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1.

There’s a lizard in the kitchen again.

Marc rolls over and looks at the clock: half past six. Vero let him sleep in, which was nice, but judging by the screaming coming from downstairs she’d probably appreciate some help.

They must be getting in under the sliding glass doors to the backyard. He’s sealed them up twice, and since that’s pretty much the outer limit of his handyman skills they’ve just had to live with the occasional little friend getting into the house.

“Stop grabbing at it!” Estelle yells, his serious, sensitive girl. She’s already brought home three lizards and a scorpion, jesus fucking christ, and has drawn up detailed plans for the bat house she wants to build in the yard, because their natural habitat is “being encroached on”, and when did his baby girl learn the word “encroached”?

“I’m not!” Scarlett yells back. Even without being there Marc knows that Scarlett is blatantly lying to everyone’s faces, probably in the middle of doing the exact thing she’s denying she’s doing; she can never leave them alone, always chasing them into corners and snatching at them with surprisingly accurate aim for a two and a half year old.

“Papa!” Vero sing songs up the stairs, and Marc scrubs his hands down his face.

“Coming, I’m coming!”

He grabs his phone off the nightstand and there’s a text from Sidney: Taking off now. See you soon.

He stares at it for a long moment, butterflies taking off in his belly, then pulls on a t-shirt and heads down into the fray.

+

When Marc ducks under the door and into the plane for the first time as his new team heads to Vancouver, the buzz of conversation stutters as it dies down then picks back up. He can feel the vacuum created by the lack of eyes on him, making his way down the aisle with an invisible barrier around him that deflects gazes onto laps and PSPs and other guys in a way that everyone somehow thinks is totally inconspicuous.

He picks an open window seat towards the front of the plane and digs in his bag: water bottle, sleep mask, one of Kris’s ridiculous chocolate bars that Vero put in his bag as a joke but now, looking at Kris’s dumb, dear face, it doesn’t make him laugh.

More guys pass him, a few nod. Neal doesn’t even look at him. Pierre pauses for a second, takes in what Marc’s sure must be a grimace barely masquerading as a smile on Marc’s face, and collapses into the aisle seat across him him.

Marc puts on his headphones and pulls out his phone. He scrolls through his texts, clicks Sidney’s name, and looks at the last message there: No pressure okay.

His stomach feels tight and hot, thinking about Sidney out there without him, going to dinner, eating his sandwich, sitting in his stall in all his gear, his legs sprawled out, his eyes crinkling up as he laughs; all the little spaces Marc used to fit beside him small wounds stitching themselves back together.

Sidney’s life going on without him, the way Marc’s is supposed to go on without Sidney.

Marc puts his bag in the seat next to him, turns his phone off and puts it in the seatback pocket in front of him.

+

“Hey.”

Marc starts, looking up from the note Vero had slipped into his bag and crumpling it reflexively in his fist. Crosby — Sidney — is standing in the aisle, grinning lopsidedly at him. “Hey,” he says back.

Sidney nods to the aisle seat. “You mind?”

“No, no.” Marc shifts his bag to the floor and kicks it under the seat in front of him.

“Cool.” Sidney throws his considerable ass into the seat in a way that Marc finds himself wishing other people could see, totally incongruous with the Sidney Crosby everyone always talks about. He tilts his head back to watch everyone else go by, the familiar sounds of the team getting settled ebbing and flowing around them.

It’s his first roadie since Sidney started with the team, not that Marc thinks it makes much of a difference to Sidney himself. As far as Sidney’s concerned, Marc’s might still be the kid who came on too strong during World Juniors and then went on to lose Canada the gold.

They hadn’t texted after that game; Marc had reached out, but Sidney never responded. Marc’s tried not to read into it. Everyone’s busy, and Sidney is. Well. He’s Sidney Crosby.

But since Sidney was drafted, Marc’s been struggling to quiet the anxious voice in his head that says Sidney’s still disappointed, that he thinks Marc is a mistake of a first draft pick.

Marc doesn’t think that, of course. He knows how good he is, how good he can be if he gets regular starts. But he also can’t stop reading his press, even though he has to be more sneaky about it now since Vero’s threatened to withhold sex if he doesn’t stop.

Marc looks down at Vero’s note, which he had been methodically smoothing out on his thigh. Her handwriting is really nice, and hasn’t changed much since they were dumb kids and Marc thinks again how lucky he is that she’s stuck by him.

When he sighs, Sidney makes an agreeable noise, and when Marc looks back up, Sidney is looking at him expectantly. “What?” he asks, half-defensively, feeling a little wrong-footed.

From your girlfriend?” Sidney asks, with his terrible, Maritime-tinged accent that Marc had managed to forget. “Veronique, right?”

Marc can’t help the twitch that tries to curl his mouth into a grin.

Sidney’s eyes narrow. “What?”

No,” Marc says, seriously, clearing his throat in an effort to not smile. “I just forgot how good your French is.”

A dull red flush spreads over Sidney’s cheeks. “I thought you’d like a break from English,” he clearly tries not to say snappishly, but definitely does anyway.

Now Marc can’t help his grin, perversely delighted by the sharp turn of Sidney’s temper. “Sorry, sorry,” he says, knowing he doesn’t sound that sorry, but hopefully sorry enough.

Sidney glares straight ahead, so hard that Colby Armstrong, stuffing his bag into the overhead bin two rows up, does a double-take.

Army raises an eyebrow at Marc, who shrugs a little, sheepishly.

Sidney leans forward suddenly to rummage in his bag and Marc sighs again. This is definitely not how he had intended to start his hopefully permanent gig with the guy who would probably one day be his Captain.

“Look,” he starts, but Sidney suddenly sits back and holds out something that he’d dug out of his bag.

It’s a packet of Reeses, bright orange, the wrapping crinkled and mashed on one side.

“Want one?”

Sidney smiles at him, a crooked little thing that makes Marc feel giddy.

He giggles helplessly at it all: the glint in Sidney’s eyes, almost golden as he squints into the sun coming in the tiny window; the rubberband of his moods; the strange mix of boyish and knowing in the expression on his round face.

Sidney joins in, high-pitched and ridiculous and Marc falls a little in love with him, fast and hard, the small spark he had felt when they played together at Worlds blazing to life; it was the same with Vero when he was 15, and later, with Kris and Geno and Pascal, the flame will pull them in, too.

But of course, as Marc learns pretty quick, everything is more intense when Sidney’s involved.

Marc takes the packet.

Sidney bumps elbows with him across the armrest as they rip the wrappers open, and lets it stay there. Marc’s skin buzzes with renewed anticipation.

Marc settles back to look out the window.

“Hey.”

Marc rolls his head against the headrest to look at him.

“You wanna get dinner later?” Sidney asks around a mouthful of chocolate. “Before the game?”

Marc smiles. “Yeah, I really do.”

And that, for Marc anyway, is that.



2.

Putting sunscreen on the kids every morning is in his top five of Things to Hate About the Desert.

“No, Papa,” Scarlett whines, and kicks at him as he tries to do her shins.

“If we don’t,” Marc says, with more calm than he feels, “you can’t play outside at school this morning. Would you rather sit inside all day?”

Scarlett’s mouth pinches in mutinously. “Yes.”

Vero laughs. “I told you to stop giving her options.”

“I like having options,” Scarlett says, the word “option” coming out like it’s in a completely foreign language.

In other other carseat, Estelle is jerking her head around as Vero tries to spread the stuff on her cheeks. Both girls will end up with clumped together white hairs around their ears, and they need to take baths every day now to scrape off the layers of sunscreen and sand and sweat.

“Why can’t they do this at school?” Marc asks for probably the 80th time, actually sweating as he smears the last glob of lotion across Scarlett’s neck and calls it good enough.

“Because this is the way they do it,” Vero replies, long-suffering and out of breath.

“We pay them enough,” Marc mutters under his breath and Vero rolls her eyes and then closes Estelle’s door, coming around to the driver’s side as Marc half-closes Scarlett’s door.

Vero puts her hands on his face. “I love you. Today is going to be great.”

Marc shrugs a little. “When are Cath and Anna and the kids getting here?”

“They’re coming straight from the airport — their flight gets in a little after the charter does.” She kisses his collarbone through his shirt. “If you text him now he won’t be able to respond because he’s mid flight.”

Marc laughs. It comes out more nervous than he means it to. “Stop.”

Vero looks in his eyes. Her right eyebrow looks like it’s trying to crawl over the top of her head. “He is staying with us tonight, so you’ll have to talk to him eventually.”

“Just.” Marc blows out a huge breath. “It’s fine.”

Inside the car, Scarlett yells, “Bye, Papa!”

Marc peeks in through the small opening. “You’ll come see Papa play tonight?”

“And Alex!” Estelle says.

“And baby!” Scarlett yells, half over Estelle; she’s obsessed with Nikita, who, Marc has to remind himself, isn’t really a baby anymore.

Vero laughs. “Take a hint, Papa.”

Marc blows them both kisses and they giggle. “Bye, my darlings. Be good for Mama.” He closes Scarlett’s door and puts his face in Vero’s hair for a moment that he thinks might be too long, but maybe Vero doesn’t notice. “Love you.”

Vero pets his head, kisses his cheek, then his mouth. Fat chance. “Love you. See you after the game.”

Marc waits until the car has cleared the door, then presses the button to roll it down. He stands in the dark until it’s suddenly too stuffy, even for December, and then goes back into the house.

+

Marc’s on a streak, and he feels something huge and almost ugly pulse inside him with every save, every helmet tap, fuck you pumping through his veins so hard it makes him lightheaded.

He checks his texts after games, before practice, waiting for the plane to take off.

Perry looks good, Sidney sends.

Haha Bergy was so pissed, this about Marc’s epic poke-check on Patrice Bergeron in the last minute of the third, ensuring a shut-out in their game against the Bruins.

Tanger thinks having an A means you can get into more fights.

The ice is worse this year. Everyone says I’m crazy.

Nikita is calling all birds penguins now. I mean he can only say pen, but we know what he’s saying.

We miss you, Uncle Marc.

Are you

Started that last night, didn’t meant to send. Sorry.

No pressure.

They win more than they lose, but it’s only October, so Vegas stays at the bottom of everyone’s predictions for the season.

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, goes Marc’s internal metronome, as he stops the puck and then stops another and then another.

Thirteen years ago, when the club was on the verge of bankruptcy and they couldn’t buy a fucking win, before Sidney and Geno and Kris, when Marc was a dumb kid who thought being a number one pick meant anything, he offered to waive his bonus so he could stay with the team instead of being sent back down. They said no and he got shipped out.

This time they said yes.

In the end, the result is the same, only this time there’s no amount of hard work that Marc can put in that’ll get him back where he wants to be.

+

“Um,” Sidney says, sitting cross-legged and anxious on Marc’s bed as Marc tugs on the drapes to block out the glaring sun, Sid having followed him back to his hotel room before they have to nap, “I’m gay. I think.”

“You think?” Marc blurts and Sidney laughs, blushing.

“I mean. I like girls sometimes. But mostly guys. So,” he waves his hands around. “Gay. Mostly. I guess. I just…wanted you to know.”

Marc’s wondered. He’s…interested in people, he likes to know what makes them tick, what makes them similar to or different than Marc.

Vero — very uncharitably he feels, though always with this secret little smile that she thinks he can’t see — calls this being a busybody.

He’s heard the gossip (and shut it down on multiple occasions), and has noticed that Sid never picks up when they go out and never talks about it when guys chirp him about looking very obviously sex rumpled at early morning practices. It could be lot of things, and Sidney is very private, but still.

Marc’s wondered.

And he wants to be cool in this moment, he wants to show Sidney that it doesn’t matter. Or rather that it does, that Marc knows how much it means that Sidney would share this, but that he doesn’t love him any less, that it doesn’t change anything about Sidney in his eyes, that Sidney is literally just Sidney, no matter what.

Sidney’s mouth is starting to pinch inward the way it does when he’s feeling insecure and defensive.

“Oh,” Marc says, finally, realizing he’s been silent for far too long.

Sidney’s brows pull together. “Oh…?” he says, looking up at Marc through his lashes.

Marc sits next to Sidney, making sure their thighs press up against each other. He knows Sidney doesn’t usually like when people initiate contact, but he thinks it’s important that he breaks that rule right now.

“I mean to say, that’s great. That’s…I’m glad. That you told me.”

Sidney’s face is doing something complicated as Marc looks for the right words, brows furrowing and the corner of his mouth twitching, until finally he starts giggling.

“No, it’s not funny, I think it’s fine, not that you need my permission— you’re being an asshole right now, you know English is hard for me sometimes!” But Sidney’s giggle is infectious, as always, and then they’re both laughing until they’re crying, Sidney turning his face into Marc’s shoulder, Marc gripping Sidney’s thigh like it’s the only thing keeping him upright.

The door swings open and Max comes in, on the phone with his father. He looks at the two of them and rolls his eyes, heading into the bathroom to piss with the door open, still chattering away, which makes Sidney laugh even harder, shoving at Marc so he falls over onto his side, curled around Sidney’s hip.

They collect themselves and Marc looks up from his vantage point as Sidney looks down at him. His face is soft and open and Marc is suddenly aware of how close they are, Sidney’s furnace of a body pumping out heat.

“I should go,” Sidney finally says.

Marc let’s out a shuddery breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Yeah, yeah.” Marc rolls onto his back and closes his eyes, toeing off his shoes. “See you in an hour.”

What light left in the room is blocked out as something moves in front of Marc’s face.

“Hey.”

Marc cracks open his eyes and looks up into Sidney’s.

Merci,” Sidney says, and his warm hand covers Marc’s. “Merci beaucoup.

Bien sûr,” he replies roughly, because Sidney shouldn’t be thanking him for acting like any decent human being should and also because Marc is afraid, suddenly, that he might cry for some reason.

Sidney gives him a wry smile and shakes his head. “Get some sleep, we need you sharp.”

“I’m always sharp,” Marc says huffily, closing his eyes again.

“Like a butter knife!” Max yells from the bathroom, where water has been running full blast for the last five minutes.

“Fuck off both of you!” Marc says and rolls onto his belly.

He can hear Sidney’s laugher even after he closes the door.



3.

Their home office is the coolest place in the house, only one wall exposed to the Nevada heat, one window that somehow the sun never seems to manage to hit directly.

Marc spends a lot of time there midday when he’s home, sometimes takes his afternoon nap on the insanely expensive couch Vero had ordered, and he finds himself there now, dawdling before he has to get dressed and head for morning skate.

Vero has her workspace set up, streamlined standing desk and two shelves, a metal filing cabinet to the side, the bottom two drawers of which are folders full of her Pens Foundation material, the top one waiting to be filled with ideas for the Knights.

There are photos of the girls, one of their wedding photo outtakes where Marc is literally wiping anxious sweat from his forehead and the look on her face is that mix of fond exasperation and fierce protection that Marc has seen almost once a day since last summer, when they knew their time in Pittsburgh suddenly was coming to an end.

There’s a photo of Vero, Maureen, Cath, and Anna from the going away party Sidney threw them, where Geno got drunk and sentimental and wore a custom 29 sweater all night and kissed Marc and Vero both about ten times; Anna shadowed Vero all night long and Kris shadowed Marc and at the end of it, Sidney refused to say goodbye, acted like they would all see each other again at Camp in September.

At the time Marc laughed and when he did interviews he made sure to make gentle fun of him in print, that Sidney hadn’t said goodbye yet.

But now it sits like a burning coal in his belly, making him feel hot and restless, angry in a way he can’t really put his finger on so he can’t fix it.

The girls have made a playground out of his boxes that have been stacked in the corner since they moved in, stuffed animals and action figures and small erasers shaped like dinosaurs arranged around and on top of them in some order that only they know.

Marc packed them himself, carefully, not letting the movers touch them: plaques and trophies and medals, display boxes for his rings, framed photos of the team, two small Cup replicas filled with water that used to be ice from his crease, gifts from Sidney, of course.

“It’s not really from my crease, though, is it?” Marc had joked when Sidney gave him one last year, a joke that wasn’t a joke at all, a dumb fucking thing he had said on purpose, to remind Sidney that he was hurting and maybe to hurt Sidney a little, too, because his deep dark secret is that he’s an asshole.

The memory of the embarrassed flush and frozen smile on Sidney’s face still makes Marc squirm, and he remembers it on purpose sometimes, when he wants to feel bad about himself.

Sidney hadn’t given him one this year, and Marc still can’t decide if he’s upset about it or relieved.

Downstairs, on the whiteboard in their kitchen, there’s a little note for next Wednesday: Dr. Erickson. He had made the appointment two months ago, knowing he’d need it, and all the way up until yesterday he told himself he would cancel it because surely it couldn’t be as bad as he was worrying about, seeing everyone, playing in front of them instead of behind.

He’s glad he kept it.

+

The first time they’re shut-out they also get blown out of the water, just to make it extra shitty. Marc lets in three in the first period alone, and a fucking Timbits team could dangle their defense, which, ironically, is exactly what their offense looks like the entire game, crashing into each other and tripping over their own skates and completely unable to find the back of the net

Worse, it’s Ottawa.

He’s gotten okay at not looking at his press, mostly because by now he can write the think pieces himself using only the bullet points of his own neuroses. During the media scrum after, he shrugs and laughs self-deprecatingly and very carefully does not drag his entire hand over his face in order to passive-aggressively let everyone know he thinks they’re idiots, which the Pens PR team had coached him against doing about one million times but he didn’t listen because it was his room and his losses and wins and what were they going to do, trade him?

After, everyone generally avoids him, and he hasn’t even done anything like break his stick or deliberately only speak in French and only to other French-speakers, so he guesses his game face isn’t quite on straight.

He’s putting his wedding ring back on when his phone vibrates at him with an incoming text.

It’s Kris. Did you throw a shit fit or are you still trying to convince the rookies you’re just a mild-mannered good Canadian boy?

Marc laughs and a few guys turn their heads toward him in surprise. I’m a paragon of patience, everyone knows this. The best teammate anyone can ask for.

Yeah I read those articles, too.

The BEST, Kristopher. People were very specific.

You’ll notice I said no such thing in print.

Marc is almost vibrating with glee when he types: No you just cried on tv about it.

I also said I wouldn’t take you for my fantasy draft so

Marc loves this absolute asshole and it’s times like these that he remembers why.

“You coming?” Miller flicks the back of his hat as he heads out.

“Yeah, yeah, just a sec.” Marc’s phone vibrates again and he looks down.

Sid says to remind you not to read the internet

Jesus fucking—

Why did you tell him you were texting me, he types, then deletes, then types again and then deletes again.

He knew I was texting you already before you get something up your ass about it.

Marc bites down on the scoffing noise he wants to make. Really.

Yes. You know how he knew? Because he also wanted to text you, everyone here did but they knew you’d be a shit about it

Marc can picture it, them waking up from their afternoon naps and checking the score because their basketcase ex-goalie was playing the team that knocked him out of his last run with his team. Trickling into the room and talking about him and wondering how he was.

It sounds supportive, should be comforting, but it makes Marc’s skin crawl.

Well they have my number.

You fucking bet we do, Kris texts back and Marc rolls his eyes.

The typing bubbles pop up and blink out three times in a row before Kris finally sends, You’re both big boys. Figure your shit out.

Marc is contemplating which annoyed face emoji to send back when another notification pops up at the top of the screen.

Don’t listen to Tanger. Take the time you need. I’m here when you’re ready.

Then, as usual: No pressure.

Marc clicks the display off quick, shoves the phone in his back pocket, and gathers his things, not looking at Pierre, who’s trying to catch his eye. “C’mon, rook,” he bumps Cody’s shoulder on the way out, where he’s stopped to futz with the zip on his bag. “Let’s go.”

Cody scrambles after him, and they walk to the bus and talk about nothing.

+

Marc knows the split second before the knock comes that Sidney is standing outside the bathroom door, but he can’t move. Even if he weren’t still in his pads, his core shredded from fifty-eight minutes and thirty seconds of desperate, terrible hockey and two more of puking all of his guts out.

He hadn’t even heard what Sidney said to him on the bench when it was all over, couldn’t look at him, couldn’t imagine Sidney’s dear, familiar face heartbroken and it being Marc’s fault.

He’s a coward.

Sidney’s feet shuffle on the tile outside the stall Marc is literally crammed into. “Flower,” he says, and his voice is crackly from yelling, from crying.

Marc shakes his head and the movement rolls his stomach sickeningly; he vomits again, weakly, nothing coming up but thin green bile.

“If you don’t open this door, I’ll tear it off.”

Marc clears his throat, wincing at the acid burn in his throat. “No you won’t,” he croaks. “You barely weigh more than me.”

There’s a pause. “Then I’ll get G to tear it off.”

Marc laughs hollowly. “Yeah, he’s probably mad enough.”

Sidney makes a small, angry noise. “He’s not mad. He’s fucking sad.”

“Well so am I.”

“We all are! You think you wanted this more than us?”

“No, but it’s—“ he can’t go on. He can’t say it again.

Fucking coward.

He twists around and struggles to get the door open around his pads. He half leans on it, up on his knees, and stares at Sidney’s feet in his ratty socks and slides.

Marc loves him so much and he let him down so, so bad.

“A fucking own goal, Sid? A fucking—“ he breaks off.

Sid sinks to his haunches. “Please don’t do this.”

Marc squeezes his eyes shut. His worst fear is clogging his throat, making it hard to breathe. He can barely think it, is terrified that if he says it, Sidney will agree and that, more than losing in his own barn, more than scoring the game winner on himself in the fucking Stanley Cup Final, will break him.

But he doesn’t think he can live with not knowing, either. He wants to be able to look into Sidney’s face again, and if he doesn’t say it, he never will.

“What if,” he croaks, “What if they make a mistake, bringing me here?”

Once the first words are out, he can’t stop the rest of them, pouring from him like a burst pipe.

“I’m up for renewal this year — what if they don’t re-sign me? What if that was the last game I ever play with you? With Kris and Geno and Pascal and what if you’re happy to be rid of me?” He laughs wetly, hollow. “What do I do without you?”

Marc steels himself and looks up into Sidney’s face: he looks horrible, gaunt, an ugly flush on his cheeks, his eyes pink with burst capillaries and wet with tears.

He looks furious.

“Sidney,” Marc says, desperate, cold panic gripping him, and then Sidney is on him, crawling into his lap and clutching his back, his hot, wet face mashed into Marc’s neck.

“Fuck you,” Sidney says, “Fuck you.”

“I’m sorry, Sidney,” Marc gasps, and suddenly the tears come, fast and hard, regret clawing past the pit in his throat, “Please, I’m sorry. I know I fucked up, like I fucked up in Finland, and I know you’re still mad—“

“What?” Sidney pulls back enough to see his face. “What are you talking about? I’m not still mad about that!”

“You—“ Christ almighty, Marc is about to just let all his shit hang out and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. “You never texted me back and I thought…” His throat closes up.

Sidney looks stricken. “Fuck, Marc.”

“I know I fucked up, I just wanted—“

“It…Marc, it’s wasn’t about you. It was a lot for me. And I was disappointed, but not in you!”

“You were a kid,” Marc forces out. “I said I’d have your back and I let you down.”

Sidney’s face crumples a little. “So were you.”

Marc closes his eyes and feels like 90 kilos of hammered shit.

“I’ll quit if you go,” Sidney says fiercely, hugging him again, “I’d rather lose with you behind me than win with anyone else.”

Marc laughs, a little hysterically. “That’s not true, that’s—”

“Don’t—Just shut the fuck up.” Sidney sits back, his face wet with snot and tears, set into Marc’s favorite expression: mulish and like he’s hoping for someone to tell him he’s wrong so he can settle in for the argument. “You’re mine. You’re ours. You’re not going anywhere and we’re gonna be back here next year and we’re gonna win.”

Marc wipes a hand over his eyes; the tears are still slowly coming, he can’t seem to stop them. “You can’t say that, you’ll jinx us.”

Sidney pushes his face into Marc’s. “Fuck that and fuck you, we’re lifting that fucking Cup next year. I promise.”

Marc feels weak, all his muscles malfunctioning with fatigue. His body lists drunkenly, without his permission, into Sidney’s, who gathers him in as best he can with all Marc’s gear between them.

“I won’t let you down,” Marc almost slurs.

Sidney mashes Marc’s head down against his shoulder. “You never have yet.”

It might be a lie, it must be. But Sidney means it, always means what he says, even if just in that moment, and it’s nice to believe, so Marc says fuck it, and does.



4.

Kris is on the bench.

Fucking asshole.

Marc has spent morning skate studiously ignoring him, and his team has followed his lead, which makes Marc feel, for the first time, like they’re actually a team.

Which he supposes is helpful by mid-December.

Not for the first time, Marc wishes they had just chosen a Captain and gotten it over with. Three As and everyone speculating if he’s the unofficial Captain (not helped by some of the kids actually calling him “Cap”, someone save him from earnest rookies) hasn’t done much to help in the room.

He neatly side-steps the question of whether or not he’s upheld his part of the bargain as Marc-Andre Fleury, NHL Feel Good Sob Story of 2017.

Marc’s just wondering if there’s any way they can have a private conversation without the social media team, who are skulking around somewhere, seeing it and plastering it all over the internet, when Nealer takes a shot on him. Marc moves by instinct, just barely gets the handle of his stick on it and deflecting it up into the netting behind the goal.

Fucker,” he says, laughing despite himself, his heart beating fast in his throat.

“Heads up,” Nealer shouts, slashes at Marc’s pads as he skates past. He nods at Kris as he heads to the locker room and Kris nods back.

Marc comes off the ice after him and swings himself into the visitor’s bench, shoving his mask up and rolling his eyes.

“Fucking asshole,” he says out loud and Kris laughs. They awkwardly do their handshake, Marc bumping into the boards, and then Kris is reeling him in, kissing both his cheeks and patting him all over, like he’s checking to make sure all the parts are still there.

“Stop, this is going to be all over Twitter in ten minutes.”

“This is the only way any of us can get you to talk to us,” he says, and Marc shoves him away with a groan.

“You’re ruining a perfectly good reunion.”

“You seem skinnier than you usually are by December.” Kris’s hands slip under his sweater, trying to undo his tiedown.

“Get away from me! I’ll tell Vero.”

Kris hm’s, skeptical, and Marc flushes. Because once when he was drunk and morose he had told Kris a thing he hadn’t told anyone else, including Vero, and even though Kris had never brought it up again, he sometimes let it slip into a Look or a Noncommittal Noise and Marc hated his friends, they were all motherfuckers.

“I told Vero eventually, okay, you’re not special.”

“Really.” All of Kris’s perfect, fake teeth gleam as he drawls this out like a 16-year-old girl.

“Yes. Don’t you have skate to get ready for, or literally anyone else you could be bothering?”

Kris shrugs. “Optional. I’d rather see you.” He squints at him a little and Marc wants to just put his head on Kris’s shoulder, take his afternoon nap there, smell his expensive cologne and examine the scar on the back of his neck, the new padding of muscle on his shoulders and triceps.

Instead, Marc swallows. “Well. I am glad.”

Kris smiles, his secret, real one. “Me, too.”

Now Marc squints at him, because… “There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Kris shrugs again, a little aw shucks thing. “I wanted to wait until I saw you.”

Marc clutches at him, his body reacting before his brain really understands why. He throws his mask down between the benches and crowds against him. “Is Cath…” he can barely fucking say it, but a shit-eating, beaming grin unfolds over Kris’s entire face, and Marc yelps and shakes him hard.

Guys look at them curiously as they trickle off the ice, but Engo herds them along, giving Kris a little wave.

“You—how long? I’m—!”

Kris is laughing, his eyes shiny. “Four months. We wanted to be sure. Double sure.”

There’s a strange feeling coming over Marc. He’s giddy, he wants to climb to the top of the Bellagio and shout it across the desert, his friends are having the baby they’ve been trying for for so long! But there’s something lurking under it, in his lizard brain: you missed it, it hisses, you’re missing it.

“Alex wanted to tell the girls himself, I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course,” Marc breathes, and an almost unbearable itch chases itself under his skin. He won’t be there. The baby will be born in Pittsburgh, and he won’t be there.

But not everything has to be about him. Kris is looking at him like he knows what Marc is thinking. “Should I have waited to tell you until after?”

“No! Asshole, you should have told me immediately.” But of course, how would Kris have done that, seeing as Marc was all but off the grid most weeks. “I’m so glad. So glad.”

He does the math. “But wait, it’ll be May, what if—“

Kris laughs. “Hey. Geno and Anna and Sid gave us some magic in ’16, and last year it was Rowney and Danielle. Maybe this year I can help. Since I couldn’t do shit on the ice last year.”

Marc stares at him. Kris is serious, his mouth twisted in a self-deprecating smirk, and Marc reels him in hard. He knows he doesn’t have the monopoly on self-loathing, but sometime over the past six months he had convinced himself his was the most acute.

“Everyone knows we wouldn’t have gotten to where we did without you.”

“I don’t need your half-assed attempts at cheering me up six months too late,” Kris says dryly, but it’s into Marc’s shoulder, his whole body pressed up against him.

Marc swallows. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. No, not because—“ he interrupts as Kris pulls away. “Because I just was somewhere else. In my head. It’s not an excuse but…” he trails off and Kris just lets it sit for a moment.

“I know,” he says finally. “I was pissed. But I knew what you were going through.”

Marc’s kneejerk reaction to people saying that over the past year has been to smile while inside his head screaming no you fucking don’t. But Kris does know, confessed to Marc in the days after that he had hated holding it up, feeling undeserving; that he worried Alex would realize, that this one would be less than; that he wondered if the team would want him back, now that they could win without him.

Of course Kris knows, more than anyone else. And on top of it, he knows Marc. How did Marc ever think he didn’t?

Instead Marc kisses him, a smacking kiss on the corner of his mouth, and Kris smiles like an idiot. “I’ll see you after the game. You need a ride?”

“Yeah.” He pauses a second. “You have room for one more? Because there might be at least one other person who might want to see you, I have no idea why since you’re a terrible friend and also an idiot.”

Marc shoves him and scoops up his mask. “You can walk back for all I care.”

“Vero already said there’s room in the van!” Kris yells after him as he heads to the locker room.

Fucking asshole.

+

They have optional skate before the game against LA, and Marc feels an old simmer under his skin, something he used to get a lot in Juniors, the need to crush his own teammates, to prove to them he’s better than they are.

It boils behind his eyes and makes his skin feel tight, the anger that he’s since learned to form into a small ball that he can box up tight in a gaseous form, expanding to fill every crack in him.

And there are a lot.

“C’mon, Flower!” Engo half-laughs, after Marc stops him for the second time, “I’d like see my kids sometime this week.”

Marc jacks his stick at him and a titter runs through the rookies.

Engo does a little royal bow at them. “You think you can do better?”

They can’t. None of them can. Marc’s stopped everyone twice over and he’s two-deep into round three. No one’s laughing anymore.

Neal is pissed when he grabs the puck at center ice, Marc can see it in the stiff line of his shoulders, the jerky movements in his wrists as he dekes. Marc crouches low, breathes hard; fuck James Neal.

He dekes to the left one last time, looks like he’s dropping to one knee; Marc realizes it at the last second that he’s going glove-side and he throws himself to the right.

If he had been faster, he would have caught it in the face. As it is, he can hear is sing past his ear a split second before he hears the thump of it against the back of the net.

Neal roars like it’s game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and the anger inside Marc boils over.

He rips off his mask and throws down his blocker and gloves, and skates hard at Neal, grabbing him by the shoulder and spinning him around.

“Hey,” he says, smiling big into Neal’s shocked face, then takes a swing.

It doesn’t do much more than glance off his glove, which Neal got up just in time, and catch the side of his helmet.

Neal drops his gloves, bunches up the front of Marc’s sweater in his fist. “What the fuck!

Marc takes another swing, his left foot going out from under him and he holds himself upright with a hand on Neal’s collar. He knows guys will come in to break it up soon and he only has so many chances. “Gonna take this net from me, too?”

“Are you fucking—“ Neal snarls, drags Marc in close. “One apology not enough for you? Tough shit.”

“I’d take one you actually meant,” Marc spits, and shoves him.

Suddenly Pierre and Smitty are there, trying to pull them apart.

Neal readjusts his grip, keeping him close. “It was your net to lose, Marc,” he says. “It had nothing to do with me.”

Marc remembers Neal's shot that knocked his mask off, how he saw it a split second before it caught him; his vision went blurry and his ears rang for an hour and he tried really hard to deny that something was wrong for a few days because he couldn't have another concussion, not now, not when they were so close to the Cup. He remembers Neal scoring while he was still disoriented, and his half-assed text apology a week later, and the weeks of agony after and lifting a Cup he didn't really win. “No, pucks on net and fuck anyone in your way.”

Neal laughs in disbelief. “Yes, fucking Christ! I was doing my goddamn job!”

Marc sees red. He swings again, connects, finally, splitting Neal’s lower lip.

“Guys!” Smitty says, grabbing at Marc’s arms.

Neal gets in a good one, cuffs Marc in the ear, and suddenly they’re brawling for real. More guys step in; it takes four of them to keep them apart.

“I was doing my job!” Neal says again, and spits blood on the ice. “Maybe if you’d done yours you wouldn’t be here right now.”

“And where would you be?” Marc talks loud to hear himself over the ringing in his ear. “Still in Nashville? In Pittsburgh? Who really wants you?”

Neal face is paper white and drawn, exaggerating his stupid red beard and his stupid nose.

“Marc-André,” Pierre murmurs.

Marc can taste blood in his mouth; Vero is going to murder him probably.

Gallant comes out onto the ice in his trainers and stands between them. Neal is looking at Gallant mutinously, his jaw set, but Marc looks at Neal, the smear of blood bisecting his chin.

“Out of your systems?” he asks mildly. Marc can hear the steel underneath, the promise of what’s to come if he doesn’t like the answer.

Neal’s entire face twitches. “Yeah, Coach.”

Gallant looks at Marc. “Marc?”

Marc’s not sure, really. “Yeah, yes.”

“Good.” He slaps Neal on the back, pats the logo on Marc’s sweater. “Take a few laps. Everyone else, hit the showers.”

Neal sniffs hard, crams his lid back on his head and pushes off. Marc skates behind him, slowly, not taking the bait.

After three laps, Marc’s sweating hard, and his face hurts. He plows up snow when he stops in front of the bench, prods his left canine with his tongue as he takes off his mask. He’s a terrible patient; if he needs another fucking implant, Vero really will kill him.

Neal slows to a stop, nods at the door Marc is currently blocking. “You gonna let me by, or you gonna hit me again?” He’s sweating, too, blood beaded on his lip that he keeps licking away, his helmet straps dangling down the sides of his face. There are bags under his eyes.

Marc sighs. “No, no, come on.” He opens the door and goes through, sitting down hard.

Neal sits next to him and they’re silent for a while, both of them breathing hard. Marc sprays himself in the face with his water bottle, hesitates, then offers it to Neal.

Neal laughs a little and shakes his head. “Didn’t you guys learn anything after we all got the fucking mumps?”

Marc laughs, too, and shrugs, taking a long pull.

“Hey.”

Marc cocks his head towards him, but looks out across the ice.

“I am sorry.”

Marc shifts. “I know. I do know.”

Neal goes on. “But it’s not my fault you’re here. I know I’m a fuck-up about my own shit, and it’s barely my fault I’m here. ‘Cos here’s the thing, someone had to end up here — for most of us it was a calculated crap shoot, and there wasn’t much we could do about it.

“But you,” he says, turning to face him fully. “You could have picked your team. You had power none of the rest of us did.”

Marc swallows hard, puts his tongue against the gash on the inside of his cheek.

“So Marc, ask yourself: What are you doing here?”

There are so many reasons Marc has given himself over the last year, declining the trades, waiting for the hammer to fall: if only he could get the start back, if only they could win the Cup, if only he could build a time machine and go back in time and dodge the puck, get a good start in the Olympics, win in 2008, win in Juniors. Marc takes a breath and what comes out is: “I’m just so fucking angry.”

From the corner of his eye, he can see Neal nod. “Yeah, me, too.”

“And I don’t know if I can—“ he breaks off, horrified at the wet heat that presses against the backs of his eyes. Motherfuck.

“I know.” Neal presses his knee against Marc’s. “Me, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Marc says and wipes his hands down his face. He huffs out a huge breath, and looks at Neal. Neal smiles at him, a little watery.

Marc offers his water bottle again and Neal laughs and shakes his head, so Marc squirts him.

“Fucker,” Neal laughs and grabs the bottle out of his hand.

Marc scrambles to get down the tunnel ahead of him, laughing for what feels like the first time in a month.

+

They fucking win and Marc has been drunk for probably 24 entire hours.

Back at Mario’s, he keeps zoning out and staring into space as the last day and a half replays in his head: he stopped the fucking puck and they won the fucking Cup and he felt like his soul left his body as everyone piled on him one by one, stinking, sweaty, and screaming, and he couldn’t stop crying, why couldn’t he stop crying.

Mario hugged him. Mario. Hugged him.

Sidney had put a hand on his leg on the plane ride back, tipped his head onto Marc’s shoulder, drunk and high on painkillers, his knee wrapped in ice and propped on the armrest in front of him, the dumbest, most beatific smile on his face.

“Flower.”

Marc doesn’t even startle, feels like he’s turning his head to look at Sidney before Sidney even says his name, honey poured directly into his ear, low and pleased.

He’s wandered into an alcove and has been staring at a brick wall for the better part of five minutes, he estimates. He’d wonder how Sidney found him, but finding all of them is Sidney’s super power, isn’t it.

“Sidney,” he breathes and then Sidney is pressed against him, his face in Marc’s neck, his breath hot and yeasty from beer, cheap and thin and Marc thinks he’ll never think about American light beers the same way ever again because they’ll always taste like winning.

“You did it,” Sidney says.

Marc laughs. “We did it, mon caneton.”

“Stop,” Sidney says, and Marc can feel his dumb grin against his face at the endearment Sidney pretends to hate.

“You did promise me.”

Sidney turns his head, and his mouth slides across Marc’s cheek for a second. “I did, didn’t I?”

Marc’s heart thumps hard against his ribs, his stomach dipping and rising sharply; Sidney’s so close Marc can see his adam’s apple bob, the quick flicker of his tongue against the back of his lower lip and then--

“Is this—“ Sidney breathes and Marc’s forgotten how to speak, his heart in his throat.

Sidney’s mouth is soft and wet and warm, moving slow and purposeful, a bolt of heat going directly from where Sidney’s tongue is tentatively licking across his lower lip and deep into Marc’s gut, taking root and blooming into an intense heat.

Marc eyes are closed; he feels like the ground has dropped out from under him and he grabs blindly, his hand bunching in the back of Sidney’s shirt, the other at his waist.

It’s familiar, somehow, and also mind-bendingly and terrifyingly strange. Marc tilts his head, opens his mouth, letting Sidney’s tongue in. Sidney’s hands are hard on Marc’s hips, his fingertips sliding under his shirt; Marc puts his hands into Sidney’s hair, and it’s…fuck, it’s…

He pulls back, gasping, and Sidney puts his sweaty forehead against Marc’s cheek.

“Oh, shit,” Sidney says weakly. “Shit.”

Marc’s hands are still in Sidney’s hair, and he pets it a little before reeling Sidney in again, hugging him hard. There are so many things he wants to say, but no words he can find seem quite right.

“Do we have to do this every time we win the Cup now?” he says instead, his chin hooked over Sidney’s shoulder.

Sidney laughs, shaky and relieved. “Fuck off, you’ll jinx us.”

“Goalie magic,” Marc says matter-of-factly. “We’re immune to jinxes.”

Sidney shoves him away gently and when he tilts his chin up to meet Marc’s eyes he looks…the same, strangely; Marc wonders if he himself looks different, if he’s possibly glowing, if they could see him from space right now. “Is that so,” Sidney says, grinning a little.

Marc nods. “Oh, yes.”

“Well,” Sidney says, shaking his head. “If it’s gonna be a tradition, it was sorta nice, eh?”

“Sort of?” Marc says, half-mock-offended, grabbing Sidney in a headlock and Sidney laughs, flailing.

“I take it back, I take it back,” he yelps, shoving Marc off him. His face is flushed red, but he’s smiling, and he’s looking Marc in the eyes and the world hasn’t ended. “It was…nice.”

Really nice?”

Sidney rolls his eyes. “Really, fully nice. Dick.”

Marc smiles with all his teeth and Sidney laughs again, his blush spreading down his neck and into the v of his t-shirt and the warm and sort of squirmy way it makes Marc feel isn't any different from what he always feels for Sidney.

“You’re an idiot.” Sidney swallows hard. “I’m an idiot.”

“No,” Marc says sharply, because that stubborn, self-deprecating look is brewing around Sid’s mouth and in the lines of his forehead and Marc hates that look almost more than anything in the world.

The lines around his mouth deepen. “But you’re not—and Vero…”

Marc grabs his hand. “There’s…something here, yeah? I feel it too, Sidney.”

“But you’re not gay.”

Marc really thinks about this for a moment, because he’s not, but what he feels for Sidney is something he hasn’t looked at too closely; it’s sometimes too much and sometimes confusing but their relationship doesn’t seem to struggle in the face of neither of them quite knowing what it is.

“No,” he says. “But I don’t think you want to date me, do you?”

Sidney’s quiet for a moment, looking back at the party. The Cup is in the pool (somewhere Phillip is either being plied with alcohol or Kris’s best pretty please face to look the other way) and Geno tries to shove Max in after it. Max grabs his wrist, both of them going under in a spray of water that almost takes out a dessert table.

When Geno comes back up, laughing, Sidney bites his lower lip.

“No,” Sidney says finally. “I just wanted…to be close, I guess. I just feel so—“ He turns to look at Marc and he looks so young that Marc’s heart squeezes. “I’m scared of ruining things.”

Marc doesn’t look at Geno. “Not with us.”

Sidney ducks his head. “No.”

For a second, Marc thinks he should pretend not to know what Sidney is talking about. But also, fuck it. “You must know he’s crazy for you.”

Sidney goes, impossibly, even redder, and puts his hands over his face. “Oh my god.”

“Your tongue was just in my mouth, and you’re embarrassed to talk about feelings or whatever.”

Sidney laughs, shocked, and shoves at him. “Shut up!”

Marc sidles behind Sidney, presses himself all along his back and hooks his chin over his shoulder so he can see what Sidney does: Max teaching Geno how to shotgun a beer, Pascal egging them on.

“That’s what you want?” Marc says and he can feel Sidney’s chin move with his smile. “So what are you doing standing around with me?”

“Flower…” Sidney trails off and sighs, leaning his head against Marc’s.

“Nothing will ever change this, Sidney, with us.” He chuckles a little. “Whatever it is.”

Promise,” Sidney says, low, in French.

Marc closes his eyes and holds Sidney as tight as he can. “I promise.”

At locker clean-out they keep catching each other’s eyes and giggling hysterically, enough times that Jordy complains about yet another inside joke they have and Pascal silently raises his eyebrows at Marc but Marc just smiles innocently, sending Sidney into another fit of giggles.

“I guess the Penguins are feeling pretty good about last year’s contract extension, huh?” a reporter from the Post asks during his exit-interview.

Marc doesn’t have to look to see Sidney’s smug grin from where he’s passing behind the scrum. “This is my home,” he says, warm and content and preening a little under the force of Sid's happiness, “As far as I’m concerned, I’m here for life.”



5.

Dinner before the game? Sidney texts when Marc gets up from his nap, and Marc just stands in his boxers in the office, staring dumbly at the phone because of course, they’ve never missed a dinner on the road.

But Marc’s not on the road.

Marc, well, he won’t say he panics but he won’t say he doesn’t panic, either, and he stuffs his phone under a couch cushion. He’ll respond, he has to now, just get it over with, and the entire time he’s getting ready and driving to the arena and running through his pregame routine he tells himself he’ll respond, but then he doesn’t and then the window for dinner closes.

Which, of course, is why Geno is standing outside the locker room when Marc is done in the gym.

Nealer gets there at the same time, stops to fistbump Geno but doesn’t linger, shooing a few other guys inside. Marc resigns himself to his fate as Nealer closes the door and gives him a Look, which Marc is going to prank him for in retaliation, fuck everyone for trying to get into his business.

“Hey, G,” Marc says.

Geno just looks at Marc, quiet, dark eyes hooded, arms folded loosely over his chest.

Marc hates that look. It’s the look of a stranger, the bored, unimpressed look Geno gives dumb rookies who are trying to show off at practice. Geno’s supposed to be his friend, too, and it’s not his fault that Sidney can’t give him space.

“You can’t fine me,” he blurts out. “I’m not yours anymore, you can’t fine me. I don’t have to pay.”

Geno’s face twists a little, familiar frustration wrinkling his forehead. “You think you’re not, I know.”

“I’m not. And Sidney, he’s a grown man, he doesn’t need anyone to stand up for him to fix his hurt feelings.”

As soon as he says it, he feels hot all down his body. Sidney’s never needed anyone to fix his hurt feelings, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t always tried. Once, Marc was one of the ones who did, too.

“Maybe yes, maybe no. But what about my hurt feelings?” Geno puts one hand on Marc’s shoulder. “What about yours?”

Marc’s throat feels tight. It’s always been about his stupid hurt feelings, though, hasn’t it? There have been endless articles online about his hurt feelings, endless interviews, signs at games, and entire draft held waiting for the moment where everyone could see his fucking soft underbelly on international television and talk about it some more.

Marc is sick of hurt feelings. He just wants to play hockey.

And so, he knows, does Sidney. And Geno and Kris, and fucking Pascal, who can’t anymore because his body won’t let him.

Fuck this dumb sport they all love too much and fuck himself because he still thinks it’s worth it and fuck himself more because he put it over his best friend.

“G,” he starts, just to say something, but he’s not really sure what comes next.

Geno, of course, does, and he steps forward and folds Marc into his long arms. “It’s okay,” he murmurs into the top of Marc’s head. “We all miss. Very much.”

Marc feels everything drain out of him at once and he sags against Geno’s chest, puts his face into Geno’s neck.

“Still gonna beat you,” Geno says after a moment and Marc shoves him away.

“Fuck a goat,” Marc says and Geno grins with his tongue poking out from between his teeth.

“500,” he says, “if you lose.”

“You’re on,” Marc says, grinning so hard his face hurts. “Put it on the board.”

Geno’s smile turns sly. “I already do.”

Marc laughs and gives him two middle fingers as he backs into his locker room.

+

“He doesn’t offer them to anyone,” is what Engo says when, at their usual double-date night with the Engellands, Marc — stupid — brings up Kris’s new chocolate bar flavor and Vero asks him if he likes them. Marc kicks him under the table, not even trying to avoid where he took a stray puck to the shinguard two games ago.

Engo turns to him and smiles broadly. “He keeps his bag on his seat and no one wants to ask him to move it.”

Marc kicks him again.

“So he can mope,” Engo clarifies and Melissa covers her eyes and groans.

“Let the man live,” she says and Engo shrugs expansively, a shit-eating grin on his face.

Vero turns to him and raises an eyebrow. “That’s funny, you told me you were sitting with one of the new boys. Cody?”

“He’s lying,” Marc lies, and everyone at the table knows it, which is how, to make himself not a big fat liar in his beautiful and sometimes retaliatory wife’s eyes, he finds himself all but commanding Cody to sit down in the aisle seat of Marc’s row on their next roadie.

“Um,” Cody says, sinking down into the seat and half-shoving, half-kicking his bag under the seat in front of him.

Marc fights the urge to shove him back out before he can really get settled. It feels suddenly real; for the last four months he could convince himself that it was only temporary, that Sidney was out and would be back soon and Marc needed to make sure his spot was ready for him.

Sometime he’d wake up to the empty seat and feel disoriented, for a long second thinking it was 2011.

Across the aisle, over Cody’s back, Pierre gives Marc a thumbs up and Marc shoos at him with one hand.

“I kind of thought you liked to fly alone?” Cody says, sitting back.

Marc raises an eyebrow at him.

Cody smiles sheepishly. “Well, okay. But now, I mean. I thought now, you liked it, because…” he trails off.

Marc thinks about letting him hang, chirping him a little, then putting his sleep mask on. But he looks so earnest, round, spotty face and his cheeks a little pink, younger than Marc has ever felt, must be, and Marc finds himself instead saying, “I thought I did, I guess. But no, I don’t actually like it.”

Cody nods. “I don’t know what you’re going through, really,” he says slowly, “But I get it. We all do, you know.”

Marc’s heart is pounding suddenly. He’d long for the days when no one ever really talked about anything, but looking back he wonders if those days ever really existed.

All the stuff he’s said to his team over the years, his brothers, everything he assumed they understood because they had built a secret language.

Maybe he just hadn’t been listening.

“Thanks,” he says roughly, and Cody nods, very serious.

Marc hesitates a moment, then pull his bag up into his lap. He rummages for a second, pulls out the two bars of chocolate Vero had put in his bag this morning. His heart tugs when he looks at them, Kris glaring back at him from the shiny wrapping.

And suddenly, he can’t help but laugh.

He holds one out to Cody. “Want one? They’re kind of terrible.”

Cody’s real laugh is startled out of him, a sharp bark. “How can I say no?” He takes it, flips it in the air once. “Thanks.”

Marc blinks hard and, after a moment, tears off the gold foil on his own bar. “Cheers,” he says, and takes a bite.

+

“I know we should nap,” Sidney says, his voice shredded from screaming, “But.”

Marc laughs. “We should, we’re old now,” he says, but Marc doesn’t want to sleep, either. They both know why, and a little drunk, everything way too close to the surface, is probably the perfect time for talking about it.

But.

Sidney digs in his bag and Marc feels the universe slide a bit to the left, deja vu overlaying a young Sidney, soft at some edges and sharp at others, on top of the man who’s become his best friend.

He blinks rapidly.

Sidney sits back, having unearthed two mashed packages of Reeses, and he looks at Marc with eyes that are suspiciously wet but stubborn, challenging Marc to make a big deal out of it.

Later, at Sidney’s house with the Cup, Sidney will corner him again, like he did eight years ago, like he tried to do last year but Marc had held him off, reminding him that the tradition was to kiss his goalie, nodding towards where Matt was being crowded by the other kids and plied with shots.

Sidney’s face had gone through a series of complicated expressions, but he finally just laughed, a little bitterly. “God, you can be a real dick sometimes.”

Marc had shrugged, an apology pressing behind his teeth that he kept in by sheer will.

But that was last year. Last year Marc was a dick, yes, but this year he’s a dick who knows he’s rapidly running out of chances at the things he never thought he’d have to miss. So this year, later, when Sidney tries to kiss him, Marc will let him, and he’ll hold Sidney’s head between his hands, with his big beautiful hockey brain that’s good at so much more than just hockey and his fragile jaw and all his fake teeth, and try to commit it to memory, the time when he was Sidney’s best friend and partner in crime, Sidney’s brother, Sidney’s goalie.

“Thanks,” he says now, roughly, and takes the packet.

“Thank you,” Sidney replies and Marc looks at him sharply.

“For what?”

Sidney squints at him. “For everything, I guess.”

“Please,” Marc says, desperately. “No.”

“Okay,” Sid says, and mashes his elbow against Marc’s over the armrest for the last time.



+1

Marc sees him just before his skates hit the ice for warm-ups, Sidney doing his slow circle around the net and snagging a puck. He bounces it off the wall and onto his skate, then up onto his stick.

For a second, Marc feels like he can’t breathe, like his pads are too tight and the stupid crew neck of his sweater is strangling him.

No one is looking at him, all focused on their own warm-ups. Even the rookies who aren’t really rookies anymore, even Murr, and Horny; it suddenly occurs him that he’s not the only one missing, that there’s a Kuni-shaped hole, and one for Dales and one for Bones and Cully.

Well, shit.

Kris brushes past him. “Fucker,” he says cheerfully, and Marc slashes at his shins.

Geno makes a shooing motion across the ice as he takes a lap, then shoots the pucks he’s been carrying at the empty net.

Marc feels lost for a second, going what isn’t actually the wrong way towards his own net. He takes a puck and then takes a shot, going wide, so he goes around again, and one more time until it goes in where he wanted it to.

He and Nealer have started up their passing game that they used to do in Pittsburgh, and after Marc carefully stretches his hamstrings, Neal shouts, “Heads up,” and flips him a puck. Marc catches it and flips it back, but Nealer bounces it once then lets it drop to the ice, catching it under his skate.

He pokes his mouthguard out, jerking his chin to Mark’s left.

“Hey, Flower,” Sidney says, “Nealer.”

Nealer hesitates and Marc shakes his head.

“Have a good game, Sid,” Nealer says, “Later,” and skates away.

His heart beating so hard it shakes his hands with the force of his pulse, Marc pushes his mask up. “Do you mind if we,” he says, and points to the ice and his legs.

“No, of course,” Sidney says, and sinks to his knees, stretching one leg in front of him.

They stretch in silence for a minute, and Marc starts to wonder if this is all Sidney’s going to do, if his no pressure motto extends here, too.

No pressure to respond, no pressure to go to dinner, no pressure to look at him or acknowledge him, no pressure to be his friend, ever again, if he doesn’t want to.

“Sidney,” he says.

Sidney doesn’t look at him.

“I’m sorry. That I missed dinner. I wanted to get back to you, it’s just…” he trails off, because Sidney has always been good about filling in the blanks and Marc never really appreciated that until he didn’t have it anymore.

Sidney sighs. “I know,” he says. “And I know I shouldn’t corner you like this. No—“

“Please don’t.” Marc pulls himself up out of his stretch and sits back on his skates. “Can I— Just let me talk.”

Sidney’s jaw juts out a little, defiant, anxious, maybe. Like he’s biting his tongue against snapping at him. Sidney might have infinite patience in theory, but in practice his well is moody and runs very deep.

“Sidney, I’m so sorry. For dinner and for not responding and for missing everything.” He swallows hard. “For making you think I didn’t care.”

Sidney rolls his upper lip against his teeth for a second. “I never thought that,” he lies, like Marc can’t read him after all this time.

“I did do that,” Marc says firmly. “And I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. I’m—” All the stuff he wants to say crowds together on his tongue: how intensely angry Marc has been, how he thought he was mad at Nealer or Sullivan or Murr or Sidney or the entire city of Ottawa, but it turns out he was mostly just mad at himself. For not rising to the challenge, for not handing it better, for not totally understanding what he had before it was too late, for almost losing his best friend over something so stupid as his hurt pride.

Fuck, Sidney. I miss you. So bad, you know?

Sidney smiles, his eyes creasing a little at the corners. “I know. Did you think I didn’t?

Marc laughs, relief like cool water in his veins. He mostly doesn’t deserve any of them, definitely not Sidney, with his terrible French and his soft heart and his thick head; but for some reason this idiot has decided Marc is worth it and Marc is going to spend the rest of his life proving to him he wasn’t wrong. Even when it’s hard.

Especially when it’s hard.

Sid leans on his stick and climbs to his skates. “I gotta…” he says, tipping his head towards the net where Murr is getting into position, and popping his mouthguard back in.

“Yeah, me, too.” He looks up at Sidney, his big square body haloed by klieg lights, mouthguard hanging out of one side of his crooked smile, and loves him so much he wonders how he ever thought this was doable without him.

“Hey,” Marc stands slowly, and Sidney cocks his head. “Wanna get dinner after the game?”

Sidney beams. “Yeah, I really do.”

+

They win against Chicago after a few losses and they have the night before flying back to Vegas in the morning.

Marc gets drunk. Spectacularly so, the rookies plying him with shots for stories about Geno, who they all are possibly actively in love with, and Marc is feeling loose and generous and maybe embellishes just a little; he figures Geno will make good on anything Marc attributes to him.

He feels warm and happy and he looks around at these guys that he’s gotten to know and realizes that he likes them, that he feels protective of them and he wants them all to do well, not just so he can repair the massive fucking chip on his shoulder, but because they’re good kids and deserving vets and they’re all working their asses off.

But it’ll be three years until they make the post-season, according to their GM. Bullshit.

The next day he remembers two things: the first being that he’s over 30 and while he’s not exactly an old geezer, he definitely should not be doing jaeger bombs dear god why, and the second is a hazy recollection of standing on a chair to make an impassioned speech about hard work and supporting each other that went in a vague circle until it ended with “fuck McPhee”. Whoops.

But the guys slap his shoulder and ruffle his hair as they board the plane, the rookies way too bright-eyed, smiling at him dopily. Suzy stops in the aisle for a second, hesitating. He looks down at the bag in Marc’s seat then back at Marc.

Marc blinks at him.

Suzy wrinkles his forehead then offers a fist to bump. “Thanks, Cap,” he says, his voice a little rough from not enough sleep. He keeps moving and Marc can hear him throw himself into his usual seat next to Cody, with a little too much force from Cody’s annoyed, “Dude!”

Marc doesn’t turn around to look at them, instead looking at his seatback, the little ding in the lefthand side of it that he’s gotten used to staring at during takeoff, the familiar shapes his brain resolves the edges into.

Sometime over the last few months, things had started to feel comfortable and well-worn, not so alien anymore.

He’s shocked to find he doesn’t hate it here.

Feeling tender, he takes out his phone and snaps a picture of the seatbacks and before he can think too much about it, he sends it to Sidney.

He checks it every two minutes, tapping his fingers against his knee. They’ve got five minutes before he needs to turn his phone off, and he tells himself it’s fine.

Sidney’s waited longer than this for literally any shred of communication from him.

He has his phone smashed face down on his knee when it vibrates and for a long moment, Marc can’t look.

He turns it over slowly and slides the notification to open the text.

It’s a picture of the park behind their house. The pond is calm and the sky is blue and it looks like the perfect kind of Pittsburgh day where it’s warm in the sun but freezing in the shade.

Marc smiles and feels his breath catch. He takes another picture, this time of his bag in the seat next to him.

Sidney sends back a picture of the quilt Jordan and Kelsey had made them, a box of wine and three plastic cups and a bag of goldfish.

Marc sends a picture out the portal of the window, planes on the strip, waiting to take off.

There’s a long moment and then Marc’s phone buzzes again.

Nikita, smiling at the camera, a baby grin where his eyes disappear and you can see all four of his upper teeth, Anna behind him, out of focus.

Marc feels like he’s been punched in the stomach for a quick moment.

Marc’s phone buzzes again. We miss you, Uncle Marc.

He stares at it for a long time, the shape of Anna behind Nikita, Geno’s bare knee in the bottom corner of the screen, Sidney out of sight but present in Anna’s soft focus smile.

The pilot comes on, asks them to turn off their phones.

Marc fumbles for the emoji keyboard and after an agonizing half second that feels like forever, sends back a monkey and a yellow heart.

Nothing comes back right away but he tells himself this is the start of them talking again, tells himself he’ll keep up with it. He broke the ice, how hard can it be now? How fucking hard can it be.

Then he clicks off his phone and puts it in his bag, puts his head against the window and closes his eyes.

+

Marc arrives in Kitchener for the National Junior Team Selection Camp with a belly full of butterflies. He got loaned to the team from the Pens and he’s gonna make sure everyone knows he earned it.

He gets in late and crashes into bed, waking up at 3am with his dick in his hand because sometime between considering jerking off and actually jerking off he had fallen asleep. Max is snoring in the bed over and Marc rolls over and wills himself back to sleep.

They have their first practice the next day and as Marc is scuffing up his crease, he looks up to see Sidney Fucking Crosby doing a slow loop around the net as he stick-handles with a puck.

He’s played against Crosby in the Q, though he’s never actually met him. Up close he looks like what he is: not hockey jesus but a 16-year-old kid with kinda buck teeth, on the wrong side of a growth spurt.

“Hey,” he calls, and Crosby slows to a stop in front of him, knocking the puck against his skate and stepping on it.

“Hey,” Crosby says back and Marc rolls his eyes.

“Should just come say hi, instead of, uh,” he searches for the word, “Sneaking? Creeping.”

Crosby laughs. “I wasn’t!”

“But you want to say hi, no?” Marc taps his stick against Crosby’s shins. “Hi.”

I know you,” Crosby says in French. His accent is so flat, nasal and monotone and Marc loves it. Crosby shuffles his skates back and forth. “You have the, uh, poke-check.”

Marc feels his chest puff up. He’s not too proud to deny the fact that his internal score sheet highlights his two poke-checks on Crosby while they were in the Q.

Ah, you remember,” Marc drawls and Crosby…blushes? Though he’s laughing through it.

You’re hard to forget.”

Now Marc feels heat creep across his cheeks and down the back of his neck.

Crosby kicks the puck to his stick and pushes off. He circles Marc’s net again, once, twice, almost lazily stick-handling now, like he’s showing off; the third time around, he winds up like he’s going to shoot and Marc dives to the right on one knee, only to catch nothing.

Crosby is skating backwards, bouncing the puck on his stick and baring his teeth in a shitty, smug grin.

Marc grins back, giving him the vague idea of the finger behind his blocker.

Crosby laughs and skates away.

Sidney Crosby has never scored on him when it counted and, Marc resolves to himself, never will if he has anything to say about it.

In the shoot-out drill, Crosby comes streaking down the ice and Marc has to admit he looks good. He bites his tongue and comes out of his crease for a poke-check that connects, sending the puck back across the blueline.

Crosby bangs his stick on the ice. “Motherfucker!” he says, in English, and Marc tuts.

“En Français!” he singsongs and Crosby sets his jaw as he goes to the back of the line.

The next one makes it through, top shelf glove side.

Crosby skates close, laughing, and taps Marc’s butt with his stick as Marc clears the slush from his crease.

Marc grins back, pats his shoulder with his glove. He’s definitely going to get Crosby with a shaving cream towel before this week is over, no question.

A week later they’re in Helsinki, and faced with nothing but his circling thoughts and a case of jetlag that’s lingered through an entire day of practice and gone all the way back around to wired, Marc finds himself in another hotel lobby. He sits at the bar and nurses a beer, texting with Vero for so long she tells him to go bother someone else.

Sighing, he heads for the elevator. Max is out, having found a third wind to go meet up with a girl he met at the airport, and Marc figures he should enjoy the time alone while he can.

He’s reaching for the button on the elevator when it dings and the doors slide open.

It’s a mattress.

Marc blinks. “Hello.”

The mattress, which is rolled up and lumpy, it’s edges held together with skate tape, lists to the side. “Fuck me,” it says, miserably.

Marc would know that Martime accent anywhere. “Crosby?”

There’s a pause. “Fleury?”

The doors start to close and Marc steps all the way in. He holds the door closed button with one hand, picking off the edge of the tape with the other.

The mattress sags apart and sure enough there’s Crosby, in just a pair of white cotton boxers and an angry flush on his cheeks and chest, staring back at him defiantly.

“Hey,” Marc says, trying to smile non-threateningly, and Crosby’s mouth pinches in.

“I’m fine,” he says.

“Sure,” Marc agrees and puts his keycard into the reader, punches the button for his floor.

“I don’t have my key,” Crosby says, “but the stairs have an access door—“

Marc doesn’t roll his eyes directly in Crosby’s face. “You come with me.”

The doors open on Marc’s floor and Marc hustles Crosby to his room.

Crosby stands fairly unselfconsciously, but there’s an edge to his voice when he says, “What about Talbot?”

“Out,” Marc says and when the door clicks open he pushes Crosby inside. “Sit.”

Crosby sits gingerly on the bed while Marc rummages in his bag, which he keeps telling himself he’ll unpack, for spare clothes, which he chucks in Crosby’s direction.

“Who ambushed you?” he says, while Crosby pulls them on. “Lemme guess, Tambellini?”

Crosby’s curly head pops through the neck of Marc’s shirt. “And Getzlaf, yeah.”

Marc hm’s, and sits next to Crosby.

“Fleury,” Crosby says. “No.”

Marc grins at him. “I didn’t say anything.”

“They’re already gonna be pissed at you for helping me.”

Marc shrugs. “Gonna be more pissed when they find out they’re shit at pranks and I definitely am not.”

Crosby rolls his eyes. “Please don’t start a prank war on my behalf, I’m begging you.”

Marc grins. “Why not? Fuck ‘em, eh?”

Crosby giggles and falls back on the bed, throwing an arm over his eyes. “Oh my god, this is the worst.”

Marc looks down at him for a second, bow legs sticking out of Marc’s basketball shorts, skinny chest swimming in Marc’s Screaming Eagles shirt.

“What’s your number?” he asks, sliding his own phone off the night stand.

Crosby tells him, and Marc texts him hey little duck it’s marc, in French, just to be an asshole.

Marc scoots to put his back against the headboard. “Max will probably be out for a while, if you want to hang out.” He looks at Crosby, his skinny arm over his face. “Also, call me Marc, eh?”

Crosby lets his arm slide off. “Sid. Sidney.”

Marc grins. “Okay, Sidney.”

“Okay, Marc,” Sidney says back and they both laugh over nothing.

Marc’s heart is also beating hard over nothing and he closes his eyes for a second, tilting his head back.

“Can I ask—“

Marc cracks his eyes open. Sidney is rolling his upper lip against his teeth, looking like he’s trying to pick his words.

“Does it get easier?” he says slowly. “Going pro?”

Marc opens his mouth, then closes it again. He made 46 saves in his first game and was selected as first star of the game, but it was still a loss, and every message board in Pittsburgh lit up wondering if he wasn’t a waste of a pick. He got called up, got sent back down, got loaned to the Canadian team and mostly doesn’t really know what the fuck he’s doing.

Sidney laughs. “So that’s a no.”

Marc scrubs a hand over his face and laughs, too. “Well, that’s for the rest of us. But you…” he gestures to Sidney’s whole…everything.

Sidney gives him an unimpressed look that makes his face look years older. “Ugh, not you, too.”

Marc thinks about Sidney being 16 and playing with 19 year olds, about television cameras following him around, about the stuff he’s heard guys say about him in locker rooms and the stupid shit guys call pranks. About the stormy expression Sidney wears at the dot and the goofy grin he gets when he scores.

Marc sighs and lets himself sag onto his back on the bed. “Sorry.”

Sidney shrugs. “It’s okay. I know it’s weird. It’s weird for me. I know I don’t have to worry about a lot of the shit other guys worry about, but I work my ass off, you know? And I just want…” He trails off.

Marc blinks hard at the ceiling. “You just want to play.”

Sidney looks at him. “I just want to play.”

Marc turns over on his side, facing him. “Where do you hope you end up?”

Sidney does the same, tucking one hand under his cheek, and makes a face. “I’m trying not to get attached. Montreal would be pretty cool.”

Marc nudges his elbow. “The Penguins wouldn’t be so bad either, eh?”

“Yeah, I mean. Le Manifique, right?”

“Sure,” Marc agrees. “Also you won’t have to worry about never scoring on me.”

Sidney laughs and his body curves towards Marc’s. “You wish.”

In that moment, laying on a hotel bed in Helsinki two days before Christmas, three days before they play together for the first time, Marc does wish, so hard. The space between them is warm and humid and hushed, suddenly.

“Well,” Marc kind of half-whispers without meaning to, his voice cracking a little, “even if you’re not on my team, I have your back, okay?”

Sidney tips his head closer, shuffles his knees so they bump Marc’s shins. He swallows. “You promise?”

Marc looks at him, his baby round face, buck teeth and fluffy hair, his weird golden-brown eyes, and he can see it, all of it: helmet taps after good games, a wide berth after bad ones; dinners and hotels and buses and planes; Cup wins and losses and always knowing there’ll be another game and another, building a core to a team that’s terrible now but could be great. Growing up, playing hockey, building a life.

He takes Sidney hand from where it’s pillowed under his cheek and holds it, hard. “I promise,” he says, and he’s never meant anything more in his entire life.

Sidney smiles.


+