Brent raises his hand to his neckline. Over the past three years it’s become more than a habit to fidget with the ring hanging on the heavy chain around his neck, just below the neckline of his jersey. His fingers find nothing, though, and it’s strange not to feel the weight in the hollow of his collarbone, a comforting reminder of the commitment he’s made.
Three years, and its finally on his ring finger, where it was always meant to be.
Embarrassed, Brent’s fingers still, then he covers the motion by tightening his tie. Duncan shakes his head, “It’s fine,” and laughs a little as he brushes a piece of lint from Brent’s shoulder. The room they’re in is sparsely lit, and Brent is distracted by the way the ring on Duncan’s finger flashes as it catches the light. Duncan follows his gaze. “What?”
Brent shrugs. It’s stupid. “Just not used to it yet.”
Duncan’s face softens and he moves his hand down Brent’s arm, squeezing gently, and threads his fingers through Brent’s. “I like it, too.”
Brent squeezes Duncan’s hand and leans towards him, so that his breath whispers hot and wet across Duncan’s ear. “There’s something in it for you if we get out of here. Right now.” Skip the interview hand heavy in the air around them.
Duncan turns just enough to press a quick, closed-mouth kiss on Brent’s lips. “Sounds like a plan.”
They don’t move.
This is it. The scariest thing Brent’s ever done. He used to try to think about this day, when he was a little boy playing pond hockey with his buddies in British Columbia, but it had always seemed so surreal, so impossible, so unreachable, then he had never been able to actually picture it.
Over the past nine years, however, he’s thought about it almost every day and he’s imagined it happening a thousand different ways.
They were only ever semi-careful. People knew. Family, friends, teammates, and Brent always assumed that it would be one of them who consciously or unconsciously let it slip. An accidental word dropped during a press conference. Or even a former teammate who, although a friend as a Hawk, would prove anything but after being traded to the Thrashers or the Canucks.
Brent always worried that, if it wasn’t someone else, it would he, himself, who slipped. There are these moment, moments when Brent feels like he’s going to drown and he just can’t help himself. He’d push Duncs up against the wall in some alleyway, kiss him hard and press a knee between his legs and hope, much later, that there weren’t any cameras around. Or Duncs would look at him in this way he has, as if Brent is the only thing in the world, and Brent wouldn’t think before he’d lean forward for a kiss. Quick and almost-innocent, but they’d be at a bar or a club, someplace public. All it would take is one fan with a flip-phone to catch a grainy picture for it to be all over Deadspin the next morning.
All those times, he never imagined it happening like this.
Voluntary, on their own terms, for their own reasons. They’d even chosen the venue. And even if it had taken a little push to get them to this point, they’ve had days to come to terms with their decision, and it’s more than Brent had ever dared to hope for.
Duncan squeezes his hand and Brent’s pulled back to their small staging room. He tries to reassure Duncs with a small smile. “They’re gonna be okay, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Duncan promises. “We’re doing a good thing.”
Brent laughs, low in his chest, at the ridiculousness of it all. “Role models, eh? Who would have guessed?”
Duncan doesn't laugh. He doesn’t do anything but look at Brent with that look again, the one that makes Brent feel like the most beautiful man in the world. It takes Brent a moment to realize that, this time, he can do something about it.
After a moment, Duncan pulls away, blushing and breathing hard and running his tongue across his lips. He shakes his head, smirking at Brent, and promises, again, “It’s worth it.”
There’s the clink of heels on the floor and Cindi, the Hawks PR woman, appears, clutching her iPad tightly. “Guys, they’re almost ready for you.” She offers them what Brent assumes is supposed to be a supportive smile, but she looks even more nervous than they do.
Duncan nods at her, then steps in front of Brent and tightens his tie again. “You sure you wanna do this?”
Brent holds Duncan’s hand against his chest. “No regrets, eh?”
“Never.” Duncan brings their hands to their sides, but doesn’t let go as they follow Cindi into the NBC Sports Network studio.
Two Weeks Ago
It’s two in the morning. Next to him, Duncan murmurs in his sleep and turns his back on both Brent and the ringing phone, so Brent stumbles out of the bedroom before he wakes his partner. Annoyed, he answers the phone. “What?”
“Brent?” Jonny’s voice sounds distant and frantic and Brent can hear voices and taxis and other street sounds in the background. It’s loud and the apartment is quiet and the contrast is already giving Brent a headache.
“What?” He repeats, short and clipped, ‘cause it’s early or late or something and Brent can’t think through the headache.
“We’re coming over.”
Brent’s head is pounding because he couldn’t have heard that right. “We?” And, more importantly, “It’s two am.”
“I know, I know,” Jonny says quickly, and Brent can see the little dismissive wave of Jonny’s wrist through the phone, then, “Wait a sec.” as if Brent has a choice. He hears Jonny put the phone to his shoulder and hears Jonny give Brent’s address to someone whom Brent can only hope is a cabdriver.
“Hope you’re not talking to a fan. Or a hooker. Or-”
“Cabdriver,” Jonny interrupts, ending Brent’s sleepy diatribe and confirming Brent’s suspictions. Jonny’s voice sounds clearer, but also drunker, and Brent rubs at his eyes with his free hand.
“You can’t come here. I’m sleeping.”
“You’re on the phone.”
Brent hates Tazer-logic. “Duncan’s sleeping.”
“He sorta needs to be up for this,” and Jonny at least has the graciousness to sound a little apologetic about that. There’s a pause, some shuffling, then, “We’ll be there in ten minutes.” Then there’s silence. Jonny hung up on him. Well, Jonny ordered him to wake Duncs, then hung up on him.
Brent stares at the phone for a moment, wishing that he could argue or curse or just fall asleep on the couch, but Jonny’s his Captain and Brent’s conditioned to do what he says. Brent goes through the list in his head: make coffee, wake Duncan, do- something else that Brent can’t really remember.
Brent frowns, then stumbles into the kitchen, starting the coffee maker with one hand while continually rubbing at his tired eyes with the other. It wasn’t all that long ago that he loved this time of night, pressed against Duncan in a mass of warm, sweaty bodies at a club, or watching from the bar, pleasantly buzzed, as Pat failed, night after night, to pick up the blondest girl in the bar. As Brent reaches for the Advil in the medicine cabinet, he realizes that, somewhere along the way, he and Duncan have been domesticated.
He doesn’t know who to blame for that. There’s someone somewhere who’s fault is it, Brent’s sure. If he wasn’t so tired he’s sure he’d be able to figure it out. In the morning. When his brain is working right again.
Duncan’s a deep sleeper, and he’s not a morning person, and he doesn’t even acknowledge Brent as the bed squeaks and Brent settles next to his hip. Brent runs a hand down Duncan’s spine, hoping to counteract his harsh words as he whispers, loudly, “Jonny’s on his way over.” Then, hopefully, a peace offering, “I’m making coffee.”
Duncan grunts, curling up around Brent and burying his head in Brent’s thigh to block out the light from the hallway. Duncan grunts again, his voice muffled by Brent’s boxers.
“Didn’t say why,” he answers the question he knows Duncan’s trying to ask in his pre-verbal early-morning state.
“Late.” Brent glances at the lock. Jonny’s going to be there any minute.
Duncan growls this time, rolling onto his back and throwing an arm over his eyes. The sheet slips down to hang off Duncan’s hips and Brent can’t help but reach out to trace the muscles of Duncan’s stomach until they disappear below the sheet.
Duncan adjusts his arm and cracks one eye open. “Give me a minute, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Brent’s voice cracks a little and he clears it, standing too quickly and swaying for a moment before grabbing his sweatpants off the floor and pulling them over the slight bulge in his boxers.
Just the smell of the coffee is doing wonders and he feels almost human by the time he gets back to the kitchen. The pot’s done, and he pours four cups before setting the coffee maker up to start again. If he’s right about whatever this is, they’re going to need more than one pot.
He’s putting the mugs on the coffee table when he hears the doorbell. He rushes to answer it before the neighbors complain about their late hours, again, and the minute he opens the door Jonny pushes past him, supporting Pat on his shoulder.
“Bathroom.” Jonny motions towards Pat, and Brent takes half of Pat’s weight as he helps them to the guest bathroom. Pat immediately falls to the floor, grasping the toilet seat in his hands. Jonny steps over him and fills a cup with lukewarm water from the tap, handing it over when Pat is done.
Brent feels a presence behind him, and he moves to the side to give Duncan room in the doorway. Duncan’s wearing one of Brent’s Team Canada t-shirts and it makes him look smaller than he is as he crosses his arms and leans against the door jam. “What’s going on?”
“Kaner had a lot to drink.” Jon’s voice is tight and, when Brent looks at him, it’s obvious that Jonny has had just as much as Pat has. His face is pinched as if the only reason he’s not on the floor with Pat is by sheer will and Brent has the crazy desire to tell him to have at it.
“Sorry,” Pat whispers. He rinses his mouth with the water and leans back against Jon’s legs. “I’m good now.” He frowns. “I think.”
Brent focuses away from Jonny. It’s been months since he’s seen Pat like this. Since that weekend in Madison a year and a half ago. It had been embarrassing and stupid and just the push he needed and, since then, Pat’s started training harder, bulking up, and has been averaging a point a night. If Brent’s honest, he’s always assumed that the Wisconsin incident had also finally pushed Pat into Jonny’s bed, but he’s never gotten any proof of that.
“Help me up,” Pat orders, sounding a bit too much like Jonny, and Brent steps forward to grab his elbow.
“Why are you here?” Brent asks, once they’re all situated on the couches and sipping at the coffee. Duncan’s pressed next to him, their thighs and shoulders touching and Brent wishes that they were back in bed.
“Um-” Jonny starts, then takes a large sip of coffee and starts to choke. Pat slaps him on the back and, when Jonny’s stopped spluttering, Pat pulls his hand back, clasping a legal-sized envelope that must have been folded into Jonny’s back pocket.
“This, um, well, here.” Pat bites his lip as he hands over the envelope.
Beside Brent, Duncan straightens and takes the envelope. He opens the flap and turns it upside down on the coffee table. Five full-color, if grainy, photographs fall out and Brent arranges them carefully. He doesn’t have to look at them to know what they are, but he leans forward, elbows on his knees, to take a close look.
All five were taken with a telephoto lens. The first is through Jonny’s kitchen window, Pat pressed against the sink, shirtless, his head thrown back to make room for Jonny’s lips on his neck. The second is outside Pat’s apartment building and Pat’s leaning against Jonny’s truck, giving him a kiss through the driver’s side window. The third is in a bedroom – Brent guesses it’s Jonny’s from all the black – and Pat and Jonny are pressed together, shoulders to hips, hands clutching at bare skin.
Brent straightens without looking at the fourth and fifth pictures. His skin is burning, itchy and stretched, and he reaches out to grasp Duncan’s knee. He feels as if he’s walked in on something private, primal, somehow embarrassing and beautiful at the same time.
He doesn’t know what to do, what to say, how he should be reacting to all this, and he’s grateful when Duncan covers his hand and speaks for him. “What do they want?”
“They sent those a couple of days ago.” Jonny seems to have regained his voice, and he hands over a folded piece of paper. “This was in my locker after the game tonight.”
Duncan opens it slowly and Brent leans over to read over his shoulder. Money order for $10 million. A P.O. Box. A date marked two weeks from today.
Brent whistles. He glances up at Pat and Jonny and tries for a joke, “Finally worth $10 million, eh?”
It makes Pat laugh, but it sounds choked and watery. Jonny hesitates, but then he clenches his jaw and puts a hand between Pat’s shoulder blades, rubbing softly. When he talks, it’s softly, dully, as if he’s not really aware of what he’s saying. “It started a year ago. Drinking. Fucking. When we couldn’t find anyone else, and sometimes even when we could.” He swallows, shaking his head and turning his chin away from Pat. “Now, I- we-”
“It’s okay,” Pat whispers, gently, but Jon doesn’t look back at him. Pat sighs and turns to Brent and Duncan. “It’s not that we don’t have something. We do. We just-” Pat frowns. “Don’t know what we have. It’s too soon, you know?”
Brent frowns. He wishes he understood, but he doesn’t really. He knew he loved Duncan the moment he met him, and even if it had taken months for him to work through his shit and accept that Duncan felt the same way, it was a never a question. He had always known it was worth it. Had always known that Duncan is the most important thing in his life and that, if it came down to it, Duncan was the priority, every time.
Brent gets the flicker of an idea, but he keeps his mouth shut. This isn’t the place or the time, not in front of the kids who, at 25 and 26, have never fitted the nickname better than they do right now. Brent takes a deep breath, and then lets it out.
“We’ll deal with this in the morning.”
Jonny finally looks back at Brent, even if not at Pat, and Brent can see Jonny’s relief at handing over the responsibility for the whole mess. “Yeah. Good. I’ll, um, we’ll call a cab and we’ll see you at the rink. In the morning.”
Brent shakes his head. “Guest room.”
“We can-” Jonny crosses his arms over his chest defiantly, but Brent just rolls his eyes.
“This isn’t up for debate. You’re gonna sleep it off. I don’t want to talk about this again until you’re sober.”
Jonny looks like he wants to argue for a moment, but then he just gets up and storms to the guest room, slamming the door behind him. It’s loud, and Brent watches as Pat flinches.
“Sorry,” Pat whispers, his voice small and scratchy. “He’s- Angry. And embarrassed.” About me isn’t said, but Brent hears it, and he shares a glance with Duncan, who reaches across the table to take Pat’s hand.
“He’s not, Pat. He’s scared.”
Pat lets Duncan hold his fingers for a moment, then pulls away. “Right.” He gets up, rubbing his hands on his jeans and glancing at them. “I’m gonna-” He points to the guest room and then he’s gone.
Brent looks back at the pictures. He leans closer, reaching out to touch the edges. They’re blurry, grainy, from a distance, and if Brent hadn’t been seeing their bodies in the locker room every day for years, he wouldn’t have known it was Pat and Jonny. He sighs. There’s something here. The beginning of something, but he’s not sure what, and he’s not sure he’s found it when he feels Duncan’s hand on his back.
“In the morning,” Duncan whispers, pressing a gentle kiss behind Brent’s ear.
Nodding, Brent carefully gathers the pictures together and slips them back into the envelope. Duncan collects the half-drunken mugs and deposits them in the sink before joining Brent in the hallway.
Brent lies awake, listening to Duncan’s breathing and the hush of whispers from the guest room. When the whispers turns to gasps and moans, Brent turns on his side and holds Duncan a little tighter than normal.
Brent doesn’t sleep much that night. He spends the time looking at Duncan, thinking over his plan and coming over and over again to the conclusion that they don’t have a choice. There’s only one option here, but, even after dissecting every conversation he and Duncan have ever had on the subject, he still doesn’t know how Duncs will feel about it.
The morning is a hectic attempt to get four people, half of them desperately hungover, out of the small apartment and into Duncan’s Jeep. They tiptoe around each other without much of a word in their fear, exhaustion, and embarrassment.
Brent isn’t able to steal a moment alone with Duncan, who has busied himself with shaving and making coffee for all of them. As they’re getting into the car, Brent stops him with a quiet, “Duncs.” Duncan looks at him for a long moment, but then he shrugs off Brent’s hand and throws him the keys, climbing into the passenger side without a word.
Practice is much the same. Jonny is silent and moody and the team take their cue from their Captain. Jonny pushes them all hard and by the last reps of suicides even Coach Q is giving him confused little glances. Finally, someone – Brent isn’t sure whether it’s Jonny or Coach Q or someone in the front office – takes pity and orders them off the ice.
Brent is exhausted, his legs shaking, and he doesn’t remember what’s coming next until he drags himself into the showers. Duncan is under the showerhead next to him, and Brent tries, his voice husky and winded, “Duncan?”
“Mmm.” Duncan turns and bends his head so that the shower beats against his neck.
“We need to talk. Before we go in there.”
“Not here,” is all he gets back, a short, clipped refusal to speak, and even though Brent knows it’s due to the bodies all around them, it’s infuriating.
Brent turns his shower off abruptly and storms into the locker room. He pulls on his clothes while he’s still damp and, as he stalks through the hallways of the UC, he finds that his fingers have automatically gone to play with the ring hanging against his collarbone. He forces himself to stop, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his eyes fixed on his sneakers. He’s taken by surprise when a strong hand grabs his forearm and pulls him into a storage room.
“What?” Brent looks up to see Duncan in front of him, his arms crossed across his chest and a frown across his face.
“You’re an idiot.”
“Okay,” Brent agrees slowly.
“In the showers. There were people.”
Duncan frowns at him for a moment, before sighing. “We do need to talk.”
“I didn’t sleep last night.” It tumbles out before Brent can stop it, and it’s as much an apology as it is an entrance into the topic they really need to discuss and, when Duncan opens his mouth, Brent puts a hand on his forearm and shakes his head. “Let me talk, eh?”
Duncan nods, slowly, his eyes narrowing. “Okay.”
“It needs to be us.” Brent says it, fast and low, and Duncan’s still frowning, so he closes his eyes and forces himself to slow down. “In the pictures. It needs to be us.”
“The pictures – they’re blurry. You can’t tell who it is. Not really.” Brent knows he’s babbling, but he needs Duncan to understand, and he feels high on nerves and adrenaline, and he can’t stop himself. “We could totally pass for the kids.” Duncan frowns at the phrasing, but Brent just shakes his head and continues. “If we come out before the 10 million is due, what’s the guy gonna do? Go on TV and argue that it’s not us in those pictures, after we’ve come out to the world?”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
Brent pauses, out of breath. He hadn’t expected Duncan to agree so readily. He was up all night coming up with arguments. The kids are young. They’re new at this, they’re not ready, and, at first, Brent had wanted to hit something, anything, as long as it was hard and painful. But then Brent had realized that he and Duncan have been ready for this for eight years, and it may not be fair, and they may be backed against a wall, but it feels good to realize that there is something Brent can hit. Something big and scary and, “This might be suicidal.”
“Yeah.” Duncan smiles, just a little, at the corners of his mouth. “Might be something important, too.”
Brent smiles. He should have known that he had nothing to worry about. “Yeah,” he agrees. Big and scary and suicidal and important.
“So,” Duncan shuffles his feet, uncrossing his arms to shove his hands in his pockets. “We good.”
“Yeah.” Brent opens the door and lets Duncan slip out in front of him.
They’re the last to arrive in the conference room and, as Duncan closes the door behind them, Coach Q drums his fingers on his clipboard and glares around the table. “What’s this about, boys? I don’t have a lot of time today.”
Jonny’s fingers are shaking as he pulls the pictures out of their envelope and slips them across the table to Coach Q and Stan Bowman. They both lean forward, shoulders stiffening in tandem, before Stan looks up at them.
“Who has this?”
“Ahh-” Jonny shrugs and Brent wishes that they had gone over some of these important questions last night so that Jonny and Pat could at least be semi-prepared. “We don’t know.”
“How’d you get this?”
“It was slipped under my door.” Jonny swallows, then seems to regain a little of his ability for foresight. “Last week.”
“At my apartment, yeah.”
It’s language they don’t usually hear from Stan and it’s shocking and loud in the conference room that’s way too large for the six of them. Brent isn’t the only one who jumps, and he watches as Jonny places a hand on Pat’s shoulder.
Jonny is the first to get his voice back as he agrees, “Yeah.”
Finally, Coach Q, who has been inspecting each image carefully, looks up, shaking his head at Jonny and Pat. “How long has this been going on?”
Pat shrugs. “A while. We’re just . . . more than fooling around but-” Jonny lays his hand on top of Pat’s on the table and Pat takes an audible deep breath. “We’re just not ready to tell everyone yet.”
“How much are they asking for?” It’s a sane question that no one’s thought to ask yet, and Brent starts to wonder if Coach has seen something like this happen before.
There’s a pause, and Brent squeezes Duncan’s hand under the table. “Um, if I can-” All eyes turn on him and he reaches up to touch the ring around his neck. “We may have a solution.
Cindi leads them into the NBC Sports Network studio. There’s a whole panel waiting for them. Pierre McGuire, Dan Patrick, and Mike Emrick from NBC. Bob Cole from Hockey Night in Canada. Pat Foley, Eddie Olczyk, and Bobby Hull from the Blackhawks.
Brent doesn’t know if any of them are friendly faces, but Bobby Hull is definitely smiling at him and Eddie Olczyk motions for them to take their seats in the middle. Brent feels a flash of warmth at NBC’s decency in stacking the deck in their favor as he takes his seat and, damn their marks and how the lights are set, rolls his chair as close to Duncan’s as possible.
Doc Emrick is watching as they accept water bottles and settle into their seats. Given the circumstances, Brent really can’t bring himself to care how close they’re sitting. He’s been nervous before, hell, he’s played in two Stanley Cup Championship series and an Olympic gold medal game, but it’s never been like this. Never been him on national television, with his family and his teammates and his high school buddies watching, wearing a suit and feeling naked without his equipment and adrenalin to hide behind. This is new and scary and dangerous.
He can picture it: his parents at home, the neighbors gathered around their small living room; Keith in Calgary, a bowl of popcorn in his lap; the boys gathered in Jonny’s living room in Chicago, Pat biting his nails and Sharpie and Jonny doing their best to keep everyone calm and full of beer. Brent smiles at the images, wishing that he had something stronger in front of him than water.
“You okay?” Duncs whispers in his ear.
Brent nods. “Good. Yeah. Good. Wish there was beer.”
Duncan chuckles. “When this is all over.”
There’s a noise in his ear and he glances over to see Doc Emrick looking at them again. He smiles at them. “Ready?”
“Sure,” Brent agrees. It’s too late for anything else.
The introductions are short and sweet and they’re over too soon for Brent, whose palms are leaving sweaty handprints on Duncan’s knee. Duncs reaches down to thread their fingers together, pulling Brent’s hand further into his lap. With a start, he realizes that Brent has already started talking.
“…When I was a boy, growing up in British Columbia, all I wanted to do was score goals and play pond hockey with my buddies. Didn’t realize there could be anything else.”
The panel laughs and Bob Cole leans forward. “Up there, there isn’t a whole lot else, eh?”
“Not really.” Brent gives him a conspiratorial smile.
“So, when did you start to notice something beyond hockey?”
“When I went away for Juniors.” Brent squeezes Duncan’s hand. “I started to realize that I was different. I wasn’t hiding Playboys under my mattress and the blond cheerleaders did nothing for me. Took me a long time to figure out that wasn’t normal.”
“When did you figure out you were gay?”
“A year or so into Juniors.” Brent shivers, but Duncan rubs his thumb over Brent’s thigh and Brent takes a deep breath. “It’s hard. Growing up in a small town up North, there aren’t a whole lot of images or role models or anything. I wasn’t even sure what it meant to be gay. When I realized I liked guys, I ignored it. For a long time. I knew-” He swallows. “I knew that I couldn’t play hockey and be gay. I had to choose one or the other. And my choice was simple.”
Eddie Olczyk gives him a sympathetic look as he takes over from Doc. “Doesn’t sound easy to me.”
Brent shrugs. “Back then, it was. I loved playing hockey. More than anything. It wasn’t even really a decision I had to make, and I told myself that it would be okay if I could play every day and then come home to my dogs. It’d be fine.”
That earns him a few sympathetic looks and he shifts uncomfortable in his chair as Eddie asks another question, his eyes sparkling as if he already knows the answer. “Obviously that isn’t what happened. What changed?”
“I met Duncan.” Brent answers before he thinks about it, and then he blushes. “I know it sounds cliché, and stupid, but he hit me like a brick wall. I thought I had life figured out, you know? Eat, sleep, play hockey.” Brent shakes his head. “But then I met Duncan and that all changed.”
“So, your relationship started when you first met?”
“No. When we first met, I was-” Duncan’s thumb presses hard into his thigh and Brent clears his throat. “There were some things I was dealing with. Some- things- had happened, and it took me a long time to trust Duncan. I always loved him, from the very beginning,” Brent swallows, still a little awed as he remembers the first time he saw Duncan in the locker room in Norfolk. “I fought him for a long time.”
The members of the panel shift uncomfortably, and Brent is glad that they were briefed on all of this before the interview started. They all knew this was coming, and Duncan pulls his fingers from Brent’s to squeeze his knee, his palm warm and comforting. Brent is glad for it. Knowing this was coming and having to talk about it it on national television are two separate things, and the question is still a bit shocking when it comes.
“You said some things happened to you before you met Duncan in the AHL. Were these things the result of your sexuality?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Brent leans his knee into Duncan’s touch. “Going away for Juniors was hard for me. I was young and I hadn’t ever been away from home before. And, like I said, I wasn’t looking at girls the way everyone else was. At that age, boys don’t hide much, and it became obvious pretty fast that I was different. One of the other boys took advantage of that. Juniors taught me that I only had two options: be gay and stay silent on the abuse, or speak out and stop playing hockey. The second option was unbearable to me.”
Brent’s talked about this before, to Duncan, to his therapist, to Coach Q when he joined the Hawks. They all told him over and over again that it wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about, but he still takes comfort in the obvious disgust on the panels’ faces.
Bobby Hull turns to them, speaking up for the first time, and his voice sounds hard and angry. “Is abuse common in the Junior Leagues?”
Brent sighs, running his free hand through his hair, his ring catching in the lights of the set. “Look, I don’t wanna throw the Junior system under the bus. Almost everyone goes through it, eh? What happened to me was one instance. One angry, confused boy. And, if I had spoken up, I’m sure something would have been done about it.”
“But you didn’t feel like you could speak out.”
“Well, no. But that’s my fault, not the league’s. I was young and confused and I didn’t understand my body. I was being told that being gay wasn’t okay. And then someone came along and told me that abuse was good, that it was what I wanted, and I didn’t know enough to know how fucking wrong that was.” Brent winces as he swears. “Sorry.”
Doc waves him away. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Anyway, I didn’t know any better, because I didn’t know that there was any other way. That’s why I’m here today. I just want other kids to know that it’s okay to be confused. I want them to know that they might be gay, and that’s okay. Listen to your body. And if you’re ever in a situation like I was, I need everyone to know that there are options. It’s not just stay quiet or risk your career. These things can be reported and you’ll be okay. I need kids to know that.” He takes a deep, steadying breath, and Doc offers him a smile, before turning back to the panel.
“Duncan, did you have a similar situation?”
Duncan shakes his head and Brent, relived that the conversation has moved away from him, takes the opportunity to lean back in his chair and watch Duncan speak, calm and comforting next to him.
“I was lucky. I played Juniors for a little while, but then I played college hockey at Michigan. I was never quite successful at hiding who I was, but I was given a lot of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell-type leeway at Michigan. I was always the silent, scary type in the locker room, anyway, so no one asked too much about my personal life. I didn't like hiding, but, in retrospect, I had it easy.” He squeezes Brent’s knee again and Brent gives him a small mile. “And, like Brent, I wanted to play hockey, so I didn’t see another option. I was resigned to it.”
Doc glances down at his notes. “So, you and Brent met in Norfolk, which at the time was the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate. How long have you been together?”
Duncan grins, that large, toothy grin, and, even on national television, Brent’s stomach flips. “Eight years, in November.”
“You’ve kept it this a secret for 8 years?”
Duncan shrugs. “What were our options, eh? We play in a league that doesn’t support gay hockey players. Neither of us have ever wanted to do anything else. And I hate hiding. I hate that it looks like I’m ashamed of Brent when the truth is that he’s the love of my life. He means more to me than anything, but, until now, it’s been safer to keep it quiet.”
“Does anyone know?”
“Yeah.” Duncan smiles, and Brent knows that he’s thinking about their teammates. “We’ve told both our families and some of our teammates. It’s been frustrating, but at least we’ve been able to share it with the people we really care about.”
“And how have your teammates reacted?”
Duncan reaches for a glass of water, and Brent leans forward, taking over for him. “They’ve been great. We haven’t had any problems, from our teammates or the Hawks organization. Most of them even came to our wedding a few years ago. They’ve been extremely supportive.”
“They never give you a hard time?”
Brent chuckles. “Well, not never. We get some good-natured ribbing here and there, but what else can be expected from Sharpie and Kaner? There’d be something wrong if they didn’t pick on us a bit.”
“Do you expect the rest of the NHL to be as supportive?”
Brent shrugs, and Duncan squeezes his knee and then lets go, putting his elbows on the table and resting his chin in his hands. “We hope everyone will be accepting and supportive, but we’re also realistic. The NHL is sill a very homophobic league. The You Can Play campaign has done a lot of good, and it’s really paved the way for us, but we’re still the first players to actually come out. We know it won’t be easy. I just hope that we can make some sort of difference, and maybe it’ll be a little easier for the next guy.”
“Speaking of the You Can Play campaign, how active do you plan on being as advocates for gay rights in sports?”
Duncan rubs a hand over his face. “I really don’t know. I’m not a politician, I’m just a hockey player. We make no apologies for who we are or who we choose to spend our life with, but we’re not going to shove it in peoples’ faces either. I’d rather be identified as a hockey player than a gay hockey player. We’ll do as much as we can, but we’re really just normal guys. And we hope that the league, and the media, can respect that.”
“Do you think there are other guys in the league like you?” Eddie’s eyes are twinkling, as if he knows the answer to this question, too. Brent wonders for a moment what Eddie knows, but then Duncan’s hand is on his thigh again and he squeezes it before answering.
“Ten percent of the population is gay, right? So that means that, yeah, there are two and half guys on every team. Struggling with the same things Duncs and I are.” He shrugs. “We’re not a secret society or anything, so don’t bother asking for names.”
The panel laughs, and Bob Cole smiles at them. “Do you see yourselves as role models for these other gay players who maybe haven’t felt comfortable coming out?”
Brent shrugs, and looks as uncomfortable as Duncan did earlier. “I hope so, but I don’t know. like I said earlier, kids need to know that it’s okay. I’m not the best, ah, role model,” Brent even trips over the word, and he grins. “But, any example is better than none. If there had been someone out in the league when I was 19, it would have saved me from a lot of suffering. My early years playing could have been completely different, and if we can change the life of just one young kid who’s struggling to make it through the ranks with this secret, then, well, I’ll call that a win.”
“Why today? Why haven’t you come out before now?”
Brent’s body stiffens, those pictures rushing through his mind, and he squeezes Duncan’s hand, grateful when he gets the message and answers for them. “We’ve talked about it off and on over the years, but the timing never seemed right. We’re conditioned in this sport, and in professional sports in general, to fit in. It’s bad to be different. It’ll disrupt the team.” Duncan sighs. “And those arguments do have their points. The most important responsibility you take on as athletes is to be a member of a team. You spend a lot of time with those guys – late nights on the road and early morning at the rink – and you need to be comfortable with each other. As a team. But, you also need to trust each other, on the ice and off. And we eventually decided that we were hiding the best parts of ourselves from our teammates. We were lying, and we weren’t trusting them.”
“And why now?”
Duncan glances at Brent with a small smile. “It was just time. We’ve been married for three years and neither one of us plans on going anywhere. I feel as strong now as I did on the day we met, and it was just time, yeah? I’ve always wanted to live an open, honest life, and now we finally have a chance to do that. If we can help others out in the process, all the better.”
Thankfully, Doc nods, accepting Duncan’s roundabout answer. This whole thing would be for nothing if those pictures were discovered. Instead, Doc gives them a little smile. “Have you talked about starting a family?”
Brent glances at Duncan, giving him that soft little smile that he saves for Duncs. He doesn’t look away as he nods. “Someday, yeah. Duncan would make a great father. But, for now, we just want to play hockey. We’ll talk about it when we retire.”
Doc grins at them. “Well, hopefully that won’t be for years to come.” He swivels his chair to look into the camera. “That’s it for our time, but visit us at nbcsports.com for more information and to see a replay of this interview. Thank you for coming, Duncan and Brent, and we want you to know that you have the full support of the NBC Sports staff and our panel today. You are brave and humble people and you do an honor to our sport. Thank you.”
Brent is tearing up and it’s embarrassing, and he’s glad they’re going to commercial, because he’s not sure he could even say thank you right now. He feels a hand on the back of his neck and he turns his head to see Duncan grinning at him.
“We did good.”
“Yeah, we did.” Brent grins, straightening and taking Duncan’s hand as they leave the talking heads to do their thing.
Jonny doesn’t know what’s worse: watching Brent and Duncan take the fall for them, or watching Patrick sink further and further into the couch, the only sounds coming from him little “oh”s and moans. Jonny reaches out, but Pat shies away from him. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Pat bolts from the couch and Jonny shares a look with Sharpie, leaving the rest of the team in his hands, as he follows Pat into the guest bathroom. He wets a washcloth and squeezes in between Pat and the wall. Pat takes the cloth without comment, but he leans back against Jonny’s chest, and Jonny would call it a win, except they’re on the floor in the bathroom and for some reason it really matters that it’s the guest bathroom and not their own.
“That should have been us.”
It’s a whisper, and if Jonny didn’t know him so well, he might not have heard him. “I know.”
“Did you-“ Pat coughs, wiping his mouth with the washcloth. “Did you know about Seabs?” It’s accusatory and Jonny shakes his head against Pat’s neck, feeling his own stomach churn.
“No, I-“ Jonny swallows. “No.”
“If he had just told us.” Pat reaches around and pulls Jonny’s hand into his lap. “I never would have asked him to-“
There’s nothing he can say; nothing he can do to make this better. He wants to track down the guy who hurt Brent and pummel him to the ground and he wants to hug Brent and thank Duncan for keeping their friend together and he wants to hide Patrick away so that no one can ever hurt him. But, mostly, he just wants none of this to matter ‘cause all he really wants to do is play hockey.
Jonny’s phone is in his front pocket, so when it starts to humm, it vibrates between them and Pat raises his head. “Got something there?”
“Sorry,” Jonny mutters, arching his hips so that he can pull the phone from his pocket. He goes to turn it off, but when he sees Brent’s name, he opens the text. our night, assholes. make Kaner stop mopping. D and I knew what we were getting into.
Jonny smiles, he can’t help it, and he tips it for Pat to read. Patrick’s whole body starts shaking, and Jonny’s heart leaps, worried that this is finally it, but then Patrick’s snorting and laughing and there are tears in his eyes as he collapses hysterically against Jonny,
Keith Seabrook’s in Calgary. He had dropped hints all day about the interview and the importance of it, and now he finds himself snuggled into Iginla’s couch with the rest of the team. They had been joking around for a couple of hours, spread around the living room, eating pizza and ribbing each other, fighting over Mario Kart. Keith usually gives as good as he gets but, tonight, he’s distracted and it must be obvious, ‘cause Iginla had pulled him aside.
“Hey, kid, what’s up?”
Keith had looked down at his hands. “Nothing, um, it’s nothing.”
“No, it’s not. You’re practically shaking.”
“Yeah, um-“ He glances up, looking at his Captain through his eyelashes. “My brother’s gonna do something tonight, and, um, I’m worried ‘bout him and how the guys are gonna react.” He knows he’s being vague, but it’s Brent’s story to tell and so the vagueness can’t really be helped. “Just make sure the TV’s on at 8, okay?”
Iginla levels him with one of those gazes, the ones that tells Keith that Iginla knows everything. But, his Captain just nods. “Right.”
And now, they’re here, and Keith wishes that the couch could just swallow him up. There’s no noise, the pizza and the game controllers long forgotten as the entire team is huddled around the TV, pressed together and jostling for a better position. Now, the talking heads are talking and everyone’s staring at him and he can’t think of anything to do but fish his phone out of his pocket and send off a text to Duncan. Take care of him, alright?
When Brent had come out years ago, it had been one of the hardest things any of them had been through. They had been sitting around the kitchen table on a Sunday morning, his mom making pancakes at the stove, Keith and their father trading off sections of the newspaper. Duncan had swept in, grabbing the sports page and they had all grumbled as Duncan settled in his chair, knee braced against the table, and buried his noise in the paper.
Brent came in a few minutes later and had stopped behind Duncan’s chair, a hand resting on Duncan’s shoulders. It wasn’t exactly a strange gesture, the assholes had always been weird, anyway, and Keith hadn’t thought anything of it. Until, of course, Brent had cleared his throat and Duncan had put down the paper, straightening in the chair.
“I, um, I have something I have to say.”
“Yes, dear,” their mother had muttered absently from the stove, and Keith hadn’t missed the quick look between Duncan and Brent.
“Mom, you might wanna sit down, eh?”
She sighs, placing the pancakes on a large plate before turning off the stove and sitting between Keith and Duncan, offering up the pancakes to the room. They all reached for pancakes, and their dad still hadn’t put down the business section.
“Mom, Dad, Keith, I’m in love with Duncan.”
Keith chocked and their dad dropped the paper and Duncan shook his head. “Seabs-” And Keith had never heard the nickname like that before, it was exasperated and affectionate and Keith knew that he’d have to come up with a new nickname for himself ‘cause this one will always belong to Duncan.
“What? You said just to say it.”
“Yeah, but, I thought you’d lead up to it a bit.”
“Oh.” Brent frowned. “You didn’t say that.”
Duncan rolled his eyes, but his hand came up to squeeze Brent’s where it rests on his shoulder. He leaned forward and managed to catch all three Seabrook family members with his intense stare. “Mr. and Mrs. Seabrook, I need you to know that I love your son and I will do everything I can to support him and make him happy. He means more to me than anything else in the world.”
Their mom managed to pull her eyes from Duncan’s gaze to look pleadingly up at Brent. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, mom, I am.”
“But how can you be sure?”
Brent sighed. “Because, Mom, Duncan is everything to me. I can’t love him this much and have it not be right.”
She nodded, before shocking them all by getting up and giving first Brent, then Duncan a kiss on the cheek. “All right.”
Chair legs scraped against the floor and their Dad got up and they heard the front door open and close. Their mom had sighed. “Just give him some time. Eat, please.” And she had been right. It had taken months, years, and even now he isn’t completely comfortable with it, but he and Duncan are always cordial and he had been crying like everyone else at the wedding.
Keith’s phone rings and he’s drawn back to Iginla’s living room. “Hi Mom . . . yeah, of course I watched it . . . No, I didn’t know- I know, I know . . . No, I haven’t talked to him . . . Yeah, I know. He probably turned his phone off. Try Duncs’ . . . Okay, ‘night, Mom.” He drops his phone into his lap and glances around at his teammates.
“Come on, ask whatever you wanna ask.”
“Nah, man.” Iginla squeezes his shoulder. “Next time you talk to your brother, just tell him that he won’t be getting any shit from us.”
The United Center is dark and quiet, except for the light on in the GM’s office. The sound of the interview echoes through the deserted halls. The panel is debating the interview, but neither Stan Bowman nor Coach Q are listening.
The phone rings and Stan Bowman flicks mute on the TV before taking a deep breath. “Here it goes,” he mutters, shaking his head and pressing the speaker button. “Stan Bowman.”
“Hey, Stan. Steve Yzerman here.”
Stan raises an eyebrow and Coach Q shrugs. “Hey Stevie.”
“Listen, I know you must be busy over there, but, I wanted to call and give you my support.”
“Those boys have done a good, brave thing. They’re going to have some trouble in the next few weeks, but not from me, and not from my guys. If knowing that can give them even a moment’s piece of mind-”
“I’ll let them know.”
Stan turns off the speaker button and looks at Coach Q, who’s still watching the television, silently. “They have, you know.”
“Done a good, brave thing.”
When Duncs and Brent had first come to him, outlining their plans, Coach Q hadn’t been sure that it wasn’t better to pay the $10 million to stay out of the news cycle. To be able to coach a hockey team without the media scrum and the attention. The Hawks have always been lucky to play in the relative obscurity of the Western Conference, where they can do their thing under the radar of East Coast superstars Crosby and Ovechkin. Coach Q has always believed that this was one of their greatest advantages. But, things change. Since Rocky Wirtz and Stan Bowman took over, the name of the game is change, and, well, Coach Q can’t say that the interview was anything less than inspirational. He takes a deep breath. “I’m going to go give the media some quotes.”
Sharpie picks them up at the airport, with Jonny and Pat shifting nervously behind him. Pat’s bouncing on his feet, hands stuffed into his pockets, and Jonny has to bite his lip not to reach out and take his hand. All he can do is frown and look at Sharpie, pleading with him to do something. But when Pat shrugs off Sharpie’s touch, Sharpie can only shrug helplessly and wait.
And when Brent and Duncan come into view, he feels Pat straighten and stand next to him, practically humming with the desire to pass the security barrier. They watch as Duncan and Brent stop, just past the line where they’re viewable to the press.
Brent shifts his bag on his shoulder and leans forward to rest a hand on Duncan’s cheek. They know that the pictures will appear, sooner or later, and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s tomorrow, next week, next month. They’ve spent eight years and Brent can’t wait any longer as he gently leads Duncan closer, dropping his head to kiss him. Duncan doesn’t fight him, his arms coming up to grip Brent’s shoulders and bring him closer, gently.
When Brent pulls back, he’s smiling, and Duncan grins. “Sharpie’s waiting for us.”
“Mmm,” Brent murmurs, kissing Duncan once more, just a peck, and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. Turning, he catches sight of Pat, Jonny, and Sharpie, and his grin slips.
Pat’s body is practically humming next to Sharpie and, when the guys cross the line, Patrick is there, wrapping his arms around Brent’s waist and allowing himself to be engulfed in Brent’s tight grip.
Smiling tightly, Jonny hugs Duncan. “Thank you,” he whispers, choked, as he passes Duncan to Sharpie. Jonny squeezes Brent’s shoulder and Brent nods at Patrick. Jonny shakes his head, sadly, and Brent gently pulls away.
“I – I’m sorry. I never would have – if I had known, Brent-“ Patrick is muttering.
Brent leans forward, kissing Patrick’s forehead. “Let’s get out of here, huh?”
They pile into Sharpie’s car without a run-in with the media, and Jonny lets out a breath he didn’t really know he was holding. He reaches over to turn on the radio and toggle through the stations, stopping when he hears the sounds of SportsCenter.
“If you’re just joining us, today’s top story is the outing of Chicago Blackhawks Defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Now, we’re going to take you to Anaheim, where the Mighty Ducks just lost a grueling 4-3 battle. Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf is answering questions now.
‘Sorry, can you repeat that?’
‘You were on the Gold Medal Canadian Olympic team with Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith four years ago, correct?’
‘Ah, yeah. I assume we’ll be teammates in Sochi in February, too.’
‘Did you know that your teammates were gay?’
‘Why don’t you get to the point and ask me what you want to ask me?’
‘Seabrook and Keith came out in an interview on ESPN this evening.’
‘Did they? Good for them.’
‘Did you know they were gay when you played with them four years ago?’
‘Nah, but I’m not surprised. I’ve never seen two guys more attune to each other on or off the ice.’
‘Will this change how you play in Sochi?’
‘They’re the two best defenseman in the league. Anyone would be proud to play with them.’”
Duncan squeezes Brent’s hand. “Remind me to thank Getzy next time we’re in Anaheim.”
“Shh,” Brent whispers, leaning forward as if he can will the radio to say more pleasant things. Jonny smiles, turning up the volume.
“Back in the studio now. The news has been met with mixed response from the league. New Jersey’s Cam Janssen told the press this evening, ‘I don’t care if people are fags, you know? Do whatever you want in your home, but in the locker room? It doesn’t belong there.’
But Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson said, ‘Private matters should remain private matters.’ And the Lightning’s Simon Gagne added, ‘I have known some good guys in this league, I have known some bad guys in this league. Keith and Seabrook are great guys.’”
The day after the interview, they file onto the plane for an East Coast swing. They don’t know rather to be happy that they won’t have to deal with the hometown media for a week or so, or to be terrified of the media when they get off the bus at the hotel in Boston. Except, there’s snow at O’Hare and the plane de-ices for a couple hours, just sitting on the tarmac while Brent drools on Duncan’s shoulder, and it’s really late when they arrive in Boston. Then it’s really early when they arrive at TD Garden in the morning, and the few journalists meandering about seem much more interested in how the Hawks are planning on dealing with Rask’s shutout streak than with who sleeps with who when they’re not in Boston.
Then, during the day, they don’t really leave the rink. They know it’s the coward’s way out. They’re not going to be able to spend the rest of their lives in TD Garden, after all. Although, the one time Brent peers out the main players’ door, he threatens to send their equipment manager to Dick’s for a couple of sleeping bags and some of that astronaut ice cream.
Duncan scrunches his noise. “That stuff tastes like powder.”
Brent shrugs, turning away from the small window and resting a hand on the small of Duncan’s back as he leads him back towards the locker room. “I’m starving. I could eat hockey tape.”
“We should have thought this through better. I’m a growing boy. You need to feed me.”
Duncan raises an eyebrow at Brent’s stomach. “You wanna keep making that argument?”
“I don’t know what-“ He trails off as they open the locker room door and someone (Brent would bet his Stanley Cup ring that it was Jonny) has planned a lot better than they have. Because, for the day at least, the whole team has made a party out of the lock-in and they’re all there, laughing and eating spaghetti and meatballs like they’re eight-years-old again.
“I’ve called a team meeting. It’s gonna last all day. Probably.” Jonny’s eyes are gleaming as he hands them containers. Brent shakes his head, but he’s grinning, and he’s happy to have the decision to leave the building taken out of his hands.
It really was a nice gesture, but by 4 o’clock the locker room stinks of sweat and old pasta and they’re going stir-crazy with three hours to go before game time. Pat’s regaling them with a reenactment of last night’s dream, and he’s just gotten to the part where he meets his mom at the supermarket and she helps him pick out ripe oranges when Sharpie taps Brent on the shoulder.
“Wha-?” He had been almost-dozing, and he blinks his eyes at Sharpie, who has a finger to his grinning lips.
“Shh. Wanna sneak out and play some ball?”
Brent nods ecstatically and sneaks out behind him. Sharpie, brilliant guy that he is, has a soccer ball under his arm and they start a game of one-on-one, using two folding chairs as goals. They don’t want to tire themselves out too much, but Brent muscles are atrophying from the day of sitting and the movement feels good and the thin layer of sweat is going a long way to wake him up.
By the time a half hour has gone by, they have a good 3-3 going with the additions of Duncs, Jonny, Stally and Soupy. Stally tries to make a move past Brent, who hooks his ankle and they go tumbling to the ground, wrestling and laughing. It feels good and real and Brent has almost forgotten what a momentous step he took two days ago. Almost.
Except, suddenly Stally stills and it’s not because Brent’s has him in a headlock, ‘cause that has never stopped him before. In fact, now that Brent is paying attention, there’s absolute silence in the room and he looks up to see Jonny take a step in front of Duncs, which is just ridiculous, ‘cause Jonny’s no bigger than Duncs is. Not like Brent himself is, and he scrambles up, taking a step closer to Duncs and follows their gazes to where Marc Savard is standing awkwardly at the end of the hallway.
He looks like he wants to bolt, like he wishes that he never turned the corner, but now there are six Blackhawks staring at him and Savvy waves. Waves as if they weren’t in an empty hallway in the depths of HSBC, where noone in their right mind should ever wave. Savvy sighs and takes a step forward. “Sorry, I, um, I was just looking for Tuuka and I heard you guys playing ball. Thought it might have been him.”
Jonny stuffs his hands into his pockets and shrugs his shoulders. “Nope.”
“I see that.” Savvy cringes, taking another step forward, before stopping.
“Is there something else? ‘Cause we’re trying to play a game, eh?” Duncan dribbles the ball between his feet and Brent shoots him a look. Duncs just shrugs, as if to say that they’re not really going to get away with inconspicuous anymore.
Savvy is obviously fighting a battle within himself and Brent is getting closer and closer to punching him if Savvy wasn’t one of the most gentlemanly players in the league. Savvy finally shakes his head, taking a couple more steps towards them, when two voices chattering loudly away in something that sounds a lot like Finnish precede the entrance of Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron.
“Ahh, Savvy, I find you.” Tuukka grins at Savvy. “We need go warm up. Oh.” Tuukka catches sight of the Hawks and grins, going straight up to Duncs and shaking his hand enthusiastically. “I saw interview. It was real good. You made Bergy silent. Is hard to do.” Tuukka is talking really quickly, his accent thick, and Brent has to hide behind his hand as he laughs at the confusion on Duncs’ face. “You are almost celebrities in lockerroom. No one talk of anything else.”
“Is that-” Duncan clears his throat. “Is that good?”
“Oh, yes, yes.” Tuukka nods his head enthusiastically, and Duncan knows the kid has to be in his mid-20s, at least, but he can’t help comparing him and his shaggy hair to a puppy. “Savvy and I very impressed, no?” He looks back at Savvy, who blushes and finally finishes the walk to stand next to Tuukka.
“Yeah,” his smiles softly. “It was very brave, what you did. And I know not everyone’s going to like it but, for what it’s worth, I still hold you in the highest regard.”
Tuukka nods his head in agreement and as they turn to go he’s already speaking a mile a minute in his broken English. Savvy ruffles his hair as they turn the corner and Bergeron winks at them before he follows.
“That was . . . odd.” Duncan’s still looking at where they disappeared when Brent steals the ball from between his feet.
“Yeah, but, not bad,” he calls from where he’s already halfway to Duncs’ goal.
“Ass,” Duncs calls fondly as he sprints to follow.
The next game’s in Philly, and they really should have known that their pleasant experience in Boston was a fluke. But it had lulled them into a false sense of security and so, as they’re piling off the bus, Duncs is chatting away with Jelly, oblivious of where he’s going until he accidentally steps on someone’s foot.
“Watch where you’re going, fag.”
Duncan isn’t a small guy, but the foot had thrown him off balance and the slur shocks him for a moment, so he’s confused enough that he doesn’t really know what’s happening until he feels himself manhandled into the arena and pushed up against the wall. He opens his eyes, feeling a stabbing pain in his forehead and he raises his hand to touch the spot just above his eyebrow.
“Fuck.” He winces and Brent is there, standing between his legs and pressing his sleeve to the cut.
“You’re bleeding.” Brent voice is flat, the way it gets when he’s furious and he’s trying to hide it for Duncs’ sake.
“I-” Duncan frowns. “I don’t know what happened.”
“That guy, he hit you.” Jelly is frowning at Duncan’s side, hopping back and forth on his feet.
Brent’s face is red and he’s pressing the cut hard enough that Duncan’s head is swimming. He reaches up to wrap his fingers around Brent’s wrist, and the pressure eases a bit. “Fuck, sorry,” Brent whispers, and suddenly his voice is raw and he’s closing his eyes and Duncan understands why he’s angry, but he doesn’t know how to make this better. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t- This is Philly, I should have known. Fuck.” And then Brent punches the wall next to Duncan’s head and even though Duncan was prepared for the outburst, he jumps.
“Seabs-” Jelly speaks, his voice shaking, but Brent won’t look either of them in the eye.
“You should get that looked at.”
Duncan reaches out, but Brent has already pulled away, and Duncan’s head really is throbbing, so he follows them down the hall and into the lockerroom.
Duncan doesn’t have a moment alone with Brent before they’re taking the ice for warm-ups and things aren’t getting any better. Flyers fans being Flyers fans and still stinging from the loss of the Cup on their home ice three years ago, aren’t ever warm and welcoming. Duncan knows that, after this morning, he’s naïve to hope that warm-ups will be any different, but the sign saying “Suck Flyer Dick” pressed against the glass behind the net is just more vulgar than he had expected.
“Just ignore it.” Jonny taps Brent’s shin pads as he fails to stop another one-on-one and is forced to stop and regroup behind Crawford.
“Don’t. Just-don’t,” Brent grounds out and Jonny looks like he was punched in the gut. Duncs whispers I’m sorry for his husband, but Jonny just shakes his head and slips back into the drill.
By the time five minutes have gone by in the first period, it has become all too clear that neither Duncs nor Brent will be focusing much on the game tonight, and Coach Q has split them up. While that adds more fuel to the fire for the fans, it at least gives Brent and Duncs what they need to just get through the game. It also means that, by the time Coach Q has finished his screaming and the door has slammed shut behind him, Duncan is a little desperate to have some time with his husband.
“Beer?” Duncs looks up to see Pat standing over him, still in the bottom half of his gear, looking halfway between over-eager and tense.
Duncs shakes his head. “Nah.” He glances sideways, to where Sharpie is joking with Jonny, nudging him and trying to get him to loosen up after the loss. “But if you want to take Sharpie with you, that’d be great.”
“Ahh, got it.” Pat winks at him and glances over at Brent.
Duncan groans. “Get your head out of the gutter.”
“I was born here.”
“Right.” Duncan shakes his head, but then Pat’s moving in, leaning close enough to whisper in his ear, and Duncs’ chest tighten.
“It’s gonna get better.” And he kisses Duncs’ forehead before pulling away and moving over to squeeze himself between Jonny and Sharpie, presumably to beg them to go out with him. He winks at Duncs and Duncs rolls his eyes.
He’s grateful, though, when an hour later he’s showered and opening the door to Brent’s and Sharpie’s room. Brent is laying on the bed, eyes closed and arms crossed over his chest, and he doesn’t look up until Duncan sits on the bed by his hip.
“What are you doing here?” Brent’s voice is soft, hoarse.
Duncan shrugs. “Sharpie went out with the kids.”
Brent nods against his pillow, but it’s a tiny motion, and Duncan almost misses it. “If you wanted to go-“
“Hey.” Duncan stops him. “I really didn’t.” Brent sighs, turning his head away, and Duncan rests a hand on Brent’s hip. “They’re always assholes in Philly.”
It forces a chuckle out of Brent and he wipes a hand across his face and sighs. “I know. I just, I don’t know, wasn’t ready?” Brent turns to him and traces a finger over the bandage on his forehead.
Duncan smiles. “I’m okay. I am.”
Brent leans forward and kisses the spot gently. “I know. But you could have not been. If I had known coming out would endanger your life-”
“Jesus, Brent-” Duncan’s at a loss for what to say. He knows that this whole thing is hitting Brent worse than it is him. Duncan has always had it fairly easy, considering, but Brent has all sorts of memories to be drudged up and, from the ways his eyes are dark and far away, Duncan can tell that Brent isn’t here, in the room with him. “I would never have done anything differently.”
Brent looks at him, searching his face and grinning when he finds whatever he was looking for. “I’m glad you switched rooms with Sharpie.”
“Mmm.” Duncan leans down for a kiss.
Brent is feeling good the next morning, even if it’s a little awkward to wake up with Sharpie passed out in the bed next to them, and they have to play a little shuffling game to get all three of them showered before the bus leaves. But, as the bus pulls away, Brent has to admit that he feels like he’s leaving the worst behind him in Philly.
He knows he’s wrong the minute he gets the text asking them to dinner, with a follow up ‘BE THERE,’ obnoxiously in all caps, before he even had a chance to respond. And yet, here he is, sitting next to Duncan at an otherwise empty table at Tiny’s in Tribeca.
It’s a small space, intimate, with a wood-burning fireplace and mostly tables meant for two. It’s crowded and noisy though, with a two hour wait, and every time Brent stretches his arm around the back of Duncs’ chair, his elbow brushes the woman behind him. He’s on his third muttered apology to her when Sean Avery finally arrives, tailed by Hank Lundqvist.
They’re both dressed impeccably, Avery in a charcoal grew suit, thick black glasses, and a pin-striped hat; Hank in a dark-blue pin-striped suit that hugs his body. Brent glances at Duncan, whose eyes are wide, and Brent elbows his husband.
“Sorry,” Duncan murmurs into his napkin.
Brent, feeling awkward and out of place in his jeans and sneakers, scowls at Avery. “Why are you still here? Aren’t you in the minors or something?”
Avery shrugs, pulling up his sleeve and holding out a big, neon watch. “Wasn’t for me. I quit. Now I’m designing accessories for Gucci.” He lets his sleeve drop and motions to encompass the restaurant. “And running the restaurant. We’ve got two now.”
Brent assumes that ‘we’ means him and Hank, although why Hank would go into business with Avery, Brent can’t figure. Avery’s annoying and frustrating and, before he can stop it, he says, “Hope you’re better at it than you were at hockey.” Duncan stomps on his foot under the table and, right, Brent has to remember that Avery’s on their side. Brent sighs, leaning back and stretching his arm over the back of Duncan’s chair again. “Sorry.”
Avery holds up a hand. “No worries. Wait ‘til you try the meatballs. They’re to die for.” He pulls a waiter over to them. “We’ll start with the meatballs. Then four of the house special.”
“And a bottle of the new Merlot,” Hank adds.
Their waiter nods and bows and Brent is shuffling uncomfortably before Avery frowns at them. “You do like duck, don’t you?”
“Ah-” Brent glares at Duncan, willing him to say something, anything, about grilled cheese sandwiches or hamburgers or steaks or something, but Duncan just shrugs.
“Right, good. You’ll like it. Promise.”
“Sure.” Duncan leans into Brent’s hand.
“So,” Avery leans forward, resting his forearms on the table. “We want to make you an offer.” Brent glances at the neon watch on Avery’s wrist and Avery laughs. “No, not that.”
“I was worried,” Brent deadpans, except, well, he really was. Duncan stifles a laugh next to him and Brent frowns. “What do you want, Avery? We have a game tomorrow and would like this to go as quickly as possible.”
It’s a little harsher than Brent had meant it to be and Hank balls his fists on the table, but Avery just shrugs and continues to smile at them. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the You Can Play project.”
Alarms are going off in Brent’s head, but next to him, Duncan nods. “Yeah. I did a bit a couple years ago.”
“Right.” Avery nods, but then their waiter appears and puts a large plate of meatballs and garlic bread in the middle of the table. The table is quiet for a moment as everyone eats, and Brent’s anxiety is growing with each passing moment. Finally, he puts his fork down, taking a large sip of wine as he stares at Avery.
Avery puts down his fork and rests his chin on his folded hands. “So, You Can Play has been doing well. We’ve done videos with players on every NHL team and a dozen universities across the US and Canada. What you did in one interview-”
Duncan’s hand finds his knee under the table, and Brent swallows back the protests already on his tongue.
“It did more for the cause than three years of You Can Play videos could ever do. We want to partner with you.”
Duncan’s hand tightens, but this time Brent ignore it. “We don’t have a cause.”
Avery rolls his eyes. “You don’t get to be the first professional sports stars to come out and say that you don’t have a cause.”
“I think that’s our decision, eh?” Duncan jumps in to cut Brent off.
Avery shrugs. “Not entirely. What you’ve done, it was brave. But it’s only the beginning.” He frowns. “You did know that, didn’t you?”
Brent glances at Duncan, who shrugs. “We did it because we had to. Nothing more. We don’t want a soap box.”
Avery snorts. “Well, you have one. And you have an obligation to do something with it.”
“That’s rich, coming from the guy who can’t keep an NHL position.”
Avery holds out a hand to keep Hank from jumping in. “You’re right. And that’s why I need your help. We’ve done all the behind-the-scenes work. We’ve even written the script. We just need you to be the front guys.”
“We’ve done enough.”
“You haven’t.” Avery sighs, glancing at Hank, who leans forward and fixes each of them with a glare.
“This battle won’t be won with one interview. It’s going to take years of work to break down the barriers this sport has built.” Hank looks right at Brent. “What would you do to keep just one little boy from going through what you did?”
Duncan’s hand falls from his knee as he stands from the table, not noticing when his chair flies into the couple behind them. He leans over the table to get as close to Hank as he can. “How dare you talk like that to us? You have no idea what we’ve been through, what Brent’s been going through for years. You stand on the other side of the camera on your high horse and you have no idea. If I ever hear one of our names in one of your little videos, you’ll be hearing from our lawyers.” Duncan grabs his coat from the back of the chair and storms out of the restaurant.
Brent turns back to the table. “Give me the script. If I like it, I’ll talk to him.”
Silently, Avery holds out a manila folder. Brent grabs it and both their coats and follows Duncan outside. It’s cold and noisy and Duncan’s huddled next to the restaurant, his arms crossed across his chest. Brent hands him his jacket, and then shoves his own hands in his pockets, waiting.
Duncan sighs. “I want this to be over.”
“I’m so tired.”
“And-” His hand goes up to touch the bandage that’s still on his forehead. “I’m worried.” He sighs. “This isn’t going to be over, is it?”
Brent shakes his head. It feels heavy, and he feels tired, too. Damn, and he had thought that they had hit rock bottom in Philly. “We didn’t think this through.”
Duncan takes a step forward. “Would you have done anything differently?”
Brent thinks of Pat and Jonny, and then he steps forward and kisses Duncs and it’s the easiest “No,” he’s ever said. “Hamburgers?”
Duncan almost goes weak against him. “Please.”
Brent laughs and hails them a cab.
It takes a blowjob in the shower, but Brent gets Duncan to agree to tape the You Can Play commercial the next day. Hank and Avery are both grinning when they show up, and Brent almost walks out just to piss them off, but this is important, this is what their life is going to be like from now on, and he grits his teeth and does it. His powerplay goal on Hank feels better than usual, though.
They take a red-eye immediately after the game, and Brent’s tired and groggy the next morning, but he’s feeling a little bit better. It helps that their next stop is Washington, and everything’s a little bit better in Washington. The crowd is much more interested in Ovie’s scoring streak and Backstrom’s haircut than in the Hawks’ sex lives. And Brent and Duncs don’t want to say that they’re getting used to it, persay, but when there are a couple yells of “fag” as they make their way out to the ice, it’s become too familiar for them to worry about.
It might also have something to do with the Russians. All three of them. During warm-ups, young Semyon Varlamov leaves Neuvirth in the net to stretch up at the blue line, a clear indication that he wants to talk with the opposition. Which is strange, ‘cause Brent is stretching out on the Hawks side of the blue line, and no one purposefully seeks him out these days.
Varlamov doesn’t say anything, though. He just works slowly through his routine, unfazed by his close proximity to Brent. In fact, he throws Brent a little smile when he does a split that brings his skate into contact with Brent’s shinpad. “Sorry.”
“No problem.” Brent glances at him, trying to figure out what it is with this kid.
Varlamov doesn’t offer anything. He just finishes stretching, and when he’s called to the net, he extends a hand to Brent. “I’m Varly.”
“That was strange.” Sharpie’s at his shoulder, leaning against his stick.
Brent looks at him and shrugs. “Russian goalies.” And he doesn’t think anything more of it.
Not until the game starts and Brent and Duncs are put out against Ovie’s line. Ovie’s always been known for his size and his hitting prowess and they are prepared, if anything, for him to be gunning for them. However, the first change he gets, he eases up and, instead of throwing Duncan into the glass, he ties Duncs up against the boards, the puck stuck in their skates.
Pressed about it when he’s back on the bench, Duncs admits that Ovie said something like “You beat us to it, yeah? Someday, we will thank you.” Except, it was loud on the ice and Ovie was mumbling and it could have been something in Russian, so Duncan can’t be sure.
After the game, though, Sasha stops Brent and Duncs before they can get off the ice. He claps them both on the shoulder and looks them over intensely. “You play good game. It was okay, what you call it, coming out? It not affect play?”
The question is a little more intense than a simple acquisition, and the fact that Sasha, one of Washington’s crowd favorites, is allowing himself to be seen with them in front of 20,000+ people is a little surprising. “Um,” Brent glances at Duncan. “Yeah. We’re fine.”
“Good, good.” Sasha glances down the hall where the rest of the team has disappeared. “I go. Team waiting.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course.” Duncan waves him away and they skate back to their own locker room. Brent glances back at the ice and shrugs. “What?”
“Nothin’.” Brent smiles. “Just, it’s getting better, that’s all.”
“Yeah,” Duncan grins.
By the time they get to Pittsburgh, with twenty-four hours to kill, Duncan and Brent are feeling comfortable enough to go out in public. The team spends the afternoon at the Museum of Natural History and they can’t really keep making fun of Pat for wanting to go, ‘cause the dinosaurs are really cool.
Now, they’re taking a walk, enjoying the free time and looking for someplace good for an early dinner. It’s calm and quiet and no one’s really paying them much attention, but deliberates for three blocks before reaches over to wrap an arm around Duncan’ shoulders. Duncs grins at him, wrapping an arm around Brent’s waist and slipping a hand into his back pocket.
“This was totally worth it,” Brent grins at him.
Brent doesn’t really know how to make it clear to Duncan how much this means to him. How perfect this feels, how for the past eight years the world has been at some sort of weird tilt and now it feels right and centered and good. Except, well, Duncan always understands him and, now, Duncan is looking at him, his pupils dilated and this small, shy smile on his face that Brent has seen only a handful of times before, and maybe Duncan gets it.
“This okay?” Duncan leans in to press a small kiss behind Brent’s ear.
“Yeah.” Brent whispers. “More than.”
Duncan pauses. Kissing has always been important for him. He never had a lot of opportunities, before he met Brent and the eight years they’ve been together, he’s never been able to get enough of it. He thinks about kissing Brent everywhere: at the movie theatre, shopping for jeans that make Brent’s ass look tight, on the plane when Brent wakes him up after a nap, in Jonny’s kitchen when Brent hands him a beer. It’s such an innocuous little thing, the ability to kiss, but, for Duncan, it means so much more, about how much he loves Brent, and how much he wants everyone to know.
Duncan knows that the pictures will appear, sooner or later, and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s tomorrow, next week, next month. They’ve spent eight years not doing this and Duncan can’t wait any longer as he stops on the sidewalk and gently leads Brent closer, pulling his head the couple inches to kiss him. Brent doesn’t fight him, his arms dropping to Duncs’ waist to bring him closer, gentle and sure.
When they pull apart, they’re grinning at each other, and they know they must look like fools, grinning and laughing and kissing on the Pittsburgh streets like all the world means nothing. They don’t even care when Sharpie snaps a picture and sends it directly to their PR manager, asking her to post it to the website.
She refuses, of course, but the picture does end up all over the blogs and the Pittsburgh evening papers a few hours later. The game’s on Versus, played out all across the country, Sidney Crosby is interviewed before the game, the interview piped in so that everyone in the Consol Energy Center can hear it, too.
“Is it fair to assume that you’ve seen the ESPN interview by now?”
“Yeah.” Sid sighs, rubbing his eyebrow. “I’ve seen the picture, too.”
“You’ve been quiet on the subject the last few days.”
Sid shrugs. “I don’t think it’s something we need to talk about.”
“The whole league’s been talking about it. Haven’t been talking about much else, actually.”
“That’s the problem. Tonight we hit the half-way point in the season, and we’re still five points out of the conference lead.” Sid glances over at the Hawks warm-ups, before turning his best glare. “But, look, for what it matters, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are two of the best defenseman in the league. They’re amazing hockey players. And if I question Seabs’ choice in men, well, I don’t have much of a leg to stand on.” He grins and signals for the microphone to be cut.
He slips on his helmet and skates across the blueline to where Duncan and Brent have been standing still, craning their necks to catch the sound and picture on the jumbotron. As Sid comes closer, and takes of his glove and holds out his hand to both of them. “You’re better men than I am. You’ve done an amazing thing and, someday, I’ll find a better way to thank you.” He nods at them and skates back to his bench as if nothing ever happened.
“They say 1 in 10, right?” Brent nods, wondering how close that rule of thumb really is followed in NHL locker rooms.
It’s strange being back in Chicago.
They take the red-eye from Pittsburgh. It’s past 3 am, snowy and cold, and Brent grips the railing tightly as he walks down the ramp, his hanging bag hanging unbalanced across his shoulder. He watches as Duncan’s left foot slips, and he places a steadying hand on Duncan’s shoulder, rubbing gently for a long moment before he remembers that they’re in Chicago. He glances around for the telltale flashes of Press lights, but nothing goes off. It seems even the Press don’t want to be standing in the snow at 3 am.
Duncan grabs both their suitcases and they wave a quick good-bye to the guys before piling into the Jeep. Brent’s struggling to keep his eyes open by the time they pull into the garage, and they don’t bother even turning on the lights in the house. Part of Brent is happy to be home, happy to be sharing their bed again, but the larger part is too exhausted to do more than strip to his boxers and fall into bed.
The murmur of voices in the living room wakes Brent only a few hours later. The bed is cold, his eyes feel itchy and achy, and his leg muscles are taking longer to wake up than the rest of his body. Blindly, he reaches for his phone on the bedside table, groaning at the 9 am that blinks back, punctuated by stifled laughter from the other room.
Grumbling and swearing, he rolls out of bed, grabs a pair of clean sweats from the closet, and wanders into the living room, still blinking to get the crust off of his eyes. Duncan meets him in the kitchen with a kiss and a cup of coffee, and he runs his hands through Brent’s hair to flatten it a little.
Brent returns the kiss and allows Duncan to pull him into the living room. Pat, Jonny, and Sharpie are there, dressed and drinking coffee. There are papers piled high on the coffee table, and Brent raises an eyebrow at it as he settles into the couch.
“Letters, e-mails,” Sharpie offers. “Cindi brought them over. Thought you’d wanna take a look at them.”
Brent grunts non-committally. As nice as it had been to get away for a couple of weeks after the interview, Brent’s been able to push away his worries and fears about what it’ll be like to be back here, Chicago, home. Brent’s been ignoring e-mails from their PR people, texts from friends back home, and has been actively avoiding any newspaper headlines from the Chicagoland area.
Pat pulls out a letter from the middle of the stack and starts reading it. “This is from an eight-year old kid named Bobby.” Pat looks up. “Who still calls their kids ‘Bobby?’
Jonny rolls his eyes and presses a hand to Pat’s knee. “Just read it.”
Pat grunts, put presses into the hand and clears his throat. “Dear Mr. Keith and Mr. Seabs,” Pat chuckles. “Thank you for your interview. I saw it on YouTube at school and it made me really happy. I want to tell my team about my boyfriend. I play for the Skokie Flyers. My boyfriend’s name is Mike. He says hi. I want to be like you when I grow up. Bobby.” Pat looks up. “Ahh, that is the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.”
He slips out from under Jonny’s hand and runs into the kitchen. He grabs a big moose magnet and sticks the letter on the middle of the fridge door. His gaze lingers on it for a moment, before he jogs back to the living room.
Sharpie pulls another letter from the stack and skims it over. His face softens. “This one’s from a gay girl hockey player from Winnipeg. She says that you’re her new role models.” Sharpie glances over the paper at them. “And isn’t that the scariest thing you’ve ever heard?”
Brent scoffs, out of a general philosophy of disagreeing with Sharpie whenever possible. The truth is that this whole thing makes him a little uncomfortable. He’s not a great role model, hell, he’s not even a decent one most of the time. He beats people up for a living. He never did well in school and he’s didn’t complete even a week of college. He’s loud and graceless and farts a lot when he’s tired. In fact, the only thing good he’s ever done is love Duncan.
Brent glances next to him at Duncan, who’s sitting cross-legged on the couch, three letters spread across his knees. He’s blushing slightly, but he’s smiling that slight little smile that is all Duncan and in no way faked. If Duncan’s the best thing Brent’s ever done, then maybe his life isn’t such a bad model to follow.
Grinning, he leans forward to grab a stack of letters from the coffee table.
They had agreed to premiere their You Can Play spot on the jumbotron before their first game back at the United Center. Standing in the tunnel between the locker room and the rink, Brent can hear the roar of noise, but he can’t make out if it’s cheering or jeering.
Brent feels Duncan settle against the wall next to him. Ahead of them, he can hear Jonny’s name called, and Brent’s stomach flips. He swallows before managing a, “Hey.”
“Relax.” Duncs grins at him. “They’re still going to love you.”
“They’re gonna love you. They never really loved me in the first place.”
“That’s not true.” Duncan rolls his eyes and slips on his helmet. “And just think, there’s the whole untapped gay population in Chicago that’re gonna love you now.”
Duncan laughs and Brent pushes him towards the exit. Brent’s ears are ringing, and he’s not sure if the UC is silent when they step onto the ice or if it’s just him. From the look Pat’s giving him, all teary-eyed and grinning, it is just him and he looks to where Pat’s nodding, up into the rafters where every one in the UC is on their feet and the sound is deafening.
Jonny grins at him, hitting his shinpads and skating to center ice. “Let’s play hockey, eh?”