Ben changed into his suit at the airport, and caught a cab into the city. The suit, inside his garment bag, had still been in the cleaner's plastic wrapping. He'd had it laundered after wearing it to the press conference in April; it had been soaked with sweat within the first five minutes, though somebody--he couldn't remember who, now--had assured him that it looked fine on television. Once he'd pulled his new jersey1 on, everything else had been hidden anyway.
Sitting in the cab with his bag beside him, Ben tugged at his cuffs and thought he probably ought to get a new suit. He never had any good reasons to wear one, but bad reasons seemed to be cropping up more frequently than ever; tomorrow would see this suit's second funeral. Ben stared out the window of the taxicab at the city that was supposed to be his home, and tried not to think about it.
Instead, he found himself thinking about the time. The viewing had begun over two hours ago, and he was certain to be the last of his teammates to arrive, by a shamefully large margin. Chris had called him, and Ben had felt a guilty rush at the sound of his team captain's voice even before he related the news. Chris hadn't said anything about the fact that Ben was in Inuvik instead of spending his summer in Chicago getting better acquainted with his new team and new city, but things would probably be different face-to-face. Ben suspected he was dreading that even more than the rest of it.
They pulled up in front of the funeral parlor, and Ben realized he'd been so distracted that he had no idea if the driver had actually gone as fast as he seemed to have, or if it was only his own reluctance that made the trip from O'Hare feel short. He pulled out his wallet and handed the driver a few of the American bills that had lain idle there all summer, and then stepped out onto the sidewalk. After one deep, bracing breath that filled his lungs with muggy city stink, he headed up the steps and into the cool quiet dimness of the funeral home lobby.
A neatly-suited funeral director was just pointing someone else toward the viewing room, so he wasn't last to arrive by too far after all. Ben handed off his bag to the hovering man, well beyond caring whether he ever saw it again, and crossed the lobby, walking a little quickly to catch the other visitor. His suit was tailored with the perfection that suggested an NHL salary, and his fair hair stood straight up from his head in what ought to have been a memorable fashion. Ben was, at least, reasonably certain that he wasn't a teammate. He'd nearly caught up when the man stopped sharply at the entrance to the viewing room and took a step back, running into him. The blond threw out a hand to catch himself as he stumbled, barking his knuckles loudly against the doorframe, and Ben reached to steady him, automatically leaning forward and stiffening his knees before he realized that he wasn't on skates and wouldn't slide back.
He could, at least, see the man's face now. It was Kowalski. They'd run into one another often enough on the ice, but of course the sensation was a bit different without a few regulation inches of plastic and foam between them. Kowalski's wide blue eyes met his for the briefest instant, and then shifted to look inside. Ben followed his gaze and realized that the room was, as he'd been dreading, packed. His entire team, plus assorted wives and a few close friends, and a huge congregation of Italians who must be the Gardino family, were standing there staring at them. Chris looked more bemused than disappointed, for now, but Ben found he had no desire whatsoever to take his hands off Kowalski and step inside.
Kowalski took half of that decision from him by pulling away, nearly bouncing off the opposite side of the doorway as he whirled to stride back out across the lobby. Ben caught only a glimpse of his face, flushed bright with embarrassment, as he shouldered past. He turned where he stood to watch Kowalski walk away, nearly running, his shoulders drawn tight as if he expected a hit from behind as he disappeared from view around a corner. Ben didn't even have to look back into the room to know where he'd rather be, though for the sake of politeness he glanced inside and assured himself that everyone had gone back to what they were doing prior to the interruption. Before Chris could decide to come and ask him what he was doing, Ben turned away and headed across the lobby.
He paused for a moment, listening, and soon heard Kowalski muttering curses, his voice cutting across the polite hush of the place. With a distracted nod to the rather distressed-looking funeral director, Ben struck off down the far hallway, and soon found Kowalski standing near an apparent dead-end, staring around him with a slightly wild look, like a cornered animal.
This had to be worse for Kowalski, Ben realized. He could only be here because he'd regarded Louis as a friend, not out of any sort of professional obligation. All his professional obligations had ended more than a year ago, with the expiration of his last contract out east. Kowalski had braved facing men who still had what he'd so recently lost in order to pay his last respects to Louis, only to suffer this embarrassment at the first instant.
Kowalski looked up at Ben, grimaced and gave him a nod of recognition. One of his fisted hands moved in a sort of wave before falling back to his side, and Ben's eye was drawn to the flash of red. "Kowalski?" he said softly, in the kind of voice he might have used with Diefenbaker on a bad day, after a long trip. He forced that memory away, thought only of Kowalski, here, now. "You all right?"
It almost hurt, the way Kowalski's eyes lit up when Ben said his name, as though he'd believed that a year's absence would have erased all the acquaintances of a dozen seasons of hockey. They'd never played for the same team, but it wasn't as if he wouldn't know the man's name. "Yeah," he said after a moment, "Yeah, Fraser, I'm fine."
Ben nodded slowly, and allowed himself to inch forward and to the side just a little, not enough for Kowalski to really notice that he was getting closer. "The reason I ask," he explained, "is your hand is bleeding."
Kowalski startled and raised his right hand, flexing it open and staring at the split knuckles of his first two fingers. "Fuck," he muttered, and looked around almost frantically, face flushing again.
Ben stepped quickly sideways to the incidental table and its box of tissues, pulling out a wad of them. Kowalski jerked when Ben grabbed his hand, but didn't move away. He'd been applying pressure for a few seconds when Kowalski, voice gravelly and soft, said, "You're supposed to wear gloves when you do that, y'know. Don't know where I've been."
He looked up from Kowalski's hand then, to find that their faces were bare inches apart. Kowalski's eyes widened, and while half of Ben's brain was calculating his odds of catching any blood-borne pathogens Kowalski might happen to be carrying, the other half just wanted to take that look out of his eyes. Kowalski looked like Dief when Ben had left him behind for too long. He looked like he'd been kicked.
Ben closed his eyes, pushing away the thought of Dief, and concentrated on what Kowalski had said. "Of course I know where you've been, Kowalski," he said when he was positive. "Chicago, Winnipeg, Hartford--"
"--Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Quebec, Boston. And then home to Chicago again afterward, obviously."
Ray blinked, staring at Fraser. His eyes had opened again on Philadelphia, and they were really dark blue, and holy hell, he'd remembered Pittsburgh, which Ray didn't even always. He'd only played a couple of games there, while they were getting the paperwork done to send him on to Philly and complete the three-way deal. The warmth of Fraser's hand pressing down on his knuckles spread all through him, and he could feel himself smiling stupidly.
"Jesus," he said after a second, "I mean--Edmonton, Chicago, I got you too, but..."
Fraser's eyebrow arched, so what the hell, not like he had any pride left in front of this guy anyway. Ray looked down at his split knuckles, though he couldn't actually see them under Fraser's fingers pressing down and the blood seeping up through the Kleenex on his fucked-up useless hand. He shrugged and said, "Dunno why you remember where a washed-up old scrapper used to play."
Fraser laid a little shoulder on him without letting go of his hand. Ray automatically pushed back, but Fraser wouldn't quit and then they were going at it, hips and shoulders, all clean hits here aside from the totally illegal hold Fraser had on his hand, until finally Fraser slammed him solidly up against the wall and there was a throat-clearing noise from down the hall.
Ray peeked past Fraser and saw the funeral director standing there, looking well-paid yet irritated. He pulled away quickly as Fraser stepped back, jamming his own hand down on the soaked Kleenex so that Fraser had to let go of him. "Sorry," he muttered, to the suit, to the floor, not looking at Fraser and definitely not thinking about that big solid defenseman's body up against his with no pads between. "Gonna have a smoke."
The funeral director pointed, and Ray spotted the exit sign and nodded, turning quickly away and heading outside through the heavy fire door. He was hoping it was street access so he could just get the hell out of there, but it was a little garden-type thing, all walled in, just shrubs and gravel. There were some windows, but all the curtains were drawn. No escape, but at least the air smelled like Chicago instead of funeral. He could hear cars, and see the sky, and have a cigarette without scandalizing anybody.
When he stepped away from the door Fraser stepped out after him, and Ray could almost believe he was doing this on purpose. Or, hell, maybe he didn't want to go see Gardie laid out either. It had to be weird for him; Fraser had played maybe all of twenty games with these guys before their short sad playoff run ended, and it didn't sound like he'd been out golfing with them the last five months, either, but Gardie was dead and Hue was in the hospital, so Fraser had to be here, showing his team spirit like a good boy when he probably didn't even know all the fourth-stringers' names.
Fraser pulled an airsick bag out of his pocket and offered it to Ray. "It's not exactly a biohazard container, but..."
Ray shot Fraser a quick smile and took it, dumping the tissues in and flexing his hand experimentally. Knuckles were a mess, like always, but it looked nastier than it was; the bleeding was pretty much stopped. Keep the hand clean, let it scab over, fine again in a day or two, or as fine as his utterly fucked hands ever were. "Thanks," he said, quietly. Ray folded down the top of the bag and sealed it before stuffing it into his own pocket. He pulled his cigarettes out of another pocket and offered Fraser one, but of course Fraser declined. Ray would've, too, a year and a half ago, but these days he was okay with fucking up his lungs a little when he felt like it, and he definitely felt like it now.
He lit up and took a long hard drag, holding the cigarette between his teeth and staring down at his hand again, thinking about just what the hell was going on here.
Funerals, when they weren't depressing the shit out of him, made him horny, he knew that. Stella's cousin Amanda's funeral, hell, that had been one wild night, after. Stella'd taken psych classes in college, she'd explained it to him once, but he just knew that he was like one of those drooling dogs: smell funeral parlor, start thinking about getting laid. Or maybe it was just better than thinking about Gardie in a box.
Also, it'd been a long damn time since Stella's cousin's funeral, a long damn time since Stella had even bothered with him for a pity fuck or a handy guy who knew what she liked and would let her walk out in the morning without arguing, because he'd at least learned that much by now.
And Fraser was a hockey player. Played with the same team a long time, so maybe he'd gotten into a groove there, but Ray figured it was pretty much the same all over: being straight in hockey was like being straight in prison. You got around it just as fast as you could, if you possibly could, because road trips were long and lonely otherwise, and it wasn't exactly like you could jerk off in private when they jammed you in four to a room in juniors. And Fraser knew who he was, and smiled at him, kinda played with him back there, and maybe, if Ray was a hell of a lot luckier than he'd been in a long time, maybe Fraser was okay with playing. Maybe that was why he was standing here breathing Ray's smoke.
"I liked playing against you," Fraser said quietly, like he'd read Ray's mind, which was creepy and cool at the same time. "So I paid attention to who you were with. I was disappointed when they sent you out East. Two games a year2 wasn't much."
"Yeah?" Ray was stupidly touched by that, and slid a glance sideways to check Fraser out. He was standing kinda close and looked comfortable in his skin, comfortable being alone out here with Ray.
He watched Fraser watch the cigarette in his hand. "I liked playing with you, too." Ray met Fraser's eye with a grin. "Except for the part where I never scored a damn goal because you wouldn't let me work my gig." Fraser had always been cool about it, though--nothing dirty, no trash talk or fighting, ever, no matter what the score was. He'd just never let Ray get set up in the crease95, dogged him, laid the body on when he had to. Up against the wall felt different from up against the boards, though, by a damn sight.
Fraser smiled back. "Just doing my job."
Ray rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but you had to be good at it."
The problem was, this wasn't the usual, not even close--not the locker room, not the showers, not lying in a strange hotel room, horny but tired, or bouncing off the walls, wired with post-game adrenaline. He didn't know how anything could happen here, quiet and calm, just knew that he kinda wanted it to. He took another drag off his cigarette, even though he doubted it would really help him at this point, and muttered, "Bet you're good at everything, huh?"
Fraser snorted, which made Ray smile again. "I'm good at hockey, Kowalski. I'm a professional. Everything else..." he shrugged, breaking the pose, and Ray could see he was dying in that damn expensive suit. Ray knew for sure he was dying in his. Funerals and divorce proceedings, that was all he wore this thing for.
So the hell with it. He shrugged out of his suit coat, tossed it across a handy shrub, and yanked his tie down until he could breathe. Fraser's smile broadened and he did the same, leaning past Ray to lay his coat on the same shrub. Their clothes were already all cozy together, and that seemed like a good sign. Ray noticed as Fraser stepped back past him that he was sweating like crazy. "Kinda hot, there, Fraser?"
Fraser's eyebrow twitched, his eyes glinted like hell yes he knew what Ray meant, but then it was just that smooth Lady-Byng-nominated3 smile, and he said, "Yes, I'm not acclimatized to the heat yet. I spent the summer at home in the Arctic." Ray nodded and unbuttoned the first couple buttons on his shirt, watching Fraser watch him and swallow hard before he said, "It's much cooler there. Very restful."
"Restful, huh," Ray muttered, shifting slightly closer, and Fraser still wasn't looking at him, not at his face, anyway. "I get that. Chicago's hot, but it's been a little too restful lately, y'know?"
Fraser looked up at that, and Ray smiled slowly, knowingly, into the eye contact. And then it was like the boy scout part of Fraser's brain caught up with what they were talking about, because he blushed so hard it had to hurt. But he didn't look away, and after the first flush started to fade, he said in a quiet gravelly voice that was almost a growl, "Understood, Kowalski."
Ray did look away then, and where a minute before wanting to mess around with Fraser had been just a nice idea, now all the blood in him was rushing south, and he wanted this. Bad. He kept his eyes on the ground, tapping ash from his cigarette with a steady, steady hand.
Fraser's feet crunched on the gravel as he stepped closer, and closer again so that Ray could feel his presence across the inch of air that separated them. He could feel Fraser's too-quick breath, cooling the sweat on his throat, and he tossed the cigarette down and raised his head.
Fraser was leaning in closer as he did, so that they were more than face to face, and then holy shit, Fraser was kissing him. Ray's mouth opened, automatically, to say something or catch his breath, and Fraser's tongue pushed inside--not shy about playing his position, was Fraser--and he had one hand on Ray's cheek, tilting his head just so, and his other hand was on Ray's chest, fingertips on bare skin where the buttons were undone, pushing him up against the door.
Ray was lightheaded by the time Fraser broke the kiss, and then he just gasped and let his head fall back against the steel of the door, and, okay, so maybe they did things a little different in Edmonton. He wasn't about to complain, because a) he was gasping like he'd just gone end-to-end on a breakaway and gotten drilled into the boards for his trouble, so it wasn't like he was going to be able to talk anytime soon, and 2) Fraser's hand was in his pants, and he didn't know when that had happened but he definitely wasn't going to be able to talk anytime soon. The only words he could think to string together were, "Hey, nice stick handling," and that had been unbearably lame back in juniors.
So Ray just gasped as Fraser stroked him, his hips jerking and his eyes on Fraser's face. Fraser was biting his lip, and if they kissed again, Ray might taste blood, which was enough to make him lean forward from the door. He raised his hand to the back of Fraser's head and pulled him in closer until their mouths met, and it was Fraser's teeth on Ray's lip, just for a second. No blood, as it turned out, but Fraser tasted good anyway, kissed like he played, clean and hard. His grip changed as their tongues tangled, firmer and faster, and Ray made a little noise into his mouth that made Fraser's hand move faster yet, just how Ray liked it.
Ray figured out Fraser's mouth wasn't going anywhere, so he let go of his neck and reached down. His raw knuckles hit Fraser's shirt--fuck, that was going to stain--and he jerked away, breaking the kiss, gasping curses and shaking off the sting. Fraser looked concerned, and reached with his left hand, the one that had been holding Ray to the door, to catch his hand. Ray shook his head and pulled it away--broken skin, bad news--and raised it in a loose fist, bit down on one curled finger to remind him to keep his mouth shut and his bad hand still.
While Fraser was distracted, looking at his mouth, his teeth against skin, Ray popped the button on Fraser's pants, left-handed. He was a little clumsy, but he'd had plenty of practice at this, and it came back to him pretty quick. Fraser's dick in his hand was something new but not unfamiliar, the weight and the sweat-damp heat of it, the way it fit his palm almost but not quite like all the others before. A thumb across the head, spreading the slick he was leaking, made Fraser gasp and close his eyes, and Ray grinned in triumph, jerking his hips at the same time to remind Fraser that there were two of them here. He leaned in on Ray, and Ray bit down hard on his finger--going to be bleeding all over the place if he wasn't careful--and turned his face away, but Fraser just pressed his face into Ray's neck. He breathed with his nose against Ray's throat like he was smelling him, which wasn't weirder than anything else the guy had done so far, and his hand was moving again so Ray really didn't care what his nose was up to.
After a minute Fraser fumbled their hands around, shoving his hips against Ray's so that they were lined up, hard and slick, and Ray dropped his right hand from his mouth to gasp again at how good that felt. Their two hands moved together, fingers tangled, their wrists pressed together at a not-quite-painful angle. Fraser was kissing the side of his neck, wet and hot, and Ray licked his lips and swallowed and hoped he didn't have blood in his mouth, hoped now that it was probably way too late that he was as clean as he thought he was, and then turned his head as Fraser got up to his jaw. Fraser moved fast, straight to his mouth for another mind-boggling kiss.
Ray could hear all the blood that wasn't throbbing in his dick or tingling in his lips rushing in his ears. He couldn't breathe, didn't wanna breathe because Fraser's mouth felt better than anything except maybe Fraser's dick and Fraser's hand, and then Fraser broke away with a gasp. Ray opened his eyes to see Fraser looking blissed out and startled as he came, head tipped back and eyes wide. It took a second before Ray felt the hot-wet splatters on his belly soaking through his shirt, and then he clenched his bad hand at his side and shut his eyes again. Fraser's grip had loosened, and Ray wrapped his own hand around Fraser's fingers, thrust into the sticky wet heat of their hands and let go.
He kept his eyes shut for a couple of minutes, leaning heavily against the door while he caught his breath. He could feel the dopey smile on his face, feel Fraser letting go and stepping away, but nothing was really getting through. He felt good. This was what he missed the most about playing, on the ice and off, this endorphin rush, this together thing. He wondered if this made him some kind of honorary Hawk again, and whether Fraser would laugh if he asked.
Ray cracked his eyes open to see Fraser standing in front of him, zipping up, looking like--well, like he'd just jerked off, if you ignored the way his lips were all red and puffy. Ray licked his own lips, still grinning widely, still panting for breath in the heavy air, and Fraser glanced at him and grinned.
"You look like a wolf when you do that," Fraser said, which was a weird thing to say, but definitely something good from the look in his eyes.
Ray snorted. "You know a lot of wolves, Fraser?"
And just like that, Fraser's smile froze and died. He said, "Just one, years ago," as he turned away.
Fuck. Ray straightened up, glancing down at his hands--one bloody, one sticky--and his shirt which, surprise, looked like it had just been jerked off on. This was the part he definitely didn't miss, the awkward moments after the rush faded and you had to figure out how to keep going. Not so bad if you knew the guy, but on a new team it could be hell.
Fraser held out a handkerchief to him, and Ray took it and started wiping off his hand, looking up to see how Fraser was doing. He was tightening up his tie, brushing at his shirt--way, way cleaner than Ray's, which was a neat trick--and looking all kinds of nervous, which was funny in a miserable way. It was all over, now, after all. Not much left to be nervous about, not even awkward moments in the locker room in their case. "Hey," Ray said, when he'd gotten himself tucked in and his pants done up and the worst of the clean-up done on his shirt. "We're cool, right?"
Fraser nodded once, watching Ray uncertainly, and Ray pushed on. In case of conflict, go by house rules, and Ray figured they must be on his turf here, because Fraser sure wasn't acting like a guy on home ice. "Okay. So no need to feel weird, or not talk about this or whatever, because nothing happened. So we're good."
Fraser opened his mouth like he was going to try to talk about it, but Ray saw him get the picture, and he shut his mouth again as he picked up his coat. "Understood, Kowalski," he said, and this time his voice was cool, Arctic cool, and Ray smiled with something like pride. Fraser caught on quick. He'd be all right.
"Cool. Okay." He looked at the damp disgusting mess of Fraser's handkerchief, and pulled the airsick bag out of his pocket and stuffed it inside. He pulled his own suit coat back on, buttoned it up, and looked down at himself. He wasn't going to fool anybody for long, but he could get back to his car without causing a scene. Fraser, on the other hand, ran one hand over his hair, straightened his jacket, scraped his teeth over his lip, and was back to looking just about as presentable as he had back in the hallway. "So you just came after me to find out what the hell was the matter with me, and we talked and then I took off because I just couldn't deal," Ray said, reaching for the door. It wasn't that he couldn't deal, really. It was just that he had to go get cleaned up. "I'll see you tomorrow at the funeral, hey?"
Fraser was looking at the wall a few inches to one side of his face, and Ray wondered for a second exactly how differently they did things in Edmonton, and then he remembered that nothing at all interesting had happened out here, and killed that thought. "Yes," Fraser said, when Ray had stood there staring at him long enough to make it obvious he was waiting for an answer. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Ray nodded once, and took off.
Ben stared out the window as the city rolled by at a painfully slow pace. He tugged nervously at the cuffs of his shirt, trying to ignore the sense of deja vu that washed over him like vertigo. He was wearing, from the skin out, exactly the same clothes as he had the day before; when he'd gotten to his hotel after the viewing, he had stripped it all off and turned it over to the hotel laundry. They'd returned it to him within a few hours, smelling chemical-clean and spotless but for the tiny yellowish remnant of a bloodstain on his shirt; such service was one of the little luxuries of being who he was.
He couldn't bear to look away from the window, though their plodding pace gave him altogether too much time to watch the city going about life as normal on a muggy weekday afternoon, while he was shut away behind glass in the silent confines of this limousine. The car was cool and spacious, another little luxury. Though six of them shared the passenger compartment, he had room to stretch his legs, to sit easily without drawing his shoulders in or being careful of where he laid his arms. It was also utterly, somberly, silent.
To the others he rode with, Louis had been a friend and longtime teammate, while Ben had barely known the man and, in the truth he could only speak to himself with his eyes safely averted from his teammates, hadn't even liked him much. Ben had been keeping his eyes averted all day.
All the same, the moment he'd entered the viewing and seen Louis lying still--his widow, Annemarie, one of the many wives-of-teammates Ben had met once or twice and never remembered, bracketed now by family and friends--the children, sitting silent and pale in the first row of chairs... Unspeakable truth had seemed irrelevant, and his worry at seeing Chris had vanished into nothingness and silence.
The limousine shut out all sound, and none of them spoke. All the long ride from the funeral parlor to the church, they sat wordless. If it had been his own team--his former team--he'd have drawn comfort from their simple presence, but among these near-strangers, Ben felt almost claustrophobic.
It only grew worse when the car pulled up at the church and he finally was able to open the door and step out. For a moment, until his ears caught the impossibly distant and muffled sound of traffic, Ben thought he'd gone deaf. The heavy humid air pressed down like a damp blanket, the low clouds threatening a storm that would be a relief if only it would materialize. Crowds of fans bearing flowers and signs, many of them clad in bright jerseys bearing Louis's name and number, stood to either side of the path from the curb to the doors, which had been cordoned off and was manned by uniformed police officers. They were eerily silent, and Ben's sense of claustrophobia only intensified. He'd grown up with the silence of open spaces, the stillness that came with being the only person for miles, surrounded by an endless muffling field of snow and ice. To be in the middle of the city, in the middle of a crowd, and yet hear nothing, was almost frightening. Despite the heat, he shivered as he stood on the sidewalk, waiting for the others to emerge from the car.
He glanced through the crowd, his eye catching on the pictures of Louis, cradled and clutched in a hundred hands, the news cameras, the reporters holding their microphones in dangling grips, and then he spotted Kowalski.
Ben wished he had gone deaf, then, so that he could blame some failing of his own for the fact that he couldn't hear that distinctive voice raising hell with the police officer who stood between Kowalski and the clear path up to the church. With a quick glance toward the others, all of whom were walking toward the doors now, oblivious to Kowalski's plight, Ben turned toward the spot where Kowalski stood staring in mute despair toward the church.
Ben found he could barely speak above a whisper, unable to break the stillness. "Excuse me, officer. Mr. Kowalski is a former teammate."
The officer looked startled, but said nothing as he stepped back. Kowalski shot Ben a short smile, half grateful, half embarrassed, as he shouldered past the cop and the crush of fans standing around him--indifferently, seeming to have no idea who he was--past the orange-striped sawhorse and onto the sidewalk. Fraser automatically extended a hand, intending to guide him onto the pavement with a touch on his shoulder, his back, wherever his hand might fall. Before he made contact, though, the memory of the day before, reaching out with an entirely different intent, struck him, and with it, the memory of Kowalski's satisfied smile, his cheerful, casual lie, and his hasty departure. Suddenly uncertain--some small part of him snarlingly acknowledged that he was feeling weird in direct contravention of Kowalski's instruction--he drew back, clasping his hands behind his back as he and Kowalski fell into step.
Ben stole a single sideways glance at Kowalski--he seemed to have availed himself of a quick laundering as well, dressed as he was in a familiar-looking suit--and then turned his gaze to the church doors. They walked together up the steps and inside, where it was a little cooler, and where the hush of the day felt a little more natural. Chris was standing with Louis's widow and children, as befitted the team's captain, and Welsh was on the other side, Louis's coach standing in for his parents, who were just then slipping into the vestry with tears on their faces. A knot of other players stood around Annemarie, speaking softly before going to their seats. Ben hung back, feeling uncertain and awkward in the face of the naked grief on the widow's face, the silent shock of the children, but Kowalski stepped past him without hesitation.
As Ben watched, he went to Annemarie and hugged her tightly. "Annie, I'm sorry," he muttered as he pulled back, and Ben realized it was the first time he'd heard Kowalski speak that day. "I meant to, uh. To be there, yesterday, I just."
Ben could barely see Annemarie over Kowalski's angular shoulder, just her eyes crinkling in what might have been a sort of smile. "I understand. Your--Stella called," and Ben knew a split second of fear that yesterday might be easily explained if the man were married, before vividly recalling the absence of a ring on Ray's left hand. The little shock that seemed to travel through Kowalski only confirmed it; if he were married, Annemarie wouldn't have to tell him his wife had called. A divorce, then, recent enough for Annemarie to misspeak, and maybe that was its own sort of explanation. "She said she couldn't make it today."
Kowalski nodded, shoulders slumping slightly with relief or disappointment. He hugged Annemarie again briefly, and then crouched to hug each of the children. "Katie," he muttered, "Ry." But he seemed to be able to think of nothing more to say to the children, and they only hugged him back and then went on standing quietly at their mother's side; the boy, perhaps seven years old, hastily rubbed tears from his already-red eyes. Kowalski straightened up and shook hands with Welsh, muttering, "Hey, Coach, long time."
Welsh wrapped both his hands around Kowalski's--gingerly, in deference to the bandage that graced his knuckles--and murmured, "Wish it were a better day for it, Kowalski."
Kowalski ducked his head and nodded, then moved to shake hands with Chris, muttering, "Hey, Cheli," and getting a quiet, "Ray," in response, and then moved on through the others, nodding to those he knew--"Probie--Eddie--Hack,"--and receiving equally stoic nods in return. He extended his hand without a word to Ren, who'd been dabbing at his eyes since recovering from his most recent paroxysm of weeping, and Ren shook it firmly, looking grateful that he wasn't called upon to speak in response.
Kowalski then proceeded into the church proper without a backward glance, taking a seat only a few rows from the back. It was only when Welsh said, "Fraser, you're here, good," and reached to shake his hand that Ben realized he'd simply been standing there watching the man, oblivious to all else. He quickly shook his coach's hand, and edged toward Ren, following the others as they started up the church's long aisle to take their seats in the reserved section at the front. Ren pulled out the handkerchief again before they were halfway there, and Ben thought with some relief that no matter how weird he was feeling since his encounter with Kowalski the day before, no one would notice so long as he continued to compare favorably to his younger linemate. He glanced hastily toward the vaulted ceiling of the church, but his uncharitable thought went unpunished by lightning bolts, and then they were sliding into their seats, jammed together this morning on a different sort of bench.
When the others knelt, Ben followed suit. He folded his hands and bowed his head, and wondered what he'd pray for now, if he were a man who prayed.
Ray cruised through most of the mass on a lifetime's experience of Sunday-morning stupors. The light was familiarly yellowed by the shaded lamps and the stained-glass windows, the pew he sat in worn smooth by generations of restlessly shifting seats, vaguely uncomfortable the way they always were in every church he'd ever attended. His folded hands rested on the back of the next pew at the same angle they always had since he'd finished growing, and the old waxed wood gleamed dully and smelled like it had recently been attacked by a brigade of old ladies armed with worn-out pillowcases and Murphy's Oil Soap. He mumbled along with all the rote responses, half-hummed along with all the songs he'd never known the words to no matter how often he heard them, and it was more or less like any mass he'd ever sat through, as long as he didn't look at the draped casket in the front of the church. He'd left his contacts out and his glasses in the car, so it wasn't hard to keep from seeing.
When they got to the sermon, and the priest started talking about Gardie in the past tense, Ray did pretty much the same thing he'd always done during sermons, fidgeting with the bandage on his knuckles and staring out the window. The nearest one was propped open as a concession to the heat, not that it helped, and he could see some shrubbery through the narrow opening, and a slice of overcast sky, which seemed to be darkening.
Coach's voice yanked him back to reality, though--he'd spent too many nights listening for that voice to call his name, poised to hit the ice at a word--and there was no distraction in the world that would have let him keep from hearing the eulogy. Ray closed his eyes and pretended he was getting stitches somewhere that really hurt--eyebrow, maybe, or a finger--and breathed in and out and listened to his own heartbeat. Everything else went a little numb, the way it had to.
It was easier at the cemetery; Ray stayed toward the back of the small crowd at the graveside, sweating and listening to the high whine of insects and the distant roar of a mower. The priest droned on for a while, and there was an even-more-pathetic-than-usual attempt at singing. Ray was starting to think he was going to make it through this thing when the people in front of him shifted and he caught a glimpse of Ryan standing on the opposite side of the open grave. The kid was tall for six but still tiny next to his mom, with dull reddened eyes and his dad's curly hair, pale in his little dark suit, and the whole thing finally hit Ray like a hard blow to the gut. He had to turn away, gritting his teeth and breathing hard through his nose and trying not to think about the fact that Gardie was in a box, about to get buried under the ground. It had been a long time since he'd attended a funeral. There were grandparents and great-aunts and assorted old people from the neighborhood, when he was young, before he left for juniors, and then Stella's cousin a few years back, but he'd never known her, really. It hadn't been like this.
When he dared to open his eyes again, Ray spotted a woman standing a little way away, in the shadow of one of the big shady trees that dotted the field. She was all in black--black heels, sheer black stockings, black dress that covered her knees and elbows but showed more cleavage than Ray remembered ever seeing at a funeral. Her hair was covered with a dark scarf, and she was wearing huge dark glasses, clutching a little black bag with black-gloved hands. She looked pretty, almost elegant, vaguely familiar, and then Ray spotted the corner of a steno pad sticking out of her handbag, the tip of a pen peeping out of her scarf from where it was tucked behind her ear.
She was fucking press.
He looked around for the cops who were supposed to be keeping unwanted guests away from the service, but oddly enough neither of them seemed to have noticed her standing there. In fact, it kinda looked like they were being really careful not to notice her standing there. Ray gritted his teeth harder, clenched his fists until a warning twinge shot through his right hand, and then he forced them open and took a deep breath. He couldn't just storm over there and yell at her and make a scene, or he'd be the one that had to be thrown out.
Ray crossed his arms over his chest, pinning his own hands flat under his elbows, and started fading back from the other mourners. He'd put about ten feet between himself and the rest of the crowd when the reporter woman appeared at his side, bold as you please; Ray had to shut his eyes and focus on breathing to force the anger down from his mouth, his hands, to somewhere in his belly where he could use it. Finally, when he could, he feinted toward her a little with his near elbow (not a touch, because you do not touch reporters, and you especially do not touch girl reporters) and muttered, "You are not supposed to be here, miss."
He was staring off to his right, about forty-five degrees from where she stood, out at gently rolling hills of tombstones, but he saw her red lips crinkle, shifting between a smile and a frown. Finally, her voice just hinting at a quiver, she said, "I'm not actually here in my professional capacity. Just like you, huh, Ray-Kay?"
Ray-Kay, Jesus. He tried not to look surprised, by the nickname or just the fact that she knew who he was, but her lips twisted into a bit of a smirk.
"Oh, come on, Kowalski, I'm a Chicago sports reporter, and hockey's my beat. They'd fire me if I couldn't pick you out of a lineup." Her voice sounded amused in a desperate way, like she'd rather laugh than cry.
He turned his head then, so he could actually look at her, and spotted the tears on her face. Her makeup was kind of smudged, but she didn't have any mascara tracks, and the wet trails had taken longer to form than the couple of minutes since he'd spotted her. No alligator tears, then. He remembered the way Jean-Paul had joked with him across a tape recorder for three seasons in Quebec, and decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. For now.
"Sorry," he muttered, shifting his gaze down to his feet as another tear appeared on her cheek. "You're still not supposed to be here, though."
"Yeah," she muttered back, sounding rueful, "Well, I didn't get to be a sports reporter without doing a few things I wasn't supposed to." She held out one tiny gloved hand to him. "Ms. Francesca Vecchio, pleased to meet you."
He shook gingerly, and her black silk thumb touched the gauze on his hand, but she didn't ask. Not much of a story in it now that he'd hung up his skates, he realized, taking his hand back and picking idly at the tape. He glanced toward the service again. When he strained he could hear the priest's voice. He was talking about ashes and dust, and Ray quickly tuned back out.
Beside him, Ms. Vecchio said quietly, "He was best man at your wedding."
Ray smiled tightly, fighting down the memory. He'd slept the night before in a hotel room like all the other hotel rooms of those years, and Gardie had woken him with a bucket of ice water, laughing. Even as he staggered to the can, dripping and shivering, Ray had been consoling himself with the fact that in three weeks he'd have his revenge. "Yeah," he said finally, quietly, "And I was his." Stealing a sideways glance at her, he added, "And do not try to tell me you reported on that, because you were ten years old."
He couldn't tell for certain from this side of those shades, but he got the impression she was rolling her eyes. "I was fifteen, actually, but I'm flattered. And hockey reporters start out as hockey fans, so I was following your career already, although not--"
"--In a professional cavity, yeah, you said."
Her forehead wrinkled, and Ray ran that back in his head and bit down hard on the inside of his lip when he caught it. Christ, he hated talking to press. He should have just left her alone, she hadn't been causing any trouble.
Before she could say anything people started moving, forming into a rough line to file past the casket and then heading for their cars, brushing the dirt from their hands. Gardie's sisters and their husbands and his parents went first, and then the team. Ray watched them walking away, telling himself it was all nearly over, until he heard a wail from near the grave. Bully, he realized, as he spotted the lanky defenseman stumbling to his knees, grinding his handful of dirt into mud against his wet cheeks. When he looked down at Ms. Vecchio, she was straining to see, and he stepped quickly in front of her. He was tall enough to block her view and automatically protective, because honorary Blackhawk or not, former teammate or not, these guys were family.
Stealing his own glance back, he spotted Fraser bending down to take his linemate by the arm and pull him up, offering him a folded handkerchief. There was no way the sight of a piece of clean white cloth in Fraser's hand should have made his dick twitch, under the circumstances, and he turned his back on the scene quickly to focus on getting rid of Ms. Vecchio. Nothing had ever happened that involved Fraser and a handkerchief, so Ray couldn't possibly be remembering it right then.
Ms. Vecchio looked up at him, and he thought she was pissed behind those glasses--her olive cheeks were flushed a bright pink that clashed with her makeup--but he stood his ground. If he didn't know how to do anything else, he knew how to get between an opponent and their goal. "No gawking, now, Ms. Vecchio. It's just Bully, you know how he gets, that's no news. One too many blows to the head."
She was trying to edge around him, trying to see past his shoulder, but he moved easily with her, not letting her maneuver him out of position. "Actually," she snapped, trying to deke him out, "I'd pay you a year's salary if you could find video evidence that he'd ever suffered even one concussion."
"Your salary or mine? And of course he's had concussions." She couldn't be implying something about the guy, and if she was trying to Ray wasn't going to let her. "Got his brain rattled in juniors or something, everybody knows that, doesn't matter. Hell of a player."
"Given your current salary? Let's say mine. You ever find the tape, you just let me know."
Ray stopped and planted his feet, the better to glare at her, and when he glanced back, Annemarie and the kids, the whole team--nearly everybody but the priest and some funeral home people--was gone. There was Gardie's coffin, dirt piled unevenly all over it, a last few people still filing past, and Ray forgot all about reporters and concussions as his feet started carrying him forward.
They'd been drafted the same year by the Hawks, and got sent out to the farm team in Moncton fucking New Brunswick4 together. He'd switched from centering his own line to play left wing on Gardie's, and they'd gone all the way to the finals together. They'd shared the same dismal room for two solid seasons, lying in the dark, talking about how much they missed Annemarie and Stella, and now...
Always dark, for Gardie, now, but with no one to talk to. Ray sunk his hand to the wrist in the soft dirt, picking up his handful and pressing it to a bare spot, squishing his hand flat to the glossy wood like he could reach through it, say something and be heard. Touch, one last time, after so long.
But the coffin was hard and cold, smooth as fresh ice under his fingers, and Ray let go and backed away. There was nothing he wanted to touch there. He tried to brush off his hands, and noticed that the bandage was all earth-stained and the tape was starting to peel. He'd have to go home and fix it, and scrub the black from under his nails while he was at it.
Fuck the luncheon anyway. He'd rather wake Gardie in private.
Ben woke up feeling awful. His head was pounding, the light through the uncovered windows was blinding--Christ, he'd forgotten to latch the shutters--and his tongue felt like he'd been sucking on cotton so long it had begun to decompose in his mouth. He didn't remember drinking anything, but, looking around the wreckage of the cabin he'd inherited from his father, he did remember an awful dream... anxiety, probably. It had been something about having to rush down to Chicago, talking to Chris. And there had been something else, something that didn't usually feature in his anxiety dreams...
Ben dragged one arm over his face as it all came crashing back, including the jet-lagged misery of the string of variously weather-delayed and turbulent flights that had brought him home to Inuvik from Chicago over the course of twenty-four wretched hours. When he finally made it out to the cabin, he'd stumbled inside and fallen straight into bed.
He was tempted to roll over and go back to sleep, but before he left Chicago--at the earliest decent opportunity, once all the funeral formalities were concluded--Chris had gotten him alone for a moment. Ben had braced for sharp words in Chris's usual rough manner, but his captain had merely sighed, and asked him whether he'd be back soon. He'd been so disconcerted that he'd assured Chris he'd be back within the week, which left him only a few days to pack up and secure the cabin for winter. Between his delayed flights and however long he'd just spent passed out, he didn't have any time to waste lazing about now.
After reminding himself of that fact several times, and pointing out to himself that he'd played through far worse pain than he was currently using as an excuse to stay in bed, Ben finally pushed up into a sitting position. From there his body took over, and he was soon standing at the refrigerator, gulping water straight from the pitcher. When his stomach began to protest the amount he'd drunk, Ben poured the rest over his head, and stood dripping a moment before he set down the pitcher and went in search of a towel.
He changed into clean, dry clothes, thought about shaving and decided not to bother, and then came to a standstill in the middle of the cabin. Packing wouldn't take too long--left to his own devices, Ben didn't accumulate many possessions, and his father had been even less materially-minded. The moveable contents of the cabin would fit into a trunk and a few crates, and could be tucked into the jeep for the ride back into town and the airstrip. He'd meant to stay here till the last possible second before training camp started in September, though, and had a number of projects planned: mostly added weatherproofing for the cabin, to keep it secure through the winter, as he wouldn't be able to get away to visit. He'd wanted to make a batch of pemmican to take back with him, as well, and to play a few more pick-up games with the kids down at the rink in town, and...
He was staring at the stove, mentally shuffling his priorities against the time remaining, when he saw a familiar motion at knee-height in the corner of the room. He turned automatically toward it, mouth opening to speak once he made sure he was facing--but it had been some illusion, and when he turned and looked straight on, the corner was empty. His lips shaped a name he'd hardly spoken in years, but he was still alone. Of course.
He stood still until he couldn't deny to himself that he was shaking, and went to the cupboard, his hands reaching for chair-backs and the table and counter as he made his unsteady way. The only food he found was a box of crackers, doubtless stale, and some jerky, but Ben took it and went to sit at the kitchen table. He kept his eyes on its surface and ate mechanically, telling himself that whatever he thought he'd seen, the shaking that still unsettled his stomach, all of it was brought on by low blood sugar. He was still telling himself that when the click of toenails and a light nudge against his knee caused him to drop the last half of his piece of jerky under the table, and then he stopped cold.
When he bent over, the jerky was still there, of course. There was no one but him here, and no one was sitting under the table waiting for dropped food. He picked it up, but couldn't bear the thought of eating it. After a moment Ben realized that he was just sitting there, staring at a half-eaten piece of jerky, and he went to the door and threw it as hard as he could out into the grass.
Ben leaned against the doorframe for a moment, listening to the silence. A week ago, he'd been enjoying it, but now he was straining for sound--impossible sounds, any sounds. No matter how long he waited, he heard nothing but his own uneven breathing.
Ben headed back inside, and knelt before his father's trunk, opening it up and lifting out the top tray, digging inside till he found the carefully wrapped bottle of whisky. It was nearly full. He and his father had toasted with it the first time Ben saw him after being drafted by the Oilers, and his father had said once he'd never found another occasion fit for drinking the stuff. Ben sent up a heartfelt apology for the disrespect he was about to commit and pulled the bottle out, holding it to his heart as he went to the phone. He meant to pick it up and then sit at the table again, but found himsels sinking to the floor right there instead.
He pressed redial and listened to the beeping, and then a single ring.
Ben looked at the light outside, and realized the arithmetic required to work out the approximate time from the angle of the arctic sunshine and the date was well beyond him, let alone remembering the day of the week. "Mark? Did I wake you?"
"Hey, Bent." Mark made an unperturbed waking-up noise. It sounded like he was still in bed; Ben could faintly hear the slide of his body against the sheets as he stretched. "What is it?"
Ben closed his eyes and swallowed hard, and, with Mark's sleepy voice in his ear, began to feel the ridiculousness of his behavior. Nonetheless, he couldn't seem to loosen his white-knuckle grip on the phone. He thought about saying I think I'm going crazy, but when Ben opened his mouth it was to say, "I miss Dief."
For a couple of beats all was silence again; down the wires, thousands of miles away in Winnipeg, Mark didn't even seem to be breathing, and Ben knew he wasn't himself. Then, in his ear, a heartfelt and wide-awake, "Shit. You're up home?"
Ben let his head fall back against the wall, closed his eyes, and said, quietly, "Yeah."
"You gonna have a drink?"
Ben's hand on the bottle was damp with sweat, and he let go and wiped it on his pants. "I was thinking about it, yes."
Mark blew out a noisy breath. "Well, do it. Drink for poor Gardie, for the wolf, your dad, the queen, but just get your ass trashed, okay?"
Ben braced the bottle between his knees and pulled the stopper free. The shrook noise and the smell hit him with all the weight of memories nearly sixteen years gone. He could see his father pouring the fine liquor into hotel water glasses, and his throat tightened up almost unbearably. Ben raised the bottle in a silent formless toast, and then put it to his lips and knocked it back, swallowing fast. He lost a trickle of liquid out of the corner of his mouth, and when he set the bottle down, he wiped his chin with one hand and licked his palm clean. Waste not, want not.
"Okay," Mark said in his ear, "that sounded like a good start." Ben heard Mark moving again, the slide of skin on sheets, covers moving around. He was getting comfortable, settling in for the long haul. "Okay. So, you just do your thing, and I'll be right here."
Nothing scared him more than the gentleness in Mark's voice; he'd never, ever been the gentle sort, even when Ben might have wished he would. Still, Mark had known how to handle things every other time he'd needed him to, so Ben swallowed his fear and took another long drink. He could feel the warmth of it now, glowing in his stomach, weighing down his limbs, easing the tightness in his chest. After another irreverent gulp, he didn't even mind the sound of a furry weight settling on the floor by the stove. There was nothing there when he lazily parted his eyelids and peered in that direction, as he knew there wouldn't and couldn't be. "Mark," he said, easily, "I think I'm going crazy."
Mark's snort of laughter brought a smile to Ben's face. "Going, Northie?"
"Who you calling Northie, Smithbauer?" It was an old argument, worn as smooth as the whisky sliding down his throat.
"Hey, I was born in an actual hospital, in Yellowknife, unlike some frigging hick Eskimo wannabes I could name."
Ben took another drink--the heavier his arms felt, the lighter the bottle got, which seemed a fair tradeoff--and listened to Mark moving around in the bed again. He wondered what Mark was doing on his end, to keep himself awake, and then realized that was a stupid question, and his mind's eye flashed on the slide and grip of Mark's hand, and then Kowalski's hand on him. Once he started remembering, he couldn't stop: Kowalski's even white teeth digging into one bony knuckle, Kowalski with his wolfish grin, Kowalski silent and subdued, Kowalski, walking away and away and away. He hadn't even shown up at that goddamn awful luncheon, and Ben had been watching for him, like a lovesick boy.
God, he was definitely going crazy; he'd been making do for far too long if the first friendly hand he met turned him into a stalker. He snickered, and realized he'd already drunk more than he had in years when he heard himself say, "Fucking Kowalski."
Not quite silence on Mark's end, and after a moment, Ben realized he was muffling his laughter in a pillow, and began to laugh along with him. Mark finally said, "Ray Kowalski? What've you been up to with Kowie, Bent? 'Cause I'll grant you he's enough to drive anybody crazy."
"No, it was nothing," Ben said, distantly aware that he was giggling. He paused only to take another sip of the whisky to wet his throat, reminding himself that he'd promised Kowalski. Nothing had happened. "Nothing. He has nice hands, though."
"Not as nice as yours."
Ben carefully reached up and set the bottle on the counter above him, bracing the phone between his shoulder and ear. The leer in Mark's voice was plain; he never had been much for beating around the bush. "What are you doing, Mark?"
A snicker, and Ben knew Mark knew he knew the score. Ben shifted a little where he was sitting, letting his knees sag apart, the bones of his ankles touching the wood floor. He wiggled his toes as Mark said, "I was thinking about jerking off, actually. You?"
"Yeah," Ben agreed, running the palms of his hands up and down his thighs, relishing the friction heat. "That sounds good."
Mark's breath hitched in the middle of his chuckle, and Ben knew he had himself in hand already. Slow, for now, a light touch. Unhurried. "Now, see," Mark said, voice gone low and rough, "here I am in bed, not a stitch on, and I bet you're sitting on the damn floor up there with all your buttons buttoned, aren't you?"
Ben moved a bit, getting more comfortable, and less. He was hard in his jeans, his cock throbbing against the constriction. "Yeah," he said, running one hand over his erection, feeling himself hot through the layers of fabric, pressing hard and noticing again, as if he'd never noticed before, how the ache of it didn't lessen the pleasure. "Good kind of hurt," he muttered, pressing hard with the heel of his hand, stroking lightly with his fingertips.
Mark's unsteady breath caught, held a moment, then escaped in a shaky sigh. "You--you always liked that, huh, Bent? You and your good hurt."
Ben pressed harder, rocking his hips. His eyes fluttered shut, opened, closed again. He could hear his own breath, loud and fast, but he knew Mark was waiting for an answer, and managed a "Yes," through gritted teeth. There was a wet spot on his jeans, now, and he circled it with his thumb, his breath catching in his throat, emerging as a broken whine.
Another breathless laugh from Mark. "Jesus--Quit playing, Bent. Just--unzip--before you kill yourself."
Ben nodded, and the beeps of the random buttons he'd hit cut across Mark's quick, harsh breathing. His hands were shaking, and he had to try twice to get the button, but internal pressure pushed the zipper down almost without his help. Getting his pants down seemed beyond his capabilities, so Ben popped the button on his boxers and pulled himself free that way.
The release of pressure nearly finished him, and his hips arched up as he finally closed his fingers around his cock. He stroked himself roughly, once and twice and then he was just holding on, spurting hot on his own fingers.
Ben sagged sideways to the floor, and pulled the phone out from under himself with his left hand as he raised his right to his mouth. With Mark's distant post-coital gasping in his left ear--sounded like he'd dropped the phone, too--Ben licked idly across his palm, and then slipped two fingers into his mouth. The familiar salt taste of himself was gone by the time he heard Mark fumbling the phone to his ear again. When Mark said, "Bent? You good?" he finally remembered to stop sucking, and pulled his fingers free with a last regretful lick.
"Yeah," Ben mumbled against his hand and the phone, "I'm good."
"Yeah, you sound good," Mark rumbled, sounding barely more awake than Ben felt. "Now get your clothes off and go back to bed."
"Will do," Ben agreed, getting comfortable.
Maybe it was the sharp tone of Mark's voice, the one that always preceded him doing something for Ben's own good whether he liked it or not. Maybe it was the teeth that closed gently around his wrist and tugged. Either way, Ben rolled up to his knees and shoved his jeans and boxers off as he got unsteadily to his feet. The room wavered around him, and he reminded himself to be careful not to trip on Dief, and then Ben clicked the off button on the phone and dropped it on top of his pants. By some good fortune, when he pushed off from the wall toward the bed, he remained more or less upright until he hit it, and fell down on the covers again, already asleep.
On the third night after Gardie's funeral, Ray knew he had to get the hell out of his apartment. There was only so much solitary drinking he could do, partly because unlike bars, he didn't have scheduled deliveries from malt beverage distributors and tended to run out of things. Also, the stuff that hadn't happened with Fraser a few days before had reminded him of how long it'd been since anything had happened with anybody. At some point he'd gotten more or less used to the idea that Stella really wasn't coming around anymore, but he'd never quite gotten around to going out looking for someone else. He was still playing a lot of hockey, even if it was just beer leagues, and it kept him off the streets at night.
No games on Thursdays, though, so he got dressed--clean jeans, loose enough to move in, a faded blue t-shirt, boots and leather jacket, fresh condom in his pocket and a backup in his wallet--and hit the sidewalk, leaving his apartment behind for anyplace brighter, louder, and better stocked.
He picked a bar he'd been to a few times before, and by the time he'd made his way through the crowd--decent, for a weeknight--to the bar, he was pretty sure he'd picked the right place. He wasn't the oldest person there, two or three chicks had already checked him out, the music made him want to dance more than it made him want to scream, and they had Canadian beer on tap. He grabbed a seat and started in on his drink, letting the beer loosen him up a little before he tried hitting the floor. He studied the women already dancing, trying his best not to feel like a scout in the stands at a minor league game. It was late enough that people were starting to get serious about finding somebody to go home with. A lot of the women were already paired off with guys, oblivious to everything else, and he didn't really feel up to the effort of prying anybody away from their date. His knuckles had only just healed, the thin new skin still all pink and tight. He didn't need even the off-chance of a bar fight, not with a game to play tomorrow.
Still, there were lots of pretty women on the floor who were clearly still looking around, two of them dancing together in what was either a really well-thought-out bid to get the attention of just about every guy in the place, or, well, or one of the hottest things Ray had seen in a while. They were hanging all over each other.
Neither of them individually really turned his crank, though, and he had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn't actually a lucky enough guy to get both of them to go anywhere with him, so he looked elsewhere. The slender blondes, the ones who knew how to move, always caught his eye, but tonight they reminded him too much of Stella; they were nice to watch, but the idea of taking one home put a bad taste in his mouth. He washed it down with beer, ordered another, and looked elsewhere again.
Ray was idly calculating his odds with the redhead in the corner, wondering whether her glances in his direction meant she was interested, or just a hockey fan--a fan, these days, would probably mean a truly disheartening pity fuck--when a dark head caught his eye.
It was a guy, his own height but broader through the shoulders, with neat hair, dark and sleek, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and battered hiking boots. He had his back turned to Ray, talking to someone with body language that said something more like "giving directions to the library" than "picking up a date for the evening." Ray squinted briefly at him, wishing he'd turn around.
He'd tried to call Fraser, in the early afternoon after each of his two nights of solo drinking, and gotten his answering machine each time. He'd left a message the first time, saying he knew Fraser was still sort of new in town and wondering if he wanted to hang out or something. The second time, he'd just hung up. It had been pretty obvious at the funeral that Fraser was freaked out--he'd flinched from even touching Ray's arm--and in Ray's experience the thing to do when guys freaked out, after nothing whatsoever happened, was to believe even harder than usual that nothing had happened, so they could just fake being okay until they really were. Fraser really was pretty new in town, though, what with spending his summer up north, and Ray suspected that even leaving aside stuff that hadn't actually happened, he'd really like the guy, just as a guy, and as much hockey as he played these days he was still pretty short on actual friends.
And now Fraser was either avoiding him personally, or had fled Chicago for the Arctic fucking Circle, or maybe something else that had nothing to do with Ray. Maybe he just spent all his time reading to orphans and forgot to check his messages at the end of the day. Maybe at the end of the day he came here.
Ray didn't stare at the guy--he wasn't sure he was Fraser, and in fact he was pretty sure he wasn't, because this dive didn't really seem like Fraser's scene--but the women on the floor quickly became nothing more than distractions to keep him from sliding his eyes sideways for another look at the dark-haired guy. Pretty soon he did feel like he had a clipboard in hand, ticking off the prospects' faults in his mind: they were all too much like Stella or just not his type. The faux lesbians retired back to a table with three other women, giggling over brightly-colored mixed drinks.
The dark-haired guy came up to the bar, and Ray happened to be looking in his direction as he turned, and met his eye. Not Fraser, of course. Ray nodded slightly to the guy, and looked away, studying the women, as he realized that tonight was going to be a total wash; he was just going to go home, jerk off, sleep into the afternoon, and probably call Fraser again, like an idiot. At least he had a game tomorrow night. It'd been a week since he'd played, because he'd blown off a couple of games to drink Gardie to Valhalla--or, better, the Hall of Fame--and he was getting antsy for some action.
By the time the guy who obviously wasn't Fraser got to the bar, Ray had finished his drink, and was fishing his wallet out of his back pocket. He pulled out a few bills, gave the condom a rueful look--Jesus, that had been a little overly optimistic, hadn't it?--and tossed the money on the bar. The guy was almost but not quite in his personal space, and Ray gave him another quick polite nod as he sidled past him and headed out. Halfway to the door, he passed the table full of chicks, and breathed in their clashing perfumes and the smell of their drinks and, Jesus, one of them had puked at some point or something, because that sour smell underlaid all the sticky-sweetness. His stomach turned, and he changed direction and headed to the mens' room.
The place was empty, and Ray went to the sink to splash some water on his face, breathing shallowly through his mouth. He was just straightening up when the door opened, and the dark-haired guy walked in, and once again their eyes met. Ray looked away quickly--basic mens' room etiquette--but the guy said, "Hey, you okay?" His voice wasn't anything like Fraser's, all rough Chicago, startling even though Ray knew, obviously, that the guy wasn't Fraser. There was no reason to expect him to be Canadian, either, although Ray felt like he'd spent most of his adult life talking to Canadians.
Ray was so thrown, by the voice and by the fact that the guy was talking in the fucking mens' room, that he didn't immediately respond, just stood there looking down at his hands. Finally he said, "Yeah," and stepped to one side, so the guy could get past him without coming within two feet, but he didn't move away from the door, and finally Ray looked up at him, because what the fuck was this guy's problem?
He was smiling a little, in a way that made Ray's stomach twist again. "You wanna go someplace quieter?"
Ray blinked, and then shook his head quickly. "You got the wrong guy, buddy."
But the guy still didn't move, and he was still between Ray and the door, and finally Ray took a step toward him, dropping his shoulder, clenching his teeth, ready to just push past and get the hell out of here and get this night over with. Just when Ray was undeniably in his personal space, the guy arched one eyebrow and said, "You were checking me out, buddy. I couldn't help noticing." Ray had just enough time to register the alcohol stink on his breath, and then one of his hands was on Ray's chest and the other was on his jeans, making the condom in his pocket crinkle, sliding toward his fly, and Ray shoved him, hard, back against the door.
He hit with a satisfying thud, his eyes going wide, and yelled, "What the hell is your problem?"
Ray had stumbled back a step from the shove, but got his feet planted, and bounced on the balls of his feet, ready and steady. His fist was clenched tight, cocked back, his blood was pounding in his ears, and he was going to fucking murder this guy if he didn't step away from the fucking door. "What part of I'm not a fucking fairy' did you not understand?"
The guy's startled look turned to something like disgust, and Ray nearly growled as he raised his fist higher, but the guy opened the door and slipped out. Ray saw, as it opened, the cute redhead, standing by the door of the ladies room. She glanced toward the dark-haired guy as he stepped through, and then looked at Ray like he was the one who'd been fucking assaulting somebody in the bathroom. He bared his teeth at her, too, and then the door swung shut again.
He turned away and aimed a hard kick at the corner of the stall, which made the whole thing shake, and then he just paced for a minute. He was spoiling for a fight now, vibrating with fury, but the door stayed shut. After a minute or two Ray knew that was probably for the best; he still didn't need to get into a fucking bar fight, after all. When he didn't have to force his hands to stay open anymore, he stalked out of the bathroom and straight to the door, taking off down the sidewalk.
He was walking fast, in long stiff-legged strides, head up and chin out, his hands stuffed in his pockets to keep him from slugging the first person who slowed his pace. His night had been fucking wrecked already, but then that fucking queer had fucking--
Ray stopped short. Somebody ran into him from behind, muttered something he'd have taken offense to on another day, and shoved past, but Ray stayed stock-still on the sidewalk, staring blindly ahead of him. That queer at the bar--that deceptively normal-looking, Fraser-looking guy--had thought Ray--
Ray bolted for the nearest alley, a bit of dark quiet space where he could lean against a wall while his guts squirmed like cats in a sack. He wrapped his arms tight around his stomach, swallowing convulsively until his mouth flooded with saliva and then he dropped to his knees, one hand on the ground and one against the wall, as he coughed and then gagged.
Puking always reminded him of juniors, his first year living away from home, conquering two-fours98 with his teammates and then getting conquered right back, and Alain's hand on his face, pushing him away even as he pulled him closer lower down, muttering, "Maudit crisse5, Kowalski, stop that. You're not a fag, are you?"
No, no, God no, of course not. Ray shook his head sharply, wiping his mouth roughly with the back of one hand, only realizing when it came away stinking-wet that he was wiping bile and beer, and not the smeared spit of a clumsy almost-kiss. He winced, and wiped his hand on his jeans--God knew what he was kneeling in anyway, he should just throw them out--and leaned against the wall, catching his breath.
He knew, and had known for a long time, that nobody could see it on you, that it didn't make you different--didn't make you a fag, not automatically--unless you let it change you. And he never had let it, not since juniors. He'd known he was still the same and he'd been the same, but that guy--that guy who looked like Fraser, that guy who he'd looked at like he'd look at Fraser--had thought he saw something. And Ray had kissed Fraser--of all the dumb rookie things to do, missing the kissing and trying to replace that along with the sex, forgetting this was just a game, just a stopgap--a hockey thing, combined with a funeral thing, he could see how that had gotten the wires crossed, a very bad idea--and now he was getting hit on.
Ray clenched his teeth and swallowed hard, forced his breathing slower, fumbled the cigarettes and lighter out of his jacket pocket and lit up. The first drag helped, and the second, and on the third he laughed at himself a little, though the chuckle scraped out of him like knives on his burned throat.
Here he was, doing just what he'd been thinking Fraser was doing. Freaking out, because of that stuff they--hadn't--done. And he knew what to do when a guy was freaking out. You just had to believe even harder that it never happened, and let him fake being okay till it turned real. Ray straightened up, brushed once, futilely, at his knees, and headed for the sidewalk again, forcing some swagger into his step. He could fake it as well as anybody, he knew he could, and he just had to get himself home to bed and get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow was a game day, and everything was simpler on game days.
The path was well worn and easy to navigate, even though Ben carried a white pasteboard box in one hand and a pouch of freshly-made pemmican in the other. He didn't come up here as often as he should, nor as often as he was tempted to, but he was leaving shortly and this was not a visit he could fail to make, especially not now.
The spot was marked with a cairn of stones, a formless jumble with a perfect miniature inuksuk at the top end. From the top of the stone formation hung a chain with vaccination and ID tags, all made of stainless steel and impervious to rusting despite years of exposure to the elements.
Ben laid his offerings at the foot of the inuksuk, among the piled stones. "I should have brought these sooner," he said, quietly. "The cookies are from Chicago. Chris recommended a very nice Greek bakery. And don't worry, there's no chocolate. I checked carefully, I know it makes you sick. The pemmican is fresh. I know you never quite agreed with me that it wasn't good until it'd cured for a few months, so there you go."
He half expected Dief to materialize here, now, with these temptations offered, but of course he didn't. He was dead; Ben knew that. He reached out and fingered the cold tags. There was no blood on them anymore and hadn't been for years, but he still expected to see it every time he looked. The chain was the same one he'd hung around Dief's neck when he brought the half-grown half-wolf back from the wilds of the Northwest to his home in Edmonton. Dief had hated the tags, and Ben had chosen a chain long enough that he could slip it free any time he liked, but every time he came home, Dief was still there, still wearing those tags.
"I don't know why you stayed," he said softly. "I always expected you to be gone. You shouldn't have had to endure that." Endure her. He swallowed hard, touched the finger on his left hand that was no longer circled with metal, any more than Dief's neck was laden with tags. "You deserved better, Dief. I'm sorry." He blinked hard, but not quickly enough, and turned his face away, covering his mouth with one hand, even though he was surely perfectly alone up here. Not even Dief would see him now. "I'm sorry," he whispered again, when he could. "You should have gone, I told you you could. I wasn't worth staying for."
But Dief had stayed. Dief had always been waiting for him whenever he came home. Ben had never quite understood that, but he'd always been grateful, until the end--but he wouldn't think about that, not now, in the sunshine. This was about him and Dief, and no one else.
"Rest easy now, old friend," he said, and told himself he wasn't counting on the fact that Dief had never obeyed a direct command if he could possibly help it. He ran his fingers over the stones, and said again, "Rest easy," and then he just sat a while, in the long sunlight, as close to his best friend as he could be in this life.
Ray liked his Friday night league. Unlike Mondays and Tuesdays, Friday nights he didn't have to drive up to Milwaukee or down to Indy to find people psychotic enough to start a hockey season in July. On Friday nights he played in Chicago, a late night beer league stocked with youngsters looking to get an edge before their junior teams started training camp, a handful of stubborn old bastards like himself who just wouldn't let the game go, and a bunch of guys in between who just loved hockey too much to switch to golf. He'd go out for drinks with them after games, and it was like being on a real team again, where the other games felt like pick up hockey no matter how many times he went.
Friday nights he could get into the games, lose himself in skating hard, hitting hard, shooting and passing and sometimes just fucking around with the guys. He could feel for a little while like it was real.
He figured that was why he didn't notice the stocky man standing at the glass until halfway through the second. When he did--in the process of going over the boards and onto the bench after a killer shift, gasping for breath and mentally promising to give up smoking forever if he could just make it through the rest of the game without collapsing on the ice--he thought for a second that he was hallucinating. Oxygen deprivation, maybe. He half-fell onto the bench, his stick swinging close enough to Jacky's face to make him lean back and glare. Ray grimaced an apology as he shook his head to clear it, and didn't look over again until he'd caught his breath.
He hadn't been hallucinating; Harding Welsh, head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, was standing just the other side of the glass in a rec center arena at midnight, watching a beer league hockey game. Ray snapped his attention back to the game, studying the squads on the ice with a critical eye. Jamie and Teej were both solid, with a few junior seasons under their belts, and old enough to be signed undrafted. Neither of them could hope to step into Gardie's skates at center on an NHL team, but they'd plug a hole or two in the organization, maybe fill a spot down in Indy when Welsh called somebody up from Chicago's farm team6.
There were a few promising kids on the opposing team, too, but Ray wasn't about to worry about making them look good; they could look after themselves. He thought for a second about pointing out their audience to the rest of his team, but it wouldn't help. Nobody played their best for a scout.
Instead, when he launched himself over the boards for his next shift, Ray forced himself to watch the game instead of getting lost in it, checking the angles, seeing the big picture. When Teej dropped him a pass just inside the blue line, Ray worked his way down the ice, circling, drawing the defense, making a space that Teej slotted into like Ray had pulled him there on a string. He sent the puck back, quick and hard, to complete the give-and-go, and Teej was grinning even as he took the shot, because of course it was going in, hell yes it was in. Ray jumped and yelled like they'd just won something, and skated over to crash against Teej, who was grinning right back as he hugged Ray, caught up in it.
Ray could feel everybody catching his fever, through the rest of the second and into the third, stepping it up, making it look good, making it feel good. He tried to push the youngsters to look their best, but late in the third he found himself breaking away all alone and couldn't resist showing off a little himself.
He deked left, drew the goalie, and threw himself back right, faster than the goalie could move on his knees. Drawing back to take the shot, he completely overbalanced, missed the puck and went over sideways, sliding hard into the boards.
When he pushed up onto his elbows, Jacky was standing over him, laughing with his eyes while he gasped for breath, hauling Ray up by a handful of jersey as he scrambled his legs under himself. Jacky smacked him on the helmet, shaking his head, and Ray just grinned back as they skated toward the bench.
He stole a glance toward the spot where Coach was standing, and caught an eyebrow-twitch that might have been meant for him, might have been amusement or something else completely. Ray didn't care. He felt good, he was playing his game, and he was seriously, honestly, never smoking again.
They were up a couple of goals when the last buzzer sounded, and everybody started toward the locker rooms, slapping helmets and arguing about who was buying the first round of beers and which waitresses were on-shift tonight at McCloskey's. Ray noticed Welsh had moved off a few steps, his back to the guys but not actually walking away, and he fell back a bit himself, moving to the bench to gather up an abandoned water bottle and kick a ragged old mouth guard down to the end of the row. He heard Welsh step into the bench, and settled himself astride the boards, facing away. After another second, Welsh moved into Ray's line of sight and stood looking out at the rink, where the refs were pulling in the nets and the Zamboni7 was making its first slow pass down the ice. "Kowalski."
Ray nodded acknowledgment, but kept his eyes on the water bottle, balancing it on one knee with a thickly-gloved fingertip on the top. "Hey, Coach. You just happen to be in the neighborhood?"
"Yeah, I was. I'da joined the rush but I left my skates in the car."
Ray grinned and twirled the water bottle, forcing himself not to ask what was going on. If Coach wanted his opinion, he'd ask for it. What Welsh finally said, though, was, "It's going to be a rough season."
Ray nodded without looking up. Of course it was going to be a rough season. The Hawks were minus one veteran player, maybe two depending on how Hue came along, and the rest of them would be hit by that; maybe they'd pull together, maybe they'd fall apart. They'd have to bring in at least one new guy, and there was no telling whether he'd fit, whether he'd gel or just be an irritation to the others. And there was Fraser, still practically a new guy and not fitting in so great himself.
"Fraser could be a problem," Welsh said, like he'd been running down the same mental checklist. "He can put up the numbers, but even when he's not having an attitude problem he's not great in the locker room."
Attitude problem,' that was it. Ray knew there had been something hinky about Fraser getting traded--apart from the obvious hinkiness of anybody who'd spent his entire career with the same team and won five fucking Stanley Cups with them, even if it was mostly on the Great One's coattails8, getting traded at the deadline9 for draft picks and future considerations10. "His dad died."
"His dad was killed, and then he spent the whole summer and most of the lockout11 driving the Mounties crazy trying to find out who did it, and just didn't know when to keep his mouth shut with management about where his priorities lay."
"They find the guy?"
Welsh snorted, like maybe Ray's priorities weren't quite right either, here, but, hell, he was curious, and he'd given up on impressing Welsh years ago. "Nah. It was just some freak thing. A stray shot, hunting season had just started. From what I heard, the Mounties were as happy to get Fraser out of the country as the Oilers were." Welsh rubbed at his forehead. "I can't afford anybody on my team not pulling together. Not this season."
Ray nodded again. It was Welsh's first season as head coach, and the Hawks weren't going to make it easy for him to look good enough to keep his job. "You going to try to move him?"
"Fraser? Don't make me laugh so hard, Kowalski, it's bad for my ulcer. We need him, and I don't make personnel decisions. The best I can do is try to find a cheap, seasoned, available forward who can plug some gaps and who's never been on a team that didn't get along, and who I know for a fact gets along with Fraser better than just about anybody in the league." Ray went still, didn't even breathe. "And if I did find a guy like that, then I could ask him to come to training camp and give it a shot, and see what happens from there."
Ray looked up and met Coach's eyes, staring, his mouth hanging slightly open. When he finally did speak, he said, "Gardie was a center, and Hue's on the right. You don't need a lefty."
"You let me worry about what I need, Kowalski. You think I'm so stacked on the left I got no room for another? And for that matter, what, you've never centered a line in your life?"
Ray looked down again, tightening his legs on the boards, his hands on the abandoned water bottle, chin to chest, his stick a reassuring pressure against the inside of his knee. He couldn't be hearing this. Sure, it made some sense from Coach's end, but guys like him didn't get second chances like this. "Coach, I..."
Welsh reached out one hand, beckoning with his fingers. "Get your gloves off, lemme see your hands."
Oh. Yeah. Well, it had been a nice thirty seconds. Ray dropped his gloves with a reflexive snap of the wrists and presented his hands palm-down, both heavily wrapped at the knuckles. There were a couple of spots of blood showing on the right one; he must have whacked it on the ice when he took that spill. Welsh took Ray's right hand in both of his, running his fingers lightly over the bandage and peeling it up at the edge to peer underneath before pressing it back into place. "Hurt?"
Ray shrugged, his hand twisting slightly in Coach's grip. Yeah, it hurt, but not enough to matter.
"Look, it's not like I didn't know what kind of shape you were in long before I came down here, Kowalski. I called around. I talked to the team doc in Boston," and Ray looked up again, wide-eyed, and Welsh gave him a little grimace and rapped his knuckles against Ray's helmet, "and then I came down here to talk to you, because I've seen the tapes. You're still the player I stood behind for three years in Quebec, and I still think you could do some good on my team." Ray swallowed hard and looked away. Jesus, how he'd like to believe that. "I can't promise you anything, Kowalski, you know that?"
Ray nodded. Of course he knew that. Hockey was a business--a business, and it was always easier to remember that when he wasn't moving into yet another new apartment in yet another new city, stuffing yet another old jersey into the box at the back of the closet--and coaches didn't rate much above players in the scheme of things.
"But I want you to promise me something." Ray looked up at that, met Coach's eyes straight on, not promising anything yet except that he'd pay attention, the way he always did to his coach. "It's up to you whether you show up at camp just on my say-so. You don't wanna go there, that's up to you. But if you do show up, Kowalski, whether it's just camp, whether it's exhibitions, whatever--you keep your damn gloves on, you got me? You throw even one punch, you get yourself into any worse trouble with your hands than you already are--" and he was already in plenty of trouble, after seventeen years with more fights than pretty plays, his knuckles broken just about down to the bone, and Coach hadn't needed to look to know that, "--and you're no use to me, none at all. We clear?"
Ray nodded slowly, flexing his fingers to feel the sting of sweat hitting broken skin, letting the little pain of it remind him this was still real. "Gloves stay on. Got it."
"You promise me, Kowalski, or it's no good. You know I'm serious."
Ray knew Coach was serious, yeah. He'd scratched Ray four games once for speaking too much English in the locker room, his first season in Quebec. "I promise. I show up, it's with my gloves on and Lady Byng smiling down on me from heaven."
Welsh snorted. "Hey, I'm not asking for miracles, here."
Ray just shook his head, unable to say a word to that; miracles seemed thick on the ground, tonight.
"All right," Coach said, and gave him a slap on one leg. "So I'll tell security at United12 you might be coming by to use the rink and the weight room. The new ice is going in this weekend, should be ready Monday if you wanna start coming down, get shaped up for camp."
Ray nodded, grabbed his stick and swung his leg over. Coach was already headed for the end of the bench and out onto the floor. "Coach," he called, and Welsh stopped, but didn't turn back. "Thanks," he said, quietly, turning his stick around and around in his hand like a kid before his first warmup skate.
Coach just nodded once and started walking again, and Ray picked up his gloves and headed for the locker room, hoping the guys had already taken off. He was going straight home tonight, and he was smoking one last cigarette on the way, or however many last ones it took until his hands stopped shaking.
Jesus Christ. Training camp.
When he returned from Canada, Ben found three messages on his machine. The first was from Kowalski, and though it was perfectly intelligible, after listening to it perhaps a dozen times he was still not at all certain of what it actually meant. The second was just a hang-up click. The third was from Chris, mentioning that they'd be able to skate at United starting Monday, and that Jack was home from the hospital and would appreciate visitors. Ben elected to focus on the first part of that message.
Sunday night, the prospect of being able to skate the next morning meant he had something to focus on other than wondering what kind of game Kowalski was playing, and he put that problem firmly out of his mind.
He woke early, with the sun, and headed to the rink right away. "Hey, Mr. Fraser," the guard greeted him as he flashed his player pass. "Not quite the first one in this morning. Hope you don't mind sharing the ice."
Ben smiled at the man's small witticism even as he wondered who else had already arrived at barely six in the morning on the first day the ice was available, hoping the early arrival wasn't just one of his teammates. If there were several, he could simply be part of the group, but if there were only one...
They're your teammates, he scolded himself as he shouldered his bag through the locker room door, You could make an effort. He claimed the locker that had been his the previous season, though they weren't yet marked, and noticed as he got dressed that there was only one pile of street clothes on the bench, at an end locker that wasn't regularly assigned to anyone. He was briefly tempted to go check the empty equipment bag and see if he could find out who he'd be skating with, but tamped down on that impulse, laced his skates and headed for the ice.
Ben hesitated at the top of the tunnel before moving out onto the bench, looking up at the expanse of empty seats, the banners hanging perfectly still from the rafters, and beneath the half-lit fluorescent lamps, a single skater on the ice, the shuss of his blades the only sound in the enormous space. The new ice was perfectly smooth except for the tracks of that one man's skates, marking a path up to each line on the ice and back down.
He recognized the player immediately, but didn't quite believe it till he'd passed by, so that Ben could see his name and number, emblazoned in white on the back of a bright blue Nordiques away jersey: 67, Kowalski13. Ben took a step forward, watching as Kowalski skated back from the far goal line to the nearer one, fast but not flat out.
He tagged up at the line, stopping hard with a spray of shaved ice, his forward skate blade coming to rest precisely at the center of the red, and then pushed off again, back to the first blue line. He had his helmet off, his hair damp but still half-spiked, and moved with a grace that had rarely been visible when Ben played against him, since Kowalski was usually busy getting pushed around. He was mismatched, wearing black pants and black socks striped with white under his blue and white jersey, but there was nothing ragtag about the way he moved. His skate blade halted perfectly in the middle of the near blue line, and he pushed off and skated back, laying on more speed as he warmed up, his stick cutting the air in the same wide arc with every stride.
As Kowalski approached the center line, Ben moved up to the boards, and finally got a good look at his face. It wasn't merely that he was focused on his skating and hadn't noticed that Ben was there; he was actually skating with his eyes closed, his forehead slightly furrowed as he concentrated on judging the distances. A few meters away from Ben, he tagged up, ice chips fountaining from under his skates, and then pushed off again.
Ben felt strange, watching him like this. He had no idea what Kowalski was doing skating at United, but it was obvious he thought he was alone. Reminding himself that he had every right to be there, that Kowalski should have known he could be interrupted at any time, Ben swung a leg over the boards. His skate hit on the ice-side, the bang of it echoing in the huge space, and Kowalski, who'd nearly reached the goal line, half-turned back. Ben caught a glimpse of his wide eyes before his feet tangled and he hit the ice, sliding with all his considerable momentum toward the end boards, throwing one arm up to shield his head.
Ben was skating toward him before he hit, and bending over him an instant after. "Kowalski?"
Kowalski squinted up at him, shook one glove off and touched the gauze wrapped around his knuckles to his mouth. It came away pink, and he glared at Ben. "We have gotta stop meeting like this, Fraser."
Ben suppressed a smile, bracing with one fist against the glass as he shook off a glove and reached to touch Kowalski's lower lip, brushing it with his thumb to see where he'd bitten it when he fell, watching his eyes, noting his pupils were the same size, slightly dilated.
He was opening his mouth to ask him whether he'd hit his head when Kowalski made a sudden sideways move, knocking Ben's skates out from under him. He was face down on the ice before he registered what had happened, and Kowalski wriggled quickly out from under him and skated off, almost running across the ice from the sound of it. Ben grabbed his dropped glove, noticing as he did that Kowalski had taken his, and though he wasn't warmed up and had barely stretched, he couldn't resist chasing after Kowalski, pursuing him down the length of the ice. It would've been impossible to catch him, let alone corner him, if he hadn't slowed down to grab his helmet off the bench and pull it on, snapping the chinstrap.
That was as good as an invitation to crash him into the boards, and Ben gave chase, catching up with him in a corner and going for the check, only to hit the glass himself as Ray slipped away. He pushed off to follow, only to have Ray turn and skate back. Ben had an instant to stand up into the hit, bracing himself against the boards to take full advantage of his extra inch of height and probably forty pounds of mass. Kowalski bounced off him, and as he stumbled back, Ben, his own hands empty, caught hold of his stick, pulling him upright by it and swinging him around into the boards, hitting him squarely this time.
Kowalski shoved him off, but he was smiling as he did it, and Ben realized he was too. "That was dirty, Fraser, holding the stick. I see how it is--once the refs are gone, you're just as bad as the rest of us."
Ben grinned. "Never said I wasn't, Kowalski."
Kowalski laughed at that, shaking his head, and leaned against the boards, sliding down to stretch his legs. Ben began stretching as well, even as he tried to remember the last time he'd felt this happy on the ice. "May I ask you a question?"
Kowalski looked over at him with a smug expression. "Like maybe what the hell am I doing skating here?"
Ben waited a beat, and realized Kowalski wasn't going to answer himself. "Yes, what the hell are you doing skating here?"
Kowalski's smirk faltered, and he looked away, seeming suddenly almost shy, the slight defensive hunch of his shoulders only exaggerated by the pads he wore. "I, uh. Coach thought I'd like to shake some rust off before camp."
"Before--" Ben was still blinking, gape-mouthed, when Kowalski finally looked up at him, so palpably uncertain that this couldn't be a joke, couldn't be anything but what it had sounded like. Camp. He was so stunned he said the first thing that came to mind, which was, "Oh, thank God."
Kowalski grinned for real at that, and Ben skated across the small distance between them and crashed him again--not against the boards, this time, but in a fierce hug, as though Kowalski had just put the OT game-winner into the net, nearly lifting him off his feet. Kowalski laughed and smacked him on the head before breaking away. He skated over to the goal line in a few graceful strides, setting himself to start skating his lines again. "So, whaddya say, do your stretches and then help me get warmed up? Do some one-on-ones?"
Ben smiled his assent, and headed over to the boards and out of the way, looking forward to the season's start for the first time since he'd been traded.
Ray kept a discreet eye on Fraser as they stripped out of their gear--Fraser hanging his in his locker, Ray packing it all back into his bag--and headed for the showers. If that look on the ice had been anything but clinical, if Fraser was thinking about starting something, now would be the obvious time. Ray went ahead of him into the showers, listening, but Fraser kept a polite distance, and took the shower two down from his; not really avoiding him, but not making a move either.
Ray soaped up, stealing only quick careful glances over at Fraser, who, every time he looked, had his head down, eyes on the tile, washing quickly but not carelessly. Ray was soaping his hair, head tilted back to keep the suds out of his eyes, when a flash of motion drew his gaze.
Fraser had turned half away, standing with his head down so the spray hit right on the back of his neck, flexing his left shoulder to work the muscle under the hot water. His dark hair was black with water, plastered to his head, shifting at the nape of his neck where the water ran, contrasting sharply with his pale skin. Ray guessed he didn't spend much time working on the car with his shirt off, up there in North Whateverthefuck, because the back of his neck was as pale as... well, as everything else. Ray kept watching the motion of muscle shifting under skin for a few seconds longer, jealous like he'd often been of any guy with so much there there; he himself was all bones and gristle. Stella had always teased him that he exaggerated his weight as much as she lowballed hers, so between them they evened out.
He looked away quickly at that thought, squeezing his eyes shut and turning his face into the spray as he rinsed his hair with quick rough motions. The hell with Stella, anyway, and the hell with remembering. What he really needed was breakfast. Ray shut off the water and grabbed a towel from the stack by the door on his way out, toweling off as he walked, leaving puddles on the rubber-matted floor. He listened behind him, but the other shower stayed on, and Fraser didn't follow.
Ray was kind of relieved, really. He'd pushed hard this morning, and Fraser had pushed him harder, so he was kind of beat. They were making some headway on the playing well together thing, which Welsh had all but told him was his real ticket onto this team. It would have made things trickier if they'd been doing the other kind of playing around on top of it.
But Fraser hadn't started anything, and now Ray was getting dressed, so, okay, they weren't doing the sex thing. Whatever Fraser had been looking at him for out on the ice, that was Fraser's business. Fine. Ray was buttoning the fly of his jeans with clumsy fingers, wondering why the hell he bought these things when he could never get them fucking done up after he'd had his hands in gloves for any length of time, when Fraser came out of the showers, with a towel around his waist. His hair couldn't be any more than finger-combed--Ray knew he hadn't taken a hairbrush in there with him--but it looked almost perfect anyway. Ray knew his own was sticking up all over the place, not so much in a cool way as in a "I just rubbed a towel all over my head" way, and shot Fraser a tight little smile as he dug through his bag, looking for the clean shirt he knew he'd brought with him. Somewhere.
He heard Fraser toss his towel down, the heavy damp thump of it against the floor, and kept his eyes down on his bag. The sound of boxers--fabric sliding over skin, the soft slight snap of elastic--and then blue jeans, a heavier fabric friction, the minute noises of necessary adjustments, and then a zip. Ray exhaled and reached down to the bottom of his bag, yanking out the neatly rolled t-shirt stashed there. He allowed himself to steal a glance at Fraser once he'd gotten the shirt over his head, and caught Fraser pulling down his own t-shirt, a glimpse of pale skin disappearing behind blue cotton knit. Something like disappointment shuddered in his gut, but Ray pushed that down--breakfast, right, he just needed some goddamn breakfast was all--as he jammed his gear into place and zipped his bag, shoving his feet without socks into a pair of beat-up tennies.
Ray looked over at Fraser again as he swung his bag onto his shoulder and grabbed his stick. Fraser was just standing at his locker, socks in one hand, the other hand raised to the empty space where his nameplate would be, soon. Ray didn't look over at the locker he'd left carefully empty, and choked back the nasty mood his hunger had put him in. "Hey, Fraser, uh..." Fraser looked up quickly, meeting Ray's eyes with a direct look that caught him off guard. Ray cleared his throat and pushed on quickly. "You wanna go get something to eat with me?"
Fraser looked down at his bare feet, and said, "Why--yes, I just need to--"
Ray was nodding as soon as he heard the yes. "Tell you what, get your shoes on, meet me up at my car, okay?"
Fraser nodded as he sat down, lifting one foot to pull a sock on, and Ray only watched for an instant before he turned away, hoisting his bag and shoving the door open ahead of him with his stick.
Kowalski took one look at Ben's truck and rolled his eyes. "Fraser, you know they pay you millions of dollars a year, right? That's US dollars, y'know. Enough to buy a car, for instance."
"Ah," Ben said, running an eye over the small black sports car whose trunk Kowalski had been perched on. "Perhaps I've been doing the exchange rate backward?"
Kowalski flashed him a short grin, shaking his head, and moved toward the driver's side of his car. "Come on, hop in, I know where we're going anyway." Ben hesitated for an instant, but Kowalski beckoned impatiently as he slid into the driver's seat, and he hurried quickly to the passenger side, noting as he did the make and model of the car.
When they'd reached the street and Kowalski still hadn't offered any small talk, tapping the steering wheel in a rhythm only he could follow, Ben ran one hand lightly across the dash, and said, "A GTO, isn't it? Sixty-seven?"
Kowalski glanced over at him, looking impressed. "Yeah. I wouldn't've thought you knew much about cars."
"Ah--" Ben considered prevaricating, but knew he wouldn't get very far with no more relevant knowledge than what the three letters stood for. "I don't, actually. I'd just always wondered why you chose that number."
Kowalski turned his attention back to traffic, still smiling, and nodded. "Yeah, that's it, sixty-seven. Me and my dad used to fix up cars, and this was the last one we did together before I went off to juniors. We worked on it day and night that summer. Six coats of jet black. When I got to Montreal there were four of us who wanted to be number nine--" Ben nodded his understanding; he himself had switched from his habitual number ten, when he joined the Blackhawks, to eight, in deference to a new teammate's prior claim. "And about the only thing I missed from home was the goat, so I picked sixty-seven. Plus I figured no matter where I played, nobody else would want that one."
Ben nodded, and refrained from remarking on the great variety of places Kowalski had played, choosing another tack instead. "You didn't miss anything else?" His own first year playing away from home had been a misery, but for Mark's company; he had missed the north so desperately, and felt so lost in the cities.
Kowalski was shaking his head. "Nah. Well, I missed Stella, but I couldn't really put that on the back of my jersey, right? And then she came out to McGill the next year and things were good, we were..."
Ben glanced over at Kowalski, who was now staring at traffic with a forbidding intensity, and held his peace, looking out the window and watching the city go by at a hectic pace. Within a few moments Kowalski was maneuvering the GTO into a street space, reversing at a breakneck speed, then coming to a hard stop. Ben sat still for a moment after he'd turned the car off, catching his breath, and to his surprise Kowalski said, quietly, "Sorry," and offered him a small shy smile.
Ben smiled tentatively back, and they got out of the car and set off down the sidewalk to the diner Kowalski had had in mind, a short distance away. They were soon settled at a table, gulping down tumblers of water in companionable silence. Kowalski switched immediately to heavily-sugared coffee, which he drank with as much alacrity as the water; Ben requested orange juice, and refrained from pointing out the counterproductivity of his tablemate's beverage choices. Kowalski seemed to perceive some censure nonetheless, and when he set down his empty coffee mug, said, "Yeah, I know, coffee's bad for me, smoking's bad for me." His right hand opened and closed, flexing habitually, drawing Ben's eye to his knuckles, marked by bright patches of often-broken skin. "Hockey's probably bad for me, come to that. Doesn't mean I'm going to stop, right?"
"Well," Ben offered, "if you've indeed chosen hockey as your particular self-destructive vice, you might consider that the others actually interfere with its efficacy."
Ray's lips moved slightly for a few seconds after Ben stopped speaking, as though he were repeating the words over to himself; after an excruciating pause in which Ben braced himself to admit that yes, actually, he had been raised in a library, and furthermore had finished college, with satisfactory grades and a major in English, Kowalski said, "Yeah, well, I like my coffee," and retreated into his menu. Ben followed suit, gladly.
They remained in silence until the waitress returned to take their orders. Ben made his selection and then listened as Kowalski rattled off two different breakfast specials worth' of selections, "And bacon. Did I say bacon? On the side." The waitress scratched something down on her pad, refilled Kowalski's coffee, and headed to the kitchen.
Ben sipped his orange juice, and looked across the table at Kowalski, who, robbed of the distraction of a menu, was again tapping out some unheard beat. Hoping to distract him before he started using the silverware, Ben said, "You know, it isn't actually possible to get up to game weight in a single meal."
Kowalski gave him a smile, and said, "What, you think I gotta gain weight?" He spread his arms, putting himself on display, and said, "This doesn't look like six foot, one-ninety to you?"
Ben very nearly choked on his orange juice. "Do they permit you to be weighed in your skates and pads?"
"Yeah, dripping wet, too, with my pockets full of pucks," Kowalski agreed, sipping more coffee. "Sounds good, though, you know."
Ben nodded agreeably, and they fell silent again, Kowalski leaning back from the table and sprawling a bit in his seat, clearly more at ease. Ben stared idly out the windows, watching people go past, not really seeing anything, until, across the street, a low loping flash of white sped by. He sat straight up, staring, only faintly aware of Kowalski bolting upright in response, but the shape was gone, and there was no way of knowing whether he'd really seen anything at all. He tore his eyes away from the window to find Kowalski looking, not at him, but out at the street, searching the scene. "It's nothing," Ben said, quietly, "I just--" But what could he say?
Kowalski looked back at him, with a small frown, and then over his shoulder, and the waitress was there with their food. It took her a few minutes of maneuvering to arrange all of Kowalski's breakfast in a reasonable manner, and when she left they settled into the natural silence of eating. Ben alternated attention to his own breakfast with moments spent watching Kowalski work through plates of eggs and potatoes and toast and pancakes and, of course, bacon. He ate quickly, with his head down, intent on enjoying his food. At one point, when Ben looked up, Kowalski was drawing his fork from between closed lips, syrup smeared on the corner of his mouth.
Ben didn't realize he was staring until Kowalski caught him at it, raising his eyebrows. "What, I got something on my face?"
"Ah." Ben looked away quickly, then back. "Yes, actually," and he tapped at the corner of his mouth, mirroring.
Kowalski stuck his tongue out, licking diligently at the spot, and Ben had to look away again, till he said, "Did I get it?"
He glanced up quickly. The corner of Kowalski's clean mouth was now sheened with saliva, and Ben turned his gaze down to his food. "Yes, that was it."
He only nodded when Kowalski said, "Thanks," and after that Ben didn't look up again until he heard the metal and porcelain clatter of Kowalski setting his silverware down. He was leaning back in his seat again, one hand resting almost protectively over his stomach, the other holding a strip of bacon which he seemed to be considering very carefully. "So, Benton Fraser," Kowalski said, in a thoughtful voice that Ben couldn't help leaning forward into, "tell me, what was it really like, playing with Wayne Gretzky?"
Ben opened his mouth, queuing up the rote answer to that question, which he'd been asked virtually every time he'd been interviewed for the entire duration of his NHL career, sparing half a thought to be disappointed that Kowalski cared, and then caught sight of the teasing glint in the other man's eye and smiled. "Oh, well, you know, about as miserable as you'd expect. It was completely impossible to get any credit for anything; all our success was attributed to the offense and nobody could spare any attention at all for the efforts of the defensemen."
Kowalski started to laugh, and in the interests of fairness Ben added, "I will say, it was nice to have a plus-eighteen rating14 in my rookie season."
Kowalski nodded quickly. "Made your mother very proud, right?"
Ben hesitated, searching for a way to answer truthfully without breaking the ease of the small moment between them, and saw the moment when Kowalski realized that he'd made some faux pas, a pained look overtaking his joviality. Ben smiled apologetically and then said as matter-of-factly as all his years of practice would allow, "She died when I was six years old. But she was the one who taught me to skate and to play, so I'm sure she would have been very proud, had she lived to see it. My father, of course, was one of those who told me not to be so bold about taking Wayne's accomplishments as my own."
"Of course," Kowalski agreed, staring into his coffee.
Ben tried to think of something to say, but Kowalski spared him. He looked up with a smile that didn't, quite, reach his eyes, and said, "I'll save you the embarrassment, okay, Fraser? My dad never wanted me to play hockey, it was his cousin who taught me to skate and paid for my gear. The day I left for juniors without even finishing high school, my dad washed his hands of me. He tried to apologize when I got drafted--gave me the car--but I was a dumb kid and I told him to forget it, didn't want him taking me back just because Chicago thought I was worth a look. My mum and Stella went behind our backs, tried to talk things out, which is how I wound up keeping the car, but my folks moved down to Arizona, and me and my dad don't--I mean, I talk to him, but--they root for the Diamondbacks."
Ben blinked, stunned by this flat recitation. "The--who?"
Baseball? It passed understanding. His own father, on those admittedly rare occasions in Ben's formative years when he'd been around to express an opinion, had seemed at worst amused and often almost proud of his son's ambition. But then, he and his father were Canadian, and he understood things were different south of the border. "I'm sorry," he said, gravely, and Kowalski quirked a real smile.
"Yeah, me too." Kowalski stretched, which put his hands well out of position when the waitress dropped the bill on the table as she walked past. He made a valiant effort, but Ben was closer and already had it in hand. Kowalski surrendered with good grace. Rather than arguing he asked, "So, what are we doing next?"
Ben had meant only to ask him for a ride back to the arena and his car, but a sense of his obligations--obligations which, what with one thing and another, he might be construed to share with Kowalski--stopped him short. After a moment's consideration he said carefully, "I was thinking of going to visit Jack Huey. He's home from the hospital, now, and--"
"Strength in numbers," Kowalski agreed immediately, promptly disposing of all pretense in the matter. "Sounds good. You know the address? He up on the Gold Coast?"
Ben's small knowledge of Chicago's dizzying array of neighborhoods allowed him to answer this question correctly. "Yes. I'm not positive of the address, but I've been there once before, I can navigate."
"Good, greatness. Let's go."
Kowalski accepted with good grace the fact that Ben was not precisely certain of his starting point in the navigation, and drove amiably where Ben directed them. Finally he said, "I'm sorry, Ray, it will have to be the lake. I'm sure I can get my bearings there."
Kowalski glanced over with a broad grin. "You called me Ray."
"I--so I did. Do you mind?"
Ray looked back to the street. "Call me Kowalski, call me Ray, call me late for dinner if you want, just don't call me Stanley, that's all I ask."
Stanley... Kowalski. And Stella, of course. It seemed an oddly literary jibe, but Ben only said, "I can assure you I will not," and Ray smiled wider.
"So, the lake, then?"
"The Lake they call Michigan," Ben affirmed.
Ray looked sideways at him. "Lake Michigan."
"Yes," and it was a silly eccentricity, in such a tamed place, to insist that the names of places were only human affectations, to persist in reminding anyone that the lake was the lake, complete unto itself and beyond the power of humans to name, but still, "The Lake they call Michigan."
Ray nodded, and repeated, "Lake Michigan."
Of course Kowalski didn't understand what Ben meant by any of it, had no reason to cede the point, but still Ben had the sense that Ray was not so much telling him he was wrong as translating between them. "All right."
And there was Ray's incandescent smile again, so easily provoked--Ben had never been easy with people, ever, and it was something of a shock to find himself so with Kowalski. They soon reached the lake and then, as he'd suspected would be the case, Ben had no difficulty navigating back into and through the urban maze to Jack Huey's home on the northeastern edge of the city.
Jack's wife, Dawn, met them in the driveway as they got out of the car. "Ben," she said, reaching for his hand, his polite murmur of greeting lost as she turned away after a brief touch, "and... Ray, isn't it?"
Ray was nodding, reaching to shake hands with a grave look. "Yeah, Kowalski. How's Hue doing?"
She gave a small, tight smile, folding her arms before her, tucking her hands out of sight. Ben had the impression that she would have hidden herself and her wounded husband away as well, and winced inside, thinking of the parade of well-wishers she must already have endured. "Physically, he's doing well. The rest..."
Ben nodded his understanding and Ray said quietly, "Yeah. He still on painkillers?" At her nod Ray went on, "I get that, how that is. Spent three days sitting on the couch crying, the time I mashed my fingers and they had me all drugged up."
Ray shot a glance at Ben, and Ben turned up his sympathetic smile a bit more. "Yes, medications do affect one in the most unexpected ways, sometimes." Ray's eyes crinkled, though his mouth did not shift from its fixed expression of politeness, which Ben took to mean that his awkward effort had been deemed acceptable.
Dawn's polite smile faltered and steadied, which likely meant that acceptable or not, he'd still been decidedly awkward, and she gestured to the walkway into the backyard. "He's sitting out on the deck."
Ray took the lead and Ben trailed after him, taking in the wide, well-manicured lawns, the generous spaces shrouded in an affluent hush. Jack was sitting facing toward them, his left arm in a white cast already visibly defaced with variously colored markings, a small neat bandage on his head marking the site of his concussion. Ben had heard hushed whispers about internal injuries, but whatever lingering signs existed were hidden beneath Jack's vibrantly colored shirt. Ray took the steps up to the deck in one leap, calling, "Hey, Hue."
"Kowalski," Jack called back, reaching out his uninjured hand, though he didn't attempt to rise. "I heard you were in the neighborhood."
"Yeah," Ray said, "might even be sticking around for a bit." Ray turned back as Ben gained the deck, and gestured, "See, I brought a native guide and everything."
"Hey, Fraser," Jack said, shaking his hand, grip only slightly loosened by whatever medication he was taking. "Good to see you."
"And you, Jack. You're looking well."
Jack only nodded, and in the pause that followed Ray dragged up a patio chair to sit at a right angle to Jack, sprawling in his seat, all at ease. Ben moved a little further away, leaning against the deck railing behind Ray.
"So," Ray said, kicking gently at Jack's ankle, "I hear they're gonna have you back on skates pretty quick."
"Aw, yeah," Jack agreed, nodding a little gingerly, "Just a hairline fracture and some bruises. The head's nothing. Not like--" He looked away, and Ray's hand opened and closed, his head down for a moment.
"Yeah," he said, in a low voice, "Yeah. Of course. Any one you walk away from."
"Yeah, well, Louis didn't walk away."
Ray shook his head a little, giving Ben a glimpse of his clenched jaw, but the word he murmured under his breath was just "Louis," in such a derisive tone that Ben couldn't help thinking of the aggressive way Louis had always insisted upon the full form of his first name, and the familiar ease with which Ray persisted in saying Gardie. "Yeah," he said, after a moment, "Yeah, I noticed that."
Jack raised one hand to cover his face. "Hell, man, I'm sorry, I--it's my damn fault, all right? It's my fault."
Another silence, its length marked by the grip and release of Ray's hand, pink knuckles draining white over and over, and though he didn't move from his slouch, his shoulders tightened under his thin t-shirt, and his pose of ease became obviously false. Ben searched desperately for something, anything, he could possibly say to smooth things over, to extricate them all from this moment, and was seriously considering falling backward into the hedge when Ray's fist tightened and held, and in a rough voice he said, "How? How'd you make it happen, Hue? Tell me that."
Jack's hand shifted and pressed to his face, and in a small, broken voice that made Ben want to close his eyes, to turn away, to find some way not to witness this moment, he said, "You know how many accidents happen because the driver's trying to fix the radio? That was me. I was telling him I was going to be sick, and then I was, and he reached over, he was trying to--to help, and--I don't remember after that. I barely remember that."
"And that's your fault?" Ray snapped forward onto the edge of the seat, all his strain open and visible at last, extending his first and last fingers as he raised one emphatic hand. "One, it was raining that night. B, I'll bet my left arm Gardie shouldn't have been driving either."
"He'd had two--"
"Yeah, whatever, he'd had two too many. C, he was driving like an asshole on purpose to try to make you puke, and don't try to tell me he wasn't. He did it to me, I did it to him, it's a wonder either of us made it out of New Brunswick alive and we did crack up a couple of cars15 and he should have known better, Hue. He should and he didn't and that's not your fault, it's not you--" Ray stopped sharply, turning his face away from Jack, glancing back at Ben. There was something in his face, something broken and unspeakable, something Ray had no convenient pharmaceutical excuse to voice. Looking at him Ben knew, with a certainty that landed heavy and complete in his chest, weighting his breath, that Louis--Gardie--had been no mere roommate or friend to Ray.
Ben couldn't resist reaching out then, palming the sharp angle of Ray's elbow, his fingers resting on the strong curve of forearm, warm and naked under his hand. Ray met his eyes, and what had been unbearably near the surface seemed to recede a little way. Ray nodded shallowly, and Ben returned the nod, and as he wiped mingled sweat from his hand onto his jeans, the sliding door from the house opened, and Dawn appeared with lemonade and sugar cookies.
These niceties eased them through another ten minutes of light, general conversation, and then they were on their way. Back out on the driveway, Ray paused for a moment, folding his arms on the roof of the car and resting his head on them. Ben stood at the passenger door, looking across at him, still searching for words. Finally, he said softly, "So, what are we doing next?"
Ray lifted his head, propped his chin on his wrist and gave Ben a weary smile, clearly exhausted by fifteen minutes of conversation as he had not been by two hours of skating and drilling. "Go back to my place and sit on the couch and watch Sports Center till we can recite the show along with the anchors?"
Ben breathed a long sigh of relief. "That sounds just fine."
The fourth morning Ray skated with Fraser at United, Hack showed up about halfway through. They were fighting for the puck--a drill had degenerated into a dogfight, for about the tenth time that day--when Fraser just suddenly went still. Ray stole the puck, skated up far enough to get the angle and put it neatly into the net, and only then looked up to see why Fraser was standing frozen at the boards.
Hack was letting himself out through the bench door, holding his catching glove under one arm, big goalie helmet and stick balanced on top of the boards. Ray skated toward Fraser, but he shook himself out of his freeze and headed over to Hack with a smile that didn't look quite right compared to the ones Ray had been seeing for the last three days. Ray followed him.
Fraser pulled one glove off, and shook Hack's hand, with a smile and a, "Hello there, Jeff."
Jeff grinned, and said, "Hey, Fraser," and then turned toward Ray, just in time for Ray to reach over, hand still gloved, and rough up his hair. Jeff grinned and ducked out from under Ray's hand, whacking him on the arm with his blocker. "Hey, Ray-Kay. I heard you were gonna be here babysitting Fraser."
Ray glanced quickly over at Fraser, but Fraser was looking out across the ice like he hadn't even heard. "Yeah, well, gotta be sharp for camp, right?" Fraser had heard Hack step onto the bench; there was no way on earth he'd missed what Hack said.
When Ray looked back at him, Hack snorted. "You wanna try taking shots on a net with a goalie in it, then? Makes it a little more challenging."
"Sure, but where we gonna get a goalie, benchwarmer16?" Ray jumped back as Hack grabbed his stick and swung it, and skated away to let him get the rest of his gear on, retrieving the puck from the net and skating with it behind the goal. When he looked up, Fraser was standing in the crease, shifting side-to-side to clobber him whichever way he tried to break out. Ray hesitated, straightened up a little, and started to open his mouth, but Fraser shook his head, dodging hard left around the net. Ray took off to the right, and Fraser came after him, all the way up the ice.
Ray dodged around the opposite net, shifting a little side to side, bouncing the puck from his stick to his skates and back. Where Fraser normally would have just waited him out, he fidgeted on the opposite side of the goal, making little feints back and forth, trying to spook Ray one way or the other. Ray scanned the stands, but they were still empty--and in the moment he'd had his eyes off the puck, Fraser hadn't rushed him. He was playing weirdly careful, but not calm-careful: jittery-careful, like he was afraid of making a mistake, like he was afraid of screwing up in front of a scout, but the only person in the whole place other than the two of them was Hack.
Ray went dead still, then, and straightened up, and that was too much for Fraser to resist; he came around the net, so close he rocked it on its moorings, and Ray moved off again, keeping away from the corners, using his speed. Fraser normally went straight to laying on the body if he couldn't outmaneuver Ray, but he went right on playing like there were suddenly two hundred new rules and he hadn't had time to read them all.
It was just Hack, though, skating over to his goal, doing some stretches and little side-to-side shifts, warming up. He was on Fraser's team. Ray had watched every one of Chicago's games last season, and he knew Fraser hadn't been like this then--but as soon as he thought of that, Ray dismissed it. Fraser would never play like this in a game. He'd never let being nervous slow him down, any more than he would a broken thumb or a case of the flu. It was only here, playing around, that Fraser could afford to look like crap. It struck Ray as horribly unfair that the only time Fraser could relax, he had to show it by being skittish.
Of course he couldn't say anything; Fraser obviously wasn't in a talking kind of mood. He was barely in a making eye contact kind of mood. Ray finally let himself be herded against the boards and hit, and when Fraser stripped the puck, he gave chase back up the ice to where Hack stood in the net. The only way he was going to get the puck away from Fraser, on a breakaway like this, was to hook his feet out from under him, and that just wouldn't be buddies. Ray slashed at his stick a couple of times, instead, just to show effort, and Fraser took the first clean shot he could get, from the top of the circle. Hack had a good thirty feet to see it coming, and gloved it easily, snapping his catcher open and shut a few times before he dropped the puck back to the ice and slapped it out toward them. Ray got to it first, and the game was on again.
After a while, they switched from play scrimmage to drills; one-on-ones and two-on-nones, Ray and Fraser flying toward the goal, passing back and forth, beating Hack better than half the time, in a situation a goalie might face once in a game, if his team fell down on the job. They played in silence, only grunts and the occasional wordless shout rising above the sounds of steel on ice and rubber on tape. Ray watched Fraser's every move, waiting for the moment when he forgot what he was doing and who he was doing it with, the moment when he stopped thinking and started playing. By the time he got there, Ray had left behind the reason he had for watching. He was in the game, whatever the game of the moment was, and he was playing it with Fraser and with Hack, and it was good. They pushed on past the usual couple of hours, which they usually measured by their fatigue. Sometime past nine, Fraser slammed Ray up against the boards, and the impact was barely different from the all-over scream of his muscles. Ray knew he'd be paying and paying and paying for this, and he knew Fraser had to be in the same state. He also knew Fraser, today and in front of Hack, was going to be the last to admit it. Fraser got the puck away from him easily, and Ray watched Hack bat away Fraser's long shot while he tried to catch his breath.
"Come on, Fraser," he called, "Showers. Breakfast."
Fraser turned toward him, turning his back to the goal and the puck, and Ray saw the hesitation on his face. He realized, suddenly, that Fraser could just stay here, keep playing with Hack, and that once camp started, there would be two dozen other guys Fraser could choose over him.
Ray looked away first. He turned his back and headed toward the bench, feeling every bit as old and tired as he was, every long-healed injury twinging, every muscle used up. He was thirty-five, he'd had his run of it, he was done. He opened the bench door and stepped through, and then heard Fraser step through right behind him. Ray looked back, but Fraser's face was set in a grim expression that reminded Ray of Stella with a stack of papers for him to sign. Ray faced front and didn't look back again.
In the locker room he went straight to the bench, tossed his gloves on the floor and started on his skates, yanking at the laces with fingers even clumsier than a couple hours of play usually made them. Fraser sat down, close beside him instead of at his own locker, and started undoing his own skates, and of course his hands were perfectly steady, not a tremor to be seen. When Fraser had undone one skate and started on the other, he said, without looking up, "What did Jeff mean, when he said he'd heard you were going to be babysitting me?"
Ray winced at the clipped tone of voice, safe out of sight, and his hands clenched in the mess he'd made of his laces. He'd known this might happen. It would be obvious to a lot of people, and he should've fucking said something sooner, so Fraser would hear it from him, not like this, not from Hack, half a joke, wrecking Fraser's morning. But things had been going good, he and Fraser were getting to be some kind of buddies, and now... "He meant half the reason Welsh recruited me is that I get along with you." He wanted to say something else, something like, I'm not using you to get back into hockey, but he didn't think there was any way to make that sound good. If there was, he'd have said it days ago.
"Ah," Fraser said, finishing with his skate and sitting back with his hands on his knees. He finally looked over, but Ray couldn't read him at all. They could have been standing on opposite ends of the rink, instead of hip-to-hip on the bench. "Well. Of course I'll understand if, now that I know, you don't wish to continue. I won't say anything that would jeopardize your chances."
"No!" Ray startled himself more than Fraser with his near-shout; Fraser just blinked at him, and Ray forced himself to quiet down as he went on. "Fraser, no, this isn't--he didn't tell me, go skate with that guy, go eat breakfast with him, and if he had I probably wouldn't, or I'd have told you at least. The whole point is, I do like you, you boneheaded Canuck."
Now Fraser looked surprised, and Ray finally realized how it had to be for him. Being no good in the locker room--being fucking known for that--had to be something he was aware of, as much as he'd know if he couldn't score, or was a liability on the penalty kill, or any other thing that made him worse at the total package of what he did. He was just used to it, which was a fucking shame. "Come on, Fraser," Ray said, turning back to his goddamn fucking knotted skates. "Showers. Breakfast."
Fraser dropped to his knees beside Ray's feet, and said, "Let me, your hands are tired." Ray wanted to argue, but Fraser took his hands and set them on his knees, and Ray was too tired to fight, with Fraser or with his skates, and he thought he knew what Fraser meant by it and what he didn't.
"Okay," he said, and closed his eyes so he wasn't staring at Fraser's head, bent at his knee. "We're okay."
The first day of training camp was an entirely new experience for Ben. He'd never been to camp with his new team, of course, and this year the ordinary joviality of reunion after a long summer was muted by the absences of Louis and Jack. He was faintly, almost shamefully, pleased to discover that the quiet bond of loss encompassed him within its borders, and Kowalski as well, even as it excluded the dozen or so young prospects attending camp in hopes of making it onto the roster. They all looked even more nervous than hopefuls generally did, well aware that they were outside the team in this and had no way of getting in.
The quieter atmosphere suited Ben, and he found that, as with Jack and Jeff, everyone already knew that Ray would be present, and apparently found the circumstance unremarkable. All day, as they warmed up together, skated and drilled and scrimmaged, Ray was accepted among the members of the team as a matter of course. When the day's training was done and they headed, en masse, for a restaurant, Ray was invited to join them. Ben was pleased to find he didn't seem particularly surprised, only smiled and said, "Yeah, you just want me along 'cause the newest guy picks up the tab."
The others laughed, and Ray turned easily to Fraser and said, "You want a ride?" and that was that.
At dinner Ben sat beside Ray, and when the beers came around, Ray handed one to Ben, and took one for himself. Ben set it down without tasting it, and went on watching and listening to the easy conversation of his teammates, but his fingers stayed on the cool glass, and his thoughts were full of it.
He didn't drink, as a rule, especially not when there would be early practice or a game the next day, but it wasn't as if he couldn't hold his drink, nor as if he'd stand out among the crowd by doing so, since every place at the long table was graced with a glass identical to his own. He certainly didn't wish to make a scene by asking for a different beverage, nor to reject Ray's thoughtfulness in supplying him with one. He realized that if Mark had set a beer at his place, he'd have drunk it; but then Mark only would have done so when Ben actually needed a drink.
He glanced sideways at Ray, who was laughing more loudly than anyone else at the table at some story about Louis. Perhaps Ray thought he needed this drink; perhaps he did need it. Ray began to tell his own story, illustrating with wild and expressive gestures, and Ben realized that what he actually needed to do was to stop thinking quite so hard about what he was doing. The means to that end was already at hand, and Ben raised the glass to his lips and took a healthy sip.
He managed to keep a straight face, and set the glass down only a little more forcefully than was absolutely necessary. He thought no one at the table noticed, but when Ray's story had come to its irreverent conclusion, and the others were all laughing and vying to tell the next, Ray leaned over and whispered to him, "Something the matter with the beer, Fraser?"
Ben turned his head slightly, so that their faces were nearly touching, and murmured, "It's American."
The breath of Ray's choked-back laugh brushed his cheek. "Yeah, well, so's the captain around here. I mean, Chelios--born in Chicago, the lunk. What's he know about beer? But he's the captain."
Ben repressed a smile. "I understood you'd been born in Chicago, Ray."
"Yeah," he said, leaning away a little, now, reestablishing a more ordinary distance between them, his smile unabated, "But I try not to let it slow me down. Still, I guess we gotta humor the man, hey?"
They took second brave sips in unison, and exchanged repeated commiserating glances after that. When Ray discreetly procured two glasses of a better brew from the waitress, Ben could hardly decline his share, and after that there was the confusion of arriving food and toasts, beginning with a toast to Louis, which turned into some sort of impromptu endurance match, as no one wanted to be the first to tip down his glass. Various toasts followed: "The season" and "Welsh" and "sixteen wins in springtime"17 and degenerated rapidly into silliness; Ben might have refrained from drinking to groin protection if he had not caught Ray's laughingly challenging look.
A little further on, Ben could not resist the apparently genetic compulsion to stand up and pronounce a toast to the queen. It was received with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but he noticed that even the Americans drank. Denny stood up next, and made a long speech in French, too heavily accented and slurred for Ben, who had learned his French largely from his grandmother and a series of venerable textbooks and scratchy records, to follow. Most of the table seemed to be in a similar state, waiting for a raised glass and salut to signal it was time to drink, but when Ben stole a look at Ray to share his incomprehension, it was to find him shaking with barely repressed laughter, his eyes fixed on Denny in obvious understanding. Ben was puzzled for a moment, but then recalled Ray's well-worn Nordiques jersey, and relaxed into his seat, enjoying this demonstration of his friend's superiority over everyone else at the table.
Eventually Chris called curfew, and they headed outside into the warm darkness, which meant less about the lateness of the hour here than it would at home, or even in Edmonton. A fleet of taxicabs awaited them, and his teammates--friends, really, very good friends, all of them--began to disappear in ones and twos behind yellow-checkered car doors. Ray was speaking firmly to someone or other about the safety of his goat, and Ben laughed softly to himself at the thought of a small omnivorous farm animal, jet black, of course, tethered overnight in the parking lot. Then Ray appeared at his side, guiding him, surely a little more than was actually necessary--he was perfectly capable of walking on his own, and had simply been waiting his turn--into a cab. Ray collapsed onto the seat beside him and pulled the door shut, and elbowed him sharply; they both forgot, lately, to go easy when they happened not to have their pads on. "Tell the nice man where you live, Fraser, he'll drive you home."
Ben had to struggle for a moment to remember his address, but it came to him and he enunciated it clearly. The driver nodded and pulled away from the curb, and Ben sat watching the red numbers of the meter ticking upward without comprehension. He could hear Ray's soft sleepy breathing beside him, and Ray's arm, when it subsided from prodding him, had fallen between them and lay along the length of his thigh.
Ben didn't realize he'd closed his eyes until he opened them. A gust of cool fresh air revived him as Ray opened the door and stepped out of the cab, so that he could get out on the street side. Ben slid to the end of the bench seat and got out of the car, accepting Ray's proffered hand up. Once the first dizziness of verticality passed, Ben's head cleared somewhat, just enough to make him aware of how impaired he was. After he'd stood a moment, one hand on the roof of the cab, he nodded and turned to head into the building, only realizing at the slight resistance he felt that he still had hold of Ray's hand, and had tugged him one stumbling step forward.
He turned back, to find Ray, eyes at a comfortable half mast, grinning sunnily at him. Sunny, yes, he thought; Ray could overpower the sodium lights, the city glare, could overcome the heavy cloudy dark of a late-summer night in Chicago, with that smile. It was a horrible temptation, one he surely could not resist, in his current state, and he had promised. "Ray," he said, tugging Ray back toward the door of the car by their joined hands, "you've gotten out at the wrong stop. If you tell the nice man where you live, he'll drive you home." He pressed Ray into the car, carefully, more circumspectly than Ray had touched him.
It was only when he let go of Ray's hand and straightened up that he noticed the dimming of Ray's smile. The shape of his expression did not change, but the light went out, and Ben realized, too late, that it was Ray who had not let go of his hand, and not the other way around. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could think of words, the driver reached back through the partition and pulled the door shut, and Ben's sight of Ray was dimmed and distorted by the streetlight glare off the cab's window. He took a step back from the curb without turning away, and watched him go, reminding himself that this was the way Ray had wanted it, when he'd been in a position to know what he wanted. Anything else would have risked the rupture of their easy camaraderie, and for what? Mere sex, mere contact, couldn't possibly be worth the risk.
Still, the walk up the stairs to his apartment seemed excruciatingly long and silent, knowing that Ray would have insisted on taking the elevator, and would have been breathing beside him all the way up.
It wasn't that Ray had a hangover. He didn't. The stomachful-of-water-before-bed-and-aspirin-every-other-time-you-get-up-to-take-a-piss regimen still worked as well as it had in juniors, except for the burn in his stomach that probably meant he'd counted wrong and taken a few too many aspirin.
It wasn't a hangover, anyway, and he hadn't drunk enough to have any blank spots. Things were sort of blurry here and there, but he remembered the whole night. And one of the things he remembered was sitting alone in the back of a cab, watching Fraser get further away, and thinking that he'd just done something really, incredibly, moving back to Chicago and stalking Stella, D-U-M, dumb. He just couldn't remember what the hell it was he'd done. He was hoping that when he saw Fraser, it would either come back to him or he'd just forget about the bad feeling, but all the way to United, he just kept seeing Fraser, standing there in that rumpled suit and watching him leave.
Ray was still thinking about that, and about how he was just going to casually nod to Fraser and say good morning, as he walked into the arena. He nodded vaguely to the security guy and started toward the locker room area, but he waved Ray over, looking frantic. "What is it, Sandor?"
Sandor looked around like somebody was going to beat him if they overheard, and then said, in a dramatic whisper, "They got Dewey."
Ray blinked, shook off the last of his thoughts about the night before, and processed Sandor's words. "Dewey? Tom Dewey?"
Like there was another medium-priced centerman, seasoned but not yet old, with the last name Dewey, on the market. "Jesus." Ray's shoulders slumped, and he stood there, staring at the cinderblock wall, trying to fathom the news. When he heard a familiar step approaching, he whirled, desperately, and grabbed Fraser by the shirtfront. "Fraser," he said, and then pointed at Sandor, helpless to say it.
"They got Dewey," Sandor explained. "He's in the locker room now, he'll be practicing with you guys today. They're gonna do the press conference during your lunch break."
"He's here now?" Ray noticed Fraser's wince, and realized he'd kind of shouted that. He forced himself to let go of Fraser's t-shirt, patting it back into place where he'd stretched it, feeling weirdly miserable and unable to meet Fraser's eyes.
"Ray," Fraser said, quietly, "Come on." Ray felt Fraser take him by the arm and tow him along the hallway, but instead of dragging him into the locker room and making him talk to Dewey, Fraser opened the door to a supply closet and pulled him inside.
It was dark in there, and small, and smelled like paper products and industrial cleaning supplies and damp mops. The back of Fraser's hand brushed his face, and then there was a click and the light came on. Fraser dropped the string, drawing his hand back from Ray's face. "Now," Fraser said, "Why don't you explain this to me, slowly, keeping in mind when you do that I come from the distant North."
Ray ran his hands through his hair. "It's Tom Dewey, Fraser. I hate that guy."
Fraser blinked. "Ray, he's twenty-eight years old. He's been in California and Vancouver since he was drafted. You can't have played more than eleven games against him in the entirety of your career."
Ray glared at Fraser, crossing his arms over his chest, unspeakably frustrated at being made to explain himself, especially when he couldn't find any words. "He's too small," he snapped, finally.
Fraser licked his lip, giving Ray a look he couldn't read, and then said gently, "He won't need to be big, with Jack on the right, and you on the left. You'll be playing down low, taking the abuse, and Jack will handle a lot of the forechecking, and any of the defensive pairings are big enough to back you all up. He'll use his mobility and his speed. You and he together will be a good match for quickness--"
Ray shook his head, turning away, staring at the deep metal sink, trying to blot out the sound of Fraser saying he and Dewey were a good match. "I just hate him, Fraser. I just do, it's just a thing, you can't reason it out."
He heard Fraser, shifting from foot to foot behind him, and wondered what the hell they were doing in a supply closet, why the hell they were talking about this when there was nothing they could do. He turned, sharply, to push past Fraser and out the door, to get to the locker room, get his gear on, get on with doing the thing that might or might not turn out to be his job, but Fraser caught his arm and stopped him short. "No one they got would have been Louis, Ray."
Ray wanted to hit something--the door and Fraser seemed like equally appealing options--but he pressed his open hands to the painted metal surface instead, and stared at the skin of his knuckles. "Then I would have hated anyone they got, wouldn't I?"
Fraser's hand tightened on his arm, but he didn't say anything for a while, just stayed there behind him, holding on so he couldn't do anything stupid.
Stupid. Ray let his head fall forward, coming to rest against the door with a thunk. It was nice and cool. Fraser's hand was hot. "Fraser," Ray said, wondering if there was any cool and not-incriminating way to say it. "I didn't do anything incredibly stupid last night, did I?"
Fraser was silent for a second, and just when Ray was about to start pounding his head against the door and praying to lose consciousness, he said, "You did make that toast to your home planet in a distant galaxy, to which you can never return. And I think you may have repeated it in French afterward."
One side of Ray's mouth curled up into a smile, and his felt his heart start to slow down. "Yeah, but did I do anything embarrassing?"
"No, Ray. You were a perfect gentleman." Ray did turn, then, and look at Fraser, because that was kind of a weird way to put it. Fraser dropped his hand quickly as Ray turned, because otherwise he'd have had his arm sort of around him and obviously that was not happening here.
Ray nodded slowly, on board with this like Fraser clearly wanted him to be. "Okay," he said, "as long as I didn't do anything dumb."
Fraser just shook his head this time, and Ray leaned back against the door and closed his eyes for a second, pulling himself together. "We just gotta go in there--I just gotta do this. I'm not that guy that gets a bug up his ass and won't play. I can do this."
"I have every confidence in you, Ray." Ray opened his eyes at that, because the way Fraser said it, it was like he really did. Fraser even looked like he believed it. Ray gave him a tight little smile and didn't argue, just fumbled the door open and headed out into the hallway.
When they got to the locker room door, Fraser said, "Ray," and when Ray turned around, Fraser smiled. Ray, dutifully, smiled back, though it obviously didn't look right, since Fraser winced, then carefully smiled again. Ray tried harder this time. Fraser looked worried, but cleared his face and smiled yet again. Ray gave him his biggest, fakest shit-eating grin. Fraser nodded, and they headed inside, Ray grinning so hard his face hurt.
Dewey was standing in the middle of the locker room, talking a mile a minute to everybody or nobody. When Ray walked in he looked to the door and jumped back in fake shock. "Jesus," he said, "Kowalski! Blast from the past! I heard they had you up on skates again, but I didn't believe it!"
Ray didn't think, he just jumped, that grin still plastered on his face. He came up short, hauled backward, while other hands caught Dewey as he scrambled back in actual fear, and they were dragged in opposite directions. Fraser let go of Ray in front of his locker, and Ray was surprised, when he got a look at Fraser's face, to see him looking actually angry. Ray touched his arm, lightly, just with his fingertips, and smiled. The fury seemed to go out of Fraser as if it had never been there, and he was good old Glacier Fraser again, smiling his clean white smile with one crooked tooth.
Ray took a deep breath and sat down on the bench, unlacing his shoes, and watched through his eyelashes as Fraser went over to Dewey, shook his hand, and said, "Why, hello there. Tom Dewey, isn't it? I've always wondered, are you any relation to the famous American politician Thomas Dewey?"
Dewey looked confused, and then said, "I don't think so. Before me the Deweys mostly sold fish."
Fraser just said, "Ah," and went over to his own locker, but Ray smiled sincerely and viciously as he kicked his shoes off.
"So," she said, leaning closer to him, "I understand you're single, is that right?"
Ben leaned back, trying desperately to establish a normal amount of personal space. He was sitting on the bench in front of his locker, dressed only in the t-shirt and knit shorts he'd wear under his pads and uniform, holding a pair of socks in his hand. Ms. Vecchio--Francesca, she'd said, Call me Francesca--stood before him, her legs bare and curvy and illusively long between her short skirt and preposterous heels. As she bent over him, her press badge swayed slightly, dangling from the perilously low neckline of her tiny shirt. Her skin--of which there was a quite generous portion displayed from this angle, all soft lush curves and shadows--was almost golden. She smelled faintly of something feminine and clean, so alien in the locker room as to be actually disorienting. Ben tore his eyes away, and looked down at his balled socks, his hand clenching and relaxing around them, and said, "A widower, actually."
It was a status which, in combination with his natural reserve, had somewhat protected him from attentions such as these for the last few years in Edmonton. He'd had a longstanding reputation for simply disappearing on women who pushed him, and none of them, knowing better, had been quite this blatant. "Oh, ohh, Fraser--Benton--Ben--I'm sorry, I completely--I'm so--" She reached for his hand and caught his left wrist, her thumb landing on a scar that cut diagonally across the bone at the outside of his arm. Ben's rising startled glance caught her with her other hand covering her face, blocking his view of everything but her dark curling hair. He jerked back from the touch instinctively, feeling suddenly cold and exposed in his half-dressed state, though he knew the room was warm, and Ren was kneeling unremarkably two lockers away clad in only his jock strap, searching for matching socks in the depths of his locker.
Ms. Vecchio, her hand still on his wrist, dropped down, almost sitting on her heels, and said in a calmer voice, "Hey, where'd you get that bad boy, Fraser?"
Ben swallowed hard, and forced himself to keep his composure, to resist the urge to shake off her grip on his arm. He said, "It was a bad slash." Ms. Vecchio frowned, and Ben looked away as the locker room door opened, and Ray slipped inside. He hesitated in the doorway, and when their eyes met, Ben was finally able to take a breath, closing his eyes to savor it.
When he opened them, he could see that Ray had spotted Ms. Vecchio; he was scowling down in her direction, and had stayed just inside the doorway instead of heading over to his locker. Ben looked to Ms. Vecchio, who had fallen silent and was staring up at him with an expression he had no desire to comprehend in her eyes, and smiled weakly, hoping to keep her attention on himself.
Ray, he had learned over one of their innumerable breakfasts, hated talking to reporters. Ben had thought the assertion odd, since he recalled seeing Ray interviewed on television any number of times, and he'd always seemed to be enjoying himself, or at least was much less obviously petrified by the camera than most, but then Ben knew perfectly well that appearances could be deceiving. When he looked up again, he hoped to see that Ray had made good his escape. He could always send someone to pick up his gear, and change in the therapy room or out in the hallway, where most of the prospects who hadn't been quick enough to claim lockers were currently squatting.
Incredibly, Ray was still standing in the doorway, and when he met Ben's eyes again, he nodded grimly and then stepped inside, smiling quite plausibly and calling out, "Hey, Fraser, how's it hanging?" Ms. Vecchio's head turned toward him instantly, and her eyes lit up. Ben realized then that Ray had just extricated him and Ms. Vecchio both from the wreckage of what had been meant, after all, to be a quite casual and superficial interview.
Ray was, merely by virtue of attending training camp this year, a bona fide story. A Cinderella story, Ms. Vecchio would probably call it--Ben drew another long breath, and smiled at the thought of how Ray would carry on at that headline--but it would be good for him. A story certainly couldn't hurt his chances of being signed, and would gain him fan support. It would do Ray good to have clippings again, and fans in the stands wearing his jersey. Ben could easily see where the promise of such attention would overcome even Ray's apparently hearty dislike of being interviewed.
Ms. Vecchio patted Ben on the knee, suddenly and reassuringly impersonal, and got to her feet, heading over toward Ray's locker with a pronounced swing to her hips. Ben leaned down and pulled his socks on, but went on watching Ray, who was standing facing into his locker. When Ms. Vecchio greeted him he turned, pulling off his t-shirt over his head as he did so, stretching, catlike, showing off every bit as much as Ms. Vecchio had been since the moment she entered the locker room. Belatedly realizing that a man could have more than one reason to wish to draw a woman reporter's attention, Ben looked away. Perfectly natural, of course; Ray wanted nothing to do with him, after all, and Ms. Vecchio was a lovely woman. Still, Ben couldn't resist listening.
"Ray-Kay, you're back!"
"You noticed." Ray's tone was flat, pointedly uninviting. Ben couldn't fathom why he'd made such a blatant attempt to attract Ms. Vecchio's attention when he so obviously didn't want it, unless...
His hands stilled in lacing up his heavy hockey pants, and Ben half turned, looking across the locker room to where Ray was slouching against the side of his locker, arms crossed defensively over his chest. Nothing was on display now but his tattoo, and as Ben thought it, Ray's fingers closed protectively around his upper arm, hiding even that. Ray was rattling off what he appeared to consider the facts Ms. Vecchio needed to know in a bored monotone. "--unrepresented and unsigned. No wife, no kids, no dog. You'll get my file photo with everybody else's, or else you won't." Ray's bored look remained steady as he looked up over Ms. Vecchio's shoulder, but when he met Ben's eye, he winked, almost too quickly to see.
Ben turned back to his locker and finished dressing quickly, grabbing his skates and slipping out without bothering to put them on, as Ray went on insisting that he was not giving any personal interviews. "What part of 'no, not ever,' do you not understand, Ms. Vecchio? Dot it, file it, stick it--"
Ben slipped across the hall to the therapy room, the doctor's domain, and sat down on a massage table to put on his skates. Dr. Gustafson emerged a moment later from the small room he called his office, where he usually handled suturing and any other procedures that required a modicum of sterility, privacy, or both. "Benton, good morning!"
Ben tied off his skate, and looked up. "Good morning, Doctor--"
"Ah, ah, ah." Dr. Gustafson waved one thick finger in admonition. "I have told you and told you."
Ben smiled, and started on his other skate. "Good morning, Mort."
"Much better. And how are you feeling this morning? In need of some doctoring?"
"Oh, no," Ben said quickly, "No. I'm fine."
Mort laughed, probably because players generally had to be actually unable to stand unsupported before they'd give any other answer to that question, and said, "As healthy as a horse, I suppose?"
"As healthy as a whole herd of horses, I promise." Skates done, Ben got down from the table. "I'm just waiting for Ray to finish having his hands wrapped."
Mort glanced ostentatiously around the room. "But first you are waiting for him to start?"
Ben scraped his thumbnail across one eyebrow. "Well, yes, I suppose I am."
Mort smiled and nodded as though that made perfect sense, and went to the cabinet, taking out a roll of thick bandage and a pair of scissors and laying them on the table where Ben had sat, all the while humming something vaguely operatic.
Ben was just beginning to feel a bit ridiculous when his gloves came flying through the open doorway from the corridor. He caught them both as Ray stepped through, his own gloves tucked under one arm, his hands bare. "You forgot something," Ray said, quite unnecessarily, "Not that I blame you. Our Ms. Vecchio is some piece of work, isn't she?"
Ray didn't wait for an answer, going straight to the massage table and hopping up to sit beside the supplies, raising his hands to chest height. Mort began the process of wrapping Ray's hands, and Ben drifted closer to watch. It was like magic, seemingly enormous lengths of gauze being stretched and folded and tucked around Ray's hands to become compact taped bundles. Mort hummed, and when Ben glanced up from the tangle of hands and bandages, Ray had tilted his head back and was staring up at the fluorescent lights.
Ben forgot to look away, and as Mort stepped away with the leftover supplies in hand, Ray looked down and caught him staring. Ben opened his mouth to say something, but Ray put up his white-wrapped fists. Ben raised open hands, and Ray feinted first at one, then the other, making only the lightest of contacts, gauze and tape to skin. It tickled a little, and Ben's fingers twitched, but he didn't look away from Ray's intent gaze until Mort came back to ask Ray if he thought the tape would hold.
Ben turned and shoved his gloves on, drowning the tingle in his skin under the familiar flex of leather, and behind him Ray said, "Yeah, this'll work."
Ray stood at the door to Coach's office, staring at his hands. Yesterday, they'd come out of his gloves at the end of the day with the taped bandages all soaked in blood. Today he thought they looked a little better, but a solid day on the ice hadn't done them any favors. He should've gotten them bandaged up again after he took off the day's wraps from under his gloves, but Coach had said he wanted to see him and Ray didn't think he could hold still long enough for Mort to clean his hands and make everything all pretty. His knuckles might look like hamburger, but they weren't actually dripping anymore. Anyway, he had a feeling this wasn't going to take long.
Ray closed his eyes for a second, squared his shoulders, and knocked, gingerly, with the heel of his hand. Before he'd even lowered his arm, Coach said, "Come on in, Kowalski."
Coach was sitting at his desk, and waved for him to have a seat. As soon as Ray had his butt in the chair, Welsh leaned forward. "You know I don't make personnel decisions," he said, "and you know I said I couldn't promise you anything."
Ray looked away and down, nodding, wishing he'd just say it already, just tell him to go home and get on with his broken-down life.
"So it's not exactly my place, but I wanted to be the one to do this," Coach said, and then there was a thwack of paper against the desk, and Ray looked up, to Coach's smiling face first, and then down at the contract.
"Holy shit," he said, and scooted the chair up so he could get a good look at it. Stella had made him read every contract he'd ever signed, walking him through the first ones with a dictionary and a law textbook. He knew the legalese now; it was another code he'd had to crack to play the game, like speaking French, like reading the action on the ice. He skimmed quickly; it was standard language, all the usual terms. He turned the pages, looking for the important stuff. A year for seven fifty, which was really pretty damn generous of them. An option at the team's discretion to activate him for a second year. Then Ray hit a paragraph he'd never seen before in any contract he'd ever signed.
He looked up at Welsh, who looked like he knew exactly what Ray had gotten stuck on. "Coach?"
"Yeah, Kowalski?" Coach wasn't laughing at him, Ray didn't think, or at least not in a bad way.
Ray looked down at the contract again, ran his fingertips over the words like he'd gone blind and could feel the sense of them that he couldn't see. "Coach, this is a no-trade clause on a one-year contract."
Coach nodded, not smiling anymore. "Yeah, Kowalski, I have to apologize. You'd have had paper in your hands two days ago, if I hadn't tied them up arguing for that."
Ray shook his head, feeling like he'd just gotten his bell rung. "You didn't have to--"
"I know what I don't have to do, Kowalski. But I'm the coach here and I know my players, and I know you. I want you to come and play every night, and I don't want you distracted for half the season wondering if they're going to deal you for some rookie. When I do promise you something, Kowalski, it's because it's down in black and white, and I am promising you, right now, that if you sign to play for me, you're not getting traded." Ray looked up then, and Coach met his eye squarely, and when he spoke, his voice was softer. "Look, Kowalski, I was there, in Quebec."
Ray had been there in Quebec, too, right up until he was suddenly in Boston, and he really did not want to go into it. He was just trying to figure out a good way to tell that to the man who'd just handed him a contract--a contract--when somebody knocked on the door and saved him from whatever stupid thing he was about to say.
Welsh glanced at him, and Ray shook his head quickly; he was done talking. Coach nodded to him and called out, "Come on in."
It was Fraser, holding a home jersey. Ray noticed the black patch on the right shoulder--Gardie's number eleven would be the angel on all their shoulders this season--before he saw the A on the left. "Sir," Fraser said. "I don't understand."
Welsh sat back in his seat. "It's a jersey, Fraser. It's the same design as the other guys so you know who's on your team, and it's got your name and number on it so everybody can tell who you are."
Fraser shifted uncertainly. "It's also got an A on it so that everyone knows I'm an alternate captain," Fraser said, like he wasn't sure he had that right.
"Yeah," Welsh said, sitting forward now, giving Fraser a look that Ray wouldn't have liked to be on the other side of, a look that said "Are you about to disappoint me?" Sure enough, what Coach actually said was, "You got a problem with everybody knowing you're an alternate captain, Fraser? Am I asking too much of you, here?"
Fraser almost snapped to attention, and Ray bit the inside of his cheek, hard. "No! No, of course not. I will endeavor to fulfill the role of alternate captain to the fullest extent of my abilities."
"Do or do not, Fraser, there is no 'endeavor.' Are we clear? Because I could ask Denny to take the A back if you don't want it."
Fraser actually somehow straightened up further, and he was holding on so hard to that jersey now that Ray was pretty sure it'd take dynamite to get it out of his hand, A and all. Coach knew exactly what he was doing there. "I will, Coach."
Coach nodded firmly. "Good. Then maybe you'd like to make your first official act as an A welcoming Kowalski here to the team."
Fraser turned then, and saw Ray for the first time. Ray held up the sheaf of paper that would make it official, and Fraser grinned hugely for a second, and then frowned. "Ray, your hands."
Ray lowered his hands quickly, but Coach was looking, too, so Ray laid them flat on the desk for inspection. Coach leaned over, looking carefully. "What's Mort say?"
Ray shrugged. "He doesn't think I need skin grafts."
Coach nodded, and Ray figured the state of his hands was no surprise at all. "Kowalski," Coach said, with a certain not-quite-warning tone.
"I know, Coach," Ray said quickly, not wanting to bring up the promise he'd made in front of Fraser. Even if Fraser could probably figure out Ray was in no shape to fight, he hated to have anyone know that he wasn't allowed. "Like I said before. I won't let you down."
Coach nodded, and then jerked his chin toward the door. "Get outta here, then. Go pick up your jersey, and give your agent a call. They'll be making the formal offer to you in the morning, down at the front office."
Ray nodded, and picked up his contract, holding onto the papers as tightly as Fraser held his jersey, as they walked back to the locker room together. "Teammates," he said, quietly, halfway there, and Fraser just looked at him and smiled. Ray finally realized that this was really happening, and started to laugh.
Ben's apartment had been chosen for him by someone who worked for the Blackhawks, since he had not, at the time he was traded, had much time to look for a place to live. It hadn't occurred to him to specify amenities such as 'windows that open' and complaining afterward had seemed in poor taste. It was a nice apartment in any case, with lots of windows and central air and a balcony. Ben had opened that one route to the outdoors, and was sitting at his kitchen table, in the direct path of the breeze, which at his apartment's fairly considerable altitude was constant. He had the radio on the table at his elbow, tuned to the AM station that carried the Blackhawks' games. The preseason matches weren't generally televised, and since he hadn't been chosen to go on the road trip, this was as close as he could get to the action.
It was hard to get a real sense of the game from radio commentary, but by the end of the first period, Ben was beginning to fear that his teammates were headed for another valiantly-fought loss, like the one with which they'd opened the preseason two nights before in Calgary. They'd already been scored on three times, and the announcers were quite clear on the fact that the latter two goals had been entirely the result of breakdowns in the Blackhawks' play, and not the goalie's fault at all. Every mention of Ray's line so far had been unreservedly negative, and Ben was dreading the intermission summary when the phone rang.
He knew, of course, that it couldn't possibly be Ray. Ray had barely had time to get off the ice after the end of the period, and was doubtless sitting in the visitors' locker room now, being berated along with the rest of the team for their collectively shoddy play. Ben found he had an almost premonitory sense of who was calling him, and picked up on the third ring anyway.
"Hello," he said.
"Hey, Bent," Mark replied, "I just knew if you got left home you'd actually be home. I suppose you're watching the game?"
"Listening," he replied. "I'm south of the border now, remember. They don't televise the preseason here."
"Fucking barbarians," Mark agreed. "You do know there won't be a quiz or anything, right? You could always just check the score later. Get out of the house, do something fun with your free time."
Ben smiled, and sat back down at the table, turning down the radio so that it wouldn't distract him unduly. "You know, Mark, some people who play team sports, particularly when they do so at a competitive level, enjoy keeping track of the exploits of their team, even when they are for some reason not personally involved."
Mark snorted. "Look, Bent, it doesn't count for anything--if it did, you'd be there. It's just playtime for the prospects and fourth-stringers and shit."
Ben flexed his bare toes idly against the linoleum, momentarily caught by a vivid recollection of their last phone conversation, and said, "After sixteen years, I had worked out the purpose of the preseason, actually."
Mark laughed. "Well, if you need anything else explained, just ask me, right?"
"I always do."
They both fell silent, then, and Ben winced at the radio commentator's speculation that Jeff might be replaced by his backup after his unfortunate first period. Mark said, "Why don't you come up to Winnipeg? We're on a home stand and I'm not playing in tomorrow's game anyway. We could hang out."
"We could fuck," Mark amended.
"Ah," Ben said, and considered it. Chicago was very quiet, and rather boring, with most of the team gone. With, he could admit, if only to himself, Ray gone. "No," he said after a moment, "We still have daily practices. And the Saturday game is being televised, so a few of us are watching it at Jack's place."
"Huh," Mark said, and Ben would have given even odds on him suggesting skipping the practices, but instead he asked, "How's Huey doing, anyway?"
"Oh, very well. He should be able to play the last few games of the preseason."
"Lucky bastard," Mark opined, and Ben, recalling Jack's broken voice describing the accident, didn't try to correct him.
Another little silence followed, and then the radio caught Ben's attention. "I have to go," he said, "the game's coming back on."
"Yeah, okay, blow some kisses south to your boyfriend for me."
Ben's jaw dropped, but before he could correct any of Mark's erroneous assumptions, there was a hang-up click and a dial tone. Ben sighed and shook his head and hung up his own phone with a small smile, which faded as he turned up the radio again. It was almost unbearable--though he had no choice but to bear it--being here in his apartment as the sun set, so far from his team. Even if the contest meant nothing, he hated not being able to lend himself to it. His hands curled into fists with the effort of not reaching out to touch the radio, as though that would bring him somehow closer to the action described, to his teammates hundreds of miles away without him.
Ray sat in the hotel bar, glaring at his water. Coach had ordered them all to stay in the hotel, but had stopped short of actually confining them to their rooms, as a backhanded kind of reward for pulling out a win in the end. Ray hadn't really wanted to come down, but there were some things you just had to do, and when everybody was going to the bar, you went to the bar.
Everybody except Hack, anyway, who hadn't said a word to any of them since the end of the first, when he announced he wasn't speaking to them anymore. He was in his room now, not answering the door no matter how much Ray knocked. Ray had spent a few minutes with his ear to the door, and he had a sneaking suspicion that Hack was on the phone with his wife, but he hadn't mentioned that to any of the other guys. They were all willing to buy the sulking explanation. They'd let Hack down big time, and goalies had to have a few eccentricities--hell, for a goalie, Hack was perfectly sane. Next to Eddie, anybody looked stable. Ray wondered, idly, if you only got to be a starting goalie because everybody was convinced you were completely out of your tree and the pressure couldn't actually make you worse.
Ray had had no real excuse not to come down, though, so here he was, drinking water instead of beer because he wanted the beer too badly, and they had to get up at ass o'clock to travel to... somewhere. On a plane, he thought. Ray looked up, squinting around the nondescript bar, and tried to remember what city they were in now. The other guys' jerseys had been... white. Everybody's home jerseys were white. Ray sipped some more of his water, and glanced back down the bar at Dewey, who was chatting up some overdone blonde with tits out to there, acting like he'd had a damn thing to do with their pointless win.
They'd managed not to make any more tries at killing each other, but Ray and Dewey didn't work any better on the ice than they did in the locker room or on the bus or anywhere else. Every time he tried to anticipate what Dewey was going to do in a game, he got it wrong, and when he tried to second-guess himself, he got it wronger. From the passes he wasn't getting, he had to guess Dewey was running into the same problem on his end.
Not that you could tell that from Dewey right now, with a beer in one hand and the other on that trashy chick's ass, any more than you could tell that Dewey had a baby daughter in California, and a wife trying to get things organized to move all the way across the country single-handed. Though to hand it to Dewey, Ray didn't think you could tell about the trashy blondes when he was on the phone with his wife, either. Still, the guy was a dick, and Ray didn't know how the hell they were going to pull it together on the ice.
And it was no good thinking about that week he'd spent playing one-on-one with Fraser, the way they'd clicked, like partners, like an unstoppable team of two. For one thing Fraser was still at home in Chicago, and b) this was a team, and you couldn't be a team with one other guy. He'd play with whoever Coach wanted him to play with, and if he couldn't make it work...
Ray sighed, took a sip of water, and glanced across the room at the big boisterous table full of his teammates who had had something to do with their win tonight, his road roommate smack in the middle of them.
If he couldn't make it work with Dewey, Ray thought, he'd be rooming with Sean all year. In Indianapolis. Playing for Chicago's farm team, waiting for somebody to get injured so he'd have another shot at the big leagues. Jesus. Forget the beer, Ray just wanted a cigarette. Those were off-limits too, though, so Ray took another grim sip of his water, and glanced up at Dewey again.
Dewey was getting to his feet, and the girl with him, and even as Ray was thinking, Jesus, what a fucking prick, he was standing up too, because if Dewey was taking off with his floozy then Ray wouldn't be the first to leave.
He stepped into the lobby just as Dewey and the girl got to the elevators, and Dewey spotted him from across the room, and made a little Going up? gesture. Ray shook his head, jerking his thumb down toward the other bank of elevators, and Dewey smiled and mouthed 'thanks.' Ray nodded back, and turned away. While he was waiting for his own solitary elevator, his pocket chirped.
Too tired and sick of everything to even wonder who was calling him, Ray picked up. "Yeah, what is it?"
"Ah, Ray? I'm sorry, did I call too late?"
The elevator dinged, and Ray grinned as he stepped inside and hit the button for his floor. "Nah, Fraser, you're fine, sorry, I'm just..." Ray waved his hand as the words failed him, even though Fraser couldn't see.
"Ah," Fraser said, differently. "Yes. I listened to the game on the radio."
Ray leaned against the wall of the elevator. "Yeah," he said, remembering it. He hoped Fraser didn't want a play-by-play. "Hey," he said, realizing that he could safely ask, "Fraser, I got a dumb question for you."
"You're in Dallas, Ray."
Ray blinked. "How did you know I didn't know?"
"Well, it's the first thing a lot of people forget on a road trip."
Ray stepped out of the elevator. "So, you're saying this was a logical conclusion? I'm on the road and I say dumb question and you say Dallas?"
"I'd call it an educated guess."
"Educated," Ray repeated, remembering that he'd heard, somewhere, that Fraser hadn't just played college hockey, he'd actually managed to finish college. Ray, on the other hand, was only halfway certain that he'd been graduated from the high school he'd been enrolled in, his first year in Montreal. If he had, it was mainly on the strength of being a hockey player, because his French hadn't been too good yet that year. Ray let himself into his room, and headed toward his bed without turning on the light, toeing off his shoes as he went and kicking them toward the wall so Sean wouldn't trip over them. He threw himself down on the bed, and said, "Fraser, you ever think about how you got where you are?"
"What do you mean, Ray? How I came to play pro hockey?"
"Yeah. You coulda done other stuff, you went to school, you're smart. I mean, and you're a great player, so I guess it was a no-brainer."
"So to speak," Fraser said, and then, "But yes, I suppose I felt that hockey was the best use of my talents. Didn't you feel that way?"
Ray rolled onto his back and stared into the darkness, idly undoing his pants, getting comfortable on the bed. "It was just a game, when I was a kid. My dad's cousin Ed, he played a season with the USHL in the sixties. When he washed out, he came and lived with us for a year or so while he looked for work in Chicago. I was three, and he was the one who taught me to play. I did all right, considering I couldn't see shit on the ice without my glasses, but I wasn't a star or anything. Still, Uncle Ed kept buying my gear, even sent me to hockey camp in the summer." Ray stopped and took a breath, giving Fraser a chance to say something like 'oh, how interesting,' and change the subject, but he just made a little curious noise, and Ray found himself going on. It was like picking a scab, gross and irresistible.
"The summer I turned thirteen, I met this girl--Gold Coast, private school, two hours a day figure skating with a private instructor, the works. She was way outta my league, I was lying like a maniac, and I was getting away with it. I talked her into coming down for the last day of hockey camp, when you could have your parents come and watch you do your stuff, and there she was up in the stands--not that I could see, but I knew she was there. Made me nervous as hell, and it was the same for all the other kids, it was crazy.
"So I'm doing a drill, and I lose the puck. I chase it toward the edge of the ice, and I run smack into somebody, an adult. I didn't even know who it was. He caught me, kept his arm around my shoulders, and he," Ray cleared his throat, slithered out of his pants, kicking them off the end of the bed. He'd never told anybody this part before, but he wanted, here in the dark hundreds of miles away and alone, to tell Fraser. He wanted Fraser to know the truth of him. "He said, 'Jesus, kid, quit now, my eight-year-old could outskate you.' As soon as he said it, I recognized him. It was Bobby Hull. Bobby Fucking Hull, Fraser. I had his card, I had a picture of him from the paper on my wall at home, I wanted to be him, I wore number nine whenever I could get it before somebody else. And he laughed. And I didn't know what else to do, so I laughed too, and skated back.
"Stella asked me, after, what Bobby Hull said to me, and I told her he said I was gonna be great if I just kept at it. And she believed that story, and she told it to everybody else, or made me tell it, and then--Bobby Hull had to always be my idol, and I always had to wear number nine, because everybody knew he told me I was going to be a star. And I just kept lying, to everyone, and they all bought it. They all believed me, believed I was something special. I mean, me and Stella got married and I still didn't tell her the truth, maybe, I dunno, maybe that's why we're not married now, because it was all a lie. I'm just a con job, Fraser, from start to finish." And that was the truth of it; Ray didn't know how he'd fooled Coach into giving him a contract, but the jig was going to be up any day now, and Ray was going to be packing his bags for Indy.
"On the contrary, Ray," Fraser said, softly, in his ear. "Whether you lied, to spare yourself some embarrassment or a great hockey player some well-deserved censure for being cruel to children, has no bearing on the player you are. Whatever motivated you to excel, you did it; you wouldn't have an NHL career if you hadn't."
Ray blinked at the ceiling, mostly relieved that Fraser didn't get it, didn't see that even if the thing was true now, it was also a lie, and it had been a lie first, and that made the truth of it rotten all through. Maybe there was no one true thing he could say that would cut through all the lies. Maybe he would never be able to stop lying, even if he never said another word that wasn't true.
All Ray said was, "Huh."
Fraser was quiet on the other end; Ray couldn't hear him breathing, exactly, but somehow he knew that Fraser was still there. Even if he didn't get it, he'd heard what Ray wanted to tell him, and that put him out ahead of everybody else Ray had ever known, so he mustered up a smile and said, "Fraser, don't tell anybody I told you this, but Bobby Hull is an asshole."
"I'll keep it under my helmet," Fraser promised, and Ray could hear him smiling back. "Ray, wasn't Brett Hull eight when you were thirteen?"
Ray grinned. Fraser and his educated guesses again. "Yeah, he was, Fraser. Funny coincidence, huh?"
"The two of you get into fistfights every time you're both on the ice because his father..." Fraser trailed off, and Ray's smile slipped a little.
"To start with, maybe," Ray said quickly, into the silence, and it wasn't a lie, it wasn't. "Now we just fight because we always fight." Except, Ray thought, flexing one hand and then the other, he wasn't allowed to fight anymore, and the Hawks would be playing the Blues five times this year. Indy didn't sound so bad, all of a sudden, except then the phone was as close as he'd ever get to Fraser, and the phone wasn't much, just a little lump of plastic in his hand.
"I should let you go," Fraser said, just when Ray was wondering what else he could say to keep him on the line. "You'll have an early start in the morning."
"Yeah," Ray said. Fraser's voice sounded small, making him aware of all the hundreds of miles between Dallas and Chicago. Fraser hadn't seemed so far away when Ray didn't know what city he was in, when he couldn't hear the miles of echoing dark between them. "Yeah, you're right. I should, uh, I should get some sleep."
"Yes," Fraser said. "Sleep well, Ray."
"Yeah, you too, Fraser." Ray clicked off and tossed his phone in the direction of his pants, and his shirt after them both. A while after that, it occurred to him to get under the covers, and then he was just lying there in a dark, quiet hotel room, waiting to sleep.
He could hear, far away down the hall, somebody laughing, stumbling out of the elevator. The sound came a little closer, then disappeared behind a slammed door, and the whole floor was quiet again, and road trips weren't supposed to be like this, they gave you a roommate for a reason. Ray was debating putting his clothes back on, going down to the bar and getting plastered with the guys, when the door opened, throwing hallway light onto his bed.
Ray rolled away from the glare, hiding his face in his pillow, and listened as Sean's heavy unsteady footsteps came closer, pausing between the beds. After a minute, two hundred twenty pounds of solid young defenseman eased onto the edge of Ray's bed, and a big hand settled, warm and weighty, on the back of his neck. Ray kept still.
"Hey," Sean muttered, "Heeey, Ray-Kay, you awake? Whyja take off like that?"
Ray just snorted into the pillow. God, the kid was wasted. Sean shifted on the mattress, leaning over him, sliding his hand down to Ray's shoulder and rubbing one cheek against the back of Ray's neck, like a friendly cat offering comfort. "Aww, it's not so bad, K'walski, really. I mean, Dewey's--"
Ray lifted his head from the pillow, only partly because it meant pressing back into Sean's touch, to say, "Dewey's Dewey."
"Yeah," Sean muttered, turning his head, so his nose was in Ray's hair, breathing across his nape and making Ray shiver just a little, "Yeah, yeah exactly. Dewey's Dewey, man, and you're you."
Ray turned his head, so Sean's face was pressed against his throat, and shifted his hips against the mattress at the same time. He didn't need to get to sleep just yet, if the kid had something else in mind. "And you're drunk."
Sean giggled and wrapped an arm around Ray. The weight of it was more reassuring than confining, and his fingers petting idly along Ray's arm were something else completely. "Yeah, course I am. I'm legal now, and I tied the game. Big comeback goal. That was me."
"You know," Ray muttered, shifting sideways a little on the bed, so his hip was up against Sean's, "I think I heard somebody say something about that over the loudspeaker. I mean, I was there, at the game."
"Yeah," Sean said, and Ray could feel the words, wet against his skin. "I know that, man, you're on my team." Sean's hand on top of the blanket slid down to the small of Ray's back.
"Oh, is that so?" Ray worked one arm free from the blankets and set a hand on Sean's knee, fingertips finding the inseam of his jeans. "I thought you were on my team."
Sean chuckled so low Ray could almost feel it, and butted his curly head against Ray's jaw. "We're both on the same team, how about that, huh, roomie?"
Ray turned onto his side, so that Sean's hand on his back slid onto his hip, and said, "Why'd you come up here after me, anyway, kid?"
"You're on my team," Sean said. Ray moved his hand higher, feeling the flex of muscle through the denim under his fingers, waiting for any sign that Sean wasn't into this and getting nothing but the slight encouragement of the kid shifting his knees wider. "I thought, y'know, old as you are, you might need somebody to help you out. Make sure you hadn't fallen down or anything."
"Old?" Ray slid his hand all the way up, his fingers curling around the hot weight of Sean's balls, thumbing back and forth across his hard on, listening for the little hitch of the kid's breath that came right on cue. "I'm not old, rookie, you're just too young. You're probably not even old enough to wash your own hair."
Sean tugged the blanket down, his fingers sliding easily under the waist of Ray's jockeys, straight to the point and no mistaking. Ray sucked in his breath, aching, and God, it was good to have somebody else touching him. Even if it was just the kid's calloused fingertips on his hip, it was skin. "Who says I wanna wash my hair?"
"I do." Ray took his hand away from the kid and sat up. They weren't going to do this like this. "Come on, Sean-o, you're drunk, you smell, you need a shower. Upsie daisy."
Ray stood, pulling Sean up with him, and steered them both to the bathroom with a bare minimum of tripping. He turned on the light just outside the bathroom as they stepped in, so there was enough light to see by, but not so much they were both blind. Then Sean started pulling his clothes off, and Ray started helping him, and within a couple of minutes they were leaning up against the wall beside the shower, skin to skin.
Sean was leaning on him, not dead weight yet but headed there, licking Ray's shoulder in wet, sloppy stripes and rubbing his dick against Ray's hip. Ray could feel the wetness from that, cool on his skin as Sean moved, and his own dick throbbed in sympathy. Just when he got his hand onto the taps, Sean got a hand onto Ray, and Ray bit his lip and closed his eyes, trying to focus. Whose bright idea had the shower been, anyway?
Sean wasn't really jerking him off, just holding on, and even that made Ray a little dizzy. All this contact, skin on skin so close and real and warm, no chance of anybody misunderstanding anything, because you didn't need words for this, and he couldn't resist pushing into that loose grip, just once. The water falling on his outstretched hand felt about right, and Ray didn't think either of them would notice much if it wasn't. Ray turned his head toward Sean and lost track of what he was doing at the sight of the kid. His eyes were lowered, dark long curls of eyelashes on his cheeks, his face shadowed with the light behind him making his reddish hair all gold, licking diligently across the top edge of Ray's tattoo. Ray bit his tongue hard enough to help, and when he could let up on that enough to talk, he said, "Hey."
Sean looked up and smiled, open-mouthed. Ray could smell the beer on his breath, and his own mouth watered as he watched Sean lick his lip.
Then, pressing his own mouth shut, shaking himself into motion, Ray helped Sean into the shower, pushing him up against the corner where he could lean easily. Sean sagged, legs braced apart, one arm against the tile, like he'd done this before enough times to know exactly what he was doing. Ray smiled, palms sliding easily against Sean's pale skin with the water running down everywhere. When his hands got down to the kid's hips, Sean thrust against the touch, his dick jerking eagerly. Ray's smile only widened as he slid down to his knees.
There was a minute where he was conscious of the hard tile under his knees, the spray hitting his face, and then Sean shifted positions and everything lined up, his knee against Ray's side and a hard thigh under Ray's arm. Ray's hand curled around Sean's dick, hot and hard and wet-slick, and here at last was something he could open his mouth to. He licked, first, down the length of Sean's cock. The taste of him was thinned by water, but the feel was just right against his tongue, just exactly what he wanted. Sean made a breathless noise somewhere above him, above the splashing of water, and Ray opened his mouth and took him inside.
Just a little at first. The head rested on his tongue, leaking bitter-salty, and then deeper, till his lips met his fist. Sean pushed in further, a slow smooth roll of his hips, and Ray rocked with him. He loved the heat and hardness in his mouth, his stopped breath making his head feel light and his cock throb, heavy with blood. Ray knew the kid didn't need anything fancy now, just to get off before he passed out, so he sucked hard, stroking up with his hand when he had to breathe.
The sounds Sean was making slid over him like water, but he felt the end coming an instant before, just enough warning to pull back and catch the first spurt in his mouth instead of down his throat. The second caught him on the face, and then Ray was pulling himself up Sean's body, stroking him through the last of it. He swallowed without really thinking, then looked quickly at Sean's face, but the kid had his eyes shut, and hadn't noticed. His eyes opened then, and Sean got his arms around Ray, pulling him close, and, murmured, "Hey, you've got--" He licked down Ray's cheek and along the corner of his mouth.
Ray closed his eyes for a second, panting at the rough-slick slide of the kid's tongue, and thrust once, twice, hard into the groove of his hip, pulling away from Sean's mouth as he did. The kid's lips worked hungrily, separated from skin, and Ray raised his hand, dragging two fingers across Sean's lower lip and then shoving them into his mouth. The kid's eyes fluttered shut, and he was sucking hard, his teeth on Ray's skin solid points in the soft wet heat. Sean's hands slid down to Ray's ass, and he gave Ray's fingers a last lick and let go. He moved to kneel, ready to return the favor, but Ray stopped him, using both hands to hold him to the wall. "No way," he said, distantly surprised that he could form words, "you get down, I'm not going to be able to get you back up. You'll be sleeping in the tub." Sean licked his lips, watching Ray with heavy-lidded eyes, and Ray had to turn his face away from that lazy swipe of tongue, that invitation. Sean's hands pushed at him, and Ray got what he meant and turned, settling his back against the kid's chest. The kid took a lot of his weight, solid and sturdy and well-propped himself, and Ray let his head fall back against Sean's shoulder as Sean's hands found his dick.
He was close, so fucking close, and couldn't resist thrusting into Sean's hand as soon as it closed around him. Ray felt fingers between his legs and spread for them, propping one foot on the edge of the tub. He arched into the double touch, Sean's stroking grip on his cock, Sean's fingers cupping his balls and then moving back, pressing into the sweet spot, and Ray shut his eyes, and came open-mouthed, gasping, with Sean's hot wet mouth on his throat.
They stayed that way a while, while Ray struggled to catch his breath. He could feel Sean's heart pounding against his back, one big hand resting now on his stomach, fingers still making little stroking motions, the other heavy and still on his thigh. Ray raised one hand to scrub it through Sean's curly hair, which had barely gotten wet, as the kid continued to mouth at his throat. Sean made a sleepy mmmmm noise at Ray's touch, and Ray fumbled around with his other hand and managed to shut off the water. Sean's arms tightened around him, holding him in place, and Sean raised his head and muttered, "Cold," against Ray's ear.
"Yeah," Ray agreed, pushing free far enough to grab towels from the rack, Sean's hands sliding along his wet skin, patches of warmth that wouldn't quite let him go. "Gotta dry off and get to bed, now, come on." Ray had to help Sean with the towels, and then guided him back out of the shower. "Careful, buddy, the floor's wet."
They got back out to the bedroom without too much trouble, though the kid was leaning more and more heavily against him. Ray dumped Sean into the bed he'd been lying in, since it was nearer, and pulled the blankets over him, then fell into the other bed himself. It took Ray a minute to warm up, dragging the cold covers around himself. By the time he did, Sean was already snoring, and Ray smiled and licked his lips. His mouth still tasted like sex, still felt a little battered from what they'd done, and he was pleasantly worn out from it, instead of just used up like he'd felt after the game. He closed his eyes, and slipped easily into sleep.
The ringing of the phone jerked Ben from the soft drifting nonsense of not-quite-sleep, and he reached for the receiver with a sense of dread bordering on panic. No one ever felt it was imperative to wake him up for good news, somehow.
There was a silence on the other end of the line, as though he'd startled the caller by actually answering, and Ben recognized Ray in the instant before he spoke. "Oh. Uh. Fraser?"
Ben rolled onto his back and willed his racing pulse to slow. It's just Ray, he told himself, nothing is wrong. Nothing was wrong at all--not now, at any rate, with four days' silence between them dissolved by a few monosyllables and his name. "Hello there, Ray. Did you need something?"
"Uh," Ray laughed, almost nervously, and Ben wondered, not by any means for the first time, whether he ought to have called Ray sometime after Dallas, after the tie in Tampa Bay or the loss in Anaheim. He'd had a sense that Ray wouldn't wish to discuss those games, but then they'd barely mentioned the game the first time he called. Still, it would have been foolish to telephone the man just to check whether he knew which city he was in. Surely if he needed to know, he could have called on his own. "I need a pizza, Fraser, I'm starving. I thought they were on my redial, but I must've called you since then."
"Ah." Ben swallowed hard and noticed that his heart didn't really seem to be slowing down. Odd. "Well, perhaps I should let you go, then."
"Oh, well--I mean, did I wake you up, should I--"
"No, no," Ben said, hastily. "I wasn't asleep. I just thought--"
"No," Ray said quickly, "No, I'm good."
"Ah." Not entirely an accident, then, and yet Ray seemed at a loss for words. Ben shifted, stretching on the bed. "Ray," he said, "I've been thinking about what you said the other night."
Ray was silent on the other end, and Ben pushed on. "The paths we take to get to where we are, and how hockey came to be at the end of mine. I grew up, you know, north of the Arctic Circle, and no player from so far north had ever before reached the NHL. The harsh conditions, small populations, and difficulties of travel make it hard to form leagues."
"Plus, six months of midnight right when the ice is the best," Ray added helpfully, drawing a smile to Ben's face.
"Only at the north pole, actually, but yes, we did have very long nights at our latitude, which didn't help matters."
Ben hesitated, but Ray said, "So don't leave me in suspense, Fraser, how'd you do it?"
Ben smiled. "I begged and pleaded to be sent south to play hockey. My grandparents were traveling librarians and I didn't attend much formal school, so my opportunities to play organized hockey were even more curtailed than most, and they insisted that I wouldn't like the city. Still, when I was thirteen, I--" Ben flinched from the memory, and pushed on quickly, before Ray could notice his hesitation, "--well, I persuaded my father that hockey was my calling, and he lent me his support. My grandparents had some friends in Moose Jaw, and sent me south to stay with them. I was enrolled in grade eight at the local school and signed up on the hockey team, and for a short time I thought everything would be all right. It was very strange, living so far south, in such a large city. But I had hockey, and I was certain that hockey would be enough; the ice and the game were the same, after all."
Ray made a sympathetically dismissive noise, as if to say he understood that the part of the game that took place on the ice wasn't anywhere near all there was to it. "Quite," Ben agreed. "My grandparents were right about me and the city. I lasted five weeks."
"And then, what, you called home and told them you hated it?"
Ben cleared his throat. "Ah. I ran away, actually. I felt that I'd forfeited the right to complain and couldn't bear the thought of going home in disgrace, so I was hiding out on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker. The people I had been staying with contacted my coach first, thinking my disappearance was something to do with hockey. Quinn tracked me down and--" Ben smiled a little at the memory, "and made me skate drills, right there on the lake, for missing practice. He drove me back to town and called my grandparents while I waited in the other room. I don't know what he said to them, but they were remarkably understanding, afterward; I stayed with Quinn until my grandfather was able to come and collect me, and all the way home he never said a word about it. The worst I had to deal with was that summer when Mark found out and teased me mercilessly. The next year, when I was fourteen, I went down to Medicine Hat with Mark, and played there. It was a bigger city, but I was much happier."
Ray was silent for a moment, and it occurred to Ben that he might well have fallen asleep just before he said, laughter barely submerged in his voice, "Y'know, Fraser, a lot of people would've just said, 'Ray, man, I missed you, good to have you back in town'."
Ben closed his eyes, savoring the feeling of Ray's voice in his ear, and said, "Well, Ray, a lot of people would have told me to shut up and get off the phone so they could order a pizza."
Ray did laugh then, sounding startled into it, and the simple pleasure of their conversation flared into a curl of heat in his belly, taking Ben by surprise. He barely caught the end of Ray's words. "--Freak, you know that?"
"Understood, Ray." He hoped he didn't sound as breathless as he felt.
"I'll see you tomorrow, anyway. Morning skate."
"Yes," Ben said, "Indeed. Bright and early."
Ray snickered again, and, mercifully, hung up. Ben hung up his own phone and laid perfectly still, practicing the words in his mind before finally daring to speak them aloud.
"I really am terribly attracted to him." The words seemed to echo off the high cool ceilings of his apartment and linger around him until he rolled over, beating his pillow viciously into submission. Less than eight hours till he'd see Ray again--in the locker room, on the ice. They might be playing together in an actual, albeit meaningless, game in a day or so, and Ben would have to try to hide this from a man who could read him on the ice as easily as Ben could read the printed page.
Ben rolled over again, again rehearsing his words before he spoke them. "Nothing ever happened," he whispered into the dark, "and nothing is going to happen. He is my teammate, and my friend, and that is all."
The chilly echo of his empty bedroom wasn't enough to freeze the memory of Ray's laughter in his ear, and Ben knew it was going to be a very long night.
Ray hesitated for a second at the top of the tunnel, blinking in the glare of full lights reflecting off ice and the roar of the United Center crowd. His contacts itched. Maybe he should--
Dewey shoved him when he tried to turn around. "Jesus, Kowalski, what are you doing? Go."
So he went, because what else could he do? Across the bench and out the door and onto the ice at United in a Chicago Blackhawks home jersey. He knew, really, that the crowd wasn't loud--there wasn't even much of a crowd yet, since this was just the warmup skate for the first home exhibition game of the season--but there was a roaring in his ears like thunder, and he'd rather believe people were screaming than that he was about to pass out. Ray put his head down, and focused on skating his counter-clockwise circle with the other guys. If he kept his eyes on the back of Denny's jersey, it helped a little. He was just skating drills with the guys, after all. No big deal.
It shouldn't feel like going back in time. It shouldn't feel like starting his rookie season all over again, just because he was wearing the same jersey. Hell, this wasn't even the Stadium; he'd never played an actual game at United before. Still, through the smooth transition from skating to one shooting drill and then another, Ray kept expecting to look up and see Gardie, grinning from the other circle.
Ray bit down hard on his mouthguard, new since his last stint as a Hawk, and forced himself to look around. There hadn't been Walgreen's ads on the boards at the Stadium. Fraser had never played on the same team as him before, and there he was, big red-edged A on his shoulder, nodding to Ray before he took his turn skating in on Eddie to take his shot. Ray risked a glance up into the stands, then, just to prove to himself that he hadn't fallen through a time warp. After all, his first two seasons in Chicago, Stella had never--
Sat in the second row beside a guy in a flashy suit, staring right at him. Ray forced his eyes back down, to his stick, the puck he was handling, but when he took his turn his shot went wild, over the glass and into the stands.
Nowhere near Stella, but he couldn't resist looking toward her again, and she was still watching him. He couldn't read her frown--bored? Disappointed? Disgusted? Some tiny part of Ray was telling him she probably hadn't even known he'd be there tonight. It wasn't like his signing with the Hawks had been front-page news, and Stella, as she had pointed out to him so many times in the past year, was the one of them who really wanted to move on. She wouldn't have been scouring the back of the sports section looking for his name.
It didn't matter why she was there, though, just that she was. Ray could feel himself coiling tighter and tighter, every muscle singing and screaming to flee or fight, but he couldn't even burn it off in an end-to-end rush, not with the Whalers doing their thing on half the ice. He just had to stand quietly with the other guys, working through another drill just for show, getting the crowd warmed up more than themselves. This time he actually fanned on the shot, and was left staring at the puck still sitting at his feet before he pulled himself together and took a weak shot at the goal. Eddie stopped it easily, yelling, "Get a grip, Kowalski!"
Ray bared his teeth at the goalie as he skated by, biting back a few choice words of French. When he took his spot at the back of the line, he caught Fraser watching him. Fraser's mouth tightened in something that could have been a smile--Ray tried to smile back--but he knew that Fraser was worried about him. Fuck, that was all he needed, to be putting Fraser off his game.
Dewey, skating up behind him, crashed him lightly, and Ray jumped, his hands clenching hard on his stick. He brought it down hard against the ice, forcing himself to remember that he could not haul off and hit a teammate in the middle of warmups. Especially not Dewey. Hue had skated with the team the day before, and Coach was hoping to put him in for a few shifts with Ray and Dewey, to see if the three of them together worked any better than Ray and Dewey and whoever was handy.
The last drill was breaking up, and Ray turned and skated hard for the bench, though usually he'd have hung around to take a last few lazy shots--it was Hack's turn to get a few minutes in the net, warming up before he spent the night warming the bench. Dewey was right on his heels, all the way into the tunnel and down. They nearly made it to the locker room before Dewey said, "Jesus, what's got your panties in a bunch? Little case of performance anxiety, there, Stanley?"
Ray whirled, shoving Dewey up against the wall, and snarled, "Fuck you, Deuce." He had one glove fisted in the front of Dewey's jersey, and Dewey just smirked as him until Ray slammed his stick into the cinder blocks beside Dewey's head. He heard it crack, felt the impact shake up his arm to his shoulder, his hand tightening harder, his mouth pulling back in a bloodthirsty grin. A little of the smugness fading from Dewey's eyes, and it was like smelling blood in the water, just fired him up higher.
He was bringing his arm back again when Coach's voice stopped him cold. "Kowalski!"
Ray stepped back and turned. Dewey took off right away, but it wasn't until Coach raised an eyebrow that Ray managed to unclench his hand and drop his cracked stick. Coach didn't look away from him, but called out, "Fraser." Fraser walked down the tunnel from behind Coach, and then came past him, over to Ray. Ray kept his eyes on Coach, didn't look at that little not-smile tightening Fraser's mouth. "Fraser, you got an A on your jersey. Take that joker in the other room and give him a pep talk. I want him either ready to play or in his street clothes by the time the puck drops. You've got twelve minutes."
Fraser stepped between Ray and Coach, blocking Ray's view. Ray shut his eyes and turned his head, just like Dewey, and when Fraser pushed on his shoulder, he turned around, walking down the hall with Fraser's hand holding a fold of his jersey.
Fraser steered him into the therapy room, and Ray went automatically to a table and leaned against it while Fraser kicked the doorstop free--awkwardly, with skates on--and shoved the heavy door shut. Gloves on, Ray clutched the edge of the table, almost shaking with the need to go, to do something.
Ray knew that what he needed, mostly, was for Fraser to just knock him down. He'd gotten like this before, too twisted up and jittery to play. Gardie had known how to deal with him--a good hard right to the jaw mostly did the trick, and what that didn't solve Ray usually took care of by hitting him back. It was a rare bad day that they'd had to hit each other more than twice. Later on, after he'd been traded away, Ray had always been able to goad somebody into fighting with him when he needed it.
But when Fraser turned around, he still just looked worried, instead of mad, and Ray was wishing Coach had sent him back here with anybody but Fraser. He'd've had a shot pissing off anybody else--wouldn't even have to try, at this point, with a lot of guys--but with Fraser he knew he didn't have a prayer. Ray could only meet Fraser's eyes for a second and then looked away, clenching his teeth, bracing hard for the blow that would be a long time coming, telling himself Fraser was going to take a swing any second now. He squeezed the table-edge till his finger joints screamed, and reminded himself about his damaged hands and his promise to Coach. If Fraser would just get with the program he could roll with it, he could take it. Just don't hit back, just this once.
Ben took a moment over getting the door shut, desperately stalling for time. This was the trouble with his alternate-captaincy; it required him to lead, and even here, with Ray, the player he knew best of all the team, he was at an utter loss. How could he diffuse this anger? It had begun as something else out on the ice, Ben was certain; there had been a horrible uncertainty on Ray's face in warmups. But with a mere twelve minutes to work in--less every second--Ben had no idea how to sort the matter out. He'd never been any good at dealing with others' unruly emotions. It was hard enough controlling his own.
He turned around, and met Ray's eyes for the instant before Ray turned his face away, his jaw clenched visibly. He was waiting for Ben to do something, and Ben had no earthly idea what. Worse yet, he found himself distracted from the problem at hand, staring at the two inches of bare skin between the back of Ray's helmet and the collar of his jersey. The narrow fringe of blond hair visible below his helmet was already damp-darkened, sweat rolling down the skin.
Ben shifted his gaze down to Ray's gloved hands, gripping the edge of the table, and tried desperately to think of something he could say. Time was ticking. Ray expected him to be able to do something. Coach expected him to do something. Ben groped for any guidance he'd ever received on how to deal with moments like this.
The thoughts flashed by all at once. What would Mark do? And before he could allow himself to think it through--he was fairly certain Mark never stopped to think things through--he was saying, "Would it help if I blew you?"
Ray made a short strangled noise, almost a yelp, and turned to face Ben, shock washing the inchoate anger from his face as though it had never been, though he seemed as tense as before, if not more so. Ben tensed himself, waiting for Ray's response--anger or laughter or...
Ray cleared his throat, and said into the reverberating silence, "Uh, if you just say that again, you probably won't have to."
Mark would have taken that for assent, and never wasted time questioning his own motives, so Ben dropped his gloves and shoved off his helmet as he closed the distance between himself and Ray. They were the same motions he'd have made to join a fight on the ice, if he ever did such a thing, but Ray kept still, only watching him approach, neither reciprocating not resisting. There would be no fight here. Ray wouldn't take off his gloves unless he absolutely had to, lest he disarrange the bandages protecting his knuckles; for now he still gripped the edge of the table.
Ben moved quickly, pushing the bottom edge of Ray's jersey out of the way, unfastening the suspenders that held up Ray's pants and shoving them down around his knees. His socks were taped to his shorts, which saved dealing with a garter belt, and Ben pushed them down carefully, so as not to loosen the tape, then set his fingers against Ray's jock.
He hesitated for an instant--long enough for Ray to protest, if he meant to, but not long enough for him to lose his own nerve--and then eased the cup off and down Ray's legs. The elastic straps cut into his barely-spread thighs, and Ben didn't bother trying to get it down even as far as his knees. Time was of the essence, and Ray wasn't going to need to be able to move.
Ben shoved his own kneepads askew, and then lowered himself to kneel on the toes of Ray's skates, pinning him in place and eliminating the problem of added height differential all at once. He settled his left forearm across Ray's hips, holding his jersey out of the way and further ensuring his stillness. His hand molded around the hard curve of Ray's hipbone as though it belonged there, his thumb straying into the top of the groin crease, just above Ray's thatch of curly dark blond hair.
Ray was already panting, somewhere above him, but Ben dared not look up. He'd be distracted, he had no doubt, and he could not let Ray see his face right now, and realize how little altruism figured into his actions. Ben wrapped his hand around the base of Ray's erection, blood-dark and bobbing with Ray's breaths, shining wet at the head. He took in a deep breath through his nose, smelling Ray's sweat and musk overlaying the workaday scents of the therapy room. He'd never be able to watch Ray having his hands taped again.
No more hesitating. Ben opened his mouth and leaned in, pressing his tongue directly against the head of Ray's cock, pre-ejaculate slick and bitter on his tongue. Above him, Ray made a strangled noise, and Ben felt the expansion and tensing of muscle against his forearm as Ray took a deep breath and held it. His own erection throbbed painfully in its constriction, as every sense delivered Ray to him, pinned, trapped, unable even to breathe, utterly at his mercy. Ben lowered his jaw and slid his mouth down on Ray's cock.
He paused a moment, when the head first hit the roof of his mouth, taking another breath through his nose. He closed his eyes against the sight of his own arm, pale against the golden skin of Ray's stomach, restricting himself down to this one stimulus. It had been a long time since he'd had a man in his mouth, but some memories didn't fade. Ben worked his tongue against the underside of Ray's cock, then moved down further. He dropped his right hand to Ray's thigh, finding it another column of trembling-hard muscle under sweat-damp velvet skin, and took him all the way in. He swallowed around Ray, pressing hard with his arm against the incipient jerk of Ray's hips, and then pulled off slightly and took him in again. A third time was all it took, and Ray was climaxing in Ben's mouth.
Ben waited him out, swallowing, and when Ray was finished, he eased off entirely and breathed, coughing a little as air hit his abused throat. He felt the release of Ray's held breath and thigh muscles going lax under his hand, and stared at Ray's softening penis, slick with saliva, thinking almost giddily, I did that. Ben's eyes strayed to Ray's hands, still in place against the table edge. He'd just done that, when Ray couldn't even touch him. Ben bit down hard on his lip at another jolt of distracting pleasure-pain from his own groin, ducking his head to be certain Ray wouldn't see it on his face. He gently eased his jock back up into place, wincing in sympathy when Ray flinched.
Shorts followed, and then a scrambling moment when he had to reach under Ray's jersey to find the suspender-ends for his pants, but it took scarcely longer to put Ray to rights than it had to disarrange him. Ben got easily up to his feet, stepping back to regain his balance, adjusting his own kneepads as he bent to retrieve his helmet from the floor.
"Uh," Ray said, his voice hoarse and faint, "Fraser, d'you want--"
He looked up to see that Ray had finally let go of the table, and had his teeth set lightly around the first finger of his right glove, a questioning look on his face. Focus, Ben scolded himself, over the roaring southward rush of blood. He pulled his helmet on, fastening the chinstrap, gritting his teeth. Time. Game. Mark would-- "Kowalski, the only thing I want is for you to get out there and play like somebody Coach can't afford to send down to Indianapolis. Understood?"
Ray pushed off from the table, surprise and then comprehension flashing across his expressive features. "Gotcha, Fraser."
Ray went to the door as Ben picked up his gloves and pulled them on, and he listened to the small metal pings of Ray forcing the doorstop back into place with his skate blade. He could hear the sounds of the crowd, now, filtering down the tunnel. As he turned to follow Ray up to the ice, Ben found that Miss Thatcher's voice, belting out the anthem in what he had decided was her inimitable style, had a quite salutary withering effect.
They waited at the top of the tunnel as she finished in her customary fashion--perhaps it was deliberate? Some sort of stylistic affectation? Or was it true that she was Canadian and engaging in some subtle sabotage of her host country?--and then filed into the bench to join the others as they sat down.
Ben was staring at the ice, trying to pull himself together for the start of the game, when something tapped against his knee. He looked down, and realized it was a squeeze-bottle of Gatorade, in Ray's hand. He looked up, meeting Ray's eyes, and saw the slight uncertainty on Ray's face as he made this ordinary yet--in light of recent events--extremely thoughtful gesture. The enormity of what he'd just done struck him then, though he forced himself to nod and say, "Thanks," in an ordinary way as he took the bottle from Ray's hand. He squirted a mouthful and swished it around his mouth, replacing the taste of Ray with the artificial flavor of blue, then spat onto the floor of the bench, shoving the bottle to the floor behind his skates.
Ben kept his eyes front, watching the ice. Jesus Christ, I just fellated a teammate in the locker room during the national anthem. It was too enormous and monstrous a thought, and Ben locked it away, pressing his game face down like a lid on a boiling pot. Never think of his own desire, his thrill at Ray's helplessness to resist, never think of having taken advantage of his own small authority in this fashion...
His stomach turned, and Ben told himself it was nerves for the game at hand, and not horror of what he had just done. Beside him, he heard Ray thump a gloved hand against Dewey's side and say, loudly enough to be heard over the crowd noise, "Hey, man, sorry about that. My ex is sitting in the second row with some dick in a suit, looks like a fucking politician."
"That blonde? You were married to her? Shit, Kowalski, tough luck."
Ben bit down hard on his lip and did not close his eyes as Ray and Dewey shared a perfectly amiable laugh.
Between the pre-game show and the novel experience of actually having a good night on the ice, Ray was humming like a live wire by the time he got back to the locker room at the end of the night. Fraser had played it very cool, very professional, the whole game, which Ray was extra-impressed by given that he'd left the guy hanging. Still, he knew how to say thank you as well as anyone--he had his manners--and, hell, that had been a good game. Ray had been in such a great mood by the time he got to the ice that even Dewey wasn't bugging him anymore, and with Hue on the right they'd clicked, and bang bang, Deuce had a goal in the first, and Hue put one in in the third, which the crowd had loved.
Ray was practically dancing as he shimmied into his jeans, and he was cursing at the buttons with a smile on his face. He glanced up at movement in his peripheral vision and saw Fraser heading for the door, already completely dressed. Ray gave up on getting the last button done up to jog across the room, dodging the other guys and their piles of gear, to catch him just outside. "Hey, Fraser."
Fraser turned back, and Ray realized that that game face look he'd been wearing all night was still there. He stopped short, and stood flat-footed and still for the first time since he'd gotten out of his skates. "Ray," Fraser said, every inch a professional.
"Uh, I just wondered if you wanted to get a drink or something," Ray said, trying to read Fraser and finding it was like a wall of glass had come down between them, like trying to see through ice. He tried a smile, fishing for a response. "I owe you one."
Fraser's eyes tightened for a second, and then he smiled, mechanically, and said, "Not tonight, thank you, Ray." Fraser turned away, walking down the hall toward the players' exit, and Ray's shoulders slumped. He put his head down, running one hand through his hair, and then looked up when he heard Fraser stop. "I don't believe you owe me anything," he said quietly, without turning around, and then he kept walking. When he was out of sight, Ray turned to the wall and banged his head gently against it.
Fucking idiot, fucking stupid idiot. This was Fraser, and Fraser did not blow guys in locker rooms, Fraser had freaked fucking out the last time, and they hadn't even been on the same team then. And now...
It was obvious, when he had some blood flow in the head that contained actual brain cells. Fraser didn't do shit like that. He didn't know what had even possessed Fraser to say that, but when he did, the one wrongest possible thing to do had to be saying, "Okay, sure, yes please and thank you kindly." Forget looking in the gift horse's mouth, he'd stuck his dick in it.
Ray just stood there, leaning with his head against the wall--if he kept hitting his head against it, he'd be tempted to actually do it hard enough to hurt--until an arm settled around his shoulders, reminding him abruptly that he hadn't even put a shirt on before he ran after Fraser. "Hey, Ray-Kay," Hack said, shaking him a little, side to side. "You run out of steam already? Come and get your shirt on and come out to the bar. First round's on me, mister two assists."
Ray straightened up, smiling tiredly at Hack. "First round? All you did was sit on the bench all night, you lazy fucker."
Hack laughed, pulling Ray along, half-hugging him. "First two rounds, then, but you have gotta cover up some of this skin or we won't be able to keep the chicks off you long enough for you to drink anything, am I right?"
Ray snorted, but stepped back into the locker room with Hack. He finished yanking some clothes on, stuck his feet into a pair of shoes, and grabbed his jacket, patting the pockets to make sure he hadn't left his wallet and keys anywhere. When he was ready, Hack was still standing by the door, shooting the shit with Denny and JR. Ray walked over to him, and Hack grinned, grabbed him by the back of his shirt collar, and hauled him out the door. "That's better," Hack said as they headed up the corridor, "Now what're you in the mood--"
Ray stopped dead as they rounded a corner, and found Stella standing there. "Uh..."
She smiled nervously and Ray remembered, like hitting a wall, that he hadn't seen her since she told him Gardie was dead. It was all like a blurry bad dream in his mind; she'd come to his place at some ungodly hour of the morning, rang the bell till he woke up and let her in. He remembered her saying she didn't want him to see it on Sports Center. She knew he always watched it first thing in the morning.
Ray tried to breathe past how much he still loved her. "Hey," he said, "Stella. What's up?"
"I just wanted to make sure you were doing all right," she said, quickly. Lawyer-Stella style: he was getting the all-business ends of everybody's sticks tonight. "You seemed--off--during warmups, and I didn't see you at the funeral luncheon, and..." She trailed off, looking at him with those eyes that had never missed much, and then looking away. "Hello, Jeff."
"Stella," Hack said, with a little nod. "Long time no see. You miss New York much?"
"Chicago's home," she said, quietly, and then, "Ray?"
Ray shook his head. "I'm good, Stella, I'm fine. Thanks for," Ray waved. "Did you, uh, lose--"
"No," she said quickly, "No, I'm meeting him in a few minutes, we're going for drinks." She hesitated. "Would you--"
"No," Ray said quickly, taking in Stella's nice clothes, his and Hack's damp hair and scuffed shoes. "No, thanks, we're good, we're going to meet some of the guys."
Right on cue, Hack said, "Yeah, nice seeing you, Stella, we gotta go," and started dragging Ray away. Ray waved helplessly to Stella, and she waved back. She looked a little sad, watching him go away from her, but Ray found that, for once, all he felt was relieved.
When they got out to the parking lot, Hack tugged him into a weirdly gentle headlock, and said, "Three rounds, eh, Ray," before mussing Ray's hair and letting him go.
Ben paused in the process of getting dressed in his street clothes when Coach stepped into the locker room. Welsh stayed just inside the door, and though Ben went back to putting his socks on, he discreetly tracked Coach's gaze to the spot where Ray stood with Jack and Tom, all three of them gesturing wildly, recounting their successes of the night. Ben winced, and turned his head down, in anticipation of the call that came from the doorway a moment later. "Kowalski, Huey. Could I have a word?"
He could feel, around him, the ripple of heads turning, half-shouted conversations breaking off, but Ben kept his head down, seeing only in his peripheral vision the motion of Ray and Jack crossing the dressing room to join Welsh. Only when they'd stepped outside the door did Ben look around, to see Tom still standing alone in the middle of the room, watching the door. Barely two minutes passed before Jack and Ray came back inside, wearing identically resigned expressions. "Scratched," Jack announced into the slight hush. "Just for the road openers."
Ben let himself watch Ray, then, as he pushed past his linemates and went to his locker. The decision was understandable, he supposed; Ray had played the entire exhibition series, which few regulars had, and all of them other than Ray were youngsters. Jack, of course, was just coming off injuries and could stand the rest.
Ray looked up and caught Ben watching him. Ben tried to express his sympathy in a half-smile. Ray's mouth kept to its tight, unhappy curve, but he nodded before looking away. Ben went back to lacing up his boots, his own smile evaporating.
It had been days since he and Ray had exchanged more than the most utilitarian of words. He'd been looking forward to the convivial atmosphere of a road trip, with all its forced proximities, hoping that, even if it could not restore the ease he and Ray had shared before, it might push them past this awkward silence. He knew it was his own fault--the onus was on him, to apologize for his actions--but he hardly knew where to start, and Ray had been so carefully polite on those occasions when they spoke that Ben was hesitant to push for real conversation.
Ben slung his jacket over his shoulder and headed out of the locker room. They'd be leaving early the next day for San Jose, and he was ready to sleep.
The outside air was chilly, but not yet cold--October in Chicago was a far milder creature than its cousins in Edmonton or further north. Still, Ben shrugged into his jacket as he walked toward his truck. He was nearly there when he heard his name called, and turned to see Jeff walking toward him. "Hey," Jeff said, as soon as he was near enough not to shout, though he continued to close the distance between them, "I heard you and Ray-Kay are gonna be roomies."
Ben thought back to the locker room, scanned his memory of the faces there, and realized Jeff had been absent. "Not this trip," he said, looking down as he kicked a pebble on the pavement, trying to show only an ordinary disappointment. "He and Jack have both been scratched from the first two games."
Jeff said, "Huh," but stayed standing close by, and when Ben looked up, he was met with a peculiarly intent expression. Ben was suddenly conscious of the dark solitude of the parking lot, and the fact that Jeff had left the locker room well before him. "But you're going to later on, yeah?" When Ben nodded, Jeff said, all in a rush, "I just wanted to know if you're going to have a problem rooming with Kowalski, because if you are, I'll trade you my room, and I'll bunk with him, but I'm not going to let anybody give him shit about being how he is."
Ben blinked. Ray and Jeff did seem to be close lately, but he couldn't quite imagine what sorts of stories Ray might have told to incite this response from Jeff. "Ray--?"
Jeff looked impatient. "Yeah, y'know, his funny little habit of fucking any guy in a jersey. If you're going to have a problem with him about that--or anything--just say so now, save everybody the trouble. Because if you're going to hassle him--" Jeff bounced a little on the balls of his feet, leaning toward Ben meaningfully.
Ben shifted his weight backward, raising open hands, instinctively placating. "Jeff, I don't have a problem rooming with Ray, and I certainly don't have a problem with Ray sleeping with men." It took a moment for Ben to process the words he'd just spoken-saying them was just something he knew he had to do, to soften the fierce light in Jeff's eyes-and then his mind reeled, struggling to assimilate this other view of Ray, so alien to his own.
He had to admit that Jeff's summation neatly accounted for all the facts. Did you think you were special? something sneered inside him. Did you think what he did with you was different than what he'd do with anyone? Ben supposed he ought to have realized. His friendship with Mark had certainly given him plenty of opportunity to observe the casual approach to sex. Somehow, despite the evidence, Ray just hadn't seemed the type; his mentions of Stella had seemed laden with a passionate love.
Jeff was still watching him, not altogether pacified. "So what's the deal with you two, then? You were buddies before the road trip, and since we got back, it's like you just noticed he smells bad or something." Ben groped for a discreet-but-true answer to that question, and Jeff ventured a hint of a smile as he added, "Because that's not his fault. You play with Dewey that much, he sorta rubs off."
Ben smiled back. "No, it's not that. I made an ill-considered remark," he offered, which was certainly true enough. It had been rather pigheaded of him, really, to think Ray hadn't been perfectly capable of knowing his own mind. He could have said no if he had any inclination to do so, after all. "It was a misunderstanding. I'll speak to him, we'll sort it out."
Jeff nodded slowly, looking, if not convinced, at least willing to be. "I'm not saying you're some kind of asshole," Jeff said. "Just, you gotta look out for your friends, right?"
Ben nodded firmly and reached out a hand, which Jeff shook solemnly before he turned away. Ben stood a moment, still trying to absorb what he'd just been told, barely registering the sound of the door from the arena opening and falling heavily closed. He turned away toward the driver's side door of his truck, reaching for his keys, and then froze when he heard Jeff call out, "Hey, Ray, Fraser was looking for you. I don't think he left yet."
Ben walked out to the back of his truck, peering down the row, and saw that Ray had stopped in the middle of the aisle of shining cars. Ray spotted him and headed over. Ben silently cursed Jeff as he watched Ray come closer, though he had to admit he wouldn't have known how to approach Ray, now more than ever.
Ray stood a little further away from Ben than Jeff had, his hands in his jacket pockets, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "Uh, Fraser, did you actually..."
Ben scraped one thumbnail across his eyebrow, wincing. "Well, not, as you say, actually--"
Ray nodded shortly, turning his head back in the direction Jeff had gone. "Nosy fucker." Ray squared his shoulders and turned back to Ben. "Look, Fraser, I'm not gonna--"
"I'm sorry," he blurted. Ray stopped, frowning, and tilted his head, waiting for Ben to go on. "Ray, I want to apologize for the way I've been behaving. I made some extremely unwarranted assumptions. I see now that I was utterly incorrect, and--"
Ray stepped closer, and that was enough to abruptly stop Ben's voice; when Ray reached across the remaining space between them to lay a hand on Ben's shoulder, even his breath was stilled. "Fraser, are you apologizing to me for getting freaked about what we did before the game last week?"
Ben blinked uncertainly--that wasn't the way he would put it, on a number of counts--but obeyed the intonation of Ray's voice. "Yes."
Ray grinned, and his hand on Ben's shoulder lifted to pat his cheek before falling away. "No harm, no foul, Benton buddy. Long as you're done freaking out..." Ben nodded, and Ray nodded back before going on, "Then we'll just take it as a lesson learned, right?"
Ben wasn't certain exactly what they'd learned, but he supposed that could be sorted out later, so long as they were speaking to each other. It wasn't important right now. Unless...
No. Ray took a step back, reaching for his keys. "Anyway, you got an early start tomorrow. Have a good trip, Fraser."
Ben summoned up a smile to paper over his lingering uncertainty. Ray had told him what to say, and though it stuck in his throat, he said it, offering the words in place of his thwarted apology. "I'll miss you, Ray."
Ray grinned, haloed by the sodium light he was backing toward, accepting Ben's admission easily, as his due. "Course you will, Fraser. I'll give you a call after the game."
Ben nodded, and then forced himself to turn and get into his truck, rather than watch Ray, backing away.
2. The NHL is divided into the Western Conference (including Edmonton, Chicago, and Winnipeg) and the Eastern Conference (including Hartford, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and, formerly, Quebec). Teams in different conferences typically play one another no more than twice a year during the regular season. back
95. Crease: The area immediately in front of the goal, demarcated by light blue paint. The crease is the goalie's territory, but an attacking player may position himself there to impede the goalie's view or in hopes of scoring a goal on a rebound or deflection.back
3. The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy is awarded each season to the NHL player "adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability." [Source: nhl.com] back
4. NHL teams are affiliated with minor league teams, commonly in the American Hockey League (AHL). The NHL team supplies an agreed-upon number of players to the AHL team, and has the right to call up players from the AHL team to play in the NHL at need. Affiliated farm teams are frequently the first stop for freshly-drafted players. In 1980, the Chicago Blackhawks were affiliated with the New Brunswick Hawks of Moncton, NB. back
98. Two-four: Common Canadianism for a case of twenty-four bottles or cans of beer. back
5. Maudit crisse: (Quebecois) damned Christ. back
6. In 1995, the Chicago Blackhawks' minor league affiliation was with the Indianapolis Ice of the AHL. back
8. The Great One: Wayne Gretzky, the most talented and successful player in modern hockey. He played for the Edmonton Oilers from 1978 (when the Oilers were still a part of the World Hockey Association) to 1988, when he was traded to Los Angeles. In the Oilers' first ten seasons in the NHL, he led them to four Stanley Cup victories. The Oilers went on to win a fifth Cup in 1990, while Gretzky never again played on a championship team. back
9. The NHL trade deadline usually falls in March, three or four weeks from the end of the regular season, but the 1994-95 season had a late deadline, on April 7 (see note below for more on the 1994-95 season). back
10. That and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee. Though probably not a very good cup of coffee. back
11. The NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement expired during the 1994 off-season. Players were locked out and play suspended until January of 1995, when a new agreement was reached. The (1994-)95 season consisted of only 48 games and lasted until May. back
12. The United Center replaced the Chicago Stadium as the home of the Chicago Blackhawks at the start of the 1995 lockout-shortened season. back
14. Plus-eighteen rating: in plus-minus rating, a player receives one positive point each time his own team scores a goal while he is on the ice, and a negative point each time the opposing team scores a goal while he is on the ice. Ratings are cumulative throughout the season. For a defenseman whose role is more focused on preventing goals than scoring them, a plus-minus rating can be a more accurate gauge of performance than scoring statistics. Wayne Gretzky was plus-fifteen in his rookie season, and plus-eighty-one in Ben's. [Source: Some French guy.] back
16. In 1995-96, Jeff Hackett was Chicago's backup goalie. A backup goalie typically starts a limited number of games (Hackett played in 35 of 82 that season) and spends the rest of the season sitting on the bench16a for each game, in case the starting goalie is injured or otherwise needs to be replaced in the course of a game. A good sense of humor seems to be the backup goalie's main survival skill. back
16a. Goalies don't actually sit on the same bench as the other players, due mainly to the size of their equipment. Instead, the backup goalie has a chair or stool, typically in one corner of the bench area.back
17. Sixteen wins in springtime: The Stanley Cup playoffs, which start in April, consist of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Sixteen wins are required to win the Cup. back