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Later, Kris will deny crying, even though there’s international television footage of it. No one but Marc-Andre would call him on it, anyway, and since Marc has dedicated his life to never acknowledging having an actual emotion in public, Kris feels pretty confident that he’ll never have to own up to it.

Not that Kris usually minds being emotional in public. But the year has been grueling, the twin looming spectres of surgery and the expansion draft, the feeling that this might be their last real shot at a Cup, their last games together. So when the reporter asks about what kind of man Marc is, and what it’s been like to be his D-Bond partner for so long…the dam he’d built so long ago when he and Marc bonded can barely contain Kris’s own anguish. Kris had always been the one to shoulder the stuff like despair and panic, to help Marc process it, but standing on the ice with Marc, both of them in jerseys they didn’t play in, there’s nowhere for the rush from the deep well of Marc’s to go, but out.

It’s the kind of crying that isn’t even cathartic. He fists his hand in Marc’s jersey to keep him from skating away, and when Marc looks at him, his eyes are wet, so fucking sad that Kris can barely look at him.

He wishes he could kiss Marc. Just say fuck it and kiss him where everyone could see. But he knows Marc would hate it, and Marc laughs at him now, projecting don’t even think about it, fucker directly into Kris’s head.

Kris laughs, too, wetly, and puts his arm around Marc, pulling him in to press a kiss to his temple, where Marc’s heart beats crazily through his too thin skin.

So he waits until later, both of them soaked in champagne and cheap beer, until Marc’s desperation to get his hands on him matches his own, Marc shoving him up against the lockers in the Nashville visitor’s change room. Kris grunts as the handle of a locker digs into his lower back.

Marc eases back with a wince. “Sorry.”

Kris tilts his head back to look up into Marc’s face, and Marc slides a hand up his chest, skims a thumb over the still raw ridge of the surgical scar on Kris’s throat.

It feels strange, the nerve-endings prickling where feeling hasn’t fully come back, and Marc bends to lay his mouth against it. “Sorry,” Marc breathes again, “sorry, sorry.”

“Shut up,” Kris bites out, and hauls Marc’s head up so Kris can kiss him, bite at his mouth, his fingers digging into the hard, ropy muscles in Marc’s back.

It feels unreal, in this place they don’t really know, a room that could be anywhere. Outside the end is waiting for them, masked by off-key singing and the steady din of everyone talking at once.

Marc breaks away with a gasp, goes to his knees and slides his hands under Kris’s leggings to draw them down over his dick. Kris squeezes his eyes shut when Marc takes him into his mouth, knowing he’s gonna go off like a fucking rocket even though he wants it to last forever. But pain has always made things better, and the feedback loop of their bond pulls tight crazy fast, all their emotions tangled up right against the surface of their skin.

He puts his hands over his face when he comes, making a pained noise into his palms when Marc doesn’t stop sucking him, the specific pain of overstimulation so good, Marc knows how to do him so good, just the way he likes it, fuck-- Kris slams his balled up fists against the lockers as the pain suddenly tips over into unpleasant, hoping Marc doesn’t notice.

Marc eases away and puts his forehead against Kris’s belly. “Sorry,” he murmurs after a moment and Kris doesn’t know what to say, terrified of what will come out of his mouth now, all the things they’ve never said to each other, because they had time.

They laugh at each other as they change, Kris trying to keep Marc from using his leggings to wipe come off his untouched dick -- “Still got it,” Kris says, knowing the feedback loop always got Marc going -- and losing that battle.

He pulls on a Cup Champions shirt and slicks his hair back into a cap, and looks at Marc before he pushes open the door. “You ready?”

Marc, looking thin and hard in the ugly white shirt, laughs his real laugh, never more lovely than he’s ever been in all their time together. “Never,” he says, and leans past Kris to push the door open.

*

Kris thought the bond would fade over time. Guys got traded, they got sent down, they went cold and other guys stepped up to take their place, and they mostly talk about how it’s like straining to listen to a radio station that’s losing its signal, that you get some time to get okay with it eventually fading to static, even though the anticipation can be agony.

When Marc handed the Cup to Murr on the ice, Kris felt everything inside him knot up, waiting for the bond to close. Instead, he felt a wave of pride and bittersweetness from Marc, both of them watching the shocked, beaming grin unfold on Murr’s face as he took the weight of it into his palms. Kris couldn’t tell where his own guilt ended and Marc’s began, because next season Kris has a job to do and he can’t start it by resenting Murr, who hasn’t done anything except be good and be supportive and be sorry, at various points throughout the season.

But not sorry enough.

Now, after the parade is over and Philip Prichard and his crew pack the Cup away for next year, a few of the old guys go out for the idea of a beer. All of them nurse pints they won’t finish; Kris is already edging towards hungover and still drunk at the same time, too many half-finished cans on the parade route under the baking June Pittsburgh sun.

“...probably going to meet with a realtor over Skype or something, look at places after the draft,” Marc is saying when Kris comes back from the bathroom. Sid puts his hand on Marc’s shoulder and gives him a shake, and Marc tilts his head at him, flashes him this new sad smile he seems to think looks like his old one.

Kris reaches out instinctively.

But Marc isn’t there. Kris blinks, roots around in his head to find the seam of where Marc seals the bond up sometimes when he needs some space, but everything is smooth and blank. Sid’s hand on Marc’s shoulder. Sid looking pale.

Marc meets his eyes over Phil and Geno arguing about the best sushi in Vegas. It can’t have happened that fast, without Kris even noticing. Was it now? Was it when the Cup went back in the box? Was it five minutes ago? Ten? The moment stretches out, and across the table Marc swallows hard.

He feels Kuni’s hand on his own back, and he laughs against the sob that wants to claw its way out of his throat. The season is over, this team is over. His captain just lost his goalie, their bond severed just like his bond with Kris. Marc will get drafted by Vegas, some of them will get traded, some of them won’t get re-upped, maybe Cully will retire. Most of them have some level of bond they’ll need to deal with, and it’ll mostly suck but they’ll survive. This happens, it happens to guys every fucking day, on every team, for literally decades, they’re not special.

“To Pittsburgh,” Marc says, his voice steady, and tilts his glass.

They’re not special. Kris just has to do everything the hard way.

*

“You could come out,” Marc says in mid-July, from his new house in a suburb of Vegas Kris can’t remember the name of, and Kris hates that he can’t feel anything from him, has no idea if Marc wants him or not, if he needs time, if he’s sad or angry or relieved it’s over.

It’s been a long time since Kris was on the receiving end of Marc’s legendary stonewalling.

“But I know you want to focus on training…” Marc goes on, and Kris forces himself to relax his hand around the phone.

“Yeah, maybe before Camp,” Kris hears himself saying, and Marc laughs. Kris recognizes that one. Relief.

“Sure,” Marc says.

Sure.

Instead, Kris does what he said he was going to do. He buys himself, like, four new suits for next season. He experiments with pea protein and coconut milk smoothies.

He beats himself up at the gym, pushes himself until his trainer tells him he needs to take a break. Kris knows he’s right, but he can’t reconcile what his hearts needs with what his body is physically capable of doing.

Those are the hardest days, when he feels low and reaches for Marc without thinking. The place where he used to be is a deep wound that keeps opening up again no matter how many times Kris stitches it back together.

He avoids Sid’s calls, because he can’t stand getting updates on Marc from someone else, and Marc seems to be avoiding his. And also Sid will sit in silence waiting for you to talk longer than anyone else on the planet and yelling at him when he does it isn’t satisfying.

Marc gets an instagram, finally, and posts progress shots of his new house, having decided to do a lot of the remodelling himself. Kris cannot fathom this, since Marc can hardly hang a picture straight and when did he get a tripod for his phone, but he also watches a clip of Marc falling off a step stool seven times just to hear his shocked laughter off-camera when he hits the ground.

On a whim, after 45 minutes of idle insta-scrolling in an almost cold tub, he replies to one of them -- in which Marc has posted the after of a display cabinet he had refinished and filled with trophies and photos from the last fifteen years -- with a little construction worker and a garbage can.

Marc replies almost immediately, with a gold medal emoji.

Kris laughs, and stabs out three fishing rod emojis in a row.

He waits, but that seems to be it, which is. Well, it’s something.

(He checks in on that post twice more, to see if Marc has responded or liked it. About 25 fans have. Marc never does.)

*

They give him the A. The guys congratulate him by pelting him with balled up, sweaty socks, until Dana pointedly wheels in a laundry bin and a few of the prospects collect them and chuck them in there, instead.

Everyone stops by to give him a tap or a shove -- Horny kisses him directly on the mouth, and Phil fucks his hair up -- but across the room, Sid catches his eye and tips his head at Matt, who’s in his stall with his head down, one leg pad off and unbuckling the second.

Kris turns to stare into his stall and takes a deep breath while he strips off his shirt. When he turns around again, SId is gone, so Kris takes another centering breath, and does what he should have done that morning before practice.

“Hey,” he says, and it’s a second before Murr looks up, shaking out his skinny legs as he sets his pads aside.

“Hey.” Matt replies, his hooded eyes making his otherwise placid face seem stormy.

“You wanna talk? After, I mean. Grab some lunch?”

Matt cuts his eyes down and smiles a little, his private smile, when he thinks something is funny, but not, like, actually funny. “We don’t have to do all that, man. I know what we need to do.”

Kris blinks. “It’s just lunch.”

Matt looks up at him again. “Jim already talked to me about it. The bonding, I mean. I’ll do my part, the drills and the tests and shit, but I just…” That smile again. “I’m not sure I’m ready.”

Too fucking late for that, Kris thinks, unkindly, and Matt’s laugh this time is more genuine.

“Didn’t need the bond for that one,” he says.

Kris raises his eyebrows, trying not to let every single stupid emotion show on his face. “See, we’re already clicking.”

Matt catches his tongue between his teeth for a second when he grins. “Think we both need time, eh? Can we wait til preseason?”

Kris feels a traitorous wave of relief. “Of course.” He hesitates. “You know, we still could have gotten lunch out of this.”

Matt waves him off, goes back to his pads. “Nah, man, I’m good.”

Kris has three texts from Sid when he powers his phone back on, which he dismisses without checking, grabs his bag, and heads out.

*

They wait longer than that. The preseason comes and goes. They lose their first game, get crushed in their second, and they still haven’t bonded. Kris is missing passes, giving up pucks left and right, feels like his has no peripheral vision, out there without a line to his goalie. Even when they start doing okay, Kris is struggling, second guessing plays he never would have before, making stupid fucking decisions and feeling like he has cement in his skates.

Jim and Sully call him in. They’re understanding: the surgery, the months of downtime, Marc leaving. But they need him to be a leader.

Matt watches him with dark eyes when he dresses for their game against Tampa Bay. He’s not starting today, and he’s bending the brim of a ballcap between his palms.

Kris tries to find Matt on the bench during the game, but can’t. He’s still out there alone.

They lose. Of course.

*

Marc takes a knee to the head the next night, during Vegas’s game against Detroit. Marc takes too long to get up, on his hands and knees with his mask against the ice. Kris stands in the middle of his living room, like there’s anything he can do.

They leave Marc out there when he finally gets to his feet. Fucking idiot.

He texts Marc this. Fucking idiot. Then, Let me know you’re okay, at least.

Sidney texts him while his phone is still in his hand. He's careful, you know that. He’s okay.

Sid has a blindspot when it comes to Marc. He’s not careful, and he's not okay. Kris doesn’t need a bond to tell him that.

*

The next night, still with radio silence from Marc (though Perry had called him to let him know: concussion of course), Kris feels something battering his skin from the inside, some twisting restlessness, when he takes the ice against Florida. He feels like he’s everywhere, like he can see the entire rink all at once.

He assists Sid on his first goal, and when he looks across the ice at Murr, he feels it snap into place; Matt straightens to his full height, takes a stride out of his crease before stopping short.

Kris wants to grab him, shake him. He feels like there’s too much blood in his veins, too much air in his lungs. He forgot about this; his first time was a long time ago.

Sid helps him over the boards when his legs won’t work right for a second, and puts a hand on his lower back. “Yeah?”

Kris takes a deep breath, blows out everything that isn’t quite him. “Yeah.”

Sid nods, pops his mouthguard back in, and turns back to the game as the puck drops. Matt is a wall, keeping Florida scoreless for the rest of the first. He won’t talk to Kris between periods, but he doesn’t, sometimes, and Kris feels off balance, shaky with a double dose of adrenaline.

He assists Sid on the game winner. Matt makes 46 saves.

Matt has the warrior helmet in his lap when Kris passes him on his way to the change room. “Is it always like this?”

Kris bites his tongue for a second, hard. “Yeah, I think so. But it’ll even out. We could--”

Matt interrupts him. “Is Flower okay?”

Kris sighs. “I don’t really know. Are you?”

Matt meets his eyes square on. “I don’t really know.”

*

He wakes up the next morning to his phone ringing. He squints at the clock -- 7am -- and claws for his phone.

It’s Marc.

He mashes accept. “Marc-Andre?”

There’s a long pause, and then Marc sighs. “God, it’s good to hear your voice.”

Kris’s heart thuds in his throat, because yeah, it really, really is. “You’re not supposed to be using the phone with a concussion,” he says, instead. He considers, and almost can’t ask. “Unless…”

Marc laughs, low and pained. “No, it is. It’s...not good.”

“You shouldn’t have kept playing,” Kris says, even though he knows Marc already feels like shit. He can’t help it. He’s felt sick to his stomach for two days.

“I shouldn’t have kept playing,” Marc echoes woodenly.

There’s a long moment where Kris wants to ask why he did. He swerves around trying to figure it out himself, the memory of Marc’s tender feelings about the last two years wrapped up in barbed wire, nothing for Kris to ever touch without permission.

“Do you have someone to help?”

“Marylene is coming down. And Marchy -- Marchessault -- is sleeping on the couch.”

“Good, that’s great.” Kris rolls on his side. “Tell M I said hello.”

Marc tetches, and Kris snickers at the coming old joke. “Stop using me to flirt with my sister.”

“I should go,” Marc goes on. “Sorry, I just...needed a familiar voice.”

“Nealer not doing it for you?”

Marc snorts, and then makes an aborted, pained noise.

“Go,” Kris says, rolling onto his side.

“Talk soon,” Marc replies.

“Of course.”

Kris holds the phone after the call drops, and he lays still for a few minutes, listening to the ambient sounds of a leaf blower outside, a garbage truck down the block. He wonders what it sounds like in the desert in the early morning. He wonders if Marc has been able to bond yet, if they even know who their 1D is.

Kris puts the phone on the nightstand, then gets up to go make himself a smoothie.

*

They win their next four games with Murr in goal and he and Kris are clicking. It feels good, to have an anchor in net again, even though Matt’s energy is more tightly controlled than last year.

Matt mostly avoids him, though Kris sees him laughing with the younger guys, all his WBS boys. It reminds Kris of when he got called up, finding Marc and Sid and Geno and Pascal, feeling invincible...looking at the old guys and wishing they’d get out of the way. He wonders what he’d feel like if the team expected him to bond with one of them.

As always, he searches for the place their bond, thin and wobbly, is taking root, and finds it impossible to get to. On the ice it’s absurdly easy, Matt totally dialed in, letting Kris feel the direction of his anticipation, his determination. But as soon as the final horn sounds, it’s goes dead, like driving into a tunnel and losing cell service.

They lose three out of the next four. When Kris puts a hand on Matt’s shoulder as they leave the ice in Vancouver, Matt shrugs him off and steps into the tunnel. Sid taps Kris’s shins with his stick and follows.

Kris gets the message: Matt’s joy and anger and guilt and pride aren’t for him.

It’s just fucking hockey.

*

Back in the parking lot at Pittsburgh International, Kris’s phone pings.

He tilts the screen towards himself. It’s Marc. Be nice to Matty, eh?

Kris snorts. I’m trying.

Marc sends back one of those sarcastic emojis, the one that Kris uses interchangeably with oh really.

Kris sends back the flipping the bird emoji. Then, Shouldn’t you be limiting screen time?

Marc sends back a kissy face, and Kris laughs and slides his phone in his pocket.

The car next to his beeps to unlock, and Phil slaps him on the ass. “Getting a card game together tonight, you in?”

Kris grins. “Bring your checkbook.”

*

Marc starts calling him again. Not every day, but on good days, or really bad ones.

“I saw a new doctor today,” Marc says quietly, on one of his newly routine late night calls. Kris isn’t sure if he forgets there’s a time difference, or if he just doesn’t care.

Sometimes he wonders if Marc knows he’s awake, if somehow he can still feel him.

Kris leans back against his headboard. “”One of Sid’s?” Sidney told Kris that he had sent Marc a list of doctors that Marc had brushed off as “probably unnecessary.”

Marc sighs. “Yeah. I’m just.”

Kris could fill in the blank with any number of words: scared, angry, impatient. He thinks Marc means all of them together. “I know,” he says.

“I also--” Marc stops, and there’s a long, weighty pause. “Anyway, they’re not sure what the timeline is. Some days it seems like I’m fine, and then…”

Kris remembers this from Sid. The doctors said there was nothing really wrong, no reason he should be displaying any symptoms. But one day he’d be fine, and the next he would have a steep mood swing, or in bed all day with a headache.

“Thank god there are so many guys who speak French. It’s been a bad English month, you know?”

Kris laughs. It’s something Geno used to say, his first few years. He’d decline an invite out with the guys because it was a Bad English Day, just too long trying to parse a language with shitty grammar and a bunch of words that always relied on context to figure them out. Kris remembers them from his first year with the team, how stuck to Marc’s side as much as he could, because he felt so uncomfortable with English words in his mouth.

“So you’re using me for my Quebecois, I get it.”

Marc makes a little noise. “Not just that,” he says, and his voice sounds low and rough and it zips through Kris’s blood like a dog whistle.

It’s the first time Marc has said even come close to referencing their past relationship, and Kris’s heart thuds uncomfortably against his ribs.

The silence must go on too long, because Marc sighs. “Sorry, sorry. I’m not in my right mind.”

Kris wants so badly to not let the moment pass. “Have you ever been?” he says instead.

“I am concussed,” Marc says, affronted, and Kris laughs like they used to before Marc left.

The bad days are bad, but Marc will call and asks Kris to just stay on the phone until Marc falls asleep.

“I shouldn’t have kept playing,” Marc says, low, on one of those days. “I lied during protocol.”

Kris sucks in a breath. Why, he almost asks, but is startled to find that he doesn’t have to for Marc to answer, and even more startled to realize that he already knows.

“It couldn’t happen again. Not again, not on my last shot.” His voice is thick with pain and raw at the edges. “I couldn’t be what everyone thought I was.”

“Marc--”

“I know everyone thinks I just got lucky. That I’m a joke. I was gonna show them--” He breaks off abruptly. “I’m angry, Kris. I’m really fucking angry.”

Kris swallows. “Me, too.”

The line is silent for so long, Kris says, “Hello?” and Marc clears his throat.

“I’m here,” he says.

Kris closes his eyes. “Me, too.”

It feels unreal, in the dim light of Kris’s bedroom, 2000 miles of a signal travelling between them, carrying secrets. Like when Marc said he thought he’d have kids by now, or that he wanted to give back his second ring, or that he misses being touched.

Kris knows how he feels, but not like when he’d reach for the bond. He hasn’t tried to do that in weeks, because he hasn’t had to.

He’s not sure why, now, he ever thought he did.

*

Marc makes himself a new, private instagram, though he doesn’t post very often. Mostly he uses it to get into emoji wars in the comments of Kris’s posts with Guentz and Shearsy and Jordan Cole, Colesey’s wife, who wipes the floor with all three of them.

Screentime! Kris texts him.

Marc shoots back, I already have one Sidney Crosby in my life, thanks. Then, Can’t sleep.

Want me to call?

Marc does, so Kris does, and he listens to Marc tell him a story about some charity function thing he thought he was well enough to go to, but after three hours of small talk, he begged off to come home.

“Millsy drove me, he’s a sweet boy.”

Kris barks a laugh to cover for the way his heart is trying to strangle him. “Oh, is he gonna be your new D?”

Marc tsks. “He’s a baby.”

Kris hesitates. “So’s Murr.”

Marc is silent for a long moment. “Are you being nice to him?”

“I’m fucking trying, Marc-Andre.”

Marc hums. “Is anyone being nice to you?”

Kris can’t help how he sounds when he says, “You are.”

Marc laughs, a sound that goes straight into Kris’s veins. “I would be, if I could be there with you.”

Kris tilts his head back into his pillow, trying not to breathe heavily directly into the phone. He can feel it under his skin, want and need pulsing in his throat and between his legs. Marc can’t, and they don’t anymore, but Kris misses him so much…

“How nice?” he says, without meaning to. His hand has crept under the waistband of his sleep pants, stroking lightly at the top of his pubic hair.

“As nice as I’ve ever been,” Marc says, teasing, low heat in his voice.

Kris can’t help it, the adrenaline of the win that night and having Marc’s soft, sleepy voice in his hear. “We’ll be there soon.”

“I know.”

Kris bites his lip. “I can’t wait.”

Kris can hear Marc’s smile over the line. “Me, too.”

*

Matt gets hurt in a game against Philadelphia, and the next day Kris shows up uninvited at his new house, with taco bowls -- the WBS kids have what Kris considers to be a literally unhealthy obsession with Chipotle, but he’s trying, here. He got the address from Sid; Matt keeps saying he’ll have a house-warming, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The front yard is scrubby, new grass not yet put in after the construction was done, and Beckham, Matt’s gigantic Newfoundland that he still insists on calling a puppy, is on his back next to the porch, fur covered with chalky dirt.

Kris crouches next to him and sinks his hand deep into the thick fur at his ruff. Beckham writhes in happiness and licks Kris’s arm. “You’re lucky you’re so handsome,” Kris murmurs.

“That’s what they say about you, you know.”

Kris looks up, and Matt is standing on the porch, wearing his trademarked joggers that stop well above his ankle, and a white t-shirt that’s at least a size too big. He looks rumpled, like he just woke up, but he’s been looking like that lately.

Kris stands, and brushes fur and dirt off his hands and onto the seat of his jeans. “I brought lunch,” he says.

Matt looks at him for a long moment, then opens the door. “Come on in.”

Beckham jumps up and barges through the door ahead of them. Somewhere in the house, Chrissy says, “Babe, you better not let Beckham in the house without brushing him off first!”

Matt grimaces and Kris laughs.

Inside, Kris gets their bowls on the table while Matt corners Beckham in the mudroom, wrestles to get the bigger chunks of dirt of out his belly fur. Chrissy pulls iced coffee out of the fridge, Kris’s favorite brand.

“I have coconut creamer,” she says as she nudges by him to get glasses, and Kris beams at her.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says, and Kris feels a slow wave of hot shame wash over him. He doesn’t know Chrissy that well, and it’s been two years.

“Sorry I didn’t come sooner.”

Her mouth quirks a little. “Yeah, me, too,” she says, but gently. “But you’re here now, so.”

“I am.”

She nods, and puts the creamer and coffee down on the table, with one glass for Kris, and another glass of water for Matt, then reaches up to pat him on the shoulder. Kris feels about two inches tall in front of this tiny woman. “Did you bring guac?”

Kris laughs. “In the bag, all yours.”

She snags the bag and the coffee she poured herself, and disappears deeper into the house with a wave.”Beckham,” she calls, and Beckham trots out of the mudroom, through the kitchen, and disappears with her.

“We should talk,” Kris says, when Matt comes back into the kitchen, and Matt leans against the breakfast bar and sighs.

“Okay, so I’m trapped because I can’t run away and you’re bribing me with chipotle, so.”

Kris barks out a surprised laugh. When things are tough on the ice, he forgets how funny Matt can be. “You know I don’t mind playing dirty,” he says, and Matt laughs, too.

“So go ahead. Bully your way into me being okay with everything.”

Kris tetches. “Come on, I don’t want to bully you. I want it to just work, for the bond to smooth everything out on its own.”

Matt narrows his eyes. “So now it’s the bond that’s not working?”

“No, stop, I’m trying to say sorry.”

Matt raises and eyebrow at him, and Kris puts up his hands. “Really. I’m sorry. I’m not actually good at talking about shit, and I got used to people just knowing and me not having to actually say anything.”

Matt blows out a breath. “I know. And I know I’ve...Sorry I’ve been so weird about it.”

“No, it’s...it’s fucking weird, man. I mean, we don’t think so because it’s the way things are done, but when you think about it, it’s sort of weird.”

Matt smiles, a tiny relieved smile. “It’s not that I never wanted to. I just know how you and Flower were and I…” He shrugs a little.

Kris blinks. “That’s not, uh. We don’t have to do that.”

“But it would make our hockey better? Isn’t that what they say?”

Kris shrugs. “They say that. I think it’s bullshit.”

Matt squints at him. “So you and Flower.”

Kris stubbornly waits for a question, making a go ahead motion with his hand.

Matt laughs, shakes his head. “Yeah, yeah, okay. You’re saying we don’t have to fuck for chemistry?”

Kris’s slight shock at the bald language makes Matt snicker, and Kris pinches his arm, making him yelp. “Don’t be crude. And also no. Chemistry is just you letting me in,” Kris says, as gently as he knows how.

“What about you?” Matt shifts his eyes from the table to Kris. “How do I get in? Or do you just get to keep all your secrets?”

“I…” Kris had always thought their bond it was sealed shut from the other side, but maybe he just didn’t think to check the locks on his.

He can feel his mouth twist. “I don’t know.”

Matt puts his hand on Kris’s knee and squeezes. “Yeah.” He hesitates. “I’ve never done this before, but it seems like it shouldn’t be this hard. For either of us.”

Kris swallows hard. “I know.”

Matt takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to replace him. Flower, I mean. I never did. But I want to play.” He looks down at his hand on Kris’s knee. “I don’t want to apologize for that.”

Kris remembers Marc saying the same thing, back at the start of Camp last year, when he told them he’d be waiving his No Move Clause for Vegas. “I just want to play,” he had said, daring them to tell him he was making the wrong choice.

“You shouldn’t have to.” Kris nudges at their bond, and Matt lets it crack open. Kris tries to push through to him that him he’s not mad, he doesn’t resent him. That he’s important to Kris, too, and that he doesn’t have to do this alone. That’s the point.

Matt laughs, a suspiciously wet laugh, and shoves through the bond a burst of gratitude and pride and a tangle of thorns that’s the need to prove himself.

Matt scrubs his hands over his eyes and through his hair, making it stick up crazily. “Thanks,” he says gruffly.

“Sorry I don’t want to suck your dick,” Kris says, to break the tension. His heart is rabbiting against his ribs.

“Your loss,” Matt says, his eyes twinkling, and folds open the foil on his food. “Now come on, you can’t shit all over this if you’ve never even tried it.”

Kris shakes his head. “Only for you.”

Matt’s smile around a mouthful of chicken is smug and gross and real.

*

Marc’s been skating before practice, close to being cleared, and he tells Kris about it when they talk. About the ice cutting under his blades, the smell off the rink, that first cold slap of air when you step out of the tunnel and onto the ice, your body sweating in your gear and your nose and cheeks freezing.

He doesn’t say what they’re both thinking, that he might be cleared to play against them.

Two days later, he is.

“I’m cleared!” he says, and Kris doesn’t know what his emotions are doing, his heart going sideways and trying to squeeze out through his ribs.

“I had thought…” Marc stops, then takes a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter now.”

Normally, Kris would let this go. But things aren’t normal. The thing he thought he wanted to go back to, Marc in his head and at his back, Marc his eyes and ears on the ice, knowing how Marc feels without Marc needing to know himself...it feels like a tender memory now, not like something Kris is actively longing for. He doesn’t know when that changed.

He’s not sure what happens now, to them, now that Marc has hockey back. He knows what he wants, but he’s not sure Marc wants the same. And he can sit here and ask Marc to spill his guts about hockey, but he has no idea where to start doing it for his own stupid heart.

“It does, though,” Kris says. “It’s the only thing that fucking matters.”

Marc laughs, startled. “You’re not sick of my moping yet?”

Kris throat hurts, like he’s been yelling. “I need my daily dose to survive, at this point.”

He can almost hear Marc’s shrug. “Just remember you asked for it, my friend.”

Later, they say their goodbyes, and there’s a long pause before they hang up.

“I’ll call you tomorrow?” Marc asks.

They’ll be in Vegas in three days. “Please,” Kris says. Maybe he’s a fool for the hope that he lets take hold, but Kris has never given anything less than 110% in his entire life.

*

“You could just tell him,” Pascal had said to him that summer, from an adirondack chair on Kris’s back patio, while Kris stabbed at a steak on the grill. It was supposed to be their annual summer kick off barbecue, but Talbo was still in Russia, and Marc was already in Vegas.

“I get it, you’re an adult with, like, 12 kids, you don’t get worked up about anything anymore.” Kris resisted the urge to flip the steak; he read it makes the meat tough.

Pascal laughed. “I get worked up about plenty and you fucking know it. I just think this is a thing that could probably be more easily solved than you think.”

Kris gritted his teeth. “It doesn’t matter what you think I think, or what I think he thinks, or what you think I think he thinks.” He tested the steak with the edge of his spatula. “What matters is what he actually thinks, which no one on the fucking planet will ever know.” He paused. “It’s just fucking hockey, anyway.”

“Oh, is it.” Pascal hummed and took a long swig from his beer bottle. He looked at Kris a long moment, and Kris valiantly didn’t shift, or look away. “You’ve figured out what the rest of us haven’t, eh?”

Kris knew Pascal struggled when he left, that Sidney’s bonds ran deep, vibrations from the threads he’s at the center of a phantom limb that needs just as much time to heal from as Sidney’s own. Kris frowned. “You know I don’t think that.”

Pascal’s smile was a little strained. “You do, it’s okay. You don’t know how to do this without a bond, because you never had to.”

Kris snorted. “I didn’t ask for Gonch to get hurt. They asked me to step up and I did.”

Pascal quirked an eyebrow. “I don’t think Gonch and Flower were quite so close, my friend.”

It’s something Kris had been turning over in his head, too. They teach you in Junior how to bond platonically bond, how to keep the physical and the emotional separate, how to look for a life away from the rink. But just like in Junior, when you’re strung out and overwhelmed and starved for physical attention, sometimes it’s easier to give in. Lots of bonded guys sleep together and it never goes beyond hockey. They say it makes the bond stronger, but it’s probably just an old wives’ tale, something they tell each other to make them feel better.

Some guys, like Sid and Geno, decide to bond because of the emotional stuff, and fold their lives -- the ones on and off the ice -- together.

And some guys, like Kris, don’t know any other way, emotional and physical getting all tangled up, angry for days after a bad game, wanting no one but your bond partner. He never thought he’d have to find out if Marc was that guy, too, thinking they’d both retire together, thinking they had nothing but time.

They had almost made it through the year they got bonded without falling into bed, but only if you don’t count locker room and roadie handjobs. Sid had come to Marc’s room in LA one time to ask them to tone it down because he could feel it through his bond with Marc and it remains one of the most mortifying moments of Kris’s life.

Not enough, though, to make them stop, and not enough to make Kris more careful with his treacherous, soft heart.

Kris cleared his throat, aware his silence has probably been too long. “It happens sometimes. Especially--”

“With goalies, yeah, yeah, whatever.”

Kris huffed. “I was going to say with someone like Marc.”

“Or someone like you?”

Kris stared at the tongs in his hand. “I’m afraid to tell him, Pascal. If I was supposed to know him all this time, shouldn’t I know this, too? Shouldn’t I already know?”

Pascal frowned. “Oh, Kris.”

Kris’s eyes were suddenly wet, and he tsked, blinking hard. Fuck. “We’re not the only ones, you know. Just because you got stuck with Sidney--”

Pascal coughed on the sip of beer he had just taken and leans forward to hack up a lung. “I’m gonna tell Geno you said that.”

*

Kris can’t stop thinking about it now. What was left to say but the truth, the last little bit of it.

*

He sits next to Matt on the plane to Vegas, and taps on one of his headphones. Matt turns to look at him, his eyebrows raised, and tilts one side of the headphones away from his ear. “What’s up?”

Kris shrugs, his skin crawling with deliberately unexamined anticipation and anxiety.

Matt puts his hand on Kris’s knee and squeezes. “Me, too,” he says, and pushes what little bit of reassurance he can spare through the bond.

Kris puts his head back. It feels good to have someone else with him, after so long of never being alone. Good, but different, nothing like what he felt with and for Marc.

Marc was easy to love, to want to love, and sometimes the bond could get you mixed up about loving and being in love. But this doesn’t feel like that, it doesn’t feel like when Kris spent the entirety of 2010 telling himself it was the bond, that sleeping with Marc for hockey didn’t mean what his body was telling him it meant.

But now his body knows, and his brain knows, and his heart knows, beating it into every nerve ending in his skin.

He fell in love with Marc eight years ago, and still is in love with him, and has never known him better than he’s gotten to know him the past two months. Phone calls and texts and all his guts spilled over the span of an entire country, even breath in his ear as he falls asleep, which they somehow never managed to do when they were together.

In the last three days, that little shoot of hope has taken root, and has bloomed through every cell in his body, rewriting him at a base level.

A few rows up, Sidney is looking down the aisle at him; Dumo’s head is poking out over the seats, too. Next to him, Matt’s hand lands on his knee again.

“Yeah, we can all hear you, man,” Matt murmurs, and Kris can’t help it, smiles with all his teeth, his shark grin. Dumo wolf whistles before disappearing back into his seat, and Sid shakes his head, a tiny, smug grin curling the corner of his mouth.

“We’ll be there soon,” Matt says and Kris leans their shoulders together.

*

Kris and Sid meet Marc and David for dinner the night before the game. They go to some steak house off the Strip, old school meat and potatoes and probably a martini or two more than Kris should indulge in.

After, Sid says he’s supposed to catch up with Geno, Horny, and Hags, and David says Vanessa had asked him to come home early so he has to run. Walking back to Marc’s car, his non famous person car that he uses to be discreet, Kris sneaks a look at Marc to find Marc looking back at him, openly.

“I thought it would be strange,” Marc says, “to see you and not feel you in my head.”

Kris runs a hand through his hair. “But it’s not?”

“Well, no.” They get to Marc’s car, and Kris turns to find Marc right there. “Because you’re kind of there anyway.” He steps closer. “All the time.”

Kris reaches out and grabs the edges of his coat, pulling him closer. It’s cold at night in the desert, but Marc’s breath is warm against his chilled face. “It was never hockey. For me.”

Marc puts a hand on Kris’s cheek. “For either of us.”

“At least when we fuck it up,” Kris breathes, “We do it in synch.”

“A real bond,” Marc agrees, and bends his head to kiss him.

I love you, Kris thinks, stay with me.

Marc pulls back, and squints at him. “Do you-- I love you,” he says, firmly.

Kris laughs, his emotions too big for his skin, for any words he could find. “I figured.”

“Just making sure, just making sure,” Marc says, grinning, and kisses him again.

*

They get knocked out of the second round by Washington, and in the locker room after, he doesn’t need the bond to tell him how Matt is feeling.

Matt’s face is stone, sitting in his stall and methodically unlacing his skates. He looks thin and worn out, his undershirt billowing around his chest. Kris tests the bond, but it’s sealed up tight.

“I’m sorry,” Matt says, not looking up at him.

Kris kneels, putting his hands over Matt’s on his skates. Behind him, he can hear low murmuring, guys talking each other through it. Kris can do one better.

He pushes a little, just to get Matt’s attention. When he has it, Matt’s fingers slack under Kris’s, Kris rolls over to let him see his underbelly, the parts of him no one gets to see.

He shows Matt his sorrow, his anger, his guilt, and his relief and the extra loop of guilt that goes with it. That’s Kris’s secret, that he’s tired, and that he wasn’t sure he had another gear in him to find. He didn’t want to lose, but he also wasn’t sure he could win, either, and now the decision has been made.

Matt leans into him, sliding off the bench to slump into Kris’s chest, all six and a half feet of him folded up into Kris’s lap. Kris takes his weight, and when Matt opens his side of the bond, he takes all that, too.

“Next year,” Kris murmurs in his ear after the flood of emotion has dried up. “Next year.”

“Next year,” Matt says gruffly, and for the first time since they bonded they’re entirely in synch.

When he gets home that night, he can’t decide if he wants to be alone or not, suddenly hates his stupid giant house and how empty it is, and also wishes it would actually be at the bottom of the Allegheny so he would never have to see anyone again.

So of course, his phone vibrates from his jacket pocket.

He fishes it out, and it’s Marc.

“If you don’t want to talk,” Marc says before Kris can even say hello, “you can hang up.”

Kris doesn’t hang up, so Marc doesn’t, either.

“I’m sorry,” Marc says, and Kris sits down in his dim foyer, the only light coming from the porch outside.

“It’s okay,” Kris replies. “I’m okay. I’m…”

“Relieved?”

Kris laughs miserably. “Of course you already know.”

Marc hums. “I do. I know you.”

Kris feels tears prick his eyes, for the first time all night. “You do.”

“I wish I was there.”

“No, you don’t. You wish you’ll be playing hockey for the next month.”

Kris can hear the rueful smile in Marc’s voice. “Yeah, I mean. Yeah.”

He also knows what that means, what it would mean for him, what it means for Marc. “How’re you dealing with the pressure?”

Marc hesitates, then says, “I don’t want to talk about my dumb shit tonight.”

Kris clucks his tongue. “When’s a better time? Distract me from my sorrows.”

“You really want me to?”

“I really, really do.”

So Marc does.

*