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Sully pulled Jeff aside just as he was putting on his mask for practice. “Flower’s backing Matty up tomorrow.”

“So I’m out,” Jeff said.

“So you’re out.” Sully clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ve done great for us, Jeff. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without you. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”

“Sure thing,” Jeff said, as though there were anything sure at all about tending goal.

As Sully walked away, Jeff let it wash over him for a moment - the relief and disappointment of no longer carrying the Pens’ playoff hopes on his shoulders, even by proxy, even just by opening the gate from his backup’s chair on the bench. Then he stomped down the tunnel and stepped onto the ice. Flower was already there in the backup’s net that had until now belonged to Jeff. “Hey buddy!” Jeff yelled. “You’re in!”

“I’m fucking in!” Flower yelled back, eyes shining behind his mask. Jeff skated around to smack Flower’s pads with his stick before he went to the corner Flower’d been inhabiting these last few weeks, when he could skate at all. Balesy would work Jeff in when he could.

Jeff hung out near the locker room before the game – habit, as much as anything, or so he told himself. So he was there to see Matty and Flower walk off together, buck naked with equipment in hand, and feel that twinge of envy. He’d already played two more playoff games with this team than he’d ever dreamed of playing, though: there was no point in getting greedy.

That night he watched Matty work a miracle. Twenty-one shots against in the third period alone. Finally he let in a goal, then two, and then all of Consol held its breath for Washington’s final fifty-six second barrage to try and tie.

They didn’t. The horn sounded, and Duper exploded with a stream of French so filthy Jeff only caught about half of it. Oskar jumped up and grabbed Jeff’s arm, and Jeff hugged him back, euphoric.

They won game four, too, without Tanger, without Olli. The skaters gave their goalie some support this time, goals and defense both, but still it was Matty’s win, another one in the bank. Game five was a grade-A shitshow, but did they really expect Washington to give the series to them in five?

They were up 3-2 in the series, still, and Jeff had no idea anything was wrong until Flower came looking for him in the cafeteria the morning before game six. Flower sat down across the table from Jeff, grave in a way that twisted a complicated knot of worry/hope in Jeff’s stomach. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Jeff replied, cautious. “Everything okay?”

“Oh, you mean with…?” Flower flapped his fingers at his head. Out came that smile they’d all missed so much, the last month and change. “Yeah, I feel good. No symptoms or anything, thank fuck.”

“Good,” Jeff said. The knot in his stomach began to unwind. “Good.”

“Yeah, but—” Flower swallowed. “Listen, you know, I’m warming up with Matty.”

Jeff waited for an explanation that didn’t come. “Yeah?”

“Obviously, right.” Flower heaved a sigh. “We’re not—I don’t think we’re very good at it.”

“At warming up?” Jeff said blankly.

“It’s stupid, right? It’s stupid. I shouldn’t have said anything.” But Flower didn’t leave, and he didn’t get out of his seat. He rolled the unopened Gatorade bottle between his hands.

If in a single conversation Jeff’s mom told him about her weird rash and his dad confessed to not being able to get it up, it’d probably feel something like this. “What… seems to be the problem?”

“Wasn’t it weird for you, with Jarry?”

Jeff sucked in a breath and tried to think about dentures, shower mold, the paper good aisle at Meijer: things that would keep his blush from rising all the way to the roots of his hair. “I mean, kind of. I’d never started a playoff game before. He’d never dressed for an NHL game before. There was some nerves, you know?” Flower nodded, sober. Patient. “But like, we figured it out. And then Matty came back in game three.”

“But you knew Matty from Wilkes-Barre.” The name caught between Flower’s teeth when he said it, and it came out in a sputter.

“Well, yeah. Is that the problem? You didn’t know me either, at first.”

Flower, usually unflappable, didn’t quite meet Jeff’s eye. “That was different.” He took a deep breath. “You were my backup.”

“…oh,” Jeff said. Oh. But—“Matty’s been starting all year down in Wilkes-Barre. I backed him up last year, and it was fine. He wasn’t an asshole about it or anything.” Jeff tried to imagine Matty being an asshole to Flower and failed miserably.

If anything, Flower shrunk down even smaller in his seat, for all he and Jeff were just about the same size. “It’s not him, I guess. It’s me.” He met Jeff’s gaze finally. “I wasn’t ready. With Tomas it was one thing, but Matty’s just twenty-one, and I wasn’t—I’m not ready to back up a baby goalie in the fucking playoffs.”

This was literally five million dollars above Jeff’s pay grade. “That’s rough,” he offered.

“I can’t put this shit on Matty, obviously. He’s got enough pressure on him already. I have to just figure it out. The team, we all have to support each other, you know?”

“Sure.”

“Yeah.” Flower drew his shoulders in. “But I don’t think I’m doing a very good job.”

That didn’t seem like a fair assessment when Flower was right there cheering Matty on, hugging him after the wins. Flower exhaled. Words didn’t seem to be what he was looking for. Jeff braced himself, and he said, “Did you have something in mind?”

--

Jeff said no.

Well, at first, he said no. The goalie warmup was a routine you did not fuck with.

“It’s fine,” Flower said. “Matty doesn’t believe in routines anyway.”

And okay, yeah, Matty was maybe more casual than most goalies Jeff had worked with. But you didn’t need three goalies in a warmup; the crease was plenty crowded enough with two, and so was the goalie room, hidden away from everything.

“What, like you’re not our goalie anymore? Just because you sit up there instead of by the bench?” That stung a little. “When it was me and Matty up there, we were still part of the team, weren’t we? You’re still part of the team.” Flower reached out and squeezed Jeff’s shoulder.

Suddenly it was Jeff who was off-balance from being in and then odd man out again, watching the final games of his Pens career from the press box. “You really want me there?”

“You know Matty, and you know me. And—you’ve done this a lot. Switching.” Flower inspected Jeff’s face for a reaction to this, but it wasn’t like Flower was wrong. Flower drew in another breath. “I think you can help. I think we need you.”

As if Jeff could ever say no to that.

--

He searched Matty out anyway, finally finding him stretching out in a corner of the gym. “Hey,” Jeff said, squatting.

“Hey.” Matty grinned, tipping his chin up. “Que pasa?”

“Uh. Did Flower tell you? About asking me to warm up with you guys?” Well, that was a generous description. Jeff would facilitate, was all. Troubleshoot.

The grin dropped away. “Yeah,” Matty said slowly.

Jeff searched Matty’s face for some sign of how he felt about that. “Is that okay with you?”

Matty rolled his wiry shoulders. “Sure, I guess. I don’t—you know. I don’t care that much about it. But I don’t think Flower likes it. With me.”

“Yeah?” Jeff said, aiming for neutral.

“I mean, it makes sense, right? He wants to be out there, but instead it’s me. Makes sense he’d be pissed at me. But I’m not going to apologize or something, so.” A shrug. “But I don’t know what you can do about it.”

“I guess we’ll find out,” Jeff said, because fuck if he knew either.

--

Jeff tagged after Matty and Flower as they left the locker room that afternoon. A couple of wolf whistles followed. Jeff threw them all the bird over his shoulder, his face hot. Still, it was some comfort to know no one would ask him about it later. Goalie routines were sacred and not to be questioned. Even if Jeff was questioning them right now.

He followed Matty and Flower to the goalie room and crowded in behind them. The room was dimly lit, warm, with barely enough room for the two benches for getting dressed on afterwards, the bed for getting warmed up on, and the sink for cleanup. Jeff had always liked it: close and dark and private. Now he was shrunk against the wall, trying to make way for Matty and Flower to stack their gear, and it felt cramped.

Flower sat on the bed and caught Jeff’s eye. “Okay?”

“Sure.” Jeff stepped forward. His dress shoes sunk into the rug. “Muzz, are you sure about this?”

Matty settled on the bed next to Flower. “It doesn’t matter to me. If Flower thinks it’ll help…” He shrugged. Casual, Flower had said, and yeah, Jeff could see how that could be a difficulty. He wondered exactly what Flower had said Jeff could help with, but that wasn’t Jeff’s business, really. This wasn’t his goalie tandem anymore; he was just the facilitator.

Flower said, “You gonna do this with all those clothes on?”

“Well—”

Flower kept looking at him, eyebrows high, and finally Jeff gave in. He wasn’t going to be touching anyone, but it did feel wrong, wearing his shoes in this sanctum. He laid his jacket carefully over the backup’s bench, then his slacks and his folded dress shirt, and finally his undershirt and his socks all on the stack. He stood there in his briefs and nothing else but his dignity. Goosebumps prickled across his skin. “Okay, so.”

Flower twisted to face Matty. Matty looked back and didn’t flinch. He didn’t move, either, and finally it was Flower who leaned forward to take Matty’s face in his hands and kiss him. Matty made a noise in his throat and gripped Flower’s bare shoulder, and Jeff—

Jeff was not prepared for this. For watching Flower and Matty press into each other’s mouths, for Flower’s groan when Matty caught Flower’s lip in his teeth. Abruptly they were alone with each other, engrossed, and Jeff was the voyeur looking in. Fruitless want pooled in the pit of his stomach.

He didn’t want to be here. Surely Flower didn’t really need him. No one would notice if he took his folded clothes and slunk away.

But he’d told Flower he’d be here, and he was here.

Jeff watched them make out for a while, increasingly uncomfortable. He’d been them before, but it was something else to watch. No one had ever watched him, so how were they this comfortable with him just standing there in his skivvies? But Matty was palming his own dick, and Flower was exploring Matty’s mouth, and Jeff might as well not have been there at all.

Matty pulled back and said, “Now?” Flower hesitated, then nodded, but that was wrong. Jeff knew that was wrong, because he’d started a good thirty games or so now with Flower at his back, and he knew Flower wanted more foreplay than this. Fuck, Jeff usually wanted more foreplay than this. And usually, he remembered Matty giving it to him.

“You gotta warm him up first,” Jeff said, and then grimaced, because no fucking kidding, what the fuck did he think they were doing here.

But Matty looked up, puzzled. “But he said he was ready.”

“I’m fine,” Flower said, already rolling over onto his knees. For the first time, Matty looked uncertain.

Okay, this, Jeff could maybe do something about. He sat down on the bed, feeling exposed in his briefs even though Matty and Flower didn’t have a stitch on between them. “You know I like you touching me?” He flushed as he said it. It wasn’t like Flower and Matty didn’t both know this about him, and yet.

“Yeah?”

“Try that. With some lube, maybe.” Jeff went and grabbed it from the cabinet beneath the sink – they’d need it soon enough anyway. Flower rolled back over onto his stomach and sat up again.

Matty squirted some into his palm and then looked between them, less sure than he ever was with Jeff. Jeff nodded encouragingly, but it was Flower’s face that Matty searched last. “It’s good,” Flower says.

There was a furrow in Matty’s forehead that Jeff still didn’t like, but he took Flower’s dick in hand. Flower’s next inhale was sharp.

“Yeah,” Flower sighed.

Matty could jerk a guy off fine, as Jeff knew from personal experience. It maybe took a little longer this time, with Flower, than it usually did with Jeff. Observer effect, maybe. Methodically Matty twisted, then took a few long strokes, then paused to thumb over the head. Flower sucked a breath in at that, and Matty’s lip curled up a little – the first time since they’d gotten here. Rinse, repeat.

Finally Flower patted his arm: stop. “You gotta put it in me now or I’m gonna go off.”

Matty sat back. “You’re good now?”

That frank gaze seemed to cow Flower a little. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s good. I’m ready.” Matty gave Flower space while Flower turned back onto his knees. Matty’s boner was flushed dark between his legs and hot to the touch, not that Jeff was touching but last week he had, and—

Okay, Jeff was hard now, too. His dick tented his briefs. He shifted on the bed and determined to ignore it. He could go find a bathroom later, it was fine.

Matty rolled the condom on himself. The he pressed a finger lightly to Flower’s hole. “You want…?”

“Just grease me up and fucking go for it,” Flower said, not like he was bowing to Matty’s authority as starter but because he wanted, and that was it, that was where they needed to be.

Flower hissed at the cool lube on Matty’s finger, but in moments he was pushing back onto it. “Come on,” he said. It knocked Matt out of the moment, and he looked over at Jeff, startled.

The startlement confirmed what Jeff had already guessed: this wasn’t usually how these encounter had gone for them. He shrugged. “Up to you,” he said.

Matty nodded with grave concentration. He crawled behind Flower and squared up, and Jeff took a moment to appreciate the extra length of Matty’s legs, putting him a little higher on Flower than Jeff ever came. Matty gripped Flower’s hips, long-fingered and sure, and pressed in. Flower hissed again and shoved back. It caught Matty by surprise – “Shit.” He’d lost that sober focus now, face flushed under his acne. “You good?”

Flower shifted his weight forward on his hands and locked his elbows. “Fucking go for it.”

Matty did. He gripped Flower’s hips and thrusted. Last week it was Jeff feeling the drag of Matty’s dick. Now as Flower dropped his head and groaned, deep and satisfied from the center of his chest.

They had it from here. Jeff should have left, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. Somewhere along the way he gave up on ignoring his dick; he didn’t jerk off, because that would be weird – yes, weirder than this whole fucking thing of him watching other goalies warm up. Instead he just rubbed his palm over the head, through the fabric of his briefs. Sometimes he squeezed a little. That felt too good to be right, but he couldn’t quite stop it either.

Matty’s thrusts grew more erratic. “Shit, shit, shit,” he chanted, and then his hips stuttered and he bowed over Flower’s back as he came.

“Fucking fuck,” Flower mumbled, collapsing on his elbows and pressing his head to the mattress. He shifted onto one arm and reached around with the other one to pat Matty’s hand weakly. “Good job, kid.”

Matty roused enough to say, “Not a kid.”

Flower snorted. “Look, Mr. Starting Goaltender, you going to get me off or what?”

“Oh,” Matty said, off-balance and embarrassed again. “Right.” He reached around with a hand probably more tacky than lubed at this point and found Flower’s dick. It’d be a little wilted now – Flower never came from getting fucked – but it probably wouldn’t take him long to recover. Matty navigated the awkward angle and began to stroke.

“He—” Jeff began, hoarse and surprised by it. He swallowed, tried again. “Flower likes if you tell him he’s doing a good job.”

Matty lifted his head to stare. “A good job?”

“At warming you up,” Jeff said. Matty clearly was warmed up, loose and easy. Soon he’d pull himself together again into laser focus, his unblinking gaze half a second ahead of the puck no matter how it bounced, how it moved. “And—” He looked at Flower, head bowed. Flower’s ears were bright red, and maybe they’d already been that color, but maybe they hadn’t. “And being your backup. Supporting you.”

“I’m the starter,” Matty said, like it was in question. “I earned it.”

Confidence or maturity or sheer hubris? You needed all three to be a goalie; you’d never survive without. “You earned my starter job last year, too,” Jeff said gently. And earned it fair and square, no injuries to blame. “But you prove it out on the ice. Not in here.”

Matty’s fingers flexed around the meat of Flower’s hip. “I wasn’t trying to prove it in here,” he said quietly, chin dropped to his chest.

Jeff scooted a little closer. He squeezed Flower’s shoulder. “Maybe Flower was, a little.”

Flower’s head flew up, outraged, betrayed. “What the fuck?” He shifted, making ready to sit up, but Matty was still in his ass. The motion was abbreviated, and Flower ended up with his face in his elbow, Matty hurriedly trying to disengage.

While they both finished swearing and recovered from the undignified heap they’d fallen into and Matty disposed of the used condom, Jeff tried to find the right words. As soon as Flower got himself upright, Jeff said, “You don’t have to just do whatever Matty says. This part is teamwork, too.”

“I just want to support him.” Flower turned to Matty and squeezed his knee. “I want to support you. You’re doing so good. You don’t need my—my issues, holding you back.”

“But you don’t tell me what you want,” Matty said, sharp with frustration. “Or, or how you want this to work. I’ve started a lot, yeah, but like, with Jeff, and he always told me what to do. You just want me to know, and I’m not a fucking mind reader.”

“Oh,” Flower said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Matty said, hunched shoulders suggesting that it very much did. “I don’t—I don’t fucking care about this stuff anyway.”

“Ohhhh.” Flower shoved over next to Matty, and he pulled Matty into a hug. “I’m sorry, Muzz. Fuck. I was trying to make it easy for you.”

Slowly, Matty put his arms around Flower, then dropped his face to Flower’s shoulder. “I don’t need you to make it easy,” he mumbled. “I’m doing fine out there. I earned this. And I’m not sorry.” He said the last like a dare.

Flower pulled back to look him in the eye. “Don’t be sorry. Be good. Win it for us.”

Matty sucked in a breath and squared his shoulders. “I’m going to.”

Flower laughed; he pulled Matty in by the shoulders and turned them both towards Jeff, to share the joke. Get a load of this kid. But Jeff had seen footage of Flower back in the day, his first games in Pittsburgh and then Wilkes-Barre during the long lockout year. He’d seen that swagger in every stride Flower took on the ice, and now he could only laugh.

“Okay, so.” Flower let go and sat back on his heels, knees wide and dick slumped a little sadly against his thigh. “You gonna get me off, or what?”

Matty licked his lips. “What do you want?”

That humor in Flower’s eyes softened. “Get some more lube. I’ll tell you what to do.”

And this time Flower did. His directions were soft, private, and Jeff tuned them out, instead watching the earnest concentration on Matty’s face. Matty’s breath began to pick up, and his eyes fell half shut. For the first time in half an hour, Jeff was an intruder, watching the bond only a goalie and his backup could know. A shiver ran down his bare back, and he felt newly exposed. There was no reason he couldn’t have had this conversation wearing a shirt.

There was no reason for him to be here at all, anymore. Still, he stayed to watch Flower’s eyes squeeze shut and his mouth fall soundlessly open as he came.

There only sound in the room was Flower and Matty breathing heavily in unison. Roughly, Flower pulled Matty’s face in and kissed it, and somehow Jeff knew that was it. That was his cue to leave. He got to his feet as gently as he could, trying not to move the bed. He was a step towards the bench where he’d left his clothes when Flower said, “Where are you going?”

Jeff turned. “Uh.”

Clearly Flower and Matty’s time together had worked, because they were staring at him in eerie parallel. “We didn’t get you off yet,” Matty said.

“Was—was that the plan?” Jeff had not been informed of this plan. He felt all wrong-footed. His toes had sunk into the shag rug and his ass was about to freeze off.

Matty turned to commune with Flower, like one decent orgasm was all it took to achieve hive mind, and then he looked back at Jeff. “You’re one of us, too. Aren’t you? Just because you’re not dressing…”

Flower picked up where he left off. “Come here,” he said, tipping his head towards the bed.

Jeff was helpless to resist. He wouldn’t have wanted to if he could, but—“This isn’t for me anymore.” He arrived at the edge of the bed; his knees knocked into it.

“Idiot,” Flower said fondly. He pulled on Jeff’s arm until sitting was Jeff’s easiest option, and then Flower kissed him. He was warm, like Jeff remembered, and he tasted a little sour, like Jeff remembered. He cupped the side of Jeff’s jaw, brushed his thumb across Jeff’s cheek.

“I didn’t think I’d get to do this again,” Jeff said when they broke for air. Pittsburgh wasn’t going to re-sign him; he could read the writing on that wall as well as anyone. Flower’d been out for a month. Matty’d been backing him up for weeks before that. It’d been a long time.

“Well, you don’t know everything, eh?”

A cool hand gripped Jeff’s thigh. He turned, and there was Matty, grinning softly. “I want in.” Matty bent and caught Jeff’s mouth. His kisses were sharper, certain. Driven, because Matty didn’t know how to be anything else.

Matty and Flower took turns kissing Jeff and occasionally each other. They explored each cranny of Jeff like he wasn’t long-familiar territory, like they didn’t each know exactly where his weak spots lay. Flower laid him out flat and bent to kiss him again. Matty eased Jeff’s briefs down and found his dick, and okay, whatever instructions Flower had given him before, they were fucking good ones.

Jeff came with a gasp against Flower’s mouth. He collapsed against the bed, breathing hard. The room seemed to breathe quietly with him while Flower stroked his cheek. Matty began to wipe at Jeff’s belly with a cloth, warm with water from the sink. Then Matty turned to Flower and cleaned him off, too. Backup’s prerogative, getting to be lazy while the starter did cleanup.

“We could do this again. Couldn’t we?” Matty asked. Flower swung his head in Matty’s direction; Jeff, still come-drunk and dozy, craned his neck to stare. “Just for the playoffs, we could do this. The three of us.”

“We could,” he said with a laugh. He squeezed Jeff’s shoulder. “If we wanted, right?”

Jeff struggled up onto one elbow. “That’s not—we don’t do that. That’s not how it works” Two goalies were a tandem; three were a circus. Everyone knew that.

Matty shrugged at them both. “You know I’m not big on routine. Or like, rules.”

“But maybe Jeff is,” Flower said, regarding Jeff very seriously.

Jeff searched Flower’s face a moment longer, looking for the joke. When he couldn’t find any, he said, “Of fucking course I want to. Do you think just because I—because I’m not an All-Star, I like sitting up in that press box all the time, away from everyone? I fucking hate it.” He fell back onto the mattress and threw his arm over his eyes. You didn’t talk about this stuff, and definitely not to the two guys who displaced you because they were just fucking better than you were.

A hand gripped his knee. Another one, warmer closed over his wrist and slowly tugged his arm back down. He dared to open one eye, and there was Flower, smiling fondly. No pity at all. “Well, I can’t help you with that,” Flower said. “But this? This we can do something about.”

--

Game one against Washington. The air in the Verizon Center locker rooms was electric, impatient, every guy there burning to get out on the ice. Jeff hung around near the goalie stalls in his suit and tie until Flower and Matty had stripped, and then Matty stood and bumped Jeff’s hand with his own.

“Yeah?” Jeff said softly, for Matty and Flower alone. Just to be sure.

“Fuck yeah,” Matty said.

[end]