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There’s a way John does things.

He does them well, usually, and that’s not arrogance, that’s the product of consideration and logic and doing what he has to when he has to. He wants to win hockey games, so he shapes his life around that, eating right and being the first out at every optional skate and, when he hits UFA, getting as much information as possible so he can make the best possible decision.

So:

It’s grossly simplistic to bring things down to Mitch Marner, but the facts are that John gets the facts, all of them, and then he gets a video of Marner skating patterns into the ice, the puck on a string.

“I’d like to try the two of you together,” Kyle Dubas says from across the table. His eyes are on John, watchful. John doesn’t look away from the screen. “He’s really incredibly responsive to his linemates. If we could put him on your wing…”

It’s simplistic to bring the biggest decision of John’s life down to Mitch Marner.

He watches the video, though, the prettiest hockey he’s ever seen, and he shakes Dubas’ hand after an hour’s worth of talking, and then, as the door swings shut behind him, turns to his agent and says, “How soon can I sign?”

---

Everyone knows about Toronto.

They weren’t the first. Not by a long shot. The league’s been experimenting with android tech for years, mostly refs, fourth line grinders running basic puck retrieval loops. You get the odd Crosby or McDavid, shot-in-the-dark flashes of engineering genius. Always eminently, obviously not human – too good, first thing, but also the way they carry themselves, stiff, designers sacrificing realism for raw talent.

Everyone knows what Toronto did. What makes them special. Three years in a row, three first round picks on a second gen build out of the Nylander think tank in Sweden, a local AI with a custom build, and a modified MLB prototype from Arizona.

John’s seen clips, couldn’t have picked them out of a lineup as androids if he didn’t know. He watches video of them singing on the bench, laughing and joking around, and the trade-off he expects, personality versus talent, it’s not there at all. It’s bizarre to see. Three of them, three of them this good and this human, all on one team, is unheard of.

John doesn’t care about the human part all that much. The good part, though-

They’re really good. Good enough to win.

He’s already in Toronto when he signs. His mom cries happy tears, and they do the press conference, and for a few days, the world’s chaos. It’s a lot at once – John’s been to the ACC before, of course, but they give him a proper tour now, of the arena and the lower floors of the MLSE front office. It’s a nice building. Sleek. Professional, key cards and everything. Not as nice as the rink itself, but John’s biased.

The arena’s getting renamed, he learns. Seems fitting.

There’s a lot to take care of, and John checks each thing off one by one. He does the forgot password thing on Twitter – he hasn’t been on since 2016 – and makes the post that his agent tells him to, then logs back out of his account. He responds to all the messages from his new teammates and guys from juniors who are still in the area. Gets added to a groupchat called leaf leaf leaf, or however three leaf emojis are supposed to be pronounced, then to another one called Actual Team Stuff (NO ONE CHANGE THE NAME), which John figures is probably step one to being one of the guys.

He scrolls down the list of conversations, looking for the Isles chat. It’s not there. He thinks that means someone removed him from it.

John shuts his phone off.

He keeps his normal summer routine. That part is nice. He blends enough kale into his morning shakes that the taste makes him wrinkle his nose. Hires someone to remodel the kitchen in his condo, since he’s going to be living there year-round, now. Stays with his parents in the meantime, which makes them happy enough that John can deal with them trying to feed him stuff that’s not remotely in his diet plan.

He goes for his morning runs, takes the same route he’d always take before he left for juniors. The neighbourhood’s changed, bigger houses and newer cars, but there are still road hockey nets shoved up against garage doors, big, leafy trees blocking out the worst of the sun.

Another runner stops John, once, on a Sunday morning when he expects to be the only one out. She’s wearing neon pink running shoes so bright that John’s eyes hurt, and a Leafs baseball hat.

“Oh my god,” she says, so excited that John can’t exactly pretend not to hear her. “This is so cool, can we get a picture or something, my husband will never believe this.”

“Nice,” John says, he hopes in a friendly way, and ducks down obediently for the picture. It’s a selfie, and the worst thing about those is how close it makes people get – pink shoes lady presses right up to him, and then she visibly jumps.

“You’re human,” she says, like it’s a shock, like she was expecting to feel metal and no pulse through his shirt.

“Flesh and blood,” John says, and shoves his hands in his pockets to leave once she snaps the picture. He shrugs off the apologies, even though the whole ‘Tavares as secret android’ theory was mostly draft gossip, he thought.

It’s not the first time someone’s been surprised. Probably not the last. He knows he’s boring. The Crosby and McDavid personality without the Crosby and McDavid talent, even though he tries. Gets closer than most, maybe. Not close enough.

He keeps running. Gets his heart rate up. Doesn’t dwell on it. He knows what he has to do to win, and he intends to do it.

---

Hockey starts, and the limbo of summer ends. It’s a relief. Nerve-wracking, too, a little, because everything’s still new and John’s never been the greatest at starting conversations, but he shouldn’t have bothered worrying – Nylander’s still not signed yet, and a couple guys are injured, but it’s still maybe the loudest locker room John’s ever been in, a dozen different conversations happening at once so that it’s not really a matter of starting them but of standing close enough that he gets absorbed into one mostly by accident. They all talk a lot.

John’s spoken to a few of the guys before. Patty comes and claps him on the back, invites him over for dinner. Morgan Rielly offers to help John with mundane tasks at least twice a day. He takes the A on his chest seriously, they both do, which John respects.

“It’s a good group of guys,” Rielly – Mo – says, ambling along next to John as they walk to their cars after practice.

“Looks like it,” John agrees.

“It’s pretty unique,” Mo goes on, and John gets the feeling that this is something he’s rehearsed. He looks a little uncomfortable. “Especially in terms of- I mean, you signed here, you know the deal with the young guys.”

The young guys. It takes John a second to get what he means. “I do.”

“Then you know that they’re us,” Mo says, blunt, and he’s staring at John really hard. “Like, people make assumptions about AI and stuff, and they say shit, but the guys feel stuff same as us. They’re our friends, and like, valued members of the team.”

“If they can play I don’t care what they are,” John says, frank, and Mo must be able to tell he’s being honest, because he visibly relaxes.

“Okay, good, ‘cause Pat and I had to rock paper scissors over who was going to give you the shovel talk and honestly? I think he cheated. Like, honest to god, it shouldn’t be possible, but I swear…”

Morgan Rielly talks a lot, too.

John wasn’t lying. He couldn’t care less about the android thing, or the friends thing. It’s like Mo said, John knew what he was signing for, and that’s what happens on the ice, and that part goes about as well as he could’ve hoped.

Matthews – Auston – is exactly as good as he’s supposed to be. Better shot than John’s ever seen. When he talks, he speaks in this deadpan voice, and when he cracks, he laughs loud, usually at something Mitch says. They’re never more than a foot apart, those two. They even leave together, from practice or games or any kind of team event, these MLSE trainers in suits escorting them to wherever they’re going.

Mitch Marner’s good at hockey. Mitch Marner must’ve seen every tape of every play John’s ever made, because when they’re on the ice together, he finds John with the prettiest passes, seems to know where he’s going to be before John knows himself. It clicks right from the first practice, the two of them staying on the ice ‘til they get kicked off. That’s another good thing about androids instead of people, is Mitch doesn’t get tired.

He talks a lot, too. More than a lot. More than Mo. More than anybody ever. On the ice and off, constantly asking for feedback and talking over plays and cracking jokes about whatever song’s playing on the TV timeout, and John gets really good really fast at knowing when to tune him out.

“-and then you’ll just like, yeet it down the ice,” Mitch says, his mouthguard hanging out of his mouth, and John frowns.

“I’ll what?”

“Like- dude, the meme?” Mitch taps his own temple, all wise. “Infinite database of memes,” he says. “Literally infinite.”

“What’s a meme?” John asks, mostly still focused on the game. Only preseason. Still.

Mitch gapes at him, this exaggerated, horrified thing, like John just decapitated a puppy in front of him. His mouthguard falls into his lap.

They score on their next shift. John can deal with the talking.

---

(For the record – John knows what a meme is, after he looks it up on urban dictionary. Funny pictures and stuff. He’s seen them before in groupchats. Obviously.)

---

John gets an A on his sweater, once the season starts for real. Ends up sitting in a corner booth at a Second Cup for a monthly leadership meeting, and he brings notes, all prepared, but the guys seem content to spend a solid twenty minutes just chatting without a single mention of hockey at all. John gets up and gets a second glass of water and one for Patty as well. Mo gets a hot chocolate with whipped cream and accepts the chirps without much shame at all.

“How’re you settling in, man?” he asks eventually, kicking John’s ankle under the table.

“I lived here before,” John says; then, when he remembers his manners, “Fine, though.” He taps the side of his glass, then folds his hands on the table. Small talk is pointless.

“Press is something else, huh?” Pat asks, and Mo talks before John gets a chance to speak.

“Just wait ‘til we start playing bad, they’ll crucify us,” he says, all cheery like that wasn’t an incredibly ominous thing to say. John isn’t quite sure what the fuck he’s supposed to do with Mo, sometimes.

“Can’t let the noise be a distraction, I guess,” John says.

“I mean, yeah, but it always kind of is, right?” Mo says, thoughtful, sipping his hot cocoa. “Or like, always at least there. That’s why they picked the AI they did, y’know? They get feedback and implement corrections in real time. Like, from coaches and stuff, but also people’s reactions online, what they’re saying about the game. Make the noise something useful.”

“They hear everything?” John asks; then, when Mo nods, “Jesus.” John takes a second to wrap his head around that, the idea of a constant stream of feedback from a million hockey fans beamed directly into his brain. He can’t think of anything worse than hearing everything people have to say about him. Actively tries to do the opposite, most of the time, since summer especially.

“Mitchy’s really sensitive to it,” Patty says, and John nods, mind racing.

“That’s what makes him good.” It makes sense, he supposes. Process criticism, get better. Still not something he really thought about, mechanistically. Pretty interesting.

Patty frowns, just slightly. “It’s hard on him,” he says. He doesn’t offer details. John doesn’t ask. Mo has a dollop of whipped cream on his nose.

John wonders if it would be passive-aggressive to discuss streamlining these meetings.

It’s not-

It’s not as if he doesn’t like the guys. Really, he does. It’s just- the sitting all cozy in a coffeeshop is kind of a microcosm of the whole issue, because the whole reason John came here, the whole point of choosing a team with more androids than any other, is to play hockey and win games without dealing with the people stuff. The point is no distractions.

Mitch is a distraction. Not to John, because John doesn’t get distracted, but every other guy in the room is entirely indulgent with him, eyes all soft when they look at him. John pays attention to things. He doesn’t know how not to. He sees the way that Mitch changes a little around each person. Just small things – he acts younger around Patty, real focused whenever Babs is in the room, all snarky with Naz, teasing Kappy about missing Nylander. He has elaborate handshakes with half the D, can’t be within a foot of Auston without an arm around his waist, touching him in some way.

It’s calculated, John figures out, the little shifts in Mitch’s reactions to people, all of them clingy and all of them loud and all of them making Mitch as lovable as possible to everyone he encounters.

John mostly does a good job at not being annoyed with it, but not always. He doesn’t particularly want to be a factor in someone’s calculations. Doesn’t need to be snapchatting or cuddling or whatever it is Mitch does with his free time, with all the guys he has wrapped around his little finger. They’re lineys. They’re good at it. That’s what matters.

---

It all comes to a head early November, when they’re at the airport for a five AM flight and Mitch is bouncing around as usual, shaking his ass and singing along to whatever’s playing in his headphones, full volume and falsetto and entirely too much at this time of the day, and he just doesn’t stop.

John snaps, thoughtless, “Give it a rest, Mitch, please.” He regrets it straight away. Mitch is literally hardwired to take criticisms personally, and John gets it now, why none of the guys are ever harsh with him, because the second the words leave John’s mouth, Mitch looks stricken, utterly heartbroken, and John has the distinct feeling of having fucked up.

He’s getting glared at by every other guy on the team as they shuffle onto the plane, and no one’s even being particularly subtle about it. It feels like every conversation has lulled. John’s the bad guy in the press, since summer, and now it’s carrying over to his team. Perfect.

“I forgot,” John says when Mo appears at his shoulder, frowning. It’s a lame excuse and John knows it.

“Don’t next time,” Mo says, as cold as John’s ever heard him.

John shoves his bag into the overhead storage, not particularly gently, either. He doesn’t- androids are supposed to make things easier, not more complicated. He doesn’t want to have to think about this stuff, not here.

John’s barely had a chance to sit down before Mitch takes the seat next to him.

“I did bad?” he asks, without preamble, and he’s looking at John very intently, like he’s searching for something.

“No,” John says, guilty. “Not at all.”

He might as well not have spoken at all. “Yeah, I did,” Mitch says, real decisive, then, “Sorry.”

“Sorry for being mean,” John counters, even though he doesn’t think he was, really. Probably worse when you’re hardwired to take criticism to heart.

The silence tilts into something awkward, the plane stuck in that liminal space between boarding and takeoff. John waits for Mitch to leave and sit next to Auston. He doesn’t. He’s staring.

“Yes?” John says.

“I keep trying to make you like me,” Mitch says, slow. Like thinking out loud. “And I think you’re trying to like me? But you don’t.”

“You’re not doing anything wrong,” John says. “We’re playing good hockey.”

“Tell me why you don’t like me,” Mitch says. “Please.” He looks more serious than usual. More serious than John thinks he’s ever seen him.

John looks at him, hard. Decides on honesty. “Hockey is all that matters to me,” he says, frank. “Winning. I left everything, and I hurt a lot of people who cared about me very much. All so I could win. Nothing else matters. You’re- the joking around all the time is a lot. You don’t seem to get it.”

Mitch blinks, like he’s processing that, and then he smiles. It’s not his usual smile. This one’s got something steely about it, a little wry. “Winning a cup for Toronto is literally the only reason I exist,” he says. He doesn’t drop John’s gaze. “We don’t sleep, y’know? So all the time, every single hour every day, every decision in my whole brain, even the ones I don’t know I’m making, is something someone coded about off-ice camaraderie or motivating the guys or making the public like us so the Toronto Maple Leafs can win.”

It’s not what John was anticipating him saying. He’s never heard Mitch say anything with anything close to that seriousness. The self-awareness catches John off guard.

“So don’t say I don’t get it,” Mitch finishes, very nearly grave. “I get it.” He’s looking at John, hard, and John looks right back. It feels, just then, the way it did when John watched the clip of Mitch skating at his meeting with Kyle, that stirring of recognition, that feeling of knowing someone, or wanting to.

No one cares about hockey as much as John, usually.

John clears his throat. “If you stop trying to make me like you,” he says. “Like. With the cute thing. I’ll probably like you more.”

“No promises,” Mitch says, without missing a beat. “I’m extremely cute. But I’ll try.”

John does not smile. He also doesn’t roll his eyes. “Fine,” he says, neutral.

Mitch smiles. Mitch is usually smiling. “Fine,” he says, and they don’t shake on it or anything, but it feels like a truce, like something honest.

---

Things are better. They weren’t bad before – they couldn’t be, the way the team is playing – but they’re better now that John figured things out with Mitch.

They play well together. Nothing close to anything John’s ever had, the way Mitch reads his mind, the way John sometimes feels like he can read Mitch’s. They win and they win and they win, and they’re both putting up points, and John would think they were meant to play together, if John was the kind of person to think that kind of stuff, which he’s not.

Mo is.

“You’re really good,” he’s chattering now, trailing along by John as they walk to their cars. “Seriously, Johnny, I’m not telling Mitchy this ‘cause he’ll get an ego and god knows we don’t need that, but you two are really fucking good.”

“You’re really fucking good,” John counters, because it’s the truth. “Two assists.”

“C’mon, that was mostly you guys,” Mo says, ducking his head all bashful because he’s the worst person in the world at taking compliments. It’s growing on John, a little. Maybe the whole thing is growing on John, actually, because he’s out on the ice a couple days later, just putting the puck on net, trying all these trick shots, and Mitch skates up behind him, hooks his chin on John’s shoulder.

“You’re coming out for dinner tonight, right?” he asks, and John hesitates. “You’re coming.”

“I wanted to watch tape,” John says, and Mitch shakes his head.

“You’re coming, dude,” he says, and John isn’t planning on it, truly, but Mitch comes over to watch tape after practice, declares that they’re done at 7:30, then drags John out to join the rest of the team in a private room at some fusion restaurant. They went five hours without a break. John can allow himself this. Can grin and bear it. One of those two, definitely.

(It’s fun. He won’t admit it out loud, and everyone on this team is still far too loud, but it’s fun.)

---

It’s like just about every other team fundraiser John’s attended. Rich people donating obscene amounts of money to hang out with their favourite athletes. Mildly agonizing, but tolerable, if John keeps a slight frown on his face, not enough to look angry, just enough to make him uncomfortable to approach. He wonders if anyone here thinks he’s an android. That might help, too.

That’s part of the novelty of these types of events, for donors, John knows. The chance to get up close, to try to find some hint, some flaw in the guys like anyone’s trying to hide the fact that they’re androids. It’s still a point of fascination for a lot of people – the NHL’s a traditional place, fans and management alike. Slower than other sports to adapt android tech, then to get in compliance with the civil rights stuff. Traditionalism, maybe. John doesn’t have much time for it. The media still does, evidently, because it’s the topic of conversation as he passes by Kyle holding court with a group of reporters, fielding questions about the Nylander contract, or the lack thereof.

“…it’s unprecedented for negotiations with an android to go this far, what do you say to people who suggest that this is eroding one of the main advantages of using non-human players?”

The question’s kind of got an edge, even just listening without context, but Kyle doesn’t look phased. John doesn’t think he knows how. “Auston and William and Mitch are valued parts of this team,” is all Kyle says. “They’ll continue to be for the foreseeable future.”

“And your opinion on the Tavares signing, a couple months in?” another reporter asks, and John doesn’t mean to be eavesdropping, but it’s him, he can’t help it.

“John is a good soldier,” Kyle says. It sounds considered, like everything else that comes out of his mouth. “He knows what it takes to be successful. Knows what he has to do and he does it.”

John will take that. He’ll take it and get the hell out, actually, because he doesn’t feel like talking to reporters tonight, so he takes the long way around the room, trading nods and passing small talk. He spots the rest of the team scattered around, Hyms at a table with a bunch of women, Naz having some intense debate with Gards. John looks for Mitch mostly automatically; finds him with Auston – of course – joking around with a group of donors like they’re best friends. The guys from MLSE are lurking a few feet away like bodyguards, same as always.

“Babe, I’m not even kidding, that’s literally what he said-” Kappy brushes past John, talking on the phone as he does. He’s laughing, kind of obnoxious. If Mo heard him using pet names he’d get a fine. John makes a mental note to tell him later. Giving each other shit is ninety percent of team bonding.

The party goes on around John, and he ends up a while later standing by the open bar, stirring at the ice cubes in his sparkling water. He just wanted regular water. Sparkling water is unnecessary. It’s not sparkling, even. It’s carbonated.

He’s contemplating his water pretty intensely; doesn’t notice when Kyle ends up a little further down the bar. He’s scrolling through something on his phone, a gin and tonic next to him, so John just watches him for a few seconds before looking away. He’s not expecting a conversation, sort of jumps when Kyle speaks.

“The problem with being good for a quote,” Kyle says, and John hesitates, unsure if it’s addressed at him, “is that now people keep wanting quotes.” He meets John’s eyes and offers a smile, conspiratorial.

John huffs a laugh. “Good soldier,” he says, and Kyle’s eyes light up, like he’s surprised that John was paying attention.

“It was a compliment, for the record.”

“I know.” John took it as one. Meant it as one. Can’t quite decide if it’s ironic for him to have an opinion on loyalty to a team, but has one, anyways. Likes the idea of it applying to him.

Kyle’s watching him, appraising, and now he holds out his drink. “To bringing home a cup,” he says.

John touches his glass to Kyle’s. “Bringing it home,” he echoes, and Kyle grins at him, pushes up his glasses before he drinks. He’s easy to like. Or- to trust. No one wants to win as bad as John does, except Mitch, but he can trust that Kyle comes close, and that he’s going to do everything he can to get them there, and that’s all John can ask, really.

---

People make Vine compilations on YouTube, which seems pretty cyclical, in John’s opinion, but Mitch seems to enjoy them and seems to expect John to as well, to the point of invading his hotel room the night before they play the Jackets and making him watch literally forty minutes’ worth.

“I don’t get it,” John says, frank, after minute forty-one. Mitch pauses the video.

“It’s funny,” he says, like he’s explaining addition to a kindergartner.

John frowns, helpless. “Because she threw the can?”

“No,” Mitch says, face all scrunched up. “Or like, yeah, but it’s more how, like- the whole thing. ‘This bitch empty, yeet.’”

“Yeet,” John echoes, skeptical, and it’s not- he literally just repeats what Mitch said, is honestly very doubtful that it’s a real word at all, but Mitch absolutely loses his mind laughing.

John stares at Mitch, who’s doubled over and clutching his stomach, he’s laughing so hard. It takes ages for him to even be able to speak. “Say it again,” he gasps out, mid-giggle. “Johnny, your face, say it again, oh my god.”

John can’t help but laugh at him, still a little taken aback. “I don’t think I want to,” he says. Can’t quite sound as serious as he means to.

“C’mon, say- wait, let me get my phone or something, I can’t-”

“Yeet,” John says, before Mitch can start recording, and Mitch loses any shred of control he recovered, laying back on the bed and laughing up at the ceiling, childish and human and totally unselfconscious.

And that time was on purpose, mostly, enough that John has to laugh too, but he’s still kind of- he doesn’t know what to do here. He’s not usually good at making people laugh unless he does the deadpan thing, and even then it’s a toss up.

It’s a nice feeling. Unexpected, but nice. It’s- John thinks he gets it for the first time, the way the guys act around Mitch.

It feels pretty good, making him smile.

---

The season rolls on. The powerplay goes to shit, but five-on-five is about as good it could be. They go down hard against the Bruins, more than make it up in their next three. John’s scoring at will, it feels like.

“Tell me what to fix,” he tells Mitch, on the plane, when they’re going over game tape.

Mitch shuts his eyes, clearly reviewing the footage in his head. “Twitter was mad at the giveaway,” he says. “Four-fourteen in the third, I thought you were changing.”

“I shouldn’t have,” John says, and he waits, but Mitch’s eyes are still closed, and his eyes are twitching a little under his eyelids, fast.

“Sorry,” Mitch says, and John isn’t entirely sure he’s talking to him. Isn’t sure how bad the things people are saying are, to make Mitch look how he looks now.

“Hey,” John says, and touches Mitch’s arm, and Mitch’s eyes fly open. He’s smiling at John straight away, like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Like he has to be. Doesn’t quite sit right with John, somehow.

“We won’t mess up again,” John promises, and means it, and then Mitch’s smile is a little more real. Good.

They win both halves of the home-and-home, and then, December first, William Nylander signs and he’s in town a day later. He’s…not what John expected.

Not in a bad way. Just- John’s gotten accustomed to Auston and Mitch, how much like people they are, two distinct personalities, and William’s not like that. He spends half his time ducking in and out of Kyle’s office; is mild mannered, more than a little distant. Not unlike some of the hospitality droids John’s encountered, the kind serving at restaurants. Just sort of passively friendly.

John probably shouldn’t be critiquing someone for not having a ton of personality. Self-delusion isn’t his thing.

They’re in the room getting changed, a couple weeks after William’s back, and it’s not the kind of interaction that should really stand out. Kappy’s trying to go through a doorway at the same time as Will, they bump into each other. Kappy flinches away, scowling. Neither says anything.

John’s putting his water bottle into his backpack, only half-watching the whole exchange in the distracted sort of way that goes with doing things on autopilot, but Mitch follows his gaze then kind of makes a face.

“They were going to live together, y’know,” he says, matter-of-fact. “Willy talked about it all the time.”

John can’t picture William talking about anything all the time, let alone moving in with a teammate he barely speaks to. “Why didn’t they?”

Mitch shrugs, halfway into his t-shirt. “Willy’s kind of weird,” he says; then, amending himself, “He’s been kind of weird.” He pokes his head out of his shirt, his hair sticking straight up. “We all live at the MLSE building, anyways.”

John… never really thought about it. It makes sense, he supposes, what with the escorts from the organization taking the young guys to and from every team function, all of them under strict orders not to get into any kind of fights on the ice. Protecting the team’s assets, John supposes. “Is it nice?” he asks, only a little awkward.

Mitch grins. “I get to live with my best friends,” he says. “The team takes care of us. They really value us here.”

And something about that sentence, when Mitch says it- it rings a bell, familiar from somewhere John can’t quite place. He doesn’t get a chance to dwell on it before Mitch keeps talking.

“Ooh, and if you go on the roof you can see all the city lights, it’s really cool.”

John pulls on his backpack. “Is it weird sleeping at work?”

“We don’t sleep,” Mitch corrects, easy. “Wifi’s really good, though.” He stuffs his gear into its bag without any order whatsoever. John bites his tongue. “I keep trying to convince the trainers to install a projector in Matts’ mouth. How badass would that be, for movie nights?”

“Non-consensual modifications-”

“-are illegal in sentient AIs, I know, buzzkill.” Mitch does this huge, really dramatic sigh, and leans his face into John’s side. He has a habit of making himself comfortable in people’s space. John doesn’t mind it as much as he thought he would, but he shoves Mitch off of him – gently – and they walk out side by side.

It’s easy to be used to having Mitch on his wing. Makes other things easier too, and John can’t help himself but start to feel at home, to let himself relax, just a little. Not- he’s still focused, obviously, he knows what his priorities are, but he goes to the leadership meeting at Second Cup and chirps Mo for his ridiculously sugary drinks and actually participates in the small talk before they get down to business, and he lets Mitch make him go out with the guys when they’re on the road.

It’s fun. Which isn’t the point of anything, obviously, but it’s fun anyways. They’re good guys, the guys in this room.

---

The Islanders come to Toronto. John would have the date memorized even if he wasn’t getting asked about it every scrum for a week. The league seems to be enjoying all the media attention, the way they’re amping it up. Stories are better with a bad guy, is the logic, John thinks.

He doesn’t think he’s a very good bad guy. The league doesn’t seem to care.

It’s an ugly game. Second half of a back to back, but John’s never been one for excuses and he’s not starting now. The funny part is – not funny-ha ha, but funny-strange – is that he’s not actually that mad about it. And that’s just- he didn’t get to the NHL by not getting mad about losses, by not holding himself accountable, but the boys are still chatting in the room after, subdued but normal, and Mitch is all excited because he’s going to get to see Marty again, and John feels mostly okay. Just another game.

That should probably be his warning sign. That’s not like him, not at all.

He runs into Mitch and Marty on his way out of the room, right after they must’ve just said goodbye – Mitch offers John a fist bump, tucks himself under Auston’s arm, and the two of them and Will walk out, trailed by the suits from MLSE. Usually John would just leave, but it’s Marty, so he lingers.

“You doing good?” he asks, and Marty smiles at him, drags him into one of those bro-hug handshakes, jovial.

“I’m always good,” he says. “Mitchy won’t shut up about you, though.”

John shakes his head, fond. “Say hi to the guys, eh?” he says, and it’s nothing, Marty’s still grinning, but there’s just the smallest hesitation as he meets John’s eyes. It sticks out, obvious. John drops Marty’s hand. “Oh.”

“I’ll say hi,” Marty says, too late and they both know it. John doesn’t mind silences, usually, but the one that follows is distinctly awkward.

“They know it wasn’t personal,” he says, a little lamely.

Marty kind of laughs, mostly sympathetically. “It can’t not be, man,” he says, kind. “Maybe you didn’t mean it to be, but- you got to know something like that is personal.”

“It wasn’t,” John says, nearly before Marty’s done his sentence. He doesn’t understand why it’s so hard for everyone to get. “I went where I’d have the best chance of winning for longest. It’s like- math. I don’t know what else you want me to say.”

He’s not sure what he says wrong, but it’s something – Marty gives him this look, inscrutable and maybe a little disappointed. This little shake of his head. “You fit in well here, Johnny, you know that?” Like John’s confirming something he expected, and not in a particularly good way.

John doesn’t get it until later, that Marty meant it in reference to the androids thing. Maybe as a little bit of an insult, too, and all at once, John’s just exhausted by all of it.

He just wants to play fucking hockey. It’s everything to him. Everything he’s ever cared about happens on 200 feet of ice and nowhere else, not joking around in the locker room, not going out with the boys the way he let himself get convinced to.

Too often. He shouldn’t have.

This is on him, this loss. He let the boundaries get blurred, let himself forget why he came here in the first place. People act like it’s a bad thing, Marty and fans and everyone with an opinion, but the fact is that John has dedicated every single moment of his life to hockey, and if he’s not successful at that, at his one thing, then he’s a failure in everything. He doesn’t think that trying to avoid that makes him a bad guy. Trying to avoid that is the point. Or- it’s supposed to be.

John got complacent. Got caught up in the friendship stuff, the shit that doesn’t matter. Charmed, just like everyone else around Mitch.

He won’t again.

---

They sit at the same table as usual for the As meeting. Mo and Patrick are chatty as ever, as if they’re not coming off their most pathetic loss all season.

“Sorry we couldn’t win that one for you, man,” is all Mo has to say about it. He’s got a cocoa powder moustache from his hot chocolate. Patty passes him a napkin, wordless.

“Next one,” is all Patty says, and Mo nods emphatically, like it’s some kind of guarantee, and he nudges John’s foot under the table, really friendly.

This isn’t why John came here. This isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing. This is why they’ve been losing.

He moves his foot away.

“I have some ideas about the power play,” John says, curt, and the other two exchange a look, and John doesn’t let himself care.

---

No one on this team knows how to take a hint.

Well. Mitch does, texting John ur bein kind of a bitch jt, which, sure, vaguely resembles English, but the rest of the team keeps acting all buddy-buddy, even when John quits going out with them, mutes the groupchat with all the memes and hardly speaks at all if it’s not about hockey. Not for the first time, but maybe for the first time that he lets himself be aware of it, John misses the weight of the C on his chest. It was pretty good for keeping him separate, when he wanted it to.

Zach tosses a towel at John in the room, playful. “You getting sushi with us, man?”

“No thank you,” John says, and he shoulders his backpack and leaves. Says no the next three times the guys ask him to do stuff away from the rink, and no one on this team can take a hint, but they get the message eventually. Mo’s persistent, but even he backs off after a couple of weeks of the cold shoulder. Just gives John these hurt looks that John pretends not to see.

John doesn’t feel guilty. He doesn’t. They win four straight. John will be too-serious bad guy John Tavares for the next seven years if it means they win like this.

He does what he has to. Shows up where he’s supposed to when he’s supposed to, heads to the gym early on off days and meets with the skating coaches to try to correct his stride, to get that extra half-step. Kyle’s not around often, but John sees him one morning, stepping out from a meeting with William in his office, already on his phone and on his way to somewhere else. He shoots John this quick smile before dashing off. It’s good that he’s busy. Means he’s working to make them better. John does the same.

He goes to dinner at his parents’, once he’s been putting them off long enough that it seems rude. He brings his running shoes so he can do his run around the block, after. He likes how the streetlights make the trees look, the ones that have been there since he was a kid.

“It’s too cold out, honey,” his mom says, all concerned.

“It’s not,” John says, and lets her smooth his hair down before he steps outside.

The only noise is his footsteps. It’s quiet, the way John likes it.

---

They practice up-tempo, line rushes with the new combos, everyone getting used to each other all over again. They don’t split up John and Mitch. They’d be stupid to split up John and Mitch.

John skates past the conversations that spring up after practice, leaves the guys to it and gets a new stick from the equipment staff so he can stay out longer. No one tries to drag him into joking around – good – and John mostly tunes them all out, only half-aware of Mitch and Auston chasing each other around, trying to get the puck past Freddie.

Someone had a sign in Columbus the other night, Robots Off Our Ice, and Willy didn’t react because Willy never reacts to anything, but the other two had noticed, visibly shaken. They seem fine now, darting around each other and cackling at some inside joke. Mitch lingers once Auston leaves, skating circles around John.

Mitch got the message same as everyone else, John’s pretty sure, but he’s been ignoring it, because that’s just Mitch.

“You okay?” he asks John when they’re the last two out on the ice, teeing up one-timers.

John keeps his tone neutral, because Mitch doesn’t deserve to think this is his fault. It’s not. “Fine.”

“I’m processing literally a thousand verbal and physical signals from you right now, and they all say you’re sad.”

“I’m not sad,” John says, then, “Don’t say I’m lying.”

“I won’t,” Mitch says. “But you are.”

John’s shot goes wide, too hard, into the glass.

“I just want to play hockey,” John says, then, “Please.”

They play hockey.

John knows Mitch better now, can predict more of what he’s going to do, but he’s still the prettiest skater John’s ever seen, still smarter than anyone on the ice, but John’s bigger and tougher and they don’t go easy on each other, scrimmaging for the puck and not practicing anything technical at all. Mitch must get what John needed, here, because he doesn’t say a single thing, doesn’t let up for a second until John’s lungs are burning with the exertion.

John does everything right, he focuses his entire life on this, pushes himself as far as he can and then further, but he’s still a human, still not what he could be, what he wants to be, and he doesn’t know how long they go but he eventually has no choice but to stop, doubled over and gasping for breath.

Not good enough, he thinks, and coughs. Not enough.

Mitch looks fine as he skids to a stop next to John. Not tired at all. He holds onto the end of John’s sleeve like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. John wonders what part of his code that is.

John spits on the ice, his ribs aching. He can’t breathe.

He doesn’t shake Mitch loose.

“You’re allowed to be happy here, you know?” Mitch says. Quiet, as if anyone else is around to hear. “Hockey’s fun.”

John shakes his head, still hunched over. “I let myself get distracted,” he gets out, tight. “I can’t do that here.”

“You’re not distracted,” Mitch says. “Have you seen yourself play? You’re not distracted at all.”

“That’s on the ice, I’m talking about-”

“You’re allowed to be distracted off the ice,” Mitch interrupts, all earnest. “That’s called having a life, humans love it, you should try it out.”

“Mitch,” John says. His throat feels tight. This is ridiculous.

“What?” Mitch asks, and anyone else in the world, John would mumble something and brush them off, but this is Mitch, maybe the only one who can understand.

“I can’t afford to mess this up,” John says, raw. “If I don’t win here, then what’s my excuse for doing what I did?”

Mitch is shaking his head before John’s even done his sentence. “You don’t need one,” he says. “You don’t need an excuse, you’re here, just- be here.”

John does shake Mitch off, then, just enough to free his hand so he can wipe at his mouth, and then at his eyes.

There’s a way John does things. A way John has always done things. This team, Mitch, they make it hard.

“Be here,” Mitch repeats, when John finally meets his eyes, and it’s not an order, it’s John’s liney- fuck, it’s John’s friend asking him for something, looking out for him, and John doesn’t know when exactly an android turned into the little brother he didn’t ask for, but he is now, and he’s asking John for something, and John doesn’t think he knows how to say no.

“Fine,” he says, exhausted, and this time, when Mitch grabs his sleeve again, John doesn’t make him let go.

---

(“We could get hot chocolate,” John suggests, when he and Mo are walking to their cars after the game. It’s a precursor to an apology. John’s bad at apologies.

Mo raises an eyebrow at him. “You’re never in your life going to drink something that unhealthy,” he says; but then, “But okay.”

“Really?” John asks. “I didn’t say sorry yet.”

Mo rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. “You’re team,” he says, simple, like that absolves John of being a jerk for the last few weeks. Maybe in his mind it does. He’d be a good captain, John thinks.

He’s team. This is his team.

Things are okay.)

---

They celebrate everyone’s holidays all at once, wives and kids and families all mingling around the Marleaus’ house. It’s loud, the way it’s supposed to be, a dozen overlapping conversations and way too much food, even with the amount of people here. John allows himself one gingerbread cookie. It’s the best thing he’s ever tasted, honestly. Possibly because he hasn’t had junk food in literal years. Still, he’s got a reputation to maintain, so he makes a face when he eats it and says something about preferring kale. It makes the guys laugh. John’s getting pretty decent at that.

“Good night, eh?” Patty asks, sliding into the seat next to John. It’s late, no games or practices to worry about for the next couple of days.

“Good,” John agrees, and Patty smiles at him before looking around the room with this contented sigh. John follows his gaze toward where his kids are passed out, sprawled across the couch and mostly on top of Auston and Mitch. And it’s those two that catch and hold John’s attention, something about the way they’re bent close together. It’s just talking, but they’re smiling at each other, utterly ignoring the rest of the room, and as John watches, Auston raises a hand to where Mitch’s arm is propped on the couch and laces their fingers.

Oh, John thinks.

His first reaction isn’t surprise. It should be, maybe, because the possibility isn’t one he’s thought of before. He knows- some people have sex with androids, obviously, because humans are probably incapable of creating a new technology without trying to figure out how to use it to get off; and sure, there’s the odd case in the news of someone declaring their love for their housekeeping droid and trying to marry it, but he’s never heard of something like this. No humans involved.

“Can they…” he starts then trails off, unsure what he’s even trying to ask. It’s- ‘consent’ sounds too serious. He doesn’t think for a second that Mitch or Auston would hurt the other. Just- they’re programmed to do what people want. Mitch especially. “How much in control of this are they?”

He doesn’t explain what he’s talking about, but Patrick seems to get it anyways. Shrugs a shoulder. “As much as anyone is, I guess.” He’s looking over at Mitch and Auston as well, and his eyes are sad. Mitch says something, inaudible from here, and it makes Auston laugh, and Mitch leans in, nudging their noses together. They look human. They look- it’s just normal. Tender enough that John looks away.

“I didn’t know,” John says, quiet.

“They’re good kids,” Patty says, firm. “They make each other happy.” There’s something protective in how he says it, and John gets it, he thinks, because it’s the biggest gap in the world, the space between the shit people yell about robots at games and the two of them in front of him here looking like any pair of boyfriends in the world.

It’s not what John expected, coming here. They’re not what he expected.

Patty sighs. “The team guys’ll be here to get them soon,” he says. “I should tell them to get ready.”

John’s got a hand on Patty’s elbow, stopping him from getting up, without meaning to. Patty shoots him a questioning look.

“Give them a few more minutes,” John says, asks. He just- he thinks they should get this moment without the team watching them. Doesn’t want to take it from them.

Patrick doesn’t move to get up, just gives John this approving kind of look, so maybe he’s on the same page.

---

John hits 35 goals, Mitch gets 75 points, and there’s still a lot of season left to work with. The playoffs are getting close, a threat and a promise all at the same time. An opportunity. John tends to see every game as an opportunity, to be better and do better and push the team more. It’s a good way to avoid the monotony of the season, usually; but then it’s the night before they play on the Island for the first time, and it’s just another game, objectively, but John’s been lying in his bed, unable to sleep, for three hours, and he thinks some monotony would be alright right now, please.

There’s a knock on the door of his hotel room.

He opens the door to see Mitch standing there, wide-eyed and terrified, and before John can even speak, Mitch steps right into him and clutches him into a hug, his face pressed into John’s t-shirt. He’s clinging, enough that it hurts.

“Uh,” John says, unsure what to do with his arms.

“Sorry,” Mitch says, and doesn’t let go. “I have to protect you.” And the concept of Mitch protecting him is bizarre enough that it takes John a second to even process; and he doesn’t waste much time on it even once he does, too busy thinking back to the only other times he’s seen Mitch genuinely upset like this.

“Is this- it’s the internet thing again?” John asks, and Mitch nods, and something in John aches to think of it, Mitch’s software compensating, correcting, picking up on enough of what people are saying to make him think John needs protecting.

John doesn’t have to wonder what they’re saying.

“They really hate me, huh?” he asks. Not quite joking. Maybe trying to be.

“They hate you so much,” Mitch says into John’s shirt, and John does laugh at that, even though it’s not really funny. Not really funny at all, and then Mitch goes on, sort of bewildered, “They loved you so much,” and John’s laugh splinters into something sour in his mouth.

He doesn’t regret leaving. He’s never once regretted leaving. He thinks he might regret some of what that means, about him and for the people that cared about him.

He didn’t want to be the bad guy. Doesn’t know what to do with the fact that he might be.

He doesn’t know how long he stands there, letting Mitch hold onto him. Too long, evidently, because the same team of suits from the team that trails the young guys everywhere shows up at the end of the hall. They look relieved when they see Mitch. He must not have told them he was leaving. John didn’t know he had to.

“It’s past curfew, Mitch,” one of them says, pointed.

“Sorry,” Mitch says, and he pulls back a little, obeying automatically, only he’s still clutching a handful of John’s shirt like he’s scared to let go. He seems torn, staring up at John and still looking more terrified than he should ever look, and John abruptly hates them, MLSE, hates them so much he doesn’t know what to do with it. He knows what he’s supposed to do, the way they’re looking expectantly at him, waiting for him to do the right thing.

Good soldier, John reminds himself, and he knows what he has to do, so he does it.

“I’m okay,” he says to Mitch. Quiet. It’s their business. “Like any other game, eh?” He reaches down and tugs his shirt out of Mitch’s hand, gentle. “Go get some sleep.”

“I don’t sleep,” Mitch reminds him, like habit.

“Some rest,” John corrects himself, and this time Mitch listens, glances back one more time at him before trailing the guards down the hall.

John stands there too long before closing his door. He’s got a game tomorrow, two points on the line. Did the right thing, what he’s supposed to. No real reason, objectively, to dwell. Mitch is fine.

It feels-

It didn’t feel good, watching him walk down the hall. Right, maybe, but not good.

John doesn’t know.

---

It’s what John expected, mostly.

The crowd boos all the way through the video tribute, and they’re usually not this long, they can’t be, because this one is stretching out forever in a way that has to be intentional, and John can feel it, both benches determinedly avoiding eye contact, no one quite sure how they’re supposed to react. It’s incredibly, painfully, nails-on-a-chalkboard uncomfortable.

“Fuckin’ bot,” someone jeers from behind the bench, and John doesn’t let himself react. He’s known for a while how thoroughly he burned any bridges he once had here. Still doesn’t think he’s really understood, ‘til now, what it is to be the bad guy.

He shuts down. Stays stony-faced, the way he usually does. The booing goes on longer than the tribute.

The game goes about how John expected, too.

He hoped-

Doesn’t matter what he hoped.

They lose, bad. Worse than the first time.

sorry, John gets after, a text from Barzy.

It’s pitying, somehow feels even worse than the mumbled apologies from the guys as they trail out of the visitor’s room at the coliseum.

John can’t muster up anything but irritation. Can’t bring himself to respond, either, no matter how much he reminds himself that it’s not personal, none of this is supposed to be personal. It’s hockey, it’s-

He digs his nails into his palm hard enough to leave little cuts, tries to force himself to calm down. It’s not like last time. He won’t pull into himself like last time. He can have friends here, it’s just a loss.

The crowd was loud, still echoing in his head. John hates that it is, hates that this means what it does to him. It shouldn’t be personal. It’s not.

“Win the next one,” he says to himself, and doesn’t let himself feel anything else.

---

(And then-

The next home game, when they’re announcing the starting lineup, John skates out to the blue line and realizes he’s alone.

The hair on the back of his neck stands on end, that’s how loud the crowd is, when they announce his name. John stares up into the stands, at the lights and the signs and the noise, for him, and he doesn’t know what to do at all, feels like a kid in his knockoff Leafs jersey from the department store staying out and shooting into the garage door until his hands got a callus.

He’s a Toronto Maple Leaf. He gets this.

The guys rejoin him on the blue line before the anthems. Mo bumps up against him, there like he always is, all heart like he always is; and then Mitch is at John’s other side, knocks their helmets together.

“Love you, bro,” Mitch says, and he’s practically humming with it, feeding off the crowd and the internet and how much this city loves them, and John can only nod, but he knows that Mitch will understand.

And there’s still that coiled-up something in his stomach, there like always and telling him to focus, to get his head in the game, but tonight John doesn’t listen to it. He just stays here, in his city, with his friends, and listens to the crowd cheer. Not a distraction, not at all.

They’ll win this one. John knows it before the puck even hits the ice. Some things just make sense.)

---

It shouldn’t happen at all, but when it does, they’re on the powerplay, and it definitely shouldn’t happen then. John doesn’t actually see the hit – the puck goes into the corner and he’s battling for it, because they’re down one and they need a goal here – but he hears the crowd react and the whistle blow and when he looks over his shoulder, Auston’s flat out on the ice and Mitch’s gloves are dropped.

John’s into it quick, Zach close behind him, they all are, because Mitch doesn’t fight, that’s not what he does, and it’s obvious how bad at it he is. That doesn’t stop him – Auston’s shorted out on the ice, completely out, and Mitch looks furious like John’s never seen him, fists flying. John gets a handful of his jersey, tries to tug him back and gets a Bruin’s elbow in his face.

“Mitch, stop, we’ll fix him up, you’re gonna get kicked out,” Mo orders, wedging himself in between Mitch and the rest of the scrum. Mitch utterly ignores him.

“He did it on purpose,” Mitch is snarling. “You hurt him on purpose, you-”

It’s bizarre, what happens next – Mitch goes from swinging wildly to clutching his head, wincing, even though Mo’s mostly shielding him from any actual blows.

“Hey,” John says, and Mitch’s eyes are twitching and John knows that look, that’s the look he gets when he’s getting overloaded with feedback, and then his eyes roll all the way back and he collapses, limp, just like Auston, except he didn’t get hit. John hardly has time to catch him, looks over at the bench to call for a trainer, but they’re already on their tablets, and they don’t look surprised.

They shut Mitch down. On purpose, in the middle of a game, they shut him down.

The noise of the crowd, at an excited crescendo during the fight, has puttered out into confused murmuring, no one quite sure what to do. John’s not quite sure what to do.

The med staff is spilling onto the ice, forming into two clusters around Mitch and Auston, squeezing John out of the circle.

“Are they okay?” Mo asks, and John’s right behind him, but they don’t get an answer, just the ref pushing past them to speak into his headset.

“Get them off, now, I know,” he says, like he’s repeating an order from somewhere else, glancing up at the executive suites before heading over to convene with the linesmen.

“Why would Mitchy do that?” Zach asks, and John shakes his head because it’s Mitch defending his boyfriend, and that part he can understand, but Mo told him to stop, the team has directly told Mitch not to get into it with people, and Mitch didn’t listen at all. He’s supposed to listen.

The rest of the game feels bad, like time’s slowed to a crawl and racing at the speed of light, both at once. They lose it in regulation and John’s off the ice as soon as the buzzer goes, down the hall and into the room and then he just stands there in the entrance because neither Mitch nor Auston is there.

The team trails in after him. John’s never heard them this quiet.

It’s wrong. It feels wrong, the way Auston got hurt, the way Mitch took a dumb penalty and got shut down by his own team. It shouldn’t- they all know the guys are androids, obviously, but to be reminded this blatantly, this publicly… Everyone’s shaken by it. Or, John realizes, almost everyone: Willy’s standing at his stall, tugging his sweater off and folding it up all tidy. Just there, unbothered as ever.

John’s making his way over to him before he consciously decides to. “Are they okay?” he asks, without preamble, and William looks surprised that John would even ask.

“We’re all valued members of the team, John,” he says, and it’s not a yes, technically, but John might just chalk it up to Willy being Willy, except that he’s heard that phrase too many times for it to be a coincidence, and that he happens to glance over Willy’s shoulder and lock eyes with Kappy. And it’s not like Kap’s one of the guys that John’s especially close with on the team, but the look on his face, just then-

He looks heartbroken. Just this raw, miserable thing, and then he realizes John’s staring and ducks his head, too late.

That bad feeling, the one John’s had since Auston went down, comes back full force. He can imagine what the anti-AI people are saying now, what kind of PR crisis this is. Can’t bring himself to care, not ‘til he sees Mitch and knows he’s okay.

William just goes back to getting undressed, this faint, blank smile on his face. Nothing at all behind it.

Bad, is hammering away in John’s chest, his heart still beating hard from the game. Wrong, wrong-

He changes quick, has to stuff his things into his backpack unfolded and jog down the hall to catch up to Kappy as he leaves.

“Hey,” John says; then, when Kappy doesn’t stop storming out, reaches out and grabs his arm. “Hey. Stop. Can we talk?”

Kappy shrugs him off, shoves his hands in his pockets and talks fast and abrasive, that way he has. “No offense, JT, but if you’re trying to have a heart-to-heart-”

“I promise I actively avoid those,” John says. He doesn’t waste time. “What happened with you and William?”

They’re not friends. They’re not anything, but that look’s on Kap’s face again, the heartbroken one, and John has this absurd urge to hug him. Some captain instinct that he doesn’t need to have anymore.

“Please,” he says, when the silence stretches out, and Kappy closes his eyes. John thinks that’s it, that he’s not going to get anywhere, but then-

“We were fucking,” Kap says, then, before John can even speak, “Don’t say it’s weird.”

“I wasn’t going to,” John says, after a moment’s stunned pause. It’s true, he wasn’t going to say it. Think it, maybe, and maybe he shouldn’t, but the grey area is just- even best case scenario, Kappy’s going to get old and Willy isn’t, Kappy could get traded and Willy’s technically team property, there’s a million reasons why it won’t work, and that’s best case, which John is quickly realizing this isn’t.

“It wasn’t just-” Kappy’s staring at his feet, his face all crumpled up and his cheeks red. He’s talking faster than usual. “I was his favourite ever since we were both with the Marlies, we just, like- he’s my best friend, I swear to god.”

“It’s okay,” John says, and it’s more true this time than before. “I’m not- it’s your business.”

Kap looks queasy, but he nods, still not meeting John’s eyes. Doesn’t run off.

“What happened?” John prompts, not sure if he wants an answer.

He gets one.

“He wasn’t like this,” Kappy says. “Will. He signed, and we called before he got on his plane here and he was normal. He had his meeting with them, then I got to practice, and he was like he is now.” He shakes his head, does this disgusted sound. “Just… there. Blank.”

John puts two and two together. “You think someone did something to him,” he says, incredulous.

“You don’t know how he used to be,” Kappy says darkly. “They did something to him.”

It’s a serious allegation. It’s the kind of thing that ruins careers and causes ethical hearings and puts people in jail, because modifying sentient androids without consent has been illegal for years, was the basis for every rights case since.

It can’t be true. John- he’s not the kind of person to jump to conclusions, not without considering the facts, and right now he doesn’t have any, just Kappy being upset about a breakup, or- or an almost-breakup. There’s no way, John reasons, no way that this kind of thing could be happening, because it would mean that someone modified William’s brain behind management’s back, in spite of all their security, in spite of all the league regulations in place.

“Do you believe me?” Kap asks, and John looks at him, doesn’t let himself react.

“I don’t know,” he says.

Kappy’s face twists, something bitter. Mostly just pitiful. “Fine,” he says, holding John’s gaze and shaking his head. “Fine, whatever. You saw what Mitch did tonight. You’ll see him tomorrow. You’ll believe me then.”

John doesn’t react. He doesn’t react then, and he doesn’t when he’s sitting in his car nearly half an hour later, the key in the ignition and the car still in the lot without having moved an inch.

He should go home and rest up for practice tomorrow. Conspiracy theories are just that, theories, and there’s rules in place for exactly this reason, so John doesn’t have to worry about this kind of thing.

John turns the key to start his car, watches the dash light up.

He hesitates.

If someone did something to William, if they want to do something to Auston, to Mitch…

John huffs out a breath, annoyed with himself.

It’s simplistic to bring things down to Mitch Marner. It’s stupid to bring things down to Mitch Marner.

John does anyways.

---

The MLSE building is quiet, this time of night.

It feels wrong, being here. Not breaking and entering – John’s got a keycard, it’s the opposite of breaking and entering – but still bizarre, like breaking some unspoken rule about where he’s supposed to be and when.

John makes his way down the halls, slow in the dark. There’s light from under the doors leading to the stairwells, the edge of the buttons for the elevator. The faint, orangey glow of the exit signs. John’s footsteps are the only sound, muffled on the carpet.

He doesn’t know what he’s looking for until he finds it, fourth floor and through enough doorways that it starts to feel like a maze: there’s a faint humming of machines, distant then closer, then John rounds one last corner and comes face to face with a wall of screens, three figures silhouetted in front. And that’s the thing about spending half your time on planes together, is you get really familiar with the shapes of guys’ heads, and John recognizes these ones instantly.

“Mitch,” he says, relieved, ready to laugh at himself for overreacting, “Guys.”

They don’t move. They don’t react at all.

John moves closer, his eyes adjusting to the light so that he can see the panels opened in the boys’ necks, each one with a little blinking light, wires leading out and into the computers. It’s jarring, how distinctly not human it is. How not human they look, and John doesn’t know what to do, looking at Mitch’s eyes staring at nothing, utterly blank.

“John?”

John wheels around, startled, but it’s only Kyle, straightening his glasses and blinking foggily, his hair sticking up at the back like he just woke up.

“Sorry,” John says, automatic.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kyle says, sheepish enough to look almost boyish. “I fell asleep at my desk, so. Better you than the janitor.”

It’s not the sort of thing John’s come to expect from GMs. Kind of disarming, given John mostly came here ready to demand answers, but John can respect hard work, and he somehow finds himself nearly bemused as he asks, “Do you do that a lot?”

Kyle shrugs. “The players devote their time and energy to the team. Seems only fair that I do the same.”

He crosses the room to stand next to John, so they’re side by side, looking at Mitch and Auston and Willy. Doesn’t say anything else.

John shoves his hands in his pockets. “I know we’re not supposed to be back here.”

Kyle hardly even reacts, still looking at the guys, contemplative. “Today was concerning. It’s understandable that you’d want to know more.”

John hesitates, but asks, because he thinks he’s allowed, “What’s happening with them?”

Kyle hums. Doesn’t answer the question, exactly. “It’s kind of a strange balance,” he muses. “The fans want the kind of sustained success that’s only possible with androids, but they don’t want to wear a jersey belonging to a piece of metal. They want someone to root for. Toronto more than most places.” He turns to look at John, eyes bright. No trace of sleep left.

“That’s why the engineering is so brilliant, right? The AI responds to what the city wants. We facilitate it, sure, let them have their own social media presence, encourage personality, but people forget what they’re looking at. They really do find them lovable.”

“The guys love them,” John says. “They love each other.” It’s not quite a correction, and Kyle inclines his head, not quite an agreement.

“Unforeseen consequence,” he says. “No personal loyalties should be able to supersede the team in their priorities. Lucky for us, it’s a pretty easy fix.” He elbows John, this buddy-buddy kind of gesture, like they’re both in on the joke.

It takes John a moment to make sense of it, to reconcile Kyle’s words with the lines of code on the screens, the wires leading into the guys, to realize, no, not in. Out.

Taking, not giving.

He thought that if someone was hurting the guys, it was someone going being management’s back, wasn’t sure how they’d manage it. Didn’t consider the obvious answer.

John looks from the computers to Kyle, head spinning. “You’re erasing them,” John realizes out loud.

“Only the inconvenient parts,” Kyle says, without missing a beat. “We can’t have them acting like Mitch did today. It compromises the team.”

It’s this creeping, awful sensation, the truth sinking in and sitting like a pit in John’s stomach. The inconvenient parts, Kyle said, and he means the parts that made Mitch try to fight someone for Auston, the parts that care, he’s going to get rid of those; and as John thinks that it hits him.

“William,” John says, pained, Kappy’s story running through his head, all the talk about Willy acting different. He should have known, he has to have known this, but Kyle’s not the kind of person to do this, he’s- John liked him.

“Handy negotiating tool, right?” Kyle says now, light. “More convenient if we’d done it before signing, but I guess we know for next time.”

John’s shaking his head. “It’s illegal,” is all he says, stupid. Still half-convinced he’s imagining this “Post-activation mods on sentient androids, it’s illegal.”

“That’s why we don’t tell people, John,” Kyle says, like stating the obvious.

“The league can’t be okay with this.”

“The league understands that it’s an entertainment product,” Kyle says, and anyone else, it would be dodging an answer, only there’s something fervent in his voice, the kind of almost-religious conviction that convinced John to sign, like he really, genuinely believes in what he’s saying, “You have to realize that our government is backwards, here. It’s old, rich men trying to play with technology they don’t understand and putting morals where they don’t belong.”

He turns on his heel so he’s facing the screens, and the scrolling text casts shadows on his face, makes him look like something unearthly. “People get these- these baseless ideas about treating androids like they’re the same as us, and we can show them what they want to see, but I look at the technology that we have and the financial abilities of this team, and John, I see incredible, amazing potential that we’re only just beginning to harness.” He looks over his shoulder at John, serious. “It would be a complete disservice to the Toronto Maple Leafs not to take full advantage.”

He’s the guy who talked a city into supporting three androids, who talked John into turning his entire life upside-down – Kyle’s easy to believe. He’s always been easy to believe.

John wants to believe him.

He swallows. His voice comes out steadier than he feels. “You said they’re valued members of the team.”

Kyle doesn’t miss a beat. “I do value them,” he says. “Very highly.”

“Not enough to let them know what you’re doing to them.”

“Would you react well to being told that parts of your memory and personality can be eliminated at will?” Kyle says, thoughtful, like they’re debating some rhetorical question. “That seems needlessly distressing.”

It lands strangely, almost kindly. The tone doesn’t match the words. John looks at Mitch, at him getting erased right in front of John’s eyes. John doesn’t move. He doesn’t do anything.

“I get it, having misgivings,” Kyle says, serious, and meets John’s eyes. He speaks friendly as anything, authoritative enough that it’s easy not to question. “It can be hard to remind your brain that they’re not actually humans. But that just means the AI is doing its job.”

“They feel things,” John says, too quiet, and he can’t tear his eyes away from Mitch’s, lifeless in the way John’s never seen them. He half-expects him to grin, to sit right up and start chattering same as always. “They’re people.”

“They’re robots,” Kyle says, firm. “We tell them what to do and they do it.”

The words echo, familiar, in John’s brain. He can’t place them, at first, and then it clicks in his mind, Kyle being asked about him months ago at the charity dinner, “John’s a good soldier, he knows what he has to do and he does it.”

A compliment, he said, after.

And that’s what it comes down to, John thinks. Kyle Dubas and his good soldiers, humans or androids, it doesn’t matter, they’re all chess pieces. The kind of things to serve a function, to be erased when inconvenient to the team, and whether the league knows or doesn’t or pretends not to to save face, John doesn’t know, but it doesn’t matter, because the end result is the same.

The end result is winning, says this awful, ugly voice in John’s head, and for this one stretched-out second, John lets himself want that, what he thought he wanted all along, efficiency and focus and no time wasted on anything but what happens on the ice. He made an entire city hate him, to come here and win.

But that was him. That was John’s choice.

He looks at Mitch one more time, then at Kyle.

“No,” John says.

Kyle raises an eyebrow. He looks amused, like he doesn’t think he heard John right. “No?”

John shakes his head. “No.”

He doesn’t know what he’s hoping for. Can’t quite be surprised when Kyle just keeps talking, his voice nearly indulgent.

“Look,” he says, entreating, placating. “If you’re concerned about the reprogramming making Mitch- I don’t know, frigid or something, we can work in a subroutine so he’ll still do whatever you want from him. I’m not judging.”

John’s slow to get what Kyle is saying, and then he does, and then he feels sick. Completely sick. The amount of times he saw Willy leaving Kyle’s office; Kyle now, offering Mitch up like he’s a thing to offer, not even questioning that John would go along with it, fall in step like a good soldier.

John sees red.

Not his fucking team. Not while he’s got an A on his sweater and guys relying on him, his friends relying on him and getting sold out by the person they’re supposed to trust.

He’s hardly even aware of Kyle holding out a hand to shake. “We both came here to win, John.”

And John’s not Kyle Dubas, not any sort of genius or particularly smart or personable at all, really, but he does know how to throw a punch, and that’s what he does now, just bypasses the handshake and hits Kyle square in the face so his glasses shatter and he goes staggering backwards.

“Fuck yourself,” John says, because winning isn’t worth this. It isn’t worth people.

He catches himself off guard with the thought – it’s not one he’s had before – and then with the realization that he very much did just punch his general manager in the face, and wonders if the last year has just been an early midlife crisis or a too-late teenage rebellion.

He can’t bring himself to feel bad. Doesn’t try that hard at it.

“Wake them up,” John orders, stiff. “All three, right now, with all their memories, or I’m telling the team.” He considers that, then Mo going all mama bear scary, then adds, “The press, too.”

Kyle looks completely floored, like it never occurred to him for a second that John would be anything less than utterly convinced by him. “John,” he says, a lot less dignified as he’s pinching the bridge of his bloody nose, his glasses hanging from one ear. “Can we think about what’s best for the team, here?”

“I am,” John says, because he is, for his team. Not the Maple Leaf, not the points in the win column, but the people in the room, on the ice with him every day. They’re his. They’re team.

League wants a bad guy, John figures – fine. They can have one.

---

It only takes a couple of trips to move the guys out of MLSE facilities.

The day’s still chilly, but not bad enough that going in and out carrying boxes is unpleasant. John loads up his car, spends most of the afternoon helping get Auston and Mitch set up in the spare room at Patty’s. Neither of them knows why the sudden change from management. John doesn’t actually know if they buy what Kyle says about team chemistry, one eye nervously on John the whole conversation. John doesn’t think Auston and Mitch care much – they’re almost as thrilled as the Marleau kids, practically bouncing around, already planning movie nights.

Patty and Christina offered to find room for Willy as well. John didn’t even raise the question, just drove Willy to Kappy’s place and barely managed to stop the car before Willy was flinging the door open, launching himself at Kappy in this all-in embrace that made John want to avert his eyes, too intimate for other people. It’s more than John thinks he’s ever seen William feel. There was so, so much missing of him. Almost missing from the others.

John doesn’t let himself dwell. Too much to do. He’s not naïve enough to think MLSE or the league will let this go so easily. He’ll have to tell someone, have to figure out a plan to keep everyone safe.

For today, though, he just sets down the last box then looks around the small bedroom, at the dresser and the double bed, and then at Mitch over by the wall, standing on his toes to put up a Bon Jovi poster. He and Auston both gravitated towards it when they stopped at Walmart to get toiletries, some inside joke that John doesn’t know about. He doesn’t pry. Figures they’ve earned something just for themselves.

John crosses the room, helps Mitch smooth the poster down flat. The adhesive’s a little bump under the paper.

Mitch glances over at John, reaches out and touches his knuckles, light. They’re scabbing over, not-quite-tender from the punch John hasn’t quite come around to regretting.

John pulls his hand out of Mitch’s reach. “Looks good,” he says. Going for casual. Mitch doesn’t buy it.

“You’re not telling me everything,” Mitch says. Not suspicious, because John doesn’t think he does suspicious, but curious. He’s smarter than he acts, more than perceptive enough to pick up on something. “Something happened, though.”

“Just a scrape,” John says. He can agree with one thing Kyle said: Mitch puts every ounce of trust he’s got into the Leafs organization. He doesn’t need to know that they’ve been using him like a thing this entire time. Kyle was right about it being distressing. John’s not doing that to him, not after everything.

Mitch is still staring at John, all contemplative, but he doesn’t push. Just reaches out and takes John’s hand again, the scraped-up one, and holds on. They both look down at their joined hands. John’s is bigger.

“Flesh and blood,” Mitch says, quiet.

“Had to protect you,” John says, and he means it as kind of a joke, a call-back, but it doesn’t really land, the same way most of his jokes tend not to.

Mitch hugs him, tight, like he gets it anyways.

John gets an arm around Mitch, ducks to lean his head on Mitch’s shoulder. It’s not the best angle. He can feel the warmth of machines whirring under Mitch’s skin, almost like a heartbeat. Close enough.

“Love you,” John mumbles into Mitch’s shirt.

Mitch doesn’t make a big deal of it. Just squeezes John like he knows what he’s saying, like they understand each other. John thinks they do. And-

Close enough.