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It doesn’t occur to Jamie that he could be making a mistake until he find himself barefoot on the steps to Tyler’s apartment at two in the morning, hoping desperately that Tyler didn’t pick up tonight.

He could have called—probably should have called, but he couldn’t risk… Tyler might have said no. Things have been weird with Tyler over the last few months, and he couldn’t take the chance that Tyler would refuse.

He slams the doorbell another two times, then knocks for good measure. The first ring hadn’t gotten any answer, but he can hear the sound of barking through the door, the familiar scramble of Tyler’s boys on the hardwood floors. The bundle in his arms stirs, and Jamie makes a soothing shushing noise until it settles again.

The door swings over just as Jamie reaches to ring the bell again, and Jamie’s heart turns over in his chest. Tyler is shirtless and sleep-mussed, sweatpants hanging low enough on his hips that Jamie is pretty sure he pulled them on over nothing to answer the door.

“Jamie?” Tyler asks blearily, knuckling sleep out of his eyes. “What—”

“I need your help,” Jamie says, pushing past him into the house. With his arms full, he can’t greet Marshall, Cash and Gerry in the way they clearly feel entitled to, and he barely manages to stop them jumping onto him.

“I—yeah. Of course.” Tyler shuts the door behind him and wrestle the boys down, giving each of them enough attention to distract them from Jamie. “Is someone pregnant?” He looks Jamie over, his hair tugged loose from it’s usual gelled down look, his clothes askew, his jacket bundled in his arms despite the winter chill. “Did you kill someone?”

Jamie snorts. “Jesus, Segs, what would you be able to do if I had?”

Tyler shrugs. “Help you hide the body?”

“You are way too willing to commit crimes with me.”

“Ride or die, baby,” Tyler jokes, and for a moment, it feels like normal. Like Tyler hasn’t been avoiding him, like they’re still best friends and nothing will ever come between them.

Then Gerry barks, and puts a leg up on Jamie’s thigh to nose at the jacket in his arms. The bundle squirms and, unmistakably, barks back.

As one, Jamie and Tyler drop their gazes to it—Jamie’s resigned, Tyler’s incredulous.

“Jameson Benn, did you bring me a puppy?” Tyler asks, delighted.

“No. Well. Sort of. Can we—” he indicates the living room, and Tyler steps aside enough to let him through. Jamie has to tighten his grip to keep the dog from slipping out of his hold, managing manages to get a better grip when he sits down; bracketing the jacket and dog both with his legs.

“Can I see?” Tyler asks, sitting down closer than has been his wont, and leaning in eagerly. Jamie feels a rush of affection, unwelcome and overwhelming.

He has to unwrap the jacket carefully, in case the dog gets free and makes a break for it. It doesn’t, just sits in his lap and, when exposed to the light, wags its tail.

Tyler stares at it. Jamie stares at him.

“That.” Tyler licks his lips, clearly at a loss for words. “That is a totally ridiculous dog.”

Which. Yeah. The dog looks like nothing more than piece of white fluff come to life, the snowball roundness of its face broken by two dark eyes and a button nose. Jamie doesn’t have it for aesthetics.

Tyler’s eyes jump to his, searching his face. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he asks carefully. “Are you like, pet sitting for her?”

“Ah. No, not exactly.”

Tyler reaches out a hand for the dog to sniff, which it does, wagging its tail. It gives Tyler’s hand a few licks, then settles back into Jamie’s hold, apparently content there. “He—are they a he?— is he okay? This isn’t like, a medical emergency?”

“No, of course not!” He trusts Tyler, especially when it comes to canine welfare, but he’s not an idiot—if the dog had been hurt he would have gone to a vet.

“Then why—what are you doing here?”

Jamie is spared from having to answer when Marshall, Cash and Gerry, apparently having been patient for too long, nose in together to sniff the interloper in their midst. For a brief second, the other dog leans forward, nose to nose with Cash in the middle. But then all three of Tyler’s dogs begin to bark in excitement, all lunging forward to sniff or lick the dog, and it whines and shrinks back against Jamie.

“I’ve got it,” Tyler says, jumping to his feet. With the ease of practice, he manages to shepperd all of them out the back door and onto the porch. Gerry, only barely out of his puppy years, takes off to run around the yard, but Marshall and Cash sit with their faces to the door, looking pitiful.

“Will they be okay?”

Tyler crosses into the kitchen, out of Jamie’s sight. “They’ll be fine. It’s not too cold, and it shouldn’t be too long.” He comes back out and sits on the couch, further from Jamie. “Here.” He drops two dog treats into Jamie’s hand, flashing him a quick smile. “If you want to impress your girl, get the dog to like you. That’s always the first step.”

The treats are clearly for bigger dogs, and the dog noses them suspiciously before it takes one gingerly, turning as close to a circle in Jamie’s lap as it can manage and lies down to chew on it. Jamie watches it, feeling soft and gooey at the sight. He’s thought, on and off, of getting a dog. With hockey and his travel schedule, it always seemed impossible. He scratches the dog’s head, and it turns to lick his fingers before returning to the treat.

“So who’s the girl?” Tyler asks. “Must be pretty special, if she’s letting you have overnight dog privileges.”

Jamie tears his eyes away from the dog, thrown off by the strange tone in Tyler’s voice.

“What girl?”

“The girl you’re dogsitting for.” Tyler grins, bright and easy. “You’ve been holding out on us?” He’s curled up in the corner of the couch, legs pulled up. His feet are bare, startlingly pale and vulnerable against the dark leather.

“There is no girl,” Jamie says, which is— well. It’s true now, anyway. Tyler’s brow furrows in confusion, still smiling.

“Then where’d you get the dog, buddy?”

Jamie can feel heat rising in his face. “Well. I guess it’s mine.”

“You guess?”

Jamie shrugs, dropping his gaze back to the dog. It’s finished off the treat and seems to have fallen asleep against his leg. It’s so sweet and tiny. He could almost fit all of it in one hand. “Yes?”

“Jamie, getting a dog is a big responsibility. You can’t just—where did you even find him?”

“I’m not sure that it is a him.”

Tyler makes a rough, exasperated noise. “Jesus Christ, Chubbs.” He holds out his hands. “Can I see?”

Jamie doesn’t want to wake it up, but Tyler is looking at him, expectant and still incredulous. The dog settles easily in two palms, making his hands look even bigger than normal. It barely reacts, squirming a little at the transfer. Tyler peeks between the legs, then passes it back to Jamie.

“She’s a girl.” He breathes out through his nose. “How did you get a dog and not even know what gender they are? Jamie, what the fuck.”

“You don’t get to talk to me about responsibility,” Jamie snaps, and immediately regrets it when hurt flashes across Tyler’s face, quickly hidden.

He almost thinks he’s imagined it when Tyler laughs, ducking his head. “I guess not.” But the thing is, he knows Tyler. Might not know why they’ve been hanging out less, why Tyler has been distant, but knows him, and knows how that remark, unfair and unfounded after all this time, would have stung. It’s not fair for Jamie to lash out at him just because he’s embarrassed.

“That’s not—that wasn’t cool. Of me. I shouldn’t have said that.” Jamie admits. “I just. You’ll laugh.”

“Try me.”

So Jamie does. He tells Tyler about meeting this girl on his friend’s backyard party, taking her back to his place. He’s already feeling awkward just talking to Tyler about this. Tyler probably hooks up like in movies, stumbling through the front door already kissing, spilling up the stairs, fumbling off their clothes as they go— she wouldn’t be able to keep her hands off of him. They would fall into bed in the truest sense of the word. It would be easy for Tyler, like it never has been for Jamie. He wouldn’t have to pour them both a drink to get over the awkward cab ride from the bar, wouldn’t have to make awkward small talk as they sip, wouldn’t have to awkwardly invite her up to his room.

“God, Tyler, between the party and the drinks, I’d been with her for at least eight hours by this point. So we’re in my room—” he can feel his face flushing red. She’d been on her back, dealing with her own bra while Jamie had pulled his shirt off. “And I heard this noise from her purse.”

It had scared the shit out of him, he’s almost fallen off the bed with his shirt half over his head, off-balance and disoriented. “And when I asked her about it, she said not to worry about it.” He can hear the anger in his own voice. “But, when I kept hearing it, I had to go look. And it was this tiny little dog, just sitting in her purse. I had no idea it was even in there. All that time, she hadn’t said a word, hadn’t fed it or given it water.”

He can see Tyler’s hands clenched into fists on his thighs, and of course the mistreatment of any dog would get to him.

“I told her to get out. I got her to sign an NDA, and I told her if she took the dog with her I’d report her for animal abuse and criminal neglect.” He’s pretty sure that criminal neglect of an animal isn’t a thing, but it had scared her enough that she hadn’t argued. She hadn’t even protested, hadn’t even seem to care, just scooped the dog out of her purse and headed out. As soon as her cab left, he’d gone straight to Tyler’s.

“I couldn’t just leave her there. She kept— when I reached out for her that first time, she was so scared. She looked like she expected me to be mad, just because she made a noise.” Tyler had once kicked the entire team out of his house when Gerry got into some of the food and started throwing up. Jamie had stayed, bringing Tyler and Gerry water and keeping the other dogs from crowding around.

Tyler has never had a dog small enough to fit in a purse, but he’s pretty sure that if he did, he would have spent the whole day doting on it. Even in the middle of sex, Tyler would be up at the first sign of distress. The flippant ‘don’t worry about it’ after that quiet, distressed noise still made his blood boil.

“So, ah. I guess I have a dog now.” Jamie stares down at her. He can’t imagine giving her up to a shelter. He had taken her from a home . It may not have been a good one, but it was still a home. He couldn’t take her from that and just hand her over to strangers, with no one to attend to her specific needs.

“Wow.” Tyler shakes his head. “Well. I’m not laughing.”

Jamie ducks his head. “No. I guess not.”

“You don’t have to keep her though. I’m sure someone would take her.”

Jamie looks down at her, soft and trusting in his lap. “Why wouldn’t I keep her?” He brushes over her ears and she turns her head into it.

“Well,” Tyler trails off. Jamie doesn’t look at him.

“I can take care of a dog, Tyler.”

“Of course you can!” Tyler protests, sounding offended that Jamie would doubt it. “It’s just. She’s a little…” he trails off again, clearly reluctant. When Jamie does look up at him, he’s biting his lip.

“A little…”

“Well. I mean. Aren’t you worried what people might say?”

Jamie looks down at the dog, a small piece of white fluff in his lap, harmless. “About what?” he asks, truly baffled.

“About. About you?” Tyler says it like a question, like he’s confused about Jamie being confused.

“For having a dog? You have three.”

For a moment, they stare at one another in mutual frustration. Then Tyler breaks, throwing his hands into the air with frustration. “It’s a little gay, don’t you think?”

Jamie goes cold all over. It’s the part of Tyler that Jamie had tried to put out of his mind in those early months, the part that he really thought Tyler had outgrown. The part of him that exudes what Jenny calls ‘toxic masculinity’, who has said ‘No homo’ everytime he stole a bite off Jamie’s plate. He hadn’t done it in years.

“I doubt my dog is gay, Segs,” Jamie says, deliberately keeping his voice light.

“That’s not,” Tyler pushes both his hands through his hair in frustration, making it stand up further. “I didn’t mean—I’m just trying to look out for you.”

Jamie had hooked up, a few months ago. It had been an away game, and he hadn’t thought anyone had seen. But if Tyler had—if that was why he had been avoiding Jamie so diligently—

“I don’t need you to look out for me,” he says. Not like this, he wants to add, wants to scream. He keeps it behind his teeth, stroking another hand over soft fur to keep it from shaking. “I just came to see if you had some extra dog food.”

Tyler doesn’t say anything, and Jamie doesn’t look up at him, just watches the dog as she turns over in his lap, presenting her belly for scratches. He obliges her, and after a minute, Tyler gets to his feet and leaves the room.

That’s it then, Jamie thinks. That’s Tyler’s answer. Tyler, his best friend and the biggest dog lover he’d ever met, throwing out their relationship because Jamie wanted a dog that didn’t fit into Tyler’s view of masculinity.

Then Tyler comes back out of the kitchen, two bowls in hand. They’re both from his own kitchen set, not any of the dog bowls he has around. “I have some leftover puppy food that Gerry’s outgrown,” he says, setting it down on the floor. “The other stuff is all for big breeds. I don’t think it would hurt her but,” he looks up at Jamie, and even despite the icy pit his stomach, the sight of Tyler—shirtless and mussed, on his knees at Jamie’s feet—does something to him.

The second bowl is water, and Jamie feels foolish for not having thought of it. God, what is he even doing. Maybe Tyler is right, and being a dog owner is too big of a responsibility for him.

He puts the dog down on the ground, expecting her to go straight for the food. Instead, she sniffs around the couch, gives Tyler a curious once-over, then jumps back up to Jamie.

Tyler laughs, a little choked. “Looks like she’s keeping you anyway,” he says.

Jamie stares down at her, baffled and weirdly touched. “I only just met her.”

“That doesn’t matter. You were kind when she was scared. A new place, new people—she's lucky to have you.” There is something infinitely tender in Tyler’s voice, scraping at the raw parts of Jamie’s heart. He has to clench his hands to resist the urge to reach out and touch Tyler’s, to pull him close and—

Instead, he sets the dog on the ground again. This time, she takes a few careful sips of water, then moves to the food. He and Tyler watch in silence as she scarfs it down, more than he would have thought possible for her size.

Jamie isn’t sure how much time passes, as she eats and they sit together; Tyler still on the floor, Jamie hunched over on the couch. Then one of Tyler’s dogs barks from outside, and the little dog’s head jerks up. She makes a move like she wants to run, then looks at Jamie. She hesitates for a second, and then darts across the room.

Jamie swears, jumping to his feet. He almost crashes into Tyler when he does the same, both of them lunging after her. Tyler’s house is all open space and wood floors, and she skitters across the wood as she races from one corner to another. He can’t tell if she’s curious or scared, but he needs to catch her before she gets further into the house. With Tyler’s six bedrooms, they might never find her.

Tyler grabs his arm and pulls him to a stop. “We’re scaring her.”

She gives a tiny yip in response, darting from behind a potted plant to the ottoman, wiggling her way underneath it.

“What should I—”

Tyler lets him go. “Just, go quietly. Be gentle.”

Jamie crouches down until he can see her, then gets on his stomach to make eye contact with her. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like she’s shaking. He holds out his hand, palm up, making soft shushing sounds like he’s seen Tyler do.

She doesn’t come out, so Jamie inches closer, hand still outstretched. He gets close enough that his hand is almost touching the ottoman before she whines, low and sad. He goes still, hardly breathing, hand still outstretched.

After what feels like a hundred years, he feels the soft, wet touch of her nose against his fingertips, then her tongue. She doesn’t bathe his hand in doggy kisses like Tyler’s boys do, only a few tentative licks before she settles, butting her head into his hand.

It’s a bit of a struggle to get her out from under the ottoman, but he manages, unearthing her with a grunt. When he turns, triumphant, to Tyler, he’s surprised by the look on his face. He looks like he’s been hit hard into the boards, winded and dazed. When their eyes meet, Tyler smiles, but it’s only a ghost of his usual bright expression.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. It’s just, it’s late.” Tyler gestures vaguely, waving away the question.

Jamie glances at his watch out of reflex. It’s already past three am. “Oh, god. I should—I can leave.” He looks at the two bowls, the food only half eaten. “Could I get some of the food to go?” He can probably go to PetSmart after practice. God. Practice. What is he even going to do with her then? His house isn’t equipped to handle a dog.

“Don’t be stupid,” Tyler says, the strange look slipping from his face. “Obviously you’ll stay here.”

“I can’t—” Jamie is protesting before he can think about it. There had been a time when Tyler’s guest room had been as familiar as his own place, when it wouldn’t have been a question. It feels unnatural, an imposition, now.

“You can.” Tyler cuts him off. He brushes past Jamie to pick up the two bowls. “We can put these in your room so my boys don’t get them.”

The way it slips off his tongue— Jamie’s room, like nothing has changed—makes him breathless. The dog whines and twists in his arms to lick his chin. He smiles down at her.

“I have a few toys they don’t use anymore,” Tyler is saying, his voice trailing off as he heads up the stairs. Jamie follows him. “I might have an extra dog bed, but it’ll smell like the boys, and that might put her off. I just did laundry, so I’ll just give you a towel, it shouldn’t smell like anything.”

“Look at you,” Jamie grins, “a big boy, doing your own laundry and everything."

Tyler gives him a coy look over his shoulder. “Oh, I’ll show you what a big boy I can be.” Jamie chokes and almost trips over nothing, his face flaming red. “I mean—fuck.” Tyler looks away from him again, the back of his neck scarlet. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired. I shouldn’t—won’t happen again.”

What won’t, Jamie doesn’t press, you flirting? You joking with me at three in the morning? Which parts of Tyler does he get to keep?

He wants all of them, every stupid flirt, every sleepy mumble, every time Tyler is grumpy or happy or kicking everyone out to look after his dogs. He wants Tyler to keep flirting with him, to never flirt with anyone else—

It’s a little gay, don’t you think?

Jamie recoils from the thought. It’s a stupid thing to want, and a worse thing to let himself think he could have.

“It’s fine,” he says, instead of the barrage of emotions he wants to unload on Tyler. “It’s late.” As though that explains anything, explains the months of flirting, and the way Tyler had just stopped. Stopped flirting, stopped coming around. Stopped being his best friend, until he was just another teammate.

Jamie follows him into the room he’s always used, one down from Tyler’s. He’s not sure what he’s expecting. For it to look different, for Tyler to have redecorated. He hasn’t. It could have been three months ago, with Jamie staying two nights a week. A t-shirt with the neck ripped out is thrown over the chair, a Stars hoodie with the number 14 is folded at the foot of the bed. A pair of Jamie’s basketball shorts for working out is half sticking out of a drawer.

There’s no visible sign that their friendship has changed, no clue for why Tyler has started shutting him out. It was stupid for Jamie to expect it. It’s not like they broke up—no reason for Tyler to have boxed his stuff up. Jamie might feel like he got dumped, but it’s all in his head.

“Thanks,” he says, watching Tyler put the food and water down by the closet door. Tyler flashes him a quick smile.

“Let me—” he steps back out, still holding the water bowl. Jamie sits down on the bed and pulls his legs up, cradling the dog in his lap. “Here.” Tyler reemerges with a full bowl and two towels under his arm. He puts one under the bowls and spreads the other out on floor at the foot of the bed.

“I can—”

“It’s fine.” Tyler gives him an inscrutable look. “I guess there’s no point in this. She’s definitely going to be sleeping in the bed with you.”

“You’re one to talk.”

Tyler shrugs. “I know my limits. It’s only a problem when the dogs make me sleep on the floor.”

“Thanks for this. Seriously, Tyler.”

“Of course.” He hesitates, shuffling on his feet. “I set out an extra toothbrush, and your gross charcoal toothpaste is still in there. You can leave her in here while you get ready. Just keep the door closed, I’m going to let the boys back in.”

He leaves without giving Jamie a chance to respond. Jamie looks down at the dog helplessly. “What am I going to do with you?” he asks softly. She just licks his hand in answer.

 


 

He wakes up to the smell of breakfast cooking, familiar and steady. Tyler rarely cooks, but he excels at bacon and eggs. The dog is curled up on his chest, and when he looks at her, she wags her tail at him and gives a very soft woof. He’s startled by how quiet she is, nothing like Tyler’s dogs.

“I have to get up,” he tells her seriously. She wags her tail harder, her whole lower body moving with it. He grins, and carefully moves her off of him. She immediately jumps back onto his chest, and he laughs. “Okay, seriously.” This time he puts her on the floor. She does jump back onto the bed, but Jamie is on his feet before she can try and get back on him.

She prances around his feet instead. A quick glance shows that her food and water bowls are both empty.

Jamie hesitates at the bedroom door. He doesn’t want to just leave her in here, but he also doesn’t think it’s a great idea to expose her to Marshall, Cash and Gerry. He finds them overwhelming sometimes, and he isn’t a quarter of their size.

He’s still dithering over it when Tyler knocks on the door.

“Special delivery!” he calls. The dog rushes to the door, pawing at it and letting out soft little barks. Jamie picks her up before she can scratch the door.

“Come in.”

The door swings open. It is not, as he had half expected, Tyler bringing him breakfast. It is, however, Tyler bringing food for the dog.

He has another kitchen bowl of dog food and a cup of water, and he beams at Jamie when he answers. He looks surprisingly put together for the hour, especially considering how late Jamie had kept him up.

“A feast, for the lady.” He breezes past Jamie, pouring the water into the designated water bowl and switches out the food. “I wanted to give her an egg, but I’m not sure what she’s been eating, and it could mess up her digestion if she’s not used to it.”

“Oh.” Jamie didn’t know that. Tyler slips his dogs human food so often, Jamie is half surprised he even has dog food at his home. He closes the door and puts the dog down. She edges around Tyler, but dives straight into the food.

“I did maybe put some of the bacon grease on the kibble though,” Tyler admits, conspiratorial.

“You’re a rebel,” Jamie tells him seriously. Tyler grins at him, and for a second it’s easy—

Then Tyler’s eyes dart away, and Jamie has to remind himself that it’s not easy anymore.

“You should,” Tyler clears his throat. “You should get dressed.”

Jamie looks down at himself. He’d stripped down to his boxer-briefs in the night, but it’s nothing Tyler hasn’t seen before.

“Okay?”

“Cool, cool.” Tyler reaches for the door handle. “I’m going to put the boys out. You can bring her down whenever. There’s food. If you’re hungry.”

Jamie just stares at the door after Tyler swings it closed. Alright then.

“Did you hear that, girl?” he asks the dog. “I need to go get human food.”

He puts his jeans back on and, after a moment’s consideration, puts on the shirt he’d left here last time. If Tyler doesn’t want him in his life anymore, Jamie should try to start clearing his stuff out of Tyler’s home.

The thought depresses him, so he picks up the dog and gives her a quick hug. She makes a happy noise at him and licks his chin.

 


 

Tyler is in the kitchen when Jamie gets down, and sure enough, all three dogs are giving Jamie woeful looks through the back door.

“I feel kind of bad for them,” Jamie says. Tyler follows his gaze and rolls his eyes.

“They’re putting on a show for you. They were running around just a second ago.”

Jamie isn’t sure what to do with his own dog, who starts wiggling in his grasp. Tyler sees his struggle and laughs. “You can come in the kitchen. I put up the gates.”

The gates are from the brief time where Tyler had tried to pretend that he didn’t spoil his dogs rotten and had confined them to the downstairs area. They’d stayed up, by Jamie’s count, less than 48 hours. He’s honestly pretty surprised that Tyler had even kept them.

The kitchen was pretty open to the rest of the place, so Tyler had put up gates on either side of the island, creating a relatively small space. Which, Jamie supposed, worked out, because she was a relatively small dog. He has to climb over the gate to join Tyler, and sets the dog down by their feet.

Tyler gives him a small smile and slides a plate over to him.

They eat standing up, the dog moving around the small space available to her before curling up on Jamie’s foot.

“She really is a perfect purse dog,” Tyler says.

Jamie’s eyes flick to him, trying to tell if he means it to be mocking, another comment on how that dog would make him look “gay,” but Tyler is just watching her, a small smile on his face.

“Because she’s so quiet,” he explains, when he looks up to see Jamie watching him.

“We’ll get along pretty good then,” Jamie replies.

Tyler gives him a light hip check. “You’re not as quiet as you want people to think you are.”

“Quieter than you.”

“Yeah, that’s a real challenge,” Tyler laughs.

For a moment, Jamie wants to ask what happened to them, why Tyler hasn’t—

Then the dog puts her teeth into his pants leg and tugs, just enough to make him look down. She’s got her front paws down, her butt up, and is pulling with what looks like her full strength, just barely enough for him to feel.

“Got a fighter there,” Tyler says, already pulling away from him.

Jamie crouches down to pet the dog as Tyler puts their dishes in the sink, straightens up the kitchen. He stands with his back to Jamie after he finishes, leaning over the sink.

“We should probably think about practice,” Jamie says, when Tyler doesn’t move.

“Yeah, of course. Did you want to leave her here?”

Jamie tries not to sag with relief. “God, can I?”

Tyler grins, giving Jamie a casual bump on the shoulder with his fist. “Yeah, of course man. Let me go find one of Gerry’s puppy collars so you can let her do her stuff outside.”

 


 

They’re both late to practice, but not so much that anyone notices. The compromise they’d agreed on was leaving the dog in the guest bathroom with as many spare towels as Tyler had clean, and Tyler had texted his dog walker to check on her.

Practice isn’t that long—Tyler doesn’t usually have his dog walker stop by unless they’re on roadies, but Jamie had been worried enough about leaving her alone that Tyler had made the offer, and Jamie hadn’t been able to say no.

“So, you’re keeping her?” Tyler asks as they lace up.

“Yeah.” He waits for Tyler to say something else, but he doesn’t, and Jamie doesn’t know what to make of it.

 


 

The thing is, Jamie did understand that being a dog owner meant responsibilities. He’s been in Tyler’s life, in one way or another, for the last six years and it’s not like he could miss how much work Tyler puts into his pets. He’s seen Tyler leave parties because Cash was sick, seen him chopping meat for his special ‘sorry I’m leaving on a roadie’ meal for the boys. He’d been the one to drive them both to the vet when Gerry had stepped on a bee and his paw had swollen to three times its normal size.

He still hadn’t expected how much it was.

Tyler takes him to Petco after practice, walks him through the best foods and toys. He’s pretty sure that it would have taken him six trips on his own, just for all the things that don’t even occur to him, like carriers, and a storage container for the dog food.

They collect the dog, Tyler helps him drag everything in and, just like that, Jamie is a dog owner.

He and Tyler watch her explore the entrance way, the living room, the kitchen. Jamie could spend the rest of the afternoon just watching her trot primly around the house, sniffing at everything and sneezing when she encounters something she doesn’t like.

He expects Tyler to take off, like he has every time they’ve been alone together in the last few months, but he just—doesn’t. Instead, he helps himself to Jamie’s beer and stretches out on the couch, watching them both.

Jamie ends up leaving him there as he follows the dog up the stairs, and when they come back, Tyler has set up the food bowls in the kitchen and is pouring the bags of food into the small bin they’d picked up.

And Tyler just— keeps being there, playfully wrestling with the dog, teasing Jamie about the little hat he’d gotten her, helping him when she inevitably goes to the bathroom on Jamie’s living room rug. Jamie knows it’s about the dog, knows that Tyler can’t resist anything with four paws and a tail, but it feels a lot like having his best friend back.

They drive to the game together, and when Tyler slams into him after his game-winning goal, Jamie feels like he could fucking fly.

 


 

He calls Jordie the next day, explaining the entire situation. Jordie laughs himself almost to tears when Jamie tells him what happened, until Jamie gives up and hangs up.

“Sorry, sorry,” Jordie says when he calls back, still a bit breathless and not meaning it at all. “It’s just—I didn’t think anyone could go into a one night stand and come out with a dog.”

Jamie looks down at the dog, who is busy trying to get his sock off his foot, and grins. “I think this worked out better anyway.”

She’d been on his chest again when he woke up and it’s been nice, having something warm and alive in his house, so clearly pleased to see him.

“What are you gonna name her?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.” It’s a lie. He just refuses to tell Jamie any of the truly ridiculous names he’s come up with.

“You should name her Coors,” Jordie says, snickering. “Because you were wasted when you got her.”

“I wasn’t drinking Coors ,” Jamie replies, offended.

“Guinness,” Jordie says. “Heineken.” Jamie makes a fake gagging noise that makes Jordie snicker into the phone again. “Budweiser. Grey goose. Smirnoff.”

“It was a barbeque, Jordie.”

“Jonny Walker. Jack Daniels. Jose Quervos.”

“Okay, now you’re just listing alcohol brands.”

“I mean, it fits. You’re already Jameson. Now you just need your,” Jordie trails off “your Captain Morgan.”

“No.”

“Your Kahlua.”

“Do you have a list in front of you right now?”

“Your Bailey’s!”

“That’s— that one actually isn’t bad.”

Jordie makes a triumphant noise. Jamie looks at the dog, who’s given up on his sock and is laying, paws up, on his outstretched legs. “What do you think, girl? Bailey?” She rolls over to look at him and wags her tail. Jamie laughs. “I think she likes it!”

 


 

It’s sheer luck that he got Bailey during a long homestead, but they’re reaching the end of it, two nights away coming up. He schedules a vet visit for her between morning practice and an evening game, and learns that she is three years old, and unlikely to get any bigger. He gets her chipped, another thing her last owner had neglected, and it all feels so official. There’s a paper trail now, legal documentation meaning that she is his.

The locker room takes the news like Jamie personally gave birth to her, and Jamie gives them a very abbreviated version of the night he got her while Tyler smirks at him. Jamie gives him a warning look that doesn’t help at all. After promising to take as many photos as he can, the others leave him alone and he drops down next to Tyler, disproportionally exhausted.

“They weren’t this excited about Gerry,” Tyler says, feigning irritation.

Jamie shrugs. “Guess she’s just cuter than Gerry.”

“How dare you.”

“Them’s the breaks, sorry Segs.”

After he finishes lacing up his skates, Tyler asks “Have you thought about the next roadie?” Jamie opens his mouth to tell Tyler about the boarding place he found, but Tyler rushes forward, “Because, I talked to Carrie and she says she’s happy to look after another dog at my place. If you wanted, I mean. You could drop her off at my place first and then— you know, she’ll have company.”

Company, Tyler had stressed once, was very important for dogs. He’d cited it as his main reason for getting Cash.

Jamie looks at him. Tyler is closer to him than he has been in what feels like ages, his brown eyes warm and hopeful. For a second, he has a mean, spiteful impulse to decline; to make Tyler feel the same way Jamie has over the last few months.

“Carrie is really good with them—I could send you her resume. Well, it’s not an official resume, but I think I still have her recommendations, and she’s been taking care of the boys for over a year,” Tyler adds, and Jamie realizes that Tyler is anxious about this. That Tyler does expect Jamie to decline.

Jamie can’t say no to him.

“That sounds great,” he says, cutting Tyler off mid-word.

Tyler grins at him. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Company is very important for dogs, eh?”

Tyler bounces on the tips of his skates, and Jamie can’t help the affectionate thump in his chest. “Yeah, of course. It’s— I’ll get you all Carrie’s info.”

“No need,” Jamie says. “I trust you.”

He sees it hit Tyler, sees it land, but he doesn’t know what it means, when Tyler falters like that.

Tyler aims an awkward punch on his arm. “Thanks, man,” he says, and pushes past him to the tunnel.

Jamie looks around, baffled, then down to his own socked feet and swears. He needs to get into skates  now.

 


 

The thing is, it’s hard for Jamie to really be mad  at Tyler. He’s hurt, and he’s confused, but he can’t get mad. Tyler isn’t treating him badly, doesn’t ignore him or even act that differently. On the bench, they still joke around, Tyler still sits next to him at team meals.

The thing Jamie misses, the thing he wants back, are the parts he never had claim to—the effortless flirting, the way that Tyler would look at him sometimes. The nights he spent at Tyler’s house, neither of them trying too hard to come up with an excuse.

Jordie doesn’t even get it, not really. “You two are always in eachothers pockets,” he says. “Maybe he’s trying to give you some space. You don’t have to live together to be friends.”

Jamie doesn’t want space.  He’d liked being Tyler’s best friend, Tyler eating up all his spare time.

He doesn’t know what to do, now that he’s just part of the team.

 



Tyler knocks into him after practice the next day. “We should probably have a doggy date.”

Jamie looks at him askance. “A what?”

“A doggie date! You know, introduce Bailey to the boys.” He bounces on his toes, beaming. “They can be like, her big brothers!”

Jamie stares at him, reeling. He had gotten used to Tyler’s exuberance, his easy smiles, his way of fitting into Jamie’s life—and he’d gotten used to the lack of it. It feels like whiplash, to have Tyler reach out like this, talking about their dogs being siblings and inviting himself into Jamie’s space.

“I— sure.”

“Great! You can come over whenever. Just let yourself in.”

Jamie stares after him as Tyler walks away. The sight of his back is a familiar one, and despite the view, an unhappy one. Can he even trust this?  This is all great now, but what happens when Tyler gets sick of him? Can Jamie handle it if he opens that door again, and Tyler slams it in his face again?

He drives home in a daze to get Bailey. It’s a pointless question, he thinks as he settles her in the car. He’s never really had a choice in the matter.

 


 

The roadie sneaks up on him, almost four days of away games. He hates leaving Bailey, but it’s somewhat better to see the way she fits between Gerry and Cash, all four dogs pressing sad faces to the window as he and Tyler leave.

All three of Tyler’s dogs had taken to her with a kind of amused fascination, and she hadn’t minded their exuberance. It was good to see her playing with other dogs, since she always seemed so calm, so unlike the dogs that Jamie was used to.

“She’ll be fine,” Tyler says, but he takes his hand off the steering wheel to give Jamie’s arm a comforting squeeze. “We’ll be back before you know it.”

“I can’t even imagine how the guys with kids do it.”

Tyler shrugs, eyes on the road. “It’s like anything else, you know? You get used to it.”

“What if I don’t?” Jamie asks, watching Tyler’s house fade into the distance.

“You have to,” Tyler says, and there is unexpected steel in his voice. “Some things you have to get used to, or it’ll eat you up, you know? Even if you have to step back or, or put that distance there, you just have to adjust. It sucks, bu it’s better than the alternative.”

Tyler’s eyes are fixed on the road, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. Jamie studies him, the familiar, beautiful lines of his face, the growing curls, the corded muscle under his tattoos. Jamie knows something about letting your feelings eat you alive.

He looks back out of the window, and they spend the rest of the drive in silence.

 


 

Carrie is an even better dogsitter than Tyler had promised. She sends Jamie texts about Bailey, separate from the texts she apparently sends to Tyler. She sends them both a photo of Marshall, Cash and Gerry in an ungraceful sleeping pile on the floor, with Bailey curled up half on top of Gerry and half on Cash.

Tyler gleefully shows it to the rest of the team, and Jamie sends it to Jordie, and tries to pretend that the implied domesticity of it doesn’t bother him.

Back when he had been sleeping at Tyler’s twice a week, making space for himself in the spare bedroom, helping Tyler with the dishes, that kind of domesticity had seemed possible, just barely out of reach.

He’s not sure when Tyler started to pull away, what he could have done to put that distance there. He’d  just looked up one day after practice and realized that Tyler was gone. That he’d been gone, no more hanging out for lunch or catching rides together after games.

Between Carrie’s texts and three wins out of four games, the roadie passes quickly. They come back in the early morning, and in the same pre-dawn light that they’d left in, it feels like no time has passed since they left.

“You’ll want to brace yourself,” Tyler warns as they step up to the front door, and Jamie doesn’t have time to ask what for before the two of them are hit by an avalanche of fur and wagging tails.

Tyler goes down, laughing in delight as his dogs shower him in doggy kisses and leans. Gerry gets so excited that he falls over onto Tyler’s leg.

Bailey doesn’t have the size to knock him down, but she seems just as happy to see him, jumping around his knees and licking his hand when he pets her. After a few pets, apparently unsatisfied, she backs up, and before Jamie can stop her, takes a running jump at him.

He catches her in his arms, laughing just as much as Tyler has as Bailey licks his neck and face, bracing her paws on his chest.

When she finally settles, refusing to jump down and instead trying to lie in the crook of his arms, Jamie inadvertently makes eye contact with Tyler, staring up at him from the floor. Marshall is still nosing at Tyler’s hair, but Tyler is staring up at Jamie and—

Jamie doesn’t know what to do with that look, with that expression.

It's one he had seen months ago, back when they were still hanging out regularly, back when he had allowed himself to think— to think what he had thought.

He clears his throat. “I should go.”

“No,” Tyler pushes himself to his feet, nudging the dogs away. “No, stay.”

“Tyler,” Jamie says softly.

Tyler matches his tone. “Come on. It’s already late,” he laughs “or early, I guess. Just, sleep in your— in the guest room.”  He reaches out like he’s going to touch Jamie’s arm, but pulls back at the last minute.

Jamie was right.

There was never really a choice at all.

“Yeah.” He swallows. “I’ll stay.”

 


 

The worst part, he tells Jordie later, is how not weird Tyler is being about it. He settles back into his place in Jamie’s life like he never left, no explanation or apology. It puts Jamie’s teeth on edge, waiting for it to happen again. Without knowing what caused it, he can’t do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again. He can’t get a dog every time Tyler gets mad at him and needs to get back in his good graces.

“Maybe it has nothing to do with you,” Jordie points out sensibly.

Jamie snorts. “You weren’t here, you didn’t see it.”

The thing is, even when it had been happening, Tyler hadn’t been weird. He’d just been… gone. During practices, he’d still smiled at Jamie, still slammed him into the boards during an exuberant cellie, still chirped him for using too much gel in his hair. He’d just seemingly had no time, for Jamie in particular.

He’d had time to get drinks with the team, to spend an evening playing Mario Kart with all of them at Sharpy’s place, but anytime it was the two of them, Tyler had plans.

“Maybe he had a girl?” Jordie suggests carefully.

“He would have told me.” But would he though? If Tyler had seen how Jamie looked at him, had guessed at the things Jamie wanted, the distance would make sense. Jamie had first started to notice the lack of Tyler after Nashville, after he’d let a guy in the bar press against him, had let the guy take him home.

It’s a little gay, don’t you think?

Jamie squeezes his eyes shut. It’s so stupid to miss Tyler, when he sees him everyday. Tyler is still there, still chirps him and gives  him their handshake. He’s always right in front of Jamie, and Jamie misses him so damn much.

“Tell me about the girl you’re seeing,” Jamie says, cutting off another of Jordie’s platitudes. It’s easier to hear about Jordie’s love life than to think about the disaster his own has become.

 


 

Tyler seems to have taken it upon himself to be Jamie’s dog coach, inviting himself over on game days and getting Jamie to come to his house on off-days. It’s overwhelming, an overdose of Tyler when he’s been fasting.

Strictly for canine care, it helps. Bailey’s last owner had at least trained her well, so it turns into a routine of training Jamie as much as Bailey. Tyler shows him all the best places to take a dog— outdoor cafes and dog parks and walking paths Jamie has never seen before.

They fall into a new rhythm, meeting between their two houses to walk the dogs, talking about everything and nothing. It’s nice. It’s terrible. It’s everything Jamie wants, and nothing like it.

He’s had Bailey for almost two months and, going to the places that Tyler recommends, he does notice that people react differently to him and Bailey than they ever have to Tyler and his dogs. The waitress at a local cafe asks when Jamie’s wife will be arriving. An older woman tells him how sweet he is, to watch his girlfriend’s dog. And, every now and then, the side eye he gets from other guys on the street. The look that says that Jamie and his tiny white dog aren’t welcome in their boys’ club.

Jamie is big, and broad, and knows how to throw a punch, and he’s not afraid of homophobes. (Not on the street. Not strangers. He’s terrified that there might be some on his team, he’s terrified of the possibility that they could be his best friends, the love of his—) He usually just looks right back, waiting until they drop their gaze and move past him.

The first time it happens in front of Tyler, Jamie feels his stomach drop out of his body. He gets almost lightheaded with it, all the blood rushing from his face. He and Tyler are on one of their morning walks, Tyler with his three dogs and Jamie with Bailey curled up in his arms after she got tired of keeping up with the boys.

They pass two guys coming in the other direction, who look Jamie up and down and visibly sneer. Bailey has a pink ribbon around each ear because he thought it looked cute, and Tyler had flinched when he saw it but hadn’t commented.

Tyler goes tense all over when the guys look them over, and Jamie sees his hand go white-knuckled around the leashes, but it seems, for a moment, as though this will all pass without comment.

Then one of the guys slams into Jamie’s shoulder as he passes and hisses ‘faggot’ under his breath. Jamie has a visceral moment of terror that Tyler won’t even care , that he’ll wait until the guys have passed and then shrug casually, “I told you so,” and Jamie’s heart will fucking break.

That isn’t what happens.

The first warning is when Marshall, usually as easy-going as his owner, growls. Then Tyler drops all three leashes and fucking lunges at the guy. “What did you say?”

Jamie’s first reaction isn’t to stop him, but to make a grab for the leashes. He’s not worried about Tyler’s dogs running off, but he is worried that they’ll jump into the fight.

And it is a fight. Tyler is swinging punches, and he’s never been the guys who jumps into a scrum. Jamie can count the number of fights Tyler has been in on one hand. It always makes his mouth go dry, and despite everything, this is no exception. The knowledge that this is over Jamie, for Jamie, sends an extra thrill down his spine.

“Say that to my fucking face,” Tyler says, and he’s actually holding his own. Neither of these guys could have known they were antagonizing professional athletes, and Tyler might not be a big fighter but he’s still a hockey player. Against other hockey players, his fighting is lackluster but against an average person on the street, he’s a beast.

The guy’s friend gets in a good hit that strikes across Tyler’s cheekbone, and Tyler barely even seems to notice him.

They are starting to gather a crowd, and Jamie is starting to worry about getting fucking arrested. Being the next headliner on Deadspin is not how Jamie wants this day to end. It’s hard to wade in while juggling four dogs, but he manages to get close enough to grab Tyler’s arm as he winds up for another punch.

Tyler goes still at the first touch, and it’s enough for the first guy to wallop him in the stomach. Tyler curls in, and swears, and looks like he might actually try to kick the guy, but Jamie tightens his grip and pulls Tyler back.

“Leave it,” he says, his best Captain voice.

Tyler glares up at him, curls falling into his face, cheeks red, chest heaving. He has a bruise already blooming over one cheek, and his eyes are bright in his flushed face. He’s so beautiful. “You heard what they said.”

“I did,” Jamie agrees, and he isn’t going to come out to Tyler in the middle of a park, with two homophobes beside them and a crowd around them, but he suddenly wants to. “I don’t care.”

He tugs again, and Tyler follows him, letting Jamie pull him back.

Tyler looks down at the guy he’d been fighting. Tyler is shorter and slimmer than Jamie, and it’s easy to forget that he’s over six feet, that in any other place in the world besides an NHL locker room, he’d be considered a big guy.

“Bailey is a great fucking dog and you should keep your fucking mouth shut next time,” Tyler spits, and takes the three leashes from Jamie, striding off.

“Maybe next time you won’t need your fucking boyfriend to defend you,” the guys snaps, and Jamie watches as Tyler’s shoulder go tight, his entire spine tensing up like taking a blow. Then, after a long breath, he keeps walking.

Jamie gives the guy and his friend a disgusted look, and follows Tyler.

Bailey is squirming in his hold, and he sets her down after a moment’s consideration, resettling his hold on her leash.

“Hey,” he says, jostling his shoulder against Tyler’s. Tyler doesn’t even budge, every muscle locked. Jamie can see a muscle in his jaw working. “Hey, you know I don’t care what they think.”

“You should,” Tyler says, almost too low to be heard.

Jamie makes himself shrug, as though Tyler’s attitude doesn’t bother him. “There are a lot of things I should do, probably.”

After a moment, Tyler shoots a look at him. “How can you be so—” he bites his lips, trailing off. “How can you just blow it off?”

“I mean,” Jamie hesitates, wondering how much to say. How much of himself to give away. “I don’t know them. I don’t care what they think of me.” He forces a laugh. “I mean, you said yourself you thought Bailey was pretty gay.” He tries to say it like Tyler had, and not like putting it like an insult tears at something inside him.

“No!” Tyler snaps, coming to a stop. Surprised, Jamie does as well. Tyler’s eyes are blazing, still furious, a part of him clearly still buzzing from the fight. “No, I meant that people would say that. I didn’t say— I would never —” he pushes his free hand through his hair, apparently too overcome to continue.

It’s not much of anything, but Jamie lightens to hear it. It’s not even an admission that Tyler thinks being gay is acceptable, but… it’s something.

Jamie bumps their shoulder together again. “We cool?”

Tyler just stares at him, eyes and hair wild. “What?”

“Are we cool?” Jamie repeats it slowly, as though his heart isn’t racing.

“I,” Tyler swallows. “Yeah. Of course we’re cool.”

He starts to turn away and Jamie catches  his shoulder, turning him back. “So you’re not going to start avoiding me for another three months?”

Tyler flinches, more than he had at being hit in the face. “What?” he chokes out.

Jamie gives him a look, and tightens his hold on Tyler’s shoulder when Tyler moves to turn away again. “Well?”

“I, I didn’t,” Tyler stutters, “I didn’t think you’d noticed.”

Jamie laughs; an angry, broken sound. “Yeah, Tyler, I fucking noticed.”

“Oh,” Tyler says, like he’s surprised. Like he wasn’t Jamie’s best fucking friend, like he hadn’t left a gaping void in Jamie’s life.

“Yeah, oh,” Jamie snaps, and Tyler’s eyes jump to him, surprised again. He raises his eyebrows, wondering if Tyler is going to offer any kind of explanation, any kind of excuse.

He’d wondered, in the middle of it, if Tyler even knew he was doing it— if it had been on purpose or if he had just gotten bored of Jamie, so different from him. Watching the color spread again over Tyler’s cheeks, the way he ducks his head, Jamie knows the answer now. Every canceled plan, every declined invitation, had been a deliberate choice.

Tyler opens his mouth, and Jamie thinks for a second that he might actually get an explanation, an apology.

And then Cash slams into Jamie’s legs, and Bailey barks at him in Jamie’s defense, and Gerry starts trying to lick Bailey and Marshall seems to just give up, lying down right there on the sidewalk.

Tyler drops Jamie’s gaze and pulls Cash back, and Jamie has to duck down to pick Bailey up again, holding her as she squirms.

“We should get back,” Tyler says, subdued.

Jamie clears his throat. “We can go back to mine. We need an icepack for your face.”

Tyler hesitates, and Jamie thinks that he might decline, now that he’s been called on it. Instead, he nods slowly. “Yeah.” And then, “Thanks.”

 


 

It continues like that for a few weeks. They keep not talking about it, the knowledge of it sitting between them. It’s still easy to be around Tyler, it probably always will be, but it’s more charged. Something in Jamie has relaxed at Tyler’s assurance that he won’t disappear from Jamie’s life again, but another part has wound up tight at Tyler’s admission that it had been on purpose.

Sometimes he gets so angry at the thought, that Tyler could just cut him out of his life. A part of him doesn’t want to forgive Tyler, doesn't want to let him back in. A part of him wants to tell Tyler no, and see if Tyler’s face falls the way Jamie’s must have.

It’s not the ice, he can’t just drop gloves and duke it out until they both feel better, until their teammates pull them apart and he can take that first real breath of cool air and feel settled in his skin.

There are times where he almost asks; when Tyler is pressed against him at the bar, bright with their win, or when he watches Tyler wrestle on the floor with Gerry. He thinks Tyler wants to say something, sees it in his eyes when they’re alone together.

Jordie says that they’re both fucking idiots, and Jamie can’t find it in himself to disagree.

In the end, it happens at Tyler’s favorite park. The day is delightfully free of both homophobes and of people asking where Jamie’s girlfriend is— a question that makes Tyler tense up almost as much as the sidelong looks.

Tyler throws a frisbee for his dogs, watching them wrestle over who gets the honor of bringing it back to him, and Jamie throws a smaller ball for Bailey. She had tried to go after the frisbee with the boys, even beaten them to it once or twice, but it was bigger than her head and she’d eventually given up.

“She’s a sprinter, not a marathon runner,” Tyler remarks. Jamie looks pointedly down at Marshall, who has lain down at Tyler’s feet and not moved, and Tyler gives him a dirty look.

Once all the dogs have tired themselves out, Tyler drops down next to Jamie, their backs against a tree. It’s just getting into spring, but Dallas is already warm, and Jamie has stripped down to his t-shirt.

“I’m glad you got Bailey,” Tyler says. She’s fallen asleep on top of Marshall, all four paws up in the air.

“Me too,” Jamie replies, meaning it. Tyler had been telling him for years how he needed to get a dog, and he’d always thought it was something he would get around to, like getting over Tyler and finding a girlfriend. A dog always fit into the same picture as a wife and kids. It’s good to know that at least one of those things was possible. He’s starting to have serious reservations about the rest of it.

Tyler’s shoulder is pressed against his, warm through the thin fabric of his t-shirt.

“Are you ever going to tell me why you disappeared on me?” Jamie asks. He doesn’t mean it to sound so vulnerable, so gutted.

Tyler goes tense against him, and Jamie regrets ever mentioning it. Then Tyler lets it all out in one breath, and sinks in closer to Jamie. “Probably not,” Tyler admits, and Jamie’s stomach sinks. “It won’t happen again though.” His head tips, ever so slightly, onto Jamie’s shoulder. “I promise.”

“How can I trust that? I don’t even know what I did .”

“Nothing!” Tyler jolts upright, staring at him. “Jamie, you did nothing wrong.”

“How can I know that? Did you just get bored of me?” His voice cracks, and he has to stop, feeling dangerously close to losing control of his emotions.

“I could never. ” Tyler scrambles to get in front of Jamie, kneeling over Jamie’s thighs to look him in the eye. “Jamie. I could never get bored of you.”

Jamie looks away. Bailey’s paws twitch in her sleep. “You don’t know that. You’re so,” he gestures at Tyler, every bold, perfect inch of him, “so much. And I’m just,” he trails off.

Tyler laughs, and it sounds as choked as Jamie feels. “Chubbs. Me being ‘so much’ is usually the problem. I was trying to—to—” he bites his lip, and then swings off of Jamie so they’re side by side again. Their arms no longer touch. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Fuck you,” Jamie snaps. “It sure fucking does.”

“It’s not about you!” Tyler replies, rising to meet Jamie’s temper.

“You say that, but it was only fucking me you were avoiding!”

“Fuck!” Tyler says, slamming a fist into the ground. Cash opens one eye to give them a baleful look, then settles again. “Fine! If you want to know so fucking badly—”

“Yeah, I fucking do!”

Tyler gets back on his knees, and this time he’s almost over Jamie’s hips, too close to handle. “I’m fucking in love with you, Jamie Benn.”

Jamie can only stare at him, his brain buzzing. “What?”

The fight drops out of Tyler, and his head drops forward, almost on Jamie’s shoulder. “I needed some time to handle it. So. There you go.”

The bottom has dropped out of the world and he is only aware of the ground beneath his legs, the tree at his back, the warmth of Tyler almost in his lap.

Tyler just waits, and Jamie can see the back of his neck go a dark, furious red. “Fuck. Just— forget I said anything.” He pushes himself up.

Jamie catches his wrist and pulls him back. Tyler lands too hard, sitting directly in Jamie’s lap, eyes wide. “No.”

“No, you won’t forget it?” Tyler asks.

Jamie shakes his head, trying to clear it. “No, don’t leave.”

Tyler tries to pull free, and Jamie doesn’t let him go. “I need— Jamie, come on.”

“No,” Jamie says again.

“I can’t— please.” Tyler’s eyes are wide in his face, and Jamie’s hand tightens convulsively on his wrist. “Please, let me go.”

“Why?” Jamie asks. He wants to twine his fingers with Tyler’s, wants to pull him close and kiss him, wants to do something, because he can’t make the words come to him right now.

“Because I’m fucking embarrassed!” Tyler snaps, finally wrenching free. “I want to go home!” Jamie’s face does something, because Tyler softens under the blush. “I won’t— I’m still your friend, Jamie. If yo, you know, still want that. I just— I just need to go home right now.”

Jamie watches him get up in a daze. He needs to— something. But he’s still aware of the fact that they’re in a very public park. This isn’t Chicago or Boston, not a hockey town, but doing any of the things he wants to do here would be a mistake.

“Come back to my place,” he says.

“Jamie,” Tyler says weakly.

Jamie reaches out and clasps Tyler’s wrist, gently this time. He slides his fingers down the fine bones of Tyler’s wrist, over the muscles in his hand, and interlaces their fingers before bringing his gaze back up to meet Tyler’s. “Please.”

He sees Tyler swallow, follows the motion with his eyes, and lets Tyler seem him do so. “Okay,” Tyler says, soft.

Jamie has to let him go so that he can stand, but Tyler offers it back to help Jamie up. Their hands linger before Jamie has to drop it, and they both collect their dogs in silence.

The walk back to Jamie’s place is heavy, the air weighed down by all the things they haven’t said.

Tyler keeps shooting him sideways looks, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. Jamie wants to smile, wants to laugh, but he feels somehow separated from the feeling. It’s not— it’s just words right now. It’s not real, and it can’t be real for as long as they’re out in public.

Their hands brush between them as they walk, and Jamie’s heart jumps every time, until he feels like the end of a hard skate, like going in to overtime, everything on the line.

His hands are shaking as he unlocks his front door, and he can see Tyler see it, but neither of them comment. The dogs all disappear as soon as the door opens, the boys to explore the already familiar territory, and Bailey to her water bowl in the kitchen. The sound of the door closing behind them is very loud.

“So. I’m here.” Tyler spreads his arms slightly, as if to indicate all of him. “You can yell at me, if you want.” He swallows again. “I’m sorry.”

“For being in love with me, or for avoiding me for three months?”

Tyler flinches, looking mortified. “I— which part are you angry about?” Jamie just stares at him, until Tyler stares at the floor. “I’m not— I’m not sorry for being in love with you.” His voice is shaking, and Jamie feels like his whole body is trembling with him, a chord pulled tight. “But I’m sorry that it hurt you. I just needed time.”

When Jamie speaks, his voice sounds steady, not like his heart is racing, his palms sweating. “You needed time to get over me.”

Tyler laughs bitterly and turns away. “I don’t think that’s an option anymore. I needed time to fucking handle it.”

Jamie can’t look at him, face flushed red all the way down his neck, hands clenching and unclenching with nerves, and not kiss him. He surges forward, backing Tyler against the door, caging Tyler between his arms.

“I don’t want you to handle it,” Jamie spits, and kisses him.

Tyler kisses him back immediately, going open and pliant under Jamie’s mouth. Jamie wants to devour him, wants to make it so that Tyler is never unsure again. Wants to make him never think of this as something he needs to handle.

“I thought you hated me,” he says when they break apart, resting his forehead on Tyler’s.

Tyler makes a pained noise. “Never.”

“I thought- jesus Tyler, I thought you saw me pick up a guy in Nashville and were pissed about it.”

Tyler, who had been leaning in for another kiss, rears back. “You picked up a guy in Nashville?

Jamie pulls back fully to look at him. “Yes?”

“But,” Tyler gapes at him, incredulous. “But you like girls.”

“I like both,” Jamie replies, going to kiss Tyler again. Tyler puts a hand on his chest, holding him back.

“I thought you were straight.”

Jamie looks down, at where they’re pressed together from hip to shoulder, where his arms have boxed Tyler in. “Evidence to the contrary?” Tyler flushes again, and Jamie frowns. “Tyler, why do you think I kissed you.”

When Tyler shrugs, his shoulders bump into Jamie’s arms. Jamie drops them and takes a step back, waiting for the answer.

“I mean. I’m hoping it’s because,” he trails off. “Because you wanted to?” He says it like he can’t imagine it might be true, like the hope of it is breaking his heart.

Looking at Tyler, the way he won’t meet Jamie’s eyes, Jamie’s stomach sinks. “Come here.”

He leads Tyler to the couch. After kicking Gerry— who definitely knows better— off of it, he pulls Tyler down beside him. “I’m bi. I like girls. I like guys. And I really, really like you.”  He has to force the words out, the importance of the situation making them stick in his throat, but the look on Tyler’s face is worth it.

“I like you too.” Tyler says it defiantly, like he’s daring Jamie to do something about it.

“Yeah, I got that.” Jamie can’t help but grin, feeling warm all over when Tyler grins back.

“So if I wanted to kiss you,” Tyler says, “that would be cool?”

“That would be very cool.” He can feel the stupid look on his face.

Tyler beams at him, and swings over Jamie’s lap again, a mirror to their position in the park, except for how his whole weight is on Jamie’s legs, his arms thrown over Jamie’s shoulders. “Cool.”

 


 

Later, both of them stretched out on the couch, Jamie’s mouth tingling pleasantly with use, Jamie finds the courage to ask, “So, are you,” he trails off. “Are you like me?”

Tyler props his head on Jamie’s chest to look up at him. “I think most people would say you and I are very different,” he says cheekily.

Jamie tugs on his hair, trying to look stern and mostly failing. “No, asshole. I meant, are you bi, or?”

“Oh. No, I’m, ah. I’m gay.”

He shouldn’t ask. He should just let it go. It doesn’t matter now, surely. “Okay.”

Tyler frowns. “That’s not your okay face.” He hesitates. “Is it an issue? That I’m gay?”

“No. Obviously not,” Jamie says, indicating their current position, with Tyler almost entirely on top of him, their legs tangled together pleasantly. “I just— I didn’t think you were, you know, okay with that. With being gay.”

He watches Tyler’s face fall, unmistakable hurt flashing over his face. “You thought I was homophobic.”

“I don’t know what I thought,” Jamie says honestly. “But you started avoiding me, and I thought it was because you saw me with a guy, and then the whole thing with Bailey…” he trails off.

Tyler’s face clears, and he turns his face into Jamie’s hand, taking a deep breath. “I never saw you with a guy. I can’t say it would have made what I was going through any better, but— it was actually because, god you probably don’t even remember. It was before Nashville, but not by much. And everyone was talking about, you know, getting married, settling down. And you were talking about wanting to get married, wanting a wife.”

Jamie can remember it, distantly. It’s the sort of thing he usually says when the subject comes up, nothing concrete.

“And I thought— it doesn’t matter what I thought. It was just a wakeup call, that’s all. I needed time to get out of my own head. To stop living in this fantasy where you would marry me and—” he cuts himself, face going red. Jamie can feel his own face going red, and for a moment they both stare at one another. Then Tyler clears his throat. “I really didn’t think you’d notice.”

“You’re an idiot,” Jamie says, affection softening the words. “I notice everything about you.”

It’s hard to stay mad at Tyler, to hold on to the hurt, when Tyler looks so quietly pleased. When Tyler looks like the time spent apart had hurt him as much as it hurt Jamie.

Tyler smiles at him, and ducks his head to press a kiss to Jamie’s chest. “Feeling’s mutual babe.” Then the smile slips away. “I’m sorry about Bailey. I didn’t— okay, first of all, I thought I was saying it to a straight man. That doesn’t make it okay, but I didn’t mean to— it wasn’t supposed to be personal .”

“But why say it at all?” Jamie presses. “You love dogs. I didn’t think you cared about shit like that.”

“I don’t. All dogs are the best dogs. I mean, Gerry, Cash, Marshall, and Bailey are the most best, but still.” Jamie’s heart resolutely does not flip at hearing Bailey in the list, as casually as if she too belonged to Tyler. “There’s a whole long story here, and I promise I’ll tell you some other time, but I really did mean to help. I know,” he swallows, “I know how it can mess up your life, if people even think that you might be— that you might like guys.”

Jamie can read between the lines. He remembers Tyler after Boston, aggressively macho in a way that didn’t fit him, throwing in ‘no homo’ as casual as breathing, so slow to offer any kind of physical affection outside of the rink, when it was so clear he thrived off it.

“Hey, c’mere.” He tugs Tyler up, pulls him into a kiss. Tyler sighs into it, and Jamie can’t help deepening it, pouring all of his love and affection into it. Tyler should never doubt this.

Tyler seems to feel the same, kissing like he has something to prove.

Jamie slides his hands down to Tyler’s waist, rucking up his shirt until he feels bare skin under his palms, until Tyler moans softly into his mouth.

Then Cash comes tearing through the living room, closely pursued by Bailey, both of them barking.

Tyler drops his head to Jamie’s shoulder and starts to laugh, and after a minute, Jamie joins him.

They’re probably going to end up living together, and get at least one more dog together, and never have a moment’s peace.

He can’t wait.