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so much to feel good about

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If you had asked Nick, back at the draft, where he would be right about now, he would have been pretty close to spot on.

That is, rocking it in the AHL, not hanging out in Utica with a bunch of guys. (Not in the best open relationship in the world with a guy named Dylan Strome.) He could work with it, though.

Dylan had told him about it, actually, having all of his connections like he did. (It was always Dylan, he thought.) There was a party and free booze, so it wasn’t exactly like Nick was complaining. What better way to top off the weekend than with a party and free booze?

“Think I can pick somebody up here?” Dylan asked at some point on the way there, and Nick scrunched his nose, looking over at him.

“That’s all you ever think about, I swear.”

“You don’t have to be jealous just because I’m getting laid and you’re not.”

Nick just sort of stared for a moment before laughing, unable to help it. “Okay, yes, of course you can. You just smile at guys and they practically fall over themselves trying to get at you.”

“That’s more like it,” Dylan hummed.

Nick rolled his eyes, and he could he could hear Capobianco chirping in his head, something about being an enabler. Dylan was too good to him, though, so it wasn't a big deal. Besides, it was nothing that wasn't true. Nick had first-hand experience, there.

It wasn’t like Nick was jealous, but he was always sort of in awe of how easy Dylan made it look. Besides, he knew he had Dylan whenever he wanted, first. If it meant Dylan was having a good time, he wasn't going to judge one bit.

As if reading his mind, Dylan said, “Just watch and learn, Merkley. Do what I do and you’ll be a master in no time.”

“I hate you,” Nick said, and Dylan laughed.

When their Uber stopped at the place, they got out and he followed Dylan in, eyes immediately scanning the crowd of guys who had already shown up. Not bad. He immediately steered Dylan toward where the kitchen probably was until they found it, grinning at the sight of red cups.

Jordan was standing there already, pouring whiskey into a cup, and he grinned upon seeing the two of them. “Arizona boys decided to show up, huh?” He set down his cup and took turns giving them both hugs, and Nick smiled, happy to see them. With all the craziness of the season, playing against each other and all that, it was nice to be able to just relax with his friends for a bit.

“Arizona boys who are both Canadian,” Dylan agreed, and Nick snorted.

“Dyl, shut the fuck up,” he laughed, and grabbed an empty cup. “Fill me up, Schmaltz.”

“I see what you’re here for.” Jordan poured him a cup all the same, then did one for Dylan as well. “Now, don’t have too much fun, okay?”

Dylan winked, and Nick groaned.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna go enjoy a fucking party like a normal person,” Nick declared, heading back toward the living room.

He didn’t hear Dylan following, which was fine, because he knew enough of the guys that he didn’t need to follow around his teammate like a lapdog. He took a spot on the couch, on the other side from Luke, and took a sip from his cup.

“Alright, what have I missed?” he asked, grinning.

The party seemed to have an endless funnel of alcohol, most of which was getting pressed into Nick’s hands without him even having to get up to go find it. At some point, Dylan found his way back, wedging himself up against Luke’s side on the couch, even if there was hardly enough room.

Nick shot him a knowing smile and Dylan offered a half-shrug in return, which, fair. Kunin was as good a choice as any, he supposed, even if he would really rather not let himself imagine that.

This was the part that always amazed him, how Dylan managed to do it without even saying a word. He literally just sat down next to him, and Luke already looked a bit dazed, looking up at Dylan in thought.

“Did you hear about what Dylan did a few weeks ago?” he asked, which effectively got Luke’s attention, a few other guys, too. Nick grinned, always happy to have the crowd on him if it meant a chance at embarrassing a friend.

He launched into the story of how the two of them had gone out grocery shopping, and Dylan had knocked over an entire thing of apples, like, just like in the movies and shit. “Have you seen this guy when he’s trying to follow an NHL game while he’s out shopping? It’s fucking ridiculous, he will literally be walking backwards next to me trying to get video to load on his phone, and when I tell him there’s no reception, he just ignores—”

“—there was definitely reception, you just didn’t give me enough time to load—”

“—and then he ends up running into me and tripping…”

It was easy, to go on like this, chirping his friend while getting comments from the others about how yeah, that was Dylan, and how they totally knew guys on their teams who’d do the same. He had what felt like a million stories, and it was so nice to think that this was his life, that he was really playing hockey and having this much fun with it every day.

Somebody made a comment about how Dylan was probably just trying to text a girl and was using hockey as an excuse, and okay, yeah, Nick could play that game, too.

“Luke does the same shit,” Thatcher claimed, and Nick laughed.

Luke was talking to Jordan about something, now, but he wasn’t really paying attention, not caring. He was pretty sure Luke had stopped paying attention to his stories a few minutes ago, anyway, too enamoured by Dylan. He wondered, vaguely, if he and Dylan had done this before, if that was why it was so easy.

“Why do you think he played college? Sororities,” Mitchell added.

“Oh, really? Maybe somebody should ask Kunzy about that.”

Luke finally looked up, at that, and Nick saw Jordan leaving. He was distantly aware of a game of cup pong happening over where he was headed, but he just grinned, bright, focusing on Luke.

“You know what, Kunzy, let me ask you a question,” he said, trying not to break out laughing. “Why’d you wanna play college hockey?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” He took a drink from his cup, then put it down and smiled out at them. “For the girls.”

They’d all known it was coming from a mile away, but they all still laughed, a bit too on the wrong side of tipsy not to. Nick saw Dylan laughing, too, and he smiled even more, glad to see him enjoying himself. It seemed like he was down so often about everything with the Coyotes, so it was good to see him like this.

"Okay, nope, nope, I can't, Canadian," Nick said, but it was too late, the American boys already singing about playing for the United States of America.

He watched as Luke got up and left, then watched as Dylan followed. He smiled and watched Dylan go, then turned back to the conversation, because somebody had made the claim that Mystery, Alaska was better, and now that was a whole thing. "But Miracle is so American," somebody said, and, "We literally play in the American hockey league, so doesn't that automatically make Miracle better?"

"I'm pretty sure Alaska is American," Nick added, and somebody groaned.

After a while longer of that— he had lost track of how much time it took to reach the conclusion that yes, Miracle was better— Dylan showed up, again, and announced that he was leaving. That earned more groans than Nick's Alaska comment, the guys giving him shit for leaving so early. Nick took the chance to finally check the time, and Jesus, it was already past midnight. The buzz of the alcohol was still clouding his mind, and it felt like they'd only been there an hour or two.

While Dylan was grabbing his stuff, Luke came in, and Thatcher was the first to say, "Not you, too, Kunzy," already hopping to his feet to hug him. "Fuckin’ grandpa."

"Yeah, whatever," Luke said, already moving on to say goodbye to everybody else.

And then like that, Dylan and Luke were both gone, and Nick knew that Dylan had gotten what he wanted. He didn't think about it too much, knowing that it didn't matter. He could chirp Dylan all he wanted later for going for an American. That was maybe one of the benefits of not hooking up as much, that Dylan didn't really have any ammo to use back against him, in that situation. He looked around the room once again, taking in all of the familiar faces, thinking.

He thought about it, for sure. Dylan had literally just shown him how easy it was, if he wanted to just let loose and forget about everything for a bit. He almost thought it was a good idea, too. Ultimately, he decided against it, though, because that was sort of Dylan's thing, and it just... wasn't him.

Part of him really thought it was just Dylan's way of coping with everything that was going on in his life that he couldn't control, like again— hockey. He hated to keep thinking like that, especially after they'd just finished up with the AHL All-Star Game, which was, like, amazing, but he knew Dylan wanted more than that. Expected more than that. He thought about Luke, and he hoped that whatever they were up to would make Dylan happy, at least for a bit.

By the time Nick's attention was called back to his surroundings, somebody was saying he should probably get back to his hotel. He blinked a few times and nodded, standing up with a yawn. "Fuck, it really is getting late, huh?"

"Yeah. I gotta try to sleep eventually, too," Thatcher said, and right, this was Thatcher's place.

"Need help cleaning up or anything?" Nick asked, looking around at the apartment. It wasn't horrible, but there were cups everywhere, and the whole place did kind of smell like booze. Thatcher just shrugged, though.

"Should be good. Thanks, though, man. See you sometime soon I hope?"

"Yeah, for sure."

That was pretty much that. Nick lingered to talk for another minute with some of the other guys who hadn't left yet, but he found himself back at his hotel room in no time, draped out across the bed and closing his eyes already. With the high of the party wearing off, already worn off, it was almost all too easy to just let himself fall asleep without another thought. He at least set his phone alarm, not wanting to miss the flight back to Tucson.

He fell asleep with a smile on his lips, thinking that if this was life as a hockey player, it was gonna be a pretty good life.









He sat next to Dylan on the plane, of course.

"Have fun last night?" he asked, and Dylan just groaned.

"Don't talk to me," he said, and that pretty much summed it up.



Nick hummed, understanding, because that was about where he was at, too. "Just that?" he asked, because he didn't want to get too into Dylan's personal business or whatever, but he knew Dylan was pretty open with him. And besides, there was a pretty obvious hickey on Dylan's neck, which he could chirp him about later, before it became a problem.

"Mm. Luke was good."

"I bet." Nick pressed a lazy kiss to Dylan's cheek, knowing that nobody else on the plane would see. "Happy, then?"

"Of course."

"Good." Nick closed his eyes, smiling. "That all I wanted to hear."