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The Sweetest Sounds I'll Ever Hear

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Patrick learned years ago how to fake a note to a school about missing a day. It’s all about having the right expression on his face when he turns it in to the front office, reminding them of the “poor kid who lost his parents” side of his narrative rather than the “potentially troublesome foster teen” side. He tries not to pull the trick very often, because he doesn’t want anyone getting suspicious or, even worse, reaching out to his foster parents about it.

He does it for the first day of the bonding search. They’re going to need all hands on deck, for one thing, and it’s all anyone’s talking about in hockey these days. There’s no way he’s missing it for school.

He gets to the UC a little before eight. The events don’t officially start until nine, but of course all of the players are here, and a lot of the fans are, too, hoping to meet the players and see them warming up. It’s raining out, so Patrick has work to do right away, cleaning up by the entrances where people have tracked in water and mud.

His boss, Louie, calls him over a little before nine. “Kane,” he says. “You’ll be on ice-clearing duty today. That okay?”

Patrick can’t help the huge smile that appears on his face. Ice-clearing duty is his favorite. He gets to do it during games sometimes. He doesn’t get to shovel snow in the middle of periods—he doesn’t exactly fit the description of an ice girl—but sometimes when there’s crap left on the ice from fans’ popcorn or someone’s hat trick, he gets to go pick it up. And then he’s on the ice during an NHL game.

It’s not like anyone’s looking at him, or caring about him in particular. He knows that. But still. Just to be there. To pretend, for a few seconds, that these are his teammates, that he’s going to be the one driving the puck towards the goal once the whistle blows.

It’ll be different today. This isn’t a normal game; they’ll just be running drills and such, a few scrimmages to give everyone a chance to skate alongside Toews, to try build up chemistry. Still, though, it means Patrick will get to be next to the ice all day. It means he’ll get to see what’s going on.

What’s going on, a few minutes later when he makes it to the stands, isn’t anything much. The unbonded players are skating around the ice, warming up. Most of them are rookies or prospects just a year or two older than Patrick; a few of them are older players whose bondmate has retired or been injured. Not as many of those, though. Patrick guesses the Hawks don’t want Toews paired with someone who’ll be reaching retirement age in just a few years. They want someone for the long haul.

Some of the players on the ice Patrick recognizes as this past summer’s top draft picks. If they bond with Toews, and the bond is strong enough, they’ll come to play for the Blackhawks instead of the teams that drafted them. Patrick’s sure there are already agreements in place for what the Blackhawks would give up if that happened.

There are bonding meters at either end of the rink. It’s a rough way to calibrate bonds, wide-ranging meters like that, but if something significant happens on the ice, they’ll pick it up.

The clock flips over to nine, and a buzzer goes off. “And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” a voice says over the loudspeaker. “Jonathan Toews!”

The stadium fills with cheers as Toews skates onto the ice. He looks great: strong, smooth strokes. But then, he always looks great when he’s skating. There’s a reason people are calling him the best player on the Blackhawks roster.

A few other Blackhawks skate out behind him: Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford. Patrick guesses they’re there to help put things in the context of normal Hawks play. The bonding meters are probably already calibrated to account for their bonds—except for Crawford, of course. Everyone knows goalies don’t do hockey bonds.

The prospects watch as they skate out, standing in a couple of rows along the blue lines. Patrick feels his heart beat race. It’s all about to start.

***

The first bit is set up a little like a practice, the kind of practice Patrick remembers taking part in once upon a time. There are drills, all kinds, the bonding prospects going up against Toews and the current Blackhawks mostly watching from the bench. It’s impossible to have Toews on the ice at all times—no one can skate that hard, that constantly—but when he’s sitting out the prospects get to compete against each other, keeping it fun for the audience.

The whole weekend is set up for entertainment as much as anything else. It makes sense: in committing themselves to doing this as a weekend-long extravaganza, the Blackhawks have pretty much promised the crowd that they’ll enjoy themselves.

Patrick figures out pretty quickly that there’s more to it than that, though. Yeah, the competitive element makes it more fun to watch, but the guys who do the best in the drills are also the ones who get to play the most on Toews’s team in the scrimmage that follows. And that makes sense, too: the Blackhawks would want the best players to bond with Toews, not the worst. And it takes time to build up a bond. The ones who play with Toews the most will be the most likely to bond with him. The entertainment aspect of the competition is just a bonus.

Besides, the real fun comes from knowing that at any moment, the red lights on the bonding meters could go off.

Patrick only gets out on the ice twice that day, both during breaks in on-ice action: once to get a broken stick, and once to retrieve a child’s stuffed animal that somehow got thrown over the glass. (He suspects an older sibling.) He also cleans up two piles of vomit, one little kid’s bathroom accident, about five thousand mashed hot dogs, and so many spilled sodas he can’t count them.

He doesn’t care. He still gets to be here.

He suspects the powers that be among the Blackhawks are less thrilled with the day, though. It’s not like anyone expected the bonding meters to go off the first day—again, bonding takes time—but there’s no one Patrick can spot who’s even pulling away from the pack, in terms of chemistry with Toews. James van Riemsdyk is good—there’s a reason he was the first draft pick—but he doesn’t click particularly well with Toews. Same with Sam Gagner, but then, he’s a center anyway. It’s not unheard of for two centers to bond, and it’s still helpful to have a hockey bond even if you’re not usually out on the ice with your bondmate, but less so. What you really want is a center bonding with a winger, or two wingers or D men bonding with each other, so that the instinctive knowledge of your bondmate’s position can help you make plays.

Watching Toews with any of these guys is nothing like watching Sharp with Hossa, or Seabrook with Keith: that effortless connection. Obviously you need time for that. But Patrick’s itching to see it. Toews is so good already; what will he be like with someone on the ice whose presence he can sense with his eyes closed?

***

Patrick thought he did a lot of cleanup during the day, but it turns out to be nothing compared to what’s waiting for them after the day’s events are over. The stuff from the fans is pretty standard—it’s not a bigger crowd than they get for games, after all—but Louie wants things to be way cleaner than normal because of all the behind-the-scenes filming that’s going on, and besides, there usually aren’t over a hundred hockey players in the locker rooms.

Patrick makes a face as he wipes down one of the shower bays. He doesn’t know how guys with short hair manage to clog the shower drains so badly, and he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to know. It’s extra gross because it’s all still damp—he did wait until all the players were done showering, but only just; he can’t get home late tonight.

He’s wiping down a second bay when he hears voices. “You shouldn’t beat yourself up over it, man,” someone says.

“I know.” Someone else sighs gustily, and Patrick tenses, because he knows that voice. That’s Jonathan Toews.

“No one expected it to happen on the first day,” the first guy says, and now Patrick knows him, too. Brent Seabrook.

“Right,” Toews says. “It’s just…”

“Really weren’t feeling it with any of them, huh?” someone else says—Patrick Sharp, Patrick thinks.

“None of them felt right at all,” Toews says, and the frustration in his voice is sharp. “You guys know how much I’m trying.”

“Give it time,” Seabrook says.

“Yeah, they’re probably just getting over the shock of having to play with your ugly mug,” Sharp says. “I mean, I know I’m still not over it.”

“Go fuck yourself, Sharpy,” Toews says, but he actually sounds better: just annoyed, rather than bitter like a moment before. Patrick wonders if that’s what Sharp was going for. He remembers what it was like: the connections you form with teammates, even the ones you only play with for a single tournament. The ways you learn how to get each other to relax or amp up.

It doesn’t seem like Toews has any problem making that kind of connection. Patrick wonders why it is that no one can bond with him; whether it makes him feel like there’s something wrong with him. Patrick hopes not. From what he’s seen, there’s nothing wrong with Jonathan Toews at all.

***

Patrick can’t stay to skate that night. He’s been home just before curfew too many nights that week, and he needs all his energy for the next day. Instead he goes home and cleans the bathrooms, because he’s falling behind on chores even working as hard as he can, and he sits through a dinner where Chris and Kyle and Andrew have a competition to see who can do the most to hurt him when their parents aren’t looking.

Patrick bites his lips raw and doesn’t say anything when their fingers dig into the sensitive skin on the inside of his elbow. He’s been a foster kid for almost four years; he knows better by now.

He goes to bed early and drags himself out when it’s just getting light. He’s hoping to get some skating in—he wants to imitate some of the drills he saw the bonding prospects doing yesterday. There was one with angling around obstacles that they seemed to be having a lot of trouble with, and Patrick wants to see if it’s really as hard as it looks.

When he gets to the rink at six, though, the Zamboni is already resurfacing the ice for the event. He stands and watches it for a minute, legs itching to move, and then goes and starts cleaning the locker room instead.

It’s just one weekend. It’s not a big deal if he doesn’t get to skate. But it’s frustrating, watching other people skate all day and not being able to do it himself, even for half an hour before he starts work. He knows he doesn’t belong out there with them, he just—wants to skate.

He doesn’t get put on ice duty today. He’s in the corridors, directing people to the bathrooms and cleaning up messes as they arise, and so he doesn’t get more than a few glimpses at the on-ice action during his breaks. From what he can tell, it isn’t going any better. Toews—well, Toews is always great, but there’s no chemistry between him and any of the players Patrick sees him skating with. He looks ten times better with Sharp and Hossa than any of them. Patrick cringes at missed passes and awkward plays, and the bond meter stays silent.

Until around five o’clock, that is. Patrick’s not sure what he’s hearing when the whooping siren sound starts, but a second later he puts it together and runs into the stands.

Sure enough, the red lights on the bond meters are flashing, and two players are standing at center ice, clasping each other’s forearms. Patrick knows that hockey bonds are almost never romantic, unlike the majority of bonds formed between adults, but they’re still cemented via touch. He looks at the faces of these two, both kind of stunned, staring at each other like they can’t believe what just happened.

Neither of them is Toews.

Patrick looks around and sees Toews standing a ways down the ice. He’s staring at these two, two rookies Patrick’s barely even heard of. These two who have bonded on the ice.

“Their teams are going to be maaaad,” one of the fans says to Patrick’s right.

“Eh, I’m sure they saw this kind of thing coming,” someone else says. “Crazy idea, bringing all the rookies together like this. Of course you’re going to get bonds.”

That hadn’t occurred to Patrick, actually. He’s been so focused on Jonathan Toews; how can anyone look at the other players while he’s on the ice, anyway? But he’s sure the teams have provisions in place for this.

He looks back at Toews. He looks...kind of frustrated and glare-y. Patrick can’t imagine how he couldn’t be. These two guys, effortlessly getting the thing that Toews has been working so hard to have for over a year now.

Patrick goes back into the hallway so he doesn’t have to see the wounded look on Toews’s face anymore.

***

By the time the second day ends, Jonathan Toews still hasn’t bonded with anyone, and Patrick is drained.

He feels antsy, though. He hasn’t had ice under his skates in over two days, and if changing that means waiting until everyone else has left the Center, he’ll do it.

It’s past ten-thirty when he finally takes his skates out of his bag. The UC feels so different when it’s empty. Patrick’s always liked it like this: the hallways dim, hushed, every footstep loud. It feels like it’s his own world. Lacing on his skates feels even better: the snug leather hugging his feet, the familiar precariousness of trying to walk with skate blades on rubber matting. He needs this.

When he gets to the end of the tunnel, though, someone else is already out on the ice.

Patrick’s surprised enough that he drops the puck he’s holding. The person on the ice must hear, because he turns and starts towards him. Patrick backs up into the tunnel, but he’s not fast enough: the guy reaches the tunnel entrance and swooshes to a stop.

It’s Jonathan Toews.