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holding hands in tree tops (i let you down)

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We don’t talk about what we know

Holding onto our egos ‘til we both agree we’ve had enough

Since we’ve stopped, I can’t help but eavesdrop

Holding hands in treetops used to be our thing

‘Til we had enough


 

William Nylander has never put much effort into being subtle.

 

He certainly hasn’t been the subtlest about the way he looks at Zach. He knows a lot of the guys notice it, and while some of them are kind enough to not chirp him about it, he does get shit a lot of the time. Mitch knows about everything, and he always has Willy’s back when he can, but sometimes it gets a bit much.

 

It’s not like he can’t handle the chirping, honestly. He wouldn’t mind people ribbing him about how he’s ‘pining away for Hymie’, and how Willy ‘isn’t good enough for Zach, it’ll so never happen’, if it was – well, true.

 

The fact of it is, it did happen. They dated, past tense, and now they’re not dating, present tense. Sure, maybe he’s not good enough for Zach, maybe that’s the whole goddamn problem - but he’s not sitting in bars, staring off into the distance, imagining some fairy-tale romance, regardless of what his teammates say.


All he’s imagining is a world where he hadn’t fucked everything up so badly.

 


 Two stones skipping

My heart tripping

Our hands slipping out of reach

My bed’s empty

I’ve said plenty

Now words just fall from the peaks


 

After all the lead up, Zach and Willy’s relationship had only really lasted about three months. It came to an end in the middle of January, in their second season. It was Zach, Willy guesses, that broke it off, but Willy chooses to take at least 98% of the blame.

 

The problem, he thinks, is that he was never a – “boyfriend” to Zach. Zach probably wanted him to be, sure, and Willy wanted to be too, so badly it hurt him, but he just – he couldn’t do it. Something about what they had didn’t work, and it took about six months of distance before Willy could admit what that something was.

 

The first time Zach took Willy on a date, Willy missed the whole movie because he was so hyper aware of Zach’s hand in his, of Willy’s own sweaty palm and Zach’s warm body at Willy’s side. He couldn’t tell you the name of the movie, now, but he could sure as hell recount the questions running through his head: why is holding hands with someone I like so scary? At what point am I supposed to let go of his hand? Is it rude that my hands are so sweaty but I still have a death grip on him? Will he want to kiss me when we get out of the movie, if we can do it without someone seeing us? Why the fuck is the thought of that so terrifying?

 

The date had ended up going fine, of course. Willy freaked the fuck out during the film, and then afterward they sat and talked and laughed their heads off for hours back at Zach’s place, and it had been fine. Willy ducked out awkwardly before either of them could get a kiss in, and may or may not have had an anxiety attack on the way home, but the point stands: the date was fine.

 

The whole thing had been more than fine. They took it … slow, for sure, but Zach had barely ever even mentioned the fact that they’d never kissed, that Willy never showed any intention of taking the relationship further than cuddling somewhat awkwardly on the couch and watching shitty comedies.

 

Two months into the relationship, when Willy was equal parts lost and desperate to hold onto what they had, Zach had told Willy he loved him, and Willy had, quite frankly, freaked the fuck out. It wasn’t that the reverse was untrue, he just – he didn’t know, really, what he felt, and what was okay, so he’d called Mitch and prayed that Mitch’s gay disaster ass had a solution. Said gay disaster’s contribution boiled down to this: If Willy thought he loved Zach, there was nothing wrong with saying it, and if he wasn’t totally sure, he could play it whichever way he thought was best. He ended up telling Zach, that day, that he loved him. He thinks he didn’t realise until later how true it had been at the time, how true it still was. Back then, there’d been a voice in his head yelling you’ve never even fucking kissed him! How could you love him? Now, he had the heartbreak to prove his feelings had always been real.

 

Willy wishes he’d known then what he knows now. Maybe that would have been enough. Maybe he wouldn’t have woken up to a text beginning “I’m sorry to do this but I just think we’re better off as friends –“ on a fucking freezing January morning. Maybe now he wouldn’t be sitting in a lonely, empty apartment, every goddamn night, trying not to think about how perfect Zach’s hands looked in Willy’s.  

 


Crazy, stupid, love birds

Cupid struck us

Now we’re falling out

Drove in silence

Put on mileage

Five years wasted

I let you down


  

Auston and Mitch, walking into practice every morning with their hands linked and matching grins on their faces, are… surprisingly not nauseating. Willy gets sick of the PDA pretty quickly, but he doesn’t know if that’s an ace thing or a ‘two of my best friends are making out in front of me and I’m uncomfortable’ thing, and he can generally avoid it most of the time anyway.

 

He knows, despite appearances, that the lead up to this has been really hard on Mitch, and he imagines the same to be true for Auston, so he keeps the chirping to a minimum, and keeps being happy for them. The last thing he wants is for them to go back to feeling like they have to hide everything they feel, like their relationship doesn’t fit in with the team dynamics.

 

The problem is that seeing the two of them so happy together makes his heart hurt. The holes in it that used to be filled spending time with Zach are now just… empty. No matter how badly it ended, he misses feeling like that - happy, whole.

 

Mitch has helped him so much with his ace stuff, too, so he can’t complain. He doesn’t recall it, exactly, but he thinks the first time he even thought about being ace was because Mitch mentioned it – and he doesn’t know where he’d be without him. Shit’s been hard anyway, but it would have been far worse without Mitch helping him through it, so Willy’s just happy to see Mitch content, like he deserves to be.

 

He went out for coffee this morning with Auston and Mitch, and they were just acting so… smitten, the whole time, that Willy got home and basically started crying straight away. He’ll always hold it together for the two of them, because he doesn’t want either of them to think that he doesn’t support them, but it’s fucking hard, sometimes, knowing this was what he wanted and couldn’t have. When they’re making out, it’s easy to glance away and think about how that isn’t what he wants anyway. But he spent an hour watching how easily they bounced conversation off each other, like they’d been together their whole lives, and it hurt.

 

It’s been about a year since he and Zach broke up. It seems to be more and more painful as time goes on. When it first happened, Willy had almost felt relieved, honestly. Holding onto a relationship status that Willy wasn’t sure he could ever live up to had felt like the biggest burden at the time; calling himself Zach’s boyfriend, even in private, felt like too much, like something impossible. It wasn’t until months later, when Willy was finally able to admit that he was asexual, that he started thinking about Zach again, started thinking that maybe they could have worked better, if only Willy had just known who and what he was. It’s been months of actual proper pining now, and he almost wishes he could go back - then again, “back” means identity confusion all over again, plus time travel movies usually start some kind of disaster, don’t they?

 

There was a really long period where he didn’t think he’d ever be able to be in a relationship, because who wants to date someone that won’t even kiss them? But Mitch has gradually convinced Willy that he genuinely deserves someone loving him like that, if that’s what he wants, that he deserves someone who’ll take Willy’s wishes into account, and still love him, and that he’ll get it, one day, even if it isn’t from Zach.

 

Willy thinks, most days, that he believes that. Sometimes he isn’t so sure.

 


There’s rain that’s falling down

I hate these silent sounds

When I go days without hearing you speak out loud

So I get why this is hard,

The end is never far

I’ll tape my wounds and hopefully find someone new


  

In the middle of January, the Leafs play the Red Wings, lose 3-2 in a shootout, and all scamper home feeling defeated. Willy, ever the responsible and mature one, gets back to his apartment and immediately starts downing shots of vodka.

 

An indeterminable number of shots later, Willy is, quite frankly, fucking wasted. He is also, as usual, really missing Zach.

 

The pain of it all is intensified by the alcohol in his system. He doesn’t usually let himself express his pain outside of skating hard and shooting harder, but tonight something inside of him snaps,  and he starts crying, doesn’t know how to stop. It’s dark in the kitchen, where he’s sitting, because he couldn’t be fucked putting the lights on earlier, and it feels appropriate, like a representation of his soul, or something disgustingly poetic like that. Zach would know the word for it.

 

He looks out into the city, high rise buildings standing out in stark contrast from the endless grey sky, and thinks about how different his life could be. How many different universes there could be, out there, and how many of them would result in him sitting here. Maybe in some he gets to the NHL, but gets drafted to the goddamn Flyers or something. Maybe in some he gives up hockey before he can make it, just watches the team from the stands, works some mundane day job and dreams about being something else entirely. Maybe in some he never leaves Sweden at all, never makes it out here.


Maybe, in some of the infinite universes out there, he never meets Zach.

 

For some reason, while he’s crying into a bottle of vodka and staring at the Toronto skyline, the thought really upsets Willy. It might not be his actual life, sure, but maybe there’s a Willy out there who never got to see his Zach, never got to know what it was like to love him. How did Willy fuck it up so badly that he’s lucky enough to have Zach right in front of him and still they can’t be happy? Who is he to blame the universe, when the universe has already done him the biggest favour of all - letting him love Zach?

 

Somehow, in his alcohol-soaked brain, he thinks Zach should know that even after everything, Willy would still rather have this universe, where everything is fucked up, than risk having one where he never got to know Zach at all.  

 

Willy doesn’t even recognise that he’s called Zach until the voicemail starts, and he hears a years-old recording of Zach saying “leave a message!”, and then a loud beep. Willy isn’t sure what to say. He takes a few deep breaths, and starts talking, not sure what’s coming out of his mouth until it’s, well. Out there.

 

“Zach. It’s – it’s Willy, obviously. You’re probably – ” he hiccups, “probably busy right now, y’know, actually having your shit together or like – ” he doesn’t want to say he thinks Zach is hooking up right now, doesn’t even want to imply it, but the thought still weighs him down as it sits in his stomach, choking him up.

 

“I just – I know I’m a fucking mess, I doubt you’re surprised, but I – I was thinking about – and I just wanted to – I wanted to tell you. That. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I fucked everything up by being – y’know, the person that I am, and everything. I don’t even think you’d want me if I’d – been able to tell you about me being asexual, but that’s not on you. I should have fucking been able to tell you anyway. And I just – I hate that I have to fuckling miss you when we live in the same city, when I see you every goddamn day. Out of – out of all the universes, we got the one where the two of us get to live right here, together, and still I fucked it up enough to tear us apart. That’s – on me. I can’t blame the fucking universe.”

 

Willy pauses, looks out the window and tries his best not to picture a universe without Zach by his side, tries not to think about living the rest of his life in this universe with Zach beside him but never in the way he wants.  

 

“Anyway. I - ha, I’m really drunk, man, sorry. Practice is gonna be a bastard tomorrow, I guess. I’ll, uh, stop being so fucking – existential and pathetic, and leave you alone. Hope you’re – doing better than I am, Zach.” ‘ Doing better without me’, he doesn’t say. Doesn’t say, ‘ you deserve to be happier than you could be with me’, or ‘I miss you more every day’, or ‘I wish I could be sure you know how much I love you’ either.

 

Instead, he hangs the fuck up, then barely remembers to plug his phone in and set an alarm before he crashes onto his bed and falls asleep straight away, thoughts of alternate universes and his own failures carrying him into a twisted dreamscape.

 


 Digital telepathy

I wish you were next to me

Why are you my enemy?

We’re wasting all this energy

Overdose on empathy

Love will be the end of me


 

When Willy finally drags himself out of bed and turns his alarm off, he notices two things at the same time: firstly, that he has 7 missed calls, all from Zach, and secondly, that someone is banging on the front door to his apartment, and possibly yelling at him too.

 

Belatedly, he realises a third thing: he doesn’t remember anything from after he got home last night.

 

The knocking on the door probably needs to be dealt with first, but something about having missed calls from Zach for the first time in a year has fear burning in his stomach, because what if – what if something happened? So he swipes on his phone to call Zach back, and walks towards his entry corridor to let whoever needs him in.

 

The phone rings while Willy walks towards the door, and with each ring he gets more concerned that Zach isn’t going to pick up. Finally, the call goes through, as he’s unlocking the front door, and he swings it open to an exhausted looking Zach, holding his phone up to his ear. “Willy?” asks Zach, directly in front of him, a second before it’s echoed through the phone in Willy’s hand.

 

Willy thinks, idly, that he’s way too fucking hungover for this.

 

Instead of saying anything, he hangs up the call, and steps aside to let Zach in. When Zach’s in front of him, still looking exhausted but so, so concerned too, Willy asks “Is everything okay? Did something happen?”

 

Zach just stares at him, then, after a few seconds, huffs out a laugh, but it sounds bitter more than anything.

 

“You don’t remember anything from last night, do you?” Zach asks, like he already knows the answer, and Willy already knew he didn’t remember shit, but this has him another level of concerned. What the fuck happened?

 

“I – nothing from after the game, no.”

 

Zach nods, but instead of telling Willy what happened, he steps forward, and wraps his arms around Willy.

 

Willy is frozen. Completely still. He wants to wrap his arms around Zach, because he’s been pathetically dreaming of a hug like this for months, but he’s not sure he remembers how to move his arms.

 

Zach steps back, tears in his eyes, and looks at Willy for a while, before asking, quiet as a mouse, “Are you okay?”

 

Willy blinks, says, “Am I okay? Zach, are you okay? What’s going on?”

 

“I – I’m fine, Will,” Zach says, “I’m just worried about you. You know that… it’s not your fault, right, that we broke up? You can’t have taken responsibility for that, when I’m the one that – fucked it all up?”

 

Willy’s pretty sure, suddenly, that he knows what happened last night. After all, it was only a matter of time before he got desperate enough to drunk dial Zach. What he doesn’t understand is why Zach cares, why Zach’s acting like it wasn’t all Willy’s fault.

 

Willy isn’t sure what to say – he did take responsibility, he knows it was his fault, and he has no idea what to expect from Zach being here, now. He moves toward the kitchen, instead of responding, says “Do you want some coffee?” over his shoulder, so Zach knows Willy isn’t actually walking away from him.

 

Zach makes a resigned but affirmative noise, so Willy gets them both set up with cups of coffee, and sits down next to where Zach is at the kitchen bench. It’s silent for a few minutes, while they both drink their coffees, until Zach starts the conversation back up.

 

“You know – I didn’t actually know you were asexual until you said it last night. I don’t know if you remember telling me, but you said – I mean, you really thought it would have mattered to me? You think it would have changed anything, that you’re ace, would have made me –” he gulps, “love you any less?”

 

Willy feels like crying. He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to think, here.  

 

“I don’t think,” Willy starts, “that I even knew until – after. I felt all these things, when we were together, that made it all so hard, but I didn’t realise – why I felt like that, until later, when I worked out I was, uh. Ace.”

 

The next part, Willy isn’t sure he can say while he’s sober. But he thinks Zach knew how unsure Willy was when he first told Zach he loved him, and he wants to be sure, no matter what happens, that Zach knows now how true it always has been.

 

“You know,” Willy’s voice wavers, but he goes on, “I didn’t really know it, then. When I told you I loved you. Just how true it was, how true it was always going to be. I just – I always wish I’d known way back then, before I fucked it all up, that me being ace didn’t mean I didn’t love you. I know that - you read the... uncertainty, when I first told you I loved you, and I’ll always regret that. You deserve someone who can love you and make sure you know they do, and I – I’m sorry I didn’t get to be that for you. I’m always gonna be fucking sorry.”

 

Willy,” Zach says, voice hoarse, and when Willy looks back up from the bench he’s been staring at for minutes, there are tears in Zach’s eyes, “I don’t – I just... You being ace, the way you feel because of it, the things you want, even you not knowing you were ace until recently, don’t ever think that any of it is a bad thing, that it makes you responsible for how we ended. It’s just... who you are. And who you are is beautiful, and incredible, and so, so, loveable, and not wanting certain things in a relationship doesn’t - you know, take away from how badly you deserve someone who loves you like you love them. And I – I don’t mind, if it’s not me, as long as I know you’re happy. I’m always going to love you, Will. Your sexuality, and, uh, the way we ended last time... that’s not going to change that. Ever.”

 

Willy kind of wants to hit Zach, yell ‘ what the fuck do you mean ‘I don’t mind if it’s not me’, did you miss the part where I literally said I’ve been in love with you for over a year?’, but he thinks he understands the sentiment, because objectively he acknowledges that Zach just said he’s ‘always going to love’ Willy, but it doesn’t really compute. So instead, Willy just kind of… stares at Zach, and doesn’t say anything. After a few seconds of this, Zach gets up, off his stool, and looks at Willy, almost apologetically.

 

“I think,” Zach says, tears still in his eyes, “that might have been the wrong thing to say. I’m really sorry, Willy. I’ll head out, give you some space, and, uh, I’ll see you at practice this afternoon?”

 

So, Willy stared long enough for Zach to think it meant the feelings weren’t reciprocated.

 

Fuck.

 

This, Willy realises, is the rom-com moment where Willy would get up, dramatically, and stop Zach by kissing him, expressing all the love he feels through the slide of his lips against Zach’s.

 

However, the idea of putting his mouth on Zach’s is quite possibly the least pleasant thing Willy can think of right now, and it freaks him out. Zach said Willy being ace was okay, but they didn’t talk about what it means; Zach doesn’t know Willy won’t kiss him, he probably thinks just sex is off the table. What can Willy even say here? How does he explain that he never wants to hurt Zach again, would do anything to stop Zach walking out that door, but that if Zach stays, Willy’s never going to so much as kiss him?

 

Zach, again, takes Willy’s lack of answer as an answer in itself, and starts walking to the door, slipping his shoes on. Willy tries his best to get the right words out of his mouth.

 

“Zach, wait.”

 

Zach turns around, right foot half in his shoe already. Willy has to force himself to look at Zach, instead of out the window, or at the shoe rack, or anywhere but Zach’s crushed and pained expression.

 

“I don’t want you to leave. Not now, or – you know, ever. It’s just – I feel like you don’t understand how this relationship is going to be if we start again? With me… being the way I am? Like, cards on the table, I can’t imagine being without you, but I also am never going to want to like, kiss you, or do – anything sexual, at all, and that’s a really fucking big ask on you. Like, I want to hold your hand 24/7, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that I’m not physically capable of wanting to reciprocate any of the things you probably need.”


Zach is looking at Willy like he’s found something he’s been searching for his whole life, something he didn’t think he’d ever see again. Willy tries not to imagine what that thing might be. Love, maybe. Happiness.

 

Zach slides his shoe back off, and walks over to Willy. When he’s within arm’s length, he asks, “Can I hug you?”

 

Willy knows he didn’t ask, earlier, just did it, but he also thinks it’s understandable to assume Willy is a bit fragile right now, that he might need the opportunity to establish boundaries.

 

Willy nods, and he thinks this means things have gone well, but – who knows, maybe Zach has a weird fucking way of letting people down gently.

 

“I know,” Zach basically whispers, so quiet it sounds like it could break in mid-air, “it’s easy to feel like people won’t understand who you are, will get offended at you being yourself. But you never, ever have to worry about me not bothering to know who you are and what it means. You’re ace, and I understand that, and you can set whatever boundaries you need and I’ll always respect them. Nothing matters more to me than just... being able to be with you, however that looks. I love you.”

 

He’s not being let down gently then. Willy’s a bit speechless, because Zach has just effortlessly opened his mouth and said the words Willy has desperately needed to hear for a year, and Zach loves him, Willy doesn’t know what to say. Zach’s always had a way with words, he guesses.

 

He thinks Zach knows, now, after all this time, that Willy loves him too, so he doesn’t say anything. He just holds onto Zach with everything he’s got. Maybe if he never lets go, Zach won’t either, and they can stay here, in this moment, forever.

 


 

When Willy and Zach walk into practice, Mitch and Auston are squished into Mitch’s stall, holding hands and both looking at the phone in Mitch’s hand.

 

Most of the boys are ignoring them, but the people acknowledging it are just rolling their eyes, mostly endeared by how affectionate Mitch and Auston are.

 

Zach and Willy, standing at the door, hand in hand, barely draw any shock. Naz makes a bit of a ‘lord help me’ face, but he then mouths ‘congratulations’ to Willy, so there probably aren’t any hard feelings.

Willy leads Zach towards Willy’s stall, and when they’re about to pass Mitch, the guy finally looks up. When he catches sight of Willy and Zach’s hands linked, he grins in a way Willy didn’t think was humanly possible; Mitch Marner tends to radiate unbelievable joy, but Willy’s never seen him this excited before. He basically throws Auston to the floor in his haste to get up and hug Willy, but Auston grins good naturedly, and pats Zach and Willy on their backs. Zach makes a disgruntled noise when his hand is separated from Willy’s, but Mitch turns to him, likely ready to dispel his romance wisdom, one month into a successful relationship and hence an expert.

 

“Don’t complain, Zachary. You and prince charming have got the rest of your lives to hold hands,” Mitch tells Zach, smirk on his face but genuine happiness in his eyes.

 

Zach grins at Willy; Willy grins back.

 

The rest of their lives doesn't sound half bad.