Ryan Kesler hates Andrew Ladd on sight.
Andrew Ladd is the kind of guy who is loud and confident and a good hockey player. He and Ryan are two of only three freshmen who make the starting line up at University of Vermont. So sure, Ladd's also good at hockey, but he's definitely not as good as he thinks he is.
Ladd is good in the locker room, and all the guys like him. Kesler, who has always had trouble interacting with other people off the ice, automatically hates guys like that. It doesn't help that Ladd is also really good-looking, and he knows he's good-looking, too, which automatically makes him less attractive.
Ryan's seen him flirt with everyone he comes in contact with, like that's supposed to be charming and not just sleazy.
He's working up a rant in his head about it -- one he can't actually tell anyone because the only guys he really knows in this state are all on the team, and he doesn't want to be accused of poisoning the locker room -- when he hears Alex tell Smitty to "quit being such a fag, dude."
Ryan doesn't flinch when people say that shit, not where they can see it, but it still pisses him off. If he throws a roll of tape into his bag harder than is necessary, no one notices, except maybe the tape.
"Dude, cut that shit out," Ladd says.
"What?" Alex asks.
"The gay jokes and insults, man, that shit's not cool," Ladd says easily.
Ryan tenses, waiting for the inevitable cascade of insults and ridicule towards the freshman who thinks anyone cares about his political correctness.
But it doesn't come.
"Yeah, man, get more creative," Jonesy calls from his locker.
Ladd grins. "Call him a limp dick, sad sack, asswipe, douchebag, cum stain..."
"Hey hey hey!" Smitty cries, putting his hands up in surrender. "I thought we were friends, man. You're hurting my feelings over here!"
"Aww, want me to kiss it better?" Ladd asks, taking a few steps towards him.
All he gets is a balled-up sock thrown in his face before everyone laughs and goes back to suiting up.
It shouldn't make him mad that Ladd's not a bigoted asshole, but he finds himself grinding his teeth so hard he's giving himself a headache.
The one and only time Ryan had tried something like that had been with his travel team in high school. He'd said it easy and casual, just like Ladd did. Not like it really mattered to him or anything.
"We hurting your feelings, homo?" had been the response. He never got shit for it later, but he never tried something like it again.
But fucking Andrew Ladd says it, and suddenly everyone's on board. It makes Ryan want to hit something.
After practice he spots Eric holding a mini captains’ meeting with Tim and Alex. He doesn't mean to eavesdrop, but it's not like he can help it when they're less than twenty feet away from his locker.
"Ladd's right, that's a good habit to break," Eric says. "And I'm pretty sure my cousin Matt would appreciate it."
Tim nods. "For sure. Those Canadians, huh?"
"All progressive and shit. No gay jokes, free healthcare --"
"But the milk comes in bags," Eric cuts in. And they all laugh, like they didn't just have a big gay summit or whatever.
His life in the locker room will suck less than it used to, and he has Andrew Ladd to thank for that. What the fuck.
And that should be the end of it, but a few days before Thanksgiving break, after a long practice, Jonesy stops Ladd as he's hustling ass out of the locker room.
"Where you going, kid? You're always running out of here like we all smell or something on Tuesday and Thursday."
"You do smell," Ladd says.
"Ha fucking ha," Jonesy says. "Come on, you got a hot date or something?"
Ryan finds himself pausing as he's unlacing his skates, waiting for the answer, even though he doesn't care. He'd barely noticed that Ladd did disappear, except to sometimes be grateful he wasn't around.
"I've got a GSA meeting to get to." Ladd shrugs.
"GSA?" Jimmy asks.
"Gay straight alliance?" Ladd says, like Jimmy is stupid for not knowing what that means.
Ryan is kind of surprised that Jimmy doesn't know what that means, but it pales compared to the revelation that Ladd is apparently going to GSA meetings twice a week
"But you're not gay," Jonesy says, puzzled.
Ladd laughs, like the idea is just ridiculous, and Ryan fists his hand. "No, man, but there are a couple of other words in the name there. Seabs says it's important to promote awareness among jocks, and break down stereotypes and stuff."
Ryan has only known Ladd a few months, but he's already sick of hearing Seabs's name constantly. But it would make sense that Ladd couldn't come up with this stuff on his own.
"And," Ladd adds, "there are some really hot bi chicks."
That gets high fives from about half the room.
Ryan keeps his hand down.
It bothers the hell out of Ryan all week.
Ladd is talking about going to GSA meetings, and -- and everybody just laughs it off. If Ryan did that, he'd be found out in about five minutes. It's just so unfair it makes Ryan sick. Ladd doesn't need to worry about how it looks to everyone else. He doesn't have to worry about how he's gonna prove he's straight if it comes down to it. Not with people high fiving him for picking up bi girls he hasn't even picked up yet. Or maybe he has and can keep his mouth shut about it, Ryan doesn't know.
Ryan's slept with two girls in his entire life, when the pressure got to be too much, and guys really were getting suspicious. They hadn't been the worst experiences of his life, but it hadn't been awesome either. And both girls ended up never talking to him after, because he ended up being an asshole about it. He hadn't meant to be, but he hadn't known how to handle it. He'd promised himself he'd never do it again.
It's so unfair that Ladd gets to go to those meetings, that Ryan should be able to go to, without a care in the world.
When he goes home for Thanksgiving break, his mom figures out that something is up with him right away.
"Is everything going all right at school, honey?"
"Your classes aren't too hard, are they?"
"No, they're all, like, introductory classes, and the professors are pretty cool about giving us time to do the assignments when we have games and stuff."
"And hockey's going okay? You like your teammates?"
It's nothing that he hasn't told her over the phone a million times.
"Yeah, Mom, everyone's great," Ryan assures her.
"Oh good." She smiles at him, and Ryan can't feel bad for lying to her.
She'd been so glad when he told her there were a couple other freshman on the team, and Ryan had been too, at first. It diffuses some of the teasing and mild hazing, but at this point, Ryan would trade not having to deal with Ladd for more of that shit.
"What time are Todd and Jenny coming by?" Ryan asks. The house always seems weird and quiet without his siblings.
"Not for another hour or so," his mom says, glancing at the clock.
"Cool, I'll be in the garage," Ryan says, grabbing a carrot stick from the platter.
The garage set up isn't quite as fancy as The Gut, but it's familiar and soothing, and it does have a few advantages. He can pick the music, for one, and there's no one else around to bother him as he fires pucks at the net.
Ryan's never been to a GSA meeting in his life. Not that he would have had time in high school anyway. He doesn't even know what they really do, so it's dumb to be getting all jealous.
He just can't help thinking that it would be nice to go somewhere and not have to worry about hiding, or pretending to be okay with dumb jokes, or attracted to girls.
Whatever, he's made it this far without that. He doesn't need it. He has hockey. He takes one hard, vicious shot that clangs off the left post and ricochets into the shelves. It makes an awful racket.
"Ryan, honey," his mom calls, "why don't you come inside? They'll be here soon."
The weekend passes quickly, and suddenly Ryan's on a plane back to school, rushing to get an assignment done before classes resume Monday morning.
There's a fair amount of assists happening in the living room that night, since Ryan's not the only one who forgot about school for four days.
Coach skates them hard at practice on Tuesday, to “burn off all that gravy.” They've got some important games coming up in the next few weeks, and Ryan's just dying to get going.
He can't help but notice when Ladd starts rushing through his change, and Ryan briefly considers following him, but Ladd's gone before Ryan even has his jeans on.
The next day at practice, Ryan finds himself standing next to Ladd, waiting to run a drill.
"How was the meeting?" Ryan asks before he can stop himself.
Ladd looks at him like he's nuts, which he very well might be. He and Ladd have made no secret of the fact that they dislike each other. The guys think it's hilarious. Ryan just looks at him,
expressionless, waiting for an answer.
"Fine," he says, and he skates off to run the drill.
Ryan tries again after practice, asking as casually as possible, "So, like, what do you do at the meetings?"
Ladd glares at him a moment and then leans in. "If someone's putting you up to this shit, cut it out right now, or, I swear to god, Kesler, I'll make you regret it."
"What?" Ryan asks, baffled.
"These are my friends, and if you're planning on fucking with them..."
"What -- Are you fucking -- Fuck you, no," Ryan says, shoving him back a few steps. "Are you really so conceited that you think you're the only one on the entire team that doesn't hate the gays?"
Ladd crosses his arms and continues to glare. "If you're so damn curious, why don't you come to the meeting tomorrow?" He looks smug, like this will prove that Ryan is actually out to gay bash someone or something. Ryan really hates it when Ladd looks smug.
"Fine." He shrugs, and tries not to look like just saying it terrifies him. "What room?"
"Student Union basement, room 8." Ladd has stopped glaring, and now he just looks suspicious and surprised that Ryan called his bluff.
"See you there, then," Ryan says, and the look on Ladd's face is totally worth the sleep he won't be getting tonight.
Ryan is on auto pilot most of Thursday, constantly debating whether or not he should actually go. What if someone there just looks at him and knows and then says something to Ladd?
But you can't tell just by looking, he knows that, even though that possibility haunted him in high school. And even if someone did know, Ryan thinks it might actually be nice to have another guy to talk it over with. Just someone that knew and didn't care.
Ladd ditches him after practice, because he's an asshole, and maybe he expected Kesler to wimp out. He almost does, when he’s standing right outside the door, but the image of Ladd's smug face propels him through.
He's pretty sure he's not late, but the small room is pretty full, and it feels like everyone is staring at him.
A guy leans down and whispers something to Ladd, who replies at a regular volume. "He's on the team, but I didn't bring him. If he's an asshole, it's not my fault."
That earns him a smack on the arm from a girl with brown pigtails, and Ryan realizes he's just been standing there in the door.
"Uh, hi," he says to no one and everyone before dropping in the nearest empty seat.
All the chairs are arranged in a big circle, and Ryan feels like everyone is staring at him. Looking around, that's because everyone is. Everyone except for Ladd, who seems pretty occupied with a guy and girl sitting on his lap, Jesus.
"What's your name, soldier?" the guy next to him asks. Ryan swears conversation dies down in the room.
"Ryan," he says. The guy smiles.
"I'm Jack. You are scrumptious!" he exclaims.
"Stop scaring the newbies, Jack," the girl sitting next to Ladd scolds. "We want to keep them around."
"It's fine," Ryan says, but he knows his smile is weak.
"See, Jane? He's fine! And I do mean fine." He winks at Ryan, and a few other people laugh. It actually is fine. Ryan can tell they're not laughing at him. And Jack is over the top, but he's kind of funny, and even though he's leaning into Ryan he's been careful not to touch.
"Okay, enough screwing around!" a girl yells. "Let's get this meeting started. First order of business: the last queer coffeehouse of the semester is coming up Saturday night, and Mike's gonna tell you what kind of help he needs."
A guy stands up and says, "First, we need another flier party. Volunteers?"
A bunch of people raise their hands, including Ladd. Ryan wonders how many people are volunteering because Mike is cute. If you're into that kinda look.
"Awesome," Mike says. "And I'm gonna need some people to help me carry equipment the night of."
Fewer people raise their hands, so Ryan finds himself lifting his arm in the air.
"You'll help carry?" Mike asks him.
"I'm a jock," Ryan says. “It's pretty much all I'm good for."
People laugh, and Jack says, "Not all..."
Across the circle, Ladd is looking at him. Ryan pretends not to notice.
The only thing that changes after the meeting is the number of friend requests he gets on Facebook between Thursday and Saturday. He's not sure what he expected -- something from the team, some reaction from Ladd. Just some acknowledgement of how huge that was. But there's nothing, other than status messages from names he doesn't really recognize.
He gets to the coffee house early, because in his experience from being the hosting team at a tournament, that's usually a good thing when you're setting things up. But he doesn't take into account the awkward standing-around phase, while waiting for Mike to show up. He recognizes some people, but he doesn't know names or what to say.
This shit's easier with skates on.
Ryan's not really expecting the girl who was sitting with Ladd on Thursday to approach him. He's kind of surprised she's here at all, because she's kind of small for set-up, but maybe she's tech support. Or maybe she's Mighty Mouse.
"Hey," she says, dropping her bag at his feet.
"Uh, hey," Ryan says. He's racking his brain trying to remember her name. He knows he heard it, but figured he'd never be talking to her, since she's friends with Ladd.
"Jane," she says, sticking out her hand, saving the day.
"Ryan Kesler, I know." He must look surprised because she says, "It's not every day we get jocks at GSA. Especially jocks Andrew seems to have so many opinions about."
"Bad opinions, I'm sure."
"You are not wrong about that. Soooo, what's your deal?"
"What, hasn't Ladd told you all about me?"
"Well, he certainly said a lot of words, but I like to find things out for myself."
Ryan looks around for Mike, but he's on his own. "What, there can only be one unbigoted hockey player per school?"
"Touché," Jane says. "We grilled Andrew to find out his deal too, when he first showed up, so don't feel bad."
"What is Ladd's deal?"
Jane raises her eyebrows, but answers. "Straight but not narrow. He had no problem being Ben's pretend boyfriend when his asshole ex came to town, you know?"
"Weird," Ryan says.
"What, that he'd pretend to be a guy's boyfriend?" Jane asks. She's standing up taller, like she's gearing up for a fight.
"That someone would want him to be their boyfriend. He's an asshole."
Jane laughs, "He says the same thing about you."
"See, he's an asshole." Ryan shrugs.
"So what is your deal?" Jane asks again. "I told you what Andrew's is."
Ryan tries not to tense. "I'm not -- I'm not here to destroy your clubhouse, if that's what you're worried about."
Jane gives him a long look, but before she can say anything, Mike comes in and calls everyone together.
Ryan ends up lugging a lot of speakers and amps and boxes of things. He never knew so much had to go into what is basically an open mic night.
He plans to stand in the back so he can sneak out before the truly awful performances, but Jane corners him again and says, "Let me buy you a coffee."
"The coffee is free," Ryan points out. Jane rolls her eyes. "Well, then have a free coffee with me, and it will count as a voucher for me buying you a good coffee some other time."
Ryan should just walk away. She's Ladd's friend and doesn't even seem to really trust him yet.
"Come on," she says before he can decline. "It's going to be horrible, and I need someone to make fun of everyone with me or I'll go insane."
"You're persistent," Ryan says, and he's already walking over to the refreshment table.
"Yup," Jane says, proudly.
After that, Jane decides to adopt him. That’s exactly how she puts it, because, she says, he clearly needs help.
“Hey!” Ryan says, but she doesn’t listen; she mostly just starts bossing him around.
For one, there are suddenly standing lunch plans, and half the time she's got friends from her Women's Studies classes with her. The first time he sits down at the table with them, he gets a look like they think he's going to attack at any moment.
"Everyone, this is Ryan," Jane says. "He's cool."
He doesn't feel very cool, as he sits mostly in silence while they talk about things he's never even heard of before.
He only makes the mistake of referring to the women's team as the girl's team once. "It's still weird being called the men's team," he says. "I wasn't trying to demean them or anything."
Jane beams at him across the table, and he relaxes a little. He likes having a friend who doesn't care about hockey. It'd suck to fuck that up entirely.
Ryan relaxes more at the GSA meetings, since they get more informal as the semester winds down, but Ladd keeps giving him skeptical looks from across the circle. Whatever, Ryan doesn't care, and actually he kind of enjoys bothering Ladd by doing absolutely nothing. He should've started coming to these earlier.
Another thing that happens is that in the midst of finals and games, when Ryan is so stressed out he's regretting his decision not to play in juniors, Ryan gets a friend suggestion from Jane on Facebook.
Jane suggests you be friends with Andrew Ladd.
"What the fuck?" he asks when she picks up the phone. "Is this some kind of joke to help me lighten up during finals?"
"I don't like rifts in the family," Jane says, not even bothering to pretend she doesn't know what he's talking about.
"Even if we were friends on Facebook, it doesn't mean we'd be friends in real life," Ryan informs her.
"You know, you guys might like each other if you ever stopped calling each other assholes long enough to talk."
"No, we wouldn't. Jane, we spend enough time together as it is. Don't you think we'd know by now?"
"Whatever, just do it, so I don't feel like I'm betraying one of you every time I talk to the other. I already talked to Andrew about this, by the way."
"Ugh, fine, whatever, don't you have finals to worry about instead of who I'm friends with on Facebook?"
"Yes, I do. Stop bothering me." She hangs up without letting Ryan say goodbye.
Ryan actually still has a friend request from Ladd from the beginning of the season, when everybody was just friending everyone on the team. Ryan hadn't answered right away, already sure that he wasn't going to like the guy. Eventually he just started ignoring it. He goes in and confirms the "friendship," then sends Jane a text in all caps: "THERE. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?"
He's already on Ladd's profile, so he pokes around a bit. Every other comment on his wall appears to be from Brent Seabrook - Michigan, and every comment seems to involve Seabs calling Ladd "babe" or "sugarlips" and once "muffin," which prompted Ladd to say, "DUNCS MAKE HIM STOP."
Duncan Keith - Michigan State replied with, "what do you expect me to do?"
Ryan scrolls away from that conversation. He doesn't care about how Ladd is still best friends with all the guys he played with before now. It's not like Ryan isn't still friends with a lot of the guys from the NDP, but they're not weird like Ladd's Canadians.
He scoffs a little when he sees that there are 652 pictures of Andrew Ladd. Ladd's probably drunk in all of them. He clicks through and discovers he's half right. Half of them are him on the ice, playing, but plenty of the rest are of the "don't ask what's in that cup" variety.
He's not perving on Ladd's friends when he clicks on an album called "LAKE HOUSE!!!" Except maybe he is. There are a lot of guys in swim trunks doing stupid shit, and Ladd's not in every picture, so Ryan can actually enjoy looking at them.
Brent Seabrook - Michigan is tagged in more of them than Ladd is, and that's okay because he's actually ... not bad to look at. He has a big goofy smile and a really nice chest, despite it being so pasty he's clearly a hockey player. The next picture is of Brent Seabrook in the middle of Ladd and another guy -- the Duncan Keith - Michigan State, apparently. They're all shirtless and leaning into each other with their arms around each other and smiling and ...
Ryan closes the tab as fast as his hand can move. He is not drooling over Ladd's friends. He's just not.
He has studying to do. He doesn't have time for this.
The semester ends, and Ryan flies home in a daze, just hoping he passed everything so he can keep playing hockey. He sleeps for pretty much 2 days straight, hangs out with his mom and his siblings and the few friends that are around. Only a week later, he has to head back to Vermont for practice.
The campus feels empty and weird without the rest of the students. Ryan finds himself missing Jane and even her Women's Studies friends. It's not that he doesn't like most of the guys on the team, it's just that they can be too much sometimes, and there's not much to do when they're not in practice with no class and no other students.
Jane's home in Massachusetts, and Ryan ends up texting her a lot. He should have known that eventually the other guys would get nosy about it.
"Who you texting, Kes?" Tim asks. He says it casually, but Kesler's aware of the fact that half the team's attention is on him.
"My friend Jane," he says casually. "She's in Massachusetts for the break."
"Is she hot?" Jared asks. Eric kicks him, but Ryan just shrugs.
"Yeah." She is, if you're into the sometimes angry nerd girl look. He's not, but he's not telling them that.
Ladd frowns behind Eric, but doesn't say anything as Eric asks, "Is she coming to the tourney?"
"Uh, I don't know," Ryan says. "Probably not, since the dorms are closed."
"Could let her sleep here," Alex suggests with a smirk.
"Not in the middle of a tournament," Eric says, shutting that line of conversation down.
"So I hear you think I'm hot," Jane says when she calls him a few days later.
"What?" Ryan leaves the living room and closes himself in his room. He has a feeling he doesn't want to be around the other guys for this conversation.
"You think I'm hot?"
"Um, I didn't mean anything by it," Ryan says. "The guys were like --"
"Aw, Ryan, you're breaking my heart." She laughs.
Ryan sighs. "I mean, obviously, you're very pretty, and if I was --" He stops when he realizes what he was about to say.
"If you were into girls?" Jane finishes for him.
Ryan needs to sit down. "Yeah," he says weakly. "That."
"Breathe," Jane says. "It's okay."
Ryan puts his head between his knees and wonders where the smelling salts are when you need them.
"You never told anyone before, huh?"
Ryan shakes his head, then realizes she can't see that and answers her out loud.
"Are you freaking out?" Jane asks gently.
"A little," Ryan answers, his voice small, because he feels like he can't breathe. It's weird, he feels like a weight has moved off his shoulders and onto his chest.
"I won't tell you not to be freaked, but I promise I won't tell anyone, not even the cute guys who have asked me about you or --"
"Don't tell Ladd," Ryan says suddenly. "Not that he's one of those guys." He wants to ask who they are, but there's no point. He's not out. He's not going to date anyone. "Just. Just don't."
"I won't, I won't tell anyone," Jane assures him. "But I'm glad you told me."
He hadn't planned on telling her, but now that he has, he is kind of glad she knows. "Me too."