There are admittedly worse things in the world than having to walk two blocks on a Wednesday morning in July.
Eli knows, from experience, that there are worse things in the world.
Like being diagnosed with epilepsy at sixteen.
Like having heat-induced seizures and living in Nevada.
Yes, objectively, he knows there are worse things. But right at this moment he can’t think of many because it's 8 am and he isn’t allowed to have caffeine because they’ve just changed his medication again and he’s had to park in the visitor’s garage because the only two handicapped spaces at the north entrance of the Las Vegas Aces Official Practice Facility had been occupied by one parallel-parked Land Rover decidedly lacking in handicap tags.
Motherfucking hockey players, Eli says to the empty sidewalk.
So now he’s running late, because it’d taken him an extra ten minutes to find the visitor’s lot, and he’d still needed to stop and let his dog pee before they entered the complex because being the disabled kid was bad enough but being the disabled kid whose service dog peed in the rink on the first day of practice would probably guarantee he never had a collegiate social life to speak of. Not that he was holding out particularly high hopes for that anyway.
The security guard at the door barely glances at his newly-printed student ID before waving him to the left with a tired, “Rink Three, end of the hallway on your right.”
She looks like she could use some coffee too.
“Right. Thanks.” Eli shifts his backpack, sparing a last hateful glance at the Land Rover outside.
“Hey, you happen know whose car that is out front? License plate KP90?”
She lifts one eyebrow. “You mean Kent Parson?”
Because of course. Of course it was Kent fucking Parson. Eli tries to avoid too much familiarity with the hockey world but there are some things you just know if you spent enough time around ice and one of those things is the name of the youngest current captain in the NHL, who is apparently just as much of a douche off the ice as tabloids would suggest.
Eli takes a steadying breath. “You know where I could find him?”
The security guard considers Eli’s expression, then the dog at his feet, then the ill-parked vehicle outside.
“I take it you don’t want an autograph?”
She gives him an apologetic smile. “I don’t think I can actually have his car towed, but I can file a complaint, if you’d like.
“That would be great, thanks.”
He starts to move forward again before pausing.
“Actually, do you know if Jeff Troy is back from IR yet?”
Which, okay, he didn’t make a habit of following hockey, but when he’s potentially in the same building as a gold-medal-winning world-junior figure-skater-turned-NHL-player, he’d like to know.
“Yep. As of this week he’s cleared to skate no-contact in practices.” She grins. “He also parks in the players’ lot like he’s supposed to.”
Eli would expect nothing less.
“They’re in practice for the next two hours. But sometimes Troy does the meet and greet afterward.”
“Yeah, rink 2.” She nods to the right hallway. “Parson will be there too, but he almost never comes out afterward.”
The doors open behind him and a tall, entirely-too-awake girl wearing a hijab that matches her leggings grins at them both, handing over her student ID.
“Morning,” she says, careful not to run over Hawke’s tail with her rolling skate bag. “Your dog is beautiful.”
“Thanks,” he says. “Are you a freshman too?”
Which is a stupid question because he knows the rest of the figure skating team isn’t supposed to start practice for another week. Obviously she’s there for freshman orientation just like he is.
“Yeah!” she says, apparently immune to his idiocy. “Just moved in last night. Thank goodness for coffee, right? I’m so nervous I didn’t sleep at all.”
“Right,” he agrees, wryly.
She gets her ID back from the security guard and they start down the left hallway together.
“It’s so cool that the Aces share their facilities with the university. Did you know that their practices are open to the public? I think I might go try to get an autograph or two later if we have time.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I might join you.”
Practice is good. It’s not a real practice because it’s the first day, but he meets the coach and trainers, learns all the other freshmen’s names and then promptly forgets them, signs a bunch of paperwork and then spends a few extra minutes going over his medical information with the team doctor. Hawke keeps an unobtrusive down/stay on the first row of bleachers and watches, bored, as they warm up, do some drills, and then call it a day. No one asks about the dog or the scars, and he doesn’t volunteer any information. It’s strange to have that option. He’s used to everyone knowing everything about him. The accident. The diagnosis. The dog. Hell, half of his hometown donated money to the Gofundme for his initial treatment and got weekly updates on his recovery. He can’t decide if it’s a relief or a new form of stress to be surrounded by people who don’t already know his story. Everyone knowing your business is annoying, but it also means no one asks questions.
He didn’t work up enough of a sweat to need a shower afterward, and he decides he should definitely stay in the igloo for a few more minutes before making the walk back to his car, so he accompanies Morgan (too-awake-but-friendly-girl from earlier) and another girl (tiny, Asian, enviable quads) who he’s pretty sure is also named Morgan, which isn’t confusing at all, to catch the last few minutes of the Aces’ practice.
There are surprisingly few people in the stands: a haggard looking mother with a pair of toddler boys, a small group of college-aged girls who are probably also students, and a pair of old (retired?) men.
He sits with the Morgans on the bleachers closest to the ice behind the far goal and crosses his arms. Hawke is a solid press of warmth against his leg, the Morgans are talking quietly about some Russian player who was traded to the team that year, and, sitting still, surrounded by a soft buzz of conversation and the noise of skates and sticks on ice, he suddenly remembers how tired he is.
He jerks when the buzzer goes off and players start to leave the rink. The rookies stay and one of the goalies comes back out to help while they practice slapshots. Troy hangs around a bit later than the other veterans, and, surprisingly, Parson does too, leaning on his stick and occasionally calling out advice to the baby aces. Once the ice is cleared and the Zamboni comes out, Eli follows the Morgans into the hallway outside where, according to the other spectators, the players will emerge to…he doesn’t know. Bask in the adoration of their fans? Sign hats? Take awkward selfies?
The players start to trickle out fifteen minutes later and it appears to be a combination of all three. The Morgans try and fail to contain their excitement over the appearance of a man who doesn’t look much older than them but is probably a solid foot taller. They take several pictures apiece with him, and he handles it with more grace than some of the other players, laughing softly at their enthusiasm, his accent lilting and indistinct. Russian, Eli thinks, and then startles because Jeff Troy has just exited the locker room.
There aren’t many people who seem concerned about Troy, which makes sense as he’s a recent trade and just back from IR—the pair of toddlers who’ve clearly met him before get high fives and one of the older men shakes his hand and gestures broadly toward the ice. Troy grins, gesturing himself, and then shakes his head pleased, maybe embarrassed, before the man steps back, waving goodbye.
Eli does what any other self-respecting teenage fan would do in this situation and promptly loses his cool entirely.
“Hey!” He says, too loud. “Jeff Troy!”
Troy jerks, half-turned to head back into the locker room, then adjusts his course, walking over.
“Hi,” he says, and damn, the man is even prettier in person.
“Hi,” Eli parrots.
Troy’s smile widens at the probably idiotic expression on Eli’s face.
“Your dog is beautiful,” he says.
“You’re beautiful,” Eli answers because, hey, go big or go home, right?
One of the Morgans chokes on a laugh behind him.
Surprisingly, this causes Troy to flush.
“Ah, thank you. Not a compliment I get from most people.”
“Well most people are dumb. And you are. Beautiful.”
Troy badly suppresses a laugh. “You know I’m married, right?”
“And to all appearances tragically heterosexual, yes.”
“Tragically,” he agrees solemnly.
“Don’t worry, I’m not actually hitting on you. Though it is on my bucket list to go on a date with a hockey player, if you’re interested.”
He wiggles his eyebrows.
Troy doesn't try to suppress his laugh this time.
“Are you trying to play the pity card right now?”
“That depends. Is it working? I mean, you do Make-A-Wish shit, right?”
He gestures to Hawke, trying to look as feeble as possible. “Think of it as philanthropy.”
Troy outright laughs at that and Eli is about to ask for a picture and let the guy go before the joke gets old but before he has a chance to say anything else, the Morgans let out an aborted in-tandem shriek and behind Troy a voice yells,
“HEY SWOOPS what are you—oh my god, a dog.”
Eli glances up to find none other than Kent Parson leaning around the locker room door. He trips over himself to join them, graceless in a way that’s strange after seeing him on the ice.
“What’s a dog doing here?” Parson asks, beaming at Hawke and completely ignoring the minor tumult his appearance has caused.
“Swoops, why aren’t you petting him, look at this beautiful—“
Troy throws out an arm, blocking Parson from going down to his knees.
“Jesus, Parse, can you not read?”
It takes him a minute.
“Oh. Service dog. My bad, bro,” he says to Hawke, “didn’t mean to distract you. Er.” He glances up at Eli. “Him? Fuck. I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to talk to him, am I? I read something about this but I can’t remember.”
“No, you’re not supposed to talk to her. But you’re self-correcting, at least. That’s better than most folks,” Eli allows.
“I really am sorry,” Parson says, and the earnestness is disconcerting. “That must get super annoying.”
“Very,” Eli agrees.
Parson is biting his lip now, looking genuinely upset in a way that almost makes Eli forget that he’s a massive illegally-parked douchebag.
Troy drops one arm around Parson’s shoulders, pulling him in as if he has a secret to share.
“This one is trying to guilt me into going out with him,” Troy says conspiratorially, nodding toward Eli. “Apparently it's on his bucket list to go on a date with a hockey player.”
“I think guilt is a strong word,” Eli says.
A tentative grin returns to Parson’s face. “Playing the pity card? Really?”
Eli shrugs. “Hey, chronic medical conditions come with a lot of suck, might as well embrace the occasional perks.”
“You realize Swoops is married, right?” Parson says, “And like. All about monogamy.”
“And apparently tragically heterosexual,” Troy adds.
“That too,” Eli agrees.
Kent laughs, startled and real in a way that’s enough to make Eli take another look at him. Parson considers him as well, mouth still tipped up at the sides, eyebrows furrowed.
“I’m not married,” he says.
Eli squints at the nonsequitur.
“So does it have to be Swoops or will any hockey player do? Because I’m a hockey player. And I like food.”
Eli is probably gaping unattractively at him.
The Morgans are completely silent.
“I don’t--You want to take me on a date?”
“Sure, why not? I mean. I’d hate for you to drop dead tomorrow without fulfilling your bucket-list wish.”
“Oh my god, Kenny,” Troy mutters.
“You,” Eli says. “Kent Parson. Want to take me on a pity date.”
Troy makes a long-suffering noise. “Alright, I’m going to let you kids figure this out. I’ll see you later, Kenny.”
“Yeah,” Parson says distractedly. “See you tonight.”
They stare at each other for a moment and Eli realizes that the magazines and billboards must airbrush Parson’s freckles out which is a shame because they’re pretty damn cute. Especially when he wrinkles his nose at the awkward silence between them.
“You’re serious,” Eli says finally.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because you’re Kent fucking Parson?”
Parson runs a hand through his damp hair which does nothing to dissuade the cowlick right above his left eyebrow.
“Why does everyone say my name like that?”
“Sorry, I just. It was a joke. I wasn’t actually expecting to—you’re really serious?”
“You know I’m gay, right?”
Parson glances from the rainbow patch on Hawke’s vest to the skin-tight leggings and off-the-shoulder shirt Eli’s wearing.
“Yeah, I kinda figured.”
“And that…doesn’t bother you?”
“What the fuck, don’t look at me like I’m going to steal your lunch money, I’m not a homophobe.”
Which, Eli vaguely remembers hearing about some tweets that would contradict that, but he decides not to bring it up.
“Do you trust Swoops?” Kent says, bouncing from the balls of his feet to his heels. There’s a little line between his eyebrows and he looks upset again.
“Troy? Uh, I guess?”
“SWOOPS,” Parson yells, “TELL HIM I’M NOT A HOMOPHOBE!”
Eli covers his face with his hands.
Troy appears in the doorway of the locker-room again, looking fond, but exasperated.
“Kenny isn’t a homophobe,” he says, voice raised so that everyone who is now watching the situation can hear. “Just an idiot. I promise. Can I go home now?”
Eli waves him away with one hand, the other still covering his face.
Parson laughs, more self-deprecating than anything else.
“Ok, I admittedly didn’t think that through. I hope you’re ok with getting turned into a GIF because that’s definitely ending up online.”
“Oh god,” Eli mutters.
“So. Lunch? I’m kinda starving.”
“You want to go now?”
“Yes? Unless. I mean we could go some other time if you don’t—does it need to be a fancy dinner? We’ve got a stretch of away games starting tomorrow but—“
“No! No, lunch now is fine. That’s—it’s fine.”
“Great. Do you have everything you need?”
“Uh, no,” he jabs his thumb in the general direction of the other rink. “I left my stuff in the locker room.”
“Right. Well I’ll grab my bag and meet you there then. Rink three, right?”
“Right,” Eli says faintly.
Parson flashes him a grin and disappears around the corner at which point the Morgans converge upon him.
“That was Kent Parson,” tall Morgan says. “Kent Parson is taking you to lunch.”
“What the actual fuck,” tiny Morgan says. “How is this your life?”
“I don’t even know,” Eli says.
Parson meets him outside the locker room fifteen minutes later wearing mirrored sunglasses, a snapback, and a backpack that combined probably cost more than Eli’s skates.
Eli wonders if Parson’s frat-douche aesthetic is intentional.
“Ready?” Parson asks. “Oh, here, let me carry that.”
Eli wants to protest on principal as Parson slings his backpack over one shoulder, but it admittedly makes it much less difficult to wrangle Hawke’s leash and his skating gear without the bag to worry about.
“Gotta say I’m a little insulted that you thought I’d be a dick about the gay thing, but Swoops got immediate trust,” Parson says, walking back toward the facility entrance. “I mean. Swoops and I are in the same You Can Play video.”
Eli resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Well yeah, but you’re the Captain. I figured you had to. Everybody knows Troy has a transgender sister and he’s super supportive. And he has a charity fund just for LGBTQ youth and was like, completely extra taping his stick for pride night last year.”
“Okay, yeah, that’s valid. But still. I’m a little hurt.”
Eli can tell that it’s meant to be joking, but the words come out a little too honest.
“I’m not a dick,” Parson continues. “And if you—the thing on Twitter was a misunderstanding if that’s—“ He makes an annoyed noise in the back of his throat. “The point is, I’m not a dick,” he repeats, like it’s important Eli believe him. “I promise.”
“Right.” Eli says, and then, because he’s petty, “So that Land Rover parked across both handicapped spaces outside…”
Parson stops in the middle of the hallway.
“Oh shit. Fuck. I’m so sorry. I was running late and no one ever parks there this early—which, that’s not an excuse, I still shouldn’t have done it, I—alright, I’m definitely a dick.” He starts walking again, shoulders hunched. “Fuck. I really am. I’m such a dick.”
“Just not a homophobic dick?” Eli says gently.
They fall quiet as they pass the front desk and the security guard watches them with unrestrained curiosity.
“I won’t do it again,” Parson says, fishing his keys out of his pocket. “Swear to god. And I’ll make a donation to—I dunno. Something for disabled kids as an apology. And—and buy you dessert after lunch.”
“Jesus, Parson,” Eli says, “You weren’t going to include dessert with lunch before? You have a 1.5 million dollar annual salary, what kind of cheap date bullshit is that?”
Parson gives him a soft, thankful, smile.
“I would have. But now I’m taking you to the best frozen yogurt place in Vegas. It’s a secret. I haven’t even taken Swoops there.”
“Well,” Eli says, trying to ignore the facial expression of the listening security guard. “That sounds like a reasonable apology. Where are we going for lunch? I’ll go get my car and meet you there.”
“Oh—I thought we’d just take mine. Do you—is there something you need in yours?”
Eli looks pointedly at Hawke. “No, but I come with an 80 pound fur factory with sharp nails and you drive a car worth more than 100k.”
“Pretty sure she can’t do any more damage than Kit. Granted, Kits only like, six pounds. But she’s full of fury and has a religious opposition to leather seats, apparently.”
“I—Kit?” Eli asks, feeling a little lost.
Parson frowns at him.
“You have a cat?”
“Uh. Yes? Kit Purson? She has her own Instagram. With over a million followers.”
He seems genuinely insulted that Eli doesn’t know this.
“Oh. That’s cool. What kind of cat?”
Parson brightens. “She’s kind of a mix? I got her from the shelter, but I have pictures,” he says, because of course he does. “You can look at them in the car, come on, your dog—what’s her name?”
“Hawke can chill in the back seat, let’s go, I’m starving.”
Eli allows Parson to hold the door for him, laughing a little at the still-baffled security guard as he unclips Hawke’s leash and tells her to get into the back seat. She settles happily, watching as they load the rest of their bags into the floorboards, and Eli finds himself, moments later, sitting in the passenger seat of Kent Parson’s car, scrolling through an album of cat pictures on Kent Parson’s phone while Kent Parson drives them to lunch.
He thinks absently that Eric isn’t going to believe him when they Facetime tonight.