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slow down, you crazy child

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Brandon’s mom wants him to go to college.

He kind of does, too, wants to study psychology, get a degree. He knows he can’t play hockey forever, isn’t even sure he wants to keep playing at all. He wasn’t drafted by a CHL team, and NCAA hockey is good enough for him, anyway.

He gets an offer from the London Knights the weekend before he’s due to move to New York.

-

Major juniors is… different.

He kind of coasted by with the Stars, mostly threw his body around, occasionally scored a goal. Dale Hunter takes one look at him, considering, and decides Brandon’s going to be a goal scorer.

‘I don’t have room for dead weight on my team, son,’ he says when they first meet.

‘Of course, coach,’ Brandon says.

‘I’m gonna try you on the third line for now, but I expect to see you on the second by Christmas.’

‘...Yes, coach,’ Brandon says. He suspects he’s a little wide eyed and pink cheeked, but then he gets dismissed, gets directed to the locker room where the rest of the guys are sitting in their gear. There’s a tiny kid, looks barely sixteen, with a tangle of blond curls falling into his face, holding court in the corner, a handful of kids hanging on to his every word. He’s doing something with a green biscuit and his stick, which looks like it’s gonna come up to Brandon’s chest in his bare feet. He does something, and gets some mutters of appreciation from the crowd. Brandon ignores him, and pulls his shirt off, tugging his gear out of the bag at his feet.

He’s shoving his new jersey over his pads when Coach comes back in and herds them all out on to the ice.

Brandon takes a couple laps by himself, gets a feel for the ice. It’s good, better than the ice at Lincoln. Reminds him a little of the rink he learnt to skate on, smooth and a little wetter than most guys like. The blond kid from before blows past him with a puck, grinning through his cage as he weaves through three or four guys before flipping it into an empty net with his backhand.

Coach lets them skate for about five minutes before bashing his stick off the glass, and they all take a knee.

‘Alright, I’m gonna get to into your lines and pairings, we’re gonna work through some drills so I can see what the new kids can do.’ Brandon doesn’t balk at being called a kid, just listens for his name, tries to pick out the guys he’s on a line with, Kane and Ganyey. Kane is the small blond kid with the ego problem, but Brandon can’t see his other linemate until he picks out an average sized guy in a visor with Gagner on the back of it, and well, he can’t see anyone else with a name that’s even close.

‘Brandon,’ he says when they’re all clumped together and waiting for Coach to set the drill up.

‘Kaner,’ Kane says.

‘Sam.’

‘Can I call you Sammy?’ Kaner asks.

Sam looks at him. ‘No,’ he says. but he doesn’t sound convinced.

‘What about Samwise?’

No.’

Coach blows his whistle and the first line sets off. Brandon realises he hasn’t listened to anything he’d said, and focuses on the three guys skating at the minute, trying to work out the drill, but only it’s a simple three weave passing drill, so he switches off again. Kaner’s produced a puck from somewhere again and is stickhandling in tiny figure of eights.

Another blast of the whistle sets the second line off, and Brandon reaches out with his stick, intending to confiscate the puck, and Kaner doesn’t even need to look up to flick his wrists and move the puck out of reach. Brandon can see him smirking, smacks him on the shinpad with his stick.

‘We’re up, he says, and skates over to take his place by the boards.

He’s not expecting great things. It’s the very first time he’s skating with these guys. There are going to be missed passes. Brandon decides he’s gonna call it a win if no one loses the puck in their feet.

 

Except Kaner passes the puck directly to his or Sam’s tape. Every single time. He even sets Brandon up for a sweet tap in on the goalie at the other end of the ice, swats him on the ass on the way past, still grinning.

Brandon shakes his head, and follows him back to Coach.

-

Kaner and Sam spend about twenty four hours on the third line with Brandon before being bumped up to the first. He’s not surprised, but he is disappointed, much as he likes his new linemates.

Kaner seems to have gotten attached to him though, is constantly bugging him during practice, games, in the locker room. He’s pulled some kind of long con on the guy who used to have the stall next to him, and now Brandon is flanked by Kaner and an empty stall sometimes used by Mason, the goalie.

Mason’s chatty for a goalie, and Kaner apparently has two settings: loud and louder. Brandon gives up on ever getting to get his usual five minutes of peace before a game.

‘--so yeah that’s why I wear eighty eight,’ Kaner’s saying, chattering away to no one in particular.

Brandon’s excellent at looking very much like he’s listening, but actually completely tuned out. He catches Sam’s eyes, sitting on the other side of Kaner, and quirks one eyebrow up and down. Sam laughs, and whacks Kaner on the back of the head with a gloved hand

‘Shut the fuck up, Patty,’ he says, and stands up to grab his helmet.

Kaner pouts, but grabs for his own helmet silently, and Mason starts leading them out of the room.

-

Kaner gets fucking levelled by Rogers at the end of the first, comes into the locker room with blood on his face, dripping onto his jersey. Brandon sees it and glances up at Coach.

Brandon hasn’t fought yet this season. He’s never been playing better.

Coach nods.

When Brandon’s line starts against Rogers’ at the start of the second, Brandon drops his gloves about three seconds in, and he pummels him into the ice. He hasn’t gotten in a fight in six months, but he remembers the sting in his knuckles like he never stopped.

-

When he gets out of the box, eye purpling and swollen already,  Kaner reaches up and pats him on the head with one big glove, bumps their foreheads together.

‘Goon,’ Kaner calls him.

Brandon shrugs, but he’s grinning. ‘Not my fault you gotta have someone fight for you.’

Kaner whacks him with his stick, and hops the boards with Sam. When he scores, he whirls around and points at the bench. Brandon waves him away, but he’s still smiling when they troop into the locker room up by Kaner’s goal.

-

After that, Brandon gets a at least couple of shifts a game up on Sam’s left wing every game, throwing himself around. If the game’s chippy, or they’re winning, he gets more. If they’re losing, he gets less. His point production picks up, and he’s not fighting like he did on the Stars, but occasionally he’ll drop the gloves.

It’s his last year of draft eligibility, but he’s trying not to think about that.

He registers on a whim. He has deferred entry to St Lawrence, if he doesn’t get drafted, well, he can just go to school. That was his plan all along, after all.

-

Kaner goes first, and absolutely no one is surprised.

Sam goes sixth.

Brandon was never going to go first round.

He goes seventy fourth, to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he’s genuinely shocked. There’s some footage floating around on TSN.com of him, open mouthed, while Kaner and Sam thump him on the back and shake him.

‘I’m going to the Leafs,’ he says.

‘We’re gonna have to be enemies,’ Sam says, solemnly. ‘Rival Canadian teams and all.’

‘Looks like,’ Brandon agrees.

‘Gags is just jealous because he didn’t go to an Original Six team,’ Kaner says, dragging Brandon down by his collar to stage whisper into his ear. Sam kicks him in the kneecap.

It all goes downhill from there, really. Brandon gets caught in the middle, like always, puts both of them in headlocks, and then drags them back to his apartment for shitty beers and shittier action movies.

-

Brandon spends his summer in Toronto, training with Sam and his BFF Johnny and a handful of other guys he dubs The Toronto Crew.

Kaner comes up for a couple of weeks, sleeps on Brandon’s couch and eats all his food and asks Johnny what his intentions are with Young Samuel at least twice daily.

Sam points out that Johnny’s actually a year younger than him. Kaner starts calling him Old Samuel, and ends up going headfirst into the pool in Sam’s parents’ backyard.

Brandon knows when things are about to escalate, and moves away from the edge in time to avoid PK rugby tackling Johnny into the pool with him.

‘I want to ask if they’re always like this,’ he says to Stammer, who was also smart enough to back away, ‘but I have a feeling I know the answer.’

Stammer laughs, and gestures at the pool. ‘This is nothing. Wait until they’re drunk.’

‘I don’t think I can handle all of them drunk,’ Brandon says. ‘Kaner by himself is at least a three man job.’

Later that night, they do in fact get drunk, and PK declares Brandon and Kaner honourary members of the Toronto Crew.

Brandon doesn’t point out that he a) came up with the name in the first place and b) is from Missouri. He figures it’s easier that way.

-

Toronto training camp is… well, terrifying.

He meets Mats Sundin on his way into the rink, holds the door open for him without thinking, and then has to text Sam and Kaner in capital letters and using lots of exclamation marks.

He ends up on a line with Matt Stajan and Jiri Tlusty, which is okay, it’s fine, he’s not thinking about the fact that he’s both the oldest person on the line and the least experienced, but Matt’s surprisingly encouraging, and Tlusty’s a fuckin’ riot.

‘Coaches think I have very little English,’ he confides to the both of them when Maurice is explaining a drill. ‘I like to see which ones will do hilarious mimes if I look at them like this for long enough.’ He tilts his head, frowning a little.

When Brandon steps onto the ice, he feels a little better. It’s just hockey, he reminds himself, doing a couple of warm up laps. Just hockey.

-

He lasts three games of the preseason before they send him to the Marlies.

He guesses it’s not the worst thing that could happen. Some guys just get released, but the Leafs have signed him to an entry level deal, and he even gets to keep his apartment.

Kaner and Sam both stay with their NHL teams through the preseason, through the start of the regular season.

Kaner’s playing on a line with a kid Brandon’s heard about, Jonathan Toews, and he won’t fucking shut up about him when Brandon calls to see what it’s like being a big fancy NHL star. It’s Jonny this and Jonny that, and Brandon’s heard that song before. He decides to say nothing, and see how it plays out.

A couple of weeks in, Tlusty turns up in the locker room with his weird flat sticks and his tilted head, and he winks at Brandon when Coach uses huge waving arm movements to explain a drill to him. He doesn’t stay for long, gets called up when they send someone else down, but it was nice to have him back on Brandon’s line for a couple of games.

He’s playing well, he thinks. Rotates through the top two lines pretty frequently, never stays in one place long enough to really get to know his linemates on the ice, but he’s putting up points, and he’s not fighting. Much, anyway. If anyone asks, he always tells ‘em Grabovski had it coming.

-

Steen goes down in the game against Detroit. It’s messy, Brandon hears.

He gets the call up.

He texts Kaner, just a handful of money emojis and an exclamation mark, and then calls Matt. ‘I’m coming to steal your spot,’ he tells him.

Matt barks a laugh down the phone. ‘You fuckin’ wish, Boller.’

They chirp back and forth, until Matt tells him to go the fuck to bed, and that he’ll pick him up in the morning to carpool to morning skate.

-

‘I feel like someone could have warned me about the media,’ Brandon says mournfully, towelling off his hair.

Matt’s tying his laces, shoves a beanie on and reaches up for his coat. ‘You play for Toronto,’ he says. ‘At what point did you forget that this city is an endless sea of journalists waiting for us to fuck up?’

Brandon shrugs, and pulls on his shirt. It sticks to him slightly, and he pulls a face, rolling the sleeves up.

His day had started fine. Matt had brought him coffee, and he hadn’t been horrifically late to the ACC, and he’d stood in the locker room and looked at the blue practice jersey with BOLLIG 74 on the back of it.

Morning skate had been good, he’d had a couple of bumps from guys, feeling him out, but he bumped back and grinned cheerfully, and got grudging nods in return.

He completely forgot the media, right up until he walked off the ice and got accosted by a dozen microphones all wanting to know what it was like getting such a short notice call up.

‘Do you think you’ll play tonight?’ one lady asks him, and sure, he’s had the media training they all get, but he stumbles and stutters over his answer, only barely rescues it by saying that he’s sure Coach will play the players who most deserve to play. Um.

Matt had openly laughed at him, but had drawn attention to himself and the media had flocked to him, asking him about how he thought tonight’s game was going to go.

Brandon honestly doesn’t think he’s going to play.

-

He is mistaken.

He plays seven minutes and forty three seconds, records one shot on goal, and is a minus one.

The game is an absolute bloodbath.

Anaheim is a powerhouse this season, and the guys are still banged up from the game against Detroit. Brandon gets hit into the fourth row by Ryan Getzlaf on his first shift and then gets thoroughly embarrassed by Beauchemin near the end of the second.

He doesn’t see a lot of the ice in the third period. He sees Newbury drop the gloves with Parros. It’s not pretty. Brandon’s kind of glad he’s leaving that behind.

His gloves are stacked on his thighs. He runs his thumb over the scar tissue on his knuckles and watches Parros smirking all the way to the penalty box, blood on his chin.

-

Steen comes back and Brandon gets sent down. He’s not surprised, but he is disappointed.

He spends the rest of the season bouncing back and forth. He plays a handful of games as a Leaf, but spends more time in the press box, running through his three suits over and over.

-

They play Chicago near the end of the season. He and Kaner get dinner after the game, a messy back and forth shutout until the third period, when Matt’s line got one of those ugly, barely legal goals and from there, the floodgates opened, and Chicago’s defence just parted like melting butter. Brandon gets his first NHL point from a goal by Stralman, a rocket that nearly put a hole in the back of the net. He gets flattened against the glass by teammates, and Kaner taps him on the ass when he skates past the Chicago bench.

Kaner finally got the Hawks a goal a couple of minutes before the end, a fucking beauty of a wrister from just below the face-off dot. He remembers those.

Brandon still chirps him about it across the table. ‘Haven’t learnt any new tricks, huh?’

Kaner grins over his beer. ‘A couple. Thought I’d let you guys have your win, you tried so hard. Nice assist. About fucking time you did something with the puck.’

Brandon flips him off, discretely. This is a nice place.

‘Man, if only Gags was here, it’d be like the best reunion ever,’ Kaner says happily, stuffing bread into his mouth.

‘I’ll see him next week, they’re a couple of stops down the road in our big end of season road trip,’ Brandon says.

‘Ask him how Johnny’s doing,’ Kaner says, smirking. Brandon is not touching that one with a ten foot pole, thanks, and he’s saved by the food arriving.

About halfway through the meal though, he can’t help himself. ‘So how’s your Jonny doing? He was pretty pissy tonight.’

Kaner chokes on his potatoes. Brandon cuts off a piece of his salmon, serene. ‘He’s fine,’ Kaner manages eventually, hoarse. He takes a long swallow of water. Brandon spears a piece of asparagus.

‘What about you, anyway?’ Kaner asks then, pointing his fork at Brandon accusingly. ‘How come you never talk about your hook ups?’

Brandon shrugs. ‘’Cause I don’t hook up.’

Kaner squints at him. ‘Why not?’

Another shrug, another bite of vegetables. Kaner still looks like he’s pretending to have x-ray vision.

‘...Fine. Mr Prude,’ Kaner says eventually, and the conversation moves on to how Brandon needs to move out of his tiny apartment and buy one that has more than two rooms.

‘Like you have any room to talk, you’re living in Stan Bowman’s fuckin’ basement. Criticise me when you pay rent, kid.’

It’s a good evening, awkwardness aside. Brandon even makes it back to the hotel before curfew. Matt comes stumbling in at three or so, with lipstick on his collar. ‘You’re a parody of all hockey players everywhere,’ Brandon says, before rolling over and going back to sleep.

He wakes up in the morning to find Matt passed out on the other half of his bed, with his pants still on, and his mouth wide open.

Brandon pushes him off the bed and goes to shower.

-

They miss the playoffs by a good margin. Brandon’s with the Marlies when they get eliminated, sends Matt and Tlusty matching next year we’ll kick butt texts, and focuses on keeping his top line spot away from the new guy who just came over in a trade from Pittsburgh.

-

The offseason heralds the return of Sam and his friends, Stammer fresh off being the first overall pick. He takes the inevitable ribbing with good grace.

‘Man, you guys are making me look bad,’ PK says through a mouthful of his burger. ‘Fuckin’ first rounders.’

‘I got your back, buddy,’ Brandon says, clinking their beer bottles together.

‘This is why Bolly is my favourite,’ PK declares, planting a disgustingly ketchup-y kiss on Brandon’s cheek, and getting a whack on the side of the head for it.

‘Traitor,’ Johnny says, from where he and Sam are curled up together, being disgusting. PK winks at him, and takes another monstrous bite of his burger.

-

Brandon gets to start the 2008 season with the Leafs, which is pretty cool. Matt’s clearly been doing something right over summer, because he leaps out of the starting gate, points wise.

Brandon’s still chugging along on the third line, content to be a ten to fifteen goal scorer for now. Mostly he’s just trying to keep his spot.

Steen gets traded in November, which is… unexpected, really. Brandon suddenly finds himself on the second line with Steen’s replacement, Stempniak. He’s a good guy, likes passing more than shooting, and Brandon picks up five goals in seven games after the trade.

-

He gets steamrollered in Vancouver the game after the Christmas break.

Kesler comes out of nowhere with a completely legal hipcheck and sends Brandon flying. He knows even before he lands that it’s going to hurt, but he’s not prepared for the spike of agony that shoots up and down his spine.

Afterwards, he finds out he’d been lying on the ice for at least ten minutes, mostly unresponsive.

They keep asking him questions about whether he can feel his legs, and they won’t let him sit up.

He ends up going straight to the hospital for x-rays, even though he keeps telling them he’s fine.

-

The hospital tells him otherwise. Thoracic spine fracture, the doctor tells him. Minor, but dangerous.

He’s not surprised when they tell him he’s probably done for the season, but he’s upset. He ends up stuck in Vancouver for a week before they fly him home in a back brace.

They tell him he’s lucky he doesn’t need surgery. He doesn’t really want to hear it.

His mom flies out, his sister and the kids follow about a week after. It’s nice having them around, but he’s under bed arrest. He’s not even really supposed to sit up to hug his family, in case it fractures more.

‘It fucking sucks,’ he says, on the phone to Sam one night. Sam hums in agreement. He’s at home resting his own injury, a sprained knee, and he’s going crazy, apparently.

‘It’s the worst,’ Sam says finally. ‘Isn’t Stammer in town tonight though?’

‘Yeah, for a couple of days, he’s got the Habs Leafs Sens roadie, I think. I might make him get me beer and one of those burger stack things from that place on Danforth.’

Sam moans. ‘God, I love that place. Food in Edmonton sucks, it’s all sushi.’

‘Your life is so hard,’ Brandon deadpans.

‘Shut up, cripple,’ Sam says. Brandon can hear him grinning, but he tells him to fuck off anyway, just in time for his youngest niece to toddle into the room. Awesome. With his luck, it’ll be her first word. ‘I gotta go,’ he says. ‘Text me if you die of boredom.’

It’s been a couple of weeks since the injury. He’s graduated to half sitting up. He leans over when his niece puts her arms up, and he’s about to lift her when he feels a twinge in his back, and he knows he can’t.

‘I’m sorry, princess,’ he says, letting her go. She looks up at him balefully. ‘I can’t right now. Go get mommy, she’ll lift you.’

It fucking sucks, he thinks again, collapsing into the pillows.

-

Eventually he graduates to the exciting task of getting himself in and out of bed. They fit him with a new brace, and he starts very gentle physiotherapy exercises. He also gets the good painkillers, finally, because he’s soaked with sweat and his hands tremble finely at the end of every session.

But. He’s making progress.

There’s no way in hell he’s making it back this season, especially since the Leafs are showing every sign of crashing and burning their way out of the playoff spot. They finally get mathematically eliminated on the same day he gets his third backbrace fitted, and moves on to exciting new forms of torture.

‘It’s not torture,’ Jamie, his physiotherapist says, one hand on the small of his back, supporting him. ‘Don’t be a baby.’

Brandon grits his hands, and bends his arms at the elbow again. Wall push ups are his new least favourite thing. They cause an uncomfortable ache in his lower back, but if he does another set of eight, he gets to lie down and have a soft tissue massage, which, while painful, leaves him feeling loose and boneless and kind of like he’s a little bit high.

-

Stammer and Sam get back to Toronto sooner than either of them really wanted to, and Johnny and PK have mostly been here all year, if not in the GTA exactly.

Brandon’s finally out of his back brace by the time they all converge on his apartment, a couple of days after his mom and sister fly home. PK brings his mom’s baking, Stammer turns up with a stack of pizza, and Sam and Johnny turn up together, kind of rumpled but with a crate of beers each.

‘Enjoying that newfound legality, huh?’ Brandon says from his seat on the couch.

‘You’re just jealous because I’m young and virile,’ Sam says happily. Johnny turns very red, which invites all kinds of chirping, of course.

It’s a good evening, and Brandon’s back doesn’t hurt at all, even when he leans too far forward when Sam steals his beer. He starts thinking, for the first time, that he might make it back for training camp.

-

Training camp is hard work. Brandon had made it back onto the ice a couple of weeks before it officially started, trying to get his skates underneath him. Everything feels vaguely wobbly, like he’s learning to walk again.

He knows he’s not impressing anyone at training camp. His goal right now is just to make it to the end of it.

He gets put on a line with a kid called Kessel for about five minutes, before they realise that he can actually play, and Brandon is one step above them icing a toddler. He’s wearing his red no contact jersey and he fucking hates it.

Matt’s enjoying his spot up on the top line, but he keeps drifting past Brandon and giving him concerned looks. He appreciates it in an abstract kind of way, but he fucking hates that, too. He just wants people to be able to hit him again.

-

He has a meeting with the new coach at the end of the first day. He’s tired and his back is starting to ache but he jams a hat over damp hair and sits down in Wilson’s office.

‘How’s your rehab going?’ is the first thing he asks.

‘Uh,’ Brandon says. ‘Well, I think.’

‘I’ve talked to a couple of the doctors here, and they think you should be cleared for contact by the time the regular season starts, more or less.’

‘Good,’ Brandon says, dumbly. ‘That’s good.’

Wilson leans forward, steeples his fingers. ‘I was thinking we should push that forward a little.’

‘Coach?’ Brandon asks.

‘You’re a big, strong body, Bollig. I want you out there protecting our smaller guys, throwing yourself around, you know?’

Brandon nods, slowly.

‘I watched a lot of your tape from your time in Lincoln. I don’t know that I’ve seen the same kind of energy from you in London or with us.’ He takes a sip of coffee. ‘I’d like to see that kind of energy back as soon as possible, hmm?’

Brandon nods again.

‘Excellent,’ Wilson says, smiling broadly. ‘Good to have you on board, kid.’

He leaves the meeting feeling vaguely stunned.

He texts Kaner when he gets home, washing down a couple of Advil with orange juice that’s definitely past it’s best. I think the new coach wants me to punch more faces

pnch hsi fac! Kaner says, with three fist emojis.

Stellar advice, as always, Kaner.

here 4 u buddy, Kaner texts, with, inexplicably, a fireworks emoji. srsly tho score hellagoals and only hit people who hit you first

Thanks, mom, Brandon texts, and puts his phone down to run a bath and soak his lower back.

-

Brandon steps up his rehab on recommendation of the Leafs medical team, and he’s out of his no contact jersey by the end of training camp.

Wilson puts him on the fourth line with Orr and a rotating line of centers. Brandon is under no illusions as to what his new role is.

He sits for the first two preseason games, watches Orr beat some bigmouth Red Wings rookie into the ground and then get his ass handed to him by Prust when the team gets slaughtered by the Rangers.

He dresses for the Habs game with steady hands. There’s a text from PK on his phone, don’t cry when we win, loser.

Wilson pulls him aside as he’s pulling his gloves on. ‘I’m expecting big things tonight, Bollig. Big things.’

‘Yes, Coach,’ Brandon says dutifully. There’s a hole wearing in the thumb of his left glove. Wilson slaps him on the shoulder.

‘Good man,’ he says. ‘Go out there and do the team proud.’

Brandon jams his helmet on and doesn’t look at anyone as he makes his way to the ice.

-

PK hip checks him lightly during warm ups, and grins. ‘Didn’t think you were gonna make it, dude, we thought you were broken forever.’ He’s loud and hyper and Brandon realises this is his first proper game at the Bell Centre.

‘Can’t keep me down forever,’ Brandon says. ‘Don’t hit me again, brat.’

‘Then don’t get in my way,’ PK says, and darts off to his own side of the ice again. Brandon stays stood at centre ice for a couple of seconds before making his way over to the side to stretch.

-

They win the game, eventually.

Brandon plays all of four minutes, because one of the Habs’ goons tries to fight him and he just skates away to the faceoff dot. The crowd boos, and when he gets back to the bench Wilson levels him with a stare.

‘What the fuck was that, Bollig?’

Bollig shrugs, and keeps his eyes on the ice. He doesn’t see another shift that period, or the next.

He gets reamed out in the locker room at the end of the game, despite the win. He keeps his eyes on the logo in the middle of the room.

-

Brandon plays again in the last game before the season starts up for real, against the Habs again, and manages an ugly assist on an uglier goal. He still doesn’t drop the gloves.

He plays another couple of minutes, but he still gets pulled aside by Wilson and gets another talk about energy just before the third period.

About five minutes before the game finishes, O’Byrne, the guy who tried to fight him last time, sends Schenner through Toskala and almost through the net.

Brandon splits three of his knuckles, and he doesn’t realise until he’s sitting in the penalty box wiping blood from his nose that his back doesn’t hurt at all. He glances over at Wilson, who gives him a terse nod.

He gets out of the box in time to register his first career Gordie Howe on the empty net.

Fuck you, it still counts, he texts PK after the game pre-emptively.

PK sends back an emoji of a tongue sticking out, but then a fist one that he thinks is supposed to be a fistbump.

-

The season starts uneventfully.

He’s still on the fourth line.

His back still aches after every game.

He gets in a fight maybe once every couple of weeks, whenever his ice time starts dropping below ten minutes.

His numbers plummet, and he doesn’t score a goal until after Thanksgiving to go with his four assists.

The game before the Christmas break, he’s a healthy scratch.

He sits on the static bike outside the locker room and pedals steadily until he could probably wring his t-shirt out.

-

He flies home on Christmas Eve and meets his sister and her kids at the airport. Her youngest is twice as big as he remembers, but she shrieks with laughter when he hauls her up onto his shoulders. His sister tweets a photo of it later, and he retweets it, gets a half dozen texts about who got the looks in the family.

It’s nice, not being a hockey player for a couple of days. (He doesn’t even really mind being Princess Brandon for a couple of hours at his niece’s tea party. Beats sitting on the bench waiting for a shift that probably isn’t coming.)

-

He’s a healthy scratch the game after the break, too, but plays the game after that.

He doesn’t drop the gloves, but he gets a couple of assists, and he’s slotted into one of the penalty kill units for the first time in a while, so he figures he’s bought himself at least a couple of games.

He ends up falling into a pattern. His numbers pick up, his penalty minutes drop, and suddenly, he finds himself on that static bike again.

He’s getting tired of the same old conversations about energy.

‘Coach, I think scoring a goal might give the team some energy too,’ he says once, and gets benched for three games in a row.

-

He drops the gloves against Chicago, knocks Eager down after only a couple of punches, but the team seems out to get him after that. Bickell tries to send him through the glass at least three separate times. Brandon catches Kaner talking to Bickell on the bench, scowling, and hopes he’s not doing what Brandon thinks he is.

-

Chicago win it in the shootout, JS throwing his catcher as soon as he gets into the locker room.

Brandon showers quickly and doesn’t stop to poke at the bruises coming up on his shoulder, big and purple and shaped like a flower, before throwing his suit on and taking off.

He loiters outside the Chicago dressing room shiftily, well aware he’s probably public enemy number one, and drops his gaze when Eager comes out, jaw swollen.

‘Good hit, man,’ he says, surprising Brandon.

‘What?’ he says, intelligently.

‘You hit like a fucking train. Now I see why they keep you around.’ He holds his fist out for Brandon to knock his knuckles against, and walks off. A couple of guys Brandon vaguely recognises trickle out, but they either don’t notice him or don’t care, and it’s not long before Kaner’s bouncing out of the locker room, chattering away to the infamous Jonny.

‘Boller!’ Kaner shouts, like they didn’t shake hands all of twenty minutes ago, and rushes over. Jonny follows in a much more sedate way.

‘Nice moves in the shootout,’ Brandon says to him. Jonny acknowledges it with a nod.

‘You guys played well,’ Jonny says. ‘Good job tying it up late.’

Brandon grins. ‘So, I’ve heard a lot about you.’

Kaner turns scarlet. Jonny’s eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. ‘Really?’ he asks, smiling faintly.

‘All terrible, don’t worry,’ Kaner manages to say, sounding a little high pitched. ‘All about how you suck and you’re an awful Captain and a worse roommate.’

‘Any of that true?’ Jonny asks Brandon. Brandon laughs.

‘The roommate part,’ he says. Jonny tilts his head in acceptance.

‘Yeah, I’ll take that. I think it’s my cue to leave though. I’ll see you tomorrow, Kaner.’

Kaner nods, glaring daggers at Brandon, and as soon as Jonny’s out of sight he pounces, whacking Brandon repeatedly on his bruised shoulder.

‘You are the worst friend in the entire world,’ he hisses. ‘You’re so buying dinner. And I’m having steak.’

‘Loser always buys dinner,’ Brandon points out. ‘And we’re going to a steak house.’

Kaner keeps glaring. ‘Well,’ he says. ‘Good. And I want all the sides.’

Brandon just agrees. He thinks it makes Kaner even more indignant. He does refrain from ruffling his damp hair as they head out into the Chicago snow though, so really, he’s being the bigger person here.

-

The season is going well. It’s March, and they’re still technically in a playoff spot. After a messy onesided win against the Bruins where everyone on both teams racked up a truly impressive amount of penalty minutes.

Brandon’s boasting scuffed knuckles and a black eye, and he’s been chewing a split lip all game, but he joins the guys when they flood a bar. He’s not one for big nights out, so he mostly sits in a booth with the married guys and laughs at the kids.

It’s late enough in the season that everyone’s tolerance has gone to shit, and they’re playing well enough that no one cares about the optional practice tomorrow morning, Brandon included. He’s three beers in when he gets bullied into getting the next round, despite being the only guy on the table still on his entry level.

‘Too bad,’ Beaucher says, finishing the dregs from his glass. ‘Your turn, rookie.’

Brandon sighs, and gathers the empty pitchers to take back to the bar. He’s piling them on the bar and waiting for a bartender to free up when someone brushes past him, elbowing him in the back.

‘Watch it,’ he says, without any heat.

‘You watch it,’ the guy says in the exact same tone of voice. Brandon turns to look at him, has to tilt his head down. He’s got wild dark hair above a black eye maybe even more impressive than Brandon’s. His t-shirt is baggy enough that it gapes at the collar, and there’s another familiar bruise there. Brandon know those bruises well enough.

‘Hockey player?’ he asks. The guy squints at him.

‘How’d you know?’

Brandon lifts the hem of his shirt to show the same puck shaped bruise on his hip. ‘We match.’

He drops his shirt, but the guy keeps staring. That’s validating. ‘Brandon,’ Brandon offers.

The guys blinks. ‘Shawsy. Uh. Andy.’

‘Buy you a drink?’ Brandon asks, after a glance round at his table. They seem to be ignoring him in favour of yelling at the Russians.

Andy squints again. ‘What, you think I can’t buy my own?’ he asks, drawing himself up to his full height. It’s still a good five or six inches less than Brandon. Definitely a hockey player, Brandon notes, in attitude if not size. He doesn’t admit that he’s also definitely Brandon’s type.

Brandon shrugs. ‘I didn’t say that.’ Andy glares. ‘Where do you play out of?’

‘Niagara IceDogs,’ he admits eventually, so he has to be under twenty, Brandon realises. He wishes that did anything to discourage him. ‘You’re Brandon Bollig,’ Andy continues.

Brandon’s surprised for a second. Andy laughs. ‘You’re in Toronto, dude. Everyone in this bar knows who you are.’

‘Tragically,’ Brandon admits. ‘How cliche would it be to ask if you want to get out of here?’

Andy tilts his head at him. ‘Pretty fuckin’ cliche. Also, kinda forward.’

Brandon shrugs again. ‘I’ve been told I’m not good at subtle. Is that a no?’

It’s a dark bar, but Andy’s eyes flick downwards, first to Brandon’s lips, and then in pursuit of a not very subtle onceover. ‘Sure,’ Andy says. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

-

Brandon has his tongue in Andy’s mouth before he even gets his front door shut. Andy likes to bite; he learns that pretty early on when he nips his lower lip hard enough to draw a bead of blood.

Brandon finally gets the front door shut and backs Andy up against it, boxing him in. Andy’s clinging to him like he’s never going to let go, tilting his head up so Brandon can kiss him just as rough as he wants to.

Andy’s smirking into the kiss, arms wrapped around Brandon’s neck, so he puts his hands into the creases of Andy’s knees and lifts him carefully, pushing him harder against the door. His back doesn’t complain about it, so he just bites at Andy’s narrow jaw as he wraps his legs around Brandon’s waist. Brandon can feel the strength in his thighs.

He carries him through the apartment like that, stopping every few feet to kiss him again, until he’s clutching at Brandon desperately. Brandon doesn’t hook up a lot, but he has a few contacts in a few cities, and he knows from experience that he’s a great kisser, so he puts everything into making Andy desperate before he even really touches him.

He drops him on the bed unceremoniously and strips his own shirt off. Andy goes a little wide eyed. Whatever he’d been about to say is forgotten as his jaw hangs slightly open. Brandon is once again very flattered, and preens a little. He keeps his jeans on for now, and crawls on top of Andy, kissing him again.

Andy melts into his sheets as Brandon rubs the week or so of stubble against the soft part of his throat. His hands are scrabbling at his t-shirt, trying to push it up and off, and Brandon sits back on his heels, lets him tug his shirt off and then he goes to work on his pants, shoving them down past his thighs. He’s not wearing underwear, and he’s mostly hard. Brandon’s young enough that he remembers what being a teenager is like. He puts his hand around Andy’s dick and gives it an experimental jack, rubbing his thumb against the head roughly. Andy whines, and throws his head back.

Brandon files that reaction away for later, and pops the button on his jeans, shuffling out of them in a way that he is painfully aware is not sexy or even vaguely attractive, before he puts his weight back on Andy and rolls his hips into him slowly. Andy puts both his hands on the back of Brandon’s neck and pulls him in for a breathless, messy kiss. Objectively, there’s far too much teeth from both of them, but Brandon doesn’t really care.

‘Oh my god,’ Andy says, and then repeats it. ‘Oh my god.’ Brandon can’t help but grin. He shifts his weight so he can shove one of his thighs in between Andy’s. ‘Fuuuuu-ck,’ Andy grits out, trying to rub off on it immediately.

One of Brandon’s hands is digging into his hip, and he pushes down hard, forcing Andy flat to the mattress. ‘Hey, fuck you,’ Andy starts, until Brandon moves his hand and wraps it around both of their dicks at the same time. They’re slick with sweat already, it’s always too hot in Brandon’s apartment, and so he jerks them both off easily. The closer Andy gets, the mouthier he gets, Brandon finds, spilling all kinds of filth about all the different ways he wants Brandon to fuck him.

Brandon ignores him mostly, because he’d drunk enough that this was never going to last long, and he can feel it pooling in his lower belly. Weirdly, that seems to make it worse, makes him more insistent. He’s flushed from the cheekbones all the way down his throat and chest, although some of that red is probably from Brandon’s beard.

Their foreheads are pressed together as Brandon changes his grip slightly, and Andy’s words make less and less sense. Brandon dips down to kiss him, and hears him come more than anything else, whining into Brandon’s mouth as his hips buck up into the circle of Brandon’s fingers and he comes all over their bellies.

Brandon follows shortly after, quieter, adding his come to the mess between them, and he drops his weight down on Andy, who groans.

‘Sorry,’ he says, and goes to prop himself up again, but Andy grabs at his hips.

‘Don’t you dare move,’ he says, gasping and kind of wobbly.

‘We’ll get stuck together,’ Brandon points out.

‘Don’t care. Just want you to stay there. Just for a bit.’

Brandon shifts a little bit so Andy can actually breathe, but he does mostly lie on top of him for a good ten minutes, until he feels Andy getting hard again.

‘Really?’ he asks, glancing down. Andy shrugs.

‘Wanna fuck me?’

Brandon does, in fact, want to fuck Andy.

-

Brandon wakes up in the morning to an empty bed and a mug of coffee with a post it note on.

sorry curfew had to run

a

Underneath the scrawl he’s printed his phone number carefully.

Brandon looks at it for a long time. He sticks it to his bedside table while he drinks the coffee slowly, and by the time he can see the bottom of the mug, he still wants to text him, so he puts the number into his phone and brings up the message screen.

Hey, it’s Brandon. Last night was fun :)

He scowls at himself and deletes the smiley, then sends it before he can second guess himself.

He showers and makes another cup of coffee, and then his phone chimes again from the counter.

hi!!!  i had fun 2, almost missd my curfew tho. ur a bad ifluence ;)

Brandon is one hundred percent sure this is all a terrible idea.

Don’t blame me for you falling asleep, I tried waking you up and you just laid on me.

this is a filthy lie. i will fight u

Brandon smiles at that and gets on with stripping the sheets off his bed, but his phone buzzes again.

icedogs r playing brampton in a few weeks. wanna hook up again?

Brandon laughs. I’ll see if I can pencil you in. I’m a busy man.

Andy sends him a long string of surprisingly explicit emojis. He’s never going to be able to look at the eggplant emoji in the same light.

-

Brandon has hangover breakfast with Matt and Tlusty, where he devours an entire stack of wholewheat pancakes and turkey bacon, and pretends he’s not supposed to be on the ice.

‘Dude, it’s optional practice,’ Matt says, elbowing him in the side. ‘Stop making the rest of us look bad.’

Brandon throws a chunk of pancake at him. ‘Easy for you to say,’ he says. ‘I’m still trying to crack the roster on a semi permanent basis without punching someone.’

‘Fuckin’ Wilson,’ Tlusty says, mildly, and stabs at his eggs.

‘Fuckin’ Wilson,’ they echo.

-

Brandon’s a healthy scratch for the next game, but he doesn’t find out until after warm ups.

He’s getting real familiar with that one static bike in the bowels of the ACC

-

The Leafs get a couple of nights off, so Brandon decides to go to a bar near his apartment. It’s not that he doesn’t like going out for drinks with the guys, but. Well. It feels like the divide is getting just a little bit bigger every game he misses.

He likes Chemical Reaction. It’s kind of pretentious and a little too punky for Brandon, but they do good beer and cheap shots and the bartenders are always hot and usually willing. He’s halfway through a pint of something light and amber coloured when someone sidles up to him and climbs onto the next stool over.

‘Come here often?’ the guy says, and Brandon’s gaze snaps round.

‘How do you keep getting into bars without getting carded?’ he asks.

‘I’m twenty one,’ Andy says with a grin, and orders a beer.

‘I don’t believe you,’ Brandon says.

‘S’what my license says,’ Andy says, and winks at him. ‘What are you doing here, anyway? Aren’t you too young to be drinking alone?'

Brandon shoves at him. ‘I live three blocks over, and I had a night off. What’s your excuse, why are you in London?’

‘Had a game.’ Andy gets his beer and winks at the bartender in response. Brandon’s appalled.

‘You look remarkably unbruised.’

‘I didn’t get punched in the face. It’s nice to have a game like that once in a while, right?’

Brandon laughs, and finishes his drink, digs in his pocket for a crumpled bill and hands it over to the bartender.

‘Are we leaving?’ Andy says, deliberately wide-eyed over the rim of his glass.

‘I’m leaving,’ Brandon says. ‘You should go back to your boys. The ones pointing and whispering.’

Andy takes another huge mouthful of beer. ‘They can survive without me. I’m coming with you.’

Brandon arches an eyebrow. ‘Are you really?’

-

‘So how old are you?’ Brandon asks, sheet pooled around his hips. He’s sitting up against the headboard, watching Andy get dressed again.

‘Twenty one,’ Andy says absent mindedly, frowning at his torn shirt.

‘Take one of mine, they’re in the top drawer over there. Also I’m calling bullshit.’

Andy looks at him. ‘I am.’

‘Well for a start, you play in the O. So you gotta be under twenty.’

Andy scowls. ‘Don’t you think this is a question you should have asked before you fucked me?’

Brandon shrugs. The sheet shifts as he does.

‘Eighteen,’ Andy admits eventually. Brandon nods.

Andy has one of Brandon’s t-shirts in his hands. He pulls it over his head, but it swamps him.

‘Subtle,’ he says, looking down at himself. ‘I don’t look like I’m doing the walk of shame at three am at all.’

Brandon likes the look of Andy in his shirt more than he should maybe admit. ‘It’s not my fault you’re so tiny,’ he says, grinning. ‘I only have normal person sized clothes.’

Andy scowls. ‘You’re not normal sized, you’re a giant. I am average sized.’

‘Okay,’ Brandon says. ‘If you say so.’ He smirks. Andy throws a shoe at him. It clatters off the headboard and down under the bed.

‘See if I let you fuck me again,’ he grumbles, drops to his hands and knees to reach under the bed to reclaim his shoe.

‘I’m sure you could be convinced,’ Brandon says. He’s still smiling.

Andy huffs, but emerges from under the bed, shoe in hand. ‘You need to clean more often, dude.’

‘I’ll make a note,’ Brandon says, before catching Andy’s wrist and tugging on it gently. He kisses him slowly, fingers still wrapped around the delicate bones of his wrist. ‘Give me five minutes to put pants on, I’ll drive you to your hotel.’

-

Because the universe is laughing at him, Brandon scores the lone Leafs goal in the game where they get mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

He endures the reporters after the game, makes sure Dion isn’t drowning himself in the showers, and puts his suit on silently, tucking the tie into the pocket.

He calls Andy in the car. He knows the IceDogs have a night off. Andy’s soft and sleepy when he answers the phone. ‘Wha?’

‘I’m coming to pick you up,’ Brandon says. ‘We’re getting drunk.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ll see you in an hour. Text me your address.’ His phone buzzes a couple of minutes after he hangs up.

His phone buzzes with another text when he’s halfway there, but he doesn’t check it until he’s parked outside Andy’s apartment building. just saw the news :( were getting the most drunk

I’m outside.

Andy comes out in sweats and a hoody that comes practically to his knees.

‘Is that mine?’ Brandon asks when he gets in the car.

‘Maybe?’ Andy tries. ‘Where are we going?’

‘You’re a sneaky little fucker.’ Brandon leans over the console and kisses him, sinking into it easily. He can do this. There are dozens upon dozens of people who keep telling him he can’t play hockey, that the Leafs can’t play hockey, and maybe they’re right, but he can kiss Andy across the console of his car and make him smile. ‘Let’s go get drunk,’ he says when they break apart.

-

Brandon ends up taking him back to London. The streets are empty, and he’s never been good at speed limits, but it’s still almost one when they get there.

Brandon’s fridge contains three cans of coke, one of sprite, and two (flat) beers.

‘I guess I didn’t account for that,’ he says, rubbing the back of his neck.

‘You’re useless,’ Andy says. ‘Luckily, I am both the brains and the beauty in this relationship, so--’

Brandon looks at him. Andy has one hand in his backpack, frozen.

‘Um,’ Andy says. ‘We don’t have to-- Let’s pretend I didn’t say that?’ He brings his hand out of the bag. ‘Look,’ he says weakly. ‘Vodka!’

Brandon doesn’t say anything for a second. Andy wobbles the bottle from side to side. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘Brandon, I didn’t--’

‘I just drove for two hours in the middle of the night after playing a game to pick you up and bring you back here,’ Brandon says, slowly. ‘I think we might be in a relationship.’

‘I… oh,’ Andy says. ‘Okay.’

‘Is that… okay?’ Brandon says, worried suddenly. He’s gripping the back of one of his kitchen chairs tighter than he means to.

‘I… guess?’ Andy says. ‘I mean, I like you. And you at least tolerate me. I think. I’ve dated people for worse reasons.’

Brandon’s shocked into laughing, and that breaks the weird tension between then. ‘Vodka,’ he decides.

‘Vodka!’ Andy echoes, and cracks the seal, swigging straight from the bottle before hanging it over.

Brandon elects to pour some into a mug, because he’s an adult. The mug has Big Bird on it, because his friends are not adults.

-

Brandon wakes up the next morning with cotton in his mouth and Andy draped over his back like a quilt. A quilt that snuffles in his ear. And possibly drools. Ugh.

They made it to bed at least, but Andy’s still wearing one of his shoes, and Brandon had unbuttoned his shirt but not removed it.

Brandon decides this is all information that can wait at least two hours, and carefully rolls over, dislodging Andy from his back, shushing him when he grumbles. ‘Go back to sleep,’ Brandon says, and Andy does. Brandon joins him minutes later, with him now snuffling into his collarbone, instead of directly in his ear.

-

The Draft is in LA this year.

Andy’s pretending he’s not vibrating out of his skin about it.

It’s hot and sticky in London, and they’re lying in bed together the night before he’s due to fly out. Brandon bites at the meat of his shoulder gently. Andy shoves at him, but says nothing.

Brandon has one hand flat on Andy’s belly. He can feel his breathing, in and out.

‘What if no one picks me again?’ he asks.

Brandon kisses the same place he just bit. ‘You still have a year of draft eligibility after that. You come back to Toronto and have the best fucking season of anyone on that team.’

Andy rolls onto his back and sighs. ‘I hate waiting,’ he says. ‘I just want to know.’

Brandon kisses him again, on the hinge of his jaw this time. ‘You’ll do fine.’

-

Brandon watches the Draft on TV.

He doesn’t hear Andy’s name.

He tries calling him after but his phone’s switched off.

He turns up at Brandon’s apartment two days later, quiet and angry and he pushes Brandon down onto the bed and straddles his hips, fucks himself on Brandon’s dick, and he still doesn’t say anything, but he lets Brandon kiss him afterward, and they pile onto the couch together and watch cartoons for the rest of the afternoon.

-

Brandon’s entry level expires on July 1st. On July 2nd, he signs a four year contract.

-

Brandon buys a house.

The kitchen is as big as the entirety of his apartment. He figures he’s gonna be in Toronto for a while, and he was sick of trying to find parking.

He and Andy christen every room in the house except the kitchen.

‘It’s gross,’ Brandon says, tugging Andy off the counter. ‘I cook in here, I don’t want you getting bodily fluids everywhere.’

Andy pulls a face. ‘Will you make me food then, if you’re not going to fuck me?’

Brandon rolls his eyes, and starts digging through his fridge.

-

They start training together over the summer. Andy goes home to see his parents for a couple of weeks, but he comes back and they work with Paul, Brandon’s trainer.

Brandon gets more and more used to having him around.

-

Andy gets traded to the Owen Sound Attack.

He doesn’t tell Brandon. He finds out when it hits the internet a couple of days later.

Were you planning on telling me? He knows texting is a shitty way of having this conversation, but he doesn’t trust himself over the phone right now.

The reply doesn’t come for a long time. i was trying 2 find the right time

Looks like Twitter found it before you did.

that’s not fair, brandon

Brandon knows he’s being unfair. He knows he’s not really angry at Andy about not telling him. He puts his phone down and goes to the gym instead.

-

Are we going to do long distance? Brandon asks, instead of what he really wants to ask.

wed been doing it 4 2 months be4 the offseson

Yeah, Brandon says. He doesn’t really know what else there is.

-

‘I love you,’ Andy says, the night before he leaves for Owen Sound.

Brandon fucks him carefully. When he comes, he leaves a round bite mark on the pulsepoint of Andy’s throat.

I love you too, he doesn’t say.

-

Brandon throws himself into training camp. It goes well. It’s weird not having Matt and Tlusty around for the first time in three years, but they put him on the third line for the preseason with a guy called Versteeg who came in from Chicago, and he picks up a couple of assists. They play well together, and Versteeg knows Kaner pretty well, so they bond over sharing embarrassing stories. Their center, a kid called Kadri, seems kind of in awe of the two of them knowing Patrick Kane. They both laugh about this until there are tears in their eyes, and Steeger proceeds to tell Naz about the time Kaner tried to get on the ice with his skate guards still on at the age of twenty.

Wilson seems to have given up on telling him to give the team some energy. It’s all going well.

Except he hasn’t talked to Andy since he moved to Owen Sound.

-

Their season starts infinitely better than it had last season, in that they actually win a game.

They win four games, actually, and Brandon records his first three point game against Buffalo.

He googles the Owen Sound Attack to see how they’re doing. Andy’s leading the team in points and penalty minutes. Brandon smiles despite himself. He thinks about texting Andy, but, well. He doesn’t.

-

Brandon spends Canadian Thanksgiving at Kessel and Bozie’s place. They play Halo and order Chinese, and no one is thankful for anything except for how badly Bozie sucks at xBox.

He gets home late and sees a light on that he must have left.

Andy’s asleep on his couch, snuffling into the cushions like he always does.

His face is slack with sleep, but he looks, well, really good. Bigger, Brandon thinks.

He crouches by the sofa and shakes him gently; Andy’s a light sleeper at the best of times. His eyes flicker open and he smiles at Brandon, soft and out of focus with sleep. ‘Hey babe,’ he says, reaching out for him, drawing his thumb across Brandon’s cheekbone. ‘I missed you.’

‘What are you doing here?’ Brandon asks. Andy sits up, yawning and scrubbing at one eye with the heel of his hand.

‘I’m on the lam,’ he says with a lopsided grin. ‘I killed a man, and now the mounties are after me.’

Brandon arches an eyebrow.

‘Okay fine, we’re in town playing the Knights, and we’re playing in Brampton tomorrow, I bailed from the hotel to come see you, I figured you’d be at home practicing your Godless ways on our most glorious of holidays.’

‘Me and a couple of guys were having practice Thanksgiving. Not like I knew I was expecting company,’ Brandon says delicately. ‘You’ll fuck your back up sleeping on the sofa.’

So they go to bed, and they don’t talk about how they haven’t talked since September, and Brandon lets Andy kiss him and tangle their legs together before falling asleep easily.

-

He wakes up before his alarm goes off. Andy is sprawled across the entire bed, and he has all the blankets. Brandon hasn’t missed him at all.

He nudges him awake and they go downstairs for coffee. Brandon leans against the counter with his mug. ‘Are we going to talk about it?’ he asks, neutrally.

Andy pulls a face. ‘I don’t wanna,’ he says. ‘Can’t we just… do this?’

‘What, I don’t hear from you for two months and then come home to find you asleep on my couch, rinse and repeat? Pass.’

Andy stares into his coffee. ‘I wanna do the long distance thing,’ he says. ‘But with like, more talking. Or any talking,’ he amends, when Brandon looks at him. ‘I play in the GTA like a dozen times a season. It’s gonna suck most of the time, but I wanna try.’

Brandon takes a sip of his coffee. It’s too hot. ‘Owen Sound is only a couple of hours away,’ he says. Andy nods. ‘Okay,’ he says, and Andy fuckin’ lights up.

‘Really?’ he asks.

‘Yeah, mutt,’ Brandon says, and then laughs when Andy scowls at him. ‘Yeah, I hear what they call you on the ice. It’s cute,’ he says, and then has to defend his coffee when Andy jumps at him.

-

He sees Andy every couple of weeks after that.

He hasn’t fought yet this season, is playing well with his linemates.

Feels kind of like he’s walking on eggshells.

-

They trade Steeger, and Brandon goes down with a bone bruise on his ankle that night. He fucking hates this sport.

-

They get a new guy from Anaheim when they trade Beaucher, Lupul. He’s distractingly handsome, and asks everyone to call him Loops.

He’s kind of an asshole, but they put him on Brandon’s line for a game his first game back from the ankle injury and Brandon scores a beautiful goal off his assist. Things are looking up, Brandon thinks.

-

Brandon pulls his hoodie closer around him and shoves his beanie over his ears, stalks out into the snow.

‘Haven’t you been living here since you were like eighteen?’ Loops asks him, falling into step behind him.

Brandon glances around, scowls. Loops is wearing a long wool coat and a thick scarf in Maple Leaf blue. He’s appallingly handsome in the dull light from the streetlamp. ‘You’re a cliche,’ he says. Loops grins.

‘But at least I’m toasty warm,’ he says, smirking. ‘Where are we going for dinner?’

Brandon falters. ‘Uh?’

Loops looks at him disapprovingly. ‘Did you forget we had plans? Come on, Bolly, I ditched Lisa to hang out with you.’

‘That’s because you’re an idiot, Lisa is a queen,’ Brandon says, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Loops has gloves the same blue as his scarf. Brandon hates him. ‘We’re not getting dinner, I have plans.’

Loops gasps, puts a hand to his heart dramatically, pretends to be mortally offended. ‘I’m wounded, Brandon.’

‘I’m sure you’ll survive,’ Brandon says, reaches his car, deep in the bowels of the player section of the ACC.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Loops says, melodramatic. ‘You just signed a swish new extension, you can afford all kinds of nice things that I can’t, like warm meals, good beer...’

‘New friends?’ Brandon asks, and clicks his car open.

'You’re so cruel sometimes.’

‘And yet, you’re still here,’ Brandon says. ‘Like a bad smell. Or chlamydia.’

Loops grins. ‘Are you hooking up?’

‘None of your business,’ Brandon says. ‘I’m getting in my car now.’

Loops pouts, but stands back, sweeping his hand grandly.

Brandon’s phone chirps with a text from Andy just as he’s pulling out of his space. whre r u

On my way, brat. Calm down, got waylaid by a buddy.

:(

Brandon sighs, fond, and tosses his phone in the cupholder by his gearstick, pulling out of the space properly. Loops waves cheerily as he revs his engine at him.

-

Andy grins at him from the wrong side of a black eye when Brandon lets himself into the apartment.

‘What the fuck did you do?’ Brandon asks, rubbing his hands together to get the feeling back in them and toeing his shoes off, leaving them tumbled together on the mat. When he’s close enough, he grips Andy’s jaw gently, tilts his head towards the light. The bruise is blue on the outside and red on the inside, deep enough that it’s gonna colour for weeks, bad enough that his eye is half swollen shut. ‘Who did you piss off?

Andy scowls. ‘Tinordi’s got a big mouth and nothin’ to back it up with,’ he says, sullen.

‘Looks like he’s got enough to back it up with,’ Brandon chides. ‘Did you ice this?’

Andy drops his gaze. Brandon takes it as the no it is, and heaves himself off the couch. His back aches.

‘They’re all assholes on that team,’ Andy says, when Brandon returns with a bag of frozen sweetcorn wrapped in a handtowel.

‘I played on that team,’ Brandon says evenly, pressing the icepack onto the side of Andy’s face. He hisses.

‘Case in point,’ Andy says, smirking.

‘Brat,’ Brandon says. He’d feel bad for swiping him when his face is all messed up, so he files it away for later.

‘I watched the game,’ Andy says, shifting so he’s leaning against Brandon. Brandon puts an arm around him automatically.

‘Oh yeah?’ Brandon asks.

‘Doughty’s an asshole,’ Andy announces. ‘You should have kicked his ass.’

Brandon laughs. ‘I was busy playing hockey, kid,’ he says. ‘Thanks for the tip though. I think you fight enough for the both of us.’

Andy sticks his tongue out. Brandon takes the icepack off, runs slow and gently fingers over the cold skin. Andy’s hands make fists. Brandon apologises, presses a soft kiss to the edge of the bruise.

‘Are you hungry?’ he asks. Andy nods, and grins. ‘I’ll make food, and you can tell me everything I did wrong tonight, then.’

-

Andy falls asleep early, always does, snuffles and makes content little noises buried against Brandon’s side. Brandon runs the flat of his hand up and down his bare spine, counts the knobs of it.

Brandon’s always had trouble sleeping, more so now that his back’s acting up again. He lies flat on it and stares at the ceiling and waits for the Advil to kick in enough that he can doze off for a couple of hours. He hates being twenty three and feeling like an old man at the end of the day. It doesn’t help that Andy’s barely nineteen, young and enthusiastic and hasn’t yet had a serious injury.

Andy shifts against him, puts a hand flat on Brandon’s sternum and snuffles again. Even when he sleeps, he’s never completely silent. Brandon’s not sure why he thought he would be.

-

It’s the worst Leafs season they’ve had since Brandon was drafted.

It’s barely March, and they’ve been mathematically eliminated.

Phaneuf made a speech after the loss. Brandon didn’t really listen to it.

He plays the rest of the games on autopilot. Scores a goal in Detroit. Starts a fight in San Jose. He’s getting really tired of losing.

-

Sam and Johnny get back for the offseason a couple of days after the end of the season. PK and Stammer are lucky enough to play for teams that are capable of making the playoffs, so it’s just the three of them for the start of summer, plus Andy, once the Attack get knocked out of the running for the Cup.

Sam and Johnny have been together since before either of them were drafted. Brandon thinks it’s supposed to be a secret, but. They’re not subtle, so when he introduces them to Andy, he’s not worried.

‘Christ, Bolly, he’s even younger than me,’ Johnny says. ‘Cradle snatcher.’

Brandon punches him in the arm. Hard.

Sam wisely gets in the middle of it. Luckily Andy finds the whole thing hilarious.

Sam finds Brandon later, when Andy and Johnny are chirping each other. Turns out they know each other vaguely, played against each other a couple of years ago when Johnny was still in Oshawa.

‘He’s a good kid,’ Sam says. Brandon flinches. ‘I didn’t mean it like that and you know it, Brandon. Stop being so sensitive.’

Brandon pulls a face, and apologises.

‘Told anyone else yet?’ Sam asks, sitting down beside him. Brandon shakes his head.

‘It’s not gonna last,’ he says. ‘Kid’s gonna get drafted in a few weeks, god knows where he’ll end up.’

‘Maybe here,’ Sam offers, ‘or somewhere near. Me and Johnny make it work.’

‘You and Johnny have been together since you were thirteen,’ Brandon says.

Sam shrugs. ‘Doesn’t mean it’s not hard work.’

Brandon sighs.

-

Andy goes to the Blackhawks.

He calls Brandon tripping over all his words he’s so excited, and it’s infectious, to start with. He’s just so happy that any team took him that it takes him a few days to realise the distance between Chicago and Toronto.

Brandon doesn’t want to remind him, but when he thinks about it that night, it’s hard to share Andy’s excitement.

-

‘We should break up.’

Andy looks at Brandon like he’s been shot. ‘Why?’ he demands.

Brandon is lying on his bed watching Andy pack. ‘Because we can’t do this long a distance,’ he says.

‘Fuck you, yes we can,’ Andy says. Brandon is suddenly, brutally reminded of how young he is.

‘I don’t think so,’ Brandon says. He picks at a loose thread on his shorts.

‘Fuck you,’ Andy says again. ‘What, so you’re quitting?’

Brandon shrugs. ‘I don’t want to fight about this.’

Andy laughs. It’s not a pleasant sound. ‘You thought I wasn’t going to fight you about this?’

‘Last time you left--’ Brandon starts, and realises immediately he’s said the wrong thing.

‘Last time I left? I got fucking traded, asshole. And this time I got drafted. It’s not about me leaving you.’

‘I know,’ Brandon tries to say. ‘But, Andy. We play in different conferences. I would get to see you once a year. It’s not like the distance between London and Owen Sound. It’s an eight hour drive.’

‘I would have waited,’ Andy says suddenly. He doesn’t sound angry. He sounds impossibly sad. ‘I would have waited as long as you asked me to.’

‘I know,’ Brandon says. ‘That’s why I’m not asking you to.’

Andy slams the door on the way out of the house. The mirror in his hallway wobbles and then falls. He’s picking broken glass up for an hour afterwards.

-

Training camp is training camp. Brandon gets put on a line with Naz and a rotating group of right wings, and goes through the motions.

His back doesn’t hurt. He figures that’s something.

-

He gets in a fight in the season opener against the Habs. Start as you mean to go on, he figures.

PK skates past, taps on the window of the penalty box. ‘We’re getting dinner after this game,’ he says. Brandon scowls.

-

‘You’re moping,’ PK says over the biggest glass of wine Brandon has ever seen.

‘No I’m not,’ Brandon says automatically. PK just looks at him. ‘I’m not,’ Brandon protests. ‘To mope you have to have been in the relationship for longer than five minutes.’

‘You guys were together for eighteen months,’ PK says incredulously.

Brandon looks at his meal.

‘You’re an idiot,’ PK says. ‘Call him and apologise.’

‘Why do you assume it was my fault?’ Brandon tries asking, but PK just looks at him again, one eyebrow raised, and Brandon sighs. ‘You spend too much time with Carey Price, he’s a bad influence.’

‘Yeah he’s really rubbing off on me,’ PK says innocently, and then takes a swallow of wine. ‘Call your boyfriend.’

-

Andy doesn’t pick up.

Brandon can’t say he’s surprised.

-

The Marlies play the Icehogs at home.

Brandon bullies some of the guys in going to the game, to support the kids, he says.

Andy flies across the ice in warm ups. Brandon pretends that he doesn’t see Loops watching him, and proceeds to get mildly drunk on overpriced beer.

The Marlies win, Icehogs forming a steady stream to and from the penalty box all game. Brandon watches Andy’s head drop to the boards when the final whistle goes.

-

‘We’re getting dinner,’ Loops says on the way out of the arena. ‘Just you and me, Boller.’

‘Why do people keep saying this?’ Brandon asks, but he gets into the passenger seat of Loops’ car anyway.

‘The pleasure of your company,’ Loops deadpans, and pulls out into the street.

The restaurant only serves wine, and there are no prices on the menu. It’s a very Loops type of place, which of course means Brandon is completely out of his depth.

‘You miss your boy,’ Loops says, once they’ve ordered.

‘I-- my boy?’ Brandon repeats.

‘The little dark haired one with the attitude that you used to bring to bars sometimes and hope no one noticed,’ Loops says conversationally, smiling brilliantly at the waitress when she brings the wine. ‘I thought he was just some guy. I didn’t realise you were dating a player. Did he get traded, or?’

‘...Really? You noticed?’

‘I’m going to ignore that tone of voice. Let Uncle Joffrey give you some advice.’

‘Only if you never say the words ‘Uncle Joffrey’ again,’ Brandon says, nodding his thanks to the waitress.

‘Deal. Call him. Apologise. Fly to fuckin’ Rockford if that’s what it takes.’

‘Why do you care?’ Brandon interrupts.

Loops looks at him, wide eyed. ‘Because I’m your friend.’ When Brandon says nothing, he adds, ‘Okay, fine, you play like shit when you’re sad and you’re making Naz sad too, and the whole line is suffering for it. You know the entire third line hasn’t had a point in like four games.’

Brandon pulls a face at his wine. ‘He won’t talk to me,’ he starts, but Loops cuts him off.

‘No, sorry, don’t want to hear about your emotional turmoil, I’m out. I don’t get paid enough for this, kid.’

Brandon scowls at him. Loops puts his hands up in surrender. ‘What? I told you what to do and I’m paying for dinner. What more do you want from me?’

-

Andy’s number is dead. He must have gotten a new phone.

Brandon sighs, and calls Kaner.

Kaner is drunk. This is going to be like herding cats.

‘Bolly!’ Kaner starts with. ‘My best friend Bolly. Is Gags there? Tell him I say hi!’

‘Sam’s in Edmonton, Kaner,’ Brandon says. ‘Who do you know that’s playing in Rockford this season?’

‘Uhh, Pirri, Mo, why?’

‘I need one of their numbers.’

‘You’re no fun tonight,’ Kaner grumbles. ‘You got all sad since Shawsy-- oh.’ There’s a pause on the other end of the line. ‘Are you going to bully my rookies into giving you Shawsy’s number?’

‘No,’ Brandon says, unconvincingly.

‘I don’t believe you,’ Kaner says. ‘I’ll just give you Shawsy’s number. There will be no scaring of rookies under my watch.’

‘You seem very sure that I won’t scare Andy,’ Brandon says.

‘He’s never been scared of you,’ Kaner says. ‘Plus, he’s all sad, and kinda angry.’ He drops his voice into a stage whisper. ‘He misses you.’

‘Who’s there, why are you whispering?’ Brandon asks.

‘Oh… no one,’ Kaner says. ‘I just didn’t want anyone to overhear.’

‘You didn’t want the empty apartment to hear you tell me that Andy misses me,’ Brandon confirms.

‘The walls are sneaky,’ Kaner says. Brandon despairs, but he does get Andy’s new number, so. Kaner’s not so bad.

-

Andy sounds confused, and kind of blurry when he answers the phone. ‘’lo?’

Shit. Brandon looks at the clock. ‘Hello?’ Andy says again, sounding more with it, this time.

‘I’m sorry,’ Brandon blurts.

‘...Brandon?’ Andy says. He sounds confused again.

‘I’m sorry I said we should break up,’ Brandon says, before he gets too freaked out and hangs up. ‘It was a dumbass idea and I’m sorry and can we at least be speaking to each other again?’

‘Brandon, it’s one am. I’m on a bus. I have a game tomorrow. You have a game tomorrow.’

‘I’m just… I’m really sorry,’ Brandon says again.

‘Can we talk about this tomorrow?’ Andy asks, and then yawns.

‘Will you pick up, if I call tomorrow?’

‘Sure, Brandon,’ Andy says. He sounds so tired. ‘I’ll pick up when you call me tomorrow. Goodnight.’

‘Goodnight,’ Brandon says to the dialtone.

-

Andy does actually pick up the next morning. He still sounds tired, but Brandon hears him excuse himself, and listens to the background noise of hockey players eating breakfast fade away.

‘What,’ Andy says. He doesn’t sound particularly forgiving.

‘I’m sorry,’ Brandon says.

‘Yeah, you said that. Three times.’

‘I think we should reconsider the whole long distance thing,’ Brandon says.

Andy laughs. ‘Oh my god,’ he says. ‘You’re serious?’

‘Yes?’

‘You’re incredible,’ Andy says. ‘How do you know that I even want to get back together with you? How do you know I’m not seeing someone new?’

Brandon winces. ‘Kinda putting all my eggs in the ‘you miss me as much as I miss you’ basket.’

‘Risky basket,’ Andy says. He doesn’t sound mean with it, though. Almost fond, Brandon thinks?

‘Yeah I’m starting to realise that.’

‘Might as well keep the basket,’ Andy says. ‘It’s… not wrong.’

‘Can we lose the basket metaphor?’ Brandon asks. Andy hums his approval. ‘I love you. Still. I was an idiot.’ He pauses. ‘It’s been brought to my attention that I’m a sad sack of shit without you.’

‘I can believe that,’ Andy says. He sounds teasing, though. Brandon’s hopeful.

‘Take me back?’ Brandon asks. There’s silence on the other end for a long time.

‘Okay,’ Andy says. Brandon’s grinning despite himself.

‘Now, when you say okay,’ Brandon says, ‘you mean…?’

‘Yeah, idiot. You got me,’ Andy says. ‘Don’t fuck it up again.’

-

Brandon has three days off. He skips the optional practice and flies down to Illinois.

Andy’s sharing an apartment with a couple of guys on the team. Andy sexiles both of them before Brandon’s flight even lands.

‘I promised them we wouldn’t have sex on the couch,’ Andy says, taking Brandon’s bag from him and dumping it in his room. ‘They said nothing about the kitchen though,’ he says, waggling his eyebrows.

‘No,’ Brandon says.

‘But it’s not your kitchen,’ Andy whines.

‘I am not having sex in this or any kitchen. Bodily fluids, Andrew.’

‘I hate you,’ Andy says, pouting. ‘You never do me anywhere fun.’

‘Wanna fuck in one of your roommates' rooms?’ Brandon asks.

Andy grins, and strips his shirt off.

-

Long distance sucks.

Brandon knows this.

They’ve had extensive discussions about how much long distance sucks during the weekend that he spends bumming around Andy’s apartment. He meets his roommates, Smitty and Mo. They’re good guys. They don’t ask many questions. About him, anyway. Mo asks him about the best way to avoid getting punched in the jaw in a fight.

Eventually though, he’s got to go back to Toronto. He has a game tomorrow.

Andy drives him to the airport and kisses him over the console.

‘The Leafs play the Hawks the day before the Christmas break,’ Brandon says. ‘You got plans for the holidays?’

‘My plans involve your dick. And maybe your tongue.’ Andy kisses him again, bites him roughly when he pulls away.

‘Brat,’ Brandon chides. ‘I’ll see you in a month or so.’

‘Don’t miss your flight,’ Andy says. ‘My roommates are bored of having you around, I don’t want to tell them your dumb ass is stuck here for another night.’

Brandon’s two hours early for his flight anyway. He gets through security and texts Andy when he’s settled in a chair with his book, and keeps texting him right up until take off.

-

The Leafs get slaughtered.

Brandon doesn’t even register a shot on goal. He knows Andy is in the audience, though.

There’s a text waiting for him at the first intermission. u all suck.

Brandon tells him to fuck off and gets on with his job of being yelled at by Wilson.

Brandon gets in a fight in the second period, skates to the penalty box with his arms in the air and blood on the white of his jersey. He grins viciously at the camera and knows it’s showing on the screen above him.

-

That night, he drives back to Rockford with Andy and sucks his dick until the split in his lip opens up again, and Andy’s eyes are hot and dark and wanting.

He fucks Brandon, something they almost never do, pushes bruises into the crease of his hip and leaves bite marks down the knobs of his spine until Brandon’s shaking.

It’s pretty close to perfect, Brandon thinks afterwards, with Andy asleep on his chest.

-

July 20, 2014

‘You’re the fucking worst,’ Andy says, tinny over the phone.

‘You’re a liar,’ Brandon says. ‘You love me.’

‘That’s entirely up for debate,’ Andy says, and then pauses. ‘You’re not fucking with me though?’

‘Nah, babe,’ Brandon says. ‘Not fucking with you. I’m coming to Chicago. Two years, three mil.’

‘God,’ Andy says, voice tight with emotion. ‘You’re a dumb fuck. Toronto would have paid twice that.’

‘Maybe I want a chance to play for the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks,’ Brandon says lightly. ‘I hear they have this real asshole playing for them though, kinda small, they call him Mutt, probably because of his fucked up ear and how he likes to chase cars...’

‘Fuck you,’ Andy says. ‘We don’t want you. I’m gonna get you traded to Edmonton.’

‘You wouldn’t do that to me,’ Brandon says, laughing. ‘You’d miss me.’

Andy hums. ‘Maybe.’

‘Happy birthday, babe,’ Brandon says.

‘I can’t believe you didn’t fucking tell me,’ Andy says.

‘That would have ruined the surprise,’ Brandon says. ‘You better leave for the airport, if you miss your flight home your mother will kill me, and also you won’t be able to help me pack my house up.’

‘You know how much I love packing,’ Andy says, dry. ‘I suppose I can’t let mom murder you before I even get my birthday sex though.’

‘That would be a tragedy,’ Brandon says. ‘Go catch your flight. I’ll come pick you up from the airport.’

‘Love you,’ Andy says. ‘I’m really glad we got our shit together,’ he says, like he does at the end of every phone call.

‘Love you too,’ Brandon says. ‘See you soon.’