I woke up and instantly wished I hadn’t. My tongue felt fuzzy and swollen, mouth too hot, tasting like something already dead had crawled into it to die again. The room was well-lit, sun spilling through a sizeable gap in the blackout curtains to hit me right in the face. It felt sharp, about a thousand times too bright, and it was making my head pound. Trying to escape it, I turned over, feeling something tug at the skin on my stomach. I could just about remember this kind of thing from too many years ago, when I was just a dumb kid with no clue how to drink responsibly, despite my older brothers, when I’d shared beds with people pretty indiscriminately and often got off with them while I was there.
But I was much older now, with a job that required me to keep myself in good condition, and what the hell had I been thinking, exactly? Not only had I drunk too much, not only had I gone home with who knows who, but I had also technically broken curfew, shattered it into a million pieces, and with Rowe behind the bench that was probably the worst of my crimes. So I steeled myself to get up, get back to the hotel, and try to mitigate as much of the damage as I could - which was probably none, given my status as the team scapegoat. I opened my eyes and immediately closed them again, not against the light but because the bed’s owner was still in it, and that owner was James fucking Neal.
That was one thing too much for me; I let out a groan, which was actually pretty cathartic. Then an arm reached out, hand at my waist tugging me slightly closer before traveling on to my ass. He squeezed it, lightly. I kept my eyes closed. I had thought, more than a few times over the years, about trying to pick him up, but I never really expected that I would try. I definitely never thought I’d succeed. It was unfathomable, his reason for being amenable to this - unless it was pity. I couldn’t stand to see him look at me, if it was. So I turned back over, squinting against the sun, and said, “Um.”
The hand withdrew, but he didn’t say anything. I tried again, with words this time. “Do you know where my pants are?” I could see my shirt, half hanging off his dresser, and I was pretty sure the slightly dusty boxer-briefs on the bedpost were mine too. I wished I hadn’t had to ask him about my pants; I didn’t want to have to hear some of the things he might say.
But he just chuckled, too cheerful for someone as hungover as he should be. “Yeah,” he said, and suddenly I couldn’t stop myself from looking at him, shirt still dangling uselessly from my hands. He was weirdly beautiful, his dumb hair haloed ginger by the early morning sunlight. It brought the bits and pieces I remembered of last night all screaming back when he grinned, sleazy and sure, and said, “I told you they’d look great on my floor.” There was so much tension in the air I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And then he winked at me and I couldn’t stand to be there for a second longer than I had to.
It wasn’t until I was back at the hotel that I realised there hadn’t been a single scrap of pity on his face.
I thought it was too late, then, that I’d fucked things up. Of course, that was ridiculous; there wasn’t anything real between us to have fucked up, not really. But I kept feeling it anyway.
So when I went home that summer, I dug in and tried to put it out of my mind. Instead, I wanted to buoy myself for what I hoped would be a better season in Sunrise. I actually thought it was going pretty well, all things considered, like I might finally be able to settle in and call someplace other than my parents’ place in Mimico home.
That was when I got traded. To Vegas. For next to nothing. And oh, by the way, in the expansion draft they’re heading straight to Nashville for none other than James Neal. Just the news I needed, really.
At least Marchy would be coming with me, for what little comfort that would be.
It wasn’t like there was anything I could do, anyway. I wasn’t a superstar; if I refused to report they’d probably just forget about me altogether. It wasn’t a nice thought. But, then, if the pattern from the rest of my career were to hold, I would only have to spend two years there, toiling away until they traded me for spare parts. There were probably worse fates than that. Not being in the NHL at all would probably be one.
I landed in Vegas three days before training camp, so I could explore the city a little bit, get my bearings. Engelland said he’d show me around some too, which was nice of him. It was hard to imagine what the team would have done without him, starting fresh in a place none of us really knew. It might have been as chaotic as this airport, tourists scattering in front of me, shooting odd looks at my sticks as I made my way outside.
It had been hot in Sunrise pretty often, especially outside January, but here it was dry, too, so dry I had to close my eyes for a moment, not yet recovered from the recycled air of the plane. It gave me the feeling that I would slowly dessicate, that hockey in the desert would suck the life out of me, leave me a mummy. I wondered what it would cost to ship me home, pictured a tombstone, “beloved son and brother” etched under my name.
I opened my eyes. The sun beat down on the pavement, looking hot enough to cook an entire breakfast. I was hungry enough to try, if I’d had an uncooked breakfast on me. Engelland took me to lunch instead, and afterwards straight to my hotel, where I immediately fell asleep.
Three days later I reported to training camp, not sure if I could ever love the city but pretty sure I liked it a whole lot already. At least I already knew what to expect from Turk, and had Marchy’s friendly face beside me. It was a whole hell of a lot more than anyone else had. Really, the only difficulty was avoiding Neal.
Some things were a little better than I expected. Some things were a lot worse. I settled into my old routines pretty quickly, because hockey is hockey no matter where you play it. The arena, being new, was all shiny and modern and well laid out, and that was also nice. Marchy and I were going to be on the same line, so I would only have to adjust to one new guy instead of two. On the other hand, it was getting increasingly more difficult to handle the Neal thing. We had to speak to each other every so often, not only as teammates but also as two of the more experienced players on the roster. If we couldn’t seem cordial, it might send even the idea of team unity careening over the edge into pathetic squabbling. So I tried to be polite, and I tried not to obviously ignore him.
It was harder than it sounds. Sometimes I’d catch a look on his face that I couldn’t read; all I could get was the impression of distance, an impassable depth.
Actually, the worst thing was that they gave him my number. Not my phone number, obviously; my jersey number. “Oh,” was all I could say when they told me, sitting there like an idiot. I have to admit that my first thought was to reverse the numbers, but 81 was Marchy’s number and I didn’t want to take it from him. So I went with 19. What difference would it make, anyway, in the long run?
As the season went by and we didn’t actually suck, things between Nealer and me started to get better. It’s hard to stay cold towards someone who’s part of your success, especially someone as attractive as I still found him. So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise when I ended up sleeping with him again. For that matter, maybe it wasn’t to Marchy, or even Engs and Flower. But it was a big surprise to me, even though I was waiting for it, watching, wanting, and even though, when it finally happened, it was too familiar.
We were in Nashville, the first time Nealer had been back since his move, and I was keeping an eye on him, unsure how he’d be feeling, how I would feel in a little over a month when we hit Sunrise, for all that both of us had done this before. It wasn’t my business; we were friends and teammates, no more than that - which was what I kept telling myself, though I didn’t really believe it. But he was completely fine before the game, laughing and joking like always, and after we won he was as excited as usual, too.
Because it was his ex-city, he got to choose where we went to celebrate, and I found myself in familiar surroundings, the same little place in which he’d picked me up a little under a year ago. I might have wondered if it was on purpose, a ploy to remind me of that night, or if it was just habit for him, ingrained in the seasons he’d played there. But I didn’t; there was no time to wonder anything before he was there in front of me, a drink in my hand, the music’s volume slowly rising. I downed it and followed him to what space passed for a dance floor. He was awful at trying to dance to country, and I might have laughed, asked him why he liked this place, but for the fact that he was still so attractive I couldn’t bring myself to say anything at all.
He didn’t have the same problem, leaning in close, so close, so I could hear him over the noise. My skin prickled and my heart jumped when his hands found my hips, when his hips met mine, when his lips drew close to my ear. “You know, those pants look pretty good on you,” he said, and a shiver ran down my spine, hearing those words again.
“You probably say that to everyone,” I said, trying not to smile.
“Maybe,” he agreed, lowering his voice, “but you’re the only one I want to tell this: they’d look even better on my bedroom floor.”
At that I pulled away from him, because it sounded like a lot more than the pickup line it had been last time. But Nealer just looked at me, and I figured there wasn’t anything I could do; I smiled, reached out, and together we went back to my hotel room.
At least this time I didn’t have to worry about breaking curfew.
Being back in Sunrise was less uncomfortable than I’d thought. Nobody pitied me, was harder on me than anyone else, and even though we lost, I didn’t feel that bad. Maybe it was that we were doing well, a real team. Maybe it was just because I knew I’d be going back to the hotel with Nealer. Either way, there was no sting to the reunion, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Nealer came up next to me, snaked his arm around my waist, asking, unspoken, if I was alright. So I leaned my head on his shoulder for a moment before patting him on the ass and grinning, feeling the best I’d ever been.