The Aves play the Canucks partway through the season. Andre doesn’t highlight the game in his schedule, but he is aware of it approaching on the horizon. Though Canucks are part of the same conference as the Aves, they are in different divisions. So this game marks one of two the two teams will face off. In the lead up to the game, there are a few texts but Andre knows better than to make any concrete plans. Knowing his luck one of them would end up scratched or injured.
Maybe Andre is predictable, but Braden doesn’t look surprised to see him outside the visitors locker rooms after the game.
It was a hard game that spilled into overtime. Andre is tired but he doesn’t feel it. Not yet. Not when Braden hugs him hello. The ends of his hair are curling behind his hair and it’s been a while but he still smiles at Andre like he used to.
“Going to buy me a drink after that goal?” he asks.
“Maybe if you hadn’t caught it,” Andre tells him.
And that is that.
Once a Capital, always a Capital - isn’t that how it goes?
Andre has been in Denver for a couple of seasons now. Enough to know a few good places to take Braden. Or at the very least a place where they can get an out of the way booth without running into the late night nightlife crowd. The beer on tape isn’t particularly good, but it’s not really about that.
As Andre is peeling off his winter coat, he catches Braden looking.
In Colorado they clip Andre’s wings. It happens at the beginning of each season. It’s not a big deal. That’s what he tells people afterwards. Honestly, it’s not.
“You’re lacking core development,” Andre remembers Jared Bednar telling him when he arrived at training camp.
As head coach of the Aves, he’d know.
Andre’s centre of balance was shot for the following few days after the cut. He kept over balancing whenever he got up suddenly or tried to navigate his new home in Denver. It was worse on the ice. It took a while for his internal sense of balance to rewrite a lifetime of muscle memory. It took a while longer to get used to the sight of his reflection. In the beginning, the blunt ends of his wings always came as a surprise.
It’s not so bad now. It’s almost normal now.
“It didn’t hurt,” he tells Braden.
He watches Braden’s wings unconsciously ruffle in response.
Maybe Andre said the wrong thing. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe he should have said they grow back. Because they do. Usually his clipped flight feathers are growing back by the summer if he doesn’t have to have a maintenance trim during the playoffs.
Braden’s Canadian but it’s normal, Andre knows.
Most Americans in the NHL grow up regularly getting their primary flight feathers cut. Usually only four, but sometimes there are guys like Erik Johnson who go for all ten.
“D-man secret,” he always says at training camp while they are waiting outside the trainers to get the cut.
He’s a better guy than most about it. When it’s his turn, he’s usually humming something under his breath. He never flinches at the crack of keratin under the force of the medic’s steel blades.
“Light as a feather,” Andre remembers EJ saying afterwards, with a toothless grin.
(Light as a feather.)
Solid and sure, nothing moves him. What EJ loses in torque, he makes up for in core strength. Andre’s not got anything on him, but he’s put on muscle and built up his endurance since being traded. During the game against the Canucks, Alexander Edler had tried to throw him off the puck but he hadn’t managed it. No one did.
Braden is looking at him now, not away from him.
There is something steady about his gaze. It’d be easier if he was embarrassed or uncomfortable. Then Andre could make a joke and buy the first round of drinks.
Andre still makes a (bad) joke and goes to buy the first round of drinks.
When he gets back, Braden has settled into the booth and he does laugh when Andre asks how his second season as a Canuck is treating him.
"Better than my first," he says.
"Rookies always say that," Andre says.
“Oldest rookie season on record,” he says, shaking his head.
It wasn't a bad season, for him or Andre. Neither of them walked away with a cup, but they made good on their respective teams expectations and investments. From what Andre's seen, Braden's statistics are looking pretty good this year too.
“I saw you get First Star of the Week.”
“Not for this week,”
No. Not for this week. But pretty close.
Andre shrugs. “That’s hockey.”
Braden takes a sip of his beer. “That is hockey,” he agrees.
Games are won and lost. They matter, but neither of them are kids anymore. They can leave it at the rink. It’s better that way.
It’s been awhile since they last did this. Not that they ever really did this in Washington DC. Back then, they ran in different circles. At team events it was always Ovi and his boys at the bar, and Andre trying to dance with anyone and everyone. Even at those big events, Andre never really ended up squished in the back of one of the too small booths with Braden or outside the bar with him while he and Brooks pretending they weren’t smoking but maybe smoked just one cigarette.
“I wasn’t smoking,” Braden says, when Andre mentions it.
They were all smoking. They were idiots.
“Maybe you were,” Braden says, but his wings have dropped and it hasn’t been long enough for Andre to forget his tells.
There is something about Braden. Everyone knows how he looks, but it’s not that. It’s something else and for a moment Andre is back in DC, unable to tear his eyes away from him.
It’s almost funny now.
Andre isn’t a teenager anymore and Braden isn’t the hotshot goalie. Well. Braden still is a hotshot, but it’s been a while since those early days. Long enough that Andre almost feels nostalgic.
“I had such a crush on you back in the day,” Andre finds himself saying.
Braden smiles a little. “Yeah, I know.”
He says it simply, as if it’s old news. Worn thin at the edges with retellings.
Andre laughs. He can’t help it.
He puts down his beer. “You knew?”
Braden shrugs. “Yeah, I knew.”
There is something soft and fond to his smile.
“You had crushes on all of us.”
Maybe a couple of years ago Andre would be mortified, but he’s always loved easily, and it was easy to fall a little bit for his teammates. For Tom who was so broad and had those thighs, and TJ who would push his slightly too long hair out of his eyes, even for Brooks who always seemed so capable and in control.
“I really liked you,” he tells Braden, just because he can’t let this stand unchallenged.
Braden shakes his head. “Charmer.”
Andre could leave it there. He should. But this isn’t DC and it’s been a long time since Andre had Nicke there to tell him to shut up before he said something stupid.
“I really liked you,” Andre repeats, without pretence.
Braden just leans back in the booth, loosely holding his beer. “I knew that too.”
He is still so gorgeous; all that easy confidence he wears lights him up from within. It’s magnetic and it’s hard to look away from him. Andre doesn’t even try. Leaning forward he points at Braden with one finger.
“Why didn’t you do something about it?”
Because honestly, come on.
Braden’s expression shifts a little. “You know why.”
And yeah. Andre knows why. Maybe he even appreciates it in retrospect. But -
“Missed out on a sure thing,” Andre says, holding up his hands.
“I don’t know about that,” Braden says, and he is looking at Andre.
There is a heady weight to his gaze; it settles on Andre and he takes a moment to let it register. Because oh. Oh. Braden is watching him; waiting. Waiting to see what Andre will do with it; with that statement.
Braden has a way of making things look easy, even this.
This is not a turn of events that Andre expected. But, yeah, okay. Andre will give Braden that point. He says as much and Braden laughs.
It’s not all bad.
Braden buys the next round and then they end up grabbing a meal. By the time they leave, it’s getting late. It’s later than Andre is usually out. There are a good group of guys who he runs with in Denver, but most of the Aves tend to fly low at home.
It’s a short flight to the Canucks hotel; maybe ten klicks at most. The night is clear and the winds are favourable.
“Let’s share a taxi,” Braden says instead.
“I’m not going your way,” Andre tells him.
“I don’t mind,” Braden says simply.
Back in DC this was how Andre imagined those team dinners ending. It’s different now. The corners of Braden’s eyes are creased as he smiles and Andre still wants him. Of course he does. Maybe it’s not so different. But the sense of want fills him differently now; a wave that washes over him.
Andre lets it. He looks at Braden; his mouth and the length of his neck; the line of his cheekbones and nose. At some point after Andre was traded, Braden broke it. It was set well, but Andre can still tell.
When they go outside, Braden automatically fluffs out his wings, trapping air between his feathers. It’s October and the barometer has dropped sharply. At the curve he brings his near-side wing up around Andre. The off-white semiplume and down feathers on the underside of his wings are soft against Andre’s face.
“Wind chill,” Braden says quietly.
It’s a common misconception. Andre’s wings still work. He just can’t fly.
Pressed close to Braden, Andre can see there are flecks of dye on the underside of some of Braden’s secondary feathers. Some are still bleached; no longer white but turning yellow at the edges. Normally his plumage is rufous in tone and faintly barred with dark brown and black, but that was before the Vancouver Pride Parade. Andre has seen photos of his rainbow plumage; his wings outstretched above his head. Most people have. They made it into the mainstream press.
Months later there are patches of colour caught in the keratin. Another molt and they’ll be gone. Not a trace left. For now it’s a mismatch. By Andre’s side, he feels his fingers twitch. Against his wings, he feels Braden’s feathers sliding against his. It’s an intimacy that Andre is used to on the ice and in the locker room, but this is in public.
“Burky,” Braden says. A hint of a question.
They could leave it here. Andre knows that.
It could be one night of something. Maybe it could be something they revisit the next time their teams play. Baring injuries or scratching, in a few weeks time they’ll see each other again.
At nineteen, Andre wanted everything all at once. Time teaches many things. Moderation among them. He’s the same age now that Braden was back then. In retrospect, Andre isn’t sure what kind of person Braden had been beneath his surface of unassailable coolness. Probably not quite what Andre had imagined.
Up close, Andre can feel the heat of Braden’s body. In the shelter of his wing, the northern wind doesn’t touch him.
Andre isn’t nineteen, but he wants this; he wants Braden. So he takes Braden to his apartment.
At six foot two, Braden’s wingspan is almost too big for standard taxis; he takes up the backseat while Andre sits up front with the driver. It’s easier in the lift in Andre’s building; there is space left over but they don't need it.
In the mirrored space, there are multitudes of them. Braden isn’t looking at that; no longer in public, his gaze has narrowed for focus solely on Andre. Somewhere between the ground floor and the penthouse, Andre kisses him. At first just to see, but that doesn’t last long.
Braden’s mouth is hot and opens against Andre’s. Hungry for it, Andre kisses back.
There isn’t enough time for what Andre wants. He fumbles with his keys outside his apartment.
Back in DC, most of the Capitals lived out of town towards the green zones. At home in Sweden, Andre’s home in Malmö is by the water and backs onto the forest. Here, in Denver, Andre lives in the sky. Or the next best thing. From his apartment windows the city is a sprinkle of lights at night-time; made small by distance.
Drawn to the windows, Braden touches the glass with his fingertips. If anyone could understand, it’d be him.
“Come over here,” Braden says; his voice a rumble.
A tease as much as an order.
“You come over here,” Andre tells him, just to see what Braden will do.
Dare. Double dare.
Maybe that hasn’t changed either.
They go to Andre’s bedroom.
His bower is a mess.
“I would have made my bed if I’d known” Andre says, but he’s not particularly embarrassed.
He watches as Braden strips. His body is solid; not just of muscle and bone; not to Andre. It’s been a couple of hours now since Braden was in full harness in his uniform. There are echoes of red marks from his goalie pads, and a couple of bruises. Some are old. A couple look fresh. Andre knows his body looks much the same.
“What do you want?” Andre asks, curious.
Braden’s eyes are dark and his lips are parted.
Andre runs his mouth. He knows this. He always ends up saying too much. But right now he holds his tongue.
What does Andre want; he thinks of Braden’s hands spanning the diameter of his wrists and the weight of his body pinning his down. Sweat and the weight of Braden’s cock in his hand, his mouth. And he wants this; Braden’s honesty and his hunger. It’s a hell of a headrush.
“I want you naked,” Braden says simply.
Sex is not. It’s good, but it’s not simple.
They kiss and kiss. Braden holds Andre’s jaw in one hand.
There is just a hint of pressure to his grip. Enough that Andre feels it. Enough that there comes a point where Andre bites his lip just to see what will happen.
What happens is Braden’s grip on his jaw tenses.
Andre knows he is all red and flustered. He knows he’s already a mess. Breathing heavily, he leans down and presses his mouth against Braden’s again. Underneath him, Andre feels Braden's response. Like quick silver. Like he already has this play mapped.
But he’s careful. Careful of Andre’s wings. He hesitates when he goes to pin Andre down. Andre can tell and he can’t help himself.
He bites Braden again. Harder. This time Braden’s grip doesn’t falter.
“Going to ask me to do that on purpose?” Braden says, distracted.
An inch away from his lips, Andre tries to catch his breath.
He could ask.
“How about we start with something simple?” Andre suggests.
Against his lips, he feels Braden break into a smile.
Shifting, Braden straddling Andre and leans down to kiss the base of his throat, to nip at his collar bones, to lick a nipple. Panting, Andre whimpers and Braden does it again. His mouth is hot and relentless.
Swearing, Andre tries to get some leverage, but he has none.
“Good enough?” Braden asks.
“Could be better,” Andre tells him.
A solid weight above Andre, Braden’s wings are splayed out; feathers mussed and sweaty. His cock is hard and blood hot. Rocking his hips, Braden lazily grinds his cock into the sweat slicked skin of the hollow of Andre’s hips. It’s clumsy and hot, and greedy for it, Andre kisses Braden until he can’t; until he has to break away to breathe.
“Let me,” Braden says.
Braden’s breath is laboured and with a spit slick hand, he palms Andre’s cock. Wrapping his palm around both of them, Braden jerks them off together. Andre doesn’t last. He can’t, not with Braden setting up a ruthless rhythm and then making it unbearable by knotting his free hand in Andre’s hair. Pulling his head back, Braden exposes the length of Andre’s neck. Pressing his mouth against Andre’s pulse, Braden sucks a new bruise into his skin.
And that’s all it takes.
Shuddering, Andre comes.
“Good boy,” Braden says roughly.
His pupils are blown out and his skin is flushed. It doesn’t take long for him to follow.
Afterwards, Andre drifts. Vaguely, he feels Braden’s hand sweeping a line along his spine. It’s calming. Andre could probably succumb to sleep. He’s only a few steps away from it. He’ll regret it if he does before he cleans up, but he doesn’t want to move. Not yet. Braden’s touch reverberates through Andre. There is something terribly tender about it.
At his wing joints, Andre feels Braden’s touch linger. The muscles are relaxed. Reflexively, his wing span unfolds.
Braden’s fingers still.
“You can,” Andre offers, yawning. “If you want.”
Grooming is an intimacy, but what’s one more? Besides, it’s not like Andre didn’t spend most of his life in locker rooms where preening is part of team bonding. If it wasn’t Nicke reaching over to fix a mussed feather, it was John Carlson on the bench after a scuffle on the ice smoothing the beaten up barbs of his pin feathers, or even Jakub Vrana digging his fingers into the soft down feathers while Andre was moulting. Now it’s Gabe who will fix Andre up, or sometimes Colin Wilson will lean over and fish out a broken feather from his wings and tell him to make a wish on it while they wait for their team bus at the airport.
Back in the first weeks after his wings were first cut, there were bruises on Andre’s forearms and shins while his sense of proprioception adjusted. They were hidden neatly by his new burgundy and blue jersey. Back then his name and number didn’t quite look right, but he got used to it sooner rather than later.
Besides, Andre wasn’t alone in his war wounds
“You’ll become more stable,” Gabe said when he checked in with Andre.
And he was right. Andre has.
On the ice he glides. There is none of the explosive flight that Ovi employs to his advantage, but there is a style to the way the Aves play. The limits of their bodies and wings combine in unexpected and powerful ways.
“It’s not right,” Braden says.
Andre knows what he’s thinking.
They’ve all seen the Hall of Famers. Every team has them. Even if Andre isn’t as familiar with NHL names as Braden is, it’s easy to recognise those players by sight alone. They all have the same crumpled, pinioned look to their wings. The game is different now. Faster. But back in their day, back in the early days in the 60s and 70s, hockey was a grounded sport. Blades on the ice, wings cut to the quick. Decades have passed since then but Jeff Skinner can’t pull out a single axel on the ice without getting shit and uncut teams like the Caps and the Canucks are still outliers in the league.
Pressing his forehead into the pillows, Andre closes his eyes.
He feels Braden’s fingers map a way from the humerus and down the radius bones of his wings. Muscle and bone. Ligaments and the inner vane of his tertiary feathers. They are closest to his back, and he can feel Braden’s touch through them.
Every team has a different system. This is the Aves.
“It’s not simple.”
Braden exhales slowly. “It never is.”
Sometimes, the blunt ends of Andre’s wings catch on sweaters and sheets, pulling threads.
Braden doesn’t touch them, but Andre can feel his gaze.
“Stay,” Andre says at one point, when it is somewhere between very late at night and very early in the morning.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Braden says.
Leaning over, he kisses Andre’s shoulder. The bristles of his beard scratch against his skin.
Andre turns, and looks at him. “Not until tomorrow.”
Braden nods. His expression is soft and unexpectedly gentle. “No, not until then.”
His hand sweeps back up his spine. But instead of skating the line of his wing. Braden brings his hand to Andre’s and laces their fingers together.
“Maybe when you come to Vancouver, I can buy you that drink.”
“Is that a promise?” Andre asks.
“How about a date?”
Braden presses close. His mouth finds Andre’s neck and Andre can feel him smiling.