Ryan did not look sixteen. He wasn’t the tallest kid on Team USA’s U18 team, but he was the biggest. He had broad oxen shoulders with the hard solid muscles that only developed from manual labor. Zach’s gym built muscles always seemed slight and ephemeral in comparison.
In physicality Zach always felt he didn’t measure up to Ryan. Sure, they were the same height, but Zach was older than Ryan. He ought to be taller. More embarrassingly Ryan was almost twice as wide as him with chiseled muscles from farm work. Zach had muscle for sure, but it was nothing like that. His legs were especially lacking in comparison to what they ought to be, or to Ryan. He expected to be drafted by the NHL soon, but how could that possibly happen if he couldn’t compare to Ryan fucking Suter?
That was part of what drove Zach to score. Not all of it, or even most of it, by any means. He was good at scoring and more importantly Zach loved how it felt when he slipped the puck past the goaltender. There wasn’t a better feeling in the world than pumping his fist in victory as the goal horn blared. That was what he was born to do. Getting to smirk at Ryan and silently tell him to beat that while waiting for play to resume was just icing on the cake.
While Zach first started throwing this challenge at Ryan when they played for different teams, more and more Zach enjoyed crowing about it to Ryan after the game in the locker room. When they were on the same team Ryan had to be happy about Zach’s success instead of using it as fuel to block him harder. He should probably be worried by how much he enjoyed watching Ryan struggle to compliment his goals, but Zach figured that was just how rivals were. Ryan didn’t score anywhere near as often, which made it easier for Zach to compliment him when he did finally manage it. However, Ryan had absolutely beastly ice time, even for a defenseman, and he’d rub that in Zach’s face whenever he felt the forward was getting too big for his britches.
Sometimes when he lay in bed at night trying to fall asleep Zach thought about Ryan. Usually he’d replay their last game together. He enjoyed reliving slipping the puck past Ryan and try to figure out what he should have done differently to bypass the defenseman. Usually he’d figure it out. Sometimes he’d wonder what Ryan did when he wasn’t playing hockey, but that was pretty boring. Zach was certain Ryan just baled hay and milked cows in his free time.
Rarely Zach would visualize how he’d use up Ryan’s stamina. The guy had a seemingly endless energy reserve and in real life Zach had never been able to outlast him. In his own mind though, Zach could do it. He’d drag Ryan on a marathon up mountainsides. No one had energy after a marathon. By the end they’d both be tired and sweaty, but Ryan would be in worse shape. Zach would be half bowled over panting with his hands on his knees, but Ryan’d be on all fours. His chest would heave as his completely sweat-soaked shirt clung to every inch of his rock hard muscles. When he finally caught his breath Ryan’d pant out no more, that he couldn’t go any further and beg Zach for something wet.
If Zach had a certain problem he had to take care of after those fantasies he didn’t worry about it. He’d never share these thoughts with anyone and he never even dreamed of thinking about it on the road. Not even when he was sharing a room with Ryan. It wasn’t weird. Everyone knew victory, even imaginary victory, left guys horny.
Still, no matter how many times Zach fantasized over besting Ryan it wasn’t real. He simply didn’t compare to the defenseman physically. All Zach wanted was to be bigger and better than Ryan in one way. Just one way and he’d be content. He had even tried comparing dick size, since Zach figured that was something Ryan couldn’t pump up with farm work, but that hadn’t worked well. They didn’t change near each other in locker room and the one time Zack tried to get a decent look in the shower Ryan accused him of trying to whip his ass with a towel. Zach’s biggest fear was that he was hopelessly outclassed there too.
Zach tried not to think about it. Self-defeat wasn’t a mentality he liked to employ, so he focused on the self-improvement he could manage. That meant practicing shots, increasing speed, improving face offs, and disciplining rebound control. He’d work on anything that would make him a better hockey player. It got easier once summer ended and he was back with his high school team. He didn’t see Ryan every day the way he did when they were with the national team. With the cheesehead out of sight Zach could put him out of mind and focus on himself. He had always been a good player, but senior year he did everything to be an exceptional standout player. The University of North Dakota was thrilled to accept his letter if intent in October. Beyond that Zach just focused on keeping his grades up enough to play hockey.
The strategy worked well for him. Fall semester and winter break sailed by without incident. Zach didn’t think about Ryan once outside of hockey. Then one morning in late January there was a phone call during breakfast. That was unusual. Usually his mom’s friends waited until after Zach and his father had left for the day to call. Solicitors also knew better than to call before seven and all of Dad’s work stuff went through his new cell phone these days. So he had mild curiosity when his mom answered the phone. Not a lot though, as Zach tried to avoid using his brain before he had to on a school morning.
Almost as soon as she answered the phone Zach lost interest in the call. From the pitch and tone of her voice he could tell it was a typical mom call. It was probably one of her friends extolling the virtues of early morning yoga or palates after just finishing a class. He was so certain in this assessment it took his mother several attempts to regain Zach’s attention.
“Zachery, look at me,” Mom said, banging her hand on the table. When he did look up he noticed she had the phone’s speaker pressed into her shoulder to muffle any sounds. He wondered why she needed him now. “Ryan’s mother is on the phone.”
“Ryan?” Zach asked, looking up from his cereal. He knew like twelve Ryans, four of them were on his team. His mother would have to be more specific.
“Ryan Suter,” Mom said, placing a hand over the phone’s speaker.
“Oh yeah, what about him?” Zach asked.
“Today’s his birthday. The Suters are driving up to the Cities this weekend to celebrate with a Wild home game. They wanted to know if you wanted to come too.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Zach said. The game was late enough it wouldn’t coincide with his hockey game and Zach would never turn down free hockey.
“Great,” Mom said. She took her hand off the speaker. “He says yes.”
Zach grinned into his breakfast. Finding out he was going to an unexpected hockey game this weekend almost made him look forward to school. His mother tapped his shoulder to get his attention. When he looked up she held the phone out to him and mouthed ‘take it.’ Cringing a little Zach did as he was told. He didn't have a clue what he’d say to Mrs. Suter and if she kept him for long he’d be late to school. Coach wouldn’t like that.
“Hello?” Zach said.
“Zach,” Ryan said.
“Ryan, hey,” Zach said, feeling immediately relieved he wasn’t having to talk with Ryan’s mother.
“Happy birthday.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“Thanks.” There was a long pause.
“So I’ll see you Saturday?” Zach asked, wanting to get off the phone.
“Yeah. See you then,” Ryan said.
“Bye,” Zach said, hanging up before Ryan could respond. He got up and dumped the rest of his breakfast into the sink and ran the garbage disposal. Thanks to the phone call Zach was running late. It was a good thing talking with Ryan took away the rest of his appetite.
The rest of the week passed in a blur. He was too focused on Saturday night with Ryan to pay proper attention to his note taking, friends, girlfriend, or practice. He knew it would bite him in the ass later, but Zach didn’t really care until coach gave him extra laps in the gym after practice for slacking. He was lucky he wasn’t benched for the weekend. His father didn’t care if they lost a game or two to teach him a valuable lesson. Besides, even if they were missing a key player, the team was strong enough it ought to beat this week’s team.
Friday Zach had two assists before the game ended in a shootout. Their opponents had improved dramatically since the last time they played and Shattuck-St Mary’s went into the game cocky and overconfident. They played a much tighter game Saturday afternoon. Zach made a goal after a defenseman lost control of the puck behind the net. It wasn’t his prettiest shot, really more dumb luck than skill got it past the goalie’s pads, but Zach celebrated all the same.
As he looped behind his goalie’s net after hi-fiving the bench Zach nearly tripped on the ice. He hadn’t expected to spot Ryan’s ugly mug behind the glass. Didn’t the guy have a game of his own to play today? Zach had assumed the Suters wouldn’t get to the Twin Cities until right before the game. Ryan’s appearance threw Zach off for the rest of the game, but he thought he hid it well enough. The important thing was that he didn’t make any stupid mistakes.
The moment the post game handshake ended Zach dashed off the ice. He made it in and out of the shower in record time and finished tying on his sneakers as coach finished his post game chat with the team. For once Zach didn’t stick around to bullshit with his bros. He had bigger fish to fry.
He charged past his mother and the rest of the team parents to punch Ryan in the arm. All of his gear repeatedly slapping his back and side probably hurt Zach more than his punch did Ryan, but it was the thought that counted. He felt a lot of satisfaction seeing Ryan wince and rub his arm before punching Zach back.
“What are you doing here?” Zach demanded. “I thought we were meeting at the Xcel Center. Didn’t you have a game today?”
“I did early this morning,” Ryan said. “Soon as it ended Mom decided it was time to hit the road. No sense in wasting daylight, especially when it’s so scarce this time of year.”
“So, your dad’s not here?”
“No. He’s not about to leave his rink needlessly. Especially not overnight like Mom’s planning so she can do some shopping.”
“Okay, but what are you doing at my game?”
“Nothing better to do until you were done,” Ryan explained, shrugging. He grinned and Zach knew he’d hate the next words out of the defenseman’s mouth. “It was funny watching you on the ice. After your goal you careened about worse than our three-legged barn cat after she’s gotten into the hard cider. If you had been caterwauling like she does I’d have been hard pressed to tell who was the hockey player.”
Zach wanted to punch him again, but he didn’t. The Suters were taking him to a hockey game to celebrate Ryan’s birthday. He couldn’t injure their kid, even if he deserved it. At least today’s comparison wasn’t as bad as when Zach frosted his tips. Ryan had said he looked like a skunk smelled in his Sunday best the first time he saw it. Zach had no idea what that meant, but he knew an insult when he heard one.
Zach left his gear in his parents’ car and rode downtown with the Suters. Ryan and he were crammed into the backseat. Mrs. Suter’s purchases from her shopping trip while Ryan was at Zach’s game filled the front passenger seat. They were both too big to fit back there comfortably, but neither one of them complained. Ryan never complained and Zach didn’t want to be an ungrateful guest. Especially when it appeared that only the three of them were going to the game. Neither of Ryan’s brothers, Justin and Garrett, or his stepbrothers, Jason and Tyler, had come along.
At the arena Mrs. Suter spared no expense for the boys. She had secured lower bowl tickets for the game, a rare treat for both boys, which was the main portion of Ryan’s birthday present. She bought them both cokes and large popcorns at the start of the game and real dinner food just before second period. Zach had nachos and nearly smeared a large glob of salsa down the front of his team jersey. Ryan’s pulled pork sandwich was only slightly less messy. As the forward finished his nachos he was grateful he was wearing his high school jersey instead of his national team one. Besides the fact Ryan left his Team USA jersey at home too, Zach’s mother would have killed him if she had to get a massive stain out of the USA jersey.
The Wild game was fun. Not a particularly good game for the home team, but fun. They lost to the visitors 3 to 1. That was to be expected. As a new expansion team to replace the North Stars, Minnesota hadn’t even finished their second season yet. There was no way they could compare to one of the original six yet, as Montreal showed.
Zach checked out of the game emotionally when third period started and they had yet to score. He imagined how things would be different if he were down there on the ice representing Minnesota. He’d proudly wear the team’s red and green and eventually lead the team to their first Stanley Cup as captain. That’d be sweet. Zach glanced at Ryan. Yeah, that doofus would be on the team with him, Zach didn’t know of a better man to lead the defense. Thinking about the pair of them hefting the cup made him smile.
He looked up at the Xcel Center’s rafters. Except for the pendent for each of the NHL teams and a number 1—retired for the fans because they were number one in the Wild’s book—the rafters were bare. Zach didn’t know what team he’d get drafted to, but eventually he’d make it to the Wild. Then he’d fill those beams until there wasn’t room for more. He wasn’t the next Gretzky, even Zach wasn’t so cocky to think otherwise, but by the time he retired Minnesota would retire his number alongside him. He imagined getting his grandchildren’s’ attention at a Wild game and pointing up at a number eleven jersey and telling them that was his. Then he’d turn to Ryan’s grandkids and point out their granddad never managed to get his number up alongside Zach’s.
Almost as if he sensed Zach’s train of thought Ryan chose that moment to dump the rest of his popcorn on Zach’s head. Spluttering Zach grabbed a handful of popped kernels and flung them in Ryan’s face. The boys’ actions quickly escalated into a full on popcorn battle, which fully engrossed them. In the end they missed Gaborik breaking the shutout in the last minutes of the game. Seeing it on replay was a poor substitute to catching the real thing, but Zach didn’t regret his choices. He and Ryan grinned at each other as they cheered for the Wild’s lone goal.
Mrs. Suter drove Zach home after the game. On the way he found out Ryan and his mom were staying with one of Mrs. Suter’s friends in the Cities to avoid completely messing up their sleep schedules with hours of post midnight driving. The boys begged and eventually obtained permission for Ryan to spend the night, if it was all right with Zach’s parents. As it was a Saturday night they got the okay easily enough. So Mrs. Suter left Ryan with his overnight bag on Zach’s doorstep. Privately Zach thought Mrs. Suter was pleased about the arrangement, as it gave her a chance to catch up with her friend privately.
While Zach could have taken Ryan up to his room, he took him down to the basement instead. Even if it was only Ryan, that was where he usually had his sleepovers. Besides, Dad’s big screen TV and Zach’s old N64 were down there to compliment their comfiest couch. The only reason that couch wasn’t upstairs was because his mother thought it was the ugliest shade of puke green imaginable. Luckily that didn’t bother Ryan.
Zach took a bottle of whiskey out of his father’s liquor cabinet. His parents weren’t thrilled when he drank, but they’d rather have him do it safely at home and not drive. Zach didn’t often take advantage of their lenient drinking stance, as hangovers hurt his performance, but this was a special occasion. This was Ryan’s birthday. Besides, the cheesehead was probably used to drinking and splitting the remainder of a bottle of whiskey would be nothing.
They sat on the couch passing the bottle of whiskey back and forth. After setting on the couch Zach found an open bag of chips between the cushions, which meant they had something salty to compliment their alcohol. Ryan seemed pleased this was how his birthday celebration was ending. Zach puffed up a little at that. Damn right Ryan’d want to hang out and drink with him. Zach was awesome. They caught the tail end of a West Coast hockey game. Then Zach flipped over to Fox in hopes of catching a late night movie. They caught some science fiction thing, but that was cool. Zach was totally into it until the end when it turned out the alien menace was actually ghosts from the future trying to avert humanity’s self destruction.
“Man, that was a weak ending,” Zach groused as the earth erupted into mushroom clouds across the screen.
“I thought that was cool,” Ryan said.
“Yeah, I mean, most of it was, but ghosts?” Zach said, trying to explain his frustration. “It was cool when we were fighting off a common enemy, but having it go to a tragic self fulfilling prophecy place was dumb. Especially when they turned aliens into ghosts.”
“So aliens are cool, but ghosts aren’t?”
“Aliens are real,” Zach corrected. “Ghosts aren’t.”
“What, do you believe in ghosts?” Zach laughed, lightly punching Ryan in the shoulder. Ryan swatted him away.
“I didn’t say that,” Ryan growled. “It’s just… you might put a rock on top of your tank to keep your critters safe, but that doesn’t mean the raccoon can’t still get in and eat your turtle. Best to keep an open mind.”
“Weirdo,” Zach laughed.
“Takes one to know one.”
“Least I’m not a freak.”
“What? With those chicken legs you’re totally freakier than me,” Ryan insisted, bumping a knee into Zach’s bare thigh. Zach scratched his knee and refused to be embarrassed that he had already changed into his sleep shorts.
“These are perfectly normal legs! You're just too fucking built. I mean, you're barely seventeen, who are you trying to impress? I mean, how much do you work out?” Zachary demanded.
“I don't work out," Ryan said. "I work. There's a difference."
“If I ‘worked’ like you do I’d have muscles just as big. Maybe even bigger,” Zach grumbled.
“Come to the farm this summer and stay as long as you’d like. We’ll put your theory to the test,” Ryan grinned.
“Thanks, I’ll think about it,” Zach said, feeling a bit touched by the offer. Or perhaps that was the whiskey starting to take effect.
“You’ll need all the help you can get if you want to do something about those chicken legs,” Ryan snarked.
“They’re not chicken legs!” Zach insisted, whacking Ryan in the face with a pillow.
Ryan set the whiskey on the coffee table a moment before Zach tackled him. He didn’t know what he was doing other than trying to wipe that smug look off Ryan’s face. Maybe there was something resembling a plan to noogie him into submission in Zach’s head, but it didn’t matter because with one push Ryan had him on his back. Before Zach could react Ryan was on him punching him in the stomach. He was pulling his punches. Sure they hurt, but if Ryan put half his mind to it he could have Zach puking up everything he ate.
More worryingly Zach realized he was hard as he tried to struggle free. Also he couldn’t stop grinning. He told himself this was perfectly normal. They were fighting, roughhousing, that left lots of guys aroused. Lots of guys come off the ice at full mast after punching it out on the ice. Besides, if the pressure on his thigh was any indication Ryan was halfway to a woody too. He looked so thrilled to be causing Zach minor physical harm.
Zach almost felt bad slamming a knee into Ryan’s side to dislodge him. The look of surprise on the defenseman’s face did a lot for the forward. However, he couldn’t enjoy it for long because as Ryan lost his balance and fell sideways off the couch his fingers dug into Zach in an attempt to steady himself. It was a painful failure, ultimately resulting in him pulling Zach off the couch too. He landed on top of Ryan with a thud. Part of one of the boys banged the coffee table hard. He heard the whiskey bottle hit the rug. Zach started turning to right it before they lost all their booze, but stopped when he felt his waistband pulling away. Zach might have been the one on top, but Ryan’s hands were on his hips creeping into his shorts. He still had that shit-eating grin on his face. Zach was going to wipe that off his face if that was the last thing he did.
“Boys, are you alright?” his mother called as she came down the stairs. “I heard crashing.”
The three of them froze when she came into the basement. Zach refused to turn his head and look at her, despite the fact Ryan half raised himself to see over his shoulder. He knew she was standing there in her pink terry cloth bathrobe and faded bunny slippers. He didn’t want to see the look on her face. He hoped she didn’t notice the whiskey on the floor. While Zach was allowed to drink at home he’d catch hell for supplying alcohol to his underage friends.
“We’re fine, Mom,” Zach said, surprised when his voice came out deeper than expected. He had thought that finished settling months ago.
“I see,” Mom said, sounding like she didn’t believe him in the slightest. “Well, be safe you two. Good night.”
“We will, Mrs. Parise,” Ryan promised. Zach punched him lightly for that. “Good night.”
“Night Mom,” Zach grunted.
Relief flooded his body after he heard her turn and ascend the stairs. He scrambled off Ryan and quickly righted the whiskey bottle. Most of the contents had soaked into the carpet. Zach cursed. He felt embarrassed thanks to his mom coming down and he didn’t know why. He fought like this with lots of guys. The only difference was that this was Ryan, which meant this was his fault.
Ryan grabbed his shoulder, but Zach brushed him off. Like usual, his embarrassment was rapidly turning to anger. Despite being a cheesehead Ryan was sensitive enough to pick up on Zach’s change in mood. He didn’t try to engage Zach physically again.
They returned to their respective sides of the couch, though before he got there Zach popped a tape into the VCR and hit play. At this hour there wasn’t anything good on TV. Ryan sat quietly holding the whiskey. He was watching Zach as if he expected him to go off. This annoyed him enough he threw the blanket he got out for Ryan harder than he initially meant to at him. Ryan didn’t complain and simply handed Zach the whiskey after he settled in a cocoon of blankets on his side.
The whiskey was gone by the time they got through the previews. There hadn’t been that much left after the floor got its cut. Zach was certain at least half the bottle soaked into the rug and it hadn’t been a full bottle to begin with. Dad never commented when any of his open bottles disappeared. Still, they had both ingested enough Zach was pretty drunk. Ryan had to be in the same boat. There was no way that cheesehead had a higher alcohol tolerance on top of everything else.
“Aladdin?” Ryan asked when the movie finally started.
“I like Aladdin,” Zach snapped. “Got a problem with it?”
“I like Aladdin too,” Ryan said.
They didn’t say anything else after that. Zach felt himself relaxing as he watched his favorite Disney movie. Abu and his gibberish had been his favorite as a kid, though as he aged he appreciated the Genie more and more. Just as Aladdin entered the Cave of Wonders Zach felt something hit him. He tensed; ready to hit back if Ryan wanted a fight, but relaxed when he looked down. Ryan had fallen against him, clearly asleep. The day’s events must have finally caught up with him.
Zach shifted a bit, trying to get more comfortable with the added weight. Ryan’s head slipped down to rest on his leg. Zach reached down and sunk his fingers into the other boy’s hair to keep him in place. Neither one of them wanted him to shift in his sleep and wake up with Zach’s dick in his face. In that moment he felt really good about the situation. Comfortable and sleepy. Zach figured he’d shift to the floor if he was still awake when the film ended. He was asleep before Aladdin used his second wish.
Both boys woke with wicked hangovers. They suffered through an absolutely lovely home cooked breakfast only giving monosyllable answers when asked direct questions. By the time Mrs. Suter arrived they had showered, dressed, and Zach felt vaguely human again. He was even able to pull on a coat and walk Ryan out to the car when his mother suggested it.
“Thanks for letting me spend the night,” Ryan said as they put his bag in the trunk.
“Yeah, no problem,” Zach said. “Least I could do after you took me to the Wild game.”
Ryan shifted from foot to foot. He had that constipated expression on his face he got when he needed to say something. Zach crossed his arms and waited. It wasn’t his job to make Ryan say whatever he had to say.
“I was serious about the visit. You’re welcome on the farm any time,” Ryan said.
“Thanks,” Zach said, surprised. He hadn’t realized the offer had been serious. It seemed more genuine in the light of day and deserved a proper response. “I’ll have to think about it. Wouldn’t be able to visit until mid summer at the earliest. I’ll have a lot of shit to wrap up even after graduation. You’ll understand next year.”
Ryan dipped in an awkward silence until Mrs. Suter honked the horn. That put Ryan into motion and he climbed into the front passenger seat. As Zach watched the Suters drive away he wondered why Ryan hadn’t sat up front last night. He easily could have transferred his mother’s bags to the trunk, like they had after Mrs. Suter parked for the game to keep thieves out of the car. Zach shook his head and went back inside. Ryan Suter was weird and that was answer enough for anything he did.