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A Taxonomy of Universes

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Carey’s always been able to do it. It’s never on purpose — sometimes he just wakes up in another version of his life. It’s always sideways, never forward or back. When he was a kid, he woke up in Vancouver once, instead of Anahim Lake; with a brother instead of a sister; on a vacation in California instead of at his grandmother’s.

He’s woken up in college instead of the WHL, in Red Deer and Anahim Lake and Afghanistan instead of the Tri-Cities or Hamilton.

Sometimes it’s a worse life, sometimes it’s better. Sometimes he can’t even tell what’s different, only feels that it’s off, like he’s wearing a bad-fitting suit.

And then he’ll go to sleep, and wake up back in his own life.

*

Carey wakes up and knows he’s slipped again. It’s his bedroom, and his dog whining at him, so it can’t be too far off.

"Ughhh," someone, some guy, says next to him, and Carey twitches in surprise.

He turns his head and blinks. He’s in bed with Subban.

Subban pushes his forehead against Carey’s shoulder. “He’s your dog, man.”

"Right," Carey says blankly. He gets out of bed and goes to let Duke out.

He stands on the patio, watching Duke nose around in the muddy snow. He’s never woken up with someone else before, someone he wasn’t already sleeping with. Never with a teammate. A rookie teammate, Jesus.

When he comes back in, Subban is coming downstairs.

"Hey," Subban says, smiling, and leans in to kiss him.

Carey jerks back automatically.

Subban rolls his eyes. “I brushed my teeth, you big baby,” he says. He grabs Carey’s jaw and lays a smacking kiss on his mouth. “Have you started the coffee?”

"No," Carey says. He waits until Subban has gone past him into the kitchen before he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

It’s just — it’s weird, weirder than that time he woke up alone in a tent in the forest, and he doesn’t know why.

Nothing else seems different. He goes to practice with Subban and all the faces are familiar. They eat lunch, they get on a plane to Philadelphia.

He falls asleep on the plane and wakes up alone in his own life again. It’s usually easy to shake the other lives off, like a half-remembered dream, but he has a hard time looking Subban in the eye for a while after that.

*

Carey decided when he was in juniors that he wasn’t going to hook up with guys as long as he was playing. Especially not teammates. Especially not guys like Subban, who don’t know the meaning of the words discretion or caution.

Sometimes he makes dumb choices in other lives, though.

*

He slips once more before the season is over, waking up in grad school in Toronto. It’s like a maintenance day, only better. Nothing hurts, and he eats the biggest, greasiest pile of poutine he can find. He hopes other-him didn’t have anything due that day, because he skips all his classes and doesn’t touch the pile of papers next to the laptop.

After the playoffs, he wakes up in agony. His knee is throbbing with sick, hot waves of pain that the drugs can’t completely muffle. It takes him a minute to focus, to realize it’s not really his knee or his career.

He takes a huge, ragged breath.

"Hey, shhh," Subban says. "Just breathe, babe. I can’t give you a pill for another hour."

Carey makes an effort to concentrate on his breathing, ride out the pain.

"Fuck," Subban says, very quiet, and strokes his fingers gently through Carey’s hair.

It feels good, and Carey doesn’t even question it. When the next dose of painkillers finally kick in, Carey is exhausted.

"Is it working?" Subban asks.

"Yeah," Carey says, his eyes slipping shut.

"Good." Subban pets his head again, then leans in and kisses his forehead, his mouth, soft and sweet.

Carey blinks his eyes open. Subban’s biting his lip, his face worried. He tries to smile for Carey.

"Just go to sleep, babe," Subban says.

"Okay," Carey says, and closes his eyes again.

When he wakes up in his own body, the lack of pain feels amazing, and he cares a lot less that they went down to the Bruins in the first round again.

The sense memory of Subban stroking his hair lingers in the back of his mind for the rest of the summer.

*

Most of the time, when he slips, he wakes up a goalie. Sometimes, he’s doing something else — grad school, vet school, the rodeo circuit, teaching in Anahim Lake — but usually it’s hockey. (Once he woke up a d-man in Edmonton; Renney asked him if he was coming down with something at practice.)

It seems like most of his choices in life lead to hockey, and that’s strangely reassuring.

What’s less reassuring is that in more and more of his lives, he’s waking up in bed with PK.

Sometimes the team knows, sometimes PK gets up early to go back to his house before practice. Sometimes his family knows, sometimes they don’t.

One time he wakes up in PK’s house and stumbles downstairs in just his boxers to find PK and PK’s parents sitting in the breakfast nook.

"Did you forget my parents are visiting?" PK asks, grinning.

"Uh," Carey says.

"You’re useless without coffee," PK says. He comes over and kisses Carey’s cheek. Then he slaps Carey’s ass. "Go put some pants on."

PK’s parents are smiling into their coffee cups, fond and indulgent. When they do the moms’ trip that season, Carey keeps blushing and stuttering around PK’s mom, because he can’t stop thinking, there is a version of you that knows I’m sleeping with your son and thinks it’s sweet.

Carey wakes up in a universe where he was traded to St. Louis in 2010 after all.

PK skypes him before bed, bare-chested and grinning. “Why are you wearing so many clothes for our Thursday night skype session?” he asks, when Carey accepts the call.

"I have a thing," Carey blurts out. "Sorry. I can’t — do this."

"Fine, I’ll just jerk off by myself," PK says. He’s still smiling, but he looks disappointed around the eyes. "Call me tomorrow, okay?"

"For sure," Carey says.

"Love you," PK says.

"Love you, too," Carey makes himself say, because even if his other self is making terrible life decisions, he’s not going to be an asshole about it to PK.

Before he goes to bed, he writes a note on a post-it, call PK today, and leaves it on the laptop.

Carey wakes up in a universe where he was drafted by the Leafs instead, and by that point, he is not the least bit surprised to see that his phone is full of texts and pictures from PK, that the last one says, Good night, babe.

He googles it; they met at an All-Star Game. There’s a picture of PK with his arm around Carey’s shoulders, both of them in the same All-Star team jersey. PK is grinning, bright and happy, and Carey is giving him a skeptical side-eye, on the verge of being charmed despite himself. (Carey recognizes that expression on his other self’s face.)

When Carey wakes up without PK there for once, he shrugs it off. But PK isn’t at practice, and his name isn’t on his stall or on the Norris Award plaque or in Carey’s phone. When Carey googles him, he can’t find anything, none of the Subbans that come up are right.

He goes through page after page of search results, and his stomach gets colder and heavier with each one. He never does figure out what happened to PK in that universe, and it takes him a long time to fall asleep.

When he’s back to himself, he bypasses his usual seat on the plane and goes to sit next to PK.

PK lifts his eyebrows, but he doesn’t say anything, lets Carey push the armrest up and knock his knee against PK’s.

Carey dozes off on PK’s shoulder. PK shifts in the middle of the flight and Carey makes a disgruntled noise, burrowing closer.

"Oh, so you’re in that kind of mood," PK says, low and amused.

Carey wakes up all the way at that. “What?”

"You get like this sometimes, you want to sit next to me and, I dunno, cuddle, and then the next day you act like it never happened."

"Oh," Carey says.

PK shrugs, looks away.

Carey wonders if he should straighten up, find a different seat.

"It’s fine," PK says. "I don’t mind."

"Okay," Carey says. He tips his head back against the seat, but he leaves his shoulder and his thigh pressed against PK.

He’s just glad PK’s his teammate in this universe, is all.

*

Carey wakes up in a bedroom he doesn’t recognize, but PK is there, snoring away beside him, so he gets up to let the dogs out.

He’s got the coffee started by the time PK comes down, yawning and rubbing his eyes. PK smiles at him, but it starts to fade around the edges when he meets Carey’s eyes. He glances at Carey’s left hand, then says, “So where are you from?”

"What?"

"You’re not my Carey, so I figure he’s out visiting your life and you’re here visiting his."

Carey opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He’s never told anyone who wasn’t his grandmother about the slips. He licks his lips and tries again. “How did you know?”

"Body language, I guess," PK says. "Plus, you’re not wearing your ring. You took it off when you were doing the dishes last night, and you usually put it on again first thing in the morning."

PK steps around him, careful of his space, and picks something up out of a tiny dish behind the sink. It’s a gold ring. He puts it on the counter and slides it towards Carey, so Carey doesn’t have to take it from his hand. He’s got a matching one on his own hand.

Carey picks it up. “We’re married?”

PK nods. “Are we not in your universe?”

Carey shakes his head. He puts the ring on slowly. It should feel new, unfamiliar, but some kind of muscle memory makes it feel weightless and comforting as soon as it slides into place. “We’re not even dating,” he says.

Out of everything that’s happened this morning, that’s what makes PK look surprised.

At the end of the day, Carey says, “I can, uh, go to sleep on the couch.”

"No, it’s fine, it’s a big bed," PK says.

There’s room enough for them to lie down without touching. PK falls asleep first, but Carey can’t manage it.

PK rolls over in his sleep, slings an arm over Carey’s waist and tucks his face against Carey’s shoulder. Carey shifts his arm hesitantly, smooths his palm down PK’s back.

PK makes a sleepy, pleased sound. “You’re back,” he sighs.

Carey doesn’t say anything.

"That was a weird one," PK mumbles. "I can’t imagine a universe where I’m not in love with you."

Carey’s heartbeat stutters. “Shhh,” he says, and presses his hand flat against PK’s warm, smooth skin.

*

Carey looks at PK after that, tries to see if that other PK was right. He can’t tell. Maybe, he thinks, maybe PK is in love with him, or maybe Carey is just seeing what he wants — no, no, what he thinks he should see.

PK is always looking back. Carey closes his eyes.

*

PK is two steps ahead of him on the sidewalk in New York. He turns around when he gets to the corner and his heel catches on the cracked pavement. He stumbles, tipping backwards, and Carey grabs his coat on instinct, yanking him forward.

A split second later, a bus rushes past.

"Holy shit,” Prust says. “You almost fucking died.”

PK laughs, shocked and disbelieving. “No kidding! Thank fuck for your freaky goalie reflexes, dude.”

Carey’s heart is pounding. He can’t say anything. He’s still holding on to PK’s coat, and it takes an effort to unclench his fingers, to let go.

The light changes, and they cross the street. PK and Prust are already laughing about it, reenacting it for the stragglers behind them.

Carey can’t stop thinking about it. There are, right now, an infinite number of universes spinning out from that moment, and in half of them (more than half of them? how good are Carey’s reflexes, statistically speaking?), PK dies. Someday, Carey is going to wake up in one of those universes, and the thought of it makes him want to puke.

Carey scrambles out of bed in the middle of the night and pounds on PK’s door.

"Pricey, man, what’s wrong?" PK asks.

Carey pushes past him. His hands are shaking and his heart is beating too fast, and the idea of living in a universe without PK is, is—

He cups PK’s face in his hands and kisses him.

PK makes a tiny, shocked noise in the back of his throat. He’s frozen for a second under Carey’s hands, and then he opens his mouth and kisses Carey back.

Other versions of PK have kissed Carey, quick and affectionate and easy, but none of them have kissed him like this, hot, desperate.

Carey pulls his mouth away to gasp for air. He presses his forehead against PK’s.

"Hey," PK says. He squeezes the back of Carey’s neck. "It’s okay, I’m fine, I’m fine."

Carey shakes his head. “That’s not — I love you.”

Every universe I’ve ever met you in, I’ve loved you, Carey doesn’t say. (Maybe he will, someday.)

PK’s eyes widen. “Oh, you fucking — I almost die, that’s what it takes?”

"PK—"

"Yeah," PK says. "Yeah, I love you, too."

Carey has fallen in love with PK in an infinite number of universes. But none of that is important, because this is the universe that matters, this is the right one, the one that fits, and this is the PK that he can’t live without.