"Are you alright?" A voice startles Phil bad enough that he loosens his death-grip on the armrests of his airplane seat. He opens his eyes to see his seatmate eyeing him with concern.
"Sorry," Phil says, smiling anemically. "Never been very good at—" He gulps as the plane hits another bump. "Airplanes. I'll be fine when we land."
The man looks like he's trying not to laugh. "We're still taxiing to the runway." He doesn't give Phil a chance to get out a snarky retort so they can get to the part where they ignore each other for the entire flight from "I'm Carl."
"Phil," Carl repeats. "Where are you headed?"
"Pittsburgh. Christmas with my sister's family. You?"
"Home to Sweden for the holiday and World Juniors, by way of New York for a few days to see my boyfriend."
"You a coach?" Phil asks, intrigued.
"Scout. I was with the Rangers, but I'm working for Anaheim now. Do you play?"
"Only beer league these days," Phil says. "I teach math and coach peewee here in St. Paul. Good kiddos, but I don't think they're quite NHL level yet."
"Let me be the judge of that." Carl winks and leans closer to Phil. "Hey Phil? Don't look now, but we're already in the air."
Phil turns to glance out the window, and sure enough, they're above the clouds already, stars twinkling in the cold night sky. He hadn't even noticed. "Thanks," he says quietly, turning back to Carl.
"Don't mention it." Carl pauses and grins impishly. "Let me know if you need me to hold your hand."
Phil can feel his ears burning, but he laughs anyway. "Okay, I will."
The rest of the two-hour flight from Minneapolis to Pittsburgh is largely without incident. Phil learns that Carl played hockey for Michigan State before becoming a scout, that he and his brother have both been working for the NHL as scouts for several years, that he's glad that World Juniors is in Sweden this year because it means he gets to see his family and friends for the holidays. He arranged his flights so he has a couple days in New York. He's planning to surprise his boyfriend before he flies on to Sweden.
In return, Phil tells Carl about his own family — Amanda and Sid and the twins, and Mom and Dad and Blake, who are spending the holiday with Blake's girlfriend's family — and his junior high math students, and his peewee team, which has a tournament coming up not long after the holiday break.
It makes the two-hour flight go quickly. Phil wouldn't even notice that they're coming in to land, but the pilot announces that they may be in for a rough landing, as the snow is heavier than expected and there may be ice on the runway.
It's not a particularly turbulent landing, but Phil can feel the plane skidding as it touches down. He clenches his jaw and grips the armrests again. He jumps a little when he feels a hand on top of his own.
"Relax," Carl says softly. "We'll be at the gate before you know it."
Phil knows he's right, so he takes a deep breath and tries to calm himself as the pilot steers the plane carefully along the tarmac, making gentle turns where he might normally cut more sharply. Phil keeps waiting for Carl to let go of his hand, but he doesn't release it until the plane has come to a stop and the overhead lights come on.
Phil curls his hand into a fist before shaking away the phantom feeling of Carl's hand on his and tending to his seatbelt. The flight attendant makes an announcement about delayed connections due to the weather, but Phil tunes her out, more concerned with getting his laptop bag out from under the seat.
He looks up when Carl curses, half expecting to need to shield himself from an avalanche of carry-on bags. "Problem?" he asks.
Carl brandishes his phone. "My flight to New York is cancelled. It's bad here, and apparently JFK is worse."
Carl sighs heavily. "Yeah. I'll have to rearrange my flights. I better—" He nods toward the front of the plane, where the aisle is finally clearing out.
Phil waves him on. "Of course. Good luck."
Carl smiles, though it looks a little forced. "Thanks. Have a good Christmas." He turns on his heel and is nearly to the exit before Phil gets a chance to respond in kind.
Phil heaves a sigh of his own and pulls himself out of his seat. He waits until the plane has mostly cleared out to grab his carry-on bag and trudge down the aisle. He nods at the flight attendant and braces himself for the blast of cold air between the plane and the gate.
The airport is crowded, full of tired and angry people trying to sort out their flights or get hotel rooms or settling in for a long night in the terminal. Phil is glad he's already at his destination. He weaves through the throng, dodging crying children and the terminal taxi. He texts Amanda to meet him outside the baggage claim, and she answers back that Sid is on his way but she'll let him know.
Phil is about to pass through the security gate when his eye catches on Carl, looking frustrated as he ends a call.
"Bad news?" Phil says.
Carl blinks at him, obviously a little surprised to see him again. He glances down at his phone. "Seems all the hotels nearby are booked," he says with a shrug. "Looks like I'm here for the night."
"You could, uh, crash at my sister's place?" Phil offers, before his brain catches up to his mouth. He backtracks a little. "I mean, I'd have to double-check, but they've got the space, even if it's, like, the couch, and I'm sure they'd be fine with it. Beats sleeping in the waiting area, at least?"
"I wouldn't want to impose—" Carl starts, but Phil waves him off, already pulling out his phone.
"Nonsense. Mandy and Sid would want you to stay. Just, hang on a sec." He starts to type a text before deciding better of it and dialing his sister.
"Sid's on his way, Phil, I promise," Amanda says on answering. "He's got Carrie with him, so they won't even end up in the departures area this time."
Phil snorts. "I'm not gonna hold my breath on that one, but that's not why I'm calling." He steps back from Carl. "Look, my seatmate on the flight over is stranded for the night, and all the airport hotels are booked up because of the cancellations. Is it—"
"They can totally stay with us," Amanda says before he can even ask. "We might have to put you in the twins' room, since Sid's parents and Taylor are here, but yes, of course, they can stay. Will they need any pajamas? Laundry?"
"I, uh, don't know? We can figure that out when we get there?" Phil's phone starts vibrating in his hand. "Mandy, I think Sid's calling me. You're the best, see you in a bit." He hangs up and turns back to Carl. "Offer's open," he says, phone still buzzing. "Mandy says they'd love to have you stay if you want."
Carl looks like a deer in the headlights, but a high-pitched wail from a toddler makes both of them jump and that seems to settle it. "Thank you," he says.
"Welcome," Phil says and then answers the phone. "Hey, Sid, we'll be right out." He gestures toward the security exit, directing Carl to follow him. "You need to pick up bags?" he mouths.
Carl shakes his head, indicating his own small carry-on.
"We?" Sid says, voice tinny, likely on the car's speaker system.
"Got a hanger-on," Phil says, glancing back to smile so Carl knows he's joking. "Hotels around here are booked, made a friend who needs a place to stay. Already told Mandy, so she knows we're coming."
"Okay, cool, for sure." Sid sounds distracted.
"Is it your boyfriend?" Phil hopes that Carl doesn't catch Carrie's shouted question or notice that Phil's ears are burning.
"Carrie!" Sid admonishes.
"What?" she says back.
"Phil, we'll meet you outside the Delta claim, okay? Should be there in about ten minutes." Sid's already switching into fatherly lecture mode before the call even ends, punctuated by an aggrieved "sorry" from Carrie.
"Ride'll be here soon," Phil says, pocketing his phone. "Sid said ten minutes, so it'll probably be closer to fifteen, but that's not too bad a wait, eh?"
It turns out to be twenty minutes, which Phil spends alternating between staring out the windows of the terminal and carefully not watching Carl fidget with his phone. Carl keeps pulling it out of his pocket and staring at it for a moment, sometimes unlocking it, only to tuck it back into his pocket.
"If you need to make a call, go ahead," Phil finally says. "We won't leave without you."
Carl flushes a little, caught out, but he shakes his head and puts his phone away again, this time tucking it into a pocket on his messenger bag and zipping it shut. "I'd just be leaving a message anyway — Mats is at work right now."
"You didn't tell me," Carl mutters as they load their bags into the back of the SUV, "that your brother-in-law is Sidney Crosby."
Phil has the grace to look sheepish. "Would it have changed things if I had?"
Carl considers this. "No, probably not," he decides.
Sid asks Phil about the flight and how things are going with the peewee team. Phil promises to compare the stats on their respective peewee teams later, with a roll of his eyes for Carl's benefit.
Carl grins and offers to adjudicate if they need it.
"Don't encourage him," Phil warns. "Sid won't let you leave if you start delivering scouting reports on his Mites."
"That's a lie," Sid says quickly. "I'd let you leave eventually."