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Sid said his goodbyes for the day to the hockey school kids, stomped down the rubber to the locker room, and checked his phone. Aside from the usual chatter, there was a message from Jen in PR, ominous in its simplicity: Call us.

Sid called. “Do we have a situation?” he asked. He always asked that. No one ever laughed.

“There’s a Kessel sex tape,” Jen said.

“Uh.” Sid tried to come up with a response to that. “Like his sister?”

“God, I wish. No, our Phil Kessel of the Pittsburgh Penguins made a sex tape. We’re not really clear, he might have gotten hacked, but it exists, and it will probably be everywhere by this evening. You need to prepared for questions.”

“Okay?” Geno and his girlfriend had gotten paparazzied last summer, and nobody had called to let Sid in on that; he’d heard about it from Bortz, of all people. Certainly Sid had never been asked to comment on it, thank God. “So…”

“It’s with another guy.”

--

PR hadn’t been nearly so slick or spy-like an operation when Sid had arrived in 2005. The Pens didn’t have the budget for it – or for much of anything else, really. Still, they put him in the basic media training hour with all the other prospects, and they scheduled him some one-on-one time, too.

“You’ll be dealing with more attention than most rookies,” the woman had pointed out – it was Marcia then, of the wire-rim glasses and reddish hair peppered with gray.

“I know,” Sid said, politely. He already had a lot of practice at being polite. “I’ve talked to media a lot.”

“They won’t just ask questions. They’ll watch you. They’ll ask your teammates. They’ll speculate. They’ll make things up. And we can deal with all that, if we’re prepared. But we have to know what we’re preparing for.”

“Sure,” Sid agreed. His throat was a little tight.

Marcia regarded him earnestly from across the table. “So I need to know if there’s anything we need to prepare for.” She paused. Sid met her eyes. He was good at that, too. Not unsympathetically, Marcia said, “You know I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, and so has everyone else in my office. What you share is safe with us. No judgment. Traffic tickets, if you got drunk and made a mistake, if you got a girl pregnant, anything that we need to know about...” She smiled encouragingly.

Sid shrugged. His stomach ached like there was a rock in the center of it. “I don’t really do that kind of stuff.”

She didn’t believe him: it took another half hour and an extracted promise that he’d tell her if he thought of anything, or if anything new came up, before she let him go.

“I will,” he said. “I’ll call you guys first thing.”

He had to go suit up for a scrimmage after that. On his way to the locker room, he calmly puked into a wastebasket.

--

When Sid was fifteen years old, Jean-Claude kissed him. Jean-Claude was seventeen, and he played defense for the Shawinigan Cats, whom Rimouski had just knocked out of the playoffs. Jean-Claude didn’t seem to take it personally. He had green eyes and sandy brown hair.

His kisses were really wet, with a lot of spit, but maybe that was how kisses were in real life. It wasn’t like Sid would know. He didn’t even care. Every place they touched felt hot. Something sizzled deep in Sid’s gut that had never sizzled before.

There was a noise outside the bathroom door. Sid startled backward, flushing, horrified. “Maybe I’ll see you around,” Jean-Claude said.

“Maybe,” Sid hedged, backing up to the door. The next moment he was out, away from Jean-Claude and his mouth, his exploring hands that lit up Sid’s body.

Jean-Claude didn’t play for Shawinigan the next year. Sid asked around, very casually, but no one on Rimouski knew. Hardly anyone even remembered him. “He wasn’t very good,” Ryan pointed out. “Maybe he doesn’t play hockey anymore.”

He had not, in fact, been very good at hockey. Sid wondered later if that was how Jean-Claude had dared.

--

Jen’s actual instructions were few. Be aware, keep his mouth shut. No comment until the season started; if people asked then, Sid had his talking points. Not my business and What we care about is what happens on the ice and Phil has our full support.

“I just didn’t want you to be surprised by someone asking,” Jen said.

“No surprises,” Sid agreed.

Afterwards he stared at his phone. He had Phil’s number in it from when Sid had called him just after the trade. He barely remembered the conversation; Phil was a thrill of an acquisition, all right, but the Welcome to Pittsburgh small talk was always the same. At no point had Sid wondered if the man he was talking to fucked other men.

He wondered if Phil had.

He called the number. It went to voicemail: “This is Phil. Leave a message.”

Sid cleared his throat. “Hey, Phil, this is Sid Crosby. I hear…” What? That he’d gotten outed? That he was about to go through media hell? “I hear you’ve got some stuff going on right now that might be kind of rough. But you know, the media’s all assholes anyway. Don’t let ‘em get to you. We still—we’re excited to have you, man.

“Uh. Give me a call, I guess, if you want. Or I’ll see you at training camp.”

--

Sid didn’t read hockey media. Sid definitely didn’t read hockey media about himself. If he watched a game during the season, he muted the intermissions, because fuck the talking heads.

Still, he couldn’t quite resist this time. Hockey had been waiting for this for years. Sid had been waiting his entire life, it felt like; half the time, he was sure the headlines would be about him. So a few days later, he clicked through to Puck Daddy with a kind of sick anticipation. It only took a few swipes down to get to an article about Phil. It clearly wasn’t the first; it took the original outing as given.

Sid lasted a paragraph and a half before he closed the app and set aside his phone, a queasy unease in the pit of his stomach.

--

Phil didn’t call back. Sid wasn’t surprised. Phil had plenty on his plate right now; surely the last thing he wanted was commiseration from a captain he’d only ever met as an opponent. Sid had a full schedule, too – wrapping up the hockey school, holding a belated birthday cookout and school’s-out celebration.

They rented a boat for the occasion. Mostly it was locals, his family, Nate. Flower flew in, family in tow; he’d called two days ago to tell Sid he was coming, and it wasn’t as though Sid was going to turn him down. He joined Sid at a buffet table inside the main cabin. Condensation dripped from the beer bottle in his hand. “So you heard about Kessel,” Flower said.

Sid considered the potato salad very carefully. He knew Flower would care about this. He’d been one of the first to do a video for You Can Play, way back when. He gave people little talks in the locker room. Everyone knew: you didn’t say shit about gay people where Flower could hear. “Yeah.”

“Sucks.”

Sid slanted a glance towards Flower. Flower was giving the condiments a judicious eye. “For…”

“For Kessel.” Flower elbowed Sid in the arm. “Who did you think I meant?” He forked a cheeseburger off the plate.

“You don’t think it’s gonna get weird?”

Flower eyed Sid narrowly.

Heat prickled across Sid’s shoulders, and he hastened, “It’s gonna make it harder in the room. For him.” By the suspicion in Flower’s eyes, Sid hadn’t made that amendment fast enough. “Have you been reading the group texts?”

“Fucking bullshit,” Flower spat.

“Right,” Sid agreed. “Right, that’s what I’m saying.”

He’d gotten plenty of texts when the news broke, some from the team. Lots of punctuation, expressions of surprise. Speculation, jokes. That was a couple of the younger guys, mostly.

so this is why they wanted him out of Toronto

isn’t he missing some parts?

doesnt matter if you take it

so him and bozak y/y

“He was already coming in with a lot of baggage, you know?” Sid said. “It didn’t feel like it mattered. But I don’t know. I think this might matter.”

Flower bumped shoulders with Sid. “We’ll figure it out, right, captain?”

“Right.”

Flower went looking for his kids and his wife. Sid grabbed another beer and, after being caught up in three different conversations, finally found Taylor out on the deck, looking out over the water. He joined her at the railing. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey, big brother. Happy birthday.” She clinked bottles with him and then took a sip of hers. “Good week, huh?”

“Yeah.”

They looked at the water in silence for a few moments with the party for background noise. Finally Taylor said, “That’s rough about Kessel.”

It was the topic of the hour. Sid didn’t ask her which way she meant, or for whom. “Yeah.”

The next day, Sid painstakingly typed out a text to the group chat: Phil’s our teammate and we support him. If anybody feels like they can’t do that, they should talk to me.

--

No one did talk to Sid. The chat slowed down after that, though.

--

A week after Sid left the voicemail on Phil’s phone, he got a text: thanx for the call. Then, when do you get to pitt usually? i’m coming 26th to look for a place.

Sid looked at the second text a long time. He consulted the calendar in his head of all that he had left to do in Cole Harbour, in Halifax. Finally he texted back, 27th. Meet up for dinner? Then he called his airline and started the tedious process of changing flights.

--

Sid's Sewickley placed smelled of dust closed up too long. He ordered delivery that first night, and then he turned off the A/C and opened up all the windows. He took a tour through the house, as usual, checking to make sure no squirrels had stowed away and died in his absence, no trees had fallen through the roof anywhere. He traced his fingers along his bookshelf, skimming the titles, the beginning of the process that would root him to this house and this place for another season.

The pizza arrived, and he settled on his couch with two slices of combo, a bottle of Yuengling, and his phone. He swiped through all the most recent messages looking for updates from the team. He and Phil were the first to arrive; Kuni and family were getting in Saturday, and Tanger was bringing Catherine and the kids on Sunday.

It’d be just him and Phil for dinner, then. steak tomorrow? he texted.

sounds good.

The next evening, the waitress showed Sid to the booth in the back, currently occupied by a face obscured under a baseball cap. Sid had just a moment to wonder if this had been a bad idea before Phil stood, tipping his head to look Sid carefully in the eye. “Good to see you,” Sid said, sticking out his hand, and Phil hesitated only a fraction before he shook it. “Welcome to the team.”

“Yeah.” The corner of Phil’s mouth quirked up. “Yeah, so here I am. It was, uh, decent of you to meet me for dinner.”

“Well, we’re both in town,” Sid pointed out. He did not point out that he’d arrived nearly a week earlier than planned. “You find a place?”

Phil snorted. “Find, yeah, right. What the fuck is with the streets in this city?”

Sid couldn’t help but grin. “It only gets better when it snows.”

“Fu-uck.”

Phil’s good-humored dismay relaxed Sid a little. He settled back into the booth with his menu, telling Phil stories about getting caught on bridges or getting routed all the way to the far side of town before he realized he’d taken the wrong turn. They were familiar stories; he’d horrified new teammates with them a dozen times, just another feature of the Sid Crosby Welcome-to-Pittsburgh routine.

Talk segued naturally to Phil bitching about Toronto traffic and talking up other parts of it – the downtown, the food. “It was a good city. Nice place to live.”

“Sorry, man,” Sid offered.

“Yeah, well.” His expression pinched. “But thank fucking god, right? What if this whole clusterfuck had happened before the trade? I mean, can you even imagine what they’d be saying about me now? Shit, they probably are saying it.”

Sid had, for that brief half hour, almost forgotten. “Sucks,” he said, inadequately.

“You don’t even know, man.” A figure appeared at Sid’s shoulder, and Phil brightened. “Oh hey, steak.”

After the steak, while they waited for the bill, Sid said, “Listen, it’s possible a few of the guys might get—weird. In the room.” Phil sat back, sober and blank-faced. “There’s gonna be a training—”

“Oh, god.”

“—but still, if anyone gives you a hard time, or makes you uncomfortable—look, I’m serious.”

Phil kept shaking his head. “I appreciate the thought, okay? But I don’t want the captain riding herd on my account. We’ll sort ourselves out, right? I know it’s hard to believe, but our room up in Toronto, we pretty much liked each other okay. I wasn’t—I wasn’t poison, like the media said.”

Sid flushed, chagrined and furious all at once. “I didn’t—”

“And I don’t wanna be poison now.” Phil leaned in on his elbows, eyes wide. Pleading. Not, Sid thought, quite as certain of himself as Sid had taken him for. “Just—let me try to figure things out on my own.”

Like Sid could refuse him. “Yeah. You bet. And like I said – we’re really excited to have you.”

Phil broke into a grin, sunshiny and open. “Gonna be a good year.”

--

It was Duper who ushered Phil into the locker room at the new Cranberry facility for his first skate with the team. “Look who’s come to save us!”

“Phil the Thrill!”

“Whoop whoooop!”

Phil grinned widely at them all, lifting his chin in greeting as needed, making his way to his stall.

Sid listened for any sour notes in the clamor. The Pens hadn’t made a trade this huge while Sid had been around; he had nothing to compare it to. Phil was no rental like Iggy, no gesture of optimism like Hossa, who’d declined to stay. He was here for the long haul. And he wasn’t Hornqvist, either; a virtual unknown who’d cost them Nealer. Maybe the room would have been exactly this kind of loud when he walked in, no matter what.

Then they got out on the ice, and all the other shit melted away. Sid skated in lazy circles around the rink, stick in his hand, blades on his feet, everything right. When he looked, Phil was half a lap behind him. Sam from PR had his phone out and pointed at Phil, Periscoping, and beat writers were taking photos with theirs.

Phil rounded Flower’s net. Sid was too far away to hear what Flower said to him – a cheerful cussing-out, probably – but Phil laughed, loud and easy.

--

Sid just wanted to take a shit, okay.

“But do you think he does?” asked a voice in the direction of the urinals.

“Just, like, keep your back to him in the shower, and then he can’t fucking see your dick.”

“But then he can see my ass, how is that better?”

Sid coughed around a phantom tickle in his throat. The voices were suddenly, tellingly silent. They kept being silent through a final trickle, until footsteps took them straight outside and the door had banged behind them.

--

Two nights before the Pens flew out for the season opener in Dallas, Sid had the guys out to his place. Flower and Tanger and Kuni brought beer, and Duper brought meat for grilling, because, “I have a better eye for steak. You know it’s true. Do you remember that time we tried to eat that sirloin you bought?”

The sirloin had been fine, as Sid recalled, until someone let Flower man the grill. But as long as Duper was willing to collect the donations and make the grocery store run, far be it from Sid to complain.

The other guys arrived in twos and threes. Spronger trailed after Olli out onto the back deck, looking a little starstruck. Colesy pressed a bottle of beer into Spronger’s hand. That’d fix him. Phil appeared at the back door, a six-pack hanging from one hand. He glanced around, uncertain, until Sid caught his eye, and he tipped his chin in Sid’s direction.

“Let’s get those in the fridge,” Sid said, when he’d made his way over. Phil handed over the beer, an IPA Sid didn’t recognize.

“Local,” Phil said. “I don’t know, I thought it might be good? I don’t know what the fuck you people drink around here.”

“If it’s bad, we’ll give it to the rookies,” Sid said. He shut the door to the outdoor fridge. “I don’t think there’s steak ready yet. Dumo brought something he called a salad?”

“Is it not a salad?” Phil asked, wary.

“Some of these things he tries, I’m not sure it’s food at all. It usually tastes good, though, so.” Sid shrugged.

“I’m game.”

So Sid showed Phil the thing Dumo made with the beets and the grapefruit, which Phil cautiously tried a bite of and then much less cautiously filled a bowl with. Sid had to admit it was pretty good, even if he was still dubious on principle. He took Phil to inspect the steaks next – Duper threatened to swat them both with the tongs if they got drool on them – and then to say hi to Spronger and Olli, and by the time they’d made it back around to the fridge for a beer each, Sid realized he’d given Phil a full backyard tour. “Sorry,” Sid said suddenly, nonsensically. “You can—do you want to find the Frenchies? It looks like Perry might be on your line, so.”

“I’m good with whatever,” Phil said, rolling his shoulders easily. He looked like he meant it. “You can hand me off if you want, it’s fine.”

“Yeah, I’ll—yeah.”

But it was Flower who caught sight of them and called for Phil to come join him. Flower was lounging next to a cooler of beer, surrounded by a gaggle of rookies plus Tishy. Sid wasn’t clear on whether it was Flower or the beer that was the real center of attention, but either way, Sid felt fine leaving Phil there. Flower would keep the others in line, possibly by reputation alone.

Steaks came off eventually, a few at a time. Duper handed the tongs off to Kuni, who worked on the second wave. Sid got pulled into a long conversation with Bonino – Bones, now that he was theirs - about some internet project that tracked zone entries. When he thought to look for Phil again, he and Geno appeared to be telling fishing stories, judging by the sweep of Phil’s arms.

He caught Phil as Phil was heading out. “Go okay?” Sid asked. He walked Phil around the side of the house, on grass just starting to dew.

“It was great,” Phil said. “You got good guys here.”

Sid would know a media answer if he heard one. Phil sounded sincere. “Good.”

“I told you, I’m okay, right?” Phil made to elbow Sid and then appeared to think better of it.

“Just being captain, I guess,” Sid said.

--

Dallas shut them out on an infuriating thirty-seven shots. Six of those shots were Phil’s, and somehow not a one went in. “Guess I ain’t leaping tall buildings in a single bound for you guys after all, huh?” Phil said, shoulders slumped under a weight with which Sid was intimately acquainted. “Next time, right?”

“Next time,” Sid agreed.

--

Sid had been right. Sometimes, things were a little awkward.

“Fucking Gallagher, right?” Beau said, settling into a chair kitty-corner from Sid. “At least he’s not in the Metro. What a fucking fag.”

“Shh,” hissed Dumo from his right. He elbowed Beau sharply in the arm.

“You shhh.” Then Beau followed Dumo’s line of sight to Phil, next to Sid, and his eyes got big. “Uh, shit, sorry. I didn’t mean it like, like a gay fag. I mean—”

“It’s fine,” Phil said. “I don’t fucking care. It’s fine.” He lifted his menu decisively in front of his face, close enough it made Sid a little cross-eyed just to look at him.

“At least he’s not very heavy,” Rusty said from Dumo’s other side. “Subban hits you like a fucking freight train.”

Phil remained engrossed in his menu until the waitress came by. The conversation had long since moved on, and Sid would have thought Phil had moved on, too, if Phil hadn’t caught Sid’s eye on him and grimaced. For just that moment he looked every inch the unfriendly interview the Toronto media made him out to be.

--

They flew to Toronto at the end of October for Phil’s first game against his old club. The day before the game, the news broke on Twitter: the Leafs would not be giving Phil a tribute video. Supposedly this was for Lou Lamoriello reasons, blah de blah, whatever. It was piss-poor optics, in Sid’s media-educated opinion.

Nobody in the room gave a shit about the optics.

“Those fucking assholes,” Tanger said, brandishing his phone like a grenade he might throw. “They would do that? Because—they would do that?”

“We’re going to fucking destroy them.”

“It’s Lou,” Kuni said. “You know what he was like in New Jersey.”

“Right,” Flower said, dark eyes snapping with fury, “and it’s just a coincidence the first guy who doesn’t get a tribute is—is Phil?”

“He made them all shave their beards off, too,” Beau piped up. “In Toronto. New rule. And cut their hair.”

“Well, that’s the same fucking thing, isn’t it?” Tanger snarled.

The visitors’ locker room roiled, like a choppy sea – the guys who were furious and loud about it, the guys who were skeptical, the new guys who just watched, wide-eyed, muttering to each other. And like a choppy sea, it was getting Sid a little queasy. He should say something. Another captain would say something.

“Guys,” someone said down the way. Phil, still sitting in his stall, flushed a blotchy red. He pitched his voice higher. “Guys!”

Flower cut himself off from whatever he was saying next. A couple more guys followed suit, until the volume dropped low enough Phil could be heard without raising his voice. He took a breath – shaky, thought Sid, who was close enough to tell – and he said, “Look, I just—I just want to win the game, okay?”

“But—” Tanger started.

“No. It’s not—don’t make a big deal out of it. Please?”

Sid finally found his voice. “Yeah. You heard him. Let’s just win the fucking game. For Phil.”

“For Phil,” Geno repeated, deep and certain, and the entire room echoed it.

At dinner that night, when all the guys were finished or nearly there and the reckless ones were contemplating dessert, Phil took a vacated seat next to Sid. “Thanks,” he said.

Sid blinked at him. “For?”

“Just.” Phil shrugged. “Today. I don’t—I wish people would just forget about it.”

It.

“It’s a pretty shitty thing for them to do,” Sid ventured.

“Yeah, but. Me and the Leafs, we kinda go way back. The tribute thing, it’s probably not even about the—” Phil paused. Collected himself. Dropped his voice a notch. “About me being gay.”

The word hung there in the air between them, trembling. Or maybe that was just Sid’s stomach. Phil had never said it aloud before in all this time. Sid hadn’t even been sure until now. Maybe Phil liked both, or maybe he’d been experimenting, or, or—but now Sid knew. “Still shitty,” he managed to say.

“Well, yeah.” Phil rolled his shoulders and offered Sid a wry smile. “I never said the Leafs weren’t shitty.”

--

Tanger griped on Twitter about the lack of tribute. Bonesy was the one who discovered it and told the locker room before morning skate, and then his phone got passed all up and down the stalls for people to see. Kris caught Phil’s eye, ready to fight, but Phil shrugged and said, “Thanks, buddy.”

They couldn’t get Phil a goal, much less the hat trick they wanted, but they still shut the Leafs out four to zero, and that was something.

--

In mid-November, just as the weather started to bite in earnest, Phil organized a deer-watching party at his house. “I’ve been seeing ‘em all week. I figure after dinner, some deck chairs out at the back of the yard, where it fronts the woods, you know? I think they’ve got a trail they follow.”

The team was mostly a mix of people too thoroughly city to find any appeal in sitting out in the cold watching for animals and those too country to be impressed by deer. Still, Cully volunteered to bring his boys out, and Plots expressed an interest in seeing American deer, although Geno adamantly declined to come along as translator.

“You spent days out diving just so you could get your picture taken with a whale shark,” Tishy pointed out.

“That’s shark,” Geno said, and wouldn’t be budged.

And Sid, well. Sid liked the sound of Phil’s place, nestled in a semi-rural patch of suburb, and anyway if Phil was going to try and organize a team thing, even kind of a weird one, then Sid was going to support it. God knew Sid had tagged along to enough too-expensive, too-loud clubs over the years in the name of team unity.

Except when Sid got to Phil’s house, just as the sun glinted gold at the horizon, Phil met him at the door looking apologetic. “Something came up with Cully. A family thing? I don’t know.”

“Shit. Was it serious? Is it his kids?”

“I don’t think so? But he can’t make it, and he was Plots’s ride, so.” Phil shrugged. He was still standing square in the doorway – which was fine, because Sid had dressed for the outdoors. “Sucks you came all the way out here.”

“Uh.” Sid paused, confused. After the pause, he was still confused. “I mean, the deer are still out there, right? And I’m here. I even brought beer.” He lifted his six-pack of longnecks for Phil to see.

Phil blinked at them and then at Sid. “You mean you want to stay? Just you?”

“Yeah?” Sid tried to think of why he wouldn’t. He mustered a chuckle. “I know everyone talks about me and kids, but it’s not like I’m going to turn around and go home just because Cully’s aren’t here.”

“Oh. That wasn’t—okay. Cool. Yeah, come on in.” Finally Phil stepped aside to let Sid into the house. “You sure you don’t want coffee instead?”

In the time he’d been standing on Phil’s front stoop, Sid’s fingers had gone a little numb. “You know what, that sounds great.”

Phil’s kitchen was a bright, hard place of chrome and stainless steel and marble. Sid set the beer on the island and watched Phil putter around, getting a mug, pouring a cup, setting out the sugar once Sid had admitted, a little sheepish, that he’d like some. Every so often Phil flashed Sid a glance that Sid couldn’t read. “I picked a hell of an evening for this, right?” Phil said, handing Sid his mug. “Should have done it last week, when it was up in the 50s still.”

“I’m Canadian,” Sid assured him. “It’s okay.”

“It really get that cold out there on the coast?” Phil asked, skeptical.

Sid jumped to defend the weather and honor of his home province, and Phil responded with horrors from Wisconsin in winter. The bickering carried them all the way through the house and out to Phil’s deck, where they each grabbed a chair and one-handed it out to the back of Phil’s lot. A knee-high picket fence edged it, God knew why, and beyond that lay only trees above and brush along the ground.

“It is kind of rural,” Sid said.

“Yeah. Yeah, I like it.”

Sid sipped his coffee. He listened to hearty-souled birds high up in the trees, chirping the day’s last chirps. Phil did the same. Sid shivered a little and endured it, waiting for that post-shiver calm to settle into him. He kept his eyes on the woods. Phil had misjudged the timing a little; the sky was already graying, the trees spiky-black in silhouette. Sid wrapped his hands around as much of the mug as he could.

It was quiet, and Phil was right there, and Sid was no better than the rest of them, really. “So, you and Bozak?”

Phil barked a laugh. He shook his head at the edge of Sid’s vision and took a slurping sip of coffee. Sid waited for the brush-off he deserved. Instead, finally, Phil said, “Naw.”

Sid straightened up. “Really?”

“When it all came out, I told him everyone would think that. He said it was fine, he didn’t care.” Phil snorted, fond, like can you believe it? “But god, no. Bozie’s the straightest fucking arrow I’ve ever seen in my goddamn life. Good friend, though. The best.”

“That’s good,” Sid said, his throat suddenly feeling a little tight. “That’s good that you’ve had someone to talk to.”

“Yeah, he’s helped a lot.” Phil heaved a sigh through his nose. “And now I’ve got all you fellas.”

There was a wistful note there that Sid could do nothing about. He turned his attention resolutely to the woods. Bird sounds were receding, leaving only the occasional rustle of what leaves still clung to the branches this late in the year. The stillness crept over Sid, settled into him as surely and deeply as the cold.

A twig snapped off to his left. He held his breath. Something far larger than a twig cracked so loud it seemed to split the air in two, and then after a couple of moments of leisurely, crashing progress, a deer broke into sight: a spike buck, his prongs poking up from his head like fingers. He paused, tail flicking. Then he turned to look directly at Sid, snorted heavily, and leapt off into the underbrush.

Sid exhaled. “That the one you saw?” he asked softly.

Phil’s words were hushed, too. “No. I saw a mom and baby before. This year’s fawn.”

Sid peered into the woods, but it was hard to make out details in the gloom. “Getting a little dark.”

“Yeah.” Phil blew out a breath and said at normal volume, “You want to go in?”

For a moment Sid debated, but he decided it was silly to sit shivering in the dark when he could have light and maybe a fresh cup of coffee. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

He and Phil hefted the chairs back onto the deck. Inside Phil’s kitchen, Phil did offer Sid that cup of coffee. Once Phil had poured it and set the carafe back under the drip, he leaned back against his countertop, gripping it like he didn’t know what to do with his hands. “Thanks for coming out, man. Even if it was kind of a dumb idea.”

“I miss it,” Sid said, to his own surprise. “Being outside. Just—being quiet. You know?”

“Yeah?” Phil asked, sounding surprised. Hopeful?

“I have a place on the lake, back home.”

“Aw geez, I love being out on the lake. Sun, just you and the water and some fish, maybe?”

“Yeah.” For a moment Sid could almost smell the organic lake water funk, carried up onto his deck by an evening breeze. The next moment he was back in Phil’s kitchen, warm mug in his hands. Phil was gazing through the cupboard door and beyond to some idyllic summer day. He’d lost his death grip on the counter edge and was relaxed against it. Here in his own place, in a toque and his faded Golden Gophers sweatshirt that was disintegrating at the collar, he looked comfortable. At ease, in a way that made Sid want to—

Shit.

Sid’s mug rattled as he set it down, sloshing coffee over the side. “Shit. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Phil handed him the towel that’d been hanging over the over door handle, and Sid mopped at the coffee – half on the counter, half on the floor.

“That was dumb,” he muttered, face hot.

“It’s fine,” Phil said, unconcerned. Well, he didn’t have anything to be concerned about. “It’s just coffee.”

“Right.” Sid swallowed hard, and then he stood and handed back the towel, now tinted brown.

“I was out at the lake when I found out, you know. About the trade.” Phil had shifted his gaze to his sliding glass door, some of that tension seeping back into his shoulders. “I never thought I’d end up here. I was so fucking surprised – I thought for sure they’d ask me to waive, ship me off to godforsaken Sunrise, Florida or some shit.”

Sid saw guys get traded in and out all the time. Almost none of them talked to him about it. Too weird, maybe – everyone knowing that it’d never happen that way to him. “Would you have done it? Waived?”

“Eh.” Phil met Sid’s eyes, waggled his hand. “Better weather there. Could be nice. Bunch of goddamn babies on the team – those kids that play on Jagr’s line, they look kind of twinky, right?”

Shock startled a laugh right out of Sid.

“I mean, right?” Phil grinned, clearly pleased with himself.

Sid grinned back, helplessly. The pleasure felt stolen – pretending, for a moment, that he was the kind of person to make jokes like that. To look at young guys that way and tell people about it.

Sobering, Phil added, “It was a pretty bad scene up there. I’da gone fucking anywhere if they asked.”

“Boston?”

“You shut your mouth.” Sid couldn’t help but laugh at Phil’s expression, and soon enough Phil was grinning wryly back. “Anyway, they didn’t ask, and here I am.”

“You sure are,” Sid agreed. Yes, Phil sure was. Sid took another moment to take in the view: Phil’s kitchen and his easy smile and the patch of hair on top of his head still fighting the good fight. “Look, it’s getting late, I should probably—”

“Sure, sure.” Phil followed him agreeably out to the door. “Anyway, like I said, thanks for coming all the way out. You should come back for video games or whatever, if you want to.”

“Yeah, okay,” Sid said. “Maybe I will.”

--

The words hadn’t meant much when Sid said them. The social eddies and currents of the team formed around injuries, callups, guys climbing out of the singles pool and getting dumped back in again. There was no point in planning who your friends would be, beyond those few you’d never escape.

But another month in, and Sid kept finding himself in Phil’s vicinity. Phil liked his restaurant menus simple and gimmick-free; in bars he could laugh with anyone but always ended up in a corner arguing about the Packers. He couldn’t muster much interest in history, but if Sid wanted to stop by a bookstore, Phil was game to tag along and look for new Stephen King - a real funny writer, he said.

Friendship was easy with Phil like it hadn’t been with anyone for a while. And if Sid sometimes caught Phil’s open grin, his shock of laughter and wished a little, well. That just didn’t matter, because Sid—wasn’t. Sid couldn’t.

It didn’t matter.

--

Sid didn’t usually listen to music while he lifted. It was distracting. But people talking to him was even more distracting, so headphones in and music off was a great compromise. Usually.

“He’s not even that great. I thought he was really good off the rush, but—”

“But he isn’t even on the rush that much.”

“Yeah. Maybe this is why Toronto ditched him, and not—”

Sid racked the bar with a vicious clank, and the conversation behind him abruptly ended. By the time he turned around, there was no one in the room but Horny on the treadmill, lip-syncing to whatever he had coming through his ear buds.

They weren’t even wrong. Phil wasn’t getting many shots off the rush. Then again, neither was anyone else. Sid felt like he’d spent his entire life in the defensive zone, dragging his line out of it by sheer force of will.

He rolled his shoulders and went to add more weight to the bar.

--

Tonight they met back at Phil’s place, Sid’s third or fourth visit, though it was far too cold for deer watching and snow was only a matter of time. Dinner and gaming was the plan instead. Sid brought takeout from the Thai place near the rink, and they ate it straight out of the boxes with NHL Network on in the background.

“You see the score for the Gophers game?” Phil asked.

“I don’t really keep track of the NCAA.”

“Yeah, me neither, but—” Phil shrugged. “My old team, you know?”

“Sure. I still check in on the Q every now and then, to see how Rimouski’s doing.”

Phil nodded. Another of those silences drew out that happened often around Phil. With another person it might have been awkward, but with Phil it was just a way to pass the time until a thought occurred to one of them or the other. Sometimes Sid found himself saying things into those silences that surprised him.

Like now. “So you went to college, and then you went and made a sex tape?”

Phil collapsed against the couch with a laugh. “Fuck, I know. I know.”

“A sex tape.”

“You gotta understand, okay. We’d just lost in the first round to goddamn Holy Cross. Fucking historic upset.”

“I remember that, kind of.”

“Yeah, it sucked ass. I was pretty sure I was going to the show the next season, too. Kev and I were drunker ‘n skunks, and—did you watch it? The tape?”

“Uh, no. I didn’t watch it.” Sid was suddenly, profoundly grateful he could say that truthfully.

“Well, we didn’t even get off on video – I think Kev knocked the camera over getting his dick out. It’s just us kissing and shit. It was supposed to be a last hurrah kind of deal, before I got to the big time and went, you know. Straight.” Phil shrugged.

“Yeah.” After a pause, Sid ventured, “What about—Kev? Is he okay?” It’d never really occurred to Sid until now that the other party had a name, too. Was a person, too.

“Aw, yeah. He stopped playing hockey after college – he’s in insurance now. Out and everything, so this doesn’t matter too much, for him.”

“Good. That’s good.” Sid’s relief was more profound than made any sense to him.

--

Now that he’d brought up the sex tape and they’d actually talked about it, Sid couldn’t put it out of his mind again. Not actually the tape, or Kev – who the fuck even knew what a college guy named Kev looked like – but Phil Kessel with his dick out. Phil Kessel kissing a guy. Phil Kessel in the afterglow, smiley like he got sometimes, not quite awake.

That last image tugged at Sid like a fishing line, the hook buried in his ribs.

Sid thought about the words sometimes. He imagined how they’d feel on his tongue. Me, too. I am, too.

--

When it happened, it all happened in the space of a week: Duper ‘not playing hockey anymore.’ Johnston getting fired. Sullivan came up from Wilkes-Barre, full of big-sounding speeches. Scuds got shipped out to Chicago, and the new guy Daley arrived, friendly and bright-eyed and hopeful.

“A week,” Sid told Flower in the Boston visitor’s locker room. They flew out tonight to get ready for the second half of the home-and-home. They were oh for two under Sullivan so far.

“One fucking week,” Flower agreed. “You doing okay?”

“Me? Yeah, sure. Just.” Sid shrugged. “A lot of changes.” And also Duper, a grief too important and much too fresh to be described as a change, but Flower knew better than to ask if he was okay about that.

“Yeah.”

“I should try to get the guys out tomorrow. Feels like we could use some decompress time.”

--

Plenty of the guys had family things or other pre-existing plans. Sid ended up making a dinner reservation for twelve at Meat and Potatoes. Kuni and Daley were there when he arrived, and Phil showed up immediately after. He settled in the chair next to Sid’s – his usual spot these days. “Didn’t you say you came here two weeks ago?” Phil asked.

“We love our captain, but creativity is not his forte,” Kuni said, clapping Sid on the shoulder.

“Why do you love me, then?”

Kuni considered that soberly for a moment. “Because if we ever need to know the second-most successful World War II Canadian fighter pilot, you’re our guy.”

“Fuck off,” Sid said, laughing. He looked to Phil for support, but Phil was busy reaching behind Sid to give Kuni a high-five. “Traitor,” Sid muttered. Phil elbowed Sid with a laugh.

Maybe Sid was lying to himself, thinking food was a cure for all his team’s unsettled feelings, but it helped settle him, anyway. And he didn’t think he was the only one. Daley seemed to be making himself at home; Cully was on his right, and from snatches Sid overheard, they were talking about Daley’s oldest maybe doing school with Cully’s kids. The new guy up from Wilkes-Barre, Sheary, was deep in conversation with Dumo and Warsofsky.

“All under control, captain,” Phil said.

Caught out, Sid said, “Just keeping an eye on things.”

“Yep,” Phil said knowingly.

“So how are things out at your place?” Sid asked pointedly.

To Sid’s surprise, Phil didn’t laugh it off. “Aw, you know. It’s fine.”

“Yeah?”

Phil turned his gaze away and flipped open the dessert menu. Instead of reading it, he glanced around the table – everyone occupied with their own jokes, their own problems – and he said, “It’s kind of quiet, you know?”

“I thought that’s why you got a place so far out.”

“Oh yeah, I know. It’s nothing.” Phil picked up the menu. He appeared to be reading it.

Sid could let it drop. Or he could do like Flower always accused him of and poke his nose in it, because as a captain, he should know what was going on with his players. His teammates. His—friends, which Phil was undeniably one of, these days. “Too country for you?” Sid asked. “You miss the big city Toronto life?”

Phil huffed. “Naw, I don’t mean like that. I like my place. It’s just – I don’t get people out that often. Just you, mostly.”

“Oh, well, just me.”

Phil elbowed him. “You know I don’t mean it like that. I’m just used to living with Bozie, or after he moved out I still had guys dropping by all the time.”

“And now people don’t want to make the drive?” Sid couldn’t say he really understood that. It was only a half hour out in good traffic, and it was pretty. Relaxing. There were fields with horses in them, which Sid could appreciate in an aesthetic way.

Now Phil seemed to be the one considering whether to drop the topic. Finally he heaved a sigh and laid the menu flat on the table. “No. Now people are worried if they hang out alone with me too much, they might get homo on them.”

“Oh,” Sid said faintly. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him, and he couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

“Yeah. When I heard about the trade, I thought about trying to get someone in to live with me, like Bozie did. For company, you know? But it’d be too weird now.”

“That—that sucks.”

Phil snorted. “Yeah.”

“I could—”

“No,” Phil said, mercifully cutting Sid off before it became obvious that Sid had no fucking clue what he could do. “I don’t need you speaking up for me or whatever. I figure, give it some time, and if I don’t go blowing some dude in the locker room, maybe everyone’ll—forget, you know?”

“Fuck,” Sid said, low but vicious enough that a couple of heads turned. He ignored them. His fist curled under the table, but there was no one’s face to put it through. Not that prior on-ice experience suggested he’d have much success.

“Hey.” Phil shouldered him companionably. “You come see me. It means a lot. I might be getting homo all over you, too, you know.”

Sid tried for a smile. “I wasn’t really worried about that.”

--

Sid caught Flower in the cafeteria the next day. “We gotta make sure Phil’s getting invited to stuff. He’s—” This went a bit beyond Sid’s usual concern, which Flower called meddling, but if anyone would understand this time, it’d be Flower. “He’s feeling a little left out.”

From the narrowing of Flower’s eyes, he heard what Sid was saying. “I’ll talk to Tishy. And Horny.”

--

“You said something,” Phil said accusingly a couple of weeks later, as soon as he got in Sid’s front door.

Sid froze halfway to reaching for the beer in Phil’s hand. “Oh yeah?”

“Suddenly Tishy and his wife always want me over for dinner.”

“That. That sounds rough,” Sid said cautiously.

Phil broke into a grin, relieving Sid greatly. “Nah, they eat good over there. And Tishy’s always up for talking college football with me. It’s nice.”

“Well. Good.”

“Yeah,” Phil said, thoughtful.

A beer and a half later, Phil said, “Tishy said I could try, like. Going out. Picking up.”

Unaccountably, Sid’s pulse sped up. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. I never—I couldn’t do it before. But now I guess it doesn’t fucking matter, right? I could just walk into some bar and hit on a guy. Pittsburgh’s big enough, it’s gotta have a bar or two like that, right?”

“Sure,” Sid said. “Did you not before?”

Phil wiggled the toes of his socked feet, resting on Sid’s coffee table. “Not since college. Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t been a nun, but just guys in the league, you know?”

“What?” Sid said, startled up from his slouch. “What guys?”

“I, uh. Probably I shouldn’t tell you that.”

“Right,” Sid said blankly.

Phil eyed him carefully. “Did you think I was the only one? In the whole fucking league?”

“No,” Sid said, before he could help himself. No, he had definitely never thought that. “But you know who they are?”

“When a guy starts mouthing at your dick, you figure it out,” Phil said dryly, and Sid’s brain whited out a little. “But yeah, we kinda find each other, you know?”

“Oh,” Sid said quietly.

“Which is good, because nine years without getting my dick wet would have been a hell of a long time.”

“Yeah,” Sid said, barely audible at all.

--

Sid couldn’t sleep that night. After lying in bed for an hour, he rolled over, grabbed his phone from the bedside table, and searched for nhl gay rumors. Several of the results featured Patrick Burke. A bunch more were about a baseball player with the last name of Gay. The rest were a disconnected hodgepodge of names, few mentioned more than once.

His second year in the league, there’d been a Bolts player who’d somehow talked himself into the hall outside the Pens locker room after a game, and he’d waylaid Sid, hoping Sid would sign the night’s program for him. The Pens had lost, and Sid had no stomach for fans – especially fans who’d just beaten him at hockey – but he’d taken the Sharpie and autographed the thing anyway.

“We’re not flying out ‘til tomorrow,” the guy had said. “You wanna go out for a bite or something?”

Sid stared at him, bewildered and exhausted and still mad. The guy smiled, and it occurred to Sid that he had nice eyes. A sudden suspicion chilled him. “What the fuck,” Sid said. His neck was prickly cold with the certainty that someone was overhearing this. Someone would know.

And he must have been right, because the guy stammered out an apology. Sid was too busy walking away, shocky on adrenaline, to hear what it was. Certain the guy knew – how else would he have had the nerve?

Now Sid looked him up. There were a lot of Meyers on hockeydb.com, but Sid eventually found the forward who’d been called up from Springfield in 2006, who’d played eight games with the Lightning with some healthy scratches in between before getting sent back down. After two more seasons in the AHL, he went to Europe, and he dropped off the map a while after that.

Sid put his phone aside and stared at his window blinds, faintly aglow from the streetlight, until he fell asleep.

--

Sid mostly ended up at Phil’s, rather than the other way around. It was easier there, somehow, sitting on Phil’s couch and yelling at Tomlin’s calls, knowing their likeliest interruption was a deer peering in the sliding patio door from out in Phil’s yard.

At halftime, Phil came back from the kitchen with Yuengling cold from the fridge and said, “So I went to this place over on 44th.”

“Oh yeah?” Sid popped his can open.

“Yeah, one of those gay bars? I found it on Yelp.”

“Oh,” Sid said, sitting up a little straighter.

“They said they had sports on. I figured that couldn’t be too bad, right?”

“Sure,” Sid said. His heart was beating too fast. “So did you—?”

“Yeah.” Phil ducked his head, expression out of Sid’s view. “At first I was just—you know, I don’t really like talking to people. Strangers. But it was Green Bay, and you know I can’t keep my mouth shut about ‘em. I got to talking with this guy. He was such a fucking idiot. He kept arguing with me about the fucking Vikings. But he was, uh.” Phil gave Sid a sidelong glance and then dropped his eyes. “He was hot. And he was pretty nice, when he wasn’t a moron. So we went back to his place.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” Phil said, finally looking at Sid. “I mean, he didn’t blow my mind, and come on, the Vikings.”

“Right,” Sid said faintly.

“But yeah. I just went out, and it didn’t matter, you know? I had to sign this one guy’s napkin, but otherwise nobody gave a fuck.” Phil fell back against the couch and put his hands behind his head. “It’s crazy. You spend your whole goddamn life worrying about this one fucking thing, and then it happens, and like, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

Sid wanted to ask Phil every juicy detail.

He wanted to take him by the shoulders and ask if he remembered the too-aggressive hits on the ice, all the times somebody on the team called someone a fag and then turned around and apologized to Phil, how some of the guys just never got around to talking to him.

He wanted to touch him. Phil was just lounging on the sofa, arms flung out across the back of it now, grinning his delight over this good thing life had handed him like he still didn’t quite believe it, and Sid wanted to kiss him. He wanted to scrub his hand over Phil’s day-old gingery scruff and palm him through his sweatpants, faded and nearly worn-through at seams.

Fuck.

Phil, apparently content with his confession, said, “So I heard from Amanda today.”

“Yeah? How’s she doing?” Sid asked on automatic.

Usually Amanda Kessel’s concussion progress was a topic Sid was ready and willing to listen to. This time he just barely managed to make the right noises at the appropriate times, and before halftime ended he begged off and took himself home. He could feel Phil’s bewilderment as he left, but he couldn’t face it.

--

Sid didn’t avoid Phil over the next few days. He just didn’t actively seek him out all the time. He had responsibilities. Phil had other people. It was fine. Until Phil cornered him on the bike when no one else was in the gym and said, “So I guess I made it weird.”

“What?” It was half-question, half-plea – a hope that Phil was talking about anything other than what Sid thought he was.

Phil’s hands were jammed in the pocket of his Pens hoodie. “You’ve always been cool with me and, uh. The gay stuff. You shoulda just told me if I was going TMI on you. I don’t have to talk about it anymore.”

“It’s fine, man,” Sid tried. Phil did not look convinced. Sid slowed his pedaling to a stop. “Look, I’m really happy for you. You’re a good guy. You deserve it.”

“You just don’t want to hear about it,” Phil said flatly.

Sid opened his mouth to repeat that it was fine, Phil could tell him anything he wanted. Somehow the words wouldn’t form. He sat there on the bike with his mouth open. “I, uh—” He couldn’t finish.

Phil nodded. “Yeah. Well, come around if you want to keep going on Black Ops III, I guess. You’re still welcome.” He turned around and walked away, head bowed, all that mild-mannered joy of a few days ago completely drained out of him.

“Fuck,” Sid said, squeezing the handle bars so tight his knuckles were white.

--

Home game the next night. One-game roadie in St. Louis the day after that. The Pens went up 2-1 against the Blues and then they gave up four goals in succession. The entire plane was in a foul mood coming back, and Flower left Sid alone. “Thirty-eight shots,” Sid said finally. The Blues had had only twenty-five, and yet.

Trust the process,” Flower quoted. Sid laughed because he couldn’t help it. They were sitting on a record of a shutout win, a blowout loss, and two OT points in six days.

Phil didn’t catch up with Sid on the way out of the airport, didn’t ask if he wanted barbeque takeout and CoD the next evening. Sid put his head down and walked through the frigid covered parking to his car.

--

Sid invited himself over to the Fleurys’ after practice. When he got there and let himself in, he found Flower in the kitchen, stirring something in a bowl. “It’s personal pizza night tonight,” Flower said. “Vero and the girls are getting the stuff, but I’m supposed to mix the dough so it’ll have time to rise. You can knead.”

“Cool.” Sid filled a glass with water from the fridge and leaned against the counter, watching Flower work. He hadn’t come over like this just to hang out in a while. He’d been busy.

His stomach tightened, and he set his glass aside. “I fucked up,” he said.

Flower shot him a glance: curious, unsurprised. “Oh yeah?” he said neutrally.

“With Phil. I fucked up so bad.” Sid scrubbed his hand over his face. “You’re so good at this. You always know what to do.”

“With…?”

“You know. Gay people.”

Flower looked over at Sid, and he looked at him for a long time. Sid couldn’t read his expression. Finally Flower returned to his mixing bowl, and he said, “Do you know why I did that video for You Can Play?”

“Because you have that cousin, right?”

“No. I mean, yeah, Juliette’s into girls. But that was later.”

“Okay?”

Flower sighed and put the bowl aside. He turned around to lean against the counter opposite Sid, and he crossed his arms. Eyes fixed on the hardwood floor, he said, “You remember when you were a rookie and Talbo kept getting you wasted?”

Sid blinked at this abrupt conversational U-turn. “Kind of, yeah. God, he spent that entire year trying to embarrass the shit out of me. Fucker.” Sid shook his head, laughing.

“Yeah, so, we were in this bar and he was sneaking you shots, and you were so fucked up. Completely out of it. So I say I’m going to take you back to the hotel, and we get a cab.”

A chill ran down Sid’s spine, and cold, gnawing suspicion settled into his belly.

“On the way back, I’ve got you lying all over me, can’t even sit up straight, and then you kind of turn around and kiss me.”

“No,” Sid breathed. He stared at Flower, willing this to be a joke. Flower just stared back, wide-eyed. “You’re kidding,” he said, but Flower was already shaking his head. He looked upset, and fuck, of course he was upset, because ten years ago Sid had up and kissed him. “You said I was drunk, right? I probably didn’t even know it was you. Thought it was some chick or someone.”

“You said,” Flower said with deliberate care, “that you always wanted to do that. Since World Juniors, you wanted to do that.”

Sid closed his eyes, but immediately he was so dizzy that he opened them again. He braced himself against the countertop with both hands. “What did you do?” he whispered.

“I said I couldn’t, Vero wouldn’t like it. You apologized so much – you said you forgot. You told me you were very sorry. And then you fell asleep on me before we got to the hotel.”

“Shit.” Sid’s view had turned blurry. He bowed his head. His arms shook. “Shit.”

It was quiet. There was sound to his right, and then a warm touch fell on Sid’s arm. He flinched away. There was a smudge of flour on him now, just above his elbow. “All this time?” He steeled himself to look Flower in the eye. “All this time you knew?”

Flower settled against the counter next to Sid. “I didn’t know what to do. You didn’t say anything, and I didn’t know if you were embarrassed or if you forgot. And then it was weeks later, months, and it would be weird, you know? Maybe I should have said something sooner.” Flower shrugged. His elbow brushed against Sid’s. “I thought if I showed I was okay with other gay people, maybe you’d tell me sometime. You’d feel like you could talk to me about it.”

The realization came like the last click inside a combination lock. Sid’s throat was clogged; he could barely form the words. “It was for me? The You Can Play thing, and the shit you get after us for saying – all that was for me?”

Flower nudged him fondly. “Not anymore. After I started paying attention, I realized there are a lot of gay people in the world, you know? But in the beginning, yeah.”

“Right,” Sid said. He crossed his arms, like bracing them might hold him together. “Shit.”

Flower’s hand wrapped cautiously around Sid’s bicep. Sid fixed his gaze on it and held himself very, very still, and then Flower pulled him in. Flower was hugging him, and slowly Sid put his arms around Flower, breathed wetly against his shoulder, and held on.

Finally Sid let go; he was getting a cramp in his back. Flower looked back at him with red-rimmed eyes. Sid knuckled at Flower’s arm and said, “What’s wrong with you?”

Flower smiled cautiously back. “You’re one of my best friends, you know?”

“Fuck,” Sid said blankly.

Flower retreated a little, back to his mixing bowl. Sid followed helplessly and watched as Flower worked the ingredients together with a fork. “I’m not into women,” Sid said abruptly. “Like at all.”

“I figured. It’s been a long time since I saw you pick one up.”

Sid carefully did not think about who else might have surveyed that evidence and reached the same conclusion. “Yeah. It always sucked, pretty much. But guys’d give me a hard time about it if I didn’t. But then it got to where I just couldn’t, anymore.”

Flower hummed neutrally.

“I think I’m into Phil, though.” It was a dare, the way Sid said it, a chance for Flower to punk out.

But Flower just nodded. “You two hang out a lot.”

Sid braced his elbows on the countertop and hung his head. “Yeah, well. Not anymore.”

“Does he know about you?”

“No. I’ve never—I’ve never told anyone.”

“Jesus.”

Sid could feel Flower’s gaze on him, hot and prickly. He stared at the granite of Flower’s countertop, picking out the occasional flecks of brown among all the grains of black and gray.

“Are you going to?”

Sid gave him a sharp look. “You know just because we’re both gay—” Sid stumbled on the last word. It seemed to echo in Flower’s kitchen – or just inside Sid’s head. He swallowed hard. “Just because of that, that doesn’t mean we’d get together. Like, that wouldn’t even be a good idea. That’d be a fucking terrible idea, getting with—with someone on the team.”

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know about that part.” Flower elbowed Sid aside and reached for a large wooden cutting board hanging on the wall. “I just thought maybe it’d be good, having someone to talk to. For Phil, too, you know?”

Sid thought about the defeated slope of Phil’s shoulders as he’d walked out of the gym. About how much Sid missed moments stolen from the season to veg out on Phil’s couch and chirp him for his terrible grenade tactics.

The thought was interrupted by voices at the front door, followed immediately by an insistent ringing of the doorbell. “The girls figured that out this week,” Flower said. He dumped the contents of his bowl onto the cutting board. “Now for the kneading. Your turn.”

Sid worked flour into his palms until they were powdery and then dug in. The front door shut, and a small voice chattered in the hall. “Hey, Flower,” Sid said.

“Yeah.”

Sid’s eyes were threatening to spill over again, and that was no good. He didn’t want to see Vero or the girls to see him like this. “Just, uh. Thanks.”

Flower pressed his shoulder to Sid’s. “No problem.”

--

Sid grabbed a seat next to Phil at the next video review – for Philly, fuck everything. Phil gave him an uncertain glance, and Sid returned it with a firm nod and a smile. He’d faced a lot of audiences tougher than Phil Kessel, even if it didn’t feel like it right now. Phil tentatively returned the smile.

“You ready for this?” Sid asked. “The rivalry?”

“You guys got a rivalry?” He sounded so surprised that Sid turned to stare. Phil stared back, deadpan, until Sid finally knuckled him in the arm.

“Asshole.”

Phil just settled back in his chair, looking smug and mumbling something about not being a fucking moron. Something lightweight bounced off Sid’s baseball cap, Saucer dimmed the lights, and for that instant, the world was okay.

And then, two days later, they won. They fucking beat fucking Philadelphia in the first matchup of the season off two goals from Phil, another one from Sid, and a save on a final-second shot by the Flyers’ baby defenseman that would have put the game into OT.

The crowd was electric. “Do you know how long it’s been since we beat them in our own fucking building?” Sid yelled at Phil, waddling skate-footed ahead of him towards the locker room.

“A long fucking time,” Tanger chimed in from behind him.

The next day, more practice, more video review. “Trust the process,” Sully said, and Sid caught Flower’s eye and mouthed along with the words.

After people had begun to clear out, Phil caught Sid in the equipment room. “My place tonight?” Phil asked, his gaze fixed firmly on the stick in Sid’s hands.

Sid opened his mouth to agree and paused. “Shit, no. I’m getting together with the new guy tonight. Hagelin.”

“Oh, sure.” Phil edged towards the door. “Catch you another time.”

“During the all-star break?” Sid offered. “I’m booked solid all the way until then.”

“I’m taking off, like, right away. The beach, you know?”

Sid gave up. “Sure. Don’t want to cut into your beach time.”

“Right. But after the break, yeah?”

“Sure,” Sid repeated, and let Phil go.

--

The morning of the Canucks game, they got the word: D.C. was snowed in, and Sunday’s game was canceled. Sid immediately went looking for Phil and pulled him aside. “What about tomorrow?”

“You want to come over?” Phil asked, like he still wasn’t quite sure Sid’s excuses before hadn’t been just that: excuses.

“Unless you’ve got plans.”

“Well, I was gonna play hockey, but—” Phil shrugged. For the first time in a week or more, Phil relaxed into that easy, comfortable smile the public never saw, the one he got when he talked about his sister or his dog or Bozak. “Sure, come on over. I can make something to eat if you want.”

The next evening, Sid took a loaf of crusty whole-wheat and a salad mix out to Phil’s place. The front door was unlocked, and he let himself in.

Phil slammed the oven shut just as Sid reached the kitchen. He took the bread and salad out of Sid’s hands. “I was thinking a vinaigrette?”

“Sounds fine to me. I mostly use dressing that comes in bottles.”

Phil shook his head sadly, opened his pantry door, and began picking items off the shelves. “How’d your thing with Hagelin go?”

Sid’s welcome dinner with Hagelin had been uneventful, but Sid shared tidbits anyway, stuff that hadn’t come up in the locker room yet. Phil hummed thoughtfully in the right places. Within five minutes, there was dressing swirling darkly in the bottom of his glass bowl. “Okay, we’re good until the pasta comes out. Black Ops?”

“You know it.”

They played until the oven timer went off. They ate in front of the TV, watching highlights from the previous night’s game on NHL Network: Geno’s hat trick, fluke bank goal and all; Sid’s empty netter. “There’s our game winner,” Phil said, elbowing Sid and grinning broadly.

“Shut up. Like you all weren’t fucking ecstatic I got that goal when Hansen scored like ten seconds later.”

Phil just kept grinning like he wasn’t buying that at all. Abruptly Sid realized that his plate was nearly empty. He snagged the last spinach leaf, and then he set the plate on the coffee table. His pulse was racing. “Hey, so, I wanted to apologize.”

Phil looked over, startled. His expression softened. “Nah, it’s fine. You’re fine.”

“No, for real, I’m sorry I made you feel weird, or—or like you couldn’t talk to me. I don’t want you to feel like that.”

“Sid, it’s fine.” Phil reached over and clapped Sid on the knee, very seriously. “I know you’re not an asshole. You’ve been pretty much the opposite of an asshole since I got here. I overreact sometimes. It’s not your fault.”

Sid didn’t think that was quite a fair interpretation, and anyway Phil letting him off easy didn’t help. “I still want to explain.”

“Uh, okay, if you want. Sure.”

Sid had thought about this a little. Okay, that was a lie; he’d thought about this so many times, for years, long before Phil arrived. It was a daydream to occupy himself with when he was waiting in airports or trying to fall asleep. The daydream featured all sorts of people, depending on the day – his parents, his sister, management, Flower, Duper. He’d never quite imagined what happened afterwards, except probably there’d be crying if his parents were there. He hadn’t figured he’d ever find out.

Phil was still sitting on the other end of the sofa, waiting patiently.

“I, uh.” Sid’s throat closed up. Shit.

He had spent his life facing people head-on and telling them what they wanted to hear. Now he fixed his gaze on his fingernail and tried again. “It wasn’t because I was grossed out or anything, okay?”

“Okay,” Phil said warily.

“It’s just, uh.” Spit it out. “It’s just that I’m gay, too. I think.”

A beat of silence. “Oh,” Phil said. “Oh, shit.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Sid said, still addressing the words to his knees. “I, uh—I’ve never told anyone before?”

“Wow.”

“I mean, Flower knows, but I didn’t tell him. He just kind of… knew.” Sid swallowed hard.

“Hey.” Phil shifted over to Sid’s end of the couch. “Hey, it’s okay, buddy.” He gave Sid’s shoulder a squeeze. Sid finally dared to look up, and then he had to look away again because the sympathy in Phil’s eyes was too much.

Phil scooted an inch or two away and said, “You know, I feel like something hot. You want some hot cocoa or something? Call it dessert.”

Sid’s laugh was a little clogged. “Sure.”

“Cool.” Phil gave Sid another squeeze and got to his feet. He grabbed the dirty plates and headed for the doorway, and a moment later, a cabinet banged open in the kitchen.

Sid used the reprieve to roll his tight shoulders and take a couple of breaths. The lump in his throat slowly loosened. By the time Phil returned with two steaming mugs, Sid felt almost human. Phil handed one to Sid and sat very carefully on the sofa with the other one.

“So,” Phil said. “You wanna talk about it?”

“I don’t know where to start,” Sid said honestly.

Phil shrugged. “When did you figure it out? Is this, you know, recent?”

Sid’s laugh was still a little wet. “Uh, no.”

“So tell me,” Phil said, and settled back with his mug of hot cocoa.

Sid told him about his crush on Steve Yzerman, about kissing Jean-Claude during the Q playoffs, about jerking off with Jack a couple of times. “But that doesn’t count, because I’m pretty sure Jack’s straight.”

Phil got a pinched look when Sid mentioned Jack’s name, but he only said mildly, “Maybe he says the same thing about you. You have a crush on him?”

“Kinda, yeah.” Sid let his head fall against the back of the sofa. “Not like it was going to go anywhere, you know? I couldn’t even tell him. No point in thinking about it too hard.”

Phil snorted. “Like that stops you when you’re fifteen and horny all the fucking time.”

“Yeah,” Sid said ruefully.

“Especially if you’re doing all the same stuff, changing in all the same locker rooms, you can’t look too hard but you can’t not look, either, or somebody’ll notice—”

“—and then some guy’s waving his dick in your face, and if you flinch you’re gay and if you play along too hard you might be gay—”

“—but you really are fucking gay, so maybe it doesn’t even matter.”

“Oh my god.” Sid laughed breathlessly, helplessly. He collapsed against the sofa and threw his hand over his face.

“You doing okay over there, buddy?” Phil asked, laughing at him.

Sid struggled to catch his breath. Everything felt light, loose: his shoulders and his chest and his stomach, where that knot of regret that had been weighing him down for a week had dissolved into nothing. “Yeah. I’m—I’m good.” He repeated the words over to himself, because he was. He was good.

--

Monday, Sid walked into the changing room before practice. He stripped and stuffed his street clothes in his locker like he always did. He said hi to the early birds like he always did – Tanger and Horny and Cullen. “What’s up, man?” Bones asked as he passed by.

“Same old,” Sid said.

It was. It was the same as a thousand other mornings, all the grooves of his day worn smooth from use, and yet he felt almost light-headed, like there was extra oxygen in the room.

--

“Lundqvist?”

“Nobody who’s stonewalled us this many fucking times is hot. I don’t care what he wears.”

“Seguin.”

Sid rubbed an itchy spot behind his ear. “I mean, yeah? But I’ve played with that guy. He’s gotta be, like, a walking STD.”

“Chara?”

“Oh my god.”

--

The Pens spent February winning one and then losing one, like a suspiciously even series of coin flips. In between, Sid and Phil caught Gophers games when they could, because Amanda was back on the ice again. Sid and Phil watched her first game from a hotel room in Tampa Bay. Phil’s breath maybe got a little shaky, her first shift out, and yeah, Sid knew what that was like, that long, miserable journey back.

They spent March winning. They beat CBJ – and lost Geno for the rest of the regular season, fuck everything – and then they just didn’t stop. Well, except for one rookie goaltender in New Jersey, and fuck New Jersey, too.

They beat Washington at home, a euphoric drubbing as good as anything Sid could have hoped for. When the game was over, when they were all in their dripping Under Armour and thirty seconds from a siege of reporters, Phil stood at his stall with his phone in the air, and he yelled, “My sister just won the fucking national championship!”

It was a good night. One of a kind, maybe.

--

On a free evening a couple of days later, when Phil was hanging around at Sid’s place, Phil said, “Hey, so, Amanda’s coming out next week.”

“You said.” Sid set the casserole dish carefully on the trivet and closed the oven door.

“Yeah, she’s coming to some games, obviously, and I’ll bring her in to meet the guys, but I thought maybe you’d come to dinner with us?”

Sid paused, his fork halfway to the casserole dish. “Oh?”

Phil came over and inspected the chicken with maybe a little more care than required. “She’s awesome. I think you’d like her. She’s always been really supportive. With hockey stuff, or with, you know. Other stuff.”

“Oh,” Sid said blankly.

“You don’t have to. Just, if you want to, let me know.”

Sid’s first, instinctual response was Fuck no. His second response was Why?. He thought about it through a dinner of chicken and brown rice and two hours of a Habs-Flyers game. Phil couldn’t settle on whom to root against and ended up grumbling anytime either team did something good. At the end of it, Sid thought maybe it’d be okay. Maybe it’d be nice.

“Yeah, okay,” he told Phil. “I can come to dinner. But I don’t—I don’t want to tell her about me. You can, if you want?”

“Cool,” Phil said.

--

A few days later, in the middle of practice, Sid looked up and Amanda was there. He could tell it was her, even at a distance, because she was holding a sign to the glass. It had a blown-up photo of Phil’s face and the words This is my brother!! There were also a lot of hand-drawn hearts.

“Oh, geez,” Phil said. “I told her not to.”

“That was probably the wrong move,” Sid said.

“I’m gonna get so much shit,” Phil said mournfully, but despite it he looked more pleased than anything.

That evening, promptly at five-thirty, Phil picked Sid up from his house. Amanda was sitting in the front seat. Phil said, “We’re doing Italian, that okay with you?”

“Italian sounds awesome.” Sid buckled himself in, and then he asked Amanda about the championship run. That carried them safely to the nice place downtown that Sid had been to a couple of times.

When their drinks had arrived and their dinner was ordered, Amanda said, “So, Phil talks about you a lot.”

“Oh yeah?” Sid said warily, bracing for a chirp or who knew what.

But Amanda’s expression was sober. “Yeah, I know you’ve made a big difference, helping him fit in here, especially with the tape this summer and everything.”

“For sure,” Sid said. He ran his finger along the foot of his wine glass. It squeaked. “Having that happen to me is about the worst thing I can think of, you know? Like, nightmare material. I just—” He glanced at Phil and found Phil looking back with round eyes. “I just wanted to make sure he was okay, as much as I could.”

“You did,” Phil said, voice a little scratchy. “Thanks, buddy.”

Sid shrugged. “You’d have done it for me,” he said. It was only as he heard the words out loud that he realized how much he believed them.

Phil was still looking a little choked up. Into the silence, Amanda said, “Yeah, I’m really glad you’re going to be around to support my favorite brother. Has Sid met Blake yet?” she asked Phil.

“Shut up!” Phil exclaimed. “Blake is not your favorite brother.”

“He might be.”

“He is not.”

“But I’m definitely your favorite sister,” she said sweetly.

Phil heaved a sigh and made a face at Sid, Look at what I gotta put up with. The grin he was trying to hide gave him away. The evident affection gave Sid an unexpected pang.

Maybe it showed on his face, because Amanda asked, “What about your family? Like, have you talked to them about…?”

He shook his head. “My parents would be disappointed. My mom would probably cry. There never seemed like much point.”

“It took our mom a long time to come around, when Phil told them.”

“It was rough,” Phil said quietly.

Sometime Sid would have to ask how Phil had done it – how old had he been? Did he call a family meeting in the living room? But for now he only said, “That sucks.”

“Yeah,” Phil said.

“But you have a sister, too, right?” Amanda asked. “Taylor.”

“Yeah. But, no, I haven’t told her, either. I haven’t really told a lot of people.”

“But you have people you can talk to?”

Sid caught Phil’s eye. Phil smiled encouragingly. “Yeah, I’ve got a couple people.”

“Good.” Amanda nodded decisively. “And maybe your family will surprise you, right? I mean, you know them, and I don’t. But sometimes people are better than you think, if you give them a chance.”

“Thanks. I’ll think about it.” Sid took a deep breath. “So, you went to Shattuck, too?”

--

As they pulled back into Sid’s driveway, Phil said, “Oh, I gotta come in and get that book I left.”

“I can bring it tomorrow,” Sid said.

“He can’t wait that long to find out if his hot boyfriend dies,” Amanda said. “It’s cool, I’ve got my phone.” Almost immediately, the brilliant LCD lit up the darkened exterior of the car. Phil was already getting out. Okay, then.

“Hot boyfriend?” Sid asked Phil as he unlocked his front door.

“She thinks all the guys in books I read are my boyfriend.”

“How do you even know he’s hot? There’s no picture on the cover.” Sid knew this because Phil had been carrying the thing around everywhere for three days.

“You think these people would write books about guys that look like ass?”

Sid laughed. “Okay, fair enough.”

Phil wandered away into Sid’s living room and came back with the paperback clutched in his hand. Sid was still in the entryway getting out of his winter shoes. “So that was okay?” Phil asked.

Sid set the shoes on the shelf and carefully avoided the wet spot in his sock feet. “Yeah, that was great. Your sister’s great.”

“I told you,” Phil said, radiating smugness.

“Yeah, she was really cool about everything. You’re really lucky.”

Phil didn’t answer right away, and Sid looked over to see why. Phil shrugged. “She might be right. Your family might be okay with it, after a while.”

Sid’s throat tightened. “Maybe.”

“But if they’re not, you can share mine. It’s cool.”

“Shit, Phil.” Sid smiled shakily.

“Amanda likes you, so that means you’re pretty much in.”

Now Sid laughed outright. “Awesome.”

“She likes you, I like you. You’re all set.”

Sid chuckled politely, suddenly distracted by how close Phil was, grinning under his black toque. Sid gathered his courage in his hands, and he said, “I like you, too. A lot.” He flushed and reached past Phil to straighten his coat on the hook, although it would have been fine as it was. “You can pretend you didn’t hear that, if you want.”

A hand settled on the back of his neck, large and warm. “Hey.”

Sid turned. Phil met his gaze evenly, soberly, and then Phil leaned those last few inches and kissed him. It was a firm, closed-mouth kiss, but warm like Phil, careful like Phil was with the things that mattered to him. Sid pressed his hand to Phil’s coat, over his hip, and kissed back.

After a few moments Phil shifted away, just far enough to look Sid in the eye, and he stared like Sid had just shown him something important. His hand was still a warm weight on Sid’s neck. “So that’s something we should think about, I guess,” Phil said quietly.

“Yeah,” Sid said. His heart was racing. “No rush, just—”

“Yeah.”

Phil finally let his hand drop. After a moment, he said soberly, “Every good Canadian gay boy in this league wants to jump your bones. You know that, right?”

Sid’s mouth opened in shock. It took him a moment to find any words. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Too bad I’m not Canadian.”

Sid stared. And stared some more. Phil just looked back, utterly serious, until Sid saw the beginning of a twinkle in his eye. “You fucking asshole!” Sid said, grinning despite himself. “You are so full of shit. Go take your sister home.”

Phil sniggered to himself all the way out the door, and Sid locked it behind him. Sid's lips still tingled.

--

It took Sid a few weeks to work up the nerve, to be certain he even wanted to.

In that time he made out with Phil a couple of times, which left them both flushed and probably hard – at least, Sid was definitely hard. But he wanted to be careful with this, and Phil seemed in no rush. “I ain’t been serious about anyone in a long time, either, you know? Since Kev, really.”

But finally, on an evening with no plans, Sid got out his phone and dialed Taylor’s number. “Hey, Taylor, do you have a few minutes? I’ve got something I want to talk to you about.”

[end]