There are rough hands on him, voices blurring together in a haze. Fear and fury and concern come through, but he can’t make out words over the ringing in his ears and the roar of the crowd.
Somehow he makes it to his hands and knees, shaking his head to clear it. The hands help him up, back onto his feet, and turn him in the direction of the tunnel.
He’s maybe halfway there when his knees buckle and he goes down hard, blackness closing over him before he hits the ice.
Someone’s talking when he comes to. The voice sounds vaguely familiar, but Nolan doesn’t quite recognize it. He feels like he should. He rolls his head, paper crackling.
“Be still,” someone says, and puts a hand on his shoulder.
Nolan’s head feels like it’s caught in a vise, pain radiating out and down the side of his neck. He manages to pry his eyes open anyway.
He’s in a small room with a nurse by his head, her hand on his shoulder. She takes a penlight from her pocket and leans forward to inspect his pupils. Nolan lets her, wincing through the glare, and sags gratefully when she turns the light off.
“Pupils are normal and reacting evenly,” she says to someone behind her.
“I’m fine,” Nolan manages. He tries to push himself to one elbow, but the nurse holds him down with one hand and no effort. “I gotta go,” he insists. “The game.”
“The game’s over,” that familiar voice from earlier says, and Nolan rolls his head on the pillow to look at the speaker. He’s still having trouble focusing, and it takes a minute of blinking for the blurry image at the foot of his bed to resolve into—
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Nolan spits, and Sidney Crosby’s eyebrows arch up.
“I’m here because I’m worried about you.” He sounds stiff, a little offended almost.
“Why the fuck would you be worried about me?” Nolan shakes the nurse’s hand off and hauls himself upright, moving slowly as dizziness swamps him. “Where’s Claude? Raff? Where’s TK?”
Sid’s eyebrows are nearly in his hairline. “Why would there be any Flyers here, Patty?”
“Don’t call me that,” Nolan snaps. “You don’t get to—” Sid’s question suddenly registers. “Wait, what?” He looks down before Sid can answer. Down at his bright yellow jersey, the hated Penguins logo front and center on his chest. He looks back up at Sid, wearing the exact same thing, and horror prickles his scalp. “What?” he whispers.
“I think he needs to go to the hospital,” Sid tells the nurse, who nods briskly and turns for a radio. “Nolan,” Sid continues. “Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you,” Nolan says through gritted teeth. “I hit my head, I’m not deaf. Why am I wearing a fucking Penguins jersey?”
Sid speaks slowly, as if Nolan has brain damage. “Because you’re a Penguin, Nolan.”
Nolan stares at him. There’s no way Sid said what Nolan heard.
“I think I need to go to a hospital,” he finally says.
The doctors pronounce him fine, after round after endless round of tests. He’s been poked and prodded until he feels like a pincushion, but finally he’s released with a stern warning to take some over the counter medicine for his headache and make sure he gets plenty of rest and fluids.
He’s given a stack of folded clothes and doesn’t pay any attention to what they are beyond dragging them on before he stumbles out into the waiting room of a hospital he doesn’t recognize and Sidney fucking Crosby stands up from the chair in the corner where he’s clearly been lurking.
Nolan physically recoils. “For fuck’s sake.”
Sid’s mouth twists like he’s tasted something sour. “Really not sure where the animosity is coming from right now,” he says, “but I’m here to take you home.” He’s changed into street clothes, a plain ballcap tugged low over his dark curls.
“I’m fine,” Nolan says, and stalks past him out the sliding doors.
Sid follows, because of course he does, and then nearly runs into him when Nolan stops dead on the sidewalk.
The side of the building says UPMC PRESBYTERIAN SHADYSIDE. Nolan turns in a circle, Sid staring at him as he goes.
“This is a Pittsburgh hospital,” he finally says.
“Yes,” Sid says. “Because we’re in Pittsburgh. Where we live. Jesus, Patty—sorry, Nolan, are you sure you’re okay? Maybe we should take you back in for more tests.”
“I don’t live in Pittsburgh,” Nolan says. Desperation is creeping up his throat and he can’t quite get a full breath. “I don’t—I live in Philly, I don’t live here.” He spins in a circle again but nothing is familiar, nothing’s right, and he’s choking on the panic now, an anvil on his chest.
Sid grabs his arm and pushes him into a sitting position on the curb. “Head between your knees,” he orders sharply. “Deep, slow breaths. Count to seven on the inhale, five on the exhale. Don’t think about anything but your counting. Breathe. One, two, three—”
Nolan obeys, his thoughts scattering like breadcrumbs on water, fragmenting when he tries to reach for them. He breathes in and out to the sound of Sid’s voice counting, and slowly, so slowly, the panic recedes, until he’s left clutching his knees on the grimy sidewalk and feeling like an idiot. It takes him a minute to realize Sid’s got a hand on his shoulder, grounding him and probably keeping him from falling over. He’s too tired to shrug it away.
“What’s happening,” he whispers.
Sid squeezes his shoulder. “Why don’t we talk in my car? And then I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
Somehow Nolan finds himself on his feet, stumbling after Sid’s bowlegged figure to his car, which he’s apparently parked what feels like a mile away.
“Christ,” Nolan pants, “you couldn’t have parked closer?”
Sid gives him a reproving look. “The only spots open were handicapped or VIP. I’m neither.”
“You’re Sidney fucking Crosby,” Nolan points out. “I think they’d make an exception.”
Sid doesn’t answer. He just keeps walking, and Nolan groans and follows.
Finally, they make it to his car, a modest 4x4 that doesn’t stand out in any way, and Sid unlocks it. Nolan pretty much collapses inside, exhausted far beyond reason, as Sid slides into the driver’s seat.
“How’s your head?” he asks.
Sid sighs. “What year is it, Nolan?”
“2021,” Nolan says reluctantly.
Apparently this is the right answer. “And what year were you drafted?”
“Tone down the bitchiness just a tad, if you don’t mind.” Sid’s voice is sharp and Nolan tries to glare at him but his head still hurts too much. “Where did you play before you were drafted?”
“Brandon Wheat Kings,” Nolan says through his teeth. “Am I passing?”
“So far.” Sid drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “Who drafted you?”
“Philadelphia Flyers,” Nolan growls. “Now can I go or are you kidnapping me?”
“Nolan James Patrick,” Sid says carefully. “Born September 19, 1998. Drafted second overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017.”
Nolan goes very still. “No.”
“You weren’t able to attend development camp because you were recovering from abdominal surgery,” Sid continues as if he hadn’t heard. “But you made your NHL debut in the Penguins at Sharks game on October 4th, 2017.”
Nolan shakes his head. He can’t feel his face. “No,” he repeats. “That was the Flyers at Sharks.”
“You got your first point in your third game, and then your very next game you got your first goal.”
“Yes.” Nolan feels like he’s talking to a wall. “With the Flyers.”
“With the Penguins,” Sid says quietly. His eyes are very dark in the dim car. “You’re a Pittsburgh Penguin, Nolan, and you have been for three years.”
Nolan would very much like to pass out, he decides. Maybe when he wakes up, this whole thing will have been a stupid hallucination and TK will be complaining because Nolan hasn’t answered his texts.
Unfortunately, his brain does not cooperate. He remains very conscious as Sid puts the car in gear and drives out of the parking lot.
“Where are we going?” he finally manages.
“You played a hard game. You’ll feel better once you eat,” Sid says, and pulls into a drive-through. He orders about a hundred burgers and hands the entire bag to Nolan, who grabs the first one off the top and digs in.
Sid clears his throat and Nolan looks at him blankly.
“May I have one?” Sid says mildly.
Nolan can feel the flush heating his cheeks. “Sorry,” he mumbles through his mouthful, and hands it over.
Sid finds a quiet grocery store and parks well out in the back. They eat in silence, and Nolan hates that he does feel better after, less spacey and floating and more grounded.
He balls up the trash to give his hands something to do, tucking it back into the bag. Beside him, Sid wraps up his own trash and sets it in the bag as well, careful not to touch Nolan.
“Can I show you something?” he finally says.
Nolan shifts in his seat. He wants to go home, he doesn’t want to be stuck in a car with Sidney fucking Crosby. He wants to check his phone and talk to TK and Kevin and feel normal again.
“When we’re done, I promise I really will take you wherever you want to go,” Sid says, and he sounds completely sincere. “Even if it’s to the airport so you can book a flight to Philly.”
Nolan slumps with a sigh. What’s another hour or so? “Fine,” he mutters, crossing his arms.
“So kind,” Sid says dryly, and puts the car in gear.
They don’t talk as they navigate the streets of Pittsburgh. Nolan had never really thought much about Pittsburgh before he got drafted by the Flyers, and then he’d hated it on principle, but he’s unbalanced enough right now that he has to admit the city has a charm of its own. Not that it’s a patch on Philly, of course.
He’s not expecting Sid to pull into the driveway of a brownstone and park.
“What are we doing here?” he asks.
“You’ll see,” Sid says, getting out.
Nolan follows. “Is this where you live? Did you really kidnap me and take you to your house? What are you going to do, torture me until I tell you everything I know about the Flyers?”
Sid’s eyebrows climb his forehead. “I’m not—” He sighs. “It’s not my house.”
“Well, whose is it then?”
Sid climbs the steps, Nolan close behind him. At the top, he looks expectantly at Nolan, who stares just as expectantly right back. Nolan feels only a little triumphant when Sid breaks first and gestures at him.
“Check your pockets.”
Nolan digs in his front pockets and unearths a phone he doesn’t recognize and a keyring with only a few keys on it.
“Well, open the door,” Sid says.
Nolan glares at him and then switches his attention to the keys. One’s pretty obviously a car key, another for a mailbox, and the third—it slides smoothly into the lock and the bolt flips. Nolan stares, mouth open, as the door swings inward.
There’s an alarm system blinking green on the wall, and Sid gives Nolan that expectant look again.
“How the fuck should I know what it is?” Nolan snaps, and Sid rolls his eyes and turns to disarm it with a few quick taps of his finger.
“Good thing I housesat for you last year,” he says. “Come on.”
Nolan ignores that and follows him into a spacious living room as Sid flicks on the lights. The room is carpeted in a lush cream shag, with brown leather furniture that looks well-worn and comfortable. There are pictures on the walls, and Nolan drifts closer to examine them.
There he is, his arm slung over Madison’s shoulders as they beam at the camera. Nolan swings to look at Sid, who just gestures silently back at the pictures.
Nolan and a group of men he barely notices, his attention taken by the bright yellow jersey he’s wearing and the huge smile on his face.
He shakes his head. “No.” In spite of himself, he moves on to the next picture. He’s wearing the jersey again, a Penguins snapback on his head and holding a stick as he stares at the camera.
A picture of him embracing someone—he can’t tell who, all he can see are blond curls—on the ice, his head tipped back in a triumphant laugh, wearing that horrible yellow jersey.
The next picture is a framed newspaper article, and Nolan leans in to read it.
NOLAN PATRICK’S FIRST GOAL AS A PITTSBURGH PENGUIN, it says under an unsmiling photo of him.
Nolan’s knees give out and he sits down hard on the couch.
“Breathe,” Sid says, crouching next to him.
“Fuck off,” Nolan says automatically, and drops his face into his hands, rocking back and forth. “This isn’t happening, it can’t be happening. I’m dreaming. I’m gonna wake up any minute.” He drops his hands and pinches his forearm hard. “Ow.”
“What’s the last thing you remember from before the hit?” Sid asks, and he sounds so gentle and sympathetic that Nolan wants to punch him.
“Playing,” he mumbles. “The game tonight—”
Sid makes an encouraging noise and Nolan bristles.
“We were… losing,” he finally admits.
“And by we you mean…”
“The Flyers,” Nolan snaps, glaring at him again.
Sid seems unfazed. “Go on.”
“Someone hit me, I don’t know who. Rang my bell. And then I woke up in a nightmare.” He twitches suddenly, remembering the phone in his pocket. “TK.”
Sid’s eyebrows wing upward again and Nolan’s seriously about to give into temptation and punch him for it but he’s also busy digging the phone back out.
“You’ll see,” he says, thumbing it open. It unlocks with his thumbprint and Nolan makes a triumphant noise. “I have so many pictures of me and TK. And the others, of course.”
“Show me, then,” Sid says. He stands from his crouch to sit next to Nolan on the couch.
“I will,” Nolan mutters. He’s having a hard time finding the pictures folder, but he finally locates and taps it. “You’ll see,” he repeats, touching a folder randomly. It opens and Nolan stares in disbelief at the picture of him, a wide smile on his face, with his arm around a madly grinning Jake Guentzel. It’s obvious Nolan took the picture himself, from the way it’s angled.
Nolan swipes to the next picture. It’s Geno, grumpy and half-dressed in the locker room, hair standing up in every direction.
“No, no, no,” Nolan mumbles, and swipes again. Sid sitting next to Jake, their heads together over dinner at a restaurant Nolan doesn’t recognize.
He keeps thumbing through, praying desperately that something will shift and the pictures will be the ones he knows, the ones he remembers taking. The one of TK napping on Nolan’s couch, a hole in one of his socks. Or Kevin and TK wrestling—Nolan had gotten a video of that, it had been so funny and honestly impressive, the way TK had managed to hold his own, but it’s not there, it’s not in any of the folders.
He closes the photos and switches to his address book. He hits the T first.
“What the fuck.”
Nolan hits G for Giroux. Please be there, please be there, please make my world make sense again—
The phone slips from nerveless fingers and bounces on the carpet.
“Head between your knees,” Sid says, but this time Nolan knocks his hand away with a snarl.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” he hisses, lurching to his feet. “This isn’t happening. I’m a fucking Flyer, I am not a Penguin!”
Sid sits very still, and Nolan wants to lash out against the sympathy in his eyes. He spins and kicks the couch instead. It hurts like fuck but he hides the reaction as Sid stands.
“Look, I don’t pretend to know what’s going on,” he says. “You seem very… sure that you’re actually a Flyer.”
“I am,” Nolan snaps. “I’m a Flyer, Claude Giroux is my captain, Carter’s our goalie, and TK is my winger and best friend.”
“Nolan,” Sid says very carefully. “You and Travis Konecny are… what’s the best way to put this? Mortal enemies.”
Sid’s expression doesn’t change. “Who do you think knocked you into the boards so hard?”