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Always Coming Home

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Patrice walked into Ristuccia jetlagged and weighed down by his overstuffed gear bag. He passed David in the hall to the equipment manager’s office, and David bumped shoulders with him in a hands-full approximation of a hug. “We’re back,” he said, smiling wide enough to show all his teeth.

“We’re back,” Patrice agreed.

“How did you find your European hockey experience?”

“Warmer,” Patrice said wryly, and Krejci laughed and let Patrice shoulder on by. Patrice dropped all the gear off with the manager and went to find—people. Teammates. No one in particular.

A handful were clustered around a table near the vending machines. Tuukka and Tyler, Dougie towering over even them, and out of sight beyond them someone making noise. Brad. Brad had shaved off his playoff beard, of course, and gotten his hair trimmed, but otherwise he looked no different than the last time that Patrice had seen him, months and months ago. Mouth open, eyes bright with whatever shit he was getting up to now.

Patrice looked a beat too long, and Brad noticed him. “Bergy!” he yelled, loud enough to make Dougie wince. Brad edged around the crowd to Patrice and came in for—a hug? Patrice braced himself, for nothing; Brad lifted his hand for a high five and waited patiently until Patrice got with the program and returned it. “Good to see you, man,” Brad said. “Been a fucking long time.”

“Very long,” Patrice agreed.

“We are fucking back, baby. I don’t know if I even remember how to skate.”

Patrice laughed. “I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Besides, you said you’d been practicing some.”

Brad made a face. “Not real practice, you know? Just guys fucking around, mostly. Nobody there to keep our noses to the grindstone.” He elbowed Patrice companionably. “And not a word about how my nose could use it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Patrice said.

--

There was no easing-in period to the season this time. Their first game was scheduled in five days, and those five days were jammed with practice and media and check-ups and gear checks. Patrice fit details like workouts and meals into the crannies between other things.

The day before they played the Rangers in TD Garden, Brad grabbed Patrice at practice. “We’re going out for drinks later. You’re coming, right?” Patrice paused, trying to remember if he had anything else scheduled, and Brad added, “No getting wasted before the game, I promise. Responsible drinking only.” He smiled winningly.

“Of course,” Patrice said.

We turned out to be Brad and Tyler, David and Milan and Adam, circled around a corner table in the back of The Shady. Brad shoved into Tyler to give Patrice space on the end, and Patrice accepted the invitation and sat down, even though there was more room on the other side, next to Adam.

“Bergy, my man,” Brad said, and immediately draped his arm over Patrice’s shoulders. The weight of it pulled Patrice a little closer down to the earth, to Boston. Patrice looked around the table and took a breath of the familiar aromas of deep-fry grease and beer. He wasn’t in Lugano anymore, an ocean away from everything. He was here with the guys, with Brad hanging off him while he blew kisses at Adam. Adam only shook his head.

A waitress came around with drinks and took Patrice’s order. When she left, Brad pulled his arm away and worked his shoulder. “Bergy, why are you so fucking tall?”

Gravely Patrice said, “Well, in Quebec if a child wants to be an athlete, sometimes they put him in a stretching machine to help him grow.”

For a beat Brad just stared, and then his whole face lit up. “You are so full of shit.” He shouldered into Patrice and stayed there, bony and insistent and comforting.

They asked Patrice about Switzerland. He didn’t tell them how everyone spoke French, or how quiet his apartment had been. He told them about playing with Glen Metropolit again, although only David and Milan had been with the Bruins long enough to remember him. “Best points per game pace on the team,” Patrice said. “He’s thirty-eight.”

He told them about the weather. That seemed safe. “The temperature almost never dropped below freezing, and it would warm up the next morning.”

“Fuck, tropical vacation!” Brad said, as though this was new information and he hadn’t texted Patrice all kinds of questions about Lugano, the food, the bars, the women.

“Something like that,” Patrice said.

“You hook up a lot in Switzerland?” Tyler asked.

“Well—” Patrice began.

“Not a real vacation without sex. And dudes over there are into that, right? Not that I looked, but, you know.”

“God, you’re a moron, Seggy,” Brad said. “Please stop talking.”

“Have you been home yet?” David asked. “Quebec City, I mean.”

Patrice was hit with an unexpected pang so sharp it was almost physical. He gripped his glass a little tighter. “There wasn’t time. When the new contract was signed, I had to fly straight here.”

“Sure,” David agreed.

All the peculiar unease of coming back to Boston, the loneliness of Lugano, resolved to this: Patrice wanted to go home. He wanted to go home, where he could kiss his parents and his grandmother, where he could see how much his cousins had grown since last summer. He wanted to eat his mother’s stromboli.

But that was ridiculous. Patrice was a grown adult and a professional. He could survive half a season in his very comfortable house in the city that believed, mostly correctly, that he belonged to it.

David and Milan left soon after, and most nights, Patrice would have, too. Tonight he worked on his beer so slowly it went flat before he finished, and he listened to Brad tell hunting stories, even though Patrice had heard most of them months ago, in text-sized bites. The size of the deer Brad had taken down had grown since then, the dimensions of their racks limited now only by the reach of Brad’s arms.

Finally even Seggy made noises about a full night’s sleep, and they paid their tabs and drifted outside. Seggy and Adam pulled ahead complaining about the lack of street parking, and Brad fell in step with Patrice – quiet, for once. Waiting for something. “Fuck,” Brad said suddenly, hunching deeper into his coat. “Feels like pond hockey weather, doesn’t it?”

The pond behind Patrice’s grandmother’s house was surely frozen through by now. Patrice could feel the ice beneath his feet, never quite Zamboni-smooth, and sting of freezing air across his cheeks until they numbed. “Did you go?” he asked. “While you were home?”

“Nah. Didn’t get around to it. I saw my brother play hockey, though. That was awesome.” Brad laughed. “I told you I started a blog, right? On my website?”

“I remember,” Patrice said.

Brad had texted Patrice about that, too. He’d texted Patrice everything – there was still, buried in Patrice’s phone, a minute-by-minute commentary of one of Brad’s brother’s games. Patrice had photos of Brad with the moose he’d killed and video Brad took of informal practices at Ristuccia. As the lockout continued and the initial thrill of Switzerland wore off, Patrice had became more and more grateful for those texts. Each one tasted of home, a little - or of Boston, anyway. In Lugano, the distinction had seemed insignificant.

Then, towards the end of November, the texts from Bad had fallen sharply off. Patrice got a handful in December, half of them just news of different public appearances Brad made. They read like he’d copied the text from his official Twitter announcements.

Patrice had no reason to be disappointed. He was impressed, really, that Brad had kept up with it as long as he had. But now, walking the same sidewalk with Brad, it felt like an ocean still lay between them. “It’s good you were able to take advantage of the time off,” he said finally.

Brad hummed. “Hey, aren’t we playing at the Bell Centre pretty soon? Maybe you can see your family then.”

“We are?”

“I think so.”

“I haven’t had time to look at the schedule,” Patrice admitted.

“Too busy recovering from Europe,” Brad said, smirking, and for just a moment, it felt like they were side-by-side again.

--

Patrice looked up the schedule as soon as he got home. Not only were the Bruins playing in Montreal in three weeks, but they were doing it on the second leg of a road trip, and they were flying in several days before. They’d get into Montreal on a Sunday afternoon; they wouldn’t play until Wednesday.

He thought about it all the next day, through morning skate and at the edges of his pregame nap. He forgot during the game – real, NHL hockey, with Brad on his wing again and Zdeno bringing up the rear, the crowd a solid wall of sound decked in black and gold. But afterwards, coming down from the post-win high, he thought about it again.

He considered the distance on Google Maps, and he talked to his mother. Finally he called his grandmother. “Could I come out and see you and the family, one afternoon?”

Of course he could, she assured him, just the slightest bit offended that he would ask.

It took him longer to ask the next question “Can I bring someone with me?”

--

Brad insisted on playing navigator with the GPS on his phone. “It’s been a while, right?” he asked Patrice. “Maybe you forgot how to get there.”

“I didn’t forget how to get there,” Patrice assured him.

“I know, I know. You drive all the way down here every summer to visit your grandparents, the Habs fans.

“It’s the local team. You can’t hold it against them.”

“Watch me,” Brad said, undeterred. “Like you haven’t hated the Habs since the day you were born and your parents stuffed you into a Nordiques onesie.” He squinted at his phone. “Oh hey, turn right up ahead.” After the turn, Brad asked, again, “You sure they’re gonna want to see me? Really doubt I’m their favorite person.”

“They forgive me for being a Bruin,” Patrice said, although on certain days it was a near thing. He knew better than to call too soon after a Habs-Bruins game, no matter the result. “And you’re my friend.”

Brad caught Patrice’s eye. Patrice couldn’t read his expression – unsettling, given how openly Brad usually wore all his feelings, but these days Patrice was learning to expect it. He gave Brad an encouraging smile. Brad returned it with a twist of his lips, but Brad’s thoughts, whatever they were, stayed locked inside. That was still unsettling, too.

Instead, Brad turned to look out the window. “It’s pretty,” he said.

Snow had fallen and frozen that way – two days ago, according to Patrice’s grandmother when he’d called that morning. The minivan drove between berms of ice and road-grit, blanketed in spotless white. The frosting of snow on the bare branches made the cold blue sky look even colder.

“It’s beautiful,” Patrice agreed. “I haven’t been able to come this way during the winter in years.”

--

Three small figures in toques and Habs hockey sweaters stood on the front porch of Patrice’s grandparents’ rancher. As soon as Patrice and Brad rolled into view, one of them dashed for the door. The others watched the car’s approach, stock-still.

Patrice parked the car on the gravel and got out. The cold was a shock. It caught in Patrice’s lungs and hung there a moment after he exhaled. “Elise?” he called. He hadn’t seen this side of the family since the summer before last, but surely one or the other the kids was the right height for an eight-year-old.

“Uncle Patrice!” the taller one said. She broke for the stairs. The youngest stayed where she was, watchful as Elise stomped up to Patrice in her snow boots and flung her arms around him.

“Hey, kiddo,” he said, pulling her into a hug. “You got tall.”

She grinned ear-to-ear at this, and then she peered around him. “You’re Brad Marchand,” she said, in careful English.

“That’s me,” Brad said.

“Are you going to play with us?”

“That’s the plan. We got our sticks and everything.” Don’t break them, their equipment manager had said. Which was pretty much what Claude had said about Brad when Patrice first asked about this field trip.

The door of the house opened and more people of all sizes poured out onto the driveway: faces Patrice hadn’t seen outside of Facebook in a long time. A little more weathered than he remembered, some of them. His grandmother Victoire looked exactly the same, though, standing at the top of the porch steps with her still-thick gray hair pulled into a tight ponytail. Patrice went up to say hello. “Gran-mére,” he said, bending to give her a hug

“Good to have you home,” Victoire said, and kissed his cheek. “Good that the pond is getting some use, too. Vincent and Phil and the kids were out there yesterday clearing it off and smoothing out the ice.”

“I can’t wait,” Patrice said, and meant it.

Patrice and Brad got their gear out, and then Elise, now helmeted, led the way onto the trail of packed snow that wound around the back of the house. A breeze bit at Patrice’s ears, and he pulled his toque a little further down on his head. He crested the shallow hill, and just beyond lay the pond, the ice scraped clear in a roughly rectangular shape and sparkling where it caught the sun.

“Sick,” Brad said, coming up behind Patrice.

“We used to make the rink a little more square to the house,” Patrice said, pointing with his free hand. He felt oddly unsettled.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been here in years, though. I can’t remember the last time I skated on this pond.”

“Awesome timing, then, eh?” Brad casually elbowing Patrice as he worked past, when Patrice failed to move.

At the bottom of the hill, just behind the snow-berm borders of the rink, were two wooden benches. When it was his turn, Patrice took a seat on one of them and pulled on his skates.

It was universally declared not fair that Patrice and Brad play on the same team, so Brad ended up with Vincent and Elise. Her deep skepticism of him lasted only until he assisted her on the first goal of the game – a sweet little pass that set her up right in front of the flat-box goal. “Yeah, baby!” Brad said, skating over and offering her a fist bump, which she took.

“It was a good pass,” she said gravely.

Brad flashed Patrice a grin so smug with delight that Patrice couldn’t help but smile back.

Brad fit in easily here, among Patrice’s people. He listened earnestly to Elise and joined Vincent in chirping Patrice. He smiled quick and easy and never stopped talking, and somehow here, hours away from ice he earned money on, the chatter turned effortlessly into charm.

Patrice didn’t have to worry about him. So he didn’t. He felt the ice under his feet, a little rutted, a little snowy, and the breeze kept sneaking into the gap between his scarf and his jacket, and above his head the sky hung pure winter-blue.

Home, he told himself, experimentally. And it was home, and it was good, but still he felt that same unsettled anxiousness that had followed him all the way back from Lugano. He was being ridiculous. He despaired of himself.

They’d arrived at the house just after lunch; Patrice barely noticed the time pass until Vincent called, “Ten more minutes.” Then Patrice realized he was squinting a little to see the puck.

They all changed into their cold shoes and dragged themselves slowly back up the hill to the house. The midwinter dusk had already started to fall, the temperature beginning its decline into the truly frigid.

Now Patrice and Brad were ushered into the house, sat down in the living room, and supplied with mugs of hot chocolate and a sandwich each to hold them until dinner. Only once the sandwiches had disappeared did Victoire make her way from the kitchen to greet them both properly. Brad brushed at imagined sandwich crumbs on his pants and stood up.

Victoire gave him a long looking over. “So this is your Brad you always talk about,” she said to Patrice in French.

“My linemate,” Patrice agreed, because that seemed safe.

“Hmm,” she said, with a sharp note of skepticism – Elise had come by it honestly. Victoire considered Brad a moment longer, and then she took his hand. “Tell him to quit running our goaltender.” She gave Brad a warm smile, wide enough to show teeth, and Brad smiled uncertainly back.

“Is it okay?” he asked. “I didn’t—did she say something about a goalie?”

“She says leave Price alone,” Patrice said.

Brad’s mouth dropped. He huffed a laugh. “Tough crowd you brought me to, Bergy.” But he shook Victoire’s hand and let her hug him. Then she turned to Patrice and pulled him in for a hug, too. For a moment, nostalgia gripped him so tight he felt like he could barely breathe. Then she pulled back, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and turned away, and the vise loosened again.

“Okay?” Brad asked.

Patrice shrugged, helpless to explain. “I’ve missed this.” Seeing Brad standing there with that mild concern in his eyes, Patrice wanted to add, I missed you, too.

--

Not all the Bergeron clan stayed for dinner, but those that remained plus Patrice and Brad made ten. The air around the table was easy, helped along by coffee and Vincent’s willingness to keep Brad company in English on those occasions when the rest of the table lapsed into French.

Every time Patrice looked to his left, there Brad was – talking Boston and Halifax and hunting and occasionally hockey, winking at Victoire, looking like he belonged nowhere else in the world. Every so often he’d turn to Patrice and nudge him with an elbow, just reminding Patrice he was there, as though Patrice could forget.

As though it were Patrice, not Brad, who’d retreated in those few months apart. Of course Patrice was the one who’d gone across the ocean. Maybe that had been a kind of retreat.

The winter dark had long since closed in by the time Patrice finished his last bite of dessert – pecan pie, made according to the Deveraux family recipe. He accepted another cup of coffee and flattened the last of the crumbs under his fork, but finally he pushed the plate away and said apologetically to Victoire, “We should probably be going soon.”

“Of course,” she said. “It was so nice of you to come visit.”

“It was good,” Patrice said. His tongue was a little burnt from too-hot coffee, and his belly was pleasantly full of pie and pasta, and the familial chatter of French washed over him like a warm rain. “I’m really glad it worked out.”

It took him and Brad another fifteen minutes to put on coats and boots and say goodbye. Brad got almost as many hugs as Patrice did. Sometime in the last six hours, he’d been honorarily inducted into the Bergeron family - at least until the first time he buzzed Price on Wednesday.

Finally Brad and Patrice made it outside, the door shut behind them. The cold nearly took his breath away. “Holy shit, let’s turn on that heater,” Brad said, stalking towards the car with his hands in his pockets.

When Patrice didn’t follow, Brad looked back. “What’s up?”

Patrice wasn’t quite sure why he said, “I want to show you something.”

“Oh yeah?” Brad squinted at him against the porch light, and then he shrugged. “Show away. But fast, because I’m going to be a Bradcicle in another thirty seconds.”

“It might take a little longer than that,” Patrice said, heading towards the back of the house.

“Where we going?”

“The pond,” Patrice said, though Brad would figure it out soon enough.

“You know we’ve already been to the pond.”

Patrice felt a little foolish now – as he had all day, when he looked at Brad. As he had for the whole two weeks since the season began, and that week in November when Brad’s texts dropped to nothing, and the month before when he’d realized how pleased he’d been each time a new one appeared on his phone, detailing in slaughtered English what new way Brad had found to wile away his time.

Patrice suspected he was a fundamentally foolish person.

Around the side of the house, the light from the windows was dim, through blinds and curtains, but the moon was waxing towards full, more than bright enough for to see by. The snow’s contours cast sharp shadows.

Patrice stopped at the crest of the hill. Brad came up behind him and took a crunching step into the snow, so they could stand side-by-side. Beyond them, the pond shone in the moonlight. Lines gleamed on the ice to mark the passage of skates earlier in the day.

In the frozen stillness, Patrice finally felt like he could be still, too.

“Pretty,” Brad offered.

“We used to skate at night sometimes, when we were kids,” Patrice said. “My grandfather had lights he’d bring out.”

“Nice.”

A car passed by on the road, breaking the quiet. The engine noise receded again, leaving just the soft exhale of their breath.

“So, Bergy, what about those European guys?”

“Mm?”

Brad huffed. The breath blew out white and visible. “Was Seggy right? Did you hook up a lot?”

“Once or twice,” Patrice said, a little bit amused. Of all the things they could be talking about right now. “Most of the time I was busy, you know.”

“Playing hockey, unlike the rest of us schmucks.”

“You could have—”

“Nah,” Brad cut him off. “It was good, you know? Saw family. Thought about some stuff.”

“That’s good. It’s good to have time to step back, get some perspective.” It was none of Patrice’s business what Brad might have needed perspective about. Brad was here, now, and they had months of hockey still to play, and asking for anything more was just greed.

“Yeah.”

“And you?” Patrice asked, unwilling to let the conversation go.

“And me what?”

“You found someone to enjoy the time off with?”

Brad flashed Patrice a glance. “Uh. Not so much.”

Patrice didn’t know how to follow up on that.

“Look, Bergy. Can you—aw, fuck it.” Brad took the other step into the snow, and then he stamped on it. Patrice could just make out Brad shoving more snow into the hole with his foot and stamping on that, too, and when he was done he was another six centimeters or so higher than before. He turned to Patrice and squared his shoulders. “Can you c’mere for a second?”

Mystified, Patrice took a step forward, then another when Brad beckoned. Brad put his gloved hand on Patrice’s shoulder and tugged. Realization had just begun to dawn when Patrice felt Brad’s lips on his, insistent, hurried. Then they were gone, and Brad was looking at him wide-eyed, heaving quick, shallow gusts of white vapor into the air.

“Brad,” Patrice said, very carefully. “What was that?”

“Just, uh. What I was thinking about. You know, getting perspective on?”

“Oh,” Patrice said blankly.

“Look I—fuck, we had the moment, can we go talk about this in the car where I probably won’t freeze my nose off?” Patrice opened his mouth, and Brad stuck his finger in Brad’s face. “Don’t say it.”

“Sure,” Patrice said, which was all he had planned to say anyway.

Brad turned and stumped back toward the house, and Patrice followed, his sought-after calm completely shattered. He shut his car door a half-beat after Brad, and he turned on the car and heat – if he’d been smart, he’d have done this before the midnight trek to the pond. “It’ll take a few minutes to warm up.”

Brad’s head bobbed. Gaze fixed on the dash, he said, “So you probably wanna know why I kissed you.”

“Yes,” Patrice agreed. Yes, he did want to know that. His chest felt very odd.

“I’m sorry if that was weird, I just.” Brad shrugged inside his coat, and he turned a pleading gaze on Patrice. “This fall, when we were texting, I just—I fucking missed you, Bergy. Like, way more than I missed any of the other guys. And I thought about it a lot, and I talked to my cousin back home – he likes it both ways, he’s pretty awesome, probably you’d like him. And then you invited me out here, just me, and I thought I had to give it a shot, right?” He paused, for an answer or for air. Both.

“What are you saying, exactly? That you want to—” The words felt ridiculous in Patrice mouth, but he said them anyway. “You want to hook up?”

“What? No! I want to, you know. Go out with you? And then there could be fucking, too. I mean, I’ve never—not with a guy, but if—” By the dash’s glow, Patrice caught the flash of a smirk. “I think if it were you, I’d be into it.”

“You would?” Patrice asked.

“Pretty sure.” That smirk again. Patrice stared. Brad hunched deeper into his coat. “Look, I know just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you, like, go for just any random guy. And like I said, I haven’t really, before, with a dude—I mean, I know why you wouldn’t want to, and we can just forget about it, if you want.”

“You’re not a random guy.” On that point, at least, Patrice was completely certain.

Brad turned to search Patrice’s face. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Patrice swallowed. He licked his lips. He couldn’t see much of Brad in the dark of the car, but he felt him looking anyway. “I missed you, too. Especially—” He paused, but Brad just kept looking. He didn’t even try to fill the silence, and that gave Patrice the courage to go on. “Especially when you stopped texting.”

“Oh.” Brad ducked his head. “Yeah. Sorry, man. I was trying to figure things out, you know? I had to think about it. I didn’t want to fuck us up, you know?”

“I know,” Patrice agreed heavily. He knew that worry very well.

After a beat, Brad said, “So, did I? Fuck us up?”

“No,” Patrice said firmly. “You couldn’t do that.”

“Awww,” Brad said, a little shakily. “So…”

Patrice still wasn’t sure of much, but he was sure of this: “I want to kiss you again.”

“Oh. Okay, sure. Yeah.” Brad twisted to face Patrice, and Patrice leaned over the plastic drink holder between the seats. He rested his hand on the shoulder of Brad’s coat, and he found Brad’s mouth. Brad’s lips were dry, hopelessly chapped from a day outside, but they opened so easily. Brad tasted very faintly of coffee, just a little bit scorched. He moaned approvingly around Patrice’s tongue, and for a moment Patrice couldn’t find his breath, because this was Brad, and he was right here.

Finally Patrice pulled back, just inches, just far enough that he could press his forehead to Brad’s, though there were still two layers of toques between them.

“Did I convince you?” Brad asked. His breath was harsh in the close confines of the car. “I could try again.”

“I didn’t need convincing.” Patrice closed his eyes; he curled his hand farther around Brad’s shoulder and the slick weatherproof weave of his coat. He inhaled, filled his lungs with the stale air until he couldn’t hold any more, and then slowly he let it go. He opened his eyes, and Brad was still there.

Patrice’s back twinged. He let Brad go, and reluctantly he settled back in the driver’s seat. “You really want to—with me? For real?”

“For real,” Brad said, as solemn as Patrice had ever seen him.

“Okay. Let’s. Let’s do that.”

Brad blinked at him for a beat, two, and then he scrambled across the seat to kiss Patrice again, wedging Patrice against the door. “Yeah,” Brad said in between kisses. “Fucking yeah. I knew this’d be awesome.” A wet kiss pressed to the corner of Patrice’s mouth. “I fucking knew it.”

“We should,” Patrice tried, while Brad chased a kiss down Patrice’s jaw. Brad’s evening stubble scraped across sensitive skin. “Before someone comes out to check on us. We should go.”

Brad stilled. “Yeah, okay.” Slowly he withdrew to his side of the car, his eyes glinting brightly in the dark. “Practice tomorrow, right?”

“Right,” Patrice agreed. The car had started to warm now, and the condensation had evaporated from the inside of the windshield. Patrice tugged on his seatbelt and pulled out of his grandmother’s driveway.

A hundred yards down the highway, Patrice gave in. Steering wheel in his left hand, he slid his right towards Brad’s seat. For just a moment, he thought Brad was going to question it or make a joke, but then Brad’s fingers closed around his.

“Time to go home,” Patrice said.

“It’s not home,” Brad laughed. “It’s fucking Montreal!”

“Close enough,” Patrice said, and it was.

[end]