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burn the straw house down

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It’s a lot of shit, combined, that makes stuff go bad.

Dylan watches the draft for all of five minutes. It’s enough time for him to catch a glimpse of Chris Chan looking completely and utterly petrified, sitting next to a lady that must be his mom. Dylan pities the kid for maybe half a second before remembering he’s probably a dick, and then Connor’s calling from the other room.

“Want to watch a movie?”

And, see, Dylan knows that Connor knows that he’s watching the draft. Knows he can hear it from the kitchen. There’s a brief moment where he considers muting it so Connor’ll walk in, just to see the look on his face when he has to see something tangentially related to the sport he’s played his whole life – oh, the horror – but he doesn’t, just grabs the remote and switches over to Netflix.

“Yeah, go on,” Dylan says. Connor walks in, like, ten seconds later with popcorn and beer. It’s like chess, a little, act-react-predict, and Dylan would’ve stopped putting up with it a long time ago, except-

Except they sit there watching some shitty feel-good baseball movie, making fun of a bunch of A-listers acting like they know sports; and Connor does this spot-on impersonation of the main actress that makes Dylan snort beer out of his nose, he laughs so hard.

That part’s not chess. That part’s easy as breathing.

The movie ends and Dylan plays another one at random, knows he made the right call when Connor stares down like he’s trying to hide a smile. It’s nice, the AC keeping the worst of the humidity at bay, and Dylan sinks back into the couch, feels the soreness from training draining out of him with the combination of beer and movies and Davo.

Dylan’s eyes have been heavy since maybe halfway through the second movie, so maybe that’s why it takes him a while to notice Connor drifting off, ‘cause he’s doing the same. Their arms brush, and then stay touching, and it’s this lazy, companionable thing.

It’d be easier than anything to lean over and kiss Connor, to get a hand on the skin where his t-shirt’s riding up. That’s what does it, that stupid little bit of Connor’s stomach peeking out, like once Dylan notices it it’s all he can notice, and all at once the past is around him so thick he’s going to choke on it. Like, movies and beer and a little bit of skin and that’s all it takes for Dylan to be sixteen again, awake at a sleepover and debating the logistics of kissing his liney.

Dylan makes himself stand up, forgetting to be gentle about it, and hears Davo startle at the movement. He’s blinking up at Dylan, tinted blue in the light from the TV.

“Stromer?”

“Go back to sleep,” Dylan says, hoping it’s dark enough to hide whatever his face is doing.

“I wasn’t asleep,” Connor mumbles through a yawn, rubbing his shoulder like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. “There’s beds. You could stay.”

Dylan shakes his head, fishes in his pocket for his car keys and clings to them like a talisman. “It’s fine,” he says; then, because Connor’s staring up at him all sleepy and Dylan’s stomach is in knots, “Thanks for the popcorn, Davo.” It comes out, just. So fucking soft. Idiot.

“Sure,” Connor says, already most of the way to passing out. He’s going to be sore in the morning if he sleeps sitting on the couch like this.

Dylan books it out of the house. Not his problem.

It’s not.

---

It’s a pattern, same as the whole summer’s been: wake up, work out, let his agent’s calls go to voicemail, tag along for whatever home improvement thing Davo’s working on. It’s making Dylan antsy, all pent-up something waiting to come out.

It’s a relief, a little, when he gets roped into helping his parents get ready to head up for the cottage. Like- a distraction, if nothing else, loading up the van with his dad while his mom fills up boxes like she’s prepping for the apocalypse instead of driving three hours up north. It’s familiar, same routine as they’ve had for as long as Dylan can remember.

He holds the door open with his foot so his dad can carry another box into the garage. “Watch the step.”

“I know, I know.”

Dylan shoulders the black garbage bag full of bedding he’s holding, trails his dad to the car. “Hey, you sure you guys’ll have enough pillowcases?”

His dad snorts a laugh, elbows Dylan good-naturedly enough. “You’re a comedian now, eh?”

“I try,” Dylan quips, cramming the bedding bag into the, like, 5 centimetres of free space in the trunk.

His dad watches him do it, shuts the trunk once everything’s in place. Dylan brushes his hands off on his shorts, ignores his dad staring until he can’t.

“What?” Dylan asks. Maybe a little more defensive than he has to.

“You’re in your head,” his dad says. Like Dylan’s a kid slacking off before a test.

Dylan raises an eyebrow. “Packing stuff isn’t super engaging, I guess?”

“Not just today,” his dad says, and just when Dylan’s about to ask if mom put him up to this: “Your mom was saying how she met this nice girl at the grocery store, if you want to try women again.”

Dylan laughs, after this dead silent pause, but his dad’s not joking and it doesn’t feel funny. Age seventeen, he came out to them, and still this. It’s like a sour taste in his mouth. “I don’t want a girlfriend, dad.”

His dad holds his hands up, like ‘sue me’, like the last dozen times they had a conversation just like this one. “I’m just saying, the gay thing clearly isn’t working out-”

“Dad!” Dylan cuts him off, incredulous. “Seriously?”

“What?” his dad asks, and he’s genuinely fucking clueless. And there’s nothing for Dylan to say here, really, because he’s said it all and it clearly hasn’t done a fucking thing.

His dad claps him on the back, and it’s everything Dylan can do not to flinch away. “You know your mom and I are in your corner.”

“Wrong sport,” Dylan says, and his dad keeps going like he didn’t even talk.

“We just worry about you. We want you to have something meaningful in your life.”

We want you to give us grandkids and stop being a fucking loner, Dylan translates; so, just, fuck a decades-long NHL career, then.

Dylan doesn’t bother arguing. It’s pointless, same as it’s always been. Same as everything he’s ever done, apparently.

God, he’s so fucking tired.

---

The point is: shit piles up, the draft and his family and all the not talking him and Connor are doing, so Dylan’s already in a foul mood by the time it reaches a tipping point. And it’s, like, objectively a really stupid tipping point, a nothing, completely irrelevant thing.

They’re in the basement, three cups of coffee into attempting to assemble a foosball table while Dylan tries to puzzle through an unnecessarily complicated instruction manual.

“Is there a double screw anywhere?” he asks, and Connor looks around, moves one of the little plastic soccer players out of the way.

“Uh. Probably?”

Dylan sighs. Doesn’t make a joke about screwing, ‘cause he’s had enough awkward silences to last a lifetime.

“So I was thinking, do you think shelves under the TV would look good, after this?” Connor asks, conversational.

Dylan shrugs. “It’s your house,” he says, and grabs at his mug of coffee-slash-black sludge for something to do with his hands.

“I mean, yeah, but-”

Dylan’s whole heartbeat hinges on that ‘but’, in the most pathetic way possible. Three fucking letters and it feels like getting punched, like there’s any ‘but’ to this place being Connor’s and only Connor’s. And he could maybe let it go, except Connor looks right at him as he says it, and Dylan flinches away, and his coffee sloshes out of the mug and all over his shirt.

“Shit,” he says, watching the stain spread. It’s not like he even wanted to drink it, like, at all, but just- they both know why he spilled it, and Dylan can feel his cheeks hot and humiliated. Then, once that registers, he’s just mostly pissed, because what the fuck, Connor’s the one implying shit that he shouldn’t be, he’s the one who should be embarrassed here.

And it’s such a stupid thing to be a tipping point, but it is.

“I think there’s still some in the pot,” Connor says, leaning on the wall to stand up. “I can-”

“No,” Dylan interrupts, sponging at his shirt as if that’s going to do anything. “No, just. Leave it.”

“It takes two seconds,” Connor insists, and Dylan shakes his head, irritated.

“It’s fine-”

Connor’s talking almost before he’s done. “Honestly, I-”

“Connor, will you just-”

“Can you let me-”

“It’s shitty coffee, Davo!” Dylan bursts out without even planning to, and it echoes across the basement, and then they’re standing there in the remains of a disembodied foosball table, staring at each other.

Absurdly, ridiculously, Connor looks betrayed. “It’s the way you always take it.”

“It’s not,” Dylan says, and Connor frowns.

“What do you mean it’s not?”

“I mean it’s fucking not, I’m pretty sure that’s English,” Dylan snaps, and he knows he’s not imagining the flash of annoyance in Connor’s eyes, the furthest thing from pleasant and the closest thing to real Dylan’s seen from him in weeks.

“Dylan,” Connor says, all chastising, and the past days and weeks and months are boiling under Dylan’s skin like something dangerous, then something in him just goes fuck it.

“So I’m not retiring,” he says, relishing the look it puts on Connor’s face. “I’ve got two different offers. Buffalo and Calgary want me.”

Connor looks surprised. Like, his eyebrows go flying up, his mouth opens, the whole thing. And Dylan knows Connor’s better than him, ‘cause Connor’s better than literally everyone, but Connor knows it too, is what this means, and Connor wrote him off like everyone else, and it’s almost vindicating, because Dylan fucking knew it. He knew it was bullshit for Connor to jump from being engaged to a girl to hey, let’s be in cheesy gay love; and it was bullshit to act like they were okay all along, all buddy-buddy; and this whole thing is just. Bullshit.

Connor’s still looking at Dylan like he’s blindsided. “That’s- unexpected,” he says.

Dylan scoffs – unexpected, what an asshole – and shakes his head. “I bet,” he says, and it comes out real ugly, but he doesn’t stay to see Connor’s reaction, just grabs his mug and heads upstairs.

He dumps out the dregs of his coffee into the sink, runs the water for maybe two seconds in a half-assed attempt at rinsing it out. He rips off a few sheets of paper towel, wet hands, and sponges at the coffee that’s all down his front.

There’s something he’s supposed to do for coffee stains. Baking soda? Whatever it is, he doesn’t get a chance to remember it, because the floor creaks and he knows without looking that Connor’s standing there.

He’s waiting for Dylan to talk, probably, but Dylan doesn’t, just tosses his paper towel wad in the trash and ignores him. This is a stupid argument to have. This whole thing is stupid.

Connor sighs. “I wasn’t trying to be condescending,” he says in this placating voice. “It’s good that you have options.”

Dylan fixes him with a Look. Keeps distance between them. “Don’t strain yourself, Davo.”

Connor holds his gaze, frowning. “Will you stop thinking the worst of me, just one time?” he asks, like Dylan’s being unreasonable. “I’m trying-”

“I don’t need you to try.” Dylan cuts him off, flat. “I’m- I have contracts, I’m fucking this guy Brad, my stuff is fine.”

Connor’s face does something complicated at the Brad thing – ha– and a muscle leaps in his jaw. “Of course it is.”

“What does that mean?” Dylan demands, something twisting in his gut. “I’m the one still in the league, out of all of us. I did that, not you-”

Connor rolls his eyes, hard. “Lasting longer than Connor McDavid, really nice achievement, man-”

“Jesus Christ,” Dylan gapes at him. “Get off your fucking pedestal for ten seconds, Connor, not everything is about you.”

You made it about me,” Connor snaps, and then he bites his lip. The next time he talks, a second later, he’s back to sounding calm, almost monotone. He shuts down when he’s mad, always has. Never fucking feels anything. “It’s- what, a tryout with the Sabres? Why would I make it an issue?”

Dylan’s blood boils at the way he says it, Sabres, dismissive and arrogant and something else, too, underneath.

“You’re so transparent,” he realizes, putting the pieces together. “You’re jealous.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Connor scoffs, and Dylan can tell he’s hit a nerve.

He laughs, mean. “You are,” he says, going for that nerve for all he’s worth. “You’re pissed that I have offers and you don’t-”

“You think I don’t have offers?” Connor interrupts, ‘cause god forbid Dylan wounds his pride. “You think I couldn’t walk into any front office in the league-”

“So do it then!” Dylan snaps, fast and loud so it echoes in the too-big kitchen. “Fuck off back to Edmonton and find another model to be your beard and go back to your midlife crisis bullshit-”

“Fuck you, Dylan,” Connor says. His voice is ice cold, his face utterly blank, like Dylan crossed some new line that he hadn’t with the jealousy thing. Good. Fucking good. “Fuck you.”

Connor goes to stalk past him, only Dylan’s standing in his path and doesn’t move, just kind of bumps him. “I mean, you could, if you weren’t such a fucking closet case-”

That one does it. Dylan sort of thought it would.

Connor’s eyes flash and he brushes past Dylan, forceful enough to almost knock him off balance, only Connor maybe takes the worst of it himself because he pushes with his right side and ends up wincing, clutching at his shoulder with a gasp.

Dylan’s hands reach out to steady him, automatic. “Careful,” he says, before he remembers they’re fighting, but it doesn’t end up mattering because Connor jerks back before Dylan can touch him, glaring.

“Don’t,” Connor says. He’s breathing heavy, pain or anger or something in between. It sounds like someone’s tearing the words out of him. “Don’t talk to me, you-”

He breaks off, ragged.

There’s this second where they’re just staring, Connor holding his side and Dylan standing there digging his nails into his palms, and Dylan feels like he’s looking at a stranger, except a stranger wouldn’t or couldn’t look at him like he hates him this much.

Connor leaves. Just turns around and storms out, and Dylan’s left standing there itching for a fight.

“You live here, genius,” he yells after Connor.

The front door slams.

Good, Dylan thinks again, only it doesn’t manage to sound as convincing this time, because he’s standing alone in Connor’s kitchen like an idiot. There’s a split second where he contemplates waiting – to, what, yell at each other more when Connor gets back? – but that’s a level of pathetic that he doesn’t want to be, so Dylan just goes. It’s anticlimactic as anything, just shutting the door behind him and heading to his car.

His hands are shaking on the steering wheel, and it takes him a couple of tries to get his key in the ignition. The radio comes back on as soon as he starts the car, shattering the silence, and it grinds on every nerve Dylan has.

“Shut up,” he says out loud, slamming on the power button, then just kind of hitting the dashboard, annoyance and anger and everything boiling over.

His shirt reeks of coffee.

Fucking Connor McDavid. Fucking McDavid.

Dylan’s taking out his phone without even realizing it, scrolling down his contacts until he finds Brad’s name. Hey i’ll be at my place in 10 if you want to come over, he sends; then tosses his phone onto the passenger seat and puts the car in reverse, pulling out.

He gets back to his place entirely on autopilot. Like- he couldn’t even describe if there was traffic or anything, is hardly even aware of signalling to turn left or change lanes or stuff, he’s seeing that much red. And that expression has always been kind of stupid, he thought, but- yeah, no, Dylan gets it now, because it’s like a haze over everything, like he’s been waiting for shit to hit the fan since the second that Connor showed up and now it has and Dylan doesn’t know if that feels good or shitty or something in between.

He brakes hard once he’s parked, checks his phone as he makes his way into the kitchen at his place. He means to – fuck, he doesn’t know, get a drink or something – but he gets distracted standing by the counter, because it says his text to Brad was read, but there’s no answer.

Dylan sends a bunch of question marks. He needs to get this out of his system, whatever ‘this’ is; needs to not think.

Brad doesn’t answer. Of course, he doesn’t answer, because Dylan hasn’t answered any of his texts for a literal month, because he was too busy hanging around in the suburbs with Connor Fucking McDavid, and now he doesn’t even have his idiot fuckbuddy to show for it.

He doesn’t have shit, doesn’t know what to do with the anger burning a hole in his chest. He wants- he wants to be drunk, or high, or anything not to have to think about this, and that’s the kicker, is that he can’t even do that because he’s got to be responsible and ready for the season; ready to move to his sixth city and put on a jersey and bust his ass at camp for a team that might decide to not even play him, ‘cause he’s that close to his fucking expiry date, maybe already past it.

Dylan wheels around and throws his phone at the wall, hard; then the first thing he grabs from the sink too, a glass that hits off the corner of a cabinet and shatters, loud, and then he’s standing there, chest heaving.

The place is silent.

Dylan needs-

The glass, he has to clean up the glass.

He crosses the kitchen, crouches down to sweep up the pieces and teeters off balance; tries to steady himself and ends up leaning all his weight on the hand that lands on top of shards of broken glass.

Dylan hisses out a breath at the sting and yanks his hand back. It’s all bloody, little bits of glass sparkling in the light, and he flinches when he picks one of the bigger pieces out, and then things are blurry, a little, because his eyes are burning with tears, and Connor definitely isn’t crying on the floor, right now, but Dylan’s never been him, has he, has never been fucking close.

He’s so stupid.

His next breath comes out as this sawed-off sob, and he wipes his hand on his jeans, tries to focus on looking around for his phone without really seeing. He can’t think, but it’s probably broken, he needs-

He needs-

He can’t fucking think. Can barely even breathe, for how tight his chest is. His hand is bleeding and he’s on his knees on his kitchen floor and god, Dylan fucking hates this house, empty and quiet and making his thoughts echo.

He needs to not be here, right now.

---

Auston fucking Matthews is the one to get the door, because of course he is, because the universe hates Dylan.

He’s mid-yawn when he does, plaid pajama pants and eyes all squinty. “It’s like, three in the morning and now the kids’re aw-” Auston starts, and then blinks a couple of times, like he’s taking in Dylan standing there with bloody jeans and red eyes and probably looking like death warmed over. “Are you on something?”

Dylan shakes his head, knows he sounds like shit when he asks, “Can I sleep on the couch?”

Auston looks wary, and Dylan gets it. “Wha-”

“Please,” Dylan interrupts, and his voice breaks, and it might be that or it might just be because he sounds desperate even to himself, but Auston doesn’t even hesitate, just opens the door wide and ushers Dylan in.

“Just sit down, okay?” he says, once they’re in the living room, lifting a stuffed polar bear out of the way so Dylan can sit. “Are you-”

“I’m fine,” Dylan says. Dylan lies. He just wants to go to bed, thinks feeling this bad is the kind of thing he should’ve outgrown. He can’t- he can’t think properly, doesn’t even know what he’s saying. “Sorry. And for saying mean shit about your forehead behind your back, sorry-”

“It’s okay,” Auston cuts in, firm, and puts one big hand on Dylan’s shoulder, reassuring. Doesn’t even call him out for the forehead thing. And it’s that little gesture, for some reason, that puts a lump in Dylan’s throat more than anything before. The look on his face must really be something, if Auston is being this nice to him.

“I’m just gonna,” Dylan says, then kind of curls up on his side facing the back of the couch, breathes in the fabric smell and tries to make his brain be quiet. His breaths are still coming all short, and he digs his nails into his palms so he won’t shake.

He’s exhausted, not like after a workout or even a game, not even close. Just. Worn down, right to the bone.

Auston must get Marns at some point, because Dylan’s vaguely aware of the two of them talking quietly somewhere in the background, then of someone tossing a blanket over him, and his hand is throbbing, and then – about fucking time, finally, finally – he’s asleep.

---

Dylan never really remembers his dreams. Barely even gets what’s going on when they’re happening, and this one is no exception. It’s something involving Alexander Ovechkin’s head on his grandma’s body yelling at him to shoot the puck, which is perhaps metaphorically rich but also a few hundred light years short of the Lion King-style, ‘remember who you are’ moment that Dylan could use right now. It doesn’t end up mattering, really, because he gets yanked out of his dream when something jumps on him.

Like, literally jumps full force right onto his stomach so that Dylan wakes up gasping for air, feeling like he just got punched, only to see a face with one front tooth leaning over him like one of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

“Uncle Dylan!” Maya says, cheery. “Did you come to hang out with us?”

“Whuh,” Dylan says, still half-asleep and mostly unable to breathe. It comes out as more of a grunt than anything else, and there’s a moment where he’s just confused, because he’s not at his place and not at Davo’s, and then everything from yesterday comes back and he squeezes his eyes shut, wishes he could go back to being oblivious.

They haven’t fought that bad in a long time.

“Your face looks so weird when you sleep,” Maya’s saying, conversational. “Your mouth was like-” She makes a face, lolling her tongue out.

Dylan can’t even muster up the energy to be insulted. It’s too early for the existence of children in general, and he still feels sort of like he got hit by a truck, like, on an emotional level. He nudges Maya off of his stomach. “What time’s it?”

“Seven oh-two.”

Of course it is.

He feels like in movies, after an explosion, ears ringing and everything quiet and slow motion; because he’s sitting here having a conversation with a six year old as if everything’s normal and good when it’s the exact opposite.

Dylan reaches up to rub at his eyes, then has to do a double take when he looks at his hand – the worst of the cuts are covered with band-aids. Blue ones, patterned with a bunch of little maple leaves. He looks around the room, then, takes in the pillow and crumpled blankets in the armchair across the room that weren’t there before, like someone slept there.

His stomach sinks.

It was a bad idea, showing up how he did.

“You’re gonna eat breakfast with me, ‘kay?” Maya orders, tugging at Dylan’s sleeve.

“Not hungry,” he says. It’s kind of a lie, but he can’t do the fun Uncle Dylan thing, today, just wants to curl up and go back to sleep and not face anything.

“It’s the most important meal of the day though, c’mon c’mon-”

“Please go away,” Dylan pleads, but Maya looks at him all big eyes and Dylan can’t deal with making a little girl upset after everything so he just bites his tongue, lets the kid grab his hand and tug him into the kitchen.

Marns is standing there in a t-shirt and boxers, watching the coffeepot boil, but he looks over his shoulder when the two of them enter the room.

“Morning,” he says, and gets an arm around Maya when she promptly abandons Dylan and goes to hug Mitch around the waist. “Hey, mousey.”

Dylan mumbles a hello; then, once the two of them are chatting to each other, slinks over to the pantry and fixes himself a bowl of honey nut cheerios. He takes the long way over to the kitchen table so he won’t have to make eye contact with Marns – shouldn’t bother, maybe, because Mitch is acting all normal, joking around with his daughter and humming under his breath while he grabs a couple mugs from the cupboard.

He peers over at Dylan, yawning. “Dyl?”

Dylan shakes his head, and Mitch goes back to his humming, pouring out the coffee and bumping Maya with his hip to get at the drawer with the spoons, grinning when she laughs and checks him back, full force. The whole routine’s domestic enough to make Dylan’s chest ache.

Marns hands one of the mugs to her, real careful. “Bring this up for dad, buddy?” he asks. “Don’t spill, ‘kay? It’s hot.”

“I won’t,” Maya promises, all serious, and she heads towards the stairs at a snail’s pace, holding the mug in both hands.

Dylan, absurdly, wants to beg her to stay, if only because he knows that Marns won’t make him discuss stuff while she’s here. He doesn’t beg, though, just eats his cheerios and watches kind of warily while Mitch comes and sits down across from him.

“There’s milk if you want it,” Mitch offers, after a second. “For the cereal.”

“It’s okay,” Dylan says.

Mitch leans on the table, chin in his hands. “How’s your hand?” He sounds like he’s being careful, too consciously keeping his voice light.

Dylan shrugs. Picks at the corner of a band-aid with his thumb. “Cuts weren’t deep.”

“That’s good,” Mitch says, then, “Matts was pretty worried.” He says it in this dumb fake-casual voice that’d maybe work if he didn’t wear his heart on his- not even on his sleeve, tattooed on his fucking face; if he didn’t literally sleep in an armchair to make sure Dylan was okay.

Dylan’s really fucking embarrassed. Mad at himself, too, for showing up how he did, because obviously Marns was going to react like this, care too much and make Dylan shrink under the weight of it.

“Sorry,” he says, not meeting Mitch’s eyes.

Mitch is shaking his head before Dylan’s even done talking. “Don’t say sorry, man,” he says, and it’s kind but maybe a little pitying, as well, and Dylan doesn’t even know who he’s mad at, anymore.

“Can you be more annoyed with me, please?” Dylan asks, and there’s an edge in his voice, something sharp, and he leaves it there. “I woke everyone up at three in the morning because I was having a tantrum, tell me to grow up or something.”

Mitch snorts. “Seriously? Me, I’m going to tell someone to grow up?”

Dylan puts down his spoon, and it clangs loud and metallic on the table. “I don’t know,” he says, fed up. “Maybe. Why not you? You’re doing it right, fuckin’- that’s something.”

“Doing it right,” Mitch echoes, somewhere between bemused and taken aback. “What does that mean?”

“Oh, come on,” Dylan snaps. “The kids thing and all, you’re like- you and Matthews and the perfect little family, and you do all the You Can Play stuff, like, checking all the boxes. You’re a fucking straight person’s wet dream of what gay people’re like.”

It’s been ages since he’s said anything intentionally mean to Marns. Since they were kids who hated each other, practically. It feels good for about two seconds before Dylan promptly feels like shit.

He kind of forgot the look that Mitch gets when he’s pissed. It’s like- bullish. A little scary.

“Me and Matthews,” Mitch echoes, slow and deliberate, “had kids because we both always wanted kids. And You Can Play is a nice thing to do, and you know both those things, Dylan, so maybe don’t project your own shit into lashing out about me not being gay enough, or whatever that just was.”

And-

Yeah, Dylan doesn’t really have a comeback, here.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, staring down at his cereal, all the fight out of him like it was never really there.

“It’s alright,” Mitch says, and Dylan knows he means it, he’s forgiven. It doesn’t make him feel much better. “Want to tell me what this is actually about?” And he sounds like such a parent that Dylan wants to chirp him for it, but he opens his mouth and the truth falls out instead, hoarse and mostly without his permission.

“I fought with Davo.”

“How come?” Mitch asks, and Dylan shrugs.

“’Cause he’s an asshole.”

“How come actually?” Mitch asks without missing a beat, and Dylan sighs. Briefly considers lying. Doesn’t.

“He said he’s in love with me.” It comes out quieter than he means it to, and maybe a little incomplete, but that’s- that’s what it is, really, because Connor told him months ago and maybe he’s leaving some parts out, but the coffee and the contracts and everything in between, everything this summer, really, comes down to Connor McDavid thinking he’s in love with him and Dylan not knowing what the fuck to do with it.

“And you don’t want him to be?”

“It’s not that simple,” Dylan says. “He can’t just- like, he hasn’t even acknowledged everything that happened before.”

“Have you?” Mitch asks, and Dylan opens his mouth to respond then clamps it shut when he realizes he wandered into a trap.

Fucking Mitch Marner.

“If you don’t want him, you should just-”

“That’s not it,” Dylan cuts Mitch off. “Of course I- it’s not that simple, Marns.” He repeats himself, helpless, and Mitch frowns.

“It’s not because of Brad-”

No, it’s not because of-” Dylan breaks off, can’t decide if he wants to laugh or cry. Fucking Brad, ruining his life without even being here. “This doesn’t happen for me, okay?” He grabs at his spoon for something to do with his hands, taps on the metal and tries to find words. “Everyone I’ve played with has kids and a wife or a husband or whatever, and everyone acts like that’s the point of everything and it’s just another thing for me to be shit at, but like- it’s fine, whatever, only now Davo wants- what, to love me?” He laughs, humourless.

“I mean, apparently, yeah,” Mitch says, like it’s easy, and Dylan’s shaking his head before he’s done talking, because he doesn’t get it.

“It never- relationship stuff doesn’t work out for me, Marns, there’s no point.” He pushes his cereal around the bowl. “I’m bad at loving stuff, I’d screw it up anyways.”

“Bad at loving stuff,” Mitch repeats, flat, and looks at Dylan real hard. “No offense, Stromer,” he says. “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I don’t think ‘stupidest’ is a word,” Dylan mumbles, and Mitch fuckin’ steamrolls right through the attempt at deflecting.

“Dude,” Mitch says, “You have people who love you, including everyone in this house.” Dylan wants to correct him, because he’s not sure he and Auston have love as much as the begrudging kind of tolerance that comes with years of forced proximity and mutual affection for Mitchell Marner, but Mitch is on a roll.

“Matt and Ry, your parents. A zillion teammates. Two teams, in the literal National Hockey League, who want you to play for them, because you help teams win.” He puts his hand on Dylan’s, all earnest, and Dylan wants to give him so much shit for being that affectionate, but he also doesn’t pull away. “You have good things, things you love, and you haven’t screwed any of them up. Why would the Davo thing be the exception?”

“He thinks he’s in love with me, Marns,” Dylan repeats, desperate. “That can’t possibly- I’m going to ruin it.”

And he knows how it sounds, like he’s being down on himself and exaggerating, but the bad at loving people thing – it’s not Dylan being down, not even dread, anymore. It’s just fact, the honest-to-god truth. He’s almost forty and he’s never had a real grown-up monogamous relationship, ghosted guys or stopped seeing them when they tried to nudge him close.

He wants to blame Connor, for that.

Probably can’t.

“Yeah, if you decide to go out and ruin it, sure,” Mitch says, undeterred. “Maybe people can decide to love each other sometimes, though.” He squeezes Dylan’s hand. “Even you, you mopey-”

Dylan pulls his hand back so he can swipe at his nose; can’t help but do this weird choked kind of laugh, even though nothing’s funny. His voice comes out all thick. “You’re incredibly fucking annoying, you know that?”

“It’s a gift,” Mitch says, tilting his head, humble. He looks straight at Dylan. “You need to talk to him.”

“Later,” Dylan says, and for once, Mitch doesn’t push it, just steals a cheerio from Dylan’s bowl and crunches it between his teeth.

“You coming to Maya’s game with us?”

Dylan stares at him, blank.

“Yeah, you are,” Mitch decides. Then, “I need milk with these, you can’t eat cereal plain.” He leaves Dylan to it, claps him on the back on his way to the fridge. Goes back to humming again, too.

Dylan stares at his cereal.

He gets what Mitch is doing, trying to drag him kicking and screaming into feeling better. And like, Dylan appreciates it, and he’s not not feeling better – he couldn’t have really felt worse – but. He doesn’t think this is the kind of thing that gets fixed over breakfast. He doesn’t know what kind of thing it is at all.

He meant what he said, about being scared to ruin things with Connor. And Dylan doesn’t get scared, really, but that- that does it. He doesn’t know what’s scarier, the thought that last night ruined things or the thought that maybe it didn’t.

He doesn’t want to have ruined things.

He really, really doesn’t want that.

Dylan breathes out, rests his forehead on the cool tabletop. He sits there and watches Marns hunting for scissors for a new bag of milk, listens to birds chirping outside.

The kitchen’s this comfortable kind of messy, toys everywhere and dishes piled in the sink. Lived in, his mom would say. A home. It’s safe, is what stands out to Dylan, on a morning like this. He could hide here and not get shit for not having a family, for falling short of every expectation anyone’s had for him.

He thinks of Connor, then, by himself in one of the kitchens in his giant house, buying curtains and shelves like they’ll magically make things okay; he thinks of the kitchen back at his own place, sublet for most of the year, a pile of broken glass where he left it on the floor.

God, Dylan wants to go home. He doesn’t know where or what the fuck that is, at this point, but- he wants to go home.

---

So:

Dylan’s always been in love with Connor McDavid, is the nice version of the story; and the pathetic version is that he’s hated him and been so jealous of him that he wanted to throw up and still has the screenshots of the infrequent, blurry snapchats that were the only way they really spoke for Connor’s first couple years in the league; and the true version is all of the above.

He doesn’t even know what being in love with someone is meant to feel like, really. Has got to imagine that this is it, because he’s never had anything close with anyone else, has never known someone like he knows Connor. More than half Dylan’s life, there’s been hockey and there’s been his brothers and Marns and then there’s been Connor, wanting Connor and not having enough of him and getting each other like Dylan’s never gotten anyone in his life, and that’s it, that’s what he knows.

He borrows non-bloody pants and tags along to Maya’s soccer game, folding himself into the backseat next to the mesh bag of soccer balls and netting and listening to the guys chattering with the kids. And, like, it’s little girls’ house league soccer, not exactly playoff hockey, but Dylan finds himself getting into the game all the same. Even high fives Auston and Noah when Maya’s team scores.

It’s real bright out. Midsummer sun beating down. Dylan’s nose ends up sunburnt and bright red.

Maybe people can decide to love each other, Mitch said.

Dylan buys a broom on the way back to his place. Sweeps up the broken glass.

---

He naps for literally ten hours – is it still a nap if it’s ten hours? – once he’s home, wakes up with his pillowcase sticking to his face and his mouth completely fucking rank. He responds with a middle finger emoji to Marns’ text checking up on him and gets the same thing back; feels better once he gets at some Listerine and even catches his eye in the mirror, staring for a second before looking down to spit.

Dylan dumps a bunch of fruit into his blender, a couple scoops of protein powder, and watches it get spun around to pinkish mush.

He’s still mad. At Connor, partly, for twenty years’ worth of back-and-forth; but also at himself, for letting it get this bad, exploding and torching everything like he did. They both knew shit wasn’t sustainable, the way it was, and they kept it going anyways.

It’s classic Connor, in a way. Trying to control everything, shape things into being okay by sheer force of will. Dylan knows that’s what he’s always done, on teams and with personal stuff, and he knows that it usually works, because he knows Connor.

That’s maybe the problem, Dylan thinks. Knowing someone so well and for so long that you skip over actually seeing all the stuff you don’t know. Like fill in the blanks, and it’s never occurred to Dylan that he might’ve been filling them in wrong, but.

Maybe.

Maybe people can decide to love each other.

And Dylan’s still mad, but he’s also just- there’s a hole right through his middle, it feels like. Like dealing with family shit and league politics and everyone’s idea of what he’s supposed to do has been scooping out little pieces of him and he’s just now getting how carved-out he is.

He’s really, really sick of feeling like that.

He pours out his shake and chugs half of it in one shot. Probably could’ve used more milk – it’s grainy.

He’s happy when he’s playing hockey. Happy when he sees his brothers.

Happy when he has Connor next to him, those times when Dylan forgets all the shit they’ve done to each other and just hangs out with this guy he really, genuinely just likes as a human, boring and kind of bitchy and into country music and all. Not Connor McDavid, hockey Jesus. Just. Davo.

Took them maybe five minutes to become best friends, the first time they met. Young and stupid, and maybe the young part has changed, but the stupid is-

Dylan laughs, small, then blinks, surprised at himself.

The stupid is debatable, probably.

He’s still kind of pissed. Maybe more than kind of.

Dylan leans on the counter, stares out the window and tries to guess what time it is from the light outside. Just breathes, in and out.

And he decides.

---

Dylan got his phone screen fixed a couple of days ago, but he doesn’t text ahead of time. He’s not sure what he’d say, which is- that’s something he should figure out, probably, because Connor’s opening the door right now, this second, and they’re face to face.

Dylan wants to run away, like, flat-out-sprint out of this entire situation. He doesn’t, and he doesn’t insult Connor’s beard either, which is probably as good as it’s going to get.

“Hi,” he says.

Connor looks as stiff as Dylan’s ever seen him, standing way far back in the entrance. “Hi,” he says, after what is definitely at least a million years.

Dylan shoves his hands in his pockets. “Go for a drive with me,” he requests, and Connor hesitates. “Please.”

Connor looks at him, wary or weary or both. “Fine,” he says. “Okay.”

He gets his shoes.

The car ride is quiet, just the radio DJ talking in the background, taking them from one song to another. It’s a short drive – Dylan takes them to this little foresty area, gardens with a walking path, one of a million little parks in the city. There’s no one else in the parking lot, this time on a weekday.

Neutral territory, is Dylan’s logic.

The silence feels bigger, without the radio or the engine. Dylan fills it. “This is the part where we don’t talk for like a year.”

Connor does this sound that’s not a laugh, but is maybe close. He goes back to serious too quickly. “I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“Me neither.” Dylan says, and then neither of them says anything else, stubbornness or nervousness or just because they’re them. Like fuck is Dylan going to be the first one to admit he messed up, is his first thought; followed up immediately by the realization that that’s maybe kind of their problem. But- ugh.

“Fuck, this is hard,” Dylan says, dragging a hand through his hair. He wants to crawl out of his own skin, because he doesn’t think they’ve ever actually apologized to each other and it’s kind of awful, so far.

Connor goes first, eventually. There’s a joke there, somewhere.

“You were right,” he says, and their eyes meet, and it’s not quite I’m sorry, but it’s as close as they’ve ever gotten. “I was being a dick about you signing. And your boyfriend.”

“Brad’s not my boyfriend,” Dylan says, fast. “Like, never was, never will be.” Then, and this part’s harder to get out, “I was- it wasn’t just you, being a dick. I said some dumb stuff. I know you just ended shit with Jess, I shouldn’t have brought that up.”

“I wasn’t in love with Jess,” Connor says.

“Fine,” Dylan says, and he’s genuinely not trying to sound dismissive, but there must be something in his voice because Connor pushes, holding his gaze.

“I’m gay, Dylan. I told you it’s not new. You don’t have to believe the in love with you thing, but just- believe this one, please.”

Dylan’s the one to look away first. “Why’d you propose to her?” he asks.

Connor shrugs, small. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

And that’s just the least satisfactory answer for anything ever; and it takes a concerted effort for Dylan to respond without being an asshole. You’re supposed to do a lot of shit, flossing every day or wearing sunscreen every time you go out. Doesn’t mean people actually do it. “I don’t get it,” he says. “Like- sorry, but I don’t get that.”

“I know you don’t,” Connor says, like maybe he’s trying hard not to be an asshole as well. He exhales, looks at Dylan kind of helpless. “There’d never been anyone in the league, when you asked me to date you.”

“That was then,” Dylan says. “There’ve been out players for years. Mitchy-”

“What did that change?” Connor asks, blunt, and Dylan doesn’t have an answer for that, really. “It’s not- it’s not some magic fix-it for everything before, having like, three out guys in the whole sport. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s not.”

He’s right – it’s not what Dylan wants to hear, because it’s not an excuse he can even argue. Because sure, things are different, but being a gay hockey player is still a thing; maybe more with guys their age or some fans or management than younger teammates and the public in general, but- fuck, that’s enough people who’re big fat maybes to give anyone pause. Dylan grew up in this sport, he knows its ugly side.

“Not everyone’s a dick about it,” he points out anyways, because he’s been mostly out for years, and he’s still here.

“You know how the press is, with me,” Connor says. And yeah, Dylan does, because Connor’s everywhere, face of the national team and the league and every poster on every kid’s bedroom wall. He’s been everywhere, since he was a fucking kid getting profiled in local papers. Eyes on him, all the time, and Dylan gets that that’s hard, he does, but it’s not fair, that everything comes down to that.

“I wouldn’t have made you tell people,” he says, and it doesn’t come out argumentative, mostly just searching. Grasping at straws, a little. “You know I wouldn’t have.”

“Someone would’ve found out,” Connor says; then, when Dylan scoffs, he says, louder, “I don’t know what you want me to say, I was- it’s fucking terrifying, Dylan. That’s how I felt.”

Dylan huffs out a breath. It comes out kind of unsteady.

And that’s that, then, isn’t it?

He gets it. He gets it, and he wishes he didn’t, because it would be a million times easier if he could just blame Connor for them getting messed up. And- and he still does, sort of, because it’s not like Connor can guarantee that someone would’ve found out, or that it would’ve messed up their careers, because Dylan could’ve been quiet about stuff and they could’ve been happy. No guarantee things would’ve gone bad, the way Connor thinks they would’ve.

No guarantee they would’ve gone okay, either.

Dylan gets why Connor was scared. He heard the shit people said growing up. And understanding should make it hurt less, only it doesn’t, really.

He gets the feeling that Connor’s waiting for him to speak, feels the weight of his gaze. Dylan- what can he even say, here?

“Broke my heart, though, Davo, you know that?” is what comes out, eventually. He doesn’t say it accusatory. Just. Says it. “Like-” he breaks off, and it kind of hits all at once, and Dylan just lets himself hurt, because-

It really fucking hurt. The kind of hurt that festers, putting himself out there and having his best friend all but ghost him; sitting by himself in Erie two years straight, reading about how he was washed up at nineteen when it was a slow enough news week that some blogger decided to write about him. Like- yeah, Connor was scared, but Dylan was too. Dylan lived shit too.

Dylan’s talking fast, words blurring together, tapping on the steering wheel for something to do with his hands. “I watched everyone pairing off, and making hockey second place like they had something better, and you have your shit and like- that’s fine, but I never did the settling down thing, and then for you to show up here and just expect that and for everything to be fine-”

“Would you have listened?” Connor asks, and he says it kind of like it’s a gotcha, like he’s proving some point, and Dylan has to bite his tongue so he won’t snap at him. “If I said I wanted to talk stuff through?”

“Yeah,” Dylan says, sharp, and he wants that to be the truth so, so bad. “Yeah, Connor, I would’ve.”

His words hang there, and he can feel them teetering at the edge of arguing, but they don’t. It’s an impasse, maybe, the two of them not believing each other, or too stubborn not to believe themselves. Dylan- he would’ve listened, if Connor had sacked up and tried to talk instead of- he would’ve.

He probably would’ve.

Doesn’t matter now. Connor didn’t talk, and Dylan didn’t listen. No point doing the coulda-shoulda-woulda thing.

“I shouldn’t have hurt you,” Connor says, right as Dylan thinks that. He’s guiding the conversation, captain-style. “I wish I hadn’t.”

Dylan nods. “I know,” he says. He believes that much, at least. Not that he doesn’t believe the rest, just- It’s a lot, putting things together.

He’s not even sure if he’s mad at Connor for making Jess and Dylan and god knows who else collateral damage for his gay panic spiral; or at himself for not fixing things somehow; or at the league and everything around it for being shitty enough for long enough that it’s the fucking 2030s and Dylan’s still getting fucked over by the residual nuclear fallout of the homophobic garbage they grew up with.

All of the above, maybe.

“I do believe you,” he says, because this part is important. “About being gay. It was shitty to act like I didn’t, with the fiancée thing. I don’t- I’m not judging you.”

Connor shakes his head, does this tiny sound like a laugh, but not like anything’s funny. “I really hurt her,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dylan says.

“Yeah, it does,” Connor says, picking at his nail a little. “I was going to-” He breaks off, turns his head so he’s looking away from Dylan. Maybe hiding, a little bit. Dylan can see him clenching his jaw, reflected in the window.

“You don’t have to explain it to me,” Dylan says, and it’s as much him being selfish as trying to rescue Connor, here, because he’s never seen him like this and he’s got no clue how to respond. “Seriously.”

Connor shakes his head, doesn’t say anything.

For a long time, they just sit there, quiet. It feels like waiting, and everything in Dylan is screaming at him to break the silence and crack some joke, but he doesn’t, just sits and waits until Connor’s ready to talk.

“You were right about me being a dick, with you signing,” Connor says. He’s quiet, back to speaking real slow, and Dylan gets the impression he’s controlling his voice. It feels careful, when Connor meets his eyes. “But you were wrong about me being jealous.”

“Davo,” Dylan says, and Connor just keeps talking like now he’s started he doesn’t want to stop.

“I was going to marry her,” he says. “I was going to lie and marry her and maybe have kids and play ‘til my contract ended then- then take some nothing job with the front office and be in the Hall of Fame and just. Do that ‘til I couldn’t anymore.”

“Christ,” Dylan says, when Connor pauses for breath. It comes out kind of a whisper, and he feels vaguely sick. Such a fucking closet case, he called Connor.

“The doctors told me I couldn’t play anymore, after the hit,” Connor says, head bowed like he’s giving confession, and his voice drops so Dylan can hardly hear him. “And I was relieved.”

It comes out shaky, when Dylan exhales. He didn’t even realize he was holding his breath. And- and Dylan’s been out for forever, is the thing, to anyone who matters. He got over being scared of the words ‘I’m gay’ a long time ago, because yeah, dealing with people sucks, but keeping stuff a secret weighs you down. Chokes you out, choked him out, whatever.

Dylan can’t imagine that weight for as long as Connor’s kept it. Thinks he probably would’ve suffocated under it. It’s not something people choose, he thinks, if they feel like they have a choice.

“You asked why I came back here,” Connor says, and he sounds laid bare, handing Dylan a knife to twist. Kind of angry, too. “And I was just- I was so fucking tired, Stromer. Of all of it.”

His bottom lip trembles, at the end, this boyish, stupid little thing that makes Dylan want to run and hide, because Connor’s not supposed to feel things this much, ever. It’s like when Dylan saw his dad cry for the first time, wrong and weird and a little bit terrifying for how new it was, and he wants this to go away, to go back to familiar ground.

He tugs Connor in and hugs him, tight. It’s like- clinging, more than anything, and he doesn’t quite know if he’s trying to be comforting or comforted or what, but Connor holds onto him even tighter, gearbox between them, fingers digging into Dylan’s arm tight enough that it nearly hurts.

“Davo,” Dylan says, and Connor breathes out real shaky, breath catching.

“I’m sorry,” he says, so quiet Dylan can barely hear him. “Sorry.”

“Me too,” Dylan says, and he presses his face into Connor’s shirt, squeezes his eyes shut and tries to just breathe normal. And they probably look like idiots, two grown men clutching each other and pretending not to be crying in an empty parking lot, and god, Dylan really fucking hates apologies, if this is the level of emotions that they involve. A big part of him wants to go back to pretending stuff’s fine, but a bigger part of him is more here than he’s been in months, and the point is, is-

They sit there for a long time, and neither of them lets go.

---

The birds are the only ones awake, when Dylan goes for a run. He mostly drowns them out with his music, but he can see them flying from tree to tree, keeping him company as he makes his way along the winding streets. It’s a nice neighbourhood for running, insofar as running can be nice. Not a lot of traffic, just his footsteps on the pavement, his heartbeat picking up.

Dylan can see the place starting to wake up by the time he gets back to the house, people’s lights turning on, stuff like that. He’s quiet on his way in, just in case Davo’s still asleep, but there’s sound coming from the main floor kitchen, and Connor’s sitting at the table when Dylan makes his way there.

The news is on the radio, just traffic and weather. Connor’s mid-sip when Dylan walks in, but he swallows, nods at him. “Hi.”

“Hey,” Dylan says, taking out his headphones. “You’re up.”

“I’m up,” Connor confirms, and it’s a solid attempt at not sounding awkward, but it doesn’t really work. Probably it’s on both of them – Dylan doesn’t really know where they stand, after yesterday. They stayed at the park for a while after the impromptu cry-session, then came back to the house and ordered food, mostly made small talk before crashing in separate rooms.

They’re still coming down from everything, maybe. Like after playoffs, when it’s gogogo for so long that everything’s kind of a shock when it slows down.

“There’s more ready,” Connor says, and it takes Dylan a second to realize he means coffee. “I wasn’t sure how you take it.”

“Oh,” Dylan says, taken aback. “Thanks.”

He leaves his phone and earbuds on the counter, pours himself a cup of coffee and adds milk. He can feel Connor watching him, like he’s taking notes. It’s- weird.

Not bad weird.

Dylan brings his mug over, sits down across from Connor. “Mental health stuff,” he says, which is perhaps not the most graceful of ways to do this thing, but they’re doing it, apparently, which has got to count for something.

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t lie,” Dylan orders. He heard the way Connor talked about the rest of his life, until I couldn’t anymore, like it was some kind of prison sentence.

“I’m not,” Connor says, and Dylan stares at him real hard, but he looks like he’s being sincere. “It got bad for a while. Better, since summer.”

Since running away, Dylan translates, but doesn’t comment, because he’s sure as fuck not in a position to criticize anyone’s coping mechanisms.

“I called my therapist,” Connor offers, without Dylan even prompting him. “We’ve been talking.”

“Good,” Dylan says, and means it, too.

Connor holds Dylan’s gaze, kicks at his foot under the table. “Are you okay?”

Ten thousand dollar question. “I don’t know,” Dylan says, honest. Then, because it’s been bugging him, “Do you hate hockey?”

“I don’t know,” Connor echoes, and for the first time today, he looks uncertain. “I don’t want to.”

“Okay,” Dylan says. “That’s okay.” And- he’s not sure it is, really, because hockey’s their common ground, their everything, and he gets that it fucked with Connor, but it’s also- Dylan doesn’t know where they fit, outside of their sport. If they fit.

“Okay,” Connor says, and Dylan nods.

“Okay,” he says, stupid, and it makes Connor crack a smile. Dylan can’t help but return it, and the moment kind of swells, this weird and honest and new thing. Dylan feels almost nervous, which is just unbelievably dumb, because it’s them, but it feels like unfamiliar territory, all shaky legs baby-deer on the Discovery channel.

Something feels different.

“What do we do now?” Connor asks. He’s giving Dylan the lead, Dylan realizes, doing that real consciously. It’s a nice gesture.

“I don’t want be mad at you anymore,” Dylan says. “I’m- it’s fucking tiring, trying to hate you. So I’m done with that.”

“Oh,” Connor says. “So...” He trails off, holding onto his cup of coffee with both hands.

“So,” Dylan says. “So do you want to just- can we get a restart, maybe?”

“How?” Connor asks, and Dylan thinks about it then holds a hand out to shake.

“I’m Dylan,” he says.

Connor raises an eyebrow, all judgey. Looks more like himself than he has in months. “Seriously?”

“Fuckin’ do the thing, McDavid,” Dylan says.

Connor rolls his eyes, but he takes Dylan’s hand. “Connor,” he says, then, after a second of just holding on to each other, “I can’t believe you were sleeping with someone called Brad.”

“Oh my god,” Dylan says, laughing and surprising himself with how hard it is to stop. He can still feel them being tentative, a little, but he’s laughing, and Connor’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he joins in.