The Tough Guy



NOTE: Just wanted to thank Warren Zevon, Paul and David Letterman for the song 'Hit Somebody' and wanted to thank all teams of the 2001 playoff series (except the evil Stars and the Pens because of that egomaniac Mario) for their inspiration lately. Especially the sweet Jason Arnot(Arnie) whose dizziness and wobbliness after game 4 would have been much more attractive if I didn't love and worry about him so very much, eh? J May the 2002 Olympics be as great as the Devils and Avs were this year!


PG- for language used in just a few places!




            'I'm the tough guy. I'm the one who busts some ass on the ice.' Sedrick ran a hand through glossy black hair. 'I'm the one who rams them into the boards. I'm the one who protects the line. I'm the one who takes the penalties for the team.' He gave a cough into his bare shoulder. 'So why am I the one to get sick during the playoffs?' Sedrick's bright blue eyes sparkled back at him in the mirror, having absolutely no answer to give. A shake of his head snapped him out of self-pity, tiny droplets of water tumbling down from his wet hair, raining upon his big broad shoulders. For a tough guy, he was actually uncharacteristically good looking.


            “Goot showa?” came a strong, thickly-accented voice and a hand knocked palm-first into the back of his head in playful lightness.


            Sedrick whirled around, colliding shoulder against shoulder with Victor Chenko in playful roughness. “You tryin' to get tough with me, Vic? Huh?”


            The man laughed, holding up both hands in a stopping motion.


            Sedrick slapped him on the arm. “That's what I though, eh?” His smile was addictive, and the rest of the club fed off that constantly. Letting him joke, playing around with him just to lighten the mood when things were tense… or dark. And when was it darker than after losing for the second time during the semifinals during game three? “You did some good work out there today,” he said as they drifted from the shower room to their lockers. It was an unfamiliar locker room, and whoever designed it must have been American because it took three turns through halls to get from one to the other, and another four turns to get to the actual ice.


            “Nut goot enough,” Vic replied, banging a fist into a palm. Victor, like most, took his profession quite personally.


            “Hey,” he put his arm around the man's shoulders, shaking him once gently. “It's only one point under, eh? And we're on their ice, whatcha gonna expect?” His nose gave a warning tickle, and he raised a fist, sneezing to his other side. “huhhh-AHSHHHHAH!” His nose gave a little sniffle in the aftermath.


            The man shrugged his arm off. “Next is on theirs, too.”


            He was glad the man had not commented on the sneeze. That's not what he needed right now. “And then ours again. It's the first to 4 games that's important. Look, you'll feel better after a good sleep—“


            “—In hotel bed,” he interrupted with a grunt as they reached the lockers and separated, each going to his own.


            Sedrick shook his head again, shouting a bit above the normal noise of the changing area. “Can't help you there, man. Sleep is sleep. You get what you can take during the race to Lord Stanley, eh?” And sleep sounded pretty good to him right about now. He leaned into the locker, the door and sides blocking his face from everyone else, and raised a fist again, this time placing it right up against his nose. “ehh—heh—huh-ACHUSHHAH! ehhh—hehhh—“ and it backed off, still filling his nose with the stuffy desire to sneeze but the urge dissolving. Another deep sniff and a rough rub of his fist against his nostrils took care of it. He pulled his head back, looking around casually to see that no one had noticed. 'Or maybe they notice and just don't want to say anything?'  Doubtful; they were a paranoid bunch, especially the trainers. He had been feeling poorly since breakfast and practice that morning, but the sneezes hadn't started until around game dress time. He'd managed to stifle most of the ones that had caught him off guard on the bench, and the adrenaline rush and fear had taken care of the rest while on ice, thankfully. Hockey players were a wonderful breed for playing through their pain. No matter how bad it got, a broken leg, a black eye, a fractured hand, a bleeding temple, a raging stomach flu, they played through it. They had to. It wasn't up to them, it was up to the team and if they could play their game, that's exactly what they did.


            He finished dressing, listening to the few conversations. The locker rooms were usually quiet after a loss, each player blaming themselves. But none so much as Teddy. Halik Tednoski was the team's net minder and arguably the best player on the team. Teddy was currently still sitting in his jersey and pads at the end of the bench, his head in his hands as he hunched over. Sometimes he cried angry tears. Sometimes he swore constantly. And sometimes, the worst times, he was perfectly silent; this was one of those times. Not even Sedrick dared try to lighten his mood, and the managers and trainers stayed away from him completely. Sedrick ran a comb through his hair and leaned against the lockers, looking down at the goalie. As he watched, their team captain, Robby Lowell sat down beside him. The captain put his arm around Teddy, a difficult feat as Teddy was one of the biggest and strongest goalies in the league, and leaned him against his chest. The goalie buried his face in the man's chest and could be seen shaking, from anger or sobs or something Sedrick knew he would not understand. But if anyone did, it was Robby.


            “You ready, man?' Sedrick's eyes left the two men and zipped back in front of him to see Marcus Armstrong. “They're starting to load the bus.”


            Sedrick glanced at his watch: quarter to twelve. Maybe they'd even get dinner before one in the morning tonight, although he wasn't feeling too overly hungry. Losing certainly didn't help his appetite. He nodded, pulling his raincoat on and feeling rather thankful for it. He was feeling a little chilly, even in the usually moist and musky locker room.


            He, Marcus, and the equipment managers usually helped load the bus, though most of the equipment was staying there this time. By the time he and Marcus emerged into the soft, cold spring rain, the bus was ready to roll.


            “You wanna take a walk?” Marcus asked, his eyes flaring, and Sed knew the man was eager to let off a little steam. Perhaps a lot of steam. It was always risky to the point of dangerous to head into town the night after an away game win. Too many drunk fans about to avoid. And drunk American fans were nothing like their Canadian fans. Drunk American fans were unpredictable and had a bit of an attitude problem. But the other choice was walking too close to the highway at night, which meant a possible run-in with a drunk American fan driving, and that would have worse repercussions.


            “Yeah” Sedrick shivered in his jacket, zipping it up, then running his hand through his hair. He faced the man, who was rocking on the balls of his feet eagerly.  “Should we go find—“


            “Right here, Gentlemen!” A hard slap hit them both on the back as Ulauf Ricci came up to them with a wide smile. “Wouldn't kill time without me, would you?”


            Sedrick smiled and shook his head, while Marcus rolled his eyes with a laugh. “You wouldn't let us if we tried.”


            “Only cuz you'd neva try, hmm?” the man laughed. Of them all, Ulauf and Marcus were perhaps his best friends on the team. He loved them all of course, it was a great group of guys. Very close, very nice. But Ulauf and Marcus were the best. Good senses of humor, some good thoughts always rolling around in their heads. Marcus had been his best man at his wedding and both he and Marcus had been best men at Ulauf's failed wedding. Ah, but the bachelor party on ice. You've never lived before you've seen strippers try to skate and undress at the same time.


            Marcus grabbed one of the trainers, Peter. “We'll be back in fifteen,” he said, and the man replied by patting him on the back.


            Sedrick was honestly glad to get away from the rest. He wasn't sure for how long he would be able to hide his symptoms but he could certainly use a few minutes of relaxation before doing so. Besides, maybe he could get something to drink that would help his throat a little. The trio trudged along, passed closed stores and open clubs on busy sidewalks. Marcus led them into a sane-looking non-sports bar that happened to have a table free by the pool tables. They slipped into the chairs, soaking up the loud music, the roar of a baseball game on TV, and the movement. They badly needed movement after a loss. Busy bodies all around them, having nothing to do with them, but moving just the same. Teddy and Robby were the kind who needed silence, to constantly work over every play, every mistake. But that wasn't Sedrick.


            “What can I get you boys tonight?” Sedrick looked up to see a thin waitress with long hair pulled up and breasts that looked like they wanted to pop right out of her dress. He knew he was married when he noticed this and felt he need to lend his jacket in case they actually did pop out. Perhaps he was just getting nicer in his old age. He was twenty-seven after all.


            Marcus ordered a beer. He always ordered a beer when they lost, but he never drank it. He just liked to hold it, smell it, and stare at it. Marcus was older than him by a year, with dirty blond hair he kept buzzed short, blue gray eyes, and a rather tough-looking face for a defenseman. Ulauf got a beer too, though he had the intention of actually drinking it. Ulauf was a hot-blooded Russian with bright blond hair and extraordinarily green eyes. Sedrick's thumb and first finger rubbed the sides of his nose, up and down, front and back. He looked up at the waitress. “Ginger ale?” he asked hopefully. She shook her head and Sedrick wished again he were back in Canada. “Then just a water, please.” He didn't even feel up to a soda with his throat a little scratchy.


            “See that one over there?” Ulauf pointed across the bar at guy playing pool. “He's going to miss and hit the orange solid instead.” Ulauf was famous for calling shots like that in sports. You name it, he could predict it like a sixth sense. It was one of the things that kept him on the team… aside from his passion and excellent playing, of course.


            Sedrick had intended to watch, but his nose seemed to have other ideas. The little tickle in his nose crept upon him even as he rubbed his nose. He swung his other fingers down to cup over his mouth and nose as his thumb and first finger pinched his nose. “huh-ehh-ek'uhh! uhh-ex'ehh!” he stifled it and while the sneezes hadn't been loud enough to attract attention, his sniffles afterwards were. But Ulauf and Marcus were too busy staring at the pool game as the guy, as predicted, missed the shot, and hit the orange ball to bounce against the side and roll halfway across the table.


            Their drinks arrived and Sedrick took a quick gulp of the ice water, then a second mouthful that he let linger in his hot mouth a moment. He let it sit at the back of his throat, cooling it, before swallowing. 'Ow…it hurts when I swallow. That can't be good.'  He took another sip, and another, his throat feeling just a little better with each. Marcus rocked his drink back and forth on the table, staring at the foaming gold liquid. American beer… he wouldn't drink it even if he wanted to; he only drank when they won, like the old, traditional hockey players. Ulauf on the other hand took a giant gulp of his, looking up at the baseball game with a yawn. “Um…” he bit his lip in concentration. “Left field ground ball.” Sedrick and Marcus looked up as a ball was pitched, and a fowl called. Marcus raised an eyebrow. “No no, just wait. It's coming. Stupidly slow baseball game.. what kind of sport prides itself in being slow?” They watched the next pitch and sure enough, a grounder to left.


            “How do you do that?” Sedrick asked with another gulp of water.


            Ulauf shrugged.


            Marcus looked up from his drink, his eyes widening as he looked over Ulauf's head to a man standing there. Seeing the gaze, Sed looked as well to see a tall, tipsy, bulky man standing right behind Ulauf and staring back at Marcus. Marcus, being the sweet, polite guy he was, said softly, “Can we help you?”


            The man narrowed his eyes. “You look familiar to me.”


            Sedrick cleared his throat and looked the man right in the eyes to intimidate him. “No he doesn't.”


            “Hey… you do too… where have I seen you guys tonight?”


            “You don't know us. We're from out of town.” He tried his best to look and sound convincing. Last thing he felt like was another fight tonight. “You've never met us.”


            The man was pissed, sloshed, smashed, inebriated… but not as much as his friend who stumbled over, hanging off his shoulder. “Hey! It's the Kitties!” He swallowed, wincing, as if he were about to be sick.


            “They hockey guys, the Tigers, yeah, sure! You're, uh, Marcus Army…” the first man said, pointing to Marcus. “And you're that funny Russian guy Daniels took down in the third,” he said, pointing to Ulauf. “And you're, uh…” No one remembered the tough guys. Sure, there were a few that people remembered, usually the most rough, most violent ones that do horrible things like cut people's eyes out or knock whole sets of teeth to the ice all at once. Sedrick was damn good at his job, cleanly. No one ever remembered him, but he didn't need to be remembered. He was a tough guy and he loved it.


            The second drunk man laughed before the first could place Sed. He pushed Ulauf in his seat with a hearty laugh. “Daniels took you down in the third, little kitty. Meow! Not so tough without your padding, huh, are you? Heh heh!” He burped and shoved at Ulauf again.


            Marcus was busy repeating, “Let him be. Let him be!” reaching over and trying to shove the first guy away as he couldn't reach the second. Ulauf's eyes were flaming and he made to stand up, hands clenching into fists that could do real damage; the gloves were off.


            Sedrick sprang to his feet, knocking over his glass with a shatter to the ground for effect and attention. He jumped between the drunks and his friend, holding his own fists up in front. “I suggest you leave us be.” His nose tickled and he sniffed strongly. This was definitely not the time to sneeze.


            The first man began backing away, but the second just laughed. “Kitty thinks he's tough, huh? Well…” the man raised a fist to throw a punch. But he was a slow, sloppy drunk and no competition for Sedrick who blocked it with his palm, but the man fired a second— a second that was soon non-existent as Sedrick administered a firm punch to his stomach. It didn't do damage… just knocked the wind right out of him like a puck to a goalie's gut. The drunk man doubled over, and then fell onto the floor, gasping in heavy heaves for breath. The bar exploded in applause, as they'd been attracted to the sound of glass breaking and had been watching earnestly for the most part. It was a trick Sedrick had learned after a few bar fights… make sure you don't throw the first punch and make sure you have every witness in the place who can say that.


            “Finish your drink fast, Ulley, we're on our way out.” Sedrick said coldly, keeping an eye on the man, feeling the security or manager making his way over to them right now. “You ok?” he asked the man at his feet, who nodded weakly, clutching his arms around his middle. Marcus stood up, as did Ulauf, just as management came over to them.


            “You boys all right?” They nodded and Sedrick handed the man some money.


            Sedrick rubbed at his nose. “Extra for the broken glass, and buy this guy a bear when he gets his breath back. Compliments of the Tigers.” He grinned down at the man, then over at the other who was looking both scared and relieved. “And the name's Sedrick Cullus. I'm the tough guy. You mess with my boys and you deal with me.” Stupid drunk American fans. With that, he led them outside with an air of respect following them with another round of applause. 


            “Ha ha!” Marcus laughed when they got back out into the warm, stuffy air and cold rain. He and Ulauf exchanged a high five.


The smile from Sedrick's face melted as he leaned back against the bar wall with a cough and a strong, unable-to-be-suppressed “ehh-huh—ahhh-CHUSHH! ehh—huh—CHESHOO!” Ulauf continued to laugh but Marcus raised an eyebrow in Sedrick's direction.


            Sedrick sniffed several times, and raised the hood on his jacket as he waved it off. “S'nothing,” he said strongly through his teeth with his tough guy convincingness. And Marcus, his friend, nodded, knowing not to push the issue. “Did you see his face when I bought him that beer?”


            Ulauf chortled in laughter, slapping him on the back. “Way to go Sed.”


            “Hey, I gotta protect my boys, right? It's my job.” Sedrick smiled as they made their way back to the bus just in time to see the last of the team boarding it. They jogged over and jumped on, taking their regular seats around the center. Marcus and Sedrick sat together on one side, and opposite them were Ulauf and Victor. Victor was staring, depressed, out into the darkness and the rain.


            Sedrick, with the window seat, turned his head away for another sniff, barely heard over the noise of the bus starting up and the conversations on the bus. The team tended to get more talkative the closer they got to a meal and the prospect of sleep.


            “Think we'll get a chance at dessert tonight?” Marcus asked absent-mindedly as he looked around at the bus. On nights when they won, everyone get seconds on desserts. On nights when they lost, only the five best players of the game got dessert… assuming there were five good players of the night.


            Sedrick was feeling the need to sneeze again and didn't want to risk a response to get an uncontrolled, unmanageable sneeze. So he shrugged and ducked his head a little, trying to melt back in his seat and against the side of the bus at the same time. “ehhh—“ he covered his nose and mouth tightly with both hands cupped. “heh-ATCHHOO! uhh—ehhAHSHEH!” He sniffed strongly to clear himself again and straightened up quickly as if nothing had transpired.


            Marcus, his eyebrow raised again, spoke softly. “Those were pretty big sneezes.”


            Sedrick nodded, waving his hand again. “You didn't see them.”


            Slowly, Marcus nodded. “Ok… you'd tell me if something were wrong, though, wouldn't you?”


            “Of course,” he answered quickly, avoiding the man's eyes with another strong sniffle to right his runny nose. He met Marcus's face and saw the worry thereon. He forced himself to smile softly and punched the man on the arm. “Since when did you become my Mommy, huh?”


            Marcus laughed a good, relieved laugh.


            Sedrick sat back, a bit relieved himself. It wasn't long before Marcus would catch onto his more consistent sneezes, and he wasn't sure what he wanted to tell management or Robby when that time came. He crossed his arms in front of his chest with a sigh. 'Whatever happens, however I feel, I play the next game. Right nose?' He sniffed again, strongly, wetly. It didn't sound good for his poor nose at present. 'Right,' he answered anyway, reassuring himself. 'I play. No cold gets the best of the tough guy.' He looked over at Ulauf who was drawing plays on his palm for Marcus and Alexi. The team needed their protector.



            The bus reached the hotel in no time, and they filed out one by one, hanging their heads for the most part as they passed the coach. He usually took off right after every winning game in a separate car, and was always there to meet them with a cross look and a few congratulations where they applied. This night, Sedrick got a pat on the shoulder, which was far more than he expected or usually got. 'Not everyone forgets the tough guy,' he thought with a smile. They filed through the lobby up to the reception hall they had rented for meals. For the most part, they were silent, not so much depressed as hungry, sleepy and mentally and physically exhausted. There were two tables to seat them all, and they filtered in sitting in relative usual order, much like their bus order out of habit. Most meals, they were usually too tired to think about where they were sitting, they just wanted to get it over with so they could sleep. Or try to sleep. Nearly the whole team found themselves too stressed and nervous to sleep during the finals. But at least their bodies got rest as they lay awake working through line movements and seeing that flashing red light of the goal going off.


            Tonight, they were served burgers, veggie and meat as some of the team members were particular in the animals they consumed or refused to consume, rather. There was salad and baked potatoes along with that and as much juice and water as they liked. And tonight Sedrick liked the juice much more than the rest of the meal. His throat was really starting to bother him, and he really wasn't in the mood for burgers, no matter how well they'd been cooked by the ritzy hotel.


            Tickles in his nose, too made him slow on the process of eating. It was bad enough that he'd had to let a few out in front of Marcus, but he wasn't about to sneeze in front of the whole team if he could help it. And to help it, he was sniffing quite a lot, and rubbing at his nose. A few times, he actually just sat and pinched his nose closed tightly. It worked practically every time, the tickley, sneezey feeling dying down. Only twice did it not work. The first time, the tickle was especially strong and sharp. He'd pinched his nose closed as he'd done in the bar and cupped his hand tightly over his nose and mouth the same way, and bent to the side, towards Marcus who was leaning forward for the salad dressing and blocked him quite conveniently. “ehh-egst'uh! ehhx'ehh!” he sneezed, suppressed. His ears fought back against them, hurting for only the split second. He straightened up again instantly as if nothing was wrong, and no one seemed to look at him… except for Marcus. At Marcus' narrowed eyes, he made the same 'no' sign with the sweep of his hand and a shake of his head. And Marcus, who still looked suspicious, let it go again.


            Dinner was starting to grow cold. Sedrick picked at his food, managing by the end a few bites of the burger and over half of his potato and going through quite a few glasses of juice in the meantime. The second time was near the end of dinner, where most everyone was too into their dinners to notice his pre-sneeze face and gasps for breath. He, again, leaned to the side, hoping to be hidden somewhat. “ehh—hug'sh! uhh—eg'eh!” He quickly sniffled and looked as if it were nothing at all to him. Marcus shook his head and with a concerned look, passed him a tissue from his pocket under the table. Sedrick accepted it, using it to rub his nose quickly and then stashing it away in his pocket, assuming he would most need it later.


            A few team members left as soon as they were done, not expecting dessert or too tired to wait around for it. Ulauf was one of these players. He kissed the tops of both Marcus and Sedrick's heads as he always did, with his normal, “Goodnight, gentlemen.”


            Sedrick nodded and looked up at him. “Night, Ulley.” He rubbed at his nose again. 'Sleep sounds pretty good right about now, actually. I'm not hungry anyway.'  He pushed back his chair to get up when the coach gave him a look.


            “You want us to send dessert up to you?” he asked with a sly smile.


            Despite his not feeling too well, a flutter of joy rushed through his body and showed in a grin on his face. “Really? Me? Heh… what is it, eh?” 'Maybe I'm hungry enough for dessert…'


            A bowl of dessert was brought out to Teddy, who barely looked at it as he pushed it aside to Robby and headed upstairs with a yawn. “Ice cream,” Robert replied, looking at it as if he wanted it but didn't think he deserved it. Or perhaps he just didn't want to coach snapping at him if he ate that which was meant for Teddy. He stood, handing the bowl down to Sedrick, who took it thankfully.


            “Thanks Cap'in!” he said with a mock salute that made much of the table chuckle. It was a nice sound. He liked it when the team was in a good mood.


Marcus stole a small spoonful of it, and then patted him on he back. “You deserve it, you were great tonight… getting that assist in the second… and stopping Patrick on the power play advance.”


            Sedrick shrugged. It felt nice to be recognized. Usually it was the scorers, the captain and the goalie to get dessert on losing night. “I was only as good as everyone else. It's a team, right?” Humble to the last, that was Sedrick. But this night he didn't mind having a dessert for the team. Someone who knew how much cold ice cream would help his sore throat must have been looking out for him up in the gray, stormy night clouds.


            They finished up quickly and headed up to bed. By now, it was just about one in the morning and they'd been up since eight that morning before. Still, Marcus and Sedrick pulled off from the main group where they waited for the elevator to get up to the fifth floor. It was tradition to race each other up the stairs on losing night. Winner got the shower first the next morning.


            The door to the stairwell closed tightly behind them, as the two big, strong men positioned themselves at the base of the second floor set of stairs. “One… two…” Marcus counted with a gleam in his eye and they both took off before he shouted “three!” with laughter. They bounded up the stairs, slow but steady as they took them two or three at a time in exhausted bounds. From the beginning, Sedrick was in the rear, finding it hard to get enough breath to storm up the stairs as he normally did. Still, he came in only just behind Marcus. But while Marcus gave a jump and yelled “Yes!” at the victory, Sedrick grabbed hold of the top banister for support, bending over as deep breaths and coughs caught him. That, he decided, was something he probably should not have done. “You ok, Sed?”


            Sedrick nodded, covering his mouth as another series of strong coughs caught him. If only he could catch his breath and soothe his throat a little…


            “Here,” Marcus offered only the word as he put an arm around Sedrick's waist and a hand on his shoulder, directing him towards the door. Once through, he guided the coughing man straight to the drinking fountain and pressed the 'on' button for him. The water did the trick, and Sedrick drank enough of it to make him stop coughing and then continued to drink, the cold wetness lovely on his throat.


            Their room was only a few doors down, so they were inside in no time. Sedrick collapsed at once on his bed, giving a few hefty coughs into his pillow. He felt like sleeping more than anything just then, especially more than changing and getting up. He owed his wife a call, and his teeth a cleaning and his nose could benefit from a blow or two. But he didn't want to move. Not just yet… maybe he'd just sleep for a few minutes… Marcus had to use the bathroom anyway.


            Sedrick felt a tug at his foot, and his shoe being gently eased off him, then the other. He coughed a rolled over to see Marcus sitting down on the bottom edge of his bed. Marcus rubbed his leg, the only thing he could easily reach. “Want to be honest with me yet?”


            Sedrick shook his head with another sniffle. “It's nothing. Sniff, sniff. In fact, it's better you don't know, eh?”


            Marcus shook his head. “If my roommie's going to be up sniffling and sneezing and coughing all night long, I have a feeling I'll find out somehow.”


            Sedrick gave a cough to clear his scratchy throat and addressed him frankly. “Your roommate will not keep you up all night sneezing…” he rubbed the back of his neck. “He promises.”


            With a yawn and a stretch, Marcus stood up. “Good. So now that the dirty business is settled, can I get you anything that will make you feel better?”


            “Look, I feel fine,” Sedrick insisted, collecting himself and pulling himself to his feet. “Really…” he reached up, rubbing routinely at his nose. He tried pinching it closed to quench the tickle, but no such luck. 'Of all the bloody times to sneeze!' He tried his best to hold it back, but there was no stopping this particular urge. “ehhh—huh—heh-AHSHESHHH! heh—eh-EHCHEOO! heh-AHSHOOO! AHCHOO!” He sniffed, rubbing fingers under his nose. He hated to admit it, but those had felt terribly good to finally get out.


            “Fine?” Marcus asked, an eyebrow raised. “And those were…?”


            “Those were dothig,” he answered, pulling out the tissue and giving his nose a hearty blow. Much better.


            Turning to Sedrick, “Well those 'dothig's sounded pretty strong and loud to me.”


            Exasperated, Sedrick sighed. “All right, I'm allergic to something down here—“


            “I,” Marcus replied, poking him in the stomach at each word. “I. Don't. Think. So.”


            Quickly, “It's just a chill from walking blocks in the freezing rain.”


            “Nope. I don't buy that. Care to try again? This is amusing.”


            Sedrick gave a sigh and rubbed his wrist back and forth beneath his nose. “You don't need to know…”


            Marcus reached out, hands on both of the man's shoulders, and eased him back with a push onto the bed. “Whether I know or not, it's the club you don't want knowing.” Sedrick gave a nod and sniffled and Marcus gave a sigh. “I may not have Ulley's psychic powers, but I think you're going to have another 'dothig' in a moment.”


            The defenseman ducked into the bathroom and came back with a handful of tissues just as Sedrick sneezed into cupped hands. “eh-heh-hehAHSHHOO! huh-EHHCHOO!


            “Gesundheit. Here,” handing over the tissues.


            Burying his nose amidst the mass of tissues, he blew his nose strongly and repeatedly. Then came out of it sniffling. “I'm sorry,” he whispered between sniffs, lowering his hands in frustration to his lap.


            Marcus gave a laugh. “You think you need to apologize to me? Damn, Sed, we're better friends than that!” 


            Smiling, Sedrick nodded. He was glad for their friendship in times like this. “ehh…ehh—huh-AHSHOO! ehh-ihh-CHISHOOO! ehhh-AHHCHUHHH!


            “Gesundheit,” Marcus said casually, “Time for you to get to bed, though. You take the bathroom first.” Sedrick hesitated. “Really, go for it.” With a shrug, Sedrick headed to the bathroom, cleaning his teeth, using the toilet, and blowing his nose until it felt much less stuffy. When he returned, both of their beds were turned down and ready for inhabitants. Marcus had gotten changed already in T-Shirt and sweats. By his bed sat a tissue box and a tall glass of ice water.


            Sedrick smiled. “Thanks, man.” He didn't really need to call home tonight; he could do it tomorrow and chances are Bethany was already asleep anyway. She would have seen the game on television and would certainly understand if he chose to sleep when he could after all that had gone on.


            “If you need anything,” Marcus called on his way across the room and into the bathroom. “Just ask. Goodnight.”


            Reaching up to flip the light off, Sedrick echoed with a tired, “Goodnight.”



~ * ~



            Sniff, sniff…sniff…sniff, sniff…sniff…SNIFF!” Silence. “Sniff…sniff…


            “Sedrick!” came a loud whisper from across the room. Sedrick opened his eyes and rolled over, searching for the man in the darkness and just being able to make out his shape.


            Sniff! Yeah? Sniff!” He felt so tired… as if he were about to fall asleep that very moment. He'd been going in and out of sleep all night long, with his sniffles and sneezes and a few coughs as the only thing to keep him up.


            With a sigh, “Just blow your nose, ok?”


            “Yeah. Sniff…sniff… sniff…” What had he said? Sedrick couldn't recall… so tired… “Sniff… sniff…sniff…


            “Sed, blow your nose!” the man said again with a bit of a laugh.


            “Oh… sniff, yeah.” Sedrick pulled out a few tissues and gave his nose a hard blow. “Sorry,” he muttered when done. He really didn't mean to be keeping Marcus up like this. He didn't even want to be keeping himself up.


            “It's ok,” Marcus replied with a yawn. “You can't help it at all.”


            huhh…” Sedrick felt the need to sneeze again and, not answering the man, clamped tissues over his face. “ehhh-AHMMUPHH! eehh-CHUMPHHH! uhhhh…” he groaned.




            “Ugh! This is so frustrating! I just can't stop… snee… snee… eh-hehh…heh-AHSHISHHH! ehhh—AHCHISHHH!


            “Gesundheit.” The defenseman rolled over in bed from his back to his side, facing Sedrick. “Hey, I know it's frustrating. But you're a tough guy, right? You can handle a little case of the sniffles, right?”


            Stuffy, congested, and with his nose still tickling as if he needed to sneeze, Sedrick gave a nod. Then exploded with a few more, “ehh-EHSHOOO! uhh-huh—AHRSHUSHH! ehhh-CHUHHH! Sniff, sniff!” He blew his nose again and a small cough escaped him as well.


            With another yawn, Marcus pulled himself out of bed and went straight over to the bathroom. The sound of running water filled Sedrick's ears with wonder until Marcus returned a few seconds later and sat at the edge of his bed. “Here, maybe this will help.” He laid a hot washcloth first over Sedrick's whole face, then just the top half, covering much of his nose. Amazingly, it made him feel a little better.


            “Old Armstrong family remedy for a tickling nose.”


            However it worked, the important point to note was that it worked. Sedrick's nose stopped tickling as much, and a warm wave of sleep came over him. He yawned and closed his eyes as he mumbled a soft, “Thank you.”


            “Don't mention it,” Marcus replied, rising slowly so as not to disturb his friend. “Goodnight.”


            Sedrick was already asleep, breathing through his mouth and snoring just a little from a stuffed up nose.



~ * ~



            “Wakey, wakey!” Sedrick's eyes opened slowly to see Marcus walking to him, shaking a thermometer. “Mommy Marcus wants to take your temperature.”


            Grumbling, Sedrick shook his head. “I'b dot sig.” At the sound of his voice he groaned and reached for the tissues for a well-needed blow.


            “Not sick, hmm? Then you shouldn't mind my sticking this in your mouth.”


            'This is not how I wanted to wake up.' Sedrick tried pushing past him to get up but Marcus held him down. “Marcus, I'm not sick and I don't sniff, sniff, need you taking my temperature.” He tried again to break free but Marcus had him pinned with a hand on his chest.


            “I'm a defenseman. No one gets by me. Now stop being an ass and just let me see what your temperature is.” After one more stubborn and unsuccessful try, Sedrick gave in, coughing, then crossing his arms over his chest. He did not like this one bit, but he didn't seem to have a choice. Marcus was staring at his watch, watching the second hand tick away. Finally, he pulled it back out and plopped the tissue box on Sedrick's lap instead. While the man blew his nose, Marcus read out, “Ninety-eight point six.” And with a smile, “It says you're not sick.”


            Sedrick grinned. No fever. This was very good news. “See? I told… you…” he made quick use of the tissues, holding them to his nose. “ehh—AHSHHUH! Uhhh-AHSHESHH! ehh—AHCHISHUH! Sniff, sniff! Sniff! I'b dot sig.”


            “Right.” Marcus stood up with a stretch. “Well then good morning. I've already had my shower, it's time for yours then we'll catch the last of breakfast before practice this morning. You figured out what you're going to say when they ask?”


            With a cough, Sedrick shrugged. “I'm not sick.” Well, he wasn't! 'I'm not! Just a little sniffle in my nose. I'll be fine.' He got up and grabbed a change of clothes on the way over to the shower. After a long, soothing shower which did him worlds of good, and a good clean shave, he and Marcus were on their way down to breakfast, by way of the elevator. The tables were actually still pretty full when they arrived, though the coach was nowhere to be seen, nor was Teddy, and there was thick tension in the air. 'He couldn't still be taking last night to heart, could he?' Not even Teddy took losing that badly. He scanned the seats one last time to be sure, his eyes resting on the backup goalie, Jacob Neizer who was sitting and staring at his food, motionless. Something was definitely not right.


            Apparently Marcus noticed it as well and after they collected some food from the continental buffet and came to sit down, Marcus asked as casually as possible, “So where's Teddy?”


            Everyone looked at him, but Robby was the one to answer. “He's, uh, caught a touch of something. Nothing serious… but we're keeping him in bed this morning so we don't chance it getting any worse.”


            Marcus and Sedrick exchanged surprised and frightened looks. If he had what Sedrick had come down with… Teddy was one of the best net minder's in the league and for their next game they needed the best. Neiz was a rookie still, pretty much his first year on the bench from the minors. He had barely logged time on the ice during the season, and not once during the playoffs. Sed looked down at the boy, still frozen in his spot. Victor sat beside him, and put his arm around the boy's shoulders. “Come on, you gotta eat sumtin'. Keep your strengt up foor practice in a few minutes. It's important.” Neiz suddenly looked very pale, and as he slapped a hand over his mouth, suddenly pushed pack from the table and rushed from the room. From the sound of things, Sed guessed he hadn't made it to the men's room in time.


            Marcus swore under his breath and Sedrick would have liked to have shared in the sentiment, if not for the sudden tickle in his nose. He dug a tissue out of his pocket slowly so that no one would notice. By the time the urge had built up and he brought a hand up to his nose and mouth, Robby and a few others were just getting up to leave. Quite fortunate. He was forced into a deep breath, and then bent forward slightly with “ehh-eg'uh! uhh-Eh!” two beautifully stifled sneezes that no one had noticed. No one had noticed, but they certainly had hurt. His ears had felt an intense amount of pressure, his throat had stung a moment, and his nose itself had not taken kindly to it. And damn it if he didn't have to sneeze again already. Taking a giant bite of muffin and a gulp of juice, and trying not to wince at the pain of swallowing, Maybe if he finished more quickly he wouldn't need to sneeze until he was out of the room. Unfortunately, his nose was not in the mood for deals, and he found himself raising his hand again, pinching his nose closed. “ehh…heh-ef'uh! ex'uh!” Painful. Very painful. He was going to have to stop stifling them soon. He sniffed and finished off the blueberry muffin and a second helping of juice. On his way out, he decided on a third helping of it. Couldn't have too much Vitamin C could he? Marcus had stayed to talk with Ulauf about things and while he trusted his Russian friend, he was glad Marcus was the type of friend who would not tell a soul about his condition.


            They loaded into the bus again, tired and a little stiff from the night before. Alexi's arm had been bandaged. The Tas Tiger, the team's other enforcer, Tora Sental, had unwisely matched up against the other team's enforcer and had a resulting giant black eye and bruised right side of the face. The Czech twins, who weren't actually twins or brothers at all but a practically inseparable duo, were actually both dozing off on the ride. Playoff hockey… you got sleep whenever you could because you were too stressed to sleep at night. Teddy, despite Robby, the trainers, and the coach's protests, was there with them as well, bundled in a thick coat that didn't belong to him, snuggling in the corner of the bus by the rear heater. From the look of it, the man would not be playing during practice but his stubborn, anal nature had insisted upon him at least being there. And from the look of it, Teddy didn't look half as bad as Sedrick felt. Then again, the man was a wall and was probably as good at hiding things as Sedrick.


            The team filed out into the locker room, after a few twists and turns to get there. American sports architects, almost as bad as drunk American fans. They got dressed, a few of them dawning their jerseys simply by routine and superstition. There was a good deal of superstition and nowhere was it more prevalent than during the second season on the race for the cup. Sedrick put on his usual practice garb, gray padded sweats and the plain white helmet with his number on the back: 65. It was a noble number for an enforcer there to protect the honor of his players. His skates went on last… he always dressed from the top down and got undressed bottom up. All right, so he had his superstitions just like everyone else. He made it to the ice before most of the team, and spent the time skating circles, feeling the cold ice of the rink beneath it. The cold was in the air as well, and made his nose run terribly. He hadn't put on gloves yet, so he was still able to rub at his nose, but rubbing did very little when it ran like that. He wiped his nose on his sleeve with a few wet sniffles. Looking up, he saw the coach sitting beside Teddy in the stands. Teddy was not only in a thick coat, but had a blanket around his shoulders now and looked quite miserable. Sed saw the man lift a fist and sneeze twice. It certainly looked like it could be the same thing he was sick with. Sedrick coughed and sniffed again. Of course, he wasn't sick, was he? No, not at all.


            “All right, two laps, then stretches!” the assistant coach yelled at a whistle. “Move it, move it!” Sedrick sped up as blurs of his other players joined him on the rink. They sprinted as fast as they could around, trying not to bump into each other or bump into Neiz who was slower in the sprint with all his goalie padding; they let him skate on the inner portion of the rink. Finally, they came to slow in the center of the rink, forming a group sort of circle and sitting on the ice. Sedrick got a sudden chill as he sat, and felt his nose tickle him to sneeze. He sniffed it away as he spread his legs and bent to the right side, reaching down towards his skate. Then over to the left. Then to the center. Then back to the right. Back to the left. Back to the “ehh-AHCHUHH! Sniff!” Sed froze in place, his face staring down at the ice, his arms stretched out in front of himself. His nose needed to be blown badly, but he dared not even give another sniffle. He was sure to have been spotted. 'Do not sneeze again. Make no sudden movements. Don't even sniffle. They won't know it was you if you don't sniffle.' Slowly, as if he'd been stretching the whole time, he pulled back up and stretched to the right again. Not a soul was looking in his direction, not even the assistant coach who was busy pulling the bag of pucks over to the side of the rink. Someone, somewhere, was surely on his side.


            He reached over to Marcus and they pulled each other's arms, then pulled each other to their feet. Sed wheeled his arms around loosening up. He bent each leg and pulled it behind his back, bending forward and working on his balance. Then he looked around to see who else was done. Victor was just finishing up and looking a little distracted. Perfect. He skated over and all at once, rammed into the man.


            “Hey!” Vic exclaimed, falling back onto the ice with a thud.


            Sedrick smiled and shrugged. “Just practicing.” Most everyone on the team laughed and Sedrick's smile grew to a grin. He loved making them laugh almost as much as he loved protecting them. He extended a hand and helped the man up, and they exchanged pats on the back. Sed skated over and picked up his gloves, giving his nose a rough rub and a wipe on his sleeve once more before putting them on.


            Practice began like all others. The assistant, Rob Adams gave them some notes in his slow upper Canadian accent, told them the sides had not changed aside from the fact that their other assistant coach, Jesus Endriez, would be playing second string goal for now. Sedrick grinned. It had been Endriez who first worked with him at scoring when he was new to the team so many years ago. This might prove to be an interesting practice after all. When Adams blew the whistle, they disbursed to their sides, Sedrick taking up residence on the bench at first as usual. Once sitting, he lifted his wrist to his nose, rubbing his nose on his sleeve, then pressing it tightly against. “ehh-ASHUMPH!” he gave a single sneeze into his wrist, paused, waiting for a second. “ehh-AESHUMPH!” came the second, almost inevitable sneeze. He looked up to see Marcus skating by him to line change, giving him a concerned look. Sed only shrugged and sniffed.


In no time, Adams skated by and pointed at him. “You're in next line with Robby.” Sed gave him a nod, noticing how Tas the Tiger and one of the Czech twins were roughing their captain around. He toppled over the side of the rink with the others at the change and went straight for The Tas's right side, knocking into his head gently. It was dangerous for two tough guys to go at each other; they knew the tricks, they knew the vulnerabilities. And the head was the biggest vulnerability of them all, aside from the legs. Hit a man, and he went down. Hit a man in the head and he went down for a long time. Hit a man below the waist and he was out for far longer than a long time. This time, he pushed the man into the side and he went right down with the head knock, even as it had been minor. Just as he did, Robby made a breakaway and shot the puck right past Endriez in the five spot. A beautiful sight if there ever was one. Sed didn't even mind as another sneeze crept up on him, whish was again directed into his sleeve, “ehhASHHHUMPH! ehh-huh-ATCHUMPH!” Then he banged Vic into the boards with 'practice' hardness. The game score was 3-2 in favor of the second string, perhaps because Neiz was still not on top of his game. Sed guessed he was still nauseously nervous. So his place was still needed out on the ice and he certainly hadn't been called back yet. He looked around to see what was going on. The Czech twins were moving it across their blue line to center ice, zipping it back and forth to each other in a blur that Marcus was trying to stop, and Vic was moving back so he wouldn't be off-sides when they crossed.


            “Grinder! Make 'em honest!” Sedrick gritted his teeth. 'Fuck! That's me.' There was little time in hockey to think, and he'd just spent a good few seconds on it. No thinking allowed. His head was spinning and his heart pounded, taking Adams' call as a personal insult. Fired up, he went straight for the first Czech, slamming him hard into the boards and then running right into the other for a full body check as the man got close to Neiz. The puck went wide and Marcus picked it up with a pass to Robby across their blue line. At the same time, Sed slammed Vic again and banged his stick on the ice hard. Robby passed it to him, Sed passed it back between the legs of their defensemen, and then Robby passed it back with a wide grin. Sedrick understood and slammed it toward the goal with very little precision. The red light flashed as Endriez dove and fell face-first into the ice. Robby caught Sed in a hug and Marcus was there to bang heads with him in congratulations. Endriez slapped the puck out and stuck out his tongue. “That the best you can do, Baby?”


            Sed sniffed, his grin not easily retreating. “Look who's talkin' ice man!” Sed skated to the bench where Adams was there with a pat to the back.


            “Don't get to thinking about it, just hit somebody. But that was nice playing. I want you on the net next time Robby goes out. Just stay there in front of the net and don't move, got it?” Which meant precisely not to let anyone near the goalie.


            Sed nodded, rubbing a furiously runny nose on his sleeve which was beginning to get a little noticeably wet. Not good. He wasn't feeling too hot either. All the skating was making him short of breath and it was all he could do to restrain coughs. He chugged down a water bottle and scrubbed again at his nose. Her certainly was not playing his best game, and the cold was slowing down his thinking times a bit. The whistle blew and as the skaters neared, he hopped over and, pushing Vic into the boards yet again, took his place in front of Neiz. “Get ready for an assault,” he yelled back at the young goalie. He skated forward a little to see the Czech twins with The Tas in the middle start forward in triangle formation. He knew better than to try to predict the twins, especially as they yelled in Czech at each other. Way over this Canadian boy's head. But The Tas on the other hand, was much more predictable. He watched the man's skates carefully. As the man made a slight deviation to the left, Sed wheeled over to the right center in front of the net, blocking the pass with his stick, sending it back to Marcus for an off-sides but crashing into Djofsky at the same time. There was a whistle and Neiz sighed in utter relief as the practice game ended. Now all he had to contend with were free shots, and those were much easier and routine. Sedrick helped Adams pull out the two big bags, dumping the pucks for long shots.


            They each had to get three before they could hit the locker room. And then, Sedrick suspected, Neiz would get some extra practice from the coaches and Robby, who was looking a little disappointed despite the nicely played moves. Teddy, still in the stands, had actually gone to sleep on the bench with his head in the coach's lap. Sedrick laughed at the sight and took his place in the left line to fire away. At his turn, he felt his nose tickle almost immediately as he charged the net. He shot, deflected off the right kneepad. As he turned to skate to the right line, he lifted his arm. His skating slowed and his head bent forward. “ehhh-AHCHISHHH! ehh-huh-EHSHUHH!” Marcus grabbed him by the arm inconspicuously and got him back into line. “Thanks,” Sedrick managed when they were back in line and he had sniffed a few times.


            Marcus gave a nod, taking a puck with his stick and passing it to him, then getting it back from him. “I get you when we're done here. You know that, right?”


            Sedrick was a bit scared at how that sounded, or what the man might do to him, but the man was looking out for him and had been good enough not to tell the rest of the club.


            “Wipe your nose, you're up next,” Marcus whispered and passed him the puck again.


            Sed rubbed his nose into his now undeniably wet sleeve and skated at the net, shooting a little wide and giving it a lift, making the puck sail right over the right-handed goalie's stick and arm. One down, two to go. He skated over to the left line again and rubbed his nose. They were working on assists now, and the right was assisting, charging and passing over to the left line of players who shot them in, or tried to. Neiz was always pretty good at this sort of thing. He may have been a green frog rookie, but he wasn't a bad backup goalie at all. Not at all; as long as he kept his nerves off the ice.


            Sedrick stormed the net, catching the puck and tossing it right into Neiz's waffle pad. He skated over to the right with a swear word under his breath. The more time he was on ice, the more his nose ran, and the more his nose ran, the more it threatened with tickles to make him sneeze, and the more he sneezed the more his chance of getting noticed and confronted about getting sick. He certainly couldn't have that now, could he? He'd just have to do something to speed up the goals. He sniffed strongly, telling his nose that it would just need to wait. Then he grabbed a puck, then a second and skated toward the net. He shot one over to Alexi on the left and after Alexi missed, he shot the second, sailing it right past Neiz who swore at him loudly calling him a “Fucking cement head!” Hell, Sed had heard worse; he'd definitely been called worse. Sed skated right past him and picked up the missed puck, sweeping it back to Marcus who shot it for a block and Sed picked up the rebound in the three spot. He raised both his arms, then gave a reluctant Jacob Neizer a hug, and then sailed off to the locker room.


            He was the second one there, though he couldn't remember who had been first and whoever it was was already in the shower. Sedrick tore off his skates, his pants, his gloves and sweatshirt, and then grabbed immediately for the tissues he'd stashed in the pockets of his pants. “ehhh…” he had to sneeze badly. He cupped one hand loosely over his nose and mouth as his other rooted around, pulling out the tissues. “ehh—huh-AHHSHISHHH! EhhCHISHOOO! ehh-huh-keh-AHSHOO! ehh-EHSHUHH! uhh-AHHSHESHH!” He snuffled into the tissues, using them now to replace his soaked hand. “ehh-AHSHHMPH!” The sensation died down and he gave his nose a furious blowing. He wiped his nose and upper lip clean afterwards and looked up to see that he was still alone in the room. Good. He threw the tissues in the trash on his way over to the shower.



~ * ~



            The elevator ride up was the worst of it. He'd been tempted to take the stairs again but Marcus hadn't favored that suggestion and had forced him with the first group to the elevator. In the locker room, he'd managed not to sneeze after the small fit that had seized him after practice. On the bus, he'd been fine, too, able to snuffle into a few tissue the whole way as Marcus blocked him from sight simply by sitting in a particular position. But in the elevator up four flights of stairs… there was nowhere to hide and no way to hide. This particular elevator held Robby, Teddy, Victor, Alexi, Ualuf, Marcus and himself. Sedrick spent the first few seconds as the elevator whirred sniffing softly to try to get his nose in control. Next, he observed Teddy, who was not looking at all good. The man looked tired and weak and his nose was red at the end as if he'd been on ice all morning when Sedrick knew he hadn't. Sedrick wondered if he looked at all that bad; he hoped not.


They were nearing the fourth floor when the tickles caught up to Sedrick. He sniffed softly and put his hand to his nose, pinching in hopes of holding it off. But the sensation was way too strong and he gave in, a little scared to stifle them but more scared not to. “eh—heh—


            Suddenly, from the back of the elevator came, “HUFCHITSHHH! HEFSISHHHOO! HETCHOOO! HEKCHOOOO!


            Which completely overpowered and drew every eye and ear away from his own, “ehh-ek'uh! egst'uh!” Lucky, it seemed as he sniffed loudly, was his middle name. 'Sedrick Lucky Cullus. Not a bad ring to it, really.'


He turned himself to see Teddy snuffling into a large handful of tissues. “I'b sorry. Excuse be.”


            Robby knocked heads with him affectionately as hockey players were known to do. “It's ok, Halik.”


            “Bless you, Teddy.” “Yeah, feel better, Teddy.” “Don't worry about it, Teddy!” came a chorus from the elevator crowd just as the door opened on the fifth and they all headed out to their rooms.


Marcus and Sedrick went to theirs right away, making it there practically but not before hard slaps on the back befell them both and the hands which had made them came up to ruffle both men's hair. “So, what plans do we have this afternoon, Gents?”


            Sedrick sniffed quietly, put a smile on his face and kept walking, hoping Marcus might come up with something.


            “Sed's in the mood for a short nap,” Marcus told Ulauf so as not to technically lie to the man. “I was thinking of a dip in the pool after lunch—“


            “Oh! Sounds good!” exclaimed the enthusiastic Russian. “I'll see you gents at lunch then!”


            “All right then!” Marcus said. “Later!” Sedrick nodded in agreement, holding up his hand to see him off. He then sighed in relief as his card cleared and the door was swung open.


            Their beds had been made, Sedrick's mess of used tissues that had been everywhere had been cleaned away, and fresh complimentary bottles of water sat on the night stand where the wet washcloth and empty cups had before been. Sedrick flopped down onto his bed, rubbing his nose viscously now that he was in private and able to do so. He coughed and turned to his side, sniffling unhappily. “How bad am I looking?” he asked. “Honestly?”


            Marcus came out of he bathroom area with a fresh warm washcloth and the box of tissues again. “Honestly, like shit.” The tone of his voice told Sedrick that the man really wasn't kidding either.


            Sedrick nodded. “So no different than normal?”


            Marcus laughed, patting Sed on the arm, laying the washcloth on the man's head, and setting down the tissues. “That's right, funny man. Joke all you want now. I'm not letting you out of this bed for the rest of the day.” Sedrick started to get up in refusal and Marcus shook his head, keeping him down. “And I'm not letting a soul in that door for whatever reason.”


            He coughed and rubbed more at his nose. “I'm playing tomorrow.”


            A nod. “We'll see how you feel tomorrow. Might be a game-time decision.”


            “Doesn't matter. The decision has been made and I'm playing.” The truth was, he felt so bloody awful now that there could be no possible way for him to feel any worse tomorrow. His head was exploding with stuffy pressure. His throat was sore and burning even when he wasn't swallowing. His whole body ached and he felt horrible weak and tired. Not to mention that his nose was starting to hurt when he rubbed it and it certainly was not letting up on running and sneezing. “ehhh…heh-AHHSHISHHH! eehh—hehh-IHHSHHEOOO!” He sniffed strongly, his nose terribly stuffy again. “I ab blayig, Barcus.”


            Marcus nodded again saying soothingly, “Shh, I believe you. Come now…” He pulled the covers down, then draped them over the man. He fluffed the pillow and tossed the mint from it onto the bed stand. “I want you to try to rest.”


            Sedrick closed his eyes, pulling the washcloth down to cover from his temples to his nose. Very soothing it was. “ehhh.. heh-APSHHHH!” he sneezed suddenly, freely, trying to stop it once it was already on it's way out. He rolled over to his other side, grabbing tissues. “ehhh-AHCHUMPHHH! Ahh-AHCHUPHH!” He blew his nose again, dropping his hand loosely to the side. “Excuse me.” The washcloth having slipped off, he looked up at Marcus. “I didn't mean to—“


            “Yeah, I know.” Marcus said with a smile. “Just get better, huh Sed?”


            Sedrick nodded wearily, sniffling and giving his nose another blow. The tickle was fierce and insistent in his nose. “ehhh… ehh-huh-AHHCHISHHH! ehhh-CHESHHH!


            “Gesundheit. Try to get some sleep, Sed. It'll make you feel better.”


            He blew his nose and nodded a thank you. After readjusting the washcloth, he closed his eyes. Maybe Marcus was right. It felt like resting would help… he was so tired. And Marcus was the best defenseman in the club. If there was anyone to guard the protector of the team, it was Marcus. Comfy against the pillows and blankets, hugging the blankets to his chest, he stretched out in the giant bed and fell asleep.



~ * ~



            “You, Policeman, snore like a bastard.”


Sedrick, just waking up, opened his eyes with a congested snort to see Marcus lounging on the other bed. He lay on his stomach on top of the blankets with the remote in his hand. “Rise and shine, sleepyhead.”


“How long have I been asleep? Did I miss lunch?” And did he miss anything else? He coughed, his voice sounding weak and strained.


            “You've been asleep for four hours. I got you some food from lunch though if Teddy's any indication of the way you're feeling I can't imagine you've got much of an appetite. Although Alexi was a little hungry.”


            Sedrick raised an eyebrow and coughed into his fist as he sat up in bed.


            Marcus elaborated. “Alexi came down with the sniffles during lunch much to his insistence that he was very much not sick. Sound like someone you might know? It looks like what you've got. Anyway, he's been scratched already from the game and sent straight to bed. Teddy's still insisting that he'll play.” Three of them with colds now and the game more than twenty-four hours away. At this rate there would be no team left to play the fourth game. “Did you hear the phone when it rang?”


            He shook his head. “Can you get me some water, please?”


            “Sure,” Marcus heaved himself up and got a cup of water with ice from him, bringing a bottle of fruit juice as well. “There's another few juices in the fridge if you want them.”


            The water was like magic to this throat. It hurt like a bitch to swallow, but each time he swallowed it got a little better. He sniffled and coughed and cleared his throat and drank down the water all at once. Marvelous. With that taken care of, back to what Marcus had been saying, “No… who was on the phone?”




            Sedrick smiled to hear her name; he was hoping she might call. “You didn't wake me up?”


            He shook his head. “She asked me not to.”


            “So you told her…”


            “I told her you hadn't been feeling too well but you'd just decided to take a nap and she said she understood what playoff sleep schedules were like and told me to take one too.”


            He chuckled which made him cough. He popped the juice open and poured it into the now cup of ice, taking a gulp or two to soothe his coughing. “I don't want her to worry about me. But... you don't think she'd call the coaches if she thought I was too sick to play, do you?”


            Shrugging, “I wouldn't put it past her. You know how scared she got when you got hit last year.”


            “Ah, that was just rou… routi… ehhh…routine…huh…” he reached for the tissues again, beginning to get tired of this routine. “ehh-heh-ACHUSHHH!” he sneezed loudly, shaking him in bed. “uhh-AHSHOOO! Ehhh-AHHSHUSHHH!




            He blew his nose and slid down under the covers a bit more, a little embarrassed. He couldn't even hold a decent conversation without sneezing, how was he supposed to play tomorrow?


            “When does she work tomorrow?”


            He thought a moment. “Eight sniff, sniff, to sniff, five. You think I should sniff, sniff, leave a message so I don't have to sniff, talk to my wife? That's horrible! Sniff, sniff!


            Shrugging again, “What are your other choices?”


            Right now it really didn't look like he had any. “Damn it!” Things were getting worse by the minute.


            Marcus threw him a small package of oatmeal raisin cookies. “Nibble on those a while if you're hungry.”


            But Sedrick wasn't hungry. He was tired… still, and depressed. Alexi was too sick to play tomorrow, and he probably was, too. He closed his eyes, wondering why he was so exhausted today. Practice really hadn't been that hard, had it? Maybe it was the stress of trying not to sneeze all day and night that was taking it out on him. How much sleep had he managed to get anyway? Well… four hours just now… last night maybe another four… Before he'd finished, he was asleep again.



~ * ~



            “Barcus?” he woke up to the sound of fuzzy voices and the air conditioner in the room blowing on him. Stupid hotel. He wished he were home to be sick in his own bed.


            “Right here, Sed,” he said between what sounded like gulps. “Roll over.”


            Marcus obeyed, blinking as the light hit his eyes and made him, “ehhAHHHSHHHOOOO! Ehh-AHHCHISHHOO! ehh-uhh-AHCHOOO!” He opened his eyes again cautiously to see Marcus sitting at the table in the room eating some chicken pasta thing. The TV was on and turned up loud. Sedrick looked around, then sneezed again, “ehh-IIHHSHOOO!” and sniffed very wetly and weakly.


            Marcus was by his side by then, offering a tissue or two.


            Sedrick's hands were beneath the covers and he was cold as is, with no intention of pulling his hands out and getting colder. He felt terrible. He felt horrible. He felt absolutely miserable. He— “I feel sig,” he whispered, turning his head into the pillow. He felt sick. “ehh—AHHSHESHOO! ehh-huh—CHESHUHH!” His body gave a great shuddering shiver. “ehhh-KETCHUHHH!


            “Gesundheit.” The man certainly must be sick to have admitted that. Awkwardly, Marcus held the tissues up to his nose. “Let's give it a try, tough guy.”


            A little embarrassed but feeling too bad to do anything contrary, he blew his nose. Marcus gently worked them around, holding his nose just right as he blew, then wiping his nose for him when he was done.


            “How'd I do?” he asked, balling up the tissues and tossing them on the floor.


            Sedrick managed to give him a soft smile.


            “I'll take that as 'all right but I shouldn't quit my job?'”


            Sedrick smiled again, and coughed, quickly turning his head into his pillow again so he wouldn't cough on Marcus. This was almost humiliating. Take that back, it was humiliating. When he was done coughing, Marcus eased his head back and held up a glass of juice with ice in it. He lifted it to the man's lips, putting his hand on the back of his head to help him. When done, he set the drink down and held the tissues up for him again. After another series of blows, Sedrick nodded, shivered, and barked out, “Thags.”


            Marcus tucked the blankets around him tighter and ducked back towards the bathroom to return with an extra blanket. He draped it over the large man. “You're most welcome. What else can I do for you?”


            He shook his head.


            Marcus gave a nod and hopped back onto his bed, the bed creaking under the large defenseman's sudden weight. “You still tired?”


            He shook his head again, with another cough.


            “Ok then, you can help me make the most crucial decision of the day.” He grabbed hold of the movie order pamphlet. “Topless Tina at the Tractor pull or Victoria's Sexy Secrets?”


            Sedrick burst out laughing, coughing, and sniffing, but laughing all the same. Sedrick could tell even his coughing was sounding much worse.


            “No, really. What should we get? I was thinking something light with a little adventure in it. They have Hannibal or Snatch or Valentine or something called 15 minutes with DeNiro.”


            ehh-HICHOOO! ehh-huh-ahh-AHHCHISHOO!


            Marcus looked over as Sedrick was trying to rub his runny nose on the blankets, and sighed. He leaned over, taking a few tissues out and holding them up for him. “When I'm done blowing your nose I expect a decision out of you on the movie, Sed.”


            Sedrick smiled, sniffling as Marcus tossed the used tissues aside. “I sniff, sniff, deed… ub…sniff, sniff…


            “Another blow?” Marcus pulled out another tissue and held it up for him. “OK, there you go.” He cracked a smile at the situation. “Honestly, Sed. This is a little silly.”


            Sedrick blew his nose and closed his eyes, rubbing his face into the pillows. “I'b sorry. I'b…” he sounded close to tears.


            Marcus reacted quickly. “Hey, it's ok. I don't mind. Don't get upset or anything. Come on, tough guys are allowed to get just as sick as goalies or straight centers or wingers, k?”


            He nodded, pulling his head out with another sniffle.


            “So, made a decision on the movie. There's some other ones but they're mostly mushy girl flicks.” He made a face.


            “Sdatch, sniff, sniff. There's boxig id it,” Sedrick related with a grin, pulling the blankets closer around himself.


            “Heh heh, yeah? Sounds up our alley. Comedy, action, boxing, and all the violence, language and nudity that can fit into an hour and forty-three minutes, huh?” he joked, reading from the description on the pamphlet. He got up and swiped his card in the reader, an old pro at the system after eleven years on the road with hockey clubs. He punched in the numbers and gave a stretch as he jumped back onto his bed. “You hungry yet, Sed?”


            Sedrick shook his head with a sniffle.


            “Well, before you go to bed tonight I'm going to make you eat something substantial at least. If you're going to be trying to play tomorrow you can't go this long without eating.”


            Sedrick knew that, too, he simply wasn't very hungry. “I could choke subthig dowd later.”


            Marcus raised an eyebrow with a smile. “That's what I like to hear.”


            The movie started and the two men sat back to watch. Marcus finished his dinner on the bed so that he'd be close to Sedrick when he was needed. Looking in on it might have seemed quite absurd, really, but it was a perfectly normal course of action for them. During the season, they spent more time together than they did at their own homes, or Sedrick with his wife. They'd been through injury, they'd been through near death, they'd shared in each other's losses as well as each other's happiness. They'd been through so much together that there was absolutely nothing to hide between them. But when Sedrick needed his teammate, on or off the ice, Marcus was there for him and vice versa.


            During the movie, Sedrick actually started feel better. Halfway through, he was caught in a rather harsh sneezing fit and took care of it himself, finishing off one box of tissues completely as Marcus fetched another for him. After that, he started feeling better, taking care of his runny nose himself with Marcus there as moral support. Sedrick managed to stay awake for the duration of the movie, with the help of several bottles of juice and two packages of the cookies Marcus had earlier acquired for him.


            “I'm ordering you something from room service,” Marcus said, grabbing the menu. “What do you want?”


            Sedrick, in the middle of another blow, shook his head. “Dod't care. ehh-AHSHESHHH! uhh-AHSHOOO! Sniff, sniff, sniiiffff!


            “Gesundheit. Sure you care, otherwise I'm ordering you the fish sticks.”


            Screwing up his face and sticking out his tongue, Sedrick warned, “You'd better dot!”


            “All right then. What do you want?”


            He shrugged. Something light and still filled with protein and maybe some carbs. “Soub add sadwich is good.”


            Skimming the menu, “Excellent choice. Chicken noodle vegetable or tomato tortellini?”


            “I'b sick, sniff, sniff, which do you think?”


            “Heh, chicken it is then. And sandwich… a Ruben?”


            “Sure… oh God… gonna…” he grabbed several tissues out of the box quickly, “be… big-eh-AHSHOOO! eh-uh-huh—AKCHUHHH! Heh—uhh—ehh-ARSHESHHH! CHISHHH! Ehh-heh-uh-AHCHESHHOO! uhh—huh—HECTCHOOO! heh-ehh-AHSHESHOO!” He sat motionless a moment, eyes blinking, nose running beneath the wad of tissues, face frozen in a pre-sneeze expression that took over his whole face and body. “ehh-AAHHHCHEHHHHHH! eehh-huh-AHHHSHOOOOOO! Uhhhhhh…” he groaned, flopping to the side in bed, exhausted.


            Marcus went over to him with fresh tissues from the box. “Big blow, Sed.”


            Sedrick, eyes closed, obeyed, blowing over and over and over again.


            “That's a good policeman,” he said with a smile when finished. “I could have them get you some cold medication, too. Or I could run out and get you some.”


            Sedrick shook his head weakly. “I do't take adythig that will hurt by gabe.” He sniffed strongly and shook his head again. “Just dock be out udtil the bordig.” Reaching over, he grabbed an empty plastic juice bottle and started hitting his head with it. It bounced off each time, doing no harm but making a funny bopping sound.


            Marcus laughed and eased it from his hand. “I could call up the Hawk's goon to take care of that. Or maybe The Tas after the way you decked him during practice this morning. That'll be my last resort. Thanks for the invite.”


            Sedrick smiled, coughing into the blanket. He really didn't feel like eating, but he knew he had to and he'd slept so long already that he wasn't ready to go back to sleep yet. “Cad, sniff, sniff, cad you helb be ub? I'b goig to get a shower add chadge, eh?”


            “Sure. You'll be—“ he pulled the man to his feet and let him lean on him for support as they crossed the room “—all right in the shower?”


            Sedrick nodded.


            Marcus looked worried but agreed. “Well, you just yell if something goes, er, wrong. OK? I'll order the food in the meantime.”


            Sedrick nodded again, picking up his change of clothes and stumbling into the bathroom alone. Once there, he ran the shower to warm it up and took care of business. After stripping, he climbed in, standing in the hot spray with his face and neck right in the stream. His hand gripped the metal towel bar in the stall. He knew it wouldn't support his weight but it was nice and useful to be able to keep himself steady as his tickling nose developed into a little more than a tickle. “ehh—uhh—AHSHHHHH! uhh-ehhSHISHHH!


            “Gesundheit!” came Marcus' yell from outside the bathroom.


            ehhh-hehKESHHHH!” Well, that had been different, indeed. He sniffed, and yelled back, “Thags!” He finished in no time, even after standing in the water and marveling in it for a long time. He changed without much difficulty and emerged feeling a little better indeed. This time when he lay down in bed, he felt much more comfortable, cuddling up with the blankets and pillows. Almost felt good enough to just drift off to sleep.


            There was a sudden knock on the door and Sedrick ducked beneath the covers… just in case. “Room service!” Sedrick heard the call, but he was taking no chances. He stayed beneath the covers as Marcus answered the door and took the food, giving a small tip.


            “You are going to eat this right?” Marcus asked as Sedrick reappeared and sat up in bed.


            Sed nodded. “It looks good. You wadt half the sadwich before I start?”


            Marcus shrugged and took it, sitting on his bed and devouring it in four gigantic Marcus-sized bites. Sedrick took his time with his, eating most of the soup before the sandwich. By the time he'd finished, he realized he'd actually been hungrier than he'd seemed. “Thags for orderig.”


            Marcus nodded. “It's getting late. You tired enough to turn in?”


            Sedrick laughed. “I'b ehh-uh-AHHIHSHHH! ehh-AHHSHESHHH! Sniff, sniff, sniff! Sniff! I'b already id, sniff, sniff!” But he knew what Marcus had meant. “I'll go wash ub thed you can take your tibe id the bathroob.” Sedrick returned, sliding into bed and melting into the blankets. He made sure he had a glass of water and enough tissues, and found himself yawning already. He closed his eyes for just a second and woke up a few minutes later with a stuffy snort as Marcus entered and turned off the lights in the room. “Gooddight, Barcus,” he whispered with a sniffle; it was tradition.


            “Goodnight, Sed.”



~ * ~



            ehhh-uhhh-IHHSHHHHHH! Ahhh-AHCHISHHHH!” Sedrick sneezed quite freely. He'd propped himself up with the other two pillows in bed and was lounging almost upright on them now, rubbing at his nose. The tissue box sat on his lap for easy reach as he repeatedly sniffled, sneezed, rubbed, blew, and sniffled again.  


“Gesumeit,” came a groggy comment from across the room, muffled by pillows.


            “Sorry, go back to sleeb,” he replied.


            Marcus groaned and flopped over in bed. “I wish I could, Damn it!”


            Sedrick felt terribly guilty and closed his eyes. “God, I'b sorry Barcus…”


            “No, not you. You go right ahead and sneeze and blow your nose all you need. It distracts me from thinking 'bout the game.”


            The game. Game four with the series at 2 to 1 in the Hawk's favor. While it was crucial they win, it was also crucial they win others. This was just like any other in the playoffs, just as important as it was important to think of it like that. They had to win five; it just had to be four before the others won four. “We'll be ok, eh? Just gotta blay like a five teab dot five bed… ub—“


            “Five men, I know. That's what coach keeps saying. Be a five team, not five men. No thinking, just doing.”


            “Easier said thad dode.”


            “Yes it is ideed. Sniff, sniff… hold od… I thik…hehh…yup…ehh-AHHCHISHHH! ehhh-ARCHISHHH! Ehhh-CHISHOOO! uhh-hehh-ehhh-AKCHISHHHH! AHSHOOO!




            “Thags.” He set to work blowing his nose.


            Marcus rolled over onto his back, bringing his hands up beneath his head, arms akimbo. “What will you do with the cup if we win it, Sed?”


            Through a mass of tissues, “Sabe thig I did last tibe probably.” He'd been awake for every second of having the cup from the time the suits had come to give it to him until the time they took it away. He'd taken it on a parade in his hometown with his parents. He took it to his little league team for photos and so the kids would be able to see what to aspire for. He also swung it by the retirement home where his very first little league hockey coach was; the grin on the man's face was enough to last him the rest of both their lives. Then he'd taken it to a few hospitals to cheer up the children and others. Then he took it to his AHL team for more pictures. That evening, he'd filled it with wildflowers he'd picked and buried a special little box beneath them. Then he showed up to Bethany's house and told her he didn't have a band big enough for the cup and had handed it over. When she found the ring and accepted, they went on a cruise with fifty of their good friends (on and off the team). Later that night, he'd spent the whole night just staring at the cup, tracing his fingers over the names, especially his own, and kissing his team's spot. “Excebt coach is gode dow. Add I've already brobosed to Bethady…”


            Marcus sighed. “There's no point in getting this far without getting the cup, Sed. No matter how many games we win, if we don't get the cup we lose the last game.”


            “Thed we'll wid it.” He sniffled, rubbing at his nose some more. Rubbing had actually been working to quiet down the urges, even though it was hurting his sore nose to do it too harshly. This time, however, he wasn't too sure rubbing was doing the trick. “Excuse be… I have to… sdeeze agaid…” he got out just in time. “ehhh-AHHCHISHHH! ehhh-uhh-huh-HETCHAHH! uuhh-hehh-ECTCHAH! eehh-AHCHISHH! uhh-ahh-eh-AASHISHHH! ehhh-ARSHHHUHH! ARCHEHHHH!” The sneezes were not letting up in the least, coming one after another, just enough time for him to take a deep breath in between each.


            “Blow your nose, Sed,” Marcus said absent-mindedly, staring up at the ceiling in deep thought.


            'I would if I could!' But Sedrick wasn't done sneezing and he couldn't catch his breath enough to reply let alone blow his tender nose. “ehhh-AHUSHHH! uuhh—ehhTCHUSHH! Uhh-uhh-uuhhhhh—CHISHOOO! ARSHOSHHH! ehh-AHHSHEOOO!


            Marcus sighed, jumping out of bed and walking over to Sedrick in bed. He sat down on the edge, pulled a tissue out of the box, then another and another and another and another as the sneezing man shot forward, spraying his hand once or twice in the process. Marcus just lifted the bunch of tissues to his nose and put a hand on the back of the man's head. “Deep breath to sneeze and blow out and try not to pop your ears too much.” The man obeyed, blowing his nose strongly into the tissues as Marcus held them almost expertly now with a good grip on his nose without hurting it any. “Good. Have another go at it.” Sedrick had already begun to do so by the time Marcus finished talking. Marcus folded the tissues up and presented him with a clean, dry section of tissues for another few blows. They repeated for a full few minutes before Sedrick nodded and pulled back, rubbing at his nose. “Better, hmm?”


            “Yes,” Sedrick replied wearily. That rather extended fit had taken quite a lot out of him. “Thags, Barcus.”


            “That's what I'm here for. Hey, you want to try that washcloth thing again to get to sleep?”


            Sedrick shook his head with a yawn. “Already tired, eh?” He rubbed a single finger beneath his nose and left it there. “Gooddight.”


            Marcus patted him on the head. “Goodnight.”



~ * ~



            The alarm went off, buzzing with that annoying beep of the old-style alarms that hotels kept because it worked fine and they didn't want to spend the money to replace them all. Sedrick gave it a moment, then rolled over, pounding it perhaps too hard with his fist. He went first for the tissues, blowing a very stuffy nose to alleviate morning congestion. The sight of Marcus' empty bed any other morning might have startled him, but not the morning of a big game. “How many are you up to?” he asked, then sat up to see Marcus at the foot of the bed, doing sit-ups.


            “Two hundred and twenty- eh! –three- erehh! –four.” It was how he relieved stress on game mornings when he couldn't sleep. Sometimes he even went running before doing sit-ups. “You sound less congested. How- erhhh!” They were starting to get harder to do and he didn't want to push himself.


            “Don't push yourself. How am I feeling?” Good question. “Good question.” His head felt clearer by a little, his throat still a little scratchy, his nose still tickly but not at all runny. “Gonna… ehh-ARSHAHHH! ehhh-uhh-CHUSHH! ehhhAHSHUHHH! Sniff, sniff!” he gave his nose another good blow, right to left, then alternating until it was almost clear. “I'm feeling better. Not that I was sick…”


            “No- ehhh! –not at all.”


            The phone rang and as Sedrick was closest, he cleared his throat and answered it, “'Lo?”


            “You gentlemen awake and ready to scratch some Hawk eyes out with our claws?”


            Sedrick smiled. “You bet, Ulauf. See you at breakfast.” He hung up, cleared his throat and dialed the next number of the phone chain. It rang and rang and rang and—


            “Hey!” came an out of breath voice.


            “Sorry, did I catch you in the shower?”


            The man, who was Marlin, a second string rookie winger with a slap shot that was to die for, lowered his voice. “Actually, I was just holding someone's head over the toilet. Thank God he hasn't eaten since last night. I've never heard of a hockey player this nervous about something he loves to death.” And that was the truth, Neiz was extremely passionate about the game and his position, and the club of course. You had to be loyal to the club if you wanted to do well. You had to trust your teammates like the fingers of your hand. Five fingers that made a whole hand and worked together to push that puck through the other guy's net.


            Sedrick shook his head. “Tell Neiz not to sweat it. We would never have signed him if we thought he couldn't hold his own.”


            “Yeah, well, right now his not even holding his cookies. But I'll tell 'im. Look, I'd better go. See you at breakfast.”


            Sedrick listened for the click to be sure, then hung up with a shake of his head in disbelief and a chuckle. He rubbed the back of his hand at his nose. “Neiz is still tossing from nerves.”


            Sitting up on his last sit-up, Marcus grabbed hold of his knees and laid his head on the foot of his bed, sweat dripping from his brow. “I've better news that that, my dear enforcer. You're playing tonight.”


            He beamed happily. “I know. I told you I would. Ehh…Uhh-eh-heh-AHISHHH! ehh—hehARSHHOO! Sniff, sniff!


            “No, I mean you have to. The Tas Tiger came down with a terrible cold this morning. Met up with Alexi on my way in from a run this morning; he couldn't' sleep because he wasn't feel well. Anyway, he told me Tas was horribly under the weather, I mean coughing constantly and sneezing his head off. Sound like anyone you might know?”


            Sedrick just blinked. There was no maybe about it anymore. With The Tas sick, he was the only tough guy on the team and not even second string could back him up. Unless they brought in someone from the minors, and that was unlikely unless Sed really thought he couldn't do it.


            “Anyway, Alexi was feeling pretty guilty 'bout it of course and I told him it wasn't his fault.”


            “Course it wasn't.”


            “And I told them we'd stop by to see them before going to the game. Make 'em feel better to know we'll win the game for them and all that.”


            Sedrick grinned. “Feeling better about the game tonight?” He stood, stretched and offered a hand to Marcus on the floor.


            Taking it and standing with an “Umph!” Marcus nodded. “Indubitably. Defensemen work best when they're down in points, or down a game for that matter.”


            “Heh, well, you're down a shower, too cuz I call it first!”


            “You're a bastard, Policeman!” Marcus laughed, hitting his arm and sitting down on the bed with a sigh.


            “I know,” Sedrick grinned. “Butcha gotta love me anyway, eh?” And with that he disappeared into the bathroom.



~ * ~



            They were right on time for breakfast and Sedrick found himself loading up on everything from scrambled eggs to pancakes to fruit. After a day without eating much he was considerably hungrier than he'd anticipated. The other sick players had seemed to seclude themselves at one end of the table… or perhaps them had been kindly asked, er, told to. Whatever the reason, Alexi and The Tas sat across from each other at the very end. The Tas looked much worse than Sedrick had pictured, with a drooping face and a hacking cough and a box of tissues that he was going to more than his breakfast. “ehhchhhhh! eeiichhhhh!” they were weak, strained sneezes that did not sound good at all, even from beneath a fist full of tissues. Alexi was looking a little better, though had heavy bags under his eyes probably from lack of sleep. That certainly was the case for many at the table that morning. Beside him was Teddy, who, despite one hand permanently clutching a handkerchief, looked much better than before. Much like Sedrick felt, and he wondered if Robby had been taking care of him as well as Marcus had looked after him. Across from Teddy, beside The Tas, was the shrimp of the team, Chris Allens who, too, was sniffling as he ate a rather small bowl of cereal. Sick too, Sedrick assumed. Robby sat beside Teddy as usual, and definitely seemed well enough by the look of things.


            “Chris, too, did you see?” Marcus nudged him.


            Sed nodded and waved good morning to Ulauf as he took the seat across from them. “Morning.”


            “No one's saying anything about the line ups tonight. Rumor is Teddy's skating this morning, though.” Ulauf was always good for getting the dirt early. Though it seemed there wasn't much dirt this morning to get. “You gents aren't coming down sick are you?”


            Marcus and Sedrick exchanged looks. Simultaneously they turned back to him with identical, “Nope!”s which were the honest truth.


            “That's good. Seems to be getting around. Guess we'll see how everyone is after the morning skate.” The practice the day of a game was never much. They did a few laps, some stretches, and a few two-on-one drills, as well as a few free shots both on Neiz and Teddy who'd insisted on skating at least. The rumor was that he would play but that the coaches wouldn't say for sure until game time. They certainly couldn't afford to dress two goalies in a payoff game, could they? Better safe than sorry? Except that safe rarely won games.



~ * ~



            Sedrick and Marcus stood outside of The Tas and Alexi's room. It was still three hours to game, but that was still cutting it close if they wanted to make it there with the bus. They knocked and at a groggy, “Cub id!” they entered.


            The day before, Sedrick would have been embarrassed for anyone except for Marcus and maybe Ulauf to have seen his room. It had certainly been the room of the sick with tissues everywhere and clothes all over and unmade beds and empty used cups and more. But this room went beyond anything his had resembled. Alexi lay in his bed, curled in a ball beneath the covers, his head peaking out only because it was placed on top of three pillows. He smiled and waved them in.


            “We dod't get too bady visitors,” he remarked, sniffling into a tissue. Sedrick waved hello, then turned his attention to his tough guy twin on the team.


The Tas Tiger was looking seriously sick with what appeared to still be a cold, but not a very pleasant one.  He was stretched out in bed, sitting up against pillows propped at the headboard. His nose was bright red, not the rough pink Sedrick's was. His face was pale white like center ice after a hard game. And his long hair was tossed into a mess that he seemed not to care to brush. Or perhaps this was his attempted at brushing it. “Hey,” Sedrick said, following Marcus into the room fully.


            The Tas grumbled at his current task which was flipping madly through the television channels. “Fuckig hotel does'd… have… oh do…” up came the tissues, and he fell forward, sneezing into them for the most part. “ekkkshhhhh! eehhhshhhhhh! eeiiishhhh! Arg!” he growled and blew his nose.


            'He thought those little sneezes were something to get agitated about? Ha!' Sed rubbed at his nose out of habit and took a seat on The Tas' bed, being probably one of the only people alive who wouldn't have been murdered for doing so. He grabbed the remote away. “Whatcha trying to find, Baby?”


            The Tas snarled at him but made no attempt at recovering the remote. “Us. We're subbosed to be od E-S-B-ed todight right? I cad't fide it addywhere. What fucking hotel does'd have E-S-B-ed? ehshhhhhhh! eefshushhhh!


            Sedrick tried not to smile at the man's speech. “I'll stop by the desk and see if they can't hook you up with it. In the meantime…” he reached over to the alarm clock and flipped it to radio, skimming through until he found the sports radio station. “At least you'll hear us struggling without you two.”


            Alexi smiled. “You guys'll do just fide.”


            “We brought you presents,” Marcus said, changing the subject. They had intended to stop in briefly after all. Alexi, we got you some fruit juice… Russian style. Smuggled it past the trainers. And…” he held up a mess of stuffing. “You're a winger, so we got you a hawk's wing. You can rip into it tonight to give us some moral support.”


            Alexi laughed. “Sed's idea?”


            “Of course.” Sedrick laughed back, giving a bow in play then looked confused and decided to curtsey instead, then shook his head and went back to bowing. They all laughed, aside from The Tas who was too busy coughing. “And you,” he held up a giant bottle of Gatorade.


The Tas's face lit up.       “Tough guys drig Gatorade.” It was a running joke with most tough guys; none of them quite knew who had started it or when or why… but it was true enough.


            Sed nodded. “Yup. And… “ he brought out a Nerf foam ball launcher gun contraption they're found at the gift shop amongst all the Hawk team paraphernalia. “We figured you'd have a game to watch on TV… just shoot the balls at that goon Dale Hatch on the other team to help us out. And I guess if you don't have a TV picture you can just hit Alexi.” Sedrick fired it suddenly, hitting the lump of blankets that was Alexi's body.


            “Hey!” he laughed.


            The Tas looked a little mischievously happy about it as well. “Thags.”


            “And one more thing,” Sedrick said, rubbing his nose quickly as it started to tickle. “A piece of advice for you, Baby. You're a tough guy; everything above the waist you can deal with.” That was the rule of things, for the most part. Players played through pain all the time; it was rumored the Great One himself had played with a fever of 105 once. “And colds are most definitely above the waist, eh?”


            Nodding, “Thags guys.” Sedrick wasn't imagining things when he saw that the man looked slightly better… only slightly.


            “Feel better, we'll win it for you!” Marcus yelled as they left the room.


            Marcus shook his head as they closed the door behind. “They looked worse than you… well… you most of the time. And I still can't get used to hearing someone call The Taz 'Baby'. Not even the home fans make that leap.” Tough guys had all sorts of names, it was true. But the home fans and their mothers and wives especially sometimes called them Baby.


            Shrugging, “What can I say, it's a gift. And he knows I'd kick his ass if he tried anything about… about it…” He lifted his hand to his nose, glancing around to make sure no one else was around. “ehh-ARCHHHOO! eehh-AHHSHISHHH!




            “Thags…” he fished around in his pocket and withdrew a small stack of tissues. He pulled out one and gave his nose a weak blow. “I'm getting better…” he tried to justify.


            “I know,” Marcus slapped him on the back. “Come on, bus is leaving and you promised we'd swing by the main desk to check out the TV, remember?”


            Sed nodded and they hurried down.



~ * ~



It was said a hundred times a season, that this game was like no other. But this time it was true, both on the bench and on the ice. On the ice, they were in the third period, score tied two to two. The goals both times had come within forty seconds of each other, and the rest of the time it was one of the most violent, intense games anyone of them had ever played in. Sedrick had been sent in three dozen times to 'make the Hawks honest' which of course translated to 'make them scared to death'. And for the most part, it had worked, though it had taken a lot out of him. Practically gone were the days where tough men used solely intimidation and roughness. Now they had to be shooters as well. And while Sedrick wasn't half bad, he was only slightly more than half good when it came to running the puck to the goal. He'd actually come close twice before, but he'd passed it on once to clear Robby a hole, and missed the shot the other time. The fights that had broken out were tremendous. Some say the final seven of the playoffs for the cup are the roughest games of first or second season. But many honey players would tell you it's the conference finals that are truly the worst. They'd lost one player in rotation to a concussion. Now, lose a player before game time and he can be replaced in the lineups. Lose a player during the game and you're one man short for the duration, that's why The Tas and Alexi had been so easily scratched. But Teddy? Well, he went on ice, though they did dress Neiz as well. Despite the two Hawk goals, Teddy was playing an excellent game, perhaps one of his best. He was in tune with the puck as well as every player, knowing where each was and anticipating every move even as it got to the blue line. And the rush of adrenaline in him did much to keep him distracted from the remnants of the cold. He did, however, have a handkerchief out there with him, which he used to rub at his nose once in a while if the puck was on the other end, or which he used to blow his nose or sneeze into on occasion when play was very much stopped, of course.


            Off the ice and on the Tiger's bench was another story altogether. Eyes were as normal glued on the game and the clock with tense, serious concentration. It was a game, but it was a game that was their profession, their passion. What was different was the abundance of towels meeting players as they came off the ice, and water bottles were in greater supply with spitting at a high as well. All this to support the face that quite a few additional players had a touches of a cold.


            ehh-ARSHEHHH! ehh-uhh-AHHCHISHH!” Keeping his bare hand up to his nose and mouth, he reached over and grabbed a tissue from the box on Nolan Parker's lap. With one hand he took the tissue and gripped his nose with it. “ehhh-AHCHESHHH!” Then he gave a blow, rubbing at his nose, and blew again before tossing the tissue onto the floor with the dozens that lay there already from various players.


            The tissues, box and all, were immediately grabbed for by the player on the other side of Sedrick, Brian Klem. “huchooo! Huh-shooo! Heh-Chishh!


            Sedrick shook his head. While his sneezes were certainly under control others were having a hard time keeping themselves entirely in the game. Due to this, he guessed, he'd been in much more than usual replacing Klemmy as center for the Czech twins a few times. But now there were Two minutes and ten seconds left in the period. Sed rubbed his nose on his sleeve and wiped his face and nose on the towel.


            The coach, who was either constantly talking or completely silent, was talking now. “To the side… good pass! <clapping> Billy you're in when Army comes out… get the puck down, no not to Teddy, down across the line… that's it twins! Chenko! No! Sed you're in with Robby next change… Shoot Ricci! Not that… yes… Teddy, left! Change! Get in here!” he gave his whistle a tweet.


            Sedrick had already dawned his gloves and ditched the towel and with a last swish of water and a cool mouth, he waited until the players were near before toppling over the side. Almost immediately he slammed a hawk into the side boards and bumped him in just the right place to trip him onto the ice. Robby sailed past him and collided with a Swede Hawk player with a large build, but passing the puck back to Teddy just in time. Sed passed to Vic and threw himself against another Hawk who was looking to stop Robby. Tough guys weren't afraid to check hard because they knew how not to get hurt; they were able to be as aggressive and spirited as they liked to intimidate and stop the other players. He found himself relaxing on the ice, feeling the guys around him without seeing them. The five together… but more like the whole team together. Sedrick looked over at the bench, weary, tired players, some of them sick. Then he saw the clock, counting down to the end with a tie and Sedrick knew that there was no way the team would win in OT. They were too exhausted to play sudden death for the rest of the night and win. Hold the Hawks back from scoring, perhaps; they might be able to do that for hours, but without energy for offense to take it repeatedly to the other end it was only a matter of time before they broke through defense and got one past Teddy. No, there was no way they would win if it got to overtime. Something had to be done now. Sedrick got the puck and passed to Robby who shot! Miss.


The puck had been skillfully deflected by the Hawk goalie, Sy the Slick. Robby tried to get his own rebound as Vic was toppled to the ice but Robby couldn't do it all alone and was used to Alexi anticipating his every move well. The Hawks were in possession but Sedrick pounded their star defenseman and let Robby recover the lost puck. Out of shooting range, the Tiger captain wrapped it around the net. Robby felt, not saw, the opportunity and raced over through the man. Robby tried to tip it in around the back to no success but Sedrick was right there for the rebound and- SCORE!


            He lifted his arms and stick into the air with a shout of victory as the red light flashed in his tired eyes and the siren filled his ears. Robby grabbed him in a hug and Victor embraced them both, slapping the front of his helmet affectionately. As Sedrick and Robby sailed over to the bench, Sedrick glanced at the stopped clock. Fifty-six seconds left. Fifty-six absolutely crucial seconds. Each tying goal had been right after another and there was more than enough time for that to have them return this one.


            Robby pulled Sedrick in front of himself as they skated in from of their bench. Sed stuck his fist out and they took turns pounding it in very enthusiastic congratulations. Marcus bumped fists with him and then reached up and slapped the front of his helmet as well with a cheer. They were announcing it now as well, Sedrick's very little-mentioned name booming through the giant stadium and echoing back to him. It sounded spectacular. Coach yelled, “Can you stay out?”


            He shouted back, with a grin wider than any other before, “Just try to stop me!” He planted himself in front of Teddy. Looking back, “You ok, man?”


            Teddy, tucking his handkerchief away on his person nodded, an air of professionalism about him, even as he was sick.


            “Don't worry, I gotcha.” It was important not to leave the goalie out there even as there were scoring chances. It was important to know what was going on at every moment. It was also important not to block the goalie's view of the game and approaching players. That was a way many, many goals were scored in hockey, by using the other team's defensemen as a wall for the goalie's vision. He skated to center ice and backed up between the face-off and Teddy.


            Face-off center ice which they won, the wins racing down the ice to try to score. Seconds counting down in a blur that Sedrick was aware of by feel but wasn't able to see. The crowd was in a tense, angry uproar but this was like any other part of the game… try to score and try to stop them from scoring. The other team had not pulled their goalie. They had, however, put in their head tough guy, Hatch, who was charging right at Sedrick now in front of their team captain. 'Fucking Hawks!' Sedrick yelled to himself as he went toward the captain with the puck and was struck by their goon.


            It wasn't a soft hit, or a hard hit either. It was an illegal hit: a slash on the check. Sedrick found himself on his hands and knees on the ice, pain racing through his forehead and sheer, shocking pain in his shin. He tried to pull himself up, to find his stick, but he fell back down again. Why hadn't the whistle blown? In playoff hockey they did call far fewer penalties but he was hurting. He was on the far side of the rink without his stick, and no whistle blown. The clock was still running. No way to get back, and no way to get a new stick. The only thing left was to use his body. He stumbled forward on the ice, trying to put his body between the players and Teddy. Marcus was there for defense now and he was concerned with the goon. He'd seen what had gone down and had been picked on, but as they checked, he grabbed the man, throwing a punch to the chest. Hatch dropped his gloves and so did Marcus, throwing punches, defending Sedrick's honor. But the captain was still going forward, charging the net on a breakaway. Sedrick, tears in his eyes from the utter pain, slid forward on the ice, his leg hurting immensely and was that blood on the ice? Was that his blood on the ice? Finally, he heard a whistle and collapsed on the cold ice in relief and pain. This whole ordeal had taken five, six seconds at most but had felt like two or three minutes. Why hadn't they blown the whistle sooner? Marcus was the first to get there, having been separated from Hatch by two refs, putting his glove on as much of Sedrick's forehead as he could reach and yelling, “Can you stand, Sed?” Marcus rubbed his back soothingly with his glove.


            “No!” he yelled back in pain, feeling weaker and weaker at each breath. It was his leg that hurt the most, but had he been caught in the head with the stick? Blood? If it was only his head he could still play. That was all right. Above the waist…


            “Hold on, tough guy,” Marcus yelled again, forced to back away from him as the trainers reached him finally, only brief seconds later that again felt like long minutes of agony.


            “Keep your eyes open for us, Sed!” yelled one of them and Sedrick opened his eyes, taking in the bright white of the ice. He wanted badly to close them again.


            “Is it your knee?” yelled one trainer to him.


            “Was it Hatch?” yelled the voice of one ref.


            Keeping his priorities in order, he shouted back a strained, “Yes!”


            “His knee,” one of the medics said, turning him gently onto his back.


            “Not my knee, it was Hatch,” he said weakly, his breath forming small puffs as he spoke. “My shin hurts. Right leg.”


            One of the medics pressed a firm bandage cloth to his forehead and said, “We're getting you up. Don't move your right leg. We've got you.” They pulled him upright, his arms around two of the trainers, with a medic in front of him that he could lean into if he got woozy at all.


            As he rose, a small cheer went up from the side near the players bench, and the rest of the stadium gave him mixed light applause and loud booing. “Fucking drunk American fans,” he whispered, making the trainers laugh a little.


            “You're gonna be fine, Sed,” one of them told him.


            “Good,” he replied, “Then I'm staying on the bench until the end of the game.”


            One sighed. “Cullus you're hurt—“


            “I want to watch us win!”


            They got him to a bench by the box and pulled off his skates immediately, feeling around on his leg and then applying a cold compress all around the bottom of his leg. But Sedrick wasn't watching them, his eyes were focused on the game. Hatch had been sent to the penalty box for five minutes and rumor was that he would be suspended for the next game. Sedrick certainly couldn't blame them, but understood the motivation. Their team looked just as exhausted and it was last ditch attempt at taking it to overtime. Ten seconds left… nine... eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one… buzzer! The Tigers piled up around Robby and Teddy, filing out of the box into a giant pile of celebration that tied the series. And now they would be back on home ice for another win. “Now we can go,” Sedrick said weakly but happily and they picked him up, escorting him back to the locker room.


            They let him sit back against the lockers and prop up his leg. Off with his jersey and padding, and off with his pants so they could examine his leg further. As it turned out, the toe and top of Hatch's skate had plowed right into his shin when he'd been cut on the forehead. While they administered a light wrapping and kept cold compresses on it, one of the medics wet to work on his forehead; he would need stitches. They laid him down, elevating his legs as another worked on his forehead, wiping away the blood, cleaning it out, and keeping pressure on it. “You'll need stitches. And X-rays anyway. Do you want to do the stitches at the hospital or—“


            “Just do it like usual,” he said with a sniffle and opened his mouth. They put in a bite plate and his closed his eyes; it seemed to hurt more when he watched. He made no cry and did not wince or contort his face at all as one began to sew up the gash. Perfectly still was the only way to do it, else they might prick him with the needle wrong and make things worse. He bit down at the pain, though he was most used to getting stitches, and they never used anything to numb it as that would interfere with the game. It was only a few stitches anyhow. About halfway through, or what he guessed was halfway through, he spoke out, “Shhhup!”


            Confused, they comforted him, “It's ok, we're almost done.”


            He spat out the bite plate, making them stop work, and turned to the side so as not to catch the medic with the sneeze, “ehh-AHSHOOO! uhh-ehhh-ASHISHHH! Sniff, sniff!” He lifted his arm and rubbed his nose on his sleeve. “Stop, I have to sneeze,” he said with a smile, after the fact.


            “Shit, he's coming down with a cold, too,” one of them muttered, and the head trainer pulled tissues out of his pocket and handed them over.


            “You keep tissues in your pocket now?” one of them laughed; Sedrick blew his nose, thankful for them.


            “Of course. Half the team's got that bloody cold. Looks like Sed's starting to get sick, too.”


            Sedrick shook his head slightly with another sniffle. “Correction, Sed's recovering from being sick. I'll be rid of it by tomorrow, I think.”


            The head trainer shook his head. “And you managed two practices and a game without us noticing? You really are a tough guy, Sed. Now, lie back…” he eased Sedrick's head back gently, with bite plate in place, and the first medic went back to work on the stitches.


            Meanwhile, they spoke to him about his leg. “We'll need to take you in for X-rays after this, but doesn't look like more than bruising and a minor fracture if anything. A few days in the hot baths and some physical therapy and you should be good to go.”


            “Mmmph Iff?”


            “Game five?” the man interpreted.


'He got that and couldn't figure out 'stop!'?'


“I don't know about five, but by six you'll be in perfect health. Don't want to push it and make it worse, but we'll see. You'll definitely be able to play in the conference win,” he said with a grin that Sedrick did not see.


            “All done!” he said not before long and helped Sedrick sit up as they lowered his legs back down so they weren't both elevated at the same time. “Good job. Now, try not to lie on—“


            “Yeah yeah. Don't lie on it when you're asleep, don't get it wet in the shower, changed the bandage regularly or let us do it. I know, I know.” Sedrick felt his forehead gingerly, finding the bandage partially over his eyebrow. “That fucking cement head almost took my eye out! I hope he gets thrown out of the league! Or at least suspension the rest of the season—“


            “Which will be only two more games for the Hawks!” came a familiar voice and Sedrick peered around to see Marcus and the rest of the team excitedly filing into the locker room. “Looking much better than last I saw you, Policeman. How're you feeling?”


            Sedrick rubbed his nose with his sleeve. “Much better now that we've won and we're going home.”


            Marcus grinned, nodding, and when his name was called, he looked up and over the lockers. “Hey, Sed, looks like you got a phone call. Can you take it?”


            Bethany. It had to be, on the coach's phone no less— the emergency number. Sweet woman. He nodded, “Try to stop me.”


            The phone got handed over the coach to Robby, Robby to Teddy, Teddy to Victor, Victor to Marcus, and Marcus to Sedrick. And by then, Robby was over by Sedrick anyway, patting him on the back in congratulations. “Hello?”


            “Sed, baby, what's wrong? The announcers are blockheads, won't tell us what's wrong with you. Are you ok?”


            She sounded quite upset, her speech rushed. “Shhhh, I'll be fine. They stitched up the cut over my eye, and it's fine. And they're taking me for X-rays in a bit but they say my leg is only bruised and I'll be good to play the next game probably.” He grinned. “And I'll be home in your arms in less than ten hours.”


            A deep, deep sigh of relief followed from the other end of the phone. “Oh Sed, I was so worried… I'm so glad you're all right. I get so petrified watching you fight like that. Though you should have seen the way Marcus threw those punches at that goon Hatch, they were beautiful!”


            He laughed. She was a hockey wife all right. “Look, I've gotta go… ehhh…” he sniffed and rubbed at his nose. 'Oh, not now!' But there was no stopping it. “ehhh-AHHSHICHHH! eehhh…uhhhh-uh-eh-ahh-eh-AKTISHOOOO! ehh-eh—AHSHISHHH!


            “Bless you… you're not getting sick, are you? They said a cold virus was hitting you all pretty hard.”


            “I'm getting over it, baby. I'm fine. I love you. I've really gotta go get changed and get to the hospital.”


            “You take care of yourself, Mister. I want you back here in one piece. And all your parts in working order. Love you.”


            “Love you too!” he hung up and looked up to see the coach and general manager there, discussing his condition with the doctors. “Coach… phone…” he said softly so as not to interrupt and handed it back. Then he rubbed his nose on his sleeve and buried his nose in the crook of his arm. He felt like he was going to sneeze again. “ehhh-AHHSHEHHH! ehhh-uhhh-AHTCHOOO!


            Perhaps a dozen voices offered “Bless you's” and Marcus brought over a wet towel for a showerless wash-down and his clothes to change into. “We're going to hit the bars after dinner… think you'll be back from the hospital by then?”


            He shrugged. These damn American hospitals were always so slow, especially for a Canadian citizen; the paperwork alone too forever to process. But usually the trainers managed to speed it up a bit. “I'll try.”



~ * ~



            ehhh-AHSHUMPHHH! Ehhh-ARSHHUHHHH! uhhh—ehhh—AHH—“ he froze, tissues up to his nose, mouth wide open, eyes squeezed closed in anticipation. “—AHHKESHHHH!


            “Bless you,” yawned one of the trainers who had escorted him to the hospital. His name was Randy Patin and had a degree in sports medicine from some American college Sedrick had never heard of. He had a sweet wife who was a nurse and two kids, both boys who were in little league hockey. He liked horseback riding and traveled in the off season and was very willing to shoot the breeze with Sedrick through the many, many waits of the hospital. He'd even managed to wrestle up two candy bars for them.


            “Thanks… sniff, sniff! Are the tests back yet?”


            Randy shook his head. “How's your leg feeling now? Any worse?”


            He shook his head. “Just dull pain when I try to move it and sharp pain when I touch it…”


            With a laugh, “Then don't touch it or move it!”


            “You guys are geniuses!” he laughed back, avoiding looking down at his leg. It was blue and purple with bruises that peered out from beneath the heat packs they'd put on when they got to the hospital. “You ok, Sed?”


            Sedrick nodded as well as the impending sneezes let him, lifting a handful of tissues back up to his nose and mouth. “ehhh-uhh-AHHSHOOO! ehehh-AKSHOOO! ehhh—uhh-huh-AHSHEHHHH!


            “Bless you.”


            “Thags,” he blew his nose. “Still haven't completely shaken this blasted cold.”


            Nodding, “Should take a good few days to run its course.”


            “I've had it for three now.” Well… more like 48 hours since he really started feeling poorly, so it was really more like a little two days. But still, it was beginning to get quite annoying to keep sneezing all the time.


            “Give it another one or two… and let your wife take care of you. You wouldn't imagine how much that seems to help speed up a recovery.”


            Sedrick smiled. That, he knew, was the truth.


            “Test results are in…” announced a doctor as he entered the room, flicked on the projector display and tossed them up. Randy was there in an instant to see them and Sedrick had to strain his neck to look around the two of them. “Looks good here…” the doctor said, pointing a pen at a spot but talking in such a way that made Sedrick think that there may be a part that did not look so good. The trainer turned back to him.


            “So what's the verdict?”


            “No fracture. Severe bruising of the leg and muscle as well, but you won't need a cast and you're looking to play in game 6 for certain.” He looked over at the doctor, “Anything to add?”


            “Don't put your weight on it at all unless your trainers say so. Alternate heat and cold on that leg as much as possible and let your trainers look after it but you were very lucky there, son.”


            Sedrick grinned. This was spectacular news. “Thanks, Doc.” They helped him up and put him on crutches. Randy walked him out to the car and helped him in there as well. The way there, he'd laid in the back, managing to be buckled but quite uncomfortable. Now he sat up front, holding a heating pad on his leg. “We're too late to catch dinner,” Sedrick mentioned as he looked at the time. It was after 1 in the morning already. “Can we pick something up?”


            Randy nodded, “Fast food coming up!” and pulled over to the first one they found open.



~ * ~



            Marcus lay in bed, the lights off and the TV on with a sleep timer counting down from half an hour; it was presently at 22 minutes. His eyes were slowly closing when he heard the sound of two muffled sneezes through the door. There was a pause, some bumping sounds, and nothing following. Marcus stood with a tired groan and wobbly legs to open the door. There was Sedrick, hand over his nose and mouth, pinching his nose shut and leaning on one crutch as one of the trainers fished through Sedrick's pocket for his hotel key card.


            “Hodey I'b hobe?” Sedrick tried, sniffling and letting out one strained, “ehh-'muff!” sneeze. “Ugh… sniff, sniff! Trying not to wake up the whole hall.” With Marcus holding the door open for them, they entered, Sedrick still getting used to the crutches. Luckily, his bed was the one closer to the door. He landed on his bed with a bounce and put one pillow down to prop up his leg, which looked perfectly horrible but was feeling much better.


Randy put the heating pads on it. “I'm going to put the cold pack in your fridge, I want you to put it on there for fifteen minutes before bed, then wait ten minutes, then put the heat back on it. Some one will be in to see you tomorrow morning to check on you. You ok?”


            Sedrick nodded. “Thanks, Randy. Goodnight.”


            “Goodnight, and congrats on the game, Sed. Night Marcus,” he said with a smile and a nod and left, closing the door behind him tightly.


            “So you're ok?” Marcus asked, sitting down on the edge of Sedrick's bed.


            Sedrick nodded again. “Looks worse than it is. I might be playing game five, but I'll definitely be in there for six. Hope The Tas gets over his cold in time for game five just in case.”


            “I'm sure he will,” said Marcus agreeably, grinning like an idiot as he had been since Marcus had arrived.


            With a smile, Sedrick poked Marcus, “You're tipsy, aren't you?”


            “What, me?” he snorted and then nodded affirmatively. “If you're sick, I'm drunk.” He suppressed a burp. “Had a fun night out with the boys. We drank to your honor, too, and oooh! Wait!” he stumbled over to the fridge and returned with a small container. “Victory dessert cake. Ulauf and I saved you a piece before they destroyed the leftovers.”


            Taking it thankfully from the man, he gave it a look over and took a large bite. “Thanks.” It tasted better than anything he'd eaten all day.


            Marcus nodded and climbed back into bed with, pulling the blankets up over him.


            It didn't take very long before the sneezes returned to him; Sedrick had been quite enjoying their absence for the few minutes he'd had of it. “Gonna…ehhh-“ no bother warning Marcus at this point. “ehhhh-uhhh-huh-AKSHUHHH! ehhh-uhh-AHSEHHH! uhhh-ehh—AKTSHHHHH!” He put down the cake long enough to grab a few tissues and blow his nose.


“Gesundheit.” Suddenly the phone rang and Marcus answered it. “'Lo? Oh… thanks… no can you? Thanks. Bye.”


            He reached over and flipped the channel on the remote. “That was Ulauf on the phone tree. They're having the late night news and are doing the sports segment when they return from commercial.” By the time he got to the right channel, the commercials were already over and the announcer was covering baseball. Both men groaned. Aside from perhaps curling or some of the track and field sports, baseball was the slowest game on earth to watch, and almost torture for hockey players who were used to such fast-paced, continuous play.


            Finally, it got to hockey. “And tonight in the eastern division, the Tigers managed to tie up their series against the Hawks in the most exciting game all season! Early in the first was the first goal by Hawk left winger Forde,” there was a clip showing Teddy diving for the puck but just missing it as it sailed right past his pad. “And not twenty seconds later the Tigers answered that with a goal of their own as captain Robert Lowell went up against the Hawk goaltender Sy the Slick. Not so slick there!” The puck slid right between the goalie's legs. “Later, before the buzzer of the end of the period it was the Tigers with a goal from winger Victor Chenko with an assist by Ulauf Ricci. But that lead lasted only about forty seconds before the Hawks got another one past Teddy the Tiger. Oh! Then in the second, there were more spills and stops than anything else,” they showed a few of the better hits and one fight that had sent Sedrick to the penalty box for 2. They also showed the hit on one of the Tiger defensemen, which had put him out of the rest of the game as well. “The score remained tied through a scoreless second and through almost all of the third.  A bad cold bug has been sweeping through the Tiger team, casualties including center Alexi Ralauf, Brian Klem, The Tas, Chris Allens, even the goalie Halik Tednoski who was almost to be replaced because of the constant snifflings and sneezings of a cold. Perhaps it was the cold that slowed the team down in the second and third. That is, before Sedrick Cullus, the Tiger's main enforcer, hit the ice with Robby. Cullus, also suffering from a cold reportedly, made some beautiful tough guy hits while filling in as center for Alexi and shot and scored! Right past Sy with less than a minute on the clock! Put the biscuit right in the breadbasket!” Sedrick grinned as they replayed it; it had looked marvelous. “But the happiness didn't last for long for Sedrick who was immediately toppled by the Hawk's tough guy Dale Hatch, who was vengeful and looking for an opportunity to even the score once more before the end of the third.” And there was the hit, stick right up next to Sed's eye as the skate collided with his leg.


            “Fucking Bastard Cement Head!” Sed yelled, forgetting how late it was. Still, he wasn't particularly calm after watching how it had happened. He watched as the camera angle zoomed back to watch the Hawk charge the net as Marcus wrestled with Hatch and Sedrick slid across the ice, looking far worse than he thought he'd looked at the time. His face looked terribly pain-stricken and every time he touched his leg to the ice he looked about to burst with pain. The slid itself had looked both wonderfully heroic and loyal and terribly pathetic at the same time. Then they showed him being escorted off the ice.


            The report continued. “Cullus, the clear hero of the game, is apparently all right with minor injuries but was taken right off the ice. Hatch has been suspended the rest of the season. So with a 3-2 win, the Tigers return to home ice for game five. The western conference series game airs tomorrow night between—” Marcus turned off the television.


            “That looked horrible, Sed. I didn't realize you were sliding across the ice to block the puck… how noble.”


            Sed shrugged. “Bethany was right, you did throw some nice punches at Hatch in my honor. Thank you for that.”


            Marcus yawned. “You need anything else before I turn in?”


            He shook his head. Actually, he could have used some help with the ice pack and help changing for bed so he didn't bend the wrong way with his leg. But he was sure he could manage, especially as Marcus did not look to be in any condition to help him. “I'll be all right. Thanks… for everything. Goodnight.”


            With another yawn and a happy grin, the defenseman echoed, “Goodnight.”