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sparks fly up like stars

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The Stars and Flames don't play each other often, so when Calgary comes to Dallas, Tyler makes a point of checking out the opposition. He's doing it during warmups, wiping his face on his jersey as his gaze flicks over the Flames. His attention lights on Matthew Tkachuk, who notices and looks back at him. His challenging stare is exactly what Tyler expects from a pest; the once-over that accompanies it, however – something so quick, you'd miss it if you didn't know what to look for – that, Tyler wasn't expecting. It makes him look a moment longer; long enough for Matthew to realise he's been caught out.

There's a lot of ways to react, in a situation like that: Tyler's run the gamut of them at one time or another. A smirk or a scowl are the most likely options, the former if Matthew is into it, the latter if he's going to pretend it never happened. Instead, he freezes, a hollow look creeping over him. It prickles the hair on Tyler's neck – and then Matthew flushes, covering it by turning away to chirp one of his teammates. The whole thing leaves Tyler more confused than he wants to be before a game, and so he shoves the encounter aside and gets back to shooting pucks.

During the game itself, he’s focussed, keeping close track of Gaudreau whenever he's on the ice, trying to match speed for speed, puck-handling for puck-handling. Even so, he doesn't miss Matthew's repeat attempts at goading Jamie into a penalty whenever they're on the ice together.

“Don't,” he tells Jamie, when a covert slash and a chirp that Tyler only half-hears have his captain bristling. And then, to their mutual surprise, “Leave him to me.”

Jamie blinks. “You wanna fight him?”

Tyler shakes his head. “No,” he says, not quite sure what he's planning but knowing he's going to do something. “Just – trust me, okay?”

“Sure, Segs,” says Jamie, dapping him on the helmet. “Just don't do anything too stupid, eh?”

Tyler makes no promises and waits for his chance, which doesn't come until halfway through the second. The score is tied one-one, and as they reset for a faceoff, Tyler intercepts Matthew, who’s drifting towards Jamie, and sets up beside him instead.

“You're wasting your time,” Tyler murmurs, too low for anyone else to hear. “You're not his type.”

He doesn't mean to be cruel – he's trying to get a read on Tkachuk, not goad him into a fight – but sees the ripple of shame and fear, quickly repressed, that rolls over Matthew's face.

“And you are?” he sneers, the anger almost convincing. “You wanna fuckin' go, old man?”

Tyler just laughs. “You'd destroy me,” he says easily. He waits a beat, then adds, “On the ice, at least.”

Matthew swallows hard. The puck drops, and Tyler murmurs a final, “Just leave it be,” before they're both skating after it.

Two minutes later, Tkachuk takes a combined four minute minor – two minutes for crosschecking, two for unsportsmanlike conduct – for getting overzealous with Spezza, who was never a good target in the first place. Tyler sees him in the box and feels a twist of something – not pity, not concern, but a weird sort of kinship-sympathy – as Matthew serves his penalty.

The feeling lasts for the forty-five seconds it takes for Tyler to score on the power play off Jamie's assist, elation lighting him up as they crash into each other. It ends up being the game winning goal, and it doesn't escape Tyler's notice that Tkachuk isn't put up against his line again for the rest of the night.

Tyler puts it out of mind afterwards, showering and dressing as usual. He waves off celebratory drinks in favour of a quiet night in – they've got another big roadie coming up, there'll be plenty of time for team bonding then – and is headed to his car when he spots Matthew leaning against the wall a little ways down from the Stars' dressing room, faux-casual as he dicks about on his phone.

Tyler stops and looks at him. Matthew looks up and stares, his expression a strange, uncomfortable mix of defiance and hunger.

“No,” says Tyler immediately – soft but firm, the way he might speak to a puppy.

Matthew takes it as a challenge. “No what?” he says, pushing off the wall and shoving his phone in his pocket. He crosses his arms, moving just a little too close into Tyler's space.

Tyler lifts his chin – Matthew is taller than him, albeit barely – and says, with a calm he doesn't feel, “You're too young for me.”

Matthew freezes again, just like he did on the ice; like he's got no idea what to do with someone acknowledging the whole gay hookup thing so openly. And maybe he doesn't, fuck – he's so goddamn young up close, too young yet to legally buy beer in the States, though Tyler will eat a puck if that's ever actually stopped him.

Matthew absently licks his lips, then ducks his head and looks up through his lashes in a way that's contrastingly practised. “You won,” he says, softly.

“I know,” says Tyler, confused by the change in topic. “So?”

“So you won.” Matthew shrugs, not meeting his eyes. “Take it out on me.”

Tyler goes still, mouth dry as he says, “That's not how winning works, bud.”

Matthew smiles, humourless. “Isn't it?”

“Fuck,” Tyler mutters, glancing around. The AAC abruptly feels like a fucking stupid place to be, and he knows, he knows he's not any kind of person to be dealing with whatever issues Matthew has, but his mom would kick his ass if he just bailed on the kid, so he mans up and makes a decision.

“Look,” he murmurs. “Whatever it is we're discussing, we shouldn't be doing it here. You wanna come with me or not?”

“Sure,” says Matthew. His lack of enthusiasm makes Tyler's skin crawl.

“God,” Tyler breathes, and hauls Tkachuk along by the forearm, politely frogmarching him out to the carpark.

By the time they get to Tyler's car, Matthew is breathing far harder than either the distance or speed can explain, and Tyler is internally swearing at himself for ever having been such a fuckup rookie as to invite this Tkachuk-shaped karma into his life.

“Get in,” he says, hauling the passenger door open and shoving Matthew towards it. He walks around to the driver’s side and hops in, and is about to buckle his belt when he sees Matthew lean towards him.

“So help me god,” snaps Tyler, “if you try to give me road head I will leave your ass on freeway.”

It’s harsher than he means to be, but it has the intended effect: Matthew sits bolt upright and flushes red. Tyler makes a mental note to have Val and Radu teach him more Russian swears; the ones he knows in English feel inadequate for something like this. He takes a deep breath and centres himself, watching from the corner of his eye as Matthew puts his seatbelt on.

“Just to be clear,” he says, turning the key in the ignition, “I'm not fucking you. This –” he lifts a hand, gesturing between them, "–  is not a sex thing, okay?”

Matthew stares at him. “The fuck am I doing here, then?”

“You tell me,” says Tyler, steering them out of the parking lot.

Matthew slumps in his seat, arms crossed like the sullen teenager he only barely isn't. “Not getting laid, apparently.”

“Jesus, give me strength.” Tyler grips the wheel, abruptly furious. “You proposition other guys in the league like that? Ask them to just mess you up?”

Matthew curls his lip. “The fuck do you care?”

“Listen, kid –”

“I'm not a kid!

“You're in my car, which means you’re a kid if I say you’re a kid! Just –” Tyler bites back whatever angry thing he'd been about to add and hisses out breath through his teeth. Matthew sits silent beside him, glaring out the windscreen. “Listen,” Tyler tries again, more gently than before. “I'm not any good at giving advice – the whole league knows how fucked up I was as a rookie, okay? This is not me preaching at you from some fucking moral press-box. But what you asked me to do in there, the licence you tried to give me, if that’s your go-to play, I’m telling you now, it's gonna land you in some deep hurt, bud.” And then, under his breath, because he can't quite help it, “Assuming it hasn't already.”

He's so braced for another outburst, it takes him three solid seconds to realise that he isn't getting one. He glances at Matthew and does a double-take, stomach twisting to see that all the famous Tkachuk bravado has melted away like it never existed, leaving behind a shaken, wide-eyed kid who looks like his dog just died.

“How do you do it?” Matthew whispers. He scrubs a wrist angrily across his face, sharp laughter in his throat. “How do you just... how?”

“How do I what, bud?” Tyler asks gently, hating that he can already guess the answer.

Matthew swallows hard. “Be gay,” he says, so quiet it's barely audible. “How do you – I don't know how to do this.”

He drops his gaze to his hands, splayed open in his lap, and Tyler doesn't have to look to know they're already scarred and bent and calloused from years of hockey. It makes his throat tight in a way he hates; he compensates by making a point of steering a little too big as he navigates the road, like he doesn't know the route from the rink to his house by heart, stalling for time as he tries to think what the fuck to say that might help.

“It's different for all of us, I think,” he says at last. It feels weak, but Matthew doesn't protest. Doesn't do much of anything, really; just keeps staring at his hands, watching as the passing lights flick over them in tiger stripes: orange, white, black. Tyler works his jaw, struggling for words, and comes up with, “My rookie year, I did a lot of pretending. It was just brojobs or handies on the road, you know, or convenient if a guy was up for it when a girl wasn't. I couldn't, like, I couldn't say the word to myself, kept freaking out that people would read something into how I was. That I looked gay.”

“At least you like girls, too,” says Matthew, quietly.

Tyler winces. Aw, shit. “It makes a difference, yeah,” he says, as if he fucking knows. “But just – when you want what you want, it's hard to keep lying to yourself about it, you know? And that week after we won the cup, I was so fucking happy, I guess I figured it didn't matter anymore. Like, I had a cup: what could anyone possibly say to me about who I fucked that mattered?” He laughs, still bitter in a way he suspects he'll always be. “But Boston's old school, you know. It mattered to them.”

There's a moment of tension, terrible silence filling the car like fumes. “Getting traded here, though,” Tyler says in a rush. “It was maybe the best thing that could've happened to me.”

Matthew makes a choking noise. “That's your advice? Get traded?”

“Do you want to get traded?” Tyler shoots back, more out of sheer contrariness than because he thinks it matters, but if the way Matthew tenses and slumps is anything to go by, it's another accidental bullseye. One second passes. Two. Then:

“I don't want to want to get traded,” says Matthew, almost pleadingly. Tyler waits him out, watching as he swallows. “Just... Dougie kept the room, not ever good, exactly, but he at least called guys out for their shit. And I never, I never got to tell him that it mattered to me, because I was always too fucking chickenshit to say anything." His voice is raw with self-loathing in a way that makes Tyler ache. “And Dougie isn't even fucking gay! He just wasn't a raging asshole, but I'm on a team full of assholes only I'm the asshole player, I'm the guy who takes cheap hits and plays garbage hockey and loses us games because that's what I'm fucking good at, and I can't – tell – anyone!”

Silence falls like punctuation. Tyler pulls into his driveway, the two of them staring dead ahead for the length of time it takes the gates to open. Matthew rubs his face, his curls falling into his eyes, and Tyler has to fight the urge to lean over the centre console and hug him like some weird, awkward uncle at a barbeque.

“Come meet my dogs,” he says instead, because what the fuck else can he say to that? “Dogs make everything better.”

Matthew laughs wetly. “Sure. Of course.”

They make it inside without further emotional incident. The place is still only half decorated – Tyler's mom is busy looking for “perfect things,” and he's under orders not to disturb her work in progress – but there's a comfy couch and three happy labradors waiting to greet them, and Tyler figures the American drinking age can go fuck itself for the sake of a comfort beer. He grabs them each a longneck of something Jamie bought and comes back into the lounge to find Matthew sitting with his back against the couch, arms wrapped around Marshall's neck and his face pressed into chocolate fur.

He's crying.

A little awkwardly, Tyler puts the drinks on the table – on the coasters, yes, mom, I'm using them – and sits down in his accustomed spot, making cooing noises as Gerry clambers into his lap and Cash presses up against his legs, tail thumping. The grey in Marshall's muzzle, like Matthew’s face, is hidden from view, and it's like staring back into 2013, at a young, bereft Tyler who’s just been traded for liking men and doesn’t know how to feel.

“Do you,” he starts, then stops again, watching as Matthew lifts his head. “Do you know how to be safe? More than lube-and-condoms safe, I mean. Like. Safe-safe.”

Matthew rubs Marshall's ears, not turning. “Nobody's safe,” he says.

Tyler shuts his eyes. “Oh, bud. That's not –”

“I'm gay in a league where no-one's out,” he snaps. “That's never going to be safe.”

“That doesn't mean you just let guys treat you like shit, either!” Tyler snaps. “Especially not other players. That's just – no. You've gotta have boundaries, okay? Jesus, you've gotta – it's like on the ice, like playing the game. You gotta keep your head up and protect yourself, not just let some asshole roll right over you because he can.”

I'm the asshole, remember?” Matthew's voice is sharp and bleak. “And anyway, coach says I play my best when I don't care about getting hurt.”

“Then your coach is a fucking idiot!” Tyler shouts, so loud that Gerry startles in his lap. Matthew flinches, looking at him for the first time since they came inside. Tyler stares at him, willing conviction into his voice. “The people who have your back need to actually have your back, bud. They need to care more than you do about you getting hurt, and they need to make sure you know that you actually matter. Yeah, you're a pest on the ice, but you're a fucking good one, same as Marchy and Naz. Your hockey isn't garbage, and I know that it sucks for guys like us a lot of the time in this stupid league, but you don't have to, like, market yourself as some sad gay whipping boy for some closeted asshole to fuck.”

Matthew is visibly trembling, fingers buried in Marshall's fur. “And what if I like getting hurt?” he asks, chin lifted up in a final, desperate challenge.

Tyler exhales, fighting the urge to rub his eyes. “Then you read up on safewords and look for dudes who know how to do kink properly. Getting tied down or spanked or whatever floats your boat, that's fine, but it's not meant to leave you feeling like shit afterwards.” His lips twist of their own volition, old memories sitting tender under his ribs. “Believe me, I figured that part out the hard way, and it gets so much better once you actually know how to ask for shit properly.” And then, with feeling, because he’s made plenty of better memories since those early fuckups, “So much better.”

“Oh,” says Matthew, stunned. He stares at Tyler like he's never seen him before.

Tyler looks at Matthew Tkachuk and sees a twenty-year-old who's already been through more than most guys twice his age.

“Aw, fuck,” he says, shoves Gerry off to slide to the floor beside him, and pulls Matthew into a hug – “Totally gay-platonic, I promise.”

Matthew tenses for all of half a second, then curls into Tyler and presses his face to his collarbone, fingers twisting up in his suit. Tyler shifts a little and pulls him closer, trying to give a hug worthy of Jordie Benn, who did the same for him, once.

“It's okay,” Tyler murmurs, rubbing a hand over Matthew's back and trying to pretend his own voice isn't cracking; that he can't feel tears soaking into his shirt. “It's okay, bud. I promise.”

“You can't promise shit,” says Matthew, but he laughs as he says it, the words muffled against Tyler's chest.

They sit like that for long enough that Tyler's ass goes numb. He's about to suggest they take this hug-fest to the couch when he remembers time is a thing.

“Shit,” he mumbles. “You got a curfew?”

“Fuck my curfew,” says Matthew, straightening a little. His eyes are red and wet, but he looks lighter than he did before. Defiantly, he says, “I'm gonna get bag-skated for that penalty anyway; I might as well stay out, too.”

Tyler laughs, delighted without meaning to be. “That's a bad idea,” he says, grinning.

Matthew grins back at him. “Thanks.” His hands are on Tyler's shoulders, his hip pressed to Tyler's thigh, and when he meets his gaze, his expression has changed into something shy and wanting.

Tyler's pulse kicks in warning. “Matty –”

Please.” He says it softly, fingers curling into Tyler's lapels, and this time, there's nothing studied about the way he looks up through his lashes. “I'm not... this isn't like before. Just. Please?”

Matthew might not know it, but Tyler knows that please in his soul – please see me, please show me, please give me something that matters – and in the moment, he doesn't have the heart to pretend otherwise. “You don't owe me this,” he says, and watches as Matthew, wide-eyed and hopeful, nods in confirmation.

“I know. But I want to.” He leans in, rubbing his nose across Tyler’s cheek. “I really want to.”

“Fuck,” Tyler says, gaze dragging over Matthew's lips. He lifts a hand, running a gentle thumb over the bottom one, then cups his cheek and looks at him.

“You really play beautiful hockey,” he says, and kisses him, slow and teasing.

Matthew whimpers, clinging on for balance as he climbs into Tyler's lap. Tyler groans in response, his free hand resting on Matthew's waist, the other curling around his neck as he pulls him closer, deepening the kiss.

“Just like this,” Tyler murmurs. "Just like this, okay?" He strokes Matthew's side through his dress shirt, resisting the urge to untuck it. Matthew grips his lapels and kisses him again, grinding desperately on his lap. Easy, Tyler wants to say, but fuck, he's only human. Instead, he squeezes Matthew's neck, lets his fingers move up and twist into his curls.

They kiss for long enough that the dogs get bored and wander away, which is a small mercy. Freed from canine supervision, Matthew moves urgently against him, desperate and needy. Tyler smiles into the kiss and sucks on the swell of his bottom lip, shivering as Matthew keens.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “Slow down, okay?” He reaches up and grips Matthew's wrists, plucking them off his jacket – and then, in a moment of inspiration, pushes them slowly down and back, until he's got both of Matthew's hands pinned in the small of his back.

“Can you keep them there?” he asks. “Or do you want me to hold them?”

“Hold,” gasps Matthew. His mouth is red and wet, his pupils huge. “God, fuck, please –”

Tyler's hard and has been for a while, but there's no real urgency to it. He reaches down and strokes Matthew through his suit pants, then deftly unzips him, pulls his cock out through the gap in boxers and fly with the ease of long practice. Matthew stares like Tyler just performed a sexual magic trick, breathing raggedly as he bucks his hips into the contact.

“Just like this,” Tyler says again, brushing their lips together, squeezing his wrists with one hand as he strokes his cock with the other. “It's only fair; I messed you up on the ice, so you mess me up here, okay? The good kind of mess.”

“Oh god,” Matthew whimpers. He pants into Tyler's mouth, eyes flickering shut-open-shut like he doesn't know whether to relax or watch. “Oh fuck, please –”

Tyler kisses him quiet, deep and grounding. Matthew is practically vibrating, pinned between mouth and hands. He might not be Tyler's usual type, but you'd have to be dead not to find the sight appealing. Tyler works him steadily, just a hint of tease, and when Matthew finally groans and comes all over Tyler's shirt, he's sheened with sweat from waist to forehead.

“There you go,” Tyler murmurs, absurdly proud of himself. He kisses Matthew's temple, laughing a little as he collapses against him, and gives his wrists one final, gentle squeeze as he lets go. “Fuck, I'm gonna have to lend you a shirt, aren't I?”

Matthew doesn't answer; just breathes raggedly against Tyler's chest – and then, with deliberate slowness, starts sliding down his body. His own arousal pointedly reasserts itself; a part of him thinks he ought to move, but his muscles won’t cooperate.

“Oh,” he says, dumbly, blinking as Matthew, lying between his legs, props himself on his elbows and starts to work Tyler's belt open. “You, uh. You don't have to a –”

Please,” Matthew says, in a tone that means there’s a silent bitch in front of it. “Believe me, this is very much not a hardship.” He smirks. “And anyway, I really, really want to.”

“Well,” says Tyler, suddenly breathless. “I mean. Uh.” He tries to remember his whole Responsible Adult act, and fails magnificently the second Matthew gets his mouth on him. “Oh. Oh, fuck.”

Matthew makes a gratified noise. Almost shyly, he reaches up and guides Tyler's hand into his hair, showing him how to grip. “Fuck,” Tyler whispers again, and tries really hard not to jerk his hips up.

Matthew gives head like he loves it, which is a goddamn relief on a number of levels and also stupidly hot. Tyler holds off his orgasm for a respectable amount of time, then tugs Matthew up in warning. Matthew lifts his head and jerks him off, quick and capable, eyes wide as he watches Tyler add to the mess on his game day shirt. Tyler goes briefly boneless, flopping back against the couch.

Fuuuuck, that was good,” he slurs, grinning lazily-pleased at Matthew. Making a supreme effort, he hooks his elbows over the lip of the couch and forces himself up from the floor, shucking his jacket as he sprawls out. “C'mere, bud,” he says, beckoning. “I'm a cuddler, if you're up for that.”

Matthew grins at him, suddenly sweet in a way that completely transforms his face. “For sure,” he says, and stretches out with Tyler, head pillowed on his chest.

Idly, Tyler drags his fingers through Matthew's hair, scratching from his undercut into his curls.

“Feel better?”

“Yeah.” And then, softly, "Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” says Tyler, and means it. “Hey, though – you wanna stay over? Assuming you're still committed to your whole fuck-curfew thing.”

It's a spontaneous offer, the kind he doesn't make often, but fuck – Matty clearly needs all the comfort he can get, and Tyler wasn't raised by wolves. “We can watch a movie in bed,” he adds, by way of making clear that this isn’t a sex-dependent offer. “Or, you know. Just do whatever.”

Matthew laughs against his chest. “A movie sounds perfect.”