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you come as a car crash (I'll go as James Dean)

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“Not it,” Aaron said, shaking his head as he looked around the table. “I’m not even legal to drink here. I shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

“Oh, you are so full of shit,” Lu said, and they all laughed, Aaron included. He was full of shit. But it was worth a try, and he said so, tossing his credit card down to pick up the next round.

Tonight’s midnight dinner and boozy celebration was in honor of a win over Nashville, at home in Sunrise. It had been a good one, a solid team effort, and Aaron was happy, out here with his teammates, a veteran now in his second season, shooting the shit over dinner and actual decent liquor in a decent restaurant instead of a terrible bar.

“Next time,” Lu was saying, and Aaron dragged his attention back to the table, “next time I’m going to make Mitchie and Soupy and Jags come with us. It sucks being the only old man out.”

“Thanks,” Thornton said dryly, and everything broke down into insults and laughter as the waitress brought the next tray of drinks.

Aaron was trying port, at Pirri’s insistence, and he actually wasn’t enjoying it much at all. He was getting increasingly sure that he was being fucked with, actually, with each glass of kind of sweet alcohol with, like, dirt floating in it that came his way.

“That’s expensive and special dirt, dumbass,” Pirri said. “It’s sediment. That means it’s aged.”

“You’re a jerk,” Aaron told him. “I should be drinking scotch with Bobby.”

“That tastes like peat,” Pirri said, jabbing his finger in Aaron’s face, “which your unsophisticated palette will also think is dirt.”

“Who’s Pete and why are you tasting him?” Reilly asked, and they all laughed again.

“You are supposed to filter that shit before you drink it, morons,” Lu said, and Aaron was so glad to have the older guys around, teaching them stuff, telling them when they’re dumb. His team was so great, kind of drunk but all just… happy. Content. Aaron could taste that stronger than the stupid dirty port. He loved it.

Thornton looked up and gasped in exaggerated shock. “Look who decided to join us after all. The fuck have you been, Guddy?”

Aaron followed his gaze, grinning at the sight of Gudbranson at the end of the table. “Wherever he’s been he’s had more fun than us, eh?” Guddy’s tie was sticking out of his jacket pocket, his shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, and his hair was messy, sticking up like he’d skipped a post-game shower—which Aaron knew he hadn’t, because he had been there.

“A magician never reveals his tricks,” Guddy said loftily, sliding into the booth next to Aaron. “What are we drinking?”

“Anything you want,” Lu said. “No rules here, buddy.”

“In that case.” Guddy signaled the waitress and smiled up at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners in a way Aaron could never quite figure out how to imitate. It was the smallest thing, but it made his stomach clench and his breath catch when he saw it. He couldn’t imagine what it did to people Guddy was actually interested in.

“Bourbon, please,” Guddy said to the waitress. “Maker’s Mark. I’m not as fancy as these boys.”

“You’re plenty fancy,” Lu said. “Look at you with your pretty face and your purple tie, saying you’re not fancy.”

“Lick my ass, Bobby,” Guddy said cheerfully, winking at the waitress. “Pardon my language.”

She returned the smile, glancing around the table. “Put that on the same card as the last round?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Guddy said, reaching into his pocket. “I’ll get it in cash.”

A low whistle went up as the guys saw the wad of bills he produced, held together with a silver clip like in a movie or something.

“You living some kind of a secret life as a man who wants to get robbed, Guddy?” Reilly asked. “Shit, flashing that around.”

“Told you I never reveal my tricks,” Guddy said again, giggling brightly as he peeled off a bill and gave it to the waitress. “Keep the change. Thank you.”

“Is that why you’re late?” Thornton asked. “Had to hit a casino while your luck held out?”

“Something like that.” Guddy tucked his money away and slouched low in his seat, his thigh pressed tightly against Aaron’s. Aaron thought about moving away, but there was nowhere to go but into Pirri’s lap, which probably wouldn’t be appreciated.

“I pay for hobbies in cash,” Guddy said, accepting his drink from the waitress. “Helps me keep it more under control, you know?”

Aaron wasn’t sure a roll of cash that size really indicated control. And it still didn’t explain why Guddy had been late, unless he drove to Miami and back to find an ATM.

And there was a hickey blooming on his neck, right at the edge of his collar, purple and dark and new.

But the other guys seemed to accept what he said at face value, turning the conversation to golf and fantasy football, and what did Aaron know about any of this, anyway? He was a vet this year but just barely; and anyway it wasn’t his business.

Still, he wondered a little bit. That was all.

**

The next game was in Washington, and they got massacred, Ovechkin and Oshie going through them like they weren’t there. They had a hotel night, too, so Aaron couldn’t even use the thrum of plane engines to put himself to sleep. He was going to be awake and annoyed for hours, and planned accordingly, going down to the hotel bar as soon as he’d dropped his bags off and changed out of his suit.

The other young guys were going out but he stayed at the bar with Willie, watching west coast games on TV and nursing beers and salsa until Willie’s phone lit up with a call from Megan. Willie went upstairs to take it and Aaron lingered, breaking the last few tortilla chips into powder and watching the Kings smash the Stars.

He saw Guddy pass by the bar entrance and opened his mouth to call to him, then stopped. Guddy was alone, his shirt unbuttoned low and his tie wrapped around his hand. He was flushed, like he’d been running, but he looked relaxed. Happy.

Maybe he was just drunk, Aaron thought, and then Guddy veered back into the bar. He went up to the bartender and ordered something with two fingers held up. So either not drunk yet or drunk and planning to stay that way for a while.

Aaron played with his empty beer bottle and watched, half-fascinated, as Guddy pulled a clipped wad of cash from his pocket and paid for the drink, waving off the change.

Guddy turned away from the bar and saw him, his face breaking into a wide smile. “Eks! Hey dude. What are you doing down here by yourself?”

Aaron shrugged. “Killing time. Not ready to crash yet.”

“Me neither. I could go a few more hours.” Guddy dropped into the chair across from Aaron and sipped his drink. “Early bus call, though.”

“Tell me about it.” Aaron rubbed his face. “Where’d you go after the game?”

Guddy shrugged, smiling. “Out. DC’s got a nightlife, too, Eks.”

“Clubbing?”

Guddy rolled his eyes. “Nah.”

“Strip… club?” Aaron tried, and Guddy laughed at him. “Fuck you. Where?”

“I…” Guddy cocked his head to the side, his smile getting a little more playful. “I met up with a friend.”

“Oh.” Aaron slumped a little in his seat. The most obvious explanation, always. “That’s cool.”

“It was.” Guddy laughed softly. “Very cool.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Guddy drinking and Aaron feeling very aware of how young and stupid he still was, until suddenly Guddy looked at him again.

“How come you’re not hooking up, kid?”

Aaron shrugged. “Not feeling it.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Guddy laughed again and waved at the bartender. “Could I get another double and a beer for my friend here? Thank you.”

“I didn’t feel like hooking up tonight,” Aaron repeated. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Just surprising.” Guddy settled back in his chair and gave Aaron an appraising look. “You’re young, you’re hot, you had a solid game. You should be horny as hell.”

Aaron felt his face turning red. He tucked his chin as if that would hide it and shrugged. “I guess I got out of the habit.”

“Ohh. The girlfriend.” Guddy’s voice had more sympathy to it now. “But you broke up, Eks.”

“I know.”

“And last year you cheated on her.”

Aaron winced. “I know.”

“So… what’s the problem?”

Aaron accepted the beer from the waiter and took a long drink. “I dunno.”

“Huh.” Guddy was quiet for a moment, looking down into his whiskey. “Well, I’m not going to let you mope. We’re fellow D-men. We stick together.”

“I’m not moping.”

“Sure you are.”

“I’m not.” Aaron leaned forward, reaching out to brush his fingers at the edge of Guddy’s open shirt collar. He wasn’t a fucking kid. He could push back on Guddy’s bullshit. “You already hooked up tonight, why do you care what I do?”

Guddy sat still for a moment, something odd catching at the edge of his mouth and his eyes. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, I did, but that’s no reason I can’t wingman for you.”

“How come you’re back here, then?” Aaron touched Guddy’s collar again. “What, did you fuck her in a bathroom and run? Not classy, man.”

Guddy’s eyes narrowed. “How come you’re all questions all of a sudden?”

“See?” Aaron sat back and raised his beer at him in a salute. “Not so fun, is it?”

“Oh, fuck you.” Guddy dug the roll of bills out of his pocket again and pulled one off.

Aaron leaned in closer. “Why are you carrying all that around, anyway?”

“You made your point. No more questions.”

“No, seriously, why—”

Guddy lifted his gaze and pinned Aaron into silence. “Kid, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

**

The whole thing bothered Aaron more than it should have. He thought about it most of the night, and on the plane in the morning, and for the next few days back in Sunrise. It just… nagged at him. He didn’t understand why. It was weird.

“Hey, Mitchie,” he said finally, after practice one afternoon while they were sitting with their legs in the ice bath.

“Hey, Aaron.” Willie’s eyes were closed, his chin dropped to his chest, as if it was possible to nap with ice and slush halfway to your knees.

“Is Guddy doing okay?” It was the wrong phrasing, he knew it as soon as he said it; Guddy was Willie’s partner on the ice most of the time, and Willie’s responsibility as a teammate all the time, and Willie was definitely going to think Aaron was talking about hockey.

Sure enough. “He needs to work on his goddamn backhand and putting his body where it’s supposed to be just a little bit faster, but yeah, all in all he’s fine. Not threatening your spot on first pair, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No, that’s not—” Aaron stopped. “Forget it.”

Willie opened one eye and looked at him. “What’s up?”

“Nothing. We had a weird conversation in DC, but—we were both drinking, that’s all, I bet.”

“Guddy and you are both pretty weird, it’s true.”

“Hey.” Aaron halfheartedly flicked water at him. “Don’t be mean.”

“Just stating the facts.” Willie squinted at the clock on the wall. “You want me to talk to him?”

“No. It’s fine.” Aaron nodded to himself. “Just the drinks, for sure. Forget about it.”

He didn’t know for sure if Willie forgot about it or not, but he himself definitely didn’t. He thought about it a lot, right up through the next day’s game against Boston.

They got absolutely creamed, which sucked. The Bruins were supposed to be down this year, the cycle was supposed to be on Florida’s side, but instead they got their asses handed to them and Jussi cracked a rib thanks to fucking Chara, who was like the goddamn undead out there, unstoppable.

Aaron wanted to get out of the locker room as soon as possible. He wanted a drink, dinner, and to go the fuck to sleep. Actually he wanted to pick a fight with someone, but that was neither smart nor reasonable, so he would have to settle for the other options.

He started to pull out of the players’ section of the garage and realized the car in front of him was Guddy’s. Maybe he was going for dinner and alcohol and wallowing in a bad mood, too. Aaron could follow him for a few blocks and see if he turned toward his house or somewhere fun. If it was fun, he would keep following; if not, he would go home. Easy.

Guddy didn’t head home, and Aaron gave a small fist-pump of satisfaction. The night still had potential. He followed the car for a few blocks, toward the row of fancy hotels where the Bruins were probably staying, along with anybody from out of town who’d watched the game from the good boxes, and a whole lot of people who wouldn’t give a fuck about hockey if it bit them.

Guddy pulled up in front of one of the hotels and handed his keys to the valet, gesturing expansively. He handed over some cash and the valet grinned, nodding along as he got behind the wheel. Some nameless instinct prodded Aaron to hit the gas instead of pulling into the valet lane himself. He circled the block instead, finding a space in a public garage that backed up to the hotel. Walking back made him feel like he was in a spy movie, trying to escape from being tailed.

Inside the lobby, a concierge gave him a questioning look and Aaron shook his head, shoving his hands in the pockets of his suit and veering off into the bar at the far end. Coyotes-Oilers was on the screens, and he paused for a moment to squint at the score before he looked around. He couldn’t imagine where else Guddy would have gone, but this was weird—why a random hotel bar when there were a million bars and clubs in the area, including a bunch that knew the team and hooked them up accordingly? Including whichever ones their teammates were at right now?

It was weird, and what he saw didn’t really answer it. It brought plenty of additional questions, though.

Guddy was sitting at the far end of the bar, drink in hand. His suit was still on, shirt buttoned, tie loosened but in place, and he was smiling up at a man standing next to him. There was nothing remarkable about the guy—Aaron barely made a note of him at all, beyond that he was wearing a suit, too, at this hour of the night, and he had the bearing of someone who considered himself to be very important.

Guddy laughed at something the guy said, and then looked down at his drink. He swirled the liquid with one finger, then sucked it clean, a slow and deliberate performance that made Aaron’s stomach clench and flip, because—what. What was Guddy doing?

The guy smiled and leaned in to say something directly in Guddy’s ear, making him laugh again. He picked up his glass and downed the rest of his drink in two swallows, then got to his feet and took some cash from his pocket, leaving it on the bar.

It wasn’t from one of the conspicuous rolls of bills, Aaron noticed through his dizzy haze of confusion. Just the one folded piece of cash, apparently floating alone in Guddy’s pocket.

The man rested his hand on Guddy’s back as they stepped away from the bar, steering him toward the elevators. Aaron stared after them, confusion and shock twisting up his stomach until it actually hurt.

None of this made any sense.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Aaron dragged his eyes back to his immediate environment to find a concerned-looking waitress waiting for an answer. “Uh,” he said. “A table, please?”

“Anywhere you want, sir. I’ll get you a menu. The kitchen closes in forty-five minutes, just so you know.”

He didn’t think he would be able to eat much, but he should at least try. He didn’t know why he was staying, exactly, except for a weird, nagging suspicion that would drive him actually crazy if he didn’t at least try to let it be proved wrong or right.

He ate a burger and two servings of fries before the elevator discharged Guddy again. He was alone now, shirt undone, tie gone, hair mussed, like when Aaron had seen him after the other games. He was smiling and tucking a wad of cash into his pocket.

There was a hickey on his chest this time, one he seemed to notice as he did up one button on his shirt and hid it under the fabric.

Aaron sat still as Guddy made his way across the lobby and vanished through the doors to the street. Well.

Now what the fuck was he supposed to do?

**

He stewed on it for a few days, watching Guddy out of the corner of his eye on the ice and in the locker room. It didn’t make any sense. He couldn’t sort it out.

It looked like Guddy was hooking up with rich guys for money. Like he was a… a hooker. That would be the word. There were other words, but he felt weird just thinking them, so he shoved them back in his head and tried to focus on the practical.

Who: Guddy, his teammate. His buddy, sort of, the way teammates were buddies by default. What: being a hooker. Where: hotels, apparently. When: after games. Maybe other times. How would Aaron know?

Why?

That’s where he kept getting stuck. Why? It didn’t make any sense.

He was stuck in a loop, watching Guddy and chasing the same thoughts around and around. Then, abruptly, Guddy put a stop to it.

He turned around at his stall and calmly leaned across the intervening space to look Aaron in the eye. “Eks.”

Aaron blinked. “What?”

“Stop staring at me. Seriously.”

Crap. “I’m not staring at you.”

“You are, and it’s weird. Knock it off.”

“I’m not—”

Guddy’s eyes were sharp, pinning him in place. “Do you have a problem? Do you need to tell me something?”

“I… maybe?”

“Maybe you have a problem, or maybe we need to talk?” Guddy sounded exaggeratedly patient, but it was clearly wearing thin.

“Maybe we need to talk.”

“Okay. Finally.” Guddy turned back to his stall and dropped his towel. “Come to my place when you’re done here. We’ll talk. No big deal, Eks, you could’ve just asked.”

Aaron bit down on his tongue, trying not to feel like a little kid being rebuffed from joining in a game. Guddy wasn’t running him off, he was inviting him. But his tone, his body language—they were exactly the opposite.

Well, he got himself into this, now he had to follow through and find his way out. That was just fine. Great, even. He would start coming up with ideas any time now.

**

Guddy got out of the locker room way before Aaron did, because Aaron was slower and because Soupy wanted to talk to him about… something, wristers, Aaron wasn’t really paying attention, which would probably bite him in the ass later.

He got to Guddy’s townhouse, pulled in the visitor’s space, and sat for a few minutes, staring across the parking lot at the gator pond every south Florida complex seemed obligated to have. He really wanted this to be less awkward than it was probably going to be. Guddy wouldn’t feed him to the gator, because they were teammates, and because pond gators were too well-fed on rats and possums and stuff to care. But he might yell, and Aaron hated being yelled at, a lot.

He needed to get out of the car and get moving.

Guddy answered the door shirtless, in running shorts, like he’d half-stripped as soon as he got home. “Uh,” Aaron said, trying to blink more than stare. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Guddy stepped back to let him in, and Aaron sternly told himself to keep his eyes to himself. It was the same body that he saw every day in the locker room. The same tattoos. Everything would be fine if he would just be normal.

“So,” Guddy said finally. “What’s bugging you?”

Aaron looked around, wondering if sitting or standing was better for this, being direct or working up to it slowly, looking Guddy in the eye or—

“I saw you,” he blurted out, staring at a point on the wall over Guddy’s shoulder. “At the hotel. After the Bruins game. I followed you so we could grab a drink, and I—I saw you.”

Guddy folded his arms slowly across his chest. “You saw me what, exactly?”

Damn it. “I saw you meet that guy at the bar, and go upstairs with him, and come back all… messed up and with money.” He took a breath. “Just like in DC. And after the Nashville game. I saw you.”

“You said you followed me to get a drink.” Guddy cocked his head to the side. “You never get a drink with me. Not one on one. I’m not really on your radar much, Eks.”

Aaron frowned. “What? That’s not—what? That’s not even true. Or what we’re talking about!”

“You followed me.”

“I just—” Aaron stopped. “Am I right? You’re trying to change the subject because I’m right.”

Guddy shrugged. “It’s really none of your business.”

This was like a drill on the ice, constantly being knocked off-balance, except on the ice Aaron was good at this and here he was not. “Dude, if you’re—if you’re doing that, what—I mean, you must be in some kind of trouble, right?”

“No.”

“Dude!”

“I’m not in any trouble.” Guddy turned away and walked to the kitchen.

“Then why would you do that?”

“Do what?” He yanked the refrigerator open. His voice was light, mocking, like this was funny. “Say it. C’mon. Like a big boy.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“That’s part of it. Try for the rest.”

“You fuck guys for money.”

“There you go. Good job.” He bent and reached into the fridge, coming up with a beer. He was smirking. Aaron definitely wasn’t catching up to the joke. “Yeah, I do.”

Aaron took a deep breath. One question at a time. Keep pushing. Eventually things had to make sense. “Why… why do you fuck guys for money?”

Guddy twisted the cap off and looked at him thoughtfully. “Well, money can be exchanged for goods and services, Eks.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

“It’s true. I thought you were paying your own bills these days, but maybe Mommy and Daddy are still doing it, if you don’t understand how this works?”

Aaron’s fist lashed out and smashed into the wall without any relevant input from his brain. The pain snapped back on him, knocking him away from the idea that this bullshit was a game. “Fuck you, dude. I can’t believe I worried about you, you’re just an asshole.”

“Not just an asshole.” Guddy smirked at him. “I’ve got a mouth, too.”

Aaron’s face burned and the hot pressure behind his eyes made him take a step back, fighting down another whiplash change of emotion. He hadn’t cried since he was fourteen. Not going to break that now, not over this. “Right.” He cleared his throat and willed his voice to steady. “Sorry I said anything. I’ll get out of your way.”

Guddy scowled at him. “Damn it, Eks, don’t do the puppy eyes at me.”

“I’m not.”

“You fucking are.” He groaned and slammed his beer down on the counter. “I get why you would worry, but it’s really—it’s really not that. I’m not in trouble. It’s—it’s like I said. I like to pay for my hobbies in cash. This is a way to get cash. And I, you know. I like it.”

Not whiplash this time. Aaron just felt like he was underwater, and spinning. Maybe there were sharks, too. “You like it?”

Guddy shrugged. “I like sex. I like money. It’s a good combination. Peanut butter and chocolate, you know?”

“But why… why do you…” Aaron tried to muster his words, to get them out from behind the lump in his throat. “You have an NHL contract.”

Guddy’s smile got sharper, less friendly. “Aw, Eks. Not everybody has multiyear one-way deals ahead of them. Some of us are going to have to just swim for it and hope we stay up out of the A long enough to put some in the bank.”

“Dude, that’s—”

“I have one year left on my deal,” Guddy said patiently. “I’ve got a decent shot at another two-year, but it’s not gonna look like yours. It’s not gonna look like Sasha’s. I have to be smart. I pay my agent, I pay my bills, the rest goes away for the future.” He picked up his beer and tipped the bottle at Aaron. “So for fun stuff, I’ve got a side gig.”

Aaron nodded slowly. “You… you got any more beer in there?”

“Yeah.” He turned and bent again, and Aaron couldn’t quite keep his eyes from going to his ass under the stretched-tight fabric of his shorts. Not after this conversation.

Of course Guddy caught him at it. His fucking luck.

“Hey, now, Eks. I didn’t say it was up for sale on the open market.”

Aaron blushed so hard it hurt. “Fuck off.”

“You’re still on your ELC, and Bobby Orr must take a big cut. Not sure you can afford me.”

“I don’t have to pay for it.” It was supposed to be a chirp but it came out shaky, and Guddy’s smile got wider.

“You don’t, eh?” He took a step closer, then another one, looking Aaron up and down that made him think of the fucking Combine. Assessing. Measuring. “I can see what you mean, I guess.” He took one more step and ran his hand down Aaron’s chest, steady and practiced. “Yeah, I might do you for free.”

Aaron froze, staring at him. It was a joke, of course—it had to be a joke—but it didn’t feel like one. Not quite. Guddy was smiling, but it wasn’t teasing or playful. It was… not quite predatory, but…

Guddy took hold of Aaron’s hips, rubbing his thumbs in careful arcs over his sweats. “You know you’re hot, Eks.”

“I…”

“And with the beard you look all grown up.” He hooked his index fingers under the waistband of Aaron’s pants, pushing his t-shirt up with the backs of his hands. “And apparently you’ve been watching me.”

“I’m not…”

“No?” Guddy glanced up, meeting his eyes. “You sure about that?”

Aaron took a rough breath. “I mean, I am. I like. I’ve been with guys.”

“Oh, good. I’m not so much into breaking in virgins.”

“I’m not—” Aaron caught himself. He should step back, break Guddy’s hold on his hips, get some control of himself. But instead he just stood there, reminding himself to breathe, staring at the ink arcing gracefully over Guddy’s arm and shoulder onto his chest.

“I’m glad you’re not a virgin, Eks.” Guddy stepped closer still, sliding his hands up under Aaron’s shirt and then dragging them down again, his nails scraping over Aaron’s skin and making him shiver. “I’m glad you know what to do with all of this.”

“I don’t—”

Guddy’s eyebrow went up. “You don’t want to? Are you sure?”

Aaron could feel how his blushing was spreading, from his chest all the way up to his hair, hot and almost painful. “I should go home.”

Guddy studied him for a moment, then dropped his hands to his side and stepped back. “Okay.”

“It’s not—I’m not—it’s just—”

“You don’t have to explain anything, kid.” Guddy turned away, crossing the kitchen to where he’d left his beer. Aaron felt cold, suddenly, and very distinctly that he had been dismissed. He’d done it to himself, he knew that, but it still felt like a shove to the chest.

“I’ll see you at practice tomorrow?” he asked. It was supposed to be a statement, but his voice went up at the end, making it way too close to a plea.

Guddy didn’t even look at him, just drank his beer and nodded, his attention focused out the window at the gator pond. “Where else would I be?”

“Sorry for bugging you,” Aaron mumbled, leaving his own beer behind and heading for the door. Guddy didn’t say anything, and the heavy, chilly silence followed Aaron out and all the way to his car. He had a feeling it might hang around in his head for days.

**

Thinking about his own fuck-up did, indeed, follow him through practice, and their flight to Carolina, and morning skate. He felt like he was sleepwalking through the drills and scrimmages. As ways to approach his job went, that was less than great. He was going to get his ass kicked if he didn’t pull it together.

“Focus, Ekblad,” Jagr said to him in the locker room, in front of everybody, because Jags was an ancient master of exactly how to apply humiliation to get a desired result. “You’re not focused, everyone can tell.”

“I’ll be ready at game time,” Aaron said, keeping his head down, his voice steady. Jags was like a big dog. He could smell fear.

“Be ready now.” Jags shook his head and stomped off to his gear, and Aaron bit his tongue to keep from trying to get the last word in. It never worked and it would just make everything more difficult later. Getting on Jags’ bad side was a fast track to a shitty couple of days, until you figured out some kind of penance that he would accept. He was a legend, and he’d earned the right to be difficult, but damn, it was hard to keep up with sometimes.

Mitchie glanced at him once Jags was engrossed in talking to Sasha. “Everything okay, kid?”

“Yeah.” Aaron blinked rapidly and stripped out of his practice jersey. “I’ll be ready.”

“Take a nap, relax a little.”

“Yeah.” He forced a smile and a nod. “I will.”

He could feel Guddy watching him from Willie’s other side. He knew if he looked up fast enough, he could catch Guddy’s eyes, find out if he was watching speculatively or with that sharp assessing look or if he was just straight-up laughing at him. Aaron didn’t know what he would do with that information if he had it, but—

He bit his lip again and kept his head down, focusing on putting his gear away precisely where it belonged. The equipment managers were going to love him today.

Mitchie’s hand settling on his shoulder almost made him jump out of his skin. “Easy, Aaron. Take it easy. You’re gonna be fine.”

He didn’t shrug Mitchie’s hand off, but he didn’t lean into it, either. He wasn’t a rookie anymore. He didn’t need this much reassurance. “I know.”

After a minute Mitchie let go and moved away, and Aaron finally let himself lift his head. He looked down the line of stalls, catching Guddy just as he pulled his t-shirt over his head, soft black cotton and tight as a second skin.

Guddy met his gaze and raised an eyebrow in cool question. Aaron felt his face go red-hot all over again.

He wasn’t going to get a nap so much as he was going to jerk off a couple times, thinking about his teammate, who had sex with guys for money but thought he might be hot enough to fuck for free. And whom Aaron had turned down, awkwardly and terribly.

“See you later, Eks,” Guddy said. Aaron couldn’t tell if it was a promise or a threat. He wasn’t sure which one he wanted it to be.

Fuck.

**

They scraped out a win in overtime and he didn’t screw anything up; for a year when everything he did was being analyzed through a lens of sophomore slump, it wasn’t bad. He got his share of back-slaps and hair-rumpling in the room afterward, and was invited to go along bar crawling with two different groups of the guys.

Willie gave him a perfectly bland look that he recognized as You should probably stay in and get some rest, but I’m not saying anything, because you’re an adult. Look at me not saying anything. Aaron rolled his eyes but turned both offers down. Staying at the hotel like a good boy for one night wouldn’t kill him, and he was pretty tired.

Not tired enough to kill the adrenaline buzz right off the top, though, so he ended up in the hotel bar balancing it out with a beer and the West Coast games, again. This was going to turn into his kind of sad post-game routine if he wasn’t careful.

He looked up as someone sat down next to him, startled to find it was Guddy. “Hey. You’re not going out?”

Guddy shrugged and squinted up at the TVs. “Not tonight. Sore.”

“It was totally a cross-check.” It was, even though the refs didn’t call it. Bullshit fucking refs.

“Yeah, it was, but that’s the way it goes.” Guddy smiled at the bartender. “Maker’s Mark, a double, please. Thank you.”

“You need food, too?” Aaron squinted at the bar menu. “Why don’t they just offer all the room service stuff? It comes out of the same kitchen.”

“Don’t ask questions, young Jedi.” Guddy stretched and groaned. “How come you’re not out with the guys?”

Aaron shrugged. “Tired.”

“I can tell.” Guddy half-smiled at him and accepted his drink from the bartender. “Thank you. Put it on his tab.”

Aaron rolled his eyes but nodded at her. “No hobbies tonight, eh?”

“Left my cash in my other pants.” Guddy laughed and took a drink. “I do want food, though, yeah. And room service would be better.”

Aaron nodded, looking at his beer. “So you’re going up?”

“When I finish this. Shit, the Kings are just…” Guddy sighed. “You want to come with me? Watch a movie?”

“For real?”

“Yeah, kid. Why not?”

“Well, like… I mean, you said that one time, we don’t really hang out, ever. Not one on one.”

“Well, we can tonight. If you want to.” Guddy raised an eyebrow and took another drink. “Unless you’re trying to tell me you don’t hang out with guys like me.”

“What kind of guy is that?”

Guddy grinned at him. “Not bad, Eks. One of these days you’ll be a real adult.” He finished his drink and set the glass on the bar, digging some cash out of his pocket. “I can cover my own tip, because I am a gentleman.”

“Big of you.” Aaron nodded to the bartender for his check, signed off on it, and left some cash of his own. “You’re paying for the room service.”

“The fuck I am.”

“Hey, if we’re in your room…”

They bickered all the way upstairs, trading easy barbs with no sting behind them. Aaron felt relaxed enough to be tired again by the time they got to Guddy’s room. A little food and maybe one more beer would be enough to put him to sleep for sure.

Guddy cracked open the mini-bar when they got inside, pulling out two tiny bottles of rum and a can of Diet Coke. “Grab the glasses from the bathroom?”

“You’re going fancy, eh?” Aaron did as he was told and sat down on the end of the bed nearest the mini-bar. “Mixed drinks, wow.”

“Be flattered, I don’t do this for just anybody.” Half the can in each glass, then a bottle of rum on top; he swirled them lazily and handed one off to Aaron. “Drink your medicine, kid.”

“You don’t have to call me kid anymore.” Aaron drank and closed his eyes for a minute, letting the warmth move through him.

“Maybe I like it.” Guddy drank and moved toward the other bed, unbuttoning his shirt as he went. “Find what you want on TV, I’m just gonna order burgers for both of us, cool?”

“Yeah.” Aaron didn’t care what they watched; he stopped at one of the Transformers movies and scooted up the bed to lean against the headboard and nurse his drink. The Diet Coke tasted metallic and the rum was too sweet. It was perfect.

Guddy was stripping, just at the edge of Aaron’s field of vision; he was relaxed enough not to look or panic about not looking, but just kept his eyes on the TV. After a moment Guddy picked up the phone and placed their order, including two beers. Aaron gave him a thumbs-up and turned the volume up louder.

Guddy re-entered his full line of sight wearing boxers and a t-shirt, dragging both hands through his hair and squinting at the screen. “Is this the first one?”

“I dunno. Does it matter?”

“Not really.” Guddy sat down on the edge of the bed. “Scoot over so I can lie down, eh?”

“Lie on the other one.”

“I like this one.”

“Jesus, it’s a hotel room, they’re the same.” Aaron moved over anyway, trying to guess how much space Guddy would need to stretch out. He was a big guy, but they were all big guys, that didn’t really mean anything.

He misjudged a little bit, apparently, because Guddy ended up pressed solidly against him, and Aaron couldn’t move because pulling away from him that obviously would be weird. He finished his rum and Coke instead. Delicious, disgusting sugar and fake-sugar and all kinds of things he wasn’t supposed to have.

“You feeling better?” Guddy asked abruptly, nudging Aaron in the ribs with his elbow. It made Aaron’s chest feel warm, glowy, for no reason he could adequately explain.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m… I’m good, dude. Thanks.”

“Good.”

They lay there in comfortable silence until the food arrived. Aaron watched Guddy cross the room to the door, still only wearing his boxers, and tried to remind himself not to notice things like that. He shouldn’t be paying so much attention.

The burger and the beer combined to make him even more sleepy. He shifted around, trying to stretch out his legs without disturbing Guddy, watching the movie through half-closed eyes.

“This movie is so bad,” Guddy said.

“It is.”

“There’s gotta be something else on.”

Aaron shrugged. “I can go back to my own room and let you look for porn if you want.”

“What, like we couldn’t watch porn together?” Guddy looked at him, then laughed. “God, your face. Okay. That’s a no, then.”

“Don’t start giving me shit.” Aaron laced his fingers together and stretched his arms out, trying to get his shoulders to pop. It wasn’t going to work from this angle, but the idea of sitting up was too much. He was comfortable here. This was his home now.

“Okay, okay.” Guddy sat up and reached for the remote. He held it for a moment, looking at the screen without doing anything, then turned the TV off.

Aaron frowned. “Dude?”

“Give me a second.” Guddy kept looking at the blank screen, frowning a little, then nodded to himself and dropped the remote onto the bedside table again. “What the hell,” he muttered, and turned toward Aaron, catching Aaron’s jaw in his hand and leaning down to kiss him.

Aaron felt a jolt go through his body, the same heat and shock he’d felt when Guddy touched him at the apartment, but sudden and focused instead of played out over a back-and-forth dance. This wasn’t Guddy teasing him, this was Guddy making a move. And Aaron was too tired and buzzed to remember any of the uncertainty or good intentions that had checked him before, so he kissed him back.

Guddy grinned against his mouth, pulling back to rest their foreheads together. “I thought so.”

“You thought what?”

“Wasn’t sure if you were feeling it, from how you acted last time, but I thought so. Worth a shot at least.” Guddy kissed him again before he could answer, fucking his tongue into Aaron’s mouth. Aaron moaned, bringing his hands up to catch Guddy’s shoulders. His skin felt hot, like he’d been working out instead of just lying on the bed with Aaron. Hot and solid, the muscles heavy and firm under the skin. Aaron’s fingers traced over the tattoos on his left shoulder and Guddy laughed, turning his head to take a breath, his beard scraping roughly across Aaron’s mouth and chin.

“Yeah.” Guddy’s voice was low and hot, sending a shiver through Aaron. He was getting hard, and he couldn’t imagine it would take much longer for Guddy to notice. He was half on top of Aaron, not the half that counted, but soon—assuming this went where it definitely seemed to be going, then soon—

If he let himself keep thinking he was going to lose the moment again. He tightened his grip on Guddy’s shoulders, pulling him back into another kiss. He kept control of this one himself, sucking at Guddy’s tongue, letting his teeth scrape against it. Guddy groaned encouragement, his hand skimming down Aaron’s chest and torso to the front of his suit pants and squeezing his erection through the fabric.

“Fuck,” Aaron breathed. “Yeah. Let… let me take those off…”

“Yeah. Do that.” He pulled away, casually rubbing himself through his boxers, as unselfconscious as he was in the locker room. Aaron tried not to stare while he stripped out of his suit, but he couldn’t help it, Guddy was there, flushed and solid and gorgeous and hard. He saw how Aaron was looking at him and grinned, shifting to give an even better view as he touched himself.

“You should see your face, Eks.” He licked his lips. “You look like you’re starving. Dying for it, huh? When was the last time you got any?”

Aaron fumbled with the buttons of his dress shirt. “Guy or girl?”

“Listen to you stalling.” Guddy laughed again. “Get over here. Now.”

Aaron went to him, still in his boxers with his shirt hanging off his arms. Guddy tugged it free and tossed it aside, then pulled Aaron in against him. “What do you think, Eks? What do you want?”

“Uh.” Aaron stared into his eyes, distracted by the heat of their bodies pressed to each other, by just the awareness of how close he was to Guddy’s dick. “I don’t know. Anything.”

“You want me to fuck you?” Guddy brushed Aaron’s hair back from his forehead. “You want me to go in raw?”

Aaron’s breath stuttered. “You—oh. Um. I—”

“Just pointing out that’s a dumb thing to say, kid.” Guddy cupped Aaron through his boxers and squeezed gently. “Not into that? Or just not up to it tonight?”

“I’ve—I’ve never…”

“Definitely not tonight.” Guddy nodded and kissed him again, then gently pushed him back and got to his feet. He took hold of Aaron’s shoulders and turned him around, pushing him back until he sat down on the edge of the bed. “Spread your legs,” he prompted, then sank down to his knees, looking up at Aaron with a broad smile.

“Do you—” Aaron had to take a breath. “Do you want me to, like, be careful about anything?”

“You can go nuts, Eks. Pull my hair. Fuck my face. Whatever you want.” Guddy slid his hand into Aaron’s boxers and guided his dick up and over the waistband. “I can take it.”

“But what do you like?”

Guddy stopped for a moment, looking at him with an odd expression that finally eased into a little smile. “I like to hear you. So make noise, okay? Talk the whole time if you want to. Tell me what you like, what you want more of, what I’m doing that’s good. Don’t worry about sounding stupid, I promise I’ve heard worse.”

Aaron didn’t want to guess how Guddy knew that was what he’d been worried about. Sounding stupid, looking stupid, not being good at getting head, as if that even made any sense. “Okay. I can handle talking.”

“I would hope so.” Guddy laughed, his eyes darting to the side like he was thinking about a private joke, then shook his head and licked the length of Aaron’s cock, teasing the edge of his foreskin with his tongue before taking him in his mouth.

He was as good as Aaron’s guilty fantasies alone in his apartment, jerking at his dick and cursing himself for getting off on thinking about his teammate. He was better than most of Aaron’s stupid, fumbled hookups with other guys in juniors, where none of them knew what they were doing and most of the time they had to be so drunk just to get started with other guys that there was no hope for anything but mediocrity.

He was probably exactly as good as some of the blurry fast athlete dorm hookups at Worlds, but Aaron was pretty drunk for most of those, too, and he wasn’t totally sure if they counted, anyway. Europe wasn’t real. It was like in Mary Poppins where they jumped through the sidewalk drawings into the colorful world. But when it rained you had to come home.

Guddy was sucking his dick and he was thinking about Mary Poppins. Shit. He deserved a slap shot to the face for being dumb.

Guddy pulled off with a wet pop and looked up at him. “Talk.”

“Right. Right. Sorry. Um.” Aaron rubbed his hands on the bed and cleared his throat. “You’re, um. You’re really fucking good at this.”

Guddy raised his eyebrows and stared at him for a minute. “Okay, if that’s the best you can do, then don’t talk.”

“Fuck you, seriously.”

“Have you ever done that, either? Been on the pitching side?”

“I would’ve mentioned if I—” But Guddy went down again and Aaron lost track of his own indignation. Really he lost track of everything except a helpless, throaty moan that made Guddy hum smugly around him. “Fuck,” Aaron gasped, his hips jerking forward in pure want. “Fuck, yes, keep… keep doing that. The humming. Jesus. So fucking…”

He broke off into another moan as Guddy took him deeper, sliding his hands up the inside of Aaron’s thighs to tease his balls, his taint, the sensitive skin where his cock joined his body. It was so much, right on the edge of too much, only not crossing over because Guddy seemed to have some kind of sixth-sense awareness of exactly what Aaron could take and kept backing away just before he crossed over the line. Instead of breaking, Aaron ended up sweaty and squirming on the edge of the mattress, waistband cutting into his skin, his hips rocking and his dick jerking helplessly while Guddy played him up one side and down the other, until he couldn’t feel his fingertips and he was begging him to let him come.

And of course Guddy swallowed him down, because anything else might have undercut his performance as smug expert and blowjob king. If Aaron had been able to think in words, he would’ve cussed him out.

As it was, though, he flopped back on the bed, catching his breath, and Guddy climbed up easily to straddle him, looking down at him with undisguised satisfaction.

“Only fair to reciprocate, eh, kid?” He ran his hands down Aaron’s chest, tugging lightly at the hair there. “Like this or you want to get on your knees?”

“We can do like this.” Aaron’s voice was so rough it sounded like he’d been sucking Guddy off already. He could see that Guddy liked that—his smile got wider, his eyes darker. It sent a comfortable wave of heat through Aaron’s belly, hinting at reigniting things all over again. He had some power over Guddy, too. He could make him react.

Guddy knee-walked up to where he could rub the head of his dick against Aaron’s lips. “You look good like this.”

“So do you.”

“Aw, Eks.” Guddy grinned down at him with affection. “You don’t have to tell me. I’ve heard it before.”

“You’re such a dick.” Aaron closed his eyes and let Guddy rub against his mouth a bit more, then parted his lips and let him push into his mouth. Guddy didn’t thrust hard or try to choke him; he took his time, letting Aaron taste him and relax into sucking him.

“Yeah,” Guddy breathed, bracing himself on his hands on the mattress and bringing his torso close to Aaron’s face, filling Aaron’s nose with the smell of sweat and skin. “God. Not bad, Eks, not bad at all.”

Aaron wanted to shit-talk him back, but his mouth was full, and Guddy was pushing deeper now, finding his rhythm. His voice got lower and hotter, the words choking off, and Aaron brought his hands up to Guddy’s hips, steadying him and taking some control.

Guddy came in his mouth, hips jerking in sharp little motions, and Aaron choked, pushing himself up on his elbows to swallow and catch his breath. He shuddered, heat flooding his face and tears prickling his eyes in reflex. It was a moment before he could look up and focus again, and when he did, Guddy was gone.

He blinked, wiping his eyes with the back of one hand and his mouth with the other, just as Guddy reappeared from the bathroom with a glass of water in one hand.

“Sorry about that,” he said, handing Aaron the water and standing over him, watching him with concern. “I didn’t even think.”

“It’s okay,” Aaron mumbled, clearing his throat again and making himself drink slowly. Choking for a second time would be more humiliation than he could handle in one day.

“You need more?” Guddy asked, sitting down next to him. Aaron got distracted before he could answer, staring at the bruise on Guddy’s hip from where he’d gone into the boards.

“Eks,” Guddy said, snapping his fingers. “Earth to Eks. Did I break you, kid?”

“I’m fine.” Aaron shook his head, looking away. God, everything he did ended in embarrassment. “A little drunk, I guess.”

“Guess you’d better get to bed and try to get a little sleep so Mitchie doesn’t ground you.” Guddy made a mock-innocent face at Aaron’s look. “What? It’s not my fault he acts like he’s your dad.”

“He’s not my dad.”

“I know, but he acts like it. Did he give you a curfew when you lived there?”

Aaron rolled his eyes and stood up, looking around for his boxers. “Fuck off.”

“At least you had a hot fake mom, eh? Mrs. Mitchie is a piece of ass.”

Aaron frowned at him. “Hey.”

“She’s not actually your mom.”

“I know, but…” He shook his head and stepped into his boxers. “I’ll tell Mitchie you said that and he’ll kick your ass. Have a little respect.”

Guddy’s eyes narrowed and he leaned back on his elbows. “Are you saying… that you don’t think Mrs. Mitchie is hot? Interesting.”

“Of course I think she’s hot, she is hot, she’s…” Aaron exhaled sharply and reached for his pants. “You’re fucking with me. Quit it.”

“Quit it,” Guddy mimicked, but he grinned and tossed Aaron his shirt before rolling over and reaching for the remote. Aaron only let himself stare at his ass for a minute.

“Goodnight,” he said, doing up enough of his shirt to pass muster in the halls. “See you at bus call.”

Guddy was already scrolling through channels, stretched out on his bed like it didn’t smell like sex. “Sweet dreams, kid.”

“Don’t call me that,” Aaron muttered, and let himself out.

**

Guddy ignored him on the bus the next day, which was normal and made sense. Aaron still felt weird about it, and had to keep reminding himself not to act weird, over and over again through the whole trip back to Sunrise.

They had the next day off. He’d been looking forward to that, planning an intensive schedule of eating, napping, going to the beach, and playing video games. Eating was awesome, but he couldn’t concentrate on the video games or manage to fall asleep, even after a couple hours of sun and fighting the waves. He was tired, but instead of crashing out he just lay there, brain running through the night in Guddy’s hotel room on repeat until he gave up and got his hand on his dick.

Guddy going down on him was good jerk-off material, but he couldn’t help thinking about how he’d looked in the bars after his… his customers. Rumpled and flushed and smiling, shirt unbuttoned and post-fuck ease in his limbs. Mixing that together with the memory of actually having sex with him got Aaron off twice in quick succession.

He did finally manage a nap, after that, and woke up sweaty and sticky with barely enough time to make himself presentable before he was supposed to be at Mitchie’s place for dinner. Good thing they didn’t expect him to be well-dressed. He showered, threw on a t-shirt and jogging shorts, and made it out the door with a minute to spare.

Meg had been visiting wineries while they were on the road, and sent them out of the kitchen with a bottle of red so she could finish getting dinner ready without distractions. Aaron followed Willie to the deck, pulling Pinot into his lap while Willie poured three glasses and set Meg’s aside to wait for her.

“Do anything fun today?” Willie asked, handing him his glass.

Aaron shrugged, taking a drink to buy himself a moment. “Went to the beach. Took a nap. Nothing exciting, I guess. This is good.”

“She knows her wine.” Willie smiled and settled back in his chair. “Everything good otherwise? In general?”

It was hard not to squirm like he was being called on to speak in front of the class, even though he knew Willie was just checking in because he cared about him. “Yeah, I think so. Soupy and I need to pull a little extra practice time and sharpen up, we missed too many passes in the last few.”

“I gotta get some extra time with Guddy, too.”

“Could just have an extra D practice, I guess.”

“Maybe.” Willie took a drink and looked at him again. “Whatever was bothering you before—about Guddy, I mean. That all sorted out?”

Aaron blinked rapidly, heat rushing to his face. He tried to hide it behind the wineglass. “Uh. Yeah. Yeah, for sure.”

“Because I can still talk to him.”

“No. No. It’s fine. It’s, um.” Aaron shook his head. “We… we talked. After the game in Carolina. Everything’s cool.”

“You should hang out with him sometime. Get to know him a little better.” Willie stretched his legs out. “I’ll be gone next year and they’ll shuffle the pairings around. Always easier to play with somebody if you’ve got chemistry already.”

Aaron’s face was burning again. “Turk seems pretty solid about me with Kuli or Soupy.”

“Soupy won’t be here forever, either.”

“Jags might, though.” It was a dumb joke, one that apparently followed Jagr from one locker room to another by the way he rolled his eyes whenever he overheard it. Aaron hoped it would be enough to divert this conversation.

Willie smiled a little, but didn’t take the bait. “I just think it’s good for you to think about building strong connections with the core guys here.”

“Is Guddy a core guy? His contract is—” Aaron checked himself and took another drink. “I mean, whatever. Yeah. I’ll talk to him. See if he wants to hang out.”

He couldn’t help it; all he could think about was how hanging out with Guddy would more than likely mean having a few drinks with Guddy, which could easily lead to going back to Guddy’s place to have one more for the road, which could so easily lead to falling into bed together again, which would just—

Fuck, he was blushing again. This was ridiculous.

Willie was looking at him oddly. “I don’t see any reason they won’t re-sign him.”

“You’re right. You’re totally right. I’m just…” Aaron shook his head. “I’m overthinking again.”

It wasn’t really true, but it was something Willie could accept, because Aaron did overthink things, like, sixty percent of the time. Willie relaxed in his chair and leaned over to punch Aaron’s arm, grinning.

“Don’t worry so much, kid. Just relax and take care of your game, and everything else will work out.”

“Good plan. I’m on it.” Aaron finished his wine. It was okay for Willie to call him kid. Willie was older, Willie was a mentor. Willie, and Lu, and Jags. Those were all fine.

He didn’t want Guddy to be his mentor. He wanted them to be equals. He just had to figure out how to get Guddy to see him as one.

**

Aaron sat down at Guddy’s locker after practice the next day, waiting for him to look up.

“What do you need, Eks?” He sounded tired; it had been a pretty rough practice. Maybe this wasn’t the best time. But Aaron was already there, and walking away would probably make things weirder.

“Thought maybe we could get lunch,” he said.

Guddy glanced at him through the shock of wet hair falling over his forehead, frowning. “Me and you?” Aaron nodded. “We never hang out one on one, Eks. What’s up?”

Aaron shrugged, glancing over at Willie. “Mitchie suggested we should get to know each other a little better.”

Guddy’s eyebrows went higher. “Mitchie suggested that.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you tell him that we already know each other?” There was a little edge behind the words, a little bit of extra meaning without Guddy actually coming out and saying it. Aaron felt his face get hot, and he ducked his head, studying his hands.

“He meant, like. Get to know each other better. Since stuff’s going to get shuffled around next year, and everything. Might as well start building now.”

“Jesus.” Guddy laughed and pulled a t-shirt over his head. “He’s prepping you to be captain, you know that? They’re gonna name you next year, bet you ten bucks.”

“No way, dude.” Aaron tried not think about that, like, ever, because the couple of times he let himself think about it he totally freaked out. “D-Mac or Jussi. Not me.”

“Tell yourself that.” Guddy shook his head. “Yeah, we can get lunch. Are you buying?”

“No.”

“So it’s not a date.”

Aaron choked on his breath, feeling his face flush darker. Guddy laughed at him, of course. Guddy was an asshole.

“There’s a place I like,” Guddy said. “By the beach. Just follow me, yeah?”

“Is it a normal place or somewhere you go to pick up?” He made that sound normal, somehow, in case anyone was paying attention to them. From the way Guddy’s eyes narrowed, he knew what Aaron really meant.

“Normal,” he said flatly. “Whatever that means. If you keep being a dick I’m gonna duck out and stick you with the bill, kid.”

“Not being a dick.” Aaron stood up, stretching slowly against the solid ache of practice in his muscles. “Just chirping you, Guddy. Learn to take it, eh?”

“I can take it.” Guddy pulled his bag out onto the bench and zipped it up. “The question is if you can, when I turn it around on you.”

There were too many layers of subtext here, and they were starting to make Aaron a little dizzy. “I’ll see you outside.”

While he was waiting, he took a few deep breaths, holding his keys tightly enough that they dug into his palm. It helped him focus, and remind himself that it was just a road hookup and Guddy was using it to get in his head. He didn’t have to let him get away with it.

He nodded to himself and took a breath. This was easy. Just have lunch, talk a little, be normal. Get to know Guddy as a guy. Don’t bring up the other thing. He probably would be made captain at some point, and he needed to be good at getting to know his teammates to do that well. It wasn’t like being captain in Barrie.

“Let’s go, Eks.” Guddy came outside, sunglasses on and baseball cap pulled down low over his forehead.

“You look like you’re hiding from something.”

“Don’t want to be seen hanging out with your ugly mug.” Guddy smacked him on the shoulder as he walked past. “C’mon, I’m hungry, let’s go.”

The restaurant was a typical half-bar, half-steak-and-seafood place overlooking the water. It wouldn’t be up to Willie and Megan’s standards, but not a lot of places were around here. It was in Aaron’s comfort zone, though, and the waitresses all seemed to know Guddy as soon as he took his sunglasses off.

They got a table out on the deck, and Aaron closed his eyes for a minute to feel the sea breeze. “I didn’t think I’d like living down here,” he said. “I thought I’d miss, like, having seasons. But it’s totally worth it.

“I know what you mean.” Guddy leaned back in his chair, squinting out against the glare on the water. “I got down here and was all, oh, I’ll never really be happy here, I’ll miss Canada all the time. Fuck that. It’s awesome.”

“Even with hurricane season.”

Guddy laughed. “We’re not here for most of it. And there hasn’t been a really bad one in a couple years. Which probably means we’re due.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” It was kind of a relief that they were apparently just going to talk about the weather. It was weird, but a relief. He could handle this.

They ordered, got their glasses of water and iced tea, and sat in silence for a while, Guddy looking out at the water and Aaron taking slow, deep breaths and rolling his right ankle in slow circles.

“So,” Guddy said finally. “You changed your mind, eh?”

Aaron frowned. “What?”

“Changed your mind,” Guddy repeated. “About paying for it.”

What?”

“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? The whole thing about Mitchie, that was a decent cover-up, better than I thought you could do, but…” Guddy stopped, eyes narrowing. “Okay, that’s a weird look.”

“I wasn’t covering up anything. Mitchie said we should get to know each other better.”

“For real?”

“Yes!”

“Oh.” Guddy took his baseball cap off and dragged his hand over his hair. “I thought… I figured you changed your mind and this was, like, your awkward-ass try to make it seem like a date or something.”

Aaron stared at him for a minute, trying to think of anything he could say to that, but fortunately the waiter came with their food.

Back in the locker room Guddy had seemed to totally believe what Aaron said about Mitchie. He went along with it, he asked questions that made sense, it was a whole conversation. And it had all been an act? Aaron hadn’t noticed him lying at all.

How was he supposed to get to know Guddy if he couldn’t trust him? He couldn’t read the guy at all. It wasn’t fair. Anything could be going on in his head.

“You really do just want to hang out.” Guddy looked like that was the weirdest thing he’d heard in a while.

“I did. Yeah. But if you don’t want to, that’s fine. I’ll just…” Aaron looked around for the waiter, but he’d disappeared. “I’ll just go. Um. I don’t have cash, I can leave you my card or something.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Guddy sighed. “And don’t go anywhere. Just stay here, eat your food, we’ll talk like normal people.”

Aaron stayed seated, but didn’t reach for his fork. “I’m not gonna try to, like, mix up the different parts of your life anymore, okay? I’m part of hockey. I’ll stay there. Just hockey.”

“It’s not a big deal.” Guddy shrugged at Aaron’s skeptical look. “It’s not. If the other guys found out they’d be weirded out and if the front office found out I’d get traded, but it’s not something people think of on their own, you know? You would have to go around literally telling everybody. And you’re not going to do that.”

“How do you know?”

“I can tell just by looking at you.” Guddy nodded at the waiter, who had materialized as soon as Aaron stopped looking for him. “Could we get a couple beers, actually? Just Bud or whatever you’ve got handy. Thank you.” He looked at Aaron again. “I’ll pay for those. Apology gift.”

Aaron shook his head and picked his fork up. “Don’t make it weird.”

“It’s plenty weird all by itself, I know.” Guddy watched him for a moment and Aaron forced himself not to squirm under the scrutiny. “So what do you want to know about me?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mitchie didn’t give you a checklist to fill in?”

Aaron managed a smile at that. “No. He just suggested I talk to you.”

“You can get all the basic stuff off my fuckin’ official bio, you know? So you must want the interesting details. The trivia.”

“Sure.” Aaron broke his fish into pieces with the edge of his fork. “Hit me with the good stuff.”

“I am awesome at karaoke.” Guddy chewed, swallowed, and made a face at him. “You should see my Lady Gaga.”

Aaron blinked. “That’s…”

“Hey, it’s trivia.” Guddy waved his fork at him. “If you want something better, you gotta come up with the questions yourself. C’mon. Ask me.”

“Uh.” Aaron looked down at his plate for a minute. “When did you realize you were gay?”

“I’m not gay.” Guddy paused while the waiter placed their beers on the table, then took a drink before he went on. “I’m into both. Guys, girls, it doesn’t matter. I like hot people.”

“Oh.” Aaron nodded. “Me, too.”

“I figured.” He grinned at Aaron and took another drink. “I met the girlfriend, remember?”

“Right.” Aaron reached for his own beer. “Ex-girlfriend.”

“You guys were on-again off-again all last year. You think this one’s going to stick?”

“I don’t know.” It was hard to swallow the beer for some reason. All of his discomfort was apparently setting up camp in his throat. He pushed the bottle away again. “Probably.”

Guddy nodded. “So you’re flying solo.”

“I guess. I mean, I hook up and whatever.” It took him a second to understand Guddy’s laughter, and then he blushed again. “Obviously.”

“You’re a very good hookup, Eks. Nothing to be ashamed of there.” Guddy cocked his head. “But we won’t be doing that again, eh? Since you’ve decided not to mix things up, and you just want to stay in the hockey zone.”

Aaron was blushing so hard his face felt like it was on fire. He couldn’t read Guddy at all, couldn’t tell if he was flirting or making fun of him or a mixture of the two or… or just talking. How was he supposed to know? “I guess.”

“That’s fair.” Guddy started eating again, and after a moment Aaron followed suit. It was better than trying to carry on a conversation that he obviously couldn’t control and that kept threatening to go off in directions that scared him.

Guddy paid for the meal, even though he’d said he wouldn’t. “You’ll get me next time,” he said, waving Aaron’s efforts away. “We gotta go out every once in awhile so Mitchie knows we’re trying to be friends. I don’t want him on my ass about it, do you?”

Mitchie wouldn’t do that, Aaron knew. He never nagged, he just… looked. Meaningfully. “I guess not.”

“There we go.” Guddy signed the receipt with a flourish and unfolded himself from the chair. “Good talk, Eks. I’ll see you at practice tomorrow. We can drill our asses off again, it’ll be fun.”

“There’s like a million jokes I could make about that,” Aaron said after a moment. “I don’t even know where to start.”

Guddy smacked him on the arm and put his sunglasses back on. “Something for you to work on for next time.”

**

Aaron meant to keep things like that, he really did. Just focus on the hockey. Not get involved in the other aspects of Guddy’s life, which were none of his business anyway.

He didn’t count on hockey getting him all fucked up.

It was a three-game losing streak on the road, and the third game was—it wasn’t his fault, exactly. Team sport, no one person was responsible alone for any given game, and whatever, all that crap. But it was sort of his fault. He felt like it was his fault. Coach barked at him like it was his fault.

He went back to the hotel after the game feeling like shit. The other guys gave him a wide berth, even Mitchie, and nobody asked him to go out. He wouldn’t be much fun anyway, but still, that fucking sucked, they could ask him.

He ended up sitting in the hotel bar by himself, putting away drinks at a steady pace. He could’ve just gone up to his room and hit the minibar, and he knew it, but something kept him right there on his barstool. Waiting.

When Guddy walked back into the lobby, tie undone and shirt untucked, he realized what he’d been waiting for.

He pushed his drink away and walked across the bar to the lobby door. “Guddy. Hey.”

“Hey, Eks.” Guddy smiled at him, loose and easy. “What are you doing back here by yourself?”

“Nothing. Just drinking.” Aaron stared at him, his eyes moving up and down Guddy’s body all on their own. He was a little more drunk than he’d thought. “You want to join me?”

Guddy’s eyebrows went up. “Listen to you. Our little boy’s all grown up.”

“Fuck you.” It sounded good, strong. Grown-up. He said it again. “Fuck you. You want a drink or not?”

“Take it easy, kid.” Guddy grinned and punched him in the shoulder, brushing past him into the bar. “I’ll drink if you’re buying, sure.”

Aaron followed him to where he’d been sitting and signaled the bartender. “Whatever he wants, put it on my tab. Thanks.”

“So commanding.” Guddy’s grin kept getting bigger. “Maker’s Mark, double, please. Thanks.” He waited for the bartender to move off and then looked at Aaron again. “You want me to call you daddy, or something, while you’re being all bossy?”

Blood rushed to Aaron’s face, hot and on the edge of painful. “Asshole.”

“Hey, you started it. Don’t push if you can’t take being pushed back.”

Aaron bit down on his lip and forced himself to breathe, waiting until Guddy’s drink arrived and he’d taken the first sip before he spoke again. “Were you doing the thing tonight?”

Guddy choked on his drink a little. “The thing?”

“Yeah. You know, the… your thing. That you do.”

“You mean…” Guddy glanced around the bar. “Let’s say picking up. I know you weren’t trying to be discreet, though. You just can’t say it.”

“I can say it.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

Aaron wished he had another drink. He wished he hadn’t caught Guddy’s attention. He really wished he hadn’t fucked up the game. “Forget it.”

Guddy took another sip. “I did pick up tonight. Yes.”

“Was it…” Aaron hesitated, the words suddenly escaping him. “What did you do?”

“That’s not really any of your business, Eks.”

“Right. Right. Cause I said I’d only stay in the hockey part of your life.”

“No, because it’s not anybody’s business.” Guddy shook his head. “I had a nice night. Let’s leave it at that.”

Aaron nodded and looked down at his hands on the bar. He shouldn’t say anything. He shouldn’t. “You want to keep it going?”

Guddy put his glass down and stared at him for a minute before the grin appeared again, wide and white and just a little strained around the edges. Or maybe Aaron was imagining that. It was hard to tell, with the booze swimming in his stomach with his agitation. “Well, well. What changed your mind?”

“Changed my mind about what?”

“Paying for it.”

Aaron pushed himself away from the bar, the stool clattering to the floor under him. He caught himself on the edge of the bar, waving away the bartender and Guddy both. “Fuck you, dude. Seriously, just… forget I said anything, fuck off, leave me alone.”

“Eks. Eks, c’mon.”

Aaron fumbled for his wallet, then remembered that his credit card was behind the bar holding his tab. Fuck. Well, he could come back for it in the morning and just take the hit on leaving the tab open. “I said fuck off, dude. See you at bus call.”

“Eks.” Guddy’s voice got harder. “Ekblad. Aaron.”

Aaron stopped, his breath catching painfully in his chest.

“Pay your damn tab, and then come upstairs with me.”

Aaron wanted to argue, but Guddy’s voice didn’t really allow for it. And the look on his face, when Aaron glanced at him on his way back toward the bartender to close out his tab—well, that was the look Guddy got when he was about to go out on the ice and fuck somebody up to make a point.

Aaron was pretty sure he could hold his own if Guddy tried to fuck him up. At least, he was always able to in practice. But the middle of the hotel bar probably wasn’t the best place to test it.

He followed Guddy sullenly into the elevator. “I’m just gonna go to my room and go to bed.”

“Shut up, Eks.”

“Dude, just let it go, it wasn’t even—”

“I said shut up.” Guddy took a step toward him, then another, backing him up to the wall. “You want to be a brat and play games, we can do that. We can absolutely do that.”

“I don’t—”

“You do. You really do.” Guddy stared at him for a moment, his eyes dark and his face so close to Aaron’s, close enough that he could feel him breathe.

“I just—”

“Shut up.” Guddy took a deep breath. “Ah, fuck it.” His hands settled on Aaron’s shoulders, holding him to the wall, and he kissed him.

It wasn’t what Aaron expected, not angry or competitive or trying to take him down. Instead it was—hungry, maybe, demanding but not taking. Just asking, so hard, so much. Guddy’s hands were gripping him tightly, enough that Aaron knew there would be marks, and that made him groan low in his throat. He wanted that. Wanted this to be something that was really happening, that he could see and remember later. He wanted Guddy to cover him in proof.

The elevator dinged and stopped at their floor, and Guddy pulled away, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and giving Aaron a look that left no doubt where they were going next, or that Aaron would do best if he fell the fuck in line and went with it. Aaron didn’t want to argue. He didn’t want to think, or talk about this. They could talk about it later, maybe. Or never.

Don’t think, just do. Like out on the ice. Instinct and muscle memory.

Guddy unlocked the door and Aaron followed him inside, his hands sweaty and his dick heavy and swelling in his trousers. It wasn’t a surprise when Guddy turned to him, caught him by the arms again, and backed him to the bed. It wasn’t a surprise when they were kissing again, or when Guddy pushed him down to the mattress and climbed on top of him. Guddy was a warm, solid weight, his own erection pushing against Aaron’s stomach, and his hands felt like they were everywhere, teasing and searching and figuring Aaron out.

“Clothes off,” Guddy said, pulling back and licking his lips. “Sit up and just…”

Aaron fumbled out of his clothes, sharply aware of how graceful Guddy was at removing his own. He made it look like a dance, while Aaron just fought every button and zipper, working himself out of the confines of his gameday suit and letting them all fall away.

“There we go, kid.” Guddy grinned, looking him up and down with clear approval. “You look good naked. You should spend more time like this.”

“Can’t fuck all the time,” Aaron muttered, trying not to let the sharp cut of self-consciousness keep him from going along with this. If he pulled back, Guddy would do the same, and all their common ground would be lost. Aaron didn’t want this to be gone. Not yet. Not today.

“Is that a challenge?” Guddy laughed and pushed Aaron down again once they were both naked. Kissing, hands wandering, dicks caught between their bodies—it was just like before, but more, without clothes in the way. Aaron felt like his whole body was heated up to the point of glowing. His heart was going too fast. His breathing was too shallow. Guddy’s tongue was in his mouth and he wanted more of it, more of everything. He wanted—

He didn’t really have the words, or even the images. Just the concept. Just more, more over and over again.

“Please,” he muttered, arching up to rub against Guddy again. “C’mon. Please.”

“Be more specific.” Guddy caught Aaron’s wrists and pinned them at his sides. “You want me to go down on you? Jerk you off? Fuck you?”

Aaron groaned helplessly. “I don’t know.”

“Still not ready to get fucked, I think.” Guddy ducked his head and kissed him again. “Maybe we’ll make your first time special. Classy. Not a hotel room on the road.”

“Shut up.”

“Champagne and candles and rose petals.” Guddy laughed as Aaron tried to swat at him but couldn’t free his hands from Guddy’s hold. “Yeah, you’re a rose petal guy, Eks. I can tell.”

“Fuck you.”

“You couldn’t handle me, babe.” Guddy kissed him again, cutting him off before he could say anything else, and let go of one wrist. His hand slid up and across Aaron’s hip to his dick, wrapping around it tight and warm to stroke him off. Aaron couldn’t even tell if Guddy was teasing him or dragging him to orgasm in double time; he couldn’t sort the sensation out into anything but so much until he’d come all over his chest and stomach.

“There we go,” Guddy murmured, his voice rougher and hotter. He released Aaron’s other wrist and moved down, licking up the come from Aaron’s skin. Aaron could see it, his red tongue moving over pale skin, had a visual to match to the wet heat that left cool trails behind.

Guddy sat up and looked at him, flushed and smirking. “Better?”

“Jesus.” Aaron propped himself up on his elbows. “What do you—”

“What do you think you can handle?” Guddy raised his eyebrows. “You think you can fuck me? You want to suck my cock again? You want me to jerk off on you?”

All three ideas made Aaron feel a little dizzy. “I don’t know.”

“What good are you, kid?” Guddy ran his hand down Aaron’s chest, smearing the remains of spit and jizz together over his skin. “I’m gonna jerk off on you. I want to see how you look like that.”

Aaron swallowed hard, the dizziness spiking again. “On my chest or—or my face?”

Guddy grinned again, slow and lazy and hot, fuck, how did he look so hot? “Haven’t decided yet. It’s fun to keep you guessing.”

Watching him touch himself was as mesmerizing as watching his mouth had been. His hand was so big, rough fingers that Aaron knew from taping sticks and sharpening skates working against dark-flushed skin that Aaron knew had to be delicate, but didn’t look like it now. Guddy’s cock was thick and hard and uncut, veins a tangled tracing under the skin. Aaron wanted it in his mouth again, he realized suddenly, but it was too late for that, Guddy had already made up his mind.

“Open your mouth,” Guddy said, a little breathless. “Open it, c’mon, and shut your eyes, I’m gonna come on your face. I’m gonna mess you up, Eks, I’m gonna make you… make you my…”

The sentence trailed off into a moan, like Guddy didn’t have the words for it. Aaron didn’t either, but he wanted it, wanted to be Guddy’s… something. Anything.

Aaron did as he was told, closing his eyes and opening his mouth just in time for hot, sticky fluid to splash across his face. His beard was going to be a mess, he thought dizzily, but then there was more, and it was in his eyelashes, on his forehead, everywhere, what the fuck, all the way from his chin up to his hairline, splattered and messy and cooling fast.

“Fuck,” Guddy panted. “Fuck, you look good. Don’t move.”

Aaron stayed still, eyes closed, until he heard the click of Guddy’s phone camera. “What—no, come on, you can’t—”

“Trust me, trust me. I’m careful. I promise.”

Aaron opened his eyes finally, looking up at Guddy framed against the ceiling. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again, because what could he possibly say? Please don’t hurt me. Don’t use this against me. Don’t fuck with me just because you can. That wasn’t how teammates treated each other. He couldn’t.

“I’m a mess,” he said finally, and sat up, reaching to rub his hands over his face and then dropping them to his lap. “Uh. Can I use the shower?”

“Yeah, of course. Go for it.” Guddy grabbed a shirt off the floor and wiped himself off with it. “You feel better?”

It took Aaron a minute to understand what he was talking about. He barely remembered being upset at all. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. You know. Took the edge off, or whatever.”

Guddy snorted. “Yeah. Something like that.”

“Don’t—” And that was a thought he couldn’t finish, either. Don’t go back to being all guarded and mean. Don’t shove me away again. Don’t act like this didn’t even happen. Saying any of that would be asking for a kick in the teeth. Deserving whatever he got.

Guddy glanced up at him, eyes wide, and for a moment they just stared at each other. Aaron didn’t say anything.

He didn’t have to; Guddy dropped his gaze again and nodded, dragging the shirt over his torso again. “Yeah, get cleaned up. You want some more food? I could call room service.”

“I’m okay.” Aaron walked slowly to the bathroom, sore muscles and bruises making themselves known now that the anger and adrenaline of the night were gone. “Probably need to head back to my room pretty quick.”

“We’ve got… eh, thirty-five minutes til curfew. You’re okay.”

Aaron nodded and closed the bathroom door behind him, then let himself collapse on his elbows on the counter, his chin dropping to his chest. Fuck. What was he doing? What did he do? It was stupid. Dangerous. Every bit of it, from the fucking around with a teammate to fucking around with someone who had sex for money to fucking around with someone who took pictures of him, it was so stupid.

He wasn’t sorry.

He was already thinking about when and how they could make it happen again.

**

He didn’t expect Guddy to make the next move, but he did, catching Aaron after practice and pulling him back into the showers.

“What?” Aaron was tired, distracted. One of his shitty runs of sleep had set in—the apartment was too quiet, too cold, too lonely to sleep in. If he did drift off he woke up every hour or two. He’d even tried drinking the weird tea Megan gave him when he lived with the Mitchells, but he wasn’t making it right, or something; it tasted too bitter and it didn’t help him sleep at all. He just ended up playing video games or watching dumb movies all night.

“What are you doing after this?” Guddy asked, his hand still on Aaron’s arm. Aaron blinked down at it, puzzled, then looked at Guddy and shrugged.

“Going home, I guess? I need a nap, I’m tired.”

“You look like shit.”

“Thanks, asshole.” Aaron pulled his arm free and dragged his hand through his hair. “Let me get out of here and get some sleep, then.”

“No, that’s not—” Guddy sighed and stepped between him and the door, raising his hands in surrender. “Sorry. I was just busting your balls. Let me try this again.”

Aaron sighed and waited, shifting uncomfortably as water ran from his hair down his neck. He wanted to get out of here, not play games. He wanted to go home and stick his head under a pillow until he passed out from lack of oxygen. Or maybe jerking off a couple of times would help. Something had to give.

“If you’re not busy, come over,” Guddy said, the words coming in a rush.

Aaron wasn’t sure he heard that right. “Come over?”

“To my place.” Guddy sounded more nervous than dickish, for once. “It’s not, like, a big deal. Just come over. We’ll mess around. Have a beer. I think we both need to take the edge off, right?”

“You want to mess around.”

Guddy huffed impatiently. “Dude, don’t make me say it out loud again, not here. Do you want to come over or not?”

He did. He really did. Messing around with Guddy sounded so much better than jerking off alone, it wasn’t even a contest. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll… yes. I’ve gotta get some ice for my knee, but I’ll come by as soon as I’m done. Okay?”

Guddy stepped back, looking… satisfied. Pleased. Aaron didn’t know if there were more layers to it. He’d never bothered to try to learn how to read Guddy’s face. “Yeah. Sounds good. I’ll have food for us.”

Part of Aaron wanted to make a joke about that sounding like a date. The rest of him knew that if he did, Guddy would freak out and stop the whole thing. This was really delicate. “Okay. See you in a bit.”

Guddy nodded and walked off, and Aaron stayed in the showers for a moment, catching his breath and trying to catch up with himself.

He went back to his stall and toweled his hair roughly, staring at the mixed-up collection of t-shirts and jogging shorts lying there and wondering if this was, like, a test, if he needed to look hot, if Guddy even cared, if hot even meant anything when you were hooking up with a teammate. It wasn’t the same as picking up girls at the bar, that was for sure. He knew that much. But he didn’t know what it was instead.

Fuck.

“Hey, Eks,” Willie said, and Aaron looked up, blushing despite himself.

“Yeah?”

“You want to come over for lunch? Meg’s experimenting with hummus.”

Meg’s experiments were always good, but he couldn’t really imagine what she would do with hummus. “Oh, um, I’d love to, but I’m actually having lunch with Guddy.”

Willie’s face lit up. “Yeah? You guys are hanging out? That’s great, kid, that’s just what I was hoping would happen.”

Aaron’s face got even hotter. There was no way to explain this. “Yeah, definitely. So tell Meg I’ll come by another time, okay?”

He got out of the locker room in a hurry after that. There was nowhere for any conversations to go but downhill.

**

Aaron recognized the lunch Guddy laid out on the table; those were straight-from-the-nutritionist follow-the-checklist meals. He’d learned enough from Megan that he could mix his up a little, but he didn’t have any complaints about Guddy sticking to the book exactly. They were good.

Guddy finished eating first, and then just kinda sat there, watching Aaron finish. Aaron looked up at him and blinked, putting down his fork and swallowing a mouthful of vegetables and quinoa. “What?”

“Nothing. Whatever. Just eat.” Guddy pressed his thumb to the corner of his mouth, worrying at the edge of his beard. Aaron frowned but obediently turned his attention back to the plate. He was almost done anyway.

“You want to hook up, right?” Guddy asked abruptly, and Aaron almost choked on his last bite of fish.

“What?” he said once he had that under control. “I mean, yeah, that’s what you asked me here for, right?”

“Right yeah, but… you want to? You don’t feel weird about it or anything?”

Aaron stared at him. “I didn’t until right now.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Guddy muttered, rubbing his face with his hands. “I just wanted to be sure I wasn’t pressuring you or whatever.”

“We’ve hooked up twice now and nobody was pressuring anybody.”

“That was different.”

“How?”

Guddy glared at him, his hand clenched in a loose fist now, thumb rubbing over his knuckles. It was kind of distracting. Guddy’s hands were strong, rough, good with a stick and with a punch on the ice. Good on Aaron’s body. It was weird to know both of those things, to be able to put them together in his head like this.

“Those both just kind of happened. Spontaneously. I asked you here this time. It’s planned, you know? It’s different.”

Aaron put his fork down carefully. “Let’s do it. Right now. Spontaneous.”

“It can’t be spontaneous, because I fucking asked you here to—”

“Shut up, Erik.” It was a cheap thrill just to say it, to see how it made Guddy’s eyes go wide. Aaron never called him by his real name. That wasn’t how locker rooms worked.

“Asshole,” Guddy said, but he got to his feet and jerked his head toward the hall. “Come on, then.”

When they got to the bedroom everything happened fast, just like at the hotels. Guddy’s hands were everywhere, helping Aaron out of his clothes and then tracing rough patterns on his skin, pinching here and there to make Aaron shudder, dipping down to his crotch to tease his dick and then around to his ass to squeeze and prod like a promise.

“Ready yet?” he asked, his mouth pressed hot to Aaron’s shoulder.

“I don’t know.” Aaron closed his eyes tightly, trying not to pull away from Guddy’s hands. His instincts said to move, but he didn’t really want to. He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t… “How do I tell?”

“If you’re asking, you’re not ready yet.” Guddy bit down, pressing his tongue against the skin caught between his teeth. Aaron groaned and let his head fall back, only to choke when Guddy pulled off and said, “You want to do me?”

“Do… do what?”

“Fuck me, kid.” Guddy smirked at him, catching Aaron’s wrists and squeezing slowly. “Do you want to fuck me in the ass?”

“Jesus.” Aaron closed his eyes again. “You can’t just…”

“Yeah, I can.” Guddy leaned in and kissed him, slow and deep, still holding his wrists. “You wanna? I’ll walk you through it. It feels good.”

“For you or for me?”

“Both, dumbass.” Guddy laughed and pushed him down on his back on the bed. “Forget it. You’re not into it, that’s cool.”

“I didn’t say that. I didn’t say I wasn’t into it.”

Guddy shook his head and kissed him, shifting around until he found the position he wanted and then grinding down, keeping Aaron trapped between his mouth and his weight. Aaron couldn’t keep arguing, couldn’t talk at all, couldn’t move except to rock up against him and get harder and harder as Guddy kept moving and the friction kept building.

“Fuck, you get so hard, Eks.” Guddy dragged his mouth along Aaron’s jaw, biting lightly at his beard. His voice was low and rumbly, raw heat. “You’re so big, too. Big fat dick. Bet you were the talk of the locker room in the O, swinging that thing around.”

“It wasn’t… it wasn’t like that,” Aaron mumbled, trying to arch up more, get more contact, maybe free his wrists so he could touch himself. Guddy didn’t let go, though, and he nipped the curve of Aaron’s jaw with a sharp hot pain.

“Don’t argue with me when I’m talking dirty at you, Ekblad. Jesus.” Guddy sighed and shook his head, then bit Aaron again, lower on the side of his neck. “I’m complimenting your dick, here.”

“Yours is good, too.” God, why was he saying such dumb shit, why did he have no game at this. He tried to get his hands free again and got another bite, this one hard enough that he would definitely have a bruise to get chirped about in the locker room. “I want to touch it, if you’ll fucking let go of me.”

“Just touch it? You don’t want to suck it?”

“I’ve done that. I want to try something else.”

Guddy grinned down at him. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. Something new.”

“Something new with my dick. Huh.” Guddy released Aaron’s left wrist, moving his own hand to Aaron’s chest. “Show me what you can do.”

Aaron worked his fingers a little, easing the pain in his wrist from Guddy’s grip, then slid his hand across the front of Guddy’s shorts, finding the curve of his dick through the fabric and squeezing gently. He knew what to do with a cock, he wasn’t new at this. He maybe couldn’t impress a professional like Guddy—or, even if he wasn’t a professional, an asshole who was never impressed by anything, like Guddy—but he wasn’t going to be embarrassed, either.

Guddy groaned low in his throat, his eyes falling half-closed and his weight settling heavily on the hand resting on Aaron’s chest. “Fuck, yeah. That’s good.”

“Told you.” Aaron focused on the head for a minute, working it roughly with the layers of shorts and underwear to absorb the friction. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Like I said, I bet you were real popular in the locker room in the O.”

“Not the locker room. I had class.” Aaron gave in and tugged Guddy’s shorts down so he could get his hand on skin. “I insisted on backseats of cars and, like. Bedrooms at billet houses.”

Guddy laughed out loud, thrusting roughly into Aaron’s hand. “Fuck, Eks. You mean you had an actual personality? I don’t believe it. Elite prospect kids are such a bunch of boring little bitches—”

“You were an elite prospect, you dumb piece of—”

“I was the token fun one.” Guddy caught Aaron’s wrist and stopped him, then leaned down to kiss him again, rough and hungry, his tongue fucking deep into Aaron’s mouth. “Goddamn it. I hate asking twice. But c’mon, dude. Fuck me.”

Aaron took a shaky breath and nodded, desperately willing himself not to lose control now. Of all fucking times. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. Show me.”

**

It was kind of a blur, all hands and skin and Guddy's rough voice talking him through it, coaching him like this was a new technique on the ice. Aaron understood being coached. He was good at being coached. He followed instructions well and got Guddy hot and open and ready, got himself buried deep inside, found a rhythm, fucked him until they both came. There wasn't as much mystery to it as he'd expected.

They lay in bed afterward, stretched out carelessly, touching here and there but neither of them interested in making a big deal about it. Aaron barely had the energy to notice. He needed a power nap--twenty or thirty minutes maybe--and then he'd be ready to get up and go. But not yet.

"Hey," Guddy said after a while. Aaron grunted, and Guddy nudged him in the ribs, then again, until Aaron turned his head and looked at him.

"I'm sorry," Guddy went on, his voice low and halting. Aaron frowned and opened his mouth to ask why, but Guddy shook his head a fraction and kept talking. "I, like, made this weird and stuff, asking you over here. I made it sound like it was a thing, with--with feelings or whatever, and I didn't mean to, like. Do that."

Aaron's breath stopped in his chest for a moment, long enough for a few heartbeats to become painful thumps against his ribs. "I didn't think that, actually. I mean, it wasn't... it wasn't that weird."

"Oh." Guddy threw his forearm across his eyes, his voice tight. "Well, then, forget I said anything."

"It's weird now, if that helps."

"Shut up."

"Why..."

"Please shut up."

"No, come on. You said all that, you said it didn't mean anything with feelings or whatever, now tell me what you did mean."

"It doesn't matter."

"I want to know." He hesitated, then thought fuck it. "I deserve to know."

Guddy was quiet for a while, his arm pressed harder over his eyes. Aaron glanced around the room, trying to get eyes on his clothes so he could get dressed and get the hell out of here when Guddy told him to fuck off. This was such a bad idea. All of this was so stupid.

"When we hooked up on the road," Guddy said finally. "I know it was just hooking up, blowing off steam, whatever, but it--it was good. I kept thinking about it. Thinking about, you know. You. When I was jerking off and stuff."

Aaron hadn't been expecting to hear anything in particular, but that wasn't definitely miles outside any of his weirdest ideas. "You, like, you fantasized about me?"

"That's what I just said, yes. Glad you could keep up."

Aaron flipped him off, but Guddy still wasn't looking at him. "So you invited me over for live in person porn?"

That got Guddy to lift his arm and look at Aaron again. "That's... literally what sex is."

Heat rushed to Aaron's face again. "Fuck you," he muttered.

"I wasn't trying to use you, or whatever you're thinking. I just was thinking about you a lot. And I wanted to hook up again. But it's kind of hard to do that, like, normally when you know about my..." Guddy gestured vaguely. "Hobbies."

It was Aaron's turn to be quiet for a moment. "What would be getting a hookup normally?"

"What?"

"You said it's hard to do it normally since I know. But, uh, you just... asked me. How is that not normal?"

Guddy lay still and silent, then shook his head. "Son of a bitch. How do you do that?"

"I don't know," Aaron said honestly. "It just kind of happens."

Guddy shook his head again. "I need a drink. Do you want one?"

"Yeah. Please."

"Wait here." Guddy got up and walked out, and Aaron flopped back against the pillows, closing his eyes tight. He really, really didn't know what he was doing. Not even a little bit. This wasn't hockey, it wasn't Barrie girls or beach girls or Instagram models or... or anything he'd learned his way around so far in his life.

But here he was. And he didn't want to leave.

**

It happened a few more times after that, Guddy grabbing him after practice and asking him to come over. It was good, every time—lunch and then sex, messing up Guddy’s big sun-drenched bed.

Aaron didn’t learn something new every time, but more often than not. It was all really… just really good. He couldn’t get enough of it.

Not that he would let Guddy know that. Being over-eager or too needy would not be cool, and he was still kind of desperately trying to be cool with Guddy.

One day they both fell asleep after they had sex, and woke up with the usual late-afternoon Florida rain beating against the windows. Aaron wasn’t in a hurry to go and Guddy didn’t seem to be in a hurry to kick him out, so they lay there for a while. Not cuddling, but… close. Sharing each other’s space. It was pretty good.

Aaron finally broke the silence, sleepy contentment getting the better of his nerves. “So… you’re bi, right?.”

Guddy glanced at him, eyebrows lifting a little but eyes still half-closed. “Yeah, just like the last time you asked me. Why?”

“I dunno. Just thinking, I guess.” Aaron rubbed his knuckles slowly along Guddy’s arm. “When did you, like… figure that out?”

“Oh. Shit.” Guddy shifted more comfortably onto his back, blinking up at the ceiling. “Well, you know. Juniors. Everybody hooks up in juniors. I guess you either decide dick isn’t your thing, or you’re like, cool, this is fun, no big deal.”

“I guess some people decide it’s their thing for good, too.”

“You trying to tell me something, Eks?”

“What? No.” Aaron shook his head, watching his hand against Guddy’s skin. “I told you that, too. You know I like girls. Claudia and everything.”

“Yeah, but you and Claudia are toast, bro.”

Aaron shrugged, letting his hand fall to the sheet. “Yeah. I didn’t think that was going to happen.”

“People break up. That’s actually the normal thing, in relationships, to break up.”

Aaron bit back the impulse to ask if Guddy was trying to tell him something. They weren’t in a relationship. They were hooking up. “Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, I just thought we’d be on and off until she graduated and get back together for good eventually. I thought we would end up together. Get married and stuff. Kids.”

Guddy’s forehead scrunched up. “You thought it was, like, destiny and shit?”

“Well. It is.” Aaron felt himself blushing again and averted his eyes, focusing on the texture of the sheet under his fingertips. “We’re, like, perfect for each other. It all made sense. She’s from a hockey family, she knows what it’s like. She knows how to be a hockey wife. She knows how to, like, deal with all the stress and stuff. It seemed like it would be better to be with somebody who knows that than to make somebody else learn about it and maybe get hurt or something.”

“Kid, do you mean to sound as sad as fucking possible when you talk about this?”

“No!” Aaron sighed in frustration. “No. I’m not sad. It just… I thought it was the way things were going to be. Eventually. I’m not sure when exactly. But at some point, I thought that was what we were going to do.”

“Mrs. Mitchie would kick you in the ass if she heard you say that stuff.”

Aaron blushed even worse, thinking of Megan looking at him with anger or disappointment. “Whatever, Megan talks about it all the time, how hard it was to get used to being a hockey wife. Having her whole life belong to the NHL. I don’t want to do that to anybody who isn’t expecting it. It would suck.”

Guddy was quiet for a minute, and then his hand slid down Aaron’s back, from his neck to his ass in a slow, careful stroke. “Okay, then. Let me know when you find another hockey chick and get around to it, so I don’t keep trying to take you home. Don’t want to be a homewrecker.”

Aaron turned his head toward him and frowned. “That’s not what I--”

“Dude.” Guddy poked him in the ribs, and the tension drained out of Aaron again as he realized Guddy was teasing him. “I better be invited to the wedding.”

Aaron stuck his tongue out and turned facedown again. Jokes. Okay. They were doing jokes. “And risk you making a toast? No.”

“Dipshit.” Guddy lifted his hand and ruffled Aaron’s hair. “You sticking around for dinner, too?”

“Uh.” Aaron tried to think if he had anything else to do, or anywhere to be. “Sure.”

“You can’t sleep over, though.” Guddy rolled out of the bed and padded across the room. “We’ve got early skate tomorrow and I hate sharing the bed.”

“I didn’t ask,” Aaron called after him, and Guddy flipped him off before disappearing into the bathroom. He turned onto his back and took a breath.

What are we doing? What is this? Should I stop it? I want to stop it, I like it. Why don’t I want to stop it?

“Fuck,” he muttered, and forced himself to push off the bed and sit up. No point running in circles. Might as well live in the moment and let the questions keep him up at night when he was alone, the way they always did.

**

Between games and road trips and Guddy, Aaron had been turning down Willie’s invitations to dinner with a 100% consistency rate. Willie was starting to look at him like something was wrong.

“Yes,” he said the next time Willie came across the locker room at him. “Yes, I can come over tonight. You and Meg don’t have to hurt me. I’m all yours.”

Willie rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “Nobody’s going to hurt you, brat. She just misses you, that’s all.”

“She does? Not you?”

“I see you every damn day.”

“Yeah, but that’s different, eh?” Aaron knew he was playing it up too hard, but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t always have to be cool with Willie the way he did with Guddy. This was probably okay.

“It is.” Willie laughed and shook his head. “Come over around six. We’ll grill in the yard.”

“Steak or fish?”

“Depends on if they’re biting this afternoon.”

“You’re going out on the boat?” Aaron hesitated at Willie’s nod. “You mind if I come with?”

“Sure, love to have you.” Willie raised an eyebrow at him. “You sure you don’t have something better to do?”

Aaron was never going to shave this beard off; it was his only cover when he started to blush. “What do you mean?”

Willie shrugged. “Haven’t seen much of you lately. Figured you had some stuff going on.”

“I don’t have time for stuff. I’ve got hockey.”

“Plenty of hockey players find time for stuff, Eks.”

Aaron shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t.” Willie grinned and bumped his shoulder. “You don’t have a lady friend you’re spending all this time with?”

Aaron choked. Oh. Oh. “No! No, um. Not… it’s not like that.”

“Hey, I’m in favor of you having a good time and keeping yourself busy. It’s not good for you to mope around at home by yourself.”

“I don’t mope.”

“You get a little mopey.” Willie winked at him and turned away to scoop up his bag. “I’m headed out. Come by around two or three and we’ll get on the water for a few hours.”

What had sounded like a nice lazy afternoon now was turning into a trap. If he was on a boat with Willie, he couldn’t avoid questions about this theoretical girlfriend. But it wasn’t like he could back out now. “Yeah, I’ll see you then. Can’t wait.”

**

Willie didn’t bring it up until they were way out on the water and two beers in, lines over the side waiting for the fish to bite. “So, you want to tell me about it?”

“I knew you were going to do this.” Aaron shook his head, smiling despite himself. “As soon as you get me trapped out here on the boat, you can’t help it, eh?”

“Planned it all along.” Willie bumped his sunglasses higher on his nose and adjusted his fishing rod. “There a reason you don’t want to tell me about whatever it is?”

“It’s…” Aaron sighed, draining his beer and giving in to the inevitable. “It’s complicated.”

“It always is.”

“No, I mean… more complicated than usual.” Aaron fell quiet for a minute, looking down at the deck, and thank god, Willie waited instead of pushing this time. “There is somebody,” Aaron said finally. “We’re hooking up.”

“Just hooking up?” Willie asked carefully. “Not more?”

“I don’t know. It’s… I mean, we hook up pretty much on the regular, I guess, so maybe? But we’re not exclusive. I mean. Not, like. At all.”

“You’re being careful, though.” It wasn’t quite a question, because there was only one right answer. Aaron nodded and Willie relaxed a little, turning his attention back to the water.

“I feel like I should be able to figure this out,” Aaron said after a few more minutes of silence. “Like, do I like—do I like them, or not?” He knew Willie caught the stumble; it wasn’t smooth at all. “If I do, I should try to make this a real thing, instead of just hooking up, right? But I don’t think they… want that. I’m not sure. But I don’t think so.”

“Hmm.” Willie stretched the sound out into a vague hum, getting up again to check the lines. “That’s a tricky one, Eks.”

“So I’m not stupid for not being able to figure it out?”

“You’re not stupid, period. Not ever.” Willie leaned on the rail and looked at him. “You like this… person? I mean, just basically like them. Not the kind of liking you’re worried about. You would hang out with them if sex wasn’t involved.”

“Yeah.” Aaron thought about it, about Guddy joking at practice, Guddy drinking with the guys, Guddy goofing around at team bonding shit or talking basketball in the room. “Yeah, I would. I like them as a person.”

“Okay. That’s a good first step.” Willie ran his hand through his hair and looked at Aaron seriously, that look that meant he was about to give real grown-up advice and wasn’t just being the casual older brother figure. It was always a relief when Aaron could tell he was about to get something serious. He knew he needed to pay attention and remember. “Here’s my question for you, Eks: why do you need to figure it out?”

Aaron blinked. “What?”

“Why do you need to figure this out? Why do you need to make it a serious thing instead of hooking up?”

“That’s… that’s what people do.”

“You’re nineteen.” Willie raised his eyebrows, like he was asking—right? “You don’t have to settle down yet. You’ve got lots of time. You can have some fun now. You can be relaxed. You can even be careless or reckless, as long as it’s not, you know, health-wise.”

“I don’t really do that,” Aaron said. “I’m really responsible.”

“I know you are. But you’ve gotta let go somewhere, kid, or you’re going to explode. So don’t worry so much, eh? Just have fun with your friend. Hang out with them, have good sex, don’t worry so goddamn much.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I can just decide not to worry.”

“Aaron.” Willie laughed and crossed over to him, cupping Aaron’s chin in his hand. “You like seeing this person? You like the sex? You come away feeling good instead of bad?”

“Yeah. I… yes. I do.”

“Then keep doing it. As soon as that changes, you stop. Okay?”

Aaron leaned into Willie’s touch for a minute, turning the idea around in his head. “If I start feeling bad, I just stop seeing them.”

“Yes. It doesn’t have to be a big awful drawn-out thing.”

Aaron pulled away. “Okay, that was you taking a shot at me and Claudia.”

“A little bit.” Willie let his hand drop and moved back to his chair. “Not in a judgmental way. Just, don’t do that to yourself again, eh? You don’t have to, it’s not required, and it’s not good for you.”

“How do I tell if this is good for me?”

“Trust your gut. It won’t steer you wrong.” Willie’s line jerked and he jumped up again, grabbing the rod. “Oh, I’ve got a big one. Come here and help me with this, we’ll get back to your love life later.”

**

Aaron went home that night full of bonefish and with a lot to think about. He sat on his couch for a while, trying to do the thinking, until it all got tangled up in his head and his throat and he couldn’t breathe right.

Trust his gut. Okay.

He picked up his phone and texted Guddy, fast, before he could think about it too hard. Hey. Busy?

The answer came faster than he expected. Nope. What’s up?

Aaron took a deep breath and made himself start typing. Want to come over?

A longer pause this time. Yeah. Should I bring anything?

Aaron closed his eyes and tried to pin down the rush of heat that went through him. Excited. A little nervous. Mostly good, though. He would call it good. So by Willie’s theory, he was doing the right thing.

Nope I’ve got stuff. See you soon.

**

Being tangled up with Guddy in his own bed didn’t feel as different as he was expecting. It wasn’t weird, just warm and sweaty and Guddy kept bumping his stupid knees into Aaron everywhere, just like when they had done this anywhere else.

“You keep getting better at sucking dick,” Guddy mumbled against Aaron’s shoulder. “Always gotta be a gold-star student, eh? Teacher’s pet.”

“Shut up.” Aaron halfheartedly elbowed him. “I can stop sucking your dick, you know. Any time I want.”

“You don’t want to stop. You like it.” Guddy laughed low and hot, his hand skimming down Aaron’s torso to his cock. “Mm-hmm, I can tell you do.”

“God.” Aaron shifted closer, arching up into the touch. “You’re pretty good at this too.”

“I’m a professional, dumbass.” Guddy nipped at the side of Aaron’s chest and then ran his tongue over it. “I could make you beg for days.”

“Are you really, though?” Aaron caught his fingers in Guddy’s hair before Guddy could make his way any lower. “You’re a professional hockey player. I don’t think you can be a double professional. So you’re, like. A talented amateur. At the other thing.”

Guddy looked up at him for a moment. “The other thing. C’mon, Eks. You can say it.”

Aaron shrugged. “I don’t need to say it.”

“You don’t want to say it.” Guddy sat up, and Aaron reluctantly let go of his hair. “It bugs you, doesn’t it?”

“I didn’t say that.” The good mood was draining out of the room fast. That wasn’t what he’d wanted at all.

“Yeah, that’s kinda the point, you won’t say it at all.” Guddy shook his head. “You don’t say anything, you just fucking… judge me.”

“I’m not!” Aaron sighed and sat up as well, pulling the blanket over his lap. “Look, just… forget it, okay? Forget I said anything.”

“I can’t forget it.” Guddy ran his hand through his hair, every motion sharp and angry. “You don’t even know. You don’t know anything about it.”

“Then tell me!” Aaron didn’t want to yell, but it was happening anyway. “You said it was just for your hobbies, but now you’re acting all… If I don’t know, then tell me!”

“What, you want details?” Guddy sneered at him. “You want something to jerk off to when I’m not around?”

“Don’t be an asshole.” Aaron took a breath. He wanted to be calm and understanding, mature and… and good. He wanted to be good. “Tell me how you got into it. You’re right, I don’t know anything. So tell me how you started doing it. Maybe then I’ll get it, right?”

Guddy looked at him for a long moment, then let his gaze drop to the bedding. He pulled the blanket over himself, too. “Okay. Yeah, maybe you will. Probably not. But maybe.”

Aaron bit down on the sharp retort he wanted to spit out and waited, instead, rubbing his hand slowly over his leg through the blanket.

“Like I said, it’s to cover my hobbies, okay? I don’t have, like, a fucking sob story. I want to put money away for when I’m not playing anymore. That goes out first, and then I cover any gaps by fucking for cash.”

Aaron nodded. “How long have you been doing it?”

Guddy laughed. It sounded weird, wrong, with the tension in the room, but Aaron gripped his knee harder and waited it out. “That’s the thing, dude. I know you want a sob story there, too, but I’ve only been doing it since… when did we sign Jags? Like two weeks after we signed him.”

Aaron froze, his thumbnail snagging the blanket. “Wait, Jags got you to…”

“Not the way you’re thinking.” Guddy shook his head, his mouth twisted in a smirk that was just as weird and off-kilter as his laugh. “We were all trying to get to know him, right? The official stuff and then a bunch of us took him out a couple times, tried to welcome him to town. I said he should come out to the casino with me. He asked me which one. Then he fuckin’… he laughed at me, and said that’s where kids went to gamble, and he’d show me where the grown-ups are.”

That sounded like Jags. Aaron could imagine the grin that went with it.

“So I went with him a couple times, and… shit.” Guddy laughed again. “You have no idea. I had no idea. Swimming with the sharks, man. I got my ass kicked. They took me out. I ran up a tab. Like. A significant tab.”

“Shit,” Aaron said, because… he had to say something. Sitting in silence was starting to choke him.

“Yeah. Shit. So I went to Jags, and I was like, uhh, any chance you can help me out here? And he laughed at me again and was like, no, I’m not gonna bail you out, you should know better, but I’ll call up my friend at the casino.” Guddy shook his head and leaned back on his elbows. “I thought I was going to get my legs broken or something, right? Like in a movie. And then I would really be fucked.”

“So… they wouldn’t write it off.” Aaron couldn’t believe they were talking about this. It really was like a movie. The kind that he didn’t really like to watch because they made his stomach hurt.

“No. But Jags got me a meeting with his guy, and I went and talked to him and he liked me, so he said as long as I made payments on the regular, he would get them to cap my interest. That was more than I expected him to do, so I said thank you and I swore I wouldn’t fuck it up and he said it would be in my best interest if I didn’t.”

Aaron nodded, like he totally understood, like he’d ever seen anything like that. Maybe Guddy had been right all along and he was just a dumb kid.

“I said I was going to have to make some changes in my life to keep those payments coming.” Guddy was gazing up at the ceiling, eyes unfocused, like he was thinking about something far away. “And he said, ‘Well, if you can’t make it work and you need more money coming in, you’re a very attractive young man, and an athlete. I could put you in touch with another friend of mine.’”

“He… pimped you out?” The word felt wrong in his mouth. This was not anything he knew how to do.

Guddy blinked and looked at Aaron again. “I guess? Not exactly. But sort of.” He gestured vaguely with one hand, then pulled the blanket up higher on his waist. “I said I wouldn’t mind getting in touch, he took my number and told me to wait for a call.”

“You just went for it?”

“I figured I would talk to the guy and I could always say no.” Guddy shrugged. “So I got a call telling me to meet him for drinks at one of the hotels, and… yeah. The rest is history.”

Aaron stared at him. “Just like that.”

“Yeah.” Guddy met his eyes steadily. “Just like that.”

“You liked it.”

“I did. I do.” He ran his hand through his hair and shrugged again. “I felt weird about it at first, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to like it, that I could get in big trouble for it, and all that, but… yeah. I mean, I paid the debt off by the middle of the summer and I’m still doing it.”

Aaron opened his mouth, then closed it. It made sense. It wasn’t anything he’d ever encountered before, but it made sense, and why should he argue with someone about their own life?

Guddy’s voice softened. “No big drama, kid. I like sex. I like not having to tap my retirement fund to pay for stuff. It works for everybody and nobody’s getting hurt. Everybody wins, actually.”

“I… I guess that’s true.” Aaron nodded. “When you put it like that.”

“Cool.” Guddy raised his eyebrows. “Now, can you deal with it, or are you going to let it fuck all of this up?”

Aaron couldn’t tell if it was an ultimatum or not. “I don’t want this to get fucked up.”

“I don’t either. But that means you’ve gotta let this go, Eks. Don’t spend time thinking about it. It doesn’t have to…” Guddy gestured at the bed between them. “It doesn’t have to come in here if you don’t want it to. Or I can tell you stuff about it, pretty hot stuff. It can be something we get off on.”

Aaron licked his lips and thought for a moment. It was like what Willie had said, about letting go and calming down and just living instead of worrying. He could do that, probably. He could try.

“Okay,” Aaron said, reaching for Guddy’s hand and pulling him close. “Yeah. Tell me the hot stuff.”

Guddy grinned and leaned in to kiss him. “Yeah, kid. There we go.”

**

After their next home game, Guddy caught Aaron leaving the shower and leaned in close. “Hey. I’m gonna go out tonight. You know. Hobby stuff.”

Aaron blinked, hitching his towel higher on his waist. “Oh.”

“So I won’t come out with you guys.” Guddy glanced toward the lockers, then back to Aaron. “Come by my place when you’re done, okay? Let yourself in if I’m not back yet.”

“Are you sure? It’s not… I mean, whatever you want, but you don’t have to…”

“I know I don’t have to.” Guddy cuffed Aaron’s shoulder, more gently than he normally would, and dropped his voice lower. “Don’t get weird on me. I just want to mess around with you after I hook up. You’re better than most of them.”

“Thanks,” Aaron said, only a little flatly.

“Just let yourself in,” Guddy said again, tugging at Aaron’s hair and turning away. “Help yourself to the kitchen and whatever. I’ll be back as fast as I can.”

Aaron didn’t let himself think about it too hard. That was the point now, after all; not to think too much, just to go with it, just live his life, just… whatever. He dried off, got dressed, waited patiently while the other guys yelled at each other to figure out where they wanted to go. None of the older crew agreed to come out; even Jags waved them off with a few remarks about youth and stupidity.

But the younger guys went for dinner and drinks, and Aaron went with them, drifting along in the cloud of post-game adrenaline and comradeship. It was nice, just being part of the crowd, no specific attention on him. He didn’t have to think too much about that, either. Just float.

The season of floating, he thought as he signaled the waiter for his second beer. The season of just going with it and seeing what happens.

It wasn’t how he’d ever lived his life before, but everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea.

He ended up getting more drunk than he meant to, enough that he had to call an Uber to take him to Guddy’s place. He punched the alarm code in perfectly, though. Getting the cops called on him would be beyond embarrassing and definitely ruin things. Not just sex things. Team things. His pride… things.

Fuck. He was drunk.

He sat in the kitchen waiting for Guddy to get home, drinking another beer and then switching to water when he realized he was too close to falling asleep with his head on the counter.

He wondered what was taking Guddy so long; was this customer, like, really particular, or maybe really weird? Did they want something complicated or… Aaron’s imagination gave out pretty fast. He didn’t know enough about being a hooker to guess what Guddy might be doing.

When he finished his second glass of water, he moved to the bedroom. He lay down on top of the bedding, still neatly made up, which meant Guddy’s cleaning service must have come out that day while they were at the arena. That would be nice, coming back from a game to find the bed all made up. He should check his own cleaning schedule and make sure it lined up as much as possible.

He was still pretty drunk.

He could close his eyes for just a few minutes, he decided; he would hear the front door open when Guddy got back, hear his footsteps making their way through the house, hear him grab a water or Gatorade on his way past the kitchen. Aaron would have time to sit up and be semi-presentable by the time Guddy got to the bedroom; maybe he would even achieve kinda sexy. Maybe… maybe…

He fell asleep.

**

He woke up with Guddy’s hand stroking slowly over his hair, running from the top of his head to the nape of his neck in careful motions. Aaron blinked up at him, happy and embarrassed and a little sick to his stomach. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Guddy’s hand stilled, then slid down to cup Aaron’s jaw. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Just… waiting for you to get back.”

“Sorry about that.” Guddy smiled faintly and leaned down to kiss him. “But I’m here now, eh?”

Aaron nodded and let Guddy gently push him over onto his back. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Fine. I’m here now.”

He was there, and working to get Aaron’s pants undone and off his hips, to get his boxers out of the way and his dick free, soft as he tugged it up out of Aaron’s boxers. “There we go,” Guddy muttered, shifting so he could lower his head and kiss along Aaron’s length, then teasing with his tongue back to the tip. “C’mon, there, buddy, wake up for me.”

Aaron closed his eyes and shivered, his hips rising up off the bed. “Working on it.”

“Mm. I want you.” Guddy’s voice was rougher than usual, low and urgent, sending another shiver through Aaron’s body. “I want to suck you off and feel you in my fucking throat.”

“Okay.” Aaron arched up again, trying to tug his pants and boxers all the way to his knees so he could get his thighs further apart. “Help me out a little.”

“I got him off twice.” Guddy wrapped his hand around Aaron’s cock and stroked roughly. “And he made me come. And I kept thinking shit, I wanna get home and take Eks apart.”

Another hot jolt went through Aaron, twisting low in his stomach and making his dick jerk in Guddy’s hand. “Y-yeah? You thought about me while you were with him?”

“Fuck. I did. Messed me up a little, and then I was like, fuck it, I’ll use it.” Guddy licked the head of Aaron’s dick and looked up at him. “Thinking about you got me so fucking hard. Made that guy’s night. He owes you one.”

Aaron’s face felt so hot it hurt. “S-sounds like he owes me two.”

Guddy laughed and took him in his mouth fully, swallowing him down deep, and Aaron let his head fall back against the pillow. No thinking, just feeling. Just letting go. He could do that. He could do this. He could be somebody else, somebody new, when he was with Guddy. It could be so good this way.

**

Aaron got used to things faster than he expected. At practice, on the road, during games, they were teammates and buddies. They joked around with everyone else, they didn't pay each other any special attention. Aaron was one hundred percent sure that they were keeping everything quiet and under the radar.

After practice, and either after games or after Guddy went out after games, they hooked up. Guddy’s place or Aaron's, it didn't matter anymore. They were interchangeable beds, showers, kitchens. Things were good. It was working.

He knew that Willie was keeping an eye on him, watchful and amused as always. But Aaron was doing fine, and he still felt good about things, so there wasn't anything to worry about. Willie could watch as much as he wanted.

It took him a while to realize that other people were watching too. Lu and Al, seeing everything in their goalie way--Aaron only figured that out when he caught Lu's raised eyebrow when he turned around in the shower and remembered the deep purple bruise that Gaddy's mouth had left on his shoulder.

Lu didn't say anything, though, because that was another goalie thing, seeing everything and keeping it to themselves unless it could somehow be useful for secret purposes. He just looked, his gaze lingering on the mark and then raising to Aaron's face with a steady, evaluating stare. Aaron looked away quickly, staring at his hands full of suds.

The goalies weren't who made him nervous in the end, though. They were just watching in the locker room, there was no way to avoid that. The person who made him nervous saw more and it was Aaron's own fault for being careless. He'd forgotten that the front office sent him and Reilly to the same building for apartment hunting. Reilly lived downstairs.

It never mattered, as far as Aaron had noticed. They crossed paths in the lobby when they were both headed to the arena. They saw each other in the parking lot or by the pool once in awhile. And obviously they stumbled in together sometimes when they had both been out with the guys. It had just never occurred to Aaron that Reilly might notice more than he did himself.

Then one day in the locker room, after a slow morning skate and before a game against Carolina, Reilly looked up from his stick and said, "Hey, Guds, what were you doing at Eks' so early today?"

Aaron froze, his skate laces slipping out of his fingers. He didn't dare look at Guddy or Reilly; the only thing he could think of was to pretend he hadn't heard the question at all, since it wasn't directed at him. He gathered his laces again, tucking his chin to his chest to keep from accidentally making eye contact with anyone.

"Huh?" Guddy said after a pause, like he hadn't quite heard the question either. Aaron could just hear the catch in his voice that gave it away, and that made him shiver even through his nerves. When had he gotten to know Guddy that well?

"I saw you in the parking lot this morning, man. Early." Reilly shook his head. "I wasn't sure it was you until I saw your car. Way to overcompensate, by the way."

Aaron could feel all the attention in the room shifting to Guddy, all of the guys smelling blood and uncertainty in the water. This might be it. This was probably it.

"Crashed on Eks' couch last night," Guddy said finally. His voice was calm, empty, his gaze focused on taping his stick. "I kicked his ass at Call of Duty and we had a few beers."

"Should've invited me up," Reilly said. "Dicks."

Guddy shrugged. "Next time for sure, man."

The attention in the room broke up again, and Aaron exhaled, some of the tension leaving his neck. He didn't look up, not wanting to know if Lu was watching, or worse, Willie. He couldn't handle knowing if either of them was piecing things together.

He had a hunch that they were.

**

Guddy was pissed about it. Not, like, angry, he didn’t yell or anything, and not at Aaron directly, but… pissed. “We’ve gotta be more careful,” he said that night, when Aaron came over to his place in response to a text that didn’t hint at anything other than talking.

Aaron just nodded, holding on tight to his beer. “Okay.”

“We don’t have to stop, okay, we just have to be more… more careful. More discreet.”

“Okay,” Aaron said again. “How do you want to do that?”

“What do you mean, how? You just do it.”

“Well, like, what specific stuff should we do? Or stop doing? We probably need an actual plan.”

“Right. Right.” Guddy nodded. “Well, no more going to your place. Nobody from the team lives around here. Safer.”

Aaron didn’t expect that to hurt, but it did, a quick little pain right to the center of his chest. “Okay. If that’s what you want.”

“Don’t be weird about this. I’m trying to protect both of us. You don’t want fucking Reilly running his mouth in the room, do you? People will notice.”

Aaron knew he should keep his mouth shut, he really should, but the words just shoved their way out. “What if they already did?”

Guddy froze, staring at him. “What?”

He definitely should’ve kept his mouth shut. “Nothing. Never mind. I don’t know.”

“But you think something. What is it?”

“I don’t think anything.”

“Aaron!”

Fuck. “Well… I don’t know for sure. I really don’t know. But, like. Lu. And Mitchie. They’ve been around a while. They notice things.”

Guddy sat back. “Lu and Mitchie.”

“Maybe Thorty. Al. Jags. I mean… they know stuff, right? They’ve seen it all before. They’ve seen a lot. They’ve been around.”

“And you’re Mitchie’s favorite.”

Aaron scowled at him, embarrassment chased away by a sudden burst of anger. “Don’t be an asshole.”

“Just saying what’s true.”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with him maybe knowing what to look for.”

Guddy took a deep breath and let it go slowly. Aaron watched his face, how his eyelids fluttered, how the muscle at the corner of his mouth twitched. Guddy was wound up like he got before he went out on the ice and picked a fight. Aaron really didn’t want that to happen right now.

“Okay,” Guddy said finally. “Yeah. You’ve got a point.”

Aaron nodded, letting himself breathe a little easier. “Yeah.”

“But it does mean that he might think it’s, like, his job to ask you questions. Sit you down for a daddy-son chat.”

“Fuck you.”

“I’m serious!”

Aaron jabbed his finger at him. “I’ve told you like ten times not to make daddy jokes about me and Mitchie. I fucking mean it. It’s not funny and it pisses me off.”

“God, you focus on the wrong fucking things.” Guddy tilted his head back and groaned at the ceiling. “And you’re such a baby sometimes.”

Aaron got to his feet. “Okay, I’m done. Call me when you’re ready to stop being an asshole.”

“You’re not going anywhere.”

Aaron turned and faced him, squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin, letting his body talk so he didn’t have to try to put words together. There was a minute where it felt like the air was humming, electric, like Guddy might stand and square up on him, too, and then things were going to go to hell in a hurry. Aaron could feel his heartbeat picking up, his hands wanting to clench into fists at his sides. But he wasn’t going to move first. If this was going to escalate, Guddy would have to do it.

But after a moment, Guddy looked away, and the tension eased off. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah, maybe it’s not a bad idea for you to go home for a while.”

Aaron felt that shock again, like he’d been blindside checked with no warning. “Are we… are we done?”

Guddy shrugged. “You suggested it first. Is that what you meant?”

“I meant taking a break from this conversation. Not… done.”

Some of the tension in Guddy’s face eased. “That’s what I hoped you meant.”

“Okay.” Aaron nodded and picked up his beer from the table, draining the last swallow of it and concentrating on not letting his hands give everything away by shaking. “Then… yeah. I’ll go home. We’ll talk tomorrow, maybe?”

“That sounds good.” Guddy sat still for a moment, his shoulders still tight, all of his tells going off that he still had something to say. Aaron could see them now. He waited.

His stomach hurt. He wished they could stop ending up in arguments that made his stomach hurt.

“Look,” Guddy said finally. “All I’m saying is… if Mitchie does try to say something to you, could you… not blow him off. Not exactly. But not have the conversation?”

“So like… shut him down,” Aaron said. “Or just avoid it?”

“Yeah.”

“I… I guess so.” He never avoided Willie. Being able to talk to Willie about everything, honestly, was the first really safe place he’d found for himself in Florida.

“I’m not telling you to lie to him,” Guddy said, like he could hear Aaron thinking. “Just… I want to keep this between us, okay? I want this to be ours. I don’t want to give it away to everybody.”

What could Aaron possibly say to that? There was nothing. Guddy wanted what they had to be special and secret. Safe between them. There was no way Aaron could argue with that without making it seem like he didn’t think it was worth that.

He nodded, got his keys out, and went home, not saying a real goodbye or grabbing a last kiss. When he got to his place he went to bed, wrapping himself up in blankets like he did when he was a kid watching scary movies with Darien in the dark. If he could just fall asleep, everything would feel better in the morning.

**

For the next few week or so he dodged Willie and Lu, and wasn’t particularly subtle about it. He turned down dinner twice, once via a text from Megan. It felt worse to say no to her--none of this had anything to do with her, and she was always so nice to him, and he really loved eating her cooking--but he knew if he went he would be stuck and Willie would ask him questions. It was important to Guddy to keep this away from the other guys. Aaron wanted to not suck at this whole relationship thing. So he stuck to his guns, and he said no.

He still felt Lu and Willie watching him, in the locker room and at practice and on the bus and… everywhere. But by the time a week had passed they stopped trying to talk to him about it. Or, well. They stopped trying to talk to him at all, beyond team stuff. And that was probably the same thing.

He felt bad about it, like he’d lost something, but there would be time to get it back later, when everybody forgot about what Reilly saw. Everything would be okay once they found a new status quo and moved on.

**

He and Guddy kept hooking up, but it wasn’t quite… it wasn’t the same. There was this thing between them, now, this tension. They had always been doing something that they had to keep a secret, but now it was more real, more heated. They had almost been caught, and Aaron couldn’t tell if it was his fault or not. They didn’t talk about it again, just went about things with the new rules, and maybe that was the problem. The air just wouldn’t clear.

The team had a long road trip, up through Minnesota and Canada. Aaron waited up for Guddy every night at the hotels. He didn’t like the feeling of sitting up, guessing, but… he didn’t know what else to do, either.

The last night of the trip, he decided not to wait. He got dressed after the game and grabbed Thorty’s arm. “Hey. Hey, are you guys going out tonight?”

Thorty gave him an odd look. “Yeah.”

“Mind if I come with?”

Thorty’s eyes narrowed a little. “You never go out anymore, kid. We figured you found religion or something.”

“No. I… no.” Aaron shook his head. “It’s… it’s a long story. But I want to go out tonight, if you guys are. Okay?”

“Sure. Whatever.” Thorty shrugged and gently brushed Aaron’s hand off his arm. “Don’t look so nervous. Just come with me.”

The group that assembled at the closest bar was the two of them, Al, Pirri, and Howdy. Aaron relaxed a little just looking around at the other faces. No Guddy, no Mitchie or Lu. He could actually have fun tonight, without so much fucking worrying.

Pirri and Howdy had gone off to get more drinks, and Al was deeply engrossed on his phone, when Thorty nudged Aaron further back into the corner of their booth and leaned in to speak directly in his ear. “You want to tell me what’s going on, Eks?”

He’d forgotten that Thorty was one of the old dudes, too. The guys who had been around the block and knew how to actually notice things. Shit.

Aaron did his best to keep his face blank. “Nothing.”

“You avoid everybody, you suddenly come out tonight after not doing it for fuckin’ ages, and you spend all your time staring off into space looking like somebody killed your dog.”

“I’m not… no. I don’t do that.”

Thorty’s big hand came up to cup the side of Aaron’s head, his index finger tap-tap-tapping steadily against Aaron’s temple. “Something’s going on in here. You’ve got to get whatever it is out, because it’s showing up on the ice.”

Aaron jerked away. “It is not. I don’t… I don’t let my personal shit fuck up my game.”

“Not on purpose.” Thorty shrugged and sat back again. “But I noticed. If you think nobody else did, you’re an idiot. And you’re usually not one, Eks, so don’t waste time lying to me, eh?”

Aaron closed his eyes and put his head down on the table for a moment. A long moment. Long enough that Thorty put his hand on the back of his neck and rubbed a little.

“I’m sort of seeing this person,” Aaron said to the table. “And right now things are fucked up. And I don’t know how to fix them.”

“Talking about it usually is a good first step.”

“We’re not talking, though. We’re just… um, sleeping together and not talking.”

“That’s sometimes a sign that it’s time to end the whole thing.”

“I don’t want to.” The immediacy of his response startled him. “I really don’t want to.”

Thorty petted his hair. “Then try the talking thing. Best case scenario, it helps. Worst case, you end things. At least there’s a chance.”

Aaron lifted his head and looked at him. “You’re smart.”

“I’ve been around the block. It’s not the same as being smart.”

“Looks the same to me.”

“That’s because you’re very young.” Thorty took his hand away and waved at Pirri and Howdy, who were on their way back with beer. “Go to dinner at Mitchie’s and buy Lu lunch or something. They’re driving me and Jags nuts worrying about you.”

“Wait, you guys actually do have old-guy meetings?”

Thorty gave him a look. “Fuck you, Eks. But yes.”

The guys sat down, Al looked up from his phone, and the conversation spiraled away, but Aaron held on to what Thorty said, turning it around in the back of his head. Talk about it. Try to work it out.

He begged off from the bar before the other guys were done and made his way back to the hotel, stopping in the lobby to check his phone.

He had a text from Guddy: Where are you?

He bit his lip and answered. Are you done punishing me yet?

There was a long pause before a reply came, and he could picture Guddy sitting up in bed, scowling at his phone. His imagination made Guddy naked with a sheet thrown over his waist, because why not? He was weak and he wanted it.

Come here, Guddy finally wrote back.

Makeup sex?, Aaron asked, pressing the button for the elevator.

We were never fighting.

Aaron took a deep breath as he got on the elevator and punched the button for Guddy’s floor a little harder than necessary. They were going to have to have this out, apparently. Fuck.

**

Guddy met him at the door, grabbing Aaron by the wrist and pulling him into the room. “Where have you been?”

“I went out with the guys.” Aaron shook his arm free and moved to sit on the edge of the dresser, his back to the mirror and his attention focused on Guddy. “Been awhile since I did that.”

“Yeah.” Guddy frowned, folding his arms over his chest. “I bet that wasn’t suspicious to them at all, you suddenly deciding to go out again, and me not.”

“What are you saying?”

“You could’ve sent me a text and let me know, given me a chance to come along, right?”

Aaron shook his head. “I needed a little break, dude. A little space. You know?”

“A break from what?”

Aaron dug his thumbnail into the edge of the dresser, pressing through the varnish on the wood. “You being pissed at me all the time.”

“What the fuck? I’m not pissed at you.”

“You are. You’ve been pissed at me since the whole thing with Reilly seeing you at my place.”

“Well, it almost gave everything away, Aaron.” Guddy’s voice was sharp enough to hurt. “And that was going to fuck things up for both of us.”

Aaron’s heart was thudding in his chest, his ears, behind his eyes. “There’s a difference between wanting to keep things a secret and treating me like shit. There’s gotta be. I need there to be.”

Guddy rolled his eyes and stepped back, shaking his head. “I haven’t been treating you like shit. Come on.”

“You fucking have been. And you better stop, or I’m done.”

“What do you mean, done?”

“Done with it. Not fucking around with you anymore.” Aaron waved his hand and then made a sharp slashing motion, cutting the air. “Over it.”

Guddy shook his head again, his mouth curling in a smirk. “You’re not fucking over it. You’re not gonna walk away, Eks.”

That fucking smirk was worse than if Guddy had hit him. Aaron dug his fingers into his palms to keep from taking a step back or letting his voice waver. “Not if you stop treating me like shit, no. I want this to work. But I don’t… I don’t deserve this.”

“Deserve what, Aaron?”

Aaron shook his head. “You acting like you’re mad at me, barely talking to me, just fucking me and walking out.”

The look on Guddy’s face was still awful, angry and twisted up. “You’re not my fucking girlfriend.”

“I’ve gotta be something.” Aaron swallowed hard and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I need to be something, dude.”

“You want to, what, come out?” Guddy waved his hand like he was indicating the whole world. “You want everybody to know?”

“No. No. I… I mean, I get that part.” Aaron’s chest hurt, and it was hard to get the words out, but he had to. This was the point where he really had to. “But I just want to know I matter a little bit to you. Even just as a friend with benefits, whatever. But I’m not… I’m not gonna be nothing, okay? I’m not gonna be trash.”

Guddy stopped, the anger suddenly draining out of his face, replaced with honest confusion. “You’re not trash. Where the hell did you get that idea?”

Aaron shrugged, looking away from him. The words were threatening to give up on him altogether, if they didn’t get through this soon. “It’s sucked. Since the thing with Reilly. I know it freaked you out, but… but this has sucked, okay?”

Guddy was quiet for a long time, and Aaron couldn’t quite bring himself to look back at him. He stared out the window; the view was of the parking lot and the other hotel across it, but it was better than looking at Guddy and having to see where this was going.

“Okay,” Guddy said. “I’ll do better.”

Aaron eyes jerked back to him. “You will?”

“The thing. Reilly. It scared me. But if you get that it’s scary, and that we can’t… I mean, this could ruin me, dude. I’ve got a lot more to lose than you do here.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“You’re the golden boy. If there’s a scandal and they run you out of Florida, someone will snap you up. You’d get a redemption media tour and it would go away. Me? I’m fucked. I don’t get a safety net.”

“Jesus, you are so fucking…” Aaron tilted his head back and took a deep breath. “You sell yourself so fucking short. Maybe that’s where you were at at the end of last season. But now? The way you’ve been playing? You’ve got value, asshole. You’ve been noticed. Stop playing the fucking martyr all the time.”

“I’m not on the same level you are.”

“Maybe not. But you’re not at the fucking bottom, either.”

The silence that followed was long, and chilly, and Aaron didn’t know how to read it. He pushed himself off the dresser and turned toward the door. “I’m gonna go.”

“Don’t.” Guddy’s voice was tight, not with anger but something else. Aaron couldn’t remember hearing him sound like that before. “I don’t want… fuck. I don’t want this to be over. I’ll try harder, okay?”

Aaron looked back, and… oh. He’d never seen that look on Guddy’s face before, either. “Okay. I… yeah”

Guddy stared at him for a moment, like he was expecting Aaron to say more, but Aaron had nothing. Finally Guddy cleared his throat. “You still gonna go back to your room?”

Aaron tried to laugh; it didn’t quite work, but the intent was there. “You got a reason I should stay?”

“I can make it up to you. All of the being a jackass.” Guddy took a step toward him, his expression settling into something Aaron knew well by now. “Let me make it up to you?”

Aaron licked his lips, the door forgotten. “What did you have in mind?”

Guddy reached for him. “Get on the bed and I’ll show you.”

**

Aaron bought Lu coffee before their flight, and sat next to him on the plane, playing cards and listening to old-guy music on shared headphones. It was a pretty transparent apology move, and Lu clearly got it, from the wink and shoulder-check he gave Aaron when they deplaned in Fort Lauderdale.

Aaron saw him go over and talk to Mitchie, too, which meant Mitchie was going to be ready and waiting for Aaron’s efforts in his direction. Annoying, a little embarrassing, but also fair enough, since he was the one who’d dug himself into it.

He caught up to Mitchie when they were all heading to their cars. “Hey, Mitchie, wait up.”

Mitchie glanced back at him, raising an eyebrow. “What do you need, kid?”

Aaron jogged up to meet him and then dropped to a stride that matched their pace. “Thought maybe we could hang out tomorrow. Off day, you know? It’s been a while.”

Mitchie shifted his bag higher on his shoulder and smirked a little. “Well, you’ve been avoiding me.”

“No I haven’t.”

“Eks. Come on.”

“I’ve just been busy. I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

“And avoiding me.” Mitchie tossed his bag into the back of his truck and gave Aaron a cool look. “Right?”

Aaron sighed. Mitchie never let him get away with bullshit. “Well, like, regardless, I wanna hang out now. Talk to you. If it’s okay. Could we maybe go on the boat tomorrow?”

“I was actually gonna spend the day at home. Keeping it low-key and actually a recovery day.” He jingled his keys in his hand and looked out across the parking lot for a moment. Aaron felt like there was a door closing in his face, not slamming but swinging closed slowly and inexorably, and it was a door he’d never known was there in the first place.It felt a lot like skating until he couldn’t breathe. Or choking.

“Come by late afternoon, eh? When it’s not so hot.” Mitchie slapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll sit out on the patio, have a couple drinks, you can tell me what you’ve been up to. All right?”

“Yes, sir.” Aaron’s heart skipped a beat or two in relief. He hurried off to his own car, already planning to stop and buy wine on his way home. He was raised to never show up empty-handed, and he knew exactly what types and vintages Megan liked best. He would totally bribe his way back into their good graces until they forgave him.

**

When he got to the house, the sun was beginning to settle behind the palm trees and there were clouds gathering to the west that would be carrying rain out to sea within an hour or two. Aaron could feel it in the air, a heavy weight on his skin that hummed with static electricity.

He knocked, because after avoiding for this long he had probably abdicated the right to just walk in. Or maybe not, since Mitchie laughed at him when he opened the door.

“You know the alarm code, kid.” Mitchie took the wine bottle from him and nodded in approval. “Nice. Pinot, dammit, dog. Get down. Leave him alone.”

“It’s okay.” Aaron scooped Pinot up into his arms and held him close. “Have a good rest day?”

“Barely got out of bed until lunch. Just enough to let this guy out back and make coffee.” Willie headed toward the kitchen and Aaron fell into step behind him. “I’m thinking this is the makings of sangria, what do you think?”

“I never say no to that, do I?”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Willie grinned at him over his shoulder and started taking things out of the cabinets. Aaron sat down at the counter and watched him, rubbing his chin on top of Pinot’s head.

“Where’s Meg?” he asked finally. Usually any kind of noise in her kitchen brought her at the double.

“She’s up in Minnesota visiting her parents. Pinot and I have been baching it.”

“You can survive without her? Are you sure?”

Willie flipped him off without looking. “Chop some fruit, brat.”

Aaron did as he was told, relaxing at the familiar atmosphere. Willie wasn’t mad at him, thank god. Aaron would apologize for being weird and they’d pick up right where they left off. Everything would be okay.

They carried the pitcher out to the patio and settled in, watching Pinot trot around the yard. “So,” Willie said after a few minutes. “What’s been keeping you too busy to hang out with the old folks?”

“It’s not like that.”

“You’ve been avoiding.” Willie shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. You’ve got your own life, as you should. Just curious what brought you back today, that’s all. No judgment from me.”

Aaron took a drink, looking down at the arm of his chair and tracing the grain in the wood with his thumb. “You remember I told you about that person I was seeing?”

Willie nodded, looking over at Pinot again. Aaron knew he was doing it on purpose, to make Aaron feel less on-the-spot, give him some space; Willie always did that for him. Always took care of him.

“Uh.” Aaron blinked and dug his thumbnail into the wood to bring himself back to the moment. “Well, we’re still… you know, whatever, seeing each other. Hanging out. But we had a fight, and it was… it was kind of a mess.”

“What was the fight about?”

Aaron’s breath caught in his throat. There really wasn’t any way to explain that without telling him that it was Guddy. And he couldn’t do that, even though suddenly it was all he wanted to do. He wanted to tell Willie, and get Willie’s opinion, and be reassured that everything was okay.

But he couldn’t. “It… it doesn’t matter. It was just dumb.”

He could see Willie’s frown, even though Willie still wasn’t looking at him. “You sure? We can talk about. it.”

“No, it was really dumb. And we fixed it. We talked and we’re… we’re good now, I think.” They hadn’t talked that much, but they fell into bed, and that was just as good, really.

Willie nodded slowly and took a sip of his drink. “That’s great. Being able to talk it out is important.”

“I think we’re good now, like… really good.” Aaron stared at his glass. It was sweet and delicious but he kind of wished he had something harder. “I’m just worried that I’ll screw things up again by being… you know. Dumb.”

“You’re not dumb, Aaron.”

Aaron sighed. “Young, then. Being young.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that one.” Willie was quiet for a minute. “If you’re part of the relationship, you’re part of the relationship. The stuff you feel and think is part of it, too. So if you say something or do something and the… other person gets mad, that’s not doing something wrong. That’s something you need to work out between you. And if you can’t, well, maybe it’s time to end the relationship.”

“I don’t want to end it.”

“Then you work at it. But remember what I told you before, about feeling good? If you’re working more than you’re feeling good, then it’s probably time to let it go.”

Aaron finished his drink and set the glass down carefully on the patio, even though he wanted to throw it. “That sucks.”

“It does. It sucks a lot. But staying in a relationship that isn’t working sucks more.”

“Have you and Megan had to do that? Work stuff out between you because something gets messed up?”

Willie laughed and shook his head. “Uh, yes. Many times. Like a thousand times.”

“Did you ever have to, like, think about maybe ending stuff if you couldn’t work it out?”

“Yeah.” Willie blinked a few times, staring out into the shadows gathering at the edge of the yard. “Not so many times. But a couple.”

Aaron didn’t want to think about that too hard. Just the idea made him feel a little panicked and sick. “And it sucked?”

“It sucked real bad. But at the end of the day we worked things out. Every time. It was hard, and it was shitty, and if we had decided to just cut our losses and end things I don’t think anybody could’ve blamed us. But.” He shrugged. “We worked it out. And here we are.”

“I want to be as awesome as you guys.”

“This relationship doesn’t have to be the one that gets there, you know that, right?”

It was Aaron’s turn to sit still and stare off into the yard for a minute. “Yeah. I know.”

He knew Willie was watching him, steady and thoughtful, even without turning his head. “But it’s good for now?”

“It is.” Aaron nodded and forced himself to relax into the chair. Don’t overthink it. “I think so. It feels good.”

“Then stick with it. See where it goes.” Willie reached for the pitcher and refilled both their glasses. “We good on serious talk?”

Willie knew him so well. It was such a fucking relief. “I’m done if you are.”

“Mm. Okay. You catch the highlights from last night? What the fuck is going on up there in Buffalo, eh?”

**

Things were pretty good after that, as far as Aron could tell. The season was going great, for the team and for him especially. He was a lot less worried about, like, the whole world when he was playing well.

Aaron liked this part of relationships—figuring out how they fit together, how their edges lined up, the things they both liked or both disliked and then the stuff that didn’t match where they had to figure out how to accommodate each other. Getting to know someone was interesting. Finding out what made them tick.

And what made them squirm around and beg and come, too, of course. They had so much sex. More than he’d had in his whole life. It was amazing.

“You’re insatiable,” Guddy laughed against Aaron’s neck, shifting around on top of him to keep him pinned to the bed. “Seriously. You’re fucking cock-hungry.”

“Are you complaining?”

“No.” Guddy bit down, enough to make Aaron hiss and buck under him, then let go and flopped down beside Aaron on the bed. “But let’s take a five-minute breather before the next round.”

“Fine.” Aaron moved closer, resting his head on Guddy’s chest. “Old man.”

“Brat.”

Aaron laughed and turned his head enough to kiss Guddy’s throat. “We’re going to the playoffs.”

“Don’t jinx it, Jesus.” Guddy smoothed Aaron’s hair back slowly. “But yeah. We are. Nothing’s gonna stop us.”

“I want to get past the first round. I want to nail this shit down, and next year we go for the whole thing.” Not that they wouldn’t be doing their best this year, too, but being realistic and whatever. He knew Guddy understood what he meant. They all did, everybody in the locker room. They were in this together.

“We’re going to. I don’t care what it takes.”

Aaron ran his hand down Guddy’s stomach, tracing the lines of his abs, enjoying the rough feeling of the hair. “And then everybody’s gonna be set for contract renewal. You don’t trade the guys that got you there, eh?”

Guddy laughed again, his fingers still wandering through Aaron’s hair. “I don’t think that’s quite how it works, but… we’ll be pretty damn well set. It’s true.”

Aaron looked up at him. “So you’re not convinced you’re gonna get traded anymore? You feel better about it?”

Guddy didn’t quite meet Aaron’s eyes, but his hand drifted down to touch Aaron’s face, one thumb brushing over the arc of Aaron’s eyebrow. “Dale’s called my agent. Like, a good call. Friendly. So…”

“I fucking told you.” Aaron surged up and kissed him. “Didn’t I? I knew it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Shut up.” Guddy rolled his eyes, but smiled as Aaron climbed on top of him and kissed him again. “Don’t let it go to your head.”

“Top d-line next year. Me and you.”

“Probably not.” Guddy slid his hand down Aaron’s back to his ass. “You and Kuli are good together.”

“We’re good together, too. You and me.”

“I don’t think we want to show Coach how good we are together.” Guddy palmed his ass again and then pinched it.

“Owww.” Aaron squirmed against him, rubbing a little and then pushing back against his hand.

“Such a brat.” Guddy kissed him again and rolled them both over onto their sides. “So. Yeah. At least another year, until your contract comes up.”

“Don’t worry about me going anywhere.”

“You can’t say for sure. What if you get some hot offer from… I dunno. Dallas. Chicago.”

Aaron shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if I get an offer here first. I’d rather stay than go.”

“Even if they offered you a ton of money?”

Aaron licked his lips, wishing this had a pause button so he could figure out what to say without hitting all of Guddy’s buttons about money. “I mean. As long as it’s, you know. Reasonable. In line with what other guys coming off their ELCs are getting if they’re performing pretty well. Assuming I keep performing pretty well and don’t get hit by a bus between now and then.”

Guddy rolled his eyes, but Aaron could see how his body relaxed a little. He’d said the right thing, thank God, and that let him relax, too, smiling up at Guddy in a way he knew was dorky but didn’t want to stop.

“Don’t joke about that,” Guddy said, and pulled him in for another kiss. “I like you all in one piece.”

**

The Panthers beat the Wings in Sunrise, which was great, obviously, and afterward Aaron met up with Larkin and Athanasiou for dinner. He knew Dylan from the All-Star weekend, and from years of prospect shit before that; he knew Andreas from playing a season together in Barrie. It was nice, hanging out with some guys he knew casually, not deeply, without the pressure of being on good footing with teammates. He didn’t have to be on with Larks and Ace. He could relax a little, be a little loud, talk some bullshit.

They hit a few bars after dinner, even though Ace was the only one legal to be there. Aaron could at least pass for old enough, but Larks’ baby face almost got them in trouble once or twice. They finally gave up and worked their way back to the hotel where the Wings were staying, promising each other one more drink at the lobby bar before Aaron got a cab and the others hit curfew.

But Zetterberg and Datsyuk were in the bar, too, and Aaron couldn’t—he just couldn’t cut the night off and walk out if he had the chance to sit and talk with two guys he’d idolized since he was a kid. Not that he told them that. He had learned all about not reminding the veterans of how old they were. Instead he sat quietly and put back a few beers and listened to them reminisce, their accents heavy and warm with exhaustion and booze, Ace and Larks getting their chirps in here and there.

Aaron liked watching the four of them, the easy affection and camaraderie, the team-ness. He knew exactly what it felt like, being part of that. He couldn’t wait to see his own guys at practice and feel that for himself, and tell them how great they were and how much he loved them, and aw, shit, he was way more drunk than he meant to be.

Zetterberg openly laughed at him, standing up to pay the tab and waving away their efforts to chip in. “Use your money for a cab,” he said. “And you two, go drink water before bed. Not listening to you piss and moan on the plane about your hangovers.”

Aaron hugged Ace and Larks goodnight, promising to text soon and hit them up on Instagram and everything before he made his way outside and let the valet flag him down a cab. He also needed to drink water before bed or he would be sorry in the morning. But for now he felt warm and floaty and just… good. Really good. That was so fun.

He dug his phone out of his pocket and squinted at it, surprised to see he’d missed a few texts. One from Bjugy saying he and Kuli were over at Sasha’s and Aaron should come by to get his ass kicked at video games. One from his bank that he couldn’t figure out how to turn off, just a daily statement text that he didn’t need at all but he couldn’t make stop. Two from Guddy asking where he was.

Which, whoops, shit. Apparently he’d missed a chance at hooking up while he was listening to old guys talk.

Hey sorry, he texted back. I went out with Larkin and Ace and we ran into Z and Datsyuk it was cool.

It took a few minutes for Guddy to reply, and Aaron spent them resting his face against the cool window of the cab, wishing that either the air conditioning was cooler or it wouldn’t be weird to open the window while the AC was on. He was really warm.

I went by your place but I’m home now, Guddy’s reply said. You already home or could you come over here?

Aaron looked out the window again, trying to see if they had already passed the best exit for Guddy’s. Of course he would have the driver turn around if he needed to, but the easier the better, because now he was really into the idea of getting laid.

Totally I’m on my way :) :) :) he said, then leaned forward to ask the driver to change destinations. By the time he settled back and looked at his phone again, he had three more messages.

OK if you’re sure you want to.

I’d hate to interrupt time out with the boys.

Who’s Ace anyway?

Aaron’s phone autocorrected Athanasiou, which was so nice of it. What a great phone.

All Guddy answered was Oh, and then a minute later, See you soon.

So that was kind of weird, but Aaron still felt happy and buzzed enough not to worry about it. If Guddy was weird, Aaron would make out with him until it went away, and then suck his dick for a while until they were both happy. No problem.

**

Guddy met him at the door, leaning against the frame in an old t-shirt and jogging shorts while Aaron clumsily navigated from the cab to the porch. “Hey, Eks,” he said, smiling slightly. “You’re feeling pretty good, eh?”

“Hey! Hey.” Aaron grinned at him and made it up the two steps between them. “’m good. Better now that I’m here.”

“Sweet-talker.” Guddy tugged him inside and closed the door, then pushed Aaron up against the wall and kissed him hard. “Thought maybe you met somebody hotter.”

“No way.” Aaron relaxed under his weight and opened his mouth for another kiss. “You’re the hottest.”

“Keep it up, I like you being sweet.” Guddy rested his forehead against Aaron’s and ran his hands up and down Aaron’s arms.

“Did you work tonight?” Aaron tried to nuzzle him, bumping their noses together until Guddy laughed.

“I was going to, but I wasn’t having any luck and I got bored. Decided I’d rather spend the night with you. But then I couldn’t find you.”

Aaron arched up under him, licking his lips. “I’m here now.”

Guddy’s eyes darkened, his hands sliding to Aaron’s wrists. “You are. That’s true.”

“You should take me to bed,” Aaron prompted. “And take my clothes off. And, like. Put your dick in me.”

“You’re so cute when you’re this drunk.” Guddy rubbed his thumbs over Aaron’s pulse points and kissed him again, slow and biting. “Go get naked for me.”

“You don’t want to watch?” Aaron pouted at him, liking how Guddy’s gaze went to his mouth and stayed there. “I thought you liked watching me get naked.”

“Such a little exhibitionist.” Guddy squeezed his wrists again and stepped back. “All right, show off for me.”

Aaron wiggled out of his jacket first, then started in on the buttons of his shirt, but his hands were clumsy and the buttons were small and after a few minutes of struggling with them he realized Guddy was laughing again.

“Hey,” he said, pouting at him again. “Hey, don’t laugh. I’m just a little drunk, that’s all.”

“You’re very drunk.” Guddy stepped closer again and swatted Aaron’s hands away, then started undoing the buttons himself. “There. Now your pants. Can you do that part yourself or should I?”

“You should,” Aaron said promptly.

“You just like having my hands on your junk.”

“Well, yeah.” Aaron rolled his eyes and swayed closer to him. “Duh.”

“You’re hilarious, kid.” Guddy got Aaron’s pants open and pushed them down off his hips and ass. “Step out of them. No. Jesus, Aaron, careful.”

Guddy’s arms wrapped around him, keeping him from falling, felt so goddamn good. Aaron closed his eyes and let all of his weight settle against him.

“Bed,” Guddy said firmly, gathering him up and starting them both off down the hall. “You think you can stay awake through a blowjob?”

“Mm.” Aaron rubbed his face against Guddy’s shoulder. “Just fuck me. I like that.”

“I know you do.”

“I like it so much.”

“I know.” Guddy tossed him down on the bed and stood at the foot, studying him intently. “You’re fucking gorgeous, you know that?”

Aaron stretched himself out, making his body a five-pointed star. “No, you are.”

Guddy tugged his t-shirt off, then dropped his shorts. “I guess there’s no need to argue about it, eh?”

“I’m not arguing,” Aaron said, shifting around to show himself off. “Here, look, I’m making a spot for you.”

“You’re fucking drunk.” Guddy climbed on the bed and crawled up toward him. “And gorgeous. And all mine.”

Aaron’s mouth fell open and he shivered, staring down the length of his body at Guddy. “Yeah?”

“You are, right?” Guddy ducked his head and licked a slow line along the cut of Aaron’s iliac furrow. “Mine?”

“Yes.” Aaron’s head was spinning, with alcohol and wanting and Guddy’s mouth and Guddy saying that, so casually, like it was no big deal at all. “And you’re—you’re mine?”

Guddy stopped, ducking his head to rest it against Aaron’s abs, then lifting it enough to look up at him. “I…”

Aaron fumbled to find more words. He could feel the moment slipping away, fucking up, but somehow he knew he could stop it if he just… if he did this right. If he said the right thing. “In the ways that count, I mean. Not just. Whatever. But the… the other stuff.”

Guddy lowered his head again, his breath hot and unsteady against Aaron’s skin, making the sweat prickle there. “Yeah. I think… I could do that.”

It wasn’t quite the same, but Aaron knew, he could hear it, how hard it was for Guddy to say even that much, and all the stuff he was trying to say without saying it. It was okay.

He ran his fingers through Guddy’s hair and tugged a little, getting his attention back. “C’mon and fuck me already.”

“Bossy,” Guddy muttered, but his face flushed with relief. “Hand me the damn lube, then, don’t just talk.”

He reached for the lube and handed it over, then groped around for the condoms. “Could keep my mouth busy.”

“How’m I going to do that if I’m fucking you, huh?”

Aaron shrugged and wrapped one leg around the back of Guddy’s thighs, pulling him closer. “You could be creative.”

“I’ll show you creative,” Guddy said, biting quickly at Aaron’s side before he pushed his fingers against him. Aaron closed his eyes and tipped his head back, letting himself fall away.

**

Aaron woke up alone in the bed, his brain dull and sluggish and his stomach distinctly unhappy. He took a slow, careful breath and turned onto his back, blinking at the ceiling and trying to sort out his conscious thoughts from the fuzz of sleep. And his hangover. God.

He could hear the shower running, which at least gave him an idea of where Guddy had gone. Maybe he should go join him. The hot water would feel good, for sure, and shower sex was never a bad thing.

On the other hand, he needed some fucking coffee and something for his head or he was going to die.

He climbed out of bed and went to the kitchen, getting the coffee maker started before he dug through Guddy’s cupboards for ibuprofen. He washed a few down with Gatorade from the fridge and stood waiting for his mug to fill, trying to keep his eyes averted from the sunlight coming in the window.

“There you are.” Guddy came in with a towel around his waist, drops of water running from his hair down to his shoulders. “Feeling it a little this morning, eh?”

“Shh, shh.” Aaron winced and waved his hand at him. “Coffee soon.”

“Thanks for taking care of that.” Guddy patted him on the shoulder and went to get a mug for himself. Aaron tried to lean into him, to snuggle up, but Guddy stepped out of reach. “Seriously, though, you must be hurting, you were very wasted last night.”

“Not just wasted but very wasted?”

“Super-wasted.” Guddy leaned against the counter and folded his arms over his chest. “If I didn’t know better I’d think the Wings were trying to get you liquored up and take advantage of you.”

Something pinged in Aaron’s head as he tried to pull pieces from the night before together with what Guddy was saying now. “Are you…”

Guddy, waited, then cocked his head. “Am I what?”

Aaron opened his mouth, but the words wouldn’t quite come up to his throat. He shook his head and sighed. “Coffee first. I can’t, like. Think. Until then.”

That earned him a snort, but Guddy turned and got the full mug out of the machine for him, handing it over and sliding his own into place. “Caffeinate, Eks. We’ve got stuff to do today.”

Aaron blinked at his mug and took a sip before he worked out which part of that he should clarify first. “We?”

“Meeting and a skate, remember?” Guddy shook his head. “Why do I know the schedule better than the golden boy?”

Aaron had thought Guddy’s little digs didn’t bother him any more, but apparently that wasn’t the case. “I know the schedule, I just… that’s not a we thing, that’s a thing. We don’t… we. I go home and change and then we both go there in our own cars and don’t show up at the same time so nobody thinks anything weird.”

“Take it easy, huh?” Guddy shook his head and frowned over his shoulder at Aaron. “Drink your coffee, you’re still all pissy.”

“Sorry.” Aaron took a deep breath and another drink. He hadn’t realized how loud his voice had gone. Shit. “Sorry.”

Guddy waved his hand at him, dismissing it, and they were quiet for a minute while Guddy’s coffee finished brewing and Aaron worked his way through his mug. The caffeine helped piece together the little chunks of ideas bouncing around in his head, which had upsides and downsides. Upside: he was capable of putting together concepts and figuring out what he thought was going on in Guddy’s head, like a real person in a real relationship.

Downside: what he’d put together was kind of bullshit and kind of pissed him off, and was definitely going to piss Guddy off if Aaron was right and he asked him about it.

But he had to.

“That thing you said last night,” he said finally, careful to keep his voice level. It was his media voice, and Guddy could tell, by the way he frowned and squinted at him. “Um. The part about me being yours.”

“Oh.” Guddy shook his head and looked away again, and a sick hot twist went through Aaron’s gut. “Yeah, we don’t have to—”

“That wasn’t what you meant, was it?” Aaron put his mug down on the counter. “You were really asking if I fucked Larkin or Ace.”

Guddy stood there for a minute, still and silent, then took a drink. “I know you didn’t.”

Aaron could hear the real answer under the words. “But it was in your head. You thought it. You were wondering.”

Guddy’s voice was tight.“It would be pretty hypocritical for me to get upset about you fucking somebody else, Eks.”

“Just tell me. Is that what you were thinking when you asked me that?”

Guddy turned to set his mug in the sink. “Yes, okay? Jesus. I wondered. But I kept my fucking mouth shut because I’m not a hypocrite, and it’s none of my business.”

“But you’re making it your business. You are being hypocritical.” Aaron can tell his voice is rising again, but he doesn’t want to stop it this time. He’s tired of keeping everything locked down in tight control. He wants to fucking yell about it. “You got your hands on me and figured out I hadn’t been with anybody else last night, and made sure you got to, like, claim me just in case.”

Guddy slammed his hand down on the counter. “Stop making me sound like some kind of jealous asshole. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t do anything, we had a nice night, didn’t we?”

“We did. Yeah. But the whole time you were thinking about me fucking around on you.”

“We never said we’d be exclusive. We’re not exclusive.”

“It’s not about being exclusive. It’s about you thinking I’d go off with Larks and Ace and not tell you!”

Guddy’s whole body was tense, his voice sharp. “You don’t need my permission to do anything.”

“I didn’t say ask your permission! I said tell you.”

“What do you want me to say?” Guddy’s voice was rising toward a shout now, too. “What are you trying to get me to do here?”

“Trust me.” It was like something broke in his chest, and all the frustration just drained out, leaving him empty. And tired. “I just want you to trust me.”

“I do trust you.”

“But you kind of don’t.”

“I think I’m the one who knows how I feel, Aaron.”

Aaron took a deep breath, surprised at how steady it was. He felt like he should be shaking. “I’m not, I just… I didn’t do anything, okay? I really didn’t.”

“I know you didn’t do anything.” Guddy shook his head. “You’re fucking overreacting.”

“Okay.” Aaron nodded, his chest aching with that emptiness. Maybe his whole torso. He was just tired, now. He didn’t want to do this anymore.

He jerked his head toward the hallway to the bedroom. “I’m gonna go get dressed. Got some stuff to do before we need to be at the rink. I’ll see you there.”

“Aaron, come on. Don’t…” Guddy trailed off as Aaron left the room. “Okay, fine. That’s what you want? Whatever.”

Aaron found his suit pants and shirt and put those on, crumpling his boxers and jacket together in one hand while he looked around for his shoes. He should’ve been more careful with his clothes, but he’d been so drunk and excited when he got here, so eager to have Guddy get them off him that he hadn’t even cared where they ended up…

He shoved his feet into his shoes without bothering with the laces. That wasn’t good for them, either, but fuck it. Just… fuck everything, right now. He would fix it all later.

Guddy was still in the kitchen when Aaron made his way to the door. “Got everything?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Aaron stood there for a minute, then shrugged. “I’ll see you at the meeting, eh?”

“I’ll be there.” Guddy looked down at the mug in his hand. “Just give me a little time, huh? I need some time to think about all this. Sort it out.”

 

“Okay.” Aaron stared down at his wadded-up clothes. “I just… I want you to know. That you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

“Do what?”

“This… us. This seems to be a lot of work for you, sometimes. Being with me. Staying with me. And I don’t… I don’t want to be work.”

Guddy set his mug down with a thud. “Goddamn it, Aaron...”

“We keep having the same fight.” Aaron shook his head. “If you don’t want to be with me, you don’t have to be with me. You know that, right?”

“I didn’t say that. What the fuck, Aaron, I didn’t say that, what are you—”

“I’ll see you at the rink,” Aaron said, and let himself out. He made it to the car before he took another breath, and inside with the key in the ignition before he choked and had to close his eyes and gasp for a few minutes.

He really did have stuff to do before the rink, but he wasn’t going to do any of it, not with this stupid aching hole in his chest he couldn’t get away from. He put the car in drive and headed home.

**

He could feel Willie and Lu and Thorty watching him through the meeting, their Old Guy radar going off or something. His family had always told him that he gave away too much on his face, that he was going to have to learn to hide things better if he wanted to make it on the big stage. He focused on keeping his face blank, his eyes distant, putting on his media face. It didn’t help him feel any better, but Lu and Thorty seemed to get bored, at least.

Mitchie kept watching, because Mitchie knew him way too well. Aaron had been so fucking weak, letting him in so much.

Guddy kept his distance, and Aaron let him. He knew that he had probably put too much out there, and taken too hard a line on things, but he couldn’t find it in himself to be sorry. He hadn’t meant to push so hard, but he’d been patient up til now, he had done his best. Now it was up to Guddy to decide if he wanted to do this or not.

He took his time in the showers after practice, lingering under the hot water and letting it pound some of the tension out of his neck. He felt the sharp snap of a towel against his hip and flipped off whoever it was without looking, only opening his eyes when he identified the laughter that followed as coming from Kuli.

“What is your problem, eh?” Aaron asked, turning the water off and shaking his head like a dog to send droplets flying. “Is this because I got more shots in than you?”

“Because you were going to stand under the water all day posing like a model.” Kuli dodged Aaron’s halfhearted punch and laughed again. “So pretty, Eks, the prettiest.”

“Shut up.” He grabbed his towel and rolled his eyes. “You going out tonight?”

“Going to Barky’s again. You should come. Dinner, video games, vodka.”

Aaron gave him a wary look. “I am not matching you two in shots. I don’t want to die.”

Kuli shrugged. “Don’t have to match us. Just have enough to not embarrass yourself.”

“Okay. Deal.” Aaron couldn’t remember the last time he spent time with his teammates that wasn’t on the road or in a bar. It sounded kind of awesome. “I’ll see you there.”

“Come at six, bring something to eat. Be ready to play.” Kuli snapped him with the towel again and ran for the door.

“Asshole!” Aaron yelled after him, pulling his own towel tight around his waist. Time with the boys, time not spent worrying or pretending. Exactly what he needed.

**

Finnish vodka and listening to the other two bicker in Russian made the evening pass a lot faster than Aaron expected. When he stood up to go home, his legs almost buckled under him.

“Fuck,” he said, catching the back of the couch and blinking at the floor. “Shit. What happened there, eh?”

“You’re drunk, Eks.” Barky threw an arm around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. “Lightweight. Stay here tonight so you don’t die.”

“I’m not gonna die,” Aaron mumbled, but he sat back down, doing his best to ignore Kuli laughing at him again. Kuli was such a dick. Aaron loved him like a brother, but he sucked.

Barky had a guest room and the couch; Aaron and Kuli arm-wrestled for who got the bed, and Kuli won, because dick. Aaron was left in the living room to fold out the couch by himself, with a decorative blanket and a throw pillow for bedding. Vodka was his enemy. He needed to remember that next time.

He dozed restlessly for a few hours, his body too big to get comfortable on the fold-out, until his phone buzzed around two AM.

The screen glow hurt his eyes, but he squinted and read the message anyway. Guddy. Where are you?

I went out.

Til two? During the season?

Aaron rubbed at his eyes. Came over to Barkys & crashed here. I was asleep.

I need to talk to you.

It’s late.

I know. Sorry. Come over in the morning? I’ll be home.

Aaron closed his eyes for a moment, pressing the throw pillow against his face. OK. I’ll need coffee. And food. Bacon and eggs. Deal?

Deal. Thank you.

Aaron blinked at the “thank you” a few times, then turned his screen off and rubbed at his face. Okay. They were going to talk. That was a good sign.

Probably.

**

Guddy kept his word: coffee was waiting when Aaron got there, and eggs and bacon were in-progress on the stove. “Thanks,” Aaron said, breathing in the smell of the coffee before he took his first sip. “Never drink with Kuli and Sasha.”

“I could’ve told you that.” Guddy poked at the eggs with a spatula, flinching back as some grease spit up off the pan. “Shit.”

“Turn the heat down. It’s too high, you want a constant, medium heat for eggs.”

Guddy’s mouth twisted into a half-smile. “I forgot that you’re the chef guy. You should be doing this.”

“Eggs are pretty easy, dude.” Aaron took another drink. “So. You wanted to talk.”

“You don’t?”

“I do. But I’m not sure if we want to talk about the same things.” Aaron slouched low in his chair, staring at his coffee. “You’re the one who asked this time, so. You start.”

Guddy sighed and turned the burner off, scraping the eggs onto plates. “Pushy, Eks.”

Staring at his coffee wasn’t giving him any answers, but it was easier than looking at Guddy. “It’s been almost the whole season, you know? I just want to know…”

“Why does it have to be nailed down? Why can’t it just… be?”

“It can, but I need to know that...” I need to know that I fucking matter, Aaron thought, but he couldn’t manage to say the words. It was too much. He groaned and put his head down on the table. “I don’t know, dude, I just… you called me. You start.”

Guddy put the plates down on the table and sat, silent for a minute. Aaron could feel his frustration, and see it in the tension of his body when he looked out of the corner of his eye. Tough, he thought, closing his eyes and pressing his head harder against the table. I’m frustrated, too.

“I don’t get why it doesn’t bother you,” Guddy said finally.

“Why what doesn’t bother me?” Aaron asked the table.

“The thing. Me fucking around. It doesn’t bother you at all. You don’t care.”

“Um.” Aaron sat up and looked at him. “Huh?”

“You don’t care that I fuck guys for money. You’ve never asked me to stop or anything. I keep thinking you must look down on me, or think I’m gross, or… something, but you never even twitch.”

“You want me to look down on you? You want me to think you’re gross?” Aaron was so fucking lost. “I knew about it from the start. Why would it bother me?”

“I don’t know! I want… I want you to react. To even, like, acknowledge the whole fucking… thing. Something.” Guddy groaned. “I’ve got no idea what’s going on in your head most of the time. Why doesn’t it bother you?”

“You explained it to me.” Aaron felt like he did back at his draft day, like he’d been dropped onto a different, weird planet, and this time he didn’t even have a mic on and a camera following him around. “You like sex, you like extra money. You never lied to me about it. I knew from day one.”

“Yeah.” Guddy exhaled slowly and leaned back in his chair. “I’m a hooker, not a liar. But why don’t you care?”

“I do care! I mean, I… sometimes I think about it and I get, like… I mean, I wouldn’t do it, myself, but I don’t have any right to tell you what to do!”

Guddy stared at him. “You don’t have any right.”

“No.” Aaron shifted in his seat and looked at Guddy for a long moment. “Do I?”

“You are…” Guddy took a deep breath. “You are something else, Eks. You really are.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Of course you don’t.” Guddy smiled for the first time that day. It felt like maybe it had been longer. “You’re very yourself. That’s what it means.”

“And you like that? You like… myself?”

Guddy’s voice softened. “I like yourself a lot. A whole hell of a lot.”

Aaron took a breath and looked at his plate. The eggs and bacon were probably stone-cold. It didn’t matter. “So… do you want to stay together? Keep trying?”

“I want it if you want it.”

“I do. Yeah. I mean…” His voice felt weird. Sounded weird. Unsteady. He swallowed and tried again. “Maybe it wouldn’t work if we were going for forever, you know? But we don’t get a forever. That’s not how it works. One of us will get traded, or take a hit to the head we can’t come back from, or… or something. There’s no forever, so why can’t we just enjoy it as long as it lasts and not make up stupid problems to stop it?”

Guddy looked at him for a minute, then away, and just as Aaron wondered if he should worry, he started laughing. “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“You’ve gotta be the only guy on the planet who thinks dating a part-time hooker is a made-up stupid problem, Eks.”

“I don’t mean like that, I just--” Aaron huffed. “You know what I mean!”

“I do. I think I do. That’s part of what I like about you.” Guddy shook his head and reached out to touch Aaron’s arm. “You were right about the other thing, too, by the way.”

“Which other thing?” Aaron swallowed again and let Guddy catch his wrist and turn it to take his hand. “I’m right about a lot of things.”

“Don’t let it go to your head.” Guddy rubbed his thumb in slow circles on the back of Aaron’s hand. “You were right about me being too hard on you. I just… I don’t like being disappointed. If I expect the worst, I can’t be, you know?”

“I guess that’s one way to think about it.”

“But it’s not the only way, eh?” Guddy leaned in slowly, until he could rest his forehead against Aaron’s. “I’ll try your way. Or, like. Try to add a little of your way into mine. I don’t think I can change overnight.”

“I’m not even asking you to change.”

“But I could. Maybe. Just a little bit.” Guddy tilted his head, bumping their noses together. “I mean, I could cut back on the… the extracurriculars. Do just enough to cover my actual hobbies.”

Aaron shrugged, careful not to dislodge him. He didn’t want this to stop. “If you want to. And if it means I get more of you.”

“More?” Guddy laughed softly. “More what? More time, more dick, more kissing…”

“Whatever.” Aaron squeezed Guddy’s hand and caught his mouth in a kiss. “I just want you.”

“I want you too,” Guddy said, pressing their foreheads together again. “I want… I want the whole I’m-yours-you’re-mine bullshit. The whole thing.”

Aaron nodded, getting carefully to his feet and tugging Guddy along with him. “Maybe we could even not think of it as bullshit.”

“Like I said, little changes, Eks. I’m not gonna turn into a romantic overnight.”

“You don’t have to.” Aaron pulled him down the hallway toward the bedroom, all bright with midday light. “Just be you.”