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Mitch shows up at Auston’s front door like things are completely normal, except for the fact that his hair is sticking up in every direction and he looks like he hasn’t slept in days.

“Marns,” Auston says, a little stunned. He didn’t expect to be seeing him, what with everything, but Mitch scowls and cuts him off before he can go any further.

“I really don’t want to talk about it,” he says, grumpy like he never really is, and stalks into the apartment without waiting for an invitation.

Auston glances up and down the hallway, but it’s totally empty. Mitch came alone, then.

Auston heads back into the living room, finds Mitch already in his regular spot on the couch, wearing his favourite of Auston’s throw blankets like a cape. It’s like, objectively adorable, which is inconvenient, since Auston’s pretty sure Mitch needs him to have a clear head on a night like tonight.

He sits down carefully on the other end of the couch. “When you said you don’t want to talk about it,” he says, careful. “Did you mean-”

“Both things,” Mitch says, then, “Neither.” He blinks, hard, rubs at his eyes. Looks a million times more tired than Auston’s ever seen him. “I just- I just need, like...”

“Okay,” Auston says, when it becomes clear that Mitch is not going to finish that sentence. Auston gets the message anyways. They’re not best friends for nothing.

“Okay,” he says again, steady, and picks up one of the controllers from the coffee table, holds it out for Mitch. “Chel?”

Mitch looks absurdly fucking grateful, like Auston offered him a puppy or something instead of the Playstation controller with the x button mostly faded from overuse. And, see, if Mitch came here looking for normal, Auston thinks they do a pretty good job of it. They play video games ‘til his eyes start hurting, and they hardly talk except for chirping, making dumb little observations. Nothing serious, just normal, and it’s normal when Auston loans Mitch a t-shirt and sweats and takes the side of his bed by the door; normal when he watches as Mitch sets up his little pillow wall same as always and mumbles a goodnight before curling up on his side to sleep.

It’s entirely, totally normal, only Mitch doesn’t mention the fact that they made out after their last roadie, which is kind of a big deal, or the fact that he apparently rules a country now, which is not even a little bit normal. Not at all.

---

Auston thought it was a prank when his sister texted him the article. That, or he was dreaming.

It’s just, like- he was already dealing with kind of a lot in the Mitch Marner department, what with the ‘we definitely came within half an inch of banging and within no inches of some pretty non-platonic mouth touching’ thing, and having feelings for his best friend was already fucking with Auston’s head, even before the article.

He vaguely remembers hearing the name Genovia in middle school geography class. That’s not the same thing as actually being aware of the country’s existence, and definitely not the same thing as the article on the CNN website with ROYALTY AT THE RINK blazing off the page in all caps, and underneath it TORONTO HOCKEY PLAYER ONLY REMAINING HEIR TO GENOVIAN THRONE, and underneath that a picture of Mitch after a game, grinning at Carlton.

It’s a prank, was Auston’s first thought, as if CNN was in the habit of pranking NHLers, only then his phone buzzed again and it was Naz sending a different article to the groupchat followed by a string of question marks. And then again, and it was Patty asking if Auston had heard from Mitch.

And then he checked Twitter.

Auston still hasn’t fully wrapped his head around it. It’s a lot of like, heavy geopolitical shit, but as far as he understands, the gist of it is: European monarchy with convoluted inheritance laws, too tiny for most maps, some tragic incident at their annual pear harvest festival that was spiralling into a constitutional crisis until someone tracked down some distant branch of the family that emigrated overseas a few generations ago.

It’s the most obvious prank in the world, is the sum total of everything, except for how it’s not. Except for how Mitch very much is the crown prince of a real life country, and Auston very much does know how it feels to have his tongue in Mitch’s mouth, and both of those things would be pretty overwhelming like, individually, but collectively, it’s just-

Auston’s going through a lot, right now.

---

Things seem better in the morning, because they pretty much always do. Auston wakes up getting cuddled by Mitch across the pillow wall, which is self-defeating insofar as platonic gestures go, but also nice enough that he stays in bed and chills on his phone until Mitch wakes up with the alarm twenty minutes later.

He blinks up at Auston, one arm still flung around him, and Auston can’t help but smile. “Hi,” he says, soft.

Mitch yawns. “Hey.”

Auston wants to brush Mitch’s hair off his forehead. Maybe trace out the line from where his face was pressed into the pillow. And see, he might’ve done it before, chill about it, but they kissed and everything seems bigger now, like it would automatically mean something that he’s not sure Marns would want it to mean, so he doesn’t risk it, just flicks at Mitch’s chin. “You still snore, man.”

It gets a laugh out of Mitch, which is more of a relief than it should be. He’s in a better mood than last night, because he’s never been the kind of guy to stay down for long. And Auston knew that, but it still helps to see Mitch smiling again, wrestling Auston to see who gets to shower first, and he doesn’t even get too mad when Auston accidentally elbows him in the face.

They’ve got the morning routine down by now, and they’re in Auston’s car with two travel mugs of coffee by ten, heading for practice with time to spare. It’s easy, the way everything has always been, with them, and Auston’s dumb enough to let his guard down, to think that yeah, maybe they can actually navigate this thing without the entire world going to shit.

Their little bubble of normalcy lasts until they pull into the parking lot and not a single second longer. There’s a bunch of guys in suits waiting all throughout the lot, and they start chattering into walkie-talkies, surrounding Auston’s car as soon as he parks like something out of a spy movie.

“Um,” Auston says. “Marns?”

“Oh no,” Mitch says, shrinking down in his seat, and Auston’s barely even taken the keys out of the ignition when one of the suit guys is yanking the passenger door open and staring down at Mitch.

“Your highness,” he says, audibly relieved. “Are you alright?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Mitch asks. The other guy answers, presumably, but Auston’s slightly distracted by his own door opening, and then by being all-but-dragged out of his car by more of the never-ending supply of bodyguards.

“Hey, what-” He struggles, but these guys are strong – they manhandle him up against the nearest car like he’s getting arrested.

“What were you doing with the prince?” the guy gripping Auston’s bicep demands, forceful, and Auston gapes at him.

“I- we carpool, it’s not-”

“Oh my god, don’t touch him, he’s my friend.” Mitch is practically tripping over himself as he scrambles out of the car, pushing past the secret agent-looking dudes to tug Auston free. Auston’s braced for them both to end up tackled, but none of the guards lay a finger on Mitch, melting back from him to make a path as he stands in front of Auston. “I’m allowed to do that, right? Have friends?”

The one who addressed Mitch first doesn’t even have the grace to look sheepish. “You went missing for more than twelve hours, your highness, it almost became an international incident.” He shoots Auston a dirty look.

“I-” Mitch says, then stops, like he doesn’t know what to say.

It hasn’t sunk in ‘til right this second, Auston doesn’t think. Not for either of them, because seeing articles and memes with Mitch photoshopped onto Disney characters isn’t the same as seeing the relief on these people’s faces, like Mitch is some kind of VIP. Not even an hockey VIP, the real kind, the kind where a security team gets mobilized when he sleeps over at his teammate’s without giving notice.

“Our foreign minister is waiting for you at the Genovian embassy,” the guard who spoke before, maybe the boss, is saying. “We need to get you on site to expedite the process of-”

“No,” Mitch says.

“No?” the guard asks.

“No?” Auston asks, and Mitch shakes his head, his face all scrunched up and stubborn.

“No,” he says, blunt. “I have hockey practice now. You can talk to me later.”

“Your highness,” Genovian security guy says, all aghast, but Mitch is already storming out. Or, like, storming out as Mitch ever really storms anywhere, so squeezing past the guards and apologizing when he bumps into one of them.

Auston’s left alone with what’s got to be more than half of this small-ass country’s entire national guard, and they all stare after Mitch for a few seconds, equally at a loss. Maybe for different reasons.

“I’m gonna… go,” Auston says, shuffling back a couple of steps; then, when no one stops him, he turns on his heel and tries to catch up to Marns.

By the time he does, the door of the locker room’s swinging shut and Auston nearly walks into Mitch, who’s stopped barely a foot away from the entrance, surrounded by the entire team, all speaking at once.

“Mitchy, holy shit!”

“How did you pull this off?” Naz is asking, all impressed. “I know it’s one of those hidden camera prank things, but I just can’t figure out how you pulled this off, because we’re not famous enough to pull this off.”

“It’s not a prank,” Mitch says, trying to shove past him and failing miserably “Why would I-”

“Does this make us all, like, dukes now?” Travis asks the room at large, and Mo cuffs the back of his head. “Ow!”

“Literally why would this make us-”

“I don’t think Genovia even has a peerage, it’s pretty small,” Fred says, like anyone else in this room is going to know what the word ‘peerage’ means.

“Can we not, you guys?” Mitch pleads, and he sounds agitated enough that Auston wants to reach up and like, squeeze his hand or something, like an ‘I’m here’ kind of thing. Before he gets the chance, there’s a cough from behind his back, and Auston turns around to see Babs standing there, arms crossed.

Coach doesn’t even look twice at Mitch, just glowers at each of them in turn. “Correct me if I’m wrong, boys, but I was under the impression that you’re getting paid to be here for hockey practice.”

The crowd of guys around Mitch dissolves with some mildly chastened mumbling, and Mitch looks at Babs as grateful as Auston’s ever seen him.

Auston takes back every mutinous thought he’s ever had about the guy, because Coach acts totally normal, doesn’t even mention the prince thing once, not in the room and not once they’re on the ice. No one’s ever looked happier after shootout drills than Marns does, today, even with the suited bodyguards lining the rink like the worst crowd ever. Auston considers tossing them a puck; doesn’t get the feeling they’d appreciate it.

They whisk Mitch away the second practice ends, before Auston can even talk to him, and all his clothes are already gone from his stall once the team gets back to the room. Auston doesn’t even get a chance to dwell on it – there are a million more cameras than usual, reporters from US Weekly and People magazines standing next to the Sportsnet people, and they don’t even wait for Henny to talk, just start right with the rapid-fire questions, and Auston can hear them doing the same to the rest of the guys around the room.

“Has the organization been in contact with the Genovian government?”

“Did you have any idea that your teammate was hiding his royal ancestry?”

Auston frowns. “He didn’t kn-”

They don’t even wait for Auston to finish speaking before there’s another flurry of questions.

“Do you think this means the league will be expanding to Genovia?”

“Can you tell us about what qualities of Mitch’s will make him a strong ruler?”

“Has the prince said anything about his intentions to keep playing hockey?”

And that- of course Mitch is still playing hockey. Auston didn’t even think that was on the table. It’s- like, it’s obviously not. None of this is.

“He-” Auston stares into the sea of microphones, entirely at a loss. A fucking prince. “No comment.”

---

They respond to the crisis the way they respond to most crises, which is to say that they all end up crammed into Patty’s living room, the whole team and all the Marleaus between the sectional and the floor. It’s not- no one actually knows what the fuck’s going on with the whole Mitchy situation, but it’s easier to pretend when it’s all of them together.

Auston’s half-listening to a panel of people on CNN discussing the ins and outs of royal successions over a bunch of clips of Mitch, mostly in-game. They seem really amused by the fact that he plays hockey, which would be a little offensive, if Auston could get, like, a single thought straight, today.

“So Mitch is a princess?” Caleb asks, all confused.

“A prince, baby,” Christina says, patient, while his brothers laugh.

“That’s what I said,” Caleb pouts, crossing his arms and elbowing Auston right in the ribs as he does. Kid packs a punch, for someone so small.

“A prince,” Auston echoes, mostly without meaning to. His ribs are aching, but he barely feels it – everything’s entirely surreal, even more than earlier, without the distractions of video games or practice.

John’s sitting on Auston’s other side, brow creased. “I can’t believe this,” he says, quiet. Auston emphasizes.

“Pretty wild,” Gards agrees, wedged in between Mo and Naz. “I always kind of assumed if any of us was secret royalty, it’d be Fred.”

“We all did,” Mo pats his knee, comforting, while Freddie sighs, and Willy looks mortally offended.

“I can’t believe you guys,” he says, all sulky. “We all know it would be me.”

The CNN people bring up a clip of Mitch dabbing from back in juniors.

Auston’s eighty percent sure this is all some bizarre nightmare, like he’s going to wake up and be back on his couch, or back in practice, or back on the plane before he ever even kissed Mitch. Like stuff’s going to click back to normal and he’ll be able to tell Mitch about the weird dream he had where he was a prince and they’ll laugh it off and go back to living their life. Maybe even talking about the-

“Why Fred?” Naz asks, and Jake shrugs.

“He’s from Denmark. They have princes, right?”

“Fred’s a secret prince just ‘cause he’s from Denmark?” Kappy chimes in from where he’s balanced on the arm of the couch, all skeptical. “That’s racist.”

“Wha- no it’s not!” Jake protests, more wide-eyed than usual.

“We’re both white,” Freddie says, evenly. “I don’t think it’s racist.”

Naz groans. “Why are we actually the stupidest team in the league-”

“There’s definitely at least a couple teams stupider than us, on average,” Mo argues, and Willy’s still pouting, and Caleb starts tattling on them to Patty for saying ‘stupid’, which only makes them bicker worse. Auston manages to tune them all out, which would usually be a good thing, only in this case it means his attention’s back on CNN, where the video montage has been replaced with this dumb graphic of Mitch with a crown photoshopped onto his head. It looks good, which is very besides the point. Extremely besides the point.

Auston lets out a breath., tucks his legs up closer to his body. “Are we sure this isn’t a dream?” he asks, weak.

“Still a tossup,” John says, frowning at the TV like maybe he’s not sure either.

---

The season keeps going, and Auston keeps playing, because that’s his job.

It’s not as if he expected the entire NHL to stop, exactly. It’s a business, and a big one. Auston gets it. Just- it’s weird as hell, in his opinion, that they’re all just supposed to go about their lives as if they aren’t actively living out the plot of some terrible movie.

“Two points are two points, alright?” Coach lectures them, the first game Mitch is missing. Auston hasn’t heard from him since he disappeared after practice that first day. It’s not like he’s worried. He’s seen paparazzi pictures of Mitch – so weird, it’ll never not be weird – getting herded around with all these government people. He seems totally fine, from those little glimpses. Just not here.

“Hey.” Patty nudges Auston, startling him. Babs is done talking, already on his way out of the room. “You good?”

“Yeah,” Auston says, automatic. “Yeah, no, for sure.”

He’s not lying. They beat the Devils, and he gets two assists on the night. He knows how to do his job.

“What did you think of the team’s performance tonight?” one of the reporters asks in the scrum after the game, and Auston opens his mouth to respond, but she’s not done. “Does the win mean more knowing that the team now has the support of at least one royal family?”

And-

And it’s shit like that, right, little reminders that no matter how much everyone’s acting normal, everything’s changed forever, exactly like Auston’s been scared of. Like: he checks his phone on the plane and ends up reading some tabloidy shit about whether Mitch secretly planned a coup of the Genovian throne; he checks in with the team doctors to make sure his shoulder’s okay and ends up getting asked if he wants to schedule a session with a sports psychologist to talk about the stress of ‘increased global attention’.

He gets in his car and turns the key and ends up thinking about that night, both of them half-asleep, when Marns leaned over the gearbox and kissed him. When it was just the two of them making out in the car until the whole parking lot was empty, nothing but streetlights and the most tentative, achingly fragile thing Auston’s ever felt in his life, like maybe this was three years’ worth of too-long looks and lingering touches and trying and failing to work up the nerve to do something, all finally coming to a head.

“We’ll talk,” Mitch promised, that night, and Auston nodded, and then the next morning the news broke about the prince thing, and Auston can play hockey and do his job with the best of them, but-

It’d just be easier if he could have his best friend back to help, is all. The way things are supposed to be.

It’s that aura of, just, embarrassing amounts of pining that follows Auston around when they split the next two games sans-Mitch, and when they play the Wild on Saturday night. It’s like, generally suboptimal, because Minnesota, only then Auston’s in his hotel room and he’s just finished pulling on a clean pair of boxers when his phone buzzes with someone trying to Facetime. Auston nearly trips over himself trying to get to it in time, lunging across the room superman style, because apparently he’s got new levels of embarrassing to reach.

“Hello?” he says, maybe a little out of breath, but it doesn’t even matter, because-

“Hi,” says Mitch’s voice, the first time Auston’s heard him in a whole week. The first time Auston’s seen his face in a week, and it’s- he looks the same. Duh. Looks nearly as thrilled to see Auston as Auston is to see him, though. “Matts, hi.”

“Hi,” Auston says again, stupid. He reaches up, belatedly tries to fix his hair so he won’t look like he literally jumped two hotel beds to get to his phone. “Hey, man.”

And then it’s like- they literally haven’t said anything but ‘hi’ a bunch of times, but there’s a lull, just staring at each other like they’re waiting for the other one to speak. It’s just- it’s weird, circumstances-wise. They don’t usually talk like this. They’re usually like, a foot away from each other. Usually less.

“Are you okay?” is the first thing out of Auston’s mouth, because apparently he turns into his mom when faced with adversity. Next he’s going to be telling Mitch not to forget his lunch, what the fuck.

Mitch raises his eyebrows, implicit-chirping style. “You’re not gonna call me your highness?”

“Not even a fucking chance, man,” Auston says, straight away, and it’s still a little ungraceful, but it breaks the tension, gets Mitch grinning, which gives Auston a chance to stare a little, really take him in. He’s in one of his Leafs t-shirts, is the first thing that registers. Sitting on some couch, maybe – Auston can’t recognize what little of the background he can see.

“Are you good?” he asks, and Marns can maybe tell that he means it, because he doesn’t brush it off this time.

“I’m good,” Mitch says, and Auston looks at him carefully, but he doesn’t look like he’s lying. “The prime minister called me. Like, I pick up the phone and it’s literal Justin Trudeau. What the fuck, y’know?”

“Did he seem cool?” Auston asks, pressing the heels of his feet together.

Marns makes this dismissive noise. “He likes the Habs. Trash human.”

Auston snorts. “You’re so weird,” he says, fond, and Mitch’s face crinkles when he laughs so Auston can’t help but tap his face on the screen. “Where are you?”

“By the embassy, I think,” Mitch says. He does this tiny grin, pokes his tongue out a little. “Everyone’s being really nice to me, now that I’m in charge of a country.”

Mitch Marner Brand Optimism. Auston missed him. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Mitch nods, visibly working himself up to being eager. “Yeah, and I watched the game. You guys were sick.”

“They say when you can come back?” Auston asks. Tries not to sound overly pathetic about it.

“No,” Mitch makes a face. “I keep asking. I’m being really annoying about it.”

“I bet,” Auston teases, and Mitch flips him off.

“Shut up,” he laughs, all fond and not even trying to hide it, which makes Auston smile; he does try to hide it and does an absolutely garbage job of it so they’re just sitting there grinning at each other. Mitch has a great fucking smile. Auston’s always known it. Thinks he maybe hasn’t appreciated it ‘til now, once he’s had his mouth actually touching Mitch’s mouth, which is just the least romantic way he could possibly be referring to kissing someone, but-

It’s a good mouth, is his point.

He’s distracted thinking of Mitch’s smile, enough that he misses the moment where grinning at each other fades into something more thoughtful. It sort of takes Auston’s breath away when he realizes it – Mitch is looking at him, intent enough that Auston remembers he’s still not actually wearing a shirt. And he’ll gladly never wear a shirt again if it makes Mitch look at him like this, this inquisitive kind of interested. He wonders if Mitch is thinking about when they kissed. Wonders if he’s thought about it at all.

“Hi,” Auston says, a little dumb. Shy, for no good reason at all. He knows he looks good shirtless. Duh.

“Hi,” Mitch says. “You’re very-”

“What?”

“You know,” Mitch says, quiet, even though Auston doesn’t; then, even quieter, “I wish this didn’t happen.”

“It’s not so bad,” Auston says. He’s not as good at optimism as Marns. Still manages a decent attempt. “There’s worse stuff, than being a prince.”

“Not that,” Mitch says. “Or- like, yeah, but more just- It’s shit timing. We were just figuring stuff out.” He looks serious, which is cool, because Auston’s heart kicks into enough of a high gear that being on the receiving end of a Mitch Marner smile would probably literally kill him.

Just figuring stuff out, Mitch said, and Auston knows that he means the kiss, which means he’s been thinking about it too, which means-

“Are we talking about it now?” Auston asks. Even manages to sound normal about it. Minimal hysteria. Totally chill.

Mitch shrugs, all fidgety. “I mean, we’re gonna have to eventually, right?” He looks all uncomfortable, bright red even on Facetime.

“We don’t have to,” Auston says. He’s not sure if he’s offering the out for Mitch or for himself. Maybe both. “Like, if you don’t want-”

“What if I do, though?” Mitch interrupts, and Auston gulps. He can’t look away from the screen.

“If you want to talk about it?”

“If I want, like-” Mitch breaks off, and they’re just staring at each other.

“Like,” Auston says, breathless. He’s not sure when he started clinging to a pillow, knuckles white.

There’s a few seconds of quiet, heavy with expectation.

Mitch closes his eyes.

“I’m nervous,” he admits, like he wants to laugh at himself.

Auston can’t breathe. “Me too.”

Mitch doesn’t open his eyes. “Can you maybe, like.” He starts then stops, maybe aware that he’s requesting something kind of dumb. “Not look?”

“Yeah, okay,” Auston says. He turns his phone so it’s facing into the mattress, so he can’t see Mitch and Mitch can’t see him. Curls up next to it and just waits. Doesn’t let himself hope.

For a few seconds, it’s quiet.

“So,” Mitch says.

“So,” Auston says.

Mitch takes this deep breath. “So,” he says. “We kissed.”

“Yeah,” Auston says, as careful as he’s ever done anything in his life. “We did.”

“So we could do it again, or something,” Mitch says, fast. Just like that.

Auston’s leaning close to his phone, like that’ll make a difference. “Actually?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” Auston says. It takes him that long to actually get it, for Mitch’s words to click in his head, and then he just feels, like, vaguely faint, completely overwhelmed by the idea of Mitch actually wanting to kiss him again. He wants to sing, to jump up and down on his bed like a little kid.

What he does instead is say, “Lit.”

Mitch bursts out laughing. It’s the best sound in the entire world, bursts a bubble and breaks the weird tension and then Auston’s just basking in it. He hugs his pillow tight, smiles into it. If Mitch was here, they’d probably fist bump or make out or even bang or something, and all of those are options because Mitch wants to kiss him again. Mitch wants to kiss him.

“Lit,” Mitch is gasping, laughing so hard Auston can barely make out what he’s saying. “I can’t- I’m talking about us kissing and you fucking said ‘lit’-”

“Fuck off,” Auston says, but he’s laughing too, now, helpless with it. Maybe a little giddy. “You’re so- like, what else would I even say, oh my god.”

“Literally any other thing, dude, holy-”

“You’re the worst,” Auston giggles like the absolute biggest loser, and it’s a good thing his phone’s still turned around, because he can feel his cheeks burning.

He’s never been a sap like this about anyone before. He hates it, honestly, except for it’s kind of the best feeling ever.

They both giggle themselves into quiet. Auston’s got one hand on his phone like he’s touching Mitch, which is stupid, but he doesn’t even care.

Mitch sighs, right on the tail end of laughter. Auston imagines him curling up on the couch, leaning on the cushions. “I wish I could be there for this, fuck.”

And Auston does too, is the thing, because this is the kind of conversation they should be having face to face, not over the phone while Auston’s in Minnesota and Mitch is off figuring out the whole secret royalty thing wherever the fuck the Genovian embassy is.

“We can-” Auston tries. “We could like, just put it on pause? Like we could hold onto the kissing shit just ‘til this blows over, so we could do it right?”

“What if that’s a long time?” Mitch asks.

“I can wait for you,” Auston says, without really thinking about it. He means it, too.

There’s a beat, and then Mitch laughs like he’s surprised, and Auston swears to god he can picture the exact smile Mitch is doing, the way he grins so big his eyes crinkle at the corners.

“That was really smooth,” Mitch says, half-chirping and half-impressed.

“Well, yeah,” Auston says, and he’s smiling all over again in spite of himself. Not really humble at all. It was smooth as hell.

He turns his grin into his pillow, clutches it a little closer. The conversation lulls again, something cozier this time.

Mitch wants to kiss him, he thinks.

“You still there?”

“Yeah,” Auston says. He doesn’t try to turn the camera around again, doesn’t raise his voice. Just talks quiet, like Mitch is here with him. “You?”

“Yeah,” Mitch says, matching his volume.

“What’re you doing?” Auston asks.

“Smiling like a huge loser,” Mitch says, and like, Auston knew, but it’s nice to get the confirmation. “What’re you doing?”

“Same,” Auston says, and then Mitch makes this little sound, nearly a laugh.

“Yo, does this mean I’m your prince charming now?” he asks, all goofy.

“I’m fucking hanging up, your highness,” Auston says, and he’s pretty sure Mitch can hear him smiling.

“Okay, I know you’re being sarcastic, but I’m into it,” Mitch says; then, over Auston’s groan- “Like, no, I was legit so into that.”

“Gross,” Auston says. “So gross.”

“I know.”

“I really will hang up,” Auston threatens halfheartedly, and Mitch scoffs, all fond.

“Nah, you won’t.” He sounds certain about it.

“No I won’t,” Auston admits, and it comes out the softest, lamest thing ever, but he doesn’t hang up, duh, because Mitch wants to kiss him back. He’ll stay on this no-look Facetime call all fucking night.

---

The high from his call with Marns buoys Auston through a solid week and a half, which is really convenient, because otherwise he’d probably start getting annoyed with the guy.

It’s not Mitch’s fault, not even at all. He’s just- Auston can’t go a single hour, it feels like, without his parents and reporters and everyone he knows asking if he’s heard from Mitch.

“I saw on Buzzfeed,” Willy is saying, when Auston walks into practice, T-minus three weeks post-kissing, “and it said they’re going relocate the team to Genovia.”

“I don’t think that’s a reliable source,” Zach frowns at him, and shifts out of the way so Auston can sit in his stall. “Morning.”

“Hi,” Auston says. “Topic change?”

Location change,” Willy corrects, with too much relish, this early in the morning. “Matty, did you hear-”

And Auston can’t help but hear it, the literal torrential flood of Mitch rumours, because hockey media is bad but they’re nothing compared to actual paparazzi. And it’s irritating, and Auston’s irritated by it, or he is until they play the Sens and a car shows up with Genovian flags on the dashboard, and then he forgets how to be annoyed.

“Guess you’re getting summoned,” Coach informs him, all surly, and Auston can’t even spare a moment of sympathy for how done the guy clearly is with the whole royalty thing, because he’s already out the door.

“Marns-” he starts, yanking open the door of the car, and there’s no Mitch, just an empty backseat and a chauffeur looking at him, mildly horrified, from the front. That part is fair, probably, because Auston’s objectively a mess, didn’t even shower after practice.

“The prince wanted to see you,” the driver says. “If now is suitable-”

“Now’s suitable,” Auston says, probably too fast. “Can I-”

“By all means,” the driver says, and Auston doesn’t hesitate, just climbs into the car and buckles up. He texts the groupchat on his way, lets the guys know not to wait for him to be on the team bus. The chirping starts, like, immediately, because all his friends are assholes, but Auston doesn’t care.

The drive feels like it takes a million years, but they pull up in front of this hotel and Auston finds himself wishing he had a few more seconds to like, mentally prepare, because- like, he’s got money? But this whole place is so, so clearly above his level, from the valets standing outside to the guys who open the door for him to the patterned marble floors.

Still. Mitch is somewhere in here, so Auston lets himself get herded into the elevator – mirrored walls, which, shit, he really should’ve showered – and when he gets out at the top floor, he recognizes the bodyguard that tugged him out of the car that first day. He’s standing in front of one of the rooms, arms crossed in front of him.

“Hi,” Auston says, because manners, except manners apparently don’t exist in Genovia, because big security guy just gives him this unimpressed look.

“I’ll let the prince know you’re-”

He doesn’t even get to finish his sentence before the door’s flung open and Mitch is out like a shot, right into Auston’s arms, hugging him so big that Auston stumbles back and buff security guy has to steady them both; and that basically turns it into an awkward three-person hug, except Auston doesn’t even care, not with Mitch finally, finally here in his space where he belongs again.

“Matts, you wouldn’t fucking believe the week I’ve had,” Mitch is saying, a million miles a second. “I had to do, like, a crash course in etiquette, and so much of- oh, come in, we can talk inside.” He untangles himself from Auston, lets security guy right himself. “Thanks, Joe.”

“Try not to get kidnapped this time,” security guy – Joe – deadpans, but Auston’s pretty sure he hears at least a little fondness in his voice, and can’t help but like the guy a little more for it.

Auston still closes and locks the door behind him as he follows Mitch in. He’s not a sucker.

The room looks like a palace. It’s practically the size of a palace, all ornate furniture surrounding a giant bed with a canopy and all. Makes the suites they stay in on roadies look like bargain motels.

“Nice place,” Auston says, and it’s a little lame, for an opener, but Mitch is already bounding into the room, so he gets away with it.

“I feel like a Kardashian or something,” Mitch says, springing onto the bed and setting the mattress creaking under his weight. “Like maybe if I got butt implants or something. Should I get butt implants?”

“Tacky, Mitchell,” Auston says, and he very deliberately does not make a comment about Mitch’s butt, just jumps on the bed right after him, puts his weight into it so it’ll bounce Mitch. It really is a huge fucking bed, and Auston sprawls out, lets himself sink into the plush duvet.

The bed dips as Mitch clambers on top of him on all fours, knees on either side of Auston’s hips, looking down at him and smiling.

Auston’s brain goes right to sex, like, not even a pit stop anywhere on its way to his dick. He’s just- okay, sue him, they’re in a bed and Mitch is on top of him and Auston’s been having this exact dream since he was a rookie. They’re so close.

“Aus,” Mitch says, then wrinkles his nose. “You stink so bad.”

“Oh my god,” Auston laughs, but it comes out all high-pitched and thin. His heart is pounding so loud Mitch has got to be able to hear it. He feels like he’s fourteen and trying to work up to nerve to go in for his first kiss.

He must not stink that bad, because Marns doesn’t move. “I missed you,” Mitch announces, that offbeat, maybe a little too honest way he always has.

“You too,” Auston says. “All the guys do.” Mitch’s smile dims, just a little – nice one, Matthews – and Auston hastens to fix it. “Mostly me, I guess.”

Mitch’s smile is back and brilliant. It’s so easy to make him smile. Auston wants to never do anything else ever again. “You guess?”

Auston shrugs a shoulder, leaning up a little in spite of himself, and Mitch leans down the tiniest little bit. Auston can see every single freckle on his face, the way his bottom lip is just a little chapped.

The air’s thick with anticipation, pressing in on them like something tangible. Everything in Auston’s brain is screaming at him to just do it, just sit up and kiss him, and he should, is the thing. They both admitted to wanting to kiss each other, pretty much, and they’ve kissed before, and they’re in the nicest hotel room in the world. There’s nothing to stop Auston from leaning up and capturing Mitch’s lips, except for the whole royalty thing, and except for the fact that if Auston fucks this up he loses his literal best friend, and except for the fact that pretty much admitting to wanting to kiss each other over facetime isn’t the same as an ‘I like you’, and what if Mitch is expecting something different and Auston, like-

Joe coughs from outside, muffled behind the door.

The spell, whatever it was, breaks, and Auston loses any nerve he might’ve mustered up.

“Thin door,” he says. Because, sure, that’s how sentences work.

He’s not sure if the flash of disappointment on Marns’ face is his imagination or not; doesn’t get a chance to ask, because Mitch flops down on top of him, hard.

“Jesus,” Auston wheezes while Mitch cackles. “You’re actually so heavy, get off-”

Mitch leaves his face pressed into Auston’s t-shirt for a long second before rolling off of him, but not far. Not even a little bit far – he stays next to Auston, gets an arm around his stomach, and Auston scoots down the bed so Mitch can lean his head on his shoulder, and they just lie there hugging each other, pressed in close.

It’s a pretty solid cuddle session, by any standards. Like- weird at first, because it’s not something they usually do, not this intimately at least, but then the weirdness passes and it’s honestly the fucking bomb. Mitch cuddles like it’s his job, his usual clinginess ramped up by a million, what with being cooped up by himself for days, and he’s the perfect size for Auston to hold onto, strong enough for Auston to still feel like he’s getting held onto as well.

He blows out a breath, watches Mitch’s hair flutter. Mitch blows right back, right on Auston’s neck, and it makes him shiver, which makes Mitch smile. It’s still not kissing, still a little weird, but maybe a little nice, too. Maybe a lot nice.

Post-cuddling, it’s just hanging out, insofar as ordering room surface made by an on-call personal chef who works for your teammate who happens to be a prince qualifies as just hanging out. Auston’s pretty sure it does, in spite of all that – the cheese platter comes, and they stuff their faces, joking around and daring each other to try all the nasty fancy cheeses while the Coyotes game plays in the background. It’s relaxed enough that Auston finally gets to properly take in the room, the garment bag hanging on the handle of the closet, the stack of leatherbound books on the desk, the elaborate gift baskets littering every other available surface.

“Oh yeah,” Mitch says through a mouthful of food, when Auston asks about that last part. “Apparently the Genovian public really likes my boyish charms. Even the ‘death to the monarchy’ ones, which is like half the country, so that’s nice.”

“Death to the monarchy?” Auston echoes, because he assumed the bodyguards were more of a formality thing, but-

“Oh, yeah, it’s like, a whole thing,” Mitch says. He sprays a couple of cracker crumbs as he talks. “Apparently the royal family are historically assholes. Not stepping down even when the whole country voted for democracy or whatever.”

“Don’t you need democracy to vote?” Auston asks, mostly just to be annoying, and Mitch flings a grape at his head.

You need democracy,” he retorts, nonsense. “Oppressed pear farmers are a big fucking deal.”

“Touchy,” Auston teases, flinging a grape at Mitch’s head. It rolls off the bed when he misses, and neither of them moves to get it. Mitch is just looking at him, kind of appraising. “What?”

“When we stop putting stuff on pause,” Mitch says, and it’s really casual, except for how Auston knows him, so he knows it’s not. “We should go on vacation there. It’s really pretty, apparently. I can show you my palace.”

“You haven’t actually, like, asked me out, you know,” Auston reminds him instead of screaming or jumping up and down or commenting on Marns apparently having a palace, which – nope, still not used to it.

Mitch doesn’t miss a beat. “Right, but when I do.”

“Right,” Auston agrees, and they grin at each other, this dumb conspiratorial thing like they’re in on some joke. Auston… doesn’t think it’s a joke? He hopes it’s not a joke; drums his fingers on the back of Mitch’s hand then loses his nerve halfway through and plays it off like he was going to trace out the design on the duvet. He can feel Mitch watching him, even when he drops his gaze.

“Did you mean what you said about waiting?” Mitch asks. A little tentative.

Auston picks at the embroidery on the duvet cover. “Why would I say it if I didn’t?”

Mitch shrugs. “I dunno.” Their hands are close, close enough that it might be an accident when the tips of their fingers touch. Probably not an accident when Mitch traces out the bend of Auston’s knuckle, really lightly. “I’m gonna have to go there for a while.”

Auston frowns at him. “Go- like, Genovia?”

Mitch nods. “They talked to management and figured stuff out, contract-wise. It’s temporary, I just. I guess they need me to like, actually be there to resolve stuff. Meet the public and whatever.”

“Shit,” Auston says, after a second. He thought-

He doesn’t know what he thought.

“You guys better win every single game while I’m gone, I swear to god,” Mitch says. Their hands overlap one more time, just barely, then Mitch pulls back and fixes Auston with this look like he’s trying to be stern. “No slacking, Matthews.”

“Why do I even like you?” Auston asks. It comes out a whole lot cooler than he’s feeling.

Mitch shrugs, easy. “My boyish charms?”

Auston slugs him in the arm, hard, for that. Mitch slugs him back, so Auston really doesn’t have a choice but to try and get him in a headlock, and it devolves into wrestling around, which devolves into more cuddling, and Auston’s still stressed about Mitch having to leave and all, but-

“Wanna stay like this for a while?” Mitch asks, and Auston nods, holds up his arm for Mitch to scoot closer, and he does.

“You actually missed me too, though, right?” Mitch prompts, joking but maybe also not, and Auston nods again.

“Yeah,” he says, brave enough to be honest now that Mitch isn’t looking at him. “Yeah, a lot.”

---

Auston adapts pretty well, in his opinion, to having a kind-of-maybe-boyfriend and being in a long distance kind-of-maybe-relationship. Mostly because, in spite of everything, it’s still just him and Marns texting and sending stupid snaps, same as they’ve always been. Maybe a little more flirting. Maybe Auston’s still tip-toeing around the actual romance stuff, just in case it would ruin things. It’s-

They’re doing okay, is his point. Auston’s doing okay, adapting to his best friend being a prince as best he can, even staying up late after a game to watch the livestream of Mitch speaking to the Genovian assembly.

Marns looks good, mostly hidden behind a podium that must have his notes on it – he’s mostly reading, only manages to look up a few times. Still sounds good, Auston thinks. Rehearsed, sure, but earnest at the same time, even talking through a bunch of political shit he obviously didn’t write himself. And then after, when he’s done and the camera follows him out into the street, as he stops to high five the little kids waiting with their parents – yeah, Auston can see why they love him.

Not as much as Toronto loves him, obviously. Mitch probably knows that. Auston assumes he knows that.

SICK game!!!!!!!!!!!! Mitch texts him, later, because he’s always had a very flexible relationship with capitalization.

sick speech :), Auston texts back – lowercase, he knows what the fuck he’s about – and he yawns through most of the bus ride back to the hotel, but it’s worth it, probably.

“Airplane mode,” Freddie reminds him a few days later, when the team plane’s taxiing down the runway. Auston angles his screen away as fast as he can, but not fast enough that Freddie won’t be able to see the paused video he’s been watching, all these panelists discussing whether or not Mitch is going to take the throne.

Freddie raises an eyebrow, which Auston knows him well enough to translate from goalie to normal human as dude, what the fuck.

“I’m being politically engaged,” he tries, lame.

“Right,” Freddie says.

“It’s like, stupid gossip,” Auston says. “Obviously I know Mitch is staying on the team.”

“Obviously,” Freddie says.

Auston huffs out a breath and slumps down in his seat. “It’s just, like. Complicated,” he says. “Once he gets back, stuff can just calm down. I’ll deal with it then.”

“Sure,” Freddie says, that way he has of saying things where Auston’s never quite sure if he’s getting made fun of. If he is, he figures, it’s mostly the affectionate kind. He thinks about asking Fred for Mitch advice, but decides against it. Freddie’s not really the commitment type. Auston’s not really the commitment type, usually, which is kind of the source of his entire problem, here.

“Do you ever just feel, like, really stupid?” he asks, on a whim.

Freddie looks like he’s thinking about it. “Not really,” he says, eventually.

Fucking goalies, Auston thinks, only a little bitter.

He goes back to watching his Mitch video until they take off. Not like he had a ton of dignity left, anyways.

---

They sweep both halves of a home-and-home with the Habs, get thrashed by Tampa just when they’re feeling good about themselves. Auston gets four goals in the three games, which softens the Tampa thing at least a little.

half a hatty Ayyyyy, Mitch texts, which means he’s seen the highlights. He’s always online at weird times now, across an ocean. Auston set up his phone so he can see the time in Genovia next to the time in Toronto on his home screen. It’s chill.

2 thirds technically, he responds, because he knows it’ll make Mitch send a bunch of fake-angry audio clips, which he does, and then an only-slightly-blurry photo of what looks like a fancy tea set. That’s the other kind of message that’s been peppered into their conversations, recently: snapshots of Mitch’s prince lessons, little glimpses into a world that Auston doesn’t understand even a little.

THESE TINY SANWICHES ARE SO FUKN CUT!!!, Mitch sends, then, i mean CUTE!!!; so, like, at least Auston doesn’t have to worry about him going native or anything.

your a tiny sandwich, Auston sends, then worries that that was way too cutesy and weird, and then Mitch goes radio silent for four literal hours of the worst off-day of Auston’s life before responding with, im a footlong sub and u no it bud.

Auston can’t tell what’s flirting anymore. This shit’s hard enough in person, but romantic-type feelings for someone on a different continent are hell on earth.

He lazes around all day, texting Marns on and off and playing a few games of Chel with the boys. He calls his dad, because it’s been a while since they talked, and reheats a leftover rice bowl for dinner before crashing on the couch and spending literally forty minutes scrolling through Netflix.

His phone buzzes, which is weird, because it’s almost four in the morning in Genovia. yo am i allowed to send u heart emojis now. Like this is a pressing thing on Mitch’s mind.

you sent me heart emojis before, Auston informs him, because it’s the truth.

Mitch responds fast, like always. ya but forreal

if you want?, Auston types, and he’s barely even hit send when his phone buzzes with Mitch’s next message. He wasn’t kidding about the hearts: there’s like, ten in a row, and, Auston realizes with a start, they’re the red ones. That probably shouldn’t make Auston’s heart kick into overdrive as much as it does, but- they’re red hearts, and that’s so much more legit than pink sparkly hearts which are like, a pastiche of actual heart emojis, which are what Mitch just sent him. It’s basically, like, asking to go steady, is the level of serious here.

Auston literally has to lie down and close his eyes to actively not be overcome with emotions, which is just genuinely awful, except for how his insides feel all mushy and full of affection and warmth. He wants to send Mitch like, twenty red hearts. Thirty. And just, like, a list of all the things he likes about him, and also just request constant selfies. Maybe sexting? He wants everything.

lol, is what he replies to Mitch, instead of any of that shit, because he’s an idiot and a coward.

Mitch sends back a laughing face and more red hearts. Auston wonders if this counts as an act of war.

He agonizes over what to send in reply, realizes that he’s delayed long enough that Mitch will know he’s stressing about emojis like a loser, then panics and ends up sending a single red heart emoji next to a face wearing sunglasses, to like, offset it. Which-

“What are you even doing, man?” Auston mutters to himself, disgusted. Netflix keeps autoplaying trailers in the background.

Ridiculous. He’s ridiculous.

---

Auston resolves to man up and do something about it when Mitch gets back. He’s not sure when that’s going to be, exactly, but that part’s less important. Auston’s got a plan now, or at least a plan to make a plan, at some point, which means that he can repress the shit out of his gross feelings and just focus on hockey and texting and keeping stuff normal.

He thinks he does pretty decent, at the normal thing. He’s even starting to get used to seeing Mitch’s face on non-hockey magazines in the grocery store; doesn’t let himself dwell on it anymore, just shows up for practices and games and gives it his all. Puts up the points to back it up, too, and his whole line is finally clicking, dominating other teams. Things are looking up, and they just keep getting better when, a couple weeks later, Coach mentions that Marns is flying back, just casually drops it at the end of his pre-practice pep talk and sighs when the room goes nuts. It’s chaotic enough that Auston can grab his phone and slip out into the hallway mostly unnoticed.

The screen lights up with an incoming call from Mitch right as Auston’s dialing him, like they read each other’s minds.

“Dude,” Mitch says when Auston picks up, not even a hello.

“They told us,” Auston says. “You’re-”

“Yeah!” Mitch crows, loud, and Auston’s smiling to himself and he doesn’t even care. “There’s this big party thing, like a ball to celebrate Genovia moving forward, and all these politicians and stuff are going to be there.”

“That’s sick, man,” Auston says. “And it’s here?”

“It’s here,” Mitch confirms. “Or- there, whatever, you know what I mean. But you’re coming with me, right?”

“To a ball?” Auston asks, a little incredulous, because this is them they’re talking about.

“You’re coming, dude,” Mitch says, and that’s that, because Auston’s never been particularly good at saying no to him.

It’s like a second wind all through practice, like Auston’s a step ahead just at the idea of having Marns back in the same time zone. They’ll do the stupid ball thing, and then Mitch’ll be back in the stall next to his, back blasting his terrible music, and back on the wall to quarterback the powerplay. They’re going to fucking kill it, and everything can finally, finally start being normal again.

“Save some for the rest of us, man,” Willy chirps when Auston sends a perfectly placed puck past Sparky’s glove. Auston shoves him, playful, and the guys egg them on as they tussle around.

It’s the best Auston’s felt in weeks. Keeps being the best all the way through line rushes and his shower and even when he’s walking to the parking lot with Patty, trying to figure out babysitting for his and Christina’s anniversary.

“The four of them are a lot,” Patty says doubtfully, which, duh, Patrick, Auston has been in net during Marleau family ministicks, he’s aware.

“I’ll survive, dude,” Auston says. “Mitchy’s coming back anyways, remember?” The two of them can handle four kids, easy.

“Guess he is,” Patty says. “You’re taking this whole thing really well, eh?” Which, cool, at least Auston fooled someone.

“Yeah, y’know,” he agrees. “Stuff’s cool.”

Patty looks at him a little funny, then, but he claps Auston on the shoulder, bracing. “Well, if you need to talk it out, you know I’m here,” he says, all kind. “I’m sure it’s a lot, losing your best friend all of a sudden.”

“I mean,” Auston says, a little confused – Patty’s a good guy, but he usually only goes full dad mode when one of them’s genuinely upset about something. “Like, I guess? But it’s not real.”

Patrick furrows his brow. “How do you figure that one?”

“Like,” Auston shoves his hands into his pockets and shrugs. “I don’t know. Newspapers? He’s coming back tomorrow, the prince stuff is gonna be done.”

“Newspapers are only useful if you actually read them, y’know.”

“I can read,” Auston says, defensive, but there’s this sinking kind of feeling in his stomach all of a sudden, like he’s missing something. He doesn’t like what Patty’s hinting at. “What was in them? The newspapers, like- about Mitchy?”

“Matts,” Patty says, and there’s something in his voice, something like pity.

---

Auston hates newspapers more than literally fucking anything, is the conclusion he reaches after twenty-five minutes of high-intensity Googling.

They’re all- it’s really in-depth political stuff, all these guest columnists with law degrees speculating about the transfer of power and implementing new legislation and a restructuring of national leadership. Auston skims through them, mostly at a loss, and it’s not ‘til he gets to the third page of Google that he sees a headline he actually understands: CORONATION BALL FOR SECRET HOCKEY PRINCE?.

The Genovian parliament is going to make some major announcement at the ball, is what the article says. “We’re so excited for what the prince is going to do,” it quotes some Genovian minister as saying. “He’s changing the future of our country.”

It clicks for Auston, then, the headline and the quote and everything: Mitch is actually going to do this. He’s actually going to be a prince, which means he’s going to rule a country, which means…

He’s not coming back.

And Auston’s just sitting there in his car, utterly numb with the realization. He knew Genovia liked Mitch, duh, but this- he’s absurdly indignant, all no, mine, like a little kid who doesn’t want to share.

He feels stupid. So incredibly, unbelievably stupid, to have been sitting here all this time, expecting Mitch to walk away from being literal royalty because of- what, one kiss? When they were both tired after a roadie? And whatever other shit Auston’s been, like, projecting onto this so he wouldn’t have to face reality, only now he is, and reality is that he’s going to lose the best friend he’s ever had.

Mitch didn’t invite him to the ball as a kind-of-maybe boyfriends thing, Auston realizes. He invited him to say goodbye.

---

Getting dressed for Mitch’s ball feels like getting dressed for a funeral.

Auston’s aware that he’s being dramatic, like objectively? But he doesn’t care. Does not fucking care, not even a little, because he’s losing his best friend and kind-of-maybe-boyfriend who maybe wasn’t really his boyfriend after all to some European monarchy with a total land area about the size of the Leafs’ practice facility.

“I don’t want to do this,” he says, when his mom calls to ask him to get her an autograph from the queen. Auston doesn’t even ask which queen. He’s distraught. “I hate this, Mom.”

“Auston,” his mom tsks, sympathetic. “This is a big night. What would Mitch do if it was you?”

And, like, Auston loves his mom more than anything, but it would be nice if she was less reasonable sometimes, because he knows. If this was him, going off to rule a country, Mitch wouldn’t be this selfish for a second. He’d be in full cheerleader mode, trying to make this the best it could possibly be, because that’s just the kind of guy Mitch is.

Auston sighs.

“Be supportive,” he tells himself, firm, then opens his door and heads out to the car.

The traffic’s bad in the city, but the diplomatic plates on the car Mitch sent do the job, and the ride passes in a blur. Auston fidgets with his cufflinks the whole way, tries to calm himself down.

He’s practically blinded when the chauffeur opens the door for him – there’s a small army’s worth of paparazzi outside the venue, this impossibly loud flurry of camera shutters and motion until they collectively realize that Auston isn’t any kind of dignitary and go back to milling around. Not hockey fans, then.

 Security escorts him in and steers him past the main entrance, where Auston can hear instruments being tuned and muffled voices. He ends up climbing this huge staircase to one of the upper floors, and it’s the hotel all over again, more classy shit than he knew existed, but he figures out that he’s in the right place when he sees Joe, grumpy as ever, standing at the end of a hallway.

“Hi,” Auston says. He actually gets a nod from Joe, this time. Progress, maybe. Auston’s mostly too dejected to care. That funeral feeling from earlier is back again- he wants to ditch this whole thing, like if he doesn’t go to this ball, Mitch won’t leave.

He makes it halfway down the hall before turning around.

“You-” Auston breaks off. He has to speak around a sudden lump in his throat. “Take really good care of him, okay?”

“Of course,” Joe nods again, and he looks a little confused, but maybe a little bit approving, too.

So. Perfect. Auston’s finally earned the respect of the people taking Mitch away from him. Fantastic.

He wanders down the hall, a little hesitant, peering into doorways. Every room is empty until maybe the second from the end, and when Auston looks into this one, he somehow feels underdressed in his custom-tailored suit, which isn’t a thing that should be happening, but Mitch-

Mitch is standing there in this white outfit, this jacket with coattails and embroidery at the cuffs; gold braid on the shoulders and a blue sash across his chest. It’s traditional, more than anything Mitch would usually wear, but it’s- it’s noble, is the adjective that’s coming to mind, and it fits Mitch like something he’s meant to be wearing, and it also apparently activates some, like, long-dormant prince fantasy Auston’s evidently been harboring deep within his subconscious, because he’s so caught up in staring that he walks straight into the doorframe and bangs his head. Mitch doesn’t seem to notice.

“Hi,” Auston says, or tries to, only it mostly comes out as a garbled sort of ‘hngh’, because this is apparently who he is, now. He probably used to be cool, before Mitch happened.

Mitch barely even glances at him, too busy looking at himself in a floor-length mirror, all tragic. “I look so stupid,” he says, picking at the shiny buttons on his jacket and not even bothering with a greeting. “So fucking stupid, oh my god.”

Auston swallows. “You don’t,” he says, and even manages to make it come out as, like, an actual human language, which is a nice step up. “Like. At all, man.”

“It has a sash,” Mitch says, disgusted. “Like I’m, like-” Auston can see him struggling to think of a terrible enough comparison. “Like I’m prom queen or something.”

“It could be worse,” Auston offers, helpless.

“How?” Mitch demands, wheeling around to look at him. “Literally, how could this be any worse?”

So, so many ways. Auston wonders if it’d be weird if he a took a picture. “Could’ve been a kilt?”

“Fucking kilts,” Mitch says, like kilts are singlehandedly responsible for ruining his life. He looks panicked, freaked out like he never used to look, before this prince shit. “I can’t do this, Matts.”

“C’mon, you can,” Auston says, but Mitch is already shaking his head, counts off on his fingers as he speaks.

“I look dumb in my suit, I still don’t know what geopolitics even means, and- and what if they make me dance?”

“You dance all the time,” Auston points out, because it’s the truth, and Mitch gapes at him.

“Not fuckin’ ballroom, though!” he protests, and it’s not like Auston can actually argue that one. Dabbing probably isn’t acceptable at royal balls, which automatically eliminates at least three quarters of Marns’ dancing repertoire.

Mitch huffs out a breath, drags his hands down his face. Looks up at Auston, a little petulant. “This is the part where you really smoothly teach me how to dance and we have a moment,” he says.

“Mitchy,” Auston says, because there might be some version of reality where he sweeps Mitch off his feet and they waltz around all graceful, but it sure as anything isn’t this one. “Bud, do I look like I know how to fucking ballroom dance?”

“Oh my god,” Mitch says, but he at least sounds more exasperated than panicked as he leans forward and closes the distance between them, resting his head on Auston’s shoulder. Auston’s arms go up automatically, tugging Mitch into a hug, keeping him close.

It makes Mitch relax, the way Auston knew it would. He’s bad at words, maybe, but he’s good at hugs, especially where Mitch is concerned.

It’s been so fucking long, he realizes, since they’ve been in the same place. And it’s only going to get longer, once Mitch leaves. Everything Auston got used to, living in each other’s pockets, spending every second together, that’s all going to be in the past.

He holds Mitch a little tighter. Maybe too tight. Mitch doesn’t complain. “You’re gonna kick ass,” Auston promises, like it’s before a game, like tonight isn’t the last time they’ll see each other for god knows how long.

Mitch squeezes him tight, does this little sound, not quite a laugh. Auston doesn’t think he’s imagining that he’s not the only one being a little clingy.

It’s too long and not nearly long enough when they pull out of the hug, and then Mitch is just standing there in his suit, familiar and already completely different all at the same time.

Auston reaches out on a whim, straightens Mitch’s collar, even though it doesn’t really need it. His hands feel too big for his body, clumsy.

“You look good,” he says, then tacks on, “Your highness.” It doesn’t come out as sarcastic as he means it to, just hovers there between them, too sincere.

It gets a smile out of Mitch, this little surprised thing as his eyes find Auston’s. “You too, Matts,” he says, soft.

And they’re just looking at each other, and Auston can’t help but look at Mitch’s lips. He’s right there, and it’d be easier than anything to suck it up and kiss him, the way Mitch is standing so close, an actual prince, like something out of a fairy tale, like Auston’s the kind of guy who gets fairy tale moments if only he could just suck it up and kiss him.

Suck it up and kiss him, he tells himself, and Mitch sways into him a little, and-

And-

And all Auston can think is how bad he missed Mitch after they kissed the first time, how entirely fucking awful it’s been being without him and knowing what he’s missing out on, and worse, that he’s going to have to miss him all over again. Because one kiss, that’s all it was and it fucking ruined Auston’s life, and he doesn’t know what’s going on in Mitch’s head but he knows where this goes, knows it ends with Mitch marrying a princess or something, and with Auston left as that guy he made out with once back when he was a hockey player.

Everything’s going to be different.

Auston makes himself pull back, clears his throat.

“I think Joe will literally murder me if we’re late,” he says, and it’s not a lie, but it’s not the whole truth, either.

“I-” Mitch looks a little stunned, shakes his head like he’s shaking water out of his ears. “Yeah, no, you’re right.” He smiles, and Auston doesn’t let himself dwell on how it looks like it takes effort.

The air is tense, thick with everything Auston’s not saying. His throat feels all tight.

Mitch offers his arm, all exaggerated politeness. “Shall we?”

Auston rolls his eyes and shoves him forward by the scruff of his neck, and Mitch’s smile turns at least a little more real, which is-

Good. It’s good.

Mitch deserves for tonight to be good.

---

No one tries to make them dance, thank fuck.

It’s not terrible, the whole ball thing. Or, okay. It for sure is terrible, like, emotionally, but aesthetically, and like, as an experience? It’s like being in a movie. And, see, Auston’s not really the kind of guy to get intimidated, ever, but he comes close here, surrounded by people in ballgowns made of shimmery fabric, more suits like Mitch’s, a few draped with military medals. Every snippet of every conversation he overhears is too smart for him to understand, and that’s not even to say anything of the whispers he hears when he walks in at Mitch’s side. The whole ballroom, every inch of it, is full of the kind of people Auston’s dad calls ‘old money’, and Auston’s never felt further from Arizona once in his whole life.

He tries to make the best of it, one last night of Mitch as just his. It’d probably even be fun, under any other circumstances: people keep on bowing to Mitch, and he gets really red every time so that Auston’s basically obliged to make fun of him. There’s black-suited waiters roaming around with trays of drinks and fancy little appetizers, and no one can even get mad at them when Mitch commandeers the entire tray of the best mini sandwiches Auston’s ever had.

“Tiny sandwiches,” Marns says, holding one up all triumphant, and he smiles when Auston laughs. And it’s fun, right, or it would be, if it wasn’t for the massive, planet-sized elephant in the room.

Auston knows Mitchy feels it too, because he’s not stupid, the tangible tension building up in the distance between them. It’s too deliberate, too noticeable, and Auston wants to close the space but knows he has to get used to this and more. He doesn’t even- like, what would he even say here? Mitch has clearly already made up his mind.

It’s building all night, finally becomes something that they can’t pretend to ignore anymore by the time everyone’s summoned in to listen to speeches. Auston doesn’t think he registers a single word, all the talk of governments and policy changes going in one ear then out the other.

“You okay?” Mitch asks, right in Auston’s ear. One of the Genovian ministers is standing on stage, reciting a list of the crown prince- of Mitch’s titles and the history of each one.

“Yeah, man,” Auston says, automatic. “Just- it’s weird, y’know?”

“You’re telling me,” Mitch says, and it’s trying to be lighthearted, maybe, but there’s something uncertain about it. “Listen, I-”

“Champagne?” A waiter offers, and Mitch shakes his head, firm.

“No, thank you,” he says; then, back to Auston, too loud to really be a whisper, “I was just-”

“Your highness!” A new whisper cuts him off, and Auston turns around to see a woman rushing towards them. “It’s almost time.”

“It’s okay,” Auston says, because Mitch looks stressed, now, and that’s not why he’s here, tonight. “You don’t have to-”

Mitch stares up at him, “I just feel like you’re-”

“I’m not,” Auston says, and Mitch frowns, and Auston doesn’t know where he messed up, but he doesn’t understand anything anymore, and then the lady from before has an arm on Mitch’s elbow.

“Your highness, your speech,” she whispers, firm, and Mitch shoots Auston one more look that Auston doesn’t know how to translate before he’s getting pushed towards the little stage at the front of the room, now that all of his titles have been announced. There’s a smattering of polite applause, and Auston lets himself get jostled forward as the crowd presses in.

It’s like, the mother of all media scrums, just Mitch standing there in front of an entire roomful of people waiting to hear what he has to say. He looks nervous, and Auston wants to hug him, something useless like that.

Mitch clears his throat. “So, uh. To tell the truth, I fully did not know where Genovia was on a map, like, a couple months ago.” That gets a couple of laughs from the crowd, and it seems to encourage Mitch. “And then the whole prince thing happened – you guys saw – and I was really scared about it, because I know about hockey and literally nothing else.”

“But,” he goes on, “What I know about hockey is that it’s all about the people you have around you. It’s- you get a team, and you make it though the biggest changes and keep moving forward. And that’s what I know is going to happen for Genovia, is that you’re going to keep moving forward with as much love and friendship and kindness as you all showed me.”

His eyes find Auston’s in the crowd, and Auston’s heart skips a beat. He’s- he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop being amazed by the fact that Mitch is the most ludicrously sincere person he’s ever met, and not even embarrassed about it. He believes this stuff, wears it right on his sleeve.

He’s good at this, Auston realizes.

Mitch shrugs, small. “All that’s the important stuff. And I know I just know hockey, but. I know that, too. So. Thank you.”

The applause is loud enough that Auston’s pretty sure his ‘Go Marns!’ gets lost in the noise. If it doesn’t- fuck, he doesn’t care, he’ll say it to anyone who wants to listen. He’s pretty sure they’d agree actually, because looking around the room, it’s clear as anything: they really, truly love him. Auston loves him.

He thinks it without meaning to, and then it’s all he can think.

Auston loves him.

And he knew it before, obviously, at least to some extent, but it hasn’t really sunk in ‘til right this moment, the earth-shattering, universe-imploding realization that he’s in love with his favourite fucking person on the planet. And Auston’s terrified of it, and he’s been terrified of it, because it’s objectively a terrifying thing, how much of a change it would be, but behind all the being terrified is just- he’s so, so lucky, to get to love someone like Mitch Marner, and to maybe have a chance that Mitch Marner loves him back.

It’s not the kind of chance you let go, a chance like that.

It settles into Auston’s gut, this clarifying kind of certainty like when he’s got the puck on his stick and open ice in front of him. There’s a chance Mitch loves him back, a good chance, and like hell is Auston going to lose that chance to some tiny-ass country whose main export is fucking pears.

He pushes through the crowd, uses his size in his favour. It earns him a couple of dirty looks from people wearing literal tiaras – maybe a new low? – but he makes it to the side of the stage where Mitch is being congratulated by most of the Genovian parliament.

Mitch ditches them pretty fast when he sees Auston. It’s kind of an ego boost, spurs Auston on. “Can we talk?”

“Did I do okay?” Mitch asks, then, when Auston tugs on his arm, “What’re-”

Auston tugs Mitch back through the crowd, right for the door. The music’s started up again, something classical-sounding, and Mitch’s hand finds his so they won’t get separated once people start dancing.

They make it out of the ballroom, and a few of the security guys milling around start towards them, but Mitch waves them off, and Auston pulls him down the nearest hallway ‘til he finds a little enclave, mostly hidden by a tapestry. He can still hear the quartet playing, the low rumble of footsteps and voices. Not private, really, but not much in their lives is, so it’ll have to do.

The confusion in Mitch’s voice is audible as he meets Auston’s eyes, searching. “Dude, wha-”

Auston kisses him. Auston doesn’t even let himself think about it, not for a single second, just yanks Mitch in by the front of his jacket and kisses him, tries to put everything he’s feeling into it.

It’s their kiss in the car times a million, a trillion – Mitch gives as good as he gets without hesitating for a second, getting a hand on Auston’s neck and tugging him down where he wants him. He’s stronger than he looks, and Auston can’t help the sound that escapes him when Mitch’s hand runs through his hair, and he’s tugging at Auston’s lip, stumbling backwards so they’re both tucked into the corner. Auston drags a hand down Mitch’s back, and Mitch shivers, and one of his legs is between Auston’s and it’s so hot Auston can’t breathe.

Mitch’s lips are pink, spit-slick when they break apart.

“Wow,” Mitch says, all out of breath, and Auston is too, but he’s talking nearly before Mitch is done.

“Please don’t leave to rule a country,” he gets out, all in a rush.

Mitch laughs, a little startled, eyes darting up to meet Auston’s. “What?”

“I know this is all really new,” Auston says, because fuck it, he’s going for broke, here. “But just- you can’t leave, Marns, just when we’re figuring out that we could be something really, really awesome, and I know it was stupid of me to wait this long but you’re like- you’re actually so incredible, and I don’t want to never kiss you again and miss out on honestly the best thing I’ve ever-”

“Matts,” Mitch interrupts, and Auston swallows, pained, except- Mitch looks nearly amused. Maybe a little exasperated. “Matty, I barely passed grade ten civics, I’m not gonna go rule a country.”

Which-

Auston blinks. “But... the ball,” he says, slow.

“To celebrate the new government, dude,” Mitch says, like duh. “Democracy, or whatever. Like they’ve been trying to get forever? I’m kind of a national hero now.”

And, see, Auston does sort of remember seeing something about new legislation. But-

But that means that-

“Oh,” Auston says, and he thinks it comes out at least mostly normal sounding, which is pretty good, under the circumstances. “Right.”

“Yeah,” Mitch says, then scrunches his nose, all incredulous. “You really think I’d trade being a Leaf just to boss some country around?”

“I-” Auston starts, then snaps his mouth shut. He doesn’t know if he wants to laugh or cry. Of course, of course Marns would choose the fucking Maple Leafs over being literal royalty, because he may have a zillion extra titles now, but he’s still the guy who introduced himself to Auston the first time they met by hugging him and saying ‘We’re gonna be Leafs forever!’, who’s still a bigger fan of the team than any actual fan Auston’s ever met.

The guy who’s not going anywhere.

The guy who Auston just spilled his guts to completely for no reason.

Shit.

Auston scratches the back of his neck, awkward. “Guess the kissing thing was kind of extra, then.”

“Little bit,” Mitch says. He looks like he’s trying not to laugh.

Auston huffs out a sigh, torn between relief and wanting to melt into a pile of Auston-shaped goop on the floor. This is embarrassing. He’s embarrassing on every level a person can be embarrassing. Swooping in all dramatic.

He shoves his hands in his pockets, tries to recover some semblance of dignity. “Right, so like, if you just want to ignore, uh. All of that. That would be cool.”

Mitch opens his mouth and then shuts it and he looks- he looks small. Not that he ever really looks big, but-

Auston doesn’t know. He’s never seen Mitch look this sad, not once.

“Marns?” he says, unsure, and Mitch shakes his head just once, blinks really hard and straightens up, not quite meeting Auston’s eyes.

“We can do that,” he says. “We- it’s good.”

“Okay,” Auston says. Mitch still isn’t looking at him, glancing back into the hall instead.

“I, um,” Mitch says, all hearty and weird. “I should probably get back to the ball.” He grins, this incredibly forced thing. Not a Mitch smile at all. “Duty calls, or whatever.”

“Yeah,” Auston says, nodding too fast. “No, totally.”

Mitch shrugs past him, and he’s turned like he’s hiding his face or something, which doesn’t make sense; and Auston hears his breath catch as he leaves, which really doesn’t make sense, because Mitch isn’t even leaving the country. Things don’t have to change, they can just-

“Wait,” Auston says, loud, without even really meaning to. Mitch pauses. “Wait, I-”

It’s a scary-big moment, like standing on the edge of a cliff. Mitch shouldn’t be sad because of him.

Mitch didn’t look sad, when they were kissing.

And- and things are changing anyways, probably. They maybe changed a while ago, when they kissed or when Mitch became a prince or maybe before any of that, back when Auston started looking at him and thinking Mitch was the best thing he’d ever seen.

Auston takes a deep breath.

“Or,” he says, breaking the silence. Mitch turns around, real slow. Auston’s heart is racing. “Or, if you want, we could like. Not.”

Mitch looks confused, lingering a couple feet away. “Not... get back to the ball?”

“Not ignore it,” Auston says. It sounds like he’s listening to someone else talk, he’s so nervous. “What I said.”

Mitch is just staring. His eyes are drilling a hole in Auston’s soul, it feels like, staring right through him and every vague illusion that he knows even a little bit what the fuck he’s doing.

“Just- don’t laugh,” Auston says, and then, spur of the moment, he covers his eyes, like when they Facetimed, because he thinks if he looks at Mitch he’ll chicken out.

He swallows. “I meant it,” he says. “Everything I said I meant, how- how amazing I think you are, and how much I want to kiss you again. And more. A lot more.” He closes his eyes, even still hiding behind his hands. “Which is really scary and like, very cringey, but- like, whatever, I really just-”

He jumps, startled, when Mitch hugs him, out of nowhere and so tight it hurts.

“Matts,” Mitch says, tugging Auston’s hands down so Auston’s got no choice but to look at him. He’s right up close, shaking his head like he’s stunned. “Matts, how- I like you back,” he says, and Auston inhales, sharp. “I obviously like you back, which I thought we already established, you absolute fucking-”

“What, like I’m supposed to just assume that?” Auston demands.

“Yes!” Mitch punches Auston’s chest, hard, and laughs out loud. “I kissed you, you were there, dude! I thought you like, changed your mind or decided the prince thing was too much or something, I kept trying to-”

“Oh my god,” Auston says, stricken. “I was so, so obvious, you’re even dumber than me-”

“You like me,” Mitch realizes out loud, and he looks like the kind of breathtaking that should be a statue somewhere, this brilliant moment of triumph and just plain happy, and this time Auston doesn’t know who kisses who, but they’re kissing and Mitch’s lips are curved into a smile against Auston’s and it’s the best fucking moment of Auston’s life, bar none.

“Go out with me,” Mitch says, without really pulling away at all. “Go out with me, I’m asking.”

Auston’s nodding before he’s done. “Yeah,” he says, eager. “Yeah, yes.”

Mitch beams at him. “Lit,” he says, and his smile gets bigger, like that’s possible. There’s a ninety percent chance Auston’s getting chirped, but he doesn’t even care, just presses Mitch back into the enclave and kisses him again, a real prince charming, happy-ever-after type kiss, because he can.

And- like, yes, Auston realizes belatedly that getting to third base outside of a royal function is probably something that’s frowned upon.

He doesn’t feel bad at all.