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Bgally11 @agally27 Are you sure you and the goalie didn’t swap gloves?!?! Hands like a brick wall #GoOilersGo

 

Alex Galchenyuk slammed his phone onto the table, then promptly flipped it over to make sure he hadn’t cracked his screen yet again. PK’s eyebrows shot skyward.

 

“All good, young padawan?” he inquired.

 

“Just this stupid guy on twitter,” Alex muttered. “He’s been tweeting shit at me for a while.”

 

“So block him,” said PK with all of the patience of a father explaining the rules of tic-tac-toe to a screaming toddler.

 

He shook his head. “Not the point.” He began to compose a reply message, exhaled in frustration, erased all of his work and began again. At last, he was satisfied with the result.

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 my hands are smoother than butter and definitely smoother than your chirps #oilersfanswouldntunderstand

 

 

Within a minute, his phone pinged again. Alex thumbed in the password quickly and flipped to the twitter app.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 speaking of cooking supplies, sounds like someone’s a little salty #slipperylikebutter #saltylikethesea

 

 

Alex immediately began to compose his reply, but PK snatched his phone away. Alex lunged after PK, but in one smooth, coordinated motion, Lars Eller grabbed the phone and passed it onto Paccioretty, who sat next to him, placing the phone firmly out of reach.

 

“Give it back,” said Alex flatly.

 

“No,” said PK. “You’re not touching that damn thing tonight, not while the rest of us are trying to have fun. We beat the fucking Rangers, which means you are obligated to fucking celebrate, which you are not going to do while fucking around with some asshole on twitter.”

 

For some reason, Prusty felt the need to chime in with his own sage insight from across the table. “You’re no fun when you’re sulking.”

 

“I don’t sulk,” grumbled Alex. PK snorted. “I don’t!”

 

“Dude, Prusty’s buying tonight,” piped up Devante. “He owes, like, everyone, after what happened in the second. Just try to enjoy it.”

 

Alex heaved a sigh of resignation. “Fine. But you all owe me one after this. I want a drink from every single one of you. If I can’t use twitter, I don’t want to be sober.”

 

“Off day! Off day! Off day!” chanted Devante, joined promptly by Nate and Nikita. Nikita’s pronunciation warped the syllables comically, but for once, Alex decided to be nice and ignore him. The kid needed some tough love when it came to his English, but tonight wasn’t the night for English lessons. Besides, his own English occasionally devolved in the presence of enough liquor, or so he’d been told. When the shots that Prusty had ordered arrived, Alex downed two without hesitation and began the night well.

 

 

 

The next morning, Alex awoke with an ache in his head and a tweet on his timeline from one bgally11.

 

Bgally11 @agally27 Sick chirp dude—silence really has me shaking in my boots

 

Unbidden, a laugh rose in his throat, though one tempered with exasperation and annoyance. Despite the headache, he replied.

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 some of us have actual lives, u know, actual jobs to do

 

Two minutes later (did this guy do nothing else but watch his twitter?), a response arrived.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 ur right hockey is definitely a real job…doctors everywhere in awe

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 u a doctor?

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 no, just a better skater than you

 

 

Alex growled softly but just then his phone a harsh, blaring ringtone, preventing him from completing what would have undoubtedly been an epic takedown.

 

“Hello?” he grunted.

 

“You ready to go in ten?” came Prusty’s static-laden voice.

 

“Go where?” he asked.

 

“My buddy’s game!” exclaimed Prust. “You’re coming to rec league today, and I’m already on my way.”

 

“Fuck,” swore Alex softly.

 

“Yup,” said Prust, entirely too cheerful and too loud for Alex’s pounding head. “Just be presentable when I arrive.”

 

Alex hung up the phone.

 

 

 

“Chuck, I said to be presentable.”

 

Alex shoved past Prusty into the hallway of his apartment building and plodded towards the elevator. “What do you call this?”

 

“A human dumpster. When did you last wash those sweatpants?”

 

“Probably last playoffs,” admitted Alex, and Prust glared viciously at him.

 

“Dude, half the reason I’m bringing you along is that one of the guys on Derek’s rec league is gay. Derek also says he’s a little shit, so I figure the two of you would get along perfectly.”

 

 The elevator dinged, signaling its arrival. Once inside the car, Alex leaned back against the wall, savoring the relief provided by the cool metal. “You need to stop trying to set me up.”

 

“Because you’re doing so well on your own,” sniped Prust. Alex ignored him all of the way into the car, whereupon Prusty began blasting his country music and Alex needed to start a conversation as a pretense for lowering the volume on the twanging monster assaulting his eardrums.

 

“Just because some dude is gay doesn’t mean I’ll like him,” he said finally.

 

Prust glanced away from the road to shoot Alex a deeply unimpressed look. “I know that, idiot. But at the very least you two have hockey in common. How many gay guys are out there who play hockey, eh? I’m doing you a favor here.”

 

“Whatever,” said Alex, and he slouched against the side of the car. “You had a manbun, Prusty. I’m not sure I trust your taste in men.”

 

“You look like a half-shaven grizzly bear with that beard of yours, Chuck, you’ll take what I can give you.”

 

They pull up to the rink ten minutes later, already five minutes late for the game due to traffic. He expected to walk into an echoey, cavernously empty arena, but surprisingly enough, perhaps seventy people had gathered around the edges of the rink to watch. Alex pulled his toque further over his head to disguise his appearance, and he glued himself to Prusty’s back to prevent his face from being seen. They slid into seats several rows above anyone else and Prust pulled out a massive bag of barbeque chips he’d stashed in his duffel bag. He crunched on the first several obnoxiously, spraying crumbs and ignoring both Alex’s glares and their diet plan.

 

“Want one?” asked Prust.

 

Alex curled his lips in distaste. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

 

“Suit yourself,” said Prust, and both he and Alex turned their attention to the game.

 

As with any rec league, the talent varied heavily across both teams, and Alex immediately spotted a few duds, those who skated with metaphorical bricks attached to their legs and metaphorical boulders hanging off their arms. They probably hadn’t played in any sort of serious team since their mite days, not even in high school, and they only joined because enough of their friends bullied them into the game when they needed to round out the lineup. Then there were the players who probably had played on their high school varsity teams and occasionally displayed a whiff of skill which surprised even Alex, even if they were adequate at best ninety percent of the time. Then there were those who might have played in juniors, even though they never progressed any further or impressed anyone during their time on the teams. At the very least, they’d benefited from high quality coaching throughout that experience.

 

And then there was number eleven.

 

Number eleven was probably at most 5’10” or 5’11” on skates and not exceptionally bulky, but he moved with a speed and grace which actually made Alex pause in his sulking for a moment. He weaved deftly in and out of all of the other players, duds and junior washouts alike, and his hands moved his stick nimbly. Then he crashed the net, hollering and whooping as the puck crossed the line and he bowled over the goalie. His teammates mobbed him, slapping his back and patting his head. He removed his helmet to shake off his hair, and…wow. He hadn’t been expecting that.

 

Number eleven wasn’t classically handsome or light-yourself-on-fire hot, but he was cute. He smiled broadly and began running his mouth at the opposing team’s goalie, presumably chirping him from the shit-eating grin on his face. The goalie in turn lunged for number eleven, restrained only by one of his more agile teammates, and eleven skated away laughing.

 

“Number eleven’s not bad,” said Alex quietly to Prust.

 

Prusty arced an eyebrow. “In which way?”

 

“In the hockey way, fuckwad,” he said. “I mean, he’s not going to be on the cover of GQ.”

 

“Yeah, and neither are you, Chuck.” Prust rummaged through the pockets of his jacket and pulled out his phone to begin scrolling through something. “Just a sec here…ah, got it.”

 

“Got what?”

 

“Derek’s description of the gay one.”

 

“The gay one? Do you call me the gay one?”

 

“You know what I mean,” snapped Prust. “Says here that the dude’s name is Brendan and he just joined the team. Apparently he’s the best one on the ice, head and shoulders above most of the players in terms of skill. Nobody knows him terribly well yet, but that shouldn’t last long because he talks a mile a minute.”

 

“Did he say what number the guy wore?” he asked.

 

Prust swiped up on his phone and stared intently at it. “Don’t think so.” A wicked expression crossed his face. “I bet you’re hoping it’s eleven, aren’t you?”

 

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” grunted Alex.

 

“You’re a terrible actor, you know? Absolutely atrocious. There ought to be an award for you for worst actor ever, like the academy award for the most obvious lie goes to Alex Galchenyuk, half-Russian grizzly bear.”

 

“Belarusian,” corrected Alex, and he returned his gaze to the ice where play had now resumed. “And I appreciate hockey skill, alright? Nothing to get worked up about.”

 

“If it’s just hockey skill that turns you on, then we might have a problem in the locker room.”

 

“Don’t worry, Prusty. You’re definitely safe.” Alex chuckled to himself as Prust stared stonily at him.

 

“See if I try to do something nice for you ever again,” said Prust.

 

“You’re never nice to me. This is just entertainment for you.”

 

Prust shrugged in agreement, mollified slightly, and crunched loudly on a fistful of chips once more.

 

Alex observed the rest of the game with keen interest, or rather, he observed one specific player with interest. The rest of the players skated around, playing their own hockey, but quite frankly, Alex didn’t care. This was a rec league game. He wouldn’t learn anything from watching the game. Prust finished his entire bag of chips, and Alex debated the ethics of ratting him out to the trainer just for kicks.

 

When the game ended, the small but enthusiastic crowd cheered loudly for the teams. Number eleven’s team had won handily, mostly thanks to him, and people had begun milling around the edge of the rink to congratulate the team as they exited the ice.

 

Prust tugged on Alex’s jacket sleeve. “I need to say hi to Derek, and you need to say hello to number eleven.”

 

Alex froze. “No, I really don’t.”

 

“Yes, you do.”

 

“Brandon, I’m not talking to a total stranger, okay? I know Derek’s your friend, but I don’t know any of these people. What if Derek told him there was a gay guy coming along with you, and suddenly I show up?”

 

Partially because of the use of his first name, and partially because the implications of a meeting were seemingly just sinking into his thick skull, Prust hesitated. “Shit, I didn’t think about that.”

 

“No, you absolutely didn’t.”

 

“Fuck, Chuck,” he said. He sat pensively in the stands for a while. “Well, if you want, you could just wait out in the car. I really do need to say hi to Derek.”

 

Alex held out his hands for the keys. “Don’t take too long, yeah?”

 

Prust deposited the keys in Alex’s hand. “Gotcha.”

 

Alex waited for ten minutes in the car (thankfully with the heat blasting into his face) before Prust emerged from the rink. He remained unusually quiet throughout the trip back to Alex’s apartment; Alex assumed he was reevaluating his decision to almost out Alex in front of two dozen strangers on a rec hockey league. They exchanged muted goodbyes, and Alex trudged up to his apartment feeling somehow worse than he had this morning.

 

An extended run around the city cleared his head but it also froze his extremities, and he was both sweating and freezing when he returned home. He hopped in a warm shower, hissing as the heat burned his frozen hands. Still, he emerged from the water warmed down to his toes and in a considerably better mood than before.

 

Until he saw his phone.

 

Hey, Derek gave me this number after the game, said that there was a guy who wanted to talk to me.

 

Motherfucker. Prust had actually given out his number.

 

Who is this?

 

Brendan. Is this the right number?

 

Despite himself, a quick thrill coursed through Alex. What number were you wearing at the game?

 

Eleven. A moment, and then a second text arrived. No offense, but who are you?

 

Derek is a friend of a friend. I thought you played good hockey.

 

Uh, thanks? But you could have told me that in person. I promise I’m not that scary

 

How to explain to Brendan that no, he couldn’t have just waltzed onto the ice of a local rink and introduced himself as the gay guy that their matchmaker friends had decided should meet him.

 

I’m not exactly out, he said.

 

Oh.

 

Fuck, thought Alex. He knew that many guys didn’t want to fuck around with closeted men, as it just complicated every aspect of both of their lives. And Montreal wasn’t exactly a desert of gay men. Brendan could easily find someone at a club or a bar who would march down the street with a rainbow flag strapped to his back during Pride.

 

I mean, everyone on the team is cool, but I get it.

 

Thanks, said Alex, because he wasn’t sure what else to say.

 

Do I get a name?

 

Alex debated lying for a moment, but then decided that Alex was far too common a name for there to be any risk in revealing this one tidbit. Alex, he typed out.

 

Well, mysterious Alex, do I get to know anything else?

 

Like what?

 

Like what you do, how old you are, etc. etc. Trying to make sure Derek didn’t set me up with a fifty year old creeper

 

Alex chuckled. I’m twenty two, and I do stuff with sports. Kind of hard to explain.

 

Try me.

 

I work for the Habs he finally said, and his breath tightened in his chest. He wasn’t lying (the Habs definitely had him on their payroll), but he knew Brendan would never assume that Alex actually played the game. He probably just thought that Alex would be a trainer, or someone in their PR or administrative department.

 

Wait, so do you know like actual hockey players then?

 

Yeah.

 

And you thought I played well?

 

Yeah.

 

I think I like you already.

 

 Alex smiled. You’re not so bad yourself.

 

 

 

The next morning, Alex arrived at the practice rink with a smile that kept bubbling over. He’d spent nearly an hour texting Brendan before Brendan needed to meet someone for coffee. He’d also learned that Brendan was originally from Edmonton, though he’d gone to high school in Vancouver before attending McGill for college. After graduating, he’d just stayed in Montreal, working for a marketing firm.

 

For his part, Alex had tried to be honest without being too honest. He’d revealed that yes, he was American, but he’d moved around quite a bit as a child before finally settling in Montreal as well, also for a job. He had a sister. He loved dogs. He loved hockey.

 

“You shooting anytime soon?”

 

Alex shook his head and fired off a shot at Pricey, who was staring at him with a mixture of mild concern and amusement as he blocked it easily with his pads.

 

“That was kind of weak, Chuck,” said PK from behind him. “You’re not still hungover, are you?”

 

“No, I’m not,” said Alex, and he skated around to the back of the line where they had all queued up to shoot on Price. Devante nudged him in the ribs.

 

“You feeling good?”

 

“Yeah, I feel great.”

 

Devante peered at him intently, and Nikita joined in the stare-fest. “I don’t think he lying,” announced Nikita confidently in English. “Not sure why he happy.”

 

“Just had a good day yesterday,” said Alex shortly.

 

Nikita and Devante exchanged looks, but said nothing more. As they moved down the line, Nikita leaned in closely to Alex and muttered in rapid Russian, “Did you meet someone?”

 

“Kind of?” said Alex. “We haven’t actually met.”

 

Nikita narrowed his eyes. “Is this someone you met through the internet?”

 

“No!” exclaimed Alex, loudly enough that several members of the team turned their heads. “No, I’m not stupid,” he added at a more reasonable volume.

 

Nikita’s skepticism blared off him with the subtlety of a fog horn, but then it was Alex’s turn to shoot, and they dropped that topic of conversation.

 

After practice, Alex opened his phone to find two notifications: a text and a twitter mention. He opened the text excitedly only to see that it was just his sister reminding him about family dinner next Friday. The tweet was from Bgally11.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 got told by a real expert that i skate awesome yesterday, probably skate better than you.

 

He replied immediately.

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 since when is ur mom an expert?

 

 

He grinned in satisfaction at his reply, the disappointment of the text nearly entirely forgotten.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 my mom knows more about hockey than the entire habs management combined #prettylowbar #GoOilersGo

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 she belongs on the habs management like you belong on the habs team

 

 

He waited several minutes, but with no reply forthcoming, he eventually gave up and hit the showers.

 

That night, Brendan resumed their conversation from last night. He recounted how one of his work friends actually fell asleep at a meeting, how he nudged him with the sharp tip of his pen until his friend yelped in surprise and how their aged, curmudgeonly boss didn’t even notice, confirming their theories that he was either mostly deaf or just too old to care.

 

Alex mentioned feeling distracted at work today. He had spent nearly three hours in the weight room after practice, trying to regain his concentration. PK had finally physically pulled him away from the bench after he began to “sweat it out like a biblical flood.” Several Gatorades and protein shakes later, and he felt marginally more human.

 

Had a rough workout today he told Brendan.

 

You a gym rat or something?

 

Or something, replied Alex.

 

Got anything to show for it?

 

Alex hesitated. As much as he’d enjoyed his conversations with Brendan over the past two days, he still barely knew the guy. Still, what did he have to lose?

 

He snapped a quick picture of his abs and sent them as an attachment. He waited for nearly a minute for a reply, dreading the reply, fearing he’d been too bold.

 

His phone buzzed. You got that off the internet, right?

 

All natural, he replied.

 

Holy shit, you’re ripped, said Brendan.

 

It’s kind of my job to be ripped, thought Alex, though he kept that thought to himself. Instead, he settled for another half-truth. Being around hockey players keeps me motivated.

 

His phone buzzed again. Now I feel kind of weird because I’ve seen your abs but not your face. Any chance you got one of those as well?

 

Alex gulped. This he couldn’t oblige, because the moment Brendan saw his face, he’d know. He was a hockey fan living in Montreal, of course he’d know. He couldn’t trust someone he’d just begun talking to by text two days ago.

 

Not yet.

 

Dude, you can’t be that ugly, unless that’s why you work out so much. Like to make up for it.

 

You know how I’m not out? he said. I’m really not out.

 

He thought he might have scared him off again. Of course it was natural for Brendan to want to see a face. After all, Alex had seen his, and he knew Brendan was attractive in a sort of dorky, homegrown Canadian way, the type they sold at farmer’s markets in Alberta next to the potatoes and rutabagas. All Brendan had was a set of abs. Considering they were his abs, though, Alex thought it might have been a fair trade.

 

That’s cool too. We can take it slow.

 

Thanks, said Alex.

 

His phone buzzed again, but this time with a twitter notification.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 feeling extra motivated from a friend to work out. better watch yourself on the ice

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 u wish

 

 

The next game saw the Habs in Boston, which despite being several hundred miles south of Montreal, managed to be even colder. Alex netted two goals, though, so even the frigid New England air couldn’t freeze his spirits.

 

Twitter on the other hand…

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 no hat trick? disappointed in u #nogrit #GoOilersGo

 

 

Over the next month, Alex played some of the best hockey of his career. While he couldn’t exactly tell Brendan what he was doing all along, he shared his happiness as best he could. Brendan told him he was proud. For Brendan’s part, he was supposedly killing it at his job, and he expected a promotion within the month provided he could maintain his façade as a hardworking, loyal employee in front of his boss throughout that time span.

 

In late February, they travelled to Florida next for a set of back to backs against the Lightning and Panthers. After the first game ended in a loss despite another two pointer for him (a goal and an assist this time), he knew to expect something from his least favorite tweeter.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 looked like u were a figure skater with that fancy twirl out on the ice

 

 

He was referencing how Alex had been physically spun around on one of the plays in the third. He’d managed to keep his balance, something he was quite grateful for, but he’d seen the replay. He knew it looked odd.

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 ur just jealous bc i’ve got more style than you

 

 

It was a quiet night for everyone on the team. With another game tomorrow, they all needed to rest as much as possible. When they finally arrived at the hotel for the night, no one suggested drinks or a night on the town. Alex slumped onto his hotel bed, ready to pass out for the night.

 

My heat broke in my apartment

 

The message came from Brendan, and a quick search at the weather revealed it to be a balmy eight degrees Fahrenheit in Montreal. Alex winced in sympathy.

 

That sucks.

 

I’m staying with a friend for now. How you holding up in the cold?

 

Alex glanced out his window. Even in the darkness, he could see a single palm tree illuminated by a flickering, hazy streetlamp.

 

I’m not in mtl actually. Somewhere much warmer.

 

Wait, do you get to travel with the team?

 

No point in denying it. Yeah, he said.

 

So, you’re kind of important then.

 

Alex huffed out a puff of air. Depends on who you ask. He knew he was young, but somedays he felt like he was being stifled, like management and Therrien refused to see what he could do if given the chance. Sometimes he wondered about his future in Montreal.

 

Don’t be modest. I’m certainly not going to be

 

Alex laughed out loud, sprawled against the sheets of his bed. Outside, rain began to drizzle softly, spattering his window and distorting his view of the palm tree.

 

It’s raining here, he said. He wasn’t sure what to expect in return, but the information seemed important. It seemed important that Brendan know about the weather in Florida.

 

It’s hailing in Montreal, so if you’re expecting sympathy, I have the world’s smallest violin.

 

Alex chuckled, then said. I wish it were raining wherever you are now.

 

It was the closest he could come to saying, I wish you were here.

 

Me too, Alex, replied Brendan, and Alex knew Brendan understood.

 

 

The game the following day ended in a win, a marked improvement from the day before, but dissatisfaction still nagged at his brain. Or it might have just been the hit to his head. He’d been deemed concussion symptom free by doctors, but his body ached the way it always did after brutal board slam. A lump of pain traveled from the base of his neck down to center of his spine, spreading horizontally across his back until his shoulders and deltoids were comprised of one solid ache. On the plane ride back, he laid his head stiffly against the seat, and even Prust knew better than to disturb him as he slept.

 

He awoke towards the end of the plane ride and connected to the wifi to use his phone. He hadn’t even bothered to check twitter after the game last night, but he was unsurprised to see a chirp from Bgally11. He was too tired to respond, however, and Prust eyed him with concern as he set the phone back down.

 

“Nothing to say to your number one fan?” he asked.

 

“What?” said Alex confusedly.

 

“I mean, nothing to say to what’s-his-name, the guy you’ve been talking to on twitter?”

 

“Why do you care?”

 

Prust shrugged. “It’s kind of funny, is all. Devante was showing me some the other day.”

 

“That’s weird,” said Alex. “You both need hobbies.”

 

“You’re the one engaging with the guy. If anyone needs a hobby, it’s you.”

 

“I’m just showing him who’s on top here, that’s all,” said Alex.

 

Prust snorted. “Oh yeah, the professional hockey player is facing a real fight from one of his fans. A real underdog victory for you.”

 

Alex ignored him, and fortunately at that moment, an announcement informed them that the plane was beginning its descent. The moment the plane landed, Alex switched off airplane mode and smiled when a text from Brendan flashed across his screen.

 

Prust smirked. “Going well with Brendan, I see?”

 

“We’re just talking. He still doesn’t know who I am.”

 

Prust was silent for a long moment. “You know, we have an off day this tomorrow. Rec league’s playing again, if you wanted to go watch.” Alex stiffened. “You don’t even have to say hello, but if you wanted to see him in person again…”

 

“Maybe,” said Alex. “I’ll think about it.”

 

“Whatever works for you,” said Prust. “Offer still stands.” He regarded Alex with careful eyes. “You feeling okay? You seem a bit peaky.”

 

“Just a bit sore from that hit,” said Alex. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Little bit of ice and I’ll be fine.”

 

That night, Alex texted Prusty to let him know the answer was a yes. Prust responded with a winky emoji and an eggplant, and Alex had to resist the urge to chuck his phone across the room, telling himself that Prusty would just laugh even harder if Alex broke his phone.

 

The next morning, Alex rolled out of bed, stood up and gasped as a wave of dizziness overwhelmed him. He reached out for something, anything to hold onto, but his hands clutched at the air as he lost his fight with gravity and collapsed to the ground, cracking his head against the corner of his bedside table. The pain was excruciating, and even while lying on the ground the world still spun around him. He lay there, panting, eyes squeezed shut for who knew how long. At long last, his phone rang. He reached blindly for it, but then he realized the phone was still on the bed. At that moment, the bed seemed as insurmountable as Mt. Kilimanjaro.

 

The phone rang again, and he hoped desperately it was Prust, or at least someone who expected him to answer. The phone rang a third time, and then whoever was calling did not try again. Alex moaned as he tried to lever himself into a sitting position, but the moment his head left the floor, the pain doubled in intensity.

 

Time passed incoherently. He was beginning to think he might actually die on his floor unless he could force himself to reach for his phone, but then someone began banging on his door.

 

“Chucky, you awake?”

 

It was Prust. Alex nearly cried with joy.

 

“Chuck, we need to go.”

 

Alex tried to say something, but all the emerged from his throat was a wounded, jumbled groan. He hoped, prayed that Prust heard him.

 

“You okay in there? Chuck?” Something metallic clanked, and Alex realized Prust had taken out his keys. He tried to remember if Prust was one of the people he’d given a spare to. The lock clicked, and footsteps echoed against the hardwood floor as Prust stomped in.

 

“Alex Galchenyuk, where the fuck are?” yelled Prust.

 

“Here,” Alex managed to croak, and he hated how weak his voice sounded, hated even more how pathetic he would look sprawled on the ground helplessly.

 

“What the—oh shit. Oh shit.”

 

Prust’s footsteps had halted outside of Alex’s open bedroom door. He made his way swiftly towards Alex and knelt on the ground, pressing a finger gently to the base of Alex’s skull.

 

“Chuck, can you hear me?” Alex blinked his eyes slowly, wincing as the light pressed against his brain. “I’m going to call an ambulance, alright?”

 

Alex mumbled, “Please,” and that plea seemed to spur Prust into action more than anything else.

 

He listened while Prust dialed for an ambulance, then while he called the emergency number for the Habs. One of the team doctors would be meeting them at the hospital for evaluation, which Alex supposed was something to be grateful for. Better a familiar face than a complete stranger.

 

“Alex, you still with me?” Alex could feel Prust’s hand on his back, could feel the steady pressure, and he tried to center himself with the touch. He narrowed his focus on that pinpoint, trying to think of nothing else. “Alex, buddy, you’re really scaring me here. Stay with me. Stay with me.”

 

He tried. He really, really tried. But he’d been in pain for so long, and so when the tendrils of unconsciousness tugged at his vision, he didn’t resist and fell into sleep.

 

 

 

He awoke to a bright white light, a blinding headache, and bile in his throat. He opened his mouth to speak but all that emerged was vomit. Someone placed a bucket in front of him, and that was when he realized he was still lying down, just not on his bedroom floor. It took several blinks to clear his vision (though the images still swam before him) and then he recognized his location. Hospital. Fuck.

 

“How are you feeling?” asked a familiar voice.

 

“Like shit,” he said, still panting.

 

Gary Underwood, one of the team physicians stood before him, frown lines etched deeply into his face.

 

“I know,” he said, “but we need to run some tests right now. Mental ones.”

 

“Can it wait?” he asked, though he already knew the answers.

 

Gary smiled sadly. “I’m afraid not.”

 

Alex suffered through an excruciating barrage of tests, and while he definitely was still seeing double, at least he still remembered who the prime minister was and the year. At this point, he thought he could count those two accomplishment as victories. In between subjecting him to painful penlights and tracking tests, Alex learned that yes, he did have a concussion (not a surprise) as well as eight stitches in his forehead (definitely a surprise—he hadn’t realized he’d been bleeding). Fortunately scans had cleared him of any neck or back trauma. When questioned about the events leading up to the fall, Alex struggled to recall anything.

 

“I just stood up and felt dizzy,” he said. “Don’t know what happened.”

 

Gary noted something down in his clipboard. “Had you been experiencing any concussion symptoms since last game?” he asked.

 

Alex shook his head, gasped in pain, and then settled on a verbal response. “First sign.”

 

“Well, I think it’s safe to say that you’re definitely displaying them now. We’re going to keep you overnight at least, but you might be here longer.”

 

Suddenly, more of his memory flooded back. “Wait, Prust! The game! Where’s my phone?”

 

Gary shook his head. “We’ve already contacted your family, and the team has been informed through proper channels. You are in no shape to be using your phone at the moment.”

 

As much as he hated it, Alex had to admit that Gary was right. Just the thought of a brightly lit screen stirred up the nausea currently simmering dormant in his stomach. Resigned, he settled back against his soft hospital bed and tried to ground himself to stop the dizzying tilt-a-whirl occupying his mind at the moment. Before he knew what was happening, he had fallen asleep again.

 

 

 

Three days later, he was released from the hospital with a bag of painkillers and strict instructions to rest. His symptoms had improved dramatically, but even still, he felt like a steaming, heaping pile of shit. His sister, Anna, stayed with him for the first three nights and rubbed his back as he puked beneath the harsh, fluorescent bathroom light, but by the fourth night, he was somewhat functional and able to care for himself. It was also the first time he looked at his phone.

 

Much to his surprise, Bgally11 had continued to tweet him after each game. Lacking any actual material to criticize, the tweets were far vaguer, though no less annoying. By the last game, though, they’d lost their acerbic edge

 

Bgally11 @agally27 team looks much better without you dragging them down

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 were you out there? I didn’t notice a difference #InvisibleMan

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 you should come back, announcers won’t shut up about you #GoOilersGo

 

 

More importantly, though, were a dozen text messages from various friends and teammates. Prust, Devante and PK promised to drop by the moment the team returned from their latest road trip. Yakupov had sent several frowny faces and several long messages which hurt Alex’s head to read. He would call Nail later, once he figured out a time when Nail was free.

 

There were several from Brendan.

 

Hey, Derek said maybe you’re coming to the game today? Wouldn’t mind seeing your face—if you’re ready of course

 

Hope nothing’s wrong. Derek’s friend didn’t show, and neither did you.

 

Hell of a game you missed, if I do say so myself

 

I tried going without coffee today—bad decision

 

Alex, is everything okay?

 

Did I fuck up?

 

Alex?

 

The last message was dated from yesterday. Brendan hadn’t tried to contact him yet today. More importantly, Brendan thought he’d done something wrong. He started to compose a text, an attempt to explain his absence, but the glare of the screen had already begun to aggravate his headache, and he wasn’t sure he could type much longer.

 

Which left…

 

Ring. Ring. Ring. Rin—

 

“Alex?”

 

“Hey,” rasped out Alex. “It’s me.”

 

“Alex, oh my God. Are you okay? What happened? I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have been freaking out so much, but I just didn’t hear from you for a week and I wasn’t sure if I’d done something wrong or—

 

“Brendan, it wasn’t you, it was—“ he swallowed hard, wincing. “I was in the hospital. And then home, but I’m not supposed to be looking at screens so much. Concussion.”

 

“Holy shit! Are you…are you okay?”

 

“Not really,” admitted Alex. “Better, though.”          

 

“That’s good, I guess. And you’re alright? Like, I had a concussion when I was a kid and it sucked and my mom just made me chicken noodle soup and kept the lights dim, and I know that it’s important to have people taking care of you and,” he paused for a breath.

 

Alex cut him off. “I have people, don’t worry. It’s been a little rough, but I have people. My family, some friends. You don’t need to worry.”

 

“It’s a little late for that,” said Brendan, and Alex wasn’t sure if it was the concussion at work, but he honestly couldn’t tell if Brendan was joking or not at that moment. He paused, and Alex sensed the hesitation. “Also, not to state the obvious or anything, but you’re Russian? At least, from your accent.”

 

Alex hadn’t even considered the implications of calling Brendan and revealing his voice. He’d told Brendan his family had travelled around when he was a child but he’d never specified where exactly.

 

“I’m American,” he clarified, “but my parents are from Belarus. I lived in Russia for a while as a kid.”

 

“So you really moved a lot as a kid. Jeez. Well, I guess, Russians like their hockey too.”

 

“Belarusian,” he corrected. “And I’m American.”

 

“Well, you definitely sound Russian,” said Brendan. “Don’t get me wrong, though. I kind of like it. It’s a little sexy.”

 

All moisture left his mouth. “Yeah?” he croaked.

 

“Well, I mean I still don’t know what you look like, but it’s nice to have a voice to go along with the abs, I suppose.”

 

Alex laughed then grimaced. “God, laughing hurts my head. Everything hurts my head.”

 

Brendan made sympathetic noises. “That sucks. I wish I could do something. Sorry.”

 

“Not your fault.”

 

“Doesn’t mean I don’t wish I could fix it.” He paused. “Listen, I’m actually at work, and I’m going to have to start doing my job soon or someone might actually take notice.”

 

Alex didn’t bother to conceal his disappointment. “I understand.”

 

“But I want to talk to you later,” added Brendan hurriedly. “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear from you, you know? I mean, I’m sorry that you were hurt and all, and this is going to sound horrible, but I’m kind of glad it was this and not, you know, just that you didn’t like me anymore.”

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t respond sooner.”

 

“No need for you to apologize,” said Brendan. “Look, I’m going to go now, but we’ll talk later, yeah? Once I’m not standing in the stairwell of my office building avoiding my job?”

 

“Sounds good.”

 

“Great. And Alex?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“It’s good to hear your voice.”

 

Brendan hung up with a click.

 

Alex slept through most of the day, awakening only to use the bathroom and to greet his mother when she arrived with a Tupperware container of borscht. She chatted with him for a while, but then his headache returned with a vengeance and he begged off from their conversation. He was riding the crest of his painkillers when his phone rang.

 

“Hello?” he mumbled.

 

“Hey, Alex. It’s me. Brendan, I mean.”

 

“Oh,” said Alex. “Hey Brendan.” His mouth had to work hard to form the syllables of the words. His tongue felt furry, his lips dry.

 

“Is this a bad time or something?”

 

“No, no. Just, you know, sleepy. Took some meds.”

 

“I can call back another time.”

 

“No,” said Alex firmly, with as much confidence as he could muster. “Just, maybe, I’m not the best conversation partner right now.”

 

“What do you want to talk about then?”

 

“You talk,” said Alex. “Just, I don’t know, talk. Tell me something about you I don’t know.”

 

“Uh, well,” Brendan fumbled for something. “Oh, how about I tell you about this scar on my fingers? Well, the scar’s from surgery, but I broke my fingers doing something kind of cool.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I broke into school when I was thirteen, brought all of the desks outside. Made a very daring escape, but then fell off the fence and broke two fingers.”

 

“Sounds like an exciting story. Tell it to me.”

 

Brendan began to recount the tale of his intrepid venture, and Alex set the phone onto speaker and listened. He listened as Brendan described his friends, mostly ones he made from hockey, and he listened as he wove an image of his childhood days and of his teachers and his parents and his siblings and his time in Edmonton before moving out west.

 

“I’m sure it’s not as exciting as anything you’ve done,” said Brendan, after a long time of talking. “I’ve never lived in Russia or Belarus or even the U.S.”

 

“There are things you give up,” said Alex, his voice soft and raspy from disuse. “Things you miss, especially playing hockey and…”

 

He caught himself, stopping in his tracks before he could reveal exactly how much hockey had enmeshed itself into his life. Brendan breathed steadily on the other end of the line.

 

“There are things you miss,” he said. “Things you gain.”

 

“Must be hard to meet people, travelling around the way you do,” said Brendan.

 

“Sometimes,” said Alex, “you just have to get lucky.”

 

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 i’m throwing you a soft one today, alright, just because I’m happy: game’s sure not as entertaining without you on the ice

 

 

An entourage of Canadiens arrived the next day after morning skate: Devante, Nikita, Prust, PK and Price. Nikita carried with him a gallon of his favorite soup from his favorite Russian market in Montreal, and PK had uploaded a number of audio books onto an ipod for Alex to enjoy while screens remained largely off limits.

 

“Some of them are even in Russain!” he added brightly.

 

“So, do you know what they are?” asked Alex shrewdly.

 

PK faltered. “I mean, I showed them to Marky and he nodded, so…”

 

“So he probably wasn’t paying attention to anything you said,” finished Prust. “And you probably just gave Chucky here a bunch of Russian erotica or some shit.”

 

“Wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world,” remarked Devante. “I mean, as long as it swings the right way.”

 

Alex blushed deeply. “I’m not going to be listening to whatever Russian pornography PK accidentally downloaded. I can choose my own porn, thank you very much.”

 

Carey cleared his throat pointedly.

 

“Right,” said PK. “Well, we’re here to stop by and make sure you hadn’t fallen off the face of the earth.”

 

“Sorry,” said Alex. “I wasn’t really up for much communication at first.”

 

“No one’s blaming you here,” said Carey.

 

“We were just worried,” said Prust. “I mean, you obviously couldn’t see yourself when you fell but,” he whistled softly, “definitely one of the scariest things I’ve seen.”

 

Alex shifted uncomfortably on the couch beneath five pairs of concerned, keen eyes. “Well, I’m doing better now,” he offered.

 

Everyone relaxed. Devante fetched several bowls from the kitchen and began serving the borscht. The soup slid easily down Alex’s throat, a welcome taste after nearly a week of a queasy stomach. PK and Carey slurped hesitantly, and PK set down his bowl quickly with an apologetic grimace.

 

“You know I love you Russians, but beets? They’re kind of nasty”

 

Nikita sputtered indignantly and began ranting in a garbled mixture of English and Russian, borscht and spittle flying in PK’s face. Carey grinned and caught Alex’s eye.

 

“Can you understand what he’s saying?” he asked.

 

Alex listened intently for several seconds. “It’s a little hard—he’s switching so quickly.”

 

“I’m guessing the exact words aren’t the most important thing, though.”

 

“Not exactly,” said Alex. He surveyed the room out of the corner of his eye. PK was edging his chair farther and farther away from Nikita, trying to avoid the splash zone. Devante and Carey were observing their interaction with amusement. Prust was staring at him.

 

“Yes?” he said pointedly to Prusty.

 

“You okay, kid?” he asked.

 

Alex detested being called “kid,” especially by someone who wasn’t even that much his senior. Given the circumstances, and the fact that Prusty had probably suffered the most after Alex throughout this whole affair, he decided to give his friend a pass.

 

“I will be,” he said.

 

Prust nodded. “Good.”

 

 

 

After another hour, Alex’s head had begun to pound furiously, and even the chatter of his friends aggravated his headache. Carey was the first to notice the deepening pain lines on his face, and he moved quickly to gather the troops.

 

“I think it’s time we left Chucky alone,” he said. “He’s probably already sick of us.”

 

Nikita launched into a rant about how Alex would never be sick of his friends, but Prust cut him off sharply. “We need to leave.” He stared at Nikita. “That means you, Scherby.”

 

Nikita huffed in indignation, but eventually he seemed to get the message. Everyone began to file out the door in unison, already calling dibs on seats in Carey’s car. Prust lingered, though, hovering beside Alex as everyone marched down the hallway.

 

“You told Derek I was coming to the game?” Alex said finally.

 

Prust grimaced. “I thought it might be good, you know. Might finally get you to meet Brendan.”

 

“I’ve been talking to Brendan for more than a month.”

 

“I know that, but you haven’t even shown the guy your face. I’m sure he’s willing to be patient, but patience has its limits. Derek tells me Brendan never shuts up about you.”

 

“Does he?”

 

Prust shook his head. “You’re helpless. Just meet the guy, okay? He’s not going to out you, or whatever you think might happen.”

 

“It’s not him I’m worried about,” said Alex. “If he knows, other people will find out.”

 

“Would that be the worst thing?” Alex glared at him. “I’m serious! Would it? You’d have the support of everyone on the team, most of the league. You wouldn’t have to hide at a rec league game.”

 

“It’s complicated,” said Alex.

 

“Doesn’t seem too complicated to me,” said Prust. ‘Seems pretty simple, actually.”

 

Alex stared studiously at the floor. “I can manage Brendan.”

 

“I know you can,” said Prust. “Just…if you need anything, call me, yeah?”

 

“I will.”

 

“Take care, Chuck. We need you out there.”

 

Alex napped for several hours after his teammates left. That night, he listened to the Habs game on the radio and winced his way through a 4-2 loss to the Caps. His phone pinged out with a notification.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 the habs are about as lively as Alex Galchenyuk tonight

 

 

It was a low blow.

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 you should respect your elders

 

 

After several minutes, his phone pinged again.

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 was beginning to think you died and therrien was just covering it up. also i’m older than you

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 really? Kind of assumed the 11 stood for your age

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 two years out of college, which also means I’m smarter than you.

 

 

A sharp spike of pain drilled into Alex’s head and he dropped the phone, panting. He dragged himself into the kitchen where he poured himself a glass of water and chugged it down along with two of his prescription painkillers. When he returned, he was surprised to see his phone flashing with a message, this one a direct message from one bgally11.

 

Seriously, tho, good to hear from you. Hope you’re feeling better.

 

Thanks, he said, then, because he couldn’t resist a chance to antagonize the guy, he sent out one last tweet for the night.

 

Agally27 Oilers suck

 

 

He fell asleep that night to the sound of Brendan’s voice, and awoke the next morning to a very angry call from one Nail Yakupov. As Nail sputtered and shouted in deranged Russian over the phone, Alex set the phone down on the bed and allowed the harsh yelling and cacophonous noise to drift harmlessly through his ears. Definitely worth the headache.

 

 

After another week of tedious, mind-numbing, exhausting recuperation wherein Alex did little more than sleep and bore himself to death, the doctors finally cleared him to begin light exercise. He pedaled for half an hour on an exercise bike, and while his head ached after the exercise, his body rejoiced in the feeling of any sort of workout. It had been far too long.

 

Made progress today, he texted Brendan that evening. Think I might be able to work again soon.

 

Brendan replied with a string of celebratory emojis. Congrats! I’m popping a figurative bottle of champagne and sending virtual hugs.

 

He responded with a smiley face, but inside his heart was fluttering madly. He’d decided that his progress deserved some sort of reward, and Prust’s words still lingered in his head. Perhaps Brendan wouldn’t wait for long. Perhaps he needed to act now.

 

It doesn’t have to be virtual, he said.

 

Though Brendan wasn’t in the room, he imagined him standing taught and still with surprise. He imagined a smile on his face, the only smile he’d ever seen during the game, the broad, unapologetic one. He hoped he was smiling. God, he hoped he was smiling.

 

You want to meet?

 

I think I do. Only if you want to, of course. He didn’t want to presume anything.

 

I’ve wanted to meet you since the first day I texted you.

 

Well, I’m not doing so much right now, so I’m free pretty much whenever.

 

Damn, replied Brendan. I’m actually out of town till Friday, travelling for work and all. Saturday?

 

I like the sound of that, said Alex.

 

 The ellipsis indicating Brendan was typing remained on screen for a long time. Finally, Brendan replied. You ever been to Bon Ami café? It’s not too far from McGill’s campus.

 

Can’t say that I have.

 

Meet there at noon on Saturday?

 

I’m looking forward to it.

 

Alex set down his phone, heart still pounding and blood rushing audibly through his veins. He couldn’t believe it. He was actually going to meet Brendan, meet this man he’d begun talking to not one month before.

 

He felt almost sick with anticipation. But maybe that was just his head.

 

That night, when Bbally11 tweeted his usual, he didn’t even mind.

 

 

 

Bgally11 @agally27 did you join the habs coaching? cuz they definitely don’t have their heads on straight tonight

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 kicking a guy while he’s down? shame on you

 

 

The reply to his tweet came in the form of a dm.

 

Hey, dude, I didn’t mean to make light of your concussion or anything. Sorry if it came off that way.

 

Alex furrowed his brow. The guy had said far worse about him without remorse, and Alex hadn’t taken exceptional offence to this last tweet.

 

It’s fine, he told him, then added, I’m surprised you care.

 

I have a friend going through a concussion right now, I guess, and talking with him has made me sympathetic.

 

Alex winced. Tell your friend I hope he gets better soon. Definitely not a fun time.

 

I can imagine.

 

Alex sighed and set down his phone. Four more days until he would meet Brendan, and already the anxiety had begun to set in. Talking to Bgally11 was oddly calming though, perhaps because their banter had become familiar and nonthreatening at this point. Throughout the past two weeks with his concussion, Bgally11 had continued to tweet him, making him one of the few fixtures in his life to remain static during his ordeal. He appreciated it, even if he would never admit it to anyone.

 

 

 

Bgally11 continued to tweet after every game that week, and the knot of anxiety embedded in Alex’s stomach turned cancerous, swallowing him from the inside. He exchanged brief texts with Brendan, but it seemed as if they had come to a mutual standstill, both anticipating their in-person conversation on Friday. While he had come to love their texts, he imagined that they would pale in comparison to whatever they might have to say face to face. Or to whatever they might do face to face.

 

On Saturday, he rummaged into his closet and pulled out one of his nicer button downs and jeans. When not attending games in the press box in his suit, he’d largely lived in his sweats for the past several weeks. Today marked the first time he needed to strike a good first impression in a long time. He trimmed his beard, sprayed on a hint of cologne, and left the first several buttons undone. He pulled his pea coat over his shoulders and marched out of his apartment. The March Montreal air still contained a whiff of chill, and he squinted into the bright, cold light of the sun. He had just been cleared to drive the day before, so he slid into his car and relished the feel of the solid steering wheel beneath his hands. The leather felt like freedom, like independence, and even if he still couldn’t play hockey just yet, he accepted these small victories as they came.

 

He strolled into the Bon Ami Café twenty minutes later and ordered a cup of steaming herbal tea, as any sort of caffeine was still strictly off limits for the time being. He pulled out his phone and noted the time 11:57. He texted a quick message to Brenda (I’m wearing the blue plaid button down and a habs toque, sitting in a table in the back), set down his phone on the table and settled in to wait.

 

And wait he did.

 

He waited, and waited, and waited. A second cup of tea. He signed an autograph for several young fans. He ordered a turkey club sandwich when his stomach growled impatiently. He texted Brendan.

 

By half past one, he left the café, and his thoughts resembled a tangled, twisted mass in his head. Had Brendan forgotten? Had something happened to him on the way? He recalled Brendan’s worry when Alex had been hospitalized and unable to respond for nearly a week. What if Brendan were in the hospital? What if he had seen Alex and decided he was ugly? What if he recognized him and realized he couldn’t deal with the prospect of seeing a hockey player?

 

I’m leaving the café, he texted Brendan. Hope everything’s okay.

 

No response came.

 

That night, Alex sat in the press box and watched with tepid satisfaction as his team thrashed the Canes. He tried to enjoy the game, a truly spectacular performance from Carey, an assist from Prust, Patches’ twenty fifth goal, but his eyes still flitted down to his phone every minute and his fingers squeezed the device as he waited for a response, a reply, anything from Brendan.

 

The game finished in silence.

 

When he returned home, he opened twitter as a force of habit and scanned for Bgally11’s critique of the game. He scrolled down his feed, eyes narrowing as he searched and searched, but it appeared that his most ardent critic had forgotten to tweet for the night.

 

 

Agally27 @bgally11 finally have nothing to say for the game? you’ve gone soft #GoHabsGo

 

 

He waited for a reply. Surely if he addressed bgally11 directly, the man would respond. Surely.

 

His phone remained resolutely quiet in his hands.

 

When he fell asleep that night, his body felt uneasy and his head throbbed in time with his heartbeat. For the first time in nearly four days, he swallowed a dose of his prescription painkillers, and he welcomed the fuzz they layered over his brain.

 

Two days, he was cleared to skate, though actual contact was out of the question. He skated around the edge of the rink after practice, sinking his blades into the ice and gritting his teeth. This was the release he needed, the relief from his rejection the day before. Brendan had yet to reach out to him in any way, and he had tried to shove all thoughts about him to a lonely dark corner of his mind with limited success. Skating was the closest he’d approached to clearing his head, though even it couldn’t fully erase the sting.

 

“It’s good to see you out there, Chuck,” said Prust. He’d apparently decided to remain after practice in order to talk to Alex.

 

“Feels good,” said Alex.

 

Prusty frowned. “Is something wrong?”

 

“Why would you say that?”

 

“Because I know you, and when you’re really happy, you get this stupid grin on your face.” He peered closely at Alex. “You look like someone kicked a dog.”

 

Alex undressed slowly, rotating his neck from side to side to release tension. “I am happy.”

 

“Bullshit you are,” said Prusty. “What’s going on?”

 

Alex remained stolidly silent. He slipped on a loose Sarnia t-shirt and began rummaging through his duffel bag for his pants.

 

“Chuck,” said Prust, his voice taking on a dangerous edge. “Tell me what’s happening.”

 

“Your little matchmaking setup failed, okay?” snapped Alex harshly. “That’s what happened!”

 

Prust recoiled. “Brendan?”

 

“We were supposed to meet on Saturday. He never showed, hasn’t texted back since.” He slammed his shoes onto the ground with unnecessary force. “But it’s fine.”

 

“Oh Alex,” said Prust.

 

“I don’t need your fucking pity,” said Alex. “Just…just, I skated today, okay? It’s a good thing. I’m trying to focus on that.”

 

Prust stood unmoving next to Alex.

 

“You should go now,” said Alex. “Don’t bother waiting up for me.”

 

Prust left without another word, and Alex finished changing into his street clothes alone.

 

 

Alex continued to improve throughout the week, and Gary indicated that he might be cleared for contact by early next week, which meant that actual game play wasn’t far out of reach. Alex plastered a smile on his face when he heard the news and retreated to the locker room. People congratulated him on the good news. Prust offered a smile, but he remained uncharacteristically quiet. Alex ignored him.

 

Bgally11 hadn’t tweeted him since Saturday either. It bothered Alex more than he cared to admit, and truth be told, he was actually a little worried for the guy. His mind couldn’t help but turn to the worst possibilities, just as it had with Brendan.

 

On Thursday evening, he sent a message to Bgally11.

 

You okay, dude?

 

He didn’t expect a response. A quick glance at his profile indicated that Bgally11 hadn’t touched twitter since Saturday. Alex skimmed through his profile, discovered that Bgally11, though he lived in Montreal, was originally from Edmonton. That certainly explained the irrational affection for the Oilers.

 

Half an hour later, his phone pinged. Alex nearly knocked over a stool in his kitchen as he lunged for it. His heart sank when he discovered that it wasn’t a text but a twitter notification. Bgally11 had replied.

 

I’m alright, thanks.

 

Alex set down his phone, assuming that the conversation was over, but then his phone pinged again.

 

I know this is going to sound kind of weird, but can I ask you a question?

 

Alex stared at the message. What was he supposed to say? No?

 

Fire away.

 

He waited a full minute for the reply. What would you do if you discovered that someone wasn’t who you thought they were?

 

How the hell was he supposed to answer that question? Can you be a little more specific?

 

It’s a little hard to explain. I just had this idea of who this person was, and then they turned out to be something else.

 

Is it a bad thing? Who they actually are?

 

No, it’s not. It’s just…weird. And I feel like I fucked things up with this person, but I don’t know how to fix it.

 

Have you tried talking to them? asked Alex.

 

I don’t know. I don’t think he wants to talk to me. I don’t know why he would want to.

 

Alex hesitated, then began typing furiously. Look, trust me when I say that talking to someone is better than not talking at all. Not saying anything just leaves that person feeling confused, and it’s not fair.

 

He realized that he may not have been entirely subjective in his advice, but truth be told, he didn’t care. He was talking to bgally11 on twitter, who had for some reason decided to come to him of all people for advice. And Alex had had a rough two days, a rough month.

 

Maybe you’re right.

 

I usually am, said Alex. Except about some things apparently. Sometimes I am so, so spectacularly wrong.

 

I guess we’re not too different then, said Bgally11.

 

For once, Alex found himself agreeing.

 

I hope you sort things out with this person, he told him.

 

Me too, said Bgally11. Me too.

 

 

 

On Friday, Prust called him in the afternoon. He sounded tense. “Hey Chuck, are you free to talk tomorrow?” he asked.

 

“Sure,” he said. “I can talk now too.”

 

“I’d prefer tomorrow,” Prust replied, and something in his voice told Alex not to argue.

 

“Okay,” said Alex. “Lunch then?”

 

“Actually, would you mind meeting at the rec league rink? I just want somewhere private, you know. And bring your skates. We can make a workout of it.”

 

Alex frowned. “We could probably use our rink, Prusty,” he said.

 

“Just, can you just go with this?” said Prust. “For me, please?”

 

Alex couldn’t deny Prust this, not after all he’d done for Alex since the concussion. He knew that Prust still blamed himself irrationally for missing signs of Alex’s original concussion on the plane, knew that the sight Alex sprawled against the floor, bleeding from a gash on his forehead and incoherent with pain, had scared him shitless. Over the past month, he’d demonstrated the depth of his friendship in a thousand different ways. Alex could indulge one of his quirks.

 

“Fine then. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

 

“Meet me there at two pm.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Prust hung up, and Alex felt as though he was missing something very vital. He would talk to Prust about it tomorrow.

 

He showed up promptly at two the next day, skates slung over his shoulder. The entire rink was empty, so Alex laced up his skates and began a gentle glide around the ice. He ran several laps around the ice and twisted and pivoted, digging his blades into the rough ice. A snowy spray spattered the boards, and Alex smiled in satisfaction. Nothing ever beat the feel of an open rink and the freedom of the ice beneath his feet.

 

“Hey.”

 

Alex whipped up his head to face someone who was distinctly not Prusty. It was a face he hadn’t seen in nearly two months, but he recognized it nonetheless.

 

Brendan stood at the edge of the rink, hunched over nervously as he leaned into the boards. He was staring at Alex intently, eyes traversing Alex’s entire body before settling on his face. Alex glided over to the board.

 

“Brendan,” he said.

 

“Your voice sounds different in person,” said Brendan. He tapped his fingers against the board. “It sounds better, I think.”

 

“Brendan,” repeated Alex.

 

“Look, I’m sorry about surprising you today, but I asked Derek who asked Brandon Prust to arrange this, because I was sorry about Saturday too. It was just…I get there and it’s you, it’s Alex Galchenyuk, and you’re this guy I’ve been talking to for so long, and I didn’t even know it. It was just…I felt like you wouldn’t want to talk to me, you know. Once you knew who I was.”

 

“Why the hell would you think that?” said Alex slowly. “I’m the one who asked to meet in person.”

 

Brendan dug into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out his phone, tapped several buttons and held up the screen. Alex stared at the twitter profile of Bgally11.

 

“What’s this supposed to mean?” he asked.

 

“It’s me,” said Brendan. “Bgally11 is me. Brendan Gallagher, number eleven. That’s me.”

 

Alex stared dumbly at him. Brendan shoved the phone back in his pocket. “It’s just, you were this guy I’d been talking to for months, and you were also this other guy I’d been talking to for such a long time, except, you know, on twitter, it never quite hit me that you were like a real person or anything.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Brendan huffed in exasperation. “I mean, chirping you on twitter, it was all in good fun. Hell, it was kind of like flirting in its own way. But then I saw you sitting at the café, and suddenly you were Alex. Suddenly you were this guy I’d been texting, that I’d spilled my life story to, that made me sick with worry when he didn’t respond, and even sicker when I did and I learned that you were hurt. And I panicked. I mean, why would someone like you want someone like me?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I want you?” asked Alex.

 

Brendan tugged up the bottom half of his jeans, and Alex bent over the boards to see what was being revealed. As soon as the fabric had been lifted, he saw it—a long scar stretching from mid-calf to past Brendan’s knee.

 

“Shit,” he said.

 

“I’m just some guy who wanted to play for the NHL but fucked up at exactly the wrong moment, you know? I can play now, but I missed my shot. No one wanted to draft a 5’8”pest with a bad knee. So now I work for a marketing firm and I play rec league. I’m nothing fancy.”

 

“And you think I am?” he said.

 

Brendan gave him a disparaging look. “You’re playing for the Habs. You were drafted third overall. You could have any guy you wanted.”

 

Alex was silent for a moment. “You’re a fucking idiot, Brendan Gallgher, you know that? Such a fucking idiot.”

 

Brendan’s eyes widened, but he said nothing.

 

“I spent two months of my life texting you, talking to you every day. Hell, I tweeted you every game even when I didn’t know who you were because something about you caught my eye.” He reached across the boards and grabbed Brendan’s hand, clutched it tightly in his own. “You don’t get to decide what I do and don’t want. That’s my decision alone.”

 

“And what do you want?” said Brendan hesitantly, looking up through his lashes.

 

Alex punched Brendan in the shoulder with just enough force to hurt. “That’s for standing me up on Saturday.” He punched the other shoulder. “That’s for being an asshole on twitter.” He used both hands to yank Brendan forward across the boards by his shirt collar so their faces were mere centimeters apart. “But what I really want is this.”

 

He kissed him, sloppily, hastily, his technique lacking any real finesse. Brendan made a noise of surprise, but he didn’t pull away and eventually he relaxed, allowed himself to enjoy the moment.

 

When Alex pulled away, Brendan seemed dazed. He stared at Alex with wide-eyed disbelief, and his fingers hovered at his lips as if he could recapture the kiss with his own bare hands.

 

“Do you really want that?” he asked.

 

Alex scraped his skates against the ice as he shuffled from side to side. “It’s really more of a question of if you want me. I travel all the time, I’ve worn the same pair of sweatpants since juniors, and I’m not out, at least, not to the public.”

 

Brendan reached out hesitantly, and Alex leaned in, thinking perhaps he was aiming for a kiss. But then Brendan slid his hands beneath his shirt and trailed his fingers slowly across his bare chest, lingering on his abdomen.

 

“Just making sure those were real, you know?” he smirked. “That’s the real deal breaker.”

 

Alex growled and kissed him again, this time without hesitation and without fear. Brendan responded in kind, deepening the kiss until warmth flooded Alex’s entire body and suffused his heart. He bit at Brendan’s bottom lip and sighed with pleasure as Brendan’s knees weakened.

 

They broke apart panting, lips red, smiling. Alex began skating away slowly, arms outstretched in a beckoning gesture.

 

“You brought your skates, right?” Brendan nodded. “Well, someone’s been telling me he could outskate me for a long, long time, and I’d love to prove him wrong.”

 

Brendan grinned wickedly. “Bring it on.”

 

In the end, they spent ten minutes skating and another thirty minutes kissing. They kissed standing in the middle rink, they kissed pressed against the boards, and they kissed in a jumbled heap, lying on the ice while Brendan slipped his hand beneath Alex’s shirt once more. Alex tangled his hands in Brendan’s soft hair and sighed into his lips.

 

Brendan murmured something inaudibly as they lay together on the ground.

 

“What did you say?” asked Alex in between kissing his neck.

 

“I said, I still think I outskated you.”

 

So, just to shut him up, Alex kissed him again, this time on the lips. And Brendan didn’t complain.

 

 

 

One week later, Alex turned on his phone one last time before the game. His phone pinged with a twitter notification, and he opened the app to see who it was.

 

Bgally11 @agally27 Go Habs Go!

 

Alex set aside the phone with a smile on his lips, and he marched through the tunnel into the blazing lights and sound of the Bell Centre and its fans (including a certain Brendan Gallagher), ready, at last, to play hockey.