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Chris has heard the story so many times he could probably tell it backwards:

He came home from kindergarten asking about weddings because his teacher was getting married; then, once his mom had fielded all the inevitable single parent questions, asked, “Am I going to get married?”

“If you want to,” his mom said. “When you’re a grown up.”  

“Okay,” Chris said, making four year old leaps of logic. “I’ll marry Luka.”

Four year old Chris could have maybe used a filter, current Chris thinks, to be honest. But he’s not mad about it – it’s a pretty cute story, and Luka’s parents tell it almost as much as Chris’ mom does, and it’s the kind of thing that Chris is pretty sure helped him and Luka go from next door neighbours to basically family, and that can only mean it’s a good thing. Maybe the best thing.

They’re really different, him and Luka. Chris still isn’t really sure why Luka likes him, because Luka’s the centre of every room while Chris is big and awkward and still stutters when he’s nervous even though he went to a speech therapist, but he’s never doubted that Luka does, not once his whole life.

They have breakfast at Luka’s house their first day of high school, because Chris’ mom is teaching an 8:30 class across town. It’s not a bad thing; the Smith-Patels always have chocolate milk and cereal with dried fruit in it, and Luka hates the wrinkly dried strawberries, so Chris gets all of his.

“I can’t believe you boys are in high school already,” Luka’s mom is saying, pulling on her shoes. “I remember when you were starting first grade, Lukey.”

Luka picks out another strawberry and drops it in Chris’ bowl. “Mother,” he says, in that voice he does when he’s pretending to be annoyed but isn’t actually. “If you call me Lukey in front of anyone from our new school I will actually die. Chris, tell her I’ll die.” 

Chris looks up from his phone. He keeps checking it, waiting for his mom to text and do their thing, because she never forgets, on big days like this. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Right on the floor, probably.”

“Brats,” Luka’s mom says, fond, and she kisses them both on the heads, tucks in Chris’ shirt tag before heading out the door. “Text me when you have a break, I want to hear everything.” 

“Bye,” they chorus, and Chris barely gets a chance to peek at his phone again and get another spoonful of cereal before Luka’s kicking him, hard, under the table. 

Ow,” Chris says, once he’s done chewing, so he won’t talk with his mouth full. “What?”

“Stop being nervous, you’re making me nervous.”

“You don’t get nervous,” Chris says. If this is Luka trying to cheer him up, he’s not doing great.

“Easy for you to say, pal,” Luka says. “You look like you’re twenty, I bet all the older kids are going to think I escaped from like, sixth grade.”

“Maybe seventh,” Chris says, and then he laughs when Luka flings a strawberry at his head, so maybe Luka did an okay job at cheering him up, after all.

Chris mostly feels fine until they have to leave the house, and that’s when everything sinks in. He looks longingly over at his place as they head down the driveway – it’s just next door, he could still make a break for it – but Luka’s chattering about some ‘how to survive in high school’ guide he read, so Chris sucks it up and follows him towards the school.

Luka says hi to, like, three different people the second they get there, because of course he knows everyone, because that’s Luka.

Chris isn’t Luka. Chris is very much not Luka. Chris is, at the moment, shrinking in on himself the further into the halls they get, and he probably looks really dumb trying to hide behind a guy seven inches shorter than him, but everyone around him suddenly looks a lot older and a lot cooler and he just thinks he would like to stay with his best friend and go back to grade eight, please.

“Okay,” Luka says, turning around so they can talk. “Okay, my class is down the hall, yours is upstairs.” 

“Room 232,” Chris rattles off, because he memorized his entire timetable two weeks ago.

“Find me at lunch,” Luka says, holding onto Chris’ sleeve. “Okay?” 

Chris nods. “Yeah.” 

Luka lowers his voice, stepping a little closer. “You promise my backpack isn’t lame?”

It was the loudest tie dye pattern Chris had ever seen when Luka bought it, and he’s decently certain that it’s been bedazzled since. It suits Luka, though. “Promise,” Chris says. “Mine?”

Luka pats the strap of Chris’ navy blue Jansport. “Promise,” he says, real serious. Chris believes him.

He loses sight of Luka in the crowd pretty quick, manages to find his way up the stairs and to his class by himself. His phone buzzes in his pocket right before he goes into the room – his mom. And, like, Chris knew she’d remember, but it’s still a relief to open the message and see je t’aime.

She went easy on him with the French, gave him one he knows. Chris sends back tе сакам – Macedonian, he searched it up specially for the first day – and takes a deep breath before heading into his homeroom.

It goes okay. Chris finds a guy he played with in peewee and they sit next to each other, and the guy doesn’t make fun of Chris for stuttering real bad when they go around the class introducing themselves – “I’m Chris Chan and I like hockey”, same thing he always says for stuff like this – and when lunch comes, his legs are shaking but he finds Luka standing by one of the vending machines and it’s okay. They make it.

---

“So,” Luka says, once they’ve been high schoolers for two months and the whole thing is normal enough that the first day feels like a distant dream.  “We should kiss.” 

The wind’s blustery, winter arriving with a vengeance as they wait for the light to let them cross the road. High school changed some of their routines, sure, but they have new ones by now, and weekends are the same as they’ve always been: Luka’s piano lesson finishes half an hour before Chris’ Mandarin class does, so Luka waits around the school ‘til all the international language classes get out, and they walk home together and bond over their parents forcing them to be cultured.

Chris will barely have time for lunch before hockey practice, but he takes his time walking with Luka anyways.

“Oh,” Chris says, once he realizes he should probably respond to the kissing thing. His breath comes out in a cloud in the cold. “Uh. What?”  

“Well, we’re fourteen,” Luka says, all wise; and sure, his birthday’s in spring, but Chris still has a month left of being thirteen. “We should probably get our first kisses out of the way. For practice?” 

The light changes and they start across the crosswalk, leaving footprints in the barely-there snow.

“You don’t want to try kissing a girl?” Chris asks.

Luka shakes his head, pulls a face as he hops up onto the curb. Chris kicks a pinecone down the sidewalk.  

“I, uh,” he says, in the interest of full disclosure. “I might. Want to kiss a girl. Or like, people who aren’t guys.”

“Okay,” Luka says. That’d probably be it for the kissing thing, because Chris knows Luka, this isn’t the kind of thing he’ll push; only then the pom-pom on top of Luka’s toque bobbles in the wind, and it kind of catches in Chris’ brain and stays there, the hat and how it looks on Luka and, thing is, it’s not as if Chris doesn’t want to kiss him.

“We can still kiss, though,” Chris says. “Like- If you want to. I don’t know.” 

“For practice,” Luka clarifies, glancing over at Chris.      

Chris nods, touches Luka’s hat. “For practice.”    

The rest of the walk is pretty normal, talking about school and stuff. Luka complains about an A- he got on a test while Chris chirps him for it; the both of them try to scrape up the two millimetres of snow for a snowball fight that fizzles when they turn onto their street.

They file into Chris’ mudroom to kick their shoes off, and Chris is already mostly thinking about what he’s going to have for a snack when he turns around to take Luka’s coat, because manners, but when he does Luka’s standing right up close, so they’d be face to face if they were the same height.   

“Oh,” Chris says. “Hello.”

Luka’s still wearing his mittens, so he’s a little bit clumsy when he tugs on Chris’ scarf so Chris will tilt down and kiss him. It’s all very casual, the two of them standing here crowded between the shoe rack and the laundry machine, so Chris doesn’t really get a chance to overthink it, just leans down and lets Luka press their mouths together.

It’s kind of super weird. Probably because touching mouths with another person is just a weird thing in general, and also because Luka’s skin still feels all cold from outside, plus, like, it’s Luka. Luka’s kissing Chris.

They’re both giggling when they stop kissing. It lasted maybe two seconds, max.

“First kiss accomplished,” Luka says, and Chris returns his high five.

“Nice,” he says, and he doesn’t mean it to be funny – it was nice, except for the cold lips part, and even that wasn’t terrible – but Luka laughs anyways, and then they head in to do homework at the kitchen table ‘til Chris has to leave for the rink, and that’s their first kiss, just like that.

Not the worst, in Chris’ opinion.

---

Chris only goes to two more Mandarin classes after the one that day. That’s a big deal, because it’s the first time that it hits him that the hockey thing might be for real, when his mom lets him quit Chinese school on Saturday mornings. 

It makes sense. He’s been playing catch up for a while, missing a bunch of classes for tourneys and games and stuff, but he’s been doing Mandarin lessons since second grade. Chris kind of thought his mom would make him go forever, keep spouting stuff about heritage and whatever until he was fluent.

It’s a big thing to sacrifice for hockey, for her.

But it makes sense.

Chris isn’t dumb. He knows people have always paid attention to his hockey. He’s been playing against older kids since he was maybe seven, beating most of them too, and not even having a hard time of it. And he’s pretty sure his mom only signed him up in the first place so he’d be active, but hockey is just- it’s like, with everything else in his life, Chris is either just okay or really bad, but on the ice he’s not just okay, he’s good. His body knows what to do, and being big is a good thing, and he can pick out where to put the puck without really thinking of it at all.

He doesn’t know if that makes him special. People act like it does. So, yeah, Chris maybe should have realized sooner that hockey might be a real possibility for him. He doesn’t, not ‘til his mom tells him he can quit Mandarin classes, and then it’s like it’s not just a possibility, it’s right there in front of him like it’s been there the whole time. It just makes sense.

Some people from the local news interview him after a game. That part throws him off, all the questions they ask about if he’s planning on college or the O, if he’s been speaking to an agent. Chris knows he’s answering badly – he can hear himself talking too quiet and stumbling over easy words, fully aware that he probably sounds really dumb.

It stresses him out worse than any game, lasts right through ‘til he goes home and hides under his covers to try and make his hands stop shaking. He doesn’t even get any studying done, even though he has a science quiz tomorrow.

The interview is already done. It’s dumb that he’s this stressed.

“If you nap now you won’t sleep tonight,” his mom says, when she comes in to check on him.

Chris peers out from under his blanket. “I wasn’t napping,” he says, then, “Do you think I’m actually going to play in the NHL?”

“You know more about hockey than I do, Christopher,” his mom says, which is true, but some reassurance would be good, here, maybe. “Your interview sounded good.”

Chris shakes his head. “I couldn’t talk right,” he says. “They kept asking me about the OHL. And if I have an agent. Future stuff.”

“We’ll talk with your coaches,” his mom says, and she smoothes down his hair a couple of times, which is basically their version of a hug. It makes Chris feel better, a little, because it’s mostly impossible to be all anxious when his mom’s here, but there’s still kind of a pit in his stomach.

“Major junior is probably really expensive,” he says, because it’s been bugging him since the interview. “I don’t think the stipend they give players is a lot, even if I’m really good.”

“That’s not for you to worry about,” his mom says, real firm. She uses that voice where arguing is pointless, like when Chris and Luka tried to get permission to sled down the staircase like in the movies. “Finish your homework now. I’ll make tea.”

Chris sighs, but he really does need to study for this science quiz, so he gets up, smoothes out the covers on his bed, and heads for his desk.

(There’s a little sticky note stuck to the side of his mug, when his mom brings him tea. It says what Chris is pretty sure is ‘I love you’ in what he’s pretty sure are hieroglyphics, and it makes him smile.

Stuff like that helps.)

---

Grade nine ends about as okay as Chris could expect. He gets three 80s and a 78 on his exams. Kisses Luka two more times, for practice. The article about him gets published and his mom puts a copy on the fridge, and his team falls out in the first round of playoffs, but Chris wins the MVP and scoring leader for the third season in a row.

Agents start talking to him. The NHL thing sounds like more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if’, which is nice, because Chris’ backup plan was to be a physiotherapist, and he doesn’t know if that’s feasible with a 78 in grade nine science.

Lucky for him, the people at the rink don’t ask about his grades when they hire him as an assistant coach. He’s not really coaching much of anything, just teaching little kids how to skate, but he gets money for more ice time, and a free membership at the community centre gym, so it all works out. Schedule’s pretty decent, too: if he takes the long way after the kids leave, he can get to Tims when Luka’s getting out of work so they can walk home together.

“So then we were practicing stopping,” Chris is saying, pausing to sip at the free iced capp Luka brought him. “And they were all falling, Luka, just- bowling pins, and then they always look so confused right after.”

“I can’t believe you get to work with adorable falling babies and I have to serve commuters donuts,” Luka says, all exaggerated angst. “This is homophobic.”

Chris snorts, and Luka’s grinning when he elbows him, then full-on laughing when Chris elbows him back and nearly makes him trip right off the curb.

Rude,” Luka says, then stretches out a hand. “Gimme some of your drink, it’s hot.”

“You got it for me,” Chris points out, but he hands over the iced capp without putting up too much of a fight, and they walk in a companionable kind of quiet for a couple of minutes. It’s really sunny. Luka’s going to get freckles.

“So,” Luka says, chewing on the straw, and yeah, Chris is not getting that drink back. “My dad said he’d take us to practice parking in the library lot tonight.”

“That’ll be fun,” Chris says. His skate bag hits against his knees as they walk.

Luka shakes his head, clearly not done with wherever he’s going with this. “Okay, but you know Sara Andrews? Who I’m in environment club with?”    

“Yeah?”

“She’s having her birthday party tonight.” Luka announces it like it’s this huge, great thing, and Chris has this awful, sinking feeling, all at once. Luka wants them to go. “She invited us.”

“Invited you,” Chris corrects, through the brand new knots in his stomach.

“Invited us,” Luka says, stubborn. “People think you’re cool, Chris.” Then, when Chris looks at him, skeptical: “Okay, fine, not like- you’re like, all strong and broody and in the news, I don’t know why you think people don’t want to be your friend.”

It’s not the first time they’ve had a conversation like this. It’s an extrovert thing, or the result of being amazing at everything he’s ever done, including socializing, or- or something, but Luka just doesn’t get it. Chris isn’t an idiot, he knows not everyone in the world hates him. Especially not this past year, with his hockey being a more public thing, because people keep trying to talk to him, acting like he’s already a pro and being all nice.

He just... Chris can’t do that. He has his mom and he has Luka and Luka’s family, and they know him, and Chris’ hockey is a separate thing, and he doesn’t need anyone else outside of that; he doesn’t have a better reason, he just- he gets stressed every time he has to talk to people for class projects, let alone a whole house full of people he only kind of recognizes at a birthday party for someone he only kind of knows.

That stuff’s not easy for him, the way it is for Luka.

“I don’t think that,” Chris says. “I just-” He breaks off, has to really focus on making his words come out smooth. “I just really don’t want to go to a party, Luka.” 

Luka’s staring at him, and Chris knows he’s trying to understand, knows he doesn’t.

“Chris,” Luka says, like he’s trying to be really reasonable. “You skate around in front of hundreds of people and you can’t do this?”

“You go,” Chris says. “You go to the party and we can drive with your dad tomorrow, okay, Luka?”

Luka sighs, but he seems to get that it’s a lost cause, because he doesn’t argue any more, just keeps walking, silent. He’s bent the straw of the iced capp pretty much beyond recognition, by now.

“It would be easier if you liked the same stuff as me instead of just hockey,” Luka says as they turn onto their street. Not mean, but kind of with an edge.

“It would be easier if you liked hockey,” Chris retorts, pretty quick, and they just look at each other for this long moment.

They’re so, so different.    

It’s not a fight, not even close. Luka hugs him when they get back to their houses, squeezes Chris right around the middle. “I’ll tell you how it was after, ‘kay?” he says, and Chris hugs him back.

“Sleepover?”

Luka nods, ducks out of the way and grins when Chris reaches up to mess up his hair. Doesn’t really say anything else before he walks up his front path, and that kind of sticks out, and-

It’s not a fight, not even close, but Chris doesn’t feel great about it anyways. If this is a growing up thing, he kind of hates it.

Still; he doesn’t want his mom to worry, so he tries to smile when he tells her about the kids at work. He helps make pasta for dinner, demolishes two full plates of it, then sits on the couch so they can watch one of the old Harry Potter movies. Chris doesn’t quite get the appeal, because the effects and the acting are both so bad, but his mom gets all excited, talks about reading the books when she was a kid, and the night goes better than he was expecting.

He only wonders what Luka’s doing at the party, like, a dozen times, give or take.

The answer to all that wondering is neither as dramatic nor as terrible as Chris is expecting. Luka shows up a little after 11, says hi to Chris’ mom, and changes into pajamas before crawling into Chris’ bed and stealing the fluffiest pillow the way he always does. He keeps up a steady stream of gossip about the party the whole time.

Like. For ages.

And Luka always talks a lot, is the thing, but then the lights have been out for maybe half an hour and he’s still going, and he keeps giggling way, way more than usual, and Chris definitely isn’t this funny.  

Chris would probably figure it out himself, even if Luka didn’t tell him. “Chris,” Luka says, kicking at his foot under the covers and giggling all over again. “Chris, guess what?”

Chris looks at him. “What?”

“I had one beer,” Luka whispers, except it’s really loud. He looks thrilled. “In a red solo cup. For the aesthetic.”

“You’re like this from one beer?” Chris asks, stunned. And like, yeah, Luka’s probably ninety pounds soaking wet, and Chris isn’t exactly an expert on alcohol, but he’s heard his teammates talking about stuff enough to know that this is pretty objectively hilarious. “Jeez, Luka.”

Luka dissolves into more laughter, and Chris acts fast, gets a hand over Luca’s mouth so he won’t wake up Chris’ mom. Can’t help grinning a little himself, just at how dumb Luka’s acting, right now. He’s going to chirp him for this so bad in the morning.

Eventually, after a while, Luka calms down enough that Chris can move his hand, then they’re just lying there facing each other, Chris and his drunk, ridiculous, most favourite person in the world.

“You know I don’t actually wish we liked all the same stuff, right?” Luka asks.

“Yeah, I know,” Chris says, soft. Luka’s been thinking about their not-fight too, is what that means.

Luka yawns, real big. “I like you how you are,” he says, looking at Chris all meaningful. “I really, really like you, so much, Christopher Chan.” 

“I know,” Chris echoes, because he does, because they’re best friends and some stuff just doesn’t need questioning. He pats Luka’s leg, fond. “I like you too, so much, Luka Smith-Patel.”

“You want to kiss more?” Luka asks, and Chris shakes his head, which is kind of a lie, but you’re not supposed to kiss drunk people, even if they’re only drunk from one beer in a red solo cup.

“Maybe tomorrow,” he says, while Luka snuggles up right next to him.

“Promise?” Luka asks, all soft and sleepy, muffled in Chris’ shirt. He smells like a place Chris doesn’t recognize. His shampoo’s the same as always, though.

“Promise,” Chris says.

Luka snores.

They’re really, really different. Still them, though.

---

Chris’ first date is technically a double date, with Albert from his team and Albert’s girlfriend Julia from the girls’ team at school. Or, like- the actual date is not with them. Duh. They’re the other couple; the date is with Julia’s teammate Meg, who’s tall and has curly hair and only looks marginally less uncomfortable than Chris to be here. He’s pretty sure Julia made her come, just like Albert made Chris come, and neither of those things is a great omen.

The bright side is Chris figures out he’s a whole lot less bisexual than he thought maybe ten minutes in. The less bright side is that fifteen minutes in, Albert and Julia disappear to make out on a park bench, so Chris is trapped skating around in circles, holding hands with Meg and trying not to bump into all the little kids skating around them.

“So,” Meg says, looking anywhere but at Chris. He’s pretty sure she can feel his hand trembling. “You play hockey too, right?” 

“Yeah,” Chris says. “I- yes.”

He’s going to sweat through his gloves and die. And, like, it’s a little bit funny, maybe, but he also kind of wants to cry – he feels like a turtle shrinking into his shell, and his tongue feels heavy in his mouth, and he just wants to be back at home watching a movie with his mom and Luka like he’d usually be doing on a free Friday night.

They skate maybe a hundred thousand laps, give or take, before Meg tugs them over to the boards and lets go of Chris’ hand so she can fix her laces. It’s maybe an excuse. Chris is not complaining.

“Well,” Meg says. “That was-”

“I don’t want to kiss you,” Chris blurts, then, “Sorry”, horrified at himself.             

“It’s really okay,” Meg says, and Chris shakes his head.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I- I’ll still pay for the date and everything.”

“We already paid, dude,” Meg says, then, “Sorry, I wasn’t a good date either.”

“No, no, you were fine,” Chris says, fast. “I’m just- I mostly like boys, I think. Or- like, guys. Men- males.” Can’t talk all night and now he’s a thesaurus. “Sorry.”   

Meg has a pretty dorky laugh. It takes Chris a while to even realize she’s laughing instead of, like, choking on her own saliva, and the realization is mildly offensive. He doesn’t love getting laughed at.

“Alright,” he says, and Meg laughs even harder, but clamps a hand down on his arm.   

“I can’t even- I like girls,” she gets out, through more laughing. “Not mostly. Only. I- they set up their gay friends on a date, oh my god.” 

“Oh,” Chris says, still processing, and then it clicks. “That’s- Oh, wow.”

That makes Meg laugh even harder, and then Chris laughs too, which he doesn’t usually do in busy places like this because it makes his face all smooshy, but he’s just so relieved.

“I never told anyone that before,” Meg says, still laughing, a little. “About me.”

“Me neither,” Chris says, and it maybe isn’t the same thing, because he only technically confirmed it maybe half an hour ago; but that doesn’t end up mattering because Meg reaches out and holds his hand again, not in a weird romance way this time, more like just proof that they’re both here. Chris understands.

“Do you want to skate?” he asks. “Actually skate?”

Meg grins.

They end up racing each other around the rink, and Chris has a way bigger stride than her, so he wins, but not by as much as he should; and then Meg tells him he’s pushing forward wrong, and they’re nagging at each other about technique stuff until the rink closes, and it’s fun. And, like, Chris doesn’t want to jump to conclusions, because he’s not the kind of guy to jump to conclusions, but he thinks they might be friends now.

---

It’s pretty awesome, having a friend who likes hockey stuff.

Like, he has his teammates, obviously, but Chris doesn’t want to risk getting distracted by social stuff, especially now that hockey’s basically his job. Besides, having someone who’s interested but not actually personally invested is cool, because he and Meg don’t have to hold back or actually work together on the ice. They point out mistakes and stuff to fix to each other after games, half-advice and half-chirping and kind of harsh but in a surprisingly productive way.

Chris doesn’t know if he can chalk it up to Meg or if he’s just getting better as a player, but the team is doing well, and he’s on a nineteen game point streak that becomes twenty when Luka comes to his game and Chris scores a hatty by the power of friendship, or something.

He searches for Luka’s hat in the pile after the game, finds it then finds Luka where he said he’d be, standing by the fire exit. He’s wearing Chris’ last year’s jersey, and it looks like a tunic on him, even with the sleeves pushed up by his elbows and the hem rolled.

It makes Chris’ heart do this weird flippy thing, seeing CHAN in big block letters across Luka’s back. It’s-

Chris likes it. A lot.

“Got your hat,” he says, once he makes his way over. “Nice throw.” He barely gets a chance to put it back on Luka’s head before Luka’s got him in a huge hug, really tight.

“So many goals,” Luka gushes. “That was so cool, Chris.”

“Pretty cool, yeah,” Chris says, definitely not as humble as he means to sound. He’s allowed, on a night like this, he decides.   

“There were TV cameras filming you,” Luka says, pulling out of the hug. Chris keeps a hand on his back. “Like, I watched, they were focused on you the whole time.”

“They’re from TSN,” Chris says; then, because Luka still looks kind of perturbed, “Don’t worry, they asked me if it was okay first.”

“TSN is filming you,” Luka says, eyebrows way up like he thinks Chris is pranking him. “Like, the TV channel?”

“It’s a prospects thing,” Chris say, and he maybe blushes a little because his stupid face blushes every time he has an emotion, even if that emotion is just a vague kind of embarrassed pride at being on TV.

“This is actually a thing,” Luka says, like he’s having some big realization. “You’re going to be famous.”

“Hockey players aren’t that famous,” Chris says.

“Chris.”

Chris shoves his hands in his pockets. It’s new for Luka, he guesses, because he hasn’t been to a ton of Chris’ games yet this season, busy with all his extracurriculars and stuff. Hasn’t seen the attention on Chris’ hockey, not the way it’s been recently.

It’s weird to think about. Hard to reconcile the him that’s getting on ‘goal of the week’ highlight reels with the him that had a panic attack about a religion presentation last week.

“I’m good at this,” Chris says, simple. “This is what I’m really good at, Lukey.”  

“Like NHL good,” Luka says, staring up at Chris. “Like Sidney Crosby good?”

Chris shrugs.

“That’s kind of fucking wild,” Luka says, after a second.

“Really fucking wild,” Chris says, and he mentally apologizes to his mom for swearing, but the situation kind of calls for it, and it seems like it helps, because Luka looks slightly more normal, after.

“You look so serious out there,” he says, and the corner of his mouth quirks up.         

“Hockey’s serious,” Chris says, because it’s the truth. 

“I know, Chris,” Luka says, and he reaches up and squishes Chris’ cheeks, which- look, Chris’ face does not need any help looking fat, he probably looks like a pufferfish.     

He doesn’t move out of the way, and it’s this weird-nice moment, just grinning at each other. Chris is, all at once, very aware of the inches between them. They both got their growth spurts this past summer, but Luka’s brought him to where Chris was in maybe seventh grade, and it’s-

Chris doesn’t know. It’s noticeable, that Luka’s smaller than him. Noticeable that he’s standing real close.

“You should keep the jersey,” Chris says, fish-face and all.          

“It’s really big on me,” Luka says. He looks surprised, patches of red high on his cheeks. That’s new. Maybe he’s thrown off by the height thing as well.

“You don’t have to,” Chris says.    

“Obviously I’m gonna,” Luka says, and then he pulls his hands back, and Chris kind of misses the touch, even the face-squishing part, only then Luka stands up on his toes and kisses Chris’ cheek, and now they’re both red.

“For practice?” Chris asks. It doesn’t come out as jokey as he means it. 

Luka nods, and he’s smiling like he’s trying not to; and Chris doesn’t know what the heck he did to make Luka look at him like this, but Luka is, and he keeps wearing the jersey around the house in the next few days, so Chris is pretty sure that offering it was the right call.

---

Practice is brutal, a bag skate and a half, it feels like, so it’s a relief to get home and crash on the couch to watch game two of the Furies-Canadiennes series with Meg. A good distraction.

Meg’s using Chris as a pillow, scrolling through her phone and looking at outfits for semi-formal, even though it’s not for nearly two months and Chris doesn’t really get the fuss about standing in the school gym while too-loud music plays. Besides, he’s pretty sure that Meg’s date will like what she wears either way, because Meg is objectively really pretty, but-   

“She has an undercut, Chris,” Meg complains, dragging her hands down her face, distraught.  “She’s cool.” 

“You’re cool,” Chris says, bemused.

Meg snorts. “Don’t patronize me, Chan.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Were,” she says, but the second period is getting started, and the Furies are back in the box less than thirty seconds in, so she has to complain about it, and that distracts her from giving it to Chris. She leans back against him, and Chris stretches an arm across her shoulders, settles in to watch.

It’s a really chippy game, the kind that they basically have to criticize. Chris gets really caught up in it, tracking the play like he’s watching tape, and he hardly even notices the sound of the front door opening, Luka’s voice floating in.

“Student council was hell, Chris,” he’s saying as he comes into the living room. “You would not believe what the grad committee is trying to pull-” He stops midsentence.

“Hey,” Chris says, happy to see him, because he’s always happy to see Luka. 

Luka does not look happy. Luka looks the opposite of happy.

“Hi,” he says, but he’s not looking at Chris.

Meg waves. “Hi.”

Luka stares. “It’s Morgan, right?” he asks, in this weird, cold voice. Morgan, even though they’ve had classes together. Luka’s really good with names, usually.

“Megan,” Meg corrects, easy enough, with this polite little nod. “Meg’s cool. You want to watch the entire Furies bench trying to get sent to the box with us?”  

“I don’t know what that sentence means,” Luka says, clipped short, even though Chris knows for a fact that he knows what being in the box means. Luka finally meets his eyes, looking past Meg, past Chris’ arm around her shoulders. “Were we going to work on that poster for civics, or...”

“I think we said were doing that tomorrow, right?” Chris says. He doesn’t usually forget stuff. It’s in his calendar. “We could after the game, if you want, it’s just one more period-”

“It’s fine,” Luka cuts him off, and yeah, he’s not looking at either of them anymore, now.

“We can work on it right after,” Chris says.

Luka doesn’t even look like he’s listening, already on his way out. “Yeah, whatever,” he says. “Sorry for interrupting.”                          

“You didn’t?” Chris calls after him, confused, and the front door closes like punctuation.

Meg mutes the TV, looks at Chris and raises an eyebrow. “Your boyfriend’s kind of a dick,” she says.

“He’s not,” Chris says. He doesn’t know which thing he’s correcting her on, doesn’t know why Luka was- whatever that was. It must just be one of his moods? Maybe he got a B on an essay or something.

That’s probably it.

He heats up leftovers for dinner, eats by himself because his mom’s at a conference in Vancouver. Chris texts her kocham cię, gets back a text correcting the accent he used, and an ‘I love you too’ that he has to Google to realize is in Serbian.

Then, because his phone’s out, he texts Luka. Want to come do the poster?

The response comes quick, studying sry, and then the house is just quiet.

Really quiet.

---

Chris is out of town Friday and the weekend for a tourney, and when he gets back, it’s like entering some strange parallel world where all anyone can talk about is the semi-formal, who’s going with who and what they’re wearing and where the after parties are going to be.

Chris figures he may as well be proactive, if he’s going to be hearing about this stuff for the rest of the month, so he brings it up after school when he’s standing by Luka’s locker and watching him get his stuff. 

“Can we pick out my suit for the dance soon?” Chris asks.

“You’re old enough to choose your own suit,” Luka says, cramming books into his backpack. This one’s stripey white and grey, except the grey’s so light that it mostly looks white too, because Luka’s having a minimalism phase.

“I mean, yeah,” Chris says, “But you usually help me, when we go to dances.”

“I’m going with Joey from math, actually,” Luka says. “He asked me on the weekend.”

Chris falters whatever he was going to say, blindsided.

That’s-

He and Luka go to every dance together.

“Oh,” Chris says.            

“Yeah,” Luka says, and his voice is this weird mix of trying to sound casual and not being even a little bit casual at all. “He’s really hot, so.”

Now he’s just staring at Chris like he’s waiting for him to do something, which- Chris doesn’t know what that something’s supposed to be, doesn’t even have a clue.

“Okay,” Chris says.

“He’s really tall, too,” Luka says.

“I’m tall,” Chris says. He’s not really sure why. He bets he’s taller than Joey, though.

Luka raises his eyebrows at Chris, still waiting, and Chris just stares back, confused. Luka must not get what he’s looking for, from that, because he makes this sound like a scoff, turns back to his locker, and shoves one last book into his bag, kind of ferociously.

“Are you mad at me?” Chris asks, entirely at a loss.

“Why would I be mad?” Luka snaps, but he also slams his locker shut and almost takes Chris’ arm with it, so Chris is pretty sure he is.                 

“I don’t know,” Chris says, helpless. “That’s why I’m asking.”    

“Well, don’t bother, Chris,” Luka says, all huffy. He shoulders his backpack with a scowl, sways slightly under the weight. “Really.” 

He turns to leave, and Chris catches him by his backpack strap. “Wait, is- are we still walking home together?”  

Luka pulls his bag out of Chris’ grasp. “Why don’t you walk home with Morgan?”  

“Meg,” Chris says. “She busses the opposite way.”

That is apparently the wrong response, because Luka just stalks away down the hall and doesn’t look back.

Chris genuinely has no idea how he makes it through the rest of the day. He practices with his team, doesn’t talk the whole time, comes home and makes tea for his mom while she grades papers. She pats his head and Chris leans away, because if he stays around her he’s going to tell her everything, and she doesn’t need to deal with that, so he just mumbles something about a stomach ache and flees upstairs.

Luka’s never, ever been mad at Chris like that before. He doesn’t know what to do, would usually tell Luka about this kind of thing, only he obviously can’t do that now, and he doesn’t even know what he did to try and fix it.

Chris holds his pillow over his head, squeezes his eyes shut. He feels big and stupid and sad, and also definitely wants to punch Joey from math class, who’s not even that tall, probably; and then Chris feels bad for wanting to punch someone, and it’s really just a bad night altogether, and it doesn’t get any better in the morning, or the rest of the next day.

It’s the worst week of Chris’ life, bar none. Two days of walking to school alone and barely saying a word to anyone. Two days of Luka sitting with his student council friends at lunch. Meg’s at a tournament, so Chris has to tag along and sit with Albert from his team, only Albert’s in grade twelve and all of his friends look at Chris like he’s a freak, and Chris knows that if he talks his stutter will come out so he just sits there silently like he really is a freak, and the whole experience is awful enough that the next day he just finds a staircase and eats lunch there by himself.

It doesn’t last.

The whole thing fixes itself kind of underwhelmingly – their parents send him and Luka out to weed the front gardens together, and there’s only so much yard work you can do without talking to each other. Chris suspects that it’s more the parents meddling than the weeds needing to be removed that urgently, but he’s not complaining, not at all.

Luka says something about having a bad week, then goes back to making jokes, and Chris is not enough of a fool to question when he’s got a good thing back, so he shuts up and gardens and it’s like the fight didn’t even happen.

He goes to cheer for Luka at his debate thing on Wednesday, sits right up front with Luka’s parents. He thinks about asking Meg to come, because he thinks she’d like watching people argue, but Luka clearly didn’t like her, and Chris would rather step on a million legos than be fighting with Luka again, so he just- He’ll just have to keep them separate, is all.

He’s not sure quite when things got so complicated. Stuff was probably easier when he only had one friend.

---

So Luka turns sixteen and kisses him again and Chris doesn’t think it counts as practice, this time   

 It’s been mostly easy to ignore the undercurrent of weirdness, since the argument. There’s lots of other stuff Chris has to focus on: playoffs, signing with an OHL team, final projects at school. He doesn’t see Luka as much as he usually would, and when he does, they’re cramming for exams or finishing homework.

Luka’s birthday is the first break they get in a long time, and it’s like an actual physical relief, how normal the day is. They do the same birthday stuff they always do, ordering in Greek food and watching movies and continuing the special occasions sleepover Monopoly tourney they’ve been having since elementary school – Luka’s still winning 48 games to 31 – before trekking to the upstairs bathroom to brush their teeth side-by-side.

They’re standing there by the sink, and Chris isn’t really thinking anything in particular, just how weird it is that Luka’s sixteen, because sixteen sounds a lot older than fifteen. And he doesn’t do anything special, spits out his toothpaste and straightens up, meets Luka’s eyes in the mirror, and smiles, just a small little thing.

Luka gets this look on his face, and Chris barely has a second to process it before Luka’s pulling him in and kissing him, right on the mouth.

It’s different than the kisses they’ve done before. It lasts longer, and Luka’s mouth is open just a little against Chris’. Chris’ hand hovers by Luka’s hip because he doesn’t know where else to put it, and he barely gets a chance to shut his eyes before Luka’s pulling back.

“Um,” Chris says, after the longest pause in the history of the world.             

He’s just very confused, is all, because his lips feel warm where Luka’s lips were, and he can hear Luka’s mom coming up the stairs, and Luka kissed him, for real kissed him, but he also looks like he’s crying.

“Sorry,” Luka says, and his eyes are wet, he’s covering his mouth like he’s hiding. “Sorry, I know you like Meg, I don’t know why I- I’m sorry.” He cuts himself off with a sob, and Chris feels like crying too when he hears it, because Luka shouldn’t be sad on his birthday, or ever, and especially not because of Chris.

“Please don’t cry, Lukey,” he says, helpless, reaching up to wipe at the tears on Luka’s cheeks, under his eyes. His hands feel too big for his body, too useless to make anything better. “Hey, don’t cry, it’s just practice, right?”

Luka shakes his head really fast, no, and there’s too many tears for Chris to get them all but even if there weren’t, he couldn’t, because he’s just staring at Luka.

“Is it-” Chris says, quiet, and it’s like his brain isn’t working fast enough. “Is it not?”

Luka’s mom raps on the door, and they both jump.

“Bedtime, kiddos,” she calls in, cheery. “Birthday’s almost done and you’re both busy tomorrow!”

They listen to her footsteps walk away.

“Luka,” Chris says, feeling on the edge of something very big, and Luka just shakes his head again, pushes past Chris to leave the bathroom and head for his room; by the time Chris follows, Luka’s already in bed, curled in on his side and facing away from the door.  

He doesn’t move when Chris just stands there, one hand on his mouth where Luka’s mouth was, and he doesn’t move when Chris shuts the light off and gets into bed, carefully on his own side.

It’s so, so quiet.

Chris can see the outline of Luka’s face in the barely-there light from the window. His eyes aren’t closed, but he’s not talking, not doing anything at all.

Luka thinks Chris likes Meg. Like, like-likes her. Maybe thinks they’ve been kissing this whole time.

Luka’s sad about that.

And it’s the same as when Chris quit Mandarin classes, as when he realized he’s really good at hockey, all the pieces flying around in his head and resolving into something clearer – Luka’s the one who always asked to practice kissing, and he could’ve kissed anyone, and Luka wore Chris’ jersey, and Luka talked a whole bunch about his date for the dance in front of Chris.

It’s like in old cartoons, a lightbulb flicking on over top of Chris’ head.

He is. The world’s biggest idiot.

Chris rolls over so he’s facing Luka.

“Hey,” he whispers.       

Luka doesn’t answer.

“Luka,” Chris says, a little louder. “I know you’re awake.”

Nothing, then, mumbled so quiet Chris can barely hear –

“No I’m not.”

Luka still doesn’t move when Chris sits up, or when he crawls across the space between them, quiet as he can, and props himself up over Luka, careful not to squish him by accident.

Chris stares. Luka stares back.

“Sorry,” Luka says, again. “I wasn’t trying to be mean about you having a girlfriend. I know her name’s not Morgan.”

Chris laughs, only it’s more of a breath; leans down so his nose is almost touching Luka’s nose, right up close. 

“Chris,” Luka whispers, like asking a question, and Chris presses his lips to Luka’s cheek, just once, just gentle.  

“Meg,” Chris says, without really pulling back, “is very, very lesbian.” 

Luka’s face does something ridiculous and, in Chris’ opinion, kind of beautiful.

“Chris,” he says again, and his mouth opens and closes a couple of times, like he’s shocked, or a fish, or something. “You- Does that- Christopher Chan.”

“Luka Smith-Patel,” Chris copies, then brushes his nose against Luka’s, and he means to say something else, like happy birthday or I didn’t know you like-liked me or I love you, but what comes out is, “I really like it when you wear my jersey.”

And Chris has never, ever doubted that Luka’s his friend, not for one second, and he doesn’t doubt this either, really, so he’s not surprised, just stupid crazy happy when Luka tugs him down by his t-shirt and kisses him, on the mouth this time, and then kisses him again, and again a bunch more times, so that Chris loses track of who’s kissing who. All he knows is Luka’s smile is on his, the two of them pressed up real close, and the mattress is probably really creaky, and Chris has to be at the gym at nine tomorrow morning, and he doesn’t even care a little bit.

---

It’s the best summer Chris can remember. Just the best.

He wears his blue dress shirt to match Luka’s blue tie, for the semi-formal, and they take pictures by the blossoming apple tree in Chris’ backyard before they leave. Their parents are bustling around, all excited, and then Luka’s dad tells the ‘I’ll marry Luka’ story in front of Meg, who won’t let either of them hear the end of it the whole way to the dance and then for two entire weeks after.

Luka, who seems to have gotten over whatever his problem with Meg was ever since the lesbian thing got cleared up, takes it in stride; chirps her right back and then teams up with her to utterly roast Chris about his favourite cargo shorts, and that lasts for most of July.   

Life is a lot better, now that Chris’ two best friends don’t hate each other. It feels less like he’s getting ripped in half when he goes from morning runs with Meg, egging each other on to prep for Chris starting in the O in the fall, to his or Luka’s place to do boyfriend stuff, which is mostly the same as best friend stuff, playing board games or having backyard picnics, except now they get to hold hands and cuddle and kiss.

There’s a lot of that. The kissing.

And, see, Chris hasn’t kissed anyone else, so he can’t really compare, but he’s pretty sure that Luka is the best kisser in the world. That, or all their practice is really paying off. It’s like Chris’ body is buzzing full of bees, because he just wants to be touching Luka always, his mouth or his stomach or his shoulders where he gets freckles from the sun, or, like, everywhere, mostly.

Chris never really thought about having a boyfriend. It’s pretty cool, though. Especially because his boyfriend’s also his best friend, so it’s basically like a two-for-one he never even realized could be a thing until it is.

Chris kisses the top of Luka’s ear, careful not to capsize the pool floatie they’re sharing. “I’m really glad we’re boyfriends now,” he says.

Luka cranes his neck to smile at Chris, and he smells like sunscreen and boy and he looks so, so good. “Me too,” he says. “Boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend,” Chris says, grinning.

“I’m gonna barf,” Meg says, flat, from the paddleboard she’s been trying to stand on for the past half hour. “Quit being cute in my pool.”

“No,” Luka says, snobby, and Meg splashes him, hard, and it turns into a war really fast, all three of them laughing real loud and shrieking at each other so that Chris forgets to be embarrassed at his laugh or his face or anything.

They probably should’ve started doing this before, he thinks, because man, were they ever missing out.

---

There’s a lot of new stuff to get used to, for grade eleven. New team, new league, new billet family in a new city. It’s weird being away from his mom, even though they call twice a day and Chris stumps her with ‘I love you’ in old Gaelic. He wonders if she’s lonely, all by herself in the house.

Chris feels a little lonely. Not, like horribly. Just. It took him almost sixteen and a half years to make two really good friends, and now he’s living three hours away from them.

Still. Sarnia’s a nice enough place, and he’s playing hockey against the best players he ever has, with the best players he ever has.

He gets the impression that most of the guys on the team don’t quite know what to make of him – Chris is the youngest guy on the team, and they seem to like him well enough because he helps them win, but he’s also too big for the style he plays, too serious for a guy who’s probably going to be a multimillionaire before he’s twenty.

Chris doesn’t freak out. Hides in the equipment room, a couple of times, when the sheer amount of people gets to be too much, but it’s okay. He’s here to play hockey, and that’s what he does, and he does it well.

He tapes up a picture of Luka in his stall in the locker room. It’s just a small picture, from the Polaroid camera that Meg bought at Walmart but insists is vintage; the picture’s of Luka smiling at the camera, posing all goofy in Chris’ new Sarnia jersey the day he got it.

Paul notices, because Paul notices everything, and doesn’t seem to have gotten the message that they aren’t friends. “Chan, why is the twinkiest guy in the world in your stall?”

“He- It’s my boyfriend,” Chris says, and he trips over his words a little bit, but he keeps going. “Maybe don’t call him stuff.”

“Way to go, Paul,” Cooper says from his stall, where he’s taping his stick. “Leave the guy alone.”

“I wasn’t being homophobic,” Paul argues. “I made out with Benny at that party last year, you saw!” 

“Worst fuckin’ kisser,” Ben chimes in, good-naturedly enough. He’s just one stall over, close enough that he peers over to look at the picture of Luka. “Your boyfriend’s way out of your league, Channer.”

“We’re not calling him Channer,” Coop says, frowning. “I mean, unless you want us to...”

“No chance,” Chris says. He means it to shut down the conversation, but it just gets a laugh out of the guys. Ben and Paul get distracted throwing towels and stuff at each other, though, thank god, and Chris leaves them to it, and that’s that. His hands only shake a little bit in his gloves.

It becomes normal pretty quick, the way stuff tends to do.

Chris gets into a kind of rhythm of home games and doing his homework on long bus trips; becomes an expert at tuning out the guys when they bicker over how to nickname him – Channer doesn’t last, Chrissy sticks around for maybe two games – and just focuses on scoring. Luka texts him after most games, smileys or hearts or selfies that Chris screenshots, every single one.

There are scouts at a lot of his games. Kids asking him to sign jerseys and stuff. He signs a Leafs one, once, which kind of feels like vandalism, but. Sure. It’s kind of helpful, if he’s honest. The kids. They’re like the ones he used to coach, not really scary at all, and sometimes Chris pretends they’re the ones interviewing him after games. It helps.

A scouting profile describes him as ‘stoic’, which is possibly a nice way of saying he’s boring, but could be worse, too. At least it’s better than Chris Chan, incoherent anxious mess, which probably wouldn’t help his draft stock a ton.

“Stoic isn’t bad,” Meg confirms, over the phone while Chris is in Montreal for World Juniors. “I watched the clip of you after the Russia game, you come off really intense. I think that’s what they meant. Stoic like serious.”

“My liney says I have resting bitch face,” Chris says. Paul says a lot of stuff. Chris is maybe sixty percent sure that’s how he shows affection. 

Meg snorts. “Yeah, kind of.”

Chris holds the phone between his ear and his shoulder while he pulls on his socks. “You didn’t bug me about that turnover in the second yet,” he says, and he can practically hear Meg shrug.      

“Stuff happens,” she says.  

“Uh,” Chris says, and it hangs there, jutting out, because ‘stuff happens’ is the biggest platitude he’s ever heard, which makes it the least Meg thing he’s ever heard. They don’t make excuses for each other, with hockey. “Meg?”

“Dude,” Meg says. “I play on my school team with a bunch of niners. You’re basically pro, you don’t need my advice.”

“Yes I do,” Chris says, probably too fast. Then, because that might’ve come off bossy, “I mean, only if you want to, obviously I can’t make you give me hockey advice, you just see the game really well and it’s kind of our thing-”

“Oh my god, shut up,” Meg takes pity on him. Chris is very grateful.

He presses the soles of his socked feet together, holds onto the phone. He needs some stuff, this stuff, to stay normal. “That turnover...” he prompts.  

There’s a second of just quiet, where he wonders if the call dropped, then Meg sighs. “Really avoidable and fucking embarrassing, Chris,” she says, and Chris has never been happier to be told off in his entire life. “You had at least two different passes available...” 

---

The season goes on. They win four straight, then drop three. Hover between second and third in the league.

Some days are tougher than others, like the time Chris hears a family speaking Mandarin on his way home, and it’s not like he was ever fluent, not like he even knows a ton of vocab except for the stuff his mom says around the house, ‘take out the trash’ or ‘go brush your teeth’; but just hearing it makes his heart hurt.

His mom sends him ‘I love you’ in Aramaic that night, and Chris just sends Te amo back so she won’t worry, then curls up under his duvet and listens to his billet parents moving around downstairs and feels very far from everything he knows.

He doesn’t even think he’d mind getting up on Saturdays for Chinese school, if it meant he was back at home.

He holds his hands to his chest, real tight, and doesn’t quite manage to make them stop shaking.

The season goes on.

Some days are better than others. Some are good.

His road roomie is Ben, who snores but also is a heavy enough sleeper that Chris can video call without feeling guilty, and Luka’s sleep schedule is nonsense, so he’s usually around after games. It’s really, really good to hear his voice, even when he brings up draft stuff, one night.

“I keep on checking the draft rankings,” he says. “This one site said you might go to Colorado. They seem nice. They have mountains.” 

“My draft’s not for a year still,” Chris reminds Luka; then, because he has to say it, “There’s no guarantee I go first.”

Luka looks straight at the camera, like come on. “I listened to them talk about you on this podcast, they keep on saying you’re a generational player.” He says ‘generational player’ in this deep voice so Chris knows he’s doing a quote, and he keeps doing the voice, all, “Christopher Chan, kid’s a generational talent, the next Connor McDavid-”

“That’s not true,” Chris interrupts. He wishes the media would be more original. He doesn’t play anything close to McDavid, doesn’t have anything in common with him at all except for being vaguely awkward-looking and really good at putting up points.

“Chris McChan,” Luka says, without missing a single beat, and it takes Chris by surprise, makes him laugh.

Luka beams at him. “Your smile’s so pretty,” he says. It’s kind of a chirp but also kind of makes Chris’ stomach do somersaults.

“You’re pretty,” Chris shoots back.

“Well, duh.”   

Ben mumbles something in his sleep, over on his bed, and rolls over.

Chris is really glad the guy’s a deep sleeper, because he stays calling Luka for way longer than he means to, just listening to him talk about class and how he’s running for student council president and his new backpack, this thick woven material, because he’s into fair trade now.

Being responsible is really hard. They could talk all night, so, so easily.

“It’s bedtime,” Chris says, regretful. “We’re up early tomorrow.”

“Nerd,” Luka says, as though he hasn’t just spent forty minutes talking about his academic endeavours; he doesn’t protest, though, because he looks just as tired as Chris feels. He taps the camera. “I miss you so much. I’m going to kiss your face literally a million times when you get back.”

Chris touches Luka’s face on the screen.  “Love you, Lukey.”

Luka blows a kiss, and it would be really lame for Chris to try and catch it, but he sort of does anyways.

---

They have a chance to win it all in game six, and everyone makes the drive to watch. Chris sees them as soon as he gets on the ice, his mom and Meg and Luka and his parents right by the glass, all in CHAN jerseys.

It is incredibly embarrassing. Luka and Meg are hollering so loud Chris can hear them from the bench, holding a sign that says CHRIS CHAN HAVE MY BABIES and definitely blocks the view for at least three rows behind them. Chris’ mom is carefully on the other side of the Smith-Patels, as far as possible from the sign – smart lady – and she’s recording a video on her phone, waves at Chris when she sees him looking.

It’s a nice kind of embarrassing, Chris guesses.

And he’s warming up, getting in the right headspace for the game, but he smiles, just a small one, and nods in their direction.

Paul has something to say, because of course he does.

“Holy shit, he smiles,” Paul says in that friendly-abrasive liney way that took Chris six months to get used to, flinging an arm around Chris’ shoulders even though he’s trying to keep up the puck. “Christopher Fucking Chan just smiled, boys.”

Ben leans on the net, conversational like they aren’t about to play the most important game of their lives. “Look at his fuckin’ cheer section, of course he smiled-”

Coop swats at Ben with his blocker to get him off his net, then at Chris’ butt. “Pauly’s trying to steal your man, Chan.”

“How is his boyfriend even hotter in person?” Paul demands, gawking and not helping his case even a little. “Has he met Chris?”

Chris... cannot quite make himself feel annoyed. “Still really out of your league, eh?” he chirps.

He escapes from the conversation right after that. He has to get focused – he can see the refs skating together for one last chat before puck drop, knows that there are rows of scouts way up in the stands. Priorities.

But like. He did it. He did a social interaction at a hockey game, and he didn’t freak out, didn’t get thrown off his game even a little; and he can see his family cheering him on by the glass; and at the end of OT, when Paul taps in the gamewinner off of Chris’ pass, Chris is right in there screaming with the rest of the guys. With his team.

---

Being back home is just about the only familiar thing, in the offseason. It’s different than other summers – for one thing, Chris doesn’t get a job. He offers to, but his mom tells him to focus on training, so he just goes as hard as he can at that, on and off the ice. Works with a real expert trainer, at a really nice gym, with a bunch of pro players hanging around. A couple of them even try to talk to him, which is terrifying but also kind of cool. Mostly terrifying.

For another thing, Luka starts looking at universities.

Chris has never been more happy to not have to do something in his life.

They’re sitting on Luka’s bedroom floor now, Chris entering whatever Luka tells him into an enormously complicated spreadsheet that is ostensibly ranking schools based on a dozen different factors, but is more likely a thing of pure evil invented to torture them.

Luka face-plants into the pile of university brochures in front of him, which would be more concerning if it hadn’t happened maybe a dozen times in the past couple months   

Chris finishes typing Luka’s ranking of the social sciences department at UBC, closes his laptop, and pets Luka’s hair in a way he hopes is comforting. “We aren’t even in grade twelve yet. Don’t be stressed.”

Luke sighs, real big. Peels his face off the ground to peer up at Chris. “I hate decisions,” he declares, tearing at the corner of a Ryerson campus guide. “I hate higher education, and political science, and politics in general, as a concept.”

“You don’t really,” Chris says.      

“I might,” Luka says, but it’s half-hearted, and he takes the hand that Chris offers to help him sit up again; looks at the mess of information surrounding them and bites his lip. “What if I don’t get into a school near you?”  

“You will,” Chris says.            

“We don’t even know where you’re going yet.”   

“You’ll get in everywhere,” Chris says, and he really means it. “Canada or the U.S. You’re the smartest person I know.”

Luka kind of scoffs, but he doesn’t argue. School stuff is like his hockey – no room for doubt.

Chris takes Luka’s hand and squeezes, just once. “We still have summer,” he says. “And all next year. It’ll be okay.”

“Promise,” Luka requests, and Chris nods.

“Promise,” he says.

Luka nods, but he still looks all overwhelmed, so Chris tugs on his hand ‘til Luka climbs onto his lap. Once he’s there, Chris enfolds Luka in the biggest hug he can manage, which is pretty darn big.

Luka presses his face into the crook of Chris’ neck, holding onto him real tight. “I’m still stressed,” he says, in this small voice. “I know I probably don’t have to be? But I am.”

“Yeah,” Chris says. He gets it. He really, really gets it, because he’s spent the last four years getting told he’s going to be one of the best hockey players in the world, the last year and a half getting to be boyfriends with his best friend, and he’s still waiting for someone to show up and tell him that it’s all an elaborate prank.

“Stuff’s scary,” Chris says, instead of all that, because he thinks Luka needs him to be the calm one, right now.      

“Yeah,” Luka says, and the summer weather is kind of muggy for sitting on top of each other like this, but they stay holding onto each other anyways. And, see, it’s not like Chris is scared of the future. He hasn’t been in a while, really.

There’s still a pretty big part of him that wishes they could stay here in Luka’s room and not think about the draft or university or any of that grown up stuff. Just keep to what’s familiar, the way Chris likes it.

For a long time, they’re both quiet.

Luka drums his fingers on Chris’ forearm, pulling back just a little. “You got even more muscles, huh?” he asks, and it’s teasing, a little bit.             

“The team has trainers and stuff,” Chris says. “Customized workouts. It’s pretty cool.” He flexes, and that can’t be super comfortable for the guy in his lap, but Luka just snorts a laugh, keeps his hand on Chris’ arm.

Chris had to buy a new backpack for the first time since grade nine, this year. The straps on the old one got tight around his shoulders even when he loosened them all the way. He tells Luka that because he thinks it’ll make him laugh, and it does, and the heavy feeling in the air evaporates mostly all the way.

Chris presses his nose to Luka’s. “You know you don’t have to do school,” he says. “Or anything you don’t want to, really. Like, they’ll pay me enough for us to-”

“Holy fuck, I’m telling Megs you offered to be my sugar daddy,” Luka says, without even hesitating. “She’ll give you so much crap.”

“No, I wasn’t- I didn’t mean it like that,” Chris protests. He can’t even think the words ‘sugar daddy’ without going red. “I really, really didn’t, that’s- Luka, jeez.”

“Your face, Chris.” Luka’s laughing like this is the funniest thing in the world, but his eyes are soft, and he’s shaking his head all fond. “I love you a lot,” he says, like he’s leading up to something.

“You too,” Chris says.

“And thank you for offering to be my sugar daddy.”

Chris’ face is fire-engine red, he can feel it. “I really didn’t.”      

Luka ignores him. “The world needs me, though,” he says. “I’m going to be the first gay Canadian President of the United States.”

Chris nods, kind of thinking about it – he could be First Man, but political stuff might interfere with hockey, so he’d have to get someone to handle that, and he Could Not give speeches, like ever – but then Luka punches his shoulder.

“That was a joke, you should be laughing, oh my god.”

“I think you could do it,” Chris says, honest, and Luka laughs, kind of distraught.

“You actually mean that,” Luka says, and he kind of looks like the heart eyes emoji, and Chris loves him more than he’ll ever, ever be able to say. “How are you my real boyfriend? Like, did I imagine you?”

“You say very weird things, Luka Smith-Patel,” Chris says, like he didn’t just mentally compare his boyfriend to an emoji.  

Luka shifts so he’s got one knee on either side of Chris’ thighs, and they’re just looking at each other, these secret little smiles like they’re the only two people in the world. “That’s why you like me, Christopher Chan,” Luka announces, and he gets a hand on either side of Chris’ face, holding him all gentle. He raises an eyebrow. “Want to make out?”

“Yes,” Chris says, real fast. He trails a hand down Luka’s back and onto his butt, because butt-touching is a thing he gets to do now, a recent development that he’s very okay with. Having a boyfriend is awesome. “Yeah, let’s- yes please.”

And the making out part is pretty awesome too, in Chris’ opinion.

---

The Hockey Night in Canada crew sets up in the kitchen and interviews Chris and his mom separately, then together. It’s kind of funny watching his mom on camera – she sits really straight at the kitchen table, flattens out her accent more than when it’s just the two of them.

“How proud were you when you found out that Chris will be wearing the C next season, Ms. Chan?”

“Dr. Chan,” Chris says, because he knows his mom won’t, and she elbows him, embarrassed – “Chris!” – but the producers laugh, and it kind-of-unintentionally lightens the mood enough that Chris feels okay to try and give longer answers; only stutters once and gets through it with his mom nodding along beside him.

And neither of them is really all that talkative when they’re on their own, let alone in front of a camera crew, but his mom takes to it surprisingly well, answers questions really thoughtfully and even gets to chat about her linguistics stuff with one of the camera guys who has a daughter getting her masters.

They’re getting the hang of this hockey thing, Chris thinks.

“Thanks for doing that,” he says, once all the camera people are gone and he’s reaching up to the high shelf to get the salad bowl. “Really.”

“Of course,” his mom says. She’s setting the table for dinner, and when Chris looks over, he sees that she’s set a place for Luka without even asking, right in his regular spot. And it’s nothing new, not at all, but it’s- Chris doesn’t know. Looking at those three plates, after everything today, with everything to come, it sinks in how much they mean for him. Have meant for him.

“I’m going to marry him one day, Mom,” he says, simple. “Once I’m in the league and everything.” He sets down the salad bowl on the counter, looks right at his mom. “And then I’m going to take you for a vacation so you can hear every single language, right in person. Seriously, wherever you want.”  

It takes a second, a silence that Chris is pretty sure is surprise, and then his mom laughs. She doesn’t laugh often enough – it makes her look younger, cheeks all squished up the way Chris’ get, the way she looked in pictures before years of teaching year-round to pay for hockey and a house and having a kid.      

“What’s funny?” Chris asks, and his mom is just looking at him, eyes shining.

“A few years ago,” she says, “you would answer one reporter’s question and spend the whole night hiding. Now you give an interview in your house and tell me you want to get married?”

“Well,” Chris says. He’s gotten better at handling stuff, has changed a bunch, since he was a scared kid. Mostly for the better? He hopes for the better.

He thinks for the better.

His mom smiles. “I love you very much,” she says. They haven’t said it in English in a while, and that shouldn’t really make a difference, the words mean the same thing, but it’s special anyways, hearing it in his own language.

Chris leans down and hugs her, really tight. “Wǒ ài nǐ,” he says, ‘cause some things stick even without Mandarin school. His mom does this surprised little sound like a choked-up laugh, but she hugs him back before pushing him off, gentle, wiping at her eye with the back of her hand.

“Go get cutlery for your boyfriend, silly,” she says, and Chris does, and his hands stay steady the whole time.