DISCLAIMER: I do not own anything but the cow-tipping.

A/N: ABIG thanks to those who reviewed "Crush": meadow567, wakingbear, 1-800-epk-fano, Lia06, sweetophelia, Rtisticsoul, and xoXOCutieOXox. Apparently I never learned the lesson that you shouldn't do something well the first time, therefore setting a dangerous precedent and making others have high standards for you. Thank y'all, your reviews really made me day(s)!

Thanks for giving me your very best.

Those words remained in his head for years after the Olympics. They haunted him long past the time he watched his former teammates, his friends and brothers, win the gold medal.

That had been hard. He had, obviously, wanted to be there with them, rather than sitting in Braintree, watching his team play on television. Herb had thanked him for doing his best, but after the coach's words hung the implicit conclusion: his best just wasn't good enough. Not for this team.

He wasn't an angry guy, never had been. When it came to confrontation, on or off the ice, he wasn't like OC, who'd drop his gloves and start brawling, or Rizzo, who tried to make peace. No, when his back was against the wall, his first reaction was to make the other guy laugh. Maybe then he'd back off and forget he was mad, and there wouldn't be any hitting.

It wasn't that he wasn't serious, or was afraid. When it came to hockey he was nothing but serious, even though he joked about it. If you couldn't joke about the important things in life, he always reasoned, then how were you supposed to be able to joke about the little things? On the ice, he was everything but afraid. Except when it came to Herb's threats of cutting him. Those had scared him, but also spurred him to work harder and push himself more. He guessed, in retrospect, that he should be glad that he'd never seen it coming that he was number 21. That way he'd at least been able to enjoy his last few practices, the last few nights going out with the guys, especially after the Minnesota boys had convinced them to go ahead and try tipping a cow, and he and Silky and OC had, in their drunken state, taken it as a challenge that could not go unanswered.

He often remembered what Johnson had said about them being a family. He hadn't been there, but word had gotten around the team that someone had finally voiced what they all felt. They'd only been together for just over half a year, but they were close, like brothers. Because brothers occasionally got mad at each other and punched each other in the face and screamed at each other and had to be anywhere but in the same room as each other, but they also helped each other out and stood up for each other against bullies even bigger than any brother could be. And, by God, if your brother sent you drunk into a dark field to try to tip over a cow, you knew he would be there to pull your mud-covered ass out of the way when the cow decided not to stand for all that pushing and swearing anymore.

That was probably the worst part. In Colorado, those guys who didn't make it just knew they wouldn't be playing in the Olympics. The next five were cut before they'd bonded and been through the hell that was Norway. By the time he got cut, though, they were cohesive. They'd become that family that Johnson later blushed to hear about, and how do you kick someone out of their own family? When he'd walked back into the locker room from Herb's office, everyone there had the same expression on his face: They were sad to see him go and at the same time glad as hell that it was him and not them. A few, like Jimmy, had the decency to look guilty about feeling that way. He'd shook their hands, hugged them, tried to smile, said goodbye.

Rizzo had called him a few months after the Games, and Johnson a while after that, but otherwise he hadn't heard from any of them. It made sense, in a way, especially when he considered those faces in the locker room. None of them knew how to treat him, because even though he had been a brother, he was no longer truly one of them. Besides, even if he--and they--still considered him a brother, brothers didn't talk on the phone much.

The hardest part after that, when he'd gotten home to his parents, was fielding the inevitable question from everyone he knew. Unfortunately, he had proud parents, and proud parents talk about their boy's accomplishments, especially if it's something as great as being on the Olympic team, so everyone who knew his parents knew that he was supposed to be in Lake Placid. He got stopped at the grocery store, at the post office, at the gas station, all by well-meaning acquaintances who wanted to know shouldn't he be with the team? Then he had to explain that with the rules as they were the team was only allowed twenty players, and he hadn't made the final cut. And then he had to explain that he was fine and still looking forward to the Games as much as ever. It was draining, and he disliked repeating himself all the time, but he tried to be nice. After all, it wasn't their fault he was off the team.

He watched every game in a state of limbo, knowing he belonged neither with them nor away from them. It seemed so strange to watch them playing from the camera's angle instead of from the bench or from the midst of the action. He cheered as if he were there, the barely-coherent advice and exclamations of an athlete for whom speed is everything, all attaboys and there you go!. He knew that other people wouldn't be cheering for the team like this, wouldn't be calling them by their nicknames and reminding them how to run the plays, and on one hand he knew it was strange, but on the other, he didn't care. It was when he leaned forward to bang on the boards in front of the bench and finding them not there that brought him with a thud back into his parents' living room. After that, every time he found himself getting lost in the action, he forced himself to identify with the fans, instead of with the team.

And then they won. They beat the Russians, and then they won the gold medal. He was ecstatic. It was what they had been working for all those months. All the wallsits, the herbies, the drills and the film, it had been for this. And along with the intense, immeasurable pride he felt came the most terrible sadness since he'd been cut. All the times he'd had to tell people he was okay, all the smiles he'd faked to friends, all the emotion he'd kept hidden was threatening to spill out. As his parents were cheering, he'd had to leave the room, while the TV showed the boys, his friends and brothers, celebrating.

He heard Herb's voice in his head a lot through the years. It was a very persistent voice, from a very persistent man. Sometimes the voice was telling him that he'd been cut from the team, and thanking him for giving his best, and he didn't like to hear the voice repeating those words that much. But other times the voice reminded him that he was a hell of a hockey player, and, after all, he did believe in miracles.