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    Leon was pretty sure that most people don’t meet the loves of their lives when they’re eighteen. There are the exceptions, of course, and Leon even knows a few who met in a high school English class and asked to borrow a pencil or something and then that was it. But for most people, they need time to grow into themselves and get to know who they are before they meet the loves of their lives. Leon knew that had he been in a relationship when he was still in the WHL it wouldn’t have lasted into his twenties. He certainly didn’t think that Matthew Tkachuk of all people would have met the love of his life when he was eighteen.

    It’s an accident that Leon found out about Joe. He was returning to his hotel room for the 2020 All-Stars Game, having drank a little too much and wanting to get a few hours of sleep after staying out a little too late. Connor’s voice acted as his consciousness, reminding him that he wasn’t nineteen anymore, besides, it was his second All-Stars Game and he didn’t feel the need to absorb every single moment of the weekend the way he had the first time around. He took the elevator to the ninth floor where about a third of them were staying and headed for his room. As the elevator doors opened, though, he saw Matthew Tkachuk near his own room, holding a man’s hand.

    Matthew dropped the other man’s hand as though he’d been electrocuted, but it was too late. Leon had already seen them holding hands and Matthew had caught him looking. 

    “See you tomorrow,” Leon said politely as he fiddled with the key card to open his door. He hadn’t seen that one coming, but he was pretty sure that most people didn’t think that was either and he knew that public relations carefully crafted their narratives to give the impression that they were all straight to the public. 

    “Can we talk?” Matthew asked with a nervousness etched on his face. He’d been outside Leon’s door almost as if he was trying to ambush him before he could tell anyone.

    “Yeah,” Leon said, he pushed the door open and allowed Matthew to come in. He already anticipated what Matthew wanted to talk about, after he’d been caught the night before. 

    “So, what you saw…” Matthew started. 

    “I didn’t see anything that you didn’t intend for me to see,” Leon said, “I haven’t told anyone and I’m not going to tell anyone either.”

    “I just- Is it going to be a problem today?” Matthew asked. 

    “What? That you like guys? No, it’s not a problem,” Leon asked, “It would be pretty hypocritical of me anyways.”

    Matthew’s eyes widened, “Are you-?”

    Leon nodded, “You’re not the only one.” And maybe, it was because they weren’t friends, or maybe it was because Leon had already told a couple of hockey people that it was easy for Leon to tell Matthew his own secret. 

    “I didn’t know,” Matthew said.

    “I wasn’t exactly planning on telling you,” Leon rolled his eyes, “But I could tell that you were worried, so there’s that. Now you know I definitely won’t tell anyone about you.”

    “I won’t, either, you know,” Matthew said and smiled softly. For the first time, Leon didn’t see the annoying, thorn-in-the-side opponent that he was used to facing across the ice, “Joe said you’d be okay with it.”

    “Is that…?”

    “My boyfriend?” Matthew asked, his face lighting up and his eyes crinkling in happiness as he said the word, “Yeah, we’ve been together for almost three years now.” 

    “Wow, uh, congratulations,” Leon said.  

    “Maybe we should start a club,” Matthew said as he gestured towards Leon’s phone to enter his number and start a WhatsApp group. Leon handed it over because even if it was Matthew Tkachuk, it was nice to have someone who understood. Connor would listen to him and nod appropriately, but he didn’t understand what it was like to be a gay man in the NHL. 

    “What? ‘Closeted NHL Players’?” Leon asked sarcastically as he looked at Matthew’s added contact information. 

    “I was thinking of a flashier name, but we can work on it,” Matthew said. 

    A few hours later, Leon received a WhatsApp notification and saw that their channel’s name had been changed by Matthew. NHL goes Gay.

    Leon: Great, I hate it.

    Matthew: :P

 

    Maybe it was because they had eschewed the traditional way of making friends with small talk and pleasantries and gone straight for knowing each other’s deepest secret that they were able to discard team loyalties so easily. Feeding Matthew the puck to set him up for a beautiful goal seemed natural and when Matthew passed it back to Leon, allowing him the glory of an All-Stars goal. 

    Leon just rolled his eyes as Matthew skated back to the bench, grinning widely and smirking. Some things never change. 

 

    Matthew: Not bad for two gay guys. 

    Matthew messaged him with the photo of their winning team at the All-Stars Game holding the large check. Leon rolled his eyes but smiled. He knew that if it ever came out that both he and Matthew were gay, all of their accomplishments would be with a caveat. 

    Leon: Why does Connor look so fucking miserable?” Leon asked.

    Matthew: I heard that’s what Edmonton does to you…

    Leon: Fuck you. Like Calgary’s any better.

    Matthew: Come to Calgary, I’ll show you.

    Leon: Calgary couldn’t handle the two of us

    Matthew: Probably not.

    Leon: But, damn, we were good out there together

    Matthew: Should I leak that to the press ‘Leon Draisaitl doesn’t actually hate Matthew Tkachuk’?

    Leon put his phone away, but smiled. It was kind of nice to have someone outside of his family and Connor know. And out of everyone Matthew could probably understand things better than anyone else. 

 

    They were set to play each other in Calgary two weeks later and there was a certain dullness to the rivalry that had come about this time around. Sure the teams were still rivals and Leon still wanted to win, but the agitation he usually felt in the days leading up to the Battle of Alberta especially towards Matthew wasn’t as acute. 

    Matthew: Want to grab dinner afterwards?

    Leon: You’re willing to be seen with an Oiler

    Matthew: It’s my charitable deed for the month.

    Leon: Loser buys?

    Matthew: Duh. 

 

    Edmonton won and Leon was riding high as he headed for the locker room. “Still on for tonight?” Matthew asked in the hallway.

    “Yeah, I’m not turning down a free meal,” Leon said.

    “Okay, let me just get changed and we can head out.” 

    “Since when are you and Tkachuk friends?” Zack Kassian sneered.

    “It’s an All-Stars thing,” Leon said, “You wouldn’t know, turns out we have more in common than we thought.” 

    Zack’s face scrunched up but then he broke out into a grin and laughed, “Have fun, then.”

    “I will,” Leon said as he headed to the showers to hurry up and get changed. 

 

    Matthew was waiting for him when Leon finished showering and answering a couple of media questions.

    “You’re in a surprisingly good mood for someone who just lost,” Leon noted.

    “I can be in a bad mood about it tomorrow. And don’t get me wrong, I’m really pissed off that we lost, but I’m really happy to be hanging out with you.” 

    “Just us?” Leon asked. 

    “Yeah, why?” Matthew asked. 

    “I wasn’t sure if your boyfriend was coming,” Leon said. 

    Matthew shook his head, “Joe usually doesn’t come to the games anyways, only the really important ones.”

    “The Battle of Alberta isn’t an important one?” Leon asked.

    “Not to someone who doesn’t care about hockey,” Matthew said. 

    “You’re dating someone who isn’t a hockey fan?” Leon asked. 

    Matthew laughed as he drove, “I know, it’s a shock, but I probably would never have the courage of dating someone who was a hockey fan. I was so fucking scared of being outed at the beginning of my career if I dated anyone who recognized me, I’d have probably bolted.”

    “How did you guys even meet?”

    Matthew smiled as he recalled the memory, “My rookie season, I was kind of questioning things so I went to this gay bar on the outskirts of Calgary. I was practically shitting myself the whole time and then this guy comes up to me. At first, I thought he recognized me and then he asked what my name was and if I was a college student so I thought he might not know who I was.”

    “It was Joe?” 

    “Yeah, so I asked if he was a hockey fan and he honest to god said, ‘I couldn’t give less of a shit about the NHL.’”

    Leon laughed, “Sounds like love at first sight.”

    “It wasn’t,” Matthew said, “But he was someone who was safe and I was able to explore things. I kind of went into this thinking ‘I might find someone to mess around with for a couple of months’ but I wasn’t expecting it to stick.”

    “I’m glad it worked out for you,” Leon said. 

    Matthew glanced over at him, “Would you imagine us being this way a few months ago?”

    “No,” Leon said, “But I didn’t know much about you then.”

    They grabbed dinner at a casual restaurant with barbecue unlike any that Leon had had outside of Nashville. For a moment as they were sitting down, Leon wondered if from the outside it looked like a date, but he quickly pushed that thought away. Just because two gay- albeit closeted- guys were grabbing a dinner didn’t make it seem like a date. 

    “I usually get the ribs here, but pretty much anything is good,” Matthew said after briefly glancing at the menu.

    “I guess that’s what I’ll get too,” Leon said and followed suit when the waiter came to take their orders. 

    They filled the waiting time with easy conversation about the season and catching up about their families. Matthew lit up as he updated Leon about Taryn and Brady. 

    “Do they know?” Leon asked.

    “Yeah,” Matthew grinned, “Everyone who matters knows.”

    “And me,” Leon said.

    “Well you matter too,” Matthew said easily and Leon wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, thankfully he was spared when their food came with heaping plates of ribs and macaroni and cheese to go along with it. 

    “Oh my god,” Leon moaned as he licked the sauce off of his fingers, “This is the best barbeque that I’ve ever had.”

    “You should try St. Louis barbeque sometime,” Matthew said, “This is good, but there’s nothing like St. Louis barbeque. There was a place, hmm, about four hours away from my house that they featured on Queer Eye and it was so fucking good.”

    “You watch Queer Eye?” Leon smirked.

    “They were in Kansas City,” Matthew said, “I had to support my home state and you know, wholesome gay media.”

    “Next time we play the Blues what should I order?”

    “Okay, so you should order St. Louis ribs, they’re different from regular ribs, and gooey butter cake for dessert.”

    “That sounds like it breaks every nutritionist’s recommendation,” Leon said.

    “Oh, it definitely does,” Matthew said, “But it will change your life.”

    “I’ll be sure to try it the next time I’m there,” Leon promised. 

    “It’s the only place in the country you can get it. It’s the best thing ever,” Matthew said. 

           

    The next time Leon was in St. Louis, he made a point of Googling the best Gooey Butter Cake in the city and ordered a slice. He was in his hotel room and situated the piece of cake on the table to take a photo. 

    “What are you doing?” Connor asked. 

    “Taking a photo to send to Tkachuk,” Leon said. 

    “Of a piece of cake?” 

    “It’s an inside joke, sort of,” Leon said. He sensed Connor’s frown and he wasn’t sure if it was about the cake or because he was sending a photo to Matthew Tkachuk, “What?” he asked after being sure the photo was okay.

    “I’m glad you guys are friends,” Connor said, “I think he’s a good influence on you.”

    “What does that mean?” Leon asked.

    “There are ways that you don’t have to be alone,” Connor said. “I put two and two together after you guys hung out after the Battle of Alberta.”

    “I’m not alone,” Leon said, “Just because I don’t date doesn’t mean I’m alone.”

    Connor pursed his lips for a moment, weighing his words, “Not dating and not wanting to date aren’t the same thing. If you don’t want to date anyone that’s fine, but if you do, you can.”

    “Who would I even date?” Leon scoffed. 

    Connor shrugged, “I don’t know. I’m just saying if you wanted to, you could, Tkachuk seems to have found a way.”

    Leon rolled his eyes, “Thanks, Captain.” He uploaded the photo to their GroupMe and a few minutes later, Matthew replied with the heart eyes emoji. Leon hated to admit it, but the cake was pretty delicious even if he’d have to bike a few extra miles the next day not to feel guilty about it. 

 

    For a little bit of time after that, Leon let Matthew’s number sit idly in his contact information until it came time for their You Can Play night. 

    Leon took a photo of one of the Oilers advertisements and sent it to Matthew. We solved homophobia

    Matthew responded with a heart eyes emoji followed by a laughing smile. If they only knew.

 

    Leon wasn’t sure if it was possible to cultivate a friendship mostly through text messages and memes but if it was, he was pretty sure he could now consider Matthew Tkachuk a friend and a good friend at that. Sometimes it was stuff about being gay, sometimes it was just some stupid hockey meme, or just another way to chirp his brother even if he would never see the text messages. 

    Then one day, Matthew sent him a photo of him and Joe laying on the couch together. It looked so domestic and Matthew had followed it up with a text that read “Get yourself a man who can do both.” And Leon was pretty sure there was supposed to be a follow up to that or that was a complete misuse of the caption but Leon smiled. But looking at the photo Leon wondered what it would be like to have that. Edmonton didn’t afford him the same privacy that Calgary did. A committed relationship was something out of reach for him and if he didn’t have that Stanley Cup to his name, any other trophy seemed insignificant. 

 

    Matthew: Any summer Plans?

    Leon: No…

    Matthew: Come to St. Louis.

    Leon: And do what?

    Matthew: Celebrate the fourth with my family.

    Leon: No.

    Matthew: It won’t just be family, Robbie’s going to be there too.

    Leon: Robbie pretty much is family.

    Matthew: Please… please… It’ll make things less weird with my dad. 

    Leon: I don’t even celebrate the fourth… I’m German

    Matthew: Then this can be a first!

    Leon: Will you be okay with Brady and Taryn liking me more than you.

    Matthew: They can like you more than Robbie, I’ll still be their favorite. 

 

    So that’s how Leon found himself flying out to St. Louis in June. He was greeted by Matthew and Brady at the airport, much to the surprise of onlookers who recognized the Tkachuks and Leon. 

    “Hey,” Matthew said as he enveloped Leon into a hug. 

    “Hi,” Brady said and shook Leon’s hand, “Welcome to St. Louis.”

    “Joe’s at home,” Matthew explained without any questioning, “We thought it would draw some attention.”

    “As opposed to an Oiler visiting a Flame during the summer?” Leon asked.

    Brady cackled in surprise, having missed the interactions between Leon and Matthew over text. 

    “It’s a charitable deed,” Matthew said.

    “Anything I should know before I meet your parents?” Leon asked when they were settled in the car and Brady had forced him into the back.

    “My dad is pissed at me, as usual, and we’re all going to the Ozarks for the fourth.”

    Leon saw Brady glance back at him when Keith’s name was mentioned. 

    “So, don’t get involved in family stuff,” Leon noted.

    “It’s not that bad,” Brady said.

    “He’s just been a dick to Joe this whole time,” Matthew said. 

    “Will he have a problem with me?” Leon asked.

    “It’s less about the gay thing and more about the relationship thing,” Brady said. Leon wanted to ask what the difference was because he was pretty sure if Matthew had brought home a girlfriend, Keith wouldn’t have been irked, but Leon also knew the concerns about a possible relationship getting leaked to the press. He sometimes wondered, less about Joe leaking it, and more about the two of them getting caught in a private moment in public. But he also was certain that Matthew and Joe and considered all this in their relationship long before Leon was even his friend.

    “Good to see you again,” Leon said to Joe before Matthew carefully introduced him to the rest of his family. He was warmly greeted by Chantal and Taryn, and Robbie politely greeted him with the professionalism of another hockey player. Keith was still a little intimidating to Leon, and even though Leon had grown up with a hockey player dad, it was different. His father had never been on the same level as Keith, and Keith was revered as one of the all-time greats. Keith shook his hand and eyed him up, clearly wondering how he’d become close enough friends with Matthew to be invited over to their house. 

    “Thank you for having me,” Leon said politely. Matthew just rolled his eyes at the blatant attempt to win over his parents.

    Throughout dinner, the tension between Matthew and Joe against Keith was palpable. Robbie, Taryn, Chantal, and even Brady had made attempts to quell the situation and change the topic. 

    But when Joe started talking about some venture capital business that he was interested in, Leon noticed everyone seemed to be feigning interest. He had no idea what Joe was even talking about and he was pretty sure it wasn’t because English was his second language. Brady occasionally glanced over at Leon with the same asshole smile that was Matthew’s signature look and Leon grinned at the validation that Joe’s conversation was so incredibly boring. Matthew was nodding along supportively, but Robbie kept glancing at his phone under the table. 

    Leon didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation but Keith baited Joe with talk about stock options and investment opportunities which seemed out of the scope of Joe’s job, but nevertheless Keith continued on that train of thought until Matthew intervened, “Dad, come on, we’re just trying to have a nice dinner.”

    Joe gently patted Matthew’s leg to calm him down, “It’s fine, Matty.” 

    “I’m just trying to get to know your boyfriend better,” Keith said with his palms raised in surrender. There was something about the way that Keith said the word boyfriend that made Leon shift in his seat uncomfortably.

    “So, uh, do you have any Fourth of July traditions?” Leon asked, trying to shift the subject. Matthew gave him a relieved and thankful look as he started talking about going to see fireworks and relaxing on the water. 

    Talking to Brady and Taryn was easy, Leon quickly found out. They were both athletic, Brady could sympathize with the NHL lifestyle and Taryn was easily engaged with talking about college prospects and field hockey. Chantal was welcoming and friendly, trying to ensure that Leon felt comfortable in their home, but Keith was hard for Leon to understand. The only thing he was interested in speaking to Leon about was hockey and even though it was a large part of Leon’s life and an important one, he didn’t like to monopolize his time and energy on hockey alone. The interesting thing, though, was that neither Brady nor Taryn showed Joe warmth. They weren’t outright hostile or rude to him, but Leon always noticed that when they were all in the same room together, there was a clear divide between Joe and Matthew and everyone else. From the limited amount that he knew of Keith, Leon would have expected this from him, but Matthew’s siblings adored and supported him and didn’t seem to have any hang ups about his sexuality or being in a relationship with a man. 

    “You don’t like him very much do you?” Leon asked Brady when they were alone. Brady glanced over at Joe and watched him and his brother interact. 

    Brady glared at him and in that moment, he looked scarily like Matthew.

    “He’s a nice guy and he treats my brother well,” Brady said, “But you don’t like him very much either.”

    Leon made a face, “He’s fine, just…”

    “Matthew deserves more than a fine guy,” Brady finished for him.

    “Yeah,” Leon replied, grateful that someone shared his feelings. 

    “He deserves someone who looks at him the way that you do, like he’s the most important thing in the world.”

    Leon’s head snapped towards Brady. 

    “Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell Matthew,” Brady said, “My brother’s happiness is more important than yours, I’m not going to jeopardize his relationship just to be right, but I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at him while you’ve been here. I don’t think you even realize it sometimes, it’s like you can’t help yourself to look at him.”

    “I-” 

    “But what are you planning on doing about it?” Brady asked.

    “Nothing,” Leon replied. “Nothing,” he repeated when Brady looked at him warily, “I would never hurt Matthew with my feelings.”

    “If Joe wasn’t in the picture would you tell him?” Brady asked.

    Leon shrugged, “Worrying about hypotheticals is pointless. Joe is in the picture and he’s nice and Matthew loves him and I’m happy for them. I just wish I had met him first.”

    “Yeah,” Brady said. He didn’t offer Leon sympathy or pity. Joe was here and he treated Matthew well. But as they watched the two of them interact with Matthew leaning his body towards Joe and relaxing into his gentle touches, Leon wondered what it would be like to have that. And beyond wondering what it would be like to have that with someone, he wondered what it would be like to have that with Matthew.

 

    They spent the Fourth of July out on a boat on some lake in the Ozarks drinking beers and hopping into the water when they felt like it. Matthew and Joe were curled up together towards the back of the boat, with Matthew’s arm looped over his boyfriend’s shoulder. 

    They cooked out that night with hot dogs and hamburgers and then all sat on the dock as fireworks were launched into the air for a prime time display and the next day   everyone but Joe, Matthew, and himself decided to head back to the city. They planned to stay an extra day, enjoying a little more time on the lake and Leon felt slightly relieved when they were starting to pack up. The last day, he spent third wheeling the two of them and even though they made a valiant effort to include him, there was a tinge of sadness and longing.  

 

    That night, as they were winding down, they all sat in the living room watching some baseball on television and somehow the topic of relationships came up. 

    “Are you single?” Joe asked.

    “Yeah,” Leon said, “It’s been a while, I haven’t really been looking for a relationship, just focusing on hockey, you know.”

    “Did you ever?” Matthew asked.

    “What?” Leon asked.

    “Have you ever wanted a relationship with anyone? Have you ever been in love?” Matthew asked. 

    Leon took a sip of his beer, “Yeah, I want a relationship, but I’m not really looking for one.”

    “What happened?” Matthew asked.

    “What? My tragic love story?” Leon asked.

    “Yeah, I mean if you want to talk about it,” Matthew shrugged. 

    “Nothing,” Leon said. Matthew’s eyebrows scrunched up in confusion and frowned, “No, seriously, nothing. We were never in a relationship, never had a chance to either, he was already with someone else by the time I realized I loved him.” Leon supposed this was the closest he’d ever get to actually telling Matthew that he loved him. Matthew was smart, but speaking in abstracts, Leon knew he’d never suspect him. 

    “Fuck that’s sad,” Matthew said.

    Leon rolled his eyes, “It’s fine. I was never going to actually do anything about it anyways.”

    Joe shifted on the big living room chair. 

    “Have you ever thought of fucking someone in the NHL?” Matthew grinned. 

    Yes. You. Joe turned to Leon and smiled apologetically. 

    Leon rolled his eyes, “Of course.” Leon took a sip of beer and smiled.

    “Wait, what?” Matthew scrambled to his feet, nearly spilling some beer on the carpet. “Who?”

    “That’s not the point,” Leon said. 

    “You have to tell me who now,” Matthew said, almost tackling Leon to the carpet in exuberance. “Please don’t say McDavid.”

    “Keith Tkachuk was my sexual awakening,” Leon said with a teasing grin.

    “What? What the fuck,” Matthew cried, “Absolutely not. Don’t even joke about that. What the fuck?”

    Leon cackled as Matthew pinned him to the ground and then he took a moment to realize their position. Matthew was almost straddling him, pressing his shoulders into the carpet. 

    “No, but seriously, Patrick Sharp,” Leon said as he sat back up and nearly pushed Matthew off of his lap.

    “Patrick Sharp is a very beautiful man,” Joe affirmed. 

    “Who was yours?” Leon asked.

    Matthew shook his head, “No way.”

    “What? Was it one of your father’s teammates? Was it Gio?” Leon asked.

    “Fuck, no,” Matthew laughed at the thought of liking Gio, but despite Matthew’s jovial nature, it was clear that he was never going to answer the question, at least not honestly. For a moment, Leon wondered who could be so embarrassing that Matthew would refuse the answer, but the wine

    “What about you?” Leon asked Joe.

    Joe just shrugged, “I’m not really a big hockey fan, so I’d have to say this guy.”

    “That’s boring,” Leon said.

    “It’s true,” Joe said and shrugged.  

    “Alright, I think that’s enough for tonight,” Joe stood up, “Are you coming?” 

    “Yeah,” Matthew said and let Joe pull him off the floor. Leon couldn’t help the twinge of disappointment at Matthew leaving and the hint of resentment towards Joe as they headed to their bedroom.

 

    They parted ways after flying out from the Ozarks. “Thanks for coming,” Matthew said in the airport parking lot as he’d offered to drive Leon there for his flight out to Germany for the rest of the summer. 

    “I had fun so thanks,” Leon said, “Now I know what a real Fourth of July looks like.”

    “Or at least a Tkachuk interpretation of it,” Matthew said.

    He hugged him before he left the car, knowing it would be a couple of months until they’d see each other in person again. Matthew felt so comfortable in his arms and Leon tried to memorize the feeling. The thing was, as he turned around for one last wave goodbye before heading into the airport, and watched as Matthew drove off. He was grateful for coming to Ozarks and having the invitation to spend time with Matthew and his family, but now that he had gotten a taste of it, he wanted more. 

    And suddenly, now that the thought was in his head that he wanted it with Matthew, everything compelled him to seek it out. In Germany, he found himself checking his phone to see if Matthew had sent him a new message. Sometimes when he came across a cute dog or saw a new street art mural that had popped up in his neighborhood, he found himself taking a photo to send over to Matthew. Leon started hooking up more, still being careful, but following guys back to their places and continued when the hockey season started and the Oilers were in non-hockey cities. It was too risky in a place like Edmonton or Vancouver where hockey was a religion and Leon would be recognized even by the most casual of hockey fans. 

    Leon had hooked up before, he’d had sex but during the season he acted with an abundance of caution. But now, everytime that he returned to his apartment and breathed in the emptiness of the space, he wondered what it would be like if Matthew was there. He could almost hear Matthew greeting him from the kitchen when he returned home from practice. He wondered what it would be like to have a warm body lay next to him when he went to bed and to wake up with Matthew next to him. And the more that he allowed his mind to wander and imagine it, the more it gnawed at his soul. 

    It was no coincidence that all the guys that Leon hooked up with looked like Matthew. There was always something about them that reminded Leon of him. Sometimes it was the curls, other times it was the marks on his neck, sometimes it was his voice and with each of those things that reminded Leon allowed him to pretend for a moment that Matthew loved him, that Matthew had been willing to make the sacrifices for him. Maybe if he had met Matthew first, if Matthew had ventured out into a gay bar in Edmonton instead of Calgary things would have been different. He wondered if they had met when Matthew was eighteen outside of hockey if they could have been together. Leon wondered if Joe wasn’t in the picture if Matthew would have given him a chance. He was pretty sure that he would have taken the plunge and asked Matthew out. At this point, he was pretty sure he’d put their friendship on the line as it was, asking him out wouldn’t be worse. 

 

    Every time they’d go out and Leon would try and pick up when Connor was around, he could feel Connor’s scrutinizing gaze on him. He’d found some guy in the crowd, with blond, curly hair. From a distance, he could maybe pass for Matthew’s cousin, but as Leon got closer, his face was completely different. Nevertheless, Leon could pretend. 

    “Can I buy you a drink?” Leon asked.

    “Sure,” the guy smiled, “I’m Dylan.”

    “Leon,” Leon said. He realized he didn’t care much to remember his name. He knew he wouldn’t be giving Dylan his number. “Do you want to get out of here?” Leon asked not so subtly after a few minutes of small talk.

    “Will your friends be okay with that?” Dylan asked.

    “Yeah,” Leon replied, shrugging at the thought of leaving Connor and his teammates behind. 

    Dylan led him back to his place and tried to make some small talk in the Uber on the way there. Dylan seemed nice and maybe if Leon wasn’t hung up on Matthew he’d consider actually trying to meet someone, but Dylan didn’t have expectations. They both knew that whatever happened between them would end in the morning when Leon would get dressed and not leave his phone number behind. 

    Leon quickly undressed in Dylan’s apartment kissing him to be quiet as they headed to bed, and if he spent the night imagining that Dylan was Matthew, that was his secret. 

 

    “It’s risky to keep doing this,” Connor chided when he returned to the hotel in the early morning with hickeys on his neck and shoulder. He’d expected to be able to sneak back in without any problems, but Connor had been waiting for him to return.  

    “You were the one telling me I should go out and date,” Leon said. 

    “Yeah, I meant in a relationship,” Connor said, “Not hooking up with anyone who vaguely resembles-”

    “Who? Do you want to finish that, Connor?” Leon asked.

    “Matthew Tkachuk. You’re in love with Matthew Tkachuk and you’re just trying to find any possible replacement for it.”

    “Congratulations, did it take your captaincy skills to figure that out?” Leon asked a little meanly.

    “Leon, you have to do something about this,” Connor said.

    “He has a boyfriend,” Leon said, “Who he’s probably going to marry.”

    “Does he know that you’re an option?” Connor asked.

    “No,” Leon said, “and I don’t want him to.”

 

    Dinner when you’re in Calgary? Matthew texted for the first time that they were set to play each other in the Battle of Alberta. 

    Of course. It was now routine that after they played each other, no matter the outcome that they would grab dinner together before or after the game. This time, they headed into Calgary a day early to squeeze in a morning practice the next day so Leon and Matthew decided to meet at a nice restaurant the night before. 

    Leon headed to the table where Matthew and Joe were already sitting. Joe’s presence wasn’t unexpected, he was Matthew’s long-time boyfriend after all, but Leon’s heart still hurt seeing him there. The more Joe was out of sight, the more that Leon allowed himself to pretend that he wasn’t in the picture. 

    “I figured we could double date,” Matthew said, as he gestured to the guy sitting across from him, “I mean I know you said it’s been a little while, but Joe suggested it and I thought it might be fun.”

    “Oh,” Leon’s mouth dried up. It was at that moment that Leon hated Joe for the first time since they’d first met. His hands glazed over with sweat as he glanced at his date, and he looked nice enough. But he wasn’t Matthew. He didn’t look anything like Matthew, he wasn’t even Leon’s type when it came to looks, which wasn’t everything When it came to dating, Leon could only envision it with Matthew, not some random guy that Matthew had once had a conversation with and who he thought Leon might like. “You kind of just sprung this on me,” Leon said. 

    “I mean you mentioned you wanted a relationship,” Matthew said, with irritation seeping into his voice. And yes, Leon had said that, but he hadn’t meant it like this. He didn’t want to go on a date with a stranger, he didn’t want to go on a double date and watch as Matthew and Joe interacted while he wondered what it would be like if he was in Joe’s place. 

    “You had no right to do this without asking me,” Leon said as anger, hurt, and embarrassment filled him. “I’m sorry they wasted your time,” Leon said, addressing his would-be date for the first time.

    He looked at Matthew, seeing regret and chagrin etched in his eyes and Leon knew he just had to leave. “I’m sorry,” he muttered as he left the restaurant and the three men at the table. Everything felt wrong. It wasn’t like Matthew had ever led him on, he had always included Joe in conversations and it was always clear that Matthew was with Joe. It was only due to his imagination and fantasies that Leon could ever believe that something would ever develop between the two of them.

    “Wait, Leon, wait,” Matthew said as he chased after him, he gently reached for Leon’s arm in a comforting gesture, but Leon jerked his arm away. 

    “Leave me alone, Matthew,” Leon said and walked a few blocks away to have some privacy as he waited for his Uber. 

 

    Matthew: I’m sorry.

    Matthew: I was an asshole.

    Matthew: Please just give me a call or let me know that you’re okay

    Matthew: I overstepped, I know. 

    Leon: I’m fine

    Matthew: Can we meet up after the game

    Leon paused for a moment, but he knew that he couldn’t say no to Matthew. 

    Leon: I guess. 

    Matthew: I’ll make it up to you, I promise

 

    The problem was, Matthew didn’t fully understand the problem and Leon wasn’t keen on filling in the blanks for him, but he also knew that 

    “I’m sorry about yesterday,” Matthew said.

    Leon shrugged, “You meant well, I just guess I’m not ready to date yet, I’m still in love with the same guy.”

    “The person that you were in love with,” Matthew said, “is it anyone I know?”

    Leon’s mouth dried up, “Does it matter?” 

    “Joe had a theory and I was just wondering if he was right,” Matthew said.

    Leon could only wonder what Joe’s theory was and how close to the truth he was. Joe might not have been involved with hockey and he might not have spent much time with Leon, but he wasn’t stupid either. 

    “Don’t worry, I haven’t been playing alongside my long time love for the past four years,” Leon said. 

    “I’m being serious,” Matthew said. 

    “So am I, don’t worry about it,” Leon said.

    “Why won’t you tell me?” Matthew asked.

    “What’s the point? Nothing will come of it, if you know, I’ll just…”

    “Just what?” Matthew asked, his eyes scrunching in concern and misunderstanding.

    “I’ll just be pathetic,” Leon said. 

    “You could never be pathetic,” Matthew chided. 

    Leon brushed his shoulder up against Matthew’s in a playful gesture, “Come on, buy me dinner.”

    “Is that all it takes to be forgiven?” Matthew asked.

    “I mean it’s you,” Leon said, “I could never stay mad at you for long anyways.”

    “What? Do you want to tell the past-you that?”

    “That was because of the rivalry, and you can be a dick on the ice, but besides, you’re my best friend,” Leon said. 

    “Awww…” Matthew cooed as he playfully shoved Leon back. 

 

    Leon hated the way that Connor’s gaze followed him around practice. He knew that Connor disapproved of his line of Matthew look-alike hookups and the way that he’d turned inwards after the failed double date. 

    After a few failed attempts at intervening, Connor had apparently contacted Matthew because on one of Matthew’s rare days off, he showed up at Leon’s apartment, having trekked three hours to close the distance between them.

    “Connor said you weren’t doing well,” Matthew said without any hesitation.

    Leon scoffed, “Connor needs to mind his own business.”

    “Can I come in?” Matthew asked. 

    “Sure,” Leon said, “I wasn’t going to send you back home after coming all this way.”

    “When did you stop talking to me?” Matthew asked sadly after a long pause, as if broaching the topic would scare Leon off.

    “I talk to you all the time,” Leon said, opening up his phone to show the WhatsApp message chain that had been full of memes and messages for the past week.

    “I just don’t know what I did wrong,” Matthew said.

    “You didn’t do anything wrong,” Leon said.

    “This feels an awful lot like a ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ thing,” Matthew said, forcing a smile that didn’t extend to his eyes. 

    “I’m just dealing with some things right now,” Leon shrugged. 

    “And you can’t talk to me about it?” Matthew asked.

    “I just, I need things to be easy with one person. My parents are asking me things and Connor is breathing down my neck and I just need things to be normal between us,” Leon said, “It doesn’t matter anyways, I’ll be fine.”

    “Things haven’t been normal between us for a while,” Matthew said. 

    “Please, Matthew,” Leon begged, “I’m okay, I promise, can we just be friends as usual?” And asking that almost broke Leon’s heart because he wanted so much more, but he also knew that he’d rather have Matthew in any capacity if it meant keeping him in his life. 

    “Is it because of the double date thing?” Matthew asked, “Because I’m really sorry about that.”

    “I know you are,” Leon said, “It was still really fucked up. I thought you and I were going to have dinner and then I was blindsided by Joe and that guy.”

    “I thought you liked Joe,” Matthew said, sadly.

    “You do,” Leon said, “He’s a nice guy who treats you well, and that’s all I can ask for.” 

    Matthew’s eyes narrowed, “That’s not a yes.”

    “Why does my approval matter so much to you?” Leon asked. 

    “Because you matter to me,” Matthew said. 

    “He makes you happy so that makes me happy,” Leon said.

    “I want you to mean it,” Matthew said.

    “I mean it,” Leon said, “All I want is for you to be happy.” Even if it isn’t with me

    “What’s going on with you?” Matthew asked.

    “Nothing, just hockey stuff,” Leon said. 

    “You can talk to me,” Matthew said as he leaned up against the granite countertop.

    “I’m just tired,” Leon said, “Maybe you should head back to Calgary.”

    Matthew flinched at the clear dismissal, “I can stay, we don’t have to do anything.” 

    “Leon, you’re my best friend, please talk to me,” Matthew said, and fuck, it just made Leon feel even worse. 

    “Okay, but we’re watching CSI reruns,” Leon said. 

    “Fill me in,” Matthew said, grateful for the invitation in. It was so comfortable having Matthew there, even as they just sat in silence watching the drama unfold. They were both a little lost, but it was a crime drama and each episode was different so they didn’t need much context.

    “What?” Leon asked as he watched Matthew pick at the armrest of his couch. 

    “I’m thinking about coming out,” Matthew said.

    “Okay,” Leon said. 

    “I wanted to give you a heads up,” Matthew said, “In case someone asks, or if someone asks about you or our friendship.”

    “Okay,” Leon said, “Thanks for the heads up.”

    “Are you going to say anything?” Matthew asked.

    “I’m pretty sure your mind is already made up,” Leon said, “I support you. I just…”

    “What?”

    “I want you to be sure you’re doing this for yourself, not for Joe, not because you feel obligated to, or because you’re scared of losing him, if you think it’s time then I think you should do it, I’ll make sure you have the Oilers full support.”

    “It is for me,” Matthew said. 

    Leon smiled, “Okay, and Matty, I’m really proud of you.” 

 

Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk comes out as gay, announces engagement

    Leon clicked on the link. It directed him to an official NHL post that was clearly written by the Calgary PR team. There were few details beyond announcing his engagement, that he was gay and that he was planning on marrying his long-time boyfriend.

    “Why didn’t you tell me that you were getting engaged?” Leon asked when he called up Matthew.

    “You were going through a lot,” Matthew said. 

    “Did you think I wouldn’t be happy for you?” Leon asked.

    “No, I guess, I don’t know, it just didn't seem like the right time."

    Leon painfully listened as Matthew recounted the proposal story. He didn’t want to hear how Matthew had taken Joe to his favorite restaurant

    “Are people being okay?” Leon asked. 

    “Coming out was the best decision I could have possibly made,” Matthew said carefully weighing his words.

    “I’m so happy for you,” Leon said thickly as the proposal marked what he had lost, or what he had never had. 

    “Thanks, Leon,” Matthew said.

    “Are we okay?” Leon asked. 

    “Yeah,” Matthew said, “And by the way you’re definitely being a groomsman. Brady’s obviously going to be the Best Man but you and Robbie have to be groomsmen.” 

    “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Leon said, but he knew immediately after he agreed to it, he was going to be fucked. 

 

 

    From: Matthew

    Bachelor Party in Vegas?

 

    From: Matthew

    You and Brady have to plan my Bachelor’s party.

 

    To: Matthew

    You already decided it’s going to be in Vegas. 

 

    From:Matthew

    Well, yeah, but other than that you have complete control.

 

    To: Matthew

    We’ll figure something out.

 

    They flew out at the beginning of the winter break, with the wedding planned for over the All-Stars break. By the time they got on the plane, champagne bottles were already being opened and glasses were being handed out.

    “Matty’s last hurrah,” Brady yelled much to Leon’s chagrin and to the cheers of the plane. The Vegas weather escaped 

    Leon and Brady had coordinated a few plans, mostly involving golf outings, expensive dinners, and visits along the Vegas strip. Leon held Matthew at arm’s length the entire time, hoping that Matthew didn’t notice the way that Leon gravitated towards some of the other hockey players that he hadn’t seen in a while and Brady. He didn’t want to hear about Matthew’s wedding plans or the venue or the menu planning. He just wanted to get through this weekend in peace. 

    The second night they were in Vegas, they went to a club that Leon had found, and Leon was just anxious the entire time. Brady kept handing Matthew drinks and every time that Leon glanced over at him, he seemed to be having the time of his life. As if noticing Leon’s misery, Matthew turned towards him and yelled over the sound of the music blasting. 

    “Come dance with me,” Matthew said as he grabbed Leon’s hand and tried to pull him towards the dance floor. 

    “No,” Leon tried to protest, but Matthew just pulled him further in the crowd. Leon was acutely aware of Matthew’s hands on him, trying to put him at ease as Matthew swayed to the beat of the music.

    “Where’s Brady?” Leon asked.

    Matthew shrugged, “Probably over there, he’s fine.” Matthew’s head rolled back exposing his neck and the moles that Leon was pretty sure you could connect the dots with. And it would be so easy just to kiss Matthew. Thoughts of doing that overwhelmed him and tempted him and in the club with the music throbbing, all Leon could think about was kissing him and touching him. He extricated himself from Matthew’s friendly grip and pulled away before he could do anything he regretted. 

    “I think I’m going to head back to the hotel,” Leon said.

    “Wait, what?” Matthew snapped out of his daze as Leon pulled away.

    “I just have a headache, I’ll be fine,” Leon said. It was easier to justify leaving because of a headache than admitting that it was all too much. That Leon was heartbroken and in love with a man who would never be his.

    “Do you need me to go with you?” Matthew asked concernedly. 

    “No, stay,” Leon said, “You can’t miss your own bachelor party. I’m fine, Matty, it’s just a headache.”

    Brady was drunk and a little worse for wear and was old enough to know when to call it quits, Leon knew that he could leave Matthew there and everything would be fine. Sitting in his hotel room, it just became even more evident why Leon couldn’t stay. He couldn’t rightfully stand by Matthew’s side when he married Joe and pretend that he was happy for them. He couldn’t bear listening to wedding details and spending the whole time wondering what it would be like to stand across the aisle from Matthew and the more he stewed about this during his sleepless night, the more he knew what he had to do. 

 

    Matthew was hungover and he was cranky at the early morning wake up call, but when he saw Leon’s face at the door and the bag that Leon carried in his hand, Matthew just grew concerned. 

    “Hey, what’s going on?” Matthew asked. 

    “I can’t do this,” Leon said, “I can’t be in your wedding, I’m sorry.”

    “Wait, what?” Matthew asked confusedly.

    “I can’t go, I’m sorry,” Leon said, “I shouldn’t have agreed to be one of your groomsmen, I’m sorry.”

    “What are you talking about?” Matthew asked as though he was waiting for someone to jump out and say it was all a joke, “You’re my best friend, you have to be there.”

    If Leon was a better person he would stifle down his feelings and stand by Matthew’s side as he married Joe. But hearing that he was Matthew’s best friend was like a slap to the face. That’s all he would ever be.

    “Why are you doing this?” Matthew asked, “You’re our friend, we want you there.”

    “I know, but I can’t,” Leon said. 

    “Why?” Matthew asked. 

    “You know why,” Leon said, “You have to know. And that’s fine, but I just can’t be there for it.”

    “Wait, you’re not making any sense,” Matthew said.

    “Please don’t make me say it,” Leon said. 

    “I don’t understand,” Matthew said, confused and concerned.

    Leon just swallowed thickly and nodded, “My flight is in a few hours so I’d better head to the airport.”

    “Just tell me,” Matthew begged.

    “Because it would break my heart,” Leon said, “That I’ve just wanted to be close to you so I’ve allowed my heart to be broken over and over again, but that if I have to see you marry him, my heart will be shattered completely. I can’t watch you marry someone else, I’ve been in love with you probably ever since we became friends and I tried and tried to get over you, believe me, but I can’t so please just give me the time and space to move on, okay.”

    “Why didn’t you say something?”

    “You are so happy with Joe, I wasn’t going to intervene.”

    “So what?”

    “I thought that you would break up with him eventually. I mean, come on, you don’t meet the love of your life when you're eighteen.”

    “And then what? You were just going to swoop in?”

    “I was going to see if you could ever be interested in me,” Leon said sadly, “I thought I would get a chance.” 

    “You-” Matthew started. 

    “Yeah,” Leon interrupted and looked anywhere but Matthew’s face, “I really do have to go, but I hope you have a wonderful marriage.” Turning away from Matthew was one of the hardest and most painful things that Leon ever did and probably would have to do, and as he walked towards the elevator, he waited for Matthew to chase after him. He wondered if it would be like those romantic movies that his sister always watched where the main character chased afterwards, coming to the conclusion that they were with the wrong person. It wasn’t even that Joe was the wrong person. Joe was a fine person, but he wasn’t Leon. But as he hailed a taxi at the front desk, Matthew never rushed to stop him. 

 

    Leon’s cellphone vibrated on the ride to the airport. First was a call from Matthew that Leon sent straight to voicemail. Then there were a series of texts from Brady.

 

    From: Brady

    You’re so fucking selfish.

 

    From: Brady

    What the fuck were you thinking? He’s getting married in two months

 

    From: Brady

    I can’t believe my brother was friends with such an asshole like you

 

    To: Brady

    I know.

 

    From: Brady

    I’m sorry by the way. You’re still a selfish asshole, but I’m sorry.

 

    When Leon saw the news article, he almost dropped his phone and gasped. 

    Matthew Tkachuk Calls off Wedding Two Weeks Before

 

    Leon: I’m sorry. I hope I wasn’t the reason you broke things off.

 

    Matthew didn’t reply. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the silence, Matthew hadn’t spoken to him since Leon had left Vegas. Leon kept checking his phone for any message or update from him on Instagram, but the last thing Matthew had posted was the carefully crafted PR response announcing the dissolution of his engagement and asking for privacy.

    It was only a few weeks later that Matthew posted a photo on Instagram of him and Brady together and he looked happy. He’d blocked comments on the post for obvious reasons, but he was at least back on social media and that seemed to be an improvement that he was at least more visible. 

    Leon had thought about sending Matthew a text that said Merry Christmas for the holiday but he held off. After imploding their friendship, he hadn’t heard anything from any of the Tkachuks and Leon couldn’t blame them. 

    He was settled at home, watching TV with a cup of tea to warm him up when he heard a knock on the door. 

    He expected Connor on the other side, but his eyes widened when he saw Matthew shuffling his weight uncomfortably in front of the door.

    “Hi,” Leon said as he opened the door.

    “Hi,” Matthew said as he chewed on his lip, “Can we talk?”

    “Yeah, of course,” Leon said as he opened the door. All he wanted to do was apologize for being selfish and hug Matthew tightly, but he wasn’t sure if Matthew would accept that.

    “Do you remember when we were hanging out for the fourth of July?” Matthew asked. 

    Leon nodded tentatively.

    “You said you’d only been in love once,” Matthew reminded him and Leon closed his eyes at the painful reminder, “That was me, right?”

    “Matthew,” Leon said, “Please stop.”

    “Joe said it then, but I didn’t believe him because you could have anyone in the world so the person who broke your heart must be so incredible.”

    “He is,” Leon said, “And he didn’t mean to.” 

    “And then I also knew that if someone didn’t love you they had to be stupid,” Matthew said.

    “Matthew, please stop,” Leon said, “I don’t know what you’re doing here and I really can’t be the person to pick up the pieces of your engagement.” 

    “Joe broke off the engagement,” Matthew admitted, “Not me. He said I wasn’t in love with him, not fully anyways.”

    “Joe wasn’t wrong,” Matthew said, “I loved him, I still do, but it was comfortable. He was my first love and he was the first person who made me feel like I could be a gay NHL player and I’ll always appreciate that and love him for it, but after you left, all I could think about was having you walk out of my life and that thought almost killed me. I’ll never forget the look on your face as you were leaving Las Vegas and I also knew that you had been putting my happiness before yours for so long that by the time I finally found out you were in so much pain that you couldn’t hide it. But I love you and I just thought you should know that and if there was something left of our friendship, of any relationship that might come of it, I wanted you to know that I was here and that I was an option… if that was something you wanted.”

    “I can’t be your rebound,” Leon said, “That’s not fair to me.”

    “You’re not, you could never be my rebound or my second choice, I just want you and maybe it took me a while and an engagement to figure it out, but I want to be with you,” Matthew said, “You’re my best friend.”

    “Matty…” Leon said. 

    “Okay, shit, I’m messing this all up,” Matthew said, “So you know when we were talking about our hockey crushes in the Ozarks and I didn’t want to answer?”

    Leon nodded. 

    “I didn’t want to tell you that it was you,” Matthew said, “And at first it was your hockey because I didn’t know you, but I thought you were cute and when you first started talking to me at the All-Stars Game, I was kind of in awe and you were so cool about everything, and then we became friends.”

    “So is this just a childhood crush?” Leon asked.

    “No, no, and that’s why I took so long to come here and talk to you because I wanted to parse out my feelings. I had a crush on you as a teenager, yes, but I fell in love with you as an adult. I’m not here because Joe called off the wedding or because you are a backup or a second choice. I’m here because, well, you’re my favorite person and I love you and I want to be with you.”

    Seeing Leon’s uncertainty, Matthew chewed on his lip, “Leon, please, have I ever given you a reason to not believe me?”

    And he hadn’t, Matthew had been a constant in Leon’s life ever since they’d shared numbers. Matthew had never been the one to hold things back from their friendship, it had always been Leon.

    “No,” Leon admitted.

    “So believe me now,” Matthew pleaded. 

    “Okay,” Leon said with a smile. Matthew visibly relaxed as Leon opened the door wider for him. He put his suitcase down in the foyer and pressed Leon up against the wall. The kiss was hesitant and cautious, unlike how Leon had imagined it would be, if it even happened.

    Matthew’s hands wandered curiously, gently brushing a loose piece of Leon’s hair out of his face and tilting his head to angle them a little better. 

    “This isn’t a one time thing for me,” Leon clarified, giving Matthew one last chance to back out from this, from whatever they were doing.

    “Stop thinking I’m going to run away,” Matthew said with a grin, “I know you.” 

 

    “You were wrong, you know?” Matthew said.

    “When?” Leon asked. 

    “You said that you don’t believe that people meet the love of their lives when they are eighteen,” Matthew said. He was laying on Leon’s chest, gently drawing doodles with his finger on Leon’s skin. 

    The weight of Matthew’s body pinning Leon’s arm down was starting to cause a dull ache, but Leon didn’t dare to move him for fear that Matthew would get up and leave. 

    “I shouldn’t have said that,” Leon replied, feeling dread well up in him. He shouldn't have said that, it was his jealousy and selfishness talking. He knew of plenty of couples from high school who had ended up married years later. 

    “You were wrong, I met the love of my life when I was eighteen,” Matthew said. 

    “Do you regret-”

    “Don’t you remember, I met you when I was eighteen,” Matthew cut him off without a second thought.  

    “I don’t think that counts,” Leon said, “I wouldn’t have dated you then and besides, I didn’t like you then.”

    “How things have changed,” Matthew said, he rolled over and kissed Leon’s shoulder, “You love me,” Matthew sang, warranting an eyeroll.

   "Yeah, I do," Leon agreed and kissed Matthew, "I really do."