Jeff snaps upright, sharp inhale, chest tight, sheared from a dream. He looks around. Living room. Couch. Mike’s living room. Mike’s couch. Mike’s empty Corona bottles on the coffee table in front of him.
Although, technically, some of those are his.
Jeff rubs his face, adrenaline quick-fading from his system. He tries to roll the stiffness out of his neck. A burn and a creak to tell him why he shouldn’t pass out on couches, and if his brain’s too stupid to tell him the night before, his back will let him know the morning –
“Carts!” Richie yells again. Louder, closer, although still upstairs. “My tits are back!”
Jeff’s hand, perched on the bridge of his nose, chasing at that dull post-drinking ache, freezes. There’s a graceless thumping as Mike descends, the click of Arnold’s nails just behind. Mike walks into the room, nothing on but his boxers.
Yeah. He has breasts. Years of training kick in; Jeff very carefully shifts his gaze above Mike’s neckline.
Mike rolls his eyes. “What the fuck?”
“I – ” It’s not just the breasts. Mike’s voice is higher. His jaw is clean-shaven in a way it hardly ever is, and definitely wasn’t last night. There’s more of a curve to his waist. Jeff files these observations away, a quick mental flip flip flip. But Mike’s still looking at him, edgy like he’s waiting for Jeff to say something. Don’t cut the red wire, Jeff thinks.
Mike’s shoulders are pulled back in a tight, angry line – like a kid awaiting a lecture. A grounded teen. He looks young. “You look younger,” Jeff says.
Mike scowls, then snaps and points at Jeff. “This is that thing. That thing where you get younger. That thing that happened to Bennie’s brother. The one on the Stars’ farm team.”
Jeff says, “Jordie’s with Dallas full-time now.”
“For fuck’s sake, Carts,” Mike says. “Do I look like I care?”
“No,” Jeff admits. “Not really.”
“I definitely do not. But that happened to him. That get-young thing. That’s what’s happening here.” He’s looking at Jeff, intent.
That sounds like complete bullshit. Except for the part where Mike is standing right in front of him, looking young. “So, uh, how much younger do you think you are?”
Mike looks down at himself. “Well, before I had these lopped off, that’s for sure.” He pauses, studying his hands, touching his throat. “Before my parents let me start on T. Seventeen, maybe? What do you think?”
Jeff shrugs. “Yeah. I guess you look like you at seventeen.”
Mike’s mouth twists at that. Then he turns around and walks out of the room.
Mike waves a hand. “I’m going to go find Jordie’s number so I can figure out how to fix this.”
Mike is handling this. Mike is figuring out how to fix this. Jeff exhales. Jeff’s head hurts. He starts breakfast. He makes coffee. He takes a couple aspirin. And then he calls Brownie.
It’s Brownie’s job to liaise with the coaching staff, and Jeff will be fucked if he’s going to be the one to tell Sutter what’s just gone down. Brownie’s on speakerphone, because Jeff is googling with one hand and mainlining coffee with the other. “He’s younger?”
“Yeah. He’s, like, seventeen. So, he’s more – you know.” Jeff winces at his own awkwardness.
“Wait – ” There’s a pause. “So Mike’s a chick now – again?”
As though it were something that could flip back and forth, north south north south on a broken compass, as though Brownie expects him to be able to explain it in one breath, over one phone call, when Jeff’s been trying to work that part out basically his whole life. “No, you don’t get it,” Jeff says. There aren’t words for this. There should be words for this. “Mike’s always been a dude. He just hasn’t always looked like one.”
“Huh,” Brownie says. “Huh.”
To be fair, that’s probably about what Jeff would have come up with, if he hadn’t had almost fifteen years to get used to the idea.
Jeff played at Kitchener for the first time six games into his first season in the OHL. He still remembers walking into Kitchener’s new building – which sat twice what the Greyhounds’ home rink could hold. Eddie – who had the stall next to Jeff’s – had come clomping into the visitors’ dressing room late. He scowled down at his skates – laces neatly sliced up the middle. “There’s a girl playing for the Rangers.” Eddie sat down and started pulling the cut laces free of his skates. “That’s why I was late, I was listening to Coach talk about it.”
Coach Hartsburg was half-deaf, which meant even if the door to his office was closed, anybody within a ten yard radius could hear him. It was handy for figuring out who was starting in goal.
Rich said, “Stop spying on the coaching staff.” Probably because he was Captain, and it was his job to say that kind of thing. “And there’s not a girl playing on the Rangers.”
“There is so.” Eddie looked offended. “Coach was yelling about it.”
Rich rolled his eyes. “Fix your skates. We’re supposed to be on the ice in ten.”
The Rangers rolled them.
That whole game’s still crystal clear in Jeff’s head – because that was his Welcome To The Big Leagues moment – Jeff got stripped at the blue line, crunched into the corner, jabbed, slashed, and in one particularly embarrassing moment, spun around and dumped. He looked carefully past the visors at the guys doing it to him, but none of them were girls.
At the time, Jeff had chalked it up to Eddie being full of shit.
He did pot one on a pretty sick breakaway, all alone in the north end of the rink. And for a long time, that was his best memory of Kitchener.
On his next pass downstairs, Mike has on a t-shirt. “I don’t even have bras anymore. Fuck. Hey – on a scale of one to, like, Miley Cyrus, how unacceptable would it be for me to go out like this?”
This is one of those trick questions where the wrong answer is to look at Mike’s chest, and the other wrong answer is to not look at Mike’s chest. “Why don’t you just wear one of your compression shirts?”
“Yeah?” Mike slows his pacing, coming to a rest in front of Jeff. “You think that would be okay?”
Up close it’s clear he’s lost a little bit of height. “Sure.”
Mike shifts, gaze fixed somewhere beyond Jeff and frowning.
“Hey,” Jeff says. “You okay?”
Mike smiles abruptly, wide and fixed. “Please. I’m fine. According to Benn it’s totally temporary.” He shrugs elaborately. “I’m gonna go out tonight and find some hot California lesbians to bang.”
Jeff squints at him, trying to tell if he’s serious. “Isn’t that sort of misrepresentation?”
But Mike’s face is a smooth, a mirror polish. “Oh, come on. You would totally bang lesbians if you were stuck in a chick’s body.”
Jeff’s not at all sure that’s what would happen. Jeff thinks there would probably be a whole lot more freaking out. But then, Mike’s always been more at home in bars than him. Jeff can remember a thousand and one nights out in some loud, dim-lit room. Mike’s cocky leer softened into a wide-eyed smile, telling some girl, “Let me buy you a drink. Come on, don’t worry, my friend will tell you what a nice guy I am, won’t you, Carts?”
Jeff had his lines down pat. Such a nice guy. You won’t meet a nicer one. It was amazing the way the girls always smiled on cue.
He broke script once – just coming out of Columbus and still sore about it, still roiled and battered down by the loneliness, and Mike right in front of him again. Mike in person, smiling at him, and Jeff’s chest ached, all awash with something he didn’t dare examine to closely. Mike had taken him out in LA, and when he had turned away, turned away to talk to some random girl, Jeff had –
“Actually not really,” Jeff said. “He says that to all the girls.”
Mike’s WTF look was almost comical. “Are you fucking trying to sabotage me?” He said, after she walked away. “Do you not want me to pick up?”
Angry enough to be honest, Jeff said, “No. I don’t.”
He expected Mike to demand an explanation. But he hadn’t. He just blinked like he was trying to bring Jeff into focus, threw money down on the bar, and said. “Okay. Let’s go.”
That night at home there had been a moment, Jeff standing in the door to his bedroom – back when Mike’s guest was still his bedroom – and Mike hesitated, stood just within reach, dark eyes on Jeff, on his face. And then Mike stepped back, walked away. The door to his room shut firmly behind him.
Now Mike’s just looking at him, face guarded and blank. Younger than it should be, too young for bars, anyway. “How are you even going to even get into the bar, genius? Since you look all of seventeen, and your ID says you’re a 30 year old dude?”
Mike gives him a snide grin. “I’m hot. I’ll charm my way in.”
Pretty cocky, even for Mike. Jeff lifts an eyebrow.
He looks right at Jeff. “Whatever, you totally had a crush on me.”
Jeff can feel his face heating up. Mike laughs. “Don't worry. That only makes you a little gay.”
“You don’t have to be such a dick about it,” Jeff grumbles.
Jeff’s first memories of Mike are of Mike being a dick. They were 34 games into the season by the time they played Kitchener the second time, this time at home in the Soo and riding an eight-game win streak. Richards, Kitchener’s rookie center, lined up across from him for the opening faceoff. “Jesus Christ,” Richards said with a low whistle. “This is some shit hole you guys play in.” He craned his neck, surveying the rink ceiling, “You ever have to cancel games because of rain? Or is that thing more solid than it looks?”
Things Jeff knew about Mike Richards at that point in time: 1) Mike Richards went high in the selection, and seemed to think that made him pretty hot shit. 2) Mike Richards was the only guy on the Rangers that beat Jeff on the draw last game. 3) Mike Richards was an asshole, and Jeff hated him.
Richards won the faceoff.
The Rangers won the game.
Rich’s billet gave him free run of the entire basement and didn’t care if they got loud, so Rich’s billet was where they holed up to drink bottom-shelf whiskey and lick their wounds.
“I thought we were gonna do it,” Jeff said, flat on his back, eyes on a crack in the ceiling. “In the third? I had that chance on Dickie? I really thought we were gonna tie it.” Jeff was drunk enough to feel like he was sinking into the shag carpet, drunk enough for that to feel comforting.
Rich snorted. “You got two. Next time I vote we maybe play some defense.”
“Fucking defense,” Eddie said. Which had seemed pretty profound at the time.
“Fucking Richards,” Jeff said. Richards had run him late in the game, lifted his stick on what should have been a goal and been sly enough about it to not get a whistle. “Fuck that guy.”
Eddie laughed at him. “You mean fuck that girl.”
Jeff frowned up at the ceiling, running the words back. “What?”
“You mean fuck that girl. Richards is the girl on the Rangers.” Eddie said it in his patented oh, Rookie voice – the same one he used to say things like, of course we’re gonna sneak out of the hotel and of course that girl is serious about blowing him and of course we’re gonna lift five days a week, this is the OHL, Cartsy, this isn’t bantam.
Jeff sat up and looked at Rich, Captain and thus arbiter of truth. “Mike Richards is a girl?”
Rich shrugged, which was hardly helpful.
“But,” Jeff blinked. “Mike isn’t a girl’s name.”
Rich sighed and slapped at Eddie’s shoulder until he handed the whiskey over. “No.”
“Mike Richards doesn’t look like a girl.”
Rich tipped his head at this, acknowledging it with another swallow. “No.”
Jeff squinted over at them. “Are you fucking with me?” Based on prior precedent, it was entirely likely.
Eddie laughed again. “For once in my life, no. But I am enjoying blowing your mind.”
“You’re not – ” Jeff stopped. “But.” He looked back at Rich. “How do you know?”
“Well, for one – he’s my cousin.” Rich didn’t look like he was fucking around. “But yeah, he was born a girl.”
Jeff frowned. “He?”
Rich just sighed again and said, “It’s not my job to explain how the world works, Rookie.”
Still in the kitchen, Mike ignores his grumbling, which is just as well. They need momentum. Momentum to keep going, momentum to get to get out of the house. Momentum or all hell’s gonna break loose. “We’ve got practice,” Jeff says.
“Yeah, yeah.” Mike waves him off, on the move again. But the next time he appears downstairs, he’s dressed. He tugs at his shirt, scowling at the way it hangs.
Jeff frowns. “Are you – ”
“I’m fine.” He swipes one last time at the fabric. “I’m pissed, but I’m fine.”
“Then you’re ready?” Jeff’s watching him close.
Mike rolls his eyes in response. “Fuck, Carts. Yes, okay? I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Light at the end of the tunnel. Jeff congratulates himself on navigating the morning. Wake up on time? Done. Hangover? Managed. Friend is seventeen again? Handled. The million and one landmines that could trigger? Avoided. But after all that, it’s the dog that nearly undoes them.
Just as Jeff’s taking the keys from the hook, Arnold barks, once – sharp and impatient. Mike freezes. “I forgot about the dog.”
Jeff sighs. “Okay, so feed the dog. Let’s go – ”
“I forgot about the dog,” Mike says again, tinge of urgency seeping into his voice. And when Jeff looks at him, Mike’s holding himself still, one hand braced on the countertop, chest rising and falling too fast.
“I’m fine, I’m – ” Mike swallows hard. His mouth works.
Mike is always fine. Mike is always in control. But then, Mike would never forget to feed the dog. That isn’t how he works. This isn’t how they work. “A lot of shit’s happened this morning. You’re distracted. It’s understandable. Let’s just feed Arnold and go.”
Mike closes his eyes for a second, then he rolls his shoulders and straightens. “Yeah,” he says. “Right.”
Jeff watches him pour the food, Arnold edging close and Mike’s fingers lingering for a second in his fur. Jeff squeezes the keys in his palm. “You want me to drive?”
“Fuck no.” Mike snaps his fingers at him. “Keys. Now.”
Balance in the universe restored. This is how they are. This is how they’ve always been.
The first time Jeff met Mike – really met Mike, not just stared him down across the faceoff dot – was the first day of one of the Bauer camps.
Mike had schooled him in more than half the drills, the whole time running his mouth at anyone and everyone that would listen. Jeff watched him the whole morning, trying to tell if maybe his eyelashes were longer than they should have been for a guy, if his jaw was too narrow, or his lips too full. He didn’t look like he had to shave, but back then Jeff really didn’t have much room to judge on that front.
“Fucking what?” Mike finally snapped, just as they were headed off the ice for the day.
Jeff nearly tripped over his own skates turning away. “Nothing.”
“Uh-huh.” Mike shook his head, and headed down the tunnel.
Mike traipsed into the locker room with the rest of them. Headed into the showers with the rest of them. And – oh.
Eddie was right.
Jeff kept waiting for somebody to say something, but even back then Mike had his stone-eyed force field of a gaze down, and nobody did. Mike walked out of the showers, towel around his waist and giving exactly zero fucks when the guys in the room grabbed something to cover themselves, or stared, or elbowed the guy sitting next to them.
The staring seemed – rude, even if they weren’t saying anything. But then, Mike in the room seemed rude, putting everyone on edge even if he wasn’t doing anything. Mike had taken the unclaimed stall next to Jeff’s, which made Jeff’s pulse trip a little faster. At that point in time, Jeff’s main context for female nudity was porn. The idea of live and in-person breasts was still relatively novel, and this – Mike dressing right next to him – this he didn’t have any reference for at all. Jeff hesitated for a long time, hand on the knot in the towel around his waist, eyes kept firmly on his temporary, Bauer-sponsored nameplate: #7 CARTER, J.
“You stare at that thing any harder, it’s gonna burst into flames.” Mike’s voice was dry.
Jeff swallowed, fresh sweat prickling up along his hairline.
“Do you not talk?” Mike sounded one step away from calling Jeff an idiot.
Jeff could feel his face go hot. Lots of people thought Jeff was an idiot. His teachers, for one. Pretty much every girl he’d ever tried to interact with for another.
“Here,” Mike said, before Jeff could chase those thoughts too far down the rabbit hole. “Hold this, would you?”
Jeff glanced over; Mike was holding an Ace bandage, offering one end to Jeff without even really looking up.
It was just an Ace bandage. It wasn’t going to bite. When Jeff took it, Mike pulled the other end taut, and then proceeded to bind his chest flat. Mike pulled on his undershirt, and then his flannel over that. He was doing up the last of the buttons when he said. “Hey – that first game you guys played against us?”
“Yeah?” Jeff managed.
“That was a pretty sick goal. The breakaway, I mean.”
Jeff blinked, glanced down at him quick. Whatever he had expected Mike to say, that wasn’t it. “Thanks?”
“You’d be even faster if your skating didn’t suck so much.” Mike smirked. “And your stick handling is shit.” He gathered his things and walked off, leaving Jeff standing at his stall, still in his towel.
New things Jeff now knew about Mike Richards: 1) Mike Richards did not have a dick. 2) Mike Richards might actually be halfway decent at hockey. 3) Mike Richards was definitely still an asshole, and they were not going to get along at all.
Mike’s calm lasts until they show up to practice. There’s a red no-contact jersey hanging in Mike’s stall. “Oh, fuck no,” Mike says. “We are not doing this again.”
“Richie.” Coach Payne is holding up careful, placating hands. “You need to remember you’re 5’8 and 175 right now. We don’t want to risk – ”
“I was 5’8, 175 when I broke into this league the first time. That’s how big I was when I fucking beat Arron Asham’s face in.” Mike’s thrown his bag down, and he’s right up in Payne’s face. “And the only thing that’s different now is I’m better at hockey.”
The room goes very quiet. “Mike,” Jeff tries.
Mike ignores him. “You don’t think I can take line rushes like this?” He’s breathing hard, a muscle jumping in his jaw. “You don’t think I can handle checking drills like this?”
Payne crosses his arms.
“Fuck that,” Mike says. The jersey ends up on the floor. Mike takes line rushes in bare pads.
When they get back to Mike’s place, Jeff says, “What if I came in?” And quickly adds, “Not to like, keep an eye on you. Just to. You know. Hang.”
Mike’s forehead drops down into his hand like he’s chasing away a headache. He sighs. “Will you cook?”
Mike’s quiet at dinner. They sit in front of the TV, Mike’s plate balanced but mostly neglected in his lap. Jeff asks anyway, “Do you want any more before I put it away?”
Jeff will take that as a no. He gets up, and after a minute, Mike follows him into the kitchen. Jeff scrapes both their plates into the sink. “Are you going out?”
Mike is staring off into space, absently chewing his lip. He blinks, refocuses on Jeff. “No.” He pushes off the counter. “I’m going to bed.”
“I’m gonna crash here, okay?” Jeff says.
Jeff watches his silhouette retreat down the hallway. He listens to Mike climb the stairs.
Jeff loads the dishwasher. Jeff sets up the coffee maker and wipes down the counters. Jeff locks the doors and turns off the lights and reminds himself that Mike called him every single day from June 23, 2011 until February 23, 2012.
He thinks about Mike’s voice, sarcastic and even and somehow also warm on the phone. “This is your daily wellness check, Carts. Buck up, little camper.”
Sometime after midnight, Jeff wakes to a slice of light cutting across his face, the creak of a hinge, and the sounds of Mike padding into the room. Mike lifts the covers and crawls in next to him. In the dark, he touches Jeff’s face, fingers trailing over his jaw. “Oh,” Jeff asks, “are we doing this again, too?”
Mike doesn’t answer, just presses his mouth down against Jeff’s. Quick. Dry.
Jeff runs his fingers through Mike’s hair – buzzed short now, like it was back then. When he said having long hair made him look too much like a girl. “Mike?”
Mike still won’t answer, but he does kiss Jeff again, tongue slipping between Jeff’s lips. Jeff opens his mouth. Mike’s mouth is a hot, wet heat, a little bit sharp, a little bit vicious. Mike inches in closer, pressing his body up against Jeff, nothing but the worn fabric of Mike’s t-shirt between them, the rub of his nipples distinct, the warmth of his body clear. The abrupt roll of sense-memory over him, Mike’s body so intensely familiar, and Jeff pulls him in. There’s that roil of adolescent self-consciousness, the vulnerability of being hard and wanting and unsure. Mike has a thigh between his legs; he has to be able to feel it, and he presses forward against Jeff again.
Mike’s fingers are squeezing Jeff’s bicep, gripping hard. Jeff reaches out, sets a careful hand on the curve of Mike’s hip, rubbing circles through his boxers. Mike has his tongue in Jeff’s mouth, and his fingers digging into his skin, and the rub and press of his body, the friction is perfect and not enough and too much, all in the space of a breath. Jeff is overheated, head to toe, and it’s getting hard to think, hard to focus. Thoughts a rapid-fire flicker: Mike now, Mike then, Mike yesterday, Mike today, and Jeff wants – he wants everything and whatever is not going to make Mike pull away. He kisses the corner of Mike’s mouth, slides his hand up his side, traces out the line of his shoulders, the dip in his throat, and stops. “Can I touch you? Can I touch your breasts, I mean?”
Mike pauses. Glancing down, he shrugs. “Sure. Might as well make use of them while they’re there, right?” He sits up to pull his t-shirt over his head. He lies back down next to Jeff, and Jeff comes up on one elbow. Mike watches him as he drags two fingers down the center of Mike’s chest, across the skin of his breastbone, soft and smooth and unblemished. But when he leans over to try to meet Mike’s eyes, Mike turns his face away.
“Hey.” Jeff’s hand settles on his shoulder instead. “If you don’t want me to, I won’t, okay?”
Mike swallows, and Jeff can feel him tipping, hanging, right on the edge –
Jeff squeezes his arm. “I won’t.”
Mike rolls onto his side to face him, knees drawn up a little, arms held in front of his chest, close but not touching. He’s looking at Jeff, sparse light in the bedroom picking out the whites of his eyes. “What did we use to do?” He’s whispering, but he’s close enough to be clear. “Honestly, I don’t even remember now.”
Fair enough, maybe, given that the last time they did this was over a decade ago. Jeff remembers that whole era as saturated in arousal and confusion. Being horny like background noise, a constant itch. Mike didn’t look like anybody Jeff had ever met, and he didn’t talk like anybody Jeff had ever met; he wasn’t like anybody Jeff had met.
He remembers a lot of good things they did together, though. Jeff smiles at him. “Mostly a lot of furious jerking off in the back of your car. And begging you to touch my dick.”
Mike’s mouth curves a little. “Yeah, okay. I guess I do remember that.” He presses a hand up against the front of Jeff’s shorts, rubbing the outline of his dick through the fabric. “Come on,” he says, quiet. “I’ll get you off.”
Jeff lifts his hips, and Mike works him the rest of the way free. He drags his palm up and down, slow and careful. “Been awhile since I did this.”
Jeff presses his face into the pillow. He groans when Mike tightens his grip.
“Like this?” Mike asks, and he starts going for real, fast and tight and perfect.
Jeff’s breathing in quick little pulls of air. “Can you – can you – ”
“You want me to slow down?”
“No. Yes.” Maybe Jeff should be more embarrassed about being this close this fast, except – it’s Mike next to him – Mike’s hands who trained him what to want. Maybe it makes sense.
Mike laughs, but genuine. Just one of those rare and perfect moments where Jeff actually managed to make him smile. He doesn’t slow down, he leans into Jeff, forehead to forehead, lets Jeff gasp and pant against him. Jeff comes hard, an inelegant finish, grunting and spilling over Mike’s fingers. Mike still grinning at him as he wipes his hand off. “Still got it.”
Jeff reaches out blind and runs his hand across whatever part he finds first, still catching his breath. When he looks up, Mike’s looking back at him. Jeff asks, “Do you want me to – to do you?”
Mike hesitates, but then one side of his mouth tips up. “Sure.” He pushes his shorts down.
Jeff strokes down the flesh of Mike’s thigh, edging closer, fingers ghosting across the skin, and in the dark they could be anywhere. London. Kitchener. Kenora, or all the empty stretches in between. And it might as well be the first time, for all that Jeff’s almost sick with nerves, heart caught thick and full in his throat. Touch so careful, tracing out a route through a labyrinth with invisible walls, and unwritten rules –
Mike grabs his hand, pinning it against his thigh. For a second there’s nothing but the small sounds of him swallowing. “Don’t, uh. Don’t go inside – okay?”
Jeff can feel the quick beat of Mike’s pulse, just under the skin and the press of each fingertip, the heat and the tremor. “I remember,” he says.
Mike lets go. He draws one knee up, and Jeff rubs broad circles, the heel of his palm across coarse hair, watching the rise and fall of Mike’s chest. And then he runs a careful finger across Mike’s clit.
Mike holds his breath.
Jeff strokes again, picking up a steady rhythm.
Mike shifts against his fingers, canting his hips and then drawing back.
Jeff pauses. “Do you want me to – ”
Mike has one arm thrown over his eyes. He swallows.
Jeff tries again, lighter, faster.
Mike reaches down, stills his hand. For a second, they’re both motionless, and then he sits up quick, grabbing for his shorts and t-shirt.
Mike hesitates on the edge of the bed, clothing clutched to his stomach.
Too dark to see his face, Jeff still dizzy on the smells of sex and sweat, lost like it was both of them that were teenagers again. And Mike, silent and still. “Mike, are you okay?”
Mike’s shoulders curl a little, and then he straightens. “Of course.” He stands up, pulls his t-shirt on. “Jesus, Carts, if that’s what you do with girls, no wonder nobody ever fucks you more than once.” He shakes his head and then he’s out the door.
“Fuck you, too!” Jeff yells after him.
Between those first games and their time in Philadelphia there were other camps, and they saw each other at the international stuff, too. Often enough for Jeff to recognize Mike’s shoves and eye rolls for what they were, for his place at Jeff’s side to be cemented. Often enough to get used to Mike’s shock and awe tactics. Jeff even started to appreciate the way he played the wrecking ball on the ice – which was much easier to appreciate when it wasn’t Jeff he was taking out. They roomed together for the U18s too, after Mike had said, “It’s cool if we room together, right?” And Jeff shrugged, “Sure.”
Mike had coughed, and it took Jeff a minute to realize that it was out of discomfort. Hands on his bag, bag on the far bed, but hesitating. “They always give me my own room,” Mike said, sounding the tiniest bit embarrassed. “But – I don’t like being different.” Which was the closest he’d ever come to acknowledging that there was any reason to consider him so.
“How’d you convince them this time then?”
Mike kicked at the carpet. “I told them you volunteered.”
Jeff shook his head. Mike: the living incarnation of better to ask forgiveness. “Honestly, I can’t believe you get away with half the shit you do.”
Mike glanced up. “Like what?”
“Like – getting permission to be in the same locker room, sharing hotel rooms. All that stuff.”
Mike snorted. “Please. They always tell me I have to change in a separate room. I just ignore them.”
“Yeah. Oh.” Mike rolled his eyes. “Anyway, once I’m 18 I’ll have surgery and start on T, and then it won’t matter.”
Jeff frowned. “You’re going to have surgery?”
“Duh.” Mike sprawled on the other bed, shorts riding up to reveal long, pale thighs.
Mike rolled onto his side to look at him. “Seriously? So I don’t look like this. Jesus, Carts.” He shook his head.
“Sorry, I just.” Mike always seemed fine with how he looked. Mike always seemed fine about everything. Jeff bit his lip. “I didn’t know you wanted to.”
Mike was quiet for a long time after that. “It’s uh – ”
When Jeff looked over; Mike was tracing absent patterns into the coverlet. “It’s kinda like wearing clothes that don’t fit, except you can’t ever take them off.” He sighed. “Except not really like that at all. I don’t know how to explain it. Sorry.”
Jeff rolled onto his back, a strange little tightness in his chest. “That’s okay.”
Mike shrugged. “I don’t really talk about it a lot.” He paused. “Except for, we’re friends, right?”
They were friends. Jeff grinned up at the ceiling, and then over at Mike.
Mike rolled his eyes. After a beat, “Your stick handling still sucks, though.”
Jeff laughed. “Whatever. I’ve seen your backhand. You’ve got no room to talk.”
It was in that same hotel room – post gold medal buzz, post party, post hugs, post bedlam – that Jeff had stretched out, tried to shake enough of the adrenaline to sleep. Across the room, Mike was stripping out of his clothes. He pulled the t-shirt over his head, and Jeff caught his reflection in the mirror, low gleam of the lamp picking out his skin, the lines of his body.
Mike cleared his throat and Jeff looked away, gaze back on the medal in his hands, turning the disc over and over between his fingers, pleased with how solid it was, with how it stayed real. Mike stepped into the space between the beds, and he said, “Sometimes you look at me.”
Jeff’s hands froze mid-revolution. He could feel his face getting hot. “Sorry.”
It was quiet enough that Jeff could hear the wind outside, snow blowing up against the window, piling in the corners of the frame, and Mike didn’t say anything, but he did crawl onto the bed, straddle Jeff’s hips. No word of warning, just the sudden weight of his body, and Mike leaning down, saying, “This doesn’t mean I’m – this doesn’t mean anything, okay?”
He kissed Jeff, one arm braced next to Jeff’s head, mouth dipping against Jeff’s, getting braver with each touch. The feel of Mike’s tongue against his own, against his teeth a strange, new magic. Mike had let him touch his face, let Jeff run his fingers through Mike’s short hair, curl around his skull. He hissed when Jeff dragged his nails down the nape of his neck, and while they were making out Mike had reached into his shorts, used one hand to get himself off, his hips rocking against Jeff, and smelling like arousal, and moaning into Jeff’s mouth, until Jeff was as hard as he’d ever been and all he could say was, “Please, Mike. Please, please, please” without even being certain what he was asking for, only that something needed to happen, and all the power in the world was concentrated in Mike’s body, every inch demanded attention, and something, some part needed to touch him.
Mike rolled off him far enough for Jeff to get his shorts down and stroked a hand across his erection, his voice thick, “I haven’t ever – you have to tell me – ”
Jeff said, “I haven’t ever, either.” And it felt like all his blood was either in his face or his dick. But he closed a hand around himself, tried to show Mike – and he could feel Mike’s fingers threading through his, replacing his hand. And then he was just whining, fist pressed to his mouth, one hand occasionally reaching down to adjust Mike’s grip, his speed –
That was the first time.
That was the beginning of a triad of relationships: Mike to Jeff. Jeff to Mike’s body. Mike’s body to Mike. And likewise, Jeff to Mike. Mike’s body to Jeff. Mike to his own body, and there was never steady ground: it was all quicksand, all a shifting puzzle. There were places Jeff could touch, and couldn’t touch, or could only sometimes touch. And back home in London or Kenora or Kitchener or the Soo, most of the time they’d gotten themselves off, side by side, desperately quiet in Jeff’s bedroom, or loud in the back of Mike’s car, Jeff getting off on the sounds Mike made, on the flush in his cheeks, on the way he would sometimes climb on top of Jeff, press up against him.
Sometimes Mike would reach down and knock Jeff’s hand away, wrap his own hand around him, Jeff’s dick caught close between their bodies, and jack him until Jeff was wordless, hands grabbing at Mike’s hips, face buried wherever he could hide it.
Even more rare than that, though, were the times Mike would take Jeff’s hand and guide it down between his legs, let Jeff fumble against that slick heat until he finally found a place and a rhythm that made Mike squeeze his eyes shut, lip caught between his teeth. “Don’t stop,” he said. “Don’t stop – ” Until everything under Jeff’s fingers felt flushed and full, and Mike’s body had abruptly trembled and gone still. He’d held on to Jeff after that, not saying anything and eyes still closed, but his fingers gripping tight.
But all that had come later. The first time, in that hotel room, with the uncertain light, and the snow on the window pane, and the gold medal on the bedside table, what Jeff had known was this: 1) Mike Richards and Mike Richards’ body were two separate, but overlapping entities. 2) Mike Richards was a hell of hockey player, no matter what he looked like. 3) Mike Richards was still an asshole, and Jeff was in love.
Mike is as fast as he was at seventeen: up ice, down ice, cross ice.
“Shit,” Mitchie says at practice. “Is it contagious? Could you spit on my knee or something?”
But when they drill corner battles, even though Mike gets there first, it doesn’t take much for Schultz – all 6 foot 6 inches of him – to knock Mike off the puck. Mike glares, takes a one-handed swing at Schultz’ ankle after the whistle. “Fuck.”
Schultzy is wide-eyed, breathing hard. At center ice, Sutter rocks back on his skates, arms crossed. He takes the whistle from his lips. “Go again.”
Schultzy slides to a stop, an uncertain look on his face. “Go again,” Sutter repeats.
By the blue line, Mike slams his stick against the ice.
The second time – Jeff sees it coming as clear as day, and all he can think is oh, fuck. They both come flying in, but Schultz pulls up, digs for the puck more half-hearted than anything.
Mike throws his stick down. “What the fuck?” He says, as Schultz straightens. “You think you’re so good you can half-ass drills now?”
“I – ” Schultz glances back at Sutter, at the rest of the line.
“Fuck you.” Mike flicks off his gloves. “You fucking washout. Not even Florida wanted you.”
Mike usually ran the show, and Mike would push guys – but not like this. Jeff looks over at Sutter, but Sutter’s just watching, mild frown on his face.
“You’re never going to be good enough to step on NHL ice, Schultzy. You’re gonna be back in Manchester fucking ASAP.” Mike shoves Schultz’ chest, sends him sliding back.
Schultz is bright red.
“You fucking pussy – ”
“Richie!” Brown yells out.
“You fucking lazy SOB, no fucking wonder you suck – ” Another hard shove. “Fucking drop them.”
“Richie!” Jeff yells. “Mike!”
Mike finally lets himself drift backwards, still shaking his head. He looks over at the line, and his eyes lock on Jeff’s. “Fuck this,” he says and skates for the tunnel.
Sutter doesn’t send anybody after him.
Mike’s in the weight room when practice ends. By the deep V of sweat staining his shirt, Jeff guess he’s been there the whole time.
Mike grunts coming out of a squat; he catches sight of Jeff in the mirror and the bar drops to his hips, hangs while he glares. “What do you want?”
Jeff leans against the rack. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine,” Mike says, flat.
When they were kids, Mike used to say, “Your stick-handling sucks.” All the time, until it was joke. Your stick handling sucks. Your stick handling sucks. Your stick handling sucks. But that was just the first half of it.
Mike used to say, “Your stick handling sucks, but I’ll help you work on it.”
Mike used to say, “How can you not know how to drive a stick? Get out, switch place with me, I’ll show you.”
Mike used to say, “You’re such a fucking weirdo, Carts. I’m glad there are two of us.”
“Mike,” Jeff says, words like shards, all caught in his throat, thinking about Mike all alone, and Mike slamming doors, and Mike making everything harder. Mike Richards against the world. “I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for me too, I – ”
“It’s hard for you?” Mike cuts him off, meeting his eyes in the mirror. His gaze has gone sharp. “Hard for you? Oh, yeah.” He shakes his head. “Being 6’4”? Being told your whole life of course you’re going to play hockey? Being in exactly the body you’re supposed to be in? Of course. Of course, it must be so hard for you.”
Mike’s eyes are red, and he’s not looking at Jeff anymore. He’s watching his own reflection. “I worked so hard not to look like this.”
Jeff’s throat is closing on him. “It’s temporary. It’s going to come back.”
And it was so foreign – that gleam in Mike’s eyes, the blinking, so utterly unexpected the way Mike dropped his head to scrub one hand quick across his face – that by the time Jeff could say anything, Mike had brushed past him. Mike was gone.
In all their years together, Mike never cried.
He got mad, sure. He got pissed. But he got mad like he was glad for the excuse. A snarl that was half grin, one hand spinning, like yeah yeah yeah, keep talking to the chirpers. And even when he was punching faces, he did it with more smirk than rage. Off the ice, he put up with all the dumb articles. And while he snapped at the reporters plenty, it was never about that. When that came up, Mike would just pin his eyes on a far corner of the room and say a firm, “Next question.”
Mike never cried. Or technically, Mike almost never cried – in the same way the sun almost never imploded. Meteors almost never flattened the earth. In a way that made you think surely the world was ending when he did.
Their first year in Philly, they played a game against Boston (a blowout, the highlight of which was Mike trading punches with Paul Mara after they’d screamed at each other all game – and Mike was probably better than half the players on the ice, better than Jeff for sure, but he always had to punch more faces than Jeff, always had to have an edge that Jeff didn’t). And after, Mike disappeared. Gone and out of the building before Jeff had even finished dressing.
His car, though, was still parked in the far corner of the lot. And he could see Mike, his hands on the wheel, his head bowed. Jeff crunched through shitty, gray mid-Atlantic snow, crossing in and out of the pools of light. He tapped on the window. For a second, Mike didn’t move. Jeff stamped his feet, trying to get the blood flowing. “Come on, Mike, open up. It’s cold out here.”
Mike didn’t look at him, but he unlocked the doors.
Jeff walked around the car and let himself in the passenger side. Inside, Mike’s eyes were red and swollen. Tear tracks clear on his face, distinct and shocking. “Jesus.” Jeff said. “What’s wrong?”
“Was it something Mara said?”
When Mike didn’t answer, Jeff cleared his throat. “If you don’t tell me, I’m just going to assume it was Mara, and then I’m going to pick a fight with him next time we play, and I’m going to get the shit kicked out of me, and it’s going to be all your fault – ”
Mike choked out a little laugh. “No. God no, don’t do that.”
Jeff smiled back at him. “Then what’s up?”
Mike looked down at his hands, shrugged again. “Knuble – ” Then he stopped.
Jeff frowned. Knuble was a vet. Knuble was second in goals and third in penalty minutes. Knubes was as old school as they came, but had never so much as blinked at the idea of Mike on the ice or in the dressing room. Mike thought Knuble hung the stars up in the sky. “What about Knubes?”
Mike swallowed. “It’s stupid.” He knocked his hand against the steering wheel. He shook his head, still breathing too fast, and for a minute Jeff thought that was all he was going to say. But then Mike sighed, let his head fall back against the head rest, looking abruptly exhausted. “Knubes was chirping Mara after the game. He said – he said, ‘How’s it feel to get beaten up by a girl?’” Mike shrugged. “Are people ever going to stop thinking about me like that?”
Jeff at nineteen didn’t have answer for that. He still doesn’t.
Mike texts him that night, I called Schultzy.
And a second later, I apologized.
Good, Jeff sends back.
There’s a pause and then, will you come over and cook for me?
You better have real food , Jeff sends, and then he grabs his keys.
Mike doesn’t say much at dinner, just a quick, “I know I fucked up today.”
Jeff shrugs. “It’s okay.”
“This wasn’t fun the first time.” Mike’s picking at his food, fork chasing his vegetables around the plate.
“I know,” Jeff says. “I was there.”
At seventeen, Jeff was exhausted and homesick and confused and horny all the goddamn time. And Mike had all of that and more. Jeff remembers the paperwork it took to get him into the WJCs, remembers his hours in the weight room, working twice as hard to get half as far. Remembers Mike with blood on his face. Remembers Mike focused like a laser on the NHL, how he never once blinked.
But part of seventeen will always be the feeling of Mike next to him on the best hockey team in the world, and the half-breathless twist in his chest when Mike smiled at him, and his warm skin, his heart beating quick, feeling deceptively, perilously close to the surface. And Mike pressing him back against cheap hotel sheets and car upholstery. The way Mike’s face had felt under his hands.
Jeff says, “I was really in love with you. At seventeen.”
Mike sets his fork down, but he doesn’t look up. “I know.” He doesn’t sound surprised.
Mike is such a fucking idiot, and Jeff loved him. Loved this exact person sitting in front of him, would have moved heaven and earth just to get him smile. All that’s pressing down on him, the creeping press of all those words in his throat, that he has to get out, he needs to get out, because – “What if, Mike, what if that’s why this happened? What if it was supposed to be you and me?” Because it’s always been Mike. Mike like this, or Mike like he was, and why should it matter? “I still – the way that I feel about you, I don’t feel like that about anybody else – ”
“Jeff.” Mike’s shaking his head. He looks up and his eyes are wide and dark, and that’s the worst part – that he’s looking at Jeff with such a terrible, gentle kindness. “Jeff, you’re gonna find that girl. But, I can’t. I’m not that girl.” He pauses. “I’m not any kind of girl.”
“Mike – that’s not – ”
“You’re not gay,” Mike says, voice firm. “You like girls.”
Jeff likes girls who look like boys, and sometimes, if he’s honest, boys who look like girls. Jeff likes blondes – and it’s a relief to know that at least some of his sexual yearning can’t be traced back to Mike. But Jeff likes the way Mike’s hair curls at the nape of his neck, his voice, and his sarcasm. His loyalty and his stupid, headlong bravery. “I like you.” Over ten years and almost 600 games together. “I love you.”
Mike holds his gaze, steady. “I’m not gay.”
That hurts sharp and cold, up inside Jeff’s chest. “You got into bed with me.”
Mike looks skyward, mumbling. “Shit. I knew that was a bad idea.”
“Oh, you knew that was a bad idea?” It’s hard to breathe, Jeff is so suddenly, viciously angry. “I know you, Mike. I fucking know you, I know when you’re lying – ”
“Look, I’m in this fucked up body – the last thing I need is to be gay too.” Loud. Loud enough to scare the dog. Loud enough that the silence after rings, stretches out.
Jeff can feel the muscles of his jaw, tight and trembling. “I don’t think your body’s fucked up.”
Mike doesn’t say anything. This time it’s Jeff that leaves.
They skate in the mornings, keeping up an icy, professional distance. On the plane, Jeff escapes into his headphones, in the games, into adrenaline, and afterward into the privacy of a hotel room, or his house, or a bar where no one knows him and no one will ask.
It takes Mike five days to catch up with him, cornering him in the tiny confines of the stick room. Maybe Jeff should be flattered: Mike’s let him sulk weeks before. “You’ve been avoiding me.”
Jeff sets the stick down, pulls out the next one bearing his number and inspects the curve, runs his thumb along the edge.
Mike huffs one of his irritated sighs. “I don’t know what you want. Do you want me to leave you alone?”
Jeff snorts. “Well, I’ve been in a pretty shitty mood lately, so maybe you should.”
Mike’s lips purse. “Fine. So you’re pissed.” He kicks at the butt end of the stick in Jeff’s hands, jostling it. “We had an argument. I yelled. We fight all the time, so what?” Mike’s version of an apology.
Jeff swallows. “I’m not avoiding you because we had an argument.”
“Okay.” Exaggerated expression like he’s humoring Jeff. “Why are you avoiding me?”
Like he really and truly doesn’t get it. Jeff sets the stick carefully down, turns to look at Mike, who looks up at him, eyebrows furrowed and jaw set. “I’m avoiding you,” Jeff says very slowly, “because I told my best friend that I was in love with him, and he said he doesn’t love me back.”
Mike looks away, mouth twisting. “Jeff – you don’t – ”
Jeff grabs him and shoves him back. It’s easier than he was expecting; Mike hits the wall harder than Jeff intended, both of them breathing quick. It’s almost impossible to speak, like trying to talk and run a marathon.
Mike finds his voice first, his eyes huge looking up at Jeff. “When I look like me again, you’re not going to feel like this.”
Jeff tightens his grip on that too-thin shoulder. He can feel the bones under the skin and warm, flushed muscle, and if he squeezes hard enough Mike will set his jaw, and Mike will grit his teeth, but he won’t ever say it hurts. “I never told you what to be,” Jeff gets out. “I never told you who you were.” Jeff swallows hard. “Don’t tell me how I feel.”
There’s a sharp, strange glitter in Mike’s eyes. “Don’t want me like this,” he says. “Please. Please, don’t want me like this – ”
“You really think I want you because you look like this? Really?”
Mike’s breathing hard. Jeff pulls him close, until Mike is pressed against him, until he can wrap his arms around him, breathe against the crown of his head. Jeff closes his eyes. “I just want you.”
For a minute, Mike doesn’t say anything, his hands caught in the fabric of Jeff’s shirt, his body tucked against Jeff. And then his grip loosens, and his hands flatten against Jeff’s chest, and he presses back, presses away. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
The room smells like sawdust and the cellophane they use to pack the sticks in, and just on the other side of the wall, Jeff can hear snatches of conversation and footsteps and lives uninterrupted and oblivious and maybe that’s perfect, because after all, every heartbreak really is invisible.
Jeff arrived in Kenora as if it was any other visit, as if there were no justification behind it other than the end of the season, an empty stretch, and the strange combination of new freedom and lack of obligations that came from being eighteen.
Mike was waiting for him when he got there, a nervous smile flickering across his face. He grabbed Jeff’s bag and rushed him through the house, out to the guest room above the boathouse that Jeff usually stayed in when he visited. Jeff watched Mike’s hands, twisting the straps into knots. “Hey. So.”
From downstairs, Mike’s mom yelled, “Was that Jeff? Did he get here?”
Mike’s eyes squeeze shut, a familiar line of irritation across his forehead. “Yeah,” Mike yelled back.
“Well bring him up to the house, then! There’s dinner!”
Mike looked at him and shrugged.
Dinner had an edge to it – not just Mike, who jittered through the meal, eyes down on his plate, but his mother, whose voice was strained when she asked Jeff about his summer plans. Mike’s father kept silent, and his brother’s eyes darted back and forth. Mike to his dad. His dad to his mom. Back to Mike.
Mike pushed away from the table at the first opportunity. “You wanna go upstairs?”
Jeff shrugged. “Sure.”
Mike’s father, two scotches in, frowned. “Emily – ”
Everyone froze, even Jeff, half out of his seat. Mike set his jaw.
His father cleared his throat. “Mike,” he said and paused. “Clear the table before you go.”
Upstairs, Mike’s room was the same barely controlled chaos as ever, a mess of clothing and draped hockey gear. But now there was a pile of small boxes on the desk, a bag of syringes and a stack of pamphlets with titles like Synthetic Testosterone And You. Jeff picked one up. “Is it – do you feel any different?”
Mike swept the pile to the side. “No. I don’t know. Maybe. It’s only been a week.” He shrugged. “I didn’t want to start until the season ended.”
Jeff nodded, not sure what else to say. “And your appointment’s – ”
“Tuesday.” Five days. That was why Jeff was here now, and not later. “Are you still gonna be able to go to the draft?”
Mike nodded. “And – the doctor said I can start training again in a month. If everything goes okay.”
The night before Jeff left, Mike followed him out to the boathouse. He sat on the edge of the bed, and looked up at him. Jeff sat down next to him, placed a cautious arm around his shoulders, half-anticipating Mike to shrug him off. But Mike leaned into him, tipped his head up, and brought Jeff’s face down to his, kissing him softer than Jeff was used to. Slower.
They stretched out together, their legs tangled. Mike pulled their clothes off slow, and when he was a long line of skin and heat against Jeff’s side, he had kissed the corner of Jeff’s mouth, and said, “So I guess this is the last time we do this, huh?”
Jeff blinked, startled into stillness. “I – ”
Mike kissed him again. “Look it’s just – it’s all going to be fine, okay?” His mouth covering Jeff’s again. “Can we just pretend everything is normal?”
He tucked himself against Jeff, head on his chest, Jeff’s arm curled around him. Still enough, quiet enough to hear the water below and the breeze, and the crickets starting up. “Are you scared?” Jeff asked.
Mike didn’t respond. There wasn’t enough light left to see Mike’s face, but Jeff could feel his throat work, the flex of his fingers, gripping tight. Jeff looked up. “I’d be scared,” Jeff told the ceiling.
Mike squeezed his arm. Hard.
“So if you are… just don’t say anything.” Jeff rubbed circles into his back. “And if you aren’t, don’t say anything either. I’ll just know, okay?” Outside there was a chorus, the sound of water, the last of the day slipping away. Jeff curved an arm tighter around him. Held on.
When Mike looks like Mike again, he celebrates by buying rounds after their game against Tampa. He looks loose. He smiles. He sweet-talks the blonde waitress into doing shots with them. He lets her sit on his lap, but in the bar bathroom, he crowds Jeff up against the door. “I told you,” he says, and his words are just a little slurred, eyes just a little unfocused. “I told you you wouldn’t want me like this.”
He’s so close, it’s easy for Jeff to hold his flushed face in his hands, to drag his thumbs across Mike’s cheek bones. Mike closes his eyes, stretches up to kiss him.
He tastes like alcohol. Jeff tips his head, presses his mouth to Mike’s jaw, kisses the rough five-o-clock shadow. Bends down to kiss his shoulder, all that hard-won muscle. He runs his hands over Mike’s chest, where under his shirt are scars: the faded traces of accidents and injuries and the deliberate lines marking out what is and what was and isn’t anymore. All the marks the world leaves. “You’ve always been a guy to me. And I’ve always loved you.” He can hear Mike’s unsteady breathing, feel the thump of his pulse. “But you won’t let me.” He drags his mouth across Mike’s lips again. “Why won’t you let me?”
It’s hard to look at him, and Mike’s hands chase after him, just for a split second before falling away.
Jeff lets go.