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put it in the rearview mirror

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Brendan shows up at Alex's apartment early, just before the sunrise.

"Rise and shine, motherfucker," Brendan says. He's hyped up, the way he gets before big games, a restless ball of energy. Alex actually prefers the version of him that drags his feet in the mornings, sleeping through two alarms and stumbling out of bed, too sleepy to be an annoying shit.

"I don't know why I agreed to this," Alex mutters as he holds the door open to let Brendan inside.

Brendan snorts. "Don't even front, Chucky. You're not good at it." He pauses for a moment and does a once over of Alex's apartment. "Wow, it looks different when it's like--"

"Empty?" Alex fills in. The walls are bare. Most of the furniture is on a moving truck in the middle of-- who knows where. On its way between Montreal and Florida-- or to be more precise: Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Like this, it does resemble a shell, hollowed out and emptied.

"Yeah," Brendan says. "I guess it hadn't felt quite real until now."

Alex shrugs. It's been real for him since the moment he was called into Bergevin's office a week after locker cleanout. As a rule, Alex doesn't pay attention to trade rumors, but there had been a looming sense of inevitability all year, and missing the playoffs didn't help. A disappointing end to a disappointing season. Heads were going to roll. Alex's just happened to be the first one on the chopping block. "Come on," Alex says. "Let's get the fuck out of here." He grabs his packed bags off the ground and follows Brendan down to the garage.

They're taking a rental car borrowed under Brendan's name, because this was Brendan's idea and most of Brendan's planning. Brendan chose a very boring and practical sedan, because Brendan is still a cheapskate. The seats remind Alex of his family's car, the one that they drove from Chicago to Sarnia when he was sixteen. That one had always smelled like stale coffee and the cloyingly fake lemon air freshener, and the window on Alex's side always got stuck halfway down. The rental car still has that plasticky new-car smell, and presumably all the windows still work.

This early in the morning, the roads are pretty empty. Brendan doesn't put on any music and Alex doesn't either. The sky has brightened. The early June morning casts sunlight into the car. Alex pulls off his light jacket as they leave Montreal behind them. It's not far enough into the summer that it's unbearable yet, but the car will probably turn into an oven because Brendan hates using the AC.

The density of the city fades into a long stretch of highway. Soon enough, they'll be in Vermont. Soon enough, Alex will leave Canada behind for good.

---

They get across the border without much incident. The immigration officer spends an extra long time examining Alex's American passport after hearing Alex speak, but he eventually shrugs it off and lets them through.

The Vermont countryside doesn't look any different from Quebec's, but the road signs and license plates have changed. There's a lot less French. Alex doesn't do a lot of roadtrips -- he's much more comfortable flying where he needs to go -- and airplanes exist as a transitional space between one country and the next. Alex doesn't know what to do with this sudden shift.

"Excited to be back in your homeland?" Brendan asks. He hums a few bars of the Star Spangled Banner.

"I'm more excited by the thought of you shutting up," Alex says.

Brendan's grin somehow gets wider. "You're seriously the worst American."

"Better American than you are," Alex mutters.

That makes Brendan laugh. "Like I'd even want to be."

They get lunch at a Thai restaurant with decent Yelp reviews in Burlington, Vermont, but it's nowhere near as good as anything they could find in Montreal. Brendan makes fun of Alex getting the same Pad See Ew he always gets when he goes to an unfamiliar Thai restaurant. Alex makes fun of Brendan's inability to use chopsticks.

"You suck," Brendan says. "Let's get some ice cream afterwards."

The ice cream store that Brendan finds is more of a stand than a store. A bored teenager mans the window in a pastel blue apron. The flavors all have cutesy names like 'Muddy River' and 'Tangerine Delight,' and Brendan asks to sample all of them before making his final decision. He snaps a picture of the menu, which has cutesy drawings to go with the cutesy names and sends it to one of his sisters, who is apparently the sort of person who would enjoy that sort of thing.

The ice cream is delicious -- rich and creamy and packed full of flavor. Alex ends up eating half of Brendan's cup -- peanut butter with cookies mixed into it -- and Brendan eats half of Alex's -- coffee with a caramel swirl. Brendan doesn't even put up a token protest, the way he would have done years ago. He just hands over his cup and steals the cup from Alex's hand in one smooth motion.

"I can't believe you picked this one over the birthday cake funfetti one," Brendan says around a spoonful of Alex's ice cream. "You have the worst taste." The picnic table they're sitting at outside the store has been painted a pale pink. Alex pulls the brim of his cap low over his eyes so that he doesn't have to squint in the sunlight.

"Like you're one to talk," Alex says, even though the peanut butter works way better than it has any right to.

Brendan snickers and stands up, stretching his arms over his head and arching his back. Alex is at eye level for where his shirt rides up. It doesn't show much skin -- Brendan is still short, after all -- but there's still enough to be a little distracting. "Come on," Brendan says. "Let's blow this popsicle stand."

"Sure," Alex says, standing up as well. "Let's."

---

It'll be another three hours to Boston, and despite Alex's offer to switch, Brendan insists on driving them all the way there. ("You can get the next leg," he says, and Alex shrugs as he pulls open the passenger side door.)

The countryside they pass is green grass, green trees, green hills in the distance. Sleepy New England towns on the road signs. Alex closes his eyes, lets his head slump against the window. The sun is warm on his face.

When he opens his eyes again, his mouth tastes gummy, his brain is a bit fuzzy, and the sun has been replaced by gray clouds.

"Look who decided to join us," Brendan says as Alex sits up, rubbing at his eyes. "Driving is really boring, you know. I was tempted to put some Nickelback on."

"Nickelback sucks," Alex says, because he feels like he's supposed to. He can't have been out for more than an hour, so Brendan has no room to whine to him about it.

"Excuse me if I don't take musical advice from someone who listens to Russian techno." Brendan's smirking, the way he does when he's happy to be teasing Alex all day long. Alex hasn't seen it in a while. Brendan and his girlfriend split at the end of the season, and since then, all his smiles have been frayed at the edges.

Alex shrugs. "It's good for getting pumped."

"I guess you're going to have to teach the Panthers enough Russian to understand all the curse words, then," Brendan says. He snaps his mouth closed afterwards as if discussing Alex's new team is verboten. As if Alex hasn't spent the last few weeks getting his shit in place: packing up his apartment, finding a new place to live in Fort Lauderdale, sending Anna ahead with his car, talking to his new management, his new coach, his new captain, his new teammates.

"I think when you spend long enough in the league, you pick it up naturally," Alex says.

"Probably," Brendan says, "but you were the one who taught me." He sounds almost wistful.

Brendan's Russian lessons -- what little there were -- usually happened in the locker room before practice. Brendan would bug Alex for a new word each day, and Alex could never quite tell if he was mangling the pronunciation intentionally or not. "Nikita can teach you more," Alex says.

The look Brendan gives him to that is indecipherable. It's kinda pinched. Not exactly happy, but not exactly unhappy, either. "Yeah, he could."

---

They get to Boston in the early evening. There's still plenty of light out, and it gives the whole city a warm golden glow. Most of Alex's experience with the city involves the distance between the airport and the hotel and TD Garden. A club or a restaurant here or there. His strongest impression of the place is a mostly-hostile home crowd, black and gold jerseys that always brought on a wave of nostalgia for his time with the Sting, a seven-game second-round series with ugly tensions on both sides. The next time he comes back to play here, he'll be wearing different colors, surrounded by different teammates.

Brendan's picked out a hotel that's on the other side of the city from their usual one, close to Fenway Park, where they have plans to go see a baseball game tomorrow. Alex trails along after Brendan and tries to stifle another yawn. They're sharing a room again, for the first time in years, because Brendan thought it was ridiculous for them to get separate rooms, no matter how much Alex insisted that he was fine paying for it. ("Come on, Chuck. We know we won't murder each other, no matter how much we end up thinking about it.")

Once they're in the actual room, Brendan does what he always does and sets up his luggage in the corner, pulls out his bag of toiletries to dump it on the bathroom counter. Alex claims his bed-- the one closer to the window. A wave of nostalgia washes over him as Brendan flops face down onto his bed, limbs spread wide.

Alex had a crush on Brendan during rookie year. Everything had been new and exciting and more than a little crazy, and Brendan had been in the center of that, on the wild ride with him. Brendan always had a huge asshole grin on his face, and he was always giving Alex shit, and his physical conditioning, even at twenty, was ridiculous. It had been nice, getting attention from someone else on the team that wasn't vaguely condescending. Alex had fallen hard and fallen fast, but he never did anything about it. He's always had a decent sense of self-preservation, and for all that Brendan has never bothered to act his age, there were times when he would do something or say something would make Alex feel young and sheltered and ignorant -- just another eighteen year old kid who hadn't moved out of his parents' house yet.

After time, the crush faded, becoming nothing more than a wistful echo of itself. They were still friends, still teammates. They hung out at each other's houses and went to bars and insulted each others' haircuts. Alex watched as Brendan dated people. Alex dated people himself.

And if every once in awhile, those old teenage feelings reasserted themselves, well, Alex was very good at ignoring them.

"I wanna nap," Brendan says, mostly muttered into his pillow. His t-shirt is stretched taut across his shoulders.

"I don't care as long as you don't set your shitty alarm," Alex says. "What did you want to do for dinner?"

Brendan turns his head to the side. "Seafood? I'm sure we can find a decent place on short notice."

"Sure," Alex says.

Brendan grins at him, the sloppy, sleepy one Alex hasn't seen in forever. "Awesome," he says, and then he closes his eyes, going out like a light.

It leaves the hotel room feeling stiflingly quiet, even when Brendan starts mumbling into his pillow. Alex grabs his phone and disappears out into the hallway so he can give Anna a call.

She picks up on the third ring. "Sasha!" she says. It's soothing to hear her voice, one of the few constants in Alex's life. "Have you made it to Boston yet?"

"Yeah, we're here now." Alex curls his bare toes into the carpet.

She hums in agreement. "Florida is lovely, as always. Went to the beach. Watched some beautiful shirtless men play volleyball."

Alex laughs. Anna goes to the beach to see and be seen, and she always reports back if anything interesting happened. "I'm sorry I missed it," he says.

"It sounds like you haven't killed Brendan yet," she says. "I would have put money on you only making it to Boston before giving up and buying a ticket straight here."

"Gally's not that annoying," Alex says, though he'd never, even on pain of death, admit that to Brendan's face.

"Right." Anna's voice softens, losing some of its teasing edge. "You know you don't have to stick around just because he wants you to, right?"

Alex swallows. He knows, but there's knowing and there's knowing. "How's Diego?" he asks instead.

Anna could call him out for changing the subject so quickly, so she fills him in on how well his cat is settling into his new place instead. "He misses you, of course," Anna says. "He's never liked me as much."

"I don't think he's forgiven you for that week you had to make him take his medicine for the intestine thing."

They chat some more about their friends in Miami, most of whom are excited at the thought of Alex living nearby over the course of the season. "I have good feelings about this," she says. "Not all change is bad. You have to embrace what life gives you."

"You're just happy that you don't have to live through another Montreal winter."

"There are definitely upsides," she says with a laugh. There's a pause. "I do think this will be good for you."

"A change of scenery," Alex says, echoing what his agent said, what a whole bunch of people have said. A change in scenery isn't going to fix his shitty season, isn't going to make him Patrice Bergeron or Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews or whoever the fuck people want him to be when they look at him.

"Something like that," she says.

---

Brendan's awake when Alex walks back into the room. He's yawning a little as he pokes at his phone.

"Catching up with your sister?" he asks.

"Yes," Alex says. "She's watching out for Diego for me."

"How is the little guy doing? I think I'm going to miss him more than I miss you." A fond smile this time, eyes bright and teasing.

Alex snorts. "He's fine, and he's definitely not going to miss you."

"Cats," Brendan agrees, a little mournfully.

"No," Alex says. "It's just you."

"That can't be true," Brendan says, "because you're going to miss me, right?"

"Definitely not," Alex says, lying through his teeth.

"You're literally the worst." Brendan's smile doesn't fade in the slightest.

The words on the tip of Alex's tongue are, and the entire city of Montreal agrees with you, but that's a little too self-pitying, even for the mood he's in right now. "And since I'm the better one out of the two of us, what does that make you?"

Brendan throws a pillow at his face. It misses and catches Alex in the shoulder instead. "I'm hungry," he says.

Alex laughs. "Okay, fine. You're always more annoying when you haven't been fed."

"Fuck you, too," Brendan adds, cheerfully.

They get Brendan his seafood, and that makes Brendan happy, because Brendan is ridiculously easy to please. He likes food and baseball and small furry creatures and wins. Most of those are simple enough for Alex to provide, but that last one-- well, it was a rough season. He knows it's not just on him. They struggled as a team. They failed as a team. But Alex has sat through enough lectures about living up to his potential that it's not that simple.

"You're not even listening to me, are you?" Brendan asks in the middle of some rambling about the beginning of the Red Sox season.

"I would if you had anything interesting to say," Alex says. They're standing on a street corner, a few blocks away from the hotel. Pedestrians hustle by, happy to ignore them, though as they left the restaurant, someone yelled, "Fuck the Habs!" out of their car window with a strong, distinct, Boston accent.

Brendan shakes his head. "Nope," he says. "You can't insult your way out of this one. Something's bugging you."

Alex shrugs. "I'm sorry I couldn't be better," he says. Night after night, he'd go home and imagine what he could do differently. If he'd hustled just a little bit faster. If he managed to get just a little more height on the puck. Not that it helped any. No matter how hard he worked, how much time he spent on the ice or in the gym, he was never quite good enough, never quite what people wanted him to be.

A furrow appears between Brendan's eyebrows. "Tell me you haven't been reading your own media."

Alex rolls his eyes, because it wasn't like he was new to Montreal and how it worked. "I know better than that."

"Whatever," Brendan says. "Fuck 'em." He nudges Alex's arm with a closed fist, but he's just being nice. Brendan had a great season.

Alex takes a deep breath. "Yeah, what's done is done, right?" He needs to put that season in the rear view mirror, just like everything else. October is only a few months away, and he's going to have to be ready for it.

"How about this:" Brendan says, "no hockey talk for the entirety of this trip."

Alex would object. He maybe should object. Hockey is literally their lives. But it's also nice to think that they could live in a hockey-free bubble, at least for a little while. "Okay," he says.

Brendan smirks his usual shit-eating smirk. "Cool. We should raid the minibar and watch something shitty on Pay-Per-View. Just like old times."

"You're an idiot," Alex says, but he still lets Brendan lead them back to the hotel.

---

Alex wakes in the middle of the night. He's in that in-between place between buzzed and sober, and it takes him a few seconds to realize that he fell asleep on Brendan's bed in the middle of the movie -- some sort of slow-paced Oscar-bait historical drama with a lot of sweeping vistas.

The television is glowing softly. It's still showing the pay-per-view menu. Brendan's sock-clad feet are pressed against Alex's shins. It's the only place where they're touching.

He rolls over, manages to fumble the remote control off the bedside table and turn the television off. Brendan's in deep enough sleep that he's silent, not even a mumble or a snore coming out of him. It reminds Alex a bit of the nights when they would go out with Nate or DSP or Prusty, crashing afterwards so that they could get enough sleep before practice the next morning.

Or even further back than that, when they were both rookies, too young to drink in the US and having to rely on their teammates to acquire them booze. Plenty of nights of Brendan giggling into Alex's shoulder because his alcohol tolerance was for shit, smelling like booze and sweat and terrible body spray, and Alex still wanting him anyway.

Alex crawls back into his own bed, wriggles his way underneath the covers, and falls asleep.

---

The next morning has an inauspicious start, what with the blare of Brendan's alarm going off. It still resembles a hammer getting whacked against the inside of Alex's skull. Somehow, Brendan still manages to sleep through it, the fucking asshole.

"I thought we agreed that you'd turn that stupid thing off," Alex grumbles over breakfast. He's not quite hungover, but he's not exactly not-hungover either.

"And here I thought we agreed that you'd be less of a grumpy asshole in the mornings," is Brendan's entirely too cheerful response.

They spend most of the morning training, less because they're worried about muscle and fitness atrophy and more because a whole day cramped up in a car makes them restless. The hotel gym is nothing to write home about, but they do go out running through the fens that Fenway is named after. The summer heat hasn't quite asserted itself yet, so the air is still spring-pleasant. Cool but not cold. Brendan is running his mouth again, trying to explain something else about the storied history of the Red Sox.

"So what you're saying is that I should be rooting for the Yankees today," Alex says, interrupting his train of thought.

A passing jogger in a Red Sox cap gives Alex a poisonous look as Brendan sputters in protest. But Alex is used to being hated in Boston, so it's not a big deal.

"I can't believe you have the guts to tell me that I have bad taste. C'mon, man. The Yankees? I expect better from you."

"Have you considered the fact that you're just wrong about everything?" Alex asks, because the outrage on Brendan's face is the most entertaining thing he's seen in weeks.

"I am never letting you spend time with any of my children," Brendan says.

---

Despite Alex's trepidation, the baseball game is actually quite fun. Fenway Park itself is mobbed with people and the energy of the crowd reminds Alex of home games in Bell Center against the Leafs, everyone fired up and dialed in. The game itself is pretty relaxed, especially compared to the speed of a hockey game. Alex can tune it out if he needs to and not feel like he's missed anything, letting the rise and dip in the noise level tell him if he needs to be paying attention.

Brendan is, of course, delighted by all of it. His smile stretches from ear-to-ear, somehow even wider and brighter than usual. Alex ends up buying him crackerjacks and overpriced beer, because it's easy to make Brendan happy, and Alex-- Alex likes being the one who makes him happy. Alex likes the way Brendan glows a little bit when his smiles are genuine and not just because it's a habit or he wants to be annoying. Alex likes the feeling of owning just a little bit of that happiness.

They ask one of the other fans to take a picture of the two of them together. It's not a great picture. They're cast in shadow with the baseball field lit bright behind them, but Brendan posts the picture to Instagram anyway and tags Alex in it. Teaching @agally94 how to enjoy good sports, the caption reads.

The Red Sox win the game, though it becomes close in the last inning when the Yankees manage to hit a homerun over the Green Monster with a man on base. Thankfully for the hometown fans, the Red Sox pitcher manages to strike the next batter out, closing out the inning. The stands erupt into a raucous mix of cheering and jeers. Brendan even gets to his feet and lets out a whoop of joy, pumping his fist in the air. Alex tries not to be too obvious about staring at him, but this trip is making him feel greedy for all the things he won't get to keep. So he watches Brendan, and he laughs when Brendan throws an arm over his shoulder, and he lets the feel of the win (even if it's not his win) wash over him and through him.

---

"Will you stop messing around and just fucking pick something?" Alex snaps. They're in the middle of Connecticut somewhere, and because it's June, there's still a little bit of light in the sky. Alex keeps his eyes intent on the road, watching as the headlights of the passing cars flick on. Brendan can't seem to settle on music he likes and is pushing buttons at random on his phone from the passenger seat.

"Nothing seems to be capturing the mood quite right," Brendan says. He switches from a warbling singer-songwriter to an upbeat hip-hop song.

"I swear, if you don't settle on something, I am going to pick for the both of us," Alex says without even bothering to glance in Brendan's direction.

Brendan makes a disgusted noise, "Ew, no. You always play everything too loud."

Alex rolls his eyes. "Just because you don't care about being able to actually hear the music you're listening to--"

"Just because I want to have functioning ears at the age of forty--"

They end up bickering until they get to New Haven and stop for pizza. Only Canadian manners prevents Brendan for continuing his pathetic attempts at chirping Alex with his mouth full. Alex gets to laugh at Brendan when Brendan manages to dribble pizza sauce onto his white t-shirt. Brendan flicks his straw wrapper at Alex in retaliation. Alex just laughs harder.

The rest of the night is about driving the rest of the way to New York. Alex takes that shift as well. Brendan falls asleep as they pass by Stamford. He tends to curl up when he falls asleep on transportation -- Alex has seen him do it on plenty of busses and airplanes before -- and cars are no different. He has his knees tucked up, his temple resting against the glass of the passenger window. His face glows orange in the passing streetlights. Alex doesn't let his eyes linger. He turns back to face the stretch of the road ahead of them and he keeps driving.

---

By the time they reach New York, it's pushing midnight, and all Alex wants to do is sleep. Brendan wakes pretty much at the exact moment they cross over into Manhattan, and with his weird, unerring ability to tell when Alex is feeling tired and irritable, starts running his mouth about the last time he was in the city for a non-hockey-related visit -- something about the subway system and a related anecdote about Central Park? Alex is grateful for the company, for Brendan's attempts to keep him awake and focused as he navigates New York traffic, but he also kind of hates Brendan at the same time.

It's easy to see why New York is known as the city that never sleeps. The streets are still crowded and busy, and the entire city feels lit from the inside out. Alex loves Montreal at night -- he'll miss it now that he's gone, he knows -- but it's a softer sort of energy, distinctly European in its influences. New York at night is all hard edges, brash and unashamedly American.

The hotel that Brendan picked is on the southern end of Manhattan, where the neat street grid devolves into chaos. Alex is relieved when he can finally turn the car over to the valet. By the time they get to their room, he's pretty much dead on his feet. He picks the nearest bed and lets himself flop onto it, and he barely gets his shoes off before he falls asleep.

---

It's a small mercy that Alex is not woken up by Brendan's alarm the next morning. Instead, he has to deal with Brendan hopping onto his bed and shoving a paper bag in his face.

"Morning, Chuck," Brendan says. "Time to wake up and smell the bagels."

Alex rolls over, turning away from Brendan, which manages to buy himself another five seconds of sleep. Brendan responds by poking Alex in the shoulder repeatedly.

"Fuck off, Gally," Alex mutters. He flails one hand out and manages to smack Brendan in the face.

Brendan lets out an indignant squawk. "What did we say about you being a grumpy asshole in the mornings?" Brendan asks.

"We didn't agree to anything." Alex says as he pulls the comforter over his head. "You just decided that without me."

"Whatever," Brendan says, "we've got more important decisions to make right now."

"I refuse to believe that," Alex says into the cotton sheets. "I don't care about your made-up decision."

Brendan laughs, and Alex doesn't need to see him to know exactly what shade of shit-eating his grin is right now. "Nope. We're in New York, and you know what that means, right?'

Just on principle, Alex refuses to give him an answer.

Of course, Brendan just barrels ahead without him. "It means that we have to settle the battle of the bagels once and for all."

Alex peeks out from underneath the covers. As expected, Brendan is smirking as he unloads two bagels, both in that thick New York-style, loaded up with cream cheese.

"What, no comparison Montreal bagels?" Alex asks. "You are so bad at this."

"This was the best I could do on short notice, okay? I literally decided to do this ten minutes ago. You're the lazy bum who has provided zero bagels."

Thanks to Brendan's ability to be irritating no matter what the situation, Alex does feel a little more awake. He sits up, throwing the covers off and then claiming one of the bagels before Brendan can say anything.

New York bagels are yeastier than the Montreal variety and the cream cheese spills out of the edges with every bite he takes.

Brendan makes a displeased noise. "Nope, conclusion reached. Montreal bagels are far superior."

Alex shrugs. "These pretty good." He likes all bagels. These aren't the ones Anna or his mother would pick up, freshly baked, after home wins, but they're still delicious. There's still something comforting about them.

"The worst," Brendan says. "Have I mentioned that lately? That you're the worst? These are only acceptable because they're as much cream cheese as they are bagel."

"I like it," Alex says. He takes another bite and tries not to smear cream cheese all over his face.

"Ugh," Brendan says through a mouthful of bagel --- apparently he's too horrified by Alex to be polite about it. "The. Fucking. Worst."

---

They take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It's a cloudy day, but it's warm and a little humid. The breeze out on the water smells like salt, and it makes Alex yearn for the beach during the summer, even if that's where they're headed.

The good weather means that the ferry is packed full of people, mostly tourists who are speaking in a wide range of languages of accents. Alex can pick out the Russian easily enough, can muddle through understanding the Italian, and even recognizes the Chinese and the Spanish even if can't understand it. There's even one couple talking animatedly to each other in French, the sound of it triggering a surprising wave of disorientation in Alex, even if he can't tell whether or not it's Quebecois-French or French-French.

The sight of the Statue of Liberty is immediately recognizable, even all the way back on shore -- familiar to Alex from cartoons and postcards and stock photography. The magnitude of it doesn't really assert itself until they get closer, just how huge, how real it is up close.

They make a circle around Liberty Island, and Brendan lets out a low whistle as they squint to look up and up and up at the statue. Brendan says, "The French do sure know how to make a statue, huh?"

"The French?" Alex asks.

Brendan points at an informational placard that explains that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French.

"Huh," Alex says.

Brendan shakes his head. "You Americans, so proud of a statue that you didn't even make."

"One of the official languages of your country is French, and the French never bothered to give your country a gigantic, awesome statue, so what does that say about you?" Alex puffs out his chest a little, showing off the Team USA logo that's emblazoned on his shirt. It felt appropriate to wear it today.

Brendan rolls his eyes. "We'll still beat you at the next World Juniors," he says.

"Fuck off," Alex says.

---

The Statue of Liberty is as nice as Alex suspected it would be, but what he's not expecting is how it would feel to walk through Ellis Island. To read the immigrant stories and stare at the black and white photographs and stand in the middle of the registration hall and to feel the faintest, distant connection to this place, to these people.

Alex's own immigration story is nowhere near as fraught as any of these ones: crammed into ships, temporarily detained for quarantine reasons, names butchered out of carelessness and indifference. But it is-- there was a time when Alex was asked to choose where his loyalties lied in a very real way. His parents sat him down and asked him who he wanted to represent in international competitions, and Alex-- Alex remembered stories that his mother would tell him about the United States, the place he was born, a nation of immigrants, a citizenship he will never lose unless he gives it up.

Alex had always loved the idea of that, an identity that he could claim entirely for himself regardless of the number of other countries he lives in. There hadn't been any choice at all.

Brendan, in a sudden burst of awareness or empathy, manages to dial back his usual level of annoyance from 'leaf blower outside your window for hours on end' to 'weird itch on the back of your neck.' He doesn't try to rush Alex through the exhibits, and he doesn't glue himself to Alex's side the way he has all trip. He'll show up every once in awhile to check on Alex, but then he'll wander off again, content to let Alex do his own thing.

On the way back, while they're sitting on the upper deck of the ferry, watching as the Statue of Liberty once again recede into the distance, he turns to Alex and says, "That place really got to you, huh?"

Alex shrugs. He's not sure he has the words in English or Russian to explain it.

"You know, even with all the shit I give you," Brendan says, "you are really fucking American, Chucky. You know that, right?" He nudges Alex's foot with his own.

"Yeah," Alex says, swallowing around the lump in his throat. "Thanks, Gally."

When they reach store, Brendan buys him a cheap, plastic Statue of Liberty souvenir from a nearby gift shop. Alex pretends like he's offended by Brendan's taste, but Brendan grins the entire time like he knows exactly how full of shit Alex is, which is a lot.

---

They could do the usual New York nightlife thing after being tourists, find a club that will let them in for free, drink and dance with the beautiful people of the city, but they've done that often enough after Rangers away games, and by unspoken agreement, they're going to skip as many of their usual haunts as possible.

Instead, they go to the seediest dive bar they can find, the kind that has 70's wood panelling and pool tables and thick Noo Yawk accents. It's not technically a sports bar, but they do have a Mets game up on the TV, much to Brendan's delight. If anyone recognizes the two of them, no one mentions it or lets on.

Alex leaves Brendan at the bar with his game and goes off to play a few rounds of pool against one of the regulars, a guy with a salt-and-pepper beard named Bob. Alex tries not to be a sore loser about getting schooled in all of them, but he knows he has a shit poker face, and Brendan even stops by the pool tables to laugh at him. Bob has wild stories about New York back in the 80's, like haggling with leather-and-studs punk over a parking spot or fights between homeless guys on the subway. He gets all animated when he tells them, too, and Alex ends up with his sides hurting from incredulous laughter.

When Alex decides he's done with both pool and drinking mediocre beer for the night, he finds Brendan chatting with a couple of other guys at the bar, both of whom are clearly entertained by Brendan's stories about his middle school baseball escapades and Brendan's obvious Canadianness. Alex joins in the conversation, mostly to interject with some color commentary every time it seems like Brendan is getting into a groove, but the other guys drift off when the Mets game is over, leaving Alex and Brendan alone all over again.

Alex isn't drunk. At worst, he's a little buzzed. Brendan, true to usual form, is pretty sloshed after only a few beers. Of course, this means Alex is put in charge of getting them both back to the hotel, because they have a long day of driving tomorrow.

"I'm really fucking hungry," Brendan says when they're halfway back. He's half-slumped on Alex's shoulder. It's not uncomfortable or anything, but Alex does wonder what it looks like from the outside, whether or not they look like a couple or if it's obvious that it's one guy dragging his drunk friend home.

Alex rolls his eyes. "We can get room service or something when we get back."

"But I'm hungry right now." Brendan whines like a ten-year-old. He slumps harder against Alex's body, breathing wetly against Alex's neck.

They find a bodega that's still open this late at night. Nice enough, even if it is a bit dingy, with flickering fluorescent lights. The cashier briefly looks up from her phone as they come in, but she seems to decide that they're not any sort of threat and ignores them. Brendan's takeout container ends up loaded with way way too much greasy and salty Chinese-ish food from the buffet bar, but it's not Alex's stomach that's going to complain in the morning.

Once that's taken care of, Brendan munches on dumplings with his bare hands as they finish the rest of the walk back to the hotel.

"You're so gross," Alex says to him.

"Like you're any better," Brendan says as he takes another bite.

---

For all that Brendan is a lightweight, he's also not that susceptible to hangovers, which is the only reason Alex trusts Brendan to handle the driving for the next leg of their trip, taking them through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and into Virginia for their longest day of driving to date. Brendan has somehow managed to find a country station, so there's a bunch of mournful warbling with guitars coming from the radio as the urban density of Manhattan transitions into long stretches of busy highways.

It's the first time since they left that Alex feels the full force of their isolation, that he won't be able to escape Brendan's company to hang out with Patches and they won't get interrupted by Jo with an inane question about mouthwash and Carey won't just be around the corner if they need something. It's just him and Brendan and the road in front of them.

Alex glances over at Brendan, who is still focused on driving. He's attempting to grow facial hair, or at least, isn't shaving, and it's as ugly as it always is. But Alex still feels an urge to touch it, to feel it prickle against his palms. He wants to make Brendan laugh and to mess up Brendan's hair and to taste the skin at the swell of Brendan's Adam's apple. Those old rookie feelings are definitely back in full force, much to Alex's consternation.

"You're awfully quiet over there," Brendan says. "You want to share with the class?"

Alex turns to look out the window, at the landscape of green trees, which is somehow both the same and different from the other landscapes of green trees they've driven by already. He could be honest, could try to have a real, serious conversation with Brendan about his stupid feelings, or he could-- "I was thinking about how you are incapable of growing reasonable facial hair and yet you keep trying to anyway. This isn't as bad as that dead rat you like to wear in November, but it's still ugly as fuck."

"I'm not the one who decided to grow a beard just because I wanted to stop looking like I was sixteen," Brendan protests.

"At least I can pull it off," Alex says. "You look like you should be warned off from hanging around primary schools."

"Dude, when your go-to insult is 'you look like a pedophile' maybe you should get better insults."

"I think it's probably worse to look like a pedophile, but that's just me."

Brendan flips Alex off without even looking in his direction, and Alex only manages to hold a straight face at Brendan's annoyed scowl for about two seconds before dissolving into giggles.

---

They pass through Washington D.C. around lunchtime, but don't stop there. Like many of the other cities they've been to already, it's a place that Alex has spent time in while on the road with the rest of the team. He's done the tourist things a few times -- gone to museums, stared at national monuments -- but this time, they're just passing through.

They get a brief glimpse of the Washington monument in the distance, looming over the horizon.

"Do you think every country needs a giant penis in their capital city or is it just yours?" Brendan asks.

Alex throws a peanut out of his bag of trail mix at Brendan's head. It manages to hit Brendan's ear, and Brendan smacks Alex's shoulder in retaliation as Alex smirks at him.

They eat McDonald's for lunch ("Putting those endorsement dollars to good use," Brendan says), even though it pales in comparison to the ones they have in Montreal. Alex never thought he'd actually ever miss McDonald's poutine before, but yet here he is. Brendan happily chows down on his Big Mac.

Alex takes on the driving after lunch. It starts to rain when they cross the border into Virginia, light at first but getting stronger the further south they go, until it splatters loudly against the windshield. The wipers squeak a little at first, but then it settles into a comfortable thud-thud-thud. The clouds are thick and gray. All around them, car tail lights glow red.

Brendan's face is doing a thing that's halfway between a frown and a smile, like even his usual sunny disposition can't quite counteract what shit is going on in his head. So Alex ends up asking him to explain what happened in the latest (last?) season on Scandal.

Unsurprisingly, Brendan lights up at the chance to talk about the show, and he launches into a long winded explanation that Alex only understands about half of.

"Wait," Alex says, "so the president isn't the president anymore, and his ex-wife is now the president, and Olivia -- despite having caused the divorce by having an affair with the president -- is now working for the ex-wife as her Chief of Staff?"

"Yes," Brendan says, clearly relishing Alex's confusion. "And then Olivia orchestrates the assassination of a foreign leader because she's worried about peace accords."

"Right," Alex says. He can feel his forehead furrowing. He watched some of season one when it first came out, but now he's just hopelessly lost.

Brendan laughs, and it's good to hear it in the quiet, contained space of the car. It's good to be the cause of it even if it's entirely at Alex's expense. "Once you grow up, you might be smart enough to follow complicated plotlines, buddy," Brendan says.

"Maybe once you grow up, you'll stop watching soap operas like a little old lady."

"Hey, little old ladies are awesome," Brendan protests.

"I'm glad you found a group of people who can make you feel tall," Alex responds.

---

All in all, it takes them about nine hours altogether, including breaks, to reach the border between Virginia and North Carolina. It stopped raining a while back, and the sun has peeked out just as the day is starting to fade. There's a gorgeous sunset on the horizon as Brendan tells Alex into a Motel 6, the sky painted in pinks and oranges fading into blues.

"I refuse to believe that even you are this fucking cheap," Alex says. He eyes the other vehicles in the parking lot. Some of them have rust stains. Others have bumper stickers declaring a love of hunting. Almost all of them are twice the size of Alex and Brendan's modest sedan.

"It's part of the experience, Chucky," Brendan explains. "We can't go on a road trip without at least one thoroughly mediocre motel."

"Fine," Alex says, because Brendan is proud and beaming and smug, and it's a better look on him than Alex will ever want to admit. He follows Brendan into the squat building. It doesn't look worn down or anything. It's just small compared to the place they stayed in while in New York.

The woman at the front desk barely seems to pay any attention to them as she hands over a set of keys and tells them their room number. The room is pretty much exactly what you'd expect: small and shabby, but still serviceable.

"I get first shower," Alex says, because he's pretty sure he smells like he's been trapped in a car all day.

"Yeah, sure," Brendan says, because if there's one thing they've learned not to get into stupid arguments about, it's roommate logistics.

The shower is small, and the water pressure is shit, but the water temperature is fine, and Alex can feel some of the tension of driving for so long slide off his shoulders. He wonders, briefly, if there's a decent gym anywhere near here. His legs want to -- need to -- move after being cramped up sitting for so long.

When he leaves the bathroom, Brendan has already claimed his bed, has already changed into a pair of shorts and a Habs t-shirt, has already decided to ignore Alex in favor of futzing around with his phone.

Alex drags his overnight bag onto the free bed, but when he sits down on it, the bed collapses underneath him.

"Jeez, Chucky," Brendan says, giving Alex a raised eyebrow and his most infuriating smirk. "Maybe we shouldn't have gone to McDonald's for lunch."

Alex flips him off. "Yeah, laugh it up, because this means I'm sharing with you."

"What?" Brendan squawks. "We can just go to the front desk and ask for a new room."

Alex snorts. "Come on, it's only for one night." He's still only in his towel, and he's exhausted, and the last thing he wants to do is try to drag anything out of the lady at the front desk again. This is a bad idea, he knows. His feelings for Brendan are a mess right now, but most of Alex's feelings that are a mess. He's just been good at ignoring them for now. They're about to get messier once they reach the state of Florida, and he wants-- he wants to not have to worry about that here, where there are no hockey fans and no hockey reporters, and the entire country of Canada is 1000 kilometers away.

Brendan eyes Alex warily, though for some reason, his gaze doesn't quite reach Alex's own. "Fine," he says.

Alex pulls on a pair of sweats as Brendan takes his own shower, considers grabbing a t-shirt as well, but it has gotten warmer the further south they go, the air thick with humidity, and he hates sleeping with the AC up too high. He leaves the shirt off. He sleeps only in his boxers during the summers in Miami anyway.

"Decided that you're too good for clothes now?" Brendan asks, one eyebrow raised, when he comes out of the bathroom. There's something weird about his expression. Alex can't quite place it. Brendan's smiling, of course, and his hair is sticking up in the way it does when he just rubs a towel over it and doesn't bother combing it down afterwards, but he's staring at Alex like he's trying to bore a hole in Alex's head, but Alex doesn't think he'd find anything interesting there.

"Fuck off," Alex says.

Brendan snorts, but he gives Alex a friendly smack on the back of his head as he walks by.

The bed really isn't big enough for both of them, all jokes about Brendan's size aside, but it's not so small that they're forced to cuddle or anything. Alex does spend an entire minute staring at the breadth of Brendan's shoulders, though, thinking about what it would be like to wrap his arms around them, to curl in close and feel the solid weight of Brendan's body against his own. Alex shakes that thought off as soon as possible. No point in torturing himself.

---

That night Alex sleeps badly and lightly. He dreams of a rink, the puck on his stick, but every time he skates forward, the net gets further and further away. And when he looks down, he sees he's wearing sandals, but he can still skate on them for some reason. He does, trying to get closer and closer to the net, but he can't make his hands take the shot, and the puck refuses to leave his stick.

He comes awake all at once, his eyes flying open. There's a bit of light out, but the sun hasn't risen yet. Alex feels restless, a need to pack, to do something with his hands, with his body. Brendan's got his arms wrapped around one of the hotel's lumpy pillows, murmuring in his sleep about cheese. Alex should wake him, but he's still smiling a little in his sleep, like his face really is stuck like that. Alex doesn't want to disturb him.

Without anything else to occupy his time, Alex pulls on a t-shirt and goes for a run. There's not much in the way of sidewalks, but the streets are empty at this time of day. The air is pleasantly heavy in Alex's lungs. His legs feel something close to relief at the chance to move like this. His mind clears, to the place a good workout always gets him. All he has to care about right now is keeping his legs and body going forward. Everything else can wait.

Once he's a little bit worn out, he heads back to the hotel, and the exhaustion feels good, too. A flood of endorphins that helps everything else feel a bit less-- a bit easier. Brendan's still asleep when Alex lets himself into the room, so Alex goes and takes another shower, rinsing the sweat from his body. He takes a moment in the bathroom after the shower to trim his beard, which has been getting a little unruly while on the road.

It's still quiet when he comes out, which probably means that Brendan didn't bother setting his alarm. The smallest of mercies. Alex settles onto his side of the bed and takes the time to catch up on all the communication he's been missing out on. E-mails. Text messages. Instagram and Facebook. Even a little bit of Twitter. Emelin is asking about coming down to Miami again for off season training. For all they're on different teams now, it would be nice to see him again. Nail bugging Alex about visiting him at his Colorado home. A couple of messages from his new teammates about what his plans are for the summer. An invite to a stragglers house party that Alex gratefully accepts.

When he looks up, he sees that Brendan is awake, blinking, sleepy-eyed from the bed. "Whatcha up to, Chuck?" he asks.

Alex shrugs. "Just getting my plans for the summer sorted out. Some of the guys are putting together a cookout for next week."

Brendan's face does another thing that Alex doesn't understand. Not quite a frown but not-not a frown either. "Right," he says.

"It should be fun," Alex says, because he has nothing else better to say. "They seem like-- they seem good."

Brendan is quiet (shocker) for a long moment before he speaks again. "It's just weird hearing you say that and not have it mean us," he says.

"Yeah," Alex says. "It's a little weird for me, too. That's just the business, right?" Brendan's already been through this with Gorgie and Prusty and Nate and DSP and PK. He should be an expert on this by now. Alex had known that he was on the market, had known that it was just a matter of time. It wasn't something that anyone talked about in the locker room, but it was in the air. Everyone knew.

Brendan sits up. "Yeah, but you were-- you were the one who got into this with me. I didn't think they'd ever actually--" He grimaces for real now, his face twisted up, and Alex hates seeing it, but he doesn't know how to fix this, how to fix any of it.

Alex shrugs. "I know they drafted me," he says, because they've already broken the 'no hockey talk' rule, so might as well keep going, "but I don't think I was ever what they really wanted." He closes his eyes. He wonders what it was like for Brendan, to be picked in the fifth round, to defy all expectations and muscle your way into the lineup anyway, fuck what anyone says. Instead of having the weight of everyone's eyes on you and to know that every wrong move means that you're a disappointment, a liability, a mistake.

"Hey," Brendan says. His voice is closer now. He nudges Alex's side. When Alex opens his eyes, he can see that Brendan has come closer, put them face-to-face, close enough that Alex can hear every breath Brendan makes. "What did I say? Fuck 'em."

Alex snorts, and Brendan takes that moment to kiss him. It's a surprise, to say the least. Alex freezes up, going still. It's not a rough kiss or anything, but it's not a brief peck either. Brendan has Alex's cheek cupped in one hand. His sad attempt at facial hair scratches at Alex's skin. He licks at the seam of Alex's lips. Alex has one clear moment of thinking, fuck it, before kissing Brendan back. He presses in close, feels Brendan's pleased hum against his mouth. And it's good, as good as Alex had ever imagined, had ever wanted. He manages to pull Brendan closer, until Brendan is straddling his lap, until Brendan is chewing on Alex's bottom lip and making happy noises in the back of his throat. Brendan smells comforting and familiar, the associations stretching back to rookie year when Alex would sometimes feel uncertain and frustrated on the road, and Brendan would annoy him and poke him and hug him until he felt better. Alex's chest feels tight, but his skin still sparks every place where Brendan is touching him, and Brendan's weight is pleasingly solid where it's resting on Alex's thighs.

Alex keeps the kiss going, lazy and easy, because they're in the middle of fucking nowhere, and Florida is still three or four states away, and Alex has wanted this so fucking much for so fucking long. He loses himself in it, the heat of Brendan's body, the slightly disgusting taste of Brendan's morning breath, the stretch of Brendan's smile.

It's not until after Brendan pulls back, not until after Alex's brain starts to function again, that Alex says, "Gally, what--" His head's still spinning a bit. His lips feel raw and swollen, and Brendan's lips don't look any better.

Brendan's smile fades a little. "I guess you can have the nickname back, now," he says.

"No, come on," Alex says, settling his hands on Brendan's hips, just in case he tries to pull away. "You fucker-- what was that?"

"I thought it was pretty obvious, even for someone as thick as you, Alex," Brendan says, and he's usually so fearless, it's surprising to see him try to dodge this conversation.

"Don't be a dick, Brendan," Alex says, because he could let this turn into one of their usual slap fights or he could actually do something about the lump in his throat.

Brendan takes a deep breath. "I just--" Brendan says, "the window was closing. I didn't want it to shut completely before I gave it a shot, you know?"

"Oh," Alex says, because for him, there hadn't been any window at all.

Brendan frowns before ducking in for another kiss. This one somehow rougher, more teeth, more tongue. He pulls back for a moment, their faces still close. "Come on, do you want to talk more or do you want me to blow you?"

Alex would really like that. From this angle, he can feel the hard press of Brendan's cock against his stomach, and he wants to get his hands on it, wants to learn the texture and the taste of it. But the voices in his head that sound suspiciously like his parents and Anna are getting louder with every passing moment. He needs to make sure that he and Brendan are on the same page.

So when Brendan tries to slide down his body, Alex stops him. Alex says, "Gally." And something of what he's feeling must be obvious in his voice, because Brendan does pause to take a look at him. "There isn't a window."

Brendan closes his eyes before pulling away. He smiles, the pure-bullshit one that enrages opposing teams and gets him into wrestling matches in the locker room. "So I guess that's a no. I'm surprised you turned down a free--"

"Gally," Alex says again. He gets one hand around the back of Brendan's neck, brings their foreheads together. Brendan stills underneath the touch, and from this close, Alex can hear the way his breath catches. "There isn't a window," Alex repeats.

This time, Alex is the one who kisses Brendan, an easy drag of lips against lips. Alex angles his head and presses more kisses against Brendan's cheekbones, his temple, his jaw, his neck. Brendan's eyes fall closed. "Oh," he says, and Alex can feel the vibration of the word in Brendan's throat.

---

Brendan does make good on his offer of a blow job, quick and filthy and intense enough that Alex pretty much loses the ability to speak. Alex returns the favor, of course, because his parents raised him right. Brendan somehow manages to grin his entire way through it, which Alex should have expected but is still kind of impressive to see.

Afterwards, they take a nap. Alex figures he'd be the one clinging to Brendan, but Brendan surprises him by sprawling halfway on top of Alex's chest and tucking his head underneath Alex's chin. Alex drifts at the edge of sleep, coming in and out of wakefulness.

He wakes up for real due to the rumbling of his stomach, having slept through breakfast, though maybe not too late for brunch. Brendan's still asleep, though and Alex just takes the time to marvel that someway, somehow, they ended up here, together. That he can just-- touch Brendan like this, and Brendan will let him. Brendan will even want him to.

Brendan shifts and lifts his head, blinking away some of the sleep. "We should probably get going," he mumbles. He pokes Alex in the side. "Someone sounds like they're hungry."

Alex yawns. "I wouldn't say no to some food." But he doesn't make any attempt at moving, just wraps one arm around Brendan's back, presses one palm against the smooth, shifting planes of muscle there.

Brendan leans into the touch, and his answering grin is blinding.

They do manage to get out of bed and get dressed. It's a little difficult, when lounging around all day in bed sounds like a better idea, but he is hungry, and it would be nice to eat up more miles on their trip.

Lunch of them is breakfast food from the nearest McDonald's drive thru. They switch off as drivers so they can each get a chance to eat. It leaves the car strewn with greasy paper bags and food wrappers. When it's Alex's turn to drive, he rolls the window down and puts something on the radio from his Spotify playlist. It plays something bright and upbeat-- something you'd hear at a club, maybe on the dance floor. The Southern air is warmer and thicker than it has been. The afternoon sun is high in the sky. And maybe it's because Alex got laid earlier, but he's in a good enough mood that he starts bobbing his head along to the beat.

"God, you're such a weirdo," Brendan says from the passenger seat. "Why do I even like you?"

Alex laughs, unable to keep the giddiness down, because Brendan said he likes him. "You're weirder," he says. "Give me another hash brown."

Brendan hands one of them over, still in its sleeve. He also takes the opportunity nip at Alex's outstretched fingers, and Alex's mouth goes dry, the blood in his body rushing south. When Alex glances over, Brendan's smirking like the shithead he is. Alex would stare him down, but he's too busy driving.

In revenge, he takes a bite out of the hash brown as noisily as possible, because Brendan is always bitching about not needing to sound like an animal when eating, and then licks his lips with an ugly smacking noise.

"Fuck you," Brendan says.

"You did this to yourself," Alex says around another mouthful of hash brown.

"I can't believe I still want to bang you like this," Brendan says, a little mournfully. "What is wrong with me?"

"Only you can answer that question," Alex says, more than a little smugly, and then he wipes some of the half-chewed hash brown spittle out of his beard.

---

It takes them longer than it should to reach Charleston because they keep coming up with excuses to stop and find places to make out, and even once, in a gas station bathroom, they exchange fast, messy handjobs, laughing against each other's lips the whole time.

Alex falls asleep on the last part of the trip, face mashed up against the window, almost as soon as the sun goes down. He blinks awake has he feels the car slow and then stop. They're in the yellow glow of a Waffle House parking lot.

"Maybe we should eat a vegetable today," Alex says, but he's not exactly complaining. He loves Waffle House. There's always a team trip to it after a late night in Raleigh.

Brendan snorts. "I think they might sell salads," he says.

They don't get a salad.

Like McDonald's, it's comforting how every Waffle House is the same on the inside, no matter what city you're in. Fluorescent lighting, southern accents. Eggs and grease on the grill. Laminated menus that are crinkled in the corners from well-worn use.

"Breakfast for lunch and breakfast for dinner," Brendan says. "This is the best fucking day." His eyes are crinkled at the corners, too. Alex likes the way they look, likes what they mean.

"That's definitely what made today great," Alex agrees, his voice dry. They're in public, and despite the fact that Alex doubts anyone here watches hockey and there's only one other customer nursing a mug of coffee, he doesn't want to do anything that would make him an exciting new Deadspin headline. But he does hook his ankle around Brendan's underneath the table, and Brendan's smile actually gets a little warmer and a little goofier. Brendan chews on his bottom lip, the way he does when he's holding back from a really terrible joke, and he ducks his head, just a little. Alex has seen him do that around his girlfriends -- and that one guy he was seeing for a month -- before. It's different seeing it and knowing that it's-- it's for him.

They eat pecan waffles and eggs, and Brendan steals some of Alex's biscuits with gravy. He touches Alex in lots of little ways-- a nudge on the shoulder, a flick to the ear, a ruffle of Alex's hair-- and that's always been true, but now there's more of them. Nothing too obvious, nothing all that different from the usual casual touching that goes on between hockey players, but now Alex knows it means something different, something more.

When they are ready to settle in for the night, they end up in a proper hotel in downtown Charleston. Only one bed this time, which screws up their routine, but the tradeoff is worth it. "You're awfully confident about getting laid tonight," Alex says as he dumps his travel bag in the corner.

Brendan snickers as he comes up behind Alex and wraps his arms around Alex's waist, sliding his hands underneath the hem of Alex's shirt. He's solid against Alex's back, much bigger and stronger than his height would indicate, and Alex has always liked that about him, that for all that Brendan doesn't bother to hide much, there's all these parts of him that people don't always see. "What, are you really going to say no?" Brendan asks.

Alex turns in the circle of his arms and kisses him, the way he's wanted to countless times before. Brendan laughs, warm and giddy, against Alex's lips, and Alex's heart feels swollen and tender in his chest. "Maybe," Alex says.

But they both know he's lying.

---

They sleep in the next morning, staying in way later than Brendan would usually let them. Alex won't mention it to Brendan, but he counts the vanishing of Brendan's alarm as one of the many small victories of this trip.

The morning sex is great, just lazily rubbing off on each other as Alex breathes in Brendan's sighs and moans. In the shower afterwards, Brendan laughs when Alex gets shampoo in his eyes. Alex tries to retaliate by getting him in a headlock, but they don't let the wrestling get very far, because neither of them wants to explain to their respective front offices how they both managed to injure themselves in the shower.

For the day, they wander around downtown Charleston, spending some time browsing through the City Market for snacks and souvenirs and walking over the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter. It's a small corner of the city, but it does feel enough like Montreal to swamp Alex with a sudden homesickness. He's spent his whole life rootless and moving. Montreal wasn't really home for him any more than any other place he'd ever lived, but it was a place he loved, and for a little while, it even loved him back. It's started to sink in that he's not going to be traveling back at the end of the summer. He's going to be wearing a different logo on his chest, going to be walking into a different training facility, meeting new trainers, learning a new system.

They're so far away from Alex's final destination, and they still have farther to go.

"Hey, Chucky," Brendan says, once they reach a park that overlooks the water. They lean against the railing, gazing at the clear blue sky, dotted with white, fluffy clouds. The air tastes more like Florida than Montreal or Boston or New York.

"Yeah?" Alex asks. Their shoulders brush together.

"I'm glad you agreed to come with me on this trip," Brendan says, his voice softer, stripped of the edge of mockery he always has when he talks to Alex.

It hadn't taken much to convince Alex. After the news of the trade had spread throughout the team, Brendan had called Alex up and said, "So I'm thinking of going on a road trip. You wanna come?" Alex had been in a fuck everything sort of mood, the kind that makes him reckless and more than a little stupid, and so he had said, "Yes."

Now Alex says, "You asked." He nudges Brendan's arm. "I'm glad I agreed to come along, too."

Brendan's answering smile is small and warm. He edges an inch closer to Alex, and Alex thinks about kissing him again, because now Alex can add 'kisses' to his list of 'things that make Brendan happy', and it's not exactly a hardship to give them to him.

But they're in public, in broad daylight, so all Alex can do is squeeze Brendan's shoulder, drawing him in closer for just a moment before pulling away. Brendan's smile morphs into a smirk, like he knows exactly what Alex was thinking. "Come on," he says. "Let's go back to the hotel." He sneaks one hand underneath Alex's shirt, his fingers brushing over bare skin, because he's a fucking tease and also an asshole.

"You're a teasing asshole," Alex grumbles.

Brendan just laughs, and Alex knows that the next time he gets to pick the music, he's going to play the Russian techno extra loud.

---

They spend the rest of the day in bed, only getting up to order room service. Brendan goes down on Alex again, and then slowly, slowly rims him until Alex can't form any words, just wordless moans. And Brendan's really into it, too. It takes him all of about five seconds to come himself right after Alex gets his hands on him.

Afterwards, they take a shower that goes slightly better than the one before. Every time Alex looks at Brendan, with his stupid hair plastered to his stupid face and his terrible continuing attempts at facial hair, he breaks out into giggles, which causes Brendan to break out into giggles, and that part isn't so different from what it was like in the Habs locker room, except for the fact that Alex can touch Brendan here, can kiss Brendan's laughing mouth and lick at Brendan's neck and bite at the lobes of Brendan's ears.

Before they fall asleep, they bicker about who gets to be the big spoon (Alex wins), and Alex tucks himself in against Brendan's back, tangling their legs together, tucking Brendan's head underneath his chin, smelling hotel shampoo. Alex is becoming well acquainted with the shape and weight of Brendan's body, and the feel of it so close is a comfort in and of itself.

There's an nagging worry in the back of his mind from the part that always feels nervous about the future, clamoring to be heard, But this trip is a bubble, separated from the real world, from real problems, and Alex refuses to let anything puncture that. Not now. Not while he can still have this.

---

True to his promise to himself, Alex blasts the Russian techno loud enough that he's pretty sure the passing cars hate them. Brendan looks blissfully unannoyed by any of it, though he does repeat all the Russian swear words he hears and grins at Alex like Alex should congratulate him on knowing what "хуй" means.

They cross the border into Georgia, and Brendan attempts a Southern accent that sounds more like a drunk version of his Russian accent.

"That's not what a Southern accent sounds like, Gally," Alex says.

"What? No, come on. I'm totally doing those 'ah'-sounds right." Brendan protests.

"No, you're not," Alex says. "You sound like you're trying to be a drunk Russian."

"Well," Brendan says. "I am fond of drunk Russians." He gives Alex a slow, sly, significant look.

"You promised you'd never mention that again!" Alex says, because a lot of what they got up to during rookie year is better off never mentioned again. "Also, I'm American." He's tempted to grab the Statue of Liberty souvenir off the dashboard and throw it at Brendan's face.

"Likely story," Brendan says, but he also grabs hold of Alex's free hand and threads their fingers together. Alex squeezes his hand. Brendan squeezes right back.

Their conversation when they enter Florida turns to alligators.

"You're the one who spends his summers here," Brendan says. "Do they really wander the streets like rats?" He's driving again, and from the passenger seat, Alex has the option of watching him -- his smile spread across his face, his forearms slightly flexed while on the steering wheel, his hair getting just long enough to curl around his ear -- or watching the same blandly green trees roll by the window. There really isn't much of a choice at all.

"Yes," Alex says. "Some of the locals even bring them home and keep them as pets."

Brendan snorts. "I bet you'd get a pet alligator if that was really a thing. First thing to do as a Florida homeowner."

And the thing is, Brendan isn't exactly wrong. "It would probably try to eat Diego or Maxi," Alex says, a little sadly. It would be awesome otherwise.

"Not if you do it right," Brendan insists. "I'd definitely visit you if you had a pet alligator."

He says it so offhand, so casual, without even thinking about it, that it leaves Alex's mouth tasting like ash. They haven't talked at all about what will happen once this trip is over, but Alex had assumed -- hoped -- that at the very least, Brendan wouldn't need an excuse to see him. "Who said I'd let you visit my pet alligator?" Alex says.

Brendan just laughs at that, easy and unconcerned. "Anna would let me see your pet alligator," he says.

Alex throws a french fry at Brendan's face, and Brendan just ends up laughing harder.

---

They land in Orlando just around dinner time. The AC is going at full blast to fend off the heat and the humidity. The city is much flatter than the others that they've visited so far, sprawling in every direction and segmented into theme parks. The streets are lined with palm trees, and the air has this hazy, unreal quality that Alex has always loved about Florida. It's a refuge for him, a place to escape the heavy, constant gaze of the Montreal media.

And now it's going to be home for the hockey season. A smaller, quieter market. Maybe if he's lucky, he'll never have to answer a question about whether or not he's playing center ever again.

The hotel is a towering, gleaming monstrosity of glass and metal, and it glows faintly in the dying sunlight. Their room has floor-to-ceiling windows and a huge king-sized bed, and they're high up enough that they can see the stretch of the city all around them.

Brendan grins and pulls Alex into a kiss. It starts off a little frantic, a little rushed, but Alex slows it down. If this is-- if he only gets to have this for a few more days, he wants as much as he can get. He spreads Brendan out on the bed and covers Brendan's body with his own. Like this, the full difference in their sizes is so obvious -- Alex curved over Brendan so that their lips can still touch. Alex is pretty sure Brendan gets off on it, from the soft gasping breaths he makes to the restless twitching of his hips.

Alex pulls back, just so he can see Brendan like this, caught in the orange-red glow of the setting sun. Brendan's eyes are so bright, the way they get after goals and wins, and his smile is so broad and so honest. Alex runs a thumb along the curve of his lips, trying to commit the sight and the feel of it to memory.

"Hey," Brendan says, eyes softening. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes," Alex says, his voice lower and rougher that he would like. It's not even a lie, because right at this moment, everything is great.

"It's just--" Brendan says.

He hesitates, and Alex takes advantage of the moment to kiss him again, just to shut him up. Brendan isn't exactly unwilling to go along with it.

"It's fine," Alex says against Brendan's mouth. And it is all fine like this, with Brendan's arms wrapped around Alex's shoulders, their bodies still pressed close together.

Brendan takes a breath, his forehead furrowing. "Okay," he says, and he lets the topic drop.

---

Brendan wins the fight to be the big spoon that night, curling up against Alex's back with one arm and one leg thrown over Alex's side, breathing wetly against Alex's neck. It probably looks ridiculous, but Alex is in no mood to care about that.

It's sort of nice, waking up with Brendan's morning wood pressed up against his back, and they end up having lazy morning sex with Brendan fucking between Alex's thighs, his thick, strong arms framing Alex's face. "Fuck," Brendan says, his voice shaky and strangled. "You're so fucking hot, how are you--" And Alex can feel smug knowing that Brendan is so fucking out of it that Brendan is giving him compliments.

It's not until afterwards, when Brendan's brushing Alex's hair away from his eyes, his knees digging uncomfortably into Alex's side, that Alex feels the keen loss of him, the awareness that he's going to miss this closeness -- this new side of Brendan that he's never really gotten a chance to see before -- when it's gone. But that's something to worry about later.

Brendan does manage to badger Alex into leaving the hotel room, and they spend the day at Universal Studios. It's exactly as overwhelming and slightly chintzy as Alex remembers, and it's beautiful. The place is full of people: families with their 2.5 kids, clusters of teenagers, park employees trying their hardest to maintain a facade of cheerfulness. Brendan steers them towards the Harry Potter area first, which does look like it was transported straight out of the movies. A street of stone buildings clustered together, distinctly European in style, capped with fake white snow. Hogwarts rises up in the background, a castle of pointed spires, incongruous with the damp, summer Florida heat.

They visit one of the gift shops first, and they spend time poking around through all the wands and every-flavored beans and t-shirts. Alex takes a picture of Brendan wearing a stupid witch's hat, wide-brimmed and pointy. He posts it to Instagram with the caption improving @bgally.11 's fashion taste. Brendan laughs and reposts it to his own Instagram account.

The rest of the day is about exploring the park, standing in line for rides, going on rides, laughing at Brendan when he screams his head off on the roller coasters, eating overpriced if also thematically relevant food. It's so relentlessly fun that Alex can't help but give into it, to just relax and let himself enjoy it. Brendan gets into it, too, buying an extremely ugly pair of Minions-branded sunglasses that makes Alex roll his eyes.

They get recognized a few times, more than Alex would expect so far away from Montreal, but not often enough to puncture the little bubble they're in. At one point, in the middle of a crowd of people, Alex curls his pinky finger around Brendan's. Nothing too obvious, just at the place where their hands brush together. Brendan's answering smile is small and secret, and if Alex could, he would kiss Brendan right now, just so he could find out how that smile felt against his lips.

---

That night after dinner, they end up back in their hotel room, watching some sort of goofy comedy movie that Alex only half pays any attention to, because Brendan's sprawled out half on top of him, Brendan's head resting on Alex's chest. Alex absently pets Brendan's hair with one hand and feels the way Brendan laughs with his entire body every time there's a particularly good joke.

When the credits finally roll, Brendan picks his head up to look at Alex, and his smile is more strained than usual. "Hey," he says. "We should be getting to Fort Lauderdale tomorrow."

Alex nods. "Yeah," he says.

"Last night of this trip, huh?" Brendan says. He shuffles up so that he can straddle Alex's waist, so that they're face-to-face. His voice has this weird quality to it. Softer than usual. Almost a whisper.

"Yes," Alex says. He feels like he's on the verge of saying the wrong thing, so it's better just not to say anything that all.

Brendan cups one of Alex's cheeks, runs the flat of his palm against Alex's beard. "You wanna fuck me tonight?"

Alex nods, not sure if he can trust himself or his voice.

"Good," Brendan says. He produces a condom and a travel packet of lube from god-knows-where, and at Alex's judgemental eyebrow, he says, "Hey, I like to be prepared."

That breaks some of the weird tension, and Alex lets out an undignified laugh, the sound of his snickering filling the room.

"You suck," Brendan complains, but he still kisses Alex with a smile on his face.

"Not right now, I'm not," Alex says.

"I hate you so much," Brendan says, but with the tone of voice he uses, it sounds like an endearment.

Alex wrestles him onto his back, kissing him the whole time, not wanting to stop for anything. Brendan lets him do it, not even bothering to put up a token fight. Alex fumbles getting his own shirt over his head, his hands almost shaky as he shoves his sweatpants down over his hips. Brendan somehow manages to strip from where he's still trapped underneath Alex's body, and he even makes it look easy.

"Come on," Brendan says, his voice taking on that edge that it gets when he's trying to goad Alex into something. His chest his rises and falls with each breath he takes, and Alex doesn't think he'll ever get tired of being able to see Brendan like this, of being able to have Brendan like this.

Alex leaves a trail of wet kisses down his sternum, tasting the lingering sweat on his skin. He sucks a bruise onto Brendan's left hip, as deep and as vivid as he can make it, as Brendan lets out a low groan above him. The mark won't last particularly long, not more than a week or so, but even that-- Brendan doesn't like tattoos, so this is the closest Alex can get to imprinting himself onto Brendan's skin. Alex has already thought about the tattoos he wants to get when this is over. Maybe something winding up his right arm, a twisting road to remind himself of the distances he's traveled and how far he's come.

He gets his mouth on Brendan's cock and licks at the tip, tasting pre-come. Brendan tenses up all over, a shiver running through his body. "Jesus fuck," Brendan says, his breath short and sharp, and it's tempting to just-- to just let Brendan fuck his mouth until he comes. But they have other items on the agenda today.

Alex grabs the packet of lube and rips it open, slathering about half of it onto his fingers. He presses them into Brendan carefully, watching as Brendan's eyes close and his mouth falls open. "Yeah?" Alex asks.

"Yeah," Brendan says, his voice blissed out and sex-drunk.

Alex has done this before, but only a couple of times, and he's still a little uncertain as he opens Brendan up. He's doing alright if the noises that Brendan is making are anything to go by.

"I'm ready," Brendan says eventually. He reaches out with one hand, manages to get his fingers tangled in Alex's hair. He spreads his legs wide, so that Alex can settle his hips between them. "Come on. Hurry up."

"You don't have to be so impatient," Alex says, but he's feeling a little anxious and eager himself, seeing Brendan ask to be fucked like this.

He's not sure how he manages to get the condom on without ripping anything, his hands clumsy with anticipation, but soon enough, he's emptied the other half of the lube packet and slicked up his cock. Brendan's smirking a little bit from underneath half-lidded eyes. "I hate you, too," Alex says, because he's shaky and off-balance, and he's definitely blaming Brendan if he screws any of this up.

Brendan laughs at him, his shoulders shaking, his eyes crinkling, and Alex takes that moment to push inside, to feel the way Brendan's body opens for him.

It doesn't quite shut Brendan up, but Brendan's laughter gets a little strangled. "Shit," he says. "Fuck, you're so--"

Alex knows what he means, because he has to close his eyes to collect himself. It's almost too much, the hot, tight clench of Brendan's body, the sting of pain where Brendan's nails are digging into his shoulders, the dense smell of sex in the room.

He pulls back, thrusting his hips forward, and Brendan pushes back into it, like he's as desperate as Alex feels right now. His cheeks are flushed an appealing shade of pink, splotchy all the way down to his chest.

"C'mon," Brendan says, his lips curled into a challenging smirk. "Fuck me harder. Use those huge fucking glutes for something useful." He hooks his legs around Alex's back.

Alex snorts out a laugh and tucks his nose into Brendan's neck, breathes in deep. Just to be an asshole, he takes his time, makes it as maddingly slow as possible. Commits it to memory, this feeling of being so close there's almost no space between them. "Maybe I like it better this way," Alex says, "watching you be all needy."

Brendan fights it, of course, digs his heels in, curses out Alex's ancestors with every bit of Russian profanity that Alex has ever taught him. And Alex laughs again, kissing the curve of Brendan's neck, his hands mapping the shape of Brendan's hips and torso.

Eventually, Alex does give into the burn of his own arousal and pushes up onto his arms to get a bit more leverage, and Brendan groans loud and filthy with every thrust. "Yeah," he says. "Fuck, yeah."

"Want you to come like this," Alex murmurs, "with me still inside you." Because if this is the only time he gets to have it, he wants to have what he wants.

Brendan moans his assent, gets one hand between their bodies. It doesn't take long before his orgasm ripples through him, his body tense as he shakes his way through it. Alex kisses him then, because he wants to, he needs to.

He feels frantic, hot and shivery all over, and it only takes a few more thrusts of his hips before he comes so hard, his vision starts going black at the edges.

Brendan pets his sweat-damp hair as he comes down from it, and his expression is so soft and so tender that it nearly cuts Alex open.

"Yeah?" Alex asks, more than a mumble than anything else.

The corner of Brendan's mouth curls up. "Yeah," he says.

---

Alex gets to be the big spoon again that night, and he curls an arm around Brendan's ribs, presses his nose into Brendan's hair. Tomorrow is the last day on the road. Tonight is the last night of this trip. The 'last's are starting to pile up on top of one another. But at least, for now, he still has this. He breathes in the scent of hotel shampoo, feels the steady rise and fall of Brendan's chest, listens to the low hum of the hotel air conditioning, and lets himself fall asleep.

They set off early the next morning, just after breakfast. Anna texts cheerfully about how excited she is to see the both of them and how much she wants to hear about their trip. Alex hasn't told her anything about his new thing with Brendan, and he's not sure if it makes sense to, if it only lasts for so long.

This is one of the shortest legs on their journey so far, only about three hours or so, and there's something fragile in the air that Alex doesn't want to disturb. The radio stays silent. Brendan doesn't try to goad Alex with mockery or jokes or anything like that. He keeps his eyes on the road, every once in a while glancing in Alex's direction, and the smile on his face is the flat one he wears by default even when he's sad or upset or angry.

Alex watches him. Maybe Brendan will stick around Florida for a day or two, but it'll still be different, with Alex figuring out how to settle while he catches up with his sister and his new teammates. They won't be able to ditch everything and take off the next day, just the two of them and this car and the open road.

When Fort Lauderdale starts showing up on the road signs, Alex feels something in the center of his chest unravel just a little bit. This is it. He's almost there.

It's sort of fitting, letting go of Brendan and Montreal all at once. Alex remembers flying into Montreal for the first time, staring out the window as the plane dropped through the cloud cover to show the sprawling beauty of the city glowing golden in the night. That rush of joy of being drafted and welcomed and wanted by a city like that.

And he remembers the first few days of camp, when most of the older guys tried to take him under their wing and most of the younger callups gave him a wide berth. Brendan was never like that. He was just this short kid who was all smiling teeth and bad chirps and who played too hard and too well to feel even the slightest bit threatened by Alex.

It's all pretty much over now, but Alex can carry all those things with him. A sea of red Habs jerseys chanting ole-ole-ole in the Bell Center. Feeding Brendan a perfect cross-ice pass on the breakaway. The smell of Montreal at night after it snows, when the ground is still covered in a layer of pristine white that crunches underneath his feet. The taste of Brendan's mouth first thing in the morning.

Now there's going to be new things. The feel of the ocean lapping at his feet. Palm trees swaying in the wind. Fresh oranges in the winter. And even after all of this, he's not going to lose the ice underneath his skates, the puck on his stick, the sound of the goal horn. Even if it hurts right now, he knows it's going to be okay.

---

Brendan pulls off the highway and towards the ocean as they enter Fort Lauderdale. Alex's new condo is on the upper floors of a building that overlooks the water, and he's looking forward to being able to wander outside and onto the beach every day.

There's something anticlimactic about Brendan parking in the parking lot, about Brendan cutting the engine. It feels like there should be something more.

"Hey," Brendan says, "we made it." His flat smile looks even flatter than it usually does.

"Yeah, I should probably be surprised that you didn't manage to get us killed," Alex says. He fumbles his phone out of his pocket so that he can tell Anna that he's here.

But before he can even start typing, Brendan is leaning over the gearshift and pressing his lips to Alex's. It's a messy kiss, even by their standards, off-center and open-mouthed. Alex isn't complaining. He closes his eyes and presses into it.

"What--" Alex says when Brendan settles back into his seat.

Brendan says, "Fuck, Chucky. I know you have the emotional maturity of a toothpick, but I just wanted to say that I-- I'm really going to miss you, okay? We really should have gotten our shit together earlier." He presses his forehead against Alex's shoulder.

"Yeah," Alex says, "probably." He tucks one arm around Brendan's shoulder, as awkward as it is inside this car.

"And I know that it's going to suck, being so far away from each other during the season, but I want to--"

"During the season?" Alex asks, before he can stop himself.

Brendan frowns, a sudden, sharp look crossing his face. "Wait, did you want to-- what, break up with me at the end of this trip?"

"No, I didn't want that," Alex snaps back. "You want that."

"What?" Brendan says, and his voice is taking on that same edge that it always does when they're about to get into a stupid argument. "No-- you said that there wasn't a window!"

"There isn't a window," Alex insists. "You're the one who doesn't want to visit me unless I get a pet alligator."

"A fucking toothpick," Brendan says, shaking his head, and then he climbs over the center console and lands awkwardly in Alex's lap. The sedan is way, way too small to fit the both of them in one seat. Brendan manages to whack his head against the roof more than once, but his expression is the dark, stubborn one he gets when he's trying to muscle his way into the crease. "What the fuck, man? You think I just, what-- thought I was going to jump you and then bounce?"

Alex shrugs, suddenly feeling defensive. "How was I supposed to know? It's not like we talked about it or anything. You didn't say anything either!"

"No, I refuse to take responsibility for your stupid assumptions, asshole," Brendan says, and a smirk is starting to spread across his face.

Alex kisses him, just so that he doesn't have to see or hear Brendan be smug over this.

Brendan digs his fingers into Alex's hair, gentles the kiss until it's almost sweet. When he pulls back, Brendan's smile is warm. "Hey, you know I really fucking like you and want this to be a thing that keeps going, right?" he asks, faux-casual.

"I guess I do now," Alex says, "and I guess I feel the same."

"God," Brendan says, "you're so fucking annoying." But then he kisses Alex again, and Alex knows he doesn't really mean it.

---

They do eventually manage to stop making out long enough to let Anna know that they're here. She comes down to greet them, shooting a very knowing eyebrow in Alex's direction, probably because Alex's hair is a mess from where Brendan was tugging on it and Brendan only looks slightly better.

The apartment itself is beautiful. Anna's done most of the work to get everything settled, but there's still a few boxes shoved into corners, waiting to be unpacked. The place is bright and airy and big, and there's a porch that faces out towards the ocean.

Diego meows happily and rubs himself up against Alex's legs and allows Alex to pick him up. Brendan scratches his head and earns himself a happy purr in response. The dogs poke their heads in but don't stick around.

Anna takes them out to one of her favorite restaurants, a place fancy enough that they have to dress up a bit to get in. Brendan holds Alex's hand underneath the table, and they both tell Anna stories about Vermont ice cream and New York dive bars and Charleston markets.

"Sounds like you took good care of my baby brother," Anna says, and her expression is a little sharp, a little wicked, and a lot knowing.

Brendan chokes on his glass of water, and Alex, who knows exactly how Anna gets, thumps him on the back sympathetically. "Well," Brendan says through his coughing, "I don't think he has any complaints."

"Well, Sasha," Anna says in Russian. "Is he telling the truth?"

"Yeah, he is," Alex responds with a roll of his eyes.

"You look happier than you have since I last saw you," she says, reaching over the table to pinch his cheek. "I won't have to threaten his life, then."

"Don't do that," Alex says, batting her hand away.

Brendan watches them talk with raised eyebrows. "I'm assuming this conversation is about me?" he asks.

"I've decided not to threaten your life," Anna says, switching back to English, smiling broadly and a little nastily, the way she does when she wants to throw people off balance. "But just know if you hurt him--"

It would probably work on most people, but Brendan's known her for five years now, and he's not even the tiniest bit fazed. "That's good, because I don't intend on hurting him," he says. He does a quick once-over of the room before leaning over to press a quick kiss against Alex's cheek, the one Anna just pinched.

Anna lets out a bright peal of laughter. "Welcome to the family, then," she says.

And here, in their quiet little booth, separated from the rest of the chatter of the restaurant, their faces lit by candlelight, Alex feels safe, comforted, loved.

---

Alex wakes up in the morning to sunlight warming his bare skin. He takes a moment to just enjoy it, luxuriate in this feeling, before deciding he should start his day. He wriggles out of Brendan's arms, even if Brendan makes an annoyed, sleepy noise against Alex's neck.

He runs his fingers over the Statue of Liberty souvenir and ugly Minions sunglasses that are sitting on his bedroom dresser. He wanders into the kitchen and fills the pets' food and water bowls, much to their delight. He starts up the coffee pot so that Anna won't be vaguely murderous when she wakes up.

Once he's satisfied that he's handled everything, he goes out onto the porch. The air does feel the same as it does in Miami, like salt and sea and summer. The ocean stretches out in front of him, a gorgeous shade of blue-green that reaches all the way to the horizon. He has to squint a little in the glare of the sun. It's nothing like Montreal.

He hears footsteps behind him before he feels Brendan plaster himself against Alex's back. "Welcome home," he says.

"Yeah," Alex says, his lips curling into a smile, because it is. Home is a place you create for yourself, a place where you can love and be loved. If there's anything that Alex has learned in his life, it's that. "I like you in it."

"I like me in it, too," Brendan says. "You gonna let me stay, then?"

"Sure," Alex says, "if you promise to never use your shitty phone alarm around me ever again."

"Hmm," Brendan murmurs, his shitty facial hair rubbing against Alex's shoulder. "I'll have to think about it."

"Think fast," Alex says.

"Okay, thought about it," Brendan says, before dragging Alex into a kiss out here on the balcony, where anyone could see them.

When he pulls back, he's smiling, like always, and Alex is smiling back. They're not rookies anymore, and the future doesn't look quite the same now as it did back then. But he still has Brendan and Brendan still has him.

Fuck 'em, Alex thinks, and he kisses Brendan one more time.

 

FIN.