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Don't Think Twice, It's Alright

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Kent is sitting on one of two plastic swings precariously tied to an oak tree in the front yard of Jack’s frat house.

The seat had slush on it, which has now melted into the seat of Kent’s jeans. His Vans and socks are soaked and his toes are numb. His fingers are red from the cold. His and Jack’s raised voices are still ringing in his ears, and all in all he feels pretty sorry for himself. It’s becoming a familiar feeling.

What was the definition of insanity again?

The door to the house opens briefly, music and laughter flaring louder as someone steps out onto the front porch. It’s a boy from earlier, one of Jack’s teammates. Kent recalls taking a picture with him earlier in the night. Now he’s dressed in a knit hat and gloves, and he crosses the snowy yard in rubber boots. He’s got a bright red scarf in his hands, which he wraps around Kent’s neck when he reaches him. Then he sits down in swing next to him as if he and Kent have known each other all their lives.

“Whatcha doing out here?” the boy asks.

“Waiting to sober up,” Kent replies honestly, pulling the scarf tighter around his neck. “My hotel’s in Providence.”

“Seems silly to do that out here in the cold,” the boy says. “You can always spend the night.”

“Nah,” Kent says. “I’ll be alright.”

The sit quietly for awhile, swinging in the icy breeze. Kent wonders what this kid wants, if it’s an autograph or something. He doesn’t like being an asshole to fans, and his mood being what it is, he’s not quite sure how to come up with the words to explain he really wants to be alone.

“Look, I know it’s not my business,” the boy says softly, and Kent lifts his head to meet his gaze. He’s surprised by what he sees, the big brown eyes, warm and understanding. “And you can tell me to mind my own business, but - I know...I know Jack can be difficult.”

Kent feels his chest tightening, an instinctive panic. He doesn’t know how the kid knows, or how he knows that the kid knows, but he knows, and he knows that he knows. Kent rubs a hand over his jaw, more at loss for words than ever.

“I don’t know what went on between the two of you,” the boys says, even more softly. “But you don’t have to punish yourself for it.”

Kent laughs, a bitter sound in the empty yard. He punishes himself more than this kid could even guess. Sitting out in the cold is one thing. He’d known, coming here - that the night would end just like this. “Somehow, feeling like shit is better than being forgotten,” he says.

“Yeah, I know,” the kid says with his own sad smile.

Kent studies him. “What difference does this make to you?”

The boy tilts his head, and then his whole body back, kicking up his legs, letting the swing support him. He doesn’t answer for a little while. “I just saw you sitting out here,” he says finally. “I knew you were sad.”

That doesn’t exactly answer Kent’s question. But the kid is drunk, and maybe, actually, just genuinely kind. Cute and kind and worried for Kent’s well being on a cold, horrible night in the middle of nowhere - and that’s not the worst situation Kent’s ever been in, by far.

“You’re not too bad, you know,” the kid says, leaning his cheek against the rope and looking at Kent. He’s smiling. “Things with Jack may be bad, but you’ve got a lot of other good things going on for you.”

Something loosens in Kent’s chest. The impossible happens: he smiles.

“Yeah?” he says. “Like what?”

The kid grins. “Well, you’re cute.”

“Yeah?”

“And I like your arms.”

This soft-spoken southern kid with pretty eyes is flirting with him, simple and sweet. Like Kent is just another college kid. Yeah. It could be a lot worse.

The swing creaks as Kent leans in and touches his mouth to the boy’s. He tastes like cinnamon. They swing side to side a little as the kiss goes on. “Thanks,” Kent murmurs when he pulls back.

The boy’s eyes are still closed. His cheeks are pink and he’s smiling. “I’m Eric,” he says softly.

“Hi, Eric,” Kent says.

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Eric’s first text to Kent in 2015 is to ask him if he got home from the party alright, which Kent thinks is kinda nice.

Eric’s first text to Kent in 2019 is just a series of knife emojis.

 

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Kent is traded to the Bruins in the spring of 2019. He sells his house in Vegas and buys a condo in the Seaport district of Boston - he’s been told it’s a 10 minute drive to the stadium, which must be a lie. But Eric had gone with the realtor on his behalf and taken pictures of the property - mostly of the kitchen. His commentary had been all in caps and had featured more emojis than Kent had ever seen him use, which ended up being the actual selling point.

The day he arrives, Kent sends the movers on to the condo without him, and peels off the 93, following the directions he’d input into his Google Maps. Eric works in a bakery on Farnsworth street. Kent parks a few hundred feet away, but he can smell the butter, and he can see the line to get in. The shop is incredibly crowded, and there are at least six staff members manning the counters, taking orders and wrapping pastries in brown paper bags and white boxes. Kent spots Eric right away, carrying a huge silver tray from the back that holds a mound of croissants. He has a black t-shirt with the bakery’s logo and a white apron tied around his waist. He looks happier than Kent has ever, ever seen him.

He spots Kent while he’s arranging the croissants on a metal pedestal behind a glass counter, and he screams. A few people look up and around, but most everyone keeps looking at the macarons and cookies and truffles with bloodthirsty intent. Eric puts the tray down on the table behind him and runs around the counter at a sprint. He leaps at Kent, and Kent wraps his arms tight around him, pulling him up and off the floor. He smells so good. He feels like home.

“I wasn’t expecting you today!” Eric is saying into Kent’s shoulder. “I’m sorry - did you text me? I’ve been working since 4 AM--”

“No, I wanted it to be a surprise,” Kent smirks, lowering Eric to his feet. He puts his hands on Eric’s shoulders. “Surprise!”

“You’re finally here,” Eric says, so happily, smiling up at him. His hands hold on to Kent’s waist. “Have you been to the condo yet? Have you settled in?”

“Not yet - I came here first,” Kent says, and he can see how much that pleases Eric, the pink rising in his cheeks.

“You’re silly,” Eric says, but he winds his arm around Kent’s chest, and squeezes him tight again. “Argh - I’m so glad you’re here.”

Kent holds on to Eric as long as he’s allowed. Then Eric grabs him by the hand, and tows him back behind the counter. With expert hands, he folds together a giant white box in a manner of seconds. Then he takes Kent around the store, pointing things out and explaining what they are, letting Kent picks whatever he likes. He takes one of each macaroon, four ham and cheese croissants, two blueberry danishes, a huge handful of peanut brittle, and a few bags of chocolate covered ginger. Eric puts one more of each item in the box than Kent asks for, then packs it all in a paper bag with handles.

“Get a good sleep, okay? I’ll pick you up in the morning,” Eric says, when they say goodbye at the door. He pushes a hot to-go cup into Kent’s other hand.

“Where are we going?” Kent says, sipping at the drink - it’s a spicy dark chocolate mocha.

Eric grins. “Sweden.”

 

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 Eric picks Kent up in a blue honda civic that smells like coconut. He’s wearing a backwards cap with a VW Westfalia on it, and he’s sipping on a large cold brew when Kent opens the passenger door. There’s a cold brew waiting for Kent in the cup holder, the plastic cup sweating a little. One shot of vanilla and a little cream - not the way Kent has ever ordered his own coffee, but damn is he gonna start.

Kent flips through the CD holder attached to his visor. He of course selects the burnt CD entitled ‘I H8 FOOTBALL - 2009’, which Eric says was the film score of his coming-of-age, and features “Single Ladies” every 5 tracks, but also a respectable amount of Gwen Stefani and Black Eyed Peas. Kent rolls down the windows to let in the warm June air, and they sing along to Rich Girl at the top of their lungs.

“If you were a rich girl?” Eric tells him after the second verse. “You’re way too bougie to sing this s--look at you, you’re wearing a Rolex right now.”

Kent stares deeply into the eyes of the driver next to them as they pull up to a traffic light, ignoring Eric’s comment in favour of shouting Eve’s solo at the startled gentleman behind the wheel.

 

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The first thing Kent had purchased with his very first signing bonus had been a three thousand dollar tempurpedic mattress because it had the name “Cloud Supreme Breeze”. It had a life-time warranty and Kent planned to be buried in it. He follows Eric into the furniture store entirely for the minor delight of watching him face the crowds and sprawling warehouse with the determination of a squad commander. He hands Kent a giant yellow plastic bag and a golf pencil, and takes command of the cart himself, deftly avoiding a mom with two fighting children and an old lady with a walker as he leads Kent into the winding halls of Ikea, probably never to be seen or heard from again.

Kent points at a bunk bed frame that has a ladder and a slide.

“This is what the fuck I am talking about,” he says, climbing up the ladder. He sits on the pencil thin mattress and eyes the slide and wonders if a piece of cheap laboured metal designed for a five year old can hold any portion of his 225 pounds.

“Kent Parson, don’t you dare,” says Eric sternly, laughter in his voice. “I know exactly what you’re thinking of doing.”

“Come help support it,” Kent says, wriggling his butt until he’s sitting at the top of the slide.

“I will not,” Eric says, but he does take a picture. He seems too busy tweeting it to care much if Kent plunges to his death. He’s a bad spotter.

Kent puts his legs and arms in tight together and squeezes his eyes shut as he scoots off the edge of the slide. He rockets straight down and lands hard on his ass. The whole frame of the bed shakes. It hurts a lot, but Eric’s laughing, and overall Kent feels quite pleased with himself.

In the end, he purchases two vanilla cookie scented candles and a broccoli stuffie. Eric had sabotaged all his attempts to buy kitchen gear, which is the only thing Kent actually needs. Actually, Eric had sabotaged most of the things Kent had tried to buy, taking them right back out of the cart the moment Kent dropped them in - including but not limited to a coal-grey cowhide rug and a 5-set of mini steel cacti. Kent had said he wanted his new condo to have a “cowboy/industrial” aesthetic, but Eric was having none of it.

He drives them back to Haus 2.0 without even asking if Kent wants to come for dinner. Kent doesn’t know Boston well enough to realize where they’re headed until it’s too late. He hesitates when Eric gets out of the car, staring out the windshield at the white-panelled house. Eric notices and comes back, his face a mixture of confusion and concern.

“Do they know I’m coming?” he asks, speaking of Eric’s friends. Jack’s friends. He’d met them only twice, each time at a party, each time all of them drunk. He doesn’t know how much they know about Kent, about Jack. He doesn’t know what they think of him. Ordinarily, that would have been no problem at all for Kent - except...they mean a lot to Eric.

“Only Lardo is home,” Eric says softly, hands on his knees as he bends to peer at Kent through the open driver door. “Honey. They don’t care.”

Kent closes his eyes and sighs out through his nose. Right. Kent’s personal drama, the thoughts constantly swirling through his head, the feelings he can’t let go, are not the pivot of everyone else’s world. He forgets that a lot of the time. He takes another deep breath and then adjusts his cap, pulling himself out of the front seat. He effects a casual smirk as he winds an arm around Eric’s shoulders, the two of them climbing the stairs.

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Eric sits Kent down on his bed one afternoon, and tells him that Jack is coming to Haus Easter.

“Oh,” Kent says, with a little laugh, all flight and no fight at all. “That’s okay. I’ll do my own thing - some of the boys from the team invited me to their dinners too.”

Eric sits down next to him and puts a hand on his knee. Like always, he projects concern and no judgement, even though it’s about something he wants. “I think you should come,” he says softly.

Kent stands up and moves over to Eric’s computer chair, sitting down in it instead. He spins around once. “No,” he says.

“Okay,” says Eric, and that’s it.

 

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Kent takes Eric to Revere beach on the first hot day of summer. When Eric realizes halfway through that he forgot his sunglasses, Kent reaches over to open his glove box so he can have his pick of the four pairs Kent has stashed inside. Perfect Gentleman comes on Kent’s spotify playlist on the drive over, and Kent impresses Eric by knowing every single word to Hope the Stripper’s rap solo. It’s his party trick.

The beach is busy even for mid week, but they find a good spot near the water, where it’s not too crowded and no one is playing loud country music or smoking. They spread out their beach blanket. Eric sits on Kent’s lower back to spread sunscreen over his shoulders. He counts every single freckle on Kent’s back. Kent has to swat at him to get him to stop trying to pop a pimple on his left shoulder, even though Eric begs him to let him.

Eric’s phone is resting on a corner of the blanket. Kent grabs it when it buzzes, passing it up to Eric. Kent doesn’t mean to glance at the screen, it happens without thinking first. Eric rolls off Kent so he’s laying on his back beside him, squinting at the text on the screen, and grinning as he replies.

Kent puts his head in his folded arms. He listens to the waves, the gulls, tries to enjoy the warmth of the sun on his skin. But the buzzing from Eric’s phone, over and over, is distracting. When it quiets, Kent leans his cheek on his arm to look over at Eric. He tries not to look how he feels.

Eventually, Eric puts his phone down on his belly, and looks back at him. He has this expression that somehow manages to be understanding of Kent’s unhappiness without expressing any guilt for it. He says: “He’s my best friend.”

Kent chews on his lip and then lifts his head so he can rest his chin on his wrist, looking out at the water. It hurts. It hurts when people like Jack, because it means Jack must be nice to them, which makes Kent feel like he must have been the problem all along. It hurts because he wants to be Eric’s best friend, even though he wants to be more. Just like he knows Jack is Bitty’s best friend, and also more. Just like Kent had been Jack’s best friend, but never really more. “For awhile there, I thought you guys were gonna date.”

It sounds bitter. Kent hates that.

“For awhile, we almost did,” Eric answers. Kent suddenly feels Eric’s fingers in his hair, pushing back his bangs over and over, a gentle caress. “We talked about it a lot. In the end, we figured out it wasn’t going to work for either of us.”

Kent closes his eyes. He thinks back to his seventeen year old self and wishes he’d had that kind of foresight. “How come?” he asks.

Eric hums. “We love each other,” he says thoughtfully. “But we both realized it wasn’t going to be enough. Jack didn’t want anything to hurt his career and I didn’t want to be hidden, or wait. Jack didn’t want to hurt me and I didn’t want to hurt him. So we stayed friends.”

Kent leans over so his chin is on Eric’s shoulder, hugging an arm around him. He squeezes. “That must have hurt too,” he murmurs.

“Yeah,” Eric says, leaning their heads together. “It did. But not as much as it would’ve if I’d lied to myself about what our relationship would be like.”

It sounds awfully emotionally mature for Jack, or at least, the Jack that Kent had known. The Jack who lived the same way that he played hockey, who wanted and took and burned up everything for it. Eric’s emotional intelligence is the highest Kent’s ever known - Jack’s the lowest. He wonders how much of the decision was actually Jack’s, or if Eric had just stepped out of his path. It’s possible, though, that Jack has grown. Kent wonders if he himself has grown.

They stay like that for awhile, hugging in the sun. Kent actually almost falls asleep. But then Eric pulls away and grabs the football they packed, bumping Kent gently on the head with it. “C’mon, I’ll teach you how to throw a football.”

“I know how to throw a football,” Kent mutters at him, and gets to his feet. He picks Eric up from a sitting position, a little laughing bundle, and carries him into the Atlantic.

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2019 basically goes like this:

Kent goes to karaoke with Eric and all the boys from the Haus. He and Adam sing Tubthumping and Eric can’t look at him.

Eric comes out to the bar with Kent and a few of his buddies from the team. They love him and how tiny he is and they buy him drinks and they all try to teach Eric pool at the same time, fighting over his attention and leaving Kent to beg for scraps.

Kent is invited to a boat party with Eric’s friends from the bakery. It’s absolutely as fantastic as it sounds - they have speakers and a blender to make margaritas and they can jump off the front of the boat, right into the ocean. Kent and the head baker Tim bond over knowing all the words to Super Bass. Bryce has her whole back covered in tattoos and she explains every single one of them to him. They don’t treat him like a famous hockey player, in fact, it seems to them the least significant thing about him.

Eric brings Kent to the Milkweed for brunch one Sunday and judges Kent heavily for ordering the Lucky Charm pancakes. Kent brings Eric to Bakowski Tavern where they eat White Trash cheese dip and Eric gets tipsy and giggly off a craft beer sampler.

They consider going to one of Boston’s many art museums. They don’t go even once.

 

Kent continues to attend Haus Karaoke Night - this time he sings Rasputin by Boney M with Shitty and they Cossack dance around the bar. Kent purrs “Oh, those Russians” into Eric’s mortified ear.

Kent and Eric go together to see the Silmarillion in theatres. Eric hates the white cheddar powder Kent puts on their popcorn and Kent gets to eat the whole bag. Eric hasn’t seen any of the other Tolkien movies or read the books. He falls asleep on Kent’s shoulder and it’s awesome.

Kent holds the camera for Eric sometimes while he bakes for his youtube channel. One time, Eric convinces him to go in front of the camera and have his eyebrows bleached.

Some nights they watch true crime documentaries and Kent refuses to let Eric go home alone, if Eric even wants to go home at all. Some nights they just lay on Kent’s living room floor with throw pillows under their heads, watching “RIP Vine” compilations on Eric’s phone and laughing so hard they cry.

Kent has an acoustic guitar that he knows how to play but hasn’t in years. He keeps it mostly out of emotional attachment, propped up next to his bookshelf. Eric comes over and cooks him seafood alfredo from scratch, they drink red wine with it and then Eric picks up the guitar. He only knows the first few chords of Smoke on the Water, and he plays them over and over and over until Kent is forced to confiscate the instrument.

At a game in Dallas, Kent gets a concussion, and when his flight lands, Eric is waiting in arrivals to drive him home. He feeds Kent a small handful of Tylenol and lays in bed with him, scratching his back lightly until he falls asleep. Eric stays and takes care of him for a few days, making him food and encouraging him to take naps, and when Kent spaces out in the middle of conversations, Eric doesn’t seem to mind at all.

A few days before Christmas, they go for a walk through Boston Commons park. It’s not that late but the sky is dark, and the trees are lit up with lights. The air is cold and they can see their breaths, and they walk so long their ears turn red. At one point, Eric reaches over and holds his hand. Kent could keep walking for the rest of the night.

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Eric sleeps over one night because he has plans to take Kent into work the next day. Going into work with Eric means getting up at approximately 3:30 AM, and adding in an extra hour to swing by and pick Eric up at the Haus was out of the question. So Kent tells himself, although it would have been easy enough to meet Eric at the bakery. In reality, he wanted Eric to curl up against him in his bed like he has now, his head on Kent’s chest, his hair tickling Kent’s nose. Kent gets to wrap both arms around him, and even though it’s only 8 PM, they both fall right to sleep.

Eric makes him a coffee in a tumbler in the morning, and wraps a scarf around Kent’s sleepy face. They walk hand-in-hand down the dark streets of Boston. It’s eerily quiet, the streets empty, but it’s also peaceful, like he and Eric have the world to themselves. Eric puts a code into the back door of the bakery and leads Kent inside - it’s a blast of warmth. The bakery looks so different at night, all the lights off except for the fridge lights, the chairs stacked, the food put away.

Kent doesn’t linger on it long, because Eric brings him back into the kitchens. He hooks his phone into a set of speakers and starts playing a podcast. Mostly, though, he talks to Kent while he works. Kent watches in awe: it also seems so second nature to Eric, like he’s barely paying attention while he sifts the flours, separates the egg yolks, makes butter cream in eight different flavours. He’s making macarons with the same ease as if he’s brushing his teeth. While they’re in the oven, he shifts seamlessly to croissants.

Eric has been to probably 50 of Kent’s hockey games, and Kent’s seen him work his magic often enough in his own kitchen, but this is different. As he watches Eric with mounting awe, he realizes Eric is pleased with his attention, showing off what he can do, and it must be the same exhilarated feeling in his chest when Kent spots Eric in the crowd. Eric wants Kent to be impressed and proud of him, and boy, is he ever.

When the macaron shells are done and Eric has assembled them with the buttercream, he holds a passionfruit flavoured one to Kent’s lips. Kent closes his eyes when he bites into it - the shells melt in his mouth, and the buttercream bursts with flavour. He’s never had a macaron fresh from the oven. A delighted grin spreads over his face.

When he opens his eyes, Eric is staring at his mouth. All at once, Kent’s breath is gone. He and Eric have been flirting the line for a long time, but there’s no mistaking the look in Eric’s eyes. Kent steps closer, lifting a hand to Eric’s cheek.

Something snaps.

Eric jumps and whirls around, then makes a triumphant sound one usually hears from an evil dictator of some sort. Kent watches, dazed, as Eric hurries over to one of the large freezers and pulls it out from the wall. He bends down to pick up a mouse trap and waves it in the air like a flag, the poor dead mouse losing the last of its dignity as it flops around.

“Yes!” Eric shouts. When he sees Kent’s expression, he stops. “Casualties are necessary in war.”

“You’re psychotic,” Kent tells him, and wants to kiss him even more.

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The New Years party at Haus 2.0 is the strangest mix of people Kent thinks he has ever seen. Law students, artists, Eric’s hippie co-workers, Adam and Justin’s tech start-up geniuses, assorted friends. 1 NHL player. No one in that grab bag of people seems particularly enthused or even familiar with hockey, which makes it easier to relax. Plus, the lights are dim, the music is good, and the booze is plentiful. If Eric and his friends learned anything in college, it was how to throw a party.

Kent normally likes being social at parties. He normally refuses to follow the person he’s most comfortable with around for the entire night. He usually sets himself up by the food table or joins in on a drinking game - within minutes, he can have new friends. Sometimes he can even make money off Lardo at the beer pong table. At this party, he could have learned many new and fascinating things about property taxes or app design. He’s been friends with Eric for so long that a baking conversation would have been easy-peasy.

But tonight is different, and it’s not all Kent’s fault. Eric is on him the second Kent walks through the door. And he looks so good. It’s nothing out of the ordinary - an open denim button up over a white shirt and black jeans. Nothing Kent hasn’t seen before, but somehow - is it his hair? Is it the lighting? Eric pulls him into the back hallway and leans against the wall to talk to him, and Kent can’t look anywhere else, and doesn’t want to. He feels rooted to the spot by the look in Eric’s eyes, the warmth in his own body.

At some point, Kent slides his hand into the opening of Eric’s button up, ghosting his fingers over his side, the t-shirt fabric warm from his skin. It makes its way to the small of Eric’s back, and when he steps in, Eric’s hips have angled forward, pressing close. His breathing has gotten fast. For a moment, Kent is unable to take it any further - this moment, and everything after it, is everything that he’s wanted, everything he’s hoped for since the trade.

Eric pushes up on his toes and kisses him. Everything slides away, Kent’s thoughts, the hallway, the people walking by. It’s just the music with everyone singing along (“Jump Around”), and Eric’s mouth. He puts his free hand next to Eric’s head on the wall. Eric slides their tongues together.

Fuck.

“Eric,” Kent pants later, against his cheek. “Are you drunk?”

“No,” Eric says breathlessly. “Are you?”

“No,” says Kent, and he’s going lightheaded. “Can we go to your room?”

“Yes,” Eric whispers, and pulls him up the stairs by the hand.

When Kent walks into the kitchen for post party-brunch the next morning in only his boxers, all of Eric’s friends cheer and bang their forks on the table.

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After the party, they plan to have the DTR conversation several times, but what they mostly end up doing is making out a lot. The issue is that they can’t sit down together on any surface without getting all over each other. Couches are particularly bad. The problem is that Eric’s voice goes breathless when Kent kisses his neck and then he loses his train of thought. The other problem is that Eric is constantly getting into Kent’s lap, and from there Kent can’t be expected to hold a serious conversation.

Eventually, they decide to have The Conversation in a public place, because they’re horny but not degenerate, and they might actually achieve their goal with other people around. They go on a date at Aragosta and sit at a seat with a view of the ocean, eat a three course italian meal as the sun sets, and Eric tells him what he’s afraid of.

“Eric,” Kent says softly, putting down his fork. “When have I ever tried to hide you?”

“It’s different now,” Eric says. “I can’t ask you to risk anything for me. And I can’t go back to living like I did in Georgia. I want to kiss you out in the world. I want you to introduce me as your boyfriend. You really need to think about whether--”

Kent reaches across the fancy table and takes Eric’s face in both of his hands, leaning over to kiss him. It reminds him of their first kiss - they sway slightly back and forth. Then he leans his forehead against Eric’s and wipes away the first tear with his thumb. “I’ve thought about it,” he says gently. “I’ve been thinking about it since we met.”

When they sit back, Kent picks up the ruby red cloth napkin and dabs at his face with it. Eric snags a passing diner gently by the elbow and then points at Eric across the table. “This beautiful man is my boyfriend.”

“Congratulations!” the lady says, while Eric turns bright red.

Kent keeps introducing Eric as his boyfriend to everyone who walks by, and even to a couple of seagulls who amble along the window. He keeps doing it until Eric begs him to stop, his voice full of laughter.

Kent laces their fingers together on the table. He smiles at Eric. “I’ve wanted you for a long time, kid,” he says. “I’m all in.”

“Okay,” Eric says, and squeezes his hand. “Me too.”

And that’s that.

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 Sex with Eric is a whole different experience than Kent has known before. Kent had always liked sex, but it’s basic function had been like scratching an itch, all the focus on Kent’s own physical gratification. The people he’d slept with had been more like means to an end in a sense than anything else.

When Kent has sex with Eric, he barely thinks about himself. It doesn’t help that Eric is so beautiful, his pleasure so expressive. One time Eric is riding Kent while the sun is setting, bracing himself with one hand on his shoulder. Pink and orange light streams in from the windows, painting Eric’s skin, making him glow. His head is tilted back, his eyes closed and his mouth caught open. Kent just stares at him, in awe that he’s the one who’s making Eric look like that, feel like that.

Eric could come ten times and Kent never, and Kent doesn’t think his own satisfaction would be any less.

Of course, Eric puts in quite a bit of time and effort so that Kent never goes without an orgasm. A lot of times, he’ll get two or three. Kent’s had never asked someone to eat him out before, and he hadn’t asked Eric either: Eric had offered. He’d put a pillow under Kent’s hips and gently spread Kent’s legs and told him to tell Eric if he didn’t like it.

He did like it. He liked it a lot. So much he’d had to bite on his knuckle to keep from making any noise. Eric licked him gently and kneaded his balls like he had all the time in the world down there. Kent felt the pleasure in his whole body, hot spikes of sensation along his nerves. When he came, it was hard and all over himself, and his bangs were pressed to his skin with sweat.

It had been the best orgasm of his life, at the time, but then it was followed by more, different, even better ones. Eric was as committed to Kent’s pleasure as Kent was to his, and it was the first time Kent ever felt like he had an actual partner.

“You’re the best sex I’ve ever had,” Eric tells him one night, shyly, as they fall asleep.

Any gold medal or trophy that Kent has ever won, even the internationally renowned ones, fades to grey in the face of that designation.

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Eric’s not going home for Christmas. Kent knows sometimes that’s just part of being an adult, only Eric calls his mother every few days, and he knows Christmas is an important tradition for their family. Eric breezily mentions a few times that he’s just too busy this year, but a week before Christmas, Kent catches him staring forlornly at a Christmas display in the mall. Kent buys him a peppermint mocha, sits him down near the fountain, and makes Eric tell him the truth.

“There was...an incident, last year,” Eric murmurs, spinning the red cup between his hands. “My uncle said something nasty about me and then him and my daddy had words, and then my aunt got mad at my momma about it, and it just...it ruined Christmas.”

Kent wraps an arm around Eric’s shoulders, leaning his head close to speak to him. “That’s not your fault,” he says softly. “You deserve to have time with your family.”

“I know. And my momma really wants me to come, it’s just…” Eric sighs. “It’s easier for all of us this way.”

Kent doesn’t think it’s easier for Eric. He thinks Eric is trying to be selfless. He thinks there’s a part of Eric that’s been taught to feel wrong and different, to feel guilty, a part of him he can’t shake, even though he knows better. Kent thinks if it were his kid, he would tell his extended family to go to hell and hit every branch on the way down. But Kent also knows the South is like a whole different planet, that families are wound up together like vines and there’s no getting free.

“Well,” Kent says, pressing his lips to Eric’s hairline. “You’ll just come home with me.”

Eric looks at him with wide eyes. “Really?”

“Well, yeah,” Kent says with a laugh, and he kisses Eric on the lips. “It’s almost been a year. It’s high time you met my mom anyway.”

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Kent’s second big purchase with his signing bonus had been a condo for his mother in their hometown of Rochester, New York. It has a pool and a maintained garden and a social committee with just enough internal drama to keep her entertained. She has the whole place dolled up for Christmas, with a gold and silver wreath on the door and a twelve-foot tree in the window and fake holly on the fake fireplace and a Santa cookie jar Kent knows is filled to the brim with store bought oreos. She hugs Kent for a long time when they get there, and Kent breaths in her familiar soapy smell.

Every time he’s seen her in the past five years, which is not as often as he would have liked, it’s like seeing a person back from the dead. He hadn’t even realized he’d lost her until he’d got her back - he’d forgotten about her bright eyes, the roundness of her cheeks, her soft loveliness, and he was desperate never to lose it again.

Eric hugs his mom too and calls her “ma’am.” He takes both her hands and thanks her for raising a good son. Kent’s mom has an almost mystical ability to tell when she’s being buttered up. She can spot an upsell from a mile away. In the face of someone as genuine and loving as Eric Richard Bittle, she smiles and turns pink and looks over at Kent, saying only, “he is good, isn’t he?” and making him turn pink too.

They spend the 23rd around the condo, watching marathons of Border Security on his mom’s PVR and chatting about all kinds of things. Eric is nearly moved to tears by the size and quality of his mom’s craft room, and she proudly shows off the watercolours she’s been working on. Eric asks to keep one and she gives him three. She tells him all sorts of unfortunate stories from Kent’s childhood. They get along like a burning house.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, she tells them that she’s speaking at her AA group’s Christmas meeting and that there’s going to be a dinner after.

“So many of ‘em don’t have families to spend the holiday with,” she says quietly. “I’m so blessed to have Kenny. I just thought...this year, I should help.”

Eric softly tells her that he thinks that’s really nice, and that’s when his mom asks shyly if they would consider going along with her. Eric says yes immediately, without a second thought, and when they’re at the community centre sitting around in hard plastic chairs, Eric holds his mom’s hand the entire time.

If the Bittle-Phelps don’t want Eric, it’s the biggest goddamn mistake they’ve ever made.

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2021 basically goes like this:

Kent will still honk the horn at people walking on the sidewalk and shout out the window that Eric is his boyfriend, while Eric slithers all the way down in his seat.

Their schedules aren’t always that easy. Eric is head baker now, and sometimes works 7 days a week. When hockey starts up again and Kent starts to travel, they each put up a whiteboard in their homes, because time together starts to be on a schedule. It sucks a bit, but there’s also some enjoyment in it, a frisson of excitement when he looks at the board and realizes they both have a weekend off coming up.

Kent discovers he’s actually a bit of a romantic, but it’s only because he wants to spoil Eric to bits. He has a game against the Aces Valentine’s Day weekend, and he coaxes Eric to book the rest of the week off. He gets them a penthouse suite in Palms that has its own infinity pool looking out at the city, round-the-clock champagne and meal service, and see-through rain showers visible from the bed (which is frankly Kent’s favourite part). It’s ridiculously extravagant, but it brings Eric joy to do something that feels so luxe and ridiculous. They spend almost the whole week in bathrobes, they get massages and facials - but some of the week, Kent takes Eric around the town, showing him places he had loved. It feels somehow more intimate than feeding him chocolate covered strawberries in a jacuzzi tub.

Beyonce performs in town, and Eric goes as he always does, and Kent is absolutely forbidden to come with him. He says Kent isn’t “respectful”, or something, which probably has something to do with Kent giving Eric a lap dance to Naughty Girl a few months back, although Kent thinks Eric seemed to enjoy it well enough at the time. Then he says Kent will make fun of him the whole time, and that even if Kent could get them backstage, he would probably try to embarrass Eric in front of her. That part is 120% true, so Kent stays home. He manages to orchestrate a backstage visit anyway, and Eric comes home completely dehydrated from crying, so Kent gets a little teasing in after all while he force feeds him some water.

Eric spends the night more, taking advantage of the few hours a day they might have together. Sometimes he stays a whole week at a time. A side effect of this is that Eric learns of Kent’s insomnia, something Kent has always kept intensely private, even on nights when Eric had slept over before, sneaking out of bed and careful not to wake him. It’s not as easy when it’s a pattern. Eric finds him out on the balcony one night, face tipped up to the bitter cold. He doesn’t say anything, or ask questions. He hands Kent a mug of tea and then gets into his lap, wrapping his arms around his shoulders. Eric falls back to sleep like that, his hoodie pulled over his head, tucked under Kent’s chin, Kent holds him and watches the sun come up and thinks he doesn’t mind not sleeping, like this.

The Bruins are knocked out early. Kent kidnaps Eric for his birthday. He arranges with Eric’s boss for two weeks’ vacation and pulls up to the bakery on a Wednesday, with their suitcases in the car. Eric’s too much of a control freak to do well with surprises, and his threats regarding what he will do to Kent if he’s not told where they’re going become more and more serious as they get closer to the airport. Kent holds out until he hands him the ticket at security - and that ticket doesn’t buy him into the mile high club like he’d hoped, but he certainly gets laid more in those two weeks in Paris than he has consecutively in his entire life.

Kent decides he wants to bring something into style. He tries various fashion, the biggest failure of which is argyle sweater vests. He meets Eric at the park for lunch and sits down on the bench next to him, in his vest. It takes him a few minutes to realize Eric has learned almost all the way over onto his side, away from him, and is giving him a pinched look that would put Miranda Priestly to shame.

Eric makes enough to support himself and have a little disposable income, which is all he’s ever really wanted. But when you’re boyfriend is a millionaire and could buy himself, and you, anything, you have to get creative. He kicks Kent out of the apartment the afternoon of his birthday, and when Kent comes home, Eric has decorated the entire apartment with candles and is buck naked except for an apron. He pours Kent wine and then makes him sit while Eric cooks for him. He brings him appetizers to munch on but won’t let Kent touch him even a little bit. By the end of three courses, four glasses of wine and dessert, Kent is wriggling in his seat. The perks of being the millionaire boyfriend is that you can send all the dishes crashing to the floor with a sweep of your arm when the meal is done and you need to get on top of your boyfriend, like, now. Dishes are replaceable, and this time he lets Eric pick them out.
Eric tortures Kent almost the whole year by telling him sometime in January that he’s slept with three NHL players, and refusing to fess up to the third. Kent guesses the most obvious and then the least obvious, wracking his brain until it aches, and it’s October before Eric confesses he was messing with him the entire time.

Kent sees a post online that challenges him to text his mother asking if a 25 pound turkey would fit into the microwave, and to post her response. He texts it to Eric, instead, who’s reply takes up so many screencaps that Kent has to create an album for it.

“I love you,” Kent murmurs into the shell of Eric’s ear, one rainy day at the end of summer. They’d gone to the beach to watch the storm. Eric turns to him with a face full of joy, his hair plastered to his head, water running down the sides of his face. Kent hadn’t planned, really, on saying it - he’d just wanted so badly, in that moment, for Eric to know.

Eric pushes up on his toes on the wet sand and kisses Kent’s forehead. “I love you too,” he whispers. “Honey, I was doomed from the start.”

 

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 The thing about dating for over a year is that they get comfortable, and that means getting on each other’s nerves. Kent learns first hand the danger of southern passive aggressiveness. It takes him awhile to realize when Eric is actually upset and not just being especially friendly, and failing to notice only gets him in more trouble, which isn’t exactly fair. Eric learns about the worst parts of Kent, too, the parts he hates most about himself - most especially his ability to find people’s weak points, stick in the knife and twist it, in an effort to make someone understand what he’s feeling. The first time he lashes out at Eric, it’s Kent that cries. It was a small, stupid comment, but he doesn’t expect Eric to come back. Kent’s fucked it up, like he fucks everything up, and he’s lost the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Worst than that, he’s hurt the best, sweetest person in the world.

But Eric does come back. He seems ready to forget it, but Kent feels desperation running under his skin like an electric current. They make love and Kent kisses him everywhere he can reach and apologizes over and over and over. He presses his face into Eric’s neck and pleads with him to stay. Eric is baffled by Kent’s anxiety. He sits him up in bed and takes Kent’s face between his hands. “Honey,” he says softly. “It was a stupid fight. Of course I’m gonna stay.”

Like a flip switched, Kent is crying again, thick streams of tears rolling off the edge of his nose and over his lips. “I fucked up,” he says, voice thick. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Eric tugs his face close and kisses his cheeks. “Kent. Baby. Just breathe for a minute.”

Eric holds him tight while Kent lets it out. He uses the sleeve of his much-loved Samwell hoodie to wipe Kent’s face. “We’re both gonna lose our tempers sometimes,” he says softly. “What matters is that you apologized. You’re better at that than me.”

Kent rests his forehead against Eric’’s and tries to breathe through a stuffy nose. “I hate that I hurt you,” he mumbles.

“I’m made of tougher stuff than that,” Eric says, stroking his cheek with his thumb and smiling. “It ticked me off but it didn’t hurt me. If you did, I’d let you know. And honey, I’m not just gonna leave you over a dumb fight. We’re gonna have lots of ‘em. We made a commitment, and that means we’re gonna stick around and work it out when things aren’t perfect. You’re worth it to me.”

He pulls back and looks at Kent to make sure he understands. He smiles at him and runs his hand over and over through Kent’s hair, until Kent can swallow the lump in his throat enough to speak. They stay up and talk all night. Kent tells him that no one had ever really wanted to stick around before after the first sign of trouble. Eric tells him the first sign of trouble was the night they met, and he’s not planning on letting go. Kent says he’s been operating under the belief that Eric can do better. Eric tells Kent he’s the love of Eric’s life and he’s got no real need to do any better than that.

In the months that follow, they practice telling each other when they’re upset. It stops being difficult to do. Eric says outright what he wants, and Kent knows he can say what he’s feeling and that Eric will care, and that nobody is going anywhere after.

Kent eventually identifies the feeling as trust.

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Kent stays behind the wheel for a few seconds after Eric gets out of the car. Eric has four pies in his hands, and he starts talking loudly at the man sitting on the front steps of Haus 2.0, chirping him as he draws closer. The man grabs him and pulls him between his knees, hugging him tight and making Eric shriek as he tries not to drop the pies. There’s a grin on the man’s face like he knows exactly what he’s doing.

He looks nothing like Kent remembers him. His face is fuller. He has a beard now. Most startlingly, the dark circles under his eyes are gone. The look on his face is peaceful and free of anger. He seems relaxed. It’s like the teenager and young adult Kent had known had been possessed by a devil of some kind, but the man was free and happy.

Kent gets out of the car and walks up the gravel driveway with his hands in his pockets. Both Jack and Eric sober as he approaches. Eric straightens, readjusting the pies. “You boys catch up now, I need to get these in the oven,” he says, and climbs the stairs. A cheer greets him when he walks into the house, but he shuts the door behind him.

Kent clears his throat and stays standing for a few moments. Jack is just looking at him. Finally, with a sigh, Kent turns, sitting down on the step beside him. They look out at the collection of cars, quiet for a long time. Kent doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what he wants Jack to say.

“Kenny,” Jack murmurs finally, and Kent turns to look at him. His eyes are that same heavy blue. “‘I’m sorry.”

Kent’s temptation is to brush it off, roll his eyes, act like he doesn’t care and never did, that it was too long ago for it to still hurt. But he’s so shocked by the words that he doesn’t have time to pull the act together before Jack is speaking again.

“I hurt you. I should never have treated you the way I did. I acted like I loved you but I didn’t want to let you love me,” Jack says. His voice is full of honest regret. “It was a shitty thing to do.”

“We were kids,” Kent murmurs, even though the validation of those words is tingling over his skin. “I didn’t exactly act like an angel, after.” He’d wanted so badly for Jack to hurt, for what he’d done. That hadn’t been right either.

“We were kids,” Jack echoes. “But we’re not, anymore. I’m sorry.”

Kent closes his eyes and remembers a point in his life when he’d been angry at everyone. His mom, for not loving him enough to take care of herself, Jack, who’d left him by choice, and everybody else in the world for not seeing how badly he was hurting inside. He’d liked the anger, it had felt better than anything else and protected him, keeping him at a distance. Back then, even if Jack had apologized, even if his mom had got clean, Kent’s not sure he would have been willing to let the anger go.

Kent takes a deep breath of the fall air and looks back at Jack. He smiles. “Okay,” he says.

Inside, Eric’s laughter floats out the open window. They both turn to look, but Kent casts his gaze sideways at the last minute, watching the affection ease over Jack’s face.

“Do you regret it?” he asks Jack. He tips his chin towards the window to indicate his meaning. “Letting him go?”

Jack’s tilts his head back. His smile is a little pained. “Yes,” he says honestly, but then shakes his head. “No. Bitty makes me happy, but...I can’t make him happy. I don’t see that ever changing.”

Kent remembers all the times Eric has told him Jack had changed. Jack’s words in this moment are the only supporting evidence Kent would ever need. He’s so busy thinking about it that he doesn’t notice when Jack puts a hand on his head, rubbing his hair like he used to when they were kids. “You make him happy,” he says. “You did good, Kenny.”

Kent has already forgiven him, but he feels himself softening even more. Rather than jealous, threatened, worried - he feels bad for Jack. Grateful for his own luck.

Shitty kicks open the door in that moment and blasts an airhorn. “Haus 2.0’s Annual Competitive Thanksgiving Camel Cup Tournament is commencing, nerds, let’s go.”

“Uh?” says Kent uncertainly.

“C’mon,” says Jack, and pulls him up.

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 Eric had come out to his parents a week before his college graduation. He tells Kent that he’d wanted to start his life in Boston without that task hanging over his head. It had weighed on him for so many years. Eric says his mom had told him she’d known all along, that his dad kept asking him if he was sure. Neither of them really talked about it much, even still. Kent asks him if he’s mad his mom never put him out of his misery by bringing it up. He thinks he would be. Eric says knowing they still love him is enough.

Eric asks him on the plane to Georgia how he’d told his own mother, and Kent is surprised to realize he’d never told Eric the story. Then not so surprised when he remembers it’s not much of a story at all.

“I asked her when I was seven if it was okay to like boys if you were a boy and she said yes. Then I brought Jack home one weekend when we were fifteen and she wouldn’t let us be in my room with the door closed.”

Eric laughs. “She knew you were easy.”

When Suzanne picks them up at the airport, she’s full of gushing smiles, her mouth a motor as she takes Kent’s rolling suitcase and hustles them towards the parking lot. She wants to know everything about Kent, about his family, his teammates, if he’s a good eater, ‘cause he better be. Her accent is a much stronger version of Eric’s and Kent earns himself a pinch from Eric for flirting with her.

Kent’s stomach falls when they get to the house and he realizes Suzanne is taking his suitcase into the guest room. She catches his expression and gives him an apologetic look. “I know y’all sleep in the same bed back home,” she says. “But we’re traditional in this house - you gotta be married.”

Kent’s tension eases and he smiles a little. It’s acknowledgement of their relationship, which is better then the explanation Kent had been anticipating.

Eric takes after Coach in every way but his demeanor - he’s polite but quiet, spending most of his time in other parts of the house, the garage or his “man cave” in the basement. Kent worries, except then Eric tells him Coach has always been like that - and Kent witnesses a tender moment between father and son later in the evening, when Eric carries out the meat for Coach to barbeque and Coach catches him in a one-armed hug.

“You gotta understand,” Eric says in a whisper, when he’s snuck into Kent’s room later that night. “He knows my life ain’t always gonna be easy. He said to me when I came out ‘you always pick the hard way, Junior.’”

“There’s no picking,” Kent murmurs, running his fingers along Eric’s back.

“I know,” Eric murmurs. “And I think he knows it, too. He just...he wants it to be easy.”

Kent tugs Eric into his arms and thinks that’s a feeling he can understand. But he knows well enough that easy isn’t always happy. He likes to think Eric is happy with him.

The next night is the Phelps Thanksgiving. This time it’s Eric that’s tense. He hasn’t seen any of them since the Christmas Incident, and even Kent is overwhelmed when they arrive. There’s gotta be about 80 people here. There’s a buffet style table and people get in line to serve themselves dinner. There’s everything from ambrosia to bacon wrapped water chestnuts to chicken nuggets. There’s an absurd amount of cherry coke of all different brands. They all sit in the living room or spill out onto the backyard. Kent, who has a family of two, extended included, feels overheated almost immediately.

Kent gets to meet a few of Eric’s younger cousins, but the attitude towards Eric by the rest of the family is immediate. People don’t approach him. Sometimes when he speaks in groups, his words get completely ignored, as if no one heard. Others leave a circle he walks into. No one is explicitly rude, but the shunning is obvious. Kent watches Eric get sadder and sadder throughout the night, and feels himself getting angrier. This is Eric’s family.

The way they treat Kent is different. He’s a handsome stranger. Many have seemed to figure out he’s a celebrity but not many seem to have figured out he’s Eric’s boyfriend. Towards the end of the night, Kent realizes he’s talking to Uncle Doug, the villain behind the Christmas Incident. He asks Kent about his training regime and brags about his own days as a state football champion. He’s still wearing his grotesque ring.

Kent drains his cup of cherry RC Cola. Then he snags a passing Eric, bends him dramatically over his arm, and kisses him with all his might. There’s a few giggles, a hushed silence. Kent grins at Uncle Doug when he straightens and toasts him with his empty cup. “Cheers from the gays,” he says, crushes the plastic cup in his hand, bounces it off Uncle Doug’s head, and then drags Eric out of the house.

Coach bangs his palm on the steering wheel a few times on the way home. He’s laughing so hard that tears are streaming down his face. “Oh lord,” he wheezes. “Dij’ya’ll see his face!”

Suzanne is turned in her seat to smile back at them. “Well, I’m gonna hear about it for ages,” she says softly. She reaches for Kent’s hand and squeezes it. “But it was worth it. You stick around, honey.”

Kent smiles. Eric has his face buried in Kent’s shoulder and Kent can feel him smiling too.

“Cheers from the gays!” Coach howls.

“I plan to,” Kent replies to Suzanne, and rubs his cheek on top of Eric’s head.

A few weeks later, they have professional photos taken together to turn into Christmas cards, and they mail one to Uncle Doug.

A week after that, Kent asks Eric to move in.

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Kent’s favourite day of the week is Wednesday, because it’s Eric’s day off and Kent doesn’t have to be to the rink until 4 pm.

Eric’s sleep schedule is like clockwork - he wakes up at 3 AM even on his days off. Baker’s hours. Kent will wake more respectably around 7, and find Eric reading or on his phone, but always still lounged in bed. Kent’s condo has high windows that stream in the most amazing natural light in the morning, like sun beams breaking a storm.

Eric loves it when Kent pins him down. On Wednesday mornings, he takes his time with it. Sometimes he can make Eric come just by rolling their hips together and kissing his neck, their hard dicks grinding through their pyjama pants. Sometimes Kent puts his full weight on Eric and just pushes his thigh between Eric’s legs, moving just a little. Eric goes crazy for it, straining against Kent’s weight, trying to get more friction. Kent holds him down until the very last second he thinks Eric can stand it, and then adjusts his stance to grind Eric hard into the mattress. Eric always makes the most guttural, satisfied shout when he comes from that, lighting up from the inside, back arching, toes curling in the sheets. Most of the time Kent follows him over, just from hearing it.

Then Kent gets to snooze a little bit more, rolled up cozy in the blankets while Eric showers. He wakes to the sound of the coffee grinder, and Eric brings him a fresh brewed cup of coffee in his favourite mug (it has Ms. Frizzle on it) and buttery toast. They laze around and watch Parks and Rec on Kent’s laptop, they fool around some more, and usually by the time Kent has to get ready for training, they’ve spent the whole day together in bed.

“I’m gonna marry you,” Kent mumbles one Wednesday, his cheek against Eric’s spine.

“Yes, you are,” Eric murmurs back, and he says it with total certainty.

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In 2025, Kent scores the winning goal for Boston in the Stanley Cup finals.

The elation is immediate. Kent’s ears are ringing as he’s wrapped up in the arms of his teammates, the roar of the crowd. Tuukster lifts up the trophy. It’s Kent’s third win, and the bone-deep satisfaction, the excitement in his pounding heart, the ache in his cheeks and jaw, the breathing that feels just a little deeper, is wonderfully familiar. There’s nothing else like feeling on top of the world.

But it all pales in comparison when the families come out, and Kent realizes that for the very first time, he has someone that’s coming out onto the ice for him. He searches the crowd for his family, a 5’7” blond in a Parson jersey. Eric nearly comes tripping out onto the ice, and when he throws himself into Kent’s arms, Kent lifts him up off the ground and kisses him and kisses him and kisses him. Eric is crying, Eric is so proud of him, and Kent realizes suddenly, sharply, that he was wrong before, because this is feeling on top of the world, and no game-winning goals hold a candle.

He pulls Eric back far enough to look at him, and realizes only then that he has tears on his own face. “I want you to know,” he says, soft enough only for Eric to hear. “I would give this up, all of this up, for you.”

Eric’s face caves again and he hugs Kent’s head to his chest, burying his own face in Kent’s hair. Everything fades but the beat of Eric’s heart. They ignore the reporters, the coaches, the crowd. They stay like that for a long time.

A picture of that moment ends up on the cover of Time magazine, and they frame it and put it up in the foyer of the first house they buy together, a house with a swing.

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Kent rolls down the window of the rental car, and the boy in the blue sweater and knitted hat leans in, smiling at him. “Hey,” Kent says. “I think you’re cute too.”

The boy, Eric, grins. “You could take my number,” he says. “On account of me being so cute, n’all.”

Kent rattles off his number while he pulls his phone out of the back pocket of his jeans, and waits expectantly, enjoying the look of shocked surprise on the boy’s face. He’s grinning and turning totally pink again as he rattles off his number in return.

Kent beckons him closer with a crooked finger. The boy leans into the car, closer and closer, until Kent pecks him one more time on the lips. “Later, Eric,” he says.

“I’ll text you,” Eric promises brightly.

Kent smiles the whole way home.