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Joe is a captain. A Captain, capital-C captain. It’s in his bones, written deep inside of him. From the tips of his toes to the scraggly ends of his beard, Joe was made for leadership.

No matter where, no matter when, Joe is used to being at the helm.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out the way he expects.

*

He knew what the jersey in his stall was going to look like. Teal, yes, the same vibrant blue that he’s been wearing for years, the same 19 across his back as always. But: the front.

There’s an A there. That’s new.

He’s worn an A before, but not here, never here.

This is his team. This was supposed to be his team, at least. But the C’s gone, and even though he knows his boys have his back, he wonders. He always wonders.

It’s been a long summer. Feels longer than the season, even.

He went hiking, fishing. Worked on his place back up north. Patched some drywall, painted a few walls. There’s always a project to work on to distract him. Most everyone stayed clear, let him hide out for as long as he needed.

It was good, a nice break, after everything. He didn’t think much about the team. Didn’t think much about Doug fucking Wilson.

Didn’t think about the C, where it was going to go next.

But there he is now, new jersey, new letter, everything. He’s got to think about it now.

No one wants to talk to him about it, is the thing. Everyone brushes past him in the room, casts a glance at the jersey, at Joe, then moves on. It’s what he wants, he thinks. He doesn’t want to talk about his fucking feelings. He just wants to play hockey.

*

Pavs wears it well, Joe knows this. The weight of the C settles easily on his shoulders, from the very first day. He doesn’t fight it, doesn’t struggle against it.

Pavs, after all, isn’t some kid still on his ELC, pushed into responsibility before he’s ready. No, he’s old enough that he just pulls the new jersey on, goes about doing his job. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it.

It looks like it’s easy for Pavs -- maybe easier than Joe wanted it to be, deep down in his heart.

He feels like a prick when he thinks about it too much, how simple it was for Pavs to step in and step up, even with Joe still there -- still on the ice, in the room.

Pavs stops him after the first practice, curls one hand around Joe’s wrist. “This doesn’t change anything, you know.”

His hand’s cold, that’s what Joe focuses on. Five freezing little knife points, digging into his skin.

“It changes lots of things.” Joe shakes himself free, doesn’t break stride as he heads towards his car, but Pavs is relentless.

“Off the ice,” Pavs says, raising his voice. He hustles to get in front of Joe, blocking his path to the car. “Away from the team. It doesn’t change anything.”

He looks so hopeful. Joe almost hates to say it: “We’ll see.”

Pavs blinks. “We’ll see?”

Joe shoves his hands in his pockets, squeezes them into fists where Pavs can’t see them. “Yep.”

“It was fine when it was you,” Pavs sputters. “It was fine. It was always fine. This is different?”

Joe’s stubborn. He knows that about himself. Even if he didn’t, he’s had it pointed out enough times that it isn’t news anymore. “Yep.” He pulls out his keys, presses the button to unlock his car. “This isn’t the place, anyway.” Gently, he nudges Pavs aside. “And I need time.”

“Time.” Pavs steps back, leans up against the next car over. “Right.”

“We’ll talk later.” He slides into his car. Pavs just watches, arms folded over his chest, as Joe pulls out, drives away.

*

Joe knows full well it’s not Pavs he’s mad at. Pavs didn’t do anything wrong. He stepped up to fill a need on the team. Joe didn’t expect him to turn down the C for some noble reason.

He didn’t expect Pavs to turn down the C because of Joe . He didn’t want that.

He doesn’t think he wanted that, at least.

But still. Sometimes Joe turns to him on the ice and sees the C on Pavs’ chest and instead of feeling pride at the accomplishment, all he feels is anger and regret.

*

Pavs doesn’t call, doesn’t text, doesn’t swing by for a visit after skate. Doesn’t follow Joe home after away games, his hair and his suit rumpled from a nap on the plane.

It’s weird. Joe wanted time, sure -- but he’s not sure this is what he meant.

Joe misses it, misses Pavs taking up space in his house, in his life. Misses falling asleep on the couch and waking up with a blanket tucked around him and Pavs sitting on the floor next to him, head pressed against Joe’s side. Misses his dumb smile whenever Joe catches him looking a little too long. Misses the way it feels like Pavs has always been there, like he just walked in one day and took up just the right amount of space in Joe’s heart.

He likes being alone with his thoughts, always has. Man of few words, Joe’s always been.

But he’s starting to think this kind of alone, it’s no good for him.

Them .  It’s no good for them.

*

It’s not always easy, being the captain.

Sometimes Pavs loses his temper.

Sometimes he focuses so much on trying to keep everyone in line that his own game dips.

Joe knows the struggle. He thinks he can help Pavs through it. Maybe he should help him.

But he asked for time and Pavs is actually giving it to him in spades. Joe’s got advice, he’s got words, but he’s gotta break, first, and he doesn’t know if he’s ready for that.

*

“Hey, a little help here?” Pavs’ voice rises above the din of pucks slamming off boards, teammates shouting, doors slamming as everyone slowly filters off the ice.

There’s a buzz at the rink, an undercurrent that Joe knows all too well. It’s going to bubble over soon, if no one reins it back in.

Joe skates in a low arc around the far circle, stick trailing behind him. The few guys left on the ice give him a wide berth; he’s got half of the sheet to himself.

Maybe it's a little petty. Maybe he's not feeling it today, not feeling like trying to lead where he's not wanted. So what if it makes him a dick, the kind of guy he'd have given shit to any other time in his life. Let him have his moment. Let him have it.

"You hear me?" Pavs is closer now. His visor's shoved up, helmet tilted back.

Joe keeps doing mindless crossovers. Swats away a puck or two. Bounces one right off of Pavs' skates, sending it ricocheting away down the ice.

So what. So what?

Pavs lets out a frustrated grunt, then joins Joe, falling into step alongside him. They've spent a lot of time being in sync, knowing just where the other one is. On the ice, it's effortless. Off took a little more work, but they got there anyway, hidden away at home, where no one else watches, no one else pries, no one else judges what's inside either of their hearts.

"Don't pull this bullshit," Pavs says, voice low. "You've still got a problem with all this, fine. But don't pull this bullshit on me."

Joe turns his arc in the other direction, heading for the next circle; Pavs follows. "You said you needed time, and I’m giving it to you. Fine. But this is work. You don’t get to be such a son of a bitch here. I need help, and you're just ... off. Gone. Nowhere to be found."

Joe glances over. "You think this is easy?"

"No." Pavs reaches out with his stick, taps the back of Joe's shins. "I think it's shitty for you. For both of us. I know it's not easy, but."

"But?" Joe looks back over his shoulder, then picks up speed, putting distance between the two of them. He's going to make Pavs work for it.

Pavs puts his head down, lengthens his stride to catch up.  "I can't do this alone." Joe can barely hear him, between the distance and the scrape of steel on ice.

He almost asks Pavs to repeat himself, but that look on his face: eyes wide, so trusting, so weary. Joe can't do it.

Joe comes out of the turn and stops skating, lets momentum carry him down the rink. He checks back over his shoulder to see Pavs come to a hard stop at center ice, waiting for Joe to circle back to him.

It's a little funny, really, how Pavs knows that Joe's going to come back. He's that predictable, Joe guesses.

Joe turns back, drifts to a halt in front of Pavs. "What do you need?"

Pavs is honest with him. Always has been. "You."

Joe snorts. "Romantic, suddenly?"

"Fuck off." Another whack to his shins. "You know what I mean."

He does. Of course he does. Maybe he just wanted to hear Pavs say it. Wanted to hear that he’s still needed by someone in his life. Hearing people say you’re on a decline, you’re not necessary, you’re a dying breed -- it fucks you up, you hear it enough.

"You've got it," Joe says, finally. "So tell me. Who's out of line? Who's fucking up?"

Pavs' mouth turns up, a hint of the smile Joe's always been a sucker for. "Dinner," he says. "Let's talk about it over dinner."

"Candles?" Joe smiles, too, though it's lost under his beard. He skates backwards, just quick enough to avoid another jab from Pavs' stick. "Come over tonight. We'll talk. I've got leftovers."

"Leftovers." Pavs laughs as he turns to head off towards the benches. "Now who's the romantic?"

Joe stays put, watches him skate off. "I've always had it in me, don't act so surprised."  

Pavs lifts up one hand and flips Joe off as he steps off the ice.

“Six o’clock,” Joe shouts after him. “Don’t be late.”

“There better be candles,” Pavs responds, and then he’s gone, down the hall into the locker room.

It shouldn’t be this easy to come back together after Joe pressed pause, but maybe it will be. Maybe it really is that easy.

He’s got some birthday candles at home, Joe thinks as he pushes off towards the boards. Maybe he’ll pull them out.

Romance isn’t dead, after all.