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He pivots at the last possible second and slams his body into Nylander’s, missing the man’s head by a quarter of a foot while remaining poised and ready to commit to more.

“You need to stay down,” Kappy finds himself saying, slicing his skates through the cheap ice just to make a point. The slicing noises are the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, shrieking inches from Nylander’s padded glove.

Nylander hoists himself up with a “suck it up, buttercup,” thrown under his walloping exhale. He maneuvers himself around Kappy, twisting his chest like silly putty. In seconds, the spindling gold locks have zipped from view. Kappy’s hands are clenching at nothing.

The boy’s like a particularly crafty butterfly, wings flapping just out of reach. Twice more, Kappy tries to halt just seconds before making an impact just to threaten Nylander into submission, but it never works. There’s no physical body, just an embodiment of laughter that giggles whenever Kappy is within his general proximity.

It’s a haunting guise. Nylander taunts him like it’s his full-time job. Kappy can sparsely shoot the puck without worrying that Nylander will press himself up from behind and steal his catch out from under him. It’s a claustrophobic sensation that always fogs up his mind whenever their teams test each other on bated breath.

They win by the skin of their teeth and humour a good old fashion lineup for handshakes and “good games” spat out under chittering teeth and emblazed red cheeks. Kappy’s stuck in a chewed up slush of the game, condensed into little snippets played on repeat by his memory. In almost every snapshot there’s blond hair tickling his chin. It preoccupies his thoughts and his half-assed handshakes show for it.

Nylander’s dangling near the end as per the usual, sucking up to Kappy with a shorthanded giggle he can stuff under his chin as he looks away. Kappy huffs and shoulders his way past, mindful of how it sends Nylander windmilling backward. A few of the Swedes on the Marlies bench chit their teeth at him. He retreats to the Penguins trainers to secure his water bottle and duck into the tunnel, mindful of scrunched up popcorn bags hailing down from above.

He’s pissy with a bad temperament only Nylander can bring. It drains the sunlight out from his teammate’s eyes. All he sees is fleeting sparks, laughing at him behind his back. It sends his stomach tumbling into topsy-turvy flips.

The locker room blasts techno music so loud the walls tremble. The assistant coaches storm in and give them a verbal lashing, but it’s all in good fun. The locals won’t take too kindly to it. The transition into the familiar dynamic unspools some of the tension winding in his tailbone, forcing him into a hunchback position.

 

The Penguins play the Marlies enough for Kappy to recognize the team’s grooves, and moreover, the annoying blond pushover leading the pack even in his rookie year. It’s not so much the on-ice shenanigans that create little divets in his composure--he’s seen it all, broken three bones, and had men twice his size charge at him with intent to maim--but the little chips Nylander tosses of his shoulder someone how lodge themselves in his skate blades.

He tries to go about the roughhousing he’s made a reputation for himself with, but Nylander is always two strides ahead of Kappy in ways his speed can’t accommodate for. It makes the whole intimidation tactic nothing more than nursery rhyme used to scare children with. Nylander’s made a mockery of him, again.

It doesn’t help to hear Nylander’s little comments. They litter the ice during faceoffs. He sees Nylander’s mouth move and extrapolates hundreds of different comments, trying to read the lips. That one interaction opens pandora’s box, simply because Nylander has a very hypnotic trance if one’s paying attention.

They’re cheated of a nice victory he hopes could sweeten the deal, but it’s not the end of the world. At least, it’s not that bad of a sting until the glowering upturned mouth is shooting daggers at him from the opposing bench. He wants nothing more than to ice the bitch and put old foes to rest, but the embarrassment reeking from his back like a second skin of sweat isn’t doing him any favours. His coach has a pinched expression that promises future trouble if he doesn’t implement some kind of railroad switch in his playing style.

His night was already shit without Nylander adding vinegar to his vat of baking soda.

The grease from Nylander’s hair could pool up like water on a drowning lilypad. He looks ridiculous all dressed up like he is, the decorative cufflinks framing his biceps blooming with colouration. The man waves as he’s stomping past the visitor’s dressing room and he spares a quick huff to voice his displeasure.

Figures Nylander would be like a fly stuck in amber, sinking in quicksand but still cracking jokes. Kappy wishes more than ever that he could press the Swede’s sculpted face into the ground like crumbling up old newspaper.

To his credit though vicious turn his thoughts take wound him enough to turn his head to the side and feign a look of apology. Nylander eats it up. There’s some sick sense of pleasure at having Kappy do his bidding and those kindred thoughts evaporate like water in a boiling pot. Fuck him.

All he wants to do is get to the team bus and evacuate from this stupid town and its dumb incompetence at hockey except when he’s on ice with them. That’s too much to ask though, and he honest to God smells the dumb equipment spray before the hand comes close to forming a tourniquet-grip on his arm.

“You played a good game” Nylander says. “It’s always fun going up against you--I didn’t want to undermine that with my winger’s comments.” His eyelids can’t decide if they want to go for sultry or sad. The scooping motion makes a little-dipper like formation when factoring in his plucked eyebrows.

“Of course not, you’re too saintly to do that, yeah?” Kappy barks back.

“It’s just that, I know you heard about Saturday from Pasta’s boys. I figured if you were to hear it’d be better to come from me.”

“I don’t need to know about your kinky sex fantasies, thank you very much.” Kappy fixates on the bag slung over his shoulder, testing the weight distribution as his focuses fades from Nylander.

“It’s just,” Kappy rolls his eyes as Nylander continues, “I don’t want you thinking I’m easy.”

“I really, really couldn’t care less,” he says. It’s no surprise to him, because Nylander is easy. Always has been. He’s about as transparent as a sheet of tissue paper.

“Oh come on, play nice.”

The cutesy tone Nylander takes has him rearing back like a wild mustang.

“Shut up. At least I’m not the one with half the AHL talking behind my back. Maybe you’d learn a thing or two by not making every fucking thing about you public.”

It succeeds at tearing Nylander’s smile off his face. Without it, his cheeks almost overcompensate. There are only his doe eyes left to level out his chin and it’s losing the battle. Kappy only ever sees him grinning; the contrast is car-crash levels of trauma.

“Fuck you,” Nylander says. “Pasta was right; when you get your shit sorted out, you know how to find me.”

There’s a brief thought to ask what the hell Pasternak and his stupid antics had got up to behind his back, but Nylander dominates the sum of the energy his brain outputs. He watches the player sulk in the direction of the exit with his head held high without managing a response.

Nylander lives to forget; it’s the only way to explain how in seconds he’s reconnecting with the other Marlies players, hooting like an obese, kept owl as Kappy’s frozen behind, another won conquest even though he’s never set foot in Nylander’s bed.

__

In every practice he tests his speed; Toronto’s climate breeds nothing but a fierce sense of competitive inside of his belly. It’s entirely different from Pittsburgh’s lifeboat philosophy of stay afloat and wait for a rope you can cling to and bring yourself back to shore. Toronto’s not the babysitting type, and it’s the first thing his father tells him when notifications blow up his phone.

The unfortunate byproduct is being slapped beside Nylander like all’s well and good. The infinite problems to tick off about the boy increase in volume until it’s like there’s a jet engine going off in his eardrum. Logically, Willy’s been nothing but a teammate and a good roommate on the days when Ricky doesn’t get a single-room suite and the combinations get tangled up.

He feels dedicated to bitterness. It smokes out his words and treats them like double-edged swords. He spits out poison every time Willy’s in remarkable proximity and once or twice a teammate picks up on it. Brownie makes a throwaway comment about duct-taping his mouth shut and he warily eyes the option for a second longer than necessary.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is the bad taste in his mouth, like his glands are secreting syrup, when Willy walks in a room. He expects the cold shoulder and gets nothing but walloping affection, more than twice having Willy fall into his arms and exhale on Kappy’s face as he clears his bangs from where they’ve flopped over his eyes.

He responds as always and tries to scrape the emotional backlash off with razors. They only come back to haunt him at two in the morning when he fails to get back to sleep, shaking off the pins-and-needles feeling in his legs as unanswered questions swarm to centre stage.

In January, he slips inside Viktor’s unlocked room with intentions of stealing some of his cologne before the roadie takes off. They have a lax policy on sharing and loaning body wash products that comes in handy during the times Kappy unconsciously forgets to pack the whole getup. His pupils blow out as they work to adjust to the low light, with only the moonlight peeling through the cheap curtains as a buffer.

The two beds collapse onto the carpeted floor, some spotted with cigarette burns from the previous patron. A body eclipses the moon on the first, a distasteful lump. The chest belonging to it pumps out air like a filtration device. Like clockwork. Kappy knows it’s rude to stare but time is slugging by like drizzled maple syrup. And Willy is a gift tied with luxe wrapping paper, studded with various precious stones.

It makes it difficult to accomplish what he was planning to do: tiptoe through and swipe shower gels and deodorants just to fuck with Vik tomorrow, when he’s hungover and smells like death. That biting worm in his throat keeps wriggling around, digesting his train of thought and tunnelling further, latching onto his tonsils. His defences wobble like a newborn calf.

His feet turn into skies that plow downhill. He can’t stop until his knees jut into the bedspring and he’s inches away from the sleeping boy. Willy continues to force air out through his nostrils. Without the jabbering and hollering, he looks like some capture of a Renaissance painting. There’s no opening at the lips where foul words streak out, just a light dusting of freckles over the apples of cheeks, poised.

And then there’s a yearning. It’s infant, not taken out to pasture yet, but all-consuming the whole way through. Kappy can’t help how his hand moves to the tempo of his concealed thoughts, smoothing down the blond hairs tickling Willy’s forehead. Each strand shudders like tree branches in December, raining icicles down on the footpaths underneath their icy perch. Willy isn’t ice though, he is restless with heat. There’s a rice cooker inside of the boy’s stomach, his pores erupting with the steam of a well-oiled machine.

Willy’s eyelashes quiver when Kappy first makes contact with the top of his head. The hand itself trembles, dropping down Willy’s nape and resting on his shoulders. It’s the equivalent of holding stale play dough. The skin dips but the muscles remain tense. Kappy restrains himself to poking at the knuckle-hard crest of the collarbone.

The lacing on the blankets looks like icing on gingerbread, framing Willy on a platter. Years of bickering and spiteful insults sit on his tongue but don’t form words on his lips. There’s an instinctive drift to argue that he overrides every time the pad of his thumb strokes the jut of Willy’s left shoulder.

That cough-drop taste floods back into his mouth, and no amount of swallowing seems to dispel it.

The coding racing through his temple changes course, sending his mouth pivoting down. His lips smack the top of Willy’s forehead, above the bridge of his nose where the muscles roll. It’s a fleeting action that ends as quickly as it’s begun, the thought purged from his banks.

The day is long and there’s no firewood to keep his flame going; every action is raw and he’s firing dry. He leans away, wipes his hands on the back of his sweats as they clam up, and reorients the captain’s wheel at the helm of his brain. Finally, he’s able to inhale without something obscuring his esophagus. The definition of the world around him increases like a change in video quality.

Willy stirs after a minute’s notice, but Kappy’s not playing his game. He whips out, like the coward he is, and refuses to humour Willy’s sleeping body with anything but the backs of his calves. He foregoes the liberty of opening the window or rearranging the clothes on the ground to his liking. His one-track mind shrieks at him until he’s five steps outside, without even a thought to forgetting the cologne on the trudge back to his room.

 

Kappy takes his time coming around after that, partially because of the deep-seated guilt eating him alive. He can’t so much as look at Willy without the night ebbing back in his periphery view. It’s written in dry erase marker though. He can take the back of his wrist to it and wipe it clean, with only no alibi to frame him.

It’s a betrayal of everything his father taught him and the Finns versus Swedes narrative he’d obeyed like law back in the kiddy rinks. Nothing holds much weight when every other conversation comes with a plain longing he can’t smear off his face. He has a feeling Willy’s picked up on his newfound reluctance, dubbing Kappy with a cutesy nickname and dancing around him during practice drills.

Kappy doesn’t have the strength to come clean. It’s Willy who’s inviting himself over to eat all of Kappy’s Doritos and chug his expensive vitamin mineral water. Kappy lets him, as an apology and a confession.

Those secrets stay under lock and key, in a part of his chest that his vocal cords can’t access. It’s only when Willy kisses him in the musky smell of the men’s bathroom, on a clubbing night long since overstayed its welcome, that his heart sings and he chants little sorry’s into the other man’s mouth. And he has no idea how he could ever hate a man like Willy, who swallows him up in his arms and holds him to his heart.