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camera lights in his eyes and the uncomfortable silence of the empty press room, distant crackling voices:

don't forget how good you are. that's what patty marleau had said. don't forget how great you're going to be.

don't forget what you're worth, his agent had said urgently. you should be paid what you're worth.

the fuck was that mitch, his dad, shouting. the hell was that?

"Hey Mitch, you mentioned a few times wanting to be a better person. Is there something that you want to do differently next season to better prepare for the playoffs?"

"Nope."

---

Golfing.

So what if he'd gone golfing?

Mitch really doesn't even like golfing. He's not great at it. The typical summer dress code doesn't suit him. Not the pastel options part, that part's okay, pastels work for Mitch, makes his complexion look less washed out overall because the whole thing is so washed out that he looks healthy and vibrant in comparison, and the khakis are okay also. It's really just that the collared shirts and shorts look better when you have pecs and an ass, and Mitch has, objectively, less on the scale of more-to-less for a hockey player. It's also all a necessary evil, because other than being on the lake or locked up in a house for literal hours, it's the only place you can have a real conversation.

"I could've been a Twitch streamer. I really think I'd've been good at it. Like the first time I did it, it went fine," he insists. "Which is the other thing, like."

"Are you even trying right now?"

"First time in my entire pro career," Mitch continues, aggrieved, whiffing the ball with his wedge as he lines up his swing. "It was the first time and it was because of a global tragedy, like. It shouldn't take that to try new things and actually be supported."

"Oh my God. That one counts."

Mitch steps back. "You know I wonder if it'd be better if we didn't make playoffs? Like if the expectations are just low. Like if we'd missed just one year, maybe?"

"Mitch."

"You fail out slowly that way, you know, like there's not one mistake. It's just eighty-two fuck-ups and nobody can figure out which one is the problem and then by the end of it they've all just given up."

"Mitch."

"Like who's yelling at Davo? They know it's weird if he even just makes it." Mitch swings.

"You know what, I'm just gonna stay here," Auston says. "I'm just gonna wait for you to hit it back this way."

"What ever," Mitch says.

---

The horrible thing about Jack, Mitch has discovered, is that Mitch finally knows how other people feel about Mitch.

Mitch isn't a baby. He's a brat, but he's not a baby. He knows he's a brat. There's a reason he pulls the salary he does. People love him. People dote on him. They love him and his wacky personality and his locker room vibes, his funny little dance moves, his quirky hair and torn up jeans, his blinding smile that he puts on to sell insurance in YouTube ads like he's telling the insurance salesmen of the past, now this, t h i s is how you sell insurance.

You can't get away with a lot if you make big money, but if you make big money and score big points and you're a shade under six foot tall and most of your colleagues could lift you up with one arm, people like to tuck you under their arms and love you. You make them smile and you make their kids smile. There'll always be people who hate you, but that just gives other people a reason to want to protect you, stick up for you, defend you, keep you safe.

It's not good enough, Jack had said after the series, which was his nicer way of saying Jack hadn't been good enough, which was the thing about Jack, that he believed that stuff he said. He'd set an NHL record that year and they'd just — given up on him. Wasted it. He'd set an NHL record that year, and they'd wadded it up and tossed it in the trash like used tape.

Mitch couldn't say that either, though. "No buddy, in fact you were the only one of us who played well"? Come on. Even if it had been true it wouldn't have made either of them feel any better. It just — hadn't been good enough.

Jack's all covered up all the time, mask and pads and gear. He's not like Freddie, imposing, or even Hutch, who'd always tried his best and that's all you can really ask for from anyone.

("Do you really believe that," Auston had once asked Mitch when they were both a little stoned. "That you try your best and that's all you can do?"

"Sure," Mitch had said, slow and pleased. "Yeah. 'Course."

"Okay," Auston had laughed, "Okay." But that'd also been when Babs was around. A lot of weird shit had been funny when Babs was around. They'd never really been at their best then, any of them.)

Jack's sweet.

Really, genuinely, truly sweet. Nobody Mitch knows is like that in the league. Not that there's no killer instinct in him, he's a goalie, there's always killer instinct, but that there's killer instinct in him and he doesn't use it when he doesn't need to.

Jack's big eyes peering through his mask make Mitch want to run through a wall. You just don't know what to say after a loss like that, least of all to Jack, because the worst part is, he'll tell you it's okay.

---

All right, so Mitch had gone golfing. Does Mitch want to come down and play a charity golf tournament in St. Louis in a couple weeks?

Mitch lets out a long exhale.

"Jesus Christ. Sorry I asked," Matthew says over the phone, offended. There's wind and crowd chatter in the background, like he's on a patio somewhere, probably somewhere warm, with people.

"Chucky…"

"Just blame it on the quarantine, okay?" Mitch can hear his grin, sharp. "You could at least be nice about it."

"No, look, it's just…" Just that he's always free two weeks into June because there's always the chance they'd still have been busy then, and year over year that gets stupider in retrospect, but it's still more than Matthew could've said this season, so it sounds extraordinarily bitchy to say, no, because I'll still be sulking over the fifth chance at success I just blew in a row. At least Bennett's also out of the playoffs now. Courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has a bit more prestige to the sound of it than being knocked out by the eighteenth-place Montreal Canadiens. "Is Matts going?"

"I dunno why that's relevant, but no, he's gonna be off in Scottsdale by then," Matthew scoffs. "I mean I know the golf down there is good, but he couldn't even stop by for five minutes. Busy kissing Fred goodbye or something, I guess."

"Hey, dude," Mitch says, abrupt, which he didn't even expect, but that's — no. He's about to say that's off-limits, man, that's not cool, when Matthew pauses and says —

"Sorry, yeah that wasn't cool." He's quiet, and then, casual and only a little pissy, "Listen, it's not like he's the only one who's gonna be down a goalie next year, you know? Probably."

Right. "Yeah," Mitch mumbles. It's Freddie though, that's different. Freddie and Auston. It's probably different, maybe. "Sorry." Mitch should've talked to Ritter more at some point before the end of it, probably. Before all the… yeah.

"Don't apologize for your GM," Matthew laughs shortly. "Unless you were running it over there, and even then, I don't know how I'm supposed to blame you for it."

"No," Mitch says, because obviously he didn't ask for that trade to happen, what? What kind of crap do people think Mitch has on the front office? Though, maybe, when he thinks about it, Matthew would know. Maybe. People talk shit about Mitch and Mitch's dad, daddy's little meal ticket, sure, but Matthew, "No, 'course not."

"Yeah, sure," Matthew says, already moved on. "It's whatever. Look, if you don't wanna come, it's your own loss. Last chance to golf this summer."

"I can golf in Ontario," Mitch protests.

"Can you," Matthew says, snide.

"Fuck you," Mitch says loudly, "Why do you even want me to come?"

"You're right, I don't, it's more fun when it's competitive," Matthew says smugly, and then, "Listen, if I don't see you this summer because of the quarantine stuff, look after yourself, huh? Say hi to Johnny T for me."

Mitch frowns. "Sure. Why are you talking to JT?"

"Well, I'm not," Matthew says, "You are."

Oh. "Right."

"I just thought, you know, get well soon? Sucks what happened."

"Oh."

"You never want to see that, right, so. Glad to hear he's doing better."

"Yeah. Right, no, I'll tell him."

Matthew sounds like you're being weird about this, but he just says, "Alright, have a good one," so maybe Mitch is imagining it.

"Yeah, you too," Mitch says belatedly, but Matthew's ended the call already.

---

Ritter's one thing, but Matthew probably doesn't know that Mitch hadn't said much to Fred at all either. Mitch and Jack had gotten takeout together the day before Jack had headed back down to the States, though. Would've gone out for drinks, but quarantine and all.

Maybe selfish of Mitch to think it, but it felt like for the first time in a long time it was the kind of summer where you kind of chose who to keep in touch with, because you knew some of them might be gone by the fall. Like that might not even be true, but it felt like it could be.

So before leaving Scotiabank Arena, Mitch had crammed his face against Freddie's neck for a long, long time, and stuck his hands into the fabric of his sweater like they'd done for years now, pressed into each other's skin, like tattoos, like paint, like glue sticking this whole thing together, and then — and then —

— and Mitch'd gone to lunch with Jack two days later and gotten like, a lot of beer to go with the takeout from the LCBO.

It'd been good.

---

"The hell," Dylan says when Mitch shows up at his front door three days after the loss.

"Welcome back!" Mitch says cheerfully. He lifts a bag full of Hero Burger, fries still hot. "Got you breakfast."

Dylan squints out at him on the porch through the crack in the door. It's almost noon and he doesn't look like he just got out of bed or anything, his hair isn't sticking up in more than the usual dozen directions, so there's no reason he can't open the door all the way. "Did... did you say you were coming? Or?"

"No, I just figured I'd stop by?" Mitch waves the bag and tries to barge in, but the door won't budge so he just ends up shouldering into it and standing there half-squashed up against it. "Why aren't you picking up calls, by the way?"

"How'd you even know I'd be here?" Dylan lets the door fall open a little further, suspicious. He looks good, actually, even just crawling out from the shadows in a workout shirt and sweats, arms already tan at the start of summer, and just generally more enormous than Mitch even remembers.

Mitch shrugs. "What else are you doing right now?" Which is true, like, shit's closed everywhere in Ontario, has been since Dylan would've got back and out of quarantine. Golf courses are open? He can hear barking from somewhere in the depths of the house. "Oh my God, how's Wrigley? Lemme see — "

Dylan opens the door all the way, steps out onto the porch so Mitch has to back up, and then closes it behind him. Rude.

Mitch watches as he cranes his neck to check up and down the street. "I'm seeing someone," Dylan says seriously.

Mitch makes a face. "Okay? Like who?"

Dylan scrunches up his nose incredulously. "Why's that any of your business?"

"Uh, sorry for being interested in your life," Mitch says.

"What? You literally didn't call the entire year!"

"You were in Chicago literally the whole year! Why do I have to be the one to call you?"

"You barely even responded to messages!"

"Well I called now! You didn't pick up!"

"No, I didn't!" Dylan says, and Mitch isn't sure what they're even arguing for. "Look, I don't need to hear about how many of Justin Holl's fingers fit in your ass, okay? I figured when there was something to talk about, we'd talk."

"Shut the fuck up," Mitch says, pissed. "I thought it was okay to talk about! We're friends, like," he gestures between them, "Right? What's the issue?"

Dylan glares.

He still towers over Mitch, he always did, and that's never really been intimidating. It still isn't. But he's shaved off most of the shitty attempt at a beard, and he's got a jawline now, and that's not really… it shouldn't be new. They've known each other for years. Not seeing each other for one single season shouldn't make them into strangers.

"Are you here because you want a blowjob," Dylan says.

"Uh, what?" Maybe. This doesn't seem to be going in that direction, though.

"Sorry for presuming," Dylan hisses, low and a little strained. "It just always seems to end that way. Kind of."

Mitch tries to think of a way to deny this. "Well no, in fact I'd be down for more than that, but I respect that you're seeing someone," Mitch settles on.

"Come on!"

"Only if you were interested!" It's not like either of them can go out and pick someone up, everything's closed, unless they want to like, fuck someone on a beach, is this so weird in comparison?

"Why can't you just…" Dylan looks frustrated, "Can you just sort out whatever the hell is going on with your teammates? Like, did you fuck anybody else on the team and you can't talk to them now? And now you're gonna tell me about it?"

"No, I did not fuck anybody since the last time, okay," Mitch says probably more loudly than he should. And it's true, he's an A now, he's supposed to be responsible.

Dylan rolls his eyes.

"What?"

Dylan scratches his neck behind his ear for what feels like a long time, and Mitch starts to suspect he's trying to find a not-mean way to say something mean, which doesn't feel great.

"Just, we're not kids now," Dylan eventually says. "I'm not here just to help you get over your thing for, like, whoever right now. That's… I can't." He sounds sorry about it. He looks worried, too, which is even more disturbing.

"All right, fine. Burgers," Mitch says, weakly. "Just burgers."

Dylan looks skeptical, but gives in. "Okay. Come in," he says, and glances up and down the street again before cracking the door open again. "And take your stuff when you go," he adds, stepping aside to let Mitch in. "I swear you leave it behind just to start shit."

Which, what is the problem with an excuse to visit again? What an ungrateful bitch. But Mitch can hear Wrigley barking again, which means they can put this weird conversation aside now, so he hauls the burgers inside and lets Dylan close the door.

---

Lunch with Jack had actually been good.

A shortened season and a little bit of another as a Leaf for him: Jack didn't really know, yet, couldn't really feel it, not the way some of them could. Mitch hadn't known if cats liked dog toys the same way dogs like dog toys, but he'd gotten Jack a six-pack of small stuffed cans of Red Bull that rattled when you shook them to take back with him. Jack had been pretty enthusiastic about them in a way that Mitch would've found suspicious if it were anybody else, but this was Jack. You had to smile.

Mitch had suggested going up to his place by the lake for summer, obviously, but Jack hadn't been back home to the States in a while, and there was the whole travel thing. And even if that got lifted, there were probably places Jack would rather be. It'd been kind of funny to spend so much time in Vancouver on the road, even, when they usually got what, two games there? And that'd been the whole season, back and forth, coast to coast, always just in time to freeze their balls off during every single late frost across the entire nation. Even Mitch was ready to get out of the country and he'd played there pretty much his whole life.

And Jack only really knew the West Coast before Toronto. Not that well, not like he'd lived there, but he'd been there, trained there while playing for LA. Mitch was busy talking about some place Tyson had told him about on Vancouver Island when Jack had said, "Hey Mitch, I just wanted to say thank you."

"Yeah, sure," Mitch had said. "Uh, why?"

"Just for being, you know, good," Jack had said. He'd still seemed a little sad, but he was earnest about this, anyway. "To me and the other guys. I know you're always looking out for the new guys and I appreciate that. I wanted to say that."

"Uh, no," Mitch had said. "Yeah, no problem. I'm glad I get to chill with you, too."

"I mean it. It's a privilege to be around you," Jack had said.

Jack could say things like that and sound like he meant them. It was usually vets who could pull that off, mostly. Vets and rookies who nobody thought knew better. Auston could pull it off. Mitch hadn't really managed it yet.

"I… hey, it's good to make sure guys are doing okay," Mitch had said awkwardly. "Thanks."

Mitch hadn't said to Jack: I'm strategizing this because I know you're gonna be back next year and I'm going to lose it when I do this with someone who won't. Mitch hadn't said: first on that list is anybody I can get to stick around who might retire, because I'm never gonna have to see them across the ice again. Mitch hadn't said: I'm trying to learn to be selfless from you but I don't think it's working too well, buddy. Mitch had never played in the minors. Mitch hoped he never would, let alone spend seven seasons there.

"You mean a lot to this team, you know," Mitch had said. Mitch knew how it felt to hear that.

Jack had looked happy.

---

Mitch had asked Willy once, when they'd been young, or younger, and he'd been vain and kind of an idiot: How can you not care what they think about you?

It'd been a valid question. Mitch Marner, by age 20, had won the Memorial Cup. He'd won the Stafford Smythe, the Ed Chynoweth, the Red Tilson, the 99, the CHL Player of the Year, the — fuckin' everything. Nobody had done that since 2000. He'd been taken fourth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Michigan had wanted him and he'd said no. Snoop Dogg had worn Mitch Marner's name and number on his back. How do you do all that and not keep wanting more?

Willy had laughed. "Well, I can always go home," he'd said. And then he'd flashed Mitch that sort of winning, pitying smile, like: sorry, bud.

---

"Hey uh, Mitch, about Johnny," Jack had also said.

Obviously JT had also called to chat with Jack. Or maybe Jack had called JT first. Not even to be a responsible teammate, just genuinely, they were both just that wholesome. Mitch envied it a little.

"Yeah, no," Mitch had said, once he'd stopped choking on a mouthful of water. "I'll, I'll, I'll, I'm gonna. I'll fix it." Jack had only known Mitch since he'd had the A, and it wasn't like Mitch had never captained a team before, either. Mitch could say something like that and sound like he meant it, too, probably.

"Okay," Jack had said, and sounded dubious. "All right."

"I will," Mitch had insisted. "You don't need to worry." Jack had only seemed a little worried, so that'd been a win.

---

Mitch had called John the day after the loss.

John had said, "I'm glad you called. I thought you did good."

Mitch had screamed into a couch cushion, muffled, on FaceTime for handsome, grainy, visibly somber John Tavares to see.

"Mitch."

"I don't know what to say," Mitch had croaked. "I don't know. I am. So fucking sorry, JT," he'd said.

"Mitch," and now John sounded uncomfortable, great. "Don't say that. You don't have to be."

"I am. Like, I really thought..." We were gonna do it. I really thought we were gonna do it. How could you just, how could we just not? "I can't even tell you what we…"

"We talked about this," John had said, by which he meant they'd all sat around mostly dumbfounded, and John had to act like he was responsible for this shit team doing their shit-team-losing thing again, again, even though he hadn't even played a whole single game in the series. "Anything we think about right now is going to be us making things up mentally. It's been tough, but there's always going to be questions after a loss, and I think it's important we focus on the ones that matter to us."

"Easy for you to…" Mitch wasn't gonna say that. John'd had a lot of practice with losing. "I don't know, I just — I didn't know what to say," he'd admitted. "What's a question that matters right now?"

John had tilted his head and shrugged. "'What are you planning to do next?'"

"I literally don't know," Mitch had said. "What would you say to that?"

"That I'm working on coming back," John had said. "That I was disappointed to not be able to contribute more during this series. We all bear some responsibility for not meeting the high expectations we set for ourselves this year. I'm very fortunate to be where I am right now, and I'll be doing my best to get back with the team as soon as possible so we can confront the challenges we have ahead of us."

"I…" That had to have been written on a scrap of paper somewhere. Mitch had memorized a lot of speeches in his career, but that had been totally soulless. "I don't even understand why people are asking you about this, like."

"We all get the hard questions," John had said firmly.

"Like what? What's a reasonable question to ask you? You didn't do anything wrong!" Other than according to the Toronto Sun, probably, because nearly dying of blunt force trauma on live television instead of winning when it counts is probably a character problem, a mettle problem.

"Like how come every team of mine plays better when I'm not around," John had suggested.

"What?" Mitch had said. Mitch had actually looked, then, and John on the camera's face was blank and grainy and handsome and his mouth was thin. "JT, no," he'd said, and it was the first thing he'd said all day that didn't sound like a yell. "No," he'd repeated.

"It's unfortunate for my teams that I don't believe in luck at this point," John had said.

"That's fucking ridiculous. Who told you that? That's bullshit."

"I'm captain," John had explained. Mitch had opened his mouth to cut him off, but it took long enough to come up a retort that he realized John wasn't done. "I've been here for two years." John halted again. "I've… been to the post-season twice here, three times in New York. Management brought on three other captains this year. Ex-captains, all more experienced. What would you think that said about the room?"

"That we're letting you down as the As," Mitch had said, air knocked out of him, and no, it hadn't been great of him to throw Auston or Mo under the bus like that, but they'd have understood because if John was hearing this shit, then they had, they had been letting him down. Like it was John's fault they lost three in a row with him in the press box.

"Could be… sometimes, the idea of something," John had gestured, not looking at the camera, running a hand through his hair. It'd gotten long, fluffy, wavy at the ends. "More than the actual thing."

"We wanted you there. Of course we needed you, we," I needed you there, probably, Mitch had tried not to say, because this wasn't about him, God.

John did glance at the camera then. "That's good. Because I wasn't going to stay away unless they removed me." He'd paused. "You uh, should tell security that."

"What the fuck man," Mitch had said. "I hate this." 

"Mitch," John had said.

"This all. It's just awful. I can't do this."

"Mitch — "

"Sorry," Mitch had said. "Sorry, I'm just gonna." And he'd hung up.

 

---

 

Well, what had they all expected Mitch to say? That he'd start eating more vegetables, or what?

He's tried that. Hated it. Hated it, got spinach in his teeth, and lost in seven.

 

---

 

Honestly too bad about the All-Star Game in 2021. Mitch would've had a hell of a shot at going again.

At least he's gone once now. Wouldn't want to be the only top 5 guy in that draft to not be invited, anyway.

 

---

 

"Mitch," Auston had said in his ear before leaving, low and calm. "What'd you tell me, Mitch?"

"Don't listen to anybody," Mitch had repeated dutifully.

Auston had clasped his hand, the same handshake they did before a big game, and pulled him in briefly. Then he'd left for his flight to Arizona.

 

---

 

"Hey," John says kindly when Mitch calls him again. He's still grainy, still handsome, now somewhere sunny and bright in his house that Mitch only vaguely recognizes. It's not even sunny where Mitch is. They're in the same city. Maybe it's weird selective cloud cover, or maybe it's just Mitch's imagination that it's brighter on John's end.

"Hey," Mitch says, and his voice sounds wilted even to his own ears. "How're you feeling?"

John shrugs. "Eating solid food," he says.

"Good. Good," Mitch says, attempting enthusiasm.

"Mitch," John says mildly.

"Oh, that was a joke," Mitch figures out after a second. "No, it's good. Uh."

"How are you?"

"Feeling good! Good. No, awful, I feel like shit," Mitch admits, face kind of hot, and tries not to roll over and scream again. "Um. Sorry for… last time. I just…"

"No, it's fine, it's," John says, and visibly stops himself from trying to convince Mitch he hadn't been kind of a disaster, because they both kind of know that's not true.

John's somewhere light and airy, which is good, and he doesn't seem to be busy with anything in specific. Every time they've seen him so far since the accident he's been up and about, at the rink, tucked into his suit, skating careful and almost purposely fearless. He's sitting back on what looks like a blue-and-white striped couch cushion now, just kinda resting. 'Resting' is really not a look that Mitch is used to on John Tavares, but it's probably a good thing. He's probably actually busy with some shit anyway and just pretending not to be. Mitch is bothering him. Whatever, he'll be quick.

"You up to anything these days? Golf? Jogging?" He wants to say, hey, wanna drive up and we can spend the day at the lake near mine so I can lend you the same shorts I lent you last summer that seriously barely fit your ass, but that's ridiculous. This is supposed to be an apology, it's not supposed to be about Mitch. "Netflix?"

"Uh, not golf," John says with a tiny grin, and Mitch regrets everything for a second. "No, I'm just doing some paperwork these days."

"Paperwork?"

"For the Marlboros."

Right, the kids. Him and Sam are doing… something with the club, Mitch hadn't really been paying attention. "How's that going?"

John looks slightly pained. "There's a lot to look into. We have plans with the transition committee, but it's difficult to coordinate, given — " Mitch stops understanding at this point.

John goes on about the business of running a minor hockey club for a little while, and Mitch, like, listens, he really does, and what he gathers is that organizing hockey for kids is a lot more complicated than playing hockey for kids, which ought to be the actual perk of running a kids' hockey club, skating around with tiny toddlers wrapped up like marshmallows in your arms and making airplane noises while they giggle at you like you're the best human on the planet for an entire afternoon. Kids are easy to make happy. John's barely supposed to be skating though, so that's probably going to have to wait.

"Uh. That sucks," Mitch tries eventually when John runs out of steam. He exhales and looks helpless, so Mitch mentally congratulates himself on answering correctly. "What's Sam think?"

"Sam's not happy with me for being available for all this, so that's something I'll have to make up to him." Mitch feels offended on John's behalf before he realizes that's also probably a joke, and then it still offends him, so he makes an offended noise, to communicate that. "Whichever one of us won it first," John says, a little sheepish, like yeah, I know. He doesn't make eye contact with Mitch. "We agreed. We're supposed to bring it back for the kids."

Mitch's mouth makes an O.

Games in the summer, best of seven, four times four, touching or not touching the trophy, lifting, first, Captain, Cup. Mitch thinks about it and then regrets it immediately. He closes his mouth.

John's doing this to give back to the community. It's on top of the charity work he already does, which Mitch kind of knows about because Mitch also has a charity, but this is different — it's where John grew up, where he and Sam came from, and they're trying to make a difference for the new kids.

"I mean," Mitch fidgets with the corner of his phone. "It might be Sam first," he admits eventually.

"Yeah, maybe," John laughs. "Could be."

There's a kind of quiet pause.

"You holding up over there?" Mitch asks. He tries not to sound like he's whispering at a fragile sleeping baby, because he's been told by Auston that he sounds like that when he's talking to injured people and that's kind of condescending, but, like: Auston couldn't even talk about it after the game. It's a bit of a miracle that John's okay.

John shrugs. "The docs stop by to check up on me every so often. I'm doing good." He doesn't even remember what happened still, supposedly, which maybe is a good thing. "I wasn't kidding though. I need noise-cancelling headphones to use the blender."

"Oh no, fuck! Your smoothies," Mitch moans, because oh God, John's smoothies. How is he alive?

John looks sad.

"Do you want me to make you some?" Mitch asks tentatively. "I can come over. You can show me what to put in and then leave the room. I'll sneak in like, less than four squares of chocolate."

John smiles. Mitch wishes the Isles weren't still playing. Mitch wishes Mitch had scored like, even one goal in the series, in Game 5, ideally, in overtime.

"We're gonna come back next year," Mitch says. He says it the way someone said it to him three years ago, and like he said it the year after that, and the year after that.

"Yeah, we will," John says, easy.

"Right," Mitch says, to stop himself from insisting again we will, even though John and his beautiful robot face seem to agree and actually believe it. Mitch chews the inside of his mouth. "Just, dude," he blurts. "You were in the league what, seven years before I came in? It's been five years again since then. I don't know what the hell is going on, man, like…" He trails off. How did you do it?

John shrugs again. "It took nine years for me to find you all."

Three seasons since, high fives for the liney and high fives for the captain, locker room talks and road trips, coach firings and jersey burnings, rock-paper-scissors for first star, and that one time in the bar with the guy in LA, when Mitch had been drunk but not that drunk.

(He'd never let on that he hadn't been that drunk. There'd been nothing to remember anyway, except that there'd been nothing to remember, just John tucking him into a hotel bed after dragging him out of the cab, warm and fuzzy and totally fine, because some asshole in LA couldn't recognize Mitch Marner.)

"What if…" Mitch licks his lips, nervous. His voice had been hoarse, it turned out, and he hadn't even realized. "What if we're not all here, next year."

And Mitch knows, he knows he sounds like he's being a baby, scared. He doesn't listen to the chatter, he's deleted all his social media apps from his phone, but he can still hear it, it's always the same. What Could The Maple Leafs Do With An Extra 11 Million In Cap Space? Who Could The Maple Leafs Get In A Trade This Summer? Is A Change Needed In Toronto? What Do The Leafs Do Next?

It's different this year because they're already losing people, probably. Fred. Zach. Mo, maybe. And like why them, and not Mitch? When they work twice as hard and make half as much as Mitch and his superstar deal, Mitch and his Toronto sweetheart deal.

John sits back a little and looks weary. "That could be true every year," he says. Always thinking about the team.

"No, I mean, me, you, Auston," Mitch says. He'd been holding his breath without noticing. "I mean. Me," Mitch admits, because they're not moving Auston, and they're not moving John. They won't, and they can't. "What if."

John's lost a lot of teammates over the years. He knows it's always a worry when you're losing.

"Do you want to go?" John says, like that's an option to think about.

"No," Mitch says, because that's not an option to think about. "I don't."

They're supposed to win. He's supposed to stay. They're supposed to want him. Toronto could've picked first, second, third — it would've been Mitch. Maybe not first, but. And everything's still going fine. It's not like — it could be worse. It's just.

John smiles, a little wry. "You could always come back one day," he says.

Mitch laughs, numb. "I guess you're right."

That's them, the eleven million dollar hometown discounts.

Mitch rubs his face.

John's always looking to get better. For them, even, and he used to say so, to the cameras if not to their faces. Mitch'd heard it in the locker room off to the side of the media scrum, or when he used to look himself up on the internet and find articles and interview clips. For Mitch, because he made John better.

"All right?" John says.

"Yeah," Mitch says. "No, I'm fine. I… sorry, I'm bothering you, I just." He takes a breath. "You sure you're good? I can bring something over for you while you're working."

"It's fine," John reassures him. "I'll be fine." He makes a kind of funny face again, then says, "Well. You could come over tomorrow and make some smoothies, if you really want."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. Bring your own ingredients, if you want anything unusual."

"Cake batter," Mitch suggests immediately.

"The brownie batter you brought last time didn't work very well," John points out.

"Well, I mean, you say that," Mitch says.

John smiles again.

It's the smile they've worked on since he got here, the one John never used to do. So it's not like nothing's changed.

And Mitch feels like — they could come back from this. Like there'll be offseason, and then year six. And they could still make it.

---

Mitch was only ever going to get better. That's what they said at draft, and when he signed the extension, and when he finished top five in scoring in the league, best on the team. One day he'd be everything everybody always said he could be, and it'd be worth it. We want that to happen here, Kyle had said.

So Mitch thinks it will.

It'll happen here.