It’s a funny thing, fate.
The world ends on a Tuesday.
It could be argued that it ends on any other day of the week by any number of technicalities, or that the decline had started as early as the year previous, or that the end isn’t quite so official until everyone’s six feet under. For Brad, though, the world ends on a Tuesday, when chaos paves way to an eerie hush, when the air is too still and a deafening silence replaces ear-splitting screams.
Outbreak, the headlines scream into the absence of noise.
Brad’s done a fair enough job of keeping up with the news, of bracing himself for an incoming storm, but it still feels like he’s being swept away by a hurricane—an onslaught of surprise, shock, disbelief, shock shock shock—when the body count rises, rises, rises, and the inevitable becomes that: inevitable. Irrevocable.
Every story has an ending, Brad knows. The world is no different. Brad knows. But of all the ways for everything to go out with a bang, he’d expected something more spectacular, something even more merciful: a blink, a crack of some faraway thunderous explosion, nothing where something used to be, “the end” as final as an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. It wouldn’t be a happily ever after for anyone, but it’d be quick, at least, with none of the slow torture that comes with having to watch people drop like flies.
Not even flies, really.
Brad supposes people can’t exactly drop like them when they’re just turning into creatures of the night; all the monsters children learn to fear from ghost stories and horror flicks they have no business laying eyes on, all the monsters romanticized in fiction he himself had enjoyed on more than one occasion.
They’re nothing to be romanticized now, not anymore, not when life has turned into a real life horror show, as bloody and gruesome as they come. Certainly not when walking would-be corpses are a fearsome brand of real, masses of Infected all too material to be passed off as works of his or anyone else’s imagination.
A shudder wracks Brad’s body.
The summer heat sticks unpleasantly to his skin in beads of sweat, and he wipes his hands uselessly on the front of his shorts, taking deliberate breaths, deep inhales and steady exhales, as he brushes trembling fingers over the stark black on the pale white of his wrist.
What a fucking time to be alive.
(At fifteen, Brad dreams constantly, in colors so vivid the waking world is helplessly duller, hues subdued in a way he can’t put into words. He dreams of a home that isn’t his own, dreams of ice he’s never skated on, dreams of tastes and sounds that are simultaneously strange and new and familiar. It’s overwhelming to his senses, piques every last drop of his curiosity.
Dreams have only ever been soundless, meaningless like their random building blocks, and Brad’s always forgotten most, if not all, of whatever he’d dreamt up at the blink of his eyes. Dreams have never stuck with him before, but they do now—relentlessly, and in painstaking detail, as if someone had peeled his eyes open and taken a great deal of time to paint some imagined world on the inside of the lids.
His wrist is as blank in dreams as it is in reality, Unmarked as it’s been from birth to now, but Brad knows, every fiber of his being vibrating with the knowledge, that the dreams aren’t his own. Careless in the face of that promise, he dares to hope they’re his soulmate’s.)
Boston is practically a ghost town by the time it’s in his rear-view mirror. Streets are deserted save for abandoned cars and leftover wreckages from when all hell had well and truly broken loose. No signs of life anywhere. He’d been expecting as much; at the start of the descent, hoards of people had made a break for the hills, wherever those may be, and it’s deep into the night, anyway, long past the point any remaining souls might want to wander about. There’s just something about seeing a once-lively city so vacant and lifeless that makes the stranglehold of reality that much more impossible to recover from.
It hadn’t been easy to do, getting in his car with a few duffle bags and plans to leave the place he’s called home for the better part of a decade, but the texts sitting at the top of his inbox draw him towards Québec like a siren’s call. Maybe that’s the Bond more than it is the texts, but Brad’s been burned by optimism one too many times to firmly believe that he’s driving to a mate beyond a teammate or a linemate.
(At eighteen, emptiness carves a home in his chest.
The Unmarked get by just fine—his parents, bare wrists and twenty-some-odd years of marriage under their belt, are living proof of that—but Brad feels irreparably subdued when his eighteenth birthday comes and goes, passing without incident. Disappointment is foul, sits heavy like lead on his shoulders.
It’d been more or less the same at thirteen, when he’d spent the months leading up to The Big Day envisioning what his other half might be like, what combination of letters might be branded on him after Apparition, only to receive identical looks of cautious pity from both mother and father on the day of. “There’s always Eighteen,” his father had assured him, and who was Brad to contradict such an enticing thing?
He’d been thirteen, then, and he’s eighteen now, trying in vain to keep fucking stupid, fucking unwanted tears at bay.
Romantic isn’t something Brad would ever label himself as, but he’d felt placated early on by the idea of having another half, someone programmed to get him on every level, in every way imaginable and not. Wistful sighs and bouts of giggles following daydreams are still fond memories he holds close to his heart, locked away in the special treasure chest he'd crafted with delicate imagination at the age of five.
Realizing it’s all been a lie stings, smarts the way a slap to the face would.)
Outbreak had started as a tiny thing, a bug hardly worth the scrutiny of media. Brad remembers it vividly: the dwindling weeks of the post-season, how dozens of players throughout the League had drawn the short end of the stick, falling ill, some of them sickly enough that being a benchwarmer hadn’t even been an option. Undisclosed illnesses, a handful of teams had called it, while others had been just the slightest bit more forthcoming, sparing bare-minimum details about the lethal combination of shit luck and the stomach flu.
Shit luck, they’d gotten right. It’s about the only thing.
Brad signals a right turn to take the next exit even though he’s only passed a grand total of two moving cars on a long stretch of open highway, fingers drumming on the steering wheel with keyed up anxiety he’s fairly positive isn’t his own once he’s parsed through the tangled mess of his own emotions.
Unbidden, his eyes dart to the phone resting on the console.
(At twenty, Brad meets Patrice Bergeron for the first time, jolts when their hands clasp together and a spark sizzles somewhere deep in his chest. A glance at Patrice’s unguarded wrist effectively kills whatever hope had momentarily surged up, the eye-catching S and B unmistakably the initials of some person that isn’t Brad.
Still, his own wrist burns, scorching to the bone.
When he sees an opening to excuse himself, he jumps on it, rushing to find a secluded hallway before ripping his wrist guard off with careless haste. Untainted skin greets him, fucking same as fucking always, but it’s a vicious—layers and layers of viciousness, overlapping one another, stacked high in a sloppy pile—slap to the face this time, because for the briefest of moments he’d been so sure a Mark had set in, he’d felt conviction as fierce as the fire that seemed to burn in his veins.
“Fuck,” he chokes out.)
The sky is picture perfect at the break of dawn, a myriad of colors—soft hues of pinks and oranges he might not have genuinely marveled at a few months prior, before the floodgates of hell had broken open—when he finally makes it to Québec. In the face of something as daunting as death, Brad had taught himself in a matter of days that not even the smallest of moments are to be taken for granted. Sitting back and soaking in a sunrise feels like something he shouldn’t be taking for granted while he still has the means to do it.
“You have a habit of camping out on stranger’s driveways?”
Brad’s face splits into a smile when he swivels around and spots Patrice, more rugged than the last time they’d seen each other, but whole and tangible and just paces away, wearing a matching smile and there for the taking if an easy embrace is what Brad so wished for.
“It’s not camping out if I’ve only been here for ten minutes,” Brad says, because he knows this part, the harmless banter. There’s going to be a Talk, sooner than Brad might care to have it, knowing Patrice, but for the moment, he figures he can enjoy the familiarity of something routine. “Besides, I know how to charm the pants off of strangers. Got the hitchhiking skills to prove it.”
“Hm.” Patrice sidles up to him, playing along. “I guess that’s a fair point.” He hip checks Brad, then seems to reconsider letting the joke run the rest of its course before he’s tugging Brad into a hug that overwhelms Brad’s senses with home. “Tell me you didn’t drive here straight from Boston.”
“That’d be a lie, and I’m supposed to be a reformed man now.” A puff of laughter escapes Patrice, but he squeezes Brad tighter, like maybe he’s missed Brad as much as Brad’s missed him, or like—something. Brad can’t put his finger on it, but the vague and distant worry at the back of his head propels him forward. “Six hour drive. Full tank of gas. No stops. I made it here in one piece, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” Patrice says, quiet. And then, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Me too, Brad thinks surreptitiously, and wonders if Patrice can hear the words anyway. Wonders if Patrice hears the words as a whisper carried away by a breeze, or if he hears them as a shout from the top of a hill. If he hears them at all.
(At twenty-two, Brad gets put on a line with Bergy, and it’s fucking magic. One trick after another, it’s rabbits out of hats, doves out of sleeves. Brad doesn’t believe in much outside of hockey, but it’s pure fucking magic when they’re on the ice together. Part of him very nearly wishes that weren’t the case, because the way they just click revives every what if, every not-so-definite maybe.
It's not love at first sight, but that's technicality more than it is anything else. Because love at first sight would have been stumbling head over heels—some hilarious combination of literal and figurative—for Bergy at the first shake of their hands. Love at first sight would have been more than the fleeting hope brought on by Brad’s own body deceiving him.
Love at first sight would have been 2009. It's 2010 now, and maybe that just means it’s love at second or third or whatever sight, but Brad’s not entirely keen on the L word, especially when it pertains to someone as unattainable as Bergy: too good and too pure to be tainted by the likes of Brad, too marked by the initials of someone in the universe designed to love him.
Like gravity, though, it’s a force that can only be avoided for so long.
Brad drops hard. Falls fast. Can only wait for the impact he knows is coming.)
Guns aren’t the interior design Brad is expecting upon entering the house, but maybe he shouldn’t be as surprised as he is to see a collection of them decorating the walls. Where Brad is recklessness and spontaneity and occasional laughter in the face of danger, Patrice is methodical plans, thought-out details, a wealth of patience to wait things out whenever the situation calls for it.
“There’s a lot of Infected,” Patrice explains, as if he’s picked up on the tail-end of Brad’s thoughts. Maybe he has. “Things seem to have quieted down here, for the most part, but it’s better to be safe than sorry when you go out.”
“They only come out at night, don’t they?”
A nod. “Mostly,” says Patrice, looking miles away instead of mere inches. “They’re smart, though. Smarter than most movies gave zombies credit for, at least. They’ve learned to take advantage of shadows during the day. It’s hard to do at noon, when the sun’s a bit higher up, but where the shadows are more prominent…”
“Like New York,” Brad cuts in. His legs feel like jello, stomach twisted up in ugly knots. “Taller buildings and shit. You think that’s why big cities got the brunt of Outbreak?”
Another nod. It’s probably what throws Brad off when Patrice decides that that’s that and ripping the band-aid off is a now or never matter. “We should talk,” he says. Completely casual, like talks of soulmates are something they do on the reg. “About—”
“Okay,” Brad says faintly, mostly because he’s not sure what else there is to say.
Eyes flicker to Brad’s wrist—it’s unguarded but not bare in a way Brad’s going to have to get used to, possibly, but pressed firmly against his leg so Patrice can’t see the letters there—before passing over his face and, eventually, the rest of Brad. “Later,” Patrice decides, with an air of cautiousness that would normally prompt exasperation if Brad wasn’t so grateful for the temporary out. “You tired?”
The world as he knows it is unbalanced, misshapen by the hands of men trying to play God. The people in it are either infected or dead or trying to survive, and Brad can’t count on one hand the number of people in his life who have ceased to exist. Brad is exhausted.
The tilt of Patrice’s lips is soft around the edges like a warm blanket, inviting like the bed Brad knows is up the stairs, through the first door on the right. It’s all Brad can do not to act on impulse: to cut the distance between them in half and then completely, to stand on the tips of his toes and have the conversation he’s dreading in actions instead of words.
“I’ll make us something to eat,” Patrice says. “Go on and nap.”
(At twenty-three, Bergy passes off the Stanley Cup to him, and Brad’s heart soars, hopeless to the eventual plummet once it finally realizes it doesn’t actually have wings. A sea of faces, a cluster of teammates, Bergy scans through them all and finds Brad and decides Brad Marchand: Troublemaker Extraordinaire is the guy he wants to have the Cup next. Bergy seeks him out and hands the Cup to him, eyes bright and sparkling like the silver, all genuine laughter and open affection.
A grin tugs persistently at his lips, and Brad says, “Fuckin’ champions.”
It’s not I love you, but the words still feel like they’re lodged at the back of his throat.)
By the time he pads down the stairs and into the kitchen, it’s half past noon.
Patrice is angled away from the doorway, chopping away at onions, garlic, and an eyebrow-raising assortment of fresh veggies Brad knows without having to ask are from the garden Patrice had planted under a May sun. Brad catches himself as he’s about to whistle appreciatively, breath leaving him in a rush when the sunlight catches Patrice just right, specks of gold softening already-gentle laugh lines. It hits Brad straight in the solar plexus.
It’s as if powers that be are tempting him. Daring him.
The chopping stops abruptly, and Brad’s at a loss over what to do with himself when waves of fierce desire nearly knock him off his feet, stronger yet when Patrice rinses his hands and towels them dry and then takes quick, purposeful strides across the length of the kitchen, face more determined than Brad’s ever seen it.
“You think really loud,” Patrice tells him, except his mouth hasn’t moved at all, which—
A mouth presses to his.
(At twenty-five, Brad watches Patrice fall in love, every inch of a 500-foot drop in a matter of seconds. Only it isn’t an unforgiving ground that rises to meet him, or an abyss ready to swallow him whole. He falls just as hard as Brad, but not for Brad.
“Stephanie,” Brad remembers Patrice saying to the team, syrupy sweet as he drew out each letter of her name. Leaning forward as if to entice the lot of them, an entire team of big-body hockey players crowded in close at a packed table, Patrice had smiled dreamily, pushing his sleeve up and baring his Mark unabashedly as he finished with, “Bertrand.”
Lands on two feet.
“This Sunday,” Patrice had said, bouncing on the balls of his feet while Brad inspected the contents of the velvet box he’d been handed. The diamond ring was, admittedly, beautiful, breathtaking despite the fact the closest Brad had ever come to being a jewelry enthusiast was an appreciation for watches, a tiny collection of them.
Walks into marriage with vows that slice right through Brad, who aches and aches and aches some more.
Brad’s never feared the sea, never been given a reason to fear it, but “I do” is a sinister thing lurking beneath the surface of an endless ocean, with claws that dig deep and don’t let up until he’s too far under and mouthfuls of water have choked him.)
Falling into bed together is a clumsy affair: a distracted stumble of a climb upstairs with noses bumping into one another like friendly fire and mistimings like passes that don’t connect on the ice. It’s when clothes are shed and left forgotten in a haphazard trail on the floor that the rest seems to come naturally, finally, the awkwardness of two blushing virgins giving way to the easy rhythm between two soulmates.
“Can I—” The words catch Brad off-guard, even though they slip out of his own mouth. The universe hadn’t supplied him with a teleprompter when it dumped this on him, and he isn’t entirely sure how to finish the thought, how to ask Patrice for proof he’d never thought he would get to see.
Patrice smiles down at him, all-knowing. A knuckle gently raps against his temple, as if to say I know, but it’s the wrist that garners the focal point of his attention. Brad fumbles with the hand so it’s clutched in a deathgrip between both of his own, tight enough to hurt, probably. He can’t find it in himself to apologize.
Stunned at the sight of his initials there, he barely registers the fingers of Patrice’s other hand dancing at the waist of his briefs until they dip inside, punching a startled gasp out of him.
“You have a habit of giving handjobs to strangers you find on your driveway?”
A twist of the wrist, breathless laughter, and, “Only the ones I like.”
(At thirty-one, Brad hands Patrice a beer the day news breaks of his divorce. “You seem to be handling this extremely well,” he says, because if Patrice had wanted someone to ignore the massive elephant that’s pretty fucking hard to ignore, or who’d at least tread carefully, mincing and sugar-coating as they went, they both know he wouldn’t be watching Hockey Night in Canada in Brad’s living room.
Patrice shrugs, rubbing absentmindedly at his Mark. “The universe got it wrong.”
Skeptical, Brad swallows hard as the frayed edges of hope resurface and echoes, “The universe.”
A phantom smile dances along the slant of Patrice’s mouth. “Fate’s a fickle thing, Marchy.”)
It’s a funny thing, fate.
Half the world has gone up in figurative flames, but Brad wakes up one Tuesday and feels alive.
(At thirty-two, the world ends, but the stars align.)