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burn the straw house down

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The Connor thing would be big news even if it wasn’t almost the offseason, but it is, so it’s fucking everywhere. Makes sense, Dylan supposes. It’s good TV, like, drama-wise: hockey Jesus gets injured before playoffs, disappears all mysterious ‘til announcing a presser out of nowhere.

Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s going to be a retirement announcement. Dylan would put money on it. Wonders, absently, if he could put money on it – odds’d be decent, at least – but that probably crosses some line somewhere, so he just turns the TV to Sportsnet and leaves it there without really knowing why.

Fuckin’ masochism, is why, is the conclusion he reaches by dinnertime. He’s not even sure why he hasn’t changed the channel, most of the way through a Best of Connor McDavid clip show, watching decades’ worth of Davo dancing through the entire hockey world like pylons.

Dylan catches a glimpse of himself, this grainy clip from back in the O that plays just long enough for teenage Connor to bank in the puck and turn to past-Dylan, beaming, before cutting to shiny HD footage from the Oilers.

Yeah. Definitely masochism.

He orders Chinese – thank you, offseason – and then plugs his phone in to charge, sits at the breakfast bar and half-listens to Wayne Gretzky conference calling about how there’s “no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s one of the greatest of all time. Always will be.”

Not even trying to hide it, then.

It never really gets less weird, seeing guys he started with retire. It’s the kind of thing he should be used to, by now. Still isn’t. Always manages to make him all reflective, or as close as he ever really gets to reflective. Dwelling on his own mortality, some fortune cookie shit like that.

Dylan’s barely even thought the fortune cookie thing when the doorbell rings, like he summoned his food at light speed. Which- hey, he’ll take the wins where he can get them.

The delivery guy knocks at the door, like there’s any chance Dylan missed the doorbell.

“Coming,” he shouts, patting down his pockets for his wallet before seeing it over on the table where he tossed his jacket earlier. He rifles through it while he heads for the door, digging for his card under a crush of receipts and old loyalty cards he’s been meaning to clear out for literal years. Two more stamps and he gets a free smoothie at Booster Juice, which is a plus, maybe.

 “That was fast,” Dylan’s saying, as he opens the door, only he gets lost somewhere towards the end of his sentence and ends up saying ‘that was fa-’ then just sort of standing there staring, because:

“Hi,” Connor says.

And it’d be real fucking great if Dylan’s brain could come up with a slick oneliner, here, or a not-slick oneliner, or literally any sentence in a human language; but that’s evidently too much because it’s like- one second he’s thinking of his food, the next he’s staring at Connor McDavid standing on his doorstep. He’s noticing all these incongruent little details, the taxi pulling away from the curb, Connor in a dress shirt and tie, the duffel bag sitting at his feet. His hair’s longer than it’s been.

“Nice beard,” Dylan says, finally. It’s an idiot thing to say, and hardly even true – it’s, like, an adequate beard, barely – but considering his brain is pretty much just incoherent shrieking, he should probably take what he can get. “That new?”

“Oh.” Connor reaches up, drags a hand down his face kind of absently. It’d be a self-conscious gesture on anyone else. “Not really, no.”

And yeah, that’s- Connor’s face is plastered all over every broadcast ever, Dylan’s probably seen pictures or video or something. He must’ve. First time seeing it in person, though. First time he’s seen any of Connor in person, this year and most of last as well. He hasn’t changed much, besides the beard. Couple more lines on his brow, maybe. Still stands kind of stiff, one hand in his pocket.

Stop staring, Strome.

Dylan coughs, moves aside so he’s not blocking the entrance and jabs a thumb behind him. “Sorry, you want a beer, Davo, or-”

“I’m okay.” Connor waves him off, but he comes inside. He’s favouring his left side, barely. Almost imperceptibly, except for how Dylan maybe knows Davo’s body as well as he knows his own. “Thanks, though.”

“Yeah, ’course.” Dylan shuts the door behind him, turns and heads for the kitchen. He’s moving on autopilot, no game plan, which is horrifyingly evident when he turns and asks, “How’ve you been?” It’s an absurdly transparent attempt at making conversation, and the TV picks that moment to interject with “-and that’ll be Connor McDavid, speaking live from Rogers Place in an hour.”

Dylan grabs at the remote from the counter and shuts off the TV, ages too late.

 “Y’know,” Connor says, dry. “Busy.” It’s not quite sarcasm. Maybe close.

Dylan considers being embarrassed that he got caught, like, listening to Connor’s adoring press, but considering that Connor apparently forgot to inform the entire NHL that he’d be on the other side of the country instead of at his presser, he decides to call it a tie.

Davo’s just leaning on Dylan’s kitchen counter, all casual like any of this is normal.

“Your arm,” Dylan says, instead of ‘what the fuck are you doing here’, because it’s kind of early to be confrontational.

Connor laughs, short. Not like anything’s really funny. “Surgery went fine. Shoulder’s fucked, though.”

Not a surprise. Still. Shitty way to go out. “Sorry.”

Connor shrugs the non-fucked shoulder, and it’s an obvious topic change when he says, “You look good, anyways.”

Dylan snorts. “Yeah, I’m a stunner,” he says, and Connor’s face does something complicated, and the silence is fucking suffocating, all at once. “Davo-”

“Go for a drive with me,” Connor cuts him off, somewhere between a request and his captain voice. He holds Dylan’s gaze, and Dylan’s response dies before it can come out.

He grabs his keys.

Takes his sweet fucking time, for the record, because he has some dignity, at least. Not going to trip over himself ‘cause Connor McDavid shows up and tells him to.

But he grabs his keys.

It’s not a long drive, nothing close. Dylan doesn’t ask where they’re going, just turns where Davo says and listens to the radio playing some top 40 remix, real low. He can see Connor looking over at him every so often, keeps his eyes on the road. It feels like a contest, like something to read into, as if he wasn’t already.

They end up in this residential neighbourhood, all these big houses with gates and perfectly manicured lawns. Now he looks at Connor, questioning.

“It’s the next street,” Connor says, adjusting his seatbelt while a couple kids ride past on their bikes. “Left here, it’s the second one.”

Dylan turns left and rolls to a stop in front of the second house from the corner. It’s, like, excessively large, brick with a long winding driveway and big windows. Trees around the property line.

Maybe most notably, a bright red SOLD sign up front.

“So I bought a house,” Connor says, and Dylan stares out the window, taking it in. He can feel Davo staring at him again.

“I can see that, yeah.” He puts the car in park, kind of- he feels like he’s getting pranked, except for Connor doesn’t sound like he’s joking. “It’s nice,” Dylan offers. “Big.” He reaches across and flicks Connor’s tie, this weird, aborted, manly kind of gesture that hangs between them. Connor tenses up under his hand, just a little.

This time, when Connor meets his eyes, Dylan looks back, and it’s looking, like a silent conversation, like asking, and he knows he’s not imagining the way Davo’s eyes flick downward, just for a second, before he really does ask, “You want a tour?”

 “Yeah.” Dylan answers real fast, even though he should know better, even though he knows where it’s going to end up, because it always does. Doesn’t even think about it. “Okay.”

---

So, like. He very much does fuck Connor McDavid up against the wall in his shiny new house.

It’s probably a bad call on a truly ridiculous amount of levels, but it’s probably also safe to say that it’s ninety-nine percent Davo’s fault, because he doesn’t even wait ‘til they’re past the living room before dropping any pretense and shoving Dylan against the wall and kissing him; and Dylan’s not fool enough to pretend like there’s any universe where he doesn’t kiss him back, doesn’t push ‘til he’s reversed their positions and got Connor pinned.

In Dylan’s defense, the wall part isn’t by choice. There is truly fuck-all by way of furniture in this place, which- the ‘sold’ sign is still up, obviously there’s no furniture. Not like Connor seems to mind, and Dylan doesn’t either, really, only he has this weird thought that the realtor’s going to walk in to ask Davo to sign something and find them like this. And it’s an unbelievably stupid scenario, he gets that, but it sticks in his brain and all he can think is how’s he going to explain to some real estate agent why he’s balls deep in The Next One forty minutes before he’s supposed to be announcing his retirement across the country.

“Like that,” Connor’s panting, punching out the words as Dylan pushes into him, angling himself the way he knows Davo likes, ‘cause he’s not entirely inconsiderate. “There, yeah-”

Dylan’s plastered against his back, one hand on the wall over Connor’s shoulder, one on Connor’s hip, holding him in place. It’s rushed, messy, pants down around their ankles. His face is going to be red as all hell, after this, ‘cause Connor’s arching back into him and his beard – the fucking beard, since when is that a thing – keeps scratching against Dylan’s jaw. It’s like- everything in Dylan’s head narrows down to that, this friction, between their faces and where he’s fucking into Connor and where their knees keep brushing together.

The fucking real estate agent, though.

Dylan shuts his eyes, reaches around Connor to take his dick in hand. He’s hard, leaking, ‘cause apparently taking it standing up is working for him – who knew – and he full-on groans when Dylan starts working him in time with his thrusts, like the sound is torn out of him.

“C’mon,” Dylan urges, more for himself than for Connor, and Connor breathes out, heavy. That’s pretty much the end of talking right there, which is fine with Dylan, ‘cause it means he can stop pretending like anything matters except the sound of skin against skin, getting faster, almost frantic. He’s barely even moving his hand anymore, but they’re falling into some kind of rhythm, him pushing into Connor and Connor pushing into him.

“Fuck,” Davo says, all breathless, cutting off Dylan’s quip about teamwork before he can make it. “Fuck-” He doesn’t say anything more than that before he’s spilling in Dylan’s fist, warm and wet; it goes through his whole body, sends him clenching around Dylan, and that’s enough to make Dylan lose it too, biting his tongue so he won’t say Connor’s name. It’s the best kind of not thinking, that space between when he comes and when he comes back to earth.

He leans his forehead on Davo’s shoulder – probably not the fucked-up one? He hopes it’s not, at least – and just breathes. Watches the skin right above Connor’s ass, flushed red. It’s the same all the way under his shirt, right up to his neck, he knows from experience.

 “I’m gonna,” he says eventually, and Davo nods, even though his back’s to Dylan; only winces a little when Dylan pulls out.

His head’s still kind of fuzzy, and he’s a little unsteady on his legs when he backs up to give Davo room to move. Hides it decently well, he thinks. Connor doesn’t even try, just slumps down again the wall and leans his head back, closing his eyes and sighing, heavy.

 Dylan copies him, collapsing back against the adjacent wall. Leaves the corner between them so they’re just sitting there on the floor catching their breath.

The house is silent around them. A dog barks from somewhere outside, the only noise.

Davo hasn’t even bothered to pull his pants up, just sitting there with Dylan’s come drying on his thighs, completely indecent. Dylan doesn’t know if he wants to kiss him or sock him right in the teeth for that, the way he’s so unembarrassed, like they’re still seventeen year olds who change next to each other multiple times a day and trade handies while their billets are out.

Connor looks like a fucking picture, and he’s leaning back against the wall with his eyes shut, and the streetlight from through the curtains means Dylan can see a shimmer of grey in his hair, and he suddenly wants to cry.

“I’m fucking furious with you,” he says instead. Connor opens his eyes. He looks tired, and it takes effort for Dylan not to soften. “I mean that.”

“Join the club,” Connor says, then, “I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving.”

 “Fuckin’,” Dylan starts, and he’s geared up to go on a full bitching session, only it’s like the sex and the heat and the fact that Davo’s here instead of announcing his retirement hit him all at once, taking all the wind from his sails.

He sighs. “Wayne Gretzky’s gonna be pissed at you, Davo.”

Connor snorts a laugh at that, which is about what Dylan was expecting, except then he just doesn’t stop, giggling until it turns into full on helpless laughter. Like, clutching his stomach and all but falling over, that kind of laughter. The kind that hurts.

“Oh my god,” Connor gasps, and he’s wiping his eyes, “Christ, I’m-” He doesn’t finish his sentence before he’s losing it again, practically cackling.

Dylan’s not even- he doesn’t know how the fuck he’s supposed to react to this, Davo teetering on the wrong side of hysterical, naked from the waist down and still wearing his tie on the floor of a house maybe twenty minutes from where they grew up.

Dylan stares, reaches down slow and pinches his own thigh.

Nope. Awake.

---

It’s a while before Dylan remembers that he ordered food, and once he remembers how hungry he is, he can’t think of anything else. Delivery guy’s definitely been to and left his house, by now.

“Hey,” he says, and Connor opens his eyes to look over at him. “We’re having Chinese. What’s the address?”

Connor actually has to get up and rummage through his duffel bag for his phone to confirm his new address. Dylan’s pretty sure this means he’s failing as a homeowner, but doesn’t say anything, just watches Davo dump his phone back in the bag and pull out a pair of sweatpants.

 “I’m gonna go to the bathroom,” he says, already on his way out.

“You’re paying,” Dylan calls after him, and Connor just kind of waves a hand, doesn’t even look back.

“Get extra sauce.”

Dylan considers not doing it, just to be petty. Decides against it, eventually; goes on the mobile site and doubles his order from before and adds extra sauce before finding Connor’s wallet and picking a credit card at random. He adds a bunch of spring rolls to the order once he realizes that there’re three hundred dollar bills wadded up with a bunch of receipts, because honestly, who pays cash anymore, let alone fucking hundreds? Seriously.

He can hear Connor puttering around in the bathroom upstairs, water running. He feels antsy, all of a sudden, sitting there in what’s either a giant living room or a dwarfish banquet hall, so he gets up and wanders around, giving himself the grand tour Davo offered before they got distracted.

It’s a big fucking house. High ceilings, wood floors. Gigantic glass doors looking out at the backyard. No furniture, anywhere.

It’d probably echo, if Dylan yelled. Not that he’s going to.

He counts two kitchens. Four bathrooms. He could shower too – could definitely use one, ‘cause it’s hot for May and he smells like sweat and Davo’s bodywash – but it would mean he’d have to borrow Connor’s clothes, so he doesn’t, just keeps on exploring.

It’s not a house for one person, is what stands out, here.

The doorbell rings, eventually, and Dylan’s stomach growls.

He almost bumps into Connor when he’s coming up the stairs from exploring the basement. It’s not awkward. Maybe close.

“Hi,” Connor says, hovering on the top step. His hair’s wet, a droplet of water perched on his nose. “Sorry, could you-”

Right. Don’t need the Wok This Way guy asking Connor McDavid for an autograph.

“Yeah,” Dylan says. “’course.”

He’s expecting them to at least sit at the breakfast bar or something, ‘cause kitchen number one is right down the hall, but when he walks back in with two giant paper bags of food, Davo’s just sitting back in his spot by the wall. And like, Dylan could bring up the sanitary dubiousness of eating dinner two feet from where you just had sex, but he’s also starving, so he just sort of unceremoniously drops the bags and sits down on the floor, too.

It takes a while for either of them to talk, they’re so busy wolfing down the food. And honestly, the offseason is everything, Dylan doesn’t know how he lived without fried food this long.

When Davo does finally speak, it’s through a mouthful of sweet and sour pork. “I ended it with Jess.”

“I figured,” Dylan says. Dylan lies, ‘cause Connor’s fiancée – ex-fiancée – hasn’t crossed his mind once until literally just this second, which makes him feel like a steaming pile of shit. He’s met Jess. Jess is nice. Sweet. Not the kind of girl who deserves to get almost-cheated on with some guy from juniors.

He pushes a forkful of rice around the Styrofoam container. “She okay?”

 “She cried,” Connor says, wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand and then just looks kind of contemplative. “Said she loves me anyways.”

Dylan winces. “That’s rough, bud.”

Davo just shrugs, which is cold, even by his standards. Like. They were going to get married, and Dylan’s pretty sure that calls for at least a little emotion, but Connor just goes back to eating as if fucking a guy then bringing up your apparently ex-fiancée while you hog all the sweet and sour pork is a totally normal sequence of events.

Dylan stares, a little. A lot.

It’s weird.

This whole thing is weird.

It’s maybe a minute and a half of neither of them talking before the silence gets suffocating. “How come you’re here?”

Connor meets Dylan’s eyes, all serious. There’s something- not tentative, because that doesn’t make sense, but. Something. A little wariness, maybe. “You won’t like the answer,” he says.

Dylan snorts, dismissive, and jabs his plastic fork into a spring roll. Connor McDrama Queen. “Try me.”

He’s not- Dylan’s not expecting anything at all from this, is mostly just focused on eating, which is why it’s so out of nowhere when Connor says, matter-of-fact, like he’s commenting on the weather, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

Dylan drops his fork.

He didn’t just-

In love-

Dylan blinks.

Connor’s not joking.

It takes Dylan a second, then a lot of seconds, and then he gets it together just enough to grab a napkin from the bag and wipe at where he dropped his fork, even though there are barely a couple crumbs. That was the last spring roll, too.

 “Sorry,” Connor says. Dylan can feel him staring, doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Yeah,” Dylan says. It’s- it feels like someone else is talking, like he’s watching himself from outside. He doesn’t know how he sounds so normal, doesn’t know how he’s making words at all. “I can drive you to a hotel,” he says. “Unless you’re staying here, or...” He trails off, as if Connor’s sleeping on the floor of his empty-ass house is a real option. It takes a second for Connor to speak.

“A hotel’s good,” he says. “Thanks, man.”

“Sure,” Dylan says, crumpling his napkin in his hand. He gets to his feet and grabs the paper bags. “I’ll start the car,” he says, and doesn’t actually run out of the house, but does something close.

He closes the front door behind him and jogs down the porch steps. There’s nowhere to put the garbage, at least not that he can see, so he walks down the driveway and just drops the bag at the curb.

He hasn’t actually started the car yet. He hasn’t- his brain is just nothing, right now, he can’t think.

He’s just standing there at the end of the driveway. A Volvo drives past, slow.

I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.

He can feel his heartbeat, too fast. Clutches his car keys ‘til the teeth dig into his palm and makes himself take a breath.

It comes out like he got punched, and doesn’t do shit to calm Dylan’s heart from hammering against his ribs, because Connor’s here and maybe losing his mind and not engaged; and he thinks he’s in love with Dylan and they haven’t spoken in nearly a year and Dylan doesn’t know what the fuck to do with any of that.

---

So:

They’ve been fucking around since juniors, like, intermittently. Just screwing around, never anything more, ‘cause Davo made that abundantly clear the one time Dylan got stupid enough to try and do something about it. Broke Dylan’s fucking heart in the process, which sounds- it sounds like some kind of bullshit sob story, and it’s not, ‘cause even Dylan’s not pathetic enough to bitch about something that didn’t happen when he was eighteen, so it’s not anything like dramatic, just.

Facts.

They’re not best friends anymore, exactly. Haven’t been for a while. It’s normal growing apart stuff, living across the continent from each other, or it’s the fact that they’ve been having sex and not talking about it for more than twenty years, or that Connor was engaged, or that they argued again last year, or-

Best friends isn’t right, anymore. It’s too much and not enough at the same time, ‘cause Dylan’s never had a best friend that he just knows like he knows Connor. And he really does know him, is the thing, like the back of his fucking hand. Knows how he insists sandwiches are better if they’re cut diagonal, knows how he once skated suicides ‘til he actually threw up after the Oilers missed the playoffs. Knows the exact order he puts on his gear before a game, every game. Knows that he knows he’s the best, even if he’ll never admit it out loud.

He didn’t know this.

He didn’t know anything even remotely close to this. And that’s the fucking kicker, right, is that any time since he was sixteen he would’ve killed or died or both to hear Davo say he was in love with him, only now, now it’s just-

He feels blank. Not happy, not relieved, just.

Blank.

---

Dylan gets, like, a minute of sleep. Tries to string his internal monologue into something resembling a coherent thought and can’t – it’s like a stuck record, just Davo saying I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you on repeat for-fucking-ever – so he showers, downs two cups of coffee, and drives out to Thornhill.

No one answers the door when he knocks, so he plants himself on the doorstep and distracts himself trying to kick pebbles into the little hockey net in front of the garage. It’s a bad angle. He still gets a couple.

This WASP-y looking lady, double stroller and bad dye job and all, walks past and shoots him this skeptical look, like why are you sitting on my neighbours’ doorstep, random man. Dylan does not flip her off, which counts as character growth, he thinks. Maybe media training. Maybe both. He gets the skepticism, ‘cause he probably does look a little suspicious, waiting on the stairs all alone. Honestly, it’s not even a low point for him, which is either optimistic or just, like, overtly pathetic, depending on how you look at it.

 He’s trying to distract himself.

It’s not working, really.

“Uncle Dylan!”

 He looks up, startled, and can’t help but smile at the sight of Noah barrelling towards him across the lawn at what Dylan has to assume is maximum toddler-speed.

“Hey, pal,” he says, reaching out to catch the kid before he can trip. Auston’s still making his way up the sidewalk, but he lifts a hand in greeting.

Noah’s already chattering all excited, words getting all mixed together in that kind of lisping little-kid way. “I saw three birds!” He holds up four fingers.

 “Wow,” Dylan says, trying to sound excited. “That’s sick.”

“That’s four,” Auston corrects gently, finally joining them at the steps. “Almost got it.”

Dylan pulls himself to his feet, offers Auston a fist bump. “Sorry for just showing up,” he says, mostly out of habit, because he doesn’t think he’s actually called ahead in at least a couple of years.

“Hey, no worries.” Auston waves him off. Retirement looks good on him – he’s already got the beginnings of a tan. Little past the beginnings of a receding hairline, too, which is rough ‘cause he’s not even old, but Dylan figures that’d be rude to point out, so he doesn’t, just makes a mental note to chirp Marns about it later.

“Mitchy’s at soccer with Maya, but they should be on their way home by now. Did you want to-” Auston jabs a thumb at the door. Dylan kind of feels bad for noticing his bigass forehead, now.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind, man. Thanks.” He reaches down to mess up Noah’s hair, fond. “Gonna get the door for me, buddy?”

Noah nods and beams at him with probably more enthusiasm than is strictly warranted by opening a door, reaches out and grabs Auston’s hand for help climbing the stairs. Dylan kicks one last pebble at the net before he follows them inside.

“How’ve you been?” Auston asks, conversational, kicking his shoes onto to the mess of sneakers and sandals and skates piled on top of what Dylan figures was probably a shoe rack before it was buried alive. “You figured out if you’re gonna sign again, or-”

“Where,” Dylan says. “Like- not really if. I’m going to.”

“Oh wow,” Auston says, and he sounds surprised, which is not the most flattering, but not really anything new, either, ‘cause Dylan stopped taking getting written off personally a long time ago. “Congrats, man.”

“Thanks,” Dylan leaves his shoes next to the front door, trails them towards the living room and shoves his hands in his pocket. “But yeah, I’m still figuring it out, so.”

“You’ve got time, I guess,” Auston says, and then Noah’s dragging Dylan over to see his new ministicks, and that’s about it as far as socializing goes.

It’s tense, a little bit. And Dylan would love to blame it on Auston Matthews being an awkward fucking human who uses his kid as a social crutch just because Dylan tried to give him a shovel talk, like, a decade ago; which it maybe is, partly, but Dylan also knows that it’s on him today.

He can’t think straight. Can’t sit here and small talk like everything’s normal when Connor’s sitting half an hour away being in love with him-

Yeah, the awkward is Dylan’s fault, today.

He only has to feign being excited about ministicks for maybe ten minutes before the front door opens and the house instantly gets, like, eighty times louder.

 “We’re home!” Maya hollers, then, “I got hit in the face!”

“She’s fine though,” Marns yells after her, and Auston kind of sighs while Noah keeps trying to get the ball from Dylan, unbothered.

He can hear the two of them talking all the way down the hall, and Maya barely pauses for breath when she bursts into the room and makes a beeline for Auston. “Dad Dad Dad, it was so fun, we beat the orange team and Mitali from school was their goalie and she was so mad and then we had watermelon-”

“You should’ve seen the setup she gave for the gamewinner, unreal,” Marns follows her in, doesn’t even look surprised to see Dylan. Probably saw his car outside. “Stromer, hey.”

Maya’s hugging Auston, grinning at Dylan over his shoulder. She kind of looks like a mess, knees all muddy, a fat lip like she took a shot to the face.

“I scored twice,” she says, proud. Doesn’t seem any worse for the wear, at least.

Dylan holds out his hand for a high five. “Only twice?”

“Dude,” Auston says. It takes Dylan a second to register than he’s talking to his daughter, and he only gets there because he doesn’t think he’s ever heard the word ‘dude’ uttered with such concern. “What happened to your face?”

“Bella’s cleat,” Maya says, cheerfully enough, and smiles big enough to show a missing front tooth. Yeah, definitely Marns’ kid. She turns to Dylan, pokes her tongue through the gap in her teeth. “Cool, right?”

“Badass,” Dylan agrees, approving, and it’s enough to earn him matching wide-eyed looks from Mitch and Auston. Fuck. “I mean- badbutt?”

Maya laughs like that’s just the funniest thing she’s ever heard, and then Noah laughs because she’s laughing, then Marns laughs because he’s Marns. Dylan smiles, just a little one and mostly in spite of himself. Kids’re good for his ego.

Auston’s crouched down with Maya, tilting her head all worried while Noah stares at her lip. “C’mere, mousey, let me see-”

Dad-”

Mitch musses Auston’s hair on his way past, then Noah’s, this quiet little greeting that makes Dylan’s heart ache a little for how familiar it is, and it keeps being familiar when Marns tugs him into a hug, tight.

Dylan returns the hug, relaxes into it, in spite of himself. “Hey, Marns.”

“You look terrible, man,” Mitch says cheerily, pulling back just enough to look at Dylan and prod at the side of his face. “What’s up?”

Dylan swats Mitch’s hand away, but hesitates, because he’s decently confident that ‘I fucked my old teammate and now he’s in love with me’ doesn’t count as family-friendly language.

Auston, bless his American, giant foreheaded self, gets the hint, leaning on the coffee table to get to his feet. “I think a missing tooth gets a freezie, what do you guys think?”

The kids absolutely lose their shit, cheering and calling dibs on colours. Auston scoops up Noah, one-armed, bounces him up and down a couple of times and nods toward Mitch and Dylan. “Freezies?”

“Save me a blue one,” Mitch says, flashing him a grateful smile. Dylan shakes his head no, watches him and the kids disappear around the corner while Maya gives a play-by-play of her game.

Mitch flops down on the couch with a contented sigh, and starts untying his shoelaces.

Dylan gives him shit for it as he sits down next to him, because it wouldn’t be them, otherwise. “Nice cleats, coach. Kinda late to switch sports, isn’t it?”

“You honestly can’t even laugh, six year old girls are fucking intense. Maya goes so hard, it’s ridiculous.” And Dylan can’t even make fun of him for that, he sounds so proud of his weirdly competitive family, even though it stopped being heartwarming the first and only time Dylan came to game night, because he’s never once seen any group of people so absurdly intense about connect-four.

Mitch swats at Dylan’s arm, bringing him back to earth. “So?”

“So I saw Davo,” Dylan says, before he can give himself a chance to wimp out.

Marns’ mouth falls into an ‘o’, and his voice drops to this weird half-whisper, like they’re discussing state secrets or something. “The fuck, he’s here?” He leans in, halfway through removing his last shoe. “Does he realize he’s basically a fugitive?”

Dylan shrugs, leans back on the couch cushion and stares at the ceiling. “We had sex.”

He doesn’t have to be looking at Mitch to get the disapproval. Brat. “Stromer.”

“I know,” Dylan interrupts, tired. Runs a hand through his hair. “I know.”

“He’s engaged, Dyls.”

“He’s not.” Dylan actually turns his head and watches that one impact. The look on Mitch’s face is really something, a million different expressions at once so Dylan can’t pinpoint what he’s thinking.

“Shit,” Marns says, finally, and scoots across the couch so he can lay back next to Dylan, leaning his head on his shoulder.

Dylan exhales. “Yep.”

The sleepless night is catching up on him, or he’s just getting old – whatever it is, he’s tired, brain, body, everything. I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.

They sit like that for a few minutes, this thoughtful kind of quiet. Marns is a weight on Dylan’s side, reassuring.

“So?”

Mitch doesn’t move. “So what?”

“So what do I do?” Dylan demands, impatient, pulling back so he can look at Marns’ face. “I know you have an opinion, what’re you thinking?”

It takes Mitch a couple of seconds to answer. “I’m thinking,” he says, “that this is going to be exactly like last time.”

Dylan’s shaking his head before he’s even done talking. “It’s not.”

Mitch doesn’t look convinced. “It’s been multiple decades.”

“Barely two,” Dylan says. “It was just sex.” He doesn’t mention the ‘in love with you’ part.

“It’s always just sex,” Mitch says. “Literally every time, and now you’re angsting in my living room and Davo’s off the grid-”

“That part’s not my fault,” Dylan interrupts. “I don’t know what his deal is.”

Mitch is frowning. Or, like. The Mitch version of frowning, which is basically just a neutral expression, on a normal human. “Is he not retiring?”

“I don’t know, Marns,” Dylan says, tired. “I don’t know anything.”

Mitch leans on Dylan’s shoulder again. He sounds serious – not even just Mitch serious, real serious – when he asks, “Is he okay?”

Dylan shrugs. Doesn’t move Marns, this time.

He doesn’t know.

“Are you okay?”

Now he moves Marns, elbowing him, sharp, in the ribs. “Shut up, you’re such a dad.”

“You shut up,” Mitch says, face all scrunched up, ‘cause he’s still too easy to rile up. “Assface.”

“Language, Mitchell.” Dylan shoves a hand in Mitch’s face, and Mitch licks his palm. “You’re so gross-”

“Genuinely, go fu- hey, bud!” Mitch cuts himself off mid-curse, looking past Dylan and grinning while Noah totters in, freezie in hand. Or- on hand. On face, and on t-shirt, and maybe in his hair too, just a sticky mess.

“I came back,” he announces, proud.

“Yeah you did.” Marns beams at Noah, holds out his arms and tugs him up onto the couch so Dylan ends up under a person and a half worth of overly affectionate Marners. “You’re gonna be faster than me in no time.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Maybe Friday,” Mitch says, very seriously, like his three year old has any idea what the concept of Friday even means, and pokes at Noah’s stomach to make him giggle, and that’s the end of the Davo conversation, just like that.

Nothing’s the same, since the kids came around. That’s not- it’s not Dylan dissing Marns, nothing like that, because it’s not just him. It’s everyone Dylan knows, getting married or having kids or, like, settling down, and it’s just-

Dylan isn’t.

He’s not jealous. He doesn’t know what he is, exactly, why he feels this irrational surge of annoyance at Mitch being all soft with his kid. It’s maybe partially Dylan wanting more of Marns’ attention, something pathetic like that; but it’s more just that he wants to talk, maybe swear without having to censor himself, to do something dumb and impulsive without having to call a babysitter or have SO’s tagging along or feeling like he’s failing at something-

Noah pats Dylan’s arm with one chubby little hand, bringing him back to earth. “We can share,” he says, all easy little kid kindness like he doesn’t care if Dylan deserves it. And like, he objectively doesn’t; feels abruptly shitty and kind of traitorous for wishing the kids weren’t around. They’re family, basically.

“Thanks, buddy,” Dylan says, and really, really tries to mean it. He lets Noah climb all over his shoulders while Marns switches to talking about the team for Worlds, and things still aren’t okay, exactly – I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you is still on repeat in the back of his mind – but he manages to let Mitch drag him into bickering about roster choices, and to not think about anything else involving Connor McDavid for a solid half an hour, which-

It’s something.

(u should talk it out tho, Marns sends, way later, once Dylan is back at his place heating up a microwave dinner. the davo thing.

i know, Dylan texts back, and the microwave beeps.)

---

It takes ten million years for Connor to answer the door. Dylan’s half-hoping he’s not home, that he’ll just stand here holding a sixpack of Bud Light and ringing the doorbell all night instead of sitting through an attempt to communicate – ugh – but Connor eventually opens the door and blinks at Dylan like he’s the last person he expected to see. And Dylan’s spent the last three days working up the nerve to be annoyed with him, but he can’t quite manage it, once Davo’s standing in front of him, barefoot and wearing a Jays t-shirt.

“Stromer,” Connor says. He looks surprised to see Dylan, which is just kind of stupid – like, what did he think, he’d confess his love all dramatic and they’d just go back to not talking? Idiot.

Dylan shoves the beer at his chest. “We’re talking now,” he says, clumsy. It’s a pretty sub-par peace offering by pretty much any standards, but Davo takes the beer and steps aside so Dylan can come in.

“I was just in the yard,” he says. “That’s why- I couldn’t hear the bell.”

“Right,” Dylan says. Shoves his hands in his pockets and waits for Connor to lead him through the house.

The place is still empty, no furniture, the exact same as when Dylan left that first night except for a couple of Ikea boxes piled up in the hall. Davo leaves wet footprints on the hardwood while he walks, and Dylan realizes why once they’re out on the deck and he sees the half-full wine glass and open book sitting next to the pool.

Connor sits down right at the edge of the deck, feet in the water. Dylan sits a little further back, leaves the book between them and taps the cover.

“Good book?” he asks, and Connor shrugs.

“Bought it at the airport,” he says. “Kind of boring.”

And there’s a lot of shit Dylan could say here, like how this must be one hell of a midlife crisis because he doesn’t think Connor’s ever sat and read a useless book once in his life, let alone while, like, lounging by the pool; he could make a joke, ‘I didn’t know you could read’, and it’s on the tip of his tongue, but-

But that’s not why he came.

He meets Connor’s eyes. “You’re in love with me?”

“Yeah,” Connor nods. “Think so.”

Dylan breathes in and out, once each, careful. “Alright,” he says, when he figures he can sound close to normal. “Alright, so what the fuck, Davo?”

Connor kicks at the water, just a tiny bit. “Can’t answer unless you give me an actual question.”

Dylan looks at him head-on. The sun’s beating down on his back, real hot for this early in the year, so Connor’s kind of squinting at him. “How long?”

“I don’t know.”

“Not good enough.”

“It’s the truth,” Connor says, matter-of-fact. He’s holding Dylan’s gaze this whole time, doesn’t even look embarrassed. “I realized maybe a few months ago.”

Dylan doesn’t actually flinch, but he comes close. Months, Davo’s been going around being in love with him.

The fucking audacity.

“Before,” Dylan says, a lot more level than he’s feeling. “When I asked, you said-”

“I know what I said,” Connor says, and for the first time, after Dylan mentions that night years ago, he looks guilty.

Good.

Dylan doesn’t let up, like now that he’s started he forgets how to stop. “The times we hooked up after,” he says. “We said it was buddies. You were lying?”

“Not at first,” Connor says. “I told you, months. Not years.”

“Yeah, I heard you,” Dylan says, and he can’t bite back the edge in his voice. He wants to kiss Connor again, or punch him, or push him in the pool. He doesn’t know. “So, what? You’re just bi now, or-”

“Gay,” Connor interrupts. He’s keeping himself calm, real deliberately measured, Dylan can tell. “It’s not new.”

“You were just engaged to a girl,” Dylan points out, not-quite-helpfully.

“Yeah, I was,” Connor says, simple, and it doesn’t leave any room for Dylan to question him, so Dylan doesn’t. Doesn’t pick a fight, either, even if he still sort of wants to. It’s hard to stay angry like this, when Connor’s being all- he doesn’t know the word. Pliant? Careful?

Davo’s staring now, all searching, but he doesn’t say anything, just watches Dylan kick his sandals off and scoot towards the edge of the deck so he can put his feet in the water, too.

It’s a nice pool. Nice backyard in general, quiet and all fenced in, trees and a little walking trail on the other side of the fence. They could be the only people in the world, back here.

For a while, they just sit there.

“So?” Connor asks, eventually.

“So what?”

“So I just told you I’m in love with you,” he says, patient. “You’ve got to have an opinion on that, right?”

“I don’t know,” Dylan says, after a second, because it’s the truth, and that’s one thing they’ve always been, is honest. And he couldn’t even blame Connor if he said ‘not good enough’ to that, turned it right back in Dylan’s face, but he doesn’t, just kind of nods, all stoic.

“Okay,” he says, and it’s the closest they ever get to awkward, but then Dylan looks at Connor and Connor looks at Dylan and it’s weird-tense for a couple seconds before Dylan can’t help but laugh.

It’s not like it’s funny-funny, really. Just- Davo’s in love with him, and apparently owns property in Mississauga, and skipped out on his own retirement announcement. Nothing makes sense anymore.

Dylan shakes his head. “This is so-”

“I know,” Connor says, and he’s kind of red underneath the godawful beard, so- he’s self aware, at least. That’s something.

 “You bought the bougiest fuckin’ house, though, Daver,” Dylan says, and it breaks whatever tension was left, and Connor matches his grin, still a little sheepish.

“It’s number 1097,” Davo says. “Thought it might be lucky.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dylan says, because of fucking course Connor bought a multi-million dollar house because the address has 97 in it. Of course he did.

They’re quiet again, but it’s not as bad, this time. Dylan kicks at Connor’s foot under the water, and Connor kicks him back. He still feels off-balance, a little, but- it’s them. He knows how they work. It’s easy, to settle back into this.

“You gonna talk to your team?” he asks, because he thinks he’s still pretty entitled to, after everything. “Or. Anyone?”

“I called my mom,” Davo says. “Told her about retiring.” He leans back onto his elbows, shuts his eyes and sighs real deep, like he’s basking in the sun. He looks relaxed, which is- unusual. Very not-Connor.

Dylan frowns, utterly at a loss. “The hell are you doing, man?”

Connor shrugs. “I think I’ll buy a couch, first,” he says. “Want to help me pick?”

“Obviously,” Dylan says, and they just sit out there in the sun, then; and as far as pretending things are normal goes, he thinks they do an altogether decent job.

---

There are twenty-three articles about Connor in the time it takes to find a couch online and have it delivered. Dylan knows because he counts. Skims through most of them, as well. They’re all dramatic, talking like Connor’s legitimately a missing person instead of a guy who skipped out on a presser. Some of them veer right into conspiracy theory territory, stuff like McDavid Signing With Leafs? and Connor McDavid Retiring To Open Gastropub in Toronto.

Dylan shows Davo the gastropub one, once they’ve set up the couch in the living room. It makes Connor laugh, and Dylan pretends like he’s not smiling along with him; sits there on the stupid-expensive couch that still has plastic on the cushions and ignores the lingering layer of awkwardness, doesn’t answer his phone when it rings.

He knows even before he checks that it’s his agent. He’s been bugging Dylan since the season ended to pick a team, or retire, or do something other than float around in UFA limbo. He leaves a voicemail, asks Dylan slightly desperately to ‘at least put some thought into it’.

It’s not as if Dylan hasn’t. It’s his career, obviously he’s thought about it. He even printed out the drafted contracts they sent him at the start of summer, sat there and stared at them for maybe an hour before shoving them into his extra drawer under old medals and battered team photos from peewee and the little velvet box he hasn’t looked at in years.

He’s planning to- god, he doesn’t know, take out the contracts and text Ry for advice or something, but the thought of opening the drawer and seeing that stupid little ring box-

I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you, Connor says, in the back of his head.

And, yeah, Dylan’s not dealing with that, tonight.

Chapter Text

Dylan’s good at the friends with benefits thing. Years of experience and vaguely regrettable hookups on roadies have made him pretty much an expert at finding the ideal balance of ‘friends’ and ‘benefits’, which is to say as much of the second thing as possible and as little of the first; which is why it takes him a second to react when Brad – 14:1 benefits to friends ratio, minimum – finishes sucking him off then sits on the edge of the bed and starts, like. Making conversation.

“You excited for the draft?”

Dylan stretches, lazy, his brain still that post-sex kind of fuzzy. Cup hasn’t even been awarded yet. “Why would I be excited for the draft?”

“Kid who’s going first is from around here,” Brad says, which – great, so is half the NHL. “Something Chan? Christian Chan, or Christopher, something like that.”

“...Okay?” Dylan says, when it seems like Brad’s waiting for him to comment.

“It’s kind of like the circle of life, or whatever,” Brad says, shrugging into a muscle shirt because he’s the kind of guy who wears muscle shirts. “Like, new blood coming in to replace the old guys like you. No offense.”

Dylan sighs.

He likes Brad better when he’s sucking his dick instead of talking. It’s like dealing with the dude version of a puck bunny, which is what Brad is, hundred percent, and that’s hardly even an insult, ‘cause he’s convenient and can talk about hockey and is content to get to touch an NHL player’s ass with no strings attached. It’s good in general and has been since they started hooking up a couple offseasons ago, but now-

“No offense, Brad,” Dylan says, yawning and staring up at the ceiling. “But like.”

“Shut up?” Brad offers.

“There you go,” Dylan says, and Brad rolls his eyes, but he leaves the topic alone and even tosses Dylan a washcloth when he gets up to finish getting dressed. Dylan stares at him as he goes. He’s got a nice ass. Not, like, hockey player nice, obviously. Not like-

Dylan’s not thinking about him, now.

He wipes off his chest, looks around for his boxers. “You hanging around?”

“You’re not,” Brad shoots back, easily enough. “I have a date later.” He’s rifling through his closet, holding up different pants in front of the mirror and checking himself out.

Dylan wishes he hadn’t even asked, because now he feels bad, which is bullshit, ‘cause he’s not responsible for Brad being a shitty date, or for anyone wanting him instead of someone else. Like Connor with Jess, his brain chimes in unhelpfully, and Dylan finally finds his underwear flung over the headboard and very firmly ignores that train of thought.

“You shouldn’t sleep with people before going on dates,” he says half-heartedly.

Brad doesn’t even look away from the mirror. “No offense, man,” he says. “But shut up.”

Dylan deserved that one, probably.

It’s too bright out when he leaves the building, fumbling for his keys. The brightness is sort of disorienting – it’s only early afternoon, and he hadn’t planned on leaving ‘til later, and now he’s all keyed up and in his rumpled gym clothes and probably smells like Brad’s shitty cologne with half the day left to kill.

He gets into his car and doesn’t start it, just sits and scrolls through his notifications. There’s some shit Merks tagged him in, a message from Matt, moms setting u up with her dental hygienists son fyi. So- brilliant. Fucking fantastic, he’s going to have to sit through a date and spend the next family dinner getting chewed out for not giving it a chance and listening to his brothers’ wives talk about this gay guy they know who Dylan just has to meet-

Dylan exhales.

They mean well. It’s fine.

His phone buzzes. Matt again. he has a unibrow lol

Dylan slumps forward and hits his head on the steering wheel. The horn goes off, loud, making him jump and a few pedestrians shoot him weird looks. Because of fucking course.

It hits him, all at once, how lonely he feels. That in itself is fucking stupid, actually, ‘cause he just finished getting a generally decent blowjob from a generally decent guy, muscle shirts aside, and his little brother still texts him like he’s cool, and his family is the ‘all gay people are attracted to each other’ kind of homophobic instead of anything worse. He doesn’t have shit to complain about. Lonely, like, what kind of bullshit even is that?

Maybe it’s because he’s in between teams.

Maybe everyone ever is right and he just needs to start, like, settling down. Unlock the meaning of life via babies or whatever.

His phone vibrates again, and Dylan’s about to tell Matt to fuck off, but when he looks down Connor’s name is on the screen. Dylan’s heart rate picks up, entirely against his will, but he ignores it and opens the message. It’s a picture, a wall half-painted and a little blurry at the edges because Connor moved the camera too soon, the way he always does.

The can said ivory but Im 99% sure this is white, he captioned it, and Dylan kind of smirks, doesn’t bother playing it coy before responding.

want help?

If you want to give it, Connor texts back, just as quick.

Dylan hesitates, stares up at Brad’s building, then catches his own eye in the mirror. He starts the car.

---

It’s something like alarming, how easy it’s been to sink back into being Connor and Dylan.

Alarming, but not surprising – there’s a reason that they were basically glued to each other’s sides all those years ago, and it’s ‘cause they just fit like Dylan never had before and never has since, not with anyone. Like. People talk about on-ice chemistry, and they had that, sure, but it was the same off the ice as well, because they find the same stuff funny, and they make the same bitchy comments, and it’s kind of addicting to have someone just get you like that.

It’s been two weeks since Connor got here, two weeks of texting and napping by the pool and jerking each other off. There’s a very definite undercurrent to it all that Dylan knows he’s not imagining, some kind of trepidation, maybe, all the shit they aren’t saying hanging over them. It’s as if they’re feeling each other out again – not in a sex way, except for all the times it is – and getting used to being in the same space. And Dylan shouldn’t be surprised by how easy it is, because they’re fucking great together, except for all the times they’re not.

It’s first time in ages that they’ve been in this kind of proximity for any extended period of time. Years, probably. It kind of feels like dangling exposed wire over a bathtub every time Dylan sees him, like waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is maybe mixing metaphors, but the point is, is:

He gets to Davo’s place fast. The drive’s pretty familiar by now, down the twisting and turning little streets full of bigass houses with expensive cars in the driveways. Dylan and his brothers went trick or treating here a couple times, ‘cause a bunch of houses would give out full-size chocolate bars. Nice people.

Connor’s in a ratty grey t-shirt when he gets the door. There’re bits of paint on his hands, a speck of white – sorry, ivory – on his cheek.

“Stromer,” he says, and looks genuinely happy to see Dylan. “Hi.”

“You think if I keep helping you with renos they’ll finally give me an HGTV show?” Dylan quips, already toeing off his shoes.

Connor grins, which is probably more than the joke deserved. “We can only hope,” he says, and leads Dylan down the hall toward the stairs. Dylan peers into the living room as they pass. It’s still pretty sparse, just the couch they found and a coffee table with a mug on it. No sign of anyone but Connor having been here.

The basement smells like wet paint, even with the windows open, and there’s country music playing, which, ugh. Dylan juts his chin towards the speaker. “This shit, still?”

“Learn to love it, man,” Davo says, easy, and tosses him a paint roller. Dylan catches it, still ends up with a little primer splattered on his shirt.

He rubs at it, makes a face at Connor. “Dick.”

Connor ignores him. “So I went to buy paint,” he starts, leaning down to grab his own paint roller. “This old lady, like, four feet tall, max; she grabs my arm and goes, ‘Sidney Crosby’?”

“Holy shit.” Dylan laughs, surprised, and Connor looks pleased with himself. “I can’t believe I get to help Sidney Crosby paint his basement, this is-”

“Wild, right?”

“Fuckin’ wild,” Dylan agrees. “Thank you for this opportunity, Mr. Crosby, sir.”

Connor laughs under his breath, and the song changes – still country – and the conversation trails off into a mostly-comfortable silence while they paint.

They haven’t talked about the love thing.

Connor hasn’t brought it up once, hasn’t even hinted at it. Dylan could almost think he imagined the whole thing, and not even in an in-denial way, because Connor’s acting- not exactly normal, because their normal’s been kind of fucked up for a while, but. Normal like they were when they were kids, when they were best friends. Dylan’s not sure if he’s proud or annoyed at that, that Connor thinks he can just show up and be back in Dylan’s life and fit like he was never gone, like the last twenty years and I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you never happened.

Dylan’s kind of pissed at him, he thinks, for saying something like that then acting like this. Maybe kind of pissed at himself too, for not letting himself enjoy this instead of overthinking everything like a fucking fourteen year old girl.

He wonders if Connor still thinks he’s in love with him, like, right now, at this moment. It might’ve already worn off.

A new song starts playing and Dylan snaps himself out of it, because nope, he’s not having an internal crisis to a soundtrack of Nickelback, no fucking chance.

“It could be awesome down here,” he says, trying to get a conversation going. “Make, like. A man cave.” He wonders as he says that if the whole house is a man cave, technically, what with the whole inhabited by a single man thing. Except this is Davo they’re talking about, so it’s probably the isolated, hermit-inhabited kind of cave, if anything. Point still stands. “Giant movie screen on the wall, frame some jerseys.”

He can picture it, a bunch of gaming consoles and memorabilia, the kind of shit they talked about having when they were sixteen and dreaming about being millionaires. And it’s a totally innocuous conversation topic, right, but Dylan’s sort of half-looking at Davo while he’s talking, and the second he mentions jerseys, Connor winces.

It’s a weird reaction. Doesn’t make sense, and Dylan’s most of the way to convincing himself that he imagined it, but then Connor clears his throat.

“You need more paint?” he asks, and it’s a brush off if Dylan’s ever heard one.

He shakes his head no, a little confused, and Connor doesn’t meet his eyes, just turns around and goes back to painting like he didn’t just effectively murder whatever shred of a conversation they had going.

It’s back again, the tension from the first day, the one they’ve been trying to ignore. Dylan doesn’t know what the fuck he did wrong this time. Doesn’t even know how he’d go about fixing it, so he doesn’t try, just finishes painting his part of the wall, working his way around the room and listening to Connor’s shitty music and not fucking talking, because that’s what Connor wants, apparently.

Most of the basement is ivory-coloured and glossy-wet by the time they’re done. Looks decent, Dylan thinks, at least decent enough that he feels like they’ve earned it when they head out to the pool to cool down.

Turns out swimming is, like, immensely awkward when the other person you’re swimming with isn’t talking to you. It doesn’t seem like Connor’s mad, really, just quiet, answering all strained when Dylan speaks.

Dylan takes the mature way out, which is to say he jumps into the pool. Makes a big splash, too, and swims a couple laps while the ripples die down. It’s peaceful back here, the sun filtering down through the trees.

Dylan shakes out his head like a dog, watches Connor lose his shirt and ease himself into the water. Connor doesn’t really swim around, what with the whole recovery thing, but he dunks himself under a couple of times and comes up with his hair sopping wet, dangling down in his face. Dylan wants to run a hand through it. Doesn’t.

“You don’t have to put jerseys on the wall,” he says, when the silence gets stifling. “It was just a suggestion-”

“I know that,” Connor says, plucking at a leaf floating in the pool and not meeting Dylan’s eyes. “It was a good suggestion.”

“But you’re not gonna do it,” Dylan says. He couldn’t actually care less what Connor puts on his basement walls, to be frank, but his reaction was weird, and it stays weird when Connor snorts a laugh.

“God, no.”

And Dylan’s not about to be offended by Davo not appreciating his interior design tips, but something about the way Connor says that, all dismissive, kind of rankles him. “Alright, then.” He moves toward the stairs out of the pool, but Connor grabs his arm.

“Wait,” he says, and looks pained. “Don’t- I keep saying the wrong thing.”

Dylan scoffs, surprised enough by Davo caving that fast to forget about being annoyed. Connor’s still holding his arm. “Now? Now is when you’re gonna start watching your mouth around me, fuckin’- what, twenty years after the fact?”

“Shut up,” Connor says, automatic, but he kind of smiles when Dylan shakes his arm free and splashes him; even tries to splash him back, maybe a little half-heartedly.

There’s this moment, then, like he wants to say something and doesn’t, and they end up just looking at each other, a couple feet apart. A bird chirps from up in the trees.

“What?” Dylan asks. It doesn’t come out as sharp as he means it to.

“Am I a shitty person?” Connor asks, apropos of fucking nothing. “For leaving how I did?”

“There’s worse stuff you could do,” Dylan says. “Murder, blackmail, bank robbery-”

Connor’s frowning, a little. “I mean, sure, but it’s not a relative thing.”

“Everything’s relative,” Dylan says; then, when Davo looks like he’s going to argue: “That’s not even me, that’s Einstein or someone like that. You gonna argue with Einstein, McDavid?”

Connor drags a hand through his hair, exhales kind of heavy. It takes him a second. “Guess not,” he says, and Dylan flicks water at him again, gentler this time, and gets a smile for his efforts, albeit a small one.

It’s cooling off quick, enough that Dylan gets goosebumps when they’re out of the pool and towelling off. The sun is glinting off of the water and into Dylan’s eyes, and it’s still light out, that lazy kind of evening that seems to drag on forever. And it’s that, or how quiet it is, or maybe the droplet of water making its way down Connor’s chest; and none of those things are a good enough reason for Dylan to ask, but he does, mostly without meaning to: “Do you still think you’re in love with me?”

It sounds stupid out loud, even more than it did in Dylan’s head.

Connor doesn’t laugh. “What do you think?” he asks. “You didn’t believe me?”

“I don’t know,” Dylan hedges, already regretting the whole conversation. “You’re already basically a murdering blackmailing bank robber, so-”

“Stromer,” Davo cuts him off, sort of exasperated-sounding. His brow is furrowed like he’s concerned, like he wants to push this, and Dylan just- he can’t, right now, so he pushes at Connor’s chest ‘til he gets the hint and sits in one of the patio chairs. Dylan drops down on his knees in front of him.

“Want me to get you?” Dylan asks. He thumbs at the waistband of Connor’s shorts to be sure he gets the message.

“Stromer,” Connor says again, faintly scandalized, this time, because they’re outside. There’s a fence, though, and trees, and no one can actually see them, and Dylan can practically see Davo’s brain processing all that, looking almost comically torn.

Dylan raises an eyebrow, impatient. “Yes or no?”

“God,” Connor says, and a glance at his lap kind of answers the question, but he says, “You- yes, obviously-”

That’s all Dylan needs. Connor tastes kind of like chlorine from the pool once Dylan gets his mouth on him, and he can’t decide if that’s gross or hot, which is in itself kind of un-hot, but maybe it cancels out. Davo seems into it, in any case, leaning back in his chair, eyes fluttering shut while Dylan wets the tip of his dick, gets a hand around the base and works it, slow; tunes out his brain and just focuses on this.

He waits ‘til Connor’s good and hard before taking him in all the way, all at once, and it gets the reaction he wanted, Connor tensing up and clapping a hand over his mouth to prevent a sound getting out.

Dylan has to pull off to laugh, at that.

“Jerk,” Davo scolds, but he doesn’t quite manage to sound annoyed. Dylan noses at his hipbone, teasing, and pushes Connor’s legs further apart so he has more room. The patio’s not the greatest on his knees. Nothing he can’t handle. He’s intent on picking up where he left off, but Connor gets a hand in his hair and tugs him back, gentle.

He looks serious, flushed all splotchy the way he always gets. “We can’t keep having sex to make ourselves feel better.”

“Probably,” Dylan agrees, and Connor’s gaze feels heavy, pushing towards something too sincere. Dylan doesn’t let it get there. “I feel better, though.”

Connor breathes out. “Me too,” he admits, and then Dylan gets his mouth around his dick again and Connor’s fingers tighten in his hair, almost painful. Neither of them talks more after that.

---

Dylan borrows a pair of sweats and crashes on Davo’s couch, hugging a throw pillow. Wakes up to the sound of his phone buzzing next to his head and takes a second to figure out where he is, disoriented. He can hear someone moving around in another room, the clink of a glass.

Right.

He yawns and unlocks his phone without sitting up. It’s Marns sending pictures of their trip to Arizona, the whole family posing next to a cactus. And like, the pictures are objectively adorable, but they also stress Dylan right the fuck out, mostly because he wouldn’t put it past Mitch to somehow read his mind over text and realize that Dylan fucked two people in one day, neither of whom is anything close to a good decision.

His mouth tastes nasty. He makes a face, adds not brushing his teeth to the list of things to regret from yesterday, then jumps, startled, when a floorboard creaks from behind him.

He sits up to peer in the direction of the sound. “Hey.”

“Morning,” Connor says, and does this little half-smile, all pleasant.

Dylan drops his gaze, rolls out his shoulder. “What time’s it?”

“Nine-ish.” Connor hands him a cup of coffee. It’s black, the way Dylan used to take it when he was sixteen and trying to be tough. He hasn’t taken his coffee like that in years.

“Thanks,” he says anyways. Manners, or whatever.

“’course,” Davo says, and Dylan tucks his legs up closer to his body so Connor can sit down; leans forward and grabs the remote off of the coffee table, flicking on the TV so there won’t be any quiet. Pre-emptive strike, kind of.

Connor doesn’t seem to mind, just leans back and sips his own coffee while the Breakfast Television hosts go through the birthday announcements and start talking about some musical that’s showing downtown. It’s really inane, brain-numbing stuff, and Dylan maybe kind of played himself here, because he’s lulled into a false sense of security when Connor finally decides to talk.

“I was serious, before,” Connor says, maybe fifteen minutes into the show. “It’s kind of unfair.”

“Serious about...” Dylan trails off, not getting it. It takes him a second, combing through yesterday’s conversation to figure it out. “What, that we should stop?”

Connor nods, and Dylan does this half-laugh, incredulous.

“We should stop having sex because you think you’re in love with me?”

“Yes,” Davo says. “It’s like- it was my fault, showing up how I did. I just want to do things properly, and I’m obviously not trying to pressure you into deciding on something, I just- d’you get what I’m saying?”

“No,” Dylan says, just to be petty, because one, I just want to do things properly, like they’re in some kind of Lifetime movie- it’s bullshit, firstly, and secondly, if he’s getting not-dumped by a guy he’s not even dating he’s sure as hell not going to make it easy. “This is stupid.”

“Kind of,” Connor says, steady. He doesn’t waver, ‘cause no one’s ever been able to make him waver, not Dylan and not anyone else, once he’s decided on something. Even, apparently, if that something is whatever misguided attempt at good intentions he’s currently entertaining.

“Fine,” Dylan says, because Connor’s still looking at him. “So we stop, then.” He grabs his coffee and takes a gulp, remembers too late that there’s no milk and barely avoids making a face.

There’s this weird lull over the place, then. Dylan’s not sure where exactly they go from here, because usually them agreeing not to have sex happens kind of implicitly with them fighting over something stupid and not talking again ‘til they hook up a few months later.

God, friends with benefits are so much easier than this.

“Your couch is fucking uncomfortable, you know that?” he chirps, mostly for something to say. “Rudeass hookup.”

“You helped me pick it,” Connor retorts, and Dylan knows he’s not just imagining how he sounds relieved at the change of subject. “There’re like, three guest rooms.”

“Zero beds,” Dylan says, and ignores the couch thing because it’s true and he doesn’t have a good comeback.

“Should probably get on that,” Connor says, chugging back the last of his coffee and clapping Dylan on the shoulder, leaning on the arm of the couch to stand up. “C’mon.”

Dylan stares. “C’mon where?”

“Buying mattresses,” Connor says, like duh. “And bedframes, probably. Sheets and stuff? I can drive.”

Dylan scoffs, rubs at his eyes. He should leave, go back to his place and stop entertaining whatever delusion is making Connor think they’re magically besties again. Dylan’s done the hope thing, with Davo, and it doesn’t go anywhere, and he learned that the hard way. Knows that.

He doesn’t take Connor’s hand, but he gets up.

“Gotta get Egyptian cotton sheets or something like that,” he says. “Impress all your visitors, yeah?”

And Connor smiles at him, all hopeful, and it’s the kind of Connor McDavid smile you have to earn, the kind he’d give at seventeen when he was excited and pretending not to be about getting mentioned on Coach’s Corner.

And Dylan is so, so stupid.

---

June goes like this:

San Jose wins the Stanley Cup. The Jays lose six in a row. Dylan finally gets his winter tires changed.

People on the radio are talking about how it’s going to be the hottest summer on record, and then a lot of stuff about global warming that Dylan half-listens to while making protein shakes and getting dressed before working out. Cardio shit’s the worst, so he does that first to get it over with.

He usually ends up at Connor’s place, after. It starts to look more like a human being actually lives there, gradually, because they spend hours assembling furniture, moving stuff around. Installing a wifi modem comes early, before Connor even picks out a kitchen table, and takes the entire day. The Bell guy asks them for a selfie, doesn’t seem fazed by how intensely uncomfortable the picture comes out.

They don’t have sex. Not even once, not even, like, third base. And whatever, it’s chill, Dylan has Brad for that stuff, but it’s also sort of giving him whiplash, spending his days switching between hooking up with the human equivalent of male rompers to putting together a shelving unit with Davo, joking around and choking down more shitty cups of black coffee than Dylan can count.

Connor stays unresponsive every time Dylan tries to talk hockey. That – hockey – is what it is, he’s pretty sure. Dylan tests it out a couple times after the cup final, brings up something that happened in Game Six, and no dice. Ever. Add hockey to the list of shit they can’t mention, apparently, along with the fact that Connor showed up at Dylan’s door and confessed his love, and that Dylan has been taking milk in his fucking coffee since he was twenty-one.

It probably says something real pathetic about Dylan that the highlight of his month is when his mom corrals everyone for family dinner. He actually has this brief moment of insanity where he considers inviting Davo, but he doesn’t feel like sitting through reminiscing about the Oilers, and that’s a decent enough excuse that he mostly believes himself.

The dining table is always crowded, now, with wives and kids and all. Dylan ends up wedged right at the corner of the table, between his sister-in-law and his mom, which he can’t help but think is intentional, given that they spend literally twenty minutes asking how his date with the dental hygienist’s son went – Dylan cancelled and didn’t reschedule – then promptly switch to asking what he’s doing next season – no fucking clue, thanks.

He’s in hell, basically. Quality time with his family is actual hell.

Ryan joins in the signing talks, because he’s genetically older-brother programmed to give Dylan shit, probably. “Sabres’re looking promising, though.”

“Ry.” Dylan juts his chin towards the potatoes at Ryan’s left. “So are the Flames.”

Ryan passes Dylan the potatoes behind his wife’s back, leaves his arm around her shoulders. “You wouldn’t actually go to Calgary.”

Syd elbows him. “He can go to Calgary if he wants, oh my god.”

“Okay, obviously, but like-”

“I’m figuring it out, okay?” Dylan cuts him off, trying to figure out where to put down the dish of potatoes on the crowded table. He wonders what age it’s acceptable to start making his nieces and nephews sit at a kids’ table.

“Gotta Jagr it,” Matt pipes up from down the table, leaning over the baby’s high chair. “Hit up the entire conference then go play in the K.”

“Jagr’s Czech, idiot,” Dylan says, cramming a forkful of potatoes in his mouth.

Matt looks confused. “Is Czech not in Russia?”

“Matthew, really,” their mom sighs, and Dylan catches Ryan’s eye, and they both lose it. Dylan almost chokes to death on a potato, he’s laughing so hard.

If his life’s a joke, he figures, at least it’s a funny one sometimes.

---

Connor passes out on the couch maybe two minutes into the movie. And sure, Dylan knows he’s usually tired after his physio appointments, but this is an impressive thing to sleep through, because the movie’s some cookie-cutter action thing, all big set pieces and explosions.

Dylan’s not sure why he’s still here. He’s got his own TV, and the movie’s been online for months, and Davo is sprawled out across three quarters of the couch, confining Dylan to a single cushion.

But he’s still here.

He hasn’t seen Connor sleep in years, since roadies and sleepovers at their billets’. And like, Dylan’s self-aware enough to know that objectively Connor looks kind of un-cute when he sleeps, because his eyebrows knit together and his mouth drifts open; but fuck if it doesn’t take Dylan back, watching him now, like this.

Connor snores, quiet. Dylan forgot he snores.

The movie. Watch the fucking movie, Strome.

The plot is all but non-existent. Something involving girls in bikinis and machine guns and the Rock, who is apparently immortal? It’s entertaining enough, though, and Dylan settles in and watches it all the way through, even enjoys it.

He jumps, startled, when Connor speaks.

“Stromer?”

“Hi,” Dylan says. “Good nap?”

He can see Davo looking around all sleepy, taking in the credits scrolling on the screen, the streetlights on outside. “I slept for the whole thing?” he asks, then when Dylan nods, “Sorry, man.”

“It’s fine,” Dylan says. “Stuff’s tiring, don’t worry about it.”

“It’s like, moving my arm around,” Connor says, and there’s something in his voice, like he’s annoyed with himself. “Never used to be tiring.”

Dylan doesn’t really know what to say to that – like, you can do it, pal!, except for he can’t, because the top half of Davo’s body is pretty much held together by metal and a prayer – but Connor doesn’t seem to need him to.

“How was the movie?” Connor asks, scratching at his beard. Dylan should’ve shaved it while he was asleep.

“Mostly shit,” Dylan says. “But the kind of shit where I’m going to watch the sequel as soon as it comes out, y’know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Connor says, and he actually cracks a smile. “You like the worst movies.”

“See, no,” Dylan shakes his head. “You like Adam Sandler movies, you have zero ground to stand on here. Negative ground.”

“Negative ground,” Connor echoes, grinning, then stretches out with a yawn. “I’m starving,” he announces; then, without missing a beat, “We could get dinner, if you want. Somewhere nice?”

It takes Dylan a second, his brain still mostly on explosions and Connor snoring. Somewhere nice, though. “Are you asking me out?” he asks, incredulous.

Connor shrugs. Walks it back, just a little, but still sounds calm as anything. “I mean, I don’t want you to think I’m just, like, using you for manual labour-”

“I don’t think that,” Dylan cuts him off. Any gaps there might’ve been in his resolve close up real fast, because ‘using you for manual labour’, like he’s offering some kind of pity date. Dylan doesn’t need Davo to buy him dinner as payment for helping with basic tasks. Sure as hell doesn’t need his pity.

“So?” Connor prompts, and Dylan doesn’t meet his eyes.

“So maybe let’s just order in,” he says.

“Oh,” Connor says. “Yeah, no, that’s- yeah.” He has the guts to sound surprised, like it never occurred to him that Dylan would do anything except swoon and jump at the chance. It’s kind of a power trip, Dylan realizes, and maybe that’s a shitty thing to feel, but hey, karma’s a bitch, McDavid. Shows him, using Dylan as some kind of safety net.

The whole thing’s resolved itself into a bitter something in Dylan’s stomach, by the time he’s back at his place. It’s like- it’s sitting there, won’t let him relax, not when he jerks off in the shower and not when he’s lying in bed trying and failing to fall asleep.

Asking him on a date, like they’re the kind of people who go on dates. Like, fuck off.

God, but Dylan forgot Connor snored, though.

He almost said yes.

He really wanted to say yes.

---

It’s always kind of a relief to start on-ice workouts again. The atmosphere’s pretty social, local guys used to seeing each other around, everyone catching up after the season. Most of them are younger than Dylan, now, but he catches Mikey and some of the old ball hockey crew on their way out, and it’s that kind of companionable that only really exists at a hockey rink.

Some of the Leafs guys are gossiping about Connor in the room, dumb speculation like it’s an episode of a TV show. Dylan stays studiously silent, pulls on his gear and doesn’t mention how they spent yesterday putting up curtains.

“I heard he died,” Whelan’s saying, toying with the straps on his mask, and Brownie rolls his eyes, looks over at Dylan like ‘can you believe this’.

“You can’t die from shoulder surgery,” Brownie says. “Stromer’d know, eh?”

It takes Dylan a second – he’s never had shoulder surgery, there’s no reason why he should be knowledgeable about it – but then it clicks. Brownie doesn’t mean he’d know about shoulder stuff. He means Dylan would know about Davo. And of course Brownie would think that, Dylan realizes, because the guy hasn’t played with either of them since juniors, still mostly remembers them as inseparable, the way they were back then.

“No,” Dylan says, like it doesn’t sting to say. “Got nothing.”

The guys don’t seem to suspect anything. Like- obviously, they don’t. No reason for Dylan to lie, really. Should’ve fucking told them Connor was hiding out twenty minutes away in, like, self-imposed exile. Make Davo face reality, quit whatever it is he’s doing.

There’re a couple of reporters standing by the glass when they finally get out to the rink. Dylan looks in the direction of the cameras, down the ice where, as he watches, someone’s weaving through pylons, stickhandling all smooth.

“Chris Chan,” Brownie says, peering over Dylan’s shoulder. And- yeah, Dylan kind of guessed, because ever since Brad mentioned Chan his name has been everywhere, a combination of the consensus first pick thing and the local boy narrative and whatever other bullshit helps bloggers get hits.

Christopher Chan looks as good as everyone says, already bigger than Dylan and twice as fast. Still a bit of baby fat on his face. The kid barely even looks at Dylan, just gives him kind of a cursory once-over when they end up taking a water break at the same time, then looks away like he’s not impressed with what he sees.

Fuckin’ first overalls.

---

The closest they get to discussing everything is when they’re putting down an area rug, on their knees in opposite corners of Connor’s living room.

“Can I ask you something?” Davo asks. Dylan doesn’t get a chance to point out that he technically just did ask something before Connor’s going on: “You don’t believe me, that I’m in love with you.” He doesn’t sound accusatory, really. Maybe curious.

“That’s not a question,” Dylan says, once he recovers from the surprise of Connor actually mentioning stuff. It’s a pretty blatant attempt at stalling for time, and Connor gets that, based on the look he gives. Dylan sighs.

“I believe you think you are,” he says, sitting back and smoothing down the edge of the rug. “I just.”

“What?” Connor asks, when Dylan doesn’t continue.

Dylan shrugs. “You’re rebounding,” he says, frank, ‘cause they’ve done a lot to each other but they don’t sugarcoat stuff. “From your fiancée, and from hockey. Maybe from fuckin’ Edmonton, I don’t know.”

“Rebounding,” Connor echoes, all skeptical, and Dylan nods.

“I’m familiar,” he says. “Not like you have a ton of experience with dudes.”

It’s kind of a shitty thing to say. Dylan gets that. Can’t quite muster up the energy to feel bad. Connor doesn’t call him out for it, anyhow, just kind of looks at the floor, then back at Dylan, and there’s something in his eyes that Dylan doesn’t want to think too hard about.

Connor does, just, the most forced little smile Dylan’s ever seen. “Thought retirement was supposed to make people nicer,” he quips, and it’s ostensibly an attempt at either a joke or passive-aggression, but it falls flat on both counts.

Dylan doesn’t call him out for it.

Doesn’t correct him about the retirement thing, either.

He realized a while ago that Connor thinks they’re both done in the league. It’s not- it isn’t the worst assumption, because Dylan’s a free agent and an old one at that, and ‘consistent’ is probably the most generous description of how he’s played the past couple seasons, but it’s clearly been good enough to get him offers, and he takes care of his body, mostly, and-

Connor thinks he’s retiring, and Dylan knows that, and Dylan hasn’t told him the truth. He’s not really sure why. Maybe it’s him being courteous or something, not wanting to be all, ‘oh, by the way, sucks that your career’s done, I’m still playing though’.

Maybe it’s a pride thing, something he can hold close to his chest. His. Dylan’s the one still here, not anyone else.

“That’d be fun,” Dylan says, noncommittal. Keeps it light. “Maybe it’d get even more people to fall in love with me. I should try it sometime.”

Connor looks torn between annoyance and laughter. “You’re so-” He starts then stops.

“What?” Dylan asks. He says it provokingly, a little bit, not quite sure what he’s hoping for, but Connor just shakes his head.

“You’re the most irritating fucking person I’ve ever met, Stromer, that’s what.” He doesn’t sound angry. Sounds affectionate, if anything, and then they’re looking right at each other and it feels like a contest, like something magnetic, like waiting to see who’s going to bitch out and look away first.

“You got shitty taste in guys, I guess,” Dylan says. Connor opens his mouth like he wants to say something, and Dylan almost leans forward, almost-

Connor shuts his mouth. He drops Dylan’s gaze and smoothes down the carpet one last time before standing up. Doesn’t try to tell Dylan he loves him again.

They’re maybe six feet apart from each other. It feels bigger.

Dylan wants-

He wants to fucking cry, sudden and sharp. And sure, that part passes pretty quick because what the fuck, who cries; but god, he feels it, sharp like a tangible thing sticking into him or maybe carving its way out. And he doesn’t know how they got here, to the place where they can have a casual conversation about Connor thinking he loves Dylan; where they can joke about it, apparently, like it’s just something they accept. Connor loves Dylan, easy peasy.

Dylan can’t joke about this. Doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to, really, not so long as it makes him want to curl in on himself or lash out or both things at once, somehow, and it’s just-

It’s hard, sometimes.

---

He doesn’t not want to believe Connor. It’s just not as easy as all that.

‘Baggage’ is a word for it, maybe, but it’s more like one of those conveyor belts of suitcases and duffel bags and bigass hiking backpacks at the airport, circling around and around ad-fucking-nauseum in Dylan’s brain.

So:

They were eighteen and fresh out of the draft, sprawled out playing ‘chel on the futon in Dylan’s parents’ basement. Dylan was wearing a Coyotes t-shirt, one of the millions of pieces of merch he’d been given, and the reddish colour wasn’t the greatest for him, but the novelty hadn’t worn off yet.

Connor was wearing one too. One of Dylan’s new Arizona shirts, even though he was playing as the Oilers. Dylan remembers that detail clear as anything.

He kind of- it wasn’t like he’d planned it out, because he wasn’t about that cheesy shit even then, but he’d known what he was going to say, waited ‘til just the right moment. He figured he’d ask, then they’d make out for a while, then go get ice cream or something.

Dylan doesn’t even remember exactly what he said, something really dumb, like, “Wanna be the boyfriend of the best fuckin’ gamer in the NHL?”

Connor laughed.

He didn’t even look away from the screen. “Yeah, right.”

It was like slow motion, the response sinking in; watching it dawn on Connor, watching the look on his face go from focused to confused to fucking horrified. “Stromer.”

“Don’t,” Dylan said, desperate, embarrassment burning in his chest and probably painted on his face. Connor had laughed. “I- like, whatever, it was a joke, don’t do that face.”

“Did you tell-”

“No,” Dylan said. First thing Connor says, did you tell someone. “No, obviously I- who would I tell?”

“I like girls,” Connor said, like Dylan didn’t even speak. The stupid tinny music from the game was still playing, some already-passé alt-rock like it was making fun of Dylan.

Everything felt magnified, a million times too detailed, humiliation twisting in his stomach. Dylan wanted to crawl out of his skin. “No one said you didn’t.”

“You don’t?” Connor demanded, and Dylan laughed, too loud and too mean.

“Figured those times you had my dick in your mouth might’ve clued you in,” he said, and Connor was staring at him like he’d never seen him before, eyes wild.

“That didn’t mean-” Connor said, then, “That’s not boyfriends.”

“So the fuck have we been doing this whole time, then?” Dylan asked, and regretted it as soon as he did, how needy it sounded, how much it opened up his guts and handed Connor a knife to twist, and then Connor fucking did.

“Fooling around!” Connor burst out. “It’s- it’s buddies, there’s no one in the league who- You’re fucking delusional if you think I’m going to risk everything for-”

For you, Dylan’s brain filled in, and it was like- oddly dispassionate, like he was watching and listening through someone else; like somewhere in between the beginning and end of Connor’s sentence something in Dylan closed off and threw away the key.

So:

Dylan was still in the AHL and Connor was still in his suit, more expensive than anything Dylan had ever been in the same room as.

“Go away,” he said, flat, and went to shut the door, but Connor blocked him.

“Talk to me,” Connor said, somewhere between ordering and asking. “Dylan, you’ve got to-”

“I don’t, actually,” Dylan cut him off. “You’re not my captain.”

“I’m your best friend,” Connor said, like this wasn’t the first time they’d been in the same city for months, like they hadn’t been radio-silent for just as long before he showed up at Dylan’s game out of nowhere, like he had any right. “You’re- Stromer, we’re best friends.” Like that meant anything.

“We’re not friends,” Dylan said. Practically spat the words out. “You laughed in my face, Connor, you’re not my-”

“Yes, I am,” Connor said, stubborn, and Dylan hated him. “I know you’re embarrassed, but I am-”

“I don’t want you to be,” Dylan said, and shoved Connor so he was just standing there in the doorway. I know you’re embarrassed, all understanding, like he had any idea how Dylan felt. Asshole. Dylan pushed him back again. “I don’t want you, thanks but no thanks, now fuck off.”

Connor shoved him back, hard, eyes flashing. “Don’t push me.”

“You don’t push me,” Dylan retorted, stupid, and they were nose to nose, and he was braced to take a punch or throw a punch or end up in the news for giving McJesus a black eye, and then Connor kissed him instead, teeth clacking up painfully against Dylan’s.

Dylan kissed him back.

They stumbled into the room and Connor’s tongue was in Dylan’s mouth, his skin flushed red-hot under Dylan’s hands. Dylan bit Connor’s lip, hard enough to make him gasp up against him.

 “You’re such a fucking coward,” Dylan said, without pulling back all the way. “You think I’m just going to- like, you think you can be straight and just do this-”

“Yeah, I do,” Connor said. It was all bravado, the kind of confidence that came with being saviour of Edmonton, people already calling him the best in the world; but Dylan knew him, right, and there was something else underneath. He was nervous, worried that Dylan would reject him and he’d have come here for nothing.

Dylan pushed Connor down onto the bed, and his mouth tasted like blood when he kissed him, and next time Connor gasped, it wasn’t ‘cause of hurt.

So:

They were on the wrong side of thirty and sitting next to each other at some bar in some city, and Dylan doesn’t remember what made them laugh, but they were laughing like things were easy.

It had been so long.

Connor’s arm was almost sort of maybe around the back of Dylan’s seat, or at least leaning there, warm against Dylan and warmer for how much they’d had to drink, and it was stupid of Dylan to hope but he had.

 “Davo,” he said, leaned in the faintest little bit, and Connor looked at Dylan’s lips, Dylan knows he did.

A table of people from the back of the restaurant started laughing, loud.

Connor pulled back.

So:

Connor showed up at Dylan’s place same as always, sucked Dylan off then let Dylan fuck him fast and mean while Dylan dragged his hands over the planes of Connor’s back. He had more lines by his eyes than the last time they saw each other. Dylan did too. Connor didn’t comment on it, just lay there catching his breath for maybe five minutes, after, then sat up and started getting dressed.

“Good luck tomorrow,” he said.

“It’s the Habs, no one needs luck,” Dylan said, already checking his phone, and he’d usually get a grin out of Connor for that, but Connor just looked at him for this long moment before he left. Dylan didn’t meet his eyes.

He saw the news about Connor and Jess getting engaged all over Twitter literally that same Friday, not even three days later. Barely even two and a half.

So it’s not that Dylan doesn’t want to believe Connor.

He just. He doesn’t. Took twenty fucking years of that shit, conveyor belt going round and round, for Dylan to get that the most permanent thing about him and Connor is that they don’t last, not as friends and sure as fuck not as anything else.

Dylan doesn’t believe him.

He doesn’t.

---

Thing is, though, Dylan hasn’t hooked up in a week and a half.

That doesn’t sound as long as it feels. Feels pretty fuckin’ long. Sex is the best way he has of getting out of his head, the best distraction he knows. Most fun one, too, and it’s not like he even has a reason for not having hooked up, but he just. Hasn’t.

It’s been building for a while, is the point, Dylan wanting to feel and not and not knowing why, and it kind of reaches a boiling point when he leaves Connor heating up leftovers downstairs and perches on the edge of the bathtub in one of the upstairs bathrooms.

hey he texts Brad. It’s mostly a reflex, fuckin’ Pavlovian, at this point.

Brad sends back a smiley face, then a mirror selfie of himself flexing, just in case Dylan was starting to think of him as not a complete parody of a human. u around?

Dylan opens up the texting app, all set to respond, and then he just. Doesn’t.

And he doesn’t even have a good reason. One second he’s about to message Brad and ask if he can come over, the next he’s sitting there listening to Davo’s terrible fucking country music floating up from downstairs and squeezing his eyes shut, feeling all of eighteen again.

He wants to turn off his phone and go downstairs, back to Davo.

And this is so, so stupid.

Brad’s objectively hotter than Connor, and he doesn’t try to do this domesticity bullshit, doesn’t make terrible coffee that Dylan feels obliged to drink. Doesn’t carry half a lifetime’s worth of history. Besides, Connor ended shit with him. Connor said they should stop having sex, it’s not- Dylan doesn’t owe him shit, he stopped being in love with Connor a long time ago.

That shouldn’t feel like a lie.

Dylan fucking hates how much it feels like a lie.

He turns off his phone, sets it down on the edge of the tub without responding to Brad.

“Fuck,” he says out loud.

And, yeah. That about sums it up.

Chapter Text

It’s a lot of shit, combined, that makes stuff go bad.

Dylan watches the draft for all of five minutes. It’s enough time for him to catch a glimpse of Chris Chan looking completely and utterly petrified, sitting next to a lady that must be his mom. Dylan pities the kid for maybe half a second before remembering he’s probably a dick, and then Connor’s calling from the other room.

“Want to watch a movie?”

And, see, Dylan knows that Connor knows that he’s watching the draft. Knows he can hear it from the kitchen. There’s a brief moment where he considers muting it so Connor’ll walk in, just to see the look on his face when he has to see something tangentially related to the sport he’s played his whole life – oh, the horror – but he doesn’t, just grabs the remote and switches over to Netflix.

“Yeah, go on,” Dylan says. Connor walks in, like, ten seconds later with popcorn and beer. It’s like chess, a little, act-react-predict, and Dylan would’ve stopped putting up with it a long time ago, except-

Except they sit there watching some shitty feel-good baseball movie, making fun of a bunch of A-listers acting like they know sports; and Connor does this spot-on impersonation of the main actress that makes Dylan snort beer out of his nose, he laughs so hard.

That part’s not chess. That part’s easy as breathing.

The movie ends and Dylan plays another one at random, knows he made the right call when Connor stares down like he’s trying to hide a smile. It’s nice, the AC keeping the worst of the humidity at bay, and Dylan sinks back into the couch, feels the soreness from training draining out of him with the combination of beer and movies and Davo.

Dylan’s eyes have been heavy since maybe halfway through the second movie, so maybe that’s why it takes him a while to notice Connor drifting off, ‘cause he’s doing the same. Their arms brush, and then stay touching, and it’s this lazy, companionable thing.

It’d be easier than anything to lean over and kiss Connor, to get a hand on the skin where his t-shirt’s riding up. That’s what does it, that stupid little bit of Connor’s stomach peeking out, like once Dylan notices it it’s all he can notice, and all at once the past is around him so thick he’s going to choke on it. Like, movies and beer and a little bit of skin and that’s all it takes for Dylan to be sixteen again, awake at a sleepover and debating the logistics of kissing his liney.

Dylan makes himself stand up, forgetting to be gentle about it, and hears Davo startle at the movement. He’s blinking up at Dylan, tinted blue in the light from the TV.

“Stromer?”

“Go back to sleep,” Dylan says, hoping it’s dark enough to hide whatever his face is doing.

“I wasn’t asleep,” Connor mumbles through a yawn, rubbing his shoulder like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. “There’s beds. You could stay.”

Dylan shakes his head, fishes in his pocket for his car keys and clings to them like a talisman. “It’s fine,” he says; then, because Connor’s staring up at him all sleepy and Dylan’s stomach is in knots, “Thanks for the popcorn, Davo.” It comes out, just. So fucking soft. Idiot.

“Sure,” Connor says, already most of the way to passing out. He’s going to be sore in the morning if he sleeps sitting on the couch like this.

Dylan books it out of the house. Not his problem.

It’s not.

---

It’s a pattern, same as the whole summer’s been: wake up, work out, let his agent’s calls go to voicemail, tag along for whatever home improvement thing Davo’s working on. It’s making Dylan antsy, all pent-up something waiting to come out.

It’s a relief, a little, when he gets roped into helping his parents get ready to head up for the cottage. Like- a distraction, if nothing else, loading up the van with his dad while his mom fills up boxes like she’s prepping for the apocalypse instead of driving three hours up north. It’s familiar, same routine as they’ve had for as long as Dylan can remember.

He holds the door open with his foot so his dad can carry another box into the garage. “Watch the step.”

“I know, I know.”

Dylan shoulders the black garbage bag full of bedding he’s holding, trails his dad to the car. “Hey, you sure you guys’ll have enough pillowcases?”

His dad snorts a laugh, elbows Dylan good-naturedly enough. “You’re a comedian now, eh?”

“I try,” Dylan quips, cramming the bedding bag into the, like, 5 centimetres of free space in the trunk.

His dad watches him do it, shuts the trunk once everything’s in place. Dylan brushes his hands off on his shorts, ignores his dad staring until he can’t.

“What?” Dylan asks. Maybe a little more defensive than he has to.

“You’re in your head,” his dad says. Like Dylan’s a kid slacking off before a test.

Dylan raises an eyebrow. “Packing stuff isn’t super engaging, I guess?”

“Not just today,” his dad says, and just when Dylan’s about to ask if mom put him up to this: “Your mom was saying how she met this nice girl at the grocery store, if you want to try women again.”

Dylan laughs, after this dead silent pause, but his dad’s not joking and it doesn’t feel funny. Age seventeen, he came out to them, and still this. It’s like a sour taste in his mouth. “I don’t want a girlfriend, dad.”

His dad holds his hands up, like ‘sue me’, like the last dozen times they had a conversation just like this one. “I’m just saying, the gay thing clearly isn’t working out-”

“Dad!” Dylan cuts him off, incredulous. “Seriously?”

“What?” his dad asks, and he’s genuinely fucking clueless. And there’s nothing for Dylan to say here, really, because he’s said it all and it clearly hasn’t done a fucking thing.

His dad claps him on the back, and it’s everything Dylan can do not to flinch away. “You know your mom and I are in your corner.”

“Wrong sport,” Dylan says, and his dad keeps going like he didn’t even talk.

“We just worry about you. We want you to have something meaningful in your life.”

We want you to give us grandkids and stop being a fucking loner, Dylan translates; so, just, fuck a decades-long NHL career, then.

Dylan doesn’t bother arguing. It’s pointless, same as it’s always been. Same as everything he’s ever done, apparently.

God, he’s so fucking tired.

---

The point is: shit piles up, the draft and his family and all the not talking him and Connor are doing, so Dylan’s already in a foul mood by the time it reaches a tipping point. And it’s, like, objectively a really stupid tipping point, a nothing, completely irrelevant thing.

They’re in the basement, three cups of coffee into attempting to assemble a foosball table while Dylan tries to puzzle through an unnecessarily complicated instruction manual.

“Is there a double screw anywhere?” he asks, and Connor looks around, moves one of the little plastic soccer players out of the way.

“Uh. Probably?”

Dylan sighs. Doesn’t make a joke about screwing, ‘cause he’s had enough awkward silences to last a lifetime.

“So I was thinking, do you think shelves under the TV would look good, after this?” Connor asks, conversational.

Dylan shrugs. “It’s your house,” he says, and grabs at his mug of coffee-slash-black sludge for something to do with his hands.

“I mean, yeah, but-”

Dylan’s whole heartbeat hinges on that ‘but’, in the most pathetic way possible. Three fucking letters and it feels like getting punched, like there’s any ‘but’ to this place being Connor’s and only Connor’s. And he could maybe let it go, except Connor looks right at him as he says it, and Dylan flinches away, and his coffee sloshes out of the mug and all over his shirt.

“Shit,” he says, watching the stain spread. It’s not like he even wanted to drink it, like, at all, but just- they both know why he spilled it, and Dylan can feel his cheeks hot and humiliated. Then, once that registers, he’s just mostly pissed, because what the fuck, Connor’s the one implying shit that he shouldn’t be, he’s the one who should be embarrassed here.

And it’s such a stupid thing to be a tipping point, but it is.

“I think there’s still some in the pot,” Connor says, leaning on the wall to stand up. “I can-”

“No,” Dylan interrupts, sponging at his shirt as if that’s going to do anything. “No, just. Leave it.”

“It takes two seconds,” Connor insists, and Dylan shakes his head, irritated.

“It’s fine-”

Connor’s talking almost before he’s done. “Honestly, I-”

“Connor, will you just-”

“Can you let me-”

“It’s shitty coffee, Davo!” Dylan bursts out without even planning to, and it echoes across the basement, and then they’re standing there in the remains of a disembodied foosball table, staring at each other.

Absurdly, ridiculously, Connor looks betrayed. “It’s the way you always take it.”

“It’s not,” Dylan says, and Connor frowns.

“What do you mean it’s not?”

“I mean it’s fucking not, I’m pretty sure that’s English,” Dylan snaps, and he knows he’s not imagining the flash of annoyance in Connor’s eyes, the furthest thing from pleasant and the closest thing to real Dylan’s seen from him in weeks.

“Dylan,” Connor says, all chastising, and the past days and weeks and months are boiling under Dylan’s skin like something dangerous, then something in him just goes fuck it.

“So I’m not retiring,” he says, relishing the look it puts on Connor’s face. “I’ve got two different offers. Buffalo and Calgary want me.”

Connor looks surprised. Like, his eyebrows go flying up, his mouth opens, the whole thing. And Dylan knows Connor’s better than him, ‘cause Connor’s better than literally everyone, but Connor knows it too, is what this means, and Connor wrote him off like everyone else, and it’s almost vindicating, because Dylan fucking knew it. He knew it was bullshit for Connor to jump from being engaged to a girl to hey, let’s be in cheesy gay love; and it was bullshit to act like they were okay all along, all buddy-buddy; and this whole thing is just. Bullshit.

Connor’s still looking at Dylan like he’s blindsided. “That’s- unexpected,” he says.

Dylan scoffs – unexpected, what an asshole – and shakes his head. “I bet,” he says, and it comes out real ugly, but he doesn’t stay to see Connor’s reaction, just grabs his mug and heads upstairs.

He dumps out the dregs of his coffee into the sink, runs the water for maybe two seconds in a half-assed attempt at rinsing it out. He rips off a few sheets of paper towel, wet hands, and sponges at the coffee that’s all down his front.

There’s something he’s supposed to do for coffee stains. Baking soda? Whatever it is, he doesn’t get a chance to remember it, because the floor creaks and he knows without looking that Connor’s standing there.

He’s waiting for Dylan to talk, probably, but Dylan doesn’t, just tosses his paper towel wad in the trash and ignores him. This is a stupid argument to have. This whole thing is stupid.

Connor sighs. “I wasn’t trying to be condescending,” he says in this placating voice. “It’s good that you have options.”

Dylan fixes him with a Look. Keeps distance between them. “Don’t strain yourself, Davo.”

Connor holds his gaze, frowning. “Will you stop thinking the worst of me, just one time?” he asks, like Dylan’s being unreasonable. “I’m trying-”

“I don’t need you to try.” Dylan cuts him off, flat. “I’m- I have contracts, I’m fucking this guy Brad, my stuff is fine.”

Connor’s face does something complicated at the Brad thing – ha– and a muscle leaps in his jaw. “Of course it is.”

“What does that mean?” Dylan demands, something twisting in his gut. “I’m the one still in the league, out of all of us. I did that, not you-”

Connor rolls his eyes, hard. “Lasting longer than Connor McDavid, really nice achievement, man-”

“Jesus Christ,” Dylan gapes at him. “Get off your fucking pedestal for ten seconds, Connor, not everything is about you.”

You made it about me,” Connor snaps, and then he bites his lip. The next time he talks, a second later, he’s back to sounding calm, almost monotone. He shuts down when he’s mad, always has. Never fucking feels anything. “It’s- what, a tryout with the Sabres? Why would I make it an issue?”

Dylan’s blood boils at the way he says it, Sabres, dismissive and arrogant and something else, too, underneath.

“You’re so transparent,” he realizes, putting the pieces together. “You’re jealous.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Connor scoffs, and Dylan can tell he’s hit a nerve.

He laughs, mean. “You are,” he says, going for that nerve for all he’s worth. “You’re pissed that I have offers and you don’t-”

“You think I don’t have offers?” Connor interrupts, ‘cause god forbid Dylan wounds his pride. “You think I couldn’t walk into any front office in the league-”

“So do it then!” Dylan snaps, fast and loud so it echoes in the too-big kitchen. “Fuck off back to Edmonton and find another model to be your beard and go back to your midlife crisis bullshit-”

“Fuck you, Dylan,” Connor says. His voice is ice cold, his face utterly blank, like Dylan crossed some new line that he hadn’t with the jealousy thing. Good. Fucking good. “Fuck you.”

Connor goes to stalk past him, only Dylan’s standing in his path and doesn’t move, just kind of bumps him. “I mean, you could, if you weren’t such a fucking closet case-”

That one does it. Dylan sort of thought it would.

Connor’s eyes flash and he brushes past Dylan, forceful enough to almost knock him off balance, only Connor maybe takes the worst of it himself because he pushes with his right side and ends up wincing, clutching at his shoulder with a gasp.

Dylan’s hands reach out to steady him, automatic. “Careful,” he says, before he remembers they’re fighting, but it doesn’t end up mattering because Connor jerks back before Dylan can touch him, glaring.

“Don’t,” Connor says. He’s breathing heavy, pain or anger or something in between. It sounds like someone’s tearing the words out of him. “Don’t talk to me, you-”

He breaks off, ragged.

There’s this second where they’re just staring, Connor holding his side and Dylan standing there digging his nails into his palms, and Dylan feels like he’s looking at a stranger, except a stranger wouldn’t or couldn’t look at him like he hates him this much.

Connor leaves. Just turns around and storms out, and Dylan’s left standing there itching for a fight.

“You live here, genius,” he yells after Connor.

The front door slams.

Good, Dylan thinks again, only it doesn’t manage to sound as convincing this time, because he’s standing alone in Connor’s kitchen like an idiot. There’s a split second where he contemplates waiting – to, what, yell at each other more when Connor gets back? – but that’s a level of pathetic that he doesn’t want to be, so Dylan just goes. It’s anticlimactic as anything, just shutting the door behind him and heading to his car.

His hands are shaking on the steering wheel, and it takes him a couple of tries to get his key in the ignition. The radio comes back on as soon as he starts the car, shattering the silence, and it grinds on every nerve Dylan has.

“Shut up,” he says out loud, slamming on the power button, then just kind of hitting the dashboard, annoyance and anger and everything boiling over.

His shirt reeks of coffee.

Fucking Connor McDavid. Fucking McDavid.

Dylan’s taking out his phone without even realizing it, scrolling down his contacts until he finds Brad’s name. Hey i’ll be at my place in 10 if you want to come over, he sends; then tosses his phone onto the passenger seat and puts the car in reverse, pulling out.

He gets back to his place entirely on autopilot. Like- he couldn’t even describe if there was traffic or anything, is hardly even aware of signalling to turn left or change lanes or stuff, he’s seeing that much red. And that expression has always been kind of stupid, he thought, but- yeah, no, Dylan gets it now, because it’s like a haze over everything, like he’s been waiting for shit to hit the fan since the second that Connor showed up and now it has and Dylan doesn’t know if that feels good or shitty or something in between.

He brakes hard once he’s parked, checks his phone as he makes his way into the kitchen at his place. He means to – fuck, he doesn’t know, get a drink or something – but he gets distracted standing by the counter, because it says his text to Brad was read, but there’s no answer.

Dylan sends a bunch of question marks. He needs to get this out of his system, whatever ‘this’ is; needs to not think.

Brad doesn’t answer. Of course, he doesn’t answer, because Dylan hasn’t answered any of his texts for a literal month, because he was too busy hanging around in the suburbs with Connor Fucking McDavid, and now he doesn’t even have his idiot fuckbuddy to show for it.

He doesn’t have shit, doesn’t know what to do with the anger burning a hole in his chest. He wants- he wants to be drunk, or high, or anything not to have to think about this, and that’s the kicker, is that he can’t even do that because he’s got to be responsible and ready for the season; ready to move to his sixth city and put on a jersey and bust his ass at camp for a team that might decide to not even play him, ‘cause he’s that close to his fucking expiry date, maybe already past it.

Dylan wheels around and throws his phone at the wall, hard; then the first thing he grabs from the sink too, a glass that hits off the corner of a cabinet and shatters, loud, and then he’s standing there, chest heaving.

The place is silent.

Dylan needs-

The glass, he has to clean up the glass.

He crosses the kitchen, crouches down to sweep up the pieces and teeters off balance; tries to steady himself and ends up leaning all his weight on the hand that lands on top of shards of broken glass.

Dylan hisses out a breath at the sting and yanks his hand back. It’s all bloody, little bits of glass sparkling in the light, and he flinches when he picks one of the bigger pieces out, and then things are blurry, a little, because his eyes are burning with tears, and Connor definitely isn’t crying on the floor, right now, but Dylan’s never been him, has he, has never been fucking close.

He’s so stupid.

His next breath comes out as this sawed-off sob, and he wipes his hand on his jeans, tries to focus on looking around for his phone without really seeing. He can’t think, but it’s probably broken, he needs-

He needs-

He can’t fucking think. Can barely even breathe, for how tight his chest is. His hand is bleeding and he’s on his knees on his kitchen floor and god, Dylan fucking hates this house, empty and quiet and making his thoughts echo.

He needs to not be here, right now.

---

Auston fucking Matthews is the one to get the door, because of course he is, because the universe hates Dylan.

He’s mid-yawn when he does, plaid pajama pants and eyes all squinty. “It’s like, three in the morning and now the kids’re aw-” Auston starts, and then blinks a couple of times, like he’s taking in Dylan standing there with bloody jeans and red eyes and probably looking like death warmed over. “Are you on something?”

Dylan shakes his head, knows he sounds like shit when he asks, “Can I sleep on the couch?”

Auston looks wary, and Dylan gets it. “Wha-”

“Please,” Dylan interrupts, and his voice breaks, and it might be that or it might just be because he sounds desperate even to himself, but Auston doesn’t even hesitate, just opens the door wide and ushers Dylan in.

“Just sit down, okay?” he says, once they’re in the living room, lifting a stuffed polar bear out of the way so Dylan can sit. “Are you-”

“I’m fine,” Dylan says. Dylan lies. He just wants to go to bed, thinks feeling this bad is the kind of thing he should’ve outgrown. He can’t- he can’t think properly, doesn’t even know what he’s saying. “Sorry. And for saying mean shit about your forehead behind your back, sorry-”

“It’s okay,” Auston cuts in, firm, and puts one big hand on Dylan’s shoulder, reassuring. Doesn’t even call him out for the forehead thing. And it’s that little gesture, for some reason, that puts a lump in Dylan’s throat more than anything before. The look on his face must really be something, if Auston is being this nice to him.

“I’m just gonna,” Dylan says, then kind of curls up on his side facing the back of the couch, breathes in the fabric smell and tries to make his brain be quiet. His breaths are still coming all short, and he digs his nails into his palms so he won’t shake.

He’s exhausted, not like after a workout or even a game, not even close. Just. Worn down, right to the bone.

Auston must get Marns at some point, because Dylan’s vaguely aware of the two of them talking quietly somewhere in the background, then of someone tossing a blanket over him, and his hand is throbbing, and then – about fucking time, finally, finally – he’s asleep.

---

Dylan never really remembers his dreams. Barely even gets what’s going on when they’re happening, and this one is no exception. It’s something involving Alexander Ovechkin’s head on his grandma’s body yelling at him to shoot the puck, which is perhaps metaphorically rich but also a few hundred light years short of the Lion King-style, ‘remember who you are’ moment that Dylan could use right now. It doesn’t end up mattering, really, because he gets yanked out of his dream when something jumps on him.

Like, literally jumps full force right onto his stomach so that Dylan wakes up gasping for air, feeling like he just got punched, only to see a face with one front tooth leaning over him like one of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

“Uncle Dylan!” Maya says, cheery. “Did you come to hang out with us?”

“Whuh,” Dylan says, still half-asleep and mostly unable to breathe. It comes out as more of a grunt than anything else, and there’s a moment where he’s just confused, because he’s not at his place and not at Davo’s, and then everything from yesterday comes back and he squeezes his eyes shut, wishes he could go back to being oblivious.

They haven’t fought that bad in a long time.

“Your face looks so weird when you sleep,” Maya’s saying, conversational. “Your mouth was like-” She makes a face, lolling her tongue out.

Dylan can’t even muster up the energy to be insulted. It’s too early for the existence of children in general, and he still feels sort of like he got hit by a truck, like, on an emotional level. He nudges Maya off of his stomach. “What time’s it?”

“Seven oh-two.”

Of course it is.

He feels like in movies, after an explosion, ears ringing and everything quiet and slow motion; because he’s sitting here having a conversation with a six year old as if everything’s normal and good when it’s the exact opposite.

Dylan reaches up to rub at his eyes, then has to do a double take when he looks at his hand – the worst of the cuts are covered with band-aids. Blue ones, patterned with a bunch of little maple leaves. He looks around the room, then, takes in the pillow and crumpled blankets in the armchair across the room that weren’t there before, like someone slept there.

His stomach sinks.

It was a bad idea, showing up how he did.

“You’re gonna eat breakfast with me, ‘kay?” Maya orders, tugging at Dylan’s sleeve.

“Not hungry,” he says. It’s kind of a lie, but he can’t do the fun Uncle Dylan thing, today, just wants to curl up and go back to sleep and not face anything.

“It’s the most important meal of the day though, c’mon c’mon-”

“Please go away,” Dylan pleads, but Maya looks at him all big eyes and Dylan can’t deal with making a little girl upset after everything so he just bites his tongue, lets the kid grab his hand and tug him into the kitchen.

Marns is standing there in a t-shirt and boxers, watching the coffeepot boil, but he looks over his shoulder when the two of them enter the room.

“Morning,” he says, and gets an arm around Maya when she promptly abandons Dylan and goes to hug Mitch around the waist. “Hey, mousey.”

Dylan mumbles a hello; then, once the two of them are chatting to each other, slinks over to the pantry and fixes himself a bowl of honey nut cheerios. He takes the long way over to the kitchen table so he won’t have to make eye contact with Marns – shouldn’t bother, maybe, because Mitch is acting all normal, joking around with his daughter and humming under his breath while he grabs a couple mugs from the cupboard.

He peers over at Dylan, yawning. “Dyl?”

Dylan shakes his head, and Mitch goes back to his humming, pouring out the coffee and bumping Maya with his hip to get at the drawer with the spoons, grinning when she laughs and checks him back, full force. The whole routine’s domestic enough to make Dylan’s chest ache.

Marns hands one of the mugs to her, real careful. “Bring this up for dad, buddy?” he asks. “Don’t spill, ‘kay? It’s hot.”

“I won’t,” Maya promises, all serious, and she heads towards the stairs at a snail’s pace, holding the mug in both hands.

Dylan, absurdly, wants to beg her to stay, if only because he knows that Marns won’t make him discuss stuff while she’s here. He doesn’t beg, though, just eats his cheerios and watches kind of warily while Mitch comes and sits down across from him.

“There’s milk if you want it,” Mitch offers, after a second. “For the cereal.”

“It’s okay,” Dylan says.

Mitch leans on the table, chin in his hands. “How’s your hand?” He sounds like he’s being careful, too consciously keeping his voice light.

Dylan shrugs. Picks at the corner of a band-aid with his thumb. “Cuts weren’t deep.”

“That’s good,” Mitch says, then, “Matts was pretty worried.” He says it in this dumb fake-casual voice that’d maybe work if he didn’t wear his heart on his- not even on his sleeve, tattooed on his fucking face; if he didn’t literally sleep in an armchair to make sure Dylan was okay.

Dylan’s really fucking embarrassed. Mad at himself, too, for showing up how he did, because obviously Marns was going to react like this, care too much and make Dylan shrink under the weight of it.

“Sorry,” he says, not meeting Mitch’s eyes.

Mitch is shaking his head before Dylan’s even done talking. “Don’t say sorry, man,” he says, and it’s kind but maybe a little pitying, as well, and Dylan doesn’t even know who he’s mad at, anymore.

“Can you be more annoyed with me, please?” Dylan asks, and there’s an edge in his voice, something sharp, and he leaves it there. “I woke everyone up at three in the morning because I was having a tantrum, tell me to grow up or something.”

Mitch snorts. “Seriously? Me, I’m going to tell someone to grow up?”

Dylan puts down his spoon, and it clangs loud and metallic on the table. “I don’t know,” he says, fed up. “Maybe. Why not you? You’re doing it right, fuckin’- that’s something.”

“Doing it right,” Mitch echoes, somewhere between bemused and taken aback. “What does that mean?”

“Oh, come on,” Dylan snaps. “The kids thing and all, you’re like- you and Matthews and the perfect little family, and you do all the You Can Play stuff, like, checking all the boxes. You’re a fucking straight person’s wet dream of what gay people’re like.”

It’s been ages since he’s said anything intentionally mean to Marns. Since they were kids who hated each other, practically. It feels good for about two seconds before Dylan promptly feels like shit.

He kind of forgot the look that Mitch gets when he’s pissed. It’s like- bullish. A little scary.

“Me and Matthews,” Mitch echoes, slow and deliberate, “had kids because we both always wanted kids. And You Can Play is a nice thing to do, and you know both those things, Dylan, so maybe don’t project your own shit into lashing out about me not being gay enough, or whatever that just was.”

And-

Yeah, Dylan doesn’t really have a comeback, here.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, staring down at his cereal, all the fight out of him like it was never really there.

“It’s alright,” Mitch says, and Dylan knows he means it, he’s forgiven. It doesn’t make him feel much better. “Want to tell me what this is actually about?” And he sounds like such a parent that Dylan wants to chirp him for it, but he opens his mouth and the truth falls out instead, hoarse and mostly without his permission.

“I fought with Davo.”

“How come?” Mitch asks, and Dylan shrugs.

“’Cause he’s an asshole.”

“How come actually?” Mitch asks without missing a beat, and Dylan sighs. Briefly considers lying. Doesn’t.

“He said he’s in love with me.” It comes out quieter than he means it to, and maybe a little incomplete, but that’s- that’s what it is, really, because Connor told him months ago and maybe he’s leaving some parts out, but the coffee and the contracts and everything in between, everything this summer, really, comes down to Connor McDavid thinking he’s in love with him and Dylan not knowing what the fuck to do with it.

“And you don’t want him to be?”

“It’s not that simple,” Dylan says. “He can’t just- like, he hasn’t even acknowledged everything that happened before.”

“Have you?” Mitch asks, and Dylan opens his mouth to respond then clamps it shut when he realizes he wandered into a trap.

Fucking Mitch Marner.

“If you don’t want him, you should just-”

“That’s not it,” Dylan cuts Mitch off. “Of course I- it’s not that simple, Marns.” He repeats himself, helpless, and Mitch frowns.

“It’s not because of Brad-”

No, it’s not because of-” Dylan breaks off, can’t decide if he wants to laugh or cry. Fucking Brad, ruining his life without even being here. “This doesn’t happen for me, okay?” He grabs at his spoon for something to do with his hands, taps on the metal and tries to find words. “Everyone I’ve played with has kids and a wife or a husband or whatever, and everyone acts like that’s the point of everything and it’s just another thing for me to be shit at, but like- it’s fine, whatever, only now Davo wants- what, to love me?” He laughs, humourless.

“I mean, apparently, yeah,” Mitch says, like it’s easy, and Dylan’s shaking his head before he’s done talking, because he doesn’t get it.

“It never- relationship stuff doesn’t work out for me, Marns, there’s no point.” He pushes his cereal around the bowl. “I’m bad at loving stuff, I’d screw it up anyways.”

“Bad at loving stuff,” Mitch repeats, flat, and looks at Dylan real hard. “No offense, Stromer,” he says. “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I don’t think ‘stupidest’ is a word,” Dylan mumbles, and Mitch fuckin’ steamrolls right through the attempt at deflecting.

“Dude,” Mitch says, “You have people who love you, including everyone in this house.” Dylan wants to correct him, because he’s not sure he and Auston have love as much as the begrudging kind of tolerance that comes with years of forced proximity and mutual affection for Mitchell Marner, but Mitch is on a roll.

“Matt and Ry, your parents. A zillion teammates. Two teams, in the literal National Hockey League, who want you to play for them, because you help teams win.” He puts his hand on Dylan’s, all earnest, and Dylan wants to give him so much shit for being that affectionate, but he also doesn’t pull away. “You have good things, things you love, and you haven’t screwed any of them up. Why would the Davo thing be the exception?”

“He thinks he’s in love with me, Marns,” Dylan repeats, desperate. “That can’t possibly- I’m going to ruin it.”

And he knows how it sounds, like he’s being down on himself and exaggerating, but the bad at loving people thing – it’s not Dylan being down, not even dread, anymore. It’s just fact, the honest-to-god truth. He’s almost forty and he’s never had a real grown-up monogamous relationship, ghosted guys or stopped seeing them when they tried to nudge him close.

He wants to blame Connor, for that.

Probably can’t.

“Yeah, if you decide to go out and ruin it, sure,” Mitch says, undeterred. “Maybe people can decide to love each other sometimes, though.” He squeezes Dylan’s hand. “Even you, you mopey-”

Dylan pulls his hand back so he can swipe at his nose; can’t help but do this weird choked kind of laugh, even though nothing’s funny. His voice comes out all thick. “You’re incredibly fucking annoying, you know that?”

“It’s a gift,” Mitch says, tilting his head, humble. He looks straight at Dylan. “You need to talk to him.”

“Later,” Dylan says, and for once, Mitch doesn’t push it, just steals a cheerio from Dylan’s bowl and crunches it between his teeth.

“You coming to Maya’s game with us?”

Dylan stares at him, blank.

“Yeah, you are,” Mitch decides. Then, “I need milk with these, you can’t eat cereal plain.” He leaves Dylan to it, claps him on the back on his way to the fridge. Goes back to humming again, too.

Dylan stares at his cereal.

He gets what Mitch is doing, trying to drag him kicking and screaming into feeling better. And like, Dylan appreciates it, and he’s not not feeling better – he couldn’t have really felt worse – but. He doesn’t think this is the kind of thing that gets fixed over breakfast. He doesn’t know what kind of thing it is at all.

He meant what he said, about being scared to ruin things with Connor. And Dylan doesn’t get scared, really, but that- that does it. He doesn’t know what’s scarier, the thought that last night ruined things or the thought that maybe it didn’t.

He doesn’t want to have ruined things.

He really, really doesn’t want that.

Dylan breathes out, rests his forehead on the cool tabletop. He sits there and watches Marns hunting for scissors for a new bag of milk, listens to birds chirping outside.

The kitchen’s this comfortable kind of messy, toys everywhere and dishes piled in the sink. Lived in, his mom would say. A home. It’s safe, is what stands out to Dylan, on a morning like this. He could hide here and not get shit for not having a family, for falling short of every expectation anyone’s had for him.

He thinks of Connor, then, by himself in one of the kitchens in his giant house, buying curtains and shelves like they’ll magically make things okay; he thinks of the kitchen back at his own place, sublet for most of the year, a pile of broken glass where he left it on the floor.

God, Dylan wants to go home. He doesn’t know where or what the fuck that is, at this point, but- he wants to go home.

---

So:

Dylan’s always been in love with Connor McDavid, is the nice version of the story; and the pathetic version is that he’s hated him and been so jealous of him that he wanted to throw up and still has the screenshots of the infrequent, blurry snapchats that were the only way they really spoke for Connor’s first couple years in the league; and the true version is all of the above.

He doesn’t even know what being in love with someone is meant to feel like, really. Has got to imagine that this is it, because he’s never had anything close with anyone else, has never known someone like he knows Connor. More than half Dylan’s life, there’s been hockey and there’s been his brothers and Marns and then there’s been Connor, wanting Connor and not having enough of him and getting each other like Dylan’s never gotten anyone in his life, and that’s it, that’s what he knows.

He borrows non-bloody pants and tags along to Maya’s soccer game, folding himself into the backseat next to the mesh bag of soccer balls and netting and listening to the guys chattering with the kids. And, like, it’s little girls’ house league soccer, not exactly playoff hockey, but Dylan finds himself getting into the game all the same. Even high fives Auston and Noah when Maya’s team scores.

It’s real bright out. Midsummer sun beating down. Dylan’s nose ends up sunburnt and bright red.

Maybe people can decide to love each other, Mitch said.

Dylan buys a broom on the way back to his place. Sweeps up the broken glass.

---

He naps for literally ten hours – is it still a nap if it’s ten hours? – once he’s home, wakes up with his pillowcase sticking to his face and his mouth completely fucking rank. He responds with a middle finger emoji to Marns’ text checking up on him and gets the same thing back; feels better once he gets at some Listerine and even catches his eye in the mirror, staring for a second before looking down to spit.

Dylan dumps a bunch of fruit into his blender, a couple scoops of protein powder, and watches it get spun around to pinkish mush.

He’s still mad. At Connor, partly, for twenty years’ worth of back-and-forth; but also at himself, for letting it get this bad, exploding and torching everything like he did. They both knew shit wasn’t sustainable, the way it was, and they kept it going anyways.

It’s classic Connor, in a way. Trying to control everything, shape things into being okay by sheer force of will. Dylan knows that’s what he’s always done, on teams and with personal stuff, and he knows that it usually works, because he knows Connor.

That’s maybe the problem, Dylan thinks. Knowing someone so well and for so long that you skip over actually seeing all the stuff you don’t know. Like fill in the blanks, and it’s never occurred to Dylan that he might’ve been filling them in wrong, but.

Maybe.

Maybe people can decide to love each other.

And Dylan’s still mad, but he’s also just- there’s a hole right through his middle, it feels like. Like dealing with family shit and league politics and everyone’s idea of what he’s supposed to do has been scooping out little pieces of him and he’s just now getting how carved-out he is.

He’s really, really sick of feeling like that.

He pours out his shake and chugs half of it in one shot. Probably could’ve used more milk – it’s grainy.

He’s happy when he’s playing hockey. Happy when he sees his brothers.

Happy when he has Connor next to him, those times when Dylan forgets all the shit they’ve done to each other and just hangs out with this guy he really, genuinely just likes as a human, boring and kind of bitchy and into country music and all. Not Connor McDavid, hockey Jesus. Just. Davo.

Took them maybe five minutes to become best friends, the first time they met. Young and stupid, and maybe the young part has changed, but the stupid is-

Dylan laughs, small, then blinks, surprised at himself.

The stupid is debatable, probably.

He’s still kind of pissed. Maybe more than kind of.

Dylan leans on the counter, stares out the window and tries to guess what time it is from the light outside. Just breathes, in and out.

And he decides.

---

Dylan got his phone screen fixed a couple of days ago, but he doesn’t text ahead of time. He’s not sure what he’d say, which is- that’s something he should figure out, probably, because Connor’s opening the door right now, this second, and they’re face to face.

Dylan wants to run away, like, flat-out-sprint out of this entire situation. He doesn’t, and he doesn’t insult Connor’s beard either, which is probably as good as it’s going to get.

“Hi,” he says.

Connor looks as stiff as Dylan’s ever seen him, standing way far back in the entrance. “Hi,” he says, after what is definitely at least a million years.

Dylan shoves his hands in his pockets. “Go for a drive with me,” he requests, and Connor hesitates. “Please.”

Connor looks at him, wary or weary or both. “Fine,” he says. “Okay.”

He gets his shoes.

The car ride is quiet, just the radio DJ talking in the background, taking them from one song to another. It’s a short drive – Dylan takes them to this little foresty area, gardens with a walking path, one of a million little parks in the city. There’s no one else in the parking lot, this time on a weekday.

Neutral territory, is Dylan’s logic.

The silence feels bigger, without the radio or the engine. Dylan fills it. “This is the part where we don’t talk for like a year.”

Connor does this sound that’s not a laugh, but is maybe close. He goes back to serious too quickly. “I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“Me neither.” Dylan says, and then neither of them says anything else, stubbornness or nervousness or just because they’re them. Like fuck is Dylan going to be the first one to admit he messed up, is his first thought; followed up immediately by the realization that that’s maybe kind of their problem. But- ugh.

“Fuck, this is hard,” Dylan says, dragging a hand through his hair. He wants to crawl out of his own skin, because he doesn’t think they’ve ever actually apologized to each other and it’s kind of awful, so far.

Connor goes first, eventually. There’s a joke there, somewhere.

“You were right,” he says, and their eyes meet, and it’s not quite I’m sorry, but it’s as close as they’ve ever gotten. “I was being a dick about you signing. And your boyfriend.”

“Brad’s not my boyfriend,” Dylan says, fast. “Like, never was, never will be.” Then, and this part’s harder to get out, “I was- it wasn’t just you, being a dick. I said some dumb stuff. I know you just ended shit with Jess, I shouldn’t have brought that up.”

“I wasn’t in love with Jess,” Connor says.

“Fine,” Dylan says, and he’s genuinely not trying to sound dismissive, but there must be something in his voice because Connor pushes, holding his gaze.

“I’m gay, Dylan. I told you it’s not new. You don’t have to believe the in love with you thing, but just- believe this one, please.”

Dylan’s the one to look away first. “Why’d you propose to her?” he asks.

Connor shrugs, small. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

And that’s just the least satisfactory answer for anything ever; and it takes a concerted effort for Dylan to respond without being an asshole. You’re supposed to do a lot of shit, flossing every day or wearing sunscreen every time you go out. Doesn’t mean people actually do it. “I don’t get it,” he says. “Like- sorry, but I don’t get that.”

“I know you don’t,” Connor says, like maybe he’s trying hard not to be an asshole as well. He exhales, looks at Dylan kind of helpless. “There’d never been anyone in the league, when you asked me to date you.”

“That was then,” Dylan says. “There’ve been out players for years. Mitchy-”

“What did that change?” Connor asks, blunt, and Dylan doesn’t have an answer for that, really. “It’s not- it’s not some magic fix-it for everything before, having like, three out guys in the whole sport. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s not.”

He’s right – it’s not what Dylan wants to hear, because it’s not an excuse he can even argue. Because sure, things are different, but being a gay hockey player is still a thing; maybe more with guys their age or some fans or management than younger teammates and the public in general, but- fuck, that’s enough people who’re big fat maybes to give anyone pause. Dylan grew up in this sport, he knows its ugly side.

“Not everyone’s a dick about it,” he points out anyways, because he’s been mostly out for years, and he’s still here.

“You know how the press is, with me,” Connor says. And yeah, Dylan does, because Connor’s everywhere, face of the national team and the league and every poster on every kid’s bedroom wall. He’s been everywhere, since he was a fucking kid getting profiled in local papers. Eyes on him, all the time, and Dylan gets that that’s hard, he does, but it’s not fair, that everything comes down to that.

“I wouldn’t have made you tell people,” he says, and it doesn’t come out argumentative, mostly just searching. Grasping at straws, a little. “You know I wouldn’t have.”

“Someone would’ve found out,” Connor says; then, when Dylan scoffs, he says, louder, “I don’t know what you want me to say, I was- it’s fucking terrifying, Dylan. That’s how I felt.”

Dylan huffs out a breath. It comes out kind of unsteady.

And that’s that, then, isn’t it?

He gets it. He gets it, and he wishes he didn’t, because it would be a million times easier if he could just blame Connor for them getting messed up. And- and he still does, sort of, because it’s not like Connor can guarantee that someone would’ve found out, or that it would’ve messed up their careers, because Dylan could’ve been quiet about stuff and they could’ve been happy. No guarantee things would’ve gone bad, the way Connor thinks they would’ve.

No guarantee they would’ve gone okay, either.

Dylan gets why Connor was scared. He heard the shit people said growing up. And understanding should make it hurt less, only it doesn’t, really.

He gets the feeling that Connor’s waiting for him to speak, feels the weight of his gaze. Dylan- what can he even say, here?

“Broke my heart, though, Davo, you know that?” is what comes out, eventually. He doesn’t say it accusatory. Just. Says it. “Like-” he breaks off, and it kind of hits all at once, and Dylan just lets himself hurt, because-

It really fucking hurt. The kind of hurt that festers, putting himself out there and having his best friend all but ghost him; sitting by himself in Erie two years straight, reading about how he was washed up at nineteen when it was a slow enough news week that some blogger decided to write about him. Like- yeah, Connor was scared, but Dylan was too. Dylan lived shit too.

Dylan’s talking fast, words blurring together, tapping on the steering wheel for something to do with his hands. “I watched everyone pairing off, and making hockey second place like they had something better, and you have your shit and like- that’s fine, but I never did the settling down thing, and then for you to show up here and just expect that and for everything to be fine-”

“Would you have listened?” Connor asks, and he says it kind of like it’s a gotcha, like he’s proving some point, and Dylan has to bite his tongue so he won’t snap at him. “If I said I wanted to talk stuff through?”

“Yeah,” Dylan says, sharp, and he wants that to be the truth so, so bad. “Yeah, Connor, I would’ve.”

His words hang there, and he can feel them teetering at the edge of arguing, but they don’t. It’s an impasse, maybe, the two of them not believing each other, or too stubborn not to believe themselves. Dylan- he would’ve listened, if Connor had sacked up and tried to talk instead of- he would’ve.

He probably would’ve.

Doesn’t matter now. Connor didn’t talk, and Dylan didn’t listen. No point doing the coulda-shoulda-woulda thing.

“I shouldn’t have hurt you,” Connor says, right as Dylan thinks that. He’s guiding the conversation, captain-style. “I wish I hadn’t.”

Dylan nods. “I know,” he says. He believes that much, at least. Not that he doesn’t believe the rest, just- It’s a lot, putting things together.

He’s not even sure if he’s mad at Connor for making Jess and Dylan and god knows who else collateral damage for his gay panic spiral; or at himself for not fixing things somehow; or at the league and everything around it for being shitty enough for long enough that it’s the fucking 2030s and Dylan’s still getting fucked over by the residual nuclear fallout of the homophobic garbage they grew up with.

All of the above, maybe.

“I do believe you,” he says, because this part is important. “About being gay. It was shitty to act like I didn’t, with the fiancée thing. I don’t- I’m not judging you.”

Connor shakes his head, does this tiny sound like a laugh, but not like anything’s funny. “I really hurt her,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dylan says.

“Yeah, it does,” Connor says, picking at his nail a little. “I was going to-” He breaks off, turns his head so he’s looking away from Dylan. Maybe hiding, a little bit. Dylan can see him clenching his jaw, reflected in the window.

“You don’t have to explain it to me,” Dylan says, and it’s as much him being selfish as trying to rescue Connor, here, because he’s never seen him like this and he’s got no clue how to respond. “Seriously.”

Connor shakes his head, doesn’t say anything.

For a long time, they just sit there, quiet. It feels like waiting, and everything in Dylan is screaming at him to break the silence and crack some joke, but he doesn’t, just sits and waits until Connor’s ready to talk.

“You were right about me being a dick, with you signing,” Connor says. He’s quiet, back to speaking real slow, and Dylan gets the impression he’s controlling his voice. It feels careful, when Connor meets his eyes. “But you were wrong about me being jealous.”

“Davo,” Dylan says, and Connor just keeps talking like now he’s started he doesn’t want to stop.

“I was going to marry her,” he says. “I was going to lie and marry her and maybe have kids and play ‘til my contract ended then- then take some nothing job with the front office and be in the Hall of Fame and just. Do that ‘til I couldn’t anymore.”

“Christ,” Dylan says, when Connor pauses for breath. It comes out kind of a whisper, and he feels vaguely sick. Such a fucking closet case, he called Connor.

“The doctors told me I couldn’t play anymore, after the hit,” Connor says, head bowed like he’s giving confession, and his voice drops so Dylan can hardly hear him. “And I was relieved.”

It comes out shaky, when Dylan exhales. He didn’t even realize he was holding his breath. And- and Dylan’s been out for forever, is the thing, to anyone who matters. He got over being scared of the words ‘I’m gay’ a long time ago, because yeah, dealing with people sucks, but keeping stuff a secret weighs you down. Chokes you out, choked him out, whatever.

Dylan can’t imagine that weight for as long as Connor’s kept it. Thinks he probably would’ve suffocated under it. It’s not something people choose, he thinks, if they feel like they have a choice.

“You asked why I came back here,” Connor says, and he sounds laid bare, handing Dylan a knife to twist. Kind of angry, too. “And I was just- I was so fucking tired, Stromer. Of all of it.”

His bottom lip trembles, at the end, this boyish, stupid little thing that makes Dylan want to run and hide, because Connor’s not supposed to feel things this much, ever. It’s like when Dylan saw his dad cry for the first time, wrong and weird and a little bit terrifying for how new it was, and he wants this to go away, to go back to familiar ground.

He tugs Connor in and hugs him, tight. It’s like- clinging, more than anything, and he doesn’t quite know if he’s trying to be comforting or comforted or what, but Connor holds onto him even tighter, gearbox between them, fingers digging into Dylan’s arm tight enough that it nearly hurts.

“Davo,” Dylan says, and Connor breathes out real shaky, breath catching.

“I’m sorry,” he says, so quiet Dylan can barely hear him. “Sorry.”

“Me too,” Dylan says, and he presses his face into Connor’s shirt, squeezes his eyes shut and tries to just breathe normal. And they probably look like idiots, two grown men clutching each other and pretending not to be crying in an empty parking lot, and god, Dylan really fucking hates apologies, if this is the level of emotions that they involve. A big part of him wants to go back to pretending stuff’s fine, but a bigger part of him is more here than he’s been in months, and the point is, is-

They sit there for a long time, and neither of them lets go.

---

The birds are the only ones awake, when Dylan goes for a run. He mostly drowns them out with his music, but he can see them flying from tree to tree, keeping him company as he makes his way along the winding streets. It’s a nice neighbourhood for running, insofar as running can be nice. Not a lot of traffic, just his footsteps on the pavement, his heartbeat picking up.

Dylan can see the place starting to wake up by the time he gets back to the house, people’s lights turning on, stuff like that. He’s quiet on his way in, just in case Davo’s still asleep, but there’s sound coming from the main floor kitchen, and Connor’s sitting at the table when Dylan makes his way there.

The news is on the radio, just traffic and weather. Connor’s mid-sip when Dylan walks in, but he swallows, nods at him. “Hi.”

“Hey,” Dylan says, taking out his headphones. “You’re up.”

“I’m up,” Connor confirms, and it’s a solid attempt at not sounding awkward, but it doesn’t really work. Probably it’s on both of them – Dylan doesn’t really know where they stand, after yesterday. They stayed at the park for a while after the impromptu cry-session, then came back to the house and ordered food, mostly made small talk before crashing in separate rooms.

They’re still coming down from everything, maybe. Like after playoffs, when it’s gogogo for so long that everything’s kind of a shock when it slows down.

“There’s more ready,” Connor says, and it takes Dylan a second to realize he means coffee. “I wasn’t sure how you take it.”

“Oh,” Dylan says, taken aback. “Thanks.”

He leaves his phone and earbuds on the counter, pours himself a cup of coffee and adds milk. He can feel Connor watching him, like he’s taking notes. It’s- weird.

Not bad weird.

Dylan brings his mug over, sits down across from Connor. “Mental health stuff,” he says, which is perhaps not the most graceful of ways to do this thing, but they’re doing it, apparently, which has got to count for something.

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t lie,” Dylan orders. He heard the way Connor talked about the rest of his life, until I couldn’t anymore, like it was some kind of prison sentence.

“I’m not,” Connor says, and Dylan stares at him real hard, but he looks like he’s being sincere. “It got bad for a while. Better, since summer.”

Since running away, Dylan translates, but doesn’t comment, because he’s sure as fuck not in a position to criticize anyone’s coping mechanisms.

“I called my therapist,” Connor offers, without Dylan even prompting him. “We’ve been talking.”

“Good,” Dylan says, and means it, too.

Connor holds Dylan’s gaze, kicks at his foot under the table. “Are you okay?”

Ten thousand dollar question. “I don’t know,” Dylan says, honest. Then, because it’s been bugging him, “Do you hate hockey?”

“I don’t know,” Connor echoes, and for the first time today, he looks uncertain. “I don’t want to.”

“Okay,” Dylan says. “That’s okay.” And- he’s not sure it is, really, because hockey’s their common ground, their everything, and he gets that it fucked with Connor, but it’s also- Dylan doesn’t know where they fit, outside of their sport. If they fit.

“Okay,” Connor says, and Dylan nods.

“Okay,” he says, stupid, and it makes Connor crack a smile. Dylan can’t help but return it, and the moment kind of swells, this weird and honest and new thing. Dylan feels almost nervous, which is just unbelievably dumb, because it’s them, but it feels like unfamiliar territory, all shaky legs baby-deer on the Discovery channel.

Something feels different.

“What do we do now?” Connor asks. He’s giving Dylan the lead, Dylan realizes, doing that real consciously. It’s a nice gesture.

“I don’t want be mad at you anymore,” Dylan says. “I’m- it’s fucking tiring, trying to hate you. So I’m done with that.”

“Oh,” Connor says. “So...” He trails off, holding onto his cup of coffee with both hands.

“So,” Dylan says. “So do you want to just- can we get a restart, maybe?”

“How?” Connor asks, and Dylan thinks about it then holds a hand out to shake.

“I’m Dylan,” he says.

Connor raises an eyebrow, all judgey. Looks more like himself than he has in months. “Seriously?”

“Fuckin’ do the thing, McDavid,” Dylan says.

Connor rolls his eyes, but he takes Dylan’s hand. “Connor,” he says, then, after a second of just holding on to each other, “I can’t believe you were sleeping with someone called Brad.”

“Oh my god,” Dylan says, laughing and surprising himself with how hard it is to stop. He can still feel them being tentative, a little, but he’s laughing, and Connor’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he joins in.

Chapter Text

The website where Dylan booked his appointment said ‘sports psychologist’, but he’s sitting on a couch full of embroidered pillows in an office painted all these calm colours – like, nice try, this is a therapist, he’s pretty sure.

Therapist guy doesn’t look like he plays sports. Doesn’t look like he’s ever been near a pair of running shoes.

Dylan narrows his eyes.

“So,” Dr. Padilla says. “Dylan. What’s on your mind?”

Loaded question. Dylan plucks at a loose string on one of the pillows.

“I feel like. Sad, sometimes,” he says, and wonders if he sounds as dumb as he feels, and also why people pay money for this. “Also mad.” He gets the impression that Dr. Padilla is waiting for him to say something else, but Dylan doesn’t, and eventually that message gets through.

“Okay,” Dr. Padilla says. “Why?”

Two questions in and Dylan’s stumped.

There’s not really a good answer, is the problem. He can’t say ‘because I suck’, because that’ll make it sound like he has bad self-esteem or something, which he doesn’t, or at least doesn’t in the way that he needs a therapist to tell him he’s valid or something. He’s a rich and reasonably okay-looking professional athlete, he’s objectively doing fine, even if he feels like a screw-up sometimes.

It’s also not the gay thing, because he came to terms with that a while back; and it’s not Connor, because that’s its own thing, too; and Dylan accepted his family for what they are a long time ago.

He doesn’t think he has childhood traumas? Like, his goldfish dying was kind of as bad as it got.

“I just don’t want to deal with stuff sometimes,” Dylan says. “Or like. People. It’s stupid, my life isn’t bad or anything.”

“That’s good,” Dr. Padilla says, encouraging, and the thread that Dylan’s been playing with snaps.

Dylan sighs. “Right,” he says, getting to his feet. “Sorry, I hate this.”

“Fair enough,” Dr. Padilla says, without missing a beat. “It can be a little strange to get used to.”

Dylan makes a noncommittal kind of noise. The guy seems nice, but like, being nice is also probably the bare minimum requirement for a job like this – ‘sports psychologist’, sure, bud – and Dylan doesn’t really- he doesn’t need a therapist. Like, all due respect to the self-improvement kick he’s apparently on, but yeah, no.

He hovers awkwardly between the couch and the door, feels like he owes an explanation and doesn’t know how to make one. “My- friend,” he says. “He does this.” Dylan waves a hand, gestures at the room around them. “The therapy thing makes him feel better. I’m trying to be that.”

Dr. Padilla inclines his head. “Better?”

“Better,” Dylan confirms. “I don’t think this is going to do that for me. Sorry.”

“I mean, strictly speaking, it’s not my job to make you better,” Dr. Padilla says. “I’m mostly here to help you find what makes you feel better.”

If Dylan drove all the way downtown to have some doctor tell him he needs to go get laid-

“Now, I don’t mean what helps you avoid the stuff that feels bad,” Dr. Padilla says, like he’s reading Dylan’s mind. “The goal is usually to help you identify what’s troubling you and to develop healthy coping mechanisms.”

Dylan feels vaguely called out.

He scowls, a little, but sits down, holds onto the pillow he’s claimed. Tosses the question out like it’s a test, because it kind of is. “Do you watch hockey?”

“Would you believe I used to play?” Dr. Padilla says, then, when Dylan looks surprised – the guy looks like Santa Claus, he’s allowed – he says, “Threw out my back in university. My parents were thrilled.”

“Where’d you play?” Dylan asks, then, “Don’t tell me I’m deflecting.”

Dr. Padilla looks bemused. “Were you?”

“No,” Dylan says. He thinks about it, for a second. “Would you have to sit here and talk about hockey, if I wanted to?”

“You say ‘have to’ as though that would be a punishment,” Dr. Padilla quips, grinning, and Dylan kind of smiles back without meaning to.

And, okay, he wouldn’t admit this out loud, but the rest of the appointment is kind of nice. Like, he’s aware that it’s stupid, to pay some insane hourly rate just to talk to a mental health professional about hockey, but it’s- like, Dylan doesn’t know any other word for it. It’s just nice, talking about his sport with someone who doesn’t have an opinion on Dylan’s career and where he should sign and shit, doesn’t ask how it affects his ability to have a family. He doesn’t even feel like he’s getting psychoanalyzed or anything. And fine, Dylan’s aware that he might just be getting psychoanalyzed subtly, but- it’s an okay way to spend 50 minutes, is the point. Just talking.

It maybe doesn’t count as therapy, exactly. Dylan feels better anyways.

“Thanks, man,” he says, when he’s getting up to leave for real.

“Come by anytime,” Dr. Padilla says, shaking his hand real firm.

“Maybe,” Dylan says, and it’s the kind of maybe that really means a polite ‘hell no’, or at least he intends it to be, but he takes a business card from the little holder on the secretary’s desk on his way out, anyways. Puts it in the back of his phone case.

So. Maybe.

(He puts his finger on it later, when he’s at the rink, firing off one timers and listening to the sound of skates from other drills around the ice. And Dylan’s not doing anything difficult, really, just repetitive, skills stuff, but the physicality of it is grounding. He’s aware of every tendon in his body, this kind of clarity, and it’s a nice feeling.

It’s the same way he felt after leaving his appointment, he realizes. Like- present.

He pings a puck off the crossbar.

Therapy, or something on those lines.

“You’re in a good mood,” Whelan observes when Dylan skates over to the bench to get a drink.

“I’m something,” he says, and sprays the back of his neck before he skates back out. He can see Chris Chan staring at him, from the corner of his eye.

Good.)

---

It’s small things and slow going, is what Dylan’s starting to figure out.

“We can do something else,” Connor offers, when they’re in the car. “Like, other than fixing my house.”

“I don’t mind it,” Dylan says, honest; then, “I mean, we don’t have to hang out, obviously-”

“I want to,” Connor says, glancing over at Dylan. “Like. Hang out with you. I was just- giving you an out, I guess.”

“Eyes on the road, McDavid,” Dylan orders, and he says it real grumpy on purpose, but then, when they’re sitting at a red light, “I don’t want an out.”

He keeps looking ahead, but Connor’s biting his lip to hide a smile, and- yeah, it’s slow going, but they’re going.

There are a few days of, like, incredible amounts of awkwardness, but he and Connor eventually find their way to something resembling normal. They change the handles on the cabinets in kitchen number two, and find new deck furniture. They spend forever picking out a new shower curtain, end up trying on shower caps and getting dirty looks from everyone in the overpriced interior decor store because they’re laughing too hard.

Dylan doesn’t go out of his way to mention hockey the way he’s been doing to make Connor squirm.

Connor makes coffee with milk. He’s decent at it, too.

Small things.

Dylan doesn’t push the love thing. Or the sex thing, actually, or the not having sex thing, or. Any of it.

It feels like they’re friends. It’s a ground-up kind of thing, maybe, and the love thing is in the back of Dylan’s head, but-

Friends is an okay thing to be right now, he thinks.

---

Dylan squints at the side of the measuring cup, trying to work out the scale. “Hey,” he says, and Connor peers over from where he’s setting the oven to preheat. “How many ounces is a cup?”

Connor shrugs. “No idea.”

Helpful. “Davo.”

“What, like I cook?”

“It’s your fucking recipe!” Dylan protests, doing his best to sound annoyed and not really succeeding. And, whatever, he got roped into making homemade garlic bread, he’s allowed to be a bitch about this.

Connor shakes his head, but he’s hiding a smile. He looks nice, comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts. “It’s Google’s recipe, man, don’t look at me.” Dylan scoffs, and Connor bumps his hip as he walks past. “You brought the grater?”

“In the bag,” Dylan nods toward the tote bag with all the ingredients, watches Connor go to rummage through it. “I stole it from Matt and Soph, though, so don’t break it or I’ll never hear the end of it-”

Connor digs the cheese grater out, but he’s frowning. “Wait, Matt’s not with Caleigh anymore?”

It takes Dylan a second to even get who Connor’s talking about. “No, man,” he says, a little taken aback. “That was- she dumped him like, ’23, ’24? Something like that.” Matty was real torn up about it, too. Whole thing’d made Dylan wish he had a little sister instead of a little brother so he could fight exes or something instead of just sending supportive memes from across the continent. Still, stuff worked out in the end.

Dylan’s still measuring out flour, so it’s a while before he realizes that Davo’s being quiet. And that in itself is normal, pretty much, only when Dylan looks up, Connor’s just standing there holding the cheese grater. He’s staring at it like it’s one of those Shakespeare skulls, and Dylan could almost laugh at him if he didn’t look so fucking down, all of a sudden.

“Hey,” Dylan says, a question.

Connor glances over at him, then back at the grater. He does this wistful little smile. Nothing happy about it. “I missed a lot of your life,” he says, and it’s the tiniest little sentence, but it weighs a ton.

Dylan looks down.

Twenty years don’t go away easy. Twenty years could fill up the entire room. They do, sometimes.

And, sure, they talked stuff out. Doesn’t mean there’s not an elephant in the room, every so often. ‘Cause Davo’s right, there’s no getting around how much they missed. Big stuff, like Connor getting engaged, but the little stuff too, birthdays and trades and wins and losses and news about their siblings.

The little stuff builds up, over twenty years.

The oven beeps.

“When I was in Florida,” Dylan speaks up, real deliberate, because fuck the elephant in the room. “The media guys did this thing where a bunch of us took cooking classes.” Connor tensed up a little when Dylan started, maybe expecting a hockey story, but now he’s just looking at him like he doesn’t know where this is going. Makes two of them. “We made risotto. Really fancy shit.”

“You’re kidding,” Connor says, and Dylan shakes his head, and the smile that that earns is a little bigger, a little more real.

Connor raises an eyebrow. “They teach you how many ounces are in a cup, at your fancy classes, or-”

“Aw, fuck off,” Dylan says, grinning, and flicks a handful of flour in Davo’s direction, laughs when he holds the cheese grater up like a shield.

He’ll catch Connor up. One day at a time, if he has to.

“You wouldn’t believe half my cooking stories,” he says, when the quiet starts sinking in, and Connor gets this conspiratorial kind of look, like it’s not just the two of them standing in a messy kitchen.

“Want to know something?” he asks. Then, after Dylan nods, he says with great relish, “I hired a personal chef.”

“Connor McDavid, you fucking didn’t,” Dylan says, aghast at the fucking unbelievable levels of pretentiousness.

Connor just nods, grins like he’s enjoying Dylan’s reaction. “She made arugula salad,” he says, unembarrassed. “With raspberry vinaigrette. That was my favourite.”

Dylan laughs, stunned. “I respected you so much more before I had this knowledge,” he chirps, and now it’s Connor’s turn to throw something at him, only that something turns out to be a full block of cheese because he hasn’t gotten around to shredding it yet. Dylan has to duck out of the way with a yelp.

“Trying to fucking concuss me, assface?”

Connor laughs, dodging around Dylan and another handful of flour. The kitchen’s on the wrong side of too warm, with the oven on in the middle of summer, but it doesn’t feel stifling, just heat settling in around them.

“Tell me something else,” Dylan prompts, leaning on the counter. It’s feels like testing the limits, a little, poking at the past like this; like waiting for the other shoe to drop the way it always does, but Connor just shrugs.

“I don’t have anything exciting.”

“Like, yeah, not as exciting as arugula salad, maybe,” Dylan says, because he knows it’ll make Davo roll his eyes, and it does. “We should be making that instead of fuckin’ cheesy bread, the trainers are gonna kill me.”

“Sucks to be you,” Connor says, all cocky. “I might have, like, three servings. And dessert.”

“Dick,” Dylan says, but he’s grinning, ‘cause Connor hasn’t chirped him like this in a while. “Some of us have to work out still.”

He’s kicking himself mentally as soon as the words come out, at the misstep. Like, way to fucking go, Strome, rubbing in the fact that Davo can’t play anymore, ignoring how he technically does work out at his physio appointments – shit.

He shouldn’t have worried, because Connor hasn’t missed a beat. “I swear to god, I’m never doing another sit-up again,” Connor says, and he sounds all proud of himself. “Not for maybe a year, at least.”

And see, Dylan knows for a goddamn fact that Davo’s gonna end up running a marathon or getting a degree or something, because that’s the kind of guy he is, but it’s kind of stupidly exciting to see him taking a break all the same. More than he’s done as long as Dylan’s known him.

It’s new. A lot of this feels new.

“That’s something, actually,” Connor says, interrupting Dylan’s train of thought. “Did I tell you about a couple years ago, what we did to Yammer when he kept posting shirtless pictures?”

Dylan shakes his head, doesn’t bother trying not to smile. “Tell me,” he says, settling in to listen.

And they do remember that they’re supposed to be cooking, eventually. Even manage to scrape together a mostly decent cheesy garlic bread, even though Dylan suspects that a non-delicious cheesy garlic bread probably doesn’t exist. The whole time, through making the bread and eating it, they’re trading stories, giving each other bits and pieces of two decades of their lives, filling in gaps. The other shoe doesn’t drop.

Dylan should probably stop being surprised that there’s new stuff to learn about Connor. There’s a lot of material, a lot that he missed and wouldn’t have even guessed.

He wants to learn it all.

---

Dylan’s planning on the return of the cheese grater being an in and out kind of thing, only Matt’s covered in literal baby vomit when he opens the door, and Dylan ends up supervising the source of said vomit while Matty showers. And, like, no offense, Dylan loves his niece, but he sets Gemma down on the carpet and sits at least three feet away, because as far as he’s concerned, puke is not covered as part of his cool uncle duties.

“You need to not greet guests when covered in barf,” he says, once Matt comes back downstairs. Gemma just babbles at him in baby language. Dylan chooses to believe she’s backing him up. “Some friendly older brother advice.”

“You don’t count as a guest,” Matt says. “Also, you’re a middle brother.”

“Right, but I’m still-” Dylan says, slow, then decides that it’s maybe not worth trying to argue that he’s older than Matt, and his brother, and is therefore by definition his older brother. Some things you gotta let go, probably. “Thanks for the grater, anyways.”

“’Course,” Matty says. “Was it ‘grater’ than you could have hoped?”

“Matthew,” Dylan says, flat. “You’re fucking adopted.”

“Someone should tell Mom and Dad,” Matt quips, grinning like he’s super proud of himself and tugging his baby into his lap. Dylan snorts, and that’s all the validation Matt’s getting, here, Dylan does not endorse puns.

“Well, I’m gonna head-”

“Mom keeps complaining that you’re not calling her,” Matt interrupts. It’s, like. A terrible segue. Not even a segue at all, hardly. Bull in a china shop is just the official Strome way of dealing with uncomfortable topics, apparently.

Dylan sighs. He knows his mom, and he knows that she definitely told Matt to bring it up subtly, which means that she already talked to Ry about it too, and probably most of her side of the family, which means it’s a Thing.

It’s not like Dylan’s been ignoring her and Dad. Like, they’re his parents, and he loves them, and all that stuff. He’s just kind of- he’s really done with compromising, on some stuff.

Small doses. He can do family stuff in small doses.

“I’m just dealing with some shit right now,” is what he settles for saying, because it’s not a lie, technically, and he doesn’t need Matty worrying.

“Like signing?” Matt asks, and Dylan shrugs.

He’s running out of time to pick a team. It’s the kind of thing that’s usually in the back of his head, the kind of thing that means he actually took a phone call with his agent the other day, instead of letting it go to his voicemail. It’s like- it’s a lot, and he doesn’t need his parents giving him shit on top of that.

Matt presses a kiss to the top of Gemma’s head, meets Dylan’s eyes. “You’ll be good no matter where you go,” he says, and Dylan’s kind of caught off guard with how sincere it is. Stupid baby brother, being all nice.

“Gross,” Dylan says, affectionate. He’d push Matt off the couch, if he wasn’t holding a baby. “They’re good, though? Mom and Dad?”

Matt nods. “They’re visiting everyone in the States for Uncle Jim’s sixtieth on Friday. I think they were planning to catch a play or something before that?”

And Dylan’s nodding along, only mostly registering what Matt’s saying, but then it sinks in and starts to shape into an idea.

“So wait,” he says. “They aren’t using the cottage this week?”

---

Dylan texts his mom and gets the okay to use the place, and Davo agrees to the trip, like, comically fast, and it’s not even noon the next day when they’re loading groceries into the car and hitting the road. Connor offers to take turns driving, but Dylan chugs a latte and powers through the full drive, even in traffic, because driver picks the music and no chance in hell he’s listening to country for any extended length of time.

It’s not like they’re even going that far, but it feels like a vacation anyways. Which, okay, yes, they’re technically already on vacation, but- whatever, ‘spending the offseason at home’ vacation isn’t the same as ‘getting out of the city’ vacation.

The cottage is right on the water, off this dirt road that’s been getting steadily worse since Dylan was a kid. Real secluded, no neighbours in sight, a path going straight from the house down to the old dock.

“This is a nice place,” Connor says, wandering through the door and running a hand along the wood-panelled wall. Dylan could see him relaxing, like, tangibly, the further they got from the city.

“Yeah,” Dylan says. “I think so.”

The days are longer out here, it feels like. Four days stretch into ages, no one else around except him and Connor, hiking the trails or getting way too competitive at COD on the old Xbox in the basement. Talking, more than Dylan can remember talking in ages. They spend most of the morning on Wednesday napping in the hammock like a pair of absolute geezers, and Dylan wants to roast them for that, but he can physically feel himself unwinding, so he decides to let it slide.

Cooking for themselves is a separate beast, with no takeout for miles, but they manage. Dylan grills up some steaks that only end up a little burnt, and Connor... okay, Davo pours drinks, but given his cooking abilities, it’s equitable enough, and- yeah, they manage. They manage really well, actually.

They take the boat out on Friday, right to the middle of the lake. They’re supposed to be fishing, in theory, but they mostly just end up kicking back in the sun and getting mildly sunburnt, killing a case of beer between them. The boxes of bait sit forgotten at the bottom of the boat.

It’s a lazy, sleepy way to pass a day, and Dylan’s the kind of pleasantly buzzed that lasts the whole way back to shore, through a dinner of leftovers, and when they end up sitting out on the dock.

It’s pretty out. The stars are reflected on the lake in front of them, inky black dotted with spots of light that quiver as the water moves. It’s a smallish lake, in the day time, but right now it stretches out far as Dylan can see, no one else in the world except for them.

“D’you remember,” Connor says, loose-limbed and tanned and lying back on the pier, “do you remember the time we were way out west and there was that blizzard?” He hiccoughs, laughing at himself all tipsy. “And Brinksy wanted to go out on the pond for shinny but-”

“-his leg went through the ice,” Dylan remembers, grinning real big. It’s the first time Davo’s mentioned anything related to hockey in forever. “That was incredible, holy.”

“Right?” Connor beams up at him, and Dylan can’t tell if his cheeks are red because of the sunburn or the beer or just from laughing, but they are, and it’s- like, it’s cute, or whatever, Dylan doesn’t know. He’s drunk, he’s allowed to think stuff like that. “God, we were idiots.”

“Aw, it was fun,” Dylan says, all giggly, and he leans back on his hands, feel himself rambling and doesn’t even mind. “You know who’s an idiot, is- okay, so this one summer, I was like, twelve, and we were out here playing truth or dare with a bunch of our cousins, and I got dared to go fuckin’ skinny dipping.”

“Don’t tell me you did it,” Davo says, and Dylan’s shaking his head before he’s even done.

“No, no, my dad came down and chewed our heads off ‘cause we were being too loud.”

“There ya go, Chris,” Connor proclaims, and Dylan snorts, shoves at Connor’s face, fond.

“You’re so drunk.”

Connor ignores that, just stares up at Dylan, and he gets this look in his eyes, something dangerous. “Wanna do it?”

Dylan doesn’t get it, at first. “What? Do- you don’t mean...”

Connor raises an eyebrow.

“You’re shitting me,” Dylan says, disbelieving. “You want to go skinny dipping?” Connor, who had a heart attack anytime someone even looked at their phone in the locker room, who never leaves the house without a ball cap and sunglasses.

“No one to see,” Connor shrugs, then makes this face, all innocent. “Unless you’re scared.”

He says it real goofy, over-the-top goading. And, like, if he’s counting on Dylan to be the mature one here, he is looking in the wrong place. Consider Dylan fucking goaded.

Dylan clambers to his feet, yanks off his shirt and stares down at Connor. “Lose the shorts, McDavid, let’s fuckin’ go.”

Connor’s eyes narrow – he’s always been too competitive for his own good – and he gets up, drops his shorts without even hesitating, then starts unbuttoning his shirt and looks at Dylan like ‘your move’.

So this is happening, apparently.

Their clothes end up piled on the dock, a safe distance from the edge. It’s a little chilly out, without the sun. Still summery enough. Dylan considers making a joke about Connor’s pale ass, but doesn’t, ‘cause that would mean he’s looking. Which he is, but- still.

It occurs to Dylan that this is the first time they’ve seen each other naked since near the beginning of summer, and also the weirdest way they’ve seen each other naked in approximately ever.

“On three?” he asks, one last chance to back out, and Connor nods. “Three, two, one-”

They jump off the dock, and Dylan’s airborne for one drawn-out second before he hits the water and goes under. And, okay. Connor’s heated, cleaned-once-a-week backyard pool this is not: the water tastes vaguely muddy, and it’s pitch black, and worst of all, it’s-

“Fuck!” Dylan yelps, kicking to the surface and shaking out his head like a dog. “Fuck, it’s freezing-”

Davo’s next to him, and he spits out a mouthful of water, spluttering a bunch of times and kind of paddling with his one good arm. “This was the worst idea ever,” he agrees, teeth chattering. “Oh, we’re so dumb, Jesus.”

Dylan’s grimacing, wiping at his eyes, still kind of in shock at the cold, but he meets Connor’s eyes and it just- the moment sinks in, all at once, how utterly fucking ridiculous they are, butt-naked and drunk on cheap beer and a zillion years too old for this.

They both lose it at the same moment, laughing so that it’s hard to stay above the surface. Dylan gets, like, half the lake up his nose, which just makes Connor laugh harder, so Dylan has to splash him for revenge, and it devolves from there ‘til they’re just kind of bobbing in place, the complete opposite of anything resembling sexy. Dylan takes a moment to be grateful that the closest neighbours mostly use the place for skiing in winter.

They don’t linger long in the water – thank fuck – paddling over to the creaky wooden ladder so they can heave themselves back onto the dock. Somehow being out of the lake is colder than being in it, and they’re both full-on shivering, so they book it back to the cottage without even stopping to get dressed, carrying their clothes and shoes with them.

It turns into a race, and Dylan whips his t-shirt at Connor’s ass; ends up losing anyways, plays catch up while Davo tries to hold the door closed so Dylan’s stuck outside. Dylan’s pretty sure he doesn’t stop smiling the whole time, this helpless, totally idiotic grin that makes his cheeks hurt.

They take turns getting cleaned and dried up. Dylan loses rock paper scissors, so he busies himself cranking the heat up and brushing his teeth while Connor showers. The cottage is big, for just the two of them – too big to be called a cottage, probably – and the floors creak with their footsteps, the pipes settling.

By the time Dylan heads out of the bathroom, still slightly damp but no longer smelling like lake water, Davo’s sprawled out on the king-sized bed in a pair of sweats and no shirt, hair still wet from his shower.

It’s kind of unfair, how good he looks. Dylan really fucking misses having sex with him.

His parents left the place in real nice shape, the other two bedrooms stocked with clean linens and ready to be used, but Dylan’s warm and maybe still a little buzzed, so he just flops down on the bed next to Connor and jostles him to make room.

“Hey,” Connor says, this half-hearted protest.

“Hey,” Dylan says, and pokes at Connor’s middle, just because it’s there. He doesn’t mean to leave his hand there, but he gets kind of caught up in looking and there’s nothing to distract him. Connor’s stomach is softer than it’s been, the product of a summer spent around the house instead of at camp. It’s kind of a novelty, different from what Dylan’s used to on himself and most of the bodies he’s surrounded with, usually. He likes it, how it looks and what it means for Davo to just be.

“Checking me out?” Connor asks, not quite self-deprecating because he isn’t ever, really.

“Yeah,” Dylan says, unembarrassed, and Connor kind of snorts, but leaves him to it. They both watch while Dylan drags his fingers up and over the criss-crossing scars on Connor’s shoulder, starting to fade into white lines; then traces a path along his collarbone, through the scruff on his jaw, then-

He messes up Connor’s hair, watches the bits of grey shimmer in the lamplight. “Old man.”

“Fuck off,” Connor flicks his head, shaking Dylan off, all affectionate. “There’s barely any.” And that’s straight up denial, right there, because he passed ‘barely any’ a couple years after thirty, and there’s no reason either fact should be endearing, but Dylan’s stomach fucking flutters.

Not like it’s a surprise. Could’ve known just looking at Davo’s dad that he was going to start going grey really young. Still kind of funny to see it. Like- proof that they’re here, that time has passed.

“Relax,” Dylan says, instead of cheesy shit like that. “I like it.”

“Oh, as long as you like it, then,” Connor deadpans, but he lets Dylan run a hand through his hair a couple more times, even leans into his touch. Dylan lingers, not-quite uncomfortably self-aware. They’re overlapping at all these different spots, and the back of Connor’s hand is up against Dylan’s hip, and it’s not for anything, completely pointless, just being close for the sake of it.

“This is the softest fuckin’ thing,” Dylan says, torn between laughing at himself and doing something really stupid, like kissing him.

“God, I know, I know,” Connor sighs, this happy thing, settling back against his pillow. It kind of takes Dylan’s breath away, seeing him like this, and he doesn’t really think about it before getting close, leaning his head on Davo’s chest. He’s gentle about it, just leaning on him.

And, okay, the word ‘cuddling’ doesn’t apply here, because Dylan’s a grown-ass man with some dignity, thanks, only it’s not not cuddling either, because they’re just- they’re just lying there together, and Connor’s breathing is starting to slow. And Dylan has this lump in his throat, all of a sudden, because he’s so comfortable, not even just- like, the bed is fine, but it’s the situation, more, it’s them.

It’s been a really, really long time since he’s just slept next to someone like this. Just being close.

He falls asleep feeling Connor’s chest rise and fall, one breath after the next, his arm around Dylan, and his heartbeat steady under Dylan’s head.

---

They buy a bunch of fruits and vegetables from this dinky little farmstand at the side of the road, on the way back to ‘Sauga. Dylan helps put the stuff in the fridge once they’re back at the house, only then Davo gets it in his head to try and make zucchini pasta, so all the stuff comes out of the produce drawer as fast as it went in.

And it’s a shit show, a little, because they end up calling Home Sense and playing the ‘I’m Canada-famous’ card to try and get someone to deliver a julienne peeler, whatever the fuck kind of overpriced kitchen utensil a julienne peeler is, only it turns into both of them laughing so hard that they can’t breathe, and the Home Sense person hangs up on them, and then they’re trying to shred zucchini with a kitchen knife, and by then it’s nearly midnight so Dylan just.

Stays.

---

Dylan shows up early or Christopher Chan shows up late, or some combination of the two, because they end up in the locker room at the same time. Dylan ignores him, mostly, getting into his gear and half-listening to some of the guys chirping each other from in the showers. The excitement in the place is tangible: it’s getting closer and closer to time for actual training camps to start, some guys already shipping out to wherever they play.

“Oh no,” Chris Chan says, and Dylan is still doing the ignoring him thing, except he keeps muttering, “oh no oh no-”

Dylan glances over, and the kid’s digging through his bag frantically. It’s obvious why – his stick is leaning on the stall next to him, half-taped, an empty cardboard roll on the ground next to him.

Karma’s a bitch, is Dylan’s first thought, but the guy looks legitimately panicked, and Dylan’s an asshole, but not that much of one.

“Hey,” Dylan calls over, reaching into his own bag. He tosses over an extra roll of tape. Same colour and everything.

Chan catches it, looks genuinely stunned, and Dylan kind of squirms. It’s just tape.

“Hurry up, you’re going to lose ice time,” he says, gruff.

“Thanks,” Chan says. His voice is softer than Dylan was expecting. “Really, thank you, uh, Mr. Strome.”

And fuck no.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dylan says. “Also, literally never call me Mr. Strome again, please.”

“Sorry,” says Chris Chan, fast, and Dylan waves him off, goes back to lacing up his skates, only then the kid talks again.

“Do you-” Chan breaks off, and when Dylan looks over at him and raises an eyebrow, the guy’s bright red. “Is camp, like. Scary?” he blurts, and Dylan doesn’t laugh, but it’s close.

“Are you asking me for advice?” he asks, kind of disbelieving.

“I don’t know,” Chan says, on the defensive. “I mean- You won a Stanley cup, right?”

“I was a rental,” Dylan says. It’s not a no. Not something he dwells on, either – Isles acquired him at the deadline and everything went right. It wasn’t him.

“You played a crazy amount of minutes,” Chris Chan says, like he thinks Dylan’s about to argue. “Scored four goals, in that last series.”

Now Dylan actually does laugh, not unkindly. “You read my Wikipedia page or something?”

Chan looks mortified. “I was looking some guys up,” he mumbles, then, eyes kind of bugging out, “Not in a creepy way! Me and my boyfriend were just- like, so I’d be prepared.”

And-

Oh.

He just says it, my boyfriend, just like that, and he’s still all stressed, and Dylan- okay, so the guy’s a six foot seven Chinese-Canadian teenager, he obviously doesn’t resemble Davo, like, physically, but Dylan sees double for a second anyways. It’s like looking back in time, standing across from an eighteen year old with more talent than he knows what to do with, who’s about to get sent across the country to be the hero for a shitty team.

God, if they’d known what was coming.

“Camp’s not scary,” Dylan says, taking pity. “Like- you’ll be scared when you go in, but no one’s rooting for you to suck or anything. It’s just hockey practice.” He tries his best to look, like. Kind, or at least not like he’s making fun. Feels kind of self-conscious – who the fuck is he to be giving advice? – but holds Chris Chan’s gaze anyways. “Seriously, kid. Just hockey.”

Chan looks ridiculously grateful, and Dylan is fully prepared to slap him upside the head if he tries the Mr. Strome thing again, but he doesn’t, just nods a bunch of times, real fast. “Thanks,” he says again, and when Dylan shoots him a smile, he smiles back, all relieved.

He waits for Dylan to finish tying his skates so they can get to the ice together. They do separate drills and stuff, but Dylan pays attention – the kid’s fast, all raw talent and big strides. Glances over at the trainers every so often like he thinks he’s getting marked, dead serious.

He told Dylan about his boyfriend like it was nothing. And that’s- it’s a good thing, it’s a really good thing, and it makes Dylan feel old as shit in the best way possible, that stuff’s this different from when he was starting out.

Christopher Chan will be okay, Dylan thinks. Dylan hopes, enough that it catches him off guard.

Circle of life, or whatever.

---

Dylan hasn’t been back to his place since the beginning of last week, something like that, but he goes back now. Texts Connor to tell him that he’ll pick up dinner on his way, gets a thumbs-up in response, then mutes his phone and heads for his room.

There’re still clothes on the floor from, like. June. Cleaning up is probably long overdue, but Dylan lets it go a little longer, just makes a beeline for his dresser and kneels down so he can get at the bottom drawer.

It’s crammed full of stuff, and he stacks old team photos and plaques on the floor before he finds what he’s looking for. He digs out the little velvet box from under an old jersey, weighs it in his hand for a second then opens it up and stares at his cup ring.

It’s the gaudiest fucking thing. Heavier than it looks, when he puts it on and just sort of stares at it on his finger.

There’ve been a thousand players better than him. There would be even if he’d been everything he was supposed to be, but.

There have been a lot worse, too.

He’s still here.

Dylan Strome, Stanley Cup Champion, he thinks, then scoffs, embarrassed at himself – like a kid playing dress up – but he doesn’t put the ring back in the drawer when he takes it off. Just puts it in the box and sets the box on top of the dresser, where he can see it. It’s not exactly a trophy cabinet, but it’s there, and it’s his. He earned it.

It’s probably kind of pathetic that that counts as progress, but-

Fuck, it’s progress, and he’ll take it.

Chapter Text

Dylan gets banished to the backyard while Connor’s on the phone, which he totally understands, but ugh, he wants to hear.

He rolls over in his deck chair and squints up at the sun. Tries to count the seconds, but he only makes it to 67 before he’s glancing over at the house again.

Connor paces past the screen door, nodding along to what someone’s saying. Dylan pretends like he’s not trying to listen in, which- okay, so he is, but it’s not like he’s being nosy for fun, this is important.

Davo was really, really worried, before.

(“You know you don’t have to,” Dylan told him, and Connor shook his head.

“It’s better to hear it from me,” he said. “I owe them that much, after everything.” And, see, Dylan is kind of over owing anyone anything, but he bit back an argument. It wasn’t up to him.)

Connor paces past again. Dylan wonders who he’s talking to, if he did teammates first then Jess, or vice versa, get the bad one over with. That’s how Dylan would’ve done it. Get yelled at first, have a chat with fuckin’- like, Draisaitl or someone to cool down.

Maybe Jess didn’t yell. Wouldn’t yell? She doesn’t seem like the type to yell, from what Dylan’s heard. Dylan would yell if someone proposed then dumped his ass, though.

He sighs.

He feels useless. Davo said he wanted moral support, but Dylan is fucking useless, out here.

He gets to 91, this time, when he counts. Would maybe even get higher, only the screen door slides open and Dylan almost falls off of his chair, he turns to look so fast.

“Hi,” he says, and Connor does this little wave, two fingers, before collapsing into the nearest chair and making this noise somewhere between a sigh and a dying cat.

“Okay,” Dylan says, getting up to go perch on the arm of Davo’s chair. “Okay, so it went bad-”

“No,” Connor interrupts, rubbing at his eyes. “No, it didn’t.”

“Oh,” Dylan says, perking up. “It went good?”

Connor looks up at Dylan, shrugs. “It went,” he says, a little weak, and it kind of counts as humour, Dylan thinks, so that’s a good sign.

He nudges Connor’s knee with his leg. “You okay?”

Connor nods. Even cracks a smile. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’m- you want to swim?”

And Dylan’s not dumb, he gets that it’s Connor changing the subject. He doesn’t push it – this isn’t his to push – just gets up and pulls Davo to his feet with him, heads for the pool.

They don’t watch the anchors read Connor’s statement on TV, or when they post it on the Oilers’ social media. Dylan read the finalized version before Connor sent it out. It’s a very Connor press release, which is to say it’s stilted and awkward and somehow mostly sincere underneath it all. It gets pretty much to the point: Successful surgery but can’t return, thank you to teammates and the fans and the city for the support over the years.

The coming out part is just the last couple of sentences. Same tone as the rest, short and to the point.

Dylan and Connor are out for a walk around the time the news should be breaking. They don’t go far, just to the puny little trail behind the house. It’s muggy out, mosquitoes everywhere, and the sky looks like there’s a summer storm rolling in. It’ll be a relief; the grass could use the rain.

They end up standing on the little wooden lookout, watching the sun set over the meandering stream. Connor’s leaning on the railing, looking pensive.

“I’m not sad about it,” he says, when Dylan comes and stands next to him.

“I know,” Dylan says.

Connor drums his fingers on the wooden rail, staring out at the water. “It’s weird that it’s all going to be done,” he says, after a long while. “Like. Everything’s official, now.”

Dylan bumps their sides together, gentle. “Hell of a fucking run, Davo,” he says, fully aware that it’s a gross understatement, face to face with maybe the greatest of all time. Dylan’s lucky to have played with him. Lucky to have been playing at the same time as him at all, really. He forgets that, sometimes.

They’ve played some beautiful fucking hockey, together and apart.

Connor bumps him back, and it turns into them leaning up against each other, standing side by side with the forest around them. There’s thunder in the distance, but for now it’s quiet and contemplative and, Dylan thinks, okay, or getting there.

They make it back to the house just as the rain’s starting. Connor hollers movie suggestions from the living room while Dylan makes probably too many grilled cheeses for two people. He even remembers to cut the last few diagonally ‘cause Davo thinks it makes them taste better, which is still stupid and always will be, but Connor’s eyes light up when he sees the sandwiches, so Dylan will let it slide, tonight.

“You’re a beauty, Stromer,” Connor enthuses, stuffing his face with one of the little triangles before Dylan’s even sitting down.

“Yeah, eat your grilled cheese, you loser,” Dylan says, fond. He snags a sandwich for himself and sinks into the couch next to Connor. “What’re we watching?”

“Happy Gilmore,” Davo says, and Dylan just straight up rips off a chunk of his grilled cheese and flings it at his head.

“You have an Adam Sandler shaped problem,” Dylan says, and Connor just rolls his eyes – like defending Adam Sandler is a fucking eye-rollable thing, Dylan hates him – and turns up the volume. “A real problem,” Dylan says, but he stretches his legs out onto the table, resigns himself to watching this movie for the millionth time.

It’s not so bad. He can mostly tune the dialogue out, ends up just eating and staring at the tops of trees rustling outside, the rain coming down hard on the windows. Everything gets lit up every so often, when the lightning flashes.

Connor’s looking out the window too, chewing on the crust of one of the grilled cheeses. “The view’ll be nice in winter,” he says, casual, and Dylan knows enough to know that that’s Connor McDavid for an invitation. Not even a particularly subtle one.

He could kiss Connor, right now, and he’s pretty sure Connor would kiss him back.

They haven’t discussed the ‘in love with you’ thing in a while. Haven’t even joked about it, really, and Dylan gets it, because he doesn’t want to risk ruining what they’ve got, not now that things are finally okay. ‘Cause, see, he could kiss Connor and Connor would probably kiss him back and Dylan knows that, but he also knows that they’re kind of in a bubble, and have been most of the summer.

And it’s not that it’s not a nice bubble, because Dylan can see a future laid out in front of him, him and Davo walking around and doing whatever the fuck retired millionaires do, coming home and sprawling out together on the couch, Connor’s thigh pressed into Dylan’s the way it is now. He can see it, right within reach, and it’s good, is the thing, it’s everything he’s wanted since he was a fucking teenager, except-

Except that’s a lie, ‘cause it’s half of everything he’s wanted, and the other half’s sitting back at his place, waiting for him to sign and go off to some city somewhere. And that’s where shit gets complicated, because it’s not just them anymore. It’s the real world, it’s hockey. It’s being in two different cities for most of the year, and Dylan doesn’t know how to reconcile the Dylan and Connor who cuddle on couches and go skinny dipping with the Dylan and Connor who’re in the real world, with Dylan travelling half the year, because their real world track record is- it’s shit, honestly.

It’d be easy to think this time is different.

Dylan... thinks this time might be different.

But he doesn’t know. And they’re finally them again, and things are finally good, and like hell is Dylan going to gamble that on something he doesn’t know. He can’t ruin this, he won’t, so for tonight, he doesn’t, just leans back against Davo and lets him get an arm around Dylan’s shoulders while they listen to Happy Gilmore and Bob Barker beat the hell out of each other.

Dylan lets it be, tonight.

---

Connor takes forever to get dressed – his entire closet is solid-coloured button-ups, it should not take an hour to decide – and then he kind of snaps at Dylan in the car when he tries to change the radio station. And Dylan doesn’t take it personally, because he’s said and done way worse, but he’s confused as hell. The answer only really comes to him once they’re parking the car.

“You’re nervous,” Dylan says, as they’re walking toward the house. There’re enough cars that they had to park a block away, and he can hear people laughing and talking from all the way around the corner.

Connor’s carrying a bottle of wine, picking at the label like he doesn’t realize he’s doing it. “Why would I be nervous?”

“No clue,” Dylan says, mild. “You shouldn’t be.” He’s kind of bullshitting, the no clue part at least, because once it occurred to him why Davo’s all tense, it’s obvious: It’s Connor’s first time seeing all the guys in ages, his first time coming out at all since- well, since coming out. And knowing that stuff’s going to be fine, like, on a factual level, isn’t the same as actually feeling like they’ll be fine for real.

“Hey,” Dylan says, and Connor looks at him from the corner of his eye, doesn’t stop walking. “Davo.”

“I know,” Connor says, and his voice sounds all tight, still, but he slows down enough that Dylan can walk next to him without having to jog. Adds, like an afterthought, “Sorry for being mean.”

“It’s okay,” Dylan says. “I’m taking that wine bottle from you, though, because it was fuckin’ expensive and you’re destroying it.”

The noise from the party’s spilling out from the backyard, and Dylan leads Connor around the side of the house, lifting the latch on the gate to let them in. They have to move out of the way fast to avoid being trampled by a herd of kids – it’s Maya surrounded by a bunch of gingers, which means Brownie’s around here somewhere.

“Hi, Uncle Dylan!” she shouts on her way past, and Dylan waves, not that she’s paying any attention.

“Mini Marns,” he explains to Connor, who’s watching as the kids sprint down the street, towards the park.

“She got tall, eh?” Connor says. Dylan wonders when the last time he saw her is. Wonders if he could scam Connor into going to game night, watch someone else get fucking wrecked at Connect Four for once.

One thing at a time, Dylan.

The backyard is crowded when they head in, extra chairs everywhere and like, every hockey player in the GTA hanging around with plates of food.

Mitch is standing at the barbeque close to the gate, flipping burgers and chatting all animated with Derms. Travis is actually the one to make eye contact with Dylan first, then he looks over at Connor and his eyes widen.

“Hey, guys!”

Mitch wheels around as they get closer; almost takes Dylan’s eye out with a spatula, he moves so fast to hug Connor. “Dude, you made it!”

“Hey, Marns,” Connor says. He’s tense, and it’s obvious, but he fist-bumps Travis behind Mitch’s back and tries for a smile. “Trav, hi.”

Mitch pulls back to look at him. “Fucking awful beard, Daver,” he says, impressed, then he gets distracted going back and forth with Travis right after – “I mean, it’s not that bad,” Travis is hedging, ‘cause he’s maybe the only guy who can out-sweet Marns – and Dylan hardly even gets a hello.

It’s entirely, spectacularly normal, and Dylan could fucking kiss the both of them for it, because Davo looks visibly more relaxed, and he even smiles at the ribbing about his beard.

Dylan elbows him, gentle, like see, and then someone from the patio notices them and they’re getting pulled into a million conversations at once. It’s a lot, but in a nice way. People to catch up with. Mrs. Marner’s potato salad to eat.

God. Dylan eats, like, so much potato salad. It’s technically the offseason still, it’s fine.

And it’s kind of funny, right, because Dylan came into this barbeque ready to go into full-on human shield mode, hundred percent committed to throwing himself in front of the metaphorical bullet to fend off any potential conversations about gayness or injuries or anything Davo doesn’t want to talk about. The thing about that, though, is that Connor ends up wandering away on his own accord, and the next time Dylan sees him he’s nursing a beer, chatting it up with Auston and a bunch of Team North America guys.

He’s doing that thing again, where he walks into a room of guys and goes into captain mode. No one’d know how nervous he was coming into this, and Dylan- all at once, it’s like, fuck, he’s so proud of him, enough that he doesn’t even care how massively dorky of a thing that is to think.

“Move it, assface.”

Dylan looks up, startled. Marns is looming over him, balancing a plate of food in one arm and Noah in the other.

“Watch your language,” Dylan teases. He scoots over so Mitch can fit himself into the tiny amount of room on the seat, careful not to jostle Noah too much.

“Nah, he’s out, it’s cool,” Mitch waves him off, taking a bite of his burger and doing this big, dramatic sigh. “Jesus, I’m so good at grilling.”

Dylan checks while Marns is stuffing his face, and, yeah, Noah’s passed out on Mitch’s shoulder, tuckered out by all the excitement. Dylan relates, little buddy.

There’s a burst of loud laughter from over where Davo’s sitting, and Dylan doesn’t mean to look over, really, but he must, because Mitch follows his gaze and gets this knowing look.

Mitch swallows a bite of his burger, wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. “You guys’re good, then?” He doesn’t have to clarify who he’s talking about.

Dylan taps at one of Noah’s little feet, all wrapped up in footie pajamas. “Yeah.”

“Good as in...” Mitch prods, because leaving well enough alone isn’t a thing he’s ever done or will ever do.

“As in good, Marns,” Dylan says, firm. It’s the truth. Things are- they aren’t even just good, they’re better than they’ve ever been, maybe, because he and Connor are talking, and they’re not holding shit back, not hiding from each other or anyone.

And, sure, he’s in love with Connor, and it’s the kind of love where it hurts, a little, but they’re-

They’re good. Really good, and Dylan won’t lose that, this time.

“Hey, Mitch,” someone hollers from over by the gate, a while later. They both look over to see Marns’ brother gesturing them over. “You’re a captain, c’mon.”

Mitch beams, almost dumps his plate on Dylan, he’s getting up so fast. “You playing?” he asks, and Dylan grins, getting to his feet.

“Scared you’re gonna get beat, Marner?”

“Gonna kick your ass, is what I’m gonna do, Strome,” Mitch says, already heading over to hand Noah off to his mom.

Connor’s waiting for Dylan out front, messes up his hair affectionately when Dylan joins him on the grass. “You think the neighbours’ll hate us?” The nets are all set up in the street, and metal’s clanking loud along the driveway as Auston drags out the old trash can full of taped up sticks from the garage.

Dylan smirks, grabs Connor’s belt loop and tugs him forward so they won’t get stuck with the shitty broken sticks. “They for sure already do.”

Making the teams is, like, a blatant display of nepotism, and Dylan ends up facing off against half of the old Leafs roster. And, okay, a bunch of them are retired or on LTIR – Dylan’s one of maybe five guys still in the league – but most of the people here are or have been pro athletes, so it gets competitive real fast, shouts of ‘let’s go boys’ and stuff like that turning into friendly chirps in under five minutes.

A bunch of the kids end up sitting on the lawn – some of them have got to be from around the neighbourhood, there’s no way all of them are guests – cheering indiscriminately whenever the puck goes in the net.

Marns and Auston chest bump when they connect on a two-on-one, cellying like they just won a cup, and a bunch of their old teammates wolf-whistle when Auston engulfs Mitch in a hug and kisses his cheek all playful. Connor catches Dylan’s eye when they do that, and it’s intentional, and he’s trying to hide a smile. Dylan gets it. It’s nice, not being the only ones.

Not that he and Connor are- they aren’t-

They’re lineys again, is what they are, tonight, and Dylan focuses on that, because it’s a fucking fun thing to focus on. The whole game is, really, because they’re all adults but it doesn’t change the way they rotate in and out of being goalie, chirping the other team, hollering ‘car’ and dragging the nets out of the way every so often.

It goes on a long time, way past when the kids get bored and there’s no audience anymore. The score gets run up to the point where they stop keeping track, and things devolve into trick shots and blatant penalties. Dylan scores on a fucking ridiculous backhander, gets a chorus of cheers for his effort.

Guys drop out of the game a couple at a time, heading back to the yard for more drinks or, eventually, to gather up their families and head out. It goes like that ‘til Dylan and Connor and Marns are the last ones left playing, lit up by streetlights and hardly able to see what they’re doing for how dark it is. Davo’s smiling like Dylan forgot he could, hollering for the ball, going for the empty netter then laughing when he gets cussed out for it.

Even after Davo’s consigned to goalie purgatory, Dylan keeps battling Marns, checking him right up against the curb and getting shoved right back. Retirement hasn’t made Mitch any less annoying to play against, and it gets pretty fierce, ‘til both of them are dripping with sweat and literally can’t stand anymore.

“Fuck,” Marns collapses on the lawn, gasping for breath. “Fuck, my everything hurts.”

“Chickenshit,” Dylan chirps breathlessly, tossing his stick away and flopping down next to him.

Mitch just laughs up at the sky, too gassed to even dish it back; and he’s all sprawled out, skinned knees and laugh lines and he’d give Dylan just so much shit if he said how much he adores him, right now, but Dylan adores him anyways.

Dylan presses his hand down, flat on the grass so the blades tickle his palm, then turns his head to look over at Connor. He’s still out on the street, bouncing the ball on his stick. The movements aren’t as certain as they would’ve been before, all the work on his left side, but without noticing that Dylan’s watching, Connor’s smiling to himself, and the smile gets bigger when he keeps up the ball one last time and bats it into the net.

And crickets aren’t quite a stadium of cheering fans, aren’t quite close, but Dylan thinks, for tonight, they’re pretty good all the same.

Different. But good.

---

The street’s dead silent, practically a ghost town as Dylan and Connor meander toward where they parked the car. It’s gotta be 3 in the morning, minimum, and Dylan’s at that weird point where he’s tired enough to be kind of wired, high on friends and hockey and maybe just tonight.

“Hey,” he says, to get Davo’s attention. “You’re pretty decent at this hockey thing.” He says it all teasing, and Connor snorts, but his eyes are shining.

“I missed it,” he admits, and he sounds kind of stunned, dragging a hand through his hair, and Dylan can’t look away from him. He’s magnetic. “God, I- I missed it. You know when you’re swimming and you come up for air? It’s-”

Connor breaks off, and Dylan catches his eye, and they both kind of laugh, ‘cause Davo’s sure as fuck no more of a poet than Dylan is.

“Fuckin’ hockey,” Dylan says, because he knows Connor will get it.

“Fuckin’ hockey,” Connor agrees. He bumps his elbow up against Dylan’s as he reaches for his keys, and they exchange grins. It’s like- it’s stupid, how much this means to Dylan, Davo talking about hockey like he always has. Because yeah, the NHL has its shit, but hockey itself, their sport, it’s them. It’s in Dylan’s blood, his constant since ministicks with his brothers when he could barely walk. Hockey’s why he has his best friends, why he has Connor, why he still gets up every morning and works out ‘til he can’t breathe.

Not the kind of thing that gets taken away easy. Not from either of them.

“There is one thing that doesn’t make sense, though,” Dylan says, once they’re in the car pulling on their seatbelts. Connor looks at him, questioning. “How the hell did Marns end up as the one with his shit together?”

Connor laughs, turning the key in the ignition, and Dylan looks out the window in a probably-pointless attempt to hide his smile. His brain is just Connor Connor Connor, how happy he is, how happy he should always be.

Dylan must drift off, somewhere between listening to Davo’s music and watching the streetlights pass by in yellowish blurs, because he’s aware of getting onto the highway then nothing at all until Connor’s shaking his arm.

“Dylan,” he’s saying. The car’s not moving anymore. “Stromer, we’re home.”

Dylan blinks, still a little out of it.

Home.

He stretches as he gets out of the car, limbs stiff. The sun’s starting to rise, just barely, and it’s a little on the cool side. They’re inching closer to September, to autumn and hockey and everywhere but here.

Dylan traces Connor’s footsteps, follows him as they trudge across the lawn to the front steps. The grass is dewy on Dylan’s ankles, and every inch of this stupid, too-big house is familiar like the back of his hand, like home.

He stands on the bottom step and watches Davo searching for the house key, and something about the moment just- it’s like standing there, staring up at Connor, everything just stops. Dylan’s whole world is narrowed down to the two steps between them, to we’re home and Dylan and I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you pounding in his chest like a heartbeat.

Dylan reaches up and grabs Connor’s wrist, wordless.

Connor turns to peer down at him, all curious with his hair messy and that stupid fucking beard, and this is the part where Dylan does the leading man thing, closes the gap and kisses Davo and one of them ends up swooning or some shit like that, so-

So instead he drops the ball, because he’s nothing if not consistent.

“I,” he says, then stops, only the stopping comes out this weird strangled sound and then he’s just standing there in his sweaty button-up, staring up at Connor. “Shit.”

“You shit?” Connor echoes, wry, and the laugh that it pulls out of Dylan sounds a little manic. Connor maybe picks up on that, because he frowns a little and takes one step down, almost bemused. “What is it?”

Dylan’s mouth is dry. “I don’t know how to do this,” he confesses. “Sorry, can you just...”

“Can I what?” Connor asks, after another silence stretches out.

“I don’t know,” Dylan says, and he presses his heels back on the edge of his step, doesn’t step down. “I don’t know. Tell me you were wrong about being in love with me so I can kiss you?”

It comes out all in a rush, too fast to understand for anyone who isn’t fluent in Dylan Strome, but Connor is, so he just looks at Dylan, and there’s too much on his face for Dylan to try to make sense of.

“Dylan,” Connor says, and he’s talking so, so quiet, and Dylan wants him more than he’s ever wanted anything.

“I don’t want to retire,” Dylan says, instead of that. “I want to keep playing.”

Connor shrugs, tiny. “So keep playing.”

“Yeah, but I want to kiss you.”

“So kiss me,” Connor says, as if it’s obvious, and there’s something in his voice, like he’s asking just as much as Dylan is, here. “You- if you want like, permission-”

“It’s not that,” Dylan cuts him off, shaking his head. “I mean, maybe, but-”

“Dylan-” Connor reaches toward Dylan, just a little, and he’s the best thing Dylan’s ever seen but he’s not understanding what he’s asking for, here.

“I’m a fucking mess,” Dylan says, blunt, pulling his arm out of Connor’s reach. “I don’t- I’ve never done this shit right.”

“Me neither,” Connor says, no hesitation at all. “I got engaged to avoid dealing with stuff, I- we’re both shit at this, so what?”

“So I want to do this right,” Dylan says, desperate. “I want to not fuck this up, and we’re good right now, and what if we ruin it just because I want-”

“We both want,” Connor interrupts, and he’s looking down and Dylan’s looking up and it’s as intense as anything Dylan’s ever seen. “That’s all we do, why can’t we just- I know we messed up before, and I know I should’ve done things better, but we’ve been wanting, I-” His voice breaks, and Dylan didn’t even know Connor could sound like this, low and urgent and feeling.

“I’ve been wanting you for more than twenty years, Dylan,” Connor finishes. “I don’t want to want anymore. We can have this.”

Dylan isn’t sure when he started clinging to the handrail. Thinks it might be the only thing keeping him upright. The start of summer, Davo showing up at his door, Chinese food on the floor, feels a million miles away from right now. Everything does.

He’s never been this scared in his life.

Dylan swallows. The morning is still around them. No one else exists. “Are you still in love with me?” he asks, so quiet he can hardly hear himself.

Connor holds his gaze. “You know,” he says, simple. “You’ve got to know, Stromer.”

And- fuck, Dylan hears the words, but he doesn’t think he knows anything right now. Not a fucking thing. He doesn’t know how to be in love with someone, doesn’t know how someone could be in love with him, really, ‘cause he’s sarcastic and kind of selfish and yeah, he won a Stanley Cup but he also spent more time in the AHL than he was ever meant to; and he’s not as close with his parents as he maybe should be, and he’s really bad at therapy, and-

And Davo knows all that, and he’s still looking at Dylan like he loves him.

Connor knows him. Dylan knows him back. He wants to know Connor back, to catch up on the stuff he missed and stay caught up when new things change, which maybe counts even more.

Maybe always has.

Dylan loses track of what order things happen, then. It’s a lot all at once: his hand clutching Connor’s shirt, closing the last step between them, his mouth on Connor’s mouth and Connor kissing him back, fierce and certain and not really terrifying, anymore; and the order things happened doesn’t matter, Dylan decides, because they happened, they’re happening, he’s kissing Connor like he never thought he’d get to again.

It’s not chaste, because it’s them, but it’s maybe something close, gentle when they break apart. They’re standing so close, foreheads pressed together, their breath warm between them. Connor’s eyes are shut, and for some reason Dylan’s attention gets caught on his eyelashes, blonde and short in the porch light, and it tugs at something in his heart.

“Davo,” he says, and the rest of his words get lost, but Connor meets his gaze, gets his hands on either side of Dylan’s face and kisses him again so that it doesn’t matter.

They stumble into the house, at some point. Dylan sure hopes Davo’s paying attention to where they’re going, because Dylan’s just following blindly, hoping they’re heading for a horizontal surface. Any surface, really, so long as he can keep touching Connor. Dylan’s not picky. He kisses Connor’s cheek, the corner of his mouth.

“We can’t kiss up the stairs,” Connor says, barely pulling back at all, and Dylan laughs. He could do literally anything, right now, he feels like.

“Watch me,” he says, all bravado, and Connor’s laugh disappears into a kiss.

And just, like, for the record – they absolutely do kiss most of the way up the stairs, and it’s a safety hazard and a half, and Dylan does not care even a little. There could be a nuclear explosion in the hallway, a fucking volcanic eruption, and he doesn’t think he’d care, not once they make it to the master bedroom and he ends up pressed against the wall, Connor’s hands at his chest, wandering. “Can I-”

Dylan nods wordlessly, lets Connor unbutton his shirt and doesn’t bother trying to hold back a groan when Davo’s hands get onto his skin, just on the right side of too warm. He mouths at Dylan’s neck, enough that it’s going to leave a mark, enough that Dylan can barely get it together enough to step out of his pants when Connor tugs them down.

Dylan gets caught up in the kissing, Connor’s mouth and his tongue and his leg pressed in between Dylan’s, and Dylan gets embarrassingly close to just, like, rubbing one off on Connor’s leg, before it occurs to him that he’s mostly naked and Connor’s still fully clothed, which is something to be corrected immediately.

“C’mon,” he urges, pulling at the buttons of Connor’s shirt. “Be more naked, c’mon.” He gets a split-second glimpse of Connor laughing at him before they’re kissing again. And it’s a hell of a feat of multitasking, getting Connor’s clothes off and manoeuvring towards the bed so they can fall onto the mattress, and then they’re just making out like teenagers, Connor kissing Dylan so thoroughly he thinks he must be shaking with it, and there’s just skin everywhere under Dylan’s hands.

The friction between them means things don’t stay innocent for long, if they ever were. They’re both hard, both keyed up, and Davo’s blushing red everywhere – really, everywhere – and Dylan wants to make him feel so, so good.

“Turn over,” he requests, and Connor does without even hesitating, tugging a pillow under his arms to lean on. Dylan kisses his shoulder and down his spine, past the small of his back, and then lower, and-

“Oh my god,” Connor says, hushed. “Oh my god.” And Dylan kind of wants to laugh at that, because sure, he’s probably flattering himself to think that Davo’s having some big gay epiphany ‘cause Dylan’s eating him out, but it sure fucking sounds like it, and it’s the best thing Dylan’s ever heard, no contest.

He takes his time, leans in to the heat of Connor and gets him wet and slick, fucks into him with his tongue and then with a finger, testing. Dylan doesn’t let himself get lost the way he usually does, stays real focused, because he wants this to be good.

“Ah,” Connor’s gasping, when Dylan adds another finger, flattens his tongue against whatever space is left. He’s got one hand clenched in the sheets, that Dylan can see. “Dylan, fuck-”

Dylan thinks, maybe a little smug, that he’s probably doing pretty okay.

He keeps it up, picks up the pace until Connor’s writhing under him, pushing back into Dylan’s fingers all needy. Dylan thinks absently that he could probably get Davo to come untouched, just from this. He kind of wants to test out that theory, but for now he pulls back just enough to kiss Connor’s hip, to catch his breath.

Connor peeks back at him, gets out, “You’re good at that.”

Dylan smiles like the biggest fucking goober in the world. “You want me to keep going?” he asks, ‘cause he’d probably do this for hours, if it’d keep making Davo sound like the way he does, all wrecked. “Or I could fuck you, which one?”

“Yes,” Connor says, nonsensical, and he’s ridiculous and Dylan loves him. “The second thing, I need to-”

He shoves at Dylan, and Dylan backs off enough to let Connor turn around and lie on his back, adjusting the pillow behind him. Dylan crawls back up the bed, hands and knees so he’s straddling Connor, staring down at him. He looks like a fucking mess, hair all dishevelled from Dylan’s hands, flushed from his cheeks to his chest.

Dylan’s not far gone enough to say shit like ‘beautiful’, but it’s a close thing.

“God,” he says, leaning down to press his forehead to Connor’s, smiling. “God, you’re so-”

“C’mere,” Connor says, bossy, and Dylan’s heart like, leaps in his chest at how Davo it is. And, like, Dylan’s mouth probably tastes like ass, but Connor doesn’t seem to mind, getting a hand on the back of Dylan’s neck and tugging him down to kiss him, real deep.

Dylan sighs against him and lets himself get kissed, lets Connor set the pace – and fuck, does he ever, his hands on Dylan’s ass, pulling him down so they’re grinding up against each other, slow for maybe ten seconds before it gets frantic. Dylan’s on cloud fucking nine, cloud a million.

“Can you,” Connor says, and Dylan’s nodding before he’s done.

“Yeah,” he says, and his hand-eye is shot but he reaches out blindly and grabs at the bottle of lube from the bedside table, opens it clumsy and one-handed. He barely manages to stroke himself a couple of times before Davo’s taking over, impatient, jerking Dylan off as if he’s not already, like, embarrassingly hard, then guiding Dylan’s dick between his legs. It’s sort of- it’s an endeavour, finding an angle that’s not making Connor put too much weight on his shoulder, but they get there eventually, slotting together like they always have.

Connor breathes out through his teeth when Dylan pushes into him, already oversensitive.

“Come on,” he says, and Dylan presses his lips to his neck, drags his teeth along Connor’s jaw. Connor’s still tight around Dylan, warm and wet from before. “Come on, I want-”

Dylan nods against him, moves his hips in slow, dragging thrusts; searching for the sounds Connor makes, ‘cause he’s always been more vocal during sex than, like, any other situation ever, and it’s the hottest thing Dylan knows, Davo’s the hottest thing-

“Dyl,” Connor says, getting a hand on Dylan’s cheek to tilt his head and capture his lips again, and Dylan hums into it, lets himself get lost. Kissing eventually turns into more just panting up against each other while Dylan fucks into him, this steady rhythm, and it’s intimate enough that Dylan’s entire body feels like an exposed nerve, every touch making sparks.

They’re both close enough that Dylan knows it’s not going to last, so he just leans into it, picks up his pace so the mattress creaks and focuses on making it good for both of them. He thinks he manages it, because Connor spills sticky-hot on Dylan’s stomach with this little shout like he can’t hold it back, unguarded and something Dylan could spend the rest of his life trying to hear again. He fucks into Connor a couple more times, real deep, before he feels himself losing it, and Connor’s fingers are tight around the back of Dylan’s neck, his name on Dylan’s lips when he comes.

It’s so much. Dylan’s had a lot of sex, but not like-

This is so much.

They stay together for longer than Dylan has before, just pressed up all close, touching everywhere. Dylan wants to memorize the feel of Davo all around him, the light-coloured hair on his arms, the way he kisses Dylan, lazy and loose-limbed, and does this exhausted little laugh when Dylan teases at his lips with his tongue, playful. Even when they pull apart, neither goes far. They end up catching their breath side by side, flat out on the bed and utterly spent.

It’s bright out, is what Dylan realizes, when he starts thinking coherent things again. Early morning, at least, the sun streaming in through the blinds and casting shadowy stripes along the bed.

Connor turns to meet Dylan’s eyes, asks all breathless, “Whose dumb idea was it to stop having sex?

Dylan’s laugh disappears into a yawn. He leans over and kisses the closest body part he can find – Connor’s arm – before lying back and grinning up at the ceiling, sweaty and exhausted and stupid fucking happy.

He falls asleep like that, stretched out in the sunlight; Connor’s hand on his thigh, rubbing back and forth with his thumb, steady and grounding and here.

---

He thinks it’s rain, at first; takes a while to realize that it’s the shower from the en suite.

Dylan yawns and stretches. Listens to his bones click, then to the water, for a while, before sitting up and looking around. He has to get up to fish his phone out of his pants, over by the wall, but he sits back down cross-legged on the bed, and rattles off an email to his agent, doesn’t even second-guess himself about it.

Then, because he’s naked and probably looks like a hot mess, he steals a t-shirt from Davo’s drawers, treks to one of the other bathrooms, and splashes his face with cold water from the sink. That wakes him up pretty well, and then he just kind of stands there over the sink and looks at himself in the mirror.

He doesn’t look away, just sticks his tongue out at his reflection. Watches drops make their way down his forehead.

Dylan debates doing something about the horrifying rats’ nest that is his hair and decides it can wait, because the sound of the other shower has stopped and it’s all he can do to not, like, sprint back into the other room and jump Connor all over again.

He doesn’t.

He maybe jogs, just a little.

When Dylan gets back to the room, Davo’s just coming out of the bathroom, a towel around his waist. He looks like an actual picture, and the only thing that’d make this better is if he’d shaved that godawful fucking beard, which he didn’t, but it’s kind of growing on Dylan, maybe, a little.

There’s this big moment, just the two of them standing in two different doorways, staring at each other – story of Dylan’s fucking life, maybe – and then Connor breaks the silence.

“Hi,” he says, and it’s kind of clumsy, but Dylan smiles, already on his way to him.

He reaches up, traces the line of Connor’s jaw, light. “Nice beard,” Dylan teases, low, and Connor rolls his eyes, any trace of morning-after uncertainty gone.

“Asshole,” he says, all fond, but he turns his head and catches Dylan’s palm with the smallest almost-kiss. It’s a quiet, familiar little gesture that makes Dylan’s heart do something fluttery and, like, extraordinarily lame.

Dylan settles his hand on Davo’s waist, runs his thumb over where the towel is tucked. “You know I’m in love with you too,” Dylan says, because he can’t remember if he mentioned it, and it’s probably kind of important.

Connor nods. “I figured.”

Real Casanova, this guy.

Dylan returns his smile, small, and doesn’t give in to the temptation to quit talking and make out with him for the next forever, no matter how much he wants to. “I have stuff to say, though.”

“Okay,” Connor says, and he looks surprised, a little – yeah, bud, Dylan is too – but he just waits for Dylan to talk.

Right. This part.

Never really gets easier.

Dylan takes a breath. “I don’t want a family,” he says, holding Connor’s gaze. “Like, I’m serious about us, and I fucking love Marns’ kids, but I don’t- I’m almost forty, I don’t want to be a dad now. Or probably ever. We’re not them.”

“We’re not,” Connor agrees, and Dylan waits for him to bring up some counterpoint, some offer, but he doesn’t, and it’s stupid, maybe, but it’s like a weight off of Dylan’s shoulders.

They want the same things, or- or don’t want the same things, and they’re doing this, still.

Dylan pushes forward. “And I don’t want to do a huge ‘we’re together’ thing, with the media,” he says. “Like- after, we can say whatever you want, but not ‘til after this year. I’m gonna sign with Buffalo, and I just want to play without reporters acting like I’m all of a sudden some kind of role model or something just ‘cause I’m Connor McDavid’s-”

He breaks off, unsure.

“Boyfriend?” Connor says, maybe offers, but he makes a face right after, ‘cause ‘boyfriend’ sounds kind of juvenile, not to mention all the baggage it carries with it, for them. “Or- significant other, I don’t-”

Dylan thinks about it. He’s not creative about this stuff, really. “Partner?” he suggests, after a second. “We could- partners?”

“Partners,” Davo says, like he’s testing it out. Dylan gets it. It sounds like- it sounds gay, is the thing. Real decisive, too, like something permanent, and Dylan likes both those things, and how solid it sounds. Partners.

Connor must agree, because he’s smiling, kind of biting his lip. “Partners is good.”

“Yeah?”

Connor nods, gets this look on his face so Dylan knows he’s about to say something unfunny. “Howdy, partner.”

“McDavid,” Dylan says, flat, because really. Connor’s beaming, all proud of himself, and Dylan can’t hide a smile, pulling him in by his towel. “You’re fucking dumb.”

“Yeah, and you love it, though,” Connor says, simple. He steadies himself with a hand on Dylan’s chest, uses the other to tilt his chin so he can kiss him, and Dylan- look, he fully intends to keep giving him shit, but it’s easy to get distracted what with Connor’s mouth and his body and his hands and god, his mouth, curved into a smile against Dylan’s.

Dylan feels, like, giddy, or at least close enough to be using adjectives like ‘giddy’, which is a whole new circle of embarrassing, probably, but fuck it, that’s where he’s at, face to face with everything he never thought he’d get.

It doesn’t feel like they felt for so long, months of nothing tinged with something bitter whenever they came face to face; doesn’t feel like when they were kids, either, lost and fumbling at each other behind closed doors.

It feels like them. Like Dylan’s got his best friend back.

His partner, his brain corrects, and, yeah, giddy as fuck.

It’s enough. More.

---

So:

Dylan’s packing his stuff to fly down for training camp, and he can’t find his other green stripey sock. Connor is giving him shit for leaving it to the last minute, lying on the bed half-heartedly folding Dylan’s shirts and just generally being distracting instead of remotely helpful. What a dick.

God, Dylan’s going to miss him like crazy.

And that’s a chirp-worthy thought, or it would be if he’d said it out loud, because Connor’s coming down at the end of the week to help pick out an apartment for them and catch the preseason opener. Not like Dylan’ll even have time to miss him, hardly.

“Hey, Stromer,” Connor says, and tosses Dylan his missing sock. Which- sure. “Can I have one of your old jerseys?”

“You’re gonna have to be more specific,” Dylan quips, because he’s spent his whole life wearing different colours, different logos on his chest. Wonders if the new colours are going to be his last, at least in the NHL. The idea’s not particularly scary. Just- distant. Dylan’s got more left in him than people think.

He tosses a pair of balled up socks at Davo’s head and watches him dodge, easy.

“From Erie,” Connor specifies. “I’m having a couple things framed. For the basement.”

Dylan smiles down at his suitcase, settles into the warmth blooming in his chest; all around him, maybe, like standing in the sun.

Something lame like that.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, we can figure something out.”