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Look at the wonderful mess that we made

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When Vinny and Brad are fifteen, their names come in on each other. It’s barely gradual—a dark stain for a week and then deep black letters and scratchy writing that unmistakably belongs to one another.

Brad doesn’t talk to Vinny for four days and it hurts, like a bruise in the center of his chest that he can’t get his fingers on to press.

He’s downright miserable at night, lying on his back and staring up at the slatted bunk above him. He knows Brad is up there, feeling just as upset.

“M’sorry, okay? I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Vinny finally says, because he feels like he needs to. He probably won’t even ever know if it was really his fault—if wanting him so much could have caused this—but maybe Brad just wants him to say so. Then he adds, in a quieter voice, “but you kissed me back.”

“I know.” Brad croaks finally and Vinny exhales. “I’m not mad at you, okay? I’m just scared.”

“Me, too.”

They plan to go together to the tattoo shop. Brad manages to scrounge up someone in the senior class who can make fake IDs and Vinny gets his hands on enough cash, saved from birthday cards and unexpected treats from his mother in care packages, that they can probably bribe their way around anyone who knows they aren’t 18.

The night before, Vinny and Brad lay side by side on Brad’s bunk. It takes Vinny twenty minutes to work up the courage to reach out and take Brad’s hand. When their fingers lace together, the names touch.

“We can still be together, even if we can’t, you know. Be together,” Brad promises solemnly.

“Yeah.” Vinny’s already gotten used to waking up each day and seeing Brad’s name. When he goes to bed tomorrow, it’ll be the first time he wakes up without it in over a month.

Brad sits up suddenly with a crooked smile and looks down at Vinny. “I’ve got an idea!” He scrambles over Vinny without waiting for him to get up and drops with a muffled thump when his socked feet hit the floor.

“Vinny, c’mere,” Brad says after rummaging at his desk for a while. Vinny climbs over the side of the bed as well, much shorter of a drop, and Brad rolls his eyes at the smirk.

“What?”

“Just, give me your wrist.” Brad holds out his hand and Vinny places his right wrist out. He watches as Brad lines up a sheet of notebook paper and writes his name in black marker, same letters that Vinny knows so well.

“Your handwriting definitely gets nicer when you get older,” Vinny watches over Brad’s shoulder.

“Shut up,” but he says it with a laugh. Brad admires his work and then caps the marker, sliding the paper away from Vinny’s wrist.

“Here, you keep this.” He folds it up tightly and puts it in Vinny’s still-outstretched hand. “Now do mine.”

Vinny places paper over Brad’s wrist and writes his name as neatly as he can. When he’s done, Brad takes it from him, folds it up as small as the other and fishes his wallet out from his backpack, slipping it inside.

Vinny crosses the room to his desk and does the same.

“There. Now even when we can’t see it, we’ll know it was there.” This time it’s Brad who reaches out for Vinny’s hand.

They fall asleep, side-by-side, in the bottom bed.

Sometimes, when Vinny wakes up in the middle of the night, he looks down at the black bar on his wrist and wonders if he can’t still make out what it used to say. Sometimes, he unfolds the piece of paper, delicately enough not to rip the already worn creases, and holds it over where he knows the name used to be.

Brad is right in the end; they can still be together, even if they’re not together. Vinny is proud of their careers and the things they’ve achieved, and he’ll always think that Brad Richards is the greatest player and most amazing person he’s ever known.

He doesn’t even usually mind that he has to keep it to himself.

⥔ ⥖ ⥙ ⥔ ⥕

Jordie likes going to the rink in Saanich because the ice time is a couple dollars cheaper than in Victoria. It’s not too bad a drive and he’s done it countless times before.

Coach wanted him to work on speeding up his transitions and improving the accuracy of his shots from the point. He’s glad to see there’s a couple goalies who’ve come out as well, it’s always better when there’s someone to shoot on.

He feels weird the second he steps on the ice. Jordie does a quick equipment check, makes sure everything is secure and on the correct side—he’s only done up his shin guards on the wrong leg one time, but Chubbs hasn’t let it go since.

Everything is fine, but Jordie can’t shake the feeling that something is strange. He starts his warm-up anyway, skating a few laps and stretching out. A few other guys are here working on passing and taking shots on the goaltenders.

He finally gets his bearings once he’s back into his routine. His transitions go well—Jordie has been working really hard on getting the hop out of his backwards crossovers and he’s finally getting the correct muscle memory going. He wants to get some shots in before the goalies leave.

The goalies switch out while he’s getting his pucks lined up and he politely waits for the new netminder to give him the go ahead before he starts with some easy warm-up shots. A few other skaters shoot some easy pucks before the goalie waves them to start.

Jordie starts with his wristers, which have always been pretty accurate. He gets all but one on net, though only two make it in. He goes to fetch his pucks for some slapshot practice but makes sure to check with the goalie first that it’s okay. Not everyone likes their practice sessions to involve screaming slapshots to the head.

“Hey,” Jordie taps the goalie across the pads. “You cool with some clappers?”

“Yeah, let ‘er rip, bud.” Jordie has played hockey with girls before, of course he has, the Island’s hockey programs aren’t that big. But he’s still a little surprised to hear the voice.

He’s even more surprised when she turns to give him a huge grin and his heart does some fucked up flutter that makes him flush hot and cold at once. He can see through her cage that her face falters, too.

Jordie feels frozen to the ice until an older guy skates up on the other side.

“Katy, we got about ten more minutes before mom picks us up, okay?”

“Yeah, Dad.”

Jordie waits until the man skates away before tapping the goalie’s pads again. “I’m Jordie.”

“Katy.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Jordie gets about 70% of his slapshots on net but only buries one, blocker side. Once his pile is gone, Katy waves the other goalie over to take her spot.

Jordie is fetching his pucks when she skates by and thumps him across the chest with her glove.

“I’ll see you in a while, yeah?”

Jordie gives her his biggest grin. “Oh, count on it.”

⥔ ⥖ ⥙ ⥔ ⥕

Bozie lives with Phil for two months before he stops wearing his guard at home. He jammed his wrist a few games back and the guard makes him stiff, especially when he sleeps in it. He still puts it on when they go out in public, but around the house it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

“Holy shit!”

Bozie has his cereal spoon halfway to his mouth when Phil is suddenly shouting at him from a foot away.

“Bozie, holy shit! Holy shit!”

“What? What the fuck?” His mouth is full of Cheerios and he whips his head around to see if there’s something behind him.

Phil doesn’t answer, he just grabs Bozie’s hand with the spoon still in it, spilling milk and cereal all over the counter. Bozie is about to swear at him again until he sees Phil is reading his wrist. He’s tanned a little around the guard and the black lettering stands out more on the pale skin.

“You know?” Phil is smiling now and shaking Bozie’s arm at him.

“Know what?” It occurs to him for a moment that Phil might be sleepwalking or something. It is still kind of early.

Amanda?”

“No?” Bozie doesn’t know her, not as anything more than a name just yet. He’s not been not looking, but his mom always told him that things happen for a reason and she’ll come into his life when he’s ready.

“My sister?”

And, oh.

Bozie’s mouth gapes as he starts and stops a sentence, nonsensical syllables spilling out. “I—what?” is what he settles on.

“Shit, Bozie.” Phil is still holding onto his arm tightly, keeps turning Bozie’s wrist to read it again.

“Are you sure?”

“Asshole, I know my sister’s handwriting, c’mon.” He finally lets go, and Bozie brings his wrist up to look at it. It’s familiar to him, too, but it’s been covered for a lot of his life.

He huffs a disbelieving sort of laugh at it. “Well, shit.” He can feel the smile tugging at his lips. He knows of Phil’s sister, but he’s never met her himself. “And she’s got—”

Phil nods. “Tyler, yeah. Since she was like eleven.”

Bozie lets out an airy sound and stares down at his arm.

Phil’s punch to his shoulder knocks him out of his daze.

“Bozie!”

Phil never takes off his guard. Not ever. Bozie’s never even asked about it. Phil is such a private guy that Bozie assumed he’d probably get beat up for even thinking about it too hard.

But now, Phil is fucking beaming at him, palm to his forehead and shaking his head slowly like he can’t even fucking believe it, and Bozie can’t stop the glance up to his guard.

Phil sees him but just shrugs, smile not once wavering. “S’nothing.”

Bozie furrows his brow a bit. “You know, I knew a kid, back in Victoria. I’m pretty sure he had a guy’s name on him.”

He lets it hang there for a minute but then Phil throws his head back and laughs. He laughs so hard that Stella comes running in and weaves around his feet. His laughs so hard that Bozie thinks he’s wiping tears from eyes.

“Is that what you think?” Phil finally gasps out. “You think I’m hiding some guy’s name?”

Bozie just shrugs. He doesn’t really know what he thinks, but he figured he would say it just in case. It hadn’t ever bothered him when he was a kid, the way Bennie looked at him. They were great at finding each other on the ice and did basically everything else well together, sometimes Bozie thought it would have been pretty fucking simple if they’d been soulmates.

“Oh, Bozie,” Phil is still smiling like his cheeks will split and gently undoes the lock on his guard. He holds his arm out without even a moment of hesitation that Bozie would have expected from a guy who acts like any direct attention is an actual death march.

The skin is smooth and white and bare. Phil doesn’t have a name on him.

After a beat, Phil lights back up all over again. “Oh, Jesus, I gotta call Mandy. Is that okay with you? I mean, you can call her if you want. Or we don’t have to tell her at all.” His face darkens for a moment. “But she’s really fucking awesome Bozie, so you should definitely want to.”

“Why don’t you just invite her over to stay here next week? It’s American Thanksgiving so she’d be out of class right.”

“It’s regular Thanksgiving. But, yeah. Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Phil beams at him again. “Man, I can’t fucking believe it.”

Phil insists on beers to celebrate that night and they play a few games of pool, shooting the shit like they usually do. Phil leaves his guard off, and jokes with Bozie that if he did have a name, it would probably be Stella—she’s the only girl that he’ll ever really love.

Phil laughs about it, but Bozie can’t bring himself to.

When Bozie lines up to break for the third game, Phil puts a hand on his wrist before he can, turning it over to look at the Amanda one more time.

“I’m so fucking happy,” Phil is beaming at him. Bozie knows he genuinely means it.

⥔ ⥖ ⥙ ⥔ ⥕

Brownie has never worn a guard in his life. Well, once or twice when it was an event that asked for it, but he’s never owned one himself or wore one by choice.

But he still finds himself at 35, single, without having even met his soulmate. When he stopped playing hockey, he dated around a while and it was nice; he could’ve settled down with a few of the women he met, maybe even one of the guys, but none of them were his. While that didn’t get in the way exactly, there was always an undercurrent of ‘temporary’ working to dissolve things.

He’s just gotten home from a quick vacation to visit his family when Brownie gets the invite in the mail—Tyler calls to invite him personally about three hours later.

“You have to come see the place, bro. It’s amazing.”

“Yeah, of course I’ll be there, man. The pictures you sent look awesome.”

“It’s way better now. We actually have our shit moved in and Jamie’s become some landscaping guru or something. The whole backyard looks totally different.”

“How’s he doing with the retirement?”

“He’s doing well, real well. I mean, his knee still bothers him off and on, but the last surgery helped a lot. He’s still upset about it, obviously, but like I tell him, it just wasn’t in the cards, you know?”

Brownie had been keeping up with the Stars, and Tyler obviously gave him a lot of the inside scoop, but it was still big news when Jamie blew out his knee two seasons back. He’d had something like a dozen surgeries but it still wasn’t enough and he’d been forced into retirement with a year left on his contract.

“He actually should be able to do some skating by winter so we’re looking into maybe starting a youth camp. Right now though he’s been talking about putting in a rock retaining wall or a retaining rock wall—something-or-other in the yard, I don’t even know. It’s his new summer project.”

“Well, I can’t wait to see you two, and the new place.”

Brownie flies out a day earlier than the housewarming party to spend time with Tyler and Jamie beforehand. He’s never been to the Island and Tyler is more than happy to show him around on the drive to his new house.

“It’s gorgeous, man. Like you can’t even imagine. Nothing like Toronto.”

“And it really never snows?”

“Dude, hardly ever, thank god. If I had to shovel our driveway every winter? Fuck it, we’d just end up snowed in for months.”

Tyler tells him more about the house buying process, his off season so far, plans for training camp in September. When Jamie retired, Tyler elected not to re-sign with the Stars.

“I figured I’d miss him too much. We’d already done that whole season apart when he was rehabbing. But man, I tell you, Free Agency was a shit show. I was convinced I was gonna end up somewhere in fuckin’ Carolina or something.”

“I thought they’d offered you something.”

“They did, a ton, but that’s even farther than Texas, man.” Ty had ended up taking a massive pay cut to sign a one-year contract closer to Jamie.

“Can’t believe you’re a fuckin Canuck, though,” Brownie shakes his head with a joking smile. “What would nineteen year old Tyler say?”

“A lot of shit he shouldn’t,” Tyler smirks. “But I tell ya, Jamie’s family is fucking tickled about it, and I wanted to be closer to home.”

“So here’s home now, huh?”

Tyler grins in answer.

Brownie discovers that Tyler wasn’t exaggerating about the house. It’s gorgeous. Not extravagantly large or anything, but it’s on a nice bit of land with beautiful views, and now that they’ve painted and moved the furniture in, it really does look way better than the pictures he’s seen. And the backyard absolutely looks like something off HGTV.

“Jesus, Jamie did all this?”

“Yeah, most of it. I mean the builders did the deck and the brick and all that, but he did the fire pit and the garden, everything in the back there. He even made that bench, can you believe that? He made that, dude. It was like, wood one day and I came home and bam! Bench.” Tyler glows and tosses a ball for Cash toward the back of the yard.

“And there’s the retaining wall I was telling you about, he wrapped that up like two days ago. Now we’re gonna plant herbs there. He’s got a total eye for this stuff and apparently a green fuckin’ thumb, too. Who knew?”

Brownie walks the perimeter, checks out the bench, the fire pit. The retaining wall with the small memorial rock for Marshall in it. Brownie runs his fingers over it.

“That was a surprise. He took the brick somewhere and got them to engrave it,” Tyler smiles sadly.

“Looks amazing, dude. M’glad you guys are so happy here.” Brownie means it, he really does, but that doesn’t mean he can help the tiny twinge of envy. He’s old enough now that domesticity is appealing.

Jamie is out picking up last minute stuff for the party when they arrive so Tyler settles Brownie’s stuff in the guestroom.

“Sorry about the mess. Jamie’s sister’s family was here last weekend and we just threw her kids in here. Linens are clean though. I’ll clear this all out for you.”

“Yeah no problem. Hey, are Blacks and Paul coming?”

“Oh! Yeah, I forgot to tell you. They’re flying into Vancouver tomorrow and then renting a car and ferrying out. They were gonna go to Kelowna next week anyway I think he said, for Paul’s birthday.”

“What about your family?”

“Mom and Jeff are coming next week. The girls were planning to come with, but I think it depends on their schedules.” Tyler starts loading the explosion of toys into a trunk.

“What about your dad?”

“Yeah, I’m not really holding out much on that front anymore.” Tyler shrugs.

“Sorry man.”

Once Jamie gets back, the three of them spend the rest of the day grilling and catching up, but in the morning, Brownie gets put right to work.

“You sleep here, you work here,” Tyler points a finger at him, but Brownie doesn’t mind helping. Jamie is still limping a little with the heavier stuff, but Brownie is good to carry things so he helps where he can.

By noon, the whole house is full and the yard is packed. Brownie caught up with Blacks and Paul for a while and then found himself meeting probably everyone who’s ever played NHL hockey out of Victoria. He’s chatting with Tyson Barrie and Tyler Bozak and his girl Mandy—who apparently has more Olympic hardware than everyone at the house combined—when Tyler finds him again.

“Jeez, Ty, how many fuckin’ people do you guys know?”

“Islanders are weird, I’m telling you. They honestly know everyone. It blows my mind sometimes how many people we run into that Jamie knows from school and shit. It’s like you're always surrounded by friends. The Island’s a cult, it's crazy.”

“And you're one of them now,” Brownie points out, taking the beer Tyler offers him.

“I know,” he beams, “I fuckin’ love it. Oh, shit! That reminds me, you gotta meet my new nephew dude, he's amazing. You remember Jordie, right?”

“Yeah.” Tyler is already dragging him off in one direction.

“He and Katy just had their first kid like four months ago? He's fucking adorable. C'mon.”

Tyler drags him over to where Jamie is talking with a few people and practically pries an infant out of his hands.

“Hey, I just got him!” Jamie pouts.

“I’ll give him back in a minute, relax Uncle Jamie.” He turns back to Brownie. “This is Jonny, and he’s gonna be the new star forward of the Benn family because daddy and mommy can’t decide between defense or goalie,” Tyler coos. “But no worries because Uncle Jamie and Uncle Tyler are gonna fix that real quick.”

A guy Brownie recognizes as Jordie scoffs a little and Tyler suddenly seems to remember there are other people here.

“Oh yeah, you remember Jordie? This is his wife Katy. She made half this little dude—the non-ginger half. And this is their neighbor, Lauren—another forward when she played.” Brownie senses some history to this conversation but Tyler plows on. “Jonny, Katy, Lauren this is Brownie.”

Brownie rolls his eyes at Tyler's half-assed introduction and holds out his hand. "Tyler. Also Tyler," he corrects. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too, Tyler.” Katy shakes his hand and he turns to Lauren, but she’s looking at him like he’s from another planet right now. Brownie looks down to take her hand, she kind of already started to reach for him, but he stops. He’s staring at his own name.

"Um."

"Bro, don’t be—holy shit!" Tyler is the first to notice besides the two of them. "Oop! Sorry, sorry," he covers the kids ears too late and Brownie is vaguely aware of Jordie reaching over their frozen, outstretched hands to grab his kid back from his foul-mouthed uncle.

Katy notices next. “Holy shit!”

“Jordie, I was supposed to get him back after. Why the he—heck are you guys—” Jamie sounds confused as fuck and yeah, Brownie can relate. “Oh.”

Finally he reaches out and takes her hand. “It’s really, really nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Lauren absolutely beams at him and it feels like every stupid, cheesy romance movie he’s ever seen in his life.

And it’s awesome.