Walter Dorsey was getting his ass kicked at hockey by a girl.
Sure, the girl was an Olympic figure skating champion, and she had the advantage of being on the same team as his little brother, also an Olympic champion and still an incredible hockey player even with the missing eighteen degrees of peripheral vision. But Walter was still getting his ass kicked by a girl.
"Jesus!" he shouted as he slammed knees-first into the pond ice after a failed attempt to block Kate Moseley's latest slapshot. He didn't need to see her to know she was gloating.
"That's eight!" she crowed. Walter glanced up just in time to see Doug high-five her, then steal a kiss before both of them skated off after the puck.
"Shit, Walter," his buddy Dan said as he skated by, subtly checking to make sure Walter hadn't broken anything in his fall. It was a real possibility at their age. "I thought you said she was a figure skater."
"She is," Walter said as he heaved himself off the ice. He leaned on his stick a little more than he wanted to admit. "She just happens to skate with my goddamned former hockey star of a brother."
Earlier this afternoon, when Doug had looked longingly at Walter's hockey gear strewn in a corner of the living room and suggested a two-on-two game on the pond behind their old elementary school, Walter had figured it would be almost too easy to win. He and Dan, his best bartender, had been playing in the bar league for almost three years, ever since Doug had left for what Walter thought was the merchant marine. The team needed someone to replace Doug when he left, and God knew Walter had plenty of experience cleaning up after his brother.
Doug was going to be an amazing hockey player even when he was eighty and toothless, but if he'd been on figure skates for the last three years, he couldn't have been the same kind of player he was before. And the girl was a liability. She was tiny, first of all, and watching her fuss about how the pond ice was going to ruin the sharpening job on her skates did not give the impression that she could slide a puck by him as easy as a knife through butter. Or goddamn body check him, for that matter.
But Doug and Kate's real secret weapon was the spooky, wordless communication they carried on even when they were halfway across the pond from each other. Kate just seemed to know where Doug was going to send the puck even before his stick touched it, and she put herself there to intercept it. Same thing with Doug. The two of them didn't so much play a game as do a dance that had already been choreographed, and Walter and Dan didn't factor at all.
Walter had gotten a D the semester his high school gym coach made everyone do square dancing in PE.
Doug shot the puck through the makeshift goal of a rock and a broken off part of a two by four. Walter made a half-hearted attempt to block, but he didn't get his stick within ten feet of it. Instead of racing off after the puck, Doug stopped with his right foot turned out against the toe of his left, a move which Walter had definitely never seen make an appearance in a hockey game. "You want to take a break?" Doug asked.
As much as it galled him to do it, he nodded. "Danny!" he called across the pond. "Intermission, huh?"
"Sounds good to me."
Kate, who'd followed the puck and dug it out from the snowbank it had landed in, stopped in front of them with a spray of snow. "What's going on?" she asked, dribbling the puck back and forth in front of her. Despite the figure skates on her feet, at the moment she looked every inch a hockey player. Maybe it was the memory of the last time her shoulder slammed into his chest. "We just got started. You want to quit now?"
"Kate," Doug said, and there was that telepathy thing again, the two of them having an entire conversation with a couple of glances.
"Fine," she said. "Let me know when we're ready to start again." She held her stick horizontally across her chest, perfectly balanced, and pushed off backwards to execute a crisp turn on her left foot. Now going forwards, and still holding the stick like a tightrope walker's pole, she leaned forward and lifted her leg in a move Walter had always thought looked a little too much like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant.
He caught Doug looking longingly at Kate as she skated off, and his exasperation warmed into something closer to affection. "Go on," he said. "Us old farts are gonna sit on the bench for a while and count our bruises. Give us something to look at while we catch our breath."
"You sure?" Doug asked, but he was already drifting toward his girlfriend.
"Get outta here."
Doug needed no further encouragement. By the time Walter sat down on the bench next to Dan, he'd crossed the pond, catching Kate up in some complicated spin. They ditched their sticks in the snowbank and just skated, swooping and darting, coming together and flying apart like the gulls that sometimes hovered above the dumpster behind the bar.
Walter had never thought of his little brother as graceful. Powerful, confident, skilled; those were the words he would've used. He was still a powerful skater—no question of that as he did a huge jump right in front of the bench, landing it even on the shitty pond ice, the scrape of his landing echoing in the silent schoolyard and the breeze from his passage ruffling what was left of Walter's hair.
This figure skating thing, though, it had given him control over all that power. It was like the difference between a souped up Civic and a Lamborghini. And that was grace, which Walter now realized was damned impressive.
"What was that?" Dan asked.
"Double axel," Doug called back. "I've got the triple, mostly, but I'd never land it on this ice."
"You've only landed it cleanly once back at home," Kate said as she passed by.
"No way—I've done four more in the last month, before you and Anton got there in the morning. It's easier to practice without anyone watching me."
"You're just jealous because you've never come close to landing one even in the harness."
"Hmph." She pulled herself into a spin with her back arched and one leg raised, knee bent, so that her ponytail almost brushed her thigh.
"Showoff," Doug said.
He grabbed her hand when she came out of the spin and pulled her into a set of back crossovers. Then he brought his arm around her waist and they started making big half-circles on one foot, kicking their free legs up and out. Walter didn't know how they did it, what with Kate being so much shorter than his brother, but they copied each other's body positions exactly, not a finger or a toe out of sync.
Fifteen minutes later, he and Dan had recovered enough for a rematch. Walter was unsurprised when they lost two to...well, he stopped counting after it reached double digits. There were some guys in the NHL who could take lessons from Kate. Though they probably wouldn't have the psychological advantage she did, looking like a five foot-nothing puffball of a girl and then slamming into you with the force of a Clydesdale.
"Don't you have enough to do with practicing your own stuff? You gotta play hockey, too?" Walter complained as they all headed for the bench to take off their skates.
"It's good for endurance," Kate answered. "More stimulating than running."
"Doesn't compare to the other way of improving our endurance," Doug said in a voice that wasn't meant to carry, but did anyway in the cold, silent air.
"Yes, well," Kate murmured, "at some point we have to leave the apartment, or Anton will come check on us again."
Maybe it was just windburn, but Doug's cheeks took on a noticeable redness. "I thought we agreed never to talk about that."
She clapped him on the shoulder. "I wouldn't worry about it," she said. "I'm sure he drank enough that night to completely erase the memory."
Walter consciously did not think about what they might be referring to, instead focusing on the fact that his little brother had just said something was better than hockey. He must really be crazy about this girl.
Of course, the ring Doug had showed him last night should have been another clue. He was planning to ask her tonight, on Christmas Eve.
"You really want to spend the rest of your life with this girl?" Walter had asked last night. Their parents had raised him to understand that marriage was a life sentence, and after they died when he was eighteen and Doug was nine, he'd tried to raise his little brother with the same understanding.
"I'm starting to have a hard time imagining it without her," Doug said.
Walter knew from long experience that talking Doug out of something he'd set his mind to was a non-starter, so he didn't try, though frankly he still had reservations. Even if he didn't know her dad had built her a private ice rink, he would've been able to tell she came from money. She reeked of it, with her deceptively simple sweaters that probably cost more than he earned in a week, and those sparkly little brooches she wore over her heart. She sure as hell didn't seem like the type to be interested in a guy from Duluth whose brother ran a sports bar and whose parents had busted their asses into early graves in construction and waitressing. Hell, if the conversation he'd overheard yesterday morning was anything to go by, this visit was the first time she'd ever lowered herself to wear a pair of jeans.
("Is that denim I see?"
He could practically hear her shrug. "I thought I should try to fit in while we're here."
Doug's hearty, open laugh rang in the upstairs hallway. "Honey, you'd stand out even if you wore a burlap sack."
"You don't like them?"
"What? No! No, I—you look good. Really good. You should wear these more often."
"Don't get your hopes up," she said, in a tone that clearly gave reason to raise them as high as they would go.)
On the other hand, seeing them out there together on the ice, each knowing exactly what the other was going to do before they did it—he began to understand, sort of. He'd seen his parents act like that sometimes, mostly when they were deflecting his or Doug's attempts to play one of them against the other in a bid for a bedtime extension or some spending money. Once he'd decided girls didn't have cooties after all, Walter had thought he might like to have that with someone, someday. Despite how young he'd been when their parents died, maybe Doug had been thinking the same thing.
Once their skates were off, Kate and Doug kicked through the foot of snow on the ground to the nearby swingset. They had barely brushed the snow off the swings before they started competing to see who could fly the highest.
"Come on, you can do better than that!" Doug called as he sailed backward, the swingset chain's creak echoing through the yard. He swung forward again, the end of his arc almost level with the bar of the swingset, and Kate pumped her legs and followed. The grim set of her mouth suggested she might be having second thoughts about this whole contest, but also that she would never give Doug the satisfaction of saying so.
Okay, yeah, Walter was beginning to see why Doug liked her so much.
On his next swing forward, just before he hit the end of the arc, Doug leaped out of the seat, falling at least seven feet to the ground. He didn't quite stick the landing, and wound up faceplanting into the snow.
"Doug!" Kate called, sounding genuinely frightened. She jumped as soon as she was a little closer to the ground and crouched next to him. "Are you all right?"
He moaned something unintelligible, and now Walter started to get concerned. He stood up as Kate shook his brother's shoulder. Then Doug turned over, grinning wide enough to be seen from the bench several feet away. "Toe pick."
Whatever the hell that was.
Kate made a noise that fell somewhere between a shriek and a growl. Then, quick as lightning, she picked up a handful of snow and smashed it into Doug's face. Sputtering, he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her on top of him before rolling her into the snow.
Walter sat back down, relieved that Doug had just been playing around, as they continued fighting for the upper hand, shouting and laughing like the kids this playground was meant for. "He's gonna catch hell for that one," Dan commented.
"Something tells me he'll enjoy every minute of it."
Walter dug in his hockey bag and pulled out the old candle stub he kept there, then began waxing the bottom of his hockey stick. The pond ice would've taken off the entire layer he'd applied last Saturday. He noticed the noise from the swings lessening, but didn't pay much attention until he was done waxing. Then he looked over and—yeah, they'd definitely stopped the foreplay and moved on to making out.
He raised his voice. "I see clothes start coming off, I'm leaving your asses here to freeze."
They immediately went still. Kate rolled off his brother and sat up, shaking her head and making snow fly from her hair.
"I could do with some heat," Dan hinted. "Also some painkillers. Preferably in the form of alcohol."
"Good idea, my friend." He raised his voice again. "Truck's leaving!"
After dinner, when the three of them were gathered in the pine-paneled living room without a whole lot to do, Doug started shooting his brother Meaningful Looks with a capital M, capital L. Walter could take a hint. He thrust himself out of the old, comfortable yellow recliner with the rip in the side, announcing that he was going to check and see if Lucky needed anything at the bar. He left Doug and Kate next to each other on the couch next to the Christmas tree, thoroughly bedecked thanks to Janie from the bar, who'd been spending a lot of time over here of late.
He considered actually checking on the bar for about a fifth of a second before he leaned against the wall just to the left of the door to the living room.
Kate made that little hmming noise women did when they were ready to start a conversation that was bound to be uncomfortable. "Now that your brother's gone," she said, "maybe you can tell me what you've been trying so desperately to avoid saying all evening."
"Hey, I haven't—" She must have given him one of those arch looks she was really good at. "Maybe I've been a little nervous."
"I'm about to do something I've never done before. And I hope I'll never have to do it again."
"What do you mean? Is…is everything all right?"
"All right? Yeah, of course everything's all right! I mean—well, not all right, exactly…"
"Not exactly? Then what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong! It's just…I've been thinking about you and me lately. And I've been thinking…maybe it's time for things to change. Not a lot, but, you know, in an important way."
Oh, for Christ's sake.
"Doug," Kate said, her voice barely above a growl, "if you brought me all the way out to the middle of nowhere to break up with me…"
"What? No! Jesus, Kate, how could you think that?"
"Oh, forgive me for assuming that if things aren't okay and you want to make a change, it might just mean you don't want to be with me anymore!"
"That's not what I'm saying at all!"
"Then what are you saying?" she asked, in a tone that strongly implied he had about point five seconds to explain himself before the lid was going to blow on her bottled-up fury.
Walter wanted to sweep into the room and shout that his brother was an idiot, and that he was trying to propose, if she could find it in her heart to want such a moron. That or smack Doug into next Sunday. Either would work. But he was getting married—if he managed to talk himself out of the hole he'd dug, anyway—and he needed to start swimming without help at some point. Much as it pained him to do so, Walter kept silent.
"I'm trying to ask you to marry me!"
"What?" Kate's voice was small and shocked.
Walter, figuring they had other things on their minds than scanning for eavesdroppers, took a chance and peered around the doorframe. He saw Doug take Kate's hands in his.
"I know it's a big step, but...Kate, I love you. The kind of love that just doesn't quit when the buzzer goes. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, whether we're on the ice or on the ground or—anywhere. When we're too old and creaky to lace up our skates without help, I want to be right next to you. And—"
"Doug, stop talking."
He looked alarmed. "Why?"
"Because you're going to make me cry." Too late for that; even from across the room, Walter could see tears sparkling in her eyes. As she spoke, one overspilled her eyelid and onto her cheek.
"So is that a yes?"
"Of course it's a yes!"
Doug whooped and jumped off the couch, pulling her along with him. He picked her up at the waist and spun them around until they had to be dizzy, before he finally leaned in to kiss her.
Walter ran into the room and clapped Doug on the back. "Congratulations," he said around a suspicious thickness in his throat. "You too, new little sister." He pried Kate from Doug's arms to give her a hug.
"You didn't go see Lucky at all," she said as she embraced him. She was surprisingly strong, squeezing like a very pretty, very nice-smelling boa constrictor.
"Come on," he said as he let her go, "how many times do I get to see my little brother propose?"
"Just once," Doug said firmly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the black velvet box Walter remembered from last night. "I almost forgot." Now starting to look a little unsure of himself, he opened the box and said, "I kind of poked through your jewelry box to see what you'd want, but if you don't like it—"
"It's beautiful," she said, cutting him off again. Walter was glad she was joining their family. She had the power to make Doug stop talking every once in a while.
Doug pulled the ring from the box and slid it onto her finger, a little awkwardly, but no less lovingly for the clumsiness. Kate tilted her hand to make the diamond sparkle in the light from the nearby lamp.
"This calls for a celebration in the best Dorsey tradition," Walter said.
"With copious amounts of alcohol, I assume?" Kate asked.
Doug slung his arm around her shoulders. "Welcome to the family, sweetheart."