The thing is, they both know it’s coming. You can talk the good talk about ignoring rumors and focusing on your game as much as you want, but at the end of the day, it’s inevitable.
From the kitchen, Brandon hears Nick whine his name. “Come on,” Nick says. He hears a thump and a roll behind him; Brandon looks over his shoulder to see Nick’s shoe lying in the middle of the floor.
“Just because you’re leaving for New York doesn’t mean you get to be a messy dickhead,” Brandon says. He grabs two beers anyway, fingers wrapped around the long necks, and kicks Nick’s shoe along in front of him.
“I think it does.” Nick stretches one hand overhead, swiping wildly until his fingers brush against the bottle. “I think it means I get to do whatever I want on my last night here.”
The reminder takes Brandon’s breath away. “Let’s not talk about that.” He sits down in a rush, legs sprawling in front of him.
His foot brushes against Nick’s calf. Nick doesn’t pull away. Nick’s never pulled away.
“We have to talk about it eventually.” Nick rests his fingers on Brandon’s knee, stilling his movement.
Brandon swallows heavily, then sets the beer bottle down on the floor. “But not now.” He angles himself towards Nick. He doesn’t want to talk about it now, or ever.
Brandon rests his head on Nick’s shoulder.
It’s not the beer getting to him; it’s just that this is his favorite place to be, pressed tight to Nick’s side, and he’s not going to have this again. Not for a very long time.
Brandon feels the air go out of him in a rush; the harder he tries to stop thinking about Nick leaving, the more he thinks about it. He twists, fumbles his phone out of his pocket.
“What’re you doing?” Nick murmurs against Brandon’s hair.
“Taking a picture.” He brings up the camera app, holds the phone above them. “I’m not going to post it anywhere, I just.” He presses the button. “I want it, for me.”
Their images appear on the screen, Nick’s chin atop Brandon’s head, Brandon’s free hand curled into Nick’s shirt. The way things should be.
Nick reaches up and brushes the tip of his index finger across the screen. “Text it to me,” he says after a long silence. “I want to remember, too.”
“I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
Brandon scrubs his free hand against his face, then turns the phone on speaker so he doesn’t have to hold it up anymore. “Sort of.” He stares down at the screen, at the photo of Nick and him on the display, and smiles. “I should get up and eat anyway, it’s no big deal.”
“Game tonight, yeah?” Brandon grunts in agreement. “Home opener, right?”
“Yeah.” Brandon snuggles down into his blankets, tugging them up around his chin. “You remember that?”
“Hard to forget.” Nick’s quiet for a while. “It’s ours, too. Our home opener, I mean.”
Brandon yawns. He should be trying to get up, but talking to Nick has a way of soothing him, of making him not want to get out of bed again.
It used to be that Nick was right next to him, huddled under the blankets together. Now, all Brandon’s got to hang on to is his own pillow.
“It’s a back to back for you, right?”
“Now, why do you know that?” There’s a hint of laughter in Nick’s voice. Brandon can’t help but to smile.
“I maybe have your schedule on my calendar,” Brandon admits. He’s glad that Nick can’t see him, because he can feel his face heating up.
“Huh.” Brandon can hear the rustling of sheets in the background and he wonders if Nick just woke up, too. “That’s… Brandon.”
“Like I’m not going to follow your season?” Brandon’s fingers twist in his blankets. “It’s important.”
The phone goes staticky as Nick exhales. “I didn’t know if you would.”
“Leds.” Brandon sits up in bed and clutches his phone in his hands, like that’s going to make a difference. “Nick. Nick. All because you’re not here…” He sighs and falls back to the bed with a thump. “Nothing changes. Nothing changes, just distance.”
Nick doesn’t respond; they both just breathe into their phones for a while.
“Why did you call?” Brandon asks eventually.
“I wanted to hear your voice,” Nick answers, almost reluctantly. “Home opener, but this isn’t home yet, you know.”
Brandon doesn’t know, not really. Chicago felt like home even when he was shuttling back and forth to Rockford. Home has always come easy to Brandon. Youngstown, Ann Arbor, Saginaw, Rockford. Home was where hockey was.
For a while, home was where Nick was, too, but it’s not that easy anymore.
“Well, I miss you, too,” he says instead, and that seems to satisfy Nick.
“Thirteenth.” Brandon doesn’t need to ask what Nick’s talking about. It’s the only thing they’ve been looking forward to since Nick first left. “You coming over, or am I dodging curfew?”
“We’ll grab dinner, figure it out from there?”
“You’re on.” Brandon wraps his blankets around his shoulders and hugs the corners to his chest. December is so very far away. “I’ve gotta go. Have a good game, Leds.”
“You too, Saader.”
Brandon ends the call, then sinks back down underneath his blankets. He doesn’t need to get up, just yet.
Shawzy drapes himself all over Brandon and starts pawing one hand against his beard. Brandon tries to shrug him off, but Shawzy is determined, as always.
“What’s up with this, Saader?” he asks, fingers stroking lightly against Brandon’s chin.
“It’s a beard.” He twists out from under Shawzy’s arms and moves down the bench, trying to get back his own personal space, even though Shawzy’s never believed in any of that.
“But, like. There’s so much of it.” Shawzy reaches out again, but Brandon ducks out of the way.
“That’s because I’m a real man, unlike you.” Brandon pushes himself off the bench and tosses his dirty towels in the laundry cart. “You’re just jealous.”
“Nah.” Shawzy spreads out on the bench, taking up the space that Brandon vacated. “But there’s a lot going on there. We’re trying to figure out why you’re, you know, all beardy.”
Brandon rolls his shoulders. “Do I need a reason? I’m just trying it out. You assholes always get on me when I shave, anyway.”
Shawzy holds his hands up and wiggles his fingers in the air, like he’s stroking Brandon’s beard from afar. “It’s just … you’ve got this sad lumberjack vibe going.”
“Sad…” Brandon shakes his head. “Sad lumberjack, fuck you, Shawzy. It’s just a thing, it’s just a beard.”
“Uh huh.” Shawzy’s fingers keep waggling in the space between them. “You keep telling yourself that.”
All of the TV cameras around mean that Brandon has no privacy. It’s weird, because it’s not like he isn’t used to cameras. The BHTV folks are always around filming, but that’s different. Brandon’s gotten to know them, they’re -- they’re not friends, exactly, and they’re not quite team, but they’re family in the same vague way as the rest of the front office people.
The Epix crews are different. They make Brandon nervous, itchy under the collar, and he hides from them as well as he can.
They can say he’s shy, they can say he’s aloof. They can say whatever they want about him, but his business is his.
With the cameras occupied -- he’s sure Shawzy’s doing something lewd to keep their attention -- Brandon sneaks a glance at his phone and smiles.
“What’s that face for?” Ben asks, eyeing Brandon across the room.
Brandon shrugs. “Oh, just… stuff.” He slants his eyes towards the cameras. “I’ll tell you later.”
Brandon’s got an address scribbled across the back of one hand and a six-pack of Nick’s favorite beer clutched in the other. He feels strangely apprehensive as he shows his ID to the building’s doorman. He feels even more strange as he waits for the elevator, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
It’s no different than Chicago, but it is, because in Chicago, he never felt longing.
on my way up, he texts just as the elevator door closes, and he smiles at his own reflection.
Nick is waiting for him whenever Brandon steps out of the elevator. He’s got his foot shoved in the door behind him and he looks -- he looks calm. He looks calm and self-assured and completely in control and Brandon feels weak in a way that’s almost become foreign to him in the past few months.
This is his Nick, but it’s not -- this is a Nick who is finally playing the minutes he deserves, this is a Nick who has new teammates and a new family, this is a Nick who is going to tear it up in blue and orange. Brandon feels off-balance until Nick smiles, and he remembers: this is a Nick who whispered, over and over when he thought Brandon was sleeping, I don’t want to go anywhere you aren’t and I would stay, for you, if I could and I love you, I love you, I love you. Just words whispered in the dead of night against the back of Brandon’s neck while the city spins madly on twenty floors down, but it still sends a chill down Brandon’s spine.
Brandon rolls his shoulders, shoving all of that off. “Hey,” he says, offering Nick a wave. “I brought a present.” He lifts up the six-pack and wiggles it.
“Nice,” Nick says, but he’s not even looking at the beer; he’s looking right at Brandon.
They stare at each other on the threshold to Nick’s apartment. It’s been so long, and Brandon keeps cataloguing all the things that are different.
“Will you just come inside already?” Nick asks. He pushes the door open with his foot. Brandon stares as Nick extends his leg back up behind him, toes pushing back against the door. He swallows heavily, rooted to the spot until Nick clears his throat.
“Sorry.” Brandon blushes, because he’s not a kid anymore, he shouldn’t find himself so distracted by stretches, but it’s just been so long.
Brandon curls up on the couch with his head in Nick’s lap. “Good dinner,” he says. “Thanks for feeding me.”
“You’re a growing boy, someone has to take care of you.” Nick’s hand lands in Brandon’s hair, and Brandon closes his eyes and snuggles closer.
“My brother feeds me,” Brandon points out. “And there’s the meal service.”
Nick isn’t, not in a food sense. The meal service blows Nick’s meals out of the water. But Nick -- having Nick, jostling for space in the kitchen with Nick, sharing the same beer because tomorrow is a game day -- makes things better.
“You are.” Brandon pushes one hand up Nick’s shirt, fingertips pressing lightly against his abs.
Nick shivers. “Your hands are cold.”
Brandon grins, a sly twist of his lips. “You could help warm them up?”
Nick’s fingers come to rest on Brandon’s cheek. “I bet you say that to all the boys.”
Brandon turns his head and presses a kiss to Nick’s fingertips. “Only the cute ones.”
“What if I just didn’t go back?” Brandon snuggles under the blankets and presses himself closer to Nick.
“I think someone would notice,” Nick says. “I don’t think I want Tazer on my doorstep because his winger’s gone AWOL.”
Brandon shudders. “That would be a disaster.” It would; he has visions of Jonny giving him the silent treatment, something worlds worse than any captainly chewing out. But it’s a nice fantasy, staying in bed with Nick, in the space they’ve made their own for just right now.
Nick curls one arm around Brandon’s waist. “We’ll make it through,” he says. Brandon rolls onto his side and tucks himself against Nick. “There’s always summer.”
“Shh.” Brandon jabs backwards with an elbow, lightly catching Nick in the ribs. “Don’t say the s-word. I can’t think about the s-word.”
Brandon is rarely superstitious except in this one thing: nothing exists past April. As far as he’s concerned, he can think of nothing past April 11. Everything else has to wait.
He still wants to be playing hockey in June, but he won’t let himself think about it.
(The roar of the crowd, the inexplicable weightlessness of the Stanley Cup hoisted over his head, the blur of endless celebrations and parades and parties: he can’t think about any of it.)
Nick presses a kiss to the back of Brandon’s neck. “There’s Christmas break, maybe. And we swing through in March.”
Christmas is impossible, and March is too far away, but it will have to do. “We’ll make it through,” Brandon says, grabbing Nick’s hand and lacing their fingers together. “Maybe I can just bring you back with me.”
Brandon feels Nick’s lips curve into a smile against his neck. “Brandon.”
“I know. Just let me pretend.” Brandon squeezes Nick’s hand.
“If I curl into a ball, I might fit into your gear bag. Leave your shinpads and shit behind, you’ve got more back at the UC.”
Brandon likes it when Nick plays along. “We’ll just stuff you into someone else’s jersey. No one will notice.”
“I mean, as long as it’s not Seabs’ jersey.” Nick noses along Brandon’s neck; Brandon tips his head to the side. “Then someone might notice.”
“Not if I ask really, really nicely.” Brandon closes his eyes and focuses on Nick: pressed up against his back, arm heavy across his waist, beard scratching at his neck.
Nick’s teeth graze against Brandon’s neck. “What else would you ask really nicely for?”
Brandon sighs. “Anything.” His fingers tighten around Nick’s. “You.”
“You’ve got me,” Nick says, barely above a whisper. “Always.”