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A Long Six (Four) Months

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Brandon: I’m dying. I thought you should all know that.

Shawsy: aww saader ur teams not that bad

Shawsy: j/k ur teams terrible

Leds: You won the last two games. It’s not a great start to the season, but there’s still a lot of hockey left. You never know what might happen.

Leds: Shawsy, as usual, you’re not helping.

Shawsy: sorry not sorry

Brandon let his head fall back to rest against the bathmat. He wasn’t sure why he’d thought it was a good idea to text Shawsy and Leds looking for sympathy. Maybe because after being up all night puking, he was tired of feeling sorry for himself. And also . . . tired. Really fucking tired.

He lay there for a while with his phone in his hand. It was light out now. He’d already texted Torts and Fligs to let them know he wasn’t going to make it to practice. In a bit, maybe he’d drag himself off the floor and into bed. Maybe get some sleep.

It was, he thought, really the cherry on top of the shit sundae that was currently his life.

His phone buzzed. You okay? Nick asked.

Brandon managed to get his eyes to focus. Stomach bug, he typed out. It took way longer than it should have. Fligs had asked if he needed one of the trainers to look in on him. Brandon had said no, but he wondered now.

Sucks, dude, Nick responded.

awww sorry, Shawsy said. i feel like a dick now.

That isn’t your permanent state? Nick replied. Brandon laughed and immediately regretted it, as his whole core protested. He groaned, blinking tears out the corners of his eyes. Jesus.

Lying there wasn’t going to do him any good. Brandon had told Fligs he was okay to take care of himself, so he guessed he should at least try. He got himself sitting up, propped up against the tub, and then sat there, breathing, trying not to puke again. His head was splitting.

His phone continued to buzz, probably Leds and Shawsy giving each other shit for Brandon’s benefit. Brandon ignored it in favor of trying to muster the energy to get himself to his feet.

This just. This just sucked.

He tried hard not to compare his life in Columbus with his life in Chicago. It wouldn’t do him any good, and it wasn’t fair, anyway. He’d spent years in Chicago. He had routines, coffee shops and restaurants and bars where they knew him by name. He’d had an apartment that felt like home. He’d known the people in the Hawks’ front office, and he’d had the comfort of knowing his coach respected him. He’d had teammates who were friends, not just friendly.

He’d be in Columbus long enough to have those things here, too, eventually. But right now he didn’t, and it sucked. Especially since they were losing like Brandon had never lost before in his life. In Chicago, when they’d lost, Brandon had always known they’d win again. He didn’t have that faith to fall back on here, and to watch Fligs and Bob and the other vets try to cover the panic, try to act like the season wasn’t slipping through their fingers like so much sand before October was even out, was – well, it was awful.

And God help him, it made him miss Jonny something awful.

Jonny would’ve known what to say, to make the losing a little more bearable. And if Brandon had texted Jonny that he’d been up all night puking, he wouldn’t have responded with impersonal sympathy and asked if he needed a trainer to look in on him. Jonny would’ve been over within the hour, with a bunch of vitamins and supplements and ginger to make tea.

That was stuff that Jonny would’ve done for anyone on the team, and Brandon missed it. He was resolutely not thinking about the rest. Fucking your captain was ill-advised. Falling in love with him was . . . well, really ill-advised. Not talking to him about it because you were too afraid he’d end it was flat-out stupid. Not that it’d mattered in the end.

The buzzing of his phone changed, became more rhythmic. Brandon blinked down at it. There was a call coming in – not a number he had in his phone, but he could tell from the first three digits that it was the front office.

“Brandon Saad,” he answered, his voice barely a croak.

It was Danny, the head trainer, calling to check on him. Brandon did his best to sound like he wasn’t actually dying, but he didn’t think he managed it. He definitely didn’t come off as a competent adult who knew how to take care of himself, since he was forced to admit he hadn’t drunk any water since he started throwing up and didn’t have any idea how high his fever was.

Danny didn’t give him the chance to insist he was fine. Half an hour later, one of the other trainers was at Brandon’s apartment, scraping him off the bathroom floor. His blood pressure was low because he was dehydrated, the trainer told him. Brandon thought his name was Mike or possibly Mark; Brandon was still learning people’s names, but now he’d been here long enough that people had stopped introducing themselves.

Instead of pouring him into bed, as Brandon had dearly hoped, Mike-or-Mark prodded him into getting dressed and made him leave the house and get in his car. “Why?” Brandon moaned, fumbling with his seat belt. The car smelled like coffee from the travel mug Mike-or-Mark had in the front seat and it was making him feel even sicker.

“You’re dehydrated,” Mike-or-Mark said, patiently. “You need fluids.”

“I just want to sleep,” Brandon said. He was whining and he knew it, but he just didn’t care. He wanted his bed more than he’d ever wanted anything.

The local clinic the team used was barely open. They ushered Brandon into the back and at least got him lying down pretty fast, even if it was on a gurney. They did a cheek swab and drew a bunch of blood, and someone set up an IV of fluids going into his arm. And then they left him alone.

He was glad not to have to try to talk to anyone, but after a minute or two of lying there, he started to feel chilled. No one had offered him a blanket, and it probably wasn’t even cold in the clinic, but he was fucking freezing. He didn’t know what to do about it – there wasn’t a call button or anything, and Mike-or-Mark had disappeared.

He’d started shivering pretty hardcore by the time a nurse finally looked in on him. She took one look at him and sighed. “Oh honey,” she said, and left the room. She came back with a heated blanket and tucked it around him. It was instant relief. Brandon thought he might want to marry her.

It was possible he said that out loud, because she laughed and patted his shoulder as she checked his IV. “I’m taken,” she said.

“Oh,” Brandon said. He swallowed. “You know what’s wrong with me?”

“Well, they’re trying to rule out some kind of bacterial food poisoning, but I think you’ve probably just got a nasty virus.”

“Oh,” Brandon said again, dully. “Do you know if they’ll let me play tomorrow?”

She pursed her lips. It was a look Brandon translated easily as, Hockey players are insane. “Get some rest, all right? I’m sure one of the trainers will talk to you about that before long.”

So, that was a “no.”

By the time Mike-or-Mark drove Brandon back to the house, it was nearly noon. Mike-or-Mark, whose name had turned out to be Matt, supervised him as he climbed into bed and then stepped out, possibly to take stock of the kitchen.

“Hey, this must be yours,” Matt said, sticking his head back in the room. He held out Brandon’s phone.

“Oh,” Brandon said, staring at it. He hadn’t even realized he didn’t have it on him. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Someone’s been blowing it up,” Matt said, and left again.

It was Shawsy and Nick, unsurprisingly. Brandon scrolled through the texts, smiling to himself. Mostly they were bickering with each other, but the conversation ended with Nick asking Brandon if he was okay, he’d been awfully quiet. And then there were two missed calls, one from each of them.

Trainer showed up, Brandon replied. Had to go to the clinic. They gave me a bunch of fluids.

Ouch, Nick said.

jeez sucks bro, Shawsy said.

Matt knocked lightly on the doorframe. Brandon glanced up. “All right,” Matt said, “I’m going to head out. You’ve got Gatorade in your fridge and the crackers and canned soup in the cupboard looked okay. You need to stay hydrated. And you should try and keep some food in your system, too, even though it probably sounds awful right now. You want to minimize weight loss.”

Brandon grimaced. “What about the game tomorrow?” He got an incredulous look in response. Brandon sighed. “Yeah, okay.”

“If nothing else, I’d be seriously irresponsible if I put you on a plane with your teammates,” Matt said. “Stay home, rest up. We’ll see about the game on Saturday.” He handed Brandon a card. “It’s my turn to stay back with the guys on IR, so if you need anything, call me.”

Brandon nodded. “Yeah, will do.”

Matt left. Brandon slouched down into the bed, pulling his comforter up to his chest. His condo was so quiet. His phone had gone quiet, too. Shawsy and Leds had other things going on. They couldn’t just sit around texting him all day.

He wished he’d put a TV in the bedroom. He didn’t usually watch much TV in bed, but his laptop was in the living room, and now that he was comfortable, he really didn’t want to move. His head hurt too much to read. He curled up under the covers and closed his eyes. His bed was warm and comfortable, and sleep was probably better for him than watching TV anyway.

His phone buzzed. Brandon sighed and pried his eyes open to look at it. hey u talk to tazer lately? Shawsy asked.

Brandon didn’t suppose the day after the trade really counted as “lately.” No, he replied. Why?

hes acting weird. i told him u were sick and he got all funny and told me to tell u he hopes u feel better. i was like, dude, tell him urself, and he got all uptight and tazery and told me to go run checking drills.

Brandon didn’t know what to say to that. If he was honest with himself, he would’ve liked a call from Jonny, but the last time they’d talked – well, Brandon had been pissed and upset and kind of in shock. He hadn’t said that Jonny’s giant contract was the reason he was heading to Columbus, but he’d definitely been thinking it, and Jonny knew him too well not to recognize the resentment in his voice for what it was. The call had been short and awkward, and they hadn’t talked again.

r u guys not talking? Shawsy sent when Brandon didn’t answer.

No, Brandon replied.

rly?

We’re not not talking, Brandon replied. It’s just weird with the trade and stuff.

huh

What the fuck. Brandon stared at his phone. What did that mean – huh? Was Shawsy fucking judging him? What?

nothing. i think hed like to talk if you called him.

Brandon gritted his teeth. I’m not calling him.

y not

Because I was the one who got traded. Because I was crushed and he was too busy feeling guilty to think about anyone but himself. Because he never suggested that we might stay together after I went to Columbus. Five hours by car, an hour by plane. It wouldn’t have been insane. But Jonny hadn’t suggested it, and Brandon hadn’t felt he could.

Not that he could say any of that to Shawsy. Brandon thought Shawsy wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest, but that was a lot more emotional honesty than he was up for on no sleep while running a fever.

Because reasons, Brandon replied, and turned his phone off.

***

The next couple of days were rough. The tests came back negative for any kind of bacterial infection, which meant it was just a garden variety stomach virus: nothing worth dragging his mother up from Pittsburgh for, even though she offered.

Brandon almost wished it was. He’d been sick a handful of times in Chicago, but it’d never felt this hard to just take care of himself. Getting up to make tea or toast felt like climbing a fucking mountain; most of the time he just grabbed a Gatorade out of the fridge. Sometimes he made it all the way back to bed, but more often he was lightheaded and woozy by the time he got to the living room and dropped down into a heap on his sofa.

He woke up there on Friday just in time for puck drop in the game against the Caps. It was terrible to admit, even to himself, but he didn’t want to watch. He felt like crap, and even though they’d won a couple now, it was hard to believe that watching wasn’t going to make him feel worse. But he couldn’t wrap his head around deliberately not watching his team play, so he turned the game on and hoped he’d pass out before things got too bad.

It was not, in the end, an actual blood bath. It wasn’t a win, either, but 1-2 was honestly better than Brandon had come to expect. Fewer than four goals against was starting to feel like a win. He texted a couple of the guys, but they’d all stopped saying much after losses. We’ll get them next time rang pretty hollow these days.

The Hawks lost, too. It was probably petty to feel glad about that, but Brandon was past caring.

He turned the TV off before the post-game analysis could get going. He turned over, pressing his face into the couch cushion. He wished there was someone there to heat up soup or get him a fresh Gatorade out of the fridge. Or hell, just someone to talk to.

It wasn’t fair of him, he thought, to feel resentful. Matt had been checking in with him, making sure he was cogent enough to respond. If he’d hadn’t answered, someone would’ve come to check on him. But that was a far cry from what it would’ve been like in Chicago. Brandon was able to ignore the fact that he had no real friends here yet most of the time, but this was just rubbing his face in it.

Jonny hadn’t texted at all. After Shawsy’s last message, Brandon had kind of thought he might.

Fuck him, Brandon thought, and closed his eyes.

He woke in the morning, bleary and aching, to the sound of his doorbell. He lifted his head, groaned, and put it back down. But whoever it was was insistent, pressing it over and over again, until he finally had to get up.

His head swam and his stomach rolled. “I’m coming,” he called when the doorbell rang again. He winced, pressing a hand to his forehead. “Jesus, calm the fuck down,” he muttered, shuffling toward the door. He wasn’t sure if he was talking to the douchebag ringing his doorbell or the asshole tapdancing on his skull.

“What the hell,” he said, opening the door.

“Hey,” Jonny said.

Brandon blinked. He blinked a lot. Jonny was still there. He had a duffel bag over one shoulder and a grocery bag in his opposite hand.

“Uh,” Brandon said. “You shouldn’t be here.”

Jonny frowned. “And hello to you, too.”

“No, I mean. You shouldn’t be here. You should be in Chicago.”

“Well, I’m not,” Jonny said, looking some kind of weird combination of worried and annoyed. “Um, has anyone told you you look like death?”

“No,” Brandon said, “but that’s kind of how I feel, so.”

“Yeah,” Jonny agreed, frowning some more. “Can I come in?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Brandon said, backing up but still hanging onto the door. He was woozy and his ears were ringing. “I think I need to lie down,” he mumbled.

“Yeah, I got you,” Jonny said. There were twin thumps – the duffel bag and the groceries, Brandon guessed – and Jonny pulled his arm over his shoulders. “Bed or sofa?”

“Sofa,” Brandon said, and let Jonny half-drag, half-carry him into the living room. He probably should’ve been embarrassed about the nest of blankets and the Gatorade bottles that littered the floor, but he was too grateful about being horizontal.

“Hey, don’t pass out on me,” Jonny said, wedging himself onto the sofa by Brandon’s hip.

“Not gonna,” Brandon said, even though it was awfully hard to keep his eyes open.

“Good. Where’s your phone?”

Brandon managed to dig it out from under the blankets. He watched listlessly as Jonny unlocked it and started going through it. “What’re you doing?”

“You’re burning up, you’re dehydrated, and you’re half-conscious,” Jonny said, frowning at him again. Like that was an answer. “Who’s this Matt guy?”

“Trainer,” Brandon said, frowning. “Hey, are you – Jonny, don’t call him!” He grabbed for the phone, but Jonny held it out of reach. Brandon glared at Jonny with as much energy as he could muster. “It’s going to look weird if you call him.”

Johnny didn’t look any happier. “I guess. But be honest with me, Bran. Do you need the ER?”

“No,” Brandon said. Jonny looked skeptical. “No,” Brandon repeated. “C’mon, I’m awake and talking, aren’t I?”

Jonny eyed him silently for a few seconds, then nodded. “Okay. Let’s start with fluids, ibuprofen, and food, then see how you’re doing.”

Brandon relaxed. “Thanks.” He closed his eyes.

“Hey, no passing out,” Jonny said. His hand cupped the side of Brandon’s face.

“Not passing out,” Brandon mumbled. “Just resting.” He turned his face, nuzzling Jonny’s wrist. Jonny pushed his fingers into Brandon’s hair, and Brandon sighed, letting his eyes slide shut. God, he’d been miserable the last few days.

“Seriously, Brandon. We need to get a lot more fluids into you before you fall asleep.”

Brandon dragged his eyes open. “I drank stuff,” he protested.

“Not enough,” Jonny said, surveying the empty Gatorade bottles with a critical eye. “Not for two days, when you’re sick and sweating.”

He seemed annoyed, and Brandon realized suddenly what an imposition this probably was. Not that he’d asked Jonny to come, but – well, this wasn’t his job anymore. In any capacity. “Sorry,” he said, looking away. “I tried.”

“Hey, no, I know you did,” Jonny said. “It’s not your fault.”

There was a subtle and definite emphasis on your. Like, it wasn’t Brandon’s fault, but it was someone’s fault. But Jonny didn’t say anything else, and Brandon was just too tired to deal.

“I was supposed to play tonight,” he said sadly.

Jonny sighed. “Well, that’s off the table. When do you play again, Tuesday?” Brandon nodded. “I bet we can have you back on your feet by then.”

That was – there was something about that we that really got to him. Brandon had only been dealing with this on his own for a couple of days, but it felt like much longer. And now Jonny was here, and he could take care of things for a while. Brandon wasn’t sure he should let him, all things considered, but he was sure he was too tired to fight it.

Jonny got up and went into the hallway. He came back with the grocery bag in hand. “Oatmeal, applesauce, or chicken soup?”

Brandon sighed. “Applesauce, I guess.”

“Gatorade, applesauce, and ibuprofen, coming up,” Jonny said, and vanished into the kitchen.

It was kind of unnerving to eat a bowl of applesauce with Jonny watching him. Brandon didn’t know what was going on here, but whatever it was, Jonny had some serious murder eyes happening. Brandon finished the bowl and the bottle of Gatorade and took the pills Jonny handed him without protest, but Jonny wouldn’t let him lie back down on the sofa after that.

“Why not?” Brandon asked when Jonny hauled him to his feet.

“You’re going to fuck your back up on that sofa,” Jonny said flatly, steering him down the hallway. “Also, don’t take this the wrong way, but you smell. You need a bath and a night in your actual bed.”

“Ugh, you suck,” Brandon muttered, but there was no heat behind it. It was hard to get mad at someone who was running you a bath and offering to change your sheets while you soaked. Jonny left the bathroom door cracked open, and if Brandon leaned his head back, he could just see Jonny moving around the bedroom, tucking the sheets and blankets over the mattress, plumping the pillows.

“You want some help with your hair?” Jonny asked when he came back in. Brandon hesitated. Jonny sat on the side of the tub and reached for the shower head.

“You don’t have to,” Brandon said, but there wasn’t a lot of conviction behind it. Jonny didn’t answer, just wet his hair down with warm water, combing his fingers through it to get it thoroughly damp. It had to be greasy and gross after days without being washed, but Jonny didn’t flinch. He worked the shampoo in carefully, rubbing small circles with the pads of his fingers. Brandon sighed, closing his eyes. He’d had a headache for days now, sometimes better and sometimes worse, but always there, throbbing behind his eyes. But it receded now, as though Jonny’s fingers were drawing out the pain.

He dried off and dressed in clean pajamas in a sort of daze. Being clean was the best, Brandon thought, sliding between the fresh sheets Jonny had put on his bed. He’d been so miserable he hadn’t even been able to distinguish between different types of misery.

“You should eat something again before you sleep,” Jonny said, trying to pull Brandon upright.

“I’m so tired,” Brandon replied. All his limbs felt like Jell-O.

“Just a piece of toast,” Jonny said firmly.

The tray he brought in a couple minutes later had tea as well as the promised toast on it. Brandon was more asleep than awake while he ate, but the tea tasted good, the bitterness washing away the nastiness in his mouth from days of drinking Gatorade without brushing his teeth. He drank all of it.

“Now can I sleep?” he asked petulantly.

“Now you can sleep,” Jonny said. He pulled the covers up over Brandon’s shoulders. Brandon felt something brush his forehead, but his eyes were closed now, and whether it was Jonny’s lips or just his hand, he couldn’t say.

“Wait,” Brandon said, forcing his eyes open. He caught Jonny’s hand in his. “When are you leaving?”

“Not until late tomorrow,” Jonny said. “Sleep, Bran, all right?”

Brandon tightened his hold on Jonny’s hand. Jonny’s mouth twisted. He pried off his shoes and took off his jeans, shoving at them one-handed until Brandon let him go. He pulled the covers back and slid in, though he stayed mostly sitting up against the headboard. He pulled Brandon close, and Brandon lay his head on Jonny’s stomach. Jonny’s hand landed on Brandon’s head, petting his damp hair.

It was everything he’d wanted since that day in July. It felt like coming home after a long, hard road trip. Brandon would’ve never said that outloud, because that just wasn’t how and Jonny were, and anyway, it wouldn’t change anything, but it made something that’d been hard and hurting inside of him since July suddenly so soft and kind of melty. Brandon, to his horror, felt his throat tighten and his eyes go hot.

“Hey,” Jonny said softly, “what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Brandon choked out. “I’m sick, okay? I’m running a fever. It’s not – it’s nothing.”

“Okay,” Jonny said, and kept petting Brandon’s hair while he sniffled helplessly. “If it helps,” Jonny said after a minute or two, sounding a lot more hesitant than Jonny ever did, “I miss you, Brandon. I miss you a lot.”

Brandon gave a watery laugh. “On your wing, you mean.”

“No,” Jonny said, then paused. “Well, yeah, okay,” he admitted, sounding rueful. “I miss you on my wing. But I miss you, not just your hockey.”

Brandon drew a shaky breath. “Yeah. Me too. It’s been rough.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Jonny said.

Brandon was glad that Jonny didn’t say, I know. Because that was part of the problem, he thought. Jonny didn’t know, and he never would. Unless something really strange happened, Jonny was never going to be traded. He’d end his career where he began it, and they’d retire his number at the end. He’d never know what it was like to get that call, to have to start over from scratch, to wonder if there was anything you could have done – any goal you could have scored, any play you could have made – that would’ve made them want to keep you.

But Jonny hadn’t said, I know, and for some reason that made Brandon feel better. He swallowed, feeling the tightness in his throat finally dissipate, and pressed his face against Jonny’s stomach. “I’m gonna sleep.”

“Yeah,” Jonny said quietly. “You do that. I’ll be here.”

***

Brandon woke early the next morning, just as the sun was starting to creep in through the window. He lay there for a while, watching the lightening patch of sky he could see, and remembering the trip to Target where he’d bought those curtains. He’d stood in the aisle and just stared at the selection, unable to wrap his head around anything that was happening to him. He’d had weeks by then to get used to idea, but he’d still nearly had a meltdown in the middle of Target over trying to buy curtains.

Jonny’s arm was heavy around his waist. Brandon had dim memories of waking up in the middle of the night because he had to pee. Jonny’d followed him to the bathroom and hovered, then made him drink half a bottle of Gatorade before letting him go back to sleep.

He felt sweaty and gross now, but more alert than he had in days, like maybe his fever had finally broken. He eased out from beneath Jonny’s arm – Jonny didn’t move – and padded into the bathroom. He rinsed off in the shower and didn’t put his pajamas back on when he got out.

He was standing naked at the sink, brushing his teeth, when Jonny knocked. “Saader, you okay?”

Brandon reached over and opened the door. “Yeah, sorry, didn’t want to wake you,” he mumbled around the toothbrush.

Jonny smiled. “You look better.”

Brandon spat, ran some water in the sink, and rinsed out his mouth. “I feel better. Still kind of weak, but better.”

Jonny nodded. “Your face has actual color in it.” He pushed off the door frame. “You want some breakfast?”

“Yeah,” Brandon said, realizing it was true. He was hungry. He wasn’t sure how much he was actually going to be able to eat, but he wanted to eat something. “I want pancakes.”

Jonny grimaced. Brandon grinned at him. Pancakes were way outside their diets, but he had the feeling Jonny wouldn’t say no to him this morning. “Fine,” Jonny finally agreed. “As long as you also eat some eggs. You need protein.”

Brandon had nothing in his kitchen to make either eggs or pancakes, but there was a diner down the road that did take-out. Brandon called in the order while Jonny took his keys and went to pick it up.

He checked his phone and saw that the Jackets had lost again the night before – not badly, at least, only a one goal difference and only three goals allowed, but none of that actually counted for shit. He made some phone calls – Matt, Danny, Fligs, and Torts, to let them know he was on the mend. He had a string of unanswered texts from Leds and Shawsy, too, so he pinged them to let them know he was okay.

the captain w u? Shawsy sent.

Yeah, how’d you know? Brandon replied.

Tazer’s there? Leds demanded.

he wasnt at brunch this morning.

He misses one brunch and you assume he’s in Columbus? Brandon wrote back.

yup, Shawsy said.

Brandon didn’t even know what to say to that. You’re full of shit, Shawsy, he wrote back. He put the phone on silent and slipped it back in his pocket.

It was a nice morning, sunny and bright, but cooler than it had been. Brandon kicked the heat up and put on a pot of coffee on for Jonny. His own stomach wasn’t anywhere near ready for coffee, but he put the kettle on for tea. By the time the kettle whistled, Jonny was just pulling into the driveway.

It was weird sitting down to breakfast with Jonny in his kitchen in Columbus. They’d done it a hundred times or more in Chicago, but everything was so different now that even this was rendered strange. It was easy enough for Brandon to distract himself with food – pancakes and eggs and because Jonny was Jonny there were also like four orders of fresh fruit. Brandon had been a little worried about how he’d feel actually smelling the food, but the first bite of pancake was amazing.

“Take it slow, okay?” Jonny said, watching him.

Brandon nodded, mouth full, and forced himself to chew the bite slowly and swallow. He managed half a pancake and a few spoonfuls of eggs, a cup of tea, and a few bites of fruit. It was nowhere close to what he usually ate, but it was better than nothing. “We’ll reheat it later,” Jonny said, boxing everything up to put in the fridge.

“When do you have to leave by?” Brandon asked, pouring himself hot water for another cup of tea.

“My flight’s at seven,” Jonny said. “So I have until five, I guess.”

It was only eleven. That was more time than Brandon had hoped for. They moved to the living room and settled onto the couch. Brandon turned ESPN on. Jonny’s arm settled along the back of the couch, not quite touching Brandon’s shoulders, and Brandon let himself sink towards him, not quite tucking himself under Jonny’s arm.

There was almost too much to talk about, Brandon thought. The last twenty-four hours had done a lot to dispel the quiet, dark fears he’d been harboring since the trade, that Jonny had never actually cared about him as much as he’d cared about Jonny. But. There were a lot of but’s. Too many to ignore, however afraid Brandon was of spoiling the few hours they had left together.

“So, uh,” Brandon finally said. “Not that I’m not grateful you came, but why did you come? You could’ve just called if you were worried about me.”

Jonny sighed. “Didn’t think you’d pick up if I called. I guess I thought it’d be harder for you to slam the door in my face.”

There was something to that, Brandon thought. “Yeah, I guess that’s probably accurate.”

“Also, I felt like . . .” Jonny said again. Brandon glanced at him just in time to see him grimace. “I fucked up, Brandon. Back when the trade happened, I just – I fucked up. And I felt like I owed you more of a gesture than a phone call four months too late.” He sucked in a quick breath. “I’m sorry. For everything, I, really, I’m sorry. It shouldn’t have happened the way it did. If I’d known –”

“Don’t say it,” Brandon said sharply.

“It’s true, though,” Jonny replied, shaking his head. “Kaner and I, we never wanted this. We thought the cap would be raised this year. We knew we’d probably lose Sharpy, but we never thought we’d lose you. And if we had – I would have taken less, Brandon. If I’d known it would mean keeping you with the team, I swear, I would’ve taken less.”

Brandon didn’t know what to say. “Oh,” he said, kind of weakly.

“I’m sorry,” Jonny said again. He turned and wrapped his arms around Brandon’s shoulders. “I’m sorry for the way things went down, and I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you after it did.”

Brandon swallowed. “Thanks. It’ll be okay, though. I’m gonna be okay. We’re gonna be better.” Even if it was going to take a fucking miracle for them to grab even a wild card spot, that was no reason to just roll over and give up.

“Hmm,” Jonny said.

There was something about the way he said it, like he was dubious or something, that made Brandon grit his teeth in annoyance. He pushed Jonny away. “Dude, fuck you.”

“No, that’s not – sorry, that wasn’t what I meant,” Jonny said, sounding genuinely contrite.

“Okay,” Brandon said, trying not to scowl. “What did you mean, then?”

Jonny frowned, like he was trying to find the right way to say what he wanted to say, and then shook his head. “Where the fuck has your team been?”

Brandon blinked. “They were in Washington.”

“Yesterday,” Jonny said. “But before that? And today? You were really sick. Where the fuck were they?”

Brandon stared at Jonny. “Okay, no,” he said flatly. “No, you don’t get to – they did what they could, all right? We are in free fall, and don’t pretend you know what that’s like. Losing, yeah, sure, but not – not this. And I’m not a rookie that needs to be looked after. It’s not – they don’t know me yet. And I don’t know them.”

“Fuck that,” Jonny snapped. “Jesus, Bran, you didn’t see what you looked like when I got here. You were white as a sheet and you had these circles under your eyes and you could hardly stand up. I couldn’t believe they’d left you alone like that.”

Brandon shook his head. “They were looking after me. The trainers were checking in on me regularly. But it’s – there’s a lot happening, all right? And everyone is just trying to deal with it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.”

He couldn’t stop it from coming out wistful. He looked away. After a second or two, Jonny sighed. He rested his hand on the back of Brandon’s neck. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“They’re my team,” Brandon said quietly. “They did what they could, and you don’t get to judge them for it. They’re not the Hawks, but they’re mine now.”

Jonny’s hand tightened on the back of Brandon’s neck. “And I’m not.”

Brandon looked at him. “Well, no. Not like that anyway.” He swallowed. “But you could still be in other ways, you know. If you want.”

“I do want,” Jonny said, catching his eye before glancing away. “I didn’t think you would after everything. I thought you were pissed at me.”

“I was,” Brandon said. He shrugged. “I got over it.”

“Really?” Jonny said, eyebrows raised.

“Is that so hard to believe?”

He shrugged. “If it’d been me, I don’t know that I would’ve ever gotten over it.”

“You would have,” Brandon said, twisting around to look at him. “You’re too much of a professional not to. I mean, do you really you’d pull a Jeff Carter and mope around the locker room until you got traded again?” Jonny made a face like he’d just bitten into a lemon, and Brandon laughed. “Exactly. If you got traded, you’d deal with it. But you won’t, so it’s a moot point.”

“Never say never,” Jonny said, shrugging. “Teams have traded their captains before.”

“Never,” Brandon said firmly. “Seriously, Jonny. It won’t ever happen. And I wouldn’t want it to.” He shrugged, rolling his shoulders. “It is how it is.”

“Yeah.” Jonny’s arm came down around his shoulders, pulling him closer. “You’re really okay with it?”

Brandon wasn’t sure that okay was an accurate description for how he felt. Maybe someday, when he’d been in Columbus long enough to feel at home there, when they’d won a Cup or at least had a deep playoff run, he’d look back at the trade and feel okay about it. Maybe he’d even feel like it’d worked out in his favor, not having to play in Jonny’s shadow anymore. But he wasn’t there yet, not by a long shot.

“I need to be okay with it,” he finally said, “so if we’re gonna do this, I need you to be okay with it, too.”

Brandon felt Jonny nodded against the crown of his head. “I can do that.”

Brandon sighed in relief. “Thanks.” Jonny’s arm tightened around his shoulders.

He didn’t want to waste any of the few hours they had left, but the truth was that he was still worn out, even if he had some of his appetite back. It didn’t help when Jonny started running his fingers through Brandon’s hair. “You’re gonna knock me out,” Brandon murmured in halfhearted protest.

“That’s the point,” Jonny said, knuckling gently at the nape of Brandon’s neck.

Well, if that was the point. Brandon gave up and closed his eyes.

He woke up alone on the couch, covered in a blanket. For five horrible seconds, he thought he’d dreamed everything since he fell asleep after the game on Friday night. But then he heard something hit the floor in his kitchen. Jonny swore, and Brandon smiled to himself, closing his eyes again.

Jonny managed to finish whatever he was doing without further destruction, it seemed. There were some running water noises, like he was doing dishes, and then Brandon heard him coming toward the living room. He stopped in the doorway. Brandon kept his eyes closed, waiting. When Jonny didn’t come any closer, he said, “Are you watching me sleep?”

There was a beat of silence. Brandon opened his eyes and looked at Jonny. He was red to the tips of his ears. “No.”

Brandon snorted. “Creeper.”

“I’m not –” Jonny started, and then appeared to give it up as a lost cause. “Fine. I just – it’s been a long few months.” He dropped his gaze. “I didn’t know if we were ever going to work it out. Seemed like we probably weren’t. So.”

Brandon sighed. “Yeah. Me too.” He stretched a little, not missing the way that Jonny watched with interest the way his t-shirt rode up. “What time is it?”

“About two,” Jonny said.

Three hours. Brandon had a moment of clarity, where he saw how it would be from now on. Two days here, three days here, always aware of the clock counting down the minutes to departure. He wished they’d figured their shit out when they’d both still been in Chicago, instead of spending months pretending they didn’t care as much as they did.

At least some of what he was thinking must’ve been visible on his face, because Jonny looked like he was about to apologize again. Brandon decided to head him off at the pass. “Were you destroying my kitchen for a reason?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jonny said. “I was reheating the stuff from breakfast. Are you hungry?”

He wasn’t, really, but he knew he should have something, and Jonny looked so hopeful. “Yeah, I could eat,” Brandon said, and started to get up. Jonny waved him back down, though, and vanished in the direction of the kitchen. Brandon sank back against the couch and tried to shake off the dregs of his nap.

Jonny put on Finding Nemo while they ate, which Brandon would never admit was his favorite movie ever. Brandon ate until he couldn’t anymore and tried not to think about the weight he must have lost. It wasn’t the crisis it would have been in February or March, but it still wasn’t good. The team had probably already made an appointment for him with a nutritionist to help him figure out how to gain it back as soon as possible. He finally gave up on the rest of his food, shaking his head when Jonny frowned at him, and let Jonny take his plate from him. He stacked it on top of his own to set on the coffee table, and leaned back, wrapping his arm around Brandon’s shoulders.

It was nice. It was more than nice. Brandon leaned his head on Jonny’s shoulder and watched the movie for a while, soaking it up.

But there was something missing. “Hey,” he said after a while.

“Hmm?” Jonny said, like he was maybe half-asleep.

“So, I know I’m still kind of sick and you’re” – a total germaphobe – “cautious about these things, but I’d really like to kiss you before you go.”

“I’m not that freaked out about germs,” Jonny said, sounding annoyed. “If I was, I wouldn’t have booked a last minute flight just to wipe your fevered brow. You could have still been puking for all I knew.”

“True,” Brandon admitted. He rolled his head to look at Jonny. “Thank you, by the way. I’m not sure I said that.”

Jonny’s face softened. “I couldn’t stand knowing you were sick and I couldn’t even call to ask you how you were doing.” He cleared his throat. “But, um, about the other. Yeah, of course. I didn’t want to push. I didn’t come down here to get laid.”

“I know,” Brandon said, with some regret. He didn’t know when they’d see each other again. But while the spirit might’ve been willing, the flesh was way too fucking weak. “But it’s been, what – four months?”

“Almost exactly,” Jonny said. He sat up, pulling Brandon with him. “Come here,” he said, manhandling Brandon into sitting up. He put his hands on either side of Brandon’s face, thumbs smoothing over his cheekbones. Brandon reached up and wrapped his hands around Jonny’s wrists. He thought about saying something, but he thought they’d both said everything they needed to.

He wasn’t sure who bridged the final distance, him or Jonny, and he guessed it didn’t matter. Jonny kissed him, or he kissed Jonny, and then the two of them were kissing each other, on Brandon’s couch in Columbus with Finding Nemo playing in the background. It wasn’t the first grossly domestic moment they’d ever had, but it was the first time Brandon had ever admitted to himself how much he liked it. How much he wanted to do it again. Jonny wasn’t his captain anymore, but he was his – his Jonny. That was good enough.

***

Shawsy: jesus saader whatd you do to tazer?

Brandon: What? What’s wrong with him?

Leds: Shawsy, why do you always turn off autocorrect?

Shawsy: hes SMILING. its weird. i didnt think his facial muscles worked like that.

Brandon: We talked. We’re good.

Shawsy: oh is that what there calling it now?

Leds: Shawsy, remember how you felt like a dick before? You should really have that feeling more often.

Brandon: It’s okay, Leds. Shawsy was actually kind of useful this time around.

Shawsy: thx. but also, hey.

Brandon gave a quiet snort of laughter and smiled to himself. He tucked his phone in his bag and bent down to finish lacing his skates.

Fligs was waiting for him at the entrance to the practice rink. The rest of the team was out there already, skating circles, warming up. “Hey, how’re you doing?” Fligs asked, eyeing him critically. “You feel up for this?”

Brandon grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “I do.”

Fin.