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Jeff is nursing a pretty painful crush.

In his first full year with the Kings, Jeff notices Alex at the very first promotional spot he has to do. And he continues to notice Alex: working with the film crew, in the admin hallways at Staples Center, generally smiling, sometimes laughing, always just on the edge of Jeff’s off-ice work life. Alex is fucking hot as shit. And funny. And he’s out. Which fills Jeff up with weird mixed feelings of awe and jealousy.

Jeff isn’t actually precisely sure what Alex’s job is exactly, just that he’s there for all the video things the Kings Vision crew does, and that it seems to involve coordinating lots of disparate groups of people and carrying around a lot of clipboards. And today, Alex is running around, telling people where to stand and when to talk and when to shut up, but when he isn’t doing that, he’s joking with Stollsy and Penner, “No, see – that’s why California doesn’t want gay people to get married. Because they know that we’ll drive the prices of flowers and cake and shit way up, so people like you gotta pay through the nose.” He gestures to Stollsy, because Stollsy is engaged. Again. “You know what a Manhattan Beach gay dude would pay for wedding flowers?”

Stoll and Penner shake their heads.

“Ha. Me neither. More money than I’ll ever make. More money than you’ll ever make either, most likely. You can bet when I marry a guy it’s going to be a courthouse deal.”

Stoll and Penner laugh. Like it’s no big thing. Alex just told them he was gay like it was nothing. And they’re totally cool with it.

It’s not fair.

Alex glances over at him at that point, laughter in his dark brown eyes. Jeff has to look away quick, because there’s way too much going on inside of his head at the moment.

So, the upshot is, there’s a super-hot, funny, gay guy that works right in the same building as Jeff, and he probably thinks Jeff hates him. Fantastic.

 


 

When Jeff was fifteen, and staring down the OHL Priority Selection, he spent a lot of sleepless nights staring up at the ceiling and thinking, Don’t be gay. Don’t be gay. Don’t be gay.

At that point being gay was no longer what it had been a few years ago – it didn’t mean being the last kid off the playground. It didn’t mean wearing the wrong pants, or getting too many math problems right. Or wrong. But it also wasn’t exactly clear what it did mean. Except for that you couldn’t be gay and play hockey. That much seemed obvious.

Jeff got drafted by Sault Ste. Marie – which was exactly 664 km away, if you didn’t mind crossing through the States, and further if you did. And where Jeff knew exactly no one.

His billet family had the internet set up on the computer in the den. Which meant that Jeff spent a lot of late nights downstairs, wishing to god the modem was quieter and watching the star shoot endlessly over the ‘N’ in the Netscape icon while waiting for images to load, line by painstakingly-slow line – one hand on the mouse, curser poised over the close button, just in case someone came unexpectedly downstairs.

Anyway. The internet made it pretty hard to escape the conclusion: definitely, definitely gay.

At that point, Jeff made a deal with himself, which, as he recalls now, went something along the lines of: Okay. He can be gay – but it had to be later. He’d play hockey now, and when he was done, when he couldn’t play anymore, then he’d be gay.

At the time, it had seemed like a pretty good deal.

 


 

Jeff spends a considerable amount of time wishing there was some kind of magic code word he could utter that would make Alex just know he’s gay.

And interested. That part would be helpful too.

Maybe he could just wear his You Can Play t-shirt to the next video thing he has to do? Except for the fact that You Can Play t-shirts are a dime a dozen these days. Everyone has one. All it means is that you’re probably not a complete asshole. Maybe Jeff could get a t-shirt from, like, a really, really famous West Hollywood gay bar, and Alex would see it, and –

And what exactly? Know Jeff has been to West Hollywood? And gotten drunk there?

In Jeff’s richly populated fantasy life – a place where Jeff has many more dazzling and witty things to say than he does in, you know, reality – he is afforded the perfect opportunity (him plus Alex minus everyone else), in the perfect setting (a promo shoot? At Staples? This part is still unclear), and he and Alex have some amazing conversation, where Jeff manages to say something really clever that makes Alex pause and remark, “Why, Jeff Carter, I had no idea you were so intelligent and homosexual.”

Except, even given infinite lead time, Jeff can’t come up with what that really clever thing would be. He’s sure as hell not going to be able to do it on the fly. Sparkling wit and innuendo are really not his strong suit. He’s more of a one-timers from the top of the circle kind of guy.

And, fuck. Alex is around hockey players all day. That’s not going to impress him.

God, Jeff has no game.

If he asked Richie – and he’s not going to ask Richie, because, for one, Richie is busy being stupidly in love at the moment, and two, it’s Richie, who fails at life basically all the time – Richie would tell him to pull his head out of his ass and just fucking ask him out, already.

Richie is a big proponent of the what’s the worst that could happen life strategy.

Pausing there, Jeff takes a moment – just a moment – to let himself be bitter about the fact that Richie’s been too busy to hang for, like, over a month now. But this girl, and Jeff has heard all about this girl, seems like she might not be a) a righteous bitch, b) completely crazy, or c) totally brain dead (see also: Mandy, Beverly, Jessica). Like she might actually be cool. So Jeff would like to encourage that. Besides, here’s how that conversation would go:

Richie: Hey Carts, what’s up?

Jeff: Oh, you know. Just obsessing more over that Kings Vision guy. You know, the awesome, hot one? The one who works up on the third floor? In the office across from the PR people? He drives a black jeep with an HRC sticker? He gets in around eight thirty in the morning? Tends to hum in the hallways?

Richie: You pathetic asshole, just go bang him, already.

So maybe it’s a good thing Richie is distracted. Because this is a situation that needs to be handled delicately. Carefully. Jeff needs a plan. Like, first Jeff will just talk to Alex. That’s a good first step.

 

 

“Okay,” Brownie announces, in his best responsible-team-captain voice. “I need some volunteers for this charity thing. It’s just going to be a quick shoot, a couple of hours with the film crew at an elementary school – ”

“I’ll do it,” Jeff says, possibly much, much too quickly.

Brown pauses. “Uh, great. Anybody else?”

Later, Richie elbows him, looks at him with some serious skepticism. “Dude. Since when do you care about school lunches?”

“I’m establishing ties with the community,” Jeff says defensively. “My agent said it would be good for my image.”

Richie just raises his eyebrows like he doesn’t believe a word coming out of Jeff’s mouth. And Jeff needs to lock his shit down, because Richie’s giving him that face that says he’s not going to ask now, but all bets are off for the future.

 

 

It’s a bunch of signing shit and smiling and talking to kids about nutrition, which really isn’t so bad. Except for when the teacher’s going on and on about the food pyramid, and Jeff keeps flashing to the Taco Bell wrapper and diet coke bottle sitting on the front seat of his truck, and hoping to god nobody notices.

But it’s totally worth it because afterward, Alex smiles at him. “Thanks for coming out today. I know this stuff can get old fast. But you did great.”

“Well, you know,” Jeff stutters. “No biggie.”

“Right.” Alex claps him on the shoulder. “Thanks again.” And walks away.

Ugh. Jeff doesn’t need a plan, or a t-shirt, or a magic code word. Jeff needs a pair of balls.

 

 

It happens, like most of the major decisions in Jeff’s life, because Jeff gets backed into the metaphorical wall.

He’s in the elevator, heading out. The car stops and the doors open and someone gets on and the doors close. Jeff is busy staring at his cell phone, but it’s lost the signal, so he frowns and tucks it away, and oh –

It’s Alex who got on the elevator. Alex nods at him politely, then turns to face forward, like you do in elevators when you’re not creepily obsessed with the guy in the car with you.

Pro: Jeff will get to look at the back of his neck, and the way his shirt sleeve stretches over his bicep for the duration of the elevator ride.

Con: Hours of recrimination and self-loathing after he fails to talk to Alex.

It takes Jeff an embarrassingly long time to realize Alex is holding a box full of his stuff. Like he’s cleaning out his desk. “Are you taking some stuff home?” It comes out sudden and too loud.

Alex turns around and blinks at him for a second, like he’s surprised Jeff said anything. “Actually, I took another job. This is my last day with the Kings.” He shrugs, looking a little bummed about it.

The doors open at the garage level. “Oh,” Jeff says. “Good luck.”

Alex grins. “Thanks, man.” He shifts the box to one arm so he can wave. “Hope you guys kill Phoenix on Tuesday. See ya.” And walks off. Presumably towards his car, and a life where Jeff will never see him again.

Shit.

“Hey.” Jeff jogs to catch up with him. Alex stops and turns to face him, and Jeff’ s mind is suddenly totally and completely blank.

Naturally, it’s Richie’s voice he hears in his head. And it’s calling him a total fucking loser. Jeff swallows. “Would you maybe want to go get a beer sometime?”

Alex is looking at him, eyes narrowed like he doesn’t quite know what to make of the situation. “I mean, I know you’re going to busy with your new job and all,” Jeff adds clumsily. “But – ”

“No, that’d be cool,” Alex says. And it’s followed by the world’s most awkward exchange of numbers.

 


 

Hockey now, gay later mostly worked out for him. Sure, there were some exceptions. Like the international tournament where one of the forwards on Germany’s team had walked up to him at the stupid mixer they had to go to. The German kid had been just a little bit drunk, because Germany was out of it at that point. Jeff wasn’t, because Canada was most assuredly still in it, but somehow, while they were talking, it had seemed like a good idea to go back to the room Jeff was sharing with Mike.

Once there, the German kid sat next to him on the bed, which seemed a little weird, but Jeff still didn’t put it together until the kid asked, “Do you like boys?”

At that point in his life, Jeff had played OT games in international competition. Jeff had been in shoot outs, Jeff had scored game-winning goals – and none of that had come close to dumping the sheer amount of adrenaline into his system that one question had caused. Because, hello worst fear realized.

He broke out in a cold sweat, totally frozen, and really, the one clear thought he’d had, was, Oh shit. Now I have to punch him.

Which seemed like a really awful thing to have to do.

Except the German kid followed it up almost immediately with, “Because I like boys.”

He had kissed Jeff, and every fucking molecule in Jeff’s body had leaned into it and said, Yes. This. Yes.

Obviously, that’s when Richie had walked in. The German kid had taken off, leaving Jeff flushed, and embarrassed, scrambling for some excuse, some explanation, and totally, totally unable to come up with one.

Richie hadn’t said anything, not really. And the next morning, Jeff had stammered out, “I’m not gay, I was just – ” Except he still didn’t have a good excuse. “It was just a joke,” he finished lamely.

Richie just looked at him with a face that said that was exactly as stupid as it had sounded in Jeff’s head.

And it was stupid. Jeff was at the fucking World Juniors – the best hockey in the fucking world for people his age – destined for the NHL – and he was going to throw all that away so he could make out with some random guy? “Please don’t tell anybody, Richie. Please.”

Richie’d looked pissed then. His expression all dark. “I’m not an asshole.” He’d shaken his head at Jeff. “Look, I don’t care if you’re gay. If you are, fine. If you aren’t, fine. But I wouldn’t say anything.” He stood up, put his hand on Jeff’s shoulder and shook him gently. “Come on. We’re supposed to be on the bus in ten.”

 


 

Jeff shows up early, in a button-down shirt that is probably way too nice for the bar they’re going to. Jeff has already failed. Jeff starts to sweat.

“Hey.” Alex greets him warmly, like they’re old friends, like he’s not nervous at all. “How’s it going? Are you thirsty? I’m fucking thirsty, let’s get a table.” And it’s pretty easy to go with the flow and follow him out onto the deck, to drink Corona after Corona, and listen to him ramble on about his new gig shooting in-house promotional stuff for the Lakers. “I met Pau Gasol yesterday,” he says.

“What’s he like?” Jeff asks.

Alex takes a sip of beer and pokes his lip out thoughtfully. “Tall.”

Jeff grins.

“Hey, so.” Alex pauses, and he’s squinting across the table at Jeff. “This might be a stupid question, and I apologize in advance if it is, but are we just grabbing beers? Or is this a date?”

The light’s doing that southern California thing, where it comes in all golden off the water, making even stuff as stupid as beer bottle glass and torn-up urban beaches look beautiful. Jeff rubs the back of his neck. “Well. I was kinda hoping it was a date.”

Alex shakes his head, but there’s a slow smile breaking out across his face.

Jeff really likes that smile. Jeff would like to see that smile a lot.

 

 

The best thing about dating guys is that a guy will let you know immediately if he wants to fuck you. And if he does want to fuck you, you don’t have to pussyfoot around until the third or fourth date, or whatever it is straight people seem to feel is appropriate. You cut right to the chase.

Jeff has no idea how Richie puts up with all the coaxing and cajoling that seems to go into dating women. Actually, Jeff has no idea how Richie gets laid, at all.

What that means for him though, is that they cab back to Jeff’s place, and Jeff’s heart rate is picking up, just with the anticipation of it. The knowing. And sure, he likes Alex as a person, but right now he’s thinking about how he likes the way Alex’s shoulders stretch the fabric of his shirt, how he’s going to like all that golden-tanned skin spread out across his sheets. Jeff runs his tongue across the back of his teeth.

Alex lets Jeff pin him up against the wall of the entryway. Lets Jeff bite at his lip and slide his hands up under his shirt. Alex has his hands at Jeff’s waist, hauling him in. Jeff’s a little rough about it, the way he pulls Alex against him and then lets them both fall back against the wall hard enough to rattle the picture hanging nearby, hard enough for Alex’s eyes to snap open and look at him, wide and dark, and quite clearly rapidly reassessing Jeff.

And, okay, maybe Jeff is not the smartest guy in the world. He’s never going to be a fucking rocket scientist or a brain surgeon. And maybe he’s still finding his footing when it comes to things like asking guys out. But this? This is where Jeff shines. If we’re going to dispense with false modesty, Jeff is hot. Jeff is an athlete – he has stamina, he has flexibility, and it is his fucking job to read the subtle body language cues that tell what a person is about to do.

Also, Jeff has had sex with a lot of people. He’s had the opportunity to hone some serious skills.

Jeff is a fucking great lay.

He’s got his mouth on Alex’s again; he’s grinding his hips into him. Alex is pushing back against him, and Jeff can feel his hands sliding through his hair, cradling the back of his skull.

There is a second where time slows, where Jeff pulls back enough to look at Alex’s face and think, Remember this. This is going to be something important. And then Alex has his mouth, hot and wet, pressed into Jeff’s throat, and it’s sliding down; he’s pulling Jeff’s shirt roughly out of the way to mouth over his collarbone. Jeff’s hips snap and he pins Alex back up against the wall –

The picture falls, making an extremely satisfying crash.

Alex looks from him to the floor and back again. His eyebrows go up, and he grins, slow, and cheerful, and wicked, “Do you – ”

“Fuck it,” Jeff says, and takes him by the hand, and leads him upstairs.

“Oh,” Alex says, when Jeff’s finally managed to get everyone involved undressed. “Look at you blush.” His fingertips are skating lightly over Jeff’s chest, his stomach.

Jeff rolls his eyes and presses him back against the bed, and sets to work making sure that’s the last coherent thing Alex says for awhile.

Alex looks satisfyingly spent after – sleepy and a dopey grin on his face. Jeff mouths along his neck, sucks kisses along his jaw, his mouth. “Stay,” he says. “Stay and we can fuck again in the morning.”

 


 

He and Richie both cracked the Flyers’ roster when they were both basically still just kids, post Lockout 1.0, in 2005. Compared to Junior and the AHL, lots of things were better in the Big Show. The food was better. The travel was better. The hotels were nicer. The hockey was better, obviously.

Terrifyingly better, sometimes, in a what-have-you-gotten-yourself-into sort of way.

It was not any easier, though, going out to the bars with the guys. Oh, Jeff had mastered the art of making it look easier. And sometimes it was fun – they were the kings of the city in Philadelphia. Young and stupid, no one ever said no to them, and there was always a party somewhere. Sometimes it was great – him and Richie and the rest of crew – laughing until they cried over nothing – and maybe it was dumb, but sometimes they’d felt like his brothers, like comrades in arms, like they were riding this crazy wave together, and that was all that mattered.

Sometimes it sucked, though.

One night there had been this gorgeous blonde girl – even Jeff could appreciate that she was beautiful in stop-and-stare sort of way, with legs that looked like they belonged in a magazine. Perfect curves. Huge blue eyes.

Richie was smitten. Richie bought her drinks and made her laugh. Even danced with her friends. But she didn’t want anything to do with Richie. No, she made it clear, she wanted to fuck Jeff.

What the fuck was Jeff supposed to do?

When Jeff went to take her home, she stepped away to go get her coat and say goodnight to her friends, and he put up with the ribbing from the guys.

“Oh man, do not get too drunk to remember this, Carts.”

“Fuck. Take pictures.”

Jeff rolled his eyes and said something stupid back, like how they all wished they had half as much game as he did. Next to him, Richie had groaned and said low, but not so low that Jeff couldn’t hear it, “Ugh. It’s not fair. You’re not even going to enjoy it.”

The bottom had dropped out of Jeff’s stomach. And it was a cold sort of anger that had seeped into him. Because Richie was his best friend. Richie knew everything about him, including that. But he wasn’t supposed to say it. That broke all the rules. Shattered all of Jeff’s carefully constructed illusions.

He’d gotten into the cab with the girl. She smiled at him, one hand twirling in her hair, the other stroked the length of his palm.

Jeff thought, I am a truly terrible human being. And then, at the first red light, he leaned forward, gave the driver way too much money, gotten out, and walked away.

He lied about what happened, of course. Or mostly just shrugged and grinned suggestively and let the boys believe what they wanted. But it was starting to make him furious. And more and more often, it felt like Jeff was ending up exactly the wrong kind of drunk, and watching the guys macking on girls – Richie, his eyes vague and unfocused, running his fingers through some girl’s hair – Ben with his hands on some chick’s hips, pulling her up against him – would make his heart pound and fill him up with a vast and untempered jealousy, and a disgust for everything around him that was surpassed only by how much he hated himself – because, of course, Jeff would have some girl leaning up against him, grinding against him.

After all, it wouldn’t do to be the only one left out. The only one not to take somebody home. And what he really wanted? He wasn’t allowed to even look; he certainly wasn’t allowed to touch.

 

Imaginary interviewer: Jeff, tell us about some of your hobbies here in Philadelphia?

Jeff: Well. I enjoy lying to my friends, fucking anonymous women while closing my eyes and pretending they’re someone else, and lately I’m looking into developing a drinking problem!

Imaginary interviewer: Awesome!

 

And that was basically the story of Jeff Carter, circa 2006-2008. Spending lots of nights he doesn’t really remember with a whole lot of girls he didn’t really care to. Vomiting in a lot of really embarrassing places. And ironically, epic stat lines. Sometimes hockey was weird like that.

 


 

Waking up with Alex in his bed feels like an accomplishment in its own right. So does making out with him, warm and still fuzzy with sleep. And Alex smiling at him, looking for the first time since Jeff’s met him almost shy, and asking, “Do you want to fuck me?” That definitely does.

“Yeah.” Jeff slides a hand to cup his jaw. “Yeah absolutely. How do you want to – ”

Alex is leaning over him, mostly on top of him. “Swap places with me,” he says.

Jeff gets up, kneels between his legs. Alex is jacking himself loosely, smiling up at Jeff. Jeff leans down to kiss him. Because he can. He’s digging out the condoms and lube, when Alex says, “I get tested regularly. I’m clean.”

Jeff swallows. “I am too. Do you mind if we use one anyway?”

Alex shakes his head. “No. Of course not.” He doesn’t take his eyes off Jeff.

When he’s sinking into him, slow and careful, but steady – that feeling comes back. The one that says, Pay attention. This is going to be something big. This matters. And he is paying attention – he can feel every tremor in Alex’s body around him, every millimeter of the path his fingertips are tracing across Jeff’s face. Every ounce of pressure in how he holds on.

“Can I use your shower?” Alex asks, after. Jeff murmurs a blissed-out, distracted yes. Because that’s fine.

What’s not fine, is that Alex comes back fully dressed. Jeff frowns and reaches out to twist a hand in the fabric of Alex’s shirt, pulling him back towards the bed. Alex laughs at him, and lets himself be tugged. Jeff snakes an arm around his waist. Alex rubs a hand over his back. “You’re going to have to get up soon anyway. Don’t you have practice today?”

Jeff lifts his head to look at the clock. “Not for hours.” He runs his thumb over the bit of Alex’s skin he can reach, right at his waist. “This was fun. Let’s do this again. I want to see you again.”

There’s silence for long enough that Jeff’s eyes snap open. Alex isn’t looking at him. Jeff sits up. “You can’t tell me this wasn’t fun.”

“No, but.” Alex looks torn. His tone is almost apologetic. “Jeff, I’ve messed around with guys in the closet before. That’s not very much fun.”

And that gives Jeff a cold splash of panic, because this was going to be big. This was going to be important. Jeff knows it, but apparently no one told Alex. “I’m not – I don’t want to be here forever. I do want to be out, eventually.”

Alex is looking at him, skeptical. “In my experience, that’s what guys say when they want to fuck you again.”

“No. I mean, yes. I do want to fuck you again.” Jeff’s fighting the urge to just clutch onto Alex so he can’t leave. “But it’s true.” And, okay, maybe Jeff hadn’t actually thought all that much about it until just now, but it feels true. “I’m just not ready to be the gay hockey player. Because that’s what I would be: the Gay Hockey Player.”

Alex’s shoulders slump a little.

“Alex. Come on.” And fuck it; it’s time to pull out the big guns. “I’ve had a crush on you for forever. Give me a shot. Please.”

Alex smiles a little at that, looks at him out of the corner of his eye. “Are you out to anybody?”

“Richie. Mike Richards,” Jeff clarifies. “He knows.” He pauses. “Um. That’s it.”

Alex shakes his head at him. “Tell me you’ve at least dated guys before.”

“Yes. I mean, not particularly successfully,” Jeff confesses. He reaches for his phone on the nightstand. “You want references? Plenty of guys in here who will tell you I suck at dating.”

Alex snorts and bats the phone out of reach. Then he threads his fingers with Jeff’s. “God, you’re lucky you’re good in bed.”

 


 

People said a lot of shit about him in Philadelphia. Mostly it wasn’t true. Mostly.

Mostly he stayed just on this side of the problem drinker line, and if he was hung over on occasion at practice, who the hell wasn’t? But that line was looking thinner and thinner all the time, and the urge to just burn it all down was popping up more and more often.

Because, fuck the media who thought they had him all figured out, and fuck the stupid fucking bros they hung out with, and their inane, constant pursuit of chicks. And fuck hockey for presuming to tell him what he can and can’t do with his life off the ice. And most of all, fuck Jeff Carter for being a miserable, cowardly piece of shit who was too scared to go after what he really wanted, and too stupid to figure out a way to try.

And, maybe also fuck Mike Richards for being the one thing pulling him back from the edge.

Like that one cold, crystal-clear night, when Richie had dragged him home, saying, “Jesus fucking Christ, Carts. You stupid fucker. You are going to owe so many people apologies tomorrow.”

Jeff, of course, had no idea what he was talking about, and really, since he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other without face planting on the icy sidewalk, was in no condition to try to figure it out. In hindsight, he knows that Richie was talking about the fact that he was a gigantic drunken asshole at the team Christmas party. A party populated by, you know, their team and their coaches. The people who had the power to control Jeff’s future career success. But just then he’d been too busy trying to get his keys out, trying to get his front door open, which was fucking impossible given the fact that he couldn’t feel his fingers. The doorknob wavered in front of him. Jeff closed one eye.

“For fuck’s sake, give it here.” Richie snatched the keys out of his hand, got the door open, and shoved him through it. Jeff struggled out of his coat and boots, left a trail of clothing as he meandered on autopilot towards his bedroom.

Richie appeared in the doorway with a glass of water.

“Thanks,” Jeff mumbled, and took it, and waited for Richie to leave and take off or crash in the spare room, or whatever the fuck he planned on doing. But he didn’t leave. He sat down next to Jeff. Jeff blinked at him.

“Carts.” Richie sounded tired. “I can’t ignore this anymore. It’s making me feel like an awful friend.” His hands had twisted awkwardly in his lap. “What’s going on?”

Mike Richards was basically an asshole. He talked shit, nonstop, all day, every day. There was nothing that wasn’t a competition to Richie, and if you lost he’d never let you forget it. But there was also this other side to Richie – the part of him that was smart and weirdly embarrassed about it, the part that had no idea what to do with his hair and was transparently insecure about it, the part that got legitimately choked up during commercials for the Humane Society – the part that Jeff was pretty sure only he and maybe Richie’s family back up north every really got to see.

And that was the guy that was looking at Jeff now. Jeff tried to say nothing. But all of the sudden, he couldn’t get it out past the lump in his throat, and Richie looked so focused and worried. And it was horrifying, it was humiliating, but Jeff was blinking back tears. It was all just there, all the things he tried to squash, welling up in him, right at the surface. He shrugged helplessly, because I hate everything or I’m so angry all the time or I think I suck as a human being all seemed like valid answers. But what came out was, “I’m so lonely.” His voice was tight and right on the edge of cracking. “I’m just – I’m really lonely.”

“Oh, jeez. Carts.” Richie had wrapped an arm around him and pulled him close. Jeff cried – fucking sobbed – into his shoulder while Richie muttered comforting nonsense to him. “Easy, Carts, easy.”

When he was mostly cried out, Richie had pushed the covers back. He’d more or less shoved Jeff into a recumbent position, then he’d stood there, face screwed up in an odd, thoughtful sort of frown, and then he’d crawled in next to him.

“Richie,” Jeff said. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sleeping, okay?” Richie huffed out an irritated sort of sigh. “Go to sleep.” He’d tucked himself up next to Jeff, wrapped an arm around him.

And even if it wasn’t like that – that warmth next to him, the feeling of being held – Jeff had never loved anybody more.

 


 

Getting Alex, it turns out, was the hard part. Keeping him turns out to be shockingly easy. Alex slots neatly into all the empty spaces in Jeff’s life. He cooks for Jeff, rolling his eyes but capitulating to Jeff’s demands for non-hydrogenated fats (“Manteca, Jeff, would make this so much better”) and fusses over him when he tweaks his shoulder. He likes staying over at Jeff’s place because it shaves thirty minutes off his commute. And Jeff’s not going to go so far as to thank god for LA traffic – but okay, no, yeah, he really is, because it means it’s that much easier to talk Alex into staying over.

Jeff has a certain spot in the kitchen he likes to stand, where he has a nice view of the living room, of Alex when he’s sprawled out on Jeff’s couch, like right now, paging through a stack of papers. Scowling and making notes in the margins.

Alex looks up at him. “What?”

“Nothing.” It’s not nothing, of course. It’s Alex. Sitting on Jeff’s couch. In Jeff’s house. Looking comfortable and right at home. And really, if it were an option, Jeff would spend all day everyday surrounding Alex with nice things, giving him whatever he wanted, and then just standing back and admiring the view.

Alex’s mouth twitches. “Come here,” he says, setting his work aside.

Jeff goes. And he runs his hands over Alex’s face, because he can. Because it’s his boyfriend in his house. “You should stay.”

“I am.”

“No, I mean.” Jeff settles next to him. “I mean you should stay. Here. You should move in with me.”

Alex’s eyebrows go up. “Jeff.”

“You like staying here,” Jeff presses. “I like you staying here.”

Alex still looks skeptical. “Have you thought this through? What happens when someone comes over? You going to call me your roommate?” He doesn’t sound excited about the prospect.

Jeff hesitates. This seems like something important. Like something he shouldn’t fuck up. “If someone comes over,” he says finally. “If they’re close enough to be coming to my house, they’re close enough to know who you are.”

 


 

Richie was basically always convinced that he knew better about everything. And he made one of his typical, executive decisions, decreeing that Jeff needed gay friends. Jeff had tried, at one point, to explain the whole Hockey Now, Gay Later plan, but Richie had just blinked at him and frowned. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. So now every time Richie found out someone was gay, he was all, “You should hang out with that guy.” Every time they passed a gay bar, it was, “You should go there.”

Jeff did not want to be friends with Scottie’s sister’s hairdresser just because he was gay.

Jeff did not want to risk possible unemployment and near-certain embarrassment to go to a bar where he’d have to pay $15 for a fucking appletini or some shit like that.

But it’s Richie – which meant even when he was ridiculously and totally wrong about something, he also managed to be a tiny bit right. It would, actually, be nice to know other gay people. Maybe. If they weren’t weird. If they didn’t tell anybody.

And also, since it was Richie, it wasn’t like he was ever going to let it go.

In keeping with the tradition wherein Richie was present for all the best and worst decisions in Jeff’s life, he was with Jeff the first time he went to a gay bar. Richie had walked in head up, shoulders back, like he didn’t give a fuck who saw him. Jeff resisted the urge to skulk. Of course Richie could not care about going to a gay bar, or someone seeing it. He wasn’t gay.

Richie had left him sitting at the bar – somehow sussing out the one hot, straight chick in the place almost instantly. But that had turned out to be okay, because a man had taken his spot next to Jeff, and said, “I’d ask if you come here often, but it’s pretty clear you don’t.”

This man, Jeff had thought, is gay. And really, he’d come this close to just hightailing it out of there.

Instead he’d laughed awkwardly. “Is it that obvious?”

The man coughed and looked pointedly at where Jeff was white-knuckling his beer. “Also you should maybe try breathing,” he said. “Before you pass out.”

Anyway, it turned out walking into the first gay bar was the hardest. And fucking the people he actually wanted to have sex with went a long way towards making Jeff less miserable.

So maybe Richie was right. Sometimes.

 


 

“So do you want to come?” Jeff’s still got his phone in his hand; he’s looking across the kitchen at Alex.

“Do I want to come?” Alex repeats. He’s got his skateboard in his lap, screwdriver in hand, and a look of intense focus on his face as he fixes… something. Jeff has no idea. Jeff is contractually barred from doing things like skateboarding. “You mean, do I want to want to spend the afternoon hanging out with you, your platonic boyfriend, and his girlfriend?”

Jeff rolls his eyes because this is an old joke that is still not as funny as Alex thinks it is.

“Yeah.” While Jeff watches, Alex starts chewing his lip and still doesn’t look up and Jeff frowns because, “Are you nervous?”

Alex finally throws him an irritated look. “You’re inviting me to hang out with your uber-protective best friend. The one guy you’re out to. For the first time. Why on earth would I be nervous?”

“Richie’s not protective –

Alex just looks at him, flatly skeptical, and shit, if Richie’s coming off as protective in the stories Jeff’s telling, Jeff really needs to work on his delivery. Jeff shrugs, then smirks. “I mean, Richie knows I’m bringing a date. It doesn’t have to be you…”

“Asshole.” Alex rolls his eyes. “Yes, of course I want to come.”

 

 

Richie spends the first hour not-so-subtly baiting Alex.

Alex grins and bears up gamely and even snarks right back at him when it’s called for. Which a lot of people don’t have the balls for the first time they meet Richie.

“Jeff said you make those filler videos for sports teams?” That is not what Jeff said. Richie’s just being a dick.

But Alex just smiles. “Yeah. I work for one of the smaller LA-based franchises. Maybe you’ve heard of them. The Lakers? You know that one championship banner you have hanging up at Staples? They’re the guys with the other eleven.”

Richie rocks back in his chair, wraps one hand around his empty beer glass, his other arm around Bridget. Alex has one arm thrown loosely across Jeff’s shoulders. Which is nice, and Jeff leans back into it, but even though Alex is smiling casually – the intent way he’s looking at Richie, and the way Richie is looking back – Jeff’s starting to suspect Alex’s arm around him is not a gesture being done expressly for Jeff’s benefit.

Abruptly, Richie grins, and the whole atmosphere of the table seems to relax. He nods towards Alex’s glass. “I’m getting the next round. You want one?”

Jeff goes with him to fetch the beers. Waiting in line he kicks the back of Richie’s leg. “You done being an asshole?”

Richie smirks. “I like him.” Then his expression softens and he looks at Jeff consideringly. “You really like him, huh?”

Jeff’s doing his best not to blush. “Yeah,” he says. “I do.”

 


 

In 2011, Jeff was traded to Columbus.

About a billion things were written about the trade, but what it came down to was, they stopped winning in Philadelphia. And Jeff already had a bunch of shit kicking around his head; he didn’t have the time to figure out why that might be, or really, to process anything more complicated than: what the fuck?

Richie, obviously, was not traded to Columbus. Richie went to LA.

Going back to when he was eighteen years old, Jeff could count on one hand the number of times Richie’d been that far away.

Once he stopped what the rest of the world was calling sulking, but could probably more accurately have been called freaking the fuck out, he gave the following answers to interview questions:

I’m excited to play in Columbus.

I’m looking forward to new opportunities.

I think this franchise is poised to take a major step forward, and I’m just hoping to be a part of it.

Answers he did not give, but instead swallowed back included:

I have no idea what I’m doing here.

I don’t want to be here.

If you wanted a solid two-way center, if you wanted a set-up man, if you wanted a cornerstone for your franchise, you should have taken Richie. That’s Richie. That’s not me.

In Columbus, Jeff was all on his own. Jeff was supposed to be the guy. The topline center. The face. Well, him and Rick Nash, anyway.

And, incidentally, the welcome-to-Columbus evening he spent with Rick Nash and Derrick Brassard, featuring a tour of Columbus’ strip clubs, was maybe going to go down as the longest six hours of Jeff’s life.

But being the face of a franchise was never one of Jeff’s goals. In fact, given that one of his top priorities was keeping his personal life a secret, being the face of the franchise was the opposite of what he wanted. Jeff did try going out, and it wasn’t the first time he went out in Columbus that was the problem. It was the second time, when he realized he was seeing all the same faces.

“The gay community here is really tight-knit,” the guy at the bar explained to him, when Jeff commented on it. “We’re like a family.”

Jeff didn’t want a family. Jeff wanted whatever the opposite of Cheers was: a place where no one knew he his name and no one would recognize his face. And there was nothing anonymous about life in Columbus. He tried to explain it to Richie in an epic series of texts.

when I go out I feel like half the city is watching me.

I feel so conspicuous.

Like, really, really fucking conspicuous.

also, like, every gay person in this city knows every other gay person.

its like trying to hook up in a fish bowl.

a TINY fish bowl

and like at any second the cbj front office could tap on the glass.

Jeff had worried briefly that the amount of time he spent blowing up Richie’s phone made him look pathetic, lonely, and depressed. But fuck, he was pathetic and lonely and depressed.

Richie replied, :(

But then later, he also sent, i hope you have a fast internet connection bc i just bought you a subscription to ‘boys on boys hardcore’

Jeff sent back, wtf???

His phone buzzed again immediately, and ‘boyztube’. and i couldn’t decide btw ‘cock tales’ and ‘breaking straight boys’ but i went with the first one bc the title of the second one kinda freaks me out.

Jeff wrote, MIKE. I’m being serious here. stop being an asshole.

And Richie wrote back, STFU. i watched GAY PORN for you. you don’t get to call me an asshole.

And even two thousand miles away, stuck in Columbus, alone in his shitty new apartment, Jeff had to laugh.

 


 

The Kings battle through a slow start and a mild Cup hangover. They’re going back to the Final.

And his parents want to come down and watch him play.

You know, no pressure.

Jeff looks around his house. His mom is definitely going to notice the shoes by the front door aren’t his size. And there’s no way she’s going to buy it if he tries to convince her that somehow, of his own volition, he went out, picked out, and hung art up on the wall. No way.

“So, um,” he hedges. “My parents want to come down and stay with me for the Cup Final.”

Alex is frowning at him. “I swear to god, Jeff Carter, if this is the part where you tell me you want me to move out while you parents are in town…” He’s looking a little tightly wound, a little drawn around the eyes. And what Jeff hadn’t really appreciated – not until this year anyway – is that playoffs are pretty exhausting for significant others, too. Jeff’s been playing hockey pretty much nonstop for the last month and half, and even when he’s home he’s mostly just stuffing food in his face and sleeping as much as possible. Alex has been the one making grocery runs and airport runs, keeping the lights on and the house livable, and doing a million other tiny things that make Jeff’s life easier.

He catches Alex by the shoulders. “No. This is the part where I tell you I want to come out to my parents.” He hesitates. “And that I’m kind of nervous about it.”

Alex slides his hands over Jeff’s and pulls him in, resting his head against his. “Way to make me feel like an asshole,” he says. But he’s smiling.

Jeff can feel the pressure where Alex’s arms are wrapped around him, the heat through the fabric of his t-shirt.

 

 

Jeff picks his parents up at the airport, takes them up the 405, and slams on the brakes because – typical SoCal – traffic is gridlocked as far as the eye can see. Normally, it would be fine. Not great, but fine. His mom could carry the conversation along even if they were stuck in traffic all night, and normally Jeff would just tune her out and nod in the right places and stare out the window.

It’s what his dad is doing in the back seat.

But suddenly, she’s not just his mom – she’s his mom who he has to tell he’s gay.

Jeff’s hands are clammy on the steering wheel and it’s stupid. He tries to look at her objectively, and she could not possibly look any less threatening. She is a nice, suburban Canadian lady. She’s wearing a sweater-set. “Your sister,” she’s saying, “wanted to come, but you know how hard it is for her to get time off work. She might come down later in the week though. And your Aunt Linda sends her love, but David threw his back out last month, isn’t that right, Peter?”

“What?” His dad asks.

“David,” his mother repeats louder. “His back.”

His dad nods. “Yep.”

She shakes her head and gives Jeff a look. “He won’t go get his hearing tested,” she confides. “But. Well.” A pointed shrug.

Jeff nods vaguely. And sure, his mom likes Stephen Harper a little bit more than Jeff’s fully comfortable with, but she also doesn’t have any problem with the lesbians that live across the street from them. This shouldn’t be so scary. But the words he’s going to have to say, I’m gay. Homosexual. They seem impossible, and crap, this is going to be awkward.

His breath catches – his parents both gave up so much to get him here. Thousands of hours driving to rinks; thousands of dollars spent on gear, and maybe it’s just the idea that they’re going to be disappointed that’s the terrifying part.

Someone honks. Jeff unclenches enough to let the truck creep forward.

“Anyway, I was at the hospital yesterday, and the new Admin – you know what he said to me?”

His mom is still working. Because that retirement fund? Went towards sticks and tape and skates and rink fees and a billion other things. Jeff’s going to take care of them. Of course Jeff’s going to take care of them. He’d like to shelter them from everything. Except, of course, this is going to rock the boat.

“He was saying since they’re going to rip up the whole East Parking Garage in the renovation that everyone is going to have to take a shuttle in. Can you believe that? They just didn’t plan out this construction, at all, Jeff. It’s ridiculous.”

Maybe he should tell them at dinner. Maybe before dinner? Super gay, he rehearses, and his internal monologue is going a little frantic, a little ridiculous. Really, really into dick. Jeff rubs his forehead.

“… and I just think, some of us have been working there for twenty years…”

The truck feels too small, like they’re all pressed in too close. They may actually be moving backwards they’re going so slowly. Jeff flips on the AC. He’s drumming at the steering wheel, tapping his foot. He can feel a bead of sweat working its way down his back. His heart is thumping, and they may never get out of this car, and he cannot sit on this any longer. He swallows. “Mom – ”

“Yes? Oh, I forgot to tell you what Lindsey said – ”

“Mom, I’m – ”

“Oh, what was it? It was right on the tip of my tongue. It was so funny, because – ”

Mom. Mom, I’m gay.”

“ – because you know she never – ” She stops and her mouth clicks shut. When Jeff hazards a glance over, her hands are folded tightly in her lap. “Oh,” she says. “Okay.” She nods, once, tightly. And then she bursts into tears.

“Mom – ” Jeff reaches out an arm, the truck drifts a little, and someone honks, and Christ, maybe the 105 merge was not the place to do this, after all.

“Susan? What’s wrong?” And his dad is finally paying attention.

“Gay!” His mom shouts towards the back seat. “Jeff just came out!”

“Oh.” His father sits back against the seat. “Oh. You don’t have to shout.”

Jeff flips his blinker on and executes a lane change. “Mom, don’t cry. It’s not so bad.”

“I’m sorry.” She’s dabbing at her eyes. “I’m sorry – it’s just. I hate to think about how hard it must have been for you, and I just. I want you to be happy.”

Jeff is not going to cry on the 405. Except, for how maybe he is. “I am happy.” Which is true. “I have a boyfriend,” he tells her.

She digs a tissue out of her purse, passes it over to him without comment. She lets out a shaky breath. “Well,” she says. “Do we get to meet him?”

 

 

That night Jeff stares up at the bedroom ceiling. “I told my parents that I’m gay.”

“Yep.” Alex pats his arm. “You did good.”

Jeff rolls onto his side. “They know,” he says. “Because I told them.” He’s well aware of how stupid it sounds, but it’s kind of just hitting him now, and he’s giddy – his parents know, and they still want to stay with him. Still want to watch him play. It’s like there’s laughing gas bubbling through his veins. “I can tell people.”

Alex laughs.

“I could tell everyone.” It’s sort of a revelation.

And now Alex is looking at him a little concerned, possibly because Jeff is grinning like a maniac. “Jeff, you know I’m all for you coming out, but you should maybe think about the fact that the day after tomorrow you have to play in game one of the Stanley Cup Final.”

And, okay, yes, clearly he should wait, but the prospect – the promise of it is thrilling. “Yeah.” He kisses Alex’s forehead, his mouth, laughing against it. “And we’re going to win.”

 


 

In 2012, Jeff got traded to LA. And about a billion and a half things were written about that.

In LA, he got to play with Richie. And they won the Stanley Cup. So all told, not bad.

LA was also where Richie decided he didn’t want to be the only one made miserable by trying and failing to have real, grown-up relationships, so by god, Jeff was going to do down with him.

“You could date someone out here,” Richie had said. “You should date someone out here.” And, “No one would care.”

He was right. In LA, the number of fucks given about who was gay was zero. And even after the Stanley Cup, the number of fucks given about hockey players relative to all the other celebrities roaming around? Also pretty near zero.

So sometimes, when a guy asked to see him again, instead of saying, “Sorry, that’s not really me,” Jeff started saying, “Okay.”

He was definitely awkward about it. Jeff was used to seeing a guy once and then never again. Turned out, if you were going to see someone again, you had to be a lot more careful. A lot nicer.

Also, Jeff was starting to figure out that the things you looked for in a person were different when you were planning on dating them.

For example:

Bobby was hot, but was literally the dumbest person Jeff had ever tried to have a conversation with. And that was saying something, considering Jeff had been around hockey players his whole life.

Jackson was hot as fuck, and smart. But did stupid shit like be mean to waiters and valets, just for the hell of it.

Paul was hot and intelligent and kind. Paul was also the first guy Jeff introduced Richie to, and the first person he went out with long enough for them to officially break up. But that was okay, because it turned out Paul was also sort of boring.

So at least, Jeff figured, he was getting better at this. At least he was figuring out what he wanted.

And that was when he first noticed Alex.

 


 

They do win. They take the series in five. The Rangers never stand a chance.

The buzz of it carries him off the ice, and through the epic first round of festivities, and up to the hotel room where he can finally, finally put his arms around Alex.

Alex grins at him. “Congratulations.” He cards his fingertips through Jeff’s beard. “This means this gets to come off now, right?”

“That’s what you’re excited about?” Jeff shakes his head. “Yes,” he concedes. “I’m allowed to shave now.”

“Oh, thank god. When? Keep in mind the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Now?” Jeff asks. “I’ll do it right now, if you want.” Jeff pulls back a step. “You want to help?”

Jeff strips out of his clothing, which is disgusting and sort of champagne-soaked. “You know,” he fingers the collar of Alex’s shirt. “This could get messy. You should probably take this off.”

Alex arches an eyebrow. “Oh, you think?” But he strips his shirt off.

Jeff stands facing the mirror. In the reflection he can see Alex looking at him, gaze wandering over him. Jeff flushes. Alex eventually looks up to meet Jeff’s eyes in the mirror. His forehead wrinkles in a mock frown. “You know, I’m actually really fond of these pants, too.”

Jeff nods, keeps his face very serious. “I would hate for anything to get on them.”

Alex reaches down to undo his belt. “Better to be safe then.”

“Oh, yes,” Jeff agrees. “Much better.”

Jeff trims the worst of it off, covers what’s left with shaving cream and goes back in with the razor. Alex presses himself against Jeff’s back, starts mouthing kisses across his shoulders. Jeff has to stop – eyes squeezed shut and lips parting – before he slits his own throat. “Wait, just – ” Jeff swallows. Alex takes half a step back, giving Jeff just enough room to work. He keeps his fingertips resting lightly on Jeff’s hips.

Focus. Right.

The second he sets the razor down, Alex is back up against him, a long stretch of heat pressing on him. He goes up on his tiptoes, bites at the nape of Jeff’s neck. Jeff shivers, twists to turn around and hop up on the bathroom counter. Alex is immediately between his legs, leaning into him, mouth on Jeff’s.

He drags his face across Jeff’s cheek. Jeff can feel his smile. “Much better,” he says.

Alex’s face is now liberally smeared with shaving cream, as well. Jeff touches his fingers to it. “Shame to waste all this. Maybe we should do you next?”

Alex smirks and pushes his hand lower. “I can think of more creative uses for it.”

“Oh?” Jeff reaches for the can. “Why stop there?”

Alex is panting against his ear, leaning into him, and Jeff has two hands full of shaving cream that are roving over Alex and they are making a glorious fucking mess.

Alex’s hand skids across the mirror where he’s trying to brace himself, and he tips Jeff’s face up to press his mouth into Jeff’s throat, and the skin there is so hypersensitive that just the drag of Alex’s lip across is raising goose bumps all up and down Jeff’s arms. “Oh – ” He slides an arm around Alex’s neck to pull him in. Alex grinds up against him – pushing Jeff harder up against the mirror, pushing his legs further apart, and his hands are on Jeff. Alex’s mouth is right up against his ear, breathing going rough and unsteady. His hips jerk, and his grip tightens –

Jeff gives it up. Follows him over.

 

“There is no one,” Alex whispers in his ear, after. “That I would rather destroy a hotel bathroom with.”

 


 

Much further down the road, Jeff will tell his team about Alex. And after that, he is going to tell everyone. He’s pretty sure of it.

He can already imagine what that’s going to feel like – the thought makes his heart thump, his breathing go shallow, adrenaline humming and buzzing just under his skin.

Jeff has been scared a lot. He knows what it feels like.

He breathes out – slow and even, and inside something steadies. Something stills.

Because Richie will have his back, so that’ll be good. And Alex – Alex will be next to him. And that’ll be worth it. That’ll be great.