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This is where they find themselves: three in a bed, sleeping easily, sleeping the sleep of the just, of the just-got-laid.

Seth is in the middle, Ryan’s arm thrown casually around his waist, settling low on his hip. Boone is tucked against him, the broad expanse of his back and shoulders giving Seth a mold to fit himself around, their legs tangled. Ryan’s fingertips brush Boone’s hip; Boone’s ankle is pressed against Ryan’s.

The bed is not that big, and they are all well-built, strong, muscular young men.

They shouldn’t fit.

And yet, they do.

* * *

This is how they get there:

“Oh my god,” Boone says, eyes rolling in fond exasperation, slurring a little around the gap where he’s missing teeth still, no longer bleeding at least. “We want to date you. That’s what Murrs meant. If you’re interested, that is.”

He trails off, tries to sound flippant, disinterested; like he’s not laying himself and Ryan both out bare and vulnerable.

It’s a big ask: expecting (hoping) that Seth trust them. If he doesn’t want them, it’s an even bigger leap of faith—to trust that he’ll still be comfortable around them, that they’ll still be good with him. Ryan needs a good partner out on the ice even more than he does off the ice, arguably.

He’d like Seth to be both.

Boone would also like that.

But that’s not far enough back, not really. There’s crooks and bends in the road from there for sure, and they can’t see around those blind corners just yet, but—

Further back, first.

* * *

It is 2016. The year is new and raw and young, mere seconds old.

Ryan steps back, stuffs his hands into his pockets, swallows hard. Licks his lips.

“That was, uh.”

He’s not sure how to say he wasn’t expecting it, he hadn’t intended it.

Which is not to say he didn’t enjoy it.

He’s not sure how to say that, either.

“Happy New Year?” Boone suggests. He does not lick his lips. He’s not that eager to forget how Ryan tasted.

“Something like that,” Ryan agrees. “Uh. We’re okay, right?”

It’s okay to kiss your friends at the New Year. The clock chimes twelve, the ball drops, people kiss. It’s very normal.

Boone has known that he likes boys since he was twelve. If he was going to be crude about it, since his balls dropped.

He kisses Ryan, outside, away from the rest of the party, the rest of their teammates wrapped up warm indoors, crowded around the the TV and the stereo and the makeshift bar of drinks.

The low is 27 degrees, just below freezing.

It feels like that outside.

Boone kisses Ryan and it’s almost right, almost enough to forget how cold it is, standing out on the porch, looking out over the street, lights flickering through windows from Christmas trees and candles.

27 is a good number, Boone likes it.

(Ryan likes it better, obviously.)

* * *

Time moves forward, from there. Let’s not go too far. This is important too.

They go home and things are normal. Ryan covers his mouth with his hand as he yawns, says good night, goes to his bedroom. Boone does the same.

Ryan assumes, anyway.

He doesn’t watch. He doesn’t look back to check.

(Boone went to bed. He did not fall asleep easily, though.)

Time moves forward, and it is normal and nothing has changed. Probably.

Two days later, they beat the Washington Capitals. It takes a shoot out, but they get there; two points and a two game win streak.

It feels bigger than it maybe should, but this is the season they’re having, this is the bar that they’ve set, that they’re trying oh so desperately to skate over.

Sometimes Ryan wonders if they would all be better off if they just went to a bar and got absolutely shitfaced instead of trying to play hockey.

Torts would probably bagskate them anyway, though.

When they go back to their cars after the game, the chill in the air bites at the back of Ryan’s throat. He’s filled up with a sense that something is changing, things are about to be shaken up. He hopes it’s about improving their record.

He wishes it was as warm as it had been when they’d come down to Nationwide before the game. It was just above freezing and starting to feel like maybe it’ll get warm again some day soon. The warmest part of the day they’re all indoors napping anyway, time slipping away unnoticed. Ryan feels the seconds weigh on him afterward, tries to throw them off like his quilt. It’s heavy enough to be comforting, but not suffocating. He dreams that Boone is wrapped around him again, and Ryan turns in his embrace, warmed all over. And then Boone—Boone in the dream, not his Boone, who is asleep in his own room, Ryan trusts—Boone presses a kiss to the nape of Ryan’s neck, the immediacy and heat flaring through his nerves, startling him awake.

He’d thought in the dream Boone was in front of him, hands clasped in his.

It’s clear for a fleeting moment that Boone had been behind him, solid and steady and pouring off heat like a furnace. Someone else had Ryan’s hands.

Ryan blinks a few times and rubs his eyes. Certainty and clarity crumble into sleep dust and vanish.

A minute later Ryan doesn’t remember even that much.

He rolls out of bed, absently checks his phone to make sure that he can dress for the weather, layered up appropriately for an Ohio winter.

The high on the 2nd is 38.

(That’s a better number for Boone. Ryan doesn’t notice it this time.)

* * *

The high on the 2nd is 52.

They win in overtime, their first win in three games. Last game of the roadie.

The weather there is almost the same as back home. Days drawing out longer since the shortest day, incrementally and almost undistinguishably.

There is more daylight, even when it is not warm.

It is warmer than Ohio.

(Did you think there wasn’t anywhere else to be? They’re here too.)

(They are not everywhere. This is their narrative. Leave your pocket universes at the coat check. Put on a jersey instead.

Check the number.

Good.)

Seth goes out with his teammates and enjoys himself; quiet dinner and raucous discussion and the hectic relieved cheer of two points added to their tally. Too many losses behind them.

They have two days before their next game, they’ll fly in daylight.

The days are getting longer.

* * *

Seth plays nineteen minutes against the Jets. They’re at home, they have their crowd behind them.

This should be easier.

They still only score one goal.

With two minutes left in the game, Seth blocks a shot from Andrew Ladd. It stings for a moment, his shin gone numb for a sparkling second before he skates it off. His shoulder presses warm against Eks on the bench where he tries to shake it off. It’s a deep ache, probably going to bruise up purple and brown and red, warm colors from cold ice.

When coach gestures he goes over the boards to close out the game, a final futile effort.  

His shin hurts, dully.

He doesn’t know those will be the last two minutes he plays in a Predators uniform.

(This is not a metaphor.)

It is below freezing when they get back to their cars; quiet and still and cool. It’s more pleasant than a locker room sliding 2-and-11. Friction can only do so much.

The low is 24.

In 24 hours, Seth will be a Blue Jacket.

* * *

Ryan feels hollow. Momentarily: hollowed out and empty. They expected something; they did not expect this. He takes a breath, all the way in. It feels like there’s more room to breathe, all of a sudden. Space abhors a vacuum.

Ryan will be sorry to say goodbye to Joey. Ryan likes Joey, feels like they have been struggling together on this team forever already. The faces change and the standings remain the same. The opposite of what they’re all wanting. It leaves them all unsteady, familiar footing crumbling beneath their skates. This was meant to be their year.

He is not used to being the only Ryan on the team.

Saader is quiet again, like when he was new; Matty and Hartsy hide their responses beneath jokes and distraction. Dubi’s face is unreadable. Dubi has been there, Ryan thinks again, the same way he has every trade for the last couple of years. Dubi was somewhere he thought he’d stay and now he’s here.

Ryan likes it here, even in this season and out of time.

(They’re not supposed to drift in the dressing room. Stay anchored, your chronology is here-
                                -and here
-perhaps                                          —wait, no
                        -and here

                —at 33F, the density of water is 0.999g per cubic centimeter.

At 32F liquid water becomes ice.)

Ryan freezes, raises a hand to rub his temples. That headache had come out of nowhere. Maybe he needs to drink some more water.

Less stress would also help, most likely. At least they’re getting help on the blue line. Seth Jones might be very good for Ryan’s stress levels.

(Sex is an excellent stress reliever. It’ll take Ryan a little longer to work that out, though.)

But speaking of stress: they are not out of the playoffs yet. Yet. Time inches forward. It is inexorable, linear, unyielding. Time inches forward, delicately pressing them flat under the weight of expectation. This was supposed to be the year that changed, too.

Six days ago Boone kissed him, soft with liquor and warm under his hands. It was cold out. Ryan didn’t feel it.

Boone’s mouth was very, very warm.

* * *

Seth fits in nicely, Boone thinks, with his A weighing heavy on his jersey. It’s a phantom weight, all responsibility and no mass. He can feel it all the time, though he tries not to dwell on that. Dwelling doesn’t get them anywhere.

Much better to keep pushing forward, fighting it out on the ice as they strain to climb up the standings. Every time they make a step forward they seem to slip half a step back, though. Ice is slippery, even if you’ve been skating practically before you could walk.

But it does not take long at all to feel like Seth’s been there forever.

He is quiet in the dressing room, Boone notices. His posture is open, comfortable, knees knocking into Ryan’s in the stall beside him. He listens a lot more than he talks for the first couple of weeks.

Boone can’t blame him.

Boone watches him back, really. He tries to be subtle about it, though. It’s important to make sure Seth feels comfortable. They’re hoping he’ll stick around for a long, long time. Boone certainly hopes so. He has looked good out on their powerplay, on the blue line with Ryan. They make a good pair, even if Torts apparently wants to split them up once the rest of the D are healthy again.

They make a good pair, Boone keeps noticing, off the ice as well. Ryan looks much happier too. He’s looser on the ice, more confident, decisive, incisive. Ryan pinches in and picks up assists; Seth steadies them all on the powerplay.

Seth is a frequent visitor to their house, game nights on the couch tucked between then, dinners when they don’t have anywhere else to be. He fits in there, too. Cam somehow inducts him into the scooter gang, even, although Boone tries to point out that Seth is much too tall for a scooter really, come on now.

Prouter jokes that Boone has replaced him, punctuates his point with a towel snap that makes Boone yelp and the rest of the team in earshot laugh at him.

Their dressing room isn’t always stress and tension. They’re playing hockey for a living. Hockey’s still fun.

Also, Prouter’s over just as much as usual, so Boone doesn’t know what he’s getting at there.

(Boone absolutely knows what he’s getting at. Boone’s pretending to himself that he hasn’t figured it out yet. He’ll have to say something eventually, but that’s for—

Later.)

Seth has been a Blue Jacket for just over a month when the temporary break in the weather fizzles out and sends them back into a bitterly cold week. They are three games and two wins into a homestand.

Boone can’t help himself from reaching out to adjust Ryan’s scarf as they make excuses to stay in the hall a little longer before braving the weather. The low is going to be close to zero, threatening to dip into the negatives. 2F is cold, even for men who spend half their lives on the ice.

They have two days before they face the Capitals, and going out for a nice Sunday dinner had seemed like an excellent idea at the time. Seth is going to meet them there. Boone is positive this is a good idea.

Boone does not want to stand Seth up.

(Later, Boone will admit that he wants to stand Seth up against a wall and press hotly against him, skin to skin and uninhibited. Boone wants to strip Ryan down too, make him moan, wide-eyed, watch his eyelashes flutter when he kisses Seth, watch what a good pair they make in bed, too. Boone wants to watch. Boone wants. But that’s for later, too.)

“Fuck it, come on,” Ryan says, and he puts his head down, chin tucked firmly into the folds of his scarf, hat pulled down over his ears, determination in every line. Boone shakes off a faint twinge of headache—he hasn’t hit his head recently, it’s not a concussion, he’ll be fine—and follows him, door closing firmly behind him.

Dinner is worth it.

* * *

The season keeps unfolding, game after game after game.

Ryan tries not to look at the calendar when all it will tell him is the increasing probability that they will not be making the post-season.

In every respect bar the standings, life is good. Ryan has a comfortable house, a housemate he likes—maybe a little too much. They have still not talked about the kiss. Ryan can see the moments when Boone is thinking of it, though. Sometimes he stares at Ryan’s mouth a little too long, sometimes he watches Ryan’s hands on a knife, on an Xbox controller, taping his stick.

Boone doesn’t look at him like that often when they’re at the rink.

He looks at Seth, though.

Ryan is not sure if Boone knows he’s doing it, and he is even less certain that Seth has noticed. Seth is collected and poised and very good at his job. Ryan’s not sure if his job includes cheerfully teasing teammates who might be leaning a little too close sometimes. He would like to hope that’s just Jonesy being Jonesy.

Kissing Boone was nice and Ryan is fairly certain he’d like to do it again, but there does not seem to be a good time to bring that up. Ryan is not going to rock the boat if he doesn’t have to, that’s not his style. He’s conscientious, steady, patient. Ryan has seen his scouting reports, he can’t disagree there.

(Soon, Ryan is going to run out of patience. Give him a minute. Maybe a few more.)

The month marches on, the Jackets win some, lose some. They steal an improbable victory against the Flyers, two quick goals in the final minute to tie it up and force the overtime.

It’s a good win to get in front of their crowd, fifty plus shots as Boone plays the hero; gets them on the board and then scores in the shootout. Ryan is on the ice when they finally get that first goal, feels the play slow down and unfold before them, Boone with all the time in the world to redirect Seth’s shot. It’s a sweet goal, satisfaction unfolding as the Flyers unravel.

Ryan can feel the win coming, just about taste it, and he doesn’t even worry when Seth takes a penalty late in the overtime. They’ve got this.

They get it.

They go out to celebrate afterward too, sink a couple because they have earned it, they have absolutely earned that one. It feels too good not to.

Summer is coming, and it’ll be early for them, but Ryan feels better about that than he might have expected a few months ago. They’re looking ahead now.

No one gets drunk, but there’s enough beer to take the faint nip out of the air, and Ryan is perfectly comfortable in his shirt-sleeves, tie discarded before they’d even got out of their car, jacket slung casually over his arm. He follows Boone inside when they get home, too, close on his heels, content and satisfied.

He hands his jacket to Boone to hang up by their front door, a step away, and their fingers brush. It should mean nothing, the tiniest and most innocuous of touches, but Ryan looks over at the exact right moment to see as Boone registers the touch. Sees want flare to life in his expression again, and he’s abruptly impatient, done with this. He’s not imagining this, done with tying himself in knots over whether this is a good choice, the right choice. Whether this changes anything he would like to keep static. He doesn’t give a damn about those whethers any more.

It’s time to take action.

(An equal and opposite reaction: the universe where Ryan looks down, away, at his shoes. Where Boone never looks back. Where they just miss each other. Different is not the same as bad. But this time this is how their orbits align, decaying into each other.)

Now is good, Ryan thinks, and he drops his jacket onto the wooden floor of their hall and kisses Boone.

This time, they don’t stop there.

Ryan’s bed is much warmer when Boone’s in it with him.

* * *

Something has changed, Seth thinks, chewing on his lower lip. They’re circling in over the Mississippi delta, increasingly familiar landscapes unrolling beneath the plane as they start the descent. Focusing overmuch on this being his first game against his old team seems like a poor proposition, so Seth is distracting himself by watching Boone and Ryan, heads bent in close conversation in the row ahead and to his left.

Boone and Ryan have been a matched set ever since Seth landed in Columbus. They have an ease and familiarity with each other that he envies, that he’s missed. Close friends, comfortable as roommates, guys who he can joke around with as easily as he can share a meal.

He’d clicked fast with Ryan, falling into sync like they’d skated together for months instead of weeks, found him easily on the ice and often off. It was easy to spend time with them. Ryan or Boone taking pains to make sure he knew he was welcome, inviting him over for dinners and lunches and shitty video games and worse movies.

Sometimes he’d seen a flicker of something in Ryan’s expression, and he’d thought—

He must have been wrong, though, because now Seth’s fighting a nagging suspicion that Boone and Ryan may, by now, be Boone-and-Ryan.

There’s an understated intimacy to the way they’ve been together in the last few days that suggests a lot. The potential for it has simmered for as long as he’s known them. Listening to other guys talk and what they don’t say, Seth suspects that’s been the case for a while. It’s getting warmer out; maybe that finally boiled over.

It’s not that Seth hasn’t seen this before. It’s not that he has a problem with it.

(Seth absolutely has a problem with it. He shouldn’t, and yet it itches under his skin, makes him irritable, short-tempered. He’s not sure why. Solve for x, when the space and time occupied by two people collapses together. That potential transformed into something else, basic conservation of energy.)

Energy is exactly what they’re lacking as the Predators roll right over them. 5-1.

If Seth was planning a triumphant return to his old home, then this is very much the opposite of that.

The atmosphere on the plane after the game is very familiar.

Their game in Washington, all things considered, is not much better.

Seth has had better months.

* * *

Boone has had better months.

This one has had its high points, for sure. Ryan in his bed for one.

The really good painkillers the team dentist gives him after he takes a puck to the face and loses half his front teeth for another. Or maybe he was just high.

Close enough, really.

(They hear the news and weather report on the radio, driving home after his dentist appointment. The high will be 69. “Nice,” Ryan says automatically, and then he meets Boone’s eyes and they laugh hysterically for five minutes straight. Some things are always funny, even numb from anaesthetic and painkillers and five road losses in a row.
 
In contrast, not funny: the part where he and Ryan had not really stopped to talk about what they were doing yet. This becomes slightly more acute an issue now Boone has 22 stitches in his mouth.  

Looks like he won’t be doing many fun things with his mouth for the next little while.)

When he says as much, Ryan agrees that he should perhaps not talk while on painkillers.

They both know that already, anyway. Spending the better part of a season on IR and holed up in their apartment meant that there wasn’t a whole lot they didn’t know about each other.

(Here are three things Boone knows about Ryan every time, every where they are and ever could have been: Ryan is stubborn. Ryan’s hair curls and sticks up at the back of his neck, a cowlick that he tries to tame any time it’s long enough to cut. Ryan blushes pink when he’s attracted to someone, the faintest wash of hot color at the nape of his neck making him sweat. It’s kind of cute, Boone thinks more often than not.)

The other thing Boone knows is that Ryan’s eyes still follow Seth sometimes, distantly yearning, before he reminds himself not to. Boone recognizes that look from his own mirror.

He’s not sure what to do about it. If anything.

Seth’s a good-looking guy, they both have eyes, why not appreciate the view?

Seth’s a good guy.

Which is why it takes weeks before Boone catches him looking back.

* * *

(Plenty of things happen in those weeks. They are important in their own ways, and not important in other ways. Wait and see.)

It is still early when Seth goes back to his own hotel room after they get dinner together, carefully not-questioning Boone’s presence in Toronto with Ryan. No one wants a distraction before the World Cup.

Seth is hardly out the door before Boone turns to Ryan and asks, “Hey, did you—did you see that?”

Boone explains, and Ryan wonders if they waited long enough, if Seth is out of earshot, if he will hear them talking about him. Ryan is too honest to deny that he’s been thinking about him. It helps that Boone already knew that, too.

This is new, an untrodden path, and Ryan freezes for a long moment, caught by uncertainty and indecision.

Ice clinks in his glass as he spins it idly between his fingers, skidding on the condensation, hot-meets-cold, testament to the late summer humidity settling over Toronto.

“Let’s ask,” Ryan says eventually, and he knows it’s the right thing to say when Boone’s expression brightens, relieved and hungry and determined.

Ryan can’t imagine saying no to that.

He doesn’t think Seth will, either.

But not until after the tournament.

(Important is not a synonym for immediate.)

* * *

Seth does not see it coming, not even in his peripheral vision. That’s all he’s allowed himself to look with, so it’s no surprise that the edges are fuzzy, that he didn’t see everything. It takes a little while to examine all the evidence and to consider the hypotheticals.

It does not take long for him to say yes.

In hindsight, Ryan’s careful explanation will be funny and insufficient and everything Seth needed. Boone will be steady and solid and sarcastic enough to keep all three of them comfortable.

It’s going to work.

It’s going to be hot.

(Time marches along. The season will start. They may move slowly or take it fast. They’ll end up in the same place all the same.)