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It means forever.

 

 

Forever is a mighty long time.

 

 

Ryan was sixteen when it started. He remembers it was easy, or as easy as the most important relationship in your life can be. From the very beginning Ryan knew that there was something about Zach, something special. They didn't make it simple for themselves though — they've never figured out how to be simple.

When they were young Ryan knew that Zach was different, but he thought it was because Zach was good at hockey. Zach was cocky and hard to defend, so Ryan decided not to like him. That probably delayed their bond by a few years. Ryan would feel bad about that but Zach did the same thing. He thought Ryan was a dirty player (untrue) and no fun (maybe true). They were both holding onto some beliefs that prevented the bond from forming. It wasn't until they were seventeen and playing on the same team for the first time and had to actively talk and get to know each other that it kicked in.

Bam. Bonded. There it was, the rest of their forever. And like they say, forever is a mighty long time. As easy as anything is at the start, if it’s going to last forever it’s going to get complicated. It’s going to be hard sometimes. It isn’t just the two of them — there’s a whole world out there, as much as Ryan might like to ignore that. Hard’s alright though; they can handle complicated. They have time; they have forever. That’s what the bond means — an eternity to figure their shit out.

 

 

There are a lot of different kinds of bonds — or at least there are a lot of different categories made up by doctors who don't really have any idea what they're talking about. What Ryan has with Zach is considered a soulbond — intense, indestructible, and rather rare. Soulbonds don't always lead to happy couples, and they don't always lead to romance, but they're strong and hard to understand from the outside.

It's probably good they didn't bond the first time they met. Finding each other was scary enough at seventeen, Ryan can't imagine what it would have been like if they were younger. They were still growing up when the bond came, they kept growing up together as the bond settled.

They learned each other and the bond all through that next year. When the tournament ended they spent the summer going back and forth between Madison and Minneapolis. At the end of August they kissed for the very first time. Before they could decide where to go from there Ryan had to go back to Ann Arbor, and Zach had to start his freshman year in North Dakota. All fall that kiss reverberated through the bond, giving them more ideas, making them braver about what they want, and making them miss each other terribly.

 

 

The next time they see each other is just before Christmas, at national team camp before the WJC. America comes in fourth, but they find out that they’re really good at kissing, that the bond makes everything echo so nice. The sex is tentative and mind blowing at the same time, and a good distraction from the pain of losing. It feels like they’ve discovered another level of the bond, which feels stronger than ever, and as easy as always. The downside is that when they go back to school they miss each other even more than before.

There are three weeks of summer before the draft. Three weeks of mystery, and trying to spend time together, trying to have lots of sex because they’re probably going to get drafted to places where boning all the time is geographically inconvenient so they should take advantage of the time they have. Also because sex is fun, and they’re still deciding what sort of things they like, and really, sex is so much better than worrying about the future.

They have this. It’s solid, and true. Not just the sex, but the bond: the surety that they belong together, that they’ll have each other in the long run, no matter where chance and the NHL lead them first.

 

 

Ryan gets drafted to Nashville. Zach gets drafted to New Jersey. That's just about what they expected. They still have the rest of the summer together. They're still going off to school in the fall. Another World Juniors tournament, this time coming home with a gold medal. Another spring apart. Then another summer. Then the lockout.

Zach’s out East, but Ryan’s just down the road from home in Milwaukee. They’re further apart than ever, but it’s still good. The bond is still there. It will always be there. It’s something that isn’t changing even as the rest of the world does.

 

 

Some people form bonds easier than others. They have more extrasensory potential, and are more likely to form the sort of bonds that are based on proximity and compatibility. There are a lot of different names for these sorts of bonds — working bonds, proximity bonds, stress bonds. They form when people spend a lot of time around each other in high pressure situations. The average NHL roster has 2.3 bonded pairs. Ryan has always tested high on psychic screenings, but other than the soulbond it hasn’t made a difference. Not until he starts playing with Shea.

Ryan’s halfway through his second year pro when Shea gets called up. Shea’s so tall, but is still growing into his strength. They’re good together on the ice. Even before the bond starts weaving their instincts together, they’re good out there. Their styles complement each other, and it’s fun to play off each other. The bond just adds an extra buzz of awareness, a certainty that they’re on the same page, knowing how the other will move half a second before it could be obvious to anyone else. It isn’t the same as his bond with Zach, but it makes Nashville feel more like home.

 

 

Not home like the summer with Zach is home. There’s nothing quite like that.

 

 

He gets back to Nashville the next fall, and the bond comes back stronger than before. It’s something sturdy and safe. Having a bond to hide himself away in is comfortable, even if it’s only this.

Sleeping with Shea is…

It wasn’t something he expected, but it feels like the natural progression of their relationship. He has an agreement with Zach about sleeping with other people during the season, but it hasn’t mattered much before this. He isn’t into one night stands, and it doesn’t seem fair to try dating anyone when he knows in the long run he belongs with Zach. Being with Shea is different, because Shea knows, and because Ryan cares about him. This isn’t a meaningless hookup — this is sex with a friend he trusts, an extension of their existing partnership.

Shea made the first move, or at least he opened the possibility that a move could be made. Ryan thought about it, and thought about it, and talked to Zach about it. Zach teased him, and told Ryan to do something about it.

So he did something about it. Or maybe Shea did, it isn’t actually clear who started it, but it’s good. It’s the natural extension of their partnership. They have sex, and they play hockey, and they stay at each other’s houses a lot because it’s easier to mix their lives and dogs together, to share a home.

 

 

Every summer Ryan would go home, go back to his life with Zach, and the connection with Shea would fade. Every fall they’d get back on the ice together. That worked for six good years, until Ryan got a chance to go home for good, to be with Zach year round.

 

 

In the end, leaving Nashville is harder than he thought it would be.

People understand, or at least they’re understanding. Soul bonds, right? Everyone thinks they know what that means, but they don’t really. On some level Ryan knew this was always going to be temporary. He should consider himself lucky that it was good while it lasted.

Shea understands. He knew what Ryan had waiting for him. He would have felt an echo of it through their hockey bond. Shea should understand it better than almost anyone — the necessity of the soulbond, and why it’s worth giving everything else up.

The year after Ryan and Zach were drafted the CBA changed to make accommodations so bonded pairs to go to the same team. Soulbonds aren’t supposed to be broken up, not even to play in the NHL. Ryan doesn’t listen to gossip, so the only kids he’s heard anything about are the pair of Gophers that Florida took. Having their rights owned by the same team doesn’t guarantee anything, but at least they’ll be working towards the same dream. They’ll have a chance to build something, instead of knowing that whatever sort-of-happiness they find on their own can’t last because they aren’t together.

 

 

Ryan is so happy to make a home with Zach. This is really the start of something. They move in together, mix up all their stuff, wait for the dogs to get used to it. They settle in and get comfortable, really comfortable, not just for a summer, but forever.

The lockout means they have plenty of time to get used to being around each other. It isn’t the same without hockey, but their homelife starts to develop routines. Only having a week of training camp is rough, and Ryan doesn’t like how he’s playing at the start of the season, but he doesn’t have any doubts that he’s where he’s supposed to be.

 

 

The way the revised schedule works out, the Wild play Nashville in the third game of the season. By then Ryan’s hockey bond with Shea is completely gone.

There’s still something off — Ryan can feel it like a phantom, a sort of prickly pain, like sensation coming back to a limb that had gone to sleep. Or maybe it’s just losing to Nashville that hurts. Hard to say.

But afterwards he gets to go home with Zach, home to their bond, and he can take comfort in that.

He doesn’t let himself think about what Shea gets to go home to.

 

 

Zach and Ryan are the only bonded pair when they join the team.

Koivu has never had any kind of bond with anyone, which contributes to his reputation for being hard to play with. Zach doesn’t seem bothered though. He’s never bonded with his linemates, only Ryan.

Brods had a bond with the kid he played with in Sweden — they had been best friends first, before they were D partners, and Jonas had gotten comfortable on his off side playing with Klefbom. They’re still best friends, even now that they’ve grown up to play on different teams, and see each other only during the summer. They don’t need a bond to stay important.

Coyle bonded with Huberdeau when he played in the Q, which means as of last trade deadline he’s one degree of bond separation from Jagr. The day the kids figure this out turns into a contest to see who can claim the most impressive connection, and Granny insisting that none of it is as cool as playing on a line with Teemu Selanne, even if they didn’t bond.

Everyone knows that Selanne only ever bonded with Kariya. They bonded at the All-Star game, and it got Teemu traded to the Ducks. It’s one of the great hockey stories about bonds, like the Russian five, or Burke trading to get both Sedins. Ryan thinks that he and Zach have a pretty cool story too, but he hopes no one talks about it. Ryan doesn’t want to be interesting, he just wants to live his life, and ignore all the gossip.

Even when it’s interesting gossip about his team. Before he got traded to Minnesota Pommer had a playing bond with Thomas Vanek. It was a strong bond, which took its time disintegrating, making Pommer’s acclimation to the Wild’s system rougher than it might have been. The next fall, after a summer of separation, of being alone, Pommer bonded with Granlund in training camp. They play great together, and Zach likes being on their line. But now with Vanek on the team everything’s gotten mixed up. Ryan keeps wondering what it will take for Yeo to put the three of them together, which might go terribly, but would contain the mess to a single line.

Spurg and Scandi have a playing bond, which had mostly disappeared because of time and the lockout. Ryan doesn’t see it until they get put back together for the playoffs. Ryan pays attention to the two of them in practice, how things start clicking back into place. Any good D pair is a bit like that, but it’s more obvious with a bond.

Ryan talks to Spurg about it the next year when they’re playing together. Spurg has had a love bond with his wife since they were practically kids, and has had hockey bonds with Scandi since they were rookies. Even when they aren’t playing together Spurg thinks their bond is good for them.

“It’s comfortable,” is how Spurg finally explained it, which had Ryan nodding in agreement. The way Jerry talks about it, playing with Marco is easy, but just having Marco around can make playing with someone else easier. They don’t distract each other — the bond makes the game clearer, the world slower. Things make more sense.

That’s how Ryan feels about Zach, but it isn’t contained to hockey, it’s everything. It’s a better way of seeing the world. Having this to count on is incredibly comforting, especially when other things aren’t going so well.

 

 

This year has been a hard year. From before the season even started it’s been a struggle. It has been surprise, and tragedy. Ryan doesn’t know how they could have planned for this year — he had the mumps — he doesn’t know why they’d ever have a plan for that. And that isn’t the worst of it. It’s a nightmare.

He can’t imagine what it would have been like to get through the last year on their own. He has Zach, and Zach has him, and even when it feels like the world is out to get them, at least they have each other.

 

 

There’s a disconnect, from how this year has gone, and getting named to the All-Star game. He doesn’t feel like an All-Star. He feels like a sad sack. He’s supposed to stop worrying about the team, leave Zach for a long weekend, and go have fun? Have fun on camera, and talk to the press, smile and make small talk? Why the hell would he want to do that?

 

 

The last time Ryan went to the All-Star game he was with Nashville, and he went with Shea. Zach had been hurt all that season, otherwise he should have been there too. That would have been weird. It was still weird, to go be Ryan-and-Shea around all these people who weren’t their real team. Playing against Shea hadn’t been any fun. The game didn’t mean anything, but the bond still made it feel wrong, to try to work against each other instead of together. It felt unnatural.

(There had been moments at the Olympics like that too, but he was with Zach at the Olympics, and the awareness of their soulbond overpowers everything else.)

Shea’s an All-Star this time too. The first real conversation Ryan has with Shea since leaving the Predators is on media day. A bunch of guys are going out, and Ryan isn’t asking questions, just following along, trying to make sure he doesn’t mope. He’s going to call Zach before bed, and Zach will be so disappointed if all Ryan did was do press and mope.

 

 

Ryan thought it would be awkward, but it isn’t. It’s good. They don’t talk about hockey, they don’t talk about their families, Ryan definitely isn’t talking about Zach. They talk about their dogs. They talk about the old days — not the important parts, not how it was together, but the trivial shit, remembering nightmare roadtrips, old practical jokes, bad weather. They had six years of that shit — it had been good.

The next night the draft puts them on the same team, setting up the expectations that they’ll be a pair on the ice again. Ryan thinks he could get out of it if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. Playing with Shea had been fun. It won’t be how it used to be, but so what. Change doesn’t have to be bad.

The skills competition is the first time they’ve been on the ice on the same team in years. They aren’t wearing the same colors, but they want the same thing. Shea doesn’t manage to break any of his records, and their team loses badly, but Ryan doesn’t care. He’s lost too many things that matter lately — he can’t even make himself pretend to give a damn about the skills competition. It’s just fun.

 

 

Afterwards they go out drinking, but not for long. Neither of them are crazy about crowds and bars, not when they could go back to the hotel and talk, for the first time in a long time. Ryan can’t tell if he’s feeling the flicker of a bond between them, or it’s only in his memories. It only ever took a day or two to come back after a summer, but it’s been a lot longer this time.

Even if the bond is all his imagination, their friendship is real. It had been real, solid and important, until they decided to ignore it, pretend it didn’t matter. Ryan understands why they did it like they did, the need for a clean break while they figured themselves out. But he’s glad they’re picking it up again. He wants this. It’s another piece of who he is.

This is what they are. Ryan spent so many nights like this, lying on a hotel bed with Shea, talking about hockey, talking about nothing. They’re catching up. There are years worth of stories Ryan thought he’d never share with Shea.

When it gets late Ryan goes back to his own room. He never used to. He never used to go back to his own bed.

Ryan hates being alone in hotel rooms. It makes him miss Zach, who’s his favorite person to fall asleep next to, but it isn’t just that. It makes him miss every road roommate he’s ever had, because even the terrible ones were better than being alone. It makes him miss Shea, who’s just down the hall, who might let Ryan back in, to talk for a while longer, and fall asleep curled together like they used to. But as lonely as Ryan feels right now, he can’t ask for that. It wouldn’t be fair to any of them.

 

 

What gets called a work bond and what gets called a love bond is pretty arbitrary. The general ruling is that love bonds are more resilient, staying strong despite distance or time apart. And love bonds are supposed to form faster — not the instantaneous click of a soul-bond, but faster than the slog of a work bond. But really, the main difference is semantic. They work basically the same — you spend a lot of time with someone, and it turns into a connection, which turns into a bond. If you’re in love, it’s a love bond. If you don’t want to say you’re in love, then it’s something else.

There were a lot of things Ryan and Shea weren’t saying. They should be excused for not giving their bond it’s proper name. It was easier to say it was only hockey — partners, not “partners.” It was easier to expect it all to go away.

 

 

They win the All-Star game, and Ryan doesn’t care. Winning is fun, but he would have had a good time anyway. Playing with Shea is so easy. They still know how to read each other. No one’s trying very hard to defend in a game like this, but they have a good time setting each other up.

 

 

He doesn’t know what to say to Shea before they have to leave, so he doesn’t say anything. That’s always how they worked — that’s why they stopped working, but oh well. Ryan still doesn’t know what he can say. They promised to be better at keeping in touch, which Ryan believes, only because it’d be impossible to be worse. He pushes at the shadow of a bond that might be Shea, that they aren’t talking about, and hopes Shea understands. Ryan has never been good at goodbyes. At least this time he’s trying, instead of just leaving. Shea appreciates that, Ryan can tell, and that’s strange. He isn’t used to understanding Shea anymore. He’s ready to go home.

 

 

The Wild play in Nashville at the end of February. Ryan and Shea have been texting some — not a lot, but something, enough that Ryan asks if he wants to get dinner before the game, just to put it out there, with no idea how Shea might answer.

Shea says yes, and surprisingly, he says to bring Zach too. They make plans to meet up at a joint Ryan and Shea used to go to all the time, when they wanted good food and to not get hassled. Ryan hadn’t been back there since he left. Shea got the whole city in the breakup. Being the visiting team in Nashville has been a lot of hiding in his hotel room with Zach, bracing himself to go out and get booed.

Dinner’s a good time though. Zach and Shea get along, which surprises him more than it should. They have more in common than just him. The food’s great, and the whole evening feels easy.

When they get up to leave Shea pulls him into a loose hug, very casual, just like the old friends they never really were. Ryan’s startled. It takes him a moment to hug back, and longer than it should to let go.

 

 

“I think he was flirting with us,” Zach says, when they’re back in their hotel room.

Ryan didn’t see it, but he never sees it.

“That’s not a bad thing,” Zach says. “Obviously the two of you are compatible and I’m…” Zach shrugs. “It could be interesting.”

Ryan’s never really thought about the three of them. He never let himself bring the two parts of his life together, not even in daydreams. He isn’t sure if he’s ready to let his mind go there. It was a good dinner. For the first time in a long time Nashville felt like a city that knew him, somewhere he was allowed to miss.

It’s something to think about, maybe. A possibility to entertain, and then maybe forget. He doesn’t know if it would be a good idea. Life is already complicated enough.

 

 

“Do you really think he was flirting with us?” Ryan asks, much later, as they’re settling into sleep.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure. Maybe that’s just how the two of you used to talk, but it seemed pretty flirty, and I was definitely included.”

Ryan isn’t sure what he wants that to mean, if he wants it to mean anything. It’s something new. Or maybe it isn’t, not entirely. It’s the possibility of old feelings rearranging themselves in new shapes, and he doesn’t know if he can handle that. It’s something to think about.

 

 

The Wild win the game. Ryan gets booed, but they win, 4-2. Booing doesn’t hurt when they win.

 

 

Zach and Shea text now. Ryan doesn’t know what about. He isn’t asking. It seems like they’re getting along. He isn’t worried exactly, but it’s weird?

Shea’s texting him too. They send each other pictures of the dogs, updates about the weather. It’s hard to remember that now that Ryan sees something that reminds him of Shea, he can say something, instead of letting it go by. He’ll forget, and then get startled by his phone, amazed that they’re friends again.

 

 

When they’re back in Nashville in March they make plans to have dinner with Shea again. Ryan doesn’t know the restaurant this time, it’s somewhere new that Shea picked out. When they get there he’s surprised. It’s nicer than the sort of place they usually like, intimate, with dark wood and candles on the table. They get there before Shea, and Ryan fidgets with the cutlery until Zach reaches over and puts his hands over Ryan’s.

They had planned an early dinner, in deference to the game the next night, which means it isn’t late when they’re done eating. It’s still early enough that it isn’t unreasonable for Shea to ask them over for a nightcap.

Zach’s agreeing for both of them before Ryan can think it through. That’s alright though. He trusts Zach’s judgment, is confident that Zach won’t steer them wrong.

 

 

Shea’s house looks like it used to. Ryan’s sure things have changed, but only on the surface. The bones of the place are the same, and overall, it matches his memories. He never imagined that he’d be welcome here again.

Dug still remembers him. That means more than he thought it would — it’s been three years, but Shea’s dog doesn’t think he’s a stranger. Rod’s new, but they become friends fast enough. They stand on the porch watching the dogs run around the backyard, and it’s so familiar it hurts.

Then they go back inside, and Zach kisses him.

On its own Zach kissing him is not remarkable. They have kissed each other ten thousand times, but they’ve never kissed in Shea’s living room before, and it isn’t a chaste kiss. Zach is on his toes, pulling Ryan close, kissing him deep and strong. There’s tongue.

When Zach lets go Ryan takes a step back, a little bit stunned.

“So,” Zach says. “We were thinking…” He leaves it unsaid, potential hanging in the air.

“The two of you have been talking about this, huh,” Ryan says.

“Maybe just a little,” Zach says.

Shea just smiles.

Ryan loves them.

He wants this, and he loves them, and he doesn’t know where this is going to go, but he has to give it a chance.

He nods, and Shea takes that as a cue to move closer. Shea cups Ryan’s jaw with his big hand, bringing him into a kiss. Shea is so solid, so massive and warm pressed against him. Shea kisses the same as before, maybe a bit sweeter. Ryan never imagined they’d do this again.

It only gets more shocking. Watching Zach and Shea kiss shorts out something in Ryan’s brain.

The web of bonds between them makes everything stranger, better, and more intense. He wonders whether they can feel echos of each other through him. He wonders if they used to, and never said anything. The psychic part is interesting, but the physical part is better, because it’s real.

They don’t try anything complicated, not when it already feels more unsure than it should. Ryan knows how to touch these people, and they know him. He feels helpless facing their attention — they can make him undone so easily.

He never imagined he’d get to feel Shea’s hands on his skin again, not like this. That’s all it is tonight — steady hands, and making out like teenagers. Zach and him actually go that far back. When Ryan was seventeen and first learning how to kiss Zach, first learning what a soulbond meant, he certainly never pictured this.

It means they’re good together — they can do anything together. Even this.

 

 

Shea drives them back to the hotel. Ryan sits in the passenger seat. Before he opens the car door Shea leans over and kisses him goodnight, sweet and fleeting.

They never used to kiss like that. This is all very new.

Ryan had gotten comfortable with the way things were, complacent maybe. The downside of having a clear path is that it’s easy to overlook anything extra that’s out there. Ryan has a soulmate and a contract that will take him to the end of his career, he hasn’t thought about looking for anything else. He hadn’t let himself think about what he had given up for this. He loves his life — the new-old additions are no exception.

They don’t talk about it before bed. That can wait until they’re back in Minnesota, when they’ve both had a chance to think about what happened. It’s better just to sleep now, resting to be ready for the game.

 

 

The Wild win again.

Shea checks Zach just as hard as always, but his smile is fiercer and brighter than before. They swear at each other after a whistle in the final minutes of the game, grinning madly.

The crowd still boos Ryan every time he touches the puck, but Shea nodded at him before the puck dropped. There are still people who hate him here, but Shea isn’t one of them anymore.

It takes til overtime to put the game away. Ryan fights to get the puck free for Zach, who sets Dumba up for a beauty of a goal. There’s nothing Shea can do about it, standing in front of his own net, just curse at them and go to the locker room. Ryan gets pulled into the celebration, hugging Zach. The whole team crowds the kid against the boards, showing how proud they are with face washes and head taps. Ryan doesn’t have a moment to think about how Shea might be feeling.

 

 

They get to Nashville with two games left in the season, with the playoff matchups still undecided.

Ryan can’t decide if it would be good or not to face the Preds in the first round. It might be a good match up hockey wise, but getting booed for two straight games doesn’t sound fun. Ryan knows what playoffs are like in Nashville, knows what the fans make it into, and he isn’t sure if he’s ready to have that turned against him. Maybe by round two…

The night before the game Ryan goes to Shea’s to hang out — just hang out, nothing else. Just like old times, but without the anything else. They used to be such good friends.

While it’s starting to thaw in the Cities, spring has already come to Nashville, enough that they can sit on the back porch and watch the dogs run around. They stay outside until the sun goes down, watching as it moves lower and lower, making the sky change colors. They have so many things to talk about that aren’t hockey, so many things to talk about that don’t matter.

Shea gives him a ride back to the hotel, and doesn’t kiss him goodnight this time. Ryan doesn’t know what to make of that, doesn’t know if he wants it, but does think it’s odd. Zach’s still awake when he gets upstairs, to ask how his night was and hold him close.

 

 

The game’s back and forth. The Preds are a lot better in the first, the Wild in the second, while the third’s a battle. Zach’s getting a game off to rest before the playoffs, and it is so weird to be on the ice with Shea while Zach’s in the building but not playing the game. It’s disorientating, but he can deal with it.

They’re tied after two, and Ryan’s almost resigned to overtime, but then Pommer scores with two minutes left, and Zuck gets the empty netter to put it away. With their win it’s all but decided that they won’t be back here for the playoffs. That’s probably for the best.

Ryan thinks about finding Shea after the game — he knows where Shea will be, and doesn’t know how long it will be until they see each other again. Then he thinks better of it. Shea’s the captain of a team he has to look after, and for a bit longer Ryan’s still the enemy. He doesn’t want to interrupt.

 

 

It’s easier to just go home. Ryan sits nexts to Zach on the plane, listens to Zach’s take on what the game looked like from the pressbox. Ryan drives them back to their house, full of their stuff and their dogs. They have a whole life here. Ryan loves it.

But he’s loved other things before, and he’s wondering now what it would mean to have all these different things in his life somehow. It doesn’t sounds as impossible as it used to, but it still seems hard.

 

 

The way things land, they’ve got the Blues in the first round, while Shea gets Chicago. Zach asks if Ryan would rather play the Preds.

All Ryan can do is shrug and say, “Guess it’s good not to get booed,” but Zach knows what he means. It’s easy like that. They have the bond, and more than a decade together. They understand each other, even their uncertainties.

There’s no time to think about what ifs, no time to look ahead. They’ve got to buckle down and play hard. The Blues are a tough match up. It’s gonna take all they’ve got, but Ryan knows they’ve got a shot.

 

 

Ryan feels it when Shea gets hurt. He can’t say how it affects his play, but it doesn’t help, not when he’s already dealing with his own aches, his own bruises, and the down to the bone tiredness of a long sad season.

Shea’s out for the year. Ryan can tell before anything is official. He texts Shea, apologizing for how much that hurts. The Preds season doesn’t last much longer, eliminated by the Blackhawks.

Shea texts Ryan, “It’s up to you guys to stop the hawks now.”

Ryan wishes they could. He wishes it was more of a fight — anything but this, swept out of the second round in four bad games. It’s a team sport, but he personally needed to do better than that. He feels awful about the whole thing, the whole year.

The only good development of the past season is reigniting his friendship with Shea, and Ryan still has some doubts about that.

 

 

Shea comes to visit for a week in the summer. Ryan finally gets to show him around the farm. Shea and Zach both give him a hard time for how excited he gets over fields of soybeans that someone else is growing, but Ryan expected as much. It’s weird to see the two of them get along. It shouldn’t surprise him, he likes them both so much, but they’ve always belonged to different parts of his life. He wonders what would have happened if he had taken Shea home for the summer right at the start. He has no idea what would have unfolded, and no time for what-ifs or regrets. What they have now is nice.

Shea starts the week sleeping in the guest bedroom. He doesn’t stay there long.

It takes two nights before they get him into their bed, and they aren’t going to let him leave until they have to.

They've had some time to get comfortable, but it's still very much an adventure. It’s a game, to figure stuff out, all the different ways they can be together, make each other feel good. He’s caught between the two of them. It’s good in way he never imagined, intense in ways he hadn’t thought possible, on his hands and knees on the bed between the two of them, thoroughly overwhelmed.

He should've known that if Zach and Shea teamed up he’d be helpless. He likes that they’re getting along, loves them both in their own ways. Someday he’ll stop being surprised by their friendly bickering, and the way they seem to honestly care for each other.

 

 

Ryan’s the one to drive Shea back to the airport, just the two of them in the car for twenty minutes of country music, easy conversation, and easy quiet. Ryan used to drive Shea to the airport all the time. They used to go to all the same places.

After a week Ryan had gotten used to the bond between them. It’s strong, a warm line between them. He didn’t know what it would be like to have that, and what he has with Zach, for a whole week. Feeling the full flush of both bonds at once is a new sensation, but with it he feels something settle inside him. It feels right; the world feels whole.

He doesn’t want it end.

There’s nothing he can do to make it stop. Shea is going to fly out west today, and at the end of the season he’ll head back to Nashville.

Shea’s about to leave. He’ll open the car door, get on a flight, and they won’t see each other for ages. That’s just the way things are.

That doesn’t mean he has to like it. He can live with a lot of things he doesn’t like, as long as he doesn’t have to do it alone.

 

Ryan reaches over and pulls him in. He kisses Shea solidly, sweetly. He needs the week to end like this, because it isn’t a real ending. This isn’t close to over.

“November fifth,” Shea says. That’s the next first time they’ll play each other this fall, a Thursday night in Minnesota.

Ryan thinks there’s a good chance they’ll figure something out, and see each other before then, but no matter what, they’ve got November fifth. Something to look forward to. Ryan’s able to let go of his hold on Shea’s arm.

 

 

Ryan waits until Shea goes through the glass door into the airport before starting the drive back to the farm. It’s the first time he’s been alone for more than ten minutes in ages. He can still feel them — Zach waiting at home, Shea waiting for his flight — but there’s no one sitting beside him right now.

That’s fine.

It’s a short drive home, and home means forever with Zach. Ryan loves that, needs that, can’t imagine his life without it. And Shea said he’d call when he lands in Vancouver.

The thing about knowing you have forever is that it makes you wonder if things that won’t last as long are worth the trouble. There’s still stuff worth having in things that aren’t going to be as permanent. What happened with Shea the first time was amazing, and what’s happening with Shea now is pretty great too. It’s hard to say where they’re going from here, but that’s alright. They have forever to figure it out, and forever's a mighty long time.