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burn the straw house down

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Dylan’s good at the friends with benefits thing. Years of experience and vaguely regrettable hookups on roadies have made him pretty much an expert at finding the ideal balance of ‘friends’ and ‘benefits’, which is to say as much of the second thing as possible and as little of the first; which is why it takes him a second to react when Brad – 14:1 benefits to friends ratio, minimum – finishes sucking him off then sits on the edge of the bed and starts, like. Making conversation.

“You excited for the draft?”

Dylan stretches, lazy, his brain still that post-sex kind of fuzzy. Cup hasn’t even been awarded yet. “Why would I be excited for the draft?”

“Kid who’s going first is from around here,” Brad says, which – great, so is half the NHL. “Something Chan? Christian Chan, or Christopher, something like that.”

“...Okay?” Dylan says, when it seems like Brad’s waiting for him to comment.

“It’s kind of like the circle of life, or whatever,” Brad says, shrugging into a muscle shirt because he’s the kind of guy who wears muscle shirts. “Like, new blood coming in to replace the old guys like you. No offense.”

Dylan sighs.

He likes Brad better when he’s sucking his dick instead of talking. It’s like dealing with the dude version of a puck bunny, which is what Brad is, hundred percent, and that’s hardly even an insult, ‘cause he’s convenient and can talk about hockey and is content to get to touch an NHL player’s ass with no strings attached. It’s good in general and has been since they started hooking up a couple offseasons ago, but now-

“No offense, Brad,” Dylan says, yawning and staring up at the ceiling. “But like.”

“Shut up?” Brad offers.

“There you go,” Dylan says, and Brad rolls his eyes, but he leaves the topic alone and even tosses Dylan a washcloth when he gets up to finish getting dressed. Dylan stares at him as he goes. He’s got a nice ass. Not, like, hockey player nice, obviously. Not like-

Dylan’s not thinking about him, now.

He wipes off his chest, looks around for his boxers. “You hanging around?”

“You’re not,” Brad shoots back, easily enough. “I have a date later.” He’s rifling through his closet, holding up different pants in front of the mirror and checking himself out.

Dylan wishes he hadn’t even asked, because now he feels bad, which is bullshit, ‘cause he’s not responsible for Brad being a shitty date, or for anyone wanting him instead of someone else. Like Connor with Jess, his brain chimes in unhelpfully, and Dylan finally finds his underwear flung over the headboard and very firmly ignores that train of thought.

“You shouldn’t sleep with people before going on dates,” he says half-heartedly.

Brad doesn’t even look away from the mirror. “No offense, man,” he says. “But shut up.”

Dylan deserved that one, probably.

It’s too bright out when he leaves the building, fumbling for his keys. The brightness is sort of disorienting – it’s only early afternoon, and he hadn’t planned on leaving ‘til later, and now he’s all keyed up and in his rumpled gym clothes and probably smells like Brad’s shitty cologne with half the day left to kill.

He gets into his car and doesn’t start it, just sits and scrolls through his notifications. There’s some shit Merks tagged him in, a message from Matt, moms setting u up with her dental hygienists son fyi. So- brilliant. Fucking fantastic, he’s going to have to sit through a date and spend the next family dinner getting chewed out for not giving it a chance and listening to his brothers’ wives talk about this gay guy they know who Dylan just has to meet-

Dylan exhales.

They mean well. It’s fine.

His phone buzzes. Matt again. he has a unibrow lol

Dylan slumps forward and hits his head on the steering wheel. The horn goes off, loud, making him jump and a few pedestrians shoot him weird looks. Because of fucking course.

It hits him, all at once, how lonely he feels. That in itself is fucking stupid, actually, ‘cause he just finished getting a generally decent blowjob from a generally decent guy, muscle shirts aside, and his little brother still texts him like he’s cool, and his family is the ‘all gay people are attracted to each other’ kind of homophobic instead of anything worse. He doesn’t have shit to complain about. Lonely, like, what kind of bullshit even is that?

Maybe it’s because he’s in between teams.

Maybe everyone ever is right and he just needs to start, like, settling down. Unlock the meaning of life via babies or whatever.

His phone vibrates again, and Dylan’s about to tell Matt to fuck off, but when he looks down Connor’s name is on the screen. Dylan’s heart rate picks up, entirely against his will, but he ignores it and opens the message. It’s a picture, a wall half-painted and a little blurry at the edges because Connor moved the camera too soon, the way he always does.

The can said ivory but Im 99% sure this is white, he captioned it, and Dylan kind of smirks, doesn’t bother playing it coy before responding.

want help?

If you want to give it, Connor texts back, just as quick.

Dylan hesitates, stares up at Brad’s building, then catches his own eye in the mirror. He starts the car.

---

It’s something like alarming, how easy it’s been to sink back into being Connor and Dylan.

Alarming, but not surprising – there’s a reason that they were basically glued to each other’s sides all those years ago, and it’s ‘cause they just fit like Dylan never had before and never has since, not with anyone. Like. People talk about on-ice chemistry, and they had that, sure, but it was the same off the ice as well, because they find the same stuff funny, and they make the same bitchy comments, and it’s kind of addicting to have someone just get you like that.

It’s been two weeks since Connor got here, two weeks of texting and napping by the pool and jerking each other off. There’s a very definite undercurrent to it all that Dylan knows he’s not imagining, some kind of trepidation, maybe, all the shit they aren’t saying hanging over them. It’s as if they’re feeling each other out again – not in a sex way, except for all the times it is – and getting used to being in the same space. And Dylan shouldn’t be surprised by how easy it is, because they’re fucking great together, except for all the times they’re not.

It’s first time in ages that they’ve been in this kind of proximity for any extended period of time. Years, probably. It kind of feels like dangling exposed wire over a bathtub every time Dylan sees him, like waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is maybe mixing metaphors, but the point is, is:

He gets to Davo’s place fast. The drive’s pretty familiar by now, down the twisting and turning little streets full of bigass houses with expensive cars in the driveways. Dylan and his brothers went trick or treating here a couple times, ‘cause a bunch of houses would give out full-size chocolate bars. Nice people.

Connor’s in a ratty grey t-shirt when he gets the door. There’re bits of paint on his hands, a speck of white – sorry, ivory – on his cheek.

“Stromer,” he says, and looks genuinely happy to see Dylan. “Hi.”

“You think if I keep helping you with renos they’ll finally give me an HGTV show?” Dylan quips, already toeing off his shoes.

Connor grins, which is probably more than the joke deserved. “We can only hope,” he says, and leads Dylan down the hall toward the stairs. Dylan peers into the living room as they pass. It’s still pretty sparse, just the couch they found and a coffee table with a mug on it. No sign of anyone but Connor having been here.

The basement smells like wet paint, even with the windows open, and there’s country music playing, which, ugh. Dylan juts his chin towards the speaker. “This shit, still?”

“Learn to love it, man,” Davo says, easy, and tosses him a paint roller. Dylan catches it, still ends up with a little primer splattered on his shirt.

He rubs at it, makes a face at Connor. “Dick.”

Connor ignores him. “So I went to buy paint,” he starts, leaning down to grab his own paint roller. “This old lady, like, four feet tall, max; she grabs my arm and goes, ‘Sidney Crosby’?”

“Holy shit.” Dylan laughs, surprised, and Connor looks pleased with himself. “I can’t believe I get to help Sidney Crosby paint his basement, this is-”

“Wild, right?”

“Fuckin’ wild,” Dylan agrees. “Thank you for this opportunity, Mr. Crosby, sir.”

Connor laughs under his breath, and the song changes – still country – and the conversation trails off into a mostly-comfortable silence while they paint.

They haven’t talked about the love thing.

Connor hasn’t brought it up once, hasn’t even hinted at it. Dylan could almost think he imagined the whole thing, and not even in an in-denial way, because Connor’s acting- not exactly normal, because their normal’s been kind of fucked up for a while, but. Normal like they were when they were kids, when they were best friends. Dylan’s not sure if he’s proud or annoyed at that, that Connor thinks he can just show up and be back in Dylan’s life and fit like he was never gone, like the last twenty years and I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you never happened.

Dylan’s kind of pissed at him, he thinks, for saying something like that then acting like this. Maybe kind of pissed at himself too, for not letting himself enjoy this instead of overthinking everything like a fucking fourteen year old girl.

He wonders if Connor still thinks he’s in love with him, like, right now, at this moment. It might’ve already worn off.

A new song starts playing and Dylan snaps himself out of it, because nope, he’s not having an internal crisis to a soundtrack of Nickelback, no fucking chance.

“It could be awesome down here,” he says, trying to get a conversation going. “Make, like. A man cave.” He wonders as he says that if the whole house is a man cave, technically, what with the whole inhabited by a single man thing. Except this is Davo they’re talking about, so it’s probably the isolated, hermit-inhabited kind of cave, if anything. Point still stands. “Giant movie screen on the wall, frame some jerseys.”

He can picture it, a bunch of gaming consoles and memorabilia, the kind of shit they talked about having when they were sixteen and dreaming about being millionaires. And it’s a totally innocuous conversation topic, right, but Dylan’s sort of half-looking at Davo while he’s talking, and the second he mentions jerseys, Connor winces.

It’s a weird reaction. Doesn’t make sense, and Dylan’s most of the way to convincing himself that he imagined it, but then Connor clears his throat.

“You need more paint?” he asks, and it’s a brush off if Dylan’s ever heard one.

He shakes his head no, a little confused, and Connor doesn’t meet his eyes, just turns around and goes back to painting like he didn’t just effectively murder whatever shred of a conversation they had going.

It’s back again, the tension from the first day, the one they’ve been trying to ignore. Dylan doesn’t know what the fuck he did wrong this time. Doesn’t even know how he’d go about fixing it, so he doesn’t try, just finishes painting his part of the wall, working his way around the room and listening to Connor’s shitty music and not fucking talking, because that’s what Connor wants, apparently.

Most of the basement is ivory-coloured and glossy-wet by the time they’re done. Looks decent, Dylan thinks, at least decent enough that he feels like they’ve earned it when they head out to the pool to cool down.

Turns out swimming is, like, immensely awkward when the other person you’re swimming with isn’t talking to you. It doesn’t seem like Connor’s mad, really, just quiet, answering all strained when Dylan speaks.

Dylan takes the mature way out, which is to say he jumps into the pool. Makes a big splash, too, and swims a couple laps while the ripples die down. It’s peaceful back here, the sun filtering down through the trees.

Dylan shakes out his head like a dog, watches Connor lose his shirt and ease himself into the water. Connor doesn’t really swim around, what with the whole recovery thing, but he dunks himself under a couple of times and comes up with his hair sopping wet, dangling down in his face. Dylan wants to run a hand through it. Doesn’t.

“You don’t have to put jerseys on the wall,” he says, when the silence gets stifling. “It was just a suggestion-”

“I know that,” Connor says, plucking at a leaf floating in the pool and not meeting Dylan’s eyes. “It was a good suggestion.”

“But you’re not gonna do it,” Dylan says. He couldn’t actually care less what Connor puts on his basement walls, to be frank, but his reaction was weird, and it stays weird when Connor snorts a laugh.

“God, no.”

And Dylan’s not about to be offended by Davo not appreciating his interior design tips, but something about the way Connor says that, all dismissive, kind of rankles him. “Alright, then.” He moves toward the stairs out of the pool, but Connor grabs his arm.

“Wait,” he says, and looks pained. “Don’t- I keep saying the wrong thing.”

Dylan scoffs, surprised enough by Davo caving that fast to forget about being annoyed. Connor’s still holding his arm. “Now? Now is when you’re gonna start watching your mouth around me, fuckin’- what, twenty years after the fact?”

“Shut up,” Connor says, automatic, but he kind of smiles when Dylan shakes his arm free and splashes him; even tries to splash him back, maybe a little half-heartedly.

There’s this moment, then, like he wants to say something and doesn’t, and they end up just looking at each other, a couple feet apart. A bird chirps from up in the trees.

“What?” Dylan asks. It doesn’t come out as sharp as he means it to.

“Am I a shitty person?” Connor asks, apropos of fucking nothing. “For leaving how I did?”

“There’s worse stuff you could do,” Dylan says. “Murder, blackmail, bank robbery-”

Connor’s frowning, a little. “I mean, sure, but it’s not a relative thing.”

“Everything’s relative,” Dylan says; then, when Davo looks like he’s going to argue: “That’s not even me, that’s Einstein or someone like that. You gonna argue with Einstein, McDavid?”

Connor drags a hand through his hair, exhales kind of heavy. It takes him a second. “Guess not,” he says, and Dylan flicks water at him again, gentler this time, and gets a smile for his efforts, albeit a small one.

It’s cooling off quick, enough that Dylan gets goosebumps when they’re out of the pool and towelling off. The sun is glinting off of the water and into Dylan’s eyes, and it’s still light out, that lazy kind of evening that seems to drag on forever. And it’s that, or how quiet it is, or maybe the droplet of water making its way down Connor’s chest; and none of those things are a good enough reason for Dylan to ask, but he does, mostly without meaning to: “Do you still think you’re in love with me?”

It sounds stupid out loud, even more than it did in Dylan’s head.

Connor doesn’t laugh. “What do you think?” he asks. “You didn’t believe me?”

“I don’t know,” Dylan hedges, already regretting the whole conversation. “You’re already basically a murdering blackmailing bank robber, so-”

“Stromer,” Davo cuts him off, sort of exasperated-sounding. His brow is furrowed like he’s concerned, like he wants to push this, and Dylan just- he can’t, right now, so he pushes at Connor’s chest ‘til he gets the hint and sits in one of the patio chairs. Dylan drops down on his knees in front of him.

“Want me to get you?” Dylan asks. He thumbs at the waistband of Connor’s shorts to be sure he gets the message.

“Stromer,” Connor says again, faintly scandalized, this time, because they’re outside. There’s a fence, though, and trees, and no one can actually see them, and Dylan can practically see Davo’s brain processing all that, looking almost comically torn.

Dylan raises an eyebrow, impatient. “Yes or no?”

“God,” Connor says, and a glance at his lap kind of answers the question, but he says, “You- yes, obviously-”

That’s all Dylan needs. Connor tastes kind of like chlorine from the pool once Dylan gets his mouth on him, and he can’t decide if that’s gross or hot, which is in itself kind of un-hot, but maybe it cancels out. Davo seems into it, in any case, leaning back in his chair, eyes fluttering shut while Dylan wets the tip of his dick, gets a hand around the base and works it, slow; tunes out his brain and just focuses on this.

He waits ‘til Connor’s good and hard before taking him in all the way, all at once, and it gets the reaction he wanted, Connor tensing up and clapping a hand over his mouth to prevent a sound getting out.

Dylan has to pull off to laugh, at that.

“Jerk,” Davo scolds, but he doesn’t quite manage to sound annoyed. Dylan noses at his hipbone, teasing, and pushes Connor’s legs further apart so he has more room. The patio’s not the greatest on his knees. Nothing he can’t handle. He’s intent on picking up where he left off, but Connor gets a hand in his hair and tugs him back, gentle.

He looks serious, flushed all splotchy the way he always gets. “We can’t keep having sex to make ourselves feel better.”

“Probably,” Dylan agrees, and Connor’s gaze feels heavy, pushing towards something too sincere. Dylan doesn’t let it get there. “I feel better, though.”

Connor breathes out. “Me too,” he admits, and then Dylan gets his mouth around his dick again and Connor’s fingers tighten in his hair, almost painful. Neither of them talks more after that.

---

Dylan borrows a pair of sweats and crashes on Davo’s couch, hugging a throw pillow. Wakes up to the sound of his phone buzzing next to his head and takes a second to figure out where he is, disoriented. He can hear someone moving around in another room, the clink of a glass.

Right.

He yawns and unlocks his phone without sitting up. It’s Marns sending pictures of their trip to Arizona, the whole family posing next to a cactus. And like, the pictures are objectively adorable, but they also stress Dylan right the fuck out, mostly because he wouldn’t put it past Mitch to somehow read his mind over text and realize that Dylan fucked two people in one day, neither of whom is anything close to a good decision.

His mouth tastes nasty. He makes a face, adds not brushing his teeth to the list of things to regret from yesterday, then jumps, startled, when a floorboard creaks from behind him.

He sits up to peer in the direction of the sound. “Hey.”

“Morning,” Connor says, and does this little half-smile, all pleasant.

Dylan drops his gaze, rolls out his shoulder. “What time’s it?”

“Nine-ish.” Connor hands him a cup of coffee. It’s black, the way Dylan used to take it when he was sixteen and trying to be tough. He hasn’t taken his coffee like that in years.

“Thanks,” he says anyways. Manners, or whatever.

“’course,” Davo says, and Dylan tucks his legs up closer to his body so Connor can sit down; leans forward and grabs the remote off of the coffee table, flicking on the TV so there won’t be any quiet. Pre-emptive strike, kind of.

Connor doesn’t seem to mind, just leans back and sips his own coffee while the Breakfast Television hosts go through the birthday announcements and start talking about some musical that’s showing downtown. It’s really inane, brain-numbing stuff, and Dylan maybe kind of played himself here, because he’s lulled into a false sense of security when Connor finally decides to talk.

“I was serious, before,” Connor says, maybe fifteen minutes into the show. “It’s kind of unfair.”

“Serious about...” Dylan trails off, not getting it. It takes him a second, combing through yesterday’s conversation to figure it out. “What, that we should stop?”

Connor nods, and Dylan does this half-laugh, incredulous.

“We should stop having sex because you think you’re in love with me?”

“Yes,” Davo says. “It’s like- it was my fault, showing up how I did. I just want to do things properly, and I’m obviously not trying to pressure you into deciding on something, I just- d’you get what I’m saying?”

“No,” Dylan says, just to be petty, because one, I just want to do things properly, like they’re in some kind of Lifetime movie- it’s bullshit, firstly, and secondly, if he’s getting not-dumped by a guy he’s not even dating he’s sure as hell not going to make it easy. “This is stupid.”

“Kind of,” Connor says, steady. He doesn’t waver, ‘cause no one’s ever been able to make him waver, not Dylan and not anyone else, once he’s decided on something. Even, apparently, if that something is whatever misguided attempt at good intentions he’s currently entertaining.

“Fine,” Dylan says, because Connor’s still looking at him. “So we stop, then.” He grabs his coffee and takes a gulp, remembers too late that there’s no milk and barely avoids making a face.

There’s this weird lull over the place, then. Dylan’s not sure where exactly they go from here, because usually them agreeing not to have sex happens kind of implicitly with them fighting over something stupid and not talking again ‘til they hook up a few months later.

God, friends with benefits are so much easier than this.

“Your couch is fucking uncomfortable, you know that?” he chirps, mostly for something to say. “Rudeass hookup.”

“You helped me pick it,” Connor retorts, and Dylan knows he’s not just imagining how he sounds relieved at the change of subject. “There’re like, three guest rooms.”

“Zero beds,” Dylan says, and ignores the couch thing because it’s true and he doesn’t have a good comeback.

“Should probably get on that,” Connor says, chugging back the last of his coffee and clapping Dylan on the shoulder, leaning on the arm of the couch to stand up. “C’mon.”

Dylan stares. “C’mon where?”

“Buying mattresses,” Connor says, like duh. “And bedframes, probably. Sheets and stuff? I can drive.”

Dylan scoffs, rubs at his eyes. He should leave, go back to his place and stop entertaining whatever delusion is making Connor think they’re magically besties again. Dylan’s done the hope thing, with Davo, and it doesn’t go anywhere, and he learned that the hard way. Knows that.

He doesn’t take Connor’s hand, but he gets up.

“Gotta get Egyptian cotton sheets or something like that,” he says. “Impress all your visitors, yeah?”

And Connor smiles at him, all hopeful, and it’s the kind of Connor McDavid smile you have to earn, the kind he’d give at seventeen when he was excited and pretending not to be about getting mentioned on Coach’s Corner.

And Dylan is so, so stupid.

---

June goes like this:

San Jose wins the Stanley Cup. The Jays lose six in a row. Dylan finally gets his winter tires changed.

People on the radio are talking about how it’s going to be the hottest summer on record, and then a lot of stuff about global warming that Dylan half-listens to while making protein shakes and getting dressed before working out. Cardio shit’s the worst, so he does that first to get it over with.

He usually ends up at Connor’s place, after. It starts to look more like a human being actually lives there, gradually, because they spend hours assembling furniture, moving stuff around. Installing a wifi modem comes early, before Connor even picks out a kitchen table, and takes the entire day. The Bell guy asks them for a selfie, doesn’t seem fazed by how intensely uncomfortable the picture comes out.

They don’t have sex. Not even once, not even, like, third base. And whatever, it’s chill, Dylan has Brad for that stuff, but it’s also sort of giving him whiplash, spending his days switching between hooking up with the human equivalent of male rompers to putting together a shelving unit with Davo, joking around and choking down more shitty cups of black coffee than Dylan can count.

Connor stays unresponsive every time Dylan tries to talk hockey. That – hockey – is what it is, he’s pretty sure. Dylan tests it out a couple times after the cup final, brings up something that happened in Game Six, and no dice. Ever. Add hockey to the list of shit they can’t mention, apparently, along with the fact that Connor showed up at Dylan’s door and confessed his love, and that Dylan has been taking milk in his fucking coffee since he was twenty-one.

It probably says something real pathetic about Dylan that the highlight of his month is when his mom corrals everyone for family dinner. He actually has this brief moment of insanity where he considers inviting Davo, but he doesn’t feel like sitting through reminiscing about the Oilers, and that’s a decent enough excuse that he mostly believes himself.

The dining table is always crowded, now, with wives and kids and all. Dylan ends up wedged right at the corner of the table, between his sister-in-law and his mom, which he can’t help but think is intentional, given that they spend literally twenty minutes asking how his date with the dental hygienist’s son went – Dylan cancelled and didn’t reschedule – then promptly switch to asking what he’s doing next season – no fucking clue, thanks.

He’s in hell, basically. Quality time with his family is actual hell.

Ryan joins in the signing talks, because he’s genetically older-brother programmed to give Dylan shit, probably. “Sabres’re looking promising, though.”

“Ry.” Dylan juts his chin towards the potatoes at Ryan’s left. “So are the Flames.”

Ryan passes Dylan the potatoes behind his wife’s back, leaves his arm around her shoulders. “You wouldn’t actually go to Calgary.”

Syd elbows him. “He can go to Calgary if he wants, oh my god.”

“Okay, obviously, but like-”

“I’m figuring it out, okay?” Dylan cuts him off, trying to figure out where to put down the dish of potatoes on the crowded table. He wonders what age it’s acceptable to start making his nieces and nephews sit at a kids’ table.

“Gotta Jagr it,” Matt pipes up from down the table, leaning over the baby’s high chair. “Hit up the entire conference then go play in the K.”

“Jagr’s Czech, idiot,” Dylan says, cramming a forkful of potatoes in his mouth.

Matt looks confused. “Is Czech not in Russia?”

“Matthew, really,” their mom sighs, and Dylan catches Ryan’s eye, and they both lose it. Dylan almost chokes to death on a potato, he’s laughing so hard.

If his life’s a joke, he figures, at least it’s a funny one sometimes.

---

Connor passes out on the couch maybe two minutes into the movie. And sure, Dylan knows he’s usually tired after his physio appointments, but this is an impressive thing to sleep through, because the movie’s some cookie-cutter action thing, all big set pieces and explosions.

Dylan’s not sure why he’s still here. He’s got his own TV, and the movie’s been online for months, and Davo is sprawled out across three quarters of the couch, confining Dylan to a single cushion.

But he’s still here.

He hasn’t seen Connor sleep in years, since roadies and sleepovers at their billets’. And like, Dylan’s self-aware enough to know that objectively Connor looks kind of un-cute when he sleeps, because his eyebrows knit together and his mouth drifts open; but fuck if it doesn’t take Dylan back, watching him now, like this.

Connor snores, quiet. Dylan forgot he snores.

The movie. Watch the fucking movie, Strome.

The plot is all but non-existent. Something involving girls in bikinis and machine guns and the Rock, who is apparently immortal? It’s entertaining enough, though, and Dylan settles in and watches it all the way through, even enjoys it.

He jumps, startled, when Connor speaks.

“Stromer?”

“Hi,” Dylan says. “Good nap?”

He can see Davo looking around all sleepy, taking in the credits scrolling on the screen, the streetlights on outside. “I slept for the whole thing?” he asks, then when Dylan nods, “Sorry, man.”

“It’s fine,” Dylan says. “Stuff’s tiring, don’t worry about it.”

“It’s like, moving my arm around,” Connor says, and there’s something in his voice, like he’s annoyed with himself. “Never used to be tiring.”

Dylan doesn’t really know what to say to that – like, you can do it, pal!, except for he can’t, because the top half of Davo’s body is pretty much held together by metal and a prayer – but Connor doesn’t seem to need him to.

“How was the movie?” Connor asks, scratching at his beard. Dylan should’ve shaved it while he was asleep.

“Mostly shit,” Dylan says. “But the kind of shit where I’m going to watch the sequel as soon as it comes out, y’know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Connor says, and he actually cracks a smile. “You like the worst movies.”

“See, no,” Dylan shakes his head. “You like Adam Sandler movies, you have zero ground to stand on here. Negative ground.”

“Negative ground,” Connor echoes, grinning, then stretches out with a yawn. “I’m starving,” he announces; then, without missing a beat, “We could get dinner, if you want. Somewhere nice?”

It takes Dylan a second, his brain still mostly on explosions and Connor snoring. Somewhere nice, though. “Are you asking me out?” he asks, incredulous.

Connor shrugs. Walks it back, just a little, but still sounds calm as anything. “I mean, I don’t want you to think I’m just, like, using you for manual labour-”

“I don’t think that,” Dylan cuts him off. Any gaps there might’ve been in his resolve close up real fast, because ‘using you for manual labour’, like he’s offering some kind of pity date. Dylan doesn’t need Davo to buy him dinner as payment for helping with basic tasks. Sure as hell doesn’t need his pity.

“So?” Connor prompts, and Dylan doesn’t meet his eyes.

“So maybe let’s just order in,” he says.

“Oh,” Connor says. “Yeah, no, that’s- yeah.” He has the guts to sound surprised, like it never occurred to him that Dylan would do anything except swoon and jump at the chance. It’s kind of a power trip, Dylan realizes, and maybe that’s a shitty thing to feel, but hey, karma’s a bitch, McDavid. Shows him, using Dylan as some kind of safety net.

The whole thing’s resolved itself into a bitter something in Dylan’s stomach, by the time he’s back at his place. It’s like- it’s sitting there, won’t let him relax, not when he jerks off in the shower and not when he’s lying in bed trying and failing to fall asleep.

Asking him on a date, like they’re the kind of people who go on dates. Like, fuck off.

God, but Dylan forgot Connor snored, though.

He almost said yes.

He really wanted to say yes.

---

It’s always kind of a relief to start on-ice workouts again. The atmosphere’s pretty social, local guys used to seeing each other around, everyone catching up after the season. Most of them are younger than Dylan, now, but he catches Mikey and some of the old ball hockey crew on their way out, and it’s that kind of companionable that only really exists at a hockey rink.

Some of the Leafs guys are gossiping about Connor in the room, dumb speculation like it’s an episode of a TV show. Dylan stays studiously silent, pulls on his gear and doesn’t mention how they spent yesterday putting up curtains.

“I heard he died,” Whelan’s saying, toying with the straps on his mask, and Brownie rolls his eyes, looks over at Dylan like ‘can you believe this’.

“You can’t die from shoulder surgery,” Brownie says. “Stromer’d know, eh?”

It takes Dylan a second – he’s never had shoulder surgery, there’s no reason why he should be knowledgeable about it – but then it clicks. Brownie doesn’t mean he’d know about shoulder stuff. He means Dylan would know about Davo. And of course Brownie would think that, Dylan realizes, because the guy hasn’t played with either of them since juniors, still mostly remembers them as inseparable, the way they were back then.

“No,” Dylan says, like it doesn’t sting to say. “Got nothing.”

The guys don’t seem to suspect anything. Like- obviously, they don’t. No reason for Dylan to lie, really. Should’ve fucking told them Connor was hiding out twenty minutes away in, like, self-imposed exile. Make Davo face reality, quit whatever it is he’s doing.

There’re a couple of reporters standing by the glass when they finally get out to the rink. Dylan looks in the direction of the cameras, down the ice where, as he watches, someone’s weaving through pylons, stickhandling all smooth.

“Chris Chan,” Brownie says, peering over Dylan’s shoulder. And- yeah, Dylan kind of guessed, because ever since Brad mentioned Chan his name has been everywhere, a combination of the consensus first pick thing and the local boy narrative and whatever other bullshit helps bloggers get hits.

Christopher Chan looks as good as everyone says, already bigger than Dylan and twice as fast. Still a bit of baby fat on his face. The kid barely even looks at Dylan, just gives him kind of a cursory once-over when they end up taking a water break at the same time, then looks away like he’s not impressed with what he sees.

Fuckin’ first overalls.

---

The closest they get to discussing everything is when they’re putting down an area rug, on their knees in opposite corners of Connor’s living room.

“Can I ask you something?” Davo asks. Dylan doesn’t get a chance to point out that he technically just did ask something before Connor’s going on: “You don’t believe me, that I’m in love with you.” He doesn’t sound accusatory, really. Maybe curious.

“That’s not a question,” Dylan says, once he recovers from the surprise of Connor actually mentioning stuff. It’s a pretty blatant attempt at stalling for time, and Connor gets that, based on the look he gives. Dylan sighs.

“I believe you think you are,” he says, sitting back and smoothing down the edge of the rug. “I just.”

“What?” Connor asks, when Dylan doesn’t continue.

Dylan shrugs. “You’re rebounding,” he says, frank, ‘cause they’ve done a lot to each other but they don’t sugarcoat stuff. “From your fiancée, and from hockey. Maybe from fuckin’ Edmonton, I don’t know.”

“Rebounding,” Connor echoes, all skeptical, and Dylan nods.

“I’m familiar,” he says. “Not like you have a ton of experience with dudes.”

It’s kind of a shitty thing to say. Dylan gets that. Can’t quite muster up the energy to feel bad. Connor doesn’t call him out for it, anyhow, just kind of looks at the floor, then back at Dylan, and there’s something in his eyes that Dylan doesn’t want to think too hard about.

Connor does, just, the most forced little smile Dylan’s ever seen. “Thought retirement was supposed to make people nicer,” he quips, and it’s ostensibly an attempt at either a joke or passive-aggression, but it falls flat on both counts.

Dylan doesn’t call him out for it.

Doesn’t correct him about the retirement thing, either.

He realized a while ago that Connor thinks they’re both done in the league. It’s not- it isn’t the worst assumption, because Dylan’s a free agent and an old one at that, and ‘consistent’ is probably the most generous description of how he’s played the past couple seasons, but it’s clearly been good enough to get him offers, and he takes care of his body, mostly, and-

Connor thinks he’s retiring, and Dylan knows that, and Dylan hasn’t told him the truth. He’s not really sure why. Maybe it’s him being courteous or something, not wanting to be all, ‘oh, by the way, sucks that your career’s done, I’m still playing though’.

Maybe it’s a pride thing, something he can hold close to his chest. His. Dylan’s the one still here, not anyone else.

“That’d be fun,” Dylan says, noncommittal. Keeps it light. “Maybe it’d get even more people to fall in love with me. I should try it sometime.”

Connor looks torn between annoyance and laughter. “You’re so-” He starts then stops.

“What?” Dylan asks. He says it provokingly, a little bit, not quite sure what he’s hoping for, but Connor just shakes his head.

“You’re the most irritating fucking person I’ve ever met, Stromer, that’s what.” He doesn’t sound angry. Sounds affectionate, if anything, and then they’re looking right at each other and it feels like a contest, like something magnetic, like waiting to see who’s going to bitch out and look away first.

“You got shitty taste in guys, I guess,” Dylan says. Connor opens his mouth like he wants to say something, and Dylan almost leans forward, almost-

Connor shuts his mouth. He drops Dylan’s gaze and smoothes down the carpet one last time before standing up. Doesn’t try to tell Dylan he loves him again.

They’re maybe six feet apart from each other. It feels bigger.

Dylan wants-

He wants to fucking cry, sudden and sharp. And sure, that part passes pretty quick because what the fuck, who cries; but god, he feels it, sharp like a tangible thing sticking into him or maybe carving its way out. And he doesn’t know how they got here, to the place where they can have a casual conversation about Connor thinking he loves Dylan; where they can joke about it, apparently, like it’s just something they accept. Connor loves Dylan, easy peasy.

Dylan can’t joke about this. Doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to, really, not so long as it makes him want to curl in on himself or lash out or both things at once, somehow, and it’s just-

It’s hard, sometimes.

---

He doesn’t not want to believe Connor. It’s just not as easy as all that.

‘Baggage’ is a word for it, maybe, but it’s more like one of those conveyor belts of suitcases and duffel bags and bigass hiking backpacks at the airport, circling around and around ad-fucking-nauseum in Dylan’s brain.

So:

They were eighteen and fresh out of the draft, sprawled out playing ‘chel on the futon in Dylan’s parents’ basement. Dylan was wearing a Coyotes t-shirt, one of the millions of pieces of merch he’d been given, and the reddish colour wasn’t the greatest for him, but the novelty hadn’t worn off yet.

Connor was wearing one too. One of Dylan’s new Arizona shirts, even though he was playing as the Oilers. Dylan remembers that detail clear as anything.

He kind of- it wasn’t like he’d planned it out, because he wasn’t about that cheesy shit even then, but he’d known what he was going to say, waited ‘til just the right moment. He figured he’d ask, then they’d make out for a while, then go get ice cream or something.

Dylan doesn’t even remember exactly what he said, something really dumb, like, “Wanna be the boyfriend of the best fuckin’ gamer in the NHL?”

Connor laughed.

He didn’t even look away from the screen. “Yeah, right.”

It was like slow motion, the response sinking in; watching it dawn on Connor, watching the look on his face go from focused to confused to fucking horrified. “Stromer.”

“Don’t,” Dylan said, desperate, embarrassment burning in his chest and probably painted on his face. Connor had laughed. “I- like, whatever, it was a joke, don’t do that face.”

“Did you tell-”

“No,” Dylan said. First thing Connor says, did you tell someone. “No, obviously I- who would I tell?”

“I like girls,” Connor said, like Dylan didn’t even speak. The stupid tinny music from the game was still playing, some already-passé alt-rock like it was making fun of Dylan.

Everything felt magnified, a million times too detailed, humiliation twisting in his stomach. Dylan wanted to crawl out of his skin. “No one said you didn’t.”

“You don’t?” Connor demanded, and Dylan laughed, too loud and too mean.

“Figured those times you had my dick in your mouth might’ve clued you in,” he said, and Connor was staring at him like he’d never seen him before, eyes wild.

“That didn’t mean-” Connor said, then, “That’s not boyfriends.”

“So the fuck have we been doing this whole time, then?” Dylan asked, and regretted it as soon as he did, how needy it sounded, how much it opened up his guts and handed Connor a knife to twist, and then Connor fucking did.

“Fooling around!” Connor burst out. “It’s- it’s buddies, there’s no one in the league who- You’re fucking delusional if you think I’m going to risk everything for-”

For you, Dylan’s brain filled in, and it was like- oddly dispassionate, like he was watching and listening through someone else; like somewhere in between the beginning and end of Connor’s sentence something in Dylan closed off and threw away the key.

So:

Dylan was still in the AHL and Connor was still in his suit, more expensive than anything Dylan had ever been in the same room as.

“Go away,” he said, flat, and went to shut the door, but Connor blocked him.

“Talk to me,” Connor said, somewhere between ordering and asking. “Dylan, you’ve got to-”

“I don’t, actually,” Dylan cut him off. “You’re not my captain.”

“I’m your best friend,” Connor said, like this wasn’t the first time they’d been in the same city for months, like they hadn’t been radio-silent for just as long before he showed up at Dylan’s game out of nowhere, like he had any right. “You’re- Stromer, we’re best friends.” Like that meant anything.

“We’re not friends,” Dylan said. Practically spat the words out. “You laughed in my face, Connor, you’re not my-”

“Yes, I am,” Connor said, stubborn, and Dylan hated him. “I know you’re embarrassed, but I am-”

“I don’t want you to be,” Dylan said, and shoved Connor so he was just standing there in the doorway. I know you’re embarrassed, all understanding, like he had any idea how Dylan felt. Asshole. Dylan pushed him back again. “I don’t want you, thanks but no thanks, now fuck off.”

Connor shoved him back, hard, eyes flashing. “Don’t push me.”

“You don’t push me,” Dylan retorted, stupid, and they were nose to nose, and he was braced to take a punch or throw a punch or end up in the news for giving McJesus a black eye, and then Connor kissed him instead, teeth clacking up painfully against Dylan’s.

Dylan kissed him back.

They stumbled into the room and Connor’s tongue was in Dylan’s mouth, his skin flushed red-hot under Dylan’s hands. Dylan bit Connor’s lip, hard enough to make him gasp up against him.

 “You’re such a fucking coward,” Dylan said, without pulling back all the way. “You think I’m just going to- like, you think you can be straight and just do this-”

“Yeah, I do,” Connor said. It was all bravado, the kind of confidence that came with being saviour of Edmonton, people already calling him the best in the world; but Dylan knew him, right, and there was something else underneath. He was nervous, worried that Dylan would reject him and he’d have come here for nothing.

Dylan pushed Connor down onto the bed, and his mouth tasted like blood when he kissed him, and next time Connor gasped, it wasn’t ‘cause of hurt.

So:

They were on the wrong side of thirty and sitting next to each other at some bar in some city, and Dylan doesn’t remember what made them laugh, but they were laughing like things were easy.

It had been so long.

Connor’s arm was almost sort of maybe around the back of Dylan’s seat, or at least leaning there, warm against Dylan and warmer for how much they’d had to drink, and it was stupid of Dylan to hope but he had.

 “Davo,” he said, leaned in the faintest little bit, and Connor looked at Dylan’s lips, Dylan knows he did.

A table of people from the back of the restaurant started laughing, loud.

Connor pulled back.

So:

Connor showed up at Dylan’s place same as always, sucked Dylan off then let Dylan fuck him fast and mean while Dylan dragged his hands over the planes of Connor’s back. He had more lines by his eyes than the last time they saw each other. Dylan did too. Connor didn’t comment on it, just lay there catching his breath for maybe five minutes, after, then sat up and started getting dressed.

“Good luck tomorrow,” he said.

“It’s the Habs, no one needs luck,” Dylan said, already checking his phone, and he’d usually get a grin out of Connor for that, but Connor just looked at him for this long moment before he left. Dylan didn’t meet his eyes.

He saw the news about Connor and Jess getting engaged all over Twitter literally that same Friday, not even three days later. Barely even two and a half.

So it’s not that Dylan doesn’t want to believe Connor.

He just. He doesn’t. Took twenty fucking years of that shit, conveyor belt going round and round, for Dylan to get that the most permanent thing about him and Connor is that they don’t last, not as friends and sure as fuck not as anything else.

Dylan doesn’t believe him.

He doesn’t.

---

Thing is, though, Dylan hasn’t hooked up in a week and a half.

That doesn’t sound as long as it feels. Feels pretty fuckin’ long. Sex is the best way he has of getting out of his head, the best distraction he knows. Most fun one, too, and it’s not like he even has a reason for not having hooked up, but he just. Hasn’t.

It’s been building for a while, is the point, Dylan wanting to feel and not and not knowing why, and it kind of reaches a boiling point when he leaves Connor heating up leftovers downstairs and perches on the edge of the bathtub in one of the upstairs bathrooms.

hey he texts Brad. It’s mostly a reflex, fuckin’ Pavlovian, at this point.

Brad sends back a smiley face, then a mirror selfie of himself flexing, just in case Dylan was starting to think of him as not a complete parody of a human. u around?

Dylan opens up the texting app, all set to respond, and then he just. Doesn’t.

And he doesn’t even have a good reason. One second he’s about to message Brad and ask if he can come over, the next he’s sitting there listening to Davo’s terrible fucking country music floating up from downstairs and squeezing his eyes shut, feeling all of eighteen again.

He wants to turn off his phone and go downstairs, back to Davo.

And this is so, so stupid.

Brad’s objectively hotter than Connor, and he doesn’t try to do this domesticity bullshit, doesn’t make terrible coffee that Dylan feels obliged to drink. Doesn’t carry half a lifetime’s worth of history. Besides, Connor ended shit with him. Connor said they should stop having sex, it’s not- Dylan doesn’t owe him shit, he stopped being in love with Connor a long time ago.

That shouldn’t feel like a lie.

Dylan fucking hates how much it feels like a lie.

He turns off his phone, sets it down on the edge of the tub without responding to Brad.

“Fuck,” he says out loud.

And, yeah. That about sums it up.