When Claude sees Caelan’s name on the call display, he almost doesn’t pick up.
Not because either of them has any hard feelings. It’s complicated, Caelan always knew that, always understood. They text, they e-mail, they send each other links to stupid Internet videos. But they don’t talk. Caelan sounds a little too much like Danny these days, and it’s just—Claude’s over it. He is. But it’s better if they don’t talk, because sometimes he forgets that.
He doesn’t know what makes him answer. Maybe it’s because he knows Caelan understands their arrangement, so if he’s calling, he must have good reason.
Maybe Claude is just a glutton for punishment.
Either way, he picks up. “Hello.”
Caelan’s voice sounds just as he expected it, which only makes sense: he’s twenty-four now. Of course he has a man’s voice. “Hey, Claude.”
But he also sounds… not the way Claude expected. He sounds nervous, hesitant. Claude exhales steadily. “What’s the matter?”
Caelan lets out a choked laugh. “I need a favor.”
Must be a hell of a favor, Claude thinks, if it has him worked up like this. “Okay,” he hedges. It can’t be money; Caelan makes enough of it these days. “What kind of favor?”
“I need you to be Dad’s date to my wedding.”
Claude carefully does not crush his cell phone. He takes a deep breath and avoids asking if Caelan is serious. Carson might make a joke like this, but Caelan wouldn’t. Claude drunk-dialed him enough times, after. He’d know…. He wouldn’t.
Claude opens his mouth to refuse. What comes out is “Caelan….”
Caelan sighs miserably. “Look, I wouldn’t ask if—you know I wouldn’t. Just, I told you about Sheena’s family, right?”
Caelan’s fiancée comes from a family of what Claude would charitably classify as whackjobs. Sheena, on the other hand, is a lovely girl, and Caelan is nuts for her. “What about them?” Claude says, thumbing absently at his ring.
“Don’t get mad,” Caelan says, as if that’s the problem here. “When we first got together her mom went on this tangent about how important it is for young couples to have parents in committed relationships as role models. Honestly, it was like a lecture in why Sheena and I could never work out. And then in the same breath, she goes, ‘I’m so happy your father has that Giroux fellow.’” He sounds miserable, having to say that to Claude. “I have no idea where she got it, I swear to God. I was so shocked I never bothered to correct her, and now….”
And now they’ve been together four years, and the wedding is in a month, and it’s a bit late to tell his in-laws he’s been lying by omission.
“This is why your dad always says not to let a lie fester,” Claude says grimly.
“Don’t think he hasn’t reissued that lecture recently,” Caelan sighs. “Sheena knows, obviously. She’s met Dad and stuff; it would’ve been impossible to keep from her. But we agreed it’d be better to wait until after the wedding to tell her parents.”
We agreed. They’re such a couple now. It reminds Claude how much Caelan has grown, maybe even more so than the fact that they’ve faced off against each other in the NHL.
He hopes Caelan is better at relationships than Claude turned out to be.
“So will you do it?”
He doesn’t want to. Oh, he’d love to go to Caelan’s wedding—if it wouldn’t be awkward to attend as a guest, not as his pseudo stepdad. He’d rather be traded to the Penguins than spend a weekend pretending to have the life he lost ten years ago.
But he can’t say no. Or—he can. He got a lot of practice in, years ago, when it seemed like Danny wouldn’t. They fought over it enough.
He doesn’t want to do it, and he doesn’t want to be the one to say no, so he says, “What did your father say?”
He must have refused, and Caelan’s asking Claude now so he’ll have more leverage.
“That he was disappointed and he taught me better,” Caelan admits. “But he said he’d do it if you would. There were conditions. I’m not supposed to beg or bribe and stuff. Guilt trips are strictly off the table.”
Caelan pauses. “So will you do it?” he asks again, and suddenly he’s fourteen instead of twenty-four, and this time Claude doesn’t have to say no.
“Okay,” he says finally. “Send me the details.”
He already knows he’s making a mistake.
When Claude’s phone rings two hours later, he doesn’t even need the call display. He does, however, need the finger of twenty-three-year-old Scotch in the glass on the table next to him.
Okay, it’s two fingers.
He downs one of them and answers as evenly as he can. “Hi, Danny.”
It would be easier if Danny were cool toward him, if he could make Claude believe Danny hates him, or if Danny would just put Claude out of his misery and marry one of the women he’s low-key dated in the past ten years. But even though they rarely talk, even though the conversations they have are fraught and sometimes stilted, Claude just—he can’t believe anything over the warmth in Danny’s voice. It’s a problem he keeps trying to talk himself out of having, to no avail.
Of course, Danny follows up this sweet greeting with “Have you been drinking?” So, yeah. There’s that judgmental reminder of their breakup. It works just as well as a bucket of ice water.
“Not nearly enough for this conversation,” Claude answers. Claude is the injured party here. Danny needs to remember that. “Congrats on Caelan’s engagement.”
“Thank you,” Danny says pleasantly. Then he adds, that self-deprecating filter firmly in place, “Let’s hope he’s better at marriage than his father.”
Claude takes a careful breath and clenches his fist until the ring on his middle finger digs into his palm. “I guess you want to talk strategy.”
“Ah, no, actually. I just wanted to make sure you’re really okay.” He pauses. “Caelan will understand if you back out. I know he put you in an awkward position.”
You put me in an awkward position, Claude thinks uncharitably. “It’s fine,” he says shortly. “You know I’d do anything for the boys.”
Another pause, longer and softer this time. “I do know that,” Danny says at last. “Thank you.”
It makes Claude grit his teeth. Danny shouldn’t be thanking him, Jesus Christ. This has nothing to do with Danny. “Whatever.” He makes himself breathe in for a four-count, out for five, before he says anything he might regret. The options swim behind his teeth, circling, desperate for a way out. “So. What’s the plan?”
The plan, apparently, is for Claude to spend the next month quietly freaking out. A few times, he picks up the phone, intending to call Caelan and tell him he can’t do it after all. Something came up. He needs physio. Death in the family. Anything. Caelan could pass the lie on to his in-laws.
And then he remembers Caelan at fourteen, and the look on his face when Claude said he wouldn’t be living there anymore, and he can’t do it. He puts the phone down every time.
When the trade news comes, Claude isn’t surprised. He’s getting older, slower if smarter at the same time, and, well, he plays for the Flyers. He loves them even now, has loved being their captain, but they’ve never been the type of team to hold on to players for sentimental reasons. He only has a year left on his contract anyway.
Front office calls first, and then his agent. A few hours later he gets a call from Buffalo to welcome him to the team. “We want to have you in as soon as possible to do some promotional stuff,” their head of PR tells him cheerfully, “but it can all wait until after the wedding.”
Claude doesn’t ask how she knows about the wedding. For all he knows, Caelan invited everyone who works for the league.
He puts off packing up his house, telling himself he’ll do it after the wedding. He’ll need the distraction then anyway.
The kicker of it is, he and Danny have been living in the same city. After he retired, Danny stayed put, raised his kids just like he always planned. He’s still in the same house now even though the boys are gone, Caelan to the Habs and Carson to the Canucks and Cameron at Buffalo State. But even though their houses aren’t that far apart, even though they still have a lot of the same friends, they don’t see each other much.
Claude wonders sometimes if Danny puts as much effort into avoiding encounters as Claude does. At least he won’t have to work so hard in the future.
For now, though, he rolls his carry-on into the first-class lounge and draws the shutters around his heart.
Danny looks the same.
Or he doesn’t really. Gray sprinkles his hair and laugh lines mark his face and he seems softer than he did. He keeps cutting his hair differently but every style he picks is equally terrible. It doesn’t matter how he changes, though, Claude always sees him at thirty-five, laughing and fond or sad but resolute.
Most days, Claude’s over it. But that only lasts until the next time he sees Danny, and then his heart breaks all over again.
He pastes on a smile and kicks out the chair across from Danny. “You would be here early,” he teases, gesturing to the signs that Danny’s been waiting a while already: a spread-out newspaper, an empty coffee cup, a pile of crumbs on a tiny plate.
“Force of habit,” Danny says wryly, smiling. He always claimed he had to start trying to leave an hour before he needed to be anywhere, because it would take that long to round the boys up. “You look good.”
He makes it seem like such an easy thing to say, when Claude wants to reply in kind but can’t get the words through the tightness in his throat. “Thanks.”
He sits down, leans back in the chair to avoid meeting Danny’s gaze. “So,” he says. He doesn’t know where to begin: small talk, or planning for the upcoming week, or some platitude about how they’re both adults and they can do this for Caelan even though it’s awkward as hell.
Before he can decide, Danny nudges his foot. “Relax. Caelan asked them not to pry.”
“Oh, well, that makes everything easy,” Claude deadpans. “We just have to pretend we didn’t break up ten years ago.” He doesn’t know what he’s more afraid of: that it will be difficult, or that it won’t.
“He filled in all the players and ex-players who’re coming,” Danny goes on. “And you know they know better than to ask about the trade if you don’t bring it up.” Claude winces. “But Claude, if this makes you uncomfortable—”
“Don’t,” Claude says. “Of course it makes me uncomfortable, Danny, Jesus, I’m human. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it.” He pauses. “Caelan better get me something nice for Christmas, is all I’m saying.”
“Maybe he can talk Subban out of boarding you.”
Claude snorts. “Maybe hell will freeze over and get a hockey team.”
“Hey, it happened in Vegas.” Grinning, Danny stands and grabs his paper. “I’m gonna put this back. You want anything?”
Their flight boards in twenty minutes. “I’m good,” Claude says. It’s a lie, but an easy one, and if Danny notices, he lets it slide.
They have seats together in first class. Even after more than fifteen years of frequent air travel, Claude hasn’t kicked the habit of gritting his teeth at takeoff, and he curses when he realizes he didn’t bring any gum.
Next to him, in the window seat, Danny quirks up one corner of his mouth and offers a Lifesavers mint.
Of course he does. “Thanks,” Claude mumbles, taking it.
Danny smiles and leans back. Some things never change: he’s asleep before the wheels leave the ground.
Claude twists the ring on his middle finger and sucks on his mint until the plane levels off, then closes his eyes to try to get some rest.
He expects Caelan to pick them up from the airport, which, he reflects when he sees Carson instead, is probably stupid. He’s never gotten married himself, but he imagines the week leading up to the big day must be chaos.
“Hey, Dad,” Carson says, so cool as to almost be laconic, and then he pulls Claude into a hug. “Clo. Can’t believe you let Caelan talk you into this.”
“You’d think I’d know better by now,” Claude says lightly. It probably doesn’t disguise how badly he needs the hug—not from Carson and certainly not from Danny—but it gives him some degree of plausible deniability.
“You always were a little slow to catch on.” Carson smiles. “Come on, I’m supposed to bring you right to Sheena’s parents’, and traffic’s going to be a nightmare.”
The next five days are going to be a nightmare, Claude thinks. He lets Danny take shotgun so he can lean his head against the window in the backseat of Caelan’s SUV and pretend to sleep.
“Sheena’s parents are having everyone over,” Carson explains as he changes lanes. Claude lets his voice wash over him. “Like, us and the wedding party and some of Sheena’s relatives and stuff. Something about the families getting to know each other.”
Claude can’t think of anything he wants to do less.
“Don’t look like that,” Carson says darkly. “They took Mom and Dave golfing yesterday.”
Sylvie hates golf, so at least Sheena’s family is making them suffer equally.
At first it’s just an informal sort of gathering. Sheena’s parents obviously have more money than Claude will ever make in his life, but they seem normal for obscenely rich people. At least, normal compared to the stories Caelan has told. Sheena’s mother has a few fine lines at the corners of her eyes and the waistline of someone who doesn’t believe in liposuction, and she greets Claude and Danny with hugs instead of air kisses or something. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” she gushes. “We’ve heard so much from Sheena and Caelan.”
Well, here’s the first problem: Claude hasn’t heard much about her except that she’s kind of nuts and is convinced he and Danny have been together on the DL for more than a decade.
“You have us at a disadvantage,” Danny says smoothly. “We only get them for a few days at a time. I’m Danny, by the way.”
“Oh, how rude of me. I’m Elsa. And you must be Claude. No, no, leave your shoes on, we’re going to be in and out of the house all day. Gerald got it in his head to grill.” She says this conspiratorially to Claude, as though to let him in on the fact that Gerald is not exactly Master Chef material.
God help him, he likes her.
He likes Sheena’s sister Bridget too, and her wife Cady. Sheena’s brother Bryce is apparently a Pens fan—Claude has only had a few weeks to get past his instinctive reaction to that—but his wife likes the Avs, which is acceptable. Sheena’s the youngest of three, so Claude doesn’t even feel all that old—until he remembers he’s here as the parent of someone who’s getting married.
Then he needs to self-medicate a little.
Fortunately the Iversons have plenty of fancy beer on ice, and it’s hot enough and late enough to justify drinking one. Claude joins Gerald under the pergola and watches him charcoal burgers. Sure, he could prod him into turning the grill down or flipping the meat sooner, but some perverse part of him wants Caelan to suffer. Claude’s additional suffering doesn’t matter; he’s already hit maximum suckiness.
Then Gerald says, “You and your husband must be very proud of your boys,” and Claude has to take it back. Against all odds, this day has found a new level of suck.
“I can’t take much credit,” he says, aiming for honest and not just honestly depressed. “They take after their father.”
A few minutes later Carson comes outside with a Frisbee, and Claude takes the excuse to leave. He and Bridget lead their Ultimate Frisbee team to victory over Danny and Caelan’s, then do triumphant laps around the yard with their arms outstretched and their shirts pulled over their heads.
They end the laps with a double high-five and a chest bump. Bridget is awesome.
The good times last until Cameron and Carson dump a cooler of ice water on his head while he’s distracted watching Danny mop the sweat off his face. The noise Claude makes when the ice water washes over him gets him caught staring, though if Danny thinks it’s weird that Claude was looking at him, he doesn’t show it in his expression. He laughs as Claude goes rigid, his polo shirt clinging to his skin. His nipples feel like they’re going to pop off. Jesus.
Claude doesn’t have to suffer his wet shirt alone for long, though: thirty seconds later an ominous rumble shakes the ground, and suddenly he realizes how dark it is for late afternoon in the summer. A heartbeat later the sky opens with a welcome warm rain that chases away the chill of the ice.
Everyone else curses and runs for cover. Claude takes his time, lets himself get as wet as possible. It gives him an opportunity to watch the way Danny’s shirt sticks to him. At forty-four, he’s still as fit as he’s ever been, though the shape of him has changed, leaner in the thighs and ropier in the shoulders now that he doesn’t have to eat three thousand calories a day to keep his weight up.
His ass hasn’t gone anywhere, though. Claude should probably stop staring at it.
Fuck it. If anyone calls him on it, he can pass it off as part of the role he’s playing.
By the time Claude catches up, the whole group has gathered under the pergola to stare out at the wet mess of their afternoon. The potato salad is starting to look more like potato soup.
“Well,” Elsa says with the kind of bracing cheer only exceedingly good-natured people can manage, “how about some board games?”
They end up having to split into two groups because there are just too many of them. Elsa commandeers Carson and Cameron under the guise of getting to know them better and shoos Claude and Danny away with Caelan and Sheena and her siblings.
Cameron mouths “help me” over his shoulder as he follows Elsa and Gerald to the den. No one does.
But Claude only gets to feel relieved that he’s scored the younger set for this endeavor for a few minutes.
“Are there sex questions in this?” Caelan squeaks. Claude hasn’t heard his voice climb that high since he moved out.
“Oh God,” Allie says, flushing and hiding her face in her hands. “Are you sure you don’t just want to play poker?”
“No one has forgotten the last time we played poker with you, ya cardsharp,” Cady shoots back. She’s sideways on the couch, her feet tucked under Bridget’s leg. “I’m game if the rest of you are.”
Danny meets Claude’s eyes, a silent question.
Claude can’t be the first one to back down. He shrugs, feigning casual he doesn’t feel. “Think we can give these kids a run for their money.”
“No fair,” Bridget protests. “You have, what, thirteen years’ experience? That’s hardly newlywed material.”
“It’s also thirteen more years of potential answers,” Cady says. “I think it’s fair.”
“I’m going to be scarred for life,” Caelan groans, throwing his head back so he’s looking at the ceiling.
“Suck it up,” Sheena says cheerfully. “You can do earmuffs Come on, where’s your competitive spirit? I wanna take home the title.”
“You do realize you might accidentally hear stuff about your siblings’ sex lives.”
She waves her hand. “Whatever, I’ve walked in on both of them. How much more scarring can it get?”
"We don't have to," Danny says quietly when Bryce and Cady leave to procure pregame snacks and drinks.
"What, you nervous?" Claude says back, all false bravado. "We got this."
He’s pretty sure the way he gulps down half a glass of wine as soon as it arrives isn’t lost on Danny, though.
Bridget claps her hands for attention before going through the instructions. “Everybody gets one of these,” she says, handing out miniature whiteboards with dry-erase markers clipped to the side. “When the question is read, partners will alternate between answering the question and guessing their spouse’s answer. If the answers match, the team gets a point. If not, we shame you.”
“Can’t wait,” Caelan says dryly. “Who goes first?”
As the junior couple, they have that privilege, and Sheena correctly identifies that Caelan’s least favorite vegetable is cabbage.
“Boo,” Cady says, throwing a handful of popcorn. “Boring question, boring answer.”
“You’re just mad we got a point.”
Cady flicks the card at them and reads the next question.
By the time it’s Claude’s turn to answer a question, he’s finished his first glass of wine and a few more handfuls of chips than he ought to, given his strict offseason diet. Allie draws a card from the box and clears her throat. “What is the most embarrassing pet name Danny has given you?”
Claude’s face goes hot, but honestly, at least she didn’t ask where he and Danny first had sex, which was the question Bryce had to answer. It takes him a moment to decide, though. Of the two of them, Claude used the numerous silly French terms of endearment far more often than Danny.
Not that that surprises him, in hindsight. Maybe if Danny had called him mon ciel étoilé or bijou—but he mostly stuck to mon râleur and mon poulet and left the sweet ones to Claude.
Okay, sometimes Claude called him mon petit monstre, because it riled him up, but he counts them as lucky they didn’t get this question the other way around.
In the end, he decides chicken is the most embarrassing one, and he writes it down, quashing memories of pushing Danny onto their bed, Danny laughing up at him, What’s this, mon vilain? It’s two in the afternoon.
Danny called him ma foi once, but he was drunk and probably doesn’t remember. It doesn’t count.
He remembers poulet, though.
“Chicken, really?” Allie says.
“It’s his legs—” Danny starts.
Claude hits him in the face with a pillow and ignores Danny’s grin. “Next.”
Bridget and Cady take a lead early on, with Bryce and Allie bringing up the rear. At first Allie seems upset, but then they mismatch over happiest place on earth when Allie says her pedicurist and Bryce answers with Disneyland and she breaks down into giggles. Claude and Danny hold their own a few points back from the lead. If anyone notices that all of their answers happened at least a decade ago, no one mentions anything, and after that first one, they manage to draw questions that don’t bring back too many memories.
Of course it can’t last.
“Oh, finally a juicy one!” Allie crows, suddenly in the spirit of the game. “According to Danny, what is the most romantic place you ever made love?”
Without meaning to, Claude catches eyes with Danny and hangs there in that soft, affectionate gaze, unraveling on the familiar crow’s feet as Danny’s lips edge upward.
“I have to pee,” Caelan says, as though from far away. And maybe he is: Claude has been transported to another city, on another continent, in another life, and he knows in his bones that for once Danny is there with him, on a cold winter night in Berlin in December 2012, brushing shoulders at a Weihnachtsmarkt, pink-cheeked and warmed through with mulled wine. The heat in their apartment went out and neither of them felt like badgering the landlord to fix it faster, so on a whim they booked a week’s stay at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski.
Claude felt like Berlin would swallow him sometimes, but almost in a friendly way, like it was welcoming him so much it wanted to make him a part of it forever. It was nice not to be recognized, to be able to touch Danny more than casually in public without feeling him tense up, without worrying.
That night he was high on it, on the almost carefree way Danny brushed gingerbread crumbs from Claude’s coat, the touch lingering too long to really be casual. “Think we should head back?” he’d murmured, and Claude couldn’t miss the way he lingered over Claude’s mouth, as though it were difficult not to kiss him.
It started snowing on the walk back, fat, fluffy flakes that lent the city an air of suspended enchantment. Claude kept wanting to hold his breath.
The sex felt like that too, when they made it back to the hotel: every sound hushed until Claude could swear he heard the snowflakes hitting the ground, Danny’s skin on his, Danny’s fingers between his own as they moved together, Claude’s body fitted snug into the cradle of Danny’s hips.
“Uh, Claude?” Sheena prompts.
Claude’s ears burn. Right, the game. “Berlin,” he says immediately. Then he has to clear his throat; his voice sounds—anyway. “The hotel on Under den Linden.”
Danny smiles, a little too soft for Claude’s peace of mind.
They get the point.
It doesn’t go downhill from there. How much farther could it possibly slide? Claude stumbles blindly through questions about their favorite romantic movies, no-brainers about food and Danny’s laundry habits. Caelan finishes off a glass of wine when Claude owns up to his fixation on Danny’s hands—or, former fixation, really. It’s just that Danny’s not exactly a big guy and his hands are small and quick and—
Danny was not expecting that answer, apparently, because he guesses his ass.
“Vain!” Claude accuses, nudging him with his foot.
Danny only shakes his head, his cheeks flushed from the wine.
“Jesus,” Bridget says to Cady. “If we get that gross in our old age, promise to kill me.”
“Murder-suicide all the way,” Cady confirms. “Now gimme a card.”
The softball questions—and the generous application of alcohol to the problem—help Claude settle in and accept his fate. But in the final round, when it’s Danny’s turn to answer, Bryce reads, “What’s the stupidest thing you ever said to Claude?”
“Jesus,” Claude mutters. It’s both an intensely personal question and one with a lot of potential answers. Not that Claude is innocent. He said his fair share of things he regretted—some he regrets still. But Danny always knew just how to poke a bruise or pick a scab until it bled. Claude loved him like he’s never loved anyone else, not before or since, but some days it felt like that just made it easier for Danny to hurt him.
But despite the amount of material he has to draw from, the answer is easy. It’s just that he can’t say it in front of anyone here.
Danny writes something down, puts the cap back on the pen.
It’s not like it matters. They can’t catch Bridget and Cady anyway. Claude says, “The Flyers are never going to trade you.”
And—Danny did say that, just before the buyout, when Claude was grasping at straws that would keep them on the same team. But it’s not the dumbest thing he’s ever said, or even the most hurtful, even now that it’s happened.
He doesn’t wait around to see what Danny wrote. He knows their answers on this one won’t match, and that hurts more than anything. “I, ah, need the restroom. Excuse me.”
He does hear Cady ask, “So did you get the point?”
Danny answers, quiet: “No.”
The boys and various relatives are eating up Sheena’s parents’ guest bedrooms, and by the end of the night everyone is too drunk to drive, so Elsa calls a cab to take Claude and Danny to their hotel.
Danny pays and tips the driver while Claude checks them in and gets their room keys, and they ride the elevator together in silence.
Caelan’s future in-laws booked them a nice suite, with a little kitchenette and living room area as well as a bedroom and bath.
There’s only one bed, obviously, king-size though it may be, an imposing four-poster garnished with a mountain of pillows.
“I can take the couch,” Danny offers quietly, rolling his carry-on into the closet before opening it to retrieve his toiletry bag.
Claude glances at the clock: 2:17. Then at the bed. It looks comfortable. Inviting. He’s exhausted, and he can’t imagine Danny’s any better off. “It’s fine,” he says. He just wants to go to sleep, and the cold truth is they’ve shared a bed under less friendly circumstances. “Not like it isn’t big enough for two.”
He gives Danny first crack at the bathroom, thinking he’s likely to pass out before Claude returns, and minimize any awkwardness. He’s wrong, though; when he comes out again, Danny’s sitting up in bed, wearing a Sabres T-shirt that has to be twenty years old and fidgeting on his tablet, the bedside lamp clicked on low.
God. Claude knows this play. Fuck, Claude might’ve taught Danny this play.
Danny puts his tablet aside.
Claude’s stomach sinks.
“I… will you sit?”
It’s a better option than standing. It’s harder to punch things when you’re sitting down. Claude sits, gingerly, on the other side of the bed.
Letting out a long breath, Danny looks down at his hands, then back up again, apparently resolved. “I want to apologize.”
Claude stares at him. “For what?”
Danny rubs his forehead. “For a lot of things I should have apologized for years ago. Things that should never have happened in the first place.”
Claude feels as though he’s been punched in the stomach, as though the world under him has tilted. He wants to throw up. He knows Danny was never as in love as Claude was, otherwise they wouldn’t have—but for him to dismiss their entire relationship—“Fuck you.”
Danny opens his mouth. Closes it again. Then he blurts, all in a rush, “God, no, I’m not—I mean because I treated you like garbage for years, Claude.” He’s gone white under his early-afternoon sunburn, and his mouth is pinched.
That’s—better. But still not good. Claude doesn’t like thinking about the way he let Danny walk all over him. About the fact that he would have been happier if it had continued rather than stopped. He doesn’t like to think of himself as that pathetic, even in the distant past.
He takes a minute before responding. “It’s kind of late.” His voice rasps a little.
Danny starts, then checks the time. “You’re right, I’m sorry. It could have waited until morning.”
Even now, they have trouble communicating the simplest of things. “I mean it’s kind of late to be apologizing,” Claude clarifies. “That was ten years ago, Danny. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the apology, but what the fuck took you so long? Why now?”
“You’re right. You deserved to hear it a long time ago. But you avoided me for a long time. I didn’t think you’d want to hear it.”
Claude has never believed in "winning" a breakup. By definition, a relationship means a team, and if you break up, you both lost. But if he did believe in that, well, Danny is the obvious winner: Danny broke up with him, and Danny went on to date other people, and Danny is doing fine, while Claude is still—
It's been ten years and some days he still has to remind himself he's over it.
He swallows. “You could’ve called. Left a message. E-mailed.”
Danny shrugs. He seems small, or maybe the bed is just too big. “Would you have picked up? Listened? Opened the message?”
Probably not. But Claude doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to. Danny knows him as well as anyone ever has. “Why—what made you want to bring it up?” Claude has to force the words out, not at all sure he wants to know the answer. Ten years ago Danny never would’ve admitted….
Danny’s mouth twists into a familiar rueful expression. “I went to a lot of therapy.”
Claude’s jaw loses the battle with gravity.
When Claude doesn’t say anything, Danny shrugs. “I was injured a lot in the last two years I played. One of the Avs’ trainers recommended I talk to someone about my frustration and I just… kept talking beyond hockey. She put me on antidepressants the first week."
The bottom of Claude's stomach rots and falls away.
Of course Danny was depressed. Claude had known he was frustrated with his play on top of struggling with—whatever. Internalized homophobia. He should have made the connection.
Danny didn't always treat him well. That was true. Some days he made Claude feel like shit without even trying, just by flinching away from the most innocent public touch or thoughtlessly excluding him from family things. But some days he was so sweet, so solicitous. He knew when to pry, when to leave Claude alone. When to sit close to him on the couch for an hour and just be there. When to stay late with him after practice. He excelled at apologizing without ever saying a word.
Claude had loved him so much, but he'd never realized. Maybe if he had—
"I don't need them anymore," Danny goes on, and Claude doesn't know if seconds have passed or minutes. "If you're worried. And that doesn't excuse how I must have made you feel. You were nothing but good to me, and you didn't deserve that."
"Okay," Claude says finally. He probably needs to say more than that, but Danny’s apology doesn't erase anything that happened. Still, ten years ago Danny wouldn't have been able to tell the truth about their relationship, never mind participate in one for show.
It’s too late for maybes anyway.
“I don’t… I never….” He sighs and starts over. “I forgive you, I guess?” In truth, he was never really angry with Danny. Not the way he should have been. Claude was young and stupid and he let Danny treat him like that when he should have walked away. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much you were struggling.”
Danny shakes his head. “It wasn’t on you to get me help. I would’ve told you where to stick it anyway.”
Claude winces, imagining how that conversation would have gone. “Yeah.” How is he supposed to follow that?
All these years they’ve known each other, and he can’t think of a single thing to say. “Was that it?”
Danny opens his mouth, pauses. Then breaks Claude’s gaze and nods.
“Okay.” Claude kicks up the covers so he can crawl under them, then flicks off the lights. “We’d better get some sleep. God knows what Elsa’s going to put us through tomorrow.”
Another pause, somehow quieter than the first. “Good night.”
It isn’t, though. Not really.
Claude curls up on his side, his back to Danny, and stares into the darkness.
It seems that he was right about breakups after all.
The itinerary for the wedding rehearsal has them scheduled from ten in the morning until eight at night.
“Your son’s in-laws are worse than every trainer and coach I’ve ever had,” Claude says, staring in horror at the e-mail on his phone.
“There are laws about work,” Danny points out. “No laws about in-laws.”
Claude glances at the clock and winces. “You better take first shower.” They’re going to be late. He’s already looking forward to the knowing smiles.
They arrive at their scheduled last-minute tux fitting only a few minutes late, and Elsa makes a show of pretending not to notice the time. Claude has no idea what she’s doing there. Surely professional hockey players, current and former, can be trusted to ensure their formalwear fits correctly. Isn’t there a dress fitting or something that’s much more pressing?
Apparently not, though, so even though the groomsmen all know what’s going on, Claude has to spend his morning pretending some more, while both he and Danny get in and out of various suit bits that are then pinned and nipped and made to fit more distractingly.
Claude can’t stop thinking about Danny’s revelation of the night before, so he gets poked more than once when he doesn’t react fast enough to the tailor’s commands. He keeps reliving those first months after Danny left for Montreal, the times Claude knew he was in town and went out of his way to avoid him, the way he behaved when they did have to interact.
Ha his behavior made it worse? Ten years ago Claude thought he didn’t care if he hurt Danny, because he was nursing his own wounds and he didn’t have the capacity to consider Danny’s. Now apparently he gets to regret that as much as anything else that happened.
Cameron elbows him. “What’s up?” he asks quietly, his eyes on Elsa and Danny conferring with the tailor on the far side of the room.
Claude follows his gaze, cursing himself and the tailor and the pins holding the fabric of Danny’s trousers just a little too close to his ass for Claude’s comfort. He could lie, but instead he says, “Don’t worry about it,” and forces himself to smile and shake it off when the tailor’s assistant accidentally stabs him for the thirteenth time.
He can’t help the reflexive hiss of annoyance, though, and that makes Danny look at him. He casts an obviously assessing look over the scene and then says, “Claude, can you come and give an opinion?”
My hero, Claude thinks dryly. “Sure. Excuse me,” he says to the assistant, who looks just as happy to be shed of Claude as Claude is to get away. Let her poke Caelan for a while.
“What’s up?” Claude asks.
Danny grins, perhaps not as invested in the game as Claude, perhaps because the assistant has turned her attention away. “Do these pants make my ass look big?”
God damn it. In front of Elsa, Claude has no choice but to play along, even though he’s completely at sea. Danny used to joke like that in the locker room, sure, but only until he and Claude started sleeping together. Never afterward.
But—fine. If Danny wants a game, Claude will give him one. “Hmm,” he says, pretending to judge. Or, well, actually judging. He’s looking, anyway. “Bend over.”
If he expected Danny to call him out on the challenge, he’s disappointed. Instead he just purses his lips cheekily, puts his hands on the wall, and sticks out his ass.
Elsa hides a smile poorly.
Danny straightens, looking between her and Claude. “Too much?”
“It’s not that the pants make your ass look big,” Claude says. It is big. Well, maybe not by hockey player standards. “The tailoring is a little close, though. You’re gonna have VPL.”
“Pish! That’s what thongs are for,” Elsa says cheerfully.
“Not the solution I was thinking of,” Danny says, fucking roguishly.
Claude hates everything. He sighs. “I’m going to go back to being a pincushion.”
Before he can turn to go, Danny grabs his hand. Claude stares down at it, willing himself not to get lost in a flashback, not to think about ten years ago and reaching out in the dark.
“You’ve got a loose one,” Danny explains, letting go to kneel and pick out a pin dangling at the hem of Claude’s trousers. He presses it into Claude’s hand.
“Right,” Claude says. Fuck, he’s not going back there. He can’t. “Thanks.”
Everything mostly fits, which Claude has enough experience with tailors to know is a minor miracle, considering how much his body usually changes over the course of an off season. He makes a note to thank his tailor in Philly for sending his measurements over—
And then he realizes he’ll probably need a new one, with the trade.
If nothing else, the thought kills any potential boners for the duration of the fitting.
Fortunately Elsa has—something—to do that takes her away from them before lunch, and Caelan spirits them all away to ruin their summer diet plans a little more at a hole-in-the-wall eatery with a ridiculous smoked meat sandwich.
“You’re buying,” Claude informs him gravely.
Caelan smiles wanly. “Yeah, that’s fair.”
Despite Danny’ continued presence, lunch is good. Claude takes the time to catch up with Carson and Cameron, who he hasn’t seen in person in years. Every time Claude plays in Buffalo, they somehow miss each other, or Cameron has a midterm, or Claude breaks his nose and ends up dealing with that after the game instead of hanging out.
Danny and Caelan are talking wedding stuff anyway, things Claude doesn’t want to know about until he has to and would prefer to forget afterward, because this isn’t his family. It never was.
Canucks locker-room hijinks and linear algebra are apparently more his speed these days.
Cameron’s in the middle of explaining how to use matrices to solve complex algebra problems when Caelan’s phone rings, and they all shut up for a second—fortunately, because Claude’s brain hurts—so he can answer it.
It’s obviously Sheena. Claude’s too far away to hear her side of the conversation, and he tries to ignore Caelan’s too. He tunes back in when the conversation is obviously drawing to a close.
“You too,” Caelan says, and ends the call.
Carson makes a face. “Dude.”
“Did you just you too your future wife’s ‘I love you’? You know you’re getting married tomorrow, right? Are you gonna say ‘ditto’ after she reads her vows?”
Caelan blanches. “We’re not writing our own vows, are you kidding? She’ll make me sound like an idiot.”
“You don’t have to write your own vows for that,” Cameron teases.
A brief shoving match ensues. Claude gives up on his sandwich for the duration because he doesn’t want to wear it.
Danny meets his eyes and shrugs. “Some things never change.”
The rehearsal goes off without a hitch, unless you count how awkward Claude feels taking part in a wedding he has no business taking part in.
The rehearsal dinner is—well. A thing that happens.
“Remind me to encourage the other two to elope,” Danny says, slouching next to Claude at their table.
“Amen,” Claude says with feeling as he reaches for the wine bottle. He tops them both up. “Think Sheena’s done crying?”
Caelan comes back into the dining hall, looking green. “Guess that's a solid maybe.”
She seemed so cheerful and levelheaded yesterday,” Claude says. And earlier that day too, and every time he’s met her before that. He has no idea what prompted her to burst into tears in the middle of her mother’s toast and flee the room.
Danny lifts his glass to Claude in thanks and knocks back a swallow. “Weddings make people crazy.”
“I wouldn't really know.”
It makes Danny grimace. “I'll talk to him,” he says, getting up from the table.
Caelan sends Bridget and another of the bridesmaids after Sheena, shakes his head at Elsa, and lets Danny lead him away.
Claude musters a sickly smile for Elsa and Gerald, who are sitting at the next table over. “I’m sure it’s just prewedding jitters.” He hopes he sounds more confident than he feels.
Fortunately his phone chirps a few seconds later, saving him from further awkwardness. It’s Danny: come to C’s room? 348.
Danny meets him at the door. “Hey,” Claude says. “What’s up? Second thoughts?”
Danny snorts. “No, just nerves. On Caelan’s part, anyway. He wants to talk to you.” He shrugs, not seeming particularly bothered or offended when he adds, “Apparently I’m not the right parent for the job.”
Claude puts that away to unpack later and pushes open the door. "Hey. Everything okay?"
Sitting on the bed, Caelan scrubs at his hair and nods sheepishly. "Sorry for the show. That's kind of embarrassing."
Claude shrugs. People who live in glass houses, and whatnot. "It's fine. Cold feet?"
"Me?" Caelan laughs. He sounds just like Danny. "No, I know this is what I want, I'm just scared I'll fuck it up. And Dad's advice wasn't that helpful."
Claude asks despite his better judgment. "What did he say?"
"Not to make the same mistakes he made," Caelan says, rolling his eyes. "But that covers a multitude of sins, you know?" He lets out a long, rueful breath. "And then he said to ask you. Said you were always better at the relationship stuff."
Claude's stomach flops. "I don't know about that," he says. It's not that he hasn't dated in the past ten years, but he hasn't managed anything long term. Not like he knows Danny has.
"Take my word for it, then," Caelan tells him. "I mean, he's better now than he was with Mom, but he can be tough to live with, you know?"
Claude hasn't forgotten. "Well, at least you won’t have a kid your first year being married?” he offers. “That should help.”
Caelan goes white.
“Oh shit,” Claude says.
“Please don’t tell anyone yet,” Caelan begs. “I haven’t even told Dad, we were going to wait until after the wedding. That’s why Sheena ran out. She had to puke.” He runs his hands through his hair again. “That’s why I’m freaking out.”
Of course he would, Claude thinks. Of course he would follow in his father’s footsteps in this too; Danny’s kids are just like him.
For a few seconds he can’t speak. He doesn’t have any advice to give on how to be a good parent. He doesn’t have very much to say at all.
Caelan’s going to be a dad. Claude can remember him crying when he skinned a knee in the driveway, and he’s going to be a father. Jesus. Danny’s going to be a grandfather.
“Congratulations,” he says numbly, and pulls Caelan into an embrace. “Holy shit. Congratulations.”
When they part, he sits down heavily on the bed beside Caelan. “Can’t believe you’re having kids before me,” Claude jokes, but his voice comes out hoarse and his eyes sting. Caelan is so young, but he’s going to be such a good dad. But if Claude says that, he’s going to cry.
He might anyway. Fuck.
Maybe that’s what makes him say it. Maybe it’s the wine. Maybe he just needs to tell someone, finally, to admit that things didn’t turn out the way he wanted them to and it hurts.
Maybe it’s the idea of Danny holding a little baby that does him in—Danny holding a baby that belongs to a family Claude will never be a part of.
Things got fucked up, but Claude didn’t mean for them to. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
“I always thought your dad and I would have kids someday,” he says quietly, willing Caelan to understand.
Caelan blinks back tears. His voice is just as wrecked as Claude’s when he says, "You did."
Later, Danny finds Claude at the bar.
Claude doesn’t know how much later, time-wise. It’s several fingers of whiskey later, drink-wise, though, and that’s a more important measurement.
Danny does a double-take. “Should I be making emergency phone calls?”
Claude shakes his head. “Caelan’s fine. The booze is for me.” He lifts the bottle. “You want?”
For a heartbeat Danny looks at him. Then he shrugs and pulls out the stool next to Claude’s and starts unbuttoning his shirtsleeves. “Wedding’s not till the afternoon anyway.”
Claude signals the bartender for another glass. “That’s the spirit,” he says, pouring Danny a generous helping. Then he sets the bottle down and raises his for a toast. “To Caelan.”
Danny clinks their glasses together.
To his credit, it only takes Danny half a finger of whiskey to offer, “Sorry you got traded.”
This deep into the bottle, Claude doesn’t even tense. He just sighs. “It’s okay. Could’ve been worse.” He could’ve had three kids and a boyfriend back in Philly, for example. And he’s only going to the Sabres, who don’t even suck anymore.
“It might be worse?” Danny says.
Claude raises his head.
He shrugs. “I, ah. They offered me a position in their front office. I wanted an excuse to be closer to Cameron.”
Of course, Claude thinks. He should have known better than to believe he could keep his life separate from Danny’s indefinitely.
"It doesn't matter," he finally says, surprised to find he means it. "I don't hate you or anything. We'll be fine."
Danny relaxes, the tense set of his shoulders melting into something less tortuous. "Okay. Good."
Silence falls, broken only when one of them refills the glasses. "This is good stuff."
Claude takes it for the peace offering it is and sees Danny’s bid. "I put it on Caelan's tab."
Danny slides him a smile. "We should order another bottle."
Claude doesn't know how many drinks later it is when the surface tension finally breaks. Danny says, "Can I ask you something?"
They might as well have it out here as anywhere. "Shoot."
"How come you never came out?"
Claude contemplates his glass but decides against refilling it. What can he say? He didn't have a lot of choice. Sure, the NHL has a handful of openly gay or bisexual players, a few more in coaching and front office. It’s not a big deal anymore. That was never the problem. Not for Claude. Ten years ago, he would have gladly been the first if—well.
But he didn’t then, and if he'd come out afterward, people would have asked about Danny. He might not have been happy about the way things between them ended, but he wasn't going to drag Danny down into that cesspool with him. Not if they didn’t even have each other to lean on.
“No reason to,” he says, shrugging. He’s dated since he and Danny broke up, but nothing serious enough to consider that kind of gesture.
Danny looks over from fidgeting with his glass, his brow furrowed. “So you’re not…?” He gestures.
Claude looks at his own left hand curled around his own glass. His ring chafes suddenly, and he rubs his damp palm on his pants. “No.” He shivers and forces his mind back to the present, quirks a brow. “I could ask you the same question, you know. Since you’ve apparently therapied up.”
He expects Danny to brush him off. Instead he shrugs as easily as Claude did. “I’ve thought about it. Even talked about it with a couple people. But it’s….” He shrugs again. “It seems cliché to say it’s complicated.”
I didn’t want to answer questions about my relationship with you.
“Maybe after I retire,” Claude says. It’ll be a nonissue then; he’ll be a nobody and no one will even remember he ever lived with Danny. Maybe.
Snorting, Danny shakes his head. “You and Sid. Who would have thought you had so much in common?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Claude grumbles. Wait a second. “How do you know about Sid? Maybe retiring, I mean.” The other thing is sort of an open secret, at least in certain circles.
“We talk sometimes. He wanted my perspective.”
As what, Claude wonders. But he doesn’t ask.
“So you don’t….”
God damn it. He’s making a mistake. But he’s had enough alcohol to make it seem like a good idea, and he’s so tired of being alone. “You don’t have someone waiting at home for this show to be over, do you? Furiously jealous at missing out on Caelan’s wedding?”
Danny shakes his head, a smile playing at the corners of his eyes. Claude knows that look. “I haven’t dated anyone that accommodating in ten years.”
“Okay,” Claude says.
He waves to the bartender, leaves a hundred-dollar tip tucked under his glass. He picks up the bottle with one final look at Danny.
One elevator ride and four minutes later the bottle thunks against the door to their hotel room as Danny crowds into Claude’s space, manipulating him where he wants him to go as easily as he ever handled a puck. Claude lets the bottle slide to the floor and digs his hands into the back pockets of Danny’s dress pants, partly for the room key but mostly for the excuse.
Danny’s ass feels as good as it always has.
And when Danny kisses him—
They fall through the door and into memory.
Time slips away from him. Shoes and belts and clothing seem to evaporate. Only the two of them and the bed exist, removed from the rest of the world. Claude cards his fingers through Danny’s hair and kisses him, pushes up with a thigh to rub against Danny’s erection, hungrily swallows his sounds of pleasure.
Everything is warm and good and sweet and perfect.
Danny bites gently at his lip, licks over the hurt to soothe it, and Claude tilts his head back, dizzy with want. He rubs his thumbs over Danny’s nipples to watch his eyes go dark, to make him crazy—Danny always hated that he loved that—but now he only groans and arches into the touch before moving his mouth down Claude’s chest.
All the way down it, until his breath tickles the wet head of Claude’s dick and he shoulders his way between Claude’s thighs.
Claude doesn’t pretend he doesn’t want what Danny’s offering. He swears, fumbles with a pillow until he’s comfortable, and lets Danny do what Danny does best.
He hooks Claude’s thighs over his shoulders and lowers his head.
Claude exhales harshly through his nose when Danny licks across the head of his cock, wet and sloppy. It kills him to watch, but he has to, has to take in everything about the easy, sexy confidence of Danny playing with his foreskin, teasing his mouth loosely over the head, never giving Claude the suction or the pressure he craves. It makes him crazy, always has. Ten years ago Danny would tease him like this until he came, tearing at the bedsheets, and only then would Danny tighten his grip.
Claude probably couldn’t get off like that anymore. He’s a little older, a lot less hair trigger.
Danny looks up at him, making eye contact as he smears the precome at the head of Claude’s dick with his lip.
Claude doesn’t know where the lube came from, and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if Danny planned this, or if he hoped, or if he brought it for jerking off. He only cares about the firm, skillful press of two fingers inside him, the stretch, the thrum of pleasure as Danny glides his fingers past his prostate, not too much yet, just warming him up.
“Danny,” Claude says. Without meaning to, he spreads himself wider. “Not tonight. Just—please.” He can’t take the teasing. Not after today. Not with tomorrow, and the end of their game, hanging over him.
Danny doesn’t second-guess him. He presses his lips to the inside of Claude’s knee and stretches up, and Claude trails his lips over Danny’s chin and jaw while Danny tears open a condom wrapper with his teeth.
He groans into Claude’s mouth with the first press inside, familiar and alien at once. Claude breathes into it, around it, inhaling Danny’s scent and the taste of him and the way they fit together. Urging Danny on.
Their hands intertwine against the mattress and it’s ten years ago, and Danny’s been bought out, and Claude’s world is slipping through his fingers. Their faces press close in the dark and their bodies join but it isn’t enough. When it’s over and they’re lying in bed afterward, it isn’t enough.
Claude reaches across the space between them and Danny pulls away.
And Claude can’t. Not again.
“Danny.” He squeezes his eyes shut. He doesn’t want to see. “Danny. Stop.”
Danny stops. Claude doesn’t look at him. He doesn’t want to see his face. Can barely stand hearing his voice. “Did I—are you—?”
Claude swings his legs over the side of the bed, stares at his feet. Echoes Danny’s words from a decade before. “I can’t,” he says. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
In a daze, he gathers enough clothes to look respectable, along with most of his toiletry kit. He finds his wallet… somewhere. He leaves without his shoes. He’s pretty sure he has a key; he can get them tomorrow.
He thinks Danny keeps talking, but he doesn’t really hear any of it. Whatever he has to say, he’s finished by the time Claude is dressed and closing the door behind him.
“Just give me whatever’s available,” he tells the lady at the front desk. “I don’t care what it costs.”
The hotel is booked up because of the wedding, she tells him apologetically, but she does have one room free.
It’s a honeymoon suite.
Claude can feel the lube starting to dry, but he doesn’t bother to shower. He doesn’t even undress. He just curls up on his side in the four-poster bed and closes his eyes to wait for sleep.
Claude gets a concerned look from the boys when he shows up late to breakfast, but no one gives him the third degree as he slides into the open chair left for him. Next to Danny, of course.
Danny, who has a semicircle bruise at the corner of his jaw and looks like he hasn’t slept in a year.
On Claude’s other side, Carson frowns. “Are you okay? You look….”
Unintentionally, Claude meets his eyes.
He sees it the instant understanding dawns; Carson’s gaze flicks back and forth between Danny and Claude and his face goes white. His mouth drops open.
“I’m fine,” Claude says quickly, wanting to keep the others from guessing. “I didn’t sleep very well.”
Carson makes a choking noise and Claude immediately regrets his choice of words.
“Well, drink some coffee,” Caelan says, apparently too absorbed in his itinerary to cotton on. Thank God for that. “We’re supposed to do pictures in half an hour.”
Claude knuckles sleep out of his eyes and tells himself to suck it up.
When the photographer’s assistant is done fixing the dark circles under his eyes, he almost looks good. And Caelan’s in-laws aren’t present with them this morning; there’s no one to pretend for. Claude relaxes, tries not to let his gaze follow Danny across the room. It’s hard, though, with the photographers there, making sure to document his time with the boys and especially Caelan. Straightening his tie for him, pinning on his boutonnière. Laughing when Carson tries to pull the flask out of Caelan’s jacket pocket.
“You should get in there,” the photographer’s assistant tells Claude, nudging his side.
He jumps, realizing she caught him staring. “I really—”
The photographer smiles. “I agree, absolutely. We should get some shots of the whole group before we have to go take pictures of the bride.”
Claude squirms. “I don’t want—”
“Nope,” Cameron says, grabbing his arm. “Come over here, if we have to suffer, so do you.”
“Seriously, this is worse than media day,” Carson agrees. “Anyway, your tie is all wrong, what kind of NHL player are you?”
“The kind who’s never worn an ascot,” Claude grumbles as Caelan reaches up to fix it. He’s vaguely conscious of the photographer snapping away.
“And where’s his boutonnière?” Cameron says. “Maybe I can stab him as many times as the tailor did—”
“How do you even make your hair do this?” Carson puts in, poking at it. “Seriously. You have nice hair, I’m pretty sure. Somewhere under whatever this is.”
“Hey.” Without other recourse, Claude looks at Danny. It’s the first time they’ve made eye contact since last night, and he falters for a second, not prepared for the fondness he sees there. It’s just the boys, he tells himself, stomach turning over, and forces himself to calm. “Are you just going to stand there or are you going to help?”
“I think you’ve got about as much help as you can handle,” Danny teases, and Claude huffs just as Cameron pokes him with the boutonniere pin.
It’s going to be obvious, Claude thinks hopelessly as camera shutter snaps. Anyone who looks at these pictures will know Claude has been lying to himself for ten years.
Maybe that’s what he needs to finally get over it.
The photographers leave, and Claude and Danny and the boys change out of their suits to eat lunch, because God knows none of the boys has ever been able to keep from spilling on himself when it counted. Caelan had jelly donut on his shirt at his draft day.
They’re most of the way dressed again when Caelan’s phone chirps. Cameron and Carson are in the bathroom, squabbling over hair gel; Danny’s on the phone in the bedroom, trying to track down the champagne he ordered from room service. That leaves Claude on damage control when Caelan says, “Fuck.”
Oh boy. “Everything all right?” he asks as neutrally as possible.
Caelan glances furtively toward the bedroom. He must convince himself Danny’s not listening, because he says, “Can you check on Sheena?”
Claude stares at him. “She’s your fiancée.”
“Yeah, and I’m not supposed to see her before the ceremony!”
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
“I agree, but her mom is really intense about wedding superstitions, okay? She’s not going to let me in.” Caelan lowers his voice. “And I think it’s related to you-know-what, and you’re the only one who knows, so could you?”
Claude sighs but admits defeat. “One of these days you’re going to grow a spine,” he mutters.
Elsa answers the door looking like a million dollars, or what Claude imagines a million dollars would look like if you spent it on a mother-of-the-bride ensemble, makeup, hair, and jewelry. She also, he notes, looks harried. “Thank God you’re here,” she says, as though Claude is the answer to her prayers or something. “Maybe you can talk some sense into her.”
And then she leaves them alone, shooing Bridget and Cady and Allie out ahead of her.
Sheena looks great too: not a hair out of place in her romantic updo, dress immaculate if, in Claude’s opinion, in need of a bit of hemming. But the makeup under her eyes is smudged, and she has a crazed kind of feel about her. When her mother leaves, she sinks into a chair and lets out a shaky breath.
This, Claude can deal with. He has firsthand experience with Crazy Mom Syndrome, since he has one. His sister’s wedding was nearly a disaster thanks to Mother-of-the-Bride-zilla. “You need a drink?” he offers sympathetically before he remembers. Then he amends, “I mean, uh, apple juice or something, I guess.”
Sheena shakes her head. "Caelan told you?"
"Caelan has a shitty poker face." Claude takes the chair across from her. "What's up? Momzilla got you down? You look gorgeous, by the way. "
Smiling, she shakes her head again. "I can see why Caelan sent you. But it's not my mom, exactly." She gestures to a pair of heels sitting on a sideboard. "You know the tradition? Something old, something new?"
It rings a vague bell. "Sure."
She shrugs, wincing. "Those were my grandmother's, believe it or not. And until my feet started to swell, they fit perfectly."
Claude glances at the time. He’s supposed to be downstairs in five minutes. Shit. "Do you have other shoes you can wear?"
"My flip-flops," she tells him, tugging up the hem of her dress. They look a lot more comfortable than the heels. "But Mom will lose her shit if I don't have something old, and I don't want to tell her I'm pregnant."
“Okay.” Claude nods. They can fix this. They just have to tackle it one problem at a time. He stands and picks up one of the shoes. “You absolutely can’t wear these?”
“It’s like trying to shove a pork chop into a champagne flute,” she says wryly.
Claude doesn’t see a way to adjust them, either. “Okay,” he says again, and then he snaps the heel off the right shoe. “Ta-da.”
Sheena stares at him. “Oh my God, you’re a genius.”
He shrugs modestly. “My sister’s favorite heels broke at her wedding. She brought them in to have them repaired before the honeymoon.”
“All right, well, that’s one problem down. But where am I going to get something old in the next five minutes?”
That’s… a slightly more complicated problem. “How old is old? Two years? Five? Ten? Fifty?”
“Ten, I guess? It would depend on—”
Claude pulls the ring off his right hand. “Ten years and change,” he says. “It’s going to be too big, but….”
Sheena unclasps her necklace. “Here.”
They thread it through the chain and she puts it back on. A little unconventional, but never mind. It doesn’t have to be in the pictures afterward. “Two down,” Claude says. “But I’m afraid I’m not very good with makeup.”
“Send Allie back in when you go,” Sheena says, wiping her cheek before giving him a watery smile. Then she surprises him by wrapping him in a tight hug. “Caelan’s—we’re both lucky to have you.”
Claude swallows hard and hugs her back.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the officiant says, beaming, and Claude blinks back tears for what feels like the hundredth time today. He doesn’t quite succeed and has to lift his right hand to scratch at the corner of his eye.
His right hand, because Danny has a firm grip on his left and they’re both holding on tight, staring straight ahead.
“Don’t you dare cry,” Danny whispers, hoarse. “If you do, I will.”
“Shut up, there’s something in my eye,” Claude lies back, ignoring the fact that it’s way too late for both of them.
Danny’s shoulder shakes against his own in a silent laugh, and Claude manages a smile he means as the officiant presents the newlyweds.
Danny squeezes his hand one last time and lets go. Claude flexes his fingers before drawing his hand into his lap, folding his right hand over it. Now that the charade is almost over, he doesn’t want it to end. But it will. In just a few short hours, he’ll be on a plane to Philly to spend a few days packing before he has to be in Buffalo.
In the meantime, he tries to make the best of it. He lets the photographer and her assistant bully him around, signs the guestbook, makes small talk with a few guys he knows from the league. He and Danny are talking with Coots when Sheena comes up behind them and kisses Claude’s cheek.
“Thank you for letting me borrow it,” she says sweetly, pressing his ring back into his hand. “You’re a life-saver.”
Then she disappears again.
Danny looks askance at Claude.
“Emergency superstition substitution,” Claude says with a shrug, self-consciously sliding his ring back on. “Her grandmother’s shoes were so old they broke.”
After a few seconds, Coots continues on with what he was saying, but Danny excuses himself to go do—something. Claude doesn’t know what.
“Is he okay?” Coots asks, turning from watching Danny’s disappearing back to look Claude in the eye.
Claude opens his mouth to reassure him, but the words won’t come.
“I mean, Caelan filled us in on the whole….” He waves his hand as if to indicate “ridiculous act for the benefit of his new mother-in-law.” “But that was weird. Right?”
Coots doesn’t know they were together once, of course. Only Danny and Claude and the boys ever knew. “I’ll talk to him,” Claude promises, but then the emcee calls for everyone to sit down so she can introduce the wedding party.
It’ll have to wait.
It waits through the introduction of the wedding party, and dinner, and the toasts. It waits through a sweet, funny, articulate speech from Sheena, and one where Caelan wipes his eyes on his sleeve no fewer than three times.
Claude pretends to pay attention to Sheena’s parents, but really he's just sipping his wine, waiting for the dancing to start so he can slip away from his pretend partner and locate his errant sanity. He can spend the rest of the evening with Coots or Schenner, someone who knows what's going on and will offer him refuge.
But he accidentally starts listening again during Sylvie's toast, which is hilarious and heartfelt and involves a fair few hiccups, and then Danny stands up beside him, and Claude swears to himself because he probably can't get away with leaving during his fake partner’s speech.
There isn't enough liquor in the world to get him through this.
Danny shed his suit jacket before dinner and rolled his shirtsleeves up again, which would be more of a problem if Claude could see his forearms beyond the podium. He can't, though, just the tips of his fingertips curled around the edges.
"Good evening," Danny says. He's as easy in front of a crowd of wedding guests as he ever was in front of the media after a game. "For those of you who don't know me, I'm Danny, Caelan's father. Actually, three of those miscreants at the head table are mine. Well, four, now."
Polite laughter segues into a general "aww," and Danny smiles. "Sylvie has already done the job of congratulating our son and welcoming Sheena to the family, unconventional though it might be. So I'm not going to rehash all that. I love you both dearly, and what better way to prove it than by saving you from duplicating my mistakes. Which, as at least two people in this room can tell you, are many."
Sylvie laughs—she and Danny get along better now, more than a decade after the divorce, than they ever did when they were married, or so Claude understands—and Claude flushes with heat. He feels as though the whole room must be staring at him.
"And my triumphs too," Danny adds, "because hey, it wasn't all bad. So, in no particular order...." He produces a list from his shirt pocket and unfolds it several times, until it reveals itself to be several feet long. That gets another laugh.
"People will tell you 'Don't go to bed angry. Just go to bed,'" Danny reads. At the head table, Caelan, Carson, and Cameron look like a perfect copy of "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." Claude can relate. He squirms.
Danny looks up at Caelan and waits until he's paying attention. "That's horse shit. Get a good night's sleep and have sex in the morning."
Claude laughs in spite of the creeping desire to crawl under the table. He can think of several instances he and Danny should have paid attention to that particular piece of advice.
"Number two," Danny continues, then pauses for dramatic effect and looks at Sylvie, "don't leave the toilet seat up."
Caelan grins sheepishly as Sheena smacks him on the shoulder.
"Clean up after yourself, or hire a maid," Danny says, which might actually be a jibe at Claude. He didn't get the hang of doing the dishes until he moved out on his own. Danny follows with "You don't need to know this one yet, but don't make someone else be the mean parent."
Claude picks up his wineglass to have something to do with his hands.
"This one comes courtesy of my son Carson, who said, and I quote, 'Dude, did you just "you too" your fiancée’s I love you?'" He keeps his tone light, but his face is serious as he addresses Caelan and Sheena, flicking a brief glance at Claude. "Have your partner's back. Acknowledge how much they mean to you."
Claude realizes abruptly that the wine bottle at their table is empty, and the bar is closed until the speeches are over.
He knocks back the rest of his glass anyway.
"Tell the truth, but mind your manners. Surprise each other. Have inside jokes. Listen." He pauses again and meets Claude's eyes. His gaze feels heavy, as though he's willing Claude to understand something important. "Never let your partner wonder how you feel."
Claude puts the glass down before he can drop it.
Good thing, too, because Danny follows that very serious, sincere piece of advice with "Get really good at oral."
"Oh my God!" Caelan shouts from the head table.
To Claude's left, one table over, Sylvie is bent over in her seat, wiping away tears of laughter.
Claude wants to crawl under the table, but also, well.
Danny's not wrong about that. Claude just didn't expect Danny to brag about how good he is at blowjobs in a speech at his son's wedding.
Or ever. Claude's pretty sure Coots just sprayed pinot grigio out his nose.
"What?" Danny protests at Caelan's outburst, grinning, because he's a total shit-disturber. "It's important!"
"You're a menace," Caelan says. "I don't deserve this." He doesn't sound as scandalized as he could, though, and he's leaning back in his seat, obviously not bothered.
It makes sense. After all, he's heard worse in the locker room.
Danny's grin fades into a soft smile. "You're right. I'll be serious. I saved the most important lessons for the end anyway." He flicks his gaze to Sylvie again, but he's looking at Claude when he says, "When you fuck up, apologize. Don't wait. Apologize and mean it. Apologize again. Do better."
Claude compulsively twists the ring on his right hand. His stomach hurts.
"But the most important thing to remember, even if you forget everything else, is—" Danny pauses and swallows. Claude's throat goes tight. "—today you made a commitment to each other. You can't take that responsibility lightly. When someone gives you their heart—" His voice cracks, and Claude bites his lip. "—be careful with it," he finishes, visibly struggling with his emotions.
Then he lets out a long breath. "All right, I'm done. I heard there was cake?"
Their table empties as the bar opens and dessert arrives, so Claude is sitting alone, staring at some extremely fancy icing, when Danny drops into the seat beside him.
Maybe it can’t wait anymore.
“That was quite the speech,” Claude says finally, raising his head.
Danny offers the ghost of a smile. “I learned some things the hard way. Thought Caelan shouldn’t have to.”
“Right.” But Claude knows damn well that wasn’t all it was. “What’s your game here, Danny?”
Danny lifts a shoulder. “No game.” But the corners of his eyes hide a smile.
“Really.” Claude doesn’t buy it. “That wasn’t exactly subtle. You might as well have made a list of—”
Steeling himself, Claude forces out the words. “Every shitty thing you ever did to me.”
“Maybe not all of them, but I tried to cover the basics.” He glances up as a server offers coffee, and shakes his head.
Fortunately for Claude, their conversation is interrupted by Sheena and Caelan’s first dance, Sheena’s dance with her father, and Caelan’s dance with Sylvie.
And then the emcee invites all of the parents of the couple to dance.
Somehow Claude was not expecting that. This wasn't in the planned schedule of the wedding Caelan gave Claude yesterday.
Claude turns to his left. Danny is fidgeting, curling the edge of his cloth napkin in his fingers. “We don’t have to.”
Elsa and Gerard have already taken the floor, and Sylvie is dragging her date out too, determined not to be excluded.
"Just because you don't want anyone to know you can't dance," Claude says, and leads Danny onto the floor.
He’s not kidding about that; Danny never can find the beat. Claude’s seen him try enough times, though not usually in public. But that’s fine: Claude can lead him through this old Louis Armstrong song easily. And, well, if Danny doesn’t care about pretending they’re married in front of two hundred odd guests, he’s not going to care if Claude leads.
It’s the closeness that’s the problem, Claude thinks as the fingers of his right hand link with Danny’s left.
He can’t possibly bring it up now.
Over Danny’s shoulder, he sees Gerard twirling Elsa a little off the beat, both of them smiling and enjoying themselves. Sylvie and her date are a little sillier, more relaxed.
Claude wishes he could enjoy the moment for what it is, since it’s likely the last he’ll have. But he can’t even make himself lean their heads together the way he desperately wants to.
Then Danny makes everything worse by taking in the sight of Caelan and Sheena making eyes at each other at the head table and saying, “I used to think that would be us one day.”
Claude feels like he’s been slapped. He tightens both hands involuntarily and nearly loses the beat, because it hurts to hear. He’d tried his best. Before he can stop them, the words come tumbling out, plaintive and thick. “Then why did you say no?”
Ten years ago, lying in the dark, Claude reached out for Danny’s hand in desperation, searching for anything to make him stay. He’d planned something more romantic, even had a ring inside a holey sock in his dresser, but he couldn’t wait anymore. It felt like his last chance.
But Danny pulled away from him, wouldn’t even look him in the eye. “I can’t,” he said. Claude couldn’t interpret his tone. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
And that was that.
Now Danny meets his gaze, his eyes a little sad. “I didn’t deserve to say yes. I knew I was treating you badly, but you kept—you were so good to me anyway, all the time. I was so ashamed of myself.” He shakes his head. “I knew if I said yes I’d keep fucking up until I made you miserable enough to leave me.”
Claude looks up, blinking hard. “Jesus, Danny.”
“I told myself you were young and impulsive. That the thought just occurred to you and you blurted it out. But I was wrong about that too, wasn’t I?” His gaze falls on the ring on Claude’s right hand.
“I’d had it for months,” Claude admits. “I was just… waiting for the right moment.”
Danny makes a tiny noise and squeezes his hand. They’re holding each other so tight now it hurts, and Claude can barely breathe because his heart is lodged in his throat. “I know I don’t deserve a second chance—”
Claude is too full of hope to let him continue. “Kiss me.”
Danny lifts his face. They’re so close now their noses almost touch. “What?”
“I won’t go back to the way things were before. But I think maybe.” His heart pounds. “If you’re serious. If you want to try again.” His palms are sweating, but he keeps his feet moving, holds the rhythm of the song. “If you mean it, I won’t hide this from anyone. So kiss me. Right now, right here.”
A small smile plays at the corner of Danny’s mouth. “Like the song says?”
“I don’t want to dream about it,” Claude tells him, honest. “I want more than that. Danny.”
This time when Danny’s fingers slide from his, it’s because he’s winding his arms around Claude’s neck, pulling him down so their mouths can meet instead. Claude wraps him up, laces his hands at the small of Danny’s back, and holds on.
Someone at the head table wolf whistles. Catcalls from the other guests follow. But Claude can’t keep from smiling. Danny kisses him through it, past the end of the song, until the emcee clears her throat into the microphone because it’s time for the next dance.
Danny takes Claude’s hand and leads him off the dance floor, still smiling.
This time neither one lets go.