“Oh, fuck,” Jongdae curses as he looks down. “Ow.”
“Okay, why are you more panicked about this than I am?” Minseok gives an amused smile, prodding at his swollen knee curiously. “Does it look that bad?”
“It’s all… puffy.” Jongdae pulls a face, his own thighs wiggling up and down, refusing to sit still. He hates hospitals. He can’t stop scratching his knees, like he has to check that they still work.
Minseok rolls his eyes. “Stop acting like you’ve never seen an injury before. It’s hockey .”
Jongdae has seen more injuries than he’s seen blue skies at this rate --typical of Toronto. Concussions and fractures and scrapes and tears; he can see a blood stain on the ice and tell exactly what caused it, like some weird forensic super power. Still, Minseok doesn’t get injured, injuries are for the reckless forwards, not Jongdae’s partner.
Minseok is --was-- untouchable. Unchanging.
“Minseok Kim?” A nurse comes into the waiting room, Minseok looks up at the sound of his name. “The doctor will see you now.”
Jongdae helps Minseok stand, slinging his arm over Jongdae shoulder’s and hopping him forward, sitting him down on the little cot they’d been directed to.
“Need me to stay to hold your hand?” Jongdae jokes.
“No.” Minseok’s eyes drop to Jongdae’s shaky fingers. “But maybe you need me to hold yours.”
He shoves them into his hoodie pockets. “I’ll wait outside.”
When Minseok hobbles in to practice on Monday night on crutches, Jongdae says, “This sucks.”
Minseok arches an eyebrow. “Which one of us has a torn cartilage ligament, again?”
“Seriously Dae, I know coach talks about you and Minseok needing to be more in sync,” Chanyeol pipes in, “but this isn’t Pacific Rim. You can’t actually feel his injuries.”
On the contrary Jongdae can always feel Minseok’s absence, like a phantom limb at his side.
“Shut up.” He shoves Chanyeol, who stumbles a few steps back as he snickers. “We’re partners. We were meant to go to play-offs together.”
And it’s Minseok’s final year, which means it was the last shot they had at a championship. All it takes is one aggressive forward from Guelph and it gets taken away in the blink of an eye; Jongdae too slow to stop it.
Minseok softens. “And we still can. You’ll just need to work with someone else to get us there for a little while.”
Jongdae pulls a face at the thought. He’s not against working with some of the other defencemen, but none of them play like Minseok and Jongdae do, which means it’s going to be a pain in the ass training with them to get their strategies aligned, to get that almost-psychic link that makes great partnerships.
Kyuhyun blows his whistle, calling the team over.
“I guess that’s us.” Jongdae gives Minseok a sympathetic smile.
“Have fun,” he offers, grinning and letting go of a crutch to slap Jongdae’s shoulder. “Break a leg.”
“Ha- ha .”
Jongdae jogs over to join the rest of the group on the other side of the gym, listening to Kyuhyun talk about which warm-ups they’ll go through today, and going over their plays against York. Jongdae zones out, eyes drifting over to Minseok in the corner of the room, looking at his phone. He should be listening too, Jongdae thinks, to take note for when he comes back, recovered.
But he isn’t listening. He doesn’t really seem to care.
As warm-ups end and Jongdae is sweating, ready to get to the ice session, Kyuhyun pulls him aside just as Minseok is finished talking with him, hobbling out of the gym.
“Can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure,” Jongdae answers, panting. “What’s up coach?”
“Are you free on Tuesday?” he asks. “I know it’s your day off, but it’s important. I’m holding emergency try-outs and I want you there.”
“What?” Jongdae gives a confused look. “Why?”
“Because with Minseok out you need a new partner.”
Jongdae falters. “Can’t I just partner with Doyoung or something?” His eyebrows furrow together.
“I don’t want to disrupt any of the current partnerships, and none of them work well with you, they’re not third liners. We’re going to need someone to fill Minseok’s empty spot.”
Jongdae’s stomach swoops, filled with dread.
“Okay,” he relents, swallowing. “Okay, sure. I’ll be there.”
Kyuhyun looks relieved. “Great. Go catch up with the others and get into gear.” He pats Jongdae on the shoulder almost patronisingly, but Jongdae doesn’t move as Kyuhyun leaves to go to the rink, staring at the empty room and wondering why everything looks out of place, even if nothing has changed.
Tuesdays Jongdae would spend at home in the dorms snacking on the carbs he isn’t allowed any other day of the week and reading comics instead of catching up on assignments, which is why having to deal with try-outs sucks. He knows he’s meant to be looking at all the rookies on the ice and judging who he’d think would make a good partner, but so far he’s just unimpressed. They’re all too reckless, too inexperienced, or they’re holding their sticks the wrong side, because they’re not even thinking about why they’re actually here.
Jongdae sighs, opening his mouth to tell Kyuhyun that they might have to give up right as the double doors swing open.
“Sorry!!!” someone shouts, struggling to walk as they keep bending down to tie up their skates. He waddles to the box where Jongdae and Kyuhyun are watching the other players, so loud it drags away all the attention in the room. “I’m here.”
“You’re late,” Kyuhyun says, unamused.
“Hence the apology.” The guy bends over in one smooth movement to pull off his skate guards and tosses them into the bleachers without a care. As he pulls himself up, he looks Jongdae straight in the eye, and a small, delighted smile passes over his face. “Hi.”
Jongdae blinks, taken aback. “Uh. Hi?”
“Name?” Kyuhyun asks.
“Baekhyun Byun.” Kyuhyun scans over the list. “It’s probably down the bottom, I signed up late.”
“Do you do everything late?” Jongdae mutters.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Baekhyun winks at him, making Jongdae just. Stare.
“Well, you’re an odd one out and you were late, but you listed good experience here.” Kyuhyun drags a line through the page. “Where are you from?”
“Vancouver,” Baekhyun answers. Jongdae resists the urge to gag --ew, B.C. “Transferred from UBC this semester.”
“You were third line?” Baekhyun nods. Kyuhyun deliberates for a moment. “Jongdae, partner up with him.”
Baekhyun looks like christmas came early; Jongdae makes an indignant noise.
“I wanna see how this kid plays, and he needs a partner to do drills. No harm in a little training.”
Jongdae wants to argue, but Baekhyun is grinning so wide it shows off all his teeth, thanking Kyuhyun for letting him try-out and skating onto the ice. Jongdae just swallows his retorts, pulling out his skates and tugging them on. He’s in gear so that they could’ve tested out his playstyles later on, not to him to partner up with some tardy B.C scraps.
The basic warm-ups pass pretty smoothly, Baekhyun pivoting between rubber markers on the ice and moving the puck between them. He has easy control in every direction, a natural grace on the ice that makes Jongdae prickle with jealousy. Kyuhyun leans forward on his seat, obviously noticing the same thing Jongdae does and simultaneously loathes; Baekhyun is good .
Kyuhyun gets onto the ice too, and he integrates Baekhyun into the partnered exercises with Jongdae, passing the puck back and forth between them. The moment Baekhyun had seen Jongdae put his stick down right, he’d switched his to left. Jongdae doesn’t know why that makes him as mad as it does.
They move on to a mock game of sorts, rotating around defending and offending in different sets of fours, rotating out whenever the defense line is broken, and it becomes obvious then that most of the people trying out aren’t actually defencemen.
When it gets to Baekhyun and Jongdae’s turn, they take up their place on the defense, Baekhyun looking at Jongdae and grinning through his helmet. Jongdae turns his head forward, ignoring him, wondering why his gut writhes as much as it does.
Baekhyun is good, but he’s also aggressive, beelining it to the puck every time it’s put in play and pushing forward to break their defense line.
“We’re playing defense.” Jongdae tugs his arm as they face their opponent, scowling. “Stop playing so far forward.”
“Stop being such a stay-at-home,” Baekhyun retorts, raising an eyebrow. “The whole point of the exercise is to break their line.”
“The whole point of the exercise is for them to break ours . We just have to stop that from happening.”
Even in full hockey gear, Baekhyun puts his hands on his hips and cocks them to the side, stick jutting out. “Do you do everything this risk-free? It’s just practice.”
“Yeah? And what happens when you pull risky shit in matches?” Jongdae retorts, irritation spiking. It’s a side-effect of playing; all the adrenaline and testosterone from speeding down the ice and getting shoved into barriers manifests itself and affects him more than just in-game, but he’s starting to think something about Baekhyun brings it out too. Maybe it’s the shit-eating smile or the glint in his eye, like he enjoys getting a rise out of Jongdae. “Maybe to you it’s all just a game, but most of us actually want to get scouted and make careers out of this. Don’t put yourself first.”
“Huh.” Baekhyun cocks his head, scrutinising Jongdae. “Interesting.”
It prickles over his skin. “What?”
“Nothing.” He smirks under his helmet; it makes Jongdae shiver. Baekhyun skates to face the puck about to be put in play. “I guess I’ll be a homebody for you, Jongdae.”
Jongdae scoffs, but at least Baekhyun starts playing defensively after that. Their line is unbreakable, rotating through the pairs, and the longer they last the more Jongdae becomes aware that Baekhyun will become a fixture on the ice whether he likes it or not.
“I hate him.”
Minseok, without looking up from his phone, says, “You don’t even know him.”
Jongdae pouts, nudging Minseok’s cast with his toe beneath the table. “I don’t need to know him. I’ve seen enough.”
Minseok rolls his eyes, finally putting his phone down and curling his fingers around his paper cup to keep them warm. They cover the Tim Horton’s logo so that all Jongdae can see are the letters I and M.
“Like it or not, coach said he was the best defenseman at tryouts.” Minseok softens, a little piteous. “Trust in him and Baekhyun, okay? You can’t be a defenseman alone.”
Jongdae knows this, of course he does, because he’s been a defenseman ever since he picked up a stick and tried on his first pair of skates in initiation, long before he realised defensemen was a position that existed.
“I’d rather play with you,” Jongdae whines, slumping over the table. “Why’d you have to go and injure yourself?”
“I’ll try to be more considerate next time.” Minseok’s lips quirk upwards, picking up his phone again. He types pretty quick for someone who doesn’t know what social media is, probably texting Heeyeon. Jongdae tries not to let that chord of jealousy twang in his gut, but it’s so hard. “But you realise if you get scouted, it’s not like we’ll be partners then. Consider this good training for the pro-league.”
“I guess.” Jongdae traces out the maple leaf on his coffee lid, dejected. “Not that anyone in the pro-league would ever play like Baekhyun.”
Minseok’s eyebrows raise in surprise. It’s cute. “That unique, huh?”
“No.” Jongdae’s face scrunches. “Just that stupid.”
Seeing Baekhyun at practice feels like a knife to the gut, and Jongdae isn’t sure why. Part of it is the reminder that Minseok has been replaced, part of it his refusal to accept it, part of it is the fact that Jongdae just doesn’t like Baekhyun, plain and simple. He’s loud-mouthed and opinionated, overly-friendly in a way that pushes boundaries, and takes everything in far too much stride for someone who’s on the team only as a temporary replacement.
This is all what Jongdae learns within the first two hours of practice alone, first in warm-ups and then on the ice, scowling at him through the barriers every time he goes into the box to pick up his water bottle.
“If the wind changes, your face will stay like that,” Chanyeol chirps.
“Shut up.” Jongdae squirts water at him.
“Even if it did he’d still be pretty.” Distracted by Chanyeol, Jongdae hadn’t even noticed Baekhyun skating forward to rummage through his own duffel bag. Jongdae scowls again. “Jeez. You could at least pretend to like me.”
“Jongdae’s too honest,” Chanyeol says helpfully. “And he’s defensive about Minseok’s place, like a feral alley cat protecting a dumpster.”
“I’m right here,” Jongdae complains, frowning harder and crossing his arms over his chest.
Baekhyun hums, biting down on the mouth of his water bottle and drinking as he examines Jongdae, making him shiver again, feeling transparent even with all his gear on, like the pads and guards aren’t enough to stop Baekhyun’s gaze piercing through him.
“Why is that?” Baekhyun asks, still talking to Chanyeol.
“Jongdae and Minseok have been defensemen partners since first year,” Chanyeol explains, making Jongdae frown even harder because it feels like Chanyeol’s giving up intel to the enemy, even with Baekhyun on the same team. “I guess he’s attached.”
It’s the slightest quirk of Baekhyun’s eyebrow, but dread sinks through Jongdae’s gut like solid lead and he’s afraid Baekhyun is watching it spiral, the drop of an anchor weighing him down. He stands, tucking his water bottle back into his bag, and skates out back onto the ice, pretending he can’t feel Baekhyun’s eyes on him the whole way.
The week leading up to a game is always intense for Jongdae, and he spends a lot of it zoning in and out, checking his phone constantly as if waiting for time to move faster. Sports therapy had seemed like a good idea when he’d finished high school since a degree in hockey doesn’t exist, but even as he drowns in all the work and theory behind physio all he can think about is Friday night. It’s only against Lakehead, the bottom of the ladder, but Jongdae knows better than to underestimate any of their opponents. They need to finish in the top two if they want to make it to the play-offs; he can’t slip up now.
As class ends, he gathers his notebooks and dashes out, eager to get to practice early so he talk to coach about solidifying some of their strategies. The third line is in rough shape with Minseok gone mid-season, and such a serious injury causes morale cascades throughout the rest of the team, too, like the ice beneath their skates has thinned out and at any second they’ll be benched off as well. Even Jongdae himself feels oddly delicate --if Minseok isn’t untouchable than neither is he, and part of that is unhelped by Baekhyun’s presence in the team, thinning him out into sheets of glass.
When he gets there, Baekhyun is already in the locker room, getting changed. Jongdae opens his locker without looking over, but he can feel Baekhyun’s eyes on him like always, itching at the back of his neck.
“You’re here early,” Baekhyun comments, picking up his phone and scrolling through it with one hand while munching on a muffin with the other.
“I wanted to talk to coach about some stuff,” Jongdae answers, pulling out his workout gear and hesitating. “I don’t think we’re ready to play tomorrow.”
Baekhyun quirks an eyebrow, leaning back on one hand. “You mean you aren’t ready to play tomorrow. I’m not the one holding us back.”
“Holding us back?” Jongdae scoffs in disbelief. “The third line is all about defense . We don’t have time for you to ignore coach’s instructions about zones and do whatever we like.”
“The coach isn’t playing the game with us,” Baekhyun retorts, knees spread wide on the bench seat. “His strats can’t be applied to every heat of the moment decision, especially in a new partnership. Do you seriously have no autonomy? Is that why you’re so attached to Minseok, because he always held your hand?”
Jongdae slams the locker door shut, seething with so much anger he grits his teeth and huffs long breaths through his nose, like a bull about to charge. Baekhyun just watches him lazily on the bench seat, wide open and vulnerable, and Jongdae’s anger twists into something gross and vulnerable inside him.
“Fuck you,” is all he tells Baekhyun, and takes his clothes to the toilet stalls to go change, refusing to let Baekhyun see him so bare.
A home match is a good comfort to Jongdae, meaning he doesn’t have to stress about the bus driving them out to other rinks across the province and getting home in one piece.
Familiarity is good to him, in all this change.
Even with their warm up on the rink Jongdae can’t help but eye the Lakeheads skating on the other side, trying to size them up and examine their skills. At least he’s not the only one; a proper match fills the air with anticipation and nerves, and Jongdae has always revelled in the way it connects the team.
Even Baekhyun seems affected, jittery and unable to sit still. Jongdae turns his head back to Kyuhyun drawing on the whiteboard, berating himself for checking on Baekhyun --as if he cares.
They break off, and Jongdae takes his place on the bench, eagerly watching the first line take their positions. It’s made up of the most offensive players they have, designed to score goals as quickly as possible and exhaust the other team. So much of hockey is rooted in bench management, though, which means every player off the ice has to absorb the game with hungry eyes, waiting for their right moment.
The puck is placed on the ice, and the whistle is blown. Junmyeon, their starting centre, races forward with it, taking it straight to the goal.
Hockey is never so simple, though, the puck quickly stolen, and Jongdae watches the game unfold as all the players are moved on and off the ice, swapping between the more defensive players and the more offensive, the all-rounders. The emptiness of the bleachers only contributes to the tense atmosphere --university league sports aren’t nearly as popular over here as they are in the states-- because with no huge crowd to cheer them on they only have each other.
Their offensive lines grow exhausted, so the third line are put into play, to hold the fort down while the other lines recover.
“Keep watch of number three!” Jongdae shouts at Baekhyun as they skate out, joining the rest of the team in the offensive zone. Baekhyun plays less like proper defense and more like a grinder, constantly checking opponents into barriers and focusing more on whoever has the puck than the other players at risk. It infuriates Jongdae, because he needs Baekhyun to stay back with him and make sure they focus on the players getting passed to, not whoever’s doing the passing, but he’s too hot-headed as always.
“Three Baekhyun, three!” Jongdae shouts, seeing the way Lakehead’s most offensive player is wide open. Baekhyun ignores him, and when Jongdae tries to intercept the pass he’d seen coming, he’s shouldered backwards onto the ice. Jongdae has always been narrow and lithe for a defenseman, though his power has come in his balance --speeding so quickly to cover Baekhyun’s missed ground he can’t hold himself, falling back and feeling his helmet slam against the ice.
A whistle is blown; Jongdae groans. He prods at his temple through the gaps in his helmet, pulling them back to see blood. The player who’d knocked him is sent to the sin-bin with a penalty at least, but as Jongdae is lead off the ice he feels as if he’s failed.
“What the hell are you two doing out there?” Kyuhyun yells; Jongdae just winces. “Leaving each other to eat shit while you try and play MVP? Pull yourselves together.” Baekhyun shirks into his shoulders; it’s pitiful. “If you both want to mess up our play that bad then you can stop playing at all.”
Jongdae opens his mouth to argue, but any retort falls flat.
“He needs to get to a hospital,” the nurse taping a bandage to Jongdae’s forehead interrupts. “He could be concussed.”
“I’m fine,” Jongdae lies. There’s only a few minutes left on the clock, he needs to make sure they maintain their two point lead until the very end.
“You aren’t,” Baekhyun says, voice surprisingly quiet. “I’ll take him.”
“Good plan,” Kyuhyun says, still bristling. Baekhyun leads Jongdae out of the box and sits him down in the bleachers, untying his skates and then standing, taking Jongdae’s wrist into his and pulling off his gloves, his elbow and shoulder pads, all with a strange amount of delicacy until Jongdae is in nothing except his jersey and compression tights.
“I can undress myself,” Jongdae mutters.
“Not if you’re concussed.” Baekhyun offers a hand out. “Besides, maybe I like undressing you.”
To think Jongdae was almost feeling sorry for him.
He isn’t concussed, which makes the whole drive out to the hospital in awkward silence feel pointless. At least Baekhyun’s car is nice, but sitting in the waiting room with Baekhyun refusing to leave Jongdae’s side had felt like a burden.
And he’s still here now even as Jongdae waddles back from the doctor’s room, feeling weirdly fragile, his head sporting a new egg-shaped lump. Baekhyun stands as he approaches.
“How is it?”
“Fine,” Jongdae says, still prodding at the spot. “All it needs is ice and I’ll be alright.”
Baekhyun exhales a long breath of relief. Slumping back into his seat. He twists his wrist to gesture to the phone in his hands. “We won. 3-2.”
“Thank god.” Jongdae slumps next to him, also releasing a breath. He feels bad now, that Baekhyun missed the end. “You didn’t have to drive me out here.”
Baekhyun turns, an expression on his face Jongdae can only describe as puppyish. He looks so different to the cocky, obnoxious, loud-mouthed jerk Jongdae is used to, oddly vulnerable.
“It’s my fault you’re here, I should’ve listened to you,” Baekhyun admits, slumping his shoulders. “Guess it was the nerves. I’m still not used to being here, especially with the team.” Right, Baekhyun only transferred this semester… “In B.C my partner and I always played offensively even as third liners, because that was just how the team was. I guess I thought you’d adjust.”
“It’s fine,” Jongdae says, even though it isn’t, since he’s in hospital and missed the end of the game, and he hates being partnered with Baekhyun. Still, it’s hard to hold that against Baekhyun when he looks so piteous. “I should’ve listened to you too. Let’s just. Go back or whatever.”
Baekhyun looks up at Jongdae, and if he had a tail, it’d be wagging. “Let me drive you home,” he offers. “It’s the least I can do.”
Jongdae doesn’t need the kindness or the pity, but Baekhyun needs this to feel better about Jongdae’s injury, so he relents and nods all the same, trying not to pay attention to the curve of Baekhyun’s lips as he grins.
Whatever bitterness had been in Jongdae settles after that, and it twists inside him. There’s a weird truce between him and Baekhyun he hates almost more than all the riling up, a simple ignorance towards one another. Baekhyun feels too guilty to approach Jongdae, and Jongdae feels too wary of Baekhyun to break the tension, so instead they just wallow in it. Even with Baekhyun playing more on the defensive side as he should be, they’re out of sync and discordant. Baekhyun may have been the best player at try-outs, but Jongdae isn’t sure if that’s enough when they fail to match.
“Is something up between you and Byun?”
Jongdae falters, putting his water bottle down. “No, coach. Why?”
Kyuhyun exhales through his nose. “I was hard on you both at the game, I know that, but now you two are almost worse together than you were before. We can’t afford that.”
“Baekhyun and I just don’t… fit. I don’t know what to tell you.” Baekhyun is nothing like Minseok, loud where he’s quiet, messy where he’s neat, intense, driven, selfish, where Minseok is well-balanced. Spread-out. Baekhyun and Jongdae… they’re opposites, like two sides of a coin that will never see the other’s face.
“It’s hockey, Jongdae.” Kyuhyun sighs again. “I don’t need you two to makeout and perfect a dance routine, I need you to play defense. Whatever it is that makes you two clash, sort it out, okay?”
“Okay,” Jongdae agrees, because he has no choice. “Sorry.”
Kyuhyun leaves him in the locker room then, patting his shoulder and walking out. Jongdae stares at his locker for a long time before slamming it shut.
Outside, the rink lights are still on, and it makes Jongdae curious, sneaking through one of the unlocked doors. Baekhyun is on the ice in nothing but skins, racing back and forth with a puck at his stick, rotating and twisting to master each direction. He skids along the ice and Jongdae winces as he watches Baekhyun collide with the barrier, only to get back up and wipe the sweat from his brow.
He shouldn’t say anything. He shouldn’t .
“It’s late,” Jongdae calls, making Baekhyun jump on the ice and slip a little, catching himself on the barrier. “Are you even allowed in here?”
Baekhyun straightens, panting. “I’m an excellent sweet-talker,” he replies, fluttering his eyelashes. Jongdae rolls his eyes.
“You’ll exhaust yourself if you practice this much.” He approaches the barrier.
“No I won’t,” Baekhyun skates closer so he won’t have to yell. “I’m used to this.” There’s still the barrier between them, but Baekhyun comes forward and leans his elbows on it, chin in hand. “Wanna join? I’ve heard our partnering could use some work.”
Jongdae huffs. “He gave you the talk too, huh?”
“Of course. He’s a good coach.” Baekhyun straightens up and skates backwards, doing a loopy backwards skate that has a strange grace to it, eyes trained on Jongdae, always. At the end, he does a little full-rotation spin. “Is that a no?”
Jongdae looks at the ice, and he feels a weird sort of longing, like he was born to be on skates rather than feet. He can feel them sometimes at night when he lies in bed, the smooth glide across the ice, the way his breath fogs in front of his face. Then he can feel the sharp thud of the barrier against his side, the adrenaline of seeing the puck ahead and racing for it as if death doesn’t exist.
Then it all fades, because all that’s on the ice right now is Baekhyun, looking at Jongdae with a grin and a burning behind his eyes like maybe they’re not opposites after all.
“I should go home,” Jongdae lies, stepping back. Too afraid to go forward and all that comes with it. “Maybe some other time. Sorry.”
Something like disappointment settles across Baekhyun’s face as he tips his head. “You don’t need to apologise, I get it. I’ll see you tomorrow at practice, yeah?”
Jongdae licks his lips. They feel too dry. He swallows. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Minseok is in the bleachers, today. Jongdae skates over as soon as he spots him.
“What’re you doing here?” he asks, waddling over the mats on his skates. Minseok had stopped showing up to practice after that first time --he hadn’t even showed up to the games. Jongdae had texted him on Tuesday morning and cancelled their usual coffee hangout, saying he had too much work to do. He’d gone to the library and sat down with his empty doc for the two thousand word paper about the history of sports medicine and didn’t write a single thing.
“Thought since Tuesday was cancelled we could hang out tonight,” Minseok offers. “Practice usually ends early on Thursdays and I feel weird not seeing you as much without hockey.” He laughs, a nervous, tinny sound. Jongdae bites back any bitter response about Minseok not showing up. Without Minseok around, Jongdae had felt like everything in the team and with Baekhyun had all become messier, but now with him back it’s like it’s even worse. “Where’s the new kid? I wanna meet who took my spot.”
“Baekhyun?” Jongdae blinks, turning out to the rink. “Baekhyun is… there.” He points to where he’s currently talking with Chanyeol and Junmyeon, laughing as he waits his turn to do the drill.
“Well, bring him over.” Jongdae doesn’t move. “Dae?”
He bites his lip. “We’re not really… like, friends.”
“You’re partners.” Minseok laughs in disbelief. “Do you seriously still hate him?”
“No,” Jongdae is quick to defend, because he never hated Baekhyun, he just… doesn’t understand him. But after the hospital and the night earlier in the week, Jongdae is confused about how to feel. There’s so much about Baekhyun he doesn’t understand, and the worst part is that he wants to understand, and that scares him. “It’s just… awkward. We don’t know how to be normal around each other.”
Minseok snorts. “God, you’re acting like exes. Your play must be shit.”
Jongdae hmph s. The last few games they’d played together had survived purely through the power of the rest of the team; they’re lasting for now versing the bottom of the ladder, but they have a game with Guelph soon, the top rank, they can’t afford to be the weakest link then.
Minseok stares at Jongdae for a few seconds, eyes narrowing, then cups his hands around his mouth and calls, “Baekhyun!”
Baekhyun looks up, staring straight at Jongdae, who goes red. Minseok waves him over, Baekhyun pointing at his face with a puppyish frown to say me? before skating forward.
“Hi.” Minseok grins. “I’m Minseok, the guy you replaced,” he introduces, sticking out a hand from the bleachers. Baekhyun takes it.
“Oh.” His gaze falls to Jongdae. “Huh.” Jongdae feels that transparent sensation again, prickling over his skin. “Well, it’s nice to meet you then.”
“You too.” They let go, and Minseok shoves his bare hands back into his pockets. “Jongdae isn’t too much trouble, is he?”
“Not at all.” Baekhyun’s smile shows off his canines, a wild, rabid look. “I’m afraid I’m the troublemaking partner.”
Minseok asks Baekhyun more questions then, about transferring from B.C because his parents moved too, about his degree --music-- fitting in with the team, previous hockey experience. It could almost double up as a job interview, if Minseok weren’t so good at staying casually intrigued. The worst bit is that Jongdae has to stand there and listen to it all, too afraid to leave Minseok and Baekhyun on their own as if something might happen.
“Well, I like him,” Minseok tells Jongdae, pulling him out of his thoughts. “I don’t know why you’re such a baby about him.”
Jongdae makes indignant noises because Baekhyun is right there , but he’s only smiling. “I’m pretty bad at first impressions. I’ve heard I can be annoying.”
“Jongdae is annoying too, by all means you guys should get along.”
Jongdae whines louder, and Baekhyun just laughs, a sharp thing that startles out of him, quickly covering it with a hand.
He clears his throat. “That hockey-above-all-else mentality must get in the way a lot,” Baekhyun points out.
Minseok groans in empathy. “You have no idea. He never shuts up about it!”
Minseok ignores him. “You should come hang out with us after practice, I bet you’re good at talking about non-hockey stuff.”
Baekhyun’s grin stretches wider. “I am a fan of talking.”
“We’ll probably just go to a bar or something, you down?”
Jongdae falters. “Hey, I never agreed to--”
“Sure,” Baekhyun cuts him off, smiling. “Sounds good.”
The coach blows his whistle, waving at Baekhyun, and he turns. “Ah, that’s my cue.”
Minseok waves as he leaves, and Jongdae quickly whacks him.
“What is wrong with you?”
“What is wrong with you?” Minseok retorts. “Baekhyun seems nice. Why can’t you get along?”
Jongdae opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He closes it. “He’s… a jerk.”
Minseok rolls his eyes. “Accept the unacceptable, Dae. He’s your partner now, you’ll just have to get used to that.”
Jongdae frowns, because if Minseok is impermanent then so is Baekhyun, but he doesn’t get a chance to say that. Kyuhyun is waving him back onto the ice to start up his own drill, so all Jongdae can do is waddle away from Minseok, unanswering, returning to the ice.
Practice ends and they hit the showers, with Jongdae slowly turning up the hot water dial until his skin is steaming, trying to melt off the sensation of the ice beneath his feet. It fails, like always, and he dries, dresses, and steps out, surprised to see Baekhyun.
“What’re you still doing here?” he asks. Jongdae had been late getting to the showers, and as a consequence he’s one of the last people to be done. He doesn’t mind the alone time, though.
Baekhyun looks at him. Blinks. “Minseok said we were going to hang out, remember?”
“Oh.” Jongdae turns red, rubbing the back of his neck. “Right…”
Baekhyun laughs under his breath, wriggling in place. “I don’t have to come, you know. Turning down an invitation felt rude but if you don’t want me there it’s cool. I get it.” Baekhyun inhales slowly, looking out of place. “You don’t like me and you probably don’t want me to third wheel with… with Minseok so. I get it.”
Jongdae’s shoulders drop, and he feels bad, because here’s that less abrasive, softer side to Baekhyun, the one he’s seen only in glimpses. His blunt honesty is refreshing, but it also makes Jongdae feel like a jerk. Minseok invited Baekhyun after all and maybe… maybe he was right to. Jongdae should be trying a little harder to get along with him, for the sake of the team.
Jongdae clenches his jaw and swallows his pride. “No, it’s fine. You can come.”
Baekhyun laughs quietly behind his hand. “Wow, that almost didn’t sound like it was through gritted teeth.”
Jongdae resists the urge to groan. Every time he thinks maybe Baekhyun isn’t the absolute worst, Baekhyun tries to prove him wrong.
“Okay okay sorry it’s reflex to tease you--” Baekhyun holds up his hands in surrender, but his lips are turned up at the corners. “I’ll come and be an obedient silent witness, swear.” He draws a cross with his index finger over his heart.
“You’re allowed to talk,” Jongdae deadpans.
“Well thank god you gave me permission.” Baekhyun’s grin widens, but for once, Jongdae sees it as the little teasing smile it is, and not shit-eating smugness. He pulls his bag out of his locker.
“Come on,” Jongdae urges, nudging Baekhyun forward. “Minseok will be waiting.”
And true to his word he is, smiling at his phone as he waits outside, breath fogging across his face. He’s wrapped a scarf around his neck and is shivering, but the tip of his nose and his cheeks are pink. It makes Jongdae’s heart pang familiarly, but it’s only the ghost of a sensation.
“You guys take so long to get ready, seriously. Heeyeon takes less time and she does all these cool complicated make up-y things. You guys look significantly less hot.”
“Heeyeon?” Baekhyun repeats, tilting his head.
“My girlfriend,” Minseok answers, and a dopey smile appears on his face. Of all the things to do, Baekhyun looks at Jongdae, then, who stills his face carefully.
“Yes yes we’re single and you’re not keep rubbing it in,” Jongdae jokes, putting both hands on Minseok’s shoulder to steer him forward. “Let’s get going before the bar closes and the cartoon birds show up and start singing show tunes.”
“Joke all you want but I know you love musicals!” Minseok shouts. Jongdae just laughs, bright and loud into the night air. Baekhyun stumbles to follow.
There are plenty of cheap bars close to campus specifically designed to exploit broke student wallets for shit beer, and that’s exactly where they go, shuttling themselves into the end of the bar on three stools, Jongdae in the middle. Minseok immediately reaches for the little bowl of peanuts.
“We haven’t even started drinking yet!” Jongdae half-yells at him, trying to be heard over the packed crowd and the blasting music.
“I’m preparing in advance!” Minseok half-yells back.
Minseok starts speak-yelling at Baekhyun to tell him more about UBC as Jongdae orders them a round, happily drinking as Minseok and Baekhyun bond over their gap years --Baekhyun is a year behind Jongdae, then. Huh. Minseok had done all the outdoorsy true-Canadian-at-heart stuff, hiking and biking across mountains, but Baekhyun had travelled all over Asia, eating as much food as possible and doing it all as cheap as possible. It’s interesting to hear about, all the places he’s been, the things he’s seen, countries Jongdae would never even think of visiting being painted into these beautiful pictures by Baekhyun’s tipsy mouth. It makes Jongdae kind of… jealous. He’d gone straight to uni, because it had just felt like the thing to do. He couldn’t travel and play hockey.
After a few rounds of drinks they call it quits, stumbling out as Minseok and Baekhyun laugh together. It makes Jongdae oddly jealous --maybe he should’ve been the one left injured, so they could be partners instead. They obviously get along.
The alcohol makes his bitterness all the more pungent, souring, but it’s baseless. What has Jongdae got to be jealous over? The fact that Minseok likes Baekhyun so much, or the fact that Baekhyun likes Minseok, or is it neither? Does he just hate the fact that they’ve done so much, and all Jongdae is left with, like always, is hockey, which pales in comparison, too afraid to choose anything else.
Baekhyun is recounting a funny story about him and a friend getting lost in Japan, and Jongdae and Minseok burst into laughter at it, Baekhyun preening with pride. He’s actually… funny when Jongdae is tipsy enough to let his guard down, and starts seeing Baekhyun’s teasing as just that. Teasing, not a threat, not a jab --he pokes fun at himself as much as he pokes fun at Minseok and Jongdae, and none of it is malicious. It never has been.
They’re cut off by a ringtone.
“Oh shit,” Minseok pulls out his phone. “It’s my sister. I gotta take this.” He presses the phone to his ear, stepping aside as Baekhyun and Jongdae lean against the wall. “What’s up?” he greets, voice faint.
Jongdae watches him go, and becomes aware of the way the silence stretches between him and Baekhyun. Jongdae just doesn’t know how to act around him --act friendly and pretend like they’d never been jerks to each other at the start, or be an adult and apologise? Pride prevents Jongdae from either, he’s just too stubborn.
Luckily, Baekhyun breaks first.
“He’s really cool, you know,” he blurts. “Minseok, I mean. I can see why he’s your partner.” Unsure of what to say to that, Jongdae can only blink. “And now I feel bad ‘cuz I took his place and stuff.”
“You didn’t,” Jongdae replies, making Baekhyun falter. “I mean… he got injured. It’s not like that’s your fault.” Baekhyun brightens, and Jongdae feels his stomach twist itself into intricate knots.
Baekhyun’s eyes crinkle as he smiles. It’s another thing about him to hate.
“Okay sorry, family emergency. My sister is having a meltdown.” Minseok jabs a thumb over his shoulder. “I’d better get going, but you two can feel free to have fun without me.”
In sync, Baekhyun and Jongdae look at each other.
“Uh…” Jongdae stalls, at the same time Baekhyun says, “Um.”
Minseok snickers. “And to think you two can’t play well together.” He shakes his head fondly, then lifts a hand to wave. “See you guys later, it was fun hanging out with you Baekhyun!”
“Um. Yeah,” Baekhyun says lamely as Minseok walks away. “You… too?”
More awkward silence.
“I should get back to the subway stop,” Jongdae blurts.
“Oh, cool me too. We can walk together,” Baekhyun offers. Seeing the look on Jongdae’s face, he adds, “Unless you’d… rather we walk five steps apart and ignore each other like strangers.”
Jongdae sighs. Baekhyun just laughs. Surprisingly, it makes Jongdae smile too. “Just come on. Dumbass.”
Baekhyun grins as Jongdae tugs him along, each peal of his laughter turning into fog in the winter air. When Baekhyun nearly slips on the slush, he’s caught only by Jongdae’s quick hands, and mumbles a thanks beneath his breath as Jongdae helps him up.
“How graceful,” Jongdae teases.
“I swear skates are easier to walk in then shoes,” Baekhyun remarks, Jongdae only grunting in agreement. “I was surprised you know, tonight. You didn’t talk about hockey even once.”
A replay game had been on at the bar, of course, and Jongdae had been watching it out of the corner of his eye, the coyotes versus the canucks. But with Baekhyun and Minseok bonding over all their travel and student woes, Jongdae hadn’t felt like saying anything.
“How is that surprising?” he asks.
Baekhyun shrugs. “You’re just… so focused on hockey all the time. You take it so seriously.”
“It’s my dream,” Jongdae admits. “It’s all I have.”
Baekhyun frowns at that, tipping his head. “What does that mean?”
His gaze pierces through Jongdae again, and he hates it. “I… it’s just--” He curls into himself a little, defensive-- “Everyone has things they love. For me it’s hockey.”
Baekhyun processes that for a moment, frowning. “I mean, I get it, because I love hockey too but... How can you say it’s all you have?”
“I’m not good at anything else.”
“You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it, to be passionate,” Baekhyun counters. “You’re not defined by one interest alone, Jongdae.”
That may be true for people like Minseok and Baekhyun, filled with passion and talent, but for Jongdae all he’s ever had is hockey. Without hockey, he’s nothing; that fact never changes.
“That’s not--” Jongdae swallows, shakes his head. “Whatever.”
“Hey.” Baekhyun tugs Jongdae’s wrist, making him stop in place. Beneath the streetlight, the tacky red highlights in his hair stand out all the more, his black eyes shining amongst all the snow. There’s a moment of bated breath, and then Baekhyun bites his bottom lip and says, “Come skate with me.”
Jongdae falters. “What?”
“Come skate with me. You promised me that night in the rink, remember?” He begins tugging Jongdae in a different direction to the station. “So, let’s go skating.”
Jongdae stutters in disbelief. “It’s late.”
“The night is young and so are we!” Baekhyun counters, laughing. It’s contagious. “C’mon, there’s a pop-up rink not too far from here.”
Sure enough between streets in an open plaza a large glass dome has been set up with a temporary rink inside, Baekhyun weaving Jongdae through the winter crowd to the booth and asking for two tickets before Jongdae can even ask him why . He’s too startled to do anything but cough out his shoe size when asked, and before he knows it they’re sitting on the bench and pulling on figure skates.
“I thought you said I’m more than just hockey,” Jongdae says, wobbling slightly as he stands. The boot fits differently --partly because it’s a rental-- and the blade feels weird under his feet.
“You are,” Baekhyun insists, tugging Jongdae out onto the ice by taking both his hands. “But this isn’t hockey.”
Jongdae is so unused to the different boots and blades he almost doesn’t have sturdy legs, feeling his fingers clench tighter onto Baekhyun’s hands as they glide out, Baekhyun easily skating backwards.
“You’ve done this before,” Jongdae states.
“You haven’t?” Baekhyun’s smile grows as he realises. “Oh my god, Jongdae.”
“It’s figure skating,” he grumbles. “Why would I figure skate when I have hockey.”
“Because you should always try new things. I only play hockey because I figure skated, and let me just say that figure skating is way harder.” Jongdae stumbles when he leans forward accidentally onto his toe-stops, jolting him in place as he nearly falls --why are those even there.
“No one tries to beat you up in figure skating,” Jongdae grumbles.
“Yeah but no one makes you do this in hockey.” Baekhyun let’s go, making Jongdae feel unbalanced, and starts doing a few quick layovers before jumping into the air and landing backwards on one leg, circling back over to Jongdae, who rolls his eyes. “Heh. Still got it.”
“Show off,” Jongdae scoffs.
“Jealous?” Baekhyun takes his hands again, and Jongdae tries not to overthink it, the warmth in his palms. He swallows.
“If you’re such a great figure skater, why give it up for hockey?”
Baekhyun hums, then shrugs. “I dunno, I like them both, but figure skating comps are way more annoying.” Jongdae huffs a laugh. Of course. “And it’s… a little more lonely. Still fun, though, just to skate without purpose. Don’t you love the ice?”
Baekhyun smiles at him, waiting like an eager puppy seeking approval, and beneath all the fairy lights strung up inside he looks so soft, skin flushed, still panting from his jump.
“Yeah,” Jongdae relents. “I do.”
“Then there’s a whole passion for you outside of hockey.” Baekhyun’s eyes twinkle. “Look at that.”
Jongdae pinches him, making Baekhyun yelp, and races away hockey style before he can retaliate, weaving between the throngs of people carefully as they laugh, circling around the rink.
“EXCUSE ME,” someone shouts from behind the barrier. “BUT THIS IS A NO RACING ZONE. CALMLY SKATE OR GET OFF THE ICE.”
Jongdae skids to a stop, and Baekhyun collides into him, knocking them into the barrier.
“Sorry!” Baekhyun calls, one arm looped around Jongdae’s waist to keep him in place, and they both have to bite on their lips to stop themselves from giggling. The disgruntled attendant walks away, and they burst into laughter.
“Our time is nearly up anyway,” Baekhyun says, breathless and flushed. Jongdae feels winded too, for different reasons. “Let’s get outta here.”
They leave their skates and stumble out of the rink laughing, as Baekhyun recounts the attendant’s grumpy voice as if they weren’t both there. Jongdae doesn’t care, Baekhyun is vibrant, enrapturing in a blinding sort of way. He’s nothing like Minseok, no, but maybe that’s not as much of a bad thing as Jongdae first thought.
There’s a cart selling beaver tails near the rink and Baekhyun buys them one to split, tearing at the pastry in pieces each and biting into them in silence as they sit on a bench and watch the night snow fall. The sugar sticks behind Jongdae’s teeth.
“So what’s your back-up plan in all this?” Baekhyn asks suddenly, Jongdae giving him a confused look. “If hockey is all you have, then what happens if it doesn’t work out. What if things change?”
The thought makes Jongdae squirm a little, filled with dread. “I guess… physio. That’s what I’m at uni for.”
Baekhyun laughs under his breath, covering it with a hand. “Of course that’s your back-up. The next best thing closest to hockey.”
Jongdae ignores that jab. “What about you?”
“Oh, I’m not like you,” Baekhyun replies, shrugging. “I don’t make plans and be all methodical, I just go with the flow. I guess I don’t see hockey being my career but I’m open to a lot of different things. Life is too unpredictable, so I’ll just see what happens.”
Jongdae laughs, shaking his head. “I could never be like that.”
“Believe me, I know.” Jongdae looks at him. “What? You hate risk, and change, and you’re stubborn as hell. Of course you’ve got only got one goal in mind.”
“Oh? And since when did you know me so well?” Jongdae goads, smiling.
Baekhyun shrugs again. “We may not have this one thing in common, but we’re still more similar than you think.”
“Really? I don’t cheat on hockey with figure skating.”
Baekhyun snorts. It’s adorable. “Of course the thing you hate most about me being a figure skater is the fact that it means I’m having an affair.”
“What did you expect?” Jongdae gives him a funny look. “You shouldn’t be so talented. It’s annoying.”
Baekhyun softens a little, quietly saying, “Usually the jabs are a little more bigoted, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Jongdae blurts, suddenly sheepish. “Uh. That sucks, I’m sorry.”
“I mean, they’re not exactly wrong.” Baekhyun squints. “When you first hated my guts I thought it was because you could like, tell.”
Jongdae writhes with guilt. “I was a jerk,” he admits. “But it was never-- I would never--”
“I know,” Baekhyun reassures, eyes all curved. “You were just defensive over hockey, typical.”
Jongdae rolls his eyes and bumps their shoulders together. “I’m a defenseman, it’s my job.”
Baekhyun bumps him right back. “I’m one too.”
More silence stretches between them, and Jongdae can’t stand it. “Then you’re right, because we do have more in common,” he offers, feeling like he owes it to Baekhyun. “Since I’m also… you know…”
“A figure skater,” Jongdae adds, mumbling. “Kinda.”
Baekhyun snorts. “Nice way of putting it, but saying ‘gay’ won’t actually hurt you.”
“I’m not gay,” Jongdae corrects. “Just... Bi. I guess. I don’t know, I don’t really think about it a lot.”
“Of course you don’t, it’s irrelevant to hockey.”
“Not always,” Jongdae murmurs under his breath. They smile at each other, tentative, a strange sort of shared moment --it isn’t something Jongdae often admits, but it’s nice to know he’s not alone all the same. Baekhyun’s expression forces Jongdae to look away, and the tension breaks.
“Is it bad to say I kinda figured, though?” Baekhyun fills in. “When I realised you hated me for my personality and not my flirting I thought, ‘you can’t be a straight hockey player and not be even a little homophobic’.”
Jongdae laughs, but he’s also distressed. “I don’t hate you, Baekhyun. I never have.” Baekhyun’s shoulders fall. “But I also would never call that flirting. You purposefully pushed all my buttons.”
“I was pulling your pigtails,” Baekhyun corrects, tugging on a strand of Jongdae’s hair to prove a point, who swats his hand away. “Couldn’t help myself.”
“You’re such a jerk,” Jongdae says, but he’s smiling, because Baekhyun really is an impulsive puppy at heart.
“Hmm sometimes. I guess we have that in common too.” Baekhyun settles into the bench seat as he licks sugar off his thumb. “At least now I know I’m not your type.”
Jongdae freezes. “What do you mean?”
“Just… y’know.” Baekhyun shirks into himself a little. “You obviously like Minseok, that’s why you hate that I took his place so much.”
“Woah--” Jongdae stands-- “I’m sorry, what ? What kind of baseless assumptions is that?”
“It’s not baseless,” Baekhyun scoffs. “Don’t get so defensive. I’m not judging you for it.”
“I don’t like Minseok!” Jongdae counters. “And you don’t-- you don’t get to pretend like you understand me when we’re not even friends and fuck-- clearly you don’t understand me.”
Baekhyun falters, affronted at Jongdae’s sudden outburst. Jongdae feels furious, a mix of adrenaline and anger as if he’s being pushed into the barrier on the ice; but he also feels weak, vulnerable, like he knows he can’t push back.
“I’m sorry, okay?” Baekhyun offers, frowning. “I’ll drop it.”
The anger turns to embarrassment, and Jongdae’s quickened temper becomes another point of shame. Baekhyun looks hurt and Jongdae hates it, but like always, he’s held back.
“Let’s just go,” he mumbles, shoving his hands into his pockets. “It’s late.”
Baekhyun withers, standing. “Okay,” he relents, throwing away the last of the beaver tail as they leave the park, walking back in complete silence to the subway.
At Friday night practice, Baekhyun and Jongdae are somehow worse off than they were before. It’s incredible, really, that they made all that progress together and Jongdae was finally starting to feel something toward Baekhyun that wasn’t animosity or awkwardness only for Baekhyun to push one wrong button and for it all to go to shit.
But with a cool-off period Jongdae recognises that he was out of line to snap at Baekhyun like that, just because he hit a weakness without realising, so he stalls himself in the locker room, flipping through his cue cards for the upcoming anatomy test without taking in a word. It’s impossible to focus when all he can think about is Baekhyun, about the team, about them as partners, and more than anything, all Jongdae can think about is how bad of a sign that is.
Baekhyun walks out of the showers with a towel around his waist, and stops when he spots Jongdae.
“...Is something wrong?” he asks, tentative as his eyes flick down Jongdae’s body.
“I’m sorry,” Jongdae blurts. “I… I snapped at you when I shouldn’t have but. It was… a sore spot.”
Baekhyun looks surprised, holding onto his towel with one hand. “Um. Apology accepted?” He huffs. “Wow, I did not see this coming.”
Jongdae tries not to be offended by that. “I’m not usually as much of a jerk as I have been to you,” he admits, wrapping his arms around his middle. “So I’m sorry but it was just… a lot of pushed buttons.”
Baekhyun sits on the bench opposite to Jongdae, towel hanging over his knees, palms behind him. “So you are in love with him.”
“I was,” Jongdae corrects, and it comes out of him all in one big breath. “First year, and I told him, and he turned me down, and I’m over it but…” He swallows, curling a fist over his heart. “I guess I’ll always have that longing.” It’s like a haunting ghost he can’t get rid of, not tangible but still there . Baekhyun looks shocked. “I… refused to let it get in the way of our friendship, because I guess I’m kind of stubborn--”
Baekhyun smiles. “‘Kind of’.”
“--But. It’s fine now, really,” Jongdae continues. “Minseok and I would be terrible together even if he wasn’t straight.”
It’s the first time Jongdae’s ever thought that, let alone said it aloud, yet he trusts Baekhyun, and as the words fall from his mouth he realises that they’re true.
“And why’s that?” Baekhyun asks, voice soft.
“When I had feelings for Minseok I became… obsessed, like I am with hockey.” Jongdae furrows his eyebrows together. “To me, Minseok was perfect, untouchable, and… I knew I could never be worthy of that.” He tapers off, laughing to himself. “Probably not a good dynamic in a relationship.”
“And now he’s just Minseok,” Jongdae admits, something that had been tumultuous inside him settling, a hurricane turning into nothing but light rain. “My best friend and the partner I had before you.”
Baekhyun’s eyes curve as he smiles, and the storm starts up all over again.
They actually talk, after that, and for the first time Jongdae has what could be called a friendship with his new partner. They lose the match on Sunday to Western, but it’s not the end of the world, because they’ve got way more placement matches until play-offs and they’re still in the shaky stages of gluing this season’s team together. The most important game will be the upcoming one against York --not only to maintain their position as second in the ladder, but because York are their rivals. There’s more riding on this than mere play-offs, and if they win against York then it might just be enough morale to keep their team stitched together up to the championship.
When Jongdae tells Baekhyun to play more defensively, he does, so long as Jongdae follows him into his aggressive plays. He isn’t used to it, disobeying Kyuhyun and speeding out of his zone across the ice, but when Baekhyun calls it, it works. They work. There’s just… a chemistry there, between them, hot and electric and sharp-edged, torrential, but when they don’t fight against it, it’s good. It’s better than good.
Baekhyun can be blunt, and he can push buttons, but he’s also attentive and kind, loyal, and when Jongdae calls him out his bullshit Baekhyun listens, always sure to call Jongdae out back. They’re nothing like Jongdae and Minseok had been, flawlessly in sync, but with all their fuck ups they only get better and better, improving off of one another, growing.
Their time together extends outside of practice too, goaded on by Minseok’s insistence -- for the team-- until suddenly they’re initiating on their own, exchanging numbers, bumping into each other on campus and grabbing coffee as Jongdae writes his assignments and Baekhyun hums under his breath while going over compositions. Sometimes he shares an earbud so Jongdae can listen too, and will ramble on for hours about big name composers Jongdae doesn’t know and how valid or invalid they are to be respected by the general public.
It makes Jongdae a little jealous, at first, that Baekhyun has so much to be passionate about and love, but then he goes home and listens to some of the songs Baekhyun had played for him earlier in the day, and he smiles.
“Is this me being replaced?” Minseok asks as he leans over the table, catching Jongdae texting Baekhyun beneath it.
“What?” Jongdae clicks his phone shut and shoves it into his pocket. “No!”
“Relax, Dae, I’m teasing.” Minseok smiles. “I’m glad you and Baekhyun are finally getting along. Makes me less stressed.”
“Stressed?” Jongdae gives him a quizzical look. “Why would you be stressed?”
“It’s still my team, even if I’m not playing,” Minseok offers. “And you’re my partner. I feel bad leaving you behind.”
“You didn’t leave me behind, you were injured,” Jongdae is quick to defend. “And you’ll be back before the end of season.”
“I don’t know…” Minseok says, smiling down at his coffee. “I love hockey, but not the same way you guys do. Maybe Baekhyun is better for you than I am.”
Jongdae gives Minseok a puzzled, amused look. “How so?”
Minseok looks serious in his contemplation, which has Jongdae’s expression falling. “You guys are more similar than you think.” Minseok smiles, a timid thing. “You and I always fit together well, and that made us complacent, but… Baekhyun pushes you into new shapes, and you push him right back. That’s better in the long run, I haven’t seen you this happy in a while.”
Jongdae frowns. “But you were my partner first,” he points out.
Minseok shrugs. “I know you hate it,” he says. “But change isn’t always bad. Sometimes you just have to let the ice melt and see what the water brings instead.”
Minseok’s words bother Jongdae for days to come, turning them over and over in his head and trying to understand why they make him feel so… unbalanced. Is Baekhyun good for Jongdae? He sneaks a glance over his textbook --has been for the past hour, whenever Baekhyun isn’t looking-- at his jutted out lips and the fall of his hair across his eyes. They’re tucked between stacks in the library; when Jongdae had bumped into Baekhyun on the ground floor and he’d offered for them to sit together, Jongdae had said yes. He finds it increasingly hard to say no to Baekhyun, these days.
At least when Baekhyun is around, Jongdae actually has the motivation to do his assignments --that’s one good thing. Jongdae returns to the pages of his textbook instead of Baekhyun’s pout of concentration, but none of the words seem to stick. So much has changed with Baekhyun around, and the scariest part of it all is that Jongdae is letting it. It makes him shaky, nervous, because what he and Baekhyun have now… it works, both as friends and for the team. Jongdae can’t ruin that, but with Baekhyun around, things are constantly reshaping themselves, and Jongdae struggles to keep any of it in place.
“I can’t believe you’re studying when you could be paying attention to me.”
Jongdae doesn’t look up from his textbooks. He refuses to. “You’re studying too. Isn’t that the whole point?”
“But now I’m boooored .” Like a petulant child, Baekhyun flops out onto the desk, wriggling in his seat. He blinks up at Jongdae. “Non-practice days make me restless. Think I can charm the rink-owner into letting us skate tonight?”
Jongdae is sympathetic, at least, because he feels the same, but with the game against York coming up, Kyuhyun had given them an extra rest day. “I have a test next Wednesday, I need to focus.”
Shuffling around so that his chair skids, Baekhyun peers at Jongdae’s notes. “Anatomy, huh?”
Jongdae sighs. “I’m meant to know the major anterior and posterior muscles by next week, but I suck at studying, I’m better with the practical stuff.” He pushes at his notes, dejected. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.” Jongdae hadn’t been prepared for all the rote-learning involved.
“Then I’ll help test you,” Baekhyun decides, whisking Jongdae’s text book away before he can even protest and standing. “Use me as a model and list everything out, that’s more practical, right?” Jongdae falters. “I’m sure you know everything, Jongdae. If you can memorise bench rotation calls, you can memorise this.”
The mention is somehow uplifting, and Jongdae finds himself relaxing, nodding as he stands. Baekhyun genuinely wants to help and knows how to and… the thought swells inside Jongdae a little, restless.
“Okay.” He crouches by Baekhyun’s feet, trying to catch his breath and failing. “Tibialis anterior,” he starts, finger sliding along the outside of Baekhyun’s calf; he nods. “Popliteus.”
“That isn’t listed.”
“No,” Jongdae says. “But it’s part of what Minseok tore.” His hand slides up further. “Rectus femoris. Sartorius. Pectineus--”
Baekhyun shakes his head, still squinting at the textbook. “Nope, adductor longus then pectineus.”
“Right,” Jongdae mumbles, taking note of the warmth of Baekhyun’s upper thigh. “Abdominal muscles--”
Baekhyun snorts. “Nutella abs.”
Jongdae smiles to himself. “Pectoralis major.” His flattened palm moves up to Baekhyun’s shoulder blade. “Deltoid.” They’re face to face now, and Baekhyun isn’t look at the textbook, instead letting it fall to his side as Jongdae’s fingers continue to curiously prod. He cups Baekhyun’s neck, feeling him shiver. “Sternocleidomastoid.”
Jongdae huffs out another laugh, quiet and breathy, letting both hands slide around Baekhyun’s face, thumbs on his temple. “Occipitofrontalis.”
Baekhyun licks his lips, and Jongdae’s eyes flicker at the movement, glancing downward. “A-plus, well done.”
Jongdae swallows, and his fingertips feel like they’re charged with electricity, tingling where they’re in contact with Baekhyun’s warm skin. He steps back suddenly, a jarring movement, and something like disappointment settles in Baekhyun’s expression. Jongdae feels lightning-struck in the middle of a storm, tearing roofs off around him, a tempest, a hurricane, and he doesn’t know what to do as it tips his world upside down, the ice breaking beneath his feet and drowning him.
“Thanks for the help,” he blurts, feeling too awkward and too hot, burning up from embarrassment and maybe something else, warm enough to melt ice. “But it’s-- it’s late. We should home and rest up. For the game. And stuff.”
“Jongdae,” Baekhyun calls, and when Jongdae turns over his shoulder, backpack in hand, Baekhyun’s mouth only falls shut, biting his tongue. “Nothing. Let’s go.”
Between uni and hockey, Jongdae feels like he’s falling apart. The home game against York comes up sooner than expected, and it rolls around in his gut. He and Baekhyun… well, it’s not the silent treatment, but there’s something unspoken and strange between them, something Jongdae can’t push past. Even though he knows exactly what it is, he refuses to acknowledge it, because acknowledging it makes it dangerous.
“Why the gloomy face?” Minseok asks, surprising Jongdae as he slams his locker shut.
“What’re you doing here?” he blurts.
“Came to wish you good luck before the game, Heeyeon finally agreed to letting me waste a rare free Saturday together here.” He smiles, sheepish. “Plus the salt in the wound stopped hurting as much.”
Jongdae’s face falls, gaze dropping to Minseok’s knee, but he pokes Jongdae’s shoulder.
“Stop it,” he scolds. “I’m here to cheer on my friends, but seeing you all depressed is ruining my team spirit. My inner pep squad is withering. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” Jongdae lies. “I’m just nervous. We’ve never won against York before.”
Minseok smiles, sympathetic, but he just pokes Jongdae again. “You shouldn’t be, you and Baekhyun really pulled yourselves together. Kyuhyun said the new third line is flawless.”
Jongdae shakes his head, pulling out his helmet. “Baekhyun and I are too inconsistent, sometimes we work together well and other times…” his gaze drifts across the locker room, to where Baekhyun is laughing about something with Chanyeol. “We misunderstand.”
Minseok hums in thought, leaning against the lockers. “Well, knowing you, I’m sure you understand him plenty, you just choose to ignore it because you’re stubborn and think you’re in the right.” His eyes give a knowing look, and Jongdae gulps.
“It’s not like that,” Jongdae argues. “I always understood your plays and I never ignored you.”
“That was different.” Minseok shrugs, as simple as that. “Baekhyun isn’t a replacement for me, Jongdae, you can’t always compare us, it’s too different.”
Jongdae’s mouth feels too dry. “Are we still talking about hockey?”
Minseok gives a soft, knowing smile. “When we first met, you were just a kid fresh out of high school. You didn’t know what you wanted or what was good for you, that’s why we worked.” He leans back, staring at the fluorescent lights, contemplative. “I was older, I had more experience, and I guess you sorta… put me on this pedestal out of reach. You needed someone to look up to, someone to help you get your bearings on and off the ice.
“Now… now it’s different, and you’re still frozen in the past, but at some stage you just have to accept that things have changed, that you’re enough on your own.” Minseok pats Jongdae’s shoulder, a comforting touch. “You don’t always have to be the stubborn defensemen that holds down the line, Jongdae. Sometimes you have to let yourself be pushed.”
“Baekhyun,” Jongdae calls as they’re moving to the bench, grabbing his wrist just outside. “Can we talk?”
Baekhyun furrows his eyebrows beneath his helmet. “Now’s not really the time to change strategies.”
Jongdae’s grip tightens. “Not about that.”
Realisation passes over Baekhyun’s face. “Wow,” he remarks. “You… are so blunt. You have no sense for timing at all, do you?” He pulls his hand back, but he’s smiling, though it’s a little sad. “Yeah we can talk, but let’s kick York’s ass first, alright?”
Half of Jongdae is steeped in nerves, terrified of the storm around him and having to play on the ice --having to win . The other half is just as nervous, but for different reasons.
“Yeah,” he agrees, and they clap their hands together, grinning.
The match starts with the first lines, and it’s fast from the get-go. York has a strong team of all-rounders across the board, and they nail their first goal in the second period, breaking through the fourth line’s exhausted defense. They have a good strategy of using a cherry picker and their first line centre to snag speedy breakaways and get through the defense, but Baekhyun and Jongdae pick up on it quickly, becoming aware of the player sneaking through their lines, guarding him to prevent any passes.
Beginning of the third period U of T finally gets a goal, and Jongdae is exhausted as he and Baekhyun are swapped onto the ice again, having played more this game than their usual. York’s offense is strong, so the third line are the most adept at preventing them from getting goals, since the puck is mostly down their zone of the ice.
The exhaustion makes Jongdae’s focus foggy, but he grits his teeth through it, panting as he and Baekhyun race up and down the ice. They’ve managed to get the puck down into the offensive zone, but Baekhyun and Jongdae haven’t been rotated out, ready to be in play as soon as possible for a quick defense. A forward from York snatches the puck off of Kyungsoo, and Baekhyun and Jongdae speed back to manage the breakaway. Baekhyun checks York’s left-wing into the barrier, freeing the puck for Kyungsoo to reclaim. York’s forwards are already speeding towards him, the defensemen not far behind.
It’s a reckless call, but Jongdae shouts, “KYUNGSOO!!” regardless, snagging his attention as he shoots the puck Jongdae’s way. It’s a suicide pass in all senses of the term, as York’s largest defenseman quickly changes targets to race behind Jongdae. He’ll be instantly wiped out, but that doesn’t matter. All Jongdae needs to do is break his own defense line, and get this puck to the forwards in the offensive zone.
He travels as much distance as he can manage before he sees the defensemen coming, passing it to Jaehyun up ahead. Even with the puck gone, York’s defense is too fast to stop, and Jongdae braces himself for the impact, but it never comes.
Baekhyun speeds into the defenseman’s side, breaking their formation and sending the hurdling York player skidding along the ice. The referee blows his whistle, and Jongdae skids to a stop, speechless, as flecks of blood drip their way onto the ice.
“Double minor penalty number four,” the ref calls, with Baekhyun looking up to catch Jongdae’s eyes, left speechless. All he can do is watch as Baekhyun is forced into the sin-bin, looking as shocked as Jongdae feels, frozen in time.
Desperate, Jongdae looks up at the scoreboard. They’re still 1-1, and there’s only three minutes left on the clock. A double penalty means U of T is down to five players instead of six, leaving Jongdae alone and partnerless until the end of the game.
Before the puck is put into play again, Jongdae tries to refocus, swallowing and listening to his own breathing, closing his eyes. He can’t let himself get thrown off. He may have lost Minseok, and now Baekhyun, but Jongdae can adapt to play hockey with or without them, he knows he can. They need to get their last goal in these few precious seconds, and if they don’t, then… that’s okay too. Winning isn’t everything. Hockey isn’t everything.
Right now, Jongdae just wants to play.
The puck is back in action, and prospects seem grim. York have rotated their first line back into play, well rested for the last few minutes, highly offensive in order to keep the puck out of their zone so U of T can’t score. It’s working too well, and part of the reason for that is that without his partner Jongdae can’t hold their defense properly. Luckily Chanyeol at the net can keep from any shots getting through, but the fact that they’re even getting attempts is debilitating.
Every time Jongdae manages to get the puck, he has to pass it too far for it to work --it’s always intercepted. Without Baekhyun being middle ground between passes, it’s impossible to pull off, and one less player means they’re shorthanded, every player guarded defensively. Kyuhyun has always told Jongdae not to leave the defense zone in times of penalty, since he’s their strongest defense yet, but there’s thirty seconds on the clock and his decision is split second. If he wants to adapt, he’ll need to change. No more staying at home; Jongdae checks a York forward into the barrier, taking the puck and racing into the offense, leaving their own zone unguarded.
But a defenseman sneaks beside him from his inside blind spot against the barrier, shoving at his shoulder. Jongdae is undeterred, racing ahead, but the harassment doesn’t stop, causing Jongdae to lose speed, and balance. He could push the defenseman back, but it would mean losing too much time, so Jongdae does something different entirely.
He loosens his limbs, and lets himself be pushed.
Diagonally, they veer across the ice as Jongdae remains steadying, causing the opposing defenseman to falter as Jongdae quickly speeds ahead and his pushing force topples him over, allowing Jongdae to breakaway past the goal and do a wrap around, attempting to score from behind the goal post unexpectedly.
The puck slips through a gap at the goalie’s feet.
The counter goes up. The timer buzzes.
Jongdae’s ears are ringing --the cheering of his team, and the measly crowd around him, seem to be nonexistent. He watches the opposing defenseman get off the ice, dejected, but his heart is pounding too loudly. He broke their strategy, he broke common sense, he broke everything he ever knew, but it worked.
Jongdae is pulled from his breathless state by arms wrapped around his middle, letting out a quiet oof as he spins on the ice.
“You did it!” Baekhyun cheers, squeezing. “Holy shit Jongdae that was amazing that fucking goal was incredible I thought I’d totally fucked it getting penalised but--”
In all the adrenaline, Jongdae tears off his helmet and quickly kisses Baekhyun, cutting him off and leaving him squeaking against Jongdae’s mouth. His lips are soft, but the kiss is too brief to truly appreciate it. Baekhyun blinks at Jongdae as he pulls back, dazed.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” Jongdae tells him, Baekhyun silent for the first time ever. “That defenseman could’ve injured me if you hadn’t intervened, you had my back.” Jongdae places a gloved hand on Baekhyun’s forearm -- exterior carpi ulnis -- squeezing. “Thank you.” He swallows, riding the wave of euphoria of winning and feeling that sensation of being pushed.
Baekhyun’s shocked expression widens into a huge shit-eating grin, eyes sparkling like an eager puppy as his arms wrap around Jongdae’s neck, sending him backwards again as he laughs, twirling Baekhyun in his arms around on the ice as they hug.
The break apart to shake hands with their opponents, give their good games, and off the ice Minseok is the first one down from the bleachers, Heeyeon behind him.
“That was amazing!” she compliments, smiling brightly and engulfing Jongdae in a hug.
“I’ve never seen you play like that, ever ,” Minseok adds. “And this isn’t even play-offs or anything!”
Jongdae laughs. “Thanks guys, really.” Adrenaline still thrums through him and everyone in the rink, yet he glances over his shoulder all the same, watching his team disappear into the locker rooms, 04 disappearing with them. “But I should go shower and stuff…”
Minseok gives a knowing smile. “Go for it.”
Inside, Jongdae bathes in the praise and compliments of his teammates, allowing Chanyeol to hoist him up from behind and cheer. Kyuhyun promises to let them off the hook for the night until practice, after which somebody declares that celebratory drinks will be in a bar downtown. Jongdae takes his time in the shower, waiting for everyone to file out before drying and redressing, and like usual Baekhyun is waiting for him after, always the last two left.
“So,” Baekhyun starts.
“You um. Wanted to talk…?” Baekhyun straddles the bench seat, knees spread apart. As Jongdae approaches, he leans forward, inquisitive, looking open but strangely vulnerable.
“There’s not that much to say.” Jongdae mirrors his position, leaning back on his palms. “Just that… I guess I’m sorry.” He pauses. “...Again.”
Baekhyun smiles. “What for?”
“That I was so resistant to you in everything,” Jongdae answers, “even though you’re good for me. Good to me.”
Baekhyun’s black eyes sparkle. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Jongdae feels himself relax, because this isn’t Minseok; it never was and it never will be. Things will change with everything out in the air and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. “I like you a lot, Baekhyun, even though you’re a piece of shit that pushes my buttons and constantly forces me to change to do better--” Baekhyun actually smiles-- “I still like you, and I’m sorry I ran away from that.”
“You should be,” Baekhyun says, snide, but he’s smiling. “I’ve been flirting with you since day one. Thanks for noticing.”
Jongdae laughs. “Some part of me always noticed you,” he admits. “I just didn’t want to.”
“I am pretty irresistible.” Baekhyun’s happy expression makes Jongdae laugh all over again, soothed by his words and the ease of it all. The storm pushes through him and leaves everything around him changed and decimated, but that’s okay. Jongdae can just start building anew, make sense of all the things once-frozen beneath the now-melted ice. “We’re alone by the way.”
“I feel like I deserve a proper victory kiss, for saving you from the big bad defenseman.”
Jongdae smiles. “It can be arranged in at least three-to-five business da-- mmph --” his joke is cut off by Baekhyun’s hands cupping his face, and his mouth against Jongdae’s, softening to the touch and the sensation of Baekhyun against him, sweet and warm, fingers threaded through the back of his hair.
“Jerk,” Baekhyun breathes out, surging back in for another kiss. Jongdae just smiles into it, tugging Baekhyun closer as they shuffle until their knees are pressed together, cupping a hand around the back of Baekhyun’s neck. His mouth is hot enough to melt ice, and Jongdae lets himself be washed away in all the water the follows, succumbing to the current.