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an amazement of love and friendship

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It isn’t until Claude is six that he really understands that he’s different.

His mother sits him down after school and takes his hand in hers, her thumb brushing lightly over his wrist.

“Baby, why did you fight at school today?”

“Because Josh said I was stupid and no one wanted me, so I pushed him over,” Claude explains. It seems obvious enough to him.

“What have I told you about hurting people?”

“It’s not okay and we never use violence to solve our problems,” Claude parrots back to her. He understands, really he does, except he sees pushing and shoving and punching in hockey all the time, and everyone seems to be okay with that.

“That’s right, honey. Now, what Josh said to you was mean and untrue, but you don’t hit him because of that, okay?”

“Okay.”

His mom bites her lip and Claude thinks she looks sad. She pulls a black band out of her bag and hands it to him. “Do you know what this is, Claude?”

Claude nods. “It’s a wrist protector,” he says.

“That’s right. People wear them so no one can see the name of their soulmate without permission.”

“I know,” Claude says. Lots of grown ups wear them, including every professional athlete he’s ever watched on tv.

“This one is for you,” his mom says, and she places it on his wrist, tugging the strap until it fits securely.

“But I don’t have a name to hide,” Claude says, not understanding. His mom’s eyes are full of tears and for the first time ever, Claude wonders if there really is something wrong with him.

“I know, baby, and that’s no one else’s business, okay? It doesn’t matter, I just want you to be happy.”

Claude nods slowly. “New skates would make me happy,” he offers. His mom laughs and wipes her eyes.

“You’re a little monster,” she says, but she hugs him close, and the next day, she takes him shopping and buys him a shiny new pair of skates.

***

Claude’s focused on hockey, doesn’t care about much else, but it’s hard not to hear what people say about the Unmarked. Unstable, prone to violence, less likely to form meaningful connections with people. They’re rare, but not unheard of, with the actual number being difficult to guess at, given how often and zealously the condition is hidden.

Claude’s never met anyone else like him - not that he knows of at least. Most of the kids he plays with don’t bother with wrist guards, some of them even discussing their names openly with their teammates. But more than a handful play with black wristbands on, so Claude doesn’t stick out enough to draw attention. He likes it that way.

***

The first girl Claude sleeps with laughs at him when he tries to unhook her bra, and then shoves him on the bed and does it herself. Jenna’s a hockey player, too, and they date for three months before he looks for what he’s been avoiding and catches sight of the scrawled Claude on her wrist, in a handwriting entirely different to his.

He breaks up with her the next day.

Kyle is different, because Claude knows, has known from the beginning, that the name scribbled on his skin is Melanie. Kyle is on his team, and all they do is watch movies and fool around in hotel rooms on road trips. After Claude gives the first blow job of his life, Kyle pulls him up and kisses him, then goes tugs at the black band around Claude wrists.

Claude shies back so quickly he fall off the bed and Kyle looks at him like he’s an idiot.

“You okay, man?” he asks, and Claude nods.

“Yeah, sorry, just...” He shrugs. “I don’t like people seeing my wrist.”

“Come on, how bad could it be?” Kyle laughs.

“It’s not Kyle, so it’s none of your fucking business,” Claude snaps, and Kyle holds his hands up in surrender.

“Okay, okay, calm down,” he says. He pulls Claude back and kisses him filthily in apology, and then turns on the tv.

Claude’s half asleep to the sound of some shitty reality show before Kyle speaks again.

“At least you have a name, dude,” he says, and Claude’s heart races. “I knew a guy back home, a friend of my brother’s, who didn’t have one. His wrist was just, like, blank. He was weird as fuck, creepy and aggressive. He once beat up a guy who asked why he didn’t have a soulmate.”

Claude fights to keep his breathing under control.

“Guess everything you hear about them is true,” Kyle says. “Hey, you wanna sneak out for pizza or something?”

Claude goes, but the next time Kyle tries to kiss him, Claude shoves him away and says he doesn’t feel like it any more. Kyle shrugs, and they go back to being roommates.

Claude doesn’t date anyone after that.

***

The 2010 playoffs are a bitch.

Claude worked so fucking hard to get to the NHL, he paid his dues in the minors, and to play in the Stanley Cup Final is the most amazing thing he’s ever done. And then they lose, they lose at home, and Claude doesn’t think he’s ever hated someone as much as he hates Patrick Kane.

The locker room afterwards is quiet, the air thick with misery and anger and exhaustion, and more than one guy’s eyes are not entirely dry. Laviolette is talking but Claude honestly can’t make sense of what he’s saying. Carts looks like he either wants to punch something in the face or be completely shitfaced, and Richie, in the stall next to him, looks just as bad.

Media’s over quicker than he’d have thought, and Claude concentrates on the mundane - pulling off his jersey, his pads, showering, changing, and tries not to get lost in an endless loop of recriminations his head.

It doesn’t work. They were so fucking close, he knows that if they could have pushed it to seven they’d have won, with that fierce, absolute kind of certainty only possibly about something that can never be proved.

Hartsy comes up to him and pats him on the back and Claude hadn’t even realised he was standing stock-still, his hands gripping in his jacket, almost shaking.

“Save the drinking for tomorrow night,” he says. “Just go home.” He claps Claude on the shoulder and leaves the room.

Claude sits in his stall for a long time, watching as the room slowly empties. He knows he’s young, that there will be other chances, but it doesn’t make him feel better.

He slowly becomes aware that Danny’s still here too, sitting in his stall in his pads and staring at the floor. He doesn’t look particularly angry, like Claude feels, and there’s no tension in his shoulders and no clench to his fists. He must feel Claude watching him though, because he looks up, and the look on his face is devastated. Claude feels his stomach swoop in a mixture of sympathy and pain and embarrassment at witnessing such wide-open emotion.

Danny offers him a half-smile that doesn’t make him look any happier, which Claude returns as best he can, and then Danny leaves for the showers and Claude, feeling inexplicably shaken, leaves the room.

He takes the long route to the exit to avoid the visitor’s locker room and he’s nearly out when he sees them, half-hidden in the dim lighting of the corridor. Richie has his hands fisted in Carts’s jacket and has him pinned against the wall, the look on his face angry and lost.

Claude’s first instinct is to turn around and find another way out, because there’s something so raw on Richie’s face and Claude doesn’t know how much more he can take today. But something keeps him in place, watching as all the fight drains out of Richie and he slumps, his hand sliding down Carts’s chest to circle around his wrist, toying with the black band there.

“Please,” he says, voice brimming with frustration, then he looks up at Carts. “Just. Please.”

Carts is motionless for a long moment, then he nods and unclasps his wristband, showing Richie the name written there. There’s no shock on Richie’s face as he traces the letters, and when he looks up at Jeff, he’s smiling.

“I knew it, you fucking liar,” he says, and he kisses Carts and wow, Claude should definitely not still be watching.

He backs away quietly, not wanting to tip them off to his presence. He thinks about it all the way home: the look on Carts’s face and the way Richie smiled, not an hour after losing the Stanley Cup.

It’s hard not to want that, and as he crawls into bed, Claude imagines what it would be like, to meet someone and just know, to have their name written indelibly on your skin, proof for all the world to see that you belong.

***

“That’s all your stuff?” Danny asks when he dumps the last box in what is now Claude’s room. Claude shrugs.

“Yeah, haven’t really had enough time to accumulate much,” he says. He supposes his three boxes are kind of pathetic.

“Try having kids,” Danny says with a laugh. “You’ll end up with more shit than you ever wanted.”

He leaves Claude to unpack and get settled and Claude looks around the room that’s his for the next year at least, and feels something anxious inside him settle.

Living with Danny turns out to be the most comfortable Claude has felt since he left home.

It helps that he feels settled on the team, no longer constantly worried about being sent back down. But there’s also something about Danny’s home, about the messiness of three boys and two dogs and the normality that Danny has outside of hockey, that Claude finds comforting.

By the time October rolls around, Claude’s not sure he’ll ever want to leave.

***

It’s technically a pre-season team dinner, but dinner ended five hours ago and most of them have moved on to a bar a few streets over which plays, in Claude’s opinion, terrible music, and charges way too much for drinks. Still, he’s three shots in and perfectly happy to sway in his seat, squished between JVR’s girlfriend and Versteeg who looks, understandably, a little uncomfortable.

“You should drink more,” Claude tells him, and Versteeg snorts.

“You’re telling me,” he says. Claude shoves him out of the booth and stands up after him. “On me,” he says generously. It’s not Versteeg’s fault he has a Cup ring and Claude doesn’t. It probably sucks for him that he doesn’t even play for them any more. Claude can be nice to him.

He makes his way over to the bar and yells for four tequila shots, when a hand trails down his arm.

“Let me get that for you,” the guy next to him says, and Claude squints at him, unable to tell if his smile is nice or sleazy. He’s hot, though, so Claude shrugs and lets the guy pay.

“You come here often?” the guy honest-to-god says as he’s putting away his wallet, and Claude bursts out laughing.

“Really?” he says, and the guy grins at him, wide and crooked.

“Made you laugh, didn’t I?”

Claude glances back over to the table. “I gotta get one of these back to my friend, but I’ll be back,” he says, voice lilting up at the end, almost a question.

“Can’t wait,” the guy says, and then shoves out his hand. “Alex.”

“Claude.”

Versteeg grabs the drink like a lifeline, and Claude’s making his way over to the bar when he catches Danny’s eye.

Alright?, Danny mouths, and Claude nods.

Alex is 28, a lawyer, loves to fish, and has no interest in hockey. Claude hasn’t slept with anyone since he made it up to Philly permanently, and as Alex runs an assessing, appreciative eye over him, he realises how much he’s missed it.

Alex is in the middle of a story about his baseball-obsessed co worker when Claude catches sight of the writing on his wrist, Alexis, in small printed script. He can’t help but snort, and Alex pauses.

“What is it?” he asks, and Claude gestures to his wrist. It’s a little rude to mention it, but Alex clearly isn’t hiding it, and Claude’s had a few drinks.

“Alex and Alexis,” he says, snorting, and Alex sighs the long-suffering sigh of someone who’s had this conversation before. His eyes are warm, though, so Claude doesn’t think he’s offended him.

“I know, I know,” Alex groans. “My sister teases me about it constantly. I feel sorry for the poor girl when we actually meet.”

“Gotta make sure you have some fun before then,” Claude says, and it comes out flirtier than he really intended.

They’ve shifted closer and closer without him really noticing, and now he’s hyper aware that they’re right in each other’s space. He looks down, feeling unexpectedly anxious, and Alex slides a hand down his arm.

“Definitely,” he breathes, leaning in to kiss Claude. It’s probably stupid of him to do this in public; liking guys isn’t as big a deal as it used to be, and he’s not exactly famous, but he’s still inviting trouble. Alex’s mouth feels good though, and Claude presses into it, fingers brushing Alex’s waist.

Alex pulls back and smiles. His hand is still on Claude’s arm, and he traces his fingers along his forearm and tugs lightly at Claude’s wrist.

“Go on then,” he says. “I showed you mine, your turn.”

Claude jerks back automatically. “I’d rather not.”

Alex frowns. “C’mon, it’s not a big deal. You got to hear my embarrassing story.” He pulls at Claude’s wristband again, hard enough to move it, and Claude shoves him away.

Except he pushes harder than he meant to, and Alex staggers into the guy behind him. The guy looks pissed, and Alex does to, simultaneously apologising to the guy behind him and glaring at Claude like he’s a freak.

“Sorry,” Claude says, embarrassed, heart still pounding. “I just - ”

But Alex shoves past him, bumping him with his shoulder as he does. “Freak,” Claude hears as he leaves.

Claude only has about thirty seconds to contemplate how much of a disaster he is before Danny appears at his elbow.

“Everything alright?” he asks. His forehead is wrinkled. It’s his concerned dad face. Claude sighs.

“Yeah,” he says.

“That guy looked pissed,” Danny says mildly.

Claude shrugs, too embarrassed to talk about it, and Danny just nods.

“Ready to go?” he asks, and Claude nods gratefully.

He collapses into bed without taking off his clothes and falls asleep wondering if anything will ever be easy.

***

Danny’s one of the few guys on the team that doesn’t wear a wristband, except on the ice as mandated by the NHLPA. Claude hadn’t noticed at first, too busy keeping his head down and working hard to really absorb any details about his new teammates, but he remembers the first time he caught a glance at Danny’s wrist, about two months in on a night out with the team.

Sylvie was spelled out there, in a rounded script, and Claude couldn’t help but stare.

People get divorced, of course they do, but Claude had only ever seen it between couples who weren’t soulmates, who’d married someone else because they couldn’t find their other half, or their soulmate had died, or anything but this. Soulmates don’t get divorced.

The only explanation he can think of is that they hadn’t been soulmates after all, that they’d somehow married the wrong person, fooled by a name and a passably similar handwriting.

He looked away before Danny caught him staring, and tried to put it out of his mind. It’s none of his business.

***

“Claude,” Danny yells, just as Claude’s walking into the kitchen.

“Jesus, I’m right here.” Danny whips around.

“Oh, sorry, I thought you were upstairs.”

“I figured,” Claude says, rolling his eyes, and Danny jabs him in the side.

“You’re worse than my kids,” Danny says and Claude makes a face, the same one he does every time Danny treats him like one of them.

“Why were you yelling for me, old man?” he asks.

“I’m really sorry, but I was wondering if you could drive Carson to practice? Caelan’s sick and I need to take him to the doctor, and Carson will be grumpy if he has to miss is just because Caelan can’t go.”

“Um, yeah? Carson already asked me. I told him I’d take him on the condition that he cleaned my room for a week.”

“Claude - ”

“I’m kidding, Jesus, Danny. Look,” he says, stepping forward and turning Danny to face him. “I like helping with them.” Danny opens his mouth but Claude keeps going before he can say anything. “Listen to me, Danny. I like it. They’re good kids, they’re fun, I like hanging out with them. I like helping you with them. So stop apologising and let me help.”

It’s been a hard point to get into Danny’s head, that he doesn’t need to do everything on his own and he’s not imposing on Claude when he asks for help. Claude had hung back at first, afraid of overstepping, and then afraid of letting on just how much he enjoyed being part of Danny’s family, but he’d eventually realised it would take nothing less than often, repeated reassurance for Danny to get it.

Danny sighs. “Okay. Okay, I’m sorry. I know you do, it’s just - ”

“I get it, Danny.”

Danny smiles up at him and Claude’s fingers itch to brush his hair off his forehead, and he realises he’s still holding Danny by the shoulders. He steps back and crosses to the fridge, plucking out a bottle of water just for something to do with his hands.

“I’ll probably stay and watch practice, rather than come back and go out again,” he says, his back still to Danny.

“You don’t - ”

Claude turns around and glares at him.

“I mean, that’s a good idea, I think Carson would really enjoy that,” Danny says, with a small smile.

“Better,” Claude says, and retreats to his room to change.

***

It’s not like he doesn’t know his crush on Danny is huge, embarrassing, and futile. Claude has tried to avoid like this, because he knows it will never, ever end well for him. Sometimes he has fantasies of meeting someone similarly unmarked, and maybe managing some kind of happiness between them, but the chances of that happening are too slim for him to really think about.

But he can’t stop thinking about it, when Danny smiles at him across the dinner table or falls asleep on the couch watching CSI:NY or basically every minute that he’s not thinking about hockey.

And it doesn’t help that Danny’s settled in to Claude’s presence, finally, that he’s casual with asking for his help with the boys, or talking about what they’ll all do for dinner, that he’s started treating him with more open affection. It’s nothing over the top, just a pat on the shoulder here, and a nudge with the knee there, but Claude notices every single time.

Coupled with the fact that Claude hasn’t even tried to pick up since that night with Alex, he’s starting to lose it. Jerking off is only satisfying for about ten minutes, and he still feels weird about doing it in Danny’s house.

He goes out alone, finds a low-key looking bar he’s never been to and settles in at the bar with a beer, watching the room. It’s only ten, and it’s not packed yet, but there are enough people around that he should be able to meet someone. He’s a young, successful athlete, it shouldn’t be hard.

Claude wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans and takes another long swig of beer.

The girl who comes up to him is pretty in the kind of way that invites confidence rather than intimidates. She says smiles at him and probably introduces herself, but the music is too loud for Claude to catch her name. He buys her a drink anyway, and they move away from the dancefloor until it’s quiet enough to talk below a shout.

It turns out she’s an exchange student from Hong Kong and a basketball fan - she apologises with a laugh when she says she doesn’t watch hockey. She’s confident and funny in a way that Claude doesn’t know how to be, not with strangers, and when she drags him onto the dancefloor and kisses him under the lights, he follows her lead.

She doesn’t push for more though, and when the song ends they go back to their table and order more drinks.

Esther - he finally worked out her name from one of her stories - takes a long sip of her drink and looks at him closely.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Yeah, of course, why?” he replies, even though, truthfully, he’s been feeling weird all night.

“I dunno, just doesn’t seem like you do this much,” she says, cocking her head.

“Jesus, am I that obvious?” he asks, embarrassed.

“Kind of, yeah.”

“I just needed to…” he trails off, shrugging.

“Get away for a while?” she suggests, and Claude nods.

“Something like that.”

“Well, I’d tell you running from your problems never helps, but sometimes it really, really does,” she tells him and Claude laughs.

She’s good in bed, at least in Claude’s inexperienced opinion. The sex is fun, more fun that it ever was with Kyle of Jenna, and afterwards she makes them scrambled eggs with whole wheat toast and he listens to her complain about her job until she kicks him out, saying she needs to be up early for the gym.

It’s just past two when he gets home. He and Danny have an agreement - he can’t come home drunk or bring anyone back when the boys are there - but the cold air and the long cab ride have sobered him up enough that he feels almost normal by the time he pulls up in front of Danny’s house.

He lets himself in as quietly as he can, and is surprised to see a light on in the kitchen. Danny’s in there, hunched over his laptop on the kitchen bench, squinting at the screen.

“Hey,” Claude says, coming in. “You’re still up?”

“Yeah,” Danny says, shrugging. “Have a good time?”

Claude replies with a shrug of his own, and gets himself a glass of water. He watches Danny close all his programs and shut down his computer.

“Were you waiting up for me?” he asks, feeling a little weird.

“No?” Danny tries. Claude just looks at him. “Okay, yes, I was, but not in a weird dad-type way, I promise. I was just...worried about you.”

“Why?”

Danny stands and gets himself a drink, leaning against the countertop next to Claude. “You’ve been a little quiet lately,” he says. As Claude watches he grabs his left wrist and rubs it. It’s something he does when he’s worried or anxious. “I just wanted to make sure everything’s okay.”

Claude thinks his heart is going to beat out of his chest. He imagines, just for a second, spilling everything to Danny, showing him his wrist, telling him how he feels about him, because Danny is the best, most competent person he knows, and maybe Danny could fix it for him.

It’s scary, though, and he can’t even shape the words in his own head, so he shakes his it instead.

“I’ll be fine,” he says, which isn’t exactly a lie, but it’s not the truth either.

Danny looks at him for a long moment, then reaches over to squeeze his forearm.

“Okay,” he says.

***

Danny’s talking on the phone when Claude walks into the living room, dumping his shopping bags next to the couch and flopping down next to Danny. He can just hear the tinny sound of the person on the other end, but not enough to pick up who it is.

He tunes out the conversation, messing around on his phone, until Danny hangs up and says, “Sylvie.”

“Oh,” Claude says. He pauses. He’s wondered about Danny and his ex-wife so many times in the past few months; they have a friendly relationship, from the little Claude’s seen of it, and there’s no awkwardness or tension between them.

He glances over at Danny and sees him rubbing his wrist, and can’t help but blurt out,

“What happened to you and Sylvie?”

Danny starts and looks over at him, clearly following the line of Claude’s eyes to his wrist where the black print is visible through the gaps between his fingers.

“Fuck, sorry, pretend I didn’t ask,” Claude says. He makes to get up, but Danny grabs him and pulls him back down on the couch.

“It’s okay,” he says, but doesn’t offer any more, and after another moment, Claude asks,

“She’s your soulmate, isn’t she?”

Danny nods. “We met when we were pretty young and it was…” He shakes his head. “It was like everything you’re told it should be. Electricity and passion and all that shit. We knew right away. It was so intense, from the very beginning, and it was amazing. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.” He laughs a little wryly. “We got married, had kids, and we were happy, I guess, for a while. And then we started arguing.”

“Just arguing?” Claude can’t help but ask.

“The arguments themselves weren’t the problem. It was that we came to realise we didn’t actually know each other that well.”

Claude can’t understand that, how you can not know your soulmate, but he doesn’t interrupt.

“It was probably too late,” Danny continues. “We fought more than we didn’t, and when it involved the boys we fought even worse. It took a long time, but eventually we realised we’d be happier apart. And we are,” he adds. “We get along better now than we ever did, I think.”

Nothing he’s saying makes any sense to Claude.

“But you’re soulmates,” he insists. He knows he sounds childish, but he can’t help it.

“I get it, okay, you’re young,” Danny says, and Claude scowls. “But it takes more than a name on each other’s wrists to make something work. It takes more than attraction and passion and connection. A soulbond isn’t an automatic, built-in relationship or guarantee of happiness.”

“But - ”

“I know it’s uncommon for soulmates to split up, but surely you’ve heard of it before?” Danny asks, curious.

Claude thinks back to every conversation he avoided about soulmates, every article he refused to read, every news story he changed the channel on. He shakes his head.

“Typical hockey-playing kid,” Danny says, laughing. “I bet you ignored anything you didn’t think would help you get drafted.”

Claude gives him a weak smile, because it’s not untrue, but there’s so much more to it than that.

“It’s not that easy, Claude. It’s like any relationship, you have to put in work, hard work. But we were so young when we met, and it was so easy at first, that we never did.”

“But aren’t you - doesn’t it make you sad that you’ll never be with your soulmate now?” Claude asks. He hears what Danny’s saying, but he can’t comprehend passing up on the chance to be with your soulmate.

Danny shakes his head. “Maybe at first. But I’m okay now. I have the kids, and Sylvie and I are friends. I have other friends, too. I have you,” he adds, nudging Claude’s knee with his foot, and Claude fights down a blush. “People put too much stock in soulmates.”

It’s too much for Claude to process yet.

“Remember that when you meet yours,” Danny adds, gesturing to Claude’s black wristband. He’s never mentioned it before, not once has he asked Claude about whose name is written on his skin.

Claude nods and mumbles something about being tired, and escapes to his room.

He doesn’t fall asleep for a long time.

***

After practice the next day, he goes up to his room and closes the door and starts poking around online. There’s a lot of shit to wade through, but he finds what he’s looking for in amongst it. Stories of people who aren’t soul-bonded but otherwise...normal, really. With happy lives, no social dysfunction, none of the awful, debilitating behavioral problems Claude has lived in fear of for so long.

The most interesting article is from a popular science journal, and although a lot of it is far too technical for him to follow, but the final paragraphs catch his eye.

Science seems strangely unwilling to touch the subject of soul bonds. While there has been some research done into the nature and possible cause of so-called wrist bonding, it has so far eluded any attempts to properly quantify and explain it.

On a topic like this, anecdotal evidence and popular stories will always hold sway. And yet despite the generally held belief that a soul bond is necessary to a full, happy, functional life, there is no evidence to support the idea that those rare people without them are inherently dysfunctional. Just as a small proportion of the population is left-handed, so a small (albeit much smaller) proportion are without a name on their wrist.

There is still a huge amount of work to be done in this field before we can ever hope to understand the science behind wrist-bonds. Until then, perhaps we would do well to withhold judgement on people unfortunate enough to be born without one.

Claude bookmarks the page.

***

He can’t tell if something changes after that, or if it’s only his perception of things that does. He watches Danny a little more closely, and realizes that Danny really is happy. Not perfectly so, no one is, but there’s a hum of satisfaction to his life that Claude longs for. If Danny can be happy without his soulmate, why can’t Claude?

It settles under his skin after a while, the idea of it, and for the first time since his mom gave him a black wristband, he thinks maybe he has a chance to be just as happy as everyone else.

It doesn’t help him get over Danny, though.

It makes it worse, in fact, makes it easier to pretend that the domestic life they’re role playing is actually real. He does feel like a second parent sometimes, and he loves it. He loves taking the boys out for ice cream and helping with homework. He loves the grateful looks Danny gives him when he herds them outside for street hockey and gives Danny a few hours to do nothing in. He loves going shopping with Danny and arguing over breakfast cereal and sofa cushions.

Claude wouldn’t give it up for anything, so he tries to squash his feelings into a tiny corner of his mind.

It doesn’t really work.

***

Non-gameday Saturdays are always hectic in the Briere house. There’s practice and homework and usually friends and movies and sleepovers to navigate. Claude usually lends a hand wherever it’s needed, but he has a charity event all day, and he grins at the dirty look Danny shoots him when he slips out of the kitchen at 8:30.

He has dinner with Hartsy afterwards, and by the time he gets back it’s nearly ten pm. The house is surprisingly dark and quiet, and he’s about to yell for Danny as he enters when he realises he may be asleep.

He gets himself a drink in the kitchen and is about to head up to his room when Danny appears in the doorway, yawning. He’s wearing pajama pants and no shirt and that’s not even close to fair.

“Hey, you’re back,” Danny says, rubbing his eyes. “How was it? The boys are all out, and I just crashed.” He frowns. “This is all your fault.”

“I did nothing!” Claude protests, trying not to think about how much he wants to touch any part of the miles of skin Danny has on display.

“That’s the problem,” Danny says, but his lips are quirked up at the sides. “I guess I already forgot what it was like doing all this alone,” he adds. The look he’s giving Claude is warm and tinged with something that makes Claude’s stomach swoop. He takes a step forward.

“Sorry for bailing,” he says. Danny waves his hand.

“Nah, I was kidding. I know you have other commitments,” he says with a smile and Claude wants to kiss it off his face.

Claude wants to say that Danny can have anything he wants from him, he can have all the commitment in the world. He settles for patting Danny on the shoulder a little awkwardly.

“You know I like doing stuff for them,” he says. “For you,” he adds.

Danny smiles up at him and somehow they’ve ended up standing closer together than Claude intended. And he’s still touching Danny’s shoulder.

“I know,” Danny replies. “And I like how much you like it.”

Claude thinks, maybe. Maybe he can find the courage to close the final foot between them and kiss Danny, maybe he can put it all on the line.

And then Danny yawns, huge and loud, and the tension snaps.

“Shit, sorry, I really am exhausted,” Danny says.

“Go back to bed,” Claude says, shoving him gently towards the stairs. His pulse is racing and he can’t tell if he’s feeling disappointment or relief. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight,” Danny mumbles, giving Claude one last smile.

“‘Night,” Claude returns, unable to keep the answering one off his face.

***

Claude finds it hard not to watch Carts and Richie whenever they all go out. They’re not all that different in public to how they used to be, and Claude supposes that if you didn’t know what to look for, you could be fooled by the act.

But he does know what to look for, and he catches their fingers brushing against each others when Richie hands Carts a glass, he sees Richie resting his hand on Carts’ leg under the table when they’re all squashed into a booth.

They’re being particularly obvious tonight, Claude thinks, watching them from his seat at the table. Carts is leaning on the bar, trying to get the bartender’s attention, and Richie is all but pressed up against him, mouth about an inch away from Carts’ ear. His hand is resting on the small of Carts’ back and Claude supposes it could look like they’re just trying to have a conversation in a noisy bar.

Danny nudges him with his knee and Claude looks away, embarrassed to be caught staring.

“Not as subtle as they think they are, are they?” Danny asks, looking amused.

“You know about them?” Claude asks, surprised. Danny nods.

“Richie told me at the start of the season,” he says.

“I, uh, came across them in a hallway,” Claude says, which makes Danny laugh. He slings his arm around the back of Claude’s chair.

“Same thing happened to me just last week,” he says, leaning in so Claude can hear him better. “They were in the maintenance closet near the lounge. Idiots,” he adds.

They both watch Carts and Richie for a moment and Claude is acutely aware of how close Danny’s sitting.

“Do you ever miss it?” he asks. “Having someone, like that.” He nods towards the pair at the bar.

Danny hums. “Sometimes,” he says. “But I haven’t given up on finding it again.”

There’s a warmth in his voice that makes Claude want to squirm in his seat. He risks a quick glance over at Danny, who’s smiling at him, and Claude longs to say something, whatever the perfect combination of words is to keep this moment intact.

So of course Carts chooses that moment to sit down next to him, slinging his arm around Claude’s shoulders and shoving a glass into his hand.

“Drink up,” he says, grinning. His mouth is a little swollen and red and Claude sighs.

“You’re going to die of liver failure,” he tells Carts, sipping the beer he’s been handed and setting it down on the table.

“It’s a losing battle,” Danny tells him, clapping him on the knee. “Don’t waste your energy.”

It doesn’t take long until Richie drifts over to them, sitting next to Carts. Claude watches them the rest of his evening and doesn’t realise til Danny stands up to leave that his hand had been resting on Claude’s knee the whole time.

***

“Don’t worry about it, I got ‘em,” Claude says, sweeping the dishes off the table before Danny can protest. It’s just the two of them tonight, the boys at Sylvie’s for the weekend. Danny’s been looking exhausted all week, and although he follows Claude into the kitchen and watches as he starts to stack the dishwasher, he doesn’t offer to help.

He’s watching Claude, though, and it makes Claude’s skin prickle, makes him almost certain that every glance he’s caught means what he wants it to.

When he’s done, he kicks the dishwasher closed and turns to Danny to ask if he wants a drink, but the look on Danny’s face absolutely floors him. He’s looking at Claude with honest, open, overwhelming affection, and Claude is tired of wondering.

He steps closer, right up into Danny’s space, a thrill going through him when Danny doesn’t back away, just tilts his head back to look him in the eye. Claude reaches out without meaning to, brushing his thumb against Danny’s jaw. Danny’s eyes fall shut, his breath quickens, and Claude’s lost.

Claude kisses him, slowly and hesitantly, and it takes a heart-stopping moment for Danny to respond, twisting his fingers in Claude’s shirt and holding him closer. He opens his mouth under Claude’s and then they’re kissing properly until Claude ruins it because he can’t help but grin.

Danny huffs, and pulls him back in, and they make out lazily until Claude’s pressing Danny back against the kitchen bench and Danny breaks off to say,

“Upstairs.”

Claude tugs Danny up the stairs and into his own bedroom, and promptly trips on over a pair of shoes lying in the entranceway. Danny laughs at him.

“Less laughing, more undressing,” Claude says, springing back to his feet, and Danny obliges, stripping off his shirt before tackling Claude to the bed, as if he can’t wait another moment to get his hands on him.

It feels incredible, Danny stretched out on top of him, his fingers stroking through Claude’s hair as he kisses him. The smooth expanse of his back feels perfect under Claude’s hands, and he can’t keep them still, roaming from Danny’s waist to his shoulders to the dip of his back, greedy to feel everything.

Danny slides his hand along Claude’s arm, catching his wrist and pressing it into the bed. Claude can feel his wristband digging into his skin, and Danny pulls back.

“You sure?” he asks quietly, studying Claude’s face, and there’s something in his tone that Claude can’t quite understand.

But whatever else, he’s sure about this, about them, so he nods and pulls Danny down into another kiss.

“Okay,” Danny says, huffing a laugh against Claude’s lips. “Take off your pants.”

“Romantic,” Claude says, but he rolls Danny off him and shucks his clothes as quickly as possible. Any trepidation he might have felt dissipates under the dark-eyed, appreciative look Danny gives him.

He’s not quite prepared for it when Danny scoots to the edge of the bed and pulls him in by the hips, mouthing at Claude’s half-hard dick. He hadn’t thought to ask if Danny’s been with a guy before, but there’s no hesitation to the way he sucks Claude down, working him fully hard in an embarrassingly short amount of time.

“Fuck,” Claude stutters out, biting his lip around the sound. His hands find Danny’s shoulders and it’s a fight not to thrust, to let Danny work him how he wants him. “Jesus Christ, how are you so good at that.”

Danny pulls off and gives him a smirk and yeah, he’s definitely been holding out on Claude. He has to kiss that smile, though, so he bends to meet Danny’s mouth, pushing until Danny’s flat on his back, Claude’s tongue in his mouth, his fingers digging into Claude’s shoulders.

He tries to wrestle Danny’s pants off one-handed, with limited success, until Danny bats his hands away and strips them off himself. He moves back so he’s lying properly on the bed, and spreads his knees in an undeniable invitation. Claude falls between them eagerly, rubbing up against Danny shamelessly, until Danny pulls him back down into a kiss.

It’s over fairly quickly, which Claude would be embarrassed about if Danny weren’t right behind him. Danny gets a hand between them, and Claude thrusts into his grip hard and fast, mouth attached to Danny’s neck. He doesn’t bother to hold back, and after he comes, he bats Danny’s hand out of the way and strokes him.

Objectively, it’s a little odd, the weight of Danny’s dick in his hand. He’s thought about this so many times that he can’t really connect the fantasy with the reality. Danny seems to be enjoying it, at any rate, his breath coming fast, his hips stuttering, and his face when he comes is kind of stupid and adorable.

Danny is, apparently, lazy as shit once he’s come, because he just smiles at Claude with sleepy eyes and makes no attempt to move. Claude rolls his eyes, kisses him, and goes to the bathroom for a towel.

By the time he’s done, Danny’s half asleep, and rather than think about it any further, Claude slings an arm across his waist and drifts off to sleep.

***

Claude wakes up first the next morning and spends ten anxious minutes lying next to Danny, waiting for him to wake up and wondering what he’s going to say. Except Danny just opens his eyes, mumblings “Morning,” and stumbles out of bed and into the shower.

It’s all the same as usual as they get ready for practice, moving around each other easily, already in the habit of living in each others space. He thinks Danny looks at him more, or maybe that he’s just stopped looking away. But Danny doesn’t look uncomfortable, if anything he looks more at ease than he did yesterday, so Claude keeps his mouth shut and follows his lead.

It’s all the same, right up until Danny takes the tv remote out of Claude’s hand that night and leans in to kiss him, licking into his mouth straight away. Claude flails for a minute, but gets with the program quickly, and ten minutes later they’re in Danny’s bed and Claude’s giving him the best blow job he knows how to give.

When he’s done, Danny’s flushed and panting, arm flung over his eyes as he tries to regain his breath.

“That’s not the first time you’ve done that,” he says accusingly when he can, lifting his arm to stare at Claude.

“Um, no?”

Danny stares a few seconds longer before nodding. “I just wasn’t sure if you - you know, guys - ”

“I do,” he says, and Danny snorts.

“Clearly,” he says drily.

“What about you, Mr. Married-My-Soulmate-At-Twenty?” Claude asks. He’s hard but there’s no urgency to it yet, and he flops down next to Danny, idly stroking his dick.

“Plenty of fun to be had before then,” Danny says with a grin.

“Sucked a lot of dick in juniors, did you?” Claude teases him, rolling over to bite Danny’s earlobe.

“A little,” Danny says with a laugh and a shudder. He pushes Claude back and props himself
over him, taking his dick in his hand and stroking slowly. “Want me to show you what I learned?”

Like Claude could say no to that.

***

They fall into a new, comfortable routine. It’s exactly like their old routine except that on nights when the boys aren’t home, or nights on the road when they’re keyed up, Danny kisses him, sucks him, gets his hands all over Claude.

That’s probably why it takes Claude a while to realise Danny doesn’t really touch him outside the bedroom. Well, or the couch. The point is, Danny doesn’t touch him when it’s not about to lead to sex. It takes Claude a few weeks to really notice, mostly because he’s distracted by all the times Danny does touch him for sex.

But he never kisses Claude as anything but a prelude to getting in his pants, never brushes a hand across the small of his back, never curls into his side on the couch. Claude thinks Danny even touches him less than he did before they started sleeping together. Claude wants these things, and more. Sleeping with Danny has only clarified everything for him, and he knows for sure now that he’s in love with Danny, and that it’s not going away.

When they’re out Danny will try and wingman for him, introducing him to girls in bars, to friends of friends, always with a half-smile an implicit “What do you think?” in his looks. Claude doesn’t know how to ask him to stop without being incredibly obvious about why, and he usually finds himself in awkward conversations for a while before the other person realises he’s clearly not interested and backs off.

“No good?” Danny asks when he meets Claude at the drinks table at the latest charity even they’re attending. He’d shoved a tall, red-headed guy at Claude and introduced him as a friend of his agent and left Claude to attempt to have a polite conversation with a guy who was clearly just as uninterested as he was.

Claude shrugs. “Nothing really there,” he says.

“You talked to him for like ten minutes,” Danny points out. He drops the subject though, and when they get home he strips Claude out of his clothes and gives him a handjob while sucking on his neck, hard enough to feel but light enough to leave no mark.

***

After nearly two months of the most sex he’s ever had with the same person, he goes to Richie about it because, well. Richie’s his captain, and he’s actually good at listening if you catch him at the right time, and Claude’s desperate.

Richie listens to his fumbling explanation that pointedly avoids names and pronouns, and then snorts.

“So you’re definitely in love with...this person,” he asks, the pause too deliberate to leave any doubt in Claude’s mind that Richie knows exactly who he’s talking about.

“Yeah,” Claude sighs.

“And you’re definitely not hi - their soulmate.”

“Nope.”

“And you think he just wants sex, that he’s not interested in actually, you know, holding your hand and having your babies.”

“Ugh,” Claude says. “Yeah,” he adds. “That’s pretty much it.”

“You know what I’m going to tell you, don’t you?”

“To talk to him?”

Richie slaps him round the head.

“Talk to him. The longer you put it off the worse it’ll be. Staying with him if he doesn’t want more is only going to make things worse for yourself in the long run. Don’t be an idiot.”

“You’re the worst at advice,” Claude complains, even though he knows Richie’s right.

“For what it’s worth,” Richie adds, “I don’t think it matters that you’re not soulmates. You guys are just...right. Regardless.”

Claude touches his wrist protector automatically, biting his lip. He thinks so too, but it feels better to hear it from someone else.

“Thanks,” he says.

***

He spends all afternoon trying to figure out what to say, how to tell Danny how he feels without turning into a stuttering wreck.

Danny comes home when he’s still thinking, flopping down on the couch next to him and watching as Claude plays Call of Duty. Claude’s lining up a perfect headshot when Danny speaks.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

Claude starts at the sound of Danny’s voice and turns to look at him. He looks distressed, his forehead pinched and a hand running agitatedly through his hair. Claude immediately pauses the game and tosses the controller onto the couch.

He doesn’t bother to pretend he doesn’t know what Danny’s talking about.

“Okay,” he says, biting his lip. Apparently he doesn’t need to figure out what to say because Danny would never want to hear it. Neither of them speak for a moment before Claude finally asks, “Why?”

Danny frowns.

“I just think it’s better if we don’t do this any more,” he says carefully. It’s not a reason at all, and Claude just wishes Danny would tell him straight up that he knows Claude’s nursing a serious crush and that it’s time to put him out of his misery.

“That’s not a reason,” he says, trying and failing not to sound frustrated. Danny’s frown deepens.

“Don’t be a dick,” he says. “This is hard enough already.”

Claude stares. “If it’s so hard, why are you doing it?”

“Can we just drop it, Claude?”

“No we can’t,” Claude says, annoyed. “You started this. Come on, you must have some explanation for just - ”

“What do you want to hear?” Danny snaps. He stands up and he’s actually pacing. He’s such a dork and Claude loves him so much. “You want me to say it?”

“Say what?” Claude asks, truly bewildered now.

“That I’m in love with you.” Danny says it defiantly, crossing his arms and glaring at Claude.

Claude stares at him. “What?”

“I’m in love with you,” Danny repeats. “I didn’t mean to be, but I can’t help it now. And if we keep doing this, it’s going to kill me when you leave me because you’ve met your soulmate.”

“I thought you said soulmates didn’t matter!” Claude practically yells. He’s dizzy with the knowledge that Danny loves him, and it makes everything about this conversation is too hard to keep up with.

“Of course they matter,” Danny snaps. “Just because I think people place way too much stock in them doesn’t mean everybody feels the same way.” Danny finally sits down again, way on the other end of the couch. But he’s tilted towards Claude, and his voice softens. “I know how much it matters to you, Claude. I’ve seen you playing with your bracelet. The one time we talked about it, you seemed almost...reverent. And you won’t tell anyone what’s on your wrist, it’s clearly extremely important to you.” Danny sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. “I won’t get in the way of that, I promise, but I need us to go back to how we were, for my own sake.”

He’s not looking at Claude, and a ragged mixture of relief and frustration and amazement bubbles up inside Claude - Danny loves him, he really does, and Claude can solve this, could have avoided it all together if he’d been brave enough to show Danny before now.

He scoots down the sofa until he’s sitting next to Danny, right up in his space.

“I love you,” he says clearly, and shakes his head when Danny opens his mouth to object. “I do. It doesn’t matter what’s on my wrist. You’re the one who told me that. No one had ever said that to me before, and you have no idea how much it meant to me.”

“But - ” Danny starts, but he trails off, skimming his fingers down Claude’s arm to his wristband.

“Go on, take it off,” Claude says, and Danny slides a finger around the band, rubbing over the black band but not moving. It’s almost like he’s afraid. Claude huffs with impatience and does it himself, ripping off the bracelet and showing his wrist to Danny.

“See?” he says, as Danny traces the blank skin of his wrist, looking confused. “It doesn’t matter.” A look of comprehension dawns on Danny’s face. “I never thought I’d be able to have something like this,” he says, and he leans in to press his forehead against Danny’s. “You told me otherwise.”

Danny’s hand closes around his wrist as he closes the distance between their lips, kissing Claude slowly and softly.

“We’re idiots,” he says when he pulls back, and Claude laughs.

“Speak for yourself.”

“You could have told me earlier!”

“I know,” Claude says. “When I finally worked out that I could be okay like this,” he brandishes his wrist, “it’s like I did everything I could to block out anything that would tell me otherwise. I didn’t want to think about it.”

Danny frowns.

“I’m sorry you’ve had to put up with so much bullshit,” he says. His fingers are still stroking the skin of Claude’s wrist. “I’m sorry you ever had to think you’re not okay the way you are.”

Claude shrugs. It doesn’t seem to matter any more. “It’s worked out okay so far,” he says, and kisses the delighted laughter out of Danny’s mouth.