Long tan legs maneuvered carefully around the brush and loose rocks in the dim pre-sunrise haze. Jake had taken off his sweats, complaining that he was getting overheated an hour ago. I wasn’t complaining about seeing more of my boyfriend. In fact, I preferred seeing him nude. Ignoring my own discomfort, I kept on my loose fitting Coyotes sweatpants. I was thankful for the exercise though Jake joked that I clearly needed to do more cardio and elevation training if I was sweating from our easy hike. No, the hike wasn’t the difficult part despite what felt like a fifty-pound weight nestled in my pocket.

My phone buzzed quietly and my eyes flicked back up to Jake. He had cycled through a hundred different haircuts through the years, but he had never dyed it. The sun would break soon I would get to see the honey blond streaks that I loved to run my fingertips through. As if he could feel my gaze, his body turned and there he was. The smile was the one he only gave to me, wide and gleaming. The first time I saw that smile, I could barely breathe. The effect was no less devastating now.

“We’re going to miss the sunrise, slowpoke.”

I shrugged, “That’s okay, I already have a pretty good view.” I smirked at the way his exaggerated eye roll but I didn’t miss the slight color that hit his cheekbones or the extra bounce in his step.

His concern was unfounded. There was no way we were going to miss the sunrise. I had carefully planned this day for months. I had hiked to the Piestewa Peak twice to ensure I knew exactly how long it would take to get there. I had factored in Jake wanting to stop and look at animals and flowers and his slightly shorter legs. The summit climb was labeled as a difficult hike and not for the first time, I wondered if this was a good plan. I had signed so many forms and had to pay a nearly prohibitive amount of money in permits to have the trail to ourselves. The pre-dawn hike was treacherous but Jake had handled it like it wasn’t a big deal, smiling and joking the whole way.

He had been shocked I was willing to go for a hike at four in the morning, citing my inability to wake up before noon. Little did he know that I hadn’t slept. There was no way I was going to sleep through my proposal or forget the ring. No, I lay beside him satiated just to be near him but my anxiety kept me alert throughout the night.

My phone buzzed again and I snuck the device out: Good luck Holtsy. Mikhalov, the media portrayed him as a monolithic defenseman without morals or empathy but he as just a big Russian softie. He had helped me shop for rings, I’ve never seen a store clerk so traumatized as two giants started quizzing her on clarity and karats.

Eventually, I had decided on a ring. I would have wanted the largest stone that the jeweler could get their hands on. But in deference to Jake’s pitiful sense of decorum, I opted for something that I would make him happy. The band sported smaller diamonds that would wrap around his finger proclaiming him officially mine— if he said yes.

The peak looked different this time. The rocky outcropping had the first rays of sun caressing them. I heard Jake’s soft exhale. Casting an eye over at him I was reminded how beautiful he was. Five years since we had met and he had only gotten more handsome. At twenty-three his jaw line sported a faint scruff, giving him a masculine air. He stood taller than he used to, more comfortable in his body.

This was it. I could keep my heart beat at 160rpm for 17 minutes on a bicycle but right now, I could feel it speeding out of control. I hadn’t felt like this since the first time we met:

Five Years Ago

I groaned as I tried to escape the blare of the alarm clock. I resisted the urge to chuck the aggravating device across the room. I had shattered a few phones that way when I used the alarm app. Now I used a military grade metal plated one.

Six AM. There shouldn’t even be a six in the morning. For half a second, I indulged in the thought of rolling over and going back to sleep. My alarm hadn’t turned off, instead growing in pitch and increasingly frantic. Sighing, I pushed myself up and slapped the off button, throwing the room back into blissful silence.

Stretching out my muscles, I went to the dresser to pull out my workout gear. My clothes and hockey stuff were the only things I had unpacked. I wasn’t going to waste my time moving everything around only to move it somewhere else in a year. Buffalo itself was just an unfortunate detour. My room was wrong, the house was wrong, all of Buffalo was wrong. I scrubbed my hand over my face. One more year. One more year until I could get away, get out of high school and play in the NHL.

I was over my canned responses that I was excited that I got an extra year to train. I was done with all the bullshit. High school was definitely bullshit. What was I going to do with my knowledge of the noble gasses while I was skating? Or the geography of Africa? Nothing. This was a time suck.

Brushing my hands through my hair, I pulled on a ratty tank top and a pair of basketball shorts. One more year, I repeated underneath my breath as I tied my shoes, of six ‘o’ clock mornings to fit in some semblance of a workout.

Stepping out into a brisk morning, I grimaced at the general gray hue of the city. It was the end of Summer for fuck’s sake. It shouldn’t already look like February. I had liked Minnesota, even though their winters were pretty dreary. Moving had been my dad’s idea. Apparently, Minnesota’s hockey hadn’t been competitive enough, that was what we told everyone.

I had grown out of doing clinics with the Wild. I was too good for them and my protracted affair with one of their bright young stars had put a sour taste in my mouth—several times a day. My welcome was worn with the Wild and I suspected that Reese had been the catalyst for my dad moving us out of town in a hurry.

We hadn’t spoken a lot since we moved. We had movers pack up the house and we drove. Luckily we both had cars so we didn’t have to sit in silence. Dad wasn’t pissed about me being caught with a man. Nope, he was pissed it might jeopardize my hockey career. Hockey was both of our lives. It might seem a little mercenary but my dad stood to make a lot of money when I got signed. We both knew it; he deserved it after raising me alone.

He had paid for the skates, the lessons, the leagues, the ice time, more food than most families could hope to eat. He did it for me. He had been the man to lace up my skates when I was younger. The first time my blade slid over the ice, I knew that was going to be what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

I started to run faster, letting the speed and miles bleed together: not quite anaerobic but pushing my comfort level.

I had been smaller than the other kids when I was growing up, strange as it seems now that I towered over everyone. But when I was small, I got pushed around on the ice. My father told me to be faster. He dad timed me as I sprinted up the ice and back, blue line to blue line. I got better, stopped letting them take the puck from me. Started making plays and making better lines and team. I practiced surgical hand training to teach myself precision. When I eventually hit my growth spurt I wasn’t just relying on my size. Hell, I even took figure skating: I could three turn with the best of them.

It was in figure skating that I realized I was gay for the first time, one of my dorky friends had been exclaiming how lucky I was to get to lift up the girls. I hadn’t even thought of that and then when I did—nothing. The prospect of executing a difficult lift was way more interesting than that my hand was several inches away from her crotch. It didn’t bother me much—being gay. By the time anyone would have had something to say, I was way too big for them to say it to me.

Eminem blasted in my ears as I turned the last corner before my house. Slowly decelerating, I walked stretching out my hamstrings. Whipping off my shirt, I scrubbed the fabric over my torso, drying off. My phone kept my stats and as I opened the door, I was impressed at my pace. 6: 51 average was pretty respectable, with a fastest mile of a 6:22.

“Good run?” A protein shake was already poured for me. I could smell the chicken cooking. Maybe other kids would have cereal for breakfast but a chicken breast had been my morning routine for years. The steel cut, overnight oats had been marinating but I would catch them after I showered.

“Yeah, felt good. My soleus didn’t even twinge.” I sucked down the shake and half a liter of water, knowing I should drink the rest after my shower.

“That’s good. Let me know if it changes. We’ll get you a new PT here.”

He didn’t expect a response but I grunted an acknowledgement anyway. For several minutes, I just let the water sluice over me, dreading the day ahead of me. Dreading the year ahead of me. Why did I have to miss the draft cut off? With a sigh, I cut off my pity party.

The run hadn’t even woken me up. I could run in a trance; the water did a better job of waking my body up. With one particular bit really awoke from its slumber, my cock lay against my stomach, completely ready for action. Fucking Buffalo, there was no one here to take care of it. Then again, there was no one in Minnesota anymore either. For a split second, I considered calling Reese. Instead, filling my palm with conditioner, and taking care of myself. Fucking Buffalo.

Fresh from the shower, I ran some gel into my hair but otherwise just threw on some clothes. I could hear the rumblings of annoyance that I had taken too long getting ready already. Throwing my bag over my shoulder, I swung into the living room and got the chicken breast out of the oven where my dad had set it to keep warm.

“It’s just a year, O.” Dad placed a glass of water in front of me with my oats in his other hand.

“Yeah. I know, Dad.”

“You have a meeting with the coach this afternoon.”

“Yeah. I know, Dad.”

“O?” He paused and I looked up from cutting into my chicken. “Try and keep a low profile this time.”

The sinking feeling returned that I had all the way from Minneapolis. The same disappointed look covered his face as the time he heard one of the other Wild players talking about me. I swallowed around the obstruction in my throat. “I’m 6’5,” not exactly inconspicuous.”

He gave a half-hearted chuckle as he grasped my shoulder, “Have a good day, Owen.” I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding when he turned the corner.

Glancing at the time, I rushed to eat the chicken before grabbing my keys.

I don’t know what I expected when I pulled up in front of my new school. In some ways I expected it to look like the prison that my mind had built it up to be. It was largely unremarkable. The school was a weak beige color like the bricks were losing their life force. Fucking Buffalo. The grass was already browning but that was the trade-off of living in such a cold climate.

With a world-weary sigh, I climbed out of my truck and trudged up to the Administrative building. I was greeted with the cheeriest voice I ever had the misfortune to hear, “Good morning! How can I help you today?” I tried to swallow my distaste for that much energy that early in the morning.

I put on my most charming smile and I watched a woman old enough to be my grandmother swoon. Fucking Buffalo. “Good morning, I’m a new student. I was hoping to pick up my class schedule. Could you help me out with that?”

The secretary, Ms. Marston as labeled by her antique nameplate, tapped down her silver hair as she replied giddily, “And what is your name?”

“Owen Holt.”

She reached into her files and pulled out my schedule, a map, and a handbook. Her explanation was long and tedious with far too many anecdotes about why the buildings were named the way they were. I waved her a thankful goodbye with schedule in hand as the warning bell rang.

Luckily my class wasn’t far. Standing in the doorway of my first class, I was attempting to deal with the sadness that came with knowing that I would be stuck here for an entire year. It was an English class, which I really didn’t need to take. It’s not like in an interview someone would ask me to annotate Anna Karenina or diagram a sentence. Hell, there were plenty of players from Russia that couldn’t even speak English and just got through their interviews with shrugs and grunts.

I swept my eyes over the classroom, in the back were a bunch of girls wearing make-up masks desperately trying to gain the attention of athletes. If their size didn’t give them away as varsity athletes wearing jerseys and t-shirts loudly proclaiming it certainly made that knowledge unavoidable. Did they really think that playing on a varsity team made them special? Maybe three of them would play in college. Maybe one of them in the pros. I hated to sound jaded but it all just seemed so futile: them clinging to the importance of sitting in the back Then again it’s not like I would sit in the front with the girl who had an entire pencil case full of highlighters ready to color code her notes.

A small flash of movement caught my eye from next to the window. The room was pretty full but the seat next to him was conspicuously empty. The kid was slouched so low in his seat; he was barely visible. His back looked like he suffered from scoliosis from how bent over he was. Long legs peeped out from below his desk, so height didn’t seem to be an issue.

He fidgeted slightly, if at all possible making himself smaller. I smirked at his attempt. I slid into the seat beside him and watched his shoulder muscles clench; Jesus kid, lighten up. I spoke as if to a frightened animal, low calming. For a moment I wondered if I should make myself his height, I quickly tossed out that idea. I didn’t want him to think I was making fun of him, “Hey, is this English with Campbell?”

“Yeah,” he glanced at me dismissively but then did a sharp double-take. I had expected a tremulous voice but got a strong one instead. He wasn’t subtle in his perusal, a light blush of embarrassment, or was it arousal, staining the tops of his high cheekbones. Slowly and maybe unconsciously, the kid straightened. More of his body coming into view. He was stunning. Honey and caramel hair cut short on the sides and longer on top accentuated his large guileless eyes. He had incredible skin, light and perfect with a smattering of freckles on the tops of his cheeks and lightly dotting over his nose.

I raised a challenging eyebrow as his gaze started to go below my face. I was more than fine if he wanted to check me out. My movement spooked him and he ducked his head down. I wasn’t about to let him hide when he had begun to be interesting.

I thrust a hand in front of his face, frowning when he cringed away from it. Ease off, Holt. “I’m Owen Holt.” I replaced the frown with an encouraging smile as he glanced back at me. His guileless eyes squinting at me, wary. He hesitated but slid his palm against mine. I only barely resisted rubbing the backs of his knuckles with my thumb. Jesus, Holt, let’s not be a total creep.

“Jake… Jake Summers, are you new around here?” The question was almost accusatory. A furrow appeared between his brows as he asked.

“Yeah, I just moved here from Minnesota.” For the first time, things might have been looking up. Maybe Buffalo wouldn’t be a total wash. Jake Summers, I would remember that.

Class started then. I had never seen someone so attentive to a syllabus class. Not even the girl who was taking notes in fourteen colors was paying as good attention as Jake. Not even for a moment did his eyes move to me. A better man’s ego wouldn’t have been a little bruised but I wasn’t there yet.

As the bell rang, his focus finally broke. I grimaced as I pulled out my phone checking the time. Five minutes wasn’t a ton of time between class and Jake was already packing his things.

“I’ll see you later, Jake.” A shocked smile met my words. I was him through his smile, it was innocent, beatific and absolutely stunning. His eyes crinkled at the corners.

I’ll admit that as a teenager, I could get hard from a well-placed gust of wind. But I had never gotten hard from a smile. My cock swelled in my jeans and I had to turn away quickly so he wouldn’t be creeped out that I was aroused.

I slung my backpack over my shoulder as I stepped into the hallway. I squinted around the hallway trying to figure out where my history class would be. Height was a definite advantage as I surveyed the arrows painted on the walls. As my peers moved around me, I ignored the slaloming effect and the talking behind hands.

Internally sighing, I reached into my back pocket for the map of the school, unwilling to ask any of the giggling girls for assistance.

“Hey, are you Holt?” A deep voice sounded.

I glanced up at the incoming person. “Yeah?” A large deep-skinned hand reached for me.

“What’s up, man? I’m Kyle Johnson. I play D on the team.” I took the hand and shook it.

“Oh, great. Nice to meet you.” The swarms of our peers parted around us.

“Great to have you here. You’ll really up our game.” I didn’t know what to say to that, I’d either come off fake or like a dick so I just smiled. “Anyway, Coach texted me and told me to look out for you. I’m in your history class.”

An internal sigh of relief went through me as he started to lead me through the halls. The sigh turned to one of mild irritation as the conversation stayed only on hockey. Now, I can talk about hockey for weeks, spend hours on the right way to tape a stick but for just once, I would have loved to just talk about anything else.

“So, you did exhibitions with the Wild, right?

“Yeah, a few.” Please, any other line of questioning.

“Did you meet Reese Barton? He has such a sick dangle. I wish I had that kind of handling.” I only barely resisted checking for a text message. If only Johnson knew just how much I knew about Reese’s dangle.

“Yeah, he’s a really good dude.” I was mercifully saved by entering the classroom as the bell struck. I tuned out the syllabus with thinking about Jake Summers’ body. My reprieve only lasted through the class before Johnson started talking again.

“You want to head over and grab some lunch? Usually, we’re allowed to go off campus, but not the first day.”

Really I wanted to see if Jake wanted to eat lunch with but I agreed to meet my future teammates. Go Cougars.

The choices for lean proteins were extremely limited but I made do with what I had. Rice, broccoli and a turkey sub would be serviceable for a meal. I noted that my peers opted cheese covered tater tots. Johnson even got some, maybe his huge frame had to do with some mismanaged eating.

A table stood conspicuously empty in the middle of the cafeteria. I wasn’t blind to the class politics. I wanted to shake my head at the futility. Why did all of this matter? One more year I repeated to myself.

Kyle introduced me around to the team’s seniors. Paul Killhorn lacked a personality but his immense body was good for a goalie. I mean, you can block more of the goal, thus fewer scored goals. Gregory Lewis could do with a round of Accutane. Liam Subban really grated my nerves as he asked me about my shootout goal at the Junior National Championship.

“How did you chose where to shoot it?” How could this guy not see how uncomfortable I was with talking about it? I didn’t want a fan club on the team, I just wanted to be one of the guys. Low profile, I reminded myself.

“Just watched a lot of game footage, he had a weak spot and I capitalized.”