Chapter 1: Prologue: Draft Day
Tito didn’t quite know when it had happened. In fact, he was probably in love with Mat for much longer than he even knew, but that was no surprise. Mat was like a magnet, people couldn’t help but be drawn to him. It was something that happened subconsciously, Mat attracted people without realizing it. Probably from the time Mat had greeted him in French by saying “Bon Matin,” Tito loved him. He didn’t know it at the time, but looking back it was so obvious that Mat would be the person that Tito could spend his life chasing after.
Of course, back then, when they were fifteen or sixteen, things were so much simpler. Mat was some kid that Tito would see a few times a year. They were just two kids who dreamed about making the NHL, a dream that seemed unlikely but nevertheless they held out hope. This was the hope that made Tito focus. If making the NHL was the end goal then Tito was okay with sacrificing things in the present. The ache of missing his brother’s birthday while on a road trip or the homesickness that came while in Shawinigan would all seem worth it once he made the NHL. Making the pros didn’t come without sacrifices, Tito knew that so all the crushes that came and went after never being acted on seemed trivial. Then again, all those crushes that came and went weren’t Mat.
Ever since Ivan Hinkla, Mat was a constant in Tito’s life. At first, they’d texted occasionally. Mat wrote to him in French and always had helped out bridging the language barrier between the quebecois and the other Canadians on the team. But the universe kept bringing them back together for World Juniors. Slowly, Mat evolved from being a good hockey friend to being a good friend. They’d won Ivan Hlinka, but since then, they hadn’t won together. He’d hated the feeling of third place in the World Juniors. He was used to losing, but even after all these years, the feeling never really went away. Mat hated losing too, but he didn’t internalize it in the same way that Tito did. Besides, Mat had racked up twelve points in the tournament, he had a performance to be proud of. Tito, well, he went home and spent hours shooting at the practice goal at his billet parents’s house.
Every time that he was put on a team with Mat the feelings that he buried in between tournaments resurfaced. Mat was an intangible, a question mark that Tito didn’t have an answer for, but every time he returned home from seeing Mat, he buried his feelings again. Acting on those feelings, if he ever did, could be shelved. There was no sense of urgency to act on them. Mat was on the other side of the country for most of the year and their friendship survived on Snapchats and video calls, that was enough.
But then the draft happened. Tito didn’t believe in signs. He wasn’t particularly superstitious either, but if he was, surely being drafted 16th and 28th overall by the same team was a sign. He had expected Mat’s name to be called earlier and even though Mat hadn’t said anything, Tito was certain that Mat had expected to be drafted higher. The past year hadn’t been fair. Mat’s injury had stalled his progress and Tito had felt helpless after getting pics of Mat resting while his teammates were away on trips. He couldn’t do anything to speed up Mat’s recovery and the fact that he was able to play while Mat couldn’t didn’t seem fair. But as Tito heard his name called 28th overall, he wondered if it had all happened for a reason. If Mat had been healthy, he would have been picked sooner. Tito knew how talented Mat was, he knew the scouts knew how talented Mat was and he knew the Islanders had made a good choice. Tito had put on the jersey and the snapback that they’d tossed at him and made his way to the press conference where journalists were busy covering the draft. Tito was shepherded through the questions, offering pre-prepared answers and hoping that he didn’t forget any English words.
“How does it feel that Mat Barzal has also been drafted by the New York Islanders?”
“I’m excited. Mat’s a good friend of mine. We’ve played together before, and I’m excited that we’ll be playing together and, uh, hopefully bringing a cup to New York.”
By the time that Tito was allowed to return to his hotel room, he was exhausted but happy.
Are you still up? Mat texted.
I don’t know if I can sleep . Tito replied.
I’m coming over.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, there was a knock on the hotel door. Tito opened the door and Mat barged in. “I’m so excited,” Mat said, pulling Tito in for a hug.
Tito staggered back but tightened his grip on Mat, “Me too. I didn’t think…”
“Fuck, I can’t believe it, we’re going to New York together. We’re gonna win a cup together, you know,” Mat said.
Tito wanted to ask how Mat could possibly promise that, but Mat’s enthusiasm was so bright that Tito didn’t dare question it. He smiled and Mat sat on the bed already pulling up some tourist destinations near the Barclay Center and making hypothetical plans. Tito sat back against the headrest and looked at the pictures that Mat was showing him. Mat was taking a lot for granted, that they’d both be healthy, that the contracts would work out, that they’d stay up, but Tito was excited. He knew though, as he listened to Mat talk about the plans for the future that his pesky feelings that he’d tried so hard to push aside would be resurrected. He could hide them for a few weeks every year when they played on the same team, but being on the same professional team was different. He knew that he was in trouble. He also knew that he would always need Mat more than Mat needed him. But for that moment, he allowed himself to bask in the excitement of being drafted together. Everything else could be put on pause.
this is still kind of part of the intro, but it covers the 2016-2017 year. Things will pick up starting in the next chapter.
The summer after the draft, Tito and Mat communicated almost everyday in some form at least. Mat was buzzing with excitement every time that Tito had talked to him. He was still in the process of fully recovering from the injury that had sidelined him during the draft year, but from everything Tito had heard, Mat was making good progress. Without a doubt, they were going back to the junior leagues in the fall. Only a few, like Connor McDavid, made the seamless jump to the NHL, but Tito knew that even after being drafted he’d be in the junior league again. Mat wasn’t thrilled about it, Tito knew that a part of him had held out hope that being drafted in the higher end of the first round would have at least sent him to Bridgeport, but Mat didn’t complain or if he did, Tito wasn’t privy to it. They were friends, becoming even better ones, but Mat didn’t show his vulnerabilities to Tito. And that was fine, but it wasn’t easy for Tito.
He’d moved to the New York not really knowing anyone, sure the guys were nice and welcoming, but there was a significant difference between being a nineteen year old kid and a married family man like so many of his teammates were. His English had improved, but there were times that his mind would blank out on a word. Speaking English all the time was exhausting, there were days when he’d go back to his hotel room and collapse just because of mental exhaustion. And Mat wasn’t there for any of it.
There were some days that all Tito wanted to do was call Mat up and complain about his day. They were drafted to the same team and lived similar lifestyles and Mat would understand. But the problem was that Tito was in New York and Mat was back in Seattle. Even though Mat claimed to be okay with going back to the Thunderbirds, Tito remembered how crushed Mat had been when the coaches told him that he was heading back to the WHL. Tito felt uncomfortable complaining to Mat because he knew that Mat was dying to be here. He wasn’t ungrateful for the opportunity, but it was hard, he just couldn’t tell him that.
Then in December Mat was called up for the World Juniors and Tito was still being bounced between Bridgeport and New York. Mat had called him up after Tito had seen the roster and sent him a congratulatory text.
“Hey,” Mat said.
“Congratulations!” Tito exclaimed.
“Thanks, it’ll be good, you know. Won’t be the same without you though,” Mat said.
“Maybe you’ll win this time,” Tito joked even though it fell flat.
“We have even less of a chance,” Mat replied. They didn’t talk about their sixth place finish. Maybe Mat truly thought that Tito had been an asset, but Tito knew that he’d been lackluster. A part of him had wanted to be called up for the tournament again. He knew that the NHL was where everyone wanted to end up, but he had hoped that he’d get a chance to rewrite the end of his junior career. He’d wanted to bring home that gold with Mat by his side.
“Nah, you’ll bring home the medal,” Tito replied.
Mat paused for a second.
“Is everything okay?” Tito asked.
“Yeah, I just… are you planning on coming to see a game?” Mat asked.
Tito paused. He knew that they were playing right by his hometown. He’d thought about going, too, but there was no stability in his life right now. He didn’t want to promise and get Mat’s hopes up only to cancel last minute.
“I’ll be watching all the games, I promise,” Tito said noncommittedly.
“I just thought you might be in the area for Christmas,” Mat said.
“I don’t know if I’ll even be called up then.”
“Are they talking about sending you back down?” Mat asked.
Tito shrugged even though Mat couldn’t see. “I mean, it’s not shocking.”
“They’d be fucking stupid to do that,” Mat said surprising Tito with his defensiveness.
“I mean, I’d get more playing time,” Tito said.
“Yeah, but you’re made for the NHL,” Mat said.
“So are you,” Tito replied. “You’re gonna be here next year, you’re killing it this year.”
“You think?” Mat said.
“I would,” Tito said. There was a muffled yell on the other end of the phone and Tito knew that the conversation would be wrapping up.
“Shit, I gotta go, but thanks for calling,” Mat said.
“They’re really lucky to have you. Hey, if we don’t talk before, uh, Merry Christmas,” Tito said.
“Thanks,” Mat said and Tito could hear the smile in his voice.
The way things worked out, the Islanders had a break around New Years. Mat had been sending Tito snaps from the tournament and Tito had double checked the schedule to make sure it was okay to fly out for a game. He’d been back home for Christmas and his parents had mentioned maybe going to see a game or two of the tournament. Tito missed the excitement that he’d had the year before when he’d been getting ready for the tournament and now a lot of his friends and old teammates were preparing without him. Besides he missed them. He missed Mat more than he’d thought or wanted to admit.
So Tito flew out, ready to catch a game and fly back early the next day. He’d texted Dylan, who’d been remarkably unhelpful, to double check the hotel they were staying at and see when they’d be there. If Dylan was surprised he didn’t let on, but Tito knew that he had other priorities than his visit.
He’d felt odd entering the lobby and seeing some of the Team Canada players sitting in the lobby chairs. His eyes immediately searched for Mat and saw him in the middle of conversation with Mitch Stephens who was the first to see Tito. He elbowed Mat out of his sentence and nodded over to divert Mat’s attention.
“You came?” Mat nearly yelled when he saw Tito. He strode across the lobby and hugged Tito.
“Yeah, I wanted it to be a surprise,” Tito said as he hugged Mat back. He could feel the stares of the other Team Canada members. Some who knew them both and others who’d been called up for the first time.
“I didn’t think you’d make it,” Mat said.
“I can’t stay long, but I mean, I wanted to be here,” Tito said. I wanted to see you.
In person Mat looked really good. He looked happy. He quickly waved off his teammates, telling Tito affectionately that he was getting sick of them and pulled Tito to the side for their own conversation.
They caught up, Tito told Mat about some of his favorite restaurants in New York that he thought Mat would like. Once again they talked as though the plans were definite. In Tito’s mind they were. He knew that his position with the Islanders wasn’t solidified, but he hadn’t been exaggerating that Mat would be with the team next year.
Their conversation ended when the team was corralled for video review and Mat looked chagrined to go. Tito knew though that he wouldn’t be occupying much of Mat’s time, his parents had come down and Tito was set to grab dinner with them and see the game.
“Good luck tonight,” Tito said.
“Thanks,” Mat said.
Sure enough they won. The team that Tito saw had the potential to win in all. This was going to be their year, he knew it. Part of him felt sad watching them congratulate Carter at the end of the game, knowing that he wasn’t a part of it, but he was happy for Mat. Mat deserved it. He deserved the win.
They talked a little more that night even though Taylor Raddysh, Kale and Dylan had all parked themselves in Mat’s room. It felt natural, though, Tito thought, as he caught a glimpse of what it would be like when they were both on a team together. It felt good.
“Win it all, yeah?” Tito said in the morning as he hugged Mat goodbye before heading to the airport for his flight back.
“Channel your inner Eberle,” Tito said and Mat grinned.
Except they didn’t win in all. Sorry . Tito texted as he watched the heartbreaking gold medal game end on his laptop. It wasn’t enough, but he knew that Mat probably wouldn’t want to talk any time soon. It was almost worse to finish second than to finish sixth like the year before. This was it for Mat. There wasn’t going to be a next year.
It took a few hours for Mat to respond. Thanks , thanks for coming, too . Tito didn’t really know how to respond. Mat was hurting from the loss and Tito couldn’t do anything. But next year would be different, Tito promised himself.
I wouldn’t have missed it . Tito settled on as a reply and sent it off to Mat. Mat didn’t reply afterwards.
The rest of the year wasn’t great for Tito. He was bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL and the Islanders were definitely not going to make the playoffs. Even though the statisticians had given them a marginal chance to make it, but it required other teams to lose almost every game and for the Islanders to win all of theirs. Tito was a generally positive person, but he was realistic. There was no way they were going to make it.
Mat, on the other hand, was tearing it up in Seattle. He’d been aloof after World Juniors, still smarting from the loss that Tito hadn’t experienced. The sixth place finish had been embarrassing, but a second place finish was painful. They had been so close and yet they’d been denied the win. Tito tried his best to follow the Thunderbirds from New York. He found himself spending an embarrassing amount of time on the Seattle Thunderbirds YouTube Channel, not that he’d ever admit that to Mat. He knew that Mat was following the Islanders season but it was different. Mat was going to move here eventually, these would be his teammates; Tito didn’t care for anyone else besides Mat.
And then before he knew it the season ended and he was heading back home and Mat was fighting with his team for the championship. Mat had pushed his team to the postseason and even though he was the first to celebrate his teammates accomplishments, Tito knew that he was a large part of the reason for their success. As the Thunderbirds inched closer to the finals, they were getting more press. The Islanders coverage had shifted from the team to some of the prospects who were continuing in the offseason. Headlines and excitement surrounded Mat as he continued to succeed across the country. Tito texted Mat before every round wishing him luck, but Tito knew that he was just one of many sending Mat encouragement. Besides, Mat was too busy captaining the team and focusing on the next game to go too much into detail, nevertheless he didn’t fail to reply to Tito’s messages.
And the Thunderbirds won, and Mat got the airBC award for his hand in the victory. Tito called him up a few days after the win, having seen the photos on Instagram of Mat raising the trophy above his head. Mat had finally gotten his win, even if it was without Tito. By now, the world was starting to fall in love with Mat and Tito was watching. There was a sense of pride in the fact that the rest of the world was starting to realize what he’d known all along. Mat was good. He was elite and he now deserved his place on the Islanders roster.
That summer a few things happened. Tito spent more time in the gym, enough that Francis even thought it was a little much, Mat was predicted to be a star at camp, with now the hopes of the long-suffering Islanders fans now turned towards him, and Jordan Eberle was traded for Ryan Strome.
We got Eberle!!! Mat had texted when he heard the news.
Instead of texting back, Mat called him. “Oh my God, can you believe Edmonton gave him up?”
“I mean there have been trade rumors for a while,” Tito said.
“I know, but we got him,” Mat said. “Like did you see him at World Juniors?”
“Yeah, I watched the same game that you did.”
“Yeah, but that was Canadian history,” Mat gushed. Tito rolled his eyes. Sure, he liked Jordan Eberle from what he knew about him, but he didn’t think as highly of him as Mat did. He didn’t even really know him or know people who did, but he was happy with the trade. Mat, though, was over the moon.
They talked throughout the rest of the summer, Mat had his day with the cup and posted the photos on Instagram of him with his teammates celebrating the high off of the win. Tito continued to work out, packing on extra muscle, building up speed and stamina, and trying his best to stay up with the team. He had expectations for this year. He had to believe that there was a reason that he and Mat were drafted together and he promised himself that once they were settled, he would do something about it. He’d accepted sometime in July after months of not having seen each other that his feelings weren’t going away. Everytime that Mat sent him a Snap or a text, Tito’s face lit up and even his parents and Francis were starting to notice.
“Tito has a girl,” Francis said over breakfast after Tito had just opened up a Snap from Mat.
His mom looked at him with interest and Tito put his phone away, “Shut up. I do not,” Tito said, “It was just Mat.”
Francis looked at him with curiosity and teasing smile. Fuck you . Tito mouthed. Francis just cackled in return. “Say hi for us.”
Tito rolled his eyes and when his mother’s back was turned he flipped Francis off.
“Seriously, though, are you guys gonna live together next year?”
“I don’t know. I mean there’s no guarantee that we’ll both even make the team.”
“Of course, he’s gonna make the team,” Francis said.
“I wasn’t really talking about him,” Tito murmured.
“Oh,” Francis said. He had been supportive, Tito’s whole family had been since he’d been drafted, but even Francis, who understood the hockey lifestyle the best out of all of them, didn’t understand the uncertainty and instability that Tito faced. “But like, at least you’d both have a place there.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Tito said non-committedly.
The idea grew on him though as the summer went on. His priority was, of course, though making the team, but the idea of living together sounded fun. Tito knew the ulterior reason was largely driving this no matter how much he tried to make excuses to himself or reason his way out of his crush, but this way, neither of them would be lonely.
Tito flew into New York a little earlier than most of his other teammates to try and squeeze in a few workouts before camp started and get reacclimated to the hustle of New York. Mat was coming closer to camp; his mother had wanted him to stick around as long as possible because of the very real possibility that Mat would be moving to New York permanently in October. His suitcase remained packed at the foot of the bed, much like it did during the season. He’d hung up a few suits and his favorite pair of jeans, but his hotel room didn’t look well-lived in. Unpacking and making plans to stay almost seemed like a jinx.
He and Mat had been trying to make plans to meet, but Mat had been volleyed between some of the veterans who had been keeping tabs on the wunderkind from Vancouver throughout the season.They, of course, had seen each other at team dinners, but they hadn’t really spent a ton of time together.
It was just when camp was beginning and things started to settle into routine that Tito actually got to spend time with Mat. They were all crammed into two locker rooms vying for just a few spots on the team. It felt natural to see Mat there in the dressing room, pulling on his pads and joking around with the other guys. Mat deserved to be there, Tito wanted him there. He followed him out onto the ice and watched from behind as Mat heaved a sigh.
“You got this,” Tito said and clapped a gloved hand on Mat, and shoved him out on the ice. He followed him through the puck-handling drills feeling the intense gaze of the coaches who were mentally crossing players off their list. Of course, there were some people who were definitely going to make the team. Even though the coaches said that players had to earn their spot on the roster each year, Tito knew that people like JT and Jordan had already made it. There were a solid fifteen players that Tito knew would be back from last year. It just put all the more pressure on the rest of them to fight for the remaining spots. He knew that his wasn’t guaranteed.
They made their way through the conditioning drills and by lunch his legs burned. Josh had thrown up once in the gym from the rigor and Tito had almost done the same. No matter how much he’d worked out or how in shape he was the conditioning drills always tested him, pushing him to the brink of what he was capable of doing and even beyond.
Mat, though, didn’t seem worse for wear afterwards. After the coaches had left and they were alone, Tito had all but collapsed on the ground with some of the others, dropping the facade that they had put up in front of the coaches.
Mat had leaned down and slapped a hand across Tito’s stomach. “You good?”
Tito laughed in between trying to catch his breath, “Yeah, you?”
They ate lunch mostly with the other rookies. It wasn’t particularly segregated between veterans and rookies, but naturally the younger guys had more in common with each other than the married guys who had kids. Tito felt comfortable amongst the guys he knew from Bridgeport and last year’s training camp. They were a little rowdier and still got caught up in the rush of the city. Mat fit in with the rest of them even though he didn’t know them as well as Tito did.
It was subtle, but Tito saw Mat sneak glances over at Jordan Eberle who was in the middle of conversation with JT. In all honesty, Tito hadn’t been sure how Jordan would fit in, he’d seen some guys a little quiet when they first arrived, still smarting from the rejection of the trade but Jordan seemed okay. He’d had all summer to get used to the trade, but still Long Island was different from Edmonton.
They had a few minor things to do in the afternoon, mostly just different tests from doctors, but Tito was ready to say goodbye to the rink by the end of it.
“Want to grab coffee later?” Tito asked Mat as they went to leave.
“Uh…” Mat’s eyes trailed after Jordan who was headed to his car. “Yeah, sure, can you take me back to the hotel afterward?”
There was a small cafe near the hotel that Tito had come to frequent before heading to practice. He drove them there knowing that they’d get some privacy during the afternoon lull. Mat got them a table while Tito ordered two coffees adding just cream to his and cream and a few sugars to Mat’s.
“Thanks,” Mat said as he took his cup from Tito.
“Did I get it right?” Tito asked.
“Yeah,” Mat said, “You remembered.”
Tito rolled his eyes, “Of course. I feel like I haven’t seen you at all.”
Mat laughed, yes, Tito knew that they’d just been at practice together and had had been at team dinners, but it was different. They hadn’t felt like MatANDTito since they’d been in New York.
“I have a good feeling about this,” Tito said.
“I don’t want to jinx it, but yeah, I do, too,” Mat agreed with a small smile. Practice had gone well. Mat was in better shape than some of the veterans, he was making perfect passes and had scored on Greiss a few times and Tito knew that he was establishing himself in the right way to stay in New York.
“They’ll definitely pick you,” Tito said.
“You don’t know that,” Mat said.
“I’m just a little worried,” Tito admitted.
“If they send you down, they’ll definitely send me down,” Mat said.
He felt a tinge guilty saying this aloud to Mat who hadn’t had a season with the Islanders yet, but even if Mat didn’t believe it, Tito knew that Mat was better than him. He’d just had a run of bad luck with injuries, but Tito truly believed that management had made a mistake by sending Mat to Seattle. They wouldn’t make that mistake again. But with Tito, he was good, but there were plenty of other good players at camp that would be sent back to the AHL, all he could do was hope to not be one of them.
“Hey, I was thinking, do you know what you’ll do for housing for the season?” Tito asked.
Mat looked at him with a smirk knowing that Tito was deliberately speaking in definitives, “Uh, yeah, I was talking with JT and some of the guys and I was planning on staying with one of the vets. Sieds and his wife offered.”
Tito froze as Mat continued on about the reasons it made sense to stay with a vet and how it would help him adjust and that his mom was on board. He couldn’t fault Mat, they had made no definitive plans to live together and Tito hadn’t even suggested it.
“What about you?” Mat asked.
“I mean, if I’m still here, I’ll probably get an apartment.”
“Cool,” Mat said.
“Yeah,” Tito said, but the conversation had soured and Mat didn’t seem to notice. They stayed a little while longer before Tito drove Mat back to the hotel and Tito went to his room. “ Fuck, ” he murmured. They hadn’t even started the season and already things weren’t going his way.
The news that he’d made the team was dampened by the housing situation. He’d complained to Francis, hoping that his brother would empathize, but Francis just laughed at him. “You can’t be mad at him. He didn’t even know that you had this whole year planned out,” Francis said.
Deep down, Tito knew that Francis was right, but it wasn’t just the change of plans, it was the fact that it had never even crossed Mat’s mind. Mat had thought about living with Dennis Seidenberg, who was nice, but not someone that Mat seemed to have a lot in common with, before he had even considered living with Tito. That was the part that hurt the most, though.
“Don’t let it get you down, though,” Francis said, “You’re on the team. You both are on the team.”
“Yeah,” Tito said.
“Mom and Dad said their coming down for the first game of the season,” Francis said.
“They are?” Tito said actually excited for the first time since the conversation started.
“Yeah, Mom’s been missing you,” Francis said.
“Aw, I’m the favorite child after all,” Tito said.
“I take it back, they’re just going for the shopping,” Francis said but Tito could hear the smile in his brother’s voice.
“Hey, thanks,” Tito said.
“You’re welcome. Just-” Francis cut himself off.
“I just want you to have fun this year.”
“I will,” Tito said.
Tito tried to be one of the first ones in the dressing room. He took his time getting changed, taping up his sticks, and listening to some music before heading out onto the ice. He was next to Josh towards the edge of the locker room just a few stalls down from Mat.
“Hey,” Mat said as he pulled Tito’s headphones off.
“Hey,” Tito said with a grin. Mat had just arrived with Seids still with enough time, though, to not be rushing.
“ Have Fun =) , ” Mat read, “Cute.”
Tito rolled his eyes, Mat wasn’t the first to tease him about his sticks. “It’s better than just your name and number,” he shrugged.
“I think I’ll stick with being boring,” Mat grinned.
“You’re far from boring,” Tito replied as Mat just walked away.
He turned to his left to see Josh just staring at him.
“Nothing,” Josh said as he shook his head to himself and busied himself with taping his stick. “Looks like Mat’s really getting along with Ebs.”
Tito’s face fell. “What?”
Josh tilted his head towards Mat who was busy talking to Ebs. He was closer than he needed to be, laughing at something that Ebs had said and gently placing a hand on his arm.
Something ugly settled in the pit of Tito’s stomach. It didn’t mean anything. He and Josh were friendly, but Tito had no interest in him. He was close to Quiner and some of the guys who’d been sent to Bridgeport.
“Yeah, I guess,” Tito said and focused on putting on the rest of his gear.
While some of the other lines were getting solidified, Tito was still being shopped around. He was put on a line with JT, but it wasn’t a great fit. They had different playing styles, JT was always a few steps ahead of Tito and there were some plays that JT had started that Tito couldn’t finish. The team was patient with him, JT was sympathetic and gave him time and extra communication, but it was Tito’s own expectations that he was letting down. Besides, that patience would expire at some point and he just didn’t know when.
“Lunch?” Tito asked after practice.
“I was actually gonna grab lunch with Ebs,” Mat said with an apologetic smile. “Tomorrow, though?”
“Sure,” Tito said.
“Want to talk about it?” Josh asked after Mat had walked away.
“Nothing to talk about,” Tito said.
“Lunch though, there’s a new taco place that opened up that I want to try,” Josh said.
“Okay, sounds good,” Tito said.
His friendship with Josh was easy and uncomplicated. The only thing he didn’t like was Josh’s perceptiveness. He wasn’t sure why exactly, but Josh knew how to read a room better than almost anyone that Tito knew. Maybe that’s why he felt comfortable enough at lunch to talk to him. Not about everything, even though Tito was pretty certain that Josh knew almost everything about him and his pathetic crush.
“You know, don’t you?” Tito asked.
Josh set his taco down and wiped his hands off. “About…”
Tito glanced around, “That I’m… you know.” gay . He mouthed.
“I didn’t,” Josh said, “But thank you for telling me.”
“Really? I thought you knew? You always know everything,” Tito said.
“Firstly, I don’t know everything , I’m just a little more observant than some people. And no, I’m not shocked, I wondered…” Josh said after a pause. “I didn’t really see you with anyone or hear about a girlfriend, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Yeah,” Tito said unsure what else to say.
Instead the conversation shifted to movies and Canada and predictions for the junior league and Tito felt himself relax.
“Thanks for being cool with this,” Tito said after they wrapped up lunch and they headed to their cars.
“Were the others not?” Josh asked.
Tito frowned, “They don’t know. I mean my brother does. I’m pretty sure my parents know even though we’ve never actually talked about it, but nobody on the team knows.”
“Hm…” Josh said. “If the day comes where you want to tell them, I think they’d take it really well. But that’s only if you want to.”
“Thanks Josh,” Tito said as he leaned over to hug him.
He lingered in the car for a few moments after Josh had left the parking lot and smiled to himself. Even after today, Josh didn’t know the whole story, Tito wasn’t ready for that conversation, if it would ever happen. Besides his crush on Mat did affect Josh even if tangentially. But for now, someone on the team knew, and that was a hell of a lot easier to share a secret with another person than to keep it to himself. It was just too bad that Josh was sent back down in October.
Josh’s demotion served as a wake up call for the rest of them. He hadn’t had a great start to the season, sure, but it certainly wasn’t horrible and if management was willing to send Josh back down, Tito knew that they wouldn’t spare a second thought for him to be sent back to the AHL. Tito’s mood had soured since Josh left. Not only was he missing his friend, but now he had a front row seat for whatever the hell was going on between Mat and Jordan. It was selfish, but having Josh around had been a distraction for him, but without Josh, Tito had hockey and Mat.
Sensing Tito’s frustration, Mat had given him a berth of space, but it wasn’t a typical mood that Tito could just snap out of on his own. Worse yet, Tito’s own play was suffering. His season was starting out with a sluggish start. It wasn’t how he had imagined his sophomore season going and there was the thought in the back of his mind that Mat was responsible, if indirectly. He’d been so good, so focused when Mat had been back in Seattle, but now that Mat was here, hockey was competing for Tito’s attention. Mat had insisted on grabbing lunch though after practice, hoping to shake Tito out of his funk.
“It’s kind of weird, you know, not knowing how long we’ll be up here,” Mat said as he picked at his sandwich. This was after Mat had scored his first NHL goal less than two weeks ago and showed no signs of letting up. Tito almost scoffed at the irony. It was his concern, not Mat’s though.
“I mean for me, I guess,” Tito said.
“For any of us,” Mat corrected.
“You can’t be serious,” Tito said.
“I don’t know if you’re out of touch or if you’re saying it to patronize me, but we both know that you, Jordan, JT, you’re not going anywhere,” Tito said.
“I was sent down last year,” Mat reminded him.
“And now you’re one of the best rookies in the league,” Tito said.
“You know, Jordan, I feel bad for him,” Mat said trying to shift the conversation from one sensitive topic to another. If Tito had to hear about Jordan one more time, he thought he was going to scream.
“I mean it happens,” Tito said.
“Yeah, but there are some guy you know are never going to be traded. Crosby, McDavid, I thought Jordan was one of them.”
Tito gritted his teeth and tried not to roll his eyes when he realized that Mat was being completely serious. “You can’t be serious. Ebs is good, but he’s not Crosby or McDavid good.”
“Come on, have you seen the-”
“The World Juniors?” Tito interrupted, “Yeah.”
“You don’t like him very much do you?” Mat asked.
“No, I do, he seems fine, but I just don’t get the hype, that’s all.”
“Are you kidding? He carried the Oilers for the better part of a decade before McDavid. Why can’t you see it?”
“Because I’m not up his ass like you are,” Tito said. Mat flinched and his jaw clenched tightly. That was one of the hardest things about having been friends for so long, Tito knew exactly the right buttons to press to hit a nerve. It was the same for Mat. Having observed countless skirmishes and having been a part of several of their own, six years of friendship had given Tito an education on Mat.
“At least I’m trying to get to know my teammates as opposed to skulking around my hotel room,” Mat said and Tito could tell his patience was being tested. “I mean, his best friend got traded, and then he had a rough year and now he’s traded halfway across the continent, it’s not easy for him.”
“It happens all the time. People get traded, teams change, I just don’t know why you think Jordan is such an exception.”
Mat’s jaw clenched and he fished in his pocket for his wallet. He dropped a couple of twenties on the table, enough to cover the bill and went to stand up. “You’re being a real dick, Anthony.”
And that’s how Tito knew it was serious because aside from when they first met, Mat had only used his full name when he was angry or annoyed with him, which had thankfully been only a few times.
“No, I’m going, okay, I’ll see you at practice tomorrow,” Mat said as he brushed past him.
Mat all but ignored him at practice the next day, as much as he could while still being on a line with him. Tito was paired with Ebs and Mat, because of course he was. Jordan looked between them curiously when Mat playfully celebrated a goal, but Tito stayed on the outside of the celebration. There was nothing that Mat did that was inherently wrong, Tito knew this. He’d known it as they were arguing, but Mat had unwittingly stepped on all the landmines in their relationship. Tito sighed, this was all his fault, a stew of jealousy over Mat’s talent and his friendship with Jordan. It was even worse that Tito knew Ebs was a good guy, but he was a good guy who Mat was enamored with and suddenly that negated all of his good qualities.
“Do you want to hang out?” Tito asked.
Ebs was surprised at the gesture, but graciously accepted the truce that Tito was offering. Mat looked at him warily.
“Lunch?” Ebs asked.
“Sure…” Tito agreed.
Mat looked like he wanted to join them, unsure of how the lunch would unfold because the last thing they needed was two of their players to end up on Deadspin, but Jordan waved him off.
The ride to the pizza place Jordan had suggested was in awkward silence. Jordan didn’t seem to mind, but the anticipation that Tito felt about the conversation they were going to have was like pulling off a bandage.
Before ordering, Jordan filled the space talking about Canada
“You know, you guys remind me a lot of how Taylor and I used to be.”
“It made the first couple of years really fun,” Jordan said as he got lost in his own memories. “I’m glad you have such a good friend on the team.”
“Mat is… Mat’s great,” Tito said feeling kind of stupid. Of course Mat was great, everyone knew that.
“Yeah, he is,” Jordan agreed. Jordan looked at him patiently and with an understanding that unnerved Tito.
“Do you miss Edmonton?” Tito asked.
“Yes and no. I’m happy here, I like New York, but there are some things that I really miss. But it’s a fresh start, right?”
Jordan proceeded to ask Tito what he’d liked last year about living in the city, as if Tito was some authority. He didn’t have the pride to admit that he’d gone to most of the tourist traps and the popular restaurants that had been featured in magazines. Ebs listened, though, suggesting that maybe they revisit some of the places. He was trying which was more than Tito could say.
And so the lunch was a truce. Mat was right, Ebs was a good guy, he was an experienced vet who’d taken rookies under his wing back in Edmonton and now in New York. It didn’t make it easier, though, admitting that his ill feelings stemmed from the fact that Mat’s feelings, whatever they were, were beyond his control.
Whether or not Jordan had talked to Mat, the iciness that had settled over their friendship seemed to thaw. Tito brought in a cup of coffee for Mat the next day, writing =) on the side in a borrowed Sharpie and Mat had rolled his eyes, but accepted it. That’s what six years of friendship had crafted. Even though they knew how to get on each other’s nerves, they also knew how to move past things. And even though Mat and Jordan were still chummier than Tito would have liked, things were okay. Until they played the Devils.
Also if anyone has a Mat/Tito idea that they'd like to see written, feel free to request it at queenofbroadstreet.tumblr.com Always happy to write new things, within reason :)
At first, Tito thought that Jordan’s hesitancy to talk about his tenure at Edmonton was because he didn’t want to seem like he didn’t want to be here. Jordan seemed to be liking New York well enough and he wasn’t one of those players who chose to be aloof and lick his own wounds. They hadn’t had many people like that since Tito had been on the team, most of the guys were coming from shitty situations and even though the Islanders might not have been their first choice, it wasn’t the worst place that they could have ended up.
But Jordan didn’t mention Edmonton, if possible. If he was asked about it, he’d answer the question, but Tito noticed how Jordan, or even Mat, would try and divert the conversation elsewhere. Maybe this is what he’d meant by a ‘fresh start’. Jordan had cut out the part of him that had been in Edmonton in favor of the player he was today. Tito understood trying to not get hung up on the past, but the way Jordan skirted the subject almost made it obvious how painful it was to even think about.
Nobody had actually sat them down and talked about it with them, but even for being relatively dense hockey players, they had perceived the barrier that Jordan had created. Besides, New York was his new home now and Edmonton was in the past. Josh hadn’t returned for long and after the winter break, it seemed like he was going to spend the rest of the season in the AHL. Meanwhile, Tito had had a front row seat to Mat fawning over Jordan. Jordan got a goal . Did you see that pass in the second? Tito noticed how in Mat’s mind, ‘Ebs’ had become ‘Jordan’. It’s not like the rest of them didn’t call him ‘Jordan’ occasionally, but hockey monikers were the go to. This was more personal, though, for the same reason that Tito called Mat ‘Mat’ instead of ‘Barz’; it showed they were closer than just teammates.
They took to the ice before the game, Mat trailing just behind Ebs as usual. The Devils were already out on the ice, warming up and loosening up before the face off. Tito looked over at Mat who was looking at Jordan who was staring across the red line. On the other side, Taylor Hall playfully smashed Nico Hischier against the glass.
“Ebs, come on, want to run the line?” Mat said.
Jordan didn’t move.
“Ebs. Jordan,” Mat said, skating up next to him and wrapping a loose arm around his waist.
It was like Jordan was in a trance and Mat just snapped him out of it. “Right, yeah.”
It was the three of them, skating up towards Halak and chipping a shot in. Jordan kept glancing over at where Taylor Hall was, keeping an eye on him, watching him practice, but as far as Tito saw, Taylor never once looked over towards him. He simply didn’t seem to care.
Tito wondered if much like Ebs had left Edmonton behind, Taylor had as well. One thing was clear, though, Ebs hadn’t left Taylor or those memories back in Canada.
They won the game 5-4. Tito walked away with a goal, Barzy with two assists and Jordan with one. Taylor had had a two point game. It was as though someone had a lit a fire under him. Sentimentality didn’t spare him from checking Jordan or playing a physically aggressive game against him. It wasn’t dirty, but it certainly wasn’t restrained. He had something to prove and Jordan did as well.
Mat didn’t take the physically aggressive play lightly. Tito had seen him at the receiving end of hard checks all throughout the season. Ebs had gone down from a hit from Hischier, and Mat had taken exception to it. There was a scrum around the Devil’s goal as Jordan staggered to his feet. Tito had grabbed some defender, but Mat and Taylor were busy exchanging words. For a moment, Tito thought it would come to blows before the referees intervened. Jordan was fine. Mat triple checked as Ebs brushed off his concern and continued play.
Tito wanted to say that he would have done the same thing. He wanted to say that he would have been a good linemate and that Mat was just doing what any teammate would have done. But Tito saw the way that Mat’s eyes followed Jordan. It was as though they couldn’t help themselves. Tito just wondered if Mat would have been as incensed if Tito had been the one knocked down.
Jordan and Taylor had run into each other after the game as they headed towards the locker room. Tito was a few paces behind, having been in no rush to head back in the locker room. He just wanted to celebrate the goal and the win.
“Hey,” Jordan said.
“Hi,” Taylor replied.
“Um-” Jordan and Taylor both started to say something but stopped. “Sorry, uh, how are you?” Jordan asked.
“I’m good. How are you?” Taylor asked. The conversation was stilted.
“Your rookie’s good,” Taylor said.
“Yeah, he’s a good kid,” Jordan said. “Um, do you want to catch up, grab a drink?”
“Sorry, early morning flight,” Taylor said. Tito saw Jordan’s lips quirk up as if he was going to protest but stopped.
“Yeah, um, you had a good game.”
“Thanks,” Taylor said.
Taylor jerked his head towards Tito, reminding Jordan that they weren’t alone. “I’ll see you later, Ebs.”
Jordan was stoically quiet, even for him in the locker room.
“Drinks on me boys!”
“Are you coming?” Tito asked as he finished stuffing his bag.
Jordan paused, feeling everyone looking at him expectantly, “Nah, I’m getting too old for this.”
“Mat, you’re coming right?” Tito asked.
Mat glanced over to Jordan.
“C’mon, aren’t you going to celebrate my goal with me?” Tito asked trying to sound like he was teasing but it didn’t quite come out as lightly as he had intended.
“I’ll buy you lunch tomorrow, okay?” Mat said.
“You’re always game for going out,” Tito said.
“I’m just in the mood for a quiet night, I think,” Mat said.
They all headed out together, Tito following Shane and knowing that his older teammates would end up buying him a drink. He wanted to pretend he didn’t care. That Mat was just tired and sore like the rest of them, but he saw out of the corner of his eye Mat slide in the passenger seat of Jordan’s car.
Mat’s choice hadn’t been to go out with the guys or go home, his choice had been between Tito or Jordan and Mat had just made his choice clear.
There's a hinted homophobic slur said on ice, but the details are pretty vague of the incident. And the word isn't ever written.
Mat grabbed lunch with Tito the next day, but the excitement from the game had settled. They had had practice and their attention was focused on the following game. That was the way things were in hockey. Always look forward, never look back.
“How was last night?” Mat shrugged.
Tito sighed. He’d gone out with some of the others, most of the married-with-kids guys had gone straight home, but Tito had been sandwiched between Leddy and JT. As he’d thought, Nick had grabbed an extra beer and brought it back to the table. They were supposed to be celebrating but Tito’s mood had changed since he saw Mat head out with Jordan. His mind drifted to wondering what they were doing. Where they were at. Was Mat happy? Was Jordan seeking comfort in him? Tito didn’t want to know, but all the same, knowing would make it easier. It was like ripping off a bandaid, at least Tito would know what he was up against.
“It was fine, we didn’t stay out too late,” Tito said.
“Sorry, I missed it,” Mat said.
Tito shrugged, “Ebs probably needed you more.”
Mat looked at him stunned. He couldn’t possibly have thought that Tito was oblivious to whatever was happening between them.
“He looked upset yesterday,” Tito said.
“Yeah, it’s always hard playing against old teammates,” Mat said. Tito wondered if that was all there was to it because Jordan and Taylor certainly didn’t act like old teammates.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Hey, you know, I’m really glad we’re grabbing lunch, it feels like we haven’t spent any time with each other lately,” Mat said.
Tito frowned, “We see each other every day.”
“Yeah, but, I don’t know, I guess it just seems like there’s been a little distance between us lately.”
It was true. Tito knew that he was largely to blame. Even though he spent some time around Jordan and was even able to consider him somewhat of a friend, Tito still excused himself from some of the workouts that Ebs and Mat would go on; he didn’t need or want to see the way that Mat looked at Ebs.
“I know it’s probably my fault, I’ve been going through some things,” Mat continued.
“Do you want to talk about them?” Tito asked.
Mat paused and put his utensils down. “Have you ever thought about being, you know, with another man?”
Tito’s throat closed up, “No,” he lied. “but I’m assuming you have?”
Mat searched Tito’s face for his reaction, “Yeah, I mean I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Is that okay?”
Tito hated the tone that Mat was using, the type people used when they were trying to coax a wild animal out of hiding. “Of course, thanks for telling me,” Tito said and pasted a smile on his face. He reached over and patted Mat’s hand reassuringly.
“Ebs?” Tito asked.
“Is it obvious?” Mat asked.
“No, I just know you well,” Tito said.
“I really like him,” Mat gushed. “You know at first I just wanted to meet him, but being his teammate, being his friend, it’s unbelievable.”
Tito tried to be supportive. He knew that it must have taken a lot of courage for Mat to tell him that. More courage that he himself seemed able to muster at this point, but he knew how important it was for him to have a good reaction to Mat’s coming out. If Josh hadn’t reacted well, Tito would have been crushed, and he and Josh weren’t nearly as close friends and he and Mat were. The selfish part of Tito, though, the part that felt like acid burning his stomach wanted to tell Mat to shut up. He didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to hear how much Mat liked Ebs, but Tito was Mat’s friend, maybe his best friend on the team. Mat didn’t need Tito’s feelings right now, he needed his friendship, and that’s what Tito would have to settle for.
He got home, feeling worse than after a bag skate and flipped through his contacts to find Josh’s number.
“Hey,” Josh answered pleasantly.
Tito swallowed and for a moment Josh wondered if he’d been called by accident.
“Can you just talk?” Tito asked.
“About?” Josh asked.
“Anything?” Tito said.
Josh didn’t ask anymore questions and Tito was grateful. So Josh talked about his brother and Bridgeport and his plans for over the AHL All-Stars weekend and he didn’t expect Tito to talk or give him an explanation.
Sometimes Tito forgets. He had gay friends back home, Josh was a good ally and friend, Mat wasn’t straight and Tito doubted that Jordan was either, so sometimes he forgot that there were still people who weren’t okay with being gay. Of course, that was in the back of his mind, but since his conversation with Mat, Tito had had no interest in coming out to anyone else. He didn’t even want to talk about Mat’s sexual orientation.
But there he was, waiting for a faceoff against the Blue Jackets and Tito heard that word muttered under a Blue Jacket’s breath. He hadn’t heard it since juniors, but all of a sudden Tito saw red. It wasn’t even directed towards him, but he was certain that Mat and Ebs had heard as well from the way they seemed startled.
Mat hunched over and tried to focus on the faceoff, but Tito knew the play wouldn’t last long. Pretty much after the faceoff had taken place, Tito skated over to the guy and dropped his gloves. He had a few inches on Tito and several more pounds, but Tito didn’t care. He got a few good jabs in, even though nobody would have said that Tito won. It didn’t matter, teammates protected their own.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Ebs said when the period ended. So it had been directed at him.
“Yeah, I did,” Tito said with a look that answered everything.
Mat looked at him curiously after the game. “How’s your hand?”
Tito shrugged, his knuckles were a little bloodied, but Francis had made sure Tito knew how to fight before he’d come to the Islanders.
“I’ll ice it later,” Tito shrugged, just hoping that he wouldn’t get scolded for taking an unnecessary penalty.
“You didn’t have to do that for me,” Mat said.
“Yeah, I did,” Tito said. “And I really fucking hate that word.”
Mat didn’t say anything else, but he returned with an ice pack and put in on top of Tito’s hand. Media was all over him later, knowing that it was rare for Tito to pick a fight.
He didn’t go into details, it didn’t matter that anyone else knew and Tito knew that telling the truth could spawn rumors, “There was tension all game, if it wasn’t me it was going to be someone else.” Tito just hoped that he was right.
It was all the more clear that Mat was smitten with Ebs. Every look, every lingering touch had more definition now that Mat himself had assured Tito of his feelings. The Islanders had the benefit for their foundation coming up, a night that they put hockey aside for a moment and celebrated with the community.
Most of the guys were bringing their wives or girlfriends, but Tito, Mat, and Ebs all found themselves single. Tito and Mat had agreed to get ready together having eaten dinner beforehand to ensure that their tuxes remained spotless.
“How do I look?” Mat asked.
He fiddled with his cufflinks a little, glancing behind Tito in the floor length mirror. Tito just stared. It wasn’t the first time that he thought his friend was handsome. Tito knew how attractive Mat was, even straight guys would agree that Mat was good-looking, but here, Mat looked downright gorgeous.
“Tito? Do I look okay?” Mat asked, waiting on Tito’s response with a hint of uncertainty.
Tito smiled, “You look great.”
Mat beamed back at him, “Really? You look pretty great yourself,” he said. He reached forward to straighten out Tito’s tie a little.
Tito swallowed. It didn’t mean anything.
“I think I’m going to tell him tonight,” Mat said.
“Are you sure?” Tito asked.
“Yeah, I mean, after the benefit and all that.”
“I’m sure it will go well,” Tito reassured with gravel in his throat.
“Yeah?” Mat asked. It was times like this that Tito wished Mat didn’t care so much about his opinion. All the excitement that he had had going to this event had disappeared. Before, Mat’s feelings towards Ebs just presented the hypothetical possibility of a relationship between his two teammates, but now it had a very real potential of coming true.
“Yeah, he’d be dumb not to see you and want you,” Tito said.
Mat drove them to the gala and they headed inside together. Tito forced a smile, trying to enjoy it as much as possible. They walked in and Tito saw the awe with which Mat looked at the space. He remembered going for the first time last year, he’d been all by himself, though. Now, it was like experiencing it all over again by sharing it with Mat. Ebs had already arrived and was busy checking his phone.
Ebs’s eyes widened when he saw Tito and Mat. “Who knew a tux could make you look so good?” He teased. “Hi Tito,” he said.
Mat blushed. “You look pretty dapper yourself.”
“That’s why I was named one of Edmonton’s best dressed.”
“You were not,” Mat challenged.
“No, I wasn’t but I should have been. Come on,” Ebs said and coaxed them to where the other guys were being corralled for a team picture. It seemed so strange seeing all the guys dressed up and out of their hockey gear.
They squished together, somehow Mat had gravitated to where Jordan was and Tito had been bounced towards the edges of the group. “One, two, three.” A bevy of photo flashes tried to capture the moment hoping that at least one of the photos was good enough for the Islanders media.
They dispersed and Tito heard Mat whisper to Jordan, “Hey, can we talk later tonight?”
“Yeah, sure,” Jordan agreed.
The team was divided among the tables to mingle with the guests. Tito always felt awkward in these situations. He wasn’t the shyest member of the team, but he certainly wasn’t the most outgoing. Mat, of course, seemed right at home. He had said something to make the older women and men at his table laugh.
“Black or red?” A woman standing next to Tito asked. He didn’t know much about gambling or have a strong opinion either way.
“What’s the saying? Always bet on black?” Tito said with a smile. He found himself looking over to where Jordan and Mat were, looking to see if they were going to have the talk . But Ebs and Mat were professionals first and they focused their attention on the people crowded around them. They were able to pretend like nothing else mattered. For Tito it wasn’t so easy.
After a while, though, the evening began to drain Tito. He continued to smile and pretend to be engaged, but in reality he just wanted to go home. People started to trickle out of the gala and soon there were just mostly just players and staff waiting until they could leave.
“Have you seen Ebs?” Mat asked.
Tito glanced around, but he didn’t see Jordan among the pockets of Islanders in the room. “No, I haven’t.”
“If you see him, can you tell him that I was looking for him?” Mat asked with apprehension.
“Sure,” Tito said.
Tito’s not actively looking for Jordan, but he finds him outside, clutching his cell phone tightly with his back turned to Tito.
“You can’t do this,” Jordan snapped in a tone that Tito hadn’t heard before nor did he ever want directed towards him. “Look, I’m at an Islanders event right now… no, we don’t have a game tomorrow… you can’t just call me knowing that I’ll always pick up. You know I’ll drop everything for you… fuck, okay, you’re so drunk right now. I can’t deal with this.”
Jordan ended the phone call and punched the wall out of frustration, “Fuck.”
He turned and saw Tito. “Sorry, I didn’t mean for you to hear that,” Jordan said with a wan smile.
“Are you okay?” Tito asked.
“Yeah, just had to take care of something,” Jordan sighed. “Things wrapping up?”
“Hey,” Mat said and Tito turn to see him just arrive. He wanted to warn Mat about the conversation, about the mood that Jordan was in, about how he was almost certain that Jordan was hung up on someone, but he couldn’t. “Can we talk now?”
Tito watched Mat’s face fall as Jordan pushed past him back towards the rest of the team. “Sorry, can it wait until tomorrow? I’m just kind of tired right now.”
Mat swallowed thickly. Tito knew that Jordan hadn’t intended to hurt him but the damage was done. “Yeah, sure, it wasn’t anything big anyways.”
They all headed out their separate ways shortly thereafter. “Take me home?” Tito asked.
“Yeah,” Mat said as he led Tito towards his car. They drove in an uncomfortable silence with Tito having no idea what to say. It hadn’t been a rejection, but it had been an outright dismissal. Tito had been witness to his friend’s heart being bruised, watching as his hopes got dampened and it was as if he could see the courage visibly leave Mat.
By the time they arrived at Tito’s apartment, Mat looked exhausted and crushed. “Want to stay?” Tito asked. Mat shrugged, but he got out of the car and followed Tito up to his place.
“It’s stupid isn’t it?” Mat asked when they were outside Tito’s door.
Tito shook his head, “He disappointed you, it isn’t stupid. It’s even worse because you had expectations for how the night was supposed to go and it didn’t go that way.”
Mat plopped down on Tito’s couch and buried his face in his hands. For a moment Tito thought he was crying and he didn’t think he could handle that, not today at least. “Fuck me,” Mat said.
“Come on,” Tito said. “There’s always tomorrow.”
Mat started to undress, getting out of his jacket, and shirt and dress pants and Tito glanced over to where Mat just stood in only his underwear. “How did you become the voice of reason?” Mat asked
Tito chuckled dryly as he too began to get ready for bed, “I’m hardly the voice of reason.”
“Nah, you keep me together,” Mat said and Tito didn’t quite know what to make of that.
“Goodnight,” Tito said as he watched Mat stalk off to the guest room, his suit forgotten on the floor and Tito just wondered if Mat was who kept him together all along. “I’m so fucked,” Tito whispered in his dark room as his last thought before he fell asleep.
Tito woke up once during the night, around seven when the sun started to rise and peek through the blinds. In the midst of everything that had happened last night, he’d forgotten to close them and as a result he’d been woken up prematurely. He headed out to the kitchen to see if Mat was already awake, but the kitchen was still quiet.
The door to the guest room was cracked open and Tito went to check on Mat. He looked inside and Mat was sprawled across the top sheet, comforter almost kicked off the foot of the bed. Tito sighed and quietly entered the room.
“Pourquoi est-ce que c’est trop difficile?” Tito murmured as he rearranged the blankets and draped them on top of Mat. Mat had shown no signs of waking or even of having realized that Tito had come in. Here, he looked so peaceful, Mat’s face relaxed and had kept no sign of worry from the previous night. Tito wondered how long it would last or if the memory of the night before would come back in the morning. “Beaux reves,” he said before sparring one last glance at a sleeping Mat and shutting the door.
Tito woke up for good, a few hours later when the smell of bacon woke him up. He checked the time, decided that it was acceptable enough to get up and moving. He yawned and opened his door to see Mat milling about in the kitchen. He had his back towards Tito, humming a Justin Bieber song offkey but quietly enough to not wake Tito up. He was still only in his underwear and Tito wondered if this was what he could wake up to if things were different. He wondered if this is what Jordan could choose to wake up to.
“Hey,” Tito said.
“Hey,” Mat said, turning away from what Tito thought were eggs on the stove. “You’re up.”
“Yeah, you didn’t have to make breakfast,” Tito said.
“After last night, I kind of did,” Mat said with a sheepish smile. “Besides it’s just eggs and toast.”
Tito smiled, “Sounds delicious.”
Mat rolled his eyes, thinking that Tito was teasing him, but he wasn’t. Tito was pretty sure that Mat could simply pour him a bowl of cereal and he would be happy about it. It felt so domesticated the way that Tito grabbed two plates as Mat finished up cooking the eggs. It was just another insight into the life that Tito could be living if things were different, if Mat liked him.
“I could become a chef, huh?” Mat said and raised his eyebrows as Tito took the first bite.
They were good, but Tito had been victim to a few of Mat’s culinary mishaps. “Your only dish is eggs? What happens after breakfast?” Tito asked.
Mat shrugged, “Eggs are versatile. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
“I’m pretty sure the trainers would disagree with that,” Tito said.
“Well, when I’m retired they won’t have much of a say,” Mat said.
Tito rolled his eyes, “You’ll get tired of eating just eggs after a few days, gotta learn a few more dishes.”
“I have time,” Mat said with a smile. The joke fell as they dissolved into silence.
“How are you today?” Tito asked.
“Okay,” Mat sighed. “It was unfair for me to put that on Jordan. Besides, it’s not even like I was rejected, it’s just postponed. It’s not hopeless.” Tito couldn’t help but think that Mat was trying to reassure himself more than he was trying to reassure Tito. “But you’ve been quiet lately,” Mat said.
Dread settled in Tito’s stomach. “What?” Tito asked.
“Come on, you haven’t been picking up lately,” Mat said.
“Oh no,” Tito said forcing a laugh.
“What? You’ve been such a good friend lately, I want to be there for you,” Mat said.
Tito rolled his eyes, “I don’t need your help to pick up, thanks for the vote of confidence. Besides, Josh already cares enough for the whole team.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Mat said trying to backtrack.
“I know, but come on, you being my wingman, you’d have the girls fawning over that face before I’d even had a chance,” Tito said.
“That’s not true,” Mat said all of a sudden completely seriously. Tito was shocked by the sudden flip between what he had thought was a light-hearted conversation to Mat talking frankly.
“I mean, it’s fine,” Tito said.
“No, it’s not, I wouldn’t do that to you,” Mat said vehemently.
“I know,” Tito reassured, unsure of how the morning had ended up this way. “It was just a joke.”
“But you know, I’d never make a move on someone you liked,” Mat said. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“I mean, you could,” Tito said.
“But I wouldn’t, you’re more important than any relationship,” Mat said. “I’m not going to throw away seven years of friendship for a fuck.”
Tito’s eyes widened and he swallowed. It was rare for them to talk about their feelings like this with each other. Their friendship ran deep, Tito knew that, but he didn’t expect Mat to say that. Worse yet, Mat was exactly right, Tito wasn’t going to throw away seven years of friendship for a fuck, or a relationship, or whatever it was that he wanted with Mat.
“Yeah, you too,” Tito said thickly, hating the way his eyes started to burn.
Mat seemed to notice the change and Tito could feel him internally freaking out across the table. They both didn’t cry much, growing up playing hockey, you learned to keep it in, until you were alone, but in the past twenty-four hours, they’d both gotten suspiciously close.
"Come on, my eggs weren’t that bad,” Mat tried to lighten the mood.
“You haven’t finished them yet,” Tito replied, nodding towards Mat’s half-eaten plate.
“I’m savoring it.”
They had an optional practice that afternoon and Mat decided not to head back to Seids before heading in. Seids would probably go into Dad mode and Tito knew that Mat probably wouldn’t want to rehash last night again even if he left out most of the details. So Mat grabbed some of Tito’s Islanders gear and had his bag stored in his car. Tito felt possessiveness well up as he saw Mat wearing his shorts with “72” on them. He wondered if this was the same feeling the guys who were married or had girlfriends had when they saw their significant others in their jerseys, wearing their numbers.
A few eyes were raised in the locker room when the guys saw Mat wearing Tito’s clothes but nobody asked any questions. Instead, they got changed in relatively good spirits, though some were still fighting hangovers from last night.
“Where’s Ebs?” Mat asked when the guys who were coming, which still were most of the team, had all arrived.
JT shrugged, “He texted me, said he had to go to Jersey for something.”
“Who the fuck willingly goes to Jersey?”
" I don’t know,” JT said.
Tito swallowed as he pulled on his kit. The others might wonder what was in Jersey, but Tito was pretty certain he knew the answer. It wasn’t a what, but it was a who. And if it was the person that Tito was thinking of, he knew that it wouldn’t mean anything good for Mat.
“Hey, missed you at practice yesterday,” Mat said with the question obvious in his voice. As JT had promised, Ebs had returned to practice the next day, though Tito couldn’t help but think he looked a little worse for wear.
“Awww, can’t go a practice without seeing this mug?” Jordan asked without answering the question that they all had on their minds.
Mat rolled his eyes, but smiled, “We were happy to get a break.”
Ebs ruffled Mat’s hair, gaining a protest, but it was the type of affection that caused Mat to practically preen.
Mat patted his hair back down much to the teasing of some of the vets before they got on the ice.
For as much as Ebs had inadvertently thrown Tito’s personal life into chaos, their chemistry on the ice was undeniable. They ran the power pay and drills with ease, a natural segway from JT’s first line. Tito wondered if it was almost a metaphor that Mat was in between Jordan and himself, not only on the ice, but in their lives as well. Tito just hoped that he was wrong in thinking that Taylor was the center of Jordan’s.
“Hey, Ebs, want to grab lunch?” Mat asked after practice.
“Tito, you wanna join us?” Ebs asked.
Tito looked beyond Jordan to see Mat gently shake his head. He knew that this was the continuation of the gala that Mat had expected.
“Thanks, but I think I’m gonna take a nap,” Tito said.
“You sure?” Ebs asked.
Mat mouthed Thank you , “Yeah, but I’ll come next time,” Tito promised.
Tito didn’t want to know anything about the lunch. He didn’t want to hear about the conversation, he didn’t want to hear that Ebs had made Mat cry, or about the way Jordan’s lips felt against Mat’s own. He didn’t want to know any of it, but that was the privilege of being Mat’s friend and standing by his side. So the only thing he could do was go home, sit in a painfully cold ice bath, and bury himself under the covers.
His phone vibrated with a text, once, twice, but Tito wasn’t brave enough to look at the texts. He knew that he’d find out what happened for better or worse. Right now, he just wanted to check out of his life, if only for a few hours. Tito turned off his phone and rolled over. It could wait for now.
The buzzer to his apartment rang almost constantly and woke Tito out of his stupor. Apparently, Tito hadn’t rushed to buzz Mat in soon enough because he kept pressing the buzzer again and again until Tito finally coalesced.
“Hey, Mat,” he said sleepily when he saw Mat come out of the elevator.
“I’ve been texting you all afternoon,” Mat said foregoing any greetings.
“I was asleep,” Tito said.
“Seriously? I thought you just said that as an excuse,” Mat said.
“No, I was really asleep,” Tito said. Mat paused. “So… what happened?” Tito asked, knowing that Mat had come over because he wanted to talk about the lunch.
“I told him I liked him. It was after lunch and he was taking me back to Seids and I just kind of looked over at him and told him I liked him.”
“Okay,” Tito said.
“And he just kind of stared at me and said, ‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting this,’” Mat said. “Who says that? ‘Wow’? What kind of shitty response is that?”
“I mean, it sounds like he was nice about it,” Tito said.
“I mean, it wasn’t a no,” Mat said.
“He said he needed to think about it,” Mat said.
“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” Tito asked.
“I don’t know. It’s like he’s never thought about it before,” Mat said. “If he wanted to be with me wouldn’t the thought have crossed his mind.”
“I mean, it’s not the same, but if Josh liked me, I think I’d be kind of surprised,” Tito said.
“Does Josh like you?” Mat asked.
“What? No, it was just an example,” Tito said.
“Well, you said he was concerned about your dating life,” Mat said.
“There is nothing there, besides this isn’t about me, this is about you and Ebs,” Tito said.
“But there isn’t a me and Ebs,” Mat said.
“Look, you said it yourself, right? It isn’t a no,” Tito said. “Just give Ebs some time, besides the fact that he’s thinking about it means that he’s at least interested in men, right?”
“I mean… I thought you knew,” Mat said.
“Because of what happened with the Blue Jackets?” Tito asked. “All that meant was he was some homophobic dick, I didn’t think it meant anything about Ebs.”
“I mean, Ebs helped, you know, he thought that you’d be okay with me, uh, liking guys,” Mat said.
“Ebs knew?” Tito said.
“Yeah,” Mat said, “I mean he didn’t know I liked him, but he knew about the other stuff.”
“That’s great,” Tito said forced. Mat had come out to Jordan first. Or maybe he told his sister and parents, but that was different. Mat had told Jordan, a guy that he had known for only a few months before he’d known Tito, his friend for over seven years. That stung. The rational part of Tito knew that it wasn’t about him. Mat deserved all the support he could get, and if Jordan had been the spark to give Mat the confidence to tell Tito that he wasn’t straight then Tito should be grateful. But he wasn’t. “Hey, Mat, he’d be dumb not to date you,” Tito said.
For all the bravado and confidence that Mat projected, the smile that grew on his face hinted at his own insecurities. “Yeah?” Mat asked.
“For sure,” Tito said.
Mat leaned forward and almost collapsed onto TIto’s chest. He nudged his forehead into the crook of Tito’s neck and Tito’s arms wrapped around him instinctively.
“How do you always say the right thing?” Mat whispered.
“Consider it my superpower,” Tito said.
They’d played some video games afterwards before Mat headed back to Seids for dinner. Tito pretended not to notice the way that he kept checking his phone in case Ebs texted him. It would take Ebs a few days to decide, if anything Tito was sure that Jordan would weigh this decision carefully no matter what the outcome was. For as light-hearted as he could be, Tito knew that Jordan cared about this and cared about Mat. Against his better judgement, Tito grabbed his phone and texted Jordan. You home?
Can we talk? Tito wrote.
Come on over . Ebs replied in a few minutes.
Sorry for the late update, I was on vacation in one of the few remaining hotels with no internet access, sorry. :( Also I'm doing Hockey Big Bang this year!!!
Ebs was waiting for him in the lobby of his apartment building when Tito arrived. “Hey,” Ebs said as he shoved his phone in his pocket and greeted Tito.
“Hey,” Tito said.
“What’s up?” Ebs asked.
“Not much,” Tito shrugged. They took the elevator up to Jordan’s apartment in silence, so many things rushing through Tito’s mind.
“Did you want something to drink? Anything to eat? I could whip something together if you wanted?”
“I’m good, thanks though,” Tito said.
“So…” Ebs waited for Tito to start, something that Tito himself didn’t quite know how to approach.
“Mat told me, that you’re not… you know.”
“What? Straight,” Jordan said.
“Yeah,” Tito replied.
“We kind of thought that you knew considering the Blue Jackets game.”
“I didn’t, but I thought you should know that I know,” Tito said.
“Most of the other guys know, or at least probably have an idea, it’s kind of an open secret in the league, I guess,” Jordan shrugged.
“Because of you and Taylor Hall?” Tito asked.
Jordan froze, for the first time in the conversation his composure faltered, “Why do you think that?”
“That’s who called at the gala, right? And who you visited when you went to New Jersey?” Tito said.
Jordan paused, “You didn’t know that I wasn’t straight, but you knew about me and Taylor.”
“I didn’t know, I mean the conversation at the game was kind of weird, but I mean, it all makes sense,” Tito said.
Jordan shrugged, “Well, it’s not a thing anymore.” Despite Jordan’s feigned indifference, Tito sensed that he wasn’t as unfazed as he pretended to be.
“Is there a thing with Mat?” Tito asked.
Jordan paused, “I don’t know.”
“Don’t hurt him,” Tito said, “I get if you don’t have feelings for him, or if you do, but he’s not as strong as he pretends to be.”
“Mat’s my friend, too,” Jordan reminded.
“I know, but if you aren’t over Taylor don’t start something with Mat.”
“I haven’t been with Taylor in over two years,” Jordan said.
“Maybe so, but the minute he called you dropped everything even though it hurt Mat,” Tito said.
“What do you mean?”
“He wanted to tell you at the gala. You have no idea how nervous and excited he was that night.”
“I didn’t know, it wasn’t about him,” Jordan said.
“Yeah, but you still hurt him even if you didn’t mean to,” Tito said.
“I didn’t- thanks for letting me know, Mat didn’t say anything.”
“Of course he didn’t. He likes you, he’s not going to say that.”
“Fuck,” Jordan said.
“Just, please be careful with him,” Tito said.
“Is this the shovel talk?” Jordan asked.
“No, just I know Mat and I don’t want to see my friend hurt.”
“I’m sorry, Tito,” Jordan said.
“He’s hurting you even if he doesn’t mean to, isn’t he?” Jordan said.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, besides there’s nothing to be sorry about,” Tito said and it was his turn to pretend he was unaffected.
Do you have any plans for tomorrow? Mat texted after Tito had left Jordan’s apartment.
Practice, I guess, not much else . Tito replied.
???? Tito wrote back.
You’re going to absolutely love me. Tito rolled his eyes.
I found you a date . Tito read and reread the text message again and again. Instead of replying he picked up his phone and dialed Mat.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Tito asked.
“Okay, I met this girl and she’s exactly your type, she’s a student at NYU, Canadian, from Quebec, likes hockey but not too much. We usually end up at the coffeeshop, you know the one I’ve taken you to a couple of times. Anyways, we’ve seen each other around and we’ve chatted a few times and I didn’t think of it before, but I realized that you’d probably like her.”
“Are you kidding me?” Tito snapped.
“What? I thought you’d be happy.”
Tito wasn’t in the mood especially after having just had the talk with Ebs. “Do you really think I’m that pathetic that I can’t get my own dates, or that I know my own type?”
“No, that wasn’t what I meant,” Mat said, “I just- you’ve been really great with me and Ebs and I thought I could help you, too.”
“When have I ever said that I wanted help or that I was unhappy being single?” Tito said.
“I mean, you didn’t, but Josh is-”
“Josh is different and besides he’s not setting me up with random people when I didn’t ask for it,” Tito said.
“Look, I’m sorry, you don’t need to be a dick though,” Mat said defensively. “I’ll let her know-”
“No, you won’t, because this isn’t her fault, it’s yours,” Tito said, “So I will go, and I will meet her out of respect for her feelings and her time, okay? And don’t ever pull a stunt like this again.”
“Tito-” But Tito was done listening and hung up. Ebs was right, Mat just knew how to hurt Tito without meaning to.
Mat was smart enough not to come to Tito’s apartment later. Tito wasn’t quite sure how he’d react anyways if he had to deal with that. He sighed as he picked out a nice shirt and slacks to take to the practice rink for the date later. Every cell in his body wanted to tell Mat to cancel for him, but here he was trying to clean up Mat’s mess once again.
Mat held out a cup of coffee as a peace offering to Tito, but he just looked at Mat’s outstretched arm for a moment too long. “I think Ebs would appreciate it more,” Tito said curtly.
He buried away the guilt at seeing Mat’s hurt expression and finished pulling on his gear. The others seemed stunned at the interaction but nobody engaged with either of them. Tito had been on teams before where teammates had had fights, but he was never involved in them. He only talked and looked at Mat when necessary during practice and even though he sensed that Mat wanted to talk- the fight from the phone call last night had left him and instead he seemed apologetic- Tito just ignored him.
When everyone else changed into regular clothes after they showered, Tito changed into his nicer clothes.
“Looking good, hot date?” one of the vets whistled from the other side of the room.
“Well, it’s a date,” Tito grimaced.
“Really?” This grabbed the locker room’s attention. Ebs just looked at him stunned.
“It was a setup,” Tito said rolling his eyes, “Don’t get too excited. Mat, where are we meeting again?”
Mat gave him the name of the restaurant that he’d suggested sheepishly and Tito headed out without another word to either his teammates or Mat.
The restaurant was pretty close to the cafe that Mat had liked. It was a small place that would afford them privacy to get to know each other. Nothing too fancy, Tito wasn’t that sort of guy, and nothing that was too stuffy either.
He was about ready to get a table when he saw a woman waving towards him from a table towards the back wall.
“Hi, Anthony? I’m Ellie,” a friendly girl around his own age greeted. She was cute, not pretty in a model sense, but still attractive. As much as Tito hated to admit it, she would have been his type if… if things were different.
“Tito, nice to meet you,” Tito replied and sat down across from her.
Ellie had worn a cute dress and had obviously taken time to get ready which made this all the more worse because she wanted to be here. Or, at the very least, she wanted to get to know him better. Tito had never been the guy to flippantly date someone or play with their feelings. He’d had bad dates, but they hadn’t started off as bad. This one was largely because Tito knew that nothing would come of it. He couldn’t even enjoy the food because he knew he was going to hurt her.
He tried to pay attention as Ellie talked about having moved to New York.
“Do you like it here so far?” he asked.
“Yeah, I mean it’s a big departure from my hometown- I’m from about an hour and a half outside of Toronto, but I like it, I like the fast-paced lifestyle, you know.”
“Yeah, last year was the first year that I was here and for the first month or so I tried to go out every night, not, like, to party, but just to take in all the sights and stuff but after that I had to space it out a little bit, it was too tiring.”
“I’m sure, that plus your traveling schedule.”
“I don’t mind that so much but the long roadies are killer,” Tito admitted.
“Do you miss it during the summer?”
“Kind of, but I don’t really get to see my family during the year, my brother even less since he’s traveling too, so it’s nice to be home for a few months and just relax.”
“Oh yeah, I can imagine.”
“I- Sorry, go ahead,” Ellie said with a smile that made what Tito was about to do even worse.
“Sorry, uh, I wanted to say, you’re really great and I promise this is no reflection of you, but I’m really not looking for a relationship,” Tito said.
“Oh,” Ellie’s face fell and Tito hated the way his stomach felt unsettled.
“I’m sorry, I just didn’t want to lead you on,” Tito said.
“Why did you come, then?” Ellie asked.
Tito sighed, “Mat just kind of sprung this on me and I wasn’t not going to show up.”
“So you had absolutely no interest in this,” Ellie said her voice now raising in anger.
“I really enjoyed our conversation and I think we could be good friends, but at the beginning, honestly no,” Tito said.
“So was this just a joke to you, you both thought this would be funny?” Ellie asked.
“No. No! Mat meant well, I’ve been single for a while and he thought, I guess, it would be good for me…”
“What about for me?” Ellie asked.
“He thought it would work out,” Tito said, “But he should have never just acted like he did and I’m really sorry.”
“What a waste,” Ellie said and stood up. She didn’t leave money for the bill but Tito didn’t blame her, he’d figured he’d pay for it anyways and sighed.
“Fuck,” he swore. He asked for the bill and got a pitying glance from the waiter even though it was all his fault. Well, it was really all Mat’s fault, but Tito knew that even though he had acted in a terribly inappropriate way, Mat had meant well. That was the problem though, despite Mat’s intentions he had no idea what Tito wanted, he had no idea that Tito wasn’t even really interested in women and that had caused Ellie to be a casualty of their conflict.
Tito didn’t even bother getting changed when he got back to his apartment and instead collapsed on the couch. He was pretty sure that Ellie was going to go back and tell all her friends how shitty he and Mat were and he couldn’t even blame here.
Just around dinner time, there was a knock on the door and Tito didn’t have to guess who it was. “Mat, I’m really not in the mood,” Tito said.
Mat stood on the other side of the door shifting nervously, a first for their friendship.
“Can I come in, please?” Mat asked.
Tito held the door open and let Mat in, his annoyance almost melting when he saw the visible relief on Mat’s face.
“I brought take out from your favorite place,” Mat said.
“That’s not in our diet plan,” Tito replied but accepted the bag anyways, “But I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“How’d it go?” Mat asked.
Tito groaned, “Can we just not do this, please?”
“It didn’t go well?” Mat asked and Tito’s look alone must have answered the question. “I really thought that you would like her.”
“I did. That wasn’t the problem, I just don’t want to really date right now.”
“Why not?” Mat asked.
“I guess I’m not in the right frame of mind right now,” Tito shrugged.
“I owe you a really big apology. Seids kind of yelled at me at home today and Jordan was pissed that I set you up without you knowing.”
“So you’re apologizing because Jordan’s mad?” Tito asked unimpressed.
“No! I mean he’s annoyed but they’re right. I had no business to just do that and to assume that I knew what was best for you when you didn’t even say you wanted to date anyone. I just, I guess I’ve been so happy lately, and I wanted the same for you,” Mat said.
“I am happy,” Tito said, “Well, most of the time, except when you pull shit like this, I just, I had kind of liked someone for a while and I’m not really over them.”
“I didn’t know you had had a girlfriend,” Mat said with hurt eeking into his voice.
“I didn’t. It was just a crush, nothing ever came of it, but I’m just not at a place where I can date someone else yet,” Tito said being mindful of the pronouns he was using, but he tried to keep is as truthful as possible. The only thing that was a blatant lie was that he had a crush on Mat. It wasn’t a crush, that was the problem, it wasn’t so easy to get over.
“I had no idea,” Mat said.
“I know, I’m not super forthcoming about it either, it’s kind of embarrassing,” Tito admitted.
“It isn’t. You could have told me, you know,” Mat said.
“I know. I just- I’m not like you. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve like you do,” Tito said.
“I’d listen, though.”
“I know you would,” Mat said. “Um, Jordan-”
“Hey, look, I know you want to talk about Jordan, and that’s cool, but just for tonight could we just not talk about him or Ellie or dating?” Tito asked.
Mat looked like he wanted to say more but didn’t. “Uh, yeah, what were you up to?”
Tito shrugged, “I was just planning a quiet night in and maybe watching some TV.”
“Can I stay?” Mat asked.
“I can’t eat all the take out myself, can I?” Tito said with a smile and Mat knew in that moment that he was forgiven. So for the night, Tito postponed the inevitable. He knew tomorrow Mat would tell him what he wanted to about Jordan and Tito would play the role of his best friend and listen. But for today, he was too weak to hold up his end of it, and just for today he was able to forget.
As a warning at the beginning of the fic I warned that Mat/ Jordan wouldn't really be a couple and that it was one-sided. They are going to "try it out" but nothing is really going to happen so that's why I tagged it as is. If anyone has an issue, though, just be warned. Mat/Tito though is endgame.
Mat stayed over after he fell asleep on the couch and Tito just sighed. He wondered what it would be like if he got to see this sight every night and how lucky he’d be. He stayed awake a little longer than usual just enjoying the quiet and watching the glow of the TV after he’d muted the sound.
In the morning, when he woke up, Mat was already done making breakfast and he looked like he was ready to almost head out the door.
“How are you?” Mat asked.
“I’m fine,” Tito said. The full night’s sleep had replenished his patience and given him time to regain his composure. “Wow, second time that you’re making breakfast for me, you must really feel guilty,” Tito said.
“Give me some credit, I can make, like, three things well,” Mat said.
“It’s just a rotation, then.” Tito said.
“Hey! Do you want breakfast or not?” Mat asked, feigning to take away the plate of food he’d made.
“Give it to me,” Tito said and Mat handed the plate back over without protest.
“You know I truly am sorry about yesterday,” Mat said.
Tito waved it off, “I know you are, and you’re forgiven by the way, just don’t do it again and you might not want to go back to that café anytime soon ‘cause Ellie isn’t going to be thrilled to see you.”
“Believe me, I’ve learned my lesson,” Mat said, “So, uh, Jordan…”
“Yeah?” Tito prompted giving Mat the okay to talk about it. He pretended like he was interested, but even though he’d regained his patience, he still didn’t want to talk about Ebs. That had been the deal, though, wait until today to talk about it and Mat had held up his end of the bargain.
“We talked a lot yesterday, after everything that happened in the locker room. In part it was about you and how badly I’d fucked up, but it was also about the conversation we’d had earlier. And he said that he wasn’t quite there yet, which fucking sucked, but he said that he was willing to give it a try if I knew that he wasn’t, you know, where I am right now.”
“So you guys are together?” Tito asked, feeling like he’d just eaten sandpaper.
“Kind of, I mean we’re not labeling it, but I mean, yeah, I think we’re together. And it wouldn’t have been possible without you, I’d have never had the courage to tell him,” Mat said with a grin.
“I’m glad I could have helped,” Tito said, the words sounding hollow to his own ears as he said them. Mat didn’t seem to notice because he just plowed right through. “Yeah, I was thinking about maybe going to a game at MSG,” Mat said.
“Ebs would probably like that,” Tito said, “Or you could always go someplace new with him, somewhere that neither of you have been.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” Mat said.
Tito nodded, “Either way, I don’t think it really matters what you do, just who you’re with.”
Mat’s eyes narrowed, “I knew you were a secret romantic.”
“I never said I wasn’t,” Tito smiled.
“I really hope you find someone who’s deserving of you,” Mat said, “Because whoever you’re hung up over, and I know you have your reasons, they don’t deserve you.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Tito said uncomfortably. Mat didn’t know the whole story, nor did he realize that Tito was talking about him. He wondered if Mat knew, even if he was witnessing the whole thing from a bystander’s perspective if he’d still feel the same way. Hell, Tito wasn’t even sure that it was truly how Mat felt or if he was just saying that because that’s what he was supposed to say. “But anyways, this isn't about me, it's about you."
Then Mat went and had another one of his five-point nights. It was nights that like that Tito realized just how good Mat was. His name wasn’t floated around with the greats like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, but Tito knew it was just a matter of time. Rookies don’t have five point nights by chance and they certainly don’t have multiple ones coincidentally. Mat was good and he was proving that he was here to stay. On the ice, Mat and Jordan seemed to gravitate towards each other, after Mat scored, Jordan was the one rushing in and Tito was always a few steps late into the huddle. Ebs wrapped an arm around Mat’s waist pulling him closely and looked at him fondly.
Tito wasn’t a big believe in cause-and-effect; he knew that Mat was, that was the whole reason that he went on his Celine Dion kick, but he couldn’t help but think that Ebs had been the reason behind Mat’s success. Not entirely, Mat was talented no matter what was happening in his personal life, but Tito also knew that success in his personal life often blurred into his hockey performance.
They went out after for dinner, everybody living on the high of the win and celebrating in Mat’s five point night. It was no surprise that he’d been first star of the game. Seids joined them looking like a proud dad as Mat was the center of attention. Jordan was practically glued to his side the entire night drinking and buying Mat a few as well. Nothing gave away the fact that they were trying it out, at least not to people who weren’t looking, but Tito wanted to throw up at the way that Mat was staring at Ebs.
He stayed long enough so that it wouldn’t raise any red flags, but then pulled JT to the side to let him know that he was heading home.
“Are you sure?” JT asked.
“Yeah, just really tired,” Tito said.
“See you tomorrow then,” JT said and Tito snuck out of the restaurant. He’d made it about a block away when he heard footsteps follow him trying to catch up.
“Where are you going?” Mat asked.
Tito stopped and turned, “I think I’m just going to head home.”
“You were just gonna leave?” Mat asked.
“Yeah, I was trying to sneak out,” Tito said.
“But we’re celebrating,” Mat said.
“Just like we were celebrating after the Devils win?” Tito snapped.
“You didn’t come to that, why does it matter if I miss one?” Tito asked.
“That’s different, Ebs needed me. Please stay, I want you here,” Mat said.
“And I wanted you there, but we can’t always get what we want,” Tito said.
“You’re not being very fair,” Mat said, “That was weeks ago and what, you’re keeping score?”
“No, I’m just pointing out the fact that you don’t get to be mad at me when you did the exact same thing.”
Mat’s jaw clenched, “I had a fucking five point night, do you know how rare that is?”
“Well, I’m sorry we can’t all be as fucking fantastic as Mathew fucking Barzal,” Tito shouted.
“Fuck you, you’re ruining this for me,” Mat said.
“What about everything that you’ve ruined for me?” Tito asked. “You don’t care, you probably don’t even know, because your world revolves around you.”
“That’s not true,” Mat said. “You’re drunk anyways.”
“I had one beer,” Tito said.
“Fine then you’re just being an asshole and picking a fight because you know that it’ll never be you with the five point night,” Mat almost yelled.
Tito’s face crumpled and Mat must have realized that he’d overstepped, “I didn’t mean-“
“Yeah, you did,” Tito said, “Go back, have fun, get wasted, I don’t really give a shit.”
“Tito!” Mat called after him but Tito just continued walking. Mat didn’t follow him and he didn’t look back, but it felt like they’d broken something that night and Tito wasn’t sure if it could be fixed.
Although Tito wasn’t drunk from the restaurant, he went home and pulled out the beer that Frank had left from his last visit. He’d been hesitant to leave it there, but Frank had seen Tito drink before and it was legal in Canada and after having promised to never drive, Frank had left the remainder of the six pack he’d bought at the local convenience store. Tito had never really had a need for it, he knew not to drink a lot before practice and games and he could drink at some of the other’s homes. After the awful night he’d had, Tito made an exception. There were only four bottles left but he pulled them out and sat on his couch downing them one by one. Mat’s words replayed in his head again and again. If had been a teammate that he didn’t care about or one that he wasn’t particularly close to, the words would have smarted but they’d cut decisively.
You’ll never have a five point night. You’re ruining this for me. Tito wondered how much Mat truly thought that. He knew that Mat had been hurt and angry, he’d expected that, but they’d fought before and it had never gotten this bad. Worse yet, Tito wasn’t even sure if Mat knew what they were even fighting about. He didn’t know if Mat knew that a large part of Tito’s frustration was misdirected towards Jordan. It wasn’t Mat’s fault, Tito knew that communication worked both ways, but for Mat to pretend that he was the victim, that was too much.
The alcohol didn’t make him forget; he wished it did, but it certainly numbed the pain. Tito could deal with it tomorrow, but for now, he could just sleep.
His phone vibrated with a text a little after six. Tito grumbled as he rolled over and saw it was from Frank- it could wait.
But then the texts kept coming. There were a few minutes between each one and the first few were from friends. Tito had half a mind to just shut off his phone all together when he got a message from Doug. Come to the rink an hour earlier. There was no room for discussion, no question if Tito could make it, he was expected to be there.
He still had a few hours and was about to roll over when he saw Josh calling.
“What the fuck happened last night?” Josh asked.
“What? Did Mat tell you?” Tito mumbled.
“He didn’t have to, it’s all over the internet.”
“What?” Tito sat up. “What are you talking about?”
“Deadspin, Yahoo!Sports, it’s all over the place, someone took a cellphone video or something and sold it.”
“Fuck!” Tito shouted and hung up to go see what Josh was talking about. He wasn’t hungover enough to forget the conversation and what was said. It had been bad enough when the conversation had been just between them but now the whole world- the team, the management, his parents, Frank- were now privy to their fight.
The video was on the front page of Deadspin but there were articles and still images taken from the grainy video on almost all of the major websites. Islander’s Barzal tears into teammate. Is Islander’s Beauvillier ‘ruining’ the team. The online commenters didn’t mince their words, the fight that had played out on the streets was now a battlefield for Islanders fans and critics alike.
This is exactly what’s wrong with the Islanders, too many big personalities.
Beauvillier isn’t even that good.
“Fuck me,” Tito said. There were no excuses. They should have known better but back in juniors nobody cared about them, having an argument between friends never made the front page of ESPN.
Tito dressed up more than usual when he went to the coach’s office before practice. Mat was already there, sitting in one of the chairs looking a bit like a kid in detention. He didn’t spare Tito a glance when he entered the room but instead continued to look like he wanted to be anywhere else but here. Tito felt the same way, he knew that the locker room would be just as bad if not worse.
Snow, Weight, and a bevy of people came in right on time and Tito shrank back into his chair. He wished that he and Mat weren’t fighting right now, that way they could have a united front or at least an ally, but Tito and Mat were as mad at each other as PR was with them.
“Imagine my fucking surprise when I got a link to the video this morning,” Snow shouted. “You should have been actors, not hockey players based on that goddamned video.”
“I’m sorry,” Mat said.
“I don’t really give a fuck if you’re best friends, if you hate each other, I don’t fucking care, but this organization is now in the news more so than it’s been for the past MONTH and it’s because you two don’t know how to wait to have an argument.” “We didn’t know anyone was filming,” Tito said.
“You should assume that people are. You are public figures now, how stupid are you? Don’t answer that because Crosby has never had this happen, Matthews hasn’t had this happen and all because you two are fighting over god knows what.
“And then you go and admit to underage drinking, which I can only assume was provided by one of your older teammates which is just another fucking problem added to this whole big mess.”
Tito wanted to defend himself and say that everyone did it. Mat drank when he was back in Canada and it was completely legal for them back in their home country, but that would have just added fuel to the fire.
“And this morning I was planning on looking into some free agents for the offseason but now I’m going to be fielding calls from every news outlet answering questions about some dumb fight.”
“I’m sorry,” Mat said. Tito echoed him.
“Mat, you can go,” Doug said and Mat almost ran out of the room at the dismissal. Tito stayed, though, dreading what else was going to be said. He knew he’d admitted to doing something illegal, albeit common amongst hockey players. He knew that from what the video had captured he was the villain.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized again.
“Whether you’re sorry or not doesn’t matter because from this footage, it looks like you are the one causing issues. ‘You’re ruining this’ that’s what Mat said, and I don’t know if Mat was equally responsible, but he was the one who had a five point night and you missed out on a team celebration.”
“I did go,” Tito protested, hearing Mat’s words thrown back at him didn’t hurt less this time around.
“Yeah, well the comments aren’t viewing you too favorably right now.”
Doug sighed and clasped his hands together, “Look, we like you Anthony, and considering that you’ve been an asset to the team last year and everything you’ve done for the organization we are willing to move past this.”
“How do I fix this?” Tito asked feeling a hard lump gather in his throat.
“You’re going to address this, take responsibility for drinking underage, for having the fight in public, for creating tension in the team. And then you’re going to have an extra PR training and do some charity work.”
“And Mat?” Tito asked.
“He’ll have an extra PR training as well.”
“But, but you heard the things that he said,” Tito protested.
“And he also had a five point night. We don’t want to have to make a choice, but if this happens again or you and Mat can’t move past this, we may have to make a decision,” Snow said. The threat was thinly veiled. Tito knew he hadn’t had the best start to the season, and he also knew that if one of them were to be traded, it would be him. Nobody wanted to be replaceable, but hearing it said so clearly made Tito’s heart sink.
“I understand, thank you,” Tito said waiting to be dismissed. He headed straight to the bathroom and gripped the sink. Looking in the mirror, his face was blotchy and he couldn’t help the choked out sob that escaped. He’d been dreaming of the NHL since he was a child and now he’d almost thrown it away over one night, over Mat. It wouldn’t happen again.
When he got to the locker room most of the guys had already arrived. Mat was already changed staring blankly from his stall in the locker room at nothing in particular. Everyone turned to look at him when he came in. He’d washed his face, but the fact that he was upset must have been projected onto his face.
“Are you okay?” Jordan asked.
“Yeah,” Tito forced a smile, “I’m good, thanks.”
Mat looked like he wanted to say something, like maybe he wanted to ask what was said after he left, but he didn’t. And Tito found himself relieved when Mat walked past him without saying a word.
Tito put in extra effort at practice trying to prove that he wasn’t just a screw up and that he deserved to be there. Mat was trying harder than usual, both of them trying to replace the disappointment of the video with a good performance. For the others, it was a run of the mill practice, but today both Tito and Mat had something to prove.
By the time that Tito returned to the locker room, his thighs were aching in a way that he hadn’t felt since the preseason workouts. He all but collapsed in his locker room stall, both he and Mat had been shepherded away from the media for the day. Tito knew that he would eventually have to face the music and address the drinking. He knew that PR was already drafting a statement that he’d probably have to write on Twitter or Instagram apologizing for his behavior and acknowledging that he was a role model for kids and how he’d disappointed a lot of people.
The other guys were milling about, having showered and changed, while Tito was still in his sweaty practice gearing not having moved from his spot. The guys trickled out of the locker room, idly chatting about their plans for the rest of the day and Tito was grateful that none of them referenced that damning video. They’d all seen or if they hadn’t they would see later today, Tito knew that he’d have to face the disappointment from his mother and Frank and Frank was almost worse since he was so rarely disappointed in Tito. His allowances for Tito’s mistakes were much greater and that would make the phone call even harder.
Tito sighed and finally took a shower trying to put it out of his mind for at least the time being.
When he came out of the shower with his towel wrapped around his waist nobody was left in the locker room. The other guys had already left and Tito was relieved that he didn’t have to pretend that everything was okay. It wasn’t and Tito’s life felt like it was in shambles. It wasn’t just the video and getting caught, it was Mat and Ebs and the fact that he might get sent down or traded on top of it all.
It was rare for him to cry, or at least in public, everyone knew him as the guy who wrote have fun =) on his sticks and a jokester in the locker room, but the privacy of the empty locker room afforded him the freedom to cry and he did. Things had just piled up one after another and now it just felt like a tower ready to topple on him. His head snapped up when he heard the door open and Mat and Ebs came in. They hadn’t seen him yet. It was like slow motion as Tito watched Jordan crowd into Mat’s space and kiss him. Mat laughed and gently angled Jordan’s head to kiss him better. Tito’s mouth felt like sandpaper.
He must have eeked out a noise because Mat and Ebs split apart and turned towards him.
“Oh, Tito,” Ebs said with the decency to look chagrined, “Sorry, we didn’t see you here.”
Tito swallowed and tried to hide the fact that he’d been crying, “Yeah, I was just taking my time.”
Jordan looked unsure of what to do, if he should address the elephant in the room as a vet or if he should just pretend like he didn’t see.
“I’ll see you later, Mat,” Ebs said and trailed a hand across Mat’s stomach before he left them alone to talk it out.
“Come on, get changed and I’ll take you home,” Mat said.
“I’m fine, thanks,” Tito grit out.
“Look, I get that you’re freaked out, I was too, but we got off pretty easy, and it won’t happen again-” Mat said and Tito just couldn’t be here any longer.
“No, it won’t happen again,” Tito snapped.
“Okay, so let’s just put this behind.”
“You got off pretty easy,” Tito said, “But you’re also not the one that has to deal with the consequences.”
“I mean we both have the PR training, but that’s not really a big deal,” Mat said.
Tito laughed an ugly laugh, Mat wasn’t going to let this go. He quickly pulled on his clothes, feeling the intensity of Mat’s glare on him. They’d changed in front of each other countless times, and maybe Tito would care about it more, just being the two of them, if things were different, but he just wanted to leave. “You just have a PR training, I’m taking the blame for it.”
“What?” Mat paled.
“Come on, you can’t be that naïve,” Tito said, “I’m the one who has to apologize for drinking, for having the fight out in public, for upsetting you.”
“I mean, it was my fault to, though,” Mat said.
“Yeah, it was, but you aren’t the one ‘ruining everything,’” Tito said spitting Mat’s words back at him.
“We both said some things that we regret,” Mat said.
“What did I say?” Tito asked. “What did I do that was so regrettable other than getting caught?”
“You- you weren’t a supportive friend,” Mat said.
“And you weren’t a good one, you haven’t been for a while,” Tito said.
“See this is what I mean,” Mat said.
“You just have been thinking about yourself, though,” Tito said. “We all needed to be at the restaurant to celebrate your performance. You thought it was a good idea to set me up on a date that I didn’t ask for. Everything is about you and what you want, it isn’t about how your actions affect others or anything like that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mat asked.
“It means what I just said,” Tito shouted.
“I didn’t ask to get a lighter punishment than you,” Mat said, “I didn’t ask for people to say the shit that they’re saying online.” “I know, but I’m still the one that will be traded if it happens again,” Tito said.
“What?” Mat sounded devastated.
“Yeah, Snow and Weight were quite clear about what would happen the next time; turns out they don’t want me to ruin everything either,” Tito said.
“I wouldn’t let that happen,” Mat said.
“I don’t think they’d really consult you, if you were mad enough at me, I’d be gone,” Tito said.
“All because of a fight?” Mat asked.
“They want to keep you happy,” Tito said, “That’s the power you have on this team, you’re going to win the Calder, the front office knows that, we all know it, you think that they won’t do anything to keep you here, to keep you happy?”
“If they thought that any of us, me included, might make you want to leave, we’ll be gone without a second thought.”
“That’s not true,” Mat said, although a little more uncertain. “Ask Jordan, he’ll agree,” Tito said. “We all know it, it’s the same with JT, people piss him off enough they’ll be gone.”
“Not you, though,” Mat said, “They’d never trade you.” Tito rolled his eyes, “You can’t say that.”
“Yeah, I can, because if what you say is right, and I doubt that it is, but let’s say that I had that much power on this team. They could never trade you. If they want to keep me happy they’ll never trade you.”
“If you still liked me at that point,” Tito said.
“Shut up, okay. Yeah, we fight sometimes and yesterday was pretty bad, but families fight all the time. Liana and I have had much worse and we’re fine. There’s nothing that I could think of that you could possibly do that would make me want you traded. It’s not going to happen. But I would want to be traded if you were. I’d ask for a trade the minute they announced the transaction because I can’t imagine being on a team without you. I don’t want to, either, okay?” Mat said.
“Family?” Tito asked.
“Yeah, you’re family,” Mat said as if Tito had missed the memo, “Didn’t you know?”
“No,” Tito said, feeling a lump in his throat.
“God, I know we don’t talk about our feelings that much, but I didn’t realize you had no clue. My parents are pretty much ready to adopt you at this point, every time Liana and I talk she asks about you- you’re family,” Mat said.
Tito, for once, was at a loss for words. He didn’t realize how much he meant to Mat. They didn’t talk like this often, but then again, they didn’t fight like this often. He grabbed Mat for a hug, pulling him closely and taking his friend off guard, but Mat wrapped his arms around Tito and held him tightly.
“You’re not going anywhere, I won’t let them,” Mat whispered into Tito’s hair as he buried his face in Mat’s shoulder.
“I missed you,” Tito whispered.
Mat laughed, “It was only for a day.”
“I know, but still, I really missed you,” Tito said.
“Can you imagine if we really got into a fight?” Mat asked.
“No,” Tito said, “Though this was pretty bad.”
“It was, but it’ll be okay, I promise,” Mat said, “It’ll blow over and nobody will think twice.”
“I hope so,” Tito said.
“So we’re good?” Mat asked.
“Yeah, we’re good,” Tito replied with a smile, and for the first time in a while, he truly thought it’ll be okay.