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Who are We to Blame Ourselves for Moving On (To Become Someone)

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Jack’s fine. Jack’s 100%, no questions asked, truly, and amazingly fine. He’s fine. Everything’s fine.

“Eichs, man – I just—” Noah’s voice breaks him out of his train of thought, and when he looks up to see Hanny’s face over FaceTime he’s wearing at his lip. He’s exasperated. Or, Jacksperated—the dumbass way Matts would describe the way Noah’s face would get that pinched look when Jack was being, well Jack.

“When’s the last time you had a good idea, man?”

“Uh—” Jack blinks at him shrugging. “Like probably when I told my dad I wanted to quit baseball and focus on hockey. I was like 11.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” Noah says smacking his forehead laughing. “At least you’re honest about it.”

Jack’s not dumb, okay? He’s not. Even if he like was barely academically eligible at BU, sleep-walked through high school and his one year of gen ed classes in college, he’s not actually an idiot. Well, usually. Mostly? Sort of? Anyway, he’s not dumb is the thing. He’s not like booksmart, or mainstream intelligent or whatever, but he isn’t actually stupid.

He used to call himself dumb all the time, in that self-deprecating way he gets when the pressure mounts and his insecurity bleeds into every facet of his life. He pokes fun at his hair, his skin, and his inability to string together a coherent thought.

One day, when he was still at BU, Jessie had a rare weekend off from rowing and came down to hang out.

“You’re not fucking stupid, Jack. Shut up,” she said with absolute venom when he went off about three separate kids trying to get out of a group project with him.

“It’s fine, Jess,” he said taking a gulp of water. “I’m self-aware enough to get it.”

She rolled her eyes harder than he’d seen in a while. He knew he learned it somewhere. “Listen, little brother, and I’m only going to say this once because like your ego is already growing. But, look—to be as good as you are at hockey, you can’t possibly be stupid.”

“It’s different—” Jack had tried to interrupt, but she absolutely steamrolled him.

“Anyone who is the best at anything, isn’t dumb. Society places certain monikers and awards certain types of intelligences. The whole big, dumb jock thing is a stereotype, that’s it. People have been telling you since you got good at hockey that that’s all you’d ever be, and that’s fucking ridiculous. Why do you think that the women’s hockey team’s GPA is so much higher than the men’s? It’s not because they’re inherently smarter. It’s because no one’s ever put them in a box or told them that they don’t need school or not to apply themselves; It’s a waste of time, whatever. And, sure we’ll put aside that society doesn’t value women’s sports, and that college is the end of the road for most of them, and even if you’re good enough to make it professionally, there’s no money in it—”

Jack had laughed a little into his hand because once his sister starts on a tirade, no one’s getting her to stop until everything’s out.

“But like anyway, it’s also because no one sees them as one-dimensional, the way the world sees you—the way everyone’s taught you to see yourself. They say ‘high hockey IQ’ instead of admitting that you’re fucking smart out there, Jack. You see the ice differently and make plays other people can’t because you’re smart.”

Jack swallows, “I—”

The thing is, he’s always known his sister loves the shit out of him, in that way that’s acceptable in their big, loud New England family: hugs a little too hard, chirps with an undertone of biting sincerity. But he’s never heard her voice any of this, and it was—startling, if he’s being honest—that she’d obviously put a lot of thought into it.

“You’re intelligent, but they create this narrative that you’re not, and no one expects you to be, to take away some of your power and autonomy and agency—like you have to be reliant on the brains—coaches, executives, eventually, whatever—when in actuality, you’re inherently capable of being multifaceted.”

Maybe it was the ferocity in which Jessie had spoken, or the way that her words echoed in Jack’s head for weeks and weeks later, but the conversation changed the way he spoke about himself—and slowly, the way he perceived himself.

So, Jack knows he’s not stupid. He knows that he needs to take control of his own narrative. His own life—that he doesn’t deserve to be reduced to just the thing he does.

But, just because he’s not stupid, doesn’t mean he isn’t a fucking idiot, like 90% of the time off the ice—okay, maybe 95%; that’s what Noah would probably say, anyway. And, while Jack would never admit it to him, he usually concedes to his opinion about most things that matter.

“Why would you—” Noah starts and stops. “I just—” he stops again. “Eichs, man—” he whines finally breaking off.

“I—” Jack shrugs into his front facing camera giving Noah his best “aw shucks” that used to drive their high school teachers up the wall. “His face, Hanny. He gave me this face, and he couldn’t talk; you know how McDavid, is Noah. It was so awkward, dude. And, I—no one deserves that shit, okay?”

“Jack, I will literally text Dylan for you to get you out of this; this is going to end so spectacularly bad for both of you,” Noah insists. “Eichs, man—”

So, it went like this:

Well, okay Jack should really start with admitting that Connor McDavid was plainly not his favorite person. He was fine, Jack supposes, as like a human. Just fine, really. Nothing to write home about. A bland, easily forgettable human, if not for the fact he was Connor McDavid, the most naturally gifted hockey player Jack had ever, and he means ever, seen. Which, only really added to the disdain that Jack had been building for the kid since way before they’d ever met in person.

It just didn’t seem fair to Jack—how the media coronized McDavid immediately, singing his praises when he did anything from tying his shoe to fucking sneezing. See Jack, the USA hockey PR people would tell him in Ann Arbor or over the phone when he was at BU, that’s how you speak to the media. That’s what they want to see. That’s how you de-escalate, kid.

But, Jack? All Jack did was dare to have a personality—to be fucking funny and bright, and he’d be fucking damned if he was going to dim his light because other people thought he needed to speak in a monotone and be more polite and act “just happy to be there.” That’s fucking bullshit. It’s easy to say that “you’re just happy to be there” when you’ve already won. When everyone already decided that you had no competition.

If McDavid had to deal with one tiny fraction of the shit Jack did, he wouldn’t be fucking smiling and saying that shit. He couldn’t.

McDavid’s team didn’t win the Memorial Cup, but apparently that wasn’t a reflection on him—his ability to win, his ability to lead, his ability to do anything. But, when BU lost the Frozen Four? Suddenly, Jack wasn’t a winner. Suddenly, Jack didn’t have it in him to take a team all the way. Suddenly, no one was sure if Jack was the kind of guy you could build a franchise around.

He was too volatile. He was too emotional. He was the wrong kind of competitive.

Like what the fuck did these people want from him? He was 18 at time. He was a literal child. And, he felt like nothing that he did would ever be good enough because he’d never be Connor McDavid, and he didn’t want to be, and it was infuriating.

So, to say Jack was a bit annoyed by Connor McDavid when they finally met in person, would be a fair assessment, or an understatement, sure, Jack supposes.

It was probably the most anticlimactic meeting of all time. Connor was coming out of the hotel at the Combine; Jack was coming back from taking a phone call from his mom outside, and they just kind of made eye contact, and McDavid fucking waved at him. He waved at Jack. Like a full five-finger, open-palm, slow wave. Like what?

“Uh hey?” Jack had said approaching him and sticking out his hand because McDavid couldn’t just wave at him, okay.

“Uh, nice to meet you?” McDavid had said taking Jack’s outstretched hand voice croaking and going up at the end like a question.

“Well, this is weird,” Jack had blurted because sometimes his mouth didn’t communicate with the filter function in his brain.

“Uh,” McDavid had mumbled looking down immediately avoiding Jack’s eyes as he laughed uncomfortably. “I guess it’s nice that we didn’t have to meet in front of the cameras?”

“Sure,” Jack had conceded rocking back on his heels. “Well, nice to meet you dude, or whatever? I’ll see ya.”

“Bye,” McDavid had muttered still not looking Jack in the eye, and he fucking waved again as Jack retreated into the hotel.

So, Jack decided that day that he didn’t hate Connor McDavid. He didn’t have the energy to hate him, to be real. But, damn how could anyone be friends with that pure white bread energy? Bless Strome, seriously. Doing God’s work.

They stayed their distance from each other during most of the draft events, and when they had to be paired together, it really was fine. That wasn’t just a line that he gave Noah afterward. If McDavid was good at anything off the ice, it was being aggressively mundane, and like maybe in certain scenarios that would rile Jack up, and he’d want to explore trying to get a rise out of him, but in this context? Jack kinda started to feel bad for the kid. Because Jack could see the veil of his persona—the yes sir, no ma’am, I’m from an upper-middle class, suburban, Canadian family shtick—begin to show some well-weathered wear.

Or, maybe persona wasn’t the right way to describe it. Because honestly? As much as it may have pained Jack to have admitted it that time—there was nothing disingenuous about McDavid; if anything, he radiated truth and honesty and “I wasn’t an Eagle Scout, but I could have been” energy more than anyone Jack had ever met. So, it really wasn’t a persona. It was more that he had to be on, with the media, with the other guys, and the dude just looked fucking exhausted. Like the life was being sucked out of him every time they asked him to do another take.

And, look Jack obviously had a complicated relationship with the media. All those school paper reporters who plastered those pictures of him crying about losing the Frozen Four can suck his dick, okay, but he was pretty chill with the lifestyle, softball style shit they were doing as a lead-up to the draft. It wasn’t like anyone was asking him any substantive questions, to be honest.

Like why was McDavid so stressed about getting asked about his favorite pre-game meal and going to prom? Like, dude, it ain’t that deep.

So, after the draft, that painful feeling in Jack’s stomach when they would ask him about McDavid or someone would compare him to McDavid, or he would have to sign another fucking McDavid Buffalo jersey, God help his soul, began to settle into a dull ache.

It was whatever. He didn’t want to be friends with McDavid, like no fucking thanks. But, now that Jack knew that he got sick from anxiety before dropping the puck at the Stanley Cup Final? It was hard to feel the same kind of disdain for the kid, is all. Like he clearly had his own issues he was working with.

Playing together on Team North America was unexpected, to say the least. Jack just figured that they’d never have to cross that threshold in their careers, unless Buffalo sent him to like Siberia or something in a few years after they got sick of his sass or whatever, and they ended up playing on an All Star team together.

Peter had called him asking him if he wanted to get to Toronto early to throw out the first pitch with McDavid at the Jays game as PR for the tournament, and he couldn’t help but bark out a laugh. “Been there; done that; please don’t make me do it again,” Jack told him once he regained his breath.

People kept tagging him in the announcement naming McDavid as captain even though they were playing with Saad, who had already won two Cups and was clearly the guy for the job. McDavid didn’t even wear a letter for his own team yet, Jesus. And, to say Jack was a little on edge trying to act like he aggressively did not care about being passed over, so like no fucking thanks. He didn’t need to deal with that.

And if he got a little drunk at Noah’s family’s house on the Cape with some of the USNDTP boys the day after the baseball game sulking a little thumbing through the pictures of McDavid in that crisp, new North American jersey (“at least they’re kind of sick, though,” Chucky had said when he saw Jack looking at the articles over his shoulder), thinking about his dumb snapback and his dumb face, and his dumb, weird smile, everyone around him was too drunk to chirp him about it.

They left the tournament, not as friends. Nope, Jack had plenty of friends. He was great at making friends, and McDavid? No, Connor McDavid was clearly not his friend. But, they left the tournament with each other’s numbers and it felt, well, something was different. There was a shift, and Jack doesn’t know what or how or why. He tried not to think about it.

“Dude,” Noah says again shaking his head. “Just tell me what fucking possessed you to—”

“I don’t know, Hanny. I don’t fucking know, okay? You know I have a word vomiting problem sometimes, okay? I just—once I start on my bullshit, sometimes I can’t stop,” he admits biting his lip. Damn, why did he even agree to this FaceTime call?

“Jack,” Noah says softly after a beat. “This is—someone’s bound to get hurt.”

Jack bites his lip and shrugs. “I fucking know,” he concedes slowly.

“How did this even happen?” Noah says without the bite he had early seemingly calmed down. “Auston just said that you blurted it to Strome out of nowhere.”

“I just—” Jack starts and stops.

Jack doesn’t really know what happened between McDavid and Strome. He’s heard bits and pieces from Matts (from Marns, the third wheel of that trinity) and some of the other guys, and he still keeps up with Stromer more than most of the other guys in their draft class, but when he came to chill with Jack when he was still in Erie last, he and Connor were still as tight as ever.

(Dylan had been texting him throughout their entire dinner, and Jack was only like ready to throttle him a little).

But Jack guesses somewhere between McDavid winning gold at Worlds or the Hart or the Art Ross and Strome losing World Juniors (again) and spending half his life bouncing around in the AHL and getting traded to Chicago, the two had a falling out. Jack doesn’t want to sound like a dick, but he gets it if Stromer was a little annoyed with the situation. It’s gotta be hard to watch your best friend get everything, when you’re getting tossed around like a rag doll by Hockey Canada and the fucking Arizona Coyotes, as if you don’t even matter.

So, Jack doesn’t know what the deal is, and it’s not his business, and he honestly doesn’t give a shit because it sucks losing your best friend, or at least Jack can imagine because Noah would never jump ship like that, but still. He can imagine how much it would suck to lose him when he counts on him for so much.

Jack doesn’t know how two people can go from McDavid literally professing his undying friendship to Dylan on NHL Network 30 times during the draft saying he would be nothing without him or whatever, to barely able to be in the same room without DeBrincat between them; but again, it’s not Jack’s business.

So anyway, it went like this:

It was the offseason, and Jack was in Toronto for some sponsorship shit. He scheduled it all together, so he’d only have to go once before he did the regular NHL press junket closer to camp. So, Chucky invited him to hang out with the boys and train with Scary Gary for the week; no big deal; totally normal.

His first day there, though, he found out that apparently Strome was getting married in two weekends. Which, like did Jack want to get married before 30? Fuck no. But, like good for Dylan, if that’s what he wanted to do. Jack’s a judgment free kinda guy. He’s also a supporter of free love. More love, less hate; that’s what he muttered to Auston that morning, at least, who was in town for something too, but mostly to hang out with Marner, Jack thinks.

McDavid was acting cagey, even more so than usual. The guys were ribbing him about his failure as a groomsman or whatever, and the dude was just not having it. And, like as Jack’s probably established, McDavid’s a weird kid, and awkward, to say the least. But, Jack had seen him interact with his friends before, and it was never as strained. If anything, being around people who made Connor feel comfortable was one of the only ways to get that terrified look off his face.

Jack didn’t say anything, nor did he do anything. Not his business. Like Strome and McDavid had always been weird about each other, and that new development was just yet another thing to file away.

But that all fucking changed when Jack—well was Jack.

He went to Marns’ place that evening after his photoshoot to eat burgers, get drunk, and chill by the pool.

He walked into Mitch’s kitchen to Strome looking away from McDavid’s face but still directing venom his way. “Jesus, Connor. If you don’t want to come, don’t fucking come. I’m not—I’m not responsible for your happiness because you can’t—” he stopped voice lowering. “Stop sitting there with that puppy dog look on your face acting like I fucking ruined your life; you’re Connor McDavid, grow up. We’re not 16 anymore—” he broke off running a hand through his long off-season hair. “I can’t have—look, even though we’re not, whatever, anymore, doesn’t mean that I—” he stopped again groaning into his hand. “I want you to be happy,” he spit it out as it almost pained him to say it. “And, I wouldn’t have put you in the wedding party if I didn’t think we could salvage, this, okay? But, if you’re going to spend the whole weekend sulking, I’m kicking you out—"

McDavid didn’t say anything, and he made no move to respond when Strome noticed Jack coming into the room.

Dylan blushed a deep red still avoiding Connor’s eyes and now Jack’s as well. “Sorry, Eichs, didn’t mean for you to—”

It was then when McDavid looked at him with that look of pure fucking desperation. He personified discomfort, discontent, and unadulterated fucking devastation, and it makes Jack queasy even thinking about it. Jack has no idea how someone so bland and monotone as McDavid was able to level him with such a look, but somehow, he communicated every single negative emotion about the Strome situation to Jack all at once in one split second of too-long eye contact.

“Hey,” Jack placated softly approaching the two of them slowly as to not set off the situation even more. He placed his hand between McDavid’s shoulder blades meant as a comforting gesture because damn whatever the two had been fighting about had him fucked to the nines. Connor had sunken into his touch immediately. “Are we good?”

Dylan had leveled him with a curious look, and Jack could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he nodded at Jack.

What Jack did next can only be described as survival Jack Eichel mode: seeing the problem, feeling the problem, but his brain deciding to solve the problem immediately and without any thought to the repercussions.

“Hey,” Jack had repeated faintly closer to McDavid’s ear hand migrating to McDavid’s lower back without the express permission of Jack’s brain. “Okay?”

McDavid still didn’t look either of them in the eye but leaned into Jack’s touch, and Jack can’t explain why or how or—

It was Dylan’s sharp intake of breath and almost angry look that only spurred Jack on to keep Connor close, for no reason other than he felt like he needed to shield McDavid; he doesn’t know why.

“Are you—” Dylan had started sputtering slightly. “Seriously?”

It didn’t take long for Jack to catch on to why Dylan’s eyes were boring into him. There was no longer any space between Jack and Connor, and Jack had absent-mindedly started slowly stroking Connor’s back to comfort him because he was literally shaking under Jack’s touch. Jack knew what it looked like.

It would have been easy, no it would have been smart and perfectly rational, to extract himself from the situation and let Strome and McDavid sort themselves out, and never speak of it again, but Jack couldn’t. He still doesn’t know why.

So, he did what Jack Eichel did best: he doubled the fuck down.

“Yeah,” he shrugged going for causal, but he doesn’t know if he actually succeeded. Strome looked too freaked out to really pay that part any mind. “It’s new.”

Dylan had just blinked at him. “I—Connor? Are you kidding me? Why didn’t you—”

“Dylan,” Jack interrupted he could feel a protective instinct blooming in him, and he has no idea where it came from. “I don’t—please stop yelling at my boyfriend, okay? I don’t want to like get in the middle of the friendship, but dude, you’re upsetting him.”

Strome looked all kinds of pissed, and leveled Connor with a pretty grim look, which kind of shocked Jack at the time and still does. Because Strome was a lot of things? But he was mostly chill as fuck off the ice and easy with affection. “Fine. Sure,” he said putting his hands up sarcastically. “I don’t know—” he started but cut himself off. “You know we’re having a strict photo policy at the wedding. You can bring Jack. You didn’t have to hide.”

He could feel Connor nod beside him, “We’ll talk about it.”

Strome turned to go, the conversation apparently over before he spun around aggressively to face them again. “For what it’s worth, I’m happy for you guys. I don’t know why you’ve been lying about it. But like you can stop.”

“Fuck,” Connor had muttered lowly as Dylan stalked away back to hang with the guys in Mitch’s yard.

“Uh,” Jack tried to start but for once in his life, he was actually rendered speechless.

“Thanks,” Connor had finally said not moving away from Jack even though there was no longer any reason for them to be standing so close or Jack to be stroking his side, but he just couldn’t stop. “You didn’t—like you definitely didn’t need to do that.”

Jack shrugged, and he doesn’t know why because it was definitely a huge fucking deal. He just lied to Strome and got invited to his fucking wedding as McDavid’s plus one. Jesus, he had already started thinking about all the ways Hanny was going to roast him.

McDavid lifted his eyes to look at Jack again, and it was a similar look to what pulled him across the kitchen in the first place. He looked so fucking wounded. Like he had been dealing with this shit for so long, and it kept scabbing over and bleeding again and then scabbing over and bleeding again and again and again.

Jack just had to open his arms to him and pull him in because Jesus, that kid needed someone to just get that look off his face. Connor folded into Jack easily, and even though Jack knew they were only about an inch apart in height, Connor sank into him and just let Jack totally envelop every last centimeter of him.

“Looks like you needed that,” Jack said when they finally pulled back when Auston stumbled into the kitchen to get another round.

“Yeah,” Connor had nodded looking from Auston to Jack to Auston.

Matts, though, just shrugged and left. Jack really loves his friends.

“I’ve been like out—since like halfway through my first season in Ann Arbor, so don’t worry about the U.S. guys. They know me,” Jack had told him shrugging watching Connor watch Auston leave wearily. Jack figured he knew because he never tried to hide it anyway, but just decided it was better to be on the same page there, because McDavid didn’t exactly strike him as the most observant.

Connor just nodded again, and Jack had expected him to give Jack really anything—any tidbit about himself, his sexuality, why he and Strome were feuding. Jack would have taken any small glimpse into how they got themselves into the situation.

But, after Connor decided to offer him literally nothing, Jack just stepped away rolling his eyes. “I’m fucking starving, dude. Did Marns start the grill yet?”

“I—” Connor had shrugged. “I think so?”

“Cool,” Jack nodded. “Want a beer?"

“Uh, I think I may need something stronger after that.”

That made Jack laugh, and when he looked up at Connor the look on his face was somewhere between a smile and a grimace, which was a marked improvement than what his face looked like before. “I hear that. Let’s find Marns’ stash.”

“Hey?” Chucky asked confused to find them together a while later three tequila shots in sipping on Marns’ nice-ish Bourbon. “Do you guys want food? Mitchy’s taking a head count.”

“Yes,” they both had said back emphatically at the same time.

“O-o-okay,” Chucky had replied stretching the word out and laughing. “Didn’t know it was that kinda day, but like Thirsty Wednesday, go off.”

Jack snorted into his glass. Sometimes it just hit him all at once how much he missed his NTDP guys.

Connor flapped his hand then looking at Matthew shrugging one shoulder. “I just—ugh today fucking blows.”

Chucky looked at them curiously and raised an eyebrow at Jack subtly out of Connor’s gaze as he went to get a few more beers for the guys out back.

“We—” Jack started, and he will blame the alcohol on what tumbled out of his mouth next. “We just told Strome we’re like—” Jack mimed the universal signal for a bj because he’s still an actual child, and he only has a little regret. “It could have gone better, but also—” Jack raised his glass towards Connor. “Could have went much worse, Davo.”

Chucky, to his credit, just laughed, raised his glass in tandem, and went with it like he knew that they were boning this whole time. “Here, here.” When he left, though, he gave Jack a look that told him he’s going to have a US boys’ intervention if he didn’t explain what the fuck was happening soon.

Connor had watched him go before turning to Jack a little wild behind the eyes. “So, are we just like, pretending? Are you—coming to Dyls’ wedding?”

"After that scene we made earlier with Stromer stomping out of the room, Connor?” Jack had scoffed. “I don’t think we have a choice, dude.”

“Yeah,” Connor agreed slowly running a hand through his hair. He’d let it grow out this offseason, and it looked better than usual, in Jack’s opinion—well before he started fucking with it. “I—did you—are you cool with people thinking we’re like together?”

“Again, like I don’t think we really have a choice, unless you want to admit to Stromer that somehow that all was a misunderstanding—”

“No!” Connor had interrupted immediately. “I mean—I just—things with me and Dylan are strained, and I—”

Jack had waived him off because like those details were meant for a much more sober conversation. “It’s okay. Just—I know I inserted myself, and I’m sorry? But, also—it was so awkward I had to do something.”

Connor had looked embarrassed at that flushing red and looking away. “You kind of saved me back there, and like I owe you, and I—you’re really okay with pretending to be dating for the next few weeks or months or whatever?”

“We can just play it by ear, I guess? Look, I’m not seeing anyone, and I’m going to start seriously training for the season again soon, and like the ship has sailed on the relationship front for another summer, already. So like, it’ll be easy to just fib a little for the next little while, and we’ll just ‘break up’ right after the season starts citing the distance or whatever. Easy.”

“Jack, you really don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Jack had insisted because he couldn’t stop running that look of devastation McDavid gave him over and over and over again in his head, and if he can get Strome back a little for ruining this dude that much? He’d be happy to. Ecstatic. Like whatever Connor did? He didn’t deserve that shit.

“Jack—”

“Connor,” Jack repeated rolling his eyes. “Look what Dylan said to you was kinda fucked, and like again it’s not my business, but I’m not giving him the satisfaction of admitting we lied. So, like unless you want to back out, I’m in.”

“We should probably have had this conversation sober, but okay. Yeah, let’s do it.”

“Probably,” Jack had agreed easily shrugging and grabbing Connor’s wrist dragging him towards the door.

“What are you doing?”

“I wasn’t kidding about being hungry, and now I’m buzzed, and I really need food. Let’s go practice on the guys, I guess? That cool?”

Connor had laughed a little stiffly but nodded letting Jack drag him outside, “Sure, I’m a terrible actor, so it should be interesting.”

“Jesus Christ, what were you guys doing in there for so long?” Marns had asked snickering when they made their way onto his deck. “Your food’s long cold, Eichs, and it’s your fault, so don’t @ me.”

“Ah, you know,” Jack had said ghosting his arm down Connor’s side feeling buzzed and dangerous, if he’s being honest. “Just got a little pre-occupied.”

Connor flushed bright red and shot Jack an almost betrayed look, but he had gotten them into this mess in the first place, so he could at least let Jack have some fun at the guys’ expense.

Stromer made a choked noise. “Dude, c’mon. I do not want to think about that when I’m eating.”

“Aww, Stromer, man, I know you’re almost old and married, but some of us are still young and in love,” Jack had retorted immediately, and maybe in retrospect it wasn’t the best choice of words, but Jack was working with what he had, okay?

Dylan looked a little stricken mouthing “in love?” to Marns, who just shrugs and smiles back at them.

“As long as you didn’t fuck in my room, I’m happy for you. Just like hands where we can see them, okay?” Mitch laughs handing Jack two huge burgers and corn.

The rest of the night passed in a blur. He tried not to drink that much more because he was still feeling those tequila shots, and he had a Bauer shoot the next morning. He calmed down on trying to fuck with the guys, figuring that freaking out Connor even more maybe wouldn’t be the greatest idea, but he did keep him close all night, and did act aggressively casually coupley every time Strome looked over—which was a lot, if Jack’s being honest. He was pretty much openly staring at them as the night drew to a close, eyes focused like they were a puzzle he had yet to solve. But he blessedly didn’t say anything else to them. Didn’t question Jack about anything else.

He crashed as soon as he got back to his hotel, which is basically the end and how he woke up with 20 unread texts and Noah’s continuing demands to FaceTime right fucking now, Eichs.

“So, what are you going to do?” Noah doesn’t really ask but rather demands pinching the bridge of his nose. Jack already knows he’s going to text him later saying that he has an “Eichs-tension headache.”

Jack shrugs bobbling his phone a little bit trying to find words. “Just go with it, I guess? Look, I mean I can definitely pull it off—”

“You can, sure,” Noah agrees easily, which almost sounds like a compliment. “Matts and Chuck seriously believe that you somehow have managed to keep this underwraps. God help those two clueless idiots—”

“Hey!” Jacks indignantly, “I could totally keep a relationship on the DL!”

Noah snorts, “From all of your friends? Jack, you’re my best friend, and I love you, man, but subtle you are not. When you’re into someone? Watch out.”

Jack rolls his eyes, but he has to agree. “So, they know me, so why do they think it’s real?”

Noah shrugs hair falling into his face, “Mostly because it seems like a random lie? Like what do you have to gain from lying about it? And, like McDavid’s like notoriously private and guarded about his personal life and relationships and stuff, so I think they figure you were trying to protect him. Which, I mean, is kind of weirdly accurate in a round-about kinda way. Also, the Strome, thing—”

“Yeah,” Jack sighs. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on there, but it’s not good.”

“Yep,” Noah says agreeing. “I don’t know either, but Matts knows something, and it sounded like McDavid’s been real fucked up for a while. Auston said Mitch was happy that he had you to lean on.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jack mutters.

“Yeah, which is why this is definitely going to blow up in your face,” Noah blinks at him and hesitates slightly. “Look, Jack, I know you don’t mean to be so—how do I want to phrase this—rough? Cavalier? I don’t know, but like just you need to be cautious about this. It seems like Connor’s—really vulnerable here, and like he probably—dude, I don’t know if he’s going to fair well if you go and Eichs this shit up.”

“Please don’t use my name as a verb,” Jack requests, but he laughs a little because he doesn’t mean for his brazenness to get people in trouble, it just works out like that most of the time.

“You know what I mean, though?”

“Yeah,” Jack nods getting off the bed. “Look, I need to get in the shower because the car’s going to be here soon for the shoot, and I don’t want to make them wait.”

“Just, be careful, Eichs, okay? Be nice, too,” Noah sighs.

“I’m always nice!” Jack responds fake chipper.

“Sure,” Noah laughs rolling his eyes. “That’s the first word I’d use to describe you.”

“Call me later after you talk to McDavid, okay?”

“Fine, but it’s all going to be good. We’re just going pretend to be dating for a while. Go to Strome’s wedding, and that’s it. We’re not curing cancer over here,” Jack retorts slowly. “It’s not that deep.”

“Whatever; just call me,” Noah says and hangs up without saying goodbye.

Matts is already at the shoot when Jack rolls up and has a latte for him from his favorite hipster coffeeshop, which usually Jack would chirp him about, but this morning he’s just grateful. He’s not hungover, really. Just a little fuzzy around the temples, and his conversation with Noah didn’t help to put him at ease.

“So, you and McDavid?” Matts asks raising his eyebrows after he lets Jack commune with his latte for a few minutes.

Jack rolls his eyes taking another gulp. “Did you get me this coffee to make yourself feel better about asking me prying questions?”

“Nope,” Auston lies. “I’m just a great friend, and you know it. But, seriously Eichs, you guys seem—good? Like you seem happy, dude.”

He did feel a certain amount of glee from pissing off Stromer the night before, that’s true. But, he just shrugs at Auston looking for the right lie.

“I just—I’m surprised that you’ve kept it a secret. You—you don’t do secrets. How long have you two—?”

Jack shrugs again because he’s not wrong. Jack wasn’t like shouting about his hookups and relationships from the rooftop, but when he decided as a wide-eyed queer 15-year-old to fuck it and be honest with the people around him, he did it in his aggressively causal way. He wanted to normalize it. So, hiding? That’s not Jack’s style.

He wasn’t ashamed of being gay. He was comfortable with himself and his identity, and he always was real with his friends about it because that’s how he was going to start to break the stigma. Even if he wasn’t ready to be publicly out for the whole world to see, he wasn’t going to hide, either. It was an important compromise to him.

“It’s pretty new,” he explains vaguely. “You know Connor’s—”

“Yeah,” Matts nods cutting him off. “You’ll be good for him, I think. Mitch does too.”

“Thanks,” Jack says for lack of anything else rubbing the back of his neck feeling very uncomfortable all of a sudden. He can feel himself blushing.

“Aw,” Matts laughs clapping him on the back. “I’ve never seen you so fucking bashful, dude. It’s weird. You must be serious about this.”

Jack just nods not really trusting himself to speak taking another long sip of his latte.

One of the makeup people comes to collect him then, and the rest of the shoot passes without them talking about it.

Jack knows that’s not it though, and it’s Chucky apparently who they send in to ask the hard questions when he picks Jack up at his hotel to drive him to afternoon training.

“Dude,” he starts without preamble. “So, you’re banging McDavid. Interesting plot twist, I gotta say.”

Jack rolls his eyes, but knows he’s flushing under his summer tan. “We’re dating, fucker.”

“Yeah,” Matty agrees when Jack expected a sarcastic chirp. “I heard McDavid’s not a casual kind of guy.”

“He’s not,” Jack hears himself say, but he doesn’t actually know that. No one knows that because no one knows anything about the kid’s dating life. Or at least Jack hasn’t? Fuck, he’s never even thought about McDavid’s dating life until yesterday.

“I—” Matty stutters a little bit. “Dude, I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“What?” Jack startles out because literally no one has acted like Jack was the one who was going to be shafted by this “relationship.”

“Eichs, dude, c’mon, I know you man,” Chucky retorts easily.

And he does. They only overlapped for one year in Ann Arbor, and they weren’t the closest then, but since Noah’s gone to Calgary, Matthew’s become more of a fixture in Jack’s life as well. He’s an easy person to be around. He’s almost always happy and in a decent mood. He brightens almost every room he walks into. He’s a great friend too. Jack knows that Noah wouldn’t have had the easiest transition from Carolina, if he didn’t have Matty by his side to champion him every day.

“Connor’s a nice guy, Eichs. But, he’s not—dude’s got like issues, man. And he’s not exactly waving around a rainbow flag.”

“I’m not either,” Jack bitches back helplessly because he’s not, okay.

“Not literally,” Chucky rolls his eyes. “But, like he’s never going to be chill, not like you, anyway.”

“No,” Jack confirms slowly because like Connor is the furthest thing from chill.

“I just,” Chucky blows out a breath. “You’re already hiding and doing non-Eichs shit, and like no one’s worth changing for, dude. At least not things that are like quintessentially you. There’s a difference between being private and being secretive, y’know?”

Jack nods, “I appreciate the concern, Matty, but believe me, I’m not going to get hurt.” Because it’s not real. He wants to say, but he doesn’t want to betray Connor’s trust before they’ve even talked about it.

The thought catches him off guard, because it’s not like he owes Connor anything, and he’s known Chucky since the kid rolled up the A2 a scrawny, loud 15-year-old with a chip on his shoulder, ready to prove himself to a team that just thought he was an annoying rich kid without any real work ethic. He’s been through things with Matty, and yet, he chooses to protect Connor rather than assure this friend. It’s all bizarre. Later, when he’s alone, Jack still won’t be able to make sense of it.

“Jack, just because McDavid’s all timid and scared looking all the time, doesn’t mean he’s not capable of being a dick—”

Jack knows his eyebrows shoot to his hairline. What the fuck does Matty know that Jack doesn’t? “Chuck, man, we just started dating, dude. It isn’t even serious or anything, yet, so calm down. I appreciate the concern, but—I know you hate the Oilers, but usually not so much off the ice.”

“It’s not—” Chucky retorts quickly running his hand through his unruly mop. Jack’s always secretly wished his curls would grow out that well though, if he’s being honest. “I just think that sometimes people forget that just because people like us are loud and animated and good at like deflecting or whatever, we still have feelings. Like I get that McDavid looks all sweet, and you look decidedly not, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

“People like us? Kindred spirits, me and you, eh, Chuck?” Jack jokes softly to cover up the emotion building in his chest. He appreciates Matty looking out for him, because he’s right, besides Noah, everyone’s been really concerned with McDavid and not Jack.

“I just know what it’s like, is the thing,” Matty shrugs looking uncomfortable. “But, like if he makes you happy or whatever, go for it, Eichs. Just be careful, okay?”

Jack nods slowly considering, “Thanks, man. And, like you know I’m always here for you, too, okay? Like I know both of us love to talk, but I also can listen anytime. Ask Hanny, he’ll vouch for me.”

That makes Chucky laugh and snort looking like whatever was pressing into him has passed. “He would never vouch for a single thing you do, dude.”

Jack just laughs and reaches over to squeeze Matty’s shoulder. “I don’t care about what they say about you; man, you’re a good dude.”

Chucky shoves at him but Jack can see the light flush of his skin.

Training is normal, Jack supposes even though Stromer keeps looking over at him like he’s trying to figure out if Jack’s going to blow McDavid between the squat racks or something. Which is kind of ridiculous, given that Connor looked wrecked when he showed up (not late but dangerously close) and has been taking swigs of coffee, water, and Gatorade in tandem throughout the workout. Listen, Jack loves coffee, but that’s just gross.

“Hey,” he blinks sleepily at Jack when they take a twenty-minute break between weights and sprints. Matty’s seemingly disappeared from Jack at this point, and the rest of the guys are suspiciously not looking at them.

“Lose some sleep last night?” Jack asked aware of all the eyes consciously avoiding watching their interaction.

Connor shrugs one shoulder, “I don’t usually drink that much if I have training the next day, even if it’s in the afternoon.”

“Did you drink more after I left?” Jack asks raising an eyebrow because McDavid was drinking the hard shit all night, but he’d mostly slowed down after dinner.

“He was just looking at me, Jack—like—like that, and—” He breaks off, and Jack doesn’t need to ask who he’s talking about. “Word travelled, really fast, man,” he comments seemingly dropping the previously topic. “I’ve never—”

It’s Jack’s turn to shrug looking at where Chucky and Mitch are angled to pretend to talk to each other while staring at them out of the corner of their eyes. “Everyone knows I’m an open book about this shit. I mean you’ve must have known that.”

Connor nods looking away from Jack suddenly to avoid his eyes. “I never understood how you could be so—chill with it, you know?”

Jack shrugs again but turns to make eye contact with Connor because this seems like an important conversation. “I’m just me, y’know? I’m comfortable with myself and my identity, and I’m queer, and that’s me, and if anyone has a problem with it, that’s their issue, not mine, dude. The guys say that I’m ‘aggressively causal’ about it, which I mean, I guess is true? But, even when I wasn’t as comfortable, I just made a conscious choice early on to just be myself, and open about the things that made sense to be open about,” he sighs taking his hat off and flipping it around just to do something with his hands, he supposes. “It’s like—in my head at least—it’s like being gay is nothing to be ashamed about, and if I act like there’s something to hide, then I’m like co-signing that it’s not okay, or that there’s something wrong with me. And, there’s nothing wrong with being queer, okay? And, so I’m not acting like I should be ashamed because I’m not.”

Connor looks deeply uncomfortable blushing red all the way down to his chest. Jack reaches out and puts a hand between his shoulder blades and rubs in a circle slowly like he did the night before, and Connor melts into the touch. Jack never thought much of McDavid’s sexuality; he just assumed he was a bland straight white dude, like most of his friends. Jack makes it a point to try not to speculate on others’ sexualities; it isn’t fair, and it isn’t productive, in Jack’s opinion. But, knowing what he knows now—or at least what’s been heavily implied to him—a lot more things about Connor’s awkward aloofness are starting to make sense.

“Are you okay?” Jack asks softly because it’s a fair question, and despite what people say about him, he’s actually not a dick, and he doesn’t know McDavid well or anything, but like seeing anyone so fucked up over anything is not really something that’s on Jack’s daily to-do list.

“I guess?” Connor says but it comes out like a question. “I just—it’s complicated.”

“Right,” Jack concedes easily continue to soothe the kid a little more because he really looks like he needs someone right now, and Strome, who Jack supposes is usually his guy, isn’t it today. And, while he and McDavid clearly aren’t friends, they’re—they had a moment yesterday and now they’re like in kind of a mess of lies, and like—Jack’s not leaving him in the lurch, is all.

“No one ever told me you were, like, nice, Eichs,” McDavid comments chuckling a little to himself.

Jack rolls his eyes laughing a little at that, “Well, I have an image to uphold, and we all can’t have that sweet Canadian boy thing going on.”

McDavid looks sheepish at that, “I never thought—it was a joke, Jack, I swear. And, like I’ve never like bought into the narrative. I never—I’ve never thought it was fair the way the media decided they needed to juxtapose us. It didn’t seem fair to you.”

Jack shrugs because he wishes he could say its water under the bridge, but the media narrative leading up to the draft and like WJC and everything had a compounding impact on his self-esteem, if he’s being honest. It took a long time for Jack to settle into himself in Buffalo because of the chip it created for him to carry around. “I got over it.”

Gary’s saying something to Mitch, who’s waving them back over then. “We should talk later, though. Think about what we’re going to do, y’know? I’ll drive you back to the hotel?” Connor says letting Jack’s hand fall away walking towards the group with Jack trailing him.

“Sure,” Jack agrees because they really should talk about it before it spirals even more out of control. “I’ll let Chucky know.”

“Yeah, of course,” Chucky says later when they’re wiping sweat off their faces, Mitch lying next to them flat on his back all but gasping for breath, and Jack tells him he’s just going to ride with Connor. “You guys are really doing this thing; it’s wild. But, like happy Connor told Dylan so you could be out.”

Jack doesn’t really understand the implication that Connor not telling Stromer would be the thing holding them back, but Jack’s not going to voice that out loud.

Mitch scoffs from where he’s still sprawled out on the ground, “Once you guys were in the same place it was so obvious. You couldn’t have kept the secret much longer, anyway.”

“Wha—” Jack starts because they’ve barely even spoken to each other in a friendly way since Jack’s been in Toronto.

“Davo doesn’t let people touch him, Eichs,” Mitch says rolling his eyes and flipping to prop himself up on his side to look at Jack. “He’d never let anyone even stand that close unless there was something else going on.”

Jack doesn’t say anything for a moment because that literally makes no sense. Look, he knows McDavid has some sensory issues on top of his personal space thing. It’s obvious. But he literally has sunk into Jack’s touch every time he’s offered him comfort. Maybe Mitch doesn’t know his friend as much as he thinks he does.

Jack offers them a shrug eventually. “When I’m into someone, I guess it’s pretty obvious,” echoing what Noah said on FaceTime earlier.

Chucky smiles at him, “Remember when you took AP Government in high school because you wanted to bone the teacher—”

“He was hot, dude; he played receiver at UMich! And I like history and government and shit!” Jack protests.

“Dude, your eyes were glazed over every time he talked. You didn’t learn anything all semester.”

Mitch pretty much cackles at that, “I’m just happy Davo’s not sneaking around anymore. Watching that was exhausting. He’s been so cagey, and it’s nice to know it actually wasn’t us, it was him trying to hide you.”

Jack has no idea what to say to that so just shakes his head, “You know how Connor gets.”

Mitch’s eyes harden at that, and he looks away. “It’s just frustrating. Like I get being private, but like—I get not everyone’s going to be as open as me, but we’re his friends. Like I’ve known Connor since we were like 11. I don’t know why he always feels like isolating himself is the way to protect himself—” he cuts himself off. “Anyway, I think you being super open is bound to help with that, yeah?”

“Sure,” Jack agrees, but thinks that if this were real life and someone implied that he was going to fix his boyfriend’s attitude towards life, he would have yelled at them for the implication. “We’re both still learning.”

“Hey,” Connor interrupts then joining them from where he was chatting with Sheifs. He runs a hand through his hair getting it out of his eyes and tugs his snapback on backwards. “Ready to go?” he asks Jack softly.

“Yep,” Jack says throwing his towel into his bag before turning back to Chucky and Marns. “See you guys later.”

“I’ll text you about dinner!” Chucky shouts back as he and Connor turn to leave.

Jack just waves at him, “Sure!”

Connor lets out an audible sigh when they settle in his truck. It’s awkward, and Jack hates feeling uncomfortable when he can help it. He’s not someone who’s able to just let tension fester, and if Noah were here, he’d complain about that being one of Jack’s toxic traits.

“So, you’re gay?” Jack decides to start with because he’s never even heard a whisper about McDavid’s sexuality, but everyone just seems to know.

“Kinda?” he says back eventually. “I mean—I’ve only ever been with one person.”

“Oh,” Jack replies slowly trying to understand what that has to do with anything. “He was a dude?”

“Yeah,” Connor concedes slowly. “We met in high school in Erie, my first year.”

That wasn’t what Jack was expecting at all. He just assumed Connor had been deep in the closet up until this point and was just coming to terms with his sexuality. But he was with a dude when he was 15? What?

“When did ya’ll break up?”

Connor shrugs still looking deeply uncomfortable. “Like two-and-a-half years ago?”

“Wow,” Jack hears himself squeak out.

Connor laughs a little humorlessly, and Jack can almost year the pain in it. “Yeah, we were together for a long time. I guess it’s naïve thinking you’re going to marry your first boyfriend.”

Jack wants to press him for more details. Wants to know why they broke up. Wants to know how he kept it so quiet. How he eluded Jack’s pretty finely-tuned gaydar.

“Sucks,” he offers instead because he doesn’t know what else to say.

“Yeah,” Connor agrees softly. “You don’t even know. So, like I don’t—I guess it never mattered if I was gay because I loved Gabe, and I wasn’t going to be with anyone else.”

So, that’s crazy, Jack thinks pointedly, but doesn’t say because he’s not trying to be a dick here when Connor’s opened up to him. Jack supposes he didn’t really have a choice, but still.

“What about you?” Connor asks quirking an eyebrow because fair is fair. “I mean everyone knows you’re—like an open secret—but I’ve heard you say queer and gay like interchangeably.”

Jack shrugs wringing his hands together in his lap because for as much as he’s not ashamed of his identity, he’s not proud of everything that he’s done surrounding it. There’s very few people who actually know the truth, and he—maybe it’s because Connor was vulnerable with him that makes him want to tell him the unfiltered version of the truth, he doesn’t know.

“I—I used say I was bisexual. Like, I knew I liked guys since I hit puberty, and like—older guys in the locker room, y’know, hormones—” he cuts himself off laughing awkwardly. “So, like I was very aware that I liked guys, but there was this girl, Cassidy, Cass; she lived down the street from us in North Chelmsford, and we were like— she was the best, I mean is the best. And, like we were on-and-off, on when I was home in Boston and my year at BU, off the other times, and that’s when y’know, I would mostly sleep with guys, because I just—that’s what I wanted to do; I don’t know, but I—” he swallows, and he’s really only ever told Noah and Sammy the next part. “I just thought that even if I didn’t look at other girls, it was just because I loved Cass, y’know. That she was it, and like, that’s where the block came from, and like I never loved a guy so I was just—that’s why I wanted to have casual sex with them and not with women. But, I just thought I couldn’t actually be gay because I loved her, I loved a woman, so like obviously I wasn’t gay.”

He takes a deep breath, and Connor’s looking at him curiously no doubt wondering where the story’s going, and Jack rubs a hand over his face looking out the window trying to gear himself up to admit some things he’s not proud of.

“It’s kind of ironic because on the outside I was like this very open, bisexual dude who just happened to be in a relationship with a woman, and I felt like I totally owned it, but I used Cass, whom I loved—who I still love—as a shield from my own internalized homophobia. It was so easy for me to be like, yeah I like dudes, but I also like women so it’s okay.”

“Jack—” Connor starts, and he sounds sad. So fucking sad, and like Jack gets it. It’s a lot.

“Look—” Jack sighs trying to find the words. “I don’t—I know we’re not friends, but I also know how hard it is to be who we are—and be queer in hockey, and so—I’m just going to be real with you, because I just—I know you’re private, and that must have been difficult to share.”

“Jack, you don’t have to tell me anything—”

“I want to, Connor,” he says softly. And he does, Connor looking over at him with that open look on his face, patient like Jack could never dream of being? It makes him want to confess everything to him.

“I just—I always felt like I was this great representation for someone who was LGBT+ and into sports, and like a bro, and like didn’t give a fuck, and I hung my hat on that. And I guess I still do to an extent? Because that’s what people know about me, but it was— God, Davo, I hated myself, and I didn’t even know why.

“I’d always thought I was attracted to women because I was like able to be like ‘wow, that girl’s pretty.’ And when I hit puberty and started wanting to have sex with guys, I just thought that feeling attraction to men and women in my head was just different. But, it was like, I just took being into women as this given because it had to be true, because I constructed it to be true. Does that make sense?”

“Absolutely, Jack. Of course,” Connor says softly, and he reaches over to squeeze Jack’s leg in reassurance. Jack takes note that it’s probably the first time he’s ever reached out to Jack, not the other way around.

“I wanted to like women, and it wasn’t a conscious thought, y’know? But, subconsciously I wanted it to be true so bad. And, then Cass was graduating from college, and we were talking about her trying to get a job in Buffalo, so that we could finally be together long-term and monogamous, and I just freaked the fuck out. Not because I didn’t want to be with her. I wanted to be with her so bad, but I just—I didn’t—I couldn’t see my life without picking up and having sex with men.”

“Wow,” Connor says slowly. “That’s heavy.”

Jack nods, pinching the bridge of his nose trying to not let the emotion build in his throat because he knows even as much as he tries to pretend he’s fine, it’s still affecting him. “And, I thought, maybe I just wasn’t meant to be monogamous. Maybe, I was like a sexual deviant. Like I have this girl who I love with all my fucking soul, why can’t I just be with her? It’s not complicated. Why would I want bjs in bathrooms from random dudes in seedy bars over being with the woman I love forever?”

He takes a deep breath, and he can almost physically feel Connor’s eyes on him. He can’t believe he’s telling him all this. “I felt like I was broken. Like, I wasn’t capable of being with someone long-term, that I was destined to be a fuckboy or whatever for the rest of my life. I was living with Sammy at the time, and he saw how much it was affecting me, and like, made me see a therapist, and like it took me a long time to come to terms with it.

Like, it’s so embarrassing? I thought I was this person. I thought I owned my sexuality and my experience, and yet? I just had so many issues built into it, and so many of my own perceptions based on societal norms that I was really just projecting onto myself. And, I didn’t want to tell people, especially my friends in hockey because bi men already have this stigma attached to them that they’re just gay men who can’t admit it, and like I didn’t want to perpetuate that myth, y’know? I felt like being the only queer person that a lot of them knew, that I had to be like the perfect representative, and I didn’t want them to make all these assumptions, based off the fact that I just—I couldn’t be real with myself about my own biases.”

“Jack, that’s—that’s a lot to put on yourself,” Connor says reaching over and squeezing his leg again. “You’re just a person. You don’t—you’re human.”

Jack nods, “I know, and I get that now, that like I’m only one person with one single experience, but at the time? I just—it was a bitter pill to swallow. But, anyway, my sexuality’s kind of complicated, but I’m definitely gay. I say queer too as an umbrella, term, y’know?”

“Right,” Connor nods turning back to the road and staring straight ahead. “That makes sense.”

“Sorry,” Jack mumbles eventually. He knows he’s red and splotchy. “Once I start word-vomiting sometimes, it’s hard for me to stop.”

Connor pulls into the hotel parking lot then, and instead of dropping Jack off, he drives around to the parking lot and parks. “I—” he swallows. “I think it’s pretty amazing how real you are with yourself about your struggle, and like thank you for trusting me with that. I know it couldn’t have been easy.”

Jack just shrugs helplessly. “Well, you shared your story with me, so I thought it was only fair.”

“Yeah,” Connor swallows again harshly, and Jack can see is throat work. There’s something unsaid hanging there, and it feels like Connor wants to expand, but Jack knows he won’t, and that’s okay. Maybe he’ll never get it entirely, and it’s really not his business, he supposes. Even now that McDavid knows the worst thing about him, and how he broke one of the most important, brightest people in his life.

Part of him, the part that sounds suspiciously like his therapist, knows that it wasn’t his fault. It’s not like he meant to hurt Cass. It was anything but purposeful. And, yet, he also knows he could have handled the situation better, with more grace, and that’s something that he’s always going to have to live with. Because just because they’d never be together, not the way she wanted them to be, and honestly, not the way he wanted them to be, either, doesn’t mean he still doesn’t love her. He knows he always will, and that’s probably the hardest realization that he has to live with.

“I, uh, I have to get home in a little bit to let Lenny out, but can I come up for a bit? We should probably talk about, y’know, the plan or whatever,” Connor says after the silence fills the entire car, and Jack swears he can almost hear it echoing.

“Sure,” Jack agrees easily even though he really just wants to be alone and reflect on the fact he spilled so much shit to Connor McDavid for no other reason than it felt right in the moment. Not like being impulsive has ever gotten Jack in trouble in his life before.

McDavid trails him into his suite that some of his sponsors set up, and Jack is so fucking tired all of a sudden, he can’t stand it.

“Is it okay if I shower real quick? I feel disgusting,” he asks Connor as soon as he gets the door open.

“Uh, sure,” Connor shrugs. “I have a few e-mails I have to answer anyway.”

Jack doesn’t drown himself in the shower, and it’s not a near thing, but he does think about it for more than a split second as he stands there under the spray. He has no idea how he and Connor got here. One minute, Jack’s just feeling bad for the kid because his best friend, or former best friend, was laying into him, and the next he’s lying to some of his closest friends about them being together, which really doesn’t make sense. When would they even have had the time to connect like that? And, then on top of everything after Connor gave him one single inch, one tiny detail about his life that made him seem actually human, Jack’s spilling his entire life story to him. Noah would say that one of his other toxic traits is over-sharing, which is just blatantly true.

“Marns wants to know if we want to have dinner with him and Steph, Dylan and Alexis, and Auston and Chucky,” Connor says typing furiously away on his phone not even looking up when Jack steps out of the bathroom.

“Are we really going to go on a triple date with your two best friends and Auston and Matty has the 7th and 8th wheels?” Jack snickers throwing a t-shirt on over his head.

Connor scoffs, “Well Matts will probably pick up about an hour into it, so like I guess that leaves Chucky.”

“I’m going to tell him you said that,” Jack laughs.

“I’d say it to his face,” Connor shrugs putting his phone down. “Sorry, we were going to, uh, talk, about—”

“Yeah,” Jack says finishing buttoning his jeans and coming to sit next to him on the bed. “Do you really want to pretend to date me? I mean—”

“Everyone already thinks we’re together, Jack. Do you—” he bites his lip and looks over Jack’s head. “You already said you’re in. If you back out—”

“I’m not backing out,” Jack explains hastily. “I just—sorry, I—self-deprecation is like my defense mechanism. I was just implying that like no one would want to be associated with me after what I told you earlier—”

“Jack,” he says seriously locking eyes with Jack, which is kind of an odd move for McDavid, Jack knows. Avoiding people’s eyes is kind of his signature. “I—what you told me earlier was incredibly brave, and I know, I know more than anyone that it couldn’t have been easy for you, especially since like we’re not very close, and you definitely didn’t need to tell me. But like it didn’t cast you in a bad light. You’re just figuring it out—there’s no like instruction manual or whatever. It’s not like you were trying to hurt anyone, and I know when you do find someone who you want to be with like that, y’know, you’ll treat them right. You’re a good person, man,” he smiles at Jack then, and Jack’s heart pinches a little in his chest and he doesn’t’ know why. “You like—do you think you would have jumped in to save me if you were a bad person?”

Jack shrugs, but he knows that McDavid’s probably right about that. It was a nice gesture on Jack’s part, he supposes. “Well, I said I was in, so I guess we just kinda pretend to be together for a while, go to Stromer’s wedding in a few weeks, and then just let it slowly die down until we decide to tell everyone we’ve broken up or whatever.”

Connor nods taking a deep breath and letting out a little laugh, and Jack shouldn’t think it’s that endearing, and yet. “You make it sound like it’s easy.”

“I mean everyone already buys the story, for whatever reason. And like if our closest friends think it’s plausible without asking too many questions, then I think we can go with it.”

“We should probably come up with some key facts, like how we started dating, who asked who out, whatever. How long we’ve been together, and stuff. Shit—” he stops face frozen for a few seconds. “You’re going to have to meet my parents before the wedding.”

And that, that Jack did not sign up for. “What?”

“My mom and Dylan’s are still super close. My parents will be at the wedding, and if I don’t introduce you as my boyfriend to them, and then show up with you at the wedding, they’ll freak.”

“Connor—”

“I know, I know,” he replies as if it physically pains him. “I know you don’t want to have to meet my parents and lie to them. That’s—toeing the line.”

Fuck, he needs to tell him no. “I mean, they’re your parents, if you want to lie to them—”

“I don’t want to,” Connor interrupts a little more forcefully than Jack expected. “But I don’t think we have another choice without calling the whole thing off.”

“I’ll do whatever you’re comfortable with,” Jack says even though he thinks they’re crossing the point of no return here, and a voice in his head that sounds kind of like Noah is screaming at him to run before someone gets hurt.

“Let me just think about it. When are you going back to Boston?”

“Monday night,” Jack says. “But I guess I can change my flight?”

“No way,” Connor pauses. “Lemme just think, and then yeah. You should book your flight back for the wedding though. I’ll text you the itinerary right now.”

“So—” Jack starts as Connor clicks through his phone. “I mean we’ve kinda been friendly or whatever since we played together at the World Cup, right? And I mean now that we’re both single, maybe just we were talking more, y’know about LGBT stuff, or whatever, and like—what did you do after the last game when we played you in Edmonton before the end of the season. Do you remember if you went out?”

“Uh, I don’t think so. It was a weeknight game, right?” Connor asks avoiding Jack’s eyes again.

“Let me look it up,” Jack says and starts looking through his calendar. “Yeah, it was on a Wednesday.”

“Then, I usually don’t go out. I don’t remember there being anything to celebrate, so I probably went home right after the game.”

“Nah, we just crushed you—”

That gets Jack a giant eye roll.

“So, I mean we can say that’s when we started giving it a shot for real. Like we’d been talking for a while, and like feelings were developing or whatever, and then we met up after the game, and y’know one thing led to another. I’m sure we can keep it vague, and that’ll keep it into the timeline of like ‘it’s new’ or whatever.”

Connor nods considering. “I mean that probably makes the most sense. I also—we both worked on the You Can Play Committee this year, so I mean we can say that that was kind of what sparked the talking more or whatever, especially since this is like the first year where I thought—or like accepted—that I was actually single.”

Jack can barely remember Connor at the You Can Play stuff, but now that he thinks about it, he definitely was there in the background being Connor McDavid. At the time, Jack just figured that his agent or the Oilers PR person thought it would be good for him and the team if their captain was an open ally. It would be really taking advantage of having a Gen Z kid at the helm.

“Yeah, that works. I mean we can keep it vague. I’m pretty good at shutting down the guys if they try to really pry, but I don’t think they will,” Jack explains shrugging one shoulder. “Once they satisfy that initial curiosity, I think they’ll move on pretty fast.”

“Yeah, probably,” Connor agrees. “So that’s it?”

“I guess? We should probably go over some like ground rules too, like—we’re going to need to act coupley.”

That makes Connor blush, and look entirely uncomfortable. “I—” he swallows. “I mean I don’t have that much experience with the whole—I mean Gabe and I were really young.”

“Right,” Jack nods feeling bad for the kid for the 100th time that day. “Like I guess we need to just think about how it’s best to show affection and what’s okay and what’s not? Like holding hands?”

“Okay, definitely. Just not—obviously not in public, public.”

“Okay, good. Yeah, I mean obviously neither of us are out publicly so that makes sense. What about, like casual touching?”

McDavid pauses at that considering, “Like—” he starts and stops. “I guess, you know when you did the thing where you like rubbed my back—”

“Oh shit, Connor. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, man. I just you looked like you needed some comfort, and I’m like a tactile guy, and—”

“No, no,” Connor laughs holding his hands up. “It was perfect, I mean—” he bites his lip. “I think that’s the kind of casual touching that I’d be cool with? Like just knowing that you’re there—”

That makes sense, given everything Jack knows about him and his feeling of abandonment, and damn, it makes Jack kind of sad. “Okay, yeah, that’s good. I’m good with that too, and like arms around the shoulders and waist and that kinda stuff is good with me too.”

“Yeah, that’s fine. We can do that,” Connor agrees easily again, and maybe this isn’t going to be as awkward as Jack thought.

“What about kissing?” Jack makes himself ask then because they’re going to need to address it eventually. “On the cheek?” Jack supplies as an add on to slide it in there.

“Uh, I mean, not all the time, but if the moment calls for it, sure. I guess a kiss on the cheek would be fine. But, I don’t—maybe we shouldn’t do anything other than that?”

Jack doesn’t know if they’re going to be able to get away with that, but they can always revisit the topic. “Sure, let’s start there, and like if we feel like we need to talk about it before Stromer’s wedding, we can. I don’t think we’ll have to make out to convince anyone, though,” he tries to joke.

“Probably not,” Connor agrees glancing down at his phone. “I should go let Lenny out and shower and stuff,” he starts. “Do you, uh, maybe you want to come? And then dinner with the guys?”

Jack shrugs, “Sure, I guess. I’m not doing anything else today. Let me grab a shirt to change into before dinner.”

McDavid owns a giant poodle-something mix because of course he does. The dog is a gentle giant, which honestly makes sense.

“Hey, Lenners,” Connor greets him at the door of his condo using his baby voice. “How’s my best guy? Did you have a good nap while I was gone?”

Jack would laugh, but it’s honestly adorable. The dog is huge and fluffy and is jumping all over the place, and Jack doesn’t think he’s ever seen Connor look happier.

“Sit,” he tells the dog who complies after only a slight hesitation. “Do you want to say hi to Jack? Be gentle, okay? That’s how we make new friends.”

The dog doesn’t run Jack over, but it’s a near thing. “Hi buddy,” Jack greets anyway petting him or at least trying to as the dog jumps excitedly. “Nice to meet you, dude. You’re a big guy, aren’t you?” Jack says nonsensically.

“C’mon, bud. Let’s go outside, okay?” he tells the dog. “I’ll be right back,” he then says turning to Jack. “One minute.”

It’s weird, being in McDavid’s condo alone. It’s not—Jack never thought he’d be close enough to the guy to want to willingly spend time with him outside a group, but if there’s anything good that may come from this crazy lie, maybe it’s that Jack made a new friend, and a friend who understands a little bit what it’s like to be a professional athlete, trying not to fold under the pressure, still be a good role model, but still leave some things for yourself and be honest with your identity. He and Connor couldn’t be any more different, and yet, they’ve dealt with the same kind of things, just in different ways.

They’d probably be a good-looking couple, Jack thinks only a little vainly, when they’re ubering to the restaurant later that night. Connor came down from his shower with a tight pair of jeans that hugged his hockey-ass in all the right places and blue button down that made his eyes pop, and with his off-season long hair, Jack had to admit he looked good. Jack knows he’s not the best-looking guy, with the whole skin-and-hair situation, so as usual he wears a backwards hat over his curls and knows Auston’s going to give him shit about it, but whatever. He’s got to play up his assets, with his own pair of tight jeans, and downplay his face, and like it is what it is.

“You look good,” Connor had said when Jack changed his shirt to the pattern buttoned down he brought from the hotel, so it must be somewhat of a success, anyway.

Jack’s met Mitch’s girlfriend several times, but Strome’s only once before, which is a little weird considering he’s now going to be going to her wedding. But, it’s fine. Jack knows he can roll with pretty much anything.

“Glad you made it,” Matty says crushing Jack into a hug after the hostess led them back to a private table in the back of the restaurant. Jack figures it’s kind of a must in Toronto.

“Sorry,” Connor cuts in because he has to apologize for everything. “We got pre-occupied playing with Lenny in the yard, and the day got away from us.”

“Playing with Lenny,” Mitch repeats eyes filled with glee. “Is that what the kids call it these days?”

“Marns, seriously,” Jack laughs. “Awful joke, dude. Be better,” but Jack can see Connor flushing red out of the corner of his eye.

He laughs at his own joke still and presumably whatever’s happening on Connor’s face. Mitch lives to push his friends’ buttons. The conversation then shifts easily to Chucky’s quest for a new Calgary condo, which he’s been dragging his feet about for at least six-months, Jack knows.

“Renting is literally setting money on fire, Matty,” Jack says pointedly when he goes off on a tangent about how he just doesn’t want to put in the effort to buy. “Like it’s a privilege to have the money to invest, dude.”

“I know that like intellectually—” he cuts in rolling his eyes. “I’m just lazy.”

“Moving’s the worst,” Alexis, Strome’s fiancé, agrees. “Did Dylan tell you guys the weird home inspection we had at our new place in Chicago?”

The conversation divulges into all the crazy things they’ve experienced owning property so young, and like Jack gets it. Having money to burn at 19-20, but not knowing how to buy a home to grow into? It’s a weird part of being a young professional athlete. That’s why he’s kept both his place in Buffalo and his place in Boston on the smaller side. After his life with Cassidy blew up, he just—it was hard to imagine his life not being just him.

Jack’s sunk into the night by then, two drinks in, and despite Connor keeping up with him, he’s as tense as he was when they first sat down. It probably isn’t helping that Strome’s still looking at them some kind of way, less overt than the previous day, and part of Jack wants to scream at him to let them know what his fucking problem is. Jack loves to call out a homophobe a few drinks in, is the thing. But Jack never expected Stromer to be one of them. Surely, he had to have known during the draft that Jack liked guys? Everyone knew. And, like Connor was dating his ex in high school, the high school in Erie where he and Strome spent two years living out of each other’s pockets. Surely, he knew about Connor and Gabe. He had to have.

“Okay?” Jack eventually murmurs in Connor’s ear putting his arm around Connor’s shoulder and pulling their chairs flush against one another.

He stiffens immediately even more so than before, and Jack knows he said earlier that Jack could touch him, but maybe he shouldn’t have pushed it right away. Mitch was right earlier when he said Connor was weird about physical space.

Jack almost tries to move away as inconspicuously as possible when Connor reaches for his hand and twines their fingers together near his collarbone, and Jack can feel him physically attempt to relax. “Yeah,” he mumbles back, but it sounds like a lie.

Jack wishes he knew what the play was, wishes he knew Connor enough to at least make him relax or pry a smile out of him, something, anything at this point. Jack hates feeling uncomfortable, and he wants to rectify the situation, but he has no idea how. So, he just squeezes Connor’s hand, and takes another sip of his drink trying to not set everything on fire because of the tension radiating next to him.

Strome’s openly staring at them now, and it’s so bad that Alexis actually nudges him a little following his line of sight, and they have one of those silent couple’s conversations. Strome gets up from the table abruptly then, and barely excuses himself before heading to the washroom.

“Dylan,” Alexis calls after him looking embarrassed. “Sorry,” she murmurs rolling her eyes. “He’s been more stressed about everything than me, I swear.”

“Everyone knows Stromer’s a sensitive soul,” Marns responds shrugging. “No big deal. He’ll be fine.”

She just shrugs, “I don’t know what’s gotten into him lately. I swear—”

“I mean there’s a lot going on. But, Mitch is right. Dylan always bounces back, just takes a while to get it together when he’s stressed,” Steph laughs a little, and Jack’s sure there’s something here he doesn’t understand. “Let’s talk about something happy. Like—” she shares a conspiratory look with Mitch. “Jack, you know we love to see you, but with Connor? Surprising. When did you two—”

Jack shrugs but smiles. Aggressively casual, he tells himself. Lean into it. “Uh, it’s been what like what? 4 months, Davo?” he glances at Connor and squeezes his hand praying that he can convincingly play long.

“Yeah, since March, like officially,” he squeaks out, and he looks so embarrassed, and Jack has no idea if it’s because of the lie or if this is just how he is when talking about anything personal.

“Ooooo,” Auston crows into his beer. “Official, official? How cute.”

“Thanks, Matts,” Jack rolls his eyes. “We’re adorable, I agree.”

“C’mon,” Auston complains leveling Jack with his own eyeroll. “There’s gotta be a story there.”

“Not really,” Jack replies. “I mean I know it’s out of character for something to happen to me without the dramatics, but you know,” he laughs self-deprecatingly. “We just like started talking more after doing all that stuff with the You Can Play Committee before the season, and now we were both single, y’know at the same time, and so y’know when we played each other in Edmonton for the last time in March, we just met up, talked everything through, and decided to just go for it y’know? Life’s too short to wonder what if.”

Chucky laughs like that, “Sounds like the most Eichs’ thing I’ve ever heard, and the least Davo thing.”

Connor does smile then and tilts his head at Jack and only looks a little pained when he says, “Sometimes something just feels right, I guess? And, I think it was time for me to put myself out there and be with someone who makes me happy?”

Everything he says comes out like a question, but he sounds believable, and Jack feels like this is going better than he really had anticipated.

“Aww, babe, I make you happy?” he jokes laughing pressing a kiss to Connor’s temple trying to save Connor from having to say anything else about the topic.

“Shut up,” Connor says smacking him lightly in the chest letting out one of the cutest and unexpected giggles Jack’s ever heard, and he kinda wishes McDavid would let himself go more and fucking relax.

It’s then when Stromer reappears settling back down next to Alexis. He looks absolutely exhausted, and Jack would almost feel bad if he wasn’t being such a fucking dick to his supposed best friend.

“Sorry,” Dylan mutters having the decency to at least look guilty, but he doesn’t explain any further.

He can feel Connor stiffen again, and he’s looking anywhere other to where Dylan’s sitting across from him.

Jack squeezes his hand again, and he’s nothing if not petty, so he kisses the side of Connor’s face now, and says, “It’s cool. I was just explaining how I managed to woo your idiot best friend, here.”

“You’re an idiot,” Connor hits him in the chest again trying to play along, but he still looks fucking terrified of Dylan’s response.

Dylan rolls his eyes downing half his beer in one gulp. “You’re both fucking idiots, but I like Connor, so he’s my idiot.”

It’s a weird way to phrase it, Jack thinks, but at least he’s trying to be cool? Jack doesn’t know. “Ouch, Stromer, man. I thought we were friends, dude?” Jack says sarcastically trying to laugh along, but the whole situation is bizarre.

“Maybe, but if you break Connor’s heart, I’ll break your fucking legs, man,” Dylan replies, and it’s obviously meant to be a joke, but it comes out a little too aggressive, and holy shit, this has gotten away from Jack so fast.

“Dyls, seriously? Chill,” Connor finally finds his voice.

“Sorry,” Dylan mumbles back avoiding looking at them now. He’s flushing red, and Jack thinks he should be fucking embarrassed. He’s being a dick. “I just—fuck,” he takes another swig of his beer to buy himself some time. “I’m not trying to be rude or whatever. I just, didn’t expect this, okay?”

“Well, I think you guys are cute together,” Alexis adds looking directly at Dylan and not them, as if daring him to disagree with her. Jack’s decided she’s the best Strome even though she’s not a Strome yet. “And, even though it’s unexpected, doesn’t mean it’s bad, Dylan.”

“Sure,” Dylan agrees but he sounds like he’s in physical pain at this point.

Jack is starting to get really pissed. He didn’t fucking do anything. Is he like not good enough to his best friend? And, after yelling at Connor the other day, why does Dylan think he gets to be the one to be Connor’s gatekeeper? Like what the fuck? Dylan’s obviously projecting something, here, and Jack doesn’t know what it is, but whatever has been going on between him and Connor is no excuse for him to be a dick.

“Dyls,” Connor says tone heavier than Jack’s ever heard it off the ice. He squeezes Jack’s hand then because he can undoubtedly feel Jack tensing all over. “I appreciate your concern, but can you not be a dick? Jack didn’t do anything.”

“Not yet,” Dylan mumbles into his beer, and the look Alexis gives him could freeze over a tropical rainforest.

“Let me make my own mistakes, Dylan,” Connor shoots back locking eyes with Dylan and holding eye contact for the first time that evening. “Jesus Christ.”

“I’m just saying, don’t come crying to me when this blows up in your face, Connor—”

“Dylan!” Alexis hisses hitting him hard in the chest.

Connor stands then pulling Jack to his feet. “Thanks for inviting us, Marns, but I think it’s time for us to go.”

“Uh,” Mitch responds eloquently now standing too. “You don’t have to; we were going to hang out at ours after—”

“I definitely think it’s for the best,” Connor replies tugging on Jack’s hand now beginning to turn towards the door. “At least until Dylan remembers how to be a good friend.”

“I—” Dylan starts, and Alexis hits him in the chest again.

“Fuck off, Dylan. Just— is it too much to ask for you to be supportive?” Connor questions, and Jack and everyone else, no doubt, wishes he could be anywhere but here.

Dylan rises to his feet then and does look at least a little contrite. “Connor, man, I didn’t—”

“Let’s go, Jack,” Connor cuts him off and starts to pull Jack out of the restaurant. Jack looks back to Chucky and Matts and shrugs mouthing “sorry.”

“So, are you going to tell me what the fuck that was about?” Jack hisses out of the corner of his mouth when Connor drops his hand as they round to the public seating in the restaurant.

He laughs humorlessly. “How much time do you have?”

“Connor,” Jack complains immediately.

“Sorry, just—let me get a car, and then we’ll figure it out. I need to like process that.”

They end up back at Connor’s condo with a bottle of whiskey and Lenard between them on the couch.

“So?” Jack says eventually because he has a Tim Horton’s thing tomorrow, and if Connor’s not going to tell him what’s up, he needs to get his ass back to the hotel to sleep. “Does Stromer hate gay people, or?”

“What?” Connor blurts immediately. “No, of course not!”

“Well, what else was I supposed to think, man. Does he hate me?”

“No,” Connor says again. “He thinks you’re hilarious. You know that, Eichs, c’mon.”

“Then, what the fuck was that?”

“We had a falling out,” Connor admits eventually throwing back what was left in his glass and pouring himself another. “Like,” he shakes his head. “It’s hard to explain. We were fine when he was still in Erie, and then for a while when he was playing in the AHL, I mean we drifted a little, sure, but then—” he cuts himself off. “I was going through some shit, okay?”

“And like, when I—I have this tendency to take on things alone. Like when I feel bad about myself, I isolate myself. And, like the pressure of the NHL was getting to me, and then he like—we had this fight after a game, and I dunno, Jack. It escalated. I didn’t—it was hard for me to connect with him anymore, and I—I was keeping myself at an arm’s length, and he interpreted that as like I thought I was too good for him or something. Like, I’d outgrown him, which is so far from the truth, Eichs.”

“And then, Gabe and I broke up, and I didn’t tell him, and I was just—he felt betrayed, and I just—I could barely put into words for myself how I felt about the breakup, I didn’t have the words for other people. I just didn’t. I still don’t, really. And, I think he blamed the breakup for pushing me even further away, like my fucking depression was another reflection on how our friendship was fucked up. I don’t know, Jack. I was projecting shit on him. I know I was; it’s not like it was all him, but I was just—I was so fucking hurt, Jack.”

“Connor—”

“It’s complicated, with Gabe. I just—I took that out on Dylan, I know I did, and I think—I dunno I think he thinks if I get hurt again, I’ll go back to that place, and that this time we won’t be able to come back from it. I think he thinks he’s protecting me, but also himself—also our friendship, which makes sense. It makes so much sense.”

“What are you supposed to do, never date again?” Jack asks almost to himself pouring his own glass of whiskey because this conversation calls for it.

“I don’t know. I think part of it is that he thinks I’ve been sneaking around, which—I mean is basically what we implied,” Connor explains slowly.

“Yeah, I mean—” Jack starts and then thinks about the day before. “What were you guys arguing about yesterday?”

Connor blows out a breath looking away.

“You don’t have to tell me—”

“No, I mean—we’re in this deep,” he pauses. “I haven’t been that into the wedding stuff. I admit that. It’s like—it’s been hard for me.”

Jack nods considering reaching out and wrapping his hand lightly around Connor’s ankle to offer him some semblance of comfort. “I mean, I think that makes sense, Davo. You thought you were going to marry Gabe, and didn’t Alexis and Dylan meet at your high school, too? I mean—I think it’s understandable that it’s upsetting you that he has what you don’t, dude.”

Something flashes across Connor’s face then, surprise maybe? Hurt? Jack doesn’t know but it’s only there for a second before he frowns and says, “Yeah,” so quietly Jack leans in to hear what he says next. “We’ve never been the same, after we fell out, and we’re both trying, but it’s like—the wounds still feel fresh sometimes. And, he knows I love Alexis, but he thinks that I’m not happy for them. Which, isn’t it at all, Jack. Believe me. He’s mad that I’m like projecting my shit, and making him feel like he’s responsible for not making me feel bad for myself, like he has to make sure I’m no isolating myself, and like—maybe there’s a small truth to that, but I didn’t mean it.”

That all makes sense to Jack; the way that they’ve never seemed settled this week like Jack remembers from the draft, and even what Mitch had said about Connor hiding something at training. It wasn’t that he was hiding a relationship, obviously, it was that he was retreating into himself because he was still hurting from losing his ex and Dylan getting married was just reopening the wounds.

“I think he thinks that I’m not capable of protecting my own emotions. That I’m like—that if I go where I went after Gabe, I won’t be able to get back out, and I don’t know, maybe there’s some truth to that. I think he’s scared for me; I think that’s what it comes down to. But, he doesn’t need to be because this isn’t even fucking real is the thing, but it’s also like—what happens when I do want to date again? What happens? Like it’s been two-and-a-half years, and I—I’ve been stagnant for two-and-a-half years, Jack.”

It’s a lot. Jack’s not quite sure how Dylan and his breakup became so intertwined, but everything that Connor’s saying is relatable. “You have to talk to him, man. Tell him what you’re telling me. Explain to him that he’s important to you, and that you’re trying your best, but he can’t just expect you to protect yourself by giving up on relationships entirely.”

“I’ve tried,” Connor says looking away. “I just—I just can’t get the words out. I shut down completely. That’s—it’s my thing. I don’t—I don’t do well with conflict or being hurt? Like I just said, I isolate. I avoid the problem. And, I’ve tried to have a conversation, but it just ends up with me being silent and frustrated, and then Dylan gets upset and yells.”

“It’s okay,” Jack assures when he sees tears beginning to form at the corners of Connor’s eyes. Lenny can sense something’s wrong with Connor because he literally climbs on top of Connor then.

“Lenny,” Connor laughs wetly. “Aw, sorry boy. I know you don’t like when I’m sad.”

“You need to write it down,” Jack interrupts his word-vomiting mouth back in action.

“What?” Connor sniffles into Lenard’s fur.

“Like write down everything you want to say to Stromer, and then if you get to the conversation, and you can’t get it out, you’ll have that to read off of,” Jack explains shrugging. “I mean it’s awkward, but it’ll work.”

“That’s,” Connor laughs, “really not a bad idea. Why did I never think of that?”

“I mean once in a while I have a good idea,” Jack shrugs smiling. “Noah wouldn’t believe it, but it does happen.”

“Hey,” Connor says looking up at him making eye contact for once. He covers Jack’s hand on his ankle with one of his own. “Thanks, y’know, for listening. And, like putting up with that, and like everything else. I don’t know why you’re being so cool, but I really appreciate it, and I know we’re not really friends, but I think after this, we could be.”

Jack snorts, “We’re definitely friends now, Davo. You’re not getting rid of me, dude. I just—I know what it feels like to struggle with your sexuality and the NHL and everything, and dude, we have to stick together. So, like maybe this isn’t what You Can Play had in mind about forming coalitions, but if we survive this fake dating thing, I think we’re going to be friends for a long time.”

Connor laughs at that, “Fair. I think Holtby would absolutely not agree with this as an official part of You Can Play, but okay,” he pauses. “And like, thanks, y’know—it’s nice to remember I’m not alone. Like I knew that you were as out as you can be, before, but it’s nice to relate to someone on that level, y’know?”

“Absolutely,” Jack smiles at him, and if you would have told him a year ago, no even weeks ago that he’d be sitting on McDavid’s couch complimenting him and trading secrets about their fucking personal lives, Jack would have punched you in the face, and yet? It happened so fast.

He sleeps on Connor’s couch that night, waking up to Lenard cuddling right on top of his chest.

“Where’s your dad? Where’d he go, huh?” he asks the dog, who he knows sleeps in Connor’s bed, and probably wouldn’t leave his side if he were in the house.

He has a text from Connor when he looks at his phone. Went on a long run to think. I know you have that meeting, so feel free to take my car to the hotel. The keys are in the bowl by the door. I’ll catch a ride to morning training with Mitch.

Jack never thought they’d be friends on the car sharing level, but again, this week keeps surprising him. He’d usually be weird about taking someone else’s car, but he’s probably going to be late if he waits for an Uber, and he’s definitely not forgoing showering and changing to save time.

Jack’s exhausted by the time he rolls up to afternoon training. He’s already counting down the minutes until he can take a nap in his hotel bed. His plan is to get in and get out and try not to get caught up chatting with any of the guys.

But that, of course, was a pipe dream.

“Hey,” Chucky says immediately seeing Jack come in. He’s doing mobility work but stops immediately to hug Jack. “That was fucking rough, yesterday, dude.”

Jack shrugs yawning, “Dylan and Connor have been having some issues for a while, and I think I just got caught in the crossfire. I’m not taking it personally.”

“If it makes you feel any better both Steph and Alexis chewed him out after you left. The dude got demolished. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I mean,” Jack hesitates. “Y’know when you’re insecure about something, and you tell yourself over and over that it’s not a real thing, and like you’re just being hard on yourself, but then someone says something about it, and you feel like every negative thought you ever had about yourself has to be true because they think so too? It’s like—I’ve felt insecure about not being good at monogamy and being a fuckboy or whatever, or being like a gay stereotype, and like Dylan basically implied I wasn’t capable of not hurting his best friend, that it was just like a given. So that fucking sucked.”

“Shit, Eichs—”

“I know. It’s dumb. Their fight wasn’t even really about me,” Jack says hastily because it’s true. What he and Connor have isn’t even fucking real.

“Eichs—”

“I’ll be fine,” he tells Matty seriously scrubbing his hand over his face. “I’m just tired. Can we drop it?”

“Sure, man. But, if you want to talk later?”

“Yeah, of course. I’ll let you know,” he smiles at Matty then. “Thanks, Chuck. I know you’ll always have my back.”

“USA! USA! USA!” he starts chanting then, and Jack has to grab him in a headlock.

He makes it through training and only dies a little, so he calls it a success. Before he pulls out of the parking lot, he calls Connor to see when he wants to drop his car off.

“Hey, babe,” Connor answers the phone sounding absolutely fucking trashed even though it’s barely 3PM.

“Babe?” Jack laughs. “Are you drunk?”

“I wanted to try it out. It sounds good when you do it,” he explains like it makes logical sense. “Dylan’s here,” he continues, and hears someone shout in the background but Jack can’t hear what they’re saying.

“Are you okay?” Jack questions. “Why are you guys drinking in the middle of the afternoon?”

“I’m good. Really good. Uh, we’re working it out? Or we did. I can tell you shit later, but like—yeah, I think, it was like a talk that was a long-time coming, and we may have drunk a little too much during, but whatever. Now we’re playing with Lenny and Wrigley and like whatever, we’re already drunk.”

It doesn’t really make sense fully, but Jack’s thinking it’s not an emergency, and they’re not likely to get in a fist fight any time soon. “Okay, that’s good? When did you want me to drop your car back?”

“Whenever,” Connor laughs again at whatever Dylan’s saying in the background. “I mean I’m not driving anywhere anytime soon.”

“Okay, well I’m going to go take a nap at the hotel. I’m so fucking exhausted, and then I’ll swing by later?”

“Sure,” Connor agrees easily. “I’m sure we’ll still be here. Mitch may come over, too. So, yeah, whenever.”

Jack laughs because this whole thing is ridiculous. “Sure, babe,” he over-emphasizes laughing. “I’ll text you when I’m coming.”

“Cool. Bye, baby—” he says breaking off, and Jack hangs up to the sound of both his and Dylan’s laughter. Jesus Christ, they’re ridiculous.

Jack wakes up refreshed and tries not to lament about what Dylan had said yesterday. He knows it wasn’t about him; he was telling Chucky the truth, but that doesn’t mean it still didn’t hurt. But, Stromer’s still his friend, and Connor’s not his boyfriend, and he has to remember that.

“Hey, Lenny,” he greets Connor’s giant dog when he lets himself in. Connor had texted that they were all out on the deck. “How are you, buddy? Was it too hot out there for you?”

“Hey,” Connor greets when Jack steps out onto the deck. He’s got a beer in his hand and sunglasses on, and he looks more relaxed than, frankly, Jack’s ever seen him.

“Hey,” he repeats smiling at him. It’s nice to see Connor happy, especially after his breakdown yesterday. It was honestly awful to see, and he’s glad he and Dylan somehow worked it out. He’s definitely pressing for details later, but right now, he’s just happy they’re getting along.

“What’s up, Eichs?” Mitch greets from Connor’s other side. “How was Gary’s?”

“I’m still alive,” Jack laughs. “That nap was clutch. I was really dragging.”

“Are you feeling better?” Connor asks reaching for Jack’s wrist.

Jack comes easily laughing. Of course, he’s drunk and wants to test his acting skills now. “Yeah, babe,” he only emphasizes the second word a little bit trying not to laugh. “Feeling human.”

Jack’s cut off from saying anything else to mock Connor by a golden retriever almost taking his legs out.

“Jesus, Wrigs, c’mon—” Dylan says stepping onto the deck. He stops abruptly when he sees Jack. “Oh, Eichs, shit—” he starts looking embarrassed and ashamed and just fucking miserable, honestly. “I’m so fucking sorry about yesterday, man. You didn’t—all the shit I said was so fucked up—” he hiccups a little obviously drunk and ready to let his thoughts run out of his mouth.

Jack tries to wave him off. “It’s okay. Connor said that you guys have been having some disagreements, and like I know it wasn’t about me.”

“Still,” Stromer insists. “We’re friends, and I respect the shit out you, and like—fuck, I didn’t mean to be such a dick.”

“Dude, it’s fine—”

“It’s not,” Stromer continues. “You’ve always been a great friend, and it was fucked up to imply that you’d treat Connor poorly. I didn’t mean it, and I’m happy for you, guys, really. I was just projecting me and Connor’s shit onto you, dude, and it was uncalled for.”

“It was definitely uncalled for and kinda made me feel like shit,” Jack finally agrees because he’s assuming that’s what Dylan’s looking for. “But, you’re forgiven, of course. I know you two were going through it.”

Dylan pulls him in for a hug then, his dog going a little crazy at their feet.

Jack sighs thumping him on the back before letting go. He’s still a little annoyed at him, if he’s being real, but Jack knows he’ll go home to Boston in a few days, stew about it, and then be over it by the next. That’s just how he is. He rarely holds grudges off the ice.

“You want a beer?” Connor asks him standing as Dylan goes to chain Wrigley in the yard. “I think we’re going to order pizza too.”

“Yeah, sure,” Jack shrugs climbing onto the chair on the other side of the chair Connor just vacated. “Where’s Matts?” he leans over to ask Mitch as Connor goes inside.

Mitch snorts, “He’s seeing about a lady.” He waggles his eyebrows obnoxiously. “Y’know, Aus, always wheeling and dealing. Chucky’s coming, though, so you can sing the Star-Spangled Banner or whatever you guys do when you get together.”

“Please,” Jack scoffs. “Chucky only sings My Country Tis of Thee off key.”

Connor rejoins them then handing Jack a Sam Adams with the cap already off. “Here’s your shitty American beer.”

That makes Jack pause because how the fuck does he know that Sam Adams is his favorite beer?

“Please,” because apparently drunk Connor can read his mind. “It reminds you of home. I get it.”

Jack knows he’s turning bright red, and Mitch loves it if his cackly laugh is anything to go by.

Before Connor comes back to sit down, he tosses a tube of sunscreen at Jack. “Put that on too, or you’re going to burn, and then you’ll look at us like we all betrayed you like we gave you that pasty-ass skin,” he says laughing.

Jack doesn’t think he could get any redder, but at the same time he kind of loves drunk Connor. Like drunk Connor has every drop of personality that sober Connor doesn’t, apparently.

“Oh my god,” Mitch basically wheezes. “If I knew you guys were going to be this savage as a couple, I would have made it happen years ago.”

“Slow your roll there. Millionaire Matchmaker, you are not,” Jack tells him, but he’s still laughing. “You have no idea how to set people up. I’ve seen you set Steph’s friends up with teammates who were terrible for each other, dude.”

“Okay, that was like twice,” Mitch replies a little defensively. “But I guess you have a point. Just happy you guys found each other,” he chuckles making obnoxious kissing noises.

Jack feels a slight clench in his chest at this, and he doesn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole, no sir. He takes a swig of his beer quickly hoping that it burns on the way down to distract him.

They shoot the shit for a while watching Lenny and Wrigley chase each other and Dylan and then Chucky when he finally shows up.

Jack’s buzzed and happy and relaxed for the first time in days. And, it’s not Connor’s fault, that Jack was taking on some of his shit from the whole—thing, or whatever. Because, hey, it was Jack that inserted himself into the drama in Mitch’s kitchen anyway, but it’s nice to just feel like himself again, before any of this fake dating began and before he knew anything about the substance of the drama with Connor and Dylan.

A few beers later he’s so loose and relaxed, that he can feel his eyes start to droop shut. He doesn’t fight it, just thinks fuck it, and lets himself take a little nap in the sun. He hates to admit it, but Connor forcing him to put on sunscreen really came in handy.

By the time Connor’s shaking him awake, the sun’s begun to set and it’s starting to get a little chilly. “Hey,” he smiles at Jack, it’s a little lop-sided and private, and how has Jack never noticed that McDavid has a nice smile before? How did that not penetrate his brain? “Do you want dinner? It’s getting kinda late.”

Jack nods slowly yawning into his hand. He knows that if he goes to bed without eating, he’ll wake up in middle of the night absolutely ravenous. It happened all the time at BU when he was so busy, he’d literally forget to eat.

Jack follows him back inside, Lenny at his feet now. “Oh, hey, Bud,” he greets him. “Did you have fun with your friend?”

Connor snorts in front of him getting Jack a plate out of one of the upper cupboards. “He’s going to pass out tonight.”

“Are you really okay?” Connor asks once he confirms they’re out of earshot of the guys. He lets Jack go at what’s left of the meat-lover’s pizza the rest of the guys have picked over. “I didn’t—I should have asked yesterday, sorry. That was—that was shitty of me.”

Jack shrugs, “C’mon, Davo. I mean, you’ve kinda of had a lot to deal with. Give yourself a break. But I mean—did what Stromer say hit a sore spot, absolutely. But, it’s like—I know it wasn’t really about me.”

“Still,” Connor insists quietly. “I know, like—I know you said you’re kind of insecure about not being able to be in a real relationship, y’know, after Cassidy?”

Jack feels too sober and too exhausted to be having this conversation again, and he just—he can’t help it, he wants to deflect. “It’s not a big deal. Like I’m over it? Stromer didn’t mean it, and he definitely doesn’t know about all my issues.”

“Okay,” Connor concedes studying him for a moment. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay, because you’ve been such a great friend to me, and I put you in a shitty situation, and I’m sorry.”

“Connor, you don’t control Dylan,” Jack complains quietly. “Like—stop apologizing for things that aren’t yours to apologize for.”

“Sorry—I mean, shit—” he laughs a little, and it makes Jack smile.

“C’mon, babe, let’s go chill with the guys out back,” he chuckles eyes twinkling he’s sure.

“Ugh,” Connor groans. “You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?”

“Nope,” Jack retorts popping the p shoving a full piece of pizza in his mouth.

See, Jack’s a self-admitted little shit. He loves to push people a little, and it’s mostly a vice, he knows. Growing up in the implicitly homophobic hockey culture, he developed a lot of—interesting—coping mechanisms. He’d see how guys would no-homo themselves after getting too close, and all that shit, and it used to drive him up a wall. But once one of the older guys on the Junior Bruins started playing gay chicken, Jack feels like he really came into his own.

He hated the idea of the game—that the guys would try to draw a line at an “acceptable” amount of physical intimacy with their friends until it was inherently “gay.” At the time he didn’t have the words to describe how it made him feel, but it just it made him mad and uncomfortable and a lot of things that were echoed in the locker room every day by hockey culture.

When he came out in Ann Arbor—or not out, he never really came out, he just was open about his sexuality—he could tell that it made some of the guys uncomfortable to be around him. So, that’s where his motto of “aggressively casual” began. He was so tactile and so open with his friends and his affections and his fucking sexuality, that he made them look. He made them take notice of it and confront it, even if they didn’t want to.

It wasn’t always the smartest thing, and he thinks if he didn’t have guys like Noah and Larks and Matts in his corner, he probably would have gotten the shit beat out of him. But, no homophobic fourth-liner was going to beat up some of the future saviors of U.S. Hockey. Jack knows he was lucky, and that his situation and the context of everything made him able to relax into his identity. If he wasn’t so good at hockey, if he didn’t show up everyday and outwork 99% of the team, he doesn’t think it would have gone as well. But, when he was winning and leading and destroying people on the ice, it was difficult for people to have a problem with him. They needed him, Jack knows, and that’s why they accepted him.

Connor could have had that too, Jack thinks, if he were bolder. But Jack knows that it isn’t in Connor’s nature to want to stir the pot; he admitted it himself; he shuts down when even faced with conflict, so he definitely wasn’t going to be one to create it.

Jack knows it’s not his responsibility to be Connor’s gay guru or whatever, but he does think this is a good opportunity to show Connor would it could be like if he were more comfortable with himself. If he’d let himself lean into his identity a little more, and be, y’know, aggressively casual about it.

Because the thing is Connor’s awkward. He’s so awkward; it’s like his whole thing, but it’s mostly because he’s so damn uncomfortable with himself in unknown situations. He’s seen him relax with the guys and their girlfriends. He’s seen him be able to let loose a little and be fucking normal and not keep everyone away from him in a three-feet radius or something. He fucking let Jack rub his back, for god’s sake. The kid is starved for touch, and it’s blatantly obvious. It’s not that he doesn’t want people to touch him and comfort him or whatever, it’s that he has some block about it, Jack’s sure, and he’d put money on it being something to do with his social anxiety and his fear involving people finding out about his sexuality.

So, when they get back out on the deck, Jack sits down next to him and tucks Connor into his side eating with one hand and wrapping the other arm around Connor’s waist. He looks at Connor then, raising an eyebrow in almost a challenge. If he truly didn’t want Jack so close, he could move away, and Jack wouldn’t chase him or anything, but he doesn’t think he will.

Connor’s eyes get a little wide for a minute looking at the guys who are wrapped up in their own conversation and have barely looked their way. He lets out a giggle that releases something in Jack’s chest, and while he’s not wasted anymore, Jack’s sure he’s still feeling the alcohol. He raises his eyebrows back at Jack and tucks himself closer basically saying challenge accepted, and they’re both so fucking competitive, it’s easy to just let it happen.

It’s nice, if Jack’s being honest, feeling someone close, a casual intimacy that he knows isn’t leading to sex. As much as he’s open with his sexuality, he’s struggled with letting any guy in after his relationship with Cassidy blew up in his face. It’s like subconsciously he always thought that eventually he’d settle down and shelf wanting to have casual sex with guys, and they’d live their lives together and be happy. And, even though now he realizes that was just a constructed figment of his imagination, and that he’s only attracted to men on that level, and that he was meant to be with a man and that was perfectly and 100% okay, he’s still struggled to actually date men.

Picking up? Great at it. Hooking up with his regular, casual hook-ups? The best. Friends with benefits? You better believe Jack excels at that. But, actually going on dates and opening his heart up to someone and connecting with him in a way that’s more about what’s between the ears than everything else? Jack sucks at it. And, he knows it’s because he’s scared—he’s fucking terrified of opening himself up just to get hurt again. It’s easier, sometimes, to not get close to people.

But, he hasn’t had this in a long time, someone tucked into his side, warm beside him—and just there, to cuddle a little and laugh and be present with, and Jack’s hit with a wave of want a mile high and it almost takes the wind from him.

“Are you okay?” Connor mumbles from where he’s tucked under Jack’s chin. He can no doubt feel Jack’s breath start to shallow out. “You’re breathing kinda heavy.”

Jack smacks a kiss on his forehead to distract him, which makes Connor laugh and punch his leg in retaliation. “Quit it,” he says, but he’s smiling.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jack feigns innocence.

“Jack,” he straightens up to look Jack in the eye, and it’s such a rarity that Jack knows he’s serious about whatever’s coming next. “C’mon, are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’m totally winning at this game we’re playing right now, too,” he tries to say light-heartedly pinching Connor’s side.

Connor doesn’t call him on his obvious bullshit. “Oh yeah?” he says clearly humoring Jack at this point.

“Alright,” Mitch says standing and stretching. “Thanks for having us, Davo, but I gotta get going. Nice to see ya too, Eichs. When are you leaving town?” he asks coming over to bump Jack’s fist.

“Monday night,” he answers yawning slightly. He needs to get going too if he’s going to make it to the morning session tomorrow.

“Cool, well I’m sure you guys want to have a night to yourselves, but if you want to hang between now and then let me and Steph know. We could use a re-do from last night.”

Jack just nods, “Sure.”

“Stromer!” he turns to yell towards Dylan who disappeared into Connor’s condo a while ago leaving the door wide open. “10 bucks he’s asleep on your couch, Davo,” he says to them before turning to go inside. “I’ll drive you home! You can get your car tomorrow!”

“I’m going to go too,” Chucky says getting up watching them a little curiously. “Glad everything got worked out with you and Dylan, Connor,” he says earnestly.

“Thanks,” Connor waves to him. “Have a safe drive. We’ll see you?”

He nods, “For sure; I’ll see you at training.”

And, then even though they’re now alone, neither of them makes any effort to move away from each other and create any type of physical space. Jack doesn’t know where to catalogue that information.

“This was nice,” Connor says eventually arms now around Jack’s middle, and Jack’s sure he can feel the beating of Jack’s heart. “It’s like—all of this made me realize, maybe it’s not a big deal, y’know? I mean it still is, but it doesn’t have to be, as much, I guess. I don’t know. I’ve stopped making sense hours ago.”

Jack laughs at that feeling slightly hot under the collar of his t-shirt all of a sudden, “I should get going. I have an off day from sponsor shit tomorrow, so I want to make sure to get to morning training so I can chill the rest of the day.”

“Cool,” Connor says still not moving. “I dunno if I should drive you, but you can take my car again if you pick me up for training tomorrow morning.”

“I can do that,” Jack agrees easily because he really didn’t want to have to wait for an uber or coordinate with Auston tomorrow.

Jack moves towards the door then, stopping in the house to pet Lenny before grabbing Connor’s car keys. “Uh, thanks for the pizza?” he calls after Connor who’s slowly trailing him but distracted by his giant fluff-ball of a dog.

“Sure,” he laughs. “Thanks for, uh, everything? Pretending to like me, mostly.”

Jack doesn’t know how to respond to that, so he just forces a chuckle. “Well, you’re mostly okay when the media’s not involved.”

That makes Connor frown, and Jack does not want to get sucked into whatever this is becoming, so he doesn’t let him have a chance to respond. “I’ll text you on my way over tomorrow. Drink some water, okay, or you’ll hate yourself.”

Connor snorts and mock salutes him, and Jack high-tales it out of there.

He’s so fucked. Jesus, he’s so, so fucked.

It takes Jack two cups of coffee and two full hours to wake up, and those are just the facts. So, when Connor slides into the passenger seat the next morning communing with his own coffee looking soft and relaxed, Jack’s sleepy brain goes places that he did not give it any express consent to go.

“Hey, good morning,” Connor says politely as he shuts the door. “Sleep well?”

Jack grunts in response because he can barely form sentences yet.

That makes Connor laugh loud and bright snorting into his coffee. “Okay, noted. I do remember Noah saying that you’re the worst in the mornings.”

Jack rolls his eyes and shrugs, and they sit in a companionable silence for the rest of the trip. It’s not awkward. It’s not.

Auston’s already there, foam-rolling and chatting with Stammer idly. He doesn’t say anything when they come in together, but his eyes tell Jack that he’s definitely noticed.

“Ah, not hiding anymore, eh?” he nudges Jack’s shoulder when he sits sipping his coffee and working on that spot on his ankle with a lacrosse ball.

Jack shrugs following Auston’s line of sight to where Connor’s talking to Gary. “What’s the point?”

“I just—McDavid’s a super private guy, Eichs. You must be pretty important for him to not care if the other guys notice.”

Well that couldn’t be further from the truth, but Jack can’t say that, so he just tries to deflect. “I think he’s just ready to stop caring so much and be himself?”

Auston snorts. “Yeah, because you had nothing to do with that,” he retorts sarcastically.

Jack just shrugs one shoulder again, and Auston knowing that Jack’s barely coherent before 10AM, drops it immediately.

Jack’s back is crazy sore, probably from sleeping on Connor’s couch the other night, so after they finish up, he spends an extra 20 minutes doing banded accessory work to hopefully ease some of the strain on his lower back.

“Hey,” Connor greets finishing up his own stretching routine and talking to a few AHL prospects who came by to talk to Gary. He sits cross-legged and fucks on his phone while Jack finishes up, and it makes Jack feel some kinda way, like what it would be like to have someone there to wait for him and be at his side no questions asked, and he definitely doesn’t want to think about it.

“So, uh, y’know how we talked about my parents?” Connor asks awkwardly when he settles behind the wheel to drop Jack back at his hotel.

“Sure?” Jack says scrolling through Instagram.

“Well, they want to have dinner with us tomorrow night,” he’s going for nonchalant and misses by a mile.

“So, we’re like—you’re lying to them?” Jack hesitates.

“I don’t think there’s any way around it,” Connor responds a little defensively. “We’re in this already, and they’re going to be at the wedding, and I—I just don’t see how they wouldn’t find out.”

“So, we’re going to have dinner with your parents and pretend to be a couple?”

“It won’t be a big deal,” Connor assures. “They’re—they’re just happy that in their minds, I’m finally over Gabe.”

Jack considers that for a moment, “Right, I guess that’s good.”

It’s one thing lying to some of their friends, and but Connor’s parents? It’s just crossing a different kind of line, but whatever. They’re not his parents, Jack supposes.

“Yeah, they’re pretty cool with me being gay,” Connor says quietly. “I mean—they loved Gabe, and I think they just—I think they wished I wasn’t, but they accept that I am, and they want me to be happy.”

“Okay,” Jack shrugs agreeing, even though he knows he shouldn’t. He should be drawing a line.

But it’s worth it when Connor smiles at him like that, all careful and grateful, like Jack’s filling up his world to the absolute brim. “Thank you. I know it’s an ask.”

“It’s fine. They’re your parents,” Jack placates, anything for him to stop talking would be great.

“Right,” Connor says awkwardly as he blessedly pulls up to the hotel. “What are you doing later?”

Jack shrugs, “Take a nap, maybe see what the guys are doing, but most likely getting takeout or room service and watching a movie.”

“Do you want to decompress together, maybe? I know you want to hear about the Dylan stuff.”

He looks so fucking hopeful, and Jack knows he should say no. I needs to be alone, and then maybe FaceTime Noah and fucking think about all things that have transpired in the last 72 hours or so.

“You buying?” he asks instead because his mouth hates him.

Connor rolls his eyes a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, “Is that a yes?”

“Only if I can eat my weight in sushi,” Jack replies because he hates himself.

“Sure, text me your order before you come over?”

Jack turns the shower on hot enough to burn and stands there for probably 20 more minutes than necessary just trying to think. He’s had a tough summer, well not really. He’s—he told Sammy when he left Buffalo that he was going to date, like date in a way that being in Buffalo makes difficult because his face is on fucking billboards, and he’s the captain of the beloved hometown team. Even when he meets someone and feels confident they’re not going to spill the beans on his sexuality, it’s hard to know whether they like him as him, if they want to be with him, or if they either (1) just want to be with a professional athlete or (2) are really into his money.

So, on top of all his intimacy problems, dating always seemed like such a chore. Why would he go through all that when he could just keep hooking up with people he already knew and didn’t have expectations of him? Why would he go through all that when he could just pick up randos in LA or New York or Nashville and have a good time no strings attached? It was so much easier that way.

And, yet, when he really thought about it, when he really sat back and thought about who he was and what he wanted, he wanted someone. He wanted someone to be his person. He wanted to be in love, fully and completely, and he wanted that person to at least love him back; the rest they could figure out.

They only have just started this thing, and it’s making Jack realize all of the things that he’s wanted, but he’s never really let his mind wander enough to think about the reality of. Like, just having someone to come home to and sit on the couch and watch movies with? Just having someone to listen to his weird rants about whatever he gets worked up about? Someone just to be there, be at his side and cuddle and be present with in the moment?

It’s not about Connor. It’s about—Jack’s never been in the kind of relationship they’re pretending to have. He’s never been in that adult kind of relationship, not one without a lot of holes and misgivings, and now that he’s experienced just one tiny fraction of what it could be like, he’s aching for it for real, and that’s fucking dangerous is what that is.

He’s made a miscalculation, holy shit.

He takes some melatonin and passes the fuck out for a while, hoping that by the time he wakes up everything starts making more sense.

When he wakes up, everything doesn’t make more sense, but his back feels a ton better, and his sister has sent a new picture of his niece in a tiny Red Sox jersey.

Her second favorite team after the Sabres, of course. She texted along with it.

It makes him smile, and even though he saw his family last weekend, it makes him miss home a little bit. The older he gets, the more he misses the feeling of home. Not Boston, like the place specifically, but the feeling of being with is parents and his sister and her husband—that feeling of being around the people who don’t have any expectations for him. He can’t help but wonder if all of this is wrapped up in that, in a way.

How’s McLovin? Noah had sent about an hour ago, and Jack groans because he knows Noah’s going to get every last detail–besides the very personal stuff Connor shared, mind you; he’s not actually a dick—out him as soon as he’s able to get Jack on the phone, or better yet Jack in person on Tuesday.

Meeting the parents tomorrow. FML he sends back because he can try to pretend he’s fine.

Seriously? Noah sends back immediately.

McDavid does everything all-in apparently, even pretending to date someone.

You both are fucking insane. You deserve each other, honestly. Noah chirps back, and like Jack kind of agrees at this point.

Going to go strategize with him. Talk later. Jack shoots back before tossing his phone onto the other side of the bed.

He paces for a while in his hotel room, thinking about everything that’s happened in the last few days, and he comes to a few conclusions.

First, Connor McDavid, god help Jack, is a nice dude, and a good friend, and like would never in a million years would ask Jack to do anything of this sort, unless Jack insisted, which he did.

Second, he kind of wants to keep being friends with McDavid because he fucking gets it, and he’s gone through shit, and Jack feels for him. It must have been hard for him to open up to Jack, but he did it, and while Jack certainly doesn’t owe him anything, he wants to be there for him.

Third, he needs to stop projecting his issues onto this thing with McDavid. He’s just helping a friend out, and like—test driving a relationship for both of them. Both of them are struggling there: Connor’s trying to get over Gabe, and Jack’s trying to get over Cass and like his entire mental construction of his sexuality. They can use this experience as a jumping off point, as a way to ease back into being in relationships, to putting themselves out there, so seeing themselves as fully functioning adults, who anyone would be lucky to have.

Fourth, Jack needs to stop thinking about it so much. Go, have fun, play relationship casual intimacy chicken with McDavid. Woo his parents and his brother. Make the best out of the situation. It’s not that deep.

It sounds simple enough. Jack can do it. He believes in himself. Fucking aggressively casual is his way of life, and he’s going to live up to it.

Lenard’s the one to greet him at the door when he rings the bell to Connor’s condo.

“It’s open!” he hears him yell from the kitchen.

He bends down to pet, obviously, his favorite McDavid, who jumps happily zooming around Jack’s feet. “What’s up, buddy? Did your dad get everything I ordered? Can he follow instructions?”

He hears Connor scoff as he rounds the corner into the kitchen. “I’m really good at following instructions. Don’t talk shit about me to my dog.”

Jack snickers at that, “Sorry, dude. Didn’t know that was taboo.”

“How’s your back?” Connor asks pouring Jack a glass of water.

“I didn’t—” Jack starts because he never told Connor that he was sore.

“I saw you wincing, and then you like stretched for half my life after training. Kinda obvious, man.”

“Lot to unpack, here,” Jack says as Connor rolls his eyes. “First, I’m supposed to be the dramatic one, here, McDavid. Don’t come for my brand. Two, aren’t you supposed to be like oblivious to everything? Is that not your brand? Socially awkward aloofness?”

Connor laughs at that loud and bright and starts carrying the food into the living room to eat in front of the TV. “Aw, I guess it’s working then, my plan to get everyone to leave me alone because I’m too uncomfortable.”

“Oh, it’s definitely working,” Jack laughs back trailing him with Lenny hot on his heels.

“How’s your back?” Connor repeats. “You didn’t pull something in training, did you?”

“No,” Jack answers truthfully even though he doesn’t know why it matters. “Just got a little sore from sleeping on the couch the other night, and I never really stretched it out.”

“Oh shit, sorry. I should have made up the guest room. That’s totally—”

“It’s fine. I’m fine. You were kinda distracted; it’s not a big deal,” he pauses taking a piece of his spicy salmon roll and popping it in his mouth. “So, you and Stromer got drunk yesterday.”

“Wow, nice, no lead up—”

“You want foreplay for me asking questions now, Davo. Loosen you up—” Jack jokes lightly.

“Fuck off,” Connor says shoving him hard enough to make Lenny abandon the prospect of getting a crumb at their feet and spring into action.

“You promised me details,” Jack complains.

“Fine,” Connor concedes biting his lip and looking away. “I know I did,” he pauses for a minute taking a giant swig of water. “I did what you suggested, and I kind of just wrote down all the shit that I had been feeling, y’know? Like how I never intentionally alienated Dylan, it was just like what I thought I needed to do for my own mental health at the time, and I see now that it wasn’t the right thing.”

“What did he say?”

“He just—he was contrite about how everything played out, y’know. And, he was projecting those feelings of inadequacy on me, too. Like y’know struggling at World Juniors and getting sent down and then the trade—” Connor breaks off. “It was hard on him and like at the same time was I not only being the most supportive, but I—I was drifting a lot. It was like—I didn’t know what to say to him? Like I’m out here winning the Hart, and like does he really want me to tell him to keep his head up? I don’t know.”

“I just think we both needed to accept that we’re never going to have the same friendship we did when we were 16, and that we’re not the same people anymore. We’ve both been through other things, and seen new things and seen the world differently, and that’s okay—” he swallows, and Jack doesn’t know if he’s really getting the full picture of everything, but it’s a start.

“No one tells you how difficult it is to transition your friendships and your relationships into adulthood, y’know? Like everything’s easier when you’re 16 and away from home for the first time, and you need each other. It’s much harder to go back to that person over and over again when you’re feeling vulnerable.”

“Yeah,” Jack agrees. “It takes work. All relationships take work.”

“Right, and I guess—I was hurting, and I like always thought that Dylan would be there, and I took that for granted, and I hurt the shit out of him, and I have to live with that. But, it doesn’t—it didn’t give him the right to treat me like shit, either, y’know? Like we both hurt each other, for sure. And, even if I kinda ghosted first or whatever, that doesn’t excuse his actions, either.”

“Wow, that’s—seems like you guys really aired it out,” Jack says, and he’s impressed.

Connor nods taking a piece of sushi to give him some time to think before responding. “I—writing it out really helped. It helped me stay focused in the conversation and not clam up when the conversation got hard, and like—without that piece of advice, I don’t think we would have come to a resolution.”

“I mean I’m happy to help, but I mean you faced it, and you overcame your fear of confrontation, and like dude, I’m proud of you. It sounds like—I mean I’m sure not everything is fixed, but at least you can grow from here, y’know?”

“Absolutely,” Connor nods. “And like,” he hesitates, “it means a lot for you to say that. Like I know it doesn’t seem like much but confronting him was pretty difficult for me.”

Jack has to reach over to hug him then because they may not be close friends, but Jack will always champion personal growth. He knows it’s difficult to confront to something you’re uncomfortable with and take responsibility for yourself.

Connor laughs then running a hand through his hair. “I would never have guessed that you’d be the one to get us there, but really Jack, thanks.”

They chat idly about hockey and all the gossip around the league while they finish eating, and Jack figured that they’d have shit in common, but he never thought he’d actually enjoy Connor’s company, if he’s being completely real. If makes him wonder if he wasn’t being so dramatic and standoffish during the draft, if they could have been friends this whole time. And, Jack doesn’t regret what he did; he doesn’t. He was—he was going through shit, and he was an 18-year-old kid, and the media was obnoxious, and anyway, he’s learned a lot since then, is the thing, and he’s happy that somehow he and Connor got to this point. It’s nice.

Connor clears the plates and lets Jack pick the movie, some indie film that his brother-in-law told him will “blow his mind,” and he kept meaning to watch.

Lenny immediately jumps up between them and settles in. “Sorry, he’s pretty good about not getting up here when I’m eating, but I pretty much let him any other time—”

“It’s cool,” Jack shrugs. “I like dogs, and I think we’re becoming buds, right Lenard?”

The dog just tilts his head a little as Jack scratches behind his ears.

He must fall asleep after that, because he wakes up to the Netflix home screen flashing at him playing a preview of some show about pugs and real estate, Jack doesn’t know.

Connor’s passed out on the other corner of the couch Lenny asleep right under his chin, and like Jack’s human okay, so he obviously takes a picture.

Jack contemplates what to do for a few minutes but then decides there’s no reason for both of them to be sore tomorrow on their off day from training, so he shakes Connor awake.

He jerks awake immediately Lenny getting scared and jumping down.

“Sorry, we must have fallen asleep,” Jack says in apology. “I got a cute picture, though?” He hands his phone to Connor.

Connor smiles, “Can I send this to myself?”

“Wow, a little vain, there?” Jack says but nods. “Sure.”

“I mean Lenny’s like the cutest dog, c’mon,” Connor complains as he hands back the phone.

“I mean he’s pretty cute,” Jack laughs. “Y’know what, babe—”

“I don’t like where this is going—”

Jack snickers, “I’m setting this as my lockscreen. It’ll be very on brand for our narrative.”

“You’re the worst, y’know that, Eichs?” Connor says but he’s blushing all the way down to his chest.

“Alright, I better go because I’m not sleeping on that couch again,” Jack says standing.

Connor looks sheepish at that by smiles sleepily at him, “I can drive—”

“I’ll get a car. It’s cool. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Jack says waving him off and getting his phone out to get an Uber.

Connor waves dorkily as Jack gets up to go, and it reminds him of the first day that they met, and it’s honestly weird to think about.

He goes on a run with Auston the next morning, and Mitch shows up to tag along as well. Jack doesn’t know if he would have said yes if he knew he were coming to be honest, because while Jack isn’t coherent in the morning for several hours, Marns wakes up with full puppy-dog energy ready to attack his day with exuberance, and Jack? Jack really doesn’t enjoy it, if he’s being honest. And, Auston knows that, if the innocent look he gives Jack when he shows up to see both of them on the trail is anything to go by.

He’s still chattering away six miles in, and Jack while more awake, wants to slowly murder him.

“Marns, Jesus Christ, do you ever shut up?”

Mitch cackles, “Dude you’re friends with Chucky, I talk about 1/18 as much.”

“God bless, Dvorak, dude did he even get to talk that entire year?”

“Like he needed to—” Mitch bitches back.

“This is why Matts hangs out with you dude, so he doesn’t have to talk.”

Auston just shrugs at that, “He’s not wrong.”

Mitch shoves him laughing, “You love me, fucker. I’m your best friend.”

They go to brunch after, because why not?

“Gonna see what Stromer’s doing,” Mitch says in the car finding Dylan’s contact information on his Bluetooth. “He lives right by this place. What’s Connor up to? I’m surprised you didn’t drag him along to suffer, if you had to. You guys have been attached this entire week,” he says glancing back at Jack.

“Dude, I can do shit without my boyfriend,” Jack tells him, but it comes out super defensive, and Jack doesn’t really understand why.

“Whoa,” Marns pauses giving him a curious look out of the corner of his eye. “I’m not saying you can’t; the season’s coming up, is all, and you’re about to spend a lot of time a part. It’s gotta suck.”

“Sorry,” Jack mumbles and now Auston’s giving him a weird look as well. “Yeah, I mean—we haven’t been together for that long, so I don’t know what it’ll be like.”

“I think you guys seem pretty solid,” Auston says shrugging. “Kinda proud of you, dude. Come a long way since the A2.”

“God forbid you grow up after the age of 17,” Jack rolls his eyes.

“Learn to take a fucking compliment, Eichs,” Auston says back. “You and McDavid are in a good place. You’re happy, and we’re fucking happy you finally did something for yourself, dude.”

“Yeah,” Marns assents. “I knew you’d be good for each other. Connor’s breaking out of his shell. I think I saw him kiss Gabe like one time during their entire relationship, and he’s already at ease with showing you off, dude. That’s big. And, he settles you, man. I mean you’re still, Eichs, but your energy’s just more relaxed.”

Jack has no idea what that means. “Thanks?”

“Close enough,” Auston mumbles.

He texts Connor then because if they’re going to give him crap, he should give them something to give him crap about. Want to get brunch with your two least favorite Maple Leafs?

Lol, right now? he replies after only a beat.

Yeah, Mitch invited himself on me and Auston’s morning run. He sends Connor the address of the restaurant then.

Oh, cool. Is Dylan coming? This is right by his place.

Do these idiots all share one brain? Dunno, Marns is calling him.

“What’s up, Marns?” speak of the devil.

“In the car with Aus and Jack, and there’s too much America around me right now. You want to go to brunch? We’re heading to the place right by your house with the big patio.”

“Yeah, let me see with Lex is doing. I think she’s going shopping with her sister, though.” There’s some voices in the background, and Strome’s dog barking a little, too. “I’m in. Gonna bring Wrigley. Tell Connor to bring Lenny.”

“Is Connor coming, Jack?”

Dylan’s coming. He’s bringing Wrigley and says to bring Lenny along, too.

Sure. Connor shoots back. I gotta get in the shower, though. I just did some accessory stuff. Tell Dylan I’m coming if he’s paying cause he owes us.

“Connor’s only coming if you’re buying, Stromer. Says you owe us.”

“Yeah, says the couple with more money than they could spend in 20 lifetimes,” Stromer bitches sarcastically. “Fine, I guess he’s got a point.”

“Hey man,” Jack laughs. “Take it up with, Davo. I’m just the messenger.”

Stromer says fine. But is complaining about us having the most money.

I mean comparatively they’re all in the poor house, eh? 😅

Jack snorts and laughs at that, but he’s totally not saying that out loud for the rest of the car to hear.

Poor, poor under 30 multi-millionaires. Should have invested better. It’s a real travesty.

Wow, jokes. Go shower, asshole. See you in a bit.

Connor shows up almost a half-hour after they sit down outside, already into a round of drinks and food. He’s got a snapback on, Lenny trailing him happily looking more excited than Jack’s ever been for anything.

“Hey, bud,” Jack greets as Connor slides into the seat next to him, Lenny nipping happily at Jack’s legs. “Did you see Wrigley? Did you see your friend? Want to say hi?”

They’re in public, so Jack’s pretty surprised when Connor squeezes the back of his neck gently in greeting. Jack can’t see his face, but he can feel himself turning red.

“Sorry,” Connor says to the table attaching Lenny’s leash next to where Dylan’s got Wrigley. “Hadn’t showered yet.”

“Lazy,” Marns admonishes laughing. “The great McJesus not getting up at 6AM to train? Who are you?”

“Shut up,” Connor replies lightly rolling his eyes. “Here,” he says dropping something into Jack’s lap. It’s a tube of SPF 50. “You’re going to burn out here, and you know it.”

“Fuck off,” Jack sputters after a second. “I can take care of myself, y’know?”

“Uh-huh,” Connor says picking up the drink menu clearly unfazed. “So, you totally put on sunscreen before your run.”

“Well, no,” Jack admits shrugging.

Connor gives him a smug knowing look, and damn, Jack feels like he’s just been captained, and he’s supposed to be the captain, okay?

Jack shoots him a dirty look but puts the sunscreen on his face, arms, and legs, anyway. He does burn easily, and his face doesn’t really need to be redder and blotchier, thank you.

“Wow,” Marns comments sipping a bloody mary as big as his head. “Someone’s already whipped, dude.”

Jack doesn’t even need to dignify that with a response, so he just flips Mitch the bird, and he can see Connor smirking out of the corner of his eye like he won something.

“Happy?” Jack asks admittedly petulantly tossing the sunscreen back to Connor.

Connor just shakes his head looking too fond for his own good. “So, so, so happy, babe,” he replies sarcastically.

Jesus, maybe Jack was wrong when he said he wished McDavid would relax around him because apparently it releases his inner little shit. “I hate you.”

“Uh-huh,” Connor says again smiling at him with that same winning smile.

“So, what are you guys doing for the next few days before Jack’s ousted back to the other side of the border?” Mitch asks after they finish discussing last minute wedding things, and then divulged into a deep dive into the latest girl Auston’s not sure he actually wants to date. He’s so indecisive, it hurts.

“Ouch, Canada would be lucky to have me,” Jack retorts miming a stab in the chest.

“Dinner with Brian and Kelly tonight,” Connor says deliberately casually.

“Ah, meeting the parents, precious,” Dylan says laughing. “Well, Connor’s parents are the nicest people alive, albeit—a little—”

“Stuffy?” Connor finishes for him. “Straitlaced? Politely judgmental?"

“I mean what’s the opposite of laid-back?” Dylan asks. “Because that’s how I would describe them. Upper middle class, sweater-vest types.”

Jack snorts “That’s like the opposite of my family. If you’re not shouting are you really speaking? – the Eichel family philosophy.”

Connor laughs at that but the look he gives Jack leads him to believe if he’s not sure if Jack’s joking or if it’s based on truth, and it’s like maybe not that extreme, but his family is loud, always debating, pushing, and scheming. It’s the blue-collar New England way of life, Jack supposes.

“I mean, I’m not worried about it,” Connor shrugs still picking at his eggs benedict. “Just hoping that it’s not super awkward—my parents aren’t like the most—uh—conversational?”

Jack blinks at that. “Well, good thing I can talk for years, Davo. For once, it’s going to come in handy. I got lots of opinions about lots of things that don’t matter. So, it’ll be good.”

“Never thought I’d be thankful for your motor mouth—”

“Motor mouth?” Jack cuts him off because he can’t help it. “Are you 95?”

Jack doesn’t freak out after his nap and shower later. He doesn’t. But—there’s something itching under his skin, and he can’t explain it. While he knows he’ll be able to roll with and carry any conversation with Connor’s parents, if they give him literally anything, he’s nervous they’re going to—see through him, maybe. Not that he thinks they’ll be able to tell they’re faking it, because they’ve been pretty solid at keeping the story straight, and Jack thinks it’s mostly believable because no one’s looking for the lie.

He just feels like—look, Connor’s weird. He’s awkward. He’s aloof. His social anxiety is palpable, usually. But, he’s still—Connor. He’s sweet and funny, when he wants to be. And, he’s nice. So fucking nice and polite, and like he means the kid dated his high school sweetheart for like 7 years and let it destroy him. He’s like one type of gay, and Jack is decidedly another type. He’s the type of guy you don’t want your son to come with, is all. And, he doesn’t want Conor’s parents to think—even if this isn’t real—that he’s like going to break their kid’s heart. He doesn’t want a Dylan 2.0 scenario, even though he knows the McDavids are too nice to say anything, probably. He just—he wants Connor to have a good experience so this doesn’t ruin any future meeting of the parent’s situations—that this makes him feel like he can be open with his parents about the guys he dates.

“You know it’s 90 degrees out, and we’re going to be outside barbecuing, right?” Connor asks incredulously when he picks Jack up from the hotel.

“Uh—” And the thing is, Jack changed like maybe 8 times before deciding that a pair of slacks and a button-down was the move. He’d rather be over-dressed, than under-dressed, any day. He’s not even wearing a hat, even though his curls are begging for moisture, puffing up in the Toronto summer humidity.

“You’re going to sweat through your shirt and ruin it,” Connor says driving into the parking lot now and parking. “C’mon, go change. It’s cool. We have plenty of time.”

It’s not really a question or a request, and Jack really doesn’t know what to say. He’s already tried on all the clothes he brought, and he doesn’t really want to do it again. But he goes up stairs anyway. He supposes he can put on some shorts or something to appease him.

Connor follows him up to the room, for whatever reason. Jack didn’t invite him, but whatever. He’s not going to say no to company. It’ll probably get him moving faster and be less self-conscious about whatever he picks.

“Why don’t you wear one of these?” Connor’s saying from the other room when Jack goes to change into shorts. He knows that the shorter inseam is totally mainstream now, but Jack’s tall, okay. He’s got long legs and a hockey ass, and while these shorts aren’t short, they’re like shorter than straitlaced, sweater-vest parents would probably approve of. They’re—and Jack’s not even thinking the next word because he’s working on his internalized-homophobia, and he’s not letting parents bring it out in him.

Connor’s holding up two short-sleeved patterned button downs when he rounds to see him. And Jack’s mind goes—well it goes right where he doesn’t want it to go. “They’re, uh,” he pauses trying to find the appropriate word. “They’re a little—loud?”

Connor frowns then face etched in confusion, “You mean a little—stereotypically gay?”

Jack nods frowning into the hotel carpet. Look, Jack has style, okay. He means maybe not good style. But he totally owns his kind of out there three-piece suits, and sneakers and tight pants and loud prints; he owns his gay-frat boy aesthetic. It’s him. And usually, he doesn’t care what other people think about it—it’s totally apart of the aggressive casual thing, but he just—parents? He doesn’t want to be too gay or whatever, for Connor’s parents to accept him.

“Jack—”

“I just—I don’t know—better to be safe, than sorry? I don’t want to shove it in their faces. Like I can be boring and like white boy masculine if I want to be.”

“Sure, you can,” Connor assures putting his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “But I’m not asking you to be anything other than yourself, here. You should dress how you want to. My parents aren’t going to care, and if they do—well they have more problems with my sexuality than I thought, and it’s a reflection on that and them and not you at all.”

He takes the blue floral print shirt from Connor’s right hand. It’s his favorite one, and he should lean into it. “Okay,” he tells Connor shrugging. “If you’re sure.”

“100%. It’s not even—it’s not even loud. It’s just—I mean everyone dresses louder than me,” he laughs self-deprecatingly. “I take wanting to blend in to the extreme.”

Jack shrugs buttoning up his shirt and going to find his Nikes that he flung across the room earlier. He’s feeling exposed, if he’s being honest, and he hates it.

“You look good,” Connor tells him coming over the flatten down part of his shirt collar that’s betrayed him. “Very on brand, now.”

It’s easy to see that Connor’s only about an inch shorter than him when they’re standing face to face like this. He often shrinks himself, Jack thinks—trying to be smaller, less noticeable, less—exceptional, or whatever. But, Jack likes him best like this: standing tall and straight and looking Jack in the eye, smiling unselfconsciously.

“Thanks,” Jack says shrugging running a hand through the frizz growing out his head. There’s nothing that he can do there, and he’d normally just wear a hat, but thinks better of it.

Connor opens his mouth to say something but shuts his it again abruptly. “C’mon,” he says eventually. “Let’s get on the road. It’s like a 40-minute drive, and I have to stop to get wine.”

They talk a little bit about their plans for the rest of the summer. How Jack’s going to the cape with his parents and his sister’s family after the first of the month and is looking forward to relaxing, and maybe conspiring to get his niece into hockey even though she can barely walk.

“It’s never too early,” Connor says seriously when Jack brings it up.

“See, that’s what I said, but my mom hung up on me, so—” Jack laughs.

Connor chuckles at that, “She doesn’t get it.”

He wouldn’t call Connor’s parents’ house a McMansion, per se, but it reminds him a lot of Noah’s family’s house. Clean lines, with that upper-middle class preppy feel. If it was in Jack’s neighborhood though, no doubt it would be called a McMansion. It fits everything he knows about the McDavids.

Connor’s dad greets Connor with a short hug and Jack a very firm handshake. Jack looks him straight in the eye and doesn’t back down, and his dad, Jack thinks, would be proud.

Connor’s mom, however, hugs both of them, and it’s only a little stiff. Jack’s unsure what to think of that, but he lets Connor lead him out of the foyer and into the kitchen setting the wine down on the counter.

“I got that red that you said Terri brought over a few weeks ago that you liked, and white for Jack because he refuses to drink red because it’s room temperature,” he tells his mom but turns to roll his eyes at Jack. “It doesn’t make sense, but I’ll humor him since he’s on vacation.”

That makes Jack blink back at him a little bewildered. He knows his thing with wine is well documented among his friends. He complains about it a lot. Like people who like red over white are just wrong, objectively; he doesn’t make the rules. It’s mostly because he had a very bad experience with a cheap red wine after U18s, and he’s scarred, but he’s never voiced that out loud to anyone, not even Noah. He’s not sure if he’s talked about that this week though. But, Auston loves to chirp him about it, so maybe he did.

“It’s just like weird when it’s like kinda warm? Like it gets stuck in my throat. I don’t like it,” he explains shrugging one shoulder because that’s the story he usually goes with, and that’s partially it. It is weird and sticks to his insides, and he doesn’t like it, okay?

“That’s understandable, dear,” Connor’s mom smiles at him. “Everyone has their quirks, no worries. I’ll chill this for you.”

“Thank you,” he says sincerely smiling at Connor who gives him a thumbs up when his mom turns towards the fridge.

“So how have your parents been Jack? We met at the draft, and they seemed lovely.”

It’s a softball of a question, and Jack is so thankful and will gladly run with it. So he takes off explaining how his mom is still working as nurse, she’s a shift manager now and in charge of all of the other nurses on her floor, which is pretty cool, and how his dad is thinking about retiring soon, mostly so he can finally beat Jack in golf and do all the home improvement projects he’s put off for the last 15 years.

He has Connor’s parents laughing by the end of his story about his dad starting to restain the deck two summers ago and not getting around to finishing until two weeks ago when Jack came over to help him out, so he calls it a win, so far.

“Seems like they’re doing well,” Connor’s dad says smiling.

“Uh-huh, they’re the best. A little crazy, but I mean we keep it interesting, I guess.”

They move outside then, Connor and his dad arguing light-heartedly about the best grilling techniques.

They stand over the grill needling each other easily, and Jack thinks maybe it was wrong of him to assume that this was going to go poorly. They’re just a normal family—just a little more formal than his own.

“Jack, how do you want your steak cooked?” Connor asks turning to him as Jack sits at their outdoor table in the loveseat.

“Uh, medium-rare-ish? But, like don’t kill me?”

Connor snorts turning to his dad. “Well dad chars everything, so I don’t think that’s a risk here.”

Connor’s dad takes exception to that, and Jack’s happy just to watch them bicker good-naturedly at each other for a while. It reminds him of home—just with less volume.

Eventually, Connor’s dad shoos him away, “Go bother your mother, or something, son.”

“I’m just supervising,” Connor insists. “Make sure you don’t burn them.”

“Go supervise something else,” Connor’s dad tells him pointedly. “Get a glass of wine or a beer and relax.”

“Fine, fine,” he says backing away from the grill and disappearing inside.

“Connor said you were doing workouts with him at Gary’s this week. How’d you like it?” Connor’s dad asks still surveying the steaks on the grill.

“I mean Gary’s obviously tough. But, it’s great to get with different trainers sometimes so that you don’t get too comfortable and stop pushing yourself, I think. I only started working out like 100% a few weeks ago because I had some bone fragments taken out of my ankle at the beginning of the offseason, anyway, so he was really killing me. I was dying. But got some good tips to take back with me to Boston.”

“That’s good, son. How’s the ankle feeling now? Old injury, right?”

“Yeah, didn’t really rehab it properly the first time, if I’m being honest. It was only my second year in the league, and I just tried to come back too soon. In retrospect, it was stupid, but I suppose sometimes you need to learn things the hard way.”

“Here’s your wine. I popped in a few ice cubes because it wasn’t quite chilled yet,” Connor says coming back from inside and sitting down next to him, handing him the glass.

“Thanks,” Jack tells him sincerely knowing he must be beet red.

“I was just asking Jack about his offseason training and how he liked Gary’s style,” Connor’s dad explains. “You didn’t mention he had an offseason surgery, Connor.”

“Uh,” Connor says eloquently, and Jack doesn’t really know if his dad is being critical of him or just curious about why Connor didn’t mention it. Jack supposes it would make sense to mention your significant other’s surgery to your parents—but Connor only told them about “dating” Jack the other day, so that doesn’t really make sense either.

“It wasn’t a major surgery or anything,” Jack jumps in. “But I just wanted to take caution and let everything heal the right way, this time. Can’t treat a Cadillac like a Chevy and expect it to still run like a Cadillac, can you?”

Connor laughs at that tucking himself into Jack’s side. “Did you just compare yourself to a luxury car?”

“Are you saying I’m not akin to luxury automobile?” Jack fires back.

“No, no, of course not,” Connor chuckles back sarcastically. “What a great metaphor, Eichs.”

Connor’s dad turns to them then shaking his head and laughing, and Jack will take that as a good sign, too. “But it’s all healed now?”

“Yeah, should be 100% way before camp,” Jack replies trying to relax a little bit with the unexpected physical affection Connor’s showing him now. He didn’t think they were going to play this game in front of his parents.

“That’s good,” Connor’s dad sighs closing the grill. “We worry about Connor and how the game takes a toll on him physically, as he gets older. It’s not easy to take hit after hit each year. Have to do the right things off the ice. It’s important for you to take that seriously. That’s how you’ll prolong your career.”

Jack blinks at that looking at Connor who’s flushing a little. He thinks he’s stumbled on an old argument of some sort, or at least a disagreement.

“Dad—”

“We just want the best for you—” he looks at Jack then shrugging a shoulder. “Both of you.”

“I know,” Connor concedes. “But, we’re professionals, and leaders in the league, and yeah, we’re not perfect, but we’re not those 18-year-old kids anymore. I mean Dyls is getting married in a few weeks.”

Connor’s dad nods at that shaking his head fondly. “I was just telling Dylan’s dad the other week that it feels like just yesterday that you two were going to prom and graduating high school. Dylan trying to make a big show about asking Alexis to prom. You and Gabe—” he cuts himself off. “Anyway, I suppose you’ll always be those kids to us, at least a little, son.”

Connor’s mom blessedly comes out of the house then, Connor’s old family dog trailing behind her. “All the sides are in the oven keeping warm for the steaks, Brian,” she tells Connors dad sitting down across from Jack and Connor.

“So, Jack, I know you must know that Connor’s very private, and doesn’t like to talk about his relationships, but I’m just surprised that you two—I’m just assuming there’s a story there that he didn’t tell us.”

“Um—” Jack starts.

“Mom, seriously?” Connor asks annoyed sinking into the loveseat further.

“What, we’re just a little—curious? You’ve known one and other for years.”

Jack shrugs, “Well, I mean there’s really not that much to the story. I don’t think we were really single at the same time, too much?”

“No, we weren’t,” Connor agrees slowly. “I was with Gabe for so long, and then—I wasn’t in the headspace for anything, for a while, I guess,” he finishes uneasily looking at his mom like he’d kill her if she asked him to expand.

“I know that was hard on you, honey. But, you two were so young, Connor; you can’t expect—”

“I know,” Connor states cutting off whatever she was going to say next. “Anyway, we just—we both were on the You Can Play Committee this year, and just started talking more due to that, and y’know decided to give it a shot? Friends usually make the best boyfriends, so I’ve heard, and like we’ve always had a ton in common.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Connor’s dad says turning back to the grill to check on the steaks. “I know you’re pretty active with the You Can Play organization, Jack—”

Jack shrugs looking at Connor for any hint on how he wants or needs Jack to answer this. “I—I just I think the organization is great, and obviously as a queer person growing up in hockey, the culture was pretty toxic, and has had a pretty lasting impact on me? So, if there’s anything I can do to start to change that and make kids feel like they’ll be accepted locker rooms—that they can be who they are and still be a top athlete, I want to do that. It’s important to me.”

Connor reaches over and squeezes his hand then, and Jack figures that it must have been an acceptable answer.

Connor’s dad considers his response for a long moment, the silence hanging a little uncomfortably. “Are you considering coming out publicly?”

It’s a very personal question, and one that Jack really didn’t expect to answer tonight, but it’s fair, Jack supposes. Jack’s not quiet about being queer, and by being connected to Jack, Connor may not be as quiet about his identity anymore either. He’s not sure what Connor’s parents would think about that, but it’s just—if this were real—it would be a reality of their relationship.

“Not anytime soon,” Jack says honestly shaking his head. “Look, I mean—it’s pretty obvious that I am who I am. I’ve tried—hiding and being scared, and I just—this is me. And, I don’t want to write a letter or do an interview, and make it a thing, but I still want to be who I am. So, I’ve never felt the need to confirm it to anyone, and no one’s ever asked, mind you, but I live my life pretty loose with the secret, and it is what it is.”

“I think it’s pretty great how comfortable Jack is with himself,” Connor follows up looking a little apprehensive at both his parents. “What did you tell me the other day, babe? That if you let other people’s opinions on your sexuality affect your behavior, you’re like inherently co-signing onto the idea that being gay is something to be ashamed of, right? And, like it’s not, so why waste time and energy trying to hide? We have nothing to be ashamed about.”

That’s pretty close to what he said, Jack thinks. However, given the slightly cloudy expressions on both Connor’s parents faces, he’s not so sure if the words resonated.

“I mean those words sound good, in theory, honey, but—”

“Of course, that’s not going to be me,” Connor cuts her off, and damn, Jack’s surprised at how impolite he’s being to his parents because he’s usually anything but. “I don’t—my anxiety is just way too high for that, and I’m never going to play loose with anything in my life—”

“And I’d never ask him to, of course—Connor needs to do and live in whatever way he’s most comfortable with,” Jack jumps in because both of Connor’s parents are giving both of them very intense stares, and Jack just thinks it’s the right thing to say. He needs to remember that he isn’t Connor’s real boyfriend, and he needs to just—help him and his parents ease into dealing with the fact that Connor’s going to date men, and probably eventually marry a man, because he seems like the type is all. So, like Jack just thinks: what would they want the perfect boyfriend to say? He should say that.

“Right, and I appreciate that Jack,” he says squeezing Jack’s hand a little harder until it’s almost painful. “But I’m also not going to ask him to tone it down or change himself because I’m never going to be open in the same way. Does that make sense?” he asks his parents.

“Oh course, honey,” Connor’s mom says her smile a little pinched. “It just seems like you two have different philosophies on everything.”

“Well as long as we respect those philosophies and each other, then I don’t see it really being an issue, Mom,” Connor replies slowly still gripping Jack’s hand hard enough to bruise.

She bites her lip, but she doesn’t say anything. She’s too polite, Jack thinks—which look who she raised?

“Look, you boys are right that you’re both professionals, and both very well-respected league leaders. But as much as I wish our reality was different, there may be unintended consequences to being so open. That’s just—that’s where the world’s at.”

Jack takes a deep breath at that. If Connor were his real boyfriend, he’d probably be more upset thinking about the fact that Connor’s dad obviously thinks Jack’s way of dealing with his sexuality is reckless—plainly, that he doesn’t like him. That’s what it sounds like, anyway. That he’s going to fuck up Connor’s life.

But Connor’s not his real boyfriend, and so Jack’s not worried about what Brian McDavid thinks about him, he thinks about the fear that he has related to Connor being anything less than 100% straight passing. Like someone could smell the gay from Jack right on him. It’s—how is Connor supposed to feel comfortable with himself when his dad thinks he needs to guard himself from the gay?

“Life’s about compromise,” Jack says eventually. “We’re not—we know that there’s consequences—we grew up in locker rooms. We know the realities. But, at the same time, Connor’s—Connor, and if I’ve learned anything is that the better you are at hockey, the more the team needs you, the league needs you—and they obviously need Connor, he’s like the best ambassador for the game, right now—the safer you are in plain sight. And, so we’re not trying to do anything or get photographed together or whatever, but we’re also—Connor’s hid enough, don’t you think? With Gabe? And, like even if the thing with us doesn’t work out, he deserves to be comfortable with his sexuality and his identity and feel like he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder every minute of every day waiting for the other shoe to drop, right?”

The smile he gets from Connor in return makes Jack’s stomach clench. It’s bright, yet private, and a little hesitant, and Jack has no idea what it means but he likes it. Jack kisses his temple then because he can, because it feels right, and Connor leans into his touch so he must think it was the move to sell the moment.

Connor’s dad considers that and looks away for a minute beginning to take the steaks off the grill. “It’s not going to be an easy road,” he says finally in response. “But obviously Connor’s happiness is more important than the opinion of any hockey fan or coach or league official. We just—we worry.”

Connor gets up then to hug his dad and then his mom, and Jack feels a little uncomfortable for a minute feeling like he’s intruding on a private family moment.

“I appreciate you guys so much, and I—I know you want the best for me. And like—we’re still going to be careful, but we’re not going to let it stop us from living our lives, because at the end of the day, y’know—we can’t get the time back, and I want to live my truth,” he tells his parents as he settles next to Jack and kisses him on the cheek. It burns almost, and Jack knows he’s bright red and probably will be for the rest of the night.

But, besides the PDA, Jack’s happy for Connor—and from his tone of voice and the relief leaking out of him, this was a conversation that he needed to have with his parents for a long time, and Jack—Jack knows they’re not leveled-up friends, but he’s proud of him. So proud.

“We love you, Connor,” Connor’s mom saying now voice heavy with emotion. “And of course, all we’ve ever wanted was for you to be happy, and I—I know it was hard for you to recalibrate and think about your future without Gabe, and I—we’ve always wanted to protect your dream because—that’s what we felt we needed to do as parents. But, you’re an adult, and you’ve grown into such a kind, humble, and wonderful person, and we know that you need to do things for you, and we—we’ll always worry, but we’ll also always support you.”

“Thank you—and I’m—we’re going to be fine, and like there’s really nothing to worry about,” Connor responds smiling. “Everything’s good. It’s great.”

“Alright, now that we made Jack thoroughly uncomfortable,” Connor’s dad jokes laughing. “Let’s eat,” he gestures to the steaks and follows Connor’s mom back inside to load up their plates.

“Damn, that was intense,” Jack comments when they’re alone. “I—I didn’t make it worse, did I?”

“Are you kidding?” Connor says incredulously. “You were perfect. It was—it went well, and like—fuck I’m so relieved that they seem to get that I—I need to start living my fucking life, and I—I know it wasn’t purposeful to this,” he gestures between them. “But, like—fuck, it worked really well, man.”

Jack doesn’t know what to make of that, but it’s—god, the last few days have been a whirlwind, and Jack can’t even make sense of it all anymore.

“C’mon,” Connor says softly pulling Jack to stand. “Let’s go see how bad my dad burnt our steaks.”

It turns out to be a nice night after that. Jack has a few more glasses of wine, makes friends with the McDavids’ elderly lab by secretly giving her some burnt chunks of his steak, and no one makes him talk about his sexuality again, to boot.

Connor’s parents are nice enough, quiet though, and Jack’s tired of trying to keep the conversation going eventually.

He must be visibly flagging, because Connor reaches out putting a hand on Jack’s knee leaning in, “Tired?”

“Kinda? I had to listen to Mitch talk for 8 long miles this morning,” Jack complains.

“I’m surprised you didn’t maim him, to be honest. I’m going to use the washroom, and then we can head back to the city,” Connor yawns standing and disappearing into the house.

“So, when’s your last day here, Jack? Connor mentioned you were heading back to Boston next week,” Connor’s mom asks politely.

“Monday night, but I’ll be back for Dylan’s wedding weekend,” Jack explains trying to stifle another yawn. “Sorry, went on an early run this morning.”

Connor reappears then with two bottles of water for the road. “Thanks for having us, guys,” he tells his parents. “But I think we’re going to head out before Jack falls asleep.”

“Hey!” Jack shoots back. “I’m totally awake.”

“Uh-huh,” Connor laughs. “Sure.”

They both hug Connor’s parents then, and it’s not nearly as stiff as Jack expected.

“It was so nice to see you again, Jack,” Connor’s mom tells him, and she sounds sincere which makes Jack smile.

“Thank you for having me. We had a nice time,” he tells her.

“We’re happy for you,” she continues trailing them into the house and into the foyer near the door them came in earlier. “You two seem very settled and happy with each other.”

Connor nods and hugs her again, and Jack feels like he can breathe again once they get back into Connor’s truck.

“Hey,” he says once they’re safely on the expressway back to the city. “Thanks for this—like it’s so above and beyond—”

Jack snorts, “Above and beyond your regular pretend dating duties?”

“Okay, point,” Connor laughs rolling his eyes. “I’m just saying, this whole thing was so random and bizarre, but I feel like I’ve made some progress through it y’know? Like I guess—you’ve like inspired me to take control of my personal life. Also, it’s nice for people to think I’m actually capable of like, that, y’know?”

“That?” Jack asks quietly because he has no idea.

Connor lets out a long breath, “Just that like—it’s nice that my family and friends think I’m capable of dating and letting someone in and someone liking me enough to put up with y’know, the ‘McJesus’ bullshit, and like knowing I’ll never be able to be like out, out, y’know? It gives me—it lets me think that maybe I could, one day, have someone and be with someone like that.”

“Connor, dude,” Jack sighs because this guy is thick. “You’re like such a fucking catch dude, how can you not see it? You’re nice, you’re kind, and you’re easy to be around. Awkward? Sure, but once you get past it, and you relax, you’re a good dude. Any guy would be lucky to be with you, so of course everyone thinks you’re capable, man, and you are.”

“I just—” he picks at a hangnail on his pinky finger hitting his hand against the steering wheel. “it’s like, sometimes I don’t know who I am, and where the narrative stops, and the real me begins, and it’s like hard to let people past the façade, because part of the façade is actually me—it’s like my defense mechanism. I don’t—putting myself out there? I just—I can’t. So, it’s nice to be reminded that other people think that I could get over my shit and do it—like take a chance. I like stood up to my parents tonight, and those weren’t empty words: I want to do those things, and I’m going to start working towards them.”

It’s a lot, and they’ve been having a lot of these conversations over the last few days, and like Jack almost can’t believe he’s been a part of McDavid becoming more human. It’s kinda wild. “I’m happy for you, Davo. I feel like you’ve turned the corner, man.”

“Definitely,” Connor agrees. “And like, thanks again—you’ve been a really great friend.”

“No problem, just gotta remember to pick up the check for every meal and every drink you’re near me for the rest of my life, dude,” Jack tells him.

Connor laughs loud and bright. “I guess that’s fair.”

He sleeps in the next day and rolls out of bed at 11AM and barely makes it to lunch a full 20 minutes after he promised to meet Auston and Matty.

They both slow clap when he shows up, fuckers, Brady along for the ride, who got into town the afternoon before.

“I’ve had a long week, leave me alone,” he whines inhaling the coffee Auston pre-ordered for him because he’s Jack’s favorite, don’t tell Noah.

“So long,” Matty laughs. “Had to make nice for the cameras, and wine and dine your boyfriend, who’s lowkey obsessed with you. Rough life, Eichs.”

“Fuck off, he’s not obsessed with me,” Jack chirps back slowly brain still catching up to the caffeine.

“Okay, Eichs, whatever,” Matty says back dropping it.

“So, how’d dinner go with the McDavids last night?” Auston asks once Jack’s able to order a huge burger and another coffee. He deserves to treat himself, okay. It’s the offseason, anyway.

“Uh,” Jack says eloquently taking a huge gulp of his coffee. “It wasn’t bad, per se—”

“Oh shit, that doesn’t sound good,” Brady winces lightly.

“I mean it was fine, really. Just like—it ended in hugs, but it got intense like in the middle,” Jack explains.

“Dude, what?” Auston asks impatiently. “Spill it.”

“I can’t even begin to explain—I just think—ugh, they think I’m too queer, y’know? They’re like my kid’s not that kind of gay, he’s the right kind of gay that buys into the homonormative thing—not that it’s not a legitimate choice, it’s just not the only choice. But, I mean it doesn’t really matter—” he says, because it obviously doesn’t because in a few weeks after Dylan’s wedding they’ll never have to see Jack again.

“Eichs, what? They said that to you?” Matty spits incredulously. “That’s fucked up.”

“God no,” Jack says back. “They’re way to fucking nice and polite. Have you met Connor? Where do you think that comes from? They just—heavily implied that me being so open about my sexuality made them uncomfortable.”

“That sucks,” Brady adds helpfully.

Jack shrugs, “I think generally they’re supportive—but they’re scared. I scare people, guys. They may catch the gay.”

Auston rolls his eyes at that, “Stop doing the self-deprecating thing, dude. Not cute.”

“Sorry,” he mumbles because Auston’s a great friend, and sometimes Jack needs to be called on his shit. “They’re not worried about catching the gay. Like they accept Connor’s gay, and they I think don’t dislike me, I just think—they’re scared that by being with me there’s a much higher probability of him being outed, which I mean, fair? I don’t—I’m still going to do me though, so fuck that.”

“Good,” Matty smiles at him. “You shouldn’t hide for McDavid. That would be a mistake.”

“For sure, and it’s like—they’re acting like I’m going to make out with him on a public street—if I was doing that shit don’t you think I would have outed myself by now? I guess I understand the fear, but I just think it’s misplaced.”

“Sounds like it,” Brady chimes in again.

“So yeah, could have gone better, but we survived.”

“What did Connor say?”

“He—very politely, dude as a gift okay—told them to get over it, and he was going to do him,” Jack explains which is a very abbreviated version of the truth, but the reality is intimate and personal and not his to share.

“Damn,” Matty laughs. “Who knew he had that in him?”

Auston snorts, “For Eichs? He’d definitely tell his parents to fuck off.”

“Whatever,” Jack rolls his eyes, but he knows he’s blushing. These guys are so far from knowing the truth, it’s ridiculous.

The meeting he has the next day is a big one with Nike Canada. It would be a big deal for him to get an apparel deal from a company that doesn’t normally sign hockey players or do a lot of work in the space. But after the Olympics and everything, he told Peter that it was something he wanted to work towards, and he finally got the meeting.

Jack knows that in the past, he wasn’t always the most marketable: that scowling kid from the draft freaking out about snakes? Yeah, Jack gets why some sponsors tried to stay away. But the thing is, Jack never, ever wanted to get anything by being someone he wasn’t. He was dramatic. He had a big personality, and he owned it. He remembers talking to the media about it when he was younger, how hockey being that team-centric narrative sport that having a big personality was somehow seen as diametrically opposed to that. And Jack never, ever understood that because he had that big personality, but he was still a good locker room guy. He always got along with his teammates; he means they gave him the C at World Juniors, and they don’t do that unless you have the room, okay?

Since, he’s made his way through the league, he hasn’t dimmed his personality, but he’s refocused his energy. He’s still the same person, but he’s more mature, and more calculated about the way he shows it. For a company like Nike to see that and to see value in that? It would really validate everything Jack’s done working on himself over the last few years.

Peter meets him in the lobby of the building with a big hug, and Jack feels excited, yet a little apprehensive. He doesn’t want to be disappointed, but this is a big deal to him.

“You’re going to do well,” Peter tells him before they go to meet the representatives. “They know who you are.”

And they definitely do. Jack’s heard horror stories of brands not knowing anything about the athlete they’re pitching, including their nationality or even the team they play for. This isn’t like that at all. He knows that this is a pitch, that they’re trying to woo him in a way—it’s this like mutual selection thing that brands do—they sell themselves but you also have to sell why you’d fit their brand and why you’d resonate with their audience.

“I think above anything else,” he’s telling Kelsey and Todd, the two reps that have just finished off their presentation, “I’ve tried to stay true to who I am and where I come from. Obviously, as you age and you get more solidified in the league, you have different iterations of yourself, but for me, it’s showing up to the rink every day with a fire—doesn’t matter if you’re in first place or last—you gotta go for every point and every win you can get. That’s me. It’s the emotion. It’s the pain and the triumph and the passion of hockey—that’s what I personify, I guess.”

“What about our mission do you think aligns with the things you stand for as an athlete?” Kelsey asks him looking at her partner nodding as if they’ve talked about his possible answers to this question.

“I think for me, coming up through the development team program, through kind of the natural progression that’s set out for us, you tend to kind of—whether you realize it or not—try to fit yourself into every mold at each step. You see older guys who succeed, and kind of just fall into step,” he pauses taking a drink of water, Peter nodding at him encouragingly.

“It’s easy to put yourself in a box. It’s easy to say—this is what people want from me as a captain, as a leader in the room—these are the things that they come to expect and only these things. I think, as athletes, our voices matter. We’re more powerful than we know to stand for things that matter to us and influence people in a positive way. When I was younger, my older sister told me something that’s always stuck with me—that to be the best at something, you have to be intelligent, you have to be purposeful and exact and a hard worker, and just because the world doesn’t reward that type of intelligence doesn’t make it less true.”

“What I love about Nike is that the brand paints its athletes as people first, athletes second. You allow for athletes to stand for things and unapologetically themselves, and you don’t make them shrink down to fit into a mold. I’m never going to fit into a mold, and for a long time I thought that that was something to be ashamed of, but now, as I get older and more senior in the league, I realize it’s something to celebrate, and I would hope if we partnered together, we could celebrate that as well.”

“So, that went about as good as it could have gone,” Peter tells him when they sit down for lunch later.

“Really?” Jack says rubbing the back of his neck a little self-consciously.

“I mean when you retire should probably pitch for companies because you pitched yourself really well,” he laughs. “Maybe you want to work for me? I’m proud of you Jacko,” he tells Jack then smiling. “Come a long way since that 17-year-old BU commit, but somehow I can still see him.”

“I think he’d be pretty happy at how things turned out,” Jack smiles back.

How’d it go? Connor texts him when he’s in the uber on the way back to the hotel. He has some time before needs to get to the airport, but he’ll probably just get his bag from where he checked it earlier at the front desk and get going. He kinda wants to shower in the lounge before the flight, anyway.

Good, I think. Peter thought it went well. They’re going to get back to him next week, so we’ll see.

I’m sure you killed it. Connor texts back immediately, and Jack rolls his eyes. Always pumping his tires. Want a ride to the airport later?

Jack considers it for a minute, but he really just wants to shower.

Nah, gonna head there early and take a shower in the first-class lounge.

Your flight isn’t until 9PM, weirdo. You can shower here. I’ll throw some steaks on the grill in penance for what my dad forced you to eat the other night.

A properly cooked free steak would be nice, as would a non-semi-public shower. Fine. I’m getting my bag right now. I’ll see you in 15.

He promises the guy an extra tip to wait while he goes and gets his bag from the front desk, before getting back in the car and giving the guy Connor’s address.

Lenny greets him at the door as always, never barking but looking more excited to see Jack than any human ever has. “Hey, bud, sorry I’m wearing good pants, and I don’t want to get all your hair all over me for my dry cleaner to get out, but I’ll pet you in a bit,” he tells him like he can understand when he walks into the foyer of Connor’s condo. Does he ever lock the door?

“Davo?” he calls into the rest of the condo when Connor doesn’t come to the door.

“In the kitchen,” he calls back.

He leaves his bag at the foot of the stairs and follows Connor’s voice into the kitchen Lenny at his heels.

“Hey,” Connor greets distractedly marinating two huge steaks with the intensity he only really has on the ice.

“What’s up?” Jack asks softly Lenny whining at him softly.

“Just trying to get this right,” Connor says straightening up then to look at Jack. “Oh, wow, you look—nice.”

He blushes that that. He’s wearing a nice pair of tapered pattern dress pants, a white button down with maybe one-too-many buttons popped, and a pair of loafers without socks. It’s become kind of his look—like kinda “look at me” but still totally professional. He knows the pants are a little out there—but, so is he. However, he thinks Connor’s talking about his hair.

“Yeah, my sister, since my niece was born, has been trying to like learn how to style her curly hair so like she can do Michaela’s, and she doesn’t grow up feeling like she has to fry the shit out of her hair like Jessie did,” he laughs because Jessie’s middle school looks were tragic. “And, anyway she sent me this deep conditioning leave-in thing that’s supposed like help with the frizz, and I’ve been mostly too bothered to use it regularly, but I think it kinda works?”

Connor blinks at him for a second before clearly his throat. “Uh, yeah—it looks great.”

“You said I could shower?” Jack asks feeling a little uncomfortable now.

“Yeah, you can just use the en-suite through my room. I may or may not still not have anything in the guest suite,” he tells him sheepishly.

“Typical,” Jack laughs rolling his eyes. “Alright, I’ll be back in a bit, and then—” he says turning to Lenny who’s still whining at his feet. “I’ll finally cuddle with you, needy guy, so you don’t mess up my pants.”

When he gets out of the shower and changes, not washing his hair or getting it wet—because he’s been trying to get better about that, and according to Jessie, washing curly hair every day is a big no-no—he contemplates the snapback clutched in his hands. He’s always been a hat guy, obviously. But Connor complimented his hair, and—fuck, what a dumb, dangerous thought, Jack cuts himself off immediately and shoves the hat backwards over his curls. He figures the now separated and moisturized mop is probably partially sticking out of the hole in the hat, but he doesn’t care. He’s being stupid.

He finds Lenny waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, and Jack just rolls his eyes, of course Connor would have the most well-behaved and needy dog of all time.

“Okay, buddy—” he tells him wrapping his arms around Lenny’s neck and honestly just petting the shit out of him. “Are we best friends now?” he mutters nonsensically.

He notices Connor then coming into the hallway with his phone camera out.

“Hey!” Jack protests.

Connor laughs shrugging, “It was cute! And I was just getting you back for the other day!”

“Fine,” Jack replies rolling his eyes. “I can’t help it that your dog likes me best.”

“Okay, he follows you around one time, and suddenly he likes you best,” Connor spits sarcastically leading Jack back into the kitchen. “You want a beer?”

“Sure,” Jack says taking the Sam Adams from Connor’s out-stretched hand. “No comment on the ‘shitty American beer?’”

Connor laughs slightly, “I feel like you don’t need to be chirped if you’re admitting it’s shitty.”

“I didn’t admit it, asshole,” he mumbles back. “I was just making fun of you making fun of me.”

“Uh-huh,” Connor assents chuckling into his phone. “Steaks are on the grill. I promise not to burn them. My dad is the worst about that; I’ve never met anyone more needlessly terrified of salmonella,” he rolls his eyes at the thought. “By the way, I’m definitely setting this as my lock screen, and you deserve it after trolling me the other night,” he holds out his phone to Jack.

It’s the picture that Connor just took of him playing with Lenny, and it’s pretty fucking cute if Jack says so himself, Lenny’s looking at him like he’s the greatest (which is pretty fucking flattering even from a dog). Jack does notice that he has a stray curl poking right out of his hat, and he tugs at it self-consciously.

“Stop,” Connor says taking his phone back and reaching out and pulling at the curl in question until it boings back into place. “It’s cute.”

Jack almost stops breathing at that, staring at Connor open-mouthed. What on earth has gotten into him?

But Connor doesn’t seem fazed. “C’mon,” he murmurs, “Let’s go sit out on the deck.”

It’s a pretty slow, nice night. They don’t really talk about much, just random shit—whatever comes to mind. Jack never thought, even during the World Cup when they were hanging around more together, that he and Connor would ever be the type of friends to (1) hang out one-on-one and (2) just be quiet with—just be with. It’s the kind of friendship he has with like Auston—where they can just orbit each other, but they don’t necessarily need to have a constant stream of chatter to feel comfortable. And, while, it’s weird, and totally unexpected, it’s really nice. He hopes that they can stay friends long after this week, because it’s rare that Jack finds a friend he connects with so easily.

Connor drops him off at the airport later with his patented dorky little wave, and Jack knows he’s smiling all the way to security.

Noah gives him and day and a half berth before letting himself into Jack’s apartment after training on Thursday. He brought burgers from Jack’s favorite hole-in-the-wall in Cambridge, so he knows he’s about to face a very serious judgmental conversation.

“So you’re actually doing this,” he says without preamble as soon as they’re settled in on Jack’s couch.

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Jack replies giving him a shit-eating grin.

“You’re pretending to date McDavid and going as his date to Strome’s wedding, why exactly?” he expands not rising to Jack’s bait.

“Seemed like the right thing to do in the moment,” Jack shrugs. “And, then—once Stromer knew, Mitch knew, so Auston and Chucky knew—which is how you know, and then it wasn’t like we could just say sorry misunderstanding?”

“Umm, yes you could have?” Hanny says incredulously. “Eichs, that wouldn’t have been in the top-10 weirdest things you’ve ever done, dude.”

“Look, like I said on FaceTime, he was giving me this look—and he needed me, Noah, and I—I had to help, and maybe this wasn’t the smartest way to do it, but it’s what I came up with on the spot.”

“You’re incredible,” Noah shakes his head in disbelief. “Eichs—”

“Look, we got through the week, and then Strome’s wedding next weekend, and then it’s the end. We’ll just tell people we broke up in a few months.”

Noah shakes his head. “Sure, man, whatever. Chucky’s never going to believe in love again, dude.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“Nothing,” Noah replies slowly shaking his head like Jack is the most ridiculous person he’s ever met. “Just that he’s like very convinced that you finally found your guy, and he’s shipping it or whatever.”

Jesus, Noah needs to stop listening to his kid sister and her friends’ vernacular. “Shipping it?”

Noah laughs at that, “Yeah dude, what do you think your couple name would be, y’know like Brangelina?”

“Shut up,” Jack huffs punching Noah then harder than strictly necessary in the arm.

“Cack? Jonnor?” His face breaks out into a huge grin. “Nah, I got it: McEichel. That’s totally it.”

“That’s the most half-ass thing I’ve ever heard. It’s literally my full last name,” Jack bitches.

“It sounds great, though. I’m a genius.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Anyway, Chucky’s going to go down with this ship, my dude,” Noah laughs.

“Matthew is not that interested in my love life, chill out. We’ll ‘stay friends’ and it’ll be fine. It’ll just be a funny thing in a few years, like remember that time you dated McDavid? Weird, right?”

“Sure, Jack,” Noah says leaving something unsaid, but Jack doesn’t press him because he leaves it alone.

The rest of the week into the next goes by in a blur, and Noah’s obviously still skeptical of his decision to play this game with Connor, but he mostly leaves it alone, which Jack appreciates.

“Did you tell Sam about this, dude?” he does ask when they go on a run through the city the Tuesday. He’s set to fly back to Toronto on Thursday morning for all the weekend festivities.

“What?” Jack says breathing a little heavy. His cardio still isn’t back to full capacity after his surgery, and it burns to push himself, but he knows he needs to.

“Your Canadian best friend is probably going to be hurt knowing that you’ve been in a ‘relationship’ for almost five months, went to a wedding with all of your alleged boyfriend’s friends and didn’t tell him.”

Fuck. “Okay, that’s—a really good point,” Jack frowns at him.

“Are you going to tell him the truth?” Noah asks softly knowing that Jack undoubtedly is starting to feel a deep guilt settle into his bones.

“I mean, he’d probably feel less bad if I did that—but—I mean Connor hasn’t told anyone the truth. The only reason you know is because you know everything about me and can smell my bullshit from 500 miles away.”

“Why do you care so much about what Connor’s doing? I mean look out for yourself, Jack,” Noah replies blinking at him curiously.

“The less people who know this is a lie, is probably better,” Jack shrugs at him but Noah’s definitely struck a chord, and the asshole totally knows it by the look he gives Jack.

“I mean it’s your choice, but Reino’s probably going to be hurt by that, dude. And it’s going to be totally valid and reasonable for him to be a little upset with you. Are you sure you’re willing to risk that for some weird lie with Connor?”

“I don’t know, Noah,” Jack shrugs one shoulder feeling exposed.

Noah just sighs, “I don’t know what’s going on with you dude, but you better—you need to figure it out.”

Jack goes home, showers, and thinks about it. He needs to make a decision fast because he’s literally going to Toronto tomorrow and knows Connor and Sam, while not best friends or anything, totally follow each other’s finstas and still talk every-so-often, likely to relive their WJC glory or something.

Hey, I need to tell you something. FaceTime later? He texts Sam eventually, even though he’s not really sure what he’s decided to tell him yet.

Everything okay? Sam texts back immediately.

Yeah, of course. Just let me know whenever you’re free.

Give me ten minutes. Sam shoots back, and Jack didn’t expect that, and has no idea how he’s going to tell him or what he’s going to tell him either.

Apparently his subconscious or his—would it be his subconscious or his instinct or something—takes the choice from him because as soon as he accepts the FaceTime call from Sam he blurts, “So, I’m kinda, sorta dating Connor McDavid.”

Sam blinks at him, “Eichs? What?”

“He’s like really private, and I didn’t—we weren’t telling people, and then Stromer found out and then I met his parents, and it’s like this whole thing, and I’m sure it’s now been deeply discussed in the NTDP group text that I’m excluded from just to talk about it, and I—yeah, me and McDavid,” he rambles for a minute.

Sam pinches the bridge of his nose looking at Jack like he’s insufferable, which Jack supposes he’s being in this moment. “I repeat, what?”

Jack sighs, “I started dating Connor about four months ago. We didn’t tell anyone, and we were just—we were just seeing how it was going to go before telling people about it.”

“Okay,” Sam says shrugging a shoulder. “That sounds like him, but that doesn’t sound like you.”

“No,” Jack agrees because if this were real life, he would have never gone almost four months without telling Sam. He probably wouldn’t have gone 4 hours without telling Sam. “I just—he was scared. He hasn’t—he’s only had one other boyfriend, and they were together on the DL for like 7 years, dude, and I—I just didn’t want to push him too fast, so I kept it between us.”

“Still doesn’t sound like you, Jack,” Sam says again frowning now.

“Are you mad?” Jack forces himself to ask because he has to know what he’s working with here.

“No, shit,” Sam shakes his head. “I’m not—mad—I’m confused? Bewildered? This seems—very random, man. You don’t even—you barely like Davo, or at least I thought—”

“I didn’t—or I guess I didn’t want to? But, he’s like—he’s such a good, dude, y’know? When you strip it all away? All the media narrative, the bullshit projections, whatever—he’s just a good person. And, like maybe I’m not—”

“Eichs—”

“Okay, I’m not a bad person, but maybe I’m not like the same kind of good person, but we just—clicked? I didn’t let myself get to know him because I hated the narrative, I hated the way we were pitted against one another, and I hated being fucking compared to him. But, that’s not Connor’s fault. He didn’t ask for any of that, and when I put that aside, I really started enjoying being around him.”

“I mean I’ve always liked Connor, dude, you don’t have to sell me, but I just—why now?”

“We both did the You Can Play Committee, and he confided in me a little bit, I guess? Since I’m so—loosey-goosey with my sexuality, I guess?” he tells Sam because it’s as close to the truth as he’s going to get. “And we just started talking, and then decided fuck it you know? Why not give it a shot?”

Sam laughs at that a little, “Okay, now that sounds like you.”

Jack shrugs, “I’m—I didn’t mean to keep it from you, dude. You just—I need you to know that. I just—I was protecting Connor, and then I just—it was easier to keep it to myself,” and that may not be the right context, but it’s very close to how he’s feeling now.

“I—” Sam starts. “I mean it sucks, Jack. But I know that you wouldn’t have kept it from me unless you really felt like it was the right decision. I know how you are, man. And, we’ve always had such a good and solid relationship. So like—I’m not going to lie, it stings, but I’m not mad.”

“Okay, that’s totally fair, man. I’m sorry, for the record.”

Sam nods at him, “Are you happy Eichs? Does he make you happy? Because—I know you’ve felt—broken in that regard for a while.”

Jack shrugs one shoulder, “It’s still new, but I mean—it’s nice. I feel like maybe I could actually—be that person for someone and have someone to like share my life with y’know? I haven’t felt like that about a man, ever?”

“That’s—” Sam breathes deeply through his nose. “That’s amazing, Eichs. I’m so happy for you, dude. It’s weird that it’s with McDavid, but who am I to judge your taste?”

Jack forces himself to laugh at that but it kind of gets stuck in his throat. “Yeah, I mean to say I’ve never had good taste would be an understatement. But, yeah I think I’m—pretty happy.” It’s not exactly a lie, at least not more than anything else he’s said during this conversation.

“I know it’s been a tough road,” Sam tells him them lowering his voice. “These past few years, you’ve had to rebuild your identity, Eichs, and I mean—sometimes it was difficult to watch, but I’m so happy that you’re making things happen, and like if Connor’s the person you want to be with right now, and he fits into this version of you, then you should celebrate that, man.”

“Thanks, Sammy,” he tells him feeling the emotion building in his throat. He doesn’t fucking deserve him, honestly. “I—I’m hoping it’s worth it—and if it’s not I’m sure I’ll learn something.”

“That’s a good way to look at it, I guess?” Sam laughs looking at him curiously. “So, any other bombs you want to drop while you got me here?”

“No?” Jack questions slowly. “Is there something?”

“No,” Sam shrugs, “you just seemed hesitant.”

“I just—” Jack bites his lip. “Are you sure we’re okay?”

Sam nods, “I’m not holding a grudge, Eichs—I mean I wish you felt like you could tell me, but I guess I understand why you wanted to keep it to yourself to protect Connor. I think it’s fucked up—” he shrugs. “But I understand it.”

“Yeah,” Jack agrees because it’s fair. “I—it was dumb.”

Sam shrugs again looking slightly uncomfortable. “I mean I’ll get over it, as long as you’re happy and the relationship is healthy, and you’re not actively feeling like you need to hide from some stupid inherent pressure to like not be open with who you are—”

“No, I’m not—” God, he was in so fucking deep now, why not? “We—I just met Connor’s parents, I mean not for the first time, but as his boyfriend, y’know? And—they’re—worried that I’m too—y’know—loose, I guess with my sexuality—and Davo basically told them to fuck off.”

Sam’s jaw drops open, “He did not.”

“He did in the most prim, polite way possible, I swear.”

“Wow,” Sam gapes at him. “That’s unexpected—he’s wow, he must really like you, Eichs.”

“No,” Jack shakes his head, “He finally did it for him—like he needs them to know that he’s going to live his life and his happiness is worth more than guarding it aggressively, y’know? And, anyway, it was a big step for him, and we’re—yeah.”

“Right,” Sam says scratching the back of his neck. “wow, okay. I mean sounds like you’re good for each other.”

“Hopefully,” Jack mumbles.

“Okay, well I see you’ve hit your quotient for talking about your feelings for now, but,” Sam laughs pausing, “listen, Jack, I appreciate you telling me, and like—I know you’re mostly like ‘fuck it’ and open and live your life that way, but I know you guard those things that are closest to your heart, and so—you must be pretty serious about Connor, and I’m happy for you. I knew you’d be in this place, eventually—that you’d work through your issues and be able to fully embrace a relationship, and I’m so fucking happy for you. I wish I knew about it sooner, sure, but I think it’s great.”

Jack feels dizzy all of a sudden, and he’s glad he’s sitting down because his vision is blurry, and he feels like he may actually throw up. Sam’s such a great fucking friend, and Jack’s literally lying to his face, and he wants to die. He wants to tell him everything.

“Thanks,” he finally croaks out.

“Okay, dude, I’m gonna let you go. Keep me in the loop, yeah?”

Jack nods and hangs the fuck up before he says something even dumber than he’s been saying thus far. He tosses his phone next to him on the couch hard enough that it bounces up and down twice.

Jack can feel this thing getting out of control—he felt it in Mitch’s fucking kitchen that day, and then for whatever reason, he just kept hanging on, riding shotgun and letting it truly spiral into something that’s terrifying. He has no idea what he was thinking. All he wanted to do—well, he supposes he didn’t initially intend to do anything but make sure Stromer and Connor didn’t actually come to blows—was to help Connor out, maybe make Strome a little uncomfortable in the process because he’s petty as shit and ride it out.

He didn’t mean to like spill his secrets to Connor or for Connor to spill his back.

He didn’t mean to meet Connor’s parents and somehow imbed himself into their conflicts and Connor’s coming-to-age in their eyes.

And he certainly didn’t fucking mean to start lying to his closest friends acting like this was something real and important. Fuck, Sam was proud of him. He thought Jack had worked on himself and finally got out of his own damn way. He thought someone as nice and perfect as Connor McDavid chose him, what a fucking joke. Of course not. Jack’s just as fucked up as he was at this time last year, just a year older and no closer to figuring himself out.

He feels sick, and tired, and just fucking confused. He’s impulsive, he can admit that. He’s a “ask for forgiveness, not permission” kinda guy. But, he’s usually not so reckless. He’s usually not actually trying to make his life harder, and yet—he’s putting a lot of his relationships on the line here? And for what? Because Jack impulsively implied to Dylan that he and Connor were fucking? That he thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to ride it out for a while? It didn’t sound like Jack. And then he turned around and talked to Connor about his greatest insecurities, letting him see some of the bits and pieces of himself he likes to pretend don’t exist? What the fuck was he thinking? And why? Why did he decide to just let all of this happen? He could have easily asserted more control.

God, he’s in this so deep, and he’s going to be so happy when the weekend’s done and he feels like himself again because Jack doesn’t know this person. The person he is—or the person he tries to be—would have never lied to Sam for some stupid thing with Connor McDavid, never in a million years, even if the kid was weirdly vulnerable with him. He’s fucking lost it.

Noah texts him to go out with the boys that night, but he begs off because he just doesn’t think he’d be good company right now.

Right, Noah chirps him, forgot, early flight tomorrow. Better get your beauty sleep for McJesus to tote you around on his arm.

Jack wants to scream at that and tell Noah to fuck off. But, he has no idea that he’s had an existential crisis since they last spoke, and Jack really doesn’t want to talk about it.

Lol he could be so lucky Jack sends back.

Oh, Eichs, so much to unpack there, but let me know you got there safe okay? And don’t do something, uh, dumber than you’ve already done? Because you’ve been really dumb.

Jack leaves him on read at that because he’s an asshole, and he doesn’t want to deal with this right now. He really doesn’t want to deal with this ever, if he’s being real. It’s one thing to admit to himself he royally fucked up, it’s another to admit it out loud, even if it’s just to Noah.

Jack’s running late to the airport the next morning because he’s spent the last 30 minutes changing his mind about which suits to bring for the rehearsal dinner and ceremony. In the end, he packs three options and decides to make it Future Jack’s problem.

Connor calls him when he’s waiting for his uber out in front of his apartment, knowing he’s going to be cutting it close to his boarding time. “Hey,” he greets Jack voice soft and shallow.

“Hey, man. What’s up?” Jack asks resisting the urge to sigh. He’s already so fucking tired and the day’s just begun.

“Uh, so we have a bit of a problem? Or not a problem, just—”

“Connor, dude, out with it? I don’t know how we could make this situation more complicated?” Jack laughs slightly because his life is fucking ridiculous, he can at least find humor in it.

“So, Brinksy and his wife are obviously coming for the wedding; they’re both in the wedding party, y’know. And usually when they’re in town they stay at Dyls’ because he always has space, but I invited them to stay here instead this weekend because, y’know it made sense for them to stay out of the way? And, I wanted to catch up with them? But, I—I may have forgotten until last night, y’know with everything’s that happened since then.”

That’s fair. Jack feels like he’s aged about 10 years in the past two weeks. “Okay? I haven’t met Alex’s wife, but I’m sure we’ll get along? Not seeing the problem.”

“You’ve been to my condo. I only have the one guest suite,” Connor says like that explains anything.

“Yeah, that you never have anything in it because you’re bad at being an adult—” he begins to chirp before his brain catches up. “Oh, so where am I going to sleep?”

“Right. I think we’re going to have to bunk together. I—sorry, Jack—I really didn’t remember or I would have—”

Jack doesn’t think he would have done anything because he’s too fucking nice, but whatever. “It’s fine,” Jack concedes, but he knows Connor knows he’s annoyed. “As long as you don’t kick like Auston, I think we’ll survive a few days sharing a bed. Lenny probably won’t like me taking his spot, though.”

Connor laughs but it sounds forced. “I know this sucks, and I’m sure you’ll want your own space after having to be on all day with everything, so I’ll just try to be respectful of that—”

“Connor, I said it was fine. Not ideal, but fine. We’ll get through the weekend, man, no problem, and then this will all be over, and we can go back to our lives.”

“Yeah,” he agrees but sounds pained, and he better fucking get it together because Jack is not going to be carrying his ass to uphold the fabrication all weekend long.

“Look, man, my car’s pulling up, and I gotta go, but relax. Everything’s fine.”

“Sure,” he says softly, “have a safe flight. See you in a bit.”

It’s a short flight, so Jack just sticks in his airpods, leans his head against the window, and tries to think about how he’s going to make the best of everything.

Look, it’s not that he doesn’t like Stromer’s group of friends. Him and Marns are bros, and he’s played with DeBrincat at Worlds a few times and the Olympics, and he’s a really nice guy. But, he just—hanging around being there as someone’s plus one isn’t something that Jack’s used to, and since Connor’s in the wedding party, he knows he’s going to be standing there making small talk with people alone all weekend. It’s perfectly fine, and he doesn’t know why he’s beginning to get some anxiety about it because he’s (1) not really an anxious person and (2) he’s pretty good at making small talk. It’s not usually a problem for him to come up with something to talk about to fill any type of silence.

He’s doing this because Connor’s his friend, and he needs to remember that. This weekend is for him, and it’s not like he asked Jack to do any of this—Jack inserted himself. He brought this upon himself, so the least he can do is show the fuck up for Davo and be the best teammate in this thing that he can be. He needs to get out of his head and step the fuck up. He can do it. They’re in way too deep to back out, and Jack’s already made some sacrifices, and all he needs to do now is execute and it’ll all be over soon enough. No more lying. No more hiding.

Jack lands in Toronto with a text from Peter that just says Call me when you get a chance. Jack’s not sure if that’s a good thing or not, and since he hadn’t heard back from the Nike people within the week, he kind of thought that was a sign of polite pass, but maybe not.

“Hey, Peter, what’s going on?” he calls Peter back as he makes his way towards ground transportation. He’d already texted Connor that he had landed and was just trying to find the door he said to meet at.

“Where are you?” Peter asks curiously no doubt hearing all the airport noise around him.

“Airport, heading to a wedding this weekend.”

“Got it, well I guess I’ll just get right to it then. I just spoke with the head of Nike’s advertising department and she said her people were impressed with you and your attitude and how you wanted to use your platform—”

“But—” Jack butts in because he can’t take much more of the platitudes. He’s not having a breakdown in the Toronto airport, he’s not.

“But, nothing, Jack. They want to sign you to a multi-year endorsement deal and do an entire campaign about people first, athletes second that’s inspired by you.”

“No shit?” Jack hears himself say but he feels like he’s suddenly lost control of his body. “Seriously?”

“Absolutely—this is way more than we could have anticipated. It’s huge.”

“Holy fuck,” he says somehow finding the door Connor told him to wait by walking through it into the hot, humid Toronto summer feeling so fucking dazed, he’s unsure how he’s even still standing. “I didn’t expect—”

“As much as this is obviously a business, and Nike’s in it to make money of course, you saw right into what they also stand for, and you put that very eloquently into words, and that was something that they really resonated with. I know it hasn’t always—and we’ve even had words about how you’ve conducted yourself, but I’ve always wanted you to be able to be yourself—and this just proved that an entire billion-dollar corporation wants you to be yourself, too.”

“Wow,” Jack says, and he can feel wetness beginning to form at the corners of his eyes. “I just—I know it’s just a fucking apparel deal, but I think—it’s a big deal to me, Peter.”

“It’s not just an apparel deal, Jack. It was about much more than that, and we talked about that. Sometimes, it’s been difficult, I know. But, you’ve never let that dim your light or your personality, and I’m glad that there’s finally a company that’s going to not just deal with it but embrace it—they’re going to highlight it.”

It’s a lot, and Jack doesn’t have the words to describe everything he’s feeling. “Thanks, Peter,” he settles on. “I know I wasn’t always the easiest person to work with, especially when I was younger and just—y’know going through stuff, but you guys have always believed in me, and that’s—sometimes it felt like you were the only ones.”

“Jack, kid,” he pauses the silence a little heavy at the end of the other line. “When you signed, I promised your parents that I’d look out for you, kiddo. This business can be tough and look—obviously we want to make money, but we’re in the business of people, first, and that’s a philosophy that I’ve always stood by. I want to see you succeed on the ice, off the ice, and in whatever else you choose to do, kid. And we’re so fucking proud of you.”

Jack smiles at that, “You saw a lot in that kid from North Chelmsford, I guess.”

He sees Connor then pulling into view waving at Jack.

“That kid was a riot, and he’s still in there, but you’ve just learned how to channel that energy into good things instead of—” he cuts himself off.

“Self-destructing?” Jack finishes for him helpfully.

“Sometimes,” Peter concedes. “But you were never down for long. I’m just saying that you’ve come a long way, kid.”

“Hey,” Connor greets him taking Jack’s suitcase before Jack can protest.

Jack smiles at him and points to the phone holding up his finger to signal that he’ll be a minute or so more, and then climbs into the passenger seat of Connor’s truck. “Thanks—it means a lot for you to say that,” he tells Peter. “Can I actually let you go, though?”

“Absolutely,” Peter says, and Jack can hear the smile in his voice. “Have a great weekend at the wedding. My assistant is going to be sending you over the mock-ups of the contracts that they’re sending us this afternoon, and we can go from there. Have a drink to celebrate, Jack. We did it.”

Jack laughs at that wiping at his eyes a little. “I will. Have a good one, Peter,” he tells him and hangs up.

Jack wipes at his eyes a few more times before tucking his phone in his pocket and smiling at Connor. “Hey, sorry about that. Didn’t mean to be rude.”

“No problem,” Connor replies looking at him curiously. “Everything okay?” he asks hesitantly.

“Yeah,” he knows his smile must be blinding. “I uh—I got the Nike campaign—I mean actually they’re going to do a whole campaign around me, which is crazy.”

“Holy shit, fuck, Jack that’s amazing. I knew you killed it,” he tells Jack in a rush.

“Yeah, a pretty great way to start off the weekend,” Jack laughs.

“So, happy tears, then?” Connor asks reaching into the center console to pull out a package of tissues.

Jack laughs again taking the tissues and dabbing at his eyes. “Definitely happy tears. I know it’s stupid—it’s just an endorsement, but it just—I feel seen. I feel like they saw who I was—and they liked it and want to embrace it, and like 15-year-old me freaking out about my sexuality in Ann Arbor would have never, ever believe that something like this was possible.”

“Hey—” Connor starts locking eyes with Jack giving him that intense look that he only gets once in a great-while. “It’s—it’s just a confirmation that you just have to be you and being the perfect representation or saying all the right things or doing all the right things is meaningless. And now this company is validating that, and that’s amazing, Jack. I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks, Davo—” he says sincerely reaching over and patting Connor’s thigh slightly. “I—I’m glad that we’ve gotten closer, and that I get to share this with someone who understands intimately what it’s like to feel like no one will ever validate your identity, y’know? And even though we have two totally different experiences and even philosophies on that, I know you really get why this is so big to me.”

Connor gives him a watery smile then, “Of course, and like—it’s nice to be able to be open with someone that I know can really relate to my shit, and not just sympathize, y’know? I know the way we got here was weird, but I mean sometimes shit happens, and you get something good out it?”

Jack chuckles at that, “I mean that’s one way to look at it.”

Connor makes him go to afternoon training with Scary Gary when they get back to his condo.

“I’m texting him you’re here, and he’ll want to see your progress on those ankle stability exercises he gave you,” he tells Jack pointedly when Jack says he wants to take a nap and that Connor should go without him.

It’s a dirty pool, but Jack concedes after that because he doesn’t want to let Gary down after he put all that work in to help Jack find the right rehab exercises. “Fine,” he tells Connor who gives him a huge smirk like an asshole.

“Eichs, my man, my dude!” Chucky bounces up to him at training clapping him on the back. “I didn’t know I was going to see you today.”

Jack laughs at him putting him in a headlock, “Aww, Chuck just say you missed me, man. I get it.”

“Of course!” Chucky says retaliating by hitting Jack hard in the stomach and getting away. “I have to watch out for you, someone always does.”

Jack rolls his eyes at that, but he’s not wrong.

The workout maintains his good mood. It’s a tough one, but Jack has some of the best numbers for lifting out of most of the guys, and he likes to win, okay? So, it’s fun.

They run sprints at the end, Connor beating him by literally his big toe, and they laugh tumbling into each other. Jack wraps his arms around Connor’s neck, “No fair, man.”

“I won fair and square!” He retorts. “Get faster, Eichs. I don’t know what to tell you.”

Jack pinches his side then and impulsively presses a kiss to Connor’s temple. Why? He doesn’t know. He should probably tell himself it’s just to keep up appearances in front of the guys, continue the narrative that they’re dating. But, that’s not the truth. He felt like doing it, so he did it, and he doesn’t feel like unpacking all of that just to ruin his good mood.

Connor laughs blushing all the way down to his chest but doesn’t pull away, just lets Jack hold him there from behind. Jack doesn’t know why, but he figures he doesn’t want to act like he’s not into his “boyfriend” in public. That would be weird.

Later, Jack finds Connor in the kitchen setting champagne flutes onto the counter when he drags himself out the shower after the workout. He tried to deep condition his hair, so it looked better this weekend, and Jack thinks it’s starting to look better and better, so he obviously had to take a picture of it and send it to Jessie for her feedback. Jack knows she’s living for it.

“Hey,” Connor greets off-handedly as Lenny leaps up from where he was lying near the kitchen island to beg Jack for attention.

“What are you doing?” Jack asks him curiously as Connor gets a chilled bottle of champagne out of the fridge and starts pouring.

Connor shrugs looking up, “Figured we had to celebrate, right? I ordered sushi too, just got what you got last time.”

Jack blinks at him slowly. He supposes he figured McDavid was a good friend because people seemed to stay loyal to him almost to a fault, but damn. He was truly a good guy. “You didn’t have to. Don’t you have to get Alex and his wife from the airport?”

“They said they’d get an Uber. It’s fine,” he explains shrugging coming over to pull Jack in a relatively confusing hug. “I’m happy for you and proud of you, and I know this weekend’s probably not going to be that fun for you, but I appreciate you, and—yeah.” He pulls back avoiding Jack’s eyes now. “Your hair looks good,” he comments then arm twitching at his side like he wants to reach out and touch it.

Jack has no idea what to say to any of that. “Thanks,” he settles on after a beat and distracts both of them by giving Lenny all of the attention he’s wanted since Jack came into the door.

“C’mon,” Connor says eventually. “Let’s go out on the deck. The guy will ring the bell.” He turns to Lenny, then, “C’mon, Lens, let’s go outside!”

Jack laughs when Lenard’s head pops up, and he starts running towards the sliding door. That dog’s one-of-a-kind.

Jack has two glasses of champagne, eats his weight in sushi, and chats idly with Connor about all the league gossip the rest of the afternoon. They take turns throwing a tennis ball to Lenny when he demands it, too, watching him happily run after it zooming erratically in Connor’s yard. It’s not a perfect afternoon, but it’s pretty damn close, and Jack doesn’t know why he’s been so worked up about this weekend; he and Connor have this. They’re totally chill, and everything’s going to fine.

Eventually, he takes a nap in the sun because the afternoon really calls for it—he’s warm, he’s happy, and so it’s so easy to just drift off watching Connor chase Lenny in the yard.

“Hey,” Connor shakes him gently awake later, “Alex and Linz are on their way from the airport, and I’m going to jump in the shower again. Did you want to drink some water and eat something before we head over to Dylan’s parents’?”

“Uh,” Jack replies dumbly. Connor’s smiling at him with that tiny, lop-sided smile again, and Jack cannot handle that right now, if he’s being honest. He sweats in his sleep, and he was in the sun and his t-shirt is sticking to him now, and he suddenly feels self-conscious. “I’ll probably shower, too?”

“Yeah, cool,” he shrugs. “There’s some cold cuts in the fridge, if you want or really, you’re welcome to anything else. I’ll be quick.”

Jack just waves at him scrubbing his hand over his face. Instead of following Connor inside like Jack expected, Lenny brings his tennis ball and sits at Jack’s feet.

“Oh,” he tells the dog, “You think I’m going to play with you? Huh?”

He takes the ball from him anyway and throws it for him to chase, and damn Jack’s even endeared by Connor’s giant fluff of a dog, god help him.

He sends a snap of Lenny running back and forth after the ball to Noah and Sam, snorting into his phone as Lenny basically falls to the ground trying to pick up the ball. He’s just a spaz.

Already making friends with his dog?? Noah snaps him back in the chat. It’s getting serious.

Fuck off. Jack tells him. I can’t help it that dogs love me.

Cute. Sam snaps him back a little while later as Jack continues to appease Connor’s dog. Connor’s dog, right? Looks like he likes you.

Yeah, he tells Sam. I mean I’m great so.

Lmao of course, Eichs. Obviously.

Eventually, Connor comes back freshly showered in a t-shirt and shorts, snapback in his hands.

“Hey, you can go shower now, if you want,” he tells Jack chuckling a little as he watches Lenny chase a squirrel on the other side of the fence, apparently not understanding he’ll never be able to catch it.

“Your hair looks good long like that,” Jack tells him impulsively, because again, sometimes his mouth does things without the permission of his brain.

“Thanks,” he replies blushing. “I’m sure mom’s going to tell me I need to cut it before the ceremony Saturday. She thinks I ‘look like a hippie.’”

“Well, I think it’s a good look,” Jack says shrugging standing to go get his life together. “Very rom-com hero.”

Connor looks flushed but pleased at that, and Jack hates himself for opening his mouth. He doesn’t run into the house, but he definitely walks faster than necessary.

When he comes downstairs after his shower, DeBrincat and his wife are standing in the kitchen talking to Connor as he pours them each a glass of wine.

“Hey,” he smiles at Jack as he approaches them. “Have you met Lyndsey before?”

Jack honestly doesn’t know. Maybe during the Olympics? But that was all a blur, if he’s being completely transparent. “I don’t think so?” he smiles at them trying not to look as sheepish as he feels. He feels bad for not being able to remember.

“Nope,” she says easily. “Nice, to meet you!”

“Nice, to meet you too—I’m Jack,” he says kind of dumbly sticking out his hand

She laughs at that. “I know,” but she takes his hand anyway and smiles at him. “We’ve been grilling Connor about keeping us in the dark so long.”

He nods at Alex in greeting and snorts at that, “Well, you know Davo—he’s a man of mystery, eh?”

“Oh yeah,” Alex says sarcastically. “Totally, the first words I would use to describe you, Connor, are spontaneous and mysterious—never know what you’re going to do—”

“Shut up,” Connor complains, “so I like routine, sue me.”

Lyndsey laughs at that, “You want a glass of wine, Jack?” She eyes Connor like he’s being rude, and Jack wonders what these guys were like in Erie, honestly.

“Uh—” he starts shrugging.

“He won’t drink red,” Connor tells her rolling his eyes. “He’s got a phobia—”

“It’s not really a phobia—” Jack tries to interject.

“Right,” Connor laughs getting out a bottle of white from the fridge. “Totally not a phobia at all. So, you won’t freak out or throw up if I make you drink that?” he points to the bottle of Merlot on the counter.

“Uh, I mean define freak out?” Jack shrugs.

“You’re a piece of work,” Connor tells him handing him his glass of white.

“And you talk like you’re 85; we can’t have it all, baby,” he chirps back.

“Shut up,” he tells Jack but he’s smiling at him.

Jack would grab him in a headlock, but he figures that might be a little much for Connor’s guests, so he just flips him the bird and drinks his wine like an adult.

The party at Dylan’s parents for the wedding party and anyone who’s coming from out of town for the wedding is already in full swing when they show up. Connor even has to park down the street.

“Damn,” Alex remarks. “How many people do the Stromes know?”

“I feel like every single person in Lorne Park is in their house right now,” Connor tells him shrugging. “Oh, nice my parents are already here,” he remarks then a little sarcastically as they pass what Jack assumes is their car as they walk up the driveway and make their way to the backyard.

“What?” Lyndsey asks after a beat. “Are you fighting with them?”

“I mean I wouldn’t say fighting—” he replies looking uncomfortable. “We just had some words about—”

“They didn’t exactly love the idea of us together,” Jack cuts in because he can call a spade a spade, okay.

“That’s not true!” Connor protests.

Jack looks between Connor, Lyndsey, and Alex, before sighing, “Dude, it’s fine. I get it. I’m not insulted.”

“It’s not you Jack, I swear,” he insists now. “It’s just they—they’re not a fan of—”

“The gay thing?” Alex supplies helpfully. “They never were.”

“Right,” Connor agrees. “They just—accept it, but don’t like it, Jack—”

“And I’m gay with a capital G,” Jack finishes for him.

“Stop it!” he all but yells then, and Alex and Lyndsey honestly look a little uncomfortable. “Sorry,” he apologizes immediately because he’s Connor. “I just—don’t make fun of yourself like that, okay?”

Jack holds up his hands in surrender. “Sorry,” he mumbles.

“Anyway,” he turns back to Lyndsey, “things have been a little strained, but they’re not going to start anything tonight. That’s not their style.”

“Well, it still sucks,” she tells him patting his arm. “They’ve never seen you in an adult relationship, they’ll come around; it just sucks they can’t see the forest through the trees or whatever, y’know?”

“Yeah,” Connor sighs heavily. “I guess. It’ll be fine.”

Jack reaches for his hand then, to offer him some sort of comfort, because he’s got this pinched look on his face like he wants to jump out of his own skin. Jack intertwines their fingers and leans close, “Okay?”

“Yeah,” Connor says back equally as soft. “I just wish you wouldn’t feel the need to make jokes about things I know you’re insecure about, though.”

Jack has no response to that other than to shrug, “Self-deprecation is kinda my thing.”

Connor squints at him then. “Well it wasn’t funny this time, Eichs,” and he honest to god looks hurt for whatever reason.

He feels an itch to almost start a fight, and when he looks back at Alex and Lyndsey, they’re pointedly not looking at them; he knows then that he needs to stop fucking this up for Connor and be a much less high maintenance fake boyfriend. “Sorry,” he repeats trying to sound more sincere. “I didn’t—there’s a time and place and this wasn’t it, okay? You’re right.”

Connor sighs again acting like Jack’s being insufferable, “That’s not the point, Jack.”

“Well, then what is the point, Connor? Explain it to me,” he shoots back trying to keep his voice down, but sometimes Jack just needs to fight. He can’t help it.

“I just—it’s not—it’s not funny for you to make fun of things that are actually affecting you as some type of deflection tactic. It’s not healthy, and I’m not going to encourage it, okay? My parents insinuating that you’re too open hit a nerve and it sucks—but you don’t ever have to apologize for being yourself or try to downplay it by making a joke,” he tells Jack in that voice soft as ever but firm—firmer than Jack’s really heard him.

“You’re right,” Jack concedes eventually because he knows he is, and he’s just being a good friend and looking out for Jack’s behavior. Noah, Jack thinks, would call him on this shit too. But, it’s just jarring to hear it from someone who doesn’t know him as well. “It’s just easier, I guess, to make jokes.”

“I get that,” Connors says squeezing his hand. “But like I’m going to call you on it because it’s bullshit.”

They make their way into the party then and Alex and Lyndsey get dragged away by Connor Brown and his girlfriend immediately.

“See you later!” Alex calls to them as they drift into the mess of people in the Strome’s backyard.

“We should at least try to find Dylan and Lex,” Connor tells him weaving through people. “It’s the polite thing to do, and like Dyls’ parents too to thank them for hosting.”

“Always with the being polite,” Jack bitches laughing.

“Well, excuse me, we all can’t be rude Americans.”

“I’m not rude—I’m blunt,” Jack retorts rolling his eyes.

“Uh-huh,” Connor hums back when he finally spots Dylan holding court next to who Jack thinks is his little brother.

Connor waves to him because he’s Connor, and Stromer waves back because of course he does, and then they slowly make their way over there.

“Hey, man!” Stromer greets happily pulling Connor into a hug. “Glad you could make it—you too, Eichs,” he tells them holding out his fist for Jack to bump. “I thought you brought Brinksy with you?”

“I did,” Connor laughs. “I lost them about 30 seconds in to Brownie. I’m sure you’ll find him later. Excited?”

Dylan smiles brightly, “Of course, dude. It’s going to be a great time, just gotta get through everything, y’know? Alexis has finally calmed down though, and I think she’s finally enjoying it.”

Mitch tumbles into his back right then and almost takes Jack all the way down to the pavement.

“What the actual fuck, Marns?” Jack asks him. “I just got here, please don’t kill me yet, dude. I haven’t even gotten a drink.”

Mitch cackles into Jack’s ear then hiccupping slightly, clearly already more than halfway to blasted. “We might have done shots with some of Stromer’s uncles,” he tells Jack in lieu of an explanation.

Connor rolls his eyes, giving Jack a hand to help him back to his feet. “Marns, gotta pace yourself. It’s going to be a long weekend.”

“Yes, sir, McJesus, sir,” he mock salutes Connor. “And uh, I saw your parents earlier—and,” he swallows looking a little dazed and uncomfortable. “And, it kinda got weird.”

“What?” Connor asks him immediately. “What do you mean weird?”

“You can ask Steph, too dude—but they were like giving us the third degree about—” he gestures between him and Connor giving them the universal hand gesture for penetrative sex.

“Marns, seriously, what?” Connor repeats whining a little.

“Dude, I don’t know—Eichs, man they are curious as hell about you. I told them you’re not that interesting but—” Connor punches him in the shoulder then. “Okay, oww. Unnecessary.”

“Davo, no man, no calm down—” Dylan starts, and Connor’s turning a little red but otherwise looks unfazed.

“I know that look,” Stromer insists. “Don’t say something to them you can’t take back.”

Connor makes a disapproving noise then but sighs, taking his hat off and running his hands through his hair aggressively. “Why are they like this?”

“I mean it wasn’t bad, really—” Mitch is interrupting quickly then. “Just really fucking weird—but not angry? I dunno,” he waves Steph over then, who looks reluctant to deal with her drunk boyfriend.

“Hey guys,” she greets. “How are you? Did you just get in today, Jack?”

“Uh, yeah this morning—”

“Tell them how weird Connor’s parents were being!” he cuts him off.

“Mitch!” Steph yells at him. “You can’t just—”

“It’s fine,” Connor tells her waving his hand. “I want to know.”

“They—I don’t know. I think they were trying to gauge how serious you guys were and like how you feel about each other and where everything’s going—”

“They think Jack’s a loose cannon—”

“Fuck, Mitchell. I am going to kill you,” she tells him immediately looking between him and Connor and just looking sad.

“C’mon, ripping off a bandaid,” he maintains nodding his head.

“I don’t think it’s that they think you’re a loose cannon, Jack,” she assures shrugging one shoulder. “I just think that they’re trying to understand your relationship. I mean Connor’s, uh, guarded? And, Jack you’re just very, not? I don’t think they expected Connor to be with someone like you, is all? I don’t think it’s necessarily like a bad thing, they just don’t understand.”

So that makes Jack feel like shit because it (1) feels pretty fucking personal, and while, Steph is trying to tiptoe around it, it seems like they really, really don’t like Jack, and (2) the whole point of this whole fake dating, pretend bullshit was to make Connor’s life easier, not drive a wedge between him and his parents.

Connor’s clenching and unclenching his fist at that, and Jack can see his jaw tighten. Jack reaches out to cover his hand with his own in an effort to calm him down. “It’s fine, babe. Not a big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” Connor squeaks out eventually. “They’re being ridiculous.”

“They’re just trying to protect you,” Jack insists looking at Steph for some backup.

“He’s right, Connor. They really—they were fishing, sure. But, I don’t—I think they’re generally just curious about Jack, and they just didn’t want to ask you because it sounded like the last time you talked about it, it didn’t go great?”

“So that justifies them talking to my friends about us?” Connor asks her incredulously.

“No of course not!” she says hastily biting her lip. “But, they’re trying, okay? Cut them some slack.”

“I’m fucking sick of cutting them slack. I’ve been cutting them slack for years. They’ve known I was gay since I was 15; they can’t keep expecting me to pretend like I’m not around them, so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable.”

“Babe,” Jack says putting his hand between Connor’s shoulder blades and rubbing in a slow, easy circle. “It’s okay. Steph’s just the messenger, here.”

“Sorry,” he mumbles eyes casting down.

“Davo,” Dylan’s saying then in a soft voice. “It’s okay for them to not understand everything about your life, but you can’t—” he sighs. “You need to stop living to appease them. Gabe—”

“Yeah,” Connor says swallowing cutting off whatever Dylan was about to say about Connor’s ex. “They never—I think they wanted to accept it—accept us? Like they liked him as a human, but they never really got past me being a love with a guy?”

“No, I don’t think they did,” Stromer admits sighing. “I don’t think it makes them bad people. But, I also think that you just—you can’t expect to change their minds, because the only thing that’s going to change their perspective is them making a conscious decision to accept your choices instead of curate them.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Connor’s saying now barely audible. He wipes at his eyes, then, and Jack feels like he’s stumbled into a very old wound.

Dylan reaches in to hug him then, and they cling to each other for a long time.

“C’mon,” he murmurs to Connor, and then turns to Jack. “Eichs, is it okay if I steal your boy for a bit?”

“Uh, sure? Yeah, do whatever you need to do,” and with that Dylan ushers him away.

“Fuck,” Jack says after them eloquently.

“Uh, yeah, that was heavy,” Dylan’s little brother pipes up then, and Jack had honestly forgotten he was there.

“Are you okay?” Steph asks him putting a gentle hand on his arm.

“Yeah, I just—” he shrugs. “I just wish I could make it better.”

“C’mon,” Mitch says then looking much more sober. “Let’s go find some beers and sit down.”

Steph and Mitch do their best to distract him and make the whole thing less awkward, but Jack knows he’s not being very good company. He wants to march into the house, find Connor, and tell him to call the entire thing off: that none of this is worth starting a war with his parents. But, he mostly know the problem between Connor and his parents reaches well beyond him, and what they think about him and Connor’s ‘relationship.’ Doesn’t make it less easy to know he’s been the unnecessary catalyst to so much pain.

“Hey,” Lyndsey finds them a little bit later handing Jack a shot glass.

“What’s this?” he asks blinking at her.

She shrugs, “Dylan dragged Alex away earlier, and I just figured you might need that, is all.”

He takes the shot because it seems like the thing to do, “Thanks.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I think Connor’s parents would probably dislike anyone he dated unless they had a vagina, and even then, questionable,” she tells him seriously.

Jack snorts at that rolling his eyes, “Well, I hate to break it to them, but—”

“Right, I mean Connor’s known he was gay forever—you would think they would have gotten used to the idea by now.”

“I think,” Steph chimes in shrugging. “I think the problem is not that Connor’s gay, it’s the way that being gay isn’t accepted in hockey, and I think they’re terrified of that. I think they’re terrified of him being less than what everyone says he is?”

“So what?” Mitch asks her looking at all three of them curiously now. “Is he just supposed to not have a relationship until hockey’s done because it’s not an acceptable way to be in our sport? That’s fucking bullshit.”

“I agree,” she tells him, “but I think somewhere along the line Connor, their kid, has gotten conflated with Connor, the commodity, and I don’t—I don’t even think they realize it, and I don’t think they mean it, but it’s like—the fact of the matter is some things will make Connor the person happy and some things will make Connor the hockey player successful and some things will make Connor McDavid the brand successful, as well, and those things aren’t always the same things—sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not. And, I think for so long things that were good for Connor the hockey player and Connor the brand were things that were making him happy as a person, and it just—somewhere along the way, they over-simplified it to that.”

“That’s so fucked up,” Mitch complains then. “But, it makes sense.”

“Yeah,” Jack agrees because she put everything that Jack was thinking into words so succinctly it almost physically hurts. “I think you’re right though that it’s not a conscious thing—they’re just—they’re doing what they think will protect him because they love him.”

“Well, they’re still hurting him,” Lyndsey shakes her head. “They’ve been like this forever,” she sighs. “There’s so much to unpack here, honestly. But, it’s been a ticking-time-bomb for years, and Connor’s just artfully avoided it by avoiding—everything.”

“Poor Davo,” Mitch says shaking his head. “No wonder he felt like he had to hide. I mean being private’s one thing, but—”

“Yeah,” Jack agrees nodding. “Yeah.”

Alexis makes her way over to them then, and Jack feels kind of bad because Connor wasn’t able to see her before—everything and congratulate or whatever his Canadian politeness demanded of him.

“Hey,” she greets them, “Thanks for coming!”

“Congratulations,” Jack tells her then because if Connor isn’t available, he can at least be polite.

“Thanks,” she says softly frowning slightly. “I just talked to Dylan, sucks that the night took a turn.”

Jack winces at that, “Oh shit, we’re super sorry—y’know, Connor would never do anything on purpose to take the shine away from—”

She laughs shaking her head, “I’ve known Connor since high school, I know. I just feel bad for him; he tends to just keep everything in until he wants to die, but Dylan’s taking care of it,” she shrugs. “So, it should be fine. The three of them are just in there in the basement getting their angst out like it’s Erie in 2015.”

Jack laughs at that, “Thanks—I feel like most people would not be cool with him stealing Dylan all night.”

She shakes her head laughing again, “I’m just happy they’re getting back on track. You don’t realize how stubborn they’d been about apologizing to each other. So dramatic, those two, I swear. I never thought they’d drag on their shit for actual years,” she shakes her head again. “So, I’m glad Dylan’s taking care of him again. It’s good.”

“They’ve always been friendship goals,” Lyndsey chuckles. “Alex had to really work to weasel his way in there.”

Connor comes out eventually, and Dylan goes back to hosting duties like nothing happened.

Connor sits down next to him on the picnic table, beer in hand looking flushed, but much better munching a little loudly on a bag of sour patch kids.

“Where did you get those?” Jack asks stealing one and popping it in his mouth.

Connor shrugs, “Dylan has an emergency stash.”

“At his parents’ house?”

“Old habits die hard,” Connor says simply. “Sorry about ditching you—just needed to—" he shrugs unable to find the words.

“I’m fine. Are you okay?” he asks because really that’s what matters here.

“I mean—it sucks. Like,” he shakes his head. “I thought we were making progress, y’know? But, it’s just the same action with different words. And, it’s hard because like—I get why they do what they do, but I’m like—I want to live my life, and I don’t want to have to feel like I have to box myself in more than I already naturally do?” He squeezes his eyes shut shoving another piece of candy in his mouth. “I want to feel like their acceptance isn’t contingent on anything. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Jack sighs, “Yeah—it sucks, so much.” He reaches out then to fix a stray strand of hair that’s hanging in Connor’s face then, and they lock eyes, and Jack can smell the candy on Connor’s breath, and he can’t help but think about how easily it would be to lean in and kiss him. He wonders if he would taste sour. But it’s a dumb thought that passes as fast as it came, and he pulls away a little. Connor, though, just laughs pulling at a stray curl that’s peaking put of Jack’s backwards snapback, doesn’t say anything, and just smiles at Jack brightly. It feels like they’re the only two people in the room, and Jack hates it.

“C’mon,” he murmurs taking Jack’s hand, “I promised we’d play bags with two of the MacLeods. I hope you’re good. Don’t let me down.”

Jack snorts, “I’m good at everything, baby.”

Connor rolls his eyes dragging him towards the game, “Well I know that’s not true.”

He’s good at bags, and most lawn games in general. Growing up in a part of Mass that didn’t regularly have Central A/C in the houses, his summers were filled with any and all outdoor activities they could find. Connor’s good too—because he’s Connor, and they’re both competitive shits, so they absolutely destroy the MacLeods high-fiving each other and laughing.

They hold court there for a while, and they switched to the hard stuff a while ago because the day had really just called for it.

“Don’t you have to drive?” Jack had asked as Connor came back with another drink for them both.

“Brinksy doesn’t drink. He’s always the DD,” Connor shrugged like it was obvious.

And, maybe Jack did know that, through playing with Alex a few times, but he hadn’t thought about it. “Well, if you’re sure.”

“Uh-huh,” Connor had insisted.

So, they’re pretty buzzed and keep winning, which is making them ratchet up the obnoxiousness, probably.

Eventually, they both seem to calm down, getting the energy from earlier out on destroying the competition, and they move to the side of the game just watching and talking idly with some of Dylan’s childhood friends. Jack doesn’t know how they got here, but it’s nice, and when Connor leans back against him, Jack just winds his arm his neck and pulls him in like this is something they do everyday, pushing his face right into the meat of Connor’s shoulder to hide his smile.

Connor laughs, apparently not expecting Jack to pull him back, but settles into him easily coming to rest his hands around Jack’s, “Whoa there, killer.”

Jack noses the side of his neck then pressing a faint kiss into his skin because he can, and he tells himself it’s just for the charade they’re playing, and to let Connor experience this—being open and out and not giving a shit about whatever hangups his parents have. Fuck them.

They stand like that for a while, talking to Dylan’s Lorne Park friends for a while, and later one of Alexis’s cousins and his boyfriend. And, it feels nice—it feels normal. And, Jack knows he’s playing a dangerous game, pushing into territory that’s going to be difficult to come back from. But, he’s always wondered what it felt like to just have someone like this—at his side, steady, someone he doesn’t have to fight so hard for. He likes it a lot, and he knows it’s not real, but he supposes that it’s okay to just let himself revel in the feeling of casual intimacy, knowing that maybe someday soon he’ll find someone of his own, who wants him like this.

He’s talking to Mikey MacLeod about the Red Sox when he feels Connor stiffen, “Shit,” he says almost inaudibly.

Jack follows his gaze across the lawn to where his parents are now making their way towards them.

“Dylan told his parents to run interference, but I guess they could only do so much,” he says softly.

Connor surprises him by not moving away, keeping the PDA alive and well, even though they both know it’s about to get awkward. If he holds him a little tighter, no one knows but him and Connor.

“Hi, honey,” his mom greets them frowning a little. “We’ve been trying to catch you all night, but someone just kept pulling us in different directions.”

“Huh, weird,” Connor tells her more than a hint of defiance in his voice.

Jack almost snorts but is able to hide his smile in Connor’s shoulder.

His parents look visibly uncomfortable, and it’s really getting close to Jack’s threshold for awkward, but he lets his buzz wash over him and tells himself to let Connor handle it. He doesn’t need Jack jumping in and making it worse.

“So, when did you get in, Jack?” Connor’s dad asks eventually rocking back on his heels.

“This morning,” Jack replies kissing Connor’s neck again because he may understand that yelling at the McDavids would be crossing the line, but he’s not anything if not a little petty. “We went to training this afternoon, so we felt better about taking the rest of the weekend off.”

“Well, that’s good,” he tells them. “Can’t get too behind on your training, now.”

Jack normally would jump in and make small talk, but he feels like it’s better to just ride it out. “Uh-huh,” he affirms nosing at Connor’s neck again smiling.

There’s a very long awkward silence then, and Connor’s stiff as hell in his arms, but he’s not budging, and that’s really saying all he needs to say, in Jack’s opinion.

His mom eventually makes a visceral noise, “Can’t you two—” she starts but fortunately cuts herself off, because Jack didn’t actually want yell at Connor’s mom in front of half of Mississauga as his witnesses. “I thought you said you weren’t changing your stance on being—out—publicly?”

“We’re not in public,” Connor replies shrugging. “Dylan’s already been very strict with the phones for the weekend because he wants this to be private. No one here is leaking anything or selling anything to the press. They’re Dylan and Alexis’s friends and family.”

“Well, that’s nice in theory, honey—”

“It’s not a theory,” he shoots back immediately. “It’s true.”

“Well you never know what cousin or uncle or—”

“Mom, seriously, I’m not having this conversation with you right now. We’re fine. No one’s pointed an iPhone at us all night. No one’s even asked for a picture. And you know why? Because they respect our privacy.”

“Honey, now don’t you think that’s a little naïve? We’ve taught you better than that—"

Connor laughs harshly at that, “You’ve taught me what, exactly? To be skeptical of every single person who comes into my life? To cut myself off from people in my life when I feel scared and vulnerable because I can’t let anyone else see me as less than perfect? To guard myself so tight that I don’t know where the façade stops, and I begin? Is that what you guys taught me? Because that’s what I fucking learned and now have to unlearn.”

“Don’t raise your voice at your mother, kid. She’s just trying to help you. We talked about this the other night—"

“This is who I am,” Connor cuts him off. “I’m gay. I’m never going to be straight. I’m never going to be that perfect kid you wish I was, okay? And I’m sick of hiding behind this private persona pretending like my sexuality doesn’t exist.”

“You’re more than just gay, Connor. That’s not who you are,” His dad insists then.

“I know that,” Connor replies squeezing Jack’s wrist a little too tight. “But, it’s a part of me. It’s part of my identity, and if you’re unwilling to accept that—”

“Now son, we’ve always been open and accepting of you. We welcomed Gabe into our home. We—”

“No, you accepted only the parts you were willing to accept. I was only allowed to be gay, in the way you wanted me to, that you thought was appropriate, that you thought fit into who I was supposed to be. And, you know what dad? I don’t know who I’m supposed to be, but I’m definitely not that person that you’ve constructed, okay?”

The silence that follows is deafening, and Jack doesn’t know what the play is. He just stands there, a solid presence radiating as much don’t fuck-with-me vibes as he can.

Connor’s mom gives Jack a dirty look then, a look dirtier than Jack really thought she had in her. “Well, I see that you’re not quite acting like yourself. When you decide you don’t want to let other people influence your—”

“Holy shit, mom,” Connor says taking a step towards her, and Jack automatically holds out a hand to stop him from needlessly escalating the situation. “I’ve always wanted to have the courage to tell you guys this, but I just never had the gall to do it. Sorry, I finally grew a spine. Just another way I don’t fit into your box, eh?”

“Hey, is everything alright?” Dylan’s dad interrupts then, bless him. Jack wonders if someone sent him over. “Aw, Jack, buddy, how are you? I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“I’m good,” Jack says trying not to look at the McDavids. “Connor and I are happy to be here to support Dylan and Alexis. It’s been a long time coming.”

“Well, we’re happy that you could make it, and it’s nice to see you two together,” he reaches out to squeeze Connor’s shoulder then, and they make eye contact for a long moment. “Y’know, Connor here’s always been like another son to us,” he says then turning to the McDavids. “And Trish and I are happy to see he’s found happiness. We all know it hasn’t been easy, but it’s to see them see there’s more to life than the inside of a rink, eh?”

“Of course,” Connor’s dad coughs a little into his hand. “Seems like yesterday we were calling down there to yell at them for getting caught skipping school to play street hockey.”

“Goes fast, doesn’t it? How’s Cameron doing? Dylan told me a while back that he got a promotion at his firm?”

Jack uses the opportunity to grab Connor’s wrist and excuse themselves hastily from the conversation. Jack drags him all the way into the house, trying to get them as far away from—that—as they can.

“Oh,” Dylan’s mom says upon seeing them setting out some deserts on the counter. “I see Chris got the job done.”

Jack smiles at her, “He was a godsend. Thank you.”

She waives him off, “Dylan let us know that you just needed a little space from them, today, Connor. No problem with that. Establishing a relationship with your parents as an adult is difficult. Speaking of, Jack, how’s your mom? Still working at the hospital?”

Jack decides then and there that Dylan’s parents may be the best people he’s ever met. Holy shit. “Yep, she’s head of her unit now, so that’s pretty cool. She loves it. I don’t see her giving it up any time soon,” he laughs.

“That’s great, glad to hear she still enjoys it after all these years. Could you two do me a favor, and maybe bring up a few more cases of beer from the basement and toss them in the coolers outside?”

Yep, Jack definitely loves them. “Absolutely,” he tells her immediately grabbing Connor’s hand to drag him off. “We’ll get right on that.”

“So, Trish is a saint,” Jack tells Connor when they escape to the basement.

Connor sighs but nods collapsing on the Stromes’ old, stained couch. “As much as they love my parents, I don’t think they’re the same kind of parents, does that make sense?”

“I’m kind of hoping Stromer’s dad’s out there calling them on their bullshit,” Jack replies. “Because they kinda deserve it.”

“I don’t want to deal with this anymore today,” Connor tells him after a beat. It’s then when Jack notices his eyes are red and feels like a total dick, no wonder he was suspiciously silent and Stromer’s mom sent them down here away from everyone.

“Do you want to go home? We can get an Uber—”

He waves his hand at Jack a little erratically shielding his face. “Just give me a minute?”

“Sure—I’ll go find those cases of beer in the fridge,” he tells Connor and wanders away for a minute to the other side of the basement.

He takes out his phone then just to check his messages and busy himself trying not to concentrate on the mental breakdown happening on the other side of the room.

I’m so happy that mom and dad are the chillest. He texts Jessie then. Never cared what I did as long as I was a good person, and I was happy.

Are you okay? She texts back immediately which is a rarity these days.

Yeah, just have a friend who’s all fucked up over his parents not accepting his sexuality under some guise that they’re ‘concerned’ for him. What bullshit.

I mean it wasn’t that easy for mom and dad, Jack. You know that. They did a ton of research and talked to people, and they wanted to make sure they had all the information to support you the best you needed, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t struggle with you coming out. She texts back after a minute.

That’s not how Jack remembers it, at all. He remembers his parents taking it in complete stride, his dad hugging him tight telling him he should be open about the people he loves and who he is because that’s how they raised him—that’s who he is. They never said anything about the people he dated, the clothes he wore, the way he presented himself; they did none of those things.

What?

They did a good job of shielding it from you, because they’re the best, and that was obviously a very conscious decision. They wanted to make sure you knew you were loved and comfortable above anything else, above any other hang-up they had. But I think it took them a while to really walk-the-walk. And now obviously they’re the most open-minded people ever, but at the time? I don’t think they really understood.

Jack reads that a few times and lets it settle but doesn’t really know how to respond.

No parent is perfect. She texts back when he doesn’t respond for a few minutes. I’ve learned that intimately recently lol. And as much as you try not to place expectations on your kid, part of you wonders who they’ll become, and sometimes, it’s hard when that’s different than what you imagined for them. Doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just—sometimes it takes time to readjust your thinking.

But, that doesn’t mean you get to be a dick about it. Jack tells her.

Of course not!!! I’m just saying the perfect reaction to your kid coming out doesn’t exist. No one should care, I agree. They should be accepting, but I also understand not understanding it if his parents are older. Doesn’t make it right, just makes it reality.

Jack doesn’t think he agrees, but he doesn’t know what to say. The McDavids have known Connor was gay since he was 15, they’ve had years to adjust their expectations, and PDA just put them over the edge? Like it’s okay with being gay in theory but not in practice? It’s so fucked up.

What should I do?

For your friend? I feel like you just need to be there for him. It’s okay to be upset at his parents. It’s okay to cut them out for a while, while they figure it out. If the relationship is hurting him, then maybe it’s a good idea to step away. Protect himself. Because he can’t change that he’s gay, and so either his parents are going to come around to that, or they’re not.

That, Jack thinks, is pretty good advice. It’s not easy to tell someone to cut off their parents.

It doesn’t have to be forever. Or even that long, just until he feels like he can talk to them about it and have a rational discussion. They probably both need space, tbh. It’s hard to come to a resolution when both parties are hurting and defensive.

Thanks, Jess. I mean goes without saying, but I’m glad I’ve always had you. Jack texts her running a hand over his face feeling himself getting a little emotional. Even though their relationship has its ebbs and flows, they’re the kind of siblings that show up for each other.

Love you!! Even when you’re being the worst, almost all the time. And, I knew you were gay before you knew what that was 😌 So it was easy to be there for you.

Jack laughs at that because that’s so fucking true. Okay, I was only a little obsessed with your middle school boyfriend.

Uh-huh, sure you would literally sit in between us on the couch when we watched movies.

Okay, first, I was cute as fuck, and second, you love me.

12-year-old me asked mom to send you to Grandma’s until I graduated high school lmao 😅

That would have been tragic.

Not for me. Would have gotten me some much needed quiet around the house. But, for real, Jack. Just know I’ve always been so proud of you for taking things in stride and working on yourself. I know it’s been hard lately. But you inspire me, kiddo. Always have, even when I wanted to murder you.

Love you too. He texts back right away. Always, and I always appreciated you being in my corner, no matter what.

😘 She sends him, and he smiles tucking his phone back in his pocket taking a steadying breath.

Connor’s still sitting on the couch head between his legs now and Jack can hear him breathing heavily.

“Do you want to go, Davo? I’m sure Stromer and Alexis will understand,” he asks quietly as to not spook Connor, who jumps a little anyway. He reaches out to put a supporting hand on his back.

“Uh,” Connor says after a beat voice thick. “Can you see if they left? I just—I don’t want to have to deal with them.”

Jack thinks that they could easily get out of there while someone distracts Connor’s parents, but he thinks maybe Connor doesn’t want to see them at all. “Sure, I’ll throw those beers in the coolers outside, and see, okay?”

Mitch appears at his shoulder as he’s putting the beers away, noting that he should ask Dylan’s mom if there’s any more ice because it’s pretty much all melted at this point.

“Hey,” he tells Jack scuffing his Jordan against the pavement looking uncomfortable. “I’m sorry about the way I—told Connor about Kelly and Brian, man. I didn’t—I wasn’t thinking.”

Jack shrugs, “You should be apologizing to Davo, not me. But, also like you were just the messenger.”

“I know,” Mitch assents. “I just feel like shit. I know—I mean this has been a thing for so long, I guess I didn’t think it would actually come to a head.”

Jack sighs feeling exhausted all of a sudden, his buzz wearing off and wearing at his patience. “There’s no instruction manual as to how to handle your kid coming out,” he tells Mitch echoing what Jessie told him earlier. “I just wish they would realize that their issues are deeply affecting Connor, and all he wants from them is their passive approval, and they just can’t give it to him without something lurking there, y’know? There’s always a string attached.”

Mitch shakes his head then, “I don’t get it, really. They’ve always been so accepting with him and calm and patient. Connor never got yelled at as a kid. His parents were so even-keeled, it’s ridiculous.”

Jack shrugs, “Not everyone’s down with us gays, I guess. I just think that they didn’t anticipate him being gay, is all—but like it’s been years, I would have thought they had enough time to sit with it. And, I think it’s not just the gay thing, either. I think it’s—I think it’s something about losing influence over him. Not that I think they’re outwardly controlling—but, I think Connor never actively defied any of their expectations, and they don’t know what to do about him basically telling them to fuck off.”

“Yeah,” Mitch agrees. “I also think it’s kind of bullshit that they’re acting like you’re corrupting him, when if they’d open their eyes, they’d see that this is probably the happiest Connor’s been since his second year in Erie.”

Jack doesn’t know what to do with that, and thinks Mitch is probably seeing what he wants to see, because Connor seems the same—y’know before his parents started traumatizing him today.

They’re interrupted by Connor’s dad then, and Mitch literally steps in front of Jack, like he’s his bodyguard or something.

“Can we help you?” Mitch asks him raising his eyebrows all the way to his hairline.

“Jack, son, can I speak with you for a minute?” he asks looking at Mitch then, “Privately?”

Jack doesn’t want to—you could not pay him to do this for his real fucking boyfriend, okay? He has a short temper about these kinds of things, and maybe it’s his own internalized homophobia or his issues with his own sexuality that makes him want to yell at every homophobe he encounters, like if he sets them straight enough times, he’ll finally, finally get rid of all the lingering homophobic thoughts he has about himself. He knows himself, and him talking to Connor’s dad right now after his parents literally made him cry? Not a good idea.

“Look, I don’t want to—we’re here to celebrate Dylan and Alexis, I don’t want to have this conversation here,” he tells him trying to deflect.

Connor’s dad raises his hands defensively. “It will only take a minute, I promise.”

He glances at Mitch apprehensively who just shrugs, “Fine,” he agrees. “But, only if you both leave Connor alone tonight, okay? He’s been through enough.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” he tells Jack, and Jack follows him into the front yard away from the party.

Jack crosses his arms over his chest when they stop on the sidewalk and just waits for him to say whatever shit he’s going to say.

“First, we’re sorry. Both my wife and I—we didn’t mean to escalate the argument or make either of you feel uncomfortable,” he starts, and Jack can feel his blood pressure rising.

“Uncomfortable?” he spits back incredulously. “Do you even realize how upset Connor is?”

“That was never our intention, obviously. The situation got out of hand, and there were some things said—”

Jack can’t handle this bullshit, “Are you actually going to apologize and own some of your mistakes, or?”

He laughs humorlessly then looking extremely uncomfortable. “We used to be the people who knew Connor the best and looked out for him when all the world wants is to take things from him. We’ve always been there to help and support him and bring him back to earth, and it’s just hard—it’s hard to accept that he’s making it more difficult on himself.”

Jack shakes his head at that looking down trying to calm down fixating on a smudge on his white vans as he takes a deep breath. “I understand where you guys are coming from. I get it, and as a queer person, I feel that stance in the people I’m around all the time. But, what you have to understand is that it’s people like you and your wife who keep perpetuating that gay people aren’t enough, that there’s something inherently wrong with us—”

“That’s not what I said at all and that’s not what we believe—”

“Let me finish,” Jack cuts him off holding up his hand. “When you say things like ‘making it harder on himself,’ when you want him to hide who he is because it’s safer, when you want him to seem less overtly ‘gay’ because apparently we have a ‘look,’ you’re reaffirming those homophobic opinions. Instead of saying fuck those people who hate my son because he wants to date another man, you’re giving their opinion credence. You’re telling Connor it’s okay to be himself in private, but he shouldn’t do anything or say anything that could make some homophobic dickwad uncomfortable in public. Why the hell are you protecting those people over your own kid?”

“I—”

“It was a rhetorical question,” Jack snaps back, and he can’t believe he’s being so rude to Connor’s dad right now, but he’s just—he’s so fucking heated. “Discussions about sexuality are nuanced. Allyship is nuanced. But, you’re being shit at it. Absolute shit. Connor can’t help who he is. And, even if he could, even if being gay was a choice—why is it an inherently bad choice? Huh? When you justify your child being gay because he was ‘born that way’ are you saying that his identity is something that no one would willingly choose? Because that sounds a lot like repackaged homophobia. Do I truly believe that you and Kelly love Connor? Absolutely, and I 100% respect that you’re trying to protect him, but you’re just completely going about it the wrong way, and at the end of the day, it’s not enough for you to just accept him being gay, like ‘fine if he has to be’ — you should be celebrating that he’s gay, and he’s trusted you all enough to tell you, and that he’s confident enough in himself to pursue happiness and his own truth.”

Brian doesn’t say anything, and the silence stretches into something charged when Jack finally looks up at him to see that his eyes are filled with tears. “Wow, you’ve thought a lot about this.”

Jack nods looking back down again breathing in and out trying to keep everything together when he wants to scream. “Honestly? I’ve had to have a lot of therapy, partially because people like you.”

He nods pinching the bridge of his nose in an attempt to quell the tears, “It’s obvious that you care a lot for Connor. And, we’re happy that he’s found someone so willing to expose himself and be vulnerable to help him—finding someone like that is very rare, Jack,” he pauses then and lets out a shaky breath. “I think Kelly and I are going to go, give Connor some space, and think about this all. You’ve given us a lot of things to think about, and—I appreciate your candor.”

Jack has probably never felt this uncomfortable in his entire life, but he’s totally at a loss for what to say now. “Okay,” he replies when the silence gets too much for him.

He sighs, “Take care of Connor, okay?” He then turns to leave, thank fucking god.

Jack nods resisting the urge to yell at him, that Jack wouldn’t need to “take care of him” if he wasn’t being such a dick.

“Hey,” Jack says calling to him making Brain McDavid turn back towards him. He’s feeling tired and slightly reckless, if he’s being honest, but he can’t stop himself. “Connor’s hurting—and not just because of the things you two said or implied or whatever—because all he’s ever wanted was to please everyone around him, especially you guys, and he just—he gives and he gives and he gives, and this one time? This one time he just wants to keep something for himself. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“It’s not that simple, son,” Connor’s dad replies not moving back towards Jack.

Jack shrugs rubbing a hand over his face. “It can be, if you make a conscious decision to make it simple and finally, fucking finally show him unwavering, non-contingent support.”

“Give him our apologies, Jack?” he says with a certain air of finality and walks away before Jack can think if he has anything left to say.

Jack needs a minute, desperately needs to take a second to think about what the fuck just happened, or keeps happening or—Jesus, how did he get so entrenched in the McDavids’ drama? That was never his intention.

So, he sits in the grass legs stretched out over the sidewalk and tries to breathe. In. Out. In. Out. C’mon, Eichs, chill, he tells himself. You’re totally chill.

Steph finds him there, Jack’s not sure how much later. Time is spiraling away from him at this point, and he—fuck he told off Connor’s dad—and he—it definitely wasn’t his place, and if he were Connor, he would be pissed.

“Hey,” she says sitting down next to him knocking their shoulders together. “Mitch was afraid you murdered Brian McDavid and left with the body.”

Jack snorts at that. “I wish,” huffs.

“That bad?”

He bites his lip avoiding looking anywhere near her at this point. “The situation keeps escalating and escalating, and I was mad, but I didn’t mean to—fuck, it’s not about me. And, I wish I could have kept that mind, but I had to go off on him and preach to him, and—”

She giggles then covering her mouth with her hand, “Sorry,” she states continuing to laugh to herself. “You and Connor, both, ugh. Just—you’re being so hard on yourself. You were upset, and all you wanted to do was for Connor’s parents to understand, and it’s natural to try to get them to look, y’know, when they’ve spent so long avoiding this topic.”

“Yeah,” he agrees quietly because he’s afraid if he says anything else he’s going to confess the whole thing to her—how all of this is fake and how he and Connor are barely even friends, and he just doesn’t know why or how he decided it was a great idea to try to make  Connor’s continuing saga with his parents about his sexuality about himself when he’s not going to be here to help Connor with the fallout—like his parents are always going to be his parents, and Jack’s not even—they’re nothing to one another. He’s making the problem worse and leaving Connor to deal with the consequences—what kind of person does that make him?

“I don’t know if you care about my opinion, but from everything I’ve seen, you’ve been pretty good at supporting him through this. New relationships are hard enough to begin with, but they’re also usually not this complicated,” she tells him smiling. “So, I just—give yourself a break. You’re trying your best.”

He squeezes his eyes shut at that because if she knew even one lick of the truth, she wouldn’t be saying anything positive about the way he’s been acting. “Thank you,” he tells her anyway because he appreciates her kindness, and it’s not her fault Jack’s a lying sack of shit. “I just, I never feel like anything I do is the right thing.”

She knocks their shoulders together gently. “There’s never one right thing, Jack. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.”

Jack lets out a breath, and he feels totally at a loss here. He’s not Connor’s boyfriend, but he does feel—after everything he’s seen and heard and been privy to since they’ve started pretending—protective of him. He’s not fragile. He’s not. Connor’s stronger and tougher than most people would probably give him credit for, but Jack knows how it feels to hit rock bottom struggling with his sexuality, and he just—Connor’s his friend, and he doesn’t want him to have to go there. And maybe it wasn’t right for Jack to insert himself between Connor and his parents or talk to Connor’s dad without Connor’s consent—but he can’t undo it now, can he? He just needs to get it the fuck together and be better. Connor deserves that much from him, he thinks. He always gives so much to the people around him, and maybe it’s time for someone to be there for him.

He stands then a little abruptly if the look on Steph’s face is anything to go by. “I think I’ve calmed down enough, so I’m just—gonna go find Connor, and we’ll probably try to get out of here. Thanks, Steph. I’ll see you guys tomorrow?”

She nods, “Yep, if you need something, let me or Mitch know. We have your back, Jack—both of you.”

Dylan’s pacing at the basement stairs when Jack makes his way through the house. He looks a little startled when he sees Jack. “He didn’t get mad when I tried to talk to him, but he says he wants to be alone,” he shrugs one shoulder. “I hate this.”

Jack has never agreed with a sentiment more, and he knows if he’s feeling this shitty, Dylan, as Connor’s longtime best friend must be feeling absolutely terrible. He’s probably seen this play out in different ways dozens of times before. “I’m going to go see if he wants to just go. Sorry, dude, didn’t mean to ruin your party—I just—I just when I get upset it’s hard for me to back down.”

“Eichs, man, the fact that you didn’t punch Connor’s dad out there means you showed way more self-restraint than I ever could. I hate how fucking passive aggressive they are; it makes Connor feel like he’s always the one escalating the problem, when really they’re constantly taking digs at him and baiting him. Like—fuck—they rather have him just shut down than live his life if it’s a way that they don’t agree with, and I can’t make sense of it.”

Jack feels like shit again, knowing that if he didn’t open his huge idiotic mouth to Dylan that none of this would be happening. Connor would still be skating by with his parents, and—ugh. Maybe he doesn’t make up with Dylan, though, Jack tells himself then, so he’ll give himself a small pat on the back for that at least, but what was the cost?

“I just didn’t know any of this was going to play out this poorly,” Jack tells him shrugging. “Connor kept saying that they were cool with the gay thing, and I—I can’t help but feel responsible,” he tells Dylan then because he needs to get it off his chest.

“Dude, I know we had that—whatever, but I was being a total dick, and like none of this is because of you. I don’t know what Connor told you, but they’ve never been ‘cool’ with it, or at least, not really. It’s like—they want to be, I think, and Connor wants them to be, so they all ignore the passive aggressive comments and the underlying problems because Connor’s entire family hates conflict. I think Connor’s convinced himself over the years that if no one talks about it, if no one confronts it, then they’ll accept it, and like—it’s fucked up.”

“I just didn’t mean to be a catalyst—kinda cliché knowing me, right?” Jack laughs self-deprecatingly. “Always too loud, too—whatever, and now I’ve driven them all a part, and I—” Won’t there to help pick up the pieces, he doesn’t say.

Dylan doesn’t say anything right away just looks at him quizzically, “Jack, you’re a good dude, man. I know people—like the media or whatever—have been hard on your personality over the years, but this isn’t on you at all. All you did was have the audacity to love Connor in front of his parents, to make him happy, and they just couldn’t handle it—and that’s on them, not you.”

Jack bites his lip to keep the sarcastic laugh on the tip of his tongue inside. Love? Jesus fucking Christ this is out of control. He likes Connor, now, barely, as a friend. But, shit? A little PDA has got Stromer thinking they’re in love? Like what? Did Gabe and Connor never touch each other in public for 7 years? “I’m going to go check on him,” he tells Dylan at once because escaping the conversation needs to happen now.

“Hey,” he calls into the basement, and Connor’s where he left him head between his legs, and Jack hates everything. “Your parents left. Do you want to go?”

“God, yes,” Connor croaks out standing up. He doesn’t look Jack in the eye, but Jack can see that his face is red and splotchy and his heart fucking aches for him. He can’t imagine feeling all that rejection in front of most of his closest friends when his best friend is literally getting married this weekend. It’s a lot.

“Okay?” Jack asks him tucking him into his side. He doesn’t know if Connor needs the physical comfort more than Jack needs to give it to him.

“No,” Connor tells him eventually still not looking at Jack’s face. He rubs his hand over his face and sniffles a little, and Jack feels for him so much. “I want to go home and forget this all ever happened.”

“Let’s go,” Jack replies to that quickly taking him by the hand upstairs.

Dylan’s gathered Alex and Lyndsey now, and Jack kinda gets why he’s the MVP of the friendship because Jack doesn’t even have to do any work.

“I’ll drive,” Alex volunteers grabbing the keys from Connor’s hand and turning towards the door waving to the Stromes. “We’ll come over to clean up tomorrow morning, Trish!”

Connor has some really great friends, Jack thinks.

The 25-minute drive back to Connor’s downtown Toronto condo is awkward to say the least. Alex turns on the radio to attempt to drown out the fact that no one could possibly speak over the tense air in the car, the anxiety absolutely palpable. Normal Jack, average, everyday John Robert Eichel, would try to fill the silence. He would tell a joke, poke fun at himself, his hair, or tell a funny story about another time he fucked up his life, but even he can’t find the words, and even he could, he doesn’t think it would be appropriate.

Connor barely greets Lenny when he gets into the door, just takes the stairs two at a time, with the dog scampering after him pathetically.

“Sorry,” Jack apologizes to Lyndsey and Alex as all three of them watch Connor go, which is weird because they both know Connor better than he does, but he feels compelled to apologize anyway, because he feels at least partially responsible for breaking McDavid. “He—y’know he kinda likes to isolate when he’s upset.”

“Oh, we know,” Alex replies softly. “We all know. We’re going to head to bed, leave you guys alone. Uh, and then probably Uber over to the Stromes’ to clean up tomorrow morning. Trish promised breakfast in return.”

“Sorry we haven’t been great company. Connor just needs some time to process. He’ll be himself soon, I’m sure,” Jack responds even though he has no frame of refence as to whether that’s accurate or not, historically.

“He’ll put on a brave face at a minimum,” Alex says shrugging one shoulder and grimacing. “He always does, and it’s not—either of your faults. We’re not insulted or anything, like we obviously wish today didn’t go down like it did, but at least—at least it’s out there now? At least they confronted it. I think Connor will be better off in the long run.”

Jack shrugs at that because he’s not quite sure what the outcome will be. He doesn’t know if they’ll put themselves back together and feels like maybe when all this is said and done, they’ll go back to being weird rivals, and Connor will just resent him for ruining his relationship with his parents. Jack feels a little light-headed even thinking about it.

Alex and Lyndsey head in the direction of the guest room and Jack goes into the kitchen cleaning and straightening anything he sees even remotely out of place so that he can at least feel like he did something right today—that he helped a little? He doesn’t know. Eventually, he can feel his eyelids get heavy and grabs two glasses of water for him and Connor even though he kind of hope Connor’s already asleep.

He’s not asleep, which Jack knows was a pipe dream, but it’s still jarring to see him lying on his back fully clothed staring up at the ceiling Lenny cuddled next to him as he blinks back tears. Jack wonders if he’s been like this the entire time.

“Hey,” he says cautiously wishing he knew what to say. “I—” he starts and stops trying to find the right thing to say, but Jack just can’t make sense of it. “Today sucked,” he settles on because it’s true.

“I just don’t get it,” Connor says eventually slamming his open fist onto the mattress making Lenny jump. “I thought—maybe I was in denial, I don’t know. They hate me, Jack.”

“They don’t hate you, Davo. What?” he answers immediately coming closer Lenny now at his feet. Because Jack was there okay, and there’s a lot of unkind things he can say about Connor’s parents, but they clearly love him.

“I—” he rubs his hand over his face, and he sits up looking away from Jack.

“Hey,” Jack says coming to stand next to him and pulling him into a loose hug. “It’s okay to be upset. Like I’m not judging you for crying. It sucks. But, for the record, they definitely don’t hate you.”

“Sorry,” he mumbles into Jack’s chest. “I’m not—I’m not good at letting people in—letting people see me not be perfect. Like literally I get that from them—they made me like that, y’know?”

“Connor—”

He lets out a bitter sounding laughing and pulls away to wipe at his eyes. “It’s like they literally taught me to guard myself and not let people see any weakness, and I get it—they didn’t want me to get hurt. They didn’t want other people to take advantage of me. Don’t give them anything to hate on, right? Don’t give them anything to criticize. It fucking makes perfect sense. But, it’s like—that’s not who I am, Jack. That’s not—I don’t want to be that person anymore.”

“I thought that I had so much trouble getting back out there because I loved the shit out of Gabe, and that he ruined me for everyone else. And like of course I loved him, but I also—I loved the stability of it. I loved never having to wonder if I was enough? But, it’s like I didn’t try to get back out there because I was so afraid of letting anyone else in after that, y’know? Letting someone see me and potentially hurt me, and like—see me? Because I—I didn’t even know who I really was in a relationship, or who I aspired to be, or if I could be someone for somebody as an adult?”

“They made me be afraid of being happy—like if you’re too happy—if you’re happy and settled and whatever, you always have something to lose. You can’t lose what you don’t have, Jack. No one can destroy or take something from you if you never let it happen, if you hold everyone out at an arm’s length.”

“My parents rather see me pursue what’s safe—than to pursue what makes me happy. And it’s ironic, right because I’ve given everything to my dream and have taken so many chances in order to get all the places I’ve gone, and like you don’t get there by playing it safe—so like why do I need to be that what in the other aspects of my life?”

“I just feel like—” he lets out a breath then collapsing back onto the bed staring up into the ceiling fan, Jack knows that it’s pure stubbornness that he hasn’t let the tears start falling. “They’re afraid of my sexuality fucking up my career, fucking up my life, but what they don’t see is that I can’t separate the gay part of me from the rest of me? It’s like implying something that’s a foundational part of who I am can destroy my life? Like how am I not supposed to take that personally?

Like it was okay when I was just gay in theory—or behind closed doors or when I was sneaking around in high school or sneaking Gabe into my billet or whatever 300-plus kilometers from them where they didn’t have to see it or hear about it because I was taught to be ashamed and scared of everything that I had. Like I got to fall in love at 15, and instead of cherishing that it fucking terrified me and made me crazy and made me hate myself—and I couldn’t make sense of all those things at the time, y’know?

“The craziest thing though, Jack, is that I thought—I really thought that they were cool with it—that they accepted it and accepted me, and like, let’s be honest, they probably knew I was gay when I was really little, and that’s why—I just—I wonder how much stuff they forced on me and manipulated me into because they wanted me to be ‘less gay,’ y’know? Like—a little gay kid with that soft voice and big eyes would have gotten the shit beat out of him if it wasn’t for the fact that I was so fucking good at hockey, and like, they knew that—everyone knew that.”

“You’re thinking too much, Davo,” he says after a beat letting all that word vomit sink in. He goes to sit at the foot of the bed and wraps his hand around Connor’s ankle Lenny jumping back on the bed next to him fitting himself back into Connor’s side. “It’s not—look, I mean the whole thing really pissed me the fuck off, for sure. But, like your parents still love you. They’ve always loved you, and it’s like—not some conspiracy, or as deliberate as you’re thinking—even though I know it feels like it right now. I totally get it.”

“We’re all a little fucked up by our parents—no matter how great they are—no parent is perfect; they’re human beings, and they have their own feelings and biases and whatever that they project onto their kids. And, I—I can imagine that they saw how much you loved hockey and wanted to protect that, and like being that good at hockey and that small with the long hair and the soft voice and the eyes lingering in the locker room probably didn’t sit well with them. And, I don’t think they think they’re homophobic; I don’t think it’s deliberate; I don’t even think it’s a reflection on you. I just think they want your life to be easy, and it’s fucked up, but society doesn’t make it easy on queer people, Connor.”

“But they’re the ones making it harder,” Connor whines cutting him off. “They’re the ones—I don’t give a fuck about society or TSN or the hockey media or toxic masculinity or the fucking expectations—I just—I want them to be proud of me, Jack,” he starts crying then, a silent whole body shake, but he covers up his face immediately as if that’ll make it less real.

“Oh, Connor—” he doesn’t make a conscious thought to move, he just does it nosing Lenny out of the way to lay down next to Connor and pull him into his chest. “This fucking sucks, I know.”

“Can’t they see I’m doing my best? Can’t they see it’s fucking killing me?”

Jack’s not quite sure what they’re really talking about now, if it’s his sexuality or his entire relationship with his parents, or even his relationship with hockey, his relationship with being the reluctant, kinda scared face of the NHL.

“Remember when you said that you felt like you were broken? Like your own internalized homophobia made you feel like you weren’t capable of being in love?”

Jack really doesn’t know what they’re talking about now. “Yeah, I remember.”

“I’ve been thinking about that a lot, I guess. About a bunch of the stuff we talked about, really. I’ve never—this is embarrassing, but I’ve never had another gay friend, y’know, except, Gabe, I guess?”

That makes sense, Jack doesn’t say. He knows it’s hard to meet people when you’re in the closet as deep as Connor is, at least publicly. It’s not like he can just show up to an LGBT+ center in Toronto or Edmonton and not get noticed immediately. Jack likes to think the types of people there wouldn’t out him to the media, but it does only take one person, he supposes. All of Connor’s friends are hockey players, like Jack, and so yeah it makes sense he doesn’t have any queer friends—or at least out friends, to themselves or otherwise.

Jack kind of wants to ask him why he hasn’t reached out to him over the years, at the draft or the World Cup, or really any time they’ve been in the same room since their first World Juniors? Jack’s always been an open secret, if he wanted a gay friend, all he had to do was ask. Jack wishes he knew now, or maybe, maybe it was better he didn’t. 18-year-old-sass-queen Jack or 21-year-old salty-mcsalty Jack, or 23-year-old bone-deep-tired-don’t-talk-to-me Jack, he thinks wouldn’t have been able to put the McDavid he thought he knew—the one who didn’t feel like a real person in his head aside to see the real Connor, he thinks. He doesn’t know if past him could was capable of being his friend like this.

“I guess hearing about the shit you’ve been through and like had to work through made me realize that like—it’s normal to feel like this sometimes, I guess? I’ve spent my whole life feeling like being gay was just like this thing that I had to put aside, for hockey, for my parents, for my highschool sweetheart, who loved me but—” he cuts himself off and puts his hand over his eyes. “I let this shame that I felt—this feeling that I couldn’t let my sexuality define me distract me from accepting myself. I felt like I had to be defensive of it like—like ‘I’m gay, but’ —whatever,” he says sighing. “But, I—I guess I never thought maybe I can grow into someone who doesn’t just accept liking guys, but accepts being gay, like I could even barely say it before? Like giving myself an accurate label made it too real for me, or something? But like, maybe I could just—like being gay? Like being a queer person—not accept it but embrace it? At least in private? Like with my friends? Like, god none of this is making sense.”

He’s right that Jack’s lost him a few monologues ago, “Have you ever talked to someone about this? Like a therapist? Because I mean everyone I think could benefit from therapy.”

Connor snorts, “You think my parents would send me to a professional and allow me to talk about my sexuality? You think I would ever in a million years feel comfortable doing that—talk to anyone about this stuff?”

“You talk to me about it, dude,” Jack tells him softly. “A lot of queer kids, especially those who grow up with a ton of toxic masculinity around them, like us—like hockey players and locker rooms—need therapy, Connor. I—how do you think I even got here?”

“I’m just—I wish I could know that somewhere in the future there’s a version of me who doesn’t feel like my sexuality is separate from my identity, like I can just be myself—and that’ll just be a part of me, and I won’t even have to think about it consciously anymore. That’s why—I feel like I was so intimidated by you when I met you because like, I was like how can someone be so fucking good at hockey and have so many friends and just be 100% authentic and not care about what people think?”

“I mean that’s an over-simplification—”

“I know that now, but then—but for the last however many years, I just—fuck, I’ve always made everything too complicated, and this most of all, and I—you made it look so simple, no easy. And I—that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“I struggle a lot, man. I—everyone has their shit. I just, I make the conscious decision each day, or at least when I feel up to it, to look at my own biases and the things I hate about myself—the things I find as weaknesses, and I accept them, y’know? I just—those are the things that make me, me. And, yeah if I’m being honest, sometimes, I wish I wasn’t so loud and bold and had this big personality, but I’m not going to shrink myself, I guess. Life’s too fucking short. And, like it’s never too late for you to wake up, and be like I’m going to be that person who I want to be, who I am inside. There’s no—you have no obligation to be the same person you were last year or last week, or even yesterday. You get to choose to evolve, Connor. And, so yeah, it can be complicated, and yeah, we all have to work through our shit at our own pace, but if you want to wake up tomorrow and be that person, no one’s stopping you, dude—except yourself.”

He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Jack thinks that maybe the conversation’s over, maybe he’s finally broken McDavid once and for all. “Gotta skate towards the net, eh? Put one foot in front of the other, and you’ll get there.”

Jack snorts at that and pulls Connor in until his face his smushed into Jack’s neck. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Cliches are cliches for a reason, eh?” Connor replies laughing and Jack can feel the vibration in his chest.

“Eh?” Jack laughs in return but quiets after a few seconds. “Hey, listen,” he starts picking absent-mindedly at a stray hair in Connor’s face. “I’m sorry for like—antagonizing your parents today? I wasn’t—I was admittedly being petty, and I didn’t really stop and think of the consequences for you. It wasn’t right of me, considering, y’know, you’re going to be dealing with the fallout way longer than I’m here.”

Jack can feel Connor still his breathing shallowing slightly, and even though they’ve been cuddled up for a while it hits Jack then, how fucking physically close they are right now. It’s not something he wouldn’t do with Noah or Matts in Ann Arbor, or even Sammy when he’s not being weird about physical space, but Jack has no idea when he and Connor become those type of friends.

“I mean—they pushed you pretty hard, and maybe you shouldn’t have, but I don’t blame you. And like—if you were my real boyfriend, I think that they would have to get used to the PDA anyway, and like—I guess it’s better to know now that they don’t want to see it. It hurts, but at least I know.”

Jack doesn’t have a good response to that. He still feels guilty and unsettled, and like he doesn’t know why he keeps inserting himself when it’s not his place, but he can’t stop. God, everything’s so out of control.

They lay there for a while in silence after that both, Jack thinks, reflecting on the day and their own bullshit, probably. The whole day started off so promising, and yet, ended so fucking weird. It almost seems like that phone call from Peter was a lifetime ago.

“Sometimes,” Jack hears himself say. “I feel really guilty about not coming out, y’know, like publicly?” He doesn’t know where the thought comes from, and he knows that Noah has suspected he’s felt like that for a while, and he’s even tried to talk to Jack about it, he’s never, ever muttered the words out loud to anyone.

“Really?” Connor asks eventually voice laced with confusion.

“Yeah, it’s—” Jack sighs harshly watching the ceiling fan for a minute trying to find the words. “I know what it would have meant to me, as a kid, at 13, 14, 15 to see someone who I aspired to be, be out, y’know? I think—I mean representation is so important, but I just—I’m not ready for that responsibility either. I’m not ready for kids like who we used to be to look up to me, I guess. But I wish I was. I wish I was a better person like that sometimes.”

“Jack,” Connor says softly tugging at a curl softly so that Jack will turn his head towards him, and they can lock eyes. “I think that’s noble, but I also think that it’s okay to not want to take that on?”

“I know,” he tells Connor honestly, the intimacy of the moment taking over the logical part of his brain. Sometimes, Connor looks at him, and he wants to spill every single secret, and he can’t make sense of it. “But I feel that guilt under my ribs, and it’s like settled there, and I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of it. Like—maybe, I’m living my truth, but I could always, I dunno. It’s stupid. I just—maybe it’s in our DNA to always want to be more, always want to do more—and like I know that having an out gay pro athlete who’s at the top of the league could be something special for people, and yet—I can’t make myself be that guy. I’ll never be that guy. And, part of me feels like that makes me disingenuous.”

Connor looks at him through his eyelashes then, and Jack flashes back to that moment at the picnic table, knowing how easy it would be to just press an inch closer and kiss the shit out him, but he can’t make himself close the distance. He wonders if Connor would kiss back but doesn’t want to ruin their friendship to find out. Everything that they’ve been through, everything they’ve spoken about and worked out is worth far more valuable and important than a hookup, and past Jack may not have been able to keep it in his pants, dude fucked anything that moved, but this Jack? This Jack knows he can set a boundary with himself.

“You’re one of the most genuine people I know,” Connor tells him honestly. “Don’t think that for a minute. They take a lot from us, right? The media, the fans, even our teammates—when an entire franchise is built around you, on top of you, sometimes it’s easy to give and give and give, until you’re so raw you’re not even yourself. It’s okay to keep something for yourself.”

Jack almost laughs; feels like the moment really calls for it. That’s exactly what Jack told Connor’s dad early, and yet—maybe it’s time for him to take his own advice. “Hey, Davo,” Jack says instead nudging him a little.

“Hmm?” he hums softly, and Jack can feel his breath.

“I’m happy we’re friends. I didn’t expect it, but it’s nice.”

Connor laughs rolling his head onto Jack’s chest and blinks up at him, “Glad you got over hating me. That kinda sucked.”

Oh, Jack figured they were never going to actually talk about that given it was basically a lifetime ago, and they were kids. Jack can barely even remember that kid who ranted to Noah when he’d come back from frat parties drunk and facetime him about how McDavid was ruining his life and his draft year and fucking America simply by existing within their sacred borders.

“I never hated you, dude,” he lies through his teeth. “I didn’t know you.”

“If I were you,” Connor says giving him a look like he sees right through Jack’s bullshit. “I would have hated me too. Even at the World Cup—the media was harsh. I get it.”

Jack squeezes his eyes shut then, because as a rule he tries to not think about those few years of his life. Everything in his life was shit then—his relationship was slowly crumbling, he was feeling out of control all the time, the city of Buffalo hated him, the NHL media constantly compared him to Connor and wanted to call him a bust before anything really had vested, and he—he went through it, to say the least. He remembers that infamous exit interview all at once, and all the false statements and the criticism and everything that came with it. He remembers being 20-years-old, frustrated, and just fucking tired of all the bullshit, and just—he didn’t have the ability to hide it yet.

Jack lets out a breath then and opens his eyes to see Connor looking at him curiously, “It was hard—when you were everything they wanted and the media was calling me a consolation prize, and then—then they were acting like I was ungrateful for being a consolation prize, and it wasn’t you, Connor, it wasn’t—it was all the shit at once. Like 2017? That’s a year I want to forget, dude. But, I—I got over it. I grew from it. I had to. I was bitter, for a long fucking time, I guess. But, I’m mostly over it now, and I see that’s not—life’s too short to resent someone because of our diametrically opposed media narratives, man.”

“Diametrically opposed media narratives?” Connor snorts sitting up abruptly making Lenny jump up and onto Jack’s stomach at the movement.

“Fuck, Lens—” Jack complains, “Ouch.”

That’s the final thing that makes both of them break out into fits of laughter the tense air of the room popping like a bubble on the pavement during a hot summer afternoon.

“Let’s go to bed and put this day behind us,” Connor tells him when they both finally stop laughing. “I’m going to take Lenny out, but you can just use whatever you need in the washroom, and I’ll be back.”

Jack blinks at him as he leaves suddenly remembering they’re going to be bunking together all weekend while Alex and Lyndsey are here and then on Saturday night at the hotel too, probably. Jack’s too tired to give a shit though, at this point. Jack’s yelled at Connor’s parents at this point, he thinks sharing a bed is honestly the least intimate thing they’ve done in a while.

When he finishes brushing his teeth and finding a pair of sweatpants tucked away at the bottom of his suitcase, of fucking course, Jack gets into the side of the bed that isn’t next to the nightstand with three empty water bottles, two empty Gatorade bottles, and two framed pictures, one of Connor’s family and one of him, Alex, and Dylan from Connor’s last year in Erie. It seems like a safe bet.

Lenny jumps right up on the bed falling into Jack happily, his tail wagging so aggressively it keeps hitting Jack’s ankles. “C’mere, bud,” Jack murmurs to him softly. This fucking dog, man.

“Oh, shit, sorry, Lenny—” Connor says when he comes back up the stairs after him.

Jack just shrugs, because he really doesn’t mind. If anything, he’s taking Lenny’s usual spot.

“Do you mind? I can get him to sleep on his bed by the closet, but I usually just let him in the bed.”

“Of course you do,” Jack laughs scratching behind Lenny’s ear. “He’s so spoiled, aren’t you?”

Connor has the decency to blush at that but doesn’t respond as he goes about the rest of his night routine.

Jack’s dozing with Lenny tucked in next to him when Connor gets into bed, the entire day catching up to him at once.

“Seriously,” Connor says again throwing back the sheets and clicking off the lamp on his nightstand. “He’ll get down if I tell him to.”

“Nah,” Jack tells him waving his hand even though Connor surely can’t see him now in the dark. “We’re buds. I don’t care. Yeah, who’s the best boy?” he tells Connor petting Lenny as he sprawls a little bit back towards Connor.

“If you’re sure,” Connor tells him.

“Uh-huh,” Jack replies and turns over assuming that’s the end of that.

He doesn’t know how long passes but he’s pretty close to sleep when Connor interrupts him softly in a voice that could barely be described as more than a whisper, “Eichs—hey, Jack?”

“Hmm?” he hums mostly asleep.

“Do you think—” he starts but stops abruptly and when he doesn’t pick up his thought Jack flips over to look at him yawning slightly.

“Huh?” he asks Connor.

Connor just bites his lip opening one of his arms in a weird gesture and says, “Do you think we could—” and he waves a little to himself.

Jack has no idea what he’s talking about for a good 35 seconds and feels like he’s going to have to ask again when it hits him, of course. “You want to fucking cuddle don’t you?”

Connor burns red at that, “Maybe—I just rough day?”

Jack platonically cuddles with a lot of his friends, if he’s being honest. He’s done it less and less as he’s gotten older, but when they were 14, 15 away from their parents in Ann Arbor? He’d gotten used to guys crawling into each other’s beds all the time. Sometimes, he’d wake up at tournaments with Chucky or Matts or Larks in bed with him when they weren’t even roommates. Stromer seems like the platonic-cuddle kind of guy too, as does Marns, and like being around Chucky in juniors, he’d have to be. But Connor? Connor never gave Jack that vibe, until Jack came to know how much a small pat on the back or a comforting touch does to calm him and help us mood. He can’t believe that Connor’s other friends don’t know that about him, thinking about to what Mitch had said a few weeks ago. Like do they even know him?

He pulls Connor in then softly, hooking his chin over his shoulder. “Only if you promise to go the fuck to sleep and stop thinking so loud,” Jack tells him.

“Fine,” Connor says eventually so soft Jack barely hears him, and they both drift off to sleep.

Jack wakes up alone to the shower running in the en suite and Lenny literal centimeters away from his face. “Okay, you’re kinda being a creep, bud,” he tells the dog but pets him anyway.

He told his PT that he’d get at least one long run in to get his endurance up over the weekend, and figures this is as good as time as any. He’s not hungover, and he could honestly use the alone time, anyway.

As much as he’s begun to value Connor’s friendship, being waist-deep in his shit with his parents is really starting to wear-on Jack a little. Like—he wishes that this weren’t the case, but he figures, or at least from his experience, most queer people have at least a little trauma associated with finding their identity and coming to terms with it, and it fucking sucks, but seeing someone else’s shit play out really is bringing back a lot of things for Jack that he’s either pushed away and tried to heal from. So, he can use an hour or so by himself to just decompress and get his head on straight. Think about himself and not Connor.

He changes into his running shorts and sneakers and just decides to forgo a shirt because it’s humid as shit this time of year in Toronto, so he’d just ruin one anyway. As he’s fishing through his suitcase looking for his disgusting running hat to throw on backwards to keep the sweat out of his eyes, Lenny comes and sits near his feet just staring up at him expectantly.

“What?” he asks Lenny patting him on the head after he fucking finally is able to pull his hat from the wreckage of his suitcase. “Does Connor usually take you with?”

Lenny, of course, doesn’t answer, but he tilts his head to the side, and Jack thinks fuck it, he’ll find his leash and take him on an adventure. Why not? He makes sure to text Connor on his way out so that he doesn’t freak when Lenny’s not there. Dude would absolutely implode if he thought for like one second that Lenny was missing.

He’s a big music guy, always has been since he was old enough to debate the merits of classic rock with his grandfather on the deck of their Cape Cod house. His grandpa would get the record player out, and Jack would usually, even before he was old enough to care, have an opinion just to be contrarian.

Music he thinks, no matter how much or little you pay conscious attention to it, has an importance in everyone’s life. It’s the soundtrack to your successes, your failures, your ups, your downs, your good days, and your bad. It sets the tone for who you are at that moment, and it’s something that can easily transport you to a time and place—like just listening to late 2000s alternative will bring him back to Ann Arbor, make him remember who he was at 15.

Jack loves music. Loves what he makes him feel, even when he doesn’t want to feel it. But there are times when he needs to be alone with his thoughts. When he needs to feel the quiet in his head and just let himself sink into that feeling.

So, he puts his phone on the counter, leaves his airpods, and takes Lenny and a few poop bags because Connor’s got to live in this neighborhood, he supposes, and sets out to just be alone with himself for 8-10 miles, well not alone, with Lenny only, and he can’t talk back, so Jack doesn’t count it.

There’s something about running that Jack’s come to really enjoy and maybe, if he’s being completely honest, crave. He hated running growing up. It was a punishment to everything in every sport he ever played, and he just—he felt conditioned, almost, to hate it. He always thought it was a necessity and nothing more—he had to do it, but he didn’t have to like it. And even when he did it, he did intervals or short jogs coupled with weight-lifting workouts so he wouldn’t get bored. He just—he didn’t like running because there was no stimulus, and he didn’t like having nothing to concentrate on but the pounding of his feet into the pavement, his breathing, and the beating of his heart.

(Later, much later, he’ll realize that what he really hated was being alone with himself—alone with his thoughts. He couldn’t handle stripping away all the distractions—teammates and weights and machines and circuits—and just being alone with nothing to concentrate on but all the things he hated about himself—all the spiraling thoughts.)

Ironically, it’s those things that he loves about running now. He loves the rhythmic pace, the slow, steady beat of his heart, the burning in his lungs over several miles, pushing himself sure, but not the way he does on the ice—not the way that’s do or die—get that goal, or fucking lay out and die to try. He’s pushing himself right up to that line, flirting with it in a way that hockey doesn’t make him do, like if he gets too big for his britches and pushes himself too hard, too fast, too much, he’s going to pay the price. He loves knowing he has that power, to make himself almost hurt, but stop himself before he tilts into that territory.

He’s sweaty and sunburned when he lets himself and Lenny back into Connor’s condo, the guy really needs to start locking up at a minimum, but it’s his life, Jack supposes. Lenny’s spent and runs immediately to his water bowl in the kitchen before collapsing in a heap on the floor.

“You’re so weird,” Jack comments laughing before following him into the main living space. “Davo? Connor? You here?”

He doesn’t answer, but Jack can hear voices coming from the family room, so he figures Alex and Lyndsey must be back from the Stromes.

“Oh,” a guy with Connor’s face says when he sees Jack eyes flittering between his bare chest, short shorts, and eyes intermittently. He’s wearing a dress shirt and slacks and has to be Connor’s older brother, Jack would assume.

“Hey, Jack,” Connor greets from behind his brother eyes doing the same fucking thing, looking at Jack’s bare chest, shorts, face, and then back again. He feels completely exposed at this point, and it takes all his effort to not try to cross his hands over his chest or shrink himself. “Uh, how was the run? Lenny seems pooped.”

“It was good,” Jack replies awkwardly holding out his hand to Connor’s brother. “I’m Jack?”

“Oh, shit, sorry,” he replies shaking Jack’s hand and giving Connor a dirty look. “That was rude; you just caught me off guard. I’m Cam; I think we met—”

“At the Draft?” Jack offers shrugging a shoulder.

“Uh, yeah,” Cam replies easily. “Or the World Cup? Who can remember? It’s nice to see you.”

“Yeah, you too. I think I’m going to shower, Connor, if you don’t need me, or—” he starts because he really doesn’t want to stick around to get accosted by yet another member of Connor’s family.

“Yeah,” Cam answers for Connor, who’s suspiciously not looking at either one of them and just tasking himself with playing with Lenny on the floor. “Sure, no worries—I just—I know we don’t know each other, but hopefully we can get to know each other, and I just want you to know—I want both of you to know,” he looks at Connor who’s still not participating in this conversation. “I want you both to know that I respect the shit out of you, Jack. I don’t know what exactly you said to our parents, but you made an impact, and you stood up for Connor and for yourself, and you didn’t back down, and that’s impressive, man.”

Jack doesn’t know what he was expecting him to say, but that wasn’t it. “Uh, thanks?” he squeaks out.

“I’d hug you,” Cam laughs. “But, I don’t think that would be enjoyable for either of us with all that sweat you got going on, and I have to get back to work and can’t ruin my shirt.”

“Raincheck?” Jack chuckles trying to play it off, but he’s rarely felt more uncomfortable.

He laughs at that probably more than the joke was worth. “Alright, I remember Stromer saying you were supposed to be funny. Definitely raincheck on the hug.”

Jack smiles at that, thinking maybe Cam somehow got to be more normal and less awkward than Connor, or he just doesn’t give a fuck because he’s older and rolls with it. No matter, he seems more chill. “Cool. I’m sure I’ll see around. Connor, babe—” he remembers suddenly that he was probably supposed to let him know where Alex and Lyndsey went. “Alex and Lyndsey went to Stromer’s parents to clean up and have breakfast, just FYI. They said they’d be back in the afternoon.”

It’s still early plenty of time for them all to get their lives together before the rehearsal dinner.

“Is this thing tonight going to be as insane as last night?”

Connor snorts at that standing and coming to stand near Jack finally joining the conversation. “Nah, I think it’s just the wedding party and some family members—not all of Mississauga and Erie,” he rolls his eyes. “The Stromes know everyone. Did Brinksy say when they were going to be back or if they wanted to do lunch with Mitch and Steph?”

“Uh, no?” Jack rolls his eyes this time. “Was I supposed to ask them that?”

“Did you not get my text?”

“Uh,” he rubs the back of his neck a little sheepishly. “I left my phone here, and they were already gone anyway.”

Connor chuckles at that hand coming to settle on Jack’s lower back, and he’s sweaty and hot underneath Connor’s touch and it takes everything in him not to flinch away under Cam’s gaze. “Wow, bold. Glad you didn’t get lost.”

“I was banking on Lenny knowing where he lived,” Jack jokes lightly.

Cam laughs at that, “Good luck with that, man. That dog’s a lot of things, but intelligent—”

“Hey!” Connor protests. “Be nice,” he tells his brother. “Lenny does his best!”

“Uh-huh,” Cam replies still laughing.

“Okay, sorry,” Connor turns to him then seemingly finally remembering he was there still dripping. He presses a kiss into Jack’s cheek flicking his hat up with his thumb. “Go shower, you kinda stink.”

“Yeah, because I haven’t been trying to tell you that for the last 15 minutes,” he tells him pointedly smacking a kiss back falling into Connor’s space because he hates to be outdone, okay? It’s one of his toxic traits.

“Quit it; I don’t want to shower again,” Connor tells him but he’s laughing fondly.

“Nice to meet you, Cam. I’ll see you around?” Jack says as he moves towards the stairs.

Cam waves to him as he leaves because he’s a McDavid, “Sure thing. Have fun at the wedding!”

Jack grabs his phone off the counter as he goes so he can plug it in. He doesn’t really want to root around in his bag for his charger, so he opens the drawer of the nightstand on the usually unused side of Connor’s bed. Jack always keeps a spare charger in there for overnight guests, because he’s considerate like that, and thinks Connor may too, if he thought of it.

There’s no charger in the drawer because that’s how Jack’s life has been working lately, and it’s empty but for a picture frame that’s placed so the picture is facing down in the drawer. He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help but being curious, knowing that there’s nothing Connor could have that Jack wouldn’t own something more embarrassing than.

It’s an old picture. In it, Connor’s still got that Bieber haircut that he was sporting at their first World Juniors in 2014. It wasn’t the look, in Jack’s opinion.  But he looks happy, happier than Connor remembers him looking at that time, albeit Jack had never really met him off the ice at that point. He does remember, though, how fucking scared Connor looked. They used to talk about it sometimes in Ann Arbor—like damn, is that just McDavid’s face, or—but he doesn’t look scared in the picture.

He’s got his arm around another kid who looks around the same age. He’s got long-ish sandy brown hair, kinda WASP-y in a way Noah would have been if he spent all four years at a prep school.

He’s pressing a kiss into the side of Connor’s 15-year-old face, and it hits him all at once that obviously, fucking obviously that’s gotta be Gabe. And, it’s jarring a little because as much as Connor’s referenced him and so have some of the other guys, he’s never really felt like a real person who Jack could picture. But here he is, equally young, and acne-filled, and both of them look like they’re in love. Jack should put the picture away, back facedown and slam the drawer shut—but he can’t force himself to look away.

They broke up two years ago, and Connor still has this? Jack wonders idly how long ago he took it off the bedside table for it to live in the drawer.

The thing is, Jack knows what it feels like to have his heart broken. But, he still doesn’t—he doesn’t understand how it feels to be in love. His heartbreak was self-induced, a painful long-burning fire that almost destroyed him. Even when he was convinced he was happy—even though he loved Cassidy, he was never in-love, not like this, and it’s crazy to think that Connor had that, and it blew up in his face. Jack has so many questions, and yet, he knows it’s not his place to ask.

It’s just—there’s so much about Connor that Jack doesn’t understand. Like how can someone be so far into the back, back, back, of the closet publicly, and like kind of privately too, and but then be in a relationship that long? Of course, Jack doesn’t really know much about the relationship, namely how it went south—but it seemed like Gabe and Connor were happy for a long time, and he fit in with Connor’s friends, and Connor’s parents even eye-rollingly put up with him. So, how is it that Connor seems like he’s regressed since then? Like how could he be in a gay relationship for so long, but never come to terms with being gay? Jack doesn’t understand.

And, it’s not his place to judge, and he’s not judging—not really. He’s just confused, is all. By all of Jack’s accounts, Connor’s starved with touch and intimacy, and like he gets it’s been a while, but—he doesn’t know. He’s just curious about how that kid in that picture became McJesus, a socially awkward, reverent, pain in Jack’s ass—who feels so fucking deeply and is so fucking earnest, that Jack doesn’t know what to do other than protect him at all costs. He doesn’t seem like someone who made it work with another person for seven-fucking-years, is all. Like that’s a long time for any relationship to survive, but a high school relationship? That takes commitment and perseverance—and just plain understanding and grace for one another. Jack definitely didn’t have that in him at 15, or 18, or even 25, for that matter—he may not have it even now, he doesn’t know.

He sticks the frame back in the bedside table as he found it facedown, but he thinks about it despite himself the entire time he’s in the shower, when he’s deep conditioning his hair, and when he’s trying to dig out the least wrinkled t-shirt in his suitcase. He just—he can’t leave it alone, and he knows it’s dangerous.

“Burgers?” Connor asks when Jack finds him on the deck throwing a ball to Lenny after he makes his way downstairs. “Mitch suggested Thai, but I figured I’d want a burger as big as my head after running so long in this heat.”

Jack shrugs, but he appreciates Connor looking out for him. “I could eat. Cam leave?”

“Yeah,” Connor says not looking at him continuing to distract himself by throwing the ball to Lenny. “Sorry about that—kinda awkward. He talked to my parents after everything last night, and he just came over to make sure we were okay.”

Jack doesn’t understand the use of the word “we,” but he chooses not to try to have Connor unpack that right now. “Is he cool?” he questions instead hesitantly because he obviously seemed like it, but what does Jack know?

“Uh, yeah? You didn’t get that from him trying to hug you?”

“I dunno, man. You said your parents were chill, remember—"

“Okay, point,” Connor tells him rolling his eyes. “But, Cam’s actually cool. He’s like—I can tell him anything, no judgment. It’s just hard, sometimes, because he doesn’t really get all that I’m going through? So, it’s more of a me thing than a him thing?” Connor pauses then considering whatever he’s going to say next for a few long moments. “I don’t know what you said to my dad yesterday when I was still downstairs, but—”

“Sorry, shit,” Jack interrupts because he knows it wasn’t his place, and Connor has to know that he didn’t actually intend to blow up at him.

“No, listen—I don’t know if you got through to him, but I think he’s at least thinking about it in a different way. Like—at the end of the day, I’m not going to change, and they either have to accept me or accept that I can’t be in their lives in the same way. I can’t—I won’t put up with them being passive aggressive, y’know?”

“I still shouldn’t have said anything or inserted myself. It wasn’t my fight to fight,” Jack tells him seriously. “I know you can take care of yourself.”

“I can,” Connor agrees looking down. “But, I never do,” he admits. “So like maybe you shouldn’t have, but I’m glad that you did. I think that’s becoming a theme, eh?”

Jack thinks about that for a minute. “Connor, I—” he starts and stops. “I mean this in the nicest way possible dude, but like I think you need to start being more deliberate with the way you handle your problems, because one day it’s going to snowball fast and crush you. You can’t—I just—it seems like you just let things happen to you.”

Connor looks up at him then and finally makes eye contact. He looks a little startled by the comment, “Certain things, sure. I guess that’s true. I just—” he takes a breath. “I don’t like confrontation.”

“No judgment—just one day you’re going to avoid something, and it’s going to blow up way worse than all this other shit, y’know? And, we’re friends, Connor, and like I care about you, and I don’t want to see you get hurt. But you can’t rely on other people to figure things out for you or make the first move or whatever. Like how long have your parents been acting like that? Because Alex made it sound like it’s been like that since he’s known you at least.”

Connor nods slowly still looking at Jack, which is kind of surprising. “Yeah, it’s been building, like I said. And—yeah, I guess I don’t know how much longer I would have just chosen to ride it out? I mean that’s all fair criticism, Jack.”

Jack shakes his head because that wasn’t his intention. “I’m not criticizing you, Davo. I’m just—I hope you can learn something from this—we both should learn something for this. I need to control myself, and I can’t just project my own shit onto other people’s own problems because I’m feeling wounded. And, you need to confront your own issues before they spiral out of control. You can’t keep ostriching and hoping things go away. So, like—” he laughs a little because it’s fucking ironic. “We need to stop acting like the way the media’s always stereotyped us—I’m not a garish-American-loose-fucking-cannon, and you’re not a sheepish-good-Canadian-boy.”

“Yeah,” Connor agrees slowly after a minute looking away from Jack then just as Jack can see a little moisture start to accumulate in his eyes.

“Are you okay?” he lets himself ask because damn it’s already been a long weekend, and it’s day two.

“No,” Connor replies shrugging one shoulder voice heavy. “But I’ll get through it. And, I—I mean it sucks to hear, but I know you’re right.”

Jack doesn’t give a shit about being right, but he feels like it’s not the right moment to put up a fight, so he just stands there watching Lenny in the yard for a minute. “It’ll get easier. I know—I mean I have a great relationship with my parents, and so I can’t say from my own point-of-view, but a lot of people, queer people, straight people, alike, have strained relationships with their parents. Sometimes, you have to separate yourself from your family if they’re toxic or they’re not good for you, Connor. Like—it sucks, Davo. It sucks, so much. But you have so many other people around you who care about you—look at how much Stromer’s parents went out on a limb for your yesterday—like if your parents don’t want to get on board, fuck ‘em. You’re better off.”

“I get that in theory,” he tells Jack still looking straight ahead so Jack can’t see the tears, but he can hear the wetness in his voice. “But, I—it’s stupid.”

“C’mon, man,” Jack murmurs sitting down next to him and knocking their shoulders together. “You can tell me whatever. I’ve always done and thought worse.”

Connor takes long steadying breath, “I—I’m good at winning, right? Like I’ve been successful at almost everything in my life—and to think I can’t even get along with my parents, that not only have I failed them, in their eyes, but I failed in keeping our relationship strong? I mean I’m not that kind of person. I’m the kind of person who is loyal and—fuck—”

He’s right, Jack thinks a little angrily, that is fucking stupid. “You need to stop framing everything like that—like you can’t win at being someone’s kid, Davo, Jesus. For once you need to put your own mental health and well-being first, and for what it’s worth? I think they’re going to come around, and even if they don’t, it’ll be okay.”

“It’s hard to see that now,” Connor says eventually. “It just—it feels like the pain’s never going to stop.”

Jack’s been there, is the thing. Not about this specific thing, but he’s been so hurt before, that it’s been difficult to be able to even imagine it ending. Like the pain is so fucking palpable it’s the only thing that matters.

He wraps his arm around Connor then humming slightly knowing that there’s nothing that he can really say or do that can make the pain go away. Connor just has to work it out in his own time.

Lunch with Mitch and Steph is subdued, so subdued that Jack kind of regrets even going. It’s obvious that they don’t know what to say, and as much as Jack appreciates both of their talents at lightening the mood, Connor is simply not having it. He looks like he’s about two minutes from crying into his fries the entire time, when Jack reaches over to still his shaking knee, he physically flinches away and gets up abruptly from the table mumbling about going to the washroom and not even apologizing, which is just fucking as out of character, as Jack’s ever seen him.

“Fuck,” Mitch mutters watching him go. “I’ve never seen him like this.”

Jack shakes his head. “We had kinda another downer conversation before we came, so that’s probably partially my fault. I think—I think he’s going to be working out the sting from yesterday for a while.”

Mitch nods and starts to show him pictures of Zeus trying to play with a squirrel in Marns’ parents’ yard, and it does the trick to get them laughing and relaxing and feeling a little better. But, when almost 20 minutes passes, and Connor hasn’t come back yet, Jack starts to get a little worried.

He’s about to get about to try to find Connor when Mitch beats him to it. “I’m going to go check on Connor. See if he’s okay,” he tells them standing.

Jack’s kind of relieved, he’s not going to lie—he feels like he’s really running out of shit to say to Connor, and he also figures Marns, as one of his best friend’s, while he can’t understand exactly what Connor’s going through, he understands how he reacts to conflict.

“So, you look exhausted,” Steph tells him seriously as they watch Mitch go.

Jack shrugs, but she’s right. He feels emotionally spent already, and it’s only Friday.

“Mitch will get through to him, he usually does,” Steph utters shrugging. “Just sucks that every time we see you guys the world’s on fire. Like what gives?”

Jack snorts at that because it’s so fucking true. “Well, let’s just hope we can put this shit behind us and have a nice weekend. I don’t think Connor wants to look back at Dylan and Alexis’s wedding and think about how shitty his parents have been.”

“You too,” she says softly to that. “It’s been taxing on both of you,” she tells him pointedly.

“I just—” Jack starts scrubbing a hand over his face, and he probably needs to shut up. “It’s—weird? Like it’s so new, and I—I don’t know what he wants from me all the time, y’know? Like I don’t know his cues yet, and I keep fucking it up and making it worse.” It’s pretty close to the truth, if Jack thinks about it.

Steph frowns at that twisting the straw around in her drink a little absently. “Being in a new relationship is hard, but like—if you get through this, you can get through a lot. Like this is the shit you have to experience to know it’s real.”

Jack can feel his face do something close to cringing, and he tries to reign it in before he blows this entire thing wide open. “I’m just frustrated,” he admits and that’s the truth and exactly what he’s feeling in the moment.

“Oh, Jack,” she sighs giving him a pitying expression he definitely doesn’t deserve.

“It’s whatever,” he replies eventually.

She opens her mouth to say something else, but the waiter interrupts them, thank fuck. Jack takes the opportunity to change the topic to how awful the speeches are going to be at the rehearsal dinner and how drunk they’re going to get while Mitch and Connor are off doing their groomsmen duties.

Mitch and Connor reappear eventually both looking tired, but Connor looks a lot calmer. He’s laughing and shoving at whatever Marns is saying as they round back to the table.

“Sorry,” Connor says softly when he sits down leaning in Jack’s space and for two heart-stopping seconds Jack thinks he’s going to kiss his check even though they’re in public. Connor doesn’t; he just leans in and pinches Jack’s neck a little leaving his hand there.

Jack just shrugs, not trusting himself to speak.

On top of everything else, Connor’s giving a speech tonight, apparently. He tells this to Jack when he starts pacing back and forth over every square-inch of his condo after they get back from lunch.

“Since when?” Jack asks because no one’s thought to mention this to him.

“I—” Connor finally stops knocking his foot into his coffee table and wincing. “I like promised a while ago? Dylan’s mom asked me, and I just—I wasn’t going to say no to her, Jack. I couldn’t. And, like I want to—I want to be there for Dylan, and I just—” he sighs deeply blowing out a breath. “I’m good at this.”

No, you’re fucking not. Jack wants to say, but his filter thankfully is functioning today, and he doesn’t open his mouth. Jack thanks his lucky stars.

Jack’s not trying to be a dick, he’s not. But, look—maybe he doesn’t know Connor as well as Stromer does or Mitch, or his buddies up in Edmonton. But Connor obviously doesn’t like the spotlight. It’s a necessity for him, at best. It comes with the territory of being who he is, and while Jack can see that he’s come to accept it, he hasn’t embraced it.

Look, Jack literally was captained by Connor at the World Cup—he’s been in a room that was Connor’s, and Connor’s a great leader; Jack can admit that now. But, he’s not the loud, speech-giving, tough love kind of captain. He’s a lead-by-example, pull you aside to check on you, send your girlfriend a birthday card and flowers kind of captain. He’s the kind of captain that remembers your kids’ birthdays, but he’s not the kind that’s going to go out of his way to scream and call people out. That’s not him.

And, yeah he’s gotten much better at talking to the media, but it’s not like he enjoys it. It’s not like he likes letting people in and talking to them, or whatever, and Jack wishes—he just wishes someone would sit him down and tell him he can stop trying to fake it til he makes it. Stop trying to be someone he isn’t—because the kind of person he is, is totally fine. Being shy, having social anxiety—none of that is a weakness unless you paint it as one.

Jack wishes Connor would just start setting his own boundaries with people. It’s okay to say no to things that make him uncomfortable, that give him anxiety, and just because Jack knows he’s capable of giving a nice heartfelt speech about Stromer and Alexis, doesn’t mean he has to, if it makes him uncomfortable. They know he loves them. He doesn’t need to do anything to prove it.

“It’ll be fine,” Connor tries to assure him then. Jack doesn’t know which one of them he’s trying to convince.

Jack sighs himself then because he knows it’s not his place to talk Connor out of this. “So, did you already write it?”

Connor blinks at him rubbing the back of his neck sheepish. “I’m not—I’m not, not a planner, but I’m not a planner.”

Because that makes sense, “What?” he asks rolling his eyes kicking Connor in the shin from his seat on the couch.

“I just kinda let life happen to me? Isn’t that what you said earlier?”

Well, he’s got Jack there. “Yeah, but this is kind of different, Davo.”

He shrugs then lowering himself to sit next to Jack. Fucking finally. “I was going to do it, and then every time I sat down and tried to y’know, say something—and we were in a bad place, and it hurt—it hurt to talk about how we used to be, and I just—” he wrings his hands together. “The thought of putting that all into words and packaging it for all of Dyls’ and Alexis’s family, gave me so much anxiety, I just—I shelved it.”

“You shelved it,” Jack parrots back in almost disbelief.

“I don’t know—sometimes, actually, y’know, I’ve always been this way. If something stresses me out, or gives me anxiety, I just procrastinate it and put it off as long as possible until I can’t possibly put it off anymore, and it becomes a necessity to finish, and then I’m more worried about meeting a deadline or getting something done than like being worried about it. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” Jack concedes easily. It actually makes perfect sense. “Do you want help?”

Connor shakes his head standing, “I’m just gonna—” he gestures to the stairs. “Make yourself at home. I’m sure Brinksy and Linz will be back in a bit.”

“Okay?” Jack says but it comes out like a question. “I’ll just be here? Let me know if you want to practice on me?”

“I’ll let you know,” Connor tells him slowly as he retreats up the stairs leaving Jack staring around his living room wondering how his life has gotten this out of control.

Eventually Lenny finds him sitting there staring at Connor’s blank TV and whines until Jack finally snaps out of it enough to go throw the ball to him in the yard again. Jack welcomes the distraction because he just—he’s itching to march up the stairs and tell Connor to forget the speech and whatever obligation he thinks he has to Dylan and think about how fucking uncomfortable he’s going to be doing this—how Jack knows he doesn’t want to—Jack knows he wants to fly under the radar and not make this about him being Connor McDavid. Because the thing is, no matter how much Connor wants to compartmentalize who he actually is and who he is as a public figure, they’re the same person. He can’t escape it, and he shouldn’t have to—be that person or live up to that, or whatever. Jack doesn’t even know what he thinks about it at this point.

Jack gives him over an hour—maybe even closer to two, he doesn’t really know, until he finally gives into himself and goes upstairs to make sure Connor’s okay.

“Hey,” he greets hesitantly rapping lightly on the doorframe of Connor’s bedroom. “Are you good?”

Connor, who is now sprawled out in the middle of the bed Lenny happily at his side, just grunts a little in return. “I guess? I finished. Don’t ask me to read it out loud. I don’t want to think about it anymore.”

“Okay,” Jack replies slowly feeling like Connor’s really giving him a run for his money with the dramatics.

“Nap?” he asks then looking more exhausted than Jack had realized. There are deep purple circles under his eyes, and he’s blinking at Jack like he’s one second away from falling asleep for several years.

“Yeah, for sure. I’ll get out of your way. Do you want me to wake you up when Alex and Lyndsey get back? What time do you need to head over to the venue?”

“I got it,” he says reaching for his phone to turn on the alarm.

“Okay,” Jack says again shifting from foot to foot. He hates feeling uncomfortable and knows that if he doesn’t get out of there soon, he’s going to start trying to fill the silence with some truly questionable word vomit.

“C’mon,” Connor says patting the other pillow on his bed making Lenny look up at Jack expectantly.

Oh. “Oh,” he says out loud then looking from Connor to the door and back shrugging one shoulder. He shouldn’t. He can’t—

“C’mon, Jack, let’s just sleep for a bit, yeah?”

Jack hesitates again for another few seconds before thinking fuck it, shucking off his pants and crawling into bed, laughing slightly as Lenny crawls on top of him.

Jack’s only a little ashamed of how short it takes him to drift off after that—even when he knows the logical side of his brain—the side that he’s been ignoring for weeks—is telling him to stop getting so comfortable when they’re not putting on a show. It’s fucking dangerous.

He crashes much harder than he anticipated because eventually he wakes up to Connor shaking him awake fully showered and dressed fussing with his cufflinks. “Hey, Brinksy, Linz, and I are going to head out to the rehearsal. The dinner’s at 7. I texted you the address, and it’s like 25 minutes away, just so you can factor that in.”

“Sure,” Jack replies slowly sitting up and knuckling at his eyes. “I’ll see you there. Anything else?”

Connor shakes his head but then pauses, “Nope, just can you make sure Lenny pees before you leave, please?”

“Yep, got it. Good luck?” Jack tells him. “I know you said you didn’t want to think about it, but—”

Connor laughs at that a little sighing when he finally is able to fasten his left cufflink. “It’s almost done. First like 10 minutes of the dinner, it’s over, and then we can get drunk—or at least a little buzzed, and hey, my parents won’t be there tonight. All good things.”

Jack just shrugs a little hazy from his nap. He yawns into his hand, “Uh-huh.”

Connor hesitates then coming closer to Jack in the bed hovering slightly before pacing back and nodding. “Cool—I’ll uh—text me if you need something!” And with that he retreats down the stairs, Lenny following closely behind.

When he’s alone, Jack lets out an admittedly dramatic sigh and tries not to think about how Connor looked at him, hovering over Jack like he wanted to kiss him. It’s a stupid thought, and Jack knows that maybe both of them are getting their wires crossed with this game they’re playing. Jack doesn’t want to consider that too hard. He just needs to get through the weekend and keep his head at this point.

He lies there for a while staring at Connor’s ceiling fan trying to make sense of all the things that have happened—of all the things he’s feeling, and he can’t. He just can’t. So, eventually, he gets up, showers, tries to get his hair to look presentable, and then waffles over which suit option to wear for the better part of a half-an-hour before he’s actually at risk for being late and missing Connor’s speech. He wears his simplest option, without a vest figuring that he’d look funny next to Connor’s simple, understated blue suit—the one that he has approximately 100 versions of.

He greets the hostess with a smile when he gets out of his uber at the restaurant. It’s a nice place with a quiet, cute, little garden in the back. It’s not extremely fancy, but nice—which kind of fits Alexis’s whole vibe, Jack thinks. “I’m here for the Strome wedding?” he says but it comes out like a question.

The hostess smiles back anyway eyes blinking but not in recognition, which Jack didn’t realize he was really worried about until the moment passes. “Of course, the wedding party is still at the church, but other guests have arrived. Let me show you back.”

Steph’s already there talking to an older woman who Jack suspects is Dylan’s mom’s sister.

“Hey,” he greets her with a smile. “Long time, no see.”

She laughs, “Joan, this is Connor’s boyfriend, Jack. Jack, this is Dylan’s aunt, Joan.”

“Nice to meet you,” he tells her shaking her hand.

“Nice to meet you, too,” she says taking his hand. “It’s so nice to see Dylan have so many friends come out for this. We all know how busy everyone is with their own things, especially Connor. Do you play hockey as well, dear?”

Steph laughs into her hand at that, but Jack just smiles. Sometimes it’s nice for people to have zero expectations of him. “Yeah, actually, Dylan, Connor, Mitch, and I were all drafted the same year.”

“And you’re all still friends after all these years. It’s wonderful to see! If you’ll excuse me, I put Jim in charge of getting drinks—”

Jack laughs at that a little, “No problem, nice to meet you.”

“What do you think 18-year-old you at the draft would have thought about dating Connor?” Steph asks as they watch her wander away to find her wayward husband.

Jack shakes his head laughing again, “Uh, honestly? I think everyone knows that 18-year-old me would have shown a shitfit at even that suggestion. I didn’t even—I never even saw him as like—a person, but a potential partner? I would have rather died.”

Steph rolls her eyes but laughs, “Always with the dramatics. It’s kind of ironic now, though. Don’t you think? How far you guys have come?”

Jack shrugs looking down. He can feel the tips of his ears turning red, and the game has been easy so far because everyone has just believed so willingly—and Jack, Jack can’t understand it really. He can’t understand how anyone can look at him and Connor and think they’d be good for each other. Because Jack—he’s not who he was at 18, but he’s still petty. He’s still brash. He’s still—unable to find intimacy. And, it’s like—flattering that people think he’s past that. But, he’s nowhere near where he wants to be, and fuck—it’s getting harder and harder to pretend like he could be that person.

“Aw, sorry,” Steph says then when he doesn’t respond right away. “Didn’t mean to make blush. I think you guys are cute, but I get that it’s new, too.”

“Yeah, it’s weird, I guess? I don’t—I haven’t been in a real relationship in a long time,” he tells her to deflect, but it’s at least mostly true.

She just nods at that placing a hand on his elbow. “Let’s get a drink before everyone else gets here.”

The bartender isn’t even done pouring their drinks before the room begins to fill a little more.

“Hey,” Connor says in his ear out of nowhere, his hand tapping lightly at Jack’s lower back. Jack doesn’t jump, but it’s a near thing. “I like the suit.”

“Thanks,” Jack says turning to look at him aiming at casual. He can do this—they’ve already been doing it. “You too, I meant to tell you earlier, but y’know I—”

“Am barely coherent for several hours after waking up?” Connor finishes for him smirking a little like he thinks he’s funny.

“Rude, but I mean true, sue me. You want a drink or a glass of wine or something?” Jack asks then when the bartender finishes his drink, and he reaches into his wallet to leave a tip.

“I’m fine for now,” he responds shrugging one shoulder. “Probably best to wait until after I have to speak in front of all these people.”

“A little liquid courage never hurt anyone—within reason,” Jack tells him grabbing the glass and thanking the bartender.

“Not really my style,” Connor says simply. “There’ll be time for that later. C’mon, let’s find our table.”

“See you later, Steph,” he waves to her before turning back to Connor. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” he answers leading Jack away from the bar, and it actually doesn’t sound like a lie. “Ready to talk, and then just enjoy the rest of the weekend.”

They find their spot at a table with Alex, Lyndsey, and Mikey MacLeod and his girlfriend and chat idly before Alexis’s dad gets up to say a few words just thanking everyone for coming. Jack can see Connor chewing at his lip, and if he isn’t careful, he’s going to draw blood.

Jack’s not sure what the play is, but he knows Connor needs some kind of comfort—some reassurance that even if he gives a truly embarrassing, terrible speech no one’s going to care, and Jack’s sure Stromer’s going to love anything that comes out of Connor’s mouth. That’s who they are. So, he nudges Connor slightly setting his hand palm up on Connor’s thigh. “It’ll be fine,” he tells him echoing what Connor said himself that afternoon.

“I know,” he whispers back taking Jack’s hand anyway, his palm sweaty.

Jack squeezes his hand smiling at him, “Chill.”

Suddenly, Dylan’s mom is introducing Connor then as Dylan’s longtime best friend, and Connor’s up and tripping over his own feet to make his way to the microphone. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to believe this kid is the best hockey player in the world, full stop.

“Hi, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m—uh–Connor, the latter half of the tandem of Dylan-and-Connor,” that gets him a stifled laugh from the room. So far, so good. “Dyls and I met like a lot of the people in this room did, playing hockey as kids in the GTA. But it wasn’t until Dylan came to Erie, that we became those annoying attached at the hip kinda best friends. I was used to being the youngest in the room at that time, and it was something that I dealt with for a long time before getting to the OHL, but I don’t think I was really prepared for what it felt like to feel that isolated, as I did my first year in Erie.

“It’s kind of crazy to think how much of my life changed after Dylan came to Erie—how settled I finally felt, and that’s just—that’s just Dylan’s superpower. He’s an amazing friend. The kind of friend who grounds you, who accepts you, who surrounds you on all sides.

“When Dylan got to Erie, I desperately needed a friend. I just needed someone who saw me, and Dylan was the first person who I felt like saw through all my bullshit and walls and whatever, and just accepted me with open arms. He never put any expectations on me; never treated me differently than anyone else, and always just accepted me, as I was, no questions asked: just Davo. I’d never felt like I could be myself, not really—not until Dylan looked at me like that and trusted me emphatically to be myself, and not be the person everyone else had constructed around us.

“Dyls, is one of the kindest, gentlest, most understanding people I’ve ever met, and beyond that he’s fiercely loyal. Once he’s in your corner, he’s there forever, and you can’t get rid of him—even if you try—” he breaks off voice starting to tremble, and Jack takes a deep breath wondering idly where this all is headed.

“We’ve been through a lot together over the years—we’ve grown up together and then apart, and even when we were pushing at each other, I’ve always known that Dylan would always be there to catch me when I fell or celebrate me when I succeeded. There was never a doubt in my mind that if I needed him, he would be there, no questions asked—with maybe only mild grumbling—” that gets another big laugh from the room.

“Dylan’s always been open and kind and generous and to see him become who he is today—the person he is and what he’s been able to accomplish and how much he’s given back to the City of Chicago and here in Toronto, is inspirational. Dyls inspires me every day to be more authentic, to be more caring and open with the people in my life, and overall, he just inspires me to be a better person. I know that it’s rare to find a friend like Dylan in your life—but to find that kind of friend at 16, is almost unheard of, and I feel so lucky that Dyls came into my life when he did, and stayed, even when he didn’t have to.

“Beyond that, I’ve been able to see Alexis and Dylan build everything they have together from the ground up—from those two kids in Erie, to two amazing and accomplished adults. The love and compassion they have for each other and those around them has always been something that I’ve cherished, and it’s only grown stronger as we’ve gotten older.

“Alexis and Dylan—I’m honored to be here to support you both, and just know that this means the world to me. I wish you both nothing but happiness and joy, and I’m sure you’ll continue to raise the bar higher and higher. To Alexis and Dylan—"

When he finally finishes, Dylan pulls him into a long hug and they both cling to each other for a long time. Jack can’t help but hold his breath because holy shit. Holy fucking shit.

When Connor rounds back to the table still dabbing at his eyes with a tissue, Jack’s already standing up. “Let’s get some air, babe,” he says to Connor for the rest of the table to hear and almost tugs him out of the room.

They sit down on a bench outside the restaurant. “Thanks,” Connor says eventually as his breath evens out and the tears seem to be calming down. “I needed to get out of there.”

“You’re in love with him,” Jack says simply locking eyes with Connor. “Holy shit, you’re in love with him.”

“No?” Connor squeaks back at him.

“Connor—” Jack all but pleads. “You’re in love with Dylan.”

“I—” Connor bites his lip. “It’s complicated, Jack.”

“You’re in love with your straight best friend, dude. It’s not that complicated. It’s like—it’s a cliché, is what it is.”

“Wow, Eichs, thanks,” Connor says leveling him with a look.

“Sorry,” Jack replies softly. “I just meant—wow that makes a lot of sense, man.”

“I’m mostly over it?” he says faintly but it comes out like a question.

“Of course,” Jack agrees not calling him on it. “There’s a lot of emotion in that room, anyone would have freaked out.”

“Yeah,” Connor says rubbing his hand over his face at all the residual tears. “it’s just—hard. It’s been, yeah.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, Jack knows. But, not only is this not the time nor the place, but Jack’s not this kid’s therapist, and he’s not ready or capable of unpacking all of everything that’s Connor’s relationship with Dylan. There is one thing that he’s great at though. “C’mon,” he murmurs grasping Connor’s hand pulling him up to stand. “Let’s get you a drink. You deserve it, dude.”

Connor smiles at him, that lop-sided thing that makes Jack’s heart twist a little uncomfortably in his chest. “That’s a good idea.”

“Hell of a speech, Davo,” Marns greets cheerfully clapping Connor on the back when they make their way to the bar. Speeches have wrapped up, thank god, and everyone’s mulling around for the pre-dinner cocktail hour.

Connor just shrugs. “Lots of practice giving those captain speeches prepared me for this moment,” he tries to keep his tone light, but Jack knows Mitch can tell he’s struggling.

Marns laughs at the joke though. “Just—you know Dlys appreciates the words, man. And, even if things aren’t the same, you two are bonded for life, you know that, right?” he asks voice lowered hand now clasped gently around Connor’s forearm.

“Of course,” Connor nods again. “I’m doing my best.”

“Mitch, man,” Jack has to interrupt. “I love you dude, but can you give us some space for a bit?”

Mitch startles at that a little. Jack figures that he’s used to being the mitigator between his two best friends without interference. But Jack can see the tense line of Connor’s shoulders and the way he’s closed himself off from Mitch, his body language screaming for him to leave him to process for a bit.

Jack reaches out putting his hand between Connor’s shoulder blades rubbing in a few soothing circles, and when Mitch doesn’t seem to get the signal, he wraps his arm around Connor’s waist and kisses his cheek to really sell it. “Okay?” he murmurs pushing a stray hair from Connor’s forehead. It’s an intimate gesture.

“Ummm, sure? Yeah, I’ll just be—I’ll go find Steph. You guys have a moment or whatever,” Mitch says burning a little red on the tips of his ears and turning to find his girlfriend.

“Thank you,” Connor mutters grabbing the drink from the bar as soon as the bartender pours it. “Y’know if the whole NHL thing doesn’t work out, like an Academy Award may be in the cards.”

Jack scoffs shaking his head but doesn’t reply. It’s easy to act possessive and defensive of Connor like a worried boyfriend when he looks this pathetic and worn, but of course, Jack can’t tell him that.

“Seriously,” Connor says when Jack doesn’t reply downing half his drink in one go. “You’re so good at this, and like I appreciate it so much. Like you know you didn’t have to—”

“Stop it,” he flaps his other hand towards Connor and reaching to grab his own drink. “Like it or not, we’re in deep in this at this point, and we’re in it together. I also have a ton of experience seeing my older sister lie and sneak out of the house from an early age. She used to bribe me to help her get away with shit. I was bred for this, Davo.”

Connor snorts giving Jack the biggest grin he’s seen on his face all weekend, “What did she bribe you with?”

Jack shrugs laughing, “Literally anything: money, candy, access to PG-13 movies.”

“Nice, are you still close?”

“Yeah,” Jack replies taking another sip of his drink. “It’s hard, y’know. She’s married now, and we just live two very different lives. Like—I don’t know, we’re only four years apart in age, but it just feels like a lot more sometimes. Like, I guess it’s just hard to relate to each other when we stopped being on the same trajectory.”

“I get that,” Connor replies finishing off his drink and waving over the bartender. Jack would tell him to slow down because he probably doesn’t want to be hung over for the actual wedding tomorrow, but Jack knows he really needs this, probably. “My brother, love him to death, is an accountant.”

That makes Jack bark out of a laugh, “I could see you as an accountant, dude. Like is that not the aggressively boring job?”

“Shut up,” Connor laughs smacking Jack lightly in the stomach. “Not everyone is a born comedian.”

“Aww, babe, are you saying I’m funny?” Jack ask dragging out the words sarcastically.

“I’m saying you think you’re funny,” Connor claps back rolling his eyes at Jack, but at least he looks less worn around the edges.

They get interrupted by Dylan’s older brother then, and he ducks in to give Connor a real hug complete with a warm, gentle back tap. “Didn’t know you were such a wordsmith, Davo,” he smiles when he pulls back. “Don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.”

Connor blushes, “I guess I’ve come a long way since my first couple years in Edmonton, right?”

Ryan? Laughs at that, and Jack remembers that they actually played together for a season and some change during Strome’s detour in Edmonton. Must have been weird to be captained by his kid brother’s best friend.

“You remember Jack?” Connor asks nudging his arm because Jack realizes he must have been looming a little during their interaction.

“Sure,” he sticks out his hand, even though Jack’s pretty certain they’ve never met off the ice. Maybe at the draft? But Jack doesn’t really remember. “I’m Ryan.”

Jack takes his outstretched hand, “Nice to see you, man. Weird to see Dylan all grown up, eh?”

Ryan just snorts taking a sip of his drink, “it’s weird to see all of you grown up. It feels like yesterday that these guys were ditching school and taking the bus out to Long Island to see the games,” he prods Connor gently. “Never asked permission, just showed up and made me lie for them. And buy them food.”

Connor just shrugs laughing a little. “No regrets. I’ve never needed that statistics class, have I? And I think our moms knew the entire time.”

“Probably; they know everything,” he laughs clapping Connor on the back. “Happy you brought Jack, too, man. It’s nice to see you—settled. I know, y’know, it’s never been easy for you. But, ya’ll look happy.”

“Thanks,” he tilts his head up at Jack and smiles, and damn Connor’s finally come to play this game. “Dylan insisted, so.”

“Sounds like him,” Ryan says after a beat eyes casting down. “He just worries about you, Davo. He doesn’t always know how to show it, but y’know. It’s a journey, man.”

Jack no longer knows what they’re really talking about, but he can feel Connor tense beside him, and Jack just hopes he can keep it together this time.

“Still on it,” Connor tries to joke but it comes out dry and words get a little stuck in his throat as he tries to laugh it off. “Still on the journey.”

“It’s never ending,” Ryan smiles at him, but there’s something hanging unsaid between them, and Jack’s honestly starting to feel a little uncomfortable.

He clears his throat because playing into his brazen persona to get Connor out of shit hasn’t failed him yet this weekend. Like if people expect him to be a little rude, why not use it to his advantage? “Connor, didn’t Alex say he wanted to get a picture or something before everyone got too drunk?”

“Uh, yeah,” Connor stutters out eventually blinking at Ryan, then moving to grasp Jack’s hand as tight as he can.

Fuck. Jack tries not to physically wince because he wasn’t expecting it.

“See you a little later, okay? I keep meaning to come by to see the baby,” Connor tells Ryan now pulling Jack away.

Ryan just waves, “Sure, you and Jack can drop by whenever. Just let me know!”

“Are you trying to break my hand?” Jack mutters as soon as they’re out of earshot.

“Shit,” Connor has the good grace to look at least a little sheepish loosening his grip but not letting go. “Sorry, I didn’t—I needed to get out of there.”

“You keep saying that,” Jack replies quickly. “Connor—”

They find Alex and Lyndsey then talking to some of the other Erie guys and their girlfriends. Jack has no idea which ones they are though, if he’s being honest.

“Oh hey!” he brightens pulling Connor into a hug. “Epic speech, man. Dyls’ mom is still crying somewhere.”

Connor blushes, “Thanks. It wasn’t too much?”

“Nah,” Alex assures. “It was on brand for you guys, and I think everyone appreciated the candor, Davo. I know that’s not easy.” He turns to Jack then smiling still, “Right, Eichs? Your boy outdid himself.”

Jack just laughs nodding Connor still gripping his hand hard enough to hurt, “I mean exceptional’s his middle name, so he’s gotta live up to it.”

Connor glares at him rolling his eyes, “Really?”

Jack shrugs, “Lean into it, babe.”

Connor rolls his eyes again but smiles relaxing a little. And, Jack thinks for the first time since Connor stood up and started word vomiting his feelings, that maybe they were going to survive this weekend. The jury’s not even out, they even haven’t finished hearing the case yet.

The feeling doesn’t last. The rest of the night is fine, Jack supposes. Connor probably drinks too much, and Jack knows he’s hovering, and Alex and Lyndsey keep looking at them intermittently like they’re sensing some kind of shift in their energy.

Jack’s not mad that Connor didn’t tell him per se. But, he’s—disappointed, maybe? It’s like Jack laid it all out for him, and Connor definitely didn’t ask him to, but Jack did anyway, and he thought Connor was also being transparent. Like Jack went to fucking bat for him with his parents and with Stromer, and yet Connor didn’t feel like he had to share that detail with him? Jack assumes there has to be something to it. He knows that the issues that Connor and Dylan have had probably stem from how Connor feels.

And, like Jack doesn’t get it. Connor was so fucked up about it. He was shaking and upset and—how could he not mention that it was more than just alienating his best friend? Jack wouldn’t have judged him for a minute for falling for a straight guy. Like Connor only surrounds himself with straight white dudes, it was bound to happen. It’s like cliché as hell, but Jack gets it. Stromer was one of the first people who Connor let in, and it makes sense that he’d fall for him. That being said, Jack can’t help but wonder how long this has all been going on, and what Dylan and knows, and frankly what Gabe knew. Surely Connor had feelings for Dylan while they were still together, even if he wasn’t ready to admit it to himself. There’s probably a lot to unpack, and Jack can’t help but let his mind wander to all of the questions and possibilities and—it just feels like everything that he knew about Connor—everything that he knew about Connor and Dylan—has completely shifted on its axis. Like, without the right context he didn’t know anything.

It’s like—it’s not really his business, but it still stings that Connor lied to him, that’s what it comes down to. Jack feels wounded and even a little betrayed, and he knows he really doesn’t have the right to, but he does anyway.

“Are you guys okay?” Lyndsey asks him eventually nudging his arm when he loses the strand of conversation for at least the third time that night.

Jack shrugs taking a sip of water to buy him a second to think. “Yeah, just a long day, I guess.”

“Try not to think about Davo’s parents,” Mikey MacLeod butts in then. “It won’t do any good. They don’t deserve to ruin the weekend for you both.”

Jack takes the out easily. “You’re right,” he shrugs one shoulder glancing at Connor’s profile. He’s still avoiding Jack’s eyes. “It’s like, we can’t control them, right Connor?”

“Uh-huh,” Connor assents still not looking at Jack and avoiding the other eyes at the table, but no one calls him on it. “I’m going to use the washroom,” he continues getting up a little abruptly from the table.

“Uh—” Mikey starts glancing after him.

“I’m just—” Jack cuts him off standing up, “gonna check on him.”

The restaurant has one of those fancy bathrooms with a sitting room, foyer thing leading into the larger, more average public restroom. Jack doesn’t give a shit though. He just kicks the door stop up, letting the door shut behind him, and then flips the lock and just hopes there’s another bathroom in the regular part of the restaurant.

“Y’know, they’re going to think we’re hooking up in here,” Connor says to him pointedly when Jack rounds the corner and sees him standing leaning against the row of sinks as if he couldn’t hold his own weight.

“Let them,” Jack tells him shrugging. “I don’t give a shit.” It comes out a little harsher than necessary, and Jack knows he needs to reel it back in. He’s just frustrated. “You’re sad and drunk,” he tells Connor then. “This will all pass tomorrow.”

“I’ve never told anyone Jack—I’ve—fuck—“ he pauses making eye contact with himself in the mirror. “I’ve never even said it out loud.”

“So, we’re freaking out about this now,” Jack blurts at once and immediately regrets it. “You lied.”

“What?” Connor asks turning to look at Jack for the first time since he entered the bathroom.

“All of that shit about you and Stromer growing apart—that wasn’t the truth, Connor. Was it?” Jack knows he needs to back off, but he can’t. The emotional, combative part of him just wins out. “You lied.”

Connor bites his lip and looks down, “I didn’t really lie—I just—I wasn’t completely honest, okay? I’ve never—I’ve been doing a pretty good job at pretending that I didn’t, y’know? That I don’t have those feelings.”

Jack’s furious all of a sudden because all of this shit is just par for the course. “You’re a fucking adult, Connor. Pretending something isn’t happening doesn’t make it go away.”

Connor almost physically deflates then, and even though they’re very similar in size Jack almost feeling like he’s dwarfing Connor now, and he hates it. He shouldn’t have opened his mouth. “I know that, Jack. Okay—I do. I—fuck. I know.”

“Then why do you keep doing this to yourself?” Jack asks him then voice lower anger fizzing out of him. He’s just starting to feel sad again—sad that all of this is happening, and he can’t do anything to help, even if he and Connor aren’t that close. He just—he gets it.

“It’s an angry cycle. I don’t know. I’m sorry,” he nods at Jack then. “I should have been upfront with you about how fucking complicated this all was.”

Jack sighs at that, “I’m sorry too—I don’t—I didn’t mean to get angry. I just—it’s frustrating.”

Connor snorts a smile tugging at his lips, “I get that.”

Jack comes to stand beside him them nudging his shoulder, “You’ve stepped in some shit, Davo. A whole lot of shit.”

“I stepped in it a long time ago, and it’s been stuck to my boot, and I’ve just been dragging that shit wherever I go.”

“You need some new fucking boots, dude,” Jack tells him then half joking and half serious.

Connor doesn’t laugh though, “That’s true.”

Jack claps him on the back then and the lapse into a much less charged silence. “Someone’s probably going to eventually start banging on that door to see what’s up,” he tells Connor. “So, we should probably get back out there and socialize.”

“Yeah,” Connor agrees but stops Jack when he turns towards the door. “Eichs, I just—it’s hard to throw away a pair of boots when they’re the only boots you’ve ever owned.”

Jack can feel his face shifting into a not-so-great expression. “No one’s asking you to throw them away, just maybe you need to clean them off and not wear them every day.”

Connor shakes his head but then looks up to meet Jack’s gaze laughing a little, “Only you can make it sound that simple.”

“It is simple,” Jack retorts. “It may not be easy, but it’s simple.”

Connor laughs hard at that turning towards the door, “Let’s stop speaking in riddles and go enjoy the night.”

Jack wakes up the next morning mouth a little dry, but he’s not actually hung over, which is always a win. He knows Connor probably won’t be as lucky given just the sheer amount that he had to drink compared to Jack.

He doesn’t look over to find out though, just gets out of bed as quietly as he can, borrowing a pair of sweats from the drawer he saw Connor go into the last time he was here, and goes downstairs to let Lenny out and get some water.

“C’mon, bud,” he tells the dog faintly. “Let’s go outside.”

He lets Lenny out through the back door, pours himself a glass of water, and then tries to fuck with getting Connor’s fancypants coffee maker going. He’s foggy as fuck, like he always is in the morning and celebrates with an audible yelp when it finally starts brewing.

He just stands there blinking at the coffee maker gulping down water for a good five minutes before his brain starts to actually work. God, sometimes he wishes he could be a Mitch and just be 100% on immediately upon waking up. He can’t imagine just rolling out of bed and immediately being productive and even himself. He feels like his real personality doesn’t kick in for like several hours.

“Shit,” he says out loud then when he finally recognizes the noise he’s been hearing is Lenny scratching at the screen door wanting to be let back in.

“Sorry, dude,” he tells the dog when he slides open the door, but of course Lenny doesn’t care he just wags his tail and demands that Jack pets him.

When the coffee machine finishes brewing he pours two cups and grabs a Gatorade for them to share knowing that he can’t trust himself to carry another and not spill coffee all over Connor’s condo.

“Hey,” Connor says when Jack cracks open the door Lenny skittering inside and launching himself at Connor who’s now starfishing in the middle of the bed. “Wondered where you went.”

“I can barely think a coherent thought without caffeine,” Jack tells him shrugging a shoulder. “Sit up so you don’t spill, eh?” he asks moving to hand Connor his mug.

Connor complies easily taking the mug from Jack’s hand without a word and communing with it in a way that Jack would laugh at if he wasn’t the same exact way.

Jack climbs in next to him, and they sit in silence for a few minutes both just trying to get their bearings, Jack figures.

“So, you lied,” Jack says simply eventually when the silence has grown a little tense.

“Yeah,” Connor replies not looking at him and not denying it. “I—I’m sorry. I know—I know that I may have lost a bit of your trust there.”

Jack blinks, but he can’t deny it. “A little. I just—I gave you every opportunity—and I was real with you—and we—you said we were in this together.”

Connor sighs at that, “I did, and we are, and I—fuck. I should have told you the truth, and I regret it. I just—and this isn’t a justification or an excuse, but it’s an explanation that doesn’t excuse anything, okay—I didn’t want you to judge me, for one, and two, I just—I try to pretend it’s not a thing. I’ve been doing it for years.”

“So, he doesn’t know? You weren’t fighting about that?”

“God no,” Connor says immediately. “Stromer’s oblivious, Jack. C’mon, you know him. And, I—what good would come from telling your very straight best friend you’ve been in love with him for almost a decade?”

“A decade?” Jack asks raising an eyebrow. “Can you start at the beginning?”

Connor shakes his head at that almost spilling his coffee in the process which makes him laugh with a weird sour twinge in his voice. “I don’t even know when it started. Like I don’t know if there’s really a beginning because—I think I’ve been in love with Dylan’s dumbass for so long I don’t even remember a time when I wasn’t.”

“That’s a deflection if I’ve ever heard one,” Jack snorts in return.

Connor doesn’t rise to the bait, and Jack thinks he’s totally ruined this conversation with his sassy mouth, and Connor’s just going to shut him out for being a dick when he starts to finally let it out. “I was dating Gabe already when Dylan came to Erie. Maybe dating is too strong of a word because like—we were really sneaking around.

We got paired together to do a school project, Gabe and I, I mean, and I—I didn’t really have that many friends who weren’t hockey adjacent, and even then—I wasn’t—I wasn’t good at making friends, Jack.”

That kind of surprises Jack a little because that’s not the Connor he knows—that’s not the Connor he shows the world—the guy who so many people go to bat for.

“I think I always knew I was gay, and I just—I never thought about it. I just didn’t want to deal with it, so I didn’t. I just distracted myself with hockey and school and trying—trying to be this person I thought other people wanted me to be, and like, I dunno, Gabe played soccer, and his dad was a British expat, and like he didn’t give a fuck about hockey.”

Jack has no idea how any of that relates to him being in love with Stromer but figures he just needs to hold on for this ride.

“He was so magnetic, and I was 15, and I just—he made me feel invincible. It’s hard to explain, but like—finding someone and loving him and having him love me back didn’t erase any of the other shit in my life—if anything, it just heightened it. Like, I always felt like I didn’t belong. I always felt like there was this wedge I couldn’t control between me and the rest of my teammates, and even though the guys that year were welcoming and great—I didn’t know how to connect with them, and like there was this whole new exciting thing in my life that I couldn’t talk to them about, and I just—it made me isolate myself from them even more.

“And here comes Dylan all newly drafted and gangly and ridiculous, and he looked at me like he really saw me—not Connor McDavid, but just Connor, just Davo, and I—I’d never had a friend like that before. I never—I didn’t think I’d ever be out to anyone, except y’know Gabe, but Dylan made me feel like I could trust him, and then I did—I told someone I was gay, and the world didn’t stop, and it was through his support that I told other people, and my parents, and Gabe’s parents, and like—Dylan’s friendship allowed me to settle into myself. He taught me how to open up to people, how to make friends, and how to support people. I just—I wouldn’t be the same person if not for Dylan. I wouldn’t be the leader in the room. I wouldn’t be as kind, as forgiving. I wouldn’t be me without Stromer, Jack. I truly believe that.”

He stops looking up at Jack for the first time to make a brief second of eye contact before taking another deep breath and carrying on. “I don’t know when I fell in love with him. I didn’t even realize it was happening, and I didn’t like conceptualize it like that until Gabe and I broke up—” he stops abruptly then left-hand curling into a fist. “I just—ignorance is bliss, I guess?”

“I’m not trying to be a dick when I say I don’t understand how any of this is related,” Jack tells him seriously trying not to upset him further but knowing he probably is anyway.

Connor laughs at least snorting slightly making Lenny jump, “It’s weirdly complicated. I get it. I guess it just comes down to the fact that I—I loved Gabe. I know that I did. He was everything I wasn’t: fiery and funny and quick-witted. He always had a comeback and something to say. And he loved me fiercely, let me come out at my own pace and loved me through every stage of it, and I never felt like I deserved him. But, what I didn’t realize is that as soon as Dylan was in the picture, I started to love him more, until I was in love with him so completely and fully and so fucking encompassing that I didn’t leave any more room for Gabe.”

“Oh,” Jack sighs everything clicking into place in his brain all at once. He swallows, “That’s why you broke up. Because you loved Dylan, and Gabe felt like he was just a placeholder.”

“Yeah,” Connor nods biting his lip and looking away. “I hurt him, and I didn’t even realize it. I didn’t even think I was in love with Dylan, and then Gabe just—he left—and I was heartbroken and confused, and I missed him like a limb, but then I had to come to terms with the fact that he was right. I loved Dylan, and I loved him more, and I strung Gabe along for years, and he had to watch that—and knowing that destroyed me, Jack.

“So, I obviously needed to pull away from Dylan, and then I hurt him in the process, and then I just isolated myself, and I just—it was a downward spiral from there. That’s why our relationship got all fucked up because I just couldn’t keep my feelings to myself, and I destroyed my relationship with the most important person in my life, and I couldn’t live with myself,” he breaks off with a bitter laugh. “So, then I just had to destroy my relationship with Dylan too because I—fuck, I don’t know, I guess internally I just felt like I didn’t deserve to have any one in my life—have any one that close after how I treated Gabe.”

“Connor—”

“It’s fucked up, Jack. I’m fully aware, but somewhere along the line everything got so tangled together, and I just I wanted Gabe back, but I was too ashamed to chase him after I treated him like shit, and I blamed Dylan too—not just myself because I was a dick. And, so I pushed him away because I just—I couldn’t look at him anymore without thinking about how much I fucked up.”

“But you never stopped loving him?”

“No,” he states simply letting out a huff of air. “How could I? He’s Stromer.”

Jack has no idea how to respond to that. He has no idea what to even begin to think about that.

“I’ve never told anyone that,” Connor states then to fill the silence and something terrible begins to churn in Jack’s stomach.

“Which part?”

“All of it, Eichs. I’m good at pretending none of this has happened.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack shrugs then feeling fucking helpless. “This all blows. But, like—sometimes you don’t get to choose who you fall in love with, and like—I’m sure Gabe knows you weren’t trying to hurt him, Connor.”

“It doesn’t erase that I did,” he snaps back immediately.

“No,” Jack agrees. “It doesn’t, but you’re human, Davo. You made a mistake.”

“He paid the price though,” Connor says shrugging shoulders heaving.

“You’re being too hard on yourself—”

“Maybe, but that’s—that’s how I feel. That’s my reality,” and with that he puts his mug on the nightstand and flips face first on the bed dramatically, pillowing his head into Jack’s thigh and lets out what Jack thinks is meant to be a scream of frustration, but really is more of a whimper or a cry.

Jack’s hand settles into Connor’s hair on instinct, scratching idly at his skull in what he hopes is a comforting way. “All of this shit is a lot, Davo. Have you put any more thought into seeing someone? A therapist or something? Because like—I feel like, and don’t take this the wrong way, I think that you may need help sorting through everything to make progress and not just spin your wheels, y’know? And that’s okay—”

He flips onto his back at that blinking up at Jack, and Jack wonders for the thousandth time how the fuck they got to this point. “I’m going to find someone in Edmonton, I think. Gonna call Bobby about it. Because, you’re right—all the shit with Dylan and my parents and Gabe and like my own internalized homophobia and my anxiety, and like my mental health in general? It hasn’t been good for a long time.”

Jack only hums in response because he can feel something heavy settle in his chest. It’s hard to watch someone deal with their mental health in such an overt way. It’s like—even if Jack didn’t know McDavid, he wouldn’t—no one deserves to feel like their world is constantly crumbling all around them. Jack’s been there, and he still struggles, and he just knows what it feels like, is the thing. And, he’s just—he’s sad for Connor, but knows that not something that he should say. It’s the opposite of what Connor needs to hear.

Connor eventually starts to laugh, better than crying, Jack supposes. “What do you think it is about you that makes me want to word vomit all the time when you’re around?”

Jack smiles wryly at that, “It’s my charm. Could say the same thing about you, y’know? I guess I was too busy trying not to hate you to realize you’re so disarming.”

Connor scoffs at that, “it’s because I look scared all the time.”

Jack tries not to grimace at that because how does Connor know that they make fun of him for that? “It’s because you’re so aggressively Canadian.”

“Do you think I’ll ever get over Dylan?” Connor asks then sitting up to look Jack in the eye.

Jack just nods audibly swallowing the emotion that’s made its way to his throat. “It’s—I don’t know if it’s a question of getting over because I think you’ll always love Dylan, and that’s okay. But, I think it’s about reframing the way you think about him—because obviously you accept that it’s not a thing, that he’s straight and getting married—but he’s also your best friend. You can love him, and you don’t have to stop. You just have to realize that you can love someone else completely, romantically, and that ache in your chest when you think about Dylan and Alexis will begin to make less sense—you’ll care about it less, and you can love him like the platonic life partners you are.”

Connor doesn’t respond to that right away, just lets Jack’s words wash over the room. “No one talks about how smart you are, Eichs. Like—you really think about this stuff.”

Jack shrugs feeling a little uncomfortable. Everyone knows Jack likes to talk and has all these crazy opinions—how he loves to be contrarian, loves to play devil’s advocate. But all of that stuff he knows is symptom of him wanting to express himself—express to others all the things he picks apart, puts holes in. He’s had to think about a lot of these things—his life hasn’t been simple, and he’s had to confront that.

He feels himself blushing, “Thanks, Davo.”

“We should probably get moving,” Connor tells him shifting and tipping himself onto his feet. “I gotta check what time we have to be everywhere. I know Lyndsey has to go get her hair done, so like I should probably call to see if we can check into the hotel early.”

He’s mostly talking to himself Jack thinks so he just nods, “Want me to take the first shower?”

“Would you mind? I’m going to see what’s up with Alex and Lyndsey.”

“Sure,” he replies easily popping the cap on the Gatorade, taking a swig, and shuffling out of bed. “I got this to share. Do you want the rest?”

Connor looks up from his phone then pausing in the doorway from his bedroom to the hallway. “Sure,” he smiles at Jack. “Thank you.”

If their fingers brush for a second too long when Jack hands it over, neither of them calls it out to the other, and Jack almost bolts into the bathroom then trying not to think about it.

When Connor gets out of the shower Jack’s dressed in a t-shirt and shorts and still waffling between his two remaining suit options. “What do you think?” he asks Connor then turning to hold them up because this is his best friend’s wedding, not Jack’s.

“Uh,” he shrugs back shaking some of the water out of his hair. “Both are good. But, I guess the right one? It makes your eyes look like really, really blue,” he mumbles almost unintelligibly.

“Okay, thanks,” Jack nods to him sliding his blue checked suit into a garment bag. “What’s the agenda here?”

“Uh, we have to drop Lenny off at Cam’s, and then Lyndsey’s supposed to be at the hotel to get her hair done at 12:30, so hopefully they’ll let us check-in a few hours early. I called, and they said they had the room, so we’ll see.”

“Cool. Uh, are you okay?” Jack asks then still reflecting on their conversation earlier.

Connor nods slowly. “It’s like—I’m so happy for them, but I’m—irrationally sad for me, I guess. It’s dumb, I know. But I feel what I feel. And, like I’m happy you’re here with me, Jack. Don’t get me wrong, but I—I miss Gabe, and I don’t know. It’s complicated.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Jack assures him because he feels the same way sometimes when he does things and see things that remind him of Cass—remind him what it was like to be one half of a couple—to always have someone to call at the end of the day and take on life’s most mundane tasks with.

“We’re going to have fun. It’s going to be great, and we’re going to cherish the memories,” Connor replies steely like he’s rehearsed himself saying it—like it’s an affirmation he whispers to himself before he goes flying over the boards in an overtime game when everything’s on the line.

“It’ll be good, but it’s like—it’s okay to be a little sad too. Even if it’s not rational. But, we can drink and dance, and honestly Stromer’s going to be so busy you don’t really need to be around him if you can’t—if you don’t want to.”

“If I can’t handle it, you mean?”

“Uh,” Jack mutters biting his lip feeling caught. “it’s okay if you can’t?”

“I can. I’ll be there for Stromer and Alexis, and like—I can’t let my own shit get in the way anymore.”

“Okay, but just know—if you ever want to get out of there or take a minute or whatever, just tell me, and we’ll like pretend to fuck in the bathroom again.”

Connor rolls his eyes, but he looks slightly less depressed, “We’re going to get a reputation.”

“I already have a reputation, baby,” Jack retorts punctuating his point with two finger guns.

Connor laughs at that, “Alright weirdo. You got everything? We gotta round Lenny up and get going.”

Jack didn’t forget that Connor’s parents were coming to the ceremony, per se, he just—he was distracted by the Stromer-sized bombshell he learned the night before, and he really stopped thinking about it. But, when he and Steph make their way to the church after having a drink at the hotel while Connor, Mitch, Alex, and Lyndsey were off doing wedding party things, there they are talking politely to Mitch’s parents looking the same as every time Jack’s seen them.

“Oh,” he says out loud taking a sharp intake of breath. But it sounds a lot like fuck.

“We can—” Steph starts nudging him in the opposite direction, but it’s too late. Mitch’s parents see them, smile, and start waving them over. “Sorry,” she mutters to him. “But, it was bound to happen?”

He grimaces and doesn’t trust himself to respond so he just nods as follows her towards them.

“Hi honey,” Mitch’s mom greets Steph with a hug. “And Jack!” she says stepping back. “Nice to see you! Mitchell told us that you and Connor had been seeing each other.”

“Uh yeah,” Jack shrugs. “For a while now,” he says for lack of anything else.

“First wedding of the group,” Mitch’s dad says a little wistfully.

“How’s your ankle, Jack? Are you feeling better?” Connor’s dad asks him then totally ignoring the wedding small talk Mitch’s dad intended.

It catches Jack off guard, and he’s not sure if it’s a peace offering or another attempt to make a point. “Good. No pain, just y’know trying to get my cardio back up still. I took Lenny on a run yesterday, so at least he’s also benefiting.”

Connor’s mom’s face does something complicated, and she opens and shuts her mouth twice before looking away.

“Uh—” Jack starts because now he feels even more uncomfortable.

“It’s just Connor and that dog—”

“Yeah,” Jack laughs rolling his eyes. “He’s obsessed with him. Well, I think it’s mutual. They’re obsessed with each other.”

Connor’s mom lets out a genuine laugh at that nudging Brian’s shoulder. “That’s what Cam always says.”

Jack has no idea what to say to that. He’s so fucking tired of this song and dance. Like the snide remarks and the passive aggression and whatever? Jack doesn’t fuck with that. He just shrugs then shooting a look at Steph not even caring how it looks to Mitch’s parents. If Connor’s parents are embarrassed of him or whatever, he doesn’t give a fuck. They should be embarrassed of themselves.

“Right,” Connor’s mom says eventually looking away from the group, and Jack can see her flush slightly. Serves her right. “Is Cam watching him this weekend?”

“Uh, yeah,” Jack shrugs again, “we dropped him off before we checked into the hotel.”

“Y’know, Mitch and I are thinking about getting another dog, but we’re not sure,” Steph butts in then, and Jack’s never been more grateful that she’s with him. “Like Zeus could use a friend, but we’re not sure—”

When it comes time to sit down for the ceremony, Jack finds himself sitting in the pew next to Connor’s mom, his dad on her other side. It feels significant, like if they were dating for real, it would feel like it maybe meant something. But in this context, with the fake relationship, and the absolute mess the McDavids have made of their relationship with Connor, it just feels awkward and wrong, and Jack wishes he would have taken that shot before they left the bar. He needs it; there’s an itch under his skin that he doesn’t think he’ll be able to rid himself of all night.

“It’s good that you get along with Lenard, that you like him,” Connor’s mom tells him out of the blue, pressing a hand into the skin of Jack’s elbow making Jack jump a little. Her voice is soft, and Jack doesn’t know why she cares, but it still sounds a lot like some kind of apology. It’s hollow, anyway.

Jack turns to look at her, raising a critical brow without thinking twice. “Connor loves that dog, of course I like him. He’s the cutest.”

She doesn’t reply right away. “Not everyone’s a dog person,” she says eventually.

“No,” Jack replies trepidly. He has no idea what they’re even fucking talking about anymore. He knows it’s not about a dog. Jesus Christ. “But, it’s important to Connor, so,” he shrugs. Connor’s his friend, of course he’s going to get along with his dog, what the fuck. He’s not actually a dick.

“Of course,” she responds but looks like she wants to say something else. “I’m sorry,” she mumbles then almost inaudibly but Jack hears her loud and clear and has no idea what to think.

He shrugs one shoulder. “Maybe apologize to Connor and actually listen to him, and we’ll talk,” he quips back before he can censor himself.

She nods, “You’re not going anywhere, are you?”

Jack looks away immediately; he can’t help himself. It just hits too close to home. Jesus, he wonders how smug Connor’s parents are going to be when they break up. Fuck them. “No,” he lies straight through his teeth and can feel his jaw working. He has no regrets. None.

“I’m sorry,” she says again like it landed so well the first time.

“That’s nice. Look—I appreciate the sentiment, I guess. But this isn’t my fight. I—I don’t have much experience with this, or anything, because I’ve always had a great relationship with my parents, and I get that every family’s different, but I don’t—I don’t know what you want from me. I think—like you gotta talk to Connor about it. Apologizing to me isn’t going to fix anything.”

“Jack, honey,” she looks at him then, and she looks startled and hurt, and it’s so remarkably different from her expressions when dealing with Jack any other time, Jack is almost reeling. It feels like she’s finally looking at him. “I’m not apologizing to you because I think you’re going to fix our relationship with Connor. I’m apologizing to you because we hurt you, and that was never my intention, and it wasn’t fair to you. You’re not our enemy.”

Jack sucks in a breath then because as much as he was telling himself it wasn’t about him, it had felt personal. It felt as though they were all up in arms partially because Jack wasn’t the right person for their son—like there was something inherently wrong with him. “I appreciate that,” he replies honestly then titling his lips in a half smile; it’s all he can muster. “I’m not—” he bites his lip thinking of how to navigate this without speaking for Connor and knowing that he’s going to be dealing with the fall out after Jack’s long out of the picture, when he’s with a new guy and falling in love again—when he lets go of hurting Gabe and loving Stromer.

“I’m not trying to put a wedge in your relationship. Like—I want—Connor wants to have a good relationship with you all, and I think he thought he did, and so he has to work through that—all of you need to work through it. It’s independent of me, and like—” he breaks off before he says something stupid like happiness is not a fish that you can catch. Because he would totally unironically quote a Canadian icon to a bunch of white bread Canadians. “It’s not going to change overnight,” is what he settles on. “It’s not really about me.”

She nods at that, and Jack just prays she finally fucking lets it go, “I just hope that one day we’re able to put this behind us and all get along. And, you’re right that we have to work on our own issues, too. But, that’s what we want, Jack.”

Jack swallows buying himself some time. “I want that, too,” he blurts, and he doesn’t even know why. He doesn’t give a shit if Connor’s parents like him. Rationally, it’s of no consequence.

The priest comes in then quieting down everyone, and Jack has never been so happy to see a religious figure, well ever.

Jack’s an emotional person, on the ice and off. So, he’s kind of known for ugly crying at a lot of weddings. There’s a ton of pictures of him floating out there face even redder and blotchier than normal, having a moment (or 10) at various weddings. He leans into it, mostly. He knows it’s a stereotype, and he just aggressively tries not to care. He is who he is and seeing people that happy—well it just does something to him—makes him feel like anything’s possible.

Even when he was going through the worst of his identity crisis, wondering if he was ever going to be capable of loving someone completely, if he would ever be good enough, going to a wedding and seeing those two people profess themselves to one another, as cliché as it may be, it gave him hope. It made him feel like all he had to do was find the right person. And that of course, was a gross over-simplification. He needed to work through his own issues; no one person was going to save him from his own mental health. But, at the same time, it made him feel like it was possible for him, even when his world was crumbling all around him, and he felt absolutely broken. Jack just loves love, and that’s kind of always been a problem.

It’s like—Jack’s good at getting what he wants. He’s good at seeing the goal, shutting absolutely everything else out, and just going for it with a narrow focus that makes him seem a little—well crazy. If he’s being honest with himself, there’s truly nothing in his life that he has wanted fully and completely, and he wasn’t able to will himself to have. Except, y’know, love. And so, Jack knows part of his infatuation is that he wants it, he wants it so bad, but at the same time, he doesn’t know what it’s like and that truly terrifies him more than anything else. Like what if it’s not even worth it? But—Jack just—he has to know.

It’s not hard to be hopeful at a wedding, when all of these people have showed up to support two people like declaring that they never want to live without each other. It’s easy to get swept up in that—that feeling of two people throwing all caution to the wind and giving everything to someone else—arming that person with everything that can destroy the other. It’s a little more than blind optimism, it’s seeing two people truly commit to something with everything they have knowing it’s going to be hard, knowing it’s going to test them, knowing that there’s a 50/50 shot it’s all going to crumble around them, and then just doing it anyway because they believe that strongly in each other.

Maybe it goes without saying, then, that he tears up a little during the ceremony. He doesn’t even really try to hide it, just rubs at his eyes, and wishes he would have remembered to stash a few tissues in his suit jacket pocket.

The ceremony’s short and sweet. Neither Dylan or Alexis seem to be very into making huge speeches or making any sweeping statements, but what they do say is nice, straight, and to the point—it’s the words of two people who have been together for so long, who feel like the other person is a foundational part of who they are—that they’re a given.

And maybe it’s that—that simple statement of love that really gets to Jack. The wedding isn’t some over-the-top fairytale, romantic pinterest wasteland—it feels real and authentic, and like—that just sends him spinning a little.

At one point Connor makes eye contact with him from where he’s standing behind Dylan’s younger brother. His face does something complicated before he smiles a little miming a tear. Jack knows he’s getting the shit chirped out of him later, but he doesn’t care. He just wipes his eyes and rolls them back in Connor’s direction, which makes Connor smirk in return.

After the ceremony, everyone mulls around the church taking pictures and catching up. The wedding party eventually comes back in to take their own pictures with the professional photographer.

“Hey, mom, dad—” Connor interrupts them eventually, thank fucking god. There was only so much that Steph and Mitch’s parents could do to make everything less awkward. They burned through so many safe topics that Jack was beginning to sweat, starting to wonder when the whole thing was going to blow up.

“Hey,” Jack says to him putting his arm around his waist probably squeezing a little too tightly if the wheeze Connor lets out is any indication. “Good job standing there looking stoic, very on brand.”

Connor rolls his eyes and reaches into his suit pocket, “Still need a tissue?”

“Shut up,” he tells him shaking his head but taking them anyway. “I guess I’m predictable.”

“It was a beautiful ceremony,” Connor’s mom adds helpfully.

He locks eyes with her then, and Jack can feel the tension in the air, and he hates it. “Beautiful,” Connor repeats. “We’re happy for them. It was just what Alexis wanted.”

“It was perfect,” Connor’s dad jumps in then, and Jack’s already tired of his conversation, when Dylan’s older brother starts waving Connor back over.

“Sorry, gotta go. I’ll meet you guys at the reception, yeah—” he breaks off then eyes a little wild and leans in sticking his tongue into Jack’s mouth with no actual lead up.

Jack makes a noise of surprise in his throat, he’s sure of it, but Connor doesn’t seem to notice. He doesn’t even make eye contact with Jack, he just kisses him again, chastely this time on the mouth, squeezes the back of his neck, and disappears.

“Uh—” Jack mumbles looking down at a scuff on his right dress shoe.

None of that was okay—Connor said—fuck. They didn’t okay kissing like that. Jack never—Connor never even asked him. And like fuck him for using Jack to make his parents uncomfortable and then leaving Jack to deal with the fallout. What the actual fuck? Jack’s a human being, okay?

“Sorry,” he tells Connor’s parents then, because fuck him. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him, lately.”

Mitch’s dad just laughs uncomfortably at that watching Connor disappear back towards Mitch and the rest of the wedding party. There’s a burning in his chest that starts then, and Jack—Jack knows it’s not a good thing. He needs to calm down, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to get out in front of it.

“Are you okay?” Steph asks them when they escape Connor and Mitch’s parents finally and get to the open bar at the cocktail hour before the reception.

Jack shakes his head biting hard down on his lip trying to think before letting all the nonsense in his head spew out. “Kinda—not happy with Connor right now, if I’m being honest.”

She winces turning to flag down the bartender, “He’s being a little, uh, erratic?”

“I get he wants to prove a point to his parents,” Jack tells her then because whatever. “But, like—I’m a person, and not a means to—whatever. I’m just tired of feeling like a cog or like—an obstacle—in whatever’s happening between Connor and his parents. It’s—” he breaks off. “I mean we’re supposed to be friends, first,” Jack admits then, and it’s the fucking truth.

“I mean he guys obviously need to air it out,” she shrugs breaking to order them both a drink. “Just because he’s going through some shit doesn’t give him a right to be a dick, y’know?”

“Exactly,” Jack agrees, and he knows that from experience. He’s used a lot of his own struggles with his sexuality and his own mental health to justify some of his worst behavior, and at the end of the day, he still has a responsibility to himself and the people around him to be a good person and not take it out on anyone else. And the fucking frustrating about Connor’s bullshit is that Jack’s given him so much grace and space and whatever, and he fucking knows Connor knows that he doesn’t get to treat people like shit—like what about all that stuff with Gabe and Dylan that he still feels bad about? Like why can’t he see he’s not allowed to treat Jack poorly either?

It’s not the same thing, Jack knows. He and Connor are friends and even though they’ve been bonding and becoming closer, he knows that their relationship is pebbles compared to his relationships with both Gabe and Stromer. He doesn’t know if that makes Connor’s behavior better or worse.

He gets pulled away from the bar from a crowd of Blackhawks he doesn’t know very well, but hockey is his chosen language, so he slides into the conversation without a hitch and feels like he belongs almost immediately. It’s a nice feeling, especially with the anger simmering inside him still.

He loses track of time, when Alex interrupts the group pulling Toews into a hug.

“Hey,” Connor says coming up behind him then. “What’s going on? Got rid of my parents?”

“No thanks to you,” Jack mumbles picking up his glass and drowning the last of his drink. “I’m going to get another,” he tells the group as a whole and turns towards the bar to leave Connor with everyone else. He just can’t with him right now. He doesn’t want to say something that he’ll regret once he calms down.

Connor doesn’t seem to get the picture though and follows him to the bar. He looks confused when Jack orders himself a drink and doesn’t even so much as glance his way. Jack knows he’s being petty, but it’s better than actually yelling or getting upset at Stromer’s fucking wedding. Jack knows he has a reputation for being dramatic, and he has no intentions of proving anyone right today.

“Are, uh, we okay?” Connor asks him eventually as Jack reaches into his wallet for a few singles to tip the bartender.

“Gee, I dunno,” Jack tells him like an asshole still avoiding eye contact. “Are you going to try to suffocate me with your mouth to make your parents uncomfortable and then leave me with them again, knowing that they hate me again? Or was that like a one-time thing?”

Connor blinks at him then, and Jack can almost see the wheels physically turning in his head. “Oh, fuck, Jack, I—”

“You set boundaries, Connor. We set boundaries, and you fucking didn’t respect them at all. I didn’t—I didn’t consent to that, asshole.”

“Jack, seriously, I wasn’t thinking—”

“I get that I’ve been chill, and I admittedly inserted myself into your business, okay? But you can’t—just like treat me like an object. I—that sucked, Davo.”

“I—”

“I get that this is like not a real thing, and like it is a game, Connor, I get it—but, I at least thought we were friends with some sort of mutual respect.”

“Fuck—” Connor repeats and grabs Jack’s hand then weaving in and out of the crowd like a pro until they’re in another public washroom with the door locked behind them.

“Y’know, this seems like it’s starting to be a thing,” Jack tells him pointedly as he checks the stalls for shoes to make sure they’re alone.

“Jack, Eichs—” Connor starts pulling him in by the hand, so they’re eye to eye. “I didn’t even—I wasn’t even thinking. I—that was so out of line, Jack. I didn’t—I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have even thought about doing that without checking with you first.”

“What were you even thinking?” Jack asks them because it’s Connor who’s infamously weird about personal space to begin with.

“I dunno,” he mumbles looking away from Jack all that bravado gone in an instant. “I wasn’t, I guess. I just—that wasn’t fair to you.”

“No,” Jack huffs rocking back on his heels. “Can you at least talk to me? What’s going on up there?” he asks miming knocking on Connor’s thickass skull.

Connor shrugs flushing a deep red. “I just saw them there with you, and you were being so, you, y’know? Like crying at the ceremony like you don’t give a shit because that’s who you are, and I dunno. I just—I wanted them to see this is—who I am, or something. It was stupid.”

“You wanted to make them uncomfortable,” Jack says then because he’s ready to cut through his bullshit. “You wanted to use me being me to make them uncomfortable, to win something, punctuate your point.”

“Jack—fuck, I didn’t—that wasn’t my intention, but you’re right that’s—really, really shitty. I was wrong,” at least he sounds contrite; it’s a start.

“Look, I know maybe I was pushing you, playing this game, but I was respectful of the boundaries, and you should have at least asked me, okay? It wasn’t fair.”

“I mean,” Connor takes a deep breath. “Maybe we pushed each other, but it was—you’re right that this is a real, consequential thing with me and my parents, and I didn’t mean to but you in the center of that, regardless of anything else that’s been going on, okay? And like it’s not okay for me to kiss you when I told you we’d talk about it, and I didn’t get your consent. It was shitty.”

“Yeah,” Jack agrees but he’s still angry, and it’s fizzing out of him all at once now. “I just, I don’t understand. I—fuck, Mitch kept saying that you’re weird with space, you’re weird with this, and then you just go stick in your tongue down my throat in front of his parents, and your parents, and Steph, in a fucking church of all places, why? What point were you trying to prove that badly, Connor?”

“I don’t know,” he says eventually after the silence stretches for almost a full minute. “I just—being around you makes me feel dangerous, Jack. I can’t explain it—”

“Being around me?” Jack questions immediately because that doesn’t even make sense.

“Maybe dangerous isn’t the right word. But, it’s like I see you, be you, right? And, I dunno if I’ve said this before, but I’ve always, ever since I first started reading your press—”

“You used to read my press?”

Connor shrugs at that looking a little caught, “Yeah, I mean you were a top prospect, and everyone was saying how good you were, and then you beat us at U18s, remember? And I—I lowkey had a Google notification for your name leading up to the Draft, okay?”

That makes Jack let out a sharp, surprised laugh, “For the love of god, please tell me you don’t still do that for all your rivals—do you have a Google Alert for Chucky?”

“No, no, of course not. I was like fucking 17, and you were the first—”

“What?” Jack prompts when he cuts himself out and refuses to keep going.

“Nothing, just what I was going to say was going to make me sound like a dick—”

“Just tell me, Connor, Jesus—”

“You were the first prospect our age who I felt like could be better than me, okay? Are you happy now that I’ve insulted everyone we know?” he mumbles petulantly into the tile of the washroom floor.

Jack sucks in a breath at that. He and Connor, as much as the media tried to tie their narratives together during their draft year, had two very different experiences. Connor knew that he was destined for greatness from the time he was like 12, but it wasn’t like that for Jack at all. The hype around him grew gradually as he got older and grew into his body after going to Ann Arbor. Jack was a prospect that came from a system, and he knows without the Development Team Program, he probably wouldn’t be the player he is today. But Connor—Connor was destined to be great. It didn’t matter what route he took to get there, Jack knows that he would have ended up where he is, as one of the top talents of all time.

Even when Jack couldn’t admit it to anyone, he knew deep down that he and Connor just weren’t in the same category, in terms of the types of players they were. It didn’t make Jack any less. He still was a top player in the league, and sometimes he could outplay anyone out there, Connor and Crosby included, but he’d never be in the same category as them, ever. That’s just—that’s just reality.

Maybe a few years ago, Jack would have bristled at the thought, felt like he needed to fight and overcome the whole situation. But now, he knows it’s just not something he can control. He’s never going to be Connor, and he can only control himself, his effort, and who he is on and off the ice. Everything else is just outside noise.

Jack eventually shakes his head breaking himself out of his own internal monologue. “You thought I could be better than you?” he asks incredulously; he can’t help himself.

“Uh, yeah? Have you seen yourself play hockey? Before our first World Juniors all anyone could talk about was my strength and size, and there you were everything I wasn’t—deadlifting like 400lbs on Noah’s Instagram.”

“That’s ridiculous—” Jack snorts at him rolling his eyes. “You couldn’t have possibly—”

“I did, and then I like also heard that you were into guys too, and that— I was 16, and I didn’t—I guess I never considered the possibility that I wasn’t alone, and just knowing you were out there in Michigan or Boston or whatever, tearing it up and being into guys too, and like not giving a fuck—I dunno—” he breaks off taking a breath. “I always felt like being gay was a weakness. That it was just another thing to add to the list of why I was shy and awkward and whatever, and like then I hear about you being into guys too, and you’re like the antithesis of all those things—you were loud and funny and the life of the party, and I guess—it started a process of me reframing the way I viewed myself, I guess.”

“You know it’s not a weakness, right? Being gay isn’t, but like being shy or awkward or aloof—like I know I give you shit about it, but it’s not something to be ashamed about. That’s just you. Not everyone has to be an extraverted crazy person like me, Davo.”

Connor just shrugs then, “I mean I wouldn’t say weakness—”

“Look, I know the world rewards like charisma and outgoing personalities, especially when you’re in the public eye, but you don’t have to be ashamed of like being shy and introverted. Your dry sense of humor is funny as fuck, and like you still have a personality under there, just because it’s not front and center doesn’t mean anything—”

“I guess—I mean I’m working towards self-acceptance, I guess. But, yeah—I know you hated me or whatever, but I always wanted to know you.”

Jack blinks at that before laughing a little in spite of himself, “Jesus, I feel like I have to re-evaluate my world view.”

Connor just shrugs rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, again for earlier. I just, this is me trying, Jack. And, that doesn’t mean I get to be an asshole or whatever, so keep calling me on my shit, okay?”

“You weren’t making fun of me that day at the Combine, were you?” Jack allows himself to ask because it’s always gnawed at him a little, and he figures this might be his only shot to know the truth.

“When? What do you mean?”

“The first time we met, when you fucking waved at me like we were 85 years old.”

“No, I—” he bites his lip. “Did you think I was making fun of you?”

Jack shrugs, “I mean it was super weird, dude. Who just waves at a person like that—”

“A lot of people wave, Jack. What does that even mean?”

“It was weird! It was awkward. I just—I guess you weren’t what I expected, and it threw me off,” Jack admits. “But, like I guess I decided that day you were too awkward not to be human.”

“Wow, thanks, Eichs,” he retorts rolling his eyes but he’s smiling. “What did you expect?”

“I don’t know,” Jack shrugs. “Someone I could hate, I guess.”

“Did you hate me after that?”

“No, I guess not,” Jack concedes slowly as it almost pains him.

“I can’t believe no one’s knocked on the door,” Connor tells Jack then shifting away breaking the trance over the room. “We’ve been in here for a while.”

“I bet someone’s out there looking out for us,” Jack laughs. “Trying to help us get laid.”

“It’s definitely too early in the night to have sex in the washroom,” Connor rolls his eyes.

“For you, maybe. I’m an equal opportunity lover. When I get my chance—”

“Alright, alright,” Connor cuts him off waving his hand. “Are we okay?”

Jack sighs at that, “Just don’t—you need to think, Connor, and like don’t be a dick, man. We’re supposed to be friends, and that’s not how I treat my friends. I don’t’ know what ya’ll do up here in Canada, but—”

“You’re right, and I’m sorry, again, for what it’s worth. I wasn’t thinking, you’re right, and I didn’t mean to treat you like you didn’t matter. And, we are friends, Jack. We’re like—I’ve told you shit I’ve never told anyone, and like I want to keep doing it. I’ve never been friends with anyone who could get me like you.”

Jack snorts, “You mean you’ve never had another gay friend. You really need to expand your social circle, Davo. Sounds stifling.”

“Okay, fair, but not just that. It’s like you get that part of me, and like the pressure, instability, and everything that comes along with it. But, you also get the hockey side, and the savior of the franchise thing, and like I dunno—we’re more similar than we are different. I just didn’t know.”

Jack doesn’t really know what to make of that, so he just shrugs one shoulder, “So, no more fucking with me to fuck with your parents?”

“No, of course not, and I’m sorry again. We should just try to avoid them for the rest of the night, though. I’ll do my best.”

Jack nods because it’s probably a solid plan, “So, are you going to try to kiss me again?”

Connor blinks at him at that, “I—”

Jack knows it was the wrong thing to say as soon as it left his mouth, “I just mean, you were the one who said we’d re-evaluate it.”

Connor doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Jack idly wonders why he always has to push and push and whatever for literally no reason. “I mean, maybe one or two to sell it? I’ll ask first though, I swear.”

“Cool,” Jack tells him rocking back on his heels. “I never cared, but it was like a respect thing, y’know?”

“Right,” Connor agrees. “I don’t know if we’ll really need it. Everyone seems pretty convinced.”

“I’m a great actor,” Jack tells him taking his hand and tugging him towards the door. “Let’s get drunk.”

They rejoin the party, and no one seemed to notice their little break from the festivities until Marns corners him when he’s talking to Alex’s wife at the end of the bar trying to get a fresh round for some of the guys.

“So, do you want explain why you and Connor keep sneaking into public restrooms and locking the door, or—” he asks Jack giving him his patented shit-eating grin.

Lyndsey just laughs at that, “And that’s my cue to leave.”

Jack tries to protest, but she just rolls her eyes and disappears towards some of the other bridesmaids.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jack tells him shrugging.

“C’mon I saw you earlier and yesterday. Connor’s parents are here, Eichs. I know you don’t like them, but you guys shouldn’t be hooking-up in public when they’re around—”

“First of all, Marns, chill the fuck out. Second, I don’t dislike them, they dislike me. Third, we weren’t hooking up, not that it’s any of your business. We were just having a private conversation.”

Mitch snorts, “Jack, you seriously expect me to believe—”

“Mitch, think about it, dude. You’ve known Connor how long? And how many times has he hooked up in a semi-public place?”

“Uh, zero, but I also know you—” Marns insists.

“Yeah, and I’m not going to pressure my boyfriend into having semi-public sex when he clearly would never, ever be down otherwise, okay? Who do you think I am?”

“Right, but you guys have been—I’ve just never seen Connor be so into someone before, like his body language, whatever—I know what I saw.”

“Well, you didn’t see anything. We were talking, and we wanted it to be private. It’s been a tough weekend,” Jack admits truthfully.

“Oh,” Mitch seems to catch on then. “Are you guys okay?”

Jack shrugs, figuring that they’re going to “break up” anyway, there’s no use in being too optimistic. “Yeah, we just didn’t want to have a public argument, man. Especially with Connor’s parents here.”

“Okay, I guess that makes sense. I kind of liked the idea of a torrid love—”

“Whatever you were going to say, can you not?”

Marns just laughs, “C’mon let’s do a shot!”

Jack won’t fight him on that, and just lets Mitch order whatever is his shot of choice at the bar while the other bartender fills his order for another round.

The night doesn’t get away from him, not in the way he’s experienced before, if he’s being honest. But, he lets himself sink into the alcohol, chill, and have fun. These aren’t his closest friends, but he knows a lot of the guys who seem to be popping in and out of his space throughout the night. He, Alex, and Kane even do shots to commemorate America, because it’s only right.

He drinks, he dances, and he tries to forget about the fight that he and Connor had earlier. He’s not going to lie, though, he’s glad that this whole thing is going to be over soon. Jack will go back to Boston, Connor will stay here, and in a few weeks or a month or so, they’ll slowly start telling people they broke up, and Jack will never have to think about it again.

Jack’s at the bar talking to Stromer’s little brother a little loudly about developing his leadership potential when Connor finds him hip checking him slightly. “Hey, Matty,” he greets the youngest Strome, not slurring but dangerously close, Jack thinks. “Dance with me?” he asks Jack not letting Matt even respond to him. The music switched to some slow jams a few minutes ago, and it’s mostly couples out on the dance floor.

“Uh,” Jack hesitates looking at all the people shuffling together in the middle of the room. “Fine,” he relents shrugging one shoulder and waving to Dylan’s brother as Connor leads him away by the hand.

He’s never slow-danced with another guy before, he realizes with a slight lurch as they make their way onto the dance floor. For as long as he’s been out, he’s never—he just hasn’t had the opportunity to do such a simple thing with another guy. He’s never really wanted to either, if he’s being honest. It wasn’t important to him to have those homonormative moments, really. It’s not something he really yearns for or puts too much stock into. On the list of things he wants from a relationship, he doesn’t think it would be in the first 100, at least. He wonders idly if Connor’s done this before, and doubts that he has given everything he knows, so maybe they’ll have this weird first together.

He feels awkward at first when Connor drops his hand, and they turn towards each other and both lock eyes like “hey, what do we do now?”

Connor just blinks at him eyes filled with a chirp that doesn’t leave his mouth and wraps his arms around Jack’s neck like he knows what he’s doing, and then he has the audacity to laugh at Jack when he lets out a noise in surprise.

Jack settles his hands on Connor’s waist and rolls his eyes, “Shut the fuck up.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Connor retorts still smiling at Jack like he’s fucking hilarious.

Neither one of them have much rhythm, but they manage to sway to the music for a few minutes, and it’s nice—Jack can admit it.

“Hey, Eichs—” Connor says eventually into the comfortable silence that’s fallen between them. “Thanks for doing this, again. I know—I mean it probably was a little bit more complicated than we could have anticipated.”

Jack shrugs looking away because he may be a little drunk, but he’s still uncomfortable with the scrutiny. “It’s not a big deal, dude.”

“It kinda is though,” Connor insists. “Thanks for being a good friend, even when I wasn’t to you, even when—” He cuts himself off.

“What?” Jack prompts then.

“Even when I know you didn’t want to. You committed to helping me, and you’ve—I don’t know—taken everything in stride. Like, it’s so above and beyond, Jack.”

“I kinda inserted myself anyway—”

“Yeah,” Connor says after a beat looking at Jack curiously, and Jack can see clearly that his eyes are a little glassy, and maybe he needs to cut off this conversation before it gets away from him. “Why did you do that?”

“I—I told you, you looked at me, and I—I’m impulsive,” Jack sighs.

“We weren’t even friends though, Jack. It goes beyond that—”

“I don’t know, Connor,” he admits then.

Connor shuts up after that, seemingly thinking about everything that was just said or maybe even what wasn’t said.

“Hey,” he whispers eventually causing Jack to finally meet his eyes. “Uh, can I kiss you?”

Jack blinks at him resisting the urge to look around to see if anyone’s looking at them but decides it’s better if he doesn’t know. “Yeah,” he whispers back, “if you want.”

They move toward each other, then, at the same time, meeting in the middle. It’s a little awkward and very, very chaste, especially compared to all Jack’s previous dancefloor kisses—which mostly consisted of drunk makeout sessions with randos in clubs in New York and LA, and while those were great—some really, really great—this is nice too.

This isn’t a kiss you give someone when you’re lonely, drunk, and horny—it’s a kiss you give someone you know, and you trust—and Jack tries not to stick on that thought too long.

It’s not a long kiss, and there’s only a small hint of tongue, and it’s probably the most benign kiss he’s ever shared with any other human being, if he’s being honest. When they surface for air, that’s it. Connor leans over and presses a kiss to Jack’s forehead and smiles at him like they’re sharing a secret, and Jack tangles his hand in Connor’s hair for a minute before they both start laughing at nothing. If his life were a romcom, they would be having a Moment, capital letters, but it’s not really like that, at all. They just continue to awkwardly shuffle to the music until the song ends, and Jack excuses himself to use the washroom.

After he pees, he makes his way to the bar to get a glass of water because he supposes he was actually drunker than he initially thought—he’s feeling like everything’s in slow motion.

“Kelly and I are going to call it a night,” Connor’s dad tells him sideling up to him and placing his hand around Jack’s arm making him jump slightly.

“Uh,” Jack responds eloquently taking a sip of his water and leaning a little too heavily on the bar. “Do you want me to get Connor?” he asks looking to where Connor’s taken up dancing with Alexis’s great-aunt.

Connor’s dad follows his gaze, shakes his head, and claps Jack on the back, “No need. Have a good rest of your night, and can you ask Connor to let us know that you two got back to the hotel safely?”

“Uh, sure?”

“Thanks,” Connor’s dad mumbles a little in return sticking out his hand for Jack to shake.

Jack eventually does, even though he feels like the whole thing is some kind of setup. “Jack, I—we haven’t seen Connor this happy in a while, and I know we kind of got off on the wrong foot, but we’re happy that he’s happy, and the rest—it’ll come with time, we promise.”

Jack nods because he truly has no idea what the right thing to say is, and yeah, he definitely should cut himself off because he feels like he can’t even string together a coherent thought.

“Take care, okay? And we’d love you two stopped by the house before you left town, alright? Enjoy the rest of your summer,” and with that Connor’s dad’s off like he was never there in the first place.

Jack wakes up the next morning feeling like he got ran over by a truck. Connor’s latched onto him during the night, and his breath is hot and sticky at Jack’s back. He doesn’t think he’s going to throw up, but he’s kind of afraid to move just in case.

Eventually, he has to get up and pee, and the while the world spins a little bit, by the time he’s washing his hands at the sink, he knows it’s only like a 6/10 on the horrible hangover scale. He mentally gives himself a pat on the back for at least being semi-responsible. Maybe he really is maturing.

He gets in the shower right away because it never fails to make him feel more human to wash away last night’s sweat and the lingering effects of alcohol. They had a nice rest of the night, closed down the reception, and then spent a few hours at the afterparty before both he and Connor were both so tired and drunk, he wasn’t sure which one of them was going to fall asleep at the bar first.

“Morning,” Connor greets him when Jack finishes his shower and wanders back into their hotel room looking for a shirt. He presses a cup of instant coffee into Jack’s hand and smiles. “You’ll probably need that.”

Jack laughs shaking his head, “I feel like I’ve trained you well, there.”

“Uh-huh,” Connor retorts rolling his eyes stepping past Jack into the washroom. “No one should have to deal with you before you’ve had caffeine.”

“Hey,” he says to Connor when he remerges from the bathroom, looking more alert. “We did it. It’s over. No one died.”

“Yeah,” Connor smiles at him. “Made a pretty good, rag-tag team. Who would have thought?”

“Not me,” Jack snorts.

Connor shakes his head, “Hey, thanks. I would have never asked you to—but this whole thing. I think it gave me some perspective, y’know? So, thanks. And, like thanks for being my friend.”

“I’m glad we’re friends, Davo,” he tells Connor seriously then because it’s important. “You’re not getting rid of me. But, I’m fucking glad this weekend is over, dude. I’m so tired.”

“Yeah,” Connor agrees easily. “Our plan was completed successfully, and now we can relax.”

But, as Jack’s come to realize, it wasn’t that easy. It didn’t end there, and he doesn’t really know why.