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Brett can’t figure Ekblad out.

The Panthers have a pretty casual room; there aren’t hierarchies about who uses the showers first or anything, and the seating arrangements aren’t done by dynamic. The subs don’t kneel when the captain comes in the room. (Conno would never stick his nose in somebody else’s business, but he’s more than half sure that Barkov is actually null, vanilla, whatever you wanted to call it. The league isn’t ready for that, though.)

He’s pretty sure that Q is confused about the lack of formality, but credit to the guy for not trying to impose some. The room is the team’s business; the ice belongs to the coach.

It took Brett all the way through training camp to place most of the team in his head, and he still hasn’t figured out a few of them. Not that it’s his business, but he’s new here, and it helps to have a sense of which teammates might be interested in helping a dom out once in a while.

They’re into the season now, hitting their stride, and he’s found his role on the team. He should feel just fine about going up to a teammate and asking if they want to scene, especially a teammate he’s been flat-out told is a sub, not to mention that he’s seen Ek wearing wrist cuffs on the plane. There shouldn’t be a problem here.

But something keeps him back, never breaching the bubble of space Ek keeps around himself. He can’t figure it out, and Brett Connolly is not a man who runs headfirst into things without a solid sense of what he’s doing.

“You’re staring, Conno.” Trochek flops down next to him on the bench and elbows him in the ribs. “What’s up?”

Brett elbows him back and shrugs. “Something that’s none of my business.”

“I love things that are none of my business,” Troch says fervently. “Tell Dr. Vinny.”

“If you were my doctor, I’d give up and pack it in, bud.” Brett shakes his head. “But maybe you know better than I do about this.” He jerks his chin toward Ekblad, on the other side of the room deep in conversation with Yandle. “What’s Ek’s deal?”

Troch follows his gaze and frowns. “You’re gonna have to be more specific.”

Fair enough. “What’s his… status? Does he have, like, a dom outside the team? I never see him doing anything with anybody.”

“Ohh.” Troch blows out a slow breath and suddenly gets very involved with a roll of stick tape sitting on the bench. “No, uh, he doesn’t have a dom that I know of. It’s kinda complicated.”

Conno doesn’t pretend to be a genius or anything, but he can take a hint when it runs him over like a truck. “Like I said, none of my business.”

Troch makes a face and drops the tape again. “No, you’re on the team, of course you’d want to know. Just, like. It’s complicated. Too complicated to explain here.”

So it’s secret enough that they can’t talk about it where Ek might overhear them, but not-secret enough that Brett can know all about it. This has shitshow written all over it. “Don’t worry about it, man. I don’t need to know everything about everybody. He doesn’t do stuff with team, that’s cool. I won’t bother him or anything.”

“That’s not it, though.” Troch blows out another breath and looks around, but doesn’t seem to find what he’s looking for. “I guess for now, think of it that way if it works for you.”

Brett nods and claps him on the shoulder. “I won’t bother him,” he repeats. “It’s cool.”

That seems to let Troch relax a little. He nods and turns back to his locker, and Brett gets up and goes to talk to the equipment staff about his sticks. He was just curious, that’s all. It’s not a big deal.

**

Apparently a) Troch ratted him out and b) forgot to include the part about how it’s not a big deal, because the next day after practice Brett gets cornered by Yandle on his way to the parking lot.

“Conno.” Yands looks tense, not goofy and joking like he usually is. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Brett bites back a sigh and offers a fist-bump to defuse the situation before it can start. Yands knocks knuckles and nods but doesn’t smile at all. “Sure. You want to get some coffee?”

That seems to defuse Yands a little bit. Not much, but Brett will take what he can get. “Sure. The left-turn Starbucks or the right-turn one?”

“The right turn.” Brett digs his keys out of his pocket. “See you there.”

It’s less than a ten-minute drive, which Brett spends rehearsing a patient little speech about how he isn’t going to do anything to upset Yands’ buddy or mess up his season. He just wondered what the deal was, is all, but he understands that it’s none of his business and he won’t bother the guy. He isn’t that kind of dom; he’s a grown adult with self-control and an understanding that being a sub doesn’t mean someone is up for grabs. He functions in polite society. He’s not an asshole.

Maybe the speech gets less patient as he goes along.

Yands is there already when Brett parks, because Yands drives like a bat out of hell. He’s in line when Brett walks in, and waves at him to cut the line and join him. “I’ve got yours,” he says. “Order whatever you want.”

“This isn’t going to be weird, is it?” Brett asks. That’s always a fair question, with Yands, but it seems extra relevant today.

Yands opens his mouth, then closes it, appearing to think for a minute. “Not too weird,” he says finally. “Maybe a little bit.”

Brett sighs and looks at the guy behind the register. “A venti caramel latte, please. Extra whipped cream. I’m gonna need it.”

“Shit, that sounds good. One of those for me, too, thanks.” Yands swipes his card and rocks back and forth on his heels. “Look, Conno, you know it’s not anything about you. He’s my partner.”

“He’s Weegs’ partner.”

“Well, okay, yeah, but he was mine.” Yands glares at him, but he’s smiling, too. “Pedant.”

“Word of the day calendar, eh?” Brett dodges Yands’ mock-punch and shoves his hands in his pockets. “Look, like I told Troch, it’s none of my business. I just wondered, but I’m not gonna be a pushy dickhead about anything. If Ek prefers to keep his stuff out of the room, that’s all there is to say.”

“And that’s great, really, I’m glad you’re not a dickhead, but the thing is, you’re wrong.”

Thank god, Brett’s coffee comes up and he can fortify with sugar and caffeine before he answers. “What part am I wrong about?”

“Ek doesn’t prefer to keep stuff out of the room. Ek doesn’t do stuff at all.” He pauses and raises his eyebrows, putting an impossible amount of emphasis on the next word like he thinks Brett might be real dense or something. “Anymore.”

“Ah.” Brett officially wants nothing to do with this now, so if that was Yands and Troch’s goal, well done. “That’s definitely none of my business, then.”

“Well, it is, though, because the reason he doesn’t anymore is hockey-related.”

Jesus Christ. “If you’re going to tell me, then just tell me, okay?”

Yands looks around and nods toward a booth in the corner. Brett trails behind him obediently and tries to think about Zen things. A single falling drop of water, or some other Holtby-style crap like that.

“So the thing about Ek,” Yands says once they're both seated. He keeps his voice low and leans over the table toward Brett, like this is secret information as part of a spy mission, or something. This cannot be good. “Is he was first overall, you know?”

“I did know that, yes.” He is never going to make it out of this Starbucks alive.

“And he started right out on the team his rookie year. No AHL time. A lot of pressure on him from the beginning, you know? People wanted him to save the franchise or whatever when he could barely shave yet.”

“He had a full beard by the end of the season when he won the Calder,” Brett reminds him. “We were all there, dude.”

“It’s a metaphor, Conno. He was a kid.” Yands sits back in his chair, though. Brett’s more comfortable without the leaning. “His first two years, Willie Mitchell was the captain, remember him? He was Ek’s mentor.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Everybody in the league talked shit about those two, which probably was right on the borderline of not cool, but the league was pretty bad at being cool, so.

“Well, he wasn’t just his mentor, he was his dom, too, okay?” Yands waits, like he expects a big surprised reaction, but Brett just cannot give it to him. Everybody had known that, too, and talked shit about that, too, but not in, like, a surprised way. It was obvious. And it was normal, for a young guy to have a cross-dynamic vet take him under his wing. Everybody expected that, and everybody kept an eye out for the ones that went south right away or went sour over time. Nobody wanted the rookies to get hurt. The league is uncool but it’s not full of monsters.

Unless... “Wait, are you saying Mitchell fucked him up? Hurt him?”

“What? No!” Watching the expectation of surprise boomarang back around into Yands’ face is kind of fun, Brett has to admit. “No, god. But he retired, you know? He left. And then the team played musical coaches.”

Brett sighs. “I know all of this, Yands, get to the point already.”

“Okay, okay. Fine.” Yands takes a drink and then puts his cup down, gesturing with both hands. “You know Boughner. Tangentially anyway.” Brett nods. “Well, he knew Ek growing up. His kid and Ek were friends, sleepovers at each other’s houses, all that good stuff.”

Brett winces. “Shit. Are you saying—”

“No, not like that. But.” He holds up his hand before Brett can tell him to get to the point again. “I’m getting there! The thing is, with all that, people assumed that he was going to be, like, Ek’s guy. That the two of them would work great together and really level up. Special relationship, chemistry, all that crap.”

Bret rubs his eyes. “And that didn’t happen.”

“It did not.” Brett winces behind his hand at Yands’ tone. He’d witnessed the Panthers’ bad seasons under Boughner in the form of a few games a year; Yands had played through them. The whole team stagnating or backsliding, systems that went nowhere or actively in reverse, players with good potential flaming out in real-time and full view.

“Okay,” Brett says after a moment. “So he, what? Was hard on Ek?”

Yands leans forward again, and Brett braces himself. “He made him the whipping boy.”

Brett waits a beat, expecting Yands to play that off somehow, but—nope, nothing. “Shit,” he says finally.

Whipping boys—that was old school. And yeah, the league still has plenty of old school going on, but for a newbie head coach like Boughner to reach for a technique like that was just weird. Brett would have expected that more from Q, honestly.

“You know how that can get to a guy.” Yands sits back and drinks, his gaze skittering around the room now instead of focused on Brett. He probably catches Brett nodding anyway; Brett’s still leaning forward, weight on his arms folded on the table, letting himself think.

He did know how whipping boys tended to react after a few years; he hadn’t been there for the whole process, but how long had it taken Tom Wilson to find himself again after Oates was gone? Years, and he still backslid into bad habits every time he got rattled. Brett had thought about offering to help him out more than once, but the leadership in the room in Washington was firm: nobody touched Willy except people who had been there since the beginning, unless Willy specifically asked them to. Nobody wanted to risk messing him up all over again.

“Who’s taking care of him now?” Brett asks after a minute, and Yands’ gaze snaps right back to his face, drawn like a magnet.

“Nobody. He won’t let anybody.” Yands shrugs. “He’ll come over and hang out with me and the family, he takes, you know, non-physical comfort from the team, but nobody touches him. If anybody offers, he shuts down flat.”

“That sucks.” Brett means it on the general level—not wanting anyone to touch you sounded lonely as hell—but also on the personal one, because the guy was hot and he’d kind of been hoping... Well. More than kind of. He’d indulged himself in more than a few fantasies of what he could do with a sub like that.

He wasn’t the kind of asshole who ran over someone else’s boundaries, though. Not ever. “Thanks for letting me know,” he said finally. “I see why Troch didn’t want to talk about it in the room. I’ll give Ek his space, don’t worry.”

“Sorry for dumping all that on you at once.” He does, honestly, sound sorry. Yands is a good guy.

“I was asking questions,” Brett reminds him. “I’m glad he’s got you guys looking out for him.”

“We try.” Yands glances at his phone and gets to his feet, a smear of whipped cream riding in his moustache. “Shit, Kristyn needs me home. Sorry for running out on you, dude. See you tomorrow?”

Brett lifts his hand in a half-wave as Yands gathers up his drink and heads for the door. Well. The Panthers have more baggage than advertised, apparently. Should’ve seen that coming.

Anyway, as far as he was concerned, that closed the door on the Ekblad question. Kid had gone through a rough thing and needed space. He wasn’t in a place where he was available as a sub. Brett would leave him to it, just like he would with any other teammate who was partnered or vanilla or just not interested in him. No problem at all.

**

The problem shows up while they’re on the road. Most problems do, Brett has noticed. Something about the team being around each other all the time, without breaks to go back to real life. Someone should look into that.

They’re in the locker room after the game, getting themselves cleaned up and put together for the bus ride to the airport, when Brett comes back to his stall from the shower and finds Weegs talking to Sceviour in a low voice.

“He’s like, all jittery,” Weegs says. “He said he wants to go for a walk or something.”

“So take him for a walk.” Scevs sounds irritated; his penalty in the third must still be eating at him, even though they pulled off the win. “What’s the problem?”

“We can’t just walk around a random arena. And the bus is leaving soon.”

Scevs rolls his eyes and looks at the clock. “We’ve got 45 minutes. There’s gotta be somewhere you can go.”

Brett clears his throat, hoping they both have the common sense to remember that it’s not eavesdropping, just being crammed in close together without a lot of options. “Who are you guys talking about? I need to stretch my legs anyway, if somebody needs company to walk around.”

Weegs and Scevs look at each other for a long moment, eyebrows up, lips all but moving. Nobody on this team can do subtlety at all.

“Ekky,” Weegs says finally, apparently deciding that Brett can be trusted. “He’s just having a weird one, you know? Nothing to worry about but he needs to walk it off.”

“Sure.” Brett keeps his voice easy, laconic; keeps his head down. His reputation for being so laid-back that he’s almost dead comes in handy sometimes. He can walk with the guy, keep an eye on him, make sure he gets on the bus in one piece. Not because he’s being creepy, but because Ek apparently needs it, and Weegs and Scevs clearly don’t want to be the ones to do it. Teammates step up for each other. That’s normal.

He pulls a t-shirt over his head, shakes the last of the shower water off his hair, and finishes shoving his stuff into his bag. “Scevs, make sure that goes out to the bus with the rest of it, eh?”

“No problem.” Scevs slaps him on the shoulder. “Thanks.”

Brett nods and crosses over to the defense side of the room, where Weegs is sitting half-dressed and talking to Ek, who does indeed look like he’s about to jitter out of his skin. His hair is messy, too. Ek’s hair is never less than perfect.

“Hey, bud.” Brett offers a lazy smile, like nothing here is weird at all. “Wanna go for a walk with me before we hit the bus?”

Ek nods, quick and stiff. His left leg is twitching, heel drumming on the floor. Brett isn’t sure if this is anxiety or a meth binge. “Yeah. That’d be good, thanks.”

“Let’s go.” Brett leads the way and lets Ek fall in step behind him, then at his side. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I know I look insane.” Ek takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, shaking his head. “I just get, like. Worked up, sometimes. It’s stupid.”

Brett shrugs. “I’ve seen it before. Other guys. No big deal.”

“Yeah?” Ek glances at him almost hopefully. “What’d they do about it?”

Sorted their shit out, Brett thinks, but all he says is “Walking’s good to start with.”

He leads the way to a stairwell that opens into the back-of-house area. “Should be an employee parking level,” he says. “We can walk around there for 20 and be back by bus call.” Ek doesn’t answer, and Brett looks over at him to find him squeezing his wrist with his opposite hand. “You need a minute?”

Ek stops walking but shakes his head. “I’m okay.”

“Are your cuffs in your bag? I can run back and get them. Might help you feel better.”

“No, they’re in my suitcase.” Ek swallows hard and switches wrists, squeezing down tightly. “I don’t like to wear them around in public.”

They’re not in public, they’re in a stairwell. Brett doesn’t push, though, just starts down the stairs again and waits for Ek to follow.

When they get to the staff parking, he leads the way on a big lazy loop. Ek alternates a few more wrist squeezes and then stops, wiping his hands on his sweats. “Feel better?” Brett asks.

“Mostly stupid.” Ek shrugs. “Sometimes I just get overwhelmed.”

“Adrenaline’s a tricky thing.” Now Brett feels stupid. “Anything I can help with?”

Ek’s shoulders visibly go up around his ears. “I don’t need a dom to hold my hand all the time, I can take care of myself.”

Brett puts his hands up and takes a step back. Give him space. Don’t be an asshole. “I was asking as a teammate, not a dom, man.”

“Oh.” Ek’s cheeks flush, but he doesn’t relax at all. “Well, uh, I’m fine. I just needed to walk.”

Brett looks at his phone. “We’ve got another ten minutes if you want to keep walking.”

No answer, but he starts moving again, and this time Brett’s the one who follows. This is almost stereotypical bratty sub behavior, straight out of half the bad porn movies out there, and Brett can easily imagine the script where he grabs Ek, pushes him down to his knees, and makes him behave. Those scripts never allow for subs who have shit going on in their lives, though, or reasons for how they’re acting beyond trying to get a dom’s attention.

Brett’s pretty sure Ek doesn’t need a dom’s attention to put him down. He needs it to tell him it’s okay to keep standing up.

He keeps quiet through the rest of the walk, ignoring Ek’s confused glances at him. When their ten minutes are up, he jerks his head toward the stairwell and heads back that way, letting Ek fall in step beside him again.

“Good little cooldown,” he says when they get to the stairs.

“Yeah.” Ek glances at him again, brow furrowed up. “Thanks for coming with me.”

Brett holds the door for him, just because he got there first. Ek looks even more confused, but he squeezes past him and mumbles another thanks.

Brett doesn’t say anything all the way up to the locker room, or down the other hall back to where the guys are waiting for the bus. When they get there, he splits off and goes to talk to Stralman, fairly sure that a d-man will be along to collect Ek.

Sure enough, Matheson and Yands descend on him before Brett’s five feet away. Kid’s got a whole team looking out for him, forget needing a dom.

Brett turns his back deliberately and asks Stralsy what he wants to watch on the plane.

**

They get two points in the next game—two assists for Ek, a goal and an assist for Brett—so it’s a pretty good one. Ek laughs and fist-bumps and hugs with the guys in the locker room, no jitters or adrenaline crash at all. Brett keeps his distance.

They’re not flying out til morning, so everyone’s talking about where to get dinner, and Brett’s half-listening, half-packing up. He might just get room service at the hotel, honestly. He likes going out as much as anyone but he’s tired, and it’s far enough into the season that he feels like he’s bonded with everybody and won’t seem standoffish if he just goes to bed.

When he looks up from his bag, though, Ek’s standing there, closer than he was before, and looking at him like he wanted to be noticed. Brett blinks at him. “What’s up?”

“The guys want to go to this bar,” Ek says. “It’s, like. Walking distance from the hotel. They’re all gonna take an Uber, but I thought maybe—”

Brett smiles. “Are we walkin’ buddies, Ek?”

Ek’s face goes red again, but he smiles this time, too. “I thought maybe. If you want.”

The thought of some heavy, greasy bar food actually does sound more appealing than going straight to bed, which means he can consider himself still young. And he’s a grown-up, mature dom, sure, but he’s still a dom; making sure a sub gets what he needs is very satisfying, even if what he needs is to not be touched. Brett will not-touch him all night long. Brett will give him all kinds of space.

God, he needs to get laid at some point in the near future. Not tonight, though.

“Sure,” he says, zipping up his equipment bag. “Sounds good to me. I’ll meet you in the lobby when we get back and I get my stuff put away.”

Ek nods and goes to get his own bag, joining up with Yands and Weegs for the walk to the bus. Brett loses sight of him until they arrive at the hotel, when the trio of d-men catch the first elevator and Brett and Bob and Monty are waiting for the next.

Monty was backup for the game, so he’s cheerful and energetic and not hopped up on adrenaline. “Conno,” he says, nudging Brett’s arm. “Where’s a good place around here to pick up?”

Brett has to laugh. So much for Monty being a baby, like they all joke about. He’s a dom with things on his mind. “Uh. I think when I stayed here with the Caps, the boys usually went to the Double Chain.”

“The boys?” Monty shoulder-checks him this time. “You didn’t go?”

Brett smiles. “I was monogamous at the time.”

“Shit, Conno. I knew you were old at heart but that just sucks.” Monty bounces on his toes a little as the elevator opens. “Well, if you want to come with me and Bob, you’re welcome to.”

“I’m doing the dinner thing. Maybe next time.”

“Gonna hold you to that!”

Brett changes into more comfortable clothes—worn-in jeans, a soft t-shirt, a jacket he’s had too long to remember. He drags his fingers through his hair in front of the mirror and goes down to the lobby to wait for Ekblad.

Ek takes a few more minutes to arrive; he’s changed his clothes, but Brett can tell he also put in extra time on his hair. Brett shoves his hands in his pockets, keeping his body angled away and his shoulders relaxed. Any dom worth the name learns how to manage his body language in and out of scenes, ideally so well that subs never notice the art of it. Ek smiles at him, so he’s still got it.

The walk to the bar is about half a mile. They don’t talk, just make their way down the sidewalks. Ek pulls one hand out of his pocket at a crosswalk to brush his hair back off his forehead, and Brett sees that he has his cuffs on, black leather buckled tight around his wrists. So much for not wearing them in public. Brett doesn’t comment on it, but once he’s aware of it, he can see how Ek keeps touching his own wrists every so often.

The other guys got a table in the back, and left two seats across from each other at the far end. Across from each other is less awkward than next to each other would be, Brett thinks; there’s more space, less risk of accidental touching. Ek gives him a quick smile as he takes his seat, probably meant to thank Brett for walking with him; Brett returns it and then picks up a menu, mentally blocking off the space around each person so he’s not infringing on Ek at all.

Panthers team dinners are less rowdy than ones with the Caps. Yands and Troch hold court, but the rest of the guys are fairly low-key. Barkov and Huberdeau didn’t even come out, but stayed back at the hotel bar with whatever basketball game was on. None of the other guys seem offended by that; they take their teammates as they are and don’t push on them, as far as Brett can tell. It fits with how he’s seen them work around Ek, now that he knows what he’s looking at. They respect Ek’s space and take care not to hurt him anymore—but they also don’t try to help him. Brett can only guess that’s because they haven’t been invited.

He hasn’t been invited either, he reminds himself. Going for walks with the guy is one thing. Trying to do anything more wouldn’t be right unless he is invited. He can’t let himself get carried away.

He glances down the table toward Yands, wondering if he should try to have another talk with him, get some more context and see what he thinks. Yands seems to know Ek better than anyone else on the team does, even the ones who have been on the team as long as Ek has. D-partner stuff, Brett supposes; d-corps always seem to have their weird little rituals and understandings.

He needs to stop worrying about all of this. Mind his own business. He takes a drink and forcibly turns his attention toward the conversation next to him, between Hoffman and Brown, something to do with buying cars.

When the evening wraps up and Yands ends up with the check, Brett slips away from the table quietly and makes his way outside to get an Uber back to the hotel. He doesn’t see Ek again until the next morning’s bus call, when they come downstairs in the same elevator with their suitcases.

Ek gives him a half-smile, but his body language is closed off, and there’s something in his eyes almost like hurt feelings. Brett can't think of why, and he also can’t think of a way to ask, and anyway, Ek walks away when the elevator doors open. Brett holds back a sigh and tells himself to shrug it off. Nothing to be done about it now.

**

Ek avoids him for the next few days; or maybe he doesn’t, maybe this is just going back to status normal. They’ve never been buddies. But Brett’s pretty sure that Ek is deliberately not looking at him, or letting his curves around the ice in warm-ups veer too close to him, or standing around in the showers if he’s there. Those together add up to avoidance, probably.

But he can’t do anything about it without making things even weirder, so he keeps his mouth shut, his eyes to himself, and keeps his own warm-up paths well-surrounded by the other forwards.

He’s minding his own business after their next game—a home loss to the Habs, which, fuck that very much—when Weegs comes over and bumps his shoulder, giving him an expectant stare when Brett looks up in annoyance.

“What?” Brett asks, raising his eyebrows. “Can I help you?”

“Not me,” Weegs says, jerking his chin to indicate where the defensemen sit. “Can you help Ek again?”

Brett looks over to find Ek sitting in his towel post-shower, digging through his gear bag. His hair is going all over the place, a wet uncombed mess. “He looks fine to me.”

Weegs makes a face. “He’s all worked up again. And he forgot his cuffs. Can you just go... I don’t know, do dom stuff? Calm him down?”

“The fuck, Weegs.” Brett shakes his head and turns back to his locker. “I’m not his dom, and he hasn’t asked me to do shit. I’m not going to go push myself on him. You know better.”

“I don’t mean like that, I just mean...” Weegs gestures vaguely. “Like when you took him for that walk, before, that helped!”

Brett shakes his head again, pulling his socks out of the locker. “I’m not going to bug him unless he asks, man. I overstepped, last time.”

“Fine.” Weegs stomps off and Brett lets himself exhale, then starts pulling on his socks. There. Boundaries maintained. Better for everyone that way.

He gets his suit pants on, turns to shake water droplets out of his hair, and finds Ek standing there, tight-faced and flushed. For fuck’s sake.

“What do you need, Ek?” He drags his hand over his hair, frowning when it still comes back wet. Can’t put his shirt on yet, like that. He looks around for his towel, then glances back at Ek again. “Well?”

Ek gives a sharp huff of breath and lifts his chin. “Can you help me for a minute?”

“Help you with what?”

Ek holds up a necktie, folded in half and dangling loosely from his hand. “I forgot my cuffs. Can you help me mock something up? I need something, I’m feeling edgy.”

Brett takes a deep breath and lets it go. Well. He said unless he asks, and Ek is asking.

He turns back to his locker and pokes around until he comes up with his own necktie. “Arms out,” he says, running it between his fingers to make sure it’s smooth. “Palms up. Good.”

Ek stands there, arms out, only a little tremor in his fingers. His gaze is fixed somewhere up around the ceiling, like he’s in the dentist’s chair or something, like he hates this. Well, he’s the one asking for it, isn’t he? He asked for Brett’s help.

Brett goes to work, laying the thin end of the tie lengthwise on Ek’s wrist, then wrapping in neat rows, making sure the fabric lies flat and doesn’t bunch. He wraps one layer, then back up halfway, then carefully weaves the wide end of the tie under the last few wraps and tightens it off. “Move your fingers,” he says, and Ek does, his gaze flicking to Brett’s face just long enough to nod. “No pinching? Not too tight?”

Ek’s throat bobs as he swallows. “Perfect.”

“Okay.” Brett plucks the other tie from Ek’s fingers, where it’s still dangling. He does the other wrist just the same, checking every centimeter meticulously, asking Ek for signoff when it's done.

“Feel better?” he asks finally. It should be just tight enough to be comforting, not enough to press on his tendons or restrict bloodflow. Neckties aren’t ideal for tying anybody up—the silk can slip too easily, get too tight, get dangerous—but this is just for a little while, just to steady him on his drive home. And Brett’s good at this.

Ek takes a deep breath and flexes his fingers again, looking down at his hands. “Yeah,” he says after a moment. “Thanks, Conno.”

“You’re welcome.” Part of him feels agitated and snotty, wants to tell the kid to kneel down when he says thank you, and say it nicer than that—he's owed that as a dom, isn’t he?

The rest of him knows that he isn’t owed shit, and that Ek is already embarrassed and uncomfortable. He can keep his agitation on a leash. It’s fine.

He turns back to his stall and concentrates on sorting out his stuff, not looking up again until Troch nudges his shoulder. “That was smooth, dude,” Troch says.

“Yeah, well.” Brett shrugs. “I’m pretty good at bondage stuff.”

Troch snorts. “I think every sub in the room just figured that out, dude. Speaking of which. Ek’s not gonna go home with you, but there’s a good chance Pysser will if you make eye contact with him in, like, the next two minutes.”

Brett lifts his head and looks over to Pysyk’s stall. Sure enough, that’s a hungry look Pysser’s giving him. And Brett hasn’t had a scene in what feels like a year. Definitely longer than he likes.

He meets Pysser’s gaze and raises his eyebrows a little, silently asking, You wanna?

Pysser’s hungry look slowly blooms into a smile, and he nods, glancing down at his phone and then back up at Brett and holding up one hand, fingers spread. Five minutes?

Brett shrugs, letting himself grin. Whenever you’re ready,, he mouths, and Pysser ducks his head and goes back to getting dressed.

All right, Brett thinks, shrugging into his jacket. Wasn’t what he expected to get out of today, but it should turn out to be fun. Pysser’s a good guy, easy-going, and responsive on the ice. Hopefully he’s the same in a scene. Brett doesn’t like it when subs just take it in silence; he wants a back-and-forth, a conversation, an exchange of energy. He’s at least cautiously optimistic that he can get that tonight.

He finishes gathering up the stuff he’s taking home and looks up again, this time catching a glimpse of Ek, standing by the door with his bag and waiting for Yands, like he always does. One of Ek’s hands is rubbing carefully over the tie on his other wrist. His eyes are on Brett, a little unfocused, and his mouth is twisted in an unhappy way.

Brett’s first instinct is to go talk to him. But he already decided to give the guy space, and anyway, if Ek wanted to talk, he could’ve done it while Brett was binding his wrists for him. He didn’t, so... well, not fuck that guy, but fuck that guy, a little bit.

Brett boosts his bag onto his shoulder and looks at Pysser again. He’s just about ready, bent over tying his shoes.

When he glances at the doorway again, Yands is just walking out, and Ek is gone.

**

Brett has a good time with Pysyk. His house in Florida came with a St. Andrew’s cross, and Pysyk is an eager sub. Brett flogs him—not too hard, it’s in-season, just enough to get them both fired up—and then they do some rough body play, which is a dumb and formal way to say they wrestle for a while until Brett takes Pysyk down, and Pysyk is extremely happy to go.

Brett puts clamps on Pysyk’s nipples and inner thighs before he fucks him, and tells him he can’t take them off til he gets home and FaceTimes Brett so he can watch.

Pysser has some marks the next day, which he shows off in the locker room to an approving chorus of catcalls and demands for details. He looks at Brett, grinning his face off. “Well, sir? Permission to disclose?”

Brett puts on a big show of thinking about it, rubbing his jaw and looking up at the ceiling, finally saying “Denied” to a collective howl of frustration. He isn’t looking, but he notices that Ekblad doesn’t take part in any of it, just keeps his head down and blushes dark and furious in his stall.

Not my fault, Brett reminds himself, tossing his flip-flops into his locker. He’s just living his life. If Ek wants something, he can ask for it, like every other properly socialized sub in the world.

He’s repeated that to himself so many times, he does not at all expect Ek to be waiting by his car when he comes out of practice.

“Conno,” Ek says, as Brett slows and then stops, still a good ten feet away. “Can we talk?”

“Sure.” Brett shifts his bag more solidly on his shoulder. “What’s up?”

“Oh. Uh, maybe not here.” Ek looks around the parking lot, where their teammates are filtering out by ones and twos, pretty focused on getting to their own cars and going home. None of them care what Ek and Conno are doing, though to be fair nosy Troch and overprotective Yands seem to already be gone.

“Okay,” Brett says after a moment, in which Ek doesn’t make any other kind of suggestion. “You want to get coffee or what?”

Ek’s face lights up a little at that. “Yeah! Coffee, that’s a good idea. Let’s do that.”

Brett waits another moment, a shorter one this time. “Okay. Well. Let’s go to the one that’s a right turn at the light.”

“Sure.” Ek nods and pulls his keys out of his pocket. “Sounds good. Thanks, man, I really appreciate it.”

Brett wants to point out that he hasn’t done anything yet, but there’s no reason to make Ek uncomfortable all over again. “I’ll see you there.”

Ek jogs off to his Jeep, and Brett throws his bag in the back of his car, noting despite himself that Ek doesn’t have his wrist cuffs on today. Hopefully that means he’s feeling good, that he’s grounded and settled and happy.

This time Brett gets to the Starbucks first. “I can order for us,” he says when Ek comes in. “Find us a table?”

“Oh, sure.” Ek runs his hand through that stupid thick surfer-looking hair of his. “Thanks. Just get me a medium latte, okay?”

A couple of teenagers are watching them from a table, and Brett thinks maybe they recognized Ek—it's not super-likely, in this market, but on the other hand there were the billboards with Ek’s face on them along all the highways from Miami to the arena. But when he steps away from the counter with their drinks and looks around to find their table, he hears one of the kids giggle, “Like a service top, you know?”

And oh, right; Brett’s not being a stern dommy dom who makes his sub bring him his drink. Partially because Ek isn’t his sub at all, just a sub, and a teammate, and they’re just here to talk. The kids don’t know that, they’re just jumping to making dynamic-stereotypical assumptions, and someone should probably correct them.

Not Brett, though. He gives them a chilly, dominant stare when he walks past them, which makes their shit-eating grins hiccup a little, but he hears them right back into whispering again as soon as he steps away.

He hands Ek his latte and sits down across from him, careful not to make direct eye contact or square his shoulders too much. “So, what’s up?”

Ek half-smiled and took a drink, his eyes darting around the store. “Not much. I just wanted to, like, clear the air.”

“I wasn’t aware it needed clearing.” Brett slouches lower in his seat. “I can’t think of anything that would need that.”

“I know I, like, was all clingy at you on the road trip, and stuff, and then I made you help me out the other night, and I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have done any of that.” He swallows, his gaze darting fast to Brett and then away again. “It was inappropriate.”

“It was fine. I think I volunteered to do all of it, actually. Or you asked me, and I could’ve said no.” Brett makes sure to focus his eyes on Ek’s forehead instead of meeting his gaze, but looks at him steadily anyway. “Really, don’t worry about it. I absolve you of worry.”

Ek still looks nervous as hell, but one corner of his mouth twitches. “Absolve me?”

“Sure.” Brett sketches a cross in the air. “Go forth, my son, and sin no more.”

“I’m not actually Catholic.”

“Me neither.” That finally gets the kid to laugh, at least. Brett grins at him. “We’re good now?”

“Yeah. For sure.” Ek takes another drink and drops his gaze to the table. “Uh. Not to, like, gossip, but Pysser said he had fun the other day. When you took him home.”

Brett nods, rolling his cup between his palms. “That was the idea.”

“He said you’re a really good dom.”

Brett shrugs. “I try to be.”

Ek gives a little huff of breath, not quite a laugh. “Has, um, has the rest of the team told you about me?”

One thing Brett can pull off is keeping a stoic face. “Told me what about you?”

“About—” Another huff of breath. “About my, uh, my role in the room. Before.”

Brett takes a drink, weighing his words carefully. “I know about that, yeah.”

“Did they all tell you?”

“No, nothing like that.” Brett can’t even imagine what exactly Ek’s picturing—some kind of an intervention or group meeting to warn the new guys? That would be bizarre, and way more complicated to organize than the Panthers room is capable of. “One person looped me in, because they didn’t want me to be too pushy with you.”

“Pushy?” Ek frowns. “Pushy how? You’re not pushy. And what would you even be pushy with me about?”

Not the quickest on the uptake, this one. “Well, you know.” He pauses until Ek’s stare makes it clear that no, he does not know. “You’re an unpartnered sub. I’m an unpartnered dom. The guy who talked to me thought I was maybe going to try to set something up with you, and wanted me to be cool about it.”

“So he told you about that?” Ek’s face is turning red, all the way up to his hairline. “Jesus. That doesn’t have anything to do with—”

Brett raises his eyebrows and waits once Ek stumbles into silence, but Ek doesn’t pick up his train of thought again. “It’s okay,” Brett says finally. “To need a break from scening, after something like that.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why is it okay for me to need a break?” Ek shakes his head, cutting his gaze away from Brett to look over at a shelf of coffee beans. “It’s just a different way of managing the room. It’s not something that should bother me.”

Brett is not a therapist. But, fuck, he’s... a person. A decent one, he thinks. A reasonable one. So maybe he can get through this conversation without actually wrecking anything, like Ek’s grip on reality. “But it does bother you, right?”

“It was fine. It needed to happen to try to fix the team in the room.”

“Okay, but...” Brett can’t think of a nicer way to put this. “It didn’t work. I mean, Boughner got fired.”

“Yeah, I know.” Ek pushes his cup away from himself. “I know I didn’t do it right and we got all fucked up and he got fired. I was there, you know?”

The and you weren’t hangs in the air. “I don’t think that’s really your fault,” Brett says finally. “I mean, how exactly was beating your ass going to make Luongo ten years younger, right?”

Ek stares at him for a minute, then laughs, some of the tension going out of his shoulders. “Okay, that’s fair. Shit.”

“It’s a team sport.” Brett smiles at him. “Can’t blame one person for any of it.”

“Takes a team to lose like that, eh?”

“Exactly.” They fall silent for a few minutes, drinking their coffee, until Brett finally can’t help himself. “Were you trying to say you are interested in scening again?”

“Oh.” Ek ducks his head, and Brett watches his shoulders go up again, tight as wires. It’s impressive and a little alarming. The team massage therapist must have a field day with him. “I mean. I haven’t been avoiding it on purpose. It’s not like I took a... a vow of celibacy, or whatever. I just haven’t felt like it. I think about it and it just doesn’t sound like a good time. At all.”

“That’s cool.” Brett finishes his drink and leans away from the table to toss it in the trash can. “You shouldn’t do stuff you don’t want to do. Obviously.”

“But...” Ek’s forehead is furrowed up. “You think the reason I don’t want to is because of the whole thing in the room? With Boogie?”

Brett wishes Holts was here. He always knew how to explain the painfully fucking obvious to someone without sounding like he was insulting them. “It sounds like it was maybe kind of traumatic, yeah.”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that.” Aaron sits up straighter, eyes widening. “That’s a really strong word.”

“Well, whatever you want to call it.” Brett shrugs. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s bugging you.”

Aaron shakes his head. “I should be better than that. It’s just room management. It’s not a big deal.”

It might be kind of interesting to see how many times he’ll repeat the same things over and over, but it would also really bum Brett out. “It made subbing and scening into a punishment instead of something fun. I don’t think it’s surprising that that kinda sticks around and makes it not sound fun now either.”

“How do I fix it?”

Brett wishes he had an actual answer to that, because the kid looks so hopeful, now. “Well, I mean, you need to deal with your feelings about what happened, or whatever. And then you need somebody to scene with who will go slow and make sure it feels good again.”

Ek nods, looking as serious as he does during drills, like he’s going to give this his all and then some. “Would you be willing to do that?”

Brett probably should have seen that coming. “Would I what now?”

“Would you scene with me, slowly and stuff, like you said?”

There’s no way he can say no to that without being insulting, and there’s also the little fact that thinking about scening with Ek was what started all this to begin with. He doesn’t want to lie, and he can’t pretend. “Sure,” he says finally, after a long enough pause that he can almost see Ek’s pulse jumping. “If you’re sure you’re comfortable with that, we could absolutely figure something out together.”

“I’m comfortable, definitely.” Ek nods some more, still looking like he’s about to drive to the net. “You’re really trustworthy.”

“Thanks.” He doesn’t want that to go to his ego, but it is nice, especially since he’s still new in the room. Pysyk being happy to scene with him is one thing, but a sub trusting him enough to help work through definitely-not-trauma? That’s a compliment.

“How do you want to go about this?” he asks after a minute, trying to redirect that intense stare toward something useful instead of unnerving. “Did you have some kind of plan in mind?”

Ek shakes his head, but settles back in his chair, at least. “Not really. I mean. I could come over right now, if you want?”

“And do what?”

That makes him go deer-in-the-headlights. “Whatever you want?”

Brett sighs and shakes his head. “That’s not how it works. If I’m trying to help you feel better about it, I can’t just do whatever I want. We have to work together.”

Ek looks out the window for a minute. “Okay, well, how do we do that?”

“I think for one thing, we can’t just jump into it today.” Brett rubs his jaw and picks up his phone, bringing up his calendar app. “We both need to do some thinking. We’ve got a game tomorrow and a rest day Friday. Would that work for you? Meeting up on Friday, and we’ll both bring some ideas or questions or whatever comes up while we’re thinking about it, and we’ll make a plan.”

Ek looks unsure for a moment, his forehead furrowed and his mouth twisted unhappily, but then he nods. “Okay. That makes sense. And I guess—I guess it should be at my house, right? If the idea’s for me to feel comfortable, or whatever? I’ll be a little more comfortable at my place than at yours.”

It’s a tiny sign of a self-protective instinct. That’s encouraging. “Yeah, for sure. That way you won’t have to worry about, like, suspension gear falling off the ceiling on you, or something.”

Ek actually cracks a smile. “How do you know I don’t have my own rig at home, eh?”

“Good point. I shouldn’t judge.” Brett offers his hand. “Shake on it?”

They shake hands and stand to clear the table, since the line is threatening to reach the door and they don’t need to take up shop space anymore. The teenagers are still sitting by the counter, Brett notes. He braces himself for a smart remark when he and Ek head out the door.

They don’t actually say anything, though, just look Ek up and down and giggle like weirdos, then make another crack about service tops when Brett passes them. Outside, Ek shakes his head and looks wearily at Brett.

“I didn’t even know what that meant when I was their age. I didn’t find out until I got to Barrie. Kids these days, man.”

“They’re something else.” Brett digs his keys out and nods to him. “I’ll see you at morning skate tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” Ek hesitates for a moment, like he might say something else, then turns and walks off to his car instead. Brett exhales, feeling some tension go out of his shoulders that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding through the whole time. This was going to be… interesting. Tricky. Maybe putting him in over his head.

But he said he would do it, and he isn’t going to back down.

**

He does his thinking and Googling that afternoon, since the next day he’ll need to be focused on game-day things. He jots down some notes, double-checks a few things online, texts with Holts a little. He doesn’t name names or get into details, but outlines enough of the situation that Holts suggests he text Wilson directly and see if he has any personal advice.

Brett isn’t sure if Willy and Ek are really coming from the same place in existence in general, but he promises to think about it. The main theme from everywhere he checks online, Holts’ advice, and his own instincts is the same: start small and go slow. He isn’t sure Ek is going to be very happy about that idea; it’s too much common sense to be popular with a sub who came up through hockey, being told to push his limits at every level and take on as much as he can at any given time.

Brett will have to hold the line on going slow, be firm about it. Be dominant about it. That’s the kind of joke he could’ve made to Holts back in DC. He really needs some chill dom friends down here. Maybe he should hang out with Yands more.

Ek avoids him at morning skate and in the locker room before the game, and Brett takes the cue, giving him space. The game itself is a dull slog, a defensive battle that the other team does better. Brett has a turnover that’s directly responsible for one goal, and Ek misses a block that leads to another. The post-game room is deathly silent; Q doesn’t even bother to chew them out, just tells them to enjoy the off day and leaves.

Brett pauses at Ek’s locker on his way out. “How does 2:00 sound?” he asks, keeping his voice low so Weegs hopefully won’t listen in. “I need to get a few things done in the morning.”

Ek nods without looking up at him. “That works. See you then.”

Brett swings through the trainers’ room to get a bag of ice taped to his shoulder, then goes home to watch the West Coast games til he passes out on the couch. This isn’t exactly the mood he wants to take into starting things with Ek, but maybe things will seem better in the morning.

**

Ek meets him at the door, like he was watching and waiting for Brett to arrive. “Hey,” Brett says, glancing around the front entryway. Ek’s house is airy and big and open-plan, full of light and easy to navigate through. “Nice place.”

“Thanks. Did you already eat?” Ek looks through the open front room toward the kitchen. “I could make smoothies or something.”

“I had lunch, yeah. But I never turn down a smoothie.” He isn’t sure if service fits into Ek’s style of subbing, but he did offer, so it can’t be wrong to take him up on it. Brett follows him to the kitchen, keeping the distance between their bodies close but not too close as they move.

“Fruit or kale?” Ek pulls a couple different packages from the freezer, and a jar of protein powder from a cabinet next to the blender. “I can do whatever.”

“Fruit, I guess.” Brett leans on the counter and watches him put together fruit, ice, yogurt, powder. Run the blender. Pour two glasses. The air between them isn’t any less awkward when he’s done, but at least they have something to do with their hands.

Ek jerks his head at Brett in a follow-me way, and Brett does, up the stairs into a room with deep couches and a big TV mounted on the wall. They both sit and drink in silence, not looking at each other, until the silence starts to turn into ratcheting tension and Brett has to break it.

“So,” he says, putting his glass down on the end table and angling his body toward Ek. “Now that you’ve had some time to think about it, are you still interested in doing this?”

Ek nods, setting his own cup aside and clasping his hands between his knees. “Yeah, I am. It’s gonna be a little tough, I think? Just, like, turning all of this around? But I do want to, and I’ll work really hard at it.”

Brett stares at him, then twists around a little more in his seat so he’s facing Ek fully, his feet pulled up beneath him. “Wait. Hold on. You’re talking about it the same way you talk about, like, the season. Making a run for a playoff slot. This isn’t... you get that this isn’t supposed to be work, right?”

Ek’s face reddens. “For me, it is. I’m sorry if that isn’t the right way, but I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Scening is work for you.” Brett tilts his head, watching Ek’s face closely, trying to read his reactions. Ek’s so closed down, though. Shuttered. It’s hard to get anything from him, and he won’t let Brett meet his eyes.

“Well, I mean, yeah? I have to be good and make the dom happy and not fuck up all the time.” He’s looking down at his hands, fingers twisting against each other, knuckles white. “It’s a lot of work for the sub, I don’t think that’s unusual or whatever.”

“It’s not like that when it’s good, though. When both sides are doing their jobs.” Brett hesitates and shakes his head. “I mean, it should’t be jobs, it’s not work. It should be partners being good for each other. You know?”

Ek finally lifts his head a little and gives Brett a dull, skeptical look. “That’s TV and movies shit, man. That’s not how it really works.”

It’s on the tip of Brett’s tongue to ask him if he’s sure he’s not null; if he doesn’t actually enjoy any kind of kink, ever, then maybe he’s not a sub at all. He wouldn’t be the first person giving in to compulsory dynamic assignment and fighting who he really is.

Being that blunt about it would be rude as hell, though, and right now he kind of suspects that if he hit Ek with that kind of rudeness, he might crumble. He’s had his relationship with his dynamic all fucked up, if Yands is right. Brett can take a minute, try a different direction with his question, be kind.

“Have you ever liked it?” he asks carefully, grabbing a throw pillow and tucking it between his back and the armrest. When he looks back up, some of the tightness in Ek’s shoulders has eased, though his brow is still furrowed up.

“Yeah,” Ek says after a minute. “I mean. In juniors, when I was, you know, figuring out my dynamic or whatever, that was—and my first couple years on the team, with Willie, and even after he left kind of, some of the guys and me would—” His breath catches, the words cutting off, and Brett waits him out, curling his toes tight enough that one of his feet cramps.

“But that was, like, kid stuff,” Ek says finally. “I was a kid, I was stupid. I didn’t know how it really works, what stuff is really like. So. You know. That stuff doesn’t count.”

Brett’s relieved, and sad, and kinda freaked out, all at once. What the hell was going on with this team before he got here? “I don’t know, dude. I think you’ve got it backwards. That was the real stuff and how shitty you feel now, that’s the mistake. Maybe I’m wrong? But if I’m wrong, a lot of people are wrong about how all of this works. I don’t think it has to be like that at all.”

Ek leans forward again, curling toward his knees, pressing both hands over his face. “Oh my god,” he groans. “See, you don’t want to do this, I’m a fucking mess.”

“I want to do it if you do.” Brett wants to touch him, but can’t tell if reaching for him would come off like a threat. He stretches one of his legs out instead, brushing the side of his foot against Aaron’s knee. “I guess you’re right that it’ll be hard? But I don’t think it’ll suck as much as you’re afraid of. Wilson’s done it and now he’s fine. Totally normal.”

Ek spreads the fingers of one hand to look at him through them. “What?”

“Tom Wilson. In DC.”

“What do you mean he’s done it?”

Brett shrugs. “He was a whipping boy for a while, too. The Caps cleaned house and stopped doing that shit, and he got better.”

Ek still has half his face covered. “He’s normal.”

“I mean.” Brett shrugs again. “As close as he can reasonably get.”

Ek laughs, sounding somewhere between helpless and hysterical. “I don’t know what to do.”

Brett takes a deep breath and sits up. Time to act like a dom who knows what he’s doing. “May I touch you?”

That earns him a startled look from behind Ek’s hands, but also a nod. Brett reaches out, catching Ek’s wrists and guiding his hands away from his face. He doesn’t let go, just holds on loosely, waiting for Ek to settle enough to meet his eyes.

Once he’s got that, he gets off the couch, careful not to let his hold slip. “C’mon,” he says quietly. “Stand up with me.”

Ek hesitates for a minute, then obeys, unfolding himself from the couch and getting to his feet. The tendons of his wrists flex under Brett’s fingers a few times, testing, but he doesn’t pull away.

Brett steps back just a little bit, enough to look him up and down. Frat-boy clothes, solid body, hair kind of mussed up, expression nervous and a little hopeful. And every muscle he has is wound tight. Jesus.

“Just breathe,” Brett says. “Slow, deep breaths. In through your nose, out through your mouth.” While he’s concentrating on that, Brett loosens his hold and turns his hands, running them up Ek’s arms to his shoulders. He moves slowly, keeping a steady pressure, trying to use the movement to ground Ek in his body. It’s easy to tell he’s been a stud hockey player his whole life, up and way beyond being a sub; he follows orders to the letter without questioning, even when the order is as stupid as stand here and breathe while I touch you.

When he reaches Ek’s shoulders, Brett rests his hands there heavily for a long moment, not quite pushing down. Ek looks at him, questioning, and Brett shakes his head. He isn’t changing his instructions. Stand here and breathe.

After a moment he runs his hands down Ek’s arms again, still pressing firmly, grounding. It’s almost like a massage, but instead of trying to work on the muscles, he’s just reminding Ek where his body ends, and that he can relax into it, take up all that space to the millimeter, if he wants to. Ek still looks confused, but his tension is starting to ease a little, his eyelids not so wide open, his breath steady and even. That’s good. Brett wants to start with a single step: making Ek less fucking nervous about having him around.

“Okay?” Brett asks, when he’s worked his way down to the wrists again, twice, and is holding them loosely in his hands. Ek nods, his eyes averted from Brett’s face, looking somewhere over Brett’s shoulder. That’s fine. “May I call you Aaron when we’re doing this stuff? Ek in the locker room, Aaron out here?”

Ek’s forehead furrows a little bit, but then smooths as he nods. “Yeah. That’s okay.”

“Cool.” Brett squeezes his wrists gently, then lets them go. “Stay here.”

He goes back downstairs to the kitchen and pokes through cabinets until he finds glasses, fills them from the filter on the fridge, and takes them back upstairs. Aaron is still standing by the couch, waiting patiently. He’s tensed up a bit from where he was when Brett stepped away, but nothing like he was earlier. That’s a win for today.

“Here you go,” he says, handing him one of the glasses and drinking from his own. “And we’re all done.”

Aaron takes a sip, giving Brett a puzzled look. “Don’t you want to do anything else?”

Brett shakes his head. “Not today.”

“But…” Aaron looks at his water. “You didn’t actually do anything. You just touched my arms.”

“We talked about doing this. I gave you instructions and you did what I asked. You let me touch you and I got you to relax a little bit.” He half-smiles; better not to make the kid think he’s laughing at him. “That’s a lot for one day, if you think about it.”

“I… I guess?” Aaron still looks bewildered, but he takes another sip of water and, after a moment, sits down.

Brett drinks and looks around. “This is a really nice house.”

“Thanks.” Aaron follows his gaze around the room. “My mom picked it out, honestly.”

“You were what, nineteen? There’s a reason most nineteen-year-olds are either in a dorm of some kind or still with their parents.”

“I know. The hot water heater broke a few months after I moved in and I didn’t know what the fuck to do.” He makes a face. “I called Lu to ask what I should do about it and he laughed at me.”

“Then did he tell you to pay someone a bunch of money to fix it?”

“Well, I knew that was what I needed to do, but he gave the number of somebody to call.” Aaron laughs a little. “I still call the same guy whenever I need anything, he’s, like, the guy for half the team at this point.”

“Nothing wrong with that. It’s just being efficient.” Brett finishes his water and takes a minute to try to read the room. It feels like the kid is okay. More relaxed than when he got here, talking easily, not avoiding eye contact. He was right that they didn’t do much today, though Brett was also right that what they did do was plenty. He’ll be fine if Brett leaves.

“I’m gonna head out,” he says, shaking the glass a little. “Should I put this in the kitchen?”

“Yeah, sure.” Aaron stands up awkwardly. “When, um, when do you want to come over again?”

Brett tries to think in small steps, increments. “Let’s get lunch after practice tomorrow. Then we can come back over here, or just hang out, whatever. We’ll play it by ear.”

Aaron hesitates a beat, then nods. “Okay.”

“You pick the restaurant, too,” Brett adds, turning toward the stairs. “Something low-key.”

**

Proof that Aaron has become a real Floridian: low-key, to him, means on the beach. Brett brought his sunglasses in from the car with him, hooked over the collar of his t-shirt, and it’s a good thing. The waitress seats them on a patio looking out at the ocean and he has to put them back on again right away.

“They’ve got amazing seafood, obviously,” Aaron says, looking at the menu. “But also good burgers. Giant salads.”

“The basics.” Brett nods and looks over his own menu quickly; not too hard to decide at a place that covers the basics. “Good thinking.”

It’s mild praise, but usually it would make a sub at least smile. Aaron doesn’t even twitch. “Are you doing the skate tomorrow or hitting the weight room?” he asks, eyes still on the menu. “I tried to catch Coach after and ask him which he really wanted the D to do, but he left.”

Brett watches him for a minute before he answers. “The way I look at it is if they say optional skate, they mean optional. If they secretly wanted everyone skating, they’d make it a mandatory practice.”

“I guess.” Aaron drops the menu, shaking his head. “But you guys are fine. We need more work.”

“But if you’re too exhausted for it to do any good, a day in the weight room might be more productive overall.”

Aaron makes a little huffing sound, not quite laughter, but his mouth curves up a little, too. “You sound like a coach.”

“Well, I listen to them.” He settles back in his chair. “Are you suggesting I have a potential career after retirement?”

“There are worse options.”

“Is that what you want to do?” He takes a sip of water. “After the show?”

“Oh god.” Aaron clasps his hands on the table and frowns down at them. “I’m not sure. I think it depends on how I finish up, you know? If I go out on my terms, then maybe. But if I’m pushed out by injury, I’m going to want some time away from the whole thing. And some space. Clear my head while I’m getting over it.”

“That makes sense.” Brett’s seen plenty of guys go out both ways. The level of bitterness they take out with them is something to consider more than any PA lecture seems to bother to include. “It’s a ways off, though, with any luck.”

Another half-smile. “For both of us, let’s hope.” The waitress comes over and they both order the catch of the day, veggies, rice. Brett gets a beer and Aaron asks for lemon for his water. When she walks away, they both fall silent and look out at the water.

“It was really nice, the other day,” Aaron says finally, and Brett glances sideways at him. “For me, I mean. I know you didn’t really get anything out of it.”

“I don’t have any complaints.” Brett stretches his legs out under the table. “I’m not, like, impatient. This is about you.”

Aaron bumps his sunglasses higher on his nose. “I don’t really know what to do with that.”

“You don’t have to do anything with it. You just have to trust me to know what I’m doing.”

“Just that simple, huh?” Another humorless laugh, and Aaron looks down at his hands. “I think it’s the trust part I’m bad at.”

“I get that.” Brett nudges him with his foot, then again, until Aaron lifts his chin and looks at him. “That’s why I’m going slow, right? It all fits together.”

They both manage an actual laugh for that. “Okay,” Aaron says. “Then, um, is it okay if I don’t want to go back to the house today? If I just want to hang out?”

“Yeah, of course.” Brett feels a little flash of disappointment in his chest. It’s okay, though. He can wait it out. “You want to catch a movie or something?”

Aaron pulls his phone out of his pocket. “I’m not sure there’s anything decent playing.”

“Who said anything about decent?” Brett shakes his head. “It’s an afternoon matinee. The shittier the better.”

That’s a real smile, crooked on one side and showing a bunch of teeth. It’s cute. “Okay, then. Lots of shitty options to choose from. Do you want a shitty comedy, a shitty drama, or a shitty action movie?”

They settle on shitty action and find one starting in an hour; just about enough time to eat and drive in. When they get there, Aaron buys the tickets while Brett gets popcorn and slushies for both of them. It’s way too much sugar, but he wants to check something. Not a test, exactly; he just wants to see what Aaron will do if Brett offers him something unprompted.

The answer is that his eyes widen and he hesitates for a moment, but then he takes the drink and bag of popcorn carefully in his hands. “Thanks,” he says, eyes darting around the lobby like Coach Q might be lurking in a corner. “I don’t know if I’ll finish all this, but—”

Brett shrugs “It’s a treat. I won’t tell if you don’t.”

Aaron takes a sip of the slushie and groans. “Oh, fuck. That’s making my teeth hurt.”

“There is that problem.” Brett follows him to their theater and up to their seats, right in the middle of the middle-most row. They’re the full-comfort reclining type, too, and he has a feeling both of them are going to fall asleep during the previews if they aren’t careful.

He does doze, but the movie starts with an explosion and never lets up from there. There’s actually a kind of interesting plot to go along with all the flames—absurd, but interesting. He and Aaron linger in the parking lot for half an hour after they leave the building, just talking about it.

Brett takes the longer route home when they finally leave, giving himself an extra couple of stoplights to think. There’s a level of comfort there, if not full-on trust yet. He can’t blame the kid for being wary.

They’re going to see each other again on the weekend. That gives him some time to plan.

**

He goes to Aaron’s house again, both of them freshly showered post-practice. They sit out on the patio for a while, watching the boats maneuver carefully from the docks behind each house on their way out to the open water, until Aaron finally takes a deep breath and asks “So. What do you want to do?”

Brett smiles at him, gauging the tension between them and trying to keep things low-key from his side, at least. “How are your knees feeling? Okay for kneeling down for a while?”

Aaron thinks for a moment, his tongue poking out at the corner of his mouth, then nods. “Yeah, I think that should be okay.”

“Great.” Brett snags a cushion off one of the empty lounge chairs and sets it at his feet, then nods at it. “Here, please.”

“Out here?”

These houses are practically estates; nobody can see them except the people on the water, and Brett can’t imagine why they would be squinting at what’s going on on a random patio instead of watching where they’re going. Still, he’s based this whole thing on being patient and considerate. “Is that not okay?”

“I just didn’t think about it.” Aaron’s eyes dart back and forth, from Brett to the water, and Brett can see him doing the same calculation about who can see, and how much, and why they would even bother. Brett counts off seconds in his head, waiting him out. He doesn’t have anything else to do today, honestly.

Finally, Aaron gets up from his chair and comes over to Brett, standing beside the cushion, wide-eyed and tight-jawed. “Facing you or away?”

“Away, please.” Brett waits while he lowers himself down, finds a comfortable position, settles himself, then places his hand flat on top of Aaron’s head. Not pushing, just resting. “You don’t have to keep your hands behind your back. Relax them.”

It’s another long moment before Aaron does, and Brett pets him as a reward, hand moving gently over his hair. That gets a soft intake of breath and a glance back over the shoulder, and Brett stills his hand again, waiting for Aaron to resume looking straight ahead, out at the water.

“I know you probably think all of this is pretty stupid,” Brett says, pitching his voice low enough that Aaron actually has to listen to hear him. “I come over here and touch you. I take you to a movie. I come back and have you kneel but not do anything. Right? Kinda stupid.”

Aaron swallows hard, his shoulders twitching, and Brett waits, keeping his hand heavy and flat. “I assume you have a reason for it,” Aaron says finally. “Some kind of plan.”

“Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.” He flexes his fingers, scritching at Aaron’s scalp now. “But whatever I’m gonna do, I’m not going to break your boundaries or surprise you with something we didn’t talk about first.”

“We haven’t talked about doing anything.”

“That’s true.” Another slow pet, dragging his fingers through soft hair. “But you don’t really trust me yet, do you? Or your body doesn’t. It doesn’t trust that you’re not gonna get hurt out of nowhere, without being ready for it.”

“I know you won’t hurt me.” Aaron shakes his head under Brett’s hand. “We’re in the middle of the season.”

The kid is willful, Jesus. Maybe willfully obtuse, maybe just stubborn. “Did the old coaching staff talk about boundaries with you? When they decided you were going to be the one who takes it for the team?”

Aaron snorts, his neck and shoulders going rigid while Brett watches. “Whipping boys don’t get boundaries.”

“Not even in the middle of the season.” Brett lets his hand run down the back of Aaron’s head, down his neck, finally stopping when it rests between his shoulder blades. “They needed you but they hurt you anyway, to make a point.”

“Yeah.” Aaron’s voice is hoarse, and Brett curls his hand into a loose fist, letting his knuckles rub against the tense muscles. “That’s how it works.”

“It’s a pretty fucking stupid system. That’s why the league’s moved past it.” He rocks his fist back and forth, working at a particular knot, then opens his hand again to cup Aaron’s neck. “Anyway, that’s why I’m doing the whole respecting your boundaries thing. You don’t trust me yet, and that’s cool. I can wait.”

They sit in silence for a while, Brett occasionally rubbing Aaron’s neck with his thumb and otherwise just staying still, watching the seagulls circle over the waterway and the landscaping stir in the breeze. The ridiculous amounts of money that go into creating these little peaceful oases almost make sense.

When Aaron speaks again, his voice is softer. His shoulders have dropped a little, too, maybe half the tension coming out of him. “I’m not doing anything for you, though. You’re not getting anything out of it.”

Brett traces the bumps of his vertebrae one by one. “Not gonna lie, I wouldn’t mind a beer.”

Aaron laughs, ducking his head. “Do I need to crawl to get it or is it okay if I stand up?”

“I only ask people to crawl on carpet. You can walk.” He gives another gentle squeeze to Aaron’s neck and then lets him go, settling back in the lounge chair while Aaron levers himself to his feet. “You can get a water for yourself, too.”

That gets a flicker of surprise on Aaron’s face, but he nods obediently and goes. Brett gives himself a minute of satisfaction, pulling his sunglasses down from his hair to cover his eyes and smiling at a couple of birds hopping around the patio stones. Not seagulls, something smaller and browner. He wishes they could give him a read on how this is going; he feels like he’s doing pretty well, but what the fuck does he know about it? All he can do is follow his instincts and stay committed to not doing any further harm than has already been done. That seems like it should be easier than it’s turning out to be.

Aaron comes back with a water in one hand and a beer in the other, and resumes kneeling without Brett having to say anything. Watching him lower himself to the cushion without spilling a drop is a little impressive and a lot more funny, the way he wobbles and his tongue pokes out again in concentration. “I actually would’ve held those for you, but good effort.”

“I gotta do something besides just sit here,” Aaron mutters, but he’s smiling, and it even reaches his eyes. Brett takes the beer from him and drinks, savoring the coolness in the heavy afternoon air.

They spend an hour or so sitting on the patio, talking about nothing in particular or sitting in silence—and Brett does let Aaron sit instead of kneeling, to give his knees a break. By the time Brett leaves, Aaron’s smiling and relaxed, following him to the door with a cheerful promise to bring him some kind of fancy organic snacks for the plane ride to kick off the next road trip.

Neither of them got anywhere near any kind of headspace the whole time, as far as Brett can tell. He starts to wonder on the drive home if maybe what Aaron actually needed from all of this was just a friend.

**

He keeps that thought tucked away in the back of his head on the roadie, trying to keep a closer eye on how the dynamic between them is playing out, as well as how Aaron gets along with the rest of the team. It’s easy to note his particular buddies—Yands, Weegs, Pysser—along with the way he relates to the other guys who have been around the longest, the ones that management highlights as the core—Barkov, Huberdeau, Trochek. (And the empty place where, as far as Brett can tell, Bjugstad had fit until the last trade deadline, but that’s fading out over time, the way it has to.)

It’s a four-games-in-eight-nights trip, which isn’t bad overall but means a lot of time bored in hotel rooms. They do a full team dinner the first night and plan another one for the end of the trip, but the rest of the time they splinter off into groups or do their own thing, with nobody seeming particularly concerned about anyone else as long as they all show up for bus call.

Monty’s not on this trip—back down in Springfield, poor kid—and Brett hasn’t heard about anyone else going out to scene clubs on the trip. The other doms on the team are pretty low-key, even the ones not married or partnered off. Brett can’t imagine going out to scene with Yands or Vatrano. Maybe Acciari, but it doesn’t come up, and Brett isn’t really feeling the whole anonymous hookup thing anyway right now.

So he’s spending his evenings in his room with his iPad and the TV. Things could be worse.

The third night, after their second game on the road, Ek catches him by the elevators when they get back. “You going out tonight?”

Brett shakes his head, digging through his pockets for his key card. “Gonna order room service and ice, I think.”

“How bad is it?” Brett had caught a ridge with a skate blade in the third; he hadn’t gone down the tunnel, but everyone on the team knew the soreness that came with that kind of bad stride.

“Not bad. Just annoying.” The elevator door opens and they step inside, Ek standing a little closer than would be neutral. “What about you, are you going out?”

“Nah.” Ek glances at him, mouth quirked in a tight smile. “You, um, you want some company for room service? I can probably find something to ice.”

Brett laughs and punches the button for the team’s floor. “You’re always welcome to hang out. And you don’t have to bring ice. Maybe cash to tip room service, though.”

“Got it.” He’s blushing a little. “I’m just gonna get changed, I’ll see you in a few.”

“Room six-fifteen.” They turn in opposite directions off the elevator and Brett hobbles to his room, where he strips down, pulls on sweats, and collapses into bed with the room service menu in one hand and the well-taped bag of ice he’d carried back from the post-game trainer’s room in the other. He can’t get too comfortable until Ek gets there, which is good, because he forgot to pick up the remote.

The ice has started to work by the time the knock comes at his door. Ek has cash in one hand and a bag from his organic grocery store in the other. “More snacks,” he says, waving the bag at Brett. “Appetizers, you know?”

“Works for me.” He nods at the menu and grabs the remote while Ek makes himself comfortable on the couch. “Did anybody go out or are we all taking it easy tonight?”

“I think Brownie and Stillman were going to try to find somewhere chill. There’s supposedly a sub bar near here. I’ve never been.” Ek shrugs and flips through the menu. “And Barky and Huby and Daddy went looking for somewhere to watch basketball.”

“Are Barky and Huby...” Brett trails off. “None of my business.”

Ek half-smiles, eyes still on the menu. “Everybody asks that. Jagr was obsessed when he was here, until he found out for sure.”

“So you’re not gonna tell me?”

That earns a laugh and gets him to look up. “Barky’s vanilla, yeah. Huby’s a switch and he’s just, like, easy for Barky. When he needs something else, he goes somewhere else to get it and Barky doesn’t mind.” He shrugs, still smiling a little. “It works for them. Does that bug you?”

“Definitely not.” Brett sits down on the edge of the bed. “I think people should do that. Whatever works for them, I mean. Who cares about roles and expectations and everything? Dating and sticking to dynamics and worrying about that stuff is exhausting, why put yourself through it if you find something else that works?”

Ek makes a vague sound of agreement and looks down at the menu again. “What do you think about, like, two doms being together? Either switching off or getting their dynamic met elsewhere or... or whatever?”

This is obviously some kind of a test, but Brett only has the one answer, right or wrong. “Same thing. People should do what works for them. Anything else isn’t worth it.”

Ek’s quiet for a minute, fingers worrying the edge of the page. “I think so too.”

Brett watches him, waiting for something to come next, but Ek clears his throat and tosses the menu at him, and the moment dies.

“Just order me whatever you’re having,” he says, not quite meeting Brett’s eyes. “I’m gonna wash my hands.”

Brett can be patient. He reminds himself of that, again, for maybe the five hundredth time since all this started. “Two chicken and pastas it is.”

They turn sitcom reruns on while they wait for the food, and keep watching while they eat, letting the dialogue and laugh track fill in the silence between them that keeps veering between awkward and peaceful. Brett knows that as the dom here, he should take the lead, make conversation, but he’s more comfortable with silence than strained small talk. And Ek doesn’t seem to mind, honestly; he doesn’t look tense or upset, just makes his way through his dinner and laughs at the right times during each episode.

Brett wipes his mouth and sets his plate back on the room-service tray, considering Aaron for a moment. “You want to kneel for a bit?” he asks. He keeps his voice neutral—it's an honest question, not trying to lead Aaron either way. “We’ve got time.”

“Oh!” He sits up straight on the couch, then smiles, the wide, crooked grin that Brett sees after good games and when they’re goofing off in the room, but hasn’t had directed at him much. “Yeah, sure, if you’re cool with it.”

“Sure.” Brett points at one of the pillows on the couch. “That should work, right? Bring it over here.”

Aaron sets up on the floor next to Brett’s chair, shifting a few times on the pillow before he finds a comfortable position. Brett rests his hand on Aaron’s head, smoothing his hair carefully until Aaron drops his chin and takes a deep breath.

“Good?” Brett asks, and Aaron nods, looking down at his knees and Brett’s feet. Brett is suddenly conscious of his toes, and wiggles them against the carpet, earning a little snort of laughter from Aaron.

He leaves his hand there, a gentle weight on Aaron’s head, and looks over at the TV again. It’s a different sitcom now, and he has no idea what’s going on, but it fills the space. He listens to Aaron’s breathing, letting his own fall in sync with it, and settles more comfortably in his chair.

He can tell that Aaron isn’t falling into any kind of headspace, and neither is he. They’re both relaxing, though, just finding their places in relation to each other. Just breathing, letting the moments pass. Like meditating, but with an awareness of the dynamics between them. Aware but not doing anything with them; letting Aaron’s body and the scared sub in the back of his head learn that they didn’t have to do anything with them. They could both just sit there.

The episode ends and rolls over into another one. Brett waits until the second commercial break before he clears his throat and flexes his hand, fingers sliding through Aaron’s hair again. “Okay?”

Aaron nods, looking up at him through his lashes without lifting his chin. “Yeah. Thank you.”

Brett smiles and shrugs, then gives in to impulse and brushes the back of his hand against Aaron’s cheek. “Any time. In fact, if you want to come by tomorrow night, you can.”

“We have a game tomorrow night.”

“After it, then.” Brett shrugs again. “If you want to.”

“Okay.” Aaron nods, ducking his head even further so Brett can’t see what this smile looks like. His voice sounds happy, though, like actually happy. Brett will take it.

Aaron gets to his feet carefully, hopping a little as he gathers up his stuff—“My foot fell asleep,” he says, laughing a little—and follows Brett to the door. Brett puts the room-service tray down and Aaron hops over it on his way out, which gets them both laughing and trying to keep it quiet in the hallway, even though it’s still early and they’re not likely to be disturbing anyone.

“See you in the morning,” Aaron says, grinning at him again before he moves off down the hall. Brett watches him go, fingers curled around the edge of the door, trying not to wonder too much about how much he’s really seeing and how much is in his head.

**

The game goes to shootout, and they lose, which means their second hotel room chill session isn’t quite as nice. Aaron’s tense and annoyed, the whole mood around him kind of brittle, and Brett opts not to push anything. They eat quietly, the TV turned to basketball this time, and when he pushes his plate away he says, “It’s up to you. I’m not going to fall asleep for at least an hour, so you can kneel if you want or you can go back to your room and I’ll read a book.”

Aaron stares at him for a minute, jaw tight. “What if I kneel and you read a book?” He shrugs at Brett’s look. “It might be easier, actually. If you’re not, like, paying attention to me. I don’t have to think about if I’m doing it right or not.”

“Were you thinking about that last night?” He had thought Aaron was calm, not stressing out about whether he was kneeling correctly, whatever that even meant.

Aaron shakes his head. “No. But I would be tonight, probably. I feel shitty and it’s not gonna work right if I think you’re really paying attention to me.”

That’s less than ideal for any kind of scening relationship, like... miles less than ideal. But on the other hand, Aaron is being honest with him, and that’s a really good thing. So Brett goes with it.

“Sure.” He stands up and goes to get his book out of his suitcase. “Get comfortable.”

The couch cushions wheeze softly as Aaron gets up and moves around. “What are you reading? Are you a history guy?”

“Sometimes. This is just a thriller, though. I picked it up... I don’t know, somewhere, a couple trips ago.” He’s only a few chapters in, and honestly he doesn’t remember much of what’s going on in it. “It’s one of the spies and nuclear weapons and assassins kind of deals. Brain candy.”

“Those are good for planes, yeah.”

Brett comes back to his chair and Aaron shifts the pillow he’s laid on the floor, finding a distance and angle from Brett’s body that’s apparently what he wants. He settles on his knees and closes his eyes, taking and releasing a few deep breaths in a controlled style he must have learned from a trainer. Or maybe it’s a yoga thing. Brett should ask him at some point if he does yoga, Holts and some of the guys back in DC were into some styles that really focused on core energy principles. The Caps subs swore by them.

“Should I read out loud or to myself?” he asks, and Aaron actually rolls his eyes a little, mouth twisting in a lopsided smile.

“To yourself, please. I hate being read to, I can’t follow audio stuff at all.”

“Got it.” Brett watches him for a minute, waits for him to close his eyes, then opens the book and looks for where he left off. There’s a long description of some kind of secret evil-science facility that he doesn’t remember at all, so he goes back to the beginning of it and reads it slowly, trying to picture it in his head.

He actually gets engrossed in how the undercover agent is going to escape the facility with the secret data chip, which can be triggered to self-destruct remotely if she doesn’t get out of range fast enough. He reads through two more chapters before he remembers to pause and check in on Aaron.

He’s kneeling with his hands resting on his thighs, eyes half-closed, breathing in a slow, even rhythm. Brett can tell at a glance that he’s not in subspace, still, but he’s in the comfortable headspace of some kind of meditation. His lips are moving slightly, like he’s reciting something under his breath or in his head, some kind of mantra or focus phrase.

Brett wants to touch him, but doesn’t want to startle him. He shifts a little in the chair and sees Aaron’s eyebrows dart up a bit in reaction, then stretches his legs out carefully so one is pressed up against Aaron’s side. Aaron leans into the touch, smiling a little, then goes back to reciting whatever it is, and Brett lets his eyes drop back to his book.

The spell is broken, though, and the next chapter is slow going that he can’t quite get lost in. He tucks his bookmark in and tucks the book between his hip and the side of the chair, giving himself a few minutes to just stare into space and listen to Aaron breathing. It satisfies something down deep in his gut, some kind of dominant instincts that are too embarrassing to acknowledge most of the time, to have a calm sub near him. Even if he isn’t doing anything to help make Aaron calm, even if he’s barely touching him except with one leg, it checks off the right boxes for his lizard brain.

He isn’t sure how long he sits there, but Aaron lifts his head again and blinks, then slowly raises his arms to stretch. “Conno?”

“Yeah.” Brett bumps him a little with his leg. “You all done?”

“I think so, if that’s cool.”

“Do you feel better?”

Aaron looks up at him and smiles, sweet in a way that cuts through Brett’s chest. “Yeah, I do. Thanks.”

“Of course.” Brett watches him for a minute, trying to look without staring. “Same time tomorrow?”

“For sure. I’d like that.” Aaron gets to his feet, hesitates a moment, then shakes his head. He checks his pockets for his key, gives Brett a half-wave, and goes.

It’s objectively not any more quiet in the room after the door closes than it was the whole time they were both just sitting there. It feels like it is, though. It feels a little lonely, too.

Brett goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth and tries to push all of that out of his head. There’s no reason to be ridiculous about any of it. He knows what’s going on and what he’s doing. Right now, what he’s doing is going to sleep so he can be on-point for a practice and travel day tomorrow. That’s all.

**

It’s like something out of a kids’ story: on the third night of hanging out in Brett’s hotel room, Aaron propositions him.

Okay, maybe most kids’ stories don’t go quite like that.

They’ve finished dinner and Brett is trying to decide if he wants to leave the TV on or turn it off for kneeling time when Aaron clears his throat.

“Hey, uh,” he says, looking at a point somewhere over Brett’s shoulder. “Can I ask you something?”

Brett lets go of the remote and nods, keeping his own eyes averted, too. “Sure, of course.”

“I was thinking…” A pause. “I mean. It’s not, like, normal, but I thought maybe…” A frustrated huff of breath. Brett glances at him now and sees that he’s bright red, jaw clenched tight. “Look, you can totally say no and I won’t be weird about it, but I think…”

It’s Brett’s turn to clear his throat. “Just say it. I promise I’ll take a minute before I react.”

Aaron takes a deep breath. “Do you want to have sex? But, uh. Not—not normal sex. Vanilla sex. Would that be okay?”

Good thing Brett promised to take a minute, because he definitely needs one. His eyebrows fly up toward his hair and heat blooms in his face, his breath catching in his throat. Oh.

Brett has never had vanilla sex in his life. There’s always at least been pinning his partner down, or tying their wrists to the bedposts, or… well, the closest he ever came to vanilla was a sub who didn’t like to be restrained but loved being bitten. He’d left bruises and marks over her whole body, and that was the closest to vanilla he’d ever been.

Aaron’s face is somewhere close to purple. “Like I said, you can say no!”

“I don’t want to say no.” He’s just not sure he can say yes. “What, um, what if I can’t make it good for you, though?”

Aaron blinks at him. “It’s not like I’ll know the difference, is it?”

“Jesus.” Brett takes a breath. “So you’ve never done vanilla either?”

“No. I mean, it’s just an idea I had. That like, I don’t feel okay about scening right now, or any dynamic stuff, but maybe if it was sex without dynamic stuff, like, with some boundaries, that would be… different.” He hesitates, licking his lips. “Does that make sense?”

“It does, actually.” He can definitely see how Aaron got there. He just isn’t sure he knows how to do that. He’s never made somebody come without either edging them or adding just the right kind of pain to send them over.

“So… can we try?” Aaron looks so hopeful, so vulnerable. Brett can’t just leave a sub hanging there like that. He’s got to at least try.

“If I’m really screwing up, tell me to stop, okay?” Aaron’s eyes light up and he nods. “I guess we probably can’t use safewords, so just… say stop, and I’ll know you mean it.”

“Okay. Yeah.” Aaron looks at the bed, then back to Brett. “So should I just…”

“I mean. We need to be naked, right?” Brett gets to his feet and tugs his t-shirt off. This isn’t anything new, but he sees Aaron’s eyes wander over his chest and arms before he pulls off his own shirt, and the look is admiring enough to light a fire in his gut. Always nice to know the other person isn’t just going to close their eyes and think of Canada.

When they’ve both stripped, Aaron sits down on the bed, looking back at it appraisingly. “Do you think, like… on my back? Or on my hands and knees?”

“I’m not just going to stick it in you dry.” Brett rubs his mouth, trying to think. “Let’s start with something easy.”

Aaron glances up at him, eyes wide. “Like what?”

“Can I kiss you?”

“Oh.” Aaron breathes out slowly. “Yeah, sure. I mean, please.”

Brett steps in close to him, studying his face—the way his eyes flick back and forth from Brett’s face to his chest to a place somewhere on the wall, the shiver of a twitching muscle at the corner of his mouth, the way the blush on his face blooms out at the edge of his beard. Brett cups his jaw in one hand, brushing his thumb over his lower lip, then leans in and presses their mouths together.

It’s an easy kiss, slow and reassuring, the kind he would do at the beginning of a scene with someone new while they were still exploring each other’s boundaries. And really, that’s what he and Aaron are doing now, isn’t it, except the scene is to not go into dynamic play. Skirt the edges but stay egalitarian in who was pushing on whom. Thinking of it that way helps, actually; Brett can see a clearer path for how to go about this.

They stay there for a long time, Brett standing and Aaron sitting at the foot of the bed, just kissing. Brett keeps his hand on Aaron’s jaw, but lets his other hand wander—smoothing over the back of Aaron’s head, resting on his shoulder, sliding down his arm. After a while, Aaron starts to explore, too, running his hands up and down Brett’s sides, settling them at his waist, letting them wander to his hips and even, finally, over the curve of his ass.

That’s where Brett breaks the kiss, gasping a little in surprise.

Aaron laughs, breathless and nervous. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah! Yes. You just surprised me.” A sub touching his ass unbidden is… well, yeah, surprising. Aaron really can do whatever he wants, here. “You want to, like, get all the way on the bed? We can both lie down?”

Aaron nods and scoots back up the mattress, stretching out on his side with his head on one of the pillows, facing toward the center of the bed. Brett mirrors him, watching his face carefully as he gets settled. He reaches for him, then thinks better of it—don’t grab, don’t take, don’t drive this, this time—and catches Aaron’s hand instead, threading their fingers together.

A flash of a grin, and Aaron draws their hands up to his mouth, kissing Brett’s knuckles. “This is okay, too?”

“Yeah. It’s different, but…” Brett licks his lips and leans in closer, not quite closing the gap to Aaron’s mouth. “But it’s okay, yeah.”

Aaron’s the one to cross the space and kiss, this time. It’s less exploratory, more hungry, and Brett gradually gets lost in the give and take of it. Aaron’s making little sounds, some of them frustrated and others eager, and Brett feels like he’s fallen into a rushing river, the way he’s not in control of this. Anything could happen, and he wouldn’t know.

It’s weird, and makes his stomach swoop in a giddy way. He doesn’t know what to do with this.

But Aaron doesn’t seem to be interested in pushing the limits, honestly. His hands wander over Brett’s body, even daringly brushing over his cock. “I want you to fuck me,” he says, his voice unsteady. “Can I, like, ride you? Would that be okay?”

Brett nods, trying to remember if his dopp kit is in his bag or in the bathroom—in and out of so many hotels, he isn’t sure which memory of moving it is the most recent. “Let me get the stuff, I’ll be right back.”

It’s still in his bag; he digs around and comes up with lube and a condom, and turns back to the bed to find Aaron kneeling up, reaching back to touch himself, brow furrowed in concentration.

Brett puts the lube on the bed next to Aaron’s knee. “You want me to do it, or are you good?”

“I got it.” Aaron flashes him a quick smile. “Just need a minute.”

Brett gets back on the bed and lies down on his back, head on the pillows. He strokes himself a few times, getting his dick fully hard, and then rolls the condom on, biting his lip at the sensation and how his hips want to jerk. Aaron’s making rough little sounds, and Brett can hear the slick sounds of the lube now as he fingers himself open. It makes him harder, and he digs his fingers into the flesh of his own thighs, trying to hold his discipline while he waits.

“Okay,” Aaron says, his voice unsteady. “I’m ready. Just… oh.” He looks at Brett and his breath catches, his eyes widening. “You’re ready, too, eh?”

Brett laughs breathlessly and nods, squeezing at the base of his dick. “Yeah. C’mere.”

Aaron knee-walks up the bed until he straddles Brett’s hips. He braces one hand on the headboard, looking down with a look of serious concentration. Brett moves to help him, and they figure it out together, lining him up so the head of Brett’s cock bumps against Aaron’s opening. Aaron flinches back a little and takes another breath, tilting his head back before he lowers himself down again, letting Brett push against him and then inside.

They both groan, Brett cutting the noise off sharply and Aaron fading into a low gasp. “Fuck,” he says after a moment, shifting over Brett, his gaze unfocused as he gets himself settled. “That’s…”

“Okay?” Brett asks, his hands fisted in the sheets with the effort of holding himself still and not bucking his hips and driving up into the heat of Aaron’s body.

“Yeah.” Aaron’s voice sounds far away, too. “Yeah, it’s…” He bites his lip and closes his eyes, chin ducking a bit, but before Brett can ask anything else he starts to move over him, slow and deliberate.

Brett tries to keep still, but it’s too much, and after a few minutes he reaches for Aaron’s hips, trying to keep his touch light and careful. “Can I?”

Aaron nods, teeth still worrying his lower lip. “Yeah, just—let me go slow a little more, I’m still…”

“Slow,” Brett echoes, nodding, and rolls his hips up with exquisite control, drawing every muscle tight. “Just tell me if I do anything wrong.”

“You’re good, you’re good,” Aaron mutters, eyes darting back and forth behind closed lids. “Fuck, just like that.”

That’s a clear directive, at least, and Brett follows it, repeating what he’s doing over and over again until Aaron’s head falls back and his mouth opens, rough little sounds emerging in the over-chilled air. “Just—like—that—” he gasps again, rocking down in counterpoint to Brett’s thrusts. “Please.”

Brett loses track of anything but the feel of their bodies moving together, until finally Aaron leans forward, bracing both hands on the headboard and gasping roughly. “Okay, okay, more, just… I’m close, I want to feel it, feel you, can you…”

It doesn’t make sense but Brett can catch the gist of it. He grips Aaron’s hips hard, enough to leave finger marks when they’re done, and drives up into him faster. Aaron groans, low and helpless in his chest, and drops one hand to jerk himself. When he said close he meant close, Brett realizes, his rhythm faltering as after just a few strokes Aaron comes hot and messy across Brett’s chest and stomach.

Aaron is heavy on top of him, sweaty and spent, but Brett isn’t quite there yet, still trying to get enough friction to put him over the edge. Aaron sees to catch on a beat late, and moves again, little rolls of his hips and a squeeze of his inner muscles. He looks wiped out, Brett thinks, looking up at his face contrast against the flat white ceiling, sweat running down from his temples and vanishing into his beard, high red spots on his cheeks, jaw almost slack.

Brett’s hips stutter and he comes, fingers dragging down Aaron’s hips in a way that would leave scratches if he didn’t keep his nails cut back to the quick. Instead there are white-on-red trails that will switch to red-on-pale as the flush fades in Aaron’s skin.

They sit there for a few moments, both breathing hard, sweat pooling and cooling on Brett’s chest and thighs. “I gotta,” he says finally, clearing his throat roughly. “Fuck, that was… but I gotta move.”

“Oh.” Aaron nods and eases off of him, gasping as he pulls off and collapses face-down into the pillows. He says something Brett can’t make out, too muffled, and Brett shuffles to the bathroom without trying to figure it out. He needs to take care of the condom and wipe himself down, and then maybe dunk his head under cold water in the sink until his brain comes back online.

He doesn’t go quite that far—just splashes some water on his face and wipes it off—before he gets a wet washcloth for Aaron and brings it back to the bedroom. He lays it carefully across his bare ass, so it looks absurdly like a little hat, and then goes over to the minibar for the little bottles of vodka and orange juice. They earned it.

Aaron is sitting up when he gets back to the bed with a drink for each of them, the sheets pulled up over his waist in an after-the-fact stab at modesty. Brett’s too spent to bother. Let it all hang out, why not, at this point.

They drink in silence, but Brett keeps catching Aaron glancing at him, eyes wide, the corner of his mouth jerking upward in a shy version of his crooked grin.

“You good?” Brett asks finally, rolling his glass between his palms. “You want to debrief on anything?”

“I think I’m good.” Aaron takes another sip and raises his eyebrows. “How about you?”

“I’m good, too. That was… different, for me, but…” He shrugs, feeling heat rise in his face despite himself. “I think we made it work.”

“Definitely.” Aaron laughs and downs the rest of his drink, then glances around the floor. “I guess I should get dressed and get out of here so you can sleep.”

“Same time tomorrow?” Brett asks, not even really thinking, just—impulse.

“Yeah, definitely.” Aaron grins, leaning past him to put the glass on the bedside table. “Hopefully we’ll be coming off a win, too.”

“Knock on wood if you’re gonna say that,” Brett says, rolling his eyes, and Aaron does, not just on the bedside table but on one of the chair backs before he pulls his clothes on and heads out the door.

**

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this time.

They get absolutely creamed, and it’s not even a case of matched efforts. For some reason the Panthers can’t get it together—can’t complete a pass, some of them apparently forget how to skate—and the Hawks just wipe the ice with them, up one side and down the other.

They troop down the tunnel to the dressing room after the third in eerie quiet, because it’s far enough into the season and they know better enough to know that Q is going to absolutely go ballistic as soon as the doors close.

Brett’s mostly focused on staring at the floor between his feet—that’s always the best place to look when a coach is going off—but he does manage a quick glance across to where the d-men are sitting. Weegs is sort of pressing his elbow against Ek’s side, which seems weird and kind of mean at first until Brett sees that Ek’s face is past white-as-a-sheet and into kind of grayish, and he’s shrunk back into his stall like maybe he can hide there. That elbow is the only point of contact Weegs can make without it being embarrassingly obvious to everyone that he’s trying to give Ek something to ground himself off of.

Q eviscerates them fairly quickly, honestly—he’s good at this, knows exactly how much to say. Brett doesn’t hear most of it, both because he knows the gist and doesn’t need to dwell on the details, and because he’s trying to watch Ek out of the corner of his eye. Ek is shaking by the time Q is done. Shit. Someone needs to do something before the media scrum starts.

The D apparently have it covered; Weegs sweeps him into the trainers’ room and Yands turns his personal volume up to eleven to cover the absence. There’s no question that Yands gives better quotes than Ek does, so the reporters are happy, and by the time Ek comes back to his stall looking calmer, they’ve all but moved on.

Brett’s pretty sure that the last few nights mean that it’s okay to at least check in. He lingers by the door to the dressing room until Yands and Ek move away from their stalls, then meets Ek’s eyes. “Hey.”

Ek gives him a wobbly, weak smile. “Hey.”

Yands looks back and forth between them and his eyes actually sparkle with delight. Brett can’t help but smile. The anxiety level in the Panthers locker room might be unbearable without Yands.

“If you can take over Ekky-sitting, I’ll leave you to it, man.” He slaps Brett on the shoulder and pushes past him. “Gonna see if I can get Kristyn on the phone before we get on the bus.”

Ek rolls his eyes. “That was less smooth than usual, even for him.”

“I’m flattered that I’m trusted to Ekky-sit.” Brett shoves his hands in his pockets and looks Ek up and down. “Are we still on for tonight?”

“Please.” The answer’s immediate and a little desperate. “I’ve sort of been counting on it. I mean, planning for it. You know.”

“Okay. I’ll order dinner?”

“Yeah. Just get two of whatever.” Ek looks over Brett’s shoulder and winces. “We better get moving. I’ll come up to your room as soon as I can.”

“No rush. I’ll be there.” Brett lets him go past, then follows along to the bus. They’re the last two on, and he braces for chirping, but it doesn’t come. He even gets a couple of smiles as he makes his way back to his seat.

“What’s everybody smiling at me for?” he asks Pysser as he folds himself into the seat behind his. “Do I have something on my face?”

Pysser tilts his head back and looks at him upside-down. “They’re just glad you’re helping Ekker out, man. He’s acting, like, sixty percent less like he’s going to go into the Everglades and try to get eaten by a gator since he started hanging out with you.”

“Wow, sixty percent. I’m a hero.”

Pysser snorts and puts his headphones on. “Don’t let it go to your head.”

Brett kicks the back of his seat and closes his eyes, zoning out for the ride to the hotel. It’s nice to go on autopilot, through the ride to getting the relevant bags off the bus again, through the lobby and up the elevators to his room, where he can change into sweats, stuff his suit back in its bag, and collapse in bed with the room service menu, which somehow manages to be functionally the same no matter what city they’re in.

He orders two plates of steak frites with vegetables and sparkling water, then lies there staring at the ceiling for a few minutes, trying to either find the willpower to do some deep breathing or to luck into leaving his body entirely and astral-projecting to Mars.

Tapping on his door snaps him out of it. He rolls out of bed and lets Aaron in, waving vaguely at the table and chairs. “Make yourself comfortable.”

“Could you help me with that?”

Brett belatedly realizes that Aaron’s holding his cuffs in one hand, unbuckled so he can see the soft lining on the inside. “Oh. Yeah, of course. Do you want to sit, or—”

“Is it okay if I kneel?” Another belated realization—Aaron looks nervous, and unsettled, and generally not at all over the mess in the locker room earlier. “Totally okay if you’d rather I not. I can sit. Or even just stand here, really, but, um, I think I’ll feel better if I have them on? And it’s… it’s always better for someone to put them on me than putting them on myself.”

“Of course you can kneel.” Brett digs deep, trying to project his most soothing dom energy. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Aaron sinks down, tilting his head back to bare his throat and holding his hands up toward Brett. The leather of the cuffs slides easily between Brett’s fingers as he takes them and orients them correctly, then sets them to Aaron’s wrists and buckles them in turn. “You want them fastened together, or not til after we eat?”

Aaron shrugs, face flushing red. “I mean, if you do it now you’ll have to feed me, I guess?”

Brett had thought he was too tired for anything to really kick in tonight, but that does, right in the middle of his chest. “I can do that.”

He guides Aaron’s hands behind his back and clips the cuffs together, taking an extra minute to double-check that they’re not too tight or catching any skin. He puts a pillow down for Aaron to kneel on by the table, then hesitates with his hand over the remote. “You want something on for background noise?”

Aaron shakes his head. “No, this is okay, I think.”

Brett fusses around the room a little more, not wanting to sit down until the food arrives, because if he lets himself settle in to the feeling of Aaron kneeling at his feet and cuffed, he might not want to get up and move again. This is what they’ve been working toward, basically; Aaron feeling comfortable submitting in Brett’s presence, comfortable turning himself over enough to be restrained. It’s a big deal—but he’s going out of his way not to let it seem like one, and Brett needs to follow that cue. He needs to be cool.

How he’s going to be cool while hand-feeding Aaron, he does not know, but that’s a dom’s lot in life.

The hotel employee who brings the food up doesn’t seem surprised in the slightest to see someone kneeling in Brett’s room; Brett tips her extra for the lack of a reaction. He holds Aaron’s drink to his lips first, then cuts up both steaks and sets the plates next to each other on the table so he can reach both easily from his chair. As soon as he sits down, Aaron’s chin is resting on his thigh, both distracting and a little painful, but maybe that’s good. It’ll help with the keeping cool part as he brings the first forkful of steak to Aaron’s mouth.

They eat quietly, Brett alternating between feeding himself and Aaron, steak-veggies-fry each and then switch, bringing Aaron’s drink to his mouth every few circuits. Aaron smiles up at him, lids heavy and gaze calm but still unquestionably present; he’s not going into headspace at all, which is the only thing keeping Brett from thinking that maybe he’s done all that he can do here, for him.

Not that he wants to send him away. He doesn’t want this to be over, exactly. He just wants to know that Aaron is feeling better, that he got back everything he’d lost.

He tries to push all of that way for now and enjoy the moment, enjoy the quiet little scene—because it is a scene—of feeding and petting a sweet sub who consents to be at his feet.

When they’ve both finished everything, he carefully wipes Aaron’s lips with a napkin, then pets his hair, smoothing it back from his forehead. “All good?”

Aaron nods, cheeks turning red. “Yeah. That was... that was really nice. Thank you.”

“You were really upset in the room earlier.” He keeps his voice low and soft, his touch steady. “But you’re doing great asking for what you need to feel better. I mean, looking at you right now, I wouldn’t know you were so upset before at all.”

It takes a minute before he answers. Brett can see him moving words around in his head, deciding on the best ones. “I feel safe here, with you,” he says finally, gaze dropping to the floor between Brett’s feet. “I was like, just gotta keep it together in the room and on the bus, because once I get back here and up to the room with him, it’ll be safe there. He’s not going to do anything I don’t want him to do.” He glances up again, a nervous flick of his eyes. “Sorry if that’s weird or—or too soft, or something. I know we’re not—”

“That’s, like, one of the most flattering things anybody’s ever said about me as a dom.” Brett smooths Aaron’s hair again, hoping his touch underlines what he’s saying. “Seriously, you saying you feel safe with me, I’m really glad to hear that. That’s all I want to do.”

Aaron’s shoulders drop a little in relief. “Can I ask for one more thing? If it’s too much, I get it. I’m okay now, I can take a no.”

“You’ve gotta ask me first,” Brett prompts. “Go for it.”

“Can I lie down with you?” He’s still talking to the floor. “Just lie down, not... not sex again, today, just... lie close and maybe fall asleep for a little while. I’ll go back to my own room, I promise, but—”

Brett carefully tilts Aaron’s chin up, covering his mouth with his palm. “Yeah, we can do that. And you don’t have to rush away, either. It’s fine.”

It’s nice, actually, but Brett doesn’t want to turn it into something with pressure behind it. They get in the bed and stretch out, Aaron pressed up close to Brett along one side, bodies touching almost from shoulder to knee. Brett undoes the catch holding the wrist cuffs together so Aaron’s arms won’t fall asleep and he can move a little if he needs to, and they just kind of—they really do just lie there for about ten minutes before either of them speaks.

Brett cracks first. “Is it okay if I turn the TV on?”

“Yeah.” Aaron makes a face, mouth twitching toward laughter. “That’s probably less weird than just staring at the ceiling.”

They watch a dumb action movie—it might actually be related to the one they saw in the theater before, but neither of them can figure it out for sure. They stay pressed close together, with Aaron even turning on his side facing Brett, putting even more of his body in contact. Not surprisingly, they both drift off to sleep. Maybe more surprisingly, they sleep all the way through til morning and Brett’s alarm going off on his phone.

“Oh. Shit,” Aaron mumbles, rubbing at his face while Brett half-falls off the bed trying to silence the phone. “How long til bus call?”

“Hour and a half, I think? At least an hour.” He pulls their schedule up on the phone, squinting at the lines of text. “Yeah, hour and a half. Thank god.”

“Can’t miss breakfast.” Aaron gets out of the bed and stumbles toward the bathroom, still rubbing at his eyes. Brett listens to him pee and wash up, feeling like this is more bizarrely intimate than it was to feed him steak frites by hand.

When he comes out of the bathroom again, Aaron looks a little more alert, if still disheveled. “Thanks for letting me stay,” he says, the blush threatening in his face again. “It was, um. It was really nice.”

“No problem.” There’s more Brett could say—he could say way too much, very easily—so he just tries for a smile and a shrug. “Any time.”

Aaron smiles back. “Careful. I might take you up on that.”

“Wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it.” Brett finally gets up, his bladder more insistent than his ability to keep up a faux-relaxed lounge in bed. “See you at breakfast?”

“For sure,” Aaron says, watching him for another moment before he turns to the door. “See you there.”

**

Aaron sleeps over in Brett’s room the next night too, the last one of the trip. They don’t talk about it, he just comes over for dinner and doesn’t leave, every night. He does set his own alarm after the first night, though, so he has time to go back to his own room and get ready for the day.

Somehow, none of their teammates notice what’s going on. Brett doesn’t know what he would tell them if they did. They’re all intensely nosy and he doesn’t know what kind of a label goes on what he and Aaron are doing at this point, or if one even exists.

They’re definitely not dating. They’re not casually scening, either, both because the kneeling would barely qualify as scening and because this doesn’t feel casual at all. Maybe Brett’s still providing informal free therapy, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore either. He’s in a little too deep for that.

There are a few moments when Brett tries to gather himself up to ask the question, or when he catches Aaron watching him with a serious expression that hints at things moving under the surface, but neither of them actually goes for it, and then before Brett quite realizes it, they’re landing back in Fort Lauderdale.

He climbs down the steps out of the plane, half-listening to everyone’s tired, sick-of-each-other half-conversations. He wants to get home, to his own bed and coffee maker and snacks. He wants to not set an alarm for the morning. He wants that exact quality of silence, without the eeriness of a hotel room.

It was a long trip, and he’s a little frayed at the edges even without directly addressing the shift of things between him and Aaron.

“Hey, Conno?”

Aaron’s voice stops him and he turns back. “Yeah? You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Glad to be home.” Aaron glances around, then takes a step closer to him. “I just wanted to say thanks, for letting me crash with you so much on the trip. I really appreciate it.”

He’s smiling, open and relaxed even with the dark circles under his eyes from exhaustion. “You don’t have to thank me. It was good. I mean, I liked it, too.”

“Okay, good.” Aaron laughs a little, looking down at their feet. “I’m gonna spend tomorrow being lazy, I think, but do you want to hang out later this week? My place?”

“Sure.” Brett shifts his bag higher on his shoulder. “I’ve gotta take care of some stuff, so I’m not sure when exactly, but yes, later this week. We’ll find a time.”

“Great. A little later might even be better, actually, I’ve gotta take care of stuff, too.” That has a hint of being up to something, but Brett’s too tired to pry.

“Let’s get out of here, eh?” He nods toward the bus that will take them back to the arena and their cars. “I really need to be asleep.”

**

They end up not getting together til Friday afternoon after video review. Brett arrives to find a box waiting on Aaron’s porch, and scoops it up to bring in with him. The return information and the logo on the cardboard proudly announce that it’s an order from Nightshade & Lash, one of the fancier high-end leather designers, which is a little surprising. Maybe it’s a good sign, though, if Aaron’s going out ordering stuff for himself. He must be feeling good to be willing to do that.

Aaron opens the door and Brett drops the box into his hands. “Mail call.”

“Oh, thanks.” He spots the logo and clutches the box to his chest, glancing at Brett wide-eyed. “Um. Sorry.”

Brett waves him off and heads for the kitchen. “I’m not in charge of your purchases, man, you know that. Can we do smoothies again?”

“Yeah, definitely. Be right there.” Brett can hear him popping the tape on the box, and lets him have his privacy with it. He gets the blender plugged in instead and digs around in the cabinets for glasses. Smoothie time is important.

“Fruit, not kale,” he says when Aaron finally comes in, hands empty.

“Too much sugar.” Aaron gets the fruit out of the freezer anyway—enough for both of them, too. “But I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“That’s right.” Brett offers him a fist-bump and steps back to let him work. “How late did you end up staying for drills yesterday?”

“God, we were there an extra hour. Matty just couldn’t get it, I don’t know what was going on there.”

Talking shop is comfortable and distracting. Brett leans against the counter and watches Aaron’s hands at work, noting that he isn’t wearing his cuffs, and then letting his eyes wander to see that his shoulders are relaxed, his body moving easily. Definitely feeling better than where he was the first time Brett came over.

Helping somebody isn’t something to be proud of, Brett knows; it’s just baseline not being a dick. But he’s still glad he could help. He’s glad Aaron’s doing better and glad he was part of it. Hopefully that doesn’t cross any lines.

Hopefully it doesn’t cross any either to be kind of sad when he realizes that this will probably be over soon. When Aaron’s feeling a little more solid in himself they’ll still be friends, Brett’s pretty sure, but it won’t be the same. The boundaries will be different, and Aaron will probably find a regular partner, and—

He jerks himself back into the moment, shaking his head a little. Just wait for your damn smoothie and be normal, Brett. None of this is about you.

“You okay?” Aaron asks. “You just kinda zoned out for a minute.”

“Yeah, it’s nothing.” Brett puts on his smile and nods at the blender. “You going to pour those or what?”

“I’m working on it,” Aaron says, rolling his eyes, but he’s smiling as he switches the blender off. Brett boosts himself up to sit on the counter, swinging his legs in slow arcs. They’ll still be friends, he reminds himself. It’s good to have friends. Good for both of them, actually. He can officially become part of the locker-room crew who watches Aaron’s back and threatens new teammates who might step wrong around him. It’ll be fun.

“Cheers,” Aaron says, handing him his smoothie. They clink glasses and Brett drinks, fast enough to give himself a burst of a headache.

“So,” he says after a few minutes, when they’re both standing there idly looking into their glasses. “What do you want to do today? Anything in particular?”

“I did have an idea, actually.” Aaron reddens a little. “Only if you want to, obviously. I mean, you’re in charge.”

“Give me the details first.”

“Well. Um.” Aaron fidgets with his glass, not looking at Brett. “Maybe you could give me some, like, tasks to do? Either actual service stuff or just, like, go get something from the other room but I have to crawl the whole time. Stuff like that.”

Brett nods, turning the idea around in his head. It’s a really good step at this point, actually—submission without pain or sex. Aaron really does know what he needs, he just was looking for someone to give him permission to do it. “That works for me for sure.”

“Yeah?” Aaron darts a glance at him, then smiles. “Okay. What first?”

Brett snaps his fingers and points at the floor in front of him. “Come kneel, first, eh? Let’s get the mood right.”

“Oh!” Aaron hurries over and drops to his knees, hands behind his back and head bowed. With Brett sitting on the counter, his feet are swinging level with Aaron’s face, and he curls them back, pressing the soles flat to the paneling so he won’t accidentally kick him.

He leans down to stroke Aaron’s hair, then sighs, because the position is absurd and going to wrench his hips out of place if he holds it for long. “Let’s go to the couch. Crawl with me.”

Aaron follows him obediently, and Brett ends up walking sideways so he can watch him as he goes. Crawling is inherently awkward, but it always gets him down deep in the gut when a sub does it at his orders. He needs to make Aaron crawl ahead of him next time, so he gets the full effect of his ass and hips in motion. Maybe he can work that into the tasks for this.

He sprawls on the couch and Aaron kneels between his splayed thighs, chin resting on the edge of the couch cushion. He closes his eyes when Brett starts petting his hair again, and Brett hums in approval, watching the relaxed lines of his neck and shoulders as he settles in.

He runs one finger down the bridge of Aaron’s nose, from forehead to tip, which makes him squirm and smile. “You’re doing so good,” Brett says quietly. “You’ve made huge strides. I don’t want to sound like a coach here, but... I mean, that’s the only way I know how to phrase things.” They both laugh a little at that, and Aaron tilts his head to the side, resting it against Brett’s inner thigh. “And I meant what I said about how much it means that you trust me.”

Aaron licks his lips and glances up at him, a quick may I speak? look that Brett returns with a nod. “I feel a lot better. I mean, I know I still freaked out after that one game, but... believe it or not, that wasn’t as bad as it’s been before.”

Brett nods, and opens his mouth to say something else, but Aaron keeps going. “You know, the other day Q called me in after practice, and I was—Boogie called me in a few times on my own and he didn’t do anything I didn’t agree to but it was still—I mean, whipping boy is supposed to be for the team, but the team wasn’t there, so it was just for him, and I—”

Brett’s jaw tightens, but he keeps petting, keeping up careful steady contact.

“I wanted to help him,” Aaron says finally. “I did, so much, I just wanted to help, but it was a lot to... to hold on to, you know? A lot to carry.”

“You shouldn’t have had to do that,” Brett says quietly, and leaves it at that. The rest is too much for right now.

Aaron presses his head harder against Brett’s thigh. “So Q calls me in and I’m like oh, fuck, I’m out of practice at this, I’m not gonna be able to give him what he needs, this is going to be awful. But he really did just want to talk to me. He told me how good I’m doing.” He shakes his head a little, and Brett curls his fingers in his hair, tugging a little in silent reassurance. “I was staring at him, like, with my mouth open, and I actually said ‘That’s it?’ and he rolled his eyes at me and told me to go lift some weights.”

Brett laughs out loud, despite himself. “That sounds about right.”

“It’s better, is my point, I guess.” Aaron takes a breath and turns his head quickly, pressing a kiss to Brett’s thigh just at the hem of his shorts. “Everything feels a lot better.”

“I didn’t do all of that,” Brett points out. “I did like three things.”

“Way more than three.”

“Still, not everything. That’s, the whole rest of it, that’s you.”

Aaron meets his eyes. “I couldn’t have done it without you though. Please don’t try to take that away.”

And that’s—what’s Brett supposed to do with that?

He tightens his fingers in Aaron’s hair again, pulling him up, and Aaron comes easily, climbing up onto the couch and straddling Brett’s lap. Brett pulls him into a kiss, hungry and searching, keeping up a steady tug at his hair that makes Aaron groan into his mouth.

When he lets Aaron pull away, they’re both breathing hard. “That box you brought in,” Aaron says, meeting Brett’s eyes again, his own bright as a fever. “I want... it’s something I got for you, sort of. I want you to see it.”

Brett nods and lets go of him. “Go get it. Crawl.”

His ass does look good crawling away. Brett’s going to remember that.

Aaron comes back with the tissue-paper-wrapped contents of the box in his mouth, held carefully with his lips covering his teeth, brow furrowed in concentration. Brett leans forward to take it from him and Aaron stays on his hands and knees, breathing roughly as he watches Brett pull the paper away layer by layer until he gets down to the leather.

It’s a collar, oxblood-brown with gold fittings, stamped with the Nightshade & Lash logo beneath the heavy ring waiting for a leash or restraint. Brett runs it between his fingers, admiring the suppleness of it, the weight, and not quite letting himself jump ahead to think about what it means.

He needs to be sure of that before he can let himself get carried away by it.

“You want me to put this on you?” he asks quietly, looking at Aaron again.

Aaron is all but shaking, a dozen different emotions flickering across his face while he fights all of them, trying to stay a blank and impassive model sub. Brett’s never asked him to be that; Brett doesn’t even like that. He reaches out and catches Aaron’s chin in one hand, rubbing his thumb across his lower lip. “Talk to me.”

“I... yeah. I do.” He licks his lips, tongue brushing against Brett’s thumb. “Not, like, a commitment collar. I know that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But... a scening collar? For when we’re doing stuff?” He takes a breath and meets Brett’s eyes. “Would that be okay?”

Brett lets go of his chin and takes the collar in both hands, turning it until it’s oriented the right way. “This is going to look so good on you,” he says, setting it to Aaron’s throat and sliding the end into the buckle. It fits perfectly, snug against Aaron’s throat but so soft it won’t leave a mark. Brett turns it carefully so the ring is under Aaron’s chin, then hooks his finger through it and tugs just a little bit, enough to cue Aaron to come back up into his lap.

Once he’s there, Brett wraps his arms around him, close and claiming. “I think I can work with this.”

Aaron nods, eyes half-closed, warm and pliant in Brett’s arms, and Brett forgets everything he was going to ask him to do. The scene is changed to collared cuddling, and there are no objections.

**

They both want to keep things discreet for a while—not because they don’t trust their teammates, but because their teammates are nosy as hell and will definitely be obnoxious about this. “Yands will throw a party,” Aaron says, in the same tone of voice someone might say Yands will set the building on fire. “I think having a little more time would be good. Maybe they’ll figure it out on their own anyway.”

Brett isn’t so sure about that—they're nosy, but they’re not particularly observant or smart. Still, it makes sense, and he’s not really big on drama. He goes over to Aaron’s place a couple times a week, after practices or games. He puts Aaron’s collar and cuffs on him, makes him kneel, gives him some service tasks to do. They do more hand-feeding. There’s a lot of cuddling, and a decent amount of making out. It’s starting to look like a regular relationship, just about, and Brett’s comfortable in it. As far as he can tell Aaron is, too.

Neither of them brings up having sex again, but the idea is kind of hovering in the air all the time, a third party in the room that holds part of Brett’s attention all the time. He gets hard sometimes during their scenes or makeouts; he knows that Aaron does, too. They just kind of... don’t acknowledge it. That won’t work forever.

Brett knows he needs to be the one to make a first move in that direction, and that it needs to be the right move so he doesn’t scare Aaron right out of the room. Aaron definitely finds sex less alarming than any kind of pain or punishment play—Brett doesn’t have any plan to bring either of those up more or less ever—but still. It’s an escalation. It needs to be handled with some care.

He makes his move after a game they won, when they’re both loose and happy. They get dinner before going back to Aaron’s place, so they’re also well-fed, have had a little wine, and have no distractions from the rest of their night.

Aaron drops to his knees as soon as they close the front door, and Brett laughs as he takes his shoes off. “You can change out of your suit first.”

“Oh.” Aaron makes a face and gets up again, turning toward the stairs. “You brought your stuff? You can change wherever.”

“On it.” He brought a t-shirt and basketball shorts, neither attractive nor particularly dommy, but comfortable. He changes there in the entryway, leaving his suit hanging over the stairway railing, and then goes to the couch.

Aaron joins him a few minutes later, similarly dressed, carrying his cuffs and collar in his hands. He kneels and offers them up, and Brett takes his time buckling them all in place as usual, making sure everything is snug and nothing is pinching before he brushes Aaron’s hair back and kisses his forehead.

Aaron wiggles a little in place, eyes closed. “You did so good tonight,” Brett says, his voice low. “That blocked shot in the second. You took it square and shook it off like it was nothing.” There’s probably a good-sized bruise under Aaron’s t-shirt from it, but Brett doesn’t need to go looking just yet. One step at a time.

“Thank you,” Aaron says, pressing his cheek against Brett’s knee.

“That giveaway to Svechnikov, though.” Brett tugs a little at Aaron’s hair. “I’ve seen you catch yourself before, before that happens. I know you can do better.”

That earns an unhappy twist of his mouth, but he doesn’t flinch. It’s miles away from where they started. “I’ll work harder next time.”

“Good boy.” Brett pets him a little more. “Crawl to the kitchen and get me a beer.”

Aaron goes, quickly enough to show he’s being good and slowly enough to give Brett a nice view as he crosses the room. Brett drums his fingers on the couch while he waits, silently asking whatever higher power looks out for doms and subs who are taking it slow to let this go smoothly. He doesn’t want to freak Aaron out. He doesn’t want to set anything back.

There’s no way to crawl while carrying a beer bottle that wouldn’t endanger Aaron’s teeth, so he knee-walks back into the room with it, shooting Brett an apologetic glance. Brett accepts the bottle with another kiss and Aaron settles between his thighs again, watching as he drinks.

Brett smiles down at him. “You want to do something else for me?” Aaron nods eagerly, pressing closer, and Brett takes a deep breath, letting himself enjoy the anticipation for just a moment before he says, “Can you jerk off for me? Right here?”

Aaron’s eyes widen, and Brett braces himself to need to backtrack or apologize, but then Aaron licks his lips and nods, shifting his knees a little wider. He brings one hand to the front of his sweats and runs his palm slowly over himself, a light tough through the fabric, his eyes on Brett’s face. Brett hopes that his approval is written there, his hunger and eagerness, because he wants this, wants to see Aaron do this for him, and feel good for him. There must be enough of it there, because Aaron bites his lip and slips his hand into his sweats next, guiding himself out of them and exposed to Brett’s eyes.

“So good,” Brett murmurs, leaning forward so he can see better, see everything. “Going to let me see you get hard? That’s for me, isn’t it?”

Aaron nods, hand moving slowly over himself, just teasing really. His other hand cups his balls, playing with the delicate skin with the tip of his thumb, and Brett takes a slow, deep breath. He’d been afraid this might be awkward, or feel strained and staged, but it’s intensely intimate, the world narrowing to the two of them and the handful of square feet they’re taking up in Aaron’s living room.

“So good,” he repeats, as Aaron’s cock gets harder and he touches himself with more purpose. Thumb sliding over the head, moving the foreskin gently; palm sliding easily over the length and curling around the curve of it. Brett wants to get closer, wants to put his mouth on it, taste the salt at the tip and feel under his tongue as the blood fills it up and makes it flush darker. He lets himself imagine for just a minute—Aaron on the St. Andrew’s cross, cuffed at wrists and ankles, Brett sucking him off slow and torturous while he can’t do anything but moan.

He pushes the thought away; later, someday. Right now he can focus on the way Aaron’s eyes are closed, his teeth worrying at his lower lip, and his hand is moving in a steady rhythm that lets Brett see exactly how he likes it. He files that away for later, too, watching how Aaron’s abs tense and release as sensations roll through him, rising toward the edge and then pushing himself back.

Brett thinks about telling him to stop, making him wait until later to come, but this is the first time they’ve tried this and Aaron looks so good, so at ease with himself and Brett’s gaze. Brett clears his throat instead, giving Aaron a beat to focus his attention, and then says, “Come for me.”

Aaron groans, face flushing dark, and in a few more strokes he obeys, spilling over his hand and the floor. Brett reaches out, catching him by the shoulders and pulling him in close enough to kiss, rough and claiming, before he brings Aaron’s hand up to his mouth and licks it clean. That’s claiming, too—Aaron is his, this orgasm was his, the bitter taste of come and the sweat on Aaron’s palm.

“Do you—” Aaron’s voice is breathless. “Should I blow you?”

Brett shakes his head, dragging in a deep breath and resting their foreheads together. “I’m gonna wait. Save it for next time.”

That earns a rough laugh. “I didn’t think doms ever had to wait.”

“It’s not punishment. Just ramping up anticipation.” He kisses Aaron again and settles back on the couch, patting his thigh. “C’mon up here.”

Aaron climbs into his lap and rests against him, heavy and warm. “You’re so good at this,” he says in Brett’s ear. “Like, the ultimate sensitive new-era dom.”

Brett has to laugh at that, wrapping his arms around Aaron’s waist and holding him securely. “I guess. That wasn’t, like, a goal, but I like the idea of being an ultimate something.”

“What, um.” Aaron tenses a little, just barely enough to feel, and Brett rubs his back slowly. “What do you want to do, when I’m ready? Like. Do you have a fantasy about me?”

“Oh, jeez.” Brett tips his head so they’re looking at each other. “I’ve got a bunch of them.”

“Tell me about one.”

“Hmm.” He lets his hands slide down to rest on Aaron’s ass. “Put you up on the cross and suck your cock. That’s one. Get you a harness and ankle cuffs and a spreader bar, so I can put you in different restraint positions and see how long you can hold them for me. And then suck your cock.”

Aaron laughs against his shoulder. “That’s nice of you.”

“Well, I’m the ultimate sensitive new-era dom, right?” He squeezes Aaron’s ass a little. “Is there something else you want?”

“Those sound really good.” Aaron’s voice is soft, a little sleepy. “You don’t want to do any flogging or spanking or anything? Eventually, I mean. I’ll probably get there eventually.”

Brett shrugs. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“You’re sure? I don’t want to, like. Deprive you.”

Gotta nip that in the bud. “Aaron. I’m not going to break your boundaries. You don’t want to do pain stuff? We won’t do pain stuff. Trust me, watching you be good for me really, really works. I bet you’ll be gorgeous in restraints. I don’t want to break you. I want to play. Okay?”

Aaron sighs against his neck, but nods, and Brett can feel his muscles relaxing, turning his body into dead weight holding Bret to the couch. “Okay. It’s a good game.”

Brett smiles and presses a kiss to his shoulder. “Second-best after hockey?”

Another huff of a laugh. “Yeah. Let’s go with that.”

**

A few weeks later, they beat New Jersey in overtime, with Brett taking first assist on the game-winning goal. He gets the usual amount of celebratory tape thrown at his head in the room, second behind Vatrano, who actually scored the thing.

He’s sitting at his stall, laughing and enjoying the adrenaline buzz, sitting in his boxers post-shower and watching Acciari dancing—it can charitably be called dancing—to the victory mix that’s come together over the course of the season. The press is long cleared out, the coaches are gone, it’s just the team and the equipment crew letting themselves move slowly enough to catch a breath for once.

Yands is talking to Aaron, and Brett watches them from across the room, admiring the lines of Aaron’s neck and back as droplets of water run down from his hair. Aaron laughs at some part of Yands’ bullshit, bright and loud, and Brett smiles to himself, turning back to his stall to find his socks.

When he looks up again, Aaron’s making his way across the room to him, holding a now-familiar bundle of dark leather in his hands. Brett tilts his head—it was a good game, he wouldn’t expect Aaron to need his wrist cuffs tonight. “You okay?”

Aaron grins at him and holds out his hands, and Brett realizes it’s not just his cuffs but the collar, too, neatly rolled up from where he had them stored in his bag. “I’m great. Will you?”

Brett takes them automatically, and Aaron sinks to his knees, holding out his wrists and baring his throat. The room goes quiet gradually, conversations cutting off in a spread outward as people notice what’s going on.

Well. This isn’t how Brett had imagined telling the team, but apparently Aaron had a dramatic streak after all. He’s still grinning, looking at Brett with happy, hopeful eyes. Maybe it just felt right, tonight. Maybe it means a lot that he’s following an impulse, here in the room. Maybe he’s taking the room back.

Brett doesn’t know for sure, and looking at Aaron’s face, it doesn’t matter anyway.

He buckles the cuffs in place first, left and then right, then leans in to put the collar on. “I take it we’re going home together?” he asks, right against Aaron’s ear.

“If you want me,” Aaron says promptly, tilting his head again so Brett can do up the buckle easily.

He slips the tongue through the loop and lifts Aaron’s chin with his free hand, pressing a solid kiss to his mouth. That’s his answer.

Yands’ whoop is loud enough to make them both wince, just before the rest of the room erupts in catcalls and applause.

“Give that man a no-trade clause,” Yands calls, throwing his towel in their direction. “Panthers mate for life!”

“Fuck off, that’s not even true,” Aaron says, but he’s grinning, too. “Don’t make it weird, guys.”

“Aw, Ekky.” Weegar reaches over to tousle Aaron’s hair. “You know us, we’re your team. We’re always gonna make it weird.”

Brett tugs lightly at Aaron’s collar, and their eyes meet. He smiles and shrugs, then leans in to kiss him again. “Can’t argue with that.”