On Ice

            “Ten seconds left on the clock and he takes the ice.”


            “What?” He wiped the back of his hand and cuff of his sleeve across his face in a graceful motion.


            “Come on, Jamie. Play along. Just like we used to do in college, right? There’s ten seconds left on the clock. Mitski passes the puck. Will he get an assist?”


            Jamie took the pick and skated with it towards the goal. He moved slowly, the heavy pads weighing him down and making certain movements more difficult. Completely unopposed, however, he netted it with ease. Then he turned back to Tom Mitski and smiled. “Thanks.”


            It wasn’t every day that Jamie got to be in a position to score, even when just they were just shooting the shit after practice like this. The coaches and trainers and most of the players had already gone back to the locker room, and there were a few minutes to spare before one of the peewee teams took the ice.


            “Better be getting in, though,” Tom said, skating over to him and patting his helmet.


            Jamie’s face mask, the straps loosened now, rattled as he nodded in agreement. The rattling made his nose tickle, so he wiggled it or, rather, wiggled his face around it. “Yeah, we should.” He reached down and grabbed his waffle glove. “I need to get going and catch lunch before the little ones meet.” He coughed and sniffed a few times, finding it hard to take deep breaths without doing more coughing.


            They headed off the rink, waddling as their thick-bladed skates hit the rubber-padded floor. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with your kids, lately, haven’t you?” Tom asked.


            Jamie nodded. “There’s a big game today against Dom’s team.”


            “That’s your sweetie, right?” Laughing, “Oh boy. That should make for some tension in bed tonight, however it shakes out.”


            Jamie laughed and shook his head. They made their way through the front room, where a few players in street clothes were eating leftover breakfast muffins. “Nah, we have an agreement: what happens on the ice stays on the ice. And the point of the league is to have fun, not worry about who wins.”


            Rolling his eyes, “Yeah right. Tell that to your kids. Remember when we were their age? Every game was live or die.”


            “Still is!” Masterson called out, his voice muffled as he was pulling his jersey off over his head.


            Apart from Masterson, there were only a few guys left in the locker room to overhear the conversation. A few years ago, Jamie would have been terrified to have been overheard by the guys talking about a subject like a gay youth hockey league, or his boyfriend, one of the fellow coaches. It wasn’t as though the hockey culture had become more accepting of gays or gay players… but they were accepting of him, and that was a good first step. Of course, it helped that he was the best goalie the Timber Wolves had had in years and that he had single-handedly saved their asses out there on the ice a few dozen times. When it came down to it, the team stood up for their goalie, no matter what made the goalie stand, so to speak.


            Jamie was glad the place was almost empty now, though, so they wouldn’t hear him. Not because of what he wanted to say, though. Jamie sat down on a bench and started stripping off all his pads and clothes. Strangely, he felt just as cold in the locker room as he’d felt out on the ice. He was tempted to skip lunch altogether to take a soak in one of the hot tubs instead. But he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t get something in his stomach. It would be hours until dinner. Except he wasn’t really hungry at the moment. If anything, he felt kind of…


            ihh-Choo! KShuhhh!


            Kind of sick.


            “You all right?” Tom asked, sounding partly concerned and partly casual.


            Stripped down to nothing but his undies, Jamie rubbed the back of his hand at his nose. “hah”There was another one. Right there but not getting any closer. Like a penalty shooter that just won’t make his move over the line. Annoying as all Hell.hihh” He cupped his hand over his nose and mouth, drawing breath with expectation but unable to exhale.




            He glared in Tom’s direction, not quite making eye contact as his eyes watered and face screwed up. “Hah…” Frustrated, his other hand clenched in a tight fist. He willed it on, and the strength of his will seemed to do it. IHHH-Choo! It tossed him forward, and he threw his hand out to keep himself from banging into the lockers.


            Tom tried yet again. “Hey, man, you all right?”


            Damnit yes!” Jamie snapped back. He flinched as he saw Tom move towards him, and swore to himself for reacting like that. He hated to be touched in the locker room, but everyone knew that, especially Tom Mitski. “Sorry,” he said, making eye contact this time. “Yes, I’m fine,” he said. “Just need a quick shower.”


            Tom nodded. “I’m going home to take one, and catch a long nap while I’m at it.” Letting the cool air dry him, he stripped down to nothing and rooted around in his locker for a change of clothes.


            Jamie didn’t look; he never looked, never thought about his team mates in that way. Today, especially, he had plenty of other things to think about. There was the starting line yet to determine for this afternoon’s game, and where to go for lunch. He ran through the list of items in the trunk of his care, just to be sure he’d remembered anything. He had to call to check up on the dinner arrangements, and set up dinner as well. So much food… and really the only thing he wanted to think about was the warm water rushing down upon him.


            When he was out on the ice, he was ignorant of the aches and pains of his body. But now, in the shower, there was nothing but the discomfort. His head throbbed, his nose itched, and his throat was sore. He raised his head, the shower spray hitting his face and running down the rest of his body. Blindly, he reached over and turned on the public-style shower taps to either side of him. He angled the shower heads to him, so all three struck him, covering his whole body with warmth.


            The sensation was heavenly, and he leaned forward, arm bent against the wall, forehead resting on his arm. His breathing seemed easier, with the thick steam surrounding him, and he breathed in slowly and deeply. He cleared his nose with a hard and fast blow, his thumb pressing against one side of his nose, and letting the water take care of the rest.


            After he decided on the starting line, finally, but that wasn’t all he had to decide on. He needed to figure out who to use in power play and penalty killing situations. He had to work out every possibility in his head, trying to figure out who to use based on the pace of the game and the score and whatever it was the other team was up to. He had a few players who were very strong on defense, and had a pretty capable goalie, naturally. But his scorers were good, not great. The other team had a few very good wingers and centers, who he supposed would be hammering them hard right from the start. The balance between playing offense and defense was a difficult one to strike, and he wasn’t sure what would work better, hammering right back or covering those key players to make certain they couldn’t do damage and hope for a goal of their own to slip by.


            ihhh-TChhhhh! ihhCHhhhh!” He sneezed, then turned his face up into the spray to let it wash him clean. Then he hung his head and resumed his position, taking advantage of every hot, comforting drop of water coming at him. Tension was melting out of his body, and his muscles were relaxing. The longer he stayed in, the less worried he felt about the game and the event planned that night. He resigned himself to enjoy both, no matter how else he felt.


            “Hey, Jamie?”


            His hands both flat against the wall, Jamie turned his head to see Tom again. “Yeah?” he answered, the spat out the water that had run into his mouth.


            Tom lifted his hand, showing a clear plastic bag with the word SUBWAY on it. Moreover, Jamie noticed he had a second one in his other hand, down at his side. “I picked you up a little something. Do you know you’ve been in there an hour?”


            “Fuck me!” Jamie laughed. He shut off all three taps, shivering as soon as the last was off. He shook water off his head like a dog as he walked across the open shower area and grabbed a fluffy white towel from the stack. He wiped his face dry with one side of the towel, the rest of it rubbing against his chest. Then he wrapped it around his waist, holding it at his hip. “Thanks,” he said. “So much for a quick shower.” He sniffed a few times and scrubbed his nose with the palm of his hand.


            He took the bag and set it down on a bench as he quickly dressed, sniffling and dripping all the while. As he sat down to pull on his tennis shoes, he quickly cupped his hand to his face. “hihShuhhh!


            Tom reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a box of cold pills. He set them down next to the sub. Leaning against the lockers with his arms crossed over his chest, he gestured to them. “We need your A-game tomorrow.”


            Jamie smirked. “Wouldn’t want me to think you actually cared about me.”


            “Wouldn’t want me to think you actually had a cold,” he replied coolly.


            Nodding, “Hockey players don’t catch colds.” He picked up the box, popped a pill out of the blister pack, and swallowed it dry with a grimace.


            “Course not. Especially not in the middle of winter and after hanging out with kids three or four times a week.”


            ih-hihh-CHAH! Sniff! Damn…” He rubbed the butt of his hand against his forehead. The game would be three hours long, if it didn’t go into overtime. But he had to tack on another hour for warm-up and the beginning pep-talk and to make sure the guys got home okay afterwards. And afterwards… he planned to run around like a madman getting things ready for a very special dinner for his very special someone. “I’ve got an anniversary dinner planned tonight,” he said, running his hand through his damp red hair. He rested his elbows on his knees and held his head in his hands. “Sweetie…” he sighed. “He’d understand if I postponed it, but he’d give me Hell about coaching while sick.”


            “Then it’s a good thing you’re not sick, Deeky,” Tom said, grinning. “Good luck at the game.”


            “Thanks. Thanks for everything, Mitz.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “Now go home and catch some shut-eye.”


            Tom headed out, for good this time, and Jamie finished dressing. He put on his Timber Wolves jacket and zipped it up in the front, but still felt chilled. It would be a miracle if he made it through this day. The only relief he had was that Sweetie probably wouldn’t be able to see him during the game, what with the partition up between the two benches.


            He headed out of the Timber Wolves locker room at the practice facility, making sure the door locked behind him securely. Then he headed into one of the two smaller locker rooms. He sat down on one of the benches and ate the submarine while he waited for his team to arrive. He stopped after two bites. The bread was toasted, the chicken and roast beef slices blended perfectly with the mustard and mayo, and the lettuce and green peppers were fresh. But, irony of ironies, he detested pickles and this sub was packed with them.


            Jamie was picking the last one off when Clayton Jones came in, with two wingers on his tail, figuratively. The boys, Clark and MacLean, had duffle bags sling over one shoulder, skates tied at the laces slung over the other shoulder, and sticks in their hands. Clayton carried twice as much gear, and dragged a large bag behind him. Jamie waved hello to them all. Then he stood and headed to the entrance to head right back out with Clayton. Only players were allowed in the locker room when changing; anyone above the age of eighteen was strictly prohibited. Besides, Jamie needed to have a few words with his assistant coach-slash-trainer-slash-equipment manager. “Hey—”


            “My God, Deeky, you sound awful!”


            Jamie groaned inwardly. Clayton was far too perceptive. He had to be, because Jamie didn’t think he sounded all that bad. “Yeah…” He cleared his throat just in case. “I already took something for it. I’ll be fine in a couple minutes. But if you see me struggling or if I miss something, I hope I can count on you to jump in for me?”


            “Absolutely,” Clayton nodded firmly. No jokes, no cheap shots, just the nod of a promise of support. And an offer. “You want a hot chocolate? I’m gonna go grab one.”


            “Please and thank you,” Jamie nodded back.


            He stood with his back against the wall, greeting the boys as they arrived and filed into the locker rooms on either side of him. Jamie nibbled on his sub and sipped his hot chocolate, while he discussed the Timber Wolves’ schedule for the next week with Clayton. He’d miss Tuesday practice, that was a definite, but Clayton was trying to persuade him to miss Sunday’s as well. “Sleep in,” Clayton said, with a tone that clearly addressed why he thought Jamie should stay in bed.


            “Maybe,” Jamie replied, in a tone that let Clayton know he appreciated the concern and really didn’t feel well.


            Clayton cleared his throat a moment later and Jamie looked over to see Dominic heading over. His face brightened but he was sent into a panic. “Sweetie!” he said, grinning. When Sweetie moved in for a kiss, Jamie pulled back, his head hitting the wall. “Onions and mustard,” he said, nodding down at his sandwich. It was a tiny lie, but Sweetie hated onions more than he hated mustard, and it guaranteed there’d be no kiss on the lips and therefore no cold passed on. 


            Sweetie pulled a face. “Ugh!” He briefly kissed Jamie’s cheek instead. “You ready for the big game today?”


            Jamie chuckled and nodded. There were so few teams in the league that they played each other frequently, even with a schedule of only one game a week. So Jamie and Sweetie met frequently at the rink as coaches, but they always pretended it was a grand match-up when their teams played each other. “We’re going to kick your ass, pretty boy.”


            Sweetie placed his hand on Jamie’s hip and moved in close. “I can think of a few other things I’d rather you did with my ass.”


            Fearing Sweetie might hear him sniffle, being so close, Jamie raised his sub and took another bite. “Only if you win,” he said slyly, around the food.


            Jamie had been doing a mental count of players, and was sure they had all arrived. He blew Sweetie a kiss, then leaned to his right, directing a call into the locker room. “All clear?”


            There was a moment of scrambling and shuffling. Then the reply from inside, “All dressed, coach!”


            The dressing rule was one of a handful of special rules Jamie had imposed on his league. The most important of them was the ‘no hanky panky until the off season’ rule. At times, Jamie felt bad for imposing it. There were clearly a few boys on the team who wanted to be more than teammates. And it felt wrong to create a youth hockey league just for gay players and prohibit them from expressing their sexuality as desired. But this was a hockey league, not a bath house, and the line had to be drawn somewhere. In addition, it taught them the importance of being a team and honoring their bond as teammates alone. To Jamie’s knowledge, there had been no violations or problems with the rule… apart from his being a bit hypocritical and dating a fellow coach.  


            Jamie closed the door to the locker room just in time. He cupped one hand to his nose and mouth. “ihh… cough… iihh-Chishhhh! Sniff!


            Clayton had tissues for him. Jamie had no idea where they came from, but he was grateful for them. Turning his back on the rest of the locker room, he pressed his forehead to the door as he blew his nose heartily. He could definitely feel the cold medicine taking effect, but there was still a bit of a tickle in his nose and throat. And he was still chilled. And tired. And achy. And he had a team to address.


            He cleared his throat and put his hands on his hips. “All right, men. Fall in. I’ve got a few notes to start with.” Most were standing and moving their legs while standing in place to warm them up, but a few were still sitting on the benches lacing up their skates or taping their sticks. Every one of them looked up and listened attentively. Jamie reached into his pocket for the list of notes. He found tissues. He tried another pocket and found the cold pills. Finally he found the paper, pulled it out, and unfolded it. “Brinks, how’s your knee?”


            “It’s great, Coach,” replied Roy Brinkton.


            Jamie knew never to trust a hockey player to give an honest answer when it came to his health, but he had seen Brinks in practice the day before and the boy had looked fine on it. He just had to ask. “Good. You’re back on the second line, then.” Brinks clenched his fist and pulled it back with an excited ‘Yes!’ while Jamie went on. “Gibson, Clark and Reese, I want you out there first, with Pauly and Cooper out there to start also. Everyone else, normal lines and I reserve the right to shake things up a bit to stay on your toes and play your hearts out.” There were a few looks of disappointment, but no one argued with the coach’s decision. “Sin?” He looked over at Sinclair. “What have I told you about your left hand?”


            The boy sighed. “Get it up higher,” he said automatically, with a bit of a groan.


            “That’s right,” Jamie nodded. “I know you can. I’ve seen you do it a hundred times in practice. I know you hate my reminding you but you’ve got to keep that glove up.” Sin was a born natural when it came to net minding. His reactions were quick, he guarded his five spot like it was an unfriendly someone trying to get between his legs. But eighty percent of the goals he let by were over his head and on his left. “But I’m going to keep riding you until you do it.”


            He coughed into his fist and cleared his throat, moving from his notes to speaking from his heart. “Today I want to see good passes and clean hits. Don’t give them the chance to draw penalties because you can bet they’ll take advantage of that. If you see an opportunity, take it. If you don’t see an opportunity, make one.” His throat tickled and he wrapped things up. “I want you all to play hard. Storm the crease every chance you get because if the Hyenas have a weakness, it’s goal tending. Now get out there and make me proud, okay?”


            There was a group cheer. It wasn’t the most moving speech Jamie had ever delivered, but it was only the beginning of the game. If they needed it, he could pull something more inspirational out of his ass during the intermissions. As the players gathered up their things, Jamie took the opportunity he turn and cough into his arm a few times. He sniffed until his nose stopped running and then cleared his throat. Clayton checked everyone’s sticks and blades, and Jamie tightened the straps on Sinclair’s pads and helmet for him. Then they headed out as a team onto the ice for a warm-up skate.


            Last season, when Jamie had created the league, heading out of the locker room was when he had been struck with the realization of how few people were in attendance. It was quite a difference from a Capitals game or a Timber Wolves game, or even a Timber Wolves practice. He could have counted the people in attendance on both hands, and that included the goal judges and announcers. Now in their second season, they had a slightly larger, steady, and loyal fanbase. Some parents actually attended the games, as did friends and classmates. There were always a couple guys from the local high school varsity hockey teams, and there were always a few groups of giggly girls. Once in a while, when Jamie got lucky, he could even convince a talent scout to come out to a game.


            Today, a mere glance told him there were maybe forty or fifty people up in the stands, not bad for a Sunday afternoon, ten minutes before game time. The other team was on the ice as well, and players muttered things under their breaths as they passed by each other, trying to psych out the other team. Jamie smiled. They might be in a youth league, but they certainly had that part down.


            Jamie stood behind the bench, arms crossed over his chest, leaning back against the wall. It was absolutely freezing down by the ice. He usually wore his jacket, but today he was wishing he had more. Much more. Like a down coat with a hood and a few heat packs stowed under his shirt and jeans. He shivered and met Clayton’s gaze. “I’m okay,” he whispered, before Clayton could inquire. He knew Clayton would have no problem watching his back, and that the man would only step in if really needed, lest risk Jamie’s “coach wrath”.


            A buzzer sounded a few minutes later, and most of the players returned to their benches. The five players and goalie from each team who were starting stayed out on the ice, skating around as the announcer read off their names and positions. A rush of excitement came over Jamie, as it did before any game, whether he was playing or on the bench or even sitting at home in front of the television set. He grinned widely as he looked at his players. Nice form, strong legs, good grips… he didn’t like to count his pucks before they were dropped, but his boys were definitely going to win.


            The announcer’s voice came through the speakers. “And those are your starting line-ups. Welcome to the seventh match-up between the Jackals and the Hyenas of the GYHL of the Greater Washington area. Now please rise for the national anthem.”


            Jamie didn’t sing along, to save his voice. He turned towards the flag but glanced at his boys, all moving their legs back and forth to keep them warm while the song played. He felt a tickle and cupped both hands to his face. He turned into the wall and tried to hold back. “hehhh-Chttt!” It wasn’t loud, and couldn’t have been heard over the music by anyone more than three feet away from him. But he dug a tissue out of his pocket and rubbed his nose with it, sniffling as much as rubbing. He balled the tissue up into his hand, curling his fingers around it so it was out of sight but close for when he had to sneeze again.


            The game began at the next buzzer. The puck dropped and was won by the other team. Jamie’s secret hockey theory was, and maybe it was biased because of the position he played, that face-off wins meant very little. Sure they came in handy when there were three seconds left on the clock and you were down a goal, but otherwise, he felt they were rather meaningless because more than half the time, the team who got possession lost it a second later thanks to a good check or a better move.


            Naturally, he wasn’t surprised when Reese took the puck and went skating down to the other side with it. Jamie yelled for him to pass it back, which Reese did without a moment’s hesitation. Clark got it and immediately fired long and hard at the goal. It was deflected, as was the rebound, but it meant a lot to Jamie that the Jackals had the first shot on goal. It was a good sign.


            Fitz, Brink and Saunders, get ready,” Jamie instructed them. There were so many qualities that made a coach good and effective, but the most important was to use the right guys on the ice at the right time. Sometimes you picked to match the other team’s line, sometimes you picked because of a certain player, sometimes you picked because of the pace of the game, and sometimes you picked because your other lines just needed a rest. But at all times, the players needed to know who was next and what to do. Most of his directives, therefore, were just player’s names and sometimes play names.


            His team, especially, liked to know exactly who needed to be on ice next, in case the change had to be swift or in case there was a delayed penalty and an extra man was needed in a split second. And even though the line rotation was usually longer than average, because the teens’ stamina afforded them that benefit, he still tried to let them know who was on next as soon as he figured it out.


            Several times during the first period, however, one of the players had to look over his shoulder and say, “Coach? Lines?” To prompt him.


            It was scoreless after one, and Jamie fully blamed himself for it. They weren’t playing nearly hard enough, and that was because the intensity and energy wasn’t where it needed to be. Jamie’s voice was getting weaker and he was fading fast. His body screamed at him to sit down or lie down and get warm. And even though they probably hadn’t noticed his ailment, it was showing in the players. He owed them an apology, but he couldn’t give one.


            All he could do was clear his throat and try to inspire them to do better. “They know us well,” he told them, as they hydrated and took care of their equipment. “I’m going to have to shake things up a little. Remember those plays we practiced Thursday? I want first and second lines to try as many of them as… as possible…” His voice faced and breaths took over. He clutched the balled-up tissue to his face, wishing he could hold back like he had most of the time out there. “hihh-Schhh!” He refused to blow his nose in front of the team, but he had to hold the tissue to his nose after the sneeze because he feared it would be messy otherwise.


            “We’re not playing hard enough,” said Gibson, the captain, taking over suddenly. Jamie nodded and, rubbing his nose, gestured for Gibson to continue. “We’re taking the shots and they’re being stopped, but that just means we’re not taking enough shots. We’ve got to break them up and get more chances, or we need to break right through.”


            Jamie nodded, agreeing wholeheartedly, but feeling another sneeze coming on. He turned away, gritting his teeth, certain from the sensation in his nose that it wasn’t going to be just one. “Scuse me,” he mumbled, then quickly walked towards the toilets. He could hear them talking without him, and he regretted not being there. And he regretted not taking a double dose of medicine before, though it probably would have knocked him out. “ihh-Chooo! ehhh-Shooo! HihhhhihhhChoo! Sniff! ihh-Shoo! Sniff! hihhhh-ahhhShoo!” Dropping the tissue into the toilet, he pulled a long stream of toilet paper off the roll and blew his nose into it many times over. Then he flushed it all and headed back to silence. He cleared his throat. “Look…” he said to them, hating to admit to anything. “I’m—”


            “Don’t sweat it, Coach,” Sinclair interrupted.


            “Yeah,” said Reese, shrugging. “Barely noticed anything.”


            “You were talking about strategy, Coach,” Clark reminded him.


            Jamie nodded, relief flooding over him. Not a single mention of being sick. And not a single comment to make him feel the least bit embarrassed. God, he loved these kids. “Right. But we can’t let defense slide just because we’re stepping up our offense.” He said the word like his Canadian coach did, with a hard ‘O’, out of habit. Miraculously, he made it through diagramming three plays on the small whiteboard, explaining the weaknesses of both teams which he saw in the first period, and half of an inspirational speech before he had to stop to cough. Clayton passed him a water bottle, and the cool water against his throat helped him finish up. “I know we can beat them,” he said. “Sniff! Sniff! I want to see you step up your game. I want to see that puck hit the net twice as often. Twice as often. No shit. Beat the Hell out of the thing! But keep your form. Got it?” Nods answered him. “Got it?!” he repeated. This time, there were spirited vocal replies. “Okay!” He clapped his hands. “Now go out there and show me what you’re made of!”


            They filed out, energetic and pumped, and wanting to prove themselves. Jamie hung back a minute and blew his nose again. Then he headed out as well.


            The rink seemed just as cold as ever, but he wasn’t shivering any more. His speech seemed to have pumped himself up as well. “Myers, Brinks, and Reese!” he called. Pauly and Cooper? Hold back until next shift. And don’t take so long to find your legs this time, Pauly.” He cleared his throat and rubbed his nose. Clark froze the puck behind the net to give the Jackals on the ice time to get through the door and the ones behind the bench time to scramble over the side. Then he switched places with Myers and the jumbled line on the ice took the puck away from the Hyenas. They went racing down the ice and stormed the crease as though it were the last play of the game. Shot. Rebound. A third. Off a defenseman’s skate and right in between the goalie’s legs. “Yes!” Jamie roared as the buzzer and red light went on.


            First shot of the game and first goal of the game; not a coincidence, from where Jamie stood. It was the simple dynamics of the thing. The more you shoot, the better a chance you have at scoring. And like the Great One always said, one hundred percent of the shots you don’t make don’t go in. Of course, there was more to it than just that. The worst thing you could do in hockey was score a goal and then let one by.


            As the team’s celebration melted away, he reached down and tapped his two best defensemen on their shoulders. “Get in there,” he told them.


            Then he cupped both hands to his face. “ihhhhTchhh!” He dug a tissue out of his pocket and kept it in his hand again. Every few seconds, he rubbed his nose with it. Otherwise he kept his arms crossed over his chest and kept his eyes on the game. The goal did the trick. Though Jamie didn’t feel any better, the team was much more energetic. They knew not to squander the lead, and they kept hitting the net. Maybe not twice as much, but certainly more than usual. Jamie could just imagine the look on Sweetie’s face as he watched the same scene unfold, not six feet away in the other player’s box. He swabbed his nose with the tissue again just as a whistle blew. Not the usual offsides or icing, but a penalty. Holding. And there went Cooper to the penalty box.


            Jamie had a split second to make the decision. His usual penalty killers were already on the ice but they were at the end of a very long shift and starting to get sloppy, hence the hooking. He wasn’t sure if he could risk sending in others without being scored on, but he reminded himself that these were just kids and that they could bounce back even if they were scored on. So he called for a change. Pauly didn’t want to get off the ice, but Jamie cleared his throat and stared him down and Pauly went right through the door to sit on the bench. Even sick, they knew not to mess with him. He just hoped he had made the right decision.


            Two minutes later, the score was still 1-0 and he sent the usual first line out again while the Hyenas’ first line retreated, exhausted, to their own bench. And half a minute after that, the score became 2-0.


            “That’s it,” Jamie said, complimenting them as he watched them hug and pat Clark’s helmet. “Now don’t let up!” he warned. A two goal lead was the most dangerous lead in all of hockey, as players got complacent, and he didn’t want them to squander it. “You worked hard for this, now keep it up.”


            They battled hard for most of the rest of the period. There were a few close calls as they got increased scoring chances from a power play Reese drew. But in the final minute of the period, the Hyenas got the better of them and a puck puttered past Sin. Jamie didn’t say anything, and he didn’t smile. He just stood there, sniffling softly and frowning at the score board. They were still in a good position. But he didn’t want the players to think that. If anything, they hit harder than ever in the rest of the second period. They went to the net repeatedly and the puck was netted with just a few seconds left in the period. Jamie was proud of them, and he slapped Fitz on the back for his goal.


            They’d barely found the puck after the face-off when the buzzer sounded to end the period. They headed to the locker room, feeling good and excited. And Jamie felt glad to be able to duck into one of the stalls and blow his nose thoroughly again.


            No one said a thing to him about it, or about the fact that his voice sounded deeper and more congested. “That was a great period,” he said, smiling. “Sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off, and sometimes you get the lead and keep it. Excellent playing. Now let me tell you what I want of you in the third.” He coughed and sat down on one of the benches, lowering himself to their level. “You aren’t in this league just to check out the hot guys, because you could do that from the seats easily.” They all laughed. “You’re here because you’re damn good hockey players and you want to play hockey. So for the third period cough, cough I want you to do what you love to do: play. Play the best you can. You don’t have to play to win. Don’t worry about the score. Don’t worry about how they’re playing. Just play your game and enjoy yourself.”


            Of course, for all his enthusiasm and relaxing, he still made sure they knew they were expected to play well. He went through a few more plays with them, and then left them alone. The captain made sure they were still energized when they headed out again.


            The third period was as even as the first had been. Play went from one side of the ice to the other. They played consistently well, but clearly Sweetie’s pep talk had been inspiring because the Hyenas played just as well.


            After a while, Jamie realized he was clearing his throat more than usual between his words. It made his voice sound more like normal but it also scratched his throat. He would definitely regret it later. He coughed into his arm and cleared his throat after that, as well.


            The whistle blew to stop play as the Hyena goalie covered the puck. Jamie had his hand to his forehead, his head throbbing, and didn’t notice who was on the ice until Clayton spoke up. “Reese, take the face-off.” Jamie looked over and nodded quickly in agreement.


            Feeling badly for slipping, Jamie closed his eyes and gave himself a moment to compose himself. Unfortunately, he seemed to need more than a moment. He felt a bit light-headed as the game resumed. He was aware there was movement on the ice, but wasn’t sure what it was. He heard the scrape of skates and the slap of sticks against pucks. There were pounds of bodies slammed against boards. There were thumps of sticks against the floor and squirts of water bottles and…


            Deeky?” Clayton had his arm, holding him steady. “Should I…?”


            Jamie nodded and coughed.


            It was Clayton’s turn to clear his throat. “All right. Pauly, you’re in for Cooper on the next shift. Clarky, you and Reese ready?”


            Jamie wasn’t tuning it out, he really wasn’t, but he was glad Clayton was on top of things because the whistle blew again and they were going on a power play. Clayton selected players.


            Of course they scored. Their usual first line was ready to go in anyway, and the odd man rush and drop pass were carried out so smoothly that it naturally paid off.


            ihhh-Chahhh!” Jamie sneezed during the celebration, and blew his nose a little into the balled-up tissue. He held it to his nose and cleared his throat again. He didn’t do much more talking, but there wasn’t any more scoring in the game, either. Even a mad scramble at the end by the Hyenas amounted to nothing, and the Jackals celebrated with cheers and a big group hug on center ice.


            Jamie shook Sweetie’s hand ceremoniously, then practically fled to the locker room. He swore to himself in an uneven voice as he retreated to the bathroom stall yet again. He felt absolutely pathetic, practically debilitated from a tiny head cold. “ihhhhihh-Hehhhh-K’Shoo! Sniff!” What sort of an example was he setting for the kids? Here he was, a sometimes-professional hockey player, cowering in a toilet stall, trying to catch his breath and stop sneezing. “kehhh-TChuhh! Chshh!




            Jamie lifted his head, feeling humiliated. He opened the door to the stall and faced Clayton. “Thanks for taking over,” he said weakly.


            “Of course,” Clayton replied. “They’re all changed,” he said. Jamie swatted himself on the forehead. “It’s okay,” Clayton said. “You’re in another room, technically. And the boys would have heard you coming a mile away.” He chuckled. “They want to head out for ice cream now is all.” After every game, the whole team always went out for ice cream at this old fashioned ice cream parlor which made its ice cream with a hand crank. A couple of the boys on the team had part-time jobs there, and the place didn’t mind a large group of sweaty energetic or thoroughly depressed hockey players descending on it at one time.


            Jamie nodded and headed out of the bathroom area to the lockers. He scrubbed his nose with the back and side of his hand and cleared his throat. The guys were standing around, laughing and joking and recapping parts of the game with each other. “Hey,” Jamie interrupted, smiling to see them so happy, even though he knew next door there was a group of boys who weren’t so happy. “Great job, guys. You played great. There are still a couple things that need more work, but I don’t want you to worry about them right now. Sniff! Sniff!” He quickly gave his nose another swipe. “You can’t win them all, so enjoy this win today. Cough! Though I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you at The Crank. I… ah…”


            “He’s got an anniversary date tonight,” Clayton interrupted.


            There were some boyish “ooooooooh!’s” and cat-calls, as well as some clapping and more laughing.


            Jamie rubbed the back of his neck, grinning. There were worse things than admitting to a bunch of gay boys that he was a romantic at heart, like admitting he was sick. “Yeah, yeah. Now get out of here and go celebrate.” He shooed them away. They headed out, most giving him hugs or pats on the arm on the way. Clayton brought up the rear, car keys out and jingling in his hand already. They smiled and nodded to each other. Then they clapped each other on the back.


            When he was alone in the locker room, he headed back over to the bathroom. He blew his nose thoroughly into as much toilet tissue as that took. Then he went over to the sink and splashed his face. “I can do this,” he assured his reflection. He grabbed a paper towel and dried his face off. Swelling with confidence, he balled it up and tossed it in the trash.


            Then he stuffed his hands into his pockets and headed out. Out of the locker room, down the hallway, through the double doors, and across the parking lot. Sniffling, he sat down in the leather seat of his Nissan and picked up his cell phone, which he kept plugged into the cigarette lighter.


            It was flashing with a new message, and Jamie recognized the number even with the address book name displayed. Hi Jamie, went the message. Not sure if you’ll get this in time, but I wanted to wish you luck. And if I don’t get the chance to talk with you, I’ll see you tonight at six sharp on the ice. Bye, Babe. It made Jamie smile, and he sighed and closed his eyes. This was all going to be worth it.


            He dialed the restaurant and cleared his throat as it rang. The hostess at Archie’s answered it in an overly cheerful voice; Jamie could tell it was only the start of dinnertime. “Yes, hello. I placed a special, sniff, order for pick-up. I wanted to make sure it would be ready by five forty-five. Last name Decon?”


            “I’ll check…” Jamie waited. And coughed. And he checked his watch. He could take another cold pill soon. Not that it would make all the symptoms go away, but it might be enough to get him through dinner. “Yes, Sir. It will be ready for you.”


            Thag you,” he said, searching his pockets for another tissue. He found one as he hung up, and blew his nose into it. For one brief moment, Jamie entertained the idea of going to sleep there. Just a little nap. His body ached for it. But he knew a thing or two about playing through pain.


            So he straightened up and popped his trunk open. It was packed full, and required at least two trips, probably three if he didn’t push himself. He pulled out a few things and lugged them inside. The door was a bit of a trick, but he managed to pull it open with two fingers and wedge his foot in to pry it open enough to get through with the items.


            Just as he made it inside the main entrance, the security guard headed over to him. His name was Ralph, which is what any respectable security guard should be named, and he knew what was up. “I just made the rounds. The place is empty for you,” he told Jamie.


            “Thank you,” Jamie nodded. He was paying top dollar to use the facility tonight, even though it would have been closed anyway, it being Sunday evening. Still, he least they could do was make sure he had everything he needed, including peace and quiet to pull off the event.


            “Need help unloading?” the man asked, sounding skeptical about actually providing such help. He wasn’t exactly old, but he definitely didn’t have an athlete’s body.


            “It’ll probably just be one more trip,” Jamie lied, going through in his mind how much was still in the car. “But thanks anyway.”


            During his second trip, he ran into Turbo in the parking lot. “Can I help?” Turbo asked, reaching for the last box in the trunk before he’d heard the answer. The trunk was closed, the car locked, and the two headed inside.


            “Thanks again for helping out tonight,” Jamie said, rolling the square of carpet out on the ice’s surface. “Are you sure I can’t pay you for your time? I’m worried you’ll be bored out of your mind up there in the booth.”


            Turbo shook his head but, as he was standing off the ice at the open door, Jamie couldn’t see it. So he followed it with an, “I don’t mind. I could use a little quiet time, frankly. You’ll show me up there?”


            Jamie skated over and grabbed two chairs. “Of course. Sniff! Sniff! Just give me a second to get this set up, okay?”


            Turbo waited, and Jamie hurried. Then he walked Turbo up to the technician’s booth. The seats where the announcers sat were neatly pushed in. And the equipment was lonely in the small room. Turbo nodded. “I can definitely work with this.” He rubbed his hands together in playful eagerness.


            Jamie laughed. “That’s great. I’ve got to go pick up the food… now… shit…” Blushing, he turned and buried his nose in the crook of his arm. h’Kshhh! Kichuhh! Sniff!


            “Bless you,” he said automatically. Turbo wasn’t watching Jamie. Instead, he was running his hand slowly across the one of the sound system consoles. “By the time you get back, I should have it set up,” he guaranteed.


            He stopped by the Timber Wolves’ locker room again, using his key and code to enter. The locker room was dark and abandoned, at first look. But the motion sensor lights were triggered when he stepped through the door. Bathed in soft halogen light, Jamie could see the lockers packed with each player’s equipment, standing at the ready. Some towels still lay about on the floor, and there was a stray sock here and there. But what Jamie didn’t see was a box of tissues. “We have a Space Invaders video game and a ping pong table but no Kleenex?” he muttered, walking through the center isle between the lockers and benches to get to the toilets.


            The toilet paper was making his nose hurt, but apparently he had no other choice. He tried to hurry himself through the blowing this time, knowing he was pressed for time already. But his nose just wouldn’t stop running and it tickled as he blew, making him sneeze or at least rub at his nose. Finally, he gave up being in control and just reached a state where his nose wasn’t too badly off.


            Then he headed to his locker, where he’d stashed his change of clothes. He shivered as he undressed and then pulled the black slacks, white dress shirt, and black suit jacket on as quickly as he could. As he fiddled with the buttons at the cuffs, he felt a sneeze rising and sneezed freely, not wanting to impede his progress with the tiny, hard-to-button buttons. “ihhh-TChhhh! ihhhKShhhh! Dab! Sniff-sniff-sniff-SNIFF! He had to blow his nose again. So he kept sniffing as he put on black socks, then padded over to the stalls again.


            He was slightly behind schedule by the time he left the locker room and placed his skates by the entrance to the rink. He wore his tennis shoes still now, not caring how he looked in them with a suit on as well.


            Archie’s, the fine dining restaurant where Jamie and Sweetie had had their first dinner together, was a five minute drive from the ice rink. On the way, he stopped off at a CVS. He had the cold medicine still, and didn’t want to risk buying anything stronger since it might knock him out and defeat the purpose of taking something. But he did pick up a single-serving bottle of orange juice and a pack of those personal heating patches. He swallowed another pill, this time with a gulp of orange juice. It stung his throat and Jamie winced, immediately regretting the choice of drink. But the vitamin C was probably good for him. So he suffered through it on the way to the restaurant and then back again with the food in a cardboard carrying case sitting on his passenger seat.


            Sweetie was waiting for him in the hallway, lacing up his skates. He smiled widely at the sight of Jamie, and even helped Jamie on with his skates in a nicely seductive sort of way. “Pretty soon I’ll be even more eager to take these off you,” Sweetie said. Then he stood and took Jamie’s arm. “I’ve got dessert covered, by the way. And a little something extra afterwards.”


            “Great,” Jamie said, hoping he’d disguised the worry in his voice. He led Sweetie towards the ice but didn’t need to point out why once they got there.


            The lights were out around the whole rink, except for one large spotlight shining down on what Jamie had set up. There was a small folding table and two chairs sitting on the spot of rug in the middle of the center circle. On the table was an elegant spread of dishes, glasses, and even a small candelabra.


            Jamie broke away and skated over. He set the food down on an empty bit of table and picked up the lighter. By the time all three candles were lit, Sweetie was there. “This is fantastic!” he exclaimed, sitting down, surveying the dishes, and then looking around at the dark rink.


            “It’s where we met,” Jamie said, knowing he didn’t need to explain but wanting to anyway. It was part of the ambience. “I got us some food from Archie’s… and I have another surprise planned for cough for later cough! Cough!” He cleared his throat and began unpacking. Two steaks, both well done, with side dishes of roasted potatoes and squash. Jamie had thought ahead, with cloth napkins and even salt and pepper shakers. Naturally, there was ice water to drink. “Do you like it?” Jamie asked apprehensively as he served Sweetie.


            “I love it.” Sweetie sounded genuine, and a little awestruck. “But you didn’t have to go to so much trouble just because of me.” He dug into his steak, cutting several small pieces off it.


            “Sure I did.” Jamie laughed, using the laugh as an excuse to sniff without sounding like he was sniffing intentionally. “Besides, I wasn’t sure you’d be in a good mood after… today.” He pretended to reach up and scratch his head, when he really rubbed at his nose. It was tickling again, pretty badly.


            Sweetie groaned. “That was some game. But I won’t hold it against you… even if we are on the ice, still.” He chuckled. “Your boys looked great out there. I was impressed.” The last two times their teams had met up, the Hyenas had come out as clear winners.


            “I don’t work them sniff any harder than they’re willing to,” Jamie said quickly. The more he talked, the more his nose buzzed and tickled. He needed to sneeze.


            Sweetie swallowed his mouthful. “Well, just you wait. Next time my boys will… Jamie?”


            “Hmm?” Jamie rubbed his nose without meaning to. The sneeze was getting close. He searched his pocket, trying to find a tissue. He was sure he must have one left, at least.


            Sweetie cocked his head. “Are you…?”


            iihhhh!” He pinched his nose, but didn’t get away with it. And he couldn’t find that tissue in time. “ihhSchhhh! Sniff!


            Sweetie pulled out a thin, linen handkerchief, folded into a square. He handed it over with a “Bless you.”


            Jamie took it, but was reluctant to use it. One blow and Sweetie would hear how congested he was. But his head felt full and was throbbing and his nose was running. So he unfolded the handkerchief and rubbed at his nostrils with it. It wasn’t much, but hopefully it would be just enough.


            “Jamie… are you all right?”


            Nodding, “Of course. Why do you ask?”


            A shrug. “I don’t know. I just had a feeling, I guess. You look a little…”


            h’IHHchhhh! Jamie coughed and swore to himself. He grabbed his glass of water and gulped some down. Unsurprisingly, it was freezing cold, and made him shiver.


            “You’re not!” Sweetie jumped to his feet and reached across the table but around the candles to feel Jamie’s forehead. “You are. Babe, you’re burning up!”


            “No,” Jamie cleared his throat. “I was just rushing around a lot. Sniff! Sniff, sniff! I’m okay.” He cleared his throat again. “Hockey players don’t catch colds. Sniff! Especially not on their anniversaries. I didn’t want to fuck this up. Sniff! Sniff!” More embarrassed than he’d been all day, he ducked his head and turned away to blow his nose into a corner of the hanky. He felt remarkably better afterwards.


            “Oh, Jamie!” Sweetie sighed. He came around the table, his blades digging into the rug and his steps a little awkward. “Come here.” He took Jamie’s hand and pulled him to his feet. Jamie sighed as Sweetie wrapped his arms around the man and stroked the back of his head. Jamie turned his head and rested his cheek on Sweetie’s shoulder. “You really shouldn’t have pushed yourself. If you get worse because of this, do you know how badly I’ll feel?” Sweetie was the king of guilt trips. “I wouldn’t have minded if we needed to postpone it a few days.”


            “But I would have bide… shit…” He was going to pull away, but the hug was too nice and Sweetie didn’t seem to want to budge. So he blew his nose just a little, where he was. “I would have minded. This anniversary means a lot to me, Dom. It’s the first time I’ve been in a relationship this long since…” Since that rotten bastard Nicholas Fucking Stromson. “Since He-who-must-not-be-named.” Six years wasn’t a long time for most gay men, since so many never looked for a relationship at all. But Jamie wasn’t most gay man. He took a deep breath. “It’s important to me. And I already had all this planned. This and more.”


            “More? What more?”


            Jamie pulled back and shouted up towards the booth. “Hey! Can you start the music up?”


            There was a soft screech through the speaker system as they turned on, and then a song started with a magical melody and a familiar, rich male voice: Now I’ve had the time of my life. No I’ve never felt like this before. Yes I swear. It’s-a true. And I owe it all to you. Then Jennifer Warnes took over for Bill Medley, and Sweetie looked like he was going to melt.


            “I thought we could dance,” Jamie said, stating the obvious since this was their song. Except now it described them more than it just happened to be the first song they’d ever danced to.


            Sweetie put down his knife and fork, and the clatter of metal against china would have echoed throughout the rink, but the music was loud and overpowering. And Sweetie’s eyes were watering. “Then let’s dance.”


            “What, now?” Jamie coughed. “But the food will get cold.”


            Sweetie stepped back, off the rug and into the ice. That sound of blades scraping the ice beckoned Jamie. “That’s why God made microwaves. I want to dance with you. To this song. Right now. Unless, of course, you don’t feel up to it…”


            Jamie wouldn’t let him have that one. He followed Sweetie onto the ice, taking Sweetie’s hand and putting a hand on Sweetie’s waist, but letting him lead. Then he suddenly pulled his hand back, listening to the music closely and replacing his hand at the We take each other’s hand line. That always made Sweetie laugh, and today was no exception.


            You’re the one thing I can’t get enough of. So I’ll tell you something: this could be love. The song was fast paced, and not the easiest to dance to, in general, but they weren’t going to let that stop them. Because, I’ve had the time of my life. Though both were pretty deft on the ice, they still found it a bit of a challenge to dance in skates. Jamie had a slight advantage, as the blades of his skates were made to allow him to move freely from side-to-side. But more than once each lost his balance or his rhythm and had to rely on the other to keep him upright and back to moving with the beat.


            Jamie dipped Sweetie one moment, and they spun around the next. They skated backwards and Sweetie dipped Jamie. The spotlight followed them smoothly, everywhere they went. There was a little coughing, and a little sniffling, but Jamie was too wrapped up in it to notice those things. Sweetie was the only thing real to him. The man, warm in his arms, was moving in time with him. It was graceful and beautiful, silly and energetic, passionate and heartfelt. And he wished it could go on forever, but the song was just short of five minutes long.


            Jamie felt his passion increase as he glided along the ice with Sweetie, hips swinging, hands clasped, legs and feet in constant motion. The words swept over him. I want you more than you’ll ever know… Don’t be afraid to lose control… Stay with me tonight… You’re the one thing I can’t get enough of… This could be love.


            The instrumental bridge was no less moving. He closed the gap between them, bodies pressed tightly against each other and clinging desperately. “Your middle’s so warm,” Sweetie said, sounding astonished.


            “I was fucking freezing during the game today. So I put on one of those personal heat patches on the inside of my shirt.”


            Sweetie reached up and brushed Jamie’s lightly-freckled forehead. “Poor baby,” he whispered. Skates came to a rest, but they stayed upright by holding onto each other. And they looked into each other’s eyes.


            Their mouths opened. “I… have a bad cold,” Jamie admitted. The music swelled.


            “Fuck it I don’t care,” Sweetie replied quickly, as though all in one word. He pressed his palms against Jamie’s cheeks.


            The accompanying music stopped, but the voices still sang without it. Bare, naked words with meanings. In the quiet, they kissed. Lips found lips and tongues found mouths. Both heads tilted and the kiss deepened. In the song, hard, fast drumbeats announced the return of instruments but they didn’t break the kiss. If anything, it grew in its intensity as the music crescendoed. The music swirled around them for another half minute, and their kiss continued to it getting right down into their hearts. The heat was intense, and his hand pressed to the back of Sweetie’s head, not wanting this to ever stop.


            But the song ended and a soft, slow song took its place. Instead of slow-dancing, however, they pulled away a little, to look at each other. “I love you,” said Dominic, honestly, tenderly.


            “I—” Jamie broke off.


            “You don’t have to say it,” Sweetie said. “I don’t expect you to—”


            “I have to sneeze now,” Jamie finished urgently. Making sure Sweetie wasn’t going to fall over if they moved apart, Jamie had just enough time to make a grab for his napkin to muffle the sounds of his sneezes. “ihhShphhh! YihShphh! Sniff! ihhhKShh! HShhh! They all shook him, but the last threw him off balance. One foot left the ice and the other couldn’t compensate. He went crashing down on his rear end with a gasp and a cough. He mopped his nose and burst into laughter at himself, as the spotlight stayed on him, instead of Sweetie. “I’m so pathetic!” He shook with laughter and cold.


            Sweetie skated over and dropped to his knees on the ice. “No. You’re incredibly adorable.” He placed a kiss on Jamie’s cheek and rubbed his warm stomach. Then his hand slipped down and rubbed Jamie’s dick through the slacks.


            “Sure,” Jamie laughed, shivering into Sweetie’s chest. “I can just see you telling the housemates about this botched dinner years from now, laughing your ass off.”


            Shaking his head, “What happens on the ice stays on the ice. The only thing I’m likely to do is freeze my ass off.” He offered a hand. “Now let’s pack up, go home, and finish this dinner there.”


            Jamie would have liked to pull Sweetie down, kissing him with relief and then celebrating with a good fuck right there at center ice. But then he thought of the peewee hockey teams who used the rink as well and couldn’t bring himself to do any more than give Sweetie a kiss. “Can we sleep in my bed tonight?” he asked, snuffling a little.


            “Anything you want,” Sweetie replied, helping him up. They nearly fell again, but gripped each other’s arms and, with their legs spread, they found balance.


            Jamie wiped the back of his hand across his face, scrubbing at his nose. “Then let’s take this off the ice, Love,” he said, softly.