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This is the Sound

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Taylor Hall had his life pretty much mapped out for him from the moment Don Cherry announced his name to the entire relevant population of Canada. Sometimes he thinks Cherry might have been psychic, because wham-bam before he knows it, he goes from being good on Windsor to being great on Canada to getting drafted first.

Probably Cherry wouldn’t have picked the Oilers for him; they might be a great organization with some really good guys and Jordan Eberle—and Taylor can tell from the start that Jordan will be the best part of living in Edmonton—but he’s a Calgary boy and he liked Ontario and now, he’s told to have his winter jacket out by mid-September. Plus, there’s the fact that the team is rebuilding, which is partially flattering but also really terrifying. Taylor knows that being drafted first to a team in a rebuilding year paints a big, neon target on his back for more than just the grinders: Every fan in Edmonton will probably know what colour his socks are.

So he’s a little freaked, but also kind of jazzed. Big leagues, big deal. He’ll get to see the big up-and-coming faces, and he thinks he could like Edmonton, from what Tambellini and Katz have offered him. Most of all, it’s hockey. That’s all Taylor ever really needed, and he’s given up a lot for it, and if the Edmonton Oilers want him on their team and their ice? That’s cool. He figures he knows what to expect.

Taylor’s a little nervous about how all these guys go out of their way to make him comfortable. He expects, like, pranks or something. They should probably make his life hell, in classic hockey tradition. Instead, he finds a fruit basket with a personal note from Shawn Horcoff in his locker. In neat, abrupt writing Horcoff has written, “Screw up if you want; this is a learning experience and we want you to be comfortable trying new things and improving yourself. Just remember, the other side has guns, too.”

“Too?” Taylor says out loud.

Jordan peeks over his shoulder and snorts. “Hey, I think Horc is saying you’re fat. I got movie passes my first week here.”

“My fruit basket is in the shape of a duck,” Taylor points out automatically. “I think he’s saying I’m a pretty big deal.”

Jordan steals a chocolate covered strawberry and pops it in his mouth. “Dude, it’s a baby shower fruit basket in the shape of a duck, maybe he thinks you’re retarded.”

“I picked it out,” Hemsky says. He pauses, then adds solemnly. “It’s a duck, but also a piggy bank.”

Jordan has the advantage of having Taylor between them, so Hemsky doesn’t seem to notice when he starts laughing. Taylor just freezes and thinks, oh man I just alienated Ales Hemsky why am I so stupid.

Then Hemsky grins and shrugs. “I like the cantaloupe,” he adds and steals one, shaped like a baby carriage, off the arrangement. “Welcome to the team.”

Maybe, Taylor thinks, Ales Hemsky is just fucking insane.

**

 

On the ice, things come together without a hitch. Or, without a surprise hitch, at least. Taylor knows that being drafted first doesn’t equal being NHL ready, not in the same way that everyone might hope it does. He’s still surprised by the size of some of these guys, and a lot of them are pretty fast. Everyone acts cool, but the remaining veterans look a little stressed and most of the guys without a roster spot have an eye on Taylor.

Taylor’s kind of in the awkward middle group, because obviously he wants to prove himself, but at the same time, he can’t feel overly stressed. That’s not how he rolls. Besides, hockey is hockey-- He’s playing with a group of guys that, for the most part, really get what he means. He doesn’t think any of them are doing it just for the money, which is amazing. Plus, he’s stuck in the car with radio rights as Jordan drives them to the rink. Extra nap time, friend time—life might be ideal.

Then, on the first game day of Taylor Hall’s first season as an Edmonton Oiler, Jordan Eberle’s car is run off the road. They’re on their way to Rexall Place, going the speed limit and trying to figure out why their presets are all for old-man music. Things are normal, and then suddenly there’s a black SUV in front of them.

Taylor, having the reflexes of a panther, clutches his head and yells, “Oh fuck!”

Jordan swerves left and the SUV goes right, which is possibly the worst instinct ever. He cuts across two thank-god-empty lanes and comes to a halt against a wall with an audible crunch. The SUV’s horn beeps the original opening theme to Hockey Night in Canada. Taylor does not crap his pants, but he comes pretty fucking close.

Eberle seems shocked, not angry. “Holy crap, man, welcome to the league,” he offers, then grins. Jordan might be lippy, but Taylor’s pretty sure that narrowly avoiding death is not a situation that calls for smiling.

“Dude, what the fuck was that?” It takes him time to unclench his fingers from the dashboard, one knuckle at a time, then he straightens up and cranes his head around to look for the offending vehicle. “Aren’t we supposed to exchange information?”

The road is empty. It’s practically tumbleweed empty. For the first time in his entire life, pretty much, Taylor realizes he might be in over his head. He just can’t say how yet.

“Just Iginla, welcoming us to the NHL,” Jordan says. He flicks the car into reverse. “Uh, do you think my mom is going to notice the damage when she visits?”

Taylor can hear the clank and metallic drag of something probably-important as the car moves. “I think she might—dude, Iginla? Jarome Iginla? Hit us with his car?”

“Did you not read the information package?” Jordan asks. Taylor glances back as Jordan inches the car into the proper lane again. There is definitely a piece of the car still on the road.

“I looked at the pictures,” he says defensively. “I’m an action guy.”

“Today is going to be your worst day ever,” Jordan says solemnly. Then he grins like a smug little asshole and puts on a Ke$ha CD.

**

 

One of Taylor’s first assignments is to come up with a list of five NHL athletes most likely to be evil super-geniuses. Horc adds, “Just for a fresh take on things.”

“We’re supposing that there are five people in this league…” Taylor trails off. He finds himself repeating objectives a lot since joining the team.

“Current players only, and omit anyone on the team,” Whitney adds. Taylor raises an eyebrow and he continues, “One time, an unnamed rookie wrote ‘Tom Gilbert’ down on a list of twenty people, and when asked to explain…”

“In my defense,” Cogs pipes up, “it was during his white fur coat stage. He did look like a supervillain.”

“This is just an assignment to get you treating everyone like an enemy,” Brule adds cheerfully. “It’s kind of awesome; soon you’ll start cocking your gun when branches scratch your window at night.”

Taylor hopes he will never, ever get to that point. He sits down and writes “George Parros, Jarome Iginla, Sedin, Sidney Crosby probably, and Rick Nash.”

They put his answers up on an overhead projector. “Why does everyone assume Rick Nash is evil?” Devan asks.

“Cuz he’s fat,” Theo shoots back and high-fives Penner. Taylor thinks it might be an ironic high five, but he hasn’t worked out the subtleties of team communication yet.

“Your writing is whack, man,” Jordan adds. Shawn Horcoff has pulled out a pair of reading glasses and taps his dry-erase pen authoritatively.

“George Parros, why?”

“Anyone who goes to college is evil?” Sam offers; Gilbert hits him. Taylor grins and shrugs his agreement.

“FYI guys,” Jordan adds, pronouncing each letter precisely, “he’s scared of Iginla because he tried to run us off the road.”

“As if that’s an invalid fear,” Taylor grunts and slouches down in his seat. “Sidney Crosby because I heard he’s a robot.”

“I told you that,” Ales agrees. He looks blandly authoritative when Horc glares; Taylor realizes then that Hemmer might not be a good source of information.

Shawn Horcoff circles “Sedin” four times. “And which one?”
”Both. Because, uh, you know. Twins are evil and stuff.”

“Rocket scientist,” Struds drawls. “You might be on to something, kid. You see—”

“Not yet,” Horc says. Taylor really wishes that half the people in the room weren’t suddenly steepling their fingers. “We need to ease him into lessons on league dynamics.”

Taylor raises his hand, feeling a lot like he’s back in high school. “I, uh, know how many divisions there are and stuff. That isn’t a problem.”

”Dynamics,” Horcoff says seriously, “are less about potential playoff matchups, and more about staying alive. That’s why your second lesson will be at the shooting range.”

Taylor doesn’t really get it, so he packs his two favourite sticks. Everyone stops and looks at him—oh, great, awesome. He can feel his cheeks going red and breaks the silence by saying, “I thought I’d work on my slap shot.”

“We’re at a shooting range,” Khabibulin says slowly, giving the words emphasis like they should be capitalized. Taylor looks at him, and then realizes he’s dressed all in camo. He’s also looking like he wants to murder something, but that might be normal. Khabi continues at a mutter, “I’m too old for this shit.”

“Look, am I underdressed?” he asks. So he’s wearing a ratty t-shirt, he didn’t get the memo saying that working on shot accuracy was a black tie affair. Then Horc walks up and hands him a Jericho 941.

“We’re going to start you small,” he announces with a smirk. “Go talk to Devan, he was the last one to get the spiel and he’ll teach you how to pull a trigger.”

“Why does everyone have a gun?” Taylor asks, then realizes he said it out loud.

“Shooting. Range,” Khabibulin says, even slower. Taylor ducks and covers at a splatter of bullets.

“Sorry!” That might be Penner’s voice coming from the far side of the room. “Slipped.”

Devan smiles at him, wide and easy. “Okay,” he says as everyone else moves back into place and starts shooting shit. Taylor doesn’t freak out because he’s going to be cool here, come hell or high water. “Now, this is a gun, and here’s how you shoot it.”

Taylor hasn’t been treated like a little kid since he actually was little, and he’s not sure he can deal with this. He flicks the safety off, turns to a target and lifts the gun with both hands. He has a moment where he wants to shoot it sideways, like a gangster, but Gilbert is trying that several stations away and failing pretty epically. Taylor takes one deep breath, doesn’t blink, and pulls the trigger.

“Bullseye, bitches,” he announces when everyone turns.

“Good, you can handle a gun,” Horc says approvingly. He claps a fatherly hand on Taylor’s shoulder. “Can you do that again?”

“I used to go hunting when I was younger,” Taylor says awkwardly. “It’s just that you startled me—shooting range—Uzi—”

“Good thing we have PR next, they can teach him about sentences,” Penner drawls. Jordan wanders over to give Taylor a high five.

“Told you you should’ve read the information package,” he says. “We also have a trampoline.”

**

 

“I am going to kill you and rip your heart out,” the digitized voice offers.

“So, did none of you think that this could be serious?” Taylor asks. Horc and Hemmer share a long, long look.

“I never let the haters get me down,” Ales says, accent particularly thick.

“Wait, you knew?” Horc asks. He’s looking less calm. Hemsky shrugs and smirks.

“I am handling.”

"You didn’t tell anyone?"

“Is probably no big deal.” Then all three of them have to duck because there’s a hail of bullets at shoulder level. Hemmer's mouth tugs sideways and he shrugs. “Okay, I rethink it.”

“Oh my god, I’m going to die here,” Taylor whimpers. “I’m going to die here without ever winning a Stanley Cup.”

“Oh,” Hemmer says thoughtfully. “Hey, me too!” He hops back to his feet and pulls a gun out from the small of his back. “Fuck that.”

“We are going to talk about this, Ales,” Horc announces. “We’re going to talk so hard, and you’re going to explain everything about your system of classifying priority information.”

Ales fires off three shots without blinking, and Taylor is relieved to observe that the enemy fire is adversely affected. Specifically, someone yells, “Ow, fuck.”

Hemmer yells back, “Fuck you, go the fuck away.”

Horc stands slowly after the sound of screeching tires indicates a getaway. “Did you hit anyone?”

”Just your mom, all night long,” Hemmer says, then jogs forward. “Think I clipped someone. Bullet is here, didn’t lodge. Damn.”

Taylor feels his eyes roll up in his head, but steadies himself. “Okay, guys, I need to sit down.”

“Let’s get coffee,” Horc says and takes his arm. “I had a hard time with my first shootout, too. It’ll get easier every time.”

The Tim Hortons is crowded, so Hemmer dashes to take seats away from a slow-moving group of old people while Horc buys the coffee. Taylor splashes cold water on his face in the bathroom before sitting down. He watches Horc open the lid to his coffee and patiently sprinkle sugar substitute in his double-double before he gets up the nerve to speak in a loud whisper.

“So this is seriously all real,” he says slowly. “You actually want me to shoot people.”
“Stuff, mostly,” Horc offers. “Doors, walls, rabid animals, Rick Nash—”

“Seriously?” Taylor squeaks. “I don’t want to go to jail!”

“No, not seriously.” Horc’s eyes are laughing at him, even though he keeps his mouth and tone level. “This isn’t actually that much more of a responsibility. Like the fruit basket said, you can make mistakes.”

”And try some stuff,” Hemsky chips in.

“Even if you do find yourself in trouble with the law, you’ll find that we have a lot of success in mediating sentences or even burying charges. Matt Greene once—“

“Tried to pulk an Incredible Hulk,” Hemsky supplies.

“—had a run in with a truck, and we were able to reverse blame so that the other man was charged. Of course, he was a drug lord and deserved it— And then, of course you’ve heard about Khabi’s recent legal troubles.”

“I heard he’s a speed demon,” Taylor agrees.

“They don’t have speed limits in Russia,” Ales explains. He looks like he’s serious.

“Well, he actually set a hospital on fire and crashed a helicopter, so you can imagine all the work we did to have it recast as a speeding charge. It’s lucky he was in Arizona, no other state would have a serious enough speeding law to be equivalent to gross destruction of property. For you, just keep your nose clean and do what we say, and nothing will go wrong.”

“So I won’t be in any danger. Just shoot inanimate objects while trying to become a fixture on a professional hockey team,” Taylor establishes. Horc and Hemmer share a long look, which kind of makes him nervous. It’s one of those deep, soul searchy, linemate communication looks.

“Just don’t fight any bears,” Horc says at last. He actually laughs this time, but Hemsky folds his arms and glares.

“You—” Taylor sputters.

“Is how I wrecked my shoulder last season,” Hemsky says flatly.

“Fighting a bear?”

”He didn’t even win,” Horc teases, elbows him. He schools his face back to seriousness before meeting Taylor’s gaze again. “But seriously, Hallsie, don’t fight any bears.”

“Let’s move on,” Hemsky says.

“Wait, what kind of bear?” Taylor asks. Hemsky ignores him and starts talking about the dangers of secondhand smoke inhalation and Rexall policies. Taylor figures there are some questions that rookies just don’t get answered, so he puts that one on the list for later discovery. He has time, in Edmonton.

**

 

Coach Renney and Steve Tambellini pull him, Jordan and Magnus aside as preseason training camp wraps up. They are offered three folding chairs, which seems a little government welfare for Taylor’s tastes. His leg is pressed against Jordan’s from knee almost to hip in the small space set out, and Magnus seems to be perched at an uncomfortable angle with a hand rested too casually over his own knee. Taylor can math out that this probably isn’t an AHL talk, not with all three of them there, and he’s trying to figure out what other reasons there could be for this meeting, when he realizes Renney has already started speaking.

“—sure you’re all comfortable in the city, and we were thinking that the three of you should start looking for a place together.”

Taylor straightens up, looks at Jordan for confirmation and nearly gets hit in the face with Jordan’s attempted high five. “Second try?” he asks at Jordan’s eyeroll.

They high five, parlaying it into a slide and fist-bump explosion. It is the most awesome high five ever, which is appropriate for the situation.

“No,” Magnus says. Taylor is learning that Magnus is the person most likely to destroy awesome things; it’s not that he’s a lame person, he just acts like he’s a different kind of cool. Euro cool. “I need my own place.”

“If this is because I bought you that chef hat, I said I was sorry. I didn’t know what to get you for the preseason Santa,” Jordan protests.

Taylor shoots Coach a look and grins. “Seriously, though, we can pick out a house?”

”We’re going to live together!” Jordan adds, slings an arm around his neck. Taylor leans into it, but makes sure he goes in shoulder first so it’s not too cuddly.

“I’ll live in the same building,” Magnus concedes after what seems to be a very long, very silent eye-conversation with Tambellini. Taylor reaches over for a hand bump with him too, then Magnus throws in a very small smile.

“Dude, it’s going to be better than the best thing. It’s going to be like—college in the NHL.”

“In that case, you’d better speak to Gags, Cogs, and Gibby and find out how they managed to not get their home condemned while living together,” Renney drawls. He picks up a stack of paper on his desk, shuffles them and straightens them into a tighter file. “Congratulations, boys.”

“Thank you,” Taylor says and leans forward a little. “You’re not going to regret this.”

”No, because I won’t be your neighbour,” Renney agrees. “If you need any help settling leases, you can contact someone in Legal and they’ll help you out.”

Outside his office, Jordan and Taylor take the opportunity to bro-hug each other and jump in a circle. Magnus looks kind of disgusted, but Taylor is coming to terms with the fact that Magnus finds just about everything less exciting than they do. Except hockey, but then that’s kind of the unifying force of this whole team. If he wants to live alone, that’s fine because Taylor and Jordan are going to be housemates.

The thing about Jordan Eberle is, he’s kind of amazing. Taylor doesn’t even think that in a homo way, but it’s kind of like a piece of his soul was missing until they met each other. Like everything he’s ever found cool is wrapped up in an even cooler package, one that’s also kind of lame but still awesome. When they’re together, it’s fun for Taylor to smack into Jordan on purpose, or sling an arm around his shoulder, or just discuss game tips. Jordan totally gets him.

And okay, maybe it’s a little less hetero than it should be, but Taylor can be discreetly deviant. In a culture that wants all your personal information, he deserves a few secrets, even from his closest friends. Honestly, he doesn’t even stress about it much, and if Jordan asked him to be in a fake Facebook relationship, like chicks do when they want to be cutesy, Taylor would approve the request without pausing. Also, he wouldn’t mind banging Jordan.

In ways that aren’t creepy or romantic, their new place is awesome. Taylor lets Jordan have the best room, because it’s not like they spend a lot of time there. They have a kitchen that should be in Cribs, except it doesn’t really have food in it. Mostly, there’s the sweet domestic aspect of living with Ebs every day, just down the hall from Maggie and unnervingly close to Khabi (close enough to hear him swearing his way to the shower every morning).

Having a home makes Taylor feel ready for everything.

**

 

For road trips, they draw names from a hat to decide who will be roommates, and Taylor figures he’s okay with that. He didn’t expect to get to pick (although obviously he woulda gone with his man Jordan), but he still kind of hopes it’s someone younger for him to experience stuff with. Instead, Hemsky pulls his name out of the hat.

“Cool,” Taylor says. Hemsky looks at him and passes over the piece of paper.

“Hope you are an easy guy,” he says. Taylor is gradually getting used to everything anyone says sounding like a latent threat, so he shrugs. Hemsky shrugs back and adds, “The draw was rigged, so get used to being with me.”

“I can work with that,” Taylor agrees. He figures it’s like a changing of the guard thing, because he’s been watching closely and the team dynamic says that although Hemsky has some sweet moves, in a yearbook he’d be voted ‘most likely to drown in an inch of water while playing Xbox.’

Being roommates with Hemmer gives Taylor a lot of free time, because Hemmer is in a semi-permanent hibernation phase that involves eight o’clock bedtimes. Taylor supplements roommate time with hanging out with Jordan or Magnus, but he wants to be a friend to the whole team. It’s important for making the whole thing feel like home.

Still, he should have known that hanging out with Ladislav Smid always has the potential for disaster. Taylor isn’t even sure why he accepted Ladi’s guided tour of the United Center, considering that they have players who might actually know where things are that could have extended the courtesy. Also, all Ladi seems to know is the location of popcorn stands, “hot girl places,” and quickie hotspots.

“No, really, check it out, it’s roomy in there!” he says earnestly, waving a hand at a closet in the bowels of the arena.

“I, uh, trust you, really,” Taylor says. “It looks nice. Good for you.”

“You have to try it,” Ladi says again. His voice is solemn, but he has that big toothless grin on his face. Taylor steps inside and kicks at a broom cautiously.

“Okay, I can’t actually see myself—” The door clicks closed. “Ladi? Ladi, seriously.”

“Oops, door slipped shut!” Ladi says. He doesn’t sound half as concerned as Taylor feels. Taylor tries the handle. Locked.

“Okay, open the door, seriously.” There’s another rattle from the other side.

“I think it is locked!” Ladi announces needlessly.

“I fucking hate you!” Taylor says and pounds on the door. “Seriously, Ladi—”

“Hey, no, you calm down, man. Relax.” Ladi smacks his hand on the door a few times. “I will be back with the key, just need a drink first.”

Taylor gropes around until his hand hits a carton; he sits down and drops his head in his hands. His phone, of course, is in the locker room and the hallway is eerily quiet. When he gets out, he is going to murder Smid, or something very similar. That part’s not in question. Gradually, he decides that the humiliation is greater than his desire to get out of this place. Humans can survive like a day without water, but not long at all if their entire team finds out that they trusted Ladislav Smid to show them around Chicago. When he hears footsteps thumping down the hallway, he holds his breath.

Taylor generally tries not to eavesdrop, but he’s been stuck in the closet for forty minutes already. He really doesn’t want to extend his embarrassment by tipping off his location to whoever’s on the other side of the door; they might call the entire team. There’s nothing for him to do but listen. It’s hardly even eavesdropping when you’re bored and stuck in a closet, trying to keep your location hidden from—

Gags, apparently. “Okay, Kaner, we need to stop fighting about this. We’re both athletes and adults and—stuff. I absolutely understand how you feel, but I’m still not going to tell you—“

“Are we having a fight?” Fortunately, there’s no keyhole to tempt Taylor into peeking out. Patrick Kane is one of Sam’s friends, he knows. Junior connections are a big deal, but considering that they’re technically enemies for the next six hours, this isn’t a good time for secret hall meetings.

“No!” Sam yelps. “I’m not giving you my password, that isn’t fighting.”

“It’s because you have something to hide, isn’t it?” Pat says. “Cuz you know, I can get Jonny to be all over that shit. He’ll put on his hacker cap and be like, sup Sam’s porn collection, my name is THE BOSS.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sam retorts. There’s a tense silence, and Taylor can almost hear the frantic gesturing going on.

Finally, Sam says, “I’m not a member of a secret spy organization!”

“Well, I am! And my spy organization is better than yours!” Pat counters. “So—so there. I’m going to spy on your mom.”

”Leave my mom out of this!”

There’s a thump against the door, then a wet sucking noise. Taylor’s jaw drops, and he almost chokes. Another pause, but someone’s still breathing heavily on the other side of the door. “Dude, sick,” he mutters to himself.

“A spy!” Pat crows. “There’s a spy in the bowels of the Madhouse!”

“I told you I’m not—” Sam protests. Taylor jumps backwards as someone kicks the door hard. Gags continues, “Uh, did you break your leg, man?”

Then the door swings open. Taylor lifts both his hands over his head and regrets dismissing Khabi’s advice to carry a gun at all times. “I got stuck?”

”Oh, man, I get stuck in closets all the time. It’s totally cool, unless you tell someone and they ask you when you came out of the closet, which is like—not at all what you think it would mean, until they—”

Sam grimaces. “You heard all that?”

“I’m not a spy either,” Taylor says. He thinks back to their PR lessons and is certain that, somewhere out there, there’s a better coverup than flat out denial. “Ladi locked me in.”

Kane nods sagely, folds his arms and puts on a look that Taylor is pretty sure is supposed to be menacing. “So you’re not an enemy agent?”

”Dude, you seriously need to stop watching 24,” Sam groans.

“Heard it on Ninja Turtles,” Kane retorts. He grins, slaps Taylor’s shoulder hard. “Heroes in a half shell, right man?”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying when you speak,” Taylor says patiently.

“I was assigned to watch over him in juniors,” Sam says. “It stuck. Someone needs to tell him not to jump off three-story buildings.”

It makes Taylor feel less safe to know that there are people like Pat Kane out there, crouching on the edges of buildings in the rain while spouting monologues.

Like many conversations he’s stumbled into recently, he just wants to forget it all. Pat Kane is right, Gags’ mom is hot. But other than that, Taylor files this conversation in the category of things he’ll think about when he’s not spending half his days at a firing range and the other half focusing on his actual, public career as a hockey player.

**

 

“Don’t you ever feel, like, conflicted?” Taylor asks Magnus after the game, as they stand in line to get into some club. Magnus raises both eyebrows. Taylor continues, “You know, about betraying the evil cause of—your nation.”

“Not our nation, just the Swedish hockey community,” Magnus amends, then looks like he’s either thinking or translating things in his head. “It was a hard choice, and probably if I had been drafted to a pro-evil team, that’s what I would have chosen. The issue is actually less significant on the international scale.”

“So this is just...NHL infighting?”

Magnus shrugs. “Unless Sundin actually gets nukes, yeah.”

“That sounded way too casual.”

Somehow he can’t get the thought of dying in a nuclear holocaust out of his mind, so Taylor ends up ducking out of the club early. Magnus gives him a man-hug goodbye and Jordan elbows him and spills a drink on his shoes. Rather than get into a cab that smells like the floor of a bar, Taylor opts to walk home. When he enters the hotel room, it’s dark. He figures Hemmer is already asleep—he’d realized pretty quickly that basically all Hemmer does is sleep and eat. Taylor drops his jacket on the floor and shuffles to the bathroom to brush his teeth, leaving the door open.

“Fag,” Ales says from the far bed.

“Dude?” Taylor asks, then peeks out. Ales is lying in bed with his laptop balanced on his chest. He glances up and waves two fingers in Taylor’s direction.

“Fag,” the laptop says.

“You’re a fag,” Ales continues patiently. Taylor changes into pajama bottoms and crawls into his own bed, peeking over. The screen’s pretty dark, and it seems like Ales’ one word conversation isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Taylor rolls onto his side and shuts his eyes, then peeks back after fifteen seconds of uncomfortable silence. “Seriously,” Ales says. “You’re totally a fag.”

“Dude,” Taylor grumbles. Ales glances over and turns the laptop so that the camera hits Taylor too.

“Is my roommate, Taylor Hall,” he says.

“Are you guys going to do this, like, all night?” Taylor whines despite himself. “In the dark?”

“With beer,” the other guy says. His outline waves. “Joffrey Lupul, hey.”

Taylor goes for the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of the team’s historical database. “So you’re out because you got injected by some Communist supervirus, right?”

There is a long, awkward pause before Hemmer snorts. “No, he just has girl body that cannot handle disease.”

“Freak. Accident,” Lupul articulates.

“Oh.” Taylor pauses and clears his throat. “So you two are still friends, huh? That’s cool.”

“Not friends,” Hemmer and Lupul announce at the same time. They share a look, which is bizarre and misdirected because they’re both glaring at each other’s images rather than into the webcam.

Ales continues, “He is a rogue agent reporting his intel.”

“Seriously?” Lupul groans. “Are we still calling me rogue? Look, kid, half the league played for the Oilers. They’re the farm team of the League. And that’s not an accident.”

“We have sleeper cells all over the league waiting for activation in an ultimate mission,” Ales agrees.

“And this mission has been...waiting since the Oilers entered the league?”

“But we will be so ready when it happens,” Ales says stoutly.

Lupul rolls his eyes and says, “And ultimately, there will be a war against aliens, right.”

Taylor looks at the screen, where Lupul seems to be buffing his nails, and then to Hemmer lounging on the bed. “I’m gonna go to sleep, I think.”

“If you stay up an hour longer, we’re having a Disney sing-along,” Lupul offers. Taylor has never managed to force himself to sleep so fast. Still, he dreams that Ales is the crab from The Little Mermaid.

**

 

Jordan pauses in the doorway, knocks twice on the frame while leaning his weight against the open door. “Whatcha doing?” he asks.

Taylor is clearly, clearly watching Die Hard and eating spicy Doritos. He shrugs and says, “Nothing. You?”

“I’m gonna get ice cream. It’s like, my thing, remember?”

Taylor nods introspectively, folds the chip bag closed and throws it to the foot of his bed. “Yeah, I could do ice cream.”

Ebs looks relieved for a split second, but then he grins and Taylor gets himself psyched up for a late-night treat. Some things shouldn’t be messed with upon entrance into the NHL, and anyways, they eat like an entire farm of chickens every week, so Renney would probably let this slide. Taylor digs out a sweatshirt and by the time he’s found his second shoe, Jordan has the car backed out of the garage.

“I’m driving on the way home,” Taylor announces before he’s buckled. Jordan smirks at him and revs the engine.

“My car, my rules.”

“I’m pretty sure we agreed to do rock-paper-scissors for driving rights,” Taylor says. He’s noticing that he always ends up riding shotgun, which is unfair.

“You’re slow, man. No one to blame but yourself.”

Taylor looks over, thinks about the way the streetlights catch that weird line of Jordan’s cheek and the slump of his body when he tries to be badass by driving one handed, and how, in a few minutes, they’ll be eating chocolate ice cream together with those tiny pink spoons. Moments like this, he thinks he understands everything life is about.

Other moments, close in time but fucking planets away in comprehension, Taylor finds himself sitting between Jordan and Theo, all of them watching Horc pace back and forth. Gilbert and Whitney are following him like ducks while Hemsky and Penner share a magazine on fly fishing behind them. Somehow, the lack of interest that half their core leadership is displaying for the team meeting makes Taylor queasy with nervousness.

Horc pauses and faces them all. “I think it’s time you learned everything else about our situation within the league. Surely you’ve heard of the Swedish Mafia.”

Taylor clears his throat and reminds himself that no one is ever joking when he thinks they are. “Like, bork bork bork?”

Whitney leans forward slowly. “Exactly. That’s why we had to release Bobby Nilsson this summer. With Magnus and Linus coming in, we had to prioritize.”

“I kind of thought it was because he blew,” Taylor says, half to himself. Whitney totally ignores him.

“The risk of betrayal increases exponentially every time you add a Swede to the lineup, unless you balance them out with a Finn. They’re a shifty, cliquey bunch and you have to constantly isolate and reorient them or else—”

“You know,” Taylor interrupts, trying for conversational, “this sounds an awful lot like discrimination.”

“You weren’t in the league for the Steve Moore incident,” Horc says. “Naslund brainwashed one of our most successful league-wide agents, Bertuzzi, into attacking Moore just before he was about to launch an attack on Peter Forsberg’s secret mountain lair.”

“True story,” Ales drawls.

Horc gives him a look and continues. “Because he thought he was protecting a teammate, Bertuzzi concussed Moore to the point where valuable intel was lost forever. That’s why we’re in a recession now. The Swedes.”

“They also have exceptional health care,” Whitney adds. “A lot of people are intimidated.”

They pass out the mission plan—a sheaf of papers in brightly coloured Duo-Tangs, with illustrations of locks, sketches of stick figures running and a full ground map.

“Let’s go through this,” Horc says. He continues by stating the date and time of the mission, and that’s when Taylor kind of freaks. He barely has time to mentally prepare for his first mission ever, featuring guns and potential death and everything that juniors never qualified him for, and he’s pretty sure he’s not ready.

None of that matters, though, because twenty-two hours and seventeen minutes before their game in Rogers Arena, Taylor is crouching behind a dumpster, trying to stop his hands from shaking and squinting through his aviator shades to make out Khabibulin’s elaborate hand motions.

Khabi takes another look at his watch and scowls. “Fucking kids, always fucking late,” he says. There’s a weird echo because Taylor can actually hear him talking, but the voice is also piped through his earpiece. “Too fucking old, should have stayed in Chicago, at least Toews always followed military time.”

“What’s military time?” Smid asks. Taylor’s pretty sure that Ladi had a bush on his head for camo when they left the hotel room, and it’s entirely possible that the Czech managed to go from looking retarded to actually hiding in the foliage.

“I hate your very soul,” Khabi growls. He takes his watch off to stare at it, then back at the electronically monitored door to the vault in front of them.

“It’s twenty-four hour time,” Taylor says when it becomes obvious that no one else is going to answer Smid’s question.

“You have to fucking count twice as high for that,” Ladi says cheerfully. Taylor sees one of the trees rustle and wonders if that’s him, but then Ladi stands up from behind a car and adjusts his hat. There’s a large red flower over his left ear that wasn’t there when they left. “Are we moving?”

“This mission is a bust,” Khabi grumbles. “I should have retired. I should have let them send me to jail. Where it is quiet. My knees hurt.”

“Maybe we could just walk really slowly to the door, like we’re just...you know, hanging out,” Taylor offers. “And then lean really casually against the door, and someone can pick the lock. Because, you know, none of us are actually blocked from that camera angle, we’re just crouching here looking like tools.”

“Fucking fuck, fuck this,” Khabi says. Taylor drops flat at the sudden sound of a gunshot. His body is still working on the reflex that says ‘do not get murdered,’ but at least he doesn’t cover his head any more. When he glances up, the alarm panel is smoldering.

“Dude, that was—not a beauty,” he announces and shifts slowly back to his feet.

Peckham snorts, “You totally just shot the door, man.”

Colin Fraser skids around the corner and groans. “Did you seriously just shoot that? I was ten seconds late, man, you need to learn how to be patient.”

“I told you, we are on a schedule,” Khabi grunts. Taylor pokes the mass of melted cover and shrugs.

“Can you, like, hack this?” Everyone looks at him like he’s retarded—it’s so unfair. “I dunno, I mean, the wire’s still...there.”

“I cannot ‘hack’ something that’s been shot to crap,” Colin announces. “It’s over.”

**

 

They make another go of it when the Canucks are in town, this time with Khabi out of the field, much to his very loud relief. Their van is black and has a Pizza Hut logo on the side—Taylor had tried to explain that Pizza Hut actually didn’t have logo vans, but was shot down by Hemmer’s blankest stare. The hotel pulls into view and he swallows so he won’t puke.

“No, I remember the plan,” Magnus says calmly as they pull up to the entrance. “Be distracting and Swedish.”

Taylor peeks over his shoulder; that is actually the action plan written in Magnus’ daytime planner. “Okay, I have to ask, who came up with that?”

Omark laughs and Magnus looks back at Taylor. He holds up a napkin covered entirely with scribbles and what looks suspiciously like a drawing of a dragon. “We summarized Vandermeer’s notes.”

Penner adds from the very back seat, “The penmanship course is mandatory next season. I’m sick of reading pictograms.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Ales retorts from beside him. “This is not Communist Russia, we write how we want.”

Taylor figures it’s a sensitive subject because Ales’ printing looks like it’s been pieced out of newspaper clippings, like a ransom note. But at least it looks nice and is legible, unlike most of their teammates’ writing; he’s kind of with Penner on this one.

“Let’s go over the plan one more time,” Horc says patiently. He pushes his sunglasses down his nose so he can look around the van. “Linus and Magnus, you engage the Sedins and remember, you need to maintain their attention for at least forty-five minutes after that to allow the field teams to work—”

Linus holds up four pictures and Magnus announces, “Ronja, Erik, Valter and Harry.”

“Great,” Jordan says. “Cute kids.”

“I’m seriously so fucking glad I don’t have to run interference,” Penner says, heartfelt. “I hate talking about people’s kids. Especially babies named Walter.”
“Who does that to a kid,” Hemmer agrees.

Horc clears his throat loudly. “Dustin will enter through the front door and gain access to the security equipment. He will either temporarily incapacitate the guard, or seduce them. I’ll leave that to your discretion, Pens.”

“Okay, this seems unfair, how come he does the seducing?” Jordan asks with a thumb jerk in Penner’s direction.

“My rugged good looks and piercing blue eyes,” Dustin drawls, stretching out his legs.

“Seniority,” Horc adds. “Ebs and Hallsie will go through the garage, climb the elevator to the fifth floor, and enter the Sedins’ rooms through air ducts. Once in, Ebs will insert the disk designed by Colin to duplicate the stored data on their laptops and Taylor will search for and duplicate any physical keys and codes to the Canucks’ lair.

“Ales and I wanted to join you two on this mission, but you’ve proved in the past few weeks that you’re emotionally and technically developed enough to go solo on this one. Which is convenient, because as you know, we’re not cleared for active duty.”

”Plus, we weren’t really interested in this one,” Ales adds. He leans back as Dustin ninja-rolls over the seat and out the back door of the truck. “Break legs.”

Horc puts his hand in for a team huddle and cheer, but that seems kind of lame so Taylor just smacks his shoulder affectionately and lets himself out the side door. They give the Swedes a ten minute head start, then recall the elevator, prop the door open to prevent it from moving, and open the upper hatch.

“I still feel like this is a terrible idea,” Taylor says quietly as Jordan steps on his shoulder and wriggles through the gap. “Couldn’t we have worn baseball caps and just rode the elevator?”

“Don’t deviate from the plan,” four voices remind him over the mic. He rolls his eyes, accepts Jordan’s arm and swings himself up.

“Just remember, you may never have another chance to dress entirely in black and use Infrared goggles,” Jordan reminds him as they climb. Taylor smacks the back of Jordan’s calf, because his other options range into the inappropriate zone.

He’s pretty sure that climbing through air ducts went out of style after Alien came out, but the Oilers are pretty big on the glory days of Gretzky, so Taylor figures a little datedness in their schemes must be normal. The duct isn’t that huge; they have to army crawl, which is a huge pain because every time Jordan twists himself around, his foot thrashes in front of Taylor’s face.

“Dude, seriously, be careful,” Taylor hisses.

“Don’t crawl up my ass, man, this is a precise art,” Jordan retorts. “Do you want me to get stuck?”

“I’d leave you,” Taylor says. He wouldn’t really, though.

“You wouldn’t even,” Jordan says, like he knows exactly what Taylor is thinking. “You need me.”

“Yeah,” he admits and gives Jordan’s knee a shove to help him clear the lip of a joint.

The Sedins’ room is pretty standard, with two double beds and a TV, a small desk space that appears to be unused, and a bathroom with a shower/tub combo. It’s actually pretty much exactly like every hotel Taylor has ever stayed in. He’s not going to lie to himself, it’s a letdown. Something about the term “mafia” brings to mind crimson four-poster beds and postmodern artwork, not a stock photo of a chair on a beach.

He scans the obvious places for bugs and monitoring equipment before pulling off his hat. Jordan is carefully affixing spy gear of their own within the Sedins’ apparently-shared laptop, and Taylor cautiously unzips their travel bags to peek in.

“What are we looking for again?”

“Terrorism,” Jordan says absently. Then he looks up and meets Taylor’s gaze. They both snicker, because this is fucking ridiculous. “You find anything hidden in their socks?”

“One of them hoards gum,” Taylor says, unwrapping a pack of spearmint from a pair of white socks. “That’s weird, right?”

“It looks like all they do on this laptop is play Spider Solitaire and watch Swedish-dubbed episodes of Daria,” Jordan adds, shutting the computer lid gently. “I couldn’t find any reference to master plans, but we’ll give Colin the intel and maybe he can dig something out of it.”

Taylor looks around the room again and shakes his head. “This is the lamest mission ever.”

“Like we’d let you jump sideways while firing two handguns on your first night out,” Penner grumbles over the radio. Taylor grimaces and shrugs at Jordan, who’s laughing silently.

Then they hear the click of a keycard in the door. Taylor gasps and recalls the floor plan of the room. Bathroom—what, are they going to hide behind the curtain like five-year-olds playing Sardines? Beds—those models are attached to the floor to make cleaning easier. Closet—

“Get in the closet,” he tells Jordan and shoves him forward. The Sedins have two parkas hung up and Taylor pushes them aside as Jordan eases the doors closed behind them. The closet is empty except for two complimentary bathrobes, and Taylor figures that this, at least, is something he isn’t given on the road, but it’s hard to tell if that’s because the Sedins have letters or because they’re apparently supervillians. He makes a note to ask Horc about it if he gets out alive.

“Dude,” Jordan whispers as the Sedins rattle the door again. Colin had timed a delay in the cards’ magnetic strips to give them an escape window, but if the twins give it one more go, they’ll be in the room. “Your hat.”

Taylor touches his head and they both lunge forward to peer out. The black toque is within view, dangling casually from the bed closest to the window.

“Son of a bitch,” Taylor says, and then the door opens. He has another heart attack when he sees that they’re wearing jackets and tries to imagine both himself and Jordan hiding behind knee length white, fluffy robes, but the Sedins walk past the closet. They both deposit their jackets in the middle of the floor like slobs, then flick the TV on. One leans down and grabs Taylor’s hat off the bed.

Taylor holds his breath; Jordan grabs his arm and squeezes hard enough to bruise. Then the Sedin puts the hat on his head and shuffles over to his bag to unwrap a piece of gum.

“Cooties,” Jordan mouths. Taylor covers his face to muffle a laugh. The Sedins poke around their belongings some more, looking calm. “Bork bork bork,” one says, and the other answers, “Hanka panka, meatball.”

Jordan’s face is pressed into his shoulder, so Taylor’s translation skills are a little sub-par. He’s pretty sure that the obituary will be flattering and talk a lot about wasted potential. It might even feature a full page picture of him and Jordan hugging after a goal, which—okay, probably not the most heroic shot, and it definitely wouldn’t mention “killed by Swedes in a hotel closet,” but it would be good. He’d rather go out with people talking about hockey than this, no matter how consuming the whole spy gig is.

It’s hard to decide what they’d tell his mother, though. For a second, he’s stuck imagining the full military deal, someone handing his mom a folded Oilers flag and telling her that she should be proud, he was lost in combat. That would be pretty badass, even though it would hardly be original and the Oilers organization—

And, well, they couldn’t exactly retire his number; he figures that honour still has to go to Kevin Lowe despite Taylor currently using it. It’s actually okay, because he’d be more like an eternal mist over the organization. Or a ghost. Near death experiences, apparently, remind Taylor of his spiritual uncertainty.

“Dude,” Jordan whispers, “please stop talking silently to yourself. Your lips still make noise when you move them without speaking, and it’s freaking me out.”

“Sorry, I’m just contemplating the afterlife,” Taylor whispers back. Jordan gives him a long, incredulous look and then shakes silently. The asshole is totally laughing. Taylor continues with more vehemence, “We could die here!”

“Yeah, right, as if they’re going to let us die.” Jordan grins. “Didn’t you read the manual? Backup plan.”

There is a knock on the hotel door, and one of the twins goes to get it. Taylor is relieved that a life of professional sports has deafened them to the whispering of rookies in the closet, because the second Sedin doesn’t look in the direction of the closet, just wiggles his toes and changes the channel to the Home and Garden Network.

“Dude, do you think their secret is that they’re homos?” he whispers hopefully. Jordan elbows him harder than is strictly necessary.

“Hotel management,” comes from somewhere just out of view, and Taylor totally recognizes that voice. “Sorry to tell you that your room is infected with herpes.”

The Sedin on the bed yells and jumps to his feet, pawing at his ass to get off the herpes germs. Jordan laughs into Taylor’s shoulder as there’s a general undressing and redressing scuffle punctuated with yelling in Swedish, and then the muted click of the hotel door easing back into its frame.

Hemsky hauls the closet door open and looks at them silently.

“Dude,” the radio hanging from his collar crackles to life. “Ask them if they’re ready to come out of the closet.”

“This sucks,” Taylor announces. The fact that they chose to send the face of the Oilers organization dressed as room service is apparently not enough to distract his teammates from junior high jokes. Also, Hemmer’s disguise looks like a hat borrowed from Pizza Hut and an oversized suit jacket, possibly borrowed from Penner.

“You suck,” Hemmer replies solemnly and steps back. “Please come out of the closet.”

**

 

“So, you wear a visor, yes?” Hemsky asks. Taylor puts down his magazine, looks over at him, then picks it back up. Respecting veterans is one thing, listening to them discuss equipment is just a level he’s not ready to reach yet.

He nods, though—he’s not going to ignore him. Especially now that he knows that Hemmer legit has a gun.

“Me too,” Hemmer says. He laces his fingers together on his stomach, hums. “You should wear a bulletproof vest.”

“What?” Taylor asks. Hemsky lifts his shirt and Taylor is ready to stab his eyes out to prevent the horror, but underneath the black long-sleeved tee is another bluish-black fabric.

“Kevlar,” Ales says solemnly. “I wear it for always.”

“Huh,” Taylor says, and considers the fact that his odds of getting shot have risen exponentially since he became an Oiler. He realizes it’s far from the worst suggestion he’s heard. Ales smacks his own stomach twice and grunts.

“Safety first.”

“Oh my god,” Taylor says. “I think you’re my team role model.”

“I guess that happens to the best of us,” Ales says solemnly. “Don’t take it too hard, at least I will not encourage you to do drugs.”

Hemsky has turned back to his Nintendo DS, but the comment has started Taylor thinking. He sits up on the bed, then shifts so his feet hang off near the bedside table and clasps his hands between his knees. “Hey, Hemmer? Can I ask some advice?”

Ales groans and sits up, mirroring his position. “What is it?”

“If you liked someone, say—a friend, and you didn’t know if it was worth it to disrupt that friendship for the sake of a relationship—”

“Can we give them names?” Hemmer asked. “Let’s call one Taylor and let’s call the other Magnus.”

“Uh, let’s not call one Magnus,” Taylor says fast. “How about John and—and—”

“Peach,” Ales supplies and nods sagely. “Well, if it was John who liked her, I’d say go for it because eventually he was going to do something stupid. Or get traded. And maybe she’d like him back anyways.”

“But how would he know? Hypothetically.”

Ales rolls his eyes. “You never know for certain. Unless they tell you, but then you know that your relationship is probably going to fail because you can’t even see if someone likes you.”

“Okay, no, I know that—the person likes me! I just don’t know if they like like me!”

“Don’t get that distinction,” Ales announces and rolls back onto his bed. “What is the problem? You’re Taylor fucking Hall, aren’t you?”

It’s scary that Hemmer’s point is usually valid. “I’ll do it,” Taylor says.

“Thank god,” Ales retorts, rolls further. “I’m sleeping now.”

Taylor lifts the phone to call Jordan’s room, but finds that he might not be that brave yet.