The cab pulls up to the designated rendezvous and lets Chris off. He pays the driver, then peers at the numbers on each door, realising after a couple of minutes that he doesn't actually know if Nick's already here and if so, what room he's in.
He finds his cell phone and, with fingers that feel clumsy and thick from alcohol consumption, he manages to scroll through his contacts until he finds Nick.
"I'm here," he says when Nick answers. "I'm drunk and I'm in the lobby. Come get me."
He hangs up the phone before Nick can reply and flops down onto the floor, next to a potted plant.
By the time Nick gets there, Chris is leaning against the plant to try and get the room to stop spinning, his face half in the leaves.
Nick looks faintly worried, but he gives Chris a hand up, ready to help him walk to his room. On the way by the desk, Chris points to the clerk and says, "You're awesome."
The clerk seems awfully glad that someone has shown up to claim him.
Chris falls against Nick's shoulder, legs going all rubbery and refusing to hold him up, which means that Nick is pulled off-balance, and they both almost topple to the floor.
Nick lugs Chris back up, stabilising them both, and jams the keycard into the door.
He dumps Chris on the bed when they get inside, and then he stands in front of the door, panting. Chris wonders blearily why he's so out-of-breath, since Nick plays sometimes twenty-seven minutes a night without appearing as tired as he does now.
"I love you," Nick says, voice hoarse, all traces of his usual pride gone. He's got to be almost as drunk as Chris if he's admitting this now, when he's already gotten the verbal smackdown from Chris twice. There can be no other explanation for why he would so willingly lay himself out on a platter like this.
"'m love you too," Chris slurs, wondering why his words sound like they're being spoken underwater. He holds his arms out, and Nick steps close, putting one knee on the bed, then the other, and straddling Chris's thighs.
"I need you so bad," Nick whispers. "My life hasn't been the same since you walked away."
"You broke up wi' me," Chris mutters. "'s you're own fault."
"I know." Nick is still somehow more coherent than Chris, even if his defences are lowered. Chris sniggers; Nick looks faintly confused.
"Defence," Chris says on a giggle. The defenceman's defences are down, he tries to say, but the giggles handcuff his throat and all he can do is feel his face go red as he stares at Nick.
"I broke up with Annika too," Nick says, this time his syllables blurring together a little. "I thought I had something with her, until I didn't have you and I realised that it was you that kept me from seeing how much I didn't want her any more."
Chris has no idea how Nick can bust out the big speeches right now, but he tries to shrug, which doesn't work very well while lying down. He closes one eye, and he licks his lips, wondering when Nick will get past the talking and get down to just kissing him already.
Nick still seems to know how Chris thinks. It doesn't seem like Chris is the instrument he's forgotten how to play, not like how Nick now feels like a foreign language he's forgotten how to speak.
Nick puts one hand on either side of Chris's skull and slowly lowers his head. The kiss is so soft it makes an ache throb in Chris's heart. He hadn't known—just hadn't realised how much he missed Nick's kisses, or how much he still desired them, until now, with Nick's lips ghosting along his, faint pressure. Not pushing. Not yet.
Chris lifts one hand and threads it through Nick's hair. He winds the short strands around his fingers as best he can and tugs on Nick until he deepens the kiss just slightly, opening his mouth enough that their mouths slide together, their spit mixing, even though Nick hasn't even used his tongue on him yet.
Chris wants more, he wants Nick to get down to it already, but he opens his eyes briefly and Nick's hair catches the light from the streetlamps in the parking lot, and it shines for just a second the same shade as Helm's hair.
And his high evaporates. He falls as if from a great distance, feeling like he's going to die the whole way down to the bottom of the hole he's dug for himself since Helm broke up with him.
He has a moment of clarity: this won't make Helm want me back and he tears his lips away from Nick's, gasping, tears running into his ears.
Nick touches his face. "Why are you crying?" he asks gently, and Nick sounds so wonderful, so soothing, like the man he's loved for essentially forever that Chris wants to turn the clock back, wants to recapture what they had before it could vanish on him, but he knows, even as he tries to gulp down sobs, that it's impossible.
"It's too late," he says, fluid clogging his voice, feeling utterly wretched. "I do love you. I do—and I think I always will. But that part of my life—Nick, that part of my life is over."
He's surprisingly coherent all of a sudden, and he can hear Nick's reaction, feel it in the way Nick's hands leave his face, the way the mattress is a lot lighter as Nick stands up.
"I gave up everything for you," Nick whispers. "Everything."
"But you did it too late," Chris whimpers. "When I needed you, you weren't there. Where were you when I needed you?"
"My kids, my wife, they've gone back to Sweden," Nick says quietly, sounding very drunk and very depressed. "It's only a matter of time before the press finds out and wants to know what happened."
"There's nothing I can do for you," Chris says honestly. His mind is still muzzy, but it's clearing as he cries, as he listens to Nick pour out his soul onto a heart that is filled with something else now—someone else, no longer any room for Nick, not like there was.
"Please don't leave me again," Nick begs softly. It must be taking everything he has to debase himself like this, but Chris is feeling stronger every moment, knowing that what he really wants—who he really wants—isn't here right now.
Nick puts his hands on the bed, and Chris thinks maybe he's going to try and convince him by plying him with more tempting kisses, but instead Nick lifts the hem of his shirt.
Chris is suddenly frightened that Nick's beyond listening to him, and he reaches up to push at Nick's chest, when Nick drops his shirt and recoils, face flushed and anger clamping down on his features.
"You broke up with Helm," he says accusingly. His eyes are shuttered now, cold. He doesn't wear heartbreak very well at all, Chris thinks distantly.
"You made sure of that," Chris spits. He's angry now too. He sits up, too fast, and his head whirls and the contents of his stomach do a see-saw. He glares at Nick for effect, trying to get his point across so he won't look as pathetic as he is when he stumbles from the bed and practically crawls into the bathroom.
Nick follows to the doorway, watching him as he throws up, refusing to step any closer. Nick doesn't do what he might have once done: rub his back, place a cool cloth against the back of his neck.
"You slept with someone else," Nick accuses, almost tenderly. "Why would you come here? Why, Ozzie?"
Chris coughs and dry heaves and wipes a hand across his eyes, the act of emptying the contents of his stomach making his head pound and his abs ache. "You asked me to," he says, as if it explains everything.
"But..." Nick slides down until he's sitting on the floor, knees on the tile, legs splayed out on either side of his thighs. "Why would you do that. Didn't you know it would break—" and Nick pauses, then his head drops between his shoulders. It's as if he's finally reached his threshold for sharing his emotions, especially when they're so obviously unwanted, undesired, and unrequited.
"I'll call you a cab," Nick says, and he hauls himself to his feet and leaves Chris to his misery. And oh, his misery is epic indeed. It's thick and strangling like a wool blanket on a hot summer night.
He's fucking this all up. He's cheated on Helm essentially twice now, and all he's got to show for it is a come-stain on his shirt and a captain who may never, ever, look at him again.
And whether he wants Nick in his bed any more, he still treasures that friendship, even with all that Nick's done to put dents in the shine of the relationship they once shared.
Chris staggers to his own feet and stumbles back to the other room, picking through his bag, and brushing his teeth while he waits for the cab. Nick spends the entire time standing at the window, gazing out, refusing to acknowledge Chris's presence.
When the cab arrives, Chris slinks away, thinking of Helm and the baby and wondering just how Helm's dealing with taking care of an infant all alone.
He feels guilty, suddenly, for a multitude of reasons, and not one of them is the fact that he's just gone on a drunken bender and slept with what feels like half the team.
Chris gives directions to the cabbie so absently that he doesn't even realise he's running back to Drapes's—like a little girl who's just had a bad date fleeing to daddy—until the cab stops in front of his best friend's house.
Well, he figures, this is probably just as good a place as any, considering he has no place to stay. He really needs to learn to find an apartment—but he'd finally thought maybe he wouldn't need to.
The yoke from this rubber chicken's on him, he supposes.
He pays the driver and gets out, standing on the walkway for a few moments screwing up his courage. It's the middle of the night, Drapes is probably asleep, he's going to wake him up just like he did the night Jenna threw him out. Why didn't he stay at Howie's?
He can't really remember, just that one minute they'd been playing video games and watching T.V., and the next, his dick had been in Jimmy's ass—it's like the punchline to a bad joke. Chris shakes his head.
He gives his feet a stern lecture until they start carrying him up the steps, and he raises his hand to knock when the door opens a sliver and Drapes eases out.
"Howie called," he says in a low hiss. "And Nick. Seems like you're making everyone a little crazy tonight, Oz. You wanna explain that?"
"I think 'm too drunk," Chris mumbles, his lips feeling kind of numb. Probably the best way to get some feeling back into them would be to exercise them a little.
"I have to say, after Nick's phone call, I was beginning to worry myself. But—" Drapes casts a glance over his shoulder at the closed door. "You might want to go back to Jimmy's," he says finally.
"I can't," Chris says. This numb feeling in his lips is getting awfully annoying. "I might've, um..."
"Yes," Drapes says with a quirk of one eyebrow. "I know." He puts his hand on Chris's shoulder and tries to hold his gaze, even though Chris is seeing double and can barely keep his eyes open enough to focus on his best friend.
"I wasn't very good tonight," Chris mutters, again like the girl who needs a scolding from her daddy. Like he's remembering what it was like to be Helm's age—and honestly, he's acting like it, which isn't very well done of someone his age.
And someone who, up until this morning, had been responsible for an infant. Damn, he's a fucking fuck-up. Heh, fucking fuck-up, that's kind of funny, he thinks, inadvertently letting out a snigger.
Drapes rolls his eyes. "I mean it, Oz, you need to find—"
"I love you," he slurs, remembering everything Drapes has done for him over the last year and a half. And before, if he wants to be honest about the whole situation.
"I know you do," Drapes says. "But, I'm going to call you a cab, all right?" Drapes is reaching into his pocket—Chris finds a little bit of lucidity to wonder why Drapes is dressed in jeans at this hour—but Chris grabs a fistful of his shirt, yanking on Drapes to keep his balance, and plasters his lips to Drapes's.
The numb feeling recedes a little, his lips tingling now, and he's all set to really get down to business when two things happen simultaneously: Drapes sighs in his throat but pulls away from him, and the door opens to reveal Helm in a golden rectangle of light from indoors.
If Chris were less blitzed, he might have had the forethought to be surprised. And also the decency to be ashamed of himself. But he's so drunk that he gets about as far as, huh, Helm's at Drapes's house, before he slumps against Drapes, his eyes closing, his stomach taking a flying leap off the high bars.
His lips are going numb again and he rubs them against the fabric of Drapes's shirt, trying to get some feeling back into them. Maybe Helm is fucking Drapes, his woozy mind supplies. He wants to get his face out of Drapes's chest and be indignant, demand what Helm is doing here, at his best friend's house—especially when he has a house of his own, a place to stay, unlike Chris!—but he's sort of starting to feel like he might pass out.
Blacking out might be the cherry on the top of this evening, he thinks. It would be the crown on—he can't think of another good analogy. But blacking out might be just the thing he needs, so he can block out what he's done so recklessly, so stupidly, tonight.
Chris is starting to slide down Drapes's front, and his friend grips both biceps and holds him up. From somewhere within the house, Chris hears Carey's familiar cry, rising in volume and fretful.
"I can't believe this," Helm says, and his voice, so familiar and beloved, vibrates through Chris's skull, rousing him a little from his stupor. "You'd think," Helm says, "that he would at least not get wasted every time something happens he doesn't like."
"Helmer," Drapes says evenly, "your son is crying."
Chris wraps his arms around Drapes's waist to help keep his balance. Helm huffs.
"What am I supposed to do now?" he says angrily. "I can't stay here if he's here. And I can't exactly go home, either."
"Helmer, go feed your son, or change him. We can work this out after you've done that."
The door slams, and Drapes sighs again. "You're a mess, Oz," he tells him. "You've gone and fucked things up six ways to Sunday—I don't know if he'll forgive you this time. Come on, I don't suppose I can inflict you on anyone else."
"Is Helmer ang—" Chris stumbles over the word. "'s he mad?"
"Oz, he was angry when he got here hours ago. I'm pretty sure he passed the roadsign for mad a few miles back and is well into the territory of furious, en route to livid. Don't you think you could've kept from getting wasted?"
"'s my coping method," Chris defends himself weakly. He's feeling more and more sick by the moment, and really, unconsciousness is beckoning him. It kind of looks like a really young, really hot Nick Lidström. Damn, even his subconscious still thinks he should've stayed with Nick.
"Oh for fuck's sake," Drapes says, "You're way too far gone to listen to reason. Come on." He pulls at Chris, helping him into the house, dumping him on the couch. "Don't move."
Chris doesn't think he can, even if he wanted to. He wonders if Drapes means he can't lie down, though. Is that too much moving? He's not sure, but he can't hold himself upright any more, so he allows his body to list to the side until his hot cheek is pressed against the cool fabric of the couch—which grows warm under his face entirely too quickly for his liking.
"I'm an idiot," he mumbles to no-one in particular. "And fuck, but I think—" his eyes close. He thinks he hears footsteps coming towards him, but he can't make his eyelids obey him any longer. He snuffles into the couch cushion and lets himself just slide right off into passing out.
Coffee is on the end table when he returns to the land of the living the following morning, there's a rock band on tour in his brain, and the Sahara Desert has taken up residence in his mouth. And Helm, he realises after he tries to get the grit out of his eyes, is gone.
He doesn't know how he knows, just that he can't sense his boyfriend in Drapes's house—and he's pretty sure he's still at Drapes's house, otherwise he's probably in the land of Oz. He would laugh at his own joke, but he's afraid he might throw up at the slightest sound.
The coffee smells good, even considering his tummy, but he's not sure he can move.
"Good, you're awake," says a feminine voice. Entirely too cheerful, considering. "And if you feel like hell, well, then you should," she continues. Julie, Chris thinks, as he manages to recognise her voice.
"Helm?" he says through his dry-as-dust throat. Julie pats his shoulder and he realises he's still in the same position he passed out in, which isn't conducive to being comfortable now. He's aching all over, and he has no idea how he'll limber himself up again when he needs to.
"He's gone," Julie tells him gently. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but as soon as he could he got on a plane to Manitoba to see his parents."
"And Carey?" Chris asks, feeling the pain radiate through him, sure he already knows the answer.
"Helm took the baby with him," she says softly. "I'm really sorry."
"I made such a mess out of things," Chris mumbles miserably. "I slept with Howie, and I fucked with Nick's head, and I kissed—" he realises he's rambling and that he's almost told Julie that he kissed her husband again. He's not sure how she might take that information now.
"I know," she says. "It's a terrible situation, but the only way out of it is through it, Chris."
He presses the heels of his palms into his eye sockets, trying to will the pain in his head to subside.
"I'll bring you some aspirin to go with your coffee," Julie says. "And please, don't throw up on my floor again like you did the last time you were this drunk and stayed over."
"Bring me a bucket," Chris suggests wryly, and Julie laughs.
"I'm impressed that you've retained your sense of humour throughout all of this."
"It's either laugh," Chris tells her, "or cry until I die."
"Then I guess laughing is best, definitely," she says, standing, her footfalls retreating into the kitchen.
Chris moans pitifully and tries not to think about how much he's screwed everything up. And then there's a warm, solid hand on his arm, Drapes saying,
"You should have seen Helm, Oz. He was awfully broken up when he left this morning."
"Are you trying to make me feel even more guilty?" Chris asks. "I already feel like the scum that scum considers the scum of the universe."
"You shouldn't have kissed me again, Oz," Drapes points out. "And Helm was very upset about having to stay here with you. Ozzie, listen, I didn't tell you that to make you feel guilty. I told you that because you needed to know how much Helm loves you."
"He broke up with me," Chris whines. "I don't think he loves me that much if—"
"Sometimes, and you ought to remember this, Oz, people do stupid, rash things. Helm is young and impulsive and he heard everything you said to Nick and thought you were saying something completely different than you were. It's a misunderstanding, and when Helm comes back from visiting his mother, you need to sit down and have an adult conversation about this."
"I don't think Helm ever wants to see me again," Chris says pathetically.
"Maybe it looks that way right now—and maybe Helm even thinks that right now—but things change. And, Oz, you need to be honest with him this time. Tell him what you did. I can't divulge the particulars, because they were said to me in confidence, but you weren't the only one who made mistakes. Helm has no right to judge."
Chris throws one hand over his eyes and gives the most theatrical moan he can manage. "Helm will never forgive me."
Drapes sighs, pats Chris on the knee, and starts to say something, but he doesn't get very far before the phone rings. He pokes Chris in the thigh, hard. "If this is Howie, again, I swear I am going to knock you silly. You either lost your phone or haven't been answering it, but he's been calling all morning."
As if on cue, Julie walks into the kitchen doorway, a fact Chris realises when he rolls a little onto his side and cracks open an eye a slit.
"It's Jimmy," she says. "Please, Chris, put the poor kid out of his misery."
"I don't wanna do this," Chris says, whining again. Drapes gives him an evil look and Chris holds out his hand for the phone.
"Ozzie?" Howie says, sounding so unsure of himself that Chris's heart cracks a little. He behaved really badly last night, that's for sure. He's not even certain that the horrific hangover he has is punishment enough.
"Yeah," he says, barely able to squeeze the word through his throat.
"What did I do wrong?" Howie asks, sounding miserable. "Was I very bad? Did I screw up somehow? Please, Oz, tell me so I can get better—like you tell me stuff for on the ice."
Chris closes his eyes again, this time in shame. The crack in his heart widens. "You didn't," he says slowly, quietly. "It was all on me, Howie; I should not have run off, but... you know what, I don't have any excuses. You were fine."
"I'd leave Rachel for you," Howie says desperately. "Just give me another chance."
Chris feels the crack, like a fault line in the earth shaking and breaking apart, separating pieces of his heart. He's been doing this to everyone lately, apparently.
"Please," Chris mumbles. "Please don't say that; I can't be with you. I can't give you another chance, Howie, because I should never have done to you what I did. Should never have given you the impression there was a chance."
"But—" Jimmy swallows wetly and snuffles so loud Chris winces. He must have been crying all morning waiting for Chris to talk to him. He wonders what Howie's wife thinks of that, whether she's confused or hurt. "I need you. I've been in love with you forever!"
Chris takes the phone away from his ear and stares at it as if he can see Howie's face by doing so. Did Rachel hear him say that? How many more relationships can he destroy with his reckless behaviour? And then places the phone against his ear again and whispers,
"I may have screwed up so badly, Howie, and I know I've done something awful to you, but there's no future for us, not even if it doesn't work out with Helm. I was much too drunk to be more discriminating in what I was doing."
There's a long, aching silence. It's painful to listen to, only the sound of Jimmy's harsh, slightly panicky breathing on the other end of the line.
Finally, Howie says, "I knew I did it wrong." Then the line goes dead, and Chris feels a tear slip down his own cheek.
He wonders if Nick is too proud to call him today, whether Nick is angry still, or whether he's still in love with Chris enough to just keep on trying.
He keeps rebuffing Nick's advances now, but he has a horrible, self-worth lowering feeling that if Helm never comes back, he's going to wind up begging Nick to take him back, after all.
"I think I broke everything with Howie," he says to Drapes. Before Drapes can reply, the phone rings again.
"Oh please," Drapes says, eyes going skyward. "Don't be Howie calling back again."
Chris answers it, but it's not Howie. It's Jenna.
"Chris," she says, and every time he hears her voice now, his heart soars, then crashes back to earth when he remembers she's not his best friend any more. That he promised to love her forever, and now that's not true any more. He's just broken everything all around him.
He'd so be better off just crawling into a muck-filled hole and staying there.
"I have..." she sucks in a fortifying breath and continues, "I'm having some slight complications with the baby, and I need to stay overnight in the hospital. Can you pick up the girls from school and watch them till tomorrow?"
She sounds anxious, and Chris doesn't know if it's because of the complications—he's worried, himself, so he couldn't blame her—or if she's afraid that Chris won't want to take care of his girls for the night. He's probably the worst company right now, and he's probably the last person she should ask... but he wants to so badly: to see them, to tuck them in... he's agreeing before he even thinks about the fact that he's still hungover.
"I have practise," he tells her, "but I should be able to get them at the end of the school day. I can tell Babs that it's important, and besides, practise doesn't usually run that long." He's struggling to sound coherent, and not like it feels like his head is about to burst apart and spray brain matter everywhere.
But, Jenna knows him so well—some things never change; she says, a tinge of suspicion in her tone, "Chris? Are you drunk?"
"No, not any more," he says truthfully. "Though last night was certainly memorable." He can't even add, or not, because he didn't get lucky enough to black out, and he remembers all too well the way Howie had looked spread over his couch, bare from the waist down, shirt tucked up under his armpits, his spunk on his belly and on Chris's shirt as Chris bailed on him to go to Nick—and then, of course, he'd almost repeated the experience.
"Um," she says softly, then he hears her take a deep breath. "Well, if you're not feeling a hundred percent, I could—"
"No, please," he says quickly. "I'll be fine by then. I want to see my girls."
Jenna makes a noise that he can't decipher the meaning of, then finally says, "Okay, well, I hope I don't regret this, but. Yeah. Please."
Which is at the point that Chris remembers he doesn't have a place to stay unless he squats at Helm's house—he covers the mouthpiece of the phone and whispers to Drapes, "How long is Helm going to be gone?"
Drapes shakes his head and holds his palms out, as if he has no idea. Chris closes his eyes briefly, then gathers himself.
"Do you mind if I stay at the house?" he asks her, his almost ex-wife, the beautiful mother of his children, the woman he'd marry all over again if he only weren't gay. Seems like the universe has a sense of humour, sending her into his life—one of the great loves of his life, but the wrong gender.
"No," Jenna says, and Chris feels his heart fall right through his feet onto the floorboards. "I was going to suggest it, actually, to keep from disrupting Sydney's and Mackenzie's schedules too much."
His heart takes flight again so fast that he thinks he might throw up—or maybe that was just the contents of his stomach rising up his esophagus. He tamps down the emotion. And his stomach contents.
"I'll sleep on the couch," he tells her, probably sounding as incredibly grateful as he is. But then, she surprises him, just like she's continued to be able to do in all the years that they were married.
"As long as you don't bring anyone over with you," she cautions," you can use the bed, I'm not worried about that. There's a spare blanket in the hall closet and... why am I telling you this?" She laughs nervously. "You know where everything is. Put the sheets in the wash when you're done, and could you just make sure the dishes are washed and the garbage has been taken out? Mackenzie's doing the dishes now, but you have to check and be sure—"
"I think I can do it," Chris interrupts. She's rattled, rambling and obviously upset about the complications, no matter how 'slight' she says they are. "You look after yourself," he adds quietly. He still wants to say, I love you, because the words are still true—but he knows how much it would hurt them both, so he bites down on his tongue.
"Yeah, you too," Jenna replies. "And please, Chris, don't drink around the girls tonight."
"I won't!" he says, shocked she'd think that of him. "I wouldn't."
She doesn't respond, and for the second time that morning, the phone goes dead.
Chris lets the phone slip from slack fingers and groans. "I am the world's biggest fucking idiot," he complains. Drapes jabs him in the ribs.
"My kids are awake," he says sternly. Chris puts on his best 'chastened' face and Drapes sighs, rolling his eyes heavenward. "You're impossible," he says.
Chris thinks back to all the things Jenna said. She didn't mention anything about the baby, and she didn't ask about Helm—he probably should be grateful for that. He's more than frantic enough about what she'll do when she finds out—she's not going to be exactly thrilled about the fact that he's raising a baby with Helm right about the same time that she's about to give birth to his biological child. He's so lost in thought that Drapes must think he's sunk into some sort of coma, because his friend nudges him.
"All right, zombie goalie," Drapes says. "Before you eat anyone's brains, we need to get you human again and get to practise before Babs hands us our asses. It's bad enough that we're all gonna suck today because of your antics last night, and I, for one, am pretty terrified of what Babs is going to do when he finds out that Helmer's gone to Canada unexpectedly. We're going to have to invent some family emergency, I imagine."
He pulls Chris up from the couch and gives him a shove towards the shower.
Right about now, though, Chris thinks someone's eaten his brains, with the decisions he's been making lately.
Practise is unbearably awkward. Nick's wandering around gloomily, refusing to look at Chris, and barely speaking to anyone. It's difficult for him to fulfil his duties as captain when he's so obviously preoccupied, and again, Chris feels guilt and shame.
But not as much guilt and shame as he feels when he notices Howie stealing glances at him every chance he gets.
If Nick is gloomy, Howie is despondent. He takes twice as long to get his gear on and his eyes are always hot on Chris's skin; he feels scalded, like he's just put his hand down on a red-hot burner on the stove, and there's nothing he can do.
So he finds himself creeping around the locker room, drifting in and out of corners, trying to avoid Howie without giving the rest of the team a clue that he's doing so, which is next to impossible, as proven when Bert stops him on his way to work out before doing his stretches, pulling on his wrist to get him to stop.
"What's up with you and Howie?" he asks, sounding concerned. "Did you have a fight or something?"
Chris knows his eyes just slid right off to the side, obviously seeking something to stare at besides up into Bert's, and he knows it was obvious to his friend.
"Not... exactly," he whispers, and Bert groans.
"All right, spill," he says. "If this has something to do with that scandal—"
"It— No! Of course not," Chris blathers, but he knows instantly he's given himself away. Bert drops his arm, and his mouth turns down.
"I like Jimmy," he tells Chris. "I like you both, yeah, you're both my friends, but... Howie's young, Oz. Don't do something stupid and—"
Chris barks out a humourless laugh. "It's too late for that," he points out. "And even though I did do something stupid, I can assure you that it hurt me just as much. I got way too drunk and fucked a lot of shit up."
Bert shakes his head. "Is that why Nick's so off today?" he asks, and at that moment, Abby comes up to them.
"Where's Helm, Oz?" he asks, as though he truly expects Chris to know. Which isn't all that unreasonable, really.
Chris sighs, rubbing the heel of his hand over his forehead, covering his eyes. "He's in Canada," he mumbles. "I gotta get ready," he says, and escapes.
He finishes stretching and slathers on the A5-35, then spends the next little while pulling on his Underamour shirt, his hockey hose, layers of padding and buckling his leg pads. He finishes up lacing his skates and snags his helmet from inside his stall.
He does all of this without once giving Howie the slightest bit of attention, but he gets the impression nonetheless that Howie is just exploding with the desire to talk to him, to try and fix whatever he thinks he did wrong, but Chris can't bring himself to have that conversation again, not yet.
He gets his goalie stick and goes down the tunnel, skating out onto the ice and over to his crease, doing some more stretches, moving laterally, practising going from standing to his knees and back again—and thinks, as he does that, how ironic it is—and then settles down into his crouch, waiting for the first shots.
Howie's on the bench, watching him. And Nick skates over, but he doesn't speak to him like he normally would; he just snaps the puck towards him at a severe angle, trying to throw him off as far as tracking it's concerned, and Chris is still sluggish, faintly hungover and mind far away, which is probably why Nick scores on him easily.
Chris is pretty sure that's not the type of scoring on him that Nick wants to do most.
Fil gets the puck in next, and so do Mule and Bear, and then, when even Ericsson gets the puck by him with no trouble, Babs skates over.
"You haven't stopped a single shot," he says. "You haven't used your glove, you're not tracking the puck at all, never mind well, and you haven't even made one initial save. I don't know what's up, I don't want to know, but I'm putting Howie in. Go shower."
Chris rises and shifts, feeling the slippery surface of the ice and thinking, God, I feel like my whole life is like balancing on ice skates on a sheet of ice, only without the prowess I actually have at it. He skates away towards the tunnel, and Howie still somehow manages to watch him all the way until he disappears down towards the dressing room.
He's in the shower, has been for the entire rest of practise, when Drapes comes in, followed closely by Kronner. They're talking, and Kronner is saying,
"I can't believe it about Helmer's mother." He hangs up his towel and finds a showerhead. Drapes goes to the one right next to him so that they can continue their conversation, which is now muffled by the patter of water falling, and Chris can't make out any more of it.
When he finally gets done, and is dressed in his t-shirt and jeans, just pulling on his hoodie, Babs appears and crooks his finger at him.
"My office, now," he commands, and Chris goes meekly after him.
Once inside, Babs doesn't waste any time. "You're benched next game," he says without preamble. "And I'm not sure about after that, but I can tell you, this type of slacking won't be tolerated."
"I know, I'm sorry," Chris whispers.
"I mean it, Ozzie. You need to shape up." Babs's voice gets a little more relaxed, less terse and rigid. "It's not just for the team, Oz. You know that. All right, you can go pick up your daughters."
Chris nods and trots quickly out of the office, grabbing his bag and pulling out his keys and realising, belatedly, that his car is still at Helm's. God-fucking-dammit, he thinks, and yanks his cell out of his sweatshirt pocket.
He dials the cab company—he's going to have to at least stop at Helm's and pick up his car.
The very idea makes his blood go as icy cold as the arena, and he hates that he's going to see that house—their house—and know he's never going to be able to go back there.
Sometimes, he wishes he could just close his eyes and dream for the rest of his life. Of course, with his luck, he'd still have nightmares, so it wouldn't matter.
As he climbs into the cab and gives the directions, he thinks, I feel like I'll never be happy again.
Chris picks up his car, contemplates going inside the empty house—which looks closed up and unlived in already, and it's only been a few hours—to get some of the things he's left strewn all over the place, but he doesn't think he can bear to see all of the places he's been with Helm.
The places where they'd enjoyed each other's bodies, or just all of the places they'd left their footprints, some of them visible, some not; he can't see their bed and not start to cry, and he can't look at all the baby things that had taken over without wanting to hold Carey in his arms so badly that it's a physical ache, and it really hasn't been all that long at all since he was allowed in this house as Helm's lover. Allowed to touch and cradle the baby that already feels like it's no longer his, that Carey is slipping away from him.
In the end he just unlocks his car door and tries not to watch the house disappear in the rearview as he makes his way to the girls' school to pick them up.
While on the one hand he's still practically a zombie because of everything he's lost—again—on the other hand, he's going to get to spend all night with his daughters. He can make popcorn and keep them up late watching bad movies until they collapse asleep against his chest like they always used to do; it's Friday and the only thing Mackenzie and Syd have to do tomorrow is practise their skating, and they can do that on the rink he'd built, which means they can sleep in Saturday morning.
He pulls into the lane in front of the school and lets the engine idle as he waits for them, wondering if Jenna told them he was going to be picking them up.
If she did, he can't tell, because the moment Sydney opens the school door, she's running for the car, flinging the door open and squirming onto his lap.
"Daddy!" she shouts happily, and she places wet kisses on his face, and Chris feels a tiny spark of hope. At least his little girls still love him. "I missed you!" she adds, practically strangling him with her grip on his neck.
Mackenzie is more sedate; she climbs into the backseat and watches them for a minute. "Stop being such a baby, Syd," she says at last, and Chris carefully untangles himself from his littlest.
"Come on, baby," he says, and she scrambles back out of the car. But she stands just outside of it, eyes hopeful, and Chris knows that she wants another hug, so he gets out of the car and comes over to her, going down to her level and wrapping his arms around her.
Her arms go around his neck again and she buries her nose in his neck. "Why do you always have to stay away so long, Daddy?" she asks, and Chris's heart breaks all over again.
It seems like every time he thinks it's been irreparably broken, something comes along to splinter it into even tinier pieces.
"Sometimes life works that way," he says softly against her fine blond hair. She sniffles a little.
"It's not fair," she says, and Chris is amazed as always at how quickly she can go from happy to sad. Though he also knows it won't last—little kids do have the tendency to do that.
"I know, sweetheart," he tells her gently. "Life isn't fair. But we can make the best of it; just think, tonight I get to stay with you and Mackenzie and we can have as much fun as we want."
Mackenzie climbs back out of the car and trots over to them, looking a little bit disappointed when he glances up at her face. He looses one arm from Sydney and holds it out, and Mackenzie, even though moments earlier had been chastising Sydney for being a baby, falls to her knees and against his chest.
He closes his eyes and thinks that maybe he could live without Carey and Helm if he could just hold his little girls in his arms forever.
And then he knows he couldn't, because Helm and Carey are just as lodged in his heart as a bullet with their names scratched on the side.
He sighs and realises that Jenna's still there, too, and maybe Helm wasn't as crazy as Chris had thought he'd been. Maybe Helm had seen something in Chris's impassioned speech to Nick that he hadn't even realised was there—would he, had he not gotten caught, have stayed with Jenna for the rest of their lives as he had promised?
Syndey squirms out of his arms. "Hurry up, Daddy, I wanna go home and play."
He lets them go, but picks Syd up in his arms and settles her in the backseat himself, even though she's getting too big, really, for so much coddling. Mackenzie smiles up at him, and his heart absolutely dissolves. How can he ever stay away from them for so long?
She sits back in the car, and pulls her seatbelt on, then leans over and helps Syd with hers.
Chris has a moment to question whether Sydney is having trouble growing up now that she probably feels deserted by her daddy, and he feels a pang of guilt.
Has Jenna been worried about it? She must have noticed—she's too good of a mother not to notice that her youngest seems to be regressing a little.
Chris puts the car in drive again and pulls away from the curb.
Sydney kicks at his seat on the way home, and she and Mackenzie babble in the backseat to each other as Chris concentrates on driving, inching ever closer to the house he used to share with Jenna.
He's been there before since the separation, of course, both to see his girls and that night when he'd almost given it all up and Jenna had picked him up before he could fall completely.
But every time he goes back there, he remembers what it felt like to have Nick straining and grunting over him, his strong, big hands leaving invisible scars on his skin.
Chris banishes those thoughts—his daughters are with him right now, after all—and reminds himself to stop for each red light, to come to a complete halt for every stop sign, to be extra careful.
He glances back at them, heart squeezing, and thinks guiltily and sadly of the car seat currently shoved into the trunk of the car.
Helm's in deep trouble with Babs, and it's his fault. And Howie's probably only going to get to play the next game because Chris himself is benched; not to mention Nick, who Chris can't think of without wanting to cry.
He'd thought only his life had been ruined that day, especially since Nick had so unceremoniously broken up with him only days later, but it seems now that Nick's been out of his mind since then, still in love with Chris.
It doesn't seem fair somehow that Chris, no matter how miserable he might be right now, has been happy over the last months, the last year; not when Nick made only one mistake and has been suffering ever since.
Life isn't fair, he remembers telling Sydney only a few minutes ago, and that would apply to this too, he reasons; Nick's not going to get him back—he can't go back—and Helm's probably out of his reach now, which is what Chris deserves, anyway.
Somehow, he's fucked up the lives of everyone he comes in contact with.
"Daddy?" Syd says suddenly, and he realises he's been driving on autopilot, daydreaming as he thinks heavily about all this stuff that weighs on his heart.
"What is it, sweetie?" he asks her, and she kicks his seat again.
"Are we almost home?" He can hear the pout in her voice.
"Why?" he asks carefully, as if he knows that whatever she says is going to be a bombshell.
"It smells like poop in here," she says softly. From the rearview, he can see Mackenzie poke her and whisper, even though it's loud enough for him to hear,
"Shh, Syd, that's not polite."
He's proud of his girl, already learning to be polite and well-behaved—and he still remembers that imp that made boys eat dirt, bless her—but he's also scrambling for a response. He doesn't get the chance to give one, though, because Syd ignores her sister and goes on.
"And there's baby toys on the floor," she says. "Daddy? Did you get a new baby instead of us?"
It's a good thing there's a stop sign just ahead of him, because he slams on the brakes.
He turns the corner onto the little dead-end street that's there and puts the car in park again, leaning around the seat to look into his little girl's earnest eyes, her lower lip pushed out.
He shouldn't tell them this, but how can he lie to that face?
"There was a baby," he says carefully, "but no-one, not even a new baby, is going to take your place, Sydney. You'll always be my special girls—both of you. I love you both so much."
He's not sure Sydney understands, and she doesn't look placated by it, but she nods.
"I love you too, Daddy," she says, kissing her fingertips and pressing them against his cheek.
Mackenzie, though—she appears to understand that Chris still loves her just as much.
"I love you too," she adds quietly. He gives them both the best smile he can manage and starts the car again.
The rest of the ride is quiet, uneventful, and he drives into the driveway and kills the engine, trying not to stare at the house where he'd spent so many years with Jenna, where he'd made both of his daughters with her, where all the memories might just kill him if he's not careful.
Mackenzie may be trying to be more of an adult than ever, but even she runs up the walkway after Sydney, both of them fidgeting on the porch as they wait for him to secure the car and then come up the steps to unlock the door.
He does, and they dash into the house, dropping their backpacks onto the floor inside the entryway, and Chris follows slowly, relearning every step he takes as he walks through the house.
Sydney comes hurtling back around the corner and almost bowls him over.
"Are we going to watch movies, Daddy?" she asks, and Chris grins down at her, her little arms tight around his knees.
"Of course we are," he promises, and maybe it's all worth it just to see his little girl smile; some of the pain floats away, thankfully just out of reach for the time being.
Chris is putting a movie in the DVD player when Sydney wanders into the room, wearing a pair of dinosaur jammies that she definitely hadn't owned when he'd lived here—he wonders whether Jenna bought them to make Sydney feel better about the new baby—and says, holding out the Detroit Free Press,
"Daddy, isn't this your friend? Why'd his wife go away? Didn't he want them any more?"
Chris freezes. Not now, he thinks; no, not like this. He gets down on one knee and holds out a hand, and Sydney gives him the paper. Her thumb hovers in the vicinity of her mouth and Chris worries that she's going to pick that bad habit back up, if she hasn't already—and it took them so long to break her of it the first time. He thinks maybe Jenna's going to be a lot happier when everything's settled and Sydney can come stay with him, but in the meantime, he feels guilty for how much she must be trying to handle all at once.
Still, though. He has to pay attention to his little girl now, because her words betray how worried she is. Chris reads between the lines easily: Didn't you want us any more?
"Sometimes life is complicated," he tells her, sitting down cross-legged and leaning over, reaching out and pulling her onto his lap. He tucks her head under his chin and strokes the baby-fine strands of her hair. "I didn't go away because I don't love you any more, baby-girl."
She does put her thumb in her mouth now; he can tell when she speaks around it.
"Then why did you leave?"
How long has Jenna been dealing with these questions? Has she made any progress in helping Syd to understand, or has his little girl been waiting all this time to ask him, because she doesn't quite believe her mother since she hasn't heard the words straight from her daddy?
"Syd, people get married all the time, you know that, right? Well, sometimes it doesn't work out. And it's sad, but your mommy and I just couldn't work it out—it had nothing to do with you or how much I love you. I love you so much."
"I don't get it," she whispers. "I miss you. When can I come stay with you?"
"Hopefully soon," he tells her, then pats her leg. "Why don't you go ask Mackenzie to get us some ice cream, and I'll turn the movie on?"
He doesn't think Sydney's really pleased with his answers, but she hops down from his lap and runs out of the room, dinosaur tail flopping as she does.
Once she's gone, he looks down at the paper next to him. Lidström's Wife and Family Return to Sweden! the headline reads glaringly.
He doesn't have to read much of the article to understand that people in the press are already speculating it was an affair, and Chris kind of wants to put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger.
It doesn't matter how much Nick hurt him, or how messy things have become between them: he still loves Nick, probably always will, and this inflammatory article is going to make Nick's life hell, and it's essentially all Chris's fault.
He'd told Nick it was over, but Nick had still left his wife—too little too late, but he'd still gone and done it, proving he was just as impulsive now when it came to Chris as he ever was—and now that fact was all over the papers.
Chris doesn't know how long it took Nick to leave Annika, whether it was right after they'd broken up or months later, but he remembers how poorly he treated Nick just last night while drunk off his rocker.
He folds the newspaper and thanks the hockey gods that at least they're not questioning whether the person Nick had an affair with was a guy.
Sydney comes back in the room with a bowl of ice cream, followed closely by Mackenzie, who's got her own bowl and one for Chris. He relaxes his facial muscles into a smile and takes the ice cream from her, and they all climb onto the couch, his girls fighting over space in his lap until he settles them down, one under each arm, and he starts the movie.
But even though the ice cream is his favourite flavour, and the movie is one he loves, he spends the entire time thinking about Nick and what he might be doing, what he might be thinking.
Next Chapter (6) | Previous Chapter (4) | Master Post