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The hotel door rattled on its hinges when Dylan slammed it shut. Fucking Coyotes. Fucking Arizona. Stupid fucking hockey. He crumpled to the floor behind the closed door, dropping his head onto his knees and digging his knuckles hard into his eye sockets until the urge to scream finally receded. From the inside of his bag, the phone kept going off as it had for the entire ride back from the rink. Eleven games. He couldn’t believe he’d been sent down again. He couldn’t– 

Deep breaths. He forced himself to keep his inhales and exhales steady even as the growing pit of anger and shame behind his diaphragm was leaving him breathless, cheeks burning up and eyes stinging in a warring mix of emotions.

He couldn’t believe Chayka or Tocchet hadn’t phoned to tell him, spared him the humiliation of having to see the pity on the rest of the team’s faces. No, he had to find out after he’d already headed into the Gila for their pre-game practice skate against the Panthers, just as he was changing into his gear and everything. The godfucking indignity.

There was one half of him that just wanted to wallow in the misery, whine that it wasn’t fair, call Davo or Brinksy or Merks or Law to rant about what a fucking shitty job the Yotes were doing at developing their players. The other half was more insidious, whispering that maybe it really was his own damn fault for not performing, that he deserved to be sent down and maybe he was destined to be a career AHLer after all.

There was no time for any of that thinking though. He had shit to pack up and a two-hour drive down to Tucson ahead of him. Chayka’d said the coaches were expecting him down there for practice first thing in the morning. The Roadrunners had back-to-backs against Stockton in three days, and he had a team to acclimatize to. Not that much would have changed in the barely three weeks he’d been in Glendale, though, realistically speaking.

He’d probably need to change his plane tickets for Christmas, what with the AHL having a longer break. No point wasting time alone in a hotel room in Tucson when he could spend an extra couple of days with his parents. Shit, he should probably call his parents.

After a few more seconds of moping, he got up from the floor, recovering his bag from where he’d thrown it across the far wall in his anger. He’d shoved his phone into a glove at the bottom of the bag when he’d left the rink, gear haphazardly thrown on top in the hopes that it would mute the grating sound of non-stop calls and notifications. It hadn’t helped much. Having to dig around with shaky hands to find it again wasn’t helping with the frustration either.

Finally, having found the thing, he crawled up into the bed and under the blankets, still dressed in the suit he’d shown up to the rink in. It wouldn’t help the situation much, but the weight of the duvet over him was the closest he was going to get to a hug. He wished he could get some comfort from his mom, or even better, Connor, but both were thousands of miles away, so no luck there.

There was a moment of bitter disappointment as he scrolled through the notifications and didn’t see anything from Davo. Surely, he had to have heard by now? Then he remembered – the Oilers had played the Sharks the night before and they didn’t have practice until late afternoon today. Connor liked sleeping in after games when he could. He looked up at the digital clock on the bedside table and yeah, still way too early for him to be awake.

He swiped away the notifications from the Roadrunners group chat, which was reading over a hundred unread messages. He would catch up with it later. The Yotes chat didn’t have any new messages which, yeah, understandable, he’d only been here for three weeks and they were in the middle of skate. That didn’t stop the flush of inadequacy he felt, the misery of being sent off without a fair chance to prove himself yet again.

Getting sent back to Erie that second year had been horrible, but in the grand scheme of things, he knew he probably did need more developing, so he’d kept his head down and worked his ass off for it. Making the roster out of camp this season had felt like the culmination of his efforts, his chance to prove it to everyone that he wasn’t the bust they’d already started calling him. And then he’d gotten sent down after only two fucking games. That’d been the definition of shitty. But again, he’d gone to work, got named November’s AHL Rookie of the Month, and went on a tear putting up 26 points in 15 games until the Yotes had to call him back up.

Now, here he was again after only eleven NHL games, being sent back down again. And what for? Not even a conditioning stint, but because they’d gotten another poor motherfucker from Wilkes-Barre. What the fuck was wrong with the Yotes that they were demoting the players in their own system in favor of ones from the Pens’ affiliate? Why the fuck couldn’t Josh fucking Archibald go to Tucson instead of him? Well, that wasn’t really fair, it wasn’t like he’d been playing well or putting up any sort of points with the Yotes. He was just so tired of it though.

His phone kept blinking with seven missed calls from his mom and another two from his dad. There was a call me when you can message from Ryan, and Law and Merks had both messaged him with an invitation to go out and commiserate as soon as he got back to Tucson, including colorful insults to the Yotes GM that made him smile despite himself. The guys got it. Dude that sucks, Marns had written. Brinksy had gone the Snapchat route, captioning a black background with half a dozen sad emojis.

He left them all on read, opening the call log to call back his mom instead. He’d get back to them at some point, but he just couldn’t now. The phone ringed twice before connecting, but it was long enough that Dylan felt the knot in his throat thicken and his eyes start to tear up again.

“Hey mom, it’s me.” Fuck, his voice sounded hoarse.

There was a half-second of silence on the other end and then a long exhale, “Oh Dylan. Sweetheart.”

Dylan had been holding himself together, more or less. Really, he was more angry than sad. But hearing his mom, the consoling tone of her voice, imagining her eyebrows furrowed in concern… The knot in his throat became too big to exist. In a split second, he felt himself start sobbing his heart out, unable to control the low keens or hiccups coming out of his mouth.

“Oh baby, I’m so sorry,” she kept repeating as he cried and blubbered nonsensical sentences that kept getting interrupted by an onslaught of snot and tears. God, he was such a fucking baby.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, his tears dried up, lungs burning as they tried to make up for his erratic breathing. The pillowcase would probably need a good wash, good thing he was leaving soon.

“I can’t do this anymore, mom,” his voice cracked, but he didn’t start crying again, “I don’t know what they want from me.”

“You’re incredibly talented, Dylan, I don’t know how your coaches can’t see that. You just need a consistent chance to prove yourself.”

“They kept playing me on the wing, mom. I’m not a winger.”

“I know, honey. Just keep doing what you’re doing in Tucson and they’ll have to call you back up sooner or later. Don’t let it get you down.”

“What if I’m not cut out for this? What if I just end up spending the rest of my career in the A?”

His mom tutted on the other side of the phone, “Don’t be so pessimistic. Plenty of players spend a few years developing in the minors before being called up. That’s not a measure of your worth as a player or as a person.”

By all means, Dylan knew that was true. However, it was the sort of truth he didn’t want to hear, the type of harsh realism that just didn’t compute with his brain in his current state of mind.

“Ryan didn’t need this much time with the Islanders.”

“Dylan, your brother and you are different people playing for different organizations. I really don’t think that’s a fair-”

“I’ve got to pack and start heading down,” he cut off, abruptly suffocating under the weight of his mom’s soothing voice.

He didn’t want to be compared to Ryan. He didn’t want to hear his mom try to reason with him anymore. The frustration itched like his skin was too small for his body, made him want to shake her and tell her that she didn’t understand anything and how could he not let it negatively affect his game.

There was another long moment of silence on the line, “I’ll let your dad and Matty know you called. Send us a message when you get to Tucson?”

“For sure. I’m going out with Lawson and Nick tonight, but I’ll call you again tomorrow after practice.”

“Okay, that sounds good. Drive safe, we love you.”

“Thanks, mom, love you too,” he choked out, hitting the end call button while he squeezed his eyes against another assault of tears.

He checked his notifications again, stomach twisting unpleasantly when there still wasn’t anything new from Connor. He could be the one to call him first. He knew he could. Connor kept his phone on do not disturb pretty much at all times, but he’d set Dylan as an exception so he could always get through to him.

Lately, though, he’d been the one to initiate all their conversations. Sometimes it felt as if everything he did was complain to him. About not winning the Mem Cup. About the NHL season being utterly incompatible with his own OHL one. About the Yotes training camp and playing wing. About being sent down again and again.

He didn’t want that to become a trend in their relationship, not when Connor already had so many things on his mind. Arizona may have been treating Dylan like shit, but Davo wasn’t having much more fun up in Edmonton, albeit in a different way. There was always a certain tension in his voice when they spoke, the circles under his eyes too pronounced for comfort whenever they found small pockets of stolen time to FaceTime. He could wait for Connor to call him first, this one time.

Mind made up, he sent a quick reply to Crouser and Merks confirming plans for that evening and set his phone aside. He had some packing to do. Most of his belongings could fit in two bags, but currently, half his wardrobe was spread across the hotel room in various states of disarray. With a sigh, he rubbed off the last traces of tears onto the pillow and crawled out from under the covers, reaching out for the clothes closest to him and chucking them in the direction of his trolley open on the floor. Fucking Arizona.  

***

Davo hadn’t called. That was his first thought when he woke up the next morning, slightly disoriented from the combination of a too-early alarm clock going off, one too many beers the night before, and the novelty of a different hotel room configuration. It had been the first thing he’d checked after turning off the alarm, whether there was a missed call or an unread message from Davo, but no. Nothing. Their text thread still stopped with Dylan’s own love u loads, go kick shark ass sent the night before Davo’s game and the sparkling heart emojis he’d received back from him.

And look, the thing was, Dylan had always been a bit twitchy. Or, well, maybe that wasn’t the right word. Dylan was a worrier. He always had been. Existentially so. The first day of elementary school, he’d spent the entirety of the day overwhelmed by an impending sense of dread that something bad was going to happen to his mom from the second she’d dropped him off. By the time she’d come to pick him up, he’d been so keyed up that he’d clung onto her arm and ended up having a massive crying spell before they had even made it out of the parking lot. The next day hadn’t gone much better.

He’d quickly learned how to push it all down and pretend there was nothing wrong, though. He’d gotten better at hiding the uneasiness and the tendency to jump to the worst possible conclusions, burying it behind nervous laughter, a flair for the dramatic, and flailing limbs to distract attention. Channeling his worries into hockey had also helped, the physicality of it an outlet for his nerves.

But even then, the anxiety had always been there lurking underneath the surface whenever he didn’t have all his loved ones where he could see them. And, well, what with being a pro hockey player in the middle of the desert, over three thousand kilometers away from the Sauga and almost equally as far away from Connor… He was just a bit more jittery than usual, that was all.

So, Dylan was a worrier. That meant that at the moment, his brain couldn’t help but to catastrophize the scenarios that could lead his boyfriend of over three years not to call him after he’d gotten sent down. Or at least text him. Or Snapchat him. Or something to show he still gave a shit about him. He didn’t think that was too much to ask, really.

Maybe he was hurt. But no – he’d seen Connor’s snaps in his stories the evening before, playing chel at Nurse’s place. He’d been just fine then. And the news would have already broken on the internet if that were the case, surely.

Maybe this was Connor ghosting him to let him know he was over. His heart fell through his stomach with a swoop, all muscles spasming reflexively at the unpleasant thought. It wasn’t, like, a crazy thought. In fact, it was something that he’d been thinking about a lot in the past couple of years. Ever since Connor had been made captain, really. They’d been so sure they could make it long-distance, but sometimes it was so fucking hard.

It wasn’t that Dylan didn’t believe Connor when he said that he loved him. It was just–

Well, it was just that sometimes it was hard to see why the fuck the guy on pace for a second consecutive Art Ross and Hart would be interested in keeping up a relationship with Dylan Strome, the biggest bust of the 2015 draft.

He’d noticed, okay? He’d have to be a blind fucking idiot not to realize that Connor was growing more and more distant, that he never texted first anymore, that whenever they facetimed his smile never seemed as warm as it was back in Erie. Mostly, he put it down to stress.

Connor was under incredible amounts of pressure, what with the weight of the entire franchise on his shoulders and the hockey world scrutinizing his every move. He understood that. He did, really. There were times when Connor would call him in the dead of night and just cry, exhausted. Those nights, Dylan would tuck his phone near his ear, eyes still crusty with sleep and bedcovers heaped over his head, and mumble drowsy reassurances and I love you’s until Davo had cried himself dry and drifted to dreamland.

He always allowed himself a couple of minutes of just listening to Connor snuffling in his sleep before he hung up the phone, heart clenched tight enough to explode from the amount of affection that he held for that boy. He couldn’t imagine life without him.

It didn’t happen so much anymore, not a single time yet this season, but there had been a lot of those calls in the months after his broken collarbone, after the Calder, after Worlds, during a season where Connor burned brighter than the sun while Dylan couldn’t even manage to win the Mem Cup.

So yeah, stress. Secret, long-distance relationships were hard enough without all that shit piling on top. And he knew Davo loved him. Truly, he did. But sometimes – whenever he was at his lowest – Dylan couldn’t help but think that there was more going on. Maybe it was just paranoia, it wouldn’t have been the first time he’d blown things way out of proportion like the drama queen Mitchy so often said he was (pot, meet kettle).

In those moments, Dylan couldn’t help but think that Connor was still with him because it was comfortable. Davo didn’t do so well with change, and little screamed more routine than sticking with the same guy for four straight years. Maybe, whenever he said I love you, it was less genuine affection and more a part of that same routine.

He clutched his phone harder in his hand. He didn’t want to think about this. The last time he’d tried to express his fears of being left behind to Davo, it’d ended up in a screaming match and they hadn’t spoken to each other for a week. Neither one of them was particularly good with open communication, but he liked to think that Connor would tell him straight-up if he ever wanted to break up.

None of that ghosting shit, not after four years of being each other’s first and only, of fumbling around in billets and whispering their most hidden fear in between wet kisses while the rest of Erie slept outside their window.

Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Dylan rolled out of bed, absently patting one side of his bedhead and padding on the carpet floor to the bathroom. He had practice starting soon and no time for a relationship crisis if he ever wanted to make it out of Tucson again. He’d call Connor after practice, just to put to rest the one side of his brain that was currently still thinking up increasingly unlikely reasons for his silence. He was sure there was a perfectly plausible reason why he hadn’t called yet.

One scorching hot shower later, and after sniffing an embarrassing amount of clothes in his trolley bag just to figure out if they were clean enough to wear, he was back in an acceptable headspace, Davo’s silence shoved to the back of his mind and entirely focused on the practice ahead. He grabbed his keys and his phone, shoved them into his gym bag, and headed out into the all-too warm December air in Arizona.

He stopped for food on the way – a greasy breakfast sandwich well outside his meal plan – and slinked back into the rink he’d left less than a month ago, accompanied by only a few consolation shoulder pats from his teammates as he found his place in the locker room and started changing at his stall, still the same where he’d left it. Everyone was all too familiar with the burning cocktail of emotions of flunking out of the show to make much of a production of his return.

The A was a strange ecosystem in a different way than the OHL had been. It was the breeding ground for unhealthy competition, a mix of young prospects desperately scrambling to prove themselves while being shipped up and then back down again, older guys who’d had the NHL shut the door on them but still had enough passion for the game to stick with it (or sometimes, bitter dickheads who just didn’t have any other skill outside of hockey), and the occasional Stanley Cup champion fallen from grace.

Dylan hated it. It’s not like he felt superior to it or anything like that. Being sent down for two consecutive years to the O and then shipped to Tucson after just two games to prove himself had been enough to strip him of whatever self-confidence he’d ever had in his hockey skills. It was just not where he wanted to be.

It wasn’t where he should have been, as the third overall pick at the start of his third season after the draft. He knew it, his teammates knew it, and everyone he ever faced across the faceoff dot knew it too. That was what made it such a particularly miserable experience.

Practice was brutal. Coach seemed to have it out for him, pushing him to do the same drills over and over again like he was doing them wrong. Usually, he liked Van Ryn. Sure, he was hard on him, but that was normal. Good, even.

Before he’d been recalled, they’d been working on stripping down his game to the bare bones and then rebuilding it so that it was all about pursuing more pucks and pressuring more, about creating turnovers and shutting down his opponents in the defensive zone. He was good about giving criticism in a way that was more paternal than aggressive.

He was a good coach even beyond pure player development on-ice. Dylan had never really had a coach so dedicated to improving his game that he’d take the time to sit him down twice a week to watch video – so much video – and dissect plays. Sometimes, he even let him vent about the all-consuming fears that came with his unfulfilled draft hopes.

Today, though, the frustration of it, which would usually motivate him to do better, was just leading him to fan on more shots than not, missing what should have been tape-to-tape passes in brutal fashion. Lawson had already skated by him twice, tapping him on the pads and chirping about going too hard the night before in what was, for him, a genuine show of concern.

Coach had ended practice with a 2-on-2 small area game, to Dylan’s distaste. It was probably his worst drill after the speed-based ones, requiring more stick dexterity and edge work than he had on a good day, nevermind at the end of a bad practice. Coach didn’t look impressed with him as he let the opposing D strip him of the puck again and again, that was for sure.

By the time he’d gotten off the ice with a reaming from Van Ryn, showered, and waved off an invitation to lunch from Law and Merks claiming he still needed to unpack, he was in a sour mood. He climbed into his car with a sigh, rubbing wearily at his eyes. He’d call Connor and pick up some food on the way home, and then he needed to do some laundry and call Mac to see if he could room with him again since it looked like he’d be staying in Tucson for a while. And he still needed to call his parents, too.

He turned to dig his phone out from his gear bag, attaching it to the holder on the vent before pressing call on Connor’s number, and then started to make his way out of the car park. The phone ringed for so long he almost thought it was going to go to voicemail, but finally, Connor picked up.

“Hello?” and fuck, hearing his voice made him miss Connor so much more. 

“Davo, it’s me,” he said as he turned on his lights and took a left into traffic.

“Dyls. What’s up?” he could sense the edge of cautiousness make its way into Connor’s voice, and suddenly Dylan felt a prickle of irritation so strong that his breath caught in the back of his throat. So Connor wanted to pretend everything was normal? Like he’d just missed the news that his boyfriend had been demoted to the AHL?

“You didn’t call.”

On the other end of the line, there was a pregnant pause. He could almost picture what Davo would look like at that moment – he always did the same fucking stupid face when he was caught off guard and needed a moment to think of a reply, eyes all wide and lips pursed like a child’s caricature of a fish. You’d have thought years of media training would have broken that habit, but no.

Eventually, Connor let out a long sigh, “I’m so sorry Dyls. I’m just dealing with a million things right now and I just didn’t have the energy to do this too. I would have called as soon as I could.”

Forget irritated, Dylan was fucking pissed, “So nice to see where I stand in your list of priorities, buddy.”

“What do you mean?”

The steering wheel was going to break if he squeezed it any tighter, “Don't bullshit Davo. I saw your Snapchat stories yesterday. You spent half the day playing chel with Draisaitl and Nurse, but couldn’t find two minutes to call your boyfriend? Fuck that noise.”

“You could have called me,” the voice on the other end of the line pointed out petulantly, getting snappier.

“I know I could have. I have. But you still should’ve called first.”

“I don’t see why.”

Sometimes, Davo got in a mood. When he did, he would mulishly dig his heels in beyond the limits of stubbornness and well into idiocy. On those rare occasions, Dylan had a policy to just let the matter drop because you wouldn’t be able to move Connor an inch in his position, not even if you hit him in the head with proof that he was wrong. But this time, he couldn’t just let it go. Not when he’d spent the last twenty hours so anxiety-riddled that he’d fucked up hockey practice. Not when he was hurting with so much disappointment and frustration.

“Because I felt like shit, Davo. That's why. Because I've been sent down to the A again and I just can't catch a fucking break and maybe - just maybe - I needed to hear a few words of comfort from my fucking boyfriend,” his voice rose until he was almost shouting, voice breaking and stopping the car at a red light more violently than he probably should have. The car behind him screeched to a halt and beeped angrily at him.

He slammed his hand down onto the steering wheel, feeling his cheeks and chest heat up where they were doubtlessly going blotchy and red with resentment. He hated fighting with Davo, but fuck. Fuck. He wasn’t in the wrong here. It wasn’t too much to expect from his boyfriend to care about what happened to his career. Not when Dylan had bent over backward to accommodate Connor in every way all throughout their relationship.

“God, Dylan, you're so exhausting,” he heard as a mumble from the phone, Connor doubtlessly pressing a hand in front of his face like he did whenever he was tired of hearing shit. Dylan actually felt himself white out from rage at those words and had to pull over towards the curb to practice some deep breathing before he caused a road accident.

Screw him. He’d show Connor the fucking moral high ground here, “I know you've got your big hotshot captaincy up there in Edmonton, but that doesn't mean you can blow your boyfriend off whenever it's inconvenient.”

“Fuck you, Dylan, you know I don't do that.”

“Don't you?”

“You know I–”

“Are you sure?” he steamrolled over him, too incensed to stop, “Because I've counted them, you know, and I've been the one to initiate every single one of our last twenty conversations, so. Fuck dude, I talk to Brinksy more than I talk to you these days. I’ve also been the one to make the trip out to you every time we’ve seen each other in the past year because you couldn’t be assed to make an effort to see me. And don’t get me started on how many times you’ve let me go to voicemail when I know you’re free. I can’t just be the one doing this every time. It’s not fair, and you don’t even want to acknowledge that there’s any problem, so just fucking-”

He could tell he’d pissed off Connor as well, because his voice suddenly went from mildly irritated to stone cold as he cut him off, “Well, maybe if you spent less time micromanaging our relationship and more time practicing hockey, they wouldn't have sent you down.”

In the split instant of dead silence it took for the meaning of those words to sink in, Dylan almost heard his heart crumble into a million tiny pieces. His eyes immediately started watering and he jammed wildly at his phone until he’d hung up on Connor and then managed to switch off the phone. He felt disoriented, caught off guard by the viciousness of Connor’s words. It was a good thing he was still parked on the curbside because otherwise, he’d have really crashed the car at that moment.

He’d never had any inkling that Connor thought he was too controlling, or that he thought Dylan didn’t take hockey seriously enough, or that he was so annoyed by Dylan’s behavior that he’d shove his resentment in his face so harshly. At least now he understood why he hadn’t called before. Connor thought it was his own damn fault he’d gotten sent down because he just wasn’t good enough to cut it. Because he didn’t take it seriously.

He felt almost paralyzed, drenched to the bones in shock-cold dread as he considered what that meant for the two of them. Dylan had always thought that they were in it for the long run, but he guessed that was Connor’s way of telling them they were over. They’d fought before, and it had always been ugly, but this was completely different. They’d never fought about hockey before. His lungs heaved with the effort of keeping him breathing just enough. Almost four years of their lives and Connor had decided that he’d just had enough of his failures.

In a sense, it was almost prophetic, that his worst fear would come to pass in this way. It’d always been about the NHL, for the two of them. He should have known he’d never be able to measure up to Connor’s expectations after all. No surprise there, he couldn’t even measure up to his own expectations, how could he ever presume to be enough for the next coming of Gretzky?

It could have been two minutes or two hours before he regained enough composure to drive back to the hotel from where he was still parked on the curbside, hands trembling the whole way and tears choking up his visibility. He kept his phone carefully switched off the rest of the day, calling down from the landline in his room to the hotel reception in order to get a wake-up alarm for the following morning’s practice. He didn’t want to know if Connor had called back or not – honestly, he wasn’t sure which one of the two would hurt worse.

***

Two days later found Dylan hacking his lungs up in the bathroom of their locker room before the first of the back-to-backs against the Heats, phone turned on but living in flight mode to avoid the barrage of calls he’d been receiving from Connor, Brinksy, and Mitchy in turn. Honestly, he’d probably still have it switched off if it weren’t for the fact that his parents would think him dead.

He felt like shit, the emotional stress of not knowing where he stood with Connor coupling with what was probably some flu strain of some kind. He’d been coughing like crazy for two days straight. There was an itch in his lungs, almost like something was rattling around in there. It was the most annoying sensation ever.

He downed double the suggested dose of cough syrup with a shudder. Thank god for the training staff and the veritable pharmacy of drugs they carried around with them. They’d tried suggesting he sit out the game, which he hadn’t much appreciated, but it really wasn’t that bad, and Coach had cleared him to play without much fuss.

With one final spit of slightly yellow mucus into the sink, Dylan rejoined the rest of the team. They had a fucking game to win, he thought as he patted MacInnis on the ass and chest bumped Crouser, attempting to hype up the team with loud encouragements and a generous dose of high-fives. They needed everything they could get, he thought as he skated out for warm-ups, seeing how few stragglers were sitting on the stands and milling around with a low buzz of activity. Not exactly NHL levels of excitement.

The first period was a tense, scoreless one. His lineys, Crouser and Sislo, were skating well together, but there was just something off with the whole team. They were all a bit sluggish, always a step behind, giving away too many pucks and forcing Hill to stand on his head to keep it a tie game.

Finally, after a failed opportunity to capitalize on a double-minor powerplay midway through the second, Dylan got his chance. Crouse tapped it straight onto his stick, a beauty of a pass from the goal line, and all he had to do was one-time it in from where he was parked high in the slot with no real traffic in front. He whooped, skating over and bumping Crouser into the boards just as Sislo hugged them from behind, laughing and swearing up a storm. The knot of tension that had taken up residence in between his shoulder blades slowly dissipated and his shoulders sagged. He’d missed this. He could still score. Maybe not an NHL level, but he hadn’t lost his touch completely.

The feeling of relief didn’t last long. Lomberg tied it up less than a minute later, and they ended the period down by one. They probably could have still won if they hadn’t put up a shitshow of a third period. Law took five for fighting, and then they all took so many stupid penalties that, by the time the final goal went off, they’d gathered a miserable 4-1 loss.

The ball of tension was right back where it was before the game, gnawing at him. Couldn’t even win a fucking AHL game, could he? What a fucking waste of a draft pick he’d been. He followed behind MacInnis as they headed back home together, subdued in the way only a bad loss could make them. Somehow, every loss stung more in the A than it did in the NHL.

***

They managed to lose also the second half of the back-to-back. It figured, really. It’d been a 2-1 loss in which Stockton had managed to draw eight penalties and Dylan himself had been a ghost on the ice. It was a shitty note to end the season on right before Christmas, but honestly, Dylan was so tired with it all that he was just happy to be done. He was still downing Benadryl like water, the missed call count on his phone had reached the triple digits, and Dylan just needed a fucking break. 

Later that afternoon, as he sat at the airport gate headed home with a duffel bag at his feet and bone-deep exhaustion pressing in his limbs like a bruise, Dylan couldn’t help but think that it was all a bit fucked up. He wasn’t coming back to Arizona until the 27th, giving him a good four days at home. Ryan would only get two full days, what with his first practice back with the Oilers being on the 26th.

It’d be nice to spend an unhurried Christmas at home for once, it really wasn’t something that he’d had an opportunity for since before the O. He’d originally planned on spending Christmas Eve at Davo’s place, but that obviously wasn’t happening now.

A now-familiar flood of feelings washed over him at the thought of Connor, too complex to try to untangle. It made him sick to the stomach. Right on cue, his phone started ringing silently again, Marner’s stupid face popping up on the screen. He sighed, declining the call. He felt like shit that he and Brinksy had gotten caught in the middle of the fallout, but he just really didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to know how many ways they thought Dylan had fucked up, because it was always Dylan’s fault when it came to Connor, wasn’t it? The urge to throw up intensified violently. He missed him so goddamn much.

The blend of malaise stayed with him throughout the first flight, the layover in Chicago, and finally into Pearson seven long hours later. It was late at night and Dylan had played a game that morning, so he was definitely feeling it. He was used to traveling after a game, sure, but usually not this long-distance. It was a rough go, he thought in a daze as he looked around for his parents.

He found his mom in a back corner near the exit, Matty spotting him first and waving like a madman as he made his way through the crowd. Dylan couldn’t help but grin in relief when he was finally there and being hugged by his mom. He pressed a quick kiss onto the top of her head, closing his eyes and relishing in the familiar smell of home.

Matty clamored for a turn, patting him on the back and beaming as if he’d single-handedly hung the moon. He looked like he’d shot up a few more centimeters as well, given how their eyes were almost level now.

“You’ve been having one hell of a season, bro beans,” Dylan told him gruffly as they finally separated, punching his shoulder. It wasn’t even a lie – the Bulldogs were on fire and Matty was for sure going to get a good look at the Flyers at the next prospect camp. Man, wouldn’t it be hilarious if Matty got to the NHL before him?

 “Thanks, bro,” Matty beamed, and then more quietly he added, “And fuck the Yotes, eh?”

Dylan huffed out an unamused laugh at that, ignoring his mom’s reprimand at the curse word, “Yeah, fuck the Yotes, bud.”

“Come on honey, dad’s waiting in the car. I bet you’re tired,” his mom said, stretching up to pat his cheek. 

Dylan shrugged. He could use some sleep. That fucking cough had been keeping him up at night. He could always feel it more clearly when he was laying down in bed, the bad-wrong sensation of something rattling around inside. And the whole situation with Connor and Tucson wasn’t helping, either.

His mom chattered amiably along the way to the car, updating him on the neighbors and how the McLeod kids were doing as if Dylan didn’t have a 700-day Snapchat streak with all three of them. He occasionally hummed to let her know he was still listening, letting himself be dragged along and soaking in the small comfort of family as he hugged his dad hello.

He maybe nodded off a bit in the car, because the next thing he knew Matty was elbowing him in the ribs and telling him they’d arrived. He squinted his eyes open, still half sleep-addled, gaze immediately finding his childhood home and the light streaming out of the living room window.

“Did you leave the lights on? Or is Ryan already here?” he asked as he clambered out a bit unsteadily, immediately starting to shake from the temperature difference on the outside.

“Oh no, Ryan is coming tomorrow morning. Connor is here though, poor boy. He came straight from the airport to see you.”

He slipped on the ice in surprise, almost braining himself, “What?”

“Connor, honey. You should have told me he was coming though; I didn’t have time to take out the air mattress, so he’ll have to share with you.”

“I didn’t know he was coming,” he spluttered, windmilling his arms around to maintain his balance on the icy gravel.

“I think it’s very sweet of him, especially considering how little time he has to spend with his own family. I have a Christmas present for the McDavids you’ll need to bring to them when you go over there, we got them a nice bottle of Ron Zacapa.”

That was when it really hit him: Connor was here. In his house. Waiting for him. His stomach immediately clenched, half in anticipation and half in pure heartsickness. He hadn’t seen him since camp and that had been months ago. He’d said some pretty hurtful stuff during their last conversation and maybe Connor was only here to break up with him officially, but Dylan was a weak sack of shit when it came to Connor. No way could he have ever resisted the gravitational pull that dragged him towards the front door and into the living room, drawing him closer and closer to Davo with every step.

There he was, sitting on their living room couch. His hair was longer than it had been in the summer, twisting just slightly at the nape of his neck, and he looked more tired than he should. He was looking good though, apart from the dark shadows under his eyes. The jumper he was wearing – an old thing from the Otters – was stretched tight across his chest and didn’t do anything to hide the definition of his arm muscles.

Perhaps it was the distance, but Dylan’s system always went through a shock of surprise by how big Connor was when they saw each other after some time apart, by how everyone’s attention would just naturally drift towards him as if magnetized. Or maybe that was just Dylan’s impression.

Davo stood up as he heard them come in, turning towards them and taking a couple of steps forwards with his arms slightly outstretched before he stopped, hesitant. His eyes looked darker than ever under the artificial lights, wide and scared. Dylan’s heart squeezed desperately at the sight. He loved him so much. He hated him. He hated how Davo had the power to dictate his moods and his feelings just by looking at him. But God, he couldn’t stop loving him with every single fiber of his being.

“Dyls.”

He closed his eyes, counting his breaths. His heart twisted a bit further, hurting beyond belief. He hated how Davo always said his name, in that low mumble like it was something precious. Special. He let his duffle fall to the floor and took the step forward to close the gap between them. And then they were hugging, their first touch in months.

Dylan automatically tucked his nose into his neck, desperately breathing in Connor’s 2-in-1 shampoo and the slight artificial smell of ice rink that he always carried around with him no matter how long it had been since practice. Distantly, he realized that he was clutching at Connor’s back harder than was probably appropriate for a friend, but he couldn’t get to let him go. His breaths sounded closer to sobs as Connor muttered his name repeatedly like a prayer, too quiet for the rest of their family to hear.

A short burst of coughing finally forced them to separate, just for Dylan to realize the rest of their family had left them to have their reunion alone.

“Let’s go to your room?” Connor asked quietly. Dylan was sort of afraid that speaking up would break the spell and Connor would disappear in a puff of smoke, or maybe decide to break up with him right there in the living room. He nodded, picking up his bag and following Davo up to his room.

It was far from the first time Connor had been to his place, but like every time previously, seeing him lying on his childhood bed gave him a full-body heat flash. The sensation of it was enough to drag him out of his sleep-induced stupor.

“What the fuck are you doing here, Connor?” he asked finally, after throwing Connor a pair of gym shorts and one of Ryan’s old Sound Tigers shirt that he’d found in his closet and dressing down for bed himself.

It was strange to feel so much bigger than him, what with him standing and Connor still lying on the twin XL mattress his parents had gotten him after he’d gone through his first growth spurt. Connor looked up at him. He’d gotten good at reading what Connor was feeling just from the expression shining through his eyes and the tilt of his eyebrows, but at that moment he couldn’t have begun guessing what was going through his head.

“You weren’t picking up your phone,” he said finally, tone level.

Dylan snorted. Ironic, wasn’t it? How the tables turned, “Guess you’re getting a taste of your own medicine.”

Connor grimaced, then nodded, “I deserve that.”

Dylan averted his gaze, not knowing what to say next. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Connor crawl up and then crowd him, gripping his chin gently as if to try and convince him to meet his eyes. The feeling of Davo’s fingers on his face felt like a hot branding iron on his skin.

He continued, “I needed to know we were fine. I said some ugly things last time we spoke, and I didn’t mean any of them, I was just frustrated and I took it out on you. That was a shitty thing to do and I’ve been beating myself up from the second you hung up the phone.”

“Sure you didn’t mean it, bud.”

The grip under his chin got harsher, Davo trying to catch his eyes even as Dylan kept them carefully trained on the bedpost to the side, “You’ve got to know that I didn’t mean what I said. You got to. Right, Stromer? You know that. I love you.” There was a panicked urgency in his voice, almost a plea.

His stomach heaved, yearning for something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He wanted to soothe Davo, pet his hair and tell him they were fine until he fell asleep with his head on Dylan’s chest like they did back in Juniors. Connor didn’t say things he didn’t mean, though. That was what Connor McDavid was all about, blunt to the point of rudeness and painfully sincere in everything he did.

Back when he’d first joined the Otters, Dylan had spent the first few days just blurting out whatever came to his mind out of nervousness, which had ended up mostly being enthusiastic recounts of road hockey with the McLeods and how their neighbor had made this awesome Stanley Cup replica in his woodworking class and how they used it for their awesome tournaments and wouldn’t Connor maybe like to join them sometime?

Connor had endured all the yapping with a half-smile on his face, just to huff and drop on him as he was leaving after one practice a quiet “Man, you just won’t shut up, will you”. Dylan had been smitten ever since.

So yeah, Dylan knew Connor. And he knew that he never ever said things he didn’t mean. But what could he do really? If Connor wanted to go on pretending he loved Dylan, how could he say no to a few more days or weeks or months of basking in his presence? He’d always been a bit pathetic like that when it came to his boyfriend, always groveling for crumbs of attention and never really able to stay mad at him. He felt himself flush with humiliation, trying to gulp down the knot in his throat.

“I love you too,” he whispered, feeling the affection course through every single one of his cells and leave burnt ground in its wake. The whole thing was salted beyond repair. He couldn’t lose this, couldn’t lose him. Dylan knew it deep down to his bones, that there would be nothing after Connor.

He felt Connor breathe out heavily against his face, his fingers moving away from his chin to nestle at the back of his head. His head was nudged forward slightly, Connor tilting it up to brush his lips at the corner of his mouth, almost a ghost of a sensation. “Come to bed, Dyls.”

And what else could he do but follow him? They huddled under the duvet chest-to-chest, their bodies touching from one extremity to their other and their faces so close they were breathing in each other’s exhales. It was a familiar position, the only one that had allowed them both to sleep in the twin beds back at their billets in Erie without anyone falling off. Dylan really liked the intimacy of it, although he pretended to agree when Connor complained about it being cramped. They stayed in that position for a long time, just breathing, until Dylan was almost convinced that Connor had fallen asleep.

Then, out of nowhere, Connor shifted closer and rested his lips on Dylan’s, not really in a kiss but more just a steady touch. “I missed you so much,” he murmured into his mouth, turning the pressure into a deeper, proper kiss.

They traded lazy kisses for what felt like an eternity, mouths slick and warm with spit and closer to asleep than awake. Dylan was too tired and jetlagged by the rollercoaster of emotions he’d gone through in the past few days to really do much more than that. But they’d been with each other for so long that it was second nature to move together, mouths and roaming hands slotting together like the last two pieces of the puzzle. It was impossible to stop.

Davo always felt so fucking good, he thought as Connor moved on from his mouth to pepper warm kisses all over his cheeks, his eyelids, his nose, that one spot where his temple met his hairline which always made his stomach bloom with fond warmth.

“I love you so fucking much,” Connor whispered directly into his ear, low and gravelly, making him shudder. It felt like a childish delusion, but he desperately clung to those words and left a kiss right under Davo’s earlobe, a spot which was guaranteed to derail any further conversation. Connor groaned in response, flinging a leg on top of his two and bringing their dicks together for the first time that night. Dylan felt an electric jolt of arousal zip through him so strong he almost instinctively bucked Connor off.

“Just let me-” Connor started, interrupted by another moan when Dylan moved to scrape his teeth slightly across that same spot on his neck. He felt Connor’s dick jerk against his and suddenly he was wide awake, caught in the middle of wave after wave of low thrums of arousal. And, well, Dylan had never been able to say no to Connor. Especially not when this might be the last time they got to do this before Connor got tired of him.

Connor rolled himself into a half plank on top of Dylan, his forearms bracketing him in so that everything Dylan could really see what Connor’s face curtained by his hair, looking down at him with the same intensity he had at the faceoff dot. Dylan skimmed his hands across his arms, feeling the tense muscles from keeping himself propped up, and then moved them up to his face to drag his hair back. They were both hard behind their boxers and their shorts, pressed close together to ease the pressure, but for an instant that all felt a secondary concern as they smiled at each other.

“Otters hold hands,” Connor stated faux seriously with his eyes twinkling in delight, drawing a familiar snort of laughter from Dylan. God, how many times had they use that line in Erie just to have an excuse to hold hands in the bus and at the rink? They’d been so goddamn transparent – embarrassingly so, thinking back on it – it was amazing that nobody except Alex and Mitch had figured them out, really.

Connor moved back, shifting his weight from his arms to his knees and thighs. It put significantly more of Connor’s not-indifferent bulk onto Dylan, but he didn’t mind. He liked feeling so completely surrounded by Connor, weighted down and almost smothered. Davo’s hands entwined with his above his head, making it impossible for Dylan to really move in any direction.

And then, finally, Connor ground his hips down onto his with just a touch too much force. It really shouldn’t have hit him as hard as it is, but it felt so nice and he could already feel the wet patch on the front of his boxers he was so keyed up. It was always good with Connor, they’d had sex too many times for it not to be, but there was something about this particular time that hit differently.

The thing was, it shouldn’t have been enough. Their clothes were still on, friction and sensation dulled by the extra cotton in the middle. And yet, Dylan’s every nerve felt incandescent and he was harder than he’d been in a long time. Each touch, each hitched, half-stifled moan Connor let out directly in his ear sent a flash of heat through his abdomen, muscles clenching reflectively as Connor breathed wetly into his neck. He couldn’t really do much more than go along with the rhythm Connor set, too harsh and vertiginously slow, only contributing a slight upward tilt of the hips to match his grinding thrusts.

“I love you, I love you, I love you so fucking much,” Connor started whispering into his ear, voice breaking in places to make space for more groans, “Fucking god Dylan, you’re so good, so fucking good.” 

The litany of praise made something sour inside of him even as his dick got harder, making Dylan wish Davo would just shut up. He wished he could drag his hands up, curl them in his hair and tug him into a kiss so that he’d just stop speaking. But he couldn’t, hands still crushed together with Davo’s above his head, so he did the next best thing and put more effort into meeting Connor’s thrusts, speeding up their rhythm and making Connor lose his concentration.

“Fuck, Dylan, I’m-” from the way Connor’s moan went higher-pitched all of a sudden, Dylan knew he was close. He closed his eyes, drinking in the sounds and letting the dull throb of arousal wash over him until it crashed, exploding in time with Connor’s own stuttering movements. For one blessed moment, his orgasm washed away all his thoughts. Connor was shaking on top of him, drawing in heavy gulps of air as he recovered.

He didn’t get to enjoy the afterglow for long, the sensation curdling quickly into a bitter sense of loss that came out of nowhere, like missing the last step on the stairs. The whole thing had felt bittersweet, like a goodbye they hadn’t quite realized would be so final yet. The weight of Connor’s body, which had felt so comforting up until a second ago, now just felt stifling.

Connor was still breathing heavy, a contented look in his half-lidded eyes. He’d probably be asleep in a heartbeat, and he’d regret it in the morning when he woke up with his underwear stuck to his pubes. He untangled his fingers from where they were now sweaty and grossly sticky in Connor’s grasp, shoving at his shoulder until he rolled over sideways and let him up. 

Connor would be returning to Edmonton soon, captaining his NHL team to yet another Hart, and he’d be back to the A in the middle of Bumfuck, Arizona, where they had more fucking cactus plants than hockey fans. They most likely wouldn’t see each other in person until the off-season, because their calendars were harsh like that.

And then there’d be publicity shoots and the awards and meetings with management and Connor would spend more time in Alberta than he did in Ontario, like last off-season, and before he knew it they’d be back where they were now, with Connor drifting away towards his shinier, more interesting life while Dylan kept dragging him down. At some point, Dylan would become more of a hassle than a routine comfort, and Connor would dump him.

“That was real good, Stromer,” Connor mumbled interrupting his thoughts, eyes now closed and almost all the way asleep. As anticipated.

He got up quietly, trying not to jostle Davo too much, and padded with bare feet out of the room and into the bathroom at the end of the corridor. Fuck. This was a mistake. Dylan couldn’t do this; he couldn’t just pretend like he wasn’t head over heels for someone who didn’t feel the same. He turned on the tap, splashing cold water over his face as panic clawed over him and made it hard to breathe.

After a few long moments, he emerged from under the stream, patting his face dry with the hand towel and moving over to the toilet paper to clean up inside his pants as much as possible. The wetness hadn’t reached his shorts yet, so he quickly pulled his boxers off and dumped them in the sink, scrubbing them clean with some soap.

He’d just finished dumping the wet ball of cotton into the clothes hamper when he felt the familiar sensation of rattling in his chest that anticipated a coughing fit. Groaning, he bent over the sink as the hacking coughs wrecked him, soupy and wet and sounding increasingly concerning. He should probably visit a doctor soon, just to make sure this wasn’t anything freaky like pneumonia or anything. He didn’t even know how the fuck he’d caught anything – there had been, like, fifteen degrees in Tucson. Not exactly cold weather.

After a concerningly long amount of time, the coughs finally wheezed to a stop, leaving him to catch his breath. When he looked into the sink, there was a mess of spit and vaguely pinkish phlegm and, more concerningly, a tiny slimy-slick thing that was balled up and looking distinctly brown and green. Dylan was, like, pretty sure that nothing green should be coming up from his lungs. He stared at the ball some more, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. It didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before, he thought with his heart thundering in his chest.

As a hockey player, Dylan was used to trusting his instincts (and how far that had taken him, eh? All the way to the AHL). And this little, unassuming ball of something felt really, really wrong. Forget the doctor, he was taking himself straight to the closest open clinic first in the morning, he thought as he turned on the tap once again to wash away all the shit that he’d just coughed up.

***

They woke up at the same time the next morning, way too early because they had forgotten to draw the curtains and the sun was shining straight into their eyes. Connor was the first to break the silence with a long-suffering groan, one arm slung over his eyes to avoid the light.

“What the hell Stromer, why didn’t you force me into the shower after last night,” he complained, pawing at his jizz-encrusted dick with the other hand.

It was a familiar opening, a script they’d acted out a million times. Connor never cleaned up after sex, Dylan couldn’t sleep unless he had. He’d usually follow up with a chirp or a joke of some kind, and eventually, they’d end up wrestling themselves onto the floor, rolling around trying to one-up the other and making out, morning breath and all. Dylan really wasn’t feeling it.

“You need to go, Connor.”

Connor startled violently, quickly removing his arm from his eyes despite the sun and swirling his head over to stare at him, trying to judge whether it was a joke or whether he was serious, “What the fuck, Dyls?”

“You need to go home,” he repeated.

Connor kept on gaping at him without any understanding in his eyes, looking for all intents and purposes like he’d just broken his heart. His stomach twisted unpleasantly. It was becoming a dangerously common feeling and Dylan was already over it.

“I thought we were fine,” he said finally, a lot more subdued and evidently hurt.

“We are fine.” They weren’t. Connor was going to leave him. Nothing was fine.

“Then why do I need to leave?”

Because he needed to go to the hospital and hope he didn’t have lung cancer or something, but Dylan couldn’t exactly tell him that. He gave in to the impulse of stroking over Connor’s bedhead, fingers combing through his hair in what was his signature consolation gesture.

“It’s Christmas Eve. You need to spend some time with your parents and Cam, and I need to go get Ryan from the airport and catch up with Mikey and help my mom start Christmas lunch prep. I promise I’ll come over tomorrow after Christmas lunch, and we can spend the rest of the day together until you have to leave for the airport.”

Connor still looked crushed, “But I haven’t seen you in so long.”

Dylan squeezed his eyes shut, “I know. I promise. Please, I need- I just need some time with my family, okay?” It was a terrible lie. Dylan wanted nothing more than latch onto Connor and never let him go again, but he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t drag Connor down into his spiral.

Connor visibly deflated at that, but nodded and got off the bed, quickly throwing on his clothes from yesterday without any more complaints about his boxers. Dylan followed him out, not bothering to change out of his nightwear. It wasn’t as if his parents or Matt hadn’t ever seen him wearing less.

Matty was already in the kitchen, eating a hockey player’s portion of egg white omelet in his underwear. He waved at them, spewing a garbled good morning with his mouth still full. Dylan saw Connor to the door, where they spent a long, awkward second not knowing how to say goodbye in front of his brother before Dylan bit the bullet and enveloped him in a hug that lasted too long for it to be just friends.

When Connor’s car had finally disappeared onto the main road, he closed the front door and turned to his brother, “Hey, I’m going to catch up with some buddies, I’ll see you later? I’ll be back to help out mom with lunch tomorrow, let her know okay?”

He received another incomprehensible response from Matty, who was still trying to multitask eating and speaking, but he shrugged, grabbing a banana and two protein bars from the kitchen as he quickly went to change.

By the time he’d finally found a clinic that was open on Christmas Eve, taking walk-ins, and far enough from his house that there was no chance his mom knew anyone working there, it was already nearing eleven and Dylan was so anxious his leg wouldn’t stop jiggling in the waiting room, surrounded as he was by a toddler with a high fever and an old bickering couple. He’d had to cough up – literally – a significant amount of cash to get a chest CT and expedite the results so he’d be out of there today with a definite diagnosis.

Finally, after an eternity of waiting, he got his CT scan, and then he was back again in the waiting room for another lifetime of looking at the clock and tapping his feet on the floor. By the time the nurse called him back for his consultation, he was already exhausted.

The doctor cut straight to the chase as soon as his ass touched the guest armchair, which Dylan might in other circumstances have appreciated, “Mr. Strome, I’m afraid I have some difficult news.”

Dylan’s heart stopped beating for one terrifying second. Shit. His brain was flashing a massive neon sign which read cancer in block capitals and– shit. Shit. Shit. His life was over. Mom was going to be devastated. If he died in Arizona, how much would it cost to repatriate his body? It was probably a bit too late for a life insurance plan, with a cancer diagnosis the premium was going to be exorbitant.

“Mr. Strome, do you need me to repeat myself?” the doctor’s voice floated over him in a daze, almost as if it were coming from a place far away.

“What?” he croaked out.

“How much do you know about Hanahaki disease?” he repeated kindly with a tight-lipped smile.

“That’s not right,” he said as all thoughts of setting up a living will disappeared from his mind. Hanahaki wasn’t cancer. He told him as such.

“No, Hanahaki is not a form of cancer,” the man concurred. “That’s good news, though. Five-year survival rates for Hanahaki are significantly higher than any type of lung cancer stage two or higher. Now, how much do you know about it?”

“Not much, I mean. There’s a ton of Hollywood movies about it, aren’t there? Brinksy – sorry, that’s a friend of mine – he really likes them, so I’ve seen a few, but what I coughed yesterday looked nothing like a flower, so, like, are you sure?”

“Yes, well, films aren’t always the most medically accurate,” the doctor said with a wry smile, “The reality is that the plant materials which are ejected are usually surrounded by mucus membrane in the lungs, which is your body attempting to remove the foreign body from its organs. That breaks down the structural integrity of the flower somewhat, and then the constriction during the coughing phase also contributes to the final mangled product you saw yesterday.”

He then pointed at a couple of white dots on the scan, as if Dylan could understand what the hell he was looking at, “In the later stages of the disease, once the flowers have rooted consistently and the body starts becoming less able to respond to the illness, the flowers will be able to maintain their shape better.”

“That’s not right,” he repeated dumbly.

The doctor just stared at him, unimpressed, “I know this can be difficult to hear, but I’m afraid the CT scan is very clear.”

“No, that’s not–” he fumbled with a half-aborted wave in mid-air, voice too loud and squeakier than usual, “I already have a b– I already have a partner. We’ve been together for almost four years. I haven’t looked at anyone else, I swear to god. I wouldn’t even know…”

From the other side of the desk, the doctor nodded, shuffling through a stack of papers and pulling out a prescription pad, “That can happen. It’s not as common, but not entirely unusual either. As you know, Hanahaki is caused by unrequited love, but it is at heart a psychosomatic illness – that means that the very serious physical symptoms that you are experiencing have an important mental component. Your body can’t really read into your partner’s mind, so it draws cues on what they are feeling towards you through what your own brain perceives.”

“So you’re saying this is happening because Connor doesn’t really love me?” he blurted out, too horrified to even realize he’d just outed both himself and Davo.

“I’m saying that deep down your brain doesn’t really think your partner loves you. Now, that could be because he really doesn’t love you or it could be just your brain misinterpreting information – like what happens for example when we think we’re seeing something that isn’t really there, or when we confuse the face of someone in the crowd for someone we know. We need to understand which option we’re looking at to proceed with the correct course of treatment.”

Somewhere far deep in his consciousness, he knew it was not the latter option. Connor didn’t love him, he’d as much as said it outright last time they’d fought. It was clear he was frustrated with their relationship. Dylan wasn't a complete nutjob, realistically he knew that a fight didn’t mean that his boyfriend didn’t love him anymore, when considered on its own.

However, the whole thing had been preceded by Connor growing more and more distant and refusing to initiate contact whenever they were apart. Dylan was good at social cues; he knew what that meant. Maybe Connor didn’t want to break up yet because of routine, he was superstitious like that, but he knew that it would be coming sooner rather than later.

Dylan sat there in silence for what felt like a lifetime before the doctor continued, “The good news is that we caught this very early, I don’t think these buds are any more than a week old at most. The fact that you’re already coughing roots and stems is an encouraging sign from your immune system. However, considering the quick turnaround between infection and the first roots, it looks like it’s going to be an aggressive species of some sort, which will make the degeneration of the disease fairly quick. For some flowers, we’re talking about months, sometimes even years, before its effects start to take a toll on the patient’s quality of life. In your case, I’m afraid we’re looking at a timeline of weeks.”

“Weeks? Weeks before what happens?”

“The roots will implant in your lung tissue, making you feel like you need to cough. It will make breathing harder and as the root system expands and takes over a significant enough portion of the lungs, it will lead to suffocation.”

“Well, shit,” maybe cancer wouldn’t have been so bad after all, “So what do we do?”

“Well, ideally, the first thing to do in these cases is to get in touch with whoever is responsible for your flare-up and attempt to naturally resolve the problem. But as you told me, you already know who’s triggered your Hanahaki and you’ve been together for some years, so that’s a step we can skip. You essentially have two choices here. In my medical opinion, the most recommended is that we can have surgery immediately, cut out the compromised parts of the lung tissue, and start you on a round of targeted therapy of inhibitors to reduce the probability of a second flare-up.”

An important question came to his mind, “I’m a professional athlete. If I take the surgery, will I still be able to play hockey?”

At that, the doctor made a face, “Well, it’s hard to predict these things. You’re young, which will be good for recovery, and having caught it so early, I would expect that you would be able to recover an almost entirely normal lung capacity and be able to live a normal life. But even then, as a conservative estimate, I would imagine that by the time we can get you in an operating room you would lose around fifteen percent of your pulmonary capacity. More realistically, we’re probably looking at around twenty percent. That’s a significant amount if you’re doing sports competitively. You’ll also have a much higher susceptibility to developing blood clots.”

Dylan tried not to think about a life after hockey, really. He knew there wasn’t any way to avoid it in the long term, and his parents had more than once attempted to make him look at colleges just in case. But he hadn’t flunked out of Juniors and his parents had let the matter rest when he’d been drafted. Maybe they shouldn’t have. Dylan had been hoping that retirement wouldn’t come up until a long, long time in the future. He wasn’t ready to stop playing. Fuck, he hadn’t even made it to the NHL yet. He couldn’t hang them up after a dozen miserable, scoreless games.

His stomach seized violently at the thought of watching Connor play hockey from behind a TV screen, of never feeling the sizzle of freshly sharpened skates cutting through ice again. Unbidden, his mind produced memories of celebrating a goal in the dying seconds of overtime, of hearing the roar of the crowd at puck-drop, of the uncomfortable sensation of wet equipment and sweat-drippy hair during second-period intermissions.

His breath caught in the back of his throat and triggered a long bout of coughing that left him wheezing and feeling like his lungs had been scraped bloody. The doctor just stood there scribbling away at the papers in front of him as if to give him privacy. Dylan didn’t want privacy though. He sort of just wanted to walk out the door and eat his mom’s cooking and take a nap.

When Dylan had finally stopped wheezing like an old man, the man continued. “We also have the option of considering a second course of treatment,” he briefly looked up from where he was staring intently at the prescription pad as if to gauge his interest, “It would be riskier in some respects, but if we can obtain natural healing it would be a lot less stressful on your lungs, as the plant materials currently occupying your lungs would break down and be re-absorbed by your own body without any side effects. You’d be able to keep playing hockey.”

Dylan would have done anything at that moment to just keep playing, “What’s that?”

“We can start you on a course of behavioral therapy, both individually and with your partner. It will essentially allow you to get a better idea about what your partner thinks of you in a safe space, resolve whatever conflict process in there that’s leading you to doubt your relationship, and give you a chance to work out any other thing that’s troubling you at this time. It will either it will allow you to process your unrequited feelings in a less physically destructive manner, or it will trigger your brain into believing that your feelings are in fact requited. There is a possibility that you won’t respond positively to the treatment, though. If this happens, it will make the success rate for the surgery will go down significantly. There is a serious chance that you would not survive the procedure.”  

“You want me to do couples counseling with Connor?” he laughed, a touch manic, as he imagined Davo Skyping in from Edmonton in between a sponsor shoot and a practice just to bicker in front of a well-meaning lady about their marital problems. He could already hear Davo telling him to go fuck himself before he disappeared into the Alberta sunset never to be seen again while Dylan choked to death on a plant.

“Not just that. Your individual behavioral therapy sessions will be the core of the treatment. We need to correct whatever thought process is going on in your head that’s leading to this disproportionate physical reaction. We’ve had some very positive results with this treatment in similar cases to yours.”

“So you’re telling me that I either take the surgery now and go on to have a normal life without hockey, or I take a chance on therapy, hope I get better, and if not I’ll die or go on to live a crippled life without hockey? I’m spoiled for choices, eh?” Dylan could feel a thin bubble of hysterical laughter whistling out of him.

“Forty percent of Hanahaki cases have a positive natural resolution and an additional fifty-five percent of those who choose surgery recover enough lung capacity to live a completely normal life afterward. I think we are looking at some excellent chances of recovery. Have a think about how you would like to proceed about–”

“I’m not taking the surgery,” he blurted out before the doctor could finish speaking. He wouldn’t be doing the therapy either, he knew. No fucking time for any of that shit during the hockey season. He’d play until he keeled over somewhere on the road in a few weeks, maybe that one game they mid-January against Stockton again, wouldn’t that be funny. And that would be it. The end. Finis. Kaput.

Connor would finally be free to move on from him, the Yotes wouldn’t have to worry about their first-round pick being a bust, and Dylan wouldn’t have to bend himself backward while trying to make the NHL anymore. Was it bad that the thought of dying didn’t really make him feel much of anything? Maybe it just hadn’t sunk in yet.

“Very well. I’ve written you a prescription for an anti-inflammatory that will help reduce the urge to cough, and here is a list of reputable psychotherapists closer to your residence who I would suggest contacting to start your treatment. Here’s the documentation you should send over to them, so they have a good idea of what they’re working with,” he pushed a small mountain of paperwork over to him with the same milky smile he’d maintained the whole visit, “Depending on the progress of your therapy, I would suggest at least weekly chest CT scans to monitor the situation. I wish you all the best with your recovery, Mr. Strome.”

Dylan shook his head with a wry twist of the mouth, dazedly shaking the doctor’s hand. He wanted out with a death sentence in his hands and knowing he wouldn’t be doing anything about it. There wouldn’t be any recovery. It was fine. He was fine.

***

There was something to be said about the resilience of the mind in the face of mortality. Dylan wasn’t, like, a philosopher or anything like that. The closest he’d ever come to contemplating human existence had been that one biology in class in Erie when they’d dissected a frog. Connor has picked his up and dangled it in front of his partner’s face like the absolute idiot he was until she’d screamed and shoved him to the floor. He’d ended up lying on his back with the frog’s intestines spattered all over his face, much to the hilarity of the rest of the class.

He was thinking about it a lot now, though. He thought about it as he picked up Ryan from the airport, paying less attention to the road and more to picturing all the times they’d played hockey together in the backyard with Mikey and Matt, shooting at pucks until their fingers and toes felt like they were going to fall off from the cold. He let Ryan’s consolatory words about the AHL reassignment wash over him without paying attention, nodding along absently as he just settled into his brother’s voice.

Ryan had always been a bit of a dick growing up. Sometimes, he’d bring home his friends from school and they’d stick him in goal with only a bucket on to practice shootouts for hours. But whatever, adversity built character or something like that. Even if he’d bullied him around, Dylan had always looked up to Ryan, had always followed him around like a lost duckling. Honestly, he probably would have never stuck to hockey for as long as he did if it weren’t for Ryan. Things would have been so different then.  

He thought about it as he helped his mom prep the vegetables for Christmas lunch, Ella Fitzgerald playing from dad’s ancient PC in the living room and mom humming along. Matty would have to help out next year. Wouldn’t that be funny to see. He was pretty sure Matty didn’t even know how to turn on the gas on the stove. Too bad he wouldn’t be there for it. He hoped his family didn’t miss him too much after he was gone.

That was the one good thing about growing up in a hockey family though, you never really got used to living under the same roof. They’d all left home early – too early, maybe. Brinksy always used to say that they were all socially stunted because of it. Hopefully, that would ease the transition, like he was just at one of those too-long hockey camps instead of gone.

He thought about it as they played road hockey with the McLeods in the driveway, nobody in goal, Santa hats on instead of helmets, and all of them throwing hits that were way too hard for a friendly game. The Lord Comi Cup was a serious matter, after all. Their hockey games had worked out pretty well throughout the years, what with there being three Strome kids and three McLeod kids, and Dylan had a moment of worry about what they’d do next year when only two Stromes were playing. It’d be nice if they kept the tradition going. Mikey had brought Bastian home for Christmas this year, though, and maybe that was fine if he kept doing that – Nathan was a good guy and with him in they’d still be able to play an even-strength game without anyone having to sit out.

Actual Christmas morning passed in a lazy stupor, Dylan feeling like whatever tethered him to reality had been snipped off and left him to wander with his floating head in another dimension. He lost a few hours there, somewhere between waking up, greeting his family and sitting down for lunch, and his mom handing him a big bottle of alcohol with a bow tied to it, telling him to have a safe trip over to Connor’s and wish a merry Christmas to the McDavids for them.

At no point had anyone asked what was wrong with him, so he’d probably done a good enough job at keeping up an upbeat facade. Or maybe they were just expecting him to be a sad sack of shit after the reassignment. Ryan had asked about the cough that kept getting startlingly worse, however.

He’d thought about the bottle of pills in his jacket’s pocket and about the list of therapists in Tucson and the copy of the CT scan stuffed at the bottom of an old pile of middle school homework, and he had to will himself into not thinking anymore before he threw up on top of the turkey. Then, he’d waved him off with a few words about having already checked in with the trainers and that it was all good, just a bit of a cold.

He didn’t remember any part of the trip out to Connor’s, but the second the door opened in front of him and Davo was standing there smiling at him, wearing a terrible oversized Christmas jumper with a glittery, red-nosed Rudolf on it, reality shifted back into high definition and his head cleared. Like it always did, his heart gave a sharp yearning tug and his body moved automatically to embrace him in a hug.

“I’m so happy you’re here, Dyls. I wasn’t sure you were going to come,” Connor was the first to let go – he usually was – and he grinned wide at him, a fond smile that shone through brighter in his eyes than anywhere else. Dylan really wanted to believe that things were back to normal, that they were good, but he couldn’t let himself forget. Connor thought he was dead weight.

A desperate I love you was on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it back with some difficulty, fishing out a pack of licorice from his jacket’s pocket and throwing it at Connor. It was maybe a shitty present, considering how much money they made, but they didn’t really do gifts, the two of them. Licorice was a small treat that Connor rarely allowed himself during the season, but Dylan knew how much he loved it. Right on cue, Connor beamed, immediately tearing into the package and shoving two black rolls into his mouth at once with a delighted groan.

“I brought a present for your parents,” Dylan added then, still standing at the doorstep.

“Oh, yeah, for sure, come on in,” he said in a slightly muffled tone, moving aside and locking the door behind them as Dylan took his shoes off and put on the guest slippers the McDavids always left at the entryway.

They padded over to the kitchen, where the rest of Connor’s family was still sitting around the table nursing tall glasses of wine and chattering rowdily.

Brian spotted him first, beaming a slightly-drunk smile that was painfully similar to his son’s, “Ah, Dylan! Great to see you, son, how are things down in Arizona?”

Dylan tried to hold back a grimace, but he probably wasn’t completely successful if the way Connor’s face fell was any indication. “I can’t complain, Mr. McDavid. My parents brought you this,” he said putting the bottle down on the table, “They wish you a very merry Christmas.”

“Oh, that was really nice of them. Tell them a big thank you from our part,” Kelly added, picking up the bottle and turning it around to read the label.

“Dad, mom, we’re going to go upstairs to my room and catch up, okay?” Cam snorted loudly and, from the corner of his eye, he saw Connor blush engine red and send a venomous glare in the direction of his brother.

Kelly smiled, “Of course. Dylan, will you be staying here for dinner?”

“Yeah, I figured I could stay here tonight and just drive Connor to the airport in the morning on my way home, so you could have a lie-in.” If this was the last time he got to be with Connor in person, he was going to make the very most of it, even if it hurt like a motherfucker.

“Oh, that would be lovely of you, Dylan. We’re having leftovers for dinner – I hope that’s fine?”

Dylan shrugged, breaking out a wobbly smile, “Of course Mrs. McDavid. I know how Christmas is, leftovers for days.”

Connor then insistently started pushing him towards the stairs, so Dylan threw a quick goodbye over his shoulder and let himself be dragged around. Connor quickly locked the door behind them, all the while muttering curses under his breath, and finally took a deep breath in relief. Dylan stared at him questioningly, wondering what had gotten him so wound up.

“Fuck, Dyls,” Connor backed him up against a wall, smashing their mouths together, “I’ve missed you.”

Dylan let himself melt into it, shoulders slumping. He’d give himself just today to enjoy it. It was probably a terrible idea, but he needed just one last day to pretend like everything was fine. Also, he was dying – that meant that he’d already hit rock bottom, didn’t it?

He twisted a hand into the back of Connor’s sweater, pulling him in and pressing their lips even closer together, licking at his bottom lip to coax him into deepening the kiss. He tasted like licorice, which Dylan didn’t generally enjoy, but it was such a Connor thing to taste like. At this point, he was pretty much conditioned to break out a boner every time he even looked at licorice.

Connor made a muffled sound and detached their mouths with a wet smack, “Hey, not that I’m objecting, but I was hoping we could talk a bit first?”

He wanted nothing less. “How about you finish what you started, and we’ll talk later, eh?”

Hopefully, later, Connor would be too blissed out to really think about having any sort of deep conversation. Or whatever passed for deep conversation in his mind – he was a terrible communicator, really. Always had been. That first year in the O they’d danced around each other for so fucking long because Davo would say one thing and mean another and Dylan had already been so confused by his own sexuality crisis without adding whatever was happening in Connor’s brain to the mix.

Connor let out a bright laugh, the one which made the little web of crow’s feet crinkle in the corner of his eyes. Dylan always wanted to smooth them out with a kiss. It was his favorite of Connor’s laughs, maybe only second to his happy-Davo-on-the-ice-after-a-win laugh. His head was thrown back to expose the long line of his neck, so instead he took the occasion to move his lips there and leave little nips interspersed with puffs of air that made the thin hairs at the back of Connor’s neck stand to attention. “Yeah, that also works.”

There was a flurry of hands as they both tried to strip the other just to end up getting tangled. Connor came out of it with his hair and face full of red glitter from where Rudolf’s nose on his jumper had rubbed off. It clashed terribly with his hair and his equally red boxers. At the sight, Dylan couldn’t help but start laughing wildly. Connor has the same grumpy expression as a drowned cat. He told him as such in between one wheezy bout of laughter and the other, almost bent down in two as tears of amusement gathered in his eyes.

“Stromer, come on,” he whined with a pout, which just made him laugh harder. Connor then adopted a different strategy and pounced on him until they were both grappling on the floor of the room.

They rolled around half-naked for a bit – it was more wriggling than anything – attempting to pin down the other’s wrists and planting their fingers into the ticklish undersides of the other’s stomach. Finally, Dylan gave up, wheezing with a smile up to Connor as he sat with his legs spread wide across Dylan’s thighs and stretched up to hold his arms still.

They both panted with exertion as they stared into each other’s eyes, out of breath more due to the laughing than anything else. Connor’s lips quirked and he leaned down for a quick Eskimo kiss, scrunching his nose just slightly. It was cute. Less cute was the hard-on that was pressed into his stomach, but Dylan wasn’t surprised – Connor always got hard from a bit of roughhousing.

For the first time since their fight – no, since before Connor had started drifting away from him, which had been long before that – Dylan felt truly and completely happy. This was what being with Davo used to be like, fun and uncomplicated. Easy. They used to smile so much back then, before the NHL. Before Connor got the C. Before Dylan failed to crack the Yotes’ roster for three straight years in a row. Maybe it wasn’t a matter of before and after, though. Maybe that was just what growing up felt like.

“We going to talk now?” Connor broke the silence, suddenly serious. Yeah, that was his captain face he had on.

Dylan sighed as heavily as he could when he still had eighty-five kilos of half-naked hockey player laying on top of him. “You sure I can’t tempt you with a blowjob instead?” he tried, going for cheeky even though he knew Connor was unlikely to budge.

Except, Connor did. He turned so red the glitter almost blended in with his blush and Dylan felt a twinge of pain in his wrists where they were now being squeezed too hard around Connor’s grip. “I cleaned myself out earlier,” he admitted in a hush, as if ashamed.

Dylan startled, stunned. They didn’t do that sort of thing often. Neither one of them was into taking it up the ass much – Dylan was indifferent about it at best, while Connor usually got cagey and sprouted off one excuse or the other, generally about being too sore for hockey. It wasn’t that they never did anal, but it was generally not something they bothered with more than a few times a year, always during the off-season. There was plenty of other stuff to keep them busy, anyway, so it wasn’t like they felt they were missing out on anything.

 “You have practice tomorrow,” he pointed out, too dumbstruck to react otherwise.

Immediately, Connor shook his head and stood, reaching an arm down to help him up as well, “I don’t care about practice.”

You don’t care about practice?” Dylan snorted as he gripped onto the outstretched limb and heaved himself upright, “That’s out of character.”

“I just,” Connor started hesitantly, “I wanted to make it up to you.”

He’d always thought Davo looked a bit like one of those puppies with the big floppy ears and pleading eyes, but the similarity was uncanny at that moment, with his eyes so wide and earnest in their desire to please. Dylan had never been able to resist Connor. That’s how he’d gotten into this whole mess in the first place.

“There’s nothing to make up to, bud.”

“I’ve been a dick,” Connor pointed out. Which, well, that wasn’t something he could argue against. Connor did have a tendency of putting his foot in his mouth, painfully awkward as he was.

“I don’t need sexual favors from you to make up for it. We’re good, promise,” he rephrased. As good as they would ever be considered the circumstances, at least.

“It’s not a sexual favor, I want to.”

“You’ve never liked bottoming in four years we’ve been together and now you’ve changed your mind?”

Connor’s forehead pinched up high in disbelief, “What the fuck is wrong with you, why are you trying to argue yourself out of an orgasm?”

I don’t want this to be the latest thing you throw back at my face next time you start resenting me, is what he wanted to say. I don’t want to make love to someone who doesn’t love me back, he almost shouted. He swore he could almost feel a flower trying to claw its way out his throat, even though that was impossible, but he pushed both the urge to cough and the words down.

“I thought you wanted to talk?” is what he asked instead, snippy.

At that, Connor groaned theatrically and dropped onto the bed on his back, rolling his head sideway until his face was planted into the pillow, “I hate you. You’ve turned me off forever, thanks for that.”

Dylan snorted, eyeing the bulge in Connor’s boxers. Crawling into bed next to him, he let his hand cup his cock and stroke his thumb insistently over the wet spot where his head was. Still with his face hidden behind the pillow, he barely heard the hitched breath Connor let out, his hips bucking just slightly to chase the sensation.

He felt his dick jolt in response to the quiet sound, but he still took his hand off Connor completely, grinning a bit unsteadily, “Turned you off forever, eh?”

He got a louder moan in response, the pillow finally shoved aside to show Connor’s fever-bright eyes and a blotchy flush which had spread down to his chest, “Dylan, come on.”

“Yeah, yeah, Jesus. Don’t get your panties in a twist,” he replied with an eye roll. He wouldn’t have sex with Davo – not right now, not like this – but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get him off.

He flung a leg over Davo’s own, propping himself on one elbow so he could reach out to skim over his boyfriend’s abs with the other. God, he was so hot it was unfair. Davo didn’t like being teased much, he’d rather jump into it immediately, but Dylan quite enjoyed drawing it out and seeing how quickly he could get him to devolve into a whining mess.

He petted over his clothed cock again, feeling it twitch under the heel of his palm, before tracing back up to his nipples and pinching them lightly until they pebbled up under his hands. Connor had his eyes closed as he lay there on his back, head titled back to show the long line of his neck and already breathing hard. He truly was so fucking easy.

He leaned down to kiss the shell of his ear, letting out a light exhale that made him shiver. “Your family’s downstairs, you’ll have to be quiet,” Dylan murmured, his roaming hand coming up to run through his hair.

Connor hummed low in his throat, finally tugging onto Dylan to draw him closer and trying to wrangle his shirt off at the same time, “’m always quiet.”

Dylan finished chucking his shirt into a corner of a room and then quickly got rid of his boxers, his half-chub bobbing out and rubbing against one of his boyfriend’s massive thighs.

“Yeah, come on,” Connor muttered, trying to dislodge Dylan’s leg so he could get his own boxers off.

Dylan pressed down onto his legs more firmly, stopping him in his tracks, “Hey, slow down. Let me take my time, yeah?”

With a defeated whine, Connor slumped back down on the bed. He rewarded him with a quick tease under the elastic of his boxers, caressing over the sharp edge of his hipbone and over his ass while peppering small kisses over his jaw. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and the shadow of stubble coming back in made his lips tingle, but he didn’t mind. Dylan could do this all day, just breathing in Connor with all of his senses while feeding off the low-key strum of arousal pulsing through his whole body.

Connor would start complaining soon if he didn’t get a move on, though, seeing as how the damp spot on his straining boxers had almost doubled in size. He crowded him closer, hitching his cock more firmly against Connor’s body to relieve the pressure of his hard-on, and finally slotted their mouths together. Connor opened up immediately underneath him, lips pliant and movements mellow. They spent a few minutes just trading shallow kisses while their breathing got more labored.

They broke up often, Connor mumbling inaudible encouragements while Dylan’s mouth roamed over the sensitive spots near his collarbone and behind his ears. Not hard enough to leave any mark, because that’d be complicated to explain to Connor’s family, but Connor’s neck was sensitive enough that it didn’t really matter. With his face so close to Davo’s body, he could feel the way he’d stop breathing for an instant whenever Dylan hit a good spot, the way his nails would scramble to dig into his forearms, every desperate, convulsive swallow in his throat.

Dylan’s one free hand that wasn’t still propping him up on the bed rested low on Connor’s groin, close enough to his cock that he bumped to it every time either his hand or Davo’s dick twitched, but not really close enough to give him anything to push against.

He didn’t know whether it was wishful imagination or not, but he thought he could feel Davo’s hammering heartbeat pulsing through the femoral artery under his hand, and Jesus Christ, wasn’t that the single most intoxicating feeling in the world. He could feel his own dick try to match the rhythm of the blood flow, hips moving almost unconsciously against Connor’s hard thigh and leaving swears of wetness behind.

It was that tipping point that finally made him grab the elastic of Connor’s boxers and push them down until they were around his ankles. Connor did the rest, twisting around until he’d managed to fling them off and settle in with his legs spread wide. His cock was flushed red against his stomach, precum coating the tip. Dylan ignored it, caressing over his abs instead and feeling the way they would jump under the touch.

“Come on, come on,” Connor whined, hands twisted around the comforter to stop from touching himself, “Stromer-”

“Shh, quiet down,” he interrupted, shutting him up with a brief kiss, “I’ve got you.”

He went straight for the tip, smearing the bead that had bubbled up around the head of his cock and teasing the slit until it had given him a second dribble to work with. Connor was probably wet enough already, but he wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt him. He rolled over to recover the lube from its usual place in the first drawer of the nightstand, ignoring Connor’s overdramatic keen as soon as he took his hands off his dick.

It only took him a few moments to get the bottle open, heat up a dollop in between his hands, and reposition himself in a half-crouch with his face closer to Connor’s cock, but Connor still stared at him with such a betrayed expression that Dylan couldn’t help but be amused. He was always so impatient, no concept of delayed gratification at all. He liked it quick, dirty, and a fair bit rougher than Dylan was really comfortable with, but after four years together, Dylan pretty much knew every trick in the books on how to make him come.

When he finally turned his attention back to the angrily red cock in front of him, one hand twisting around his cockhead while the thumb rubbed across the bundle of nerves on the underside, the other carefully holding onto his balls, Davo hissed loudly. Every single muscle in his abdomen and his legs seized up like he didn’t know whether to buck into the sensation or try to curl into himself to escape it.

Dylan ignored his first instinct to ease up and go slower, knowing that Connor wouldn’t actually appreciate it. Instead, he squeezed the hand that was encasing the head tighter, digging his thumb into the frenulum of his cock just a little bit more. For an instant, Connor’s body went impossibly tighter, and then he went completely limp, like a puppet with all its strings cut off at once.

Fuck,” the sound that came out of Connor’s throat was almost a sob, which he quickly muffled with both hands over his mouth, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, just like that, please don’t stop.”

He did it again, taking in the way Connor’s left thigh started trembling and the heavy pants coming from his mouth at the punishing rhythm he’d set. Dylan’s own cock throbbed in time with Connor’s, so incredibly and painfully hard. He wanted to push it up against Connor, the instinct to bury it someplace warm and thrust until he came so maddeningly overpowering that he almost couldn’t keep up with the handy.

There was no way he could have stopped humping the mattress at that moment – the thought that he was probably destroying Connor’s comforter did cross his mind, but only in a distant haze. Connor was equally if not more distracted, so he didn’t comment on it either. He bit down into the sheets to make up for the unfulfillable desire to leave an imprint of his teeth into the meat of Connor’s ass.

Davo’s quiet moans were getting higher pitched as he kept his focus on the tip, a sure sign that he was getting closer. With the index finger of the hand that was cradling his balls, he wandered back into the empty space between his balls to massage the perineum. Connor stopped breathing completely. He was staring straight at Dylan, pupils blown so wide they were black pools and his hips jerking up and down without any control.

“You close?” Dylan whisper-asked, licking his lips and hovering with his mouth so close that Connor for sure must have felt the puffs of his breaths across his cock.

Davo nodded frantically, one hand moving to join Dylan’s own around his cock – or maybe to grab the back of Dylan’s head and push him deeper, he wasn’t sure. He batted it away quickly, and then, rather than reposition his hands, he just let his cock bob in the air for an instant, admiring. The head had gone almost purple, a now-steady stream of precum dribbling down and coating his whole length.

“No, no, nonononono, please don’t stop, please, please,” Connor's hand made another aborted gesture towards grabbing himself again. He could see the tears of frustration start to gather in his eyes, so desperate as he was to get off, and Dylan couldn’t do anything but take pity on him.

Holding both hands firmly against his hips so that it would be impossible for Connor to buck up and choke him, he sucked his cockhead into his mouth, swirling his tongue around the underside. A burst of salty precum exploded in his mouth and Dylan hummed as he pushed himself a few centimeters deeper onto Davo’s cock.

With both his arms now busy pinning him down, there wasn’t really much he could do when Connor’s hand reached down again for the third time, this time evidently directed towards the back of his head. Dylan braced himself for having his head tugged down deeper onto his cock, but Connor only threaded his hand into his hair and didn’t make any move towards pushing or pulling, just cradling his head reverently.

“So good Dyls, so fucking good,” Connor chanted, “I’m so close, so so close, don’t stop.”

He redoubled his efforts, bobbing faster and sucking harder until Connor swore loudly and jerked deeper into his mouth despite Dylan doing his best to keep him still. He choked a bit, half because of the unexpected thrust and half because of the spurt of cum that shot straight down his throat, but he recovered in time to help Connor through the rest of it.

“Gonna fuck me now?” Connor mumbled once he’d gotten it all out of his system, his dumb post-coital smile in place with its half-lidded glances and open-mouth breaths, “Now you’ve made me all nice and loose for you?”

Dylan wasn’t sure his self-control could take this. He bit down onto his lip hard, counting back from ten in his head as his dick leaked some more precum into the increasingly large wet spot on the comforter. He just needed to get through today and then it would all be over. His dick didn’t seem to understand that though, especially not right now.

He shook his head, more to clear his thoughts than to say no, but Connor’s face still fell.

“Dyls. Come on, why not?”

With a deep breath, he gritted his teeth, “I don’t want to fuck you.”

“Are you seriously still pissed at me?”

“No, that’s not–” his hands clenched reflexively, “You have practice in the morning. You don’t even like bottoming. You’re just doing this to try and equal the score or some shit like that, but sex’s not… It shouldn’t be like that. It’s not a chore.”

Connor stared straight at him for a too-long second, no apparent understanding in his eyes, before he slowly nodded, “Okay. Can I get you off with my mouth? Or my hand?”

He opened his mouth to- well, he didn’t know what he was going to say to that, but whatever it was was cut out by a coughing fit, wet and awful. It was a jarring reminder of where the two of them stood in their relationship, and suddenly, despite the almost-literal blue balls he was still sporting, Dylan wanted nothing less than to get off. With a negative jerk of his head, he stumbled off the bed and into the en suite before Connor could even realize what was happening.

Locking the bathroom door behind him, he almost ran into the shower and turned the water on as cold as it would go. The sudden freeze did nothing to abate his hard-on, and eventually he just clinically jerked off into the drain to get rid of it. It was the most unsatisfactory orgasm he could remember ever having, and he’d had a long string of those considering he’d been in a long-distance relationship for the past two and a half years.

By the time he was done, he was wet, naked, and shivering in Davo’s bathroom, wearing only Davo’s bathrobe and with nowhere to go but back out in the bedroom. He slinked out quietly, hoping that maybe Connor would still be in that half-asleep comatose state he always got after sex.

“What the fuck,” a bewildered Davo asked from where he was now sitting up on the bed, afterglow daze completely forgotten, “was that?”

No such luck, then. Holding back a grimace, he tried to bide his time by picking up and putting on the various pieces of clothing that had been scattered around the floor as his brain cycled through what excuse he could use that would explain this fucking nightmare of a situation.

“Did I hurt you? Pressure you? What- I mean, just tell me what’s wrong, Stromer,” Connor’s arm slowly stretched out towards him, like he wanted to draw him into a hug but didn’t know whether it would be welcome, “You’ve been acting really off.”

He shrugged half-heartedly, now dressed and standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, “It’s just hockey, you know?” It wasn’t a lie, necessarily. Just not the complete truth either.

“Oh, Stromer,” the pity in his voice was mortifying. Dylan would have generally described himself as someone in touch with his own emotions – he’d cried on national TV before and not really felt ashamed of it, what more could you fucking ask for – but that didn’t mean his insides didn’t squirm with unease when other people’s feelings were projected onto him. 

“You know there’s nothing to be ashamed about, right? It’s not your fault the Yotes are absolute trash at developing players.”

“What would you know about that,” he mumbled low, not sure he even wanted Connor to understand what he was saying. Of course it was his own goddamn fault.

Dylan was a stats guy, and there was no hiding from the data in this case. Of all the first-round players in their draft class, nineteen had produced more NHL points than he had, including every single one of the other top ten players. Connor and Jack were already franchise centers, and Mitch, Werenski, Aho, and Rantanen were all shaping up to be veritable stars despite being taken after him. Shit, it was only December and both Barzy and Boes were already looking to be contenders for the Calder this year.

Meanwhile, all Dylan had was endless criticism of his skating, of his long shot release, of his ability to think the game, and the ‘bust’ tag attached to his name, He thought of Clayton Keller, taken a year after them and already lighting up Arizona with his game. That could have been him, if only he’d trained more, spent that extra half-hour at the gym, got his head in the game better. Connor’s words floated through his mind again. Maybe they wouldn’t have sent him down if only he’d been less focused on his relationship and more on playing hockey.

“Hey, Dyls,” Connor’s quiet voice washed over him, so painfully soothing, “Come here, c’mon.”

He took a few careful steps forward, towards Connor’s outstretched arms, letting himself be manhandled into the bed and then into being the little spoon. It was such a familiar sensation to have the long line of warmth and strong muscles along his back, one of Connor’s arms slung over his body so that he could rest one proprietary hand over Dylan’s collarbone.

The feeling of being surrounded by his boyfriend warmed him with body heat and affection in equal parts, but its comfort soured quickly when Dylan couldn’t help but wonder how long it had been since the last time Connor had done this out of genuine love rather than obligation or routine like he was doing now. If he ever had.

If there was more than Connor wanted to talk about, he didn’t say. They cuddled in silence for so long that they became drowsy, both of them falling in and out of restless napping. When the knock on the door came, much later than night, they were both startled out of their light dozing.

“Dinner will be on the table whenever you want to come downstairs, boys,” came Kelly’s voice from the outside.

“Thanks, mom, we’ll be down in a little while,” Connor replied, his voice jarring in Dylan’s ears, but not moving an inch from where he was still cuddled up against him.

They fell back into an easy silence. Once upon a time, it would have been enough. He’d never felt like they needed words to understand each other, touches and glances more than making up for the awkward, stunted communication skills of their early teenage years. Clearly, he’d been wrong about that. He’d been wrong about many things, in this relationship.

They stayed in that position for a few more minutes before Connor shifted with a sigh, “Want to get food?”

He wasn’t actually hungry, “Sure.”

Connor stood up with a groan, cracking his spine and stretching until a sliver of his stomach peeked out under this jumper. Dylan caught his wrist before he could head towards the door, making Connor look back at him quizzically.

“Hey, I love you, alright?” He didn’t know why he said it. It wasn’t as if Connor really felt the same. The fact that he was coughing up his lungs was proof enough of that.

It was hard to remember that when Connor’s expression melted into something so sweet it was almost painful, “I know, Dyls. You’ll come visit me when you have that cluster of days off at the beginning of February, right? I’ll clear my schedule for you.”

It shouldn’t have stung as bad as it did that Connor hadn’t said I love you back. He knew he didn’t. Not that it mattered anyway, he probably wasn’t even going to be around anymore by that time. The doctor had said weeks, and he wasn’t sure how many that meant, but February was a scary month and a half away.

He nodded, “Course. I’ll see you soon.”

Connor rubbed a thumb across his cheek with a smile and Dylan felt himself die inside just a little bit more, “Come on, let’s go eat.”

***

Putting his affairs in order was as strange in the post-Christmas light than it had been in the past two days, except there was a newfound sense of urgency as he thought about this maybe being the last time he got the opportunity to sort everything out before he ended up in Arizona again. It was also surprisingly easy – so easy that he was probably forgetting something critical.  

Back when his granddad had had bypass surgery, it had looked like it was probably going to be a matter of days before they said their goodbyes. During those frantic weeks leading up to the surgery, granddad had liked to mutter his bank account number under his breath when he or Ryan or Matty were over visiting, reminding them of his stock investments and bonds as if they’d legally be able to take over ownership after he died just out of force of repetition.

Grandma had underhandedly given them a copy of his will, written in that particular handwriting all old people shared, trembling and only half-intelligible. He’d never opened it – got a bit choked up every time he looked at it, to tell the truth – but he’d folded it up in his wallet and taken it with him every day since. Granddad had recovered well, anyhow. They liked to joke that he was going to survive everyone in the family at this pace. It certainly looked like he was going to survive Dylan, that was for sure.

As for him, Dylan didn’t really know what to put in his own hypothetical will. He didn’t really have any preferences on what type of casket he got or if he got cremated or if they donated his body to science or what the fuck ever. He didn’t have any investments. He didn’t own any property apart from the one car that was basically his parents’ now, because it stayed in Lorne Park with them during the season.

There was whatever was left over from his ELC after paying for rent, hotels, his loaner car down in Arizona, infinite plane tickets and various living expenses, whatever medals and old hockey stuff and mementos were in his childhood room, and that was pretty much it. There wasn’t all that much he’d had time to accumulate in twenty-one years of life.

Most of that stuff would stay with his parents right where it was, as would the ELC money. Apart from the fact that it was the least he could do to pay his parents back, it also sounded like it was legally required in his province, although he hadn’t really understood all the inheritance rules from the five-minute googling he’d bothered with.

A few things, he wanted to send over to his friends. Photos of them together. Inside jokes and gag presents they’d exchanged throughout the years. There was that one hockey stick he and Mikey had gotten signed by Spezza during a surprise visit to their local rink back when they were children, which now routinely moved between the McLeod and the Strome households every summer. Mikey would probably like to have it. A few tidbits from his time living together with Brinksy in Erie, including that one tiny jumper with a number 12 printed onto the left side which had somehow made its way into his closet at some point. Stuff from when he’d been even younger, hating on Mitchy from the opposite side of rinks all across the GTA.

He wondered if Connor would like to have something as a keepsake. Probably not. A clean break was likely for the best. After everything he'd put him through – the endless complaining, the dragging him down –, the least he could do was go with grace, just bow out without being a sentimental bitch about it. He didn’t want Connor to feel guilty about anything. He didn’t deserve that. But also, somewhere deep inside of him was a thought he didn’t dare verbalize: Connor had already gotten everything Dylan had to give and then some, and it still hadn’t been enough. He doubted any material trinkets could make up for his many shortcomings now.

***

“Hey, Brinksy.”

“Stromer, you make up with your boyfriend yet?” Alex always sounded so cheerful when they spoke, even though Dylan knew that he had a lot on his plate, what with his first season in Chicago and all.

“Yeah, sorry you got caught up in that.”

His laugh was tinny over the phone, but then again, it felt like it had been so long since he’d heard it in person that the echo over the line almost felt like the real Alex, “You’re lucky I’m used to your dramatics, dude.”

“Listen, I wanted to ask you something.”

“For sure man, shoot.”

“I’ve been going through my things here at home and there’s some stuff from the Otters that I think might be yours. I was thinking I could pack it up and ship it to your parents’ place?”

“I know for sure you still have my copy of Call of Duty, it’s high time you got off your ass and gave it back.”

Dylan’s laugh was maybe a bit too shrill, “No, yeah, for sure.”

“So, what’s good with you?”

“Nothing much, honestly. How’s Chicago treating you?”

“Oh man, so good. The Hawks are awesome. Did I tell you what Jonny did before our game against the Devils a couple of weeks ago?”

He listened to Alex chatter on about his and Toews’ warm-up ritual on game days, the housing letter he’d gotten as an early Christmas present, and the dog he and Lyndsey were going to get as soon as they found a place to live, how awesome it was to share a line with Patrick fucking Kane. He let it wash over him with his eyes screwed shut, swallowing down the cough that desperately wanted to claw out of him. He missed Brinksy so fucking much.

***

“Marner, how’s Toronto?”

“Hey dickhead, nice to know you’re done ignoring me. How the desert?”

“Wouldn’t know, I’m in the Sauga right now. Heading back down tomorrow evening. Hot as shit I bet.”

“Am I ever glad I went fourth, I don’t know if I could have taken that.” They both lapsed into an instant of quiet consideration. It wasn’t the first time Dylan thought about what might have happened if they’d switched places in the draft and he’d gone to the Leafs, although he tried not to dwell on it. It always left a sour taste in his mouth and his chest feeling too tight for his body.

“Look, I wanted to ask you something,” he said eventually, if only to break the silence.

Mitch hummed, “You can ask, but if this is like the last favor you begged me for, you can forget about it. Dvo’s still pissed at me.”

“Nothing like that. I was just– Can I send you some stuff? Like, for safekeeping?”

He could almost see Mitch’s confusion on the other end of the line, “Like, what sort of stuff?”

“Just some old things from when we were kids, you know?”

Why?” he sounded really puzzled. Rightfully so, he presumed. It was a weird request. He and Mitch were tight, but there weren’t really that type of friends.

Dylan opened his mouth to reply but felt a wave of grief suddenly overtake him. He moved the phone away from his ear as he stifled a sob.

“-ill on the line, bud?” Marner was in the middle of saying on the other end when he put his phone back to his ear.  

“Yeah, sorry. Just… It’s just stuff I think you should have. You know, old memories.”

“Everything okay, Stromer? You sound a bit off.”

“I’m good, I’m fine. Your face is a bit off,” he replied shakily, “Do you want them or not?”

“I mean, sure, why not. My parents still have the same address, feel free to send it there and I’ll let them know to expect a package.”

“Thanks, Mitchy. I’ll talk to you soon, yeah?”

“For sure bro. Fuck the Coyotes, eh?” Pressing the hang-up button had never felt more final.

***

To: Ryan
good practice?

From: Ryan
What do you care?

To: Ryan
just asking

From: Ryan
I know you just want to know about Davo
He’s looking good out there
Fast

To: Ryan
that’s not it

From: Ryan
Then what?

To: Ryan
you know i love you yeah?

From: Ryan
Fuck off

To: Ryan
that’s what i get for telling my fave brother i love him???

From: Ryan
You dying or something?

To: Ryan
yh

From: Ryan
Melodramatic little shit.
Miss you too, pickle.

***

The last day of the year found the Roadrunners playing a game in Ontario. The Californian Ontario, that was. It felt half like a cosmic joke and half like he was living in a knock-off, B-rate version of what life as a professional hockey player should be like. He liked his teammates – he really did. They were a tight group and they were winning much more than they were losing, but everything still felt off-kilter, like he couldn’t quite find his balance.

It was almost as if leaving Connor and his family again had opened the floodgates to his body just giving up on him. The pills clearly weren’t doing their job properly anymore (already), and he found himself coughing as soon as he lay down to go to sleep. Inevitably, he’d been waking up more tired than he’d gone to bed as, which had led him to overcaffeinate and, in turn, that had made him twitchy as hell.

Even during the day, when the cough really didn’t bother him too much, he was wheezing and out of breath immediately during practices and workouts, which had led to much chirping in the locker room about eating too much and not exercising enough over the break. The only good news was that he hadn’t thrown up a proper, developed plant since that first time in his bathroom, just a few yellow petals that he couldn’t quite place in terms of taxonomy. At least, he hoped that was good news.

Despite his attempts to be subtle, Merks and MacInnis kept giving him worried expressions from a distance. Mac because he could hear the continuous coughing at night through the thin walls of their apartment, Merks because they’d gone out for dinner together a couple of times since the season had restarted and Dylan really hadn’t been eating as much as usual. He was too nauseous to, most days.

They’d had a weigh-in a couple of days after practice had started back up again and Dylan had dropped a scary three kilos in eight days despite the holidays and not really working out. To say the trainers had not been happy about it would have been the understatement of the year. They’d upped the calorie intake on his meal plan and made noises of benching him if he dropped any more weight, but it wasn’t like he was trying to lose weight. Eating was just easier said than done.

And amid everything else he had on his mind, Connor had seemingly decided that this was a good time to make up for never texting first. He’d been bombarded with random snaps, pictures of puppies, selfies, and increasingly aggressive demands that they FaceTime every night so they could spend hours talking about everything and nothing at the same time. It was really good. It was exactly what it had been in the very beginning when they’d first gone long-distance, and exactly what Dylan wanted.

It was also excruciatingly painful, like being stabbed in the chest every time his phone beeped. Staring at his boyfriend’s smile from a screen and hearing his I love you’s knowing that he really didn’t, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before Connor reverted back to drifting away and getting shorter and snappier with him, was the hardest fucking thing he’d ever done. Harder than punching Mikey’s shoulder and telling him to take care for the last time. Harder than sending off those memento boxes to Alex and Mitchy. Harder than hugging his parents goodbye for what was probably the last time.

He’d always know there was something dangerously morbid in his and Connor’s relationship, an unhealthy sort of attachment on his end that went beyond all his childhood and family ties. He knew it wasn’t right, on some level. Maybe that was why he’d gotten sick. It must have been some sort of divine punishment for loving him too much, too fast, too intensely.

Dylan wouldn’t have called himself religious in any sense of the word. And yet, sometimes after he hung up those calls, he still kneeled on the floor at the end of his bed, clasped his hands together, put his head down, and prayed to God that he would die before Connor broke up with him. If this was going to end, at the very least he wanted to be able to pretend that everything was fine with Connor until his last breath.  

It all came to a head when Connor had called him from an Edmonton club just as the countdown for the new year was starting, slurred words almost inaudible over the hard bass of the music which he could feel reverberate all the way through his end of the phone. He was in his hotel room in Ontario after their win, alone because everyone else had gone out to welcome 2018 in style and he just hadn’t felt up to it.

Connor had been so cheerfully drunk, wishing him a happy new year and promising a celebratory blowjob where, presumably, everyone could hear him, not a worry in his mind about how gay that sounded. It was so unlike him. Before he could even say anything back, someone in the background – it sort of sounded like Draisaitl, but what did he know – had told him to get off the phone and go back to the party. And Connor had just done it, hung up on him without any reluctance whatsoever.

The coughing fit that night had been accompanied by heaving and hacking all over the bathroom sink as he regurgitated one almost perfectly formed flower. It was a bright yellow dandelion, each petal surrounded by a layer of pink-streaked mucus but not at all mangled into a ball like the previous bits he’d coughed up.

Dylan picked it up and held it in one palm as he looked it over. In Mississauga, where the dandelions filled up every lawn, park, and crack in the pavement, the city council would send out people every spring to spray them all dead with weed killer. That’s what they were: weeds that would take over the whole city if you let them, rather than pretty flowers you’d give as a gift or show off in a vase in your living room. Dylan had always liked them though – maybe that said more about him than it did about everyone else.

He welcomed the new year like that, sitting on a hotel bathroom floor alone, holding his knees close to his chest and laughing maniacally as he cradled a spit-wet dandelion he’d grown in his lungs because his boyfriend didn’t love him back.

***

The thing about hockey was that it didn’t stop for anyone. Dylan would cough dandelions all night, get up, down a quad espresso, fuck his way up through practice or workouts or video review, dodge the well-meaning interventions of his friends and family because he was losing too much weight or didn’t go out anymore, cough his way through an afternoon nap, play terrible games in which he couldn’t fucking score to save his life, sit through a meaningless video call with Connor on non-game days where his heart would break all over again, and then rinse and repeat the next day.

That mindless routine dragged him to the end of January, and he probably could have stuck with it for a while longer if it weren’t for the fact that it was actually getting really hard to keep up with hockey. Dylan was playing like hot trash, Van Ryn had slashed his ice time, and he couldn’t get through a single drill without feeling like his air supply had been cut off.  

The trainers were pissed at him for losing so much weight that he looked more like he would at the end of a very deep playoff run than in the middle of the season. Van Ryn was pissed at him for playing like shit. His housemate was pissed at him because he was being an anti-social dick who kept waking him up with coughing during the night. His teammates were definitely getting pissed at him for acting like locker room cancer, and who could blame them. Connor was probably pissed at him for something too, since their calls had started to drop from daily to weekly, as he’d known was going to happen.

When Coach finally scratched him for their home game against the Chicago Wolves, he should have seen it coming a mile away. It still felt like being sucker-punched with nothing to ease the sting of embarrassment and disappointment which came from not living up to the expectations once again.

When he’d refused the surgery for Hanahaki, he’d somehow imagined that he’d be able to keep playing until the very end. The reality was that this was probably it. He’d reached a new low in his skating skills because he couldn’t fucking breathe enough to last a full shift and now he couldn’t even score and he was probably going to end up benched and watching the rest of his team play from afar until he keeled over in two weeks, maybe three, maybe a month.

He still didn’t regret refusing the surgery, though. He couldn’t imagine being any further away from hockey than he was now. He certainly couldn’t picture himself watching an estranged Connor come alive on the ice from the TV in his childhood bedroom in Lorne Park, living through the ‘could have been’s for another sixty or seventy years.

So he took the healthy scratch with his head bowed and sat through the game in the equipment room, since there was no press box at AHL games in Arizona. He burned from the inside out as he watched them take a well-deserved L from the TV and then trudge, pissed off, back to the locker room. He didn’t dare look up from his shoes as Coach berated their shitty game, too afraid of seeing death glares sent his way from his teammates. The gazes he could feel prickling at the back of his neck were heavy enough already.

It was a coward’s move and it certainly wouldn’t win him any points with the team, but Dylan couldn’t face anyone else tonight. He slipped out of the room as everyone headed to the showers, running back to the apartment with his tail tucked in between his legs and his phone switched on airplane mode to avoid Connor or anyone else. He made himself a post-game snack even though he hadn’t played because he really needed the calories, and he had half a mind to just tuck himself in his room for the rest of the night when the coughing hit him out of nowhere.

He wheezed his way to the bathroom, frantically trying to get to the sink or the toilet or even the fucking shower before he threw up flowers on the floor. He didn’t quite manage, stumbling onto his knees partway through the door and vomiting half a dozen green-yellow flowers at once. Up until now, they’d always come one at a time, pair sometimes. It was getting worse.

The cough didn’t stop, and Dylan’s hindbrain had a second of complete panic where he wondered whether he’d ever be able to breathe in again. That thought led him to try and force an inhale, which was the worst possible thing he could have done – the half-regurgitated ball stuck in his throat went right back into his lungs, causing a second, much more violent wave of coughing as his body tried to force it back out.

His throat felt like it had been scraped bloody and he couldn’t breathe, but somehow, he still managed to find enough air to start crying. It was an almost instinctive reaction; he didn’t think he could have helped it any more than he could help the trembling of his hands or the way his stomach rebelled and started heaving in turn together with his lungs. Half-digested food and flowers splattered together on the floor, splashing his hands and his jeans. It was absolutely disgusting.

In between the hacking sounds he was making, he must have missed the sound of the door opening, because he didn’t even realize Mac was home until he walked in on him in the bathroom. He found him sobbing desperately in between retches, bent over the floor with a mess of spit, vomit, and mucus streaked with blood dripping all over his chin, and choking up mangled dandelions.

“What in the–” Mac froze like a deer in the headlights, a myriad of expressions passing through his face and settling on horrified panic, “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Dylan, what the fuck is going on. Holy shit we need an ambulance.”

Dylan bent backward to clutch his wrist, stopping him from fishing his phone out of his pocket. He might have also left an imprint of barf on him, but at that point, he was well beyond caring. He finished another bout of vomiting – this time only bile, because he’d already gotten rid of all the solid food in his stomach – before he managed to mutter that he didn’t need a fucking ambulance.

“I’m calling Campbell,” Mac still looked like he was one wrong move away from freaking out and calling 911, so Dylan just nodded and let him call the captain. What good that was going to do, he didn’t know. The guy had only been their captain for three weeks. But what the fuck ever.

The vomiting had finally ended, but he was still coughing up flowers often enough that he couldn’t even imagine pulling himself away from the puddle of bodily fluids that had amassed in front of him. It had decreased in intensity enough that he could breathe, though, so today was probably not the day he was going to die in a shitty, too-small apartment bathroom in Tucson, Arizona, that hadn’t been deep-cleaned since August. It was revolting. It was humiliating. It was how it was going to be until he died, an unglamorous, disgusting death drowning in his own fluids.

At that thought, Dylan couldn’t do anything but cry harder, fingernails scraping painfully as they tried to dig into the floor tiles. There was a deep-set pain radiating from his throat and his knees, almost indistinguishable with how sharp it was. Behind him, Mac had finished blabbering away into the phone, a mess of a conversation that he couldn’t really follow, and was now alternating between pacing behind him and hovering with a hand patting his back. That gesture of uncommon concern from Ryan, who was the biggest dudebro Dylan knew, made him want to curl up and die for real. 

He hadn’t even made it up from the floor before the front door started opening and closing repeatedly, Mac leaving him to join the cluster of panicked footsteps in the living room. That was definitely more than just Campbell. Dylan closed his eyes when he felt a pair of arms pull him up from the floor. He knew he looked like a mess, but that didn’t mean he wanted to see that reflected in his teammate’s eyes, whoever it was. 

“Hey,” Merks started quietly, clearly out of his depth, “Hey, Dyls. How are you feeling?”

Dylan shook his head slowly as he fought against a wave of vertigo, not trusting himself to speak out loud without breaking down again. From the living room, what felt like half the Roadrunners’ team started raising their voices, talking one over the other.

“Alright. Fuck. Okay, let’s do this,” Merks took a deep breath, appearing to think his plan over, “Let’s go back to your room, we’ll grab a change of clothes for you while the others clean up in here, and then we’ll get you a nice warm shower, okay?”

At that, Dylan finally opened his eyes, finding Nick much closer to his face than he’d expected. He recoiled backward, stumbling, and had to be caught by Merks before he fell.

He didn’t wait for Dylan to say anything before he started guiding him out of the bathroom and back towards the living room. Dylan staggered along, cringing when he saw all the people present. Campbell was there, of course, but so were Lawson and Kempe, all three of their As, Mayo, Capo, and, for some reason, their backup goalie. Everyone was staring at him.

“Okay,” Merks said, taking control of the situation, “We’re going to get some clean clothes. In the meantime, clean the bathroom so Dylan can wash up properly.”

Mac directed them towards their rarely used cleaning supplies, and everyone’s fretting turned towards that, thankfully leaving Dylan and Nick to go to his room without any further scrutiny. Merks must have understood that he was still a bit winded, so he took over once they were in his room and started opening drawers and the closet until he’d put together a set of clean underwear, a pair of sweatpants, and a well-worn Erie jumper.

They didn’t have to awkwardly wait around for long since apparently, a handful of hockey players could make quick work of cleaning up a bathroom. Before he knew it, Dylan had been stripped down, his clothes thrown into the washer on the sanitary cycle, and he’d been shoved into an extra-hot shower. The warm water really helped settle him, which he needed, but also made him excruciatingly aware of what a fucking scene he’d just made in front of his teammates.

Procrastinating under the shower only worked for so long, because they had shitty water pressure in their apartment building and there was still a funky smell of puke in the room that the steam wasn’t making any better, so eventually Dylan was forced to shut off the shower, brush his teeth, get dressed, and face the music. He ambled out to find Mac hovering right outside the door and nobody else in sight, although the voices coming from the living room gave him a good indication as to whether everyone was.

“Fucking shit, what did you call all these fucking people for, Mac?” he muttered under his breath as they just looked at each other. And god, was his voice sounded rough. He wasn’t actually angry, more humiliated than anything else, really.

Ryan just stared at him like he’d gone absolutely mad, “Are you fucking with me right now, Strome? Seriously, are you fucking with me?”

“Bro, Campbell I get,” he shrugged, stuffing his hands into the front pocket of his jumper, “Sislo, Hanley, and Mermis, okay, they’ve got the A. But everyone else? When’s the last time Mayo ever did anything useful for anyone?”

Mac’s eyes flashed with indignancy and he cuffed him around the back of the neck as he dragged Dylan towards the kitchen, “Stromer, shut the fuck up and count your lucky stars that I didn’t call Coach as well. I walked in to you throwing up bright yellow shit and gagging like you were trying to deepthroat a twelve-inch cock. Of course I called the team, I thought you were going to fucking die on me.”

Dylan grimaced, both in response to Mac’s crass proclamation and to the sight of the rest of the guys emptying out their fridge. Lawson slid over a blue Gatorade and two packets of saltines as Mac forced him to sit at one of the only two table chairs they had. He sipped on the bottle slowly as he gazed at the too-many bodies shoved into their small kitchen, all leaning against a different piece of furniture.  

“This feels like an interrogation,” he snorted. Nobody seemed to think it was particularly funny, going by the somber looks he was given.

“This is a fucking intervention, bro,” Merks replied. “I don’t know what the fuck’s been up with you lately, but there’s clearly something real wrong.”

Dylan just stared at the table, not daring a reply. Merks didn’t even know the half of it, considering he’d been out for the past couple of weeks with an injury and had missed the progressively shittier efforts he’d put up in practice.

“How long has this been going on for?” Campbell signed eventually, scrubbing at his eyes. “Mac?” he prompted when Dylan still didn’t reply.

“Uh, about a month, I guess? Since we came back from the Christmas break.”

Law made an incredulous noise, crossing his arms in front of his chest as he stared Mac down, “A month? You let this go on for a month without saying anything to anyone.”

“What the fuck, no,” he yelped in his own defense, hands raised in the air, “He wasn’t throwing up anything, he’d just been coughing a lot at night. He said he spoke to the trainers about it and it was all fine.”

“And you just believed him?”

“What the fuck else was I supposed to do?” Mac’s jaw was clenched so tight Dylan could see the muscle ticking, a clear sign of nervous annoyance.

“It wasn’t his fault,” he said in Mac’s defense as he kept his eyes carefully trained on one of the salt grains on the crackers, “I’ve sort of been trying to hide all of this.”

Kempe snorted, elbowing their backup tendy in the side like the dick he was, “Good fucking job you did there, dude. Clearly, your plan was going great.”

“Alright,” Campbell intervened, “That’s enough of that. Dylan, we need to know what’s going on with you. What the fuck was all that yellow shit all over your bathroom?”

Dylan felt the telltale prickle of heat that preceded a blush overtake his face. How could he possibly even begin to explain to his teammates that he had a secret, gay life partner of over three years, coincidentally also the best hockey player in the league? Or that he didn’t actually love Dylan, and that he was going to die because of that?

“That’s Hanahaki, isn’t it?” Dylan’s head whipped up to stare at Capo in surprise. Capo, who was dumber than a rock and about as perceptive, would have been the last person he’d have guessed would be able to recognize the symptoms. Capo’s smile was grim as he shrugged, “One of my cousins had it. She died of it, actually.”

There was a rustle of sound around the room as everyone processed the news, and then their staring intensified again onto Dylan. There wasn’t really anything he could add, so he just nodded.

“Fuck, Stromer,” Capo murmured immediately, “Why the fuck haven’t you had surgery yet.”

“They said I wouldn’t be able to play hockey pro anymore,” he said simply. He didn’t know how to explain that he wasn’t anything without hockey, couldn’t accurately convey the pit at the bottom of his stomach whenever he thought about retirement or the deep unease he felt every time the NHL app on his phone let him know that this or that player was out for the season because of injuries.

“Fuck hockey man, you’re going to die,” Capo shouted at that, kicking the only other chair their kitchen table held and watching it careen into the fridge with a bang, “Okay. Okay, we can fix this. Who’s this bitch you’re so fucking hung up on, huh? We’ll help you get your girl, man.”

Dylan just stared back at him, knowing that there was no girl, no happy ending waiting at the end of the tunnel, “It doesn’t matter. It’s not- It’s not happening.”

“So what, you’re just going to let yourself die?” Lawson looked gobsmacked, arms still crossed so tight his knuckles had gone white. Next to him, Hanley’s entire face was looking ghost-pale.

“Yeah, that was the plan,” he shrugged.

“Well, it’s a stupid fucking plan. You’re sick in the head if you think that’s normal,” Capo yelled again, looking for all intents and purposes like he was about to punch him in the face, “You think today was bad, but it’ll get so much worse, trust me. It’s a shitty fucking way to die, man.”

“This is fucking ridiculous,” Kempe said then, waving his hands around to encompass everyone in the room, “We need to call Van Ryn like, immediately, and you need to go get your fucking head checked out.”

“Don’t you fucking dare, this is none of the coaching staff’s business,” Dylan’s chair scraped loudly across the floor as he stood up. He wouldn’t be fucking benched because one of these idiots blabbered his private business around. Although, well, he was doing a good fucking job getting himself benched as it was.

“Uh, sorry to disagree Stromer, but it’s pretty much the definition of their business if one of their players croaks dead,” Kempe added. Dylan wanted to deck him in the face. Or maybe cry.

“Please. I just- I just want to play, that’s all,” he pleaded. He was so tired. So, so tired. “This is really none of your business and I really wish you would all leave me alone about it. I’m not going to change my mind, the doctor knows, and I’m- I just want to play, that’s all.”

At that, Campbell took a step forward and glanced at everyone, “Alright. This has been a lot of information to take in and everyone’s emotions are riding high, so let’s just- Nobody’s going to tell Coach anything for now,” he glanced at Capo, who looked ready to stage a mutiny, “Captain’s orders.”

“So what, we’re just… not going to do anything?” Merks questioned, incredulous.

Campbell mulled that over for a second, “No. Everyone’s tired tonight, we’ve all played a game and I bet Stromer would kill for a bed right now. We’ll sleep on it. We have morning practice tomorrow, and we’ll have a players-only meeting right after that. I’ll send a message out to the group chat. We’ll sort this out, Dylan.”

Dylan was too broken to object like wanted to, so he just nodded in silence. Everyone started to file out of the apartment, exchanging subdued goodnights and heavy glances. Dylan didn’t stay to watch them go, opting to stumble into his room and faceplant onto his bed. For the first time in a while, he was so wiped out that he actually fell asleep and didn’t get woken up by coughing once.

***

News traveled fast in the pro hockey world. Dylan knew this, he’d seen the game of Chinese whispers unravel through Ryan more than once before. Hockey players were a tight-knit, gossipy bunch who would pounce whenever they smelled even a whiff of blood.

So, when he woke up too early the following morning and finally switched airplane mode off his phone, it was with a lot of anger but no particular surprise that he saw his phone almost vibrate off the bedside table with unread texts and missed phone calls. It only stopped, briefly, when his phone automatically shut off and rebooted because of the influx of notifications. Someone had fucking snitched.

“Fuck,” he muttered in between a cough and the other as he reached over and grabbed the pill bottle off the table. He swallowed two dry, wincing as they went down his raw throat. He needed coffee for this, he thought as he rubbed at his incredibly dry and puffy eyes. He probably looked like a hot mess.

He grabbed his phone and headed to the kitchen. He’d treat himself to an extra shot in his coffee today, he had a feeling he’d need it. Taking his sweet time making his drink, he tried not to think about the dread that was mounting as he imagined what was waiting for him on his phone.

Worst case scenario, everyone knew everything, he was fucked, and there would probably be a message from Connor telling him they were over because he couldn’t deal with his drama. Best case scenario, something had gotten out, but no names or details. Maybe it was just everyone in the 2015 draft class wanting an in on what was happening in Tucson. Although they could have just as easily asked Crouser or Nick.

Finally, coffee in one hand and phone in the other, he waded through the nightmarish number of texts on his phone. It wasn’t actually that bad, looking at it. The largest bulk of the messages came from the Roadrunners group chat, which seemed to have imploded overnight. No doubt thanks to Campbell calling the players-only meeting. There were about twenty missed calls, only half of which came from numbers saved into his phone. Nothing from Connor, and nothing from his parents. He was pretty sure that good news, but the four missed calls from Ryan were concerning, to say the least.

The remainder of his individual message logs was a nightmare to slog through. Even his phone had given up trying to count them, just reading 99+. He started scrolling through, trying to figure out what everyone had been told.

From: Cat 😽
heard some worrying rumors
call me

From: Unknown Number
Hi Dylan, it’s Mark Scheifele.
Your brother gave me your number, hope you don’t mind.
Heard the news from Tucson, wishing you a good recovery!
Let me know if you need anything

From: Unknown Number
((((((((

From: Bitchell Marner
BRO
THE FUCK IS GOING ON
CALL ME DICKHEAD!!!!!

From: TK 🦝
?????????????

From: Unknown Number
Get yourself an inhaler, it will help with the breathing trust me
This is Giroux by the way, TK gave me your number
Call me for anything, I mean it

From: JackAss 🤡
soooooo
who’s got you so fucked up?
thought you were too busy making heart eyes at mcdavid to fall in love…

From: Ryan
Dylan, I’m worried sick about you
Call me AS SOON AS YOU SEE THIS
I’m not kidding
I’ll tell mum and dad if you don’t

From: Crouser
IT WASN’T ME

From: Unknown Number
got ur # from TK
heard what’s going on
i know a real good dr to do the surgery
send me a msg me when you see this

From: Hanny
Yo, wtf are you doing dude
heard you trying to kill yourself????
better be just rumors bro
or i’m coming down to az to kill you myself

From: Mat Barzal
Stromey, you okay?

He had to stop reading then, as Mitch’s face popped up on the screen with an incoming call. The looming sense of dread that had been growing as read through his messages tipped over into full-blown anxiety. Dylan was fucked. So fucked. What a fucking humiliating situation. The only saving grace was that it didn’t sound like everyone knew the whole story, sort of like the rumor had ended up being distilled differently throughout the grapevine. He swiped to accept the call.

“Dylan, what’s going on?” Mitch’s voice sounded deceptively steady, only the too-high octaves betraying any panic, “I heard some stuff about you being sick?”

“Who the fuck told you?” he asked in response.

“Not that it’s relevant, asshole, but I’m pretty sure Lawson told TK, and you know the guy can’t keep his mouth shut for shit. I’m pretty sure he told, like, maybe half our draft class. Uh, I think your brother might know too, Barzal blabbed to the Islanders, and Ryan’s still in touch with some of his old teammates. Connor, uhm, Connor tells me Ryan might have freaked out a bit. Or, like, a lot. You may want to, you know, call him. And Davo. Davo also freaked out a lot.”

Dylan groaned, “Fuck me, Connor too?”

“They’re not right though, are they?” Mitch asked immediately, voice growing shriller and shriller, “Like, you and Davo are the most solid shit I’ve ever seen and you’re not- you’re not like, in love with someone else are you?”

“As if I could ever be in love with someone who’s not Connor, Marns, what the fuck are you talking about,” he snapped back, irritated. All of this was happening because he loved Connor too much. Mitch knew this, he’d been on the receiving end of about a thousand calls where Dylan would complain about his insecurities and wax poetics about his amazing boyfriend, making Mitch gag with all the sappy shit he spouted.

Mitch made an angry noise, “Well dickhead, I think it’s a legitimate question when the two of you been together since Juniors and you’ve suddenly got a disease you get when you’re in love with someone who doesn’t love you back. Connor’s devastated.”

“Yeah, he’s the heartbroken one, for sure,” Dylan swallowed back a coughing bout.

He could imagine Connor’s devastation at finally having to admit the truth, that he just didn’t love Dylan enough to stay together anymore. Connor’s devastation at having to change his routine, the horror. He couldn’t believe Mitch was taking Connor’s side in all of this when it was all his fault, not Dylan’s. Well, no. Yes, it was Dylan’s own fault for being morbidly attached to someone who was clearly headed towards better and bigger things than him. But he didn’t think he deserved the blame here for getting sick.

“Dylan, this isn’t fair on him. You need to talk to him and-”

“Mind your own fucking business, Marner. If Connor wants to break up, he’ll tell me himself.”

“Fuck you, man. Davo doesn’t deserve this,” he spat out before hanging up suddenly.

Dylan was left with an empty feeling of bereft as he stared down at his phone. It wasn’t fair he was dying, either, but here he fucking was. He should probably call Ryan soon. Not that he really wanted to. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to cope if Ryan started telling him off for whatever perceived failures he was guilty of this time.

There were still hundreds of messages he needed to read through, although he doubted he’d end up replying to anyone. Maybe he could just delete them all without looking at them. The thought of so many people – colleagues some of them, others perfect strangers he’d idolized on TV growing up – knowing about his feelings left his skin crawling with a queasy sort of unease. It was nothing like being spotted crying in Juniors after being swept out of the playoffs.

And, like, how the fuck was he even supposed to explain that there was no girl? The people who knew he was gay could be counted on a single hand and he’d still have some fingers left over. If there was no girl, there was no way he could magically get better. And even if he was magically cured... Well, he wasn’t sure whether people take the news of him being a faggot or him being dead better.

With a sigh, he downed the bitter dregs of his coffee and got up. Practice first, then he’d worry about everything else. He sent a quick text to Ryan, telling him he was fine and that he’d call after practice, and then he waved over at Mac, who had finally stumbled out of bed. Mac, despite his near-catatonic state in the early mornings, still managed to throw a half worried, half sleep-addled frown his way.

It didn’t get better from there. They were nearly late because Dylan had a coughing fit in the car and had to pull over for ten minutes while Mac looked on from the passenger seat, staring horrified at the damp dandelions in Dylan’s lap like they were venomous snakes.

Van Ryn and the trainers didn’t really look at him weird or say anything when they saw them come in, but that was really the only redeeming quality of the day. The news had clearly gone round the rest of the dressing room if the dead silence that received them was anything to go by. He ignored them all as he pulled on his practice gear and did his skates up, forcing himself to breathe slowly through his nose to snuff out the latest coughing bout.

The quiet whispers of gossip followed him around throughout the entirety of the warm-up stretches and into the first drill, an easy drive to the net exercise. Dylan made his way to the front of the queue to lead the drill just so he could avoid the awkward chatter with his teammates while they waited for their turn.

He started skating low and wide down the boards as Kempe stepped out with the puck behind him. They passed the puck back and forth a few times until they reached the faceoff dot, at which point Dylan sprinted forward to slap an easy shot straight into Hill’s blocker. In the meantime, Kempe had driven up close to the net to pick up the rebound, making it an easy tip-in thorough the five-hole before Hill could get back into position.

Making their way away from the net, Dylan slowed down to join the queue at the other end of the rink for his own turn at picking up a rebound while Kempe bumped companionably into him as he continued wide down the other side of the boards. It was a quick turnaround of an exercise, so there wasn’t really much time for anything other than a quick nod to the guys waiting in line before it was his turn to skate out again and pick up a messy shot from Hanley that rebounded high.

It was good, to be able to be out there and on his skates after the shitshow that the previous day had been. It was nice to feel the scrape of his skate blades against the ice and the dull thumping reverberation of the puck hitting his stick, and even nicer to huddle around Van Ryn’s board to watch him draw messy plays for their next drill and listen to him bark about how the D needed to pick up the puck in the neutral zone and drag skate to open ice, or how both wingers should position themselves on the boards at the far blue line for an outlet pass.

As they moved to put the play in practice, Dylan carefully tracked the puck movement to provide middle support to whichever winger had received the pass and then entered the zone wide. Crouser drove to the net a few seconds too late, and Dylan knew Coach’s whistle was going to blow them dead before it did.

Right on cue, the shrill sound of the whistle stopped them all in their tracks, “You need to pick up more speed,” Van Ryn shouted, “D-men, you need to back up faster, take back your fucking ice. Crouse, swing through and present yourself as an option in the first receiving zone. Read and react guys, read and react. This is a midget-level drill, for fuck’s sake!”

“Come on, back in position guys, keep it swinging,” Campbell hollered in encouragement as he patted a grumbling Crouser on the ass.

As he stepped back to take his starting position again, Dylan couldn’t really help but think that It was even nice to fuck up the play, because at least he was there, on the ice. He might have thought differently if he’d been the one to mess up the drill, but he hadn’t.

Perhaps it was the fact that he’d been putting more concentration into it than usual just to avoid thinking about what was waiting for him later, but he thought practice had actually gone quite well. Van Ryn clearly thought the same, because he stopped him before he could leave the ice at the end of practice and took him aside to tell him he’d done good, and that he didn’t want to have to scratch him again.

Whatever optimism he’d gained back from Coach’s encouragement shriveled up and died as soon as he made his way back into the subdued locker room. Campbell tracked his movements as he made his way back to his stall, chucked off his sweaty base layers, grabbed his towel, and headed to the showers. It was only after he’d found an empty showerhead that he heard Campbell’s voice coming in through the room to remind everyone players’ only meeting after this, boys, no exceptions.

He took his time soaping up, scrubbing shampoo in his hair harder than necessary until he was the only guy left in the showers. He could hear the noise in the locker room die out as people trickled into the video review room they used for meetings.

By the time he left the showers, the water had gone cold and he was the only one left in the room, so he toweled off his hair and quickly chucked on his streetwear. Joining the rest of the team in the video room with a lump in his throat, he sank into one of the uncomfortably small plastic seats in the last row, next to Kempe.

“Alright, guys,” Campbell sat on the table at the front of the room, looking seriously back at all of them, “It’s been a long practice and I know you all probably want to go home, but I wanted to make a quick announcement.”

The noise in the room went down a notch and Dylan let himself slouch some more in his seat. “You’ve all heard the rumors, so let me just cut to the chase. Yes, Stromer’s sick. No, it’s not our place to ask stupid fucking questions about it, okay?”

 “I heard it’s cancer, is that true?” someone piped up from the middle of the pack.

“My brother said it’s Hanahaki,” replied Kevin Ekman-Larsson immediately. Which, what? He felt sick as he imagined Oliver Ekman-Larsson – his NHL team’s alternate captain and superstar – gossiping about his love life with the other Coyotes. God, if he wasn’t already dying, he could have dropped dead from sheer humiliation right then and there.

Gaudet laughed, “As if. Dylan doesn’t even pick up in bars, how could it be Hanahaki?”

“Uh, maybe that’s why he doesn’t ever pick up?” interrupted another voice, rising over the loud noise that had filled the room.

“Yeah, well, I’ve never heard him mention a chick ever, have you?”

“Hey!” Campbell banged a hand on the desk, bringing the conversation to a screeching halt, “Hey, fuckers, this is exactly what I meant about stupid questions. It’s not our goddamn business, okay?”

Kempe snorted loudly to his left and Dylan briefly wondered if he could become one with the chair if he tried melting into it hard enough.

Campbell continued, “Unless Dylan wants to tell you more, we’re going to respect his privacy. That includes not mentioning any of this to Coach, any of the trainers, or to your friends. Got it?”

The guys nodded without much fuss, for which Dylan was thankful. There was still an undercurrent of muttering going on, but realistically, it had gone as well as he could have ever expected.  

“Good. Anything you want to add, Stromer?”

He cleared his throat, looking at the earnest faces around him. They were all good guys, really. “I guess, just sorry for being a pretty shit teammate in the last month or so. Should be over soon.”

He’d tried going for self-deprecating, but he’d probably missed by a country mile if the significant increase in whispered conversation around the room was any indication.  

“Tell them what you mean by that, come on,” goaded Kempe in his ear, to which Dylan could only reply with a spiteful look and a shut the fuck up under his breath.

Mario raised his hands up in defense and stopped speaking, but the defiant tuck of his mouth grew harsher, his eyebrows furrowing even deeper until they were almost touching. There were a lot of things he wanted to tell him. To mind his own business. Plead him to respect his decision and not to talk to the trainers. That he wasn’t happy about this either, but they were both going to have to deal. In the end, he couldn’t bring himself to say anything at all.

***

“Dylan,” his brother’s voice vibrated with pent-up fury as soon as the call connected.

He let out a long sigh into the phone. He’d just wanted to get back home and settled into his room before he called, but perhaps he shouldn’t have waited so long to get in touch after all. “Ryan.”

“You’ll never guess what Leddy told me last night.”

Dylan turned his gaze upward and cringed at the ceiling of his bedroom. He hummed questioningly.

“He said that Barzal told him that you have Hanahaki and that you’re dying. What sort of sick joke is this? Was this your idea? Do you have any clue how worried I’ve been?” Ryan’s voice was steadily rising, closer to a shout by the end of it.

He could make up something, tell him that it was just a joke that got out of hand, but he doubted the lie would last long. He didn’t want Ryan’s last memory of him to be Dylan lying straight to his face, either, even though the alternative was going to be a long and complicated conversation. He owed him honesty if nothing else.

“It’s not a joke.”

“What in the fuck are you talking about,” Ryan went completely flat.

“It’s not a joke,” he repeated, trying and failing to make his voice steady, “You heard the coughing at Christmas.”

“You said it was a cold. You said it was- What the fuck, Dylan?” the blank flatness turned back to shrill fury halfway through, so loud Dylan instinctively moved the phone away from his ear.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I just,” he gulped heavily, “I didn’t know how.”

“Well, you could have said something like ‘oh, Ryan, guess what, I’m coughing up flowers and now I’m about to die of heartbreak over a girl I’ve never even mentioned before’,” his voice pitched high in a mockery of Dylan’s.

Screw it. “There’s no girl.”

“Don’t you dare fuck with me, Dylan, of course there’s a fucking girl if you really have Hanahaki. Who the fuck is she? Why aren’t you doing anything about this? Why isn’t she doing anything about this?” Ryan’s voice was still clipped with furious anger.

He braced himself for whatever reaction Ryan might have, “There’s a boy.”

“What?”

“There’s no girl. It’s a guy.”

“Oh,” Ryan seemed to run out of steam all of a sudden, falling completely silent as he thought that over, “You’re gay?” he asked eventually, much quieter this time.

Dylan nodded before he remembered that Ryan couldn’t see him. His heart felt like it was about to beat out of his chest. He’d never come out on his own accord before, not exactly at least. It was nerve-wracking. “Yeah.”

“You know that’s alright, yeah? I mean, it doesn’t change anything obviously, you’re my brother,” Ryan picked his words carefully, as if he was walking through a minefield, “You never- It doesn’t matter than you’re gay, okay? You can’t die, Dylan.”

“He doesn’t love me back,” Dylan’s voice sounded so defeated to his own ears he almost couldn’t bear to speak another word. It was the first time he’d acknowledged the truth out loud, and the force of it felt like being shoved head-first into the boards.

“He doesn’t love me, Ry, I’m going to die,” he repeated in a daze. His ears rang, his heart doing somersaults in his ribcage as his hands trembled from the pure shot of adrenaline coursing through his body.

Across the line, Ryan made a noise he’d never heard him do before, didn’t even have the words to begin cataloging, “Dylan. Dylan, you can’t do this to us. We need to get you into surgery right now. I’m booking the first flight out to Tucson, alright? Jesus Christ, what the fuck am I going to tell mum and dad, Dylan?”

“No!” Dylan scrambled up, pacing the room to get rid of the jittery nerves, “No surgery. No flights to Arizona. Absolutely no telling our parents.”

“Are you crazy? You can’t leave us out of this,” something screeched loudly in Ryan’s background, “Do you realize how serious this is?”

“No surgery, I’m serious. I’ve thought about this and you can’t force me.”

“Why on Earth would you refuse surgery? Do you want to die? We can get you treatment if you’re, like, depressed or something. I know things seem bad now, but it’s not the end of the world, I promise you. We love you.” Ryan’s voice had taken a low, pleading tone, like trying to soothe a scared animal.

Dylan’s eyes welled up, “The doctor said I won’t be able to play hockey anymore if I have the surgery.”

Ryan was silent for so long Dylan wondered if he should repeat himself, but then he heard the unmistakable sound of stifled sobbing on the line. Dylan’s heart dropped below his feet, stomach twisting until he was nauseous.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Ryan cry. Sure, there’d been times when they were kids, but Ryan and Matty had always been more reserved with their feelings than Dylan was. He’d never heard him cry as an adult, and it felt unnatural to hear him tearing up on the line now, because of Dylan.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan gasped out, voice choked, “I can’t do this Dylan, I’m sorry.”

The crushing feeling against his chest intensified, but before he could do more than call out his brother’s name, Ryan had hung up the phone. Dylan could only stare down at his hands, wondering whether he’d just ruined everything as his stomach did its best impression of freefalling from a plane.

***

It was a testament to how mentally exhausting his day had been that, by the time his phone rang with an incoming call from Connor much later that night, Dylan couldn’t muster up more than one single sharp pang of anxiety. He stared at it for five long rings before shaking himself out of it and accepting the call. He’d known it was coming.

“Is it true?” Connor’s cold voice cut in before he could say anything, dripping with so much disappointment that Dylan felt those three little words slither around his neck and grip tight until he was suffocating.

For a few moments, all he could do was pull the phone against his chest and squeeze his eyes shut, as if that could somehow stop this all from happening, “I’m so sorry.”

He wasn’t sure he could put in words what exactly he was sorry for. Sorry that he hadn’t been enough for Connor. Sorry that Connor felt like he couldn’t be straightforward with him about what had gone wrong – where Dylan had gone wrong. Maybe, he was just sorry for how it had all unfolded. 

“Holy shit,” it came out as a plain, matter-of-fact statement, “Holy shit, Dylan, how could you-” Connor interrupted himself with an overwhelmed sound.

Dylan’s defensive mechanisms kicked in then, making him turtle up in a tight ball of resentment even as his heart twinged in sympathy with Connor’s confusion, “I didn’t think you’d react so strongly. Wasn’t this what you wanted?”

“Of course this wasn’t what I wanted, what’s wrong with you?” now Connor had started shouting, but that was fine, he’d take angry-Connor over hurt-Connor any day of the week, “Four years of our lives together, Dylan. Four years and this is… I can’t believe this is how it ends.”

“I’m sorry my feelings are so distasteful to you, asshole.”

“You should be sorry!”

“This is your fault, anyway,” Dylan spit out, thinking back at every bit of affection Connor had never reciprocated, at his obvious disdain of Dylan’s hockey, at the way he was obviously destined for bigger and better things. Why couldn’t he have cut the relationship short before Dylan got so attached?

My fault? How is it my fault you’re a cheating piece of shit?” Connor’s incredulity shone brightly through his words.

It took Dylan a long, puzzling second to parse through the meaning of Connor’s question, “I haven’t cheated on you?”

Connor snorted, “Yeah, only because he doesn’t want you. Figures.”

It felt a bit like they were having two different conversations because Dylan genuinely had no idea what Connor was talking about, “Who doesn’t want me?”

“I don’t fucking know! Who is it, huh? I bet it’s some random twink you met in a club that actually puts out without complaining, isn’t it?” Connor was still shouting, voice breaking at points due to sheer volume.

“What the fuck are you talking about, I love you,” Dylan stared bewildered at his phone. He’d never heard Connor explode like this off the ice. He wasn’t making any sense at all.

“Yeah, right,” he snorted, “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t be choking on flowers, now would you?”

Suddenly, Dylan felt a lightbulb go off in his head with a flash of understanding. Connor thought that he was in love with someone else, someone other than Connor who also didn’t love him back. That explained the weird conversation with Mitch earlier, too. But that wasn’t right. It was absurd that Connor or Mitch or anyone else could ever believe that, as if he hadn’t shaped his whole life to fit Connor’s own. As if he hadn’t demonstrated enough devotion throughout the years.  

“It’s you, you fucking moron. It’s you who doesn’t love me back. That’s why I’m dying. Because the only reason you haven’t broken up with me yet is because of your stupid, stupid routine. It’s always been you, Davo,” Dylan took a deep, ragged breath before he could wind himself up any further, “And all this time, you trusted me so little you thought I was cheating on you? Fucking hell, it’s like you don’t know me at all.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Are you trying to gaslight me, Dylan? Is that what’s going on here? Because holy shit, that’s low.”

Me gaslighting you? Try it the opposite way,” he snorted in disdain, “I’m not the one who’s been ghosting my boyfriend and then turning around and saying everything is alright.”

“Dylan-” Connor’s voice suddenly turned lower, more cautious, but Dylan didn’t want to hear it.

“No,” he interrupted loudly, “Fuck you, Davo. I hope you have me on your conscience for the rest of your fucking life.”

He threw the phone against the wall in a fit of frustration, uncaring whether it broke or whether Connor stayed on the line. He needed to do something to get rid of the nervous energy that was coursing through his body. It was late enough that he probably shouldn’t go out, but it wasn’t like sleep actually mattered at this point.

Slamming his room’s door behind him too loudly to be polite, he grabbed the apartment keys from the bowl at the front door and slipped on his running shoes. The shorts and t-shirt he had been wearing around the house were probably not the best attire for early February, even if it was Arizona, but he’d warm up quickly as soon as he started running. It wasn’t as if getting pneumonia would really make a difference at this point, anyway.

He picked a direction blindly and started a quick jog, his hand clutched tight around his keys until the sharp edges started digging uncomfortably into his palm. The pain helped center him, as did the rhythmic feeling of his feet hitting the ground. He ran in a straight line until he was wheezing, coughing out dandelions every five minutes as his lungs worked in desperate overtime. He let them fall into the ground, uncaring if he ended up squashing them under his shoes.

By the time he came to a stop – an unclear amount of time later, but definitely longer than his trainers would have been happy with – his whole chest was burning and he had no idea where he was. And, well, that wasn’t ideal. Tucson was a safe city, even in the middle of the night, but he didn’t think he had it in him to run home, and he didn’t have any money to call for an Uber or his phone.

He walked in a circle for a while, juggling his apartment keys from one hand to the other as he tried to spot any sights he could recognize. It was starting to get legitimately cold, now that he was sweaty and not running anymore. Just as he was starting to lose hope, he thought he spotted a familiar-looking apartment building. He wandered closer to look at the names on the intercom and – yes, fucking thanks – a K Capobianco stared back at him under number 34.

He buzzed the button, praying he’d get a reply. Swearing when nobody picked up, he pressed the button again twice in quick succession.

“Who is it?” Capo’s sleepy voice was unmistakable even over the frizzy intercom line.

“Capo, it’s Stromer.”

“Stromer?” there was a pause, and Dylan wondered if this was where he’d tell him to fuck off. Fortunately, however, the door buzzed open, “Third floor, come on up.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, he made his way into the heated lobby and up the stairs. Thanks fuck for small mercies. Capo already had his front door open when he made it to the third floor, wearing only a pair of boxers and mismatched socks and looking gritty with sleep.

“Dude, it’s really fucking late. What are you doing here? And what are you wearing?” he asked when he spotted him, following it up with a yawn.

Dylan’s face heated in embarrassment, “Look, I’m really sorry for waking you up. Can I just crash here for the night?”

“Baby, who is it?” an equally sleepy female voice came from the corridor, and Dylan glanced behind Capo’s shoulder to see a leggy brunette wearing only one of Kyle’s Roadrunners t-shirts, which on her frame came down barely to mid-thigh. She was real pretty.

Dylan wondered what it would be like, to be able to walk around with a partner like that, maybe hold their hand in the streets, come back home and sleep in the same bed without any judgment. His heart twisted with a hard stab of pain, even after all the rollercoaster of emotions he’d just gone through.

“Just a teammate, babe. Go back to bed, I’ll join you in a second.”

He stared at the girl as she nodded and disappeared back into the darkness of the corridor until Capo shoved him in the shoulder, “Hey, you done looking at my girl?”

Dylan jerked back, “Sorry, didn’t mean to. Just lost in thought.”

Capo snorted unbelievingly but moved aside to let him in, “Come on. We don’t have a guest room and the couch is pretty shitty but beats sleeping on the streets, I guess. I’ll grab you some sheets.”

“Thanks, Capo, I really appreciate it,” he said as he walked in.  

“Yeah, well, least I can fucking do, isn’t it?” Capo’s voice had turned bitter, but he didn’t elaborate and Dylan didn’t ask him to. It was better that way.

“Need me to let anyone know where you are?” he asked again when he returned with a pile of heavy blankets in his hands, his voice going softer.

Dylan started shaking his head, but then corrected himself, “Mac, maybe? I left our place in a hurry.”

Capo nodded, dumping the blankets down, “You’ve got it. I’ll drive you back to your place before tomorrow’s practice so you can grab your shit and change. In the meantime, I’m going back to sleep. The bathroom’s the second door to the left, in case you need to throw up or anything like that.”

“Thanks,” he choked out as Capo switched off the lights and left him there.

He made himself comfortable on the admittedly lumpy couch, breathing in the unfamiliar scent of detergent on the sheets. As he tried to find an elusive tendril of sleep to latch onto in between fits of wheezing, he thought that it definitely said something that this wasn’t even the most miserable night this month, nevermind of his life.

***

Capo’s girlfriend – Dylan thought her name might be Andrea – was the first to wander into the living room and head into the kitchen the following morning, after a long night of him twisting and turning on their couch. From where he was huddled under a pile of blankets staring at the wall, he saw her glance straight at him, probably to check whether he was still asleep.

“Hey,” she said in a whisper once she’d decided he was awake, “Want some coffee?”

Well, he sure wasn’t going to get any more sleep, so he might as well, “Yeah, thanks.”

She turned to head back into the kitchen, Dylan padding behind her as quietly as he could. She gestured at him to take a seat at the table as she dug out some coffee beans and switched on Capo’s stupidly fancy pour-over coffee maker. They both watched it as it whirred and started dripping coffee, not speaking.  

Finally, once she’d dealt it out in two mugs, she turned to him again, “Want breakfast? I was going to make an omelet with some spinach. We’ve got toast, too, fruit, some protein powder if you prefer a shake.”

Guiltily, he remembered he’d just crashed their night and now their morning as well, “Wouldn’t want to be any more of a bother.”

She shrugged, flipping her long hair over the shoulder with a wry grin, “No bother, Kyle’s going to want breakfast as soon as he wakes up, anyway.”

“Whatever you’re making for him is good for me, then.”

She had a dimple on one side when she smiled, he noted with a detached sense of appreciation. He remembered meeting her around at a few team events and how he’d always thought she and Capo looked good together, like a proper couple should. She was a college athlete – basketball, maybe? – and they were usually doing the long-distance thing too. Still, they made it look so effortless, in a way Connor and Dylan definitely could never do.  

He took a long sip of coffee to shake himself out of the mental funk, and at that moment Kyle stumbled in, still wearing only socks and boxers and scratching absently as his belly.

“Hey babe,” he murmured hoarsely as he placed a kiss into Andrea’s hair and then dropped into the seat next to him with a grunt, “Hey dickhead.”

“Sorry for crashing your evening,” he blurted out, feeling the burn of shame a lot sharper now that the adrenaline crash was long gone.

With another grumble, Capo swiped the half-full coffee mug from out of his hands and chugged it down, “Always happy to host, but maybe next time call ahead, yeah?”

“Here,” interjected Andrea before he could think of anything to add as she slid three plates of eggs in front of them and a small mountain of toast.

 Capo’s face turned a besotted sort of fond even as he shoveled food into his mouth like a starving man, “Thanks, babe.”

“Yeah, thank you,” added Dylan belatedly, remembering his manners and picking up his fork more slowly.

“So,” Kyle continued just as he’d finished swallowing his first bite of food, “I’ll take you home to grab your shit for practice and I can drive you and Mac to the rink?”

Wincing as he remembered the maybe-broken phone he’d thrown at the wall, he asked, “Actually, any chance you can text Mac and tell him to grab my bag, it’s by the door in my room, and we can head over to the rink directly?”

He didn’t think he could keep his head in the game if he had to face that reminder first thing in the morning. And sure, they didn’t have an actual game for the next four days, but there was still practice and he had to make sure he didn’t get himself scratched again.

Capo squinted in his direction briefly, as if trying to figure out what he was running from, before he shrugged and shoved half a piece of toast in his mouth at once, “Sure, whatever. Want to play some videogames?”

Dylan could only smile in gratitude. Even if nothing else was working out, he could always count on his team to have his side, at least.

***

The good news was that his phone wasn’t broken. The bad news was that his phone wasn’t broken. For two whole days, it ringed almost nonstop with notifications and incoming calls. Brinksy had called, like, sixteen times so far. His parents probably double that. Ryan, Barzy, TK, a half dozen numbers he didn’t have saved in his phone, the list just went on. God, his agent was on there as well.

Connor alone accounted for almost half the calls, which he found in equal parts surprising and frustrating. After everything that’d gone down – after Connor had dumped him calling him a cheating, lying piece of shit – what more could he possibly have to say?

It didn’t matter what they wanted, though, Dylan dodged them all indiscriminately. Every time he’d picked up his phone lately had been an all-around miserable experience, and it wasn’t as if he really had anything he wanted or needed to say anymore. Maybe avoidance wasn’t the best tactic here, but it was the only one he had.

Of course, it was a delicate balance that couldn’t last. After barely two days, at the tail end of a truly miserable afternoon special teams’ practice, Crouser skated over to him with a nudge as he was dumping pucks into the bucket. “Hey, your homeboy’s here.”

Dylan stared at him weirdly, “What the fuck are you talking about?”

Crouser mirrored his surprised expression, “Davo? I mean, I doubt he’s here for one of us.”

The ingrained recoil hit him so hard his skates almost slipped out from underneath him. He flung a hand out to hold himself up against the boards, just waiting for the familiar sensation of air cutting off in his throat as his chest constricted at the mention of Connor.

“Whoa, steady man,” Crouser looked more concerned than surprised now, “I thought you’d be happy to see him. Aren’t you guys like super close?”

“I don’t want to see him,” he said feebly as his mind ran into overdrive. What the fuck was Connor doing here? Weren’t the Oilers in the middle of their California trip? Dylan hadn’t watched Connor’s last few games as he usually would, but he still remembered enough from memorizing their schedule and he was pretty sure they were playing LA tomorrow. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near Arizona the day before a game.

Lawson glanced behind him towards the benches and Dylan couldn’t help but follow his gaze.  A bolt of electricity shocked his body when his gaze caught Connor’s at the other end of the rink, chatting to the gaggle of Roadrunners that surrounded him even as he kept his gaze trained on Dylan. His breath cut out completely as he had to bend over and cough loudly, a crackly sound that echoed against the stands and drowned out all other noises.

“Dude, I don’t think he’s taking no for an answer,” said Lawson slowly once he’d stopped, glancing between the two of them in consideration.

He felt something inside of him snap, “Do I look like I fucking care?”

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, Dyls,” he backed off with care, skating over to the benches and to Connor.

For a wild second, he imagined sneaking out from the Zamboni door to avoid crossing Connor’s path, since he was blocking the only tunnel to the locker room. Or maybe he could just bunk out here for as long as it took for Connor to clear out. Surely the Oilers wouldn’t allow their captain and star player to miss the game, right? So it wouldn’t be too long of a wait.

He dared another glance at the bench, where his teammates were now tricking out and Lawson and Connor were having an animated conversation. Under his eyes, they patted each other on the back and Crouser hopped off the ice, leaving Dylan and Connor alone.

Even from a distance, Dylan couldn’t sustain the staring for long, dropping his eyes down to the bucket of pucks at his feet and resuming his task as slowly as possible. Eventually, some painfully awkward five minutes later, one of the staff members popped his head in to tell him to clear out so the Zamboni could resurface the ice.

Bucket in one hand and stick brandished in the other like a shield, Dylan made his way straight towards Connor. It sort of felt like one of those dreams where he couldn’t outrun whatever faceless, invisible monster was chasing after him, pulse jackrabbiting and a thick blanket of anxiety over him.

Connor cleared his throat as soon as Dylan came to a stop in front of the bench door, dumping the bucket on the floor and taking the first step off the ice. “Dylan-” he started, only to shut his mouth with a clack as soon as Dylan raised a hand to stop him.

“Not here,” he said. If they really had to have an in-person confrontation, the least he could do was make sure it was not a public one. The last thing either he or Connor needed was for the press to get wind of this or start speculating about what Connor was doing in Arizona. That was, if someone hadn’t spotted him already when he was coming in. For all he knew, this was all over Twitter already – he wouldn’t know, he hadn’t looked at any of his social media accounts in days.

Without waiting to check whether Connor had any objections, he walked off to the locker room, Davo trailing behind him like a lost duckling. He hovered uncertainly at the locker room door until Dylan sighed and made a gesture to invite him in. Once inside the rowdy changing room, Connor seemed to relax, stopping to say hello to various old friends and hockey acquaintances while Dylan stripped off quickly and left for the showers.

When he came back, it was to find Connor perched quietly at his stall, occasionally replying to Crouser’s inane chatter. Dylan just worked around him to pick out his clothes, dropping his towel unashamedly in his face as he pulled up his underwear and then his jeans over still-damp skin.

“Oi, Stromer!” Mac shouted from the showers.

“What?” he shouted back as he tugged his shirt on.

“I’m going back to Mayo’s place for a few hours, don’t wait for me to drive home,” came the reply.

Shit. With a long sigh, he glanced at Connor, imagining how excruciatingly long the drive back to his place was going to be. “I’m ready to head out when you are.”

Connor nodded, standing up and throwing out a quick goodbye to the guys still in the room as he followed Dylan out. They walked out towards the car park quietly, Connor walking a couple of steps behind him and periodically tugging his cap down further down his eyes in an almost-nervous tick.

The drive started off awkward, the shitty hip-hop radio channel Mac liked as the only sound in the car. It only got worse when, about halfway there, Dylan felt the itch of an incumbent flower fit start up. He tried to tamp down on it, but soon enough the cough broke free. Quickly pulling over, he doubled over until his forehead touched the wheel, his whole frame wracked by hiccupping breaths and the occasional gagging sound whenever a flower made its way out and into his lap.

It went on for so long Dylan started to see black spots creep into the edges of his vision and the dandelions spilled down from the pile on his lap onto the mat at his feet, but he’d had enough practice with it by now to know that struggling would only make it worse. There was nothing to do but wait for it to be through, settle the panic into patience even as the oxygen ran thin.

It was only after the coughing started to die down that he notices the warmth of Connor’s hand splayed wide on his back and rubbing soothing circles. It was instinctual to turn his head to look him in the eyes – Connor stared right back at him with his big, green eyes blown wide with unrestrained fear. The wave of shame that washed over him was so strong that he had to look away, staring down at the perfectly formed, bright yellow flowers drowning him.

“Dylan-” Connor’s voice trembled low, and Dylan couldn’t take it.

“Please, stop it. I can’t.” The hand on his back disappeared, the warmth quickly dissipating with it.

“No. No, I’m sorry Dylan, but I have to say this and then I’ll stop speaking to you forever if that’s what you need,” he took a shaky breath before continuing, “You can’t die. It’s okay if you don’t love me anymore, but please, if there was ever anything true about us, you can’t just let yourself die. I’ll help you. I’ll help you get with whoever it is that you’re in love with. Who is it? Merks? Crouser? Alex?”

“This shit again? You came all the way here for this?” Dylan stared in absolute disbelief at Connor, “I told you, there’s nobody else.”

“I just want you to be happy and if- if you can’t be happy with me, that’s fine, but you can’t die okay?”

He fisted a handful of damp dandelions angrily, crushing them and resisting the temptation to throw them in Connor’s stupid face, “I don’t want anyone else but you, you absolute asshole. You’re trying to hand me off to someone else now? Like some sort of second-hand piece of furniture? Like this is going to solve this whole situation?”

“No! Why are you trying to lie to me, Dylan? I can fucking see the visible proof that you’re in love with someone else in front of my fucking eyes,” he shouted angrily, gesturing towards the dandelions.

Dylan was so goddamn frustrated with having to re-hash this conversation all over again – in his car at the end of a frustratingly bad practice, of all places. “These are for you, idiot. These are for you because you don’t love me back and I love you so goddamn much I can’t live without you.”

“Of course I love you, I tell you all the fucking time and you know it,” he slammed his hand so hard against the dashboard that Dylan’s first reaction was to worry that he might injure himself.

“You’re lying. You don’t. You don’t love me,” Dylan’s voice had taken on a more than slight tinge of hysteria, brushing all the remaining dandelions onto the floor as if to hide his own feelings from sight.

“Dylan, I love you so fucking much, what are you talking about,” Connor twisted around the seat to face him better, brow furrowing in confusion.

“You’re lying,” Dylan’s chest constricted painfully as everything he’d been bottling up inside for the past few months came tumbling out of his mouth in a rush, “This wouldn’t be happening if you really loved me. You basically told me you didn’t love me. You never reached out first. You avoided my calls on purpose. You said I was micromanaging you and that it was my own damn fault I got sent down. And okay, maybe you’re right, I’m a shit hockey player, but what the fuck? People who love you are meant to, like, comfort you, not tear into you when you’re already down.”

Connor looked stricken, and Dylan saw a deep, aghast realization make its way into his expression, “This is all a mistake. I would do anything for you, Dylan, I love you so, so much.”

In a flash, his mind brought up the many instances in the past four years when Connor had leaned over and whispered an I love you so much in his ear with the same intensity in his tone as he did now. He thought of his family’s desperate calls as they tried to reach him before he passed, only for the phone to ring endlessly without an answer. He pictured who might come to his funeral, whether they might cry or not. And, well, Dylan himself always had been a crier – lately, it felt like everything he did was cry. It wasn’t a surprise when a few tears started trickling out, accompanied only by quiet sniffling.

“No, no, hey, Dyls,” Connor’s hand hovered uselessly in the space between them, begging, “You’ve got to know this, I’d do anything for you. Anything. I’ll quit hockey. I’ll move to fucking Arizona. Please. Please, Dylan, you can’t do this do me.”

That gave him a second of pause, “What the fuck are you saying Connor, you can’t quit hockey.”

“I’ll do it,” he threatened with a manic look in his eyes, his hand finally closing the distance to grab a hold of his shirt, “I’ll do it, Dylan, I love you. I can’t do this without you.”

There was a tiny speck of hope blooming behind his ribcage, but it didn’t mean anything. Connor was just covering his bases, making sure he didn’t really end up with a dead body on his conscience. He would never quit hockey for him, it was all just empty words. Hell, Dylan wasn’t even sure if he’d quit hockey for Connor, and he was so in love with him he was dying.

Connor must have sensed he wasn’t convinced, because he fished out his phone and shook it right in front of his eyes, “I’m going to prove it to you.”

He let his hand drop from his wrinkled shirt, quickly unlocking his phone – 9719 because even if Dylan didn’t wear 19 anymore, Connor was predictable like that – and heading for his call log. From where his eyes were still blurred up with tears, he couldn’t see the screen well enough to tell who he was calling, but the ringing filled up the entire cabin once he punched the radio off and put the call on loudspeaker.

“Davo, how are you holding up?” Mitch’s voice filled the silence between them. He sounded worried, his tone soothing in a way that it never was when he spoke with Dylan.

“Mitch,” Connor, by contrast, had a wild air to him that he’d never seen before, “I need you to tell me what we did the last time we played in Toronto. Do you remember?”

On the other side of the line, Mitch scoffed, “Buddy, do I remember.”

“I need you to tell me, right now.”

“Connor,” there was a long pause like Mitch was trying to find the correct words to convey what he was thinking about. “I know you’re having a hard time with the whole Dylan situation, but I don’t think this is a healthy way of coping,” is what he went for in the end.

“Mitch, lecture me later, okay? I’m here with Dylan. This is all a stupid fucking mistake and we’re going to fix it right now.”

“What-? Dylan, bro, what’s going on? Davo, aren’t you supposed to be in LA right now?”

“Mitch, focus,” Connor barked out in his best captain voice, the one that made everyone around him perk up to attention.

“Right, sorry. It’s just, Dylan hasn’t been picking up his phone.”

Connor made a noise of pure frustration, “I know, Mitch. Why do you think I’m here and not with my team right now?”

“Oh, yeah, that makes sense, sorry. Anyway, uh, we went ring shopping. You know, for a marriage proposal.”

Connor stared expectantly at him. Dylan dumbly stared back as he tried to make sense of what Mitch was saying. And then it hit him, and Dylan was sure that he would have staggered to the floor if he hadn’t already been sitting.

As it was, he felt a wave of vertiginous lightheadedness hit him like a sledgehammer, “There’s someone else? You’re marrying them?”

“No!” Connor’s hand raked violently through his hair, looking more and more frazzled as this conversation went on. In the background of Dylan’s consciousness, he could hear Mitch squawk something indignant, but he could only focus on Connor. “What in the absolute fuck, Dylan? I was looking for an engagement ring for you, moron.”

“What?” he croaked out.

Connor hung up on Mitch without ever looking down from where their eyes were locked together. He pushed himself across to the driver’s seat, his knees bumping into the gear stick as he moved up close until he was inches from his face. Suddenly, everything in his vision was just Connor, the way his lashes brushed against the dark circles under his eyes, every single speck of green and brown in his irises.  

“I love you, Dylan, I don’t know how else to say it. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I wasn’t going to propose yet, obviously, but I wanted to be prepared for when it happened and I wanted to take my time with finding the perfect ring, you know?”

He opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. He could picture the scene so clearly, a jittery Connor dragging Mitch along to shop after shop, driving the attendants crazy with increasingly preposterous requests and discarding their entire ring catalog while Mitch complained. He desperately wanted to ask what type of ring he was looking for. Even more, he wanted to ask what his dream proposal would look like. They’d never talked about marriage before, really, except for in nebulous terms of someday and family.

It has always seemed pointless, for Dylan, to speculate about something that could never happen for as long as either one of them still played hockey. And yet, Connor had thought about it. He’d dreamed about a future together, actually started planning for the two of them to share a life in the long term. A sense of amazement coursed slowly through his body, bubbling in his gut.

“I can’t even begin to explain how sorry I am that you felt like I was neglecting you, or that I didn’t love you back,” there was no mistaking the sincerity in Connor’s words or the affection in the careful way he cupped his cheek, “It’s been a tough year for me, but that’s not an excuse. I need to get better at communicating and especially at apologizing, but I promise you that if you don’t give up on us, I’ll work on it.”

At those words, Dylan couldn’t do anything but let out a small, bitter laugh, “Davo, I’m coughing my lungs out here. Trust me, I don’t think giving up on you is in the cards.”

Connor’s arms were suddenly gripped tight around him, Connor’s hip jammed in between the seats in a way that definitely couldn’t be good for his posture. Dylan automatically shifted to meet him halfway, so that he didn’t have to stretch too far.

“Davo,” he breathed out as he tried to put some distance between them, suddenly remembering that people could definitely see inside the windows of the car, “We’re in public.”

But Connor – the same Connor who was eternally paranoid about anyone reading too much into their friendship and who got squeamish about PDA even in front of Brinksy and Mitch – smiled wide and defiant, tugging their mouths together in a quick, crushing kiss. “Let them look.”

And just like that, Dylan’s next breath was the deepest he’d been able to take since the beginning of December and he knew, without a doubt, that it was over. He hadn’t even realized how hard it had become – how shallow his breathing had been – until he was finally free. He gulped down another lungful of air, and Connor must have been able to read something in his expression because his own face turned wondrous. “Yeah?”

Dylan knew exactly what Connor was asking. He could read the implicit I love you in that one word - because of course he did. He smiled back, clutching at one of his hands.

There was a lot that would require fixing in the coming weeks, a lot of calls that he was due to make, a lot of apologies, and even more conversations Connor and him would need to have in order to improve their communication for good. But for now, he was content with just breathing in Connor for a while.

“Yeah.”