Actions

Work Header

Crash Into Me

Work Text:

Alex wondered from time to time if some sort of karma existed, if certain people were just predestined for those lucky breaks which propelled them forward in their careers, their relationships, their self-development. He wondered if those people existed, the ones who drifted easily through the currents, and he wondered if he knew how lucky they were.

 

Only a karmic imbalance the size of continental Europe could explain Alex’s ill fortune today.

 

It started with his coffee machine breaking in the morning. Eyes bleary, mind muzzy, he shoved the requisite amount of coffee grounds in the machines and collapsed onto the stool closest to the counter. Nail, that bastard, was working freelance and so kept his own hours, which usually meant that he stayed up working furiously till the ass crack of dawn before passing out and waking just before noon. It was seven o’clock just then, which meant if had to estimate, Nail had probably collapsed in bed not two hours ago. A quick look in the kitchen sink informed him it had been a multiple-cups-of-coffee sort of night.

 

Clunk. Hisssss. Clunk. Hissssss.

 

Alex shot out of the stool in alarm.

 

Before him, the coffee machine had begun a whole symphony of terrifying, definitely dangerous sounds. Steam began to pour from the top of the machine, and if Alex didn’t do something quickly, he would be facing an entire building’s worth of irate neighbors angry over being disturbed by the smoke detector.

 

He fumbled his way through the haze and unplugged the machine, which slowly quieted until it puttered out with its last dying gasps. Now that the steam had cleared, Alex could see that no coffee had actually dripped into the pot. Something was obviously terribly wrong.

 

“Nail Yakupov!” he shouted, kicking down the door to Nail’s room.

 

Nail jerked awake. “What?” he said with obvious irritation.

 

“What the fuck did you do the coffee machine?” he asked.

 

Nail frowned. “Nothing.”

 

“Well, you obviously did something, because our kitchen is like a fucking sauna in there, there’s so much steam.”

 

Nail blinked hazily. “I cleaned it last night. Do you think that has something to do with it?”

 

“Probably,” snapped Alex. “Do you know how to fix it?”

 

“Dude, I went to bed like two hours ago.”

 

“That’s not my fucking problem, is it? You break it, you fix it. House rules.”

 

“Ugh,” moaned Nail and he swung the covers away to reveal his entirely naked body.

 

“Jeez, Yak, could you not?” begged Alex, shielding his eyes.

 

Nail stood up, entirely unconcerned with Alex’s discomfort. “You know I sleep in the nude.”

 

“Yeah, but you could have at least waited until I left your room.”

 

“Sasha, this is the most action you’ve gotten in the past six months. I’m doing you a favor here.”

 

“You’d be doing me a hell of a lot more of a favor by fixing the fucking coffee machine that you broke,” growled Alex.

 

Nail sniffed. “No need to be rude.”

 

“Just fix it, okay?” said Alex. With that, he retreated to the kitchen to try to salvage the remains of his morning routine. Nail emerged in a pair of ratty sweatpants and nothing else (Alex knew by now that he was definitely going commando) and he slouched his way over the machine. Alex poured himself a bowl of cheerios and then opened the fridge to find the milk.

 

“Nail, where is the milk?”

 

“What?”

 

“I said, where is the milk?”

 

Nail peered around the refrigerator door. “There should be some in there unless—oh shit.” He grimaced. “I was making mac and cheese last night, and then I had some cereal and tea and I guess I finished it all?”

 

“You guess?”

 

“I’ll get some more today,” he said defensively.

 

“Fine,” said Alex, and he shifted away a container of the disgusting tomato juice that Nail loved so much. “We should have eggs, though.”

 

“Uhh.”

 

“Right?”

 

Nail at least had the decency to appear sheepish. “I might have finished those last night as well.”

 

“Were you making a fucking five course meal?”

 

“I was hungry, okay?” said Nail. “You’re in a mood today.”

 

“Yeah, because I haven’t had my coffee yet this morning and it looks like I’m not going to have any breakfast either. Please tell me you’ve fixed the machine.”

 

Nail prodded the inside of the machine cautiously. “I think it’s something to do with the filter. But I honestly have no idea.”

 

“Can you fix it in the next half hour?”

 

“That’s going to be a negative.”

 

The world really hated Alex. He glanced down at his watch, noted the time. “If I leave within the next fifteen minutes, I might be able to stop by Timmie’s on the way over.”

 

“Whatever, dude,” said Nail, yawning loudly. “Does this mean I can go back to sleep?”

 

“Sure. Fine. Whatever,” said Alex. “Just fix the machine and buy some milk and eggs today, okay?”

 

Nail gave a half-hearted salute which Alex interpreted as an approximately thirty percent chance of any of those things happening today. He would discuss it later, after he’d had his coffee and not arrived late to work. Speaking of which…

 

The Tim Horton’s nearest to his apartment was only slightly out of his way on his commute, so by the time he had a coffee in the cup holder and a bacon, egg and cheese sitting on the passenger seat, he felt as though he might actually arrive at work with some of his humanity intact. The light changed to yellow at the intersection and Alex slowed, eventually coming to a full stop.

 

Crash.

 

Alex slammed forward, straight into the airbags which had deployed automatically upon contact. The coffee in the cup holder sprayed onto Alex’s lap, burning his thigh, and he yelped in both surprise and pain. He rested his head against the airbag for a moment, trying to process what had just happened before it hit him.

 

Well, something else had hit him. A car to be specific.

 

Because a car crash was exactly what his day needed to be complete.

 

He emerged from the car swearing profusely, fury etched into the lines of his mouth. A blast of icy, wintry air pummeled him, but he was beyond caring. His frustration and exhaustion numbed him to the cold.

 

“That’s not French,” said a voice.

 

Alex turned to see a boyish-faced man standing beside the car which had just crashed into his. He wore a black pea coat and had his ungloved hands shoved into the pockets and a toque pulled over his head. Already the wind had reddened his cheeks, and his gray eyes were scanning Alex with apprehension.

 

“No, it’s Russian,” said Alex shortly, in English.

 

“Look, man, I’m so sorry about this. There was just this patch of ice and I tried to slow and the car skidded.”

 

Alex silently inspected the damage. While the front of the man’s car was certainly dented, the trunk of Alex’ Subaru had crumpled completely, rendering it entirely unusable. There was no way he could drive the car another five feet, let alone the five miles to his work.

 

He swore again, in Russian, but the intent was clear. The man winced.

 

“Look, obviously my insurance will cover all of this, so you don’t need to worry about paying for anything.”

 

“I do need to worry about getting to work though,” said Alex harshly. “Which I am apparently just not destined to do today.” He glanced down at his coffee-stained pants. “Fuck, I need to change too.”

 

“Look,” the man said, shuffling from side to side, “we both need to be here to talk to the police, file a report and what not. But I can give you a ride to work after we’re done, you know. I can arrange for everything to be towed.”

 

“Right, I’m just supposed to hop in the car of a strange man who just crashed into me. That fills me with so much confidence.”

 

“If it helps, my name’s Brendan,” the man offered. “I mean, just so I’m not entirely a stranger. Brendan Gallagher.”

 

He was staring at Alex with an intent anticipation, which, had he cared more, Alex might have found curious. “I’m Alex,” Alex said finally. “Galchenyuk.”

 

“That sounds Russian,” remarked Brendan.

 

“Belarusian,” corrected Alex impatiently. “And I’m actually American, thank you very much. Not that this means shit to you.”

 

Brendan opened his mouth to respond, but the encroaching sound of a police siren interrupted whatever he intended to say. Apparently, one of the bystanders must have called the police, and they had just arrived. A squad car pulled up behind Brendan’s truck, and a police officer strolled out from the car.

 

“Mr. Gallagher,” she said with some surprise.

 

“Do you two know each other?” Alex asked, looking between the two of them.

 

“Ah, no,” said Brendan, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. “But people recognize me.”

 

“And why would they do that?”

 

The police offer stared at him incredulously. “It’s Brendan Gallagher.”

 

Alex looked dumbly at both of them.

 

“I play hockey. Professionally,” said Brendan. “For the Habs.” He shrugged, like this was something that everyone might do from time to time. Like a job working at McDonalds, or shoveling snow off a neighbor’s front walk as a child.

 

Shit. Not only was Alex’s car a wreck, but he was probably going to have to spend an extra half hour waiting while the police officer fawned over Brendan.

 

“It’s pretty self-explanatory, officer,” said Brendan smoothly. “I hit a patch of ice and didn’t manage to stop in time. It’s entirely my fault.”

 

The police officer looked to Alex, and what, as if he were going to contradict Brendan? He was already incredibly late for work, and while technically he bosses shouldn’t blame him for the delay, he knew better than to trust in their compassion and sympathy.

 

“Well,” she said slowly, “if that’s the case, then I’ll need statements from both of you about what happened, as well as insurance information.”

 

Brendan and Alex each retreated to their cars to pull out the requisite information as well as the registration for their cars. Alex bent over his seat to reach for the glove compartment and had just closed his fingers over the slip of paper when a wave of dizziness assaulted him. He closed his eyes, waiting for the sensation to pass. When he opened them, he felt steadier, although still slightly shaky. He brushed it off and exited the car clutching his registration and insurance paperwork. He deposited both of them in the waiting hands of the police officer and leaned back against the crumpled end of his car, shivering in the bitter cold.

 

The officer inspected their paperwork. Brendan hopped from side to side in an apparent attempt to ward off the chill. Alex just resigned himself to feeling cold. A spike of pressure formed beneath his eye, and he rubbed at his temple in an effort to relieve it.

 

“It seems to be in order,” said the officer. She returned the papers to each of them and Alex pocketed his. “I’ve already ordered a tow truck, which should be arriving soon to take your car,” she gestured to Alex, “and I’ll be needing formal statements from both of you.”

 

“I’ll go first,” offered Brendan. He began recounting the events leading up the accident, how he’d been driving along normally and simply missed the patch of black ice on the road. Alex zoned out. He had been tired before, but now without his coffee and with the cold, he felt downright exhausted.

 

A faint buzzing entered his ears. A voice was talking from a distance, but it seemed unimportant. Suddenly a hand waved in front of his face, and Alex snapped his focus back to reality.

 

“Mr. Galchenyuk?” said the officer. She had butchered the pronunciation of his name, but Alex was accustomed to it. “Mr. Galchenyuk, are you ready to give your statement?”

 

Alex nodded, but that was a mistake. The moment he moved his head, the buzzing increased exponentially, drowning out all other sound. Blackness began to encroach at the edges of his vision.

 

“I—“ he said. “I think—“

 

The blackness had nearly swallowed him whole. He struggled against it, tried to say something, anything, but his tongue felt leaden and fuzzy, and he could barely hear over the buzzing in his hand. He saw a look of a horror cross Brendan’s face, and then there was the sensation of falling, of careening off the edge, and then nothing.

 

He awoke staring at the sky. A vague awareness of a hand on his shoulder reached his brain, but his body felt alien and disconnected from his head. He twitched his fingers. The felt cold. He wished for something to warm them.

 

A dark object blocked Alex’s pristine view of the sky. He focused his eyes and saw that the object was, in fact, Brendan’s face. He frowned, and his eyes were fraught with concern. Alex sighed and closed his eyes.

 

“Alex, Alex,” said Brendan. Alex blinked slowly. “Alex, hey, can you hear me?”

 

“Hmm,” he hummed.

 

“Can you keep your eyes open?” Alex opened his eyes and tried to glare at Brendan, though pounding in his head dampened the effectiveness of his attempt.

 

“I’m here,” said Alex.

 

The lines crinkling Brendan’s forehead softened. “How are you feeling?”

 

“How do you think?” murmured Alex. How did he feel? He raised his hand to his temple and narrowed his eyes. “I’m fine,” he said.

 

Brendan snorted. “You’re worse than some of my teammates, you know?”

 

Alex was confused for a moment. Then he remembered that Brendan was a hockey player. A hockey player who had hit him with his car.

 

He was never making it to work.

 

Brendan was talking again. “Can you tell me the date? Prime Minister? Your name?”

 

Alex recited both facts without issues, and Brendan relaxed, but he still did not leave Alex’s side. “Try not to move, okay?” he said. “An ambulance is coming.”

 

Alex immediately levered himself off the ground. “I’m not going to the hospital.”

 

Brendan pressed him back to the ground with annoying ease. “You just passed out after being in a car crash. There’s no way you’re not going to the hospital.”

 

He searched for argument against Brendan’s logic, but ultimately came up empty. Besides, if he was being honest with himself, he felt more than a little bit awful. His head now ached ferociously, the world tilted on its axis alarmingly every so often, and he couldn’t stop shivering (though the cold probably accounted for the last part). If Nail were here, he would definitely tell Alex to go the hospital.

 

“Nail,” he muttered. “Shit, Nail.”

 

“Nail?” repeated Brendan in confusion. “As in hammer and nails?”

 

“My roommate,” clarified Alex. “Nail Yakupov. I should call him.”

 

A siren wailed in the background, signaling the approach of the ambulance. “I’ll call him,” said Brendan. “Just give me his number.”

 

Nail would hate being woken up for a second time, but he would hate being kept ignorant even more. Alex recited Nail’s number, which Brendan typed into his own phone before slinking into the background. A paramedic replaced Brendan almost immediately, asking the same questions and flashing a light obnoxiously in his face. Without further ado, he was placed onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance.

 

He glanced at his watch. It was only eight o’clock. His day had gone to complete and utter shit.

 

 

 

He was released from the hospital after several hours with a prescription to fill in one hand and a bag of his personal belongings in another. When he reached the waiting rooms, something slammed into him with unnecessary force and he stumbled back.

 

“Sasha, Sasha,” the thing murmured.

 

Nail was hugging him tightly, squeezing his chest so tightly that Alex could barely draw breath.

 

“Nail,” he said tightly. “Air.”

 

Nail released him quickly and stood back, eyes sweeping over Alex in evaluation. He frowned. “You look like shit,” he said.

 

“You too,” said Alex, and it was true. Deep shadows sat beneath his eyes, and worry was still etched into his face.

 

“Well, that’s what happens when your roommate has the brilliant idea to get into a car accident in the morning and then pass out on the side of the road.”

 

Alex winced. “Brendan called you?”

 

Nail nodded. “Also, Brendan Gallagher? Like, what are the chances the dude who hits you is Brendan Gallagher?”

 

“Does everyone in this city know who this guy is?” complained Alex.

 

Nail shot him a disparaging look. “I know you don’t follow hockey, but come on. You should know this.”

 

“Whatever. Can we please leave? I hate the smell of this place.”

 

Nail slung an arm over his shoulder, and the two of them headed out to Nail’s car, a rusty, beat up Chevy which he’d bought for less than two grand five years ago. Alex still wasn’t sure exactly how old the car was, and at this point, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

 

“Brendan gave me the information for your car,” said Nail casually once they were safely ensconced in the warmth of the Chevy’s interior. “It’s going to take a while to repair it, apparently. I called.”

 

Alex tilted his head back against the headrest. “Fuck me.”

 

“Fuck you indeed,” said Nail. “You feeling okay?”

 

“Just peachy,” said Alex. “I’m not supposed to work tomorrow, which means that Jeff is going to be pissed. We’ve got a deadline coming up, and now I’m missing two days.”

 

“Well, nothing he can do about that,” said Nail. “You’re definitely not going into work tomorrow. I’m making sure of that.”

 

“What are you going to do, snore at me?” said Alex.

 

Nail was unamused, and he pursed his lips tightly. Alex sighed softly. Nail was oddly protective at times, and Alex braced himself for at least a week of hovering and furtive glances whenever he so much as blinked.

 

“I won’t go,” he assured him. “I promise that much.”

 

Nail sniffed, but seemed satisfied with Alex’s word. When they arrived home, both men were completely exhausted, and both feel into a much welcome sleep.

 

 

 

The next day and half Alex spent in a stupor. Predictably, Nail rose around noon the next day, at which point Alex had already watched two Die Hard movies and was strongly considering the third. Nail decided that what Alex really needed was soup, and since Alex actively refused to touch anything Nail cooked which was more complicated than spaghetti, he ventured out into the cold to their favorite Russian market to pick up borscht. It never matched his mother’s cooking, but it was the best he could hope for under these circumstances.

 

Nail returned home with a tubful of borscht and a look of pure confusion. “You didn’t get a new car, did you?”

 

Alex stared incredulously at him. “When and how would I have done that?”

 

“Well, someone parked a shiny new Volkswagen in your spot.”

 

“What?” exclaimed Alex, launching out of their living room loveseat. His head throbbed in protest, but if someone had occupied his parking spot, especially some douche with a Volkswagen, then he was about to wage war.

 

“Dude, shouldn’t you be resting?”

 

Alex ignored him and began marching down the hallway and to the elevator. He realized as the elevator dinged on the ground floor that he’d forgotten to bring his jacket, but he relied on his anger to keep warm. He immediately regretted the decision as he opened the door and faced the blast of cold air from the Montreal winter, but he had already progressed too far to turn back now.

 

He reached his parking spot, one of two designated for apartment 413. Nail’s rusty Chevy looked especially bedraggled next to the gleaming black car which occupied the spot where Alex’s Subaru normally stood. Alex examined it thoroughly, beginning with the back, and as he worked his way up to the front, he spotted a yellow slip of paper tucked into wipers of the car.

 

He snatched it off the windshield and began reading it furiously. As he progressed further into the note, his confusion only grew, replacing the fury and frustration of before.

 

Alex, I’m so sorry about yesterday. Please accept this car as an apology for what happened—paperwork and keys should arrive in the mail tomorrow. B

 

“What does it say?” came Nail’s voice from behind. He’d followed Alex out into the parking lot.

 

“It says it’s a gift.”

 

“What, the car?” Nail gaped at Alex. “Is it for you?”

 

Alex nodded dumbly.

 

“From who?” Nail grabbed the note from Alex, wasting no time. He scanned the note intently, and then his expression of awe intensified. “Dude, I think Brendan Gallagher gave you a car.”

 

“But why?”

 

Nail pointed at the note. “What he said.”

 

“But I mean, his insurance was going to cover all the damage to my car. He didn’t need to pay for shit!”

 

Nail shrugged, but even he seemed to be struggling to wrap his head around the idea of a new car, the nicest one Alex would probably ever own. God, he’d probably taken one look at Alex’s aging vehicle and pitied him. Bile rose sharply to the back of Alex’s throat.

 

“I can’t take it,” said Alex.

 

Nail sputtered, “Of course you can.”

 

“I’m not some fucking charity case, okay? I don’t need a new car. My car is working just fine.”

 

“You don’t need one, sure, but look at this thing. You could probably sell it and take a trip to the Bahamas for the rest of the winter with that sort of money.” Nail seemed pensive. “Or really anywhere warm.”

 

“I’m not keeping the car.”

 

“Then what are you going to do with it? Return it to him? How?”

 

“I’ll find a way,” said Alex. “I’ll find a way.”

 

 

Which is why he found himself standing outside the Montreal Canadiens practice rink on Saturday morning beside two dozen other people, all bearing jerseys or cards or slips of paper to be autographed. Alex slouched behind the crowd, avoiding their annoying exuberance as much as possible. When the first player emerged from the arena, walking through the parking lot to his car, several people began screaming.

 

“Over here! Over here!”

 

“Sign my jersey!”

 

“I love you!”

 

Alex scowled. He hated being associated with these sorts of the people, the sort who waited in the cold for just a glimpse of these men. Still, he had a purpose, he reminded himself. He needed to talk to Brendan Gallagher.

 

One of the players who was decidedly not Brendan Gallagher approached the horde of people gathered by the fence. He grinned easily as he moved down the line of fans, signing this or that, posing for a couple of photographs as well. He seemed to genuinely derive some pleasure from the interaction as well—either that or he was exceptionally good at faking.

 

“Do you want something signed as well?” the man asked Alex.

 

The player was slightly shorter than Alex, and he boasted a casual confidence which Alex envied and hated immediately.

 

“I need to speak to Brendan Gallagher.”

 

The man frowned. “Doesn’t work like that, buddy. I was just feeling extra generous today.”

 

“Tell him I’m Alex,” he said, and the man arched an eyebrow. “Tell him I’m the one he hit the other day with his car.”

 

The man’s eyes widened. “Oh, shit.” He flickered his gaze from side to side. “Listen, you’re not going to like, sue him or anything, are you? Because I promise you, Gally’s a total pest but he’s got a heart of gold and he would never—

 

“I’m not interested,” said Alex, cutting him off. “I just want to speak to him. Alone.”

 

The man eyed Alex cautiously, but ultimately he relented. “Fine,” he said. “Just, don’t make a big fuss if you can, okay? He doesn’t need any shit from the media.”

 

Alex nodded tightly, and the man let him in around the fence and he followed him into the arena. They turned several corners, past the area where the public was allowed, and Alex realized he was about to enter the locker room. A locker room full of sweaty, half-naked hockey players.

 

He did not need this right now.

 

“Wait here,” said the man as they halted outside a door. The man left Alex standing as he entered the room, providing Alex with a quick glimpse of the red, white and blue interior of the room. “Gally!” he shouted. “Get your ass over here.”

 

A shirtless Brendan Gallagher strode over with a wicked grin on his face. “Forget your head on the way out the door, eh, Prusty?”

 

“I’ve got the man you hit with your car the other day standing outside the door, so you might want to be careful with your chirping for the moment,” said Prusty without hesitation.

 

Brendan peered around Prusty and blanched. “Oh, Alex. Hi.”

 

“Can we talk?” said Alex.

 

“Sure,” said Brendan. “Can you just…can you just give me a moment?” He glanced down at his bare chest. “I should probably cover up.”

 

Alex nodded stiffly, and then waited as Brendan retreated into the locker room and emerged a minute later wearing an oversized gray sweater. His shower-damp hair clung to his forehead, and as he ran his hand over his head, it stuck up comically. He led them down the hall into a small room filled with excess hockey equipment, a sort of glorified walk-in closet.

 

Brendan fidgeted uncomfortably. “So, how are you feeling?”

 

“Fine,” said Alex shortly.

 

Brendan seemed relieved. “I’m glad to hear that. I tried to call the hospital to check in later, but they wouldn’t tell me shit since I’m not family or anything.”

 

“I’m not here to talk about that,” said Alex. “I’m here to talk about the little present you left in the parking lot two days ago.”

 

Brendan flushed. “What about it?”

 

“Take it back,” said Alex flatly.

 

Brendan gaped at him. “You don’t want it? I mean, your old car should be fixed up soon but when I talked to the shop they said it needed a lot of work outside of what happened to the crash like the brakes and the belt and the AC—“

 

“I’m not a fucking charity case,” snapped Alex. “You didn’t need to buy me a car.”

 

“I know I didn’t, but I felt shitty, okay?” said Brendan. He sighed heavily. “I’m glad you’re fine, but seeing you go down like that on the road, it was pretty scary. I put you in the hospital.”

 

“And I’m fine,” said Alex sharply. “I’ve had worse, believe me.” Brendan opened his mouth, but Alex cut him off before he could respond. “So how do I return it to you?”

 

“You don’t,” said Brendan as if this were obvious. “Seriously, you don’t. Keep it.”

 

“I already told you, I don’t want your pity.”

 

“It’s not pity,” said Brendan. “I feel bad about what happened, and I wanted to help.”

 

“I don’t want it.”

 

Brendan met his challenging gaze without hesitation. They stared at each other for several moments, neither willing to back down.

 

“Just take the fucking car,” said Brendan finally, breaking their silent stalemate. “You know, it’s not that hard.”

 

“How am I supposed to explain to everyone how I suddenly got a Volkswagen when I could barely afford to get new brakes for my old car?”

 

“The truth isn’t a bad way to start.” Alex scoffed, and Brendan huffed out a jet of air. “It’s not.”

 

“I’m not driving it,” said Alex.

 

“Then don’t drive it,” said Brendan. “Do whatever the hell you want with it, but I’m not taking it back.”

 

Alex glared at him, but opted for stoic resentment over loud belligerence. A fan whirred and clacked loudly in the corner, and it suddenly hit Alex how surreal this whole situation was. He was standing in a closet with a member of the Montreal Canadiens arguing over a car.

 

His head throbbed.

 

“How would you feel about a hockey game?”

 

“What?” Alex snapped back to reality.

 

“I mean, how would you feel about coming to a game? Maybe the next home one? I could get you tickets—good ones too.”

 

Alex stared at Brendan incredulously. “I just told you I don’t want anything from you, and you’re trying to give me more gifts?”

 

“You don’t have to use them yourself,” said Brendan, and a hit of amusement quirked at his lips. “I mean, I’m sure you have friends who would appreciate box seats at a Habs game.”

 

Nail definitely would appreciate it, even if his heart and soul belonged to the Oilers. Nikita would probably spontaneously combust with glee. Anna would roll her eyes and then begin yelling loudly two minutes into the game.

 

Alex might enjoy it himself.

 

“For my friends,” he allowed after several moments of reflection.

 

A broad smile split Brendan’s face. “Perfect. Just give me your number and email and I’ll contact you with the details.”

 

Alex disliked the idea of exchanging any contact information with Brendan, but the prospect of box seats was too tempting. If Nail or Nikita or Anna ever discovered he’d turned down this opportunity, he knew he would find himself unceremoniously thrown out of the apartment and disowned from his family.

 

Alex typed in his number into Brendan’s phone. A quick text message appeared moments later.

 

Hi J

 

Alex saved the number in his phone as BG and looked up to see Brendan grinning with blinding force. He pasted a smile onto his face.

 

“So, I guess I should go now or something.”

 

Brendan hesitated. “Or we could go for lunch.”

 

“What?” said Alex.

 

“I was just thinking, maybe we get lunch? As part of me apologizing?”

 

Alex stared in disbelief. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

 

“Nope,” said Brendan cheerfully. “So, lunch?”

 

Alex attempted to refuse several times more before Brendan’s dogged persistence won over Alex’s patience and he decided it would just be simpler if he accepted the invitation. The moment he agreed, Brendan appeared so smug that Alex immediately regretted his decision, but there was nothing to be done.

 

Alex followed Brendan from the parking lot to a sushi restaurant, Suzuki’s, which Brendan apparently adored. Alex was skeptical of raw seafood on principle, but he had no other suggestions, so sushi it was.

 

Suzuki’s was the sort of place Alex might have chosen for a special date or for his birthday dinner (if indeed he did like sushi), and definitely not a restaurant for a casual afternoon lunch. He settled uncomfortably into the stiff booth when the waiter seated him and tried not to gasp aloud when he laid eyes on the prices. Fifteen dollars for an appetizer? He felt a little queasy, and couldn’t tell for sure whether the distinctly fishy smell permeating the air or the prospect of an empty wallet was the culprit. He found the cheapest rolls and planned on ordering them before returning home and gorging himself on cheap chicken nuggets and canned beans.

 

“So you’re feeling better then?” asked Brendan brightly.

 

Alex cleared his throat. “I mean, yeah. I drove here and even did a half day at work yesterday, so better.”

 

“Oh, where do you work?” Brendan asked this question as if he had forgotten that of course Alex had a job, of course he needed to work for money in an office, at a desk. As if he hadn’t slammed into him on his morning commute.

 

“Translation company,” said Alex. “It’s nothing special, but it works for now.”

 

“English and Russian?”

 

“French and Italian too,” said Alex, and Brendan’s eyes widened.

 

“So, you’re like really smart or something.”

 

“No, just lucky,” he said shortly. Brendan looked on encouragingly, gestured for him to continue. “I grew up speaking Russian, lived in Italy for a year, and then I learned French when I came to Montreal. Like I said, mostly luck. Pays the bills though.” Mostly paid the bills, but he didn’t need to elaborate further on that issue.

 

“Italy—that sounds pretty cool. I’ve never been there before, but it sounds beautiful.”

 

Alex shrugged. “It was nice, I guess. I was pretty young, and I didn’t care so much about where we lived.”

 

“Why did you live there?”

 

Alex sighed. “My dad’s work. It moved him around.”

 

“Was he like in the military or something?”

 

“No, hockey,” said Alex, then winced as Brendan’s face lit up with avid delight. “What about you? Uh, where are you from?” He silently begged Brendan to accept the change of subject.

 

Fortunately, Brendan bit the bait. “I lived in Edmonton for a while, then moved to just outside of Vancouver. Got drafted by the Habs but played in Hamilton for a couple of years before moving up.” He smiled broadly. “Canadian through and through, baby.”

 

Alex grimaced. He never doubted Brendan’s strong Canadian pride—it rolled off of him in tangible, almost aromatic waves; he smelt of the oil of Edmonton, exuded the sensation of the soft B.C. coast.  It echoed in the vowels of his words, in his language. No one would doubt Brendan Gallagher.

 

Alex had never been so fortunate. American by birth, Belarussian by heritage, Russian by accent and Canadian by residency (for the past ten years at least). Even to himself, it was a tangled mess.

 

“Teach me some Russian,” said Brendan.

 

“What?”

 

“Teach me some Russian,” repeated Brendan. “Marky, Emelin—a couple of the guys on our team—they’re Russian, and it’d be cool if I could surprise him like that.”

 

“Uhh,” Alex fumbled for words. “What do you want to know, I guess?”

 

“Well, I know how to say hello. That’s privyet, yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” said Alex. “I mean, your accent’s not going to knock anyone’s socks off, but I’m guessing you’re not aiming for that.”

 

“Right. So, maybe you could tell me how to introduce myself, or something. How to say ‘good game.’”

 

“Well,” said Alex. “For introducing yourself, you would say menya zavut and then your name.”

 

Brendan spoke the words slowly, emphasizing the wrong syllables as he went, but Alex corrected him patiently.

 

“Then, if you want, you can say, ochen priyatna. It means nice to meet you.”

 

“What about ‘good game?’”

 

Kharoshaya igra,” said Alex.

 

Brendan frowned. “I’ve heard something similar before—like kharosh or something.”

 

Kharosho just means good, but for a word like igra, you need to make it feminine.”

 

“Are you saying Russian does that weird thing like French where tables and chairs have genders?”

 

“That’s most languages,” said Alex, regarding Brendan skeptically. “Didn’t you learn anything in school?”

 

“I mean, sort of?” said Brendan, shrugging casually. “It was never exactly on top of my priority list. Hockey always came first. I guess it’s a good thing it worked in the end, eh? Else maybe I’d be stuck at some translation job I didn’t like.”

 

Alex flinched.

 

“Oh shit, I’m so sorry,” said Brendan. “That was…that was incredibly rude of me.”

 

Alex sat silently in the booth, wishing very much to disappear into the center of the earth where at least it would be warm enough to melt away any ice and any hockey and any damn hockey players.

 

“Are you ready to order?” A waiter stood before them, notebook poised in the air.

 

“Oh yes,” said Brendan, jumping on the chance to break the tension in the room. “I’ll have the combination rolls and the sashimi, extra maki please.”

 

“Good, and for yourself?” said the waiter, turning to Alex.

 

Alex ordered the basic tuna rolls. Brendan looked at him in disbelief.

“That’s hardly anything!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you want something else?”

 

Alex flushed. “Maybe the sashimi as well,” he muttered, already preparing himself for days of tacos and canned beans. He’d have to skip out on any Timmie’s for the next week. Fortunately, this seemed to satisfy Brendan, and the waiter left.

 

“Just you wait,” he said, practically thrumming with anticipation. “The food here is amazing.”

 

It was amazing. Alex savored each bite of sushi and fish, allowing the taste to linger on his tongue. God, Nikita was going to flip when he heard that Alex had eaten lunch with a member of the Canadiens at what had to be one of the nicest sushi places in town.

 

The conversation continued stiltedly as they each consumed their sushi. Brendan drove most of the conversation, peppering him with questions which Alex either answered or deflected as necessary. Most were mundane.

 

Others…

 

“So, if your dad played hockey, did you play? I mean, you said you don’t even follow hockey, but you’ve got to know something.”

 

“I played,” said Alex.

 

“Any good?”

 

“I wasn’t bad.”

 

“I bet you weren’t. Hell, half the guys on the team aren’t as built as you are.” Alex raised an eyebrow, and Brendan backtracked quickly. “I just mean, you know, you look strong. If you had any skill…”

 

“That’s kind of rich, coming from a dwarf like yourself,” said Alex mildly.

 

“Hey, I do my part,” said Brendan defensively, but he smiled genuinely. “I bet I could bench press you,” he added thoughtfully.

 

Alex couldn’t help himself—he burst out laughing. The fit overtook him until tears pricked at the corner of his eyes, and he was clutching his side for air. He hiccoughed, swallowed a gulp of water, and then promptly hiccoughed again and sprayed a fine mist of water across the table.

 

“I’m glad you find this so amusing,” deadpanned Brendan, but there was a glint of—something, pride, or triumph, in his eyes which irked Alex.

 

“Hysterical, actually,” said Alex, meeting Brendan’s gaze in a challenge.

 

“Well, I am considered something of a team funnyman, you know.”

 

Mostly unintentional humor, derived from laughing at himself, Alex would have bet, but he never had been much of a betting man.

 

“A humble teammate too, I’m sure,” said Alex.

 

Brendan peered at him with an odd look. “You’re not very nice, are you?”

 

“And you’re not a very good driver, so let’s call it even, shall we?”

 

And that, at long last, shut Brendan up.

 

 

 

 

“Nikita called,” said Nail when Alex first walked in. He had arranged himself in an artful slouch against the couch cushions. Alex’s back ached just observing the curve of his spine, but he refrained from commenting. Nail knew as well as anyone the importance of posture. The TV in front of him buzzed faintly with the sounds of The Great British Bakeoff, Nail’s preferred form of reality television.

 

“He called?” said Alex in surprise. “I thought he didn’t know how to call?”

 

“He broke his cell phone, lost all of his numbers. He was using the landline at his parent’s place.”

 

“Let me guess, it fell off a bridge?”

 

“Worse, he was trying to cook.” Nail’s face puckered as if he’d just swallowed a particularly sour slice of lemon. “Phone fell into a pot of a boiling water.”

 

“One of these days, his cell phone insurance is just going tell him no,” said Alex.

 

“Anyways,” said Nail, “he wants to know why you didn’t inform him about your little mishap earlier on this week. Except he wasn’t so polite, and he threatened to disown you from the family.”

 

“He’s not actually related to me,” grumbled Alex. “Having our parents be friends does not make him part of the family.”

 

“No, but your sister does like him more than you, so you might want to proceed with caution.”

 

Alex toed off of his shoes and collapsed on the couch next to Nail. “She won’t for long.”

 

“Hmm, and why’s that?”

 

“Because I’ve been promised box seats for a Habs game in the near future.”

 

Nail was silent for a moment. And then:

 

“You’re shitting me. You’ve got to be shitting me.”

 

“Nope,” said Alex. “And all of you better be damn grateful, because I had to deal with Brendan Gallagher to get them.”

 

“Was that, like, an exchange for the car?”

 

Alex looked down sheepishly. “I still have the car. This is something else.”

 

Nail sputtered, “You still have the car?”

 

Ale curled into the couch corner, clutching a pillow close to his chest. He closed his eyes, already regretting this entire conversation, the entire past week. “He wouldn’t take it back.”

“So what, you’re going to start driving that Volkswagen?”

 

“No, I’m not, I’m just going to…keep it. And not do anything with it.”

 

“Did you talk to him about, well, everything?”

 

“I tried telling him over lunch, but then—

 

“You had lunch with him too?” Nail was now sitting fully upright, slacker posture fully forgotten.

 

“Yeah. This really nice sushi place—nicer than I could ever afford, but he paid for it”

 

“Dude, I thought you went there to return the car, not to accept more free stuff from the guy!”

 

“He was really persistent, okay?” said Alex, and a flush crept across his cheeks. “I don’t think he even knows the word ‘no.’ He refused to take the car back, and then he offered the seats and I couldn’t turn them down. I mean, I don’t care about the Habs but if Nikita ever discovered I passed up the tickets…”

 

“Well, I don’t think you ought to be intimidated by Nikita, but I see your point,” said Nail. He appeared pensive as he chewed his bottom lip. “I’m just a little surprised you gave in so quickly. The Sasha I know is always the most stubborn one in the room.”

 

“I can always rescind your invitation,” said Alex.

 

“Hey, I’ll come,” said Nail, holding up his hands. “Besides, who else would you invite? Your entire rec league? Have you and what’s-his-face from work, Julian, been hanging out a lot lately?”

 

“We might have,” said Alex, and Nail smirked triumphantly.

 

“Face it. I’m your best friend.”

 

“Don’t let Nikita hear you say that.”

 

“Nikita knows where he stands,” said Nail, an almost ominous quality entering his voice. “Besides, he’s still in college. He’s got plenty of opportunity for a social life.”

 

“Speaking of which, I have no idea how many tickets this whole package includes, but if there’s room, Nikita’s bringing at most two of his friends. I can’t stand more than three of them in the room at the same time.”

 

Nail scoffed. “Please, like you and your college friends were so much better.”

 

“You are one of my college friends.”

 

“And I was the cream of the crop.”

 

“Keep dreaming, Yak.”

 

“Hey, we are living together, are we not?” He nudged Alex’s knee with his foot. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry too much about Niki’s friends. He’ll be too focused on Anna.”

 

Alex groaned. “Don’t remind me.”

 

“It’s not your fault all of the good genes skipped you and went to your sister, Sasha.” Alex glared at him. “I mean, it has its perks. Why do you think I keep you around? It’s definitely not for your sparkling personality.”

 

Alex elbowed Nail hard in the ribs, relishing in the sharp yelp his friend admitted. Sparkling personality his ass. His fingers itched to text Nikita, or really anyone who would appreciate his talents more than his ungrateful best friend. He came to the sad realization, though, that Nail probably was as good as it got when it came to his friends.

 

“I should call Nikita back. I bet he passes out with excitement,” said Alex

 

“I bet he just dies. No warning, boom. No more Nikita.”

 

“It’s either that, or he never shuts up.” Alex titled his head thoughtfully. “Personally, I’m rooting for death. Much less noise.”

 

 

 

 

“This is going to be the best day of my entire life,” gushed Nikita for the fifteenth time in the past ten minutes.

 

“Would have been better if we’d taken your new car,” muttered Nail.

 

Alex ignored the grumblings of the occupant in the passenger seat and focused instead on the two people sitting in the back. “Nik, if you spontaneously combust before we reach the game, do you want me to scatter your ashes on the ice?”

 

“Yes,” said Nikita seriously and Anna glanced at him with mild concern and amusement.

 

“And you’re sure your friends will behave themselves at the game?” she asked.

 

Nikita rolled his eyes. “God, it’s like you’re my fucking dad or something. I’m not that much younger than you.”

 

“The last time you brought them to my rec league game, they had to be physically separated from that man in the stands and thrown out of the arena,” Alex reminded him. “If they get us ejected from this game, I’m never inviting you anywhere again ever.”

 

“It’s a bit harder to pick fights in the box seats,” reasoned Nikita.

 

“I never underestimate them,” Alex said. “Why do you hang out with these guys again?”

 

“Because they have more fun than both of you combined. They go out to JoJo’s with me on Wednesdays.”

 

“Some of us have jobs,” said Nail bitterly.

 

“You freelance,” said Nikita. “It’s entirely your choice not to be cool. Anna’s cool, though, and she has a real job.”

 

Anna rolled her eyes, and Alex smiled. One of these days, Nikita would overcome his lingering schoolboy-esque crush on Anna, but until that day, he intended to enjoy every second of Nikita’s awkward attempts at flattery.

 

“Just remember who you owe for these tickets,” said Alex.

 

“Sasha, Nail told me you almost turned these down because you’re too stubborn to accept good things. I’m giving you about one percent of the credit here,” said Nikita.

 

They pulled into the Bell Centre parking lot and nabbed the first available slot. When they arrived at the ticket office, Alex cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh, there should be six tickets left by Brendan Gallagher for Alex Galchenyuk.”

 

The woman manning the office shot her eyebrows skyward in surprise, but she began tapping at the keyboard. He showed his driver’s license to prove that he wasn’t scamming anyone, and then the six tickets were his. By the time he’d rejoined his group, Nikita’s two friends had found them. One of them, Steve, was dressed from head to toe in Habs gear, including but not limited to Canadiens blue and red woolen socks and a beanie emblazoned with the logo. The other, Enrico, wore a Canucks jersey.

 

Nail was disgruntled. “You said I shouldn’t wear my Oilers jersey,” he complained in Russian.

 

“Well, it’s not like I had any sort of control over them,” said Alex.

 

“Yo, can we parler anglais here?” said Enrico. Steve nodded in agreement.

 

Alex shot a thoroughly annoyed look at Nikita but switched languages. “I’ve got the tickets,” he said. “Let’s see how the other half lives.”

 

They needed to ascend several escalators and pass the scrutiny of several security guards and ticket inspectors before they finally arrived at their seats. Nikita gasped audibly as they stepped into the luxury suite; Alex maintained his composure, but even still, he nearly doubled over at the sight before him. The suite provided an uninhibited view of the ice below, with the option to remain within the room and behind a translucent glass wall or to descend onto a tiny balcony where six seats were laid out. A TV hung on every side of the room, in case, you know, you didn’t feel like watching the game live. A fully-stocked minibar stood off to one side, while a menu lay on a table next to a landline phone. Nail investigated the menu and then looked at Alex with awestruck eyes.

 

“We have room service here,” he said, lapsing into Russian. “And there aren’t any prices which means it’s either free or mouth-wateringly expensive.”

 

Nikita had yet to close his mouth. Alex surreptitiously snapped a picture of him. He sent the photo to Nail, of course, for posterity purposes, and after a moment’s hesitation, he sent it to Brendan as well.

 

You’ve made at least one person very happy tonight, he wrote, then added, Just don’t fuck it all up by losing.

 

He had no idea if Brendan would see the message either before or after the game. The Zamboni swept across the ice, and a growing crowd of people occupied the seats, the anticipation tangibly mounting within the building. Enrico and Steve had entered into a loud argument behind him about the quantity and type of food to order, and Nikita half-heartedly joined the fray, eyes still glued to the picture in front of them.

 

“Free stuff isn’t so bad after all, huh,” said Nail from off to his right, smirking. Alex nodded. “Does this mean you’ll be driving the car?”

 

Alex elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “Don’t push yourself, Yak.”

 

Nail rubbed his side as his gaze flickered between the Alex and the view and back to Alex again. “You going to be good tonight?” he asked softly, so even Nikita wouldn’t hear him.

 

“Why would I not be good?” asked Alex, though a sinking feeling told him he knew where Nail was headed.

 

Nail nudged their shoulders together gently. “I know you haven’t been to a game in a long time. Not since juniors.”

 

“If you’re asking me if I can handle being at a hockey rink, I’ll remind you that I do still play. You’ve been to my games.”

 

“This is different,” said Nail. “This is what you dreamed of, not a dozen people cheering you on at Michel’s local ice rink on a Thursday evening.”

 

Alex swallowed tightly. “No need to remind me.” He watched as fifty feet below, a young boy in a Gallagher jersey tapped impatiently at the glass. “I’ll be fine,” he said finally.

 

Steve yelled something at Enrico in French. Enrico, whose French was mediocre at best, sputtered indignantly, and when Nikita and chimed in, Alex decided to take intervene. He left Nail and physically shoved the three of them apart, slamming his hands down on the table.

 

“Whatever you want to get, just get, okay? If it’s not free, I’ll get Brendan to pay for it. So just order whatever it is you want, and move on with it.”

 

Both Steve and Enrico stared slack jawed at him. “That’s like, the most English I’ve ever heard you speak,” said Steve.

 

“Yeah, I was beginning to think Nik was lying when he said you could do it,” added Enrico

 

Anna collapsed into a fit of giggles behind him. He ignored her pointedly.

 

“I work for a translation company,” he said. “Of course I speak English.” He shot a look at Enrico. “I speak better French than you do too,” he added, in French.

 

Allowing the two of them to simmer, he turned his attention to his phone which had vibrated in his pocket during the conversation.

 

Way to cheer a guy on, it said. Then, I see at least one of your friends has the sense to cheer for the right team. He was referring to Nikita’s beloved Habs jersey in the photo, and also possibly to his Habs beanie, Habs’ socks and Habs’ scarf as well.

 

I’ll cheer for the better team, replied Alex. Just haven’t decided who that is yet.

 

Brendan sent a frowny face in return, and Alex pocketed his phone.

 

“All good?” asked Anna.

 

“Just Brendan,” he said.

 

“Shouldn’t he be warming up or something?” said Nail.

 

“Not my problem,” said Alex, and he walked over to the minibar to survey the options. If he was going to suffer through an entire hockey game with Nikita, Enrico and Steve, he definitely deserved a beer or five.

 

By the time the game began, he was nursing his second drink of the night. He’d already passed the car keys onto Nail in anticipation of several more; Nail had rolled his eyes but accepted them without argument. Alex allowed himself to enjoy, for a moment, the rush of adrenaline which spiked automatically in his body at the sound of scraping skates and the crash of bodies into boards. The crowd roared in approval when someone rushes forward in an odd man rush, but the Tampa Bay goalie pulled off a stellar save, depriving them of their chances.

 

Alex spotted Brendan easily on the ice. For one, he was short, and while he wasn’t scrawny or skinny by any means, he was definitely one of the smaller men on the ice. He used his size well, though, and he darted around and beneath the limbs and sticks of other players, charging forward relentlessly. In short, he was good, Alex admitted to himself grudgingly. He’d only seen him as Brendan, the boyish-faced man with a penchant for running his mouth and a stubborn streak as wide as the Canadian tundra, but he’d never envisioned him actually playing hockey. And now there was no denying his talent.

 

Despite the best efforts of the Canadiens, they finished the period down by one with no goals of their own to show. Alex retreated behind the glass to retrieve another drink, and while inside, he pulled out his phone on a whim.

 

I’m thinking I should move to Tampa, he said. I didn’t pay good money to see you lose.

 

Unexpectedly, a reply pinged on his phone. That’s right, you didn’t pay.

 

He barked out a laugh. Hey, I paid for gas.

 

With no response forthcoming, he returned to his seat and settled in to watch the second period. The Canadiens put forth a better performance, tying the game at one even. Brendan snagged an assist on the goal, passing off to a forward named Pacioretty who buried the rubber in the net. Brendan whooped enthusiastically and practically threw himself into the arms of PK Subban who had rushed forward to congratulate the team. Still, the period finished dead even, with the game still firmly up for grabs.

 

How do you like me now? read the text from Brendan during the second intermission.

 

Mediocre assist, replied Alex. And you’re still tied, so don’t relax. Their D is slow on the turn, so try to turn them around.

 

And miraculously, Brendan appeared to follow Alex’s advice. Within five minutes of puck drop in the third, he rushed forward, zig-zagging from side to side with an alacrity the Tampa defense couldn’t match. He darted towards the goalie, faked and—

 

--the puck hit the net. Nikita, Enrico and Steve jumped to their feet, screaming their throats hoarse with excitement. Even Nail, as dedicated a not-Montreal fan as Alex knew living in the city, pumped his fist into the air. For his part, he just pulled out his phone.

 

You owe me for that one, he said.

 

Anna glanced quickly at the screen from where she sat next to him. “Who are you texting?”

 

“Oh, just Brendan.”

 

She frowned. “You’re texting with him during the game?”

 

“Well, he’s replied during intermission, so,” said Alex. He returned his gaze to ice. “Seems to be working out well.”

 

“Oh shit!” exclaimed Enrico, and Alex craned his neck to observe what had caught his attention.

 

It was an almost comical sight: one of Tampa’s defensemen, a hulking figure who towered above the rest, had begun circling Brendan Gallagher, five foot nothing Brendan Gallagher whose forehead probably just brushed the other man’s chin. And they were fighting, Brendan jabbing out wildly and with little control. It ought to have been a blowout, but somehow Brendan was managing to dodge the other man’s punches even if he couldn’t land his own. And they the two men entangled themselves into a knot, grabbing at jerseys and throwing fists at faces with reckless abandon. Alex winced as several punches found Brendan’s head and as the two of them collapsed to the ice.

 

At last, a referee and a linesman pulled the two men away. Blood trickled down Brendan’s cheek and down the forehead of the other man. The crowd roared enthusiastically as the two players were led away off the bench, presumably to see one of the team doctors after experiencing potential head trauma.

 

At least when I get a concussion it’s not my fault, sent Alex via text.

 

Brendan returned for the end of the period, so he had clearly avoided a concussion, but a small line of stitches now decorated his cheekbone. Far from playing more cautiously, however, he played with even more reckless abandon throughout the rest of the game, throwing himself into the net and even earning himself a goalie-interference call. It wasn’t the sharpest brand of hockey he’d ever witnessed, but Alex couldn’t deny it was entertaining. When one of the Tampa players began jawing at Brendan, Brendan just smiled, a shit-eating grin which almost made Alex laugh aloud. Brendan’s aggressive optimism was far more amusing when not directed at him.

 

After the horn sounded announcing the end of the game, Alex sat back and enjoyed the sight before him. Thousands of fans screamed their appreciation as the stars were announced, and they did so especially enthusiastically as Brendan emerged as the second star, smiling smugly as he took a lap around the ice. After that, Nikita, Enrico and Steve all lingered, shoving as much of the remaining food as they could fit into their mouths and into bags to take home. Even Nail surreptitiously scooped a handful of bacon into a Ziploc bag.

 

His phone buzzed. Stay where you are, the text said. It was from Brendan.

 

Alex nudged Nail and showed him the message. Nail’s eyes widened. “You think he’s gonna come up here?”

 

Alex shrugged. “Maybe. Don’t see why he would.”

 

“Well, it’ll make Nik happy at the very least.”

 

Alex huffed out a laugh. Fortunately, Nikita and his friends required no convincing to stay any longer, especially with the possibility of a visit from a bona fide NHL player. Alex fiddled with his phone while they waited, swiping through a page of the statistics for this year’s Habs. It appeared that Brendan, while not a superstar, wasn’t exactly a slouch either. Fifty five points the previous season, and on track for nearly sixty this one.

 

“Hope the wait wasn’t a bother,” came a voice from behind them.

 

Nikita gasped audibly, as did Steve and Enrico. Alex just rolled his eyes as Brendan strolled into the room, hair still shower-damp and sticking up in about five different directions. When Brendan’s gaze alighted on the obscene amount of Habs gear adorning Steve and Nikita and he smiled broadly.

 

“Want me to sign something?” he asked.

 

Nikita just nodded mutely while Steve whipped off his hat and presented it like it was his first born child. Brendan pulled out a pen from his jacket pocket and began to sign.

 

“I hope you enjoyed the game,” he said conversationally. In theory, he directed the statement to the entire group, but he stared directly at Alex as he spoke.

 

“It wasn’t bad,” said Alex.

 

Nikita sputtered. “Not bad? It was incredible, absolutely incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it before. These seats were spectacular, unbelievable, and—

 

“Save it for the honeymoon, Nik,” said Alex firmly in Russian. Brendan raised his eyebrows at the change in language, but continued nonplussed.

 

“At least one of you got your money’s worth.”

 

Steve nodded enthusiastically. “Hell yeah.”

 

“Say,” said Brendan, “how would you guys feel about a picture?”

 

“Ooh, for Instagram,” said Nik. “This is going to blow up. Jesse’s going to have a fit.”

 

Alex suffered through ten different photographs before Nikita was satisfied. In each image, Brendan smiled naturally, clearly used to the camera flashing before him, while Alex stood stiffly to the side, Nail leaning casually against him and Anna posing perfectly next to Nail. Once satisfied with the final result, Nikita quickly typed out a caption and posted it to his Instagram account.

 

“This is going to get so many likes,” he said smugly.

 

“I’m so happy this is how you measure your life,” replied Alex. “College has taught you so much.”

 

Off to the side, Brendan chuckled. Alex ignored him.

 

“You’re just jealous,” retorted Nikita.

 

“You’re right, you caught me. Now let’s go. I have to be up early tomorrow.”

 

They all filed slowly out of the room, though Brendan lingered by the wall. Alex was the last to leave, sweeping over the area one last time in a check for errant belongings. Just as he was about to exit, Brendan yanked him aside.

 

“What is it now?” sighed Alex.

 

“It’s just…it’s just…” began Brendan, then took a moment to recalibrate. “Did you actually enjoy yourself tonight?”

 

“Uh, sure,” said Alex.

 

“Because I’m happy your friends liked it, but this was really meant for you.”

 

“Well, in that case, I had a grand old time.”

 

Brendan frowned. “You know, most people would be very grateful for something like this.”

 

“Have I said I’m not grateful?”

 

“Look, I’m just trying to apologize for what happened the other day!”

 

“And you have, many times!” he exclaimed. “The car—which I didn’t ask for—the lunch, this game, you’ve apologized, I get it.” Alex pivoted away. “I’m not asking for anything.”

 

“But what do you want?” asked Brendan. “Which is, I guess, what I should have asking from the beginning.”

 

Brendan was incorrigible. The day of the car crash, Alex never would have anticipated a professional hockey player latching himself onto Alex like some hyperactive, persistent tick whose thirst could only be sated by Alex’s visible enjoyment. “I don’t know,” said Alex. “Most guys hit you with a car, maybe the most they do is take you for a drink.”

 

“I could do that,” said Brendan. “I could take you for drink.”

 

“That’s really not necessary.”

 

“But I want to,” insisted Brendan. “I really want to.”

 

Alex breathed in deeply, counted to three slowly in his head. Finally, at last, he spoke slowly. “Will it make you happy if I agree?”

 

Brendan nodded enthusiastically. “Yes.”

 

“Then fine. One time, and then you can consider your debt repaid, or whatever the hell this is all about.”

 

Brendan’s smile split his face wide open, like a ray of light through clouds or a crocus through the snow or some other equally hideous metaphor. “Perfect.”

 

“Just, I don’t know, text me when you have the time. I’m probably free.”

 

Alex began to stride out of the room, his long legs covering distance as rapidly as possible.

 

“Alex!” called out Brendan.

 

Alex halted. “What is it now?”

 

Brendan scratched the back of his neck almost sheepishly. “Uh, your advice tonight? Actually not bad. You kind of know your stuff.”

 

For the first time that night, Alex felt a real, organic, honest-to-God crooked smile creep across his face. “Definitely know more than you,” he said, and with that he walked out.

 

Three days later, Nail was skeptical.

 

“Remind me again why you’re accepting more free stuff from Brendan Gallagher,” said Nail suspiciously as Alex pulled on his pea coat and rummaged through a bin in the closet for his favorite gloves. “Not that I wouldn’t take it, but I can barely give you a birthday present without you saying it’s too much.”

 

“You’re much easier to shut up,” said Alex. “I don’t need to put in this much effort.” After a moment, he added, “Also, you didn’t hit me with your car.”

 

Nail made a disgruntled noise but refrained from further comment. Alex escaped the apartment quickly, and once outside, he tapped his foot impatiently while he waited for Brendan to arrive. The blustery wind gusted around him, and he pulled his coat tighter across his chest.

 

Ten minutes after eight, Brendan’s shiny car pulled up to the street corner and the window rolled down.

 

“Jump inside before the wind freezes everything,” said Brendan.

 

Alex wasted no time in yanking the door shut once seated. He breathed warm air onto his hands and rubbed them together furiously to restore equilibrium to his temperature. “You’re late,” he muttered.

 

“Traffic,” said Brendan. “But I’m sorry.”

 

“Fucking Canadians, always apologizing,” he said.

 

“Does anything ever make you happy?”

 

“Sometimes,” says Alex. “If I feel like it.”

 

Brendan maintains a steady stream of chatter throughout the entire car ride, pausing only when he needs to park. He sticks his tongue out of his mouth as he backs the car slowly into a parallel parking slot, eyes screwed in concentration. Once he turns off the engine, Alex eyes him with amusement.

 

“Now if you can get me back in one piece, I might trust you with driving.”

 

Brendan punched him lightly on the arm. “Shut up and follow me.”

 

He led them to an establishment whose sleek counters and modern style bespoke of expensive, fancy drinks. Of course Brendan chose a place like this, thought Alex as they stepped inside.

 

Brendan nodded to bartender, who clearly recognized him. “The usual?” he asked.

 

“Yup.”

 

“And for your friend?” asked the man, whose eyes raked over Alex and his casual dress carefully. Alex straightened his shirt collar self-consciously.

 

“He’ll have the same,” said Brendan.

 

“I will?” asked Alex.

 

“If you don’t like it, then we’ll get you something else. Worth a try at least.”

 

What was worth a try was, apparently, a lime green monstrosity which looked positively toxic in the electric blue wash which coated every surface. Brendan sipped at it happily through his straw while Alex eyed his drink suspiciously, waiting for it to combust or emit visible fumes.

 

“Go ahead, try it,” said Brendan.

 

“What is it?”

 

“The green monster,” said Brendan. “It’s actually delicious. I mean, I only tried it because of the name, and I’ve always wanted to go to Fenway and see a Sox game there with the green monster, but—just try it,” he said.

 

Alex prepared himself for the worst and drank slowly, allowing only a few drops into his mouth. The liquid tasted tangy and vaguely fruity, though not overwhelmingly so. The bite of gin lurked beneath a veneer of sweetness. It wasn’t terrible. But that didn’t mean it was good.

 

“This is what you usually drink?” asked Alex.

 

“Well sure,” said Brendan. “Don’t see why not.”

 

Alex sipped at it again. The second time, without the surprise, the taste seemed gentler, more approachable. He took a third taste, and almost found himself enjoying it. Then he looked up at Brendan’s smug expression and his mood soured.

 

“Don’t get cocky,” he said. “It’s not a good look for you.”

 

“Everything’s a good look for me.”

 

“Your fashion sense says otherwise,” remarked Alex. “And your attempts at facial hair. Oh yes, I’ve seen pictures now,” he added as Brendan flushed faintly.

 

“See, this isn’t fair,” said Brendan. “You can find out so much about me just by googling my name, but I don’t get to know anything about you.”

 

“Usually when people get to know each other, they talk,” said Alex. “Besides, I wouldn’t call having a Wikipedia page and a multi-million dollar salary a disadvantage.”

 

“So if you had a Wikipedia page, what would it say about you?”

 

“Nothing much,” he said. “It’s not like my job has statistics attached to it. Number of documents translated per day: five. Number of people cursed out in line at the printer: two. Cups of coffee per week: thirty-two.”

 

“Thirty-two?”

 

“A slight exaggeration perhaps. But my life really isn’t that interesting.”

 

“What do you do for fun?”

 

Alex hesitated. “Hockey,” he said eventually. “Just rec league, nothing fancy. And I keep Nikita and Nail in line.”

 

“Sounds like a full time job.”

 

“You have no idea.”

 

Eventually, Alex finished his drink. When he asked Keith, the bartender, for a Molson’s, Keith grimaced.

 

“We don’t really have that here, unfortunately.”

 

Alex turned in disbelief to Brendan. “Where the hell did you take me?” he asked.

 

“Someplace a little unusual.”

 

“Well next time, I’m picking.”

 

“Next time?” A slow smile spread across Brendan’s face. “Didn’t realize there was going to be a next time.”

 

Alex stuttered, “Uh no, there wasn’t, but—

 

“It’s fine,” said Brendan. “I wouldn’t mind a next time, actually. If you pick the place, consider it doing a favor to me. Showing me how non-hockey people live in the city.”

 

Alex stared. “I’m never going to be rid of you,” he said flatly.

 

“Not my fault this time, buddy,” said Brendan cheerfully. “And we’ll have two watermelon fusions up next, Keith.”

 

Watermelon fusion was sure to be magenta or something equally alarming, but Alex didn’t even bother protesting. He already knew it would be a waste of energy. Next time, though, next time, he would pick the place. Then he could be free of this foolishness.

 

 

 

Which is how, a week later, Alex found he and Brendan stumbling out of his favorite greasy-spoon diner-style dive bar with a stomach happily filled with two beers and a large platter of plain, inexpensive, straightforward chicken fingers. The menu had been written in plain English, and he already knew the beer list off the top of his head before entering, so the warmth which flowed steadily through his veins was the product of both familiarity and the sensation of a deliciously stuffed belly.

 

“God, I don’t think I’ve ever been this full,” complained Brendan.

 

They were strolling along a gravel path through the trees of La Fontaine Park, guided only by the hazy glow of iron lamps and the crunching sound of stones and dust which disappeared if they strayed into the grass.

 

“I find that hard to believe,” remarked Alex. “When I was playing hockey, I could eat three burgers in one sitting then make myself a late night snack before bed.”

 

“Oh I eat,” said Brendan, “but it feels different when you eat that much grease, you know? Like a chicken feels different in my stomach than a plate of poutine. Right now, I feel like there’s a layer of oil coating my insides.”

 

Alex crinkled his nose. “I’m sorry that my greasy dive food is too much for your sensitive stomach. We can try going for sushi next time, maybe one of those salad places which charge by the leaf, extra if it’s kale.”

 

Brendan looked horrified. “You think I like kale?”

 

Alex shrugged. “I don’t know what you fancy hockey players eat.” He chanced a quick glance at Brendan, noted his smile. “I mean, when was the last time you ate frozen chicken nuggets?”

 

“Yesterday,” said Brendan seriously, without hesitation. “Or maybe two days ago. Either way, recently.”

 

“I guess you’re not so bad then,” sighed Alex. He scuffed the earth with the sole of his shoe. “The real test will be exposing you to Nail’s cooking.”

 

“What, is he any good?”

 

He snorted loudly. “Oh no, he’s terrible. But it takes real grit to swallow his burnt attempts at a casserole.”

 

“He can’t be that bad.”

 

“You want to bet?” he asked. Brendan muttered something incoherently, and Alex nudged their elbows together. “That’s what I thought. It’s a bit of a biohazard, usually. Or a fire hazard. One of the two.”

 

Brendan halted abruptly in the path, and Alex stuttered as he too came to a stop. A large oak towered above their heads, its branches filtering some of the faint lighting a nearby lamp emitted. A gust of wind swept across the land, stirring the leaves and passing through the thick material of their coats until Alex shivered.

 

“We should probably keep moving,” he said. “It’ll just be colder if we stand here.”

 

“Do you mind if we sit, actually?” said Brendan. His voice reached Alex’s ears with a muffled quality, and Alex saw that he’d covered his mouth with his scarf. His gloved hand gestured toward the bench just beneath the tree.

 

The two of them settled into the frost-bitten bench and recoiled against the touch of metal against their bare skin. Alex shoved his hands into his pockets, moving his fingers vigorously as the chill permeated his extremities. Brendan for some odd reason, had removed his scarf, exposing his entire face to the elements.

 

“Your side bothering you?” Alex asked shrewdly. Brendan had been favoring it the entire night, nursing an impressive bruise after a grinding hit the night before.

 

Brendan jerked his head noncommittally.

 

“Fine then,” huffed Alex. “Play up the tough guy act.”

 

“Like you’re one to talk,” murmured Brendan.

 

Alex stared icily at him. “What was that?”

 

“Like you’re one to talk,” he repeated. When Alex continued to stare, he added, “Sometimes talking to you is like prying something apart with a crowbar.”

 

Alex stiffened. “You don’t have to talk to me then.”

 

“No, jeez, I’m sorry, that came out wrong. It’s just, sometimes I feel like I hit a wall, you know? Like I think we’re friends and then you clam up.” He shook his head. “It’s confusing, is all.”

 

“Why do you care?” asked Alex, bitterness laced through his words. “I’m just some guy hit with a car a month ago. What does it matter to you that we’re friends?” He waited for a response. “Brendan?”

 

He turned to face Brendan and almost wacked into his nose. Mere centimeters separated their faces, and Brendan’s hot breath momentarily warmed the skin of his cheeks.

 

“Why do you think?” said Brendan softly.

 

Without further warning, he leaned in and kissed him. At first, it was just a soft brush of lips, but when Alex did not retreat, he pressed harder, biting lightly at Alex’s bottom lip.

 

For his part, Alex froze. When their lips touched, his entire brain short-circuited with a flash and bang. When he regained his senses returned, Brendan was still kissing him. And Alex…was responding?

 

He ripped apart from the kiss, fingers flying to his lips. Brendan’s gray eyes met his from beneath a set of long, long lashes, and his arms snaked around his body protectively, clutching his coat to his chest.

 

“What was that?” asked Alex hoarsely.

 

Brendan’s breath fogged the air. “I thought that was fairly obvious.”

 

“But you’re a hockey player!” he exclaimed. “You—you’re—why did you do that?”

 

“It felt right,” said Brendan. He shivered in the brisk air. “I think it felt right.”

 

Alex’s brain was still stuttering, accelerating rapidly before slowing and freezing. His heart pounded thunderously against his ribcage; the blood rushing through his skull drowned out all coherent thought. He felt like a live wire—exposed, frayed, sparking.

 

“I don’t know what to say,” he said numbly, his tongue fumbling in his mouth.

 

“Do you want me to do it again?” asked Brendan. His fingers twitched in his lap.

 

Alex didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no either, so Brendan kissed him again, this time cupping his cheek with rough, woolen gloves. This time, Alex had the presence of mind to feel the rough texture of Brendan’s chapped lips, to taste the complimentary spearmint from the diner. He heart thudded rapidly, and unconsciously he sighed into the kiss, tension draining from his shoulders and chest.

 

When Brendan pulled away, he smiled a small, hazy smile. “Yeah?

 

Alex’s lips were still tingling from their contact, and he lifted his fingers to them. Brendan was gazing at him with such intensity and such hope that his heart clenched painfully. A sharp howl of wind whipped past them, erasing any measure of warmth incited during the kiss.

 

“I—“ he swallowed hard, choking on his own words. “I don’t…I don’t know.”

 

Some of the haziness drained from Brendan’s face, but he maintained his hopeful expression. “What don’t you know?”

 

“Everything,” said Alex. He stood up, towering over Brendan’s diminished figure. “I don’t know. I just…I can’t.”

 

And he ran. He skidded across frozen gravel and shadowy tree roots, but he ran until he reached the edge of the park and then kept up his pace till he reached his busted-up Subaru where he trapped himself inside, sweaty from running but rapidly cooling. He shivered as he started the car and glanced through the window to see if Brendan had followed. He waited for a minute, but the park remained deserted as ever. So he shoved his keys into the ignition and drove away, mind and body reeling alike. When he reached home, he snuck quietly through the living room, careful not to wake a sleeping Nail, and collapsed in bed.

 

It was hours before he fell asleep.

 

 

Ring. Ring.

 

Alex fumbled for his phone on the nightstand, cursing softly.

 

Ring. Ring.

 

Just as the fifth ring began, he managed to swipe across the screen to accept the call.

 

“Sasha,” said Anna, her voice tight.

 

“Anna,” he rasped, his voice dusty from sleep. “What’s going on?”

 

“Sasha, have you read any of the news yet today?”

 

He frowned. “No, I just woke up. It’s a Sunday and it’s,” he glanced at his phone’s clock, “nine-thirty.”

 

He could hear the catch in her breath on the other end of the line. “Maybe…maybe you should start with Puck Daddy. But there are others”

 

His confusion deepened. “Why would I read Puck Daddy?” he asked.

 

“Just…just look at it, okay? And I’ll have my phone on me the entire day, if you want to talk.”

 

“Anna, is everything okay?” But she had already hung up.

 

He opened the browser on his phone and typed in the address for Puck Daddy. The page took several seconds to load, but once it did, it was a brutal punch to the gut.

 

BRENDAN GALLAGHER: FIRST GAY NHL PLAYER?

 

Brendan Gallagher, a star player for the Montreal Canadiens for more than five years now, was seen last night kissing another man in La Fontaine Park in Montreal last night. The feisty right winger for the Habs has never been linked to any girlfriend before, although he has been seen with women. For now, it appears he’s moved on from the female sex. The NHL may just have its first out hockey player, and who better than media darling Brendan Gallagher, a man who has coped with the intense, passionate Montreal media and fan base for his entire career with astounding maturity?

 

The other man, who has been identified as Alex Galchenyuk, is not a current hockey player but did play for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL for two years before leaving for unspecified medical reasons. Throughout his shortened junior career, he scored prolifically and was at one point considered a potential top ten pick for his draft year before his departure from the hockey world. Nothing more is known about their relationship at this time, although pictures from Galchenyuk’s friends’ social media accounts and Gallagher’s Instagram confirmed his presence at a Canadiens game more than a month ago, where he and several friends were sitting in a luxury box at the Bell Centre. Galchenyuk’s social media profiles have all been set to private.

 

Beneath the opening paragraph was a photo, slightly blurry but still clearly identifiable, of the two of them seated on the bench. Their heads were tilted towards one another, and Brendan’s lips appear to be just brushing his own. There was limited, if any, outlet for denial.

 

Alex wanted to cry.

 

He didn’t want this. He didn’t ask for anything from Brendan Gallagher, not friendship, not the game, and certainly not that fucking car or that fucking kiss, and now the entire thing had been blown to smithereens by one asshole with an iPhone and the soft glow of a streetlamp in the park.

 

And Brendan…

 

On the one hand, he knew Brendan never asked to be exposed like this. On the other hand, he had kissed Alex, and it was his fame, his notoriety which had drawn the press.

 

He googled Brendan Gallagher in the news tab and scrolled through the headlines. More than a dozen headlines appeared, all of them some variation on “hockey” and “player” and “gay?”. A couple mentioned Alex by name, though most focused on Brendan. He wasn’t sure which one had identified him first (or how they had either), but it didn’t matter. Once one caught on, the whole world knew.

 

He didn’t hesitate to knock on Nail’s door.

 

“Nail!” he bellowed. “Nail, wake up!”

 

“What is it?” responded Nail, clearly perturbed at being disturbed in his slumber.

 

“I need to you to come out right now!”

 

“Did you break the coffee machine?”

 

“No!” said Alex, and a note of desperation snuck through. “Just…please. Please come out.”

 

Several muffled thumps and swears later and Nail was at the door, eyes muzzy and hair disheveled. “This had better be good,” he warned.

 

Alex shoved his phone, open to the Puck Daddy article, at Nail’s face.

 

Nail began reading slowly (he often struggled with English for the first ten minutes after waking), but after several seconds of struggle, his eyes widened and his shoulders tensed.

 

“Sasha,” he said, then shut his mouth, unable to find the words.

 

Alex snatched his phone back. “What do I do?”

 

Nail’s mouth opened and closed in goldfish-like fashion. “I don’t know what to tell you.” He shook his head several times and rubbed at his eyes. “You kissed him?”

 

“He kissed me,” clarified Alex, though the correction sounded hollow in his ears. No one in the media gave a damn about who kissed who, or how either of them reacted. “I wasn’t expecting it.”

 

“You’re not…you’re not dating him, right?”

 

“No!” shouted Alex, loudly enough that Nail flinched. He continued more quietly, “He only kissed me once, well, twice, but I sort of ran? After it was done?”

 

Nail had the look which meant he was clearly filing away information for later discussion at a more appropriate time. Fortunately for Alex, he left well enough alone for the moment “Is he…is he gay?”

 

“I have no idea,” said Alex. He wandered into the living room, trailed closely by Nail, and both collapsed on the couch. “We didn’t really talk too much after, well, you know.” He waved his hand vaguely in the air. “The article said he’d had hookups with women before.”

 

“Doesn’t mean he’s not gay.”

 

“Doesn’t mean that he is,” countered Alex. “I mean, I guess I am, but I don’t want to assume—what? Why are you looking at me like that?”

 

Nail shook his head minutely. “I’ve just never heard you admit to it before.”

 

Alex furrowed his brow. “You already knew.”

 

“Of course I knew,” said Nail patiently, as if explaining left and right to a bemused toddler. “But you’ve never actually said those words. Just hooked up with guys and never talked about it again.”

 

“It’s—it’s complicated, okay? I mean, my parents kind of know, and oh shit! My parents!” He buried his face in his hands. “Anna already knows, but they, they won’t want to find out like this.” He spread his fingers, stared at Nail between the gaps in his hand. “They can’t find out like this.”

 

“Who do you need to call?” said Nail. “Maybe I can help.”

 

“My parents, maybe. Nikita. Anna. Brendan. I don’t know. Friends.”

 

Alex’s phone rang on the table. He glanced at the caller idea, and groaned when Nikita’s name flashed on the screen.

 

“He’s usually not up this early,” remarked Nail, also leaning over to see the ID.

 

“Anna probably called him. She called me.”

 

“Can you…can you…”

 

Nail understood. He picked up the phone and swiped right, accepting the call. Alex recognized Nikita’s voice, babbling rapidly even as it increased in pitch. Nail attempted to say something several times, but Nikita simply talked over him.

 

“Niki, Niki, it’s Nail!” shouted Nail finally. Silence on the other end of the phone, and Nail sighed in relief. Alex decided Nail had the situation under control for the time begin, and headed to the kitchen to make coffee. If he was going to deal with this sort of shit, he needed to be well-caffeinated.

 

When he reentered the living room bearing two steaming cups of glorious dark roast, Nail had apparently finished his conversation. He accepted the cup with silent gratitude and swallowed deeply before speaking. “Nikita’s coming over,” he said finally. “Might take him a while, but he’ll be here.”

 

It was nothing less than Alex expected.

 

“Your parents haven’t called,” observed Nail shrewdly. “Since they’re normally up before you, maybe they won’t see anything.”

 

“Or they don’t bother with sites like Puck Daddy that publish my name on the internet like that this early in the morning,” said Alex scathingly.

 

Nail stilled. “You might be able to sue. Defamation or libel or whatever.”

 

Taking legal action seemed prohibitively complicated and also so far beyond the scope of Alex’s thoughts it was almost laughable. In Canada, the hockey capital of the world, chances were a story like this would eventually become national news. “Has Brendan called?”

 

“No,” said Nail. A beat. “Do you want to try?”

 

“I probably should,” said Alex heavily. “I mean, I’m sure he’s got a lot on his plate.”

 

“You’re going to need to talk to him one way or the other,” reasoned Nail. “Maybe he has a plan for shit like this, you know, if he is gay.”

 

That thought hadn’t occurred to Alex, and it wasn’t a half bad idea either. He scrolled through his contacts to find Brendan and pressed the call button.

 

Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.

 

We are sorry, but the number you have tried to reach is unavailable right now. The inbox is full at this time.

 

Alex slammed his phone down on the coffee table. “His damn inbox is full too.”

 

“Try again,” suggested Nail.

 

Alex tried. He tried again three times, each time with the same result. If Brendan Gallagher was awake, alert and near his cell phone, he was deliberately ignoring Alex. Or maybe he’d been too swamped by calls from everyone else that Alex’s attempts had been lost in a sea of confusion. Maybe.

 

“I really hope he’s not ignoring me.” It was meant to sound angry. It ended up just sounding sad.

 

Nail nodded seriously. “I hope so too.”

 

 

 

Alex called Anna first (she wanted to know if she needed to make the drive from Toronto to Montreal—Alex told her it was entirely unnecessary) and then fielded inquiries from an increasing number of his friends as word spread across the hockey world.  Jake wanted to know if he’d actually been dating someone in secret this entire time (no); Alicia wondered if he was actually, officially gay (yes); Ben wanted to know if Alex would still be playing in their rec league game this Saturday (maybe).

 

Then an unknown number called.

 

“Should I answer it?”

 

Nail shrugged. “I don’t know.”

 

Alex accepted the call. “Hello?”

 

“Gally?” said a wavering voice, one which immediately struck Alex as uncannily familiar.

 

“Who is this?”

 

“It’s uh, it’s Isaac Davids. Davey.”

 

Unbidden, an image of a gangly, swift-footed boy with bangs swept over his face and freckles strewn across his nose rose in his mind. The boy was smiling on the bench, bumping shoulders with him as they raced across the boards, pinning him against the wall in the dark equipment closet in the shadows of a deserted arena. He was there when the first pang of tightness hit his chest, when he coughed helplessly for air, when the pain began to overwhelm him. And then Alex wasn’t there, and neither was the boy.

 

“Davey,” he croaked out. Nail’s head shot up sharply. “It’s been a while.”

 

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Isaac, chuckling nervously.

 

“So, uh, how’s it been?”

 

“Oh, you know, busy. I’m, uh, I’m living in the States now, actually. Boston.”

 

“That sounds great.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, it is.” Isaac paused. “So, I guess you’re living it up in Montreal, then?”

 

Alex sighed. “You saw the news.”

 

“Someone from the old Sarnia crew texted me. It’s how I got your number, too. Had to ask around, but I figured you hadn’t lost touch with everyone.” Not like you did with me, was the unspoken accusation hanging in the air.

 

“Yeah, well, a few people ended up near me, so we get drinks from time to time.” He wondered who had provided him with the info—his money was on Fabi, but it could also have easily been Joe or Smithy.

 

“That’s good, I guess,” said Isaac.

 

Neither of them spoke for several moments.

 

“Look, I don’t want to be too blunt or anything, but is there a reason you called?”

 

“Would you believe me if I said just to make sure you were okay?” Isaac’s voice cracked on the last word. “I know it’s been a long time and you’ve probably had a million other things happen in between where we left off, but I guess my first instinct was to be happy for you. A little jealous, maybe, if I’m not entirely lying, but happy that you have someone. Happy that you’ve come to terms with it all.”

 

“Look, Davey—

 

“I’m not trying to barge in on your life or anything, but, God, maybe you don’t remember it like I do, but you had yourself shoved so far up that closet it was all I could do to yank your big toe out the door. And I knew it was different for you than for me, I mean, like I was ever actually going to make it to the NHL.” He laughed disparagingly. “But you had a shot. And you didn’t want to ruin it. And then with the clot…”

 

“I know what happened, Davey.”

 

“Right.” Alex could almost picture Isaac blushing faintly beneath his freckles. “Of course you do. I just, I’m glad that even if everything didn’t go how you planned, at least something worked out for you in the end. That you figured yourself at last.”

 

Isaac sounded so earnest, as earnest as he’d ever been and just as well meaning. It had been one reason why Isaac had never understood Alex, not in the way he’d needed back then. Isaac believed ultimately in the goodness of humanity and in the inevitability of the world righting itself on the axis, while Alex could never shake his cynicism long enough for even a smidgen of hope to creep through. That same sincerity shone through his voice with an intensity that tugged painfully on the strings of his heart.

 

He thought Alex was happy. And Alex didn’t know if he wanted to burst the bubble.

 

“It’s complicated,” he said finally. “Neither one of us planned for anything to get out in the papers, and we’re not exactly in a relationship.”

 

“Oh. Right.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Davey cleared his throat. “Well, I guess I should have asked you this at the beginning, but how are you?”

 

Alex emitted a harsh laugh. “I’ve been better.”

 

“Right. Well, I guess the other reason I called was to let you know that if you ever needed to talk—

 

“Davey—

 

“Not necessarily with me,” added Davey ruefully. “I get it, I do. But I know people, you know? Other ex-players, mostly hockey but we’ve got a few baseball ones, a few in American football. A lot of them played in college and a couple made it to the ECHL or AHL. If you ever needed to talk to someone, I could put you in touch with one of them.”

 

Alex’s heart unclenched just a little. Just another reason why they never would have lasted, even if that damn clot had never cut his career short: Alex never deserved a man like Isaac Davids.

 

He swallowed hard. “I think I’m doing alright for now, but thank you. Sincerely, thank you.”

 

“Well, it was the least I could do. Not everyone gets the details of their love life splashed across the front page of Puck Daddy.”

 

“Not everyone can be so lucky,” said Alex with as much humor as he could muster, and Davey laughed, a real, genuine laugh which warmed Alex’s heart.

 

“Some guys do get all the luck,” he said, then coughed purposefully. “You have my number now, so if you need to reach me, just shoot me a text or something. I’ll respond as soon as I can.”

 

“Thanks,” said Alex.

 

“Good luck,” said Davey. “With whatever comes next.”

 

Alex hung up the phone.

 

He and Nail sat in silence on the couch for a long minute, each breathing heavily. Nail twitched, and Alex knew he wasn’t sure if he should offer support or if what Alex needed was silence.

 

“He just wanted to say he was happy I was happy,” said Alex. His voice quivered. “He was happy I’d come so far since juniors in figuring myself out.”

 

“Sasha.”

 

“He offered to put me in touch with someone, a gay ex-athlete or whatever, someone he knows.”

 

“Sasha.”

 

“He said he remembered how bad it was in Sarnia, how I couldn’t admit shit, not even to myself.”

 

“Sasha.”

 

“Was it really that bad? Was it really so bad that seeing me happy with another man warranted him calling me after nearly ten fucking years?”

 

“Sasha, what do you want me to say?”

 

A rivulet of hot liquid trailed down his cheek. He wiped it away furiously. “I want you to say that I’m going to be happy. That I’m going to be as happy as Davey thought I was. I mean, Brendan Gallagher kissed me and I bolted. Just ran away like a fucking coward.”

 

Nail spoke slowly. “I may not have known you then, but I promise you that in the seven years we’ve been friends, you’ve come a long, long way. I know it may not be as far as you think you should have, but trust me, you’ve already done so much.” He looked at Alex directly in the eyes. “And you will be happy, even if it’s not with Brendan Gallagher. You will be happy.”

 

And with a friend like Nail, who could blame Alex bursting into tears?

 

When Nikita burst through the door five minutes later, he found Alex and Nail curled together, Alex’s face blotchy and Nail’s arm wrapped tightly around Alex’s shoulder. And because he was a good friend, he didn’t say a word, just sat on Alex’s other side and rested his head lightly against Alex’s arm, steady as an anchor buried into the sea.

 

 

 

 

Later in the afternoon, another unknown number flashed across Alex’s screen. He hastily answered it, unsure of what to expect.

 

“Mr. Galchenyuk?” said a voice, feminine, unfamiliar. Alex instantly tensed.

 

“Yes?” he said guardedly.

 

“This is Tricia Bradley of the Montreal Canadiens Press Relations Department.”

 

His stomach sank. Of course since Brendan worked for a place with a PR department, anything of this magnitude was going to involve seasoned professionals. With an organization like the Canadiens, in a league like the NHL, he had no idea what they might want from him in a situation like this. Maybe they didn’t either, it being a one-of-a-kind type of deal.

 

“Where’s Brendan?” he asked, mustering more confidence into his voice than he truly felt. “He hasn’t returned any of my calls.”

 

“I’m not here to discuss Mr. Gallagher,” she said coolly. “I’m calling to discuss you.”

 

“I don’t see why you would be interested in me outside of Brendan.”

 

“Well, for better or worse, you are now linked with the Canadiens organization, and I’m here to ensure that it is indeed for the better.”

 

Alex bet she was. Alex bet she had spent the entire morning concocting a plan to keep all parties well-behaved and to spin this story as a positive and not a complete nightmare which would only distract from the play.

 

“What do want to know?” he said cautiously.

 

“I was hoping you might pay us a visit so that we could discuss the matter in private.”

 

“And what exactly is “the matter” at hand?”

 

“Your background, your current employment, your family. Anything which might be relevant.”

 

They probably thought he was a hooker or something, an ex-hockey player who couldn’t make it alone and so turned to seducing current players. Or maybe they wanted to grill him about his family, to make sure none of them had a dubious history which could damage to reputation of the organization. Either way, they would be thorough.

 

Or as thorough as he allowed them to be.

 

“I’ll come in tomorrow,” he said finally. “But I’m not going to spill my entire life story to you just so you can paint a pretty picture or whatever it is you people do. I’m coming in to see Brendan.”

 

“I’m not sure that will be possible,” she said, and the calm professionalism in her voice irked him, wormed its way into the cracks in his composure.

 

“Tell him to be there,” he said. “I’m not talking unless he’s there.”

 

“Mr. Galchenyuk, I’m not sure you quite understand the situation.”

 

“Oh I understand,” he said scathingly. “I understand that I woke up this morning to my name in the headlines and my life in the news all because some douchebag decided to try being a private investigator or some shit. I understand that none of this is my fucking fault and that I haven’t heard from Brendan, the reason for this whole mess in the first place. Don’t condescend to me.”

 

“I’m afraid you don’t get to order Mr. Gallagher to be anywhere at the moment.”

 

“Either he’s there, or I’m not telling you shit.”

 

And with that, he hung up, still fuming from the encounter. Nail regarded him hesitantly.

 

“You okay?” he asked.

 

Alex dialed Brendan’s number again and slammed the phone on the table when once again he reached the answering machine. He typed furiously, I’m coming in tomorrow and you better talk to me then and hit send. He sat back, nearly panting with anger.

 

“I’m fine,” he said to Nail at last. “I’m perfectly fucking fine.”

 

“Good,” said Nail. Nikita nodded from beside him.

 

“You show them,” he chimed in.

 

Alex intended to. He intended to very much.

 

 

 

The next day, he drove into the Bell Centre with his heart pounding as loudly as it had just two night ago. He pulled into the parking lot and entered through the main entrance. The arena was nearly deserted, with only a security guard staffing entrance and a lone, extremely bored women manning the ticket booth.

 

He cleared his throat as he approached the security guard. “Excuse me?”

 

“How can I help you?” asked the guard in heavily accented English.

 

Alex switched to French. “I need to see Tricia Bradley.” When the guard gave him a blank look, he clarified. “She’s with the PR department.”

 

“Are you a member of the press? Because no one is fielding any questions from any outlet at this point in time, direct orders from management.”

 

“No, no,” sighed Alex. “I’m…she wants to see me. Tell her Alex Galchenyuk is here.”

 

Something clicked in the security guards head, and his eyes grew comically wide. “Let me just contact my supervisor.”

 

He spoke rapidly into his walkie-talkie, relaying the information necessary. They waited while the information was passed along until finally the guard’s com unit crackled.

 

“Tricia is coming for him,” said the voice.

 

Alex waited stiffly by the guard, whose nametag identified him as Bruce, dodging the stray, wide-eyed stares he threw at him from time to time. He clearly wanted to say something, but Alex was grateful that he held his tongue.

 

Tricia, when she appeared, resembled every stock photo of a corporate, pantsuit wearing woman he’d ever seen. Her heels clacked determinedly along the floor, and her steely expression suggested no room for compromise. If Alex were a less stubborn man, he might have actually been afraid.

 

“Mr. Galchenyuk,” she said pleasantly, her smile not quite reaching her eyes. “I wasn’t sure when you’d be arriving.”

 

“Let’s get this over with, shall we?” he said.

 

She raised her eyes but led him down the hallway and through a door marked “Staff Only.” The blank, sparsely decorated walls presented a far less impressive sight than the part of arena meant for fans although posters and pictures still dotted the hall from time to time. They turned down several corners before stopping outside an unmarked door.

 

“Wait here,” Tricia ordered. She disappeared behind the door, leaving Alex once again uncertain and alone as he waited. He shuffled absentmindedly from side to side, scuffing his shoes, fiddling with the corner of his jacket.  He even opened his phone and began a mindless game of solitaire.

 

“Wait, is that—

 

Whoever had spoken rapidly cut themselves off. Alex whipped around to see a group of four men standing at the end of the hallway, each openly staring at him. Three were casually dressed, sporting jeans and loose t-shirts, but the one in the middle wore a suit, and he was the one Alex recognized immediately. Even if you knew next to nothing about hockey and the Montreal Canadiens, you recognized PK Subban.

 

He backed himself against the wall, crossing his arms and staring purposefully at the carpet. As far as carpets went, this one was exceptionally unremarkable, but if he looked there, maybe no one would approach him.

 

“Hey, you!”

 

Or maybe not.

 

“You, yeah, you!”

 

Alex looked up into the face of the man he vaguely recalled as Prusty, though he realized he didn’t actually know the man’s first name.

 

“What?” said Alex, his mouth suddenly parched.

 

“What the hell do you want from Gally? What are you playing at?”

 

Alex furrowed his brow. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

 

Prusty was slightly shorter than Alex, but he exuded aggression and physicality. He jabbed his finger into Alex’s chest, startling him. “What are you trying to get out of him, huh? You getting some money from all of this?”

 

Alex swiped Prusty’s finger aside. “How the hell would I be getting money from any of this?”

 

“I don’t know!” roared Prusty. “Maybe this was some elaborate setup and you leaked those pictures! I mean, what are the chances someone sees you like that?”

 

Alex was taken aback. “You think I orchestrated this? Do you actually think I wanted to be front page news?” He glared back challengingly. “What the hell did Brendan tell you?”

 

“He hasn’t said shit,” snapped Prusty, and a hand appeared on his shoulder, restraining him.

 

“Easy, Prusty,” said PK. His dark eyes were serious as they flickered between the two of them. “We don’t know what happened.”

 

“I don’t know what happened either!” said Alex vehemently. “I mean, I do, but believe me, this is the last thing I wanted. I didn’t…I had no idea someone saw us.”

 

“Are you two dating?” said a mild voice from behind PK. The dark-haired man stood several steps back from the fray, and he projected a calm yet resolute aura.

 

“No, we’re not,” said Alex, then scanned all of their faces intently. “Shouldn’t you know all of this already?”

 

“Gally missed practice yesterday,” said PK seriously. “No one’s heard anything from him.”

 

“So for all we know, he’s some fucking gold-digger pouncing on the—

 

“Brandon!” said the man behind PK. He spoke firmly, leaving little room for argument. Prusty stepped back, and Alex breathed in deeply, free of Prusty’s cloying presence.

 

“Pardon him,” said the man, and he offered a tight smile. “I’m Carey Price. This here is Brandon Prust, PK, and Nate.” He gestured to the tall, boyish looking man who had remained silent up until then. “Emotions have been running a little high as of late.”

 

“That’s an understatement,” said PK. Prust and Nate remained silent.

 

“But,” continued Carey, “I’m sure this hasn’t been easy for you either. We’re just all concerned for our friend.”

 

“I tried to reach him a dozen times yesterday,” said Alex. “He never got back to me.”

 

“He’s been off the grid,” chimed in Nate. “He hasn’t responded to anyone yet.”

 

This comforted Alex slightly, even if bitterness still lurked at the edges of his mind. Brendan should have called him, if nothing else, seeing as Alex was also directly involved more than anyone else.

 

Just then the door beside Alex opened and Tricia emerged, tailed closely by none other than Brendan himself.

 

“Gally!” exclaimed PK as he wrapped Brendan in a hug. Nate, Carey and Prusty followed suit, the latter ruffling his hair affectionately. Alex stood awkwardly to the side, leaning against the wall and watching the floor rather than the reunion before him.

 

“Alex,” said a voice softly.

 

Alex looked up to see Brendan regarding him cautiously.

 

Brendan looked every inch the wreck Alex felt. Dark shadows lined his eyes and his hair sprouted out in fifteen different directions. He seemed taut, like a bubble of barely contained energy vibrated beneath the surface, waiting to burst through.

 

Tricia placed a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Galchenyuk, we’re ready for you now.”

 

Alex opened his mouth, but no words emerged, and he followed Tricia mutely into the hallway, the slam of the door echoing loudly in their wake. She led him into a conservatively decorated office where she sat primly on the far side of desk while gesturing for him to take the office chair and face her. He lowered himself into the squashy desk chair and took several deep breaths.

 

“You can relax, Mr. Galchenyuk,” she said.

 

He immediately tensed.

 

“Let me start by saying, we do want to minimize any damage caused to you and to Mr. Gallagher throughout the whole incident. We are on your side.”

 

“Damage?” he repeated.

 

She sighed. “Let me rephrase. We want to reduce any distress either you or he may experience. To do this, we need to anticipate anything which may come out if people start digging any further.”

 

“So what, you want a complete life history or something?”

 

“No, I think we can save that for another day. We just want to know what people might find interesting about you if they were to dig, and what you might prefer that people not know.”

 

“I’d prefer that people not know anything, really,” said Alex.

 

“Well, we’re going to have to prioritize, aren’t we?” she said, and a shiver snake down his spine. “For example, have you had relations with any other NHL players, or anyone noteworthy in general?”

 

“Look, first of all, Brendan and I haven’t…haven’t had relations, okay? He just kissed me once, well, twice, and it was just bad luck that someone happened to see us.”

 

“That doesn’t answer the question.”

 

“I’m not giving you my complete sexual history.”

 

“And I’m not asking for one,” she said firmly. “I just want to know what you think we should know. Everything you say here is entirely confidential I might add.”

 

He gulped. “It’s not like I’ve sought out famous people to hook up with, okay? And I haven’t exactly ever had a relationship, strictly speaking. Just, you know, hookups. With some people more than once.”

 

“Anyone who might come forward?”

 

He gaped at her. “Why would anyone come forward?”

 

“It’s unlikely, but I am of the opinion that it is better to be over-prepared. So I repeat, anyone or anything we should know about.”

 

He clenched his fists in his lap. “Mostly people in college, nobody you need to worry about. Regular guys, what not. But, uh, there were a few guys when I played in juniors. Most didn’t even make it to the draft, but there were a couple who did.”

 

“And their names?”

 

“I’m not telling you.” She frowned, but he was undeterred. “Look, one never made it past a few NHL games, spent most of his time in AHL. The other one is married now, to a woman, I might add, and there’s no way in hell he’d speak up. He has more to lose than me.”

 

“And you? Have you had ‘hookups’ with women? Or are you gay?” she asked.

 

“I’m gay,” he said, and his stomach churned unpleasantly. He’d said it, though, so Nail would be proud. “Other than kissing a couple of girls in high school, nothing.”

 

She typed away at her keyboard for a while before turning once more to hi, her eyes appraising him intently. “And what about your time in juniors?”

 

“What about it?”

 

“Well,” she said, scanning her screen, “I have it in my notes that you were considered a promising young player, perhaps even a top ten pick. And then one day you’re no longer there. The team releases a statement saying you withdrew for personal reasons.”

 

He tapped his foot along the floor. “And?”

 

“’Personal reasons’ is a rather vague explanation. Someone may want to know more, may investigate. It would behoove us to know before the latest report on Deadspin, in case there’s something…compromising involved.”

 

A swell of fury grew inside of him. “Look, it’s not drugs or alcohol or whatever you think it might be, okay? It wasn’t my fault! What happened, there was nothing I could have done.” He’d spent years convincing himself to believe it too.

 

“And what did happen?” Tricia prompted.

 

“A blood clot,” he said hollowly. “In my lung. I was on blood thinners for a long time, hoping it would take care of the problem. And then when I tried rejoining the team again, it came back.” He swallowed hard. “They told me I couldn’t play.”

 

“Who told you?”

 

“Doctors, coaches, my parents. Well, my mom. My dad still wanted me to try.”

 

“And who else knows? Any teammates?”

 

“A few. A few friends I met later. I haven’t, ah, I haven’t ever broadcasted it, you know? I play for a rec league now, but the intensity’s nowhere near what it was before. Half the guys don’t even know I made it as far as I did.”

 

There was pity in her expression as she regarded him. He despised it.

 

“And that’s the full story?” she asked.

 

“It’s as simple as that.”

 

And it was. As simple and terrible as the day they’d first told him the news.

 

And even though it wasn’t his fault, sometimes he still couldn’t believe it. Sometimes, in his dreams, he played for hordes of screaming fan. He rushed down the ice, the puck fluid and nimble on his stick, and as it passed over the glove of the goal, he lifted his arms in celebration and whooped and yelled as his teammates mobbed him with glee.

 

A simple dream. A terrible dream. And more importantly than anything else, a dream.

 

“Is that all?” he asked.

 

“I’m afraid not,” she said, and Alex slouched into his chair even further, settling in for a long afternoon.

 

 

 

Brendan was waiting for him when he left the office, sitting on the floor, back pressed against the wall with his head tilted back. He appeared to be sleeping, but when Alex stepped towards him, his eyes fluttered open.

 

“Alex,” he breathed.

 

“I called a dozen times yesterday,” said Alex.

 

“Everyone called a dozen times yesterday,” said Brendan, and he slouched further against the wall, blinking slowly. “I just muted my phone after a while. The entire PR and management team quarantined me for about half the day while they did damage control.”

 

“Tricia used that word too,” remarked Alex. “Damage.” He paused. “You should have called me.”

 

“I didn’t even know if you wanted to talk to me,” said Brendan, and he looked up at Alex with puppy-like eyes. “What was I supposed to think? You ran.”

 

“You surprised me.”

 

“Yeah, well, most people don’t just bolt when something surprises them.” He squinted into the light. “They talk about it.”

 

“Good for most people,” said Alex.

 

Brendan snorted. “Whatever. And then the next day, I wake up to about a hundred messages and Tricia Bradley banging on my front door, asking me if I had a prepared a statement or anything. Like I would have prepared a statement for something I didn’t even know was possible.”

 

“What, being outed?”

 

“No, liking guys. Liking you.” He sighed heavily. “I’m not exactly an expert on the whole gay thing.”

 

This latest revelation intrigued Alex. “Are you saying you’ve never kissed a guy before?”

 

“Oh, I have. Just, only a couple of times. A long time ago. And then I got drafted. There isn’t exactly a welcoming parade in the NHL, or haven’t you noticed?”

 

“Oh I’ve noticed. I used to…” he bit his lip hard, “I used to think about that a lot.”

 

“Yeah?” said Brendan. “Oh right, one of the articles mentioned you played for Sarnia. That you were good, really good.” He stared steadily at Alex. “You lied to me.”

 

“I never lied.”

 

“You said you weren’t bad at hockey. Given that you were what, a projected top ten pick, that counts as a lie.”

 

“Well look where I am now,” said Alex bitterly, gesturing to the hall around him. “I mean, you were, if I’m correct, a fifth round? Didn’t stop you.”

 

Brendan hauled himself to his feet, rotating his neck from side to side with a loud crack. He grimaced and rubbed his shoulder, kneading at a particular spot. “I’ve got to play today. Which means I need to go.”

 

“Fine,” said Alex.

 

“I’m sorry for freaking you out or whatever. I thought you were gay, so I didn’t anticipate it being such a big deal.”

 

“I am gay,” said Alex, for the second time in one day and the third time in his entire life.

 

Brendan raised his eyebrows. “You are?”

 

“I am, it’s just…it’s complicated.”

 

“Doesn’t sound like it to me, but hey, what do I know?” He smiled wearily. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

 

He began walking away.

 

“Is that it?” said Alex, voice raised. “Is that all?”

 

“Well, seeing as you rejected me the night before and probably have mountains of your own shit to deal with, yeah, I assumed that was kind of it.”

 

“I didn’t reject you.”

 

“Didn’t you?” Brendan peered at Alex skeptically. Alex said nothing, and Brendan sighed heavily. “You know, this whole thing would be so much easier if you actually liked me. Like, at least there would be an actual relationship to talk about. Tricia would have something to sell to the press instead of just me by myself.”

 

Alex scuffed his foot against the carpet and stamped his shoe down on the floor. “If I’m being honest, I don’t even know what I want. From anything.”

 

“A small comfort, that,” said Brendan.

 

And Alex wanted to be angry. He wanted to rant and rail against Brendan for kissing him publically, for kissing him at all. He wanted to hate him for the past two days and for not calling him back and for not telling his teammates the truth. But in that moment, Brendan just seemed dejected. He seemed tired and listless and nothing like the sparkplug of a man he’d come to know over the past month. And against all logic, he blamed himself. “So it would be better if we were dating?”

 

“Sure,” said Brendan, frustrated. “I thought I made that fairly clear.”

 

“I could do it then,” said Alex. Brendan stared in confusion. “I mean, I could date you.”

 

“So you’re offering to go out with me because it would make life easier for me?”

 

“When you put it that way—

 

You put it that way.”

 

“I’m serious,” said Alex. Brendan tilted his head to the side. “Like, I know this fucks up your life even more than it fucks up mine. And even though I really shouldn’t, I feel bad about it. So if it makes life easier…”

 

“You know, when I decided to kiss you, I never envisioned it turning out like this,” said Brendan slowly.

 

“Is that a yes?”

 

Brendan hesitated. “I’m not a pity date.”

 

“I never said you were.”

 

“I don’t want you hating me.”

 

“I don’t hate you, Brendan,” he said, because he truly didn’t. “We’re already friends, and you’re not actually a terrible kisser.”

 

Brendan smiled crookedly. “You really know how to win a guy over, don’t you?”

 

“You’re the one who made a move on me.”

 

“I suppose I did,” he mumbled, more to himself than anyone else. He took several steps towards Alex, closing the gap between them. “You know, for someone who’s not a hockey player, you’re annoyingly tall.”

 

And then he kissed Alex, stepping on his tiptoes to reach. Like two nights before, the gesture surprised Alex, but this time he did not freeze, he did not run. He simply responded in kind, neither aggressive nor passive, just a gentle, casual kiss.

 

Brendan pulled away. “Was that so hard?” he said.

 

Alex shook his head.

 

“I guess we’ll have to work on words, won’t we?”

 

“Gally, get your scrawny Albertan ass over here right now!”

 

PK had poked his head around the corner, and, seeing how little space separated the two of them, he immediately adopted a more nonchalant air.

 

“There’s nothing scrawny about my ass,” yelled Brendan, rolling his eyes. He returned his attention to Alex. “Let me tell Tricia. If this is going to happen, someone who can actually use words should explain it to her.”

 

And with that parting phrase, he strolled down the hall where he joined PK and disappeared around the corner.

 

Alex retrieved his phone from his pocket. So Brendan and I are dating now, he said.

 

Within thirty seconds, he had a reply. If you’re not home in the next half hour to explain, not even your mother will be able to protect you from my wrath.

 

Nikita never scared him, but occasionally Nail displayed a ruthless, vicious intimidating streak. So while Alex wasn’t scared, he definitely hurried home

 

 

 

 

“So, let me get this straight,” said Alex carefully. “We’re supposed to date each other publicly, but never actually say anything about it?”

 

Brendan shrugged. “Tricia said it’s better to avoid any official announcement. That I should just live my life and let my actions speak for themselves.”

 

“That’s the most hockey thing I’ve ever heard,” said Alex. “Except, in this case, instead of skating or shooting or checking, the action in question is dating me.”

 

“Right,” said Brendan. He smiled cautiously. “You think you’re ready to get out of the car?”

 

The car in question (Brendan’s, not either of Alex’s) idled in the middle of a parking lot several blocks from one of Brendan’s favorite restaurant, a steak place he’d been to more than a dozen times. Alex nodded, and the two of them exited the car, tightening the scarves around their necks. Brendan slipped his hand into Alex’s, and Alex started at the gesture.

 

“Relax,” murmured Brendan. “We’re supposed to be having fun.”

 

None of the tension left his shoulders, but he kept his hand snugly within Brendan’s as they strolled down the street. Within the four blocks to the restaurant, Brendan was stopped twice, once by two prepubescent boys and once by a little girl whose frizzy dark hair bounced as she shook with excitement. In both situations, the parents were unerringly polite, though their furtive glances towards Alex and towards their clasped hands did not escape his attention. By the time they arrived at the restaurant, Alex’s palms were sweating and he wanted nothing more than to evade any further scrutiny.

 

The maître d also recognized Brendan, and she led them to a cozy table in the back, secluded from the main part of the restaurant and far from any windows.  Brendan shucked off his overcoat and hat and draped them over the side of the chair, shaking out his mussed hair. His wild curls begged Alex to tousle them, but Alex restrained himself. This was only a first date, even if the general public believed otherwise.

 

“You look like someone just killed your dog,” remarked Brendan as they sat down. “Could you at least try to appear happy?”

 

Alex smiled falsely.

 

“God, that’s even worse,” said Brendan. “Now you look like someone who escaped from a mental asylum. Especially with the beard.”

 

“Your inability to grow facial hair has no impact on the excellence of my own.”

 

“You’re practically part grizzly bear,” said Brendan, wrinkling his nose.

 

“You just don’t want beard burn,” he retorted. Brendan flushed, and he smirked.

 

“Who says I’ll be getting beard burn?” Brendan said weakly.

 

“Says all the people who are supposed to see us dating.”

 

Brendan looked down. “I don’t really care who sees. I mean, I do, I do care, but I also don’t, if you know what I mean.”

 

Alex perused the menu thoughtfully. “This place is expensive.” He glanced up at Brendan. “You can’t pay for every single date.”

 

“Hey, it’s not a problem, but—“ he added, sensing Alex’s burgeoning argument “next time it’s your turn.”

 

Alex grunted in agreement. He eyed the steak on the menu, but the herb-encrusted lamb also enticed him. When their waiter approached, he was still oscillating between the two, lingering for on each for a time.

 

“A bottle of the ’98 Bordeaux please,” said Brendan, pointing at the menu. “And the scalloped potatoes for an appetizer, along with the garlic asparagus. Unless,” he gestured towards Alex, “you had something else in mind.”

 

Alex gulped. “No, that’s plenty I think.”

 

“Perfect,” said Brendan. “I’m starving. Probably should have eaten more after practice today, but I forgot.”

 

Once the waiter had left, Alex eyed Brendan critically. “You ordered wine?” he said.

 

Brendan shrugged. “This place doesn’t exactly specialize in beers.”

 

“Whatever you say.”

 

A silence settled over the table, the sort they’d finally left behind before the whole tabloid incident and romantic element complicated their relationship. Alex cleared his throat.

 

“So, what is good here? To order, I mean.”

 

“Oh, I usually like their seafood here—“ Alex made a face—“but other people have told me they enjoy the lamb.”

 

“Other people, huh?” said Alex. “You bring all your dates here, huh? Nice to know I’m special.”

 

Brendan flushed. “Not just dates. I mean, it’s my favorite place, so I’ve been here with some of the guys before.”

 

Alex raised his eyebrows. “You’re telling me you carted in two dozen hockey players to a place like this?”

 

Brendan sputtered, “No, God no! Just a few people. Prusty, Nate, Devante when he was still around. PK and Carey once. The guys I know best.”

 

A little knot of worry settled in Alex’s stomach. “I don’t think Prust likes me very much. The rest were hard to tell, but he definitely hated me.”

 

“Nah, he doesn’t hate you,” said Brendan. “He’s just protective. I was his rookie, and he takes it a little too seriously.”

 

Alex twisted his mouth skeptically, but refrained from further comment. Their waiter emerged from the back with a frighteningly expensive wine bottle in tow, and she poured them each a generous glass. Brendan sniffed it and swirled the liquid around several times before sipping tentatively at the wine.

 

Alex couldn’t contain his snort.

 

“What?” asked Brendan, revealing wine-stained teeth.

 

Alex waved him away. “Nothing, it’s just, do you know how stupid you look right now?”

 

Brendan narrowed his eyes. “This is how you’re supposed to drink wine! The scent is part of the experience.”

 

“And what, you took a class in this or something?”

 

“Yes,” said Brendan defensively. “It was very interesting.”

 

Alex tried—he really, really tried—to hold back his laughter, but his attempts at stifling his giggles only meant that when he inevitably lost the battle, he sounded like an undignified dog sneezing. He shook with laughter, and a somber-looking couple from across the way glanced unappreciatively in their direction.

 

“I’m sorry,” he forced out through his tears. “It’s just, you took a class?”

 

“You should be sorry,” said Brendan, but his retort lacked any real bit. If anything, he seemed…relieved. “You are reaping the benefits of my knowledge here.”

 

“Well, then, show me what you got.”

 

And just like that, something slid into place for the rest of the night. Alex allowed Brendan to explain how to properly drink a glass of wine, and he only laughed out load on three separate occasions. The lamb tasted just as spectacular as Brendan had promised, and the taste lingered on his tongue long after they had finished the main course. When Brendan kissed him again, this time in full view of the entire street outside the restaurant, he might have even enjoyed it.

 

But he tried not to think too much about that last part. Like the taste of lamb or his aspirations of playing professional hockey, Brendan wasn’t made to last.

 

 

 

“Dude, your love life is in the third page of the entertainment section,” said Jake as he chucked a newspaper at his head.

 

Alex ignored the copy of The Montreal Gazette as it smacked him on the shoulder and continued to lace his skates up tightly. “Are you telling me you actually read the gossip section?” They were all gathered in the locker room of the rink they used for practice for their rec league, and he despised the fact that the entertainment column had wormed its way into locker room discussions.

 

“And you read a print newspaper too?” chimed in Ben.

 

“My girlfriend reads it, okay?” protested Jake, which Alex knew to be entirely false. He’d spent enough time with Jenny to know she tolerated less nonsense than most Catholic schoolteachers. “And it’s not every day there’s a column about one of your friends.”

 

“Well, I’ll be sure to read it to see what happened,” said Alex wryly, and Marc guffawed from off to the side. “Or maybe you could just save me some time and tell me everything you know.”

 

Jake harrumphed loudly but launched into an explanation nonetheless. “It says you and Brendan Gallagher were spotted on a date on Sunday night at some fancy restaurant, and then two days later you went to a movie. They’ve even included a shot of you holding hands as you ‘take a romantic stroll down Rue de Bleury.’” He frowned. “Rue de Bleury isn’t that romantic.”

 

“Duly noted,” said Alex, and with one final tug at his laces, he finished preparing his skates. He stood up and surveyed the room. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to start skating now. Feel free to join me.”

 

The scrape of ice beneath his feet invigorated him in a way few other things could, and he relished in the smooth glide his freshly-sharpened skates provided. He handled the puck easily, flipping it between his stick casually and enjoying the slap of rubber on metal. His refuge lasted only five minutes before the rest of the team poured onto the rink to begin their practice, starting with basic warmups.

 

As they stood behind the goal line, Wade grinned wickedly at him. “Had yourself a hot date, I hear.”

 

“Did you now?” he said, and then flew down the ice in a sprint.

 

“How was the movie?” asked Sean casually while they waited to take shots on net.

 

“Not that great,” said Alex. “Sequels are never as good as the originals.” He slapped the puck hard at Ben, harder than he normally might for a simple warmup shot.

 

“Does he have any single friends?” inquired Alicia, one of four women on their team, as they stretched at center ice. “I know a great place for a double date.”

 

Alex slammed his stick on the ice loudly and stood up, towering over everyone else as they sat on the ground in various positions of contortion. “This is a public service announcement,” he said slowly. “Yes, I had a date. Yes, some stalker took pictures of me for the Gazette. No, I will not be talking about it in any way, shape or form.” He glared at all of them. “Understood?”

 

Alicia, at least, appeared remorseful. “Sorry, Chucky,” she said quietly. “I thought the reason you never talked about your personal life was that you weren’t out. And since that changed…”

 

“Just because the world now knows I like men, doesn’t mean I want to talk about it,” he said shortly, and several people nodded. “Now, if you don’t mind, can we please play?”

 

The rest of practice proceeded smoothly, and no one commented further on the blurb about Brendan and Alex in the news.  Unfortunately, when he returned home, Nail was waiting at home, this time with a printout.

 

“Already seen it,” he said, brushing aside the paper. “Don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“Fine,” said Nail. “But at some point, you’re going to have to say more than two words about this whole situation.”

 

Alex retreated into his room and shut the door. Eventually, the sound of footsteps and the creak of a door informed him Nail had done the same.

 

His phone buzzed. Alex fished it out of his pocket and read the message.

 

You holding up? With the gazette thing?

 

It was Brendan. Apparently after his vanishing act the time before, he’d learned how to communicate.

 

Nothing new, so I’m used to it, said Alex.

 

You are? I’ve been famous for years and I’m still not.

 

Alex smiled instinctively. So humble.

 

You know what I mean, replied Brendan. Then, some of the guys were razzing me about it.

 

Same. Not at work, but at practice. I told them off about it.

 

And they listened? Damn. No one ever listens to me.

 

Alex actually laughed. It’s only because they know you.

 

Ouch, said Brendan. Don’t lie. You like my company.

 

Whatever helps you fall asleep at night, said Alex.

 

You definitely do, said Brendan, and if Alex’s heart stuttered, then absolutely no one needed to know.

 

Hey, do you mind if I call you?

 

Alex’s fingers froze over the keyboard of his phone. He shook his head to clear away the cobwebs and then typed out a reply. Okay.

 

His phone rang, and he swiped to answer. “Hello?”

 

“Hey, Alex!” said Brendan brightly.

 

“Is there a reason you wanted to call?”

 

“Uh,” said Brendan, “not really. I just prefer talking over the phone to texting, you know? Plus I’m alone in my hotel room right now, and I just want to talk to someone.”

 

“You mean you just want a chance to run your mouth.”

 

“Like I said before, you like listening to me, don’t deny it.”

 

Alex rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Don’t make me hang up on you.”

 

“You wouldn’t do that,” said Brendan. “Besides, did I tell you, I tried out a bit of the Russian you taught me on Marky.”

 

“And?”

 

“And I think he was amused. It’s hard to tell sometimes.”

 

“Sounds like my type of guy,” said Alex. “Strong and silent.” He laughed a little. “It’s too bad you’re neither.”

 

As Brendan shouted indignantly into the other end of the line, Alex settled back against the mattress of his bed and sighed, allowing the aches and pains of a hard workout to settle in and to allow Brendan’s voice to wash over his ears, oddly soothing in its cadence. And he smiled.

 

The next morning, Nail was awake when Alex arose, meaning that he likely hadn’t gone to sleep the night before. The dark shadows under his eyes spoke of long hours at work, and he acknowledged Alex’s arrival with a brief nod at the kitchen table.

 

“I know you like to have your own schedule, but this is a little ridiculous,” said Alex, nudging Nail gently. “You gotta try to be in bed before I wake up.”

 

“Couldn’t work for a while,” said Nail. “Too busy listening to you giggling at something in your room.”

 

“I don’t giggle,” said Alex, and Nail shot him a look of complete exasperation.

 

“Whatever, Sasha,” he muttered. “Who were you talking to anyways?”

 

“Oh, uh, just Brendan.”

 

Nail’s head perked up immediately. “You were talking to him?”

 

“That’s what people do, you know, Yak? They talk.”

 

Nail eyed him suspiciously and sipped at his mug of tea. Alex set about preparing his morning coffee. When the coffee maker beeped, Alex poured himself a cup and plopped in the seat across from Nail. He drank it slowly, savoring the taste of a fresh roast and his favorite brand of half-and-half.

 

“You’re oddly perky for someone who was up so late,” grumbled Nail. “Normally you’re a grouch in the morning.”

 

“You never see me in the morning,” pointed out Alex.

 

“In college I did. And I’ve been known to get up early from time to time.”

 

“Point is, you don’t know shit, and you’re exhausted and delirious because you haven’t gone to bed yet.” Alex peered over the rim of Nail’s mug. “That is tea, right? You’re not drinking coffee before you go to sleep?”

 

“Yes, it’s tea, mother,” said Nail. “God, Nikita’s right about you. Sometimes you’re such a mom.”

 

“Your mother is a saint for raising you,” said Alex. “It’s been hard enough these past, shit, has it been five years we’ve lived together?”

 

Nail raised his mug in mock salute. “Happy five year anniversary to us.” He slurped up his tea. “And happy two week anniversary to your first ever official relationship.”

 

Alex glared at him. “It’s not…I mean, it is a relationship, I guess, but you know it’s only for the PR, you know? It’s easier to defend a relationship than a sexuality, I guess.”

 

“Does PR keep you up till two in the morning?”

 

“We’re friends too,” said Alex. “And he’s out in Colorado, so they have different time zones.”

 

Nail made a skeptical noise. “Whatever. I’m going to bed. Don’t wake me up unless there’s an emergency.”

 

With that final declaration, he slouched off to his room, tea and bad attitude in tow. When Alex left for work, he felt remarkably refreshed for a man fueled primarily by coffee. Perhaps Nail was right. Perhaps, there was something odd about that morning.

 

 

 

 

The first time Alex stepped into Brendan’s apartment, a rambunctious chocolate Labrador nearly ran him over. Brendan laughed as the dog attempted to jump into his arms and cover him head to toe with slobber, and laughed even harder when stumbled back beneath the assault.

 

“I guess I should have told you—this is Misty,” he said, gesturing to the dog as if Alex might have thought he was referring to one of his house plants. “Not entirely sure how old she is seeing as I picked her up from a shelter, but she has the energy of a puppy.”

 

Misty pawed at the ground in agreement. Alex reached down to rub her head and she whined with satisfaction and pleasure. When he scratched beneath her ears, she closed her eyes and tilted her head affectionately in his direction.

 

“I can see why you two get along,” remarked Alex. “Both too high energy for your own good and don’t know what to do with your mouths.” He gazed fondly at Misty. “She’s way cuter than you though.”

 

Brendan rolled his eyes. “You’re just lucky she loves everyone. Not even your sparkling personality can deter her.” He retrieved a baseball cap from the counter and placed it on Misty’s head, where it balanced precariously. “See, now we’re ready.”

 

The occasion for Alex’s visit was ostensibly to watch a Raptors’ game. Alex didn’t watch much basketball at home, but even if he wanted to, his setup would never compare to Brendan’s. Brendan’s apartment boasted a sixty inch flat screen and surround sound system in the living room, and a large black leather couch occupied much of the middle of the room. He spotted several X-box controllers stored beneath the coffee table as well as various miscellaneous items scattered throughout the room, but overall, the apartment was far cleaner than he had expected.

 

“I don’t have a lot of options in terms of beer,” said Brendan, disappearing into what Alex assumed was the kitchen. His voice echoed through the walls. “But you like the darker stuff, right? I have a stout which Nate brought the other day. Man keeps on thinking that if he feeds me enough of it, I’ll end up liking it.” He reemerged from the kitchen with two open beers in hand, one of which he passed on to Alex. “So really, you’re doing me a favor here.”

 

Alex swallowed a gulp of the stout and found it pleasant if nothing else. “I’m surprised you didn’t offer to show me something from your wine collection.”

 

“I don’t have a wine collection,” said Brendan. “I have a few wines, sure, but that’s hardly a collection.”

 

“What you didn’t take a class on that too?”

 

“Ha ha,” deadpanned Brendan. “Anyways, what were you thinking in terms of food? There’s this great Thai place I usually order takeout from. My treat.”

 

“Fine by me,” he said. “As long as it’s spicy.”

 

“Oh, you’re one of those people?” said Brendan. “Well, how about we compromise.”

 

“Or we can order different things.”

 

“But I want to taste whatever you’re having,” reasoned Brendan. “We can just get a medium for you, and I’ll be able to suffer through that.”

 

Alex ordered the drunken noodle while Brendan settled on both pad thai and a chicken curry. Once the food arrived, they sat on the broad black couch, mere inches separating the two of them, watching the coverage of the Raptors.

 

“You know, I’ve never appreciated basketball as much as I should,” said Brendan thoughtfully. “There’s no reason why, it just never clicked with me. I played everything else, though—baseball, lacrosse, even tried football once. Never basketball.”

 

Alex remained silent for a while, letting the chatter of the reporters and the squeak of shoes against wooden floors wash over him. “It was always just hockey for me,” he said finally, staring directly at the television. “I never wanted to do anything else. Just hockey.”

 

A firm hand squeezed his arm. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

 

“What, hockey? We kind of do. It’s your job.” He still stared resolutely at the screen.

 

“No, I mean, we don’t have to talk about you and hockey if you don’t want to.”

 

Alex cleared his throat awkwardly and pointed at the screen. “Look, they’re up now,” he said.

 

Brendan turned his attention from Alex to the game, but his hand remained, and when it slipped neatly into Alex’s own, Alex couldn’t find the will the push it away. It remained there for the rest of the game, and as time progressed, Brendan’s entire body inched closer and closer until his head rested casually across Alex’s shoulder and no space separated their two bodies. Alex’s skin prickled as Brendan’s breath tickled his collarbone, and he turned to look.

 

Brendan’s eyes were halfway closed, but the moment he sensed Alex’s gaze, they snapped wide open. “Hey,” he said softly.

 

“Hey,” said Alex.

 

Without any further hesitation, Brendan bridged the gap between their lips and kissed Alex slowly, mouth certain and warm. For Alex’s part, he just followed Brendan’s lead. When Brendan slipped his hand beneath his shirt and placed his hand across the plane of his abs, Alex gasped at the sudden chill.

 

“Why are your hands so cold?” he complained against Brendan’s neck.

 

“You want to warm them up?” said Brendan. His hand wandered further and further down towards the waistband of Alex’s jeans until at last his fingers poked at the fabric there. Casually, they drifted towards his belt and began fumbling with the buckle.

 

Alex froze, and Brendan immediately noticed his stiffening.

 

“It’s okay,” he said. “We don’t have to do that now.”

 

Alex nodded slightly, and Brendan removed his hands from that area of his body.

 

Alex gulped heavily. He wasn’t sure why he’d frozen—he’d had sex dozens of times before with a dozen different people—but there was the catch. After Davey, he’d never known the men whose hands and mouths wandered south of his waist. But Brendan knew Alex, had chosen watching basketball with him on a lazy Sunday evening. So even if this was all temporary until PR no longer demanded that Brendan use a relationship to explain his sexuality, he couldn’t help but think this time was different.

 

Brendan silenced his thoughts with a kiss. “It’s okay,” he said again. “We’ve got time.”

 

And part of Alex wished that were true.

 

 

 

 

The Montreal Gazette

Prust Snaps at Reporter

 

Brendan Gallagher, 27, of the Montreal Canadiens, was thrust suddenly into the spotlight when images surfaced of him kissing another man not a month ago. Since then, neither Gallagher nor Canadiens organization have released an official statement regarding the incident, except for a brief declaration by Tricia Bradley, head of Public Relations, stating that it was not the responsibility of the organization to monitor the personal lives of their players so long as play was unaffected.

 

His teammates have also largely kept mum about the incident. Last night, though, in a postgame interview, Brandon Prust, a forward, expressed irritation with a question regarding Gallagher and how his relationship and sexuality may be affecting the locker room and the NHL. When asked how the team had handled the increase in scrutiny in recent weeks, Prust responded, “This is f***ing ridiculous. Don’t you have anything better to do? What does it matter what he does off the ice?”

 

[full video]

 

With no official statement forthcoming from anyone involved in the Habs’ Organization, this is the clearest verbal confirmation given so far that Brendan Gallagher is indeed in a relationship with another man.

 

 

Hockey Gossip XD

Gally and Gally? The NHL’s Hottest Topic

 

While other, more official news sources have refrained from speculation, we here at Hockey Gossip believe in laying at the facts as we see them. And the facts show that Gally and Gally are totally doing it.

 

In case you’ve been living beneath a rock for the past month, the entire hockey world exploded four weeks ago when pictures surfaced showing Brendan Gallagher, a forward for the Montreal Canadiens, kissing another man. That man was identified through social media as Alex Galchenyuk, a hunky former hockey player himself who last played for the Sarnia Sting at the junior level. Since then, the two have been spotted out and about together at various different locations throughout Montreal. We’ve done the hard work for you and created a timeline of their (ahem) alleged relationship.

 

January 10: A photo is posted to the Instagram of Nikita Scherbak, one of Galchenyuk’s friends, showing Galchenyuk and Gallagher in a luxury box at the Bell Centre after a game. The photo, screenshotted here (the Instagram account has since been set to private), is captioned in Russian but has been translated to read, “friends in high places.” Those sorts of tickets are expensive, so they must be REALLY good friends.

 

January 27: The now infamous photo of the kissing on a bench in La Fontaine Park is published in several news outlets. Gallagher neither confirms nor denies that the incident, but the evidence is clear enough. But, one kiss does not a relationship make, which is what makes the next month and a half so important.

 

January 31: Two lucky young fans have their pictures taken with Gallagher one evening outside a restaurant, and one of the photos shows Galchenyuk awkwardly chilling like a plate of cold beans in the background. Other people have confirmed that the two of them were indeed alone together.

 

February 5: Photos surface showing the two of them holding hands while walking down Rue de Bleury on after seeing a movie. We’re not saying you can’t platonically see a movie and hold hands with your friend, but…

 

February 8: Several fans claim to have encountered Galchenyuk at the Habs’ home game, which he was attending with several friends. Galchenyuk was wearing a Habs’ beanie (no Gallagher jersey unfortunately), though it is unclear if his support for the Canadiens began before or after his relationship with Gallagher.

 

February 15: Photos taken by fans indicate that Galchenyuk and Gallagher spent the day at the Biodome together, with several people tweeting and posting online that the two seemed quite close. According to one eyewitness, they spend the most time by alligators. We’re not sure if that’s significant, but we’re sticking it in here nonetheless

 

February 19: Galchenyuk spotted at Brossard, the Canadiens’ practice facility, presumably picking up his boyfriend lounging outside for no particular reason.

 

February 23: Gallagher and Galchenyuk seen shopping together around Montreal. Eyewitnesses confirm a distinct lack of personal space between them

 

February 28: Galchenyuk spotted at a Habs PR event where Gallagher and several other Canadiens were meeting with children with cancer at the Bell Centre. He was mostly in the background, but he and Gallagher appeared to leave and arrive together. 

 

All evidence indicates that these two lovebirds, while not announcing anything, are still going strong. In light of all the evidence, it’s pretty safe to say the NHL has its first gay player. As Gallagher, who’s been an integral part of the Canadiens for nearly seven years now, had managed to keep his sexuality under wraps for a long time, this of course begs the question: is he alone? How many other players might be hiding in plain sight? For now, we at Hockey Gossip are enjoying watching this saga unfold. In the meantime, stay tuned for more juicy updates!

 

“Ugh,” groaned Nikita as he lounged across the couch one evening. “They mentioned me by name, and I don’t even have my Instagram public. Do you know how many potential followers I’m losing by keeping it that way?”

 

“You can make it public if you want,” replied Alex. “You just can’t post anything with me in it if you do.”

 

“Then what’s the point?” said Nikita. “Half the reason I have that thing is to embarrass you.”

 

“And here I thought it was just an ego trip.”

 

“No, that’s the other half. I am a multi-dimensional person.”

 

“That’s only two dimensions,” Alex reminded him.

 

“Which is more than one. Therefore multi-.”

 

“Hate to break it to you, but two dimensions isn’t very impressive.”

 

“Whatever,” snapped Nikita. “Don’t you have something better to do?”

 

“Actually, yes,” said Alex, zipping his jacket up tightly and pulling a hat low over his head. “I’m going out.”

 

Nikita sputtered, “You’re leaving me here?”

 

Alex rolled his eyes. “Nail should be back soon. I assume you can fend for yourself for the next hour at least.”

 

Nikita glared suspiciously at him. “Where are you going?”

 

“To see Brendan.”

 

“Really?” Nikita sat up fully, and he was staring accusingly at him. “And should I expect to see pictures of the two of you on Hockey Gossip soon?”

 

Alex didn’t dignify that with a response.

 

“You know,” continued Nikita, “I only ask because this article is the most I’ve heard about your relationship. Like, I didn’t know you were going to Habs PR stuff until reading this. And I practically live here.”

 

Alex threw on his scarf. “You’re not getting an hourly update on my life.”

 

“I’m not getting any update on your life. I know you’re not big on the personal stuff, but my God, I’m starting to think that maybe Nail was right.”

 

Alex froze. “Right about what?”

 

Nikita’s eyes widened and he stammered incoherently, clearly attempting to backtrack. “Uh, just…just, it’s nothing.”

 

Alex stalked over to the couch, using his full height to tower over Nikita and glower menacingly at his friend. “What. Did. He. Say?” he forced out through gritted teeth.

 

Nikita gulped. “It was nothing! Really!” he insisted as Alex growled. “It was just, you know, wondering how you actually feel. About everything. Because you never talk about it.” He met Alex’s gaze challengingly. “That’s all! Promise.”

 

Alex stomped away. “Tell Nail we’re talking when I get back. I don’t care if he’s working, but I will rip him away from his laptop and his stupid websites and pictures.”

 

He slammed the door, fuming. He knew Nail worried more than he should, actually enjoyed talking about feelings and emotions and, God help him, romance at times, but discussing Alex behind his back was out of line. Alex would listen to him discuss his own feelings, but what Alex chose to do was exactly that: what he chose to do. Nail should have known better than to question him.

 

His boiling anger cooled down to a simmer by the time he reached the bus stop, but his foul mood persisted throughout the trip. He glared at anyone who brushed him or neared him, and people largely avoided him. Just the way he wanted.

 

Brendan, however, was undeterred. When they met on a street corner, two blocks from the bar, he pulled Alex into a tight hug. “You look like you’ve had a day,” he said, cocking his head to the side. “How many beers will it take to get you human again?”

 

“A lot,” said Alex.

 

Brendan slung an arm over his shoulder. “Well, let’s see what we can do then, yeah?”

 

An hour later, they were ensconced in the back of a bar, just the two of them, and Alex was pleasantly tipsy. Brendan had an early practice the next morning and so had offered to drive him home to avoid public transportation.

 

Suddenly, the mood grew more serious. “I’m going to be away for a while,” said Brendan. “We have a long road trip out west, so I’ll be gone for about two weeks.”

 

“Okay,” said Alex.

 

“So, I was thinking that maybe we could skype and stuff,” said Brendan. “I think that would be nice.”

 

“Sure,” said Alex. “Why not?”

 

“Okay, good,” said Brendan. “You know, I just think I’m going to miss you. A lot.”

 

Alex sipped slowly at his beer. Brendan looked at him expectantly.

 

“What?” said Alex.

 

Brendan shook his head slowly. “It’s nothing, I guess.”

 

Alex narrowed his eyes. For the second time today, the words “it’s nothing” had been spoken, and for the second time, he didn’t believe it.

 

“It’s not nothing,” said Alex.

 

“It’s fine,” said Brendan. “It’s fine, okay?” Suddenly he smiled brightly. “Did I tell you about what Nate said at practice today? The man is crazy!”

 

And so the conversation moved on.

 

 

 

 

“What’s been eating you lately?” complained Nail over their meal (dinner for Alex, lunch for Nail).

 

Alex stabbed moodily at a potato. “Nothing’s eating at me.”

 

“Right, that’s why you’ve been acting like serial killer these past few days, skulking around the apartment and eating carrots in the dark. Nothing’s eating at you.”

 

“Carrots are good for you.”

 

Nail kicked him under the table. “You’re missing the point.”

 

“What? What do you want me to say?”

 

Nail shoved a forkful of kielbasa into his mouth and chewed noisily. “I want you to talk to me like we’re actually friends. You know, which I kind of assumed we were.” He spewed out flecks of sausage as he spoke, and Alex curled his lip in disgust.

 

“Well, I don’t have anything to report.”

 

“Is your work fine?” Alex shrugged. “Are you healthy?” Alex nodded. Nail huffed in exasperation. “Well, how’s Brendan?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Alex. “He’s been on a road trip for a few days. He’s texted a few times, but we haven’t talked much.”

 

Nail gaped at him. “You mean your boyfriend’s been away and you’ve barely talked to him?”

 

“It’s only been a few days! And it’s nothing serious.”

 

“Yeah, but you talk to him all the time and see him like every day, or at least every other.”

 

“That’s what Brendan wants,” said Alex, shrugging.

 

“It’s also what people in relationships do,” said Nail pointedly. “They talk to each other.”

 

“Relationships are what you make of them,” said Alex dismissively. “Besides, it’s not actually like he’s missing me.”

 

Nail frowned. “What makes you say that?”

 

“Why would he miss me?” said Alex. “We’re only dating each other because it makes the whole ‘gay player’ angle easier to spin. Besides, he’s playing hockey with one of the best teams in the NHL. What more could he want?”

 

Pity suffused Nail’s eyes, and he set down his paper napkin carefully on the wooden table, covering up one of the more noticeable scratches. His fork lay forgotten several inches away from his plate, and he fidgeted with a chunk of potato, squishing it between his fingers absentmindedly.

 

“Oh, Sasha,” he said.

 

“Don’t ‘oh Sasha’ me,” grumbled Alex.

 

“There’s more to life than hockey. I know, I know,” he said, holding up his hands, “I know what you think. But things can matter outside of the game. People can matter. People like boyfriends.” He crushed the chunk of potato in the meat of his palm. “You should call him.”

 

“He’s probably preparing for the game right now. They’re on the west coast.”

 

“Just…just try? After dinner, just try.”

 

“Fine,” said Alex. “If it will make you happy.”

 

Nail just pitied him even more.

 

By the time they finished dinner, it was nearly seven-thirty and the restless thrumming which had been gathering in his extremities was nearly overwhelming. He jittered his leg as he pressed “call” next to Brendan’s name on the screen.

 

Ring. Ring. Ring.

 

“’lo?” Brendan sounded woozy and muzzy from sleep, like he’d just been awoken. Given the time, it’s possible he was mid-nap.

 

“Hi,” said Alex. “It’s Alex.”

 

“Alex!” exclaimed Brendan, suddenly wide awake. “Alex, it’s you.”

 

“Uh, yeah,” he said. “Sorry to wake you. I guess I just wanted to say hi. So sorry.”

 

“No, no, don’t be sorry,” said Brendan. “I’m just happy to hear your voice. I mean, you weren’t being super responsive to texting, but I figured maybe you were just busy…”

 

An edge hung in Brendan’s voice, a barrier holding back a barrage of…something else. And in that moment, Alex allowed himself to believe that perhaps Brendan cared. Perhaps Brendan had missed him in some fashion. “Well, uh, how are you then?” His accent thickened the way it often did when nerves slid into the driver’s seat. Which was stupid, since this was Brendan and not someone who necessitated apprehension.

 

“Oh, you know, not too bad,” said Brendan, yawning widely. “Don’t know if you were watching the game last night, but I scored, so that’s nice. The double header’s rough, though.”

 

He hadn’t watched, but perhaps he should have. Maybe that was another thing that people in relationships did. “You get enough sleep?”

 

“What, are you my mother now?” Brendan chuckled to himself. When Alex made a disparaging noise, Brendan just laughed even harder. “Yeah, I know that’s a little gross. I don’t mind. It’s nice to know you care, at least.” He sounded amused.

 

“Of course I care,” said Alex.

 

Brendan’s voice hitched on the other end of the line. “Right. Of course.” He cleared his throat. “You know, I never quite understood why road trips were so hard on some of the other guys before. I knew it was hard to be away from wives and girlfriends and children, but it’s different to feel it yourself.”

 

“It’s different,” agreed Alex. “Definitely different.”

 

“This phone call definitely helps, though. I mean, it doesn’t make up for not seeing you, but I guess it’s as good as we get.”

 

“Yeah,” said Alex softly.

 

“It’s not like we even live together, though. It’s just, I know you have work early most days and need to be home, but I wish we had more time. I wish when you came over you could stay a bit longer. I miss kissing you.”

 

“It’s just the distance talking,” reminded Alex.

 

“Fuck distance,” said Brendan, and Alex laughed. “And fuck California. Except maybe not, because it’s about fifteen degrees warmer here and it’s sort of wonderful.”

 

“Don’t make me jealous,” said Alex. “It’s bad enough that I’m stuck here, but hearing about the possibility of the sun somewhere else, that’s just cruel.”

 

“Part of being Canadian,” said Brendan. “Except you’re not Canadian. You’re some sort of quasi-American-Russian-Belarusian hybrid, one of those mutant hybrid monsters that was always the villain back when everyone was terrified of communism.” He began talking with an exaggerated affect. “Here we have Alexander Galchenyuk, one of Dr. Goldberg’s earliest mistakes. Notice here that despite having only lived in the United State for a few years, it claims to belong there more than it belongs to Russia and Canada. And then it chooses to live in Montreal, which, really, is a silly place, don’t you think?”

 

“I think you’re insane,” said Alex. “And you watch too many movies.”

 

“I’ll educate you yet,” said Brendan. “You have the college degree, but I know what really matters.”

 

“Keep telling yourself. I’ll be laughing in a corner while some fifth grader kicks your ass in trivia.”

 

“I’m sure I could beat them. Worst comes to worse, I punt them away. Can’t be that hard.”

 

“These are human children we’re talking,” pointed out Alex. “You probably shouldn’t be punting any of them. Or touching them. I don’t think I trust you with children at all for that matter.”

 

“I’m great with kids! Stop laughing!” whined Brendan. “Stop laughing at me.”

 

“I’ll stop laughing when it stops being funny,” chuckled Alex. “When you stop taking everything so seriously.”

 

“Oh, like you’re one to talk,” said Brendan drily. “Tell me, if you ever needed to build a fire, would you just use that stick you have jammed up your ass?”

 

He counted to three, slowly. “I can be fun.”

 

“Not saying you can’t be,” said Brendan. “Just saying my sample size is pretty low, if you know what I mean.”

 

“Look at you, talking about statistics like you went to college.”

 

“Nah, I just read the analytics stuff sometimes. They seem to like me, so it’s a good ego boost.” When Alex snorted, he allowed a hint of contrition to enter his voice. “At least I’m honest.”

 

“Yeah, well, whatever.”

 

A soft crunch echoed across the phone, as if something had been crushed. Alex imagined that Brendan was lying back in bed, perhaps settling himself into a more comfortable position after being unceremoniously disturbed from his nap. His hair would be mussed, his eyes crusty with sleep, perhaps he would be wearing those atrocious, ratty Vancouver Giants sweatpants he so loved.

 

“How’s your day been?” asked Brendan.

 

“Nothing too interesting.”

 

“I don’t care,” said Brendan. “I just want to hear about your day.”

 

 Alex gulped. “Same old, same old. Nail worrying about everything.”

 

“You know, I’ve only ever talked to this guy twice, and once was over the phone while I told him you’d passed out on the side of the road after a car accident. Any chance of me getting to meet him again sometime soon?”

 

“Well, he keeps weird hours, and your place is so much nicer than mine.”

 

“I’m sure your place is nicer than half the younger guys here, the ones who have yet to open their fridge or put down a rug.”

 

“It’s small.”

 

“I don’t mind,” said Brendan, and he sounded smug. “Could be cozy.”

 

“Maybe,” said Alex skeptically. “We’ll wait till you get back.”

 

“I guess so,” said Brendan, and he sounded dejected that Alex felt the need to cheer him up.

 

“Nikita broke his phone again,” he said. “Want to guess how?”

 

“Is this, like, a game you play or something?”

 

“Yes,” said Alex seriously. “Normally it’s just me and Nail, but you’ll probably have some good ideas.”

 

“You’re a terrible friend, aren’t you?” observed Brendan.

 

“So glad you noticed,” said Alex, and something shifted inside of him, something he hadn’t been aware of until that moment. It was like he’d swallowed something bitter only to have the taste suddenly, swiftly removed and replaced with something much sweeter. Or with the piney scent of the aftershave Brendan so often seemed to favor.

 

Maybe, just maybe, Nail had been right.

 

 

 

 

Alex awoke the next morning to a text from Brendan.

 

Yo, look at this! Found him in the hotel lobby.

 

Attached to message was a picture of a small pug puppy, one with wide, buggish eyes.

 

Cute, said Alex.

 

How do you think Misty would feel about a friend?

 

Depends. Does she still get her two hours of wind sprints in every day?

 

Of course!

 

I don’t think pugs can run that fast, replied Alex.

 

Doesn’t have to be a pug. I think mtl is cold enough for huskies. While Alex was typing out another reply, a second message came in. If I got a husky, you two would be almost be related. Cause, you know, Siberia, Russia…

 

Do you actually know where Belarus is? Asked Alex.

 

Not really?

 

Right: hw for the day is you being able to find Belarus on the map. Don’t talk to me until you can.

 

He set down his phone, already in a better mood than typical for so early in the morning. Even a slight cut he incurred while shaving wasn’t enough to dampen his mood.

 

His good humor continued throughout the rest of the day, and at practice that evening, several people noticed.

 

“Did someone drop an extra shot of caffeine in your coffee this morning?” Ben asked.

 

“Nope,” said Alex.

 

Alicia frowned at him. “You didn’t, I don’t know, win the lottery or something?”

 

Alex scraped his skates against the ice in impatience. “Of course not. Why would you think that?”

 

“Because you haven’t stopped smiling all practice,” she said.

 

“Just happy to be on the ice,” he said and promptly skated away to nab the puck which someone had shot across the ice.

 

I think I’ve got it down now, said Brendan that evening. Belarus is nowhere near Siberia.

 

Moladetz, said Alex.

 

Bless you?

 

Just means good job in Russian, that’s all.

 

Oh. Then, I have a good feeling about tomorrow. I don’t know what your evening’s like, but if you’re going to watch a game, watch this one.

 

You’re so weird, said Alex. But okay.

 

The following evening found Alex camped out on the couch with a bowl of popcorn ensconced in his lap and two beers set on the coffee table before him. He watched the television absentmindedly, waiting for the real event to begin, and popped a handful of popcorn into his mouth.

 

“Did I miss the posting? Is it movie night?” Nail draped himself over the couch’s back cushions.

 

“Don’t you have to work or something?” said Alex. “I’m not actually convinced you ever work. Maybe you’re just making up all these jobs you supposedly have.”

 

“Just because I can do website design from the comfort of my own home doesn’t mean I’m not working.”

 

“It’s not working if you’re wearing that ‘Class of 2017’ shirt they handed out on the first day of freshman year. I can still see the stain from that paintball party on your elbow.”

 

Nail harrumphed. “And what does it matter? Who’s judging me?”

 

“I am.”

 

“You always are,” said Nail, he hopped over the back of the chair and landed on the other cushion with a thud. The impact propelled popcorn out of the bowl and onto the floor.

 

“You’re cleaning that up,” said Alex flatly.

 

“What are we watching?” asked Nail, ignoring Alex entirely.

 

“Habs game,” he said.

 

Nail choked on a mouthful of popcorn. Alex pounded him across the back.

 

“You’re doing what?”

 

Alex rolled his eyes. “I just told you. Do we need to get your hearing checked? Or is this more of a brain thing?”

 

“Fuck off,” said Nail. “You know what I mean. When was the last time you actually voluntarily watched an NHL game? That one live game excluded.”

 

Alex shrugged. “Long time, I guess.” He returned his attention to the television as the commercial ended. “Brendan said he had a good feeling about tonight, asked me to watch.”

 

On the screen, the referee dropped the puck and the game began. Brendan’s small figure flew forward, deftly avoiding the Ducks’ defenseman and producing a sharp, precise pass to Paccioretty’s stick. The eventual shot pinged the crossbar, but Nail whistled softly in appreciation.

 

“Your boy’s not bad,” he said.

 

“He’s not my boy,” said Alex automatically.

 

“Whatever, Sasha. Brendan isn’t bad.”

 

Alex nodded mutely and watched intently as Montreal regained the puck off a rebound and zipped forward. The announcer’s voice increased in pitch and volume as Brendan’s figure advanced, as he wound up, as he slapped the puck—

 

“He scores!” yelled the announcer. “Brendan Gallagher, with his fifteenth of the season. And what a great year this has been for Gallagher and the Canadiens!”

 

Nail nudged Alex lightly. “Not bad at all.”

 

Brendan scored twice more that game, completing the hat trick. Alex was glued to the television throughout the entire game, enraptured by the play. Nail remained on the couch, but his presence faded away, moving further and further into the recesses of his mind behind all thoughts of positioning and zone entries and what were they doing on the forecheck?

 

When the buzzer sounded signaling the game’s end, Nail moved to turn off the television, but Alex’s hand halted his. “Wait,” he said. “I want to see the post-game.”

 

Nail regarded him skeptically but left the television on. Eventually, the coverage turned to interviews, particularly with the game’s first star of the night, Brendan.

 

“This year’s been awfully good to you so far, wouldn’t you say?” asked a reporter.

 

“Well sure,” said Brendan. “I’ve been feeling great, team’s been feeling great. It all fits together well.”

 

“What’s changed that might have sparked this new energy you seem to have?”

 

“Just hard work really.”

 

“And off the ice?” asked another reporter. “Has anything changed there?”

 

Brendan plastered on a wide smile. “I feel supported, same as I always do. You know, family, friends, other important people in my life. Just grateful for them in my life, but that’s not really anything new.”

 

Something in Alex’s heart swelled dangerously. He gripped the edge of the couch tightly and rubbed his sweaty palms against the fabric.

 

“And you’ve still got a few games to go on this Western road trip here. How does that feel?”

 

“Well, you know, it’s always fun travelling with the boys and we always enjoy these matchups you don’t see as often throughout the season. At the same time, though, you always love playing at home, and it’ll be nice to be back in Montreal when we get there. Definitely some things you miss.”

 

The rest of the media scrum quickly dissolved, and the questioning moved onto to Paccioretty.

 

“Your boy’s not bad,” said Nail softly, next to him.

 

“You already said that,” said Alex.

 

Nail just shook his head. “Not about hockey,” he said.

 

Alex brushed it off as Nail being Nail. The same way he brushed off the flutter in his chest when Brendan’s eyes met the camera. He couldn’t have known he’d been watching just then, but it felt like Brendan’s gaze had travelled three thousand miles directly into their tiny Montreal living room. But there was no way of knowing for sure.

 

 

 

 

Alex had just changed into his oldest, comfiest pair of sweatpants when the knock came at the door. He checked his phone, in case Nikita had mentioned he was coming over or Nail had forgotten something like his wallet or his keys. No text though.

 

The knock came again.

 

Alex opened the door a crack and peered through the slit. A flood of heat travelled down his spine when Brendan’s gray eyes met his and he smiled shyly.

 

“Hey, I know it’s late but…” he gestured vaguely to himself, as if his presence alone ought to be an explanation.

 

“No, no, it’s fine. Come in.”

 

Brendan lugged a duffle bag through the door, scraping it across the floor. As he began to undo the buttons on his jacket and unbundle himself from the cold, Alex assessed the situation.

 

“Did you just get in?” he surmised.

 

Brendan responded by shucking off his overcoat and tugging Alex forward in order to kiss him thoroughly. Though they’d kissed before, plenty of times, a novel, thrilling jolt of electricity shot down his body upon contact, surprising him. The tingling suffused him in all his little crevices, in the space between his fingers and the faint wrinkles along his eyes. And Alex stopped thinking, stopped caring for a moment.

 

“Hi,” said Brendan, pulling away at last. “And in response to your question, uh, yes. I came straight here.” His thumb stroked the corner of Alex’s lip. “I just really wanted to see you.”

 

His gaze burned a warpath through Alex’s ability to form coherent sentences. “Um,” he said.

 

“I know it’s a bit of a surprise and I probably should have texted you or something, but I just…I wasn’t really thinking beyond you. Beyond seeing you.”

 

“Well, I’m here now,” said Alex.

 

Brendan’s eyes were soft as thistledown. “Yes, you are.” He kissed him gently with no real intensity, but the tingling from the earlier kiss returned nonetheless.

 

“Um,” said Alex articulately when they broke apart. “Do you want a drink? Water, beer, whatever. I think we even have some mango juice that Nail bought last week when he was feeling adventurous.”

 

“Water would be great.”

 

While Alex fetched two glasses of water, Brendan made himself comfortable. He had settled firmly into the dent in the corner of the couch, feet curled on top of the cushion. Alex claimed the seat next to him and passed him one of the glasses.

 

The television emitted some faint noise, and Alex flicked his gaze towards it. Several people in aprons had gathered around the table, and all were speaking with distinctly British accents.

 

“What is this?” wondered Brendan.

 

“The Great British Bakeoff,” said Alex. When Brendan’s face remained blankly confused, he clarified, “It’s a cooking show. People, I don’t know, compete or something. Nail watches it all the time.”

 

“Hmm,” said Brendan. He drained his water swiftly and set the glass down on the table. He fingered the edge of Alex’s sweatpants, running his thumb up and down the outer edge of his thigh. “Junior sweatpants?”

 

His blood chilled. “Yeah. Still fit, if you can believe it.”

 

Brendan stroked his leg and leaned his head against his shoulder. “I wonder, would we have still met? You know, if you made it. Would it have been the same?”

 

“Something we’ll never know I guess,” said Alex, his voice tight.

 

“Sorry,” said Brendan. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose hockey.”

 

“It’s not like I don’t play,” he said. “It’s just…different from how I imagined when I was a kid. From when I was sixteen.” He turned to face Brendan. “Did I ever tell you why I had to stop?” he asked impulsively.

 

Brendan shook his head, eyes wide.

 

“It was a blood clot. Probably started elsewhere but ended up in my lung, got so bad I could barely breathe and had to go into the Emergency Room, spend some time in the hospital. Then I was on blood thinners, couldn’t play. The moment I was off them, though, I tried again. I started practicing and it felt so wonderful.” He sighed. “And then the clot came back. Worse than before. All the doctors I saw concluded that I couldn’t play in juniors anymore, not when the stress of it was probably responsible.” He swallowed hard. “So I stopped.”

 

Brendan didn’t say anything. Instead, he leaned up and kissed him, slowly, carefully, like handling broken glass, like Alex might shatter even further if he pushed. But he didn’t want to be treated like something fragile. He’d needed to be strong, and he needed Brendan to know he was strong too. So he responded by pinning Brendan flat against the couch, lying on top of him with his knee between his legs and hands snaking beneath his shirt, tracing the contours of his chest. When they broke apart, Brendan’s eyes fluttered open and he smiled hazily. “How much do you want to watch this show?”

 

“Like I said, it’s only really Nail who cares.”

 

“Good,” said Brendan. His eyes flickered off to the side, to the door to the apartment. “What do you say we move to your room? There are some things I don’t think anyone else should see.”

 

Alex nodded. “Follow me.”

 

He dragged Brendan from the couch by the hand, and the two of them stumbled towards Alex’s room. He kicked the door shut and pulled Brendan to him, hands traversing his shoulders, his chest, his ass. When Brendan tugged at his shirt, he removed it for him and watched appreciatively as Brendan did the same. Brendan looked at Alex with naked desire.

 

“You’re nearly as ripped as some of the guys on the team,” he said in awe.

 

“And you’re not so bad for a midget,” Alex replied.

 

“Don’t make me change my mind about this,” warned Brendan. “I’m already borderline.”

 

Alex growled and shoved Brendan onto the bed. “Got anything better to do with your mouth?”

 

Brendan’s eyes widened. “I can probably think of something.” He seemed hesitant. “You sure this time? You want this?”

 

“Yes,” said Alex, because all he could think about was the raw, naked need pulsing throughout his entire body. “Now show me what you got.”

 

 

 

As with everything else in his life, Brendan overcame his shorter stature with a passion that surprised even Alex. Not that he was complaining. When Brendan collapsed against Alex’s sheets, hair tousled invitingly and body shimmering with sweat, Alex pressed his body against Brendan’s and allowed himself to sink into the mattress, into Brendan’s warm body.

 

“I didn’t take you for a cuddler,” murmured Brendan into Alex’s ear.

 

“Shut up,” said Alex.

 

Brendan hummed in contentment and tangled his hand in Alex’s hair. “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”

 

In the clutches of Brendan’s arms, Alex drifted off slowly, his heart beating in sync with the man next to him, his breath just skimming his partner’s skin. And for the first time in what must have been years, he allowed himself to let go of the past and exist entirely in the moment around him. For once, he was content.

 

 

Alex awoke the next morning to rapidly cooling sheets and a frantic rustling off to the side. He blinked hazily and watched with detached amusement as Brendan scurried throughout the room, gathering his clothes and shoving them on himself with little care for his appearance.

 

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

 

“Practice,” said Brendan. “I completely forgot we had to be there this morning, and your place is farther away from the rink than mine.”

 

“Hmm,” said Alex, melting back into the bed.

 

“What’s your schedule like in the evening?” Brendan asked.

 

Alex frowned. “This evening? Well, I’ve got a game. It’s just a rec league thing, nothing special, nothing like what you do.”

 

“Would you mind if I came?”

 

Alex’s frown deepened. “You want to come?”

 

“Yeah, I want to see you play. Maybe I could meet some of your friends too.”

 

Alex rolled over so he was resting on his side. “I guess you can come.” His frown deepened. “Not sure why you’d want to.”

 

Brendan tugged on his overcoat and planted a kiss on Alex’s lips. “Text me the details, okay? I’ll be there.”

 

And with that he was gone, and a chill overtook the room. Alex buried himself further into the comforter to ward off the cold air, but his cozy, small room never felt emptier or more cavernous. The hollow feeling extended to his heart as he realized it likely wouldn’t be long until Brendan decided to move on. He’d already convinced the media of their relationship. A break-up wouldn’t be infeasible. And Brendan would want to move on, inevitably, to someone with more to offer than him.

 

 

 

Ben alerted him to the presence of a special visitor at the end of the first period.

 

“You didn’t say Brendan Gallagher was going to be here,” he hissed as they piled onto the bench to rehydrate.

 

“It was kind of last minute,” said Alex. He glanced up to see Brendan chatting amicably with Jenny, Jake’s girlfriend, who was one of a dozen people congregated on the outside of the rink. He projected his usual amicable, aggressively cheerful demeanor, and Jenny laughed loudly at something he said.

 

“If I’d known there was going to be an actual hockey player watching, I might not have eaten those extra-large chili fries for lunch,” complained Derek.

 

“You shouldn’t have eaten those anyway,” said Alicia. “If you want to snag yourself a Gallagher of your own, you should probably work on getting Chucky’s body.”

 

Alex flushed a deep crimson. “That’s not…that’s not…can we not discuss this?”

 

“What, it’s a compliment,” said Alicia.

 

The opposing team, les canards, muttered loudly amongst themselves, and several members of their team shot uncertain glances towards Brendan’s figure on the side. Alex wanted nothing more than to melt into the earth.

 

“Hey, you doing alright?” asked Jake.

 

Alex looked away from Brendan. “Just ready to get back on the ice.”

 

“Aren’t we all?” said Jake, and he grinned.

 

Alex spent the rest of the game with adrenaline pumping hard through his veins. He flew down the ice, puck light on his stick and his opponents slow as sandbags as he weaved throughout them to find the net. While the league they played in was one of the more skilled ones in the area, occasionally Alex liked to remind them that he had been good. He’d been great. Today, he felt like the ice should have been melting beneath him as he burned bright throughout the game.

 

“Damn, you killed it today,” exclaimed Derek as the buzzer rang out, announcing the end of the game. They had won 6-1, with three of the goals coming from his own stick.

 

“Just having fun,” shrugged Alex.

 

“Don’t be modest, Chuck,” said Marc. “Hell, even Gallagher looks impressed.”

 

Brendan and Jenny had traversed the edge of the rink to the bench. Jenny found Jake and greeted him warmly, while Brendan skipped up, practically vibrating with energy and excitement.

 

“You were so good!” he said. “I knew you were, but it’s so different to see in person, you know? That goalie was just helpless.” He placed a quick kiss on Alex’s mouth.

 

Several people stared openly at the two of them. Alex cleared his throat pointedly. “Well, it’s good to know it doesn’t take that much to impress you.”

 

“Oh, it does,” said Brendan. “You just met my very high standards, that’s all.”

 

He kissed him again, and Alex melted into kiss despite his best efforts to control his reactions. He couldn’t afford to commit himself so publically in front of his friends—the media, the general public could believe what they wanted, that was the point of this relationship in the first place—but his friends and the people who mattered to him personally were a different story. And yet, when that tingling returned to his body, he couldn’t help but sigh into the kiss.

 

Now someone else cleared their throat, and Brendan and Alex separated quickly.

 

“I know that you’re probably still the honeymoon phase and that you’re two dudes, but rules against excessive PDA still apply,” said Ben with a mixture of disgust and what sounded like surprise. “I don’t want to see Jake and Jenny going at it here either. Or Alicia and whoever her man of the week is.”

 

“Hey,” protested Alicia.

 

“I think it’s cute,” chimed in Marie. “It’s nice to see that Chucky here has a soul.”

 

“Chucky?” repeated Brendan in confusion.

 

Alex rolled his eyes. “It’s stupid. When I played in juniors everyone called me Gally, but there was already a guy with that nickname on the team. Even after he left, nobody felt like changing.”

 

“I like it,” said Brendan.

 

“Of course you do.”

 

“Ooh, a lover’s tiff,” said Derek in a sing-song voice.

 

“We’re done here,” declared Alex, surveying everyone firmly. “And unless you all want to get beers still covered in sweat, I suggest we hit the showers soon.”

 

Within the hour, Alex, Brendan and roughly half the team were ensconced in a large booth in the back of one of the nearest bars. With Jenny as the designated driver, Jake made quick work of his first two beers and was pacing himself through his third even as Alex finished his first. When he drained the last dregs from the bottle, Brendan offered to buy him another.

 

“Can’t have the hat trick guy spending money tonight, eh?” he said.

 

Alex grumbled his usual, but he’d learned by now to accept that Brendan would never fully understand the concept of reciprocity when it came to spending money. Besides, he had earned his hat trick if nothing else.

 

Once Brendan disappeared, all eyes swiveled to stare at him intently.

 

“What?” he said. “Why are you all looking at me like that?”

 

“Because Alex Galchenyuk, noted cynic and cantankerous grizzly bear, actually has a boyfriend,” said Derek finally.

 

“You’ve known about him for weeks,” said Alex, glowering at them all. “I didn’t really have a choice in that matter, remember?”

 

“Yeah, but there’s a difference between reading about it in the sports or entertainment section of the newspaper and actually seeing it in person. You never tried to pick up at the bars we’ve been to together, so none of us had ever seen you express an iota of interest in someone before,” Ben said with a hint of exaggeration.

 

“Almost none of us knew you were gay. I kept trying to set you up with my female coworkers,” said Marie.

 

“I didn’t want to be set up. I didn’t want any of this,” he said, gesturing vaguely to space around him.

 

“At least it’s working out for you now, yeah?” said Jake. “I know you didn’t ask to be outed like that, but you and Brendan seem solid.”

 

“I was talking to him during the game,” added Jenny. “He seems like a genuinely good guy.”

 

This was why he hadn’t wanted Brendan to meet his friends. Because the moment they met him, they would invest themselves in the relationship and in Brendan himself. They would expect things, things Alex wouldn’t be able to provide.

 

“Is everything okay?” asked Jake. “Is something wrong?” He peered at him intently.

 

Alex slapped his beer bottle on the table loudly. “I just…I don’t want you guys to get too excited. It’s not like anything’s going to come of it.”

 

The table fell silent. Jenny and Jake exchanged meaningful glances, while Marie and Alicia appeared to be having a wordless discussion with their eyebrows alone.

 

“Are you two fighting?” asked Marie slowly. Alicia nudged her firmly. “You seemed happy at the rink.”

 

“It’s not that,” sighed Alex. “It’s—you have it all wrong. This is all for convenience’s sake, everything.”

 

“I don’t understand.” Alicia sounded lost.

 

“Look, we only started dating because it was easier to spin a committed relationship than a casual hookup. Brendan gets caught kissing a guy, some people are going to mad either way but it’s easier for people to understand if we’re actually together. It makes the whole gay thing less difficult to swallow.”

 

“But you’ve been spotted together everywhere,” said Ben. “You two were holding hands down the street?”

 

“We haven’t been faking it,” explained Alex. “But once the dust settles and it doesn’t matter whether or not he’s dating someone, that’ll probably be the end. It’s not like he’s going to want to stay with me any longer than he has to.”

 

Glass shattered behind him. The whole bar turned to stare at the white-faced, tight-lipped figure of Brendan Gallagher who jerked almost robotically as he clenched his hands around the empty air previously occupied by beer bottles. Those bottles now decorated the floor in pieces. He sucked in breath quickly and his Adam’s apple bobbed angrily.

 

“Shit,” murmured Jenny.

 

“Brendan,” said Alex, standing up from the edge of the booth.

 

“Is that what you think?” Brendan’s voice was soft, timid. Compared to his usual sunshiny, larger than life affect, he now seemed remarkably small. “It’s convenient for you?”

 

“It was convenient for you,” clarified Alex. “That’s what you said the first day. It was convenient for you.”

 

“And then I said that I wasn’t a pity date,” replied Brendan, his voice rising. “I wasn’t looking for that.”

 

“Convenience isn’t pity.”

 

“It sure as hell isn’t a real relationship either!” Brendan was yelling now. “How is that supposed to make me feel, huh?” He screwed his eyes shut and breathed in deeply several times. “Fuck you, Alex. Fuck you.”

 

He spun on his heels and marched out of the bar, sparks flying at his heels.

 

Alex glanced helplessly at his friends. Both Jake and Jenny were stone-faced, while the others appeared to be in shock. Only Ben spoke. “You should probably follow him” he said quietly.

 

Alex sprinted out of the bar, chasing after fading footsteps. Outside, a spring breeze, still carrying the cold taint of winter, stung his bare arms, but he ignored the chill. “Brendan!” he shouted, following the retreating figure. “Brendan, wait!”

 

He caught up with Brendan at last and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. Brendan froze upon contact.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“What do I want?” asked Alex incredulously. “What I want to know is what I got wrong! What did I miss?”

 

“What did you miss?” Brendan’s voice rose an octave in pitch as he turned to face him. “What did you miss? What you missed is that I was dating you because I liked you! And I thought…I thought you liked me too, because generally when you’re going to movies with someone and kissing them and eating at their favorite greasy diners you assume the feeling’s mutual.” He clutched his arms tight to his chest. “I know you were skeptical at first, but last night? Last night when we slept together? Was that nothing to you? What did you think I was doing?”

 

“I thought you just wanted to hook up,” said Alex. “You know, if you had to be dating me, might as well get something out of it. After a long road trip, and all.”

 

“You think I would do that?” Brendan seemed pained. “You think I would use you like that?

 

He wasn’t sure what to say. A cool gust of air whipped past them, and he shivered. Brendan’s face closed, reverting to an emotionless mask which somehow cut even deeper than his anger and confusion.

 

“You know what? We’re done. You’ve got your wish. Feel free to move on with your life.” He stalked over to his car and slammed the door shut. The exhaust smoke floated in the air, hovering inches above the pavement. And then it disappeared.

 

 

Brendan, can we talk?

 

I’m sorry, please.

 

I know you’re getting these.

 

I know I fucked up. I just want to talk.

 

Brendan, just respond, please.

 

Is there anything I can say to convince you to respond?

 

 

 

“You’re going to have to talk about it.”

 

“No, I’m not.”

 

“Yes, you are.”

 

Alex glared at Nail across the shopping cart and threw in his box of ramen with considerable force.

 

“What more is there to say? I’ve texted him three dozen times in the past two weeks. Nothing. I tried calling and he never picked up.”

 

“Did you leave a message?” asked Nail.

 

“I’m not—he’d probably just delete it. Like he said, it’s done. It’s over. I can move on.”

 

Nail placed three boxes of frozen waffles in the cart. Alex removed one of them. “We don’t need that many waffles.”

 

“I like them.”

 

“They’re terrible for you.”

 

“Look, I don’t judge you when you come home with your jug of protein powder, do I? The one that weighs like fifteen pounds?”

 

“I buy in bulk!” protested Alex. “That’s the only way I can afford it.”

 

“Let me have my Eggos in peace,” said Nail. “And don’t think I’m letting you change the subject like that. You’re not getting out of this.”

 

“Can we at least wait until we’re home?” Alex glanced furtively around. “This is a private discussion.”

 

“I doubt anyone in the Stop and Shop speaks Russian.”

 

“You don’t know that.”

 

“Fine,” snapped Nail.

 

Secretly, Alex hoped that Nail would forget about the discussion. He allowed him to sneak an extra box of hot pockets into their pile, turning the other way while Nail stealthily positioned the bag of peas just so to cover the package. He even shut his eyes while Nail spent five minutes oscillating between two equally sugar-filled ice cream pops.

 

All of this good will apparently dissipated the moment they stepped back inside the apartment, their arms laden with grocery bags.

 

“So spill, Sasha.”

 

Alex dropped his bags heavily on the counter and breathed in deeply. “For the last time, no.”

 

Nail released his own bags and slid across the kitchen to corner Alex between the kitchen cupboards. “If you were anyone else, I might accept you being an asshole. But I have to live with your sorry ass, and your perpetual sulking is giving me migraines.”

 

“You don’t get migraines.”

 

“Well, I’m starting to. Every time you sigh heavily or glower or get that sad, forlorn expression, it’s like an ice pick to my head.”

 

“Normally when people get dumped, they’re allowed to feel bad for a while.”

 

“Except that you didn’t even want this relationship in the first place!” exclaimed Nail. “You don’t get to be sad about something you didn’t want!”

 

“What do you want me to say? Maybe you’re right, maybe I didn’t want it in the beginning. But now…” He sucked in a quick breath. “I miss him. More than I ever expected I would. But you or Niki say something dumb, and I want to text him. Or I see someone with his jersey and I want to tell him.” He looked up into Nail’s piercing eyes. “Is that what you want to hear?”

 

Pity filled Nail’s expression, and Alex turned away. Nail wrapped him tightly in a hug. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell him? If you wanted to be with him, why didn’t you tell him?”

 

“I don’t know. I thought he didn’t actually want me.” Alex swallowed the bitter lump lodged in his throat. He extricated himself from Nail’s arms. “When have I ever known anything?”

 

“I think you’ve always known,” said Nail softly. “I think you just didn’t want to admit it. Didn’t want to admit that you might actually be happy if you allowed yourself to be.”

 

“Fuck you,” said Alex. “Fuck you, Nail. You don’t know shit about me.”

 

Nail made no move to fight, made no counter attack, even in the face of the most blatant of lies. Instead, for the first time in their long friendship, he sighed the sigh of the defeated and backed away. He resumed unpacking the groceries in silence, placing the items one by one on the counter methodically. Alex huffed in frustration.

 

“I’m going for a walk,” he said.

 

Nail didn’t turn around, even when he slammed the door.

 

 

 

He made it ten blocks before he reached a park. The air still held enough chill that most people preferred to remain inside, insulating themselves from the frigid air. Several more adventurous teenagers tossed around a Frisbee, the bravest of them all wearing only shorts. The dirt squished weakly beneath his feet, last night’s rain still wetting the soil. He ground his foot into the ground, carving out a little pocket in the earth. The rich smell of wet clay assaulted his nose.

 

Petrichor. Unbidden a memory played before his mind—a boy, mud painting his lower legs and lower arms as he grumbled. And Alex was laughing, body-shaking, rib-cracking laughter.

 

“You’re a terrible friend,” said the boy, dragging himself to his feet.

 

“Oh yeah? Maybe you shouldn’t trip over the air next time. What, was the grass trying to hook you?”

 

“Ha ha, hilarious,” said the boy flatly. He wiped his hands on his shorts, painting large swathes of brown across the black fabric. “Hey, at least I smell nice.”

 

Alex wrinkled his nose. “Why would you smell nice? You just took a swim in a mud puddle.”

 

“Petrichor,” said the boy.

 

“Bless you,” said Alex.

 

The boy rolled his eyes. “You know, if you ever paid more than five seconds of attention in English, you would know that petrichor is the scent of dirt after rain.”

 

“Why would I pay attention in English class?” said Alex. “It’s not like I’m going to need it.”

 

“You never know,” said the boy. “Besides, you definitely still confuse English and Italian sometimes. I’m never sure if you’re trying to say hello or telling me the name of some fancy spaghetti.”

 

“Hey, I speak three languages, lay off me,” grumbled Alex.

 

The boy sidled close to him. “I was hoping to lay on you, actually,” he said, eyes lidded and breath hot against Alex’s cheek. And then the boy kissed him, hastily, sloppily, with no technique. It was wonderful. It was dangerous.

 

“Davey!” hissed Alex, jerking away sharply. “Not in public!”

 

Isaac Davids recoiled. “Right, sorry, I forgot. We only make out in closets where it’s so dark I can’t tell if I’m feeling up you or a broomstick.”

 

“Well, that’s your own damn fault as far as I can tell,” he joked

 

Isaac didn’t smile. He met Alex’s gaze with serious steely blue eyes, and for once, he didn’t blush or retreat beneath his bangs. “Would it be so bad? If people saw?”

 

Now Alex was incredulous. “Would it be bad? Of course it would! You think I can play hockey and hook up with guys? No one does that.”

 

“You’re doing that. I’m doing that,” said Isaac.

 

“Yeah, but this isn’t the NHL. I can’t risk anything like this. Nothing is more important.”

 

Isaac flinched. “Is that how you feel?”

 

Alex nodded. “I can’t afford distractions.”

 

A bird chirped loudly overhead, and its solitary tweet echoed loudly around the empty parking lot.  “Is that what I am? A distraction?” said Isaac quietly.

 

“You see why we can’t risk being caught. You know what’s at stake. If I lost hockey…” he gulped.

 

Isaac grabbed his wrist, and something within Alex’s chest tightened. “What happens after hockey?” said Isaac.

 

“That won’t be for a long time,” said Alex.

 

In a parallel universe, maybe, Isaac kissed him again. Maybe, Alex kissed back and held him closely while the muddy gravel beneath their feet crunched and shifted. In his dreams, Alex never left the ice a week later clutching his chest in agony as he fought for each precious gulp of air. In this dream, he never found Brendan.

 

Or perhaps he did.

 

Are you free to talk? he texted.

 

Ring. Ring. Ring—

 

“Gally?” echoed Isaac’s voice across the line. “Is everything okay?”

 

“Davey,” he said, his voice surprisingly hoarse. “I’m sorry, if this is a bad time.”

 

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Isaac. He paused. “Alex, what’s wrong?”

 

Alex breathed deeply once, twice, three times. Then, “Davey, why did you ever stay with me?” When his question was met with silence, he continued, “I was so terrible to you. The things I used to say, the way I treated you…”

 

“You were dealing with a lot of shit,” said Isaac firmly, although his voice wavered minutely. “I got that. Not every boy is ready to accept their sexuality at sixteen or seventeen.”

 

“But why did you stay with me?” pressed Alex. “Why me?”

 

He heard a quick intake of breath across the phone. “Alex, why are you asking me this? If you have a good reason, so be it, but if not, then I don’t need to relive something which happened nearly a decade ago.”

 

And Alex understood, more than ever, that he had broken Isaac’s heart. He understood the pain now, the deep fervent ache of a crevice in his heart which only widened with each passing day. It was too late to fix what he had done then, but now…

 

“I fucked up,” he said. “Like before. I misread everything. I thought I couldn’t have what I wanted, and I fucked it all up.”

 

“You and Brendan?” surmised Isaac.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“But you want him back now?” Isaac’s voice sounded impossibly young, impossibly surprised. “And you don’t know what to do.”

 

“I shouldn’t have called you,” said Alex. “This was stupid. I’m so sorry—

 

“No, no, it’s fine.” Alex could hear the crooked grin creaking up Isaac’s soft face. “I did ask you to call me, didn’t I?”

 

“I can talk to someone else.”

 

“You don’t have to,” said Isaac. “Besides, who better than me to explain why someone would ever fall in love with Alex Galchenyuk?” A rustling emerged from the phone, echoing in his ear as Isaac repositioned himself. “You want to know why I stayed? I stayed because I always knew you had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. Anyone you decided to love, you’d never leave their side. I saw it, glimpses here and there, when you allowed yourself to relax. And once I saw, I just kept hoping that maybe, just maybe, you’d latch onto me too.” He laughed sadly. “It didn’t hurt that you were pretty hot.”

 

“Davey—

 

“You don’t need to say anything.”

 

“Davey—

 

“Really, I mean it.”

 

“Davey, I’m sorry,” said Alex finally. “I’m sorry I wasn’t better to you. And I’m sorry for not loving you.” A lump lodged in his throat. “You were always too good for me.”

 

“Maybe,” said Isaac. “Maybe not. It’s all in the past now.”

 

“You didn’t have to help me,” said Alex. “But thank you.”

 

“I hope you can fix everything with Brendan,” said Isaac. “You know, I only ever wanted you to be happy. For a while it was hockey which worked, but if you’ve found something else, I know you’ll fight.”

 

“I will,” said Alex. “It’s all I know how to do.”

 

Isaac hung up, and Alex was alone again. Except now, he knew what to do.

 

Already walking quickly back, he pulled out his phone and called the most recent number. It was the only one he’d called for several days now. When, predictably, the call went to voicemail, he sighed heavily. This time, though, he did not hang up.

 

“Brendan, hey it’s me. Alex. I’ve called you before, but you’re not picking up and you’re responding to my text messages, but I just…I needed to tell you something. I need to tell you something.” Alex inhaled deeply, exhaled, and continued. “For better or worse, I’ve always been resistant to change. Losing hockey, that was a change. Meeting Nail, moving to Montreal, those were all changes. The one solid thing has always been my control and my discipline. It’s the one thing I’ve never doubted.

 

“You were unexpected. I mean, literally, you crashed into me and nothing’s been the same, except everything has. It’s like everything that’s always been there has clicked into place, except now you’re not there any longer. I only said all those things because I thought you were too good to be true, that there had to be some sort of catch for someone to really want me the way you did. So I told myself I couldn’t love you. But…but someone told me that if I decide to love, that I never let go. And I think he’s right. I think he’s right. So please, please, give me a chance. Just give me one last opportunity.”

 

He paused. “I just want to be happy, and I want you to be happy too. So I’m not giving up. I’m coming over and doing this my way.”

 

He had reached his car, somehow, his feet moving rapidly of their own accord and entirely disconnected. He fumbled for his keys and slid them into the ignition with his hand still trembling. His nerves burned along his arms and butterflies flapped ferociously inside his stomach. But he had a mission now.

 

He drove on autopilot, travelling the familiar route to Brendan’s apartment. He stopped at a red light and took several deep breaths, trying to cool his head and halt the shaking in his legs. Just as the light turned green, his phone began to ring.

 

Brendan.

 

He reached for his phone as he pressed on the gas and—

 

Slam.

 

Something rammed into the side of the car, sending it spinning madly around the intersection. The world twisted and turned as the car spun until suddenly it stopped and he could see again.

 

Except now he couldn’t breathe.

 

Each attempt at a breath felt like inhaling fire, felt like someone was pressing a large truck against his side. He tried to look down, but somewhere along the way he must have slammed his head against a hard object because the act of moving his neck sent little shards of pain into his head and spine. His entire left side was a mass of incoherent agony, and against the pain, against the cloud of fog drifting through his head as he tried to focus on any one thing for longer than two seconds, all he could think was, not again, not again. Because the last time he’d experienced pain that intense, he’d lost both hockey and his dreams for the future.

 

Someone was yelling at him now, a stranger. The last time he’d been in a car crash, he’d met Brendan. Now, even if it were Brendan standing there, calling his name, the energy to respond would be beyond him.

 

Ring.

 

If only he could reach…

 

Ring.

 

Brendan was calling him, calling him back, and the cruel irony of situation struck him as oddly hilarious. The first time he actually needed him, he couldn’t even reach the phone.

 

Ring.

 

The voices yelling were more distant now, like a faint echo from room two rooms away, or two blocks away, or eight years and a lifetime away…

 

“Brendan,” he gasped, and then he blacked out.

 

 

 

 

 

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

 

Had Nail left his alarm on again? Alex would murder him slowly if his carelessness cost him an extra hour of sleep, particularly when his body felt so heavy and exhausted. In fact, now that awareness had begun encroaching slowly, he was startled to find that his head ached ferociously and that a slight twinge in his chest accompanied every breath. If he was hungover, these were new and unfamiliar symptoms.

 

He reached out for his own phone, hazily blinking his eyes open, and then jerked when the movement ignited previously dormant pain. He gasped, clutching at his chest, holding onto his side and shoulder with his right hand. His left arm refused to move, and he began to breathe heavily, trying to move his arm.

 

“Sasha, Sasha, it’s fine, it’s fine. I’m here.”

 

Nail. He opened his mouth to speak, to ask him what the hell was wrong and why was his alarm still sounding, but his mouth was a desert, his tongue a piece of sandpaper. The world focused slowly around him as he blinked rapidly, struggling to see. Around Nail’s face was a white halo of light. Had he died?

 

“Hey, Sasha, you’re okay. You’re okay. Just relax. You’re in the hospital. Relax.”

 

Hospital. He widened his eyes in alarm, trying to convey his confusion and his need for water by gesturing toward his throat. Nail produced a cup of water and held it up to his mouth, and he drank greedily, gasping in relief as the cool water slid down his parched throat.

 

“What…happened?” he forced out, still struggling to remember anything from the past day. He knew he was in the hospital, but beyond that, his mind drew a blank.

 

The worry lines around Nail’s eyes deepened. “You were in a car accident. Someone t-boned you at the intersection, hit you on the driver’s side.”

 

“Am I…okay?”

 

Nail laughed weakly. “Not really, buddy. But you will be, they say. I mean, they had to do surgery on your shoulder and collarbone and said it could take a few months, but you’re not paralyzed or anything.” He frowned. “Another concussion, though. Not a great idea.”

 

“Didn’t…ask for this,” said Alex, breathing heavily. He wiggled his nostrils as something tickled them, and he followed the sensation down to the sight of a tube, one of those cannula things which provided oxygen. Overall, he concluded he must have been in absolutely terrible shape.

 

“No, no, I know you didn’t. God, I know you didn’t.” Nail placed his hand on Alex’s arm. “Niki had to take an exam today, but he’ll be by as soon as possible. Anna’s on the next flight back from Florida, and your parents are trying to book tickets back from Belarus, but it might take a little longer. Hell of a time for this to happen you know. Pick the one time when it’s only me, and I’ve been calling a dozen different people a minute keeping them informed—not good for my phone bill by the way—and--”

 

“Nail, what aren’t you telling me?” rasped Alex. Nail only rambled like that when he was desperately avoiding a topic. “Nail, please.”

 

Nail shifted uncomfortably in his hospital chair. “Brendan’s here. I mean, he’s outside, but he hasn’t left the hospital since you got here, pretty much.” He cleared his throat. “He wants to see you. I didn’t know if you wanted to see him.”

 

Brendan…

 

Alex had wanted to see him, had wanted to talk to him so badly before, because now he remembered, now he remembered that desperate phone message, the even more desperate drive…

 

But he could barely move, and someone had shoved cotton and wool into his brain. He wanted, more than anything else at that moment, to see Brendan and to feel the warmth of his hand and his smile. He wanted to see Brendan happy, and he wasn’t sure what he would see if he allowed him into the room.

 

“I can tell him you’re not ready,” said Nail. “Or that you fell asleep again.”

 

“I want to see him,” said Alex suddenly. I need to see him.

 

Nail nodded slowly and squeezed Alex’s arm firmly. He disappeared from Alex’s line of vision, shoes clacking against the floor. Then new footsteps entered the room, and then he saw him.

 

“Alex,” breathed Brendan, eyes wide. “Oh, Alex.”

 

And then Brendan was kissing him. It was easily the most awkward kiss he’d ever experienced; Brendan was bent over in order to meet Alex, and the tube beneath his nose bumped against their faces. Brendan’s hand, which had cupped his face, inadvertently landed on a bruised portion of his cheekbone and it stung fiercely. But Alex didn’t care. A small gasp escaped his lips when Brendan pulled away, and Brendan recoiled in horror.

 

“Oh God, I’m so sorry, I was hurting you. I can’t believe…I shouldn’t have…”

 

“Brendan,” said Alex with as much strength and intensity as he could muster. “You’re here.”

 

“Of course I’m here,” said Brendan. “Of course.”

 

“I thought you didn’t want to see me.”

 

“I always wanted to see you, I was just…” Brendan sighed, and he gazed off into the distance, gray eyes focused on something only his mind could see. “I was angry. But then I got your message, and you said you were coming. And then you didn’t, and I was angry again.” He turned to Alex. “When Nail called me...” He glanced at the door. “I told Coach I wasn’t coming into practice until I’d seen you.”

 

“I wanted to tell you,” said Alex, breathing in deeply through his nose and lifting his hand to rest on his side. “I wanted to tell you that I was wrong. That I was stupid clueless and I didn’t know how to—“

 

He halted, overcome with emotion and unsure if he could continue.

 

Fortunately, Brendan finished for him. “I know. I heard your message. I know you know. You don’t need to say it now.”

 

“I do,” said Alex. “I do need to say it.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Brendan, I do want to date you, and not because it’s easier for you or me, because it’s not. It’s not easy for me. Except that it is, because the prospect of not talking to you every day and touching you and watching dumb movies together is the hardest thing I can imagine.” He looked away. “I was stupid to think otherwise.”

 

Brendan just kissed him, long and slow until Alex’s heart monitor accelerated embarrassingly and he couldn’t fully attribute his shortness of breath to the pain in his chest. Brendan’s lips lingered, ghosting over the corner of his mouth, and then his forehead. He sighed and relaxed as Brendan’s hand slipped easily into his own.

 

“I was so worried,” murmured Brendan. “Nail didn’t want to tell me anything, but I convinced him otherwise.”

 

Alex smiled faintly. “So persistent.”

 

“I mean, another car accident? Karma must despise you.”

 

“The first one wasn’t so bad,” said Alex. “Not if I met you.”

 

Brendan melted beneath Alex’s words, and he squeezed Alex’s hand with alarming force. “Good thing the Volkswagen has an excellent safety rating.”

 

“What do you mean?” Alex frowned.

 

“Well, your old car is completely trashed, so you need to get a new one. Fortunately,” he said, his eyes alight with mirth, “you already have one.”

 

If Alex had possessed the strength, he would have tackled Brendan Gallagher right there. As it was, he settled for sulking and glaring purposefully at the edge of the bed. Another kiss from Brendan, though, and he couldn’t keep the smile from his face.

 

“Sasha!” yelled a familiar voice. “Are you awake, or is Brendan molesting your unconscious body?”

 

Nikita Scherback hovered at the edge of Alex’s room, arms crossed, shoulders tensed.

 

Alex just rolled his eyes. “Don’t be stupid,” he said.

 

Nikita approached the bed, warily eyeing Brendan all the while. “How are you feeling?” he asked in Russian.

 

“I’ve been better.”

 

“But you two are good? You want him here?”

 

Alex glanced at Brendan and squeezed his hand gently. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

 

“Good,” said Nikita.

 

“Yeah. Good.”

 

 

The day the hospital released Alex, the Canadiens were playing in game six of their first round series against the Caps. His sister and Nail observed with patience and concern as he slowly plodded out the doors, still riding the high of prescription painkillers. He settled stiffly into the car, one arm bound in a sling and the other pressed against his side. Nail drove slowly while Anna sat in the back and squeezed his leg whenever they hit a pothole and a bolt of pain slid up through his body.

 

When they arrived at the apartment, he collapsed onto the couch and tipped his head back against the cushions. He closed his eyes for just a moment, and when he reopened them, Anna was holding a glass of water just in front of his face. He accepted it and drank deeply, savoring both the cool liquid and the familiar sensation of the couch beneath him. He passed her the glass and yawned widely.

 

“Do you want to nap?” she asked.

 

“I’ve been sleeping too much as it is,” he said.

 

“How about a movie then?” she suggested.

 

They chose to watch Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie they both loved, and afterwards, they moved on to The Departed, one of his favorite action movies. A sleepy, leaden sensation creeped through his limbs not twenty minutes into the second movie, and while he valiantly fought off sleep, his eyes fluttered once, twice and then they were shut.

 

When he awoke, someone had turned off all but of the lights in the living room and no sun filtered through the windows, living the space illuminated only by a small lamp. He was fairly certain he hadn’t been stretched out on the couch and covered by a blanket when he dozed off, but someone had taken the care to provide a pillow for his head and arm and had shifted him so that he could be more comfortable.

 

Something clattered softly in the kitchen.

 

“Nail?” he called out, his voice hoarse. “Anna?”

 

Brendan emerged from the kitchen, his face heavily shadowed. “You’re awake,” he said softly.

 

Alex furrowed his brow. “When did you get here?”

 

Brendan pulled out his phone, glanced at the time. “It’s about 11:30 now, so about half an hour, I suppose. I came here right after the game.”

 

“Don’t you have to play tomorrow? Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

 

Brendan padded his way lightly over towards Alex and carefully lowered himself onto the edge of the couch. He stroke Alex’s cheek gently, fingers ghosting across the bruise which bloomed high on his cheekbone. “And miss the chance to see you? I don’t think so.”

 

Alex blushed faintly, and he desperately hoped the shadows obscured the redness of his cheeks. “I’m not much fun to be around right now,” he said. “I was trying to watch a movie, and I just fell asleep.”

 

“Anna told me,” said Brendan, humming contentedly as he tangled his fingers in Alex’s hair. “I told her I’m used to carrying most of the conversation.”

 

Alex mustered a glare, but even then, the energy required for anger or annoyance was simply too much to maintain. He yawned widely.

 

“You should move to the bed,” said Brendan.

 

Alex nodded in agreement, then paused as he realized moving to the bed would involve, well, moving. Brendan sensed his hesitation and frowned.

 

“You need a hand?”

 

Alex evaluated the energy cost of unassisted movement versus the cost to his pride in accepting help. When his side throbbed viciously, he grunted and reached out his good hand. “Please,” he said.

 

Brendan lifted him gently to his feet and steadied him when he nearly doubled over as his vision swam alarmingly. “Easy does it,” he murmured to Alex. “The bed’s not far.”

 

While in theory the bed lay a scant thirty steps from the couch, Alex’s shuffling gait significantly increased both the number of steps and the time required to take each step. Brendan accompanied him patiently, hand at his elbow as they marched slowly towards Alex’s bedroom. By the time they arrived, Alex was panting slightly.

 

“Did you take your meds yet?” asked Brendan, concern tinging his voice.

 

Alex flicked through his memory and grimaced. “I think I was supposed to,” he said. “But I forgot.”

 

Brendan nodded grimly. “Where are they? Bathroom?”

 

“Yeah, I think so,” said Alex.

 

Brendan vanished and Alex collapsed slowly against his pillows. Brendan’s presence struck him as odd in more than one way, though his fuzzy mind struggled to place a finger on the problem. He recalled someone on the television mentioning something about the Habs earlier, though he couldn’t remember the exact words.

 

“Here, I brought some water too,” said Brendan as he reentered the room. He slid onto the opposite side of the bed and held out a glass of water and three white pills. Alex swallowed the pills with a swig of water under Brendan’s watchful eyes and leaned back gratefully against the pillows once he’d finished.

 

“Feeling better?” inquired Brendan.

 

“A little,” murmured Alex, eyes only half open.

 

“About ready to sleep?”

 

“Probably.”

 

“Good,” said Brendan, then paused. “I was kind of hoping maybe I could spend the night here, actually.”

 

Alex’s eyes flew open. “I’m not exactly up for sex right now, if that’s what you’re after.”

 

“No, no,” said Brendan. “I was just thinking, it might be nice to spend the night with you. No funny business. A sort of celebration, if you will.”

 

“Celebration?”

 

“You being released from the hospital.” After a moment, he added, “And we won our game too. So that’s nice.”

 

“Wait, does that mean—

 

“We’re moving on, baby,” said Brendan smugly. “Second round.”

 

Alex tugged down Brendan for a kiss, and he felt Brendan smile broadly against his mouth. “Congratulations,” he whispered. Then a thought struck him. “Shouldn’t you be celebrating with the team?”

 

Brendan shrugged. “I’d rather spend time with you for now. Now if we win the Stanley Cup…”

 

“Then I will be there with you celebrating as well.”

 

Brendan hummed with pleasure. “I assume that means I can stay?”

 

“I guess so,” said Alex with feigned uncertainty. When Brendan hesitated, he clarified. “Of course you can stay.”

 

Brendan released a sigh of relief. “Just give me a minute to brush my teeth. I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

Five minutes later found Alex lying carefully across his own bed while Brendan curled into his side and nuzzled his face into Alex’s good shoulder.

 

“You know,” murmured Brendan sleepily, “we have tomorrow off.”

 

“Yeah? Anything planned?” said Alex.

 

“Being here with you,” said Brendan. “Provided you want me here.”

 

“Are you sure? You don’t have celebration plans or other people to see?”

 

“Nothing as important as this right now,” said Brendan, and he buried his face into the crook of Alex’s neck. “Just spending time with you…”

 

“I know,” said Alex. Then, “Thank you.”

 

Perhaps because of his own exhaustion, or perhaps because of the warmth Brendan exuded, Alex slept comfortably for the first time in days.

 

 

 

 

“Remind me again why you insisted on bringing a casserole?”

 

“Because everyone is supposed to contribute something. It’s a potluck!”

 

“I’m pretty sure our only contribution is going to be food poisoning.”

 

Brendan glared balefully at Alex. “Look, I didn’t see you offering to cook.”

 

Alex shrugged with one shoulder and gestured to the sling on the other side of his body. “You think I can do any of that right now? Are you going to make the man with a broken collarbone do all the heavy lifting?”

 

“Please, like you’re any better with two working arms.”

 

Alex didn’t attempt to counter that argument. “Still, I don’t see why we needed to bother with all of this.”

 

They were standing outside Brendan’s car where it was parked on the edge of a suburban lawn. A heavy casserole dish sat in the trunk of the car, and Alex oscillated his gaze between the dish and the house beyond the lawn. Carey Price’s home. Judging by the cars already lining the driveway and the side of the road, much of the team had already arrived and currently awaited them inside.

 

“It’s tradition, Chuck; everyone and their family brings food. Or,” he corrected, seeing Alex stiffen, “everyone and their, uh, important people. That good?”

 

Alex nodded robotically, and Brendan sighed. He made his way around the car and wrapped his arms around Alex, careful to avoid placing undue pressure on his left shoulder. He stood on tiptoes and pressed a gentle kiss to Alex’s freshly shaven jawline, lingering there a moment. A flood of warmth suffused Alex’s body.

 

“Everyone wants to see you,” murmured Brendan. “And even if they didn’t, I want you to be there. That’s all you need to worry about.” He slipped his hand in Alex’s and kissed him on the mouth. “Just be your usual charming self.”

 

They walked up to the house still holding hands, the casserole tucked beneath Brendan’s free arm. Angela Price opened the door with a broad smile.

 

“It’s so good to see you both,” she said, kissing both of their cheeks. “Come inside. Most people are in the living room.” She took the casserole from Brendan, and the two of them followed her through the house.

 

“Gally!” exclaimed several people as they entered. Brendan relinquished Alex’s hand to greet the team, and Alex hung back by several feet, warily gazing into the crowd. Some people from the team and their wives or girlfriends all swarmed Brendan and he responded warmly, greeting each of them by name and inquiring after their families. He was entirely in his element, and Alex was suddenly acutely aware of his own status as a stranger.

 

“This is supposed to be a celebration,” said a voice from behind. “But you look like your dog just died.”

 

Alex spun around, wincing as the movement aggravate his shoulder. He clutched his arm, hugging himself as he faced the man behind him.

 

“Didn’t mean to startle you,” said Brandon Prust.

 

Alex shook his head. “It’s fine.”

 

“You sure you’re okay? Gally said you were still recovering from that car accident.”

 

Alex stiffened. “I’m doing better.”

 

“Well, clearly, or else you wouldn’t be here,” said Prust. “It’s good to see you, Alex. Wasn’t sure you’d make it today.”

 

“Wasn’t sure you’d want me here,” muttered Alex.

 

Prust frowned. “Why wouldn’t I want you here?”

 

Alex stared at him, waiting for the obvious to sink in. When the gears turned and no epiphany emerged, Alex elaborated. “You threatened me. You’ve always been suspicious of me. I’m fairly certain you blame me for the whole mess of the past few months. You know, reasons.”

 

Prust rubbed the back of his neck. “Sheesh, I guess it does look kind of bad when you put it like that.” Duh, thought Alex, but kept it to himself. “Well, from what Gally’s told me, I wasn’t totally off the mark. Not now, of course, but…there was some confusion. People did get hurt.”

 

“And I feel terrible about that.”

 

“I know, I know. Gally’s explained the whole thing, multiple times. Wouldn’t take no for answer—kid never knows when to quit.” Alex quirked his lips in a half-smile. “And you’re clearly important to him. He was a complete wreck when he got that call from your friend, basically just skipped practice and told coach to shove it on the way out.”

 

“Yeah, well.”

 

“So I figured I’d give you another shot. You seem like a cool guy, and that’s saying a lot knowing Gally’s tastes.”

 

“What are you saying about my tastes?” Brendan joined their conversation by snaking an arm around to rest his hand on the small of Alex’s back. “It better be that they’re incredible.”

 

“You have terrible taste,” said Alex flatly. “In movies, in cars, in beer, and clothes.” He titled his head. “Remind me why I’m here with you again?”

 

Prust threw back his head and laughed heartily, ignoring the steady glare Brendan directed at him. He smirked as he regained control, and punched Alex lightly in the chest, rocking him back. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Gally” he said, still chuckling. “He’s good for you. Good for you ego, at least.”

 

He walked away, cackling to himself. Brendan glowered from beside Alex, and he exuded irritation. Dread and doubt crept into Alex’s mind—what if, in the face of his team and his friends, Brendan decided he’d made a mistake?

 

“You sure you still want me here?” asked Alex, hesitation coloring his voice.

 

Brendan’s expression softened, from irritation to mild exasperation and overwhelming fondness. “Of course I do. I just didn’t realize you and Prusty were going to be ganging up on me already.” He wrapped his arms around Alex’ neck. “Just promise me you’ll remember to be nice from time to time.”

 

Alex bent down and kissed him, biting gently at his lower lip and relaxing into the motion. Brendan’s mouth was warm and inviting, and for a moment, everything—the setting, the ache in his shoulder, the lingering doubts and fears—disappeared. He was happy.

 

“That’s adorable!” exclaimed someone.

 

They broke apart to see a short brunette woman standing before them, her phone out and clearly in position to take a photo. Alex didn’t recognize her, but Brendan obviously did.

 

“Maripier!” he hissed.

 

“What? It’s good to take pictures, remember things. It’s not like I’m going to post this online somewhere.”

 

“Let me see,” said Brendan, and he grabbed her phone. He flipped through the pictures: several depicted them kissing, but one, clearly taken just before contact, showed the two of them gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, Brendan stretched on tiptoes in order to reach as he wrapped his arms around Alex’s neck.

 

Brendan’s expression was pure Brendan; tender and stubborn and completely devoted to Alex.

 

Alex snatched the phone from Brendan’s hand and sent the photo to his own number.

 

“What are you doing?” asked Brendan, observing his actions with trepidation.

 

“Just…wait,” said Alex, taking out his own phone and downloading the picture from his text messages. “You’ll see.”

 

He opened the oft-neglected Instagram app on his phone and uploaded the picture. He typed out his caption beneath: @bgally17 ‘s not so bad from time to time.

 

He hit post, and Brendan watched on skeptically, brows furrowed. “You sure?” he asked.

 

Alex kissed him slowly, lips just brushing his at first. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

 

He hit post. And then, in an act of reckless abandon, he set his Instagram to public.

 

“I’m one hundred percent sure.”

 

 

 

At night, Alex still dreamed of flying across the ice before a screaming crowd. He whooped in celebration as the puck slid through the goal posts and his teammates mobbed him enthusiastically.

 

Then he awoke to Brendan’s arms wrapped around his chest. Brendan smiled sleepily at him, and Alex forgave him for his morning breath and kissed him. Then, carefully, he extricated him from Brendan’s tentacle-like embrace and laughed when Brendan grunted in discontent and groped blindly for his touch.

 

“I’ve got to get ready,” he said, batting away Brendan’s flailing hand. “First day on the new job, remember? Don’t want Tricia to hate me for being late.”

 

“She’d understand,” said Brendan as he rolled across the bed and shivered as the cool blast of the air conditioner skimmed his skin. “Besides, your job is to make me look good. I think you make me look much better right here.”

 

“My job is to make all of you look good,” clarified Alex. “And I can’t do much for the rest of your team from bed.”

 

Brendan made a disgruntled noise, but relented reluctantly. “You sleep well?” he asked muzzily.

 

“Yeah,” said Alex, slipping on his slacks. “Good dream.”

 

“Oh really?” said Brendan.

 

“Don’t worry,” said Alex as he slid across the bed to kiss his boyfriend once more. “This is much better.”

 

And he meant every word.