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

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

Excited to have you, @Marner93!

 

#leafs2k23 @marnser

i hope that leafs management literally chokes and dies bye

 

Ben Singh @Bsingh7

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

 

Jessica <3 @jessabeee

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

 

TorontoStar @TorontoStar

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

 

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

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

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

It felt urgent, when he saw the news.

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

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

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

For a second, they just stare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-------

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

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

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

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

He was stupid.

-------

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” he says. “Mom chased you out?”

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Literally.”

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

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

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

 

bbuffy reblogged marncr93

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I got something for you,” he says.

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

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

“You did.”

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

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

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

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

It hurts more than Auston thought it would.

“Told you,” Mitch says. “Dumb.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So,” Mitch says, then stops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love you,” Mitch says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t.

   

MITCH MARNER ON PRESEASON WITH PENS - TSN RADIO TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

J: So you were supportive of the trade?

MM: I mean. That’s the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

J: That’s where everything started.

MM: Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.

   

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

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

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

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

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

“Morning.”

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

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

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

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

Annoying as fuck, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The drive back home after practice is quiet.

He’ll get used to it.)

 

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

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

Subject: Update + Well Wishes

Auston,

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

Best,

Dennis

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-------

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

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

Yeah.

Some other stuff Auston knows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MITCH MARNER (17:22)

good luck tonight man!!!

MITCH MARNER (17:22)

unless im not supposed to say that anymore

MITCH MARNER (17:23)

cuz we’re enemies now (ง •̀_•́)ง

AUSTON MATTHEWS (17:57)

We arent even in the same division

MITCH MARNER (17:59)

wow

MITCH MARNER (18:00)

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

MITCH MARNER (18:00)

fuckin sav

AUSTON MATTHEWS (18:08)

Thanks marns

AUSTON MATTHEWS (18:08)

(Grinning Face )

MITCH MARNER (18:11)

(Grinning Face ) (Sparkling Heart )

 

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

Not a bad way to start the season.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s stressful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It stings anyways.

-------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that bad?”

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

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

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

“You know how the press is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auston scoffs. “What, over Skype?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Auston Matthews @AM34

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

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

Hey, @penguins. Loser buys dinner?

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

Go away @MapleLeafs

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really embarrassing shit, basically.

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

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

Auston doesn’t want him to stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doorman has a spare, I’m not dumb.”

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

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

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

-------

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

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

“I’m not gay.”

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

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

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

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

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

They got swept in the first round.

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

 

Mitchell Marner @Marner93

thanks for the dinner @AM34 ;)

 

Toronto Maple Leafs @MapleLeafs

Et tu, Mitchell? @Marner93 @penguins

 

Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins

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

 

connrbrun reblogged goldknightss

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

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

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

 

It’s harder, leaving Mitch a second time.

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

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

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

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

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

Willy blinks. “Arizona’s your exception.”

“I got another one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-------

You don’t end up with your teammate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You good?”

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

Mitch yawns. “Why?”

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

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

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