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Chaz flies out to New York, slotting into their third line, the injured Calgary D is bolstered by the introduction of Stadler, and Calgary fans and media are united it in being a good trade. It objectively was one, not that that makes it sting any less. Ash spends half her time at Bryce’s, the two of them apparently getting some epic rants in. Jared’s dad fixes the wall, sends Jared a picture, pristine again, like nothing happened.

Nothing really changes — Bryce breaks out of the slump for a bit, and the media backs up one step, and then he slumps again and they sprint forward five, breathing down the back of his neck. Jared needs to stop reading the articles, they leave him furious and blurry-eyed, half anger half helplessness, but he can’t stop doing it, picking at it like a scab. He knows Bryce is reading them too. He tells Bryce not to. Bryce says he knows he shouldn’t. They both keep reading them.

Calgary pulls out win after win, like the more Bryce slumps the more resilient they get. The Canucks are pulling out wins too, the two of them constantly swapping spots in the standings. Calgary clinches with four games left to go. Vancouver clinches with three. It’s up in the air who’s going to be taking first in the division, but they’re both in the postseason.

Vancouver clinches at home, so of course everyone’s piling on each other to celebrate, even the vets who usually go home to wives and kids are coming out to the bar after the game. Jared’s tired, more tired knowing that there’s going to be another stretch of time before him and Bryce are going to be back in the same place again. Not that he isn’t hyped about playoffs, he’s never going to take them for granted, no former Oiler would, but —

He misses his husband.

Jared gets himself a drink, figuring after two he can leave without seeming too antisocial. He tries to find Gabe and Stephen in the crowd, because everyone’s a little too loud for how Jared’s feeling, and they won’t be, but it’s packed, players and friends and family and who knows what, and he gives up and settles with Dmitry and his wife, because at least they’re not strangers.

“What are you drinking?” Oksana asks, giving his drink a very sceptical look.

“White wine spritzer?” Jared says.

Oksana scoffs. “What are you, sixty year old woman? I get you a better drink.”

“I don’t really like the taste of anything too alcoholic,” Jared says.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Oksana says. “I know lots of good ones.”

She returns with a violently blue beverage that Jared eyes very suspiciously, before he sips it. It tastes kind of like blue Gatorade, which is a terrific find. She follows it up with a violently purple one that tastes like grape popsicles, and then a violently red one that tastes like a jolly rancher. Jared is incredibly impressed.

Also, it turns out, incredibly drunk.

Like, Jared knows he’s a lightweight, but he is unsure how someone the approximate size of a smurf is still drinking — and shots! Jared would be on the floor if he was drinking shots — while the room’s getting a little spinny around him.

“Oh buddy,” Dmitry says, clearly noting Jared’s distress. “You have too many too fast?”

“Too many,” Jared confirms.

“We find you Gabe and Stephen,” Dmitry says.

“Stephen’s mean,” Jared says.

“Yes,” Dmitry says. “We like this about him.”

“No we don’t,” Jared argues.

“Come on,” Dmitry says, wrapping an arm around his shoulder, and Jared’s too unsteady to shrug it off, just meekly lets Dmitry guide him to a back corner, where Stephen’s sipping a glass of wine and reading emails, probably work ones. Gabe always complains he never turns off work mode, but considering how all-consuming pro hockey careers are, he probably doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on.

“Your boy,” Dmitry says, and drops Jared unceremoniously into the chair across from Stephen.

“What did you do to him,” Stephen says, but Dmitry just laughs and walks away. “What did he do to you?”

“I miss Bryce,” Jared says. Quietly, so Stephen’s the only one who’ll hear him. He’s drunk, but not that drunk.

“Oh here it is,” Stephen says, putting his phone away.

“And he’s not playing well,” Jared says.

“No,” Stephen says.

“And the media’s so fucking awful to him,” Jared says.

“They are,” Stephen says.

“I just want to help him,” Jared says helplessly. “I just want to help him and I can’t and I feel useless.”

Stephen looks him in the eye. “Did you let Oksana give you drinks,” he says.

“Yes,” Jared says.

“Okay,” Stephen says. “Rule one: never let Oksana give you drinks.”

“It’s too late,” Jared says. “I’ve drunk them. They’re drunken.”

“You’re drunken,” Stephen says. “Let’s get you something to eat and then I’ll drive you home.”

“You’ve been drinking,” Jared says. “That’s not safe.”

“I’ve had one glass of wine,” Stephen says. “I have a four hour drive tomorrow, I’m not doing basic bitch shit like letting Oksana give me drinks.”

“You’re basic bitch shit,” Jared says.

“Okay, going straight to the driving you home,” Stephen says. “Maybe stop at McDonalds on the way. Come on, little guy.”

“Bigger than you,” Jared mutters, but he lets Stephen poke him out the door, ignoring the mockery from his teammates for tapping out so early. If Jared has another drink he will die.

Jared’s been poked down the street and into the front seat of Stephen’s car before he realises what’s amiss.

“We forgot Gabe,” Jared says.

“Gabe is an adult who can make his own way home,” Stephen says.

“You stranded your boyfriend,” Jared says. “You’re a bad boyfriend. Don’t leave Gabe behind.”

“I am a very good boyfriend who is taking care of Gabe’s linemate so he can celebrate making the playoffs,” Stephen says. “Much more responsibly than said linemate did.”

“They were violently coloured,” Jared says.

“The drinks?” Stephen says.

“Yes,” Jared says.

“Those are the most dangerous ones,” Stephen says. “The sugar alone will kill you. Let’s get double cheeseburgers.”

“They’re bad for you,” Jared says, but he doesn’t protest when Stephen orders some at the drive-thru on Main Street, and definitely doesn’t protest when Stephen adds in nuggets. He’s through one cheeseburger and well into the nuggets by the time Stephen parks outside his building.

“You know how to get home from here or do you need me to help you remember which apartment’s yours?” Stephen asks.

Jared gives him the finger.

“Buy a man McDonalds and he still doesn’t appreciate you,” Stephen says. “You know the drill? Hydration and—”

“Yes dad,” Jared says.

“Not my kink, personally, but you do you,” Stephen says, then laughs when Jared goes red. “Drink some water. Call your husband, tell him a bunch of mushy shit about how much you love and miss him. Maybe don’t mention the not playing well part. Then go to bed.”

“Okay,” Jared says. He drinks some water, calls Bryce, who is amused by Jared’s Oksana-induced inebriation, and says some truly mushy shit he probably wouldn’t say if he wasn’t drunk. Bryce says some truly mushy shit back, even though he is not drunk, but that’s okay. Jared is drunk enough to endure hearing it. Then he takes aspirin, per Bryce’s advice, has another glass of water, and goes to bed.

He feels kind of groggy but not stupid hungover in the morning, so clearly the fast food and water were the way to go. He notes that for future reference, along with the not letting Oksana buy him drinks bit. The deliciousness hid the danger. She knew what she was doing. Jared should have expected nothing else from the wife of Dmitry Kurmazov.

The Canucks finish out the season with two points on Calgary, get the slightly easier matchup against the Sharks as a result. Not that it’s an easy one — the Sharks had an up and down season, but they’re playing hot right now, and teams that are running hot at the end of the season tend to keep riding that in the postseason. Calgary stumbled in their final few games, but Bryce wasn’t a part of that — he found the back of the net twice, and Jared’s hoping that’ll roll into the postseason as well. He needs the win right now.

*

Bryce gets the win, though Jared doesn’t. The Canucks bow out of the postseason in the opening frame, after a brutally bad luck series against the Sharks. The Canucks outplayed them for most of it, but the injuries start to pile up — on both sides, though the Canucks lost two impact players in Game Two, so they had the worst of it — but San Jose held out to seven. To OT. Then the Sharks took it with a stunningly beautiful goal no goalie in the world could stop and the goalscorer wouldn’t be able to replicate for a million dollars. Some series go like that. Hazard of the profession.

Jared packs up his locker, mumbles some stuff to the media, gets on a plane with Elaine to Calgary, since the Flames won their series in six. It’s like a weird anti-deja vu of last year, Jared flying out to watch Bryce play. Elaine’s going to be staying with his parents — they insisted, which is hilarious — Jared back to his own bed, officially in the postseason while Bryce is still playing, which again feels weird. Probably felt weird for Bryce last year.

Still, grumpy about his own chances or not, he’s coming into a Calgary that feels lighter than it did before. Bryce’s scoring touch at the end of the season wasn’t a blip — he’s got six points in six games, had the game-winner in one of them. The media’s backed off just a bit, though it’s in a barbed way, but when he’s winning them games, the fanbase is back on his side. Fickle as hell, but there’s nothing to be done about it, just keep scoring, and Bryce has got his head in it now, Jared could see that just from replays, head down, legs moving, stick where it needs to be, puck where it needs to go. He’s dialed in again.

He’s not — happy, though. Like, happy that Jared and Elaine are back, obviously, he’s visibly happy about that, and he doesn’t let Jared have room to breathe for the first twenty-four hours he’s back in town — Jared is, again, not complaining — but there’s something missing. Jared doesn’t know what it is. Or maybe he does.

Bryce has been playing well, but he’s been playing well for himself; he’s checked out of the team part of it, goes to pregame for Game One with this determined look like it’s his job and he’s going to do it, and he’s going to do it well, but it’s, well — a job. It’s not supposed to feel that way, especially not in the rush of the postseason. Problems with the room or not, Bryce has never acted like that before, or if he has, he was hiding it. He’s not hiding it now, that whether he turns the play around or not, whether the media turns around, the fanbase, the front office — he’s done with them, already looking towards the offseason, just going to do his best to get them as far as possible before that happens.

Jared watches Game One at his parents’, sitting between his mom and Erin. His dad’s at the game with Elaine, which Jared is not salty about. Well, a little, but his dad being like, family friend of the Marcuses and lifelong Flames fan, he can express a little more support than Jared, rival player who just got knocked out of the playoffs. If he could manage to look neutral in case he gets spotted, maybe, but he doesn’t trust his face that much, especially because the Avs are a big, physical team, and they’re going to be gunning for Bryce every single time he’s out on the ice. He’s going to take a lot of abuse, and Jared will probably not be able to stop himself from reacting to that, so. Home. Between mom and Erin, who aren’t going to bat an eye at anything he says. Not that he really feels like saying anything.

“Stop sulking,” mom says.

“I’m not,” Jared says, sinking further into the couch. He refuses to wear anything Flames branded — fuck the Flames — but he’s got one of Bryce’s old Spokane hoodies that he stole from Elaine’s at one point and has neglected to give back. It wouldn’t fit Bryce anyway, too tight at the shoulders, because it perfectly fits Jared. Apparently Bryce at eighteen and Jared at twenty-two are the same size. He sticks one of the strings in his mouth, chews it through the anthems, Bryce’s face stony at centre ice.

Erin, in Jared’s Oilers jersey — she’s so petty, god — exhales with the same blunt rush of air Bryce probably does when he takes the first of what’s going to be many hits tonight. Jared chews harder.

Bryce takes the puck right back, puts it on net for the first shot, an easy one, but the Avs’ goalie takes it with difficulty. Jared hopes that’s a good sign for the series. Bryce doesn’t make a mistake his next shift, it goes bar down, and Jared isn’t so pleased about the goal that he neglects to mock the shit out of Erin for the squeaky little noise of joy she made when it went in.

“Mom,” Erin whines.

“Like a little mouse,” mom says.

“Mom!” Erin says.

“A squeaky little mouse,” Jared agrees.

“I’m not going to watch with you guys,” Erin says.

“Yes you are,” mom says. “You’re invested now.”

“Ugh, I know,” Erin says, and slumps back in her seat. “I hate being personally invested in this. Why do I have to care about this? Why is this a thing I now care about?”

“Your brother’s been playing hockey your entire life,” mom says.

“Your point?” Erin says.

Jared elbows her, and she elbows him back.

Bryce is dominant after that, comes out every single shift like he’s been waiting for it. The Avs go after him shift after shift, and he draws two calls by the end of it, one on a high stick way too close to his eye for Jared’s comfort, another on a boarding also way past Jared’s comfort level. They convert on one of them, almost do it again on the other, beat the goalie but not the crossbar. It’s a hell of a game, teams trading the lead multiple times, the kind Jared would probably enjoy more if he had some distance from it, but he doesn’t.

The Flames win it in OT, a goal from Casterley off a beautiful pass from Bryce, and Jared can finally exhale. Just to have to do it again at least three more times, but that’s — whatever, he’ll take the win. He drives home, dropping Erin off at her dorm even though it isn’t on his way, because she got all whiny about taking the bus and mom threw up her hands and went to bed before Erin could convince her to drive her.

“Gimme twenty bucks,” Erin says.

“I think it’s the other way around?” Jared says. “You pay the driver.”

“You’re going to sign a multi-million dollar contract this summer,” Erin says. “Whereas I am but a poor peasant university student, who would like to celebrate the win of my brother-in-law at a public house with my fellow scholars. But alas, I am insolvent. Woe betides me.”

Jared rolls his eyes and gives her fifty for the drama. “You used ‘woe betides’ wrong, I’m pretty sure.”

“Yeah but I’m pretty sure it earned me an extra thirty bucks,” Erin says, then hops out of the car in her stupid Matheson jersey, which Jared is far more concerned about than her out drinking.

“Take the Oilers jersey off before you go out!” Jared says.

Erin waves a dismissive hand and shuts the door.

Jared rolls his window down. “Don’t drink any violently flavoured drinks!”

“What the hell is a violently coloured drink?” Erin asks. “Like, wine? Like blood colour?”

“Like neon,” Jared says. “Like anything that is the colour of poison.”

Erin wrinkles her nose. “I’m getting beer, you giant weirdo.”

Jared, satisfied he has done his due diligence, heads home.

Bryce is already there, stripped down to his underwear in the bathroom and admiring what is going to be a massive bruise spanning his left side.

“The boarding?” Jared asks.

“Yep,” Bryce says.

“That’s gonna be huge,” Jared says. The bruised skin is hot under his fingers when he touches it, gentle. “Hurt?”

Bryce shrugs a shoulder. “Not too bad,” he says. “Knee’s twinging like a bitch, though.”

“Hot or cold for your knee?” Jared says.

Bryce considers. “Hot, I think,” he says, and Jared gets him an ice pack for the bruise, a Magic Bag for the knee, anti-inflammatories for both.

Bryce is in bed and drooping by the time Jared returns, only wakes up enough to hiss when Jared puts the ice pack on his side, barely sits up to take the meds.

“You eat?” Jared says.

“Yeah,” Bryce says. “Fucking tired.”

“Sleep,” Jared says.

“Not that kind of tired,” Bryce says, though he says it through a yawn. “Just fucking — tired.”

“I know,” Jared says. “Sleep?”

“Only if you come to bed,” Bryce says, and Jared does, even though he’s not tired yet, carefully arranges himself so he’s less likely to bump up against anywhere Bryce is hurting, scrolls through twitter with Bryce sacked out beside him. It looks like Flames fans love Bryce again. Who knows if it’s going to last. Who knows if it’s even going to make a difference in the end.

“Stop doing whatever you’re doing,” Bryce mumbles, and Jared dutifully puts his phone down, curls back into him.

“Need a new ice pack?” Jared asks.

“Sleep,” Bryce declares.

“I’ll get you a new ice pack,” Jared says, but he’s hindered by Bryce wrapping his arms around him and becoming pure dead weight.

“Just,” Bryce says. “Stop.”

Jared lets Bryce rearrange him to his liking, shuts his eyes, stays still and quiet, but it’s a long time before he falls asleep.