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The Beat and the Pulse

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Colleen's life is easier without hockey. Not that being the president of McArdle's multi-multi- million dollar suite of holdings and businesses doesn't come with its own challenges, or that the people she faces down in big steel are pushovers. It's easier without the constant press coverage and public relations disasters, without Harry Strand's … idiosyncrasies… and the never-ending struggle to stave off bankruptcy. The bailouts. Playoffs. Injured players. Players. Goalies, especially, who are seemingly obligatorily neurotic. Players demanding salaries big market teams would struggle to meet. Agents. Ex-agents.

(Colleen's life is easier without Parker.)

Her new office isn't any nicer or any worse than her old one. The office itself is nicer, in a nicer building, but Duff was the reason she worked out of Copps'. She misses being able to wander up to the rafters to talk to him. (Wander. Or stalk. Or snarl, muttering epitaphs under her breath as her heels echoed off of the vaulted metal roof.) He answers the phone when he's nearby, refuses to get email. She buys him cell phones that he loses, and she finds them all over the place months later, behind hockey bags and under periodicals on bookshelves, crammed between couch cushions or in the icebox. You should come by and see me more often, he says. Like he doesn't know why she stays away. She regrets moving her office. Regretted it less than a week after the move, but she is not willing to capitulate.

Renata tells her that Parker has tried to move into her office three times. Every time he gets everything all set up, someone moves everything back, piling all his things in a heap in the middle of the floor.

"You should stop doing that," she tells Duff. They are standing on the catwalk over the empty arena. She is watching a custodian sweep the concrete steps. Duff is watching an imaginary game, eyes darting about the ice.

"Don't know what you're talking about," he replies. "But I have the right to decide who belongs where in my building."

He still thinks she's going to come back. What worries her is that he might be right.

*

The problem, of course, is not that she doesn't love Brett. Love Parker. Of course she loves him. Loved him, she wants to think, but that's not true at all.

*

"Hey, Blondie," Mark says. The bar is loud and dim, and his presence comes as a surprise as he drops onto the chair beside Colleen. "Long time, no see."

She bites an olive from her swizzle stick. "Speak for yourself. I see you all the time."

He frowns and shifts. "What?"

She laughs, and raises her glass towards the television over the bar where TSN is playing another one of his interviews, the purple jerseys on the screen violet when viewed through the martini.

"Right," he said, and relaxes. "Forgot about those."

"Why, Mr. Simpson. I had no idea our hometown hero was so humble."

"That's me. Humble as Hercules." He grins around the amber glass mouth of his beer bottle as he tilts it up to drink. "That didn't make any sense, did it?"

"Not much, no."

He grins. "The witty repartee thing was never really my deal."

"Not particularly, no," she says as she snags the last olive. She is so tired, suddenly. Renata threatened to record her and Parker bickering so many times. She takes a swig of her drink, then another. "Don't take this the wrong way, Mark, but what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be home with your wife?"

"Nah. She's having a girl's night with some of the, well, girls." He shifts forward, elbows on the table. The happy go lucky grin is gone. There's still a residual buzz from their Stanley Cup win, even months later, but he looks like someone else entirely. Not the Captain of the Steelheads, or the lonely man in the bar who called her Blondie. She doesn't know this Mark, despite the fact that he's wearing the same leather jacket and the same fine lines around his eyes. His hands drop forward to tap at the table, just for a moment. "You kind of seem like you could use a friend."

"Simpson," she says, and finishes her drink. "We were never friends."

He shrugs. "Doesn't mean we can't start now." He raises his hand for the barkeep. "Plus, I didn't hear you say I was wrong."

*

Life is easier without hockey. No one comes barging into her office reporting that Harry Strand has violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in some way, or that there are twenty-five strippers in the front office looking for their cheerleader uniforms. The amount of bullshit she has to deal with is decreased exponentially, even discounting how Parker used to fight her for every penny she couldn't give him, every hand and foot hold, every line she didn't think she could cross. No one thwarts her any more.

(No one challenges her.)

Without the press alone, her email is easily halved. It's all routine, and never any request for comment on and incident involving the second-string forward, a bathtub of bootleg liquor, two raccoons, and bottle of French perfume.

She gets an email late one evening. The rest of the office has been gone for hours, halls dark, and she is working in a pool of blue light of a fluorescent lamp; there's a flicker to the light she's been meaning to get maintenance to look at for weeks. There is no subject, and no last name.

In the body, Michelle has written three words:

How is he?

I don't know. is all she can reply.

Michelle's response comes quickly.

How are you?

Colleen laughs, rubs her forehead in the flickering blue light. Her response is the same.

I don't know.

*

"The problem isn't that I didn't love him," Colleen says. Thinks she says. The room is at a bit of an angle, but luckily Todd is there with his big broad shoulders to keep her from tilting too far into it.

Mark laughs.

(A bunch of the team is going out. You should come out with us, he told her. The guys miss you.

The guys don't know me, she said with a raised eyebrow.

Yeah, well, I miss you. And Todd does. Don't think he's forgotten how you saved him. And the others would miss you if they knew you.)

"No, seriously," Colleen says, reaching for her martini. Todd gently moves it outside of her reach. "I just don't like him."

"Mr. Parker's a hard guy to like," Todd says sympathetically. "Share always says – okay, Share doesn't have much good to say about Mr. Parker."

"He's a harder guy to trust," Mark says, because he knows where she comes from.

She doesn't do this. Doesn't get drunk around people, not like this. She doesn't like to be out of control. In the morning, she will probably wake up with a pounding headache and a mortification hangover. At least she doesn't work in the same building as them anymore. She should leave, she should –

"It's okay," Mark says, like he knows what she was thinking or she was thinking out loud. "Told you that you needed a friend."

She narrows her eyes at him. "Did you just say 'I told you so?''"

"Maybe?" Mark replies.

Todd snorts, a faint vibration on the shoulder she is leaning on. "She's got you there, Simpsie," he says. "You so totally did."

"What happened to the humble home town boy?" she asks, but it's soft because – "You guys, I like," she says, "even with the told-you-sos," and knows it will be just another thing she'll pretend she never said.

"Right back at you," Todd says, and there's something in his simplicity that touches her in ways she'll never admit, and Mark is smiling at her across the table, and – maybe, maybe, it wouldn't be so bad to admit that she said it.

*

The thing isn't that Colleen has trust issues. Okay, that's part of it. Colleen has trust issues that could divide North America along the 49th parallel – twice – and be seen from the International Space Station. It's part of why she is such a good businesswoman, because she pretty much gets paid to mistrust people, and assume the worst when entering negotiations in supposed good faith. She trusted Budd, and look where that got them.

Colleen loves Parker. She loved him, and she still does. She loves him even when she hates him, and she hates that she loves him. Liking him is harder, a grudging respect easier than she'd ever let on. Trust, though –

"I trusted you," she says. It is three in the morning on a Tuesday, and she is pacing in her kitchen. The tile is cold under foot, air humid and hot, and she opens a window to let in the night air. The phone line is quiet. "I trusted you," she says.

"Well why would you go and do a thing like that?" Brett asks. His voice is hazy and rough.

"I don't know," she says. She slams shut the window, frustrated. Paces from the fridge to the living room entrance. "I'm just used to trusting the people I love."

"You barely trust anyone."

"I haven't loved a lot of people." Her father, who never came home for supper and was stupid enough to show up to work at a steel mill drunk. Her father, who died. Her mother (ditto). Duff, who doesn't always trust her when she needs him to, because she's like a daughter to him except for when he's her boss, and her boss except for when she's a daughter.

Brett's voice is raw. "Yeah. I kind of get where you're coming from with that one. Exhausting, isn't it?"

"I wish I'd never met you."

Through the phone, she can hear him breathe deep, and she waits for the barb or the repartee, is ready with a rejoinder. "I don't," is all he says.

*

It would be too much to expect that they could leave it at that, of course. A heavy note of – not sweetness, but understanding. He's waiting for her when she finishes visiting Duff, waiting for her on the catwalks, like he's been stalking Duff''s rooms (which she wouldn't put past Brett) or Duff called him (which she wouldn't put past Duff).

He's got himself worked up. He's leaning heavily on a metal railing, fingers thrumming. His hair's out of place like he's been pacing and rubbing his hands through it, and he's breathing very purposefully. Her heels on the metal have given her way long before she saw him but she still pauses, wonders if she can sneak away without this confrontation because it hurts just to look at him.

"Do you have any idea," Brett asks, still looking at his hands, "how very much I would give just to wish I'd never met you?"

Colleen winces. "A lot?" she offers.

"A – a lot? A lot?" Brett stutters, whips around to look at her. "I wish – God, I wish – you know what, if I'm wishing, if I got a wish, it would be to just start this whole fucking thing over."

Colleen laughs, bleak. "Start from where, Parker? Rose? You, me? The Steelheads? Michelle? Michelle's mother? Do you think you could fix it, or would you just make the same choices, thinking that because you knew what was coming you could just… fix it somehow?"

"You know that I love you, right?" Brett asks.

"Of course you do." She hates the way he's asking it, like he doesn't think she knows that. "I love you, too." She settles down wearily onto the metal stairs, ridged grating pressing into the skin left bare by her skirt. "That was never the question, was it?"

And she can see that he thinks that it was, or that it was part of it, at least. "And, what? You just knew that being with me would make you happy, and you couldn't allow yourself that?"

She laughs at that, head bent almost to her knees. "It would be easier if that was it, wouldn't it? But is that what you really want out of life, easy? Because if it is, I've misjudged you completely."

He is taken aback by her laughter, freezes for a moment and looks at her with his head cocked, looks at her afresh. Something in him seems to crumple. "I'm just – I'm so tired of everything being a war."

"I'm tired of a lot of things, Parker," she says. She's tired of fighting. She's tired of not being challenged. She's tired of these shoes, of the sickly crawling in the back of her spine when she looks at him. She hates that he's in her head and her heart as much as he always has been, but he's not there.

He settles down heavily beside her, elbows on his knees. "I – I need you. I'm not used to that. To needing people. I don't know – you know that I don't know – how to put them first." He looks at his hands, and his neatly manicured nails, at the grating. "I barely know how to give them what I'd want if I were them."

"And is that supposed to make up for what you did to Rose?" She wants to catch his hands in hers, to press her mouth to his wrist. She wants to ring his head off the metal railing.

"No, it's – you know what, maybe that was the right thing to do and maybe – maybe it wasn't, but – God, why do you make everything so freaking complicated?" Elbows still on his knees, he bends his hands up so he can rest his forehead on his laced fingers. "I just. I love you. That's all I'm saying. And I think I'm a better person because of you."

She laughs softly. "I refuse to take any blame for the sort of person you are."

Brett cracks his neck. "Yeah, well, I don't blame you."

They sit like that for a while, listening to the ambient noise of the arena, air circulators and ice cooling systems, building noise and echoes.

"I'm sorry," he says, finally, so quiet that she thinks it is a whisper from somewhere else. "I'm sorry," he says again turning to look at her, his eyes at the corner of hers, presses his forehead against hers. "I'm sorry," he whispers, and "please."

"How can I trust you?" she asks. She hates how easy it would be. To trust him again, when he didn't even do anything to deserve it the first time. When he did everything not to deserve it.

He wraps his hand around her neck, fingers threading through her hair, and presses his forehead tighter against his. "You probably can't. But I'll try. Because – oh, God, Colleen, I need you. And you. You need me too. Even if you wish you'd never met me."

She laughs again at that, laughs against his ear, laugh catching in her throat. "It's going to end the same way, you know," she laughs, because she can see it now. She'll hate herself for trusting him, for loving him, and wait for him to do something that proves she was right to be wary; he'll burn his way through the world until he crosses the wrong line for the right or wrong reasons. If they're lucky, that's where it will end; if not they'll break apart and come back together until they are nothing more than habit and tatters of good intent and vicious claws.

And that's if they're lucky, one more crash and burn, but – "Don't make me regret this," Colleen tells him, fingers at his collarbones, the corner of his jaw. His hand at the nape of her neck tightens before it releases, and their foreheads separate the barest of millimeters.

"I can't promise you that," he says. Like she doesn't know that.

"Just try. I'll try, too."