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The easiest part was answering the phone.

No.

No. The easiest part was waking up one morning and realising it was over. Done.

No, that’s not right either.

The easiest part. The simplest of them all, was falling in love.

It also became the hardest.

:::

Paying someone to pack your shit might be easy when you’re not a fucking face of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Mitch doesn’t have that luxury. Nor does Auston want any strangers in what was once their shared space. Fuck.

It takes him and Brownie most of a day to get Mitch’s things together. Connor’s still nursing a high ankle sprain from the playoffs, so he’s mostly in charge of wrapping shit, leaving Mitch with the heavy lifting. Mitch makes himself do the bedroom on his own. Doesn’t know whether he should leave the photo frames of them together that summer in Cabo, or their first Christmas together, there on the side table. Or maybe just take the frames and throw the photos out. They’re nice frames. Wood and silver inlay.

Better not, they were a gift from Auston’s mom.

Fuck. How can this be his own decision and still hurt so fucking much?

He takes a deep breath. Empties out his sock drawer straight into the box, not folding for space or whatever it is he watched some YouTube video on the night before on how to pack up five years’ worth of his stuff.

The frames are still sitting there, empty and covered in dust, when Mitch carries the last box of his clothes out, shuts the door softly.

:::

“I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m thankful to my team, the coaching staff and all the fans of this great city for believing in me these past nine years. I can only hope to have the same amount of support in Buffalo…”

:::

There have been talks about trades since his sophomore season. He and Freds for Carey Price. That was a fun one. Another for Nurse with Edmonton which probably would have killed Dylan if Mitch had played with his brother and his best friend. A three-way trade deal with Winnipeg and Boston that fell through. The year he spent most of the season out with a concussion before coming back and killing it in time for a playoff run. A run that saw them so fucking close to the Cup that they could smell it. At least it was Connor who took the Cup home that year, Edmonton finally winning and Connor getting a little breathing room. That wasn’t so bad a result.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the rumour mill is in full swing because training camp starts next week and Mitch still doesn’t have a new contract. His six years are up. He’s been a UFA all summer, and maybe he should have thought about it more, but that’s why he has an agent. Anyway, Mitch was kind of busy. And it’s not like the failure to find agreement with management has anything to do with his hockey.

He was one of their leading scorers in the postseason. He finished the year second on the team in points and assists. He came in fifth in Lady Byng voting, and maybe that’s meaningless, but coaching, management, his team, his town have always loved him. His hockey was good.

He signs a contract a week into training camp. It’s short. Really short and the money’s okay, but that’s never really been something he cared about. Not when it was wearing this blue, playing for a team he dreamed about since he figured out what a Maple Leaf was.

The thing is, he’d believed it when he told management that their breakup wouldn’t affect their behaviour on ice. He’d believed it when he’d reassured them that working together wouldn’t be an issue. They were professionals in a professional league and personal lives wouldn’t come into it.

He might have sold them, but convincing himself was never going to be the easy part.

He just can’t seem to make the puck stay on his stick, get his passes to actually move from tape to tape. Back of the net? That’s something in four preseason games he only manages to find once. And even that isn’t worth a point because he missed the offsides call seconds before.

His chest is tight all the time, the usually loose locker room feels tense, and his bottom lip is chewed raw from every time someone murmurs It’s gonna be fine, it’s the preseason. He has to stop himself from saying something awful like, “it’s not all my fault.” He’s more than aware of the way Auston won’t really look at him on the ice, mostly ignores him apart from things he has to say as a Captain to his A when they’re off. It’s fine. Mostly.

Then Mitch drives out of the rink and it’s Auston’s face on nearly every fucking poster on the way home.

Working with the guy you’re still trying to get over is one thing, being smacked upside the head with his image, his voice everywhere you turn is another.

They tap him on the shoulder during morning practice, give him the news that he’s not playing that night. Give him the option to tell the team before the game or after. They can sell him on sitting out a game, that they’re trying out one of the call ups from the Marlies. The Sabres don't play until the weekend, which gives Mitch at least tonight and the next day to sort his shit out. To make his goodbyes. To clean his locker out.

If he breathes a sigh of relief when he gets in the car, leaving Babs to announce it to the team after practice, no one can hear it but himself.

:::

“I didn’t ask them to do it.”

Mitch doesn’t move his head, concentrates on the tiny crack in the ceiling that he and Auston put there one night. A game of sticks played with their full size ones getting out of hand. He’d always told Auston they’d get it fixed someday.

“I wouldn’t. I didn’t know they’d tr— I don’t… Mitch, please.

Mitch breathes in. Breathes out.

He doesn’t look back as he slides out of the bed that was once theirs. Pretends he can’t hear the wet, soft sounds of Auston’s gasps, muffled by a pillow. A goodbye drink with the team after they won without Mitch shouldn’t have lead to this. But Mitch hasn’t ever been one to make good decisions when it comes to Matts.

He doesn’t wipe at the tears that are rolling down his cheeks until he’s in his car.

:::

Jack Eichel is still an asshole.

He plays good hockey, and it takes a few games more than what management obviously expected for them to sort themselves out. That and a night of drinking and shooting the shit at Eichel and his wife’s house.

Hanny has a lot to answer for with why Jack is so quick to judge. Hard to let anyone in.

Still, he seems to drink as much as Mitch does. Seems to listen when Mitch talks about what it was like to play for a team he’d only dreamed about since he was a kid. Stops Mitch only once when he talks about what he and Auston did when it was their day with the Cup. Covers Mitch up with a blanket when he starts getting too sentimental about Auston’s hands. How good they are on the ice, how soft they were on Mitch’s skin. Doesn’t say anything in the morning when Mitch wakes up and finds his way to Jack’s basement bathroom real fast. Makes Mitch say yes when his five-year-old daughter, Jessica, begs Mitch to play dress-up after breakfast.

The chirps he gets when Jack fucking posts the picture of him with a full face of makeup, tiara, gloves, feather boa and a tiny teacup in his hands light up his phone. Jack linked the fucking thing to every social media account he had. Including the ones for the Sabres which Mitch isn't sure he should even have access to.

Still, Jack drives Mitch to the hotel he’s living in while he “looks” for his perfect house. Puts his hand on Mitch’s shoulder and squeezes as he says, “It goes away. It might not be today or tomorrow or, fuck, this season, but it does. You won’t look on the ice for him, you won’t roll over and be sad because that side of the bed is cold. It’ll get better, every day even more so, bud.”

Mitch can’t reply—there’s too much pressure squeezing in around his heart.

“Just stop expecting it to happen so fast, and maybe start listening when I call out to you on the ice, or I’m gonna jam my stick up your ass.”

Jack may be an asshole, but at least he’s one of the good ones.

:::

The first time they play the Leafs, Mitch finds a storage cupboard that is both too small and just right for him to have a near complete and total breakdown in.

It’s Alex that finds him, which… sucks more than it should. He knows Alex. Has partied with him more than once and that was before he landed in Buffalo for the potential long term. It’s one season, but they’ve told Mitch they want him for more. Nothing like the extended contract Eichel is on, but maybe double what they’ve signed him for now and… Mitch doesn’t like to think about anything further than the next game. The next shift. The next point.

Alex is so much like Willy, yet so different. Where Willy was always quiet in the room, showing off his legs with those stupid tiny shorts but choosy with his words, Alex is often the opposite. Chirping loudly on the bench, talking trash in the locker room, ridiculously obnoxious in bars. It’s not that Alex who finds him, though. This one just sits with him, counts his breaths until Mitch can match them with his own. Gives Mitch a bottle of water he somehow had on him. Doesn’t say a word.

If Mitch sets Alex up with two power play goals when Coach shifts him to centre on the PP, it only makes celebrating Alex’s hatty and their overall 5-3 win over the Leafs that much sweeter when the final horn sounds.

:::

He doesn’t see Auston anywhere else but on the ice. Doesn’t stick around after in the halls to see if Auston waits for him. They’ve got a game themselves in Vegas the following day and a plane to catch that night.

It’s not really avoiding him if the team demands his ass on a bus seat as soon as he’s had time to shower and suit up.

:::

10:53pm inc text: DONT CALL/TEXT/ANSWER u looked good out there.
On the ice.
1:20am: sorry. I’m
1:37am: i don’t like facing off against u. I dont like u in that blue. I miss
1:40am: I’ll stop.

:::

Mitch blocks the number from his phone after Jack catches him staring at it when they’re supposed to be watching tape. They lose, but playing in Vegas is always hard, and if Jack covers for him when he crawls back to the hotel hours and hours past curfew? Well, that’s nice.

It’s when he encourages Coach to bag skate them when they hit home ice that Mitch reviews every good thought he’s ever had for his new captain.

:::

Three months in, and Mitch finds he can breathe a little easier. They’ve won more games than they’ve lost. He’s finally found a place to live that isn’t out of his suitcase. He’s unpacked the last of his cardboard boxes. Has had the rookies over to play whatever new gaming console Nikko—their latest wunderkind from Germany—gave him as a housewarming present. He goes out when they win, he has dinner at Jack’s when they’re home for a while. He calls his mom once a week and doesn’t send Brownie’s or Patty’s calls to voicemail anymore.

He still turns the channel if Auston’s name comes up, but the Leafs aren’t having the season they thought they would. Sometimes, it’s not so hard to watch.

He’s doing better. Jack was right.

He’ll never let Jack know that, though.

:::

This time when he gets the call, it’s worse.

Much, much worse.

:::

When he walks into the hospital he’s expecting to be stopped. He’s expecting a fight to get in. He’s expecting that he’ll have to pull the “don’t you know who I fucking am?” card.

What he gets is “Yes, Mr Marner, you’re listed as significant other, let me take you straight to Mr Matthews’ room.”

He pushes past the shock, the hurt and the clench in his chest and follows the nurse into the elevator and down some nondescript halls. She stops him outside a door where all he can see in through the tiny window is the end of the bed, and why isn’t she letting them in?

He must ask as much, because the next thing he knows is her hand warm and small in his as she squeezes it with one and pats the top of it with the other. She says things like “haematoma” and “unconscious, just like he’s sleeping” and “possible surgery” and “doesn’t feel a thing” and “another surgery on his leg” and something about Auston’s hip, but he doesn’t really hear it. Feels like he’s underwater and she’s speaking in bubbles, really. He just wants to get in, needs to see, to touch.

She must know he’s not really picking up on anything, because she smiles and this time grabs at the round of his shoulder, perfect pink nails pressing in just shy of painful. It’s enough to bring him to the present and actually pay attention when she talks.

“He looks bad, but we’re doing everything we can, okay? Just remember that.”

Mitch nods, because he knows he’s supposed to, and if he does she might just let him in already.

She breathes out heavily through her nose, nostrils flaring before she shakes her head and opens the door.

She was wrong. Auston looks so much worse than bad. There’s not even a word in the English language that he—and maybe even Hyman—could match to the way Auston looks in this bed, covered in wires and tubes, and his skin purple, almost black in parts. Jesus fucking Christ.

Of all the ways Mitch had pictured—in his nightmares, honestly—Auston being hurt, none of them were ever in the realm of a hit and run. A bad hit. A lucky punch. Going into the boards. Fucking concussion, even. All things hockey players prepared for, as much as they could. This, though? Auston looking so fucking small. Half his hair is gone, and his right eye is swollen shut and god. Fuck. Mitch doesn’t know where is safe to touch, whether even just the press of his lips to Auston’s cheek might be too much.

He sits in the chair and stares at Auston, quietly losing his shit as the machines Auston’s hooked up to whir and buzz and beep, keeping Auston tethered to this world.

:::

“I already give them so much, so fucking much, Mitch. Can’t you understand why I can’t… I can’t give them you, too. I can’t.”

:::

As far as the hockey world is concerned, Mitch Marner being on IR isn’t even worthy of a mention. Not when every front page or leading story or byline is:

“AUSTON MATTHEWS HOSPITALISED”
“TORONTO POLICE RELEASE TAPE OF VEHICLE OF INTEREST”
“MATTHEWS WATCH UPDATE AT SIX”

It’s honestly worse than the time Sid’s face basically got caved in on the ice and prayer circles were in every school, church and town.

:::

Jack checks in daily. Brownie and the Leafs drop in whenever they’re in town—hockey doesn’t stop even for Auston Matthews. Auston’s mom sits on a chair on the opposite side of Mitch, only swapping out with her husband when he forces her to sleep in a bed for a few hours.

He doesn’t have the same success with Mitch. It’s the third week that they’re sitting vigil, without calling it that, when Brian brings in the big guns.

There’s no argument to brook with Mitch’s mom.

He showers and avoids the mirror in the bathroom when he gets out, only realises that she’s taken him to Auston’s house—his old home—when he goes looking for a spare toothbrush and finds his own. The same one he was sure he packed when he left, sitting in the second drawer.

It’s not a toothbrush that sets off the tears and uncontrollable sobs he finds himself choking on as he sinks to the floor. It’s not, but it’s a close second to realising that it’s been nearly a year since they broke up, and Auston has clung to something as stupid as Mitch’s fucking toothbrush. As stupid and insignificant as Mitch having one of Auston’s ugly fucking socks, without its match, in his own drawer in Buffalo.

:::

“He’s supposed to be awake by now.” Auston’s mom has her pen and notebook out, she’s looking over the tons of notes she’s made over the past month. Fine gold frame glasses slipping down to the tip of her nose. Her hair’s pulled back in a low bun, which means it must be a Sunday. Mitch has noticed she always washes her hair on a Sunday.

Mitch isn’t sure what day he last showered.

“Head injuries are always unpredictable, Mrs Matthews,” says one of the older doctors, one of the more serious ones who Mitch doesn’t like based purely on the fact he never looks either of them in the eye. Only ever at his notepad. Dick.

“It’s been a month. You say you’ve done all you can, but there’s been no changes since his last MRI you did on the thirteenth. Isn’t there something else you can do? Another test you can run just to see what else could be wrong?”

Mitch looks away as the doctor sighs. Concentrates on the small patch of dark hair that’s growing in around Auston’s scar. The scar runs right above his right brow and into his hairline, red and puckered but healing. The hair is so, so soft where it’s coming in. Mitch touched it only once with the tip of one finger, and Auston’s heart rate hiked up, so he hadn’t done it again.

“Mrs Matthews, Mr Marner. I can’t tell you anything different from what I’ve told you before. It’s a waiting game. His body is healing at the expected rate. There’s been no further complications with any of his surgeries. I’ll see you again next week.” He starts talking to the three other doctors that are with him, leaving the room before either of them can contemplate saying anything else.

It’s quiet apart from the beep of machines monitoring Auston’s vitals. His heartbeat is something that Mitch has fallen asleep to more times than he wants to count. Although, lately, it hasn’t been with his head resting on Matts’ chest like it used to be. He misses that.

“Okay. All right,” Ema says, nodding her head. “We just need to stay calm and keep talking to him. Remind him of what he needs to come back to,” she says with a conviction that’s possibly more for her than it is for Mitch.

“Right, Papi? You just need to wake up and come back to us. Your dad and sisters miss you. Mitch hasn’t left your side. Just open your eyes, mijo. When you’re ready, we’ll be here,” she finishes, patting Auston’s hand, and Christ. Mitch can’t be here anymore.

“Coffee,” he says, throat tight and tears pricking at his eyes. He’s so sick of being positive about this. Of always trying to think the best. He’s out of his chair and down the hall before he even realises he’s moved. The sound of Ema calling his name in that pitying way that he’s heard from so many lately echoes in his wake.

His phone is in his hand, pressed up to his ear the moment he gets outside.

“What’s up? Is he awake? Are you okay?”

Dylan sounds half awake, and Mitch would be surprised, but Dylan always sounds like this. Maybe he had a late game the night before. Maybe it's an off-day. Mitch hasn’t kept up to date with the Flames schedule. Fuck, he hasn’t even kept up with his own, sending Jack and the office’s calls straight to voicemail.

“Nothing’s changed, Dyl. Nothing. Every day I sit there and I look at him and nothing. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t move. His eyelids don’t even flutter, it’s just—” He takes in a shaky breath, lets it out slowly and closes his eyes, leans back against the concrete wall. “It’s so fucking hard, man. His mom is so positive all the time, she’s never down, and I feel like such a fucking fraud being here. He’s not... We broke up, Dylan.”

Dylan is silent on the other end of the line as Mitch digs the toe of his sneaker into a patch of weeds poking up through a crack of sidewalk.

“I don’t even know why I'm still here,” he starts, voice so soft he isn’t sure Dylan can hear it over the cars going past. “He’s not waking up. It’s not like he’s asking… I’m only here because he didn't change the details on his next-of-kin forms from that time he had shoulder surgery. I shouldn’t... If he was awake he wouldn’t even want me. We broke up.” Mitch scrubs at the few tears that have rolled down his cheeks.

“Mitch, man, you’re there because you want to be. He’s Auston. He’ll come through this, and he’ll be so thankful that you were there with his family. That you came. Just because you two broke up doesn’t mean you don’t still care about each other,”

Mitch nods, even though Dylan can’t see him. He knows Dylan’s right. He also knows that staying here, being here and acting like he means something to Auston that he doesn’t any more, isn’t good for him. He came because they called him. He came because he still cares, but… it isn’t going to change anything. Not how Auston feels. Not the decisions he made that left Mitch out.

“It just. It hurts to be here, Dyl. It hurts to be here, and I don’t know if it’ll be worse in the long run to stay.” So here it is. The truth of it that Mitch has only let himself think of dead in the night. Long after the nurses have done their final checks, long after Ema or Brian has kissed his forehead or patted his shoulder before they’ve headed back to the house. Long after Mitch has sat there staring at Auston’s closed eyes and willed them to open until his own feel scratchy and dry.

“I think it’s time for me to go.”

:::

CapFriendly Transactions @cf_transactions
IR -> NHL
Mitchell Marner (RW, C) | BUF
#Sabres

:::

It takes six games to get them back to playing in Toronto against the Leafs. Six games where Mitch has spent a grand total of ten minutes on the ice in each of them. He’s had one goal, two assists and five shots on goal. He’s basically warming the bench most nights, and his place on the fourth line is more than assured. It’s a long way from playing on Jack’s right. It’s a long way from hat tricks and setting the play and any form of celly at all.

At one point, he faces off against Brownie. Can barely bring himself to look up when Brownie gets waved away and feels something in his shoulders settle as some new kid from the Marlies moves into place. He gets a goal, and it’s on a power play, which makes it all the sweeter with how well the Leafs usually do on shutting them down. He runs into Jack’s arms and accepts the head taps from the others. Feels Jack’s “That’s it, baby!” warm him up from the inside. He’s smiling when he skates past a line of raised gloves.

He feels it drop from his face when he sees Sparky glaring at him from under his cap.

:::

They lose. 6-2.

:::

Mitch waits until the team’s settled at their hotel for the night before he heads to the hospital. Knows that Auston’s parents will have gone home an hour before.

It’s muscle memory to find Auston’s room.

He makes it back in time for team breakfast, just. Jack doesn’t say anything when he sits down beside him. He waits until they’re on the plane, half an hour out from Vancouver before he does.

“He still the same?”

Mitch nods. It’s not as if Auston’s condition isn’t still news. Maybe not as high up the ranks of national importance as it was, but TSN and Sportsnet still talk about him at least once a week. Steve Dangle still reports about it on his podcast. Mitch is still a part of the Matthews family group text, so he knows what’s going on, even if what’s going on is absolutely nothing.

Jack pats Mitch’s knee a couple times before going back to whatever book his wife has uploaded onto his iPad this trip.

Mitch looks out the window into a sky filled with grey clouds and feels very much the same.

:::

They play another four games, and somehow, they’re within spitting distance of a wild card. The coach talks about having their heads in the game. The club’s serious about this, rented a few guys before trade deadline to bulk up their defence and protect Nikko, who’s faster on his feet with a puck than Mitch was even as a rookie. For the first time in far too long, the Sabres are actually looking like contenders.

Mitch puts the Matthews group chat on mute. He can’t keep thinking backwards when there’s so much more on the line in front.

:::

Mitch went through seven different playoff attempts with the Leafs, and Toronto is fucking crazy about their hockey, but Buffalo? Buffalo has had nothing for decades. The town—and what feels sometimes like the entirety of upstate—is playoff crazy. There’s banners in every street, every window has some sort of sign, the mayor even declares Sabres Day to be a thing when they make it through the first round.

It’s crazy, and it feels like so much work this year that Mitch stops looking at his phone so much. Stops watching TV at all apart from the Devils taking on the Panthers because it’s always good to know your next opponent.

They’re up by three in the second round, and Mitch starts to think maybe.

The Bruins take it to seven, and the Sabres lose in a ridiculously close game that they just can’t even up before the siren sounds.

He claps Jack on the shoulder when they're the last two in the locker room.

Whispers, because he’s torn his throat hoarse from yelling all night, “Next year. One more and we take it all.”

:::

He drives home to his parents’ house that night. He definitely shouldn’t, but it hurts. It hurts more than he expected it to, and he just. Toronto will always be home.

He sleeps for twenty-six hours straight.

:::

“Mitch, Mitchell. It’s time you wake up.”

Mitch knows that voice. Knows he should listen to it but, “Five more minutes, Mom. I won’t be late for practice.”

Mitch’s mom is brushing his hair off his face, and he leans into the touch as she chuckles. Right. It’s not 2012, and he’s not playing for the Kings.

He blinks his eyes open slow and finds his mom sitting on the side of his bed, her eyes soft and her lips tugged down in one corner, which means she’s sad. Shouldn’t that be his look?

“Mitch, I need to tell you something, and I think you might get angry, but at the time we all thought it was for the best,” she starts, pulling her fingers from his hair and twisting them together in her lap. “You were playing so well, and the team looked so good.”

Mitch has this cold feeling building in his stomach. He shuffles up the bed and sits up, rubbing sleep from his eyes with a grimace.

::

“Auston woke up, honey. He’s awake.”

:::

Auston’s apparently been awake since the Sabres entered the first round. They were going to tell him, Brian had the phone to his ear, but then.

“Mom, Dad, where’s Mitch? Why am I here?”

A sentence Auston had only just asked a minute before. A question he repeated again when Brian told him twice more that Mitch was in Buffalo playing for the Cup.

Matts fell back to sleep, and an hour later they did it all again.

And again.

And again.

:::

“The brain takes longer to heal. Just because we can’t pinpoint damage doesn’t mean it’s not there in some form. This type of amnesia might disappear overnight, he may regain some long-term memories or this short-term cycle could continue throughout his life. Time is the only thing that will tell.”

:::

Auston is living like it’s two years ago and they’re in the summer after McDavid and the Oilers won the cup. Back when Mo was going to announce his retirement at the start of the next season. Back when Syd and Marty only had two kids. Back when Mitch’s dad’s heart was still strong. Back when Mitch and Auston were still a thing.

When Mitch and Auston were still so, so much in love.

:::

Auston looks very much the same—sans wires and cables—when Mitch walks into a different room on a different floor.

It could be a month ago, if it weren’t for the lack of bruising and the inch-long hair that’s grown over his scar. He sleeps, and Mitch stands and watches because he doesn’t know what else there is to do.

Auston is expecting a different Mitch from the one that’s standing here now.

Or maybe not, because this Mitch doesn’t hang around for long either.

:::

Dylan arrives twenty minutes into Mitch basically sobbing into the phone, unable to make any coherent form of sentence.

He stays for a week, and they play the latest installment of some war and alien hybrid game and drink too much and smoke weed like they’re eighteen all over again.

Mitch sends Dylan’s wife flowers and a new purse that Dylan knows she had her eye on. In turn, pizzas show up on Mitch’s doorstep with a warning that he can keep her husband for one night more, then she’s dropping their kids over and leaving for her sister’s for the weekend.

Mitch loves Dylan’s boys, so he sucks it up and cleans his apartment and makes them both shower before the kids show.

:::

“Hey, you’re here.” Auston smiles, and his voice is soft, but Mitch can’t deny the fondness that’s there.

His heart aches in response.

“Yeah, sorry it took me so—”

Auston shakes his head, cutting off Mitch’s apology. “It’s okay. You had to clean out our lockers, right?”

Right. That’s the excuse they’ve been giving him. That it was an accident near the end of season. They can’t make it too different because of the injuries he has, so a car accident close to home after a game is what they figure out. It’s only been in the last week that he can recall where he is and why. That the lie has stuck and somehow patched over the hazy time of what Auston can remember and when he woke up.

For Auston, they were driving into the rink for a game against Seattle. They’d napped together and Mitch had made them those kale protein smoothies with the strawberries that Auston loved. The last thing Auston remembers with clarity is looking over at Mitch, who was whining about the traffic and that they should have left earlier.

Mitch doesn’t recall that conversation at all.

“Yeah,” he answers, when he can find his voice, standing at the bottom of the bed that makes even six-foot three and over 200 pounds of hockey player look small. “Yeah, I got all our stuff. Babs sends his wishes.”

Auston’s smile softens, and he raises a hand to push the few pieces of hair lying over his face back behind his ear. The one with the scar. The place inside where he’s hurt so much that he can’t even remember them breaking up. Can’t remember what he said when Mitch told him he was done. Can’t remember that he didn’t say anything at all.

His eyes crinkle up as he pats the bed beside him. “What are you doing all the way over there? I’m pretty sure this bed can hold the two of us.”

Mitch laughs this choked thing because he hasn’t. Jesus. He hasn’t been this close to an awake Auston for so long. He feels awkward in his own skin as Auston’s brown eyes look so happy and that happiness is directed straight at Mitch. It feels wrong.

A lie.

Which it is.

“I don’t know, man. You look like you’re pretty comfortable there, wouldn’t want to mess with your system,” Mitch says with a grin that he knows is wavering and forced and fake.

Auston rolls his eyes. “Babe. Get on the bed. I missed you.”

Mitch bites at the inside of his lip and lets his eyes close for a little longer than usual. Babe. The old term of endearment hits him like a punch to the gut. This is an Auston that says this all the time when they’re alone. This is an Auston who means it.

Mitch leans his hip against the side of the bed. Auston reaches out and takes his hand, linking their fingers together. He frowns a bit, wincing and rubbing at the scar above his brow with his free hand.

“You okay?” Mitch asks, making a move to stand that’s aborted by Auston squeezing at their joined hands.

“Will be if you actually get up here,” Auston answers, a tightness in his tone that wasn’t there before. He almost sounds scared.

Mitch pushes his way up onto the bed, lets Auston bring their hands to his lips, a kiss pressed to Mitch’s knuckles. “Hurts a bit when I make different faces. Laughing is a bitch, so don’t try and be your usual stupid self.”

“My self is never stupid, thank you, and my jokes are the best.”

“Anything you say, Mitch. Just, can you come here… please.” He sighs, and Mitch feels it in his chest. This easy banter between them was one of the things Mitch loved. Something that made their relationship easy. In the beginning.

“I don’t want to just kiss your hand, you’re not that much of a princess.”

There’s a hint of hesitancy to Auston’s words, and Mitch is leaning in before he can question if he should.

Auston tastes like the blue Gatorade on his bedside table, and his lips are chapped and dry, but it’s Auston. It’s a light press that gets sweeter when Auston shifts his head to the left a little because Mitch has his free hand cupping Auston’s cheek and…

… he’s missed this. Christ, he didn’t realise how much.

He pulls back before he wants to, and Auston’s lashes flutter on his cheeks, eyes slowly opening with a smile that dawns across his face like a sunrise. Soft and pale and warm.

Fuck. Mitch is still so, so in love with him.

“Hey.”

“Hi.” Mitch grins.

“I missed that,” Auston says, brushing the tip of his nose against Mitch’s.

“Me, too,” Mitch answers, and it's not a lie. Well, not in any way that Auston would understand.

:::

Mitch moves back into the apartment he shared with Auston for five years.

The doctors want Auston to spend a few more days in the hospital just to ensure he’s all good. Well, as good as expected considering his “current” memories are all from two years ago. The doctors and Auston’s family have also discussed how keeping Auston’s life as simple as possible could be key to helping him regain his memories. Auston had only wanted to get out of the hospital and had agreed that simple sounded good—he just wants to start remembering what he’s lost. He doesn’t know that it isn’t Mitch and Auston together in the apartment they bought, sleeping in the bed they broke and had to fix themselves purely to avoid embarrassment. It means Mitch taking a weekend to go back to his place in Buffalo and virtually reversing what he did a year before.

It’s awkward, and Mitch isn’t sure how he really feels about it—especially about how Auston might react if and when he remembers—but he does it. He does it because somewhere, deep down, in the place that wouldn’t let him go on dates that lasted more than a dinner or an awkward blow job that one time in a bar in Vegas… deep down he still loves Matts. He still wishes they could have worked things out. That maybe there was some sort of middle ground they could have reached.

He puts his things in the spaces that Auston hasn’t made much of an effort to fill. Mitch’s drawers are stuffed with jackets and shirts that he knows Auston doesn’t wear. Where Mitch’s hockey gear once sat is just a pile of sneakers that it looks like Auston only bought so there wouldn’t be a space there any more.

It’s weird, and Mitch feels like he’s intruding as he wanders around their apartment. A ghostly visitor to memories past.

:::

Mitch feels ridiculously nervous as he opens the apartment door to let them both in. Auston is slow on his feet, still using a crutch and favouring his right leg even if the cast has been removed and his femur is, for all purposes, healed. He holds open the door to let Matts past, tugs in the bag of crap from the hospital, ignoring for now the other two that are still in the car. Matts basically wants to throw away anything he wore in there, which Mitch guesses is fair enough.

Mitch pauses to take a breath as he locks the door, lets his head fall with a quiet thunk against the wood. This will be the first time he’s been alone in this apartment with Auston since… well, since he said they were over and Matts just walked out. He doesn’t count the time they fucked right after he was traded. It wasn’t like he was actually here for all that long that time.

It’ll be fine. It’s just Auston. Just an Auston who put his hand on Mitch’s knee once they turned out of the hospital and onto University Ave. An Auston who chuckled when Mitch jerked and nearly hit a fucking car when he did so. An Auston who just pressed his fingers in a little harder for a moment, left his hand there with a happy sigh, turned his head to look out the window.

Mitch is going to fuck this up.

“Mitch?”

“Yeah?” Mitch calls back, eyes still closed.

“Can you get in here?”

Mitch’s heart rate spikes. He’s sure he made it look like it did from when Auston remembers. Moved the TV back to where it used to live against the wall and not to the left of the window where it was when they bought the new rug. The rug had been a bitch for Mitch to roll and drag down to the basement storage, but it wasn’t in the photos Mitch had dug up from around that time. He’d had to ask Dylan for those. A USB stick filled with memories that Mitch and Auston had created, that Mitch had deleted all copies of elsewhere. A stupid, tiny, red stick that Stromer had assured Mitch he wouldn’t hand over unless the situation was dire enough.

They’d joked about it being for some sort of alien abduction or amnesia and well… neither of them laughed when Mitch drove over to pick it up.

“Mitch!”

Mitch heads into the living room where he’s sure he heard Auston’s voice coming from. He finds Auston standing at the window looking out at blue sky and buildings and a slice of Lake Ontario, waters glittering down below.

“What’s up? Is it your leg? I told you you should have used both crutches. You should have listened to the doctors and—”

“No, no, it's not my leg, I mean it aches, but what the fuck is that?” He points outside, and Mitch follows, not seeing whatever it is that Auston apparently is.

Mitch scans the horizon and stands behind Auston looking the way his finger is pointing and it’s just. “It’s buildings, Matts. I don’t—”

“That wasn’t there. That one on the left there. I can’t. I don’t remember it.”

Mitch sees it now. The half-built tower of what was previously two other buildings that were recently torn down. In all the time Mitch spent worrying about keeping everything normal, he didn’t even think about the world outside of the walls they’re standing in.

“It’s new. There’s still scaffolding around it, Matts,” Mitch says slow and soft, knows that new information can mess with Auston’s head. That sometimes a step forwards can be a step back.

Auston squeezes his hands into fists at his sides. His face tenses up, and Mitch reaches out, barely grazes Auston’s shoulder before Auston’s shifting out of reach.

“I… my head hurts,” he says, doesn’t look Mitch in the eye as he turns and heads down the hall. “I’m gonna lie down.”

Mitch watches him leave and doesn’t move to follow.

:::

They have three more incidents just like it the next day. The toaster is in the wrong spot. The label on the peanut butter he likes has a different font. Mitch is wearing a new aftershave than the one Auston always bought him for Christmas. A scent that the company doesn’t make anymore.

Four the day after.

Two days where Auston just holes up in bed, half-watching movies that came out the year they were rookies together.

He stops talking in sentences, responds to Mitch’s questions with grunts more than anything else.

The doctors warned him about the possibility of depression.

Of changes making it hard for Auston to sort between then and now.

So Mitch watches and waits, and when Auston gets up at eleven on a Tuesday and suggests they go out, he agrees before asking for details. It’s only when they’re in the store that he starts to freak out.

“You want a new phone?”

“Yeah,” Auston says, fiddling with the latest Apple has to offer, marvelling at the slight changes from the one he remembers from before. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought about it before now.”

Mitch can. Mitch was thankful that it was basically disintegrated in the accident. Knocked out of Auston’s hands when the car hit him, its screen and body crushed by a passing truck. Auston having access to a phone is more than just giving him an ability to talk to friends and family that he can’t just do on the house phone. It’s access to the Cloud, which means photos that Mitch doesn’t know about. It means messages and conversations that Mitch isn’t privy to. It means secrets getting out.

“You haven’t had an iPhone in a while though,” Mitch says, picking up a Samsung that looks basically the same as the phone in Auston’s hand. “You got all shitty about the quality of the camera and switched to Samsung.”

“Really?” Matts quirks a brow, looks between the two phones as Mitch hands it over.

“Yeah. I don’t know. You read something about it in some airport we were stuck at for a few hours. You seemed to like this one.”

The lies just roll off Mitch’s tongue these days. What’s one more?

“Oh, well. I guess that sounds like something I’d do.” He puts the iPhone down, starts moving through the screens on the Samsung. “It’s basically the same anyway, apps and all.”

Mitch calls over a rep who’s been basically vibrating on the spot to come help them, and Mitch breathes for what feels like the first time in days. At least Samsung doesn’t have access to iCloud.

:::

When Auston starts messing around with his phone on the way home. Mitch has a slight freak out about him looking at NHL.com and seeing things he isn’t ready for. That Mitch isn’t ready for.

He puts it down after a few minutes, rests it upside down on his thigh and tips his head back against the headrest.

“It’s bright,” is all he says on the entire drive home.

Mitch doesn’t see him have it out the next day, but the one after he gets Mitch to write down some of their friends’ numbers so he can put them in. The list sits on the kitchen bench for days before Mitch realises he hasn’t seen Auston’s phone in that time either.

When he finally asks Auston, he just shrugs. “I mean our TV is fine but… the doctor said screens might be difficult for a while. It hurts, even with the night settings on.”

Mitch takes a breath that feels much easier than any he’s had up until now. At least with Auston steering clear of technology in that sense, the lies can go on a little longer.

:::

Mitch has been sleeping in the spare room because Auston’s leg isn’t supposed to be jostled, and Mitch has a tendency to flail in the night.

It’s not a big deal, even if Auston makes sad eyes at him every time they say goodnight. He understands it’s to help him heal. Get back on the ice by the start of training camp. Earlier if possible.

He also reminds Mitch that the doctor said he’s cleared for “some physical activities” which he says with a stupid wiggle of his brows that Mitch laughs nervously about.

So, it’s sort of surprising and sort of not when Mitch wakes up two weeks after bringing Auston home to Auston in his bed, one arm wrapped over Mitch’s chest, his leg thrown over Mitch’s thigh.

He can feel Auston’s warm, steady breaths in and out as they play across his cheek. If he turned his head, he’d probably be in prime position to let their lips touch.

He slides out of bed with ninja precise moves, Auston settling into the empty space with a wrinkle to his brow, a small snort and a much louder fart.

Mitch stifles a laugh, pulls on a shirt and sets about getting started on breakfast.

If he has to wait for his dick to go down from half chub just to piss… well, there’s no one else in the bathroom who can witness that.

:::

“No.”

“But the doctors said that doing regular normal things could help my memory.”

“I don’t think they meant going on holiday hours away from the doctors that we might actually need if you do start to remember.”

“It’s Cabo, Mitch. It’s not like it’s a third world country, and it's just a short flight back here or to any hospital in the US.”

“You still have physio to go to—”

“Marshall said I can do what I need to do anywhere, and I know you got the place with the gym because we were going to at least pretend we were doing our summer workout for the three weeks we’re there.”

Mitch takes a deep breath. “Matts, I booked that place two years ago...“

Auston drops the controller onto the ground with a thud. Mitch looks up from where he’s been leaning against the sofa, kicking Auston’s ass in Fortnite like its 2018 again. It’s been a good day. Auston’s not had a migraine this week and was bored and well enough to turn their gaming system on. He’d been happy, but now? Auston’s got a faraway look in his dark brown eyes. The smile that had been playing on his lips most of the afternoon is now completely gone.

“Oh. Yeah. Right. It’s just… I remember sitting right beside you when you paid for it. I remember how happy you were with just putting your credit card details in. A proper summer away, just us.” He sounds so… dejected. Mitch has begun to hate it when Auston gets like this. When Mitch ends up being the one to remind him of how much he’s lost.

Mitch turns, puts his controller on the ground and grabs at Matts’ hand where it’s lying half off the seat. He threads their fingers together, squeezes just once. “I was. I… we loved it,” he says, because they did. It was sunshine and blue skies and Mitch and Auston not seeing all too much of it. They’d been too busy fucking their way around the villa on every available surface. Mitch had left a grand in cash for extra cleaning costs.

“It was really good for both of us.” Mitch is certain the grin on his face matches the hesitant smile on Auston’s own. Their getaway was good. It was just what they’d needed. Yet when it comes down to it, Mitch also knows it was one of the reasons they fell apart. He looks away before he says, “I just don’t think now’s the best time to do something like that.”

Auston groans, his hand leaving Mitch’s own. Mitch looks up. Auston is rubbing at his eyes, right hand scratching through the hair that parts weirdly over his scar.

“Really, Mitch? I can’t think of a better time. I’m going fucking stir crazy in this house! I can’t go down the street, because people ask me questions I have no fucking answer to. I can’t see our friends because they treat me like some sort of invalid. I feel like some sort of prisoner in my own mind, in this apartment! It’s ridiculous!”

“Ridiculous?” Mitch is up and on his feet, shaking with an anger that surprises him with how quickly it rises. “Ridiculous is getting a phone call saying that you’re in the fucking hospital and they want to know if I can give the okay to crack your head open and stop the bleeding. Ridiculous is me sitting there for days on end, waiting for you to wake up. Ridiculous is not being able to sleep every fucking night for the last two weeks because what if you forget to breathe? What if your heart forgets to beat and I—I lose—I lose you all over—” A sob breaks its way through, and Mitch turns away, wipes roughly at his burning cheeks. His fingers come away surprisingly wet.

It’s quiet for a minute, the sounds of guns and battles ongoing, squawks of radios taking a back seat to what’s going on between them. Mitch breathes in and out, and he knows he’s said things he shouldn’t. Been too honest, but he can’t... He’s been okay with what they’re doing here. It’s more like roommates than anything, and the odd brush of lips over a cheek and soft kisses to say good morning are one thing, but a few weeks in a romantic getaway? This feels like a betrayal to the Auston that Mitch knows now, the one Auston himself can’t remember.

“I get it. I know it’s scary, but it’s my life, too, Mitch, and I can’t take sitting here and waiting for it to come back. I need to keep going.” Auston’s hand is heavy on Mitch’s shoulder, spins him around slowly, and he take Mitch’s face in his palms. He looks sad and tired and hopeful. “Can’t we just pretend that I’m normal? That it’s perfectly fine to want to spend three ridiculously overpriced and expensive weeks in a private villa with our own chef, drinking cocktails on white sands with my boyfriend?”

Mitch’s heart aches, and his head hurts, and there is no good answer here. For either of them. His head wages war with his heart.

:::

They go to Cabo.

Not because of the amount of guilt Auston lays on Mitch with his last point. No. Nothing to do with how it twisted and turned Mitch’s heart to hear Auston call him his boyfriend.

He was already getting so good at playing pretend. What was another step down the rabbit hole of how far he’d go to help Auston? How far Mitch was willing to go to continually shatter his own heart?

:::

It is lovely. It’s exactly how Mitch remembers. Private balcony and beach. Gorgeous views. Pool and an amazing chef who has no idea who they are and makes daiquiris in any colours and tastes Mitch and Auston (who isn’t restricting himself as much as he should) can think of. The sofas are comfy, the kitchen filled with the snacks they asked for and at night… a gigantic bed that’s like a cloud to sleep on.

Except, Auston doesn’t exactly want to sleep.

:::

Mitch fakes fatigue the first night, which Auston doesn’t question all too much. Their flight was delayed twice, and he knows that Mitch hasn’t been sleeping all that well at home.

The next day Mitch makes sure to keep them busy at the beach, lazing in the sun and body surfing in the waves until night falls. They eat and drink, and Mitch doesn’t actually have to fake passing out from the amount they’ve drunk.

Day three they head into town to sightsee at this little market their chef, Carlos, told them about. Auston eats something from a street vendor that doesn’t agree with him, and Mitch spends most of that night waking up to hear Auston barfing it all back up.

Day four and Mitch is honestly pushing it, but he makes them go on a light hike and manages to fend Auston’s wandering hands off when they get to the summit when he “hears” someone else coming along the track. He may race Auston down and win, which makes Auston cranky enough that he forgets to do anything but sleep to ignore Mitch when they get home.

Day five and Mitch actually does have to do a few interviews, sponsor crap and Sabres stuff for which he can justify locking himself in the villa’s spare room until he’s done and then faking a migraine that he “sleeps off” well into the night. Auston doesn’t ask why he doesn’t have anything to do of his own. The team wanting him to concentrate on getting well and leaving it up to Auston’s A is a lie that just rolls off Mitch’s tongue. Another to add to the list that seems to be evergrowing.

Day six and Mitch wakes up with Auston grinding his stupid big dick against his ass and Mitch is hard himself and out of reasons to get Auston to stop.

“Don’t—don’t say no or hide again,” Auston whispers into the hairs at the nape of Mitch’s neck, large hand sliding over Mitch’s hip, palm grazing his nipples one after the other.

Mitch moans, and no. He knows he shouldn’t. Knows that when Auston gets his memories back he’ll be so, so pissed off that Mitch took advantage of him. It feels so good though, after a year of basically nothing, and it’s Auston, which means something else. He should shift away, but he’s warm and Auston’s touching him in those ways he knows to make Mitch feel and… it’s a lot when Auston nibbles at the sensitive skin on Mitch’s neck. Nips at his earlobe.

“Mitch, I’m so, so fucking horny, and we haven’t had sex in the week we’ve been here. Do you know how dumb that sounds?” Auston’s hand works its way down Mitch’s chest, fingertips a light scratch through the hair that leads down to where Mitch’s dick is already getting with the program.

He shouldn’t have sex with Auston. It’s one step he’s avoided so far. One step he doesn't want to cross. Shouldn’t cross.

“Please, please, babe. I can make it so good for you, for us.”

He really, really shouldn’t.

:::

(He does.)

:::

The thing about sex with Matts has always been how it makes Mitch lose himself. How it never feels like it did the previous time. How it always makes him learn more about Auston, about them together, about himself.

Mitch ends up lying on his back, staring up at a piece of hair falling over Auston’s right eye, covering his scar as Auston dicks into him deep. He’s got one leg over Auston’s shoulder, the other tucked under his armpit, and fuck, Auston hasn’t said a word in forever and Mitch can only breathe. He tilts his head back, wraps his hand under his neck, tugging at his hair before setting his teeth against his bicep for a minute. He just needs a second away from Auston’s gaze. It’s so much with Auston looking at him like this, dark eyes focused on Mitch, on his every reaction.

“Fuck,” Mitch curses, as Auston pulls out to the tip, his hand covering the head of Mitch’s dick as he slides back in slow. Mitch might possibly die it’s so fucking good.

Auston smirks a little, that sexy smirk that has driven Mitch wild over the years as he changes position. He’s still inside Mitch as he lies down on his side, next to him, holds Mitch’s leg up just under his knee. Mitch’s mouth drops open as Auston starts really giving it to him. Auston slides an arm under Mitch’s shoulders, leans in close. He brushes their lips together, once, twice, and Mitch can count every single lash surrounding Auston’s eyes, and it feels so good. So good, as Auston manages to pluck at one of Mitch’s nipples, Mitch so sensitive there he barely restrains a shout.

Auston grins, this shaky half laugh, half moan as he shifts again, moving down a little and dragging Mitch’s thigh up higher.

“Oh, oh” is all Mitch can say, the thick mushroom head of Auston’s dick is now right there, pressing perfectly inside Mitch, and he might come like this.

Auston’s propped up on his elbow, cupping the back of Mitch’s neck, fingertips pressing lightly into his skull. He pulls Mitch’s leg up higher, thumbs lazily over Mitch’s nipple again and jesus fuck. Mitch isn’t going to survive.

“You ready?” Auston asks, voice deep and raspy still from how long he deep throated Mitch earlier, two fingers pressed inside Mitch’s ass.

Mitch nods, licks over his lips and blinks in what he hopes is enough of a reply because he’s so close. He’s forgotten how easily Auston gets him right there. How well Auston knows his body, knows when to touch, when to pull back and when to take the brakes off completely.

Auston starts this relentless deep grind as Mitch reaches down and grabs at his dick, not even pretending to stroke in time, just going for it because he needs to come. Auston pouts a little, starts fucking him slower, but Mitch can’t.

He whimpers out this barely there “harder” that has Auston giving it to him like he wants, but when Mitch leans back into it, he slows it down again. Auston does this three more times, and Mitch is on the verge of tears, this prickling heat at the corners of his eyes that might be from frustration or the fact that it's so damn good.

It was always good.

Getting each other off wasn’t something they ever had to worry about.

Which is why he begs Auston to fuck him harder, as Mitch’s free hand slides up over his own chest, rubs his skin raw. Auston’s just staring at him, white teeth planted in his bottom lip, breathing hard as the the sound of skin slapping skin fills the room as loudly as Mitch’s panted breaths.

He’s there before he knows it, body doubled over as he shoots over his stomach with these punched out sounds, staring at Auston the entire time. His body is electric, these points of contact with Auston setting his very skin aflame as Auston fucks him through it. Auston keeps fucking him until he’s pulling out and falling against the bed, hand wrapped around his ridiculously red dick, tugging hard.

Mitch is too breathless to move, just turns to his left and watches as Auston gets himself off, his gaze focused on Mitch, and god, Mitch can feel it down to his bones. His body thrumming from how hard he came, but watching Auston, seeing Auston getting off on getting him off is something else. Auston comes with a shout, pearls of white shooting up as far as his chest. He covers his dick with his palm, presses it against the curve of his belly, and he grins lazily at Mitch. Mitch huffs a laugh, curls into Auston’s body, presses his lips all over that stupid lion’s head tattoo on Auston’s arm before Auston’s wrapping it around Mitch, pulling him close. Mitch snuggles in, throws his leg over Auston’s and lets his head rest on Auston’s chest. Listens to the rapid beat of Auston’s heart.

Auston yawns, his jaw clicking and Mitch knows Auston is probably passing out. It’s still early, and they’re on holidays, and Auston certainly wore out Mitch. He’s drowsy himself, and then he feels Auston’s lips press on the top of his head.

“Love you.”

A whisper. Two words and Mitch is overwhelmed with how much this feels like something new and something so familiar at the same time.

And guilt. Guilt starts to turn his gut, making the warmth from seconds ago turn cold. The tears come before Mitch can stop them. The sound he tries to trap in his chest, but one slips, and then another. He’s biting at his lip, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to get it to stop, but it’s no use. Being like this, being with Auston with everything so stripped back between them is too much.

“Hey, hey, babe. What’s wrong?” Auston mumbles, sounding more with it with each word. He’s rubbing his hand over Mitch’s arm, fingertips from his free hand brushing over Mitch's cheek, at his chin, trying to tilt his face up.

Mitch turns his face into Auston’s chest instead. He can’t let Auston see him like this. Not when it's so impossible for him to hide what he’s feeling. It’s written right there with every shaking sob. He shouldn’t have done that. Shouldn’t have fucked Auston and let Auston look at him like it meant something. Like it does for Mitch. Did.

He’s fucking this all up, and when Auston remembers, he’s going to hate Mitch more than he ever did before.

Auston’s not letting him go, though. He tugs at Mitch’s body until he’s lying on Auston’s chest, Auston’s arms wrapped around him. He’s pressing kiss after kiss to every inch of Mitch’s face he can reach, and Mitch doesn’t deserve this. To feel so cared for. So loved.

“Mitch, Mitchell, it was a lot, yeah? I mean. We haven’t in, well, longer for my memory than yours.” He chuckles but he doesn’t sound so sure. Mitch is probably freaking him out.

Auston’s never been good with big emotions.

“I guess I missed you” is what Mitch goes with—it’s as honest as he can be. It’s more honest that Auston knows.

Auston puts his hands under Mitch’s arms and pulls him up. Mitch has no choice to lift his head, and they’re facing each other. Auston’s smile is so soft, and it lights Mitch up.

“I’m right here, babe. I’m right here.”

Mitch kisses Auston so he doesn’t say anything else. So his lips are busy and won’t spill out truths that Auston isn’t ready for. That Mitch obviously isn’t either.

Because lying here? In Auston’s arms? It’s like a part of Mitch he wasn’t aware was missing has finally slotted back into place.

It’s a feeling he doesn’t want to give up.

:::

He feels guilty everytime Auston makes a move. Doesn’t let Auston fuck him so he can see his face again. Closes his eyes if he has to. Feels like he should tell Auston to stop. That it’s wrong.

He doesn’t, though.

He’s in so deep with this, he doesn’t know if there’s actually a way out.

:::

Auston’s started to remember things.

When they get back to Toronto he wants to drive, which Mitch thinks isn’t the best idea, but his neurologist has said it’s okay, so Mitch throws him the keys and doesn’t say a word. They’re headed to Zach’s place for dinner, and Auston puts some playlist on from the eighties that has them both singing along, ridiculous—gentle—head banging and all.

He doesn’t think much of it when they pull into Zach’s drive. Gets out, opens the back of the car to pull out the bread and wine that he promised Renee they’d bring. Only realises that something’s off when he shuts the door with his shoulder, sees Auston waiting at the front of the car.

Mitch bumps his hip against Auston, asks, “What’s up?”

Auston turns his head to Mitch from where he’d been looking up at the Hymans’ house. “I’ve been here before,” he answers, sounding unsure.

Mitch rolls his eyes, shuffles the bottle under one arm as he tilts his head up to where Auston was looking.

“Yeah, we’ve been here for loads of dinners. Drove Zach back here drunk as a skunk after his bucks night.”

“No,” Auston starts, takes Mitch’s free hand in his own, squeezes their fingers together tight. “I remember, Zach and Renee moved in here just in time for Christmas, they had that Chrismukah party, and we wore those matching ugly sweaters with the memes on them that you hated but wore because they made me laugh.”

Mitch nods, but he’s still not really getting whatever Auston’s getting at, even though Auston is staring at him with both brows raised, like he’s waiting for Mitch to— “Oh… oh! You—that was. That was after the Oilers winning the Cup. That’s an—”

“Old memory,” they finish together, and Auston laughs, this bright happy sound, and Mitch echoes with something half as shiny.

Auston busses a kiss to Mitches lips, not a proper one because he’s smiling so hard.

“I didn't even ask you for directions here, did I? Just drove. Wow. Something as dumb as Hymey’s house. Can’t remember my PIN number or what I bought you for your birthday last year but this. This my brain decides to churn out.”

He squeezes their hands again, and then Zach’s opening the door, letting their little dog out, and Auston’s stepping forward, leaving Mitch to follow one step at a time.

:::

And then it’s:

“Mo retired with a blown-out knee. That’s why he doesn’t play anymore.”

Followed by:

“We stayed in one weekend and binge-watched all the Game of Thrones series, and you cried when the dragon died.”

Followed by:

“I’m so sorry about your dad. I can’t… I can’t believe I forgot that.”

And then:

“Why didn’t you tell me Marty and Syd have three kids? I got a FaceTime from Syd the other day, and I thought Scott was their dog not their toddler!”

And:

“I can’t believe we fought about ketchup. I was standing in the isle at Loblaws today and cackling like an idiot because you are so wrong—it’s supposed to go in the refrigerator after you open it!”

And:

“My mom had a cancer scare last year.”

And:

“You thought your concussion was coming back after that hit in Dallas.”

And:

And:

And:

And Mitch keeps waiting for the penny to drop. For the cuddles to end. For the kisses to stop.

For Auston to look at him with hate instead of love.

:::

They head out to the Stromes’ place on Lake Rousseau. It’s the end of summer, and Dylan’s having a barbecue, and Mitch feels a little bad about how he’s basically ignored his friend for two months. Auston drives because he seems to do that a lot nowadays since the whole Zach’s house thing, and Mitch lets him because he needs to quietly freak out.

It’s not as if Dylan and Auston don’t get along. They always did when Mitch and Auston were together. They might have had slight issues when they weren’t. There may have been a few slashing and tripping calls against Dylan. Luckily no one caught any of his “chirping.”

Mitch is sure it’ll be fine. Dylan’s promised Mitch and Danni that he’ll be on his best behaviour. No talking about things Auston probably won't remember. No being a dick for no real reason.

It’s only two days. Mitch is sure Dylan can cope.

It’s fine when they get there. Dylan’s two boys, Tommy and Elliot, run up and attack Auston the same way they always have. Auston comments on how big they are because he doesn’t remember them actually walking, but luckily, he’s always been good with kids so it’s fine. They go swimming in the lake even though it’s fucking freezing, but it’s hot out for late August and it makes Auston smile.

Ryan and his family come over the next morning, followed by Mikey and Ryan McLeod. If the McDavids weren’t still in Hawaii, then it’d be like so many other summers past. They play hockey out on the driveway and watch the kids do the same. It gets late, and more beer is drunk, then Mitch and Dylan end up in goal while Auston referees. Danni eventually crash tackles Dylan, because he’s on the verge of blowing his stack at Auston’s one-sided calls.

It’s good. It feels so normal and nice and everyone is getting along. Which is probably why Mitch is surprised with the line of questioning Dylan opens up with when they’re the last two awake, shutting down the house for the night before Mitch and Auston head back home tomorrow.

“It’s good, between you two,” Dylan says as he locks one of the side doors.

“Yeah,” Mitch answers, picking up a few bowls from the popcorn they’d all been eating earlier, introducing the kids to Mighty Ducks.

“How long do you think you can keep this up?”

Mitch pauses, frowns as he looks over at Dylan, who’s closing the curtains now.

“What do you mean?”

Dylan turns, doesn’t look at Mitch as he kicks Elliot’s soccer ball to the corner of the room where the kids’ toys congregate. “I mean, it’s been how long now? Two months? A bit more? And you two are still playing house.”

Mitch’s face is starting to burn, probably unrecognisable in the dim light that’s coming from the TV, the Moana home screen on replay and silently sending blue all around.

“We’re not. I’m trying to help him, Dylan. You know that.”

“Help him or yourself? Because it’s not like his brain is getting any worse. And it’s not like it’s getting any better either.”

“We’re fine. He’s remembering more each day,” Mitch returns, his tone sharp. He’s feeling backed into a corner here, even though he knows what Dylan is hinting at is right.

Dylan sighs, shakes his head. “This lying isn’t going to be good for you in the long run, either of you. You should tell him.”

Mitch shakes his head again. Ice in his veins at the thought. “No. I can’t. What if it sets him back? What if he’s this close and me telling him that sets him back more? I can’t—”

“Summer’s nearly over, man. How are you going to explain that you don’t play on the Leafs anymore? That you’re a fucking Sabre, Mitch? He’s not going to keep himself away from screens and the internet for much longer. What if he gets cleared to play? What if he goes back out there on the ice, and anyone that’s not team says something to him—”

“He might not even go back!” Mitch cuts in, voice louder than it should be even though everyone’s upstairs and it's just him and Dylan mostly in the dark. “He doesn’t even talk about it anymore. Doesn’t ask about what’s going on in the league. Talks about me playing, but him? He won’t… the doctors said one more hit to the head, one tap and they can’t... They can’t guarantee—” He stops, his breath shuddering in his chest. His ears ringing in time to his thunderous heart.

Dylan touches his shoulder, and Mitch flinches but doesn’t pull back when Dylan winds him in, holds him too tight.

:::

Sabres Headed to HarborCenter
Full Training Camp Schedule and Roster Inside

It’s training camp time!

Here’s the full list of players called up for camp, including a number of CHL-eligible prospects:

Forwards (26)

10 Jacob Josefson C, 15 Jack Eichel C, 22 Johan Larsson C, 27 Vasili Glotov C, 37 Sean Malone C, 46 Sean Malone C, 49 Mark Johnson C, 51 Kyle Criscuolo C, 59 Cliff Pu C, 73 James Patrick C, 93 Mitch Marner C

:::

Auston walks into the coffee table twice the night they get home. Auston fobs it off as being tired, and Mitch thinks nothing of it because he’s just as worn out.

The next morning Auston walks into the wall half a step to the side of the door. He loses his balance in the shower, and Mitch finds him on the floor, bleeding from a cut on his hand where he grabbed at the soap dish and snapped it in half.

The neurologist takes away his already extremely limited screen time and his rights to drive.

She says things about pushing himself too hard and taking a step back to go forward.

Auston is so angry he doesn’t say a word on the drive home.

She also said he couldn’t go back on the ice. When Mitch asked, because it looked like Auston wouldn’t.

She didn’t give them a date on when that would change.

If it would.

:::

Mitch leaves for training camp the same morning that Auston is due to fly out to his parents’ house in Arizona. They decided that it wasn’t worth Auston being home alone while Mitch was busy day in and day out.

Well, Auston’s mom rang and talked to Mitch about what he was going to do with Auston for the next few weeks, and Mitch took her offer as an out.

Auston fucks him slow and soft on his back when he wakes up. Mitch doesn’t stop kissing him through the whole thing, wanting to be close. Not wanting to be anything but here with Auston like they are now. He won’t let himself call this what it is. A goodbye that feels worse than the actual last.

He ruffles Auston’s hair in a way Auston pretends to hate once he’s dressed and ready to go. Reminds Auston that the car will be there for him in an hour. Reminds him where his passport and tickets are.

Auston falls back to sleep with a smile, and Mitch feels like he leaves more than Auston curled up on their bed when he locks up and walks out.

:::

He’s laughing with Jack on the ice, pointedly not looking at two of the CHL prospects pretending not to show off when Alex skates up.

“You didn’t say Matts was dropping by. I thought he didn’t know you were here?”

Mitch stops breathing. Is skating to the glass where he can see Auston in an old Leafs hoodie, his face redder than Eichs’ after a hard shift.

Auston is gone before Mitch can get his skates off.

:::

You have two new messages. Message One:

“—I can’t fucking believe you! A Sabre? You were traded and you didn’t— Why aren’t you a Leaf anymore? What happened? Why didn’t you tell me!”

Message Two:

“The driver told me. A fucking stranger on the way to Pearson told me and you couldn’t. I’m so. I’m coming to see you. I just. I can’t believe this. I might not remember much, but I can’t believe you would lie to me like this. I thought… I thought... I guess I didn’t even know the you before any of this….”

Message end. If you would like to replay this message, press—

:::

Auston’s in Arizona. He’s spotted at a Wildcats game with his dad and sister Breyana, who’s in her second year of graduate school. He looks good. The Leafs cap he’s wearing shadows most of his scar, but Mitch can still spot the tail of it that separates his right brow. Knows what the bump feels like underneath his fingertips.

Whatever camera is there captures his smile: white, white teeth all on display. His eyes crinkle up, and his shoulders fill out the hoodie he’s wearing so well. A plaid and grey that Mitch remembers wearing himself once. Auston had given it to him after Marty and Syd’s youngest had thrown up all over Mitch’s shirt. It rode a little big on Mitch’s frame, but it smelled like Auston and it was warm from his body.

It’s good that Auston is happy. It’s good that he’s doing things that old Auston would do. Being with his family. Doing things he loves.

:::

“Hey, hi, you picked up. Um, I just wanted—”

“Mom told me. Mom thought I remembered and she told me. You slept with me, you told me that you loved me all those times, let me fucking be with you all that time and… we broke up. I don’t know why, and I don't even care right now, it's just a lie. Another lie. We’ve been broken up all this time and you. Don’t fucking call me again.”

:::

Mitch knows he should be relieved that all the lying is over. No more pretending that they’re still in love. That they still enjoy being around each other.

Mitch tries to put it out of mind, which is easy when they have games and practice and travel. The moment it stops though, even for a minute. That’s when the heartache begins all over again.

:::

They play the Coyotes at the end of December. Last game before Christmas break and Mitch just concentrates on the game ahead. They’re winning more than they’re losing, and he’s on the second line mostly so he can centre the two new rookies much like Patty and Naz did for him once upon a time.

Auston is still on LTIR.

Mitch doesn’t hide anymore that he keeps up with the Leafs news. Jack doesn’t say anything. No one does. Mitch keeps putting up points and is always out on the PP, and he smiles more than he frowns. He’s doing okay. Even if he hasn’t heard from Auston or his family since before the season started. Even if he still wakes up, reaching out for a warmth that isn’t there.

He got over it once. He will again.

Mitch finishes lacing his skates, sits back with his head against the wood of the locker. One game at a time. That’s all he has to think about.

“Let’s go, Marns!” Nikko slaps Mitch’s helmet into his chest. Smile wide, still showing off the hole where his two front teeth got knocked out in Boston. Weird kid is oddly proud of this fact, keeps grinning at everyone on and off the ice.

Mitch stands up and pulls the rest of his gear on. Lines up to head down the hall, doing that stupid handshake with Eichs before they skate out and face the crowd.

:::

They’re hyped off a win when they get back to the hotel. They’ve got an early flight in the morning, so no one’s going out, but the hotel bar is about to get very busy for the next few hours. Mitch is laughing it up with Vasily as they step out of the elevators, Mitch retelling how he caught Nikko trying out come-ons in the mirror to accentuate his missing teeth. He’s laughing as he gets to the end of it but stops short when he looks down the hall toward his door and sees a body leaning against it.

“You gonna be okay?” Vasi asks and Mitch... Mitch doesn’t really know.

“Yeah” is what he ends up going with. Swallowing hard as Auston looks up, pushes at the brim of his cap and straightens up.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Tell Eichs I’m beat, yeah?”

Vasily nods and bumps his fist against Mitch’s as he’s staring down at Auston, before turning to his own door.

Mitch takes a breath before he heads down the hall. His heart is racing, and his palms feel sweaty, and he hasn’t one clue why Auston would be here. After telling him not to be in contact—which Mitch has tried so hard not to do—why would Auston be standing at Mitch’s door now?

“How’d you know this was my room?” is what he comes out with, brain and mouth not linking up because he doesn’t really care about that.

Auston’s lip curls up on the right side as he shoves his hands into the kangaroo pocket of the grey hoodie he’s wearing. It fits well, nice shape to his shoulders. That Mitch would notice. If he were looking.

“I asked at the desk.”

“You asked at the desk.”

“Yup. They gave me your floor, number and”—his left hand draws out a familiar rectangular shape—“a spare key.”

“They gave you a key.”

Auston raises a brow. “Are you just gonna repeat everything I say or can we maybe go in?”

Mitch just nods, and Auston turns, opens the door and Mitch follows. Auston makes himself at home, picks up the remote from the table, taps it against his thigh. He wanders over to the window, pulling back the curtain to look out. Mitch takes that as his cue to get comfortable. Takes his jacket off, hangs it up, loosens his tie and hangs that up, too. He kicks his shoes off and closes his eyes, just for a moment before he turns around. Auston’s sitting on the edge of the bed now, looking for all intents and purposes like he’s not going anywhere.

There’s only the hum of the air conditioning between them as Mitch stands there, unsure of what to do or what to say.

“So that game, huh,” Auston says, still not looking up from where he’s turning the remote over between his hands.

“You watched?” Mitch asks after clearing his throat. He’s about six steps from Auston. The closest they’ve been in months, and Mitch doesn’t know what to do with that.

Auston nods and hums an affirmative.

That’s all he says though, and this quiet, unsettlingly so, pulls between them.

“Why are you here?” Mitch asks after he’s certain he can hear the watch on his wrist ticking every second of silence. “You told me not to get in contact with you, and I haven’t, so—”

“I told you, I watched the game.” Auston shrugs, puts the remote on the bed and rests his hands on his knees, finally looking up.

He’s still everything that Mitch has ever wanted, and it hurts that he’s here, and it hurts that Mitch has fucked this up twice. It still doesn’t explain why here, why now.

“You said that, but I don’t—”

“You got five points tonight,” Auston says, this soft smile spreading over his face, echoing in his dark eyes. “Three goals and two assists. A fucking hat trick, Marns.”

Mitch’s cheeks heat. He did have a good night, a natural hat trick doesn’t come around too often, and for a guy Mitch’s age, even less so. Not everyone can be an Ovechkin or a Jagr.

“I did all right.” It’s Mitch’s turn to look down now, look away from where Auston’s gazing up at him. Mitch knows that look. Remembers it well.

“That last one?” Auston begins, breathes out harshly. “That was fucking dirty, that deke, the way you spun around Tomas like he wasn’t even there. That ping off the fucking post.” He shakes his head and licks at his lips, and the way he’s talking about it, Mitch isn’t ashamed to say he’s a little hard, himself.

Still.

“Hockey’s hockey, Matts.”

Auston shakes his head again, stands up. “It’s not just that though. It’s like. I was at home and the game came on and you just. You look so good out there. Like… you’ve always been good, I know that, and playing with you was one thing, but this?”

He takes a step toward Mitch, and it takes everything for Mitch to hold his ground.

“I thought, I always thought what we were on the ice, all those years, that it was magical, you know? Like, when we played on a line together it clicked. Whether it was special teams or when Babs was mixing it up. We were always good.You were always good, but this?”

He steps closer again and again, and Mitch can’t breathe, can’t make a sound. Auston’s reaching out with one hand and Mitch can only watch as their fingertips connect. A jolt of electricity shoots up his arm.

“You’re amazing, you know? I guess I forgot how great you really are, how brilliant you can make any line, any team look, and I just. I wanted to tell you, I wanted you to know.” He sounds so soft and sure, and his hair is shorter than it’s ever been, but Mitch still wants to reach out and touch.

“I kinda just got in my car and drove here once the game ended. Didn’t even think about it really. I really wanted to tell you. See you, I guess.”

He’s still holding the tips of Mitch’s fingers in his own and he’s staring at Mitch with his brown eyes so dark and deep. Mitch could—and has—gotten lost in them before. But that was before secrets and lies, before breakups and heartache, and Mitch….

Mitch doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do here. It’s nice and all that Auston appreciates his hockey. Mitch knows he’s gotten all fucking glowy himself from shit Auston’s done on the ice, but this feels different. It feels like Auston is saying something else alongside how hot Mitch’s hockey made him. Old Mitch would have known what to do with that. Old Mitch and Auston would have already been naked from the moment the door closed and fucking like rabbits the second their backs hit the bed. Or that one memorable time on the floor that left Mitch with rugburn on his knees so bad he was thankful they had four days off before he had to put his pads back on.

The thing is. He knows what an aroused-by-hot-hockey Auston looks like.

He knows the person in front of him better than he knows anyone else.

He also knows how much he hurt this person by lying for months, and how much this person doesn’t remember hurting Mitch in return.

“You were so fucking hot out there. Five points, Mitch. That filthy goal...” Auston lets out this slow, considering hum and steps in again.

Silence builds between them only broken by how loud Mitch’s heart is racing, thudding sharp and harsh in his ears. Mitch can only stare at Auston and wait for a hint about what he’s supposed to do now.

“Aren’t you gonna say anything?” Auston asks. He’s looking down at where their hands are joined, his voice barely above a whisper, his fingers a tight, light squeeze over Mitch’s own.

Mitch shrugs, breathes in, and it’s Auston’s stupid citrusy cologne. He’s so close Mitch can even catch a hint of the spearmint gum Auston chews when he’s watching a game he’s really into and….

Fuck, Mitch wants to kiss him.

Auston seems to lean in, looming almost, and that Mitch can feel his proximity like static is the only thing separating them from touch. It’s as if he’s standing on a precipice and Mitch isn’t sure if he should jump off or step back.

“Tell me you don’t want to,” Auston whispers, tip of his nose brushing across Mitch’s cheek. “Tell me I shouldn’t have come.” Mitch swears he can feel the heat from Auston’s lips at the corner of his own. “Tell me to leave.”

Mitch can’t say a word. His mouth is so dry, and he shouldn’t. They shouldn’t. This, this thing that Matts so obviously wants right now might not be what he wants in the morning. It could end up being just another thing he hates Mitch for.

He turns his head away, looks at the ground and feels an instant chill when Matts rolls back on his heels, a soft “Oh” falling from his lips.

God, that sound—not even a proper word—and it hits Mitch like a shot to the chest. He has so many regrets. So many.

“Wait.”

What’s one more?

:::

 

Auston holds Mitch’s face between his hands like he’s fragile. Something that might break if he presses too hard.

He kisses Mitch with a surety and passion that Mitch can’t help but return. It’s like the moment Auston’s lips meet his, every worry, every thought just leaves his mind completely. All that matters is getting his hands under Auston’s stupid hoodie and touching Auston’s skin.

Auston rears back, reaches behind his head and pulls the damn thing off in one go. His ears get stuck a bit, but with a wiggle, it’s off and out of sight. Mitch hears something fall down—probably a lamp—but he can’t honestly care all that much because Auston’s kissing him again, fingers working the buttons open on Mitch’s shirt.

Mitch’s hands find Auston’s shoulders, can’t help but run his hands all over Auston’s skin all warm and bronze and toned. It feels so good to be touching Matts again. To meet Auston’s lips in a hungry kiss when he gets Mitch’s shirt undone, pushes it from his shoulders and tugs it off one arm and then the next.

“I missed this,” Auston whispers, tongue and teeth grazing a path down Mitch’s neck. “I missed this so much.”

Mitch hums in answer, pushing at Auston's stupid joggers, which seem stuck on his hips. Slides his fingers under the material at the back and—

“You’re not wearing any underwear.”

“No,” Auston says with a soft chuckle. “And fuck you and this belt for keeping me from getting into yours.”

Mitch revels in being able to get two handfuls of Auston’s impressive ass, squeezes and drags him close. His fingertips slip down between Auston’s cheeks, teasing at his hole.

Mitch,” Auston whines, presses back into Mitch’s touch. “Please, help me get your fucking belt off.”

“It’s got a funny clip thing.” Mitch grins, lets go of Auston just to shove his hands out of the way, drags his belt out of the loops. Auston is already flicking the button out and getting his zip down before the leather has hit the floor.

Mitch can’t stop touching him, threading his fingers through Auston’s thick, glossy hair—it feels too smooth to have been washed recently. He feels so good as he crowds against Mitch, his teeth and tongue blazing a trail down Mitch’s chest, fingertips of one hand brushing over a nipple while his lips close over the other. Mitch is so hard in his pants. He jumps as Auston rubs a palm across the head of his dick; might actually whimper when he does it again, harder.

He can’t believe this is happening. He’s still half dressed and Auston is taking him apart, piece by piece. Mitch knows this is a one-shot deal, that sex—right here, right now—is all he’s allowed to have, and he’s made peace with that. He can push Auston out of mind again. Out of sight.

But the thing is, Mitch has never been able to forget about Auston, not really. And the way Auston is using every trick in his arsenal to drive Mitch out of his mind says that maybe he’s never really been able to forget about them either. He still can’t believe that Auston is here, in Mitch’s hotel room after everything. After he’d been so mad and made a point to tell Mitch to stay out of his life.

He must have said that last bit out loud without realising it, because once he’s got Mitch’s pants down over his hips, Auston buries his face in Mitch’s neck. He sucks and bites at the tender skin there before pausing, his breath warm and wet against Mitch’s ear.

Auston nudges Mitch’s cheek with his nose and murmurs quietly, “I know why you lied. You thought you were helping me.” He bites Mitch again, just at the corner of his jaw, and Mitch groans. He pushes his hips up, trying to get some friction, anything to have more of Auston’s touch.

 

Mitch slides his hand through Auston’s hair, uses his grip to pull him back and look him in the eye. The heat he sees there is almost too much to bear. Auston swallows hard, and when he speaks, his voice sounds raspy and used. “I can't be mad at you anymore, Mitch. I've lost too much time already.”

“Fuck,” Mitch whines, grasps at Auston’s back and shoulders as Auston drops to the floor between Mitch’s thighs, Auston’s big hands warm on his skin. “Fuck, Matts…please.

“Whatever you want, fuck, anything,” Auston says between breaths that play hot and wet over Mitch’s skin. Mitch’s stomach muscles twitch in response as Auston presses his mouth open against Mitch’s hip bone, looks up at him through lashes so dark, crouched down between Mitch’s legs.

“You,” Mitch answers shakily, dragging Auston up from the floor with words falling from his mouth that are too honest for the moment but still being said all the same. “Just you.”

“Mitch,” Auston makes Mitch’s name sound broken, like it hurts as he kisses Mitch deep, so it's all Mitch can think about. He just wants to be closer—it feels like he’ll never be close enough.

“Bed,” Mitch murmurs, pushing at Auston’s hips. Guides him back while stepping out of his dress pants and boxers. He can’t take his hands off Auston now, doesn’t want to for a moment. Even when Auston is giggling because his left sock is stuck in the cuff of his joggers, making it impossible for him to get off.

Auston somehow manhandles Mitch so their positions are switched, pushes him onto the bed, where he bounces on his back, the headboard thumping against the wall. Luckily Nikko’s out for the moment, probably the night. Auston’s staring at Mitch with such intent, such want as he grins, pink tongue sliding quickly over his bottom lip before he’s finally freed his foot. He stalks up to Mitch—there’s no other word for it—as Mitch sits up, hands resting idly on the bed cover.

“Three goals, babe,” Auston says with a sly grin, dropping down on his knees and shuffling in between Mitch’s thighs.

Mitch curses, falls back on his elbows as he remembers what this has meant in the past. Barely has time to blink before Auston’s got his hand wrapped around Mitch’s dick, a quick stroke before his mouth is following it down.

:::

Mitch wakes up just as the sun is starting to filter white through the curtain that Auston never closed the night before. One of them has pulled a sheet up over their bodies during the night. It’s covering most of Mitch, but as Auston shuffles closer, drapes his arm over Mitch’s chest, it leaves half of Auston bare.

Mitch brings his arm down slowly from where he was sleeping with it crooked above his head. Traces the round of Auston’s shoulder with two fingertips, skin cool to the touch, until only his eyes can trace a path down. There’s a healthy glow to Auston’s skin, a thickness in his torso that Mitch knows isn’t from hockey, but that curve to his ass? That’s hockey all on its own.

Auston’s always been beautiful in Mitch’s eyes. Always something that Mitch has taken awe in on and off the ice, in and out of their bed. He’s never felt like he’s had enough time to look. To taste. To touch as much as he could ever want.

Lying here now. After last night. After the past few years and all that’s left unsaid between them.

Mitch isn’t sure what he’s been given will ever be enough.

:::

When he wakes up again, it's much lighter. It takes him a second but he can still feel Auston is near. Here.

It makes him smile, and it only gets wider with Auston’s soft, “Morning.”

“Hey,” he answers in return, all hoarse. He blinks his eyes open slowly, takes in how they’re still curled so close. Auston still has his leg thrown over Mitch, but he’s mostly propped up on one arm, phone in hand.

“Gonna print this one,” Auston says, snuggling down so his head is on Mitch’s shoulder. It’s a cute pic he holds up on his phone, Mitch and Matts looking all relaxed and tanned with the sunset as the backdrop. It was a good idea to take that cruise before they left Cabo.

Mitch rubs his free hand over the soft skin of Auston’s belly. It’s probably getting on for him to be making it down to team breakfast. Though he might get out of it if Vasi has told Eichs who appeared at Mitch’s door. It gives Mitch sort of a time limit, and he knows they have a lot to talk about but this, here? This is nice.

He zones out so much that he misses what Auston says about the photo. Asks him to repeat it again.

“Well, I need to print it, yeah? Replace the photo you took from my bedside table.”

Mitch freezes because— “What photo?”

“You know,” Auston continues, voice oh-so-nonchalant. His thumb slides across the screen, and more moments of their holiday flick past.

Mitch feels sick.

“The one from Cabo, our first time? You took the photo but left the frame. I really liked that photo, Mitch.”

Mitch can’t. It doesn’t. “What?”

Auston sighs, and Mitch can feel it under his ear. “The photo you took when we broke up. I mean, I get why you did. I looked fucking hot in those yellow shorts but—ow! What the fuck, Marns?!”

:::

Mitch hits him again.

:::

Auston’s arm comes up to protect his face, but Mitch is not done.

“I’m the one with the head injury here, stop hitting me with the pillow!”

Mitch may know these facts, but he isn’t quite inclined to agree about stopping.

“You… You remembered? You absolute—” Mitch breathes in and out, pillow raised above his head where he’s now straddled over Auston’s lap. His stomach is turning, and his head can't decide whether he should feel ecstatic or shocked or both. “You fuck! Why didn't you tell me!” Right. He’s going with anger. “Why... why are you here? ‘Cause if this is some sick fucking joke just to have ex-sex...”

Auston’s got this pinched look to his face, his cheeks are red and that’s. That’s Matts’ really pissed off look.

“It’s real rich you being pissed off about this, Mitchell, when you’ve done nothing but lie to me for months! You, my family and everyone pretending that everything was fucking normal when we weren’t together. You broke us, Mitch. You told me it was over, and you broke us.” He stabs a finger into Mitch’s chest, but Mitch barely feels it.

Auston takes a breath and Mitch can hear his heartbeat thundering in his ears as Auston continues softly, “And I know why you did, and I think then, before the accident, I think I figured it out and was starting to work on a way to get us back together. For me to be honest about who I am. Who I love. Mom deleted my emails, but she didn’t empty the trash, so I know that I was talking to my agent. I know that I’d talked to Babs and even called JVR about it.”

“Once a Leaf...” Mitch says, because JVR ended his career in Seattle, so he hasn’t been the Leafs’ YCP Ambassador for years, but...

Auston’s lip twitches at one corner. “Always a Leaf.”

Auston is staring up at him with his dark eyes so sincere and Mitch… Mitch can barely remember a time when he hasn’t loved him.

“How much—”

“Do I remember?” Auston cuts in, shrugs his shoulders. “A little. Talking to my mom. Talking to Freddie. It’s not complete conversations, but bits come back sometimes. Sometimes it feels like a dream, and some of it feels so real that I’m not sure if it’s old memories or wishful thinking. Coffee I’ve had in places I can’t quite grasp. Movies I swear I’ve seen before but I can’t recall the beginning. Faces I’ve met, people who act like they know me but I haven’t a clue who they are.” Auston rubs his hands over his face, presses the palms into his eyes in a move he would do before every game.

Some things never change.

“You. I mostly remember you.”

Mitch sucks his bottom lip under his teeth as it starts to tremble.

“I remember how much it hurt when you wouldn’t look at me during that face off the first time we played you in Buffalo. I remember watching you play and seeing how disconnected you were. It’s always in flashes, when you’re on the ice, and it’s hard to figure out if it’s the past or not. The uniforms are too similar, I guess.”

Mitch lets his eyes fall to Auston’s chest, the curve of his gold necklace is something good to focus on. He remembers the game but not facing off against Auston. It’s strange that he’s the one with the memory problem now, but it took all of him to play that game. Blocking out sight and sound and just playing was all he could to to get through it.

Mitch feels like his entire being is being broken open with every confession from Auston, but he’s not finished yet.

“I hear conversations, maybe, that you had while I was in hospital. I remember you crying, I guess? The sound of you and the wet feeling on my chest. I don’t remember everything, I’m not sure if I ever will, but you?”

Auston sits up, his hands landing on either side of Mitch’s hips. Mitch takes in a shuddery breath as Auston stares right into his eyes.

“Mitch, maybe there’s a reason I can only remember the good between us. Like, we’re being given a second chance not to fuck this up. I don’t, I don’t want to repeat whatever I did that made us not happen. Do you think that it’s something I can fix? Something we can both work on?”

He looks so sincere, and Mitch’s heart is beating so fast because he wants this. Wanted Auston to say something like this when Mitch looked up at him from where they were sitting in the couch watching NHL highlights one night, and Mitch realised nothing was going to change. That Auston was so settled with how they were living. The omissions of truth harder to bear than flat-out lies to those who didn’t know who they were to each other. That maybe he’d never be ready to come out, to be honest about who they were, and at the time, Mitch had thought that was important. More important than the love they shared, more important than how happy they were all of the time.

He can’t imagine why anything more than that could possibly matter now. They’ve already lost so much.

Mitch wipes at his eyes and licks the salt from his lips.

Auston holds Mitch’s face between his hands. Mitch blinks and blinks until he can see Auston clearly. This man he loves. This stupid boy who’s owned Mitch’s heart for longer than Mitch cares to admit.

“I can’t remember being without you,” Auston says. “And I don’t want to learn how. I’ll do whatever you need to keep us from falling apart. We can come out, we can—”

Mitch grabs at Auston’s hands, holds them between their chests, as he shakes his head, keeps his eyes downcast. “It wasn’t ever really about that. I wanted you to be honest about who you were, what we meant to each other. I shouldn’t have pushed just because I felt ready. I didn’t even have the guts to do it after we broke up, and I don’t care anymore. I wasn’t happy when I left you, and I don’t think you were either,”

“Maybe we can just... start again, yeah? If coming out or telling more people is right, then maybe it’ll happen when we’re both ready. Like, unplanned and spontaneous or whatever. Just try and be good to each other and feel our way forward, one day at a time.”

Mitch snorts without meaning to, a chuckle slipping out. “Oh man,” he says, when Auston raises his scarred brow, “you just sounded so much like Press Babs. I’m surprised you didn’t say ‘we’re a team of good players and we play real good.’”

Auston pushes at Mitch’s chest, sending him toppling backwards as they both laugh. Auston follows him down, crowds over him with his hands on either side of Mitch’s head. His smile is hesitant, but his eyes are so happy and bright.

“Press speeches aside, what do you think? Are we gonna take it game by game, see if our plays work out?”

:::

If they’re both smiling too hard to actually kiss properly, it doesn’t matter to either of them, anyhow.

:::

The thing is….

The thing is it was easy to fall in love with Auston the first time. It was his hockey. His face. His stupid laugh.

It near broke Mitch having to lie to a lot of their friends about who they were. Even when they were living together, the second bedroom always had to be filled with Mitch’s stuff. Five years of waiting for Auston to be ready. Five years of a handful of people knowing why Mitch was as happy as he was.

It was really fucking easy for Auston to break Mitch’s heart.

And Mitch nearly lost him. Three times, really, with the accident and then the amnesia and now…

Forgiveness. Acceptance. Moving forward.

That might not be the hardest part.

:::

They don't come out in public, but they don't deny it either. The people that need to know, know, and that's enough. Maybe Matts will play again, and maybe he won't. Maybe Mitch will get a cup with Buffalo. Or maybe he finishes out his contract, then slips quietly into a life out of the public eye with a man he's loved since he was nineteen.

It might not be an easy life, because Matts still forgets things and gets angry at himself. Mitch might call Dylan about it a little too much, might get a little quiet and stay out of Auston’s way for a day so neither of them will say things they’ll regret. The days when it's good, though? It’s really good.

In the end, that's all that matters.