Matt’s exactly where he shouldn’t be, which is in his apartment in Calgary, weeks after his season has ended. He’s still here in Calgary while Taryn and his mom and dad are in the crowd in Edmonton, watching Brady’s team get soundly decimated by the Oilers in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals.
There’s a running list in his head of places he should be that aren’t here, in a town where everyone knows his face and all his friends have already left for their hometowns and homelands and families. The list starts with Edmonton, and it ends somewhere around the 8th tropical island he can name (and only because he can’t remember the names of any more islands).
He’s got the game on because he can’t justify not watching –– knows that if Brady asks him after and he says he didn’t watch, that it’s probably the only thing worse than not showing up at all. Knows that whether Brady asks or not, he’s going to think forever that the reason Matt didn’t show up for him was because Matt couldn’t get over himself and his second-round loss. He fucking wishes Brady was right, because it would be a hell of a lot easier than the truth.
The truth is: he can’t be anywhere near Leon Draisaitl right now.
He’s had the TV muted for most of the game, but he rescues the remote from in between the couch cushions as the final minute of play counts down. The Sens are down 2 goals. At this point, chasing the puck is just a formality. Matt doesn’t look away – thirty seconds, five seconds. The horn blares.
The cameras glance over Brady’s face for a brief second before sticking to McDavid like a magnet. Orange jerseys start crashing into each other, spilling in from the outside. This removed from it all, it’s easy to pretend that Matt has never played professional hockey in his life –– that he’s just a spectator like everyone else, watching a game on the television that has no consequences in his real life. It’s possible, Matt guesses, that it’s really not all that easy to pretend but that he’s going to try anyway.
Turns out it’s not an illusion he can keep up when McDavid and Nurse disappear down the tunnel and come back with Leon draped between them, one arm over each set of shoulders. He doesn’t have skates on. His left leg is casted and raised. McDavid never lets it touch the ground.
It’s normal when McDavid hoists the cup first, takes his turn with it. It’s not normal when he finishes his lap and comes right back to Leon. Leon, who hasn’t played a single minute of post-season hockey against the Senators, or against the Avs in the previous series. Leon, who can’t walk, let alone skate.
Leon raises the cup over his head, bolstered up by his team on all sides. Matt wonders if everyone else, those spectators who watch the game and don’t feel any of the consequences, notice how bright Leon’s eyes are in the lights of the stadium. He wonders if they notice him shaking.
Matt’s just north of Red Deer when Taryn calls him. He flips on speaker phone and throws the phone over into the passenger seat.
"Where are you?" she demands.
"Yeah? Which home, Matty? Are you back in St. Louis?"
"No, I'm still in Calgary."
"No you're not, fuckface, you're driving to Edmonton. I can see your Bitmoji on Snapchat."
"If you knew, then why did you ask?"
"So I could see if you'd lie to me, which, thanks for living down to my expectations, I guess? Care to tell me what the fuck you're doing?"
Taryn huffs. “I don’t understand how you have the gall to show up here now, after it’s already over. You wouldn’t even drive up here if he’d won, would you?”
“It’s a possibility,” Matt agrees, but not for the reasons Taryn thinks.
“What if Brady doesn’t want to see you?” Taryn asks. “What if we’ve already booked the flight home?”
“Good,” says Matt. “Get on the plane.” He hangs up. Whatever shit he’s in with his family is going to have to wait until later.
A few miles ahead the traffic starts to slow to a crawl. Matt sees the bright lights of an ambulance ahead of him and hears the blare of a firetruck siren not far behind. It must have happened real recently because Matt’s not too far from where the cars are bottlenecked.
He turns his head to survey the damage as he rolls up. The paramedics have a woman on the ground, her neck snapped into a brace and her limbs not all laying at the right angles. There’s another car that someone’s still trapped inside of.
Matt can't look away, but he's not really watching either, his mind on the ice a hundred kilometers north of here a few weeks back. Matt sees the dent in the driver's side door and thinks about the crash of his body into Leon's, and Leon's into the boards. He imagines the sound it must have made when the two cars made impact and his mind lingers on the cry Leon let out when he rammed knee-first into the wall.
Matt never heard the sound of the cracking. He's selfishly glad that he can't force himself to remember it, perversely gracious that he only turned around and looked at Leon after it had already happened and the crowd had gone quiet when he didn’t get up.
The cars thin back out across the highway. Matt steps on the gas.
Leon lives in a blue house at the end of a row of identical blue houses in some bougie suburb right outside of Edmonton proper that Matt only ever navigates to when he’s following Leon home. The WILLKOMMEN doormat that usually greets Matt at the door is missing, and the spare key that Leon hides under there is too. He knocks, then knocks again when no one answers. He rings the doorbell, which should have triggered Bowie to come skittering up to the door, little claws scritching at the wood even though Leon’s definitely trained that out of him at least twice.
He doesn’t hear it, which means Leon’s not here, which means Matt’s panicking. He could walk around the house, but even somewhere as docile as Edmonton, Alberta, Leon has a privacy gate barring the crazies from getting in.
He jogs back to his car and grabs his phone, unlocking it and dialing McDavid, who’s probably still drunk or asleep. Matt thinks if he’s neither then he’s really too much of a caricature of himself, but Matt supposes he can’t throw stones in glass houses.
McDavid picks up, thankfully. “‘Lo?”
“McDavid.” Matt doesn’t wait for an answer. “Can you tell me where Leon is? Is he with you?”
“The fuck? Tkachuk?”
“Yeah, listen – is he with you? He’s not home. I need to talk to him.”
“No, Matt, dude – where the fuck are you?” McDavid sounds like he’s climbing off of whatever soft surface he wound up on last night. “Are you here? You can’t be here.”
Matt skirts his eyes around the neighborhood –– he’s right that hanging out in plain view in Edmonton right now probably isn’t the wisest idea he’s ever had. Matt ducks back into his car. “Just tell me where he is and I’ll get out of town as soon as we talk.”
“Every guy I know wants to kick your ass, and you can count me as one of them. What the hell gives you the idea that I owe you any favors here?”
Matt breathes out loud and slow. The thought of acknowledging it out loud — ”Because you know why I’m here.”
It’s McDavid’s turn to let out a breath. He doesn’t say anything for a minute, and Matt holds the silence with him. Finally: “Yeah.”
“Are you going to tell me where he is?”
“Yeah. He’s on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic.”
Matt can feel the hand that’s not holding the phone tighten around the steering wheel. “He already left?”
“He’s gone. If he didn’t have to stay in town to wait for the movers to get everything together, I don’t think I could have convinced him to come to the game yesterday.”
“He’s moving? To — why? He just bought this place.”
“Yeah, you said that. Listen, I get that he’d go back to Germany to get started on PT in time for next season, but why would he—”
“Matt.” McDavid has this way of making his words sound like a gavel pounding the sound block. Matt stops. “There is no next season. And no season after that. He can't walk –– they don't know if he'll ever be able to again. He’s gone .”
“What — no. No." There’s no way Matt did that. He can’t have. He can't breathe. He can't—
"I can’t, no. No, fuck, no, he's not—"
“Listen, I don’t know what went down between you two before the game, but I’m telling you what’s going to happen now.” Matt’s shaking his head. He can barely hear the words coming through the phone. It doesn’t matter. “You’re not going to reach out to him. You’re going to leave him alone. Don’t call, don’t text. Don’t get on a fucking plane. He doesn’t need that from you. Do you understand?
“No, I’ve got to tell him, Connor, you know I didn’t mean to, you know I’m sorry—”
“Tkachuk. Go to hell.”
Matt’s German is just barely good enough to get from one side of the Berlin airport to the other, hail a cab, and get the driver headed vaguely in the direction of the apartment he’s renting month-to-month near the river. There’s a soreness in his left wrist that tends to make itself known when Matt is feeling particularly tense. He catches himself rubbing at it now, thumbing over the tendons like they’re a worry stone he can wear smooth.
He’s just –– super fucking grateful they didn’t send some kind of welcome party to come get him. Matt doesn’t know what he would have done if some Eisbären player he doesn’t remember the name and definitely wouldn’t recognize strolled up to him right after he climbed off the redeye from St. Louis to Berlin. He’s not going to even entertain the thought of what would have happened if they’d sent Leon instead.
It’s so late it’s actually early, which is really unfortunate for whatever it is Matt has to do tomorrow, because he’s going the fuck to sleep as soon as he spots a mattress, whether it screws him over for the week or not.
The driver catches his eye in the rearview mirror and asks him a question in German.
“Désolé — uh, I mean, fuck, sorry, I don’t…” What’s the German for sorry again? Does he even know it?
“You speak English? American?”
“Yeah.” Thank god the guy got there, because Matt’s not sure he could have helped him out.
The driver humphs. Okay then, Matt will keep his thanks to himself.
“We’re almost there, you need help with bags?”
“No, I’ve got it. Thanks. Danke.”
When his head finally hits the pillow twenty minutes later, he flips open his phone and takes it out of airplane mode. A rush of notifications come in. He ignores most of them, but opens the messages from Taryn. She’s sent a picture of the kids, both dressed in their oversized Flames jerseys Matt got for them a while back.
The boys were really looking forward to seeing more of their uncle matt this year
The flight was fine, thanks
Hope you know what you’re doing
Love you too
“Come on in, Matthew,” the GM says when Matt approaches the glass door of the meeting room. He recognizes her voice from conference calls with his agent. She stands up to greet him, grasping his hand between the both of hers. “Nice to meet you in person.”
“You as well.”
“Please, take a seat. This should be a pretty quick meeting ––I just wanted to bring you in to introduce you to a few of the team staff before you get started with the season,” she says. “I’m Ada Brandt, your general manager. This is head coach Alex Becker and assistant coach Leon Draisaitl, who I believe you’re acquainted with.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answers. “Nice to meet you,” he directs toward the head coach, extending his hand to shake. Then he turns to Leon.
And the thing is, Matt’s had trouble drawing Leon’s face in his head when he thinks about the past –– the years in between have gradually rubbed the memory of it thin, and pictures that float around online always seem too forced to really ever ring true. All of it snaps into perfect focus now when he looks across the table. He reaches his hand out. “Long time, no see.”
“Happy to have you with us, Matthew,” Leon says. Matthew. It sounds awkward to Matt’s ears. He’s confident that’s the one thing Leon’s never called him.
“If you don’t mind me saying,” Ada starts, “I’m surprised we were able to work it out with your agent to get you here. I was under the impression you’d be retiring after Calgary bought out the rest of your contract. Usually if players like you want to keep playing, they find a way to stay in their league.”
That’s pretty forward. “There were definitely some options to consider,” he says. “But I think I’m exactly where I need to be. Thanks for giving me the opportunity.”
Ada directs a smile at him. “The pleasure’s ours. Practices start up this week, so you’ll be getting to know the other guys in the locker room soon. But heads up that our office will be emailing you a list sometime today with the contact info for everyone you may need to get ahold of.”
“Thanks for the heads up.”
They go over a few more details about the kind of onboarding shit he hasn’t had to do since he was literally a teenager and should probably pay close attention to. Leon doesn’t say much throughout the conversation, but Matt feels his eyes on him throughout most of the conversation. He wonders why Leon’s even here today.
He gets that answer soon enough, when the conversation draws to a close and Matt stands up after the few moments of silence he takes as a close to the meeting. The others follow suit, and Matt is about to offer his hand and take his leave when Ada’s voice stops him.
“One last thing, Matthew,” she says. “I don’t want any of us to pretend we don’t know about the history between yourself and Coach Draisaitl. Leon assured me it wouldn’t be an issue when we signed you earlier this summer. I’m sure you decided the same, or you wouldn’t have joined us here in Berlin, but I wanted to hear it directly from you before we start our season.”
She’s looking at him expectantly. Matt feels a little frozen, called out. He looks over at Leon, who must have known this was going to get brought up. He doesn’t look surprised. He doesn’t look much of anything, like maybe he’s holding it all behind closed doors. Matt’s familiar enough with that. His eyes snap back to Ada.
“Of course. There won’t be any issue.”
Ada smiles. “Thank you. Feel free to reach out if you need anything as you start getting settled here in Berlin, Matthew.”
It sticks to his teeth after the meeting, the weird aftertaste of Leon's silence. No, Matt wants to hash it out, deal with this head on before it turns into the clusterfuck he knows it could be.
He scavenges in his inbox for the contact list and finds Leon's number.
I meant what I said today
It’s not gonna be a problem for me
I hope you meant it too, you gotta know I don’t wanna mess this up for you
His last message sits there. He stares at the screen for a stupid-long time before coming to his senses. Ridiculous. He shuts the thing off and stuffs it in his back pocket.
Time to meet Berlin. He’s actually been here a time or two, but only as a tourist. From what he remembers, Berlin is good for those super casual outdoor bars where he won’t stick out too much if he’s hanging around by himself. He’s just pocketing his wallet and keys when his phone chirps.
If you’re going to text me stupid things, at least send them to my personal number and not my work phone
Come out with me tonight
I want to talk
Matt flips open a map to grab the address of the park he was going to walk to and sends onward to Leon.
I’ll see you @ 7
I don’t miss being around americans and their typical refusal to accept no as an answer
You never said no
Leon doesn’t respond, so Matt takes that as a win.
Matt’s already sitting down at a bright red picnic table with a pint of whatever local beer happened to be on tap here when he sees Leon walking toward him in the late afternoon light.
If the memory of Leon’s face had snapped into perfect focus when Matt saw him across a boardroom table earlier, the rest of him blurs now when Matt sees him coming toward him. This Leon doesn’t move like the Leon in Matt’s head, and only some of it is the slight hiccup in his gait and the counterbalance of the cane in his right hand. Matt can’t describe it. Probably shouldn’t try.
Leon taps his cane against the wood when he reaches the table. It’s subtle, as much as it could be –– lacquered black, with a sort of s-shaped handle. It fits him.
“Hello, Matthew,” Leon says.
Matt smiles and tips his head at the bench across from him. “I’d pull out a chair for you to be respectful, Coach Draisaitl, but I don’t think these are the kind that move.”
Leon rolls his eyes, but he takes a seat.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Matt asks.
“Oh, uh –– no, actually. I don’t drink,” Leon says. “Anymore,” he adds, probably in response to the quirk of Matt’s eyebrow. “Turns out it’s not the greatest coping mechanism, wouldn’t you know.”
Matt nods. “Alright. My bad, man.” He pushes his glass and what’s left of his drink to the side.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Maybe I’m saving it for later.”
Leon laughs. “Okay.”
It’s awkward. Matt knows it’s awkward. Matt knows Leon knows it’s awkward. This was maybe a bad idea, except Matt also knows the fact that it’s awkward is exactly why he wanted to get this out of the way in the first place. Matt needs to––
“So, ah, what brings you here?” Leon asks before Matt can goad himself into speech.
Matt barks out a laugh. “Oh not much, just thought it’d be nice to be an Ice Bear for a while.”
“You could probably just go with Polar Bear if you’re going to anglicize it.”
“That’s much less fun,” Matt counters.
“You’re here for fun then?”
Leon gives him a Look. Matt should maybe rein it in and acknowledge he doesn’t have the upperhand in the dynamic here.
“Look, I uh,” Matt starts. “I wanna be honest, I did know you were coaching here when I signed up for the gig.”
Leon nods, but he doesn’t fill the gap Matt left for him. Best to forge ahead.
“So I know this is where your life and your career is. And I want to respect that. And I maybe should have had this conversation with you before I ever signed a contract, so sorry about that — just, know that if you tell me now that you don’t want me here, I’ll find a way to leave.”
Leon just...stares at him for a minute. Then, eventually, “Thank you. That means a lot, but I meant what I said too. I’m a professional, and you’re a professional, and whatever is in the past is in the past. We’ll do our jobs.”
“Okay then,” Matt says. “I’m good with that.”
“Besides,” Leon adds. “It’s a done deal. You are, officially, an Ice Bear.”
Leon winds up asking Matt what neighborhood he’s living in, then tells him about some of the local joints he should check out as he gets used to the city. It’s surreal.
Leon’s phone chirps and whatever it says is enough to have him climbing off the bench and grabbing his cane. “I’ve got to head out, but I’m glad we had the chance to talk. There are a couple of American guys on the team, though, you should hit them up when you have the chance – I’m sure they’d be happy to show you around.”
“You are, you know, actually going to have to learn German, though. Whatever sweet nothings you learned from me a decade ago aren’t going to help you – well, much, anyway.” He winks. Fucking winks. What?
He’s turning away to leave before Matt can get his shit together and respond. “Leon—”
Leon’s already turning around when Matt calls out. It’s with a different face than the one he was just wearing, and that shuts Matt up.
“You haven’t said it yet,” Leon says.
“You never apologized.” His voice is flat, like he’s commenting on the weather, no real emotional investment.
How’s this going to go? Matt shouldn’t be surprised. This is the conversation he was expecting to have right now.
Matt clears his throat. “Do you blame me?”
Leon tilts his head to the side, but his mouth doesn’t open.
“Do you think I did it on purpose?”
Matt wants to know the answer, maybe more than anything else he’s here to do. It doesn’t change anything about the past. He still wants to know.
Leon sighs just loudly enough that Matt can hear it across the space between them. “Welcome to Berlin, Matt.”
Leon is right, of course. It’s not half an hour into his first practice with Eisbären and Matt’s falling behind way more than he can justify as just getting used to a new team. If you have to watch what the other players are doing to know what you’re supposed to be doing, then you’re always a step behind.
"Komm schon, Tkachuk, schneller,” Matt hears from the sidelines. That one he can get from tone alone. Guess he’ll be spending his evening with some fucking Rosetta Stone or something. Matt never really thought too much about the guys on his team that didn’t know English, even when he was captain. This is probably some kind of well-deserved karma.
He’s so stuck in his own damn head that he doesn’t get his eyes up in time to see the big guy coming straight for him. Matt flies right into the boards and sinks down to his ass.
“ Ow.” That ought to be understood in any language, right?
The guy says something – hopefully ‘sorry,’ but that’s not really what he was getting from the body language – and flies off back into position. Matt’s still trying to decide whether he’s in enough pain to get off the ice.
He sees Leon down near the other end, quirking an eyebrow at him, like are you going to just sit there, or?
Matt levers himself up and skates over to the bench, leaning against the wall to catch his breath.
Becker skates over. “You alright there?”
Matt nods. “Just got the wind knocked out of me. I’ll be good to go in a minute.”
Becker looks like he’s going to tell Matt to sit out the rest of the practice, which is just the worst possible way this whole thing could go. “Seriously,” he says. “I’m fine. I’m good, I’m ready to go.”
“Okay, then, get back out there,” Becker says.
When Matt gets home that afternoon he grabs an ice pack for his ribs and downloads fucking Duolingo.
There are a couple of American and Canadian guys in the room, and Matt figures out who they are pretty fast. They’re the type of guys that probably spent a couple years in the show hovering around the third or fourth line before shipping themselves overseas – no one that Matt remembers, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t ever on the ice at the same time.
One of them comes up to Matt after the second practice of the season.
“Hey, man,” he says. “Saw Charlie knocked you down pretty good the other day, you good?”
“Yeah, uh, thanks – I’m good. It’s Davis, right?”
“Yeah, Kenny Davis. Listen, a couple of us are going out tonight. You wanna join us?”
No brainer. “Sure, man, that’d be great. Text me the details?”
They trade numbers. Matt goes out to find schnitzel, because it seems like the done thing and he’s definitely never done it before. Turns out nothing should be that goddamn good – he feels so indulgent it brings out the Catholic he buried in his closet a decade or so ago. Bless me father for I have sinned; to atone, I’ll run the entire length of the Spree.
The bar the guys chose is closer to Matt’s apartment than it is to the rink, so Matt resolves to walk for the rest of the evening, which should at least put him back on the path toward righteousness, etc, etc. The faces of the guys are just starting to look familiar, but Matt appreciates the flag down he gets from a corner booth near the back of the bar.
“Hey, man, glad you could make it,” Davis says when he gets to the table. “This is Corey, Kits, and Mac – transplants, like us.”
Weird of him to think of himself like that. It does sound right for what Matt’s feeling, though. Transplanted. “Matt,” he says. “Or Chucky, whatever you want.”
Matt finds himself looping in and out of the conversation as it goes on, notices that the guys’ll sometimes switch into German for a phrase or so before settling back into the familiar cadence of English. He tries to keep up.
The topic comes around to the injuries the guys found themselves nursing over the summer.
“It fucking sucked, I’m telling you,” the guy Davis pointed out as Corey says. “I’m never moving back into a place with stairs, just on the off chance that I screw up my ankle again. I think I slept on the couch for a week there at the beginning.”
“Chucky here has had his fair share of injuries, eh?” Mac says. “Oh, fuck, my bad – I mean he’s caused his share of injuries.” He laughs, like he’s hilarious. This is, just, exactly what Matt needed.
He pulls out a sleazy grin. “What can I say? I have a brand. It’s worked out so far.”
“That must be what you’re here for, right? Because it’s worked so well?”
“On the bright side, I think you’re probably safe, you know. Since we’re on the same team,” Matt says.
“I’ll let that bring me peace of mind.”
Matt grabs the bottle he’s been nursing all night and downs the rest. He makes himself stay in his seat for ten minutes while the conversation flows to other things then takes out his phone and scrolls through it like there’s anything more interesting than the weather app his thumb landed on first.
“I gotta head back,” he says. “Thanks for inviting me out, man,” he directs at Davis.
When he steps outside, it’s raining. He deserves it, probably.
He looks up Trevor Mackie when he gets home. He did a stint with the Oilers in the mid-20s, which just fucking figures.
Leon comes up to him after morning practice the day of their first game of the season.
“You’re not starting tonight, Matthew.”
Matt wants to be surprised. He isn’t. He’ll push it anyway. “Can I ask why?”
“You know why,” Leon says.
“Yeah. Tell me anyway.”
“You’re still running behind in practices, you don’t know the playbook. We can’t send you out into a game until we know that you know where you’re going to be.”
Matt nods. “Okay. Thanks.”
“You’re a good player,” Leon adds. “Everyone knows you’re a good player. So step it up.”
Matt’s listening. He is. But his eyes are also caught somewhere around the uncentered knot of Leon’s tie. He sees Leon’s eyes flick down to his own chest, and reaches for knot to straighten it as Matt forces himself to make eye contact again. “Got it.”
It’s his seventh – eighth? – week in Berlin, and Matt breaks a stick at practice.
He’s played three games so far in Eisbären blue. He’s scored no goals. He has one assist to his name. He’s trying to fit in with a bunch of kids, which – like, that’s been the reality for basically the last five years, is just the reality in general of playing professional sports. He’s used to it, or should be. It doesn’t fucking help.
He breaks a stick, and the way the crack of it echoes around the place is surprisingly loud. He doesn’t count the heads that turn toward him, just gets his shit together and scoops the pieces off the ice then fucks off to go find another one.
Leon grabs his arm after practice as he’s coming off the ice and snapping his skate guards on. “Care to enlighten me as to why you needed to throw a tantrum just now?”
There are lots of ways Matt could answer that. I only slept four hours last night. I think I made a mistake coming here. It’s what you expected from me, isn’t it? It made you look at me, didn’t it?
“It won’t happen again,” is what he goes with. “Intentionally, anyway.”
Leon rolls his eyes and grabs his arm again, tugging him after him until they reach a room with a door. Matt hobbles along awkwardly on his skates.
Leon makes sure the door shuts behind them, and then turns on Matt. “Okay, out with it. What is going on?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Matt says.
“Come on, I know you. I know how you play, I know how you lead, I know how you are. You’ve had a letter on your jersey for more than a decade – you know how to show up, so why aren’t you?”
Leon is his boss. Leon hasn’t talked to him in ten years. Leon shouldn’t be talking to him now like they’re old friends. They have maybe been everything in the world there is to be but friends.
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Leon. Despite appearances, I am trying my absolute goddamn best here.”
"You're supposed to lead —"
"How? How am I supposed to? I can't talk to half the guys, and the others don't trust me," Matt replies. "Everyone looks at me like I’m going to take them out at the knees—”
Leon looks up at the ceiling like he’s praying for strength from a greater power.
“I’m gonna let that one slide,” Leon says, finally. “Look, man, showing up is about more than just showing up. I don’t know what you’ve managed to get into this early in the season, but you’ve got to figure that shit out.”
Not like there’s a choice. Matt nods.
“As for the other thing...I’ll help you out. Okay?”
Leon doesn’t respond immediately. He’s got one of his hands tangled in his own hair, a quirk Matt recognizes and is perversely glad hasn’t changed.
His hand falls back to his side. “Text me,” Leon says.
“Text me. Only in German. You’ll get the hang of it faster.”
“I don’t —”
“You will,” he says, and then comes to slap Matt on the back, like any coach would to any player and which is also, just, the fucking weirdest. “Now, showers. Go.”
Matt doesn’t know why he’s surprised that Leon actually sticks with it. It’s not like he didn’t know that the tendency to reliably follow through was one of Leon’s best traits – that he had always been someone Matt could count on to be there until suddenly he wasn’t.
So they text. Not regularly – not every day, because it turns out every conversation is a goddamn slog when you have to have your translator app open at the same time. Matt can’t deny there’s a little thrill to it though, being privy to all these boring details of Leon’s life: what he had for dinner, what color tie he’s wearing that day. Any meaningless thing Matt can think of. And then he heads to the arena for game day and sees that Leon’s tie really is striped silver and blue, and it’s stupid how it makes him feel like he’s got an edge on everyone else. Very stupid.
It’s a good idea to get out of the city for awhile. Take a minute. Breathe. He rents a car and drives west for a few hours until he finds a big forest with gigantic trees that do their job of making Matt feel small.
It’s all sorts of gloomy out here, real spooky shit. A thick fog had rolled in right as Matt started to lose himself in the hike, and it bleeds to the edges of the forest in every direction, hiding the tops of the trees and the next trail marker, too. Maybe Matt should have let someone know where he was going.
Thankfully, the trail is well-kept and Matt figures as long as he keeps putting one foot in front of the other it’s very likely that he’ll be able to avoid the Blair Witch or whatever the German equivalent is.
It’s been a while since he’s gotten to do something physical that wasn’t hockey or part of preparing his body for hockey. It’s like—there was a shiny white piano that sat in the living room of his house growing up. Matt never played, but his mom did, and every now and then she would call someone and have it tuned. The pitch of the notes had changed so gradually over time that he’d never have noticed just listening to her play. But once the tuning fork was struck it seemed ridiculous that he’d ever think it sounded right. And the first song she’d sit down to play after all the keys had been tuned? Beautiful.
That’s the way he feels now. Like each of his muscles had fallen out of tune, and coming out here to push himself for the pure joy of it has reminded him what it’s supposed to feel like to use his body.
Matt climbs back in his car with a little light to spare for the day. The fog that had rolled in when he left seems to have headed in the direction of Berlin. Doesn’t look like Matt has a chance of escaping it. Matt never had, like, actual aspirations of testing out the Autobahn himself, but this doesn’t seem like the right day to break it in.
He flicks his headlights on as soon as he pulls onto the highway and hopes they can beat some of the fog out of the way. It works, mostly, until he gets closer to the city and night has well and truly fallen.
He thinks he’s missed his exit. There’s this big spider web of highways that wrap around Berlin, and his Maps app is saying that it’s not for another kilometer, but he swears to god the sign he passed just said—
Bright blue lights flicker behind him. Matt’s rolling his eyes and making his way over to the shoulder before the sirens even turn on.
He slaps on what he hopes is a charming smile and rolls down the window. This guy crawls out of a tiny little hatchback but he’s fucking massive. Jesus.
Matt scrolls down the window as he approaches.
“What can I do for you, officer?”
The man asks a question in German.
“I’m sorry, uh, I don’t – sprichst du Englisch?”
There’s definitely a “nein” somewhere in his response, but Matt catches none of the rest of it. The man keeps asking whatever it is he’s asking. Matt has literally no idea what to –
Fuck, actually, he does know what he has to do. He just doesn’t want to do it.
“Wait, uh, ein moment? One moment.” He gestures to his phone. The guy doesn’t look pleased but they’re all just going to have to weather through this together.
He dials Leon’s cell. It rings but then cuts to voicemail. Matt saw somewhere that if it only rings four times it probably means they rejected the call. Matt's never had the chance to test that theory because to be fucking honest most people don't ignore his calls.
He shoots a look at the officer, who looks like he's getting impatient. Fuck. One more try.
He finds Leon’s work number this time. Hits dial. Prays, just a little.
“Matthew. I hope you’ve got a good reason for interrupting my night.” Is he on a date? He’s probably on a date.
It doesn’t matter. “Uh, yeah, actually – can you do me a favor and tell this kind officer I’m a good, upstanding gentleman who’s never done wrong in my life? Great, thanks.”
“ Officer, Matt, what—” he pulls the phone away from his ear before he has to hear Leon’s response and offers the phone out to the man at his window. He takes it, thank god.
Matt tries to follow along with the conversation, choppy understanding of the language making it all but impossible. The officer echoes “ Eisbären ” at one point and his eyebrows raise. Matt’ll take that as a good sign. They apparently wrap up, and he gets the phone back. The officer steps away from the window and walks back toward his car.
“So, uh, that’s it? I’m good to go?”
Leon laughs so loud Matt flinches a little. “You got pulled over for going too slow on the Autobahn? ” He falls into laughter again, like he can’t fucking help himself. “Oh my god. Thank you for calling me. I’m so glad I got to be a part of this moment.”
“Hey, it’s a fucking death trap out here. And I thought there wasn’t a speed limit – isn’t that the whole point? How can there be a, whatever, reverse speed limit?”
“I’m not going to answer that. You’ve made my night though.”
“I don’t need this.”
“You clearly do, since you’re the one who called me.”
The flashing lights haven’t disappeared from Matt’s rearview mirror. Matt takes a look and sees the officer coming back toward him. “He’s coming back.”
“Uh, yeah, dumbass,” Leon says. “You’re going to get a ticket. Give him your license and insurance shit.”
Ugh. “Don’t hang up. There’s something else,” Matt says as the officer raps his knuckles on his door to get Matt’s attention. He puts the phone down.
The process is ordinary. Matt’s gotten tickets before. It’s mostly not different no matter where you are, except that he’s pretty sure he hears the guy mutter fucking Americans as he walks away.
He picks up the phone again. “Okay,” he says.
“Something else?” Leon demands.
“Yeah. I’m lost.”
Leon cracks up again.
“Listen, do you want me to get pulled over again? Help a guy out here.”
“Alright, man. Where are you?”
He keeps Leon on the phone as he enters the city, doesn’t bother to open up his map app again and just goes with the flow of Leon’s path around a city he’s clearly lived in long enough to know well. Matt trusts it, until he realizes he knows where he is and it’s not anywhere near where he should be.
“This definitely isn’t my neighborhood,” Matt says. “Am I being sabotaged?”
“No, you’re picking me up.”
Excuse me. “I’m what?”
“It’s the least I deserve for dealing with your sorry ass tonight. Now pull over when you get to the Ritz.”
Matt sees the building up ahead and pulls over into the parking lane. He can see Leon outside already, gives the horn a push. Leon looks his way and Matt waves him over.
Leon glides into the passenger seat and shuts the door behind him, resting his cane against the door. It's one of his nicer suits -- a dark blue that's barely discernible from black in the light pouring in from the street.
Matt's not going to ask. He's not going to ask. He's not going to--
"Did you just have me pick you up from a meeting with a high-end hooker?" Matt demands.
Leon's head snaps up to look at him. Matt can't read it. He can feel Leon's eyes burn into him through the heavy silence.
Then his face breaks in half and he lets out a roaring cackle that has Matt flinching back in his seat.
"Are you serious?" Leon brings up a hand to cover his mouth, then gives up on that and redirects it to wipe the tears out of his eyes. "You thought I was meeting a prostitute?"
"Listen," Matt starts.
"You thought I'd have you pick me up after meeting a prostitute?"
"Why else would you need a fancy hotel room in a city you already live in? And not even sleep there?" Matt counters.
"I was at a charity gala, dumbass."
Matt closes his eyes. “I am so—”
Leon cuts him off with another burst of laughter. “Stupid, yes, you are.” He visibly tries to get himself together. “Okay. Next time I hit up the local redlight district I’ll be sure to call you afterward.” He’s smirking. He can’t stop himself.
Matt glares. “It made sense, okay.”
“It definitely did not. Now get going, you’re taking me home. Left up there at the next stoplight.”
In the second game in December Matt scores a hat-trick against the Penguins. Well, one of the Penguins. He’s not sure which, but they were definitely wearing yellow. Come to think of it, Matt’s not actually sure he could say where either of the Penguins are from. Geography was never his strong suit. Does Germany even have penguins? He’s certainly never seen one walking around. It seems silly to name two whole teams after an animal that doesn’t even live here. Matt thinks he’d have run into a penguin — the animal, not the human — by now if they did live in Germany. Then again, Pittsburgh doesn’t seem like the native home to penguins either, so maybe Matt shouldn’t judge.
He knows where the Sharks are though. Because that’s Leon’s team. Well, not now. Not anymore. Matt is Leon’s team now.
Well. Maybe not that either.
Anyway. Matt’s got a beer to finish. He’s definitely googling the penguin thing later, though. Penguins aren’t even that aggressive, they’re like the most huggable of—
“You alright, man?”
It’s Mac. Does Mac still hate him? It’s gotta be hard to hate someone who just won you a game, right?
Matt nods. He takes a look around. It looks like most of the guys have left the bar for the night. That’s fine. They’re good guys. They deserve to go home to their wives and kids or whatever they all have here.
“Everyone head out?” Matt asks, in English. He has discovered that his grasp of German becomes much better when he’s had a certain amount of alcohol, which has been especially helpful these last few months in getting to know the boys. He thinks maybe he’s over that limit now.
“Yeah, think I’m heading home, too. Want to split a cab?”
He nods. Cab would probably be a good idea. Matt’s got an app for that. He slides his phone out. “You want me to?”
Mac laughs. “I’ve got this one.”
Now that his phone is out already, wasn’t there something he was going to do?
Ah. Yes. The penguins.
Maybe Mac would know. He grabs his arm, and Mac looks over at him. “Yeah?”
“Mac. Have you ever seen a penguin in Germany?”
Mac bursts out a laugh. Matt furrows his brow. It’s a real question.
“You know, you’re less of a dickhead than I thought you’d be,” Mac says.
“That’s great to hear, Mac, but it doesn’t answer the question.”
Mac’s phone buzzes. “Cab’s here. Let’s go.”
Number 28 is starting to piss Matt off.
Berlin’s only played the Roosters twice so far this season, but Matt's already picked up on their reputation of being, well — cocky.
Matt's got a small window to break through the neutral zone, and he does it, but after he’s gotten rid of the puck, he feels his skate catch on a stick right before he crashes down onto the ice. He wouldn’t have even known who it was if the asshole hadn’t looked back to admire his work.
He shakes it off and gets on his feet. He’s gonna bruise where his arm hit the ice but it’s nothing he can’t wait to worry about until later. The refs not calling that penalty he’ll worry about now. Well, less worry, more – fury.
The puck’s already back in their zone, so Matt heads back that way with a huff.
He gets his chance about a minute and a half later. Twenty-eight’s just crossing over the blue line with the puck and Matt’s chasing. He goes in for the hit and grabs the puck, glad that age has given him the grace not to brag.
He stops when the whistle blows. Which – seriously? What the fuck? His check was completely legal. He whips around to find the ref that called it. This is ridiculous—
He stills when he sees it. Twenty-eight’s laying on the ice, surrounded by a little crowd of away jerseys. The trainers and medical staff are already making their way out.
He looks up to see the replay on the screen overhead. He sees the way 28 fell and slid backwards headfirst into the boards with no way to stop himself. He looks away again, frozen. There’s no good direction to move in.
He can’t really help himself from turning to look for Leon’s face.
It was a clean hit. No one tries to contest that. No one stops Matt from playing the rest of the game.
They win it, but the locker room is quiet after. Maybe that stops when Matt leaves the room. He isn’t sure.
Matt’s glad the media isn’t as pervasive here. Not having to deal with anyone who has a camera right now is a relief, right up until Leon grabs his arm as he walks out of the locker room. He pulls him off into a room and shuts the door behind them in a way that is starting to become eerily familiar.
Leon doesn’t wait for Matt to react. “What made you think it was okay for you to do that here? You think that’s why we brought you here, to be a goon?”
Matt shouldn’t be surprised. He saw his face.
“It was a good hit,” Matt says, tone even.
“It was a legal hit, Leon,” Matt says. “You think I hurt him on purpose? You think I planned this?” He doesn’t wait for Leon to react either. “I’m glad you think so much of me that you really believe I’m capable of planning it out. Really – it’d be impressive, so I’m flattered.”
“You’ve played professional hockey 16 years – you’re standing here telling me you don’t know how to check someone without ending their career? I saw you hunt him down – you think I missed the tripping? You were getting revenge!”
“I don’t control everything on the ice, Leon! No one does! You’re a fucking hockey player, you know this.”
Leon doesn’t say anything. He’s looking past Matt’s shoulder at the door. “No,” he says eventually. “I’m not.”
Matt shakes his head. “You think I did this on purpose. It’s been ten years, and you still think I did it on purpose.”
Leon doesn’t answer. Matt’s done with this. He’s out the door without looking back.
It's last call and this bartender is a little nicer than most bartenders Matt's encountered, based only on the fact that he doesn't look like he's going to throw Matt out on the curb and leave him to his devices.
Maybe he knows who he is. Maybe he's an Eisbären fan -- or, hell, maybe he’s realized that Matt used to be the head of a major hockey franchise. No telling. Maybe he's just taking pity on whatever the fuck it is Matt's projecting.
"Hand me your phone," the guy says. He does, because there seems no good reason not to.
The guy grabs Matt's hand and presses his thumb to the bottom. The phone unlocks. A few seconds later he's got the phone up to his ear and he's talking in soft German. Matt doesn't try to listen in.
He gets his phone back a minute later. Matt kind of wishes he hadn’t. Might make things harder, but it would definitely make things easier.
Matt’s the only one left in the bar, looks like. It’s just him and – hmm.
“What’s your name?” Matt asks.
“Arlo,” he responds. He doesn’t ask for Matt’s.
“Arlo,” Matt repeats. “What do you know about penguins?”
“Not really my territory, to be honest.” He moves on to another glass.
“Okay, but have you ever seen a penguin here?”
“Here? In Berlin?”
“You mean the gay ones?”
“What.” Matt’s eyes widen.
“The gay penguins at the zoo?” Arlo repeats. “Yes, I’ve seen them.”
“There are gay penguins at the zoo?”
“Amazing,” Matt says. What a world.
“You think so?” Arlo asks.
“You don’t?” Matt’s going to have to take back all of his charitable thoughts about this bartender if it turns out he’s homophobic about the penguins.
“They were alright. Didn’t do much.”
“Oh,” Matt says. “I guess that’s okay then.”
The door opens then. Matt turns. It’s Leon.
He looks back at the bartender. “You sold me out,” he says.
Arlo smiles. “I’ve got to go home, man. Good luck with whatever it is you’re going through.”
Matt looks back at Leon. “Thanks,” he mutters.
Leon comes up and grabs Matt’s arm. He’s caneless tonight, Matt notices.
“Thanks for calling me,” Leon says to Arlo. Then he looks at Matt, and tilts his head toward the door. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Matt follows without a word.
Arlo cut him off quite a bit ago, so Matt’s sobering up. Not enough to think clearly, but definitely enough to know why he was drinking in the first place. Especially sitting here next to Leon as he drives through the lights of the city.
“How is he?” Matt asks.
He hears Leon take a deep breath in and out. “Okay, I think. Not much news. Definitely has a concussion.”
Matt nods. “I’ll call him. If you want me to.”
“Can we talk about this tomorrow?” Leon asks. It doesn’t sound like a question that expects an answer so Matt doesn’t give him one.
It falls quiet. That won't do. Matt doesn't need quiet right now.
"Why'd you come get me?" Matt asks.
"The bartender said I was the last person you'd texted."
Matt bobs his head. "That's embarrassing. Doesn't explain why you came though."
"I was supposed to leave you?"
Matt prevents himself from responding the way he wants to. "I am not actually your responsibility."
"You are a little bit my responsibility," Leon counters.
"I don't want to be your responsibility."
Leon huffs and tightens his hands on the wheel.
"I don't mean it like that," Matt says.
"Then how do you mean it?" Leon demands.
Matt reflects that the quiet would have possibly worked better in his favor.
“Little late to say you don’t want to be here,” Leon says, when Matt doesn’t fill the silence.
“I do want to be here.”
Leon pulls over and then raises an eyebrow at him. Matt takes a look around.
“Where are we?” Matt asks. “I thought you were taking me home?”
“I took you home. My home.”
“I’m not that far gone, man. You can take me back to my place.”
“I’ve deemed that you are a danger to yourself or to others, so you’re staying with me tonight,” Leon says. “Besides, it’s after 3am – I am not getting back in my car.”
Matt stays in Leon’s guest bedroom. He’s tired enough that it’s easy to block out all the thoughts about how strange it feels to be in the same house as Leon again, to get to see him in his own space. Matt resolves to go the fuck to sleep and deal with literally everything else later.
In the morning it’s a little harder to bury. When Matt wakes up, Leon’s not around. He can hear him walking around upstairs, and guesses he must be on a call or maybe in an office doing whatever it is people who have home offices do. He thinks it would probably be a dick move to leave without saying anything, but that unfortunately leaves him with a lot of time to walk around and see what the lower level of Leon’s place looks like.
Leon’s house in Edmonton was massive and beautiful, but he can see how this place is a better mirror of the man himself. It’s smaller and more urban, but it fits him, from the exposed brick walls to the framed geometric art hanging in the living room to the bright open kitchen and its dark countertops. More of it’s the little things. Matt’s shocked when he recognizes a photo or a book he knows was in Leon’s house ten years ago, but he’s more shocked by all the ways everything is different. He knows he shouldn’t be.
Once Matt’s snooped more than is polite, probably, and Leon still hasn’t come down, he heads to the kitchen. Breakfast is a good thank you for most things, and Matt hopes that includes drunken rescue missions.
He pulls out the ingredients for a couple of simple omelets. He’s just started whisking the eggs together when he hears Leon come down the stairs.
Leon clears his throat, which is a great way of letting Matt know he’s not going to enjoy this conversation.
“I’m making breakfast if you want some,” Matt says. “Should be ready in a few.”
“You know it’s noon, right?”
“Huh. Brunch, then.”
Leon laughs. “Yeah, okay then.”
Matt plates the omelets and slides them over to the other side of the island. He grabs a stool and joins Leon where he’s sitting.
When Leon’s finished, he turns to Matt, who’s spearing a piece of spinach. “How’re you feeling?”
“I told you I wasn’t as fucked up as you thought I was last night.”
“I’m fine. I feel gross, and also a little stupid, but I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Yeah.” Matt mindlessly taps his fork on his plate a few times while he works through his next thought. “I meant what I said. I’ll call him.”
He hears Leon sigh a lot lately. “Okay. I’ll have someone set it up.”
“You’re not going to drag me off into a room and yell at me again?”
“That,” Leon pauses and looks away. “I don’t think I can answer.”
Matt drops his fork. “Dammit, Leon. What do you want from me?”
“I want you to get your shit together. I want to know what your endgame is here. Relive the glory years?”
“I just want to play hockey,” Matt interjects.
Leon puts his hand up, like he’s trying to position himself on the defense. “I know you think I’m not looking out for you, but I am. You had a rough start here, but lately I’ve seen you go into every game and push like it’s the goddamn playoffs. Matt – it doesn’t work like that. Believe me when I say your body cannot handle it. It’s not just other people you’re hurting.”
Matt tries to reason through it. “You’re my coach, and you’re telling me to play worse?”
“I’m telling you it’s unsustainable. You came in with injuries – I know you did, and you’re not slowing down, and I think you’re trying to delay the inevitable.”
Matt had been looking down at the table, but now he raises his eyes to look at Leon. “What exactly am I delaying?”
“Matt, how long do you really think you can keep going?”
Matt doesn’t say anything. His hand has come to rub at his left wrist without his permission. He drops them, lets his hands curl into fists.
“Are you asking as my coach?” Matt asks.
“No, I’m not asking as your—” Leon cuts himself off.
“Then who are you asking as?” Matt asks. He’s looking right into Leon’s eyes. “Leon. Who are you asking as?”
Leon’s mouth is open. He’s not saying anything. But he’s looking at Matt, really looking at Matt, and Matt can’t stop himself. He grabs Leon’s neck and crashes their mouths together and let’s his mind and body connect the dots between the last time Matt got to do this and the present day. Leon is yielding, giving where Matt’s taking, and it’s maybe that thought that makes Matt jump back and turn around and grab his jacket and leave without stopping to survey the damage.
Matt has considerably chilled the fuck out by the next day — which is great, because the next day is an early practice, and Matt will by necessity need to have gotten over his shit enough to handle seeing Leon’s face.
He knows he’s not exactly been stellar at the whole facing his problems head-on thing, but he figures coffee might be a good place to start. He rolls into the practice rink a little early, two lattes in hand, and raps his knuckles against the door of Leon’s office.
“Come in,” Leon says.
Matt opens the door and hopes he’s projecting the kind of confidence that says I have never been awkward in my life. Leon already knows that’s a lie, Matt’s aware, but really it’s the thought that counts.
“Coffee?” Matt says, lifting up one of the cups. He puts it down on the desk in front of him without waiting for Leon to say anything, because it looks like he’s still pulling himself together. Or maybe just trying to figure out what Matt’s angle is here.
Matt’s trying to figure out what his angle is here too.
“It’s an apology drink,” Matt says. “For waking you up at 3am. Among, you know. Other things.”
Leon’s still looking at him like he’s harboring a secret message Leon’s trying to decode. Matt’ll give.
“I’m trying to be an adult here. This is my peace offering. Or – whatever, I don’t know. I just...don’t want to keep arguing.”
Leon nods. He grabs the drink and takes a sip. “Okay.”
“I’m, uh – acknowledging everything you said. That doesn’t mean I agree or have an answer, just. I heard it.
"Okay," Leon repeats. He sets the cup down. "Hope you're not still hungover. I'm not going any easier on you this morning, if that was your play."
Matt smiles. "Wouldn't dream of it."
Their bus is barreling toward an away game against the Haie. Matt always feels anxious when they play in Köln, for no apparent reason.
Well, no, he knows the reason. It’s a stupid reason, and not one he can hold against the city itself. It’s just the little extra effort it takes to repress the memories of the dreams of the future that Matt used to pretend to not let himself think about too hard. He’d take Leon home to St. Louis and introduce him to frozen custard and watch the Mississippi rush by from the top of the Arch, and Leon would bring him here to Köln and show him where he came from.
That never happened, obviously. All of Matt’s experiences in Köln involve this bus and the team around him, even if they do ironically still include Leon.
Leon disappears the moment they get to the arena, and Matt doesn’t see him again until warmups. He skates up to Leon between drills.
“What have you been up to?” he asks. They’re basically friends now, right? That’s what people who text each other semi-regularly and occasionally bring one another coffee are. Matt is justified in asking.
“My family stopped by,” Leon says. “I had to put in my token argument for dad to support us instead of the Haie.”
Matt laughs. “Were you successful?”
“No, but if we win it definitely improves my case”
“Well then – I’ll see what I can do.”
Leon laughs, and Matt feels it. Yeah. He’ll see what he can do.
Matt slams in his second goal of the night into the back of the net with about 10 seconds left in the third. He flies back toward his guys and lets himself get lost in the huddle as the buzzer announces their 3-2 win.
It’s later when he’s showered off and dragged his clothes back on that he realizes Leon’s disappeared again. He figures he must have bounced early to catch up with his family some more before they leave to go back home.
But then as he’s leaving the away team locker room, he hears Leon’s voice from around the corner.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” Leon says in German. Matt’s been getting better at it, enough so that he actually feels bad about how much he can understand coming through the closed door. Some of it’s still lost in translation.
“He –– your life, Leon,” the other voice responds. Matt doesn’t recognize it, but he’s got an idea of who it is.
“Oh, and the life I have now is –– ?” Leon says. “Thanks, dad, that means a lot.”
That confirms it. Matt never met Leon’s father, but they always seemed close back when Matt was around him to know that kind of thing.
“You know what I mean. It’s –– you should have to deal with this,” Peter says.
“That’s not your decision,” Leon says. “It’s my decision.”
“You mean your team’s decision.”
“You think they would have –– him if I’d said no? If I’d said he was –– ?”
“Why are you –– him? Why not make him leave?”
“Because! It’s been ten years, dad! I still –– pain every fucking day, so if I have –– over it, you can –– over it, too.”
Matt’s been frozen to the floor, kind of attached to the wall in a way that definitely makes it look like he’s doing something he shouldn’t be. His feet start to carry him away without direct permission from his brain, which is probably for the best. At least some part of him should have a sense of self-preservation.
He finds himself back on the bus just in time for it to take off back toward the hotel they’re staying at that night.
The next morning, they’re shipping out from the hotel and back to home. When Matt climbs onto the bus, Leon’s already there. He takes the seat next to him. It’ll look weird, Matt knows, but he’ll make up an excuse if he has to.
Leon looks over at him, eyebrow raised.
Leon nods, so that must be enough for him. Matt watches him settle back into his seat, eyes closed like he didn’t get enough sleep.
It’s not horrifically early as they make their way through the city, but it’s deep enough into winter that the sun is just starting to rise, the glint of it off the huge cathedral in the city kind of obscenely majestic. Matt can’t take his eyes off it until they’ve crossed the river and it’s finally out of his line of sight.
“Do you miss it here?” he asks quietly, trying to blend in with the hush of the morning.
Leon opens his eyes. “Hmm?”
“Do you wish you were still here?”
“In Köln?” Leon asks. Matt nods. “No, not so much. I love it, but I miss it less than I did when I was in Canada.”
“It’s beautiful,” Matt says.
“Yeah,” Leon says. He closes eyes again.
Matt settles back into his seat, intending to do the same. He stretches out his legs, then stops when he feels himself accidentally jostle Leon’s knee.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, folding back.
“It’s okay,” Leon says. “Don’t worry about it.”
Matt’s slow and careful to reposition himself this time.
He wants to ask. Especially after last night, he wants to ask.
“Does it still hurt?” he gets out.
“My leg?” Leon’s still got his eyes closed.
“Hmm,” he says. “Really only when it’s raining anymore.”
Matt wonders if he’s telling the truth. He doesn’t say anything back.
He’s just on the edge of being lulled to sleep by the rock of the bus down the highway when he hears Leon again: “Giving blowjobs, though – much harder now. I have you to thank for that.”
Matt snorts so loud he can feel whoever’s sitting behind him flinch. A second later, a wadded up pair of socks comes barreling at his head. Leon catches them, then turns around.
“Sorry, coach,” he hears.
Leon throws them back.
Matt literally cannot get it out of his head, that little throwaway comment. He’s going to do some dumb shit. He’s been holding back ever since his goal last night, and it’s not going away by itself, so there’s nothing left to do but wait awkwardly outside Leon’s car in the parking garage and look away suspiciously whenever someone catches his eye.
Leon comes out of the building, finally, and immediately spots Matt loitering like the dumbass he is. Leon’s eyebrows are knitted together.
“Do you need something?” he asks when he gets to the car. “A ride or whatever?”
“No, uh, I’ll catch a cab” he says.
“What if I made it up to you?” Matt’s sweating.
“Made what up to me?”
He can’t believe he’s doing this. “The blowjobs.”
Leon stares at him. Matt’s got about ten seconds left before he runs as quickly as he can in the opposite direction —
“Okay. Get in.”
Matt’s afraid to reach out and touch or say anything at all until he can convince himself that this is 100% real. That moment comes after Leon’s driven them to his house, opened the door, led him up the stairs, and closed the door behind them.
And even then —
“So,” Leon says. “Are you going to do anything, or....”
Matt nods. Yes. He closes the space between them and wraps one hand around the back of Leon’s neck. They’re so perfectly matched for each other that their noses meet at exactly the same point when they’re face to face. Matt releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
He presses their lips together.
The last kiss –– the one he stole –– was all brevity and adrenaline, no real opportunity to feel anything beyond the sensations. But this –– this he feels, and it shocks him how it’s nothing like he thought it would be.
He would have expected to feel like, fuck, like coming home or something. He would have imagined that kissing Leon now would bring him directly back to ten years ago, that it would feel familiar.
It doesn’t. Every single thing about the mouth moving against his is entirely new. The way his tongue fights against Matt’s, the edge of his teeth against Matt’s lip, the snag of his fingers in Matt’s curls. A big part of Matt wants to spend as much time as he can here, relearning everything he can about the way that Leon moves.
An equally big part of him wants to find a way to undo all the differences. He wants to somehow erase every kiss that Leon has had since the last time they did this, one by one until he figures out what it takes to stop Leon from trying to fight a battle with his body like this.
He takes the hand wrapped behind Leon’s neck and brings it forward to his face, rubbing a thumb across the bones of Leon’s cheek. The other hand skirts along the ridge of Leon’s belt before he tugs at his shirt and pulls it up from where it’s tucked into the waistline of Leon’s pants. Now he can get at the skin there, warm and just a little softer than he’s used to. He can hear Leon’s breath come out a little shakier when Matt uses his thumb to trace the vee line that leads down to Leon’s zipper.
The sun is bright enough coming in through the window that neither of them bothered to hit the lightswitch. It strikes Matt as weirdly big, doing this in the broad daylight.
Matt pulls away. “What do you want?”
The corners of Leon’s lips turn down. “This was your idea.”
Matt takes his hands off of Leon. “If you don’t want––”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Leon interjects. “Just. It’s your play. You call the shots.”
Leon looks exasperated, like getting that out was the most he could do. Okay.
“Okay,” Matt says out loud. “Lay down.”
Leon’s sheets are still rumpled back from before he left for the road trip. The dark blue looks fucking decadent contrasted with Leon’s golden skin, like whoever helped him picked him out really knew what they were doing. Maybe Matt shouldn’t think about that. Leon’s up against the pillows stacked at the head of the bed, and Matt crawls up on his knees to straddle his lap. He doubles down on the effort he was putting in before, pressing down with his whole body. He can feel Leon hard beneath him.
He paves a path downward, hand tackling the buttons on Leon’s shirt while he bites lightly at Leon’s neck, then his collar, then down to his nipples. Fuck, but he missed these. Leon has quite possibly the most sensitive nipples he’s ever had the opportunity to bite, and he’s glad he’s found something that hasn’t changed: Leon’s gasping already, his hips rocking up like he can’t help himself.
Matt lifts himself up for a moment. “You know, I’m surprised you never got these things pierced. No chance of them getting ripped out in a brawl anymore, you’d think.”
Matt laughs until Leon swats at his face.
“What?” Matt says. “I think it’d be an investment.”
“Shut up,” he says, then grabs the back of Matt’s head and brings him back down against his chest again. Matt’ll go with it.
He lets his tongue trace where his thumb was drawing lines before while his hands undo Leon’s belt. He raises his hips up so Matt can slide his clothes down and toss them off. Matt pushes his legs open wide enough that Leon can’t hide. He’s wide open on display. Matt loves it.
He licks a line all the way up his dick and listens for the hitch in Leon’s breathing before he wraps his mouth around the tip. He pops off and sucks marks into the creases of Leon’s legs, not letting up until he can feel the muscles quiver. He’s got Leon’s dick in his mouth again, working his way lower and Leon in deeper until he can take it all the way.
He surfaces for air and looks up at Leon. He’s got his eyes closed. No.
“Leon,” Matt says, wrapping his hand around Leon’s dick as an apology.
Leon’s hips thrust up. He doesn’t open his eyes.
“Leon,” Matt says again, taking his hand off. Leon finally looks up and meets his eyes. Matt reaches for his hand and leads it to his head. Leon’s fingers grab onto the curls automatically. Matt’s hips fuck forward into nothing. Fuck, he’s stll get his pants on. He’s still got his tie on. He’s so fucking hard.
“Fuck my face,” Matt says, and swallows Leon back down.
He doesn’t hold back, and Matt doesn’t hold him back either, just riding it out as Leon’s grunts get louder and the pump of his hips more erratic until he’s coming so far down Matt’s throat that he doesn’t even taste it. Matt regrets that enough that he gives the tip a parting lick when he comes back off and just deals with Leon’s warning hiss.
“Fuck,” Leon says.
“Fuck,” Matt agrees.
Matt pulls himself up so that he’s straddling Leon’s chest. He’s got his zipper down and his dick out of his pants and hand moving fast before Leon’s even caught his breath.
Leon puts a hand on his thigh. “Do you want me to ––”
“No,” Matt cuts him off. “I’m not gonna last.”
Leon’s hand sneaks under his shirt and he lets his nails bite into the skin above his hip. “You gonna come on my face?”
Matt’s breath is wrenched out of him in a gasp. “Fuck, baby, fuck, fuck.”
God, god, Matt missed this. He goes offline completely, his mind giving up on thinking thoughts for the whole minute or five that it takes for Leon to jostle him back into the land of the living with two taps against his leg. When he opens his eyes, he sees that his come didn’t make it quite up to Leon’s face. It does make a pretty picture pooling in the divots above his collar bone, though.
“Up, up,” Leon says.
“What am I, your dog?” Matt says.
“I’m not going to dignify that with a response,” Leon says.
“I think I’m the one with dignity at stake here.”
“You’re also the one crushing my ribs,” Leon says.
Laying next to each other, Matt feels a lot more aware of exactly how much more clothing he’s wearing than Leon. Leon seems to notice too. He grabs Matt’s tie in one hand.
“You really should have taken this off,” Leon says.
“Why?” Matt asks. “Suit and tie doesn’t do it for you? Make you feel too girl Friday?”
Leon flips the bottom of the tie toward him to show him where it got caught in his own crossfire. “Waste of a good tie,” he says.
“Oops,” he repeats.
You left your jockstrap here
Literally how the fuck did you leave your jockstrap here and nothing else. What possible opportunity would you have had
You’re texting me in English
Yes, to make sure you understand how not ok this is
Hey actually I do need that back
Can you bring it to practice Thursday
Fucking Leon on the regular again is maybe the best and the worst decision Matt’s ever made.
He figures if he goes into this whole thing with his eyes wide open and fully acknowledges how stupid he is, it’ll probably pay off somewhere down the line. Or at least not end like it did last time, which –– low bar.
He’s surprised how easy it is to get into the rhythm of it again. He still knows how to read Leon well enough that he knows what days he’s not going home alone. It’s not exactly picking up where they left off, but it’s –– something.
Now that he thinks about it, the last time he did this was the last time he did this. Matt’s dated a few women over the years –– hell, he’d had a ring picked out for Claire and everything –– but when it came to guys, he never had repeaters. It was fine, you know. He loved women, he loved having sex with them, and so it never really seemed worth the effort of trying to hide everything to be with a guy.
Except for Leon. That was a whole two years worth of hiding, and racking up hundreds of miles on his car, and taking red-eyes with a cap pulled down to cover his face.
Sometimes he thinks about the fight they had right before that game. The team had already been in Edmonton to play out the next few games of the series, and on the day off before their next Battle of Alberta, Matt had driven out to Leon’s house in the burbs. They’d spent the whole day together, mostly laying on the couch and icing their already-sore bodies.
Leon had cooked Matt dinner, and when they were sitting down next to each other to eat, Leon had turned to him, looking into his eyes but not saying anything. It was like he’d waited until there was something besides just each other to focus on so that he didn’t have to meet Matt’s eyes when he opened his mouth.
“So, I want you to know,” he’d said, like Matt knowing was ancillary. “I’m thinking about coming out.”
Matt had stopped chewing. “Thinking?” he’d asked.
“If we –– ah, if the Oilers win this thing, I’m definitely going to.”
“And if you don’t?” Matt had asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”
Matt hadn’t known how to respond, except: “Why?”
“I’m tired of hiding. I’m tired of other people having to hide. I want to be––”
“I’m not,” Matt said.
“I’m not tired of hiding. I’m not coming out.”
“Matt,” he’d answered. “I didn’t ask you to.”
Somehow that was worse. “If you come out, then we can’t keep doing this, Leon,” he said. “You know that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because! People will be watching you, and they’ll see me,” said Matt.
“What, you don’t want to be seen with me? Is that it?”
“No, I don’t! You do this and it’ll be the only thing you’re known for.”
Leon had scoffed. “ Wow. Thank you for laying it all out for me, Matthew. Glad to know what you think of me.”
“It’s not me, it’s ––”
“No, right now it’s you,” he’d shouted. “I’m doing this. I don’t care what you do.”
Then Matt had grabbed his shit and left. They’d only seen each other the one last time after that, in different jersey colors on the ice.
The good thing about jumping into it this time around is that he already knows that Leon doesn’t care –– that’s not a question now like it was back then, so Matt won’t get so deep into it.
The other thing, though –– the hiding. That’s still something Matt has to think about.
It’s Europe. It’s ten years later. It’s not the same anymore
Matt’s out with the boys in Berlin celebrating a big win when he gets Leon’s text asking if he’s coming over. Just, you know, throwing it out there like it’s something they’d already planned and Matt has disappointed him already by being late.
Like. Obviously the answer is yes, but Matt’s going to wait at least 8 minutes before responding, just out of spite.
He orders a cab in the meantime, though.
When he’s dropped off at Leon’s door, he realizes he forgot to respond. Whoops. Well, Leon will get the message anyhow. He knocks.
A very grumpy face answers the door.
“Special delivery,” Matt says.
“I definitely didn’t order this,” Leon responds.
“But you did,” Matt says, and pushes the door the rest of the way open. “Do you have snacks?” He heads straight for the kitchen.
“Are you drunk?” Leon asks.
Matt wiggles his hand. “So-so. Not, like, whiskey-dick drunk, don’t worry.”
“We’re not hooking up if you’re drunk.”
Matt turns around and shoots him a look. It might be a little pathetic, he’s not sure.
“Do you want me to leave, then?”
Leon scrunches his eyebrows together. “No –– no, you can stay if you want.”
“Good, because I am too hungry to walk back to my apartment from here.” He opens another cabinet drawer, but there’s nothing here calling his name.
“What are you looking for?” Leon asks.
“Do you have anything in this house that isn’t healthy?”
“As your coach, I’m obligated to say no.”
“As my sex friend, you’re obligated to reveal your secrets,” he counters.
Leon laughs, a surprisingly bright thing in the dark of the house this late at night. “Okay, I’ll cave.”
Matt convinces him that it’s socially acceptable to mix Doritos in with the popcorn directly. Maximum efficiency.
They head to the couch and Leon grabs the remote. He flips it around in his hands, like maybe he’s the drunk one and he’s somehow forgotten how to work a TV. Eventually, he clicks it on and flips to the sports channel.
“Oh hell no,” Matt says.
“Excuse me?” Leon says.
“Nope,” he says, and grabs the remote out of Leon’s hand. “We’re watching Animal Planet.”
Leon clearly needs to be bullied out of whatever awkward mood he’s in. Matt hits play, then steals the popcorn bowl before sliding to the side and laying his head down in Leon’s lap.
“What are you doing?” Leon asks.
“I’m getting comfortable. Look, see, you can still reach the popcorn and everything,” Matt says. “Besides, this is the best pillow in the house, and I deserve to be pampered.” He gives Leon’s thighs two pats, then focuses on the show.
“You did do good tonight,” Leon concedes.
“I know! Eisbären prevails again,” Matt says. “And look! It’s us.”
He gestures to the TV, where three very fat polar bears look like they’re auditioning for a Coca-Cola commercial. “So...fierce,” Leon says.
“That’s what I’m saying! What is it with all these….lame-ass animals in this league? Chickens? And penguins, so many penguins. I’m going to make the sweeping argument here that poultry are just –– not that intimidating. Except emus, maybe.”
“I’ll be sure to bring that up with the league.”
“Please do,” Matt responds. “Do you think the polar bears will meet some penguins?” He points at the TV, just so it’s clear, you know, which polar bears he’s talking about.
“No,” Leon says.
Matt swivels his head to look up at Leon. “You don’t know that.”
“I do, actually,” he says, flicking Matt’s ear. “Penguins and polar bears don’t live in the same place.”
“Uh, dude, they both live in the snow.”
“Impossible,” Matt says. He takes his phone out to google this shit.
One minute later: “This is ridiculous.”
Leon laughs at him.
“They’re always in the same part of the zoo!” Matt says.
Leon just laughs harder.
“We should go to the zoo,” Matt says. Leon stops laughing to raise an eyebrow at him. “Come on! I’ve been meaning to go, you know, to see the penguins. You should go with me.”
“Will it get you to stop bringing up the damn penguins?” Leon asks.
“There’s a possibility.”
Leon sighs, but he doesn’t say no, which Matt is going to take as a yes. He settles back into Leon’s lap.
It is very soft. Not, like, in a mean way. Just –– the perfect amount of soft. Matt may nuzzle down a little.
“Can you, uh –– not snuggle my dick?” Leon asks.
Matt looks up innocently. “Was I? Oops.”
Leon rolls his eyes a little and uses his hand to gently hold Matt’s head in place. Matt smiles.
As they watch the polar bears trot their way about the Arctic, Leon winds his fingers through Matt’s curls and pulls, just a little.
The blowjob Matt visits upon him the next morning is enough to get Leon to stick to his word. They’re both bundled up and rocketing along the railway toward the Berlin zoo by about noon.
“It’s fucking freezing,” Matt says when they step outside the station. At least it’s sunny out.
“This was your idea,” Leon says. He doesn’t look like he’s bothered by the cold.
“I might have forgotten it’s February,” Matt admits.
“Too late now,” Leon says. “You’ve already dragged me out here, so you’re committed.”
With the hand not holding his cane, Leon grabs his hand to tug him toward the entrance. He lets go when they reach the counter and Matt sticks both of his hands back in his pockets.
Once they’ve gotten their tickets and made their way past the gate, Matt flaps the map open. and plots out his attack. “Aquarium,” he says. “That’s got to be indoors, right? And heated?”
“Lead the way,” says Leon.
They wind up on a bench in front of a set of darkened tanks, watching blobs of jellyfish float through the water. It looks peaceful. Matt thinks he’d be okay if he were a jellyfish instead of a person, though he’d probably pick a bigger body of water.
A very nice thing about it being cold as hell is that they’re the only ones in the entire room, if you don’t count the fish.
“So,” Matt starts. “I realized something the other day. About you.”
“And what’s that?”
“You never came out.”
Leon lets out a short laugh. Matt can hear the bitterness.
“Yeah, didn’t really seem like there was a point, you know,” Leon says. “I wasn’t a public figure anymore, so it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
“That’s what it was about then?” Matt asks.
“Was what about?”
“You were only coming out to make a point? To leave a legacy, or whatever.”
Leon sighs. His eyes are following one of those blue Dory fish with the yellow and black stripes around a tank across the room. “Why are you even asking?”
Because we’re doing this again. Because I want to know what it meant to you.
“Maybe I’m thinking about coming out,” Matt says.
Leon looks over at him, surprised, but he nods after a minute.
“So was that all it was?” Matt asks.
“Well, no. But I get a lot of the other good parts now anyway,” Leon says. “I’m not exactly in the closet here.”
“No, I mean –– it’s not like I sit down with everyone new and tell them I’m gay, but most people already know for the most part. I don’t hide it.”
“Huh,” Matt says. “I guess I’m just surprised, you know. That you didn’t decide to go public with it eventually. It would have been a big deal.”
“I was kind of busy with other things there for a while, so.”
“Yeah.” Matt’s maybe pushing the envelope too far at this point. “I just figured with me out of the picture it would have been easier.”
Leon whips his head around to stare at Matt. “What does that mean?”
Matt shrugs. “I know I wasn’t stopping you from doing what you wanted to, but I had hoped I was at least a consideration.”
Leon scoffs. “Are you serious?”
Matt shouldn’t have brought this up. It’s like a hole he can’t help but keep digging deeper––
“Matt, you’re the whole goddamn reason I was going to come out,” Leon says. It’s loud in the relative quiet of the room. “All that other stuff, sure, but I never felt like I needed to until I had you –– until I had a reason to want to be in a real relationship without having to deny anything to anyone.”
“What the fuck,” Matt says. “No, you were going to leave me.”
“You think I really wanted to?”
“No, I think you wanted to do it so you could be noble. ”
“What does that mean?” Leon demands. “Is this why you crushed me into the boards the next day? You just hated the idea of me putting anything else in the world before you?”
Matt stands up and walks out of the room. He doesn’t stop until he’s past the doors to the outside. He takes a minute to breathe the cold winter air into his lungs. He runs a hand through his hair roughly and curses when his hat falls off.
He’s bending down to pick it up when the door opens behind him. He pulls the hat on awkwardly before crossing his arms.
“I can’t believe you still think I did it on purpose,” Matt says. He makes sure Leon is looking right at him. “How do you fuck me when you think I did it on purpose?”
Leon lets out a gust of air. “I don’t know,” Leon says. Matt takes a step back, the first of many steps he’ll trace back out of the zoo and back to his apartment and maybe even back to America.
But Leon grabs his arm and stops him. “I don’t –– I don’t think you did it on purpose. I’m sorry for saying that. I shouldn’t have.”
Matt doesn’t say anything for a few moments, just searches Leon’s face like he’s ever actually been able to tell what Leon’s feeling.
Eventually he sighs and says, “Come on. we’ve got a whole zoo to see. I’m not leaving without seeing these gay penguins.”
Leon falls into step with him. “You know, they once stole a baby from another penguin,” he says.
Matt laughs. “You’re lying.”
Funny, Matt thinks as they wind their way through the park, that it doesn’t feel quite as cold anymore.
Brady’s in San Jose these days, soaking up that California sunlight. They try to Facetime each other whenever they have days off that overlap and allow for the 8-hour time difference. His daughter’s two –– no, three now, and Matt’s never wanted his nieces and nephews to grow up not knowing who he is.
“So, what’s the news?” Brady asks. He’s got Layla on his lap, bouncing her gently.
“Hmm? No news,” Matt says. “Have you guys found your dream house yet?”
“No, we’re still looking. Hally’s with the realtor right now, actually.”
Brady only put on the Sharks jersey this past summer, but his contract’s good, tight –– Matt can see him staying there for awhile, maybe even until he retires, and he knows Brady and Hally are thinking the same thing.
“Have I mentioned how damn jealous I am? California, are you serious?”
“What do you have to be jealous of? You never had to move three times in five years,” Brady counters. The words could be bitter, but they’re not –– he sounds pretty happy with the way things have gone. “Anyway, I know you’re dodging. You’ve got news, I can tell.”
“Yeah, and how’s that?”
“You look all wild around the eyes,” he says, and Layla giggles at him.
Matt narrows his eyes in response. “They are not wild.”
“They are, and you’re hiding something,” Brady says. “Isn’t he, Layla?”
She nods enthusiastically.
“ Wow, Lays, I thought we were buds. I can’t believe you’d turn on me like this.”
She giggles and hides her face in her dad’s shirt.
Matt laughs and rolls his eyes. “I’m not hiding anything. I might be, uh –– seeing Leon again. But I wasn’t hiding it. I just didn’t think it was worth saying anything.”
Brady’s face falls. “‘Seeing’?”
“It’s nothing serious.”
“That doesn’t actually make it better,” Brady says.
That stops Matt. He looks off to the side of his screen for a second before facing the camera again.
“I need to know why you’re so mad about this. Because if it’s about the gay thing ––”
“Matt, of fu––” he cuts himself off and puts his hands over Layla’s ears. “Of fucking course not.”
“Because it’s a terrible idea!” he says. Layla has escaped his hands and crawled down off his lap. He can see her toddling around in the background. “I know you don’t like acknowledging it, but you’re an actual adult now.”
“And you’re fucking around? With your coach? ”
Matt rolls his eyes. “I’ve known him for more than a decade, it’s not like he’s going to take advantage of me.”
“Do you know how much you’re actually putting at risk here?”
“Brady. I’m an “actual adult” now. I know exactly how little of my career I have left to risk.”
That shuts Brady up for a minute. Matt lets the quiet settle, just watches Layla in the background throwing around huge duplo blocks. He’s pretty sure that’s the set he gave her last Christmas.
Eventually, Brady speaks up again. “That’s not the only thing at risk, though.”
“Sure,” Matt says.
“I mean it, Matt. I know I didn’t….I wasn’t there when it was happening. But I was there after, and I know what you were like, and I know what happened to him. All I’m saying is there’s no way something that ended that way can just be ‘nothing serious.’ Even ten years later.”
Matt lets out a breath. “Thanks for the warning, but it’s fine. It’ll be fine. I’m here for awhile, and I’m going to enjoy it while I have it.”
“Alright then,” Brady says.
“Now bring me back my niece before I hang up on you.”
Brady laughs, but gets up obligingly to scoop up Layla from the floor. “Say bye to Uncle Matt, sweetpea.”
“Bye-bye!” she shouts, not waiting for Matt to respond before she clambers back off her dad and onto the floor. Brady smiles and shrugs, like what are you going to do? Kids.
Brady’s a good dad. Matt always knew he would be.
“Alright then. Good to catch up,” Matt says.
“Oh –– before you go,” Brady says. “You should give mom and dad a call. It’s been getting…”
“He’s been getting worse?” Matt asks.
Damn. He’d thought the last round of chemo had been good, that it had worked. Dad had looked some much more alive when Matt was there over the summer. Better than he had in years.
Matt sighs. “Okay. I will. Tell Hally I’m sad I missed her.”
“Will do,” Brady says. He signs off with a wave.
Matt closes the laptop. He looks around his apartment. The decor all came with the place, everything down to the duvet on his bed and the framed art on the walls. There’s nothing of Matt in the color of the paint or the magnets on the fridge. The only thing he’s added, really, is the clutter on the table and the shoes scattered around the entryway.
It’s late. He has practice tomorrow. He should sleep.
Matt knocks on the door to Leon’s office after practice.
“Come in,” Leon calls out. He likes to think he’d shown considerable restraint by knocking and not just barging in like he wanted to, but from the quirk of Leon’s eyebrow he seems to disagree.
“What are you up to?” Matt asks. He kicks the door shut behind him and takes the chair across the desk from Leon.
Leon tilts his laptop toward Matt to show him what looks like a dozen tabs of scouting reports. “Mmm, paperwork. That’s sexy.”
Leon rolls his eyes. “Was there something you needed?”
“This is a pleasure visit, not a business one,” Matt says.
“Get out of my office.”
Matt pouts. He hasn’t actually been in here much at all, but it’s very nice. All glass on the back wall, overlooking the nearby park. It looks very...official.
“So, Brady figured out what’s going on. With us, I mean.” Matt extends his leg out underneath the desk. He lets his foot bump against Leon’s, then slowly lean into the caress of their legs against each other. “He said I should be worried you may take advantage of me.” Matt tilts his head down and looks up through his lashes.
Leon looks up from the monitor and stares at Matt, unmoving. Then––
He shakes with laughter, kicking Matt’s foot away from his under the desk. “Oh my god, are you serious? You’re really trying to use that as a line?”
Matt pouts harder. “Come on! It’d be hot.”
“You thought bring up your brother was the right way to get me to fuck you in my office?” He grins. “Which is not going to happen, by the way, so you can shelve that fantasy now.”
“Why? I can be quiet,” Matt says.
A knock comes at the door. Coach Becker pops his head in. “Got a minute, Leon?” he asks in German.
“Yeah, of course,” Leon says. “Matthew was just on his way out.”
Matt levels a glare at him. “I’d like to revisit this conversation sometime in the future,” he says. “Coach Draisaitl.”
He tosses a wink in Leon’s direction before heading out the door.
Ten minutes later, as he’s on the train back to his apartment, his phone dings.
Worrying about getting caught is half the fun
I’m coming over. Order Indian.
“You took off the tie,” Matt complains.
“I am not here to roleplay,” Leon says. He’s still got on the button-down shirt and slacks, so it could be worse.
“Then why are you here?” Matt flicks at his chest, but pulls the door open so he can come in.
“No idea,” Leon says. “Could just be your wonderful company.”
“Now I know you don’t mean that,” Matt says. He feels keyed up already.
Matt grabs the sides of Leon’s coat and presses him back against the closed door before catching Leon’s bottom lip with his teeth. He hears Leon’s cane clatter the floor as his hands come up to grasp and Matt’s sides. Matt deepens the kiss for a second or two longer before pulling away and stepping back. Leon’s looking at him like he’s hungry.
“So,” Matt says. “Food first or sex first?”
“Matt, we are adults.”
Matt nods and adds a little space between them as Leon takes off his winter gear and hangs it all up on the coat rack near the door. “Right,” he says. “And that means....”
This was always his favorite thing, when he was fucking a guy. He didn’t get to do it very often. Most of his hookups with men were pretty quick, casual –– tit for tat handjobs or blowjobs, sometimes tucked away in bathroom stalls or sometimes pressed up against apartment walls, but very rarely in a bed, and very rarely with enough time or familiarity to ask for what he wants, which is: Leon underneath him, Leon’s hard dick nestled up inside him, Leon’s hands palming his ass as he screws himself down over and over.
Most sex is good. Most sex with Leon is amazing. This, though –– he loves being able to set the rhythm, to take exactly what he wants without having to feel guilty about not giving enough back. He gets off on the mindfuck of it, really. It’s his play. He’s calling the shots, he’s completely in control of how tight his body is around Leon, how quickly his hips rise and fall as he rides him, how much of his weight Leon takes. It’s a real fucking power trip, having Leon’s dick inside him and getting to do whatever the hell he wants with it, really.
He can tell Leon’s on the edge. Matt’s gentled the rise and fall of his body to a slow roll. Leon’s breathing heavy now, his hands skating down from Matt’s ass to the crook of his knees, like he’s looking for something to hold onto.
“You gonna hold on for me, baby?” Matt says.
Matt clenches down and Leon cuts himself off on a gasp. It was an accident, but Matt does it again, just to feel the way Leon’s hips pulse up beneath him.
“Hold on for me,” Matt says, and lets himself build up to the pace his body wants again, does exactly what he wants with Leon’s dick, and just makes him take it as Matt gets lost in it all. He’s got one hand on Leon so he can feel how tight his muscles are contracting and another around his own dick, and that’s all it takes.
“Fuck, fuck, Matty,” he hears, but his eyes are closed, and he’s still riding his own wave, so he lets Leon take what he wants too.
After, he slumps down onto Leon’s chest and lets their sweat and body heat mix together as their breathing evens back out. Matt keeps his apartment pretty cool all year round, and he can feel it now clinging to skin now that he’s a body at rest. It makes him want to throw back the blankets and snuggle up and maybe wait out the whole winter. It’ll be spring soon, he knows, so it’s really not all that big of an ask, is it?
He breathes in deeply where his nose is still buried in the skin at the crook of Leon’s neck and shoulder, and he catches it between his teeth in a parting bite before pulling off of Leon entirely.
“Stay here, clean up if you want.” He jerks a thumb at the en suite. “I’ll be back in a few.”
“Uh, okay,” Leon replies as Matt’s pulling his boxers back on. He still looks a little punchdrunk. Matt smiles.
Matt heads to the bathroom off of the living room and cleans himself off a little bit, enough that he’s not a walking biohazard. Then he heads to the kitchen. He’d never got around to putting the food in the fridge to keep, so it’s still sitting out on the kitchen counter. He pops most of it in the microwave to reheat a little bit and slides the naan into the oven to toast. A red would be good with this, he thinks, before remembering that Leon doesn’t drink. He grabs a couple cans of LaCroix from the fridge instead.
He brings it all into the bedroom with him, where Leon seems to have availed himself of the washroom. He’s back in an undershirt and looks like he was searching for the pants Matt threw somewhere over into the corner.
“No need to get dressed on my account,” Matt says. “Come, get back in bed.”
“That’s going to make a mess,” Leon says. “Sure you don’t want to eat at a table like a normal person?”
“I don’t feel like getting out of bed,” Matt says. “And it’s not like I can’t replace it if I need to.”
“Ah, yeah, I’d forgotten. You’re still rolling in that NHL money,” Leon says.
Matt shrugs and tears off a piece of naan to dip into the saag paneer. He tears off another piece and hands it to Leon.
Leon takes over a bowl of korma for himself. “You gotta share that,” Matt says.
“Hmm, we’ll see.”
Matt scoffs. “I invite you into my bed. I feed you. And this is what I get.”
Leon catches the sauce from around the rim of the bowl on his finger and then sticks it into Matt’s mouth. “Shut up,” Leon says. In Matt’s opinion, it’s a little redundant since he can’t talk with his mouth full anyway.
Matt likes this. It’s easy. It hasn’t felt this easy in a decade. The casual touches and light conversation, the way Matt still feels full-body exhausted and sated all at the same time.
Matt’s not sure if he’s ruining all that or paying homage to it when he speaks.
“You know, when you won the cup,” Matt hesitates when he sees Leon draw back automatically. But he keeps going. “When you won the cup, I was watching. I was still in Calgary.”
“I never won the cup,” Leon says.
Matt shakes his head. “Please, just –– let me say –– I was watching. And I saw you raise it up, and what your face looked like –– I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Leon’s looking at him, but he doesn’t say anything this time.
“So I got really drunk and tried to sleep it off, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t get your face out of my head. So in the morning when I was sober enough I got in my car and I drove up to Edmonton.”
Leon nods and looks away, off past the still-open door and into the hallway.
“But by the time I’d gotten there, you were already gone,” Matt finishes.
Leon looks back at him now. “What were you going to say?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
Leon looks into his eyes. Matt’s not sure what he’s searching for, or if he finds it.
Leon reaches over to the nightstand to grab his drink and take a sip. He puts it back down. Eventually, he looks back up at Matt.
“I should go,” he says. “I’ve to get to the practice rink early tomorrow.”
Maybe Matt went too far. “Sure, yeah. I mean, you’re welcome to stay, obviously. We could go in together.”
“No, I’ve got to get a change of clothes and everything. It’ll be easier to just get back tonight.”
“Alright,” Matt says. “Let me walk you out.”
“No, that’s –– it’s fine,” Leon says as he’s pulling his clothes back on. “You said you didn’t want to get out of bed. You should stay. I know the way out.”
“Okay,” Matt says. Dammit. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Matt,” Leon says. Matt listens for the snick of the front door closing and sighs when he hears it.
Matt thought maybe Leon would add a little bit of distance between them after that, but Leon doesn’t really act like anything big happened at all. He doesn’t bring it up –– never asks what Matt would say now, even if he didn’t have the words for it ten years ago. But he also doesn’t...punish Matt for it, or whatever. He’s still in his bed as often as he was before, and still in his face every day at practice.
Matt spends some time after an early afternoon practice in the gym today. He used to go through yearly cycles with what he was lifting –– a little more in the summer when he was able to bulk up and rest his body, a little less toward the end of the season when his muscles were getting tired and overworked. That’s how it was, anyway, for the first decade of his career. These days it’s less of a cycle and more of a realization every few months that he needs to take another few pounds off the bar if he doesn’t want to hurt himself.
He sighs and gets up to adjust the weights.
“Need a spotter?”
Matt turns toward the door to the gym to see Leon in athletic leggings and a pullover. He’s got his cane in his right hand.
“You sure?” he asks. Leon doesn’t really bring the cane around the rink with him all that often. This may be the first time he’s seen it with him in the training area of the complex.
Leon follows his eyes, then looks back at where Matt’s sliding the weight off the bar. “It’s just a little stiff today. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay then, sure.”
Matt finishes making the adjustments and locks the new weight in place. He waits for Leon to take his place at the head of the bench and then lifts it off the rack and brings it down to his chest. It’s better, as much as he hates to admit it.
“How many sets have you done already?” Leon asks.
“You want to go for another eight?”
“That was the plan,” Matt says.
Between sets four and five, while Matt’s catching his breath, he sits up on the bench and swings around, straddling it the wrong way.
“You’re sure it’s alright?” he asks.
“My knee? It’s fine,” Leon says.
“I’ve just never seen you use the cane around the rink,” Matt says.
“I don’t usually use it while I’m here,” he says. “It’s not really, you know, ice-compatible. And I don’t need it all the time.”
“But you needed it today?”
Leon looks a little caught. “Yeah, I, ah –– probably overdid it a little bit the last few days, or tweaked something. It’s not bad. I’m just taking it easy for a little bit.”
“Ready for your next set?”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
Eventually Matt finishes up and moves on to another machine, and Leon starts his own upper body workout. It’s getting pretty late in the day, and the post-practice crowd slowly dwindles as Matt puts his body through its paces. He can feel himself approaching the point of diminishing returns at a certain point and starts to wind down.
Dabbing sweat off his forehead, he walks over to where Leon is still working. He takes a quick look around to make sure no one’s still around before talking.
“I was serious, you know,” Matt says.
“About?” Leon grunts out.
“The coming out thing.”
Leon’s eyebrows raise, and he lets the pulley system lower the weights back down. “At what scale? Is this something I need to bring our PR folks into?”
“No, uh,” Matt hadn’t thought too far into the particulars, but he thinks that’s probably not what he wants right now. Not all in. “I don’t think that’s necessary for now. Maybe just the team? What do you think?”
“I mean, it’s a very personal decision. Does it really matter what I think?”
Matt wants to feel some way about the way he phrases that, but he pushes it aside for now. “You’re out here, kind of, right? All I’m asking is –– is it worth it? Would everyone be cool about it?”
Leon shrugs. “Yeah. Yeah, I think you’d be alright,” he says. “But Matt, you’ve gotta know there’s no promise it wouldn’t get out there. Open secrets aren’t really secrets.”
Matt nods. “Yeah, of course. I think I’m okay with that.”
Leon smiles. “Okay then.”
“Thanks. You know.”
“For what?” Leon asks.
“For answering my questions. For doing it first. I don’t know.”
Leon nods, then stops. “Matt, you know you can’t tell them about us, right?”
Matt wasn’t going to, but he feels some kind of shame anyway. “No, of course not.”
“That would be…” too real? Too honest? Not honest enough?
Matt knows he’s not being fair here. “Yeah, no, I get it. You know I wouldn’t do anything to put your career in jeopardy. I told you that when I first got here.”
“Right,” Leon says. “Thanks.”
Now is probably a good time to leave the conversation if he wants to salvage some dignity. “I’ll see you later,” Matt says.
He turns to leave, but Leon stands up and grabs his arm. “You really never came out to your teammates in Calgary?”
Matt lets out a breath. “No.” He waits for Leon to let go of him, and sits on the machine across from Leon. “No, I mean a few people knew, over the years. Johnny. Hanny. But most people come and go, you know. It wasn’t really worth it to roll the dice.”
Leon nods. “I get that. Sounds lonely, though.”
Matt shrugs. “It felt worth it? At the time. I mean, I was captain –– one with kind of a shitty reputation for a while. And I didn’t want them to have a reason to see me as anything other than worth the title.”
Leon’s got that hard glint in his eyes again. The one Matt’s tired of seeing. “And you think being bi makes you less worthy of being a leader?”
“You’ve got to stop putting words in my mouth,” Matt stands up and starts to walk away.
Matt stops and turns around, raising his eyebrows. “What?”
Leon’s looking down at his hands. He looks back up at Matt after a moment, and says “I don’t know why I said that. I’m sorry.”
“Are you, like, pissed for some reason that I’m less gay than you?” Matt asks. “Is that it?”
“God, no, Matt,” Leon says. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Matt crosses his arms. “I’d appreciate it if you figured it out.”
Leon nods, but doesn’t add anything. He’s looking back down at his hands.
Matt sighs. “No. I don’t think it makes me less of a leader. But I know that’s the way some people would have seen it, and you can’t deny that.”
“No,” Leon answers.
“And to be honest, I’m not sure it would have been the same for you. I’m not sure you’d ever have been able to get it.”
“Why?” Leon looks like he’s physically holding himself back from getting defensive this time, which Matt takes a moment to appreciate.
“Because when you left the game, you were at the top,” Matt says. “You were so good. I know you always had a weird back-and-forth with McDavid, but no one can dispute your talent.”
“Is there a point here?”
“The point is that I never had that guarantee, Leon,” he says. “I was never as good as you. And sometimes I felt like I didn’t deserve it in the first place –– the captaincy, and most of the rest of it. I worked my ass off, and I know you did too, but –– it would have worked out for you. I know it would have. If you’d stayed in the game, and if you’d come out, you’d have been fine. I just don’t think I ever got to that point, you know. I didn’t want to do anything that would make them take the C away from me, or trade me, or worse –– whatever.”
“Well,” Leon says. “I guess we’ll never know.”
Matt breathes in and out slowly. He doesn’t want to lash out. That’s useless.
“I don’t mean that –– as an accusation. It just is what it is,” Leon clarifies.
Matt nods, then shrugs. “Well, it’s not like I ever led them to a cup anyway, so what does it really matter.”
“Matt, that’s not your fault.”
“I’d be a real shit player if I didn’t admit it was at least a little bit my fault, eh?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer, just walks back over to Leon to squeeze his shoulder before backing off toward the exit again. “Good talk, coach.”
“See you later, Matt,” Leon calls out as Matt makes his way to the showers.
Matt’s not going to get everyone in a room and try to wrestle his way through some formal announcement that would be hard to say out loud even in his own native language. He lets it come up more organically –– an offhand comment about some guy on the other side of the bar, a story about a wild hookup from a few years back that ended up with him falling down the stairs and almost getting a concussion.
Everyone seems to accept it with little fanfare, probably just taking his lead. He gets a few looks. He doesn’t tell anyone to hide it, because honestly he doesn’t want it to seem like it’s important. If it’s not a big enough deal to hide, then it’s not a big enough deal to tell. And if he’s wrong? Matt will just figure out how to live with it.
He sees Leon catching his eye in the locker room a lot more often, like he’s checking in to make sure Matt’s okay. Matt’s gotten in the habit of staring back unblinking until Leon looks away. It’s fun, and also has the added benefit of reminding Leon that he’s the one that didn’t want people to know there’s anything between them, and staring at Matt in the locker room isn’t a super great way of making sure that stays under wraps.
The whole thing does remind Matt of what Leon had said that day at the zoo, though –– that he’d only decided to come out in the first place because of Matt. It’s impossible to believe, really, since he’d been so ready to let Matt go. He doesn’t know what to think about it –– can’t really think of a reason why Leon would make that up, now, years later.
He’s not willing to commit to believing that. He can’t. So he thinks about it as a hypothetical: if Leon was telling the truth, then what would that mean?
It would mean Leon did want Matt to come out with him, almost certainly. It would mean that he was hurt when Matt refused to. That he’d wanted to call whatever it is they’d been back then by a real name, defined in a way they could explain to other people. It would mean Leon saw a future for the two of them, somehow, 300 kilometers apart on warring teams in a place neither of them would call home a decade later.
It would mean Leon had loved him.
Matt has intentionally avoided talking to his agent for the last few weeks. It’s not a great approach, he knows. Not talking about the end of the season and the end of his contract doesn’t actually slow down how quickly it’ll all be here.
Which is why he bucks it up and answers Farrah’s call. The first playoff series is starting in a few days, and Matt has to get it out of the way now if he doesn’t want to be stuck dreading this stuff all the way through the post-season but unable to devote any attention to it.
“Ah,” she says when he picks up. “It’s so good to hear you’re still alive, Matthew. I’d begun to wonder.”
“Yeah, uh, sorry about that,” he says. “At this point in my career, I think maybe we should both learn to accept that I may forget some things.”
“That better be a retirement joke and not a concussion joke, or we’ll need to have words,” she says.
“I’ll leave it open to interpretation,” Matt says. “So, what do you have for me? I wanna get through the hard shit first.”
Farrah’s been his agent for the last eight years, and he trusts her to help him make the right decision, but that doesn’t make the deciding part any easier.
“You’re not going to be surprised at any of the options on the table,” she says. “I know you didn’t want to go back to the NHL last time we talked, but you know there are a couple teams
that would pay league-minimum to have you on their roster for a year.”
“Yeah? Anaheim still on that list?”
“They are,” she confirms. It’s an interesting idea. Finishing out everything on the west coast, just a couple hours’ drive from Brady and Hally. Getting to see Layla grow up. “Winnipeg and Chicago too.”
Winnipeg’s a hard no. He did his time braving the cold winters of Canada, and he’s just extremely not interested in an encore performance. Chicago’s a little harder to dismiss. He’d be pretty close to home. Close to Taryn and the kids. Close to dad.
“Anything else?” he asks.
“Well, do you like where you are?”
Matt doesn’t answer immediately. He’d honestly been trying not to think about it –– he wasn’t sure they’d be putting another offer on the table. He’s kind of surprised they did.
“Berlin wants me for another season?” he asks. Better to have it straight.
“Yeah. It sounds like your old rival weighed in pretty heavy on it. They’d sign you for another year if you wanted to do it,” she says. “It’s less money than your other options, but I’m sure you already know that.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Wait. What?”
“It’s a little more than you made this year, around ––”
“No, not the money, I mean –– Leon? Draisaitl, he vouched for me?”
“I mean, I didn’t talk to him directly, but that’s the idea I got, yes,” she says.
That –– changes things. Does it? He needs to think about this. He needs to talk to Leon.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t have an answer right now.”
“Matt, we don’t have a lot of time left on most of these offers.”
“I know, I know –– and thank you, you’ve been great as always, I just. I need to think about this for a little bit, and I’ll get back to you soon.”
“Alright. Give me a call.”
“Will do,” he says, and hangs up.
He’s grabbing a jacket and heading out the door as soon as he hangs up. He jumps on the train headed toward Leon’s place. It’s a familiar ride. He never bothered getting a car, because he didn’t know how long he’d be here in Germany and people don’t know his face here like they did in Calgary. Nobody recognizes him, so it’s easy to just fade into the crowd, anonymous. He’s just another guy going from point A to point B on a chill Tuesday night.
He could text Leon to let him know he’s coming. He has time. But he’s already on his way, and he doesn’t want to get told no at this point. So instead, he waits out the ride in stillness, and climbs off the train at his stop.
Leon’s place is only a block or so away from the station. The sidewalks thawed earlier this week from what feels like the last storm of the season. It’s still wet out from the melting slush, but the walk is easy, and Matt finds himself at Leon’s door way quicker than he wanted to be when he’s still thinking about why he came all the way out here in the first place.
He hears Leon’s socked feet pad up to the door and undo the lock. He opens the door. His face is some weird cocktail of worry and annoyance.
“Matt, what are you doing here?”
“Can I come in?”
The look on his face doesn’t change, but he opens the door anyway, and Matt toes off his shoes and follows Leon into the living room. He’s got old reruns of The Great British Bake-off paused on the television screen. Matt takes the cushion closest to the door, and Leon lowers himself down onto the other side, a big vacant space between them.
“Is something wrong?” Leon asks.
“No, l, uh. I had a call with my agent earlier,” Matt says.
Leon’s eyebrows draw together. “You came over to my apartment this late for a work conversation?”
Matt shakes his head. “It’s not. Well, not completely, is it?” He gives Leon a meaningful look.
Leon holds his eyes for a moment before turning away and sighing. “If you came here to say you were leaving then you should have left that to your agent.”
What? “That’s not what I was –– you really wouldn’t want me to tell you to your face that I was leaving?”
“Then what were you going to say?” Leon asks.
Matt doesn’t have it in him to fight his way through the conversation. “I want to know if you asked them to keep me,” he says.
Leon’s face softens. “Look, if you’re worried I only did it because of...personal reasons, then don’t be.”
“So you did? You told Ada to keep me?”
“You are a talented player worth keeping on the roster, yes.” Leon says.
A part of Matt is mollified, but it’s not the part that made him get on a train at 11pm at night.
“What about the first time?” Matt asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Last summer, when I was looking at the European leagues, and Berlin put in an offer,” he says. “Did you have anything to do with that?”
Leon doesn’t say anything. He leans forward, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands folded together. That seems like an answer. If the answer was no, he would have just said, right?
“I think you did,” Matt says. “Why?”
“I––” Leon gets out, but cuts himself off.
“Just be honest,” Matt says.
Leon looks up at him again. “Yeah, I did,” he admits. “I did...put some weight into the decision.”
He pauses again. Matt watches him closely. He can tell when he’s made up his mind about what he’s going to say from the minute drop of his shoulders, like he’s letting go of a weight.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I was over it,” he says.
Matt laughs, but it gets caught in his throat and never makes its way out. “Okay,” he says. He nods his head. “Thanks for telling me.”
He picks up his jacket and makes his way to the door.
Matt doesn’t turn around.
“Matt, wait.” He can hear Leon coming after him as he tugs on his boots roughly and pulls on his hat. Matt makes himself turn around and look up into Leon’s eyes.
“I’ll see you at practice tomorrow,” he says, and opens the door. Leon’s hand snags his wrist, but it’s easy to break the hold.
The thing is, he thinks, once he’s a couple blocks away and breathing cold air deep into his lungs. The thing is, he did this to himself.
He, frankly, cannot believe he’d convinced himself he was living in some alternate reality where Leon –– what, convinced a team to sign him so they could be together again? It sounds ridiculous just thinking the words.
And he’d fucking lived this exact mistake before! He’d known already, he’d known that Leon holds himself to this impossible high standard, this perfection, this nobility, that would always be more important to him than whatever it was he had with Matt. Leon always had to prove to himself that he was above it all.
Matt was right to keep it in the hypothetical. There’s no way that Leon was telling the truth when he said he was coming out because of Matt, that much is certain now –– because there’s no way he’d ever loved him. There’s no way Leon could have loved Matt and still believe he’d hurt him like that on purpose.
His phone goes off in his pocket. “Fucking dammit,” he shouts, and pulls it out.
It’s Taryn. Taryn should know better than to call him this late in the day –– it’s not like she doesn’t know about the time difference. “What is it?” he asks once he’s accepted the call.
“Matty,” she says. She sounds like she’s been crying. “It’s dad. You’ve gotta come home.”
The latest of the late flights have already set off across the Atlantic, so the soonest plane Matt can catch is the next morning at 6am. He books it, no return trip, and grabs some uneasy sleep for the few hours that are left before his alarm will wake him up.
The rest of it’s a blur: the cab, the airport, the plane, a layover, another plane, until finally it’s mid-day and he’s being carried across the familiar streets of St. Louis.
He walks up the front steps of the house his parents have lived in since dad retired. It’s been years and years since he’s lived here full time, but he’s never felt this unsure, standing at the front door, about whether he should knock.
Taryn’s smallest opens the door before he can shake it off or raise his first up anyway.
“Uncle Matt!” Andy says, launching himself at Matt’s knees.
“Hey buddy,” he says. “Where’s your mom?”
Taryn opens the door the rest of the way. “Matt,” she says, He hates the way her voice sounds like this, all crushed under the weight that he should have been helping her carry. She grabs him and wraps him in her arms, and he holds her just as tight until Andy starts trying to wiggle loose from between their legs.
He breaks away and laughs. “Sorry buddy.” He scoops Andy up and plants him on his hip. “Jeeze, you’re gigantic now. What are you, 12?”
“Four!” he shouts.
“What? No way,” Matt says. “You’re way too big to be four.”
Andy laughs, and Matt lowers him back down to the floor.
“Where’s your brother?” Taryn asks Andy.
“Back yard,” he says, already distracted by whatever it is he just pulled out of his pocket.
“You should go play with him for a little bit, okay? I’m sure Uncle Matty will join you later.”
The kid goes running off easily enough, and Taryn grabs his arm to steer him into the kitchen.
“You should have called,” she says. “One of us could have come and gotten you from the airport.”
“It’s no big deal,” says Matt. “You would have had to round up the kids –– it was fine. Speaking of, is Brady here yet?”
Taryn shakes her head. “No, he had to stay in San Jose for a game tonight. Hally and Layla are flying in this evening, though, and Brady should be here in the morning.”
A game. Fuck. Matt takes his phone out of his pocket. He hasn’t thought of a single thing but getting back to St. Louis since he got Taryn’s call. He never even turned off airplane mode.
He does that now, and watches the phone calls and text roll in. “Sorry –– uh, speaking of, I need to wrap up some stuff with the team.”
“Go ahead,” Taryn says. “Mom’s taking a nap, but she should join us here in a little bit. Oh –– you mind watching the kids when I pick up Hally later?”
“Yeah, that’s no problem.”
He walks upstairs to his old bedroom. It’s long since been turned into a guest room, most of the important memorabilia from over the years still at the house in Calgary he hasn’t gotten around to selling yet. His mom got into an abstract art kick a few years ago, and that’s what’s on the walls now.
He sits down on the bed and unlocks his phone again. Yeah, he’s missed practice, obviously, and the team are probably en route to an away game right now if he’s got the time difference right. It definitely doesn’t look good, and he probably should have turned his phone on when he was sitting in LaGuardia this morning.
There’s a voicemail from Leon that he should probably get out of the way first. He thumbs open the app and lets it play:
What are you doing, Matt? How is it that you’ve got this far in life without learning how to be a goddamn adult? Whatever it is –– whatever your problem is with me, that’s not an excuse to not show the fuck up when you’re supposed to. God, it’s just –– it’s just fucking like you to refuse to commit. Coming to me last night like you hadn’t already made up your mind –– you know what, it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to be able to protect you from the consequences of this, and to be honest? I wouldn’t even if I could.
Matt waits a few seconds after Leon’s spiel is over, not moving mostly because he can’t remember how to. He shuts the phone off and drops it onto the bed once the tinny electronic voice asks him if he wants to replay the message. He runs a hand through his hair and breathes out heavy.
Leon’s not wrong though –– Matt has responsibilities here. He finds the saved contact for Ada in his phone and dials so that he can tell her he won’t be back until the first playoff game.
The funeral service is beautiful, for all that it’s so big that Matt doesn’t know half the people in the cathedral. He and Brady take on the brunt of the offered condolences so that mom doesn’t have to –– they’re both used to taking questions and comments and handshakes from people they don’t want to be talking to. It’s the least they can do.
It’s later, when the service is over and the casket’s been lowered into the ground and they’ve found themselves back at the house that Matt finally has time to talk to Brady. They’re both shifting casserole dishes around the fridge like a game of Tetris, as if all of it’s actually going to be able to fit.
“So, I got an offer from Anaheim,” Matt says.
Brady looks over. “Really? You thinking about taking it?”
“Maybe,” he says. “I got an offer from Chicago, too.”
“Huh,” Brady says. He’s got a dish in each hand like he’s weighing the contents and deciding which one deserves to live. The answer is obviously sweet potato, so Matt doesn’t know who he’s kidding by considering the broccoli-rice.
“It’d be just a few hours away from here. Really short flight,” Matt says. “Maybe it’d be good to be closer to mom.”
Brady nods and stuffs the sweet potato casserole precariously on the second shelf. “You know, she doesn’t hold it against us”
“For not being here. When dad got sick, when he was in the hospital. She’s not mad at us for being other places. She understands. I mean, hell, she lived the same life we are now when dad was still playing.”
Matt shrugs. “That doesn’t mean maybe I shouldn’t be closer for a little while.”
“All I’m saying is, if the reason you’re thinking about leaving Germany is because you’re blaming yourself for not being here when dad died, then don’t –– don’t use it as an excuse to ruin whatever it is you have going on over there.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure I have anything going on anywhere,” Matt says.
Brady gives him a sad smile. “Well, in that case, I’m sure all of us would love to have you closer. Let me know when you decide, eh?”
It’s weird to think that the last time he’d come through the Arrivals gate at this airport he was starting over completely: new team, new country, new language. The only thing that wasn’t new, really, was this body he’s still running into the ground. He rubs a thumb at his left wrist.
The cab driver’s chatty –– talking about his kids and the accident he saw on the highway the other day. Matt’s not really good for conversation right now, but he nods his head in the right places and directs him through the last few windy, urban streets that lead to his apartment when they get close. He grabs the accumulated mail from the last few days from the box next to his front stoop and unlocks the door.
It’s cold –– colder that Matt would have left it if he’d checked the weather before he left five days ago. Maybe he should have had someone come by. Except, he’d never given his spare key to anyone, so that wouldn’t have been much help. He digs through the kitchen drawer until he finds it anyway, and tosses it onto the counter.
He leaves his bag splayed out but unpacked in his bedroom and tugs on an Eisbären sweatshirt while the heat kicks in. It’s late. He’ll wash off the airport in the morning.
He’s on his back on the couch, thumbing through the menu on his phone for his favorite Greek place nearby when he hears the knock at the door.
It'd be too much to hope for a psychic connection that strong with the delivery guy, so Matt's pretty resigned to disappointment when he opens the door.
Leon looks as contrite as he's ever seen him. That's good. It almost makes up for having to have this conversation in tube socks and sweats when Leon looks like he does right now -- fresh shaven, navy suit, probably just back from the game Matt was supposed to be at tonight.
"How'd you know I was back?" Matt asks.
"Brady," Leon admits.
"Ah,” Matt says. Of course. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to know how quickly you sold him out.”
Leon shrugs. “Can I come in?”
Matt breathes out. “Sure. Why not.” He holds the door open with his foot and lets Leon worm past him. He doesn’t stop to take off his coat or scarf.
Matt bypasses the living room and plants himself at one of the stools next to the kitchen island. He swings around and leans his elbows back on the table and lets Leon stay there in the big open space of the house like he’s standing trial.
“Was there something you wanted to say?” Matt asks.
Leon nods and looks away, but must realize that’s how cowards do it, because he meets Matt’s eyes before he says, “I’m sorry.”
Matt swallows. “For what?”
“I’m sorry about your father,” Leon says. “That must be awful.”
Matt shakes his head. “It is, but that’s not what you should be sorry for, is it?”
“No,” Leon admits. He tries taking a step toward Matt, but stops when Matt holds out a hand.
“Stay –– just, stay where you are,” Matt says.
Leon nods. He looks up at the ceiling and hooks his hands behind his head, like he didn’t come here knowing what he was going to say and is just now making it up in his head. “I...shouldn’t have assumed that you didn’t have a good reason for leaving. I am very sorry for calling you like that.”
Matt nods. “Thanks. You know, I’d kind of understand it –– me not showing up for the game, whatever, yeah, I should have left a note –– but what I don’t get is how you could tell me I’m not committed. What have I done to make you think that?”
“Matt,” Leon says, and sighs. “I don’t want to fight.”
“Why is it a fight?” Matt says. “Just tell me.”
“Okay, fine! You want to talk about how you walked away from me as soon as something serious happened in our relationship?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I wanted to come out with you! I wanted to be together, and you weren’t ready for it ––”
“You can’t put that on me, Leon. You can’t just decide for someone when they’re going to come out.”
“If it had meant enough to you, Matt, you would have done it.”
“And if I had meant enough to you, you wouldn’t have asked me to. I wanted to be with you.”
Leon shakes his head, gestures widely with his hands. “How am I supposed to believe that?”
Matt laughs, short and dry. “Now, or a decade ago, when have I ever given you the impression that you weren’t one of the most important people in my life?”
Leon doesn’t say anything –– just stares at him, and then Matt gets it. He laughs for real this time, loud, a little frightening in the way it echoes around the house that’s still coming back to life from his absence.
“Forget it. I –– I can’t do this anymore,” Matt says.
“What do you mean?” Leon demands, and tries to step forward again. Matt doesn’t stop him this time.
Matt smiles, bitter. “I can’t keep having this same conversation. Everything comes back to that game, right?”
Leon opens his mouth, but Matt cuts him off.
“Of course it does. I ruined your life, didn’t I? You think I did it on purpose, and you hate me for it. And you know what I think –– I think you hate me more because you can’t get over it than you do because it happened.”
Leon explodes into action all at once, shaking off his jacket and flinging it at the couch, catching a handful of his hair in his hand, pacing wordlessly until he turns back to look at Matt.
“What am I supposed to think?”
“You’re supposed to believe I’m not the kind of person who would do that to you,” Matt says. “To anyone. ”
“We got in a fight! You were afraid I’d wind up outing you, so you walked out and left me,” Leon says. “And you’ve never said you’re sorry.”
“Of course I’m sorry!” he yells. “I’m sorry, I’ve never been more sorry about anything in my life. But if you still think I meant to hurt you, then what the hell are we even doing here? What are you doing here?”
Leon freezes where he is, and now Matt’s the one launching himself into action. He jumps off the stool and walks behind the island, putting it between them. “I never meant to hurt you. You don’t know how badly it fucked me up that I was the one who did that to you. I was in therapy for years before I could convince myself that I wasn’t the awful person you think I am, that there actually is a difference between hurting someone on accident and hurting them on purpose. But there is, and if you don’t believe that, or you still think that I wanted to hurt you that night, then there is no point. You should turn around and walk out the door.”
Matt’s gripping the island countertop like it’s going to leave if he doesn’t hold onto it, and Leon’s looking at him with wild eyes, and neither of them are saying anything at all to break the thick silence. But. Leon’s not turning around. He’s not walking out the door.
So, Matt gives it one last go. “I loved you. I would never have deliberately hurt you. I never wanted to leave.”
Leon drags in a ragged breath. Matt lets go of the countertop and rounds the island to stand right in front of him.
Leon reaches out and grabs his left wrist, rubbing the tendons there with his thumb. “What about now,” Leon says. He doesn’t ask it like a question, like he doesn’t actually want to hear the answer.
Matt flips their hands and catches Leon’s palm in his. “I’m here in Berlin telling you I’ve never not loved you,” he says. “I don’t know how much more clear I can be about it.”
When Leon leans in and presses their lips together, he lets it happen. He pulls him in just as strongly, falls into the kiss just as deeply. He lets Leon rake one hand through his hair and hold on, makes sure the other is still twined with his. He puts everything into it that he can, and then he pulls back.
“Do you believe me?” he asks.
Leon’s looking straight at him. Matt doesn’t let him look away. Matt is almost sure he wouldn’t anyway.
“Yes,” he says.
Matt nods. “Do you forgive me?”
Leon drops Matt’s hand from his.
Matt looks down at the floor. That’s all he has left to put into this. There’s nothing else to say.
“Look at me,” Leon says. There’s the playoffs to think about. Matt’s can push all of this out of the way and play the games he has to, and then figure everything out from there. It’s not life changing. If anything, it’s the way he planned on things going.
“Matt, look at me.”
He looks up. Leon doesn’t let him look away this time. Matt’s almost sure he wouldn’t anyway.
They flame out in the quarter-finals against the Ice Tigers. Matt doesn’t have any regrets. He did his best, and the rest of the team did too, and this is where they got. And that’s enough.
They’d been having him do more media as the season went on, probably because he could string together more than a phrase or two for the cameras, and they have him out there again tonight. The words coming out of his mouth may feel less natural, but this never really changes. He spouts the same hockeyisms he always has and lets the reporters tire themselves out.
Luckily, the series ended in Berlin, so they don’t have to fuck around with travel. He snags Leon’s arm when he passes him on his way out of the locker room.
“Come home with me?” he asks softly.
“It’s the last game of the year,” Leon says. “You sure you don’t want to join the boys? I am absolutely sure they’re all headed out to drink to their misery.”
Matt smiles. “I think I’m maybe too old for that to be appealing anymore.”
“Okay then,” Leon says. “I’ve got to wrap up some things, but I’ll see you in 20.”
Leon’s a cliche who drives an Audi, which unfortunately Matt was too drunk to laugh at the first time he saw but has rolled his eyes at every time since. He’s regretting that now, though, since the damn thing rolls so easy he’s falling asleep in the passenger seat.
Leon laughs at him. “You going to make it home? Am I going to have to carry you in?”
Matt grumbles. “See if you’re laughing after you play almost two full periods of overtime.”
Leon smiles and reaches over to grab his knee before resettling on the steering wheel.
It’s more than that, though, Matt knows –– it’s the playoffs, but it’s also the funeral, and it’s also the huge boom of adrenaline between the two of them that’s still settling into a normal relationship. It’s the tension of the conversations they still haven’t had yet.
Matt sinks into the easy quiet and lets Leon drive them home.
Once they’re through the door, Matt starts shedding layers like a dog in summer. Leon will bully him into picking it all up in a little bit, but right now he just wants to be completely separated from the suit he was just wearing and the game he just played, stripped down to his base. No longer a hockey player. Just a person.
“Oh, it’s that kind of night, is it?” Leon says.
Matt makes a face. “Sorry, man, the only way you’re getting any tonight is if you fuck me after I fall asleep.”
“Well, that’s definitely a thought, but I think I can wait,” Leon says.
Matt yawns. “I’m seriously not sure I can make it all the way to the bed.”
Leon finishes taking off his own shoes and jacket in a normal way, then toes Matt’s ankle with his own socked foot. “Come on then. Let’s go, because I definitely can’t carry you.” He snags his hand and pulls him toward the bedroom.
Matt loves it: the domesticity of sharing the sink in the bathroom while they brush their teeth, the glass of water Leon brought back for him when he went to go fill his own, the curtains drawn tight to make sure the rest of the world is blocked out and Leon’s the only living thing he has to think about right now.
He’s wrapped around him, playing the role of big spoon tonight, which is why he can feel the tension in his shoulders and down his back. It’s easy to attribute that to the loss, a failing end to the season for a team that Leon has poured years of work into. But he doesn’t know if he doesn’t ask.
“Are you okay?” Matt whispers. It’s dark enough it feels called for.
“Yeah,” Leon says, but he doesn’t relax. Matt illustrates the point by bringing a hand up to his shoulder to massage at the knot of muscles there.
“Are you sure?”
He hears Leon release a short sigh. When he finally replies, it’s in a whisper too. “I don’t think I can be your coach anymore.”
Matt lets out a short, quiet laugh. “That’s okay.”
Leon turns around in his arms at that. “What?”
“That’s fine,” Matt says. “Good, actually. Because you’re not going to be.”
He can just barely make out Leon’s surprised face in the dark.
“I was going to say something tomorrow,” Matt said. “Since the season was over. My agent is still wrapping things up for me, but it’s mostly a done deal.”
He hears Leon breathe out in a gust. “So when are you leaving Berlin?”
“I haven’t booked the plane yet, but I think I’ll head back to St. Louis sometime next week.”
“Yeah, it’s my nephew’s birthday,” Matt says, smiling. “I’ve missed the last few, so I want to make sure I’m there for this one.”
“Ah,” Leon says. He’s still tense under Matt’s arms.
“I’d have invited you, but it’s a pretty small thing. I think I’ll stay for a few weeks to help out mom for a while, but I should be back before May,” Matt says.
“What?” Leon asks. He’s not whispering anymore.
“Is that...too long? Do you actually want to come to St. Louis with me?”
“No, wait, you’re coming back?”
At that, Matt pulls away to snap on the lamp next to his bed. He looks back at Leon now that he can see his features. “Of course I’m coming back.”
“For how long?”
“For how –– Leon, I think we may be talking about different things.”
Leon sits up against the headboard. “Are we? Because I’m trying to figure out how long I have with you before you ship off to California or wherever.”
Matt nudges him down until he’s laying back down against the pillows again. “Yeah, no. I’m not going to California.”
“You picked Chicago then?”
“I’m not going to Chicago either,” Matt says. “I’m retiring.”
Matt can see the light bulb flash on in his head. “Oh,” Leon says.
“Yeah. And I have to be back in May because I’m meeting with a realtor to find somewhere more permanent here.”
For all that his career has made him so aware of the muscles in his own body, it’s another thing entirely to feel Leon shift from tense to relaxed while he’s holding him in his arms. Matt rubs a thumb across his side.
“You’re staying in Germany?” Leon asks eventually.
“That was the plan,” Matt says. “What do you think?”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Leon asks. “Are you going to be happy here?”
He doesn’t want Leon to think he’s rushed through this decision. But he does already have the answer. “I’m happy with you. And that’s not everything –– I know that, you don’t have to tell me. But I think the rest of it we can figure out together.”
Leon smiles. “Okay then.”
Matt reaches back over to turn the lamp off. “Good,” he says. He pushes at Leon's side until he's back in little-spoon position and tightens his arms around him. "Sleep. We can talk about it all in the morning."