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The People Who Leave Us

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“I’m retiring,” Wally announces quietly before the first game of the Finals in 2016.

“What?” Kent balks.

Wally crosses his arms. “You heard me.”

“I’m sorry, my ears must be going bad in my old age.” Kent digs his finger into his left ear. “It sounds like you’re abandoning me.”

He glares at Kent, unimpressed.

“What did you expect Winthrop?” Kent snaps. “You tell me right before we go into one of the biggest games of our careers and you think I’d just give you a big ol’ smile and say ‘thanks for ride’?”

“You’re a real, fucking charmer, you know that?”

“So you tell me,” he chirps.

“Look, Parse,” Wally grunts as he pulls his jersey over his head. “I already talked to Coach about it. She’s already found my replacement. I just wanted you to know now so, win or lose, you know that’s not why I’m retiring.”

“And why are you retiring?”

Wally quirks a brow. “Do I seriously have to spell it out for your sorry ass?”

“Apparently,” Kent mutters.

“Look, kid.” He scratches his dirty blond beard as he sighs. “I had hip surgery last year, shoulder surgery the season before that. I’m old as fuck.”

“News flash, you’re 29.”

Wally scowls, “fuck you. C’mon, you know I’ve paid my dues. I get out of this season with a conference title at least. That’s more than most guys can say.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Kent scrubs his face. “You moving back East or what?”

“Probably,” he smirks. “My parents have a brownstone in New York. You and the boys should come visit.”

Kent’s eyes soften. “Yeah, we will.”

Wally hugs him and Kent tries not to shudder. He clings back. Wally may be an asshole, but he’s an Ace. He’ll always be family.

“You’re not gonna slack on us just because you’re quitting, right?” Kent eyes him wearily.

He sneers. “Fuck no.”

Kent nods, bumping their shoulders together.

“Alright gentleman,” Kellen Andrews, their head coach, shouts as she walks briskly into the room. “You know the rules. Leave your personal shit off the ice, leave your bad plays on the ice. I want one thousand percent from each of you. Parse, say your bit.”

“Yes Coach.” Kent shoots up from his seat enthusiastically. “Boys, we’ve gotten this far. Let’s go show the Bruins what we’re fucking made of. Who’s got this?”

“We’ve got this,” the team choruses.

“I can’t hear you,” he chides. “Who’s fucking got this?”

“We’ve got this,” they yell.

“Who’s taking game one?”

“We are!”

“Who’s the fucking best of the best?”

“We are!”

Kent nudges Troy who rolls his eyes.

“Aces,” Troy shouts.

“Getcha head in the game!”

“One of these days,” Swoops grumbles.

“Alright Parson, Troy, Park, you’re up,” Kellen announces. “Perez, Chopra, Johnson, make me proud.”

“Yes ma'am,” they say.

They win the first game in the series. The Aces played at home, so at least Kent can go to sleep in his own bed. Kent shuffles into his room without much thought, collapsing onto his mattress. He groans as his muscles ache.

He considers taking another shower. Maybe it’d get his mind off Wally leaving. Truth be told, a year ago he wouldn’t have cared when he left or why. But things had changed. The asshole had softened the more time he spent around the team. He unlearned a lot of toxic homophobic lies. Really, he was the kind of guy Kent wanted to see get traded to other teams. If he has anything to say about it, every team will be singing the Aces’ queer, brown gospel by the time he retires. Which, hopefully, won’t be any time soon.

Kent rolls over, staring at the glow in the dark stars Jeff helped him put on the ceiling when they first moved here. This is the nature of the business. Friends and loved ones come and go with every trade deadline and every offseason. Kent should be used to it by now. There’s a difference between the random assholes who make short appearances in his life, and the people who make the biggest splashes.

He wonders how Jack handles change—if he’s any better at it than he used to be.

“Babe,” Jeff knocks on the doorframe. “We were thinking about catching up on B99. You coming?”

“Nah,” Kent waves him away.  “It’s been a long night.”

“Is he doing the thing?” Parker shouts from somewhere on the first floor.

“Yep,” Jeff responds just as loudly.

Parker walks in and unceremoniously picks Kent up bridal style. “Not even going to fight me today?”

Kent glares halfheartedly. “What’s the point?”

“Stop this bullshit,” Parker said. “We’re watching TV. You’ll bitch about your abandonment issues later.”

“Fuck off,” Kent yelps as he’s dumped onto the couch.

“There he is,” Parker smirks. “Jeff c’mon.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Swoops heads for the kitchen to grab their bowl of popcorn. “Wasn’t Johnny crashing here tonight?”

A loud flush echoes through the house as the guest bedroom door swings open. Johnny’s typing away furiously on his phone.

“You know what’s funny?” Johnny asks without looking up, “There’s this thing called the Mandela Effect where people remember things completely wrong.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that last time we smoked weed.” Parker grunts as he makes room on his side of the couch for Swoops.

“I know,” Johnny retorts. “But it’s still blowing my mind. Like, sometimes people think they’re on the same page about things, and suddenly they’ve remembered the same story in two completely different ways.”

“That’s either really neat or really depressing, dude.” Kent pats the extra space on the couch for Johnson to take a seat.

“Maybe it’s both,” Johnny argues. “Like there’s this thing called an ascended extra where a smaller character gets a bigger role later. That’s different. But not bad.”

“You’ve been reading TV Tropes too much,” Parker side eyes him.

“How’s your family, by the way?” Swoops changes the topic.

“Good,” Johnson shrugs. “Stacey says we have to go on this trail she found in Montana. Duncan got a job in Denver. Mom and Dad are almost done for the year. Same old.”

_/.\_

Jack hides around the docks after they win the Memorial Cup. He figured he’d be excited, elated even. All their hard work finally paid off. He cradles his head in between his knees, wishing he’d taken more anxiety pills that morning. He barely pays mind to the sound of squeaking against the concrete. A shadow appears in front of him, hunching over.

“Hey, baby,” Kent murmurs. “Can you hear me?”

Jack nods.

“Here.” Kent shoves a jersey into his hands.

Jack grips it tightly. He runs his fingers over the grooves and stitches. He looks up when he’s ready. Kent’s sitting in front of him with his legs crossed, his knuckles clenched and white.

“Hey.” Kent’s lip twitches. “We won, okay? You were amazing—you’re always amazing.”

Jack tries to smile. He knows Kent means well. But he can’t get over the what ifs.

What if this was a fluke? What if he doesn’t get drafted first? What if this is where he peaks? What if he gets injured before his first season even starts? What if he spends the rest of his career on an AHL team?

Kent pulls him into a bone crushing hug. Jack tries to breathe. He tries to tell himself to stop thinking so hard. He tries to tell himself to enjoy their victory for now. If for nothing else, then for Kenny’s sake.

Kenny deserved more than this.

_/.\_

The Aces win the Stanley Cup in 2016. Chris, Derek, and Dex help Ransom move to Vegas over that weekend. When the team services representative called to help arrange his move a few days before, she informed him that one of the goalies offered to billet him. Justin agreed because it was a new city, and he should probably get to know his teammates sooner rather than later.

Chris’s Subaru drives in front of the U-Haul Dex is taking turns driving with him. They pull up in front of a house in a gated community in the suburbs. Ransom rings the doorbell. He takes a deep breath as he hears shuffling on the other side. This is the first day of the rest of his life. He can’t tell if that’s exciting or terrifying.

The door swings open, and of everything Justin expected,  seeing John Johnson dripping wet in nothing but swim trunks wasn’t part of it.

“Ransom!” Johnson pulls him into a bear hug. “Bro, it’s been what? A year, technically? But it feels longer. Like we haven’t talked in forever.”

“Johnson? Dude? Not that I’m not happy to see you, too. But you’re soaking me.”

“Sorry,” Johnson chuckles awkwardly.

“What are you doing here, anyway?”

Johnson’s lip quirks humorously. “I live here?”

“No, I mean—” Ransom stops himself to rephrase. “I’m living with you? How is that possible?”

“Well, bro, they told me they signed another guy from Samwell. And I said ‘cool, tell him he can stay with me.’”

“Since when do you play for the Aces?”

He narrows his eyes in contemplation. “Two? Years? Anyway, c’mon in, tell the Frogs there’s lunch for them too.”

“How?” Ransom stops himself, shaking his head. He knows better than to question Johnson.

He waves the guys in and they enter Johnson’s “modest” abode together. High vaulted ceilings and windows on all sides are sharply contrasted by worn out couches and recliners in the main room. The television is paused on Mario Kart.

“We’re outside,” Johnson shouts. “Some of the guys came over to mooch off my pool.”

Justin hears some gasps and murmurs from the Frogs behind him. He walks past the porch door. The backyard is huge. On the other side of the pool is a beach volleyball court where some guys are playing. Four guys are in the pool playing chicken. Kent Parson picks that time to cannonball, splashing so hard he soaks half the deck. Ransom barely misses the splash zone.

“Oh, hey! You sent me those letters before I started school,” he hears Chowder tell Johnson behind him.

“Yeah, that sounds like something I’d do.”

Ransom looks over his shoulder. “You don’t remember that? You were pretty excited about a legacy being our new goalie.”

Johnson chuckles. “Look, we could I say I was really high, like, all the time in college. Or we could just…not think about it too hard.”

“Johnny, what’s the hold up?” Matthew Park, snaps from the volleyball court.

Kent, who’s now on the shoulders of a heavy-set Latino guy, turns toward the porch door. “Justin? Justin Oluransi?”

“Uh, yeah,” Justin waves shyly. “Reporting for duty, Captain.”

Kent pokes the guy under him in the temple. “Oz, I’m hopping off.”

“Don’t—”

“Too late.” Kent flops backwards into the water.

“If he hits his head again, I’m not saving him,” the guy, forward Osiel Ortiz, says.

“Don’t worry, I got it covered,” Jeff Troy assures him. “Johnny, introduce your old teammates already.”

“Right.” He points to the Frogs. “Chris Chow, Derek Nurse, William Poindexter, meet the Aces. You’ve got Carter Harris, Osiel Ortiz, Nathan Chopra, and Parse in the pool. Mateo Perez, Matthew Park, and Jeff Troy are over there sucking at volleyball.”

“First of all, fuck you,” Perez shouts. “Second, y’all are playing vball with us, right?”

“He’s Texan,” Johnson whisper shouts.

“Sure,” Derek agrees,  grabbing  Dex’s hand and dragging him over to the court. Chris shrugs, following them.

Ransom feels a wet clap on his shoulder. Kent’s smirking, tilting his head slightly up at Justin. Kent offers a handshake.

“Glad you’re on the team, Rans.”

“Uh, thanks.” Justin accepts his hand. “Glad to be here. I’m excited.”

“So, uh, for the record,” Osiel interrupts. “I go by Ozzy. Mateo goes by Perry. Matt’s Parker. Nathan’s Goose—”

“I’m never living that down,” Nathan gripes.

“Jeff goes by Troy or Swoops. It’s sort of up to you. Carter hates his nickname. You already know Johnny. And Parse is Parse, or Kenny.”

“Chill,” Derek hums.

“So, Goose,” Chris chatters as they set up a game. “That’s an interesting nickname! How’d you get it?”

Troy flinches. “I wouldn’t—”

“He’s Canadian,” Parker says over Ozzy yelling Anthony Edwards.

“Cool,” Chowder exclaims.

“So, yeah.” Kent claps his hands loudly. “Welcome to the Aces.”

_/.\_

They kiss at Niagara Falls the summer after their Junior year. Justin’s laughing at a joke Adam makes. When he looks back, Holster’s staring at him with his glint in his eye. He swallows the lump in his throat. This isn’t the first time that Holster looks at him likes he’s everything. Like he could be everything.

Ransom tilts his head up slightly. Because he wants to, he tells himself. Because they’ve been going in circles forever, and this is the end of the road, right? Sure, they could avoid it, but they were together in every way but biblically. Adam loves him. Adam would do anything for him.

It’s not the first time they’ve kissed. But it’s slow, tender, and fond. It’s everything that their first kiss wasn’t. They’ve had dozens of hookups and make out sessions with other people since then. They’re not confused kids hoping that they’re queer enough to kiss their d-partner. They’re adults, or something.

Niagara Falls roars behind them. It feels significant, poetic. As if the stars aligned to make this moment as romantic as possible. Like everything is telling Justin to calm down and let go. Holster’s been there the entire time. Justin thinks that it’s all lovely in a way he can’t appreciate right now. Maybe someday Holster will be telling the story of how they got together in this spot at their wedding.

Briefly, Ransom wonders if they’ll have their wedding at Niagara Falls. Not for the first time, he feels dread pool in the pit of his stomach. Thinking of marriage doesn’t feel warm and romantic. It feels like resignation, like counting himself out before he’s even had a chance to live. He ignores the thought because Adam chooses that moment move away enough to tell Justin how much he loves him.

Justin swallows, his lip twitching just enough for Adam to see. “I love you, too.”

It doesn’t sound like a lie, but it might as well be.

_/.\_

A few weeks into Justin being in Las Vegas, Parker comes storming into the weight room.

“Who’s read this morning’s bullshit?”

Kent scrubs his face. “Don’t tell me.”

“Do I want to know?” Carter eyes Parker’s phone wearily.

“‘Minorities in Revolt’ by Greg Richards,” Parker recites. “Is diversity to thank for the Aces’ success story? Or is their campaign for minority exceptionalism hurting the entire NHL?”  

Ozzy turns to Carter. “They’re racists, Harold.”

Carter tries to hold back a laugh.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Kent sighs. “Alright, give me the rest.”

Once Parker finishes reading the article, everyone sits in silence.

“Entonces?” Perry demands. “What are we doing?”

“Take my fucking phone away,” Kent passes his phone to Swoops.

“Me too,” Ozzy huffs.

“Parse,” Carter protests. “You’re serious?”

“I’m serious that if you let me on Twitter right now, there will be nothing to stop me from ruining the PR team’s weekend.”

“That doesn’t sound like a no,” Goose counters.

“Welp, social media and public decency aren’t my strong suits.” Kent bites his knuckle. “This is up to Swoops.”

Troy looks between Goose and Parker for a few beats. Both of them nod. He sighs, handing Kent his phone back. The room erupts into cheers.

Kent smirk brightly. “Alright boys, it’s show time.”

“You better be putting ‘they’re racists, Harold,’” Perry instructs Ozzy.

“Sure,” Ozzy’s already typing away. “You tell people Autism and they’re indignant. You tell people meme loving Mexican and they’re all ‘oh ha ha funny brown dude’.”

“Can I quote you on that?” Perry chirps.

Ozzy flips him off without looking away from his phone.

“I got ‘my coach isn’t an Angry Black Woman. I’m not your fucking Buck.’” Carter tells them.

“It’s missing something,” Ozzy says. “Like, get your head out of your ass and into the 21st century.”

“You can retweet it,” Carter offers.

“Okay.”

“I got ‘you wouldn’t say this about Quenneville,’” Goose reports.

“I got ‘you wouldn’t say this about the Falcs,’” Troy tells them.  “What are you doing, Johnny?”

“Oh uh,” Johnny hums. “‘Let’s not pretend that they would’ve had the balls to post this if we weren’t three time Stanley Cup champs.’”

“Nice.” Goose offers him a fist bump.

“There,” Parker says as he pounds the send button with his thumb. “‘Good to know there are still racists, homophobes, and misogynists in journalism.’”

“‘This is why we need diversity in this league’,” Perry reads out loud. “‘It’s not our fault y’all need to catch up.’”

“Anyone feel like coming out today?” Kent mutters.

A resounding no rings through the room.

He shrugs. “Ok, just me then.”

Parker swipes away his phone. “What are you actually saying?”

Kent glares. “How about ‘Would you look at this? This is the smelliest piece of shit I’ve ever read. Every word of it is petty, childish, and fucking bigoted. Maybe check your privilege before you start picking on the little guys.’”

Perry snorts. “No drinking games this time.”

“No fucking kidding,” Kent groans. “Someone text Fish and tell him to get on this.”

“Done and done,” Ozzy declares.

“Um,” Ransom chooses this moment to speak up.  “Should I do something?”

“We’re not in the business of making people uncomfortable,” Ozzy assures him without looking up. “Don’t worry, none of the other guys on the team will say shit about it. Someone will say you’re new, and it’ll be fine.”

Ransom stares at his phone, feeling mildly disappointed. “Okay, cool.”

He catches up to Kent as they’re headed to the parking lot. He doesn’t want to give the impression that he doesn’t care.

“So about…everything before,” he starts.

“Yeah.” Parse smirks. “Bad first impression on our part, huh?”

Justin scratches the back of his neck.

“Do you have plans for tonight?”

“Uh—”

“Johnny and Perry are coming over to play Smash,” he clarifies. “There’s like—a shit ton to talk about.”

“Sure,” Ransom agrees. He has nothing better to do, anyway.

Kent gives him a lift and they pick up takeout on their way there. Kent’s house turns out to also be Parker and Swoops’ place. It’s a white adobe style mansion that looks more like a model home than a real one.

“So, the rest of the NHL hates us,” Kent explains after the first round of Smash.

Johnson wins without much effort.

“Dude, I don’t remember you being this good,” Ransom admits.

“Neither do I,” Johnson says through a mouthful of fried tofu.

“Anyway,” Parse continues. “I’m sure you’ve heard our rep. We play dirty. We’re ‘aceholes’ or whatever.”

“It’s so fucking clever it pisses me off,” Perry grunts as they cue up the next game.

“Yeah, if only it were true,” Johnson laments. “It’s like a conspiracy, bro. Some of the guys on our team are straight, though. Right?”

Justin crinkles his nose. “What?”

“We’re queer as fuck, man,” Perry restates. “The rest of our Conference doesn’t care. But the Eastern Conference hates our guts.”

Ransom balks.

“See—” Johnny shovels another forkful of rice into his mouth. “We’re like the Samwell of the NHL, bro. Young, scrappy, and—”

“Don’t say hungry,” Ransom and Kent protest simultaneously.

Kent smirks. “It’s—a lot at first. But it’s been us against the world for years. You don’t have to sign onto some gay cult shit—but we got your back, alright? Queer or otherwise.”

For the first time since he signed onto the Aces, Justin felt like he could find a home there.

_/.\_

Jack kisses Kent for the first time on a Saturday in December. They win against the best team in the Q and are invited to some chick’s house party by their other liney. Jack and Kent have been friends for a while now. They talk after practice and before school. Kent starts making Jack one of his pb&j sandwiches before each game. Jack, to Kent’s surprise, has decent taste in music.

It’s Christmas. Kent’s mom can’t afford to fly him home. Jack’s mom offers to let him stay with them because his billet family was planning on going out of town. They end up in a coat closet because Kent’s mom calls to say goodnight. When he hangs up, Jack’s face is a centimeter away from him. This isn’t the first time that Kent’s thought to himself how beautiful he is. He’s everything Kent always dreamed of.

He debates whether to lean in, if that’s a line he’s willing to cross. What if Jack is straight? What if he isn’t straight but he’s not into Kent? But then Jack’s lips are on his and his worries melt away.

Jack is here; he’s real and he wants Kent. For now, that’s enough.

_/.\_

Goose invites Ransom over to celebrate Canada Day at his and Perry’s place. They bond over growing up in Toronto. They swap crazy party stories over a six pack and a viewing of Strange Brew . Nathan’s a fun guy. He doesn’t talk as much as Perry, but he’s chill and tells a compelling anecdote like no other.

“So Parse’s birthday is coming up,” Goose informs him during a lull.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, we’re ambushing him with a surprise party on the fourth. Johnny was already gonna invite you. But just wanted to let you know, we do want you there.”

“Definitely,” Perry agrees. “You’re my favorite d-man on the team.”

“Hey,” Goose protests.

Perry chuckles. “Second favorite. Close second.”

“Cool, thanks,” Ransom hums as he takes a long sip of his beer. “I appreciate it.”

“Fair warning,” Perry adds. “Literally don’t bring up Fourth of July around Kent. Whatever you do.”

“Can I ask why?”

Mateo and Nathan squints their eyes, cringing slightly.

“It’s not…” Nathan’s voice drops off. “What’s that thing Oz says?”

“You have to be a level 6 friend to unlock his tragic backstory,” Perry responds. “It’s a good rule of thumb. But, trust us, you’re not ready.”

“Ok,” Justin relents.

Their cryptic advice intrigues Ransom. Regardless, he adheres to it over the next few days. Before he knows it, Johnson (he’s not sure he’ll ever get used to calling him Johnny) is driving them to Kent, Troy, and Parker’s house.

“You know what’s my favorite part about summer?” Johnson asks offhandedly as he parks.

“No, what?”

“It’s perfect baseball weather.” Johnson grins, tapping on the center console lightly to the beat of the guitar strumming over the radio.

“I didn’t know you played,” Ransom confesses.

“It’s weird right? We were friends for two years.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry dude.”

“No worries.” Johnson nudges his shoulder playfully. “I’m excited. We get a fresh start.”

The party is the type of event that would put Epikegster to shame. Kent’s house is packed tighter than sardines, yet everyone seems to be having a good time. Ransom loses track of Johnson early on. He runs into Carter, who offers him a tequila shot before muttering something about Ozzy hiding the broom from him again. Goose challenges him to beer pong, which is fairly matched and entertaining.

A flurry of guys who have been out of town introduce themselves to him over the course of the evening, including the other goalie, Fish, who’s a feat of human engineering and Swedish beauty (not that Justin was staring too hard).

It’s the first party he’s been to without Adam. It’s actually the first time he’s thought of Adam since he moved to Vegas. Ransom sighs heavily. He decides to get some fresh air. The pool area is really crowded, but he notices a balcony above where fewer people were hanging out. It takes him a while to find how to get up there. He grabs another beer on the way up. Most of the people have cleared out by that point; there’s just Parse staring down at the pool while nursing his own cup.

“Hey,” Ransom greets quietly

Kent flinches, caught off guard.

“Uh, sorry, I was just getting some air,” he explains.

“Y-you’re fine,” Kent answers without looking up.

“I can g—”

“Justin,” Kent interrupts. “It’s fine, hang out a minute. There’s enough room up here for the two of us.”

Justin nods, taking a spot next to Kent. He tries to look at whatever Kent’s fixating on. After a while, he spots Parker and Troy making out in a dark corner. It occurs to him that they’ve been there for a while.

“Um,” Justin says, “are you—”

“What?”

Pining over someone you can’t have? Instead, he says, “Okay? Are you okay?”

Kent’s lip twitches, and he nods just enough for Ransom to notice.

“You sure?”

“This probably looks bad out of context,” Kent acknowledges.

“Is there context?”

“They always get so worked up about my birthday.” He runs a hand through his hair. “I just wanna make sure they’re having fun. It makes it worth it.”

Ransom nods.

“It also doesn’t hurt that I get birthday sex later for them ambushing me again,” Parse adds.

“Them?”

“Yeah,” Kent grins like an idiot. “Or, at least Jeff. Matt dates Jeff. Then sometimes we kiss and fuck and stuff. It’s nice.”

“Huh.” Justin finds himself dumbfounded. He’s never thought about dating more than one person at a time..

“Yeah, it’s the best of both worlds.” Kent takes another sip from his cup. “I get to be selfish sometimes, and they have each other.”

“Why?”

Kent sucks on his top lip. “I’m a lot. It’s like—imagine people are like boxes filled with paper. Some people you fill up more than others. Some people you take a few sheets from, others—like everything in them. You gotta find a balance between too much and not enough. Sometimes that takes more than person.”

“What’s the paper for?”

“Love, support,” Kent shrugs, taking another sip. “Shit that keeps your heart beating.”

“Ok.”

“What are you up here for, anyway?” Kent deflects. “Party can’t be that boring.”

Ransom shrugs.

“Missing home?”

“I guess,” he concedes.

Kent nudges him. “Tell me about it.”

Ransom doesn’t know where to start. He doesn’t know how he got so far away from where he imagined he’d be a year ago. He’s thousands of miles away from home. He hasn’t gotten more than a few snaps from the Frogs out in California, and a weekly call from Lardo to make sure he’s still alive. He looks over at Kent, whose face is sullen and lost in a house full of people here to be with him. He wonders if someone could know his entire story without him saying more than a few words.

“What if someone kept filling your box up without taking anything out?” Justin muses outloud.  “They never asked for anything in return. They just filled you until you were overflowing? Does it make you a bad person not to want that anymore?”

Parse clears his throat. Ransom feels dumb for saying anything. He feels himself wheeze.

“Hey,” Kent’s hand squeezes his shoulder gently. “If it doesn’t fit anymore, it doesn’t fit. There’s no shame in that.”

_/.\_

Dating Holster isn’t much different than being best friends with him. The real difference is the physical affection, which only happens in private, because they agreed (at his suggestion) to start off slow and tell people when they’re ready. When they’re stable, Ransom argues. So maybe he and Holster make out when their families aren’t home. Maybe they give each other hushed blow jobs on a camping trip in June. Maybe when they’re cuddling, Holster turns his head enough to kiss Ransom’s temple. So what if it makes him melt a little? Something grates at the back of his mind. Like there’s something wrong and foreign about what they’re doing.

He’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, they head back to school. They don’t hold hands as they enter the Haus. Justin doesn’t excitedly swap stories about the summer with Bitty. If anything, he pushes his news to the side and begs for some of Bitty’s. He doesn’t miss the way Adam’s stare lingers as he walks back to the car to grab another one of their bags.

Justin ignores it in favor of catching up; they have plenty of time to break their news to the team. He’s in no rush.

_/.\_

Truth be told, Kent was wary about Justin signing with the Aces. Johnny has been a champ about topics that are off the table (namely Jack). With the exception of the great Boston college party debacle of 2014, Johnny hadn’t brought up Samwell once—until the day he came barreling into optional skate exclaiming that they were getting another Samwell boy. Kent still feels like an idiot for assuming that person would be Jack.

However, Justin isn’t Johnny. Kent had no idea what to expect. He was already dreading the number of Jack Zimmermann stories he’d have to endure. There were a few at first. Kent nods along politely as Johnny asks questions about the old gang, and Perry chirps Ransom for being a college boy. Ozzy chimes in every now and then with some observation or joke. The stories never seem to involve his old d-partner, Holster. Kent makes a lot of assumptions based on this alone.

So he starts redirecting the anecdotes carefully, taking away the need to talk about college by asking him about his sisters or his parents. He asks about books and music that Justin likes when he realizes that Holster was big into television. Kent invites him over for dinners and on camping trips. Really, he’s an expert on how to forget a breakup. He figures that he may as well put his specialized knowledge of broken hearts to good use.  

Anyway, Ransom is an exceptional player. He’s clearly had practice dealing with fast skaters because he can keep up with Kent on a good day. He listens and adapts easily to pointers. He’s laid back and fun for the most part. He and Goose become friends in no time at all.

Justin, for his part, opens up more little by little. He chirps the guys with ease. He’s part of group, like he always belonged there.

August creeps in, and Kent takes a few days off practice like every year. Troy comes into his room twice on Jack’s birthday, making him call his therapist when he’s feeling up to it. For the most part, he sleeps through it. It’s easier that way. The next morning he wakes up with a knock on his door.

“It’s open,” he grumbles before burying his head underneath his comforter.

“Hey,” Ransom greets.

Kent sticks his head out slightly. “Hey. What’s up?”

“You tell me.” Justin’s eyebrows are expectantly. “Haven’t seen you all week.”

Kent stares at Justin. He doesn’t know what version of an explanation would be appropriate to give to the guy who’s friends with Jack fucking Zimmermann.

“You don’t wanna know,” he offers instead.

He figures Justin will leave it as is. Better to ignore his eccentric captain when he has an excuse to.

Instead Ransom asks, “why not?”

“Just—the less you know the better.”

Ransom sighs, crossing the room. He gestures for Kent to scoot over. Kent’s memory foam mattress cushions his ass perfectly. It’s not the first time he’s noticed how hot Justin is.

“You know there are a lot of rumors out there about you.” And Jack is left hanging in the air.

“Yeah, like what?”

“Like maybe you weren’t just friends.” Justin rests his chin against his knuckles. “Like maybe Jack did more damage than just sidetrack his career.”

Kent stares at him, contemplating the best way to defuse the conversation. “What do you think?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Bullshit,” Kent gripes.  

“Makes me think about if best friends are supposed to fall in love,” he admits. “If that just happens or if there’s a right way to do it.”

Kent takes a deep breath. His twists knots into the blanket until he feels like he can think straight. “You think you did the right thing?”

“What?”

“Running away?” he elaborates. “Do you think you made the right decision?”

Ransom clenches his fists tightly. “I don’t know.”

“Yeah, well, you had a choice,” Kent mutters.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter if it was the right choice.” Kent traces his finger over the stitching of his comforter.  “Or if it was the right way. You did whatever you wanted. You did it for yourself. That’s more than some people can ever say.”

Justin is silent for a while. He purses his lips. “Do you wish you’d done something differently?”

“Not anymore,” Kent confesses. “I did everything I could.”

_/.\_

They lose by one in the third period. The opposing team just barely makes it out on top after a six-minute rally. By the time that play is over, there are two minutes left and their team is dead tired. Kent doesn’t hold it against them as he gives his end of the game pep talk to the boys. Jack, however, remains silent.

He doesn’t speak as he and Kent shower silently next to each other. The water is scalding. It beats down on him while he tries to shut up his anxiety. He stares at the communal shower tiles lifelessly. Kent’s humming something under his breath. Normally, it’d be soothing. Jack would spend the majority of their shower listening intently; identifying each half-remembered tune as it floated out of Kent’ s mouth and into his ears. Normally, Kent is a godsend.

Tonight, Jack is fixating on what he did wrong.

Kent saunters out of the shower without a second glance. Jack remains there until the boiling water is tepid. He feels a tug on his arm. He follows without much protest. He sits on the bench as a shirt is pulled over his head. He adjusts it, and accepts underwear without looking away from the ground. He counts to seven in his head. Jack holds his breath, releasing it over ten seconds. He does this again. He slips his underwear on, a pair of pants appears next to him. He tries to clear his mind as he dons socks, shoes, and a coat.

Every time he tries to pull himself out, the answer became simple, clear—Kent.

Jack is pulled off the bench. He counts his steps as they make their way to Jack’s car. Jack automatically goes to the passenger’s side. Kent doesn’t protest. Kent puts Kings of Leon on low as he puts the car in reverse. They get a mile away from Jack’s house when Kent finally speaks.

“You did great tonight,” Kent murmurs as he parks in the Zimmermann’s driveway.

Jack snorts, unconvinced.

Kent frowns, reaching over to squeeze Jack’s shoulder. Jack shrugs him off.

“C’mon, Zimms,” he  groans as he nudges Jack gently. “Don’t be like that. You were amazing.”

Jack stares at him for a moment. “You were terrible.”

“Uh,” Kent blushes. “I got two assists, babe.”

“The reason you didn’t get three is you were slow as shit, Parse. Maybe get your head out of your ass and we could win occasionally, eh?”

“You don’t really think I’m the reason we lost,” Kent said.

“Yes, I do,” Jack opens the car door and then slams it shut to indicate he was done with the conversation.

He climbs up the stairs without more than a grumbled hello to his parents, who are asleep on the couch. Jack scrubs his teeth harder than he needs to. He feels the way his skin itches, begging him to tear it inside out, and knows he missed his medication again. He takes an extra dose before bed. He all but rips his clothing off as he buries himself under the covers. The lights are on, but he doesn’t care.

He drifts in and out of slumber for a while. At some point, he hears his door creak open and click shut. There are some foot shuffles, but he doesn’t bother to lift his head from his pillow to check. He feels the way his mattress tilts as Kent situates himself on his side of the bed. He shifts around for a few seconds behind Jack.

“Stop that,” Jack snaps

The motion stills.

Eventually, arms wrap around him. “I’m sorry,” Kent whispers into his ear. “I’ll do better next time.”

Jack feels the tension in his shoulders soften as Kent pulls him in closer.

“Okay,” Jack relents.

“Yeah?” He can hear the tentative smile in Kent’s voice. It makes him breathe a little easier.

“We’ll practice first thing in the morning, eh?” Jack offers. “Get you in draft shape.”

Kent clings to him. “Okay.”

Jack scoots closer into Kent’s arms. He listens as Kent’s breath evens out; he waits for soft snores before he finally, truly relaxes. Sometimes he doesn’t want Kent to make him feel better. Sometimes he doesn’t want Kent to lift his spirits or keep him distracted. Those are all excuses in Jack’s book. Sometimes, he just wants Kent to shut up and listen.

Sometimes he does. Sometimes, Kent feels like the only person in the world who can get him.

_/.\_

The day before the first preseason game against the Yotes, Ransom has his first panic attack since moving to Las Vegas. The first one without Holster, really. He’s taking off his gear after practice when he starts thinking about how he’s an NHL player. This is his deciding hour. He’s officially at the highest level of play he can get. There is nowhere to go but down.

Which is when he starts fixating on failure. He’s staring at the carpet in front of his stall. He feels like he’s back at Samwell. Like he needs to find a table to hide under. He’s not ready for failure. He’s not ready to go crawling back home because he couldn’t make a life for himself. He’s not ready to see the disappointment and resignation on Adam’s face when he realizes he’ll always be Justin’s second choice.

Ransom thinks he hears someone say his name, maybe it’s Ozzy. He sits there still, trying not to scream. He’s sure he’s mumbling something about hat tricks and line changes.

“Justin,” he hears someone whisper in his ear. “Justin, you’re safe. You’re in the locker room. What do you need?”

“I—” he freezes. “‘ts too loud.”

“Can I help you stand? I’ll take you somewhere quiet.”

“Okay,” Justin finds himself saying. His vision is still tunneled, but he clings onto the side of the person leading him away.

He hears some instructions here and there. Mostly “we’re turning here,” and “you’re doing a great job. I’m really proud of you.”

It makes the tightness in his chest settle a little bit.

“There’s a couch behind you,” he hears finally. “We’re gonna sit down, ok? Just bend your knees and ease down.”

Ransom complies.

“Do you want to be held?” he’s asked.

“Okay,” he finds himself saying. Sometimes Holster would do that when they weren’t in public. Thinking of Holster just makes him feel worse.

He feels the person hug him tightly. Justin leans into the touch, relaxing as his eyes dampen. He’s twenty two and he feels like an idiot.

“You’re safe, and you’re doing awesome. You’re doing your best, ok? It’s fucking amazing.”

He closes his eyes, listening to the praise and reassurances. Justin thinks he nods off at some point, because he feels himself slipping as he jerks awake.

“Ow,” Kent’s grunts as he rubs his jaw. “Warn a guy.”

“Sorry,” Justin murmurs.

“Don’t worry about it. How you feeling?”

“Better,” he indicates.

They’re in the players’ lounge. A chair is holding up the knob to keep it locked.

“So, do you feel up to talking about it or nah?” Kent points toward the door with his thumb. “The team shrink is just down the hall if you’d rather talk to her.”

“I…” Ransom’s voice falters. “Haven’t had this much pressure to not fuck up my future in a while.”

Kent nods. He clasps his hands together. “Do you want some empathy or some advice?”

Ransom considers it for a moment. “Advice.”

“Go talk to the shrink,” Kent puts simply as he rises off the couch. “You’re a great player. You’re an awesome dude. And you have like—zero coping mechanisms for your anxiety.”

“That’s it?”

“Hey, you chose advice,” Kent shrugs. “If you want empathy I got a tub of ice cream back at my place, and Swoops’ been bitching about watching Top Gun all day.”

Ransom chuckles for the first time that day.

Parse takes the chair away from the table. He looks back at Justin with a dopey smile that makes him look years younger. Kent gestures Justin to follow. He almost misses the way he smiles at Kent laughing at his own joke. It stops him in his tracks. He doesn’t remember the last time someone could make him feel so light so easily.

Fuck.

_/.\_

Back in those days, Kent didn’t have a word for how emotional he could get. It wasn’t like a magical switch that just made him upset. Only sometimes, it was exactly like that. Something so insignificant and passing clicked into his mind in just the right way. Some days Jack was everything.

“Did you hear what happened to Britney Spears?” Amy, their classmate, whispers one day as they’re walking to the school parking lot.

“What?” Kent asks without looking up from his flip phone.

“They took her kids away,” Jack grunts off handedly. As if it were obvious. As if it were just a simple fact.

Sometimes it didn’t matter if he loved Jack. Sometimes, nothing mattered at all.

Kent feels his blood go cold. He stares at Jack as if he’s never seen him before. He searches Jack’s eyes, hopping desperately that this is some cruel fucking joke. Waiting for Jack to apologize for saying something like that to him.

Jack blinks twice. “What?”

Kent shakes his head, storming off toward Jack’s car. He doesn’t listen to what Jack tells Amy; he couldn’t give a flying fuck.

The car unlocks when he’s a few feet away. He throws himself into the back seat, curling into a ball. Jack shuffles in a while afterward, slinking into the driver’s seat. The engine rumbles without Jack asking Kent to put on his seatbelt. It’s just as well. Kent likes the idea of getting into a car crash right now. He’d savor the way his body would slam against the front windshield, collapsing his already crushed lungs and heart. It would hurt less than dealing with this bullshit.

They drive to afternoon practice in silence. Eventually, Kent feels his body shift as the car comes to a full stop. Jack changes the gear to park.

“You can’t stay here all afternoon,” Jack chastises him.

“Maybe I should,” Kent argues. “I’m fucking useless like this.”

“I don’t understand why you’re upset,” Jack admits. “Stuff like this happens to celebrities all the time. You know that.”

Kent feels his windpipes close. He turns to stare at the car ceiling, wondering how hard it would be to claw his way out of the plush interior. It makes him think of those shows where people get buried alive. He wonders if anyone would care if they tried to take away his kids, if anyone would give the poor queer kid from New York a chance to be responsible for his own destiny—to love someone who trusts him wholeheartedly. He wonders if Jack even cares at all.

He sits up despite himself. Kent grumbles a ‘fuck you’ under his breath as he throws the back-door open. Their practice is tense but efficient. All the other guys feel the way Kent tries to stare Jack to death. Kent doesn’t wish Jack was dead, but he thinks it would be easier on everyone if one of them just disappeared. The world didn’t need a wunderkind and his sidekick. His anger doesn’t subdue until they’re taking showers afterward. Hiking up the temperature so hot it burns, Kent teeters on the edge of crying and puking. He needs a drink.

Jack drives them home. Well, he drives them to his home at least. Kent ends up in Jack’s bed, being held from behind.

“I’m sorry,” Jack murmurs.

“Me too,” Kent admits apathetically.

They’re silent for a while. And then Jack says, “I want you to be ok.”

Kent turns to him, frowning when he notices how Jack trembles. He pulls Jack in closer, kissing him harshly.

“I am ok,” Kent assures him. “I have you.”

_/.\_

It’s not exactly that Ransom’s avoiding Kent. They still see each other at practice everyday. Justin still listens to him because Kent’s his captain. He still comes over twice a week with Johnny to play Smash with Parker and Troy. They banter in the locker room. It’s easier than breathing. They’re close.

But Justin doesn’t sit next to Kent during sappy movies. Kent’s touch doesn’t linger as long on him during cellies as it does for other guys. Neither of them stay alone in a room with each other for too long. It’s an unspoken rule. Ransom doesn’t want things to change, and Kent won’t push. They’re close, but not in a way that could take them down a messy path.

The Aces PR notices this, and decide to make them do a video together. Johnny’s dragged into it after he makes an offhanded joke about Kent not understanding college life. And thus “College Shit with Ransom and Johnson” is born. It’s not as catchy, Johnny laments. But it’s good enough for PR and an episode in which they teach Kent the finer points of cramming and procrastination.

“I went to high school y’know,” Kent protests once the cameras start rolling. “I know how to procrastinate.”

“Look, Parse, I love you,” Johnny chides, “but you have not seen procrastination until you see Justin decide to throw a kegster two days before his biochem midterm.”

“I stand corrected,” Pare relents. “Alrighty, boys, enlightened me.”

In the course of a half an hour of shooting, the camera has to stop rolling twice. Once because Johnny chirps Kent so perfectly that Kent won’t stop cursing and Justin can’t stop laughing. The second time because PR have to explain to Kent that just because he’s comfortable with joking about his alcoholism doesn’t mean everyone else will be.

This was brand new information for Ransom. Kent must’ve caught sight of his dumbfounded expression because he agrees to stop.

Parse clears his throat. “Let’s keep rolling.”

The video goes live a few days later. He dreads hearing from his college friends. He doesn't know when he stopped referring to them as just his friends from college.

Lardo calls him that night after their win against the Aeros.

“Hey, Rans.” Her voice is like a warm cup of tea after getting caught in the rain.

It makes him sigh and his muscles relax in a way he didn’t know was possible to miss.

“Hey,” he murmurs as he stretches out on Johnny’s couch. “How’s your week been?”

“Alright,” he can practically hear Lardo rolling her eyes. “Shits is trying to figure out how to get out of Thanksgiving this year.”

“With his family?”

“Yeah, he’s trying to drag me and Holtzy down to Jack’s place.”

“That’s,” nice he almost says.

He bites it back because it doesn’t sound sincere. It feels like a cross between keeping things pleasant and holding back resentment. He doesn’t resent Lardo. Their problems are just out of sync at the moment. It’s hard to sympathize when she excels where he struggles and vice versa.

“Do you wanna ask or do you want me to tell you?” She interrupts his musings.

Ransom inhales deeply. “Just give it to me.”

“It’s was fun,” she grants him. “I liked it. Shitty didn’t know Johnson was the Aces’ goalie. I wish you could’ve seen his face.”

“Lards,” Justin refocuses her attention. “What did he say?”

“Nothing.”

Justin reframes from shouting. “Ok, what did he do ?”

“Threw his phone into a busy street and watched it shatter under a couple dozen cars,” she said.

“Fuck.” He hides his eyes behind his hand. “Of course he did.”

“Do you wanna talk or listen?”

“Listen,” he says quickly.

She’s quiet for a moment. “Remember that long weekend I took last semester? I said I was going to go visit my cousin at NYU?”

“Yeah?”

“I took a train to Charlotte, North Carolina,” Larissa confesses.

“Why?”

“We’re not that different, Rans.”

“Oh.” Of course , he thinks. He and Lardo were always treading similar waters. “What changed your mind?”

“Stupidity,” she reveals. “Or maybe cowardice. I sulked until I figured out what needed to be different.”

“Mind sharing?”

“Just because I love him didn’t mean he was the only person for me.” There’s a smirk in her voice.

His mind draws a blank. “Polyamory?” Justin guesses.

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“Friend of mine told me,” Ransom informs her.

She laughs, probably assuming more than he’s willing to divulge. “Did your friend tell you any relationship needs communication?”

“Sorta,” he rasps. “Look, could you give him a message?”

“Sure.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s it?”

“For now.” Because he can’t say things he doesn’t mean.

They talk for a few more minutes before she yawns and says she has to be up early to get on a train to Providence. He wishes her a goodnight, shuffling out to the living room where Johnny’s playing call of duty with Carter and Ozzy.

“Hey, Rans,” Johnny waves.

“Hey.”

“Did you talk to Holster yet?”

“Dude, no,” Justin protests.

“Who’s Holster?” Ozzy inquires.

“His ex,” Johnny supplies.

“Dude,” Justin repeats, warning cutting into his tone.  

“Bro, no offense but you’ve been sulking for what? Almost a year? You haven’t talked to him in six months. That’s super unhealthy.”

“Do I need to fight someone for you, or is this one of those ‘we’re making it more complicated than it needs to be’ situations?”

“Oz,” Carter chastises.

“Right, nuance,” Ozzy tsks. “Justin, what’s the problem?”

Ransom really doesn’t want to talk about it. But he’s been friends with these guys for months. If he can trust them on the ice, he can trust them to give a sympathetic ear.

“I guess we’re level six friends,” Ransom concludes as he sits down next to Ozzy.

And so for the first time in months, Justin begins to tell his story.

_/.\_

Dating Holster isn’t much different than being best friends with him. It’s waking up for practice and making breakfast together. It’s walking to classes while chirping each other. It’s holding on a little tighter during a celly. It’s getting a kiss goodnight and sometimes falling asleep on the bottom bunk.

It’s trying to be a supportive boyfriend as Adam looks for jobs in every major city near Ransom’s top choices for med school. It’s evading kisses whenever a floorboard creaks or a door groans open. Ransom dating Holster is ignoring the way his eyes dim whenever Ransom says he needs space.

But then it’s Adam rambling for hours about what they should do after graduation. It’s lecturing him that he can’t fight every guy who checks Ransom. It’s chirps about staying up late and avoiding his assignments that feel more personal than they used to. It’s asking what they’re doing tonight, Adam suggesting they get take out and watch a movie while they look at apartments in the area, and realizing that somehow, they’d gotten to this point.

Dating Holster is small arguments about whose turn it is to do the dishes that escalate quickly. It’s hushed arguments where Holster pleads that they just tell the team already. It’s conversations over team breakfast that have an undercurrent because they can’t talk about what’s really wrong in front of the guys. It’s cuddling that leads to squirming. Neither of them moves because they’re lazy, but they’re still uncomfortable.

Justin finds a spreadsheet on Adam’s computer of the best school districts in Boston. He flips through the tabs and recently closed files. Almost all of them are elaborate plans. He’s never seen his entire life laid out for him before. Yet there it is, the list of every med school he’d ever mentioned ranked by location and price.

It’s then that Ransom realizes how much he doesn’t want to be a doctor. Not only that, but also how done he is trying to force himself into a life that wasn’t for him—not right now at least.

He tells Holster that he needs a break. That they’re around each other too much and it’s going to eat them alive. It’s mostly true.

Holster sings Adele’s “When We Were Young” constantly during finals. Justin ignores how conflicted it makes him feel.

_/.\_

Wally texts Kent the day of their first game against LA to say he’s coming and repping in his old jersey. Kent promptly texts the group chat (appropriately named the Aceholes) to inform the guys. It’s been forever since he’s heard from Wally. Kent grins like an idiot; it feels like a part of him is being sewn back into place.

They lose to the Kings by two, which leaves everyone worse for wear. Kellen gives them the old “we know what we did wrong, shake it off and we’ll make adjustments in the morning” speech. Wally saunters into the locker room after the press have cleared out. “Hey asswipes, didja miss me?”

Everyone stares at him for a moment.

Perry turns to Ransom, gasping. “I thought you were, Wally.  You, sir, are truly a master of disguise.”

“Fuck off, Perez,” Wally scowls.

“No one missed you, ugly,” Kent chortles as he gets up to hug him.

“Hardy har,” Wally indulges him. “You done chirping me yet?”

Carter smirks. “Done, I didn’t know we started. Did you, Oz?”

“I think we haven’t begun to chirp him,” Ozzy he declares with a pompous accent. “He must be growing frail in his old age.”

“Fuck all of you,” Wally rolls his eyes. “And you,” he points to Ransom.

Justin quirks a brow. “Yeah?”

Wally offers a handshake that Justin accepts. “You killed it out there. Those are some soft hands.”

“Thanks,” he grins broadly.

“You’re probably more competent than all these assholes combined,” Wally’s hand waves the team dismissively.

“I’m texting Ma to tell her you said that,” Kent warns. “No more pan dulces for you.”

Wally rolls his eyes. “How do you put up with these guys?”

Ransom shrugs. “They’ve grown on me.”

Ozzy and Perry cheer wildly as Goose tells them to hurry up and get dressed already. Wally takes them out for drinks as they fill him on everything he’s missed over the last few months. Wally continues to engage Ransom in conversation, asking him for his opinion about this or that. Conversation has always been one of Wally’s strong suits.

It’s great and surreal to see his old teammate interact with his replacement. Sometimes he worries about integrating past with his present. The draft taught him that he isn’t meant to have good things. That some things are too broken to ever repair, including himself.

Years later, he’s still unlearning that slowly. He has his boys, his boyfriend, his boyfriend’s boyfriend, and his family back home. He didn’t think he’d ever get to a place where he could look at how far he’s come and be proud of the life he’s carved out for himself.

Still, things are weird with Justin. They don’t talk like they did over the summer. They don’t dance around ideas and half truths that are probably more honest than they need to be. They don’t spend long hours learning about what makes each other tick. They haven’t said much outside of practice or Ace Off filming sessions in weeks.

Kent’s eyes flicker across the table, catching Justin’s. They stare at each other for a good long moment. Kent remembers that sometimes people don’t enter his life willingly. He chugs his water quickly, excusing himself to the restroom.

He’s twenty six. He’s one of the world’s best hockey players. He’s loved and happy. But sometimes, he’s still eighteen stuck in a bedroom in Montreal. He locks the bathroom stall behind him. Kent dry heaves for a while.

Sometimes he wishes he’d never woken up the morning after the draft.

_/.\_

Kent gets shipped off to Vegas without much of a fuss. His Ma and sister don’t mention Jack around him, and he tries to disregard the pity in their careful glances. The Aces send him to live with a vet, Ron West. Smithy and West are some of the best d-men the league has ever seen. Smithy drops by more often than is probably necessary, which makes Kent wonder.

Regardless, he’s not the only rookie West’s billeting. This guy who’s got at least five inches on Kent says his name is Jeff Troy. He’s from Jersey, he announces proudly to Kent, Nathan, and Mateo (the other rookies who got drafted and the Aces newest d-pair). The four of them end up getting lost on the Strip their first night there. In hindsight, it bonds them.

Something about summer always gets to Kent. The sun washes away his scars and the pool water and ice time help him forget. He calls Jack once a day. Once a day turns into once a week by the start of the preseason. In the meantime, Troy (sometimes Troy Bolton, sometimes Swoops after Kent remembers that time he wiped out during a Knicks game in front of the entire stadium) hangs out with him at all hours of the day. Kent wouldn’t call it suicide watch, but he appreciates it.

Jeff is his new center. Kent’s perception of time warps. Sometimes he gets these phantom sensations, like his heart’s been ripped out all over again, or he’s been displaced from time. He goes through the motions and next thing he knows, practice is done and he’s halfway through eating a meal. His days bleed together before his eyes. It makes adjusting almost bearable. Jeff holds him not like a friend would, or an almost stranger for that matter.

When Kent comes out of his fog on bad days, he looks up and there’s Jeff. He thinks he’s never believed in love at first sight. But he keeps looking up, just in case.

_/.\_

Matt finds Kent in the bathroom dry heaving. He rubs Kent’s back until he stops. They go home early; Troy gives excuses to the guys. Really, the excuses were just for Ransom’s sake. But it’s nice to pretend that he has still has pride in front of these guys anymore.

He hears Jeff on the phone with someone later that night while Matt holds him.

“I love you,” Kent whispers.

Matt rolls his eyes. “I love you too, dipshit.”

Kent snorts. “Can’t deal with chirps right now.”

“Alright, Kenny,” Parker relents. “Talk to me.”

“First time I ever looked at him and thought ‘fuck, why don’t you hate me?’”

“Who?”

“Justin,” Kent answers truthfully.

“Why? Zimmermann?”

Kent’s silence is enough of an answer.

“Kenny, fuck him ok?” Parker orders him. “Fuck Jack Zimmermann. You’re human, okay? You fucked up once.”

“It wasn’t—just once.”

“How many times does he have to fuck you up before you stop forgiving all his bullshit?”

Kent buries his head further into his pillow. “You’re yelling.”

Parker sighs behind him. “I’m sorry. I’m not angry at you.”

“I trust you,” Kent tells him because it’s the only thing he can do. He chooses to believe that Parker’s telling him how he really feels. It’s supposed to be reassuring, so that’s what Kent focuses on.

He falls asleep not long after that. At some point he wakes up long enough to hear Jeff and Matt arguing about something in the hallway. Kent goes to practice the next day as if nothing happened. But of course Oz packs an extra granola bar for him. Carter puts on a Britney playlist despite it being his day for music. Perry drags him to the players’ lounge, and they just hug for a while. Goose, Johnny, and Fish distract the team and coaches from realizing there's even a problem.

Really, it's a good system they have going. Kent should be happy. Should being the operative word. Fortunately, they don't have a game until the next night and Wally was planning on staying in town through the weekend.

Jeff tells him they're grabbing take out tonight, no exceptions. Kent interprets this as a solid night of cuddling coming his way. What he doesn't expect, however, is to find Ransom sitting on their couch flicking through channels.

Kent turns around immediately, heading for the door until someone grabs him by his collar.

“Oh no you don't.” Troy bars him from escaping.  “I have a date. You can't be alone right now. You're resolving this shit, alright?”

“Yeah sure, just leave me with the six foot two Canadian Adonis,” Kent grumbles. “That’ll end well.”

Swoops crosses his arms, shifting his weight onto his right side. He stares at Kent expectantly.

“Fine, I know the drill,” he relents. “Go have fun on your date. Not like I wanted to come…”

“You hate magic shows,” Jeff counters.

“And Parker loves them, or something?”

“Jealous?”

“You're not the one that got pinned into a blind not-date.”

“This time,” he reminds Kent pointedly as he heads out the door.

“I still haven't gotten a thank you!”

“Thank you, goodnight,” Parker snaps.

Justin looks over as Parker slams the front door. Kent tries not to blush.

“Hey,” he croaks.

“Hey.” Ransom lifts a brown take out bag off the coffee table. “Hungry?”

Kent nods, taking a seat not too close to him on the couch. They eat in silence for a while as Kent commandeers the remote.

“So what was it?” He finally asks.

Ransom stares at him with confusion. “What?”

“The lie. What’d they tell you to come over?”

“Oh, Swoops pulled his A voice on me and said our personal problems were affecting the team.”

“So the truth, then,” Kent ascertains.

“I guess.”

Kent stares at his hands in his lap. It’s hard for him to distinguish what people mean to him. If he’s invested in them for the right reasons or if his mind is just biding time until it fucks him over again. The older he gets, the less it seems to bother him. Maybe no one builds bonds out of truly pure intentions. Maybe every relationship was a candle, and half the fun was seeing how long and well he could make it last.

“You know what I hate?” he says finally.

“What?”

Kent bites the inside of his cheek. “I have no fucking clue what I did to you.”

“You didn't do anything, Parse,” Ransom asserts.

“Then why—”

“Not everything is about you ok?”

Kent feels the blood drain out of his face. He can’t deal with another Jack. “If you're gonna be like that ,then just get out.”

“Parse—”

“I can't do this thing, Justin.” He says with resignation. “I can't pretend I'm not fucking messed up as shit so you won't go trashing me to Zimms.”

“I wouldn't do that! You know me better than that.”

“Do I?”

“You're right, I'm sorry I came.” Ransom gets up and storms off toward the entrance.

And maybe he was right. Maybe this was just Kent finding an easy out.  “Fuck, Ransom, wait.”

“What?”

“You're right, not everything is about me. I'm sorry.”

Ransom crosses his arms. “Okay?” He says impatiently.

“But you can't fucking ghost me for a month and fucking expect me to be alright. Not with my track record.”

Justin stares at Kent for a moment. And it’s not that Kent intends to, but he starts to imagine things. He can see Ransom quitting the Aces and going home. Kent can see him spending the next months or years giving Jack every single dirty secret he was able to uncover while here. He can see the way Jack will make it so he never plays hockey again. Because even without outing Kent, Jack can do anything he wants to make him miserable.

But then Justin says. “You're right. I'm sorry.”

He lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Yeah?” he asks timidly.

“Yeah, let's figure it out, Kenny.”

The smile Ransom flashes him makes his heart beat out of his chest. It’s not a lot, but it's a start.

_/.\_

They win the Frozen Four. Ransom is on cloud nine, and the kegster they throw is worthy of their last hurrah. He tells himself that it’s the high of everything that Holster’s the first body he crashes into when the win. He tells himself it’s the buzz of the party that gets him to make out with Holster. He tells himself he had too many beers (one, he had one). He tells himself that it’s no big deal. It’s not sex. They’re just friends.

When he wakes up in the morning tangled in Adam’s arms, Justin doesn’t know what to do. Just because they had fun didn’t mean he wanted to get back together. But looking at Holster’s face, he can’t tell if he’s in love or some mix of lust and like. He thought being exes would be easier than this. He doesn’t know what he wants. He thinks about Holster’s ten-year plan. Kids, a house in the suburbs, everything nice and perfect. Perfect for someone who isn’t him.

He thought they could make something work. Ransom was sure that he’d be less confused the more they settled into their old platonic routine. He thought awkward would be remembering not to use pet names. Not “look we almost had sex and you still expect to move in with me after graduation.”

It occurs to him that’s their problem. It didn’t matter how much he wanted to change. They’re still stuck in their old routine. He’d already submitted himself to his same old life by staying in Boston. He’s too much of a coward to say no to complacency when Holster is offering him everything on a silver platter.  

Justin has never been one to take big risks. He followed the path that was laid for him and treaded carefully. No amount of college life had changed that. He’s sick of almost being the person he wants to be. He’s sick of being treated like this precious thing instead of a human being. Ransom wants to find his own way.

He slips out of the bedroom quietly. He makes a few calls, hoping that no matter what, things will be different.

_/.\_

Kent finds him on the floor. In the years to come, he’ll tell the story with clinical precision.

“His parents were at some party. I was out buying cheap champagne.” Kent snorts into his beer. His eyes droop as his mouth twitches. There’s something dangerous in the way he’s staring out at his balcony. It’s like vertigo or maybe just adrenaline. “I shouted for him to come down. He didn’t. I figured he was being an asshole—or, I don’t know. His anxiety was acting up.”

“Then what?” Justin coaxes him to keep going.

“What else?” Kent grunts. “I went first in the draft. And if you went to Samwell, you obviously know Jack didn’t.”

His choice of words visibly startles Ransom.

“It’s what you told Jack’s boyfriend at that one party,” Kent supplies.

“Oh.” Kent tires not to stare at the curve of Justin’s mouth as it hangs open. “I didn’t know you were listening.”

“It’s hard not to listen.” Kent shifts his weight into the back of his heels.

He stares out into the horizon. The sky is inked in blacks, greens, blues, and reds. It’s not magical like Montreal or New York. It doesn’t feel like home, nestling into the night. Day bleeds into night faster than Kent feels the blood drain out of his face. He doesn’t owe Justin anything, he tells himself. There’s no sin for him to absolve or penance to pay. He’s spent years and months and days agonizing over what could have been, what should have been.

“I found him on the bathroom floor,” Kent says in spite of himself. “He was cold as shit. I called the paramedics. I called his parents.”

Kent thinks about calling Jack all the time. Nowadays it isn’t really to say I miss you or I still love you. Sometimes it’s not to say “this reminded me of you” or “fuck, I’m an idiot, help”. Because if anyone understood Kent’s capacity to fuck up, it was Zimms. He shakes his head. Jack wasn’t the only person who understood him anymore. If anything, Jack was leagues behind his team, his family.

There was something so easy, however, about hoping one day he’d knock on Kent’s door. Asking to come home.

“I kissed him before they got there, right on lips.”

“Why?”

“Because fuck everything,” Kent hisses. “I deserved to say goodbye.”

Ransom nods vacantly.

“Do you know what Borderline Personality Disorder is?” He dares to ask.

“I think I heard about it in Abnormal Psych.” He pauses to sip his beer. “But tell me.”

“Fuck, do you have a week?” Kent laughs in spite of the gravity of this confession. “I can’t—it’s a lot of black and white thinking. People love me or they hate me. They’re so amazing that I need to do everything for them or they should fuck off. I’m either hot shit or the worst fucking human being you’ll ever meet.”

“And you think like that all the time?”

“Eh, therapy helps.” It’s hard to verbalize how much he struggled when he was younger and people reprimanded him constantly for being dramatic. Or how frustrating it was after he got drafted, and he was convinced that there was no reason he should ever be upset. Yet more often than not, he couldn’t function without a harsh push out of bed every morning. “It’s not so bad when I’m being, like—mindful of how I’m feeling or what other people need. But when I split? It’s so fucking hard to be rational and it just—feels like I’m being attacked. It just drudges up a lot of old scars.”

“So, boxes?” Ransom brings up a metaphor he’d mentioned over his birthday. Which feels like a lifetime ago. It’s surreal to think that there was a time when Justin wasn’t a part of his world.

“Yeah,” Kent clears his throat. “Sometimes I fill them until they’re overflowing. Sometimes I take until there’s nothing left.”

They stand in silence for a while. Kent hums an old pop song under his breath to keep himself distracted from the way he wants to claw his own skin off. Maybe they should get a dog like Parker’s always complaining about.

“With Zimms it was both,” he thinks out loud. “All the fucking time.”

“So polyamory,” Justin phrases sort of like a question—but almost like a proposition.

“Jeff and Matt have their stable thing. They can take care of each other when I can’t deal.”

“That’s—good.”

“Different boxes and different needs. I try to fill them up when I can.”

Kent continues to ramble before he loses his nerve. “And I get really insecure? About who I am to people? So sometimes I’ll ask Ozzy if he still loves me. I’ll ask Johnny for a compliment. He gives the best ones y’know?”

“So, what’s my box?”

“I, uh, don’t know?” Kent ignores the way Justin’s waiting for him to make eye contact. Instead, he scratches at the label of his beer bottle. “Which is a problem. I need boundaries, and you have to tell me when I need to back off or what you need when.”

Ransom opens his mouth, and then closes it. He does so a few more times. “I miss him,” he says instead. “All the fucking time. I didn’t think I would.”

Kent laughs. “Welcome to the club.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“What? That you’re hung up on the love of your life or that you won’t let yourself be happy for some warped sense of pride?”

“Both?”

“I’m not one to talk,” Kent grins acerbically. “But I’m not going anywhere. I don’t need you to fit one role, alright? I just want you around.”

Justin nods, tilting his head closer to Kent. “So if I decide tomorrow to pack up and move home?”

“It’d rip my fucking heart out,” he admits. “But I’d live.”

“And if I said let’s try something and it doesn’t work?”

“Then talk it out with me and we’ll be something else.”

“You’re serious?” Justin questions. His voice is hesitant.  

Kent leans in a little closer, deciding then to look meet Justin’s gaze. “Deadly.”

Justin looks at him like someone looks at an old book. Like he didn’t realize how much he could just let himself want something. “So if I asked to kiss you?”

The thing about books, Kent’s learned, is that they’re don’t just expire. There’s always a reason for someone to find it.

“I’d say I have to check with my boyfriend first,” Kent admits. “But then I’d say ‘what took you so long’?”

Ransom laughs, “So can I kiss you?”

_/.\_

During their second roadie their rookie year, Kent finds himself with his head in Jeff’s lap as they watch Crazy, Stupid, Love .

“Why do you keep doing this?” Kent dares to ask.

“What’d you mean?”

“I mean—” he gestures toward the door. “We’re in fucking Los Angeles. You could be out with the guys or hooking up with someone. Fun stuff, y’know?”

“You saying you’re bored, Parse?”

“Fuck no,” he snaps.

Troy nods approvingly. “Good, neither am I.”

“But—”

“No buts, man,” Jeff tuts. “I like where am I. Don’t worry about my love life, alright? Someone will find me when they’re good and ready.”

Kent chuckles to himself. He wasn’t sure what being ready entailed. He wondered if he’d ever be ready to get back out there. Jack had left him worse for wear. Some days he just wanted some small sign that he was okay. Others, he couldn’t get over how insanely pissed he was that Jack did this to himself, to them.

Jeff cards his hand through Kent’s hair. His breath shudders as the tension drips out of his spine. Jeff’s a good guy. Swoops always knows what Kent needs before he even asks. He considers how much of him really wants Jeffery Charles Troy for who he is and how much he just wants to be wanted. He wonders if it even matters. Perhaps he’s reading into the way he touches too closely.

“You said someone,” Kent realizes. “Not some girl.”

“I did,” Jeff hums. “So did you.”

It’s then that Kent decides that he doesn’t care what this is. He doesn’t want to think about if it’s infatuation or lust or a cheap one night stand. He wants everything that Jeff can give him. He sits up slowly. His eyes never leave Jeff’s. Kent’s half in Troy’s lap.

“Do you need help looking?” Kent offers as he cups Jeff’s face carefully.

“No,” Jeff licks his lips. “I think I’ve got everything I want right here.”

Jeff kisses him reverently, like he’s so scared of fucking up. Kent deepens their kiss because he doesn’t want it to end. He’s spent months trying to keep himself sane that he never stopped to consider if he was happy. Jeff makes him happy. Jeff looks at him the way he wished Jack would. He looks at Kent likes he’s precious and worth preserving.

_/.\_

Justin starts dating Kent. Not because it’s simple, but because it’s part of finding his own way. He likes the way Kent has to reach up to kiss him. He likes that he can occupy Kent, Parker, and Troy’s house as if it were his own, but he can still leave at the end of the night. He likes the way a puck bunny can catch his eye, and Kent is already on him for wingman duty.

Sometimes his heart drops with how much it reminds him of Holster before things got serious.

But then Kent’s handing him a fidget toy claiming it was Ozzy’s idea. Or he’s ambushing the team with a water balloon fight the day after a win. Kent isn’t Adam. The more Justin lets himself relax around Kent, the more he realizes that.

Parse doesn’t bring up Holster. Sometimes, he’ll catch Ransom staring at his phone. He responds with a soft frown and a kiss on the cheek. It’s like he’s saying ‘you’ve got this’.  Somehow, that’s more reassuring than any of his college friends have been in the last year.

The day before the Falconers face off against the Aces in Las Vegas, Justin decides it’s finally time. He texts Lardo to find out if Holster still has the same phone number. He doesn’t wait for her reply in case he loses his nerve. The phone rings three times before going to voicemail.

Hey, you’ve reached Adam. Can’t come to the phone right now. So you know what to do.

“Hey, it’s me. Fuck, I should’ve written a script. Um, it’s cool if you don’t want to hear from me ever again. But I’m ready to talk, and I owe you a lot. Johnny says hi, by the way. Um, I guess that’s it. Bye, Holtzy.”
He slumps against the wall, letting gravity slowly bring him down. It was a good idea to put it off until after practice.

After a while someone nudges his foot.

“Rans,” Kent’s voice floats into his ear. “Your phone is ringing.”

He hands it over without checking to see who it is.

“Oh sweet, beer pong chick,” Kent murmurs. “Yo, this is Kent...Uh, he’s indisposed right now. Everything...yea, I’ll tell him in a little. Thanks.”

“What did she want?”

“Well, you broke Holster,” Parse informs him. “And he’s pissed off that you decided to call when it was too late for him to take time off work to come out for the game tomorrow night.”

“I didn’t do that on purpose,” Justin defends.

Kent nods sympathetically. He squats down in front of Ransom. “Do you want him to come?”

“Maybe?”

“Don’t overthink it,” Kent instructs him.

He hadn’t been sure until this exact moment. “Yeah, a whole fucking lot.”

Kent smiles as he offers Justin a hand to get up. “Hey, I’m proud of you.”

“Why?”

“You know what I was doing at 22?” Kent snorts. “Building a queer hockey empire so Jack would have a reason to ditch Samwell. You’re like—leagues ahead of me. You’re a good guy.”

Justin frowns slightly, caressing Kent’s chin. “You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Instead of arguing with him, Parse leans into his lips.

The next night, they’re gearing up to face the Falconers. It’s the first time he’s seen Jack since graduation. When Ransom catches Jack’s eye during warm ups he offers a quick grin. He’s met with a cold glare that reminds him of who Jack was before Bitty. Ok then, Justin thinks to himself, keeping things professional, I guess .

He doesn’t go easy on Jack in the first period. The second devolves into repeated checking on Jack’s part. Kent notices and grows visibly more irritated every time it happens. Five minutes into the third period and Aces are down by one. Jack checks Ransom around neutral ice.

Kent drops a glove.“You done acting like Canada’s golden boy yet?”

“You still acting like a self-absorbed pretty boy?” Jack drops a glove.

“Aw, you still think I’m pretty.” He drops his second glove.

Jack snorts, dropping his other glove. He makes the first swing. Kent grabs him by his jersey collar, adding momentum to his punch as he forces Jack closer. Jack hits him right on the temple in retaliation. Another fight breaks out between Parker and Poots. But Ransom finds someone to pair up with quickly.

“Nice seeing you, again, Tater.” He blushes when he realizes he’s hugging the guy he and Holster always talked about having a threesome with.

“Ah, Ransom, is good seeing you too,” Tater chatters amicably. “Hear what happened with boyfriend. Very sad.”

He eyes Tater warily. “Um, what did you hear?”

“Oh Zimmbonni say you had nasty breakup.”

“I guess,” he replies. Because that was just about it. Jack isn’t much of a talker. But it makes him wonder who Jack thinks is in the wrong.

“Holster good guy. Mope a lot, but still good.”

“I know,” he sighs. “It’s—complicated.”

“What so complicate?”

“What the fuck is your problem!” Jack booms as he swings again.

“You!” Kent erupts. “When the fuck are you going to grow up and realize not everything is about you?”

“I have!”

“Keep telling that to blondie,” he sneers as the refs pull them apart.  “I’m sure you’re honest as fuck.”

“Fuck you, Kenny,” Jack growls.

“You—”

“Enough,” Ransom finds himself shouting. “You’ve had your fight, move on.”

Kent, Jack, and the refs all stare at him.

“That’s it,” Justin declares.

The clock resumes shortly after that. Kent gets benched after that. Carter gets another two goals with Ozzy’s assist before the period is over. Ransom gets interviewed after the game. Someone asks about the fight between Kent and Jack.

“Emotions run high on the ice,” he responds neutrally.

“Yes, but you’ve played with both Zimmermann and Parson,” the reporter elaborates. “Any insight into what provoked this argument?”

Since he can’t say seven years of unresolved tension or himself, Ransom settles on something else. “They’re very passionate about hockey. If anything, they bring it out in each other.”

He waits for the others guys to get ready to leave. He checks his phone while he waits. One new voicemail.

Yeah, I know you’re playing right now. Sue me. I’m just—fuck, Justin. What am I supposed to say? I miss you? I don’t think I could see you right now without wanting to punch you? I don’t know what you want from me. I hate that I don’t even know you anymore. Just—be upfront with me for once. What are we doing? Oh, and tell Parse that was a sweet shiner he gave Jack. Asshole deserved it the way he was hounding you.

Justin laughs harder than he has in months. Kent nudges his shoulder when he’s ready to leave.

“I can’t believe you did that,” Ransom admits.

“Did what?”

“Fought him like that.”

Kent shrugs. “Still on edge, honestly.”

“C’mon fuckers,” Parker declares, “video games at our place.”

“He called,” Ransom says.

Kent quirks a brow. “Yeah? How’d that go?”

“Voicemail, he liked what you did to Jack, though.”

Kenny and Parker cackle as Troy looks on in disapproval.

“Good,” Kent grins a little too smugly. “We’re gonna get along just fine.”

Jack’s waiting out in front of the locker room. His eyes avert Jeff’s, looking between Kent and Justin. His frown deepens, but he shrugs the lunchbox on his shoulder off and unzips it. He steps forward, offering a tupperware full of lemon squares to Ransom.

“Bits is still upset,” he looks pointedly at Kent. “But he insists these are for you.”

“Thanks.” Ransom accepts them cautiously, wondering if it’s possible to sense anger in a pastry.

“Yeah, uh.” Jack clears his throat. “No problem.”

“You have somewhere to be Zimmermann, or did your twink give you permission to hang out with the Aceholes tonight?” Parker sneers.

“Don’t listen to him,” Troy attempts to defuse the tension. “Uh, you’re looking for Johnny too, right?”

“Yeah,” Jack acquiesces.

Johnny appears next to Justin out of nowhere. “Right, you said we’d hang out this time.”

Jack nods stiffly.

Johnny shrugs, wrapping an arm around Jack as they walk toward the direction of the parking lot. “Well c’mon, Tater bet that he could outdrink Goose and me.”

“Thank fuck for Johnny,” Kent sighs in relief.

“We’re talking about this later,” Troy reminds him.

Ransom nods absentmindedly. “Seconded.”

_/.\_

“Do you—like believe in heaven and shit?”

“I don’t know,” Jack admits as he takes a swig of his beer. His breath fogs up the air around his face.

“What you mean you don’t know?” Kent tries not to snap. He isn’t quite sure how successful he is on that front.

“Haven’t thought about it.” Jack shrugs, raking a hand through his shaggy hair. “It doesn’t really matter until we’re dead, eh?”

“I guess,” Kent mutters.

Jack sighs. “What do you think, Kenny?”

Sometimes it pisses Kent off when Jack not too enthusiastically indulges him. But tonight, he doesn’t care. He leans back further against the windshield of Jack’s minivan. It’s still freezing in late March. Kent squirms further into his hoodie. No Chicano should have to deal with these temperatures. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the cold. Part of him hopes he doesn’t get drafted by a Canadian team. He doesn’t think he could stand being constantly reminded of Jack when he’ll be thousands of miles away (probably).

“Call me crazy—”

“You are,” Jack chirps.

Kent shoves him lightly. “Asshole,” he grumbles with a smirk. “I was just thinking there’s something fucking romantic about heaven y’know? No matter who you are, or what you did, there’s fucking eternal peace.”

Jack hums.

“Think about it.” Kent smacks his shoulder lightly. “So what if we don’t get to see each other much the next few years? We’ll have eternity y’know?”

He hears Jack clear his throat. “I guess.”

Kent reaches for Jack’s hand, bringing it to his chest. He cups it over his heart. “You feel that?”

“Yeah,” Jacks rasps.

“It’s beating for you,” Kent states it as if it were a fact. As if he were telling Jack that the sky blue is blue or cats meow. “I believe in you, baby. You’re gonna take this whole fucking world by storm. And I’ll always be right here by your side.”

Jack rips his hand away from Kent. “Don’t say shit like that.”

Part of Kent wants to shout ‘fuck you’ and storm off. Their good days and bad days don’t often sync up. Which is good, Kent admits to himself. He’d feel shitty for anyone who has to deal with both of them at their worst. Right now, he doesn’t feel like he hates Jack. He scoots over wrapping an arm around Jack’s shoulders.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“No.” Jack won’t look at him.

“Okay,” he relents. Kent tries not to worry about how much Jack’s been brushing him off lately.

When he’s ready to talk, he’ll come to Kent. They’ll work through shit like they always do. They’re a team; it’ll be fine.

Just fine.

_/.\_

“Not everything’s about you, huh?” Ransom snorts as he crosses his arms.

Kent blushes, throwing his head back on the couch cushion he’s using as a pillow.

“Wait, one sec,” Parker sits down on their living room floor next to Kent’s head. “Might as well get my lecture out of the way too.”

“It’s not a lecture,” Jeff corrects him. “But we have to talk about this shit. You two can’t get into fights every time we play the Falcs.”

“Can’t we?” They both ask.

“I think Justin deserves to go first,” Kent mentions. He glances over at Justin. Their eyes catch, and it almost makes Justin’s anger melt away. Almost.

“Not gonna lie, I’m mad,” Justin relents. “You didn’t have to put yourself in danger like that. Were you seriously fighting for my honor?”

“Kinda.” Parse squints. “I was already on edge. He pushed too far.”

“That’s his specialty,” Parker mutters bitterly.

“You’re not helping,” Jeff berates.

“I have zero impulse control where he’s involved,” Kent admits. “I’m sorry for fucking up the game.”

“Babe, that’s not fair. You were fine most of the game.” Jeff argues.

Matt turns just enough to kiss the tip of Kent’s nose. “Fuck him, alright?”

“Okay, I’m sorry.”

“What are you apologizing for?” Matt eyes him suspiciously.

“I don’t—know anymore.”

“Then don’t. You don’t have to be sorry.” The creases in Matt’s face smooth over with something like worry, or sympathy. “I hate his guts, but that doesn’t mean you have to.”

“Okay,” Parse caves in.

“It wasn’t about me,” Ransom concludes.

Kent rubs his eyes. “It was thirty percent about you.”

“But…” Justin prompts.

“Can I be mad, too?”

Justin finds himself making a squawking sound. “About what?”

Kent glares defiantly. “You’re so fucking hung up on people doing shit for you.”

He groans. “I don’t want you fighting my battles, Parse.”

“News flash, Justin, people do dumb shit when they’re in love,” Kent lectures as he sits up. “They’ll want to support you and protect you and shit. If that makes you uncomfortable, I’m sorry. Draw a fucking line in the sand. But it’s not some crazy phenomena that people love you and wanna do shit for you.”

Justin wonders if this is what he was waiting for his entire senior year. Someone to kick him in the ass and say “your feelings are valid, but you’re being a dick.”

“You're right, I'm sorry.” Ransom finds himself saying. It doesn’t feel like a lie or defeat. Just a matter of fact. “I'm getting there. Is that okay?”

Parse smiles, “fuck yeah it is.”

_/.\_

Ransom signs with the Aces because they’re as far away as he can get from Boston. He figures that despite their reputation for playing dirty, they’re the most progressive team in the league. Kellen Andrews is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and, along with her wife, one of the best athletes in the world. Kent Parson is someone he still has to figure out, but he figures if he is anything like Jack, they’ll figure out a rhythm for each other eventually.

Chowder finds out first, most likely through the NHL app. He sends a congratulatory text in the group chat. He’s followed by Dex and Nursey who text in rapid fire succession of each other.

N:Dude seriously?

D:Wow

N:This is amazing

L: Congrats Rans

N:When were you gonna tell us?

D: Have to agree with Nurse. Was this supposed to be a surprise?

R: yea sorry I didn’t mention it before. Things happened pretty fast?

N: Fair

D: guess we have two teams to root for next season

N: proud of you

When he gets back the Haus, Bitty’s in the kitchen chopping onions.

“Hey,” he waves shyly.

“Adam’s upstairs,” Bitty informs him.

“Okay…”

“You should go up. He wants to talk.”

“…Do we need to talk first?”

His knife clanks against the counter. Bitty spins around, looking resigned and irritated. “Out of every team in the goddamn NHL, you had to go to him?”

Ransom blinks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I had to check with you to make sure my career was acceptable.”

“That’s not—” Bitty stops himself. “Whoever you think Kent Parson is, he’s not.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t have to be friends with him. I just have to play.” Ransom claps his hands before shoving them in his pockets. “I’ll go see what’s up with Holtzy. I’m sorry for interrupting his majesty.”

He thinks he hears Bitty protesting. Justin chooses to ignore it. Climbing the stairs is a battle. Each creak of the wooden steps is like a strike to his heart. They hadn’t talked much outside of practice in months. He knew Adam wasn’t going to take this well. Yet here he was, resigning himself to his fate.

Holster’s sitting on his bed, typing away on his laptop.

“Hey,” Ransom huffs.

“Were you going to tell me?” he asks without looking up. Straight to the point, then.

Justin closes the door behind himself carefully. He leans against the frame, partially because he doesn’t want anyone to try to interrupt what will inevitably be a shouting match. He also doesn’t feel comfortable enough sitting anywhere. It’s his own room and he hasn’t felt at home in it in months. He hates that this is what Holster’s done to his life. Maybe it wasn’t all his fault, but Ransom doesn’t care right now.

“Probably,” Justin admits. “After everything was squared away.”

“Did you expect me to just pack up and move anywhere? You couldn’t have fucking checked with me first?”

Ransom’s jaw clenches. Because he hadn’t expected that, but that’s exactly what he’d offered to Holster months ago.

“Who said you were coming with me?”

Holster opens his mouth to protest, but quickly shuts it. “Right, we’re doing this, still.”

“Doing what?”

Adam doesn’t answer, he just stares at the wall next to Justin.

“No, tell me,” Ransom dares him. “What are we still doing?”

“I don’t know.” Holster scrubs his face. “I thought this was going to be easier or it’d blow over or fuck—I don’t know. You said it was a break.”

“You thought what? We were gonna get back together?”

“Maybe,” Holster’s voice is strangled and oddly quiet.

Justin paces, gesturing with his hands angrily. “I can’t believe you.”

“I’m not the one who’s running from our problems,” Adam counters.

Justin stops in his tracks, staring at Adam incredulously. “You know what? Fuck you. We don’t have problems. I have problems and you stick your big, fat head into everything.”

“I’m only trying to help,” Adam shouts. “I fucking love you, alright? It’s not my fault you started hating me for no reason.”

“You had our lives planned out from start to finish!” For the first time in months, Justin feels like he can say what he’s really thinking. “You know how that feels? Do you have any idea what it feels like to have someone fight your battles for years without a single complaint? Did you think I wanted to live the rest of my life with you doing everything for me just so I can fawn over what a big strong man you are?”

“I don’t know what you want from me!”

“I want you to stop treating me like a child!” Ransom hisses. “I want to go make my own fucking mistakes by myself. Everything’s been fucking laid out for me my entire life.”

Holster remains quiet.

“I’m not your pet project, Adam,” he sneers, heading toward the door. “I’m twenty-two. I can’t do this. Any of it.”

_/.\_

Ransom tries to call Holster the next day. It goes to voicemail again.

“Phone tag it is, then. Alright, he says thanks. You inflated his ego a lot saying that. Um, I’m going to pretend for five seconds that we’re not talking about us. But, you know, Jack? I guess at some point it didn’t matter how much he loved Kent. He couldn’t deal with his life. And Kent was a casualty. Which is shitty. So that’s my first apology.”

Your first apology is what? That you’re sorry Jack fucked Kent up?

“Yes? To be fair, you haven’t heard half the story. I think you’d kill Jack if you heard everything. Which is my second apology. I never kept you in the loop. It’s like the second we were a thing, everything felt different. And instead of trusting you enough to talk about what was bothering me, I pushed you away.”

Hey, I’m just returning your call so you know to keep talking.

“Cool. Um, it’s not that I don’t want to settle down at some point. Or that I don’t love you. I don’t know when the last time I got to tell you that was. But I do, Adam. I love you. I want to be with you.”

You’ve reached Adam. Can’t come to the phone right now. So you know what to do.

“Hey, it’s been a few days. Um. Remember when we used to find different people to hook up with at kegsters? And then we’d talk about it the next day? I miss that. I want to go out, meet puck bunnies, and know that I have people waiting for me at home who want to hear all about it.”

Ransom gets a call five minutes later. He inhales slowly. Here goes nothing. “Hey.”

“People,” Holster’s voice pitches. “As in plural? As in you're already doing that without me?”

“Yes?”

“I’ll continue to be pissed at you later. Tell me everything,” Adam insists.

So Justin proceeds to tell him about all everything he’s missed since graduation. Since he first stepped foot in Las Vegas.

Adam hums when he finishes. “Still pissed, but good story, bro.” He hangs up without a goodbye.

Ransom misses a call that night while they’re in Ottawa.

Here’s my first apology. I’m sorry you had to figure out all that shit out without me. Here’s my second apology. I’m sorry I made you feel like moving halfway across the country was a better idea than talking to me.

_/.\_

Justin meets Adam one the first day of pre-season practice. They click instantly because Shitty gives them the best nicknames ever. They make a good team. Adam helps him manage his anxiety. He helps ground him when he’s hard into procrastinating and makes the good times even better. Their friendship is easy, like love at first sight.

“Bro, have you seen my glasses?” gets asked almost as often as Justin hears “bro, you’re safe. Everything going to be fine. Can you count to ten for me?”

Ransom thinks that love is something like this. Two people who work together and care for the other more than anyone else in the world. He didn’t know a lot about relationships or forever. But he was eighteen, why did he care? Whatever he and Holster were would work itself out.

A kegster sometime in February turns into a ragger. Half the colleges in Boston heard about the amount of alcohol they (rumored to be from Jack’s piggy bank) bought. The hallway is so crowded that Justin can barely move or see. Not that he’s sober enough to be bothered much.

Adam taps him on the shoulder. “Hey, I’m getting more ice from the basement. Wanna help?”

Ransom nods, following him down. He tries not to blush when Holster grabs his hand to lead them out of the swarm of drunk partygoers.

They’re in the basement, grabbing ice when Holster speaks up.“So...you know that one in four maybe more thing?”

“Yeah?”

Holster averts his gaze. “Um, guilty?”

“Oh.” Justin’s voice catches in his throat. “Me too, bro.”

Holster looks at him with some sort of reserved hope. “Really?”

“Yeah,” he smiles softly. Holster’s the first person he’s come out to since he came to Samwell. It’s fitting considering how much he trusts his best friend. But that’s not why they’re in a basement during a kegster confessing to each other, is it?

“Um.” Holster blushes. “Is it weird if I ask if I can kiss you?”

“Probably,” Justin admits. “Is it weird that I want you to ask anyway?”

“Would you kiss me back?”

“I asked you first,” he counters.

“Technically I asked you first.” Adam’s an inch away from him.

“Kiss me,” Ransom rasps. “Please.”

Justin doesn’t know what he expects. At first, it’s amazing. It’s rough lips against his. It’s stubble that makes him melt. It’s validation in the best kind of way. Whispering to him that he is bisexual, that he doesn’t have to hide or pretend here. He tries to savor the moment.

But he doesn’t know what to do with his tongue. And honestly? Neither does Holster. They try to get hot and heated. They keep going, but Justin can’t help feeling like they’re forcing it.

“Do you…” Ransom starts. “Is this fun?”

“Fuck,” Holster chuckles. “If I say no will you hate me?”

“If I ask you to be my best friend forever will you hate me?”

“Never,” Holster promises.

“Good.” Ransom smirks, relieved at how easy it is to just be them. “C’mon, I’ll help you find someone to hook up with.”

_/.\_

“So when’s your boy toy coming to visit?” Kent asks on New Year’s Day.

They’re making out on the couch in Johnny’s house since he flew home to Minnesota for a few days.

“I don’t know.” Justin responds as he adjusts himself on top of Kent, leaning in for another kiss.  “Why do you ask?”

“I wanna meet the infamous Holster officially.” Kent reaches up to pull him in closer, rolling his hips up to create friction between them.

“You’ve met him,” he points out.

“But as one of Jack’s fratty teammates,” Parse argues. “Not as like—dare I say—my metamour.”

Justin snorts, “you’re two steps ahead of me.”

Kent squints at him, simultaneously raising his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yeah…”

“Why?” he demands. “You’ve been talking like non-stop for a month.”

Justin nods slowly. “Yeah, that’s what we do.”

“Ok—but you’re friends?”

“Maybe?” He doesn’t know what Kent expects him to say.

Instead, Kent sighs, closing his eyes with enough force to be painful. “Jesus Fucking Christ, Justin.”

“What?”

“You’re better than this,” Parse lectures, gesturing emphatically. “You have to fucking talk to him.”

“There’s a lot of shit to work through.” Justin protests.

“You were on the phone for two hours last night talking about the best dog breed!”

“You’re getting worked up,” he warns Parse.

“Sorry,” Kent huffs. “It’s your life. I respect that.”

“That’s not it,” Ransom scowls.

“Of course not,” Kent squawks indignantly. “It’s me, for fuck’s sake.”

Against his better judgement, he indulges Kent. “Fine, tell me.”

“You’re keeping him at arm’s length, what is that?”

“I’m not,” Ransom insists.

“Bull—shit.”

“Parse,” Ransom sighs. “Holster and I aren’t you and Jack. It’s not the same. You can’t get mad on his behalf just because you wish things were different.”

“That’s not what I’m saying. Fuck, listen to me for once instead of assuming shit,” his voice booms as he scrambles to get out from underneath Justin.

“Fine.” Ransom gives in.

“You’re scared shitless of being around him,” Kent argues as he curls into himself. “Which, whatever. Who am I to talk? But you can’t have him kinda sorta maybe around as long as he keeps things light without fucking telling him that. That’s not right.”

As much as Ransom would like to see Kent’s side of things, he can’t at the moment. He’s arguing about more than just what’s best for Justin. He’s being irrational and he’s getting worked up. So instead, Justin heads to the kitchen. He pulls eggs out of the fridge and a bowl from the cupboard. He’s half way through cracking the eggs and Kent starts to say his name incessantly. He doesn’t respond because he doesn’t want to engage with him. He can’t right now.

Kent screams. “I’m out of here.”

“Kenny,” he says despite his patience at the moment.

“Don’t—” Kent snaps. “You don’t get to—shut people out and expect them to be on the other side when you open yourself back up.”

And because Kent knew what buttons to push, Ransom impulsively thinks he should respond in kind. “Isn’t that what you’d do for Jack?”

Kent makes a strangled sound. “Lose my number.”

_/.\_

Kent and Jeff are something, he knows that much for sure. Goose and Perry start dating, so it’s easy for the four of them to not keep secrets around each other. It’s different than how Jack and Kent didn’t talk about things. Jeff talks about home and his aunt and uncle up in New Jersey. He talks about how his parents are fine, but not close to him. Kent puts a sympathetic hand on Jeff’s shoulder, thinking for the first time in a long time that someone got what it’s like to be him.

They don’t avoid big conversations, but they don’t come up organically. Usually it’s just a quick “is this ok?” or “are you still good with this?” before making out or having sex. Goose and Perry act like a sappy couple so they follow by example. They have movie nights like before and take random hikes when they’re bored or West tells them to get some fresh air.

On a Sunday in October their rookie year, they find themselves at the Grand Canyon. Kent snaps a selfie of himself kissing Jeff on the cheek. He adds it to his secret Instagram with the caption “there’s nowhere else I’d rather be here with.” His smile fades as he posts it.

“What’s wrong?”

“I love you,” he thinks his voice sounds startled, but Jeff keeps a steady gaze.

“I know,” Jeff replies confidently.

“No, I mean I really love you,” he reiterates. “Like Crazy, Stupid, Love you’re my best friend and I’d spend every day of forever with you if I could.”

He snorts, tilting Kent’s head up with his finger. “I know,” he repeats. “I. Love. You. Too.”

A warmth settles over Kent. He feels his muscles split as he smiles like an idiot. He kisses Troy, not for the first time. But at last, it feels like he’s not lying to both of them. He’s in love.

He’s home.

_/.\_

Jeff calls around eight pm that night. “Will you tell Kent to stop being an asshole and turn his phone back on.”

“He’s not here,” Justin informs him. “He left hours ago.”

“How long ago?” his voice is tiny yet grave.  

“Around eleven?

“And he didn’t mention where he was going?”

“No,” Ransom finds himself shrugging indifferently despite Jeff not being able to see.

Jeff clicks his tongue. “What was the fight about?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he deflects. Because the longer he sits in Johnny’s living room by himself, the more he regrets what he said.

“It does,” Jeff insists. “Fuck, what was the last thing he said to you?”

“Lose my number,” he recites verbatim.

“Fuck, fuck. Matt, call Kellen.” Troy’s yell is far away, but accompanied by muffled complaints. “Did he leave his car there?”

Ransom checks the narrow window adjacent to the door. “Yes. Is that a good thing?”

“It used to be,” Troy mutters. “But fucking Uber means he could be anywhere. You need to walk me through everything. Right now.”

Jeff stops him when he gets to the part about ignoring Kent.

“You do not ignore him without setting boundaries,” he berates. “That was like lesson one.”

“I’m sorry, ok? He was getting invasive.”

“Then you tell him that,” Troy emphasises. “Fuck, Justin. We have to find him.”

“Is this the part where I ask what could possibly go wrong?”

“You don’t wanna hear worst case scenario,” Troy explains cryptically.

It’s not that Ransom realizes how much he loves Kent. He loves Kent. He’s known that for months. But something about the idea of finding him dead in the Nevada desert makes Ransom want to reorganize his priorities in life. Because first it’s the thought of losing Kent, and then it’s the realization that he was trying to protect Justin from losing Adam. Kent never wanted him to feel like there’s something he could’ve done differently. Since day one, he’s been looking out him. Just like Adam.

“Ok,” he inhales deeply. “What do you need from me?”

“I don’t know,” Jeff admits solemnly. “He’s not with anyone here. If he told you he was out without threatening bodily harm to himself… I don’t know. Whatever he’s doing he probably thought it was really fucking important. The sooner we figure that out, the better.”

_/.\_

Meanwhile on the other side of the country, Kent knocks on an apartment door. Footsteps shuffle behind it as the lock snaps. The door swings open hesitantly.

“Hey,” Kent smiles sadly at the man who answers. “You got a minute?”

_/.\_

Jack wakes up in a hospital bed. His father is angrily shouting at someone. His mother is crying while talking to someone on the phone. Kenny is sitting next to him with a rosary in his hand. He’s muttering Hail Marys faster than Jack’s ever heard. He feels like there’s a fog over his head.

Jack’s slow to catch up with why he’s here. He briefly wonders if he got a bad concussion at a game. For a moment, he hopes that’s the case, and its years in the future. He’s a big NHL star. He’s got people he loves watching out for him. He’s got his anxiety under control.

Only then does he recall reality. It’s the night before the draft. He isn’t a professional hockey player. He doesn’t have his anxiety under control.

He feels himself slip back into unconsciousness.

The next time he wakes up, Kent isn’t there. His parents all but burst into tears when they notice him looking their way. They don’t ask and they don’t judge. They whisper we love you ’s like a mantra, like a spell. They talk about all the places they promised to take him that they never had. They mention family members (biological and otherwise) who wanted to visit as soon as Jack was up for it.

They don’t ask and they don’t judge. Yet the biggest question looms over his hospital room like a cloud of carbon monoxide.

Why?

He tells his parents it was an accident. He repeats that for every doctor and rehab specialist until he’s blue in the face. When he’s finally comfortable with his new therapist, he says something different.

“It wasn’t an accident.”

His therapist, Nafisa, looks up from her clipboard. Her eyes look owlish as they blink behind her reading glasses. “What wasn’t?”

“My overdose.” The words taste like acid and bile coming up the back of his throat. “I was trying to die.”

“Could you tell me more,” she asks slowly. “What were you feeling at the time?”

“Hopelessness.” He turns his gaze to the window behind her. The trees are already tinging brown and orange. The summer is ebbing away along with everything that Jack hated about it—the press, the doctors, the calls from Kent. “Everyone was counting on me. I knew I was going to let them down. They couldn’t hate someone who was dead, eh?”

“What were they counting on you for?”

“To be the best.” He says it as if it were obvious. But the more he thinks about it, the harder it is to vocalize. “To be…normal.”

“Do you feel that being ‘not normal’ affected their ability to care for and value you?”

“No.”

Nafisa nods, jotting something down. “Can you tell me more specifically who you’re referring to as ‘everyone’? Who did you feel you were disappointing?”

“My parents, my coaches, my team, my publicist, whoever drafted me.” Jack clears his throat, tapping against his knee a few times. “My…my boyfriend.”

“You haven’t mentioned him before,” she observes.

Jack remains silent.

“It’s alright if you don’t feel comfortable discussing him—”

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he interrupts her.

“Why?”

“He’s the one who found me.” Jack taps his knee again, and then a few more times. Unlike other people, Nafisa doesn’t stop him stimming. It’s one of the things he likes about her.

“Has this changed how you feel about him?”

“It isn’t his job to save me,” Jack says instead.

“Do you resent him for trying?” She asks neutrally.

Jack thinks for a second; the epiphany hits him all at once.

“Yes. I hate him.”

_/.\_

“Kent?” Holster pushes up his glasses with his middle finger. “Dude, what are you doing here?”

“Honestly?” He tries, and fails, to smile confidently. “Something stupid.”

“Well c’mom in,” Adam moves out of the doorway. “Is this getting drunk stupid or watching ANTM stupid?”

“America’s Next Top Model all the way,” Kent replies.

“Cool, still want a beer, though?”

“Got anything else?”

“Ugh, Lardo’s got some tea laying around here,” Holster informs him as he heads into the kitchenette. “Got some Guava juice from concentrate if you're feeling brave?”

“Guava juice tastes like happiness,” Kent retorts heatedly.

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes, please,” Kent rephrases politely.

Holster hands him a can of Guava juice as he walks around the couch. He sets up a rerun as they sit in amicable silence.

“So, not that I don’t love the bragging rights I'm gonna get at work tomorrow when I complain that three time Stanley Cup champion Kent Parson showed up at my door ten o’clock at night. But…”

“We got in a fight,” Kent answers simply.

“Swawesome,” the sarcasm drips from Adam’s tongue. “About what?”

“Kind of you? Kinda Jack?”

“Alright.” He doesn’t push, just sits back and listens.

If Kent hadn’t spent an entire flight trying not to causes an incident that would get him on the no fly list, he would really appreciate Adam’s candor and patience.

Kent rubs his temple. “It's just so fucking frustrating sometimes. I'm literally a walking warning label. How many fucking times do I have to say ‘talk this shit out before it's too late’ until he listens?”

Just then, the front door swings open, revealing Lardo, who’s wrapped in a thick winter coat. “Holster what did I tell you about leaving hockey players on the couch?”

“To text you if it ever really happened?”

She glares at him tiredly. “And did you?”

“To be fair, I like, just got here,” he defends Holster.

Lardo rolls her eyes playfully. “Parse got you off the hook this time.”

“You mind that Lardo’s here?” Holster asks.

“Nah, it’s fine.” Kent gets more comfortable on the couch. “Where was I? Right, when the fuck is he going to stop being so fucking stubborn?”

“You can't make someone listen,” Lardo advises him. “You just have to be patient enough for them to figure it out on their own.”

He buries his head in his hands. “And if they don't?”

“Make peace with it and move on.” Her voice is like a breeze, reminding him it’s okay to breathe. Really, he doesn’t know how Justin got so lucky to find these two.

“It's never that simple,” he laments.

Lardo hums. “Worth a shot.”

“Thanks,” Kent moves a finger just enough to see her looking sympathetically at him. “You know this isn't even the stupidest thing I've done after a fight?”

“Really?” Lardo smirks indulgently.

“Remember that health scratch I took back in 14?”

“After the Epikegster?” Holster inquires. “Yeah, upper body injury.”

“Broke my wrist after getting into a fight with the biggest guy at the seediest bar in Boston.”

“Why?” Holster and Lardo chorus.

Kent smirks mirthlessly. “Just really wanted to feel pain.”

“I have questions,” Adam admits.

“I have Justin calling me,” Lardo announces. “Hello? Have I seen Kent? Why?”

Kent then realizes his phone died hours ago. His face flushes when he considers how worried they are if they’re calling Lardo in Boston.

“Please hold,” Lardo she orders him. She covers the phone enough to muffle the sound. “Do you wanna talk to him?”

“No,” he confesses with a sigh. “But I probably should.”

He takes the phone from Lardo as she walks around the coffee table. His stomach is bubbling with anxiety and nausea. But he can do this. They won’t hate him. He has to believe that.

“Hi,” Kent whispers.

He hears a sigh. “You're okay.” Justin’s voice makes him choke back a sob. He didn’t know how much he needed to hear him until that moment.

“Still alive, still in one piece,” Kent assures him calmly. “Only wasted a thousand bucks today, so you can brag to Swoops about that.”

“Should I ask what were you thinking?” Justin doesn’t sound angry, just upset. It’s subtle enough that Kent can push it away for the time being.

He looks back at Holster who's relaxed in Lardo’s arms on the couch. “I guess that I wanted to talk to someone who would get me.”

“You didn't need to Boston to do that,” Ransom protests.

“I never said it was a good idea. Tell Matt and Jeff I'll be back before they know it,”

“Kent—”

"You can't—divide people like things, Justin. It's not the people who leave you and then the people who stay. It's not that simple."

“Okay, I understand,” he tells Kent almost right away. “What do you need from me right now?”

He points to the direction of the the bedroom, getting silent confirmation that he can move the call elsewhere. Once he closes the door behind himself he closes his eyes.

“Don't lose my number, please,” he begs.

“Okay.”

“Don't ever bring up Jack like that again.”

“You're right, I'm sorry,” Ransom promises. It sounds sincere, and that’s enough for Kent.

Kent finds himself laughing hollowly. He thinks he wants too much, sometimes. He doesn’t know if it’s a product of therapy or just years of invalidation that he wishes everyone could figure their shit out. Maybe no one is meant to permanently exist in his orbit. But he wants to keep every person around for as long as physically possible. He just wants love—to give love and receive it in return. He thinks maybe that’s not the most glamorous purpose in life, but it’s the only one he cares to have. “I'm sinking, Rans.”

“Kenny?”

“Yeah?”

“I need you to stay put in that apartment alright? I need to know you're safe so we can come and get you.”

He feels a tear trickle down his face. He doesn’t know if he feels elation or relief or fear. It doesn’t matter. “You mean that?”

“Yeah, we’ll talk it out when we get there. You, me, Troy, and Holtzy. We’ll figure this out together okay?”

“Okay.”

_/.\_

Ransom and Swoops get a flight to New York and wait for their connecting to Boston. Justin tries to sleep while in transit. But his skin feels like it's trying to eat him alive. He ends up using Jeff as a pillow, and it helps some.

At once point, Jeff talks him through what Kent might say and what they need to say.

“We have to be on the same page,” Jeff tells him seriously. “We’re not talking him off a ledge or anything. But...what he needs right now is some stability from someone else.”

“You didn't want me to come, did you?” Justin concludes.

“No offense, but I didn't want to be doing any of this in the first place. Just be lucky Matt’s holding down the fort. He has words for you.”

Ten minutes before boarding, Troy’s cellphone rings. The caller ID reads Douchebag.

“Hello?” Troy all but growls. “Yes, we found him. Boston.”

Jeff makes a strangled noise with his throat as he bounces his right leg. “Would you listen to me if I said I had it covered, and mind your own goddamn business? Of course not.”

Muffled shouting.

“He's at Birkholtz’s place...I'll give you three guesses...I swear to God, Jack, if I find you when I get there I will—” The call cuts out, and Jeff balks at his phone.

Ransom stares incredulously at Troy’s phone. “You called Jack?”

“Like I said, I didn't want to be doing any of this.” Troy takes off his Aces snapback and rakes his hair, only to put his cap immediately back on. “The only thing worse than Kent splitting is Jack deciding to momentarily care.”

_/.\_

Kent meets Justin at a party. It turns out to be less of a party and more of a giant cluster fuck where he realizes that no matter what he does, Jack hates him. He doesn’t even know why. At the time, Ransom’s an inconsequential team member. A piece of the ensemble that is Jack’s life after Kent. Not that he’s bitter or anything.

But he was nice. That counted for a lot in Kent’s book. He and Adam looked happy. Maybe not perfect or easy, but happy. They were the kind of people Kent wished he had met under different circumstances. Not when he was trying to get Zimms back.

In a way, it worked. Because the next weekend Zimms was in Vegas. For a week they pretended that things could just go back to normal. They patched up some of their old wounds, reopened others. In the end, Jack left.

“It’s too hard, Kenny,” he explained on the phone after he slipped out of Kent’s room in the middle of the night. “Love shouldn’t be this hard.”

It wasn’t the first time Kent ended up in an ER after a bad day with Jack. But Epikegster was the last time he really tried to make amends. Troy and Parker hadn’t given him an ultimatum, but the looks on their faces as they signed him out of the hospital said everything they couldn’t. That’s when he started running toward them instead of away.

He falls asleep on Holster and Lardo’s couch after a long night of venting and laughing. Sometimes his chuckles came out harsh and forced. But only because he was so desperate to forget how much it hurts to be in Boston, or really anywhere that reminds him too much of Jack.

A knock snaps him out of his slumber around sunrise. Without thinking much, he rises to check the peephole. Zimms is standing awkwardly on the other side.

Reluctantly, Kent unlocks the door. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you,” he confesses.

Kent counts to ten in his head. He purses his lips defiantly. “Don’t say shit you don’t mean, Zimms.”

“Can I come in?”

“It’s not my place,” Kent reminds him curtly. It fills him with a strange sense of pride that he doesn’t bend over backwards to keep Jack happy.

Zimms, for his part, appears to be disgruntled by this revelation. “Fine, then go on a run with me? We can get coffee after.”

“You’re evil,” Kent mutters. “Fine, let me grab my shoes.”

“I’m not evil,” Jack protests.

Kent shakes his head mournfully. “You’re too old to play dumb, Zimms.”

Despite his deep regret of wearing basketball shorts and a tshirt to go to Boston in January, Kent keeps a good pace with Jack as they run ten minutes to the nearest Starbucks. When they get inside, Jack offers Kent his jacket. He refuses as politely as he can muster. Kent gets a caramel macchiato because he’s weak. Jack pretends to consider his order for a moment before getting the same dark roast as always. They sit at a table in the back corner of the store and Kent pretends he isn’t brimming with dread.

“So, what’s the occasion?”

“What do you mean? You left Las Vegas without telling anyone, Kent. Jeff called me last night, half crazy looking for you.”

Kent blushes. “That doesn’t mean you had to come up to Boston to see me. Not everything is about you.”

Jack huffs, glaring. “Why do you keep saying that?”

“Because I want you to get it through your thick head,” Kent grumbles. “You don’t get to show up whenever you feel like it. Turn my life upside down, and then leave it up to Jeff and Matt to fix it. And Justin, I guess.”

Jack blinks rapidly.

“Yeah, that’s a recent development,” Kent admits.

“Huh,”Jack settles back in his seat, relaxing for the first time since he showed up on Holster’s doorstep. “I’m happy for you.”

Kent snorts, rolling his eyes.

“Not everything has to be a fight, Kenny,” he chastises.

Kent snorts. “Forgive me for having a really shitty ass day and not believing you, Zimms.”

“I came here to talk.” He uses the same tone he did back in the Q. The one that said he wasn’t happy and Kent had to pay for it. “If that’s—”

“Stop,” Kent rubs his temple. “I hate it when you emotionally blackmail me like that. ‘Oh I’m Jack fucking Zimmermann. My problems are so much bigger than everyone else’s, eh?’”

Jack quirks a brow.

“Look, Ransom and I had a fight,” he confesses. Mainly it’s to get Jack to stop hounding him. “He said some things, I said some things. I told him to get lost and I left.”

“Smart,” he chirps.

“Yeah, well, for what’s worth, I’ll stop bringing your twink up,” Kent swears.

“Really?”

Kent nods somberly, taking a long sip of his drink. It burns on the way down. But he’s only human. It’s worth it for a few moments of relief from this conversation. “Yeah, it fucking sucks having people use your love life against you.”

“What did he say?”

“That I always leave the fucking door open for you,” Kent mutters, glancing at a bookshelf stocked with travel mugs and novelty gifts.

Jack could say something, but instead he stands up and offers Kent a hand. They walk back to Holster’s place with Jack’s arm around Kent, keeping him warm. Kent ignores the heat in his face. Because he knows how Jack operates, and he knows this means little to nothing. When they get to Holster’s door, Jack lets him go.

“I can’t make promises I can’t keep,” he murmurs. Because that’s what Zimms does. He says the door’s shut, but he always leaves it cracked open. Just in case he needs to run. Jack knows better than anyone that Kent will move the moon for him. Only now he’ll move the earth and sun for Swoops, Parker, and Ransom first. And the very thought fills him with more pride than he’s felt in years.

“I don’t need you to,” Kent chastises him. “I’m doing fine without you.”

“I know,” Zimms smiles like he used to when Kent wouldn’t leave practice until his feet were too raw to move anymore.

As Kent watches Jack leave him, again, he slides down to the floor. Deep down he knows he’ll never get over Jack. Jack took so much from his box that he started to shred apart the insides. But there was a difference between getting over and moving on. Moving on meant finding greener pastures.

It meant remodeling his box so the missing pieces were made of whatever anyone else could give him. Sometimes it was affection and patience. Sometimes it was a someone to talk to when the entire world felt against him. Sometimes it was as simple as an extra granola bar after practice. Sometimes it was as simple as a glance, telling him ‘you’re good enough’ ‘you are enough.’

He grins as tears roll down his face. He’d figure it out, eventually.

_/.\_

Ransom and Troy get there in time to see Jack leaving Holster’s building. He waves awkwardly at them. Kent’s sitting in the hallway in front of Holster and Lardo’s apartment. He scrambles to get up. He uses all of his force to crush Jeff in a hug.

“Hey, baby,” Troy murmurs softly as he rubs Kent’s back. “How you doin’?”

“I’m fine, now. You’re here.”

When they finally stop hugging, Kent pauses for a second before doing the same to Justin. It’s long enough for Justin to notice the red rim and dark circles under his eyes. He thinks he gets it now, about wanting to fight people’s battles for them.

“I’m sorry,” Parse says repeatedly. “No cross country trips next time, I promise.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Ransom admits. “We’ll figure it out.”

The door swings open, and Kent moves to the side so Ransom can get a full view of Holster staring at them with a bemused expression.

“Hey,” Ransom rasps. It feels like the first time he’s properly seen Holster in a year. He feels like he’s finally home.

“Hey,” Holster turns his head slightly. He’s staring apprehensively, like he’s waiting for a sign.

Justin steps forward. Adam meets him halfway. They stare at each other like they’re meeting for the first time, they’re kissing after the frozen four. Like they’ve got the world in their hands but they don’t know whether to act or run. It occurs to Justin then that Kent was right. People aren’t things. Some leave and some stay.

But most float in and out at will. Some keep steady throughout the years, only to drift away slowly with time and circumstance. Some stay in stasis as acquaintances waiting to be something bigger. Some change rolls more times than he could count; turning from friends to lovers to strangers to nemesis to something almost like family. Some stay in the way they leave their marks like fire brands into hearts. Some stay in person longer than they do in spirit.

Justin swallows as he stares into Holster’s soul. They’ve been at this crossroads so many times before. Maybe they were destined to run circles like Jack and Kent. Maybe they would find their rhythm like Jeff and Kent. Maybe it wouldn’t matter in the long run. As long as their souls kept searching for each other, they’d never truly leave.