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Someone Else's Solid Ground

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Nolan’s always been bad about getting his hair cut. When he was a kid, it was hard to fit it in around hockey. He usually had practice when his dad went to the barber shop, and it would go months before his mom would look up at him over the breakfast table and announce that they were definitely getting his hair cut this weekend, she didn’t care if they had to squeeze it in between two games. So they would go to the barber’s and the barber would shear his hair close to the scalp and Nolan would hate looking in the mirror for a few weeks until it started to get long again.

He got better about it in Juniors. The other guys on the team would give him a hard time if his hair started to get too long: ruffle it in the locker room, pinch his pink cheeks, ask him if they needed to bring in barrettes to keep the hair out of his eyes. Nolan figured out pretty quickly that if he wanted to blend in, he needed to get himself to the barber shop every six weeks, no delays.

It was the same on the Flyers. He probably could have gotten away with a little more at this point—G was walking around with hair down to his shoulders, after all. But G was a franchise legend. Nolan was a rookie, the one with a baby face, the one who couldn’t start the season with them because he was recovering from surgery, and he couldn’t take chances.

Once the headaches start to come, though. It’s all Nolan can do to get out of bed some days, and those days when he feels halfway human, he has better things to do than go to the barber shop. So his hair starts getting pretty long. No one yells at him about it; he figures he’s bought himself some slack with the whole debilitating medical issue thing. Everyone’s too focused on what’s happening inside his head to care what’s happening on top of it.

Nolan tries not to be too happy about not having to go to the barber’s. It shouldn’t matter that much. But still, as his hair gets longer, he can’t resist stopping in front of the mirror and staring at it. Tracking the way it’s starting to curl around his ears. It’s a sloppy look, shaggy more than anything else, but sometimes he’ll catch an angle where it looks almost…he doesn’t know. Almost—pretty.

***

They aren’t headaches. They’re migraines.

That’s what the doctors tell him. Nolan knows it, too: headaches have never felt like this, like his head has seams he didn’t know about and someone’s driving an ice pick through them to split his skull in half. Headaches don’t knock him down for twelve hours and keep him groggy for the twelve after that. He still has to repeat it to himself sometimes, though, when he’s feeling better and doing something halfway normal, like washing dishes or going for an actual for-real outdoors walk, and the thought pops into his head: you could be on the ice right now, if you just stopped being such a baby about it.

He’s played through injuries. Hell, sometimes it feels like he’s played injured more than he’s played well. This is different. “More like a broken leg than a sprained ankle,” one of the team doctors says when he’s explaining it to Nolan. Something he can’t play through, no matter how much he wants to. Not if he wants to add any value on the ice.

The thing is, though—the thing is. Broken legs get better.

Nolan will get better, too. That’s what everyone keeps telling him. Doctors, coaches, family. TK says it, too—over and over, because TK can never say anything just once.

That’s what makes it less annoying when TK says it, Nolan thinks. When everyone else talks about him returning to the ice, Nolan can never help thinking that it’s at least half fake. That they’re saying what they think he needs to hear to buck him up through a hard time or whatever. But TK is constantly dropping these references into his conversation: “When you’re on the ice again,” or, “Next time we’re on a line together.” None of it pointed. Just like it’s part of his stream of consciousness, thoughts that are passing through his head, and he has to say them out loud because he’s TK and that’s what he does.

It still gets to Nolan, sometimes. It should get to him more this year, probably, now that he’s so sensitive to noises and movement. But still, every time he’s in the deep throes of a migraine, when it feels like he’s been in pain longer than it should be possible for a person to be in pain, there comes a moment when all he can think is that he wishes TK were there.

It doesn’t even make sense as a thing to want. TK would hate it: the silence, the darkness, the stillness. He and Nolan have settled into a pretty good balance over the years, where TK brings the energy and Nolan brings the calm. But right now Nolan’s a heavy weight sinking into an endless void. He’s doing his best not to drag TK down with him.

***

The migraines start in the summer, right around the time Nolan’s starting to get serious about preseason training. At first he’s just annoyed about losing the days: he knows how important it is to stick to his schedule, get in the best shape possible for the coming season. He hasn’t gotten to play a full season with the Flyers in his two years with them, and his contract is up at the end of this year.

The migraines keep coming, though, getting more frequent and more intense, and Nolan starts to worry about more than losing a few days.

When this happened a few times in Juniors, he told his coaches. He didn’t have a choice: he couldn’t make it in to practice without vomiting. He should probably do the same thing now—he’s sure the Flyers would want to know. But he puts it off as long as possible, until his training schedule is totally fucked; until he’s more worried about what will happen if he doesn’t tell them.

He tells his parents first. Not about the migraines—they already know, obviously. They’re the ones who’ve been bringing him food on days when he couldn’t imagine leaving his room, and they’re the ones who’ve had to see the way he looks on days when he does manage to drag himself out. His mom’s started wearing a pinched, worried look every time she looks at him. So he’s not really expecting any opposition when he says one night at dinner, “I think I’m going to tell the team about the migraines tomorrow.”

The long pause is the first sign it’s not going to go the way Nolan expects. His parents look at each other across the table, and finally his dad says, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I mean.” Nolan pushes his chicken around on his plate. He doesn’t have a migraine right now, but he did this morning, a quick gut-punch of one right when he was supposed to be working out, and it left him hollowed out in a way that feels incompatible with food. “I feel like they’d want to know if it’s messing with my training.”

“It’s only July,” his mom says. “Don’t you have almost two months left of training?”

That is true. He still has time to catch up, if his migraines make a miraculous turnaround. The thing is, he’s been hoping that for a while now.

“We just don’t want you poisoning the well if there’s a chance this could clear up before the season,” his dad says. “Especially not in a contract year.”

No one says the words “injury-prone.” But Nolan knows it’s behind everything they’re saying. He’s been playing professional hockey for six years, WHL and NHL combined; they don’t need to say it out loud for him to know that image matters.

“Yeah,” he says. “I guess I could wait a little.”

He waits another week. He has four migraines in that week and spends the rest of the time feeling like he can barely lift a fork to his mouth. Even his dad doesn’t argue at the end of it when Nolan says he’s going to call the team the next day.

Chuck is understandably alarmed when Nolan tells him. He wants Nolan in Philly as soon as possible, he says, so that the team doctors can take a look at him and develop a treatment plan.

“Yes, sir,” Nolan says, and, “Of course,” and, “Sorry. I know this isn’t what you want to be dealing with right now.”

There’s a pause on the other end of the line when he says that. “Don’t you worry about that,” Chuck says. “You just focus on getting well, and let us worry about the season.”

It’s a nice thing to say. The kind of thing people say to Nolan every time he gets injured. He doesn’t believe it any more than he ever has.

***

Image is a complicated thing in professional hockey. Nolan’s gotten good at it over the years: he knows how to study his teammates without seeming like he’s doing it, imitating the way they dress and stand and talk closely enough to fit in but not closely enough that it seems like he’s copying anyone.

He’s not perfect at it. Still quieter than he should be, for one thing, a little too hesitant to join in banter or laugh at jokes. And there’s nothing he can do about his cheeks. Hard to look like a tough hockey player when he has literal pink hearts on his face. But for the most part, and as far as he can tell from scrutinizing his press mentions, he’s got it down.

He flies to Philly in jeans and a Wheat Kings hoodie. Not as sharp as the outfits he would wear traveling with the team, but designed to fit in and still look reasonable if a fan takes a picture of him in the airport. The kind of thing the other guys on his team would wear on a day off. It’s not hard; Nolan’s been doing this for years now. He has a wardrobe of clothes that fit a certain image, and he just has to choose among them.

Kevin is already at his house when Nolan gets there. Nolan’s lucky that Kevin just moved here, that he was looking for someone to make his house feel less empty; it meant Nolan’s parents were comfortable sending him to Philly without them when he can’t function two days out of five. “At least you’ll have someone there in case something happens,” his mom said before he got on the plane.

Nolan’s privately hoping Kevin doesn’t have to do that much for him. Kevin seems like a friendly enough guy, and Nolan’s grateful and everything, but Nolan’s literally never met him off the ice before. He doesn’t love the idea of a total stranger having to help him to and from the bathroom.

On the other hand, if he’s going to be down and out of it with migraines, safer to live with someone he isn’t friends with. No bridges to burn when things get bad.

Kevin greets him with a smile and shows him his room. “Other side of the house from me,” he says. “So, you know, you can get up to whatever you want over there.”

All Nolan’s likely to get up to for a while is vomiting in the en suite bathroom. “Sweet,” he says.

“Yeah, I still can’t believe how much space this house has,” Kevin says, sounding a little giddy about it. He just signed a fifty-million-dollar contract with a fifteen-million signing bonus; he doesn’t have to worry about showing what he’s worth this season the way Nolan does. “You bring any girls home, feel free to say it’s yours,” Kevin adds, elbowing him. “Just don’t have sex on the couch.”

Nolan smiles dutifully and thinks about the separate staircases and the massive amounts of square footage between their rooms. He can probably pretend to bring a girl home every night of the week, and Kevin will never be the wiser.

***

The first time Nolan brought a girl home from a bar was February of his rookie year, and the Flyers rigged confetti to spill on him when he dumped his stuff in his stall at practice the next day. Nolan remembers the sudden flurry of paper and color, the immediate adrenaline reaction jolting through him before he figured out what it was.

Once he figured out, everyone was laughing and cheering for him. “We thought you were going to die of deprivation,” Jake said, slapping him on the back.

“Yeah, that cherry had to go sometime,” Ghost said, flicking him on the cheek and making Nolan’s smile falter. Nolan dragged it back up and rolled his eyes at the room.

TK was laughing too, leaning against his stall. Nolan stared at him for one beat too long and then had to say something, so he said, “Was this you?”

“No, I swear,” TK said, his eyes twinkling. He’d been there the night before, too, showing his stupid twinkly-eyed smile to a different girl a few feet down the bar. Nolan could never figure out how someone with a face as objectively dumb as TK’s could have a smile like that. It didn’t seem fair, or possible. But there TK was, making this little brunette girl giggle into her drink, and then there TK wasn’t, him and the girl disappearing into the night. Leaving Nolan at the bar trying to shore up his own expression.

“Nice job with the girl, though,” TK said, still grinning. “Coots said she was a total ten.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Nolan said.

“Hey, you’ve got,” TK said, and reached up to pull some confetti out of Nolan’s hair. Nolan fought down a full-body shiver, along with the urge to tell TK what had really happened with the girl last night. What Nolan wished had happened, and not with any girl at all.

***

Training camp starts, and Nolan isn’t on the ice for it. The team doctors haven’t found anything that works to stop the migraines yet, but they will, they tell him. It’s just a matter of time.

Nolan shows up in a game-day suit and watches from the press box. He says hi to everyone, tries to smile when they slap him on the back and say tough luck. He watches the drills and tries to visualize what he’d be doing if he were on the ice.

He’s planning to stay all day. But around one p.m., he starts seeing sparks in the corners of his vision, and the fingers of his left hand go numb and tingly.

He doesn’t get an aura with every migraine. But he’s had enough by now to know that once he gets one, he only has half an hour or so before the pain sets in. He could hope for a light one, try to power through for a while—but one of the main things the trainers have impressed upon him is that he shouldn’t push himself. That resting might be the one thing that will get him closer to being on the ice.

It doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the eyes of the team are on him as he turns from them, away from the hard work happening on the ice, and goes out in his suit jacket to call an Uber.

It turns out to be one of the bad ones. Nolan doesn’t leave his room for the rest of the day. Just holes up there in the dark, moving only to sip his water and check if it’s time to take more of his meds. He could take the heavier-duty meds and knock himself out, but he’s been working on regulating his sleep schedule, so he stays awake for every red-edged second of it.

It’s close to midnight when he finally feels okay enough to check his phone. He has a bunch of feel-better messages from the team, which he skips past, cheeks hot with embarrassment, and a couple of texts later from TK: u better? want me to come over? we have team dinner but i can probs get out of it soon. And then a few minutes later: srsly this dinner is sooo booooring lmk if you want me over

Nolan feels the automatic pinch of the opportunity lost. If he’d looked at his phone earlier—but what would he have done? He was no more capable of hanging out with TK today than he was of playing hockey. All he could have said was no. No, sorry, my body isn’t capable of friendship right now.

***

Nolan’s body has never been his friend.

He knows he’s kind of an asshole for thinking that. His body got him drafted second overall to the NHL, and it’s getting him paid almost a million dollars a year. Even this year, when all he’s done so far is lie in bed and drag himself in to the rink to get prodded at by a dozen different doctors, his body has him better off than almost anyone else in the country. But even when it’s helping him out, it’s always felt a little like a foreign entity. A tricky one, hard to pin down.

It likes to get his hopes up. Gives him a good game, then three bad ones; a string of three good games, then it twists his ankle. It makes him believe he’s going to get everything he’s dreamed off, and then it slams him down and blinds him with pain for months. Like it was only ever pretending to be on his side.

Sometimes it feels like it twists and changes under his hands. Like the outline of it moves when he’s not looking. On the ice, he knows exactly where each of his limbs is all the time, knows how to control his center of gravity and his speed and his balance. Off the ice, he feels sometimes like his body belongs to someone else, someone who’s doing things with it behind his back.

Nolan stands in front of the mirror in his bathroom, looking at the purple bruises under his eyes. He hasn’t been on the ice since April.

Sometimes he thinks about things. Like what if he had two bodies, one for the ice and one for off. When he was done playing a game, he could slip into that second body, not let anyone see him. Go out in public unrecognized. That body wouldn’t get hit with pucks and sticks and opposing hockey players. It wouldn’t have scars from hours of shooting. Its jaw could be softer. Its skin smoother. It could do different things, want different things, carry itself however it wanted. Run down the street, laughing and weird and free.

He rubs his hands down his thighs and wonders how big a tattoo anyone’s ever gotten. Whether you can get a tattoo that covers your whole body so that you get to choose every detail. Whether you can get tattoos with height and depth, tattoos that carve and build and leave a new landscape behind them.

He’s getting too weird. It’s dangerous. He turns away from the mirror.

***

Living with Kevin is turning out to be about as good an idea as Nolan thought it would be. Kevin is friendly when Nolan’s around, but there’s also a certain amount of protection that comes from Kevin not knowing him. Kevin isn’t Nolan’s friend already, which means he doesn’t have much right to push into Nolan’s business. If Nolan doesn’t act too friendly, Kevin won’t try to cross the space between them. It’s not quite as good as living alone, but Nolan knows himself well enough to recognize that he needs someone else around right now when he doesn’t have anything else going on. Kevin, with his friendly hellos, and TK with his inability to leave Nolan alone for three days running.

The problem is, the Flyers go on road trips.

Nolan’s never known what to do with himself when he can’t play or train. When he has a migraine, it’s not too much of a question. He has two options: lie in the dark and suffer, or knock himself out. Either way, he’s in the dark.

When his head doesn’t hurt, though. When he’s slogging through weakness of the postdrome, or watching warily for the next one to come. When Kevin is gone and the house is empty, and there’s no chance TK will come over and fill it. When screen time is limited and he can’t even fill the time marathoning bad TV. When the days stretch out in front of him, empty and unallocated.

Nolan’s never had a time in his life when he’s faced the prospect of not seeing anyone or having to do anything for long stretches of time. A day or two here and there, recovering from past injuries, maybe—but not like this, with no end in sight. Not without the promise of a return to the ice to hold onto when the team goes on the road without him and he’s left to stare at the blank walls Kevin hasn’t gotten around to decorating yet.

The team goes to Canada in the second week of the season. Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, seven days on the road. Nolan has a doctor’s appointment on the fifth day, but other than that, there’s nothing to fill his time with but migraines.

The first day isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Kevin was already gone a lot of time time, and Nolan’s down with a migraine most of the day. It only starts to feel weird around ten p.m., when it really sinks in that no one’s coming home tonight.

The second day is a little weirder. There’s a flutter of panic starting up in his chest when he thinks about it too much, which is a lot, because he doesn’t really have anything to take his mind off it. He wanders around, staring out the windows and trying not to think about the five days ahead of him.

The third day, he thinks, fuck it. He goes down to breakfast naked.

They’re hockey players; realistically, Kevin wouldn’t care that much if Nolan walked around naked. But it would be just weird enough that Nolan would never dare to do it.

Now, though. No one’s going to be home for days. Nolan feels like a wall has risen around the house, cutting it off from the outside world. Like he’s in a pocket universe where no one can reach him. He can do anything.

It’s a little too cold in the house to be naked comfortably. Nolan turns the heat up—he can pay more of the utility bill if Kev complains. He walks around, tasting the freedom of the air against his skin.

He doesn’t love it. He’s never minded being naked in a locker room, but it’s different when he’s alone. He’s just so aware of his body, of its shape and its parts. He wishes he could take more of it off. Strip down his facial features and his shoulders and his arms. Set aside his dick and balls and not have to pick them up for a few hours. Peel off a few layers of himself until he’s finally bare.

He goes the other direction instead, putting on underwear. That’s almost worse, though; his boxers look black and lumpy and out of place against his crotch and legs.

Sweats and a T-shirt would cover it all. That’s what Nolan would wear on a normal day, if he wanted to blend in. But he doesn’t have to do that here. He’s in a pocket universe. He goes to the dresser in his room and digs out the T-shirt he was never planning to wear.

He shouldn’t even have brought it to Philly. It’s a Wheat Kings T-shirt, something they were given for free, but it’s so long that it goes down to mid-thigh even on Nolan. He would probably have forgotten he had it, except that Maddie was digging through his dresser, helping him pack, and she picked it up and laughed. “Oh my god, please don’t tell me you kept the nightgown from some girl you slept with.”

Nolan blushed, stupid cheeks lighting up, and snatched the T-shirt away from her. “No, it’s just dumb team swag, geez,” he mumbled. But when it came time to close up his suitcase, he had a little bit of room, and he ended up tucking in the T-shirt.

He didn’t articulate a reason to himself at the time. It definitely wasn’t because there’d be a girl in his bed who’d want to wear it. Maybe it was just the comment: Maddie looking at it and thinking it was a nightgown. Anyway, he brought it, and now he fishes it out.

It hangs down even longer than he remembered, almost to his knees. Like he’s someone small wearing their older brother’s team gear. Or their boyfriend’s. Someone who’s dwarfed by the kind of clothing they hand out to hockey teams.

His cheeks are burning, looking ridiculous against his pale skin in the mirror. This isn’t even anything. It’s something the team gave to its players, for fuck’s sake. There’s nothing transgressive in wearing fucking team swag. But his stomach is bubbling, and his skin feels hot all over his body.

He keeps it on. He does his yoga routine in the living room instead of in his room, and when he’s done, he lies on the living room rug, reading some random issue of Golf that Kevin has lying around. Nolan isn’t even interested in the articles. He just likes the feeling of lying out on the carpet, legs bare underneath the T-shirt that pools around his thighs.

The fourth day, he covers the mirrors.

The fifth day he almost misses his doctor’s appointment. He realizes twenty minutes before it starts and runs upstairs to put on normal clothing. He feels weird doing it: like he’s putting on a disguise, even though these are clothes he’s worn dozens of times before.

The doctors poke at him and take his vitals. They look at his food journal, they look at his sleep journal, they ask him if anything’s changed since they last saw him. “Not really,” Nolan says, praying his cheeks aren’t betraying him. They hmm and suggest some new tweaks to his routine.

Two days before the team gets back. Nolan goes home, takes off his pants, and goes upstairs and puts the big T-shirt back on.

He wishes he had something else to wear after two days of wearing the same shirt. He doesn’t have time now to order anything and have it arrive before Kevin gets back. But there will be other road trips.

***

The bubble pops late the next morning, when Kevin bangs in through the front door and calls out a hello. Nolan took the coverings off the mirrors last night, and he’s wearing totally normal sweats and a T-shirt, but he still feels paranoid, like Kevin’s going to notice the tape residue on the bathroom walls and figure out the whole thing.

The house is a lot louder with Kevin in it. He’s telling Nolan about the girl he hooked up with in Calgary, in great detail, when the doorbell rings.

“I’ll get it,” Nolan says, and escapes to the front hall.

It’s TK. It’s only been a week since Nolan last saw him, and Nolan still forgot what it’s like to have him here. Like all the colors change.

“What, you don’t check your phone anymore?” TK asks.

Nolan hasn’t. He just sort of…stopped, when the team was away, when his phone was blowing up with group chats he didn’t need to pay attention to. He should have turned it back on when they got back, probably, but he didn’t really want to deal with it.

“Yeah, it’s awful. He’s gotten as bad as you,” Kevin shouts from the kitchen.

“What are you talking about? I’m great at phones,” TK says.

Nolan rolls his eyes so hard it hurts. TK grins at him, weirdly delighted like he always is when the joke is on him.

“You want to hang out?” Nolan asks him.

“Obviously,” TK says, coming inside.

He’s been coming over every couple of days while the team’s been at home, basically whenever Nolan doesn’t have a migraine and responds to his texts. Nolan always feels awkward about it, like Kevin is going to notice how often it’s happening and ask questions. But it’s TK. Kevin’s playing on a team with him now; he’s got to know what he’s like.

TK plops himself on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table, at ease like he is everywhere. Nolan sits down next to him a careful couple feet away. They probably won’t stay like that; TK has a tendency to flop around. But he has to be the one to cross the distance. That’s the rule, inside Nolan’s head, anyway.

TK does flop around a little, telling Nolan the story of the ridiculous plane flight they had back from Edmonton. A story Nolan would know if he checked his texts, TK says, but Nolan isn’t fooled: he knows TK would rather tell him himself. There’s nothing all that objectively interesting in the plane being an hour late taking off and TK bugging G until he agreed to organize an Egyptian ratscrew tournament. It’s all about how TK tells it: the way his face lights up, the way he makes the small details seem huge and exciting, the way he turns what was probably a miserable plane journey into something Nolan wishes he hadn’t missed.

“Did you at least beat G?” Nolan asks, trying to sound like he’s not too invested in the answer.

“Are you kidding?” TK laughs. “The way that guy plays a game, I can’t believe Sidney Crosby isn’t dead. You can actually feel where his nails got me, look.”

Nolan takes his hand dutifully. He can’t feel where G’s nails got him. Only the skin of TK’s hand, warm and smooth and a little hairy. Nolan runs his fingers over it. “Yeah,” he says, keeping his eyes down. “Yeah, I can feel it.”

Kevin walks into the room just then, and Nolan drops TK’s hand like it’s on fire. Too fast, actually: he should have been more casual about it, should have taken his time. But his heart is beating too fast. He wants to explain; wants to say, No, it’s not what you think, TK was just telling me about—

But that would just make it weird. Everyone else is being chill about it: TK’s saying hi to Kevin, his face looking normal, not like he just got caught at something. And why would he? TK doesn’t have anything to be afraid of. He’s not like Nolan.

***

The team is home for a long stretch after the Canada trip. Nolan spends more time in his room—but after a while he starts to get paranoid about what Kevin must be thinking about him, shutting himself away like that. It feels safer to show his face once in a while.

The problem is, Kevin is a quiet walker, and he thinks it’s funny to walk up behind someone while they’re trying to use their laptop.

“Whatcha doing?” he asks loudly, appearing at Nolan’s shoulder while Nolan scrambles to minimize his browser window. “Looking at porn?”

Nolan successfully gets his browser shut. “You wish,” he says, heart pounding loudly in his ears. “Nah, just, you know, Christmas shopping for my sisters.”

He casts a careful look at Kevin after he says it. Kevin seems to buy it. “Oh yeah, you have two of them, right?” he asks, straddling the ottoman at the other end of the couch.

“Yeah, one older, one younger,” Nolan says.

“You guys hang out a lot?”

This is a friendship overture, Nolan’s pretty sure. This is the kind of conversation people have when they’re trying to become friends. Nolan should take him up on it; they’ve been living together for three months now, and Nolan hasn’t made much of an effort to be more than civil. So even though what he really wants to do is pick up his laptop and flee, he presses his legs to the couch and says, “Yeah, uh, they play hockey, so.”

“That’s awesome,” Kevin says, sounding genuinely enthusiastic. “Like me and Jimmy. That’s gotta make the girl thing easier, too, right?”

“Uh.” Nolan’s back muscles are twitching. “What?”

“No, I just mean, sisters. That’s gotta be weird.” Kevin’s grinning at him. “I, like, wouldn’t even know what to do with one. Like, that clothing site you were on, I would just be—hey, you okay?”

Nolan’s up, off the couch. “Yeah, I just.” He knows he’s acting like a weirdo. He should just sit down and finish the conversation like a normal person. “I feel a little.” Nolan waves a hand.

“Oh, sure. Yeah, you do what you need to do.” Kevin swivels around on the ottoman. “And, hey, tell me if I ever get too loud or anything, okay? I won’t be mad or whatever.”

“For sure,” Nolan says, and tucks his laptop under his arm and books it out of there.

***

It’s almost easier when he has a migraine. Then at least he has an excuse to shut himself away, not talk to anyone for days, not even look at his phone except to log his symptoms in his tracking app. At least then he’s sure, all the way to the bottom of his gut, that it’s actually as bad as he’s been telling everyone it is.

The halfway days, though. The days when he’s recovering or feeling something coming on. That’s when he doesn’t feel like he has an excuse to say no to things, when he has to drag himself out of the house and try to seem semi-normal. That’s when he lets TK come over and sit on the other end of the couch while Nolan tries desperately not to let on how hard it still is to sit up, to think, to think.

He could just say no to TK coming over. But after days in the dark, Nolan’s resistance is worn down. He wants TK there with him, regardless of how dumb it turns out to be.

TK comes over after the Flyers’ one-stop road trip to Chicago. The team was gone less than twenty-four hours, and Nolan had too much of a migraine to really notice their absence. Right now he’s deep in the postdrome, his arms and legs feeling too heavy to move. He’s lying with his head on a couch cushion, listening to TK talk about their win against the Blackhawks and trying not to let on how much he wishes he’d been a part of it.

“And then we went out after, obviously,” TK says.

“Risky move,” Nolan says.

“Yeah, no kidding,” TK says with a laugh, shifting his legs a little. They’re not touching, but Nolan can feel every inch between his head and TK’s thigh, and he thinks TK might cross the distance soon. Just casually, without any intent, in the way TK does. “We were the winners, though, can’t let a bunch of angry Hawks fans hold us back.”

Nolan remembers feeling defiant like that. Untouchable. He’s a lot more in touch with his limitations these days. “You fight anyone?”

“Only on the ice,” TK says. TK, who is four inches shorter than any legit hockey enforcer out there. “This girl gave me a hard time about it, though.”

“Yeah?” Nolan gets a sour taste in his mouth. His stomach is still weird sometimes, after a migraine. “What’d she say?”

“Just some shit about us hanging onto a winning record by the skin of our teeth.”

“Okay, but she’s a Blackhawks fan.”

TK laughs. “Right? Like she could talk. She was spouting the dumbest stats at me. Like anyone cares about plus/minus when you’re not winning games.”

TK’s voice is fond. Nolan knows his script here. “She hot?”

TK shrugs, his shoulders visible in the corners of Nolan’s vision. “A girl talking to you about hockey stats, that’s always gonna be hot, right?”

Nolan wouldn’t know. When he talks to a girl in a bar, he feels basically like he does now: drawn taut with adrenaline. “Not much that’s hotter than hockey knowledge, yeah.”

“Provy was giving me so much shit about it,” TK says. He’s fidgeting with the cushion, still so close to Nolan’s legs, still not touching. “He and Sanny, laughing it up like three feet away, like she wouldn’t notice.”

Nolan knows his next lines. He’s followed them a dozen times before. He can’t bring himself to do it now, though. He rolls sideways so he’s facing the room and can’t look up at TK’s face. “Maybe they were laughing at her caring about stats while being a Blackhawks fan.”

“Yeah, I mean, don’t think I didn’t say that.”

How did she take it? Did she still press against you in a dark corner of the bar, lift her face up to be kissed? “Hope you mentioned their power play,” he mumbles.

He thinks he’s selling it fine. Just trash-talking some hockey. But TK shifts again above him, and his voice sounds different when he speaks again. “Hey. Is this, uh—is this cool?”

Cold adrenaline prickles all the way down Nolan’s body. TK never notices anything. That’s a fundamental principle of their lives. What is he noticing now? Why is he noticing? Nolan immediately begins a mental inventory of all his actions over the past six weeks. “Uh, yeah, why wouldn’t it be.”

“I just.” A pause, in which Nolan doesn’t breathe. “You know we all wish you were there.”

That…doesn’t mean anything. What does that mean? “Yeah?”

“Yeah, I mean, it really sucks.” TK sighs, and his fingers brush Nolan’s forehead—a glancing touch that makes every one of Nolan’s nerves stand on end. “We’re not just, like, having a good time and forgetting about you.”

The team missing him. That’s what TK thinks Nolan is worried about. He thinks he’s jealous of—having fun with the team. Going out. Being a part of things again.

He’s not wrong. Nolan should be relieved, that that’s all TK was talking about. That TK only sees the thing most obviously wrong with Nolan.

Nolan clears his throat. “Don’t hold your breath.”

“Hey.” TK rests his hand on Nolan’s head. “Are you—”

Nolan pushes up, dislodging TK’s hand and making himself dizzy. “I’m actually—I’m feeling kind of shitty,” he says. “I think I should go lie down.”

“Oh. Sure. I mean—are you sure?” TK looks at him with big eyes. “I can, like, stay with you, if you want.”

It’s a genuine offer. Nolan knows it is; everything that comes from TK is genuine. “No,” Nolan says. And then, feeling like he should soften it: “I mean, thanks. But I think I should just be alone.”

“Oh yeah, of course.” TK stands up. “I get it. Just, you know, feel better, okay?”

“Thanks,” Nolan says, and waits until TK’s let himself out to drag himself upstairs and fall into bed.

He lets himself imagine it a little, before he passes out. That hand on his head, moving through his hair while his head gives a lingering throb. But that’s a stupid dream. A rookie dream. He knows better by now.

***

When Nolan was a rookie, he was out with a concussion for half of October and November, and TK came to see him every single day the team was in Philadelphia.

They weren’t even super close friends yet. They’d been hanging out at team stuff and rooming together on the road, but it was only October. Nolan hadn’t had time to get to know anyone that well yet. Definitely not to the point where he would have expected them to drop everything to hang out at his bedside.

TK did, though. He spent hours sitting in a chair in Jake’s guest room, reading game rundowns for other teams and taking them down Wikipedia rabbit holes of weird fish facts. And sometimes, when Nolan wasn’t up for that much auditory processing, TK would just sit there quietly on his phone, or fall asleep with his head tipped against the back of the chair. By the time Nolan got back on the ice, it felt more natural to be with TK than to be by himself.

TK would do that again, if Nolan let him. TK is the most generous person Nolan’s ever met. If TK were holding his lunch and you said you were hungry, he’d hand it to you and not worry about where his next food was coming from. He would sit in the dark with Nolan for all the migraines, even the ones that hurt too much for Nolan to speak or understand words. TK would try to sit there quietly without moving for ten- or twelve-hour stretches even though he can barely make it through a feature film without getting up and walking around. He would sign up for it every time, whenever the team is in town, even though there’s no stop date on this. No six-to-eight week window for when Nolan will be back on the ice and TK will be off the hook. That wouldn’t matter to TK; he’d do it anyway.

And eventually, after a while, he’d start to resent it. As the season dragged on, as Nolan sank deeper into darkness, he’d start to realize how much he was giving without getting anything back. The day would come when he would squirm out of his chair in Nolan’s room and not want to come back. He might not say that in so many words, even to himself. He might even keep coming back—but it won’t be because he wants to. It’ll be because he doesn’t want to admit he doesn’t want to.

Nolan doesn’t want to be the person who does that to him. He doesn’t want to be this person at all. If he has to be, though, he at least doesn’t want TK to find out about it.

***

The Flyers go on another road trip.

Nolan doesn’t come along. Maybe the next one, the doctors say.

Kevin leaves, and Nolan waits a few hours before doing anything other than what he’d be doing normally. He does his midday yoga, eats his non-FODMAP lunch, meditates. Thinks about the box he got in the mail the other day.

It feels dangerous, having something like that in the house. Nolan left the box sealed and then put it in his closet, underneath the pile of hockey gear he hasn’t worn since April. He thought vaguely that he might never take it out of the box, throw the whole thing out sometime in a dumpster far away. But he’s not going to do that. He’s going to open it.

He waits until after dinner, when the house is dark. He gets the box out and slits the tape.

The inside has that new-clothes smell. Nolan pulls the things out one at a time and runs his fingers over them. They’re soft, a little slippery, subtly different from his normal clothes. They want to slither out of his hands. He presses one against his chest, against the space between his pec and his armpit, and his skin flushes hot.

He shouldn’t be doing this. There’s a voice in his head yelling loudly about how stupid this is, how dangerous. He’s never done it before; he shouldn’t need to do it now. But also, after the clusterfuck of this year, what does he have to lose?

No one will see. He’s alone in the house. It’s fine.

He picks a couple of the items and strips down to his underwear. He doesn’t look in the mirror while he puts them on. They fit pretty well; he measured himself with a string and a ruler to figure out the size. He closes his eyes and runs his hands over his body.

It’s still his body. The clothes don’t make it feel that different. But his skin is prickling with the knowledge of what he’ll see when he opens his eyes.

He opens his eyes and stares at himself in the bathroom mirror, face flushed, transformed.

The T-shirt is tight, is the first thing he notices. It has way less cloth than anything else Nolan has ever worn on the top of his body. Its sleeves are short, just little caps that don’t reach his biceps, and the neckline plunges down to show half of his pecs. The fabric cuts off at the bottom of his rib cage, leaving his stomach exposed, like he’s wearing something he outgrew it years ago.

The skirt, though. The skirt only falls to mid-thigh but probably has more fabric than any of his pants. It starts in tight at his waist and flares out, this silky fabric that falls in ripples. When he swivels, though, it swirls around his legs, unseen oceans of fabric spinning out.

Nolan looks at himself, the pale pink of the t-shirt and the brighter blue of the skirt, the splotchy red of his cheeks. Words tickle his mind like the edge of a knife. Cross-dressing. Transvestite.

Those aren’t the words they use on the sites Nolan’s been looking at sometimes. They talk about other things there. Identifying. Exploring. Presenting.

Nolan doesn’t think he wants to present. He doesn’t like the idea of eyes on him. He wants to turn away from the eyes of the world, retreat into a place where no one can see him. Where he’s the only one who can see how he looks in the mirror.

He smooths his hands over the tight cotton of the shirt and the silky fabric of the skirt. He doesn’t look like the girls who were modeling the clothes online. His chest is too wide, his pecs not filling out the top of the shirt the way the girls’ boobs did. His legs and arms are hairy and rough and overly thick. And no one who looks at the front of his skirt will have any doubt what kind of equipment he’s packing. He looks—well, he looks ridiculous, probably. He should just take it all off.

He doesn’t, though. He keeps it on. He walks around the first floor of the house, curtains drawn, and checks the locks on the doors three times. Makes sure his laptop is shut, webcam facing down. He even turns his phone off. Even so, he feels like someone will be able to tell—like the image will be beamed into his teammates’ minds, or one of the walls of the house will collapse on itself like the fake buildings on a soundstage. Reveal him to the world.

He doesn’t care. He doesn’t need to think about them right now. This is just for him.

Nolan keeps the clothes on until it’s time to go to bed, and the next day he puts on a pair of booty shorts and a camisole. He didn’t know that word before, camisole, but the girl on the site looked pretty in her skimpy tank top, so he ordered one in strawberry print. He puts it on with the shorts that he can’t wear underwear with because they’re cut so high.

The spaghetti straps look ridiculous against his shoulders, and the built-in bra elastic cuts across his pecs. Nolan wears it all day, walking around the open-plan living room area, sitting on the couch hugging his knees to his chest and feeling simultaneously hidden and exposed.

He wants to shave his legs. He wants to be able to run his hands down his legs and feel them smooth beneath his hands. But he has no idea how long it would take for his hair to grow back, and he can’t risk it. This is enough for now.

***

It’s not that long a road trip. A few hours before Kevin’s due back, Nolan pushes his new clothes even deeper into the closet than they were before.

They feel more dangerous now that he’s worn them. Probably he should wash them. But he didn’t think of that before, and he isn’t sure he’ll have time to do a full wash cycle.

He feels different now, anyway, even when he walks around without them. He can still feel the way the skirt swished around his thighs. He can feel the lines of the camisole against his shoulders and pecs, the way the little pink strawberries looked against his skin.

“What’d you do while we were gone?” TK asks later that day, and Nolan flushes.

They’re in Nolan’s room, because Kevin’s watching the Halloween movies in the living room and TK doesn’t like horror. Nolan said sure when TK suggested coming up here, but now he wishes he hadn’t. His closed closet door feels like it has a spotlight on it.

“Nothing,” he mumbles, lying back on his bed and watching the fidget spinner in TK’s hands.

“It must be, like, super boring,” TK says, tossing the spinner into the air and catching it. “Like, we’re all out of town, and we’re basically the coolest people in the city. So I figure you’re just sitting around here, pining for us—”

“Maybe that’s what you would do,” Nolan says. He snatches the fidget spinner out of TK’s hand. “You’re such a parody of yourself, jeez.”

TK grins and rolls towards him. “You’re just jealous I’m such a shining star,” he says, poking Nolan in the cheek.

It’s kind of true. TK wears everything on his sleeve, everything he likes and everything he’s afraid of, all out there all the time. Nolan can’t imagine what it must feel like. TK must feel so free all the time. He must never feel like the different parts of his life are going to burst out of their secret hiding places and collide, ruining everything.

***

Nolan orders more clothes from that site. Afterward, feeling reckless, he goes to the Sephora site.

He’s not sure he’s buying the right things. He has only vague memories of poking through his sisters’ makeup bags when he was younger, furtive so that no one would catch him looking. But the girls in the YouTube tutorials told him this is what he needs for a beginner makeup look, so he’s going to give it a shot. He has the money to waste.

He watches the mail like a hawk the next few days and manages to snatch up the packages before Kevin sees them. They go into his closet too, tucked safely into the dark. Then the Flyers go to Toronto and Boston for a back-to-back and Nolan pulls them out.

His hands are clumsy as he sorts through the makeup. The girls in the YouTube tutorials made it look good right away, but the first swipe of foundation across Nolan’s skin just makes him feel dumb. He looks like he got food on his face. He shaved this morning, but he still has enough stubble that it pokes through the makeup.

He wipes it off, shaves again against the grain, and reapplies. He has to at least try this. Even if he hates it and never wants to do it again, he has to know.

He spreads the foundation all over his face, using the thing called a beauty blender that the girl with the sidecut said was important, and when it’s done he looks in the mirror at his monochrome face. Flattened. Like he’s made of porcelain.

His cheeks are gone. That’s what it is. It takes him a minute to realize, but yeah: his cheeks are always at least pinkish, even when he’s not embarrassed or flushed, and right now they’re the same pale color as the rest of him.

Nolan doesn’t know how to feel about that. He’s always been embarrassed by his flushed cheeks, but having them gone is just weird. Like he’s lost something he didn’t know he wanted to keep.

Gotta keep going. The YouTube ladies were very firm on this being a complete look. He does his eyes next, powder going in the V shape they told him to use, and then the dark eyeliner. The first few times he tries to put it on, it goes out of the line it’s supposed to be in, and he has to use the makeup wipes to get rid of it all and start over. But finally he gets it in lines that aren’t too lumpy. Then the mascara, blink blink blink, the wand magically making his lashes longer and darker so that it looks like there are way more of them before.

He steps back and looks at himself. His eyes stare at him, popping out of his face like they never have before. Emphasized in curving black lines. Startling. Pretty.

His heart is racing like crazy as he steps back up to the mirror. He does the rest of it, the highlighter and the blush and the powder and finally the lipstick, parting his lips and drawing carefully in the cool pink that’s supposed to be good for his complexion. He looks at himself and drops his eyes away. Then looks again. Keeps studying his face. Can’t get enough.

He goes back to his room and gets dressed. Comes back into the bathroom and looks at himself: a startling, too-pretty face over a sparkly dress. Awkward angles. Long dark eyelashes. A jaw that looks too heavy, too sharp. Soft pink lips. Wide shoulders. The long flow of the silvery dress.

He wants to run away. He wants to keep it on forever. He wants to wrap his arms around himself and dissolve into the air. He doesn’t know who this person is, and he’s afraid to; he doesn’t want to make it too real. But he can’t look away.

He keeps going to the mirror to look at himself, all night. Are his eyes still pretty like that? What about when he tilts his head a little and looks up at the mirror? Are his lips still smooth and pink, like he could leave a lipstick kiss on someone’s cheek? Does the dress still fall all swingy and loose around his thighs?

He wants to take a picture. He knows better, obviously. But he wants to capture it. Be able to keep drinking it in.

At the end of the night he takes it off, the makeup wipes clearing away the color like the eraser in Microsoft Paint. His normal eyes look plain and small when the makeup is gone. That’s probably a thing for—that’s probably a normal thing, when you take your makeup off at night. It’s probably always weird, seeing your normal face stare back at you like something you’re not used to anymore.

He puts on the nightgown he ordered with the other clothing. It’s lacy and sheer, and Nolan’s so embarrassed that he immediately goes to hide under his comforter. But he knows that he has it on, black lace against his skin, even when he’s curled up in the dark.

***

Kevin comes back, and Nolan’s Flyers t-shirt and sweats feel like a lie Kevin’s going to see through. Nolan sits at the breakfast table and feels like there’s no way Kevin won’t notice. Like the imprint of Nolan in full makeup and a dress, sitting at this table two days ago, must somehow be visible in the air. Nolan goes in to the rink for a checkup, and he feels like the doctors are going to see something in his face. Spot some lingering lipstick in his blood sample.

No one calls him on it. It’s incredible to Nolan that he can do this, walk around in public like he’s normal, and have no one see through it. No one stops him and says, “Hang on. Aren’t you wearing the wrong thing?”

He goes home, and Kevin goes to practice, and Nolan goes into his bathroom and puts on mascara and eyeliner.

It feels like two worlds. The outside world, where he’s Nolan Patrick, hockey player, and this secret bubble where his lashes curve pretty and black over his cheeks. Where his lips are pink or red or purple, where his chest is bare to the delicate neckline of a camisole. (He has more than one now.) Where no one’s looking over his shoulder, nudging him to respond to a joke the right way, to give the right kind of look to the girl at the bar.

It shouldn’t be that surprising that no one notices. Nolan’s been hiding in plain sight for the last decade or more, every time there’s been something about him that doesn’t quite fit in. No one in the whole world of hockey has ever picked up on it. He just never realized how close he could push to the edge without breaking through.

TK comes the closest to figuring anything out. He’s over at Nolan’s, and they’re playing video games. Nolan’s hair has gotten long to the point where he has to flick it out of his eyes, but he can’t while he’s holding a game controller in both hands, so he keeps tossing his head instead, trying to get his eyes clear. It’s not really working, and it’s also giving him a headache.

He doesn’t think TK’s watching him while he does it, but when they reach a save point TK says, “See, this is why you need a hat.”

TK’s wearing a hat with a fish on it, because he continues to be the TK-est person around. “Maybe I’m just not as much of a hick as you,” Nolan says.

“Oh, ouch, okay. Well, then, maybe you need those things.”

“What things.”

“You know.” TK makes a completely unintelligible hand movement. “Those clippy things, what are they called? The things girls put in their hair—”

Nolan jerks back so hard his character goes into a wall. “Are you making fun of me?” he hisses.

TK stares at him. “Yes?” he says, looking warily amused. “You called me a hick, and I said—”

“No, I mean.” Nolan’s head is throbbing, a beat in each of his temples. He needs to get himself under control. Needs to just drop this, actually, but he has to know. “When you said the thing about the, the barrettes, what did you—”

“Barrettes! That’s what they’re called,” TK says, grinning and snapping his fingers. “I knew there was a word.”

Nolan is breathing too fast. He doesn’t know why he’s so thrown over this. TK’s a hockey player; they’re both hockey players, and the NHL isn’t that different from Juniors. They’ll chirp you over anything. He just wasn’t expecting it—wasn’t expecting how much realer it would feel, now that there’s more to chirp him about.

“Hey.” TK is looking at him worriedly now, the amusement dropping out of his face. “Um, I didn’t, like—dude. Are you okay?”

Nolan needs to get it together. “Yeah. I’m fine. I just.” He brushes his fingers over his temples, hiding his face from view. “Sorry.”

“No, hey.” TK is right there, in his space. Closer than Nolan expected. “Headache?”

His hands are in Nolan’s hair. Nolan lets his head be lifted. He hates that even now, he feels like this when TK gets this close: like his tongue is too big, filling his mouth, like his fingers have turned thick and clumsy. Like his chest is a balloon inflating with TK’s proximity.

TK rubs his fingers over Nolan’s temples. The touch moves in thick ripples down Nolan’s body, beating back the edges of his headache and lighting up his skin.

“Sorry,” TK says as his fingers move slowly across Nolan’s forehead. Nolan looks up at him, helpless, every nerve exposed. “I know that was, like, fucked up.”

Nolan closes his eyes. He should pull away, but he doesn’t want TK to stop. “What, uh.” He clears his throat. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, I mean.” TK’s pinky finger brushes a little below Nolan’s eyebrow, catches in his eyelashes. “Sorry if I. I would never, like, call you a girl.”

Right. Of course not. Nolan squeezes his eyes tighter, swallowing down everything that’s rising in his throat. TK’s never going to touch him anywhere he really wants. Nolan should just—

But he doesn’t. He never does. He tips his face up and lets it go on.

***

The first time Nolan knew he wanted TK was three months into his first season.

Nolan’s always been slow to want. Slow to realize he wants. By the time he puts it together, things have usually gone so far that there’s no turning back. He knows better than to fall for a teammate, someone who would never want him back, someone who could get him finished in the sport and edged silently out of the locker room. But he never sees the danger soon enough to put a stop to it.

He realized about TK one day in January when they decided to explore the waterfront. It was fucking cold out, but it was always fucking cold out the months they were in Philly, and Nolan hadn’t really seen much of the city yet. They walked there from Nolan’s place, taking their time and talking about nothing in particular. TK kept pointing at the weirdest things in the store windows they passed and telling Nolan he was going to buy them for him. A cat jungle gym. A cape made of fake leopard fur. Nolan told him to shut the fuck up, but he was grinning despite himself, and he felt warm even though the sun on their faces was January-thin.

They got to the river, and it was dark and gray, but they were up high above it and the sky was huge and blue and it was just nice to see rushing water. They spent so much time in the hearts of cities, in hotels and high-rises and hockey rinks, and it felt so different to just…see a piece of the world running free.

“We should live on the river next year,” Nolan said. “Get a houseboat or something.”

He was joking, obviously. Throwing out weird ideas just to say them. But he looked over after a moment, because TK wasn’t saying anything, and TK was looking back at him with the biggest smile. Just, the happiest look Nolan had seen on any human being ever. “Dude, TK said, like Nolan had just suggested they win the Stanley Cup. “Yeah, like, fuck this apartment shit. Let’s live on the water. It would be perfect.” His face was lit up brighter than the sunshine off the buildings, and Nolan just—felt his heart fall away. Down, down, down, into the dark river water.

He was dazed on the way back. Overwhelmed by the enormity of TK at his side. TK was still happy, chattering and laughing and nudging Nolan whenever there was a particularly good joke, but he didn’t pressure Nolan to say anything. Just like always, he let Nolan be himself.

That’s the irony of it. TK’s always been weirdly accepting of Nolan, even the parts of him other people find annoying: his quiet moods and his grumpiness and the mornings when he doesn’t want to relate to anyone has a human being yet. But TK’s only ever seen the version of Nolan that Nolan lets people see. He doesn’t know about all the other things. If he did, he wouldn’t walk through the Philly streets with Nolan anymore, face lit up in that smile Nolan’s never, ever wants to lose.

***

TK leaves once it starts to get late. Nolan lies on the couch for a while, body still tingling from TK’s fingers on his skin. Then he hauls himself up the stairs to bed.

He has a sleep schedule to stick to. That’s one of the things the doctors have impressed on him: the importance of going to sleep at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning. Training his body to function the way it’s supposed to.

The sleep schedule doesn’t make a lot of allowance for lying around on living room couches feeling frustration bury into his skin as the boy he wants drives away into the night. But then, the official NHL health advisories probably don’t leave a lot of space for wanting boys at all.

Nolan’s been around this merry-go-round a lot in the past two years. He’s tried denial. He’s tried minimizing it, telling himself that everyone has thoughts like that about their friends. And he’s tried lying to himself, pretending it’s not TK he’s picturing when he puts his hands on himself. He’s tried pretending the cock he’s thinking about is his own.

He knows by now that there’s no good way to be in love with TK. But that doesn’t change anything: he still lies in bed, lit up with the memory of TK’s fingers on his scalp, TK’s breath on his face, TK leaning against him. He always touches Nolan so casually, like it doesn’t matter—like it’s not making a hundred sparklers go off under Nolan’s skin. Like he trusts Nolan not to break the compact of bros not wanting bros.

One time, the year they roomed together. TK was in the shower and Nolan needed to grab his mouthwash. He didn’t get a long look: just a quick glimpse, TK in the shower, hand wrapped around himself. But that image lit up Nolan’s brain like a goal light flashing from two feet away.

He didn’t touch himself that night. He was too stunned to do anything about it, and then TK was back, pink-faced and smiling at Nolan like usual, and it was too late to creep off and take care of things. Nolan had to fall asleep with his cock hot as a brand against his thigh.

The next night, though, and so many nights following that. He’s pictured it: TK stroking his own cock, his fist tight around it. Getting close, gasping as he pushed harder into his hand. His skin hot from the shower water and wet to Nolan’s touch if he stepped into the shower with him. His cock hard and spurting against Nolan’s thigh, his mouth soft and trembling as Nolan kissed him through his climax.

Nolan’s gasping now as he thrusts up into his hand. He doesn’t do this in the shower; he does it under the blankets, where he doesn’t have to see what he’s doing. Where he can pretend he’s touching someone else’s cock instead of his own.

He watches, sometimes, at parties—when there are dark hallways that no one’s supposed to be looking at. Or maybe people are supposed to look: maybe that’s why guys go there, in the hopes that everyone will see what they’re getting some girl to do to them. You’re supposed to pretend you’re not looking, though, and so Nolan looks out of the corners of his eyes. Watches the way the guys’ faces go lax with pleasure. Watches the girls on their knees with their mouths full of slick hard cock. Feels impossibly, indescribably jealous.

He’d be so good at it. If he could fill his mouth with a cock—with TK’s—Nolan would be so greedy for it. He’d run his tongue and lips over the soft ridge of the head and get everything nice and wet. Slide down a little, maybe get TK to make that breathy noise he makes sometimes when they’re watching something and he doesn’t realize he’s reacting out loud. Then Nolan would really go for it, suck TK down deep, until he can’t swallow any more, until he’s gagging on it, until TK comes and fills Nolan’s throat—

Nolan jerks his hips up, gone, shooting into a tissue. He falls back on the pillows and waits for the self-loathing that always comes with that particular fantasy. But there’s nothing new. He’s maxed out already.

***

Another road trip, another home game, and this time Nolan is well enough to go out with the team afterward. He feels like he hasn’t seen everyone in forever, even though objectively it hasn’t been that long. It’s so different, though, from seeing them every day for practice and travel and games. Now he just pops in, says hi, pops out again. He feels like he’s fading out, a ghost against a dim background.

The bar is crowded and loud and feels like the inside of a migraine. Nolan grits his teeth and bears it. He drinks a seltzer—no alcohol, no sugar—and tries to listen to the story Provy’s telling. He needs to listen, participate, become part of this group again. But he feels like there’s a huge distance in the way. Like Provy’s words have to travel across five hundred feet to reach his ears.

He looks at Madison, Provy’s girlfriend, instead. She’s leaning into Provy’s side in an easy curve, her head tilted up a little to listen to him. There’s something so…contained about her. Like she’s a single long graceful line. Not sprawled out, the way one of the guys would be if they were leaning off-center. Everything’s tucked in, curving tidily.

Nolan tries to imagine himself standing like that. He couldn’t look up like that, too tall, wouldn’t have anyone to look at. But the rest of it. The way she looks like a line that wants to be draped against someone. How would he rearrange his body, tilt his shoulders, to create that look? Maybe if he pulled in his elbows, tilted his head…

Someone laughs near his ear and he startles out of it, glancing around to make sure he didn’t do anything noticeable. His cheeks feel hotter than the strobe light flashing in the corner.

“Yo.” TK sidles up to him and slides his arm around Nolan’s waist. “What’s the story? What am I missing?”

Nolan feels like his pulse is really close to the surface of his skin. He hasn’t been listening to the story at all. “Uh,” he says.

“Hey, Teeks, you got your girlfriend back!” Jakey says, and Nolan goes up in a pillar of flames.

He doesn’t expect it. He feels it like a physical impact, taking his senses offline, and he misses the next few moments of conversation. When he tunes back in, TK is batting back something about a trophy husband, how Jake should be so lucky, and how is it that TK can always find words in situations like this? Why is it always Nolan who stands there destroyed, like someone just rammed him into the boards and left him flat on the ice?

He should be used to this by now. The guys used to make jokes about him and TK being married all the time. It’s just that it’s been a while, that Nolan’s tolerance has gone down. He feels like a nineteen-year-old kid on the team bus, hearing his first crack about the two of them sitting together all the time. He feels like a sixteen-year-old kid in Juniors, listening to his crush make fun of the gay couple across the food court. He feels like a professional hockey player with a strawberry-print camisole hidden in the back of his closet.

“Hey.” TK rubs his palm up and down Nolan’s waist. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Nolan says automatically.

“You sure?” TK says. “Your head isn’t giving you trouble?”

Nolan looks over at him. TK’s so solid. Square shoulders, stocky build, feet planted on the floor. Nolan wants to drape himself all over him. One long graceful line. “No,” he says. “My head’s okay.”

TK still looks concerned, a crease between his eyebrows. “Is it, uh.” He drops his voice, so that Nolan has to lean in a little to hear him. “You know they’re just joking, right? About, like.”

Nolan doesn’t know when TK got it in his head that Nolan was sensitive about this. He wants to turn into the arm TK still has around his waist; he wants to push TK against the bar and kiss him stupid. He wants to yell in his ear that that’s not what that bothers him.

“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

***

TK never seems to be bothered by anything. It’s not that he doesn’t shit that could bother him: Nolan knows he worries about his worth to the team, about justifying his shiny new contract, about being so far from his family when good or bad things happen. But none of it seems to burrow into to him the way things burrow into Nolan and fester there. Nolan’s pretty sure that if you scratch the surface of TK, you’d just get more TK.

That should be annoying, probably. Nolan shouldn’t want it around him this much, this easy positive TK-ish energy washing over him and making him forget about what’s beneath his own surface. He definitely shouldn’t need it this much. That just opens him up to feeling like shit when he inevitably loses it. When TK scratches a little too far below Nolan’s surface.

TK comes over in early December, when Nolan’s just gotten off a three-day migraine jag. It was a bad one, and the postdrome isn’t any better: Nolan feels like someone ripped his skin off and put it back on inside out. Like even his skin in his clothing against the fabric of the couch is too much.

He should send TK away, probably, but TK’s hand on his ankle feels like the only thing that’s anchoring him to reality right now. Nolan’s greedy for it, at least fifty percent of his attention focused on that hand while TK talks about his family’s Christmas plans.

“And then Maddie has to leave for training on the 26th,” TK says, “so we’d only get like two days of overlap. But I still think it’s worth it to see—hey. Did you shave your ankles?”

TK’s fingers are under his sweats, on the newly smooth skin. Nolan freezes.

He forgot. He did shave his ankles. He shaved his whole legs. It was almost a week ago, when the team was in Florida and Carolina, and Nolan felt—not really safe, since the team was only gone for a few days. But he was trying on the new shorts he got, and they just didn’t look right with his legs all hairy. So he got into the shower and soaped up his legs and dragged his razor over them in slow, careful strokes.

It took him the better part of half an hour to clear all the hair away. At the end of it, once he was dry, he spent another quarter-hour just running his hands over them and feeling how smooth they were.

He meant to be careful after. Wear long pants and socks anytime anyone was around. But then he was shut in his room for three days with pain battering the walls, and he forgot.

He needs to say something. TK is looking at him. “Yeah, I.” Nolan clears his throat. “I got…really bored.”

He’s half-expecting TK to call him out on it. To laugh and tell him that can’t be the real reason. But TK’s face just falls. “Shit. Sorry. Sometimes I forget how much this must suck for you.”

Nolan’s throat is suddenly tight. “It’s okay,” he mumbles.

“Not really, though,” TK says. “I feel like I should be doing more to help.”

“I mean.” Nolan shrugs. “There’s not, like, a lot to do.” Just lie there, in the dark, and feel his head turn inside out.

“No, but I could bring you food, or whatever,” TK says. “I don’t know. Help you with shit. What do you need?”

He’s looking at Nolan, all earnest and hopeful. Nolan can feel the words springing to his lips: dangerous words, treacherous. He swallows them down. “I don’t really have a lot on my plate right now,” he says instead, trying for light. “The only thing on my to do list is, like, washing my hair.”

“Okay, so I’ll help with that,” TK says.

Nolan stares at him. “I didn’t, like.” He wasn’t even planning to do it tonight: he tries not to shower when he’s still feeling migraine effects, because he’s afraid of slipping and falling. “I wasn’t asking,” he mumbles.

“So maybe I’m just offering.” TK shrugs. Unbothered. “Like, if you don’t want to, no big deal, but. I want to help with something.”

He hasn’t really thought this through. He doesn’t know how weird it’s gonna be, his hands in Nolan’s hair, all wet and soapy. Nolan should say no to this, save them both from how it’s going to feel. He should—

He feels his throat click as he swallows. “Okay,” he says, his voice small.

He half expects TK to burst out laughing. To say it was a joke all along, how could Nolan ever think he was serious? But TK just nods, decisive. “Nice. Let’s do this.”

***

Nolan puts on swim trunks. Not that they haven’t seen each other naked hundreds of times. But this is already going to be a lot; Nolan wants a barrier.

He’s very aware of his shaved legs when he comes into the bathroom in the trunks. TK already knows he shaved them; there’s no reason for him to ask at this point. But TK’s eyes scan down them anyway. “It looks weird, I know,” Nolan blurts.

“No,” TK says. “I mean, yeah, obviously. But it’s kinda…I don’t know. It’s kind of cool-looking.”

Nolan wants him to fucking call him out already. TK shouldn’t be letting him get away with this shit. He’s supposed to—point, laugh, say something scathing, and the fact that he isn’t—

Nolan gestures at the tub. “Let’s just.”

“Oh! Yeah,” TK says, jumping back so that Nolan can climb in.

Nolan feels shaky as he lowers himself into the water. He’s pretty gross at this point, and the hot water on his skin feels amazing. TK ran it hot, just on the edge of too much, but Nolan welcomes the bite of discomfort and the way his skin tightens in the heat.

“How should we.” TK flails his hands a little in Nolan’s direction and laughs. “Dude, your hair’s so long right now.”

Nolan feels an involuntary flush, starting in his belly and skittering up his throat. The idea of TK looking at him, noticing… “Maybe a cup?” he says.

“Good idea,” TK says. “I’ll go get one.”

His disappears. Nolan scrubs his hands over his thighs, where the hair is just starting to be prickly. He feels emptied-out. Drawn taut. Waiting.

TK comes back with a tall plastic cup and a cookie. “My mom always gave us cookies when she had to wash our hair,” he says.

Nolan wants to climb under the water and hide. “Not a child, bud,” he says.

“Fine, more for me,” TK says. He holds the cookie in his mouth while he settles next to the tub. “’Oo reggy?” he asks through the cookie.

Nolan feels very bare despite the swim trunks. “Sure,” he says. His jaw feels tight, like it might start chattering any minute, even though the water is hot enough it’s turning his skin pink. Just like a shower, he tells himself. Pretend you’re in the shower.

TK swallows the cookie in two gulps. He frowns in concentration, filling up the cup and putting his hand at Nolan’s hairline to block the water from his face. “Tip your head back,” he says.

Nolan unlocks his neck muscles and lets the pressure of TK’s hand move his head back. He’s not supposed to be locking his neck or shoulders, anyway—that’s one of the possible migraine triggers. It’s one of the ones he’s worst at correcting.

“Here we go,” TK says, and a moment later Nolan feels hot water trickling through his hair.

His shoulders drop automatically. It doesn’t feel like anything a shower: the flow of water is slow, gentle, languid. Just easy heat running over his skin.

TK tips cups of water over his hair until it’s all wet, the top, the back, the sides. Nolan’s ears fill up, and he tips his head a little to empty them, TK’s hand moving with him.

“There we go,” TK says, not very loud, but sounding loud in the hush of the bathroom. “Shampoo?”

Nolan points to it. TK pulls it off the shower caddy and rubs it between his hands.

It’s not like TK’s never quiet. Nolan’s definitely seen him like this: focused on something, his normal energy tamped down and directed. It just feels weirder now, with Nolan’s skin wet and bare to the bathroom air. With TK’s eyes on him, and nothing to distract them. He wishes TK would say something dumb. Something about the scent of Nolan’s shampoo, or the flowers on the bottle, or the flush Nolan can feel on his cheeks. Anything other than this quiet, nothing but the slosh of the water and the steam rising between them and the shampoo between TK’s palms.

TK puts his hands on top of Nolan’s head. “I don’t, like, know if I’m going to be good at this,” he says, a little bit of nervousness in his voice, and Nolan was wrong: breaking the silence doesn’t do anything to make this feel less weird. And then TK’s fingers are slipping down through his hair and rubbing shampoo into his scalp.

Nolan works hard not to let himself react. It’s not even—it’s not about, like. That. It’s just, TK’s fingertips are sinking deep into his scalp, pushing away the lingering pain, and it’s the first time his body has felt this good in—days. Maybe longer.

He thinks he manages not to show what he’s feeling on his face. He’s not sure he does as good a job with his breathing. He’s panting a little, TK’s fingers on his scalp loosening muscles all over his body, the ones that were tightened by three days of pushing through pain.

TK’s fingers move down, his thumbs working the base of his skull where his spine starts. Nolan feels tears spring to his eyes. He swallows, through a throat sore from being sick more times than he can count.

“Is this okay?” TK asks, his voice softer, and Nolan can only nod. He doesn’t want TK to see him crying. He doesn’t even know why he’s crying. He’s being such a weirdo. It’s just…been a long few days, and TK is touching him. It’s just a lot.

TK’s fingers stroke through his hair, untangling. They brush the top of Nolan’s shoulders and make him shiver. He hopes TK won’t notice—but at the same time, the idea of him noticing sends a bolt of lightning up Nolan’s spine. If TK noticed, then Nolan would have to tell him things. Things about himself, about the things he can’t stop thinking about, about the clothes in the back of his closet…

TK would be horrified. Maybe he’d walk out of the bathroom and never come back. Right now that feels like it would be worth it, just to hear the words in the air, for once.

TK tips more water over his head. Nolan gasps at the heat. His eyes are squeezed tight, but tears are leaking out of them. He jolts backward a little as TK pours the next cup of water, so that it splashes over his face instead of his hair.

“Oh, fuck.” TK stops pouring and wipes at the water on Nolan’s forehead, as if he can dry him with his hand. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Nolan blinks and scrubs at his own face. “I think I got, like, shampoo in my eyes.”

“Fuck, I’m so sorry.” TK sounds sorry enough that Nolan feels guilty about the lie. “Do you want to, like, finish up yourself, or—”

“No.” Nolan doesn’t want TK to stop touching him. “No, you can keep going.”

TK goes back to pouring water over Nolan’s hair. After a while, he stops, but he keeps running his fingers through Nolan’s hair. “So was this, like, an extra bad one?” he asks. “Or is it always like this?”

“It varies,” Nolan says. It’s not really an answer. This one was definitely on the worse end of the scale, but there was nothing extra about it. They’re all extra.

TK keeps stroking through his hair. “Will you, like, tell me the next time there’s something like that?” he asks. “You don’t have to, I mean, not everything—but it would be cool to know. Like, when you’re getting a migraine or whatever. I want to know.”

Nolan thinks about the words he wanted to say a few minutes earlier. He could never say them, not to TK, not to anyone. But the migraine shit, everyone knows about that. He could tell TK more about that. If he really wants to know. “Yeah,” he says, “I can tell you shit.”

“Cool,” TK says. “’Cause I really want to help.”

He can’t help, really. But Nolan doesn’t argue. He just closes his eyes and lets TK keeps running his fingers through his hair, dripping water on Nolan’s exposed skin.

***

Nolan keeps his word. The next time he feels a migraine coming on, he texts TK.

He feels dumb doing it. It’s not like TK can do anything. Nolan’s already registered it in the tracking app, and he doesn’t have anywhere he needs to be in the next twelve hours. He even has food—his meal service just dropped things off yesterday, and Nolan’s restocked his nightstand with water and dried fruit in case he actually has an appetite during this one. He took his meds, the medium-strength ones that won’t fuck with his sleep schedule. He’s as ready as he’s ever going to be.

TK asked Nolan to tell him things like this, though. And Nolan is stupid, he’s such a fool, but he likes the idea that TK wants to know. So Nolan texts him before retreating for his room and darkness.

TK lets himself into the house half an hour later. Nolan doesn’t notice; he has his migraine earplugs in, and anyway Kevin’s been moving around downstairs for a while. He vaguely hears voices, far away on the edge of the sea of pain in his brain, and a minute later his door opens.

Nolan startles, jerking his head up and wincing as he pulls out an earplug. “Sh, sh, it’s only me,” TK says, shutting the door behind him.

Nolan’s confused. TK isn’t supposed to be here. He’s crossing the room now, climbing onto the bed. “What?” Nolan says, too out of it to process this.

TK’s actually in the bed now, getting under the covers. “Is this okay?” he asks, his voice really soft. “This won’t hurt you?”

Will what hurt him? “What are you doing?” Nolan asks, his words a little sloppy.

“If I sit here,” TK says. “I’ll be quiet. You don’t have to talk or anything.”

Nolan stares at the ceiling. He would stare at TK, but that would involve turning his head, and he doesn’t want the backwash of pain. TK’s going to—what? Sit on Nolan’s bed with him, for hours, and not talk? Nolan has so many questions for him. Questions like, don’t you have team stuff to go to, or, do you know how long migraines usually last, or, why would you even want to do this?

Questions are too difficult right now. He should tell TK to go away. This is what Nolan was afraid of: TK’s going to be miserable after, like, twenty minutes of this, and then he’s going to want to leave but feel like he can’t, and the next time he thinks about coming over to see Nolan he’s going to remember this and maybe he won’t come over at all.

Nolan feels the air of the room pressing down on his face, on his eyeballs, making everything ache. He feels the hours stretching out in front of him, the way they’re going to spin him off from the rest of the world, into the empty dark. He feels TK, warm and untouchable in the bed next to him. “You’re going to hate it,” he says thickly.

“Maybe,” TK says, shifting a little as he settles in. He gets out his phone; Nolan can tell by the way the light from the screen reflects faintly off the far wall of the room. “I guess we’ll find out.” And then—then his hand lands on Nolan’s hair.

Nolan closes his eyes. TK’s hand on his head feels like a tiny counterweight to the enormous pressure from inside his head, the one point of good feeling in his whole body. TK’s fingers slip through his hair to rub at his scalp, and it’s like in the bathtub, only a hundred times gentler. It sparkles through Nolan’s head. He doesn’t want it to stop.

It doesn’t. TK’s hand stops moving from time to time, but he never takes it away. Nolan keeps expecting him to, as the empty hours crawl on. TK’s never this good at sitting still. Even his quietest moods, which Nolan’s seen more often than other people the past few years, probably, never last for more than twenty minutes. Nolan’s migraines can last twenty times that.

TK doesn’t sit absolutely still. At a couple of points he strokes his fingers through Nolan’s hair a couple of times and gets up to use the bathroom, and once he disappears for ten minutes and comes back smelling like food. But he always puts his hand right back on Nolan’s head when he gets back.

It seems so impossible that for a while Nolan has to struggle not to tense up, forcing stillness to keep it from going away. But after a while he sinks into it. TK’s touch becomes the one point of connection to a world that isn’t defined by pain.

A couple of hours into it, the pain shifts and crawls down his esophagus. Nolan hates it when this happens. He hates all parts of the migraines, honestly, but living in a sea of pain makes him reach for the islands: the times he can stay in his bed, warm and dry and immobile. The times when he isn’t hunched over the toilet, stomach heaving while his skin prickles with cold sweat.

He knows the signs. He lurches out of bed just in time, staggering toward the bathroom and getting to the toilet just as his stomach spasms and he gags up the portion of his breakfast he managed to get down this morning. It feels like there’s a giant hand wringing out his innards, wrenching him up and forward without his consent.

He falls back, spent, and TK puts a hand on his shoulder.

Nolan’s so disgusting right now. He can feel it: the sheen of sick-sweat on his skin, the lankess of his hair. He’s breathing through his mouth to avoid the stench of the toilet. “See,” he says, voice rasping as he tries for humor, “I told you it would suck.”

“Well, yeah,” TK says, impatient. “That’s why I’m here.” He punctuates it with a light punch to Nolan’s upper arm, and the next moment he settles a blanket around Nolan’s shoulders, warm against his sweat-chilled skin. TK smooths it down, then gets up and fills a glass of water. He leaves it on the floor next to Nolan, then sits back down behind him, his hand in the middle of Nolan’s back.

Nolan bites his lip. This isn’t for you, he reminds himself. He’s doing this for someone else. The person he thinks you are. But he still pushes into the touch, just a little, and holds onto the feel of it while his stomach roils and clenches.

He makes it back to bed eventually. The migraine fades out a couple of hours later, the waves of pain crashing less and less hard on his mind. Nolan waits until they stop coming, and then he waits a few extra minutes to make sure it’s not just a trick of the migraine. Then he turns onto his side.

TK’s sitting there, one hand still in Nolan’s hair, the other poking at his phone. He looks pale in the reflected light from the screen, his face quiet in a way Nolan doesn’t usually see it. Nolan has a momentary fear that he’s broken him, that his migraine flipped TK over into permanent quiet mode, but a second later TK notices that’s he’s turned, and he looks at Nolan, a smile lighting up his features. “Are you feeling better?” he asks.

Nolan nods. The movement doesn’t hurt his head. “Thanks,” he says. It’s such an inadequate thing to say. What he really wants to say is, Do you hate me now for how terrible it was to sit next to me for six hours? and Please tell me I didn’t ruin anything. “For staying,” he adds.

“Anytime,” TK says, voice all warm and happy. Nolan wants to spread it on his skin and keep it forever. “Seriously. Anytime I’m around. Just let me know, and I’ll be here.”

Nolan finds it hard to believe it. But TK just sat next to him for six hours and rubbed his back while he threw up. Maybe he’ll still sour on it, maybe he’ll start to fade away after a couple of times—but maybe Nolan can let himself have this. At least for a little while.

***

TK comes over for two out of the four next migraines, the ones where he isn’t on the road or at a game. One of them is on a game day, and TK has his nap on the bed next to Nolan, curled toward him like a parenthesis, while Nolan lies with a cold compress on his forehead and ice picks driving into his eyes. Somehow, Nolan actually falls asleep, which almost never happens during a migraine unless he takes the knock-out drugs. But TK’s breathing is soothing, and Nolan listens to it and doesn’t even notice he’s drifting

When he wakes up, TK’s in the hall on the phone with someone—his mom, Nolan thinks—and he hears TK say, “Yeah, gonna head to the game soon, just napping at Nolan’s.”

It’s nothing. An offhand logistical remark. But Nolan clutches it to himself, feeling it warm in his belly. He hears an echo of the guys teasing them at the bar—your girlfriend—and lets himself spin it out for a minute. He imagines TK telling the other guys on the team: Yeah, I spent the night at Nolan’s. Yeah, we’re splitting time over the holidays, gonna try to hit up both families. We’re going out tonight—it’s our one-year anniversary. Hey, where did you buy Ryanne’s ring? Nolan likes princess cut—

It hurts, the charge of adrenaline that comes with the thoughts. Nolan doesn’t even want to be a WAG. He wants to be on the team. But if there could be two of him, if he could do it secretly, if he could split off a part of himself and send it to be a girl who would hang on TK’s arm in the bar without fucking up his hockey career—he would do it in a heartbeat. Faster than that.

The door opens, and TK slips back into the room. “Shit, did I wake you?”

“Nah. I just woke up.” Come back to bed, he wants to have the right to say. Put your hands on me.

TK does come back to the bed, without Nolan saying anything. He climbs in and touches his fingertips to Nolan’s forehead. “Better?”

“Mostly.” It’s just a light throb right now. Too soon to know how bad the postdrome will be. “That your mom?”

“Yeah. She says hi.”

If Nolan and TK were dating, it would mean something else when she said that. Something more. Or maybe she wouldn’t say it at all—maybe she’d be horrified that her son was dating another boy. Maybe there’s no world where Nolan can be a part of TK’s family like a girlfriend would be, and these are just stupid fantasies.

“Say hi back for me,” he says, wrapping an arm around his chest.

He thinks he sounds normal. But TK touches him on the arm. “Hey. You okay?”

He’s lying with his other hand folded under his head, eyes focused on Nolan. Nolan looks at him through the lingering haze of migraine and thinks, No. How can you be? How is it possible that you’re okay being yourself, that you don’t spend every day wanting to tear yourself out of your own body and shape yourself into someone new? If you touch me, will I know what that feels like?

“I’m okay,” he says out loud. “Just, you know, tired.”

TK nods and runs his fingertip over the back of Nolan’s wrist. “Sorry I have to go. You gonna come to the game later?”

“I don’t know,” Nolan says, even though the answer should be yes. There’s no reason he won’t be well enough in a few hours to head to Wells Fargo. Put on a suit, stand in front of thousands of strangers who are wondering why he can’t be who he’s supposed to be.

“Well. Hope you make it,” TK says, squeezing his wrist. “Let me know if you want to hang after?”

“Sure,” Nolan says, and watches TK climb out of bed. There are more unsaid words, piling up on Nolan’s tongue. They form a wall in the air, like the clear plastic of the glass around the ice. A distortion in the air, so that by the time TK says, “Bye,” slipping out the door, Nolan feels like he’s already ten thousand feet away.

He waits until he hears the front door click, then gets up and locks the door to his room. He goes to his closet and fishes out the hockey bag that’s been given over to his new clothing collection, and pulls out the Victoria’s Secret Pink sweatpants and one of his camisoles. He puts them on and goes back and curls up under the blanket, wishing TK were still here. Wishing he could wear this and be normal at the same time.

***

Nolan gets used to having TK around for his migraines. He stops worrying about it so much and starts enjoying having TK inside his space, comfortable, warm, someone he can rely on. Which is probably why it all goes wrong.

It’s the comfort thing. Nolan should never have gotten comfortable. He should have known it wasn’t safe for him, not this year, not with the things he’s been letting himself be. But he forgot. He started enjoying things too much and forgot to be on his guard.

It’s the middle of December, and TK is over. Nolan had a migraine this afternoon while TK was at practice, and now they’re just chilling in his room, Nolan energyless in that particular way that comes with a fading migraine. Like his body spent all its force carrying the pain, and now he’s done. He’s gonna make himself get up soon, have some dinner so that his body will stabilize a little, but right now he’s just lying limp and watching TK move around the room, picking up his dirty laundry.

“You, like, really don’t have to do that,” Nolan says for the dozenth time.

“I know,” TK says. “But whatever, I don’t mind.”

It’s probably true. TK’s ability to sit still seems to be directly tied to Nolan’s migraine status. Now that Nolan’s feeling better, there’s only so long TK can sit on the bed doing nothing. Nolan watches and tries not to feel too pleased about it: TK in his space, doing a domestic thing for him.

“Hey, what’s this?” TK asks, holding up something red and lacy, and Nolan’s blood freezes in his veins.

He forgot. How could he be such an idiot? He—he forgot, and now—

There have been times, over the last weeks and months, that Nolan’s thought that maybe he wants to get caught. That maybe it would be a relief in some way. But now that it’s actually happening, he knows he was lying to himself, because all he can feel is horror.

The room is frozen around him. He needs to say something, and soon, but his brain is spinning out into space. All he can do is stare at the pair of panties hanging from TK’s fingers. He’s been so careful to put everything back in the closet when he’s not wearing it. But he wore those to bed last night, and they must have come off while he was sleeping, and he forgot to look for them this morning.

“Um,” he says, his voice catching. Maybe TK will think it’s from the migraine, making him sound weird. “I, uh. I hooked up with this girl a while back. She must have left them here.”

It’s a plausible story. Or it would be, if Nolan were hooking up with people these days. If he were likely to go out and pick up without TK knowing about it. If he could do anything about his face, where he can already feel the heat rising.

He can see something complicated happening on TK’s face. Some of those same thoughts, maybe. The panties hanging from his fingers are huge—definitely sized for a hockey ass and not for the kind of girls Nolan usually picks up. TK’s gonna notice. He’s gonna ask.

TK lowers them to the floor. “Oh,” he says. “Okay.”

He comes toward the bed. Nolan braces himself. Tinder—he could say he met someone on Tinder. Maybe he slept with someone bigger. He could have done that. TK wouldn’t even make fun of him for it, probably.

TK gets on the bed and sits cross-legged against the headboard, on the side Nolan’s already thinking of as TK’s side. Nolan waits for the questions to start. Instead the silence drags on and on.

There’s no way TK just bought that story. He’s not stupid. And if he had—if he believed it—he would be talking right now. Reacting out loud, TK-style. Asking questions who she was, how did the night go, is Nolan gonna call her again. If he’s not saying anything, it’s because something else is going on, and Nolan doesn’t want to think about what. He wants to close his eyes and be somewhere else: back at home in his parents’ house; in his apartment last year; in his bed twenty-four hours ago, before he got the panties out and ruined everything.

Well. It had to happen sometime. Nolan’s known this day was coming. It’s not anything he doesn’t deserve.

Finally TK takes in a breath, like he’s about to talk. Nolan bites down on the inside of his cheek. “So, do you want dinner?” TK asks. “I’m kind of hungry.”

Nolan blinks. “What?”

“Also, I should get this laundry in the machine or something,” TK says. “Or schedule a service. Do you have a service? I canceled mine this year, because my mom told me I had to learn to use a washing machine if I wanted to be a real adult. It’s actually not that hard. After I figured out I shouldn’t wash the neckties, anyway.”

He’s up off the bed, gathering the last few pieces of laundry. Leaving the panties. Nolan watches, disbelieving. “Yeah,” he says finally. “I have a service.”

“Oh. Well, do they get mad if you don’t give them all your laundry? Because it’s probably faster if I just wash this stuff now,” TK says. “I’ll take it down when we go for dinner.” He taps Nolan on the arm with the back of his hand. “You ready?”

Nolan follows him down to the kitchen, dazed and wary. He feels the silence pressing in on him from all sides, like it’s following him through time from that moment after TK found the panties.

At least Kevin isn’t here. He’s at his new girlfriend’s for the night, Nolan is pretty sure. He isn’t here to see how Nolan can’t string two words together, how his cheeks go red when TK comes back into the kitchen after starting the washer. “Thanks,” Nolan says.

“No problem,” TK says. He opens the freezer. “Some of these are microwavable, right?”

They heat up a chicken-and-brown-rice casserole and take plates into the living room. Nolan can feel himself moving stiffly, in ways that are directly counter to his doctors’ instructions about migraine prevention. He tries to relax his spine into the back of the couch, but he keeps stiffening up again the moment he stops thinking about it.

TK sits half a cushion away. His usual distance. There isn’t silence between them anymore; TK is talking, the way he does, filling the silence by letting all his thoughts happen out loud. The thing that Nolan could never do, because his thoughts aren’t safe to be said out loud. He tries to listen to what TK’s saying: nothing serious, just speculating on their next game against the Sabres. Nothing about how weird this is, about what he found, about the obvious subjects Nolan can feel pulsing in the air around them.

“Hey,” TK says when they’re done with their casserole. “I looked up a thing. Here, give me your hand.”

Nolan gives him his hand automatically, stomach jumping a little. TK’s hands are warm and dry and a little chapped. “It’s this acupressure thing,” TK says, rubbing his hands over Nolan’s. “You press down here”—he braces Nolan’s hand with one of his own and uses the other to pinch the area between Nolan’s thumb and forefinger—“and rub it in circles.” He does, moving his fingers in slow circles. “Does that hurt?”

Nolan swallows. “No,” he says, voice scratchy.

“Good.” TK keeps his eyes on Nolan’s hand while he keeps rotating his fingers. He’s digging in, massaging deep. “If you do this for like five minutes, it’s supposed to help with migraines.”

Nolan can’t tell whether or not it’s helping. He doesn’t have a migraine right now, at any rate. But he doesn’t want TK to stop holding his hand, or to stop pressing on it like that. Nolan was telling the truth that it doesn’t hurt, but it does twinge a little, a good deep-down feeling like maybe it’s doing something.

He wonders—no. This isn’t anything more than buddies. But he can’t help but remember the one guy he hooked up with in Juniors, Justin someone. Not a hockey player, just a kid from high school. They met at a party, and Justin told him he knew how to read palms, and the two of them spent a solid ten minutes tracing the lines on each other’s hands just for an excuse to keep touching.

“So,” TK says, “you been hooking up a lot?”

For one scary moment, Nolan feels like TK read his mind, like he accidentally talked about Justin out loud. Then he remembers the story he made up about the panties. “Uh, no. Not a lot.”

“Me neither.” TK grins at him, impish. “Sorry excuse for professional hockey players, huh?”

Nolan shrugs at—well, at his whole life, really. “Not playing a lot of hockey these days.”

“It’s like, I don’t know, sometimes I just don’t want to that much, you know?” TK shrugs. “It’s kind of nice to take a break from things.” He makes a face at himself immediately. “Sorry, that was dumb. I just meant—”

“The hooking-up thing,” Nolan says. “Yeah.”

TK nods, looking back down at his fingers, pressing their mesmerizing circle into Nolan’s hand. “It’s just a lot of work sometimes, and, I don’t know,” he says quietly. “It’s just not as much fun as hanging out with you.”

Heat swims into Nolan’s face. He feels like his whole body must be visibly hot, glowing. “Yeah?”

TK looks up, grinning crookedly. “Bros before hos, right?” he says, light, cocky, but there’s something in his face—

Nolan doesn’t a chance get to figure out what it is, because TK turns away, pulls his hands from Nolan’s. “You want to watch something?”

Nolan’s heart is beating hard. He’s not sure what just happened. “Sure,” he says after a minute.

He stares at the TV while TK channel-surfs. Nolan feels weird: charged, drawn taut, like he was when he was waiting for TK to ask about the panties. But this is different, because there’s something hot and precarious in his belly—something that might or might not exist, something that might vanish no matter how hard he tries to get his fingers around it.

It’s probably nothing. His nerves are shot from the migraine and from TK finding the panties, and Nolan does this: reads more into things than exists. Ends up going in circles inside his own head when everyone else has gone on ahead in a nice simple straight line. Ends up stuck at home, benched for months, his career at a dead-end and secrets burning through the walls of his closet.

His skin is fizzing, like he’s breathing in an electric charge. He clenches his hands on his thighs.

Any minute now TK will say something. Make a joke. Make it normal. Hell, even touch Nolan—that would be normal. Nolan’s lying back against the cushions, and it’s the perfect position for TK to flop against him, unable like always to sit still while watching something.

He’s sitting still now, though. Not like he sits still during Nolan’s migraines—this is stiffer than that. TK is sitting upright, arms against his sides, focused on the remote and the TV. The only thing moving is his heel, tapping a staccato rhythm on the floor.

He didn’t believe Nolan’s story. That’s obvious. And now he’s trying to figure out how to ask about it, or making a plan to leave. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that TK wouldn’t have laughed at him right away—of course he would take more time, do it nicely. Let Nolan down easy.

He didn’t have to wait this long, though. He didn’t have to take Nolan’s hand, dig his fingers into it so that Nolan can still feel it tingling.

Nolan can’t take this. He wishes TK would just—do whatever he’s going to do. Nolan can’t live with whatever this halfway state is. Where things are half broken or half—he doesn’t even know. Where what happened upstairs, TK finding those panties, is hanging between them like a puck about to drop.

He feels reckless. He feels sick. He feels—like he’s been waiting to lose this faceoff for years, and he just wants it to happen already.

TK is still focused on the TV. Nolan looks at him, his profile blurring out as Nolan stares too hard. “You know, you could be hanging out with a girl right now,” Nolan blurts out.

TK darts his eyes over at him, a quick glance. “I told you, I don’t—”

“No, I mean.” Nolan scrubs his hands over his thighs. He’s halfway down the throat of the monster already. Better in than out. “If you were hanging out with a girl, like. If you were watching TV together. Right now. What would you do?”

“I don’t know,” TK says lightly, looking at the TV. “Is she, like, into me?”

“Yeah.” Nolan’s throat feels dry. “Yeah, she really is.”

“Then, I guess…” TK shrugs. “Make a move. Put my hand on her knee or whatever.”

“Like how?” Nolan asks, his voice scratchy.

TK looks over and meets his eyes. Nolan feels like he’s stripped bare, his skin laid open. Something shaking deep inside his gut.

At first he thinks TK doesn’t get it. That he’s just confused, doesn’t know what Nolan’s trying here. Then TK leans over. “Like this,” he says, and puts his hand on Nolan’s thigh right above his knee.

His hand is warm on Nolan’s leg. Firm. He keeps his eyes on Nolan’s, a question in them.

Nolan feels the shaking get worse, like a dial’s been turned up inside of him. He wants to look away. He doesn’t dare. “What—what next?” he rasps out.

TK’s eyes are a little wide. “Um. I would probably slide my hand up her leg.”

Nolan doesn’t break eye contact. TK slides his hand up, his fingers spanning Nolan’s thigh, until his thumb is close to Nolan’s crotch.

They’re both breathing a little hard. TK looks scared. Nolan keeps his eyes on his face. “What else?” he asks. When TK doesn’t move right away, he adds, “If you were, like—if you were hooking up.”

“I mean.” TK looks away from Nolan’s face, shrugs. His hand is still clenched on Nolan’s thigh. “You know me. I’m kind of a boob man.”

Nolan doesn’t say anything. Just waits, not breathing.

“Okay,” TK says, half under his breath, like he’s psyching himself up. “Okay, just, like, I don’t know, tell me if this is—”

He puts his hand on Nolan’s chest, cupping the fullness of his pec. Nolan lets his eyes flutter shut.

TK moves his fingers over Nolan’s pec. He brushes over Nolan’s nipple, and Nolan makes a noise as the touch zings through him. “Fuck,” TK says, sounding gutted.

Nolan opens his eyes and looks up at TK, who’s looking back at him, eyes wild. Nolan’s chest is heaving under TK’s hand. “What else?” Nolan asks.

“I would, uh.” TK’s eyes dart down to Nolan’s mouth. “Fuck, Nolan, I don’t even know if—”

“Please,” Nolan says, the word scraping out of him.

TK bites his lip and hitches closer, taking his hand off Nolan’s pec. He touches his fingers to Nolan’s mouth, and Nolan darts his tongue out, licking the pads.

This time it’s TK who makes a noise. His breath is coming fast enough to be audible. “Okay, yeah,” he whispers. “Yeah, I would—do this,” he says, cupping his hand around Nolan’s face, and leans in to kiss him.

Nolan chokes on his own breath, heart beating impossibly fast. TK’s lips touch his, chapped and soft at the same time. His mouth fits perfectly over Nolan’s. Nolan is dying. He’s shaking apart. He’s kissing the first boy he’s kissed in almost five years. He’s kissing the boy he’s wanted to kiss since that day on the bank of the Schuylkill River, when TK’s smile hit him and made his heart turn over in his chest.

TK’s mouth is warm and wet on his. It’s turning Nolan’s whole body into a collection of shivers. He makes a noise into the kiss and tilts his head for more. TK swipes his tongue into Nolan’s mouth, a long, soft moment, then pulls back, gasping, his lips shiny and wet. He meets Nolan’s eyes, looking startled.

Nolan has no idea what he himself looks like. He feels like his whole face is on fire. TK touches his fingers to Nolan’s cheek, traces down it slowly, then leans back in and kisses Nolan deep.

He rolls onto Nolan, covering Nolan’s body with his. Nolan’s stomach lurches. The weight of TK, the broadness of his shoulders, the thick muscle of his back under Nolan’s hands—his thigh slips between Nolan’s, and Nolan freaks out for a minute that TK will feel how hard he is, but then TK shifts and Nolan can feel TK’s cock against his ship. Hard, for him. Or at least—hard for the idea of—Nolan cuts off his own thought and focuses on the kiss, on TK’s mouth wet and hungry against his.

TK breaks off after a moment with a gasp. “I would take her upstairs,” he says.

“What?” Nolan asks, dizzy.

“If I had a girl here.” TK’s hand clenches on Nolan’s shoulder. “If—if she were like you.”

Nolan stares up at him, too gone for words. Then he pulls TK down and kisses him fiercely.

They go upstairs. Nolan watches TK on the steps ahead of him, feeling like something will go wrong, but when they get to the bedroom TK presses him against the door frame and tangles his hand in Nolan’s hair to pull him down for a kiss. Nolan gasps into it, crushed by TK’s body and wanting more of it. He wants TK to flatten him to the bed. He wants him to roll their bodies together, grind and grind until there’s nothing left of Nolan. Only this.

TK bites the edge of Nolan’s jaw like he’s hungry for it. He’s lit up with energy, with focus, and all of it’s turned on Nolan. Nolan’s always loved it, loved it in some inexplicable way he could never talk himself out of, and now he finally has it as much as he’s always wanted. TK slides his mouth over and sucks on Nolan’s earlobe, and Nolan feels like he’s opening himself to the surface of the sun.

TK licks up the outside of his lobe. “Will you put on the underpants for me?” he asks, breath hot.

It takes a moment for Nolan to parse what he’s asking. Then he goes rigid under TK’s touch. His mind spins frantically—push through it—pretend you didn’t hear anything, pretend you don’t care—but it’s all slipping away, the pressure of TK on him crushing his lungs, and after a moment TK pulls back. “What’s wrong?”

Nolan wants to be farther away from TK, but he doesn’t want to push him away. He just…he needs a moment. He needs air. He squirms out of the space between TK’s body and the wall, trips over his laptop on the floor and catches himself on his bed frame.

TK doesn’t follow. “Is it not…sorry,” he says, sounding uncertain. “I guess I don’t really know what you do with, uh—”

“Are you making fun of me?” Nolan asks, the words scraping his throat.

“What? No.” TK sounds really emphatic. “No, I swear, I’m not. I just, uh. I just think it’s really hot.”

Nolan looks back at him. TK looks upset. Frantic, like he wants to fix it but doesn’t know how.

“You’re serious?” Nolan asks.

“Yes!” TK says. “I just—sorry. That’s probably dumb. I shouldn’t have said it. Please don’t hate me.”

“No,” Nolan says. “No, I.” He drags in a breath. He feels like he’s walking along the edge off a cliff. TK doesn’t know what he’s asking for. He doesn’t know how far down this goes. “You really think it’s hot?” he asks.

TK nods, his cheeks pink. That’s usually Nolan’s thing. He remembers TK’s hand on his cheek downstairs on the couch, cool against the heat of his skin.

The panties are still on the floor, where TK dropped them earlier. “Okay,” Nolan says. “Okay.”

Nolan takes his clothes off in front of other guys a lot. But no one looks at him when he does this in the locker room. Not like TK’s looking at him now, his eyes intent on everything Nolan’s taking off. Like Nolan’s body is something he wants to see.

Something he wants to see in the panties. Nolan doesn’t understand why. But he wants it too, now that he knows it’s possible: TK’s eyes on him in the panties. Someone else, seeing the red lace against his skin, liking what they see.

The panties catch a little at the stubble on Nolan’s legs as he pulls the panties up. He wonders, deliriously, if TK cares. If he would want to run his hands up Nolan’s legs while they’re smooth. It’s a dangerous thought—but it’s not just wishful thinking anymore. TK asked to see him in the panties. That means—Nolan doesn’t know what he means.

He settles the panties over his hips. His shoulder muscles are clenching, twitching with the desire to turn away and hide. He balls his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. Turns to face TK.

TK’s eyes settle on his crotch. He looks stunned. “Holy fuck,” he says.

Nolan bites his lip. He can feel himself getting hard under TK’s gaze—knows that his cock is going to be pushing against the red lace. It looks dumb, probably. The wrong thing for the panties. But TK doesn’t look disgusted. He crawls down the bed toward Nolan, his eyes still on the panties, his mouth open a little. “Holy fuck, Nolan,” he says, hoarse. And then he reaches out and runs his hand over Nolan’s cock.

Nolan gasps and jerks his hips. His fantasies never extended to someone touching his cock in these panties. His fantasies when he wore these panties weren’t usually about his cock at all. But TK’s touch feels amazing, a crackle of electricity, the silky-rough texture of the lace shifting against his skin.

“Can I—” TK looks up at him, wide-eyed. “Can I suck you?”

Nolan can’t get his throat to work. He just nods.

TK doesn’t take the panties off. He licks the head of Nolan’s cock through the lace, then wraps his mouth around it, getting the lace wet. He makes a sound like he likes it and lowers his mouth over the shaft.

Nolan’s whole cock, disappearing inside TK’s mouth. TK doesn’t slide back up—probably would have a hard time sliding his mouth on the skin with the lace in the way—but his throat works around the head, and his mouth is hot and wet, and his eyes are shut and his mouth stuffed full of cock and Nolan finds himself panting from it anyway.

TK pulls back and licks at the tip again. Nolan’s hands are clenched, his chest heaving. TK’s tongue swirls red and wet around the head of his cock. Then he plunges back down, sucking Nolan’s cock into his throat, and Nolan’s legs start shaking—

TK pulls off. “Not like this,” he says, and pulls Nolan down onto the bed.

Nolan goes, clumsy, and TK pulls his own clothes off and presses against him, skin-to-skin. His cock is against Nolan’s belly, full and hard, and Nolan can’t stop thinking about it. Can’t help reaching for it, wrapping his hand around its thick hot smoothness and feeling his own jerk in his panties.

TK is kissing Nolan and touching him all over, running his hands down Nolan’s back, over the panties, down his thighs. “I can’t believe I’m touching you,” he whispers against Nolan’s mouth. “Fuck, Pats. I can’t believe any of this is happening.”

Nolan gasps as TK’s hand closes over his lace-covered ass. “Will you—” He lets go of TK’s cock, scrunches his face up. “Say things. Like—”

“Yeah?” TK is kissing the stubble on his neck, kneading his ass.

“Like—downstairs,” Nolan says, and feels his skin flush with shame.

“Like, if you were a girl?” TK asks.

He doesn’t stop touching Nolan, or pull away. Nolan nods, eyes closed tight.

“I—yeah,” TK says. “Yeah, I can do that.” He slides his hand under the lace of the panties and trails his finger along Nolan’s cock. “Like, you, um—you want me to touch your pussy?”

Nolan moans and arches up into the touch. He feels his skin get hotter.

“You like that?” TK asks, his voice ragged. He closes his hand around Nolan’s cock. “Oh fuck, you do. You like it when I finger you, dip my fingers into your slick—”

Nolan’s losing it. TK’s words are lightning down his spine. He never thought anything like this would happen. TK’s hand is wrapped around him, spreading his precome down over his cock, making his body glow red-hot, and he’s saying—these things—

“You have no idea how fucking crazy you make me,” TK whispers as his hand slides along Nolan’s cock. “Just thinking about you in these panties tonight. I thought I was going to lose my mind.”

Nolan’s hips are working now. He can’t help it. He buries his face in TK’s neck.

“You’re so beautiful,” TK whispers in his ear. His hand tightens, twisting over the head of Nolan’s cock. “I want to tell you that, like, every day. I can’t even stand it. You’re so fucking—Nolan. You’re fucking amazing. I want to wreck you, to fuck you—”

Nolan jerks his hips up and comes. Gives it up to TK’s touch, to the words being whispered into his ear, to the shimmering wonderful feeling that rips through him.

“Oh fuck,” TK says. He pulls his hand out of Nolan’s panties, covered in Nolan’s come, and wraps it around his own cock and squeezes. “Can I come on you?” he asks, and Nolan can’t nod fast enough. He’s greedy for the sight of TK jerking his cock. He can’t believe he gets to have this: TK kneeling above him, thick thighs and broad shoulders and bare hipbones and his cock sliding in his fist. TK’s mouth open and his eyes hazy as he stares down at Nolan. His eyes falling closed as he starts to lose it, his come splashing hot against Nolan’s chest.

He falls into Nolan’s arms afterward. “Oh my god,” he says drunkenly, holding on tight. Nolan holds on back. Lowers his head to rub his nose in TK’s hair. It all feels forbidden, like someone’s going to come along any moment and make them stop. Remind Nolan of all the things he isn’t supposed to have. But he does have them, right now, anyway.

TK’s body, warm and impossibly good against his. TK’s cock, softening on his belly. TK’s mouth on Nolan’s shoulder, and his hand gripping Nolan’s hip through the panties. “Thank you,” he says into Nolan’s shoulder.

Nolan has the hysterical urge to laugh. To just absolutely lose it. “I—” he says. “No, I mean, it’s me who—I don’t—”

He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. He feels his face heat up, his cheeks betraying him like always. He wants to dive away, hide, but TK’s pulled back and is looking him in the face.

“I like it when your cheeks do that,” TK says. He skates his fingers over Nolan’s chest, not taking his eyes off his face. “I just—I always want to touch them.”

Nolan bites his own lip, hard. “You can touch them,” he says.

TK scoots up a little, smearing his come on more of Nolan’s chest. He leans in and touches his mouth to Nolan’s cheek.

Nolan closes his eyes. The kiss is light, TK’s breath hot against the skin. TK leaves his lips there for a single heartbeat, then moves to kiss the other side. His lips are soft, gentle. It feels like—care. It feels like—Nolan finds his throat closing up again, tears springing to his eyes even though he closes them tight.

TK’s hand replaces his lips, cupping Nolan’s cheek. “Was that okay?” he asks.

Nolan turns his face into TK’s hand. He buries his nose in his palm and hides his eyes in the span of his fingers. “You really want this?” he asks. “You really want—me?”

There’s a pause before TK answers. “Sorry if that’s, like, a lot,” he says, sounding small and uncertain. Like TK should never sound. “I know I can be kind of a lot to handle.”

Nolan lifts his face out of TK’s hand. He meets TK’s eyes, and he feels something crack in his chest—still new things breaking, when he thought he was done falling a long time ago. “I don’t know what I am,” he says, suddenly, terrifyingly honest. “These, the—the panties, it’s not just that. There’s more. I don’t know what it all is yet.”

“That’s okay,” TK says. “I don’t—maybe we can figure it out. Together.”

Nolan heaves in a breath and buries his face in TK’s neck before he can do something embarrassing. He is doing something embarrassing. It doesn’t matter: he’s allowed now. He feels the knowledge shudder through him. “I want to kill whoever told you you’re too much,” he says into TK’s neck.

“Don’t worry,” TK says, “I beat them up on the ice,” and Nolan wants to burrow into him, wants to know him all the way down, every single level. And even though it’s scary, even though his breath is shaky from the thought of it—he’s pretty sure he wants to open himself up for TK to do the same thing.

***

***

TK learns to put makeup on him a week into their relationship.

“I still feel like I’m going to stab you in the eye,” TK says, wielding the eyeliner pencil.

“Please don’t stab me in the eye,” Nolan says. There’s eyeshadow on his lids already, gold and amber shimmering under the light.

“I won’t,” TK says. “I’m a professional athlete. I’m good at coordination and shit. They train us for this.”

“For makeup,” Nolan says dryly.

“Yeah,” TK says. “You didn’t have to take that course?” He braces his hand on Nolan’s cheek. Nolan had a migraine this morning, and his head still aches a little; TK’s hand on his cheekbone feels good.

TK draws a halting line across his lid, then the other one. “There,” he says, stepping back and surveying his work.

Nolan looks at himself in the mirror. It’s not any worse than if Nolan did it. “How does it look?” he asks, even though he can see.

TK runs his eyes over Nolan’s face. “It looks pretty fucking hot.”

Nolan feels his cheeks flush. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” TK says, pulling him close and kissing him. “In fact,” he says against Nolan’s mouth, “I’d be up for seeing it more often.”

“Yeah,” Nolan says. He’s pretty sure he’s grinning like an idiot, but he can’t help it. “Yeah, I could make that happen.”