would protect him. The words were spit at him like acid, bubbling on his skin and sinking deep.

“Kris, I told you I’m—”

“What the fuck?”

The man quickly looked at the door, where Sid was standing. He cautiously glanced between them; his hands raised to his hips.

“What the fuck is going on? Tanger?”

Geno and Marc’s voices echoed through the hallway outside, laughter that would’ve been infectious in any other situation. They both stopped immediately once they reached the door.

“What is…” Geno started. He rested his hand on Sid’s shoulder.

Kris didn’t look away from Keegan. “I’m just telling him what’s been on my mind. Bonding.”

Keegan didn’t realize how heavy he’d been breathing until his personal space became his again. Kris grabbed his phone and pushed past the group at the door. Geno went after him.

“Are you okay?” Sid sat down beside Keegan. His eyes were more worried than his voice was letting on. “Seriously, you can tell me what happened.”

“You all know what happened.”

The trio remained silent for what felt like hours. Marc finally sat down on the floor, stretching his legs out and sighing into the empty room.

“He’s a fucking bastard.”

Sid let out a laugh, mostly out of surprise than humour. “I seriously don’t know what happened.”

“I fucked his sister’s husband.”

“Oh.”

The captain had never looked so shocked. Keegan couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight.

“Well, I can see how that would get complicated.”

“That’s an understatement.”

Sid stood up, toying with the bottom of his polo shirt. He looked like a schoolboy that had just learned some juicy information about a kid in his class. Eager to tell anyone but too morally correct to ever spill the gossip.

“Why don’t you guys go for a walk or something? I’ll catch up with Tanger, let him know how to behave like an adult.”

Keegan got up. He was grateful for the excuse to use his legs for something other than anxious bouncing. “Yeah. Thank you.”

The captain shrugged. “Still easier than babysitting.”

Marc patted his back. “I doubt that. Good luck.”

---

When Keegan had started playing in the WHL, Marc watched the replays with a mix of curiosity and awe. The fact that anyone could deny a player that rivaled even the best of the NHL a spot on a team had always baffled him.

That had started a four-year-long habit of watching him play. Sure, Vancouver had suffered immensely while Keegan was on the roster, but none of it had been his fault. He played with an energy that had been lacking from the league for years. He made the older, taller players look like giants; clumsily falling over their skates in an attempt to get the puck from something akin to a fairy floating over the ice.

Of course, he wanted to tell Keegan all of that as they sat in the empty stands. Of course, he didn’t.

“Thanks for this.”

Marc shook his head. “You don’t have to thank me.”

“I know I’ve been a fucking mess lately.” Hands gripped the armrests as if he was about to float away.

“I think in this case you’re allowed to be.” Marc was sure he had never come across so confident in his words before then. “We’re all getting used to each other still. New team, new year, new everything. Shit is gonna come up.”

Keegan passed him the cup of tea they’d decided to share. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”

A Kings player sat at the home bench below them, his own legs bouncing anxiously as he stared at the middle of the ice. They watched him watch nothing and Marc’s hand snaked its way into Keegan’s without warning. Neither of them moved.

“You’re okay with what I said, right?”

Keegan watched Marc’s thumb rub his hand. “I’ve never been more okay with something someone’s said. Ever.”

“You’re allowed to be mad at Tanger.”

“I think we’ll both be over it now.” Keegan shrugged. “Shittiest part is we have to play together tonight.”

---

“What the fuck are they doing?”

Max could only giggle like a schoolgirl in response. Kris’s string of cuss words was only getting more French and more insensible.

“Hey! Get your asses off the ice!” Dan waved his rolled-up sheet of paper in the air, which only made Max laugh more.

Sid huffed in defeat. Geno was hiding his smile behind his glove.

“Stew! Get over here!” Max finally called. “For fuck’s sake!”

Keegan and Kris finally skated over to the bench, continuing to argue on their way. The Kings player lay face down on the ice, clutching his arm and grimacing in pain.

---

“It was a fucking snakebite. You know, that shit from middle school? Yeah, well, he’ll be fine.”

Marc shook his head. His ass was starting to hurt from sitting on the floor (why hadn’t Keegan bought furniture?) but he continued to sit like a dog waiting for a treat. Which, in a way, he was.

Keegan brought the joint to his lips, pulling harshly and letting out a short cough. “Why did I ever stop smoking pot? There’s never been anything wrong with it, ever.”

“Factually, that’s completely wrong.” Max spoke from where he was laying on the floor. “Smoking anything damages your—”

“Okay, Mom.”

“So, you’re suspended for a game? Why’d they even bother?”

Keegan shrugged. His fingers dropped the roach delicately into a can of ginger ale. “I forfeited some of my pay. Probably would’ve been longer if I hadn’t.”

“And why did you do it?” Marc’s elbow, which had been resting gently on the couch cushion, was now closer to Keegan’s thigh.

“Kris dared me. Said I was a faggot if I didn’t.”

“And?”

“I told him I’m a faggot either way. I needed some action, I guess.”

---

Xavier was always out of the showers last. Always for different reasons.

Before, it was because he was using. Nobody bothers one of the best players in the NHL when he’s the last one in the shower.

Then, Keegan came along. Those were some of the best showers he had ever had. Nobody bothers the best players in the NHL when their moans are the only thing you hear in the building.

After, it was because he was using. And everyone knew not to bother him by that point.

The Vancouver Canucks roster knew more secrets about Xavier than his wife did. And none of them had ever said anything, even when his wife was throwing skates at his boyfriend, or when his kids came to the Christmas skate and he was passed out in the parking lot after one too many.

When Keegan left, there was no point. No excitement. The partying had been better with him, the sex was the best he’d ever had. The game had been more fun.

That night, he was the last one in the showers because he was crying.

He would’ve been the one to have that fight with Keegan. They would’ve laughed after, fucked while watching an ironic movie.

He’d even sent a text, something funny. No answer. And then he could tell his number was blocked because Kevin had been Facetiming him in the locker room, laughing like how they would’ve laughed if he was still there.

No baggie could fix that. Being lonely, it would never get easier.

---

“You’re going to tell me what happened now?”

Marc pushed his mask up, if only to give Max a clearer view of how much he wasn’t going to talk to his friend about it.

They were the last ones on the ice, quite literally shooting the shit, and all Marc could think about was how much he was going to miss playing with Keegan. It was one game, something measly that would go by quickly, but that just meant something more. He was getting used to having the kid around.

Marc’s past romantic endeavors had never been successful (obviously). It was always his fault. He would get too attached like most young men with no life other than getting hit with rubber discs. That would cause him to disengage, make up excuses and generally just never be around enough until the poor lady decided to dump him. And that was always fine.

His only nearly successful adventure had been with a teammate at the age of nineteen. He was wearing a black turtleneck and his hair was parted in the middle; the complete opposite of attractive. His backup goalie had agreed to practice kissing if it was never talked about again. They did it three times before his teammate realized he wasn’t gay, and Marc realized he was.

He never told anyone.

Max would’ve been the only person to tell, anyway. Until they’d met each other, Marc had always felt as if a piece of himself was missing. As soon as the two were paired up as roommates on their first Penguins road trip they had fallen into a beautiful routine that could never be replicated.

That was the dilemma. To disrupt the routine because a scrappy ray of sunshine had decided to kiss him? It not only felt silly, but a complete breach of trust to Keegan.

“Are you okay?”

Marc shook his head, causing his mask to fall back down over his face. “Yeah, sorry.”

He could see the moment Max realized that it was a serious conversation. “We can talk about it at home if you want?” His gloved hand sat on Marc’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have kept asking.”

“It’s fine.” Marc shrugged his hand off, pushing his chest lightly with his blocker. “Fuckface.”

Max had insisted on another spaghetti night (Marc was starting to think it was the only thing he could make) and a bottle of white wine, even though they had an early practice.

“It’s optional,” he’d said with a shrug and a flick of his wooden spoon. It wasn’t optional.

They sat down and continued a conversation about Tanger’s moodiness, and Marc started to wonder if he should lie. There was no solid reason for him to come out at that point in his life. He was the kind of gay that would turn thirty-five and marry a woman that kind of knew his name and could pop out babies while keeping her mouth shut.

“So.”

Max had set down his wine glass and folded his hands in front of him on the table.

“Yeah?”

“If you don’t tell me now, you never will.”

Marc sighed. “Yeah.”

“Listen, remember when I told you about that date last year? The one where I bought her cookies and then she never showed up, so I sat in my car and listened to Fleetwood Mac while crying and shoving cookies in my mouth?”

Marc nodded.

“It can’t get worse than that. And you never told anyone.”

“I told Sid.”

“That doesn’t count.” Max smiled kindly. “Just tell me, Flower.”

Marc took a large gulp of wine, regretted it, and decided to tell his best friend the truth.

Chapter Text

Max grabbed the bottle of wine like it was his saviour, something that could fix all evil in the world if it was in the palm of his hand.

Which was, in his own opinion, a little dramatic of him. But it was a big deal.

“Please stop looking at me like that.”

Max took a gulp from the bottle and swallowed loudly. “Like what?” He felt like his eyes might pop out his head.

“Like I just admitted to murdering the pope or something.”

“Don’t be silly. You could never do that.”

Marc knew him too well, knew what Max stalling for time looked like, and he got up to clear the plates with a long sigh.

“So, let me clarify.” Max stood up from his own chair. He placed his hand on Marc’s to stop him from carrying all the dishes at once. “Stop. I can help.”

“Fine.”

“So, you like kissing guys, right?”

Marc nodded hesitantly.

“And you liked kissing Keegan?”

Another nod.

“And my gummy worms were the only reason you two didn’t bone out your sexual frustrations that night?”

Marc spit out a laugh. “Elegant wording.”

“And you were… afraid to tell me that?” He knew how he must have looked. A hurt best friend trying to piece together how something so important in his friend’s life could’ve slipped past him so easily. “Why wouldn’t you tell me that?”

“You see how people treat him.” Marc shook the empty bottle. Any sort of eye contact had been given up on. “His whole identity is being That Person. I can’t be That Person; I don’t want to be.”

Max scoffed. His chair squeaked an absurd amount as he leaned back. “And you think he does? Have you seen him the past week?”

“He knew what he was signing up for.”

“Are you kidding me?” Max shook his head as if it would stop what he was hearing. “Are you actually saying that he fucking signed up to be shit on every day for trying to do what he loves?”

“I’m saying you can’t be a gay man in this sport!” Marc’s voice had raised in volume, along with his stature. Max felt like he was being talked down to. “Especially if you weren’t born a man to begin with. That’s basically in the rulebook!”

“Oh, wow.”

There were moments on the ice where Max felt like he was being overcome by anger. Everything would be tinged with red, people looked more like objects. However, he would always pride himself on leaving that in the game. He was not an angry person in his day-to-day life unless he absolutely needed to be. Especially not toward his loved ones.

The way his best friend looked in that moment changed that.

Marc held his hands up to backtrack, a couple of small words with no meaning spilling out of his mouth.

“No. You can’t just fucking say that about a teammate and expect me to be fine with it.” Max grabbed the remaining dishes, practically throwing them in the sink. Dirty water splashed up and ruined his white shirt. “I expect that shit from Kris. Those two have reason to act like petty thirteen-year-olds.”

“You know I didn’t mean—”

“Dude, five seconds ago you were talking about that man like he was making you happy. I’ve never seen you like that with any person on the planet.” Max finally dared to look at his friend. He turned around to see the equivalent of a puddle of mud begging to be stomped on. Max shook his head again, trying to get the thought of his mind. “You told him that he was valid and loved and then you have the fucking balls to tell me that he isn’t a real man?”

“I know, I’m… I know.”

“You need to get your shit together, man.” He took a few deep breaths, enough for the room to return to its usual cool-toned shades.

Marc leaned against the kitchen island, his head in his hands. Max closed his eyes. The sight in front of him was too sad.

“When you told me about Sid and Geno, you said you admired them for being able to hide it so well. You think I didn’t have a feeling this was going on with you? Of course, I expected something. I thought if I didn’t say anything, you could figure all this out on your own and realize how fucking sad it is that they feel like they have to hide anything at all. And when Keegan came, I thought you’d talk to him about it.”

“What do you think now?”

“I know all this is coming from a place of fear.” Max poured a glass of water, sliding it down the island until it splashed against Marc’s arm. “But you need to stop being a fucking drama queen and deal with this before you end up alone for the rest of your life.”

---

“I thought you wouldn’t call.”

“I’m bored.”

“And I am so high,” Xavier giggled, the equivalent of a schoolgirl talking to her crush. Keegan cringed at the sound. “And I thought you weren’t going to talk to me anymore! C'est tragique!”

Keegan paused in the middle of the sidewalk. The rain was wrinkling his Very Expensive jacket from a boutique in Montreal, which would have pissed him off on any other day.

“I need you to tell me if I’m doing the right thing.”

“You’re asking me for advice?”

“I’m asking you for facts.”

His shoes were getting soaked. For a second he forgot he wasn’t in Vancouver, half expecting his old favourite café to be beside him when he looked to his left. Instead, there was a brick wall.

“You’re fucking up because you want attention. You want what you had here,” Xavier said, ominously. His voice went in and out between sounding confident and unconscious.

“Fuck off.” Keegan shook his head, and lifted his foot to walk forward, but found himself sitting on a partially dry bus stop bench. “I’m serious.”

“As am I, mon cher.”

“Don’t call me that.” Keegan checked his watch. The game had started. He should’ve been at home watching and taking notes, bettering himself after his silly suspension. “I just need a yes or no.”

There was a prominent pause. A sniffle.

“Xavier?”

“Merde sainte, donnez-moi une seconde!”

A happy couple under an umbrella stood in front of the brick wall to take selfies.

“Okay. No, not the right choice,” Xavier sighed. “Happy?”

“Why not?”

“You just wanted an answer!”

Keegan rolled his eyes. The couple had walked off in an awkward half-embrace.

“I miss you, chéri.”

With a sudden surge of frustration that was usually reserved for Xavier and only Xavier, Keegan remembered that Marc had promised to text him before the game. It shouldn’t have bothered him so much; they weren’t together and hadn’t even talked about that night in a situation where Keegan wasn’t crying. Yet, it was enough to make Keegan’s fingernails dig into his palm. Xavier had always texted him back.

“I miss you, too. It’s so fucked up.”

---

“Stay the night.”

Geno felt like his chest might explode from pure excitement. Sid’s face, bordered so delicately by pale pink, silk sheets, mirrored his feelings.

“Please.” The angel in his bed smirked. “I should use my manners.”

With his hands holding tightly to the towel around his waist, Geno took the opportunity to jump onto the bed and dance around. He shook his hips comically well, causing Sid to practically fall off the bed in laughter.

The two fell into a casual embrace. It was something so routine at that point, a natural resting place that Geno used to gather his thoughts in hard moments. Someone else was on his mind that night, though.

“You think Stew okay? Need someone to talk to?”

Sid shrugged, moving Geno’s resting head with his shoulder. “Growing pains, probably. I can talk to him tomorrow, if that makes you feel better?”

Geno nodded like a small child.

“Why are you so worried? Half the guys do dumb shit like that. Sometimes we even do it.”

He didn’t know how to say that he saw himself in Stew. That, if he had been born under different circumstances, his fate could’ve lined up perfectly with his teammate’s. Geno wanted him to be successful and live a positive life so badly that his heart had ached during video, when they’d had to watch the stupid fight that had sent Keegan out. At the bar, he would make sure the TVs were muted so that if Keegan decided to join, he wouldn’t have to hear the sarcastic remarks about how childish he was. How emotional and unpredictable. Geno might never be able to connect to him the way he truly wanted to, so the least he could do was protect him.

“Stew make me happy. Want him to be happy.” Geno paused, lifting his head up to make eye contact with Sid. “Not like you make me happy.”

“Like a brother.”

“Yes.”

Sid flushed a deep red. “So, how do I make you happy?”

“In every other way,” Geno said without missing a beat. He brought his hand up to Sid’s face and caressed it slowly. “I’m not be this happy in whole life.”

After a rather passionate kiss, Sid happily fell asleep in Geno’s arms. All the larger man could think about, however, was how he was going to come out to his teammate.

---

Keegan hadn’t expected much from that morning’s practice. They played a small scrimmage, did some more drills that he had been doing since he was twelve. He skated away his frustrations during laps to the point where he thought he might throw up.

He could tell that everyone was leaving him to his own devices. Like they were waiting for him to have another outburst so they could just get on with the day.

Sid shimmied into the locker room later in the day, unnoticed by Keegan until he cleared his throat.

“Keegan?”

He looked up from where he was tying his shoes. It hurt his eyes to look up that much. “Yeah?”

The light in the room was almost blinding, the wood had gone from comforting and homey to the equivalent of a cabin in the woods.

“Can I talk to you about something?” Sid was smiling. “Nothing bad, promise.”

Keegan finished tying his shoes and followed the captain to a more private area of the back hallway. They stood face-to-face, no words until Sid cleared his throat again.

“I just wanted to tell you something. You don’t have to respond, or take me seriously, or anything like that. You just need to know that…” A shaky sigh. He looked up and down the hallway. “You need to know that you’re not alone. I understand how you’ve been feeling, what it’s like to try and restart your career after having this… this revelation that feels like it’s changed your life.”

It sounded like an admission, as if Keegan was supposed to agree to something that he wasn’t close enough to Sid to understand.

“Just keep playing the game that you know you can. You’re a fucking great player.”

Keegan lifted his chin slightly, eyes glossing over just enough for him to allow himself to look into his teammate’s eyes. He had felt incredibly disassociated the entire day, but that moment was triggering it dramatically.

“You can talk to me if you need to. That’s what a captain’s for, after all,” Sid laughed nervously. “Day or night. You have my number.”

“Thank you.” Keegan looked away. A thread from his sweater blew in a non-existent wind. “The same goes for you.”

So much was hanging in the air by the time Sid left that Keegan had to lean against the wall. Any manner of things could have inspired the conversation: Keegan’s lack of mental self-control, Sid seeing something of himself in the younger man, even something more abstract than that. Or, it could’ve been his way of letting go of a secret that Keegan didn’t have the power to share.

He took a deep breath and slid down against the wall until his tailbone slammed against the cement. He whimpered slightly; the pain reminded him of something from a life he’d lived years before. The wall was the only thing keeping his head up.

After ten minutes, he got up and got changed for a run on the treadmill. The gym was deserted (most of the guys were home with the kids or out for a meal) and the silence was welcoming. Keegan’s shoes squeaked against the concrete as he hopped in place, pretending to warm up.

Sid’s comments hadn’t necessarily made him angry. He was familiar with being pulled aside and given the shallow pep talk that the majority of the population thought was inspiring. Being treated like a child who had just figured out how to speak. A small pat on the back to let him know he was doing okay.

What he had craved the most during the beginning of his transition, and especially at the point he was at currently, was for no one to mention it. Ever. At all. The last thing he needed was a lecture on how to be happy with his being; he’d gotten to choose a large portion of it.

His feet slammed against the treadmill. He’d never gone that fast. Cardio wasn’t his forte.

Marc had avoided him so dramatically during practice that it was almost easy to forget what had gone on between them. No subtle glances or joking, not even an awkward conversation at the bench when they’d both gone to get water. It was as dry as the Sahara between them.

“Stew?”

Keegan jumped, his feet tumbling over each other. He grabbed dramatically at the air before clutching onto the machine for dear life. It continued to whir on as if he hadn’t almost died.

Geno chuckled nervously. He reached over to turn the machine off. “Sorry. Thought you see.”

“It’s fine,” Keegan panted.

Geno rotated his ankle, stretched his arm across his body. Keegan stepped off the machine. Sweat dripped down his face and he could tell his usually bouncy hair had been flattened from the moisture.

“What’s up?” he finally asked.

“Sid talk to you?”

“He did.”

The other man nodded slowly. Usually, his large character (both physically and verbally) possessed every room he walked into, but at that moment Keegan felt like the larger person.

“Are you okay?” Keegan found himself softening at the expression on his friend’s face.

“I’m promise to say something. I need you not freak out.”

“Of course.”

Geno finally looked at him with meaning. “I’m see you and Flower. Hear, too.”

Keegan’s breath hitched. He wasn’t sure if it was still from the workout.

“Want to know if you okay.” Geno reached his hand out. Keegan, for some reason, took it. “Because is okay.”

“I, uh… shit. Yeah.” He couldn’t deny anything. He didn’t want to, anyway.

“I’m not tell people. You, um—” he waved his hand as he thought about his words, “You think about it. Not problem.”

Keegan’s arms were numb. He felt like he might pass out, but the adrenaline was keeping him upright. He thought back to who Geno had been with at the bar. “So, Sid too, then?”

Geno nodded.

“Shit. We really thought we were alone.”

“Like I’m say, not problem.”

Keegan didn’t know what else to do but hug him. The lack of physical affection from literally anyone had caught up to him. He needed a reminder that he wasn’t the only human being on the planet. Geno’s arms wrapped around him delicately, hands flattened against his back. His chin fell to rest on Keegan’s head.

“Thank you for liking me,” Keegan muttered into his chest. “You’re really sweet to me.”

“Is family, Stew. Love you all as family.”

They continued to stand in a lopsided embrace. Keegan turned his head to look at them in the mirror. It was like a bear hugging a duck.

“I say something else.”

Keegan grunted an acknowledgement.

“Me and Sid, have same talk in parking lot. Years ago. I’m look like you did.”

“Elaborate.”

“Huh?”

“Explain.”

“Oh.” Geno sighed. Keegan’s head moved as he exhaled. “Me and Sid.”

“That’s not—”

“Stew.”

He was crying. Nothing obvious, if anything it looked like he had gotten something in his eyes. But the appearance of tears was so shockingly different to anything Keegan had previously seen that he felt like he was intruding. Unlike Sid’s half-assed admission, Geno had, in a strange way, just bared his entire soul to Keegan beside a treadmill.

“Oh, my god. That’s why… and you…” Keegan couldn’t find the words. There probably weren’t any.

Geno just nodded and pulled Keegan close again. He understood all too well what Geno was feeling.

“I’m so sorry that you feel alone.”

His arms shook as they continued to embrace.

---

Max laid out the brochures beside his snack tray methodically. He felt like a high school guidance counselor about to inspire the lives of many an acne-ridden teen.

Instead, Flower was sitting in front of him. And his skin was somehow always flawless.

“So, here’s the thing. You and Keegan need a fresh start. Something positive and uplifting. Nothing to do with internalized homophobia and crying.”

Marc cringed. His fingers picked at a corner of the brochure about the zoo.

“I have gathered together my best tourism brochures that I usually save for my parent’s friends when they visit out of nowhere and expect me to walk them around the entire city.”

“I can see that.”

“What I suggest is you take Keegan to at least one of these places. He hasn’t had a chance to actually do something.”

Marc rested his chin in his hand. “Most of these are better in the summer.”

“Better, but busier.”

“I appreciate the effort, but none of these scream romance.”

Max frowned. He had chosen the zoo specifically for its unspoken feeling of romance. His first kiss in Pittsburgh had been in front of the zebras.

“I mean, I was thinking of something simpler.” Marc smiled at Max’s concern. “Don’t worry, I’ll take him to the zoo. Eventually.”

“Oh, so there’s an ‘eventually.’” Max stacked his brochures neatly and put them back into the drawer of his coffee table. “You know where to find these.”

“I just watched you put them away.”

“Anyway.” Max sat down on his favourite chair, feet up on the coffee table and coffee cup in hand. He paused, motioning to the cracker and cheese plate. “Have some.”

“You’re acting as if I’ve never been in this house.”

Max waved his hand. “You said something simpler. What were you thinking?”

Marc’s face flushed a deep red. His fingers went searching for something to play with, settling on his own coffee cup which he tapped at furiously. “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid if you’re reacting like that.” It was nice to see Marc so overwhelmed. He was the kind of person to trade any sort of emotion for joking and pranks. “You can say it. We’ve already been through the worst of it.”

“Fuck, fine.” Marc leaned back on the couch. Some of his coffee spilled on his shirt in the process. “There’s this café, not far from here. They have a shitton of vegan options, open twenty-four-seven.”

“Keegan’s vegan? I put meat in the spaghetti that night.”

“No, he can’t have dairy.” Marc blushed again. “I don’t know how I know that.”

“Well, that sounds like a good place.”

“Really?”

Max couldn’t help but chuckle when Marc pulled out his phone, looking like an excited puppy. He pulled up pictures of the café and it was absolutely beautiful. Max laughed even more.

“What? Stop laughing at me! You called this meeting, for fuck’s sake!”

“No, it’s just,” Max paused to drink some coffee, “it’s really cute. It’s perfect. All this time I thought I was the romantic.”

“You still are.”

They sat in a comfortable silence. Max’s mind went to that kiss in front of the zebras.

“He mentioned his favourite movie to Duper the other day.”

Max raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

With a grin, Marc got up and walked over to their TV, where a long line of DVDs were stacked on the shelf above. He ran his finger over the titles before stopping at the end and pulling it out. He held up Pulp Fiction.

“Not the lightest watching material.”

“He said he loves it. Would watch it every day if he could.”

Max shrugged, sipping his drink more. He was shocked at how much his friend knew about their teammate, given he hadn’t talked to him in a couple of days.

“Good excuse to go back to his place…” Marc muttered as he walked to the front door, placing the movie beside his keys.

“You must really like this guy,” Max called. Although he couldn’t see his face, he knew the blushing had returned. “I had no idea.”

“I’m…” Marc walked back to the living room and let out a long sigh as he looked down at Max. “I’m trying to prove that I’m not that guy. I don’t think of him that way. You know, he’s smart and strong and he plays like a fucking maniac and… he’s perfect. He deserves to feel happy.”

Max’s smile was so wide he was sure that he looked insane. “Marc-Andre Fleury, you’re going to make me cry.”

Later, well after Marc had fallen asleep on the couch watching Elf, Max pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed a number he hadn’t thought about in months.

A woman’s voice answered.

“Max.”

“I just wanted to say hi. We haven’t talked in awhile.”

“There’s a reason for that.” She sighed. “Things didn’t go well last time.”

“In my defence, you left me out in the cold. I brought cookies and everything.”

“I’m not having this fight again.”

“I was joking.” Max watched the streetlights turn on outside his window. They illuminated the street just enough for him to see a cat running down the road. “I just miss hearing you talk, honestly.”

Silence.

“How is it there? Cold?”

“Max, what is this about?”

He was still watching the road, but his gaze was somewhere else altogether. Back at the zoo, where she had pointed out which lion reminded her of him.

“I miss you. All of you.”

“How many times do I have to change my number before you get the hint?”

Max chuckled softly, sinking down until he felt the bed under him. He leaned back and thought about how much they’d laughed at the jellyfish. The monotone beeping that followed rang through his head, reminding him of her heart monitor the last night they spent together.

---

Xavier’s name had been changed to ‘DO NOT FUCKING CALL YOU SPINELESS FUCK’ in Keegan’s phone early on into their relationship. There had never been any reason to change it. He would always be the spineless fuck, and Xavier would always pick up.

“Bonjour, kid.” Xavier’s laugh echoed through his house. “Back for more?”

“We aren’t the only gay ones.”

“No shit.” He sounded surprisingly sober. “We never were. Do you know how many guys on the Stars I had to bone before I met you?"

Keegan rolled his eyes. His shoes wouldn’t come off as easily as he wanted, so he simply just sat on the floor in frustration, jacket on and all. “No, I mean we aren’t the only ones that slept together.”

“Oh, so you finally fucked the Frenchie!”

“God, Xavier, no.”

“I’m getting bored of this conversation.”

Keegan knew he couldn’t tell Geno’s secret. There was so much more at stake for him, and for Sid now that he was thinking about it, and he knew how it felt to have someone else come out for him.

“I, just… I’m not alone.” His voice had dropped multiple octaves, a little shaky on the last word.

“You never were, dipshit.”

“I like you more when you’re fucked up.” Keegan sounded defeated even to himself. His head was spinning with new information.

“I’m getting there,” Xavier practically snarled. “Before you called.”

Keegan took the tension as a moment to breathe. Hours before he had been holding onto his own grudges with himself, and out of nowhere he was tasked with holding on to years of someone else’s pain on top of it. His stomach was tight, whether from lack of sustenance or anxiety, he couldn’t tell.

Xavier would’ve dragged him out to a club if he’d found him on the floor like that. He would’ve popped a pill into his mouth and promised that they would forget everything but each other’s bodies. Keegan would feel like he was obsessed with his every move.

“I miss that.”

“Pardon?” Xavier chuckled. “Are you high?”

“I miss feeling like someone needed to watch me, to touch me, to feel alive. I miss when you’d pry me out of my fucking head and just… make me live.” A tear landed on his jeans. “I’m so fucking tired of crying and coming home to this huge house with nothing but a fucking couch. Why don’t I just buy a mattress? I have the money.”

Xavier whistling pulled him out of his spiral. “You’re fucking lonely out there. Ils ne te traitent pas correctement.”

He put his phone on speaker and stared at Xavier’s contact picture. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to do this.”

It didn’t take much for Xavier to talk him into leaving the house. He knew the directions to the liquor store as if he’d Googled it before answering the phone, although Keegan assumed it was probably just one of those Xavier Things. The bottle of vodka felt familiar in his hand when he carried it up to the register. So did the walk of shame back to his house.

He didn’t bother placing his keys on their hook. He threw everything on the ground, a pile of belongings in front of his door like a warning sign if anyone were to enter.

“I got myself a drink.” Xavier sounded almost seductive, and Keegan could picture him lounging in his silk robe with a joint dangling from his lips. “Haven’t drank with you in, what, years?”

The bottle stared him down from its place on the table. Keegan leaned back on the couch and ran his hand down his face. “I can’t do this.”

“De quoi parlez-vous? Just take a drink!”

He spoke like they were celebrating something. Throwing his twelve-month chip in the trash was probably a celebration, in some circles.

“This isn’t… I can’t do this to them.” Keegan got up. He paced behind the couch, avoiding eye contact with the bottle.

“Oh, chatte.”

In a fit of anger, Keegan kicked the back of his couch. His toe radiated pain through his leg. “Why the fuck are you like this? How can you still try to drag me down to your fucking level after all this time?” He sounded more confidant with his words than he felt.

“Jesus, relax.”

“You were the first person to call me after I posted my one-month chip! You were the one who told me to keep getting better, and then at the first whiff of me turning back into—into this piece of shit, you guide me to a fucking liquor store! I’m surprised you didn’t just give me the address of your favourite crack den while you were at it!”

“Keegan, you need that fucking drink.” Xavier was infuriatingly calm. “Some people need something to calm their nerves. I am the same way.”

He had to tense every muscle in his arm to keep from throwing his phone at the wall. “No, you’re a fucking addict.”

A sinister chuckle. “Well, so are you. That’s why we got along so well.”

“We didn’t ‘get along.’ We fucked and got high and you laughed when I couldn’t breathe.” Even though he’d said it with conviction, he knew Xavier was still right. The only reason they’d come together in the first place was their struggles.

The other man was quiet for a moment before whispering, “At least the fucking was good.”

And for some reason, that stopped any anger Keegan had built up throughout the night. It had been good. He had never felt alone when Xavier’s hair was draped on either side of his face, like curtains against the world. There had never been one moment where his hands didn’t leave a burning feeling on Keegan’s skin, a reminder that Xavier was always with him. It had been more than good; it was something meant to keep Keegan’s head centered in a version of reality that was pleasing to him. Although…

“I had to be high to fuck you.”

More silence.

“Fuck you.”

And then Keegan was alone again, with Xavier’s smiling picture staring back at him.

With the determination of Sidney Crosby himself, Keegan vowed to get completely fucked up that night.

The bottle opened with a satisfying crack. The aroma of many a forgotten night filled Keegan’s living room. So many memories numbed by a liquid.

It was surprisingly easy to tilt the bottom toward the sky, muscle memory serving its purpose to pour the perfect amount into his mouth. He held it in his mouth and savoured the familiar burning on his tongue. Images of Xavier shoving his finger into Keegan’s mouth passed through his mind.

With the same resolve to get completely smashed, Keegan spit the vodka onto his floor.

---

Marc had never seen someone leave their house in such a depressed state. He could feel the warning signs before Keegan even got in the car.

“I’m sorry I called you so late.”

Marc passed him the bottle of water he’d brought. He wasn’t sure why he’d felt the need to, Keegan most definitely had water in his own home, but the gesture was appreciated. Keegan gulped it down like it was the cure for death.

“Don’t be sorry.” Marc hesitated, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “Things sounded… serious.”

“I didn’t know who to call.”

Marc felt full of pride, but immediately swallowed it down. Not the time. “Well, thank you.”

Keegan filled the silence as Marc pulled out of the driveway by picking at the water bottle label. He didn’t speak until they were well away from his house.

“I almost drank.”

“Oh.”

“Well, technically I did, but I spit it out. So, I guess I didn’t.”

His hands were shaking. Marc kept his eyes on the road but offered his hand. Keegan took it and squeezed.

“I’m sorry you always see me like this.”

“Why did you…”

Keegan took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. Marc wondered if he was lying about not drinking. “I called Xavier. He made me think that it would be… well, I felt like it would make me feel better. Obviously, didn’t work.”

A wave of jealousy went through Marc in a way he didn’t think possible. He had had no idea the two were still speaking. That probably meant they were still close. He gripped the steering wheel a little tighter with his left hand.

“He’s such an asshole,” Keegan said as he looked out the window.

Marc laughed uncomfortably in lieu of an agreement. His date plans had been thrown off course, the café no longer seemed appropriate and anything other than that seemed to insinuate that he wanted them to sleep together. Which, he did. But it didn’t need to be obvious.

“Let’s do something. Anything.” As if he had read Marc’s mind, Keegan turned to look at him with a sudden excitement.

“I mean, we have practice…”

“We’ll make it to practice. Please?”

It didn’t take much convincing for them to head to the café.

Marc held his breath as Keegan walked in front of him, allowing him to take in the full environment without Marc’s excitement tainting it. Strings of fairy lights draped across every wooden-paneled wall, almost the only lighting that the building had that late at night. A couple of people sat at tables that ranged from antique Victorian masterpieces, rustic wood and metal contraptions and roughly painted neon pieces. The chairs were the same. The employees bopped along to an indie song as they made a few tired college students their coffee.

Keegan turned around with a giant smile on his face. He touched Marc’s arm gently, eyes telling him so much more than either of them could say, before realizing where they were and shoving his hands in his pocket.

“You like it?”

“This is so fucking perfect.”

Marc let out his breath. “Good. You can sit down; I’ll grab something to drink.”

“I can pay.” Keegan offered his wallet. An obvious wad of fifties stuck out of the top, and Marc chose not to ask about it.

He shook his head, slowly pushing the wallet toward Keegan’s chest and walked to the counter. Keegan chose one of the back corners of the building, where the majority of the fairy lights were strung.

It didn’t hit Marc until he saw his teammate (his date?) sitting under those lights. How hard it must’ve been to move his entire life to a country that was unfamiliar to him. How scary it would be to trust that an entire organization wasn’t going to fuck him over like the last one had. How easy it would be to throw all of that away for a moment of being numb. It wasn’t until Keegan was looking at the lights, as if they were the most beautiful things he’d ever seen, that Marc realized that was how he looked at Keegan. The most beautiful, bright, hopeful thing he’d ever seen.

The cashier cleared her throat. Marc tore his eyes away from the other man just long enough to smile an apology and order.

Keegan’s legs were bouncing when he brought over their drinks. He set Keegan’s mug down slowly, careful not to spill the tea, and sat down across from him. His own cup of coffee stayed between his palms so that he didn’t feel the urge to reach out and grab Keegan’s hand.

“How did you know?” Keegan lifted the string of the tea bag, bouncing it in the water. “You have a crazy memory.”

“I think English Breakfast is a safe bet.” Marc felt himself blush slightly. He lifted his mug to hide it.

Keegan gave him a grateful smile before looking at the lights again. They illuminated his face perfectly, highlighted the scars from fights years before and freckles from the past summer in a breathtaking way. His normally dark brown hair had a golden tinge.

“How did you find this place?”

Marc shrugged. “I came here with someone, once. You reminded me of it.”

“As in, if I was a coffee shop, this would be me?”

“Exactly.”

“Hmm,” Keegan hummed. “That’s very flattering.” His eyes flickered to Marc’s before settling on the blue ceramic mug. “I think it reminds me of you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. A little eclectic, a little shy. Unsure of your aesthetic, so you made up your own.” He chuckled. “Cozy.”

That made Marc raise his eyebrows. If he wasn’t blushing before, he sure was then. “Cozy?”

“Yeah. Like, you radiate this sense of warmth.” Keegan paused, narrowing his eyes across the table. “I definitely sound drunk. I swear I spit it out.”

They both laughed, something so harmonious and joyful that Marc felt overwhelmed. Keegan set his mug down and picked at the table, their eyes finally meeting for longer than a couple of seconds.

“I’m going to ask you questions.”

“Okay. Yeah, sure.”

Keegan leaned forward. His eyes, pools of green and blue and grey that Marc could fall into so easily, had a playful twinkle. “When did you know?”

“Know what?”

A raised eyebrow made Marc’s stomach turn. Flashbacks of his less than fabulous rant at Max played over and over in his head. Sure, he’d kissed a boy and felt something. He still didn’t know if he was ready to live his life by a label.

“I, uh… I guess when I was young, I tried it out a couple times.”

The man across from him frowned. “You look scared. We’re thinking of different things.”

“What?”

“When did you know that your dream career was having pucks fly at your body for hours on end?”

“Oh.” Marc let out a laugh that was tinged with embarrassment. “Fuck, I thought you meant… yeah. No, I guess the answer is the same. I’m a crazy person.”

“You’d have to be.” Keegan’s knuckle brushed his own. “You psycho.”

“When did you know you wanted to beat men twice your size up?” His index finger curled around Keegan’s pinky. He was incredibly aware of the teenager that was sitting a few tables down, head buried in a book. “That has to make you a psycho, too.”

“Maybe even more than you.” Keegan smirked. “Is that okay with you?” His expression held suggestions that Marc didn’t want to think about in a public place.

“I, uh… Can I ask you a question?”

“Oh, I see. Turning it around on me.” Keegan leaned back in his seat. Their fingers remained locked. “As long as it’s super interesting and personal.”

His original curiosity about his date’s favourite colour flew out the window. If he could ask anything, he would ask the most selfish thing he’d been wondering.

“What do you think of me?”

Keegan pursed his lips, ran his free hand through his hair. Looked at Marc as if he was just realizing where they were and why they were there.

“I think that I… don’t really know you yet. But you’re funny, and you know what to say when it needs to be said. And you’re very pretty.” He had a nervous smile as he placed his hand on top of Marc’s. “And I’ve never had someone take me for a cup of tea at ten at night just because I said I needed help. So, that’s… nice.”

Marc’s eyes focused on his lips, the way he licked them during the silence. He tried his best to find a response that was a perfect combination of witty and sexual and thoughtful but remained silent.

“I want to get to know you. I’m excited about that.” With a nod of his head, he lifted his mug and chugged back the rest of his tea.

Marc had to inhale deeply. He’d been holding his breath, for some reason. “I want that, too.”

They spoke lightly about some of the guys on the team and what their stories were, how unprepared Keegan was for when it would inevitably start snowing an insane amount. Both of their drinks had been long since finished by the time Marc looked at his phone. One in the morning.

“We should head out?” Keegan said, leaning over for Marc to show him the time. He grimaced. “Shit.”

Keegan left a rather hefty tip under his mug. Marc allowed himself to put his hand on Keegan’s back when they walked back to the car.

He had never been so disappointed to get back to a date’s house. Keegan had left some lights on, giving the gargantuan building an eerie feeling. They both stared at the front door, unsure of who should say what.

And then, he smiled and reached behind his seat.

“What are you…” Keegan started.

Marc held up his copy of Pulp Fiction. “Can we?”

Keegan nodded with a playful grin, practically jumping out of the car and running to the door. He waved his hand frantically for Marc to hurry up. They were both out of breath by the time they’d kicked off their shoes and thrown their jackets on the ground (which was quite humorous, only because it was one in the morning). Keegan motioned for him to make himself at home, running to grab some blankets from another room.

The living room, although familiar due to multiple movie nights that had included Max, was still something of an anomaly to Marc. Every teammate he’d ever had had happily blown most of their first paycheque on the newest house with the fanciest furniture and the best technology. Keegan had nodded his head to the first house he’d been offered and had purchased the comfiest couch at the most expensive furniture store. From what Marc understood, the living room was the only one he regularly set foot in.

He set the DVD on the table in front of the couch and stretched his arms above his head. He knew he wouldn’t be sleeping that night. He hoped he would remain not sleeping in Keegan’s house.

A small puddle of liquid caught his attention before he sat down. A large glass bottle had been ignored when he’d put down the DVD but was now glaringly apparent on the table in front of him. The pungent pool of alcohol made him both smile and cringe. Proof of Keegan’s struggles, proof of him slowly recovering from them.

With a sharp exhale marking his decision, Marc went to the kitchen to grab a roll of paper towel. He got on his knees, scrubbing at the vodka and balling the paper up. He grabbed the bottle on his way to the kitchen. There was no obvious garbage can, only a plastic bag tied to the knob of one of the drawers. The plastic bag gained some paper towel, and the sink gained a quarter of a bottle of vodka. It felt strangely revengeful to pour it down the drain, as if he was stabbing a dragon that was guarding Keegan’s tower.

A quiet shuffling of footsteps made him turn around quickly.

“I hope it’s okay, I thought I’d—”

Keegan placing his hands on Marc’s shoulders made him stop talking. They slid down to his chest, nails gently digging into the muscle. Marc’s breath hitched, his whole body tensing so that his hips didn’t buck up automatically.

“Thank you,” Keegan whispered. He got onto his tip toes so that they were a couple inches closer to the same height.

Marc’s grip went from the edge of the counter to Keegan’s hips. He pulled him closer, their chests touching. It was comforting to realize that they were both breathing heavily.

“Can I kiss you?” Marc’s voice cracked in anticipation.

Keegan nodded. Their noses touched briefly as they hesitated in front of each other. The shorter man chuckled.

“Just do it already.”

Marc leaned forward, and their lips finally touched.

---

He wasn’t sure if he had actually touched the doorbell, or how long he’d been half-kneeling on the front steps of Tanner’s house in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood, but he knew that the world was spinning incredibly fast. He needed to know he wasn’t the only person alive. The decorative handrail seemed to bend under his weight.

“Taaaaanner!” Xavier screamed in the general direction of the closest window. “Mr. Glass! Hellooooooooo!”

The silence afterward was staggering. A dog eventually started barking when Tanner finally opened the door.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“You ask a lot of questions. Lots of questions.” Xavier frowned. His eyebrows sunk down his face and fell on the floor. “Wow.”

“You need to speak English.” Tanner was watching him, hand halfway between offering help and turning into a fist. “How did you get here?”

Xavier twiddled his fingers in the universal sign for ‘I walked.’

“Jesus fucking… Come on.” Tanner grabbed his arm, harsh enough to make Xavier wonder if he’d ripped it off, dragging him into the house with the grace of, well… nothing.

How he got to the couch, he had no idea. Things were still spinning at alarming rate, but there wasn’t enough in his stomach for him to worry about vomiting. Tanner stood in front of him like a disappointed parent.

“What are you on?”

Xavier waved his hand. Multiple things.

“Do I need to call someone?”

He shook his head. It somehow helped the spinning.

“Why are you here?”

“What are you, my mom?” The last word dragged on, and he questioned if it was the right thing to say.

“I have no problem with kicking you out, dude.” Tanner ran his hands through his mullet and walked to the kitchen. He came back with a glass of water. “You need to tell me.”

Xavier sniffled. There was a reason he’d come to see Tanner, after all. He had had a first-row seat to the roller coaster that was the Keegan Season.

“I… I love him. So fucking much. I miss him. You know, he was just so fucking nice—no, perfect. Beautiful. Had the best laugh, right? Like a fucking song.” He was vaguely aware that he’d switched back to French at some point. “And you,” he pointed at Tanner as if he was holding a laser, “you don’t even talk about him. You don’t let me talk about him.”

Tanner lowered Xavier’s finger. He was on the floor, wiping up the water and glass that Xavier must have dropped. Unless it had been there before.

A black vignette appeared in the borders of his vision. It pulsated to the rate of his heart, which had started beating incredibly fast at some point. A photograph of Tanner, Kevin, Ryan and Keegan was placed on a shelf across from him, and he reached out to touch it. It was too far away.

“Sit down.” Tanner pushed him back to the couch. “I have no idea what you’re saying.”

He was almost positive he hadn’t been talking. The pulsating black continued.

“You need help. You need to talk to someone, Xavier.”

Fade out.

Tanner was on the phone.

“He showed up on my doorstep. I have no fucking clue. No, I don't want you to—yeah, I guess.”

Fade out.

Kevin stood in front of him, arms crossed. He was saying something. Xavier decided to listen.

“You can’t keep doing this, man. We tried to help you.” He looked like he wanted to punch him. “I don’t know what the fuck is going through your head. Probably nothing.”

“You,” Xavier growled. He was standing up. “You are the one who made him go. YOU. We were FINE.”

“Sit down.”

“It’s all your fucking fault.” He curled his lips up. A rabid dog against a squirrel. “I’m not listening to you.”

“Xavier! Stop!” Tanner yelled, and it occurred to Xavier that they were both beyond frustrated with him. “Just sit the fuck down!”

Kevin had his hands on his shoulders, holding him back like a cartoon. He would’ve laughed, but he was supposed to be angry. The black border made Kevin’s face look like it was floating through space.

“You're the one that should’ve left,” Kevin spat at him. “You are so fucking worthless.”

“Shut up.”

“He is not coming back. No matter how much you drink or snort or beg, he is never coming back to Vancouver. He’s better than this.”

Xavier swung, blindly due to the black border becoming more than a border. His legs buckled immediately, and then there was a sharp pain. And then there was no spinning.

The picture of his former best friends was slammed against the back of his eyelids.

---

OCTOBER 18

ANAHEIM DUCKS @ PITTSBURGH

Keegan was happy. More than happy, excited. His body was light, head was clear, and his new suit made him feel strong. It was the first time he would’ve admitted to being confident about a game.

The locker room matched his spirits, an intoxicating buzz of energy flowing through every man there. Dan smiled at him when he entered (the first time since his childish mistake with Tanger) and Schultzy ruffled his hair as if they weren’t the same age.

“You look happy,” Max called from across the room.

Keegan shrugged in response but gave the other man a smirk. He started taking off his suit, making sure to hang it properly as opposed to the usual mess he would leave on the floor. It was time for fresh beginnings, healthier choices.

Justin looked over at him. “Wow, we’re keeping it clean, eh?”

“Trying to.”

“You do seem happy.”

Keegan rolled his eyes before pulling his Under Armor up his legs. “Am I normally miserable to be around?”

“It was like you had a storm cloud over you at all times. I was afraid to talk to you in case you’d electrocute me.”

“That sounds pretty badass, actually,” Keegan deadpanned.

“It’s a good thing, okay?” Justin gave him that childish grin that he loved. “I like it.”

Warmups had the same carefree energy. Marc happily skated a couple more laps than usual just to remain beside him, their arms touching slightly as they turned into the corners. Keegan still felt electricity, even though there were mountains of pads between them. When Keegan went to go stretch, Marc followed him.

“He’s weak on his glove side.” Marc nodded toward the goalie as he bounced on his knees. The motion was incredibly distracting. “Every time, the poor thing. They fly past him.”

Keegan nodded. He put his stick behind his legs, raising them off the ice and maintaining eye contact with the goalie beside him. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Just remember me when you score.”

Keegan sat upright again and placed his glove on Marc’s shoulder. He couldn’t help but rub it slightly. “How could I forget you?” He said it in the cheesiest voice possible to hide the very real emotion that had been bubbling up since the night before.

“True.” Marc smirked. “I’m too important. Talbo is the easy one to forget.”

“J'ai entendu ça, connard.” Max, who had been stretching beside them, playfully jabbed Marc with his stick. He locked eyes with Keegan and smiled. “Flirting counts as distraction, you know. Don’t make me tell Sid.”

“Tu voudrais juste que je flirte avec toi.”

“Sid!” Max called. The captain turned around from his place at the bench, frowning. “Oh, Captain, there’s been some—ow!” Max smacked Marc on the arm, holding his own shoulder with his other hand. “Asshole.”

“Your fault.” Marc shrugged.

Keegan couldn’t help but laugh as Max skated away with his middle finger up.

The first period went by scoreless. There wasn’t much to reflect on, other than Marc making an incredible save and grinning at Keegan through his mask. Butterflies took over Keegan’s stomach.

There was a sense of frustration in the second after Anaheim scored. Keegan felt an almost desperate need to be out on the ice, to hear his skates digging in as he chased after the puck. His legs bounced from excitement rather than anxiety. As soon as he got the nod to head to the faceoff, he flew over the boards and toward the scrum in the Ducks’ corner.

The pushing and prodding encouraged him to use his size to his advantage. Snaking through the men, he pushed his stick into the pile and knocked the puck toward him. While behind the group, who now seemed to just be staring, he took a shot. His aim wasn’t good enough, and it bounced off the post and toward one of Anaheim’s defence. They headed back up the ice. Marc’s save allowed Keegan to let out a breath. He quickly passed the puck to Tanger, who dodged some men to head back up the ice.

At a certain point, he was vaguely aware that his line was back on the bench, but the rush back and forth hadn’t allowed him any sort of opportunity. The last thing he wanted was to change without planning ahead.

Geno and Sid were on the ice. They joined the defensive fight, seeming to communicate telepathically and easily getting the puck back to the middle. Keegan had been hanging back slightly, trying not to crowd anyone. His passiveness was an advantage, as he was already in the middle of the ice by the time Geno knocked the puck up to him.

Anaheim had been too committed to their forecheck. With the knowledge that they were all behind him, and a death glare from their goalie, Keegan went for it.

He was so nervous that he almost forgot to shoot. He shot glove side just as he felt a hand on his arm.

The random hand pushed Keegan forward, causing him to fall toward the boards. His shoulder buffered the fall, and he laid on his back as the light behind the net glowed above him. With a smile, his head rested against the ice.

Geno embraced him when they got back to the bench. “So good, Stew!”

Keegan shrugged. He could feel a blush rising up his neck. “You made it happen.”

“That was sick,” Max called over, smiling.

“What he say.” Geno took his helmet off, toying with one of the straps. “We play good together. Right, Sid?”

Sid nodded, although his attention was already back on the play.

“By next game, on same line.” Geno leaned against him lightly, grinning. “I talk to Dan.”

Keegan felt like his chest might explode from happiness.

Things remained tied into the third, until Keegan and Tanger ended up on the ice at the same time. Feeling confidant from his last goal, Keegan smacked the puck past the goal line with less effort than in practice. The goalie looked up at the roof as if it would open and save him from the cheering of the crowd.

Keegan was bombarded with hugs and cheers when they got into the locker room. Marc snuck in a quick hug and something in French that made Keegan blush before Dan started his congratulatory speech. The joy in the room was almost enough to make Keegan cry.

By the time most of the men were showered and generally dressed, there was a timid knock at the door. Everyone groaned.

“What’s that?” Keegan turned to Justin, who was grimacing.

“Interview. I thought we would get away with it tonight.”

Keegan remembered how uncomfortable interviews had been in Vancouver. The questions were always aimed at making the player look as stupid as possible while also bringing attention to any mistake they’d made during the game. Keegan was never good with his words, so there had been many a Youtube compilation of his failures during interviews.

A woman strolled in, looking around the room. “Alright, who’s it gonna be?"

Justin lowered his head, pushing his hat down his face.

The woman made eye contact with Keegan, and a smile slowly formed on her face. “Oh, I think I’ll—”

“I’ll do it.” Kris stood up. He ran his hands through his wet hair quickly.

“Actually, I was going to ask—”

“Jen. I’ll do it.” He gave her a serious look. “Just take it.”

Jen shrugged, giving Keegan a polite smile as the two walked out to the hallway.

“What was that about?” Justin pushed his hat back up his head. “He never does that.”

“He owes you one,” Max muttered under his breath. He dumped his laundry into the bin in the middle of the room.

Keegan simply smiled and threw his own jersey toward the bin. Marc, who had started strolling over, caught Keegan's bad toss and set it with the rest of the laundry. He fiddled with Keegan’s beanie, which he’d thrown on his head haphazardly, until Keegan looked up at him.

“Hey. I was right.” He had a smirk that made Keegan’s heart melt.

“Yeah, I guess you were. It’s almost as if you know what you’re talking about.”

“I might.” Marc put his hands in his pockets, shrugging. “Listen, I know someone who has a mattress.”

“Are they… a mattress store?” Keegan tried to ignore the connotations of Marc bringing up the mattress topic. Their sleepover on his couch might have been a bit uncomfortable, but there had been nothing wrong with laying on Marc’s chest and listening to his breathing for most of the morning. “Because I know those exist. I’ve even been to one before.”

Justin snorted from beside them.

“I’m saying you should get a real bed.”

“Why? It’s not like I’m sharing.” Keegan tried his best to hold in an evil grin.

Marc raised his eyebrows. He inhaled as if there was more to say before shaking his head. “Fine. Don’t blame me when you have back problems.”

Max, who had been in Keegan’s peripheral for most of the conversation and had just then decided to walk closer, cleared his throat. “Why do you care so much about this bed, Flower? You have your own at home.”

Keegan looked over at Justin, whose gaze was bouncing between all three of the men. He had the frown of someone who wasn’t in on the joke but was playing along anyway.

“I’m just concerned for our new star.”

“I’m with Flower,” Justin chimed in.

“You don’t know what this is about, kiddo.” Max shook his head.

“I’m literally a year younger than Keegan.”

“Hey, I hate to break up whatever… this… is, but I need to talk to our first star of the night.”

They all looked over to the door. Kris stood in front of it, arms crossed. The air of confidence he usually had was replaced by something unfamiliar. The trio looked at Keegan with varying expressions of uncertainty before slowly walking past Kris’s bodyguard-like form into the hallway.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” Keegan got up, pretending to gather his things but really just shifting his phone from one pocket to another. “What’s up?”

“I, um…” He stared at the Penguins logo on the floor. His aggressive stance was replaced with something akin to a child who was in the principal’s office. “I have to apologize to you.”

Although the wording wasn’t spectacular, Keegan felt his own posture soften after hearing Kris’s tone. “You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I do.” Kris looked up but still avoided eye contact. “I shouldn’t have said that to you. Any of it. I was being upset for someone else.”

The room felt as if it had shrunk. It was suddenly so incredibly just the two of them, two men who had been greatly affected by the same circumstance, who had fought so hard for different sides of the same fight. It struck Keegan that the reason why Kris was so mad at him was simply because it was morally the right thing to be.

“Some people would consider that admirable.” Keegan cleared his throat to keep from crying. He paused, trying to find the right words. “Those kids, they will never have the chance to tell me how they feel. They can be angry with me when they’re older, yeah, but they’re too young to understand what that anger would’ve felt like in the moment. You were giving them a voice.”

Kris nodded slowly. He finally looked in Keegan’s eyes. “I’m still mad. Always will be. But you’re family now.” A soft smile. “I want us to pass each other that puck.”

Keegan let a couple tears roll down his cheek before holding his hand out toward the other man. “I can do that.”

Their hands touched, a strong shake that cemented something Keegan couldn’t quite put his finger on. Kris let go first, jokingly wiping his hand on his pants.

“How are they doing, by the way? If I can ask.” Keegan plucked his blazer from its hanger, throwing it over his shoulder. “If they need anything, I’d be more than happy to—”

“That’s the thing.” Kris ran his hand through his hair. “I, uh, don’t know how to say this without sounding, mmmm… dramatic?”

“Say it. Please."

“I don’t want you to worry. I have some people who are figuring things out, but… he’s been calling them, man. Like, all the fucking time.”

Keegan raised his eyebrows. He had been told multiple times that Xavier had blocked his ex’s number, that he wasn’t interested in being in their life.

“I had no idea. I swear, if I’d known sooner… anyway. He was calling me all last night. I could barely understand his messages.”

“Shit.”

“Have you been talking to him at all? Anything he said that would explain why he’s trying to get a hold of us?”

Keegan felt like his eyebrows were going to be permanently in the middle of his forehead. Without thinking, he shook his head. “No. We haven’t talked since I left.”

“Okay.” Kris nodded, then gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Well, tell me if he calls you. We can figure something out. I’m worried about this.”

“Yeah. Yeah, me too.”

---

Marc was fast asleep on the mattress he had picked out for Keegan. It was adorable, although maybe a little too domestic for where they were at. Keegan still happily snapped a picture to send to the group chat as proof that he was the owner of a real bed before turning back to his suitcase.

He had been searching for a specific suit for what felt like years. He had worn it for one of his last games with Vancouver, a pinstriped red and black number that was extremely over the top but would be amusing for their trip to New Jersey when paired with his poorly trimmed, devil-like mustache.

The small box he’d brought with him was incredibly overshadowed by the house. His master bedroom alone was bigger than the apartment he’d had previously, and the box had sat unopened in the corner since he’d arrived.

With a quiet and careful grace, Keegan slid his scissors through the tape and opened it slowly. The cardboard smelled awful, and some of the tape stuck to his hand no matter how hard he shook it around, but he was still able to crack a smile when the familiar gaudy fabric popped out at him. He ran his fingers along the fabric before picking up the blazer.

As he moved to set it into his suitcase, something clattered against the floor. Keegan’s first reaction was to look over to where Marc was, scared that he might have woken up. Luckily, the other man was snoring away as if nothing had happened.

The piece of metal reflected the small amount of light coming from the window. It had rusted dramatically since it had first been placed in Keegan’s hand; it had been a glorious silver when they were standing outside of the dollar store. Keegan picked it up, turning it around in his fingers with a sigh.

Xavier had smiled so excitedly at the present, a small key that was meant to unlock a pair of fake handcuffs he’d drunkenly chosen in the store. The rest of the team had already gone back to their hotel, they had been outside for so long that Keegan swore that even the snow had taken refuge inside of his jacket, and Xavier had just stood there with that stupid, beaming smile.

It had been a great night, though. Keegan remembered feeling happy, although he was sure there had been more to it than that.

With an unnecessary shake of his head, he walked to the bathroom. He had yet to put a bag in the trash (he hadn’t spent more than a minute upstairs since he’d set foot in the house), so he reached down and gently put the key on the bottom so as not to make anymore noise. Before he could change his mind, he walked back into the bedroom.

Marc’s snores had lightened slightly since he’d turned on his side. Keegan didn’t hesitate, laying beside him and resting his arm on Marc’s waist.

There was nothing to feel bad about. It was his bed. He could sleep in it if he wanted to.

Chapter Text

Marc was aware that he was alone long before he reached his hand out to the other side of the mattress. He’d spent a solid fifteen minutes with his eyes closed hoping that Keegan would be sprawled out beside him.

Of course, he was alone when he finally turned over.

His phone had been taken over by texts from Max, freaking out about something Keegan had said. He rubbed his hand over his face before finding the confidence to check the group chat.

The responses to the picture of him were the most embarrassing part. A couple of guys had chosen long strings of emojis, while the older ones sent combinations of question marks and confused sentences. Max’s enthusiasm received even more responses. Before he could think too hard about an answer, he quickly typed a ‘haha’ and hit send. His phone returned to its place on the floor.

“Keegan?”

There was no response from the direction of the bathroom. No wordless yell as recognition from downstairs.

The house was incredibly cold, too cold for Marc to be wandering around without socks. It wasn’t a stretch to assume that Keegan had forgotten to pay the heating bill, given that he spent all his time in one room with multiple blankets thrown around him. Marc couldn’t help but smile at the image.

Every room he stuck his head in was strangely empty. Remnants of the old owners remained; some drawings on what would have been the walls of a children’s room, sparkles stuck in between the cracks of the hardwood, dents and chips in the paint that Keegan hadn’t bothered to get painted over. As if he was hanging on to memories so that he didn’t have to make his own. Or he just hated cleaning.

Marc was in the middle of mentally designing one of the many spaces that could be used as an office when the sound of music interrupted him. It was coming from the kitchen, paired with a soft humming that had him sneaking down the stairs in order to not startle the young man sitting on the floor.

Keegan was at the kitchen table (another necessary purchase made the night before) with his bare leg swung out to the side. His head bobbed along to the song, occasionally singing along as he prepped a needle to go into his thigh.

Marc cleared his throat as quietly as possible, but Keegan’s body still swung around as if he had been caught doing something terrible. They stared at each other for a moment. Marc’s mouth opened slightly to joke about something, anything, but his mind was frozen. Acoustic guitar filled the silence, paired with a wailing voice that was somehow parallel to the pained look on Keegan’s face as he set the needle down.

“Shit, I’m sorry.”

“No, I, um… I shouldn’t have just walked in like that.” There were awkward pauses between his words, as if he was unsure if he should feel guilty about having the ability to walk.

“This isn’t what it looks like.”

“What does it look like? It doesn’t look like anything.” His voice was incredibly high. Marc brought his hand up to his mouth to harshly clear his throat again. “You’re fine.”

Keegan took in a long breath. His eyes were a mix of sheer terror and sadness.

It didn’t click until Marc saw the bottle sitting in front of him. A prescription was printed on the front, too far away for him to see, and a neon yellow bucket was on the floor beside him. His face heated up with the realization as if he’d walked in on the other man dancing naked on the countertop.

“Do you… can I help?”

The terror was replaced with an exhale and nervous smile. “I’ve got it. Thanks, though.” Keegan nudged the chair beside him until it was far enough away from the table for Marc to fit. “Sit.”

The setup was even more impressive the closer he got. It was meticulously clean, the product of years of repetition. He picked up the bottle slowly, reading the prescription before realizing Keegan’s smile had turned into a full-blown grin.

“I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to steal someone else’s prescription. Not to mention the whole doping thing.”

Marc rolled his eyes. “I don’t need it. Too powerful already.”

“Sure. Yeah.” Keegan grabbed one of the alcohol wipes, rubbing his thigh and throwing it onto the table. “You don’t have to watch this.”

“I’m curious. If that’s okay?”

Keegan’s nod and smile made his heart light up. “Yeah. As long as we don't dance around it.”

“What?”

“You’re watching me inject myself with testosterone at my kitchen table after spending the night in my bed. I think we’re past making shitty one liners and pretending that this,” he nodded toward where the needle had gone into his thigh, “isn’t happening.”

Marc nodded. He still had no idea what to say, or if there was anything to say at all. His attention remained on Keegan’s setup until he was finished.

“Breakfast?” He blurted out.

“Um… yeah.” Keegan checked his phone, grimacing at whatever he saw as if Marc wouldn’t notice. He got up to put the needle bucket away, entire body disappearing behind the kitchen island. “I have some stuff, I think.” His head popped up excitedly. “I have eggs.”

Four failed attempts at not getting eggshells in their omelettes later, the two happily shoved their breakfasts into their mouths. Their chairs were comically close; their elbows and knees bumped every time they moved their forks and Keegan’s chronic leg bounce shook Marc’s entire body whenever he tried to drink his coffee. But it was paired with a perfectly comfortable silence and bright yellow plates, so he couldn’t complain.

When Keegan was half-finished his hashbrowns, he set his fork down and turned to the side. His knees poked into Marc’s thigh. “Can we talk about it?”

There was not one part of Marc that was ready for the serious conversation that was about to happen. There was a plane to catch, inevitable eyebrow wiggles from multiple team members, and a shitty hotel room waiting for them in only a few hours. Any other person would’ve seen a joking grin and gotten a pat on the back.

Keegan got a nod.

“I get if you’re uncomfortable.”

“I’m not at all.” Marc took a long sip of his coffee and watched a man and his dog walk down the street. “I’m just curious, I guess. How did this start?”

“The transition?”

He nodded. The dog began playing in a puddle, and he and Keegan chuckled to themselves. The slight tension lifted, and Marc found the courage to hold Keegan’s hand.

“It’s cheesy, but I always knew. I didn’t relate to anything anyone was referring to me as. I felt so fucking disconnected from my body all the time, like it was just this armor to get me through all the bullshit that happened to me.” He picked at a hashbrown that had fallen off his plate. “Anyway, I was eighteen when I got on hormones. And then I was back and forth between the men’s and women’s leagues. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

The last sentence had obviously hit a nerve, judging by the way he stared at the table as if he was reliving all those years again. It had been the same when Keegan had started playing. Marc remembered the mummers in the locker room, people who thought their opinions mattered more than opportunity.

“And then I met this guy, and he told me he was with Vancouver, and I thought he was completely bullshitting me, so I played along. It wasn’t until I was off the plane that I realized it was happening.”

A knot of guilt curled around Marc’s intestines. The pain, the happiness, the memories that Keegan’s eyes held while he was talking were enough to remind him of every story that he’d heard in the locker room. Most of them had gone through such intense struggles that they never talked about, and Keegan had had the balls to be open and honest about his own and was met with ridicule. For Marc to have ever said it was Keegan’s own choice to face the bullying and jokes was as ridiculous as saying Geno had chosen his bad knee.

“I have to tell you something.”

Keegan squeezed his hand.

“I, uh… I said some things to Max. A lot of things, actually.” Marc focused on the scar between Keegan’s eyes. It was easier that way. “I came out to him, and I told him about us, and… I was so scared, you know? I said some stupid shit.”

“About…” Keegan used his free hand to point at his own chest. Marc’s heart dropped.

“Yeah.”

A long sigh that came out of a crooked mouth. Their hands remained together.

“I’m really sorry.”

“Every guy that I’ve ever been with has told me some form of that story.” Keegan let out a humourless laugh and tilted his head. “Usually it’s a lot longer into the relationship. So, thank you.”

Marc stayed quiet.

“It confuses me. That people’s first reactions are to feel threatened, or scared, or… to talk about me like I’m not a real person.” Their eyes met. “The truth is, I’m not surprised. But, love, or some version of it, has always been blind. You don’t get to choose that shit. So, why should my body, not even my personality, my fucking body deter someone from getting close to me?”

“You’re right,” he said simply. “It shouldn’t. It doesn’t.”

Keegan’s foot rubbed Marc’s calf, and he decided he could get used to that feeling.

“Listen, I don’t know what we are,” Keegan continued. “I don’t know what you want us to be. I really like you, though. And I’m happy you told Max.”

The grin on his face probably looked sociopathic. “I like you, too.”

“How did he react, anyway? Good, I’m guessing. Since you still live together.”

Marc shrugged. “He always knew. Just wasn’t positive. It’s the first time I’ve told someone.”

“Wait.” Keegan popped the last of his omelette into his mouth and leaned his elbow on the back of the chair. “So, you’ve never slept with—”

“Nope.”

“Or dated?”

“Nope.”

“Not even women?”

Marc laughed. “A few.” They had all ended terribly, mostly because he could rarely keep it up, but he wasn’t about to divulge that information.

“Wow.” Keegan pursed his lips in thought. “So, how do you feel about the fact that I don’t have a dick? To be blunt.”

He was sure that his face was as red as a tomato. “I… don’t really care.”

“Hmm.” The other man shimmied in his chair, a silent victory. “Very flattering.”

They smiled at each other for a moment. Marc allowed himself to take in the person across from him; the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, the chip in his front tooth. How badly he wanted to trace the somehow rarely seen tattoos on Keegan’s right arm with his finger.

“I’ll tell you when I have questions,” he stated, eyes lingering on a date tattooed above his inner elbow. It would’ve been the date he started in Vancouver.

“And I’ll answer them.”

They cleaned up their dishes and walked back to Keegan’s room to grab his bag, hand in hand.

---

“Do you have to do that?”

Geno stopped squirming and looked over at Keegan, who was squinting at him behind his glasses. His book was halfway between smacking Geno on the leg and lazily resting on his chest.

“No,” Geno drew out the last letter, trying to get his seat partner to smile. It worked.

“Seriously, what’s wrong with you?” Keegan sat up more, pushed his hair out of his face. “You’re never like this.”

Geno had been up since four in the morning tossing and turning, thinking about how terrible he felt lying to Sid. It wasn’t the worst lie in the world; confiding in a friend probably leaned toward the better things to be doing with his problems. However, they had promised each other they wouldn’t tell anyone until they retired. The fact that Sid thought they would be together until they retired was enough for him to agree.

He had never hidden anything from Sid, though. There was no reason to.

He leaned closer to Keegan, who tore his earbud out of his ear even though there was no music playing. “I’m up all night. Need to tell Sid.”

“Tell him what?”

“About… you know.” Geno huffed in frustration. “I’m tell you about…” His hand waved in lieu of the rest of his sentence.

Keegan looked at him for a bit before slowly sitting up to look at the front of the plane. Geno, whose height was always an advantage, simply had to turn his head. Flower and Sid were happily bickering over their Call of Duty game. Sid was a cheater, apparently.

“So, why can’t you tell him?”

“Am nervous. Need advice.”

“Just tell him the truth. There’s no point in getting worked up over it.” Keegan placed his hand on Geno’s thigh. He stared at it as if he was unsure why he had done it. “Is that okay for me to do?”

“Not the problem, Stew.”

He took his hand away, holding them up in surrender. “Okay. No touching Geno.”

“No, is fine.”

“Just tell him.”

With a blunt nod, Geno stood up. He placed his things on the seat, giving Keegan a thumbs up before he could talk him out of doing it right that minute.

Flower noticed him standing by their seat before Sid did. He nudged Sid with his elbow, eliciting an annoyed grunt from the other man.

“I didn’t cheat.”

“Sid.”

“I swear to God, if Talbo has a problem with my decisions he can come tell me instead of yelling it across the plane—” He stopped talking when they made eye contact. “Oh. Hey, G.”

Geno slouched down as if it would make everyone stop staring at him. “Need to talk.”

“Okay.” Sid shook his head in confusion. “Go ahead?”

“No. Need to talk.” He emphasized each word with a nod toward the back of the plane.

“Jesus Christ. Go. Please.” Flower leaned his head back against the seat, looking over at Sid. “He’s just gonna stand there.”

Sid stood up slowly, giving anyone that was looking a polite smile. As soon as he could, Geno grabbed his arm and started dragging him down the plane toward the bathroom.

“Jeez, G. Take it easy.” Sid chuckled, looking at each aisle seat as if they cared about what was happening. “That’s my scoring arm.”

Duper frowned at him as they passed by.

“What? The dad can’t appreciate my dad joke?”

“That was a joke?” Rusty called with a self-satisfied smile.

Sid continued to chuckle uncomfortably until they had shoved themselves into the bathroom. His smile disappeared as soon as the door closed. “What the fuck was that?”

“I’m need to say something.”

Sid pulled his phone out of his pocket, waving it in front of Geno’s face. He pushed it away, shaking his head.

“In person.”

“Fine.” Sid leaned against the counter. His face was turning red, whether from their body heat taking over the very confined space or the fact that Geno had his hand on his waist, the taller man couldn’t tell. “Hurry. They’re going to start wondering what we’re doing.”

Geno knew that none of the team cared at all about what they were doing, but he nodded along. “Okay. Just listen.”

Sid exhaled sharply. “Yes. Okay.”

“I’m tell Stew about us. He okay with it, is not problem.”

Sid’s face went from as red as Geno’s sweater to as pale as the wall beside him. “Wha—Why?”

“I not know if want to tell everyone. But… feel like is, uh, awaken?”

“Where is this coming from?” Sid moved away from Geno’s hand, mouth somewhere between a scared smile and a scowl. “I thought we said we’d wait.”

“Stew make me think maybe is not so bad to tell some people.” Sid’s reaction was incredibly disheartening. “Flower, Max, they know. Is okay.”

“They know because they walked in on us. There were no other options,” he hissed. “Fuck, Geno, when were you going to tell me about this?”

“Sorry, I’m think is fine.” His words felt like they were trapped in his throat, the language barrier making itself incredibly apparent. “Is… Stew not care.”

“It doesn’t matter if he cares or not. You promised me.” Sid shoved Geno out of the way, his childish outburst causing Geno to almost fall into the toilet.

The door opened with a slam, and he was sure that the entire plane would be looking at him when he walked out. He was right.

He had made a mistake. He would’ve been more than happy for the plane to go down, leaving his body split in half by the time they hit the ground. Instead, he had to walk back to his seat as if nothing had happened.

Keegan opened his mouth to speak, and Geno lifted his hand.

“Not good,” he whispered.

---

“Hey, it’s Max. Just calling about my last call. I—I wanted to apologize about that. I shouldn’t have called. Like, I shouldn’t be calling now, but… you know. Yeah, just wanted to say sorry. Hope I didn’t upset you too much. It’s Max, by the way. You probably have my number blocked by now. Okay, yeah. See ya.”

“Hey, it’s Max again. Just wanted to apologize for saying that I would see you. I probably won’t be seeing you. ‘Bye’ sounds too intense, so… Bye bye.”

“Max again. I don’t know why I said that. Only my mom says ‘bye bye.’ I don’t think there’s a way to end a conversation with you, but—”

“Dude.”

Max’s first reaction was to throw his phone across the room, which would’ve been good if he had remembered to hang up. Marc watched him with his arms crossed as he made the walk of shame to the other side of the room to hit the red button.

“Are we doing this again?”

“We don’t have to. You could just pretend it didn’t happen.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

Max let out a snort, attempting to distract from how pathetic he probably looked sitting on the floor, clutching his phone. “I can see why Keegan’s attracted to you. Should I call you Daddy?”

Marc let out an exasperated sigh. “Seriously?”

“What? I thought it was a compliment.”

“You can’t keep calling her.”

“Last time I checked, you were the one with the relationship problems.”

Marc rolled his eyes. He laid his suit out on the bed, toying with the way the blazer’s sleeves had fallen.

“I’m sorry. That was kinda low.” Max got up from the floor, chucking his phone onto the bed.

“I told you what was wrong with me,” he said as he wiped some dirt from his dress shoes. “You basically owe me one.”

“I owe you my honesty? I didn’t sign up for that in the friendship agreement.”

Marc gave him a smirk that said he wasn’t amused. Max knew better than to try and fight off Flower’s concern; they’d been around each other for long enough that Marc would have no problem playing an incredibly embarrassing prank to get back at him.

He picked his phone up again, going to his phone history. Her name was the almost the only one that lit up the screen, days and weeks and months of her up until the year before. Only three of his calls had been returned. There was no way he could admit it to himself, let alone the only person in the world that seemed to love him.

Marc appeared to go through the stages of grief as he scrolled through before settling on denial. “There’s no way she’s the only you called for a full year. We’ve definitely talked on the phone.”

“Is that really the point you want to make?”

He held out Max’s phone as if it was a bag of dog shit. “I… don’t know what to tell you. It’s probably the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I thought if I kept calling, she’d answer.” Max cringed as he heard how terrible it sounded. He was definitely insane. “We were friends.”

“That doesn’t give you the right to, what, stalk her?”

“I haven’t shown up at her house.”

Marc raised his hands to the sky, turning around to continue unpacking his things. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck even happened?”

To Marc, Max had been deserted in the middle of winter. There had been no communication, Max had done nothing wrong. There was absolutely no reason for Max to be left to die in a snowy parking lot because a blonde girl changed her mind. Except, that wasn’t how it had happened.

They had been fighting throughout the day. Max’s date plans weren’t good enough, his outfit wasn’t formal enough for the restaurant he had chosen, she hadn’t even wanted Italian that night. It was all so silly to look back on. They should’ve been skipping through a snowy meadow and making a snowman. He had chosen to scream at her on their drive back to his house, though.

The road was too icy for him to have turned his head. He would spend months laying in bed wondering if there had been any way for him to stop the car from spinning out, and the universe was cruel enough to not give him an answer.

It wasn’t as if she had been dying in the hospital. She was on a lot of morphine while they were waiting for her test results. Max, of course, had walked away with a couple of scratches. Her head had knocked against the window hard enough to crack it. The doctors were sure it was just a small concussion. She would be, and had been, completely fine with some rest. It was okay for him to take his slightly dented car to the gas station and sit in the parking lot while shoving cookies in his mouth. It was okay that he went home afterward and lied to Marc’s face.

“I fucked up. I did something that—it was my fault. I want to make things better.”

Marc nodded. For the first time in their friendship, there was no advice. Considering how unique his situation was, that was probably the best thing.

---

Keegan’s high school didn’t have a cafeteria, so the social politics of choosing which table to sit at didn’t apply to him. The decision to sit with the French Canadians had seemed safe at the time, although Phil had no problem telling him how much he had fucked up when he walked by the table.

They were a boisterous group of men. Laughter every five seconds in response to jokes that Keegan didn’t understand, the occasional tipping over of a glass of water that resulted in what could only be verbal jabs from everyone else. Keegan was more than happy to eat his pasta and watch the show.

When Marc seemed to make an especially funny comment, the lack of Max’s reply was glaringly apparent.

“Hey, where’s Max?” Keegan twirled his fork in an attempt to remain casual. “Is he feeling okay?”

The rest of the table raised their eyebrows at Marc.

“He, uh…” Marc shrugged. “He’s fine.”

Keegan frowned. Marc’s indirectness was concerning, given that they barely left a room without each other. “I’ll go check on him.” He threw his napkin on the table and pushed his chair back, standing up just as Dan and the rest of the coaches walked into the banquet hall. Pascal grabbed his arm, pulling him back down.

“It’s fine. Probably just napping, right?” The older man gave Marc a smile as if they had a secret.

Keegan nodded slowly and turned his body toward the projector.

“Okay, boys, quick one today then you can get back to your dinner.” A quick smile as he set up the first video. “I just want to say before we get into these, you guys are always judged as a team. Not in a negative way,” he clarified. “I’d like to think we’re getting close enough that I can consider you all a machine rather than a few cogs.”

The room collectively hummed an agreement.

“So, like I said, just a few of these today.”

The first two tapes were easy fixes in position that seemed to be becoming a bad habit. Keegan was happy to see that almost all the guys had made the mistake at some point that season. He made a mental note to clarify a few things with Phil when they got on the bus.

The third tape started off with an image that had been burned into Keegan’s brain. The moments before his breakaway goal that had been replayed multiple times on multiple sports shows that he had guiltily watched early in the morning. A smile snuck its way onto his face as he remembered how positive the response had been. He had never been in video for a good reason.

“Now, we all remember this.” Dan nodded at Keegan. “Great goal. This is an example of things going as right as possible. That doesn’t happen often.” He cleared his throat before pointing at a few of the men on the other team that had been in the wrong place. “If they hadn’t messed up, we would’ve. We had three men on the ice and ready to go by the time the puck got to center.”

Keegan frowned. He remembered feeling confident in the moment that there was no threat, even though he knew he’d fucked up.

“We need to get off the ice when I tell you to. You learn that in house league. The more tired you are, the more you hog the ice, the worse our playing gets.”

He dared himself to look around the room. Nobody was looking at him, even the guys at his table, but the previously carefree atmosphere had turned incredibly sour. Hints of Vancouver came out in the way the men stared straight ahead, the way Dan continuously cleared his throat as if it pained him to tell them what they were doing wrong. It wasn’t fair that he considered himself a part of ‘We’. He had no idea how it had felt on the ice at that exact moment.

Keegan’s fingernails dug into his palms. He turned back to his plate so that he didn’t leave the room.

A slamming door brought the attention away from the front of the room. Max rushed in like a kid that was late for class, head down and arms stiff at his sides. Marc didn’t wave him over, much to the surprise of the table. He sat down in the first empty chair, which happened to be between Sid and Geno.

Dan’s lecture went on for a few more minutes, complete with a pointed look at Max as he told the group to enjoy the rest of their dinner. Keegan picked at his pasta until it was late enough that he could leave.

Max had conveniently also gotten up and headed to the door. Keegan grabbed his arm as soon as they were in the hallway.

“What happened?”

“I slept in. Relax.” Max’s smile softened the sentence. “It’s not an emergency.”

Keegan shook his head. “I’m sorry. Dan said something that got me on edge.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“I should probably catch up with him. Find out what I missed.” Max said to the carpet.

His intensely serious demeanor was intimidating. He didn’t walk away, however, gaze still fixed on the diamond pattern underneath them. He wasn’t okay.

“Can I show you something?” Keegan nodded toward the elevator. “It’ll be quick.”

His plan to bring the light back to Max’s face worked wonders. The red and black suit made him immediately burst into laughter.

“You’re a genius.”

“No, I’m just stylish.” Keegan threw the blazer on, putting his hands under his chin. “The moustache makes sense now, right?”

“Hey, I didn’t hate it.” Max clarified. “I just said it was strange.”

Keegan shrugged his shoulder. He sat down on the bed, allowing himself a moment to relax.

“Hey, I have something to show you.” With a finger held up, Max quickly left the room. Keegan leaned back so that he could stare at the popcorn ceiling.

Max came back with a garment bag slung over his shoulder.

“What’s that?”

Max said nothing, laying it down on the bed across from him. “Open it.”

“I try not to open random garment bags that men give to me.”

Max pointed at him. “That involves a backstory. You get to tell me that later.” He stuck his tongue out as he unzipped the bag.

Inside was a red and black outfit. Although not as gaudy as Keegan’s it was close enough to make him chuckle.

“Needless to say, we’re walking into that building together.”

“Of course, we are. I wouldn’t suggest anything else.”

Max left the room with his trademark chaotic energy, and Keegan laid back on the bed feeling better than he had when he’d walked in.

---

OCTOBER 20

PENGUINS @ NEW JERSEY DEVILS

“You’re looking very evil.”

Keegan and Max grinned at each other. They joked around, stroking their moustaches and annoying the rookies.

Marc walked far enough away from them that they could have their moment, but close enough that he didn’t feel alone. Tanger eventually found his place beside him and gave him a nudge.

“Feel left out?” Kris pouted. “Poor Flower.”

“Fuck off.” Marc continued to watch the two dance down the hallway and make faces at the camera guy in front of the locker room. They were so happy. Keegan had turned back into the little ball of light that he had always been. “It’s good. Gets Talbo off my ass.”

“I think I know someone that could fill that position.” Kris wiggled his eyebrows. The shocked look on Marc’s face made him backtrack. “Not me, man. I got a message from these girls, they’re interested after the game.”

Marc nodded toward the camera as they passed by. He lowered his voice. “Are you not with… what’s-her-face?”

“Complicated.” Tanger gave him a cheeky grin. “Think about it. I’m going with or without you.”

“Where are you going?” Sid had already changed into his leggings and hoodie, giant legs sprawled out on the floor in front of him as he stretched. “Flight’s early tomorrow.”

Marc shook his head instead of answering. The last time he had gone out with Tanger had ended in him listening to a very loud threesome while hiding in the bathroom. There was no way he could go through that trauma again.

“You see Stew?” Geno’s voice thankfully pulled him out of his memories. The man towered over the two, hands on his hips. “Is important.”

Sid scowled at him for a moment before looking back at Marc. His face immediately changed to a forced smile. “He’s eating, I think.”

Geno held out a small keychain that he shouldn’t have had time to buy. It was a small devil, obviously from the arena’s gift shop.

“They let you in to buy that?”

Geno nodded enthusiastically. “Is Stew, yeah?”

“They do have a... resemblance.” Sid flicked the keychain, which had been dangling in front of his face. “Give it to him, then.”

Sid’s surprisingly rude comment had no effect on Geno, who had practically skipped away before Sid had even finished. Marc frowned at him.

“What was that?”

“Long story.” Sid leaned forward, arms outstretched. “Don’t worry about it.”

Marc finished undressing without a word, pulling on his own comfortable outfit for the few hours they had before the game. Sid had already jogged away by the time he turned around, so he set out to find where Keegan was.

It didn’t take long for someone to point him toward the stands. He stood on the bench for a moment, taking in the image of Geno and Keegan sharing a sandwich. They looked so innocent and content. Keegan’s new keychain had been modified to hang from the usual silver chain around his neck.

“Flower!” Geno called. He waved his hands as if it would be hard to find them.

Marc walked up the stairs. Keegan’s mouth was full, so his smile made him look like a hamster.

“You liked your present?”

Keegan nodded. He held his finger up as he continued to chew. Things remained quiet until he finally swallowed. “It’s great. Really captures my public image.”

They shared a smile as Marc sat down in the seats in front of them. Geno looked him up and down, something that wasn’t an incredibly rare occurrence but managed to make Marc feel as if he was under a microscope.

Geno cracked his knuckles. “Need to stretch. I give you space. See you.” He tapped Marc on the head as he bounded down the stairs.

“Man, can you clear a room.” Keegan joked. He offered Marc the rest of his sandwich, which he took gratefully. “You’ll have to teach me.”

“He didn’t have to leave.”

“He wanted to give us our space.” Keegan mocked Geno’s low voice. He immediately started laughing. “Wow, that was… really bad. Sorry.”

Marc shook his head. “I’m actually pretty disappointed in you. G deserves better.”

It was the first time that silence in an arena wasn’t overwhelming. The space felt less intimidatingly large, something reminiscent of the arenas in his childhood. He could almost picture the parents seated randomly throughout the building, clutching their plastic coffee cups and yelling at their kids having fun. Back then, noticing that the teams playing after them were watching from the sidelines had felt like a victory. How he’d gotten used to playing in sold out arenas, he had no idea.

“It’s nice, hey?”

“Yeah. Makes you think.”

“It always makes me realize how stupid it is to be nervous. We’re just playing for seats.”

Marc tore his gaze away from the center logo. “This is where you go?”

“Before the games? Yeah, for a bit.”

“What do you do after?”

Keegan raised his eyebrows playfully. “Why, you wanna join? Does the legendary Mr. Fleury not have anywhere to be?”

The idea of changing his own routine was nerve-wracking. He shook his head anyway.

“Well, come on then.”

Marc happily took Keegan’s outstretched hand. It was impossible to look away from the pure joy that was in front of him, a child-like energy and passion for a sport and setting that he’d taken for granted seasons before.

There was a slow lap around the back hallways of the building, which included a short conversation with the Zamboni driver having his coffee on a foldout chair. Light stretching outside the locker room and a couple minutes playing soccer with some of the guys. A small cup of tea on the floor in front of Keegan’s locker, where he scooted over just enough so they could both fit directly in front of his jersey. The only slightly annoying part had been tapping each guy that was playing that night on the head, in the order of their jersey numbers. Marc stayed outside of the bathroom when Keegan had to tap Phil’s head.

By the time they were done, there was half an hour until they had to step onto the ice. Marc started to head back to his locker, in the middle of a story about how he’d walked in on Luongo in the bathroom during a training camp, when he realized Keegan wasn’t beside him.

“Oh, we’re not done.”

Ending up in the janitor’s closet was not what Marc would’ve expected, but Keegan was the kind of person who could bribe every janitor at every arena in North America for a quick, ten-minute freak out in their closet. He also hadn’t expected that quality to be attractive.

“I usually just scream.”

“And no one does anything?”

Keegan shrugged. He toyed with the lid of a cleaning liquid. “I’ve been doing this since Vancouver. They’re probably used to it by now.”

The small light above them flickered, silver chain dangling just above Marc’s head. He leaned his head down to avoid the tingling feeling as it twirled in his hair.

“Max liked my moustache.”

“I never said I didn’t.”

“You never said that you do.”

Marc could feel Keegan’s breath on his collar bones as the other man looked up at him.

“You are the only guy I won’t roast for bad facial hair.”

Their fingers danced around each other, moments away from holding hands and then pulling away.

“Bad? Says the one with the soul patch.” Keegan reached up to stroke his chin.

Both of their breathing had sped up slightly as their bodies touched.

“I think we should stop talking about this.”

“Yeah.”

Keegan got onto his tiptoes, hands leaning against Marc’s shoulders as he made their lips meet. Marc let his own fingers wander down Keegan’s back, hooking into his waistband.

His back hit the shelf as Keegan kissed down his neck. It was the only reminder of where they were, but even that wasn’t enough to make him stop. There was only the feeling of teeth pinching the skin under his collarbones, the sound of his own quiet grunts and groans the lower Keegan got.

“You have ten minutes to get out here, fuckface! I’m serious!”

Marc groaned, knocking his head against a large bottle of something. “Fuck.”

Keegan looked up from his knees and snorted.

“When I said ten minutes, I meant five seconds.” Max banged his fist on the door. The closet felt like it vibrated from the echo.

“We get it!”

Keegan used Marc’s arm to help himself up. He dusted off his joggers and fixed Marc’s hair.

Max’s smirk was the first thing they saw as they left the closet.

---

The puck was the only thing he focused on. It was the only thing anyone focused on, really, but for Marc there truly was nothing else. No sound, no smell, no feeling other than his skates on the ice and the pull of gravity when the puck landed in his glove.

He was playing his best as a distraction. As if he was grateful that the ice seemed to be leaning toward the Penguins side. And it was working.

Out of any game they’d played that season, he had never felt as grounded as he did in that moment.

There was a moment, something so small and timeless, where he and Keegan made eye contact while Keegan flew by to grab the puck from behind the net. It was nothing; he had made eye contact with multiple men every game for half of his life, but the absolute buzz that Keegan emitted was so inspiring that Marc felt like they could win every game if that man was on the ice.

And then that little ball of fire was taken out by the elbow of a much larger player.

Marc’s breath stopped. It felt as if everything was on pause, every pair of eyes in the arena staring down at the completely still body on the ice.

Keegan had been down for too long.

The scene replayed in his mind, where the elbow had hit, if Keegan’s helmet had cracked against the ice. He was sure that his arm had swung out so that he fell on his side.

“Fuck.”

Keegan had started moving his legs at that point. The ref shrugged at the bench with a chuckle as if nothing had happened.

“What the fuck was that?”

The ref looked over. Marc had somehow ended up right beside him.

“Did you fucking laugh?”

“Pardon me?”

“You’re the one that fucking laughed!”

“That’s fucked up, man,” Kris chimed in beside him.

“Watch what you're saying.” The striped jersey frowned at him. “I have no problem kicking you out. I don’t give two shits how good you are.”

Marc’s attention immediately went to the body that was coming up from the ice. Keegan gave him a quick thumbs up as he headed back to the bench.

“Forget it.” Kris had his arm over Marc’s chest, guiding him back to the net. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

The Devils scored almost immediately.

The only light that returned was when Keegan came and patted his helmet before his next faceoff. Their helmets bumped slightly as he leaned in.

“Thank you.”

Marc was able to help get them back onto the scoreboard with an assist to his favourite ball of light.

---

Geno had given up on controlling himself. He had been quietly, and not so quietly, ranting away to himself after the uncalled hit on Keegan. By the time he had hopped over the boards, his only goal was revenge in any form.

That meant dealing with the wrath of Sid.

They both had nights where a more physical game was necessary. But Sid got to choose when those nights were.

He stood in front of the glass of the penalty box, face practically pressed against it, and Geno knew he was in trouble.

“We can’t play together if you’re always in the box.” It was the only sentence he received when he got back to the bench.

They didn’t speak in the locker room after regular time. They didn’t make up after OT.

Geno practically threw his gloves on the ground in defeat. He was tired. It was the worst night for a shootout. He motioned for Dan to pay attention to him as he leaned against the boards.

“Stew take my place.”

Dan sighed. “He’s never scored in a shootout.”

“Is reason we here.”

“He can’t take your place.” Dan looked at his stupid little sheet of paper. “If it gets to him, he can shoot. He’s after Duper.”

There was no way they would be there that long. Geno huffed like a stubborn child.

Keegan, who had been sitting beside them the entire time, gave Geno a nudge. “Thanks.”

The teams battled back and forth. It was a game for the goalies; Marc was as sturdy as a cement wall, barely phased at the tricks the Devils were trying to play. Sid and Tanger scored easily, but it was obvious they still had to try against the other goalie.

Geno made his way to the logo, standing directly over it. He let out a quick exhale. Sid was standing over at the bench. It was the only supportive action he’d given Geno the whole night. He moved forward, gliding with the puck effortlessly. He thought back to practice and what Marc had told him. Sometimes a split-second decision was needed.

His shot went over the goalie’s shoulder. The light above went off, and the entire arena groaned. Geno directed his smile to Sid, but he had already begun skating over to Marc in celebration.

---

“You need to sign some forms.”

“I have a fucking game to go to!”

“I understand that, but I need you to sign these.”

Xavier shoved the clipboard back to the nurse, ripping off the cotton pad she’d placed on the inside of his elbow.

“You shouldn’t be playing like this,” she warned. The pen in her hand tapped a rhythmic beat on the wooden slab. “You just got your stomach pumped.”

“That was last night. Twenty-four hours.” Xavier began shrugging off the sheet of fabric that had been wrapped around him at some point in the night.

His clothes, covered in a variety of fluids that added a terrible texture, were folded on a chair beside the bed that no one had sat in. He happily paraded over to it fully naked.

“I’ll be in to pick up these forms when you’re done.” The woman turned around on her heel.

Xavier didn’t sign the forms. There was no need to give someone a free autograph.

Every eye was on him by the time he got to the arena. The cab ride had been free, thanks to a big fan who could tell how rough of a night he’d had. The driver gave him a supportive smile when he walked away, and Xavier responded with a nod. He pushed his beanie further down his head and wrapped his arms around himself. It was starting to get cold. Should’ve brought a blazer.

Staff watched him with their mouths open, players for the other team got overly pissed off about him walking past their locker room, someone offered him a glass of water. None of it was new or surprising. He’d done it before, would do it again.

Tanner grabbed his arm as soon as he walked into the locker room, dragging him to the front of the room. He searched Xavier’s face. There was nothing to find.

“Why… What the fuck?”

“Good to see you, too.”

“I had to watch the contents of your fucking stomach get sucked into a bag less than a day ago and…” He stuttered for a moment, nothing of substance coming out of his mouth. He finally settled on waving his hands in front of Xavier’s face.

“Happy to see me, then?”

“There is no way in hell they discharged you.”

Xavier looked around the room. Everyone pretended they weren’t looking, but he caught Kevin’s eyes flicker up to them. He gave the other man a short wave.

“They didn’t.”

Tanner’s hands dropped to his side. He shook his head at the ground. “Fine. Okay. Do what you do.”

“I’ll be in the booth, boys and girls. Have fun! Play safe!”

“You can’t go up there,” someone started to say.

“Thanks, guys! Good luck!”

He slammed the door behind him, just for fun.

Watching the game was the last thing on his mind. The complimentary beers brought some numbness back to his body, and he sunk into the chair feeling satisfied. The very important looking men beside him avoided eye contact at all cost as he took off his shoes and swung his feet onto the bar in front of him.

The noises could’ve put him to sleep. He missed those first few years, before the concussion in Halifax. He would sit and listen to the sounds of the arena before every game, mind clear and body relaxed.

Xavier’s phone vibrated intensely in his pocket. He forced an apologetic smile to the men beside him, who neither heard the vibration nor cared.

Kris’s name was on his screen. It was followed by a long string of angry French, something about staying far away from his family… to stop trying to contact them. Xavier blinked at the message, trying to decipher the specifics.

In all fairness, he remembered nothing from the night before. It would’ve been a miracle. However, his call history did the work for him; his conversation with Keegan was the only call he remembered making, the rest to Kris and what appeared to be random numbers. He sighed and got up from his comfortable position, not bothering with his shoes.

“Hey, buddy. It’s Xavier. Miss you, too. Anyway, just wanted to let apologize for whatever I did last night. Rough time.” He paused, frowning at the wall. “Yeah, I think that’s it. Love ya.”

Kris called back almost immediately after Xavier sat back down.

“Whatever you did? You have no idea how much you royally fucked it last night, I’m—”

“Language, man. I’m in a booth.”

“Well, get the fuck out of it then!”

Xavier mouthed an apology to the men who still didn’t care. He wandered back into the hallway. “Listen, I don’t remember anything. I didn’t mean it.”

“You said you were going to show up at her house. You were going to…” He paused, and Xavier could picture him running his hands through his mane to collect himself. “You said you were going to slit your fucking wrists in front of your kids. I can’t ignore that shit.”

“Oof.” Xavier leaned against the wall. The room had started spinning again. “Yeah, probably shouldn’t have said that.”

“I know you’ve heard this before, but I can’t keep doing this shit. You’ve already lost custody; there’s not much more Val can do. I’m trying to be a good guy and give you warning: if you show up at that house, or any of our houses, you’re out.”

“Last time I checked, they were my kids, no?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Kris huffed. “They’re not anymore.”

Xavier barely remembered their faces, anyway. He shrugged, although no one could see him. “Fine. Okay.”

“Get clean. Keegan managed to.”

That was the part that got to him. Of course, the kid got clean. He was the wonder child. The next Crosby before Crosby had even retired. He was what Xavier used to be before he’d gotten into the big leagues.

“It’s not that easy.”

“Easy enough, if you want your life back.”

“You think I don’t want all that back? Happy home, happy wife, happy kids? Happy, happy, fucking happy?” He jabbed his elbow into the wall, hard enough to wince. “You think I wasn’t satisfied with that?”

Kris remained quiet.

“You think that if I could just fuck pussy like all you other guys, I wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t? That is the easiest lifestyle in the world. You have no idea what it’s like to wake up in the morning and fucking—”

Before Xavier could finish, he tripped over a dip in the floor, landing directly on his wrist. He cried out in pain again, causing the men in the booth to care. He rolled over onto his back. The ceiling was more interesting, anyway.

“I know what I had.” There were tears running down his face, and his voice was cracking dramatically. The men were yelling at him. “I want it back. I’m so fucking lonely.”

One of the larger men grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. He was going on about something important, how Xavier shouldn’t have been in their booth in the first place. He glanced at the plaque on the wall. He’d been sitting with his GM.

After being escorted (rough handled) down to the back entrance, Xavier sat outside. He lit a cigarette and turned his phone around in his hand.

Kris had hung up before he’d even heard what Xavier had to say.

---

“Shit.”

Keegan turned to Marc. He knew his face was showing his panic.

“I look like shit, right?”

He'd attempted a casual look for his spur-of-the-moment meeting with Mario. However, standing in the hall of the arena made him realize how the Birkenstocks and socks and oversized sweatshirt looked. He’d attempted to dress it up with some slim dress pants, but he felt like he looked homeless.

Why he cared so much about Mario’s opinion on his outfit was, he had no clue. It wasn’t as if he could cancel his contract. Unless…

“Can he cancel my contract if he thinks I look like shit?”

Marc let out a burst of laughter. He looked Keegan up and down. “You’re fine. You look good.”

“Maybe even effortless,” Justin chimed in. He had tagged along on their walk to the office simply because he was bored and in the area.

“It wasn’t effortless.” Keegan stared at the wall, remembering the whirlwind of clothes and shoes and hats that had taken over his bedroom. He snapped out of it to look at the guys beside him. “I can’t do this. Why didn’t he just text me? People do that now. It’s probably considered more polite these days.”

“You have two minutes."

“Don’t say that.”

Marc raised his hands. “You told me to.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Justin leaned against the wall.

Marc shook his head at Justin, but Keegan had already spiralled into another episode of internal anxiety. He bounced in place for a second until one of his shoes almost came off before deciding to walk toward the office, regardless of how he was feeling. Marc and Justin trailed behind him like puppies. They waited in the hallway after Keegan’s knock had been acknowledged.

“Keegan.” Mario smiled, outstretched hand directed at him. “Very good to see you.”

“Hey, you too.” Keegan’s hand was sweaty. He still shook Mario’s hand.

A chair was offered to him, and he sat down gratefully. His outfit would look less insane if he was sitting down. The office had the same homey vibe of the locker room but included some photos of Mario’s days in the NHL and what Keegan could only assume were family photos. A framed portrait of him, Sid, and Geno back in the day hung by the window.

“I realized I never got to tell you how excited I am for you to be a part of the team in person. Personally, I think you are an excellent addition.”

Keegan raised his eyebrows. He automatically wiped his palms against his jeans, which seemed to help keep his legs from bouncing. Hearing Mario Lemieux say any sentence to him was enough to give him a heart attack, let alone something positive.

“I’ll get to the point.” Another kind smile, some shuffling of the papers on his desk. He pulled a pen from his shirt pocket as he pulled out a specific sheet of paper.

“You don’t have to,” Keegan said without thinking. He cringed. “I mean, you can. If you want.”

Mario laughed.

“Sorry, I’m…” He attempted to use hand movements to signify how flustered he was. “Yeah. Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Mario slid the paper toward him. “I think you’ll like the point, though.”

The first thing he saw was a rainbow. The heart attack feeling came back tenfold.

“We’ve recently decided to do some extra work for the Hockey Is for Everyone campaign this season. Something to differentiate us from the other teams.” He used his pen to point out a passage of text that was much too long for Keegan to read quickly. “I know you missed press day, but I was hoping that we could have you be our… face, if you will. Someone to connect to the whole thing.”

“O—Oh. Yeah, that makes sense.” That was an understatement. It was obvious why they wanted to differentiate themselves. They were the only team with an out player.

“It’ll just be a quick photoshoot, interview, you know. We’ll have the usual rainbow tape, and we have a new rainbow jersey for that night’s game.” Mario was so excited that Keegan couldn’t help but smile back. “It will be great, if you’re interested?”

There were a lot of reasons to decline. Keegan’s being alive in Pittsburgh was enough to bring heat to the franchise, but if he showed any pride in who he was… the negative attention for the team and himself could be enough to lower sales. The entire team would have a target on their backs that Keegan was sure they weren’t prepared for.

He didn’t have the heart to decline, though. The pure support radiating from Mario was just enough to push him to nod his head.

“Yeah. I’ll do it.”

“Excellent!” Mario handed him some more papers: the schedule for his media day, mock-ups of the jerseys, basic questions to expect from the interviewer.

All he could think about during the explanations was what Marc’s reaction would be. What he would say to even more attention being drawn to them. The possibility of coming out at all seemed to be in the very far future for Marc, but would that be affected by Keegan’s confidence with himself?

By the time the specifics had been gone through and Mario had confirmed timeframes, Keegan had half wrinkled all the papers with his tense hands. He took in a deep breath before standing up and giving Mario a nod.

“I’m excited. Thank you.”

The walk to the door was interrupted by the legendary man clearing his throat. Keegan whipped around with an enthusiasm he usually saved for the ice. His first reaction was to offer a handshake.

“No, no.” Mario practically scoffed. “Sit down for a second.”

He sat back down without thinking.

“I know how important this is. I will never take it for granted.” He motioned to the universe, as if it had gifted humans the ability to celebrate gay pride. “I remember what it was like for some of the guys back then. This was never a possibility. So, we will support you and anyone in the community as much as we can.”

“That means a lot.” Keegan’s voice was incredibly raw. It was embarrassing. “Thank you.”

“Thank you for being so open.” Mario glanced over to the portrait of him and his captains. “You are the future for so many people. Remember that.”

Keegan opened his mouth, but Mario lifted a finger to stop him.

“Your life is worth feeling confidant about.”

By the time he closed the door to the office, he felt as if the entire world had shifted. The possibilities for his future were endless, and there was an entire franchise that had his back.

He reached for Marc as soon as he came into view, pulling him tight to his body. Keegan’s fingernails dug into his back in hopes that he could hold onto the feeling in his chest.

Justin’s face came into focus behind Marc. Keegan pulled away before anything seemed suspicious, although the look on Marc’s face could’ve given away anything.

“Do I get a hug like that?”

---

OCTOBER 25

PENGUINS @ NEW YORK RANGERS

Three games. It was a good streak to have.

The team had arrived in New York with a clear mindset, and the hopes that they would continue to do everything right. A longer streak would not only be good for their standing, but for their confidence.

There were some things that a W couldn’t fix for Sid, though.

He and Geno had continued their immature game of ignoring each other throughout the week, and the lack of communication had allowed their game to plummet. Sid’s point streak had ended, Geno’s game was full of hits rather than goals. The only promise that night was the fact that Keegan would be joining them for a trial run on the first line. The kid was on a roll.

As soon as they got to the hotel, Sid’s patience was tested. His key card opened to a room full of Geno’s things; clothes and personal products already strewn across the room within the first half an hour of them arriving. He had been in the shower, so Sid threw his things on the bed and left to interrogate the team. Nobody told him anything, of course, but someone mentioned that Flower had orchestrated a complicated room-trading spree to force him to be roommates with the culprit of his grumpiness.

Instead of confronting his problems head on, Sid went for a walk until they had to leave to the arena.

That was how he ended up in such a bad mood during warmups. Keegan and Phil tried their best to make him laugh, which ended in a pity-smile to make them leave the captain alone. By the time Tanger had decided to join him in some stretching, Sid was about to just skate off and leave the arena.

“Stop this high school shit.”

Sid raised his brows at Kris. He used his stick to push the other man further away from him. “What?”

“I don’t know what’s going on, but stop that shit, man.” His voice was annoyingly casual. “Get out of it.”

Sid blinked at him. Kris had always been upfront, but he seemed almost annoyed at Sid’s problems. Even if he had no idea why they were acting that way, Kris’s expression still made him feel embarrassed.

“Okay,” he said, feeling a little measly next to the other man. “Fine.”

Geno was at the bench already. The strobe lights and fog gave Sid’s skate up to him incredibly ominous. The music pumped through his head.

As soon as he was within talking distance, Geno spun around for his last lap. Sid’s head hit his chest at full speed, almost knocking them both down in the process. He waved his arms, quite literally like a penguin, to keep himself upright.

“So, hit me now?” Geno frowned down at him. His arm was outstretched in case Sid fully toppled over.

“I didn’t mean to,” Sid mumbled. It was too quiet, and the taller man leaned down until his ear was at Sid’s lips. “I said I didn’t mean to.”

“Avoid talking all week, now run in as joke?”

“For fuck’s… I said it was an accident!” Overcome with his frustration, Sid raised his arms slightly. He cringed when he realized how loud he was speaking and motioned for Geno to skate with him. They moved arm-to-arm, completely in sync. “This is why this shit happens. How am I supposed to talk to you when you focus on the bad shit?”

“I’m focus on bad shit? You not talk for week. Leave me alone in room.”

They turned the corner, and Geno gained some speed to move in front of him. He shook his head as he went back to the bench.

“I’m trying to apologize to you,” Sid muttered.

His longing for the game to be over already was overwhelming. He wanted to curl up in his bed and pretend that he hadn’t been acting like a three-year-old for too long.

In his defense, it was his first relationship. His first relationship with someone engaged to someone else.

“I didn’t want to hear you talking to her,” he mumbled again. Geno’s nightly phone check-ins with his fiancé always tore apart Sid’s heart, but he would be caught dead before he admitted it with those words.

“Not talk to Anna while with you.” Geno spoke a little too loud, and Keegan and Max looked over from their place behind the boards. He leaned against the boards, foot outstretched. “I not do that to you.”

“Why not?”

Geno frowned. “I’m think you apologize to me.”

His feelings were all over the place. There was no way he could say what he needed to in such a public space. The bench was starting to fill up, their time counting down too fast.

“I… I did apologize. You just didn’t listen.”

Geno huffed as he got onto the bench. He remained standing up, towering over Sid as he leaned over. His frown was menacing. Sid’s stomach turned; that must have been how all his opponents felt.

“Sid, I’m… Сколько я должен сделать для тебя, прежде чем ты поймешь, что я люблю тебя, а не ее?”*

The horn sounded, the sound of the game starting. Dan gave Sid a look that told him to get off the ice. His skates seemed to be weighted down. The sheer emotion in Geno’s voice was moving, but he had no idea what he had said.

Sergei, on the other hand, seemed to have almost choked on his mouthguard.

---

“Jesus, I swear I turned this off before I…”

“It was going off before we even got in here. Must be an emergency.” Justin sounded worried as he looked over at Keegan’s locker. “Answer it. I’ll cover for you.”

“I don’t know if you really have to cover for—okay, fine, thank you.” Keegan rolled his eyes at Justin’s frantic hand-waving. He pulled his phone out. Multiple calls and even more texts from Kevin. “They’re just texts. I’ll be quick.”

His skates made an annoying clicking noise as he went out into the hallway. A camera guy gave him an excited look before realizing their vibes were completely different. He turned away, shooting B-roll of the logos on the walls.

Kevin’s messages took some deciphering, but Keegan eventually got the hint. It was Xavier, something about an inevitable impending doom that could leave him severely hurt, mentally and physically. He’d been showing up to the rink completely out of it; none of the coaches wanted to deal with it because he was still one of the better players, Kevin guessed. Some more warnings to expect frequent calls from him.

The last thing Keegan wanted to focus on was taking care of his ex-partner while in the middle of a game. He shouldn’t have even checked his phone to begin with. He was angry with Kevin for texting and even angrier with himself for being involved in Xavier’s wellbeing in the first place.

With a long sigh, he held the power button until his phone screen went black. He took a minute to stare at the extremely white wall in front of him. Images of Xavier’s smile, something that was more akin to a wolf baring its teeth than a feeling of joy, flashed through his mind.

Justin gave him a curious look as he locked his phone back up. Keegan smiled back.

---

Something was wrong.

Something always went wrong during their games that season, but Keegan was standing out above the rest. Marc had a front seat view from his place at the end of the ice for the other man’s questionable playing early in the third.

He was all over the place. It was obvious that his mind was on everything but the game in front of him, thanks to multiple moments where he stumbled to catch up to the puck. It would’ve been comical had it been anyone else.

The puck remained around center ice for longer than Marc would’ve liked, forcing him to bounce in place to stay warm. The crowd started a chant that he couldn’t understand but probably had something to do with how antsy they also were.

Finally, Sid barrelled past the group at center and headed toward the net. He swerved effortlessly around the defenceman’s swinging stick. Marc held his breath as Sid got into place for the shot. His stick flexed, letting go something that would’ve made Marc cringe had it been directed at him. Sadly, it bounced off the top post into the corner.

That was when Keegan took charge. His size came as an advantage as he swooped into the scrum in the corner, doing his signature move to attempt to get the puck out and onto a Penguins’ stick. Sid called something, and Keegan replied before moving backward into a position in front of the net. He wasn’t looking where he was going, but that shouldn’t have been an issue.

The Rangers’ defence charged toward him, attempting to beat him to the puck that Sid had knocked toward Keegan. They knocked into each other, and the Ranger ended up underneath Keegan in a heap. The ref blew the whistle, and Marc could no longer see what was happening.

He skated closer to the center line without thinking. Both the benches were leaning forward, mouths agape as they tried to figure out what had happened. Marc used tapped his stick against the ice anxiously.

The crowd dissipated slightly as the medic ran over. All Marc could focus on was the ice that had been stained blood red, and the player holding his face in his hands. He started leaning down to place his things on the ice before realizing how suspicious that would look.

Keegan seemed to be checking himself out for any injuries, shaking his head at the ref in response to a question. The arena was eerily quiet. Marc’s breathing echoed through his mask.

Keegan looked over to the body curled up on the ice and leaned in slightly, just enough to ask a question or check for the source of the bleeding. He was always so caring and cautious; Marc was sure he was apologizing profusely to the other player.

As soon as he’d gotten close enough to say something, another Ranger moved in. He grabbed the back of Keegan’s jersey and dragged him away from the group. Marc, as panicked as a deer in headlights, resumed skating closer to the incident. He wasn’t sure how he was going to stop what was happening, but someone needed to.

The Ranger’s fist went back before pummeling into Keegan’s face, knocking his head back. The only thing that kept him from hitting the ice was his jersey being held up.

“Hey! What the fuck?” Marc waved at the ref and pointed at Keegan, who was still being hit.

By the time the ref made it over to them, Max and Geno had jumped off the bench and started dragging the player away. Keegan finally laid down on the ice.

The crowd’s chant returned, and their words made Marc’s head pound with anger. Keegan left the ice holding his nose, head down like a puppy that had just gotten yelled at.

Marc stayed in the locker room after everyone had already gotten changed and were waiting for the bus. He was usually left alone after a loss, and that night was no different. It allowed him to replay every bad move, the way the blood had looked on the ice. What it would’ve been like if that had been Keegan. What he would’ve done if that had been Keegan.

He always joked about wanting to fight, but seeing Keegan get dragged around by someone else, someone who thought he was bigger and better and tougher, had made him… see red? Start to understand when Max got that look in his eyes? Things he’d never experienced himself, especially not for another person.

Marc ran his hands over his face. He was still sticky; the idea of showering had escaped his mind by the time he’d gotten to the room.

One of the showers was still running when he walked in. The room was steamy, a gloomy fog settling above his head and making him sweat again. He kicked off his sandals to begin stripping down.

Until he heard his name.

It was quiet enough that he was sure he’d made it up. He looked anyway, though, because he didn’t believe in ghosts.

Keegan had his head tilted to the sky. The water trailed down his bare back, settling for a moment near the bottom before trailing down his ass. With the realization that he was staring at his ass, Marc turned away.

“What are you still doing here?”

Marc hadn’t seen Keegan since he’d left the game early. He shook his head at the idea of the other man standing in the showers for those thirty minutes.

“Do you want me to go?”

“No,” he practically whimpered. “Stay please.”

The image of Keegan’s body was still as shocking as it had been seconds before, but Marc swallowed the mixture of excitement and guilt that was sitting in his throat. He moved forward, continued to stare at Keegan’s back until the water started to hit the hems of his pants.

His back was marked up. They were the type of scars that would’ve made Marc think something had been going on, but they were too old for Keegan to be sleeping with anyone. The memories of fingernails that had so gratefully dug into the young man’s flesh without concern for the future. He didn’t have to ask who the really scars belonged to.

Keegan turned his head to the side when Marc’s hands wrapped around him. His breathing was laboured, bottom lip under his teeth. Silently begging for something that Marc couldn’t give him in that moment, no matter how uncomfortable his pants were getting.

Both their eyes closed.

They held on a little too tightly to each other.

Neither of them said what they wanted to say.

*How much do I have to do for you before you realize I love you and not her?

Chapter Text

Most of the men separated at the airport. Quick waves as they headed back to their houses and wives and children in their fancy cars. No one spoke about what had happened in New York, because to them nothing had happened. It was an accident. Mundane. Freak experience that wouldn’t happen again. The guy had been fine, after all; it wasn’t like Keegan had meant to tromp on his face.

He was still exceptionally numb by the time he set foot in Pittsburgh. The blood and the anger had set up a tent in his brain and wasn’t coming out anytime soon. He craved the warmth of a glass of whiskey and settled on a cup of tea from the airport’s coffee shop.

A body came up to him, less than quiet, by the time many of the other guys had left. Marc gave a tentative wave before accepting that Keegan was fine with a hand on his shoulder.

“Living in the airport now?”

Keegan could only make a humming noise in acknowledgement of his joke. His head was pounding, the air pressure from the flight home had made his already swollen face more swollen, and even his bones felt like they were on fire. He had been hit with the force of brick.

“Tea’s good?”

The heat in his stomach was reminiscent of the feeling of Marc’s arms around him. His clothes had stuck to Keegan’s back, but neither of them had moved for what felt like hours. Nothing but the noise of their breathing and water splashing against the tiled floor.

“Do you have a ride home?”

It was a stupid question. He didn’t have a fancy car and had yet to remember which cab company was the most trustworthy. Keegan shook his head.

“Can I come over?”

“Please.”

Their fingers no longer hesitated to wrap around each other. They were locked in an embrace that set Keegan’s face, neck, chest on fire in the most satisfying way. Marc drove confidently with his left hand perched on top of the steering wheel, arm flexing because of course he would do that to Keegan’s heart. The car sped through the streets and Keegan dared to roll his window down so that the cold air hit his face.

He couldn’t get his key out fast enough. His fingers fumbled with the zipper on his duffle before Marc reached out and unzipped it for him.

“Steady hands on the ice,” he commented with a shake of his head as he unlocked the door. Keegan took it as a compliment.

The light in the kitchen was still on, giving the living room a warm glow. Keegan’s duffle made an annoying scratching noise on the hardwood as he set it down.

“We have time for a movie.”

“Yeah, that would be good.”

The mood was strangely domestic; they had practiced the routine of setting up the TV, boiling water for tea and coffee, settling down under their own separate blankets on their own separate sides. That time, though, there was only one blanket. Their thighs touched and it wasn’t an accident. Marc’s arm rested behind Keegan’s head and it felt natural.

The choice of movie was less than comforting; a gruesome horror movie with an amazing and colourful set design, was still a gruesome movie. Keegan cringed as a soldier cut into his colleague’s stomach.

“Why this?”

“I didn’t know it was… this.” Keegan chuckled. “At least I didn’t do that to the poor guy.”

He looked back at Marc, whose face had suddenly gotten very serious.

“It was an accident. Everyone knows that.”

“I know.”

“Head wounds bleed more, right? He only needed a few stiches.”

“I just—I don’t like seeing people hurt.” Keegan used his free hand to motion for Marc’s. “I’m not happy when I have to do that to people.”

“You don’t have to.” His voice was soft as he rubbed the tip of his finger along Keegan’s palm.

“I did have to. It was necessary when I first got there, proof that I could… do what had to be done.” Keegan stopped the movie as a mutated bear dragged away one of the women. “I don’t like blood, though. I don’t like breaking my hand every three games. You know, that’s not what it’s about.”

“I’ve only fought in the minors.” Marc gave him a gentle smile. “Always wanted to here, though.”

“It’s weird when there’s an agreement. Like, all the passion is taken out of it, and its just these two people hitting each other. Its their job. And then afterward you laugh, and you shake it off and you do it again the next night.” His mind jumped back to Rick’s smiling face during one of his last practices. “And you ignore how much it hurts and how many prescriptions you have because you get to be a part of the game. You make people cheer in your own way.”

“It’s always been that way.”

Keegan shrugged. He leaned away to turn on one of his new lamps that he’d placed beside on the floor beside the couch. “It sucks, though. Might as well have taken up wrestling.”

Marc set his coffee cup on the table. The clinging noise echoed through the house, and his face suddenly lit up.

“You have a speaker?”

Keegan nodded slowly and pointed to the kitchen. Marc pulled his phone out of his pocket. With no words, he got up from the couch and plugged it in. The opening chords of one of Keegan’s favourite rock songs played through the house.

“I need a smile. A real one.” Marc shimmied back over to the couch, hands reaching out to Keegan’s blanket-covered body. “Come on.”

“You do not get to see me dance. We are not there yet,” Keegan managed to get out between laughing at Marc’s moves. “Just because you’re doing this does not mean I have to.”

Marc simply motioned for him to get up.

“If I start dancing there’s no going back. It’s a side of me you can’t unsee.”

“Get off the fucking couch,” Marc called over the music.

With one sharp exhale, Keegan was off the couch and in Marc’s arms, swaying slightly offbeat to a song that certainly wasn’t meant to be danced to. The muscles in his chest flexed against Keegan’s as he picked the smaller man up to twirl him around. He dangled his legs over the floor as if he was a child.

They flicked on the lights as they moved through the house; every extra bedroom and strange open concept space that was out of place in the half-renovated building was visited by their terribly dance moves. Many of the rooms had bare bulbs, giving their dance an extra spotlight. His entire body floated effortlessly as each new song played.

The guest bedroom on the far right still had a clawfoot bathtub. Marc ooo’d and aww’d his way toward it, running his finger along the edge.

“C'est magnifique.”

“That was very gay of you.” Keegan joined him at the side of the tub. They both looked down at it as if it was something more than ceramic.

“French is gay?”

“No. You just called my tub magnifique.”

“So, I can’t enjoy furniture?”

Keegan knocked his shoulder against Marc. “I haven’t tried it out yet.”

The water in the tub was a little too cold, and there were definitely too many bubbles, but the way Marc’s shoulders looked while wet was enough inspiration for Keegan to try and squeeze into the bath with him. Water splashed over the side as he squished in between Marc’s legs and leaned back.

“This is nice,” Keegan sighed. He let his eyes close for a moment. “I’ll have to send the old owners a gift basket.”

“You make millions and all you send is a gift basket?”

“A car, then.”

Marc’s laugh made Keegan’s body bounce slightly, which started a giggling frenzy between the two that lasted far too long.

It didn’t take much effort for Keegan to turn around. Although a little uncomfortable, it was worth it as soon as their lips met. Marc’s hips bucked up and he let out a short moan before realizing where he was and what they were doing.

“No.”

“Hmm?” Marc leaned his head back slightly, hands still locked in Keegan’s hair.

“No. I’m sorry, I can’t.” He scooted backward. More water splashed up. “I’m not—”

“Don’t apologize.”

“I wasn’t trying to lead you on.”

“I know.”

“It’s just—”

“Keegan.”

They watched each other. Goosebumps were sprouting along Keegan’s arms.

“Thank you for letting me know.” Marc pushed his hair out of his face. It was devastating how beautiful he was.

“Thank you for stopping.”

Eyes were glued on each other, unsure. Hesitant once again.

“It’s getting kind of cold,” Keegan offered into the silence.

“One of your guestrooms has a skylight.”

“Yeah.”

“We can lay down in there.”

Marc, wrapped in a towel and still dripping some bubbles, ran down the stairs to turn off the music. Keegan spent that time staring at himself in the mirror. It was the first time he didn’t recoil from the sight of his naked body.

The mattress was a lot easier to carry with two people, and the addition of the living room lamp made the empty room a lot less daunting. Only the moon was visible through the window, but they didn’t care. All their attention was on the way their bodies had intertwined, the way their eyes looked in the dim light surrounding them.

---

“Stew!”

“Jesus fuck—what the fuck are you doing?”

Max waved his hand at Keegan as he nonchalantly took the shower head beside him. “Don’t be ashamed, I’ve seen it all.”

The sentence only creeped Keegan out more, but he accepted that there was no harm meant. The only thing he could do was turn away slightly to keep some semblance of privacy.

“What are you doing?”

“I just wanted to say hi. See what’s up. Ask how your night with… you know, went.”

Keegan shut his eyes in hopes that the world would explode.

“Listen, I’ve seen and heard him go through much worse things than some dicks in—”

“Okay! Thanks for checking in!” Keegan reached for the shampoo, head still turned away from Max’s shameless nudity. “Can we just not speak to each other for another, like, half hour?”

“Popular spot.” Kris’s voice made Keegan grimace. Thankfully, he didn’t choose to stand with Max.

The situation was promptly made worse by the inclusion of three more of the guys, all in varying degrees of cleanliness. Rusty and Phil joked by the sinks, and some unknown voices echoed through from the other showers.

Keegan had no problem being around his teammates. A large quantity of the sport seemed to involve half naked men prancing around a locker room. However, there had always been unspoken rules; he was always left along when it came to some of the more personal sides of personal hygiene. At that point, though, he was starting to think that those rules had never been unspoken and that Pittsburgh’s management weren’t afraid of whatever Vancouver had been. Maybe the group just wanted him to get comfortable before invading his personal space like everyone else.

The quiet showers quickly became abuzz with the white noise of conversation. Keegan put his head under the stream of water until all he could hear was his own thoughts.

A tap on his shoulder brought him back up.

“How about you, kid?”

“How about my what?”

“How’s the love life in Stew Mansion?”

“What does that even… It’s fine. Nothing insane.” He could tell that he was flushed a bright pink, and not from the warmth of the shower. “Things are fine.”

Max raised his eyebrows. “That’s all?”

Keegan didn’t need to look up to know that the rest of the men’s silence was from curiosity. He had yet to involve himself in much of the locker room talk, especially when it had to do with sex.

“You can tell us, man. No judgements,” Rusty called from where he was shaving.

“No, I just… there’s not a lot to say.”

“Who is he?”

“Um—”

“Does he play hockey? That’s what you’re into, right?”

“I mean, I don’t only date people who play hockey.”

“Oh, so you’re dating?” Max raised his voice in excitement.

“I didn’t really ask—I think so? I don’t know.”

“Get to the good stuff then.” A voice that Keegan couldn’t place.

He eyed the towels, which seemed much too far away at that moment. Flashbacks of his first time on the men’s team came swirling back; the feeling of standing out in the worst way possible. His eyes burned slightly at the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to escape the conversation.

Max had noticed that something was off and cleared his throat. “What about you, Tanger? Tu as eu quelque chose de bien dernièrement?”

“Rien que je voudrais partager avec vous.”

“I’m more curious about Stew.”

“Come on, guys.” Max turned off his showerhead, walking over to the towels. He wrapped one around himself before hanging one closer to Keegan.

“I want to wait with him.” Keegan’s honest answer surprised even himself. The room went quiet again as everyone seemed to think it over.

“That’s fair,” Rusty said.

“Why would you do that?” Kris chuckled as he joined Max by the mirrors. “Never did before.”

“Dude. Shut the fuck up.”

“I’m not ready.”

Another silence paired with some grunts of understanding. Keegan chose that moment to cover himself up as he exited the showers. He stood beside Max and stared into the mirror.

“The poor guy probably hasn’t had sex in a long time,” Max muttered. Keegan gave him a disgusted look through the mirror. “What?”

“Does that matter?”

“Yeah.” Rusty smacked the back of Max’s head playfully. “Don’t pressure the guy.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m not pressuring anything!”

“Toxic masculinity,” Rusty scoffed. “It’s all the rage these days. I’m sick of it.”

“I would argue that Max is the opposite of toxically masculine.”

“That’s really not okay to say—”

“How do you… do it, anyway? Like, with guys?”

“Rusty. What the fuck?”

“Yeah, that’s really really not okay to say.”

Keegan burst out laughing at Rusty’s shocked expression. It was obvious that the rest of them had been thinking the same thing, and the poor guy had been the only one with enough balls to ask. He reached over to touch his shoulder gently.

“It’s okay, really.”

“So… how do you?”

He took a deep breath. “Untraditionally.”

“Sounds more exciting than whatever Tanger’s doing.”

---

The team Halloween party had snuck up on Marc. His mind had been focused on… other activities. Like the way Keegan’s chest looked as he lifted his bodyweight right in front of the poor man. Or how Keegan thought Marc couldn’t see him looking when he lifted his own weights. How his eyes didn’t fall on anyone else, even though half the team looked better with their shirts off than Marc did. How hard it was to finish any workout without wanting to grab his shirt and drag him anywhere remotely private—

“You keep making eyes at the poor kid and he’ll think you’re in love with him.”

Marc fumbled with his dumbbell, almost dropping it on his foot. Phil raised his eyebrows. His mouth was pulled into a half-smile.

“I was looking in the mirror.”

Phil glanced back at Keegan, who was definitely not in the direction of the mirrors. “Seriously, though. Heart eyes.”

“Fuck off.”

Phil shrugged. His expression was putting Marc into minor cardiac arrest. “What’s your costume? Or is it, like, a couple’s thing?”

“What?”

“You’re bringing someone. Talbo said you were.”

Marc groaned, setting down his weights. Halloween happened to fall on a two-day streak of no games, which meant there was no excuse for him not showing up. His invitation to Keegan over the phone the night before had been less of an offer for them to go together and more of an excuse to not be alone. Max had already called upon the company of one of Tanger’s favourites.

“I don’t think I’m going with anyone.”

“Should I invite my sister?” Phil wrapped his arm around him. “She likes you.”

A snort of laughter made Phil pull away. “No. I don’t think she’s my type.”

The smile on Phil’s face told Marc that the joke was on him, though. With some finger guns and a wink, the older man had turned the corner into the showers, leaving Marc to stress out about costumes and his secret boyfriend.

That was why, at the actual party, Marc avoided Keegan altogether. It was safer than letting anyone believe that there was something to believe.

Max pushed a beer toward his elbow. “I haven’t been here in years.”

“When would you have come here?”

“Tanger brought me once.”

The ‘entertainment’ room seemed a little too gaudy, loud and terribly warm with the amount of bodies that had been squeezed in. Marc wasn’t even sure whose house it was; his mind had been on the fact Keegan had chosen to cab over instead of getting a ride with them. Probably a smart move, anyway. Max would end up getting too drunk to drive and Marc’s lack of knowledge about driving stick would mean they’d have to lay on the floor all night.

Phil had had a chuckle at their costumes, though, which brightened his spirits. Two rednecks seemed like the straightest couple’s costume Marc could come up with in a four-hour timeframe. He also happened to feel especially confident in his red and black flannel.

“Stew said he’s here.” Max went onto his tiptoes, craning his neck in an attempt to see over the crowd. His elbow knocked his beer bottle, and Marc caught it before it spilled over the extravagant rug underneath them. “Should I call him?”

“I’m sure he’ll find us.”

Max turned his head slowly, a frown and a look up and down that made Marc feel two feet tall. “I’m sorry, who’s this cold-hearted man I chose to share a costume with?”

“Must’ve just showed up.” Marc gave him the cheesiest grin he could, even though he didn’t mean it. “We stick out, is what I meant.”

The two looked around the room full of sexy Disney characters and shirtless men bouncing along to headache-inducing bass.

“What do you mean?”

They chuckled to themselves, turning back to the mirror behind the bar. It was much easier to deal with the crowd if it only existed behind them. Max’s phone vibrated along the tabletop.

“He’s calling me.”

Marc raised his hands. Then answer it.

“Buongiorno! Yeah, we’re at the bar. THE BAR. Yeah.” Max rolled his eyes at Marc. “You’ll see us. ‘Kay. Bye.”

His phone slammed against the bar as he set it down, making them both cringe.

“I’m gonna laugh if you broke that.”

Max checked, eyes half-closed. He breathed a sigh of relief at the intact screen. “Safe from your laugh for another day. I have a woman to meet up with. You’ll be good here?”

Marc wanted to scream at him to stay, to buffer the unimaginable sexual tension that was about to take place in a stranger’s terribly decorated home, but he waved his hand at his friend. It was rare for him to look so excited about the concept of another woman. Max bowed at him, thankful as ever, before sinking into the crowd.

It was three beers and what felt like forty Christmas songs later before the familiar hand tattoos crept along the bar toward him like a spider. The man attached to them gave him a gentle nudge. His eyes were red; Marc had a feeling it wasn’t from the cat-eye contacts and heavy eyeliner accentuating his costume.

“Devil?”

“Um… Someone from Alberta?”

Marc chuckled. It was hard to drag his eyes away from the skin that was peeking out of a leather vest. “Close enough, yeah.”

“So, this is how they party in Pittsburgh.” Keegan leaned on him for a moment too long. “Not bad. Pot sucks, though.”

“I thought you were—”

“Don’t worry.” Arms raised, muscles flexing. “I vaped it. Doesn’t count.”

In that moment, Marc could care less how Keegan had gotten intoxicated. All he wanted was to see him dance again. Keegan looked at him like an animal, hungry for something that neither of them could confess out loud.

“You look good in that shirt.”

Then there was a locked bathroom door against his bare back, hands plunging down his chest into his stupid thrift store jeans; practiced movements that left his body on fire until Keegan finally moved to push them down his legs. There were nods, unspoken consensual glances, but Marc still felt slightly relieved when the tension was paused.

“Do you want to stop?” Keegan’s hands rested on his hipbones, in the middle of pulling Marc closer.

His breath was ragged when he answered. “Not at all.”

“Me neither.”

The return to action was an explosion. Marc closed his eyes so tight that he swore he saw new colours.

Keegan’s hand came to a rest, free arm wrapped tightly around Marc’s back to keep him standing.

---

November brought the year’s first snowstorm. It would’ve been beautiful if Geno hadn’t woken up early for practice, only to learn that it was cancelled.

Anna glared at him when he came bounding down the stairs. Her coffee cup was halfway to reaching her mouth, and she unhappily set it down with a clang.

“What?” He stood at the bottom of the stairs, hand still on the railing.

“Don’t do it.”

He opened his mouth and was immediately met with a raised finger, perfectly manicured. She motioned for him to come to the table. There wasn’t much choice.

“Stay with me. Watch the snow, maybe listen to some music.” Her hand reached out to his. “It’s not safe to go out. You’ll see him tomorrow, I’m sure.”

“I’ll be fine, I promise. I got four-wheel drive for a reason.”

She licked her lips. Nails tapped against the marble table, a ferocious lack of patience turned into a tick that would always drive Geno crazy and make him smile at the same time.

“Can’t you stay? All I’m asking for is one day.” Anna leaned back in her seat. Her coffee cup had chipped slightly from hitting the marble, and Geno picked at the missing piece of ceramic. “Like before, remember? Snowstorms when we first got here. Movie nights and wine and—”

“Yeah.” He scraped the ceramic against the pad of his thumb. “It’s not like that anymore. I have Sid.”

“I have you.”

“You have the WAGs. You have friends. You’re not trapped in the house.”

Anna gave him a sad smile. “I want my own Sid.” She hesitantly slid the keys to Geno’s side of the table.

He didn’t have enough energy to dwell on Anna’s emotions. She’d told him for years that all she’d wanted was a ring on her finger, someone who could provide for her while she lived the life that she knew she deserved. Geno didn’t see anything wrong with that, as long as he could live his own life. Being able to live with one of his best friends had been a blessing.

All he wanted to focus on in that moment was explaining himself to Sid. And trying not to crash the car on the way there.

The ten-minute trip became thirty minutes with Geno’s grandpa-esque driving. He spent the entire time tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. By the time he’d gotten to Sid’s, his arms hurt from tensing and his heart was hammering in his chest.

The door swung open as he started tromping up the stairs. Sid’s hair was sticking up, how it always did when he had just rolled out of bed, and he squinted against the bright snow. Geno’s first instinct was to reach out toward him, an angel backlit so beautifully from the large windows in his living room.

The door shut as soon as he had lifted his hand.

Although shocking, it still wasn’t the worst thing he could’ve done. Geno could manage the feeling of rejection as long as no words were spoken. He trekked back down the stairs at a speed that wasn’t optimal for staying upright, which of course landed him in a small snow pile inches from his car door.

“G? Did you fall down the stairs?”

Geno turned his head so quickly that it could’ve just spun off his body completely. The angel glided down the stairs with ease, hands tucked deeply into the comically large jacket that Geno had gifted him for their first Christmas together. It was worn, raggedy along the edges with some down sticking out of the sleeves. He was still clutching it like he had the first time.

“Is fine. Snow catch me.”

Sid chuckled and shook his head. He seemed seven feet tall from where he was standing.

“I’m think you not want to talk,” Geno confessed. He looked down at his hands, buried deep into the snowbank, and thanked his past self for putting on gloves. “Head home.”

“I was just having a nap. I didn’t know it had snowed so much.” Sid looked around the yard with the excitement of a kid on Christmas. “It’s gorgeous.”

“Like you.”

Sid rolled his eyes and offered a hand to him. Geno took it gratefully; his ass was starting to freeze.

“Must’ve been a bad drive.”

“Not bad. Worth it, see your face.”

They shared a glance, something Geno had so desperately needed after the days that they’d had. He took a deep breath to collect his thoughts, but Sid’s sudden smile stopped him in his tracks.

“I was gonna make some hot chocolate.”

“Would be great.”

“I also, uh… made some cookies. Stress-baking.”

Geno let out a laugh. Sid’s baking habit was something he supported wholeheartedly, especially when given the other option of the captain’s months of obsessing over salads and pasta. Although the other man was exceptionally ashamed of his confectionaries, Geno found it incredibly endearing.

The kitchen was much warmer than sitting in the snow, and Geno gratefully cozied up in one of the padded dining chairs as Sid served him a plate of cookies and a steaming hot mug. He settled into his own chair across the wooden table.

It was much easier to shove cookies in his mouth than make any sort of small talk, so he kept his eyes glued on the chocolate chips that had melted on his fingers. Sid sipped his cocoa in silence until the plate was empty, then sighed.

“Why did you come all the way out here?”

“Is quick drive.”

“G.” Sid set his mug down. Geno cringed, expecting the all-too-familiar clang of ceramic on marble. Instead he was met with a soft thunk. “I’m sorry about how I’ve been acting. I’m just… I’m not ready. You’ve known that for awhile. And with making sure Keegan is settled and whatever’s going on with him and Marc, and Anna—”

“I’m ask why you think I don’t love you. Anna, love her, not in same way as you. Never like you.”

Sid stared at him, mouth agape.

“Sergei hear. Think is good for us, to be together. Happy.” Geno looked away. It was easier to talk to the grains in the wood. “Say not to tell anyone, though. Can’t.”

“Oh.”

“Want us to be happy forever, any way we can. I wish we in different…” He groaned at the language barrier and motioned to the ceiling, hoping Sid would understand what he meant. “Different world, so we can be open.”

“I know.”

“No.” Geno looked up. His hands were balled up into fists on either side of his plate; the light bounced off Sid’s overly clean kitchen sink and made him frown. “You not understand what is like to think about not going home because of this. Family, friends, arrested or worse because I am me. Can never go home.”

He was annoyed at how much his voice was shaking, how easily Sid continued to look at him.

“Half hockey fans call you already.”

“And you think that doesn’t hurt me? To hear that shit?” Sid leaned forward quick enough to make Geno flinch slightly. “Look, I’m not mad, it’s just—”

“Hurts. Is not enough to die!” Geno raised his voice, hands slamming against the table hard enough to knock over his empty mug. He immediately grabbed it, making sure nothing had broken. It was Sid’s favourite set.

Sid’s eyes went from the mug he was gripping to his lips and back to the table. They were watering slightly, and he rubbed the back of his hand against his eye to keep any tears from falling. Geno was sure he looked the same.

“I don’t want us to be like this,” he finally said. He reached out to grab the mug from Geno, setting it down beside his own. “I don’t want to be upset with you anymore.”

Geno nodded.

“I can’t be upset with you anyway, because it’s not your fault that people are assholes.”

“Am cute, too.”

“Yeah,” Sid let out a soft laugh. Music to anyone’s ears. “That helps.”

Neither of them needed to speak to know that they needed to get out of their chairs. They met at the edge of the table, remaining on their own sides, before Geno leaned in just enough for Sid’s head to lean on his chest. He wrapped his arms around Geno.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry, too.”

“I know that whatever happens to me is nothing compared to what you would have to… will have to—”

Geno shushed him, bringing his finger to Sid’s chin and lifting it slightly. Their eyes met, and he swore he fell in love all over again. Their lips met, and everything could be forgotten for awhile. The feeling of Sid’s arms, chest, neck, so full of power that it was overwhelming. How easily he could get lost in the feeling of his wrists under Sid’s hands, pinned down to whatever they’d chosen in the moment.

With heavy breath, Sid glanced down at his own plate.

“Last one.”

“Share?”

Sid nodded. He moved away from Geno’s arms to grab the plate and motioned toward the large window in front of one of his couches. He grabbed a fuzzy blanket on the way, struggling to drape it over Geno’s shoulders with only one hand. They somehow made it to the couch in one piece, given their need to lean in for a kiss every two steps.

The snow drifted down gently, landing gracefully on the wood of Sid’s deck. The few trees that were sprinkled around his backyard looked straight out of a holiday card. Geno’s eyes were stuck on Sid, though. His expression was priceless as he slowly bit into the cookie.

“It reminds me of home.”

Geno had been thinking the same thing.

---

“Why the fuck are you texting me? Can’t you see I’m fucking driving?”

Keegan glanced down at his phone briefly. It hadn’t stopped ringing since he’d started his drive to the rink.

“Stop fucking texting me!”

He was used to snow (living in Canada gave him a bit of experience) but the extent of it had kept him on edge since the moment he’d woken up. The constant messages weren’t helping. He reminded himself to change his ringtone as soon as he got to his destination.

He pulled down a side street and quickly parked. The odds of him being able to pull out by the time he was done were slim, but he turned his e-brake on anyway.

The group chat had exploded with messages from the younger guys about the storm, and a short voicemail from Dan confirmed that things were cancelled until the snow cleared up.

“Fuck.”

Keegan looked in his rearview. The snow had already covered the rental car's tire tracks. He leaned his head on the steering wheel and contemplated living in his car until the summer.

A girl’s laugh pulled him out his slump. A woman, all too familiar, was holding hands with two children. They were probably four at that point. The girl pulled away, dug her hands into the snow just enough to launch some at her brother’s face. He covered his eyes but let out a sharp laugh that rang through Keegan’s head. Every smile shared between them felt like it was tearing out his heart.

The last thing he had needed to see after a harrowing drive across town were the faces of a family he had so happily ruined without thinking of the consequence, having a moment so raw and happy. He closed his eyes.

The last time he had seen Valerie, she’d attempted to take his head off with a pair of skates. He still had no idea why that was any better than him sleeping with her husband. Her eyes were full of anger, and sadness, and something he couldn’t describe. The complete opposite of how she had looked at her children.

When his eyes opened, they were gone.

He tore out of the parking space with a vengeance. The tension he had felt before was replaced with shame, and he wasn’t sure which was worse. The idea of going back to his empty house where the family could haunt him was enough to propel him to Marc and Max’s house.

He almost got into an accident twice. The radio decided that a Justin Bieber Christmas song was a good enough soundtrack.

Max’s first reaction to Keegan shivering on his doorstep was not shock or happiness. A quick wave of his hand and a hectic motion that could only be translated to ‘don’t fucking talk’ were the only warning Keegan got before hearing Kris’s voice in the living room. Marc raised his eyebrows and smiled, patting the couch. His arm found its way around Keegan’s shoulders easily.

Max had grabbed a pen and was furiously attempting to translate what Kris was saying.

Girlfriend almost caught him with two girls
Forgot he gave her a key

Keegan held back a laugh. Marc said something that garnered an angry response.

He forgot because it was an emotional moment

“He can have those?” Keegan whispered.

Apparently
---

“You said we could stay.”

“Have you even looked outside?”

“Why the fuck would I—for fuck’s sake.”

“I don’t think we should walk in this…”

“Of course, you fucking shouldn’t,” Kris hissed. Why would the weather be in his favour? Nothing else was.

He threw a pair of heels onto the bed, and the girls scrambled to figure out whose shoes they were. The brunette frowned at him.

“Where are mine?”

“Why should I know?”

“You insisted on taking them off with your teeth.”

Kris’s hands found their way into his hair, pulling just enough to wake him up a bit. His heart was beating uncomfortably fast. The urge to jump out the window and jog away from the whole situation almost took over him. Hopefully no one would notice if he hid himself in the bathroom for a couple hours, because that was where he was headed.

The bathroom.

“You know how to clean?”

“Clean what?”

He nodded toward the toilet.

The blonde girl frowned at him. “Yeah, you didn’t pay me for that.”

“I didn’t pay you at all.”

“Yeah, you’re gonna have to pay me.”

The implications of that statement were too much to think about. He reached for one of his dresser drawers, pulling out a wad of ones. He grasped the girl’s hand as if it was a chore and slapped the bills into it.

“That’s enough?”

The girl rolled her eyes but finished getting dressed with a less passive aggressive look on her face, allowing him to bound down the stairs at an impressive pace.

“Sorry about that. Had to explain something to my housekeepers.”

Catherine smirked. “Housekeepers?”

“What?” The panicked feeling returned. His voice was a couple pitches higher than before. “Is that weird?”

“No. It’s exactly what I expected.” She laughed to herself.

The breakfast she’d brought was good (it would’ve been a piss off if it wasn’t, given how much effort Kris had had to put in that morning) and her company was surprisingly uplifting. The girls could be heard giggling above them, and Kris started to wonder if they’d found his secret drawer. That was the last thing he needed getting out.

“They’re cute?”

“What?”

“The housekeepers. Are they cute?”

It was a test. There was no way she was serious.

“I’ve never really looked.”

“You like the blonde one more.”

Her smile brought a mixture of anxiety and horniness that he hadn’t felt since middle school. Kris scratched his neck.

“How did you…”

Another laugh. “Just a guess.”

---

“So, let me get this straight.”

Marc shook his head frantically at Keegan, but it was too late. Kris had already started protesting in a mixture of French and English.

“You are no better than I am? You rawdog chicks left and right and you get a free pass?”

“Don't…” Max warned.

“You blatantly refuse to believe that the one thing you hate about me is something that you do yourself.”

“I don’t know if they had families. God dammit, Flower, you said you wouldn’t put me on speaker.”

“How else would Talbo hear?”

“Are you fucking serious?”

“So, you can get on my ass for sleeping with someone who chose to cheat on their family, yet you can choose to cheat on your girlfriend?”

“It did sound like she was okay with it,” Max muttered.

“I’m saying that I’ve had a change of heart. It only happened a couple times.”

Keegan snorted. He grabbed the phone from Marc’s hand, who let it go easily. “I’ve heard you talk about two threesomes this week alone!”

“An impressive feat.”

“Don’t encourage him.” Keegan smacked Max’s arm. “Where was my big award after I fucked those Russian dudes at the All Stars?”

“That was you?” Marc raised his eyebrows. “I thought that was a rumour.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know.”

“You want an award? I’ll bring you a fucking award.” Keegan could practically hear Kris rolling his eyes. “Congrats! You took two dicks at once!”

“Can we stop talking about this?”

“Does that make you uncomfortable, Flower?” Max gave him a sly smile. “You don’t like the thought of Keegan taking two dicks at once?”

"Who said I was taking?”

Kris choked out a laugh. “Listen, I’d love to know more, truly. My sister’s here, I gotta run. Tell me tomorrow.”

Keegan slowly handed Marc’s phone back to him. The trio sat in silence for a moment, taking in what had just been said. Keegan’s face heated up at the idea of what Marc could be imagining.

“That was a lot of information.”

“I wonder if the housekeepers are still there.” Keegan leaned back on the couch, looking out the window. “They probably snuck off into the snowstorm. Would be better than cleaning whatever’s in that bathroom.”

Marc cringed. “Don’t put that image in my head.”

Max stared at the two of them for longer than necessary. Keegan swallowed the very large frog that had made its home in his throat. The other man’s eyes bore into his forehead with a fierceness that was usually only reserved for the ice. Marc was oblivious to whatever their friend’s pupils were trying to tell him.

The Christmas lights that Max had prematurely hung in October made multicoloured lights bounce around the room, accentuating the orange wall in front of him.

“I guess I won’t… annoy you guys any longer.”

The sentence was a surprise, given the intensity of Max’s gaze. He opened his mouth to protest, but the other man had already walked in and out of the kitchen with a box of cereal before Keegan could say anything. His footsteps tromped up the stairs and a door shut carefully.

“What was that?”

Marc’s attempt at a nonchalant shrug wasn’t believable. Keegan flicked his shoulder.

“Tell me.”

“I might’ve mentioned something about…” He shuffled in his seat. “About how he’s always around.”

“Everyone’s always around,” Keegan laughed. “You gave up on privacy when you moved in with him.”

“No. When we’re together.”

“Oh.”

Memories of when he was thirteen, sitting across from a prepubescent boy on his parent’s couch who was trying to get across to Little Keegan that all he wanted in that moment was to fuck, polluted his brain. The awkward tension, insecure body contact, urge to run away and call his mom.

He wasn’t sure why he was so uncomfortable. They had covered a lot of ground in their short time together, and Marc had never shown any signs that he could be scared off. There was no reason for the fight or flight feeling that was bubbling up his chest.

Keegan chose a polite smile over sharing any of that, leaning into Marc’s embrace. The feeling of his arms grounded Keegan slightly, although he still felt on edge.

There was a back and forth of pulling away and giving in. A kiss on his cheekbone, jawline, neck was fine, but as soon as it got down to his collarbone he sat back. A hand on his thigh was alright as long as it didn’t travel upward, which it began to do fairly quickly into their movie. A whispered comment was cute until he could feel the breath on his ear.

Keegan bolted upright from his seat, hands rubbing together anxiously. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s… okay?” Marc, confused and looking a little scared, began to stand up as well until Keegan motioned for him to stay seated. “Are you okay?”

“I have to, um, go for a second.”

Keegan didn’t wait for a response, rushing to the bathroom. He shut the door a little too loudly.

He splashed his water on his face, because that’s what people did in the movies. It helped nothing but did get his favourite olive green shirt wet. His hands found a place on either side of the sink, and his knees buckled slightly at the realization he was finally alone.

Why did all men seem to think a moment alone meant sex? Why did all men, whether with a woman or a man or neither or both, feel the need to bring something so profoundly… intimate into the picture? Why couldn’t Keegan breathe?

Xavier’s hands would always grab on to him as if he was a lifejacket, clung so desperately to jackets, shirts, hair, skin until Keegan would finally give in and sink down into nothingness with him. Until they couldn’t tell the difference between each other’s limbs anymore, until his fingerprints became Keegan’s fingerprints. There was always screaming and crying and burying his head into a pillow so that everything could remain black.

Marc wasn’t like that, though. He wouldn’t do that.

Keegan’s grip instinctively went to his chest. He clawed at the skin, which brought him back just enough to look in the mirror. His eyes were panicked, disconnected.

He let out a shaky breath, swallowed heavily, and opened the bathroom door.

The Christmas lights were the first thing he saw. Marc had turned off the rest of the lights; it was cloudy enough that the spectrum of colours was taking over the space. His original movie choice had been changed to a Peanuts Christmas special. His head turned as soon as Keegan’s feet left the bathroom.

“Are you okay?”

“How long was I in there for?” Keegan dodged the question.

“I’m sorry.” Marc smiled gently and patted the couch. Keegan was more than happy to sit in his arms again.

---

“Don’t call me again, Max. I’m serious. I will never forgive you for just—just abandoning me there. Do you know how I scared I was? How I thought you were dead? I wouldn’t have been mad, but then you went and… Anyway. You’re just not the person I thought you were. You’re not as good as I thought you were, as you think you are. If you call me again, I will come forward. I don’t care what they’ll say about me, people deserve to hear what you did. Don’t make me tell people, Max.”

---

“What do you think would actually happen?”

Geno stopped running his fingers along Sid’s arm, which immediately made him regret breaking the silence. He pulled the blanket higher up, suddenly aware of how bare he was in front of his very large window.

“If what?”

Sid shook his head but continued anyway. “If we told people? What could actually happen? Other than the obvious.”

“Best? Worst?”

“Both.”

Geno hummed. Sid allowed himself to close his eyes, the heat of his partner’s chest and their extravagant sex making him tired. He almost didn’t care about what the answer was, as long as he could hear Geno’s voice.

“Best, everyone love us and be happy. Celebrate.”

“That’s a little generic.”

“You are one that ask. You go.”

“Fine.” Sid sat up, taking the blanket with him. Geno yanked enough back to cover up his bottom half. “What if we come out and people stop buying tickets? They just stop showing up because of us? and everyone loses their jobs?”

Geno burst out laughing. “Crazy, Sid. No one lose job.”

He shook his head. It wasn’t funny to him, the reality of the situation hitting him once again. “What if they try to—try to hurt you, or me, or any of the guys—”

“Sid.” Geno’s hand squeezed his thigh. “Best.”

He couldn’t think of anything. His mind had already swung to the extreme, things so extremely out of his control that he gripped onto Geno’s fingers as if he was going to float away.

Luckily, Geno got the hint, and slowly smiled. “What if good thing? We celebrate, lots of food. Parents happy, friends happy, team happy. Have party.”

“And people don’t say terrible things.” The image was working; a utopia with streamers and sparklers at his cabin with all their loved ones. His heartrate slowed.

“Yes.”

“What if we could hold hands in public? Go out alone?”

Geno was smiling ear to ear. “What if nothing change?”

The concept was great in theory. Sid could easily picture them growing old together, a retirement that didn’t involve sharing a deep-rooted secret. They would be remembered for their playing, their leadership, rather than feeling something as ordinary as love.

“Take bet?”

Sid let out a short laugh. “Last time I said yes to that, I had to walk around naked for three hours.”

“Was fun.” Geno pulled him closer to his chest, cuddling Sid so tight that he had to squirm away.

“For you.”

He rolled his eyes before looking out the window. The snow had lightened up, but it had taken over the backyard just enough for the thought of going outside to sound crazy. Sid already longed for the feeling of the taller man’s body hovering over him, making him feel safe and warm below. He would do anything to have that sooner rather than later. Even say yes to one of Geno’s insane bets.

“Okay. What is it?”

The excitement on Geno’s face was already worth it, even before he said a sentence that would somewhat break Sid’s brain.

“We win Cup, we come out.”

Sid would later blame his response on being caught off guard. In truth, he wasn’t sure if he said it because he was sure they would win, or because he secretly thought they wouldn’t. Something in the middle, maybe.

“Let’s do it.”

---

The sound of footsteps made Keegan and Marc pause their game of I-Spy. Marc was frustrated, as they had hit a particularly dramatic part (who knew I-Spy could be so fun?) and was about to tell off his friend for interrupting, but Max’s numb expression made him stop.

“I’m going out. I won’t be back for awhile, make sure you lock the door.”

Keegan frowned, looking for a translation.

“You can stay.”

“I have to go.” Max patted Keegan’s head. “I’ll probably see you tomorrow, kid.”

“Okay…” Keegan raised his chin to look at the man looming behind him. “Have fun.”

Marc waited until he heard the garage open to turn to Keegan. “That was weird, right?”

“He’s probably fine.”

“Yeah, but the snow’s still dangerous…”

“He’s a grown man. If he thought it was dangerous, he wouldn’t go out,” Keegan reassured him, leaning back on the couch. “I spy something delicate.”

“Delicate?”

“Like… fragile. Subtle.”

Marc groaned. “Is there a chance this is not a physical thing?”

“The thing is, in fact, an abstract idea. But something physical has it.”

Marc could only see Keegan’s face every few seconds, when the Christmas lights would flicker in their direction again. He looked peaceful, head rested against the back of the couch and his hands laying on his stomach.

“Do you need a hint?”

“No shit.”

Keegan’s laugh was musical, gorgeous, something Marc realized he would do anything to get. “Fine. You feel it.”

Marc’s grunt of confusion made him sit up. Keegan looked at him while twirling his fingers in Marc’s hair. The sensation was incredibly distracting.

“You feel it for someone.”

“Can feelings be delicate?”

“I don’t know.” Keegan stopped moving. A smile bloomed on his face. “I was trying to impress you by sounding poetic.”

“What’s the answer, then?”

“Your love for Max.”

Marc scoffed. “It’s less than subtle. We would kill for each other.”

Keegan raised his hands in defeat. “Fine. That was a bad one. Let’s play something else.”

They both hummed, going through the catalogue of every bad school game they could think of. Keegan’s head ended up in his lap at some point, leaving Marc with the feeling that he had won back some trust that he had lost earlier in the day.

“Truth or dare?” Marc spoke up, if only to distract himself from how angelic Keegan looked from that angle.

“I hate dares,” Keegan sighed. “The truth part is good, though.”

“Truth or… truth?”

He brought his finger to his chin, pretending to think. “Hmm… truth.”

Marc paused. He hadn’t given himself enough time to think of a deep and personal question that plagued him whenever he was alone.

“What’s your favourite colour?”

“Really?” Keegan’s eyes crinkled with a laugh. “That’s it?”

Marc wanted to admit he’d been wondering it since their night at the café. All he saw was a yellow orb, so bright and striking, but Keegan spoke as if he saw something differently. He quickly nodded a response.

“Um, beige? Earth tones.” Keegan rolled onto his side. Marc’s hand automatically rested on his bicep. “Truth or truth?”

“Truth.”

The Christmas lights flickered, then shut off completely. The TV no longer brought an aimless sound barrier between them. Neither of the men moved.

“Have you ever been in love?”

Before then, he hadn’t felt anything close. Any relationships had been out of necessity, there had never been any sort of unbelievable romantic connection between Marc and another human being. It was hard to imagine anyone bringing him the sort of happiness they talked about in movies. Until that person quite literally laid his head in Marc’s lap and asked him a question that made him rethink every decision he’d made in his life.

“Romantically, no. I don’t think so.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Have you?” He wasn’t sure if he wanted the answer.

“A lot of times. It never lasted, though.”

“I didn’t think it was real when I was a kid,” Marc responded before he could stop himself. “It was always people hurting and lying to each other until they gave up.”

Keegan rolled over again, eyes on Marc’s; a look of grief. “Did your parents split?”

The question caused him to laugh. “No, actually. They’re really happy. I guess I just saw it happen to everyone else. Like Max.”

“Max?” The look of sadness became confusion. “What happened?”

Marc swore to himself. He wasn’t supposed to share that information. They’re emotional pinky-promise on the kitchen floor, Max covered in tears and crumbs of food, had been enough for Marc to remove the failed girlfriend from his memory.

“I’m, ah, not sure, really. Something bad, though. He was in a really rough place.” Marc paused. “Still is, maybe.”

“So, you never dated because your friend fucked something up?” Keegan’s smile didn’t meet his eyes, something to cushion the heaviness of the situation.

“It had nothing to do with him.” He was defensive. “There’s just never been The Person.”

“Yeah.”

“And I’ve never been The Person. Just… a prank. A laugh. I’m okay with that, you know, I like making people smile. But, not enough for love.” He dragged out the word with an unintentional look of disgust. “I stopped looking for that. I can love my job, the fuckfaces on our team, my family.”

“I think someone would be very lucky for you to be their Person. If that means anything.”

“It does.”

Marc stared out the window. The orange wall was illuminated by the sparkling snow. He briefly wondered when the power would come back on so that he could heat up some of their leftovers for dinner. The background noise wouldn’t be terrible, either; the longer their silence went on, the louder their charged energy became.

Finally, Keegan made a clicking noise with his mouth. Marc looked down at him.

“I was always afraid.”

“Of what?”

Keegan scowled at the ceiling. “My brain getting in the way. It’s proved itself to be a bit of a problem in the past.”

His heart stung with a devastating need to protect the man laying on him, as if they were connected in a vital way.

“As soon as something goes well, I have an irresistible urge to fuck it up.”

Marc ran his fingers along Keegan’s cheekbone. “When I feel a lot of something, I make it a joke.”

“I get knots in my chest when someone touches me.”

The sentence was followed by a hum as Marc’s hands made their way up to his forehead, rubbing small circles into the tense muscle. It was an action he’d never felt the need to do before except to himself between rather tough periods on the ice. An action that said he was apologizing on behalf of anyone that had laid hands on Keegan in any other way.

The silence after that was only on Keegan’s part. His eyes had shut completely, and soft snores filled the living room. Marc contemplated sitting there until he woke up but quickly gave up on that as his patience wore thin. It was completely dark at that point, and he longed to lay on his own bed.

After a particularly amusing attempt to carry the other man to his room without waking him up, they were finally side-by-side. Keegan was still out like a light, which gave Marc the chance to watch him without feeling guilty. Their legs met in the middle and Keegan swung his ankle over Marc’s calf. It felt protective, which he enjoyed.

The plan had been to stay awake until Max got home, to check in on him, but their shared breathing and the pitch-black darkness started to become a lullaby.

Marc grabbed Keegan’s hand and closed his eyes.

---

He woke up with a start. Eyes wide, coughing out some fluid that had lodged itself in his throat. The sight was enough to illicit a strong grimace; the smell was even worse, and Xavier covered his nose to keep from coughing up anything else.

The first reactions of anyone that had just woken up in an alley was to check their pockets (no wallet, no phone), look around for any clues (he had blacked out, no memory of the hours before, so that was out), and maybe slam their head against the closest wall to attempt to recharge some brain cells (he had definitely burnt out all of his doing whatever he’d been doing). Xavier was a pro at waking up in terrible situations, but it had never been something so… pitiful.

He wasn’t even sure if he was in Vancouver.

His eyes were crusted together, maybe even frozen judging by how cold he suddenly felt. The outline of where he’d been laying was already filling up with snow. Any longer, and he probably would’ve been dead.

Would that have been a bad thing?

A small group walked by, and Xavier croaked out an inhumane noise that made them walk faster.

The sun was setting. A confusing sight, given most of those ‘I don’t remember anything from the night before’ moments usually involved the opposite. He frowned up at the sky, and some snow went into his nostrils.

Was there a point?

His mind immediately went to his kids; it was about that time of year when Valerie went to visit her brother, with or without Xavier’s hand in hers. They were probably having fun learning how to skate. He’d never bothered to teach them himself. His only job was to purchase the gifts with his multimillion-dollar credit card and pay someone else to wrap them. That year, he was supposed to mail them to Pittsburgh. She had gotten her assistant to email him.

That was the last thing he remembered. Opening a one-line email from a name he didn’t recognize, signed with an inspirational quote in the bottom corner.

He had enough money to hire an assistant.

A huff, breath becoming visible in the air, and he had slumped back to his original position beside his past stomach contents.

What a funny image it would be, for his kids to find their father frozen to death ala The Shining.

---

The doorbell was terribly loud for such a nice neighbourhood, causing Max to jump back slightly as if he’d been electrocuted. The noise had cut through his fog of emotionless decisions.

He’d sworn he’d never go back to that house.

The man that answered was unrecognizable. He still greeted with Max with a warm smile.

"Hi, um, I’m sorry. I didn’t make an appointment.”

The smile nodded in understanding. “That’s fine. Not really a busy night for us.”

“Yeah, I—I bet,” Max stammered as he looked at the snow under his feet. “I wasn’t sure if it was too late.”

“Of course, not.”

The Smile opened the door wider, and Max slunk in like a wet cat. He shrugged his jacket off, which was immediately grabbed by a woman to be hung up on an elegant metal coat rack.

“So, what will it be?”

Soft piano music filled his head. He hadn’t thought that far in advance.

“I’m not totally sure how this works anymore. It’s been awhile,” he confessed.

“That’s fine.”

The music got louder. “Um, there’s a—a woman who works here? Should work here? Is it possible for me to request someone?” His voice drowned out the longer he spoke, shyness taking over at the way the smile nodded along to his every word.

“Unfortunately, I can’t disclose who’s here tonight.”

“Oh. Okay.” Max scratched the back of his head. He suddenly became self-conscious of the beginnings of a bald spot.

“Your accent is amazing,” the woman piped up. “What is that?”

“French.” It sounded more elegant than Quebecois.

“You look familiar,” she carried on.

Max looked at his coat. It wouldn’t be terrible to walk out the door and pretend it had never happened. The Smile chuckled.

“You don’t need to be nervous. Britney is excellent with newcomers.”

Britney. Of course. Max didn’t have the guts to mention he’d been in the house multiple times a year back. Most of the staff had changed, anyway; a high turnover rate in sex work, he gathered.

“Um, yeah. That would be great.”

Britney took his hand, guiding him up the ornate stairs toward a future he was uncertain about. Something felt wrong, though. The Smile faltered slightly when he saw they’d paused halfway up.

“Is everything okay?”

Max cleared his throat. “Are you…?”

The Smile took his free hand, and the couple dragged Max the rest of the way up the stairs.

---

“Okay, scrimmage! Let’s go!”

Dan’s voice rang through Keegan’s head like a fire alarm. He turned to look at the coach in the middle of the ice, radiating power and something a little extra that pissed him off. Things were still tense since that night in the hotel banquet hall, even if Keegan had been given a spot on the first line.

New jerseys were tossed around randomly; Keegan’s bright white replaced with a dark and looming shade of black. He instinctively looked over to where the goalies were joking around at the end of the ice. Marc’s white jersey remained the same. His lips tightened into a straight line as he skated toward his bench.

“You constipated?”

Keegan slowly turned to look at Justin, who had been the only other person to promptly head to the bench. He had called from the defence’s side, an awkward distance to where Keegan sat on the opposite end.

“What the fuck?” Keegan exhaled a laugh through his nose.

“Your face.”

“What does that even… no, I’m fine, Schultzy. Thanks for asking.”

It took twenty-four taps of his stick on the boards until the rest of the black team got in position. Keegan attempted to look less constipated as they did so.

The goal was a fast-paced, playoff style of game. If he didn’t feel like keeling over by the end of the twenty minutes, he hadn’t been playing hard enough. Keegan watched on in anticipation as the men glided back and forth in front of him, only the sound of their skate blades and heavy breathing cutting off the buzz of the lights above them. Marc occasionally called out something heavy on the masculine shit talking every few shots on goal. Phil still managed to get a goal past him within a couple of minutes.

When Keegan pounced onto the ice, the game changed dramatically. He locked eyes with Pascal as soon as he was in swinging distance of the puck and he felt incredibly powerful. His legs heaved under the weight of trying to carry his body from his own end to Marc’s within a few seconds, dodging past his not-teammate-teammates with eyes on the bottom left corner.

Tanger called out to him, because they, for some reason, could never be apart from each other, but he chose not to listen. He had a good shot.

Marc was grinning when he finally let the puck loose.

The rebound landed right in front of the crease, and Keegan dove out to try and knock it in. Tanger’s stick in his side was the only reminder that it wasn’t just the couple on the ice; Kris swore as he lost his balance attempting to not hurt his teammate. Marc had a statement, of course, but Keegan was past trying to listen to it.

“That was fucked,” Kris commented unnecessarily. He leaned against the net for a second before Dan blew his whistle, signaling for them to continue playing. “Let the kid get the goal, yeah?”

Marc shook his head. He tapped Keegan’s ass with his stick, paired with a grin. “Good try.”

Keegan smiled quickly, because he was annoyed. He had no reason to be, it wasn’t a real game and he would never actually have to play against his favourite goalie, but he had wanted the goal more than anything. He wanted his efforts to pay off. The jokes on everyone’s faces were irritating, as if they had expected nothing less from a clumsy kid. As if he wasn’t one of the scoring leaders on the team.

He ignored when he was called back to the bench, choosing to race back to where the puck was bouncing around the center ring. Pascal’s handling with the puck was uncharacteristically weak, which made it exceptionally easy to swoop in and knock him slightly. Pascal staggered toward the boards, catching himself in time, but Keegan had already hit the puck toward Max. He took it gratefully toward the other net.

“On a roll.” Pascal tapped his shoulder, making Keegan pause. “Didn’t hear? No contact.”

“I’m playing the game.”

“Have some fun with it,” the older man joked. “Just for fun.”

“Fun?” Keegan knew his expression was screaming unstable, screaming that he wasn’t ready for Vancouver and wasn’t ready to calm down. “Yeah, I’m having a great time. Laugh at me some more.”

Pascal’s glove grabbed his arm, keeping him from skating away. “Hey, hey, calm down.”

If it were a real game, he’d be tempted to sucker punch the player in front of him. He wanted to prove some sort of dominance, wanted people to laugh with him at how weak the opponents were. If it were a real game, going against the angelic goaltender across the ice wouldn’t have distracted him so much as spurred him on. His teammates would’ve already stepped back and let him do whatever the fuck he wanted, because that was his job. He wouldn’t be on the first line, yet still receiving those glances of hesitancy about his playing.

He skated toward the bench, though. Because it was just a fake game.

The score was tied at the end of twenty minutes. Marc was the only person confident enough to attempt conversation as he grabbed some water. He was also the only person Keegan was fine with looking at.

“What was that?”

He shrugged.

“Duper’s worried. He feels bad.”

That pissed him off more. “Tell him to not be, then. It’s just a fucking game.”

“No one was laughing at you.”

Keegan pretended to fix his visor so that he didn’t have to look at Marc’s freckles anymore. “I don’t know why I said that.”

“Because you believe it.”

“Can you not talk to me right now? Please?” Keegan partially regretted snapping, but he was too far gone to apologize. “Just drink your fucking water, get in the fucking net, try your best to stop my shot.”

Marc pursed his lips. He set down the water bottle with an aggressive thump. Some of the liquid splashed into Keegan’s face, the green tube falling onto the ice. Marc had already skated away by the time Keegan had put it back into its respective spot.

His form after that was anything but weak. As usual, he was a wall; it was more than that, though. Keegan felt like he was in the presence of a god when he watched Marc flick his hand out at the last minute, go into the splits with ease, call out something to the shooter that caused him to falter. Elegant like a ballerina wrapped in barbed wire.

Keegan’s turn felt like the end of the world. Nobody was trying to hide the fact that they were staring, especially the few people that knew about the secret relationship; he was under a spotlight that had been his own doing. His stick felt too long, skates not sharp enough, and his skills nowhere near his direct opponent.

He tried his best to clear his head. The background went dead quiet as he toyed with the puck for a few seconds, a deep breath that sounded like it had gone through a microphone. Marc was already in place, and Keegan gave himself some time to stare at him. Neither of their faces did so much as twitch.

He let go with a burst of energy. The puck was a part of him as soon as he started to move; the distance between him and a goal reduced in such a short amount of time that he felt like he was dreaming. The only thing he could think of was slapping the puck toward the net. A hard hit, as hard as he could, directed toward anything resembling an open chance.

“Fuck yeah, Stew!”

Keegan had stopped just short of the crease. He had a bird’s eye view of the puck in the back of the net. Marc sat inches away from Keegan’s skates.

“This is great,” Max called again.

They looked at each other again. Keegan felt a mixture of sadness for his potential partner, and pride in himself. Something unfamiliar.

“Good try,” he whispered, with a smirk.

---

Dan shut the office door carefully, but the time he spent gripping the doorknob let Keegan know it would be less than a careful conversation. The coach sat down across from him and Pascal with a groan. His eyes automatically went to Keegan.

“What was that?”

“You told us to play like it was a game.”

“I told you to treat it as a game.” Dan rubbed his temples. “As in, have a good time with it. It’s a scrimmage, not the playoffs.”

“Sorry that I tried,” Keegan couldn’t help but sneer. “What else am I supposed to do?”

Pascal cleared his throat. “I went a little far. I shouldn’t have said some of that to you.”

“Why not?” Keegan turned to look at the person beside him. He gripped onto the armrests, knuckles white. “You know nothing about me. How could you know what you can and can’t say?”

“Hey!” Dan waved his hand in the air. “Stop.”

“I don’t know what you want from me, Dan. I play my best out there, and I get nothing more than a glance? But, as soon as I do something that you might not agree with, I’m the bad guy? Did you ever think that that I might, I don’t know, have a slight idea about what I’m doing? That I’ve been doing this just as long as the other guys?”

Pascal’s eyes had moved to the carpet. He had left the conversation.

“This is your second season in the NHL,” the coach retorted. “Actually, not even! As I recall, you were scratched from the playoffs because you had to go to rehab.” He accentuated the words with a punchy smile.

“That has nothing to do with this,” Pascal muttered.

Keegan’s eyes burned with anger. The room was incredibly warm, all three of the occupants’ sweat making it smell a little.

“You have no idea what being a professional involves,” Dan went on. “Yeah, you have the muscle. You have the technical ability. But you have never been forced to control your emotions. You have no problem-solving skills. You have no idea how to treat your teammates. No one else has had the balls to sit down and tell you what’s wrong with the game you play. Why do you think no one else called you up after that embarrassment of an incident?”

A loud swallow from Pascal, who was practically scooting his chair toward the door.

“I spent years bouncing back and forth because I was never good enough for anybody. I’ve been dangerously in between two careers my whole life. One that can support me, and one where the seats would always be empty.” Keegan’s arms had gone numb. His sweat was starting to dry, making him feel feverish. “I did not ask to be called up to a league that had no idea what to do with me. I didn’t ask for an addiction. I just wanted to play hockey. I just want to play hockey.”

The stillness of the room was shocking. No one stood down, but they both understood they were at an impasse.

“Then why don’t we just play hockey?” Pascal spoke up.

Dan chuckled. The sound was unsettling. “I’d love to.”

---

“Fuck! He’s such a fucking asshole, dickhead, fucking—”

“Should I chime into this conversation?”

“No, Sid, you shouldn’t. No one should. No one can understand how fucking infuriating I find that guy!”

“Maybe he has a point?”

“Noooooo, Siiiiid…” Justin ran his hands down his face.

In any other circumstance, ranting to a large portion of his teammates about a coach that they all seemed to appreciate, maybe even look up to, but Keegan felt the need to involve them. It would take a village to make him a saner human being, apparently.

“I’m not trying to say he’s perfect. But you aren’t either.” Sid held his hands out as if to prove his innocence in the trial of the locker room. “No one in this room is. He probably said something that could be useful for you.”

Keegan despised the fact that everyone had tensed up. He didn’t want to be viewed in that way. Sadly, he’d given them no reason to think otherwise.

“I’m—yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right.”

Pascal’s head remained down until he’d finished tying his shoes, a quiet departure with a simple nod toward their captain. Keegan, guilty and knowing it, shoved his hands into his jacket and looked around the room.

“Sorry for that.” He bowed as he twirled in a circle in the middle of the room, only making eye contact with three players as he did so. “See you tomorrow.”

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Sid warned, right before Keegan shut the door.

It was extremely unlikely that Keegan would feel any calmer in his own home. His blood was still boiling; he had never been a fan of confrontation, especially when it wasn’t followed with closure. His therapist had warned him about the harm feuds had done in his life. He contemplated calling her as he walked past the fancy cars and security in the back parking lot.

Once he was far enough away, he allowed himself the pleasure of crying. Long bouts of soundless exhales that shook his entire body with their weight, hands clenched on his thighs as he squatted. Things he hadn’t felt since being locked in a room to handle withdrawals by himself took over his body, mind, soul, until all he could think about was the closest garbage can to crawl into. The last thing he could focus on was how terribly silly he probably looked having a breakdown in front of the chain link fence separating him and the arena.

“Hey!”

Keegan remained as silent as he could, as if that would help.

“Hey, Keegan! Can you open this fucking fence, please?”

There was jingling of the pointless lock being undone, footsteps clunking toward him at a running pace, a familiar hand clutching his shoulder. Keegan leaned into Marc’s legs; his own were too tired to hold him up any longer.

“What did he say to you?” He sounded mad, but not at Keegan. A shock. “What the fuck did he do?”

Keegan let out an embarrassingly loud, bottled up cry. It was more out of defeat than anything else. “Nothing. He didn’t do anything.”

Marc squatted down beside him. His arms were wrapped around him, a mother bird keeping her chick from jumping out of the nest.

“I don’t know if I can do this.” The heels of Keegan’s palms were robotically shoved into his eyes to keep the tears at bay. “I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“Being pissed off at people.”

Marc’s simple response of a nod was much needed. No rebuttals, just understanding.

“I fucking hate this!” Keegan finally found the strength to stand back up. He threw his half-done tie at the fence. “I fucking hate how right he was! I hate how people look at me, I hate—”

“Shh, chéri.” Marc wrapped his arms around Keegan’s flinging limbs, squeezing tight enough for it to be closer to comforting than claustrophobic. “Mon cher petit soleil, chose sauvage, ça va. It’s okay. Come yell in the car.”

And Keegan did. A lot.

His voice was already hoarse when they got to Marc’s, but he continued an incomprehensible rant about things he truly wasn’t that mad about but had been troubling him for years. Sometimes there were just yells of frustration, which startled Marc at first but ended with him joining in.

Marc shut the door unusually loudly; a test to see if Max was home, as he was incredibly against door slamming. There was no response.

“You probably think I’m crazy.”

“You are.” Marc set down his keys, glanced in the mirror as if Keegan wouldn’t notice. “That’s okay with me.”

Looking at his freckles reminded Keegan of his frustration during practice, with the words that had fallen out of the goalie’s mouth with such confidence. He was mad because he knew that Marc was right. He knew Keegan too well.

“I hate that you talked to me like that.”

Marc snorted. “I hate that sometimes you sound like a fucking spoiled brat.”

“You’re just mad that I scored on you.”

“Yeah. I am.”

Their lips crashed together, immediately finding the rhythm they called their own. It was somehow more urgent than the Halloween Incident. Their hands were already working on removing blazers and button-ups, awkwardly kicking off shoes while trying to keep the pace of their kissing the same. Keegan’s emotional confusion became good reason for him to dominate the tone, an excuse to slam Marc against the opposite wall and pin his hips down with his hands. It was a welcome attack. Marc groaned against his forehead, size difference only adding to how empowered Keegan felt in that moment. It had been a long time since someone had given in to his authority.

Although they had already crossed quite a few borders in terms of physical privacy, and continuously saw each other in varying stages of naked at work, it was still a shock to see Marc’s bare body so close to his own. Keegan pulled away to look at him, fingertips floating over his chest.

“This is happening, right?”

Marc picking Keegan up was the only answer, practically throwing him over his shoulder as he made his way to the bedroom.

He threw him onto the mattress and hovered over him for a split second before attacking his neck. Teeth nipped and fingernails dug in, and Keegan allowed himself to sink down with a strange relaxation. The aggression encouraged him to let out the rest of his frustration; he moaned as loud as he wanted by the time Marc had gotten down to his hipbones.

Their bodies found a rhythm just as they had with anything else. They ground against each other like teenagers anxious to experience any sort of pleasure. There was no hesitation, they were finally past that, only the release of tension.

At a certain point, Marc pushed back. He reached over to his bedside drawer before pausing and looking up at Keegan.

“Who’s, uh… you know…”

“Have you done this before?”

He blushed. “Yeah, with myself. Nothing crazy.”

Keegan softened slightly at how nervous his partner looked. “It’s okay. Just tell me if you want to stop.”

Marc nodded quickly before producing a bottle of lube and a rather large toy. Keegan raised his eyebrows and choked out a laugh.

“Mr. Fleury, this is… wow. Impressive.” He reached over to grab the dildo from Marc’s timid hands, holding up to his head for comparison.

“Shut up.”

“It’s literally the size of mine.”

Marc let out his own laugh, slapping Keegan’s thigh playfully. “Tais-toi, baise-moi.”

And, because that was one of the only sentences Keegan understood in French, he did.

He bathed in the sounds of Marc’s high, the feeling of satisfaction at the tired look on his face when he said he couldn’t take anymore. There was nothing scary about their adventure; they both even shared a laugh when cum landed on Marc’s pillow. Keegan’s own ecstasy was the complete opposite of brief, thanks to someone who, for once, understood how far he could go in the right hands.

It was loud. It was messy. It left both of them panting on opposite sides of the California King.

“I don’t think I’m mad at you anymore.”

“I still think you’re a spoiled brat.”

Keegan flipped him off, not bothering to look away from the ceiling.

“In a different way.”

“If I’m a spoiled brat then you’re—”

“Are you guys decent?”

Marc groaned at Max’s sudden, incessant knocking. Keegan had almost forgot that they weren’t the only people on the planet. He didn’t move from where he’d flopped onto the mattress. “No. Fuck off.”

“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” Max warned.

The couple groaned at the same time. Marc propped himself up on his elbow just enough to yank the duvet over them before Max opened the door.

“Hey, children. Sounded like a good time, I’ll be asking more about that later. Yes, I did hear most of that hour-long event.” Max took a moment to smile at their humiliation. “I’m going out for lunch. Flower, I’m taking your car.”

There was no goodbye, only him waving the door in an attempt to air out the room before strolling out the house.

“I’m never gonna hear the end of that.”

“I’d better give you something to talk about, then.”

---

Max had never thought about how hard it was for Sid and Geno.

Not just the whole being captains thing, that was another ball game. Just to be alive, to experience a love that seemed so fresh and exciting, and to have to pretend that they were like everybody else: miserable, alone, focused on work.

The couple snuck glances at each other while eating their lunch, as if even that was too obvious to the general public. Their choice of seats beside each other was rare; Max was used to plopping in between them back when he first found out, or when they were out in public. A salad was placed beside them to share, but Sid had scooted it closer to Max as if it were for the table. Sid’s instinctive shoulder-touch whenever Geno made him laugh, seen so often in the gym or on the ice, ended with an uncomfortable smile to Max’s side of the table. An apology for being so completely the opposite of single.

“Things are going well then?” He butted into a conversation about stick curve. “With you guys?”

Sid hissed an attempt to shut him up, but Geno nodded with a laugh.

“Why ask? Is bad to be good?”

“No. Just making sure we won’t have any drama tomorrow night.”

“Drama?” Sid mocked. “This has been the most dramatic season of my life. And we’re only in November.”

Max mentally thanked the waiter for placing them in a private booth. If anybody heard the captain of their beloved sports team say something like that, it would be everywhere.

“I heard the babies have some drama.”

Geno raised his eyebrows at Sid. “Why not tell me?”

“I didn’t think to.”

“Rusty and Schultzy, right? Yeah, both dig the same chick. I can see why, she’s got a huuuge a—”

“Really?” Sid frowned. “That’s not very feminist of you.”

“Why not? A woman can’t have a big ass?”

“No, she can have one. You’re not supposed to bring it up.”

“Oh, you’re just jealous. Don’t worry, it doesn’t rival yours. Oh, Captain, giant ass Captain.”

Geno spit his water back into his cup, holding in a series of giggles that shook his whole body. Sid glared at him but eventually rested into an easy smile.

“Whatever. They’ll get bored of fighting.”

“Flower and Stew plan prank on Rusty. I’m hear other day.”

Max shook his head, mouth full of salad. “Wouldn’t call it a prank. They’re just taping his sticks together and chucking them onto the ice.” Pieces of greenery flew onto the table. He grabbed a napkin to push them back to his side. “I guess they’re on Schultzy’s side.”

“Is he doing any better? Keegan?”

Max thought back to the wide array of noises he’d heard while sipping his after-practice latte. “Sounded like it.”

Geno let out a low whistle. “Good Stew.” The two nodded at each other like proud parents.

“I think they’re good for each other. Two insane energies balance each other out.”

“Have lot of fun.”

Max took the opportunity to set his fork down, even though he had just moved on to his chicken and it looked mighty tasty. He had more important things to focus on.

“I hope they can be public one day.”

The change of topic made the couple freeze. Sid had stopped mid-chew, fork still aimed at his mouth. If it wasn’t for some dressing dripping down, he would look like a painting. Geno, on the other hand, had recovered quickly, although Max could see the gears turning in his head.

“Speaking of which: you two.” He waved his fork between them. “When’s that gonna happen? You going to tell anyone, or just wait for other people to find out? I’ve read the fanfictions; I think they’re on to something.”

“Well, uh… you know.” Sid had gone from almost choking on some lettuce to speaking in his media voice. “Things happen for a reason.”

Geno awkwardly poked at his food. Max knew he had a different answer.

“I think something will happen when it’s supposed to. It would be… irresponsible to try and force something.”

“Irresponsible? We’re not talking about mortgages. This is your life.”

Sid shrugged, slightly annoyed demeanour that had travelled over to his partner. They had shuffled further away from each other.

“I mean, we already know what would happen, right? Stew was a great test run.”

Max cringed as Sid set down his fork a little too quickly. “I hate to say it, but because everyone keeps bringing this up… He wasn’t at the press level we are. We have to be role models, he didn’t.”

“And you coming out wouldn’t make you even more of a role model?” Max kept his voice down as much as possible. “You don’t think there’s kids out there that would love to know their favourite players are just like them?”

“No, I don’t,” Sid snapped. “I think everyone wants us to be perfect, untouchable models for the kids who have nothing wrong with them.”

Geno stood up, placing his napkin on top of his plate. He shook his head at the confused glances he was receiving and handed the waiter a tip before walking away. Sid bit his lip and looked down at the table.

Max leaned back in his seat. He was just as frustrated as the other two, angry that none of his friends seemed to be fine with themselves, that nobody could be themselves in a generation where that was the most important thing.

“I… is it really that bad to be different? Why is everyone so afraid to be themselves?”

Sid’s jaw was tense when he looked up. “Because it’s hard. It’s scary.”

“I know, but wasn’t it hard to get here? Wasn’t it scary to get drafted? You made it through that. This sport,” his slammed his finger on the table for emphasis, “this sport needs us to be different. Desperately.”

No response.

“Look, I promised that I would protect all of you as soon as I got here, right?”

Sid nodded, then let out a long breath. “Yeah. You did.”

“I will live up to that promise until I die. Or get dragged out of Pittsburgh, whichever happens first.”

“I hope it’s the first one.”

Max burst out laughing at Sid’s evil grin. “Me, too.”

---

Skin sticky, the light made him look reflective. Slight bruises bloomed on his arms from the experimental phase of their excursions the previous day (and night). There was no noise but their breathing, occasionally exhaling in unison, no feeling but a slight pain below his hips (lack of use, Keegan guessed) and the duvet weighing their bodies down.

Keegan was stuck in a cloud of shame and happiness, unsure which side of the fence he wanted to swing over to. He felt like he was glued to the bed, being hypnotized by the ceiling fan above and the low hum of a snore beside him. The urge to roll over and tuck himself under Marc’s arm almost overtook him, but he used the small amount of self control he had left to remain on his back.

He was covered in Marc’s fingerprints, and he couldn’t be happier about that. They had stripped away everything left from his previous relationship like bleach; he had been left clean and pure from an event that was the complete opposite. All his scars, etch marks from a lover past and acts of self hatred long forgotten, were kissed with gentle lips, any bruises that had been left were promptly checked after the fact. There was nothing terrible about it, only love.

And, because he couldn’t escape a sense of impending doom, that was terrifying.

At five in the morning he ordered a cab on his phone. By five-thirty, he had collected his small list of belongings and snuck out the front door to a driver who was excited to have a ‘celebrity’ in his car. The small talk almost lulled Keegan into a false sense of security in the back seat, until a notification popped up on his phone.

Xavier had posted on his story. The Pittsburgh sign felt like a punch to Keegan’s chest.

It only added to the lingering thoughts of the Canucks as a whole. The fact that he would have to look all his old teammates, friends, in the eyes again and pretend that he was completely over it. That he never thought back to his Thanksgiving dinner with the guys and their Secret Santa adventures.

He clicked through more of the story. Images of some of his old teammates, a mirror selfie that would make anyone cringe.

Something made him pause, though.

A necklace, hanging low on his chiseled chest, with a small key. An identical key to what Keegan had happily thrown in the garbage.

He set his phone facedown on the seat beside him and slowly slid down further into his seat. Fingernails dug into his arms.

“You must be excited for tonight, hey bro?”

“Sorry?”

The driver looked into the rear-view mirror. “Vancouver, man. It’ll be a good one.”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’ll be interesting.”

Chapter Text

Keegan’s boots crunching atop the snow was the only noise throughout the streets that early in the morning. All the sane people in his neighbourhood weren’t awake yet, and even if they were, they had cars to get to the supermarket. His rental was sitting in his garage, in desperate need of gas. He didn’t mind the walk, anyway; he could afford the heavy winter jacket that had been calling to him while in New York. With his face bundled up in a hood and toque, scarf all the way up to his very red nose, Keegan felt almost jolly. The one thing that had ruined his jolliness was the need for coconut milk to complete his Spontaneous Scone Endeavour.

By the time his boots touched linoleum, he had forgotten his place in the world. Everything had been so quiet, so lonesome, that the idea of other human beings had long since disappeared. The feeling of unimportantness was a welcome surprise, and he strolled with arms swaying at his side toward the back of the store. A confidence he hadn’t felt since he’d been living with his parents, out for their monthly grocery run.

His usual brand of milk alternative didn’t immediately catch his eye. For a moment he prayed it was just the poorly lit refrigerators playing a trick on him, but it soon became apparent that his quest for the usual was a failure. He shrugged to himself before reaching out to grab the closest thing.

Another hand touched his. Keegan pulled away as if he’d been shocked, eyes slowly travelling up the arm toward the face of a short, middle-aged woman. She took the opportunity to grab the carton and placed it into her basket with an air of pride. It didn’t take long for the familiar look of recognition to appear, and with it came the familiar feeling of wanting to disappear.

“Are you—are you that trans? From the hockey team?”

Keegan cleared his throat, stepping away slightly. His mouth contorted in an attempt to smile. “Yup. That’s me.”

“Should you be shopping for yourself?”

“Well, I need milk.”

The woman frowned, tilted her head until it was practically touching her shoulder. Keegan cringed at the sound of jacket material scraping together.

“You know, I think I agree with what that man said. The man from Vancouver, oh, what’s his name… you know the one.”

“Todd?”

“Yes, that’s the one.” She shook her finger, eyes looking up at nothing in particular as she attempted to remember her point. “Yes, he’s the one that said you shouldn’t play in the league. It’s dangerous for people like you. The men, they’re so…” Her shoulders puffed out.

Keegan let out a long stream of air. His therapist’s breathing exercises came to mind.

“It’s only for your safety, dear.”

“I appreciate that,” he said through a clenched jaw. “Um, I hate to point out that Todd no longer works for the league, for good reason, so, you know, what he said doesn’t really mean anything? And I’m doing just fine.”

The woman smirked, gaze directed at the healing bruise under his eye.

“I’m doing just fine.” If he repeated it enough, anyone would believe him, even the asshole of a woman in front of him.

“Well, that’s good then.” The woman walked away without a hint of regret. His carton of coconut milk sloshed around in her basket as if to say, ‘Fuck you.’

His mood had been compromised. The walk back to the front of the store felt silly, inconvenient. The self-checkout computer voices bounced around in his ears as he waited in line, telling him to put his item in the bagging area and to have a nice day. Every person in his neighbourhood had decided to buy their dairy milk and Starbucks K-cups right that moment.

A slight nudge on his shoulder made him spin around. A teenager, holding a bottle of pop, was simultaneously excusing himself and attempting to step in front of Keegan in line. Keegan, in an uncharacteristic fit of rage, stepped in front of the kid, pretending that he hadn’t heard him.

The teenager tried again. “Excuse me.”

Keegan spun around, with more enthusiasm than the time before. They were the same height, but he felt ten feet tall in that moment. His carton of milk had left a condensation mark on his jacket, which probably looked silly.

“No.”

“What?” The kid scoffed.

“No. You’re not excused. I’m literally in line.”

“But I only have one thing—”

“So do I, man. Sucks, doesn’t it, that everyone else has twenty items and we have one, yet we’re the ones that have to wait?” Keegan shrugged. “I guess that’s how lines work.”

The kid backed off after that. Someone behind him murmured about how some people never change.

His boots were no match for the already-melting snow. He chose to ignore that.

The coconut milk was set down on his counter in a huff, beside his bowl of mixed dry ingredients. The sight was enough to make him slide back into comfort; soon he would add wet ingredients, and it was predetermined to make something that tasted good. While flipping through his recipe book to try and find the lost page, he even contemplated giving some to Geno at practice. As long as his fridge was stocked with the best Russian food in the world (according to the chef), Keegan would feel he owed a giant debt to the guy.

Finally, his finger settled on the page. He dragged it down, an attempt to find what part he had left off at.

As Keegan poured the cup of milk into his mixing bowl, he let out a long sigh. He looked over at the page again to check off each ingredient.

The words jumped out at him, sending his brain into a complete frenzy.

Three eggs.

Three eggs that he had forgotten to get from the store.

---

The Vancouver game loomed over everyone’s heads that morning, as if the city notorious for storm clouds had brought its own into Pittsburgh.

Marc was surrounded by whispering (and not-so-whispering) voices, continuously asking where Keegan was. It was his game, after all. His chance at redemption. No one had seen him since practice. Marc was too ashamed to admit that he thought he knew the reason why.

It had been a wonderful experience. The continuous laughing, the opportunity to look at Keegan’s body without fear of being caught, the continuous sex. He was sure he had died and gone to heaven, if heaven was his bedroom and God was Keegan Stewart pegging him.

And then it was over. Just like that, Marc’s own personal little sun had been replaced by wrinkled sheets that stank of sweat. There had been nothing romantic about it; he’d been in that position after a night alone many times, it was easy to believe that Keegan had never come by at all. He didn’t even bother bragging to Max.

Max had pouted at the lack of information in the locker room, sending him a lengthy text about loyalty and their pact to always tell the truth. He wanted every detail of their escapades, or he wouldn’t be cooking dinner for a week. The joke didn’t land. Marc still didn’t say anything.

He ended up in Keegan’s customary spot in the stands, awaiting (hoping, praying for) the moment that the familiar squeak of his new pair of running shoes would bring Marc out of his funk. Waiting for the smile that would brighten up his overwhelming feeling of guilt, the laugh that would drown out the replays of his embarrassing moans. Something that would make him feel less like a lone high school student at prom.

The seat beside him remained empty.

Marc continued his routine to the best of his ability; it was the first time he’d had to do it alone since they had started talking. Keegan’s routine had become his, and vice versa. They shared every moment leading up to every game, hours and hours, beside each other. Even eating beside his teammates didn’t quench the need for Keegan’s company.

There had to be a good reason for him being late. He had to be doing something important.

---

“G?”

“Stew? Why not at arena? Need you here for game.”

“I know, I know. I’m, uh, I’m gonna be late, though.”

“I’m tell Sid, Stew never late. Not want to lie to Sid.”

A long, half-muffled sigh. “I was making scones, and I forgot to get eggs, and then I forgot to set the timer, so it got so fucking smoky, I thought I was going to burn the house down. And then I opened the door to let some air in and this cat, an absolute giant, wandered into my kitchen as if she lived here, and now I have this cat and my house reeks and I’m going to be late.”

The first thing Geno saw when he walked into Keegan’s house was the snow that had escaped into the open patio doors, melting so delicately on the hardwood. The next thing he saw was Keegan on the floor of his kitchen with a cat in his lap. The poor thing must’ve been cold; he’d enveloped both of them in the jacket he’d found in New York. Geno took a moment to smile at the image before making his way to the open door.

Even though he closed it gently, the cat still made a sound of disapproval at the noise. Geno shrugged an apology at the blob of fur.

“She doesn’t have a collar. No tattoo in her ear. I think she’s a stray.”

The floor was slightly wet beside Keegan. Geno pulled his own jacket down to cover his butt before sitting with them.

The cat was a wonderful shade of copper with white accents around its face. It seemed perfectly content curled up on the lap of someone who desperately needed to get to the arena before he got fined.

Keegan’s breath faltered slightly, tearing Geno’s attention away from the cat’s large eyes. Keegan’s own eyes remained on the floor.

“I’m scared.”

Geno was scared, too. He knew exactly how intense personal rivalries could be; his own nervous energy was focused on their next game against Dallas.

“Cat has name?”

“Not yet.” Keegan chuckled. “I don’t even like cats. I don’t think I’ll keep her.”

“What is name for holiday cookie?” Geno frowned. He knew the sounds; he could picture the way Sid’s mouth looked while saying the word. “Start with S. Doodle.”

A tiny grin crept onto Keegan’s face. “Snickerdoodle?”

Geno nodded. The perfect name for the cat that had now wandered over to his lap.

“That’s cute. Do you think Dana would take her?”

“No. Have idea.”

Even with the confused frown from Keegan as they pulled into his driveway on their way to the arena, and Anna’s shocked expression as he handed her a cat, Geno knew he was doing the right thing. He handed her a piece of paper with the cat’s name, written in Keegan’s handwriting.

“Merry Christmas.”

Anna burst out laughing, and the cat voiced its displeasure at being bounced around in her arms.

---

The door to the visitor’s locker room had already been closed. A security guard stood outside of it with the gaze of someone who was focusing primarily on what was going on in his headset rather than who was in front of him. For that reason, Xavier continued to stand outside of the locker room with little to no trouble from the staff. He was half-dressed, leggings digging into his bare skin, but it was better than having to see the looks on his teammate’s faces.

The equipment manager had forgotten to cover up one of the Penguins’ logos on the wall in front of him. He had entered a staring contest with it five minutes before. He had lost five times. It was incredibly easy to hear his old friend’s voices discuss his fate from where he was standing.

Many of them were surprised he’d shown up at all (fair point) and seemed to be concerned about his ability to play (even fairer point, he’d gotten sloshed in his hotel room and ended up wandering the halls butt naked before Tanner had dragged him into his room.) They were embarrassed for him. Embarrassed of him. Only the people that had shared his moments of grief and suicidal tendencies, the nights full of hallucinogens, and the teeny, tiny minutes of pure bliss and laughter spoke for him. The comforting, slow drawl of Tanner’s thoughtful sentences cut into the harsh reality of what the room was saying; Kevin agreed only because of his need to redeem Rick’s name. Xavier had been the one to survive, therefore the only one that Kevin could protect. There still weren’t many good words for anyone to say.

Xavier’s fingers found the chain around his neck. The metal was so cold that it burned his skin; fingerprints slid down the chain until they met the key dangling at the end. The back of his head was sore from leaning against the wall. He was surprised that he hadn’t left a dent.

The sound of a soccer ball hitting feet, heads, walls, called to him from down the hall. His feet moved in time with the bouncing. The security guard called to him, but he was too far gone to listen.

There would be people in the bar already, getting drunk on the cocktail of excitement and beer, preparing to scream at the refs and threaten the lives of any player that didn’t play to their exact expectation. Like a lion in a cage, that’s all any of them were. Something to entertain the masses until their knees were too weak and their faces too wrinkly.

The bouncing got louder.

He was ten years away from being dismissed by the league. Ten years too short, he thought. He would be so lucky as to gain a few concussions and flicker away like many of the other greats.

Men dressed all in black and yellow whooped and hollered as they tried to keep the ball away from the floor. The unmistakable build of Sidney Crosby kicked the ball high into the air, an unfamiliar face burst into laughter as it immediately collided to the cement in front of him. Xavier was grateful he wasn’t hungover; the noises bounced off each wall and met in the middle of his eardrums. He could focus on the joyous faces of his opponents without the dull throb of pain above his eyebrows.

The soccer group seemed to catch on to what he wanted. Some murmuring stopped the game in its tracks. Sidney turned around with a confused look that immediately blended into slightly annoyed.

“You’re on the wrong side, bud,” Jordan Staal said as his foot rolled back and forth over the ball. “You get lost again?”

“C’mon, man…”

“What? Wouldn’t be the first time, hey, Laflamme?”

Xavier let out a short chuckle, chin raising as if what dignity he had left was pulling it upward.

“Seriously, what are you doing?” A younger man he didn’t recognize piped up. His face was annoying, like a cartoon character.

“Thought I would see the sights. Say hello to you wonderful people.”

“Holy shit, man. I told you he’s always fucked up.”

Sidney was still staring at him.

“I thought I’d be sober for this round. Better to fuck you up, no?”

The cartoon character turned away, motioning for Staal to bring the ball back into play. Xavier’s heart was pounding at the way the rest of the men were looking at him. Like a child that was cornered in an alley by his school bullies. If that child had chosen to be in the situation to begin with. A few of the rookies moved further away and Staal finally kicked the ball back into the air. The more familiar faces hung back.

“It’s good to see you,” Pascal broke the silence, speaking French as if it would fix something. They had never been close, even though he had tried to reach out. Xavier didn’t need another father. “You’re looking—”

“Like shit? Yeah. I should, right? I deserve it. I’m making a mess of things. I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“You’re the one that said it.”

Xavier scoffed. “You’ve thought it for years.” His palms raised to the ceiling. “It just finally happened.”

They smiled at each other, a familiar verbal jabbing that none of the rest of the group understood. Karma: they thought Xavier was stupid, he made them look stupid without them knowing. Pascal ran his hand through his hair, Xavier mirrored him if only to be a little juvenile. It took him more effort to turn to Sidney, who still had that fucking look on his face that Xavier couldn’t place.

“How’s he doing here? He always thought it was weird to play hockey with no snow. Lots of snow here.” Xavier had meant for his tone to be commanding, strong. Superior, even. It came out earnest, raw. Sad, even.

“I think he’s feeling at home. I hope so, at least.” Sidney looked to his teammates for confirmation. They all nodded and hummed. “We’re trying our best to make him feel at home.”

The captain knew. Without Xavier even having to blink the wrong way, the man with the huge ass and huge heart could read him like a book. He knew how heartbreaking those words were for Xavier to hear, so he had delivered the news as easily as he could. Xavier wasn’t sure if that made him happy or not.

“He’s made friends?”

“We all love him.”

Xavier looked to the group that was playing soccer. They had gone back to their laughter and butt taps and connection.

“He’s, uh… he’s friends with that goalie, yes? Good friends?”

Sidney’s momentary eyebrow-raising was the only sign of his surprise. He recovered quickly. A short nod that was delivered with the same care as his past statements.

“Everyone’s friends with Flower. He’s a great guy.”

“He wasn’t denying that,” Sidney spoke up for him.

Xavier gifted the group only a nod before his departure. It was all he could muster as the way his own team, his supposed family, had spoken about him bounced around his brain in time with the soccer ball.

His breath left him abruptly as the winter air hit his face. It was comforting, after a long minute, for his fingers to go numb, lips to burn with the freezing. His chest was stabbed by snowflakes as he looked around the security-heavy parking lot. Nobody seemed to question his actions, as if they’d expected at least one half-naked hockey player to run outside for solace that evening.

He was fine with Keegan being fine. He was fine with Keegan being fine. He was fine with the air burning his lungs and the tips of his hair freezing to his forehead and he was fine with being sober as long as he didn’t have to look at cement walls soccer balls janitor’s closets and the key around his neck was sure to be a part of him at that point it was freezing and he was fine with half his heart being fine as long as the other half could remain cold.

A car pulled in, met with waves and laughter as he drifted through the parking lot toward the only spot left. The windows were tinted, but not too much that it stopped Xavier from missing the curly hair of the only person he would ever want to see.

His sneakers were soaked through by the time he made it halfway, and his leggings clung to him even more than they had during his workout. The excitement in his chest made up for it. The chrome on the car was a beacon in the baron wasteland of his brain.

Evgeni Malkin jumped out first. He had his jacket wrapped up to his nose, a smile on his face as he attempted to articulate his sentence with his hands. His laughter was directed to the inside of the car, and Xavier could imagine how Keegan looked when he undid his seatbelt.

Malkin’s eyes made him stop walking. Laughter sputtered into a look of disgust, a hand reaching out to the other side of the car to put things on hold.

His eyes said, ‘this isn’t a place for you.’

And Xavier answered with a turn on his heel, back toward the belly of the beast.

---

Keegan and Geno sprinted as soon as they got into the building. The walk from the parking lot to the locker room wasn’t long (designed for optimal time management) but Geno still insisted on running. Spending so much time with Captain On Time had obviously made an effect. Keegan joined him simply because running and laughing reminded him of his childhood.

Marc had his arms stretched above his head. The small of his back snuck out of his t-shirt, and a few small scratches peeked out from above like vines dangling down. Keegan smiled to himself at the image, the knowledge that he had had the power to initiate such pleasure and pain in a small moment. The urge to wrap his arms around the taller man was overwhelming. He compromised with a tap on his shoulder, opposite side to where he was standing. Marc turned around, frown morphing into a slight smile after spinning around fully.

“Hey. You made it.”

“Did you expect any less of me?”

Marc half-shrugged. He pulled his shirt down from where it had rested above his hips. The normal chaotic energy that would radiate from him before games wasn’t there. It hadn’t been replaced by anything, just a lack of his usual self.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” It was a lie. Marc looked around the room and it suddenly dawned on Keegan.

“Oh. Oh, fuck, I…” His hand ran through his hair. His fingers caught on some knots he’d missed that morning. “We need to talk, right? That’s how—”

“We don’t have to.”

Keegan rolled his eyes. His hand grabbed Marc’s wrist, something he would’ve had to ask permission for ten times before actually doing. The act of confidence was becoming easier and easier for Keegan to do with ease, especially with the reassurance of Marc’s gentle eyes pushing him forward. By the time they got to the physical therapy room, curtained off from the rest of the world, Keegan’s hands had rested on Marc’s hips with as if it were a ritual, rather than one of the first times they’d touched each other in public without the padding of their armour between them.

“I’m sorry I was late, I was making scones, and then there was this stray cat that just came out of nowhere while I was airing out the kitchen. She was the cutest thing, you would’ve loved her. I guess you can still meet her, Geno gave her to Anna.”

Marc nodded along. His eyes were on every part of Keegan all at once.

“And I’m sorry about leaving. I just got up, I—I wasn’t thinking about how you would feel.”

Marc leaned forward quickly, hands on either side of Keegan’s face. Their faces met in the middle. Keegan melted into every slight movement of their lips, the feeling of rough stubble scratching against each other, the heat of every heavy breath. The excitement of being out in the open. It was far from sexual, however. He took it as a sign of relief that Marc wouldn’t have the ability to say out loud.

As if he’d been reading Keegan’s thoughts, Marc pulled away. His hands remained on Keegan’s cheeks and he rubbed his fingertips against the hair beneath them.

“I thought you weren’t going to come.”

Keegan chose not to admit that, if it weren’t for Geno, he probably wouldn’t have. He would’ve rather stayed at home with the cat than play that night’s game. Instead, he bit his lip and let out a breathy laugh.

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“I bet. It’s basically a reunion.”

“You know how much people like going to those.”

They smiled at each other. An intense wave of calmness crashed over Keegan as they locked eyes in their own little world.

It was so private that he allowed himself a moment of intense honesty, something he thought would never happen in a room full of massage tables and diagrams of muscles.

“You could never scare me off, by the way. Especially with that cute little—”

“Okay,” Marc blushed and looked away. “Thank you.”

Keegan brought his own hands to Marc’s cheeks, giving them a light pinch before resting them there. Marc leaned down until their foreheads met.

“I know this is hard for you.”

“Can we talk about it later? Like, when it’s over?”

“Of course.”

Keegan kissed him as a thank you.

They walked into the locker room one after the other, Marc in first to shelter the nonexistent storm Keegan had been expecting. The room was incredibly quiet, much to his surprise, the group beginning to get dressed and finishing rituals. It was incredibly comfortable, given the circumstances. The amount of press outside alone was enough to send even the most iron hearted man into a frenzy.

As soon as Keegan sat down, Schultzy popped up from his place beside him. He cleared his throat. Keegan instinctually started shaking his head; nothing good ever came from public speaking that started with a cleared throat. Brooks Orpik stood up as well, which was a little surprising. Even though he played a major role on the team, he rarely ever brought attention to himself.

“What are you…” Keegan didn’t finish. He figured his hissing toward Justin’s hand was enough to warn him not to speak.

“We all wanted to say something. To you. But, uh, Brooks is in charge this month, so he gets to do it.”

“Lucky you.”

Schultzy smacked Keegan on the shoulder lightly before motioning for Brooks to begin.

“Okay, so… first things first, I have to admit that I haven’t gotten to know you as much as I would’ve liked to. Especially since I’m one of the alternates this month.” He chuckled to himself. A few others joined. “Me and Schultzy had a talk about tonight, and he mentioned how hard this would be for you.”

Keegan flinched. He didn’t want to be put in the spotlight anymore than he actually was. It was just another game, after all. The night would have to end eventually, even if he had the feeling he was going into a warzone.

“It’s okay,” Brooks raised his hands at Keegan’s expression. “We’ve all been there. Well, most of us.”

“There is a thing called empathy that most of us have, you know,” Sid muttered from where he was pulling on his jock.

“Anyway, I wanted to extend the offer of… helping you fight some of your battles. Should they come up.”

“How formal of you, Brooksie.”

“That’s bordering on romantic.”

“Shut the fuck up, man. I’m serious, Keegan.”

Keegan opened his mouth to object, the kindness was truly overwhelming, and he needed it to stop as soon as possible, but his throat closed at the sight of Schultzy’s proud, heartwarming smile. He nodded, encouragement for Keegan to continue. It was impossible to say anything sarcastic, to brush their support away, after that.

“Thank you, guys. All of you,” he nodded and looked around the room, “it means a lot to have so many people… care.”

There were multiple acknowledgements of affection done in the most masculine of ways. Thankfully, many of the guys went back to their different stages of dress, leaving Keegan to focus on donning his own equipment in a rush.

He felt like crying, whether from nerves or from the immense feeling of love that was radiating around the room, he couldn’t tell. Even the men he hadn’t gotten to know well gave him a smile whenever their eyes met. It was the absolute opposite of any locker room he’d been in before that moment. He was sure it was the opposite of whatever was going on in Vancouver’s room. A silent feeling of comradery had never been the Canucks’ strong suit.

“Je tuerai encore un homme, si besoin est. Et le besoin sera.”

Keegan immediately looked to Marc and Max for a translation of Kris’s comment. All he got was Marc bringing his finger across his neck.

---

NOVEMBER 6

VANCOUVER CANUCKS @ PENGUINS

The music during warmups was just loud enough that neither team, nor any teammate, attempted to talk to each other, which Keegan thanked God for. As if God would take the time out of his day to make sure Keegan of all people was just a bit more comfortable.

He focused all his attention on scoring against Marc and Johnson, both of whom had either gotten exceptionally worse at their job or were giving him the goals out of pity. Either way, he made sure that the puck became familiar on his stick by attempting some trick shots he and Max had been doing in practice.

It was easy to pretend that there would be nothing after the warmup. All there was and all there would ever be were the dramatic strobe lights, the pumping bass of the latest EDM tracks, occasional whooping and hollering of the rookies. It was only their half of the ice and their team and nothing else. His skates crunched against the ice and he was reminded of the way Xavier would crush his chips in the bag before eating them. He would offer Keegan the crumbs in the corner of the bag and Keegan would happily accept them as if he hadn’t eaten in years.

The horn ripped away any false sense of peace he’d created for himself. The jerseys across from him became glaringly apparent. They were in their third jerseys, an odd choice for such an unimportant game. Although, maybe it wasn’t to the league. The ratings would be through the roof that night; better to show off a new take on a vintage classic when everyone would be paying attention. Better sales at the merch table. That was, after all, what it was about.

The referee made his way toward center ice, stopping only to give Keegan a short nod. He had been there for the last game. That same nod had stopped him from trying to punch a Sharks’ player’s head off in a coked-out rage. That nod gave him a strange feeling of hope.

Max’s line was first. His helmet almost tapped Ryan’s as they leaned toward each other. Nobody’s mouths opened for verbal sparring. The arena was silent with anticipation and it felt as if the puck was dropped in slow motion. It bounced off the ice once, before Max’s stick pushed it through his legs toward where Schultzy would be waiting. As soon as it got where it needed to be, Keegan’s ears rang from the noise of skates and sticks.

He shut his eyes for a moment, squeezing as tight as he could until it felt as if he might push them into the back of his brain. The building seemed vivid when he opened them. Everything was less dulled by anxiety. He was fueled by the urge to get onto the ice and do his part. He wasn’t going to take crumbs out of the corner of the bag anymore.

---

It was a montage of hits and shots on net.

Marc felt as if he was simply just playing a part in a larger story; the focus was solely on Keegan’s line as soon as they jumped over the boards for the first time. They had a man advantage after a cheap shot on Kunitz, even with Bieksa’s ‘convincing’ re-enactment of how he’d dived. The puck had been magnetized to Luongo’s net, and, if it weren’t for their current situation, Marc would almost feel bad. He liked the guy and knew just how intimidating an onslaught of the first line’s shots could be.

Keegan was making moves he’d only ever done in practice, complete with fancy footwork that would put figure skaters to shame. Geno swung his seemingly seven-foot frame into each and every hit in the corner. Sid and Tanger were on another level in terms of psychic ability. The entire powerplay was spent in the Canucks’ zone. Marc was forced to bounce in place to keep himself warm.

Vancouver happily dumped the puck as soon as they got the chance. It slid over to Marc with the speed of a turtle on its back. Compared to the rushed appearance of Vancouver’s line change, it was comical. Marc happily went around the back of his net to play the puck. Any opportunity to feel like he was in charge of the play for a moment. He even hummed while he did it. The humming stopped when he was met head on by a whirlwind only seen in season’s past.

Xavier’s speed was surprising, since he’d lost it dramatically the previous season never to be seen again. His skill had never changed, but it had become predictable. Marc never would’ve assumed that his puck would be stolen by the league’s burn out.

He was able to get to the net with only a small trip, still enough to make the initial stop with his left pad. His glove wasn’t fast enough, though, and Xavier was on the rebound like a hound. Justin fought him for control, stick jabbing wildly to try and push the puck away. All he was able to achieve was receiving a crosscheck to his shoulder that the ref conveniently didn’t see. He grunted in pain but continued the fight. Marc’s attempts at getting his glove on the puck were thwarted by Pascal finally swooping in to help. He grabbed the puck as if it had been a simple act all along.

By the time the whistle was blown, the minute played felt like a lifetime. Marc’s heart was beating out of his chest, vibrating into his skull.

A whistle brought his attention up toward the benches. Xavier waved and whooped as he skated backward, grinning wildly with his golden mouthguard peeking out the corner of his mouth. He brought his arm across his body, the other behind his back, and bowed.

Keegan blocked Marc’s view of whatever else Xavier chose to do. He leaned over the bench just enough to spit onto the Canucks’ side of the ice. Xavier’s loud laugh could be heard a mile away.

The game had officially begun.

---

Dan spared Keegan having to share the ice with Xavier’s line, which comforted Max slightly, but meant that he had to look at the fucker’s jersey more than he would’ve liked. The last name alone was enough to keep him on edge. The guy had a history that was hard to ignore.

The last few minutes of the first period trickled down slowly. Nobody caused any trouble.

The frustration was brewing, however; both goalies were standing on their heads, and there were no goals in sight. Max allowed himself a few cheeky hits with the excuse of redemption. In reality, he knew it was as simple as trying to pump up his teammates who seemed to be falling behind already. The huffing and puffing on the bench was reminiscent of overtime in a playoff game, not the beginning of a game in November. They had all agreed to go as hard as possible, it was a given for Keegan, but Max was starting to think they weren’t ready for a game like that night.

It had been awhile since he’d jumped over the boards with the intention of doing some damage, however his last shift of the period involved just that. He flew into the play as if it had been calling him and only him.

Burrows took the brunt of that intention in the middle of the ice. It was a clean hit; Max had always prided himself on learning how to do things with respect and grace. Their bodies collided shoulder-to-shoulder and neither fell to the ice.

“What the fuck?”

“It was a clean hit, man.” Max raised his arms while they paused to watch a scrum in the corner. “Nothing crazy.”

“You basically took my head off.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Burr. I’ve seen you fight.”

They went back to playing. Max busied himself in the corner until the puck came free, then busied himself with trying to get it past Luongo. Burrows didn’t bug him until the whistle blew, flying toward him until both their shoulders knocked into the glass. A small child on the other side pounded against it with a huge smile on his face.

“Your little friend said hello last night. What a sweetheart.”

Max frowned. There was no way anyone would know his ex, let alone talk to her. And none of his endeavours would ever sleep with a guy like Burrows.

“Britney, my friend. Great, uh, personality on her.”

“You… she mentioned me?”

Burrows laughed straight out of his belly, shaking Max’s shoulder. “Only when I asked. Seems you have a reputation down there.”

“What are you, a fucking cop, man? Fuck off.” Max shook his head, only to try and get the other man out of his head. He skated away with the purpose of screaming into his gloves on the bench. “Fucking crazy.”

“She told me about Amber, too. What a shame.”

Max entered the locker room and threw his gloves at his locker with the force of a tornado. Marc flinched as one of them flew by his head. He kicked it toward Max with the toe of his skate.

“Do they just breed assholes in Vancouver? Convert the ones that weren’t born there?”

“You’d have to ask Keegan.”

“No, he’s right.” Kris’s voice was monotone from across the room.

“I heard my name?”

“It’s nothing, kiddo.”

Max plopped into his seat and shoved the palms of his hands into his eyes. If he tried hard enough, he could envision himself in Florida when the season was over, lounging by the water with no problems other than not having enough mixed drinks beside him.

“What did he say to you?”

Flower looked at him expectantly through Max’s fingers. Almost excited for a chance to draw blood.

“Nothing. Some stupid shit.” He didn’t feel good lying. It was easier to turn away from his friend and focus solely on Sid. “Hey, Sid. We need a talk.”

Sid’s eyebrows raised.

“A pep talk? Something peppy?”

“A wha—okay.” Sid stood up. The entire room’s attention shifted to him immediately, instinct taking over. The power that that man had over a room was incredibly inspirational. Especially since he was the softest speaker in the room. He exhaled out his nose for a minute.

“We’re tied. That’s better than a lot of you expected. And we’ve got them wrapped our fingers. They’re getting frustrated, they’re already making mistakes and all we have to do is keep them there. The score will figure itself out. Right now, all we have to do is keep playing our game. It’s intimidating them.”

“Um…”

Everyone looked over to Keegan’s stall. He was picking his nails and bouncing his leg, habits that only cropped up with nerves. Max fought the urge to run over and mess up his hair just to see him smile.

“I know some things.”

“Like what?” Dan spoke up from where he’d been leaning against the wall, completely silent for most of the ordeal. Max assumed it was because he’d learned to just let the testosterone fueled room figure it out for itself.

“They’re making the same plays. They’ve essentially got the same lines. There’s barely anything they’ve changed since I was there.”

Dan held out a whiteboard pen. Keegan frowned at it. Max laughed at his expression.

“Get up there, kid. Tell us what to do.”

---

“On a line with Sid. Who would’ve thought.”

Tanner gave him a kind smile when Keegan looked over. He was sure he’d been frowning before the voice sounded recognizable, but he still received the genuine happiness of Tanner Glass. It had been a gift to get to know him personally; he was a completely different person on the ice. Keegan hadn’t realized how much he missed him until then.

“I finally got somewhere, hey?” Keegan poked a pile of snow with his stick. They were on commercial break, the under-dressed women smoothing out the piles with their shovels skated around them as if they weren’t even there. He’d always hated that. Male gaze to the extreme. “Finally doing something.”

“You were always doing something.”

It was obvious that neither team enjoyed them speaking to each other. Some of the players that had sided with Xavier glared as Tanner lounged against the boards, nonchalantly toying with the lid of his water bottle.

“Causing less trouble, I assume?” Tanner smirked. “I haven’t heard anything yet.”

“I’m keeping it low for now. Maybe next season I’ll get myself involved in a drug bust.”

They laughed like there was no weight between them. Just two buddies hanging out at the rink, shooting the shit. Tanner even squirted him with some water when the ref blew the whistle.

A glove stopped him from skating toward the faceoff. Tanner nodded for him to hang back.

“What’s up?”

“I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

Keegan shrugged. “Then don’t.”

“Let’s go, boys!”

They moved closer and closer to the circle, and Tanner’s smile disappeared more and more.

“Tell me now, Glass.”

“Look, something’s gonna happen at the end of the period. Just… be prepared, okay?”

Keegan’s shift went by torturously slow after that. Tanner wasn’t the type of guy to threaten anyone, he always did what was on his mind when it came to any aspect of his life. There was never any warning, only the main event. That sentence hadn’t come from his spot on the bench. Something had been brewing without Keegan even noticing.

His breathing was still laboured by the time he was back on the ice. It was impossible not to count down the seconds in his head with the feeling of everyone staring at the numbers on his back. A dent in the ice interrupted his stride.

Marc’s gloves caught him before he toppled over. He half-smiled at Keegan’s reaction before taking in his appearance. He probably looked shaken up, even though he’d been trying his best to hide it.

“Hey.” It was said with a chuckle.

“Thank you.” Keegan looked down at his laces.

“Last thing you need.”

Keegan pursed his lips. They didn’t have much time. He’d need to be as direct as possible to feel any different.

“Tell me something good.”

There was no hesitation. Marc nodded as if it were a common request. “When we blow this freezie stand, I’d love to help you make those scones.”

Keegan snorted.

“What?”

“It’s popsicle stand.”

“Oh, fuck off.”

Keegan broke out into a smile as he leaned down for the faceoff.

The next shift was quick, flying by on the power of Marc-Andre Fleury’s golden smile. Nothing came of it, but it allowed them to show the Canucks that they knew their plays and the back and forth allowed a refreshing stretch to Keegan’s tense legs. His smile lasted the whole thirty seconds.

Dan patted him on the back when he got on the bench. Keegan turned his head just enough to look at him.

“Great shift. Keep that up.”

The smile got bigger.

On the ice, Ryan charged toward Sid at an alarming rate. From Keegan’s point of view, his shoulder went directly into the O on Sid’s jersey. He didn’t get up immediately, didn’t even make a sound.

Geno had gotten to the bench with Keegan. He let out a yell that almost tore Keegan’s heart in half. There was no hesitation when he swung a leg over the board, the only thing stopping him was Rusty’s arm across his stomach. Sid got onto his hands and knees.

Both benches erupted into a flood of yelling as soon as Tanger dropped his gloves. A few Vancouver players jumped onto the ice to boost their manpower; they were quickly pulled away by the linesmen that had given up on the other fights that had broken out. It seemed like every player had found a partner. Brooks and Kevin had met at middle ice. Even Marc had meandered closer to the action, although Luo was staying put in his crease.

Gloves and helmets were scattered along every line painted on the ice. Hollering from the crowd blended in with the yelling on both benches and all Keegan could do was stay frozen with his glove on Geno’s shoulder.

---

The only control Geno could have during the intermission was choosing which stick was going to come with him to battle. He’d broken his in the runway after the horn. A shame, that stick had gotten him to number three in scoring for the season so far. His line mates had beat him, of course.

The crowd was still riled up from the fights. It was more intense than any game against the Flyers he’d ever played, or even having to play against Ovechkin.

Sid was fine, though, which was all that mattered. He had been a little shaken up, mostly upset about having had his back turned, and he already had a few bruises blossoming on his otherwise flawless skin. But he was fine. There was no reason to be upset. Geno had seen him go through his first concussion with tears in his eyes every step of the way. One hit shouldn’t have affected him the way it did.

It was more than the hit, though. It was thinking about what that hit represented. Which was probably a little too deep, given that Kesler had probably just done it because he had no reason not to.

The sudden presence of Mario in the hallway with him was a little shocking, given that he usually remained in the box during games. He was leaning against the wall with a smirk on his face. Geno acknowledged him with a smile and turned away. He examined the tape on his stick while eavesdropping on Dan and Mario.

“You need to get that kid on the ice. Shake up the lines if you have to, he’s losing steam.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” Mario chuckled. “This is his game. He’s got the energy.”

“Since when did you come down here to call the shots?”

Geno ran his tongue over his teeth. He counted them and stopped trying after he got to five.

“If I played every guy that was going against an old team more than the others, we’d need about five players.”

Mario cleared his throat. Geno knew very well what that sound meant: he was about to share some information that did not feel great to share.

“He has the launch coming up. It’s going to mean less if he’s not on the ice as much. Even if he is playing with…” A cough, his voice lowered. “With our bigger names.”

Geno couldn’t help but feel proud of himself.

“You know that that has nothing to do with the game, right? What goes on in Media Land has nothing to do with who goes out on the ice.” Dan sighed. “I’m trying to teach him a lesson, treat him like everyone else.”

“He isn’t like everyone else, Dan. He will always be looked at differently because of where we are. Because of what we do. Where the game is. No matter what either of us do, he is going to have a mind of his own because he’s always had to.”

“Jesus Christ…” Dan groaned. “It’s not that serious.”

Geno clicked his tongue. The two looked over.

“Stew play with big names, get big minutes.”

Dan closed his eyes like he wanted to disappear. Mario chuckled.

“He reason win hard game. Best in last period.”

---

Marc was happy to see Keegan on the ice at the beginning of the period. He had been quiet in the room. Which, given the circumstances, was a fair thing to be. It was still nerve wracking, though; silence usually meant one of two things when it came to Keegan. An impending mental breakdown, or him unleashing the physical, insanely talented player he used to be. Marc’s bets were on the latter, judging by the look of pure concentration that had been on his face while explaining where the defence would be waiting while in their end.

Tensions were high after the fights. Every player was on edge. They all showed it in different ways; Kris would continuously look at Pascal, who would nod a lot and say things that sounded inspiring but were usually only comforting due to his Dad Voice, and Max would spend a lot of time with his eyes toward the ceiling praying to whatever he believed in when he wasn’t believing in himself. The rookies would look to the oldest person beside them. Schultzy tapped his stick on everything around him when he was on the ice. Geno would lean closer to Sid on the bench, touch him more between plays.

Marc would usually stand with his eyes glazed over, mind twenty steps ahead of everyone else’s. His brain would go over every single player that was on the ice at any given time, what he’d been told about them, every single thing that could go wrong. He never looked to anyone else for support. He just let his brain run wild until the puck was in play, and then all he focused on was that little black disk as it glided over the ice from one side to the other. It had worked for him for years.

That game, he decided to look up and focus on what was happening in the moment, not what could happen. His eyes immediately fell on the number ninety-one, a number that was beginning to make him smile just by its presence. The owner of said number was already looking at him, and Marc wondered if Keegan had always been looking at him when he was on edge. He let out a laugh, not from humour or even relief, but because he was lucky enough to have someone look back at him in a moment of weakness. Keegan smiled back.

All hell broke loose as soon as the ref let go of the puck. It caught him off guard for a moment. Things felt a little saner after looking at Keegan’s smile, as if at any moment they would all hold hands and break out in song rather than attempt to murder each other against the boards. Keegan was knocked around any chance a Vancouver sweater got. Marc felt trapped in the crease, no way to defend him. He’d never admit it, though.

He looked over to the Canucks’ bench during one of the few short breaks he could get. Henrik was speaking to the bench, something that involved his hands moving frantically as he leaned against his stick. Even from far away, Marc knew what he was saying. Sid gave speeches like that often.

Xavier wasn’t happy with whatever was being said. His scoff was especially animated, as if he was reacting for an invisible camera, before he jumped onto the ice for his shift. He slithered toward the faceoff as if there was no rush. Everyone would wait for Xavier Laflamme. His presence made Marc’s forehead twitch.

Pascal’s line gained possession of the puck immediately (a breath of relief for Marc, who could stretch out a cramp in his leg while watching them in the middle of the ice.) He pulled away quickly, legs pushing as hard as humanly possible to beat the defence toward the net. Marc held his breath as Duper broke away from the pack. He moved with confidence as he approached the goal.

Until Xavier’s stick hooked under his skates.

Duper’s body fell like a sack of potatoes. He flew toward the boards and braced himself as he knocked against them. Xavier skated away as if nothing had happened. The ref, thankfully, called a penalty shot.

Xavier’s attempt at ruining Duper’s breakaway gifted the Penguins a break from the 0-0 tie. The bench erupted in cheers and laughter; the crowd blew up with excitement. Marc danced in place in hopes Keegan would catch him and let out that giggle.

They caught each other’s gaze when his skates landed on solid ground. He moved from side to side, mocking Marc’s dance until they both laughed.

“Hey, darling!”

The couple looked over to Xavier at the same time. His brows were furrowed, and his lips were pulled up in a half-snarl, half-smile.

“I miss our chats, baby! Give me a call sometime!”

Keegan, who obviously didn’t understand most of what Xavier had said, simply shook his head. Marc fought the urge to skate over and knock him out with his stick.

“Fucking asshole.” Tanger had skated up beside him in preparation for the faceoff.

“Not surprising.”

Kris shook his head. His stick poked Marc’s arm. “There’s some shit going on over there. Talking about a fight.”

“You’ve been fighting all night,” Marc chuckled.

“I’m serious, man. Something about Laflamme’s line coming on when Sid does. Coaches are in on it.”

Marc opened his mouth but was interrupted by the whistle.

The next few minutes were spent in a state of controlled panic. It felt like he had one eye on the play and one eye on the bench, awaiting the moment that Vancouver pulled out the pin and threw the grenade at their end of the ice. Xavier’s line was full of the toughest players on the team, and there was no doubt that they would try to get their best defensemen out there with him.

Keegan and Xavier stepped out in unison. Their strides matched perfectly. Marc held his breath as he awaited the inevitable.

The puck came to their end. Marc was somehow able to get his blocker out in time for a random shot, even with his breath stuck in his throat. He tried his best to keep tabs on the puck while also keeping tabs on who had gotten onto the ice. His rebound flew toward the righthand corner, and Sid flew along with it. A shitmix of sweaters made a frenzy behind him. Keegan stayed back, as if a forcefield was keeping him from coming any closer to that line.

“What’s wrong, Stew?”

Keegan looked over his shoulder, almost excited at the familiar name. Kesler had called from where he was catching up to his linemates, zipping up beside Keegan. Marc had to force himself to look back over to where the scrum was happening.

“Fuck off, man.”

Ryan spun around. “What?”

“I said fuck off.” Keegan raised his hands to the height of his ribcage. His stick floated beside him. “What, can you not hear me anymore? Got someone else’s voice in your head now?”

Marc muttered something meaningless at the puck. Ryan, of course, turned to look at him before grinning back at Keegan.

“Am I making your friend mad? Or you’re past that now?” He skated up close to Keegan’s face. Sid yelled in frustration that they were seemingly down a man. “Did you fuck him in the ass yet?”

“Are you not seeing this?” Marc called to the ref, glove pointed at the players. The puck was knocked free just as he spoke.

“You know your best friend takes it in the ass, right? Watch your fucking mouth, man.”

The puck knocked off Ryan’s foot, and Marc easily grabbed it for the whistle. He thanked the hockey gods for finally making something simple.

“You miss it, don’t you?”

Xavier’s choice to only speak in French that game was a smart move when it came to intimidation factor. Keegan knew just enough to look annoyed, not enough to fly off the rails. Marc, on the other hand, was ready to do just that.

The refs complained to no avail. Keegan and Ryan were still sharing words that nobody but them could hear, their breath fogging up the screens on their helmets. Finally, Keegan shoved him with the butt of his stick at the middle of his chest. It wasn’t hard, Ryan didn’t falter, but the ref was ready to escort the smaller man off the ice. The crowd cheered.

“Just fucking do it then! Like you always fucking wanted to, c’mon!” Keegan dropped his gloves. The ref backed away and everyone held their breath. “What, you’re scared to hit a ‘ladyboy’?”

Ryan lifted his hand.

“I heard that shit, dude.”

Marc had only seen Keegan look that way in his first season. He had been on something then, just enough to take the pain away when he’d inevitably get punched in the face. That time, there was nothing to numb him. The scary part was that he didn’t seem to mind.

“So much for brothers, eh?”

Ryan jerked his head toward the corner, where Xavier was standing with a grin. “He’s my brother. Nobody liked you.”

The crowd was getting antsy. Their cheers had turned to yells of indifference over the fight that wasn’t happening.

Keegan shut them up. He was always good with that, Marc had noticed. When it came to a show, he rarely disappointed.

His left hand gripped Ryan’s collar, the other swung wildly at his face. The sound of knuckle against helmet was enough to make Marc cringe. They both shook off their helmets at the same time after that; a common courtesy, since they were both high scorers and would need their hands in the next game. The hits far outweighed the misses, and blood was already falling from some orifice a few seconds in. The refs stood far back, in awe like everyone else in the building. Ryan had a solid foot on his opponent but seemed to be shrinking as Keegan punched on.

Marc couldn’t help but glance over to the corner. Kris had moved closer, only a few feet away from Xavier. Only one of them was grinning as they watched.

No one tried to get involved or start their own fight. It was a battle that couldn’t be won by anybody else.

One of Keegan’s punches didn’t land. Ryan took the opportunity to swing, his whole body going into it. His fist hit Keegan’s cheekbone and Marc swore he could hear a whimper.

He set his stick down and moved forward.

Ryan was leaning into every punch like it was his purpose to kill someone that had trusted him. Like it was Keegan’s fault he’d left somewhere toxic.

Marc’s gloves hit the ice.

Keegan had given up at that point, his body limp as he let himself get hit.

Marc set his helmet down in his glove.

Keegan’s body fell. His leg twisted and there was a cry in pain, hands covered his face as he landed in a ball of blood and discarded equipment.

Marc’s hand grabbed the back of Ryan’s jersey. His fist hit the other man’s jaw before he could even turn around.

He had punched people before. He wasn’t new to the feeling of skin hitting skin hitting bone, how disgusting it felt after the fact. But Marc had always envisioned his fight ending in a handshake, smiles, a joke here or there for the rest of the month. Nothing like the whirlwind of commotion that surrounded him after Ryan’s body fell beside Keegan’s writhing form. A few objects flew in from the stands and littered the ice.

Marc’s first reaction was to look at Kris. Xavier had apparently disappeared, as it was just the lone Penguin staring at him, shocked.

“Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you stop him?” Marc’s voice sounded hysterical even to his own ears. “You knew.”

There was no response. Kris’s gaze fell on something behind Marc, but he didn’t turn around.

He was escorted off the ice shortly after while the bodies were attended to by trainers.

---

“That was some insane shit.”

Keegan looked over to the door slowly. He’d already been tested for a concussion, which he knew he didn’t have thanks to multiple sessions in the quiet room with the Canucks, but the room was still spinning slightly. The nurse said it was from adrenaline. The doctor said anxiety. Keegan knew it was from pain. He’d hesitantly declined the painkillers, but his face had barely healed from the fight before and was throbbing into his skull.

Max was dangling his devil necklace off his pointer finger.

“Where’d you get that?”

He shrugged. “You took it off at some point. Dana held onto it. Now I’m here.”

Keegan reached out, happy to grip the familiar chain in his palm.

“I meant what I said. I’ve never seen something like that.”

“Next game I’ll make sure to jump into the stands,” Keegan said as he leaned on his elbows. The world no longer spun, just pounded along with his heartbeat. “Could you help me—”

“Of course.” Max’s hand grabbed Keegan’s without hesitation, arm wrapped around his back as he helped him sit up. He grabbed the necklace out of Keegan’s hand and draped it over his collarbones. Keegan could feel him fumble with the clasp.

“It’s a tricky one.”

“No, it’s fine… basically got it…”

“I can do it.”

“No. You just made the biggest statement professional hockey has seen in awhile. The least I can do is put your necklace on for you.”

“I wouldn’t call it a statement. All I did was punch some guy in the—”

“Got it!” Max’s shoes squeaked as he danced around the massage table.

“Thank you.”

They stared at each other for a moment. Max was less than subtle about what he was doing; his mouth moved as he counted the stitches on Keegan’s nose, the bruises around his face. Keegan knew how bad he looked.

“How’s your head?”

"No complaints." Keegan laughed when Max shook his head. “It's fine. I don’t have a concussion.”

He rolled his eyes before clarifying, “How are you feeling?”

Keegan didn’t want to get into that topic. He and Ryan had always had a boisterous relationship, full of debates and play fights that could only happen between brothers. Although complicated, he’d been there to keep it straight. That was the reason that Keegan had believed every word he’d said to him. There were no lies in their friendship, only cleverly worded feelings.

Keegan sighed. “How was the rest of the game?”

“Alright.” Max nodded, eyes full of empathy. “Phil got another one. We won.”

“What about Marc?”

Max chuckled, although he looked more worried than full of humour. “He got kicked out. I doubt he’ll be back next game. Dan’s arguing that the refs should’ve stopped things before they got to that point.”

Keegan didn’t hold back his smile. Marc knew the consequences of his actions and had chosen to do them anyway. Romance at its finest.

“I’m serious about how you’re feeling. That was a hard one.”

“I couldn’t tell you. Still thinking on it, I guess.” Keegan ran his hands through his hair. “Um… sad, maybe. Pissed off.”

“Well, we don’t have to see them again for a few months.”

“The one thing that’s keeping me going.” Afraid of any long silence in that moment, Keegan pointed to his mouth. “I lost a tooth.”

“What, do you want a loonie?”

“I think I deserve more than a loonie.”

Max snorted at Keegan’s smile. “Right in the front. Fuck.”

“I’m coming for Burnsie’s brand.”

“He’ll love that.”

Keegan stuck the tip of his tongue threw the hole at the front of his mouth. He had debated with the team’s dentist about replacing it or not and chosen a gaudy gold tooth to be put in the next day. His reasoning was that it would look good with any outfit, although there was a part of him that knew it was from having to stare at a certain golden mouthguard all night.

“Anything else I should know about?” Max joked. If only he’d known that there was.

Keegan’s leg had twisted horribly when he’d fallen to the ice. At first it had just felt like a slight pull, nothing that a massage and some care couldn’t fix. The pain had remained the same throughout Keegan’s stay in the doctor’s room, however. Something familiar from his years in the minors; a terrible right knee that would never be fixed without surgery. He’d always figured he wouldn’t need it, there was no way he’d play hockey professionally.

The universe had an incredible sense of humour.

He didn’t mention his knee. He didn’t complain about anything else so that Max could head home and make himself some grilled cheese. Keegan thanked him again and waited until his footsteps stopped echoing through the hall.

The itchiness of the dried sweat on his shoulder pads was enough of an inspiration to head back to the room. Walking wasn’t great, but it was better than his trip there. All the reporters and TV crews had left. The empty halls allowed for flashbacks of his fight.

It remained quiet for the majority of his walk, until he went past the visitor’s room.

“Good game, no?”

---

It felt like it had been years since Xavier had been so close to his lover. He’d seen Keegan many times, of course, on TV and in pictures. They still followed each other on Instagram, whether it was because they both were too busy to remember to unfollow or because that was just an excuse was debatable. What wasn’t up for debate was the bright feeling Xavier got in his chest.

Keegan had gained back all the weight he’d lost in Vancouver in muscle. Even though he was shorter, he could’ve easily taken Xavier down. The thought turned him on far more than he’d like to admit. His facial hair had filled in more, Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed heavily. Even his chest hair was perfect, an amazing view thanks to him deciding to half-strip while walking to the locker room. Hockey pants held up by suspenders, and all Xavier could think about was how easy it had been to slide them down his shoulders when they were the last ones to leave.

The light above them flickered slightly, but still enough to make everything look surreal. Like a heavenly dream that had to remind him that the nightmare would be waking up when it was all said and done.

Xavier reached his hand out gradually, as if any sudden movement would scare him off. It was a fair assumption to make; he’d been less than kind to the slender figure toward the end. He wasn’t sure what he was trying to achieve from the exchange. A handshake would never be enough to conclude what had happened between them. Nothing would be enough.

Keegan remained in his tense position. His arms were folded in front of him, eyes darting around behind him as the remaining bags from the visitor’s locker room were cleared out by employees that could care less. The same expression they’d shared during their last conversation, Keegan about to run and Xavier reaching out like a hand could ever keep him there. The only difference was Keegan’s face softening when he looked down at Xavier’s hand.

The key tattoo they had gotten together peeked out from his sleeve. The urge to cover it with his sleeve was strong, but he fought it. Silent torture. He had watched Keegan’s get covered up in an Instagram post that past summer, replaced by a blacked-out triangle. All that remained was a set of dates above it.

---

Everything Keegan wanted to say, should’ve said, was lodged in his stomach, unable to escape. His mouth tasted like cigarettes; a distant memory of the taste of Xavier. All he wanted was to run away, or yell, or even just stop looking at the man in front of him for five seconds, but he was trapped in a penetrating gaze.

It took an immense amount of strength to lick his lips, to make the decision to say anything.

But Xavier lifted his finger to his mouth.

His infamous sneaky smirk was complicated by sadness in his eyes. He stepped backward, twirled around with the grace of a ballerina, and made his way back to his locker room.

Keegan was left under the nauseating flickering light to watch him go.

Chapter Text

Xavier’s decision to shoot heroin for the first time since Keegan left was not easy. Contrary to popular belief, completely ruining everything did not come naturally to him. Doug had taught him better than that while in Halifax, and he’d never even thought of shooting anything at that point, anyway. He knew he would have to be the best version of himself as possible when Valerie got pregnant, when she chose to stop working. Xavier was all anyone had to lean on, so he made it count.

A wave of warm honey swaddled him, an infant ready to nap. Head lolled back, jaw unclenched, back of his skull knocked against the tile of the hotel bathtub. Bathtub and shower. Whoever thought of that must’ve really liked cleaning themselves. It took all his strength to lift his arm up, to drop the needle on the ground before sinking down. Eyes closed.

Sometimes he would see movies of his life. It seemed silly, to do heroin on the off chance he could reflect on past mistakes. Keegan had once argued it was a good way to learn. They were both different people then.

When he was thirteen, just awarded that season’s MVP back in Laval, he walked in on the most traumatic event he would ever witness. His mother laid on the kitchen floor like it was her bed, arms flailed awkwardly and a broken plate beside her head. He had always known how abusive his father was; it was no surprise after years of yelling and banging. Yet that image haunted him forever simply because of the fact his father was enjoying a cup of coffee right beside her body as if nothing had gone wrong. As if he was relieved. The MVP trophy dropped to the floor and Xavier had even tried chest compressions since they’d just learned about it in Health. His mother wasn’t dead, she’d only suffered a concussion and some bruising, but since then she always wished she had died. It probably would’ve been easier than spending twenty more years with the guy.

The first time Xavier’s aggression came out at home, he’d beaten himself up about it for weeks. There was no way he was going to turn out like his father. But, for some reason, his daughter’s face after dropping his favourite coffee cup had reminded him of that moment in his childhood, and he’d snapped. He’d hurled some stupid insult at the child, something inconsequential and yet she’d cried like he’d cut off her arm. Valerie made him sleep in the guest room and it didn’t feel like enough of a punishment.

That was also the night they’d gotten into their biggest fight, he and Val. Standing in their spacious backyard, they’d thrown verbal spears back and forth until the police had been called and he had to drop the famous, ‘don’t you know who I am?’ to get them to leave. She had told him to quit drinking. She didn’t like him when he was drunk. She dealt with him a lot easier when he started taking the pills.

“I think getting sober was really what got you.”

What?

“You told me that when you got sober the first time, that was when the problems really started. Like you said, she dealt with you better when you were high.”

I never told you that. You didn’t want to talk about her. I tried to but all you wanted to do was put those pretty lips around my cock.

“God, you’re disgusting. I don’t know how I ever even looked at you.”

Seemed pretty easy, actually.

“You know when that stat came out, something like 30% of male cops bring violence into their home. They should do that for hockey players. What percentage of hyper-talented centermen beat their partners when they don’t get what they want?”

I didn’t do it to hurt you.

“Why?”

I wanted to protect myself.

“Why?”

Nobody protects me.

“Why?”

Because I’m a good person in a terrible person’s body.

“Why?”

Because I’m scared.

“Why?”

I’ve always been too scared.

Don’t smile at me like that.

---

The less than wonderful conversation with Burrows had served as an intervention to Max. He had to pay a visit to the local brothel to set some things straight.

A sentence that seventeen-year-old him would’ve laughed at.

He wasn’t laughing as he stomped up the stairs to the house. There was usually a mixture of shame and depression stirring around in his stomach when he was on the property, but he felt relatively calm in that moment. He would get what he needed.

“You’re gonna have to wait.”

The two women had their hands on their hips. They looked at him like he had a gun in his hands. Max threw his jacket toward the coat hooks and missed by an incredible amount.

“Just tell me what room Britney’s in.”

“I can’t do that.”

“It’s an emergency.”

“Third one from the left,” the older woman said as she bent down to pick up his jacket. The younger one turned to glare at her, and Max ran up the stairs.

He didn’t hesitate when opening the door. It practically broke off its hinges as it swung open, revealing Britney between the legs of a middle-aged man. He immediately pushed her away and replaced the space where her head had been with the corner of a blanket. Britney wiped her mouth and frowned toward Max.

“What the fuck?”

“That’s what I should be saying.”

“Get the fuck out, man!”

Max pointed his finger at the other man. “No. Stop talking.”

“Is that… Max? What the hell?”

His finger moved to Britney, who was shoving the man’s pants toward him. He was grateful for that; the last thing he needed in that moment was to see a stranger’s penis. It would’ve killed the mood.

“What the fuck happened to client confidentiality, huh? Since when is it okay to throw around my name when you’re fucking someone else?”

Britney crossed her arms. “Is this about Alex?”

“See? You shouldn’t be saying his name! Confidentiality!”

“You’re the one that’s currently breaking that by being in this room during a session.”

“What do you—okay, fine. Fine, yeah. Sorry.”

Max’s intense walk up the stairs was replaced by a saunter toward the living room. A mix of loud moans and classical piano made the perfect soundtrack for him to sit on a surprisingly unstained couch.

“Seat taken?”

“I’m not here for that, sorry.”

“That's not what I asked.”

The Smile sat down beside him. Max’s heart did a backflip as the other man grinned.

“I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to, though. I had a lot of fun last time.”

Max sighed. His plans for the morning had been blown at that point. Any hesitation in his brain couldn’t come close to the rousing expression of his seat partner. He licked his lips and looked over to the ghost piano, which was plucking away a tune he’d heard during one of Keegan’s movie marathons the week before.

“Okay.” Said with a shrug.

It wasn’t until his head hit the pillow that he started to think about how very not straight his situation had become. Last time had been fine, a vagina there made a perfect excuse if anyone found out, maybe it was something he’d always wanted to try. That time was head on, quite literally, and he stumbled into the touching and sucking with nervous energy. All it took was the sound of a condom being ripped open with teeth for his eyes to open frantically.

“Wait wait wait.”

“You okay?”

Max looked down at the penis in front of him, up at the hands clutching a golden rectangle, the concerned face of a man with swollen lips.

“I don’t even know your name.”

The Smile paused his breathing for a moment before exhaling a giggle worthy of a Nobel Prize. “Tate.”

“Tate. That’s interesting.” Max’s hand clutched the silk sheets beside him. “I’m nervous, Tate.”

“We can take our time. You can tell me if you don’t like it.”

He let out a nervous laugh. “I can’t afford much longer.”

“It’s on the house.”

Tate’s eyes were convincing enough. Max had always been one to try new things. He closed his eyes as the pressure built inside of him.

He didn’t open them until it was over. Even then, it was incredibly hard. A complete, overwhelming state of bliss tugged at his eyelids and filled the bedroom. A level of trust that Max hadn’t felt since Marc came out to him. He turned his head to look at his partner, who was laying on his side.

“I almost killed Amber.”

Tate’s eyebrows raised, but he quickly saved it with a calm nod. “So, that’s what happened.”

“You knew?”

“I knew about something. Everyone did. She never missed a day.”

Max chuckled. He remembered the fight about that exact topic. How he hadn’t wanted to share her with another desperate man. He was desperate enough for the whole state.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her, mentally or physically. I’m not that kind of person.”

“Hey, hey…” Tate’s hand reached out to wipe away a tear that Max hadn’t felt. “It’s okay. I don’t think you’re that kind of person.”

“You’re supposed to say that.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re being paid.” Max shook his head. The only response he could muster was a laugh. Tate’s entire being was too distracting and he briefly wondered if he had a second round in him. “Well, I guess you’re not. I’ll still pay you for an hour.”

“See, you’re a great person.”

Silence. Tate kissed his cheek and the sound echoed through the bedroom.

“She doesn’t work here anymore, if that’s why you keep coming.”

“I think you’re the reason I keep coming.”

Tate shoved him lightly, a friendly sign that it was time to leave. Max quickly checked his phone; he’d been there for two hours. With a long sigh, he jumped out of the bed and scrambled around to find his pants.

“You’re welcome back whenever you want.”

Max smacked his lips together. “If I see you again, I’d rather it not be here. No offence.”

Tate nodded in understanding.

Max’s shirt had been thrown to the corner of the room. He felt extremely self-conscious seemingly out of nowhere.

“I’ll tell Britney not to talk about you anymore, too.” Tate started dressing as well. A shame, given how beautiful his back muscles were. “If that’ll let me see you again.”

“As long as you don’t tell the next visiting team about our rendezvous,” Max joked. It took an absurd amount of effort not to stare while the other man pulled up his pants.

“If I get a chance to talk to an opponent, chances are they won’t want their info out in the open, anyway. Seems your friend is pretty self-assured about paying for sex.”

Max shrugged. His hand lingered above the door handle, eyes lingered on Tate’s. The pile of cash he’d left on the table seemed like too little given how therapeutic the entire situation had been. Tate bit his lip, followed his gaze; a nod let him know that it was enough.

“I guess I’m more confident than I thought. Thanks for this.”

He left his number with the girls by the door.

---

“Did you invite someone over?”

“This is your house. Why would I invite someone to your house?”

Marc rolled his eyes. “A man can dream.”

“Dream about me inviting someone to your house?”

Marc waved his hand aimlessly toward where Keegan was sitting on his bed. He had his laptop out, Mario had warned him to check his email religiously leading up to the media conference, and his toque was pulled far down his head in an attempt to hold in some warmth. He groaned when Marc get up from the bed and pulled on a pair of sweatpants.

“Stay here. Max can get it.”

“Max never gets it. He cooks the food, I answer the door.” Marc leaned over just enough to kiss the edge of Keegan’s toque. “I’ll be quick.”

Keegan rubbed his feet together as he watched the door close. He’d borrowed Marc’s socks in an admittedly strange attempt at domesticity. The heels stuck out from the back of his ankle and Keegan pondered what it would be like to have feet big enough to fit them.

Marc swinging open the door brought him out of thinking about feet. He looked panicked, something Keegan found quite humorous on the usually smug face of his counterpart. Keegan tried his best to hide his smile with a tilted head.

“Tanger’s here.” His voice was low, open ended like his brain was somewhere else.

Keegan frowned. “Why?”

“I invited him over.” Marc ran his hand through his hair, eyes combing over the room for the sweatshirt Keegan knew was in the bathroom. “Apparently. Une telle merde invasive.”

Keegan put his laptop beside him. The urge to grab Marc’s hand and drag him back into bed overwhelmed his common sense. His fingers wrapped around Marc’s wrist and tugged gently.

“I can’t. No, he’s downstairs—”

He was interrupted by Keegan practically flinging him over onto the bed. Keegan got on top of him, using one hand to pin down a wrist and the other to place over Marc’s mouth. It was impossible to muffle the giggling from both their mouths.

“What, you don’t want anyone to hear you? With a laugh that wonderful?”

Marc knocked away Keegan’s hand, kissing it as an apology. “I’ll be quick.”

“Okay, fine.” Keegan lifted his hands to the sky. Marc grabbed his hips, raised him up just enough to sneak out from underneath him. “I’ll stay in here. Alone. All by myself, checking the millions of emails from millions of people I don’t know. Alone.”

Marc pouted mockingly as he shut the door behind him.

Keegan laid down on Marc’s side of the bed, mostly hoping that the comforting smell would lull him into a nap that would take over the passage of time. Of course, all it did was fuel his brain into a dissection of everything that had happened to him the past few days.

He thought it would’ve been easy to run into Xavier again. Maybe easy wasn’t the word for it, but something close enough to that. Something far away from the paralyzing effect he’d had in that empty hallway. His face haunted every train of thought, every hand movement, every kiss on Keegan’s bruised face from a man that actually cared about him and dug its claws into any peaceful moment. The contours of his shoulders, the darkness of his eyes, flickered in and out like the light above them had.

That was the excuse for his poor playing against Detroit two nights later. He would never share it with anyone, but it seemed that the rest of the room understood. They’d picked up the slack, delivered better passes and made the ice feel bigger whenever Keegan stepped off the bench. The need to thank them an unnecessary amount had taken over as soon as the final horn sounded. He’d been shrugged off simply because the weight of the team didn’t only fall on his shoulders. It was hard to remember that.

Keegan still spent twenty minutes staring at the ceiling but not really looking, brain overwhelmed with images of Xavier’s mouthguarded grin and Keegan missing a pass at center ice. The silence surrounding him only worsened the effect.

Three minutes were spent watching old trailers for Magic Mike.

Seven minutes attempting to fantasize about a reboot of Magic Mike called Magic Marc.

One minute wishing Marc was in the room with him so that they could laugh over the image of him swinging his shirtless body around a stage.

Much to his own displeasure, two more minutes were spent tapping his nails on the top of his laptop.

A loud grumbling noise emanated from deep inside his body. Keegan looked over at the digital clock on his side of the bed with pursed lips. It was noon.

An order to the closest vegan restaurant was made, and Keegan hoped that Marc would get the hint.

Another thirty minutes went by before there was some commotion downstairs, and the sound of stomping toward the door. A large bag full of takeout containers opened the door.

“Sorry, I know I said I’d be quiet—oh.”

Max lowered the bag to balance it with one hand, using the other to close the door behind him. “I hope some of this is for me.”

“I thought you were making steak tonight.”

“I can eat vegan for lunch and still chow down on a piece of cow for dinner.” He took each container out one by one, humming at what was inside. He finally settled on a side salad. “I thought you weren’t vegan.”

“It’s vegetables, not a lifestyle.” Keegan rolled his eyes as Max shoved half the salad into his mouth. “Make yourself at home.”

“It is my home,” he said through a pound of lettuce.

They ate in silence for a moment before Max lifted his bamboo fork up. Keegan grunted in acknowledgment, too invested in his deep-fried cauliflower to look up.

“Do you guys really think Tanger would care about you being here?” He slurped some water loudly and shook his head. “It’s kind of a crazy jump to assume you guys are dating.”

“We aren’t dating.” Keegan said it without thinking. He set his container down to clarify. “I mean, we’re obviously… something. But it’s not, like, a thing.”

“Oh, my God, Flower. What a disappointment.”

“We don’t need to be something.” Keegan’s voice was bordering on whiny, completely unbelievable even to his own ears. “We’re taking it slow.”

Max chuckled. “No, you think you’re taking it slow because he doesn’t have the balls to ask you out.”

“What is this, high school?”

“Yes. Hockey players don’t experience normal childhood, so we bring that shit into our twenties. I thought that was common knowledge.”

Keegan rubbed his eyes. The topic was making his face heat up, a sign that would only spur Max on more. It was easier for him to bring his focus back to his food than the smirk on his friend’s face.

“I would ask you out.”

“I know you would.”

Max set his empty container down. The bunch of napkins between them was snatched up and wiped across his mouth before Keegan could complain. He got up without a word, bringing their garbage with him.

“You know, Kris of all people would assume that we’re sleeping together.”

“Yeah, I guess you have a bad track record with attractive French Canadians.”

---

Geno had finally decided who he was going to tell.

Mario coming to an optional skate seemed like a sign from whoever was running the planet. He rarely even came to scheduled practices, let alone something where half the players had decided not to attend. A busy man, he had to worry about every single detail of the organization twice over. He and Sid had a lot in common.

Which was why, as soon as Geno noticed him walk by the glass, his ears perked up. He missed a pass from Phil in his excitement which prompted a yell from his teammate.

“I thought you were the great one. That was a good pass.”

“Sorry.” Geno skated over to the boards and brought the puck back to the center line. “Distract.”

They finished the rest of their drills with moderate success. A quick shootout practice ended in Marc calling everyone a fuckface and jokingly throwing his stick to the ice. His good mood felt like even more of a reason to go talk to someone.

Another executive decision was made not to tell Sid about the whole thing. He watched the love of his life joke around with his best friends and Geno knew there was no way he could bring the topic up without ruining his day. They snapped each other’s elastic waistbands and bopped around to something called ‘indie’. The whole thing started to feel less like a personal victory and more like a moral conundrum the longer he watched them have fun.

He half heartedly motioned toward the door when he was finished pulling on his comfy clothes. Sid nodded. That was enough permission he needed.

The walk up to the office was bouncy and surprisingly light. Geno was almost ecstatic to let go of his biggest secret, even if it was to someone who basically had to love him no matter what. Max had been right; Keegan was an excellent test run. Overall, things could’ve ended up much worse for Stew. He could only hope the same would happen to him.

“Hey, G!”

Geno squeezed his eyes shut and kept walking. He trusted his knowledge of the building would propel him through without sight.

“Slow down!”

He stopped. A hand wrapped around his back and fingers snaked around as the man stepped in front of him.

“You can open your eyes.”

Marc stood in front of him, eyes wide with the same excitement that Geno had felt just moments before. Any sort of hesitation would stop him from achieving his goal, so he continued walking.

“Hey, stop.”

“I busy. Come back later.”

“This will be quick. Please?”

Geno cleared his throat and turned around. It was rare to hear Marc sound so raw. “Okay. Here?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

He motioned for the story to begin.

“There’s, uh, this thing. It’s been bothering me.”

Welcome to the club. Geno nodded along.

“Tanger came over the other day.” Marc’s voice had lowered significantly. “He made things serious with Catherine, and it just… got to me? Like, I’m more pissed off that I have to keep this secret.”

“Yes. Is hard.” Geno had started to back up slightly, hoping that if he shuffled enough, they could at least walk to the office together.

“And we aren’t even dating. We’ve only had time to fuck once because we’re here, or tired, or so concerned about hiding. This is supposed to be the happy time.”

Marc’s intensely upset demeanour made Geno sigh. He stopped shuffling, hands shoved into his hoodie pocket and fingernails digging into his palms. The feeling that he could never accurately explain what he wanted to say was almost enough to make him groan in frustration, but he continued the best that he could.

“Is not forever. If that,” Geno waved his finger between Marc and the non-existent Stew, “work out, will be first out players to make good effect.”

Marc frowned. “What about you and—”

“Odds against us. I’m promise to make work, though.”

“Hey, man, if you need anything, you know you can—”

“Yeah.” Geno patted Marc’s shoulder. “Good person, Flower.”

He could tell Marc wanted to lean in for a hug, some sort of closure to the conversation that could never have one. Geno’s hand rested on his shoulder for a moment.

“I’m sorry, you were headed somewhere.” Marc stepped aside, arm outstretched for Geno to continue.

“Uh…” Geno looked down the hall. It seemed incredibly long all of a sudden. “No. I’m get lost.”

---

It was the smile that always got him. For someone who was so depressed, serious, honest to God terrible, he had been gifted the most amazing smile. Perfect white teeth that were all fake.

Keegan had intended on blocking his number and deleting the contact. He needed to stop obsessing over whether he was going to see a cryptic text whenever he checked his phone. He didn’t want Marc to see that contact picture and start to feel bad about himself. His finger hovered over any button possible.

“That face looks familiar.”

Phil leaned over just enough to cast a shadow over the phone. Keegan immediately locked it and shoved it into his pocket.

“No offence, but I don’t want to look at him again for awhile.”

“No, yeah, that’s… fair.” Keegan’s heart was pounding. He rubbed his temple. “Please don’t tell Kris. I promised him that—”

“It’s fine.”

“Thanks.” Keegan looked across the room. The empty stalls mocked him for being so pathetic. “You’d think labeling a contact something that makes you feel like shit would stop you from clicking on it.”

“If you get rid of the contact, there’s no temptation.”

“I was in the middle of that when you showed up.”

“Okay, touchy.” Phil raised his hands in surrender and started to back away.

Keegan wasn’t sure why he reached out to stop him. They weren’t particularly close, just enough for a few lighthearted jokes and discussions on the bench. He certainly wasn’t the kind of person Keegan would choose to dump all his deepest, darkest secrets on, yet his presence was definitely needed in that moment.

He didn’t question it, sitting down in Schultzy’s stall and crossing his legs at the ankles. They avoided eye contact. The clock ticked along, every second without looking at his phone felt like a victory.

“You know, hanging onto the only thing that’s still wrong in your life won’t help anything.”

‘The only thing’ was a bit of an understatement, but the message was clear. One of the pros of having his personal life made public: he didn’t have to explain his bad choices. Phil rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he stared at the carpet.

“Do you know why Flower didn’t want to take Jess to the Halloween party?”

Keegan looked over, trying to mask his confusion. Phil was grinning, seemingly on the cusp of laughing at his reaction.

“Um, I…”

“I didn’t even see him there after you showed up.” All that was missing was a wink. “He just doesn’t seem interested.”

Keegan chose to ignore the connotations of his statement and expression. “That’s really weird.” An innocent shrug. “She sounds like a great person.”

“Yeah,” Phil grunted as he stood up, smacking his hands on his thighs. “I wonder if he met someone.”

---

Marc allowed himself a moment while shaving. It was truly one of the only moments any of the guys could experience alone; the vanity area of the showers was rarely used, since most of them had bathrooms in their own homes. It was usually just an emergency station.

He avoided looking at himself in the mirror most mornings. As long as he could run his hand through his hair and not immediately flinch at his appearance, he was okay with leaving the house. Max usually let him know if he looked absolutely terrible.

The razor ran smooth down his cheek. He glanced down to twirl it around in the water, avoiding looking directly at his own eyes as if he was sharing the space with a stranger. Eventually, he was forced to tilt his chin up and confront it.

His undereye circles had dissipated slightly as he’d become more accustomed to that season’s routine, but they were still there. Freckles were finally disappearing as the weather got colder, and any sort of tan he’d gained during his summer in Florida with Max was long gone. His hand fell to the counter in submission. There weren’t many things he could do to fix what he was looking at.

“Knock, knock.”

Marc used the mirror to look behind him. Keegan leaned in, hanging like a monkey on the corner of the wall with an embarrassed smile.

“Who’s there?”

“My, uh, pictures came in.” He looked around the room. “I’m not supposed to show anyone.”

“You probably shouldn’t show me, then.” The razor was placed on the counter with a delicate hand. Marc was suddenly incredibly aware of how alone they were.

“No, I really shouldn’t.”

“But you’re going to.”

Keegan nodded assuredly. “I am going to.”

The car ride was the complete opposite of how Marc’s morning had gone. Keegan insisted on blasting a new Calvin Harris song on repeat while occasionally stroking Marc’s freshly shaven chin. No thoughtful silence, only Keegan waving his manila folder of prints around the car in excitement.

Marc was excited to see that Keegan’s house was slowly filling with more and more furniture; a new chair had arrived and was making the gigantic living room feel only a little smaller. Nesting was a good sign. He’d heard that from Pascal while his wife was pregnant.

Keegan jokingly slammed the folder onto his kitchen table. “These are extremely confidential.”

“Is there a fear of someone stealing these?” Marc picked at the corner. “Should I sell them to a rival magazine?”

“It’s not going in a magazine.”

“You don’t understand humour.”

“You don’t understand the seriousness of this situation.”

Marc’s grin wasn’t going away anytime soon, so he sat down and rested his chin in his palm. The folder sat between them, an elephant in Keegan’s room. They stared at each other, only breaking into giggles when a dog barked in almost the exact rhythm of Stayin’ Alive.

“This is crazy.” Keegan slid the paper over to Marc’s side of the table. “You do it.”

“It’s your—”

“Just do it. Please.”

Nervousness entered Marc’s stomach as he undid the folder and slowly opened it. Keegan had his eyes shut, hands over top of them. Marc reached to his phone to quickly take a picture before he caught on. There would be a point where Keegan would want to remember that day, and Marc wanted to be the one to share the memory. It was selfish, but it kept a smile on his face.

The pictures had been printed on matte paper, something much more official than he’d been expecting. They looked like they were ready to be framed and set atop a fireplace mantle. The idea of Keegan’s face being plastered on the sides of buildings and popping up on Instagram only made it more exciting.

“You look…”

The absolute angel in front of him took his hands away from his eyes and frowned. “What does that mean?”

A few of the shots were obviously made for public consumption: the stereotypical leaning on the knees shot with a puck between his feet and a serious look on his face, a profile shot with a rainbow neon light behind him, a silly shot with his tongue sticking out, and a mid-slapshot where the power of his own shot became scarily apparent. Marc handed those to him first.

“Oh, shit. These are good? I look cool?”

The last few were the best. They had chosen to show the scars on his chest by only getting him to wear the bottom half of his equipment, accentuated slightly by the darkened background and stark contrast of bright lighting. He sat on the boards in front of the bench, direct eye contact with the camera. Another had him mid-shot again, only with the muscles in his shoulders and arms visible. One with him twirling around center ice, arms extended, and head tilted up to the ceiling. A headshot with a genuine smile.

The last picture was the back of his jersey, name and number in a rainbow pattern against the black fabric. He was looking slightly to the right and was holding his helmet and stick in the same hand.

Keegan was still fixed on the first round of pictures. He’d taken out his glasses usually only used for watching movies and reading, and the paper knocked against his forehead as he held it as close as humanly possible. Marc snuck another picture, although that time he was sure Keegan had noticed and didn’t say anything.

“This is fucking insane.” Keegan set down the picture of his slapshot that he’d been obsessing over to look at Marc. He tapped his finger on each of them to accentuate his sentence. “These are going to be outside. Like, people are going to see them. Stand in front of them. Look directly at my face.”

The next group of photos had him out of his chair and bouncing up and down in excitement. There was no way to stop giggling along with him at the absurd wonderfulness of the whole thing.

“I didn’t know you could twirl like that,” Mark said as he pointed out the picture. “I think that’s the best one.”

“Years of secret figure skating lessons. Fuck, this is… yeah. Wow. The jersey’s gonna be for sale, too. They’re donating to the charity.” Keegan plopped back down. “Who would’ve thought?”

“You look amazing.” Marc took his hand, which had clammed up significantly from jumping around. There was a strong urge for him to say something else emotional and serious, which he promptly ignored. “You know, it’s a good thing they took these before the fight.”

“What is that supposed to mean? I think I look better than ever.”

The deep bruising and still-swollen face begged to differ. Keegan’s jaw clenched as if he was reliving the events that had kept him from healing completely.

“They had to put some makeup on me, anyway. Turns out black eyes don’t go away overnight. They weren’t too happy.”

“It’s real.”

“Too real, maybe.”

They wordlessly laid out each print on the table, rows of Keegan filling up the space. He took a picture to share on the day of the launch; Marc took a picture of him taking the picture. It felt like instinct that compelled him to reach over and wrap his arm around the shorter man.

“Is it bad to say you look good like this, too?”

Keegan looked up at him and he swore his heart stopped beating. “Oh, so you like a bad boy?”

“I knew what I was getting myself into.”

They faced each other. The warmth of the body heat meeting was incredibly distracting.

“And what’s that exactly?”

“This crazy son of a bitch that can go from knocking someone out to jumping around his kitchen like a kid.”

Keegan bit his lip. “Not bad.”

It felt almost as if an unknown presence pulled them into the shower (newly adorned with a pristine showerhead that Geno had dropped off with the weekly food supply). There wasn’t enough time to get all their clothes off; a lone sock here, Keegan’s glasses there, Marc’s sweater hanging off one of his arms by the time the shower had been turned on. Each move was incredibly calculated in making sure they were naked as soon as possible.

Marc’s lips attached themselves to Keegan’s neck, biting on the sensitive skin the way he had their first time. A glorious moan escaped his lips and Keegan was immediately backed into the ornately tiled wall so Marc could pin his wrists down.

The water was cold by the time Marc rested the back of his head against the wall. His legs were Jello, hands resting in Keegan’s hair as they both attempted to catch their breath. His arms raised as Keegan stood up and rubbed his nose against Marc’s.

“Are you gonna make it?”

All he could do was grunt in happiness. There wasn’t one part of his body that didn’t feel the warmth of what Keegan could do. Talented hands on the ice apparently meant talented hands everywhere else, as well. The feeling of his lips on Marc’s chest, hips, thighs would last for hours.

“Thank you for that.” Keegan looked behind him from where he was washing off his own chest, hips, thighs. Marc’s face heated up. “Nothing like a celebratory romp in the… new showerhead?”

Marc wrapped his arms around him again as if it could stop him from leaving again. A fear he didn’t know he had until then. They stood under the water for a few minutes even though it was beginning to get more cold.

“You’re staying, right?” Keegan’s voice was quiet, barely audible over the water. “You can just tell Max to bring your shit to the airport.”

“You trust Talbo a little too much.”

“You underestimate the power of the word ‘please.’”

Marc rolled his eyes. Memories of the last time he’d asked Max to bring his things to the airport, coincidentally after an unsuccessful night with an ex-girlfriend, ran through his head. “Last time I did that it took me months to get the glitter off my clothes. And a couple hundred to replace the suitcase.”

There was no way he was denying Keegan a sleepover, however, so he nodded and kissed his shoulder.

The fuzzy blanket draped precariously over the end of Keegan’s mattress tickled the hairs on the back of Marc’s legs, the linen sheets were freezing thanks to a barely open window beside them. Goosebumps covered his entire body until Keegan laid on top of him.

“I’m sorry about the window.”

“You should really just close it.”

“You should really use your manners.

Marc snorted. His breath blew Keegan’s hair under his chin around. “Please?”

Keegan got up, a tight-lipped smile walking over to the window and shutting it quietly. He wiggled his fingers. Their dance only brought more attention to Keegan’s midsection, well-built without looking hard, tiny hairs below his bellybutton highlighted by the fact he was standing by the room’s lone lamp.

Marc’s face heated up when he realized the man in front of him knew exactly what he was looking at. He just couldn’t get enough.

“Sometimes I look at you in the room.” Keegan broke out into a smile. “I know I shouldn’t. That makes it better.”

“Why?”

He laughed as if it should’ve been common knowledge. “Have you seen yourself at all? Looked in a mirror?”

Marc waved his hand. The topic of mirrors was a little too fresh for him to admit, and he wondered if Keegan could read his mind. They automatically went back to a cuddling position that was slowly beginning to become routine.

“You are an… actual god? Like, the most perfect muscle and fat distribution? A smile that instantly breaks every heart in the room? And those freckles…”

“Yeah, okay. I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented on my fat distribution.”

“The manliest of fat distributions.” Keegan could barely get the sentence out without laughing.

A calm silence prompted Marc to reach for a remote barely within reach of where he was laying. The new TV on the wall was surprisingly fancy for someone who couldn’t put out the money for a bedframe. Friends was the first thing he thought of, the episode where Rachel crashed Ross’s wedding.

“I love this episode.”

Keegan had left the bed for a moment and was walking back with a large textbook and a box on top. He placed it at the foot of the mattress with a look that asked for Marc’s permission. It wasn’t until he agreed that he realized it was pot.

“It’s CBD. I’m not getting high.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“It’s healthy pain management.”

“As long as it’s not coke, I could care less.”

Marc tried to look back at the TV, but he was transfixed by the way Keegan effortlessly rolled a few joints within only a few minutes. The lighter came out, a quick flick of his thumb and the room filled with a scent Marc hadn’t experienced since watching Keegan complain on his couch what felt like years before. He pranced across the room, joint and curls bouncing, to open the window a smidge and pull out an impressively embroidered robe out of a cardboard box. The action of tying it, bow slightly off center, was completely effortless.

Marc fumbled to get his bottom half under the blankets.

Keegan flicked his ashes into a bowl on the floor beside his pillow. He crossed his legs and rested his chin on a fist like a child expecting a story.

It was less of a fumble to come up with a topic of conversation, especially with the buffer of a cloud of smoke. “I’m happy you showed me this.” He motioned to the TV.

“I don’t trust people that don’t like this show.”

“Why do you like it?”

A timid shrug. “I don’t know. I always wanted friends like that. Someone whose house I could just show up to.”

Marc thought of how confidently Keegan would stroll into his own house, a quick wave to Max before plopping on the couch to start up a movie without permission. It brightened up any off day.

“I didn’t really have friends when I was little.”

“You have that now.” Marc grabbed his hand to kiss every finger. It made him giggle.

“It’s about time.”

---
NOVEMBER 13
PENGUINS @ DALLAS STARS

“You never sit beside me.”

“Want to spend time for birthday.”

Rusty pointed to Phil’s number hanging above Geno’s head. “He’s not gonna like it.”

“Is fine. So stress.”

Geno could see Flower and Keegan in his peripheral, whispering an argument as they tried to block the pie tin full of shaving cream in Sid’s hands behind them. At least he’d made sure Rusty wasn’t in his suit anymore.

“There’s some sketchy shit going on here.” Rusty frowned at everyone around him. “I said I didn’t want anything.”

“We didn’t get you anything,” Flower said, somehow with a straight face.

“You hated all our ideas, so…” Stew pouted.

“I can literally see Sid holding something.”

“No, crazy. Hands are empty.”

There was an incredibly funny silence that Geno somehow managed to get through without bursting into hysterical laughter. The rest of the room all shook their heads in various levels of amusement.

“Close eyes.”

“No.”

“Come on, you don’t turn twenty every day.” Stew wiggled his eyebrows. “Pretty please?”

Rusty let out an annoyed sigh but did as he was told.

“See? The power of ‘please.’”

“Shut up,” Marc muttered with a small smile. He ignored Geno’s questioning gaze as they moved closer to the birthday boy.

Max cleared his throat in order to sing a very rocky rendition of the birthday song. Everyone joined in, although most of them seemed incredibly uninterested once they realized there wasn’t a cake in Sid’s hands. He snuck forward, giving Geno a wink as he shuffled close enough to easily tilt Rusty’s head into the tin.

“Hold breath.”

“Wha—”

Sid and Geno pushed his head forward. His hands immediately went up as his face landed in the shaving cream.

Keegan and Flower ran into the hallway as soon as Rusty had the power of sight back, a smart move since he flicked the remaining shaving cream at anyone that was within his vicinity. All Geno could do was laugh for the remaining five minutes it took him to get himself clean.

It was almost easy to forget about having to see Seguin again after an incredibly embarrassing drunk conversation during the prior year’s All-Star Game. His stomach turned as the idea popped back into his head.

As soon as everyone had settled back down, he tapped Sid’s shoulder. No words needed to be spoken. Sid immediately got up and followed him into the hall and didn’t question as they walked farther than normal. Thanks to Stew evacuating his screaming room early for the day, they were able to sneak into the janitor’s closet without interruption.

“Are you okay?”

Geno was hypnotized by the power of Sid’s eyes, two pools that looked up at him as if he was the sun. It was impossible to keep his hand from ruffling the unruly brown locks that had been unleashed from Sid’s cap.

“G, I’m almost positive someone saw us come in here.”

“Is fine. Need cleaning supply.”

Sid snorted.

“Am nervous. I’m try to forget, but…”

“It’ll be fine.” Sid grabbed his hands, clutching them to his chest. “He probably doesn’t even think of it. You said he was drunk, too.”

Even if he had been drunk right that moment, it would’ve been impossible to admit what had actually been said. Well, the parts he remembered. Being rejected by one of the most attractive players in the league had propelled him right back into a hole of shame and had been accentuated by the fact that they’d had to play each other multiple times afterward. He could see it in Tyler’s eyes every time.

“I love you,” was all he could manage. A quick kiss accompanied it.

---

“Holy fucking shit.”

“What?” Max’s voice went up a few octaves and he looked around frantically.

In actuality, the only thing that had made Keegan’s breath hitch and his body tense up into itself had been his glove resting on his shoulder. That causing him to essentially jump out of his skate had been completely unpredictable but seemed to be a theme since the Vancouver game. Any quick movements sent his brain into mayhem.

Which definitely came in handy when playing hockey.

It was nothing compared to the aftermath of his previous relationship (three days a week in therapy had nipped that in the bud). He could be thankful for that.

Max had backed away considerably. He leaned on the end of his stick and looked away like that would embarrass Keegan less.

“Sorry. You, uh, scared me.”

“Then I should be sorry.”

Keegan jumped in place for a moment. The blood rushed through his legs, every nerve on high alert. Waiting in the runway was his least favourite part of playing games, especially without the intense welcoming they would get at home. Instead, they’d be skating into darkness as every eye was on the guys in the green jerseys.

Marc had emphasized the importance of turning the tape on his stick into a rainbow. It happened every once in awhile within the league, one day dedicated to bringing awareness to an equality problem that existed throughout the year, so Dana had the tools on hand. At that moment, it seemed like a cry for attention rather than a moment of pride.

Marc. Keegan gave himself the gift of looking to the right, where the goalie was leaning on his knees and muttering to himself.

“The new kid tried to wash Sid’s jock yesterday.”

He was almost more embarrassed that that was the first thing that came out of his mouth, especially since Dana’s new equipment partner was young and incredibly timid and Keegan couldn’t help but relate, but it still resulted in a laugh.

“I thought that was common knowledge.” Marc glanced over.

“Apparently not. I thought Sid was gonna tackle him.”

“Surprised he didn’t.”

“I was thinking he should get it framed when he retires.”

They laughed away whatever Keegan had been clinging on to. It was a lot easier to skate into the darkness after that.

He and Max bopped around to the stereotypical country remixes that were blasting through the speakers, and he even deked out Marc without having to do something extreme. It was a confidence that hadn’t come out of its shell since he’d played in his hometown.

There was even an appreciative nod from Benn when the rainbow tape was spotted.

Keegan flew across the ice because it was the only thing he knew how to do. Luckily, Dallas seemed to focus less on physical play and more on making the wrong guesses about where Keegan and his linemates were going to end up. Every Penguin on the ice during his shift seemed to have developed an acute sense of telepathy strong enough for them to remain scarily silent. The Dallas players around them called to each other and it felt like an outdated form of communication as Sid and Geno took shot after shot at their net.

Dan whistled for him to get off what felt like seconds later. Geno and Sid had already plopped down on the bench, but the lone centerman making his way directly toward where Keegan had paused seemed like too good of a chance.

He poked his stick out without thinking, knocking the puck away from the Stars jersey and across the blue line. A powerful push from his right leg allowed him to get there just in time to avoid a slash and cross into Dallas territory. The goalie stumbled to get into position as Keegan neared the right circle.

There were whistles of support from the bench, bumbling Dallas players making their way over. The unmistakable calls of French from the Penguins net that helped push him forward.

The puck was catapulted toward the net just as Keegan’s stick snapped in half. He didn’t bother skating by slowly to look; he felt his shot go too high as soon as it had left his stick. The real victory had been the play.

“So, I’ll see you at the All-Star Game, right?” Sid leaned into him when he sat down.

“Ha ha. No fucking way.” Keegan tapped his new stick against the bottom of the boards, making the water bottles vibrate. “Not with rainbow tape. I’ll cheer long and hard for you, though, Cap.”

Geno, who had seemed relatively uncomfortable since the beginning of the game, let out a short chuckle. “You go there. Just wait.”

There were a few more chances for Pittsburgh, none of which were successful. Their defence started to struggle later into the period. Keegan could tell it was because of how aggressive Dallas was starting to get, their confidence picking up as the Penguins continued to fail to score. Marc was able to make multiple saves before a wrist shot went directly into the top left corner. The goal song mocked them as Keegan jumped back onto the ice.

The two groups made their way to the center of the ice. Sid leaned in just enough to whisper a play to Keegan. It was something they practiced often, nothing to worry about. They both looked to where Geno usually followed along. He wasn’t there.

“I didn’t do shit, man.”

“You slash, I’m feel!”

Keegan and Sid swung around at the same time. Geno was poking Seguin in the chest.

The ref shook his head. “I didn’t see anything.”

“Slash me right here!” G motioned across his arm.

“He didn’t move,” Benn chimed in.

Schultzy snorted from behind them. “Yeah, you’re gonna say that.”

“What is this, fucking middle school? Get the fuck over it.”

The ref had given up, turned back to the middle circle. Keegan watched Geno carefully. He was fully aware of how riled up his linemate could get in arguments that seemed petty to some. One of his biggest triggers was people not believing him.

Geno was still standing at full height, towering over Seguin, frowning at him. He gave him a gentle shove.

“Hey, hey. G.”

He turned to look at Keegan, shrugging as if he’d done nothing wrong.

“Don’t.”

They got into position and the puck was dropped. Geno immediately went back to poking his opponent, blocking his path from the play. Schultzy gained position and skated backward slowly as he watched. Keegan let out an obvious sigh before skating over.

“Don’t take a stupid penalty just because he hit you.”

“I didn’t do shit—”

“Okay, man!” Keegan turned to look at Seguin. He was sure the only reason Tyler backed off was the look on his face. “No one’s saying you did.”

Sid had grabbed Geno’s arm, the other man still trying to get at Seguin. Everyone else in the building seemed incredibly restless.

“I’m say you did.”

“I didn’t tell anyone, dude. I don’t give a shit. I didn’t slash him either,” Tyler said with his eyes glued on the exasperated ref.

“You didn’t wha—tell anyone?”

Tyler nodded.

With a threat to kick off their line, Keegan chose to switch sides with Geno. He had more questions than answers.

---

If asked, Marc would take full responsibility for the game that started during the first intermission.

The Penguins had gotten ahead in scoring by sheer luck, and he was bored of sitting on the bench, so he’d had an idea. He and Keegan would occasionally play a game to see who would back down first; it usually happened in one of their homes, allowing them to make obvious choices to try and get the other person to give in and join them in bed or even just kiss them.

A little hard to play in public. That’s where the fun was, though.

It started off with looks in the room. Keegan stripped off his top half and stretched. His excuse had been ‘airing out.’ Marc didn’t avoid checking him out as much as possible. Keegan licked his lips, Marc watched with mouth half open.

Then, during a timeout, Keegan leaned on the boards in front of Marc. The sentence whispered would’ve appeared fairly innocent to any bystanders but made Marc’s face turn red immediately. Nothing out of the ordinary for a game like theirs, though. Max let out a shocked chuckle. To Marc’s embarrassment, a few other players looked over at them with confused frowns. Whether they’d heard or not, his expression probably said it all. Keegan skated away easily.

Marc tried his best to use any sort of mannerism to make Keegan blush when he skated by. All it did was make him smile.

Keegan scored an easy goal and pointed straight at Marc. Another confused look from the bench.

The worst one was the congratulatory line, however. Surrounded by their teammates at the end of the ice, Marc felt it was okay to wrap his arm around Keegan’s shoulders. Keegan moved a little closer to him, top of his helmet nudging Marc’s chin as they embraced. The rest of the arena seemed to melt away with every healthy squeeze.

Max cleared his throat, breaking the embrace. He made his way over to them and hugged them close.

“Watch it, guys,” whispered with a stern look.

All eyes were on them as they walked into the locker room, last to shuffle awkwardly to their seats for Dan’s talk. Sid, Max, and Geno were the only ones to look at the coach as he congratulated them on a fantastic game.

Marc let out a long sigh as soon as the door shut behind him. A few of the staff meandered around the room, picking up jerseys that missed their target and discussing equipment changes with whoever needed it. The stares had been replaced by a complete lack of attention. Somehow that was worse.

“What the fuck was that?” Max leaned over to hiss at him.

In an attempt to remain nonchalant, something Marc was absolutely terrible at, all his concerned friend received was a shrug. He fell down to his knees, fingers fumbling to undo his pads instead of having to look at the intensity of Max’s glare.

“I’m serious, Flower.”

“Shhh.”

“You can’t just shush me.”

“I think I just did.”

“Jesus Christ.”

The topic was best not addressed. Especially not in a room full of people whose opinions made a very large impact in how Marc saw himself. Unlike some of the others, his problems were never discussed publicly. There were no group meetings about how to better his mental or physical state. No one had to worry about him except for the guy he lived with, and things were better that way.

Max seemed to get the hint by the time Marc sat back up and started stripping off his top half. He scanned around the semicircle; the rest of the group, including Keegan, had moved on to lighter conversations.

Only one person was still staring.

Kris leaned forward, chin out and lips pursed like he was thinking about something important. That was Tanger for ‘time to stir up some shit.’ Marc immediately started shaking his head.

“Hey, Stew.”

“Remind me again… when did I let you call me that?”

“I have a question.” Kris’s eyes remained on Marc’s.

“Okay…”

“What the fuck was that out there?”

Keegan’s mouth dropped open. He quickly composed himself and looked around the room. Many of the men pretended they weren’t listening.

“What was what?” He asked cautiously.

“Maybe Flower knows.” Kris held his hand out, a motion for Marc to explain.

“Hey, can you lighten your tone a bit?” Sid piped up. “You’re not a bad cop.”

“What are you talking about?” Keegan was basically halfway to the showers at that point. He clutched his towel uncomfortably.

“You two eye-fucking each other all night.”

All noises of undressing stopped. Marc had never clutched onto the sound of Velcro being undone to keep him sane until then. Keegan looked like he was about to shit himself and Max was holding back a smile. Phil let out a short laugh.

“Wha—um, I don’t…”

Justin stood up beside his shocked neighbour, his own towel wrapped around his hips. “It’s fine. You can be honest.”

Max laughed. He received a smack from Sid in return, who was conveniently ignoring everything that was happening.

“Uh… it was just a game. A stupid bet. You know, see how far it could go.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Man, shut the fuck up,” Marc groaned. He threw his sock toward Kris’s side of the room. If he could maintain an air of confidence, everyone would stop caring.

That, of course, didn’t work. It was obvious that nobody that was interested believed them, and Kris was still the only person that could look him in the eyes, which made him even more comfortable. He fiddled with a lone piece of tape until everyone had moved on to the showers.

The only comfort he got was from watching Keegan get dressed. His routine remained the same regardless of the setting, situation, mood. Socks on first, pulled up to his knees, followed by a quick drop of the towel and his boxers pulled on at the speed of light. Sometimes he would wander around the room and joke around (obviously not that night) before getting his shirt and dress pants on. The blazer would always be casually swung over his left shoulder.

Marc showered for about five seconds. He didn’t care about how he looked at that point. The longing to lay down in his hotel bed and forget that night had happened outweighed leaving the arena with a pristine suit.

Max and a few others chose to use the stairs instead of the elevator when they got to the hotel. Keegan had darted into the elevator and was pressing the buttons in a frenzy, attempting to close the doors before someone got a different idea. Marc was pushed toward him by an unknown pair of hands.

Their first moment alone could only be described as tense. They nodded in lieu of a greeting, both leaning on opposite sides of the elevator.

“That sucked,” Keegan said to the floor. “I don’t like lying.”

“Yeah.”

A pause. Marc searched Keegan’s face for any sign of where the conversation should go. The elevator vibrated slightly as it hit the fourteenth floor.

“Bet those assholes regret taking the stairs,” Marc attempted. He gained a smile from the surprisingly timid guy in front of him. “Ah, there it is.”

“There what is?”

Marc tapped Keegan’s cheek, right where his dimple was.

“Shut up.”

The elevator dinged as it went up a few more floors.

“I don’t think I want to tell people yet.”

The sentence was said with a cringe, but it only gave Marc the greatest form of stress relief. He let out a shaky breath that he didn’t know he’d been holding.

“Not that I don’t ever want to tell people. Just… I think I need a break from, uh, that kind of thing.” He raised his eyebrows. “And you need to be comfortable, obviously.”

“I’m fine with not.”

“Sweet.”

The doors opened on their floor. The sound of their teammates echoed down the hallway, reminders of what the real world actually felt like. Keegan clicked his tongue before shoving his hands in his pockets and stepping out into the world. Marc’s fingers gripped the tip of his elbow in an attempt to bring him back to the entrance.

“We should get dinner when we’re back.”

The innocent smile in front of him made the awkward night worth it.

“I’d like that a lot. Buddy.”

“Awesome… pal.”

---

“Oh, you’re fucking joking.”

Xavier’s body was, in fact, not joking. He’d had the decency to keep his boxers on, but even then, Tanner felt like he was intruding. Even if it was his hotel room, too.

The image was all too familiar; he’d walked in on Keegan and Xavier in the same position with the same setup beside them multiple times in his career as the Frenchman’s roommate. He didn’t need to smack Xavier’s cheek to know that he was too far gone to listen to any voice of reason or concern. It would be a solid hour before Tanner could say anything worth listening to.

A frustrated tear smacked against the ceramic side of the tub. He swallowed down the urge to scream while he still could.

The needle and junk were discarded while the opportunity was present. The needle poked out obviously from the garbage, but he still made a mental note to leave a note for the housekeeper. A quick flush was all it took to erase the drugs from the room.

Tanner contemplated messaging Keegan for some advice but didn’t want to bring him back to what he’d run from to begin with. He had no idea how that would affect his friend’s own sobriety, something that he was incredibly proud to see.

The other option was Juice. Even that seemed insensitive, however, given that the poor guy had tried to save two lives already with a 50% success rate. He’d done his part for the planet.

Passiveness won out for the night. He sat down beside the tub, the hard floor already making his ass hurt. They would remain in that position until Xavier woke up.

Tanner grabbed his hand.

---

Keegan often wondered at what point in his life a racing heart wouldn’t induce a panic attack. The answer was usually a resounding ‘never.’

Another common question was when he wouldn’t cause said panic attacks by doing too intense of a workout. When would he stop trying to bike away from the feeling instead of admitting he’d brought it on himself? Exercise was supposed to make him feel better. He’d practically gotten a prescription to join a gym when he got out of rehab. Swap one addiction for another.

He felt like he would never reach the peak he’d planned for himself and his knee cried out in protest. Droplets of sweat hit the handlebars as he leaned forward to catch his breath. It was impossible to ignore the fact that his arms were shaking.

Four deep breaths were needed before he realized he was no longer the only person in the gym that morning. Keegan felt slightly bad for Geno as the aggressive rap he’d chosen blasted through the speakers. He hit pause (thank God for Bluetooth) and tried to indulge himself with silence. An occasional groan as Geno lifted weights was the only thing left. Thoughts haunted Keegan with every second.

He didn’t look at his workout partner when he spoke.

“You want to tell people.”

An uncertain hum.

“I told Marc that I don’t want to yet.” Keegan’s reflection frowned at him, still embarrassingly sweaty. “I lied. I think I want to tell people, too.”

The admittance was lifesaving. His heart calmed itself instantly, arms stopped shaking. If he’d known it would’ve been that easy, he would’ve just said it to himself an hour before. It was easy to imagine, since Geno didn’t respond.

“What are the odds that two gay players on a team happen to find two more gay players, two of which don’t want to be public? What are the odds that we’re all here in the same season, wanting the same type of relationship, having to hide ourselves because, statistically, no other team has as many gays on their team?”

The reflection resented him for how much he was talking.

“Maybe it’s the universe. A sick joke. Here, Pittsburgh, have all the fags! You have room!”

His outstretched arms gained Geno’s attention. They smiled at each other, only because the joke was too fucking true, and the wound would always feel too fucking raw.

“I tell parents after Christmas.”

“Alone?”

Geno shook his head quickly, as if the thought was too silly to be true. “With Anna and Doodle.”

“Well… that’s good.” Keegan would never have the words for that delicate of a situation. His smile felt inappropriate, so he went back to a slight frown. “That’s coming up.”

“Yes.”

“Does Sid know?”

The lack of an answer was answer enough. Keegan wondered if he could last in the closet for that long.

---

“Is this too much? Not enough? Perfect? Your lack of expression is worrying me.”

Marc still stared at him with an unreadable face. Keegan rolled his shoulders back, the fabric of his olive green and gold embroidered jacket making a strange noise against his shirt.

“You’re leaving me hanging.”

Marc’s own outfit was incredibly distracting. All black, small pop of orange from his socks. Like a flamboyant spy. Keegan reached out to feel the fabric of his blazer, something expensive and obviously made custom.

“Well, you look great.” He was still only looking at a stare. “Wow, thank you Keegan. So do you! Completely perfect, the whole package!”

“Sorry,” Marc finally chuckled, “I’m just…”

Keegan shook his head, raised an eyebrow to show he had no idea what was happening. The other man didn’t look sick, didn’t look extremely nervous, didn’t look anything bad enough for them to be standing in Keegan’s foyer for fifteen minutes. The reservation loomed over them.

“Is there any part of you that just wants to stay in?” Marc licked his lips, making a smile appear. He sounded incredibly sure.

He tried his best to hide how disappointed he felt on the inside. It had been fun to dress up for something other than a game; he’d been hoping to show it off. “Um, yeah. I mean—yeah, that’s fine.”

“You just look so… tellement putain de parfait. So good.”

Keegan broke into a grin. “Horny asshole. We are going to that reservation that I’m shocked you were able to make…” He stepped closer to Marc until he was sure his breath danced around Marc’s neck. “And you’re going to sip your beer and think about me sprawled out on your bed, and I’ll make sure I order something light, so it gets the point across that I’m not here for dinner. And you’re going to think about that rope you bought the other day that’s calling to you from your bedside table, and how to bring that up with me.”

A blush went up Marc’s neck, stuck in his cheeks. “How did you know about…”

“Blame your friend.” Keegan played with the tie in front of him, tugging on it lightly. “Come on. I’m hungry.”

The restaurant was incredibly fancy. Keegan worried he wasn’t dressed appropriately, surrounded by men dressed like Marc and women dressed like it was the Oscars. He stood out like a sore thumb. His head stayed down until they’d been guided to their table.

“You look great,” Marc said again, at a lower volume than before. “Brightest in the room.”

“I don’t know, your socks are kinda taking charge over here.”

Marc stuck his tongue out and Keegan felt like the room was made of butterflies.

“Hi, there. My name is Karl, I’ll be your—oh, my God. You’re—you’re Fleury. Oh my… you’re my favourite player, man. You’re amazing!” The enthusiasm of the server didn’t match their serious scenery at all, much to the relief of Keegan. “You carry that team, man.”

Marc cleared his throat, jerked his head toward Keegan. Karl looked over at him and immediately covered his mouth.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t—wow, this is great.”

“It’s okay. He’s kind of distracting.”

“You are the two best players. That goal was fucking incredible. Pardon my language.”

“Thank you.” Keegan’s cheeks hurt from smiling so much.

“What can I get you guys? Anything you want, I’ll make it happen.”

Marc looked down at the menu. He looked suddenly mortified, leaving Keegan unsure if it was because of the immense offers that kept coming out of Karl’s mouth or because he had been caught at a table with only one of his teammates. Keegan took charge and ordered the most expensive beer, some pasta, a salad. Lemon water for himself. His date’s eyes remained down for the rest of the conversation, enough for the server to catch on and leave quickly.

“This doesn’t have to be a reminder of… we don’t have to think about it. We’re just two people having dinner to them.”

Marc finally looked up. They both took a deep breath, played over the top to make them laugh, and rested back into their chairs. The clinking of glasses, people laughing and yelling and chattering away like there were no worries in the world, throwing their money at the servers to get a better wine or steak or girl, it all moved in slow motion compared to the two men in the middle of the room. They sipped their water and sat in a silence that was calming.

Marc leaned forward, his hand snaked up from his lap to beside his cutlery, toward the centerline of the table. A move made at both of their kitchen tables multiple times in their short relationship, signal for Keegan to reach over and clutch his hand through a funny conversation or a rough morning. It took all his strength to change the subject.

“So, you’ve always lived with Max?”

“Here?”

“Yeah.”

Marc crinkled his nose in thought. “Pretty much, yeah. Was with a billet for a bit. We just clicked pretty quickly, neither of us had partners, so… it just happened. I’m really happy it did.”

“Do you think you’ll be there forever?” Keegan tried his best to word it politely, as he really didn’t care if Marc wanted to live with his best friend. They saw each other enough every day.

“Maybe.” The food was served, along with his beer which he pushed to the side. He was still uncomfortable drinking around Keegan no matter how much assurance he received. It wasn’t until the server left that he continued talking. “His, uh, contract runs up this season. He’s not sure what’s going to happen.”

“Wait. Seriously? Does everyone know?”

Marc shook his head. “You shouldn’t, either. So, don’t say anything.”

“Why wouldn’t they resign him?”

“That’s not the issue.”

Keegan ohhh’d into his salad. Max had been there for his entire NHL career, although Keegan couldn’t imagine wanting to leave Pittsburgh.

“It’s his choice.” Marc shrugged. His fork twirled effortlessly in his pasta and popped into his mouth.

“Still sucks.”

They paused to eat for a moment, to digest the reality of already losing an iconic part of their group. Keegan didn’t want to think about someone replacing him, since no one ever would.

“At least you’re stuck with me for three more years,” Keegan tried. “And Sid. And Geno.”

“Can we talk about something else?” Marc’s mouth was full, head lifted to look everywhere in the room but in front of him.

There was no pause for the sake of the airy energy they’d created earlier. “Shall we go with childhood trauma again? Or would you like to review our plays for Tuesday?”

“I like that those are the only two options.”

“Oh, how about girlfriends? Tell me all about it, Fleury. Lay it on the table.” His swinging hand almost knocked over his glass of water. “Nobody serious? Really?”

Marc snorted. “No. Obviously.”

“Not even a great friend?”

That made him think. Keegan finished his water and stole some of Marc’s.

“Veronique. She was… my best friend, for a long time. We met when I first got here. I wasn’t even twenty, and she was smart and funny, and we got along enough for it to be okay for a bit.”

“What happened?”

“Mmm, she wasn’t happy. I couldn’t give her what she deserved. You know, I would’ve married her if we’d been together any longer, and I think we were both scared of that. I’m glad it ended now, after seeing what happened to Valerie. I could never put Vero through that.”

“But, don’t you talk?”

“No. We don’t need to. That part of our lives moved on.”

Keegan was overwhelmed with emotion. The fact that he had and would hear that same story over and over again in the league was more than terrible. Heartbreak wrapped up in a family, a marriage. “That’s the happiest ending I’ve heard for a story like that.”

“It’s been pretty good.” Marc winked at him. “Nobody serious after that. Lots of failed attempts.”

“Lucky girls.”

“Believe me, they were far from lucky.”

“Well, I feel pretty lucky,” Keegan practically whispered.

By the time they had paid a hefty bill, left a hefty tip, and the keys to Marc’s hefty car had been thrown at Keegan, they both felt like teenagers. Their giggles floated through the parking lot, hands and arms brushing accidently on purpose. Smiles that could light up even the darkest area of the city.

Keegan frowned at the car as soon as he got in. The seat was back an incredible amount, so low that it was comical. He peered over the steering wheel and looked around for a keyhole.

“Push button start.” Marc laughed at him.

“Do you actually trust me with your fancy car? Is this a test to see if I know my limits?”

“It’s because I feel tipsy.”

“Are you sure that’s not just my effect?”

Marc tapped his chin, pretending to think. “Um… no. I’m not sure.”

Keegan fixed the seat, almost launching himself directly into the steering wheel, and pressed the button. The car made no sound. “Is it on?”

Marc smacked him playfully. His hand slid down Keegan’s arm and onto his thigh.

“I meant the car.”

They pulled each other closer with no words, meeting in the middle of a very awkward position. Keegan melted into the feeling as much as possible before Marc pulled away just enough to look at him.

“I know the windows are tinted, but I don’t think I wanna do this here.”

“Fair. Let’s get Max involved.”

The drive back was hectic at best. To be fair, Keegan should never be trusted with a sports car.

---

The conference room was full. It rarely ever was, even during the playoffs; the reporters liked to act like they were fighting millions to ask their question, however there were usually ten seats left empty. That day there were no empty seats, not even any seat fillers. Just loud murmuring from multiple people who were about to write articles and film short clips that would change the way the public looked at Keegan Stewart.

It was his phoenix moment. The red suit seemed fitting.

He always figured that moment would happen on the ice. Confetti would sprinkle down on him, tears of happiness mixing with the small strips of shiny paper as he embraced every person within an arm’s distance. Not in a hotel on the road, mostly surrounded by people he didn’t know and six hours away from a game.

Jen walking into the hall felt like the second coming of Christ, her heels clomping down the concrete and hair flowing behind her. She was the embodiment of organization. Exactly what Keegan needed.

“You’re fine? You need anything?”

“Do I have a body double?” He deadpanned as she stuck a Penguins pin onto his lapel.

“You’re not rich enough for one of those yet. Maybe after this.”

“That’s comforting.”

She looked directly into his eyes, height the same thanks to Keegan being so short and her heels, and placed her hands on each shoulder without hesitation.

“You’re going to go out there. You’ll answer questions, you’ll be your charmingly strange self, you’ll pose a little. Then you can come back here, and we can celebrate with some free pastries.” Jen’s face softened. “Because this is a reason to celebrate. Today, we change things. You change things.”

“No pressure.”

“No pressure.”

The only noise were his shoes on the floor, the sporadic tapping of a pen on the armrest of a chair, his own chair squeaking dramatically as he sat down in front of the group. He leaned forward.

“Hello.”

The microphone squealed in excitement.

“We’re going to go through some questions, and then you can add anything if you wish,” Jen basically yelled to the room. Everyone looked afraid of her, which seemed to make her smile.

“Okay. Go for it.”

“I have to say that I love the promo photos for this launch. Are you just as excited to see everything come to life?”

Keegan looked at the woman in the front row. She was vaguely familiar, although it might have just been the kindness in her smile. “I’m extremely excited. This has been such a huge collaboration with a bunch of really creative people, so I, uh, just feel honoured, really. I’ll be very proud to wear that jersey and to get involved in this foundation.”

“And are you worried about any sort of backlash?”

“Obviously. But I’ve had some experience with that, so I think I’ll be fine.”

The room laughed.

A man in the third row raised his pen. “What’s the hardest part of being transgender for you? Does it play as large of a role in your career as some people make it seem?”

“The hardest thing?” Keegan exhaled. “Fuck. Okay. Um, well… coming out.” Pause. “Coming out to my parents, coming out to my friends, coming out to everyone. Although, people kind of do that for me now, so, you know. But, yeah, having to come out over and over and over and over again for the rest of my life.”

The room burst into multiple questions and statements at that, each person trying to one up the other. Keegan coughed.

“You know, when I was first coming out, I wrote a list of people, from easiest to hardest, and I went down the list. A friend here, a friend there. I tried to do it all in person, sometimes that didn’t happen. Eventually, I got down the list so far that I reached the last two people.

I had a partner at the time, his name was, um—his name was Connor. I picked him up, then we drove far enough out of the city that nothing really felt real. I drove to the airport at the edge of the city, parked out back, by the fence. And there was this military jet thing happening? So, every once in awhile they would take off, and the whole car would shake, and we would laugh. In between two of the jets taking off, I passed him my phone where I’d written down, ‘I think I’m trans.’ I ended up clarifying that I knew, not thought, but it sounded like a better sentence with that opening, so…

And I cried the rest of the day. I dropped him off at his house and I cried but it wasn’t because I regretted it. It was because, suddenly, I could envision a future for myself. I’d never been able to do that before.”

The words spilled out into an absolute quiet. The ends of multiple phones and even some cameras were the only things that made eye contact.

“So, it’s a tough question to answer because everything has been the hardest part. Trying to buy suits that fit properly, having to explain it to people, having to see a therapist again. All the little things just keep adding up, especially in the beginning.

When I joined this league, a lot of people told me to be grateful. And I am, believe me. I was to be grateful because times were changing. And they are. But I was supposed to sit there and be grateful that I was being treated the way I deserved to be treated. I was supposed to thank a corporation for making an exception. I was supposed to sit there and be quiet when I was treated with less respect than a garbage can.

And I’ve it easy. Real fucking easy compared to some of these kids who didn’t have parents that would pay for them to do what they love, or that loved them at all. Some of these kids kill themselves because they’d rather be dead than live in the situation that they’re in and I can pretend that I get that, but I’m one of the lucky ones. When I thought about jumping off a bridge because it was taking too long to get on hormones and I was being shipped back and forth between the women’s and men’s leagues, I received a referral to a psychologist who helped speed the process along so I could be happier faster. A lot of people have to do that shit themselves, if they’re lucky enough to get in at all.

You know, I’m grateful for the second chances. And the love. The chosen family. For Pittsburgh. For myself, for not jumping off that bridge. But I’m not going to thank many people until changes actually happen. Until something so simple as a kid wanting to play a sport isn’t made into a political statement. I’ll start thanking people when everyone starts reacting the way Pittsburgh has. When the hardest part is just… life. Not living.”

Jen gave him a thumbs up from the back of the room. No one else moved. Keegan started to get that bomb feeling again, like nobody was ever going to move around him with ease ever again. His throat was scratchy from voicing his own importance.

“Do you hope more trans players join the league?”

“If they’re good players, yeah.”

“Would you consider yourself a good role model for future players?”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “Um… no. Not at all.” For some reason, he pictured his therapist asking if he would ever want to be. His response was shaking his head. “I think there are a lot of guys in the league that are aiming for that label, but I just want to play.”

“Do you see yourself remaining in Pittsburgh?”

There was a sense of hesitancy with every answer that ran through his head. Any way to buffer a potential fall in popularity, comfortability, sanity. Jen leaned on the chair in front of her, and he could feel her hands on his shoulders.

“Yeah, I’d love to. I really like everyone there.”

Jen pursed her lips to hide a smile.

---

“Hey, man. You can come in now.”

Xavier squinted at the seagull that had landed on his balcony. It jumped slightly when he flicked his lighter in front of a cigarette.

“Come on. It’s fucking cold.”

“My first trip, I pet a seagull. It exploded, there were feathers everywhere.”

Kevin’s body heat was the only signal he had decided to join Xavier’s freezing cold cigarette break. “That’s probably why you’re so fucked up.”

A laugh fell out of his mouth, although it wasn’t joined by a smile. The seagull flew up into the air and dived beneath them with a speed that looked like sinking. Xavier swung around to face his friend, so quickly he briefly felt like he might vomit, and held the cigarette toward Kevin like a microphone.

“You just threw away one thousand dollars. How does that make you feel?”

“I feel like you could’ve spent that on Christmas gifts for your children. Yeah, your kids. Remember those things? The ones that depend on you being alive to keep them alive?”

“Don’t think little of Val’s power. They don’t need me.”

“Don’t make me look like the bad guy here.”

A wave of pure, unfiltered anger flowed through Xavier’s veins. As if he hadn’t thought of the kids’ presents, obsessed over which cards would match with which wrapping paper, written tens of thousands down on a cheque for their future college funds. Kevin would never hear that, though, even if he hadn’t just thrown out the remainder of Xavier’s junk.

“Glasser’s too nice to say this, but… what the fuck, dude? What the fuck do you think you’re doing right now? Where do you think you’re going? At what point did going back to FUCKING HEROIN sound like a good idea? Oh, yeah, that’ll totally keep you on top. They can bump your contract, man, they can kick you the fuck out right now and they have every reason to. You know why you’re still here? No, really, answer.”

Xavier sniffled. “I’m good.”

“No! Because we’re shit! We fucking suck at playing hockey!”

“I’m the best of shit.”

“Yes! You’re the prettiest piece of shit here!”

“Would you like a vase to throw?”

Kevin let out a frustrated growl, hands gripped into his hair. It was hilarious, even if it was evil to laugh.

“I can’t just be happy.”

“Why not?” Kevin sat down on a half-frozen metal chair. It looked like a cage had swallowed him whole. “Why can’t anyone just be happy for five seconds? Not need a fucking babysitter?”

“I don’t feel happiness like you.” A long drag. Smoke framed his face and danced in his hair. “It’s moments. Short, er… explosions of feeling. Then it’s numb again. And I’m laying in bed, the street, a couch, waiting for feeling again.”

“And shooting actual garbage into your body makes you feel good?”

Xavier shrugged. He flicked his cigarette over the edge of the balcony and sat back down. The fabric of his jeans froze to the floor immediately, pulling as he shuffled his knees closer to his chin. “I feel something.”

Kevin rubbed his hands over his face. The scratching of his calloused palms against his blooming stubble rose above any other noise in the city. There was an intense familiarity of the expression on his face; he was pondering something far from his own realm of healthy mental health and lifestyle and travelling into something that he instinctually looked at as garbage. He was looking for an inspiration from his adventure with Rick, but they were two different people. Rick had been an amazing human being. Xavier knew in that moment there truly was only sewage running through his veins, an iron machine pumping his breathing.

“Tell me what you want me to do.” He said it like a beggar. The only thing that would’ve made it better would’ve been him crawling up and kissing Kevin’s feet.

“I want you to help yourself. Please.”

The pure white light of snow plunging toward the ground blurred slightly. There was a second that stretched on for hours where Xavier was sure he might pass out, or that he would sail away like the seagull to end up washed away by the ocean. His mouth remained agape in preparation for something he wasn’t sure of. The teeth that lined it were cold, they didn’t feel like his own. If he were alone he would’ve pulled at them until they were out of his life. Even Kevin’s face became less recognizable. It took a moment to realize his eyes were watering.

They remained in an uneven standoff, Xavier looking up.

---

“This is immaculate.”

“This was definitely all Nathalie.”

“And Anna. I saw her picking out balloons the other day.”

Keegan followed behind the group of WAGs, shorter than half of them thanks to the magic of high heels. If only he could walk in some six inchers. They all leaned into each other and laughed as their partners joined them before the doors to the dining area. Whoever had been able to rent out an entire restaurant needed to introduce themselves to him. Maybe next time they’d rent out his house. The dinner wasn’t even celebrating anything, the Penguins just liked to treat their players that much.

Keegan was thankful he’d smoked before he’d gotten into the cab; the CBD took the edge off just enough for him to be able to nod to the strangers around him with relative ease. He buttoned and unbuttoned his blazer as he stood by the door, awaiting the arrival of someone he knew well enough to sit with. Couples floated past and ooh’d and aww’d at the wintery decorations above his head.

It took five minutes for a familiar French chiding to fill the air. Max, arms waving as he tried to explain something, walked ahead of Marc and… a woman. A beautiful, tall, muscular woman with her arm wrapped around his, laughing along to Max’s games. Keegan plastered a smile on his face to replace the confusion bubbling up inside of him.

“Stew! You remember the end of that movie we watched last week, right? The one with the person who looks like this.” Max hooked his fingers on either side of his mouth, pulling them apart so that his teeth were showing. “You know, the funny one?”

“It?”

“Yeah! You remember the ending?”

Keegan laughed. He avoided eye contact with the two people beside him as much as possible. “They all cut their hands open. Give each other bloodborne illnesses.”

“Yes! Exactly!”

“Why is that up for debate?”

“I said they should’ve needed stitches. Flower doesn’t agree with me, and Jess hasn’t seen it.”

Keegan’s shoulders relaxed. Phil’s sister. He turned to Marc, who was giving him a playful smile. He could only imagine how much Phil had bugged him the night before.

“I’m just saying, with a cut that deep—”

“It’s a movie.”

“They made a point of showing the glass go in!”

“I’m Keegan.” He reached his hand out to Jess, which she shook happily. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why?” She frowned.

“You have to be siblings with Phil.”

“All those hot dogs,” Marc chimed in.

The three of them laughed, and Jess politely smiled given she had no idea what they were on about. Marc’s hand made its way to Keegan’s arm, but he quickly pulled away before anyone could notice. His date gazed off toward the groups of tables just steps away from them.

Marc noticed. He patted her hand. “Go find somewhere to sit. I’ll come find you.”

She nodded gratefully, immediately sitting down at a table that only had two seats.

Max laughed. “Poor thing. How’d you rope her into coming with you, Flower?”

He had already turned to look at Keegan, hands in their usual resting place on his arms. “I’m so sorry. It was last minute, she needed a ride and I knew you’d be here already—”

“It’s fine. It’s not like I can compete with her.” There was a jealous edge to Keegan’s voice that he immediately regretted. It didn’t fit the sentence at all, but neither of the men seemed to notice. “Go be straight.”

Marc smiled at him gratefully. His hand squeezed Keegan’s arm three times before he made his way to the table.

“Oh, no one can compete with you, by the way,” he called as he walked away.

“Gross.” Max cringed. “I’m gonna go be straight, too.”

Keegan’s jaw dropped. “You have to sit with me.”

“Sorry, but you don’t have any single female friends. I think there’s a seat by Tanger and Duper?”

“Of course, there is.”

It felt like a walk of shame into the room, alone and aimlessly searching for any available seat. The Christmas lights flickered, reflecting onto a few glass snowflakes hanging from exposed wooden beams. Fake snow glimmered on the centerpieces. A few of the guys gave him apologetic smiles as he walked by, their hands resting on top of their partners with no shame. Keegan couldn’t help but feel a little bitter. It was probably the decorations, since it wasn’t even December.

Kris frowned when Keegan sat down without a word. Catherine was in deep conversation with Duper and his wife, something about lamb chops.

“Why are you…”

“No other seats. Don’t worry, this wasn’t my first choice.”

It was a joke, but Kris looked at him like he’d just threatened to jump off a bridge. The plates of soup in front of each person were an unappetizing shade of green, so Keegan had to look at the ceiling to avoid his gaze.

“Did Flower ditch you?”

“Seriously?” Keegan scoffed at the snowflake hanging above them. “Are you obsessed with him?”

Tanger raised an eyebrow. “Are you?”

Keegan frowned at him (the product of talking to someone that was acting like a twelve-year-old) and grabbed himself some bread and butter from the middle of the table. They didn’t speak for awhile, long enough that Kris eventually turned back to the other conversation at the table. They were speaking about how Duper would be surprising his kids with some new device that was popular with their age group. Keegan continued to shove pieces of bread in his mouth. He tuned back into the conversation after feeling a little rude about staring off into space.

“It must be so exciting to have kids,” Catherine spoke before sipping her wine. “It probably makes Christmas way more exciting.”

“It’s really great.” Duper turned to look at his wife, their hands finding each other on top of the table. They smiled like they really meant it. “I would spend millions on those devils.”

“And he has.”

A quick kiss to emphasize their love. Catherine turned to Kris, a smile on her own face.

“I can’t wait for that.”

The honesty was paralyzing. Keegan felt like he was intruding as he watched them kiss, Kris making sure to peck the end of her nose for a giggle, but he couldn’t turn away. The openness of the whole situation was deeply distracting. Tanger looked at her like she was the entire world, not scared away at all by a discussion that was extremely forward.

It was sweet. Something Keegan never thought he would think about the defenceman.

Keegan sat through the first course wholly entertained by the couples with him. He had become accustomed to the way secret relationships worked; there were no casual kisses or handholding, no discussing their homelives at a dinner table with others that could empathize with the situation. It was so overly a public display that it felt like he was watching a TV show rather than viewing a personal side of his teammates. They spoon-fed each soup and laughed about first dates. It was almost a parody of how Keegan had thought relationships would look like.

There was a rollcall for a group photo, thankfully leaving out the players, and Catherine jumped up. With a kiss on the top of Kris’s head, she ran over to join the other WAGs. They wrapped their arms around each other. Keegan thought back to some comments made back in Vancouver about how much all the wives would bicker and gossip about each other, which he immediately resented even remembering in the first place. There was no sense of hatred between the women, only support for a very specific kind of situation.

“Can I ask you something?”

The softness in Tanger’s voice was surprising. Keegan started to worry; nothing good could come from that kind of conversation between them.

“Yeah, you can.” Keegan softened his voice and thoughts as he looked at the other man.

“What…” Kris sighed. He looked like he was building the nerve to say something, shuffled in his seat. “What do you think of her? The truth, please,” he clarified at Keegan’s confused expression.

The group was laughing around one of the phones, joking about someone’s face in a picture. Catherine flipped her hair back and looked like a goddess.

“She’s beautiful.”

“You think?”

Keegan rolled his eyes. “I can still appreciate a beautiful woman.”

“I know, I know.” Kris turned back to his food. His fork slid in and out of his mashed potatoes in a way that made Keegan extremely uncomfortable. He reached over to touch Kris’s wrist, stopping the movement.

“Why are you asking my opinion, anyway? Why not Duper?” He looked over to where Pascal’s empty chair was. Their teammate had happily joined in on the photos. “You guys are closer.”

“Because it matters to me. I think we’re close. Like family.”

If Keegan hadn’t known better, he would’ve thought he was having a heart attack. The sentence knocked the air out of him. His hand flailed a little in attempt to find his glass of water while maintaining eye contact. Drinking the water was less than graceful, droplets ran down his chin and left uncomfortable spots on his dress pants.

“Is that weird to you?”

Keegan’s breath came heavy from chugging the water. “I mean, yeah. Given the circumstances.”

“Last time we talked alone you told me a detailed story of pegging multiple Russian players in Stamkos’s room. I think we’re close.”

“That wasn’t…” Keegan shook his head. “What about, like, everything?” It was impossible for him to ask the true question: what had changed?

“I just care, okay? We’ve been through a lot together, technically.”

“What am I, like, a brother-in-law twice removed?”

That made Kris snort out a laugh. Keegan found himself joining in, if only to lighten his memories of the guy beside him. The laughter trickled into a comfortable silence, or as silent as it could be given most of the room was beginning to get drunk, and they returned to finishing their food.

“I think I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”

A sentence that required a more tactful reaction than the last. Keegan nodded at his plate.

“I know, you think it’s too soon.”

A deep inhale. “No. No, it’s not. If you think it’ll work, then… why not?”

“What happened with Val, it fucked me up more than I thought it would.” Kris watched him carefully. He looked like a nervous puppy. “I hated you, honestly. Not you as a person, just, like… you in the situation. But it wasn’t your fault. It was just the idea of someone fucking up a marriage.”

Keegan was unsure where things were headed. He held his own hand tightly.

“I guess I don’t want to be the someone that fucks it up, you know?” Kris looked across the room as if his heart was off laughing with her friends. It would warm even the coldest heart.

“Well, are you planning on fucking it up?”

“Fuck, no.”

Keegan took a drink to hide his smile. Some water spilled over the edge when he set it down.

“Look, I appreciate that you care about my opinion, but you can’t let whatever the fuck is going on with your sister determine what your future is. The variables are different. You wouldn’t be marrying a closeted gay man; you’d be marrying a friend. Someone you know.”

They looked at each other. Months of apologies that should’ve happened but had been avoided at all costs with excuses and busy rooms filled the space between every blink. Kris opened his mouth slightly, just enough to let Keegan know something had felt important enough to say. Instead, he shoved another forkful of potatoes into his mouth, making sure to annoy Keegan as much as possible while doing so.

“Seriously? Are you trying to fuck those potatoes?”

Kris gave him a full-faced smile after swallowing. He pushed his chair back, took an elastic from his wrist and loosely tied back his hair, and patted the top of Keegan’s head. Catherine had noticed and waved them both over.

“Go dance with your fiancé.”

“Hey, don’t tell anyone, okay?”

Keegan stuck his pinky out. The action was apparently enough for Kris, since he backed away with a smile on his face.

“And you deserved better than that asshole, by the way. I hope you find someone.”

Catherine was lifted into the air, twirled around by a ponytailed man that rarely showed emotion. Her laugh filled the room, danced above the slow piano and drew attention from every eye in her vicinity. Keegan looked away before they kissed. He was afraid it might stir up feelings of unfair bitterness toward his new confidant.

His glance moved directly to where Marc was sitting, like a magnet he’d been denying for too long. Marc’s arm was slung over the back of Jess’s chair like how it would be if Keegan were in her place. She was pointing her camera toward Max’s table, where he was balancing a spoon on his nose in an attempt to impress the woman beside him. Marc used his own spoon to flick a wadded-up napkin toward them. Keegan held his breath as it soared over an innocent table and barely caught the edge of Orpik’s glass. The exhale of a laugh was quickly interrupted by the fact that he wasn’t the one beside Marc.

Once, Kevin had explained love in the simplest way he knew how: wanting to experience anything, even the dumb shit, with that person. Keegan had rolled his eyes then, sure that the crumbs he was being given at the time equated to something more powerful than that, but in a way, he’d always known that he was being told the truth. He had feared that he wasn’t lucky enough to experience something as wholesome as wanting to experience the mundane with another person. But, at that moment, being on the opposite side of the room of someone who he’d shared the mundane and more with felt even worse than being fed crumbs. He wanted to know what Marc had muttered as he’d balled up the napkin, how the light from the ceiling would’ve reflected off the spoon and highlighted his face, if Marc would’ve snuck his hand closer to Keegan’s shoulder and given it a gentle squeeze. What it would’ve felt like to know he hadn’t missed yet another smile due to holding in a secret.

Thanks to a piece of paper being loaded into a spoon, Keegan realized he was in love with the crazy man in front of him.

The dinner went by quickly after that, thanks to Duper happily telling more stories about his kids. Keegan asked a few questions, but the couples dominated the conversation. All he had to do was smile and nod along. Eventually, more plates were taken away, more drinks dumped into mouths before being ushered out of the room as quickly as they’d entered. Keegan piled his dishes neatly, although he had heard somewhere that servers hated when people did that.

Max drifted over to Keegan as soon as he could, practically tripping over a chair that hadn’t been tucked in on his way. He stood behind Keegan with his hands on both shoulders.

“Why are you so excited?” Keegan turned his head awkwardly to try and look at him. He was simply pushed out the door in response.

Max jumped in front of him as soon as they’d crossed the threshold. It was insanely hard for Keegan to keep from staring as Marc pushed in the chair Jess had been sitting in, waiting while she finished talking with someone else.

“I met someone. Probably won’t be home tonight. You can handle feeding Dorothy, right?”

Keegan, sure he’d missed something while watching his partner place an arm around another person’s shoulders, shook his head. “Dorothy?”

“The fish.”

“Since when did you have a fish?”

“I’ll text you in the morning, okay? We can all go out for food or something before practice.”

“I—What do I feed the fish?”

Max was already halfway down the stairs that led to the exit. It seemed his spoon-balancing skills had worked; the woman who’d been sitting beside him now had her hand resting on the small of his back as their bodies disappeared from view.

“What the fu… what am I supposed to feed a fucking fish?” Keegan asked to no one in particular. He shoved his hands in his pockets.

It took three more minutes for Marc to make his way out of the dining room. He was no longer touching Jess at all, but they still talked up until they were in front of Keegan. Jess nodded politely, about to speak until Phil motioned for her to come with him. She seemed relieved to not have to spark up a conversation.

“How was that?” Marc’s voice was a relief after too many squealing drunk people. It was smooth as butter, a hint of humour sprinkled on top. “Learn anything new about Duper’s kids?”

“His daughter likes Nancy Drew, much to the shock of her parents who have always believed that series was, as they worded it, lame as hell.”

“So, it was good then?”

Keegan let a smirk out. “Better than your aim.”

Marc ignored that comment, choosing to flick Keegan’s shirt collar instead. The doors to the dining room shut aggressively beside them.

“I think they want us downstairs.”

“What gave you that impression?”

Conveniently enough, the party didn’t have to stop upstairs. The restaurant offered a wilder arrangement in its basement level, a design that was shockingly modern for even Pittsburgh’s finest, complete with music loud enough to vibrate any surface within two hundred meters. As soon as his feet landed on the sticky concrete floor, Keegan got flashbacks to every dirty club he’d visited since becoming legal.

It was too loud to talk, and too crowded to maintain their usual safe distance, so Marc put his hand on Keegan’s back. They pushed through the crowd with confidence. No one looked or even seemed to comprehend who the couple was, focused so heavily on moving against whoever was near them. Comforting was an insane word for it, but that’s how it felt to Keegan.

They found a spot in the busiest area. At first it was just jokingly pumping their fists into the air and attempting to dance as badly as possible, but the club began to get even more crowded after one song. Their bodies were forced closer and closer as if the building was daring one of them to make a move. Marc was the first to intertwine his fingers with Keegan’s, raising his arm and spinning him around before Keegan could even think. He was locked into an embrace that was much too intimate for their setting. His eyes darted around every face that was close to them, but no one seemed to notice. Their faces were only illuminated when a red, green, blue lazar hit them just right.

Keegan leaned back into the taller man’s chest. The beat moved him without thought, a subtle bouncing and head sway that he’d learned was close enough to dancing for people to accept. Marc moved with him and it felt like they were the only people in the room.

With a burst of confidence, Keegan moved his hips back, ground into Marc just enough to receive a hand squeeze in return. He felt Marc’s head lean forward before a nibble on his ear sent his heart over the edge. Another movement, lips making their way just below his hairline.

He leaned his head back, and Marc kissed the side of his neck.

Keegan’s eyes rolled back into his head briefly. He looked back out into the crowd just in time to catch Kris’s gaze, at the same moment that Marc’s lips met his cheek.

Kris grinned.

Chapter Text

“You’re gonna tell me what’s going on?”

“No.”

A puck hit the glass, ringing through the arena and directly into Keegan’s brain. Kris was so close behind him that his body heat was radiating onto Keegan’s already incredibly warm being. A droplet of sweat ran down his back.

“You have to tell me.”

“I don’t, actually.”

“I told you my thing.”

“I never asked you to.”

Kris had been following him since Dan had signaled for that month’s shootout competition to begin. The company would’ve been nice had Keegan not decided to bury himself in his work that morning; they were practically tripping over each other as the line moved forward. Their elbows knocked together, the toe of Kris’s skate occasionally tapping his heel.

It was obvious that Kris didn’t mind the idea of his teammates being together. The shit-eating grin on his face was proof enough that he mostly just enjoyed the idea of being partially right the whole time. Every time Keegan attempted to dodge his question, the smile only got wider, and the pressure was turned up higher.

Max pushed off in front of Keegan, hard enough to kick some snow back as he burst forward toward Johnson. His shot bounced off one of the bars and into the net, causing insanity as he skated back to the bench and into the arms of his fellow goal scorers.

“I won’t say anything.”

Keegan glanced behind Kris. Justin’s ears had practically perked up at that sentence.

Kris glared at their eavesdropper. “He won’t listen.”

“I won’t.”

“Hey, let’s go!”

Keegan rolled his eyes. He didn’t let himself think about any of it as he moved forward. The puck found his stick like a magnet, a natural feeling as he took a wrist shot. Marc’s glove snapped it up easily.

“Nice try, fuckface!”

Much to Keegan’s chagrin, Kris missed, too. He took his place behind him as if it were routine.

“I’ll ask Talbo. He won’t lie.”

That prompted a full-body cringe. “No, you won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you know I will slit your throat in your sleep if you do that.”

Kris let out a shocked laugh. “Wow. Touchy for someone that has nothing to worry about.”

Keegan’s sigh lasted until it was his turn to shoot again. He missed again; Kris followed suit. It was becoming increasingly apparent that Kris was purposely throwing his chances just so that he could remain as annoying as possible.

“He wouldn’t tell you anything.”

“Oh, so there’s something to tell?”

Keegan spun around quickly. His stick tapped Kris’s leg semi-aggressively. “I’m not telling you shit, okay?”

The mouthguard popped halfway out of Kris’s mouth, an action that so completely copied the way Xavier had looked at him in situations with the same tension. Keegan turned away as fast as he’d looked over. There were three people in line at that point, and Dan was rapidly waving his hand for them to continue. Brooks scored so easily that it was a shocker he’d been there that long at all.

The eyes on the bench were split evenly between Kris and Keegan as they both made their way to the middle of the ice, back to back like they were in a Western. Johnson bent down, preparing for Keegan’s shot; he knew Marc was doing the same behind him. Keegan swallowed heavily. He felt slightly bad for brushing Tanger off so much, all he wanted to do was help and Keegan knew that, but there was no way for him to confide in someone without Marc finding out.

They looked at each other briefly. The whistle blew, and they were off.

Their strides matched as they headed toward their respective nets, the subtle sound of rubber on tape as they both figured out what shot to take. It was easy to keep his ears on the other side of the ice and his eyes in front of him, to let his arms take over and let go of the puck when it felt right.

Johnson’s glove sprung up. The puck bounced off the top, flew behind him mockingly slow. Keegan turned away as soon as he was sure it had gone in. Kris swore loudly, but the smile on his face let Keegan know he’d won.

They skated back to the emptying bench, beat even by the goalies who seemed incredibly excited to get out of their gear. Marc jostled Kris’s shoulder on the way with a beautiful grin before almost tripping over himself down the hallway.

“White flag.”

Keegan frowned at him. His body was halfway off the ice, foot dangling as he leaned on one leg.

“I surrender.”

“Good.”

His hand grabbed Keegan’s arm before he completely turned around, almost urgent to get the point across before the moment ended. “Like I said, you deserved better. And I hope you found it.”

Emotion bubbled up into his eyes and threatened to escape. Kris’s hand remained on his arm as if it would drill the message in further. There wasn’t a single brain cell in his head that would’ve thought up that situation, let alone believed it could be real. The absolute sincerity on the other man’s face never turned into a grin that would let him know it was a joke.

“Yeah, I think I did.”

Tanger nodded quickly before pushing him forward. “Hurry up. You stink.”

Smelling bad was the last thing on his mind as he continued to be shoved into the locker room. Marc was the first one to look up; just enough of a glance to calm Keegan prior to looking back down at his skates. He felt uncomfortably clammy, a mixture of sweat drying in the warmer air and an instinctual response to confrontation. It was impossible not to dissect every change in tone, pronunciation, expression Kris had given him and that he had given back.

The scariest part wasn’t that someone knew (and he definitely knew, without a doubt, who Keegan had been talking about.) It was that Keegan felt practically giddy about that fact.

His feet stuck to the floor. There wasn’t enough motivation to strip down and hold in anything. All he wanted was to jump up and down, scream it from the rooftops, not have to keep count of how many times he laughed at Marc’s jokes to seem normal. He wasn’t normal; he was happy with another human being. Marc barely gave a confused look when Keegan jerked his head toward the door, and no one else seemed to notice the determination in his eyes. The team was probably used to him walking into a room and dragging someone out of it at that point.

Marc had taken his skates off, allowing their usual height difference to lessen only slightly. He leaned his back against the wall, yawned, smiled, as if he had no idea what Keegan was about to say.

“We need to talk about…” He tilted his head to look down the hall. Dana was humming to himself as he organized their sticks. “You know.”

“Why?” A casual tone. Sleepy smile still plastered on Marc’s face like his goal was to distract.

“I think we need to… reevaluate our, uh, previous statements.”

Marc snorted. “When did you have the time to become a lawyer?”

“About being public. Our previous decision about being public,” he clarified as Marc’s smile twisted into something worse.

“I—okay.”

Keegan’s conversation with Geno cropped back up in his head. The face of the person in the mirror after hearing G was going to come out to his parents, so excited and scared and jealous. How it had looked when Keegan admitted to himself that he was lying.

“I… I was talking with G,” his voice lowered significantly, “about all of this. And, you know, I realized that…” Keegan groaned. A heavy exhale through his nose. “I lied.”

Marc’s hand, lifted in an attempt to comfort, was retracted quickly. His nose wrinkled, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Lied? About what?”

Keegan searched the face in front of him for any sort of weakness. It was a bad habit only learned from multiple turbulent relationships, the tentative planning on how to word an upcoming sentence. If there was weakness, go forward with a gentle voice. If talking to a brick wall, back away. Or defend. Marc’s eyes were a confusing balance of something new.

“I just thought… we might as well just get things out of the way, you know, before things get more cutthroat. Let ourselves worry about one thing at a time.”

Marc shook his head incredulously. “I didn’t know that was a worry.”

“Of course, it is. I would walk around with a ruler if it meant that I could always be positive we’re three centimetres away from each other. I make sure I don’t smile whenever you laugh in the room. The happiest I’ve felt was when we were playing that game the other night.”

“That’s what made you want to wait.”

“I was just embarrassed.”

Marc’s face fell. He moved to the side, no longer leaning against the wall.

“No, not of—” Keegan paused when Dana looked over at his raised voice. He waved until the other man looked away again. “Not of this. I was embarrassed because I took it too far. I’d feel like that with anyone.”

“This is really out of nowhere.”

“Is it? Really?”

“I didn’t know there was anything to worry about anymore,” Marc mumbled to the floor. “I thought you needed a break from all this shit.”

That part was undeniably true, but Keegan didn’t have the heart to say that the shit was unavoidable. It would be around for as long as he was.

“I forgot how shitty it felt to hide.”

Dana’s humming moved down the hall and into another room. The tension immediately heightened along with the silence. Eye contact went from comforting to the extreme opposite; Marc looked like he was on the verge of something unpredictable, which was extremely triggering. Any explanations or excuses were jammed in Keegan’s esophagus.

“I wasn’t lying.” Marc backed away, shaking his head. “I’m not ready. You know I’m not ready. I thought you understood that.”

“I mean, I get that it’s scary—”

“Just because you didn’t get a choice doesn’t mean that I don’t.”

Keegan’s mouth dropped open more than he wanted it to. His hands clenched up, along with every other muscle in his body. “That’s not fair. I never said that.”

“That’s what you were getting at, though, right?”

“Of course not.” Keegan’s face contorted in disgust. The shock of hearing those words come out of a mouth that, just hours before, had practically brought him to his knees was enough to stop his heart. “I would never force you to do anything.”

A stare down. Keegan’s face was so soft compared to his partner’s that he felt like the skin might completely fall off. He became a puddle under the glare.

“This is because of that foundation, right? They said you needed more minutes because it was good for sales. It would be even better for us to be out. Help your publicity.”

“What do you mean?” The person in front of him was unrecognizable. “Good for sales? Who told you that?”

“You fucking know. There’s no way you have no idea.”

“Marc—”

“I don’t want to talk to you. I can’t be your PR move.”

The locker room door slammed behind him. For the first time, Keegan felt unwelcome joining his team.

---

There had always been a routine, a trend, in Geno and Sid’s companionship. On and off the ice. Even cooking lunch together rolled into a familiar rhythm; Sid took charge, regardless of his knowledge of the situation. The ‘situation’ that day was a recipe passed down from Geno’s grandmother.

He’d happily offered to take the wheel for that round. The recipe had been scrawled so messily that even if it was in English, Sid wouldn’t be able to understand. Even Geno squinted at some of the words. His hand floated over bowls and vegetables sometimes longer then necessary just to make Sid twitch.

“Do you actually know what you’re doing?”

“Yes. Quiet.”

“Can you at least fill me in?”

Geno waved his hand. “Google. No time for translate.”

Sid groaned, but pulled out his phone for a very drawn out attempt at translating Geno’s writing. He had downloaded the special keyboard on his phone, learned the general pronunciation of each letter, committed himself to understanding key phrases that could possibly come up in an emergency. Yet he still stomped his foot at a silly recipe. Geno chuckled.

“It’s hard!”

“Is like, um… like lasagna? Layers.”

That didn’t seem to help any more, but Sid nodded like it had. Geno turned back to his cutting board with a sly smile. He had gained control. His orders were followed perfectly, to the turn of a spoon in the potatoes.

By the time plates and cutlery had been put out, they were both exhausted. Geno happily took the opportunity of silence to check his phone; the group chat was blowing up with advice on Christmas presents for girlfriends, complete with examples of gift wrapping from Duper’s previous presents. He had snuck in a photo of his baby daughter behind one of the giant presents, eliciting a smiley face from Geno. The phone was tilted toward the other end of the table and Sid let out a small chuckle.

“He has the cutest kid.”

Geno hummed in agreement. He checked Instagram while Sid flipped a few pages of one of his new magazines. Keegan had uploaded another promo photo, the first one without a caption.

“Stew seem off today?”

“After he talked with Flower.”

“I worry.”

“Don’t, it was probably just a disagreement.” Sid smiled to accentuate his point. “He’s as stubborn as you.”

“Not stubborn. You worse.”

Sid shrugged. Another large spoonful of food was shoved into his mouth to hide a grin.

“You like?”

“Mmm. I think it’s my new favourite.”

Geno took note of that in his phone. “Will make more.”

The silence returned for a few more moments as they finished their plates. Geno scraped his fork against the bottom to get the last remaining pieces of meat.

“Hey.”

He frowned. Sid looked at him expectantly. “Hey?”

“Would you do something for me?”

“Always.”

“Okay.” Sid exhaled a short laugh. “Um, I’d really like it if you stayed here for the holiday.”

Geno’s usual plans of going home had already been changed at the beginning of the year thanks to an especially tumultuous political climate, so he was confused for a moment. The definition of here wasn’t very specific. Sid seemed to pick up on that and quickly motioned to the house.

“Like, stay the night?” Geno frowned. “Why?”

A long sigh gave him as much information as he needed. It wasn’t just for the sake of waking up next to each other on Christmas morning.

“My family’s coming.”

The sentence traveled through the air and stuck itself in Geno’s throat. He coughed through the surprise, squeezed Sid’s hand instead of widening his eyes. Once again, there was no need for clarification.

“What make you change mind?” Meant more as, why don’t things happen until you’re ready for them to?

“I don’t know.”

“Okay. I stay.”

“Wow, that was easy.” Sid squeezed his hand back. His grin was almost irritating due to Geno’s confusion, the feeling that something had been lost in translation.

Something went off in his brain, enough to inspire a petty remark that he would usually regret making. “I bring Anna, too. Meet your family.”

It was received as well as he expected it to be. Another hand squeeze and a faltering grin. Although it was childish, Geno felt satisfied with his decision.

---

“Could we maybe turn this down? Just a teeny bit?”

Marc grunted, but still reached over to turn down the noise blaring through the speakers. Max took his fingers out of his ears and focused his attention on trying to get Marc to slow down on the very snowy road.

“We’re buying groceries, not auditioning for Nascar.”

“You don’t audition for Nascar.”

“No, you don’t. You’re not a good enough driver.”

“What the fuck are you even talking about?”

“Slow the fuck down, man!” Max slapped his palms on his thighs like it would make a difference. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Or tell me what the fuck is wrong.”

Marc inhaled deeply. The view out the window passed by a little slower.

“I know it’s about Stew.”

He bit his lip.

“Just say it.”

It came out faster than Max expected. He usually had to poke and prod to get things out of his friend.

“I have no idea how this is going to work if he’s already lied? What’s stopping him from lying all the time? About everything? What if he’s lying already? And it could be about anything. How do I know he even likes me?”

“About what?”

“He wants us to tell people,” Marc waved his hands in the air, prompting Max to briefly grab the steering wheel. “He didn’t want to tell people! He looked in my eyes and smiled about it. It was supposed to stay calm for a bit.”

“At least he admitted it?”

Marc pointed his finger at him. “This is going to be so back and forth if he can’t even tell the truth about the most important part of our relationship. It’s gonna drive me fucking insane.”

“But he did tell you.” Max knocked the finger out of his face. “That was probably really hard.”

There was a long silence as Marc continued to bite the inside of his lip. A nervous tick. Max looked out the window and tried to focus on the piles of snow on the side of the road. They were nothing like how it had been during the first snowfall, a pure white and beautifully fluffy. At that point they were just brown, slushy messes.

“Yeah. You’re right.”

It had been so long that Max forgot what he’d said, but it sounded about right. He nodded to himself, tearing his gaze away from the slush to look back at Marc. He’d calmed down significantly, no longer trying to drive them into a different dimension.

“I’m gonna be real with you.”

Marc raised his eyebrows, but nodded for him to continue.

“Is this silly shit really enough to end anything?”

Marc scoffed. “Silly shit?”

“I mean, it’s serious, but… this just started. He was honest. Do you really think he would want to be out with you for some jersey sales?”

A long sigh. “No, obviously not.” Marc tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Just let me be mad. At least until I have to watch you stare at eggplants for three hours.”

“It needs to be the perfect one.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Max purposely picked the cart with the loudest wheel to make his friend smile. It whined its way out of the parking lot toward the doors, accompanied by the fast-paced walking of its couple. Marc grabbed onto the front corner when they got to the door, leaning down just enough to pop something back into place. The wheel stopped squeaking.

Fluorescent lights somehow dimmed out every colour in the building. Max squinted slightly at the odd change in lighting, begged his eyes to grow accustomed so that he could properly see each fruit and veggie.

“I’ll meet you over there.” Marc had faltered at a display of flowers.

Max gave him a shrug. Flowers were probably a good idea, definitely more important than Max’s pasta and eggplant adventure.

There were a few head-turns, but nothing that Max couldn’t handle. It was easy to let out a smile, stop for some pictures, try to give meaningful advice to a young girl without sounding condescending. It was enough to build up a gentle layer of confidence as he strolled over to the reason he had come.

His fingers tapped each fruit. He was certain that it wasn’t the correct way to figure out ripeness; his excuse had always been that it helped him feel what the eggplant was feeling. Some of them were sad, bordering on rotting right then and there, while others felt hope for a future a little too far away for Max’s liking. Fingers wrapped around the perfect one, ready to live out its purpose that night. He smiled to himself.

“Stop touching the produce like that.”

Marc’s voice made him jump, receiving a loud chuckle. The bouquet of flowers was placed delicately into the basket.

“It needs to be the right one,” he muttered.

A finger pointed his gaze toward a colourful array of peppers. He raised his eyebrows at the white variety, fairly certain that was the product of chemical engineering and not something to be advertised at an organic store. Marc had already turned around to poke around in the onions, but Max still opened his mouth to share his insight. No one else would find it funny.

A loud crash from the same pepper shelves, drawing all attention away from Max’s upcoming joke. There was a string of curse words said without care that made his eyebrows raise. The order was familiar to him, heard only during the specialist of fuck ups. The blonde bun that popped up from where it had been bending over was also extremely familiar. She placed a few of the floor-peppers into her basket less than carefully.

“Isn’t that—”

His hands turned into lakes. Air no longer flowed easily through his nose and throat. If he hadn’t known any better, he would’ve thought he was having a heart attack. The only thing he could do was tug at Marc’s sleeve to keep him from continuing his path toward her. The other man stopped as quickly as he’d started.

“Oh, shit. Yeah. Sorry, that was automatic.” Marc smiled apologetically, carefully, and grabbed the handle on the cart. “Here, let’s go the long way.”

Max followed along like a scared child. It was impossible to keep his eyes off her, the way she hummed to herself like she always had before, smiling at anyone that she made eye contact with. Of course, she never looked in his direction.

---

There were only three reasons why anyone ever came to optional skates: they felt they needed extra practice on some key moves, they had been asked to come, or there was nothing better to do.

There was only ever one reason why someone stayed late after an optional skate: they were avoiding something.

Sid was, nine times out of ten, the only person to ever stay late. There was usually the occasional straggler who would try to make small talk before realizing they were no longer talking to the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins. After everyone had left, he was just a silent figure trying to shoot pucks on an empty net.

Most of the team were content with their top ten standing at the end of the month. Sid, of course, was not. The obsession of getting them up to the top five, the things he could do differently in every game, the fact he could involve himself in everyone’s lives even more, took over his very being. Even the idea of the All-Star Game, something usually reserved for the Fun part of his brain, sent him into overdrive. Everything in the game had changed so drastically, even from the season before. Things would always get faster and harder and have a more calculated violence until Sid wouldn’t be able to keep up. In fact, he already felt like he was falling behind. He had spiralled into a wormhole of negativity that morning, which been all he needed to spend an extra hour at the rink just shooting on net.

The pretend goaltender in front of him saved every shot. The puck bounced off every viable option as if to mock him for his efforts. A Zamboni being turned on interrupted the tense silence.

He stared at the net, shuffled his skates over the Penguins’ logo. The blade of his stick tapped the puck softly, just enough to get it to glide slowly across the ice. His eyes followed it all the way across the goal line.

The clock in Mario’s office ticked out an even beat, unlike everything else that had been happening that day. He should’ve been somewhere else that time of day, as well. The conversation remained boring during the beginning, anecdotes about the snow and Christmas to prepare him for something else. Mario absentmindedly tapped the tip of his pen on his desk.

“So, your parents are coming down? Will they be here for the game?” He turned to his computer to quickly pull up their schedule. “The twenty-third?”

“Oh, yeah. They wouldn’t miss it. Same with Taylor.”

“Oh, good. I missed seeing her around. Have to say, it was a shame when she moved out.”

Sid smiled sadly. “She was a good roommate. Her boyfriend’s a good guy, though.”

“I would hope so.”

“And you’re excited to see them?”

“Of course.”

The following silence felt opportune. Sid lifted his finger, had no idea why he did it, and lowered it within two seconds. The older man raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not sure that they’re ready to hear what I’m planning on telling them.”

Mario nodded slowly. “Most parents aren’t, when it comes to serious things.”

Sid swore the clock stopped ticking for a moment. It resumed before he could point it out. He felt like he hadn’t even spoken.

“I just… there’s so many things trapped that I don’t usually need to let out. But I can’t keep doing this. I don’t know how to be looked up to like this, this god, like I know everything about everything.”

There was a pregnant pause as they both digested the new information. He accepted how nervous he was for the first time.

“I never thought I would be captain. I think part of me hoped I wouldn’t be.”

“Well, why not?” Mario asked, obviously surprised.

A dreaded question. “Because it gives me an excuse to think the way that I do. To obsess.”

“Thinking ahead is not obsessing. Being smart is not a bad thing, Sid.”

Words that had come out of every coach’s mouth, his father’s mouth, his sister, Geno. Never in his wildest dreams had he even dared to imagine that Mario Lemieux would be saying it to him.

Mario got up from his desk chair without missing a beat. He barely gave Sid time to think before plopping down beside him. A hand rested just below his knee, patted twice. Sid continued to look at the wall behind where he’d been sitting.

“Relax, kid. We have all the right puzzle pieces right now.”

It took a lot of courage to look over at him. “How do you know—”

“You’re not the only smart one.” Mario leaned back. His gaze shifted to the same place Sid had been looking. The light reflected off the first photo Sid and Geno had been in together. “I know that this team can change everything.”

---

“Probably like, two more minutes.”

The warning was unnecessary. There were only a few puffs left on Xavier’s cigarette. Tanner gave him a threatening glance as he rolled the window down further.

“I’m not throwing it outside.”

“You were going to.”

“Why does that matter? It’s winter.”

Tanner rolled his eyes. He nudged a half-empty can of carbonated water with his knuckle. “In there.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can have another one when we get there. If you want.”

“Might as well.” Xavier sniffled. The pack was half-empty, room for his fingers to flip through each cigarette like there was something hidden in between them. A way out, maybe. “Not going to play for awhile.”

“No one’s saying that.”

“You think I don’t know?”

“It can be as short as thirty days.”

“I could be in there for months. I could be stuck in my bed for your thirty days.”

Tanner looked as if he might pass out, as well. He had a weak stomach, triggered by Xavier getting ill on the side of the road almost an hour before. No one had factored in that his withdrawals would start.

“Juice should’ve drove.”

“Yeah, well, I figured it was time to give him a break from playing Save the Addict. Maybe next time.”

Xavier cringed.

“Oh, fuck.” Tanner looked over, then back to the road. “I didn’t mean… there won’t be a next time.”

The urge to jump out of the car was powerful. He had quickly realized it had probably been a good idea to stop him from taking a cab, especially as they passed by multiple locations he could’ve bought from. The boys hadn’t let him get high the night before. They didn’t care about the addict’s ritual of getting straight fucked to a different planet before spending God knows how long in a locked facility. He remained frozen in place until they pulled up to the building.

There had been a time when Keegan had walked up the same steps alone (because of him) and gone through the same debilitating anxiety of saying goodbye to giving up. He had touched the same door handle, shuffled his own duffel bag strap closer to his neck when it slid down.

“Yeah, we just got here. I’m gonna stay as long as I can, get the run down. I know, I know. Hey, listen, I’ll update you when we’re done, okay? Yeah, I—no, shit, I will. I’ll talk to you later. Me, too. ‘K. Bye.”

Xavier hadn’t wanted anyone to get the wrong idea. He felt lucky to have the ability to even go to rehab, to be able to take time off work and know he could come back with a guaranteed home. He’d met plenty of people that hadn’t and would never have that. He’d fallen in love with men that had contracted terrible diseases, kissed people that looked like their skin was about to slide off when he touched them. He’d pretended that he could empathize with their pain, but the truth was harder to swallow. There were still hundreds of people that would drag him back to the land of the living without a second thought.

As soon as the doors closed behind them, Xavier’s legs stopped working. The pale green wall behind the secretary reminded him of pea soup. She smiled up at them, a smile reserved for babies being born or someone graduating. His breath came in ragged waves, eyes glued to pearly white teeth that rivaled his own.

He clutched his chest. His fingernails caught onto the fabric of his hoodie. Tanner was talking to him, something distant. Something about it all being okay.

That he wouldn’t be alone.

“What about the kids? What if they need me?”

Xavier was aware that they would never phone him. Tanner knew it, too, but still walked beside him all the way up to the desk.

“You’ll be okay.” He said it like he needed to be convinced, too.

---

DECEMBER 3

PENGUINS @ NEW YORK RANGERS

Jen stomped into the locker room without hesitation. It shocked Keegan for a moment, he wasn’t aware that she travelled with them so often, but his face quickly fell into a smile when their eyes locked. She puffed her chest out a little as she looked around the room. No one else had perked up at her entrance.

“Keegan.” Her pointer finger jerked toward the door. “We need to talk.”

“Oooooooo.”

Keegan rolled his eyes. He pulled some sweatpants over his boxers, purposely knocking Justin’s leg with his foot in the process.

“So, hate to do this you right now.” Jen looked up and down the hall. She held her finger up again, motioning for him to wait as an employee strolled by. “Okay. I have bad news.”

“I want the good news first.”

There was a beat before she continued. “There is no good news. But it could be worse.”

“Alright.” No reason to fight it. There wasn’t enough energy in any part of Keegan’s body to try and find a positive in a negative. “Go for it.”

“There seems to be some backlash from the launch.”

“Okay.”

Jen frowned briefly, as if she’d been expecting something different. Surprisingly flustered, she composed herself and placed her hands in her bright red corduroy jacket. “There’s some people with less than wonderful signs. Probably mad that that guy from Pittsburgh’s face is everywhere in New York.”

“Everywhere?”

“You were in Times Square, buddy.” She grinned. It was almost evil, in a good way. “We know what we’re doing.”

“Yeah, apparently.” Keegan ran his hand through his hair. He wasn’t sure what to do with the information.

“Basically, we’re just unsure to what extent this will go. We can’t promise that nothing will happen.”

It wasn’t a total surprise that anyone would react poorly. People got upset when he went to the bathroom, people got upset when he spoke or entered a room. There was no reason for him to believe that anyone would react any differently to him receiving attention. It still shocked him more than he thought it would, however; everyone he’d spoken with had given him an immense amount of support and confidence. He’d let himself believe that.

“They’re mad?” He nodded with a distant gaze. “They’re mad. At me.” For a set of photographs, he didn’t add. A determined frown, licked lips. Another nod. “Okay. Thanks.”

Jen put her hands on his shoulders.

---

Marc felt like he’d blacked out throughout most of the game. He was just playing, no longer enjoying it.

That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the score had been tied since the first period and he made a few incredible saves (if he could say so himself), yet there was a certain level of frustration that had culminated into multiple minor injuries to both teams and penalty after penalty. Exciting to watch, perhaps, but not something Marc liked feeling neutral about.

The crowd jeered whenever Keegan stepped onto the ice. Another thing that he should’ve felt worse about.

He felt bad for what he’d said; it was obvious how selfish and immature he’d been. It had been almost impossible to reconcile the situation, though, due to Keegan’s busy interview schedules whenever they weren’t on the ice. The only times they saw each other were in the locker room, and that didn’t seem like an ideal location to get onto his knees and beg forgiveness. Marc couldn’t even send an apologetic smile his way, since Keegan rushed off the ice whenever he was supposed to, a very rare and troubling occurrence. By the time the third period rolled around, Marc was sure he had ruined things forever.

His sigh echoed through his helmet. It felt like there’d been two billion faceoffs in their end, the excitement and tension evaporated and was replaced by a tired feeling in his shoulders. He leaned over purely out of instinct, focused briefly on the ref’s hand before having to immediately turn his head when the Rangers won the faceoff. The puck bounced back and forth between defenceman and forward. It made his own team look like a joke; they moved along two seconds behind.

The only player that felt like he was keeping up was Schultzy. The kid outshone everyone else. His stick swung along the ice, voice weak from calling out to the rest of the team, sporadically dipping down to stop a shot with his calf or the side of his foot. Marc reminded himself to thank Justin during a break.

Just as New York gained possession once again, Dan called for a change. That usually wasn’t a problem, it just meant that everyone would get off the ice when convenient, but that game wasn’t like all the others. Common sense had left the moment their plane landed.

Three players left without thought. That, of course, left three players that needed to catch up at the center line as the Rangers’ centerman flew down the ice. Marc prepared himself as much as he could for someone with one defenceman and a left-winger that had confessed multiple times that he wasn’t that great at skating backward. Justin stayed close until it was obvious that the shot would be coming from his side of the ice.

Keegan’s voice rose over the excited yells of the crowd. The sentence wasn’t decipherable, but the defeated tone was more than clear. Marc didn’t need to look over to know he was tired of chasing.

The shot was let go without a second thought. It flew high, brushed past the few players that had gotten into their position, and made its way directly toward his mask. He cringed, fully expecting the sting of a slapshot to the noggin… but it didn’t happen. The building let out a collective noise of pity. Marc opened his eyes fully when he heard the whistle to Justin laying facedown on the ice right in front of him, clutching the side of his head.

“Oh, fuck.” Geno frowned beside them. “Okay, Schultzy?” He leaned down on one knee, hand extended toward the other’s shoulder.

“He’s bleeding,” Keegan added.

Justin muttered something, blocked entirely by the glove he’d essentially shoved inside his mouth. The two looked at each other with a mutual confusion. Marc’s eye caught a small bump by his foot.

“He lost a tooth.” It was said to no one specifically, yet only Keegan looked over. He moved closer slowly. “He’ll want that.”

Keegan stared at him for a moment. The trainer had run over and placed a towel over Justin’s face, and looked up as if he was waiting for the tooth delivery right that moment rather than attending to the, now writhing with pain, player. It remained in between the couple’s skates.

Keegan’s attention went past the bars separating their gaze and straight into Marc’s brain. It felt as if he were seeing a side of Marc that even he hadn’t known existed; something new and scary and… exciting? The passive-aggressive avoidance of acknowledgement was no longer, only a kind of tension that Marc felt solely below his waistline. A subtle bite of Keegan’s bottom lip as he bent down to pick up the tooth, hip cocked despite how hard it must’ve been to balance, eye contact in full effect, were pure torture.

Justin swore profusely as he got to his feet, pulling them both out of their trance. Keegan shook his head. They didn’t look at each other again after that.

Even during the extensive attempt to get the blood off the ice, a prime moment for them to share a laugh.

Both Kris and Keegan were given turns during the shootout. Neither scored. Marc let in just enough to have a reason to beat himself up that night.

The Penguins headed to Carolina with a loss.

---

Max was completely aware how terrifying it would be to wake up to his face early in the morning. His facial hair and recent general unkemptness were extremely off-putting, proven by the fact that he hadn’t been able to bring a girl anywhere close to his bedroom since the Amber fiasco had started up again. Overall, the last person he would want to wake up to was himself.

That didn’t stop him from waking Keegan up at six that morning by leaning directly above his head.

He barely moved in time to avoid their foreheads knocking against each other. Keegan’s breath was shaky, expression blending between confusion and anger as he realized who had scared him out of his slumber. Max tried his best smile, which garnered only a clenched jaw in return.

“What the…” Keegan paused when he noticed the extravagant breakfast on his bedside table, “… actual fuck are you doing?”

“I got you breakfast.”

Keegan looked dumbfounded. “Why?”

On second thought, him cornering Justin as soon as he’d left the room to use his key in order to deliver a bedside breakfast was not normal. There was no choice but to be confident in his decision at that point, though.

“I thought you’d appreciate it,” he said with a faux-depressed tone. “But if you don’t want it, there are twenty other men in this hotel that would love to eat this immaculate meal.”

Keegan looked to the side, as if breakfast was worth contemplating. His mouth opened, then closed. “Are you—are you okay?”

“What?”

“Is this like, how you experience mental breakdowns?”

“It’s breakfast.”

“No, it’s you kicking my roommate out and waking me up way too fucking early with breakfast and no pants on.”

An important point that he had conveniently removed from his brain. Max looked down at his bare legs and tube socks. There was no excuse, he’d truly just forgotten.

“Do you wanna sit down?”

Max nodded, a surrender of his self-confidence. “At least I put a shirt on,” he muttered as he shoved a pile of blankets out of the way. Keegan shuffled up to give him more space.

“Okay, Max. What’s happening?”

His confidence returned. “I have some questions.”

Keegan nodded in lieu of a response.

“You and Flower.”

“Not a question.”

“You’re arguing.”

Keegan looked like a deer in headlights. He pulled the blankets higher, covering up any bare skin that had been revealed from his sudden awakening.

“You’re arguing, and it’s effecting our playing.”

“Because we lost one game?” Keegan scoffed. “Half of that shit is up to luck.”

The truth, but Max chose to brush it off. “One of you needs to say sorry.”

A long breath was exhaled through Keegan’s teeth. “Okay. I love you, but I don’t want to have this conversation with you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I feel like I’m trying to explain that sometimes adults fight to my three-year-old.”

Max racked his brain for another option. He hadn’t been expecting that Keegan would do anything other than pour his heart out. With a short laugh, he fell back so that he could stare at the ceiling.

“You know, if we did split up, there wouldn’t be any apologizing? Everyone would just have to live with us not liking each other. A common occurrence, by the way, in pretty much every other team on this planet.”

“And you would be able to live with you two not liking each other?”

The traffic outside was the only noise in the room. Light reflecting through the thin curtains created unusual shadows on the ceiling, dripped them down the wall. The heater kicked in loudly. The smell of bacon assaulted Max’s nose. He was surprised at how long it took for Keegan to answer.

“I’d have to deal with it.”

Max groaned, frustrated. He dragged his hands down his face. “Yes, because you dealt with that so well last time. I’m sure Laflamme would agree that you have a backbone that rivals steel beams when it comes to break ups.”

As soon as he said it, he flinched away, fully prepared for a well-deserved punch to the face. It never came. Keegan had pulled his knees up to his chest and leaned his cheekbone on top of them. His bedhead was comical from Max’s lower angle.

“Fuck off, man.” There was a smile attached to it, thank God, like the message had somehow landed through the use of vaguely offensive comedy. “Fucking asshole.”

“I’m not much better, anyway.”

Keegan let out a low hum as he leaned over to grab a piece of French toast from the ornate plate beside him. He crunched into it with a smug look in his eyes. “Is there something else you need to tell me?” he asked through a full mouth.

“My backbone’s pretty shit, too.” Max hesitated at the idea of sharing anything more, although he was sure Marc had filled Keegan in on his problems. He decided to take the simple route. “Problems with an ex. Confused about a… not ex.”

Keegan cocked an eyebrow. “Not ex?”

The secret bubbled up an uncomfortable amount. Out of anyone to talk to, it would be Stew. Max turned onto his side, picking at a loose thread on the duvet. He fought back and forth with the idea of dumping the entire situation onto the bed or saying nothing at all.

“I met someone, and I don’t know if I really want to spend time with them or…” He gestured in the air in hopes that would explain something.

“Do you like them?”

“Yeah.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“They’re… different. From what I’m used to.”

Another crunch of the toast while Keegan nodded. Max reached out to accept Keegan’s offer of a plate of hash browns, sat up in order to shovel a large amount into his mouth. It would stop him from saying anything more.

“Sometimes you get bored. And different works for a bit, but not in the long run.” Keegan poked him with his foot. “The more you stress out about it, the harder it feels.”

“Funny you should say that…”

A strawberry hit his forehead, and he burst into a laughter that made his abs burn.

---

“Hey, pay attention, fuckface!”

Marc didn’t have the energy to tell Jordan that the only fuckface in the building that day was him. He knocked the dreaded puck away with the tip of his stick and teased Staal with a smile. It only took him leaning forward a bit to back into the net, a safety much appreciated at that moment.

He’d tossed and turned the entire night before. When Max asked, it was nerves about the upcoming game; hands ran down his face and fingers stopped when they’d reached his cheekbones, tugging lightly at the small amount of stubble he’d allowed the past week. He didn’t want to fail again. Max had nodded, rolled onto his side to face him. He fell asleep in that position, because he knew it would calm Marc down. Someone to watch him.

It was partially that. Partially not knowing if his new best friend would watch a movie with him when they got back. They’d been planning on starting a new series of wizard movies.

Keegan seemed out of it, as well. He was as behind in the drills as Marc was, stumbling over his own feet and hanging back during moments he would usually spring forward. Sid had been hanging around him the whole morning. A mother hen sensing weakness.

Marc’s attention was dragged back into play. The trio sprung forward, puck floating between each of them until they were bordering on too close to shoot. It was let go at an alarming speed. Right pad out just in time to catch it with the toe of his skate. The players waited expectantly for the usual chiding that wouldn’t be happening that morning. Marc lifted his chin instead, tilted it in a way that let them know he still thought he was a brick wall.

Keegan shuffled his feet as he talked to Sid and Geno. He was probably cold at that point; he’d barely moved from his spot by the bench and no one seemed to care. Geno gently smacked his stick on Keegan’s leg in a predictable fashion, to the point where even Marc started to feel it and laughed along to something that had been said. Keegan rolled his eyes as they moved up for their turn.

Keegan got possession first but passed it across the ice to Geno as soon as he got past the blue line. Geno did some fancy moves, probably in hopes to garner a few smiles from the small crowd that was watching them that day, spinning before passing to Sid. The three came incredibly close to the crease. Sid took a shot, which bounced luckily off Marc’s shoulder and back out in front of them. Geno swooped in to knock the rebound past the goal line.

“Owe me drink, Flower.” Geno patted the top of Marc’s head as he stood up. His smile was sickeningly carefree. “Remember?”

The bet was only fun because it had been close to two months since Geno had gotten a legal goal past him. He nodded along anyway. “Yeah. Next time.”

Geno seemed satisfied with that answer as he skated off. He and Sid knocked shoulders as Keegan trailed behind them.

“Hey, fuck you, Stewart!”

Everyone’s attention was quickly drawn away from the ice, up to one of the seats. Marc squinted, he was on the opposite side to where the yelling man was, before giving up on identifying him and frowning at the players around him. Tanger joined him.

“Fucking faggot!”

Keegan’s head remained down as he sat on the bench. The attention was incredibly tense, each player and coach looking back and forth between them. Marc moved forward instinctually.

“Who the fuck let him in here?” Kris finally yelled toward the coaches. “Whatever happened to closed practices, eh?”

Marc’s face heated up as the man continued to string together as many crude, derogatory terms as possible. His chest puffed out, arms tensed in preparation for something that wouldn’t even happen. It would be impossible for anyone to get over the glass barrier, especially the incredibly stocky man that had started to swing around one of Keegan’s jerseys.

“Hey, man, get the fuck out of here!” Max, who had made his way directly in front of the man while he ranted away, banged his fist against the glass.

“Max,” Dan warned.

“You’re all fucking fags!”

“Get the fuck out, fucking asshole!”

With a maniacal laugh, the man lifted the jersey higher. His other hand dug through his pocket and someone asked where the security was in a panicked voice. Dan had started to herd the braver players toward the runway. It was hard for Marc to see even from center ice, but the familiar gesture of a lighter set him off. He skated to the bench with a purpose and stood in front of Keegan, blocking the view.

The man was taken out by security as soon as he lit the jersey on fire. The other people in the stands let out terrified cries as it burst into flames.

“Holy shit.”

Marc swung around to look where the timid sentence had come from. Keegan had leaned over just enough to peer around him.

“Don’t look.”

“Everyone to the dressing room! Let’s go!”

Keegan’s face remained neutral, mouth open a tiny bit. His eyes flickered between the security and some people with a fire extinguisher. Marc’s heart broke slightly at the hurt in his eyes. Without thinking, he got onto the bench and grabbed Keegan’s arm, dragging him back into the safety of the dressing room faster than he’d thought possible. Keegan didn’t fight.

The room was in an uproar. Even Sid was practically yelling about their safety, their privacy, being fucked with. Marc dodged a few flailing arms and damp jerseys to get to his locker, while Keegan remained standing by the door. There was a part of him that wished he hadn’t let go of Keegan’s arm, that they’d kept walking straight to his locker so that Marc could help him undress. The shock seemed to have hit everyone as soon as they knew they were safe, but Keegan had it the worst out of anyone.

It felt like a reminder that he needed to man up and make things right. There was no telling when someone would try to set them on fire again.

---

“Hey, Keegan. Come sit.” Dan reached out to guide him, then thought better of it. He motioned instead. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Keegan shook off the shocked expression, replaced it with something more impartial. “Yeah, that was, uh…”

“Bullshit?”

“Fucking insane?”

It was too overwhelming to look around the room, so he focused on sitting down. Dan stood in front of him with a cautious position. Keegan waved him off, it was hard enough to get his skates off without someone hovering over him. His fingers slipped multiple times before he finally got the knot untied.

A security guard poked his head in. “Everyone’s safe, the asshole’s outta here. Crazy son of a bitch.”

“Thanks, James.”

There was a chorus of thank-you’s as the door shut once more. Keegan got his first skate off and fought the urge to throw it across the room.

“So, are we talking about this?”

It was the first time Sid’s voice rubbed him like sandpaper. Keegan didn’t look, didn’t bother chiming in when everyone else did. The last thing he wanted was to talk about this, especially when this was all his fault. He might as well have set himself on fire and skated around the rink.

“What’s there to talk about?” Matt Cooke, who rarely spoke in the room and never interacted with Keegan on any level, even during games, threw his jersey into the basket. He looked pointedly at Keegan when he said, “We all know what that was about.”

“Do we?”

“Of course, we fucking do. Same reason anything fucked up’s been happening lately.” Matt nodded to himself, as if he’d proved a point.

“What are you talking about?” Marc’s voice made everyone pause. He waited expectantly for an answer.

Keegan felt his heart pound in his ears. His face had started to heat up profusely, sweat remaining on his forehead even though he’d cooled down awhile before. The pressure in the room felt solid, holding everyone in place. No point in bothering with his other skate.

“Don’t act like this is a shocker.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re really gonna make me say it.”

Marc shrugged. “Shouldn’t be an issue.”

Keegan looked to Dan for some reason, as if he could stop fully grown adults from speaking. He and Matt were almost the same age at that point.

“Ever since… he… did that promo thing, shit’s been crazy. People always talking shit, it’s no wonder that guy tried to set himself on fire over it. Hockey and politics don’t mix.”

“Politics?”

Matt spun around quickly. He looked genuinely surprised at hearing Keegan’s voice.

“Why is this politics?” He didn’t feel himself stand up or walk closer to where Matt had planted his feet. A light above them flickered aggressively for a moment, and a few of the guys behind him looked up at the ceiling instead. “I’m just trying to be fucking alive! I’m trying to make other people feel okay for being alive!”

“Calm down. I don’t have a problem with you.”

“Sounds like you do,” Marc coughed.

“And by the way, he wasn’t trying to set himself on fire.”

“Then what was he doing?”

Keegan’s anger overwhelmed him, throat closing and fingers getting sore from being balled up into fists. He took a step back. It felt like he was shrinking with each passing second under the other man’s gaze.

“He light Stew’s jersey on fire. Is serious.” Geno finally spoke up. He looked disgusted, which was comforting.

Max cleared his throat before anyone could say more. Cracking his knuckles only added to the mood. “It’s the bigger message, dude.”

“Okay…” Dan drew out the word from the corner of the room. “We’re all frustrated. Nobody likes losing. We can’t let that effect our chemistry.”

Keegan didn’t even bother looking at the coach. His eyes immediately went to the floor as he surrendered back to his seat, conveniently dodging a light touch on the shoulder from Justin to undo his other skate. The knot was undone a lot faster that time around. The anger didn’t fade.

“All we can do now is just focus on the game,” Sid attempted. “I’m sure they have everything under control, security-wise. And who’s to say that that will happen again, anyway?”

The devil on his shoulder wanted to shout that those kinds of people never change, that the odds were extremely high, but Keegan kept his mouth shut. He continued to undress to the sound of Dan and Sid trying to decompress a situation that wasn’t theirs, until they both finally gave up on trying to fix the incredibly awkward situation. Matt backed down after a few minutes and walked to the showers with his head high. Keegan felt too self-conscious to move until most of the men were fully dressed and heading out the door.

“Ignore him.”

Justin still had a vaguely distraught look on his face. He took his hat off, ran his hand through his hair, put it back on. All Keegan could do was smile courteously. Everything was too exhausting to react to.

“You coming with us?” Justin motioned in the general direction of the bus outside. “Tanger said you could come to dinner.”

Thanks for the permission, Kris.“I think I’ll just get a cab or something.”

“Okay… be safe.”

“With any luck the guy will be waiting for me outside. Put me out of my misery.”

Justin let out a bark of a laugh, obviously caught off guard. “Yeah. Okay.”

The cab ride was lonely and uneventful. Silent. The city was still alive with activity; a few people happily crossed the road directly in front of the car, and Keegan had never connected to strangers more.

The hotel was also incredibly lonely. It seemed the Penguins were some of the few visitors that day, as the lobby was completely empty, and Keegan was the only person in the elevator as it made its astonishingly fast trip up to his floor. His shoes rubbed against the carpeted hallways, annoying beyond belief, but he couldn’t be fucked to lift his feet anymore. By the time his key worked, and he’d fallen headfirst on the bed, he was beyond ready for a nap.

The man haunted his brain as soon as his eyes closed. The throaty laugh, the urgent look in his eyes as he flicked the lighter and brought it tortuously slow to the rainbow ninety-one on the shoulder, extreme eye contact before he had been taken out and Marc had dragged him away from the somehow horrific scene. It was worse than any scary movie. It had, for the first time in Keegan’s life, felt specifically targeted toward him. Not just trans people, or the gender revolution. There were people that were sick of his being in their sport. Even people he shared a locker room with.

A choked cry was muffled by the duvet, but it still felt embarrassingly loud. The knowledge that Justin wouldn’t be back for awhile, if it all before they had to be back at the arena, was only slightly comforting. He let out another cry-groan hybrid for good measure.

A bang and very familiar French curse made him launch up to a sitting position. He frantically rubbed fists against his eyes, which probably only made him look like he’d been crying more. Another bang and a loud sigh.

“Hey, Keegan? Are you in there?” Marc’s voice knocked on the door lightly. “Can I come in?”

Keegan forgave him for their stupid disagreement as soon as he peered through the little glass hole on the door. Marc had a pillow in his arms (reason unknown and would probably remain that way forever) and his hood tied so tight around his head that he looked like he was just a face on top of fabric. A key card dangled from his pointer and middle finger.

“You have a key.”

“It doesn’t work.”

“Who gave it to you?”

“Max. He stole it from—”

Marc stopped as soon as the door opened. The hallway light flooded into the pitch-black room. He held the key out like a gift of surrender.

“What were you planning on doing if it worked?”

A light blush bloomed on his cheeks. The key was placed into Keegan’s open palm with an unusual nervousness. “I don’t know. Watch a movie, hopefully.”

“That’s presumptuous.”

Keegan turned away before Marc could respond. He held back a smile. He’d missed having Marc so close, being able to hear a low and careful tone to his voice that never saw the light of day in public. In every previous relationship, getting over an argument so quickly had been a fault, but it felt right when Marc shuffled his feet along the carpet timidly. No malice. Just nerves that hadn’t come up since they’d first kissed.

Keegan got back into bed. There was a slight hesitance at pulling his shirt off, but it didn’t last long when he realized Marc’s eyes were on him. He didn’t move. Keegan grabbed the remote from the bottom corner of the bed and waved it toward him.

“Here. Pick something.”

The speed at which Marc joined him was comical. He swung himself onto the bed and happily bought the first movie he saw. “Thank you.”

The flickering light from the screen was the only way for them to truly see each other. Every so often, the room would go back to an almost complete darkness, and Keegan would fear that Marc would no longer be looking at him. Of course, he always was by the time the light came back on. The low volume of their chosen comedy only added to the feeling that they were in their own world.

“I thought we were…” Keegan’s voice trailed off. He didn’t know what they were.

Marc turned his attention back to the TV, pursed his lips. His thinking face.

“I’m sorry that I lied. I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t trying to trick you into anything. I mean, fuck,” Keegan’s voice wavered, “why would you want to be a part of this? People buying your jersey just to turn it into a Molotov.”

Marc snorted. “Could be worse.”

“Could it?”

A long silence. Marc’s hand snaked under the blankets and their fingers met. Keegan felt silly at how excited he became.

“No. It couldn’t,” Marc laughed to himself. “That shit was insane.”

The corner of Keegan’s mouth twitched. “Yeah. Probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”

They laughed from the absurdity of the entire situation. Their hands finally found each other, squeezed so tight it felt like Keegan’s fingers might pop off. He leaned over automatically until his head reached Marc’s shoulder.

“You know when you said you were staring at me at the dinner?”

“Not in those words.” Keegan rolled his eyes.

“It, uh, made me happy. To know that you were looking at me, too.”

Keegan looked up at him and frowned. His heart melted at the tiny smile on Marc’s face, the mischievous glimmer that hadn’t been there for a few days. It was impossible to avoid the implication that his staring across the room wasn’t one-sided. “Yeah?”

“I watched you and Tanger talk. I felt so, so… excited, maybe proud, to watch two important people in my life get along. I felt like two of these supporters from opposite sides of the universe had finally figured out to be okay. It felt like love when I looked at you.” He stopped at the last sentence. It seemed just as shocking to him. “I mean—"

“Yeah, no, I, uh… I understand.” Keegan smiled to try and buffer the uncomfortable energy. His nodding felt frantic, but it was the only way for his brain to begin dissecting what that sentence meant. “It’s—It’s totally understandable.”

Laughter from the TV made them both let out a breath of relief. What the fuck did ‘feel like love’ mean? How was Keegan supposed to react? Was he supposed to say it back, or kiss him, or pretend it hadn’t hit him with a strange sense of happiness directly in his core? Was he supposed to be on the verge of hyperventilating? How much time could go by before he was being rude?

“Fine,” he said, without thinking.

“What?”

“Fine, I forgive you for being a total asshat.”

A nervous laugh. “Oh, yeah. Thank you.”

Keegan awkwardly bowed his head in acknowledgment. The couple on TV started to make out, certainly nothing that was supposed to be sexual, but a yearning still sat in his chest.

“I missed you.”

“It wasn’t that long.”

“I know.”

“I missed you too.” Keegan’s hand slid away from Marc’s and found a familiar spot on his thigh. A sharp intake of air let him know that he’d done the right thing. “It meant a lot, when you stood in front of me. Even if it didn’t do much.”

Marc quickly turned to face him. One palm rested carefully on Keegan’s cheek, the other to cover the back of his head as their lips met. Their bodies sunk down further into the mattress. Keegan let out a soft noise of surprise, mostly from the complete dominance that Marc had suddenly mustered up but let Marc’s body hover over his without complaint. His leg hooked around Marc’s waist without thinking, pulling him down so he could feel the comforting weight of another person.

Marc pulled away just as Keegan was starting to get incredibly excited, eliciting a groan of frustration in response. He laughed quietly. “Sorry, I just… I’m not ashamed of you, by the way.”

Keegan was speechless. If he hadn’t been into it before, he definitely was then.

“Some of them probably know now, anyway.” His lips went back to Keegan’s neck, teeth nipping at the skin under his jaw. “Couldn’t hurt to tell Schultzy.”

“Or Tanger,” Keegan added. Marc pulled away again, and he shrugged. “He just guessed.”

Their lips met once more. Keegan didn’t hide his smile that time.

---

“Can I talk to you?”

“Um… yeah. I guess so.” Dan shifted the papers he’d kept beside him to the other side of the bench. “Sit. What’s up?”

“I just want you to know, I’m not trying to make anyone uncomfortable or blame anyone. This is just a… worry, of mine.”

“Alright.”

“There’s been a few players that have been acting, um, suspicious. Suspicious activity between them. I’m concerned that that could effect our play, if there’s secrets.”

“People are allowed to have secrets—”

“Yes, but… not this big. If this gets out, all hell will break loose.”

Dan sighed. The last thing he needed to worry about. “Okay. Yes, I’ll talk to them. Thanks.”

---

Carolina fell apart against Pittsburgh’s stubborn attempts. They won by a large amount, which thankfully brought some much-needed light to the room compared to earlier in the day. Keegan basically skipped out of the arena and onto the bus back to the hotel.

He showered in his room to allow himself some time. The water cascaded over his sore muscles and almost made him moan, briefly numbing the areas around some new bruises on his hips and lower back. He didn’t remember getting beat up that bad, but he was probably getting used to it. The minor injuries were par for the course at that point in the season; the older players were already struggling with a few problems that he ‘had to look forward to’ and were seemingly jealous of his simple bruises and tender knee.

Keegan wrapped a courtesy towel around himself when he left the bathroom for Justin. Not that he was squeamish about Keegan’s body (nobody even bothered to look at his body as being extremely unique from the rest), but for the benefit of being able to walk past the TV without fully concaving his body. It was extremely soft, a rich towel, with a simple embroidered design along the top and bottom. He took a mental note to order some better towels when he got back home.

“Hey, Schultz, do we have a mini bar? I’d love a diet—”

Max waved at him from Justin’s bed. The other man was nowhere to be seen.

“Diet Pepsi. Did you guys like, switch rooms, or?”

“You need to come to my room.” Max’s voice was bordering on angry. “Now.”

Keegan rolled his eyes. He wasn’t in the mood to play around with drama, especially after that amazing shower. Turning away from Max’s inquisitive glare, he pulled on some boxers and pair of jeans. “Why can’t we talk here?” he asked, knowing full well he wouldn’t get a good answer.

“I’m serious, Stew.”

Keegan paused from buttoning his shirt to look up at Max. His expression held no hints of a prank, or even of the usual humorous edge to uncomfortable situations. He was serious. Keegan nodded quickly and didn’t bother buttoning up the other half of his shirt or trying to find real shoes. His feet were shoved into a pair of hotel slippers before they rushed out the door. He wasn’t sure what to expect, partially afraid that he had done something morally wrong during the game to deserve a private beating.

They walked into a mini conference. All their closest confidants were in a circle, strewn on various furniture around the room. Low voices blended into a consistent white noise that Keegan couldn’t decipher. He swallowed uncomfortably before spotting Marc on one of the beds, his face resting on a fist, knuckles pushing his top lip up, looking around with the same confused face that Keegan knew he had.

“Where’s Geno? And Sid?” Keegan sat down on the edge of the bed, far enough away to avoid suspicion but close enough to feel Marc’s presence. “What is this?”

Marc shrugged without moving from his Thinking Man position.

“Did you get pulled in?” Kris asked, flipping his hair back to get a clearer look at Keegan.

“When would I have been pulled in?”

“Before the game.” Phil was lounging back in the only comfortable looking chair. His feet tapped against each other on top of the desk. “Or after, I guess.”

“Since when has there ever been time to get pulled in?” Keegan shook his head in confusion. “Pulled in by who?”

“Dan.”

“He talked to some of them.” Marc sounded emotionless.

“Asked if we ‘knew anything.’”

“About what?”

Tanger sighed. “He didn’t say, just asked me if something seemed weird.”

The entire situation felt too much like a high school’s ploy to get a student to rat someone out for having weed. Keegan’s brain clicked into the terrible idea that he and Marc were the kids with weed.

“Everything’s been weird lately.” He tried to sound unbothered. Keegan couldn’t even convince himself.

“Look, something has to be fucked up, right? Why else would he talk to us in private?”

“No, why else would he talk to some of us in private?” Justin glanced at Marc and Keegan. He looked away quickly, as if he regretted it.

Max, who had been pacing the entire time and switching between clenching his hands into fists and stretching them out, let out a loud groan. The entire group turned to look at him.

“Sorry.” He paused. “I’m gonna… go to the bathroom.”

Keegan’s eyes remained on him as he rushed into the bathroom and locked the door loudly. The light that snuck out from under the door was occasionally disrupted by pacing feet.

“Do you want a tea?”

It was beyond relieving to look over to Marc. The memories of their morning still made Keegan blush, specifically when he noticed the small bruise that was peeking out of the neck of Marc’s shirt. He nodded gratefully at the offer.

Justin cleared his throat, bringing the attention back to him. “Do you think it has anything to do with Sid and Geno? They’ve been pretty weird lately.”

The spoon in Marc’s hand clinked around a mug in an aggressive manner. He dipped his fingers back into the bowl of packaged sugar to pour another packet in, spun the spoon around again. Liquid splashed over the side and onto the stained wooden side table.

“I gotta agree. Sid’s been pretty fucking crazy. Even for him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just, like, more focused on shit. He tried to re-tape my stick when I wasn’t looking.”

“Because you’re shit at taping your stick,” Marc muttered to Kris. He snickered when the other man flipped him off. The mug was gently placed into Keegan’s hands before he sat back in his original spot. “He’s been fine to me.”

That was, of course, totally not true. Sid had been obviously on edge and taking his role even more seriously than he had before; his obsession with seeing the bright side was sickly sweet, enough to make even the most optimistic people in the room want to shoot themselves. Keegan had tuned it out, but he was privy to an explanation.

The same reason why Marc was looking at anything other than the group in front of them.

The same reason Max was still pacing in the bathroom.

The trio were stuck between telling the group to save their own asses or maintaining the very important alliance with their friends. Telling Sid and Geno’s secret would be even worse than just admitting their own. Keegan sipped his tea to avoid speaking. It burned his tongue.

“Why would he talk to us, then?”

“He needs proof. Can’t blame the captains without evidence.”

“This isn’t CSI, he could just ask them himself.”

Keegan couldn’t stand it any longer. He raised a finger just enough for the men to look over in surprise. “Maybe it’s just his excuse for why we weren’t playing great. He’s never really been the kind of guy to admit that sometimes things are bad for no reason. Who says it has to be anyone’s fault?”

Kris stared at him for a moment. It was apparent that his guess has been proven correct by Keegan’s statement. He nodded slowly before looking at the floor. “Some shit’s going on, man.”

“Why didn’t he call you guys in?” Phil frowned at the bed.

“Okay, mes amis!” The door to the bathroom swung open and Max walked out with a large smile. The room didn’t have enough space for his energy. “Lovely conversation, great to spend more time with all of you.”

“You complained the whole time.”

“I just got a text saying our bus is here! Time for our super fun, disgustingly late and early flight! Hope you’re packed!”

The circle disbanded with a unanimous grumbling about having to take a flight past midnight. There were no parting words or actions, only the door slamming shut behind them. It felt like a fire had just been put out. Keegan let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

“Holy fuck. I thought they were never going to leave.” Marc scooted closer, put his hand on Keegan’s thigh. He used the hand without a mug to rest on top of Marc’s.

Max laughed as he pushed the furniture back to their original places.

“Are we just avoiding that whole thing?” Keegan nodded in the direction of the door. “We know nothing, we’ve never known anything…”

“Until they find out themselves, I guess.”

“They’ll never find out themselves,” Max snorted. He stopped organizing furniture to stand in front of them. “If they haven’t guessed about you two, they’ll never guess about Sid and G.”

“Fuck you. I think we’re subtle.” Keegan chugged back the rest of his cup and held it out to Max. He took it. “You never guessed.”

Max ignored him, turning to grab his jacket off one of the chairs. Keegan took that as a sign to leave and collect his own things. He stood up with a sigh.

“You still have twenty minutes.” Max called as Keegan opened the door. He pointed at the couple with a smirk. “You’re so very welcome, by the way.”

---

A sprinkling of delicate snow rested on top of Geno’s toque, occasionally shaken off as he ran in between rows of lush Christmas trees. His laugh echoed through the fenced-off street. All Sid could do was watch with a smile as he ran his fingers over the pine needles.

“You’re gonna scare the kids,” he finally called out. Geno dodged the family heading toward them with a quick apology.

Sid had been planning on using the day off to rest, maybe look over some plays and check his email. Potentially jerk off, since G said he wouldn’t be there. Allowing himself to get dragged onto what appeared to be a main street in Ottawa to look at trees and be mesmerized by his partner having an insane amount of fun definitely wasn’t on his list. Which was probably why it was exactly what he needed.

His feet started to move a little faster, his breath hitched every time he got a glimpse of the tips of Geno’s fingers or heard him laugh. It didn’t take long for him to get to a gentle run, causing him to dart between families and couples. The toes of his boots knocked against a few trunks as he made his best attempt to catch up. Geno disappeared just as Sid reached out to touch grab the sleeve of his jacket.

Sid stood in the middle of the empty aisle. The trees had gotten older and older the further in they went, beginning to turn an unsettling shade of beige and covered in sharp, empty branches. He flicked the branch in front of him and watched a pile of snow fall onto his shoes.

“G?”

He started to feel silly standing by himself. He could only imagine what people had thought of him, running aimlessly past them and giggling like a child, and their kind smiles started to haunt them. Captain Sidney Crosby, the man who got giddy when surrounded by Christmas trees. It was bound to end up on some weird website.

“Come on, G.”

The voices felt extremely far away. His boots shuffled along the snow timidly.

“Seriously? Come out.” Sid’s voice was more poised than he felt. He practically stomped in frustration. “We don’t have time for this.”

He changed his plans, turning back to where he’d come from and starting to walk. His arms swung comically as he tried to get past a particularly large pile of snow that hadn’t been there on his original trip.

A hand gripping his arm made him squeal embarrassingly. His body was pulled past a row of trees and into another aisle, despite his squirming and flailing arms. Another hand came across his face to cover his mouth, which had just opened to begin calling for help.

“Stop!” His voice was muffled. Panic set in. “Please!”

A familiar Russian phrase voiced more urgently than usual made him pause. Sid jerked his shoulders away from the arms holding him back. Geno smiled sheepishly back at him, the large hands that had been gripping him now behind his back.

“What the fuck was that?”

Geno kicked the snow. “I’m not mean to scare. Was joke.”

Sid failed to see what part of the interaction could’ve been taken as a joke, but he still softened at Geno’s regret. It wasn’t his partner’s fault that he was always on edge.

“I’m—Did I hit you?” He moved closer, hand outstretched. “Are you okay?”

“Not that strong, Sid. Is fine,” Geno chuckled. “Scare me, too.”

Sid exhaled a laugh through his nose, eventually joined by the wide-eyed man in front of him. They fell into a comfortable embrace. Geno took a deep breath, causing Sid’s head to rise and fall with his chest.

“Is cold.”

Sid looked up. “Yeah. It’s winter.”

Geno brushed off his comment. His hand landed on top of Sid’s and tugged gently. “Dance with me.”

“What?”

“Keep warm. Dance.”

Sid didn’t fight the persistent movement of Geno’s body. They moved from foot-to-foot in a lumbering hug, nowhere close to graceful choreography thanks to their large jackets. Geno pulled away and lifted his arm, allowing Sid to twirl slowly beneath it. His cheeks hurt from smiling. The snow continued its dance around them as he twirled again. There was no need for music; their rhythms had synced without it.

It didn’t take long for a group of voices, all varying degrees of loud and unexcited calling their names. Sid wasn’t sure if they’d hung back on purpose to give them privacy, or if they really did just walk that slow. He and Geno remained an appropriate distance from each other as they made their way to the aisle beside them. If he hadn’t known the large group heading toward them, it would’ve been incredibly intimidating.

“I’ve never seen you move so fast, Cap,” Max said with a smirk. “Could barely keep up.”

Marc giggled along with him. They whispered something in French but stopped when Kris walked up behind them.

“Where are we going, anyway?” Phil poked at one of the trees. He looked like a father that got dragged along to the mall.

“I’m cold.”

“Yeah, I’m over Christmas trees.”

Sid cleared his throat to stop anyone else from complaining. He ignored Geno’s laugh when he put his hands on his hips. “Coffee?”

Everyone nodded enthusiastically. He twirled around on the heel of his boot, motioning for Geno to walk in front of him. The chatter from the rest of the group started up again. The couple wandered ahead, jacket sleeved rubbing together as the aisle got narrower, fading back out into the street. They visited Ottawa often enough that Sid’s mental navigation system kicked in, allowing him to focus on what the guys behind him were saying. Every so often their small talk lowered to a whisper, specifically when Sid leaned a little too close to Geno’s arm. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep them from wandering over to the other man, the magnetic force too strong for him to hold himself back. He looked up at G to see what his reaction was to everyone’s strange behaviour but received nothing in return.

Without anything overtly out of the ordinary, Sid chose not to obsess over it. He let out a breath as soon as they walked in the door of the coffee shop. There were a few gasps at the large group of players, each of which nodded and waved appropriately. Phil grabbed everyone’s orders while the rest pushed a few tables together to take over the small building. Sid chose a seat beside Keegan.

“Good walk?” He cringed at the sudden lack of social skills. Keegan didn’t seem to notice.

“As good as it could be. Kinda jealous you didn’t have to listen to the extremely intelligent conversations that went on while you were gone.”

That was his chance. “About what?”

Keegan opened his mouth but was immediately silenced by Kris placing his mug in front of him hard enough to make some tea spill. They glared at each other for a moment.

“It seemed interesting,” Sid tried again, ignoring his own mug being dangerously slid down the table toward him. Kris threw him a few napkins in apology.

Keegan looked down at the table, drawing an invisible picture with the tip of his finger. Marc had conveniently decided to stare out the window. Phil and Justin hurried into a conversation about dogs. Geno, on the other end of the table, frowned. Kris and Max stared each other down before Max inhaled dramatically.

“We, uh… we’ve been talking about this thing that, uh… happened to us.”

Keegan’s face formed into a look of disgust and he shook his head at Max’s response. It would’ve made Sid laugh if he hadn’t been so confused.

“Are we telling them?” Justin had turned away from Phil. “Like, now?”

“Well, now we have to,” Phil muttered.

“Tell what?”

Marc cleared his throat but continued to look out the window. “It’s really nothing.”

“I wouldn’t call it nothing.”

“It’s not this big of a deal.”

“Stew’s right.”

“They’re gonna find out anyway.”

“Okaaay.” Max looked back and forth from Sid to Geno. His palms lay flat on the table. “Flower was right, too. It’s nothing. Everyone’s overthinking it.”

“As if you didn’t call us all together in the first place.”

Max rolled his eyes. “Dan called some of us to his office. It was really vague shit, just if we thought something weird was going on.”

Sid’s stomach immediately turned. He shoved his coffee away, eyes finding their way to Geno in desperation. They blinked at each other.

“We didn’t get called in either.” Keegan’s finger stopped moving. He didn’t need to clarify who ‘we’ was.

There was no other reason why Dan wouldn’t have talked to two leaders of the team. It had to do with them, and only them.

“He’s acting like nothing happened now.”

“Because nothing did.” Keegan sounded extremely annoyed.

Sid’s heartbeat was stuck in his throat. The room started to feel extremely warm; he tried not to look desperate as he peeled off another layer to release his arms. Max tapped his mug, catching his attention. The look they shared was the only thing keeping Sid from running away, assurance that no one had said anything incriminating about his relationship.

“So, what is problem?” Geno spoke up. “Why talk about so much?”

“That’s the thing. What is the problem? Why isn’t this a team thing?”

“And I could argue five different things that have felt really strange the past month. I just don’t understand what he wants.”

Sid composed himself. It was obvious that he would need to step up and try to fix whatever was going on. He turned to Keegan first. “So, what do you think has been weird?”

Keegan shuffled in his seat uncomfortably. The rest of the group gave him noises of support, but he still shook his head. “I… I don’t know if I want to talk about it here.”

“Okay.” Sid nodded. “Write it down when we get back to the hotel. You guys, too. We can go from there. No one has to feel left out.”

More noises of support. Sid lifted his chin a little higher, making direct eye contact with Geno. He was going to fix things. He knew he could fix things.

---

DECEMBER 6

PENGUINS @ OTTAWA SENATORS

Once again, the scoreboard had been trapped at 2-2. The number two was starting to look like something that had been made up solely to haunt Keegan’s brain. Without any hope for another goal on the horizon, he felt himself (and everyone else) losing steam, and, with no closure from their group discussion, his mind had been on something completely different the whole night.

Walking into the runway at the second intermission without any points made him feel like a failure. His stick was thrown haphazardly toward the wall, replaced with another identical piece of composite. It still didn’t feel right, but there was nothing more he could do.

“Hey, guess what I found.”

He looked toward Jen excitedly. Her tone of voice was enough to melt away any worry he might have. Like a ball of kick-ass energy.

“There were some of your jerseys in the crowd.”

“How many of them were on fire?”

“Absolutely none.” She gave Keegan a gentle smile. Her extended hand offered him a phone. “I thought you’d wanna know. They seemed really excited to have their photos taken.”

A group of four beamed at the camera, proudly using their hands to push the rainbow Penguins’ logo out further in front of them. One of them was a child, about seven or eight. The next photo was a couple. They held hands, heads tilted toward each other, again with gigantic smiles. It didn’t take much detective work to know that they were madly in love.

The image of him and Marc being able to take a photo like that sprung into his head. Physical evidence of how they looked at each other, how obvious it seemed to Keegan that there was a bond there. It left as soon as he shook his head.

“That’s really great.” Keegan handed the phone back to her. His gaze landed on the stick he’d just thrown aside. It had survived the fall, along with the rest of its companions. “Here. Could we get these to them? And some pucks or something?”

Jen laughed, and he realized just how frantic he’d sounded as he’d practically tossed two of his sticks toward her. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you. I had no idea how much I needed that.”

“It’s my job.”

It clearly wasn’t, but Jen still happily placed her free hand on his shoulder before strolling down the hall and turning a corner. All that remained was the smell of her perfume, like a stylish fairy godmother that had poofed out of sight.

Keegan fell back against the wall. His legs felt wobbly from excitement, the images of those smiles sneaking up on him. There were actually people watching him play, that were supporting his cause. That felt pride in sticking up for kids who otherwise would feel like they had no one. That potentially even looked up to him, as scary as that seemed. For every one maniacal asshole, there were six amazing, openminded souls ready to start a movement. Or, at least, wear his jersey.

A laugh fell out of his mouth. The whole thing was absurdly wonderful.

The door beside him opened, letting out the commonplace noises of a team getting ready for round three. Only Marc’s head stuck out of the doorway, as if it were floating. “Everything okay?”

All Keegan could do was nod enthusiastically.

“Très bien.” Marc’s hand poked out, revealing a thumbs up before the door once again closed behind him.

“Très bien,” Keegan repeated. He liked the sound of that.

---

“Do you know what happened?”

Sid looked up from his Crocs. Dan had his arms crossed, facing the white board that listed their lines for the night. He’d been asked to stay behind, which was nerve wracking since their plane would be leaving incredibly soon. The rest of the team had happily left as quickly as possible after their loss.

The question itself was completely loaded. The only answer was that they’d fucked up somewhere along the way. However, he knew that wasn’t the only thing Dan was asking him.

“Yeah. Some of the guys told me.”

Dan nodded slowly. He uncrossed his arms, reached out to grab the eraser. He removed each name from the board one by one.

“Do I get to know what that was about?”

“I don’t think I should tell you yet.”

Sid frowned. His eyes closed to hold in the childish comeback that had almost jumped out. It took an insane amount of energy for his gaze to return to Dan’s back.

“You’ve never had to worry about me supporting you. I have always agreed with you, even when what you were saying was utter bullshit. And when you’re not around, I still do it. I’ll preach your plays, and your pep talks, and your excuses for changing lines that were working perfectly fine, because that’s what my job is to you. Geno, too. And in return, you start talking to guys about us behind our backs? You’re asking around about… what, exactly? What part of us acting ‘strange’ has changed anything? And then we’re just supposed to ignore Matt being transparently terrible to a teammate? You don’t pull him in for that?”

Dan turned around. He looked incredibly tired. “I wasn’t asking about you. Honestly, Sid, I could care less about what you and Geno do. It’s none of my business and it never has been. There’s a reason I didn’t feel like I needed to talk to you.” His fingers toyed with the eraser as he spoke. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you.”

Even with the apology, his anger didn’t subside. Sid slid his Crocs off, sliding his feet into a pair of new sneakers and picking the rubber shoes up off the ground. The muscles in his legs protested when he walked up to Dan.

“It’s been a year. I need to be treated with more respect. I need my opinions to matter.” He held the crocs out to Dan, who took them, obviously surprised. As soon as they were safe in his hands, Sid turned his back to the coach. “We’re gonna be late.”

---

Keegan squinted at the lighting in the plane when he pulled his sunglasses off. It was surprisingly bright, only made worse by the fact the front half of the plane had turned the flashlights on their phone on to illuminate his entrance.

“Really?” He pretended to be irritated, but the action meant a lot to him.

“Third star is better than no star at all!” Marc called. The light blocked his face from Keegan’s view, but he could still picture that shit-eating grin.

A chant for a speech started, which Keegan conveniently put his earbuds in for. He gestured to his ears and shrugged comically. There were a couple boo’s, which he bowed for. By the time he got to his usual seat, he felt like he’d just won an Academy Award.

The seat swallowed him up, something he was extremely grateful for at that point in the night. His muscles ached, a new bruise blossoming on the side of his right butt cheek made it hard to find a comfortable position. The sunglasses found their way back onto his head. He hadn’t realized his eyes had closed until the presence of another body made him jerk awake.

“Sorry. Just me,” Geno whispered. He sounded extremely distraught. “Close eyes.”

Keegan searched his face for any clues. The area around his eyes were red, as if he’d been rubbing (attacking) them with the backs of his hands to wipe away any evidence, bottom lip permanently stuck under his teeth, jaw clenching every few seconds. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and placed it in his lap without even opening the new game he’d downloaded.

“Do you need anything?” Keegan offered.

Geno shook his head, finally making eye contact. The corner of his lip twitched slightly, something between a grimace and a smile. The only thing Keegan could think of was placing his hand, palm up, on his thigh. His neighbour accepted the offer without hesitation.

---

Keegan drifted in and out of sleep while the plane took off and settled into the sky, much to Geno’s annoyance. He muttered nonsensical, sleepy small talk every so often, to which Geno nodded along without understanding. There was no need to answer, anyway. His response was the least important part of Keegan’s efforts; he’d remembered that listening to someone talk always calmed Geno down immensely. Very sweet, but exceptionally annoying in that moment.

Eventually, the talking stopped. Keegan’s head fell to the side opposite to Geno without a fight. The hand in his went limp with slumber. Carefully, he leaned over just enough to reach the light above them, flicking it off and enveloping their portion of the plane in even more darkness.

His phone vibrated on his lap once more. Unease settled into his stomach, momentarily stopped him from checking who had sent the message. He turned to look at the seats across from them; both the men were sound asleep. There were no telltale signs of a phone being used coming from the front of the plane, either. He briefly cursed himself for not turning on airplane mode before they’d took off.

With a drawn-out inhale, he slowly lifted the phone. The brightness of his screen made him cringe. An unknown number had sent yet another photo.

An exhale, and he swiped to open the message.

It was an additional photo to the one that had been sent an hour before, the only difference being Sid making eye contact with him as he moved back in from a twirl. Geno’s finger hovered over the initial picture of their embrace. It was almost a shame that the entire situation was beyond creepy. It was a good picture.

He shook his head. There was no reason to dwell on it; anyone could’ve taken the pictures. Jumping to the worst conclusion wouldn’t do him any good.

His thumb swiped left, deleting the pictures from his memory.

---

“Did you get the flight information?”

“There’s only one place they could come from. Airport’s not that big, dude.”

“What did I say about that?”

The man muted the call just long enough to laugh to himself. He composed himself before the boss could say anything more.

“They’re landing this morning. I’ll be at the gate.” The man looked around the airport parking lot. His thumb flicked the butt of his cigarette, hard enough that it almost fell out of his fingers. The boss inhaled once again, and he rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know, just the kid. I doubt they’ll do anything, there’s so many people out here—"

“You never know. Just take the fucking pictures.”

Chapter Text

Keegan let out a shocked laugh as his foot fit snugly into one of the chunky high-heeled boots he’d found in his boxes. If anyone had asked, he would’ve said he’d kept the boots as a memory of a life far gone. A reminder of the person he’d once been, the extremes he would go to appear average to a stranger as he walked down the street.

In reality, he’d kept them in hopes that they would always fit, that he would always be able to slide them on and dance around the house like he had done for years.

The box had been conveniently shoved toward the back of his built-in closet. It was full of things he’d purchased as soon as he’d learned what a more… adventurous sex life felt like. With a seemingly unlimited amount of money, the young man had strolled into numerous adult stores with an innocent smile and purchased anything that looked remotely fun. Along with a few toys that still made him blush laid a lingerie set he’d bought a size too big, with the notion that it would fit him better as he gained more muscle from playing. Of course, he’d only lost weight in Vancouver, and the set remained untouched even with his wild party lifestyle falling into full swing.

His fingers touched the lace gently; it was so delicate, it looked like it could fall apart if he even looked at it wrong. It was sure to fit him at that point, even with the extreme glutes he’d begun to rock. He was alone, as well. No reason not to give the outfit (if something with that little fabric could be called an outfit) a test run.

The bralette, not needed at all given his lack of chest, fit surprisingly well still. He squinted at himself in the mirror. How anyone could find him attractive, he had no idea. He was halfway there, though, so he pulled the matching thong up and flinched as he snapped the elastic band around his waist. Although the lace was stretching slightly, it could’ve looked worse. The entire look was almost comical paired with boots that added a few solid inches to his height. He couldn’t help but flex a little as he posed in front of the full-length mirror.

His steps made a careful rhythm through the room as Keegan walked back to the box. He used his heel to kick it back toward the closet. A small noise caught his attention, a strange rolling that didn’t sound like it could come from the toys that had been packed into the bottom. He broke out into a grin at the sight of a lipstick tube rolling around in between some phallic objects. After a quick touch up with his thumb, the scarlet colour completed whatever he was doing.

Bass vibrated through the kitchen floorboards and through the walls, the only way to camouflage the sound of him stomping through the main floor of the house. His hips rotated to the beat, arms swinging and fingers wiggling. A smile had taken permanent hold on his face. The last time he’d felt such a strange combination of dangerous and sexy had been… he couldn’t even remember. Whenever it had been, he was certainly giving it a run for its money in that moment.

Right as his shoulders fell back, hand gripping the back of his couch to allow him to dip back, the door opened.

“Hey—oh.”

Marc’s lips had been sucked into his mouth, as if he wished he could just suck the rest of his body up and disappear from the situation. Keegan’s heart pounded. For some reason, his first reaction was to snatch the blanket draped on his couch and wrap it around himself.

“Sorry, I thought I’d try out the key. I probably should’ve asked, still...”

“No, no,” Keegan countered quickly, waving his arm. The blanket drooped below his armpit. “I mean, I gave it to you. I shouldn’t be shocked that you’re using it. It’s a good thing.”

Marc obviously held back a laugh as he kicked off his boots. His gaze was on the hardwood the entire time. “Should I ask what this is?”

“I wouldn’t have an answer for you.”

He hummed a response. Socked feet made their way toward Keegan, whose grasp on the blanket had loosened significantly since they’d started talking. The devilish glint in Marc’s eyes was enough to let it fall completely. With the fabric pooled at his feet, he somehow felt even more powerful.

“You look great.” Marc’s hands went to his waist, carefully moving Keegan back so that his eyes could move over his body. A flush started to rise on Keegan’s chest. “You don’t have to hide it.”

That took his breath away. If it wasn’t for the steadiness of Marc’s hands, he probably would’ve tipped over at the authoritative tone. Usually he was the one in charge.

Keegan raised an eyebrow quickly, an invitation.

Marc’s fingers tightened on his hipbones, jaw tense but still open enough to catch a glimpse of his teeth. At another struggled breath, he lifted one hand and brought his index finger to Keegan’s lips, coaxing his mouth open just enough for it to slide in.

“You don’t have to hide,” he repeated, voice cracked slightly from excitement. All Keegan could do was nod.

Marc guided Keegan around the forgotten blanket to the front of the couch. Their eyes remained locked, too overwhelmingly excited and nervous from the feeling of a new adventure to look away. He was lowered slowly, tentatively, onto the cushion.

“You look gorgeous.”

Keegan almost asked if he was serious, but the finger in his mouth made him rethink that decision. There was nothing to gain from being coy at that point. He pulled away to gain control for a short moment.

“I know.”

Marc laughed quietly. His hand went back to Keegan’s face, stroked his cheek carefully while he used the other to push his legs apart. He fell to his knees in front of Keegan. It felt so good that he almost told the other man not to bother, nothing could be as satisfying as seeing someone fall apart from his presence alone.

Before he could speak again, their lips met. Marc’s fingers hooked onto his thong, prompting Keegan to shuffle just enough so he could pull it down. Another confident smirk before Marc moved down his body.

That was pretty satisfying, too.

---

The alarm blared through Max’s head, went directly to his eyes. His body jerked purely out of instinct at the noise.

Seven in the morning. Practice in an hour.

He groaned loudly, allowing himself to flop back down on the mattress and roll onto his back. The sheet was cold on his sweaty back.

Sweat? Why was he sweating?

A grunt in return gave him his answer. Tate’s arm wrapped around him like it was ritual rather than an amazingly unique occurrence.

“Morning.”

The grogginess of his voice tugged at Max’s heart, but he still pushed himself to a sitting position. Tate frowned at him.

“I have to get ready.”

“That’s okay,” Tate assured him. His arm returned to its natural position. A loose smile, almost suggestive, accompanied by him burying himself deeper under the blankets. “Go ahead.”

Max cringed. “No, I mean… we need to get ready. We need to go.”

It looked like a wave of understanding crashed over Tate. His smile faded briefly, replaced by something less comfortable and more professional. They both rolled out of the bed in a familiar routine, pulled on strewn clothes in a silence that was reminiscent of their previous meetings. It was as if the laughs that had coloured Max’s world a vibrant shade of orange had never happened. All that was missing was the exchange of rolled up cash.

“I’m sorry, it’s just… practice. You know?”

Tate’s face was only visible through the mirror he was standing in front of. He was expressionless. “I understand. You don’t have to make excuses, Max.” His fingers buttoned up his pants nimbly. “You think I’ve never been in this situation before?”

Max shrugged at his humourless grin. “I just have to leave.”

There was a hesitancy to looking away, but Tate turned first. His head disappeared behind his hoodie for a second before revealing his perfectly messy hair. “I told you, I understand.”

“I had a good time, though.” Max offered the sentence like it could heal whatever wound he’d reopened. “A really great time, actually.”

“Don’t sound so surprised.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Calm down.” Tate walked over to him, pinching his chin with a kind grin. “I had fun, too. Thank you for paying.”

“It’s not like I don’t have the money.”

“I could say the same thing.”

It was hard not to laugh at their attempts at sneaking down the stairs, socks tiptoeing down steps that had never been creaky to begin with. Tate’s toes slipped just enough to force his hand down onto the bannister. The sound of skin slapping against wood made them both pause and await the inevitable.

“You okay?” Marc’s voice called from the kitchen.

“Yeah!”

Tate rolled his eyes at Max’s enthusiasm. He continued down the stairs at a normal pace with feet flat against the steps. Max reached out, about to warn him that there was no way Marc would be prepared to see a strange man strolling down the steps, but it was a pointless endeavour. The statuesque figure had no reluctance at entering an inescapably awkward situation. Max followed behind, feeling a lot like a lost dog.

“There’s extra eggs on the counter.” Marc didn’t look up from his phone, French flowing out automatically. “I thought I was gonna have to wake you up.”

Tate paused at the bottom of the stairs. “Hi.”

Before Marc could look any more concerned at the stranger in his home, Max jumped in front of him. He spread his body out in a sad attempt at blocking Tate from his vision.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Tate lowered Max’s arm just enough to look around him. “I’m a huge fan.”

“Thank you?” Marc frowned.

Max’s stomach turned at the fact he couldn’t decipher Marc’s expression. He looked like he was on the verge of saying more, the only thing holding him back being the standing-starfish pose Max had adopted in lieu of an explanation. The trio remained in a speechless standoff, Tate’s hand still resting on Max’s bicep.

Marc lifted his fork, stabbed into some scrambled eggs, brought it to his mouth, all with his gaze locked on the hand on Max’s arm. He chewed tortuously slow.

“I should head out,” Tate volunteered. “I shouldn’t be late today.”

Max let out a breath. “That’s a good idea.” He spun around, already guiding Tate to the door before Marc could even think about replying. “It was great to see you.”

Tate turned around when he crossed the threshold. He placed his hands in his pockets with a level of grace unbeknownst to any normal person. “I’d love to see you again. I have a late client on the weekend, but… I’d just love to see you.”

Max felt a flash of heat at the mention of a client. He remembered it all too well; it came up every time Amber’s phone went off, or her hair looked a little messier than it had in the morning. He nodded politely, trying to push it down. Tate made his way down the driveway before he could reply.

The door creaked shut, laughing at him for thinking he could get away with anything. He could barely find the courage to face Marc. However, there was no sarcastic or even surprised comment from his friend, only a small giggle behind his beige mug.

“So.”

Max walked back to the stairs, fully prepared to make a run for it. “So?”

“Who was that?”

He hesitated. His gaze fell on the heavy snow outside. Tate didn’t like driving in the snow. “Just a friend.”

“Hmmm.” Marc looked him up and down. “Yeah?”

“It’s not serious. I don’t want it to be.”

“Okay.”

“What’s that look for?” Max sounded incredibly defensive, given the minute difference in Marc’s knowing expression.

“Nothing. I’m just really happy for you.”

Max chose to stomp up the stairs in a huff rather than entertain Marc’s line of questioning. He tried to sigh as loud as possible when he got to the top, even though he was smiling.

---

“I think you should go for gold.”

“That’s pretty extreme, though, right? Like, I don’t know if I’m the kind of person that could just have a gold tooth.”

“It's paid for. And the only kind of person with a gold tooth is a person with a gold tooth.”

“Yeah, but… I’d have to match my clothes.”

Keegan burst out laughing. His head tilted back just enough for his helmet to fall off, caught behind him by Phil. They shared a nod before turning back to the very distraught Schultzy.

“Let me get this straight. You think your teeth have to match your outfits?”

Justin huffed in frustration. “If it’s gold, yeah!”

“It would look great with your jersey,” Phil chimed in.

“We would be matching.” Keegan ran his tongue over his own front teeth to accentuate his golden choice. “Can’t say no to that.”

Schultzy rolled his eyes as his line went off for their drill.

“Just think about it!” Keegan called.

His own drills went by impressively fast, given how distracted everyone seemed. Tensions has seemingly been forgotten, replaced by small talks and jokes that reminded him of when he first arrived. No jerseys were lit on fire (open practices were off limits for the rest of the season, the league’s orders) and no backhanded comments were made. Keegan fell headfirst into perfecting his wristshot with gusto. Not once did he look away from the net, firing off multiple shots as quick as he could within the minute. His right forearm burned up into his shoulder.

“Okay, you’re good.” Dan paused, finger half-raised, eyes darting around the ice. “Where’s your line, kid?”

Keegan let out a breath of relief as he stood straight. His breath fogged up his visor. Sid was talking to the goalie coach, obviously enthralled in their discussion.

“Did Geno show up?”

“He never told me he wouldn’t be.” Although he was usually one of the last people through the door, Geno never missed a practice without good explanation. Keegan felt a twinge of nerves at how Dan would react. “Car problems?”

All Dan could do was shake his head. He motioned for Keegan to do a lap and whistled Sid over. It wasn’t until Keegan got back to them that the familiar lumbering walk of their linemate came out onto the bench. He took a sip from one of the many water bottles lined up along the boards, an air of confidence as if he wasn’t close to twenty minutes late. Sid simply looked disappointed as he skated over to them.

“Sorry, late.”

“I need a solid reason why I should let you practice with us today.” Dan crossed his arms. “Because it’s obvious we weren’t your first priority.”

The two stared at each other for a beat longer than normal. Keegan cleared his throat, knocking a puck back and forth with the tip of his stick.

“No good reason,” Geno finally gave in. “Just late.”

Dan raised his palms to the sky, clearly begging for something to give. He motioned for them to follow the rest of the forwards in a simple passing drill at the other end of the ice.

“What was that?” Marc snuck up behind him during a much-needed water break. He pushed his mask back to reveal a perfectly sweaty, perfectly flushed, perfectly perfect face that reminded Keegan of something very inappropriate. “With G?”

Keegan brought his finger to his mouth. Marc mouthed an apology before squirting water into his mouth, spitting it beside them.

“You gonna tell me?”

“You gonna lower your voice?” Keegan rolled his eyes. They were surrounded at that point.

Marc sighed in defeat, moving backward just past the benches to no man’s land. Keegan followed suit. His hand gripped the green bottle tightly, unsure if he should divulge potentially personal information. It was built off uncertainty, though; he wouldn’t be at fault if his assumptions were wrong.

“Something’s going on.”

“No shit, that’s why—”

“And you can’t take my word for it, okay? I am simply playing detective.” A small squirt out of the bottle, thanks to a twitch of his hand. Marc snorted. “I’m serious.”

“Okay.”

Keegan looked behind him. Geno was skating a slow figure eight at the opposite end, and Sid was preoccupied with finishing his goalie coach conversation. Anyone else that would care was far from listening to them.

“A couple days ago, on the plane, he seemed… sad? Scared? On edge?”

“Anything he didn’t seem to be feeling?”

“Shut up. It was weird, like something really fucked up happened. He’s been fine, though. Until now, I guess.” He glanced back at the other man. “Something happened.” Said more to prove it to himself than to anyone else.

“Maybe he’s afraid of flying.”

Keegan didn’t need to look over at Kris. He shook his head in annoyance.

The decision to take his time after practice wasn’t calculated. He wanted to soak in what was turning into a surprisingly normal day, save for Geno’s issue, before shit hit the fan once more. Playful chatter and the ripping of Velcro were music to his ears. A slight throbbing in his knee was simply a reminder of how hard he’d worked. The noise slowly faded away into happy goodbyes and see-ya’s, until all that was left was his puffer jacket rubbing against itself as he leaned over to fix a shoelace.

He wasn’t the only one that hadn’t rushed. Pascal’s comforting French echoed through from the showers, a departing word to Max as he walked out the door. Keegan brought his focus back to his shoes. Duper wasn’t the kind of person that ignored someone looking at him.

“Why are you hanging ‘round?”

Conversation being directed toward him caught him off guard. Keegan forgot about trying to make the laces even, instead trying to come up with a decent response. “Um… nowhere else to be.”

“There’s worse places to hang out, I guess.” Pascal shrugged. He strolled over to his locker and pulled on his own jacket. “Nice and quiet.”

“Unlike your house?”

“Bingo,” he laughed.

Keegan, who hadn’t taken care of as much as a goldfish, nodded along.

“Speaking of the loud ones…” Pascal trailed off. His fingers fished through his jacket pocket before pulling out a sheet of paper. “My daughter, she wanted your autograph. It hasn’t really seemed like the right time.”

Keegan was beyond speechless. He stared at the picture of him twirling as if he’d never seen a photograph before. The fact that the older man had felt too… something, to ask him earlier was even more shocking.

“If that’s okay?”

“Oh, of course. Yeah, totally.” Keegan fumbled to grab the pen that was being handed to him. “Am I really that scary?”

“You’ve been going through a lot.”

He couldn’t argue that. His signature was placed in the bottom right corner, so as not to disrupt the image.

“It means a lot. She’ll be very happy.” Pascal smiled down at the paper, up at him. “Get some rest, man.”

Keegan nodded, still surprised at the entire situation. He watched Pascal walk toward the doors, holding the corner of the paper as if he’d had to go out of his way to get it.

“Wait.”

The expensive dress shoes, which were sure to get damaged in the snow, paused. He turned around with a questioning gaze.

“Would you guys be interested in coming over? I could make dinner. I have a kitchen table, now, so.” Keegan rubbed his arm, an irritating noise. “I guess it would depend on how many chairs we’d need.”

“Four. We can bring one for the baby.”

Keegan took a moment, trying to envision the number he’d picked up when he’d gone shopping. He only ever used three at the most, enough for him and whoever decided to show up on his doorstep that morning.

“I think I’ll have to buy a few,” he managed to say with a smile. “Just in case.”

Pascal laughed. He brushed off the attempted joke, which was probably for the best, and raised the picture. “They’ll be really excited.”

“I have some extra jerseys, too, if you want. Feels kinda weird to have five in my closet.”

“Can’t you give them to your family?”

He almost exploded into laughter, quickly concealed by an awkward cough. Family. “Already did. There’s not a lot of us.” There were three left, in fact. All chosen, all sent out in small parcels to western Canada.

“Well, I’m sure they’d love that.” Pascal shuffled his feet on the carpet. “I’ll let you know which night works.”

“For sure.”

They had both settled back into their previous goals when Pascal stopped once more. The door hung half open, held only by his first three fingers. Keegan frowned at his back.

“You know, I just want to apologize.”

“Okay?”

“I mean, for…” He sighed, turned around just enough for them to make eye contact again. “I’m here for you, if you need it.”

Keegan nodded affirmatively. He tried to sound as effortless as possible. “Yeah. Thank you.”

---

DECEMBER 13

PENGUINS @ PHILIDELPHIA FLYERS

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Who does that?”

“Does what? Throw shit?”

“I think what he’s trying to say is: who drinks a milkshake in the middle of December?”

“Who wastes a milkshake?”

“I fucking hate playing here.” Sid’s voice was muffled by his hands. “I really fucking hate playing here.”

Geno took hold of the towel that was being pushed against his shoulder. The brown liquid was taking control of his vision.

“It’s a good colour on you.”

“What? Shit brown?” Geno spat out some milkshake that had fallen into his mouth. The towel didn’t do much, other than smear everything closer to his hairline. “Is not big deal.”

“Does it taste good?” Keegan asked. “I haven’t had a milkshake in years.”

“Like vodka.”

“What?” Sid stood up, obviously panicked.

“Is joke.”

He kind of wished it wasn’t a joke.

---

Bodies flung against each other like that was all the game was, an excuse to knock each other around at increasingly higher speeds as soon as skates touched the ice. Various cuss words highlighted each hit and only inspired more. It was intoxicating.

Marc felt like a rattlesnake, coiled in the net as he waited for the puck to come back to their end. It was both good and bad that the focus was on the offensive end; he was starting to feel a nervous energy about his own playing, but the chances were higher they would get a head start. Of course, Keegan got them a beautiful shot early on, saved only by the fingertips of a desperate defenceman.

Eventually, Max accidently turned the puck over at the blue line. The crowd blew up into a frenzy, loud enough to give Marc a headache. Luckily, the sound faded away as soon as the Flyer entered their zone. It was just the two of them.

The decision to move forward was completely split second. He pushed off instinctually, hoping to cover more ground and intimidate the forward. His skates kept moving, though, gliding ahead more and more and more until their sticks met.

Marc ducked down just in time. The player flew over him at an impressive speed, his knees the only thing that knocked against Marc’s side. He covered his head just in case.

The crowd’s opinion filled his head once again, followed by a thud as the other player’s body landed on the ice.

Cheers followed by a goal horn. Marc whipped around to a celebration, puck comfortably behind the goal line.

“No goal! No goal!”

A Flyer exploded into a rant targeted directly into the ref’s mouth, spit flying as he motioned wildly at the net. A pile of snow was kicked up by a sudden stop beside him.

Keegan chuckled. “Goalie interference,” he said, just before the ref called it out. “Good one.”

Marc nodded as if he’d meant to do it. He looked down at Keegan, who had a smile that was practically illuminating their corner of the rink.

“He tried to take my legs out, man.” The Flyer that had landed on the ice glared at the ref. “That’s a penalty shot.”

“It was legal.”

“No fucking way!”

Marc and Keegan snorted at the same time. Interference was definitely a controversial call, but it kept the score even.

“You can score again, right?” Keegan called out, putting on a sad face when the player looked over. He stepped in front of Marc as the other player made his way over. “Wasn’t so hard the first time.”

The other man towered over him, practically needing to kneel to hear what Keegan was saying. His hand reached out just enough to lightly push Keegan’s shoulder. Marc felt heat rise into his chest.

“It’s been a loooong stretch, hey, bud? Must be really hard for you.”

“Hey,” Marc warned. He tilted his shoulder in just enough to partially block Keegan from the escalating anger of their opponent.

Another Flyer came over, followed by Max and Tanger. They were both given their own partners. Their arms hooked around each other as they watched.

“Watch your fucking mouth.”

“Oh, please,” Keegan scoffed. “You know I’m too good for that.”

“You’re fucking crazy, man.” The player looked over at Marc. “Watch your fucking boyfriend, eh? Fucking watch him.”

It took every ounce of Marc’s being not to jump on top of him and beat him to a pulp. He rolled his eyes, turned to face the net and squirted some water on his face. The words had stuck themselves under his skin and there would be no way to dig them back out. It was a joke, something rude to say to garner that exact reaction from a person. He didn’t know, he wouldn’t have any way to know. Keegan’s voice still went on behind him, obviously not rattled by engaging in a juvenile back and forth with anyone ever.

He only looked away from the net when whistles were blown, yelling got louder. The reflection of multiple fights danced around on the glass, covering faces of excited onlookers as they cheered with each blow. Keegan’s body was unmistakable, even with the distortion of replication, and there was a certain excitement to watching him bring a much larger man to his knees with impressive ease and being able to smile. He knew he looked insane to anyone else, but there was no way to stop. The ref grabbed Keegan’s elbow as the other guy rubbed the back of his hand against a bloody nose.

A single movement, an index finger pressed against his lips, set the building on fire. Max mimicked the movement with his own opponent left on the ground. An even bigger explosion.

A chant started as soon as play resumed. There was something about the harmony of thousands of voices singing toward them, sharing a feeling that was strangely relevant to Marc’s own. Keegan’s last name was sung at him with the same haunting tone of a ghost.

They won.

---

The usual energy of the back of the bus, home to the rookies and young ones with more pent-up aggression than the fathers and husbands, had made its way upward. Marc was fine with it, he had no problem laughing along, but sometimes it went too far.

Like that moment.

Frenzied French poured out of his mouth as soon as Kris made his first attempt at taking his phone. It continued for a few minutes, panic always covered with nonchalant laughter. Kris climbed on top of him to try and reach the raised phone, eventually just standing up to snatch it from Marc’s sweaty grip.

“Are we really doing this?”

“You don’t have a lock?” Kris tilted his head in fake pity. “You’re famous and you don’t lock your phone?”

“I’m not famous.”

Kris hummed. The sound of the phone unlocking sent Marc into an anxious spiral. He grabbed at the air around his seatmate in a pathetic attempt to get it back.

“I won’t share what I see here today,” Kris clarified. “This is purely to get to know you better.”

“You’re such a fucking asshole.”

“Love you, too.”

With each swipe of his finger, Marc felt smaller and smaller. It was obvious that Kris was conveniently bypassing any conversations that wouldn’t bring up some sort of interesting conversation later. They were close enough that Marc wasn’t truly mad, but far enough apart in that moment that he was scared.

“You won’t find anything.” Marc didn’t sound convinced at all.

“Yeah, you’re right. You’re pretty boring, Flower. I think you need to start talking to some different people. I can give you some numbers for—”

His eyes went wide. Finger stopped scrolling.

The half joke/half completely serious photo of Keegan in his heels and lipstick and nothing else popped into his head. He had promised to delete it, but the little devil on his shoulder had mentioned how nice it would be for when he was stuck in a room with his best friend, forced to jerk off in the shower at two in the morning in some stupid American city.

Kris stared at the screen.

A few undecipherable grunts and noises of objection fell out of Marc’s mouth. He felt like he was beet red. “That’s not… it isn’t, like, what it… seems…”

The phone was handed back to him at an excruciatingly slow pace.

“I know it’s nothing I haven’t seen before, but…” Kris looked shell shocked, a first in their long friendship. It took a lot to shake Tanger. He laughed, because there was no other response.

Marc shoved the phone back into his pocket. He resisted the urge to look behind him, to where Keegan was sleeping beside Geno. “Teach you to look at people’s phones.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“You probably still will.”

“Yeah.”

Silence.

“I think I want specifics.” Kris looked at him expectantly.

“Not a chance.”

---

“He what?”

“He saw it.”

Keegan opened his mouth. All it achieved was his tongue hanging in limbo inside, awaiting the decision of which words to use. Nothing happened.

“He was fine with it.”

His eyes watered in frustration. “I…” A sigh.

Marc’s hand met his in the middle of the mattress. The curtains blew, almost reaching them due to their excessive length. A windchime, not his, brought a beautiful melody into the situation. That day’s sunset was beginning.

“Look, I didn’t think it would happen. I didn’t want it to.”

It was a stupid reaction. Kris already knew, had already shown support and gotten over the initial shock, if there had ever been any. He knew so much more about Keegan than anyone else could, even the gorgeous man in front of him at that moment. His hand still pulled away from Marc’s and clenched into a fist, and he still took a painful drag from his joint, and he still wished it was something stronger than CBD. He still craved the smell of cigarettes and vodka and the burn in his nose that made him feel like he was going to sneeze and cry at the same time.

“I’m sorry.”

“Can I be honest with you?” He asked the blanket.

“Please.”

“I’m not okay with it.” Another drag that was accompanied by an embarrassing cough. Marc reached out to pat his shoulder. “I’m… mad at you.”

“I know—”

“I told you to delete it! There was no reason for you not to!”

Marc shook his head. “I know, I just thought no one was going to see it, why would they?”

The joint was stubbed into a gorgeous, custom ceramic ashtray. “I told you what I was okay with. I need us to listen to each other. I don’t want to nag you.”

Marc stared at the wall behind him.

“Remember when you said that just because I didn’t get a choice, doesn’t mean that you don’t?” Keegan’s heart pounded just a bit when Marc got off the bed. He was angry, trying to hide it. “It’s the same thing. We both deserve a choice, but we should talk to each other about it.”

“It felt good for him to know!” Marc’s raised voice made him jump. “I wanted, no, I needed to hold onto that!” He grabbed onto one of the many empty boxes in Keegan’s room, throwing it across to the other wall. It would’ve been amusing, had he not been completely serious.

They stared at each other. Keegan felt miniscule, holding onto a pillow as if it could protect him at all. The silence was the only reason he realized he’d started to breathe heavily. Body on high alert, awaiting the inevitable throwing of another, much harder, object. His frustration tears had turned into very, very, very afraid tears. There would be no running away, though; every muscle had tensed to the point where he was locked in that awkward position on his mattress.

“I’m sorry.” His body had fallen in on itself slightly when it had realized Marc was no longer a threat, and his shoulders drooped in defeat. “I—I know what you mean.”

Marc shook his head. His feet seemed to be glued to the hardwood. “I don’t want to watch you get your fucking face beat in every night and have to have a straight face. I don’t want to stop you from playing the way you want, but I want to be allowed to look upset. I want some asshole to make some stupid fucking gay joke about us, and to look proud because it’s true. Even just a little bit of that is enough. And I felt that little bit with Tanger, with Max, having them know that I care about you. It feels amazing.”

Keegan’s sigh made him raise his hand.

“I want to hold onto the feeling that you’re my boyfriend. Because I’ve never had it before you. Mon petit soleil, mon univers, mon partenaire, je veux que tout le monde sache à quel point je t'aime.”

All the life that had been sucked out of him before quickly returned with a vengeance. It felt like he’d just been shot up with adrenaline, ready to run and scream from the rooftops that an actual marble statue of a man loved him. Thought of him as his boyfriend. Wanted to feel that feeling just as much as Keegan did.

The grip on his pillow loosened, causing it to flop down dramatically as he got up onto his knees. Marc met him halfway, gave full access for Keegan’s fingers to loop through his belt buckles and his head to lean against his lower stomach. His skin felt absolutely raw underneath Marc’s fingertips, which had begun to caress his shoulder blades.

“I have something for you at home.”

Keegan laughed, breathy and vulnerable, against Marc’s body. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure if you’ll like it.”

Keegan kept his hand on Marc’s thigh for the entire drive. A cardboard box, the one he usually shoved deep inside his closet, sat in the back seat, awaiting the moment it would be shoved into a new closet with its contents finally used.

“So, why did you keep that picture?”

Marc shuttered slightly when Keegan’s hand moved up a little higher. “It’s a good picture.”

“You think about it a lot?”

A shaky breath. Score one for Keegan.

Marc got the upper hand when they finally closed his bedroom door. He shoved Keegan against it with a gentle force, lips attacking lips and fingers nipping at his clothes until goosebumps hit the air. He was barely allowed a breath before Marc picked him up and directed them toward the bed.

“You… oh, fuck… you should open that box,” Keegan attempted against Marc’s lips. He smirked when they made eye contact. “I think you’ll like it.”

As soon as Marc returned to the bed, Keegan was flipped onto his stomach. His face heated up quickly, partly from being against the flannel sheets and partly because of the leather cuffs keeping his wrists behind his back.

Marc kissed his spine lightly when he was done. “Is that okay?”

He nodded. It was better than okay.

With the knowledge of consent, his pants were pulled off quickly. There was an emptiness after, a lack of warmth from his partner followed by some rummaging at his feet. Keegan allowed himself to relax into a new position, knees tucked under him to raise his bottom and take away some pressure from his top half. His eyes closed slowly. The feeling of something hard touching him brought him back into his body. The whip, made more for a horse than what he’d been using it for, ran straight down the middle of his back and stopped at his tailbone. Hesitation filled the room as soon as the sensation halted.

“Still okay?” Marc’s voice was raw with arousal. It made Keegan melt.

“Very.”

It continued further down, only giving him a smack when the flat end reached the fat of his butt cheek. Keegan jolted at the familiar stab of pain.

Marc’s breath hit his skin. Soft lips eased the discomfort just enough for him to inhale a mouthful of air. The kisses moved up to their previous home of his spine. A pause when he reached Keegan’s scars.

“Qui pourrait te faire ça?” A kiss on one scar. “Belle chose, vous n'avez jamais mérité cette douleur.” And another. “J'espère ne vous donner que du plaisir.”

Keegan didn’t need a translation. Soft touches and wobbly words were enough. He couldn’t help but let out a moan as another smack rattled through his bones. It was delightful to let go.

And let go he did. Every movement was done with Marc’s permission, accompanied by an entertaining array of pleasure and pain that left him shaking within minutes. He was sure to have bruises on his hipbones (a side effect of Marc’s own pleasure as he thrust into him unevenly) and a very red backside, yet the thought of having proof of their affair only spurred him on more.

---

“How many times can he play that song?”

Marc glanced over to the right side of his bed. Sweat glistened on Keegan’s forehead, chest, stomach, highlighting the movement of his heavy breathing. “What?”

Keegan nodded to where Max’s room would be. Even with multiple walls between them, the beat vibrated through. It wasn’t until he’d mentioned it that Marc realized it was what they’d been listening to throughout their jaunt. Donna Summer’s voice floated through the hall and underneath the door.

“It’s a good song.”

“Yeah, the first five times.” Keegan laughed.

Marc shrugged a response. He longed for physical contact again; the heat had melted away and was replaced by a cold longing that only Keegan’s body could fix. He didn’t have to second guess wrapping his arm around the other’s stomach, pulling him close enough that they could both suffocate in each other.

“Does it hurt?” Probably a dumb question. He’d tried his best not to bring too much agony with each smack, but there were moments that had overwhelmed him. “It wasn’t too much?”

Relief flooded over him with Keegan’s smile. “No. It was perfect.”

A loud thud stopped Marc’s lips from meeting his forehead. They both looked at the doorway in surprise. A strange man stared back at them.

“Shit, sorry. I thought this was… Sorry.”

The man, who Marc quickly identified as Max’s latest conquest, gave an apologetic smile. His body was shockingly bare and extremely distracting.

“All these doors look the same!”

“They are all doors.” Keegan forced a chuckle.

“Yeah.”

Marc looked between them before settling on staring at the blanket. “Two doors down.”

“Oh! Yeah, thank you.” The man began to shut the door, giving a thumbs-up. “Sorry again.”

Keegan, who’d pulled the duvet up to his chin with a tense grip, relaxed as soon as they were alone. He frowned at Marc. There was no way to avoid a questioning, so Marc bowed his head in acceptance.

“Who was that? And why was he half-naked? And why is he going to Max’s room?”

“There’s a lot you don’t know.”

---

Xavier spent many a visitor’s day sitting on one of the many benches in the garden, wishing he had brought his large corduroy jacket outside with him, flicking his cigarette into an old soup tin. He was more than content with the arrangement, mostly because it gave him an excuse to smoke. He loved smoking.

Every morning, there would be a list of guests. Some of them couldn’t make it that week, which was more than fine, but most showed up at noon exactly with gifts of food or children’s laughs. Xavier’s guest list remained empty.

A tap on his shoulder disrupted that week’s cigarette. Much to his dismay, his counselor smiled down at him.

“Really?” He sounded almost disgusted.

“Surprise.”

The room was abundant with voices. Each one sat at a varying level of happiness; one even wailed in some stage of pain, but he was quickly removed from the space without a bat of an eye. Xavier hesitated in the doorway, scanned the crowd for anything resembling familiarity. There was a hope in his heart for a head of curly hair.

“She’s in the corner, by the window.” The counselor pointed to his left, where an extravagant set of windows looked out over the ocean. That view was what he was paying for.

He cringed at the female pronoun. Of course, his only visitor would be his ex-wife.

Val was already frowning by the time he got to their table. She sipped her coffee with an air of resentment that she even had to be there, even had to look at his stupid face. He would be lying if he wasn’t a little shocked at how beautiful she looked. How powerful, intimidating. The woman he’d fallen in love with, rather than the wilted flower that had left him behind.

“Hello.” He spoke in French, somehow more formal. “What brings you here?”

She sighed with her entire body. “Just sit.”

He did so.

“I’m here because I have to be. I had no other way to tell you this.”

“Okay.”

Val’s hair, perfectly messy, was blown out of her face with annoyance. Her hands went up to her bun immediately after, tousling what she’d just fixed. The strand returned to her cheekbone. Xavier thought of when they’d made their first child, how her hair had ended up in his mouth no matter what he did.

“We’re moving.”

“Where?”

“To Pittsburgh. Kris found us a place, much bigger than ours was. It’s perfect.”

Xavier nodded slowly. “You’re coming back for New Year’s, yes?”

“No. We won’t be coming back.”

“And the house?”

“God dammit, Xavier.” Her fingers clenched around the coffee cup. “I’m selling the fucking house. We’re moving to Pittsburgh and we won’t be coming back, ever again. You lost custody last year, you know that. There’s no way I can let you near my children again.”

“Our children.”

“No.”

A smatter of laughter behind them made Xavier turn around, hiss a warning toward the happy family. His heart was beating in his throat.

“I need to hear that you understand what’s happening. And a signature.”

“Yes, yes. I get it.” He waved his hand at her. The papers were placed in front of him so easily, as if he wasn’t signing his past away. The pen was incredibly heavy. “I assume you want the presents, then.”

“I already got them.”

“No, there’s some more.” Shove the papers back. “A doll house, it was custom, some local artist. And I got one of those electric cars they can sit in? I know you hate them. I guess I won’t be able to give them in person… Text Kevin. He’s got the keys to the apartment.”

“Alright.”

“And ask him to bring my cheque book by. I’ll try to get an advance.”

Val laughed humourlessly. “An advance on a contract?”

“It’s not my fault I’m in rehab, is it?”

“Jesus Christ.”

“What? What’s funny about that?”

“We both know how much money you don’t have. Even if I needed your help…” She trailed off, looked around the room. “This place is a joke.”

“Who forced you here?”

“You did!” A raised voice, in English that time. “When you chose to snort garbage up your nose rather than do what you love! Take care of the people you love! You fucking moron!”

Security strolled over, the same people that had removed the wailing man. Val nodded along with no sense of embarrassment. She had no problem leaving him once more. Xavier bit the inside of his lip as she walked away without a farewell.

He was fully aware in that moment that he would never see her again.

---

“Sorry, I thought there was enough wine glasses… I don’t know why, I don’t even drink…”

“Hey.” Pascal’s hand on his arm stopped the whirlwind that was Keegan’s movement. “It’s okay. This is casual.”

The fact that he had to say that it was casual made it seem a lot less casual, especially when paired with his Dad Polo and a pair of beige dress pants. His shoes had been forgotten at the door. It was impressive given how long he’d lived in America; Keegan was always the odd one out when he dumped his shoes in the foyer. Routine, hard to forget.

“Are you sure they won’t get bored?” He nodded to the kids, who were seemingly content with their feet hanging in the air in towering chairs. “I got some games, I could—”

“Relax. Please, for your own sake.”

Keegan silently accepted the Pascal’s offer to carry the cutlery. He grabbed the pile of plates, price tags still stuck on the bottom, and brought them to the table close behind. The kids cheered and chattered in clumsy French. Their excitement brought a sigh of relief from Keegan’s tight throat.

“You played great the other night.” Carole raised her glass as Keegan sat down. “Pascal says you’ll be playing in the All-Star Game.”

Keegan snorted. It received confused looks from the family. “No. No way.”

“Why not?”

His real answer was way too dark for the minors in the room, so he shrugged. “I’m not even in the top ten in points right now. I was lucky to even be nominated.”

“That’s what people say when they know they’re gonna win.”

Keegan threw a bread roll at Pascal, which prompted even more cheers from the children. Carole failed to hold back her own laughter. They looked at each other with such ease, years and years of shared jokes and nights and love that had conceived three lovely kids that were just as content with feeling happiness. Once again, Keegan felt like he was intruding on something miraculous. Even if it was his own house. They continued to eat as if nothing magical was going on.

The fullness in his heart was a shock to the system. He could only compare it to the first time he’d taken MDMA. He’d gone around touching anyone within his proximity with loving fingers, culminating in an all-out orgy in Xavier’s living room. Of course, that was something entirely different than witnessing unconditional familial love, but it was as close as he’d gotten.

The craving for a certain level of stability at some point in his life was a new feeling, however. To laugh at his own husband getting hit with bread, to have his own children mimic the action, to share so many breaths over so many years.

He sat with the realization strong enough to almost bring tears to his eyes, focused heavily on Pascal’s story of trying to wrap an oddly shaped, undisclosed present the Christmas prior. His son chimed in that it had been a toy car, the one that ran off of electricity and was painted blue with bright orange flames on the doors. They naturally flew into a story about him launching himself toward their living room wall, saved only by Pascal’s quick reaction time, scooping the child up before he became one with the dry wall. Keegan laughed along as if he could relate.

With dessert came something completely unaccepted. Pascal’s son wanted to play with the toys Keegan had gifted them, joined by his parents and the newest addition after Keegan assured them it was fine. His daughter turned to look at Keegan as soon as they were alone in the dining room. Her eyes were bright and mischievous, both hands gripping her cutlery upright. It was both terrifying and glorious.

“What’s it like to be rich?”

He almost choked on his tea. “It’s, um…” He looked to her parents for permission.

“She always asks me.”

“Papa won’t tell me.” The girl frowned.

Images fluttered through his brain, appearing and disappearing with the faded quality of melting film. Naked bodies writhed on marble countertops, champagne glistening on their skin. Piles of cash thrown onto a mattress surrounded by a carved wood bedframe. Designer shoes, clothes, cars.

She was so young, and his life had been less than appropriate. He fumbled before settling on a solid explanation.

“It’s not about being rich. Um, we all try our best to share what we have, because we’re very lucky to have it. Like Sid, with his little league? Yeah, so he takes what he doesn’t need and puts that back into the community.”

“So, you do little hockey too?”

“No. I—” Keegan paused. All his extra zeroes hadn’t moved. No thought had been put into it. “We all do different things.”

She nodded. Content. A spoonful of ice cream was shoveled into her mouth. Keegan’s own spoon scraped against his bowl as he stirred the sorbet around.

“Papa says you have a special jersey because you’re special.”

“Yeah. I guess you could say that.”

“He said you’re… tran… transmission?”

He couldn’t help but giggle. “Transgender.”

Another spoonful of ice cream that was much too big for her mouth. Keegan shoveled his own mouth full, triggering a laugh from the tiny girl. They struggled to hold their desserts in their mouths and swallowed loudly.

“What is that?”

“Well, it means that when I was born, they dressed me and pink and little dresses and bows. You know, braided my hair when it was long enough.”

“Why would they do that to a boy?”

“They didn’t know yet. They didn’t hear me when I told them.”

“They hear you now?”

Hesitation. His jaw shook slightly.

“Yeah. Yeah, they hear me now.”

Pascal’s hand touched his as they loaded the dishwasher. It felt purely by accident, just another bump out of the many that happened throughout the day, but Keegan looked up to a completely earnest expression.

“Thank you for looking after her.”

“It wasn’t… It’s not like you weren’t here. We just ate ice cream.” Keegan focused his gaze on the forks. “She’s really great.”

“That’s all Carole.”

“There’s some good in you, too.”

Pascal lightly shoved him, a playful smile on his face. They continued in silence until there was nothing left. The dishwasher rumbled to life as Keegan hopped onto the countertop.

“Don’t let them see you do that. They’ll ask me why they can’t.”

“Why can’t they?”

“Shhhh.”

Keegan picked at his fingernails.

“You’re gonna be a really good dad, by the way.”

When the family was settled back into their game, Keegan excused himself to the bathroom. An ecstatic grin spread on his lips, excitement he’d been hiding.

---

“What he say?”

Sid cringed at Mario’s kind text. “He hopes my weekend is good.” Unmentioned was the important meeting Mario had planned when they were back to the usual, in need of a discussion about the All-Star Game. “That I’m enjoying the snow.”

“So nice. Have to buy present.”

“Yeah.”

The phone returned, facedown, to its place on the coffee table. Geno cleared his throat when it hit the glass, an echo dancing through the otherwise silent living room.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Tell me what to do. How you feel. Is your choice.”

Sid’s hands gripped his temples. It felt like his brain was going to explode. “You’re sure it wasn’t one of the guys?”

“No way. I’m go through numbers. Have everyone.”

The snow had felt so wonderful on his face when he’d twirled. It was a shame the pictures were taken with such malicious intent, otherwise Sid would’ve framed them and put them beside his bed.

“Your choice, Sid.”

He wanted so desperately to scream and wave his arms at the universe. Just one moment without feeling ashamed. “You’re in the picture, too.”

Geno nodded in understanding. Their hands didn’t meet between them, no matter how badly they wanted them to. There was an emptiness that sawed Sid’s heart in half. They were supposed to be partners.

“Is good to forget. Not want to start drama.”

“Yeah. That’s probably better.”

---

“Why do all your movies have to start with straight people having sex?”

“Why are all your movies so fucking depressing?”

“It’s called art.”

“It’s fucking depressing.”

Keegan looked to Marc for support. He was busy trying to balance a string of red and white pompoms above Keegan’s TV. The nails they’d hammered in were incredibly uneven on either side, making it even harder to get the desired effortless effect. The newly purchased decoration was twiddled between Keegan’s index and middle finger as he watched.

“Stop eye-fucking him.”

Marc whipped around at the mention of the f-word. Max snickered. His own decoration was placed close to the top of the tree.

“You two are obviously doing alright.”

Keegan wiggled his eyebrows at Marc. A blush, something extremely common the past few days, spread up toward his hairline. The pompoms were quickly neglected in favour of pulling Keegan toward him. He relished the feeling of being so close to him. A warm chest, slightly damp from carrying the tree into the living room and having to move it multiple times, paired with the comfortable shirt he had gotten in a pack of three at a fancy boutique, it all felt like home at that point. He fell into Marc so easily that he forgot they weren’t alone.

“I met Tate the other day.”

Max’s shoulders tensed. He continued to place decorations on various branches. “Oh, yeah?”

“He seemed really nice.” Keegan felt evil, in the best way possible. Payback for months of smart comments from their friend. “Is he nice?”

Marc squeezed his shoulder in support. He looked thoroughly entertained with the line of questioning.

“Of course, he’s fucking nice.” Max finally looked away from the tree.

“And would you say this is a… romance?”

“Va te faire foutre.”

Marc raised his hands, a mock surrender. He motioned for Keegan to help him with more pompoms. He only joined so that he could stare at Marc some more. They raised and lowered each string, which eventually became a joke to see who could place something as unevenly as possible. Keegan knew the hidden giggles were going to get into Max’s head after a few minutes.

“Yes, he’s nice. Anything else?” He sounded less than thrilled.

“So, it’s a romance.”

“Sure.”

Keegan grinned devilishly at the pompoms. “Is this an… erotic romance?”

“It’s an erotic something. Hey, come help me. I don’t know if this looks good.”

Keegan danced back over to the tree, much to Marc’s anger at having to do his corner of the room himself. The glass orbs (surprisingly expensive for something that had been purchased at Target) hung in hilarious clumps every few branches. Max put his hands on his hips and stepped back like he’d just completed a masterpiece.

“It looks—It’s great. Unique.”

Keegan added a few more glass icicles for good measure. The urge to clean up outweighed fixing Max’s interesting design choices, his fingers nimbly picking up each piece of tissue and ripped cardboard and throwing them toward the door. Marc snorted when he caught glimpse of the tree.

“It’s not a big deal to you? About Tate,” Max clarified when he received Keegan’s confused look.

Keegan and Marc looked at each other. Something glistened in Marc’s eyes, making it almost impossible to look away. His hair shone with highlights unseen under the newly hung Christmas lights. The sound of a cleared throat behind them was the only reason Keegan looked back at Max. He looked terrified, eyes as wide as the decorations on the tree. The couple began laughing at the same time, causing Max to jump from the sudden noise.

“You can fuck whoever you want, man.” Marc rolled his eyes, walked over to their friend and embracing him.

Keegan wrapped his own arms the larger men. “Yeah, we’re not ones to judge.”

“I am a little offended that you didn’t choose me, though.”

Max chuckled.

“Hey, yeah, why don’t you want to fuck my boyfriend?”

They both pulled away from the hug, varying degrees of humour and surprise on their faces.

“Boyfriend?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

---

The bench was alive at the end of practice. A scrimmage, reminiscent of their childhoods spent on frozen-over lakes and games in rotting arenas when they were barely old enough to walk, let alone skate. Laughter, cheering, squawking (from Sid), all mixed together to create contagious smiles and jumping. Like monkeys that had been let out of the pen and into the wilderness. That practice was purely for bonding purposes.

Marc allowed himself the fun of doing jumping jacks between shots on net, emphasized with the occasional push up and even an attempted cartwheel. Keegan laughed over and over again from the other side of the ice, called out to him with crude nicknames he’d learned in French over the course of their relationship. It was like a symphony of beauty that was bound to get stuck in Marc’s head by the end of the day.

Boyfriend. He’d said boyfriend and meant it. It was automatic, too. Sure, he’d said it first in his moment of utter frustration, but Keegan had said it with instinct. He hadn’t settled, something Marc was completely afraid of.

A quick break at the bench allowed him to casually run his hand along Keegan’s back. The clammy fabric of his jersey caught onto a few dry patches on his hand, but it was still worth it just for the smaller man’s expression. Gentle smile, a light red stain on his cheeks.

“I miss the toothless look,” Phil was in the middle of explaining to him. He nodded toward Justin. “Something about that just screams ‘classic.’”

“I can just tape a picture of Burnsie to my face every morning, if that’s what gets you off.”

“Is it the potential to stick your dick in there, or?”

“Hey.” Sid smacked Justin’s shoulder.

“How very twelve-year-old of you,” Keegan chuckled. “Just got transported back to house league.”

Marc laughed to himself. He squirted water behind the bars of his mask, just enough to clear his forehead of sweat.

“You’re going hard out there, Flower.”

“Yeah. A very long shower in my future.”

Max glanced over to Keegan at the mention of showering. “You, too, Stew?”

He shook his head in mock confusion. Marc tried his best not to think about sharing a shower at the arena with him; as great as non-slip Adidas sandals were for keeping athlete’s foot away, they were definitely lacking in sex appeal. Of course, that would easily be made up for by a naked man in front of him.

The men continued to joke around about tooth holes and showering, two topics that Marc had been certain couldn’t be made any more sexual (he was wrong). Dan’s call back to the scrimmage was only partially ignored; everyone continued to babble as they got back into positions. More yelling across the ice. Smiles and rude gestures.

Marc’s eyes wandered as he waited for play to begin. It was starting to feel more normal to see empty stands, as sad as it was. The only people that could watch were the staff and security, both of which seemed more preoccupied with other things. The security wandered around their circuit like it was a shame they had to be there. One of them turned to look at the ice just as Marc looked up at him.

His face was annoyingly familiar. Marc wracked his brain for a reason, other than the obvious solution that he had done security there before. The situation was stranger than that. There was a reason his breath had briefly caught in surprise at the sight.

A man, lighting a fire beside his head. The security guard that wrapped his arms around him, knocked his head against the back of a chair. Poking his head into the locker room to let them know they were safe.

James. But why would he be there? He worked in Carolina; they didn’t just ship security guards from state-to-state.

James waved at him.

The wave stuck with him even while he was getting undressed, peeling back the layers of sweat and fabric and shivering against the cold air. He put a cap on to keep his hair out of his face, which only helped a small amount.

“You see the wrist on Sid there? Crazy shit.”

“Has best wrist in league.”

“I beg to differ.”

Max snorted. His elbow dug into Marc’s side. “Stew likes your wrist.”

“I don’t remember saying that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

Tanger moved to the centre of the room, somehow able to brush off the complete fuckery around him. He cracked his knuckles while he waited for everyone to be quiet. Marc thankfully gave him his full attention.

“So, uh, I was gonna text you guys about this but we’re here, so… Me and Catherine are having a dinner at my place, just some drinks and hanging out. Nothing crazy. It’d mean a lot if you came.”

There was a universal grunt of acceptance. Marc nodded enthusiastically toward him. His eyes caught Keegan’s own nodding head. He looked even more excited than Kris did.

---

“You’re fucking joking.”

Max’s car was, in fact, completely serious. Its engine complained about the cold, the turn of his key.

“Fuck!” He slammed his hands against the steering wheel. The horn blared loudly with each punch. He continued at a wild rate, if only to warm himself up. “Fucking stupid piece of fucking shit, I bought you out-fucking-right and now you won’t even fucking start…”

Another loud screech as he turned the key. It was a new car, promised to handle the terrible Pittsburgh winters with ease so that he would never have to worry about making it to practice on time. He had never been promised a ride home, however. A sick joke from the universe.

Max inhaled deeply through his nose. The back of his head gradually fell to his headrest, pushing his toque higher up into his hair. It pulled, but he didn’t bother moving. There was nothing to be accomplished.

Amber would’ve laughed at his misfortune. Not maliciously back then, although it certainly would’ve been at that point. She would’ve pressed three fingers to his neck, counted his heartbeats out loud until he forgot what he was even mad about to begin with. The fingernails would be painted a shade of magenta that only she could pull off. Lips would replace fingers. Kisses until she reached his lips. She’d scold him for not shaving. He’d wrap his arm around her waist and pull her onto his lap. They’d smile at each other.

A gentle tap on his window pulled him away from Amber’s smile. He jerked forward like he’d just remembered to try and breathe underwater.

“Hey!”

Jen’s face was practically pushed up against the glass. Her eyes were locked on his dashboard. Max rolled the window down as slowly as he could.

“Car’s not working?” Gaze directed at his eyes that time. There was a slight smirk on her face. Tight curls blew toward him in the wind. “Didn’t you just buy this?”

“You come out here to nag me?”

Max felt slightly bad when she started to move from foot-to-foot, her arms wrapped around herself tighter with every visible breath. He would’ve offered to give her a ride, but she had her own car and his wasn’t working, anyway. Story of his life.

“Do you need a jump?”

He nodded. That sounded like a possible explanation, though he had no idea. Jen laughed as if it was written all over his face.

“Give me a second.”

She ran to her car, somehow not falling over from the brutal combination of high heels and snow, and slammed the door loud enough for him to hear from across the parking lot. Her own car started completely fine. For some reason, his heart skipped a beat when she gave him a thumbs up. Like they were in it together.

“Hey, you know how to do this?” Max called out the window as she popped open his hood. “Do you want me to help?”

Jen’s head poked out from behind the blockade between them. “Why wouldn’t I know?”

“Because it’s… you don’t usually learn how to…”

“Everyone should know how to jumpstart a car,” she said with an edge of pity. “It could save your life. Like right now, for example.”

Max scoffed at the thought of not knowing enough. “I would’ve been fine.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Rich, straight, white man. Someone would die to make sure you didn’t have to sit in the cold for five minutes.”

“That’s not—”

“I know, I know. You didn’t ask to be born that way.” She walked past his window without looking at him. “Nobody does.”

He sat with the thought for a moment, until a wave indicated he should turn the ignition. The key moved easily. There was no screech. Max hopped out before Jen could, unclipped the things attached to his engine. He held them far away from himself since their purpose was still unknown to him. They were handed to Jen hesitantly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make it about, uh, you know.”

Jen rolled her eyes. “Relax. I was kidding.”

“Oh.” A large clump of snow fell from the sky, directly in between Max’s neck and his jacket. “Well, thank you. Even if I would’ve been fine.”

“You’ll always be fine, Max. I never turn my back on a damsel in distress, though.”

He opened his mouth, a simple thank you didn’t seem like enough after being gifted Jen’s glorious smile, but her shifting gears interrupted him. He barely had time to step back before she’d pulled out of the spot and wiggled her fingers as a parting message.

The car had warmed up a perfect amount when he returned. A slow song played on the radio, just loud enough for him to recognize Stevie Nicks’ voice.

---

Quiet piano filled Keegan’s silence. It was a lucky break, since he would’ve otherwise shared his opinion on the matter of a new restaurant opening minutes from his house. Everything went unnoticed from his side of the conversation. Marc and Max worked together to make up for it, if only to entertain the few others that had brought the topic up.

Valerie was wearing a daring dress. She wasn’t afraid of being the center of attention that night, obviously. Bright red, body-hugging, sparkles on her shoulders that enhanced the already broad figure. She was the definition of terrifying power; if he’d been straight, he would’ve fallen to his knees at the sight. Instead, the breath was knocked out of him and replaced with intense shame.

Somehow, he hadn’t anticipated her showing up to her own brother’s dinner party.

She hovered around the corners of the room, not making eye contact with anyone until they approached her. Keegan remained in the middle to avoid an accidental run in. All it accomplished was making him feel like a very small fish being circled by a very large shark.

“How dinner go?”

Keegan shook his head at Geno in confusion. He peeled his eyes away from Valerie’s shoes to look up at him. “Hmm?”

“Dinner with Duper. I’m hear you make Okroshka.”

“Surprisingly easy,” Keegan muttered.

“Is just soup.”

He nodded in acceptance. It had been a hit, thanks to the more accurate Russian link Geno had sent him rather than his own cooking. “Yeah. It was good, G. Thank you.”

“Not look for credit.” Geno reached over to grab the glass of ginger ale out of Keegan’s hand, which he used to chase an impressively large shot of something. He took it like a champ.

“Good at swallowing.”

Sid ignored Keegan’s deadpanned comment. His mouth twitched when Geno raised his eyebrows. The trio remained silent, only accompanied by the gentle lull of piano and an increasingly rowdy group of conversations. Marc and Max were nowhere to be seen, much to Keegan’s irritation. After a few more shots, he gripped onto Geno’s arm. If anyone asked, it was to steady the absolute skyscraper of a man.

Catherine and Kris stood by their kitchen table, looking like a royal couple keeping watch on their subjects. It was just another area of the room that Keegan didn’t have the guts to look at. His nerves for his teammate were overwhelming.

“You break arm.”

Geno looked down at him with a thankfully amused expression. He nodded toward the front of the room.

“Something wrong?”

“No. Sorry.” Keegan loosened his grip on Geno’s arm. His teeth immediately clenched an uncomfortable amount at the lack of intense physical contact. “Nervous, I guess.”

“Why?” Sid’s voice was wobbly from the two glasses of wine he’d downed. He only ever drank when they had a day off after, allowing him to get tipsy from an amount that everyone else considered child’s play.

Keegan mimicked locking his mouth. He threw the key over his shoulder.

“Whatever it is, it needs to happen soon.” Sid shuffled impatiently.

“Have to pee, should go.”

Geno received a smack for his joke. The tension lifted considerably as Sid jogged to the bathroom in fear of missing that night’s purpose. Keegan’s abs hurt from the sight, and he had to hold on tighter to Geno’s arm again to keep himself up.

“Should tell me now.”

“It’s a secret.”

“Can keep.”

Keegan sighed, but motioned for Geno to lean down. His lips were inches away from Geno’s ear before a loud clinking brought them back to the room. Geno stood to his full height, looking a little uncomfortable.

“Hey, everyone.” Kris set his glass down. “Uh, thanks for being here. Hope everything’s good.”

An undecipherable yell from the back of the room brought everyone into giggles. One of the rookies had parked himself on the couch and was lounging halfway off it. The position was all too familiar; Keegan had once fallen asleep at a very similar gathering.

“There is a reason you’re here, other than feeling my excellent hosting skills. I’m, um, really honoured to share this house with a queen, and to be with my favourite people for something really fucking important to me.” His voice broke at the last few words. He turned to Catherine, who looked incredibly confused.

Geno looked at Keegan with a shocked look. Keegan nodded.

“Catherine, tu es tout pour moi. tu apportes tellement de lumière dans ma vie. Je me lève tous les matins, excité à cause de vous, car je peux avoir un autre petit-déjeuner avec vous. Et ce n'est que récemment que j'ai réalisé à quel point je suis chanceux de rencontrer quelqu'un qui me fait ressentir cela. I am so in love with you. I want to be with you every morning.”

There was a collective intake of breath as he got down on one knee. Keegan was too short to see him over the heads in front of him, but he could perfectly see Catherine’s hands move directly to her mouth.

The ring was big enough that it reflected a stream of light across the ceiling. Its direction led Keegan’s gaze to the door.

“Please. Let me be your husband.”

A hand on his hip made Keegan jump. Marc gave him a gentle smile, nodded at Geno. He leaned down to Keegan’s ear, breath tickling his earlobe. “You knew?”

Keegan nodded.

“Sneaky bastard.”

Catherine looked at the door.

The piano became a haunting reminder of how long she’d been quiet for.

Her hand closed over the ring box, a movement of her mouth that was just enough to get Kris back onto his feet. She apologized to the room while dragging him away.

“That yes?”

“That’s not ideal.”

Sid hiccupped. “Should I talk to him?”

“Should drink water.”

“I’m fine.”

“He’s fine,” Marc insisted. “She’s just surprised.”

Their voices were overheard even over the rising of conversations within the room. Catherine’s raised voice spoke more of concern than excitement. Keegan cringed when Kris yelled something that was less than understanding.

“Not ideal.” His mutter went unheard. The other men were busy assuming things.

A shimmer caught the corner of his eye. Valerie sipped her wine beside the balcony door, eyes daring Keegan to look away first. The cacophony of yelling paired with her casual stance was only a reminder of how easily she had found throwing sharp objects at him.

She began to look sad. Dare he think it, regretful. They smiled at each other out of human decency.

The group disbanded once the arguing became too much. Marc tugged at Keegan’s sleeve as they moved through the crowd of disappointed patrons, seemingly more excited to get out of there than he’d been to potentially watch his friend get engaged. No one spoke to each other, only silent waves as each person jumped into their designated driver’s car.

As soon as they were alone in the car, Marc let out a long sigh. He stuck his keys in the ignition but didn’t bother turning it on. A caravan of expensive cars drove by every few seconds; Keegan hadn’t realized how many people had shown up and started to feel guilty for talking up the event. It was embarrassing enough without people bringing a plus one.

“Fuck.” He let out a short laugh. “What the fuck was that?”

“Straight people?”

“Mmm. Yeah. Sure.”

“If you ever do that…” Keegan motioned to the house, his nerves getting the better of him and forcing him to trail off. Marc nodded for him to continue. “Please don’t invite forty people to watch.”

“I love him, but that was probably the stupidest thing he’s ever done.”

They laughed from the absurdity of the entire thing. Marc’s hand went to his thigh.

“He’ll fix it, though. He’s good at that.”

“I mean, who can say no to that hair?”

“Exactly.”

Keegan placed his hand on top of Marc’s. The contact made the blood rush back into his extremities, something he hadn’t realized he needed. Empathy was great until second-hand embarrassment came into play. His anxiety was purely for a person that didn’t need it.

“When I do that, I’ll only invite twenty.”

“Good.” Keegan avoided eye contact as Marc started the car. His excitement, his love, would’ve been way too obvious. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

As exhausted as he was from the whole event, and a movie marathon that lasted until two in the morning, he still couldn’t get comfortable in bed. Every car that drove by brought with it distracting shadows, every noise from the house settling was heard with the volume of a PA system, every movement from Marc’s dreaming body felt like an earthquake. Keegan’s eyes burned from exhaustion, but they hurt even more when he closed his eyelids.

He texted Kris a brief and incredibly ambiguous message to make sure he hadn’t been murdered and/or jumped off his balcony. It was read with no reply, which was enough of a reply in and of itself. There was no celebratory post on Instagram that he had been so excited to post, something where Catherine’s hand with the ring was the only thing in focus, snapshots taken by friends and family of the moment he got down on one knee. Keegan simply scrolled through the usual images of men flexing in front of mirrors and brand sponsorships until his head started to hurt.

At four in the morning he decided it was best to wander downstairs. Marc had remained sound asleep during the hour of phone light illuminating the room, but he was bound to complain at some point. Socked feet snuck down the stairs and back to the safety of his couch. There was no need to turn on the TV; the very large window that looked over the backyard was enough entertainment for his braindead thought process. It was still pitch black, but the snow brought an alienlike luminescence to the few trees sprinkled outside.

At four-thirty, he looked back to his phone. The icicles outside his window reminded him of Valerie’s dress, which instantly made Xavier pop into his head. The failed engagement only added to his ex dancing back into his brain. He bit his tongue for a moment in hopes it would distract him from what was about to happen. It didn’t.

The phone rang only once before going directly to voicemail. It wasn’t necessarily an odd occurrence, especially for any time past midnight, but Keegan still felt a twinge of confusion. Even if it had to be when he was completely zonked out, he would still answer.

Xavier’s voice droned out the typical voicemail greeting, followed by a beep so loud that Keegan flinched. He hung up.

At five, he called Kevin. It was certainly way too early back in Vancouver, but his call was still picked up right away.

“You okay?” He was groggy, a rustling covering up another sentence like he was climbing out of bed. The sound of a door closing behind him was a guilt trip.

“Did something happen to him?”

A sigh. “He’s in rehab. I have his phone.”

“Oh.”

“Tanner was supposed to tell you.”

Keegan could envision him running his hand down his face. There were a couple pairs of sweatpants he always wore on road trips, because his wife would like to wear one when he was gone. Keegan wondered if he was wearing them now, or if he even still had them at all. They always looked more comfortable than what he was wearing.

“Is it snowing there?”

“No shit.”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. Get some sleep.”

“Thank you.”

At six, Keegan woke up to Max’s smile. He tapped his finger to Keegan’s forehead lightly, threw a blanket over him, and proceeded to sit on the chair beside him.

“Thanks.”

“Go to sleep.”

---

DECEMBER 20

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS @ PENGUINS

“I have the card.”

“That’s great, I need ID.”

The man groaned. His outfit was scratching every inch of his body, somehow much worse between his thighs, and he didn’t have enough time or energy to argue with the security guard in front of him. Their guy was supposed to be there.

“I got mine,” his partner said, pushing past him to hand the guard his cards. He had worked in the building before, name in the system. “Sorry, man, dude’s always forgetting his shit.”

The guard hummed in fake amusement. He scanned the card. The man was aware how strange his group looked, six janitors showing up quite late for their shift, but the guard was too busy to care. They knew that. The game had sold out that night; the guard had his own things to worry about. He motioned for them to continue walking with an air of annoyance.

Their boots slammed against the concrete like soldiers. They deserved every strange look they garnered. An older man, the definition of short and stout, stared at them for a long moment. He looked incredibly suspicious. He gave them a curt nod before turning back to sharpening some skates. The man knew exactly what was going through his head: there was no reason not to trust the security.

The soldiers separated once they’d gotten a fair distance down the hall. Some went through the gates and up the stairs to the stands, beginning to pull their papers out from their outfits. A few began to work further down the hall, where public view would begin. The man turned with three more of his colleagues into the Penguins’ locker room, door propped open by their partner. Fans blew powerfully around the circle, making the jersey sleeves dance in the wind. The man stopped in front of his designated stall.

“You sure it was this one?”

“Ninety-one?”

“Yup.”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

The man shrugged and pulled his own papers and tape from his pocket.

“God dammit.”

He turned swiftly, half expecting a group of pissed off hockey players to be staring at them. Instead, the runt of the pack looked around the room, shoulders drooped in disappointment.

“I forgot my tape in the car.”

“For fuck’s sakes.”

---

Keegan felt significantly lighter than he had the day before. The weight of his worry had flown away with a relaxing day to himself, replaced with the same type of glow he saw on pregnant people. He was pregnant, no doubt; filled with the joy of Xavier being locked away to sober up, crammed with the knowledge there was a more stable future on his horizon, stuffed with confidence from his well-fitted suit. Marc had gifted him a tie that morning, the same colour as his olive-green suit. Keegan felt like they were going to prom.

The familiar building had become a breath of fresh air. He’d finally mastered every twist and turn and secret route, figured out which seat in the stands he enjoyed sitting in the most (F10) and which ratio of tea to sugar left him well caffeinated but not shaky. Vancouver had never been that polite of a host; things changed every month, even down to the brand of sugar. Like a child, its interests changed as quickly as the seasons.

After the third turn, the recognizable squat of their cameraman greeted him. He chose the same spot every pregame to catch some B-roll of the men streaming into the locker room. His denim ballcap was tilted slightly to the left from a casual head tilt. The thunderous echo of Keegan’s shoes in the otherwise silent hallway made him look up.

“Hey! Like the suit?”

The young man nodded. He shuffled forward a bit to catch Keegan’s careless nod, as if they hadn’t planned anything at all.

Good shot.” The man smiled up at him, but it was obviously forced. “Looks great.”

Keegan frowned. The man was usually, at the very least, excited to be there, but the energy was surprisingly dark. He looked up and down the hall for whatever gigantic storm cloud must have been following him. There was nothing.

“What’s up, dude?”

The cameraman stood up with an uncomfortable groan. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered before moving back down the hall, closer to the exit.

Keegan’s mouth remained half-open as he watched him walk away. It didn’t close until he was out of sight, disappearing into the darkness of the exiting hallway. His gaze turned to the stark white wall in front of him.

“Sorry?” He muttered to himself. The angle of the shot hadn’t been bad, and he hadn’t said anything rude. The apology was completely unnecessary.

His shoes continued to stomp down the opposite direction, toward the door of the locker room.

He opened the door to multiple backs. Some were bare, half dressed in various leggings and sweatpants, some still in their blazers. All were whispering to each other. Keegan was too short to see over them, and too dumbfounded by everyone’s strange behaviour to gain any special attention. Phil turned away just as the door shut behind him. His hand was seemingly stuck halfway through running through his hair. As soon as they made eye contact, Keegan’s stomach dropped.

“I’m… This is fucking terrible. I’m sorry.”

A large part of him wanted to believe it was the setup to a stupid and borderline annoying prank, but Phil’s tone proved otherwise. The packed sardines turned their heads at the louder voice. Their frowns gave way to… pity? Terror? Déjà vu struck him with the sight.

The same expression left on the faces of those privy to Valerie’s assault.

Sympathy.

All noise was blocked out by Keegan’s heartbeat. He rubbed his hands on his pants.

Sid and Geno’s heads were visible between a few shoulders. The height difference was made symmetrical by a disturbingly large photo in front of them, two bodies tangled in a loving embrace. He couldn’t see enough to be certain of what he was in front of.

“Move.”

More heads turned to look at him. Another glimpse of more photographs that made it hard to breathe.

“Fucking move.”

The crowd separated into an almost perfect runway. Each step felt like it was in quicksand. If he held back long enough, he would easily sink to the floor.

Sid seemed to be in the same position, hand locked on Geno’s arm like it was a lifeline. His other hand hung lifelessly at his side. Geno looked just as shaken by the image of he and his boyfriend dancing in the snow, printed to life size and accented with a giant heart framing their smiling faces. Each locker had been graced by a rotating pattern of photographs. More of Sid and Geno, differing angles of the same snowy twirl.

Keegan held back some bile at the second image.

He and Marc sitting in his car, eyes closed from a passionate kiss behind tinted windows. Well, not tinted enough, obviously.

The only thing he could think of was continuing his routine. His shoes kicked a few more papers that had been crumped and thrown to the floor. The couple’s own variation of Sid and Geno’s picture hung in front of him, quickly ripped down by Justin in a pathetic attempt at helping. Keegan wanted to punch him, someone, in the face. However, he sat down and began to undo his shoes. His fingers were useless, slipped constantly on the ties.

“Fucking… fucking shit…”

It was briefly impossible to hold back a terrified cry. The noise cut out when he finally undid the bow. Justin’s hand reached out to his shoulder.

“Hey, you don’t have to—”

“Don’t fucking touch me.”

Air returned to his lungs when the other man backed away. No one else bothered to move. Keegan was fully aware of how insane he looked, sobering up just enough to relax his face from its grimace and try to remove the tension from his muscles, but his sight was still a bit blurry. He gave up on trying to undo his shoes (the odds of him playing that night had become incredibly slim) and looked back to Justin.

“Sorry.”

Justin’s assurance was interrupted by another voice by the door, soaked in shock.

“What is tha—oh.” Marc’s eyes, wider than any time before, went to Keegan’s instantly.

“Oh, fuck.”

Chapter Text

DECEMBER 20

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS @ PENGUINS

“What is tha—oh. Oh, fuck.”

Marc stood where Keegan once had. He had apparently sunk down into the quicksand, unable to move any further than the edge of the crowd. Keegan’s own will power gave out at the sight. His head fell into his hands.

There were no assurances after that.

No movements.

As each new man stepped in, he paused. Bowed his head in respect. No one viewed the image for longer than the initial five seconds of shock.

They were mourning.

The fight had suddenly become much harder.

---

Chewing. Crying. Choke. Chew some more, because God was the only one who knew the next time he would manage to eat a cookie of that calibre. The calories alone were overwhelming.

Snot mixed in with the chocolate to create a texture beyond disgusting. Max wished he could bottle it and send it to his past self, force him to choke it down and laugh at the misfortune.

But that wasn’t possible.

“You can scrub your hands with bleach all you want, there’s still gonna be blood under your fingernails.”

The balls on her, to spit that at him.

She hadn’t really, of course. He’d just imagined it so that he could feel better. He had to give her justice somehow.

He wondered for a moment if he would go to Hell. He’d been taught that in school, in life, that bad people were the ones who had to suffer. Even at the age of six he’d questioned whether or not there was such a thing as bad or good people, or if things were only bad when people wanted them to be. Like when he’d been pushed off the slide by Tommy, and the teachers decided that Max had spurred him on. Would Tommy be spending his vacation from life upstairs or down? Who was to decide who deserved punishment?

That was all too hopeful, however. He would meet judgement regardless if what he did had been right or wrong. He wasn’t like Tommy, never doled out positivity and support just for being himself. There would be no discussion when he was gone about the event in question. Flames would envelop him with open arms and would not give a single fuck how he felt about it.

He threw the cookie at the passenger seat. It crumbled immediately, fell down to the plastic mat. It was there to protect the carpet from their soggy boots. Pieces of chocolate chip were stuck between its ridges, would be stuck there forever because he was bound to forget. They would get mushy when the mat got wet. Although, she was gone, so there would no longer be wet boots on that side of his car.

That was melodramatic.

He could always sit in the passenger side if he got desperate. Pretend someone else was driving.

His phone vibrated every few minutes with Marc’s picture (from the past Halloween, face painted by a girl he certainly wouldn’t be seeing again.) The urge to reach out and cry to his best friend was incredible, but he pulled back every time. There was no way to describe what he was feeling, and, even if there was, it felt as if he would have to lock everything away to remain some semblance of happy. As soon as Marc knew, the entire situation would become real. And that would be his worst nightmare.

Thunder did only happen when it was raining. It was fucking pouring in his universe.

He could only drive for an hour before his hands started shaking. In all honesty, Max had been terrified of driving since the event, and his heart rate would climb through the roof whenever he turned a corner. The shaky hands were an annoying by-product, since there was no safety reason for him to pull over. It would’ve almost been better if he hyperventilated or cried so hard that he couldn’t see; enough of a symptom for him to qualify going to therapy, or to feel like he and Amber were even.

The car finally made it to its destination a couple hours later. Pulling over every three seconds was not conducive to a convenient trip. His hands were so sweaty that he could barely grip the wheel, even wiping them on his pants every few minutes did nothing, and they slipped off for the final time when he cut off the engine. The car shuttered, then finally died off.

He slammed the horn just once, for the fuck of it.

Sid’s head popped out of the doorway, frowning. He looked up and down the road before his eyes settled on Max’s through the windshield. When the car caught his attention, confusion gave way to horror. He rolled down the window just enough to yell a greeting.

“What did you do?”

“Do you have any booze?”

“Yeah.”

“Hiding any girls in there?”

Sid’s face contorted into something unreadable. He shook his head and turned away, but left the door open behind him.

A glass of whiskey sat on the coffee table when Max had finally stripped off his many layers. He smiled at the coaster underneath, placed perfectly underneath so all sides were even. Sid had already sat down with his own glass, though it was obvious the intention was to have something to hold rather than something to throw back. Max did just that, then shook the glass toward him. More. More. More.

His third glass prompted Sid to open his mouth.

“Go on, kid.”

Sid glanced to the window without moving his head. The movement was subtle, like someone stuck in front of a bear trying to plan their escape. Max’s destroyed car sat outside, directly in front of the younger man’s vision. He felt a strange sense of pride at the vagueness of the entire situation, at being the only person in the room that knew the truth.

“How was your day?” The man across from him finally asked.

“Are you religious?”

Sid took a drink. He was thrown off guard. Max smiled.

“You can say it.”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“Why not?”

“There’s… There’s no room for me in it. Most of it, anyway.”

Max nodded slowly. His inhibitions were completely gone. The car called to him from the driveway, begged for him to face his mistake. He moved to the window with a slow stroll that only drunk men could have. Liquid confidence. Enough to make him have a staring contest with a car.

“Have you ever done something that would’ve sent you to Hell?”

There was a small noise from Sid’s throat. Max turned back to him chugging back the rest of his drink. His pointer finger rested on the back of a photograph on a smaller table beside him, having tipped it facedown onto the wood.

Max chuckled. “It’s a good thing we’re not religious, then.”

“I guess so.”

Sid stood up. Max felt thrown off by the sudden balance of their eye contact. He wanted to lie down and forget the fact he would have to drive once again.

“What happened to your…” His hand reached out toward Max’s forehead, pushed some hair out of the way. Max cringed at a sudden pulling that stabbed into his skull. “Oh, shit.”

“Am I that ugly?” Max deadpanned.

“No. No, there’s just—” Sid walked away without warning.

Max’s fingers reached his forehead by the time the sound of a sink running reached his place in the living room. They came back moist and an uncomfortable shade of dark brown and crimson. His hand started shaking again, first reaction to rub his hand on his pants to rid his vision of the horror. It didn’t work. The spaces between his skin and fingernails were stained red with blood.

He dropped his glass to the floor; knees fell into it.

And then he took in another breath, like he’d been underwater for years. Air entered his lungs differently.

“Hey, hey. You’re okay.” Sid leaned over him. His palm rested on Max’s shoulder. “It’s okay, it’s just me.”

Max jerked forward. He was laying on the couch, a knitted throw much too small for his figure draped over his midsection, a throw pillow where his head had once been. The curtains were open to the view of his driveway. One car sat, completely destroyed, on the concrete. He reached back up to his forehead, where nothing was dripping down. Fingernails were no longer stained.

“What did I…” He meant to ask what he’d told the other man, what secrets were now held by both. Sid’s gentle laugh caught him off guard.

“You had a few drinks and fell asleep. I was just gonna make dinner, if you want to stay.”

The headlights of his car stared back at him.

“Yeah. If that’s okay.”

Sid shrugged. He grabbed the empty crystal glasses from his table and practically skipped back to the kitchen.

It would’ve been impossible for him to have shared any information. No one in that house would’ve been okay after hearing what Max had done, mainly himself. However, he felt unharmed inside, if still a little tipsy.

He stood up once more. His legs were wobbly from lack of use, he must’ve been sleeping for awhile, and he had to lean against the wall to look further out the window. Sun shone down among the houses full of happy people.

“You have a great place.”

“Really? I’m thinking of moving.”

“Why?”

A pause. “It’s, uh, too far from where I want to be.”

---

“Wake up, darling.”

Keegan grunted in response. The pillow was soaked with sweat, cold against his burning forehead. His brain pounded against his skull at an alarming rate; it wouldn’t be long before his head blew up entirely. Any slight movement throughout the night had sent the room spinning and Keegan gripping onto the sheets to keep from toppling out the bed.

“I brought you breakfast. And coffee, it’ll help your head.” There was a clatter that made Keegan flinch. “Sorry. We shouldn’t have taken those pills last night, I almost retched up all of my intestines.”

The room was, thankfully, still almost pitch black. The only light came from under the door.

“Come on, it’ll be good to get food in you.”

Specks of the night before came back to him. Ronny placing a small tablet onto Keegan’s tongue, looking into pupils as big as his swimming pool, laying on the bedroom floor until one of Ronny’s assistants had managed to pull both up onto the mattress. The poor guy must’ve had to scrub a lot of things that morning, since the room was immaculate. Their party hadn’t ended at the club and they had certainly made a mess of the expensive estate.

“There’s something for you at the edge of the bed.” Ronny ruffled his hair with a smile. He leaned down to kiss Keegan’s forehead. “Merry Christmas, darling.”

Keegan’s toe knocked against a large box. It was wrapped in a delicate white paper covered in blue snowflakes, topped with a bow covered in sparkles. He’d somehow forgotten the occasion until that moment.

“Thank you.”

“Oh, don’t be so formal, dear.”

Keegan rubbed his eyes. Ronny handed him his glasses before he could say anything. He nodded instead of embarrassing himself with another polite remark.

“Fucking open it, then.”

His fingers dug into the paper (which was probably just as expensive as whatever was in the box) and ripped it away from the bed. He was starting to get frustrated. All he wanted was to try to force some food down and go back to sleep, not pretend to enjoy a gift from someone that he only saw twice a year since high school.

Ronny had been his one true love back then. They were friends, although somehow always more. He was a few years older but had been held back multiple times because his love of theater had outweighed working on his grades. He never seemed to mind, especially when they had first met; any excuse for them to remain beside each other was worth failing time and time again. Keegan had found it flattering, although quite stupid. They had both experimented separately, thanks to Keegan’s not-boyfriend-boyfriend and Ronny not wanting to admit anything. They’d graduated and promised to keep in touch.

And then Ronny got famous.

It was an indie film. Keegan would watch it every once in awhile to try and figure out if his British accent was real. The proper English didn’t match the Ronny he’d once known, a small boy whose parents had come from Egypt when he was three. His voice had been a shitmix of Canadian and something Keegan couldn’t place. He only knew three sentences in Arabic, and none of them meant good things.

When he’d started in the WHL, Ronny phoned him and they began an agreement. They’d live out their fantasies whenever they could, with no strings. Ronny could remain with his publicity stunt of a girlfriend, and Keegan could slut around as much as he wanted. Good trade, really.

There were presents every time, even when it wasn’t Christmas.

“Do you like it?”

Ronny’s assault on his neck was very distracting. The chains were obviously real gold, with real diamonds, too real for Keegan to wear at any point without receiving questions. Beautiful, though.

“Why this?”

“Because it’s pretty, like you. It’ll look great with that little number you wore the other night.”

Keegan forced a smile. His fingers fumbled with the clasps before Ronny did it for him. After the chains successfully hung against his chest, he reached for the tray of food, grateful to finally have something else to do with himself.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah.”

Ronny hesitated, stole a sip from Keegan’s coffee. Keegan motioned for him to keep it; he’d never liked coffee, anyway. It was strange to watch the older man struggle with his words.

“Just say it.”

“Is this… Would this be all you want?”

He decided to play dumb to ignore the quickening of his heart rate. “What do you mean?”

“Do you want to be with me? Do you want to come to New York with me?”

Fuck. He looked across the room. The bottle he’d left before passing out was still sitting on a dresser. It called to him in a way only the sweet taste of relief could. Would it be acceptable to have a drink if he said yes? Could he walk over there and take a swig and not make things weird?

“I know it’s far away and I know it’s crazy for me to even think that you could drop anything for me, I know we don’t see each other much, but… you know. I like us.”

“I—I don’t know if I can just…”

The food was forgotten. Keegan stood up regardless of what Ronny would think of him, the silence was too fucking much, and he was such an idiot for believing that they would just go out and dance and fuck and suffer together in the morning and then move on with their lives. The burn brought down his anxiety slightly. Another swig. He coughed that time.

“I’m under contract,” he finally finished.

“Do you really think they’ll mind?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you think they don’t see you go out to gay clubs and get fucked up and sleep with waiters and then show up to practice the next day with that silly little smile like nothing happened? Their asses are on the line, darling. You’d be doing them a favour going out to America.”

Tears threatened to spill over. Keegan forced himself to maintain eye contact, if only to make Ronny realize what he’d just done. He chugged the rest of the bottle (there was no way back at that point) and slammed it back down onto the dresser. Ronny wasn’t startled by the noise, much to Keegan’s disappointment. There was no power struggle. They both knew who was in charge in that room.

He swallowed hard. The tension was so absolutely solid in the room that he was sure it had jammed the door shut. It forced him to remain, fully bare and fully vulnerable, in the corner.

“I just want to give you everything. You would be so happy there.”

Was there a possibility of him being happy anywhere?

“You wouldn’t have to work ever again.”

What if he liked his job?

“I love you, Keegan.” Ronny gave him a tight-lipped smile, bordering on proud. “I’ve always seen this version of you, and I’m so happy that you’re living it. But I want you to explore somewhere else.”

He shut his eyes for a moment. “Why are you doing this now?”

“Why do you think?”

Eyes open, Keegan was confronted by a sad grin. Ronny’s own eyes had started to water up. There was no need to hear an apology, it was obvious the words had come from a place of bitter jealousy at being so certain, and there was no need for Keegan to assure him that he wouldn’t be joining him. Years of knowledge on each other still came into play. Keegan went back to the bed and sprawled out beside him. His fingers went to the chains.

“Because you’re old. I really should marry you; I’d make a fortune.”

Ronny rolled his eyes. “You’ll make a fortune, anyway.”

His body was starting to go numb, liquor finally kicking in. If he pissed himself, he would have no idea. The thought made him start to giggle, finally allowing a few tears bubble over onto his cheeks. Ronny joined him.

“I meant what I said.” Ronny continued to laugh as if it could buffer the seriousness. “You’ll do great either way.”

“You’re a really good friend.”

The laughing paused. The extra heaviness beside him suddenly disappeared, replaced by the sound of clothes being picked through at the dresser and footsteps heading to the bathroom. Ronny threw clothes at him on his way out of the room. A message. It was time to leave.

Keegan got dressed in a rush. The pants struggled to get past his ass. He left the buttons open, they weren’t going to fall down, anyway, and the shirt was too stretched out. The effect was something of a washed up rockstar, paired with the gold around his neck and shoulder-length hair that strongly needed a brush. He ran his hands through it, cringed when he reached more than a few knots. No use. There was no hesitation in digging through Ronny’s bag for drugs. A few prescription bottles, probably used for actual medical issues, were quickly pushed to the side. Three or four small baggies were immediately pocketed without hesitation.

He paused by the bathroom door on his way out. Ronny’s assistant looked startled.

“Heading out so soon?”

“Why, yes,” he mocked the British accent that seemed so popular with everyone around him. “Yes, I think I’m quite fucking done, thank you. Hey, Ronny!” His fist banged against the door. “Fuck you, buddy! You can’t always get what you want!”

Keegan looked back at the assistant. His chest burned from the presence of Ronny’s gift. He didn’t bother being careful with the clasps and slapped the chains into the woman’s hand.

“Here.”

He was used to getting stared at in Vancouver. Back home, people had known much more about him, and therefore were uninterested in trying to gain information from his appearance. People in Van were obsessed with that. Everyone was subject to speculation on their importance, if they could be spotted in a movie or television series, or in a sport well loved by the entire province. Keegan had achieved relative anonymity at the beginning of the season. It was short-lived thanks to being good at his job and generally attractive to most of the population.

When he started going out more regularly, the pictures started popping up. Hockey gossip wasn’t the most well known or even very entertaining, but the possibility of local partiers having the chance of running into Keegan and his group of mischief-makers at highly frequented clubs made it important enough to pay attention to. Every member of the group had reaped the rewards of that publicity, taking women and men home on any given night for a quick fuck/apology and access to free drugs.

That popularity extended to other areas of the city, naturally. He stopped going to Starbucks because of that.

Grind was an appropriately named coffee shop close to Keegan’s apartment. Well, Xavier’s apartment. Their apartment. There had been many post-nights-of-regret breakfasts hosted there, complete with a gigantic mug of Earl Grey and eventual laughs about how stupid they’d been. Keegan hadn’t anticipated how lonely the holidays would be. His usual order was made before he could open his mouth. On the house, because it was Christmas and he was alone and reeked like booze and vomit and sex.

His phone pinged as soon as he sat down. Xavier. The message was a simple: a photo of him and the kids, so tiny in his arms, surrounded by presents. That same photo would be uploaded in a few hours to his social media to maintain the illusion that he, like every other player in the league, was a family man. The text said that he was thinking of Keegan, although that was probably code for ‘thinking about you with another man. Reminding you that you’re mine.’ Or something like that.

Keegan didn’t answer him. His tea fought with the liquor in his stomach, but he kept going.

Another ping. Asking if Keegan would be going to the All-Star party in a few nights. It was a big deal. Everybody had already confirmed their attendance even with that year’s earlier start date.

He replied with a smiley face.

The next few days were a blur of press conferences and practices. Ronny seemed to have a hook in Keegan’s brain since sobering up, which made every second torturous. Neither spoke to each other again after the exchange. The party loomed over him with each moment of small talk, forgotten almost entirely only when he had participated in the correct amount of self harm. Keegan buried himself face first in piles of cocaine and Xavier and hockey and beating his body up until he was raw all over. It was fucking fantastic.

It was fantastic enough that he didn’t recall actually getting to the party. All he knew was that he sat on a bench with annoyingly comfortable velvet cushions, in the middle of a mixed drink he hadn’t ordered. Luo had his arm behind him, head resting on his fist, and Alex leaned against the back of the wall with an occasional groan heard above the music.

“Why am I here?” Luo asked to no one in particular.

“We’re hosts.” Keegan’s words were slurred. He swallowed down a lump in his throat with an intense amount of effort. “Be nice.”

“You should have some water.”

“You should have a drink.”

Luo rolled his eyes. He got up without a goodbye, not that it was needed. Alex’s eyes were closed.

Time jumped forward.

He was dancing, arms raised high above his head and surrounded by people he couldn’t recognize. Each face was blurred by a cocktail of things Keegan couldn’t recall. That didn’t matter much to him; he was perfectly okay with shaking his body to music that blew out his eardrums around people that were just as fucked up as he was.

Forward.

He laid down on the cold tile of the bathroom. Wiped his mouth. He started to feel better.

Forward.

Painfully sober. His body was begging for something other than substances, though, so he kept drinking his glass of carbonated water and looked out over the crowd of people. The penthouse had never looked so huge. Most of their parties were hosted there, although Keegan rarely paid attention to the setting.

A particularly familiar walk made Keegan double take beside him. The man walked up to him with confidence.

“I thought I wasn’t going to see you again.”

He almost spit out his drink. Ronny pat him on the back.

“Seems you thought the same thing?”

Keegan nodded assuredly. Yes, that was the reason he was surprised. Not because he’d forgotten entirely up until that moment that he’d invited Ronny to come.

“I’m happy to be here, darling. Relax.”

“Welcome,” he said for some reason. “This isn’t my house at all.”

“I know. You’re rich, but not this rich. Come on, get me a drink.”

Like a lost puppy, he did as he was told. He caved and ordered himself one, as well.

It was needless to say that they got tremendously fucked up all over again. The same cycle of stomach pain giving way to ecstasy giving way to sleepiness giving way to ‘where did the drugs get off to?’ and climaxing in the two of them jumping onto a table in the middle of the entire event to sing along to their request: Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Keegan fell into Ronny’s arms. It felt amazing.

(Unbeknownst to the two of them, Ronny would later pass away due to an untreated illness. Extremely dark and painful and preventable. Keegan repressed that memory the day after it happened. Luckily, he would always hold onto the image of them dancing on that tabletop in each other’s arms.)

---

To some, it would’ve been considered fate that Marc decided to get some fresh air at that exact moment. The rest of his group hadn’t wanted to join him, having too much fun to remind themselves of what would be waiting for them the next morning. Marc wasn’t bothered by that idea, though. He wasn’t having any fun.

As soon as the glass door closed behind him, he was enveloped in silence. It was both soothing and entirely too much for him to handle. The sweat he hadn’t noticed blossom on his forehead began to freeze down into nothing, sent an aggressive chill down his spine. There was a surprising lack of snow around him.

Sid had dragged him. He and Geno wanted to go, but they thought it would be weird if they went alone. It was weirder that Marc had joined, however, since he never went to events like that. Geno had disappeared as soon as they crossed the threshold and Sid had fallen into some sort of deep existential depression, so Marc had to sit with him and strain to hear what he was ranting about over the music. The entire situation was headache inducing enough as it was, but the sudden appearance of some well-known partiers to their corner of the house was what had propelled him outside.

His breath was visible when he finally exhaled. A reminder that there was still something certain in the universe.

Humming assaulted Marc’s perfect silence. His head whipped around at the noise; he had been sure no one else would want to stand in the cold, although that idea seemed rather silly as he followed the song. The notes continued as he rounded a corner toward a large gazebo. He was confronted by a swaying man, cigarette dangling from petite fingers as he hummed along to the song that had been playing when Marc decided to evacuate. The man was obviously incredibly drunk (or something of the sort) and bared Marc no mind as he continued.

“Are you okay?” He wasn’t sure why he asked, it wasn’t his business, but the steam rising from the man’s skin indicated that he would soon be freezing. “Hello?”

“What—oh, hey! Hello!” The words were drawn out as the man turned to him. It didn’t take Marc more than three seconds to identify him. “Do you wanna dance with me?”

“Uh—”

“That’s why you’re standing there, right? Staring at me?”

Keegan Stewart’s lean body barreled closer to Marc at a speed that barely allowed him to catch the smaller man. He stunk of debauchery, which only served to make him more attractive. Marc pulled away before he started swaying along with him.

“You don’t wanna dance?”

“Uh, no. Sorry. Just came out for some air.”

Keegan shook his cigarette with a cheeky grin, lopsided. “Same.”

They plopped down onto one of the benches at the same time, as if they’d rehearsed it. Marc’s head began to hurt from the smell of cigarette smoke, but he ignored it. The gravity must’ve been heavier at that time of night, holding him down in place and eyes glued to Keegan’s face. His cheekbones protruded from his face, battling his icy eyes for attention. He had dug his way into Marc’s brain with a single smile.

“Smoke?”

“No. Thank you.”

Keegan shrugged. He exhaled in the opposite direction after that. “Shouldn’t you be in there? The Kid’s probably waiting, yeah?”

“Yeah, no.” Marc snorted. “He’s busy.”

Silence as Keegan stomped out his cigarette. They looked out over the lights of the city and Marc was suddenly reminded of his first night in Pittsburgh. Of course, he’d sat alone on his balcony (Vero was too busy being rightfully mad at him to enjoy the view). He realized how lonely he was, a truly terrible epiphany to be having beside a drunk man that he had always thought was especially good-looking.

“I always thought you were the best goalie. You actually seem like you… love this.” Keegan said it like it was a unique quality to have. His gaze toward the city became tender for just a moment. “Yeah. You’re good.”

“So are you.” He tried not to sound too desperate.

Keegan broke out into a fit of giggles. His hands waved in the air as he struggled for air, one palm landing on Marc’s arm. It was a gesture done a million times over by just as many people, he tended to cause uncontrollable laughter, but sparks of electricity spread over his body at the gentle squeeze that accompanied it.

“I’m not good, babe. I’m fucking brilliant.” The tip of Keegan’s finger poked Marc’s nose. “According to them.”

Marc said nothing, caught off guard. It was much easier to look away.

“It’s always according to them, isn’t it? We all know,” he motioned to the building behind them, “who the real stars are, and it rarely ever matches with their idea. You know, sometimes I think I play worse just because they say that I should? Just to make them feel better about the fact they’re in that fucking room judging us?”

“You don’t have to please anyone.” Marc sounded angry. They both knew it wasn’t directed toward Keegan. “They’re usually wrong, anyway. They said Ovie was better than Sid last week.”

“He is leading in points.”

“Above you, too, I hear.”

“Oh, fuck off. Come back when you score a goal.”

They glared at each other before breaking into laughter. The universe was overcome with butterflies and rainbows and an explosion of pure joy in Marc’s stomach and enough of a head rush to make him feel drunk. Keegan toppled backward off the bench in the midst of the array, fast enough that Marc could only pause his laugh to look at his shoes sit where his body once had.

“You can help me up, you know?”

“Can I? I didn’t realize.”

“Has anyone told you that you’re kind of an asshole?”

“Just kind of?”

The toe of Keegan’s shoe tapped his arm. Marc pushed himself off the bench to join him, his boots dangling much further off the other side than Keegan’s.

There were no stars.

“Why did you look at me?”

“What?”

“When we played each other. You looked at me.”

He couldn’t tell the truth. He couldn’t say that as soon as Keegan stepped onto the ice, he was a goner. That with his first few strides, Marc could feel the power that emanated out of his every pore. That he dreaded each line change because he would get so fucking distracted that he almost let in three goals. That there was absolutely no way that Marc would be able to forget that cocky smile after Keegan scored a goal, glove side, the way their eyes locked across bodies and the way time itself stood still in the presence of something so beautiful. That Marc could care less about how messy Keegan was, if he had the privilege of laughing with him for the rest of his life, he would be more than content.

That in that moment, laying on the floor of a penthouse balcony, back of his clothing completely soaked from melting frost, he had had never been happier.

“I was looking at that ugly moustache.”

“You’re one to talk.”

(Marc would never tell Keegan about the creepy repeat of their ugly facial hair conversation, nor would he admit that he did, eventually, tell the truth. It would be a secret taken to his grave, although he would have no problem repeating that truth in the future numerous times. Marc also wouldn’t mention that he spent two hours after their conversation trying to wrangle Keegan into his apartment, and he definitely didn’t describe the staring match he and Xavier had afterward. It was for his own good, anyway.)

---

Dan was the first one to step forward. He looked around the room a few times. The only thing he knew how to do was pick up each sheet of paper as quickly and quietly as he could and throw them in the general direction of the garbage. Nobody bothered to help or point out that he was making more work for himself by crumpling up each picture individually. Nobody even moved.

He didn’t dare look at the reactions of the boys. It would’ve been disrespectful.

It took him five and a half minutes to clear out the room. He could tell Keegan was looking at him in his peripheral, Sid had quite literally sunk to the floor from the weight of the entire thing, Geno and Marc seemed to still be experiencing the initial wave of shock. Everyone else’s heads were tilted toward the floor. Dan walked over to the garbage can, shoved some stray photos back in their place. They continued to pop back up as the paper began to uncrumple.

“Should we bother getting dressed?”

Keegan’s voice startled him. He looked at Dan as if he had all the answers, something even more terrifying than the idea that their safe space had been tampered with.

“Um… no. Probably not.”

There was no hesitation when Keegan pushed past his teammates and walked out the door. Marc followed him like it was instinct.

Dan looked at the ceiling. He had no fucking idea what to do.