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I Love the Riddles That You Speak

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Taylor has always known better than to tell his teammates he’s gay.

He hesitates about it a little when Ebs texts him about living together on the day of the draft. He doesn’t hesitate about the yes—sends that text embarrassingly fast—but later that night, after all the parents and grandparents and other assorted relatives are done taking him to dinner and he’s alone in his hotel room, he wonders if maybe there’s another text he should send.

It’s not like he’s being dishonest by not sending it, though. He and Ebs have never actually talked about liking girls, so he’s never lied about it. And—Ebs might look at him differently, if he knew. He might not let Taylor flop down next to him on the couch like Taylor is already picturing doing, in an apartment where both of them live. Which would be stupid, because it’s not like Taylor’s into Ebs. So it shouldn’t matter.

He puts his phone back on the night table and turns off the light. He’ll just keep it from being a problem, and then Ebs won’t need to know.

***

Having his own apartment is awesome. Not that he and Ebs are very good at the whole adult thing yet, but they know how to cook KD and Ebs can even do laundry and they’re playing in the NHL. If that’s not an adult thing, Taylor doesn’t know what is.

It’s still kind of weird being on his own sometimes, though. That’s when it’s good to have Ebs there.

They go shopping for a couch together. Other stuff can wait, but they both agree that a couch is essential. “Where else will we sit to play video games?” Ebs asks, and Taylor knew there was a reason they were friends.

“We should maybe get this one,” he says, looking at a big black one shaped like an L. “It looks kind of—grown-up, you know?”

“Plus, dude.” Ebs’ eyes go wide as he pushes back on one of the recliners at the end. “Look what it can do!”

Taylor giggles. Yeah, this is the couch.

He hands over his credit card for it. He still hasn’t gotten over that: they have money now, and they can just buy things and put them on their cards. Not too much stuff—his mom gave him that lecture, and how much does he really need, anyway?—but he can see this kickass couch and then buy it.

“Hang on, how come you’re buying it?” Ebs asks.

“Too slow,” Taylor says as the girl runs his credit card. Then Ebs looks bummed out, so Taylor says, “You’ll just have to buy me a bunch of dinners or something,” and Ebs brightens up, and then Taylor feels awesome because it’s like he’s treating someone. To a couch.

It feels even better when they have the couch at home and the two of them kick back in the recliners and start an epic NHL 11 battle. Taylor, like, dominates, except then Ebs is a dirty cheater, and they end up wrestling for the controllers. On the couch, which is insanely comfortable, so, win.

The wrestling loses steam after a while and they end up just sort of lying on top of each other. It’s lazy and a little bit sweaty and awesome. It’s the kind of thing Taylor pictured when he imagined being in an apartment with just Ebs: the two of them bumming around with no sense of personal boundaries. He’s really glad Ebs doesn’t seem weird about it or anything.

Ebs butts Taylor in the arm with his scratchy chin. Taylor grins and shoves Ebs’ face into the cushions.

***

Taylor’s a grownup now and everything, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to object when his mom wants to come up for the weekend before training camp. His mom is awesome. And it turns out he and Ebs only have three forks and one broken spoon between them, so.

His mom drags them to Home Goods and makes them buy all sorts of shit, and then she won’t let them go sit on the couch until they put it all away in the kitchen and the hall closet. Taylor thinks it would have been fine if it had stayed in bags for a couple of weeks, but whatever, the kitchen does look better now.

“Dude, your mom is awesome,” Ebs says when she’s out of the room.

Taylor grins. His mom has always been awesome. “Better than yours,” he says, and Ebs shoves him and they go back and forth a bit, until Taylor’s foot slips on a shopping bag and he almost falls over and his mom comes back into the room to give him a look.

She hugs him for a really long time before she leaves the next day. “I can’t believe you’re going to be living here on your own,” she says.

Taylor shifts uncomfortably. He’s not, like, embarrassed by his mom or anything, but—Ebs is standing right there. And he’s a grownup now. “Not alone,” he mumbles.

“I know, I just wish I knew you’d be safe.” She pulls back and squeezes his arms.

She says this like every time he leaves. Taylor doesn’t get this about parents. Obviously he’s going to be safe. “Nothing’s going to happen.”

“Of course not, it’s just…” She frowns. “You know what they say about Edmonton.”

It takes him a minute to remember what they say about Edmonton. Then he laughs. “Mom. It’s not like I’m going to run into a wolf on the streets of the city. I think they, like, stay out in the wilderness and stuff.”

She looks unconvinced. “Just make sure you and Jordan stick together when you go out, okay?”

Taylor basically wants to die. He can see Ebs shifting his weight awkwardly out of the corner of his eye. “I promise,” Taylor mumbles, looking anywhere but at Ebs.

He braces himself for chirping after she leaves, but Ebs doesn’t say anything about it. He just, like, putters around the kitchen until Taylor has to throw a pillow at him from the couch. It’s their last day before training camp starts; they can’t waste it on not playing video games. “Hey. Loser. Come over here and get your ass kicked.”

“With an offer like that.” Ebs elbows Taylor out of his seat—Ebs got to choose first, because he’s the oldest—and flops down next to him.

***

Taylor wakes up the next morning to drops of water hitting his face.

He’s totally confused for a moment—like, did he accidentally fall asleep outside?—before he opens his eyes and sees Ebs there, a cup of water in his hands and a huge grin on his face.

“You non,” Taylor says, lunging at him.

The water gets spilled all over the floor in the wrestling match that follows, and neither of them has time to shower before camp, but Taylor wins, so it’s worth it.

***

Part of being on an actual NHL team is hanging out in bars. Taylor’s been looking forward to this part. He drank plenty in juniors, but that was always, like, in someone’s basement, or at a party if someone’s billet parents let them host. Now they can actually buy alcohol in public, even Taylor.

“Fuck, we’re in an actual bar,” he says to Ebs one of the first nights they all go out, when he’s lost track of how many beers he’s had. “How awesome is this?”

Ebs nods solemnly. “I think I’m going to throw up,” he says.

Taylor ends up holding Ebs’ head while he throws up in the bathroom. Ebs doesn’t need someone to hold his hair back, not like Taylor’s cousin Lily did when they snuck those wine coolers last summer at the family reunion, but he’s kind of wobbling all over the place and Taylor doesn’t want him to, like, hit his head on the toilet and die. Plus, it always makes Taylor feel better if someone puts their hand on the back of his neck while he’s throwing up.

Taylor puts his hand on the back of Ebs’ neck, and it’s kind of sweaty and gross. He holds on anyway. He thinks about letting go when Ebs is done, but Ebs is still unsteady, so Taylor leaves his hand there. “Dude, you reek,” he tells Ebs.

“It’s even worse from over here,” Ebs says, and that seems fair. Ebs is a lot closer to himself, after all.

They try to drink less after that. It’s just good sense. They’re professional athletes, after all.

It’s still fun to be out with the guys, laughing at Khabi’s weird deadpan humor and letting everyone tease them for being the rookies. When Taylor scores his first NHL goal, Hemmy buys him shots of, like, some god-awful Czech whiskey, and the face Ebs makes when Taylor gets him to down one of the shots is almost as good as the goal.

Gags plops down across from him one night in early November, a week or so before Taylor’s birthday, when they’ve just lost to the Red Wings and everyone’s trying to drown their sorrows. “Okay, kid, time for the scoring talk.”

Taylor doesn’t need a scoring talk. He got a goal that night. The only goal of a 3-1 loss, but still.

Gags’ grin sharpens when he says that. “Exactly. So it’s a perfect night for it.”

Taylor doesn’t get what he’s talking about until Gags looks over his shoulder and wiggles his eyebrows. Taylor turns around to look—it’s just the bar, nothing special going on—and then he sees the pair of girls giggling and shooting glances their way. His cheeks get hot.

“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Gags says. “You can’t just blush and duck when a girl is looking at you. You have to seize the moment! Talk the talk!”

“They’re probably just fans,” Taylor mumbles.

“It’s Edmonton,” Gags says. “Everyone’s either a fan, or they hate us.” He pauses. “Or both. A surprising amount of the time it’s both.”

Fuck. Taylor’s been avoiding this so far. There were some girls in juniors—friends of friends he made out with at parties, just to make sure people saw him. He could maybe do that here. But no—this is the NHL. He’s probably supposed to take a girl home.

“Come on, I’m starting to be worried about your health,” Gags says, and Taylor forces a laugh and gets out of the booth and heads toward the bar.

He runs into Ebs before he gets there. Ebs is carrying a beer in each hand. “You want one?” Ebs says.

Taylor takes a beer, but he also blurts out, “Gags wants me to talk to those girls.”

Fuck, he probably sounds like a loser. But Ebs just says, “Which girls?”

Taylor gestures over Ebs’ shoulder. Ebs turns and looks at them, then back at Taylor. “So? Are you gonna do it?”

“I guess,” Taylor says, but he doesn’t move. It seems safer having Ebs’ body between himself and them.

Ebs watches him not move for a long minute, and then he says, “Okay, come on.”

It’s easier, walking over there with Ebs beside him. Taylor still isn’t sure what he’s going to do when he gets over there, but—

“Haaaaave you met Taylor?” Ebs says to one of the girls, and she giggles.

“What is this, How I Met Your Mother?”

“Yes,” Ebs says seriously. “Taylor is going to be the mother of your children.”

She giggles again and holds out her hand. Taylor shakes it and gives her the biggest smile he can manage.

Laura is a hockey fan, it turns out, and so is her friend. That makes it a lot easier, because Taylor can talk to them about hockey without having to think about how they’re girls. They watched the game tonight, so Taylor gets to feel cool about scoring a goal.

“Don’t get too excited, though, he probably won’t get any more of them,” Ebs says, and Taylor has to shove him away with a hand to the face.

“You’re cute,” Laura says to Taylor, when Ebs is talking to her friend.

Taylor’s stomach seizes up with something that’s not quite the same as excitement. He ducks his head and grins to hide it. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She swings her leg and brushes her foot against his calf. “You wanna dance?”

“Um.” No; except, yes, he does, right? “Sure.”

He feels so awkward going over to the dance floor with Laura’s hand in his. He feels like everyone’s gonna know—like someone’s going to stop him and be like, hang on, you’re not really attracted to her, go sit down. But no one can tell. No one knows. He’s fine.

Laura puts her hands on his arms, and he puts his hands on her hips, and—and they’re dancing.

It’s not awful. It’s fine. Taylor’s not, like, a bad dancer or anything. Probably. The only bad part is where he tries to figure out how close he’s supposed to get, and whether he’s supposed to touch her anywhere else, and that makes his heart beat too fast and his stomach squirm.

“Do you do this a lot?” she asks.

“Um, not really,” he says, and she smiles at him, so he guesses that’s okay.

She has dimples when she smiles. She’s kind of cute, Taylor guesses. Her boobs are, like, sort of visible over the top of her sparkly shirt. He tries to feel something, the way he used to try to feel something when the other guys would pass around magazines that were wrinkled on their favorite pages. But it never worked then, either.

The guys are probably watching. Gags definitely is, and maybe Ebs. He just needs to, like—he needs to do something.

He pulls Laura closer. He can feel her take a second to go with it, and then she relaxes into his touch a little and rubs against his thigh. And he closes his eyes and thinks: A guy in my arms—a guy who wants me to touch him—

He’s never actually felt that, but the thought of it sends a spark to his gut. His blood is coursing hot by the time he and Laura start kissing. Taylor keeps his eyes shut, and he can’t quite forget who he’s actually kissing, but he forgets enough that it’s startling when he pulls back and sees her eyeshadow and smeared lip gloss.

His stomach feels weird, looking at her like this and thinking that he was just kissing her. The kind of weird that makes him want to give some excuse and go back to his table. But she’s still pressed against him, and the guys are probably watching, and—and he doesn’t want to have to do this all over again, another night.

He leans in close to her ear. “Did you want to, um.”

There’s a pause before she answers, and he has a wild flare of hope that she’ll say no. But then she just says, “Yeah, you want to come to mine?”

His fingers are drumming against the side of his pants while they wait for a cab. Laura is next to him, dimples popping when he catches her eye, and he’s not sure how some people just…do this, all the time. His heart is racing so badly she can probably hear it, and he’s soaked through the armpits of his shirt.

“So, the Blackhawks next,” she says. “Taking on the reigning Cup champions, huh?”

“Yeah,” he says weakly, and he and Ebs spent a solid ten minutes tonight bad-mouthing the Blackhawks’ offense, but he can’t come up with a single thing to say.

It smells like cigarette smoke in the cab, like the driver smokes in there when there are no passengers. “It’s not very far,” Laura tells Taylor when she’s given the driver the address.

She’s sitting a really awkward distance away—like, close enough for him to be nervous that she might touch him, but not close enough that they’re just touching already and he doesn’t have to think about. “Do you think we could open a window or something?” Taylor asks.

They don’t say a lot on the ride, probably because Taylor can’t keep a conversation going. He knows it’s rude, but he’s too busy thinking through what comes next. They’ll get to her place, and then he’ll pay the cab driver, and they’ll go inside, and—and they’ll have sex. Will they have sex right away? Or will she expect him to, like, talk, or watch a movie or something first? He kind of hopes they go straight to the sex, because at this point he just wants to get it over with. Except what if he messes it up? He can probably get it up okay; he’s eighteen, and he has a lot of porn to draw on. But he doesn’t really know how the rest of it’s supposed to go, except, like, putting it inside of her. What if he’s supposed to touch her in other ways? What if there are ways he’s supposed to act that, like, show he’s into her, and he doesn’t do them, and she calls him on it, and—

“Hey, are you okay?” she asks.

Taylor’s breathing really hard, and his hands are jammed under his thighs because they won’t stop shaking. “I don’t think I can do this,” he says.

“Oh,” she says, surprised, and pulls her hand back from where it was reaching towards him.

It’s a relief when the cab finally drops her off.

“Where to?” the driver asks, a smirk in his voice, and Taylor feels his cheeks burn as he gives his address.

Except—he can’t go home, can he, because what if Ebs comes home? Ebs probably knows when Taylor left with Laura, and he definitely knows that this wasn’t long enough to have sex, and—fuck.

“Um,” Taylor says, voice cracking a little. “Could you actually drop me off at the store on the corner?”

The lady behind the counter looks up as Taylor slinks into the convenience store. He hunches his shoulders and reads stupid celebrity gossip in People and pretends to be interested until enough time has gone by.

Ebs is home when he gets back. Taylor is so relieved to be—he doesn’t know: home, normal, with Ebs instead of girls who want him to fuck them—that he gives him a smile as soon as he comes in the door.

Ebs looks kind of tense, like maybe he’s thinking about the game tonight or something, but he looks up when Taylor comes in. His expression changes, goes all confused for a moment, and then: “You didn’t sleep with her.”

The smile falls off Taylor’s face. “What are you talking about? Of course I did.”

“No,” Ebs says. Now he’s kind of smiling a little. “You didn’t. You didn’t sleep with her.”

Taylor takes an automatic step back. His pulse is going rabbit-speed. Ebs knows; Ebs can see; Ebs can—except, no. Ebs can’t know. Taylor hasn’t done anything to give himself away.

“Dude,” he says, going for a laugh. “You are so crazy.”

Ebs’ face is lit up now, like he’s laughing at Taylor, and he’s coming towards him. “Oh my God. Did you just, like, leave her at her place without even going in?”

“Of course not.” Taylor backs up a step and hits the front door. “What the fuck are you even talking about?”

“You didn’t hook up with her,” Ebs says again, and he’s close now, close enough that panic flutters up Taylor’s chest and into his throat. Ebs closes a hand around Taylor’s wrist, and—

“Get the fuck off me,” Taylor says, and shoves Ebs back. There’s a moment where they stare at each other, and then Taylor shoulders his way past him and over to the mat where they keep their shoes. He undoes his laces, breathing hard.

“Sorry,” Ebs says behind him, subdued. “I didn’t mean…”

“I’m going to bed,” Taylor says, and goes.

***

It takes a few minutes in his own room for his heart to go back to a normal speed. Then he just feels sick.

Everything is fucked up now. He and Ebs never fight, not like that, and now Ebs thinks…Taylor doesn’t even know what Ebs thinks. But it’s all twisted up and wrong now.

It’s not, like—it’s not really Taylor’s fault. Ebs was the one being weird. But the longer Taylor lies on his bed, the less he cares about that, and the more he just wants it all to go away.

He gets up after a while and goes down the hall toward the bathroom. He has to pass by Ebs’ room on the way, and, well. That’s just where the bathroom is. Taylor’s not planning on anything.

The door to Ebs’ room is open, though. Ebs is lying on his bed in the dark, laptop on his stomach playing some show. He doesn’t say anything when Taylor stops in the doorway, but he does look up.

Taylor fiddles with his pajama cuffs. “I’m sorry,” he says.

There’s a pause, and then Ebs huffs a laugh. “You don’t have to be sorry. I mean, I was kind of a dick.”

“Yeah, but I—I don’t know. I’m just sorry.”

“Me, too,” Ebs says, and it’s such a relief that Taylor wants to smile. He doesn’t, though. He doesn’t want it to be weird.

They’re silent for a moment, and Taylor shifts his weight a little. There’s a burst of theme song from the laptop. “How I Met Your Mother?” Taylor asks.

Ebs grins sheepishly. “I got inspired. You wanna watch?”

“Yeah,” Taylor says, and now he does smile, because this feels normal again.

They could definitely go into the living room to watch, but Ebs is already in bed, and—Taylor slides in next to him. “Dude, your sheets are freezing.”

“Maybe you’re just a wimp.” Ebs shifts the laptop so that it’s between them, keeping them apart. Taylor’s pulse blips for a moment, wondering if that’s intentional—if Ebs knows now—but no. Ebs can’t know. Whatever he thinks about the thing with Laura, he doesn’t know.

They watch the episode with the slutty pumpkin and then the one where Ted and Marshall fight a duel over the apartment. “We would totally do that,” Ebs says.

“Mm,” Taylor says, blinking heavily. All the adrenaline of tonight is catching up with him. “But with, like, hockey sticks.”

“I would win.”

“You would not.” Taylor smacks a hand in his direction and ends up hitting the comforter. “You would just break everything.”

“You’d better not try to move out, then.”

Taylor hides his grin in the pillow.

They reach the end of the episode, and Netflix does the thing where it asks if they’re still watching. Taylor would click yes, but he’s having trouble keeping his eyes open. He’s not actually even sure it was the end of the episode. He might have zoned out for a minute there.

Ebs doesn’t hit the button, either. They just lie there, the building making its soft humming nighttime noises around them. Ebs’ pillow is soft, and it smells like their laundry detergent, and Taylor feels like he has little lead weights all along his body. It’s nice.

He should go to bed. Instead he keeps lying there in the bubble of quiet, listening to Ebs’ soft breathing a couple of feet away, and then he opens his mouth and says, “You were right tonight.”

There’s a moment of silence from Ebs. Taylor isn’t sure he’s awake, and he isn’t sure he wants him to be. But then Ebs says, “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Taylor says, and he feels like he’s going over a cliff: stomach clenching, about to fall, no way to stop. “I didn’t sleep with her.”

More silence. Then a rustling, like Ebs is turning over. Turning towards him, maybe. “Why not?”

There’s a true answer, one that Taylor isn’t going to say. He swallows around the metallic taste in his mouth. “I haven’t ever done that,” he says instead, and that’s true a true answer, too—true enough to catch in his throat as it comes out. “I guess I sort of…freaked out.”

“Oh,” Ebs says, soft in the darkness, and Taylor’s stomach unclenches a bit, because that’s so much better than it could have been. He takes in a deep breath of pillow-smell and tries to relax. It’s Ebs. It’s not like he’s going to say anything awful.

“It’s not really…scary,” Ebs says. “But yeah. It is, like. Kind of a big thing, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Taylor says in relief. He closes his eyes, and like this, it might as well be absolute dark, no glow of the laptop screen or anything. Just him and Ebs, suspended in space. “Did you, um, on your first time. Were you scared?”

Ebs laughs, just a soft exhale. “No. I was drunk.”

“Oh.” Taylor was kind of drunk tonight. A little. Not a lot. But Ebs wouldn’t have to be as drunk as Taylor would to want to have sex with a girl. “So…it was good?”

“Yeah.” There’s a smile in Ebs’ voice. “She was this friend of my cousin’s. We were at this party, and she kept looking at me, and…fuck, she smelled amazing.”

Taylor inhales shakily. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Ebs’ voice is dreamy, like he’s remembering. “I kept meeting her eyes across the room, like every time I looked over, and—I mean, you know what it feels like to be into someone.”

Taylor does. It feels kind of like this: little tingles all over his body, warmth that starts in his throat and rolls down to the bottom of his gut. “Was it easy? Making it happen?”

“Kinda.” The bed creaks as Ebs shifts. “We started talking, and then we started dancing, and, I don’t know. She was super into it, so I kissed her, and she just, like, pushed her body against mine. It was fucking amazing.”

It’s so easy to picture it. “And that was—that was it?”

“Well,” Ebs says with a laugh, “she was already grinding up on my dick, so it’s not like we had far to go, you know?”

Taylor bites his lip to keep from making a sound. His own dick is throbbing against his pajama bottoms, and he would touch it, if he were alone. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

They lie there in silence for a few minutes, Taylor trying to control his breathing. He tries to ignore his cock, too, but he can feel the fabric of his pajama pants rough against the head and it’s just enough to keep him hard.

He wants Ebs to say more things. Tell him everything. But he doesn’t know how to ask for that.

“Well,” he says after a while. His mouth is dry. “I guess it’s pretty late.”

“Yeah,” Ebs says, a puff of air, and Taylor rolls out of the bed. He’s lucky the lights are off, because otherwise Ebs would be getting an eyeful of the tent in his pants.

“Goodnight,” he says, and flees for his own room.

He ends up flat on his back in his bed, fist working over his cock. His hand is slick with lotion, the head of his cock slick with precome, and he keeps picturing it. Ebs kissing this girl, Ebs pushing her up against the wall, Ebs’ cock sliding into her as his mouth drops open…

Taylor comes all over his fist.