Jonathan Toews is fourteen years and twenty-eight minutes old the night he sells his soul.
Maybe he should have reservations about it, but none come to mind as he stands at the crossroads. He’s pretty sure his parents would kill him if they knew he’d taken his bike out at 2 AM and ridden six miles into the country, even without knowing what he was doing it for.
The only thing he really thinks about is the pity on his friends’ faces as they sat down for cake and nachos in the concessions area of the ice rink. He doesn’t care if it’s his birthday – they shouldn’t have let him win. He should be good enough to beat them. It’s all he’s wanted in his life, more than tae kwon do or soccer or any other sport his parents have tried to foist off on him over the years. None of them have been hockey.
So he stands in the unseasonably warm April night, steady and waiting, because this has to work. Something has to happen.
And then he sees the boy.
Johnny doesn’t know what he was expecting – something with horns and a tail, maybe, or a beautiful woman in a red dress, something obviously out of place. But the kid is around his age, with a mess of curly blond hair, and he’s wearing a denim jacket and a t-shirt that reads, “Non-flammable? CHALLENGE ACCEPTED” across the chest. He looks like he might have wandered out of a farmhouse down the road, except for how he kind of just appeared out of nowhere. And how he’s smiling at Johnny like he knows exactly what Johnny was thinking about.
“Jonathan Toews,” the kid says. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“How did you,” he begins, because he hasn’t even taken the little box with a clipping of his hair and his wish carefully written out on notebook paper out of his backpack, let alone buried it at the crossroads like the ritual he found on the internet said to do. Then he stops. “We?”
“You’ve been planning this for a while, haven’t you?” The kid’s smile is very white in the moonlight, and his teeth look almost sharp.
He doesn’t quite know what to say, and this is just – what is he doing here? He should leave, he thinks, but no. This is his chance, his only fucking chance, and he’s going to see it through.
“It’s important to me,” he says, even though he knows this whole thing is kind of insane. “I’ve never wanted anything else. I’ve tried so hard and it’s just not working. It’s just not fair. It’s not right.”
“You want me to make it right?” The kid steps closer, still with his sharp smile. His red Nikes crunch on the gravel and Johnny kind of desperately wants to take a step back, but he doesn’t. “Maybe you should spell out exactly what you want from us. The terms of the deal, so we’re clear.”
“I want to be a hockey player. But I want to be the best. I want to play in the NHL, and win the Stanley Cup, and play for Canada in the Olympics and help them win a gold medal. I want to play on a team I can be proud of. I want to be happy.” He’s confessed his dreams to people before, to his parents and his friends, and never could stomach the looks on their faces. He doesn’t look at the kid’s face as he shoves his hands deep in the pocket of his jeans, hunching his shoulders. He tries to come up with something else to say, but after a moment’s silence all he can find is, “I want to be the best.”
“There’s always a price,” says the kid, his voice breaking a little. “The greater the glory, the steeper the cost. It’s how these things work.”
Johnny looks up at him now. The kid is still smiling. “What’s your name? What can I call you?”
At that, the smile fades a little. “Do you really need to know?”
“I just – I want to know who I’m dealing with. Who I should look for in case you… in case this doesn’t work.”
Now the kid’s smile is completely gone. “I keep my bargains, Jonathan Toews. It’s what I do. It’s all I do.”
“Then you shouldn’t have a problem telling me a name I can use to call you if I need to,” Jonathan says.
“Cain,” the kid says after a beat. “I’m called Cain.”
“Like in the Bible?” Johnny says.
Cain rolls his eyes. “Where do you think they got it, dumbass?” His voice breaks again. It’s not particularly dignified – not really at all how he’d imagined a demon would be.
“Why are you a teenage boy?” Johnny asks, unable to keep the question in any longer. “Why don’t you have, you know.” He waves his hands, hoping the horns and hooves and a tail and stuff is understood.
“We appear how you need to see us,” says Cain. “Whatever is most likely to be persuasive.” He steps forward, and now they’re standing face-to-face in the exact center of the crossroads. Behind him, backlighting his curly hair in a way that suggests just a little that he might actually have horns somewhere underneath the mess on his head, Johnny can see the light in the distance from the Perimeter Highway, and beyond that, the glow of the city.
Now or never, he thinks. “So what will I need to give you?” he asks. “And how long will I have?”
“Your soul, of course. But you knew that.” Cain’s smile is back now, but it’s gentler, like Johnny’s a little kid reluctant to step out on the ice for the first time. “As for time… for what you’re asking, ten years is standard.”
“Twenty,” Johnny says immediately, before he can think about the stupidity of bargaining with a demon. “Twenty years. I can’t do it in ten. That’s – I’d be 24. That’s nothing.”
“Ten,” says Cain. “We can get you what you’re asking for in ten.”
“But I won’t have time to enjoy it!”
“Won’t you enjoy doing it?” Cain asks. “Isn’t that the point?”
It strikes Johnny as strange, in that moment, that this creature standing in front of him is maybe the only person who’s ever really understood why he wants this. It saddens him, a little, because he knows his friends don’t get it – even his parents look at him strangely when they find him out on the ice before school, practicing and practicing even though they know he’s not going to get any results. “Yes,” Johnny says. “Yes, okay.”
“We have a deal?” Cain asks, and offers his right hand.
“We have a deal,” Johnny repeats back, and takes Cain’s hand, and then gasps as Cain tugs him close, off balance, and kisses him thoroughly. It’s his first kiss, and it’s so unexpected – he can feel the cold of Cain’s nose, how his lips are a little chapped and his breath tastes of root beer. Cain’s hand comes up to cup his face, and Johnny lets out a little huff of breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding and kisses him back, because it’s a kiss and that’s what he’s pretty sure is the expected response to a kiss. Except Cain pulls back, hand still on Johnny’s cheek.
“Standard procedure,” Cain says with an embarrassed little shrug, and the moon is full enough that Johnny can see his cheeks flush a little. Imagine, he thinks, a demon embarrassed. He must get sick of kissing strangers at crossroads on a nightly basis.
Then he’s gone, and Johnny’s left with a long bike ride home to think, and hope, and wait.
As it turns out, he doesn’t have to wait long.
In less than a year, he goes from playing for a peewee side where he was sitting the bench most of the time, to being drafted by the Tri-City Americans and having a scholarship offer from Shattuck-St. Mary’s. His parents are kind of mystified, but his dad claps him on the shoulder the day he accepts the offer from SSM and says, “Looks like your hard work has really paid off.” They send him to Minnesota with a minimal amount of tears and a credit card with a $500 limit for emergencies only. He uses it to buy some trail mix and a Sports Illustrated in the airport in Toronto and imagines himself on the cover.
Three years later he’s in North Dakota, playing in the Frozen Four. The same year, he’s drafted to the Blackhawks. He tries not to think, as he hears his name called from the stage set up in the middle of the arena at GM Place, about that day at the crossroads. This is his due. He worked for this.
And then he watches next year’s draft, and drops his beer when he finally gets a glimpse of the Patrick Kane that everyone’s been talking about.
Cain – Kane, rather – quickly proves himself to be very, very dedicated to living up to his end of the bargain.
“Can you believe we’re playing in the NHL?” he asks Johnny in the locker room the first day they practice together. It’s the first conversation they’ve had since that night at the crossroads. Or maybe he imagined it. Kane has a family – in Buffalo, he remembers – so maybe this is all in his head. But then Kane says, “When I was a kid I would have sold my soul to be here today,” and grins that same sharp grin he remembers from the night of his 14th birthday. Johnny can barely stop himself from punching Kane so hard his fake family would feel it.
“Go to hell,” he says, and tugs his sweater on over his pads.
“Oh, Tazer,” Kane says, laughing, “you know I’ve already been.”
Somehow, despite the fact that Johnny promises himself to stay away from Kane as much as he possibly can, he very quickly comes to rely on him for just about everything, on and off the ice. They’re not just on a line together –they room together on the road, they sit together on the plane, on the bench, and in the locker room, and sometimes when Johnny thinks he’s alone and wishes he wasn’t, he’ll look up to find Kaner walking into the room, a bag of Doritos in his hand like he isn’t perfectly aware that Johnny doesn’t eat that shit. By the day of their first game, he can barely remember what it was like without Kaner on the ice with him.
He scores on his first shot. Kaner has the assist.
“Worth it?” Kaner shouts into his ear as they’re crushed together in the celebration. He’s got his arms wrapped around Johnny like he’s never going to let go.
“We’ll see,” Johnny shouts back. Kaner just grins around his mouthguard and skates away.
The thing is, it just keeps getting better, until it doesn’t, and then he’s sitting on the stupid sidelines with a stupid sprained knee watching Kane trying to pull them into playoff contention with the force of his stupid personality.
He doesn’t quite manage it. But after sixteen games Johnny comes back, and between the two of them they pull the team to within three points of making the playoffs.
“No Stanley Cup this year,” he says to Kaner as they lay on their beds in the hotel in Detroit.
“No,” Kaner agrees.
“You – you know you promised,” he says. It’s the first time he’s ever brought up their bargain, the first time he’s even acknowledged it without Kaner forcing him into it.
Kaner’s quiet for a long while, and for a minute Johnny thinks maybe he’s gone to sleep. But no, after a moment Kaner turns toward him. His eyes are somber – as serious as Johnny has seen them since that night at the crossroads. “I keep my promises.”
“That’s why you’re here,” Johnny says. “To make sure I get what I bargained for.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Kaner echoes. His voice almost sounds sad. It doesn’t sit right with him, Kaner being sad. He’s been many things in the time Johnny has known him, most of them incredibly annoying, but sad is one he hasn’t had to deal with before.
He almost says, “I’m glad you’re here,” but in the end his eyes fall shut and sleep draws him in before he gets it out. He thinks he might have dreamt about saying it, though. He can’t quite remember.
It’s a long summer. He leaves Chicago almost immediately, unwilling to stick around and hang out with all the people he let down by getting injured, by not being good enough. He stays long enough to move his stuff out of rookie housing and into his new apartment, buys some furniture and the biggest TV he doesn’t feel guilty about owning, but he can’t conceal how much he wants to go back to Winnipeg. The day before his flight, Kaner comes over and plays Call of Duty 4 on his Xbox. Kaner loves the first person shooter games more than any of the others except Grand Theft Auto, where he also gets to run people over with his car. Johnny thinks it’s because he’s had to leave behind all the evil stuff he used to do when he made himself into Patrick Kane, Star Hockey Player.
“You must miss it,” he says as he watches Kaner gleefully shower terrorists with a spray of bullets.
“Miss what?” Kaner says, taking his hand off the controller long enough to shove a fistful of Doritos in his mouth. He chews with his mouth open. Clearly, Johnny thinks, they don’t teach table manners in hell.
“You know – doing all that stuff.” He waves his hand at the TV.
Kaner raises an eyebrow at him, and says, “What exactly do you think I did before I met you, Tazer?” On screen, a tin-roofed shack explodes.
“I mean – you’re a demon, right? You… do demon things?” He takes a deep breath. “I mean, I read on Wikipedia how you’re supposed to be, what, a prince of hell?”
Kaner rolls his eyes. “You believe everything you read on Wikipedia, man?”
“So what was it you did, then?”
He just looks annoyed now. “You really want to know?” he says, pausing the video game and turning to Johnny with a scowl. “You think you can handle it?”
“I – of course I can handle it.” Johnny returns the scowl, because nobody out-scowls Johnny.
“I’m a salesman. A middleman. I meet people at the crossroads and make them an offer and try to get them to take it. It’s a pretty sweet gig – lots of travel, weird hours, but it’s better than most of us get. I don’t know why you have this idea of me as some, like, Satanly warrior, but you need to get over it.”
Johnny just stares at him. “You’re lying to me,” he says finally.
“Probably,” says Kaner, and unpauses the video game. He throws the Doritos bag at Johnny’s head. “Have some. It’s the summer.”
He doesn’t mean to, but he misses Kaner while he’s back in Winnipeg. It’s probably just that he misses the team – he’s so used to spending day in and day out with the guys that it’s weird being back with his family. Somewhere along the line, Chicago has become home. He wishes, as he’s warming up for a workout in the rink near his house, that Kaner were here.
When he gets out of the shower after the workout, his phone rings, and he answers without looking at the number. “Hello?”
“Johnny, you dick, what’s up?”
He nearly drops the phone. “Kaner?”
“You sound weird. Well, weirder than you normally do. Everything okay?” He hears voices in the background, feminine laughter and what sounds like a movie.
“Why are you calling me?” he asks.
“I can’t call you?” Kaner sounds disappointed. It’s not something he’s used to hearing in Kaner’s voice.
“No, I mean – I’m fine. Just got done with a workout. What are you doing?”
“Watching a movie with Jackie, Jess and Erica. They have truly bad taste in movies, it’s like torture. Hey!” Kaner yelps into the phone and then Johnny hears some sort of scuffle.
Johnny is always a little surprised at Kaner’s relationship with the people he calls his family. He’s never asked what the story was there – whether they were demons too, with their own missions on earth, and if the entire Kane family is an elaborate cover, or whether Kaner had just squeezed himself into their lives at some point after Johnny made his deal, made them remember things that had never happened and memories they’d never actually had. As far as Johnny can tell, Kaner really cares about them. It doesn’t really mesh well with his idea of what a demon is capable of, so mostly Johnny just tries to ignore it, except when he can’t. Like now.
“They’re such assholes,” Kaner laughs into the phone.
“Say hi to Johnny!” one of the girls shouts.
“Whatever,” Kaner says, disgust in his voice.
Johnny catches himself smiling in the steamed-up mirror of his bathroom and wonders how exactly he came to find himself in this situation.
The vast majority of the offseason was pretty crappy, all things considered, because Johnny does a lot of things very well but dealing with massive change is not one of them. He spends most of the summer working out more than he strictly needs to, enjoying the quiet it forces in his head. He thinks about calling Kaner a lot, and somehow whenever he does the phone rings a few minutes later. Johnny stops being surprised after the first few times.
He’s in the car to the airport to catch his flight back to Chicago when he gets the phone call telling him he’s getting the C. As soon as he hangs up on Savard, the phone rings again.
“Happy?” Kaner asks, not bothering to say hello.
“I don’t deserve this,” he says, making his mom glance back at him from the driver’s seat.
“So then, guilty,” Kaner says. “I guess I should have seen that coming. You didn’t ask for this, you know. This wasn’t part of our bargain.”
Johnny can’t think of what to say to that. “Why did you – what’s your point?”
“This one wasn’t something I made happen, man. You may not think you deserve it, but it’s pretty clear you’re the only one who feels that way.”
“You think I deserve it?” Johnny asks, and holds his breath, because – when did he start needing validation from the kid he sold his soul to?
“I didn’t have anything to do with you getting this, I just said that,” Kaner says quickly.
“That’s not what I asked.”
Johnny can hear his own breathing on the phone, and Kaner’s, and the crappy music Kaner’s listening to on the radio. He waits.
“Yeah, Johnny,” Kaner says after a while. “Yeah, I think you deserved it.”
His mom glances at him again as he hangs up the phone, eyes worried. He shoves his phone back in his pocket and makes a conscious effort not to smile.
In the weeks after he returns to Chicago, Johnny finds himself falling into a routine. During the day he fills his hours with practice, workouts, and more practice, moving like he’s going to have to carry the whole team on his shoulders and therefore his shoulders must be as strong as possible. And when he finally lets himself sleep, invariably, he ends up dreaming of the night at the crossroads. It’s never quite the same dream – one night he’s riding his bike out of the quiet subdivision where he grew up and past the city limit sign, moon fat and round overhead as he pedals furiously. He never makes it to the crossroads in that dream, just rides and rides, searching, until he wakes up in a sweat and has to check for a moment that he’s in his apartment in Chicago, not in a house in Winnipeg, living the life he bargained away six years ago.
Other nights, he’s standing at the crossroads with Kaner, but they’re all grown up, wearing their hockey sweaters. Johnny’s has a big C embroidered right over his heart.
“What bargain would you make with me now, Jonathan Toews?” Kaner asks, and Johnny sees that this Kaner’s eyes are all pupil, blacker than the sky above them. His voice seems to hum on three different registers at once, and it pulls Johnny forward even as he thinks he should protest, should run.
“I want everything,” Johnny says in a voice he doesn’t quite recognize.
“Everything I promised you?” Kaner asks.
Johnny shakes his head slowly and says, in that same foreign voice, “No. Everything.”
Kaner tilts his head, considering. In his predator’s voice he asks, “And what will you give me in return?”
He can feel the answer being pulled out of him like someone has reached into his throat and caught it in a fist, dragging it up out of his mouth without his permission. “Everything. I’ll give you everything.”
“We have a deal,” Kaner says, “my everything for your everything,” and Johnny wonders what he’s promised before Kaner’s mouth catches his, and he can’t stop to be worried because Kaner’s mouth –
Sometimes he wakes up at this point. Other times it keeps going, and he wakes up confused, worried and unsure what’s real, and with a dick so hard he can barely make it to the bathroom to get himself off so he doesn’t have to change the sheets.
Johnny would say that those were the worst dreams. Except that sometimes, if he’s had a bad practice and feels like the impostor he knows deep down he really is, he dreams that he’s fourteen again, and the Kaner that shows up at the crossroads, with his denim jacket and red Nike sneakers, is the same kid he met that night. But this Kaner gets him in his grasp and won’t let go. Then he changes into something monstrous, a black feathered beast with a mouth full of sharp golden teeth, eyes that glow red and yellow all at once, and he lets Johnny go just to chase him down, to enjoy his screams as he pounces, pulling him down to the ground and tearing at him with teeth and claws until Johnny wakes up screaming.
Those nights he stays up, unable to go back to bed. He rotates pushups and pull-ups and sit-ups until the sun rises and he can go practice without people looking worried at him when they arrive and find him already on the ice.
The season gets off to a fucking horrible start. He knows it’s his fault – knows there’s something he should be doing, and by the time Savard gets replaced he’s convinced they’re gonna take away his C, give it to someone who can actually inspire the team to play like Johnny knows in his gut they can.
He was never in the habit of saying a lot in the locker room, but those first few days of the season, trying and failing and feeling like nothing he did could get them their rhythm back, he can’t find anything to say that would be worthwhile. So he pushes himself harder, and marvels when, finally, the team pulls itself together around him.
He’s flying high in December as they win, and win, and win. Kaner seems to get steadily more manic. When they rack up their ninth against Minnesota – nine in a row, unfuckingbelievable – Kaner pulls him out of their hotel after three hours of trying to sleep and they go to a pub and play pool until the bartender turns off the lights.
“We’re seriously going to do this,” Kaner says as they lay in their beds, staring up at the dark ceiling because when they close their eyes they keep seeing the goals and hearing the blood rush in their ears like the swish of skates over ice. “We’re going to win the Stanley Fucking Cup, Johnny, I swear.”
He’s still laughing into his pillow as Johnny finally drifts off to sleep.
They make it to the playoffs, and it feels right – it feels like it’s going to happen, like for once Chicago actually gives two shits about what they do and they’re gonna reward everyone by slaying all the dragons there are to slay.
In the run up to the playoffs Johnny feels damn near invincible, and Kaner practically glows as he flies around the ice, to where he wonders for a minute if Kaner’s going to give it all away, sprout real fucking wings and golden horns like the monster in his worst nightmares. But no, Kaner stays as human as he ever looks – and as Johnny reminds him, he actually looks like a Norwegian troll doll a good 95% of the time, so.
And they win, and win. Until they don’t.
“Next year,” he hears Kaner say as they collapse into miserable piles of freshly-shaved non-Stanley-Cup-Finalists in their hotel room. Detroit, he thinks, is a perfect place to be miserable.
“That’s what losers say every year,” Johnny mumbles.
“Next year,” Kaner says again. When Johnny looks over, surprised at the fervency in his voice, he sees Kaner’s eyes flash black-red in the dim glow of the city outside their window.
“You promised,” Johnny says, humoring him, and wonders if they’ll be having this same conversation for a third time next year – same time, same hotel, same beds.
Kaner doesn’t respond, though. He’s asleep, and after a few moments so is Johnny.
He sticks around Chicago for a while longer this summer than last, and he spends a large part of June getting to know the city in a way he hadn’t bothered to before. Kaner joins him for some of it, if Johnny suggests going to a bar, or when he insinuates that perhaps Kaner’s impressive Call of Duty skills won’t prevent him from getting his ass handed to him at the laser tag place on Fullerton.
That particular adventure goes well, except for how Kaner refuses to admit that his defeat is due to anything but defective equipment. Johnny lets him win at air hockey just so he’ll stop whining about it. It’d be silly for a 21-year-old to be such a sore loser, Johnny thinks, but given that Kaner is actually a millennia-old demon, well.
“Yeah, okay, takes one to know one, so.” Kaner shrugs and bumps his shoulder against Johnny’s.
“I’m only a sore loser because it happens so rarely,” says Johnny.
“I’ll have to change that,” Kaner says, laughing. “NHL 09?”
“Fine, whatever, you’re still going to lose.”
By the time Kaner passes out on his couch, Johnny is up by one game. He figures the victory still counts.
Kaner leaves in the middle of July to see his family, so Johnny goes as well, because after two days of a Patrick Kane-shaped hole in his apartment he can’t really stand to be around himself anymore.
His parents are always happy to have him in Winnipeg, though, and the rest of July passes in a blur. He doesn’t talk to Kaner, and tries not to wonder what’s going on, considering that last summer he couldn’t go two days without Kaner calling him up to tell him some stupid story or leave passages from Twilight read in his most obnoxious voice on Johnny’s voicemail or send him blurry iPhone photos of his sisters’ dogs making stupid faces.
Johnny doesn’t miss it. He doesn’t. He’s just a little worried about his teammate, is all.
In August his worries are completely and totally validated when an ESPN alert on his phone announces, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS STAR PATRICK KANE ARRESTED IN BUFFALO and Johnny nearly breaks his foot as he trips over his desk chair because what the actual fuck, Kaner.
“It’s not serious,” Kaner says when Johnny finally gets him on the phone. For some reason Kaner had thought it was okay to ignore the eight texts and one insane attempt at a demonic summoning Johnny had tried. “Also, you should know that we don’t allow the correct rituals for summoning to be passed around on internet message boards, you stupid motherfucker.”
“I had to hear about this from ESPN!” he shouts into the phone. “ESPN doesn’t even care about hockey! How could you let this happen?”
“It’s no big deal,” Kaner says, and Johnny can almost hear the shrug. He wishes he could reach through the phone and get Kaner into a choke hold until he admits what an idiot he’s been. “The asshole deserved it. Who doesn’t understand that fifteen is a greater amount than fourteen eighty? I mean, come on. If I had been a regular fucking college student, none of this would have happened.”
Johnny sees red. “But you’re not. You’re not a regular fucking college student. You’re a fucking Chicago Blackhawk, and that’s my fault. And now, now, you’re making us look like fucking thugs who beat up cab drivers over twenty fucking cents.”
“That wasn’t what it was about.”
“I don’t fucking care.”
Johnny hears Kaner’s intake of breath like a gasp after a suckerpunch. He waits, but Kaner doesn’t say anything.
“Are you in Chicago?” Johnny asks him after it’s clear Kaner isn’t going to say anything.
“Not yet. I was supposed to head back tomorrow anyway – there’s the Olympics orientation coming up. And now the Hawks will want to prep me for a press conference. I think it’s scheduled for Monday?”
Kaner sighs. “Hey, Johnny, listen. I’m sorry.”
Johnny rolls his eyes. “It’s not me you need to apologize to, asshole.”
“No, man, I do. I’m sorry.” His voice sounds genuinely contrite, something Johnny’s not sure he’s ever heard from Kaner before. It weirds him out.
“Whatever. See you soon.”
“God, I hope not.”
Johnny thinks, after the insanity in the offseason, that the team should be in shambles when they finally play together again. He knows that expectations are piled on them pretty damn high from all sides, and when they lose their fourth preseason game he wonders, not for the first time, how Kaner is ever going to make everything happen in the space of ten years. They’re more than seven years out from the night of bargain – and yeah, the Olympics are happening this winter, but Kaner is playing on Team USA, so what does he think he can do to help Johnny? Not to mention that winning the Stanley Cup seems like more of a pipe dream than it ever has.
“Come out and celebrate,” Kaner says as they get back to their hotel room in Helsinki after their first game.
“Celebrate what? We lost. And we’re playing tomorrow.” He flicks on the TV and searches for a station in English.
“Not until late, man. And we’re celebrating beginning our Stanley Cup winning season.”
“You have no concept of the jinx, do you, Pat?”
“It’s pretty easy to call bullshit on superstition when you’re a magic-wielding prince of hell,” Kaner says. “Now get up, we’re going out. Antti claims there’s a place a few blocks from here where the vodka is guaranteed not to give you a hangover.”
“I thought you said you were a salesman,” Johnny says, finally landing on CNN.
“Am I not selling you on this bar? No hangovers! Guaranteed!” Kaner takes off his t-shirt, rummages around in his suitcase, pulls out a shirt, sniffs at it, and shoves it back in his suitcase with a grimace.
“No, I mean, you said you were just a salesman. Not, like. A prince or anything.” He keeps his eyes on the TV. In his peripheral vision he can see Kaner go still.
“I may have, um.” He coughs. “Underrepresented myself.”
On TV, the reporter is talking about the death toll from an earthquake in Indonesia. Johnny tries to focus on the pictures, tries to sound like he’s not really caring what Kaner has to say. “Underrepresented how?”
“Well, I mean. Strictly speaking I could be considered a prince of hell. But there are, like, three hundred of us. They give the title out to everybody, really.” Kaner’s voice is light, like he’s discussing some gossip his sisters have passed onto him, something insignificant that should be funny, but just misses the mark.
“And the, uh – magic,” Johnny says. “You did kind of leave that part out.”
“Well, I mean.” There’s that cough again. “I may have found myself slightly unable to use it.”
Johnny turns to where Kaner is standing, chest bare and shirt still clutched in his hands, looking sheepish and exponentially younger than Johnny knows he is. “Are you in some sort of trouble?” he demands. “Did you do something?”
“It’s not really a big deal,” Kaner begins, but Johnny’s pretty sure he recognizes Kaner’s Lying Through His Stupid Teeth face.
“This is you underrepresenting your situation, isn’t it,” he says.
“Okay, well, maybe some people might have considered it a big deal, but I felt I was just doing my job. See, the rules of trading one’s soul do not strictly, uh, allow me to grant demonic powers to a human in the extent that I might have done with your fourteen-year-old self.”
“Are you telling me I have some magic demon powers?” Johnny says incredulously.
“Well, what did you expect when you called up a demon at a crossroads, that he’d feed you some Gatorade and tell you to eat your Wheaties?” Kaner snaps, exasperated.
“I didn’t expect you to give me demon powers! Oh my god.”
“Would you stop being so melodramatic? You’re like my sisters!” He goes pale. “Please don’t tell them I said that.”
“So why did we lose?” Johnny asks. “I mean, why are you even here? Why did the demon powers not just, like, magically get me everything I asked for?”
Kaner sits down on the bed across from Johnny. Their beds are separated by a tiny end table with a truly ugly avocado-green lamp that takes up the bulk of the tabletop. Johnny looks at their knees where they bump together and waits for Kaner to answer. “I told you, Johnny, it doesn’t work that way. Requests like yours – it’s not just you getting what you want. It’s other people not getting what they want, people who didn’t make the deal getting more than they were ever meant to – it’s messy. And it doesn’t just affect you. And then there’s your age – you would be surprised at the very strict age limits Hell has on bargains like this. Hell’s not Somalia. We have rules, and we’re expected to obey them.”
“So you’re saying it was too hard? You’re giving up?” He’s getting mad now – and not just mad. Kaner looks worried, and Johnny still doesn’t understand why.
“No, man, of course not. You know I wouldn’t – and even if I wanted to, I can’t.” Kaner suddenly looks really, really interested in his left thumbnail. “I may have put myself in kind of a situation.”
“Oh for the love of god, Kaner, just tell me what the hell is wrong,” Johnny snaps.
“I wasn’t even supposed to take your, uh, summons in the first place, but I was in the area. You didn’t really complete the ritual, see, which makes the contract unstable. When the demon in charge of the soul bindings found out about it, he rather forcefully explained what had happened and then took it up with my boss. Her response was basically, ‘Make sure the kid gets every last thing he asked for and don’t come back until you do.’ So, uh, here I am.” He looks up at Johnny, spreads his arms wide. “At your service.”
“I still don’t get why you can’t just use magic to make all of it happen,” Johnny says. “You said you were a magic-wielding prince of hell, so. Wield.”
Kaner nods. “Yeah, I figured that was your next question. There are two answers – one pretty fucking complicated, and one very simple. Do you remember what you asked for that night?”
“I think so,” he says. “I said I wanted to play on an NHL team, win the Stanley Cup, help win Canada a gold medal. I said I wanted to be on a team I could be proud of. I … I said I wanted to be the best.”
Kaner makes a face. “Ugh, yes, that, all of that. But do you remember what else you asked for?”
Johnny shakes his head. He’s pretty sure that was it.
“You said, and I quote, ‘I want to be happy.’ Do you have any idea how complicated ‘happy’ is, even for normal people?” He laughs, though it doesn’t sound like he finds the situation particularly funny. “Normal people take a whole lifetime to find a moment of happiness after they stop being kids and start being miserable fucking teenagers who only barely remember what happy felt like. Now think back. Do you even know what happy feels like? When was the last time you felt it? How old were you?”
“I’m happy when I’m on the ice,” he says, but even before Kaner raises his eyebrows in a look that says very clearly, “shut the fuck up, you emotionally stunted Canadian,” he knows that it’s not strictly true.
“You’re mistaking happy for content,” Kaner says. “Happy and content are like - it’s like the Pacific Ocean versus a swimming pool. You might think a swimming pool is amazing if that’s all you’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t mean you’re not missing out. You asked for happy, Johnny, and happy’s what I have to deliver. Now think about it – could you, Captain Serious, really be happy, knowing that all of those victories came from anything other than your own hard work?”
“But when I was fourteen,” Johnny says, but Kaner cuts him off.
“Yeah, okay, you got a boost when you were fourteen. But that wasn’t major. That was to catch you up with where you would have been if you were fourteen-year-old exceptional. The things on your list – it’d eat at you, knowing you’d gotten all of it from a wave of my hand. You wouldn’t be happy, you’d be miserable. And you asked specifically for happy.”
Johnny supposes he knew, deep down, he’d been doing this on his own, but it still hits him. He’s felt so guilty for so long, for taking this opportunity from other people who didn’t get here through cheating. It makes something untwist in his chest, knowing that his most prized successes have been independent of his deal. He wonders how quickly Kaner came to that realization. And then he remembers – “What’s the second reason?”
Kaner snorts. “Okay, well, see, I may have slightly misused the magic I was not really supposed to have access to when I, uh, adopted the Kane family.” He grins. “I’d really prefer to avoid punishment for that particular event, so I’m trying to stay off the grid, you might say.”
“Becoming a professional hockey player and winning the Calder Trophy is staying off the grid?” Johnny says, because seriously, what the hell.
“Demons really don’t follow hockey,” Kaner says. “They really like the NFL. And cricket. I never much understood the appeal, but to each his own.”
Kaner rolls his eyes. “No, you dumbass, demons don’t follow sports. You draw their attention either by summoning them, or by using supernatural methods to solve natural problems. That’s it. I could invade Canada and nobody would know I was a demon unless I dug out my flaming sword and called up a legion of hellbeasts to aid me. And we both know that would be overkill.”
Johnny kicks him in the shin. “Shut up, you know Canada’s awesome.”
“Canada can suck it,” Kaner says, hooking his ankle behind Johnny’s and giving his arm a shove.
“Oh, that’s it,” Johnny says. Maybe it’s immature, but he really, really likes being stronger than Kaner for moments exactly like this, where Kaner is really living up to his potential as an annoying little twerp. It takes maybe twenty seconds before Johnny has Kaner in a headlock, mussing the stiffness out of his hideously gelled hair and ignoring Kaner’s whining about how Johnny stinks like a locker room.
“Were we gonna try to go out?” Kaner says from under Johnny’s arm. He lets go, and Kaner flops back on Johnny’s bed, looks up at him. “I wasn’t kidding about the vodka place. You know, normally we can just magic the hangover away, but I haven’t been able to do that since I adopted the Kanes.”
“You still want to, with your hair looking like that?” Johnny says, reaching over and messing with it a little more, just because.
“Fuck you, my hair is magnificent,” Kaner says, but doesn’t bat his hand away, which is not really normal. Maybe, thinks Johnny, Kaner is a little more tired than he’s letting on.
“There’s stuff in the minibar if you’re desperate,” he says finally. “Or, I mean. We can if you really want to, but I was thinking maybe we could watch a movie? You pick?”
“You’re letting me pick?” Kaner says, and rolls closer to him, grabbing for the remote. “I’m touched, Johnny, I really am. Is this because I shared my deepest darkest secrets?”
“It’s cause we’re in Finland and there’s nothing on that isn’t dubbed in languages I don’t speak,” Johnny says, trying and failing to ignore Kaner as he flops back against the pillows.
“It’s totally because I opened up. You feel my angst, man, I get it. We connected.” He finds the TV listings channel, makes a face at it. “Fuck you, I don’t want to watch any of this. Oh, hey, is this Twilight?”
“Don’t make me regret my decision, Patrick.”
“No takebacksies, Jonathan,” Kaner says, throwing the remote at his head.
They end up drinking four minibottles each of what Kaner swears is really great Finnish vodka from the minibar, and Kaner reminisces about this time he was in Russia trying to convince the KGB of something improbable. Johnny is pretty sure the story is either directly stolen from a James Bond movie, or it’s something from his time as a demon that Johnny has no business knowing. Either way: bad news.
“Bad news,” he tells Kaner. “Bad, bad news.”
“Well, no, cause see, it didn’t work. Director Grig- Gror – Grigo – the director, see, of the place. He died suddenly of…” Kaner looks up at Tazer, clearly intending to be dramatic. “Unnatural causes.”
“No, I mean. Should I be hearing this?”
Kaner considers that for a moment. “Maybe not. But who are you going to tell?” He shifts his head to get a better look at Johnny, but doesn’t bother to sit up. His hair brushes against Johnny’s fingers. Without all the gel, it’s kind of crazy soft, like a little kid’s or a girl’s or something. He flexes his hand and a curl of it tucks under his little finger. Johnny tries not to look at it.
“Uh, nobody. Who’d believe me?”
“Exactly, Tazer. Exactly.” Kaner nods and his head knocks against the outside of Johnny’s thigh. “This whole thing is unbelievable.”
“Sometimes I worry it’s not real,” Johnny says, and then slaps a hand over his mouth. “Ow.”
“It might not be,” says Kaner, his eyes closing as he rubs his cheek against the sheets of Johnny’s bed sleepily. “I mean, if we can’t do all of it – Stanley Cup, Gold Medal, you the best, you happy – if we can’t make that happen…”
“Then what?” Johnny says. He rubs the curl of Kaner’s hair against the pad of his finger and lets his hand slip further into Kaner’s hair. It’s – it’s not what he would normally do, but here he is.
Kaner’s only response is a murmur Johnny doesn’t quite catch. Johnny decides not to ask again – Kaner’s out like a light.
He should dump Kaner back in his own bed, Johnny thinks, and then his eyes drift shut.
It’s daylight when his eyes open again, Kaner’s muttering something in a language he’s not sure he understands into the pillow, and Johnny seems to be drooling on Kaner’s naked shoulder. He opens his eyes a little wider, and for a moment it takes all his willpower not to scramble off the bed. He’s never noticed before, but this close he sees two delicate white lines curving on either side of Kaner’s spine, following the curve of his shoulder blades.
He reaches out with a fingertip to trace them before he actually realizes he’s done it, and then Kaner is bolting up out of bed, tripping over his own feet and falling back on the bed he was supposed to have been sleeping in. “Don’t do that,” Kaner says. “Don’t – just don’t do that.”
Fuck. Kaner thinks he’s hitting on him, Kaner thinks –
“What are they?” he blurts out. He was just curious, right? He hadn’t noticed those scars before – though they didn’t look quite like any scars he’d ever seen. They looked almost like tattoos, though that wasn’t quite right either.
“If I tell you birthmarks will you shut up about it?” Kaner says, edging around the bed with his back very carefully pointed away from Johnny and pulling on the first shirt he touches. It’s one of Johnny’s, and it fits him really loosely, but Kaner doesn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah, I’m very well aware you weren’t born.”
“They’re, uh. Stretch marks. I used to be really fat in that one spot. I’m very self-conscious about it. I got teased a lot.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that. You wanna try another explanation?” Johnny asks.
“It’s not – I’m not supposed to – it’s a demon thing that I can’t really talk about.”
“Why not?” Johnny says. “I mean, you telling me won’t exactly alert your demon boss to where you are, will it? So tell me.”
Kaner looks as miserable as Johnny has ever seen him and says, “It’s just that I really miss them.”
“My wings. That’s – some demons, depending on their rank and prior positions, have wings. And I really miss mine.”
Wings. Johnny knows, somehow, what they look like – feathers coal-black, with a sheen like an oil slick, and in his mind’s eye he can almost see Kaner with his wings extended, reaching up to take flight. It hits him like a punch. “You lost them? They got taken away?”
“No,” Kaner says, “I just can’t use them. I’m pretty sure it’d alert the rest of the demons to where I am, and I can’t risk that right now, not when we’re so close.”
“But you don’t know for sure?” Johnny says. He’s not sure why he feels the need to press the issue, but he does anyway. “I mean, you could try it. You’re halfway around the world from the people you’re trying to protect – you could just see, you know.”
“Who says I’m trying to protect anybody but myself?” Kaner says.
“Oh, come on, I know how you feel about your family. Everyone knows how you feel about your family.”
“I just – I can’t risk it, that’s all. When the contract is up, it’ll be the first thing I do, but.” He cuts himself off and his eyes come up to Johnny’s, just realizing what he’s said.
“Well, given that at this rate we’re never going to win the Stanley Cup, I’m really not too worried about it,” Johnny says, trying and failing to sound nonchalant. “Now, breakfast. We’ve got a long day.”
Things get better, and then it’s November and they get a lot better, until they’re riding high on a six game winning streak that extends to seven, then eight, and Johnny spends most of December looking forward to the Olympics and wondering whether the way he feels now is happy, and if it’s not, when he’ll know what happy is.
In the games leading up to the Olympics, Johnny notices that Kaner is playing with a manic kind of energy that, while present for most of the season, seems almost to be boiling over as the Hawks notch win after win after win. He doesn’t question it, but he wants to.
When they leave for the Olympics, though, Kaner seems to deflate – they see each other a couple of times before their first game, and Johnny has to restrain himself from reminding Kaner to be careful. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Kaner is an American. This, Johnny tells himself, is something that he’s gonna have to take care of without Kaner.
Canada kicks the crap out of Norway in their first game, and Johnny manages an assist. He thinks he sees Kaner in the stands at one point – but then again, it could have been someone else. He goes to sleep in the Athlete’s Village and tries not to think about what he’d say to Kaner right now if he were here.
The game against Switzerland two days later is rougher. It’s a lot more evenly matched from the start, and no matter what he does he can’t seem to get any momentum. He manages another assist, but he misses in the shootout and watches Sidney Crosby net the game winner. For a minute he wonders if Sid has a deal with someone the way he has with Kaner, but no – even if he hadn’t listened to Kaner explain why the demonic powers that be considered a deal like his a very bad decision, he doubts Sid would even think of doing something like summoning a demon to help him reach his goals. If it doesn’t directly involve hockey, Johnny’s pretty sure that Sid can’t focus on it for more than ten minutes.
And then comes the game against Kaner – against the USA.
What a fucking disaster.
The first thing he notices is that Kaner is playing like it’s a chore he has to finish before he can go out with his friends. He doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with himself, and it shows. Johnny manages assists on Canada’s first two goals, but it doesn’t matter – what Kaner is lacking in his normal buoyancy, the rest of Team USA is making up for in spades. The third period is rough, the crowd is so loud Johnny can’t think straight, and when Kesler puts the game to bed 45 seconds before the end of the third, all he wants to do is go to the locker room and drown himself in the showers.
Instead he finds Kaner – or maybe Kaner finds him.
“Good game,” he says woodenly, but Kaner is interrupting him.
“You’ll get there,” he says.
“Don’t – just be careful,” he says.
“I promise,” Kaner says, and Johnny can’t really tell what he’s promising. “Keep it up, Tazer.” His thumb scratches over the skin at the nape of Johnny’s neck above his collar, just for a second. Then Kaner is skating away, and Johnny decides that tonight he is going to sleep for a million years.
But after that, something – Johnny can’t tell what – clicks. They knock out Germany, then Russia, and by the time he’s shaking Hossa’s hand at the end of the match with Slovakia, it hits him – he has the chance to do this. He’s going to do this.
He just has to go through Kaner.
This whole situation, Johnny thinks, is really indicative of Kaner’s absolutely terrible planning abilities.
He hasn’t scored in the whole tournament, but he’s racked up so many assists that surely, surely if they win that has to count for helping Canada win a gold. Part of him wishes it didn’t – that he could look back at their bargain and argue that this part of it wasn’t fulfilled.
When he scores the opening goal in the gold medal match, though, and sees a pleased smile slip across Kaner’s face as he chews thoughtfully on his mouth guard, Johnny knows it’s a moot point. He can’t bring himself to regret this. This is worth going to hell for.
He wonders, as he feels the press of his teammates around him, the roar of the crowd in his ears, if this is happiness.
No, he decides after a moment. When he feels it, he won’t have to wonder.
The game goes to overtime, and of course Sidney Crosby scores the winning goal, because Canada expects nothing less and Johnny knows that Sidney can’t bear to disappoint Canada. Kaner looks like he wants to throw his silver medal down to the ice and hack at it with his skates – actually, it’s the most emotion Johnny thinks he’s seen from Kaner all tournament. He’s not sure, now that he thinks about it, why Kaner isn’t thrilled with himself. He knows Kaner feels no particular attachment to Team USA, other than the boost it gives his already-too-large ego to be chosen. Kaner should be regarding this, Johnny is certain, as one step closer to a completed contract, to securing Johnny’s soul and getting back in hell’s good graces. Bad graces. Graces.
He’s not sorry when the Games end.
They’re back in Chicago for weeks and his medal is up on a wall in his apartment before Kaner really explains to him what, exactly, the problem is. Johnny’s at home the night after their loss to the Capitals, flicking through the eight hundred or so channels on his TV and trying not to think, when Kaner shows up at his door with a six pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and a copy of Modern Warfare 2.
“Seriously?” Johnny asks as Kaner offers him a bottle. “What makes you think I would ever drink that crap?”
“Because it’s delicious?” Kaner says. “Because you need to relax for once? Because… okay, I can’t really think of any other reasons. Oh, wait, no – because if you don’t drink one, I’ll have to drink them all by myself? Come on, you know that’s a good one.” Kaner kicks his shoes off and grabs for the controller. “I know you have some junk food hidden somewhere. Go get it and let’s blow shit up.”
Johnny rolls his eyes, but fishes a bag of Funyuns that Kaner left the last time he was here out of the pantry. Kaner hasn’t started without him, for once, the game screen cued up to a snowy Russian compound and waiting for him to press start.
They’re at level six when Kaner says, in the midst of an assault on a train station, “So there’s something you should know about us winning the Stanley Cup.”
Johnny’s character dies in a shower of shrapnel as he loses his grip on the controller. “Come again?” he says, watching the incredibly fascinating load screen because it means he doesn’t have to look at Kaner.
“You know how your contract had six stipulations? Well, you’ve completed three of them.” Kaner’s continuing the assault on the train station as Johnny waits to respawn, but Johnny’s character is doing a really great impression of Johnny himself – motionless, confused, and probably in for a substantial amount of trouble.
“Canada gold, NHL team…” He tries to remember what else he wanted that he’s done.
“And you’re proud of us,” Kaner says. “You wanted to play for a team you can be proud of. Well, you’re proud of us. You have been for a long time now.” He should be smiling, Johnny thinks. He should be holding that over Johnny’s head – Johnny actually feels proud of Kaner, why is Kaner not teasing him about it?
“I don’t – so what’s the problem?”
“Do you know what happens normally when a soul contract is completed, Johnny?” Kaner asks. He completes the assault on the train station and pauses the game.
“I… go to hell?”
“The person who signed the contract is dragged to hell by a pack of hounds, who devour your physical body and deliver your soul to the demon in charge of the contracts. If you try to run – well, you can try, but nobody’s been successful, not in the millennia we’ve been doing this. Not once.”
Johnny takes a swig of his Mike’s Hard Lemonade. It tastes like lemon-flavored cat piss. He tries not to taste it as he finishes the bottle. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“Normally by the date specified at the end of the contract, all terms have been fulfilled. Usually the terms get fulfilled immediately. The demons that run the system are very careful about only taking contracts they can fill. But, uh, well.”
“You weren’t so careful,” Johnny says. “Come the end of April we’ll have two years until my contract expires.”
“I don’t – this is hard for me,” Kaner says. He’s fidgeting like he does in the locker room before a game – adrenaline, Johnny thinks. Fight or flight.
“Why? You fulfill the terms of my contract, that’s good for you, right? You move on, get your magic back – your wings back – and your boss gets off your case.” Johnny’s proud of how his voice doesn’t waver. “I don’t see what the problem is for you.”
“I like it here, okay?” Kaner says quietly. “I love playing hockey. I’ve got a great family – I know I fucked them over, shoving myself into their lives like that, and it’s not their fault. They don’t know what I am, they think I’m their kid, you know? I don’t know what’d happen to them if my boss called me back to hell, but I know it wouldn’t exactly be a fucking cakewalk for them. And then there’s you.”
Johnny sucks in a breath. “Me.”
“You, you asshole. Do you really think – they were so close to giving you the Calder, you know that? You were gonna win it, be the best rookie that year. I won it by two votes, and only then because you were injured part of the season. Do you know what I had to do to make sure those votes went to me and not you? Because I knew, I fucking knew, that your gold medal and us winning a Stanley Cup, that those were inevitable. But I could prevent you from being the best, at least that one time.” Kaner turns to him, blue eyes darkening until his eyes are all pupil, black as a starless night. “Because I can’t be responsible for dragging you down, Johnny. I can’t.”
There’s silence now, and Johnny thinks for sure that there’s no way that Kaner won’t be able to resist filling it with something, some snarky remark or the sound of things exploding in Modern Warfare 2 or the tap of his feet against the coffee table. But Kaner just waits, looks at Johnny like he has to get it, understand and process what Kaner is telling him and have some response other than why?
He doesn’t, though. “Why?”
Kaner laughs unpleasantly. “Oh, fucking of course you’d ask that.”
“Why do you want me to get out of this in the first place? You’re a demon, Kaner, why do I even matter to you?” He needs to know – he hates this confusion, hates feeling like the whole world is shifting underneath him and he can’t find his place. He didn’t know until now that he apparently figures out his place using Kaner as his compass.
What a fucking mess.
“Because you matter, you fucker, okay? You matter to me. You brought me here, you gave me this life, you made your dreams into my dreams, and now I can’t fucking separate them and it’s all your fault.” Kaner seems to deflate, sinking into the couch like his bones have disintegrated. “I can’t wreck you. It’d wreck me, too.”
“Kaner, I...” He doesn’t know how to finish that sentence.
“You want to know the worst part?” Kaner says before he can figure out what to say next. “Worse than knowing that everything I do, every time I’m helping you achieve your dreams I’m putting you more and more in danger? I want you to have it all. I want to give it to you.” He takes a long pull of his Mike’s Hard Lemonade and doesn’t seem to notice that it tastes disgusting. Johnny wants to smile, but can’t. “Cause I know you’re not happy, Johnny. I know you’re throwing yourself into all of this, trying to pull everyone else along with you because that’s just – that’s the way you’re built. And everyone else gets to be happy, but not you. Sidney Fucking Crosby gets to be happy with his gold medal around his neck, but you’re just along for the ride. I want you to be happy, Johnny – I want to make you happy. And I can’t, because that’s the one thing I think you’ll never figure out on your own, and if I make you happy, that’s everything gone to shit.”
He can’t take it anymore. “No.”
“No what, asshole? You don’t get to tell me no.”
“You’re not responsible for my happiness. You’re not responsible for the decisions I made when I was fourteen.” He takes a deep breath. “I don’t regret it. Not any of it. Even knowing what’s coming – you don’t get it, do you? You got to trick your way into this. Not me. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be who I am without you, Kaner. And I like who I am. No, you’re right, I’m not happy – but I get to be content, sometimes, and I don’t really remember what happy feels like, so who’s to say I’m not okay with that? I don’t regret the decisions I made. But.”
“I pulled you into this. I’m gonna fix it.”
Kaner’s voice is unsteady, but he sits up a little straighter. “How are you going to manage that?”
“We’ll find a loophole. We’ll find allies. Something – whatever there is to find, we’ll find it. We can figure it out.”
“You’re crazy,” Kaner says, but it sounds a lot like acceptance. Johnny will take that.
It’s not like he has a lot of free time, what with it being March and the captain of an NHL team making the push to the playoffs, but what little time he has is spent online, buying rare books off eBay and trolling message boards he’s pretty sure are run by people that wouldn’t know or care who the Chicago Blackhawks are. At one point on the road when his phone dies and the hotel’s internet access seems to be dedicated to thwarting him, he finds a Gideon Bible in a drawer of the hotel room dresser and starts highlighting. Kaner walks in and finds him sitting on his bed with the bible in his lap and the highlighter cap hanging out of the side of his mouth like the nerdiest cigarette ever and collapses on the floor laughing for a good three minutes.
“Shut up, asshole,” he shouts and throws the highlighter at Kaner. It leaves a yellow streak along Kaner’s neck that makes Sharpie’s eyebrows shoot up in the locker room later.
It’s dead-end after dead-end. It frustrates the fuck out of Johnny, and for a while – as much as he hates to admit it – it distracts him. March is not their best month.
“You can’t do this,” Kaner says to him finally, walking into Johnny’s apartment completely unannounced after they lose to Columbus for the second time. “This isn’t gonna help a fucking thing.”
“It will,” Johnny says, not looking up from his computer, “eventually.”
He takes the point, though, and April is pretty much magic. They break team record after team record, and this year, more than they’ve ever been, they’re contenders. It feels good – and scary. The closer they get, the more Kaner scowls.
“Just be happy, asshole,” Johnny says the night they win the division. They’re all out celebrating; normally Kaner would be the first to drag them out looking for trouble and a scathing feature on Deadspin. He tells everyone there’s nothing wrong, but he’s pretty much the worst liar Johnny has ever known, which is hilarious considering the demonology message boards claim that lies are his specialty. “Just – come on.”
“You first,” Kaner says, and then clearly tries to hide his contrition by downing his drink.
He does that a lot that night, and it’s not long before he’s belligerent drunk and threatening to make Sharpie’s face a lot less pretty if he doesn’t get Kaner another Malibu and pineapple. “Get your own terrible drink,” Sharpie says kindly, amused as always at how Kaner’s taste gets improbably worse when he’s sloshed.
“Okay, yeah, it’s time for us to go,” says Johnny, and pulls Kaner out of the bar and into a cab.
“Where are we going?” Kaner asks. At least, that’s what Johnny thinks he asks. It could really have been anything. Kaner does not react well to Malibu.
“You need to sleep,” Johnny says. “You needed to sleep, like, three hours ago.”
“Your mom needs to sleep,” Kaner says, and snorts at his own comment, because Kaner is that much of a tool.
“You’re so clever, Patty.”
“Your mom is so clever,” Kaner says.
By the time the cab pulls up to Kaner’s apartment, Kaner’s head is on Johnny’s shoulder. He tips the cabbie a twenty and hauls Kaner up. “Keys,” he says.
“It’s open,” Kaner says.
“You dumbass,” Johnny says, and pushes him into the elevator.
The apartment is indeed open, and as usual it’s weirdly neat considering that Kaner is terrible at pretty much everything involving taking care of himself. He knows that Kaner has said he hasn’t used his demon powers for anything since he tricked his way into the Kane family, but a part of him suspects very strongly that Kaner has some hocus-pocus going on to keep his place clean.
He frogmarches Kaner to his bedroom, and Kaner slides onto the bed with a sigh. “We’re gonna do it, you know,” Kaner says.
“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny says. “Now that I know you actually want to jinx this whole thing, I’m finding this whole thing a lot less funny. Next you’ll tell me you touched the Cup.” He pulls Kaner’s shoes off and throws them in a corner. Kaner makes a protesting sound – what the hell? – so Johnny sighs and goes to pick them back up. “You take really great care of your clothes for someone who can barely dress himself,” he says, putting the shoes in the cedar rack in the closet.
When he turns back around, Kaner is pulling his shirt off over his head and flopping facedown onto his pillow. Johnny can see the lines on his back, now that he knows what to look for.
“What happened to them? Your wings, I mean? Did you…”
“Cut them off? No, fuck, no.” Kaner’s barely audible with his face in the pillow. “I hide them. They’re – they exist, but not here.”
Johnny’s not sure how much sense that makes, but Kaner seems to think it’s a good explanation because he doesn’t say anything else. “Okay, well, good night. Trash can’s by the bed if you need to vomit.” He turns to go.
“Can you stay?” Kaner says, voice small and muffled – Johnny almost doesn’t hear it.
“I’ll be in the guest bedroom,” he says, “if you need something.”
Kaner’s arms are around him, the roar of air rushing around him screams in his ears, and all at once he realizes that they are being chased.
“Give up,” calls a booming voice from below them. “We will find you. We will catch you. We will keep you.”
They are flying. Kaner’s wings beat furiously, strain written across his face as he takes them higher. Johnny hears himself call down to their pursuers, “You can try – but we have time on our side.” Then his mouth shapes words in a language he doesn’t know, has never heard, and from below comes a rolling boom that seems to echo in his bones even after it fades into the distance.
“They’ll never stop,” Kaner says.
“They have to,” he replies. “Seven hours and twenty eight seconds, that’s it.” On the horizon behind them, the last rays of the sun are fading into nothing. “Just push.”
“Pushing,” Kaner says. “This better be making you really, really unhappy,” he adds.
“Never worse,” Johnny replies, tightening his arms around Kaner’s neck as they look for the spot. He sees something flare on the ground, but the ruins aren’t supposed to be for another hundred miles or so, and this part of the desert should be completely deserted. What –
The light arcs up toward them, and Johnny screams as the fireball hits him full in the chest, and Kaner is dropping him and the sound seems to get sucked out of his mouth before he can consciously make it –
And Kaner is shaking him, kneeling over him on his guest bed, shouting, “Johnny, Johnny, wake up, come on,” and nothing makes any fucking sense.
“I was dreaming,” he begins, but Kaner is shaking his head, cutting him off.
“You have to remember everything that happened,” Kaner says, and rips some paper from the back of a book on the bookshelf, hands Johnny a pen. “Write it all down, don’t leave anything out. Anything could be important.”
“How are you – you were really drunk,” Johnny says.
“Shut up and write,” Kaner says.
It takes him a good 20 minutes, but eventually he puts down his pen and says, “Okay, that’s all I can do.”
“Think harder,” Kaner says.
Johnny shakes his head. “I did. I’m telling you, man, this is as much of it as I can do.”
Kaner picks up the paper and starts reading through it. Looking at him, Johnny finds it hard to believe that less than – he looks at the clock – less than four hours ago Kaner was so drunk he couldn’t stand up straight. Kaner’s hands don’t even shake as he turns to the second sheet of paper.
“What did you do?” Johnny asks. “When you heard me having that dream, what did you do?”
“I came in and woke you up. Did you hit your head or something?” Kaner says, eyes still flicking back and forth down the page.
“How did you get in here on your own?” Johnny asks. “You could barely move when I dumped you in bed. You – you motherfucker, you used your magic.”
Not for the first time, Johnny wonders how someone as objectively terrible at lying as Kaner can have any success being a prince of hell. He looks so guilty that when he stammers, “I really wasn’t that drunk to begin with,” it’s all Johnny can do not to shout, “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE” at him and hit him with a pillow.
“Don’t you fucking lie to me, you liar!” he shouts, and hits Kaner with a pillow.
Kaner drops the papers he’s holding on the floor and tries to block the pillows with his hands – he fails, of course, because he can’t fight for shit. Even if he could, Johnny has thirty pounds of muscle on him because one thing Kaner can’t bring himself to do is eat like he actually cares about his body.
“Yes, okay, fine, stop hitting me, I used magic. Just a little magic! You don’t understand how important it was that you get pulled out of that dream when you did. When I figured out what was going on, I may have, uh, helped the alcohol dissipate a little faster than it would have naturally. But I pulled you out, you remember the dream, and this is gonna help us a lot. And it wasn’t a lot of magic – I bet nobody even noticed.”
The plasma TV on the wall flickers on. On screen, the ShamWow guy says, “Oh, Cain, you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?”
“FUCK,” Kaner says, and throws the lamp next to the bed at the TV.
Kaner wants to go to a hotel. Kaner wants to move to Brazil. Kaner wants to quit hockey, and for Johnny to quit hockey, and for them to never, ever see each other again.
Kaner’s ideas are fucking stupid, each and every one of them, and if it wasn’t clear already: this is why Johnny is captain and not Kaner.
“You’re not going to a hotel, and you’re not moving to Brazil, and neither of us are quitting hockey. You’re coming to my place for now, and we’ll figure things out after the Playoffs. As long as you can restrain yourself from doing any more magic. Do you think you can manage that?”
“Yes,” Kaner says sulkily, and then adds, “How are you the one who’s telling me not to worry? I’m really not okay with this.”
And that’s how Kaner ends up moving in with Johnny.
It is, they both agree from the very beginning, absolutely a temporary thing. It takes them a little while even to accept that Kaner’s going to need more to survive than the duffel bag of hastily-chosen clothes Kaner threw together as they were fleeing his apartment. Eventually, they hire some people to go get most of Kaner’s things from his old place – not the electronics, which Kaner swears are literally possessed and should be burned. Tazer rolls his eyes and tells the movers they can have all the electronics in the house if they get in and out in under 2 hours and make it so Kaner gets his deposit back. “Anything with a speaker or a screen,” Kaner tells them.
An hour and twenty minutes later, there’s a neat pile of Kaner’s stuff in Johnny’s living room, and a small mound of furniture in a storage unit a couple minutes away from the United Center. “You sure we can have all your TVs and stuff?” one of the movers says as they drop the last box in Johnny’s entryway.
“It’s yours, man,” Kaner says. “I’ll get new ones when I find my own place. They’re a couple years old, anyway.”
“I shoulda got into hockey,” the mover mutters, and is out the door quickly like he thinks Kaner’s going to change his mind and call the cops on him.
The pile of stuff is pretty small to begin with – this is temporary, and Johnny already has all the furniture and appliances and stuff he feels the need to use, so beyond a couple of trophies most of what Kaner brings with him are his awful clothes and his even worse collection of overpriced hair products. And anyway, they have a flight to catch this evening, so Kaner just shoves everything to one side, opens up a couple of the boxes in the hallway, and packs his bag from there.
“You know we’re gonna be fine, right?” Johnny says as they leave his apartment.
“I know we’re gonna win this game, if that’s what you mean,” Kaner says, and he’s halfway to the elevator before Johnny can respond.
“It’s not,” Johnny mutters, and follows him.
The thing is, they do win the game. Kaner has a manic energy to him that Johnny hasn’t seen from him since before the Olympics, and both of them manage a goal as the game flies by. They’re on the plane back to Chicago almost as soon as the final horn goes off, and by the time they make it back to Johnny’s place it’s nearly 1 AM and they’re propping each other up in the elevator ride to the 11th floor.
“Boxes,” Kaner mumbles as Johnny opens the door, but it’s pretty clear neither of them are going to mess with the pile in the hallway in their current state. They’re leaning on each other all the way down the hall and both collapse face-down on Johnny’s bed before he remembers he has a guest-bedroom. He should remind Kaner about that, but his eyes seem to close on their own before he can quite get the words out.
He wakes up once, in the middle of the night, as Kaner shifts in his sleep, and he realizes that he’s still got his shoes on. He kicks them off, pulls off his shirt and scratches at the back of his neck where the tag was rubbing uncomfortably, and is back asleep in almost the next breath.
Dreams are hazy, when they come upon him – nothing like the vivid, terrifying pseudo-reality from a few nights before. Instead he finds himself floating, warm and comfortable, in what he thinks might be water, if water were pale purple. He doesn’t feel the need to move, only look up at the shifting colors around him and let his mind drift where it will.
From somewhere far away, he hears Kaner’s voice. “I can’t make you happy,” Kaner says. “I thought it would be easy. I thought all of this would be easy.”
“You can make me happy,” Johnny says into the orange-streaked sky. “I can’t even make me happy, but I bet you could.”
Kaner’s voice, when he hears it again, is closer by, like they’re swimming side by side, but when Johnny turns his head to look there’s nobody there. “I can’t do this,” Kaner says, and the water rushes past Johnny like fingertips trailing across his back, gentle and teasing.
“You can do anything,” Johnny says on a sigh. “You don’t even know what you can do.” He drifts forward, his hands shifting, and the water between his fingers feels soft like Kaner’s hair.
“You only say that because you don’t know what I’ve done,” Kaner’s voice says.
“I don’t care what you’ve done, I care what you do.”
“You don’t know,” Kaner’s voice says again, from farther away this time, and Johnny can’t reach for him, can’t bring him back. He should look for Kaner, he thinks, but the water cradles him, and the colors in the sky shift. It’s safe here, he thinks. Wherever he is, Kaner is safe.
The dream slides away from him like water out of a tub, little by little, and he can’t quite pinpoint the moment when he realizes that the warm breath on his neck isn’t part of the dream but happening in reality. He arches into it, and the bed shifts behind him, arms coming around him, a hand gentle as it rests on his hip. Johnny feels like he’s slept for a thousand years, like something in a story his mother used to tell him, and he can’t shake off the heaviness of sleep. He turns, and tilts his head up, and his mouth brushes over a cheek, then a stubbled jaw, and then a mouth that opens, slow and sleepy, underneath his.
He knows it’s Kaner. He’s not stupid – they fell asleep together, this can’t be anyone else – but he doesn’t stop, even though he’s awake enough to know that this is a terrible, terrible idea.
He doesn’t want to stop.
Kaner’s basically the worst person in the world, and he’s half-asleep and hasn’t showered since the locker room in Dallas after the game, and his mouth tastes like morning breath and the orange Powerade he drank on the plane. The point being that this is just about the worst kiss Johnny’s ever had. And it’s also kind of really, really, the opposite. His hands twist into Kaner’s hair and pull him close, and Kaner’s tongue slides against his, and then it is fucking on.
With Kaner he feels unsure in a way he never does with anyone else, and the lack of certainty makes him feel the need to prove himself, to show Kaner just how good he can be. So he throws everything he has into the press of their mouths, the grind of their bodies against each other. He rolls his hips a bit, settling himself firmly against Kaner, hooking a leg around him and pulling them together as he licks his way into Kaner’s mouth.
As with everything else he does, Kaner is not exactly one to resist a challenge. He’s fully awake now, and Johnny can feel the press of Kaner’s cock stiffening between them, even through the jeans they’re still wearing from yesterday. Kaner shoves at him until he’s fully on top of Johnny, pinning him to the bed with mouth and hands and hips, and it’s so fucking good in a way Johnny didn’t really understand that anything could be before now. Kaner’s callused fingers twist at Johnny’s nipple, making him buck his hips up against Kaner’s thigh, and his mouth drifts down to drag his teeth against Johnny’s jaw, the thin skin under his ear. Johnny has the sudden, lovely thought that this is a fight both of them can win.
But then Kaner fucking loses it, shoves Johnny away so hard he practically falls off the bed. “Stop it, fucking stop it,” Kaner says, swiping the back of his hand across his mouth like he’s trying to get rid of Johnny’s taste on his lips.
“What the shit, Kaner?”
“You can’t do this,” he says. “You just – you can’t, okay? Get the fuck away from me.” Kaner is off the bed and out of the room before Johnny can figure out what the hell he’s supposed to say.
Johnny sits on his bed for a long time before he pulls his shirt on and wanders out of his room to find breakfast, and by then, Kaner’s already left for the United Center.
Kaner doesn’t move out, which is the first surprising thing, and he doesn’t change the way he acts around Johnny in the slightest, which is the second. It’s like the whole thing was some sexy hallucination that Johnny’s mind conjured up out of tiredness and sexual frustration.
Except no, there’s a faint streak of red where Kaner’s stubble abraded the thin skin of his neck, a bruise at his hip where Kaner’s hand dug in as he flipped them over. Johnny finds all the evidence in the shower that morning, gets himself off as the memory of Kaner’s mouth on his neck, Kaner’s body pressed into his, replays in his mind’s eye over and over.
So yeah, it actually happened, but Kaner pretends it didn’t, and Johnny lets him. Either there’s some demonic reason that Kaner can’t do this with him, in which case Johnny can ask him about it when the season is over and they have time to work on fixing what needs fixing, or… or Kaner doesn’t want this.
That possibility Johnny really prefers to avoid thinking about.
They begin their series against the Preds on home ice, and Johnny’s not sure he’s ever seen the United Center quite like this before. The past two seasons, the playoffs have been incredible, and an increasing number of people in Chicago are sitting up and paying attention to the work they’re doing, but this year it’s like the city can sense something special is going on. Maybe Kaner is right, Johnny thinks in the roar before the puck drop. Maybe, finally, this year is their year.
So of course they lose the first game, and Johnny stops thinking about maybes and starts thinking about what’s going on right then, what’s happening in the moment and nothing at all about what’s coming next.
They take the series in six, and then it’s on to the Canucks, and it’s pretty obvious that every single member of the Blackhawks organization, from Q on down to the guy that puts the towels by their lockers before halftime, really fucking enjoys winning that series. Kaner’s beard has become truly sketchy by the time they beat the Canucks in game six, and it’s really difficult to think about Kaner as anything worth having sex with when he takes so much pride in the truly terrifying mullet sitting on his horrible head.
“You know that playoff mullets aren’t a thing,” Johnny says to Kaner, as he has about six or seven times a week since Kaner announced he was growing one.
“They are now,” Kaner responds. “I’m a trendsetter, Tazer. It’s a heavy responsibility, like you being captain, but I take it seriously.”
“I hate everything about you,” Johnny says fervently.
“You too,” Kaner says, and punches him on the arm.
They spend a great couple of days in San Jose the week after they beat Vancouver. The weather is glorious, Kaner eats his body weight in Mexican food, and then there’s the fact that they leave for Game 3 in Chicago in position to sweep the series. If he thought game 1 of the series against Nashville was crazy, the games against San Jose are fucking insane. Duncs gives seven of his teeth in the second period of the last game as – so he jokes later – a sacrifice to the hockey gods to make the sweep happen. When it does, Johnny sees, not for the first time, how the Madhouse got its nickname.
“You’re not happy, are you?” Kaner says as they’re crushed together in the celebrations that follow.
“Why would I be happy? I have to look at your fucking awful mullet for another week at least,” Johnny says, and knocks helmets with Kaner.
“Good,” Kaner says with a half-smile, and skates away. The smile stays on his face through the presentation of the Campbell, gets bigger as Johnny carefully does not touch it at the ceremony – though, Johnny notices, he doesn’t touch it either.
The first two games against the Flyers are tight wins, too close for Johnny to feel good about even though they go into Philly up two in the series. The second two games are painful defeats that keep him up late, make him wonder what the hell he will do if they get this far only to blow it. But they win back in Chicago – they win huge, emphatically, with the board showing seven goals before the final horn. He wants to play the next game immediately, to get right back on the ice and end it now. Instead, they go back to Johnny’s place, and neither he nor Kaner says what they’re both thinking: one more. One more game, that’s all they have to worry about right now.
Well, that and the contract. But he supposes he’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.
The atmosphere on the plane back to Philly is tense, excited, and as much as Johnny knows he should try to get some rest all he can do is flick through his magazine and try to ignore Kaner’s twitching in the seat beside him.
“We can do this,” Kaner says as they get to the hotel. “You think we can do this?”
“I think we can do this,” he replies.
Kaner spends some time on the phone with his family before they get to sleep, and Johnny can hear the laughter of his sisters through the phone speaker, so excited to be in Philly for the game. It amazes him sometimes how Kaner has created this family, pulled together from half-truths and sleight-of-hand, and made them into something real. There is nothing false about the way he messes around with his sisters, the conversations with his parents about his hopes and dreams. It’s one more reason they need to solve this. If Johnny’s contract comes due, Kaner can’t stay.
Johnny turns out the light at 10:00 exactly. At 10:05, Kaner says, “One more game.”
“Shut up,” Johnny says, failing to keep the affection out of his voice.
“You shut up,” Kaner replies, and then, “Sleep well.”
“You too, Kaner.”
The next day drags until the puck drop, and then they’re flying.
It’s a tight game. They dominate the first period, but Philly ties it up before the intermission and the second period is close, so close. Ladd puts them ahead, but they can’t hang on to the lead to the end of the game, and they go into overtime.
“Someone has to do it,” Duncs says in the locker room as they wait to go back on the ice. Johnny nods, sees the rest of the team look around, trying to figure out who’s going to pull it out for them. Duncs continues, “We’re not losing this. I’m sorry, but we’re not. Someone in here is gonna get this for us.”
Next to him, Johnny feels Kaner sit up straighter, square his shoulders. He doesn’t say anything, but Johnny watches him walk out of the locker room with a look on his face that Johnny’s not sure he’s ever seen before - or maybe once, that night at the crossroads.
Four minutes later, Johnny watches the puck hit the back of the net.
He feels arms come around him, watches for the light, watches for the officials to tell him something, but there’s a roar in his ears that echoes easily over the quiet of the Philadelphia crowd. The officials are looking at each other – still no light, someone can still take this away from him, from his team – and everyone is pulling him over the boards and onto the ice, spilling like a wave through a broken dam, onto Kaner and each other as the officials confirm the goal.
“We fucking did it!” Kaner is shouting, over and over, pulling his helmet off and throwing it away. At the other end of the arena, the officials finally dig the puck out of the net, and Johnny isn’t sure how he stays on his feet as everything, all of it, hits him at once.
The rest of the celebrations blur together in a parade of crushing hugs and tears, all set to the beautiful music of the booing Philadelphia crowd. Somewhere along the way someone hands him the Conn Smythe, and his eyes find Kaner’s as realizes what it might mean. He supposes that maybe two of his terms have been fulfilled tonight, and he pushes down on the joy that starts to bubble up inside him as he remembers just how many people have worked to get him here, how many people would be disappointed if they knew the truth. Kaner’s smile wavers for a moment like he can hear what Johnny is thinking, but then the commissioner hands him the Stanley Fucking Cup. His arms seem to be working on autopilot, and he feels like he holds the cup in the air for about ten years before it gets passed out from his hands to Kaner, and Hoss, and everyone else that fucking earned this so, so much.
They drink champagne from the cup, then beer, then, more champagne, and at one point he’s pretty sure he sees Burish cuddling the trophy like it’s a lady he’s trying to get friendly with. He sees his parents a couple of times – they tell him about the times he dreamed about lifting the Stanley Cup when he was a kid, that time he made one out of three rolls of foil and a half a roll of duct tape and how it sat in the corner of his room for a year. He laughs with them and tries not to wonder what would have happened if he’d outgrown that dream like every other kid he knew.
Eventually the team is poured into cars and transported back to the hotel, and Q takes the cup away from them with a muttered, “Because God only knows what you hooligans would do to it if I gave it to you right now.”
“You happy yet?” Kaner slurs into his ear when they make it up to their room.
“Wouldn’t you know if I were?” he responds, and tries to keep the bitterness out of his voice. There’s no room for that right now. They are Stanley Cup winners; Kaner has kept all his promises.
Kaner shrugs, leans into his shoulder like there aren’t a dozen other things he could use to support his drunk ass in the room. “I’m happy,” he offers. “But I could always be happier.”
“Why did you…” he begins, and then shuts his mouth, because he may have had all the champagne in Philadelphia to drink but he’s not about to touch the subject of making out with Kaner without something stronger.
But Kaner seems to hear the rest of the question. “Why did I stop?”
Johnny nods slowly.
Kaner lets go of him, sits back onto the bed and almost slides off it. “You’re right,” he says when he regains enough of his balance to look up at Johnny. “I can kind of sense when you’re close to being happy. When you’re close to completing any of the terms of the agreement, actually. And hey, congratulations on being the best, buddy. MVP of the Stanley Cup Champions – I think you probably already figured it out, but you definitely ticked that one off your list.”
“So now I’m down to one,” he says. “Be happy.”
Kaner’s smile is unpleasant. “I’m still a demon,” he says. “You’ve been on the edge of it for weeks, now, and I could push you over. The closest you’ve come – the closest you’ve ever come, since you were 14, is holding up that Cup for the first time, and when I was on top of you with my hands all over you. And I could push you over, right now, if I wanted to.”
Johnny doesn’t have to look in a mirror to know his eyes have gone wide. Kaner reaches out, that same mean expression on his face, and tugs at one of the belt loops on Johnny’s jeans until he moves to stand in front of Kaner. “What,” Johnny says, trying to figure out the words to turn it into a question.
“I could make you so happy,” Kaner says. “And then I could drag you to hell, and you wouldn’t be able to stop me.”
He’s afraid, standing here in front of Kaner, for the first time in a long time. He feels his pulse jump in his neck, and asks, “Why don’t you, then?”
“Because I don’t want to,” Kaner says.
“You don’t want me to be happy? Or you don’t want me to go to hell?”
Kaner laughs. “If you can’t figure that out by now, asshole, you really have had too much to drink tonight. And when I’m telling you you’ve had too much booze, you know you’re shitfaced.”
Maybe it’s mean, but he says it anyway. “How are you so fucking sure having sex with you would make me happy?”
“Well, I mean, I could always try to be a huge disappointment, but when you’re as naturally talented as I am…” Kaner says, and then smacks Johnny in the stomach. “I’m pretty sure we’ve been over this. I can tell when you’re close to fulfilling one of the contract terms. I’m as confused as you are as to why making out with me got you close to it – though if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because I’m fucking awesome.”
“You’re the worst,” Johnny snaps automatically. “So what, we just – avoid being near each other and try not to win the Stanley Cup again until after I turn 24?”
“You have a better idea?”
Johnny rolls his eyes. “I pretty much always have better ideas than you. I told you, I’m going to figure this out. Now that the season is over, I have time for research. We’re gonna have to be around Chicago for a while, anyways – while we’re not doing Blackhawks stuff, we’ll try to find out how to get us both out of this.”
“Fine,” Kaner says. “It’s not going to work, but fine. We’ll do it your way.”
His way gets put on hold in the direct aftermath of the win. The entire team goes on a bender that seems to be designed to make up for every single party they ever missed because they had hockey practice the next morning, and Johnny may have thoroughly earned the nickname Captain Serious but he also earned this celebration. The parade is a blur of beer and cheering and more beer, and he’s pretty sure that at one point he threatens in earshot of other people to hold Kaner down and cut off his mullet. Either way, the last vestiges of their dignity die a very public death, and he is almost pathetically grateful for how he doesn’t really remember the specifics.
Then there’s the obligatory Take The Cup Home To Winnipeg week, where he gets a lake he’s never been to named after him. He takes a picture of the Cup next to his trophy shelves at home and makes it his iPhone wallpaper. It’s kind of the highlight of his time at home.
It’s late July before he finally gets enough down time to really start back in on the research. He starts with some of the sites he had discovered before the playoffs started, and gets some recommendations of books to look through, and before long he’s got a pile on the desk in his living room that towers over his laptop.
When Kaner gets back from Buffalo and sees what Johnny has been privately calling the book fortress, he just shakes his head. “You’re not gonna get anywhere with those, man. That one’s fiction, that one’s a bad translation of a bad translation, and the author of that one had syphilis so bad he hallucinated half the shit he wrote.”
“So help me,” Johnny replies. “Write down everything that happened when the demons who usually deal with the contracts found out what you did – everything they said, everything your boss said to you. And then let’s start trying to figure out how that can help us.”
“You’re really, really annoying,” Kaner informs him, but complies.
He reads through what Kaner’s written. It’s familiar enough; Kaner has mentioned a lot of it to him over the years, and as he reads he finds a lot of the blanks being filled in.
Something jogs his memory. “That dream,” he says. “That dream I had, the night you used your magic. You said you had to pull me out of it, and then you made me write it down. Why?”
“You were dreaming about something that’s going to happen,” Kaner says. “I think it’s from the day before your 24th birthday.”
“Like – a prophetic dream?”
Kaner shakes his head. “No, see, with prophetic dreams, you have the possibility, however remote, of changing what’s in the dream. With this one, it’s like you were actually there, riding along with future us. Humans don’t normally have those kinds of dreams, so something was working on your mind, pulling you forward. Whatever did that – I don’t think it wanted to help you. I think it wanted to figure you out. And I think it wanted to force me to do something.”
“And you did,” Johnny says. “Do you still have the paper I wrote on? With the dream?”
“Yeah, somewhere in that desk,” says Kaner.
It doesn’t take them long, and when Johnny reads through what he wrote he turns to Kaner, wondering if Kaner saw the same thing he did. “If this was real, it sounds like we figured it out,” he says. “Future us, at some point – we had a plan, and we thought it was going to work. We figured it out.”
For some reason, that doesn’t make Kaner perk up. “Yeah, well. We could be wrong. And you didn’t see how it ended.”
“No, but it makes me think there’s something out there the has the answer. All we have to do is find it.”
It takes him a year and three months. In that time, they trade nearly half their team in the offseason, he scores his 100th goal, and they lose in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs to the fucking Canucks. Through it all, he looks for the answer to this contract, to what Kaner did differently and why it all matters.
When he finds it, he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
“Kaner,” he says, and then louder, “Kaner, hey, come in here.”
“20 seconds left in this game,” Kaner yells from the living room around a mouthful of Chex Mix. “Fucking Canucks!”
“Fuck that,” he yells, “now, Patrick!”
Kaner stands in the doorway, still holding the wireless controller. “What’s your problem?”
“I have no problems,” he says. “And neither do you.”
He explains to Kaner – who, as he watches, moves from stunned to angry to excited – that the key to all of this was finding out how contracts typically worked, and who carried them out. “The demon in charge of the soul contracts wasn’t mad at you because you fucked up the contract, or agreed to the wrong thing. He was mad because you didn’t go through him. A normal crossroads demon doesn’t agree to a contract himself – he agrees on behalf of the division. He doesn’t keep the power to break the contract, and he doesn’t draw power from the soul when the contract comes due.”
“So then, me taking your contract means…”
“You carry it out, you get the rewards at the end – the rewards being my soul, and the power from it. What I don’t get is why they’re even concerned. If it’s outside the system, what business is it of theirs?”
Kaner looks at him like he’s an idiot and replies, “Hell is bureaucracy, man. Haven’t you figured that out? Working outside the system jeopardizes everything for them – if they lose control over this, and the other powers find out, it could get their department in serious trouble. It could jeopardize the whole system, even. They’re coming after us to make sure I carry through on the deal, and to make sure your soul goes where it would have gone if a real crossroads demon had made the deal.”
Try as he might he can’t reconcile what Kaner is telling him with what he thought he’d found. This should be their ticket out, and Kaner looks excited, but what he’s saying seems to be pretty fucking bleak. “So they’re just going to keep coming? Why?”
“The demon in charge of contracts has a huge amount of power at his disposal – and when contracts come due, typically, he sends the demons he controls out to collect the souls. Hellhounds, usually, but sometimes more than that if he anticipates a problem.” Kaner smiles. “They think we don’t know this isn’t a normal contract. They still think they’ve convinced me that I’m working for them, that I have to give them your soul when it comes due. They’re gonna fight to keep you. There will be some very nasty things coming after you.”
“That…” Johnny swallows. “That doesn’t sound good. That sounds really, really bad. Why do you look so happy?”
Kaner shakes his head. “You’re not getting it. Now that I know how this works – I have the right to assert my claim to the contract. The magic is pretty fucking binding, and when they come for you, as long as we can hold them off until after the contract comes due – they’ll leave us alone after. I’ll have to deal with the consequences of following through or not following through on the contract. I’ll have to deal with the power, or the loss of it, when it happens. But as long as we can keep them from getting to you until after 2:49 in the morning on your 24th birthday, they’ll leave us alone after that. They’ll have to.” His smile looks like it’s taking over his face. “You fucking nerd, you figured it out.”
Johnny puts on his best Captain Serious face. “Yeah, well, I did promise.”
It gets harder and harder as the months pass and April 29th, 2012 approaches. Kaner warns him it will. “They’re going to start coming after you,” he says, “and you have to protect yourself. Stay close to me when you can – they won’t come near you this early if I’m with you, as long as we can make it seem like I’m trying to carry out the contract.”
Johnny gets injured in February, and sits in his apartment by turns feeling really, really shitty about everything, and researching places they can go when the time comes. He focuses on desert areas – in his dream, they were flying across the desert to someplace Kaner said was going to be safe, so he figures there has to be somewhere isolated that has some demon-repelling properties. He’s determined to find it. Kaner has already gone around Johnny’s apartment, sticking pouches of stuff in corners, under their beds, behind the TV, and running lines of salt around the windows. Kaner swears it’s necessary, and so Johnny doesn’t complain, even though he kind of thinks Kaner’s making all of it up.
He realizes just how much Kaner is not making all of this up on a morning in late February, when he’s driving to the United Center and looks in the rear view mirror to see glowing red eyes coming from a dark shape in the car behind him and promptly crashes his car.
It goes against every instinct he has, but he doesn’t get out and run. Kaner’s put something in his car that he swears will protect Johnny while he’s in there, and so he sits in the car, hands gripping the steering wheel, and waits for the cops to show up. By the time they do, the car has made five laps past him, like a shark circling in the water. Once the police come, he doesn’t see it again.
When he finally makes it to the United Center, Kaner pulls him into the locker room and yells at him for about ten minutes before finally saying, “And anyway, it’s not like they can do anything to you unless you fulfill the final part of the contract between now and your birthday, or unless they know we’re trying to cheat hell out of a soul.”
It hits him, not for the first time, just what Kaner is trying to do for him. Maybe it’s the stress of the day, or maybe it’s an instinctive repugnance of the word “cheat” that he can’t stand being applied to him in any context, but a wave of dizziness hits him. He sits down a little harder on the bench than he has to, and then thinks, fuck it, and lies flat on the bench and closes his eyes.
Kaner is crouched beside him in a second. His voice is panicked as he says, “Tazer, man, come on, you’re okay. You’re okay, just…”
“I’m fine, Kaner. I just needed to lie back for a second. Stop worrying.”
“Yeah, that’s gonna happen,” Kaner mutters. “If I ask you how much this car wreck fucked up your head, would you tell me the truth?”
“Of course I will,” Johnny says. “I’m fine. It didn’t do anything, just made my insurance premiums go up.”
“Liar,” Kaner mutters, and then yells for Q.
He gets back on the ice in plenty of time for the Hawks to find out they’ll be playing the Yotes in the first round of the Playoffs, and narrows his search for demon-proof sites to Arizona. It’s gonna be something flyable for Kaner – because his dream, apparently a fucking glimpse into his future, has Kaner flying them away from the demons trying to chase them down – which effectively eliminates all the sacred sites outside a 200 or so mile radius. Kaner seemed to be able to cover a lot of ground faster than whatever was chasing him, but Johnny can’t imagine Kaner being able to go for more than a few hours straight without having to set them down.
In the end, he finds an article on a temple beneath some ruins in a place called Point of Pines. He shows it to Kaner.
“That should do,” Kaner says. “Isolated, which is good. If we’re gonna have to fight, I don’t think you want anyone around that could be, uh, persuaded into attacking us. And the desert in the time of the Anasazi was a haven for demonkind – they got pretty good at protecting themselves from us. There’s an entry point between Point of Pines and Phoenix, in the Superstition Mountains. We’ll need to avoid that – that’s where we’ll be attacked, no question.”
“So this is it?” Johnny asks.
“This is it,” Kaner says.
They plan for April 29th in the evenings. In the day, they plan for the Phoenix Coyotes.
When they lose in Game 6 – in Chicago, not in Phoenix – Johnny wonders if this is an indication of how his other plans are going to go.
“Well, look at it this way,” Kaner says philosophically. “At least we won’t have to explain to Q why we absolutely can’t be at practice that day.”
“At least I don’t have to look at your playoff beard for another day,” Johnny says.
“Shut up, muttonchops,” Kaner mutters.
They fly back into Phoenix four days after their loss. Nobody recognizes them – Phoenix isn’t exactly a hockey town, even with the Coyotes finally making it to the second round – and they get a hotel room near the airport that contains two double beds, a big TV, and not much else. Kaner salts the windows and the door, tucks a small bundle behind the TV. More bundles go under their pillows, and then Kaner walks the room, checking the bathroom and the various corners until he sits down on the bed next to Johnny and says, “What’s on TV?”
“That’s it?” Johnny asks. “After all that, ‘What’s on TV?’”
Kaner shrugs. “We’ve done all we can do. We rent a car in the morning and get as far as we can to Point of Pines. Hopefully by the time they realize what we’re doing and give chase, we’re far enough out we can fly the rest of the way without being seen.”
It’s actually a pretty damn good plan. He’s not sure why Kaner actually having a plan surprises him – but it also makes him feel protected, and that’s not something Johnny is used to feeling. It’s kind of wonderful, when he really thinks about it.
“You pick the movie,” Johnny says after a moment.
“Order us room service?” Kaner says, and for a second it feels like they’re just here for an away game, here to do their job instead of here to save themselves from the mistake they made ten years ago. The mistake, Johnny reminds himself, that he doesn’t regret, not for a fucking minute.
They watch two movies and fall asleep by 11:00. If Johnny dreams of something, he doesn’t remember what. He wakes up at one point and hears Kaner talking in his sleep - which, to be fair, Kaner sometimes does – in a language that he doesn’t understand, but sounds familiar, like something he’s heard before. He listens, figures out a phrase to repeat to Kaner, and then shakes him awake.
“You were talking,” Johnny says when Kaner blinks up at him blearily. “It sounded – oddly familiar. I think I may have heard it in that dream I had that one time.”
“That’s incredibly specific and helpful,” Kaner says, rubbing his eyes. “What did I say? Do you remember?”
Johnny speaks the syllables slowly, trying to be precise, and almost immediately Kaner stops him. “Okay, yeah, that’s Mogollon. They were the ones who built the place we’re going to in Point of Pines.”
“And what, you just happen to speak Mogollon?” Johnny asks. “Seriously, you? You make fun of me for speaking French.”
“I’m almost four thousand years old, Tazer. I’ve picked up a couple things over the years. And I make fun of you for speaking French because you sound so monotone when you speak it. It’s, like, the opposite of what French is supposed to be.”
“So what was it I said in that dream from before?”
“I don’t know, man. We’ve got three hours before we have to be awake, though – go back to sleep. Let’s just hope you know what to say when the time comes.”
They stop at a Target in Tempe as they head east, buy some camping supplies and try to look Not Suspicious At All. Kaner takes the first shift driving, and Johnny tries to pack as much of their stuff into a backpack as he can fit. Because Kaner has the worst taste in pretty much everything including food, he’s basically bought out the store’s entire supply of teriyaki beef jerky and gummi worms.
“Is this supposed to be road trip food or camping food?” Johnny asks, holding up one of the bags of sour gummis.
Kaner snatches it out of his hand, tears into it. “Gummi worms are an anytime food, Tazer. One of the great scientific inventions of the 20th century.”
“I try not to eat food that had to be scientifically invented,” Johnny says, but takes a gummi worm when Kaner offers him the bag.
It’s almost pleasant, this drive. If there weren’t the prospect of being dragged to hell over both their heads, Johnny thinks he might really enjoy it. Yes, Kaner has horrible taste in driving music, but it’s kind of hilarious to watch him bounce along to Drake and pass cars at 80 miles an hour like it’s not anything. The sun is shining, and as they get out of the suburbs and the desert starts to open up in front of them, it’s actually kind of awesome.
He must have sighed or something, because Kaner shoots a look at him. “You hanging in there, Johnny?”
“I’m fine,” he says. “Just thinking this might have been fun in other circumstances.”
“Thinking about taking me camping up at Lake Toews someday?” Kaner says, and shoves another gummi worm in his mouth.
“I dunno if you’re ready for something that magnificent,” Johnny says.
“I can handle anything you can throw at me,” Kaner says, voice exaggerating the innuendo. Then he laughs at his own joke, because he’s just that much of a tool. Objectively, it’s really unattractive, and Johnny wonders if a side effect of the demon contract was douchebro-specific gayness. It would explain so much.
“You are, and will always be, the worst,” Johnny says.
“You too, Tazer,” Kaner replies.
They pass the turnoff to the Superstition Mountains around 2, and for a little while it seems like they’re not going to have any of the issues that Johnny has been bracing himself for. He was picturing a Buffy-style Hellmouth, but it makes a little more sense that whatever entrance Kaner was talking about would be somewhere unobtrusive, somewhere that could last for thousands of years without being anything more than a folktale to the people that lived in the area.
Which is, of course, when Frank Ocean stops singing about churches in the wild and instead sings, “And now we’ve found you, Cain, so good of you to bring him to us.”
Kaner manages, just barely, not to swerve the car into a ditch, but it’s a close thing. He doesn’t say anything – he’s holding his breath, even, like somehow if he doesn’t make a sound, they won’t know he’s out there.
“Pull over now,” Jay-Z says, “And let’s get this over with.”
“It’s not like this deal is the only thing we have going on,” Kanye adds.
In the rear view mirror Johnny can see a dark fog growing in the crevasses of the mountains, like really low-hanging bad weather. It curls in on itself angrily, and creeps forward slow enough that Johnny thinks they could outrun it, maybe. He feels fear settle into the base of his stomach as Kaner pulls the car over next to mile marker 78.
“Good boy,” says Jay-Z.
Johnny slings the bag over his shoulder and gets out of the car.
“Ready?” asks Kaner.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Then Kaner strips off his shirt, extends his hands to either side, and just stretches. Behind him, black wings reach up, nearly twice his height, and the look on Kaner’s face is ecstatic, tension gone from around his eyes and replaced with joy. He’s missed this, Johnny thinks. And he’s fucking beautiful, in that moment. He’s everything he was ever supposed to be, free and full of pure pleasure, and the way he looks hits Johnny like a punch to the chest.
When Kaner’s eyes open, they are fully black, like Johnny remembers from his nightmares and that night at the crossroads.
The ecstasy is gone now. Kaner says quietly, “Come on, we have to go.” His wings flutter behind him, anticipating flight.
Johnny steps forward, settles his arms around Kaner’s neck like they were in the dream. He’s still taller than Kaner, and wonders for a moment how the hell Kaner can lift them both. But Kaner’s wings start to beat, and they’re off the ground and picking up speed. A scream tears its way out of his throat.
He hears Kaner’s voice over the rush of wind past his ears. “I’ve got you, Johnny. Just hold on, and let’s see how much space we can open up between us and them. I wanna be safe in the kiva by the time it gets dark.”
They veer away from the road, and soon Kaner is taking them over canyons filled with low green shrubs. Their flight takes an erratic pattern, like Kaner is trying to avoid being tracked by the dark cloud that’s chasing them. But it stays in the distance, close enough to see, close enough to worry.
Johnny thinks – though he’s not sure – that it’s getting closer. He refrains from pointing this out to Kaner; it’s pretty clear that he’s pushing himself as hard as he can, and Johnny wonders how he’ll be able to keep this pace up for another couple of hours.
When he turns to look at Kaner – not easy, given the way they’re wrapped around each other – Kaner’s got the same smile on his face that he gets when they’re playing hockey and everything is clicking. He’s pushing himself because he can, because his body is doing things that nobody else’s can manage, because there’s joy in seeing how far he can take himself. Johnny’s hands move from Kaner’s neck to his shoulders, and he can feel the pull of muscle at the base of Kaner’s wings, where skin gives way to silken feathers. Those muscles are keeping them in the air right now, Johnny thinks.
“Are you getting tired?” Johnny says.
“We can’t afford tired,” Kaner replies. “And unless you’ve got some secret wings somewhere I don’t know about, we can’t exactly switch off.” Somehow he manages to pick up speed.
After a while, the rhythm of Kaner’s wingbeats and the warmth of the air, even up high, lull Johnny into a kind of trance, like he’s a few minutes from sleep and replaying the events of the day in his head. Except it’s not today that’s flashing across the back of his eyelids, it’s scenes from last season, from wins and losses and from his interminable concussion time off. He remembers, if he needed reminding, why this needs to work. The team needs them almost as much as he needs the team. There are trophies left to win. There are records left to break.
This has to work.
They can see what must be San Carlos, the nearest town to Point of Pines, to their south when the black fog catches up with them. It’s been gaining on them slowly since they took to the skies, but the past few minutes it’s seemed that the more energy Kaner has expended, the faster the roiling blackness has raced toward them.
Suddenly he feels déjà vu, like he’s falling into himself from a great height. The fog is under them now, swallowing up the few evergreen bushes that dot the landscape below them and pouring through the dry riverbeds like a torrent. If he looks down, he can see the leaping forms of horned beasts, the flash of red eyes, claws and teeth and tongues and shapes in the dark that speak to childhood fears, monsters under the bed and behind closet doors. The fog seems to hiss as it pushes up into the sky, trying to pull them in, and fails.
“Give up,” says a booming voice from below them. “We will find you. We will catch you. We will keep you.”
This is it, Johnny thinks. They will make it, or they won’t. “You can try,” he calls down to the writhing mass that’s chasing them, “but we have time on our side.”
There is something taking him over. He’s in his body, looking out, but something moves his mouth, and he says words he’s heard before, once, in a dream he now remembers like it just happened. He sees it unfold in front of him, hears the words echo in his throat, and below him a boom sounds like the breaking of bones, and the black fog grinds to a halt.
“They’ll never stop,” says Kaner, but he can’t see the way the fog is folding in on itself, burning from the inside out.
“They have to,” Johnny says, because he knows it’s true. “Seven hours and twenty eight seconds, that’s it.” On the horizon behind them, the last rays of the sun are fading into nothing. “Just push.”
“Pushing,” Kaner says. “This better be making you really, really unhappy,” he adds.
“Never worse,” Johnny says. It’s the only thing he can say – he’s scared and he’s uncomfortable, cold like he hasn’t been in a long time, even on the ice. His muscles ache from holding on to Kaner, who is clearly losing steam. He’s ready for this whole fucking thing to be over.
He’s ready to let himself go.
They’re flying maybe 50 feet off the ground when they see the pines rise in the distance, Kaner winging his way to the ruins that must be behind them like he’s being pulled by an invisible wire. The fog has regained speed now, but they’re close enough that there’s no way it will catch up to them before they make it to the kiva. Maybe, he thinks, they will actually make it.
Kaner hits the ground roughly, and Johnny falls away from Kaner, hitting the ground with more force than he’s fully prepared for. There’s pain, but he lifts himself up, brushes the gravel off his palms and doesn’t wince at the blood. Before he can get fully on his feet, Kaner is there, pulling him up.
“We have to move,” Kaner says. “They were far away but they’re not now. We need to be in the kiva when they get here.”
It’s nearly full dark, and the trail to the ruins through the pines is rough with roots, difficult to navigate. Johnny knows he’s bleeding through his jeans, but he pushes himself, stays on his feet. Close, he tells himself. Close.
The minute they hit the ruins, Kaner is digging in their bag for salt, tossing it to Johnny. “Go on,” he says. “Salt the boundaries. Stay inside.”
“You’re not – what are you doing? You’re coming with me.”
He clutches at the salt in his hand, looks at Kaner. Kaner’s wings are trailing in the dust, graying at the bottom in the dying light. Fuck, no, this is not happening. “I’m a demon,” Kaner says slowly, like Johnny is an idiot. “I can’t go in. That’s the whole point, to keep demons out.” He gestures at himself, at his wings. “Demon.”
“So what, I just leave you out there? You fight those things without me?”
“They can’t do anything to me,” Kaner says.
“You’re lying,” Johnny says, voice rising. “You’re a terrible fucking liar, I don’t know how you’re a fucking prince of hell.”
“I can fight them,” Kaner says. “You can’t. Get in the kiva like you’re supposed to, you fucking asshole.” And he pushes, pushes with his mind and the air around his wings, and Johnny is falling back, stumbling into the kiva and looking up at Kaner. Kaner tosses the bag in after him, hitting Johnny in the chest. “Salt the boundaries, and sleep while you can. Seven hours.”
Kaner sits down outside the kiva and watches him salt the boundaries, making sure the lines are unbroken. “You’re getting good at this,” he says.
“You’ve taught me well,” Johnny says. He unrolls the sleeping bag, lays it along the line of salt nearest to where Kaner is sitting.
“Whatever happens,” Kaner says when Johnny is settled in, “no matter what I say. No matter what it looks like. Stay in the kiva until dawn. Don’t cross the salt. I can handle this, just – stay inside.”
“If you need me,” Johnny begins, but Kaner is shaking his head.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kaner says. “Dawn. Once you’re in the clear, I’ll come for you. Promise me.”
Johnny doesn’t say anything, just looks up at Kaner. He’s looking down into the kiva, sitting up against the walls of the ruin, as close as he can get without being in it. His wings drape across his shoulders like a dark blanket, shielding him from the cold of the desert evening. “I promise,” Johnny tells him finally. “Just – don’t leave, okay? Don’t go anywhere. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“I’ll do my best,” Kaner says.
“Yeah, because that’s worked out so well historically,” Johnny mutters, but Kaner ignores him.
Their stuff is inside the kiva with Johnny, so he dumps it all out on his sleeping bag, tosses a bag of beef jerky at Kaner’s head because he figures after all the flying Kaner probably needs to get his energy up as quickly as possible, and also because hitting Kaner with things doesn’t really get old. There are a couple of magazines in the pile as well, grabbed on their way out of the store when Kaner pointed out they might have some wait time. Kaner had picked up Maxim, so Johnny had to get GQ. He picks it up now, flips through it until he finds a feature on shirts. “Think of your dress shirt as your bulletproof vest,” he reads aloud to Kaner.
“What the fuck,” Kaner asks.
“Shut up and let me read. This is information you should hear. Besides, what else do you have to do right now?” He takes a breath and continues, “It’s the first thing you put on and your last line of defense.”
“Unbelievable,” he hears Kaner mutter, but Johnny rolls his eyes and continues reading. He figures he’ll be stopping soon enough, anyway.
It comes sooner than either of them are comfortable with – the fog surrounds them before they realize it, hissing through the pines and blotting out the stars above. Kaner takes to the skies as Johnny watches, laying on his back on the sleeping bag in his fortress of mud and salt and hope, and the fog swallows Kaner up.
The howling starts a moment later. It seems to resonate on every wavelength at once, pushing at Johnny from every direction, and when he drags his eyes open he can see shapes in the dark, moving at the edge of the kiva. He strains to hear Kaner over the howling, strains to see him through the fog, but all he can do is curl in on himself and hope for it to be over soon.
The howling seems to turn upward, and Johnny can hear Kaner arguing in a language he doesn’t understand with voices that make his blood run cold.
Run, comes the thought inside his head, no louder than a whisper. Run, hide, get yourself away from here.
“No,” he says, and clutches at the sleeping bag, trying to anchor himself.
Run, fool, the whisper comes again, and then it’s no longer a whisper. Run, run, run…
It’s not going to work, none of it. It’s hopeless; Kaner is gone and Johnny will be pulled out into the open by his own fear. He has no chance. Run, the voice in his head yells.
He hears the swish of wings overhead, looks up to see the fog be swept back by the force of Kaner’s wings, just enough that the stars overhead shine through. His head seems suddenly clearer. This, he thinks, was the first attack.
“Okay down there?” Kaner calls, banking like a hawk on an air current.
“I’m wonderful,” he yells up at the sky. “I could do this all night.”
“Me too,” Kaner says, and disappears back into the fog.
It’s easier after that – now that he can recognize which thoughts are his and which thoughts have snuck in from outside the kiva, and when he catches a snippet of something in that horrible, insistent whisper, he flattens himself out and looks up at the stars that Kaner’s wings have revealed.
He doesn’t need to look at his watch to tell when 2:49 grows close. The fog thickens, filling the air like sludge; the pressure in his head becomes almost unbearable. He couldn’t move if he wanted to. What he really wants is to find Kaner, reassure himself that he’s okay, that nobody has done anything stupid, but that would require moving. He takes off his watch, lays it down on the sleeping bag, and focuses on watching the seconds tick by.
It is 2:47: two minutes until this is all over, for better or worse.
He hears a noise overhead, a sound like the whip crack of thunder. From high above him, Kaner falls.
“Kaner!” he yells.
At the very last minute, he seems to wake up, wings catching the air, and he controls his descent just enough to not break something. He moves to a position near the kiva, facing away from Johnny; all Johnny can see is a shock of pale hair between heavy black wings. “The time has come,” he says. “The terms of the deal have not been met.”
“You must give him to us,” a voice says from the fog. “This was never your deal to make. You have thwarted us at every turn. Give him to us and we will wipe your slate clean.”
“This has never been anything but my deal,” Kaner says, his voice falling into a rhythm so different from anything he normally sounds like. He sounds old, Johnny thinks. He sounds powerful. “He completed no rituals. He bargained with me, and me alone. It is for me to decide if the terms have been met – and they have not. I will tell you again: leave us.”
The fog speaks to him now, over the howls in the dark. “You will come with us, human boy. You made a bargain, and you will keep it. We will have your soul.”
“His soul is not yours to take,” yells Kaner. “It is mine, and mine alone, and I will not surrender it. Leave us.” He begins to chant now, snatches of Latin and Greek and Hebrew, French, something that sounds like the Mogollon from earlier, and more that Johnny is sure no living person could identify by sound. He holds back the fog with his words and his wings, the force of his will and his crappy personality, and in that moment the clock ticks down. 2:49.
Suddenly the skies clear like someone has wiped them clean. The fog pulls back, back, until Johnny can’t see it when he stands and pokes his head out of the kiva.
“Get back down,” Kaner hisses at him. “We’re gonna wait til dawn, just to be safe.”
“No, man, they’re gone,” Johnny says. “Let’s just – let me just give you the salt and I’ll bring up the sleeping bag. You shouldn’t have to lay on the ground. Make a circle, we can be in that until sunrise.”
“Ugh, fine,” Kaner says, “but you better hurry. I didn’t just fight a fucking demon horde so you could get pulled to hell because you wouldn’t stay in the kiva.”
“Hell would be better than your bitching,” Johnny says. “It’s gonna be fine, just make the circle.”
Johnny doesn’t spend more than 20 seconds getting from one salt circle to the next, and sure enough no demons emerge from the trees to snatch him up. He lays the sleeping bag down, opens it up so there’s room enough for two, and stretches out. Kaner joins him after a moment, hitching himself up onto his side, wings spread out behind him almost to the edge of the salt circle. “Think we can get some sleep?” Johnny asks him.
“I’ll take first watch,” Kaner says. “You can sleep, if you want.”
He falls asleep to the sound of the wind through the pines and the rustle of Kaner’s wings as they brush against the dirt. It’s oddly soothing, and he’s tired. It doesn’t take long.
He doesn’t dream. For now, at least, there is nothing left to fear.
What seems like a heartbeat later, light filters in behind his eyes, waking him up slowly. Johnny feels, more than anything, like in the night someone has wrapped him up in the warmest, softest blanket. He doesn’t feel the chill of the desert morning, cold enough to see his breath before the sun fully asserts its dominance; he only feels protected, warm like when he was a kid and he’d burrow under the six quilts on his bed and pretend he was still asleep on Saturday mornings, just for a little, until the pull of hockey made him brave the cold. Sighing, he turns into the warmth, wrinkling his nose when feathers brush across his face.
He opens one eye, sees a fall of black feathers covering him from neck to ankle, and for a moment he thinks he must still be dreaming. But no, there’s the pale line of Kaner’s back, spine and shoulders looking unbelievably fragile in contrast with the enormity of his wings; there’s his hair, looking even rougher than normal; there’s his face pressed so hard into the sleeping bag that Johnny knows he’ll have some truly unfortunate crease lines when he lifts his head.
He tries to sit up without disturbing Kaner, but as he shifts his fingers catch in the downy feathers on the underside of Kaner’s wing, and Kaner stirs beside him. He hitches himself up, leans over. “It’s morning,” he murmurs in Kaner’s ear.
Kaner turns toward him, blinks sleepily. “Morning?”
“It’s over,” Johnny says, lips brushing the edge of Kaner’s ear as Kaner resettles his wings at a less awkward angle. “We’re in the clear.”
There’s nothing really to say, Johnny thinks, not after what they went through together; and anyway, neither of them are particularly good at saying things, even things that need to be said. And Kaner looks like he’s about to get up, to start the first day of the rest of their lives, and Johnny realizes there’s something he needs to do now, before anything gets said that can’t be unsaid.
He slides his hands along Kaner’s shoulders, gripping his back below where his wings meet his skin, and pulls him close, skin to skin from hips to collarbone. “One more thing,” he says, and fits his mouth against Kaner’s.
Kaner’s clearly never really been good at anything except for hockey and mayhem, because it’s as terrible a kiss as their first one was, all teeth and suction. Their rhythm is off, and at one point they bump noses hard enough to hurt. For a minute, Johnny wonders at himself that this, this terrible kiss from this awful person, is the only fucking thing that can push him over the edge into happy. But Kaner makes him feel things, a whole range of really confusing and distressing emotions that somehow coalesce into actual happiness. Even if they never get better at this, Kaner has made his dreams come true again and again, and sacrificed so much to make sure he gets to enjoy the fruit of those dreams.
And of course it does get better – Kaner has always been excellent at picking up unspoken cues from Johnny, taking direction even when he bitches about it, and after a few minutes of fumbling hands and too-sharp teeth, Johnny rolls his eyes and just puts Kaner where he needs to go. And then, holy fuck, it’s good.
Conscious of the dark spread of those glorious wings, he rolls them so Kaner is on top of him, tugging on Kaner’s wrists so he tilts forward. It’s just enough to keep Kaner off balance, and it fits their hips together, pressure and friction making things feel even fucking better as their cocks press together through their jeans.
“We’re doing this?” Johnny says, his voice sounding strangely breathless to his own ears. “No more objections?”
“It’s not like not fucking you will make it less likely I’ll have to go back to hell someday,” Kaner says, and dips his head down to lick at Johnny’s neck above the collar of his t-shirt.
Johnny rolls his eyes and hitches himself up enough to pull off his t-shirt. “Who says you’re going to be fucking me?” he says.
Because he’s just that awful, Kaner wiggles his eyebrows. “I can be very convincing,” he says, looking down at Johnny’s naked chest like a cartoon villain inspecting a pile of just-stolen treasure.
“I think we both know that’s not true,” Johnny says, rolling his eyes. He pulls Kaner into another kiss because at this rate anything would be better than hearing him talk.
Actually, Kaner’s mouth opening against his is about a million times better than hearing him talk. He gives Kaner what Johnny knows he needs, biting down hard on Kaner’s lip and loving the gasp of breath he feels Kaner take. He lets Kaner’s wrists go and pulls him closer, sliding one hand into his hair and the other into the fine feathers at the base of his wings. Kaner’s rutting against him now like he’s desperate, like Johnny is the best thing he’s ever had and he can’t imagine a situation in which he could ever have enough.
“Pants,” he says. “Kaner, pants, come on.”
Kaner turns his attention to Johnny’s fly, trying to work it open, but his hands seem like they’re not working, and whenever Johnny’s thumb ruffles the feathers on the underside of his wing he seems to lose all sense of where he is, eyes going glassy and mouth falling open on a word that never comes out. It takes him far longer than Johnny thinks it should, but finally Kaner works a hand into Johnny’s jeans and his fingers wrap around Johnny’s cock and after that it’s pretty much over and done.
There’s not much finesse to it, which makes it even better, real in a way that eases his mind. It makes him realize that Kaner is just as desperate as he is, and the thought of that – that Kaner’s been waiting for this the same way Johnny has, and that now that he’s here it’s all he can do to get his hands on Johnny and just go for it – is enough to push him close to the edge. And then he realizes that Kaner is talking, low and quick and broken, and he strains to hear over the rush of blood in his ears.
“Fucking perfect,” Kaner is saying, hand working at Johnny’s cock as he grinds down on Johnny’s thigh. “Wanna see you come, you asshole, wanna see you lose it.”
He really hates Kaner sometimes, he thinks, and then comes so hard he maybe blacks out a little. When he opens his eyes after a minute, he sees Kaner working his own jeans open and getting his dick out just in time to jerk himself off on Johnny’s stomach. His face contorts as he comes all over Johnny’s abs, adding to the mess, and it should be really, really unattractive. It’s not.
“You dick,” he mutters, watching Kaner sit back on his heels and try to keep his wings out of the mess he’s made on Johnny.
“Let me help you clean that up,” Kaner says, and grabs Johnny’s discarded shirt to wipe it up. Of course he does.
“I really hate you,” he tells Kaner.
“I really hate you too,” Kaner replies, his face going a little soft.
They fly back to their car, and nothing sinister greets them as they fly past the Superstition Mountains. Johnny finds himself sad to see the wings disappear as Kaner lands them behind a hill near the road. “You’re okay with using your magic now?” he asks as Kaner pulls his shirt on.
“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Kaner replies, “but obviously I have to be careful about doing it when there are lots of people around. You can only explain away so much before people start to wonder what the hell is going on, you know?”
The trip back to Phoenix seems to take no time at all. Their flight back leaves that evening, so when they go back to the hotel near the airport to pick up their bags they take some time to sleep and shower and try to wrap their heads around the idea that this whole thing is over, that the most they have to worry about now is hockey.
He calls his parents while Kaner is in the shower, and they wish him happy birthday. It throws him for a minute – he’d actually forgotten through all of this that today is his birthday. “Thanks,” he tells his mom. “Thanks for everything.”
“I hope today is wonderful, darling,” she says.
The water shuts off in the bathroom. The door swings open, and Kaner emerges from the steam with a huge white towel wrapped around his hips, another around his head like a turban. He looks far too pleased with himself. “It already has been,” he says.
When he hangs up, Kaner is checking facebook on his phone, and says, “Let’s go on a trip.”
“We just went on a trip,” he says. “Some non-trip time is really what we need.”
“I’ve got a friend in Boston who has a couch we could crash on,” Kaner says. “And some of the rookies say there’s this kid playing for the University of Iowa who would make a great addition to the team…”
Johnny rolls his eyes. “We are not going to go harass your college friends during finals just so you can get drunk with co-eds. We’ve got a flight to catch, and then you should go home and see your family like the responsible young man you’re not.”
“I could convince you,” Kaner says, stepping closer and letting his towel drop.
“You are the absolute worst, and we have a flight to catch,” Johnny says, but when Kaner’s hands shove him back against the bed and then pull down the zipper on his jeans, he doesn’t exactly fight him off. Turns out Kaner’s just as bad at blow jobs as he is at everything else. Johnny’s really looking forward to helping him practice.
They manage to make their flight back to Chicago, but just barely.
Johnny goes back to Winnipeg, because it’s been too long since he’s seen his family and for the first time in a long time he feels like he can see them without worrying, without the overwhelming guilt of knowing he’ll be leaving them. It’s relaxing and wonderful and he does not miss Kaner at all, especially when Kaner starts sending him drunk texts from what Kaner, in his more sober moments, is calling Patrick Kane’s College Tour Of Drunkenness And Awesome.
I told you not to do this, Johnny texts him after he receives a photo of Kaner wrapped in a green and white feather boa with forty ounces of malt liquor duct-taped to each hand.
I’m not gonna sleep with you if you get syphilis, he texts Kaner when Sharpy sends him a link to a Deadspin post entitled “Patrick Kane’s Offseason Drinking Regimen Is Off To A Great Start.”
you can take the boy out of hell Kaner texts back a couple minutes later.
Stop groping lacrosse players. Also, you’re in Wisconsin, so are you really out of hell? Johnny responds, and tries not to worry when Kaner doesn’t text back.
i promise i wont punch any taxi drivers, Kaner sends the next day along with a self-portrait of him smiling next to a stone-faced police officer.
More than anything, the knowledge that things aren’t going to change between them – that no matter what happens, Johnny will always know exactly where he stands with Kaner – is Johnny’s favorite thing about the way they are together.
He looks down at his phone, and Kaner’s stupid fucking face smiles up at him. Johnny rolls his eyes at it, wishing Kaner could see.
Yeah, okay, he thinks. Maybe he’s happy.