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BREAKING: LEAFS' MITCH MARNER TRADED TO PITTSBURGH PENGUINS sportsnt.ca/news/2kT45f9Q ...

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

Excited to have you, @Marner93!

 

#leafs2k23 @marnser

i hope that leafs management literally chokes and dies bye

 

Ben Singh @Bsingh7

I’ve been predicting the Marner trade for months... Sad loss, but think this will be good for the team in the long run #tmltalk #torontomapleleafs

 

Jessica <3 @jessabeee

omg they traded @Marner93 :’( actually so upset rn such a hometown player #leafs #TOlovesMarner

 

TorontoStar @TorontoStar

A look back at Mitch Marner’s time with the Leafs #tmltalk #TOlovesMarner on.thestar.com/5kdZZd

 

Auston pulls into Mitch’s driveway, puts his car in park, and doesn’t get out.

And it’s – it’s fucking dumb, is what it is. He probably looks like a particularly lame stalker, sitting there in pajama pants and staring at the dashboard like it’s going to tell him what to say. The red lights on the gas gauge stare back, like, ‘Fuck if we know, man’.

He should’ve put on jeans or something. Not like it’s particularly urgent, now that the decision’s made and out there.

It felt urgent, when he saw the news.

And it’s that, the thought of Marns sitting there alone and watching the pundits on Trade Central dissecting everything, that finally makes Auston unbuckle his seatbelt.

“Just go,” he tells himself out loud, and he does.

It takes a solid minute and a half for Mitch to open his door after the doorman lets Auston up. When he finally does, his eyes are red and puffy. It’s not the first time Auston’s seen Mitch cry, not by a long shot. Still manages to catch him off guard.

For a second, they just stare.

“Hey,” Mitch says, disconcertingly normal. He’s wearing a Leafs centennial t-shirt, grey and faded from a million washes. That’s its own special kind of irony, right there. “Saw the news, huh?”

“Marns,” Auston says, and Mitch’s bottom lip trembles. It’s a sucker punch to the gut. Nothing he could say right now would be anything like helpful, so Auston reaches out, wordless, and tugs Mitch into a hug. Mitch lets him, fits into Auston’s arms the way he has since they were rookies. He’s filled out more since then, but still collapses against Auston like he’s a 160 pound teenager, right there in the doorway. Auston takes his weight, feels Mitch exhale in a little puff against his collarbone.

“It’s bullshit,” Auston says, like it matters. “You’re from here, your numbers are perfect. You were supposed to get the A, they should be getting rid of me-”

Mitch breathes a laugh, shaky. “You’re Auston Matthews. You’re going to live and fucking die in this city before they let you go.”

“With you,” Auston says. “It’s supposed to be both of us.”

“Well. Yeah,” Mitch says, and there’s not much more for either of them to say, after that.

They’re maybe getting too old for sleepovers. Definitely too old for cuddling. Auston plants Mitch on the couch anyways, drags the comforter off of Mitch’s bed and wraps it around the two of them like a cocoon. He puts the TV onto the food network just for the noise, and they stay like that, tangled up on the sofa.

Fish comes over and nudges Auston’s leg. He scratches the top of her head and she wags her tail, real small and uncertain, like she knows that something’s wrong.

“Good girl,” Auston tells her, because he loves Mitch’s dog more than he likes most people. She jumps up on the couch next to them. Between Auston, the dog, and the duvet, Mitch is probably boiling, but he doesn’t move. Doesn’t do anything at all, like he’s shellshocked.

Over on the coffee table, Auston’s phone keeps lighting up with notifications about the trade. He wants to smash it on the ground, knows he won’t. Knows he’s going to read every single one of them later, as if it’ll change anything. So maybe he’s shellshocked, too.

“Marns,” he says, hating how needy he sounds. “Say something.”

Mitch looks down at the comforter and leans his head on Auston’s shoulder. Auston can’t see his face.

“I really wanted to win a cup with you,” Mitch says.

The lady on the TV is talking about how to properly frost cupcakes. Auston buries his face in Mitch’s hair.

-------

It’s weird, how fast things go after that. Like, one minute they have all the time in the world, the next Mitch is looking at condos in Pittsburgh. He gets better about it after that first night, talking about how he’s finally going to live in a city where he can go out without getting immediately recognized; using words like ‘opportunity’ and ‘exciting’ when the press ask him about the move. He’s good at looking at the bright side. Always has been.

Auston feels stupid. He was stupid- or, okay, that’s not the word. ‘Arrogant’, maybe, to think that they were important enough for things to stay the way they were forever. Just-

He has an A, Mitch is – was – supposed to get one this season. Auston’s never thought too far beyond that, but he always figured one of them’d get the C, eventually. A cup, sooner rather than later.

And it’s not like he planned out their future, not like he devotes a ton of time to thinking about stuff that’s not hockey. He’s never really had to, has sort of been assuming that things’d go the same way they’ve been going since they were dumb teenagers: Train in summer. Play the rest of the year. He’d complain about Canadian winters, Mitch’d be a dick and mock him for complaining about Canadian winters before following him home and taking over the entire left side of Auston’s bed. Lather, rinse, repeat, what-the-fuck-ever.

He was stupid.

-------

They rope the rookies and Mitch’s parents into coming to help move Mitch’s stuff into the truck. Willy comes too, ends up mainly pushing elevator buttons and holding doors under the guise of ‘supervising’. Asshole.

It’s weird to see the place all empty, just like that. Wrong, somehow.

Auston finishes wrapping the last glass in newspaper and puts it on top of the others in the cardboard box labelled ‘KITCHEN’ in black sharpie. From the other side of the counter, Mitch’s mom looks up and sighs.

“I bet he hasn’t used half of this stuff.”

“Only ‘cause he makes me cook for him instead,” Auston complains, because it’s true, and Bonnie grins.

“Sounds like him.”

Auston returns her smile, starts taping his box shut. Wonders who’s going to make sure Mitch doesn’t burn his new place down trying to make toast, in Pittsburgh. It’s quiet for a while, then Bonnie talks again, continues a conversation Auston didn’t know they were having.

“I know it’s silly to worry about him.” She’s staring at the spatula she’s holding like it’s something sentimental. “He’s a grownup.”

And, okay. It’s not like Auston ever wants Mitch’s mom to be sad. She’s too nice of a person for that, and Auston figures he owes her a lot for dealing with six years of him tagging along to Christmases and Canadian Thanksgivings whenever the game schedule didn’t let him go home. At the same time, though, it’s a guilty kind of comforting to realize that he’s not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with the idea of Mitch not being around.

It’s probably worse for her than it is for Auston. Duh, it’s worse. She’s his mom, Auston’s just his- friend. Whatever. Point is, he’s been living away from his family since he was a rookie; away from Arizona for even longer, so he gets it, and tells Bonnie as much.

“Don’t worry,” he says, and reaches across the counter to pat Bonnie’s hand, only a little awkward. “It’s hard. He’ll be fine, though.”

She beams up at Auston. All the Marners have the same smile. “I knew there was a reason why you’re my favourite honourary child. And- oh!” She points at Auston with the spatula like it’s a sword. “Don’t think this gets you out of coming for dinner. I still need someone to give me all the embarrassing Mitch stories.”

Auston tries for a smile. “You got it.”

“Y’know, it’s funny,” Bonnie goes on absently, putting the spatula into the box. “It always seemed like you two would be playing together forever, you’re so attached at the hip.”

Her words settle in Auston’s stomach like a stone, unexpected, and it takes him too long to respond.

“Yeah,” he manages, and puts down the roll of tape as soon as he thinks enough time has passed for it to seem casual. “I’m just going to- bathroom.”

Bonnie opens her mouth, like she’s going to ask if he’s okay. It’s a mom thing, maybe, or the fact that Auston just used ‘bathroom’ as a verb. Doesn’t matter, because he’s out the door before she can speak, walking past the bathroom, past Fish in her bed, past the boxes and suitcases stacked in the hallway ‘til he ends up outside of Mitch’s room.

So, y’know. He’s nothing if not predictable.

When he peers into the room, Marns is upside-down, shoulders on the floor with his legs up on the bed that he’s supposed to be dismantling. He looks weird from this angle, all teeth and chin and messy hair, eyes wide when he notices Auston in the doorway.

“Hey,” he says. “Mom chased you out?”

Auston crosses the room, kicks a balled-up pair of socks out of the way, and sits down on the floor next to Mitch. He crosses his legs.

“Kitchen’s finished. Thought I’d come help.” He says that last part pointedly, because Mitch doesn’t look like he’s planning on moving anytime soon.

“Don’t be a bitch,” Mitch says, flicking Auston’s knee. “I can’t pack. I’m having a crisis.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Mitch says. “How can I play for the Pens? There’s still a Crosby poster on my wall back at home. That’s so weird. Sidney Crosby is going to think I’m weird and I’ll literally die of embarrassment.”

“You’ve been playing against him for six years,” Auston points out, when it sounds like Mitch has rambled himself out.

“And trembling beneath his beautiful, hockey-god gaze the entire time.”

“Ew,” Auston says delicately, and Mitch rolls his eyes.

“No, Matthews, what’s ‘ew’ is you having to speak at my funeral after I literally die of embarrassment in front of the guy that I dressed up as for Halloween in sixth grade.”

“Literally.”

“Literally,” Mitch agrees, already distracted, and scratches at a loose thread in Auston’s jeans. Auston lets him, even though he actually kind of likes this pair.

He looks down at Mitch. His hair is falling across his forehead, soft and messy. It’s getting shaggy again, making him look younger than he is.

Auston digs his nails into his palm to stop himself reaching out to touch.

 

bbuffy reblogged marncr93

im in denial about the trade that shall not be named so coffeeshop au happened ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on ao3

#lindsey this is so good and i want to live in it instead of this hell dimension #rpf #marns/matts

 

There’s a knock at his door at 5:30 on the morning Mitch leaves. Auston’s sort of expecting it, even though they just had the goodbye party last night, at Mo’s place because he’s the only one who doesn’t completely suck at using a barbeque. It was fun, for what it was; and what it was was Auston following Mitch around like a clingy girlfriend. He wonders if the guys noticed.

Marns didn’t seem to mind, lapping up the attention the way he always does and dragging Auston around to talk to everyone who came through the door. It was a lot of people. Matt, Bozie, all the other guys from six years worth of lineups. Sucks for whoever ended up doing the dishes.

Auston’s still in his shirt and jeans from the night before, but he gets the door quick, doesn’t even bother pretending like he was asleep.

“You’ve got to catch your flight,” he says, before the door’s even open enough to see who it is. Down the hall, one of his neighbours locks her door and starts for the elevator.

Mitch waves him off, keeps one hand behind his back. “It’s not ‘til later.”

“Eight thirty,” Auston says. Plus traffic. Mitch ignores him. He almost looks nervous, bouncing up and down on his heels the way he does before a game, like he’s trying to vibrate out of his skin.

“I got something for you,” he says.

Auston frowns. “I didn’t get you anything.”

Mitch rolls his eyes. “You weren’t supposed to.”

“You did.”

“That’s different,” Mitch says, then, warningly, “Don’t be excited. It’s kind of dumb.”

Auston waits, but Mitch doesn’t do anything, just stares like he’s trying to see into Auston’s brain. He’s still buzzing. It’s kind of stressing Auston out.

The elevator dings at the end of the hall. “Can I see it?”

Marns meets his eyes, finally, and sighs. “Don’t laugh”, he says, and shoves whatever he’s been holding behind his back at Auston. It takes Auston a second to figure out what he’s holding, and his brain recognizes the logo first: a penguin coming out of a triangle, black and white and gold. There’s a number sixteen on the sleeve.

It hurts more than Auston thought it would.

“Told you,” Mitch says. “Dumb.”

“It’s not.” Auston folds the jersey over his arm, traces over the letters of Mitch’s name on the back. It’s weird seeing them in yellow. He can feel Mitch watching him, intense. “I like it. Well. Y’know.”

“Yeah,” Mitch says. He smiles, just a little. “Dare you to wear it in front of the guys.”

“As if,” Auston scoffs, reaches out to punch Mitch’s shoulder. “Hey. Thanks, man.”

“It’s nothing,” Mitch says, and he’s still smiling, and so is Auston, but then it’s quiet enough that reality sinks back in. And it’s weird, because Auston’s been dreading this moment since the second he heard about the trade; only now that it’s here, it feels like it’s happening to someone else.

They both stand there, looking at each other, like maybe one of them is going to know what to say. Auston sure as hell doesn’t.

“So,” Mitch says, then stops.

There’s maybe two feet between them, if that. It feels like more.

“Mitch,” Auston says. “Playing with you, everything – It’s been good, yeah?”

It’s not enough, nowhere even close to what he wants to say. He’s never been as good with words as Mitch, but they don’t seem to be working for him either, today, because he just nods, real fast.

“Yeah,” he says, kind of hushed. “Yeah, really good.”

And Auston tries for a smile, he really does; it must not work, because Mitch steps forward and yanks Auston into a hug, clinging tight enough to almost hurt. Auston clings right back.

“Promise we’ll still be best friends,” Mitch says, muffled against Auston’s shoulder, like that’s ever been a question.

“Shut up, you know we will,” Auston says, gruff. His grip tightens on Mitch, just a little, despite himself.

They stand there hugging for a long time, out in the hallway. Too long for bros, maybe. Auston can’t tell. There’s a line somewhere, where plausible deniability ends and Mitch Marner begins, and he’s maybe been living there since his first year in the NHL.

Auston could probably make Mitch miss his flight, if he just didn’t let go.

“Love you,” Mitch says.

“Yeah.” Auston rubs a thumb across the back of Mitch’s neck, counts one-mississippi, two-mississippi, three, then makes himself pull back. Self-control.

Mitch swipes at his eyes, sucks in a breath. “Okay,” he says, blinking a bunch of times, “okay, okay. I’m going to go ‘else I’ll start crying and that’ll be fucking embarrassing.”

Auston nods, holds onto his new Pens jersey with both hands. “Bye.”

Mitch is staring at him all intently, and for a second it seems like he’s going to say something, but all that comes out is, “Bye, Matts.”

Auston watches him go, feeling a lot worse than he has any right to. It’s not like they’ll never see each other again. He’s going to be, like, four hours away. That’s nothing, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

“Marns,” Auston calls after him without really knowing what he’s going to say. Mitch turns on his heel halfway down the hall, way too eager, expecting too much of him like always. Auston fumbles. “We’ll talk soon, okay?”

He could swear that Mitch almost looks disappointed, like he was waiting for Auston to say something else. He smiles, though, does this weird little half-salute thing, and then he’s gone, just like that.

Auston gets a text from him not even two minutes later, ‘miss me yet?’ He’s probably still in the elevator. For a second, Auston has the urge to do something crazy, like run after him.

He doesn’t.

   

MITCH MARNER ON PRESEASON WITH PENS - TSN RADIO TRANSCRIPT

Jerry: If there’s one piece of news that’s got the hockey world buzzing in a relatively uneventful off-season, it’s the much-discussed trade of Mitch Marner to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenseman Anders Dietrich and young goalie Jack Levesque. Mitch, could you ever have predicted the debate that your trade would spark?

Mitch Marner: Uh, no, definitely not. I think- it’s partly Toronto too, right? [The NHL] is so big there, anything was bound to be news.

J: I don’t know if you’re giving yourself enough credit. I’m remembering one fan petition in particular, they wanted to get a restraining order to ban the guys who made the trade from the ACC.

MM: Ha. Yeah, I saw that one. But, y’know. They’re obviously just doing what’s best for the team. I get it.

J: So you were supportive of the trade?

MM: I mean. That’s the game.

J: This is only going to be the second NHL team you’ve played for in your career. Has the adjustment to Pittsburgh been a learning curve?

MM: Yeah, y’know, there’s always a- getting used a new place, it’s tough. But the team has been great. Super helpful. I knew a couple of them before, so. Yeah.

J: How has the Pittsburgh public reacted to you being one of the first openly bisexual players in the league?

MM: Uh, I haven’t heard too much about it, honestly? Guess it’s kind of old news at this point. But yeah, no, Pens management have been nothing but supportive. So that’s good. I’m lucky.

J: Mixed feelings though, about leaving the city where you grew up?

MM: I mean, Toronto is obviously always going to be home. That’s where I spend the off-season, that’s where my family is.

J: That’s where everything started.

MM: Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.

   

Auston trains for what’s left of summer. Gets a new couch.

His dad comes down to visit in August, gives one of his ‘you’re a man now and I’m proud of you’ talks that are partly nice and mostly uncomfortable. Marns texts enough pictures of Pittsburgh and his new teammates and the Pens’ training facilities that Auston could probably wallpaper his condo with them. Not that he would.

It’s waiting for hockey, basically, like every other summer of his life for as long as Auston can remember. Walking into the locker room for their first practice is more of a relief than he’d like to admit.

There’s always a while at the beginning of the season when everyone’s way too happy to be back together, before they all get sick of staring at each other’s faces twenty-four/seven. It’s nice, Auston guesses. Familiar.

A bunch of the guys pat him on the back when he gets into the room. He nods back, takes a couple of noogies from the old guys. Says hi to the two they got for Marns. They seem nice enough. Not worth Mitch, but no one would be, so that’s maybe an unfair standard. Auston leaves them to hang out with Brownie as soon as he can, and goes to sit down next to Willy. He kicks his shin, light, in greeting.

“Morning.”

“Hey.” Willy kicks him back, not light at all. It’s kind of like they never left. “Ready for another one?”

Auston opens his mouth to respond, but doesn’t get a chance.

“Matty!” Auston looks up to see Buzkowitz making a beeline straight towards them.

“Ooh, Matty,” Willy mimics under his breath, and Auston flips him off. Buzzy was all nervous around him for his first couple of games with the Leafs last year, wouldn’t stop calling him Auston Matthews, first and last name, ‘til Mitch made Auston invite him over to play video games. He’s not a bad kid.

Annoying as fuck, though.

It kind of looks like he’s going for a hug, so Auston reaches out a hand for a fist bump before he gets too close. Got to set boundaries somewhere. “Hey, rookie. Good summer?”

Buzzy touches his fist to Auston’s and nods so fast it looks like his head’s going to fall off. His eyebrows are, like, weirdly blonde. They make him look like he’s permanently surprised. “You can’t call me rookie anymore, dude, I’m in now. Going to wreck shit this season. Leafs two-k-two-three, y’know?”

“That’s the fucking spirit, bud,” Naz chimes in as he passes by and ruffles Buzkowitz’s hair.

Willy snorts, but Auston must kind of nod, because Buzzy takes it as an invitation to sit down and keep talking as they do up their skates, chattering about whatever he did over summer. Something involving a cabin and raccoons in the attic. Really Canadian shit. Auston mostly zones out, lets Buzzy’s voice join the other background noise and watches the rest of the guys trickle in. Then:

“It’s gotta be kind of weird without Mitchy, huh?” Buzzy nudges his knee. “You doing okay?”

“He’s not dead,” Auston says, tightening his laces. Doesn’t let himself react.

“It’s okay to cry, man, let it out,” says Willy, who’s apparently been following the conversation this whole time and waiting for a chance to be a pain in Auston’s ass. Auston rolls his eyes and very deliberately doesn’t look over at Marns’ stall.

“I played without him ‘til I was nineteen,” he says. “I can do it now.”

It sounds sort of like he’s trying to convince himself, but Willy’s fixing his hair and Buzz is trying to show off his news Leafs tattoo, then Mo’s got on his captain voice and starts herding everyone towards the ice, so both of them are too distracted to comment. Small blessings, maybe.

They start off slow, just some passing drills. Auston does a couple laps to get his feet under him. It always feels like coming back alive, getting on the ice with the guys after summer, like he’s not really in his body ‘til he’s wearing his skates.

There’re a few younger guys up for the preseason, no one who looks like they’re going to last that long. A couple of them start openly staring when Auston fires off two, top shelf past Robbie, within thirty seconds of starting a scrimmage. He pretends not to notice the staring, even though he knows they were pretty sweet goals.

It’s dumb, how relieved he is. Just- he hasn’t played without Marns in years, and it’s not like Auston ever thought he couldn’t, but it’s nice to know he wasn’t lying when he said he’d be fine.

He’s got a A on his jersey and his team around him. This is his place, and fuck, Buzzy’s right, this is their year. Auston’ll make it their year.

(The drive back home after practice is quiet.

He’ll get used to it.)

 

From: “Denis DiAngelo” [diangelo@diangelosportsmanagement.com]

To: “Auston Matthews” [a.matthews@leafs.mlse.ca]

Subject: Update + Well Wishes

Auston,

Hope all’s well heading into the season. We’ll be sending the final revisions of your bonus agreements and the updated sponsorship deals shortly. Nothing different than what we discussed, just review and sign. Don’t know if it’s of interest to you, Toronto Life magazine got in touch. They’re interested in using you and a wife/girlfriend in one of their profile pieces at some point, part of a series on Toronto athletes. Let me know if you’re interested.

Best,

Dennis

 

It’s not a daily thing, not like they schedule a time. Auston seems to end up skyping Mitch before bed most nights, anyways. It doesn’t count as being clingy – he usually waits for Mitch to call, which he usually does right on schedule because being clingy is not a thing that Mitch Marner has worried about for a single day in his life. Auston’s not complaining. It works for them.

“How’s practicing with Sid?” he asks, shoving a pillow behind his head so he can sit up against the headboard. Distant outside, someone blares on their car horn. It’s the kind of constant noise he hated, when he first got to Toronto. Doesn’t mind it, now. He wonders if Marns can hear it over Skype.

Mitch looks thoughtful, kind of pixelated on the screen. “Weirdly the exact same as playing against him? In that, okay, I’m usually the one setting stuff up, right? But he’s thinking a zillion moves ahead, like it’s chess instead of hockey. Half the time you’re just trying to keep up with him.”

Auston leans his iPad on the pillow on the other side of the bed. It almost makes it look like Mitch is lying there, sleeping over after a bad loss or a hard win or too many episodes into a Walking Dead marathon. If he was here he’d be all close, passed out with his feet shoved between Auston’s calves to stay warm.

Auston wiggles his toes under his comforter, then toys with the volume of the call so he won’t have to think. “They want you to replace him when he leaves.”

Mitch is shaking his head almost before Auston finishes his sentence. “Don’t say that, man.”

“Everyone is.” That’s the truth. Auston’s seen it himself, everywhere from his twitter mentions to the analyst’s articles that they’re not supposed to read. A reporter even asked him about it after yesterday’s practice. He can see the logic in it. Pens’re going to need a playmaker, whenever Crosby retires. That’s Marns. Always has been; as good as Auston and maybe better.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mitch says. “He’s not going anywhere. Which-” He frowns a little, like he’s anticipating an argument that isn’t coming. “Which I’m happy about. He’s a really good guy, Aus.”

“I know.” Mitch is good at a lot of things. Taking a compliment isn’t one of them.

“Super intense, though,” he says, oblivious. “I feel like he needs a hug.”

“You’re going to cuddle Sidney Crosby,” Auston realizes, and can’t quite hold back a grin.

No!” Mitch says, leaning close to the camera so his nose looks giant. Liar. “I never said that, ever. I’m a professional, grown-up, adult hockey player.”

He’s going to have them all wrapped around his finger, Crosby included, by the all-star break, max. Auston’d put money on it.

“Besides,” Mitch goes on. “Wouldn’t want to make you too jealous.”

“Considerate.” He hasn’t told Mitch about the dumb photoshoot thing with his girlfriend that doesn’t exist. Still hasn’t replied to his agent about it, either.

“I try,” says Mitch, benevolent, settling back against his pillows. “You miss me yet?”

“No.” Auston lies, just for the fake-offended look it’ll put on Mitch’s face. “Fish, though. I miss that dog like hell.”

“She keeps expecting me to make her a plate after dinner,” Mitch says. “You ruined my dog, Matthews.”

“She’s perfect,” Auston says; then, because he knows that Mitch lets her sleep on the bed, even if he won’t admit it, “Don’t listen to him, Fishy.”

Fishy,” Mitch echoes, and rolls his eyes so big Auston can see it even on the crappy Skype video. “I cannot fucking believe.”

“Believe it, man.” Auston says, and watches Mitch scratch Fish’s ears as she hops into frame and flops down on his chest. The two of them look cozy enough to make Auston hyperaware of how empty his place is. He takes a screenshot without really thinking about it, and if Marns hears the little ‘click’ sound, he doesn’t say anything, so neither does Auston.

-------

The funny part is that Auston knows Mitch used to like him. Like, like him, like him. He wasn’t exactly subtle about it, not the liking guys part or the liking Auston part.

He went to pride. Tried to drag Auston with him, a couple of times, but Auston begged off, made some dumb excuses ‘til Mitch stopped asking. He retweeted some news article about Mitch at the parade, got a shitton of tweets thanking him for being such a good ally. Mitch got one of the tweets – it says ‘who knew the A in LGBTQA stood for Auston Matthews’ – on a t-shirt. It would be really funny, if-

Yeah.

Some other stuff Auston knows:

It’s not normal, how close they are. Like. They basically have a dog together. It’s weird. Auston’d probably punch anyone else if they tried half the shit Mitch does. Only lets Mitch do it because Auston’s been pretty stupid about him for a while. Not even just in a gay way, or at least not in any way Auston knows, ‘cause he can’t see himself, like, buying Mitch flowers or slow dancing or doing other weird romantic stuff. And it’s not like he sees a good looking guy and wants to have sex with him, not the way it is with girls. He’s just not sure where Marns fits into that, because he doesn’t not want to do things with him, but he also thinks that a lot of those things involve, like, spooning and falling asleep talking. Really girly shit, most of which they do anyways.

He’s pretty sure Mitch still likes him. Like-likes him. Whatever.

Doesn’t matter, either way. Not like Auston’s going to do anything about it. What would he even say? “Hey, man, don’t date anyone else but also no one can ever know and I’m still making up my mind about touching your dick.” Yeah, fat fucking chance.

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing, Auston figures; and their careers are always going to be the priority, and he’d rather never play again than try something with Marns and lose him when it ended badly, and he doesn’t let himself go further than that.

He’s thought about it. Now he’s Not Thinking About It. Simple.

He wouldn’t be as good as he is if he didn’t know self-control.

 

MITCH MARNER (17:22)

good luck tonight man!!!

MITCH MARNER (17:22)

unless im not supposed to say that anymore

MITCH MARNER (17:23)

cuz we’re enemies now (ง •̀_•́)ง

AUSTON MATTHEWS (17:57)

We arent even in the same division

MITCH MARNER (17:59)

wow

MITCH MARNER (18:00)

trying to be a supportive friend and u gotta do me like this

MITCH MARNER (18:00)

fuckin sav

AUSTON MATTHEWS (18:08)

Thanks marns

AUSTON MATTHEWS (18:08)

(Grinning Face )

MITCH MARNER (18:11)

(Grinning Face ) (Sparkling Heart )

 

They win their first game back, three-one against the Sabres. Auston gets a goal and an assist, and the crowd at the ACC gets loud every time he touches the puck. It’s the kind of thing he thought would taper off over time. Hasn’t, so far.

Not a bad way to start the season.

Marty’s been harassing Auston to come for dinner since September, so Auston buys a bottle of wine and drives the forty minutes after practice on Friday so they can watch the Pens’ season opener.

He respects Marty more than just about anyone. Syd, too. They’ve never acted like it’s a hassle to have Auston hanging around, not when he was an annoying teenager following Mitch around and not now when Matt’s retired with a kid and Auston’s still hogging a spot on their couch to watch Marns start with his new team.

It feels like a big game, even if it’s nothing close. The announcers are talking about Mitch every chance they get. Which – good. They should be. He’s playing like a beast, really fun to watch if you’re anyone except Matt’s kid, who passed out against Auston’s shoulder sometime in the second. And, okay. It’s late, and Emma’s four, so Auston gets it; but also his drink is on the coffee table and he can’t get to it without moving her.

He tries to reach out with his free arm while holding the rest of his body still, but gives up pretty quick. Emma always does this, every time, and Auston always ends up trapped wherever they’re sitting for ages because he feels bad about waking her up. There’re probably a hundred pictures of it on Marns’ instagram.

He doesn’t know how she’s still asleep, tonight: he tenses up every time Marns gets the puck, like a reflex. He always made fun of his mom for reacting so much during his games, but he thinks he gets it, now. Not that he’s, like, Mitch’s mom, because that would be just incredibly fucking weird on a whole lot of levels, but-

It’s stressful.

It maybe shows on his face, because Matt gives him a Look three minutes into the third, like when one of them’d taken a hit and he was deciding whether or not it was worth dropping gloves over. “You good?”

“Yeah,” Auston says, automatic. On the screen, Marns feeds the puck to Oketch and streaks up the ice. “It’s weird watching him. I dunno.”

Matt sips his beer, thoughtful. Looks over to where Syd’s on her tablet, feet flung over the side of the armchair, too used to hockey shit to pay attention. “Not that weird,” he says. “Being away from family’s tough. Only part I don’t miss.”

“Bag skates,” Auston offers, after a second. He ignores the part about being away from family. He doesn’t know what Matt knows or thinks he knows about him and Mitch, but it’s not – it’s a different situation.

“Ha. Fair enough.” Matt tips his glass in Auston’s direction and doesn’t push. Auston likes that about him.

The announcers are getting loud, so Auston turns his attention to the TV. It’s a flurry of bodies around the Flyers’ net, the kind of loose puck that he’s pretty sure goalies tell scary stories about around a campfire. He knows Mitch is going to score the second before it happens, finds the gap and watches the puck land on his tape.

“Left shoulder,” Auston says, a split second before the puck whips past the goalie’s head and the Pittsburgh crowd gets to their feet. The camera tracks Marns’ celly as he gets swarmed by black and gold jerseys. Matt whistles, low and appreciative.

“Fucking beaut,” Auston agrees, proud with a fierceness that catches him a little off guard, before remembering that there’s a four year old sleeping on him and he should probably tone it down. Matt maybe thinks the same thing, because he turns his gaze over to Emma. He visibly softens, when he looks at his kid. Almost too easy to chirp him.

“You’re a good pillow,” Marty says, like he knows what Auston’s thinking and is trying to head him off.

Auston watches the replay of Mitchy’s goal, can’t quite hold back a grin. “Would you believe you’re not the first person to tell me that?”

“Yeah,” Matt says, without missing a beat. “It’s ’cause you’re fat, so.”

“Okay there, dad bod.” Auston chirps back.

Matt grimaces over at him. “Dad bod’s going to kick your ass.”

Sydney doesn’t look up from her tablet. “Boys.”

“Alright,” Matt heaves himself to his feet, “Change of plans. Dad bod’s going to bring Em to bed, then kick your ass.” He scoops up Emma, gentle in a way that still catches Auston off guard. She doesn’t stir. Auston kind of misses her weight against him, except it’s nice to be able to move again.

“Babs’ll yell at you,” he says, flexing his arm to try and get some circulation back. “Marns, too.”

Marty scoffs and looks pointedly over at the TV. The camera’s close-up on Mitch, who’s back at the bench, grinning and chattering to someone just off-camera. In any other season, that would have been Auston.

“Marns has got other shit on his mind,” Matt says, and he definitely doesn’t mean anything by it, it’s nothing but the truth.

It stings anyways.

-------

It’s easy to fall back into the routine of things, mostly because there’s no time for anything else. The world gets distilled down to the rink, the airport, and a million identical locker rooms; and then it’s a week and a half into the season and Auston forgets how it felt for things to be any different. Muscle memory, maybe.

They beat the Sens, wipe the floor with the Rangers then the Wild in back to back home games. Lose to the Bruins in OT, just in case they were getting big heads. Media reacts to that one like one October loss is going to remove the Leafs from Cup contention, blowing shit up the way they always do. Losing tastes worse when you’re used to winning, Auston figures.

He pushes his chicken around the pan, judging if it’s still pink. No game tonight, just dinner and some tape. He’s been listening to Marns screwing around with his iTunes library over Skype for the past half-hour. There’s probably a better way of, like, jointly streaming music, but Mitch has claimed the position of DJ with enough enthusiasm that Auston can’t bring himself to complain.

The TSN guy asked him about Mitch again, after the game today. It’s becoming a pattern, Auston thinks. He’s not sure what to feel about that.

“Okay,” Mitch says, jolting Auston out of his own head. “Okay, get hype, I have the best song.”

Auston crosses over to the counter to get the vegetables he cut earlier, glancing over his shoulder to where the tablet’s propped up by the stove. “I swear to god, if it’s like, Karl Urban-”

Keith Urban,” Mitch corrects, tinny over the video chat. “Karl Urban is Éomer in Lord of the Rings, oh my god.”

“My precious,” Auston does his best Gollum voice, holding up a piece of raw broccoli.

Mitch snorts, loud and ugly, sprawled out on his living room floor. He’s eating some kind of sandwich. “You’re embarrassing, Matts. Embarrassing.” And, like, Auston’s not even going to argue that one, ‘cause he just spoke to a piece of broccoli pretending it was the ring. Or. A ring? He’s kind of hazy on the plot of the Lord of the Rings movies, to be honest. Mitch tries to make him watch them on roadies at least once a season, because he’s a fucking nerd disguised as a hockey player, but Auston usually falls asleep twenty minutes in. He vaguely remembers something about elves.

Marns must be thinking the same thing – about the movies, not the elves – because he swallows a bite of his dinner and looks as close as he ever does to pensive. “We never finished watching those.”

“Yeah,” Auston says. They never finished a lot of things, seems like. He stops himself before he can say that one out loud, because Christ, Matthews, at least pretend to have, like, a millimeter of chill.

Mitch smiles, mostly in his eyes. “You’re thinking too loud,” he says, sounding bemused. “I can hear you from Pittsburgh.”

Auston shrugs. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say until he says it. “They keep asking me about you.”

It’s not like it’s anything new. Toronto press has always been really into the whole Matthews/Marner best friends thing. Auston gets it, sort of. It’s easier to sell sports if there’s a narrative attached, if people care about the players. Pretty much cause and effect, from there: People care about Mitch. Mitch cares about Auston. That’s enough to make people care about AustonAndMitch, one unit, enough to ask Auston how he thinks he’s playing without Mitch after three straight games.

He knows it’s a double standard, that Marns has been getting asked about him nonstop since they were rookies. He’s never complained. Doesn’t complain now, even though Auston’s being whiny, just tilts his head, curious.

“Is that bad?”

“It’s not anything,” Auston says. Then, on a whim, “D’you think it’s weird? How we are?”

“How we are,” Mitch echoes. It feels careful, a question.

Auston stares at Mitch’s face on the screen, the pixilated outline of his jaw. “Like- people talk like we go together. Like I’m going to forget how to be in the NHL ‘cause you’re gone.”

“You know how the press is.”

“Yeah, only they’re not really wrong.” It doesn’t come out as casual as Auston means it to, and he pretends to be focused on his stir fry when he continues. “I mean, like. I talk to you more than most of the guys on the team. Every night, almost. I don’t know. Do friends do that?”

Mitch has gone all still while Auston talks, enough that it almost looks like the screen’s frozen. It’s only because Auston’s watching so closely, or maybe because he’s too familiar with Marns’ face, that he notices him exhale, slow and controlled.

He taps the camera, suddenly insecure. “What?”

Mitch looks up at him and doesn’t smile, not quite. This wistful little crook of his lips. “Keep saying shit like that, Matts, you’re going to give me hope.” Now it’s Auston’s turn to freeze, and the expression on his face must really be something, because Mitch smiles for real, even if it’s still kind of off. “Too honest?”

“Maybe a little,” Auston manages. He wants to travel back in time and strangle himself. Do friends do that – how the fuck did he expect Mitch to take it?

“Yeah,” Mitch says. “Kind of figured. Sorry.”

“The song,” Auston says, because the alternative is ‘hey, now’s a good time to talk about your bigass, only-possibly unrequited crush on me since we were teenagers’. “What song were you going to play?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Mitch perks up, and if it’s a little forced neither of them is going to say anything about it. “You hype yet?”

“So hype,” Auston deadpans, and he can hear Marns doing a drumroll on his keyboard before hitting play.

It only takes a second for Auston to recognize the song, and when he does, he laughs in spite of himself. “This, still, really? Really, man?”

“Sorry, can’t hear you over my fantastic taste in music,” Mitch flops out of the frame, lifts his laptop and puts it down on a table or a chair, something higher than before. He’s maybe dancing as he does it, because the video’s all shaky, blurry shots of Mitch’s torso and wallpaper Auston doesn’t recognize.

“Hit ‘em with the four like Auston Matthews,” Mitch sings, loud and off-key, and then he’s leaning back on screen, looking right into the camera, expectant. “Gotta join in, dude.”

Auston scoffs. “What, over Skype?”

“Unless you’re planning on flying over here,” Mitch says, and there’s a duh hanging, unsaid. That’s maybe becoming a thing, with them.

Mitch doesn’t give his words time to linger, shimmying closer to the camera and sing-shouting the chorus. And, okay, Auston’s seen Mitch dance before, too many times to count, but it’s not the kind of thing you can really get used to. It’s basically the unholy offspring of ‘wasted white girl’ and ‘dad chaperoning a middle school dance’, and Auston can’t help but laugh at the sight.

“Just for the record,” he says, “you’re never allowed to make fun of me for being embarrassing, after this. Ever.”

Mitch ignores him, shaking his ass and making more and more exaggerated ‘come hither’ gestures at the camera ‘til Auston’s doubled over, shutting off the stovetop and giving up on the attempt at dinner. He even sings a little, quiet so his neighbours won’t hate him.

It feels like Marns is here instead of three hundred miles away, like it could be any of the hundreds of nights when he crashed at Auston’s place after a game, before things got all heavy with the weight of all the things they’re not saying and some of the things they are.

They’re playing each other in six days. Auston’s had the date marked on his calendar since the beginning of the preseason. Do friends do that, he wonders; only then Mitch is holding his hand out to the screen like he expects Auston to take it.

“Dance with me,” Mitch says, and Auston can count on one hand the number of times he’s ever really said no to him, so he does.

 

Auston Matthews @AM34

#goleafsgo RT: “@Marner93: hey @AM34 loser buys dinner?”

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

Hey, @penguins. Loser buys dinner?

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

Go away @MapleLeafs

 

Everyone loves to talk about the time Auston checked Roman Polak in the World Cup. He hadn’t even played an NHL game yet and the press was saying stuff about tension in the locker room, antagonizing future teammates. Roman was pretty chill about it. Auston never really got the big deal in the first place. They were on different teams, so Auston checked him, then they weren’t, so he didn’t. Stuff on the ice doesn’t carry over.

Point is, Auston knows how to separate friends and hockey, has been doing it his entire life. There’s something electric about it all the same, chasing Mitch along the boards and battling for the puck when the Leafs finally play the Pens. Because, sure, they’ve played against each other a million times before, in practice and at Strome’s street hockey thing, but this is different, this is real.

Their lines get matched up a couple of times, and almost every time there’s a power play. Auston’s never really appreciated Mitch’s stick handling before, which sounds like the biggest of euphemisms but is really just the truth. It’s pretty as anything Auston’s ever seen, and he’s not the kind of person to get distracted during a game, but if he was, this’d be why.

The Pens end up picking it up, up by one in OT. It’s a close game, not the worst loss. Still a loss.

Auston’s skating off the ice, most of the way to being annoyed, when he catches a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. Before he can turn around, something hits him like a freight train, knocking him into the boards. There’s a second where Auston’s kind of pissed – the game’s done, whoever’s trying to start shit has really bad timing – before he realizes.

“Dude,” Mitch hollers in his ear, breathless from the attack-hug, “I was so worried I was going to pass to you guys on accident, oh my god!” He’s hanging off of Auston like a baby koala, or, like, the 5’11’’, covered in hockey gear version of a baby koala that’s currently got Auston in a chokehold.

Auston catches his balance, tries and immediately fails to wipe a dumbass grin off his face. He can see the ref hovering around like he’s unsure if he should be breaking this up, a dozen phone cameras pointed their way. He reaches up to pat Mitch’s head anyways, bumping their helmets together. He can’t make himself stop smiling. “Hey, Marns.”

He lets himself linger close enough that he can see the beads of sweat on Mitch’s nose, just for a second because fuck it, they’re on camera anyways. And it’s weird – it’s like a tangible, physical something, like having Mitch next to him again, flesh and blood instead of pixels on a screen, nudges something deep in Auston’s chest back into place that he didn’t know was off-kilter. And they’re in different jerseys and Auston’s still kind of pissed about losing and they’re going to get roasted for this, from twitter and probably the coaching staff, too; but it feels, just for a second, like he can finally exhale. Like – okay. This is how things are supposed to be.

Really embarrassing shit, basically.

After they stop by the locker room so Mitch can say hi to everyone, he drives Auston to an Italian place he likes. The food’s good, nothing exceptional. Unlimited garlic bread, which is nice. It doesn’t occur to Auston ‘til after they’ve ordered that it was maybe rude not to invite the guys out with them. He stops caring pretty quick, though, because he’s got a hundred percent of Mitch’s attention, no sharing with a bunch of sweaty dudes or a bad Skype connection or anything.

Mitch is being handsier than usual, like he’s trying to make up for three months’ worth of touching in one night. It’s a lot, especially with people around.

Auston doesn’t want him to stop.

Their knees knock together under the too-small table. “It’s awesome that you’re here,” Mitch says, and he does Auston’s favourite crooked smile. He’s wearing a new shirt, blue and white checked pattern.

“Awesome,” Auston echoes. “It’s a nice place, Marns.”

“The bread, though, right?” Mitch agrees enthusiastically through a mouthful of his spaghetti. “I could eat only this bread forever and die fat and happy.”

“Birthday cake timbits,” Auston reminds him, and Mitch looks so stricken that he has to tease him more. “Been an American for three months and you already forgot about Tims.”

Mitch points his fork at Auston. “Matts, what the fuck, don’t ever blaspheme like that again.”

Auston spears a meatball, grinning, and hums the first few bars of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ just for the look it’ll put on Marns’ face. Almost seven years in the league, Auston still hasn’t found a better way to chirp Canadians than calling them Americans. Works every time.

The restaurant’s mostly empty by the time they’re done. Mitch makes Auston pay, ‘cause a bet’s a bet. He leaves a thirty dollar tip for the waitress. It’s that kind of night.

Mitch drives them back to his place without asking. This new building’s smaller than his one in Toronto, maybe five, six stories, max. Not as nice, but Auston might be biased.

“Casa del Marner,” Mitch announces when they get up to his condo, opening the door and gesturing for Auston to head in.

“Still shit at Spanish,” Auston says, and would probably keep giving Marns a hard time, but Fish almost knocks him off his feet as soon as he crosses the threshold. “Hey, baby,” Auston kneels down to rub her behind the ears, ducking his head and laughing as she slobbers all over his face. Sure, she’s technically Mitch’s dog, but like, logistically speaking, she’s at least 45% Auston’s. Maybe more, because she likes him way better, even if Mitch’ll never admit it.

“Gross,” Mitch says, but Auston can hear the smile in his voice.

Still on his knees with Fish, he looks up towards Mitch, then around them. “Your place is nice.”

“Oh, yeah, adult as shit, right?” He’s mostly joking, but. He’s not wrong. There’s white paint on the walls, a new shoe rack, a little bench near the front door to sit and take off your shoes. Something about it kind of throws Auston off. He’s not used to not knowing where everything is, hasn’t felt like a guest in Mitch’s place in years and doesn’t really know what to do with the feeling.

He’s not going to overthink things. His flight leaves in less than eight hours.

Mitch has flung his shoes in the general direction of the shoe rack, chattering about how bad his wifi is from around the corner. Auston puts his shoes side by side on the rack, then puts Mitch’s next to them and follows him into the living room, tapping his thigh so the dog’ll follow. Mitch is already sprawled on the couch, and he pats the unoccupied cushion beside him, beckoning Auston to sit.

There’re a couple seconds where Auston wonders if maybe it’ll be weird, if they’ve been apart for too long and Mitch has come to the realization that most twenty-something guys don’t cuddle their totally-platonic bros, but the second Auston sits on the couch, Mitch snuggles right up. He’s on top of him, practically, knees flung across Auston’s and his head on Auston’s shoulder. The weight of him is reassuring.

“Still fits,” Mitch says, gives a contented sigh. So maybe Auston wasn’t the only one who was worried. “Gonna snuggle you so hard, man.”

“Your elbow’s digging into my ribcage,” Auston says, but turns a little so he can get an arm around Mitch’s back. Mitch rolls his eyes, leans back a little so he can meet Auston’s.

“Oh, there it is, hasn’t seen me in months and takes, like, an hour to start chirping me about my elbows. I bet Okie wouldn’t bitch about my elbows.”

“’Okie’,” Auston echoes, bemused, and the tips of Mitch’s ears go red the way they do when he’s embarrassed. Auston wants to bite them.

“Oketch,” Mitch says, “whatever, ugh. I’m friends with my lineys, sue me.”

Fish jumps right up next to them on the couch, paces around until she finds a spot and lays her head on Auston’s thigh. Something about that, the dog and Mitch on either side of him, pressed so close he can feel them breathing, catches Auston off guard. It’s- He doesn’t know what to call it. Domestic. Close. He’s suddenly not sure how he made it through more than a month without this.

“Talk to me,” Mitch says, like they haven’t been talking for the past three hours. “How’s home? How’re our children?”

“Good,” Auston says. He’s still not quite sure how he and Mitch ended up adopting last season’s rookies. As least he’s not the mom, he figures. “They’re good. Buzzy keeps forgetting his keys. Robbie keeps calling me because he forgets his copy of Buzzy’s keys. They miss you.”

Mitch looks pleased with that, drumming his fingers on Auston’s knee. “And you?”

“Doorman has a spare, I’m not dumb.”

Mitch jabs at Auston’s stomach, makes him squirm ‘til Auston has to grab his hands and pull them back. “D’you miss me, I mean, come on, Matts.”

Auston stares, wonders if Mitch gets that he’s the closest thing Auston’s ever had to a long-term relationship; that Auston’s been sleeping on the right side of his bed since August because he can’t bring himself to take Mitch’s spot. He’s still holding onto Mitch’s hands, loose around the wrists. Less than eight hours, he thinks.

“Nah,” Auston says. “Bony elbows, remember?”

-------

Mitch kissed him, before. Their second year on the Leafs, just after they’d clinched the playoffs.

Auston remembers seeing it coming the moment before it happened. They were standing on Zach’s balcony, buzzed on adrenaline and Molson Canadian and some of the weird mojitos that Willy’d started making around midnight. Mostly the first two.

Mitch is handsy when he’s drunk. Mitch is handsy, period, but especially when he’s drunk, and there on Zach Hyman’s balcony he leaned over and kissed Auston like it was nothing, like it couldn’t ruin both of their careers and their entire friendship and everything else in between. Auston hated him a little, for that.

He tasted like cheap beer and that gross orange-flavoured toothpaste he always used. For some reason, that detail stuck in Auston’s head and wouldn’t leave him alone; like the noise from the party faded into a dull roar and all he could think was orangetoothpaste.

It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

He put a hand on Mitch’s chest and pushed him away, firm but gentle. Mitch went without resisting. Auston pulled his hand back.

“I’m not gay.”

“Me neither,” said Mitch, and Auston frowned, because – well.

“Marns,” he said, careful. “Kissing dudes is pretty gay.”

He didn’t say it mean, he wasn’t an asshole. Couldn’t care less about who Mitch wanted to kiss.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Mitch said, so Auston didn’t, and they didn’t talk about it anymore.

He’s not even sure Mitch remembers it. He was pretty drunk, and he hasn’t tried anything like it since, not even after he came out.

They got swept in the first round.

That’s still the only guy Auston’s kissed.

 

Mitchell Marner @Marner93

thanks for the dinner @AM34 ;)

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

Et tu, Mitchell? @Marner93 @penguins

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

Two households, both alike in dignity... @Marner93 @AM34 @MapleLeafs

 

connrbrun reblogged goldknightss

*tour guide voice* and on your left you can see the marnthews shippers losing their shit over The Date™

GUYS: “things i learned from working dinner shift at the same restaurant as matthews/marner: it is in fact possible to eat 8 baskets worth of complimentary garlic bread while staring adoringly at your bro til after closing” (via: taylrsyn on twitter)

#i just got back from my night lecture and i feel like that gif of troy from community walking into the room on fire #like #fucking u n r e a l #my entire dash is the hug and the pictures #god bless the morally ambiguous patrons of pittsburgh hole in the wall restaurants #leafs #am x mm

 

It’s harder, leaving Mitch a second time.

Mitch hugs him before he leaves, gets up and walks him to the door even though it’s barely six o’clock. He makes Auston a bagel to take with him, the poppyseed kind, even though Mitch hates the way the little seeds stick in his teeth.

“You like them,” he shrugs, when Auston points that out. It does something to Auston’s gut, this twisty, kind of warm feeling that persists ‘til his uber gets to the airport and he joins the rest of the team waiting for their flight in the lounge.

Willy looks up, bleary-eyed and clutching an extra-large Starbucks cup, when Auston sits down next to him. “Ditched the team bus last night,” is the first thing he says. His accent’s always more pronounced when he’s tired. “Badass.”

Mo leans across the row of stiff-backed seats to put his chin on Auston’s shoulder. “Matts is having his rebellious phase,” he says, even though he’s the cap and knows about everyone’s scheduling stuff. “Fight the power, kiddo.”

“Not fighting anything.” Auston shoves Mo off, heaving his duffle bag onto the seat next to him. He needs to get some new friends, but he’s still in a good enough mood from Mitch’s goodbye hug that he’s feeling charitable. “Pittsburgh’s my curfew exception.”

Willy blinks. “Arizona’s your exception.”

“I got another one.”

“Since fucking when?” He looks awake for the first time, rejuvenated by the possibility of gossip.

“Since I asked.” It wasn’t a big deal. Jen from admin, who handles the hotel bookings, likes Auston. Management likes Auston, or at least how many jerseys he sells. They’d probably give him, like, four exceptions, if he asked.

“Did you know about this?” Will demands, looking over at Mo, who shrugs. “No one tells me anything on this team,” Willy pouts. It makes him look like something in a museum, like those weird paintings of baby angels.

“It’s ‘cause we all hate you,” Auston chirps, and Willy flips him off, taking a swig of his drink.

“Deets, though,” he says, then when Auston doesn’t respond, he raises his eyebrows, expectant. “Got a girl here or something? Finally getting some?”

Auston rolls his eyes, stretching his legs out in front of him. “I was staying with Marns.”

“Oh,” Willy says, like that says it all, and snorts, elbowing Auston. “I mean, hey, if Mitchy’s your type-”

“Willy,” Mo says, warningly, at the same time that Auston says, harsher than he means to, “Fuck off.”

Willy snaps his mouth shut and looks between Auston and Mo, somewhere between chastened and confused. Auston’s heart’s beating fast, too fast for stupid chirping from his teammate. He can’t decide if he’s grateful or pissed at Mo for stepping in, for thinking that he had to. There was nothing to step into. There’s nothing, period.

No one’s talking. “I’m going to get a coffee,” Auston says, looking anywhere but at Mo. Their section of the room is still oppressively quiet, even when he makes himself leave to get a drink that he doesn’t really want.

And it’s about then that he realizes he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

-------

You don’t end up with your teammate.

You just don’t. It’s not a thing that happens, not in the NHL and not anywhere else.

There’ve been three out guys in the league. One of them’s retired, one of them got sent down to the AHL, and the other one’s Marns. A reporter from the Star asked him, once, in the locker room, if he’d ever consider dating a teammate. Mitch laughed.

“I feel like once you’ve seen a guy take a puck to the face and spit Gatorade all over the place, kind of takes romance off the table.”

It was a polite kind of non-answer to a non-question, and Auston remembers lacing up his skates and staring at the ground when he heard it, because Mitch and the reporter and everyone else in the room knew that there was no other response to give.

Anything that might have happened with them anywhere else sure as hell can’t happen here, is the point, and Auston knows that, Auston lives by that, and somehow it doesn’t make things any easier.

The funny part is, objectively, things are going pretty fucking great.

They’re jockeying with the Habs for first in the Atlantic. Auston’s parents come up for a weekend, watch him get a hatty against the Blues. His mom cries.

And it’s not, like, flawless – he’s pretty sure that that one picture of him and Marns hugging is a meme now, and the trainers have to skate Mo off the ice after Tkachuk runs into him funny, right where his knee was hurt last year – but the lines are clicking like magic; and Babs is actually smiling at practice; and every article that Auston reads is picking them as early favourites for a Cup.

He should be happy. He should be on top of the world, and he just. Isn’t.

And, okay. Auston’s fully aware that he has no right to complain about anything, ever – he’s a center in the NHL, leading his team in points and heading towards matching a career best in goals. Living the dream, basically, which is why it doesn’t make sense that he’s feeling like this.

He stopped taking science courses in grade eleven, but he knows how scar tissue’s supposed to work; knows that time is supposed to cover things up and smooth them over ‘til you don’t notice them anymore. And that’s, like, basic biology, Auston’s pretty sure, only it’s halfway through November and Marns hasn’t been his teammate since July but Auston’s still looking over his shoulder and expecting to see him, like there’s still this fucking Mitch-shaped gap in everything.

It should be gone by now, and it’s not, and that’s the opposite of how it should be, ‘cause you don’t end up with your teammate.

It takes Mitch about half a second to get that something’s up the next time they talk, because he’s always gotten Auston like that, even though they’re both coming off of back-to-backs and are pretty much dead on their feet.

“You good?”

Auston holds the phone to his ear, leans back against his headrest. A few rows down, Freddie stows his duffel in the overhead, getting ready for the flight home. “Just tired,” Auston says, which isn’t a lie, entirely. “Better now.”

Mitch yawns. “Why?”

The plane’s quiet, stuck in the awkward in-between boarding and takeoff. “You know why, Marns.”

Mitch makes this content, sleepy little ‘hmm’, when Auston says that.

And that’s the thing about scar tissue, right – wound’s got to close, first.

Chapter Text

“Got asked out today,” Mitch says, when they’re setting up for the PK in NHL21. They both have the newer editions, but Marns always insists on this one because they ranked him higher than Auston by one point. Auston kind of hates NHL21.

He fumbles the faceoff. “And?”

“Not the worst,” Mitch muses, thoughtful. His voice always sounds different in the mic. “He has a beard. Cover-”

“I see him,” Auston says, toggles the joystick to jockey in front of Laine. They’re playing as the Leafs, force of habit, maybe – it didn’t even occur to Auston to suggest anything different. Marns doesn’t seem to mind. “You don’t like guys with beards.”

“I could,” Mitch says, defensive. “I could, in theory, like a guy with a beard.”

Auston scoffs, ups the volume on the call. “You chirp me if I go a day without shaving.”

“Yeah, but you’re you,” Mitch retorts, and it’s not like Auston can really argue with that one, so he just shuts up and concentrates on killing the penalty.

Mitch gets asked out a lot. That’s just a fact. And it’s not like Auston’s deluding himself: They’re getting older. Eventually, someone’ll stick around and Mitch will want them to, because he’s a romantic, and that’s another fact. Auston knows that better than anyone, because he was there when Mitch showed up at his door after meeting Julie’s parents and said, all serious, “I think I could marry this girl”; and he was there when Mitch got ready for a million different double dates with Willy and whatever girl he was wheeling; and he was there after Mitch got dumped by Andrew from Starbucks because he said “I love you” too soon.

God, Auston hated Andrew from Starbucks.

The idea of it, of Marns getting married to some blank-faced stranger, puts a sour taste in Auston’s mouth. He’d probably be best man, standing there off to the side next to Mitch and his stupid bearded husband.

“I said no,” Mitch says, like it’s nothing.

“I,” Auston says, still half-stuck thinking of Mitch’s wedding. “What?”

“To the date. I said no.”

“’cause of the beard?” Auston asks, dumb. They both know it’s not ‘cause of the beard. He’ll feel stupid later, but now he’s just- god, he’s so relieved, more than even makes sense.

“Sure, Matts,” Mitch says. He plays the puck off of the boards, taking his own pass and streaking up the ice. The graphics are pretty sick. “Ready?”

“Play it back,” Auston says, and Mitch already has, doubling behind Ehlers the exact same way he did against the Preds earlier this week.

Auston’s still pretty shit at video games, but he takes Mitch’s feed, jams at the buttons on his controller and sends his avatar up with the puck, Mitch’s right next to him. It’s a pretty flawless two on one, and the shot goes bar down.

“Fuck yes!” Mitch whoops, and Auston’s bracing himself for a hug, actually grins over at the other side of the couch before he remembers that they’re just on PSN. It’s- he wants to be touching Mitch. There’s probably a lot of meaning in that, but he just. He wants.

“God, I missed being on a team with you,” Mitch says, oblivious. “We’re fucking awesome together.”

“Really fucking awesome,” Auston agrees. The announcers in the game are still spouting a bunch of pre-recorded catchphrases, ‘what a goal’ and ‘holy mackinaw’, whatever that means. “Almost like we’ve played together before, actually-”

“Shut up,” Mitch snorts.

“No, for real, there’s some serious chemistry,” Auston says, goofy. “You come here often?”

“Was that a line?” Mitch asks, delighted. “Did you just use a line on me?” He laughs, like Auston caught him off guard. Auston’d fight the entire Bruins bench to be the one to make him laugh like that, always.

“Is it working?”

“Bitch it might be,” Mitch says, and the little versions of themselves on screen crash into the boards together, a slow-motion replay of their celly. They’re still in blue and white. It looks like how things are supposed to be.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

21st of the season. #34, everybody. #tmltalk pic.twitter.com/tak559/g4...

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

RT: “@megscrosbabes Congrats to the leafs for learning how to count!!”

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

@ us next time, @penguins @megscrosbabes

 

HIGH STICKING @pretzelguentzel

idk when @MapleLeafs @penguins became the awkward exes of the nhl but i kinda dig it

 

Canadiens Montréal @CanadiensMtl

@MapleLeafs I thought we had something special. // Je pensais qu’entre nous c’était spécial.

 

Because it’s Winnipeg, and Winnipeg is awful, the Leafs lose their last game of the roadie and end up stranded at the airport for five hours in a freak snowstorm. It takes forever for their flight to get cleared to take off, shuttled from gate to gate with the end result that they don’t get home ‘til nearly three in the morning, at which point Auston’s phone is dead and his head is pounding like a jackhammer. It’s still arguably the best night he’s had in a while, which definitely says more about him than about Winnipeg which, yeah, is still awful.

Babs barely takes the time to cancel morning skate before sending them on their way with orders to “get some rest and show up ready to play, for christ’s sake”.

He earns a smattering of tired applause with that one, then everyone’s grabbing their stuff and heading for the parking lot. It’s snowing, barely, nothing like the storm they left. Auston dawdles anyways, taking his time getting his bag from the luggage guys.

His place is kind of a downer, recently. Too quiet, with just him.

He trudges behind Naz, kicks up a little snow at his heels to get his attention. “Usual time, tomorrow?” They usually do cardio stuff together on optional days, competitiveness that probably benefits them both.

Naz hesitates, brushes the snow off his pant legs and waits for Auston to fall into step with him. “I’m wiped, man.”

And that’s fair. Even the rookies, with their limitless energy, are all but sleepwalking. Buzzy maybe is sleepwalking, actually, because Robbie’s trying to carry him and both of their bags and failing miserably. Kind of hilarious.

“It’s cool,” Auston says. “Afternoon, then, we can grab lunch before-”

“Think I’m just going to take the L, spend the day with the family,” Naz cuts in, firm. “Feels good coming home to them, y’know?”

“Yeah,” Auston says, after a second, even though, no, he doesn’t. That’s kind of his entire problem.

He shouldn’t have even asked. They’ve got their first day off in weeks, obviously Naz’s going to spend it with his wife, like every other guy on the team. He’s looking at Auston now like he feels bad for him, poor single guy who can’t keep a girl longer than a night. Auston doesn’t meet his eyes.

They get to the entrance of the parking lot, and Naz elbows Auston’s side. “Next time, eh?”

Auston forces a smile. Not Naz’s fault he has his shit together. “Sound more Canadian, old man, I dare you.”

“Old man,” Naz scoffs. “Go sleep and deflate your head, Matts.”

Auston watches him go, debating what to do next. He could ask the other guys, but he’d probably get a similar answer. Even Will’s going to be passed out for the next twelve hours, minimum. Could skype his sisters or Marns, but it wouldn’t be fair, at this time. They have their own lives.

He could go pick up. Someone’d be into it.

Auston sighs, and doubles back to where the kids – the rookies, fuck, he’s not the mom – are still struggling.

“Dude, I cannot give you a piggyback and carry all our stuff,” Robbie’s saying, brow furrowed, as Auston gets close.

Balanced on Rob’s back, Buzz yawns, eyes mostly closed. There’s a pile of snow collecting on the brim of his Jays hat. “I believe in you, bro.”

Auston pats Robbie on the arm, leaning down to shoulder their duffels. “C’mon, Whelan. I’ll drop you guys at your place.”

Robbie looks up, startled, at Auston’s touch. “Hey, for real? Oh man, you’re a li-” He interrupts himself with a yawn, huge, until he can finish. “Lifesaver.” Buzzy’s snoring now, head lolling onto Rob’s shoulder.

“Yeah, nominate me for the King Clancy,” Auston says, tired. Even the rookies have each other. The realization of how alone he is sits in his stomach like an anvil. “Let’s get going.”

-------

“...and I kind of knew when Angela said she wanted to double date, because she has the worst taste in guys – god, the one she brought to the department formal, Auston, I wanted to die – but she said he was interested in meeting me and wasn’t a douchey engineer, so like, why not, right?”

“Right,” Auston says. He’s been getting the rundown of Breyana’s semester since getting into the car after his game, and she barely paused for breath while they picked up dinner and drove back to Auston’s place. It’s nice. Comforting, for how familiar it is – neither of them’d admit to missing each other, because that’s not really how they roll, but she didn’t even hesitate when Auston offered to fly her down before her exams, which probably says enough.

Wrong,” Breyana says from her side of the couch. The takeout containers are balanced on a pillow between them. “And I mean, he showed up wearing a Leafs shirt, so that was maybe a warning sign, but I figured I’d give it a chance – ‘cause there’s tons of people in Toronto, and Matthews is a common last name, and maybe it’ll work out, I don’t know. Except then, and this is before we even ordered, he’s like,” she lowers her voice, a poor impersonation of every sitcom jock ever, “’oh, about your brother, do you think you could hook me up with tickets?’ Before we even ordered, Auston.”

Auston winces, and Breyana nods, relishing the story. “Yeah, it was that bad. Ugh, worst date ever.”

“Sorry.” He still feels guilty over everything his family has to deal with, with him in the NHL. Kids back in high school were assholes to B about it, he knows, and now stuff like this – he pays for her textbooks and as much of her tuition as their parents will let him, and it’s nowhere near enough, for everything she has to put up with.

Breyana rolls her eyes. She never blames him for this stuff, even when she should. “Yeah, how dare you on-purpose ruin my date with your hockeying.”

“Gotta love that hockeying,” Auston deadpans, and he barely has time to rescue his dinner before Breyana tosses a pillow at his head.

“Loser.”

“I will carry you outside and throw you in a snowbank,” Auston says, very seriously.

“Come at me, bro,” she says, barely understandable through a mouthful of her burger, and Auston rolls his eyes, can’t bring himself not to smile.

“You need some new memes, B,” he chirps, replacing the pillow on the couch and picking at his sweet potato fries. They’re not as good as the real thing. Healthier, though. “’Come at me bro’, that’s what, 2008, 2009? No wonder the date didn’t work out.”

“Oh, I hate you,” she says, but elbows him affectionately. Auston missed this. He thinks he spends his life missing one thing or another, recently.

Breyana takes another bite and hums thoughtfully. “Maybe I need to steal your strategy,” she says, and Auston tilts his head.

“What do you mean?”

“Y’know,” Breyana says. “Find myself a nice, wholesome Canadian boy and call it a day.” She says it casual as anything, but Auston can feel her staring over at him, knows she saw the look on his face.

He matches her tone, keeping his voice even for everything he’s worth. “I’m telling Marns you called him wholesome.” And he’s hoping that that’ll be the end of it, but he knows his sister, so he knows before she even speaks that it’s not.

“You know he’s completely into you, right?”

Auston shakes his head. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“You never want to talk about this,” Breyana says. She looks so much like their mom for a second that it catches Auston off guard. “You can’t just ignore stuff and hope it goes away.”

“Watch me, bud,” Auston says, and gets to his feet. “You finished with this stuff?”

Breyana nods, so he stacks her trash with his own and heads for the kitchen before she can say anything else. He stays there even after he gets rid of the garbage, opens the fridge and takes a few deep breaths, tries to let the cold clear his head. It’s fine. It’s supposed to be a fun night, and it is. Nothing wrong with B thinking Marns has a thing for him.

He grabs a couple of water bottles, makes himself straighten up and shut the fridge. When he turns around, his sister’s hovering in the entrance to the kitchen, looking at him with something he can’t place, like she’s not sure if he’s about to yell at her. The awful part of Auston thinks serves her right, for bringing that shit up; the other part of him, for whatever it’s worth, feels like shit.

“Hey,” he says, trying for a smile, and tosses her one of the waters. She catches it, easy. “Want to try the new COD? They sent us a bunch of advance copies.”

“Yeah, that’d be cool,” Breyana says, but she leans against the doorway like she’s not planning on moving. Auston’s stomach sinks all over again. He unscrews the cap of his water, waiting, and downs about half of it before Breyana speaks.

“You like that he likes you,” she says, quiet, and waits ‘til Auston meets her eyes before continuing. “I don’t know if it’s because you like the attention or because you like him too, but it’s-”

“B,” Auston forces out. He started clinging to the edges of the counter, tight, somewhere in the middle of that sentence, because he thinks his hands would be shaking, otherwise.

“It’s okay if you do, you know,” she says, all earnest, like this is just another nothing for them to gossip about while he walks her home from school. “Like him, I mean. I wouldn’t- you could tell me, and I wouldn’t tell mom and dad or even Alex if you didn’t want me to, and it’s not like it’d change anything.”

She says it like it’s that simple, problem solved. And Auston loves his baby sister more than almost anything, but she doesn’t get it. That’s not her fault – you couldn’t get it, unless you’ve actually lived it, because the rest of the world is one thing and the NHL’s another.

People love to act like a couple players coming out or getting catfished on Grindr means the league is this big, happy, safe place, and it’s just- it’s so wrong, Auston wants to burst out laughing every time he hears it. It’s not really funny. Still.

And, look, he loves the NHL. He loves playing hockey, and he’s good at it, and if he has it his way he’ll be playing here as long as some city’ll have him. And he could do that as Marns’ boyfriend or partner or whatever, and the Leafs and Pens would release some statement about being supportive, and then there’s one of two outcomes: things end with Mitch and Auston’s the guy who had a messy gay breakup because he couldn’t get over wanting to bone a former teammate, or things don’t end and-

That’s the kind of thing he’s not allowed to think about. It’s maybe more terrifying than the first option.

Either way, that’s it, an asterisk next to everything he does for the rest of his career. It’s bullshit, and it’s wrong, and none of that makes it any less true.

“It changes everything,” Auston says, because there’s no way he’s trying to explain all that. “It fucks with everything, We’re not- I’m not going to do that.”

Breyana shakes her head in disbelief. “Neither of you is happy with the way things are,” she says, upset now, like seeing Auston being an idiot is actually hurting her. “How do you know it wouldn’t be worth-”

“Breyana,” he says, and it’s not pleading, but it’s something close. “Leave it.” It feels like he’s watching the conversation through someone else’s eyes, like it’s happening to someone else entirely. She can’t- if he thinks about how obvious he’s been, for Breyana to know after hardly seeing him in months, he might throw up.

She sighs, put out. “I hate that you’re not happy here.” Auston crosses the kitchen and drags her in for a one-armed hug then, because this, being a big brother, this he knows how to do.

“I’m happy,” he says, and tries not to sound like he’s lying, reaching up to mess up her hair because he knows it’s annoying enough to cheer her up. “Promise. I just won a hockey game and ate food that’s not in my diet plan with my second favourite sister, even though she doesn’t know how to mind her business-”

“Second favourite?!” She laughs reluctantly, shoving him off and smoothing her hair down. “Canada ruined you, you probably wear flannel now.”

“If I ever do, you can mercy kill me,” Auston promises, solemn. There’s still one of Mitch’s flannels in his closet, way at the back so it won’t contaminate any of Auston’s actual not-horrifying shirts. He tugs her into the kitchen, sits on one of the stools next to the counter and drags out another for her, an offering. “Tell me about school,” he requests, and Breyana’s more than happy to oblige.

Scar tissue, maybe.

-------

It probably says something about how the Montreal game went, the fact that it feels like an achievement when Auston makes it from the elevator to his hotel room.

The trainers wanted to give him painkillers after the hit in the third, but that would’ve meant sitting out the rest of the period when they were down by one. There was nothing technically wrong with him, so Auston went back in. He doesn’t regret it – got the puck in the net off Willy’s rebound, a two-on-one breakaway to tie it up so Brownie could bury the gamewinner with twenty seconds left in regulation – but, fuck, he doesn’t know how he made it through press and the bus ride back.

He leaves the rest of the guys in the hallway, heads into the third hotel room in a week. This one’s the same as the others, nondescript and impersonal. Big bed, though, so it’s looking like just about the best thing Auston’s ever seen.

He toes off his shoes at the door and starts tugging off his tie, pulling out his phone with his free hand and scrolling through his notifications. There’s an alert from Sportsnet about their win (good to know), a voicemail from his mom, and more than thirty texts from Marns. Auston skims through those – the texts – first, grinning in spite of himself. It’s easy to tell when the hit happened, even without the timestamps.

MITCH MARNER (20:47)

WJAT THE FCKUJF

MITCH MARNER (20:47)

AGHHHHHHHHHHHHfsnlgkfg get up getup geutp

MITCH MARNER (20:47)

IM OGNNA FLY TO MOTNREAL ADN FIGHT DROUIN

MITCH MARNER (20:48)

ok im calm

MITCH MARNER (20:55)

oh look you scored

MITCH MARNER (20:55)

y am i even surprised at this point

There’re texts throughout the rest of the game, because Marns is still a bigger Leafs fan than half the people in the GTA. The last one’s from about half an hour ago, just “lmk ur alive” then some emojis with X’s for eyes. Auston does, rattling off a quick text to his mom then copying it to Mitch before tossing his phone onto the bed and heading to the bathroom for a shower.

AUSTON MATTHEWS (23:01)

I’m alive. Hit wasnt as bad as it looked

It’s not a lie – he’s seen the replay, how the blue jerseys in a red crowd winced. Pretty brutal. Important part’s that they won, anyways. Brought them to a four point cushion for first in the division, which is nice to know, even though it’s way too early in the season to admit to looking at stats; even though Auston’s been looking since October.

He shucks his suit and puts the water as hot as it can go, angles the showerhead at his shoulder to try and relax the muscles. He feels, all of a sudden, exhausted, the whole-body kind of tired that he can feel all the way in his bones. And it’s not just the game, or his shoulder – it’s that their captain is still out, and that he’s sick of going home to an apartment that’s about as empty as this hotel room, and that the stupid family skate is coming up and he’s going to get chirped for having his parents and sisters there instead of a girlfriend, like always; and, yeah, that his shoulder really fucking hurts. It’s-

He doesn’t know. It all feels like a lot, this season.

Probably should have taken some of the painkillers.

“You’re going to win a Stanley Cup,” he tells himself out loud, so he won’t sit down in the shower and call it a day. “Shit together, papi.”

He stares up at the water til it starts to get cold, and makes himself get out to towel down. Standing there’s not going to change anything. Self control.

His hair’s still dripping water down his back when he tugs on his pajama pants and a t-shirt. Then a hoodie, too, because Montreal is cold as shit and it’s not even technically winter yet. He practically falls into bed, flat on his back, and breathes in the hotel-detergent scent of the sheets. He uses his foot to drag his phone up from where he threw it near the end of the bed, and finds a string of hearts from his mom and a whole new chain of messages from Marns.

MITCH MARNER (23:04)

looked pretty fuckin bad bud

MITCH MARNER (23:05)

until you scored 0.2 secs later

MITCH MARNER (23:05)

like a BO$$

And then, almost ten minutes after the rest of his messages, like an afterthought:

MITCH MARNER (23:14)

scared me when you went down tho

Auston stares at that one for a long time, long enough that his phone locks automatically and he has to re-enter his password. His response doesn’t feel good enough, when he finally gets one down and hits send.

AUSTON MATTHEWS (23:27)

u dont have to worry about me

He watches the little dots that mean Mitch is typing. They go on disappearing and reappearing for a while, until Auston’s eyes are getting heavy and he’s starting to wonder if maybe Mitch fell asleep. Couldn’t blame him – Pens are out west this week. Brutal trip.

His phone vibrates, finally, just when he starts dozing off.

MITCH MARNER (23:32)

always worry about you matty

And there’s nothing Auston can really say to that, at least nothing that he won’t regret in the morning. He reads it over one more time, tiny pixel words next to the stupid photo of Marns in a Han Solo Halloween costume that’s been his contact picture for maybe four years. Something about it, the text or the picture or the idea of Mitch in a worn out Knights shirsey and knee socks, worrying over him from some too-clean hotel bed in Vancouver, sends a shiver down Auston’s spine, sudden and only-mostly unpleasant.

It’s probably the cold. Fucking Montreal.

It doesn’t seem worth it to get up and attempt to find the thermostat, so he just checks his alarm before plugging his phone in to charge and pulling the covers up to his chin. Then, before he can overthink it,

AUSTON MATTHEWS (23:34)

(Growing Heart )

Mitch responds in not even ten seconds.

MITCH MARNER (23:34)

(Growing Heart )

Auston shuts his phone off, puts it facedown on the bedside table. He takes a deep breath, real big, and lets it go as slow as he can, watching his chest rise and fall.

“Stanley cup,” he says again, and falls asleep staring at the ceiling.

-------

He knows he’s leading Mitch on.

That sounds bad.

It’s just- Auston’s not stupid.

He doesn’t need Breyana to point it out to him. He knows – or, thinks, would put money on it – that Mitch wants more. And Auston can’t blame him for that. Anyone would want more than whatever weird, sexless approximation of a relationship they currently have. He doesn’t need his sister to tell him that, but he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it since she did.

And that’s fucking dangerous, because it would be so easy.

But he’s not stupid.

He doesn’t get involved in controversial shit, which is what this would be. He even said no when they asked him to head some initiative to get more minority kids involved in hockey, which was maybe a dick move, but the last thing he needs is more Mexican jokes about him and his mom and half his family. Fuck that.

He shouldn’t even be thinking these thoughts, is the thing. He’s twenty-five. No one has serious relationships when they’re twenty-five, ‘specially not with someone that they’ve known since they were eighteen. That’s just- it’s bullshit. And if that someone’s a guy, it’s beyond bullshit, beyond controversial, it just doesn’t happen. Sure, there’re no rules against it, technically, except he’s seen the shit that Marns got since coming out, that he still gets, all over social media, all over regular media; guys on other benches saying shit so the refs don’t hear. Mitch acts like he doesn’t notice, keeps a smile on his face the whole time.

And Auston can’t do that. He can’t.

He doesn’t know how Mitch does. He can’t shake the feeling that it’s maybe just who they are; that at the end of the day, on some fundamental level, Mitch is the kind of person who gets called ‘kid’ even though he’s twenty-five and makes everyone who meets him fall in love with him while Auston is the kind of person who goes home from a game and googles himself to see what comes up.

So he’s leading Mitch on, maybe, but he’s leading himself on, too. It’s not fair to either of them.

He keeps doing it, anyways.

 

Matthews Hopeful Heading into Holidays

Hanna Lee || Sports

The atmosphere at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ practice rink is a curious one. Excitement, yes, but also some trepidation – as the consensus favourites to win it all, the Leafs are treading unfamiliar ground.

“I think we’ve responded well to the challenges we’ve faced so far,” Auston Matthews says, when asked about their season.

The path has not been easy – team captain Morgan Reilly has been out with a lower body injury since November, two young backup goalies are jockeying to carve out space on the team, and Matthews himself has been thrust into mainstream media attention after his now-viral reunion with former teammate Mitch Marner.

“I don’t think I’d say my play is dependent on any one person,” Matthews says, after a pause, when asked about the absence of his once-inseparable friend. “We know how to win. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

And win they have, posting an incredible 13-1-1 record in their last 15 games up the stretch. Leafs Nation is understandably excited, but Coach Mike Babcock advises caution.

“We’re taking it one day at a time,” Babcock says. “No one wants to get ahead of ourselves, see.”

He has a point – Toronto hockey fans still wince at last year’s heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final.

Still, as they have been throughout their rebuild, the Buds are looking forward, not back.

“Yeah, we want to crush it,” enthuses twenty year-old forward Robert Buzkowitz, then, at a sidelong look from Matthews: “But, y’know. Long road ahead.”

Excitement. Trepidation.

And, maybe most tangible of all: hope.

Other members of the Leafs kicked off MLSE’s annual holiday toy drive today at (cont. pg B15)

 

They’re 1-1 in the season series against Pittsburgh after the next time they play, this time at home. It’s a decent win, could be better. Two games left, anyways.

Auston’s there late after the game, fielding a million questions about how he thinks he’s handling a leadership role, what their playoff chances are, how it feels playing against Marns. He gives the same responses he always does – best I can, too early to tell, we prepare for teams not players – and escapes for the locker room as soon as he can. It’s all but deserted by the time he heads for the showers, just Freddie doing his weird goalie postgame thing; Brownie too, because he’s been staying late to flirt with-slash-stare longingly at the new physiotherapist since the pre-season.

Auston flings his sweat-soaked under armour into a corner, steps under the water, and lets out a deep breath. Showers are always best after a game, even though the water pressure at the ACC’s been shot to hell since before he got here. He lathers up anyways, puts in the effort to shampoo his hair and pretends that it’s not ‘cause he knows he’ll be seeing-

“Mitchy, hey!”

He hears rather than sees Mitch arrive, Brownie greeting him all excited. Auston’s heart rate kicks up an embarrassing amount – they saw each other in the game, sure, but nothing like last time. Didn’t want to make a scene.

Mitch’s voice is loud, echoing in the empty room. “Whaaat, my favourite gingers, hey!”

Freddie joins in, now, barely audible over the noise of the shower. “You’re in the wrong colours there, man.”

“I don’t know.” Marns again. “I look pretty good in black, though.”

Auston hears a bunch of slaps as Mitch and Brownie do their weirdly elaborate Toronto bros handshake, the beginnings of a conversation that disappears in the sound of the water hitting the tiles.

He rushes through the rest of his shower, doesn’t let himself be embarrassed. He already got them a table at Dumpling House, queued up the first Lord of the Rings on Netflix so he can fall asleep twenty minutes in and annoy Mitch, make him do that laugh where his whole face crinkles up. That’s maybe a weird thing to plan. Whatever.

He ties a towel around his waist and steps out, ready for a patented Marns-hug. He doesn’t have to be – Mitch is leaning against Brownie, half obscured by Freddie, chatting about his cousin who wants to play goalie.

“Yeah, she’s really good, just her parents want her to go to college ‘cause the girls’ leagues are still kinda small- which is dumb, but like, I get wanting to have a backup, that’s smart.”

“Mine was reffing,” Brownie says. Freddie tilts his head.

“Harder to be a ref than a player, isn’t it?”

“Pretty shit backup plan,” Mitch agrees, and Brownie grabs him in a headlock, giving him a noogie. “Okay, okay,” he laughs, trying to squirm free, “you’re super ref, I wouldn’t even skate you into the boards, honest-”

Auston doesn’t realize he’s staring, dopey, until Mitch happens to glance over Fred’s shoulder and sees him for the first time. And he’s already smiling, but he lights up even more when he sees Auston, like the sun or an angel or some cheesy shit like that. “Matts!”

He shrugs out from under Brownie’s arm in a second, leaving him shaking his head. “Like we’re not even here,” Connor bitches, good-natured. “See this, Fred?”

“Tragic.” Freddie cracks the closest thing he ever does to a smile.

Mitch ignores them both, high fives Auston and goes for the bro hug, grinning ear to ear. Auston knows he’s doing the same thing, because he sees the look that the guys exchange, like, these two. He makes sure not to let the hug linger after that, because he’s very much still only wearing a towel and this does not need to go in the groupchat.

“Good game, Marns,” he pulls back, and Mitch waves him off.

“Pfft, you’re only saying that ‘cause you won.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Auston shrugs, then laughs when Mitch punches his arm.

“I saw that giveaway in the second, asshole,” he chirps, affectionate, and keeps grinning up at Auston ‘til Connor clears his throat.

“Boys’re going to be pissed they missed you,” Brownie says. “You sticking around for a while?”

Mitch looks genuinely pained. “Ah, wish I could, I promised my family we’d go out for dinner.”

And that’s-

“Fair enough. Next time, man,” Brownie claps Mitch on the back, then offers a fist for Auston to bump. “Later, Matts.”

It takes Auston a second. “Later.”

Mitch is going out with his family. Of course, he’s going out with his family. It was stupid to assume he’d get Marns tonight, stupid to make a reservation without asking. Not fair to monopolize his one night in his hometown. Auston shakes his head, small, and taps his knuckles to Brownie’s, then to Freddie’s when he follows. “Good hustle tonight, guys.”

Good hustle,” Mitch imitates, while they watch the guys file out. “Such an athlete.”

“Well, yeah, that’s sort of our job,” Auston says. They’re alone, now, and Mitch smirks, sidling a little closer and flicking the edge of his towel.

“Nice of you to get dressed up for the occasion.”

Auston sighs, throws in an eye roll for good measure, but pulls him in for a real hug this time. Mitch relaxes against him, his suit jacket silky slick against Auston’s bare skin. Still fits, Auston thinks. He wonders what Marns’d do if he just didn’t let go.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re kind of a dick?” he says into Mitch’s hair, and is rewarded with a smile when they break apart. “You have to meet your folks right away?”

“’bout ten minutes ago,” Mitch says, leaning against the side of Auston’s stall while he starts getting dressed. “Just wanted to see you before, ‘cause we leave pretty early tomorrow and that’s probably it ‘til the All Star stuff.”

Auston tugs his shirt on and starts doing up the buttons. “That’s more than a month away,” he says, before he can realize how needy that sounds. He doesn’t know if a month counts as a long time, really. Sure feels like it.

“Yeah.” Mitch’s face falls, just a little, so maybe they’re both needy. Fucking dream team. Their eyes meet for a second, too searching, then Mitch coughs, drops his gaze. “C’mere.”

He grabs at the hem of Auston’s shirt and pulls him closer, swats Auston’s hands away so he can take over the buttoning. It’s the kind of thing Auston remembers his grandparents doing, which is- There’s something weirdly intimate about it, and he finds himself holding his breath without meaning to, staring at Mitch’s fingers on his shirt, then up to his face, where his brow’s furrowed while he concentrates.

“Want to convince your family to do Christmas here?” Mitch asks. “Home sweet not-home?” He says it like a joke, or tries to at least, but it gives Auston an idea.

“You still have your key to my place?” he says, and Mitch nods. “Come sleep over after.”

“You sure?” Mitch asks, even though he already perked up enough that Auston knows he’s going to be there, was maybe waiting for Auston to ask. “Might be late.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Auston says, and puts his hands on Mitch’s, right near the top buttons, just for a second. “Come.”

Mitch nods, glances down at Auston’s hands on his, then lower. He raises an eyebrow. “You should probably put on some pants first, though.”

“Comes into my locker room and tells me to put on pants,” Auston deadpans. “Unbelievable, this kid.”

They grin at each other, this comfy moment that Auston could live in, ‘til there’re voices from just through the doorway. The equipment guys, come to pack everything up. Auston drops Mitch’s hands.

They shoot the shit for a while, Mitch updating the guys about Pittsburgh and asking for all the news about their kids while Auston finishes getting dressed, until Mitch’s phone starts buzzing and he has to go find his family. Auston watches him go, traces the buttons of his shirt where Marns’ hands were.

“Good game, Mr. Matthews,” says one of the ACC guys, waving at Auston over the stack of helmets in his arms as he leaves.

“Oh,” Auston says. “Uh, thanks, Eric.” He shoulders his bag and goes quick, then, because he can’t remember Eric’s kids’ names. He doesn’t know how Mitch did.

He gets the dumplings to go from the restaurant, just a single serving because he feels bad about cancelling a reservation but he’s not pathetic enough to eat alone in public yet. Give it time, maybe.

He plans on waiting up, he really does, but- god, Lord of the Rings is so boring. Like, cure for insomnia boring, is how bad it is; bad enough that Auston’s attempt at spite-watching turns into him passed out face first in his pillow, only waking up when he hears something clattering to the floor with a bang.

“Shit,” someone hisses, and Auston has to blink a couple of times to realize it’s Marns and not a burglar. “Sorry, sorry. Go back to sleep.”

“’s fine.” Auston yawns and swipes at his eyes, brain still fuzzy with sleep. He was dreaming about skating. The details are hazy. Mitch is a silhouette in the hall light, digging through a drawer to find pajamas. “Shirts are-”

“Bottom right, I remember.”

Auston props himself up on his elbows, exhaling at the stretch in his back. Everything’s the kind of dark that only seems to exist at two in the morning, hazy and black around the edges. “How’re your parents?”

“They’re good,” Mitch shrugs. He’s talking kind of hushed, like he’s still trying to avoid waking Auston up. Thought that counts, maybe. “Same as always, I guess. Chewed me out for not bringing you.”

“Didn’t want to intrude,” Auston says, and Mitch scoffs.

“Don’t be stupid, you count as family at this point.” He tugs one of Auston’s t-shirts over his head. Probably threw his clothes all over the floor like he owns the place. “Pretty sure you’re Chris’ favourite, actually.”

“Does that make you the family pet?” Auston yawns again, and, over by the door, Mitch shoots him a look that’s probably supposed to be exasperated; instead, it’s so ridiculously fond that Auston has to bury his face in his pillow so he won’t do something stupid like blush.

“Don’t try to chirp me when you’re tired,” Mitch says. “It’s sad.” He shuts off the light in the hall, sending the room back into darkness.

“I’ve been told I’m cute when I’m tired, actually.” Auston says, listening to Marns’ footsteps. “So there.”

“So there,” Mitch echoes, then nudges at Auston’s back. “Move your butt, Matthews.”

Auston rolls over, obliging, making room for Mitch to slide under the covers beside him. He turns on his side so he’s facing Auston as he cozies up, sighs contentedly. “How’s your mattress always the comfiest thing ever?”

It’s probably a rhetorical question. Auston answers anyway. “Memory foam, man.”

Mitch grins, small and soft, pokes Auston’s toes with his. They lie there for a while, just looking at each other. It should be awkward, maybe is, a little, but it’s dark enough that it’s okay.

The corners of Mitch’s lips curve up, the tiniest little almost-smile. “Missed you,” he says, like it’s easy.

And that’s- whatever shit Auston was going to say about Lord of the Rings dies in his throat, because it’s so Mitch, being in Auston’s bed like he belongs here, this weird normal thing that’s just theirs. Auston can barely breathe with the weight of it all of a sudden, like everything hits him at once.

It’d be easier if he only wanted to have sex with him. Anything would be easier than whatever the fuck this is, this thing made of words he’s not brave enough to say or even think.

“Mitch,” he says, “can I-”

There’s maybe something in his voice, because Mitch answers before he’s even done speaking, “Anything.”

Auston bridges the distance between them, tucks himself into Marns’ side as best he can, and leans his head on Mitch’s chest before he can question himself. He feels Mitch tense up, surprised, before relaxing, one hand coming up to sit on Auston’s hip. Mitch’s heartbeat is loud from here, steady and regular. Auston’s arms go around him, holding too tight, letting himself be held.

He probably looks fucking comical, trying to make himself small. They don’t usually do this. Auston’s- he’s the holder, not the one being held, that’s not him, or it wasn’t supposed to be. None of this was supposed to-

He’s supposed to be better at missing people by now. It’s never been this bad before.

“Aus,” Mitch says, careful. He’s worried.

Auston doesn’t know what he’s going to say until he says it. “Mo needs another surgery.” They’re not supposed to talk about it outside the team ‘til PR drafts a statement. He figures Mitch doesn’t count. “I don’t know if he’s got another season,” he says. “It’s not going away.”

“Fuck,” Mitch says. Which, yeah, about sums things up.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Marns,” Auston mumbles into his shirt. “Everyone’s got someone and they want me to be the cap but I have no clue, I-” I miss you, he doesn’t say, because he’s already pushing whatever boundaries they have.

“I wish things would just go back to normal,” he finally manages, and it’s not exactly what he wanted to say, but it’s close.

Mitch’s grip tightens around him.

A long time passes, quiet like that. Auston bunches up the side of Marns’ shirt then smoothes it out, does that a bunch of times ‘til his breathing’s something close to normal. Mitch still isn’t saying anything, still hasn’t relaxed his grip. Auston’s kind of scared to look at his face, so he doesn’t, just stays curled up next to him.

“Can we sleep?” he asks eventually. “Like this?”

He feels Mitch nod. “Yeah. Yeah, ’course.” There’s something in his voice that Auston can’t pinpoint, this tightness, like something’s off. Mitch doesn’t say any more about it, though, just shifts a little so he can keep Auston’s head on his chest and get his arms around him properly. They’re both going to be completely boiled by morning, even with the freezing weather outside. Neither moves, anyways.

Auston reaches up to lace their fingers, chasing the skin-to-skin contact. He knows how Marns’ll take this. Knows what it implies. Knows that he can’t have it, not for real.

Sue him – he’ll pretend.

“Can you just. Talk?”

Mitch squeezes Auston’s hand. “About what?”

“Anything.”

“Yeah,” Mitch says, and exhales real small, so Auston can barely notice. He sounds more normal after. “I can do that.”

And he does, going on about how he took Fish to the park and met a bunch of people and accidentally joined a dog walking club with a bunch of moms, the kind of thing that could only’ve happened to him. Auston falls asleep listening to his voice.

-------

He’s not exactly sure how the bed sharing became a thing. They probably fell asleep together a bunch of times before, on planes or stuck in traffic on the team bus. Probably simplistic to trace it back to one incident, but he remembers it, anyhow.

They lost to the Caps in the first round. Six games, all decided by one goal. Better than everyone expected, judging by the way people were talking like it was still some kind of victory.

It wasn’t. It was a loss, plain and simple, and that was their rookie season, done in a matter of seconds. It was probably bitter to call it a fluke. Felt like it, still. He couldn’t decide if getting swept would have been better or worse.

Auston could hear his parents talking to the Marners in the living room in hushed voices, all concerned. Him and Mitch were lying on opposite ends of the bed, not talking. He wondered about checking his phone, but the thought of dozens of pity-messages and supportive twitter notifications was offputting enough that he didn’t.

Mitch sniffed, over the other side of the bed, and it took Auston a second to get that he was crying and trying not to.

“Hey,” he said, awkward. He’d been on teams for years, and no one’d cried in front of him, not even in juniors. He could’ve given Mitch a lot of shit for it, but he didn’t want to, just needed him to not be sad. Mitch shouldn’t be sad. “Marns.”

“I know,” he said, and Auston believed him, even though he didn’t even know what he’d been planning to say. Mitch took a deep breath, swiped at his nose. The mattress shifted under him, all 160 pounds of him. “I should get my mom and dad,” he said, quiet, rolling over to get to his feet. “I just want to sleep.”

Auston reached out, catching one of Mitch’s belt loops before he could walk away.

“You can sleep here,” he said, “if you want.”

Mitch turned and gave him an impossibly big look. Auston’s heart still goes in his throat, if he thinks of everything that was in that look.

“Yeah?” he asked, then when Auston nodded, “Yeah”, laid back down on top of the sheets. There was maybe a hand’s width between them. It felt careful.

“Next year,” Auston said, as much to himself as to Marns. “’kay? Next year, you and me.”

“You and me,” Mitch echoed, and they stared up at the ceiling and he fell asleep with a leg flung over Auston’s like it was nothing.

It was nothing, even when it kept happening, just another weird Auston and Mitch thing, oh, those two, until – somewhere between when Auston got used to sleeping on only one side of the bed and when he had to put an effort into not hitting something when Marns went on dates – it wasn’t.

Isn’t.

Whatever.

-------

Auston wakes up alone and shouldn’t be surprised about it. He sort of is anyways.

It’s kind of disorienting, how aware he is that he’s the only one in his bed the second he wakes up. It’s brighter than usual, the kind of late wakeup he only gets on off days, and it’s this bittersweet thing when he looks over at the other side of the bed and sees the sheets pushed back where Marns was. He must’ve snuck out to avoid waking Auston up. Auston’ll give him shit for it later.

He sits up and stretches, blinking in the light streaming in from the window. He can’t help but smile when he sees one of Mitch’s socks next to the dresser, forgotten where he flung it last night.

Auston drags a hand over his face and makes himself get out of bed. Rumpled sheets and a sock and that’s it ‘til the All Star break. So- fine. It’s fine.

His place is quiet and still while he treks to the kitchen. There’s a little scraping sound when someone in the condo upstairs pulls out a chair, then nothing.

way to clean up after urself, he texts Mitch while he’s waiting for his coffee to brew. rude.

He doesn’t get an answer in five minutes, so Mitch is probably already on the plane with his team. He wonders what he told them about where he was last night. Doesn’t know what answer he’d prefer.

it was nice to see u, he adds, and almost sends ‘sorry for freaking out ’ but thinks better of it. Mitch’d just come out with some stuff about not apologizing for your feelings, plus Auston already triple texted, ugh. He leans his head on his hands, shuts his eyes and listens to the dripping from the coffeepot.

He maybe dozes off a little, because the next thing he’s aware of is the sound of his front door closing and footsteps entering the apartment. Before he has a chance to grab his phone or hide or whatever the fuck you’re supposed to do when someone breaks into your house – god, his mom’s going to be pissed if he gets murdered – Mitch walks right into the kitchen, holding two large to-go cups of coffee. He looks startled to see Auston awake.

“Well, shit,” he says. “I wanted to get here before you woke up.” He gestures over his shoulder. “Elevator’s broken, by the way. Maintenance guy says it should only take a couple more hours. I had to take the stairs.” He makes a face, and this is all just very surreal. He’s in Pittsburgh, or he’s supposed to be, or-

“You’re out of shape,” Auston says instead of any of that, ‘cause chirping is apparently the hill that he’s choosing to die on. “Breathing all heavy from a couple flights of stairs.”

“Okay, first, it wasn’t a couple, it was eight.” Mitch scoffs, rising to the bait like always, like it’s a completely normal thing for him to be in Auston’s apartment right now. “Second, fuck you, I had a four-point game last week.”

“Yeah, I was watching.”

His eyes dart up to Auston’s, kind of surprised all over again. Happy-surprised, Auston thinks. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. You know I watch your games.” And the post-games, and the stupid promo video where they parodied A Christmas Carol and made Mitch be Tiny Tim, but he decides against saying those ones.

“I guess,” Marns says, but he still looks taken aback, like Auston just handed him a present he wasn’t expecting. He returns the favour, holding out one of the cups for Auston to take. “Got you one of the gross blonde espressos you like. You’re welcome.”

“I-” Auston starts then snaps his mouth shut. “Thanks.” He takes the coffee, watches Mitch heave himself up to sit on the counter and start on his drink. “How’re you here, Mitch?”

Mitch shrugs. “Called management after you fell asleep. Said it was a family emergency. I’m flying down later tonight.”

“Why?”

“Family emergency,” Mitch quips, smartass, but Auston shoots him a look and he relents. “I wasn’t going to leave you alone after last night, Matts. Come on.” He says it like it’s obvious, duh, that easy. Except it’s the NHL. Nothing’s that easy.

Auston shakes his head, disbelieving. “What, and they were just fine with you ditching practice with a game tomorrow?” Mitch sips his drink, noncommittal, and Auston’s stomach sinks. “Marns.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Mitch says, placating. “So I’m scratched for one game, it’s not-”

Shit, Mitch-”

“It’s one game, Matts.” Mitch repeats, then, seeing Auston about to protest, “Management wasn’t even pissed, honestly, it’s just the rules, like a liability thing.”

Auston stares at him, helpless. He can’t- Mitch never misses practice, not even optional skates. He shouldn’t be doing this for Auston, he’s not worth that. “You’re still new there, your team’s going to think you’re an asshole.”

“You’re my team.” Mitch says, so matter-of-fact that there’s no room left for anything else. “And I’m yours, so just- don’t argue, okay? You’re not going to make me regret it.”

He’s sitting on the counter with his chin tilted up like he’s daring Auston to try and say anything different; and something about it puts this heady feeling in Auston’s chest, so big he swears he can feel it. Like- people say they love him all the time, family and the boys after he scores in OT and fans on the internet. This feels like that times a million, better and more and fucking terrifying, for someone to care about him this much and this tangibly and show it like it’s easy.

Auston didn’t think it was possible to hold this much for one person.

“I don’t deserve you,” he says, honest, when he meets Marns’ eyes. It’s probably weird to say to your bro, but Mitch just shrugs, cheerful.

“Damn right,” he says. “I went to Starbucks. That shit’s expensive, holy.” Mitch grins all big, and that’s when it hits Auston that there’s no catch, Marns is here without even a game or practice to take up their time. They’ve got a whole day stretched out ahead of them. It feels like being a kid again, Friday afternoon looking out at a weekend that goes on forever.

Auston tries his coffee to avoid smiling too big. It only half works. “Dude,” he says.

“I know.” Mitch beams. “Playing hooky, right?”

“What’re we going to do?” Auston asks, kind of dizzy with the possibilities. “We can- d’you want to drive somewhere, or we could stay in-”

“Well,” Mitch says, stretching out a leg to poke Auston s thigh. “I hear Toronto’s a pretty nice city, and my flight’s not ‘til eight. Want to show me around?”

Auston catches his ankle, holds on just a second before letting him go. “You want to play tourist.”

“Yeah, I want to play tourist.” Mitch swings his legs. “You wanna?”

I’d do anything with you, Auston doesn’t say.

“Yeah, I could probably show you a few things,” he does say, and Mitch waggles his eyebrows, suggestive, so Auston has to try half-heartedly to shove him off the counter. “Oh my god, shut up.”

It doesn’t take Auston long to get ready, hat and scarf pulled up around his face and puffy winter coat, then they’re trekking down the eight flights of stairs and out into the cold.

“Where to?” Mitch asks. Without a real destination in mind – if they go to the actual tourist sites they’ll get mobbed, they both know that’s out of the question – Auston picks a direction at random and leads the way. It’s just a regular street, but he really hams up the whole tour guide thing, pointing out the Rogers Centre and the CN tower a couple blocks away and spouting a bunch of made-up facts about when they were built ‘til Marns is doubled over laughing in the middle of the sidewalk. It gives Auston an idea.

Even taking the long way, it only takes them a few minutes to get to where Auston’s taking them, the little outdoor rink by the waterfront. He found it by accident his first year in the city, has sort of been in love with it ever since.

“This is so cute, dude!” Mitch lights up when he sees it, like he’s a little in love too. “Looks like something in a movie.” That’s probably a little generous, because it’s eleven o’clock on a Wednesday so no one’s skating and none of the twinkly lights are lit and the ice is still all chippy from the night before. Still – it is cute. When they check, the skate rental place only has figure skates, these worn out things that are more grey than white. Auston gets them both a pair anyways, ‘cause skates are skates, they both figure.

Turns out figure skates are not, in fact, skates; because Auston gets on the ice and is fine until he tries to turn sharply and has to throw his arms out at his sides to avoid falling.

“Ah, fuck,” he curses, while Mitch cracks up. “These things have no ankle support.”

“No ankle support,” Mitch mocks. “Watch and learn, Matthews.” He skates out a little further, pulls off the exact turn Auston almost screwed up. He looks way too proud of himself, starts gliding on one foot towards Auston. “I’m the next Tessa and Scott-”

He gets halfway through his sentence before pitching forward, arms flailing. Auston reaches out to steady him, except that almost makes him lose his balance, and then they’re clinging to each other in the middle of the ice and Auston’s laughing so hard he can hardly breathe.

“So, know what, fuck figure skates.” Mitch is all flushed, but he’s smiling, hat lopsided on his head and gripping Auston’s forearms like a vise. “These things have no ankle support.”

“Who’re Tessa and Scott, even?” Auston reaches up to straighten Mitch’s hat.

“I- what?” Mitch demands, pulling back to look Auston in the eyes. “How can you even- they’re Canada’s sweethearts, Matts.”

Auston grabs Mitch’s hands to pull him along, slow. They’re both wearing gloves, but Marns’ hands feel warm anyways. “Thought we were Canada’s sweethearts.”

“Bro, telling you right now, until you can lift me over your head with one hand, we will not come close.” Auston raises an eyebrow, and Mitch starts shaking his head, quick. “That wasn’t an invitation.”

“Sounded like one.”

“Don’t you fucking dare-” Mitch pulls out of Auston’s grip, laughing, and skates backwards while Auston tries to grab for him again.

“C’mon, Mitchy, do it for Canada-”

“Fuck off!”

They chase each other around a couple of laps, getting their feet under them. The ice is still really bad, and the worn out laces on the figure skates keep coming undone, but even if skates aren’t skates, skating’s still skating, and it’s as familiar as breathing, goofing off around the ice with Marns next to him.

They stay out long enough that Auston’s fingers start going numb, checking each other up against the side of the rink until a few little kids show up and beg them to join in their game of three-on-three. The sticks are toddler-sized and the rental skates don’t really help, but Marns is really into it and then they both are, giving each other shit for missed passes and firing off shots a million miles from the net so the five year-old goalie can save them while her parents applaud from the side. Auston kind of forgot skating could be this fun.

After they’ve returned their skates, they walk some more, dawdling along the waterfront looking in the windows of all the artsy boutique stores; then, when they’ve looked at those, back onto the main streets. The back of Mitch’s gloved hand brushes against Auston’s every so often, the barest suggestion of contact that Auston finds himself waiting for.

He’s not sure Mitch even notices, chattering happily about the new equipment they’re getting in the Pens’ gym, the tailor he found in the city, stuff like that. Auston’s mostly listening, content to just hear Marns’ voice and cut in with the occasional chirp, breath coming in little clouds.

And, look: He doesn’t know what it’s like to have a boyfriend, has always been kind of unsure where the line is between how you interact with a dude as a friend and, like, romantically.

It doesn’t feel like there’s a line, with Marns. Not that he’s Auston’s boyfriend, because he’s not, but-

It’d feel something like this, he imagines.

“This is the closest thing to a date I’ve had in forever,” Marns says a while later, like he’s reading Auston’s mind. They’re waiting to cross at the big intersection by Bay, pressed close in a crowd of pedestrians. Auston looks over at him, but Mitch is staring at the crossing signal, maybe a little deliberately to be entirely casual. “So lame.”

“Yeah, you are.” Auston chirps, and Mitch makes a face. The light changes, and they join the crowd crossing. It feels anonymous enough, just two more faces in a group, that Auston’s brave enough to add, “Skating and me, though, pretty sick first date.”

“Wouldn’t be our first date,” Mitch says without hesitating, turning around so he can walk backwards and face Auston. “I know too much about you. We’re, like. That old couple at the end of the street who sits in their rocking chairs drinking coffee- no, tea.”

Auston’s heart skips at least a couple of beats. He’s pretty sure this counts as flirting, feels a little like he’s playing a game of chicken. Keeps doing it, anyways. “Old married us still go on dates?”

“’course,” Mitch says, wisely. Auston steers him away from a collision with a guy in a wheelchair, falls into step beside him when they get back onto the sidewalk. “Gotta keep the romance alive. Plus it’s probably good for you to get out of the house, what with your arthritis and old man perma-scowl.”

“Shut up,” Auston says, hip-checking Mitch gently. “I bet old you wears suspenders.”

“Old me is a silver fox,” current-Mitch claims confidently, elbowing Auston back. “Hundred bucks he still gets checked out every time he leaves the house.”

Auston scoffs. “Yeah, keep dreaming, Marns.”

“Only about you, Matty.” Mitch fires back.

And that was definitely flirting, like, really bad flirting, at that. It shouldn’t be so endearing. Is, anyways. Before Auston can figure out what to do about it, though, there’s a voice from behind them, “Look, dad, Auston Matthews!”

He tenses up, moves his hand away from Marns’ on instinct. It’s always like this- one fan, then people get curious, then he’s taking selfies for ages and his whole day with Mitch is gone. Fuck. They should’ve gone further from home, stupid to come so close to the arena.

There’re quick footsteps as the kid gets closer, but then he runs right past them, a blue blur that Auston’s pretty sure comes from a Leafs hat, pointing ahead excitedly. Auston looks toward whatever got the kid’s attention, and-

“Woah,” Mitch says.

They’re across from the ACC, maybe a hundred feet back. Not far enough to miss the larger-than-life image of Auston and Willy staring down from one of the screens on the building, this dramatic promo shot from media day in September.

It’s like a shot of ice to Auston’s veins, like he forgot everything else existed until right now and it’s all back, all at once. Like he can hear every coach he’s ever had, priorities, Matthews, self control; and Marns six inches away from him the exact opposite of all of that. Auston feels like the exact opposite of that, down here in his knit scarf and gloves and dwarfed by the version of him in royal blue, up there like something invulnerable.

He can hardly recognize the him in that picture.

“It’d be a nice house,” he says, after a too-long moment. Knows Mitch’ll get what he means, even if he doesn’t quite know, himself.

Mitch cranes his neck, staring up at the screen as well. They both know he should be up there too. He sounds kind of wistful when he says, “With a yard for the grandkids.”

“And the dog,” Auston adds.

“And the dog,” Mitch agrees, quiet, and they look at each other. It feels heavy, everything they’re not saying in that look. Then he grabs Auston’s hand, starts tugging him in the opposite direction. “C’mon. My turn to be the tour guide.”

The kid in the Leafs hat is still chattering at his dad about how Matthews is going to win a cup this year. Auston lets Mitch pull him away, doesn’t look back. Doesn’t let go of his hand, either.

Mitch brings them to a dessert restaurant, all overpriced and done up with bright colours and these dinky little plates, the kind of thing they’d make fun of in the locker room. They get a table at the back and ask for an extra fork so they can split a hot fudge brownie because, Mitch reasons wisely, “it doesn’t count as fucking with our diets if we only have half each.”

There’re probably some flaws in his logic, Auston thinks, but any thought of protesting goes away once the food arrives – piled with ice cream and whipped cream so that he’s pretty sure he can hear the team nutritionists screaming – and they take their first bites.

Mitch closes his eyes and makes an absolutely filthy noise. “Oh my god.”

Auston leans back in his seat, lets the chocolate melt on his tongue. “I know.”

“Oh my god,” Mitch repeats. “This brownie is better than sex. And I’m really good at sex.”

“I might have to steal your half,” Auston informs him, ‘cause Marns isn’t wrong, even if that might say more about both of their sex lives than the brownie.

“Go ahead and fucking try,” Mitch threatens good-naturedly, and they have a mini-war with their forks before more-or-less confining themselves to half the plate each.

It’s not exactly a surprise, a little later, when Mitch swallows his bite of brownie, reaches out, and touches Auston’s hand, tentative. “Wanna talk about it?”

Auston chews slowly. “About what?”

Mitch shrugs. “Last night. The picture. Both.”

They’re maybe the same thing. “Don’t know what I’d say.” Mitch takes that as a yes, because of course he does, and sits there, waiting. Auston sighs. “You really want to do this emotional thing.”

“Keep it in and you’ll go crazy,” Mitch says wisely, like he doesn’t have a piece of brownie stuck in his teeth. Auston wonders if he’s relating this to when he came out, if he’s thinking that it’s the same thing with Auston. “Talk.”

Auston dawdles a few seconds, scraping his fork along the outside of the plate . It’s not- it isn’t one problem for Mitch to wave a wand and fix. “People always expect me to be, like. Auston Matthews.”

“Oh, him,” Mitch says. “I hear he’s pretty good at hockey.”

“Yeah, he’s alright,” Auston says, and they exchange grins, fleeting. He drags a finger across the ridge of Marns’ knuckles, pulls back. “Only I always had you around to not expect me to be that, and now it’s just- the guys are great, but it’s.” Mitch waits, patient, for him to find the words. “It’s a lot to live up to, sometimes. I don’t know.”

“I get it,” Mitch says.

“Yeah, right.”

“I do!” he insists. “Especially since the trade, but before, too. It’s like. Always trying to prove you’re worth keeping around.”

Auston frowns, kind of caught off guard. “Why wouldn’t you be?”

“I mean,” Mitch shrugs, a little awkward, shoves around the whipped cream on the plate. “Matts. I wasn’t.” He tacks on a smile at the end, nowhere near convincing. It’s like a punch to the gut.

“That wasn’t why they traded you,” Auston says. “You have to know that.”

Mitch is shaking his head before Auston’s even done talking. “I’m fine with it, Aus. That wasn’t my point, I-”

“Marns,” Auston cuts in, firm, ‘cause he needs Mitch to understand this. “You know everyone loves you, right? Literally, every person in the city.”

“C’mon,” Mitch protests half-heartedly, and Auston goes on, obstinate. If Mitch thinks he’s anything less than entirely fucking awesome, he’s wrong.

“I’m not even joking, man. Cuddled Crosby yet?”

“Fuck off,” Mitch smiles, for real this time, and kicks at Auston’s feet under the table. Auston kicks him back, reassured by the look on his face. He thinks that Mitch has forgotten about the whole ‘let’s talk about Matts’ issues’ thing, except then he’s leaning in close, conspiratorial, waiting for Auston to meet his eyes.

“Hey,” he says, and just looks at Auston, the echo of his smile still kind of lingering. “You have people who love you too, Aus.”

He always does this, says shit like that like it’s nothing, like it’s not the kind of thing Auston’s going to mull over for hours tonight when he’s supposed to be sleeping. Auston tries for a laugh. It comes out this breathless thing. “You, uh. You make that sound really easy.”

“It is.” Mitch says, simple, then steals a forkful of the brownie from Auston’s half of the plate.

“Hey!” Auston protests, recognizing a way out when he sees one and seizing it, because they were veering into dangerous territory.

“Don’t want old married Auston to have diabetes,” Mitch says, chewing wisely.

“Oh, is that right?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Yeah, real selfless.”

They’re still leaning towards each other across the little table, grinning like idiots, caught up like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Auston could stay here getting chirped by Marns like this forever, even as he sees the sun starting to go down outside. It’s all got a distinctly Cinderella feel to it, like he’s counting down to midnight before Mitch is gone and he turns back into a pumpkin.

The tips of their fingers are still touching in the middle of the table, and Auston reaches further, overlaps Mitch’s hand with his own.

“Hey,” he says. “We have, like, a couple hours. Let’s just- two hours, no thinking about real life shit, okay?”

Mitch looks down at their hands. He’s got a little smudge of chocolate on his bottom lip. Auston wants to kiss it off. “Yeah,” he says, all soft. “Okay.”

Two hours go like this:

They race back to Auston’s place, grab Marns’ stuff and toss it in the back of the car so it’ll be ready to go for his flight. Auston puts on another sweater while Mitch laughs at him and calls him a wimp – which, screw him, it gets colder when it’s dark – and they head out, driving right into the city and parking in one of those stupid-expensive city lots.

Mitch makes them take a bunch of selfies by the lit-up Toronto sign, pulling awful faces and going through every single snapchat filter like they’re teenage girls. They walk a little more, then repeat the entire process when they come across a giant Christmas tree, strung with so many lights it sort of hurts to look at.

And this:

There’s some guy with a guitar singing old songs, in the main square. His fingers are red with the cold, but he keeps playing, and there’s a little crowd gathered around listening, a couple hipster-looking couples dancing.

Auston and Mitch linger in the back of the crowd, Auston draped across Marns’ shoulders, Mitch huddled back against Auston’s jacket, acting like a human space heater. He always runs hot – Auston can hardly feel the wind.

The guitar guy starts playing ‘Let it Be’, and Auston’s struck with a sudden memory. “D’you remember, filming that Christmas market thing, when those girls asked for a picture-”

“-and they only wanted Willy, yes!” Mitch laughs, leaning back into Auston’s chest. He did the same thing back then, elbowing Auston and giggling over Willy being the hot one. “God, that was a million years ago.”

“Everything’s different,” Auston says, and Mitch shakes his head. He can’t quite make out the expression on his face, from this angle.

“Not everything,” Mitch says, then turns just enough that Auston can see his grin. “You still don’t know how to dress for winter. Your hat looks so fucking dumb.”

“You look fucking dumb,” Auston shoots back, and Mitch settles back against him with a content sigh.

“Sick burn, Matty,”

Auston’s cheeks hurt from smiling, but he keeps doing it anyways, can’t make himself stop. He presses his cheek against Marns’ hair, listens to him singing along under his breath, swaying slightly against him. It’s almost like they’re dancing. It should be weird, but it’s just. Good. Really good, having Mitch here with him, like they could be anyone.

 

amathews reblogged bbuffy

auston liking posts w/ song lyrics i love my emo son

#@me get fuckin wreckt honestly #did u see the account name ‘lovesonglyricsposts’ asnfkajb #who u pining over boy

 

feyoncé @jasmeeme

Troy is convinced 2 pro hockey players just offered to take a pic of us bc he was struggling with the selfie stick #lmao #maybedelusional #stillluvhimtho @ptersntroy5(Face Throwing A Kiss )(Face Throwing A Kiss )

 

Auston pulls into the drop-off lane outside of terminal 1, lucky to find a spot in the pre-holiday airport craziness. It feels like they’re emerging from their own little pocket, back into the real world. He’s not sure he wants to.

They linger on the sidewalk after getting Marns’ bag out of the backseat, even though he’s already running late. Mitch scuffs his toe on the sidewalk, grins up at Auston wryly.

“You’re going to laugh at me.”

“What is it?”

“I missed how your stupid bodywash smells.” Mitch says, self-deprecating. “Weirdest shit ever, right?”

Which, yeah, objectively it kind of is; or it would be if Auston hadn’t been thinking the same thing since maybe October. Marns has used the same Old Spice shampoo/bodywash combo for as long as Auston’s known him; has been chirping Auston for using Lush shower scrubs for just as long. Which, like, sue him, he survived growing up with two sisters and came out with an appreciation for smelling nice. Better than Old Spice, that’s for sure, which is why there’s no good reason that he hasn’t thrown out the bottle that Mitch left in his bathroom before he moved.

“My scarf,” Auston says, before he can talk himself out of it.

Mitch cocks his head. “What.”

“My scarf,” Auston repeats, already tugging it off. “Take it. It’ll, uh- it’ll smell like-”

“Hey,” Mitch laughs, “that’s pretty smart, Matty.”

“I try.” Auston loops his scarf around Mitch’s neck. It feels like a bigger gesture than it is. Meaningful. “There,” he says, and tugs at one end of the scarf just to do something with his hands. Mitch sticks his tongue out, feigns like he’s being strangled. “Now people are going to think you actually know how to shop.”

Mitch rolls his eyes, grinning wryly up at Auston. His tongue’s still peeking out. “Yeah, for women’s shampoo. My crowning achievement.” He burrows a little closer into the scarf, though, looks pleased enough that Auston knows he made the right call, can’t help but tug him in for one last hug. Mitch laughs but hugs him back, arms around Auston’s waist.

Neither of them moves to let go. It feels like standing in his doorway again, the day Marns left.

“Thank you,” Auston says, because he can read between the lines, knows Mitch didn’t risk the ire of Pens management just because he missed how Auston smells. “Really, today was-”

“You needed me,” Marns says, simple. “I’m here. That’s how this works. And, hey,” Auston recognizes the change of subject. “Thanks for the scarf. I’ll give it back to you at-”

“You don’t have to,” Auston cuts in. “I like how you look in my stuff.” He doesn’t know where that comes from. He doesn’t know where half the shit comes from that comes out of his mouth when he’s talking to Mitch. Mitch doesn’t seem to mind, though, because he squeezes Auston back, tight enough that it’s hard for him to breathe, and then-

It’s not a kiss. It’s nowhere near a kiss, really, because they’re right outside a busy airport and even Mitch isn’t that reckless; but it is Mitch’s lips pressed against Auston’s cheek, just for a second, before he pulls out of the hug.

“Marns,” Auston says, stunned, still half-holding Mitch’s elbows. His legs are unsteady, like he’s on figure skates all over again, and he can feel where Mitch’s lips were, like a tattoo, like a brand, and god, he’s so, so screwed.

“Too much?” Mitch asks, almost sheepish, and this is the part where Auston should say something. He shakes his head instead, wordless, and the smile that earns from Mitch isn’t the same thing as looking into the sun, but it’s pretty close.

Mitch is blushing and pretending not to be, cheeks all pink and perfect. It could almost be because of the cold. “Okay,” he says, all casual. “Okay, that’s all. Tell everyone I say Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, et cetera, et cetera. Kick the Sens’ asses for me.” He punches Auston’s arm and shoulders his bag, heading for the doors. Auston watches him leave, waves when he looks back.

He stands there, dumb, for probably too long. The place is packed with people travelling for the holidays, and it takes some irritable travellers in a minivan laying on their horn before Auston snaps out of it and gets back in his car.

And one not-kiss doesn’t mean anything, Auston knows that. He doesn’t know if Mitch knows that. He has to.

It feels like it means something.

This is a whole lot of bad ideas at once.

Everyone else at the airport probably thinks Auston’s crazy – he smiles the whole way to the road, and can’t bring himself to stop.

 

#leafs2k23 @marnser

not to be a conspiracy theorist but.. mitch was at a starbucks in TO today (after murray+pens spotted back in pitt) (1/2)

 

#leafs2k23 @marnser

3 guesses who else was in toronto today liking dumb songs and vaguing about reunions ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) (2/2)

 

don cerise @bratattooie

holy fuck @marnser media.imgur.co/3kjr…

Chapter Text

To be fair, it’s not like Auston plans on talking about Mitch’s dick with Dylan Strome. Doesn’t plan on talking about anything with him, really; except that he leaves the locker room after they shut out the ‘Yotes and finds Strome waiting to drag him out for drinks. Auston doesn’t have much choice in the matter, so he goes along.

They aren’t really friends, which is maybe strange to say since Auston’s played street hockey at his house every summer since getting drafted to the Leafs, but that’s how it is. It’s not really Strome’s fault. Just, like, the whole Arizona/Toronto thing, some weird symmetry that freaks Auston out if he thinks about it too much, how different things could have been.

He’s never brought it up, the times they’ve hung out. They mainly only know each other because of Mitch, so it’s not really that much of a surprise when the topic moves in that direction a couple drinks in.

“So,” Strome says, picking at the label of his Molson. “Marns.”

“Yeah,” Auston says, still mostly-focused on the Oilers/Canes game they’re broadcasting above the bar and on texting Marns under the table, at least until Strome slams his hand down, all intense. It makes Auston jump.

“Don’t bullshit, Matthews.”

Auston blinks, slow after a game and a couple of drinks. So he was maybe not expecting this part. “I literally just said ‘yeah’.” He glances down at his phone in his lap. ok but my hit on duke highlight reel yes???? He quickly sends hell yes and gets a heart in response.

When he looks back up, Strome narrows his eyes. He’s kind of mousey for a big dude, usually looks like he needs a nap, but he’s staring at Auston intensely enough to make him more than a little uncomfortable. “How come you’re screwing around with him? You don’t like him? You don’t know if you like him?”

“Not having this conversation would be ideal,” Auston says, automatic, but Dylan cuts him off like he didn’t even speak.

“I mean, it’s been ages. I feel like you either want to suck a guy’s dick or you don’t, you know?”

“Don’t yell,” Auston orders, mouth suddenly dry. He doesn’t actually look over his shoulder to see if anyone’s listening, but it’s a close thing. “It’s not like that.”

Strome looks skeptical, but he does lower his voice when he says, “Yeah, sure. That’s why he called me up to tell me how ‘things are different, Dyls, it’s like, going somewhere, I feel like he really might-‘”

“Stop,” Auston cuts him off, wincing, and not just at the terrible Mitch impression. He doesn’t want to think of Marns saying that stuff, all hopeful for something that can’t happen. And it’s- Auston practically begged him to sleep in his bed and cuddle and fucking dance, of course he’s hopeful. “Stop, I get the message.”

“I don’t know what’s going on between you two,” Strome says, dead serious, “but I swear to god, if you hurt him-”

“He knows me,” Auston says. “He knows everything about me, better than anyone, and he likes me anyways. We’re- he’s my best friend. I’d never hurt him.”

His words hang there, too honest. He stares into his glass.

“Well,” Strome says, after a long pause, “that was the most romantic shit I’ve ever heard.”

Auston shakes his head, almost before he’s done talking, and very deliberately doesn’t look down at his phone when it vibrates with another message. “I like girls.”

“It’s not, like, one or the other.”

And it’s not defensive, exactly, but there’s something in the way Strome says that that makes Auston frown.

“You and Mitch, you never-”

He’s not sure what the fuck he’ll say if Strome says yes. Doesn’t end up having to, because he’s not even done his sentence when Dylan cuts him off with a snort, pulling a face. “Oh, fuck, no. Mitchy’s not my type.”

He glances up at the TV, and Auston follows his gaze. Up on screen, McDavid slips the puck through Skinner’s legs to Nurse. Nice play. He almost asks Strome what his type is, because Mitch is mostly everyone’s and that’s an objective fact, but decides against it. They aren’t that close.

They sit like that, neither talking, watching the clock tick down until the ref blows down the Oilers for high sticking with thirty seconds left in regulation. Hell of a time to go a man down.

Strome makes a disgusted noise, shreds whatever remains of his napkin.

“Tough call,” Auston says, because the Pacific’s distant enough that he can be sympathetic. Dylan finally looks over at him, like he forgot someone else was there, and sighs.

“I’m not trying to be an asshole, you know.”

“I know,” Auston says, steadier than he feels. “Kind of were, anyways.”

“Fair enough.” Strome tips the neck of his bottle in Auston’s direction. “It’s not personal. Someone’s got to look out for Marns.”

“I’d never hurt him,” Auston says again, a broken record.

“Yeah, but you’re going to.” There’s no confrontation left in his voice; just something bordering on pity, and that’s the worst part. “He’s not going to wait around for you forever, you know.”

Auston forfeits the staring contest. His phone buzzes in his hand. “Mitch isn’t waiting around for me.”

Strome rolls his eyes, wry; chugs down the last of his beer and starts reaching for his wallet. “Try again, but say it like you actually believe it, this time.”

-------

He goes with Mo to do the holiday hospital visits, dragging along bags of merch for the kids. The jerseys and signed sticks feel woefully inadequate, the way they always do when he comes here, but the kids seem happy, and Auston smiles for as many pictures as he can.

Team party is about the same as it is every year: Silvio who runs the Facebook page dresses up as Santa for all the kids, everyone’s wives talk about how surprised they are that Auston’s still single, Willy hits the eggnog and starts with the Swedish carols and makes Auston drive him home. Practically scripted, at this point.

They’ve only got a couple days off for the holidays, but Auston flies to Arizona anyways.

Going home is weird. It’s- it’s home, of course it is, but so is Toronto, is the thing, and the thing about having two homes is that neither of them quite fits. It’s a strange kind of nostalgia, being back in the house where he grew up. He doesn’t feel the same, not a kid anymore but not quite an adult, not to his parents.

He doesn’t manage to feel settled until he’s in the kitchen with both his parents, put to work drying the fancy dishes for the big dinner tomorrow.

“You’re getting too skinny,” his mom says, reaching up to pat his cheek like he’s a little kid. Things feel calmer just having her around, like nothing bad can happen. “Have you not been eating?”

Auston bats her hand away, gently. “Mom.” He’s more than two hundred pounds.

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me,” she chides, then turns toward the island. “Isn’t he getting too skinny?”

Auston’s dad, in the tacky Leafs apron that Auston got him three Fathers’ Days ago, doesn’t look up from the tomatoes he’s dicing. “Oh, yeah, wasting away.”

Auston smirks at his mom, and she rolls her eyes, affectionately cusses them out in Spanish. Auston mostly only knows the swear words his cousins taught him. He gets the gist.

He dries a couple glasses, sleeves rolled up by his elbows, content to listen to his parents’ familiar banter. The landline rings, and his mom gestures at him, hands covered in flour. “Ah, honey, bring me the phone.”

Auston does, hits the ‘talk’ button and holds it up to his mom’s ear so she can hold it there with her shoulder.

“Told her we should hire a caterer,” Auston’s dad gripes affectionately, crossing the kitchen to put the diced tomatoes into one of the bowls Auston cleaned.

“She’d never,” Auston says, and his dad smiles. They’re not really close, not like Auston and his mom. Still missed him.

“I know.” He leans against the counter, watches Auston stack plates. “The boys excited for the holiday?”

Auston nods. “Yeah, nice to get a break. Everyone’s panicking about presents for their wives.”

“Sounds about right,” his dad grins. “You getting around to finding one of those anytime soon?”

He doesn’t mean a present.

“I’m twenty-five, dad,” Auston says, as neutral as he can. “Not ready to get married.”

“Still haven’t brought a girl home.” And, okay-

Auston thinks about it, sometimes. What would happen if he brought Mitch home as more than his friend.

He knows his parents love Mitch. Which, like- big surprise, everyone loves Mitch. He came down a couple summers ago, spent the whole time charming every Matthews in a fifty-foot radius and dragging Auston to the ice cream parlour down the street. And it’s not like his family’re assholes. His cousin brought her girlfriend to Thanksgiving a couple years ago and they were fine.

There’s maybe a difference, though, when it’s your only son instead of your niece who goes to art school.

“I’ve brought girls home,” Auston settles for saying, because his mom’s side of the family is coming over for Christmas dinner tomorrow and she’s got enough to worry about without Auston starting an argument.

His dad doesn’t look impressed. “Never more than once.”

“I’ve been kind of busy with the whole hockey thing, actually,” he says, with the kind of capital-T Tone that probably would’ve gotten him grounded in middle school. His dad frowns, seems on the verge of saying something else, but then his mom starts herding Auston towards the door. He didn’t even notice her hang up the phone.

“If you want to bring a girl home that badly, you can go to get your sister from the train station,” she says. “Go.”

It’s an out, maybe unintentional. He’ll take it. “Yes, ma’am.” Auston bends down to kiss her on the forehead and scoops up the keys from the bowl on the counter.

-------

There’s forty minutes left of the year and Auston’s sprawled on Willy’s sectional questioning his life choices.

It’s just them and Brownie, the single guys who are too old to go out with the rookies and too cool to go to the cocktail party Naz is having. The ‘too cool’ part is maybe questionable, because the most exciting part of tonight is the Times Square ball drop that they’re half-watching because all the Canadian countdown shows just have weird local artists. They’re about three quarters of the way through a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne, which isn’t quite as disgusting as it sounds, but comes pretty close.

“Well,” Willy says, feet in Auston’s lap and head lolling on Connor’s shoulder, “this both sucks and blows.”

“Blucks,” Auston suggests, trying to balance his drink on Willy’s knees. Brownie laughs, ‘cause he’s charitable like that. On the TV, Beyoncé hits a high note that was almost certainly not originally part of ‘Oh Holy Night’.

There’s forty minutes left of the year and it’s not the lamest Auston’s ever been, but it’s pretty close.

“We could be so lit right now,” Willy mourns, gesturing dangerously with his drink. “Why did we think it was a good idea to join the one sport that schedules a game on New Years Day?”

Connor pipes up, “I personally only did it because my ass looks great in skates, but like-”

“Oh, fuck you, Brownie,” Willy says, grabbing for the remote as Auston snorts a laugh. “Fuck sports in general, actually,”

“Hear, hear,” Brownie takes a sip of his not-champagne then pulls a face. “Yep, that’s still nasty.”

They watch Willy scrolling through the list of channels aimlessly, catch a glimpse of Carly Rae Jepson singing at the Toronto countdown, then-

“Oh my god,” Willy says, jamming down buttons on the remote and turning toward the TV so fast that Auston has to grab his champagne flute to stop it from spilling. “They’re showing reruns of The Bachelorette. Boys.”

Auston groans while Connor shakes his head. “Aaand that’s my cue,” he says, shoving Willy off of him and stretching. “Told my parents I’d swing by their party for midnight.”

Willy slumps face-first into a throw pillow. “He’d rather hang out with his parents than us.”

“Not just my parents,” Brownie says, then, at a questioning look from Auston, starts blushing redder than his hair. “Heather said she’d come by,” he admits, and Willy sits up like it’s Christmas and his birthday at the same time.

“Connor Brown, you legend.”

They’re still chirping Brownie when he leaves ten minutes later, leaning over the front porch rail and catcalling him as he walks to his car.

“Say hello to the new Mrs. Brown for us,” Will yells, making kissy faces.

“Dr. Brown, to you,” Connor yells back, and Auston wolf-whistles him away while Willy loses it laughing, clouds of breath appearing and disappearing in the cold air.

“Oh,” he gasps himself into seriousness, grabbing Auston’s shoulder to steady himself. “Oh, I love that guy.”

“Think he’ll let us be in the wedding party?” Auston asks, leaning against Willy and watching Brownie’s taillights disappearing around the corner.

“If he doesn’t, we shave his head on a roadie.”

“Deal,” Auston says, and holds out his hand to shake on it, but Willy rolls his eyes and yanks him in for a hug instead.

“Happy New Year, man. Love you.”

Auston pats his back, kind of surprised by the rush of affection he feels. He probably shouldn’t be. Willy’s his best friend on the team, even if Auston sometimes can’t help but resent him a little for how easy he is about everything. Not his fault.

There’s a moment where Auston almost tells him everything, like, full on gushes about the weird limbo he’s in with Marns and the pundits on TSN wondering whether he’s going to be able to lead the team with Mo gone and whatever other stupid drama he has. He stops himself in time.

“Yeah, you love me,” Auston hugs Willy back, quick. “No one else’d deal with you this long.”

“Almost seven years and you’re still ugly,” Willy fires back. “Really thought you’d have fixed that by now.”

Auston pulls free and messes up Willy’s hair, shoving him back towards the door. “Hey, go watch the Bachelor, tough guy.”

“Bachelorette,” Willy shouts after him as Auston makes his way down the steps, careful not to slip because he wouldn’t put it past Willy not to have put down salt all winter. “Equal rights, Matthews!”

He keeps hollering at Auston ‘til he rounds the corner. Maybe after, but Auston can’t hear him, just the wind whistling through the little trees and the distant noise of traffic. It’s mild enough that he decides to take the fifteen minute walk home – and, he realizes, kind of horrified, he’s been in Canada too long if he thinks that zero Celsius is mild. Jesus.

He checks instagram while he’s waiting to cross the road, big, fluffy snowflakes landing on his phone screen. He likes Marty’s picture of him and Emma in dollar-store ‘2024’ party hats, Alex’s artsy video of fireworks; scrolls down and finds a clip of Marns playing mini sticks with a crowd of kids Auston doesn’t recognize.

finally found a stick the right size for you, he comments, and it gets fourteen likes almost straight away. That’s a weird kind of comforting, the fact that there’re fourteen other people – eighteen, now – with nothing better to do on New Years Eve than like comments on Mitch Marner’s insta. It’s probably a ‘misery loves company’ kind of thing.

Auston’s phone rings, loud in the quiet street, and the dumb Halloween picture of Mitch fills the screen. Auston takes the call. “That was fast.”

“I’m six feet tall, jerkweasel,” Mitch says, before even ‘hello’. “And- ow, hold on. Joanna, sub in for me. Go fivehole, he can’t get down in time.”

“I totally can!” argues a high-pitched voice. There’re a bunch of those, presumably the kids from the video, talking over each other in the background of the call.

“You totally can,” Mitch agrees absently. “Sorry, Aus, one sec-”

“If you’re busy-”

“Dude, I’m at Okie’s family party. He found out I didn’t have anywhere to go and invited-slash-forced me to come for babysitting duty.” The voices in the background fade out, like Mitch closed a door. “Thought you were with the boys?”

Auston shrugs. “Not much to do, with the game tomorrow. Willy said he was going to watch the Bachelor and finish the rest of the fake champagne. Figured I’d make a break for it.”

“What a guy, honestly.” Mitch sighs, fond, and there’s a couple of seconds of quiet. A snowflake lands on the tip of Auston’s nose, so big he can kind of see it if he crosses his eyes.

“So,” Auston says, finally. “Hi.”

“Hey, Matts.” Mitch says. It sounds like he’s smiling. “What’d you need?”

Auston half-laughs at how, just, Mitch that is. “You called me, remember? Shouldn’t you know why?”

He can practically hear Mitch shrug. “Dunno. Tradition, I guess.”

And that’s as good an excuse as any – It’s the first year in forever that they aren’t spending the night together, either at some party or killing a bottle of wine at one of their places.

Auston kicks at the little pile of snow collecting on the curb. “Are you happy?” he asks, on a whim. There’s a long pause.

“Like, right now?” Mitch asks. He doesn’t sound confused, just curious. “Or in general, or-”

“I don’t know,” Auston says. “In general.”

It’s a weird thing to ask. Mitch answers anyways. “I’m always happy. You know that.”

That’s- Auston’s not sure how he feels about that answer; something about it bugging him that he can’t quite pinpoint. Mitch doesn’t give it a chance to linger, taking his turn to ask, too casual to be really casual, “You going to kiss someone at midnight?”

“Can’t kiss someone if I’m on the phone,” Auston says. “That’d be pretty rude.”

“Auston,” Mitch says, all soft.

And he’s got to say something, he has to, but he can’t, not when Mitch sounds like that. There’s something different in all their conversations since Mitch stayed over, like some wall is down that wasn’t before. Auston can’t bring himself to put it back up.

“Too honest?” he asks.

“No.” Mitch doesn’t even hesitate. “No, not even- not at all.”

Then, because Auston’s only human, “How ‘bout you?”

Mitch breathes a laugh. “No one in Pittsburgh I want to kiss,” he says, careful.

In Pittsburgh. “That’s good,” Auston says.

“Yeah?”

He nods, then realizes he’s on the phone and Mitch can’t see him. “Yeah.”

The crossing signal’s red again. He’s missed about three chances to cross the road, now, and he finally just gives in, sits down on the curb even though the dusting of snow is going to leave a wet spot on the butt of his jeans.

He hears Mitch shifting on his end of the line, like he’s getting comfy. “Is it cold there?”

“Freezing,” Auston says, and tilts his head back so he can see the snowflakes, big and bright against the dark sky. “Pretty, though.”

“Tell me about it,” Mitch requests. And Auston does.

He’s not going to wait around for you forever, Dylan Strome says in the back of his head, but here, counting down the last seconds of 2023 and watching the snow pile up at his feet, it doesn’t feel like it.

 

NHL ALL-STAR WEEKEND BLOG: SITTING DOWN WITH MATTHEWS AND MARNER

Kirstin Hofmann | January 12, 2024

No one can miss the camaraderie between Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. When I arrive at the restaurant where we’re meeting, the two are engaged in a spirited debate over the starting goalies for Sunday’s All-Star game. As the interview goes on, Marner finishes his own drink and steals Matthews’. Matthews points out a dish on the menu that he thinks Marner will enjoy.

“Chicken strips are [Marner’s] favourite,” he explains. “He’s a five-year old.”

It’s the kind of light-hearted chirping that made the two fan-favourites throughout their tenure with the Leafs, and it appears to have persisted despite the fact that Marner now wears a penguin instead of a leaf.

“That’s been fun,” Marner says of finding himself on the opposite side of the faceoff from Matthews. “You think you know the way he plays, but then he’s scoring on you and it’s like- oh, that’s something new. New appreciation for those wristers, that’s for sure.”

But, I ask, a challenging adjustment?

“That too,” Marner says. “Worse for Matts, though. He misses me like crazy.”

Matthews begs off the subject, declining comment amidst a slew of chirps from his friend. On their upcoming clash in the All-Star Game, in which Matthews will captain the Atlantic Division team, he is more verbose. “Yeah, you know, it’s always an exciting weekend. We’ve played against each other a couple of times, like Mitch said. It’ll be fun to do that in a more relaxed environment.”

‘Relaxed’, if Matthews is correct in his description, will certainly be a change of pace at the halfway point of a regular season that, for both players, has been anything but. Fresh off of a controversial trade, Marner is finding his place in a Penguins lineup that’s had to fight its way back from a rocky start peppered with injuries and an unsteady rookie D-corps. Back in Toronto, Matthews has been spearheading the Buds’ campaign for a cup, stepping into a leadership position with Captain Morgan Reilly missing more than a month of games with a lower body injury. Matthews is anything but cracking under the pressure, currently third in the league with 55 points and a league-best 32 goals. It’s no surprise that his name is at the forefront of Hart conversation, and Marner enthusiastically agrees when I bring it up.

“No one would deserve it more.”

Matthews is more cautious. “We still have half our games to play. All of the guys have been performing, now we need to keep that up.”

Conversation about the Hart and the post-season takes on a more somber tone. Occasionally, though, the two teenage rookies that made waves by singing to Livin’ on a Prayer in the middle of a game make a reappearance.

When asked if he’s enjoying being reunited with his longtime teammate, Matthews nods. “Yeah, of course. I mean, we’ve been through a lot together. He’s one of my best friends.”

“Just say you miss me,” Marner needles with his trademark grin. “He misses me.”

“This guy’s delusional,” Matthews insists, but he’s smiling too. A kicking war ensues under the table, and when my own ankles become a casualty, Marner apologizes profusely while the usually-stoic Matthews laughs so hard he almost falls out of his chair.

Some things, apparently, never change.

The 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend continues tomorrow with the Skills Challenge on NBC.

25 Comments

Reply from Guest4862503

tbt to when this site posted actual sports and not stupid puff pieces about ~friendship~

Reply from heyzukohere

Can...can it be??? A Marner interview where they don’t mention him being bi???? Four for you, Sportsnet, you go, Sportsnet.

Reply from t0r0nt0r0ck66 to heyzukohere

and yet its still somehow the gayest thing ive ever read

Reply from Guest5942433

Metro division is going to kick atlanic’s asses fuck the leafs haha. Their shit without marner

 

austormatts

idk if its all the asg content or what but do you ever just think about how auston matthews actually tangibly lights up around mitch marner and kind of wanna die bc i do

#idk i d k #its a lot #team: mapple fucks #team: bird boys #otp: together for a long time #i should maybe change that tag but also im never changing that tag bc i love pain

 

There’s something to be said for the All Star Game. Auston’s never missed a year, so he can’t get all hype about the long weekend like some of the other guys, but it’s pretty fun to see guys from the NTDP that he doesn’t get to talk to anymore; to put rivalries on hold and hang out with guys from the other divisions. ‘Guys from other divisions’ includes Marns, now, anyways, so if Auston wasn’t sold on this weekend before, he sure as hell would be this year.

They all go out for drinks after the skills competition, descend on the local sports bar en masse. The staff looks about as thrilled as can be expected when faced with a bunch of rowdy athletes. Auston’s pretty sure some of the Western conference guys have already been pregaming.

No one comments on him and Marns being attached at the hip. They hang around the bar with some of the Avs for a while, enjoying Mitch getting chirped by his Team Canada bros, before crowding into the same side of a booth a little later. Eichs is on the other side, ranting to some rookie whose name Auston’s a little unsure on and completely ignoring them, which is fine with Auston.

He’s got an arm flung around the back of Mitch’s seat and Mitch is leaning into his touch, basking in Auston’s attention the way he always does, as though he doesn’t have a limitless supply. It’s the same kind of different it was on New Years and when they had their day downtown; this intimacy that fits so easy it doesn’t seem worth fighting.

“Gonna kick your ass tomorrow,” Mitch says, loose-lipped after a couple too many beers. “Me and my liney Sidney Crosby.”

“Got a thing for captains, huh?” Auston teases, even though he’ll only be wearing the C for a couple of hours.

“Damn straight,” Mitch says without missing a beat. “Mo really gets me going.”

“Shut up,” Auston laughs, and Mitch goes on, all innocent, knees tucked up almost on Auston’s lap.

“It’s all the fake teeth, is what it is-”

Auston sips his drink, watches Mitch watching him. “I have all my teeth,”

“Well, yeah, that’s why you’re my favourite.”

“Just that?” Auston needles.

Mitch rolls his eyes, doesn’t manage to look anything but completely smitten. “There’s probably some other stuff too.” He leans back, resting his head on Auston’s arm and looking up at him, all fond. Handsy when he’s drunk, handsy when he’s not. Auston toys with the hair on the nape of Marns’ neck. It feels daring, even though the only people around them are other hockey players who are mostly too drunk to care.

So, of course, that’s when Jack Eichel decides to start paying attention to them.

“Hey, Matty” he announces, seemingly not noticing when the rookie he’s been lecturing – Adams? Adam Something? – makes his escape. “Quit fraternizing with the enemy.”

“He’ll fraternize with your mom,” Mitch fires back before Auston can, because his chirping skills pretty much hit a plateau when he was twelve and never changed, drunk or not. Jack’s leaning across the table to hear them, now. Auston’s arm feels heavy across Mitch’s shoulders, too obvious.

“Aw, defending your man, cute.“ Jack puts on this sickly-sweet voice, like they’re still sixteen year olds training in Team USA jerseys.

Mitch rolls his eyes, says, “In your wet dreams, Eichel.” It would probably be funnier if Auston hadn’t immediately pulled his arm off of Mitch’s shoulders like he’d been shocked as soon as Jack spoke. He knows what it looks like, like he’s embarrassed. He doesn’t know if he is.

Eichs doesn’t even notice, finally distracted by the absence of his rookie. Even if he did, Jack’s the kind of guy to say ‘no homo’ if he accidentally high fives a guy for too long, his opinion on this means literally nothing

Mitch notices. Of course Mitch notices.

He flinches, shrinks back into his half of the booth. He’s looking at Auston all hurt, so that Auston can hardly stand to make eye contact. He’s got an apology on his lips, which – he doesn’t even know what he’s going to say, with all these people around. It hangs there, unsaid, and Mitch drops his gaze, has a face like he just ate something bitter.

“I need some air,” Mitch says, and it’s lucky that he took the outside seat because he’s out of the booth in a second, leaving Auston with Jack Eichel and Mitch’s jacket and two half-empty beer bottles, kicking himself. Idiot.

“What’s that about?” Eichs asks, because he’s not entirely clueless, evidently.

Auston doesn’t bother answering, just grabs Mitch’s jacket and heads in the same direction Mitch went. The place is packed solid – he gets dragged into hellos with Karlsson and his wife, makes the bare minimum of small talk before making some excuse and heading for the door.

He half-expects that Marns’ll be completely gone, back to the hotel or to go drink somewhere where everyone they know isn’t hanging out. He’s not; is sitting on the curb right outside the bar, all hunched up so Auston almost misses him. The streetlight makes his shadow long and skinny so it almost stretches all the way to Auston’s feet.

He can see goosebumps on Mitch’s arms when he gets close – it’s too cold to be outside in just a shirt, too cold to be outside at all – and drapes his jacket over his shoulders. Mitch doesn’t look up.

Auston shoves his hands into his pockets and sits down next to Mitch, shifting to get comfortable on the concrete. He can’t read the expression on Mitch’s face when he looks at him, and that’s foreign enough to catch him off guard.

“Sorry,” Auston says.

“For what?” Mitch asks, flat, then makes a face. “Not, like, in a passive-aggressive way. Just. What would you even apologize for? ‘Sorry I can’t sit next to you without people thinking we’re fucking’?” He shakes his head, gives this little laugh, but not like anything’s really funny.

“I don’t care about that.”

Mitch meets his eyes for the first time. “Don’t lie, Aus.”

Auston puts his pinky over Mitch’s, cold on the pavement. “You know,” he says, hating how plaintive he sounds. “You know how people are.”

Mitch stares at where their fingers are overlapping. Sighs, barely, and frowns, but links their fingers like a pinky swear so Auston knows he’s forgiven. “Yeah, I know.”

It doesn’t feel like enough. It doesn’t feel like them, the them that Auston’s gotten used to. It’s like he can feel the eyes of everyone inside on them, this presence that they’ve been ignoring and can’t, anymore.

“Sorry,” Auston repeats, because he doesn’t know what else to say.

“You already said that.”

“I know,” he says. “I’ll say it again, if you want. We’ve probably got a while before McDavid forms a search party.”

That one makes Mitch smile, which is what Auston was going for. It doesn’t quite reach his eyes, but it’s something; and he reaches out, toys with the zipper of Auston’s open jacket. Auston waits.

“You asked if I was happy,” Mitch says, eventually. “Remember?”

His brow’s still furrowed. Auston nods, resists the impulse to reach up and smooth it out.

“I lied.” Mitch confesses, eyes finding Auston’s. “Not fully. Just.” He stops, like he’s trying to find the words. “It kind of felt like it was pretend? Like- temporary. I’d play in Pittsburgh a couple months then I’d get to go home to you and we’d be normal again.”

“And now,” he says, a little stunned, “now I don’t know what to do, now that it’s real.”

He sounds lost, enough to break Auston’s heart, just a little. Too honest, he wants to say, some cowardly part of him that’s louder than it should be; because it’s like an ice bath, the realization that it’s not just him, that Mitch has been hurting too, and he can’t remember what the fuck any of this is for.

“Marns,” he says, pained. “Marns, you should’ve told me.”

“I didn’t want you to worry,” Mitch says, small. “I thought if we just kept things the same with us- but they aren’t, and now...”

And Mitch always does this, opens up and leaves himself defenceless so that Auston wants to shake him, sometimes, a million people like Jack Eichel and nosy reporters and me and you still haven’t learned, Mitch, not to trust people like that.

He never wants Mitch not to trust people like that.

“I don’t know how to help you,” Auston says, helpless. “I don’t- I’m shit at getting over things.”

“Get over Auston Matthews,” Mitch echoes, raising a hand to trace the dip of Auston’s collarbone, so light it’s barely a touch. The corner of his mouth quirks up, but it’s sad. “Easier said than done.”

Auston stops breathing.

Mitch’s hand is resting on his neck. It’s not like his other touches, not even a little bit plausibly platonic. It feels like a question.

“We’re drunk,” Auston says. Mitch’s mouth is so close he can feel his breath on his lips, feel it shift when he shakes his head.

“Not that drunk.”

He could kiss Mitch, right now. It’d be the easiest thing in the world, nothing, practically, to lean in and close the barely-there space between them; to back him up against the brick wall or bring him back to his hotel room and pull him in by his collar and kiss him ‘til his lips were pink and swollen, mark up his neck so everyone in the world could tell whose he is.

Mitch’s eyes flutter shut, lips barely parted, and Auston has never wanted anything more in his entire life.

“Marns,” he whispers. “I can’t.”

The city’s a graveyard around them, dead quiet so Auston can hear the screech of someone’s engine brakes from blocks away like a cartoon record scratch. Mitch doesn’t open his eyes. Doesn’t react at all, hardly, except that his lips tighten, almost imperceptibly.

“Can’t or won’t?”

Auston lifts a hand, sets it over Mitch’s hand still on his neck. “It doesn’t matter.”

They’re still close, still breathing each other’s air, and there’s this tightness in Auston’s throat like dread. He wants, he wants, he wants.

“We should go inside,” he says instead, and Mitch finally moves; blinks like he’s waking up and pulls his hand away from Auston’s, fast and jerky.

“Wait,” he says. “Wait, don’t- sorry. Sorry.” He looks mortified, like there’s any chance Auston has ever been able to say no to him for anything; except he just did, he thinks, not the kind of ‘no’ he can take back. He wants to try, anyways, to reach out and pull him in and make him never look this lost ever again.

He doesn’t.

It feels like things have changed all over again.

“It’s fine,” Auston says. “We’re fine.”

 

a lone babsock @marnser

lowkey disappointed abt the lack of mitch/auston stuff from asg??? is it just me or were they kind of… off???

 

leafs/stars/devils @taylorhallway

@marnser chill they prob just dont want to be a meme again

 

They’re not fine. Nothing even close. He gets that maybe the second the Skype call goes through and he sees Marns’ face.

It’s been weird since that night, texts and a few strained calls instead of the almost daily thing they had going before. Auston wanted nothing more than to see Mitch’s face again, thought he was going crazy with it, except now that he does he wants to hang up, cut the call and blame it on a bad connection.

“Hey,” he says, trying so hard to sound normal that his voice cracks, a little. “Was about to forget what you looked like.”

“Ha,” Mitch says, actually says the word ‘ha’ instead of laughing, and Auston’s stomach sinks. “Look, Auston-”

“Hey, did you get the email from the PA, that charity calendar thing they want us to do?”

“Yeah,” Mitch says. “But-”

“I don’t know if I’m going to do it. Who the fuck’d want to buy a calendar with me holding a puppy?” Auston’s rambling now, he knows he is; this crazy outpouring of words to make Mitch not say whatever’s got that look on his face. “Like, oh, it’s May, here’s me with, like, a dachshund-”

“Matts,” Mitch cuts in, loud. It’s the nickname, maybe, that makes Auston finally shut up. This stupid little thread of hope, like he’s calling you Matts, it can’t be that bad; except then Mitch keeps talking, and it is.

“I was thinking,” Mitch says. “And I think that maybe we should just. Stop.”

Auston stares at Mitch’s face on the screen, the little numbers tracking how long the call’s been. “Stop what?” he manages, finally.

Mitch shifts around, uncomfortable. “I’m acting like you’re my boyfriend,” he says. “And you’re not, and I shouldn’t be putting that on you.”

“Stop,” Auston shakes his head, because he sees where this is going, sees how Mitch is avoiding looking at him. “You’re not- you aren’t putting anything, Mitch-”

“I am,” Mitch says. “Trust me, I am.”

It’s probably the most honest either of them’s been, the closest they’ve come to putting into words whatever the hell has been happening with them the past few years. It’s almost a confession. Almost.

“It’s not just you,” Auston says before he can stop himself. Almost, he thinks, and it’s not enough.

“I don’t know what to do with that,” Mitch says, and he actually laughs, this exasperated, slightly hysterical little thing. “You say stuff like that and then you pull back and I don’t know what you want me to do with-”

“I know,” Auston says. “I know, I- We can’t, Marns-”

“You said that already,” Mitch says, and it’s like a door’s shut, something closed off that Auston can’t remember seeing in his face before.

He feels it, really feels it, the thousands of miles between them, for the first time.

“So- what, then?” Auston gets out, rough. “What does this mean?”

“I-” Mitch starts, and falters for the first time. “Maybe we just need to make space,” he says, eventually. “Just until I can get over this.”

“Space,” Auston echoes, like he’s never heard the word before. The call glitches for a second, frozen on Mitch’s face looking right at the camera, and when it reconnects he’s in the middle of a sentence, talking a mile a minute.

“-probably go, Coach said he wants us there early for tonight’s game.”

“Yeah,” Auston says. “Okay.” Then, before he can second-guess, “Talk to you later.” Mitch nods, doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Yeah, ‘course.” He says it like it’s an answer, like it was ever really a question. He’s lying. There’s a second of the worst silence Auston’s ever heard, and then the call ends, just like that.

He punches the arm of the couch, hard enough that he hits the wooden part inside. There’s no blood, no nothing, just him clutching his fist; this throbbing pain that’s the loudest thing in his whole apartment.

“Fuck,” he says, and hits it again, can’t quite manage as much force this time and ends up just sitting there, clutching the side of the couch like it’s an anchor. “Fuck.”

He should have known, he should have fucking known something like this would happen, that ruining things with his best friend was the only real outcome here. What’d he think was going to happen?

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Willy skates him into the boards at practice, which is how Auston knows he wants to talk.

“What, asshole?” he grunts, shoving Willy off of him and retrieving the puck.

“Why’s your face like that?” Will asks, because subtlety’s never really been his thing. “All, like-” He does this exaggerated pout, gets so into it he almost misses Auston’s pass. Across the rink, one of the trainers blows a whistle.

“Is it possible to get dumped by someone you weren’t dating?” Auston asks. It’s not really an answer to Willy’s question, but he looks like he’s thinking about it anyways.

Willy passes the puck. “I want to say no, but you’re all pouty, so I’m guessing it’s a yes?”

Auston huffs, noncommittal, bounces the puck on his stick a couple times before sending it back.

“Shouldn’t make faces like that, though, seriously.” Willy says, taking the pass and keeping it up, like, eight times, just to one-up Auston. “You’re going to get frown lines.”

“I’m not making a face,” Auston says. “I’m fucking sad.”

“Gross,” Willy says, automatic, ‘cause that’s what they do. “Are we the kind of friends who talk about emotions now?”

“No,” Auston says. They really aren’t. “Forget it.”

“Gentlemen,” Mike hollers over from where he’s standing along the wall with the skating coaches. “Would you care to join the rest of us at hockey practice?”

“Sorry, Coach.” they chorus at the same time, shoving each other while they head over to join one of the forward drills, the other guys giving them shit for slacking off. Auston thinks they’re going to leave it at that, except Willy sidles up to him almost forty minutes later, when he’s practicing tip-ins near the end of practice.

“Auston,” he says, uncharacteristically grave. It’s too quiet on the ice, most of the guys already gone.

“William.” Auston mirrors his tone, studiously avoiding eye contact. Willy rolls his eyes, but gets serious again real fast. It looks weird, on him.

“About earlier,” he says, awkward, scratching at the back of his neck. “If it’s, like, a mental health thing-”

“God, stop.” Auston cuts him off before he can drag them any further into this whatever the fuck this is. They really aren’t that kind of friends. “It’s not.”

“Okay,” Willy says, looking way too relieved. “’cause, you know. Bell let’s talk.”

Auston clasps his hands on the top of his stick, resting his chin there. “I don’t think you’re supposed to say the ‘Bell’ part.”

“Oh, go to hell, Matthews, I’m being supportive,” Willy whines, and saucers the puck up the ice so Auston has to skate for it. His legs are burning after a long practice, but he leans into it, keeps running drills until one of the trainers kicks him off the ice.

He goes, but grudgingly. It’s easier on the ice, when he doesn’t have to think about anything other than driving the puck to the net. No such luck outside of the arena, nothing to distract him from his phone not ringing like it’s doing it on purpose.

It’s not like Mitch completely cut him off. It’d maybe be better if he had, because then Auston could be mad at him, but this – it’s worse, somehow, because they text and send each other stupid memes and pretend like things are totally normal, and the whole time there’s this gaping hole in the middle of everything.

There’s no more Skype calls. No more falling asleep on the phone. It’s like every one of the rest of Auston’s friendships, except he doesn’t creep the rest of his friends’ instagrams and want to throw his phone out the window when he posts all these buddy-buddy photos with his new teammates.

Marty’s been radio silent too, responds to Auston texting him to tell Em happy birthday with just ‘thanks’. It’s not that surprising, because Auston knows he was always closest to Mitch, basically adopted him the second they met. It still hurts, cherry on top of all the other shit.

A couple times, when he’s lying there in his too-big bed after a game, he kind of resents Mitch. He’s the one who had to go and get feelings for Auston, he’s the one who couldn’t leave things the way they were.

That’s unfair. Auston knows that. Knows the feelings thing wasn’t just Mitch, at least that much.

He doesn’t know much else.

“Hey,” he says, when they’re watching a movie over Skype a couple weeks later; the first time he’s seen Marns’ face in the same amount of time. “Hey, we’re okay, right?” He’s shooting for casual, winds up somewhere north of pathetic.

Mitch cracks a smile, shrugs. “Why wouldn’t we be?”

“I don’t know,” Auston says. “Whatever.”

He waits for Mitch to say that they’re ‘BFFs’ so Auston can chirp him for it; to ask if Auston misses him so Auston can come up with a new reason to say no.

“Cool,” Mitch says, eyes on his screen.

 

cartesiaens reblogged mitchmamcr

mitch marner: hugging sid in one (1) instagram post

pens fandom: (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Eyes )(Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Eyes )(Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Eyes )(Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Eyes )(Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Eyes ) good shit go౦ԁ sHit (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) thats ✔ some good (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) shit right (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) th (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) ere(Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) right✔there ✔if i do ƽaү so my sel thats what im talking about right there right there(chorus: ʳᶦᵍʰᵗ ᵗʰᵉʳᵉ) mMMMMᎷМ(Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) НO0ОଠOOOOOОଠଠOoooᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒ (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand)(Eyes )(Eyes )(Eyes ) (Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand)(Ok Hand Sign ≊ Ok Hand)Good shit

#*jealous screaming from toronto* #mitch marner #sidney crosby #penguins #anna is hockey trash

 

Mitch scores, the next time the Leafs play the Pens. The Pittsburgh crowd goes nuts, even though it’s completely filthy, not even enough to make it competitive with the Leafs’ 5-0 – 5-1, now – lead.

Robbie’s slow to get up from where Mitch slid into him. Auston knows Babs is going to challenge it on interference, knows it’ll be a good goal. Should’ve been a shutout.

There’s a shout from near the net as Naz gets up into the Penguins’ celly, shoves Mitch, hard, all raw emotion the way he always is. It’s just a push, stupid posturing. All the guys on both benches get up anyways, angry, and Auston’s on his feet without even knowing who he’s pissed at, Marns or Kadri.

The refs manage to corral everyone before it escalates, Mitch’s lineys escorting him to the bench like bodyguards. Auston keeps his face carefully neutral while the camera guy lingers in front of the bench, knows the TV commentators are talking about the whole ‘fighting with former teammates’ thing, knows this is all he’s going to get asked about in the postgames. He wishes Mo was here to do the media stuff.

The goal gets some fight back in the Pens, but the Leafs hold the lead for the seven minutes left of regulation, end with a decisive win. A few Penguins jerseys in the crowd boo. A lot have already left.

Auston was right: They ask about the fight three separate times during the media scrum, even though he was on the bench during the whole thing, scored twice earlier. It takes him a while to escape and get cleaned up to head down to the players’ parking garage.

Mitch is leaning on his car, doing something on his phone while he waits.

“Hey,” Auston says, and it makes Mitch jump, but he goes for a smile.

“Hey,” he says. “Nice game.” He’s always been a shit liar – Auston knows he hates losing as much as anyone, maybe more.

“Convincing,” says Auston. He means it as a joke, mostly, but it falls flat. Mitch frowns, hackles up.

“They ruled the goal was fine.”

Auston scoffs, which is maybe the wrong thing to do. Robbie really wanted the shutout, takes it real hard. Mitch knows that. “Yeah, but-”

“You don’t think it was?”

“I think it was pretty ugly.”

“Didn’t have a problem with it when we were on the same team.”

“Well we aren’t, anymore,” Auston snaps, “so.”

That seems to cow Mitch a little, and he takes a step back, shoving his phone into his pocket and crossing over to the drivers’ side. He leaves his hand on the door handle, hesitates long enough that Auston knows he’s not done.

He finally looks up to meet Auston’s eyes. “Naz was pretty mad.”

Auston swallows back a retort. He knows how to stand up for his team and for Mitch, doesn’t know how to do both. Wonders if Mitch was asked about the not-fight too, in media. “It was a game. You know it’s not personal.”

He shrugs, obviously disagreeing. “Felt personal.”

“Naz’s your friend, you know that. You were teammates for six years.” It sounds hollow and they both know it. Auston wants to rewind this whole conversation, go back upstairs and start over, better.

“Well,” Mitch says. “We aren’t anymore. So.” He throws Auston’s words back in his face like they’re a weapon, and Auston just stands there, at a loss.

It feels like more than a car, between them.

“Marns,” Auston says. “I-”

“Can we just,” Mitch interrupts, “not? Tonight, can we not?” He sounds tired, all of a sudden; or maybe he did all along and Auston just didn’t notice.

Auston nods, adjusts his grip on the strap of his duffle. “Okay,” he says, then offers, “I can go back to the hotel with the guys.”

That seems to startle Mitch enough to break the tension, or at least some of it. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says, and sighs a little, opening his door. “C’mon, let’s just- you want to pick the music?”

Auston forces a smile, slides into the passenger seat. “You’re going to regret that, bud.”

Mitch grins, and it’s almost easy, giving each other shit for their taste in music like a million times before. They do that the whole way to Mitch’s place, familiar chirping that manages to ease Auston into something like calm, even as he’s still too aware of everything they aren’t talking about.

Fish is as excited as ever to see Auston when they get there, so that’s something. He scoops her up, even though she’s probably too big for that now, rubs her between the ears like he would when he saw her every day. She follows him like they’re glued together, and it’s distracting enough that Auston doesn’t notice where Mitch is leading him until they’re already sitting.

It’s a really nice guest room. Auston’d bet money that Mitch’s mom set it all up for him, ‘cause there’s no way Marns is thoughtful enough to buy coordinating throw pillows.

Auston doesn’t think he can remember the last time they slept in separate beds, when they were in the same place.

Space, he thinks like a mantra, although maybe less than a foot between them isn’t what Mitch had in mind. Neither of them moves, anyways, sitting on the bed and talking hockey, only a little strained. He can’t get his mind around Mitch leaving to go sleep somewhere else, like he’s going to bust out his huge smile and cuddle up like, gotcha.

Auston reaches out, touches the tips of his fingers to Mitch’s in the no-man’s land in the middle of the bed. “Hey,” he says, “so I-”

“I have a date tomorrow.” Mitch says, real quiet, staring at where their hands touch.

And it’s so, so dumb. All Auston can think is gotcha.

“Oh,” he says.

“She seems really nice,” Mitch says.

There’s nothing Auston would rather think of less than how nice Mitch’s date is. “That’s great, Marns,” he says, and even he can tell how hollow his voice sounds. “Really.”

Mitch looks pained. “Aus-”

“Hey, we both have early flights tomorrow,” he cuts in, transparent and not caring anymore. “We should probably...”

It takes Mitch a second. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”

Mitch is still sitting on the bed like he can’t decide what to do. Auston makes up his mind for him, gets up and starts fishing through his bag for his pajamas ‘til he hears the springs creak while Mitch gets up to leave.

“Night,” he says, from over in the doorway.

“Night,” Auston echoes, and doesn’t turn around ‘til he’s sure Mitch is gone.

Auston waits until he can’t hear Mitch or the dog moving around anymore, ‘til the apartment is quiet and he’s pretty sure they’re asleep, then wriggles out from under the sheets, careful not to creak the bedsprings too much.

He needs- something. He can’t breathe.

He walks into the kitchen, pours himself a glass of water. His hands are shaking, and he overcompensates by slamming the fridge closed, too hard. The sound echoes throughout the apartment. Auston waits, but there’s no sound from the master bedroom, so Mitch didn’t wake up, or if he did, he’s staying in bed. Auston doesn’t know if he’s disappointed or relieved.

He chugs half his water, pours the rest into the sink and watches it swirl down the drain.

He hates this entire city and everyone in it. Fuck Pittsburgh, and its nice girls, and its stupid silent h.

Fish pads into the kitchen after him, nails clicking against the tiles. She noses at the back of Auston’s knee like she’s checking on him. He sits down, heavy, next to her on the floor and buries his face in the fur at her neck. It tickles his nose, but he doesn’t move.

Auston remembers when she was a puppy, small enough that he could pick her up with one hand; when Mitch dragged him around to every animal shelter within two hours of Toronto until they found her.

He wishes he was braver. He wishes Marns never got traded. He wishes they met somewhere else, not in the NHL, and they could do whatever they wanted and no one would give a shit. He wishes a lot of things, and can’t seem to stop, and maybe that’s his problem.

There’s a line from some poem, ‘if wishes were fishes’. He doesn’t know how the rest goes, but that one line from an elementary school memory, ‘if wishes were fishes’, here on the floor holding on to Fish like she’s a life preserver, seems all at once like the funniest thing Auston’s ever heard. He has to press in closer to Fish to muffle the hysterical laugh that bubbles up without his permission.

And god, god. He’s going crazy.

-------

Mitch’s date with nice girl goes well; or at least, well enough that they’re still tagging each other in comments on instagram a week later. She – Lauren, her name is – is really pretty, always uses too many exclamation marks in her captions. Auston can see why Mitch likes her.

“This is what you wanted,” Breyana reminds him when he’s desperate enough to bring it up while they’re talking on his way to practice in the morning. And there’s something to be said for younger sibling tactlessness, maybe, but right now Auston sort of just regrets this entire conversation.

“I know it’s what I wanted,” he says. “I fucking hate it.” The light turns green, and he makes it about a foot and a half before traffic grinds to a halt again. He’s going to be late. “Don’t tell mom and dad.”

“Duh,” Breyana says, and that’s probably the closest thing to sympathetic Auston’s going to get. “Love you.”

“Yeah,” he says. Behind him, someone lays on the horn. He wonders if Mitch drives nice girl Lauren to work, in Pittsburgh. “Thanks.”

-------

Auston’s playing the best hockey of his career. That’s what people are telling him, anyways. It’s not just him, either – the whole team is playing like a well-oiled machine, this wicked-fast, exciting hockey that’s tearing up the points race. Unless they start slumping, they’re going to win their division. Maybe even the President’s trophy, if they keep winning.

They win back to back games against the Hawks going into a three day break, and Mo drags them all out to get wasted. “I may not be able to boss you guys around on the ice,” he explains, patting his bum knee, “but I can damn well enforce alcohol-based team bonding.”

The rest of the guys respond with gusto, commandeering a whole corner of the bar and four pushed-together tables that end up littered with appetizers and bottles too quickly. Auston promises the waitress a hundred dollar tip if she keeps his glass full, and she does. His mood lifts pretty quick, after that, and he’s half-paying attention to the conversations around him. The far side of the table is doing a bunch of toasts, starting with “To the Leafs!” and currently at “To Angela from catering!” Closer to Auston, Willy and some of the younger guys have been debating the worst trades for about half an hour, getting steadily more opinionated as the empties pile up.

“Listen,” Willy says, waving a hand to get the rest of them to shut up, “listenlistenlisten, Phil Kessel leaves and immediately gets two cups, end of story, you’re all wrong.”

“Uh, hello?!” Buzzy demands. “Mitchell Marner, number sixteen, best person in the entire world? No offense, Auston.” He tosses that in as an aside, and Willy loses it, kicking Auston under the table and giggling.

Auston rolls his eyes, just on the right side of too drunk to care about Buzzy’s weird man-crush on him, or even the mention of Marns. “Mitch is doing fine.”

Buzzy keeps going with the Mitch thing, because of course he does. “Yo, did you see the girl he was with, though, on instagram, from when they played Detroit? How come none of you assholes know girls like that?”

“It’s his charming smile,” Robbie giggles, elbowing Buzzy conspiratorially.

“Charming other things,” Willy chimes in, wags his tongue out, lecherous; he earns a chorus of ‘gross’ and ‘get it, Marns’ for his effort.

Auston breaks his glass.

He doesn’t mean to, doesn’t even realize how hard he’s squeezing when they start talking about Mitch and his stupid maybe-girlfriend until there’re shards of glass on the table and a puddle of beer in his lap.

“Shit,” he says, already pulling out of his seat. He’s effectively killed the trade conversation and at least a couple others, can see the guys exchanging looks as he gets up. He hears someone ask, “Yo, what’s with Matts?”, forces himself not to care, just escapes to the bathroom and starts dabbing at his front with wadded-up paper towel, the cardboardy stuff that’s so rough it’s practically corrosive.

It takes Mo approximately 0.01 seconds to follow him, because of course it does. Guy gets the C, thinks he’s a fucking therapist. He leans on the sink, weight off his bad leg, and stares like he’s x-raying Auston’s brain. Auston ignores him, to absolutely no effect.

“You guys ever hook up?” Mo asks it like that’s a totally normal way to start a conversation; then, when Auston doesn’t respond, “Not even one measly little bro-job-”

Auston scoffs, even though this is the opposite of funny. “Don’t say ‘bro-job’, Mo, you’re better than that.”

“Hey,” he cuffs Auston on the back of the head. “Respect your elders, kid.”

Auston debates telling Mo, again, that three years age difference is not even close to enough to be using that phrase. Lost cause, probably. “Mitch and I didn’t hook up,” he says, instead. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“But you wanted to.” Mo infers.

“And how d’you figure that one?”

“Didn’t say I was talking about Marns, did I?”

Which- Fuck.

“You’re wasted,” Auston says, avoiding eye contact. He gives drying himself up as a lost cause in favour of making his escape. It still looks like he pissed himself.

“I’m wise as shit,” Mo retorts. “I’m Yoda.”

“CGI Yoda.” It’s not the worst comeback ever. It maybe comes close. Auston balls up his paper towel and tosses it at the overflowing garbage can in the corner. It bounces off the lid and onto the floor. So, yep, sounds about right.

“Matts,” Mo says, serious now, and waits until Auston meets his eyes. He looks sincere enough that Auston sort of hates him, for a second. “You know that we all have your back with this, right?”

“I never asked you to,” Auston says, and stalks out of the room as Mo calls after him. He doesn’t look back.

He knows that he’s being possessive, knows that he has no right to be. Mitch can go out with whoever he wants, it’s none of Auston’s fucking business.

He doesn’t rejoin the boys at the table, spends the rest of the night chatting up the first girl who’s into him at the bar, proving a point to no one but himself. She’s talkative. Nice, he guesses. Considerably out of his league, finishing her doctorate at U of T and only getting that he’s a pro athlete when someone asks for his autograph.

She drags her nails down Auston’s back when she’s riding him, back at his place, in a way that she probably thinks is hot. It’s going to leave a mark. He returns the favour, tracing a path along the inside of her thighs with his mouth; lets her twist her fingers in his hair so it almost hurts.

It feels like cheating, which is the most bullshit thing he’s ever heard. He’s allowed to get with whoever he wants, he hasn’t promised anyone anything. Mitch is allowed to cuddle nice girls and Sidney fucking Crosby, he’s allowed to get with Kylie the almost-PHD, no fucking question.

She doesn’t ask for Auston’s number after, and he doesn’t ask for hers. Just lies there and listens to her leave, waits for the door to click shut, then turns over and yells into his pillow.

It helps, a little.

-------

Their Saturday game against the Bruins is ugly as anything, gloves dropped not even a minute after the first faceoff. Things don’t really improve, from there.

Auston gets a hatty, the only goals all night, and they win like they’ve been doing a lot recently, only he gets rammed hard into the boards at the end of the third. When he looks at himself in the mirror later, he’s got a huge bruise all up his side where his body armour dug into his skin. It’s purple, leaning towards a sickly yellow at the edges.

He tries to call Mitch on Skype while he ices his ribs.

There’s no answer.

  

MATTHEWS MISSES PRACTICE – TSN RADIO TRANSCRIPT

JERRY: “Alright, while we have the time, we have to discuss that hit on Matthews by Berglund. There’s some talk that he should be suspended, the usual player safety stuff. As of now, they’re still saying Matthews is going to be good to end the season series against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, and of course we’ll keep you updated with all the latest, but I want to open the floor with this: Is this something Leafs fans should be worrying about?”

PAT: “By itself, no. We know Matthews can take a hit. In the context of the whole season, though, I say maybe it’s getting there. Have you seen the guy?”

ALAN: “I mean, if you ask me it’s a non-issue. If you look at Matthews’ point production-”

P: “Oh, he’s on a hot stretch, that’s not sustainable.”

A: “Except that he’s been sustaining it!”

P: “But how long can he keep that up? The league these days, with trainers and consultants for who knows what, it’s acknowledging that off-ice is just important as on, and whatever’s affecting Auston Matthews away from the rink is going to catch up eventually.”

J: “I’d argue it’s getting there already. The guy’s looking exhausted recently. Bags under the eyes is not what Leafs management is going to want to be seeing this close to a cup run. If I’m Babcock, I’m starting to get worried.”

A: “With Reilly having difficulties with that knee again, the pressure on Matthews to step up in this kind of contending year has just- it’s been unbelievable. You’ve got to wonder if part of it is the loss of a major support system in the form of Mitch Marner as well.”

P: “See, I don’t know if I buy that argument, because Marner seems to be doing just fine without Matthews. Better, even.”

A: “I’ll tell you, that line is just about the only bright spot for Pittsburgh fans this season.”

J: “Alright, tight on time, so we’ll have more on what’s going on with the Pens for you in a couple of minutes, but first let’s go over to Sarah for our update on trade deadline rumours.”

  

Funny thing is, all prior evidence to the contrary, Auston’s not even really dreading it when they head into their last game against the Pens, mostly because things can’t possibly get any worse.

It’s his last chance to see Mitch, this season. So he’s going to win, he decides, and he’s going to take Mitch out for dinner after, and he’s going to make things okay with them, number-one draft pick Matthews style.

The Leafs completely dominate the first two periods. The ACC is going crazy, doing all the “go Leafs go” cheers like they’re going for a cup instead of playing a team that’s barely third in their division. Pens rally back in the third, bring it within one until the Leafs score shorthanded to secure the W.

The whole ‘Matthews style’ thing is going really well, at least until he meets Mitch after the game by the room where they used to sharpen their skates. He can still hear the noise from the Leafs locker room a few turns away, every win meaning more as the postseason gets closer.

“Hey,” Mitch says, and looks genuinely happy to see him, and every little bit of Auston that may have wanted to play it cool crumbles into sand.

“Hey,” Auston says. He’s halfway to hugging him before he second guesses himself, ends up making this weird, aborted movement and going for the fist bump. It’s painfully awkward, and Auston’s pretty sure he sees Mitch actually wince, but he powers through. “Missed me?”

“You know I did,” Mitch says, kind of bemused.

Auston shoves his hands in his pockets, rocks a little on his heels. “My place, we’ll get takeout?”

“Boys wanted to go out for drinks,” Mitch says, apologetic. “If you want you can come?”

Auston can’t do anything but laugh, this surprised, ugly thing that maybe startles him more than it does Marns. Of course, Mitch can’t stay. Space, he said, and that apparently applies to the last time they’re going to see each other for months. “Wow.”

“You’re pissed.” Mitch realizes out loud, and Auston doesn’t want to look at him.

“I’m not pissed.”

“Yeah, except you are.” Mitch says, and Auston rolls his eyes.

“If I wanted a clingy girlfriend I’d get one, thanks.” He doesn’t know what makes him say it, knows as he does that it’s a mistake. He can pinpoint the exact second his words hit, watches Mitch get this steely look in his eyes that Auston’s never seen directed at him before.

“Or maybe,” Mitch continues, like he never stopped, something hard in his voice, “you’re just jealous and too fucking dumb to admit it.”

Auston gapes at him. So that’s how it’s going to be, today. “Fuck you too, Mitch.” He turns on his heel to leave, hears Mitch exhale, sharp, before calling after him, loud.

“Is this because we almost kis-”

Jesus, Mitch, shut up,” Auston hisses, looking over his shoulder, panicked. They’re right in the middle of the hall where anyone could be listening, there’re literal camera crews around the corner. Mitch doesn’t even look sorry, standing there with his chin raised like he’s daring Auston to argue.

No- like he wants Auston to argue. Auston gets that a bit late, at which point Mitch has already grabbed his arm and tugged him into the nearest supply closet like they’re in some B-list spy movie. Auston lets himself get pulled in, shuts the door behind him and doesn’t drop Mitch’s gaze.

“Can we just-” Mitch runs a hand through his hair. He’s talking quieter now, careful, like he’s controlling himself. “Can we talk, please? I never wanted things to get like this, I don’t- You have to help me here, Aus.”

Auston sighs, tries to match Mitch’s tone and doesn’t come close. “It’s nothing, okay? I’m having a bad day, whatever, it doesn’t matter.”

“Don’t do the press voice,” Mitch chides, and he sounds surprised, like this is crossing some new line. Auston’s losing track of them, now, holding onto them like water through his fingers.

“It’s nothing,” Auston insists. “Go text Lauren or something.”

Mitch half-laughs. “You think- Is that what this is about?”

“Stop it.”

“No.” He’s face-to-face with Auston, jaw jutting out, stubborn.

“Mitch. I have a life outside of you, you can screw who you want.” It’s mean and mostly a lie and they both know it. It’s some kind of last straw, for Mitch, though, because he flushes red, and Auston can see his fists clenched like he’s trying not to hit something.

“Oh, fuck off, Auston. This was your choice.”

You said we should make space,” Auston retorts, “don’t put it on me, don’t act like-”

“Like what?” Mitch is loud, sharper than Auston’s ever heard him. It catches him off guard. “Like I tried to kiss you and you shot me down? Like you’re a different person when anyone’s watching us?” The words are spilling out now, like once he’s started he can’t stop. Auston’s heart is beating, deafening, in his ears, all the wind out of his sails. “Or like you haven’t been expecting me to wait around for you for years like your- your backup plan? ‘Cause, don’t know if you noticed, but it happened.”

“Stop,” Auston says, pathetic. Mitch doesn’t.

“It happened,” he says, and shoves at Auston’s chest, face all crunched up and the worst kind of angry. He’s never been like this with Auston, ever. “It happened,” he says again, “It. Fucking. Happened; it’s been happening and you don’t feel anything-”

His voice breaks on the last word and something in Auston snaps.

“What do you want me to say, Mitch?” he demands, desperate, too loud, and steps into Mitch’s space before he can shove him again, using his size for the first time. “That I miss you? Because, fine, I miss you, okay?”

Mitch opens his mouth like he’s going to argue, still angry, but the words seem to get lost before they can come out, and then they’re just standing there in a four-by-six custodian’s closet, this suffocating silence.

“I really fucking miss you,” Auston says, knows that he sounds wrecked, is wrecked enough not to care. He’s out of breath without knowing why. “I’ve been missing you since before you left, Marns, I-”

“Auston,” Mitch breathes, and Auston wants to brush it off, to make some excuse and pretend this entire conversation never happened.

“Kiss me” is what comes out instead.

His words hang there, sucking all the air out of the room. Mitch starts shaking his head, squeezes his eyes shut. “You don’t want-”

“Kiss me,” he says again, and their eyes meet, and Mitch does.

It’s everything like the time Mitch kissed him at that party, and it’s nothing like it, too.

Everything like it because it’s just as messy, their teeth clacking together before Auston can get a grip on Mitch’s face to kiss him properly; because it’s a mistake and Auston knows it and lets it happen anyways, dives in headfirst.

Nothing like it because this is so much more.

It’s six years worth of waiting and wanting, the two of them stumbling back into the shelving unit at the back of the closet, sending rolls of tape and cleaning supplies clattering to the ground at their feet. Mitch’s hands are caught up in the hair at the nape of Auston’s neck; his mouth open and inviting under his. Orange toothpaste, Auston thinks, half out of his mind, and doesn’t pull back.

Both of his hands are splayed on Mitch’s back, under his shirt. His skin’s hot, a livewire under Auston’s palms, and Auston feels him shiver when he drags his hands down to sit at his waist, trails his lips down his neck. He’s taller than anyone else Auston’s kissed, bigger, but lets Auston pin him back against the shelf, pulls him even closer.

“Matts,” Mitch says, this breathy little thing, and tugs Auston up to kiss him again, hard. Auston’s acutely aware of every inch of Marns pressed up against him; he wants to move his hands lower, maybe even would, except Mitch keeps talking.

“Matts, I have to go,” Mitch says, eyes still closed, right up against Auston’s mouth. His chest is rising and falling, fast. “They’ll send someone to come get me.”

It takes a second. “Right.”

Auston knows he should move, can’t quite make himself. It’s feels like he’s underwater.

He just kissed his best friend. He just really kissed his best friend, twenty feet down the hall from his team and a room full of reporters. Mitch’s lips are pink and kiss-bitten and Auston did that, that was him. That was me, he thinks, stupid, and it still doesn’t manage to feel real. He doesn’t know what to-

He doesn’t know anything.

“Hey,” Mitch says, and brushes his thumb along Auston’s jaw. He pulls himself up to his full height for one last kiss, soft, pressed right against Auston’s lips.

Auston’s hyperaware of every little detail. Like, there’s Mitch’s bottom lip; there’s the plain chapstick he wears because the guys will chirp him if he buys the flavoured stuff; there’s Mitch’s hands on either side of Auston’s face, kissing him like he’s something breakable.

It’s so careful Auston can’t breathe. He’s never been kissed like this in his life.

Marns walks them back towards the door, slow, doesn’t take his eyes off Auston’s face the whole time.

The fluorescent lights in the hall are jarring after the dim closet, and that’s a pretty decent excuse for why he leans a little more into Mitch, shuts his eyes and keeps their foreheads pressed together.

Mitch’s hands are shaking, barely.

“I’ll call you when we land,” Mitch says, fingers tracing the cut of Auston’s collar.

Auston nods.

“We’re gonna be okay.” Mitch says it like he can will it into being true just by speaking it. Auston nods again, dumb.

And the funny thing is, even after everything, he believes him.

 

#1 SOURCE FOR SPORTS GOSSIP @proathletessource

PENS’ MITCH MARNER + LEAFS’ AUSTON MATTHEWS SHARE EMOTIONAL EMBRACE instagram.com/proathletessource/55g9z9/

 

Fox News @FoxNews

Sports News: Number 1 NHL Draft Pick at Center of Gay Rumours. Fox Sports panel of experts weighs in... fxn.ws/205x3cp

 

Deadspin @deadspin

EDITORIAL: What #Leafsgate Rumours Say About Male Friendship in Pro Sports #nhl #hockey deadsp.in/i9df33

 

1634 <3 @actualleafstrash

YOU GUYS WE FUCKING CALLED IT ASKGSHGLKA #MARNSTHEWS #IS #REAAALLLLL (Grinning Face ) (Grinning Face )

 

Sam Anderson @samkanderson

@AM34 y u acting out the notebook when we’re 3 away from division champs #priorities #leafs #byebyeplayoffs

 

#EducateTheInternet @liamfffff

Pictures of 2 guys standing close, internet immediately assumes they’re gay......Yikes. #pittsburghpenguins #pcculture #idontevengohere

 

love thy goalie @anadeimhucks

*2 players stumble out of a literal closet, hair and clothes messed up* hockey fans: img.twitter.com/5k6fel..

 

toronto memes @postsfromthe6ix

#justgirlythings: dreaming of the day a man looks at u the way marner looks at matthews #leafsgate

 

Jaden @jadeejay

whats in the water at the acc lol

 

Hockey58869 @hockey58869

Wtf happened to the NHL? Leafs seasons tickets for sale anyone? #tmltalk #wtf

 

From: “Denis DiAngelo” [diangelo@diangelosports.com]

To: “Auston Matthews” [a.matthews@leafs.mlse.ca]

Subject: MEDIA BLACKOUT

Auston,

Probably redundant to say, but do not speak to any press/fans until our meeting with Leafs PR/management. That includes social media and other ACC staff. Please instruct your family to do the same. We’re trying to figure out a way to get you out ahead of this.

Word of advice: Don’t read the articles.

Denis

 

goldknightss reblogged sidneycrosboat

*tour guide voice* and on your left you can see the entire hockey fandom collectively losing its shit

can u b e l i e v e.... auston/mitch is finally #confirmed.... its been 84 years.. im naming my firstborn after today

OKAY BUT IS ROB2 COMING OUT NEXT?????

.... is this a joke?

First things first: Matthews hasn’t said anything. All this is based on assumptions from a couple of photos, none of which actually show anything other than a hug, albeit a pretty lingering one. We don’t know what was going on, and speculation isn’t going to accomplish shit, but it’s happening anyways, which leads to point 2:

This is a real person we’re talking about guys, a real person whose entire life has changed overnight. It wasn’t his choice to put this out there (and coming out is a choice, despite what the internet seems to think) and it’s pretty obvious why if you take one look at the fucking hate blogs and comment spammers that are already trashing his entire existence

I repeat: it was not his choice.

Have some fucking decency.

#and also #in regards to #is rob^2 coming out next #because why not harass a couple of rookies while we’re at it #because ruining someones life isn’t news for long if theres a more interesting #read: attractive and white #couple for you to project onto next #not to mention your use of the phrase come out implies some kind of consent????? #which was not present #at all????? #but what do i know #sam rants (tags via: sidneycrosboat)

#holy crap you guys #this is insane?????? #leafsgate

  

“So,” Coach says, then folds his hands on his desk, expectant. “Anything to tell us?”

Auston shakes his head.

Two of the PR people, standing behind the desk like a jury, exchange a look.

“To be clear,” one of them says, “There’re no consequences or punishment on the table, here. Anything you tell us stays in this room. We just want to control the narrative now, before it gets out of hand.”

“There’s no narrative,” Auston snaps, then remembers himself. “It was a hug. We’re not dating. We’re not anything.”

He must not sound as calm as he’s trying to, because his agent pipes up from the conference call, “Auston. We’re all on the same side, here.”

One of the PR ladies opens her mouth to speak, but Babs cuts her off, leaning in to talk to Auston like they’re the only ones in the room. “He’s right,” he says, gruff as usual. “We have your back on this one, Matty, whatever direction you’re wanting to go here.”

Auston can’t tell what Coach is thinking, if he’s freaked out or worried or pissed. Auston would get it, if he’s pissed – like the guy doesn’t have enough stress, coaching in the craziest market in the country. Last thing he needs is a scandal.

“A statement,” Denis suggests over the phone. “Like they did with Marner, back when-”

Auston shakes his head. “I can’t- I don’t want to say something. There’s nothing to say, I told you.” No one even looks like they’re pretending to believe him, this time. He avoids everyone’s stares, addresses his words to Mike. “Can I go?” he asks. “Please, Coach?”

It’s quiet for a couple of seconds, then Babs sighs, and Auston finally gets it, that look on his face. It’s pity. “Go.”

Auston can hear the PR people protest, but he’s out of the room before they’re done their sentences, doesn’t even say bye to his agent. Their voices carry while he leaves.

“We needed to consult with Marner’s agent, Mike.”

“Give the kid a break, Christ-”

And Auston doesn’t hear the rest, rounds the corner and makes it halfway down the hall before ducking into the bathroom. He slams the stall door behind him, locks it and slumps to the ground, breathing heavy.

It feels like he’s going to throw up, but nothing comes up and he’s just sitting there, on his knees in the bathroom stall, tiles cold through his jeans, staring into the toilet bowl. Auston Matthews, first overall pick, face of the franchise, future hall of famer.

Lots of people don’t believe it, about him and Mitch.

Lots of people do.

Auston’s seen the pictures. He’d believe it.

On the floor next to him, his phone vibrates and lights up with Marns’ contact photo, the same way it’s been doing for a day and a half.

And Auston can’t-

He can’t.

The screen goes black when the call goes to voicemail, just like the other ones.

 

MITCH MARNER (19:14)

????

MITCH MARNER (19:16)

cmon matts i know ur freaking out

 

ROBERT BUZKOWITZ (21:05)

WOAH matty U seen those articles about U and manrs??crazy stuff haha sorry to bug U

 

MORGAN REILLY (08:31)

Talked to the boys and told them to back off, sorry. We’re all with you man.

 

ALEXANDRIA MATTHEWS (15:42)

I told mom you’ll text when you’re ready... her and dad are worried about you. We get that it’s just the press making stuff up. Do you want us to fly down??

 

MITCH MARNER (23:59)

we dont have to talk about it

MITCH MARNER (23:59)

just say something

MITCH MARNER (00:01)

please

 

Auston says something.

It was a matter of time, probably – management’s been keeping the reporters off his back best they can, shuttling him from his car to the locker room to the ice like he’s under quarantine. He sure as hell feels like it, with half the team walking on eggshells around him, the rookies staying out of his way. Auston’s pretty sure Mo gave Buzzy shit for his text, can’t bring himself to feel bad for it.

Willy’s barely talking to him. Auston didn’t even know he could be this quiet. He’s not sure if it’s because of the gay thing or the press, not sure it really matters. Still, it’s like – cherry on fucking top.

It all goes to shit after they play Columbus in the Saturday night header, when Babs is finishing his postgame speech in the locker room.

“Good game, lots to learn from,” he’s saying. “We’ll show up ready to work on the PK tomorrow morning. Matty, Zaits, you’ve got the postgames.” He hands his clipboard to one of the assistants, and everyone starts heading to their stalls or the showers, recognizing the dismissal.

Auston catches Babs’ elbow before he can leave the room. “Coach,” he says, pleading, and Mike shakes his head.

“Can’t hide forever,” he says, and he’s maybe right, but that doesn’t make it feel any better when Auston’s hemmed into his stall by a circle of more cameras and microphones than there were when they made it to the conference final last year. Not a single one of them went to Zaits.

At first the reporters are on their best behaviour, asking him about his goals against the Blue Jackets that night, if he thinks he’s on his way to getting a new personal best. Still feels like something inevitable when one of them, the beat reporter from TSN, asks, “Do you feel renewed pressure to choose between hockey and your personal life?”

And Auston can see Freddie shooting the guy a death glare from across the room, Naz about to open his mouth and give him a piece of his mind, and it’s like all at once he’s just. Sick of it. Like he can see the entire rest of his career stretched out in front of him, questions about Mitch and his personal life and whether kissing a guy has magically sapped all of his hockey skills, and it’s just utter fucking garbage.

He speaks up before anyone else can come to his rescue, right into the camera, firm. “It’s never been a choice.”

He knows what it sounds like. Thinks that’s maybe what he’s trying to say.

Mitch stops texting, after that.

Chapter Text

They clinch the playoffs as early as they ever have. President’s Trophy, first in their division, all set to face the Lightning in the first round. Toronto’s electric, people stopping the team in the street, city buses with ‘Congrats Leafs’ on the screens up front, as though they’ve really done anything yet.

Auston throws himself into all of it. He practices like it’s a game, goes into games like they’re already in the cup final. Takes a million shots on Freddie and Robbie ‘til the coaches call it quits, then hits up the gym after that. The guys are looking at him like they’re worried, still staying out of his way. Auston can’t bring himself to care. They have to win this year, they’re going to, even if he has to drag them to a Stanley Cup himself.

Even the Mitch stuff dies down with playoffs looming. Not entirely – Auston hasn’t been brave enough to check his twitter notifications in weeks, has had comments on his insta turned off just as long – but enough that he gets through one interview, then two more without anyone asking him if he’s going to be partnering with You Can Play.

He’s playing really fucking good hockey, and people are noticing, and if this is what it takes to distract them, fine. He can do this. He’s going to do this.

Mitch doesn’t say anything to the press about it. Them. It’s not like Auston thought he would – Marns is too decent for that. He watches a few interviews on youtube anyways, paranoid. Shouldn’t have bothered: Mitch doesn’t bring up Auston at all, and when the reporters do, he gives the standard answers, “I’m friends with all the guys from Toronto”, “Auston’s a good guy”, whatever. He doesn’t call, and Auston doesn’t either.

It’s the longest they’ve gone without talking since they met.

-------

There’s something to be said for the way working out makes it impossible to think.

Auston’s been in the gym for an hour, going machine-to-machine the way the trainers told him to ‘til he’s dripping with sweat. His music’s blasting in his headphones, muscles burning, this satisfyingly distracting ache while he lifts weights.

This, he knows how to do. This is normal, or it is except for the fact that Willy’s on the treadmill a few feet away, watching Auston.

Like. Straight up staring at him. It’s extremely fucking weird.

Auston hears the opening notes of ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ and nearly drops his dumbbells on his chest trying to switch the song. He avoids Will’s gaze, keeps running through his reps, trying to stay focused. They haven’t really talked since the whole picture incident, other than dumb liney stuff. So Willy’s homophobic, or he’s freaked out, or- or something. Not Auston’s problem.

He cranks the volume up ‘til he’s all but deafened, manages to go for maybe five more minutes before getting fed up. Willy’s not even trying to be subtle.

“You going to say something?” Auston demands, finally pulling out his headphones. “Or were we just going to stick to the staring thing?”

“We’re best friends, right?” Willy asks, fast, almost before Auston’s done talking. It’s like he’s been waiting.

”Uh,” Auston says, blindsided. “Yes?”

Will looks his feet, kind of red. Auston can barely hear him when he says, “You could have told me.” And that’s-

Auston shakes his head. “Nothing to tell.”

Willy frowns. “Oh, come on-”

“What, Will?” Auston snaps, drops his weights with a metallic ‘thud’. So they’re doing this, then. “You’ve seen the pictures. Ask a real question or back off.”

Willy’s mouth tightens, and Auston’s waiting for him to take the second option, but he hits a couple buttons on the treadmill instead, walking it down to a stop. Auston watches, a little wary, while Willy hops off of the machine, shoves his hands in his pockets, and comes over to stand a few feet away.

He feels, all at once, almost guilty. He forgets, sometimes, that Willy was right there with him and Marns since the beginning, Auston’s liney and right hand where Mitch had the rest of the team. And, yeah, it’s – it was always Auston and Mitch in a lot of ways, but in the eyes of the franchise, the city, it was always the three of them. Willy lost that, same as Auston. Maybe lost Auston too, a little.

“What?” Auston asks again, softer this time in spite of himself.

It takes a long time for Will to meet Auston’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, sheepish, and Auston doesn’t know what he was expecting, but it’s not this. “If I made you feel like you couldn’t say anything. I didn’t mean to.”

It’s Auston’s turn to stare, now. His stomach's doing something complicated, like he can't tell if he's angry or relieved or guilty. “I know you didn’t,” he gets out, finally. They’re still watching each other, and Willy still looks morose, so he continues, “It wasn’t- it wasn’t only you, so just. It’s fine.”

“It’s not,” Willy looks at him, earnest. Auston doesn’t think he’s ever seen him this serious. “You’re my brother, man.”

Auston exhales. He’s going for exasperated, ends up somewhere north of pathetic, and Willy hugs him without waiting for him to say anything else. It takes Auston a second, but he brings his arms up around him and hugs him back.

“So we’re the kind of friends who talk about emotions now, huh?” he quips, to break the silence. Willy snorts, shoving him away.

“Shut up,” he laughs, visibly relieved. Auston gives him the best smile he can muster, ducks down to unscrew the cap of his water bottle. “Pretty awesome, though,” Willy goes on while Auston drinks. “You and Mitchy. I’m happy for you guys.”

“I’m not with Mitch,” Auston says. “I meant it, that there’s nothing to tell.”

“Oh,” says Willy. “Okay.” Auston can tell he doesn’t believe him, is keeping his mouth shut, trying to be supportive. And it’s maybe that that makes Auston talk, without really meaning to.

“There almost was,” he admits. “I fucked everything up.”

His voice breaks on the last word, like saying it out loud is making it real for the first time, like it just now hits him that Marns-

Marns hates him. He kissed him and he hates him and the entire world saw it on camera. It’s everything Auston’s ever been scared of, and he doesn’t even have Mitch at the end of it, doesn’t have a fucking thing except this team.

And he doesn’t cry, because he never cries; except there’re tears burning hot in the corners of his eyes, a lump in his throat so big it hurts. He almost wants to laugh at how ridiculous this is, losing his shit weeks after the fact, in the Leafs gym, in front of fucking Willy. This doesn’t happen to him, ever.

“Shit,” Auston says, and it comes out as this half-gasp, half-sob. He tugs up his t-shirt to wipe at his eyes, takes a swig of his water, anything to not be crying in front of his teammate.

Willy maybe knows Auston well enough to know how to react: in an uncharacteristic show of tact, he pretends not to notice, just goes and picks up the weights that Auston dropped, brings them back over to the shelf and busies himself over there ‘til Auston’s got his composure back.

He looks over his shoulder, kind of appraising, when Auston comes to bring him his water bottle. “Thanks.”

“Yeah,” Auston says.

Willy leans on the wall, careful. It takes him a while to ask, “You gonna unfuck it?”

Auston shrugs. His throat still feels all raw, eyes are probably red. “Don’t think I can.” He doesn’t want to think about this right now, can’t, if he wants to win. Stanley cup, he thinks, and it’s enough to bring his breathing back to normal, almost. “Can we just. Can we just work out?”

“Yeah,” Willy says. “We can do that.”

 

ottawasenotters reblogged ovetchcant

full offense but matthews needs to keep his angst away from my children

#me 40 mins ago: idk i kind of feel bad for matthews hes been through some shit #me now: kill bill sirens #sens lb #playoffs lb #put him in the boooxxxxxx refs wyd

 

Toronto media loses its collective shit when they sweep Ottawa in the semis. It’s like- they win Games One and Two, and then Game Three in OT in front of a raucous ACC crowd, and they’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop and it just. Doesn’t. They win.

They’ve been this close before, last year. It never felt like this.

“To absolutely fucking killing it, boys.” Naz toasts when they’re out celebrating, an extra week to kill before the conference finals against Montreal or Pittsburgh. They’re already a few drinks in, already easy and rowdy and high on winning.

“Shittiest toast I’ve ever heard, hands down,” Brownie heckles, and Naz flips him off while they all down their drinks, laughing and shoving each other around. Even Freddie’s into it, ruffling Auston’s hair all affectionate in a way he never really is. Auston takes it, cracks a smile and accepts the drinks they hand him so no one’ll start asking questions.

He’s not going to ruin it for the guys tonight. They’ve earned this – a sweep in the semis, fucking unreal – even if they haven’t really won anything yet. He glances down to check his phone, a reflex, at this point. Nothing. Obviously, nothing.

Pens are down in the series against the Habs. Auston’s not sure who he’s rooting for.

“Buds all day! Buds all day!” Buzzy’s hollering from the dance floor, trying to get a chant going. No one really listens, but he doesn’t seem troubled, dancing with Robbie and a bunch of girls in Leafs shirts while the rest of the team gives him shit for his moves.

It’s weird for Auston to think that that used to be him, eighteen and buoyed by a high draft pick and the new signing bonus sitting in his bank account. Arrogant as shit, even though he knows that part hasn’t entirely worn off. It isn’t the exact same, of course. In some ways, nothing even close – he still can’t really get his head around it sometimes, how different of a team these rookies arrived to than the one Auston started on. To get to the NHL and immediately be a contender, the weight of excitement instead of a city expecting you to fail.

Still. Stuff was easier, then.

It’s only a matter of time before the rookies find their way over to him, because of course they do. Buzzy almost spills his entire drink on Auston, swaying dangerously. And it’s not like Auston can just leave him.

He grabs Buzzy’s collar, handing him off to a marginally-more-sober Robbie. “Take Buzkowitz to the bathroom, I’m calling you an uber.”

So he’s the mom, whatever, fuck off.

“Auston,” Buzzy says, completely hammered. He sits Robbie down on the nearest stool and flings an arm around Auston’s shoulders. “Auston Matthews, you are so cool. You brought us to the playoffs, dude.”

Auston shrugs out from his grip, focused on finding a car nearby. “It’s a team sport.”

Buzzy goes on like Auston didn’t even speak. “And, like, Robbie was worried about facing the Sens but I was like, no, man, A-dog’s got our backs. And you did! He’s- you’re, like. Our cool dad.”

“Cool,” Robbie echoes, all giggly. Auston makes a mental note to send apology texts to every vet who was on the team when he was a rookie, if he was anything like this.

“And hey, man, the gay thing?” Buzzy waves a hand, oblivious. “Totally cool. We’ve all had gay thoughts, my dude.”

“That’s true,” Robbie chimes in, getting up from the stool so Auston has to steady him. “I have gay thoughts all the time.”

Auston doesn’t have time to decide if what he’s feeling is fondness or just slightly fluctuating levels of annoyance before Willy swoops in, grabs the rookies by the scruffs of their necks, and all but shoves them toward the bathroom. “Go piss, guys, if you aren’t done by the time our rides’re here we’re leaving without you.” They stumble off in the right general direction, and Will glances over at Auston, pointed.

He keeps on doing this, like he’s appointed himself as Auston’s bodyguard. Auston doesn’t quite know how he feels about it. Like – Will’s well-intentioned, obviously, but he also makes it difficult for Auston to ignore it when someone brings up the gay thing. He doesn’t need someone to look out for him, he just needs to play hockey. He’s fine.

Auston drains his glass and beckons for the tab, avoiding Willy’s gaze. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“You’re not happy,” Willy says. He’s just on the right side of wasted. “You’re eight wins from a Stanley Cup and you’re not happy. You should do what makes you happy.”

“Hockey makes me happy,” Auston says, flat, and it’s not a lie, exactly, but it’s not the whole truth either. He can see Will about to argue, so he slaps a few twenties down on the bar, getting to his feet. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? We’re going to meet a couple hours before practice, go over some tape.”

He leaves before Willy can say anything else, stays just long enough to make sure the kids get into the right car and that the driver has the address before climbing into his own cab and calling it a night.

They don’t have anything to celebrate, yet. But-

They will. They have to. Stanley cup, Auston thinks like a prayer, keeps that in the back of his head when he wakes up the next morning with a pounding headache and goes for a run anyways; when the Sportnet app on his phone sends an alert that the Penguins are out in the second round; when the Leafs play the Canadiens in front of the loudest crowd Auston’s ever heard.

It feels like he hasn’t slept in months, which is ironic because he’s been passing out the second his head hits the pillow. He didn’t think it was possible to even be this tired, right down to his bones.

Sometimes, when he wakes up and it’s still dark out, he types out texts to Marns. Dozens of them, ranging from hey to can we talk and once, after they go to the third OT of game three and lose nineteen minutes in, i miss you. i’m sorry.

He doesn’t send any of them, always deletes them the second they’re typed. He can’t really imagine Mitch wants to hear anything he has to say. Can’t blame him for that, either.

So he wasn’t lying, really. Hockey’s what he has, and hockey has to make him happy, and that has to be enough, and then-

And then it’s not.

-------

They lose it in the finals, in front of a home crowd.

It’s not even a seven game series. Nothing so dramatic; just the Oilers with a three-one series lead and the clock ticking down on a one goal deficit and then skating to the bench, watching Connor McDavid get handed the Stanley Cup.

Auston expected this to feel worse than it does. Expected to feel something, at least, but instead he’s just. Empty. Hollow. Nothing left in the tank, nothing left at all.

 

What’s Next After Leafs Loss?

Supriya Hafiz || Sports

It was the goal that shocked a city: with ninety-six seconds left in the third period, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid took a sharp angle shot and shattered the 2-2 tie that had been in place since midway through the second. It’s a mark of the faith that this city has in this team, perhaps, that the remaining ninety-six seconds were some of the loudest the ACC has ever seen.

In the end, despite a breakaway play by Nylander and Matthews that could have been legendary, it wasn’t enough; the latest and most heartbreaking in a series of near-misses on the Leafs’ quest for a cup. So where can they go from here?

The future for the Leafs is uncertain: the much-discussed cap challenges of the 19/20 season will be rearing their heads again with two forwards approaching free agency and sophomore players Whelan and Buzkowitz more than earning full-time contracts.

Even leadership on the team is a question mark Coach Mike Babcock’s second contract expires next year. The playing career of Captain Morgan Rielly hangs in the balance after a second consecutive year with less than forty games played due to a knee injury. Likely replacement Auston Matthews has been dogged down by the NHL equivalent of a scandal with his former teammate.

In the face of these questions and the absence of any real answers, it’s hard not to wonder: Are the Leafs doomed to the fate of the Ovechkin-era Capitals, always getting close and never quite achieving their goal? [cont. 2A]

 

Auston only wakes up when someone’s knocking at his door. It’s sharp and persistent, and whoever it is doesn’t stop even when Auston buries his head under his pillow and tries to ignore them.

“I know you’re there, man,” they yell from outside, muffled through the door. “Quit hiding from your team.”

It’s Mo. Of course it is.

Auston lasts through a couple more minutes of persistent knocking before he relents and drags himself up, peers through the peephole. Mo’s standing there in a Leafs windbreaker, holding a tray of coffee and timbits, which is so Canadian that Auston could almost laugh. Almost.

He opens the door just a crack, tries to sound like this isn’t the third time he’s leaving the couch in as many days. “I’m not really in the mood, Riels-”

“I brought breakfast,” Mo says, unnecessarily, and peers over Auston’s shoulder. It’s not needling for an invite, exactly, but Auston still has to let him in. It’s kind of embarrassing – his place is a mess, his hockey bag still on the floor where he left it after their last game, a bunch of empty water bottles littered across the coffee table. Mo doesn’t comment on it, even though Auston can see him looking as he leads him to the kitchen.

“So I’ve been going around to see everyone,” Mo says, conversational. He pulls out a chair and sits without waiting for Auston to offer. “I’m pretty sure some of the guys are marathoning all the Star Wars movies at Brownie’s place, if you want to get in on that. Oh- I just got black coffee, there’s sugar and stuff in the bag.”

Auston sits down next to him, leaves one chair between them as a buffer and watches kind of warily while Mo stirs one of those little containers of milk into his coffee. He doesn’t talk, and the silence presses in until Auston sighs.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I wasn’t good enough. You would’ve-“

“I’m telling them to give you the C, next year.”

“Mo,” Auston says, helpless, because it’d be a lie if he said he hadn’t seen this coming, and Mo shakes his head. He doesn’t look mad, doesn’t look anything, really, except for kind of calm, like he’s made up his mind.

“Matts, don’t- we both know I got it because you were too young. You should’ve had it a long time ago. Basically did, this whole year.”

“You got injured.”

“And you got us to the cup finals.” Mo half-laughs, kind of exasperated. “That’s not- my shitty luck has nothing to do with that. You’re a leader on this team, and you will be whether or not they clear me to come back. You’re getting the C, Auston.”

Auston shakes his head, bitter. “I couldn’t get it done.”

“You did good,” Mo insists, and when Auston makes a noise of disagreement, he grabs his shoulder, firm. “Hey. You did good. You can fix things.”

Auston pulls at the lid of his coffee so he doesn’t have to meet Mo’s eyes. “I don’t know how.”

“C’mon,” Mo says, and punches Auston’s shoulder a couple of times, light. “You’re Auston fucking Matthews. You’ll figure it out.” He says it like it’s not even a question, that way he has that makes even Auston want to believe him. He’s not quite sure he does, but it’s-

It’s something.

He can’t quite manage a smile, but comes close. “Thanks, Cap.”

“My pleasure, Cap.” Mo flings an arm around his shoulders, easy. They’re lucky to have him, Auston thinks. He’ll tell him that, sometime. “You gonna eat the chocolate timbits?”

Auston thinks about it, for a second. No more diet plan to worry about. “Literally all of them, yeah.”

Mo laughs, takes a couple chocolate ones anyways. They sit and eat there at Auston’s counter, and neither talks, but it’s a companionable kind of silence.

And it’s something.

-------

After locker cleanout and exit interviews, Auston goes home. Home-home, his parents’ house in Arizona.

They’re all at work, he’s pretty sure, so he gets a taxi home; pays the driver and unlocks the door with the key from under the big flower pot that’s been there since high school.

He drops his stuff in the front hall so his parents’ll know he’s here, cuts through the living room so he can feed the fish. It’s summer-hot, the AC low while no one’s home.

He goes and lies in the backyard, grass tickling his arms and sun sweltering hot on his skin. The cicadas are singing, and there’s the sound of the occasional car driving past, and he just lies there listening.

He knows what he wants to do, doesn’t quite know how he’s going to make the words.

He’s not sure how long he stays out there before the back door slides open, and he looks up at the sound. His mom’s standing in the doorway, still holding her purse and wearing her work clothes. “Oh,” she says, and if she’s surprised to see him she doesn’t show it. “Auston?”

“Hey, mama,” he says.

She sets down her purse on the patio, crosses the yard ‘til she’s standing next to him. “Enjoying the weather?”

Auston nods. His mom sounds a little uncertain, which is his fault: he knows his responses to texts and calls have been short or nonexistent. Knows she's seen the headlines about him. “You didn’t tell us you were flying down so soon,” she chastises, gentle. “We could have picked you up from the airport.”

Auston shrugs, finally brings himself to meet her eyes. "They want me to be captain." They asked him officially, during all the end-of-season stuff. Coaching staff shook his hand and everything.

"That's wonderful, Auston!" His mom gushes, but then, seeing the look on Auston's face, she frowns, worried. "Why don't you look happy?"

He looks up at her. “It’s been a really long year,” he gets out, and his voice shakes, and his mom is dropping to her knees and enfolding him in a hug almost before he’s done.

“Oh, my baby.”

There’re going to be grass stains on her dress pants, but Auston just lets her hold him, hides his face in her hair and pretends like he’s little enough for her to make stuff okay.

For them to offer him the C, after everything – he knows he’s capable of it, knows people have been clamouring to make him captain since his first season. His first game. And that was fine, there was that and there was the thing with Mitch, two separate entities that couldn’t coexist. Like- mutually assured destruction. One or the other. You don’t end up with a teammate. He fucking lived by it.

And then people found out about him and Mitch. And now they want to make him captain.

And it’s- it doesn’t make sense.

He’s not supposed to be able to have both, doesn’t know what to do with the idea that he could’ve. God, if he was wrong-

And he wasn’t, entirely, because the press and everyone on the internet, but if there was even a chance-

He feels kind of sick.

His mom smoothes down his hair, murmuring platitudes in Spanish that he only partially understands. He remembers her driving him to games and working two jobs his whole life so he could play his sport. She fell asleep at his practices a couple of times, exhausted.

If he can’t tell her, he can’t tell anyone.

Auston stares right up at the sun and squeezes his eyes shut, sees flashes of red.

“I love him, mom,” he says, and the only sound is the cicadas. “I don’t remember what it’s like to not love him.”

She doesn’t stop petting his hair. Doesn’t ask who he’s talking about, either, which maybe says more than Auston can think through, right now.

It takes her a while to talk. “I would take away every little thing that hurts you, you know, if I could.”

“But not that,” he says, a question, and she nods, drawing back so she can look him right in the eyes.

“No. Not that.”

There’s a lump in his throat, a knot made of a year’s worth of tension and worst-case scenarios and, now, relief so big he thinks he could cry. He doesn’t.

“Besides,” she says, “someone’s got to give me grandkids.”

Her words take a second to register. Auston doesn’t know if he’s more surprised by them or by the laugh that bubbles out of his throat, hoarse but there.

It’s the first time he’s ever said it out loud, I love him.

And the knot unravels, just a little.

Chapter Text

Flying to Vegas for the NHL awards after a week of doing lawn work with his dad and binge watching Netflix with Breyana feels like heading into the belly of the beast, but Auston’s nominated a bunch of times, so there’s no real choice. He’s dreading it a little, except then he arrives and it’s like being in a time loop. Every hockey reporter in the country crammed along the sides of this rental red carpet, all the Europeans competing to see who can wear the weirdest suit. Then, when the ceremony starts, pomp and circumstance and jokes that don’t quite land.

It’s so predictable it’s kind of comforting.

He seeks out Mitch mostly without meaning to and finds him sitting with Strome a few rows back, laughing at whatever running commentary Dylan’s keeping up. He doesn’t look at Auston, at least not when Auston’s looking at him. The closest it gets is when Auston catches Strome’s eye by accident and gets back the dirtiest look he’s ever been the recipient of. He keeps his eyes forward, after that. Smiles at the annual ‘hit ‘em with the four’ joke, the way he’s supposed to.

They call his name for the Hart and it’s not really a surprise, but it takes Auston a second to get out of his seat, anyways.

He doesn’t know quite what he feels. Like – it’s this fierce kind of pride there in his chest, like vindication, it wasn’t all for nothing. He can’t tell if it’s ungrateful to think it’d feel better with a Stanley Cup. Thinks it, anyways.

The lights are beating down on the stage, hot and blinding if Auston tries to look too high up. He holds on to his trophy, leans down to the mic. He’s got a little paper in his pocket with what he’s going to say, but he doesn’t need it.

“It was a tough season,” he starts, and that earns a few uncertain laughs, even if it wasn’t really a joke. “But, wow, thank you.”

He’s been up here enough that he kind of knows the routine. He goes through all the stuff he’s supposed to say, thanks the team, the coaching staff, Leafs Nation. Compliments the other nominees. The whole time, he’s doing his best to ignore Dylan Strome glaring at him like he’s a literal murderer, can’t help but look over at Mitch instead. He’s still looking at his lap.

So this is it, then. Auston steels himself, says what he prepared.

“And, lastly, uh. My family, Marns-” He hears the ripple of whispers at that one, sees the raised eyebrows and plows forward, anyways. “Marns, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I wouldn’t be anywhere near here.”

And then he almost trips over his words, because the next time he looks at Mitch, Mitch is looking back, eyes wide.

And they’re the only two people in the room, like the entire world is narrowed down to him and Mitch staring at each other from across half the NHL. Auston can’t tell what the look on Marns’ face means, can’t look away, anyways. There’re cameras on both of them right now, he knows.

Mitch looks so, so good.

Auston coughs. “I’ll, uh. I’ll try to earn it. Thank you.”

It takes a beat for everyone to realize he’s done, so he’s halfway across the stage before the crowd erupts. He can hear the Team USA and Leafs guys hollering like they’re trying to singlehandedly deafen the entire NHL. Maybe they do – the entire place could burst into song and Auston wouldn’t notice, he’s so dumbstruck.

That’s the first time Mitch has looked at him since March.

The cheering fades into a dull roar while he makes his way backstage, clutching his little trophy and wishing he’d thought to hand it to somebody. A bunch of the beat reporters swoop down on him out of the wings almost straight away, because of course they do.

“Auston,” they’re asking, clamoring over one another, “how does it feel to win MVP?”

“Can you tell us about that shoutout to Mitch Marner?”

“What went into that speech, Auston?”

Some of the security guys cut through the crowd, making a path for Auston. “Alright,” one of them says. “He’s doing interviews after this, you’ll have your chance.”

Auston lets them herd him into this long hallway, thankfully free of media. It’s mostly just NHL head office guys and other winners, milling around with their wives or whatever. A few of them pat Auston on the back. He’s shaking hands with more people than he can count, nodding at small talk, and then, just when the PR people are tugging him over for pictures, Mitch is in front of him, shaking his hand like he’s anyone else.

“Good job,” he says, all normal. He must’ve left his seat in the middle of the show, must’ve booked it to get backstage this fast.

“Thank you,” Auston says, automatic. It’s almost surreal, being two feet away from Marns like things are normal. “Mitch, I need-”

“Did you mean that?” Mitch interrupts. He’s looking at Auston, piercing. They’re still holding hands.

“Yes,” Auston says, and there’re a million things he wants to say, but then he’s being hustled away toward the reporters and agents and cameras, and he can see them starting to clue in to who he’s talking to. “Yes, I-”

“Mr. Matthews, we’ve got to keep on schedule.”

Auston doesn’t mean to snap at the terrified looking intern next to him, but he does anyways. “God, will you just-”

“Go,” Mitch says. “It’s- I’ll see you.” And Auston wants to tell him to stay, maybe beg him, but he’s already backing off.

“See you,” Auston echoes; and barely manages to squeeze Marns’ hand before he’s being pulled away.

He goes through the media stuff like he’s in a dream. That was- it didn’t feel like Marns hates him. He doesn’t know what it felt like, but not that.

It’s stupid to get his hopes up.

He does, anyways.

 

Mitchell Marner @Marner93

#proud RT: “@NHL Auston Matthews wins the Hart Trophy as Most Valuable Player for the Toronto Maple Leafs #nhlawards nhl.com/awd24O/6xe4gl”

 

AUSTON MATTHEWS (13:22)

Thanks

MITCH MARNER (14:03)

?

AUSTON MATTHEWS (14:05)

The tweet

MITCH MARNER (14:10)

you’re texting me to say thank you for a retweet

AUSTON MATTHEWS (14:11)

Yeah

MITCH MARNER (14:15)

okay

AUSTON MATTHEWS (14:15)

ok

[07/01]

MITCH MARNER (08:54)

(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )HAPPY CANADA DAY BOYYYYYSSS(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )(Maple Leaf )

MITCH MARNER (08:57)

fuck

AUSTON MATTHEWS (08:59)

Mass text?

MITCH MARNER (09:01)

sorry

AUSTON MATTHEWS (09:02)

Its cool

AUSTON MATTHEWS (09:02)

Happy Canada day

MITCH MARNER (09:05)

thanks

AUSTON MATTHEWS (09:06)

(Grinning Face )

MITCH MARNER (09:14)

(Grinning Face )

 

[07/04]

MITCH MARNER (14:21)

happy fourth

AUSTON MATTHEWS (14:23)

Thanks

AUSTON MATTHEWS (14:23)

Mass text?

MITCH MARNER (14:23)

no

 

[07/09]

AUSTON MATTHEWS (11:44)

pic.twitter.com/2nMh76

MITCH MARNER (11:50)

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Auston’s phone rings, loud over the sound of the TV. It makes him jump.

Breyana grabs for the remote and pauses the movie. “Come on,” she complains, “it’s just getting to the good part.”

“Sorry,” Auston says, but he’s distracted staring at the caller ID on his phone, because-

It’s Mitch. Mitch is calling him. And, okay, they’ve texted a couple times in the weeks since the awards, Auston just sent him a post from Marty’s twitter, but he wasn’t expecting- he’s not ready- it’s like he sees the picture of Marns on his screen and his whole brain immediately just gives out. He’s been giving him space, and this isn’t that.

Breyana’s staring at him, a little concerned, from over in the armchair. “You okay?”

“I- yeah,” Auston says, getting to his feet without really knowing what he’s doing. His phone’s still ringing. “I have to get this.”

“Um,” B says, but he’s already jogging up the stairs. He can hear his parents talking in the living room, doesn’t feel like fielding their questions, so he pushes open the back door and sits down, hard, on the back steps. He accepts the call before he can talk himself out of it.

“Hello?”

“Holy shit,” Mitch says, like it’s just them talking, like they never stopped. “Another baby!”

“I didn’t know if you saw,” Auston says, and even manages to keep his voice steady. It’s humid outside, the suffocating kind of heat that always comes before rain.

“I didn’t,” Mitch says, then, again, “Holy shit, though. He has to let me be godfather this time, right?”

“Might be stubborn about it,” Auston says. “Syd’s still got a brother.”

“Yeah, but I’m his favourite,” Mitch says, and Auston’s smiling in spite of himself, can almost hear Mitch grinning. And it’s like an ache in his chest, how much he missed this, just hearing Marns’ voice.

The two of them fall silent, like neither’s sure what to say. The past few months are sitting between them, big.

“You, uh,” Auston says. “You called me.” It’s a question.

“It was- I got excited,” Mitch says. He laughs, this almost-embarrassed thing, like he’s surprised at himself. “Forgot we still weren’t talking, I guess.”

“We can be talking,” Auston says. He’s holding his phone with both hands, tight enough that his knuckles are almost white. He forces himself to loosen his grip. “If you want.”

It’s silent for so long that Auston wonders if he hung up, then Mitch finally speaks. “Auston,” he says, and it sounds like he’s pulling back, and it’s like- not again, Auston can’t get this back and lose it again in less than two minutes.

“Wait,” he blurts, before Mitch can shut him down. ”Wait, just let me- I’m sorry.” Mitch makes a noise at the other end, but he keeps going. “It was a fucking awful thing to do. You didn’t deserve that, and it wasn’t about you, and I’m so, so sorry, Mitch.”

He waits, but Mitch doesn’t say anything. “Marns?”

“Hold on,” Mitch says, so Auston does, just sits there with the phone to his ear and listens to the neighbours’ kids laughing while they get into their car, the engine starting up. The cement steps are hot under him, making his legs all sweaty.

Finally, finally, he hears Mitch take a deep breath.

“I get why you did it.” Mitch says, and his voice sounds all thick. “Like. It wasn’t okay. But I get it.”

“Not just for that, though.” Auston says. “I- the whole season. I was a shit friend.”

“You weren’t.”

“I wasn’t a good one.” Auston says. “You deserve better than that,”

“I didn’t want better,” Mitch says, quiet. “I wanted you.”

“You had me,” Auston says. Doesn’t even hesitate. “You have me, if you- if that’s still something you want. To be friends again.”

Mitch is quiet for a long time at the other end of the phone, long enough that Auston starts to wonder if the call dropped. Then: “Never not your friend, Auston.”

Auston knows the sound he makes is just about the most undignified thing ever to leave his mouth, this half-laugh, half-sob sound of pure relief. He leans back against the screen door, laughs again just because.

“I’m still mad, though,” Mitch adds, quick. “I might just. Need some time, with that.”

“That’s okay,” Auston says, half-delirious with relief. He deserves that, and worse. He can handle mad. “That’s good.” Then, “I’m going to send you so many memes, though.”

Mitch laughs, this surprised, dorky sound. Auston thinks it might be the best thing he's ever heard.

-------

Things aren’t back to normal, exactly. They haven’t been normal in months, and Auston’s not sure they’re ever going to be. So not normal, but okay, he thinks, or getting there.

It’s this tentative kind of peace that feels a little like learning how to skate, like he’s not sure where to put his feet to avoid falling. He’s not sure how much he’s allowed, resolves himself to take whatever Mitch is willing to give him. That turns out to be texts, and liking each other’s posts on insta, and sometimes a call. Only a few awkward pauses.

Not normal, but getting there.

Auston does text him a bunch of memes, like he said he would. One time, Mitch opens one when they’re on the phone and laughs out loud. Auston hoards that laugh like it’s something precious, wants to live in it.

“So,” he says one day, when they’re on the phone after his morning jog and Mitch sounds like he’s done ranting about the lady who cut him off in traffic on the way to the supermarket. “I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me what?” Mitch asks.

Auston takes a deep breath, traces the planks of wood on the park bench he’s claimed. “I’m not straight.”

Saying it out loud is still weird. No one else in the park even looks at him. Arizona really, really does not give two shits about hockey. It has its upsides.

“So you’re,” Mitch says, “what- bi, or-”

“I don’t know,” Auston says. “I don’t know if it’s a dudes thing or just a you thing. But it’s, uh. It’s something. So.”

“Okay,” Mitch says, slow. “I mean, like- congratulations? I don’t know what to-”

“I’m not going to say anything to the press,” Auston interrupts, because this is the part that it’s important for him to tell Marns. “Like. Come out officially, or whatever.”

Mitch is quiet on the other end, so all Auston can hear is the noise of whatever store he’s in – the creaky wheels of a shopping cart, conversations he’s passing. He can’t tell if it’s a disapproving silence or just a thoughtful one.

“Can I tell you why?” Auston asks. “I know that being out to everyone was important for you, before.”

“That’s me,” Mitch says. “I’d never, like, expect-”

“I know you wouldn’t,” Auston says. “But I just. It’s not something I feel like I have to announce?”

“People think we’re dating,” Mitch says, after a second. “They think your speech was you announcing it.”

Auston winces. “I didn’t mean to drag you into-”

“No, that’s not what I- just. If you didn’t want to say anything-”

“Yeah, but I’m not going to lie, either, see.” Auston stretches out his legs, scuffs the toes of his runners in the dirt. “They know what they know, same as with anyone else, but the rest of it is mine. It’s no one’s business.”

“’cept you’re telling me,” Mitch points out, the kind of devil’s advocate thing that Auston’d give him shit for, if they weren’t still on such fragile ground. Still- it almost sounds like he’s teasing.

“My business is your business,” he says instead. “Or- you know.”

“Yeah,” Mitch says, then, before they can suffocate under the weight of that, “I’m proud of you, dude.”

“Thanks,” Auston says, “You too.”

Mitch kind of laughs. “For what?”

“I don’t know,” Auston says, kind of bashful, which is dumb since they’re literally in different countries. “A lot of stuff? Existing? I meant it.”

“I know you did,” Mitch says, and he almost sounds fond when he goes on, “Quit flirting, though, I’m smiling in the store and people are going to think I’m fucking crazy.”

Auston can’t help but grin. It’s like another weight off his shoulders, like he’s shedding them one at a time. “Everyone in the park’s going to think I’m fucking crazy,” he counters. “Your fault.”

“I’m a menace to the people of Arizona,” Mitch agrees, and Auston can hear the radio in the background of the call, playing something upbeat. “Tell me about your day while I shop.”

Auston leans back against the bench, and he does.

-------

“You’re kidding me,” Mitch laughs, and Auston shakes his head, grinning at his phone where it’s sitting on his bedside table.

“Swear to god I’m not,” he says, pulling the pillowcase onto the last pillow. “He proposed after, like, six months.”

“That’s so cute,” Mitch gushes, tinny over the speakerphone. “Like, so lame, also, and so Brownie, but really cute, holy fuck.”

“I just can’t believe she said yes,” Auston chirps, tossing the pillow onto his bed and following it, flopping face-first against the freshly-watched sheets. He reaches over and grabs his phone, switching it off of speaker. “They’re really into each other, though.”

“I mean, they’re getting married, so I assumed,” Mitch says, making Auston roll his eyes. “But nah, I bet they’re sweet. You’re probably just jealous ‘cause you’re single.”

“Shut up,” Auston laughs. It’s been nearly a month of this, weekly calls turning into everyday texting and chirping each other online and, like tonight, talking while Auston does laundry at midnight, making up for months of nothing. He’s kind of lost track of how long they’ve been talking, laughing like kids at a sleepover, but it’s long enough that he works up the nerve to blurt, “Are you?”

“Am I what?” Mitch asks, all sleepy.

Auston rolls onto his back, tugs a pillow under his head. “Are you, uh. Single? Seeing anyone?”

It takes Mitch a second. “I don’t know if you get to ask that,” he says, soft.

“Right,” Auston says, kicking himself. “Sorry, that’s- sorry.”

“Two sorries in one sentence,” Mitch says. Auston can hear him smiling. “Pretty Canadian, there, Matts.”

“You take that back,” Auston says, too fond to be convincingly pissed. It’s the first time Mitch has called him Matts in ages, months.

“Nah,” Mitch says, easy, and speaks through a huge yawn. “God. What time is it?”

“Uh,” Auston glances down at his phone, does the math to get the time in Toronto. “2:32 in the morning?”

“Oh, fuck me, I have camp tomorrow. Or- today, I guess.” He doesn’t actually sound pissed, just kind of bemused.

“Sorry,” Auston apologizes anyways.

Mitch snorts. “Shut up, I like talking to you.”

“Marns,” Auston says, but Mitch keeps going. Auston gets the feeling this is maybe something he needs to get off his chest.

“I almost called you so many times,” Mitch says. He’s not trying to make Auston feel bad, Auston doesn’t think. He feels bad anyways. “Not having a best friend sucked, y’know?”

“I know.” He bites back another apology, knows Mitch’ll just chirp him for it.

Mitch laughs, still kind of wistful-sounding. “Man, I listened to so much sad country music. Fucked my spotify right up.”

“I cried,” Auston admits, ‘cause they’re apparently sharing now, that late-night brand of honesty. He makes a face at the memory even though Mitch can’t see him. “In front of Willy.”

“You-” Mitch starts then stops. “What.”

“Right?” Auston says. “Lame.”

“You never cry,” Mitch says, and there’s something weird in his voice. Auston shrugs.

“Well,” he says. He didn’t really mean it to be a thing, feels a little embarrassed without really knowing why. “Surprise.”

“About me?” Mitch asks, after a second, and Auston nods before remembering that Marns can’t see him.

“Who else, Marns?” he says, then flinches. He’s not supposed to be putting Mitch on the spot like that. They’re friends. “We should, uh. We should go to sleep,” Auston says, grasping at the excuse. “Camp.”

“Yeah,” Mitch says, and it sounds a little like he’s trying to snap himself out of something. “Yeah, no, you’re right.”

He doesn’t say anything like goodbye, though, so there’re a few moments where the call’s quiet on both ends, just breathing. Auston could believe they’re next to each other, if he closes his eyes.

“One of us is probably supposed to hang up,” he says, regretful, and Mitch laughs, quiet and self-deprecating.

“God, we’re doing the ‘you hang up first’ thing, aren’t we?”

Auston can’t help but grin at that, smiling up at the ceiling. “You hang up first,” he says, only half-joking, and listens to Marns laugh softly; the sound of rustling sheets like he’s getting settled into bed.

“Call me tomorrow, ‘kay?” he asks.

Auston nods. “’course.”

It sounds like Mitch wants to say something else when he says, “Night, Auston.”

“Night,” Auston echoes, then, over the dial tone, “Marns.”

He stares at the picture of Mitch on his phone ‘til the screen goes black, then flops back on his pillow, lying there with his phone on his chest.

He doesn’t think he’s ever felt anything close to this happy and this completely gutted at the same time. He never thought he’d have this again, late night conversations with his best friend, and he should be grateful – he is, honestly – but it’s like every time they talk he’s reminded of what he could’ve had, as well.

Auston rubs at his eyes with the heel of his palms. He can do this. He blew his shot at having anything other than friendship with Mitch, and that’s just how it is. End of story. It’s a complete miracle that Marns is even willing to talk to him after everything, let alone be friends again. Auston has a second chance at that, at least, and he’s not going to mess it up for anything. However Mitch wants him, he’s here, even if that means watching Mitch end up with someone perfect, someone not him. Auston’s going to take what he can fucking get. He’s going to be the best damn friend in the world.

He’s almost asleep when his phone buzzes, and it takes him a couple tries to read what’s on the screen, eyes bleary.

MITCH MARNER (02:49)

i’m not

AUSTON MATTHEWS (02:49)

Not what?

MITCH MARNER (02:51)

seeing anyone

-------

Here’s what Auston remembers:

He dragged Mitch up to the roof of the building where he was living with his dad, the night that they won their first ever home game. Mitch had scored, hadn’t stopped beaming since. That’s probably why it was so easy for Auston to convince him, right up until they got to the stairs with the CUSTODIAL STAFF ONLY sign.

“We’re definitely not allowed up here,” Mitch said, hesitating in the entrance. Goody two-shoes.

Auston rolled his eyes, nudged Mitch’s butt as he climbed the first couple of steps. “Don’t be lame.”

“Easy for you to say,” Mitch complained. “We’re going to get arrested and I’m going to become someone’s bitch ‘cause I didn’t know how to stop following my asshole American teammate.” He followed Auston anyways, through the doorway and up the staircase and onto the highest part of the roof.

Their footsteps crunched on the gravel when they stepped out. Auston watched Mitch hop up on the edge, grip the edge of the railing, and look out at Toronto below them, giant and tiny at the same time from up here. He turned to smile at Auston over his shoulder. “Man, woah.”

“Told you you’d like it,” Auston said, kind of cocky, ‘cause getting Marns to look at him like that was something to be proud of even then. It was pretty cool to be the one showing Mitch something new, for a change.

Mitch was still staring down at the city like he’d never seen it before. Maybe he hadn’t, from up here. “Bro,” he said, awed-sounding, like he’d just had some kind of epiphany. “Auston, we’re going to own this city, holy shit. It’s going to be our city.”

“Your city,” Auston corrected, and Mitch shook his head, vehement and sure of himself in a way that Auston never understood, still doesn’t, really.

“It’s our city, man,” he said, hair whipping all over the place in the wind. “You and me. You hear me?” He turned, leaning far enough over the rail that Auston reached out to grab the back of his shirt, and shouted, “It’s our city!”

And this, this is the part Auston remembers like a scene in a movie; standing there watching Marns against a backdrop of a million lights, all pushed up shirt sleeves and smile too big for his face, looking like a gust of wind’d be enough to blow him over the side, dumb and beautiful and carrying the expectations on his shoulders like nothing.

There was something contagious about it, him like that, enough for Auston to join him next to the rail and shout along, loud enough for his throat to hurt, “Our city!”

“Fucking right!” Mitch whooped, like they were rock stars instead of a couple nobodies with entry level contracts on the worst team in the league. “Get ready, Toronto!”

They stood there shouting for ages, ‘til Auston’s hands went numb on the cold metal. And he’s not dumb enough to think that one moment can decide the rest of your life, but that night on that roof was the first time Toronto started to feel like home, like his.

And it was never really going to be anyone else, after that.

-------

Toronto’s nice in summer.

There’re no good seats on short notice, so Auston flies coach for the first time in years. The seats are smaller than he remembers, or he’s bigger, and he looks at the Toronto skyline from the window and feels like he’s coming home.

Everyone’s in shorts and stuff when he gets off the plane, same as in Arizona even though the temperature’s ten degrees lower. He rolls his neck, still stiff from the flight, and shoulders his carry-on. He didn’t bring any other luggage, so he skips the carousel and heads straight for the rental place.

He should call the grocery service he uses, because he’s here two weeks ahead of schedule and definitely has an empty fridge. Should maybe get in touch with his agent, too, so he doesn’t freak out when he sees the speculation that’ll undoubtedly surface once it gets out that Auston’s back in the city.

He doesn’t do either of those things, just pays for the first rental car he sees and takes the 407 right out of the city.

There’re a bunch of kids playing ball hockey in the road when Auston turns into the little court in Thornhill. None of them bother him when he parks by the curb and gets out of his car, drilled into politeness by their parents, or maybe too used to NHLers coming and going to get excited.

He walks up to the Marners’ front door, takes a deep breath, and rings the doorbell.

A dog – Fish, it has to be – starts barking from inside the second he does; he hears heavy footfalls near the door, a voice scolding her and getting ignored entirely.

Auston knows, even before the door opens, that it’s Marns. Can’t even feel nervous, just- ready. He’s here. This is it.

“Sorry, sorry,” Mitch is saying as he opens the door, doubled over to hang on to Fish. “The dog’s nuts, my mom’s not here but if you wanted to talk to-”

He looks up, then, and sees Auston. Fish’s collar slips from his hand.

Auston has to lean down and catch her so she won’t run out into the road. “Hi,” he says to both of them at the same time, staring up at Mitch. And he planned out everything he was going to say, even practiced in front of the mirror so he’d be good at this, except all that’s gone now that Marns is inches away from him, closer than he’s been in months, close enough to touch in jean shorts and a Penguins hockey t-shirt.

They’ve been staring for a long time. Fish whines, licks Auston’s face. Mitch blinks.

“You’re in Arizona,” he says, frozen in the doorway.

“I was,” Auston says. “I, uh. I flew in.”

Which- duh, he flew in. Fish presses her nose to his hand one last time and trots back inside on her own, pausing to sniff Mitch’s ankles before disappearing into the house, already bored of them. Mitch is still staring.

“Why?” he asks, simple, and Auston straightens up, stays carefully on his side of the doorframe.

“Can we talk?” he asks, a question for a question.

It’s got to be the longest pause in the world, then, the space between him asking and Mitch nodding, small.

“I- okay,” he says, and steps aside stiffly so Auston can come inside. It’s different from the rest of the times he’s been here, no Christmas tree or pile of shoes in the foyer, just the two of them and footsteps on the hardwood while Auston follows Mitch up the stairs to his childhood bedroom. Almost seven years, he’s never been up here.

He hesitates, unsure, in the hall.

“You’re allowed to come in,” Mitch says without looking back, taking a seat on his bed.

Auston walks in, slow, and perches on the foot of the bed, careful to leave space between them. The mattress springs creak under his weight.

Mitch’s old room looks like it hasn’t changed since middle school, right down to the old backpack in a corner. The walls are plastered with posters, a few Leafs one, some bands. One of just Sidney Crosby in a 2010 Team Canada jersey. Which, like – Auston knew about it, but seeing it is a whole different thing.

“I-” “Did you-”

They both start then break off, uncertain.

“It’s good to see you,” Auston breaks the silence, then winces at how stilted that sounds. “What were you going to s-”

“I forget,” Mitch says. “I don’t- How come you’re here, Auston?”

Auston just looks at him. “You said you’re not seeing anyone,” he says. “I had to come. I had to see if there’s still a chance, if you still-” He cuts himself off. “I had to come.”

Mitch doesn’t look happy, exactly, but he also doesn’t kick Auston out on his ass, which was about the most that Auston was hoping for.

It takes a while for him to speak. “I really, really tried to hate you.”

Auston ducks his head. “I know.” He can feel Mitch staring at him, searching.

“It was a pretty shitty thing, that you did.”

“I know.”

He narrows his eyes at Auston, still kind of cagey, throws out his next words almost defensively. “I’ve wanted to kiss you since we were nineteen, you know that?”

Auston nods. “I want to kiss you too,” he says. It doesn’t feel as scary as he expected, saying those words. It’s out there now, more like a stone in a pond than a nuclear bomb.

“I mean,” Mitch says, wry. “I sort of figured, from that time we made out in a supply closet.”

“Okay,” Auston says. “Okay, but see, I don’t only want to kiss you.”

Mitch is looking at him, expressionless, but he’s got one hand bunching up the comforter so tight his knuckles are white. Auston just talks.

“I know it’s weird,” he says. “I just- I always want to be with you, and when I’m not, I’m thinking about what I’m going to tell you when I see you again.” He turns where he sits so that they’re facing each other; has to stop himself from reaching out to take Mitch’s hand. “You’re like, the most important person in any room, and that’s- I never get like that, I never care that much about anyone, and it’s fucking scary, Mitch.”

“That’s not an excuse, I’m- I’m an asshole. But it’s just terrifying, because no one ends up with a guy they meet when they’re eighteen but I’m pretty sure that you’re like, the love of my life.”

He finishes in a rush, all in one big breath. Mitch’s head snaps up, and he stares like Auston grew an extra head. “Auston,” he says, almost a whisper. “Don’t fuck with me.”

“I’m not fucking with you.”

“I mean it,” Mitch says, shaken in a way that Auston’s never seen before. “I can’t do maybe, not with you, I- I’ll go out of my fucking mind, I mean it.”

“So do I,” Auston says. “So do I. I promise.” He’s never really got the expression ‘baring your soul’, before, but he thinks he does now, can’t even bring himself to feel nervous. “I’m just. So, so much in love with you, Marns. That’s what I know.”

Mitch gets up and walks toward the door. For a second Auston’s thinks he’s going to leave, just like that, but he turns on his heel and retraces his steps, then does it again, pacing back and forward, all this frenetic energy like they’re going into a playoff game. He’s going to wear a path into the floor, if he keeps pacing like this.

“Holy shit,” he says.

Auston looks up at him by the door. “I know.”

Holy shit,” Mitch says, kind of faint. “You love me. You love me.”

“You knew that.”

“Yeah, but you’re in love with me.”

“Yeah.”

Mitch comes over, finally, and sits down, closer to Auston this time so their knees are almost touching. Auston realizes he’s holding his breath, can’t bring himself to stop.

Mitch looks at him. “What now?”

“I don’t know,” Auston says, honest. “I never did this before.”

Mitch laughs, all nervy, and it’s like some kind of tension shatters; like all of a sudden it’s just the two of them sitting in Marns’ childhood bedroom, hardly fitting side-by-side on a twin bed.

“Are you-” “Should-”

They break off again, and this time Mitch speaks first. “My heart’s gonna beat out of my chest,” he says, and drags Auston’s hand up to rest on his heart. “Feel.”

He’s right: Auston can feel Mitch’s heart hammering against the palm of his hand, even through his shirt; wonders if Marns can hear Auston’s doing the same.

“‘s fast,” Auston says, a little dumb.

Mitch tilts his head like a puppy, like he’s just had a thought. “Did you fly here just to talk? From Arizona?”

“No,” Auston says. “Maybe.”

Mitch smiles, slow at first, and then he laughs, like he can’t help it. “What the fuck, dude, that’s so cheesy.”

“You’re so cheesy,” Auston retorts. He knows he’s flushing bright red, smiling like a fucking loser. Can’t bring himself to care, with Mitch laughing like this. His hand’s still on Mitch’s heart. “I can’t believe you kept the Crosby poster.”

“I was twelve!” Mitch protests, grinning, and then Auston can’t help it, he reaches over and tugs him into a hug, because he’s missed him more than anything and he just. Doesn’t want to miss him, anymore. Thinks maybe he might not have to.

Mitch is squeezing him back almost right away, clinging tight enough to almost hurt and burying his face in the crook of Auston’s neck with this sound that’s somewhere between a sob and a breath, like maybe he’s been missing Auston too.

They stay like that for a long time, all wrapped up, just holding each other there on Mitch’s bed. Auston leans into his hair, traces circles with his thumb on Marns’ back.

Still fits.

“Everything you said,” Mitch says, quiet against him. “Me too. All of it.”

“That’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever heard,” Auston admits, and it’s the truth, and when he breaks the hug to look at Mitch, he’s already looking back, eyes sparkling.

Their eyes meet and they both laugh, this bashful thing. Dumb for them to be shy, now. Auston feels like he could take on the entire Eastern Conference, like he’s going to float up out of Marns’ house, he’s so happy. And they’re sitting there facing each other, and Mitch is holding onto both of his hands, kind of bouncing up and down where he sits.

“Hey, Matts,” Mitch says, all solemn.

“Hey, Marns,” Auston says. He feels calm, settled in a way he hasn’t been since last summer. “Can I-”

“Yes.”

“-kiss you,” Auston finishes, barely, because Mitch leans in and catches his lips; and it’s not a perfect kiss, but it’s maybe close.

He’s warm under Auston, fits against him like he’s supposed to be there, like they were supposed to be doing this all along. His lips curve into a smile against Auston’s mouth so he can feel it, can feel himself doing the same.

“I love you,” Auston has to break off and say, because he can, ducking his head and laughing while Mitch makes this annoyed little sound and chases his mouth. “Sorry it took me so long. I love you.”

“Lame.”

“You’re lame,” Auston retorts, and then Mitch is rolling his eyes and kissing him again, enthusiastic in a way that Auston doesn’t think he’s ever going to grow out of. He manoeuvres Auston onto his back so he’s lying there with Mitch bracketed over him like the best thing he’s ever seen.

“Just so you know,” Mitch says, playful. “We’re gonna be kissing for a long time, okay?”

Auston grins up at him, pulls their joined hands up so he can kiss Marns’ knuckles. “Okay,” he says, simple; and it is, and, yeah, they are.

Chapter Text

Auston looks peaceful when he sleeps. It’s maybe Mitch’s favourite thing about him, or at least top ten, along with ‘fucking gorgeous at hockey’ and ‘is somehow in love with me’ and ‘is currently lying in my bed’.

So, okay, the list is pretty flexible. Shut up.

Mitch drags a hand through Matts’ hair, gentle, careful not to wake him up. Offseason’s short enough that they need to sleep while they can, that he can’t begrudge Auston a few extra minutes. He looks like an angel, or, like, an instagram model, or something equally embarrassing.

“Hey, creeper,” Auston says without opening his eyes. It makes Mitch jump, and Auston smirks lazily. He’s in Mitch’s old ‘the A in LGBTQA stands for Auston Matthews’ t-shirt, a size too small. It’s tight enough on him to look both really hot and kind of stupid.

Mitch loves him so much he thinks he might literally explode, sometimes.

Auston opens an eye like it takes a real effort, pokes at Mitch’s stomach, and yawns, “What?”

“Nothing,” Mitch says, because it’s too early for lovey-dovey shit. “That shirt accentuates your moobs.”

“What the fuck is a moob?” His voice is still all gravelly with sleep.

“Moobs, plural,” Mitch says, and pulls himself over so he’s leaning on Auston’s chest, arms crossed. “Man boobs? Urban dictionary is a thing, Matty, y’know-”

“They’re not boobs,” Auston says, affronted. His face gets all crunched up. “They’re pecs.”

Mitch makes a face and opens his mouth to argue, only that plan goes sideways pretty quick when Auston leans up to kiss him, slow and lazy at first then with capital-I Intent.

“Eager,” Mitch chirps, when he remembers how to talk.

Auston doesn’t look bothered, trailing his fingers up and down Mitch’s side. “I like kissing you.”

“I like when you kiss me,” Mitch says back. “So hey, that’s pretty convenient.”

That’s a pretty boss advantage of dating your best friend, the ability to combine chirping and making out. Super time-efficient, as well. Mitch makes a mental note to tell Sid that when he goes back, ‘cause it seems like the kind of lameass thing he’d appreciate.

Auston just rolls his eyes, awake enough now to sit up and roll them over, swapping their positions so he’s on top of Mitch, pressing him into the mattress and proceeding to thoroughly kiss him. He puts all of his attention into it the way he always does, single-minded focus like a slow, morning-breath makeout is the most important thing in the world. Mitch could believe that.

He drags his toes down the back of Auston’s calf; bites Auston’s bottom lip, gentle, and basks in the sound it earns, the way Auston tugs at the hem of Mitch’s shirt, impatient. It’s still, like, this unreal thing, having the guy he’s been pining over since he was a literal teenager wanting him back at god-knows-what time of the morning. Mitch’s life is fucking goals.

He lifts his arms, lets Auston tug his shirt over his head and kiss a trail down his chest, slow, teasing these shaky breaths out of Mitch that’d be embarrassing if it was anyone else but Matts. He’s not fully hard yet, still sleepy, but he can feel himself getting there, is content to let Auston take the lead. Except then he catches sight of Matts’ shirt again and has to bite his lip.

It takes Auston a minute to notice him shaking, but he does, and he sits up, incredulous. “Are you laughing?”

“No,” Mitch lies. He lasts about half a second, face red and lips pressed together, before losing it again. “Okayokayokay,” he says, gasping for breath. “I’m sorry, but how do you not know what moobs are?”

Auston’s staring at him, trying to look annoyed and mostly failing. Mitch knows him too well. “Say ‘moobs’ one more fucking time, Marns, I dare you.”

“Moobs,” Mitch says obediently, still giggling, and Auston brains him with a pillow. “You- asshole!” He jabs at Auston’s stomach where he knows he’s ticklish, only it backfires because Auston loses his balance and falls down on top of him, pinning him down and pretending to fall back asleep while Mitch whacks him with the pillow and laughs until his stomach aches.

They’re going to have to get up and make breakfast, go for a run or something. Possibly also pick up with the sex thing again. Mitch figures they’ve got time, so they just lie there in a pile, laughing so hard that Fish comes in to leap on the bed and slobber all over both of them. It’s Mitch’s family, is what it is, and he’s the luckiest guy in Canada, in the world, and he gets to have this.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

Once a Leaf, always a Leaf @Marner93 @AM34 instagram.com/p/4sic987

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

@MapleLeafs ok fine that’s cute

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

@penguins (Grinning Face )

 

They drive down to Wasaga, even though it’s the busiest part of tourist season and the boardwalk is packed out. Marns says that Auston has to see it, which- it’s a beach like any other beach in Canada, kind of gross water and a bunch of ice cream trucks and everyone in the country out to soak up the sun.

It’s pretty perfect.

They dump their stuff in the cabin they’re renting and clip on Fish’s leash, heading for the main beach. And Auston could get used to offseasons like this, he thinks, walking around with Marns talking about the Jays’ start to the season with the sun beating down on their heads.

They don’t hold hands or anything, but they’re walking close enough that their fingers brush sometimes, Mitch’s elbows knock against Auston’s; when they stop to get ice cream, Auston slips a hand in Marns’ back pocket. Stuff like that. It still feels kind of new, this almost scary thing that’d be scarier if it didn’t feel so normal. Marns doesn’t push. Auston probably loves him for that.

A kid in leafs swim trunks runs up and almost starts crying, he’s so starstruck, so they take turns holding each other’s ice cream and autographing a receipt that his mom has in her purse. They’re nice people, pretty lowkey as far as fan encounters go. Auston sits on the ground to pet Fish with the kid while his mom chatters with Mitch about some fish and chips place in town that they just have to try.

“You play hockey?” he asks, a little awkward. He’s not as good with little kids as Mitch, but the kid nods, scratching Fish’s ears.

“Double A,” he says, proud. “Me and my best friend Jacob are gonna be like you guys. Except I get to be you.”

Auston can’t help but smile. “Tell Jacob I said that’s pretty cool,” he says, and the kid grins before remembering that he’s supposed to be shy and grabbing at his mom’s hand.

They’re getting some looks after that, people recognizing them or noticing the fact that they just signed an autograph, so they dip pretty quick, racing each other back to the car. Auston’s ice cream is dripping down the cone, and Mitch laughs while he tries to wolf it down, tastes like mint chocolate when Auston drags him in and kisses him.

“Feel like fish and chips for dinner?” Mitch asks when they’re doing up their seatbelts.

Fish is peering out the window from the backseat, and Auston follows her gaze. “Sure,” he says, easy. “I want to be on the beach first, though.”

“We can do that,” Mitch agrees, and starts driving, cranks up the radio so Auston can feel it pounding in his chest.

He drives them back near their rental, away from the boardwalk and touristy stuff. There’s a beach just down the path from their place, hidden away by a few trees. It’s not as nice as the main beaches, empty except for a couple of old people. They don’t notice the ‘no dogs allowed’ sign until after, but none of the old people complain, so Auston figures they’re good.

It takes about a minute and a half ‘til Mitch has his jeans rolled up to his knees, running through the shallow water and tossing sticks for Fish and generally looking like a fucking dork. Auston sits down next to where Mitch abandoned his shoes and digs his toes into the sand. It’s mostly pebbles.

It’s quiet, the only sounds Mitch laughing and waves collapsing onto the shore. Auston takes out his phone, snaps a picture of Marns and Fish having a tug-of-war with a giant piece of driftwood. Hashtag-No-Filter. He doesn’t post it anywhere, just saves it and sends it to Willy with the caption u wish u were here.

i just threw up a little bit, Willy sends back, and Auston pockets his phone, grinning.

It’s maybe his favourite part of Canada, how sunny it gets in summer. Not Arizona-sunny, because nothing is, but it almost feels warmer for how cold it was just a couple months ago, how cold it’s going to get again way too soon.

“Hey, Matthews,” Mitch calls, jolting Auston out of his thoughts. “Get your pasty ass over here and jump over tiny waves with me like a man!”

Auston rolls his eyes so hard he thinks they might fall out, but the effect is sort of ruined by the smile that he can’t quite manage to hide. “I’ve seen your ass, dude, you should not be calling other people pasty.”

Mitch flips him off, middle fingers silhouetted in the sun. It’s pretty majestic.

He’s going back to Pittsburgh, next week.

Auston’s not entirely sure how he feels about that, yet. Like- not good, he knows that, because if he has the choice between waking up next to Marns or in a different country, it’s no contest. If he thinks about how much time they wasted, living out of each other’s pockets for six years without taking that final step...

Thing is, though, it’s not the same kind of outright dread as this time last year, either. He just- Mitch is it for him. That’s a sure thing, not even a question. It’s the two of them, and they’ve already booked Auston’s flight to Pennsylvania during bye week, and their parents have a groupchat, and they’re going to make it work. Auston knows that like he knew he was going to play in the NHL, like he knows this season’s going to be his season, so he’s not scared. Just. Steady. Excited.

Auston gets to his feet so he can join Mitch in the water, toes off his sandals in the sand.

They’ve got this.