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In Vegas, in October, they lose to the Aces 8-1.

Kent scores four times.

Jack doesn’t even get the assist.

**

“What the hell are you doing?” Jack snarls at his reflection after the game. “Who the hell are you?”

His reflection glares back at him. Once, after a bad loss in the Q, Jack took his stick to a hotel mirror and smashed it to pieces. Bad Bob paid for the damages and picked Jack up, took him home for a few days to see another psychologist. Bob had known better by that point then to ask why Jack had done it. Jack had never had a reason beyond the wrecking rage inside him, had never been able to explain the why of his actions to anyone. Even after he’d almost killed himself, he’d never been able to explain why.

Jack takes a deep breath and closes his eyes against his reflection. He walks himself through some breathing exercises, and then leaves the bathroom and its bad memories. The hotel room is empty. Tater’s gone off to drink their defeat down elsewhere, after only a half-hearted attempt to make Jack come with him. Even Tater’s cheer has its limits, and Jack’s not close enough to anyone else on the team for them to have invited themselves over. There’s no Shitty on the Falcs, to kick down the door of Jack’s defenses and crash naked on his bed.

Jack’s phone lights up from where he threw it on the couch as soon as he came in. A text. He ignores it. He’s already ducked one phone call from Shitty and three from Bittle. He knows by heart what both of them will say.

Vegas raps its knuckles on the window. Jack didn’t quite draw the curtains shut, and through the crack there’s a garish glow. It would be easy to go outside and find something that turns his brain off. But he hates going out into the world after a loss, especially after losing that badly. Everyone can see you, and everyone will know.

That’s not true, he reminds himself. He takes another deep breath, tries to look at the thought objectively. Only some people can even recognize him, and only some of them will notice him, and only some of those will care. It’s a slice of a slice of the population he has to worry about.

But that kills him, too, sometimes. He’s worked this hard for so little, to prove himself to so few.

“It’s not about the glory,” he says in his interview voice, which most days also passes as his normal voice. “It’s about having the opportunity to compete at the highest level. It’s about proving myself to me.”

The hotel room is too high-end to let the words echo back to him. The walls are thick and they absorb any sound as soon as it’s made.

He stands there. He hears laughter float from the hallway, sirens and the grumble of traffic rise from the street far below. He drums his hand against his thigh.

He picks up his phone.

“Well, this is a surprise,” says Kent on the second ring. “I didn’t know you still had my number.”

“Hey,” says Jack in response.

“Hey,” says Kent back, and it shouldn’t sound like a taunt, but it does, something about the inflection. Kent can make anything sound like a chirp.

Jack lets it slide. He’s not sure what he’s doing exactly. He half-sits on the arm of the couch, trying to act casual, even though Kent can’t see him. People always laugh about how tightly wound and disciplined Jack is; something Jack, in his healthier moments, finds darkly amusing. He doesn’t have any self-control. He’s an addict. It’s just that he rarely wants, and the things he does want are so big, so consuming, everything else is subsumed, suffocated. He wants to make his father proud. He wants to be a great hockey player. He wants to not make a fool of himself. He wants to not feel anything at all.

So when some urge pops up, he has no defenses against it: take too many pills, kiss Bittle, call Kent. He just has to ride the compulsion out, figure out afterwards if it were good for him or bad. He’s already got a sense this is going to be a bad one. But Kent is nearby. Kent will answer. Kent doesn’t require any delicacy.

“Do you want to hang out?” he asks.

“In your hotel room?”

“As friends.”

“We’re not friends, Jack.”

“We’re not,” agrees Jack, and he lets it sit there. They’re not friends. Their last real conversation was at the Epikegster. Twice on the ice that night, Kent tried to talk him. The second time that Jack ignored had him had been thirty seconds before Kent’s first goal.

Kent sighs. “Christ, you’re such a fucking weirdo, Zimmermann. Text me your room number.”

**

Jack half-expects Kent to be drunk when he shows up. He doesn’t know why. Kent has a reputation for partying, but he didn’t sound drunk on the phone. And he’s never actually been much of a drinker. That was always Jack. Kent never had a reason to get away from himself, and he was always focused on the next game.

Maybe Jack thought time would take off some of Kent’s edges.

But Kent shows up hard-mouthed and sober. He slouches in the doorway like a disdainful teenager, and his eyes take in the hotel room in a slow crawl. There’s nothing for him to judge, Jack tells himself. It’s a hotel room. Kent stays in ones that look exactly the same all the time.

“You know Vegas is a pretty cool place,” says Kent eventually. “You don’t have to hole up like a fucking hermit, Jack.”

With that, he saunters through the door, and Jack closes it behind him, relieved that Kent’s no longer standing in the hallway, where someone could see him.

“I don’t want to go out,” says Jack.

Kent glances at him, and maybe Jack imagines the unhappy twist to his mouth. It’s been awhile since he’s had to read Kent, and, even when he was in the practice of it, he was never that good once they got off the ice.

Kent looks the same as the last time Jack saw him, when Jack was kicking him out of the Haus, down to the flannel and the flashy watch, the ballcap hiding his cowlicks. Jack tries to figure out what it is about Kent that made Jack shatter so spectacularly today, if it had anything to do with Kent at all, or if it were just one of those games where everything goes wrong.

Kent looks back at him. He smiles faintly, cool and sharp. Jack was on a four-game point streak before the game, Kent on a five. The fact hangs heavy between them. Or maybe it just hangs there for Jack.

“Figured,” says Kent. “Some things don’t change, I guess.”

He rolls his shoulders easily, smiles a little wider, the ironic, supercilious smile Jack is familiar with from pressers, when a reporter has just asked a spectacularly idiotic question. The smile’s usually gone as soon as it comes, but Kent lets it linger this time, taunting.

“I guess,” echoes Jack.

“So what do you want to do instead?”

“Dunno.”

Kent sighs, but he doesn’t leave. He throws himself onto the couch dramatically, and then grimaces when he lands on Jack’s phone. He digs it out and looks at the screen, then shakes it at Jack.

“Your phone’s blowing up.”

“I know.”

Jack continues to study Kent. There was a time, back in the Q, when instead of Jack wrecking the room, Kent had let Jack wreck him. Some of what he’s thinking must show in Jack’s face – or maybe Kent’s thinking the same thing, too – because Kent flushes and looks away. Broken eye contact, thinks Jack, that’s a point for him.

Kent puts Jack’s phone on the coffee table, and then he looks up again, directly at Jack, a challenge in his eyes.

“We’re just hanging out though, right?” he asks. Every word is barbed. “As friends?”

“Yes,” say Jack, and then, even though it’s none of Kent’s business, adds, “I’m seeing someone.”

Kent raises an eyebrow. “I heard a rumor like that,” he says. He takes out his own phone and thumbs at it, sounds uninterested when he asks, “Who ya seeing, Jack?”

“Bittle,” says Jack. “Uh. Eric Bittle. You met him when you came to Samwell.” He adds meaningfully, “Outside my room.”

He’s itching to know who Kent heard the rumor from, but he won’t give him the satisfaction of asking. And, who knows, maybe Kent had just said it to say it. It took Jack a long time to figure out that Kent wasn’t always a step ahead, and it had taken him even longer to realize that Kent went to a lot of trouble to always seem like he was.

He must have said it just to say it, Jack realizes. Besides Jack’s parents, no one knows he’s seeing Bittle. There are only five people in the whole world who even know for a fact he’s interested in men, and Kent is one of them. But it’s too late to take any of that back now.

He can see Kent review his memories of that night. His eyes narrow.

“The small blond kid? Shit, Zimmermann, you do have a type.”

“Just physically,” says Jack.

Kent doesn’t respond to that for a long moment. He just keeps scrolling through his phone. Which, if Jack is being honest, does remind him of Bittle. But he knows Kent does it for show; Bittle does it because he’s actually fascinated by the flow of chatter and information. Then, Kent looks up, smirks.

“Well, you wouldn’t want a watered down version of me anyway,” he says, and, in a fluid motion, he sits up, raises his eyebrows. “So what are we going to do? Catch up? Tell me about Eric. What’s he into?”

“We’re not going to talk about Eric,” says Jack flatly. He’s already starting to regret inviting Kent over. What is there for them to talk about?

Kent watches him, expression calculating. Then he shrugs and leans back against the couch cushions.

“Let’s just watch something,” he suggests. “A movie or whatever.”

Jack nods, relieved to have an easy out.

He sits on the edge of the bed, and Kent gets off the couch and flops down beside him on his stomach, knees bent, chin propped up on his crossed arms, facing the TV. It’s the exact same way they used to sit on the bed when they were in the Q. Kent’s eyes are half-lidded and he looks bored as Jack flips through the channels, trying to find something interesting – he skips hurriedly past anything to do with sports or news – but that’s the same, too. Jack always thought Kent was bored, even when he wasn’t.

“Wait – I love that movie,” says Kent suddenly.

Jack skips back two channels. Bruce Willis is on the screen, looking angry and competent.

“Die Hard?” says Jack.

“Die Hard 2,” says Kent. “Get it together, Zimms. I only made you watch this like six dozen times.”

“Yeah,” mutters Jack, “but I was usually drunk.”

Kent freezes very, very slightly. That’s the one thing about Kent Jack is still able to read: his automatic, instinctive, bodily reactions. Jack’s surprised by this one.

Then Kent relaxes, and he says casually, “And now you don’t have an excuse for not paying attention.”

“Right,” says Jack, still not sure why what he said made Kent freeze up so badly. He clasps his hand loosely in his lap. His phone is still on the coffee table. They fall into silence. The point of Kent’s elbow presses against the top of Jack’s knee. Not enough to be uncomfortable, not enough to be worth shifting away from, but enough that Jack can’t help but be aware of it.

They’re both quiet. It’s an uneasy truce, but it is, Jack realizes with surprise, a truce. It’s the longest stretch of time they’ve gone without trying to hurt each other in six years.

“I’d still blow Bruce Willis,” says Kent, after about an hour. “He’s still got it.”

Jack flicks him hard on the ear. It’s automatic – the kind of thing he’d have done in the Q in response to Kent saying similar bullshit.

Hey!

Jack smiles innocently – because this is familiar, too, Kent’s cat-like, disgruntled look. Kent rolls onto his back and glares.

“What was that for?” he says, and he punches Jack in the side, not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to make a point.

Jack grabs his wrist.

“For interrupting the movie,” he replies, monotone.

Kent stares up at him for a second, bites his lower lip, and then he glances to where Jack’s hand is still wrapped tight around his wrist.

“Whatchya doing, Jack?” he asks softly.

Jack lets go hurriedly.

“Nothing,” he says. He looks away. His cheeks feel hot. On the screen, someone gets sucked into a jet engine. A terrorist, Jack guesses. Kent full body stretches. Jack keeps his eyes on the TV. He really should call Bittle back, he thinks, a little frantic.

“How are things, Jack?” asks Kent, low and crafty.

Jack shushes him. “I’m watching the movie.”

“Spoiler alert,” says Kent. He yawns exaggeratedly. “John McClane wins. Holly’s plane lands safely. Now you have to talk to me.”

“Holly?” says Jack.

“His wife, Jack – don’t smirk at me!” Kent punches Jack in the leg this time, and Jack throws his head back and laughs. It really is like being in the Q again. Then Kent’s eyes go soft and dark, and he sits up, facing the wall. Jack’s still on the edge of the bed, facing the other way. Their shoulders touch. Jack goes very still.

“But, come on,” says Kent. Maybe he thinks a serious conversation will be easier to have if they’re not looking at each other. Maybe he’s right. Maybe Jack should have known this was coming, should have known better than to ever invite Kent over in the first place. Kent pushes, even when he shouldn’t. “How are things? You settling in all right?”

“I don’t know if you noticed,” says Jack, after a pause, “but I had kind of a crappy game tonight.”

Kent laughs. “Yeah, Zimms. That happens sometimes. You dealing with it okay?”

Jack leans back a bit, so that most of his arm presses against Kent’s. He looks up at the ceiling.

“I called you, didn’t I?”

There’s a beat of silence before Kent replies.

“Does that mean you’re dealing with it well, or not?”

“I don’t know,” admits Jack. “It’s just… a lot, sometimes.”

“Being a pro?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, well. If you ever want to talk about it, you’ve got my number.”

Kent leans into Jack for a second, physical and affectionate, a warm line against Jack’s shoulder, and Jack’s heart does a familiar, dangerous one-two skip. He’s about to say “don’t,” but Kent is already pulling away. He slides off the bed and stands. Jack looks at him in surprise.

“You’re going?” he says.

Kent nods. “Places to be tomorrow. Can’t be out too late.”

Jack gestures at the screen. “Movie’s not over.”

Kent glances at the TV, and then he looks at Jack, smiles. It’s easy, neutral. Dishonest.

“It’s all right,” he says. “Like I said. I know how it ends.”

**

The flight back to Providence is subdued. Jack spends it with his eyes closed, head leaned back, listening to a history podcast Lardo recommended. He keeps losing the thread of it, the words slipping by him like water on glass. Finally, he turns it off and just pretends to be asleep.

In his head, he replays the game. In that first face-off, he’d been hyper-aware of Kent, off to Jack’s left, his eyes blue-gray and looking right at Jack. Jack had kept his eyes ahead, on the puck. He wasn’t going to let Kent chirp him by just fucking existing.

That had been the plan at least.

He texts Bittle back once they land. Jack has a whole string of texts from him, starting from the first Aces’ goal – don’t worry! I know you’ll bounce back!

Jack winces as he scrolls through the rest of them. None of them are angry. They’re just increasingly worried. The final one is a semi-frantic, Jack???, sent an hour ago.

Sorry, he types. He tries to think of something to put after, some excuse that’s acceptable, palatable. That isn’t just: Sometimes I can’t; sometimes I have to disappear, and then a grasping silence after.

He hits send. Bittle responds immediately.

It’s okay! Are you okay? Do you need anything?

I’m okay. Just tired. See you this weekend?

Bittle responds with a string of heart emojis. Jack looks at them blankly. The cross-country games have been the worst part of going pro, he decides. He always feels numb afterward, and reality has an odd, taffy-like quality. It’s already evening, dusk starting to gather in the brown-leafed trees. Between the three-hour time difference and the five-hour flight, he’s practically lost a whole day.

He doesn’t even want to sleep. He just wants to lie down in a dark room for twelve hours. He keeps staring at Bittle’s string of hearts. Finally, he texts back a smiley-face and shoves his phone into his pocket.

**

“Ah, Parser always had your number,” rumbles Bob on the phone, two hours later, when he and Jack sit down to review the Aces’ game. He says it with approval in his voice. Bad Bob’s always liked Kent, sees himself in the spunky kid with the second-hand skates and the charisma of a small sun.

He’s asked Jack why Kent doesn’t come around anymore, but Jack’s never been able to do more than mouth some excuses about drifting apart. It’s not a lie if it was bound to happen sooner or later, right? Even if Jack hadn’t OD’d, and Kent hadn’t suddenly been thrust into Jack’s part, they still would have wound up on opposite coasts, been caught in the riptide of expectations and real-life, two strangers drowning, instead of two kids, keeping their heads up, together.

“Aces play the Rangers on October 23rd,” Kent had said seriously, two weeks before the draft, hair in his face, the sun behind his shoulder turning him into a shadow above Jack, hiding the color of his eyes. “Islanders don’t play that day. So that’s another day we can see each other.” A grin. “I’ll get to see your place in New York.”

And Jack had said, with his hand on the back of Kent’s neck, warm from the sun, “What makes you think I’ll be playing for the Islanders?”

“Because I’ll be going first.” Kent, laughing, and then Jack pulling him down to kiss him, to keep from having this conversation again, because Kent never seemed to realized Jack only found it funny half the time.

“Yeah, he did. Does,” says Jack in the present. He presses the heel of his hand into his eye. He doesn’t know why they’re bothering to dissect this game. There’s nothing to say about it other than it was a disaster. The press is having a field day: Zimmermann Implodes in Face of Old Rival.

It’s a team game, he repeats to himself. It’s a team game. And you shouldn’t be reading what the press says, anyway.

On his computer screen, Kent grabs the puck from a ricochet off the end boards, feints left, and then bolts forward, slicing straight through Kevlar and Tater and making them both look like toddlers who’d just wandered onto the ice. Kent was impossibly fast and impossibly reckless even in the Q. He’s still a rocket, still fearless. And, even with everything, Jack’s heart still thrills at the play. He can’t help but love good hockey, and Kent plays amazing hockey.

“You doing okay, Jacky?” his father asks gently. Jack winces, hates how attuned to his moods Bob is now, how worried Bob is about messing up. Bad ice, thinks Jack, but he’s not able to complete the metaphor for himself. He just thinks it again: bad ice.

“You don’t understand what it was like growing up in your shadow,” Jack had told Bob once, under duress, in one of the endless family therapy sessions they’d all gone to together, one of the endless investigations into an increasingly fractal why?. Bob had looked crestfallen, as he’d grasped for both a way to understand and to apologize: “I never meant to…”

No one had ever meant anything. That had been the problem. You couldn’t argue with the air, with the assumptions that came out of everyone as easily as breathing. Here was Jack: bad at everything. Here was Jack: good at hockey. Here was Bad Bob: smiling and proud, for maybe the first time Jack could remember. Here was everyone else: “Taking after the old man, eh? You’ll have your work cut out for you.”

There’s a number always hanging in the back of Jack’s head: 87, the number of points Bad Bob earned in his rookie season. It’s meaningless. That was more than thirty years ago, on a totally different team.

Kent had 94, his brain supplies helpfully. On the laptop screen, Kent makes his hatty, and every Ace on the ice converges on him for the celly. When Kent pops back up from the mass of bodies, his helmet’s off, and he’s glowing. It’s hard not to look at him. There’s a reason the first Aces’ game Jack has watched in years was the tape the Falcs looked at in the lead up to the game.

“I’m fine, Papa,” says Jack. “Just tired.”

His father sighs. “You know, we don’t have to do this.”

Jack doesn’t think he’s being paranoid when he hears the hint of reproach in Bob’s voice. Post-game breakdowns had been a ritual for them back in the Q, and they had been one more thing Bob had done joyfully, lovingly, with no idea how badly it twisted Jack up.

It had been Jack’s idea to start it back up again. He’s better now. He can handle the pressure now.

“Maybe just not this game,” says Jack.

There’s a weighted pause. Jack tries to picture where his father is - in the living room, probably, the game thrown up in debilitating high-definition on their big TV. Is Alicia there, too? Casting a concerned look at the phone?

“Get some sleep,” Bob says finally. “Try not to think about hockey for a bit. Every team gets hammered at least once a season. It’s how you bounce back that’s important.”

“Right,” says Jack. “Thanks. Good night, Papa.”

He hangs up and finds himself staring at his laptop for another long, washed-out couple of minutes that distend out, timeless, until he blinks, and, suddenly, he’s already watched half the second period. He sees himself get a wobbly pass from Thirdy, the puck bouncing over his stick. There’s suddenly two Aces d-men on him. Jack fights for the puck, puts his shoulder into it. He has it - and then, he crumples under the pressure.

Jack remembers that moment on the ice: the crowd screaming, the two big d-men - not so easy when you’re not playing little kids, huh?, Tater hollering something Jack couldn’t make out, and then Jack had spotted Kent, and smacked the puck to him, instinctively.

It’s not obvious on the tape that that’s what he was doing. It was a pass to Kent, but it was a really fucking bad pass to Kent. It just looks like Jack’s trying to jam the puck back out to Thirdy and failing. It’s the only time Jack can think of when a bad pass was less embarrassing than a good one would have been. Still, shame crawls hotly through his body as he watches it happen.

He slams his laptop shut, and without the light from it, he’s suddenly sitting in total darkness.

He thinks about calling Bittle or Shitty, but there are some things that are too hard to explain - hockey, and his dad, and Kent, and the devouring emptiness of his new home. It was easier when he could just go sit in the Haus living room and just be near someone. Bittle will be here Saturday morning, he reminds himself. That’s just a night and a day and a night again, and then Bittle will be here, humming in the kitchen, all the lights on, and the whole place smelling like a bakery at dawn.

Jack knew intellectually he was going to miss the Haus, but he'd figured the privacy and the silence would make up for it. He was wrong. The silence and privacy make it worse. Jack doesn't just miss his friends; he misses all the noise they made. He misses Bittle singing across the hall, and he misses Ransom and Holster scuffling in the attic, and he misses Shitty always, constantly, whatever the subject, whatever the time, yelling. And he misses the Haus itself, its settling and its moods, its intermittent creaks and groans, the wind beating on its poorly paned windows, even the drip from the second-floor bathroom faucet that they never figured out how to fix.

His own apartment is recently renovated and noiseless. When he strains, he can hear the refrigerator hum, but that’s it. He bought the place for its kitchen and its easy access to a jogging trail through a wooded park. But he’s starting to wish he’d picked somewhere downtown - one of the glassy, box-like monstrosities Tater lives in, where, even in sleepy Providence, there are at least usually students drunkenly wandering the nearby streets. There’s always someone. But it would have been harder, too, to keep Bittle a secret in a place like that.

Jack cracks his neck and stands up. He could go to sleep. It’s late enough. But his body is jittery, and his mind is, too, the game on loop in his head.

He stretches for a moment, and then decides to go for a run. When he steps outside, the night sky is clear, and there’s the faint scent of autumn on the breeze - woodsmoke and damp leaves and coming frost.

He runs, down the clean sidewalk, past the dark, neat houses with their glowing eyes, with just his even breathing and his even heartbeat in his ears. He runs automatically, past the point of thought. He keeps running. He lets the streetlamps lead his way.

Chapter Text

They bounce back against the Canes the next night, by a score of 3-2. Jack gets an assist early in the second period - a whacking hit that somehow manages to find its way onto Poots’ waiting stick.

But he doesn’t score. There’s a roaring in his ears after the game. That’s two in a row now he hasn’t scored in, and he feels responsible for the second goal, when he let the Canes left-winger scoop the puck from him. He’s not good defensively. He never has been.

“Good game, Zimmboni,” says Poots in the locker room, with a grin and an offered fist. His hair is plastered to his forehead.

“I’ve played better,” says Jack.

“You’ve played a lot fucking worse,” snaps Snowy, wrestling off his gear. “Wednesday, for example.”

Snowy’s still pissed about the Aces’ game. Jack guesses he has the right. He’s the one who got hung up to dry by the entire team. But Jack winces anyway.

“Right,” he says. “Yeah.”

He realizes belatedly that Poots still has his fist out, though he’s slowly lowering it. Jack taps it quickly, forces a smile.

“Nice job on the goal,” he says. It was Poots’ first of the season - his first as an NHL player, Jack reminds himself. Jack should be congratulating him. “A real beaut, eh?”

Poots beams. He reminds Jack, a bit, of Bittle after his first goal – same too-bright eyes, same am-I-dreaming? look. Poots isn’t, in fact, much older than Bittle was then. Congratulating Poots is the right thing to do, even if it was Jack who won the puck, Jack's pass.

“We should celebrate, yes?” says Tater loudly, clapping his hands on Poots’ shoulders and shaking him cheerfully.

Jack’s grateful for the interruption. He doesn't want to keep standing there, congratulating Poots on the goal. Even if Poots deserves it, he tells himself sternly. He turns around, busies himself with pretending to organize his locker.

“Drinks on Poots!” yells Tater behind him.

“Yeah!” says Poots. Then: “Uh, what?”

**

They get drinks at a bar near the Dunk. It’s a gleaming, hollow place with a dizzying number of TV screens and a neatly lettered list of upcoming Falcs’ games behind the bar. It’s generic and sterile and branded in a way that Jack finds familiar and comforting.

He’s quiet through the drinks, lets Poots have the spotlight as the vets toast him, roars dutifully with laughter when Guy’s toast is nothing more than one loud, long farting noise. Poots turns scarlet to match his hair. Jack’s first goal had been in the Falcs’s first game – and their first win – of the season. It had gotten lost in the general celebratory turmoil. He prefers it that way, he tells himself.

He scrapes at the label on his beer with his thumbnail and looks at his phone. Bittle’s sent him a string of congratulatory texts and a reminder of when his train gets in tomorrow.

Jack smiles fondly to himself and texts back, I haven’t forgotten.

“Jack,” says a voice above him, and Jack glances up, startled. Marty is standing at his elbow.

“Marty,” says Jack. He hides his phone quickly with his hand, and Marty very slightly raises an eyebrow. Jack feels sick with dread over it; he knows his teammates have all realized he’s hiding something. Maybe they just think he’s generally secretive.

“How’s it going?” asks Marty in French. He sits down beside Jack.

“Good,” says Jack automatically. “Just thinking about the game.”

He’s not, really, not in any kind of specific or useful way at least. But it’s the easy thing to say.

“We needed that win,” says Marty, presser-pleasant. “Think the line changes will stick?”

“Dunno,” says Jack. Poots is usually second line, but, after Wednesday’s game, Coach swapped him and Guy.

“Well, what would you prefer?”

Poots is faster than Guy, and Jack plays better with faster players, but he’s worse with his hands and he can’t deke to save his life. And Guy, Jack knows, is one of Marty’s closest friends on the team. Jack’s not going to risk the bad blood.

“I think I’ll stick to letting Coach make those decision,” says Jack. He smiles faintly, with his eyes, so Marty will know he doesn’t mean it in an unfriendly way.

Marty laughs. “Good answer, Jack.”

Jack feels a little more at ease, like he’s passed some secret test. But then Marty’s face goes serious.

“Not that it’s any of my business…” Marty pauses. Jack waits; his stomach knotting as his anxiety ratchets up again. He doesn’t think Marty saw his screen, and even if he did, Bittle’s in his phone as ‘Bittle.’ That could mean anything. But then Marty just nods at Jack’s beer and asks in an even, neutral tone, “Are you sure you should be having that?”

“Oh,” says Jack.

He swallows down the automatic deflection – ‘why shouldn't I?’ Or, ‘probably not, better get the stomach pump ready’. He'd used variations of both every time the subject came up at Samwell and it had taken him a year to realize no one thought he was funny.

Samwell was the dress rehearsal, he reminds himself. Though he wonders, not for the first time, if his dad asked Marty to keep an eye on him. It's not totally paranoid. It's not as paranoid as when he had wondered if his dad hired Shitty to keep an eye on him at college. (“No?” Shitty had said incredulously, and incredibly high, when Jack had finally confronted him about it. “I'm just, like, your friend, man.”)

Jack smiles with his eyes again. He's practiced it enough in the mirror – haha! Look! I too am a fellow human!

“It's fine,” he assures Marty. “I always stop at one.”

Marty nods.

“That’s good. I just.” He smiles, a little embarrassed, and Jack gets it – Marty’s got an A. He has to keep an eye on the rookies, and Jack, historically, has needed someone to keep an eye on him. But Jack can’t help but resent the concern, too. Marty doesn’t know anything about him. He doesn’t know that Jack’s better now. Jack wouldn’t be here if he weren’t.

“I just don’t want you to think,” continues Marty, apparently oblivious to Jack’s discomfort – or remarkably willing to push past it, “that you have to drink to hang out with the team. If you don’t want to.”

“Thanks,” grits out Jack, because what else is he supposed to say? “I appreciate that.”

Marty eyes him thoughtfully and then nods again. He claps his hand on Jack's shoulder, fatherly.

“Glad to hear it,” he says diplomatically, and then he stands up and drifts away, back to Thirdy and Guy.

Jack frowns after him and then looks back at his phone. Bittle’s sent him a picture of his packed backpack.

Nice, he texts back, on auto-pilot. He's suddenly exhausted. The week’s caught up to him. He glances around. Tater’s the only person who will complain if Jack ducks out early, but Tater’s caught up in a pool game with Kleiner. He’s losing badly by the looks of it, so he’ll want to play the next game as well. That gives Jack plenty of cover to sneak out.

He gets up, gets ready to leave, and then his phone lights up again. He glances at it, expecting to see another text from Bittle.

But it’s not a text from Bittle. It’s a text from Kent.

should’ve scored, is all it says, and Jack knows immediately what the text is referring to: a moment in the third period when he’d been one-on-one with the keeper, and the crowd had been on its feet. He’d put too much spin on the puck, and it had smacked into the post and bounced, instead of going sweet and high into the upper righthand corner.

Oh, fuck you, thinks Jack immediately, and then he pulls up the Aces’ schedule on his phone. They’re playing in LA that night. The game’ll be on in a half hour. Which means Kent is chirping him from the Kings’ fucking guest locker room. There’s a point behind Jack’s ribs like a knife. He guesses he opened himself up to this, gave Kent the all-clear that they could talk again.

He shoves his phone into his pocket and leaves. He gets home just in time to watch the Aces’ game. When it’s done, he’s half-asleep but satisfied.

got two more points than you did though, he texts.

He sees a “…” form in response. He waits, a little on edge, for what Kent’s going to say next. The “…” stays there for a long time, and then it disappears. Whatever Kent was planning to say, he’s thought better of it.

He ends up not responding at all, and Jack falls asleep on the couch waiting for him to.

**

Jack finally gets a response from Kent the next morning, while he’s waiting for Bittle at the train station.

you’re right, writes Kent. And then a moment later, good game, Zimms.

Jack chews his lip as he looks at the text. It’s not the response he was expecting to get. He would’ve expected Kent to send something more obviously a chirp, like, thanks for watching! Didn’t know you were a fan. But the tone of this is impossible to read. He tries to figure out how to respond. He tries to figure out if he even wants to respond. Is it a win if he doesn't respond? Or does that just prove to Kent that Kent can still get in his head?

Christ, he thinks, disgusted with himself. He shouldn’t be giving in to Kent’s mind games.

He’s saved from his thoughts because Bittle yanks open the passenger door.

“Sweetheart!” cries Bittle, and he flings himself across the console to hug Jack.

Jack laughs and meets him with open arms. They have a rule about Jack staying in the car when he picks Bittle up. Jack's face is plastered on posters all over the train station. It would be pretty obvious if he started showing up every other week to pick Bittle up. That’s how rumors get started.

“Hey, bud. How was the train ride?” he asks, letting Bittle go so he can get settled.

“Good!” says Bittle, shoving his bag into the backseat. “How are you, honey?”

“Good,” says Jack. “How’s the team? How are Ransom and Holster doing as captains?”

“Well, they’re no you,” says Bittle loyally. Jack flashes him a grateful smile. “But…”

He goes off on a long monologue about Ransom and Holster. Jack half-listens as he drives. From Bittle’s tone, it sounds mostly positive. It’s not until Bittle shakes his knee and goes, “Jack? Jack? Sweetie?” that Jack realizes Bittle’s asked him a question.

“Sorry. What?”

Bittle gives him a concerned look, and then reaches up and presses his palm flat against his forehead.

“Are you feeling all right?”

Jack laughs, a startled reflex. “I’m driving! And, yes. I’m fine.”

“Okay…” Bittle withdraws his hand and shrinks down in his seat. Jack feels immediately guilty.

“Sorry,” he says, trying to sound pleasant. “What were you asking? I zoned out there for a second.”

He shouldn’t have stayed up to watch the Aces’ game, he thinks, as satisfying as it had been to watch Kent get shut out.

“ – the game?” says Bittle.

“Sorry.” Jack winces, realizes he zoned out again. “What was that?”

Bittle almost looks impatient, but he covers it quickly with a smile.

“I asked how you were feeling about the game last night,” he says.

“Oh. Fine.”

“You had a great assist!” says Bittle. He beams proudly, and Jack smiles back.

“Thanks.”

There’s a lull of silence, not unpleasant, and then Bittle says, timidly, “How was Las Vegas?”

Jack’s quiet for a minute, struggling for a response. He feels like anything he’ll say will worry Bittle. Bittle, for all his good qualities, doesn’t have the same sense of competition as Jack, has never been affected by losses the way Jack is.

“Not great,” he says eventually, aiming for dryly self-deprecating. He pauses, and adds, carefully, “I hung out with Kent Parson afterwards.”

Jack glances at the rearview mirror in time to catch Bittle’s reaction. His face freezes in an expression of incredulity before swiftly sliding into benign curiosity. Jack gets it. It’s not exactly like Bittle caught Jack and Kent in their best moment.

“Oh? How was that?”

“It was good. It was,” and then he catches himself before he says ‘like old times,’ because he suspects that will mean something completely different to Bittle than it does to him.

“It was fine,” he says instead. “We just watched TV.”

“So that’s why you weren’t able to pick up,” says Bittle sweetly.

Jack nods. “It was nice to catch up,” he says, though they hadn’t done much catching up.

He thinks, again, of Kent’s text, of how he should respond to it. Maybe Jack’s overthinking it. Maybe Kent meant it. It is nice to believe, maybe, after everything, that they’re both in a place where they can be friends again. Jack has Bittle. He's gone pro. His anxiety’s under control. Kent doesn’t have the same power he once did.

“That’s nice!” says Bittle. He turns his head, looks out the window, so Jack’s unable to see his expression. “Ooh – can we stop here? I need to pick up some shortening.”

**

The weekend passes pleasantly. Jack has a workout and tape review that afternoon, and in the evening, he’s too wiped out to do more than cuddle, but that’s still nice. Bittle fits against him well in bed and on the couch, and Jack listens to him chatter about the team and his family’s jam saga. He lets it wash over him like a warm, soporific wave. He likes coming home in the evenings to a place that feels lived in.

“And what about you, Mr. Zimmermann?” says Bittle on Saturday evening, as he prepares another pie. “Gosh, I’ve just talked your ear off since you came home! I want to hear more about your lovely teammates.”

Jack smiles at him from the couch. He likes watching Bittle bake. It’s like being in the Haus again.

“What do you want to know?” he asks. “I know you’ve already watched all the videos.”

Bittle brandishes a rolling pin at him.

“I want the inside scoop, young man.”

Jack laughs.

“Ah, well, you know. It’s not Samwell.”

He tries to think about what else to say. It is like Samwell, in some ways. His first year at Samwell, there had been a similar sense of being constantly watched, of being constantly measured and discussed. He knows some of that is in his head, but he also knows it’s not all in his head. That’s part of what makes his anxiety so hard: people are always watching him and finding him wanting. Marty was definitely watching him last night. That’s a lot to dump on Bittle, though, especially now, with all the lights turned on against the fall night and the smell of freshly baked pie filling the house. Jack doesn’t want to pop the bubble.

“I really like Tater,” he says finally, and then he changes the subject. “How’s school?”

“Oh lord,” laughs Bittle. “The less said on that, the better.”

Jack frowns at him, concerned. Bittle’s never been much of a studier, as far as Jack can tell, but he’d taken their class together seriously. Jack realizes with a start that he has no idea how well Bittle is doing overall.

“They won’t let you stay on the team if your GPA drops below - ”

“Don’t you start,” says Bittle, laughing again. “You’re starting to sound like my dad.”

“What about sounding like your captain?”

“Well, you’re not my captain anymore,” says Bittle. He pouts. Cutely. “You’re my boyfriend. You have to support me.”

“I do support you,” protests Jack.

Bittle doesn’t respond. He hums loudly, apparently focused on latticing his pie. Jack watches him for a moment.

“What do you think of the Hawks this season?” he asks. “They’ve had to clear a lot of cap space.”

“The Hawks?” says Bittle, not looking at him.

“Your team?” chirps Jack.

“Oh!” Bittle glances up at him and laughs. “The Blackhawks! Honestly, honey, I don’t think I’ve watched a game of theirs all season.”

“I thought you loved the Blackhawks?”

Bittle laughs again and shakes his head. He puts the pie in the oven and takes off his apron, walks around the kitchen island to join Jack on the couch.

“I think I just said I liked them to fit in, you know? All you boys had teams you were just obsessed with, and I, well, I already stood out more than I liked.”

“Oh,” says Jack. He feels vaguely – though, he recognizes, unfairly – betrayed. He definitely remembers Bittle cheering for the Hawks in last year’s Stanley Cup final.

“Besides,” says Bittle. He settles against Jack’s chest, wrapping his arms around Jack’s waist. He smiles brightly. “I’ve got a new favorite team now. Don’t I, Mr. Zimmermann?”

Jack hums quietly in response and holds Bittle closer. He rests his chin on top of Bittle’s head and surveys the counter. There are already three pies resting on it.

“What am I going to do with all those pies?” he asks with a soft laugh.

Bittle pulls away and makes a face.

“Give them to your team!”

Jack laughs again. “That’s a lot of pie, Bits. Pretty sure Coach might not love it.”

“Everyone loves pie,” say Bittle airily, but Jack can tell from the way Bittle’s shoulders tense that he’s accidentally struck a nerve.

“I’ll bring the pie,” says Jack quickly. “Of course I’ll bring the pie.”

“You don’t have to!” says Bittle. He straightens up. “I wouldn’t want to get you into any trouble! I just thought it might be a nice gesture.”

Jack frowns. He remembers early on in junior year, sometime in October, maybe even two years ago exactly, when he’d turned down a slice of freshly baked pie. He’d been concentrating on an essay he was writing and had had a late dinner, was annoyed at himself already for a poor practice that morning.

But Bittle had looked like he’d been about to cry as soon as Jack said no, and then had fled to the kitchen, offending plate of pie clutched to his chest.

Johnson, who had watched the whole thing from the couch from behind a copy of The Stranger, had sighed.

“The pie,” he’d said slowly, pointedly, eyebrows raised, “is a metaphor, Zimmermann.”

The pie is still a metaphor.

Jack cups Bittle’s face.

“It is a very nice gesture,” he says softly. He drops a kiss to the top of Bittle’s head. “Thank you.”

**

He drops Bitty off at the station the next afternoon, before heading to the Dunk for practice. All four of the pies are safely tucked into a basket on the backset.

The drive is unremarkable, but Bittle pauses just before he gets out of the car.

“I did… there was one thing I wanted to asked you before I left…” He trails off, his hand on the door handle.

“What’s that?” asks Jack.

“Did you and Kent Parson ever…” He trails off again.

Oh, thinks Jack. Has Bittle been wondering about this all weekend?

“Ever what?” says Jack warily.

“Were you ever together?”

“Yes,” says Jack.

Once again, he sees Bittle’s shoulders tighten. He frowns. He’s not sure how to explain what his relationship with Kent was like in the Q, the all-consuming reality of it. Kent had been everything: his best teammate, his greatest rival, his best friend, his only friend, his… Jack doesn’t know what Kent was, in the end. Not really. They never talked about what they were doing. Jack had always felt like talking about it would make it real, and if it were real, he’d have to accept who he was, what that meant. It had been easier to just attribute it to hormones and proximity.

“It was just physical,” he says finally. “Hockey.”

He hopes Bittle understands the enormity of that word for Jack: hockey, gets that Jack’s feelings towards Kent were as complicated and suffocating as his feelings for hockey can be.

Bittle glances over his shoulder. He looks unsure, vulnerable. Jack forces a smile. There’s a split in his life. A before and an after. And Bittle has no idea what the before was like. Jack has no desire for Bittle to know what the before was like. He likes the person that Bittle believes him to be: hard-working, handsome, admirable, lovable.

He claps Bittle on the shoulder.

“Thanks for coming up,” he says.

Bittle’s shoulders drop.

“I wish I could kiss you good-bye,” he says quietly.

Jack touches the curls at the back of his neck.

“I know,” he says lightly, and then what else can he say? Someday? Someday when? He’s sorry? They both knew what Jack being in the NHL would mean. Selfishly, in that moment, he just wants Bittle to go.

“I’ll make it up to you,” he says.

Bittle smiles faintly.

“You don’t have to, you silly goose,” he says, some of the cheer returning to his voice. “Bye, Jack.”

“Bye, Bits,” says Jack, and Bittle gets out of the car. Jack watches him go: bright and gold and warm against the dark of an oncoming rainstorm.

**

The rain starts as Jack drives to the Dunk, lashes at the windows of his car. Jack thinks about throwing the pies away, or at least keeping them in the car. Showing up with pies to practice is a pretty weird thing to do, but he feels too guilty every time he thinks about it.

He tries to leave them quietly in the nook - one of the other guys will find them and alert the rest of the team. But there’s already a gaggle of his teammates hanging around, laughing at a video on Kleiner’s phone.

“You bake, Zimmermann?” says Kleiner, spotting him as Jack starts unloading the pies. There’s a bright, excited malice in his voice that Jack’s intimately familiar with from almost two decades of playing hockey.

“Uh,” says Jack, about to say no, but then he realizes that would require more of an explanation. “Yes.”

Kleiner snickers. “Huh, that’s kind of… fruity.” He smirks, and Giggsy snickers too, gives Kleiner a low-five. Jack doesn’t particularly like Kleiner or Giggsy; Kleiner’s a pest off and on the ice and Giggsy just seems dumb. But Poots laughs, too, though at least he laughs uncomfortably, like he isn’t sure what’s funny but doesn’t want to be left out. Or, at least, Jack would like to believe that’s the case.

Jack freezes up. It’s not particularly vicious, especially not to the kind of shit he used to hear in the Q. But he’s never been sure how to respond to this kind of thing, and after four years at Samwell, he’s out of practice when it comes to facing it from guys in the locker room.

My boyfriend made those pies, he thinks, sadly, stupidly.

“Yeah,” he says eventually. He makes himself smile. “Well, enjoy the pie, eh?”

**

He spends all night thinking about it, thinking about how he should have responded. In the end, when his windows start to lighten, and he’s had maybe three hours of sleep, he sits up and grabs his phone. He looks at it for a long moment. His dad will suggest he talk to Marty or one of the older guys, get them on his side. Shitty will give him a righteously indignant lecture about homophobia in sports, which sometimes Jack appreciates, and which sometimes exhausts him. Bittle will… Bittle will be sad. Jack doesn’t want to deal with Bittle being sad right now.

He realizes, then, as he’s staring at his phone, that he never texted Kent back.

So he calls him instead.

“It’s three am, Zimms,” groans Kent, when he picks up. “What the fuck?”

“Shit. Sorry. Forgot about time zones. Shit. Just… forget I called.”

“No. I’m awake now. Jesus," says Kent, low, under his breath. Then, obviously holding the phone away from his head, "Sorry, babe." A beat. "No, yeah, everything's fine. Just a friend."

"Are you with someone?" says Jack, when Kent's breathing sounds closer to the phone.

“Mm, yeah.” A door opening. A distant siren. Kent must be outside, on a balcony maybe. He always liked heights. “Not a hockey guy. Just a guy I see when he's in town.”

“Didn't ask.”

“Sure.”

“Is it serious?”

“No. But I thought you weren't asking.”

“Sure.”

“Sure,” says Kent mockingly. Jack tries to picture him: bleary-eyed, hair mussed from sleep, leaning against a balcony railing like he was born just that cool, Las Vegas spreading out in front of him. He wonders who was in bed with him, who that view belongs to. He wonders - allows himself to wonder, for the first time in years - how many people that view has belonged to. Jack always liked Kent just after Kent had woken up, before he’d had a chance to pull his walls up. “So why are you calling?”

Jack fidgets with his bed sheet. He has a dull, fuzzy headache, and the back of his neck and his shoulders are tight. They have open-skate that morning, then a charity event with some kids in the foster system, then practice. He breathes in deep, counts to three.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he says.

“So why not call your boyfriend? Who lives where it’s a reasonable hour?”

“He'll worry.”

Jack hears Kent inhale sharply, like a laugh, or an elbow to the solar plexus.

“You think I don't worry about you? You think I pick up for everyone at three in the morning?”

It’s more honest and more mean than he was expecting Kent to be right now. But Kent’s specialty was always in knocking Jack off balance.

“Sorry,” mumbles Jack. He knows how insufficient it is, but he’s not looking to rehash this. He’s never been sure how to handle Kent’s anger and fear, except to hold it at arm’s length. The overdose was never about him; it’s not Jack’s fault Kent has always acted like it was.

“S'fine,” says Kent after a beat. He sounds a lot more tired than he did ten seconds ago.

“How's your sister?”

“Great. She just had a kid - a girl. But you didn't call me to ask about Erin."

“How do you do it?” says Jack, all at once, painful and sudden as a cough.

“Do what?

“Survive. Put up with all the... the pressure to stay in the closet?”

“Oh,” says Kent. “I don’t think about it.”

Jack laughs roughly. “You have to think about it.”

“I don’t,” says Kent. “I fuck other guys who are in the closet. We sign each others’ NDAs, and then I don’t fucking think about it.”

“Never?” asks Jack. “What if I can’t stop thinking about it?”

That was always the difference between Kent and him: Kent has somewhere inside he can lock these things away. Jack doesn’t. Even with the meds, the fact is still there, like something always just on his peripheral vision: he’s gay, and the world’s going to hate him for it.

“I don’t know,” says Kent with a sigh. He sounds older, Jack realizes. He hadn’t seemed older when Jack saw him in Vegas. But he is. It’s been six years for him, too. It shouldn’t surprise Jack, but it does.

“Jack… Look, I’ve never had anyone to talk with about this. I always thought… I thought we’d figure it out together. But we didn’t. So I just don’t think about it. I can’t think about it.”

Jack leans forward and grinds the heel of his hand into his eye. He wishes, sometimes, that they had talked about it, about being gay, about being together. He doesn’t know if it would have changed anything, in the end. Jack’s pretty sure he would have overdosed whether or not he was regularly jerking Kent off. But maybe if they’d talked about what they were doing, they would have had a better idea of what they owe each other now.

“Right…” he says slowly. “Maybe… We could figure it out together. Now.”

Kent laughs, but it’s an odd, disbelieving laugh, high and breathless.

“Sure!” he says, too bright, too strained. “We’ll figure out how to be gay in the NHL together! Just what I always wanted, Jack!”

“Kenny…” starts Jack.

“Don’t,” says Kent.

Jack exhales slowly, doesn’t say anything else. He remembers, suddenly, dozens of late night calls like this one, every time they had a long break in the Q, Jack on the cell phone his parents had bought him, Kent on whatever phone he could find, usually a pay phone. Kent knew his number by heart, once.

He listens to Kent breathe.

“Did something happen?” asks Kent, once the silence has gone on too long. Birds are starting to sing outside Jack’s window. “I guess something must have…”

“No,” says Jack. “Not really. Just…” He sorts through his thoughts, tries to pick the important parts. “Bittle - ”

“ - I can’t believe you call your boyfriend Bittle - ”

“ - was in town this weekend. And it’s hard hiding him. And.” Jack laughs, then curses. “One of the guys said something today. Not about me or Bittle - they don’t know about Bittle. Just, uh, a typical chirp.”

“Right,” says Kent with a knowing laugh. “Yeah. I got you.” He goes silent again. Jack wonders if he’s going to say anything else.

And then Kent surprises him.

“Do you ever think if you weren’t, you know, if you’d hate guys like us? Like, it’d have to be easy to, right?”

“No,” confesses Jack. “Never.”

Kent snorts. “Great. So that’s one way I’m more neurotic than you at least.”

Jack’s silent as he figures out how to respond to that, if he’s offended by it or not. He must take too long, because he hears Kent take another deep breath, and then say, all in a rush, “Fuck. I didn’t mean it like. Fuck. I - you gotta give me the benefit of the doubt sometimes, Jack.”

“It’s fine,” says Jack, cutting him off. Kent’s apologies have, historically, been worse than the offense being apologized for. And Jack didn’t call to pick a fight.

“Great,” says Kent, and his tone is bleak but relieved. He laughs, a little nervously this time. “God, I guess you wouldn’t think that way. You’ve – you’ve got Bob and Alicia. And your college was, what, ranked most LGBT-friendly or some shit like that?”

“You knew that?”

“Yeah,” says Kent, though he doesn’t offer an explanation. “So you got to be out and shit, be in that progressive New England bubble.”

“I wasn’t out,” says Jack.

“You weren’t?”

“No. I – I knew I wanted to play in the NHL. So.”

“So,” repeats Kent. But there’s nothing else to be said. They both know everything the ‘so’ entails. They’ve both been living it since they were sixteen.

There was a class offered Jack’s senior year, a seminar on gender and sexuality in sports offered by the Women and Gender Studies Department. Jack had been tempted to take it - he certainly had enough personal experience to draw on, Shitty raved about the professor enough. But Jack knew, too, that the Swallow would report on it, and Jack was enough of a wildcard already that he didn’t want to risk anything that would restart the rumors from the Q. A team might take a chance on Bad Bob’s drug addict son; they probably wouldn’t on his gay, drug addict son.

So Jack took photography instead.

He and Kent stay silent. The light in Jack’s room gets brighter. He thinks about how cold the desert gets at night. He wonders if Kent’s cold, standing on the balcony. There’s another distant siren.

He doesn’t want to hang up.

"Do you have any pictures of your niece?" he asks quietly.

“Yeah,” Kent says, and this time when he laughs, it's fond, warm. “Yeah. I usually send them over Snapchat though. Erin doesn’t like having too many pictures of her floating around.”

“Snapchat,” repeats Jack. He thinks that’s one of the apps Bittle has been trying to make him download. “If I send you my… username, will you…?”

“Yeah,” says Kent softly. “I’ll send you some pictures, Zimms. Maybe some of my cat, too.”

To his surprise, Jack finds himself smiling.

“I’d like that,” he says.

When he hangs up, he’s not sure who won a point. Maybe neither of them. Maybe that’s okay.

Chapter Text

Kent sends Jack a picture of his niece the next day, while Jack’s waiting to board the plane to Tampa with the rest of the Falcs. Jack doesn’t feel particularly strongly about the baby. She's just a baby, with the unfinished, crumpled look of a newborn. But Kent is in the picture, too, cradling her carefully in his arms. He’s not wearing a hat, and his hair sticks up absurdly in the front, the way it always did after he took his helmet off. The way it still must.

Kent looks happy in the picture, a little awed, like he’s not sure he should be trusted to hold her. Which is absurd. Kent has the best hands of any player Jack’s ever played with or against.

He wonders what Kent’s doing at that moment.

Cute, he types.

Cuter than you were as a baby at least, sends Kent back, and then he sends Jack a picture of his cat – long-haired and white, perched on the arm of a couch, mouth open like she’s yelling. She’s cuter than the baby.

She thinks it’s dinner time, types Kent. idiot

Jack can almost hear him say, ‘idiot.’ He knows exactly the tone Kent would say it in: fond, exasperated, his disdain a flimsy cover for his affection. He grins.

She’s cute, too, he sends.

Thanks :)

Jack’s not sure what to say after that. He guesses Kent must be at home, if he’s with his cat. He could ask Kent what her name is. Or what his niece’s name is. But those questions feel too normal. They feel like the kind of questions you would ask someone you’re getting to know, not what you’d ask… whatever it is Kent is to Jack. Friend, Jack guesses, though even as he thinks it, he knows that’s too small, too simple a word.

He thinks about their last conversation, the strung-out intimacy of it. In the crisp, October light, he feels cut off from that level of vulnerability. Maybe that’s all they needed though. Maybe they can call it a blank slate, move on.

Good luck tonight, he ends up texting.

Then he shuts his phone off and finds his seat. He’s quiet as Tater reads Florida Man articles – Tater’s favorite genre of American journalism – out loud to him, and he watches the ground drop away. He always likes looking out the window as the plane ascends, likes seeing the world divide itself into neat, discrete shapes: tiny cars, tiny houses, the obvious divisions of neighborhoods, the gridded streets. He likes how the world, for a second, seems to snap into something that makes sense.

**

They win in Tampa.

Then they play the Devils at home, the Sabres away, the Pens away, the Jets at home, the Blue Jackets away, the Avs away.

Jack scores. Jack gets blanked. Jack gets blanked again, and Thirdy thunks him gently on the helmet between the second and third period and chides that there are more players on the team than just him. Jack gets two goals and an assist, and the home crowd bellows like a beast and chants his name, three syllables, all sweet: “Zim-mer-mann, Zim-mer-mann”, and Tater slams him into the glass in celebration. He gets nothing. And then, in Denver, he gets the game-winning goal, and there’s nothing better than that millisecond before he scores. Jack could live in that instant forever, the sweet high of anticipation, the total sureness that this is what he’s meant to do.

Like that, October is devoured, and he wakes up to an unnervingly balmy November. He sees Bittle once in person, on the night right after the Devils game and right before they fly out to Buffalo. Beyond that, Bittle is a voice on the phone, an endless scroll of supportive texts, a pink and gold patch of pixels on Jack’s laptop. “No need to shut it when I’m in the room,” says Tater, once, having correctly intuited part of Jack’s secret. “If you’re talking to girlfriend, I’m just being quiet.”

Everyone else might as well be a distant moon, unable to compete with the gravitational pull of hockey.

And then there’s Kent.

They don’t talk on the phone after that first, fraught call, but Jack enjoys how things settle between them, enjoys the exchange of texts and pictures over Snapchat. He never sends pictures back. He still doesn’t really like taking pictures with his phone; he prefers his camera, the distance and sense of control that it gives him. But he likes what Kent sends him, likes, too, how the pictures and the texts all disappear. It feels cleaner that way. There’s nothing to hide or explain because everything is already gone.

The Aces get demolished by the Ducks same day the Falcs play the Avs, though not as bad, thinks Jack – still bitter – as the drubbing the Falcs received at the Aces’ hands. He catches the lowlights while the Falcs wait to board their plane, watches as Kent’s defense gets torn to shreds on the wings. Kent get slammed into the boards twice and then smacked in the jaw with a high stick. Jack knows Kent can take the hits, but he still feels an old, familiar frisson of anger. Kent’s significantly taller and broader now than he was at sixteen, but Jack still remembers that first, brutal year, when every d-man in the league who couldn’t compete with Kent for speed decided to make up for it in violence.

Kent’s eyes are glazed with exhaustion in the post-game interview. His cowlicks are plastered to his forehead.

Jack texts him.

Rough game

It's not long before he sees the three-dot bubble pop up. Then:

Yeah, well, that's hockey, man. Some nights everything just goes wrong. Just gotta get ourselves in the right headspace for the next one.

Oh, sorry. Didn't realize I was wearing a press badge.

Are you chirping me JZ? Congrats on finding your sense of humor. Been missing it

Jack grins.

Maybe. Cut the bullshit, Parson.

Fine. God. I'm fucking pissed. That game was shit. Lousy fucking ref wouldn’t see a penalty if he took a fucking stick to the face himself

How's your jaw doing?

Well I didn’t lose any teeth so at least I’m still pretty

Jack laughs.

“Oooh,” says Tater, suddenly coming up beside Jack. “What’s this? Text from girlfriend?”

He tries to grab Jack’s phone from him, and Jack swiftly locks the screen. It’s mostly instinct at this point.

“Always doing that,” says Tater with a sigh. “When do I get to meet your girl?”

“Leave him alone, Tater,” calls Snowy. “You know Zimmermann doesn’t share and care.”

Tater looks disappointed.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says. He knocks his fist against Jack’s shoulder, and Jack feels an awful, sliding sadness. He wants to be able to share things with his teammates. He doesn’t know why it’s always been so hard for him, but, as much as he likes Tater, he’s no Shitty.

He could say he was just texting Parson, he realizes. Everyone knows they were friends in the Q. It wouldn’t be odd to be in touch now.

“I’m just talking to a friend,” he explains quietly. He glances back down at his phone. The conversation’s already disappeared.

**

When he gets home, the milk in his fridge has gone off.

you gotta buy less milk, replies Kent, when Jack messages him about it. seriously. Who the fuck is doing your meal planning?

Jack makes a face at that. He’s kind of avoiding the team nutritionist at the moment. Too many pies.

oh sweetie!, replies Bittle, when Jack texts him about the milk. when you’re up at Samwell we’ll send you home with all the groceries you need! I’m going to the StopnShop RIGHT NOW

thanks, he sends to Bitty. Looking forward to seeing you.

Practice ends early tomorrow, which means he’ll have enough time to catch Samwell’s game against Cornell. It’ll be his first time seeing Bittle in two weeks, a thought he only realizes then. Two weeks. It hasn’t felt like that long, as busy as he’s been.

His phone vibrates: another Snapchat notification from Kent.

tho I had a whole fridge go bad rookie year, says the message. got a call on my roadie against the Kings. Think apt mgmt thought I’d died and my body was just sitting there

Jack laughs out loud at that, though it strikes him as a little odd that Kent was living alone. Jack’s the rare rookie with his own place. But Jack’s a rare case in general.

you didn’t billet with anyone?

nah. I knew how to look after myself

must’ve been lonely, Jack starts to type. Because even he gets lonely now, at twenty-four, with his love of privacy and his friends forty minutes away, especially now, standing in his sock feet and illuminated only by the fridgelight, staring at the toxic sludge that was once a half gallon of perfectly good milk. He can’t imagine doing it alone at eighteen, 2,000 miles from home.

But then he realizes how that’ll read to Kent, and he deletes it. Of course Kent was lonely.

sounds kinda like you didn’t know how to look after yourself, he texts instead.

fuck you!, shoots Kent back immediately, followed by a picture of the gleaming inside of Kent’s fridge: all neatly stacked and labeled boxes of lean protein and healthy grains and green vegetables.

truly this is everything we dreamed about, replies Jack. He smiles as he types it. Then he shuts the fridge door and flops onto his couch, looks up what to do with spoiled milk.

**

He gets to Samwell late afternoon the next day. The team’s already wrapping up their pre-game meal and getting ready to head to Faber, so he heads to the Haus to hang with Shitty.

“Zimmermann!” yells Shitty as soon as he sees him, and he tackles Jack on the porch, nearly sends them both over the railing.

“Careful,” says Jack. He thumps Shitty hard on the back and grins at him. “I kinda need to not break my back.”

“Man, I’d be lucky to break my back,” says Shitty as he drags Jack inside. “1L blooows.”

Jack hums sympathetically, and flops down next to Shitty on the couch. Shitty already has two plates of pie on the coffee table, along with a golden-brown pile of chicken tenders from the dining hall. It could almost be a year ago, except, if it were a year ago, he and Shitty would be preparing for the game.

It’s still odd to think that he’s never going to play with Shitty or Ransom or Holster or Bittle, ever again.

“Is it really that bad?” he says, grabbing a chicken tender. He shifts so that he’s sitting mostly in one of the couch’s strange, but comforting, dips, instead of on the edge.

“It’s pretty bad,” says Shitty with a dramatic expression, and then he launches into a rant about something called "Twiqbal" that Jack doesn't even half-follow, though he enjoys watching Shitty’s flailing, emphatic gestures.

His head starts to feel heavy, and he rests it against the back of the couch as he listens to Shitty. The couch smells faintly but definitely of weed and cinnamon. It could be worse, decides Jack. He blinks. Shitty’s words start to abstract even more, the occasional phrase or sentence swirling to the forefront of Jack’s mind with surprising clarity, but all other meaning is lost in the dense and ceaseless flow of Shitty’s verbiage…

“Uh, Jack?” says Shitty.

“What?” says Jack drowsily. He sits up a bit. For some reason, Shitty’s kneeling on the floor by the couch, Jack’s phone in his hand. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“Don’t worry about it,” says Shitty. “The fatigue’s expected, right? For both of us, honestly. But, uh, why do you have a Snapchat alert from Kent Parson?”

He shakes Jack’s phone at him and frowns.

“Oh,” says Jack, straightening up even more. He leans over and takes his phone back. “I need to figure out how to turn off the alerts.”

“Sorry. I knocked it off the table,” says Shitty. “Went to put the plates in the sink…”

Jack opens up the snap, smiles, and shows it to Shitty.

“It’s just his cat,” he says.

Shitty frowns.

“Her name’s Kit Purrson,” Jack adds, not sure what Shitty wants him to say. He’d ended up Googling that, then chirped Kent for an hour straight for naming his cat after himself.

“Kent Parson snaps you pictures of his cat?” says Shitty slowly.

“Yeah. Actually.” Jack looks at the picture again. “I think this is one of the ones he sends to everybody who follows him.”

Kit is perched on a windowsill, a beam of sunlight falling across half her upturned face. It’s a nicely composed shot, thinks Jack approvingly. Kent has a knack for photography.

Shitty frowns more. Jack looks at him blankly. The picture of Kit disappears.

“I didn’t even know you guys were talking,” says Shitty.

“Yeah… It just… happened. After the Aces game.”

Shitty cocks his head. “That sounds like… growth. But…” He hesitates. Jack waits for whatever he’s going to say, perplexed and concerned. It’s not like Shitty to tiptoe.

“No pressure, Jack. I know some of the guys on the Falcs were chirping you about a secret girlfriend, and I know you don’t have a secret girlfriend. But… do you have a secret boyfriend?”

“Oh, uh.” Jack blushes, and Shitty’s eyes go wide. He remembers coming out to Shitty, sophomore year after a bad panic attack. He hadn’t meant to, but it had been four in the morning, right after Kent had visited, a Stanley Cup ring on his finger. Jack had locked himself into the upstairs Haus bathroom after making Kent leave.

He remembers sitting hunched against the door, his head in his hands and his heart pounding. And he remembers Shitty knocking gently, then the sound of him settling on the other side of the door. It hadn’t struck him as odd that Shitty was up at 4am, that was how college was like, that strange, surreal, timeless landscape. Now, here he is again, with Shitty, in the Haus, talking about Kent; has he moved forward, he wonders, or just in a circle?

“Dude, you all right? I’ve never seen you like that before,” Shitty had said. “That was, uh, pretty harsh.”

“I’m fine,” Jack had tried to say, but it had come out too harsh, too ragged.

There had been a long pause.

“Excuse me for saying, but, uh, it kinda seems to me like there’s a lot of history there.”

Jack had started to laugh at that, hysterically, his laughter interrupted by wheezing gasps for air.

“Yeah,” he said, when he finally got himself under control. “There’s some history. You have any crazy exes, Shits? Because I think I’m his.”

“You’re not crazy, Jack.” Said quickly, kindly, firmly.

Jack laughed again, then groaned, and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.

“Fuck,” he moaned. “Fuck. He just came to rub it in. Show off how well he’s doing without me, while I’m… I’m just here.”

“Bro.” Then he heard a soft thunk against the door, as if Shitty were trying to pass physical comfort through it. “You know I fucking love you, right? You’re the weirdest fucking hockey robot, but I love ya. And I’m glad you ended up here.”

Shitty must be remembering that moment, too, because his eyes go wide. He's still kneeling by the couch.

“Holy fuck,” he whispers. “You’re secretly dating Kent Parson. Again.”

“What?” says Jack. “No. Why – ” He looks down at his phone, and it clicks for him. “Oh. No. I’m not dating Kent Parson. Not that we were dating before. It was just…” He trails off.

Shitty looks even more perplexed.

“Okay, so let me get this straight: you have a secret boyfriend. That secret boyfriend is not Kent Parson. But you do have Snapchat. And Kent Parson does send you pictures of his cat over it.”

Jack nods.

“Yeah, that about covers it.”

Shitty strokes his mustache thoughtfully.

“Wow, Zimmermann, you’ve been keeping a lot of secrets.”

“I’m pretty sure only one of those things is a secret, Shits,” he points out. “The rest are just things you didn’t know.”

Shitty punches him in the leg.

“You could’ve told me you had Snapchat at least! I send so many snaps when I’m dying in the study carrel!”

Jack makes a face at him. “Wow. That sounds really interesting, Shitty. I’m really sad I’m missing out on that.”

He puts his foot on Shitty’s face before Shitty’s able to take another swing at him.

“Gross!” yells Shitty. “Jack!” He rolls away, onto his back, and huffs. “Damn. Secret boyfriend. Secret boyfriend! Who the hell is your secret boyfriend?”

“What’s going on between you and Lardo?” says Jack calmly.

Shitty glares up at him and raises a threatening finger.

“Low fucking blow, dude.”

Jack smiles. “Sorry,” he says. “But, uh. It’s not really up to me to tell you who I’m dating. We both have to make that decision.”

Though, now that he thinks about, he and Bittle have never actually talked about a timeline for coming out as a couple. It’s not something Jack can realistically expect to do publicly for… For a long time. Because he hopes to play in the NHL for a long time, which means, he realizes, he has to hope he and Bittle don’t come out for a long time.

The thought settles on him uneasily.

“Hmm,” says Shitty. He narrows his eyes again. “And you’re sure it’s not Kent Parson?”

“Pretty sure,” says Jack. “Pretty sure I know exactly who I’m dating.”

Shitty laughs.

“Fine, all right. Keep your secret boyfriend to yourself.” He reaches up and tugs on Jack’s pants-leg. “But you know I wanna be, like, the first person who gets to meet him.”

“I know,” says Jack uneasily. He doesn’t like keeping secrets from Shitty.

“Cool,” says Shitty with a nod. He lets go of Jack’s pants-leg and runs his hand through his hair, looks disturbed when it’s still not as long as he expects it to be. “But I am making you add me on Snapchat, like, right now.”

**

They drop into the locker room before the game starts. Jack gets a hero’s welcome – a burst of applause and cheers, followed by an avalanche of hugs and back-pounding. Bittle sneaks in a squeeze to his hand, and Jack half-turns to greet him, but then Coach Murray strides forward, a smile on his face like a doting father.

“You’re making us proud,” says Coach Murray. He gives Jack’s hand a broad shake, and then he drops his voice to a stage whisper and grins. “And between you and me, you’ve already been great for recruiting.”

“Ha,” says Jack automatically. “Well, obviously I’m happy to support a program that gave me so much.”

He smiles sheepishly at Bittle from over the Coach Murray’s shoulder. This must be what it’s like for Kent at Rimouski, he thinks. He wonders what welcome he’d get now, if Kent’s the legend, Jack the cautionary tale.

He talks to Coach Murray for a couple more minutes, and then walks around the locker room to say hello to everyone. The rookies are awestruck, and Lardo has to drag one - Tancredi? - away for asking too many questions.

“Bittle,” says Jack when he gets to Bittle.

“Hi Jack,” says Bittle, smiling. Jack smiles back fondly, but he’s not sure what to do after that, what his performance here needs to be. What would he do if he weren’t dating Bittle? If there weren’t an impulsive kiss, two weeks in Georgia and a scattered handful of stolen weekends hanging in the air between them? Is Shitty watching him? Shitty’s usually pretty perceptive about this kind of thing.

He pats Bittle on the head.

“Good luck,” he says, and he moves down to fistbump Dex and Nursey.

The team’s not as good as they were last year. Jack sees that as soon as the game starts. Bittle and Wicks are out of sync. Bittle’s too fast; he keeps flying up the wing with the puck and getting stranded without anyone to shoot to, doesn’t have the muscle to hold onto the puck long enough for Wicks or Ollie to get up there. Samwell still wins, thanks, mainly, to a beauty of a slapshot from Ransom and some clutch defending against Cornell’s powerplay. But they can’t rely on their defense to win them games all season.

“You need to be more aware of where your center is,” says Jack to Bittle after the game.

“It’s nice to see you, too,” says Bittle, hugging him.

Jack hugs back, lets himself lean into it for a second, lets his hands drift to Bittle’s waist. “But nice job with that check in the second.”

Bittle laughs, pleased. “I had a good coach,” he says.

Jack smiles at that and pulls out of the hug, though he and Bittle stay near each other.

He and Shitty tag along with the team to the post-game dinner, and the night passes in an easy haze of reminiscences and hockey talk, though Jack gets pulled away from Bittle multiple times. Everyone wants to catch up; he feels guilty he hasn’t done a better job of keeping in touch.

Chowder looks at Jack as the night edges towards midnight and they’ve all made it back to the Haus, and Jack sees a realization light up in his eyes.

“Jack…” says Chowder slowly. “Are you staying here? Where are you sleeping?”

“Uh,” says Jack. He glances at Bittle. Bittle keeps his eyes on his phone. “I was just gonna crash on an air mattress in Bittle’s room.”

“We have an air mattress?” says Ransom.

Chowder gasps.

“You can’t!” he says, half a wail. “That would be terrible for your back.”

“My back’s fine…” begins Jack, but Chowder talks over him.

“You’re a pro-athlete! You need a real bed. You should have your old room!” says Chowder. “It’s basically yours. I can sleep on the couch! I love sleeping on the couch anyway!”

“He’s not lying,” points out Holster.

Jack very carefully does not look at Bittle again.

“Thank you, Chowder,” he says. “That’s very kind of you.”

Chowder beams.

**

A little after 1am, the door to Chowder’s room creaks open. Jack blinks awake slowly. He’d fallen asleep quickly, and his whole body feels weighed down. He rolls onto his side.

“Are you still awake?” whispers Bittle, peeking through the cracked door.

“Yeah,” says Jack. He suppresses a yawn and waves Bittle in. “Come on.”

Bittle shuts the door quietly and crosses to Chowder’s bed. He’s carrying Señor Bun. There’s a slight dip as he climbs on, and then the bed evens out as he settles beside Jack.

Jack touches Bittle’s hip then slides his hand over Bittle’s ass and pulls him close, kisses him behind the ear. He smells the faint, artificial strawberry of Bittle’s shampoo. Señor Bun ends up wedged between them.

“Hey,” says Jack. He pulls Señor Bun out and reaches back to set the rabbit on the windowsill to face away. Something about having Senor Bun watch over them as they sleep together unsettles him.

“Hey, Mr. Zimmermann,” says Bittle softly. He snuggles against Jack, and Jack enjoys the softness and warmth of him. He runs his hand up Bittle’s back lazily and thinks vaguely of doing something more, but sleep is still tugging at him, depthless and inescapable. He kisses Bittle behind the ear once more, and listens to the familiar tap of branches against the house, and soon he’s gone again.

**

His alarm goes off early.

“Hey, Bits,” he says, shaking Bittle awake. Bittle groans and rolls onto his side, flops his arm over his eyes.

“Bittle,” says Jack more firmly. Bittle’s eyelids flicker open, and he scowls.

“It’s too early to use your captain voice,” he says.

Jack pauses.

“Sorry,” he says. “I was just trying to wake you up. I need to get going.”

“It’s so early though,” says Bittle with a pout. It’s a cute pout, and Jack leans over and kisses Bittle lightly, attempting to cheer him up. Bittle sighs against the mouth and squirms away a bit, playing coy. Jack squeezes his shoulder and pulls away.

“I know. I have to get to practice though.”

Bittle sighs again and sits up. He rubs at his eyes. Jack gets out of bed, dresses quickly. It’s the first really cold day of fall, and he’d forgotten how chilly the Haus can get in the morning. They should probably get Dex to look at the heating.

“Shitty says you have Snapchat,” says Bittle.

“What?” says Jack, head snapping up. Bittle’s sitting with his legs over the edge of the bed, and Chowder’s Sharks-themed comforter lies crumpled across his lap. He’s holding Señor Bun. His hair is mussed, his cheek cross-hatched from the pillow. He looks extremely, disconcertingly young. Jack feels a strange, brief pulse of repulsion. He almost flinches.

“Last night,” said Bittle, not looking at Jack. “He said he found out you had a Snapchat.”

“PR said I should make one,” says Jack, and he’s surprised by how easily the lie comes to him. Though he shouldn’t be. He’s been doing a lot of lying lately. “I don’t really use it for anything.”

“Oh,” says Bittle. He’s quiet for a second. He’s still looking at the floor. Something about the half-light, about Bittle’s downcast gaze, makes it hard for Jack to read his expression.

“But you should send me your username,” says Jack. “So I can follow you.”

“Oh, I don’t do anything with mine,” says Bittle airily. “It’s just baking and Beyonce.”

“I like those things,” says Jack softly. At least, he likes that Bittle likes those things.

Bittle finally looks at him.

“All right,” he says, in a small voice.

“Now come on,” says Jack. He holds his hand out. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

Bittle takes his hand and Jack pulls him up, guides him gently back to his room. Jack’s grateful it’s just across the hall. He kisses Bittle in the doorway, chastely, just once, and careful to position himself so that if anyone accidentally sees him they’ll have plausible deniability. Jack could just be standing there. It could just be a simple, friendly good-bye.

“Good game,” he says, tousling Bittle’s hair when he pulls away.

“Thanks,” says Bittle with a yawn, and then he totters to bed, Señor Bun tucked under his arm.

Jack watches him for a moment, unsure how he feels. He’s just tired, he decides. It’s just early. He closes the door shut gently behind as he leaves and then he heads down the hallway.

He pauses by the window that leads onto the roof. The sky outside is dim and purple, and there’s a faint mist in the streets. But the sun is starting to come up, limning the trees and the lax house with gold and making it so that even the lax house, with its broken lawn furniture and scattered heaps of mildewing leaves, looks a little tender, a little lovely.

He pushes the window up and climbs out onto the roof carefully. It’s something he’s only done a handful of times, and the wind that tugs at his clothes immediately reminds him why. It’s dangerous up here.

But he likes the view. He stands there for a second, taking it in. Something about returning to Samwell has made him feel like a ghost. The campus has moved on without him, the endless flow of students filling in the gap that he and Shitty and all the other seniors left. Already, Samwell’s retreating to a memory for him.

He should have appreciated it more. He should have taken more pictures.

He takes a picture now, with his phone. It doesn’t look great. The phone aperture isn’t wide enough to catch the way the mist glows faintly and wraps everything in an Impressionist-softness, and the perspective gets flattened out to something primitive, child-like. There’s no capturing the smell, either, of wet earth and distant leaves being burned, of the coming, brittle cold.

Jack looks at the picture for a second, then at the real thing. It’s not even good enough, but it’s the best he can do at the moment. He’ll know what it means, at least, when he looks at it. The sun is coming up more rapidly now. He climbs back into the hallway, still looking at the photo.

Then, on impulse, he snaps it to Kent.

**

He pulls in to the Dunk’s parking garage a little after 9 and checks his phone before he gets out of the car. There are a couple sleepy morning texts from Bittle that he smiles to read – he’s glad Bittle’s not holding the Snapchat thing against him. And there’s a response to his Snap from Kent.

I remember that view

Jack frowns, not sure what Kent means, and then he remembers, the first night Kent showed up at the Haus, the night Jack came out to Shitty. He’d made Kent leave via the roof.

“You just came here to rub it in my face!” Jack had said, in his room, before that.

“I came here to see you! It’s not my job to manage your goddamn inferiority complex, Zimmermann!” Kent had said in response, and then, “It’s not my fault you couldn’t hack it!”

And that had been the end of that conversation.

“I can’t believe I have to climb off your fucking roof,” Kent had said. Jack remembers watching him edge his way down carefully, glancing at Jack once over his shoulder.

“It’s just easier this way,” said Jack. Though really, he’d done it to punish Kent, to see if Kent would do it, and they both had realized that. Though, like so many things, neither had been willing to say it.

Kent snorted, and his head bowed forward as he looked off the side of the roof.

“Easier for you, asshole. I’m going to break my fucking ankle.”

Jack shrugged. He leaned against the windowsill.

“Everyone saw me come in, you know.”

“Yeah. Thanks for that.”

Kent flipped him off, then taken a deep breath. Jack remembers watching his shoulders rise with that breath. He remembers thinking, ‘I’m being an asshole’. Then before Jack could verbalize that thought, Kent disappeared, dropping down to the railing of the porch. A second later, he reappeared, walking across the lawn to his rental.

Jack watched him drive away, and then, robotically, walked down the hallway to the bathroom.

That was when he started to hyperventilate.

It only hits him now that Shitty probably saw him make Kent leave from the roof.

It was kind of an asshole thing to do, and the realization that Shitty probably witnessed it makes his stomach curl in on itself in shame. He hesitates, types out sorry. But then he deletes it.

It was an asshole thing to do, but it would be a lie to say he was sorry. Samwell should have been his safe place, free from Kent’s shadow, but there had been Kent, coming to where Jack had chosen to heal.

I wouldn’t do that to you again, he sends instead.

Cool

Are you at the rink?

Yeah

Early.

You know how it is. U still at Samwell?

Jack lifts his phone and takes a picture of the dark parking garage. It’s muddied, but it’s obvious where he is. He sends it. He’s late today, because of Samwell. He usually tries to get in before eight, after he finishes his run with George.

Just about to head in

He does know how it is. He and Kent were always the first two players on the ice in the Q. Even in the beginning, when Kent had been more ambition than talent, Kent had been there as early as Jack. They would play, sleepy-eyed, in the quiet dark, the skirr of their skates against the ice and their soft calls to each other the only sound on those long, winter mornings. That was how they’d perfected the no-look one-timer. It was just practice, just trust, built up over the hours spent finding each other, again, and again, and again.

He misses that, he thinks.

He tries to picture Kent now, alone in the vastness of the Aces’ arena, one black-jerseyed player, boots half-laced.

And then suddenly he pictures Kent at eighteen, practicing alone, going home alone. Jack feels a strange ache in his chest. He feels bad for that kid. No wonder Kent got a cat.

Are you coming home for your bye week?, he asks.

Uh, yeah. Why?

Jack hesitates before he replies. He’s not sure what’s motivating him: guilt, or a real desire to see Kent, or both.

You should come down to Providence for a day or two, he sends.

There’s a long pause, and Jack start to think maybe Kent has gone back to practicing, or maybe he’s been interrupted. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to come.

Then, Jack’s phone lights up with a call from Kent.

“Kent?” Jack says, confused, when he picks up.

“You want me to visit you in Providence? During my bye week?” says Kent. His voice is colored with disbelief.

“Yeah? That’s what I said.”

Kent makes an odd sound in his throat.

“That’s like an eight-hour drive, Zimms.”

“So fly into Boston,” says Jack, and suddenly it’s important to him that Kent comes, that Kent wants to come. “I’ll pick you up at the airport.”

Why?

“It’d be fun to hang out.”

“That’s not what I…” Kent laughs. “You know what?” He laughs again. “Sure. Sure, Zimms. I’ll come visit.”

“Cool,” says Jack. “I should, uh…” He makes a ‘get-going’ gesture and then winces at himself. “Get going.”

“Yeah. Same. So, I’ll, uh, be seeing you, I guess,” says Kent.

“See you,” agrees Jack with a small hum. Then: “Wait. Parse?”

“Yeah?”

Jack chews on the inside of his cheek.

“What’s your niece’s name?”

“Oh. Uh.” He hears a slight catch in Kent’s voice. “It’s Cam. Cameron. After Dad.”

“Oh.” Jack fumbles for what’s to say. He remembers the glint of dog tags in the corner of his eye before every game. Kent always kissed them. It was his one superstition, and it was more sentimental than superstitious. Jack wonders if he still does that. “That’s, uh, that’s nice.”

“Yeah,” says Kent, distant and a little sad. “It is.”

Jack clears his throat.

“Have a good practice, Kenny,” he says gently, and then he hangs up at Kent’s muttered, “Later.” He breathes out deeply, feeling a bit like he’s just run a sprint.

He thinks he knows what Kent meant when he asked why. Why now? Jack didn’t answer because he’s not sure how to answer. It’s just that there's no longer anything he's working towards. No five-year plan, no benchmarks, no long nights wondering if he'll get drafted. He's in the NHL. He's done it. Now there's only this year and next year. He can look back and see his life’s path start to make sense. He can start to see how Kent fit into it, a fellow traveler rather than the antagonist. It’s just time. It’s just perspective.

He gets out of the car and heads in. He can tell by the cars in the parking garage that Snowy and Marty are already in. They’re doing shooting practice today. He makes himself focus on that and tries not to think about Kent, skating alone.

Chapter Text

One of Jack’s earliest memories is the final game the Habs played at the Forum. It’s certainly the first hockey game he remembers, though he must have seen games before that. But that’s the one that’s stuck in his mind, the one that’s formed his inner template for every hockey game since.

The funny thing is, he doesn’t remember the game itself (a 4-1 drubbing of the Stars), as much as he remembers everything that came after. There had been a ceremony, which began with Habs legend after Habs legend walking onto the ice, Bad Bob among them. Jack doesn’t remember if Bob watched the actual game itself with him and Alicia, but he remembers leaning up and hissing facts in Alicia’s ear as each former player was announced. Even at that age, he’d liked statistics, liked the precision of them, the irrefutability.

When Maurice Richards had walked on, Jack jumped to his feet with the rest of the crowd. Alicia remained seated.

“That’s Rocket!” he yelled to her, over the cheers. “He scored fifty goals! In a season! He was the first one!”

Richards stumped down the ice, a round, stiff-armed, thin-legged old man. The crowd stayed on its feet, and, slowly, Alicia got to hers as well. They gave Richards an eight-minute ovation. Eight minutes. It had felt like forever. That was what hockey could mean to people. That was proof hockey was the most important thing in the world.

After, there was a literal passing of a torch between successive Habs captains. The whole stadium went to its feet again. Jack remembers how dark it had been in the audience, how the ice formed a white island of light. The darkness only made him more aware of the press of bodies around him, of the swelling noise as the torch was passed and passed again, the whistles and cries and chants. He felt himself lifted upwards on that roar, and seemed, for a second, to see himself down below: small, fat, awkward, hysterical, clinging to Alicia’s arm.

The torch was passed to the final captain, and the team took one final lap on the ice. As they did, the rink began to fill with fog, until all Jack saw beyond the glass was the glowing ice, the dark, passing shapes of all the Habs players, old and new, and the single red point of the still-lit torch.

There’s a part of Jack that will always resent the fact he’ll never get to play in the Forum. There’s a bigger part of him that worries he’ll never play for the Habs at all. And there's yet another part that he thinks must still be hanging in the abandoned rafters of the Forum, the lonely ghost of a lonely kid, looking down at something he'll never be a part of.

Still, when he steps onto the ice at Bell Centre, he feels something settle deep inside him. He knows exactly where his parents are: lower level, center ice, right by the penalty box. He’d asked Bob once why they didn’t have seats by the players’ benches.

Bob had grinned roguishly and said, “I’m just more used to the view from the penalty box,” then, more honestly, added, “And I realized some of the players don’t appreciate me literally looking over their shoulder.”

It was a sentiment Jack could empathize with even then, and he empathizes with it even more now. He glances once at his parents. Bad Bob’s deep in conversation with someone - probably a fan; Jack spent his entire childhood watching Bob be approached by awed strangers, who, inevitably, would turn to Jack and ask how he planned on living up to his legacy.

Alicia’s watching the warm up though, and she visibly brightens when Jack looks her way. She waves. She’s wearing a Falconers’ Zimmermann jersey - Bob is too, actually - and Jack feels a complicated kind of way about that: happy, and a little embarrassed, and somehow a little sad. This should have happened years ago. At twenty-four, it’s kind of pathetic to have your parents dress up in your jersey. Still, he appreciates the thought.

“I’ve never been this close before,” Kent had whispered, awed, the first time Jack took him along to a game. He’d pressed his hands up against the glass like a kid - and he had been a kid, just sixteen - and stared, wide-eyed, at the players as they warmed up.

“The Forum was better,” Jack had said, trying to sound indifferent. Kent’s eyes had been very green that day, the color of leaves in spring. Jack had kept looking at him and hadn’t understood why.

“I’m surprised you remember the Forum, Jacky,” Bob had said mildly. “Have you been to many games before, Kent?”

Kent shook his head. “My uncle’s taken me to Sabres’ games a couple times, but.” He gestured upwards, towards the highest seats. “We’ve only ever been up in the nosebleeds.”

A fan approached Bad Bob then - heavy-set, drunk - and asked for his autograph. Bob gave it happily, then gestured at Jack and Kent.

“And this is my son, Jack,” he said proudly. “And his friend, Kent. They’re doing a great job up at Rimouski this season.”

The man turned to them. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ve seen you. You’re pretty good. Not as good as the old man. But pretty good.”

“Thanks,” Jack mumbled, not quite able to meet the man’s eyes.

“Watch us next year,” said Kent, leaning across Jack’s lap to flash a shark-like grin. Jack’s breath caught at how close he was. “We’ll be even better then. You better get our autographs now, cuz they’re gonna be worth something one day.”

The man laughed good-naturedly. “You’re a cocky son of a bitch,” he said, but he passed them the puck Bob had signed.

That was how all their interactions with fans went; Jack was fumbling, Kent smooth. Even then, he’d been good at it.

Jack signed the puck with the same careful signature that he used for everything. Kent signed it with the special signature he spent hours practicing on the bus and in history class.

Bob roared with laughter after the fan left and given Kent a few heavy, affectionate pats on the back.

“You’re going to get a reputation for being smug,” he said, half-joking, half-serious.

“Is it smug if you’re right?” Kent said, grinning. He settled back in his seat. Jack felt a flash of envy at how easily Bob and Kent got along, a flash of irritation at Kent pulling away.

“Do you miss it, Mr. Z?” Kent asked after the man left.

Bob stared out at the ice wistfully. “All the time,” he said. “Those were the best years of my life.”

These are going to be the best years of Jack’s life.

He wonders where Bittle will sit at the Dunk, if they’re still together after Bittle graduates. It would have to be a box seat. A permanent seat by the glass would be too obvious.

He waves back to Alicia tentatively, and then skates back to the shooting drill.

**

It’s a frustrating game.

The Habs keep the passing lanes clogged, and every time Jack tries to take a shot from distance, it feels like every Habs on the ice is in his way. He and Thirdy and Poots keep up a constant barrage, but they’re denied every time. They’re almost burned a couple times on the breakaway, but Snowy’s in top form, and he keeps the game scoreless.

In the end, their second line gets the win. There’s a scuffle by the Habs’ net early in the third period. The puck skitters loose from a clash between Guy and a Habs d-man. Kleiner pounces on it and taps it in, a true poacher’s goal. The crowd groans, even as the Falcs’ bench erupts into cheers. Jack keeps his eye on his parents. Alicia beams. Bob just looks bemused. He claps politely.

In the dressing room, when Kleiner accepts the team’s accolades, Jack hangs back. He can’t tell if it’s out of jealousy or just the fact that Kleiner’s a dick. He still hasn’t forgotten the “fruity” comment, and, for once, his antisocial reputation works to his advantage. No one seems to notice Jack’s not congratulating Kleiner with everyone else.

“Nice tap in,” he says, monotone, when he passes Kleiner on the way to the showers.

It was an afternoon game, so Jack meets his parents outside the dressing room for dinner afterwards. He hadn’t asked Bob not to come in, but, all the same, he appreciates that he didn’t. Some of the guys linger anyway, as starstruck as any frog. Marty shoos them away quickly, gets rewarded with a nod from Bob.

Alicia hugs Jack.

“Great game,” she says. She stands on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, and when she pulls away, she keeps her hand on his arm. Alicia’s always been physically affectionate, but - and Jack’s not sure if it’s just guilt that makes it seem this way - since the overdose, it’s felt like she always has to touch him.

Bob shakes his hand, then claps Jack on the shoulder.

“Sometimes you have to make the goal happen, Jack,” he says. Alicia elbows him in the side.

“Oh, don’t,” she says. “I don’t want to talk about hockey.”

Jack and Bob make identical grimaces.

Jack’s glad they won, but he wishes he’d played better. He wonders which he’d prefer: to have won, but played poorly, or to have lost, but played well.

It has to be the former, right? That’s what he should think. That’s what every bit of his training tells him to think. If anyone asked him that question, that’s what he’d say. The team is always bigger than the player.

But in the privacy of his own head? Jack’s not so sure.

He checks his phone in the car. There are the normal texts from Bittle and the rest of the groupchat, but he’s surprised there’s nothing from Kent. They’ve gotten into the habit of messaging each other before or after the other’s games, usually a chirp, sometimes advice, sometimes both. Kent’s good at both.

“Oh!” says Alicia brightly, interrupting his thoughts as Bob starts the car. “Before we forget… Eric sent this. There was a note saying to give it to you after the game.”

She turns and hands Jack a small package. When he opens it, there’s a ziploc bag stuffed with the small, fat chocolate chip cookies he likes. A post-it note is stuck to the bag.

you inspire me!, it reads, followed by a small, drawn hockey stick and heart.

He peels off the note and tucks it into his pocket before Alicia or Bob notice it.

“What was in the package?” asks Bob.

Jack shows the bag to Alicia.

“Cookies!” she exclaims. “How sweet!”

“Bittle’s a good baker,” says Jack. He takes a cookie out and offers the bag to his mom. She takes one for herself and one for Bob, and Jack watches as she holds it for Bob to eat. It’s the kind of casual, intimate gesture he’s seen from his parents his entire life. But it hits him anew this time. He and Bittle haven’t had the time nor space to develop that kind of private grammar.

He’s jealous of his parents, for being able to do in public what he’ll never be able to.

“This is great,” says Bob, muffled, around the cookie in his mouth.

Jack eats one, too. It is great. Not too much the worse for wear after being shipped to Canada. That was thoughtful, he thinks. Bittle’s good at being thoughtful.

“So, Eric,” says Bob, once he finishes the cookie. Jack looks up and sees him in the rearview mirror. Bob can’t keep a smile off his face. “How’s that going?”

“It’s great,” says Jack flatly, automatically.

“Spending a lot of time in Providence with you?” says Alicia. She’s smiling, too.

“Yeah,” says Jack. “He, uh. When he can. It’s hard with my schedule.”

“I know how that goes,” says Alicia, with a sigh and a glance towards Bob. “I barely saw your father the whole first year we were together.”

At least you were able to date publicly, thinks Jack, but he knows better than to say it. He’s not sure what to say instead. He looks up and sees both his parents watching him in the rear-view mirror with the impish, inquiring look of teenagers.

They want him to be happy. That’s why they’re looking at him like that. It’s still something he needs to remind himself of sometimes. They’re hoping he has someone who makes him happy.

And he does, he tells himself, looking at the bag of cookies. When he’d found the first batch of cookies from Bittle, slipped into his luggage over Christmas break, after the… after his last fight with Kent, it had felt like the first pebble in an avalanche.

Bittle cared about him. Bittle cares about him, in a way that doesn’t demand anything from Jack.

“Bittle’s a great boyfriend,” he says. He feels, for some reason, guilty. “He’s really supportive.”

“Oh, Jack,” says Alicia. “It’s too bad you don’t have any break for the holidays. You two could have come up together.”

“Maybe this summer,” says Jack vaguely. Summer feels like a mirage to him. It’s not very late in the evening, but night has swallowed the city. The streets are slick with ice and the melt of an early season snow. When it’s summer, he’ll have finished his first year as an NHL player. Maybe he’ll even have a Stanley Cup.

“The schedule’s a bitch,” says Bob, the same way he might talk about a tricky defense, an on-fire goalie. Everything is a problem that can be solved with grit, planning, and a little luck. “But you can find ways to work around it. The first Valentine’s Day your mother and I were together, I surprised her by filling her whole house with roses.”

“You have no idea how hard it was to take care of all those!” says Alicia, but she smiles as she says it. Bob takes her hand and kisses it gently. His eyes never leave the road. It’s another familiar, intimate gesture.

“You do have to prioritize him though,” says Alicia. “Not everyone likes playing second fiddle to hockey.”

“You were never second fiddle!” protests Bob.

“Uh huh,” says Alicia. She sounds like she’s teasing, but Bob sputters indignantly anyway.

Something about Alicia’s words remind Jack of the final game at the Forum. Connected to that memory, somehow, is the memory of sitting in a hotel room with Alicia, with Bad Bob nowhere to be found. It’s an old memory, one that could very easily be a dream, could very easily be completely untethered from his memory of the game. But he feels a vague causality. Bad Bob wasn’t with them at the game. Bad Bob wasn’t with them at the hotel room.

He turns the memory over. He remembers Alicia on the phone, crying, and his own sense of bewilderment and dread. But he can’t picture more than that. His parents recede from him. He looks out the window. They pass the familiar glass buildings and sports bars that surround the stadium. They pass the Tim Hortons where he and Kent once sat after a conference semifinal and relived the entire game.

“We would have won - if we’d been playing,” Kent had said, almost feverish, his coffee and donut forgotten, his knee pressed against Jack’s.“Our no look one-timer? No way the Flyers could handle that.”

Jack had believed him, until he hadn’t.

He checks his phone again. There are just a couple celebratory texts from Ransom and Holster sent to the groupchat. I didn’t do anything, thinks Jack, exasperated, but he responds with his thanks and a smiley face anyway.

They don’t go to Bob and Alicia’s for dinner, where there's a bathroom on the third floor Jack still avoids. (Which is another place Jack sometimes thinks he's left a piece of himself behind.)

Instead, they drive to one of the beautiful, discreet places Alicia likes so much, where the waiters never look twice and the menus never list a price. As they drive, they pass the Temple Bob started going to after the OD. It’s already Hannukah, Jack realizes. It’s come early this year.

He doubts there’s a menorah up at home. Jack doesn’t think Bob’s even been to the Temple in a couple years - he was never particularly observant before Jack’s OD. But, all the same, the Temple seems to look at Jack disapprovingly as they pass. It’s another reminder of the boy Jack used to be. He ignores it.

The conversation at dinner goes easily. They talk about the season, about Bob’s greenhouses, about old family acquaintances, about their various charity projects.

“I’d love to work with the LGBT Center here,” says Alicia. Jack just looks at his plate, until Alicia puts her hand over his and says, “Or, actually, there’s a women’s shelter I’ve been meaning to reach out to.”

Other than that, it’s a good meal. Jack’s grateful for it, grateful that, finally, he can enjoy being around his parents again. Their presence isn’t a reminder of every way he’s failed them.

His hotel room is empty when he gets back, which is a relief. Though he feels that relief ironically. He spends all his time in his house feeling lonely, and as soon as he’s on a roadie where he has to spend time with people, he can’t wait to get away.

Or maybe it’s just Montreal. This city makes him anxious. What would it be like, he wonders, to ever feel comfortable in his skin?

There’s still no text from Kent.

He paces his room and then settles on his bed, headphones on, and facetimes Bittle.

“Sweetheart!” says Bittle, face glowing when he picks up. It looks like he’s walking, and the sense of movement is slightly disorienting. “I didn’t think you were going to call! I thought you’d be with your parents.”

“I can call back later if this isn’t a good time,” says Jack.

“Oh, nonsense! Honey, I’m just walking back from the library.”

Jack smiles. “Did you get much studying done?”

Bittle blushes. It’s pretty.

“Some,” he says evasively. He tucks his face into his scarf, and, suddenly, Bittle’s just a looming pair of dark eyes. Jack looks back at him without saying anything.

“Thanks for the cookies,” Jack says finally. “My parents really enjoyed them.”

Bittle’s face pops back out from the scarf. He beams.

“Did they? Oh, good.” He looks suddenly nervous. “I didn’t overstep, did I?”

“No. It was sweet. They like you.”

Jack expects Bittle to smile harder at that, but he doesn’t. He just looks wistful.

“My parents like you, too,” he says. “I just wish they, you know…”

His face disappears back into his scarf. Jack fidgets with the bedspread. When Bittle speaks again, his voice comes out muffled.

“I love that your parents are so accepting,” he says, like Jack of all people is gonna fault him for being jealous. “With mine… I just don’t know if it would change how they feel about me.”

“Yeah,” says Jack, to show he’s listening.

“I’m just scared,” says Bittle. His eyes start to shine with tears. He sniffs and then presses his face into his shoulder, wiping his tears away. Jack watches this with a low, awful feeling in his gut. If he were there, he could at least hug Bittle.

“Yeah,” he says again, more gently. He twists the wire of his headphones between his fingers. “You know, they might surprise you.”

He’s always liked Suzanne, and Coach seems nice enough. They were nothing but kind and generous when Jack stayed with them, and it hadn’t seemed odd then that Bittle insisted on secrecy. The relationship between them was new. They needed the space to figure it out, even if Jack had been dumbstruck enough to immediately tell his parents about the kiss at graduation.

“Do they have any gay friends?” Jack asks.

Bittle laughs and shakes his head. “Goodness. I don’t know if either of them has ever met a single person they knew was gay. They just don’t… they don’t think about it.”

Jack’s not sure Bittle’s right. A couple times last summer, when Bittle was baking or singing, Jack caught Coach looking at Bittle with a faint look of anxiety. Jack had and still has no idea how to interpret that look, but it’s not like he’s going to bring it up to Bittle. He’s not about to weigh in on someone else’s relationship with their father.

And he could be totally off base. It’s not like Jack’s parents ever noticed his drug problem. They probably wouldn't have noticed he was gay if they hadn't walked in on him and Kent making out.

Bittle sighs.

“I just don’t think they’ll surprise me in a good way. And… Well, it’s not exactly like…”

“Not exactly like what?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s not important,” says Bittle.

“Bits…”

“How is it being in Montreal?” says Bittle, speaking rapidly. “It’s not… I don’t want to pry. I know you’ve been back to Montreal before, so I don’t want to assume anything. Please stop me if I’m assuming anything. But I know how important the Habs are for you - ”

“Bittle,” says Jack, a little more sharply than he means to. He sounds, even to himself, like the old Jack, like the Jack Bittle knew in his first year.

He rubs his face. The season’s wearing on him. His body feels bruised and sore. His hip hurts from where he landed hard on it after a nasty challenge.

“Sorry,” says Bittle, his voice small and penitent. “I just…You’re doing okay, right? In Montreal?”

“Yes,” says Jack slowly. “I’m doing okay in Montreal.”

“I just figured… it might bring up bad memories…”

It’s the most probing Bittle’s ever been about Jack’s overdose. Jack thinks about the split in his life again. He’s carried so little across that chasm with him, just his parents, just his love of hockey, and both of those only barely. There’s no way to explain to Bittle who that boy was. Jack doesn’t want to explain to Bittle who that boy was.

“It’s like anywhere else, Bittle,” he says. “There are good memories and bad ones.”

“Of course,” says Bittle. He laughs nervously. “Sorry for asking, sweetheart.”

Jack nods. They’re quiet again. Jack watches Bittle tuck his face into his scarf once more. It must be cold in Samwell. He’s not sure what else to say. He’s not good at filling silences. It’s one of the things he likes about Bittle: his endless ability to fill an empty space, with warmth, with light, with food, with noise. But watching Bittle walk back to the Haus, hunkered against the cold, Jack’s suddenly not sure he has anything to offer back.

“I miss you,” he says, because it’s true. It’s easier when they’re around each other. The silence doesn’t feel as heavy.

Bittle’s eyes go very soft. “I miss you, too,” he says. “Can I visit next weekend?”

Jack tries to think ahead to next weekend. They’re playing the Aeros at home.

“Yeah,” he says. “That works.”

Bittle beams, and Jack makes himself smile in return. He feels exhausted. The game, his parents, this conversation - it’s all taken a lot out of him. And Kent still hasn’t messaged him.

“Get some rest, Bits,” he says.

He hangs up and pulls his headphones off. As he does, he’s suddenly aware that Tater’s in the room. For all his size and volubility, Tater can be very quiet at times. He must have slipped in. He stands now, just in front of the door, his arms crossed loosely over his chest.

Jack looks up at him and doesn’t say anything. With the curtains drawn and Jack’s phone locked, the hotel room is dark.

“Everything all right with girlfriend?” asks Tater.

Jack nods.

“Yeah, she. Uh. It’s just hard, being apart.”

Tater gives him an odd look, like he wants to ask a question. But he just shrugs.

“Is lonely,” he says. “Is not good to spend time in room all by yourself.”

“I was with my parents,” protests Jack.

“Other games though,” counters Tater. “All the time. You’re by yourself.”

Jack is quiet. He can’t tell if Tater is scolding him or expressing concern.

“Sorry,” he offers.

Tater shakes his head and crosses the room to Jack in a few large, easy strides. He puts one shovel-sized hand on Jack’s shoulder.

“Is not good to stay in room all the time by yourself,” he says, and he tugs Jack out of his bed. “Let’s go.”

It’s obvious that Tater’s a little drunk, which means he’ll only double down on his cheerily dismissive approach to Jack’s objections.

“Tater…” says Jack, trying anyway. Tater shakes his head and points at Jack’s shoes.

“Everyone else is out,” he says. “Have fun with team.”

Jack scowls, but he puts his shoes on and grabs his jacket from where he threw it over the couch. He’s in sweatpants, but it doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being fashionable.

They don’t go far, just to the hotel bar. Tater keeps his hand on Jack’s back like he’s worried Jack’s gonna run away. He pushes Jack into a booth and then flags down the bartender. He comes back with two shots of vodka balanced magically on one hand and an almost overflowing pint in his other. Deftly, he deposits one of the shots and the beer in front of Jack and then throws back the other shot.

“Is better here,” says Tater, wiping his mouth. “In America.”

“We’re in Canada,” says Jack.

Tater makes a large, dismissive gesture.

“Same thing,” he says. He fixes Jack with a look that Jack can’t interpret. He wishes Tater would just say what he means. So he just shrugs in response and takes the shot of vodka, tries not to wince as it burns. He grabs the beer to wash it down.

Some of the other guys start to drift in. Poots lets Tater talk him into a shot and turns scarlet and chokes after he throws it back. Everyone laughs, and someone shoves a chaser into Poots’ hand.

“Oooh, is Zimmboni drinking with us commoners tonight?” says Kleiner. He shoves a bottle of beer into Jack’s hand. “Good to see you, man.”

Jack takes the drink and looks at Kleiner more seriously that he probably should. But he’s trying to figure out if this is Kleiner being friendly, or if this is Kleiner being a dick. Jack’s spent most of his life trying to figure that out with various people. It’s just how hockey is.

Kleiner laughs a little nervously under Jack’s inspection. “What the fuck, man?” he says, and then he moves off to go nudge Poots. Snowy grabs his seat next to Jack.

“Good game,” says Jack, honestly and gratefully. Snowy’s a bit sharp-edged, but he plays well and he means well.

“Wish I could say the same for you,” says Snowy, but he pairs the chirp with a smile and a pat on the back. “Seriously thought you had it in the second period there.”

Jack laughs. He and Snowy talk, and then he and Tater talk, and then he gives some pointers to Poots on his backhand, and then Tater gives him another shot, and the rest of the night washes merrily away.

He likes Jack-after-four-drinks. Jack-after-four-drinks is outgoing, almost charming. It lessens his anxiety. He’s still aware of what he’s doing, but he has a distance from it now, not constantly second-thinking himself, liked in the Q how it gave him an excuse to touch Kent.

He doesn’t drink more after the shot. His conversation with Thirdy starts to fade out, and he finds himself watching the TV screens mounted behind the bar. They’re showing highlights from the game. Then, the screen flashes to two commentators. The sound’s off, but the subtitles are on.

“...calling Zimmermann’s NHL career a success?” he reads, and he blinks in surprise at seeing his name. They’re talking about him. But he didn’t do anything.

“I don’t buy it,” continue the subtitles. They’re talking about him because he didn’t do anything, he realizes. “We’re talking eighty-two games here. That’s physical and mental endurance we’ve yet to see from him.”

Jack doesn’t need to hear to know what kind of emphasis is being placed on mental. He jerks to his feet, grateful to be in Quebec, where the subtitles are in French, grateful that Marty went up an hour ago.

The subtitles keep going.

“You’re absolutely right. Look at Kent Parson, his old teammate at Rimouski. Parson had, what, over ninety points in his first season? Zimmermann’s not even a quarter of the way there.”

Jack makes himself look away. He finds Tater with Tazer and Guy, teaching them a song in Russian.

“I’m headed up,” he says, slapping Tater on the back. It’s jovial, normal. He keeps his expression carefully neutral. Tater stops singing and grabs Jack in an iron-armed hug.

“I go with,” he says, his accent thicker than when he’s sober. “Good roommate. Looking out.”

“Thanks,” grunts Jack. He lets Tater drag him to the elevator.

To Jack’s relief, Tater stumbles into the shower once they’re back up to their room. Jack hears the water turn on and Tater start singing again. He doesn’t have a great voice, but it’s comforting, somehow, even so.

Jack crashes onto his bed and looks at his phone. There’s a good night text from Bittle, a picture of Lardo’s new work-in-progress, several snaps from Shitty of him goofing off instead of studying.

His ears are ringing. It was too loud in the bar. He should have left ages ago. He never should have gone in the first place.

get your head in the game, Knight, he messages to Shitty.

looks great, he texts to Lardo. can’t wait for your next show

night, bud, he sends to Bittle.

There’s still nothing from Kent, unless you count a snap from his locker room of two of the Aces’ d-men, pressing their faces into the crook of their elbows and lifting their other arms in a straight diagonal line. The video’s on a short loop and Jack can hear Kent laughing over it. He doesn’t get it, and he’s pretty sure the snap was meant for a wider audience than just him. That it probably wasn’t meant for him at all.

He checks the score on the Aces’ game - 2-1 against the Leafs. It’s strange to think they’re both in Canada.

Then, he calls Kent.

“Zimms!” says Kent, picking up halfway through the first ring. He’s loud, and there’s pounding music and laughter in the background.

“Hey, Parse,” says Jack. He closes his eyes, hears the sound of the shower running, Tater singing, the background party that Kent’s at. He tries to picture what it’s like, but all he can see are the parties he and Kent used to go to in the Q. Kent was always the center of attention, or, at least, he was always the center of Jack’s attention.

“Why ya calling? What’s up?” Someone says something in the background, and Kent laughs in response, says all friendly, “Fuck off, Scraps.”

“I can call back,” says Jack. “Just, uh. You didn’t text.”

“Didn’t text?” repeats Kent.

“After the game.”

“I didn’t see the game, Jack.”

“You normally text anyway.”

“Are you asking why I didn’t chirp you after you played the Habs?”

“No - yes.” Jack presses the heel of his hand into his eye. The bruise on his hip throbs again. He curses in French. His thoughts are in French, and it’s hard to shape them into English. It’s hard to get any kind of grip on them at all. “I just don’t get why you didn’t say anything.”

He sounds sulky and defensive even to his own ears.

“Are you serious?” hisses Kent. “You played the Habs. What the fuck could I say that you wouldn’t interpret the wrong way?”

Jack doesn’t say anything. Kent has a point, but that doesn’t mean Jack won’t resent him for it.

“Are you drunk?” says Kent abruptly.

“I just had a couple drinks,” says Jack.

“A couple - shit, hold on. I’m not - I’m not having this conversation here.”

“What?” says Jack, but Kent doesn’t respond at first. Instead, in the background, Jack hears, “You all right, Parser?”

“I’m good. Just gonna step outside for a minute.” Kent’s voice is distant. He’s clearly holding the phone away from his head. Then, it’s close again. He doesn’t sound so drunk any more. He sounds tired. “Hey, Jack, I’ll call you back in a couple minutes.”

He hangs up. Jack stares at his phone. He shouldn’t have called. He definitely shouldn’t be having this conversation with Kent. But, when his phone lights up with Kent’s name, he picks up.

“Hey, sorry,” says Jack, before Kent can say anything. “I shouldn’t have - sorry for bothering - ”

“You had a couple drinks?” says Kent. “I didn’t know you were drinking.”

“I’m not - I don’t - Tonight was unusual.”

Kent’s silent. Then: “Because you’re in Montreal?”

“Yeah,” says Jack. He closes his eyes and tries to give shape to something that, until just now, has been formless. “And because… I don’t talk about girls. I don’t drink. I don’t fit in.”

He knows he doesn’t interact with people normally, even as he’s unable to determine what ‘normal’ interaction looks like. But he realizes, too, that part of what makes him a ‘robot’ is his inability to participate in hockey’s rituals. Half his reputation for being no fun at Samwell stemmed from the fact he rarely went to parties. But it’s not like he doesn’t like partying. It’s that he liked it too much. It’s not that he doesn’t like sex. It’s that he likes it with the wrong kind of person.

“No one’s gonna blame you for not drinking,” says Kent gently, in the same tone Jack had used when talking to Bittle about his parents. Jack kind of hates him for that. “You’ve kind of got a great excuse for that.”

“It’s not an excuse,” says Jack immediately. Mental endurance, he thinks. He doesn’t have the mental endurance. At this level, the difference between the guys who can hack it and the guys who can’t is all mental. Which is a problem when you’re a fucking headcase. Isn’t this phone call proof enough of that?

“It’s - it’s a weakness. That’s how people see it. Everyone’s always watching to see when I’m gonna crack. If I go out and get a couple drinks, maybe they think I can handle it.”

“That’s dumb as hell, Zimms. No one’s going to think you’re weak.”

“You did.”

Kent goes completely silent. Jack doesn’t even hear him breathe.

“Shit,” he says quickly. It’s not like it’s untrue, but it wasn’t the right time to say it. “That wasn’t fair.”

“It’s totally fair, Zimms,” says Kent. He lets out an odd little laugh. Jack wonders where he is, since he’s left the party. Somewhere warm, he hopes. He doesn’t say anything. Kent takes a deep breath.

“I fucked up,” says Kent. There’s no defensiveness to it, just a heaviness. “I was scared, Zimms. I was so fucking terrified. And, yeah. I was mad. It felt like you’d just fucking abandoned everything we’d worked for. But that’s not - Look, I’m sorry. That’s it. I’m sorry.”

It’s not what Jack expected Kent to say. He’s thrown what Kent said after the OD into Kent’s face before, and every time, Kent’s been combative in response: "What was I supposed to say Jack? Congratulations on throwing your fucking life away? You're the strongest person I know? You're not!"

Instead, what Kent had said at Jack’s bedside in the hospital, pale and red-eyed, in a too-big Aces’ jersey was, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Were you that fucking scared I was going to go first?”

“It wasn’t about you,” says Jack, and he’s not sure if he’s talking to the eighteen-year-old kid Kent used to be, or the man he’s become. “I wasn’t thinking about you at all.”

Kent laughs, one of his impossible to interpret laughs.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that, Jack. On one hand, I’m like, oh, good. All these years, I thought, oh, Zimms won’t talk to me because he hates that I’m better than him. But it sounds like it wasn’t for any reason at all.”

“And on the other hand?”

Kent groans, then laughs again. “On the other hand, I guess I always knew. But that fucking hurts, too.”

Jack tries to sift through his feelings. He’s angry, that Kent’s making Jack’s overdose about him, but… He understands, too. Kent bore the brunt of Jack’s addiction issues. Kent got borne out on the same black tide of tragedy as Bob and Alicia. Kent’s the only one Jack didn’t help drag out. He thinks about his father's faltering steps towards faith, his mother's need to always touch him. People heal in odd ways. Has Kent been able to heal at all?

He doesn’t know if he regrets cutting Kent out. He doesn’t think it would have done much good to try long distance. It wouldn’t have been good for Jack’s mental health. It wouldn’t have been good for Kent’s career.

But he doesn’t know how to say that to Kent in a way that makes sense, in a way that won’t hurt them both more. He’s still not sure how to talk about his addiction or about his overdose. That’s why Bittle’s safe. He doesn’t owe Bittle any explanations.

He doesn't have that excuse with Kent.

“It would have happened no matter what,” says Jack, eventually. “Even if I’d never met you. Honestly, you’re probably the reason it didn’t happen sooner.”

“Thanks,” says Kent, after a pause. His voice is strange and thick. Like he’s crying, Jack realizes. “That, uh. That’s fucking bullshit. I should have said something. I should have told your parents. But. Thanks.”

Jack hears the shower shut off. He feels like he’s done something miraculous - like he and Kent have done something miraculous. Like they’ve pulled out of a nosedive last minute, like they’ve scored a game seven game-winning goal. They didn’t fight. They pulled out in time.

“I gotta go,” says Jack. “My roommate, uh.”

“Yeah,” says Kent. He takes a long, shaky breath. “Course. Good talk, Zimms.”

“Good talk, Kenny” repeats Jack, and he thinks, I’ll see him soon. Just a month, and I’ll see him.

He hangs up. He feels sober but exhausted. It’s all he can do to brush his teeth. As he does, he lets his mind drift across the day’s events. His mind settles on the car ride with his parents, the teasing memory of his mother, in a different hotel room, a different phone call. It’s like a riddle the brain works on quietly, while you go about your day, until suddenly, in the middle of the night, you wake up with the answer.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Bob,” Alicia had said. “I don’t want to leave you, but you’re not giving me much of a choice.”

Chapter Text

Jack sits with the memory the entire flight back. He keeps thinking he must have it wrong. It’s not much of a memory, really, more of a snapshot. He just has the image of Alicia, sitting on a bed in an unfamiliar room, facing away from him, phone clutched to her ear. It could be shuffled around with any other number of memories, laid out in a totally different order. Maybe it didn’t have anything to do with Bob at all. Maybe it’s from when Jack’s grandfather died.

He gets home, and the memory still lingers. He could call Alicia, he knows. But he doesn’t know what he would say, and, besides, there’s no use in reliving old hurts. Whatever happened, his parents are fine now. Any unhappiness should stay in the past.

So he puts the memory away. If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s compartmentalizing. He’s also busy to the point of exhaustion. The days get shorter. He runs in darkness, drives to the rink in darkness, plays games beneath shadowless stadium lights, returns home in darkness.

He and Bittle get two days together, between the end of finals and Bittle’s flight home.

“I told Mama and Coach finals ended later than usual this semester,” Bittle says over the phone when they set the visit up. He whispers like he got away with something.

For thirty-two minutes, they hold hands as they walk through the woods by Jack’s apartment. The sky is a clear, hard blue between the black bars of tree branches. Bittle’s nose and cheeks are pink, and his hand is small in Jack’s. For thirty-two minutes, Jack just enjoys the sunshine, weak though it is.

Jack knows the exact number of minutes because Bittle’s looking at his phone when Jack takes his hand, and Bittle immediately pulls his phone out again when a jogger surprises them - sends them scattering apart from each other like startled birds in the bush.

“Hey!” says the jogger, a wiry man in a red jacket. He comes to a halt and peers at Jack. “You’re - ”

“Yeah,” says Jack.

“That hockey guy! Uh.”

“Jack Zimmermann,” says Jack. He attempts a ‘being friendly with a fan’ smile. He should be better at it, as much practice as he’s had in his life. But he’s annoyed. He wonders, with a lurch in his gut, if the jogger saw him and Bittle holding hands. He wonders if he and Bittle got away with it.

He wonders if that’s going to be his whole life: getting away with it, as if holding his boyfriend’s hand were a crime.

“That’s right!” says the jogger, as pleased as if he’d come up with Jack’s name himself. “Your face is all over the train station.”

“Haha,” says Jack. “Yeah.”

“Are you on the team, too?” The jogger looks curiously at Bittle. He frowns, as if he’s trying to picture a poster with Bittle’s face on it.

Bittle laughs, high and nervous. “No, uh. I -”

“He’s my cousin,” says Jack.

“Oh,” says the jogger. He looks between them, as if trying to spot the family resemblance, then just smiles. “Well, nice meeting you both.”

He gives them a jaunty wave and then he’s off. Jack watches the jogger move away from them, his red jacket flashing between the trees.

“Your cousin?” says Bittle, when the jogger disappears from sight.

Jack shrugs helplessly. He expects Bittle to yell at him. Hell, he deserves to have Bittle yell at him. For a second, it seems like Bittle might. He opens his mouth, face red.

And then he takes a deep breath and smiles.

“Silly goose,” he says. “You could have just told him I’m your friend.”

Guys like me aren’t friends with guys like you, thinks Jack, and he hates himself as soon as he thinks it. That’s not him. That’s not his thought. That’s Kent staring at himself in a bathroom mirror and asking Jack in anguish, “Do you think I’m pretty? I’m not pretty.”

There hadn’t been anything Jack could say to that. Kent was pretty. That was why Jack could never stop looking at him, but it made him a target, and it made Jack a target. He heard enough cracks about Kent being his girlfriend in the Q to know better than to expect that Bittle - smaller, girlier, prettier - won’t be viewed with twice the suspicion. Guys like Jack aren’t friends with guys like Bittle. It’s self-preservation.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I just panicked.”

He keeps his eyes down, on the scuffed toes of Bittle’s boots. It’s their third winter. Maybe Jack should buy him a new pair.

“Oooh, sweetheart,” says Bittle. Jack glances at him. Bittle’s face melts into a sympathetic expression that makes Jack feel even worse. “I know how hard this is on you.”

It’s hard on Bittle, too, thinks Jack. But what comes out instead is, “Are you happy?”

And what’s in the back of his mind as he says it is Alicia, sitting on a hotel bed, crying into the phone, and an untouched coloring book open on Jack’s lap. It was a Ninja Turtles coloring book, his brain supplies unhelpfully.

“What?” says Bittle. Then, he registers what Jack said, and he gives Jack a doting look. Doting, that’s the only word Jack can think to describe it.

“Oh, honey,” breathes Bittle. He throws his arms around Jack and hugs him tightly. “You make me happier than anyone in the world.”

That can’t be true, thinks Jack, even as he hugs Bittle back.

**

He gives everyone Falcs merch for the holidays. From Bittle, he gets a wailing voicemail about how much he loves the figurine of Jack and a box of fudge, divinity, and peppermint bark. Holster sends him a “happy Chrismakkuh!” text that makes him smile and a pair of socks, and Ransom gives him a book about the Northwest Passage he won’t have time to read but likes seeing on his bookshelf anyway. Shitty and Lardo send him a joint gift of an inflatable parrot carefully painted over in dark blue and gray.

“Sorry we couldn’t find a real falcon,” reads the note that comes with it, written in Shitty’s nearly indecipherable scrawl. Jack laughs and blows it up, then tosses it onto his mantle.

Kent just sends him a holiday greeting card of Kit in a tiny sweater.

“She nearly killed me trying to get this on her,” Kent’s written on the back. “See you soon, Zimms.”

Jack hesitates, and then sticks the card onto his fridge. He has to buy a magnet to hold it up.

“I hate that you’re alone over the holidays,” says Bittle, when they talk on Christmas Eve. Bittle’s eyes are red, and Jack can hear Christmas carols and the chatter of dozens of relatives in the background. It’s the first time they’ve been able to do more than text in a week; Bittle’s entire extended family takes Christmas very seriously.

“We were never exactly big Christmas people,” says Jack. Alicia would put up a small tree some years, and Jack had a stocking every year until he was eleven, but that was always the extent of it. It’s not like Bob celebrated. He’ll see his parents later in January anyway, when he has his own bye-week.

And he’s not alone, either, he thinks later. The St. Martins hold a Christmas party for all the “lost sheep” on the team, as they say, and then there’s a game, and then Tater has a New Year’s Eve Party. Jack spends it with a cup of cranberry juice in hand; he’s off alcohol again after Montreal.

He DDs afterwards, when midnight has long swung past in a blaze of color and cheers, and the party has crawled to a close. He doesn’t really need to DD; everyone can afford a car if they want one. But he likes the sense of purpose it gives him.

When he finally gets home after dropping Snowy off, it’s almost 3am. He waits in the car for the hour to strike, and then he texts Kent.

happy new year

He’s not surprised that he doesn’t get a response immediately. Kent’s probably at a party, and they’ve walked back on the amount of texting they’ve been doing. Jack still feels a little embarrassed about the drunk dial.

But he wakes up that morning - at 7:30; he and George pushed their morning jog back by an hour in honor of the holiday - to a text and a selfie from Kent. The text just says, “happy new yers zimms!!!” and the selfie is golden, blurred. Kent’s obviously laughing in it. It’s not a good picture, objectively, but Jack smiles at the color and movement and joy of it.

It’s a good way to start the year.

Then, a week later, he sees Kent in person. The day springs up on him, on the back of two away games and too quickly for him to get anxious about it.

He sees Kent first as he waits in the car. Kent’s just got a backpack, and he has the Falcs snapback Jack sent him for Christmas pulled low over his face. His expression is flat, a little bored, as he scans the parked cars. Even with no one obviously watching him, Kent keeps his poker face.

When Kent finally spots him, his whole face lights up, and Jack feels his light up in return.

“Nice hat,” says Jack, a moment later, as Kent yanks open the passenger door. He can’t keep the smile off his face.

Kent laughs, bright and giddy. “God. You look…” He shakes his head.

“I look what?”

Smug,” says Kent, in good-humored disgust. He takes the snapback off and twirls it around his finger. “And thanks. A fan sent it to me for Christmas.”

“Not much of a fan if they sent you the hat for the wrong team.”

Kent grins. “Think they’re a puckbunny. They probably don’t know the difference between the teams yet.”

Jack snorts and starts the car.

“How was your flight?” he asks.

“Fine,” says Kent. He yawns hugely. “But, man, I can’t believe I let you talk me into flying during my week off.”

“I didn’t talk you into it,” says Jack. He hasn’t stopped smiling. “I just asked you. It’s not my fault you’re easy.”

Kent lets out a loud, sharp laugh at that. Jack glances at him, but Kent’s face is turned away.

“What?”

Kent shakes his head. Boston – gray and white in the cold – slides by them. Jack waits for a minute, feels his smile drop away. Kent doesn’t volunteer anything else, so he turns the radio on. Something loud and poppy blares from the speakers. Kent whips his head around.

“Is this Taylor Swift?” he demands.

“Uh,” says Jack. “Maybe?”

He turns the volume down. Kent continues to stare at him.

“What?” demands Jack again, a little more forcefully this time.

Kent smirks.

“Let me guess – ‘Bittle’ likes this kind of music. You never listened to this shit, so he must have been the last person to set the station.”

Jack doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t want to admit Kent’s right, and he doesn’t like the way Kent said Bittle. There’s another long silence. The song ends. A new one begins, but it’s basically indistinguishable to Jack.

“He’s really changed you, huh?”

Jack shrugs uncomfortably. It feels unfair, somehow, to talk to Kent about Bittle.

“It’s been a long time. A lot of things have changed me.”

“That’s for sure,” says Kent, his tone too neutral to be actually neutral.

Jack frowns. He focuses on the road. It’s icy this time of year. He needs to be careful. In the corner of his eye, he sees Kent shift, agitated. It’s been easy to forget that Kent is like this. It’s been easy to forget that the Kent-in-his-phone isn’t the same as flesh-and-blood Kent. The Kent in his phone has time to edit himself. The Kent sitting next to him is as prickly as ever.

“What do you want me to say to that?” he asks softly.

“Nothing,” says Kent. He takes off the snapback again and turns it over in his hands. “Thanks for having me.”

“Sure,” says Jack. He turns the radio back up, and they make it the rest of the way to Jack’s apartment without saying another word.

**

“You ever think about decorating this place?” asks Kent, taking in Jack’s apartment. Jack can’t tell if it’s meant as a joke or provocation, or if it’s just an observation. Knowing Kent, it’s meant as all three, and it’s up to Jack to decide how to respond.

So he just shrugs. “I think my mom’s going to hire someone to do it over the summer.”

“Oh, of course, hire a designer. Excuse me for assuming you’d actually want to decorate in a way that shows off your personality.”

Jack half-smiles. “You don’t think this shows off my personality?”

Kent laughs at that, and Jack really smiles in response. He’d forgotten, too, how easy it was for him to make Kent laugh.

“Besides,” he adds. He gestures to his mantle, where the falcon Lardo and Shitty sent him still lies, now half-deflated. “There’s Winston.”

“Winston?” Kent follows the line of Jack’s hand and then bursts out laughing. “Holy shit, Jack, what is that?”

Jack grins and goes to pick Winston up and shakes it at Kent. “Winston Churchill. He was a gift.”

“You named him…” Kent shakes his head fondly. “Of course you did. You used to have that…” Kent gestures vaguely at the blank wall above Jack’s couch. “Map, with the pushpins, in your room, of - ”

“Major World War Two battles,” says Jack, though technically it had been a map of major battles on the Western Front between 1944 and 1945.

He remembers the map. He remembers, too, Kent tagging along to Jack’s billet about a week into their first season together. Kent had flopped on Jack’s bed and watched as Jack had fastidiously stuck in the pins. He’d color-coordinated them for Ally and Axis victories. He remembers how nervous he’d felt, having Kent watch him. But Kent had wanted to hang out, and Jack had been too awkward, too surprised, to even try to say no.

“Which one’s your favorite?” Kent had asked, after he’d watched Jack in silence for several moments.

“You want to know my favorite battle?”

“Yeah. What’s a good one? I don’t know any of this shit.”

“I don’t think there are any good battles,” Jack had said eventually.

“Then do why you like this?”

Kent hadn’t asked in a judgmental way, but in a curious one. Like he was really interested in getting to know who Jack was.

Jack thought about the answer.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s… They’re like hockey games. They seem really neat and logical. There are all these numbers and statistics you can memorize. But it doesn’t really tell the whole story. There’s all this… messiness and randomness underneath. The facts don’t tell the story.”

He wished, even then, that they did. He liked numbers. Numbers were achievable. Numbers could be deployed as a defense: this many goals, this many assists, this many ppg, this many wins. That meant you were great. But somehow it never meant that he felt great.

“So, I don’t know,” he said, and cringed at how lame he sounded. “I guess it’s a reminder. And I just like to memorize stuff, too.”

He explained this with his back to Kent the entire time, slightly hunched, his ears burning, and his hands shaking slightly as he pushed the pins in to the flaky wall.

“Wow,” said Kent, when he finished.

“What?” said Jack. He turned and finally saw Kent’s face. He was smiling.

“Nothing,” said Kent, still grinning broadly. “You’re just really smart.”

Jack hadn’t known what to say. The only time he’d ever been called smart before was when it came to hockey.

“Do you still have it?’ asks Kent, in the present.

“Uh,” says Jack. “Probably. I think it’s in a box somewhere.”

It’s definitely in a box somewhere, with everything else from Rimouski. Put like that, with Kent looking at him quietly, the metaphor feels too stark, too obvious.

“I have my Rimouski jersey framed,” says Kent, after a moment. It’s clear he’s thinking the same thing Jack is. “From the night we won the Cup. It’s in my apartment.”

Jack wonders if Kent’s jerseys from the two times he won the Stanley Cup are hanging next to it. He bites down the impulse to ask. No matter how Kent answers, it’ll feel like a chirp.

Christ, he thinks. That was so long ago. There had been a time when winning the Memorial Cup had been the most important thing in the world to them. And then they won it, and now they’ve moved beyond it. They keep moving further from it, until now it stands far, far away from them across a gulf of years. It’s funny, how things that mean so much to you at the time dwindle so completely into the past.

It’s funny how that hasn’t happened with Kent at all. He put Kent away, into the same mental box he keeps his Rimouski jersey, the Memorial Cup, his map of the Western Front. But Kent hasn’t dwindled. He’s just kept making himself bigger.

He looks at Kent and thinks about how strange it is to have him here, like all the Kents rolled up at once: Kent at sixteen, Jack’s best friend in the world, Kent at seventeen, in Jack’s bed, Kent at eighteen, leaving a hospital room in an Aces jersey. Kent the Stanley Cup winner, Kent the best active NHL player, Kent desperate and demanding at the Haus, Kent of the last few months, a comforting presence, safely locked away in Jack’s phone.

Kent, standing in Jack’s living room, wearing a Falcs’ snapback, looking a little tired, a little too thin for this point in the season, a little lost.

Jack doesn’t know what to do with him.

“We should get you set up…” says Jack, like that’ll take more than the amount of time it takes Kent to drop his bag in Jack’s guestroom.

Kent shifts his weight from foot to foot.

“Yeah,” he says, unreadable. Jack gives him an awkward, jerky nod and leads the way.

“So, this is it,”says Jack, stepping aside to give Kent plenty of space to walk past him. It’s a neat, clean room. Jack’s never actually used it. Bittle’s certainly never stayed in it, and Shitty always falls asleep on the couch. He pulled the sheets and comforter from their packaging for the first time that morning, and, despite the wash he put them through, the new, plastic-y scent of them lingers.

Kent puts his bag down beside the bed and just stands there, head tilted toward the floor, one arm curled around his chest.

“Well,” says Jack, once the silence has gone on too long. “Do you want a glass of water? Or a beer?”

Kent looks up quickly at ‘beer’, but he doesn’t otherwise reveal anything. Jack bought a six pack in anticipation of Kent’s visit. He hadn’t thought about how it might look to Kent. It just seemed like the appropriate script to follow: if friend in town, then buy beer.

“My friend Shitty left some the last time he was here,” he lies.

Kent gives him an odd look, and Jack has the funny feeling that Kent knows he’s lying.

“Water’s good,” is all he says.

Jack nods and escapes to the kitchen. When he comes back out, Kent’s sitting on the couch, hunched over his phone.

“Here,” says Jack, setting the glass of water down on the coffee table.

“Thanks,” says Kent, with a short, upwards glance. His energy’s gentler now. His eyes are less hard, his smile not as sharp. He’s taken off his snapback, and his hair sticks up at odd angles. Jack has the strange impulse to smooth it back, feels vaguely touched that Kent’s taken the hat off and let himself look a little stupid in front of Jack.

Kent squints and cocks his head at Jack.

“You just gonna stand there all day?” he asks.

“Oh, uh.” Jack realizes he’s been hovering. He sits heavily, careful not to spill any of his own water.

Kent nudges him with his knee.

“It’s good to see you,” he says, almost shyly. “How ya been?”

“I’ve been okay,” says Jack.

Kent raises his eyebrow, and Jack lets out a breath of laughter.

“I feel a little bit like someone’s been beating me while I sleep. But other than that, okay.”

Kent laughs at that. “Yeah, welcome to the NHL, man.”

“And here I thought I was just getting old.”

“That too, Zimms. Let me tell you, this was a lot fucking easier when I was nineteen. We’re old-timers now.”

Jack laughs. “I can’t be an old-timer. I’m a rookie.”

“An over-age rookie,” chirps Kent.

It doesn’t hurt as much as Jack expects it to. It doesn’t hurt at all, actually. He’s proud of them, for getting over the awkwardness.

“No comeback?” says Kent. “Come on, Zimms. You can’t be slow on the skates and slow-witted. It’s all the pies, probably. I know you’re trying to be a supportive boyfriend, but you gotta learn moderation.”

“Don’t be jealous just because I have someone looking after me.”

Kent scoffs. “No way. Man, if I’d gone to college, I’d have, like, six cute jailbait boyfriends making pies for me. Seems like you were slacking.”

Jack laughs.

It keeps getting easier after that. Jack has the afternoon free, and they go for a walk in the woods. The sky is gray, and the forecast calls for more snow. Jack brings his camera and fiddles with it as they walk.

“Are you actually gonna take a picture of anything?” asks Kent, after their conversation about their families has slid to a gentle stall. He jerks his chin at Jack’s camera.

“Nothing’s caught my eye yet…” Jack shrugs. The woods are pretty and still beneath the snow, but he hasn’t felt that particular, peculiar tug that makes him want to stop and remember something.

Kent raises his eyebrows. “What do you usually take pictures of?”

Jack has to think about it. He’s never had to put it into the words before.

“Mainly stuff I like, stuff that makes me happy. I took a lot of pictures of the Haus and the team last year.” He fiddles with the straps. It’s been awhile since he’s taken the camera out. He hasn’t been motivated.

“I should take a picture of you while you’re here,” he adds.

“Uh,” says Kent, and his eyes go a little wide. Jack looks at him in confusion, and then he makes the connection between what he said before and saying he wanted to take Kent’s picture.

“Oh,” he says. “I mean.” He pauses. He said what he meant. He shrugs. “I’d just like to.”

“Sure,” says Kent, after a beat. “Now?”

Jack nods. “The light’s good.”

Kent takes a minute to find a place to pose. Jack lets him, even though he’s pretty sure as the photographer, he should be directing Kent. Finally, Kent stops and shrugs at Jack. He’s standing on a slight ridge, and behind him the woods stretch out silently, the trees thin and angular, making a jigsaw of shadow and light.

Jack studies Kent. Kent’s in a black peacoat and a soft gray cap and a blue scarf that brings out the blue in his eyes. He smiles easily, his posture relaxed, his face tilted slightly so the camera will capture the sharp angle of his cheekbone, the stubborn point of his chin. He’s good at getting his picture taken. Jack’s spent years avoiding that fact. Even when Kent is posing, he looks casual, natural, perfect.

Jack lowers the camera. The light is brilliant, winter light, and it makes Kent faintly luminous. He doesn’t want this Kent, though, He wants the Kent that only he ever seems to get: moody, messy, flawed.

“What?” says Kent, when Jack doesn’t bring the camera back up. He scrunches his nose. “Is there something on my face?”

“No,” says Jack slowly. Then, he ducks down and scoops up a handful of snow and launches it at Kent. It’s good snow, and even just the quick press of Jack’s hand is enough to mold it into a missile.

Kent’s fast though, and he brings his arm up in time to protect his face. The snowball explodes on impact and showers Kent’s face in icy powder.

“Jack!” yells Kent. He runs his hand over his face and shoves his cap up slightly, freeing a couple of his cowlicks. He’s bright-eyed and not quite smiling, like he can’t decide if he’s pissed or not, and is face is a little blotchy, a little red.

Jack takes the picture then. As soon as the shutter closes, the walls go down behind Kent’s eyes. He smiles, smooth and amused.

“That’s not gonna be a very good picture,” he says. “Sure you don’t wanna retake it?”

“I’m good,” says Jack. He clicks back to look at the picture and smiles. It’s a little blurry. Jack had to snap it quickly. But he likes Kent’s disgruntled expression.

He hears a snort at that, followed by a more sinister noise - a crunch of snow. He looks up. A snowball smacks him directly between the eyes. The follow-up hits him immediately, right in the shoulder, with enough force to make him step back.

“Kenny!” he shouts, turning to protect his camera. He wipes stinging snow out of his eyes, but he can’t keep the smile off his face.

“Oh, so you can dish it out, but you can’t take it,” says Kent, much closer now, and suddenly Jack feels a handful of snow dumped down the back of his coat. He yelps.

“Careful!” he says, laughing helplessly. It’s hard to get the word out. He hunches over his camera more. The snow slides down his back, and Jack jerks forward and curses in French. “Careful!”

Kent dumps another handful of snow onto Jack’s head and then comes around and crouches in front of him.

“Sorry,” he says, shit-eating grin splitting his face open. His eyes are wicked, gleaming. There’s still some snow stuck on his collar from where Jack got him.

“You’re gonna ruin my camera,” says Jack, schooling his features to look stern and annoyed.

“I’d buy you a new one,” says Kent, but he’s not smirking any more. He looks a little concerned.

Jack lunges forward and shoves Kent back, knocking him off balance and sending him sprawling into the snow.

“Jack!” yells Kent. He lands hard on his back. Snow goes flying.

Jack sits on his legs.

“What was that about being able to dish it out but not take it?” he says, grinning.

Kent makes a feeble attempt to kick him and fails. He scowls.

“You tricked me.” Another attempt at a kick. “Damn, your ass is big, Zimmermann.”

“Mm,” says Jack. He rests his weight on Kent’s legs more heavily. “You were always jealous.”

Kent stares at him for a second, and then he throws his head back and laughs, face all screwed up and giddy, the way a little kid laughs. He keeps laughing, hard and hysterical, so violently Jack can feel Kent’s body shaking beneath him. Jack didn’t even say anything funny.

But he starts to laugh, too, a deep, gut-laugh that leaves him doubled over, and Kent starts to laugh even harder at that, until he’s gasping for breath more than laughing. His shoulders shudder.

Jack takes a deep breath, steadying himself. It’s getting uncomfortable sitting on Kent’s legs. He’ll have to get up soon. But before he does, he raises his camera.

He takes another picture.

**

“What do you like about it?” asks Kent later, back at Jack’s apartment and in dry clothes. He holds Jack’s camera carefully.

Jack sets down two mugs of coffee across from Kent and pauses to think about it. He’s never really thought about that either. He just likes it, likes the sense of stillness and sureness he gets from it. You can take your time with it.

“Do you know that moment, right before you score a goal, when you’ve got it lined up, and you know it’s going in?”

Kent nods.

“It’s like that, sort of. It’s not as good, but...” Jack makes a box with his hands and frames Kent’s face with it. Kent looks back at him, expression soft and open. He was always good at being sincere, or, at least, at seeming like it. And then Kent smiles, cheeky and broad, and winks. Jack drops his hands.

“It just feels like I’m in control for a second. I can have everything the way I want to, and keep it that way. It’s… nice.”

Kent smirks.

“I know the world doesn’t really work that way,” says Jack immediately. It’s hard to keep the note of defensiveness out of his voice. He doesn’t think he succeeds, because Kent’s eyes go wide.

“I wasn’t thinking that,” says Kent. He makes a frustrated sound. “I wasn’t - I wasn’t making a face or anything, Jack. I just like hearing you talk about this shit.”

“Oh,” says Jack, deflating.

“It’s cool,” says Kent. His mouth is carefully flat, like he’s trying hard not to frown. Or maybe Jack’s misreading that, too. Maybe it really is fine.

“Do you want to...” Jack casts about for a suggestion of something to do, anything to relieve the sudden tension. “Do you want to see downtown? There’s not much, but...”

Kent smiles his being-photographed smile. “That sounds great,” he says, and Jack could almost believe he means it.

**

They go to a bakery Bittle likes and then walk down Benefit St. to look at the old buildings. Kent has to wear one of Jack’s jackets because the only one he brought is still damp from the snowball fight. It’s a little large for him, the sleeves half-covering his hands, but he wears it like it’s the world’s sharpest fashion statement, as easy in his own skin as he’s ever been. Even when Kent wasn’t famous, people looked at him as if he were.

They get stopped a couple times for pictures, once, hilariously, by a couple who recognizes Kent but not Jack. Jack happily volunteers to take the photo for them, and when he meets Kent’s eyes above the husband’s phone, it’s all he can do not to burst out laughing.

He’s surprised he’s not jealous, but then, this is the part of fame Jack always hated and Kent always excelled at.

It starts to snow as they walk, and the streetlamps - iron and old-fashioned - flicker on.

Kent stops and looks up. Jack watches him watch the snow falling. They used to walk around like this in Rimouski, just the two of them, the streetlamps, and the snow. Jack thinks of those walks as the only time when the future didn’t feel impossible, looming. Out in the anonymizing cold, Kent covered except for his eyes, they could have been the only two people left in the world.

It’s not like that now. Providence is warmer, prettier. There are too many other people on the street.

“Do you ever miss it?” he asks.

Kent looks, for a second, like he’s thinking about asking if he misses what, but then he sighs.

“I miss it all the time, Jack.”

“I miss it sometimes, too.”

Kent gives him a small, startled glance. “Yeah?”

Jack shrugs. “It just… felt simpler.”

“No, it didn’t,” says Kent, after a moment. “I get what you’re saying, but. It didn’t.”

“Okay,” says Jack. He scrubs at his face. “It’s just been harder than I expected, I guess.”

Or hard in a different way from how he expected. He expects Kent to laugh it off, to tell him that’s just how life is now, just how the NHL is. He still remembers the utter confusion in Kent’s eyes the first time he brought up his anxiety.

But Kent just stands there silently, his face closed down and unreadable.

“Do you think you’re….” He taps his temple. “Okay?”

“I don’t know,” admits Jack. “I thought I’d be happier.”

He looks up at the snow, too. It stings his cheeks, the flakes sharp and gritty. The depression was always harder to spot than the anxiety. It always sneaks up, steals over him over the weeks and months until suddenly he’s suffocating. Maybe that’s what the feeling is.

“It doesn’t solve everything,” says Kent quietly. “Even when you’re really good, it doesn’t solve everything. It...” He sighs. His eyes are downcast, long lashes obscuring their color. “Hockey’s gotta be its own thing, its own thing that you love. Not an answer.”

Something clicks into place for Jack then. The realization that despite how much Kent had won and won and won, he’d still looked around at the end of it and felt something missing. And he thought that something missing was Jack.

Jack doesn’t say anything, though. The feeling that they’ve both of them somehow been swindled sinks into him. But, no, he tells himself firmly. Jack hasn’t won anything yet. It’ll be different once he actually wins something.

Kent shifts his stance, and old snow creaks beneath his shoes.

“Have you told your parents?” he asks.

“No,” says Jack. They already worry about him too much.

Kent takes a deep breath.

“You should tell your parents, Jack. Or. Someone. Not just me. It can’t just be me.”

“I know. But. I just want to know, is this what the first year is like?”

Kent laughs shortly. “I didn’t exactly have a traditional first year either.”

“More traditional than mine,” says Jack, and he regrets the words as soon as he says them. Kent goes rigid.

“It just wasn’t what I expected,” he says. Even Jack can hear the hurt in his voice.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” says Jack. He doesn’t try to offer an excuse. “I know it was hard for you.”

Kent nods tightly and looks to the sky. The snow’s coming down even harder, and it clearly gets in his eyes. But he doesn’t look away.

“It’s dark a lot this time of year,” he says. “Maybe it’d’ve been better for you in Vegas.”

“You know I was never going to go to Vegas, right?” Jack’s not sure if he means even before the draft, or if he means after, if he means even now. It feels impossible to imagine a world in which he kept his shit together.

“Hope springs eternal,” says Kent. He kicks at a hard, iced over chunk of snow, then shakes his head. “We would have been great, Zimms. We would have been the best.”

Jack has to resist the urge to pat Kent on the back. He thinks it would come across as more condescending than comforting.

“It wasn’t about you,” he says. “Or, it was about you. I didn’t want to be in your shadow. Not in yours and my dad’s. I wanted… I want my own legacy.”

“Legacy,” repeats Kent with a grimace, like the word has an unpleasant taste for him. Jack doesn’t see why it should. Kent’s never had to live under the weight of it. Kent secured his own by the time he was nineteen.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting a legacy,” says Jack, a little defensively.

“You care more about history than anyone I know, Zimms,” says Kent, still with the same bitter twist to his mouth.

Jack doesn’t see what one has to do with the other, and he’s not surprised that Kent doesn’t know many history buffs. It’s not exactly a common hobby among professional hockey players.

Kent looks up again. The snow keeps falling, landing on his face and his hair and his hat and his scarf. Jack can feel it accumulating on his shoulders, clinging wet and heavy to his coat. He wants to reach across the narrow distance separating them and wipe the snowflakes from Kent’s face.

“I just think you’d be happier if you played hockey because you loved it, and not because you felt you had some grand destiny.”

“I do love it,” says Jack, even more defensively.

Kent laughs, and the movement shakes off some of the snow on his shoulders.

“So what’s it mean if the thing you love so much almost fucking killed you?”

“Hockey didn’t almost kill me,” snaps Jack, and even though Kent is still looking up, still looking away from Jack, Jack can see the question start to form in Kent’s face: well, what did almost kill you then?

And that’s the three million dollar question. That’s what the Falcs’ franchise has gambled on being able to avoid. That’s something Jack has never been able to figure out, seven years and hundreds of hours of therapy lately. It’s not like it was any one thing. It’s not like it’s a game of Clue: poisoned to death in the third floor bathroom by anxiety with a side of daddy issues.

But the question dies in Kent’s face, and Jack finds himself braced for nothing.

“Let’s go back to the car,” says Kent instead, his voice heavy and tired. “I’m cold.”

Chapter Text

Kent’s right, Jack thinks, once they’re back in the car. He should talk to someone. Georgia’s made it clear - with no attempts at sidling up on the issue from behind, just a straightforward acknowledgement that Jack has a history of mental illness, one of the things Jack admires about her - that if he ever needs to talk to someone, the Falcs will set it up for him.

Jack’s not sure if the offer’s there as a way to protect Jack-the-person or Jack-the-investment. But with hockey it’s always hard to tell, and it doesn’t really matter. At least no one’s shoving pills at him this time.

He can do therapy. He should do therapy. Therapy’s work, just like anything else. There are goals, homework, exercises, concrete tasks he can accomplish. It’s just keeping track of his moods, keeping a list of distorted thinking patterns pinned to his wall. No one’s gonna make him talk about his dad if he doesn’t want to. No one’s gonna make him talk about Bittle. No one’s gonna make him talk about Kent.

He hopes it’s that easy, at least. His first therapist had asked, in one of those early sessions, in an attempt to get Jack to think beyond the all-consuming importance of his own success or failure, “What makes you happy? What’s restorative for you?”

Jack had looked at his hands.

“Hockey,” he’d said helplessly.

“Don’t you have anything like that?” he asks Kent as he starts the car. The falling snow in the headlights looks like a swarm of gnats. “That you love even when it’s bad for you?”

Kent looks down at his shoes. There’s a tightness to his eyes, to the corners of his mouth, that almost forms a frown.

“Yeah, Jack,” he says, quiet. “I’ve got something like that.”

**

They got papped in the bakery. Jack finds out when Ransom texts it to the group chat that night with an, omg jack, after Jack and Kent have both gone to bed. It doesn’t surprise him that a picture of the two of them wound up on twitter, as many as they took with fans, but it does surprise him that it’s a candid.

Kent has his sunglasses on and his hat pulled low, a scarf around his neck. But he’s still recognizable, his nose unmistakable in profile, and Jack’s turned towards him, his face and expression fully caught by the camera, even despite the blurriness. He’s half-smiling, half-laughing, and his hand is on Kent’s upper arm. It’s a casual touch that Jack doesn’t even remember giving. He’s struck by how relaxed he looks. He always thinks he looks awkward in photos, too tense, too anxious, like he’s trying to mimic a real human smile and failing at it. Shitty had laughed himself to tears when he’d first seen Jack’s official NHL headshot.

“They’re all bad,” Jack had snapped.

“Yeah,” Shitty had replied, and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, “but you look like the fucking Terminator, dude.”

Jack flicks open the chain of replies and retweets like Bittle showed him and sees that it’s already been retweeted by a few real hockey blogs, and more times by fan accounts capslocking about #PIMMS. He makes himself scroll past those, ignores the pit of dread in his stomach.

He’s interrupted by a text from Bittle.

I didn’t know Kent was in Providence?

On the group chat, Bittle texts, oh my gosh I love that bakery! Did you get Kent to try the rugelach?

Jack texts Shitty, hey. no jokes about Kent being my secret boyfriend in the group chat

uh, wasn’t gonna. Wtf jack. Not gonna out u on group?? but now r u saying KP IS ur secret bf?

Jack doesn’t reply to that, but he does respond to Bittle.

Just for the day. It’s his bye-week.

How nice!, texts Bittle. Jack waits for Bittle to say more, but he doesn’t. Jack’s left just looking at his phone, waiting for Bittle to go on. He’s not used to feeling that way.

yeah, it’s been all right

There’s still no response. Jack feels vaguely annoyed.

Do you want to come up next weekend?, he eventually texts. Technically, he’ll still be in Montreal for his bye-week, but it’s not like he can’t change his flights.

Can’t ):, texts back Bittle, half an hour later. Which is a long time to wait for Bittle to respond. He usually has his phone with him even in class. Away game against Colgate, honey

Shit, thinks Jack. That’s right. It’s hard enough keeping his own schedule straight, let alone Bittle’s. He thumbs through the calendar on his phone for a minute, tries to figure out when they’ll both have time to see each other for more than a dinner in Boston. He could change his flights in the other direction, spend the first couple days of his bye-week up at Samwell, but Bob and Alicia have already rearranged their schedules so all three of them can visit Bob’s parents then. He keeps flicking through his calendar. His next full day off coincides with Bittle’s first big French test.

Maybe the weekend after?, he texts. End of January?

Sweetie! That’s the All Star Game!

I probably won’t get called up for it.

That gets a response immediately.

don’t be ridiculous!

just trying to be realistic

): jack, honey, you’re amazing!!! of course you’ll be called up!

Jack looks at the response for a long moment. It occurs to him just how much of his and Bittle’s relationship is Bittle telling Jack, over and over again, how great Jack is.

What does that say about him?

He taps his thumbs against his phone screen, trying to figure out what to say next. He should tell Bittle what he and Kent talked about. Kent’s right. Bittle is Jack’s boyfriend. Jack can picture, clearly, what will happen next. Bittle will facetime him, eyes wide, face shining with love and concern. He’ll want to assure Jack of how much he cares for him, of how brave Jack is, of how Jack is the strongest person and the greatest hockey player he knows.

And Bittle will believe every word of it, but none of it will be true. Jack doesn’t know what he’d rather have Bittle say instead, but the Jack who lives in Bittle’s head is starting to feel as hard to live up to as Bad Bob is.

He sighs.

thanks, Bittle. We’ll figure something out. Have a good night

He puts his phone down.

**

He sleeps after that, but it’s an uneasy sleep, fitful and light. There are times, like now, when he feels about himself the way a dog must feel before an earthquake. He can sense the world shifting. A little after two, he wakes up, as abrupt and complete as a man surfacing from the water.

He spends the next forty minutes staring at the ceiling and cycling through various breathing exercises and sleeping positions. But his mind keeps dragging up the picture, keeps dragging up his conversation with Bittle. He tries to make himself think about hockey, distract himself by walking through their upcoming schedule. It should be soothing, a list of team names and dates he can repeat like a mantra. But he starts to consider their chances against every team. They’re in a play-off position now, but their February schedule is brutal. They had it easy last fall.

And what if he doesn’t get called up for the All-Star Game?

Jack’s chest tightens at the thought - stupid, he reprimands himself, it’s not even important - and he can already hear what the commentators will say…

He makes himself sit up and gives up sleep as a lost cause. He’ll feel better if he walks around the house, has some warm milk like Alicia used to give him when he twelve and his anxiety first started keeping him up through the night. She would sit with him in his bed, beneath his posters of hockey greats, and tell him stories that he didn’t realize until years later were kid-friendly edits of the B-movies she’d been in.

As soon as he opens his door he notices that the bathroom door is also open and the light is on. He pauses. He has to walk by the bathroom to get to the kitchen, but he doesn’t want to interrupt Kent if he’s in the middle of a late night piss. But then he hears the distinct rattle of pills in a bottle. He knows that sound intimately, and, even now, he feels a tingle of need.

He walks over. The medicine cabinet is flung open, and Kent stands in front of it, peering inside like he thinks there’s a false panel somewhere. A bottle of motrin and a packet of sudafed sit on the sink in front of him, both, Jack knows, from the medicine cabinet. The cap on the motrin has been popped.

He crosses his arms over his chest.

“Are you looking for something?”

Kent jumps. He slams the cabinet shut.

“Uh, just, uh, Advil.”

Jack stares at him.

Kent winces and hunches down. He doesn’t say anything. He reminds Jack of the kids on the peewee team he used to coach whenever he caught them doing something they shouldn’t have. It’s the same look of half-contrition, half-defiance, the same glimmer of fear that Jack’s about to yell.

“Jesus, Kent,” says Jack, and his voice does rise. “What the hell is your problem?”

“I have issues with boundaries,” says Kent, flippant. He won’t meet Jack’s eyes. He looks at himself in the mirror instead. His knuckles are white as he grips the edge of the sink.

“You’ve got - ? Yeah, you do, honestly.”

He never should have told Kent about how he was feeling. Obviously he was going to react like this. Jack has the brief, paranoid vision of Kent texting Bob and Alicia, confirming their worst fears: Jack’s gonna fall apart again. Get out here.

He takes a deep breath. Holds it. Breathes out. Takes another one. He catches Kent glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, still braced as if for a blow.

“Sorry,” mutters Kent, when Jack forces eye contact. He goes pink. “I just - I get worried.”

Jack can hear the accusation in Kent’s voice: you give me a lot of reasons to worry.

“You’re the one who said to talk to Bittle and my parents about it,” says Jack sharply.

Kent groans. Jack thinks it’s supposed to be a laugh, but it comes out too pained, too low.

“That doesn’t mean - Shit. Jack. I’m going to worry about you. I want you to talk to me. But you can’t… I can’t be the only person you talk to about this, okay? I fucked it up once.”

Jack knows the thing to say is, “You didn’t fuck up.” But he and Kent have never followed the scripts they should, and he doesn’t think it’ll comfort Kent if Jack does it now.

“Okay,” is all he says. He scrubs at his face, and adds, “You know if I were taking pills, I’d have hidden them.”

He doesn’t know why he says it, except, no, he corrects himself, as he watches Kent flinch as if Jack really had hit him. He does know why he said it, because he’s still pissed, and this is the best way he knows to make Kent hurt.

“Great,” says Kent, with a hollow laugh. “Well. I can leave, if you want me to leave.”

Jack doesn’t say anything. Kent’s fingers drum against the sink, and then he seems to remember the motrin and the sudafed. He pops the cap on, puts them both back into the cabinet.

He nods sharply then, more at his reflection than at Jack.

“So I’ll just… go, ” he says, and then he moves to leave. Jack takes a half-step out of the doorway to let Kent pass, but there’s still not much room, and Kent brushes against him as he goes.

“Kenny,” says Jack. He grabs Kent by the upper arm, and Kent freezes. He looks up at Jack.

It’s three am. They stare at each other in the dingy yellow light of the bathroom. Kent’s eyes are gray, all the color leached out. His mouth is slightly chapped. It always got chapped when it got cold.

Jack suddenly, viscerally remembers the time he broke a hotel bathroom mirror in the Q and Kent’s wide, wordless stare when he’d bolted in to see what had happened. They’d stared at each other across the threshold for what had felt like minutes. Jack’s hands were clenched so tight around the hockey stick that his knuckles were white. There was glass everywhere, all over the sink, the floor, in the water of the open toilet bowl. Kent had been barefoot - they both were - and Jack had kept expecting him to walk away.

Instead, he’d said, “Don’t move. I’m gonna find a broom. You’ll cut yourself if you try to walk out.”

With that, it had been as if a spell were lifted. Jack strode across the shattered glass in one long step, and, in the same motion, grabbed Kent by the front of his shirt and lifted him, slammed him into the wall. He’d felt Kent’s breath rush from his body, winded. That was when Jack kissed him, and Kent, when he got his breath back, kissed back. He grabbed Jack’s wrists, too, and gripped them so hard that, later, in the car home with Bad Bob, Jack had looked down and seen bruises start to form.

Jack squeezes his hand around Kent’s arm, as hard as Kent had all those years ago. Kent makes a sharp noise, somewhere between a laugh and a gasp and sob. He jerks forward, and Jack feels his heart stutter. But Kent just presses his face into Jack’s neck. He takes a deep shuddering breath. Jack’s arms come up. He holds Kent against him, feels the shape of his shoulders, the strong lines of his back. He’s still smaller than Jack, but he’s far more muscular than he used to be.

Jack wishes he knew what the right words were. What the right words are that could fix them both, heal their friendship. But he doesn’t know what to say any more than he knows what Kent could say.

Maybe there are no right words, Jack thinks, as Kent’s chest rises and falls against his. Maybe it’s just that you both keep showing up, keep trying, and it’s the trying that’s the point. It’s the trying that eventually makes it true.

“It’s okay,” he says, trying. “We’re okay.”

Kent laughs, wet like maybe he is crying, but Jack can’t see his face. He tries to draw away a bit, to really look at Kent, but Kent twists out of his grasp, as easy if he were on skates. He shoves past Jack, his head down, and he goes to his room without another word.

**

Jack still gets up early for his run with Georgia the next morning. His face in the mirror is pale, and the circles under his eyes are dark. George raises her eyebrows in concern when she sees him.

“Rough night?” she asks as they stretch.

“Couldn’t sleep,” says Jack.

“Something the matter?” asks George, tone light, conversational.

Jack shrugs. “Not really.”

He keeps expecting George to say something about the photo of him and Kent. Surely she’s seen it. That had been something he’d worried about all through the process of choosing a team, the inevitable, “So your friendship with Kent Parson…”

It never came. Jack’s not sure why, but he thinks, with most teams, it had more to do with a total unwillingness to believe a potential player could be gay than any sense of politeness or respect for Jack’s privacy. He’s not so sure with George.

The question still doesn’t come now, and it’s the first bit of relief Jack’s felt since Ransom texted the groupchat.

They take their usual route, and Jack is able to lose himself in the meditative sameness of it more easily than he expected. By the time they slow down for their cool down, he feels less of the all over anxiousness that’s been pressing on him. It starts to flurry as they walk to their cars, more of a reminder of snow than a real threat, but George looks up anyway.

“I hope this clears up before tomorrow,” she says. “People aren’t going to come out to see the Blue Jackets play in a blizzard.”

“It’s not much,” says Jack. He studies her, watching the snow, and he’s reminded of Kent staring up at the falling snow last night, avoiding Jack’s eyes as he told him he needed to talk to someone.

He swallows hard.

“George?” he says.

She glances at him, eyes quick and bright as birds, and her smile beneath is warm and friendly. She’s given him no reason to distrust her, he reminds himself.

“Remember when I signed,” he says, fumbling, “you, uh. You mentioned if I ever needed to talk to someone…” He trails off awkwardly, hoping George will be able to finish the thought for him.

“Oh,” says George. Her eyes briefly go wide, but the surprise vanishes quickly, replaced by a look that’s both kind and professional. “Jack, of course. I’ll get that set up for you today.”

Jack nods jerkily, intensely grateful for George’s competence, and equally grateful they’re about to get into separate cars, and he won’t have to continue this conversation.

“Cool,” he says. “Thanks.”

“And as someone who considers you a friend,” she adds gently, “I hope you know you can always talk to me, too.”

It’s a nice idea, thinks Jack. Maybe someday he will.

**

He has practice afterwards, but there’s enough time between that and tape review that evening to see Kent off to the airport. He’d been bummed originally that the practice would cut into their time so much. Now he’s grateful for it. They needed the hours apart after last night. But, as he drives home, he finds himself wistful again. It would have been nice to have more time with Kent, but there’s the Blue Jackets game tomorrow. And they have an unspoken mutual agreement that Kent getting spotted at a Falcs’ game won’t do any good for either of them.

When he walks into the apartment, Kent’s already packed. He’s on the couch, scrolling through his phone. He doesn’t look up, but he does hunch over more.

“I thought practice was gonna run later,” he says. He sounds sullen.

“Are you leaving?” says Jack. “I thought your flight wasn’t til eight.”

“I just wanna get ahead of traffic.”

“It’s 2pm, Kent,” says Jack, and he can’t keep the edge of annoyance out of his voice.

“Security,” says Kent, like that’s something Kent fucking Parson needs to worry about.

Jack snorts. “Sure,” he snaps. He jangles his keys at Kent. “At least let me give you a ride.”

Kent’s look is steely, flat. It’s a face off look, and Jack feels himself staring just as hard back.

“It’s cool. I’ve ordered a car,” says Kent, casual.

“I’d like to drive you,” says Jack, neutral,

“It’s kind of shitty to cancel on a driver, dude.”

Parse.”

“Fine,” snaps Kent. He gets up abruptly. “So let’s fucking go, Jack.”

**

The drive to Logan is tense. Jack’s not sure if it was a good trip or a bad one. It feels like an unanswered question. They’ve just confused each other more.

He’s also not sure what he expected, honestly, if he thought it would be like the Q or if he thought it would be a disaster. It’s been both, and it’s been neither. But he guesses the Q was, at times, itself a disaster. At least they haven’t been at each other’s throats the whole time.

“Thanks for coming,” says Jack, as he pulls into the unloading area.

“Thanks for having me,” says Kent.

“Do you need…?” Jack gestures at Kent’s bag in the back.

Kent shakes his head. “It’s just one bag.”

He unbuckles his seatbelt and starts to turn towards the door. Jack leans forward.

Kent freezes.

“Kenny,” says Jack, and Kent turns back towards him.

“Zimms…” he says, a question shading his voice, like he’s not sure what Jack’s doing. That’s fair. Jack doesn’t know what he’s doing either. He raises his hand, and Kent leans forward.

Jack wants to put his hand on Kent’s cheek. But that’s not - He falters. His hand ends up on Kent’s neck instead. His thumb presses lightly on the pulsepoint there. For a second, he feels the doubled resonance of both their pulses. It’s a strange, echoing feeling. He can’t tell whose is whose. Kent’s eyes are heavy-lidded, impossibly colored.

He looks at Jack once more and laughs, sharp and high-pitched. Jack gives him nothing back. He keeps his expression completely flat. His heart is pounding.

Jesus,” says Kent. He shakes his head and pulls away sharply. Jack’s hand drops to his lap. He squeezes it into a fist.

Kent flicks his sunglasses open and puts them on. Then, he disappears behind his smile.

“Well,” he says. “See ya, Zimms.”

He yanks his bag forward, into his lap and leaves the car. Jack watches him walk away, before a car honks loudly behind him, startling him. He drives off, flexing his hand against the steering wheel. He can still feel their pulses, beating in time.

Oh, he thinks. Oh, shit.

**

He calls his mom that night.

“Jack!” says Alicia. She sounds surprised. “How are you? Is everything all right?”

“Everything’s fine, Maman,” he says. He doesn’t need to wonder why Alicia’s immediate thought was that something’s wrong. “I just, uh. I wanted to ask you something.”

“Yes?” says Alicia, still with the note of concern in her voice. He wishes he knew her better, he thinks abruptly. It’s not that he doesn’t know her, doesn’t love her. But so much of his relationship with Alicia has happened around the black hole of hockey. When Jack calls the house, he talks to both his parents, but he calls his dad separately to talk hockey. When he’s home, he and Bob talk hockey. Or they play hockey. Or they watch hockey. Alicia’s always been an observer, humoring her husband and son’s obsession. Even Jack and Alicia’s shared bond of Samwell was subsumed by Samwell hockey.

“Jack?” says Alicia, when he’s been quiet too long. “Are you still there?”

“Did you ever think about leaving Papa?” he asks. He should give it more of a preface, he knows, but he’s not sure how to lead up to it gracefully.

“Yes,” says Alicia, with enough of a pause before the answer for Jack to realize she considered not telling him the truth. “Jack… Why are you asking? Are you sure everything’s fine?”

“Yes,” he says immediately, before she even has the final word out. “I just… I think I remember it. Being back in Montreal last month reminded me.”

“You never said anything,” says Alicia, after another pause. Jack can’t tell if she means he didn’t say anything last month, or that he didn’t say anything years ago. “I always assumed you didn’t remember.”

“I think I just always hoped it was a bad dream… It was after the game at the Forum, right?”

“It was only for a night,” says Alicia with a sigh. “We’d been fighting a lot.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know if you know this about your father, but he can be a bastard.”

“Maman.”

Alicia half-laughs, half-sighs.

“He wanted to be a coach. He got offered a position with the Habs, actually.”

“He didn’t take it?”

“I didn’t want him to.”

“Oh,” says Jack. He can’t imagine Bittle ever asking that of him. He can’t really imagine Bittle asking anything of him.

“I was so sick of being left alone all the time,” continues Alicia, in the same tone of voice Jack once heard her recount his overdose in. “I felt like a single mother. Maybe it would have been easier if we were near my parents, but we were here. I barely spoke any French… It wasn’t all your father’s fault. I was in the middle of a career transition myself. There aren’t a lot of roles for actresses in their thirties.

“How did you resolve it?” asks Jack.

“I asked him which was more important, his family or hockey.” She laughs. “Oh, he didn’t like that.”

“I can imagine.”

“I told him he could coach you. I said, shouldn’t coaching your son be enough?”

“Oh,” says Jack again, and, suddenly, his childhood makes a lot more sense.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” she says gently.

“No,” Jack assures her quickly. “It wasn’t you. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t anyone.”

He keeps saying that. That it wasn’t any one thing. But it wasn’t any one thing. Just the accumulation. He probably still would have overdosed even if he weren’t always competing with Kent. He probably still would have overdosed even if he weren’t always competing with his dad’s shadow. He probably still would have overdosed even if he weren’t gay. All those statements are true. He’s just not sure if they’re all true in aggregate.

“I know,” says Alicia, but her voice is still streaked with sadness and guilt, and Jack feels his own guilt start to slide over him. There’s going to be a point where they all stop feeling guilty about making each other feel guilty. There has to be.

“Why didn’t you you leave him?” he asks.

He’s not sure what he wants to hear. She pauses again.

“Any relationship you’re ever in, Jack, you’re going to wonder at times if it’s worth it. It’s difficult to love another person. So you have to decide if the good parts make the bad parts worth working through. And you have to decide to work on the bad parts. It’s just about trying.”

He absorbs that, then says, “Thanks. But. You’re happy, though, right? Or - you were happy?”

Would you have left him, he wants to ask, if you didn’t have me?

“Yes, Jack,” says Alicia, warm enough that he believes her. “But no one’s happy all of the time.” She lowers her voice, and he can hear how concern inflects it. “Is this about Eric?”

“No! Bittle and I are – ” He swallows. He’s not sure who he’s called about, Bittle or Kent or both. He doesn’t want Bittle to feel the way Alicia felt, and he also wants to know how you fix a broken relationship, how you know when it’s worth doing. He can’t figure out his own motivations.

“I don’t know,” he says, after a minute. “I just worry about what I’m doing to him.”

He can still picture the jogger, moving away from them, his jacket flashing red between the trees, and how still Bittle was in his anger. But they didn’t argue. They never argue. But that doesn’t mean he’s not hurting Bittle all the same.

And then he pictures Kent, in the same woods, right before Jack took his picture, the Kent that was just Jack’s.

And then he thinks about their conversation later, beneath the streetlamp. There’s a Jack that’s just Kent’s, too.

“Oh, Jacky,” says Alica, scattering his thoughts. “Have you asked Bittle how he feels?”

He winces. “No.”

Alicia hums, not quite disapproving, but enough to get her point across. He should talk to Bittle. He knows he should. He should stop treating their relationship like it’ll shatter if he looks too hard at it, thinks too hard about it. He feels resentful. Shouldn’t he be allowed to have one nice thing? One relationship that can just be simple?

“Talk to him,” she urges gently. “He really seems to care about you, and I’m glad you have someone to take care of you.”

“Yeah…” says Jack. He looks out the window, but it’s dark, and he sees only his reflection instead, pale and unsure. “I’m sorry I make you worry so much, Maman. I’m fine. Really. I’m taking care of myself.”

He could tell her about the therapist, too. George emailed him an hour ago with an appointment set up for two days from now: quick, discreet, professional.

Alicia laughs softly.

“I’m always going to worry about you, Jack. That’s just the way love is.”

That doesn’t excuse it, thinks Jack, and it’s impossible now not to remember his anger from the night before when he found Kent in the bathroom. It’s impossible not to think of Kent’s enduring belief that Jack’s business was his business. But maybe Jack’s the one who made Kent believe that in the first place.

He wishes he could pull Kent out of his context: figure out definitely what was good, what was bad, what was Kent’s fault, what was Jack’s, what was just forces beyond their control.

He knows he can’t, and, even if he could, he has Bittle, Bittle who deserves better, Bittle who he can be a better man for.

A car turns onto his street, and the sweep of headlights obliterates his reflection. He blinks at the light and looks away. He spots his camera, still sitting on the table where Kent left it.

“Jack?” says Alicia.

“I’m still here. Uh. But I should get to bed. Thanks for… Thanks for talking.”

“Of course,” she says. “I love you.”

“Love you, too. Say hi to Papa.”

He ends the call and picks his camera up. He pulls up the most recent picture. It’s Kent, lying on his back and laughing in the snow. His head is thrown back and his arm is flung over his eyes. He looks young in a way he rarely looked even when they were young.

He never gave Kent a chance to work through the hard parts. He wonders where he would be if he had. He wonders where they would be.

He wonders if they could still try.

Chapter Text

Flight. Private car. Convention center. Kent. Press. Kent. Jack barely has time to clasp his hand and thump his shoulder before they’re both ushered into a two-on-one interview with a woman from the NHL’s media office. Jack was expecting this - he’s had his schedule for almost a week now - but he’s still a little taken aback by the swiftness. Kent shoots him a quick, sympathetic smile, before his usual dealing-with-the-press expression takes over. He’s already wearing an ASG snapback. Jack half-wants to snatch it off his head. Not for any real reason, just to see if it would make Kent laugh.

It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since Providence.

The interviewer has a glossy smile, glossier hair. Jack vaguely recognizes her from a ‘Meet the Rookies’ interview he did with Poots at the beginning of the year. Holster had texted him later, after he saw the interview, to ask Jack if he could get him her number. Jack hadn’t been able to tell if Holster were being serious or funny or both. So he’d just ignored him.

“So,” she says to Kent, once they’re through the preamble of introductions. “It’s the question everyone’s asking: are you going to draft Jack?”

Kent grins. “What? Have people been asking that?”

Jack snorts, and their interviewer - Andrea, Jack remembers, that’s her name - laughs, too.

“Don’t be mean,” she scolds Kent, playful.

“If I tell you now, no one’s gonna watch the draft tonight,” Kent protests. “I’m just doing the NHL’s job for them. Playing up the Parson-Zimmermann storyline. You guys gotta get people to tune in somehow.”

He says it in a funny, co-conspiratorial kind of way, in a way that says: we all know what I’m saying is true, but if I say it outright, we can all pretend I’m joking. Half the articles Jack saw about the All-Star Game were about whether or not Kent was going to draft him. At least only a couple of them had used the lap-sitting picture from the Q.

“Kent doesn’t think he can win without me,” Jack says dryly.

“Won last year without you just fine,” says Kent primly. He smiles, small and smug, and Jack does snatch his hat off his head in response.

“Hey!” squawks Kent. He lunges for the hat and they scramble for a second. Jack realizes maybe this was a mistake; the stools they’re sitting on aren’t exactly well-balanced.

Andrea laughs and waves her hands at them ineffectually. “Come on. It’s a little early for this. Come on! Guys!”

Jack successfully fends Kent off. He jams the hat on his head. It’s a little tight on him, but, still. Victory. He grins; Kent huffs, but his eyes are smiling.

“Just for that, I’m gonna draft you last,” he says.

“So you are going to draft him!” says Andrea.

Kent laughs, almost as if he’d forgotten Andrea were there. “Yeah, probably. Jack’s been a big fan of mine for a long time. He’s earned it.” He flashes all his teeth at the camera and says in a loud, goofy voice: “But tune in tonight to find out for sure, folks!”

Andrea laughs again. She’s very good at laughing.

“So are you two excited? This could be your first time playing together since, what, 2008?”

This is the closest, Jack thinks, the NHL is ever going to get to officially acknowledging Jack’s flame-out. What a weird coincidence that he and Parson haven’t played together in over half a decade!

Kent shrugs, nonchalant. “I’m always excited to be at the All-Star Game, Andy. But, yeah, it’s exciting to potentially play with an old friend like Jack again.”

Jack nods his agreement. He’s missed doing press with Kent, if only because he never has to talk during it.

Andrea smiles benignly. “Was it difficult to maintain your friendship while Jack was at school?”

Kent’s smile freezes. It’s probably not obvious to Andrea, but it’s obvious to Jack. His eyes are a little too wide. He glances at Jack.

“Uh,” says Kent. “Ha, we - ”

“Kent kept in touch,” says Jack. He smiles, and he’s surprised by how easily it comes to him. “He made sure I knew I could always reach out for anything. But, you know, it was hard staying in touch when our lives were so different, but it’s been great to reconnect this year.”

“That’s great,” enthuses Andrea, and then she pulls out a set of index cards and a couple permanent markers. Jack groans, because he knows immediately where this is going. “Now let’s see how well you two still know each other!”

Kent’s just looking at him. Jack raises his eyebrow slightly, and Kent looks away quickly and refocuses his smile on Andrea.

“Get ready to lose, Zimmermann,” he says, rote.

They stumble through Andrea’s half-assed version of the newlywed game. Kent’s favorite movie is still Back to the Future (though Jack is briefly tempted to say Die Hard 2), but his signature dish is now “spaghetti carbonara” (“Really?” says Jack, skeptically. “It was heating up old chicken nuggets when we were in the Q.”), and Jack has no idea what his golf handicap is (“I didn’t even know you played golf!”). Kent, for his part, knows Jack’s favorite band, Bad Bob’s career-high number of goals in a season (of course Jack gets a question about his dad), and Jack’s major.

“His questions were easier!” say Jack at the end, laughing.

“You’ll just have to visit me in Vegas,” says Kent, closing out the interview. “I’ll make you spaghetti. We’ll go golfing.”

“Can I come?” asks Andrea brightly, and they all laugh. End interview. It’s all very wholesome. Jack can already picture the weirdly invasive texts he’ll get from Ransom and Holster about it.

**

Kent shoulder bumps him after.

“That was pretty smooth back there,” he says.

“I’m not totally useless at press,” says Jack.

“You’ve had enough practice. You should be great at it,” says Kent. He smiles, too, but the smile fades quickly. “You didn’t have to lie, you know.”

“What?” says Jack. He frowns. “But Journey is my favorite band.”

Kent swallows hard, laughs. “That’s not what I meant, Zimms.”

“You mean about being friends,” says Jack slowly. He shrugs. “It wasn’t really a lie. You did try to keep in touch.”

He says it lightly. There’s too much water underneath to say anything more. It’s hard enough to just look at Kent, but it might be harder to look away. Jack should have expected this. He hasn’t been able to get Kent out of his head since Providence. Kent looks back at him for a second, and then his gaze kind of skitters away. He looks shaken, like he’s one bad pass from getting dropped a line. Jack keeps looking at him. He needs to say something to stop making it so awkward between them. He doesn’t say anything.

“How was your bye-week?” asks Kent.

“Good. I went up to Montreal.”

“Yeah? How are the folks?”

“They’re good.”

They’d played cards for hours - hands of seven card stud, high/low, ace-in-the-hole, five card draw - Alicia politely, relentlessly taking both Jack and Bob for all they had. She’d smile after laying her hand down, shake her hair out, say: “We WAGs used to play each other for charity donations.” It had been nice. Easy. It feels very far away from here.

“They asked about you,” adds Jack. “They’re glad we’re hanging out again.”

Kent’s expression doesn’t give anything away, which is itself a giveaway. He smiles, a beat too late.

“Nice of them to think of me. You see, uh, B at all?”

“A little,” says Jack. A flicker of irritation licks up the back of his skull. He doesn’t want to talk about Bittle with Kent. Bittle’s in his own box. Bittle’s been weird lately, a little clingy. Jack thinks he’s been reading too much press.

Kent doesn’t press it. He runs his hand through his hair distractedly. Jack takes his hat off and hands it back; Kent takes it silently. He’s very different from how he was a moment ago, in front of the camera. It’s like a light went off inside him.

“Are you all right?” asks Jack softly.

“Yeah, uh.” Kent’s eyes cut towards him, then away. He smiles, almost succeeds at making it look real. He hasn’t put the hat back on; he’s just turning it in a slow circle in his hands. “Just, you know… Hey.” He looks suddenly stressed out. “It is okay if I draft you, right?”

Jack looks at him in surprise. Kent had texted him that exact question about thirty minutes after being announced as the visiting team captain.

There’d been the expected flare up of resentment, followed closely by paranoia that this was yet another way Kent was rubbing Jack’s face in his success. And then there was the simple surprise that Kent asked, that he wasn’t just going to draft Jack whether Jack liked it or not.

Jack had let each emotion slip past him. He’s been trying not to dwell. Doctor’s orders.

And then, breaking through the resentment, the paranoia, the surprise had been a giddiness: he was going to play on a line with Kent again. He’s going to play on a line with Kent again.

yeah, he’d replied.

“Yeah,” he says now. “But not if you don’t want to…”

“I want to,” says Kent quickly.

“Okay. So…”

Parser!

They both startle at that, and through the mill of players, press, and assorted hockey functionaries, Jack spots the shaggy head of Jeff Troy. Jack’s still mostly looking at Kent, though, so he doesn’t miss Kent’s melting look of relief.

“Yo!” shouts Kent, smile popping back onto his face. “Swoops, man, where ya been?”

“Just about to ask you the same thing,” says Troy. He’s suddenly at Kent’s elbow, and he gives Jack a cursory glance. “Zimmermann,” he says.

“Troy,” says Jack back. The flicker of irritation breaks into full flame. The back of his neck squeezes, tight, painful. He’s not used to Kent not wanting to be around him. He’s not used to Kent wanting to be around someone else more than he wants to be around Jack. And Jack knows it’s petty, but, well, he’s resentful all the same.

“Got a moment, cap?” says Troy to Kent. He turns so he’s half between Jack and Kent, his shoulder angled towards Jack’s chest. It’s the kind of position Jack’s seen Troy get into on the ice, when he’s protecting Kent while Kent has the puck. What the hell does that mean?

“Yeah,” says Kent. His eyes flick towards Jack and he half-smiles, half-shrugs, all rueful. “See you at the draft, man.”

“See you,” repeats Jack automatically.

Troy doesn’t say anything, just walks off. Kent saunters after him. Jack watches them go. There’s an unhappy tightness to his chest. He feels like he’s at a party where the only person he knows has just walked off with someone else.

That’s kind of exactly what this is, actually.

**

He heads back to his room, with vague plans of calling Bittle or finishing a podcast or tracking down Tater, and then someone steps directly in front of him. Jack nearly knocks the guy right over. He steps aside, mutters an apology.

“So you might finally get drafted first,” says the guy, in unaccented Quebecois. That makes Jack actually look at him.

It’s Antoine LeBlanc. He’s a rookie, like Jack, eighteen-years old and a freshly anointed wunderkind, went first in the draft. Jack’s been following his season, in a half-assed, grudging kind of way. The kid’s good. He’s beating Jack on points, which makes whatever this is totally baffling.

Jack just frowns at him. He tries to remember if anything out of the ordinary happened when they played the Yotes last month and comes up with nothing. It had been a pretty solid 2-1 away game. Jack doesn’t think anyone even picked up a major.

Something about his stare must unnerve LeBlanc, because the smirk on his face starts to go wobbly.

He’s worried about you, thinks Jack abruptly. LeBlanc sees him as competition. It’s almost enough to make him laugh. It’s not funny, exactly. It’s just been a long time since Jack’s stepped outside his own head long enough to realize he’s intimidating.

“Are you okay?” says LeBlanc after another second, the smirk gone entirely.

Jack does laugh then, and LeBlanc takes a step backward. He’s definitely unnerved now. LeBlanc’s still got baby fat on his cheeks, a smear of blackheads on his chin. Jack feels like he should be telling him to go study for his midterm. Chowder’s older than this kid. Chowder.

“Hey,” says Jack. He feels like he’s channeling his dad, the way his dad talks to the frogs at Samwell. He claps LeBlanc on the shoulder. “Good job at Halifax last year.”

He walks off. He feels moderately more cheerful.

**

“I’m proud to announce the first selection of the 2016 NHL All-Star Draft...” Kent pauses, looks up, smiles directly at the cameras. He’s crammed into a suit. He looks pretty good, except his hair has been shellacked back to keep his cowlicks down. 11 million dollars a year, thinks Jack, fond even over his nerves, and he still can’t figure out his hair.

“From the Providence Falconers,” continues Kent, and immediately the backroom starts to crackle with noise: laughter, groans, wolf-whistles.

“Jack Zimmermann.”

It takes Jack a second to process, and then Tater is pushing him out of his seat. Jack jerks forward, smiles awkwardly as all the cameras train on him. He walks onstage from the backroom. He takes off his suit jacket. Takes the “Team Parson” jersey Andrea - acting as co-host - hands him. Pulls the jersey on. His shirt collar pokes out awkwardly from it.

“Drafted first!” says Andrea brightly. She shoves a microphone into his face. “How does that feel?”

“Uh, good?” says Jack. The thing is, he wasn’t expecting to go first, especially after Kent's earlier weirdness. He looks at Kent, bewildered. But Kent's smiling at Andrea, head cocked slightly as he listens to her questions.

“Can I ask, what was the strategy here?”

"Oh, the ratings, for sure," says Kent. Everyone laughs. It's like Jack's stumbled into a sitcom. He squints against the stage lights and into the crowd. He can't really see anyone, but he can hear them. There's probably a voiceover, somewhere, enthusiastically going over Jack's stats as his highlight reel plays. It's a lot warmer on stage than Jack expected.

"Kent, be serious," scolds Andrea, smiling.

“When you wanna be the best, you gotta play with the best,” says Kent.

“So why’d you draft Zimmermann?” someone shouts. One of the Alternate Captains, thinks Jack.

"You drafted me first," says Jack blankly. He immediately regrets it. That was definitely caught on mike.

"Yeah," says Kent. He grins broadly, and the smile even reaches his eyes. He shakes Jack's hand, as if they were meeting for the first time. "Welcome to Team Parson, Jack. Happy to have you onboard."

**

He doesn’t see Kent again until the Skills Competition the next morning. Even then, there’s not really time to talk, and Jack ends up on the other side of the players’ bleachers from Kent, next to Tater, who keeps introducing Jack to people like they all don’t know exactly who everyone is.

Kent wins Fastest Skater easily. It’s almost a little boring, honestly. Kent’s up first, and LeBlanc’s the only one who even gets close to him. They get through Breakaway and Accuracy and then Jack’s up for Hardest Shot.

It’s over in a flash. It’s nothing like being out on the ice for the game. Jack does his best to smile and look like he’s having a good time when he sees his face up on the screens that surround the rink. He hits his puck at a more than respectable 98mph, good enough to place third. He stomps back off the ice to where Tater is cheering for him. He feels a little out of it, a little annoyed. He knows hockey is entertainment, but this feels more like a circus than usual. He keeps trying to catch Kent’s eyes, but Kent’s got his head down close to Troy’s, and they keep laughing.

It goes like that. Jack keeps remembering suddenly to smile when the cameras pan over him. He’s only half-watching the challenge, half-paying attention to the players around him, despite Tater’s best efforts. He knows he’s going to get a reputation for being unfriendly, or, well, more of a reputation at least.

Then Kent’s up for Puck Control, and Jack stops talking to an Avs player mid-sentence to watch.

It goes poorly. Kent can’t get the puck through the second gate at the end. The puck keeps falling off his stick, and he seems, for Kent, flustered. Eventually he just reaches down and grabs the puck and puts it right on the stick. He jams it through the target. It’s an obvious disqualification. Kent’s face on the screens around the rink is gigantic, and his smirk is unmissable. The crowd howls with laughter. Even when Kent loses, he wins.

Kent shrugs, smiles - ain’t-I-a-stinker? - as he comes off. Troy is still doubled over with laughter, and Kent takes a seat beside him, in the middle of a crush of other players, who all seem to turn at once to chirp Kent.

Jack watches Kent, in the middle of it, laughing, eyes lidded, golden, perfectly at ease where Jack would be humiliated.

It brings him back, immediately, automatically, to the very first time he saw Kent. They were both sixteen, new to the team. Jack had made his dad leave before any of his new teammates saw him. They’d all know Jack was Bad Bob Zimmermann’s son anyway, but he didn’t need to start his time in juniors reminding everyone of that fact.

Jack had stood for a long time outside the door before going in. Kent was already inside, and Jack’s eyes had landed on him first: Kent, at the center of the room, hair bright gold from the summer sun, a circle of their new teammates around him, all laughing as Kent spoke.

Jack froze just inside the door, staring at Kent, and his first feeling – his very first feeling about Kent – was resentment. Kent was handsome, funny, confident. He’d already made friends. All Jack had was his mumbling awkwardness and his father's shadow.

Then Kent looked up and caught Jack’s eyes before Jack could look away. He smiled and walked through the crowd, right to Jack, and offered his hand. Jack took it instinctively, could already feel the muscles in his back and neck start to freeze up.

“I’m Kent Parson,” said Kent. “And I already know who you are.” He smirked. He looked like a teen heartthrob, the kind the girls in Jack’s classes would cut pictures of out of magazines and tape to their binders.

“Yeah?” said Jack, idiotically.

Kent nodded, and his smirk turned into a full-fledged smile, brilliant and knowing.

“Yep. Jack Zimmermann.” He squeezed Jack’s hand once before letting go. “We’re gonna play first line together.”

It was so unexpected, so confident, that Jack laughed.

“Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?”

“Nope,” said Kent with a shake of his head, still smiling. “I’ve seen your tape. I know you’re good. Good enough to play with me.”

Jack laughed again and found, to his surprise, that he believed him.

It’s the same now. What should have been Jack’s by right of birth is Kent’s, has always been Kent’s.

And then Kent smiles at him, just like that first time, and Jack’s helpless again to the hooking force.

He smiles back, and, somehow, the circle of other players moves apart to let Jack through.

“Man,” says Jack, as he sits next to him. “That was pretty embarrassing for you.”

“I was being generous,” says Kent. “I can’t win everything.”

Kent leans against him then. He’s smiling. Jack puts his arm around his shoulder. He smiles back. Everyone around them is cheering, yelling. They’ve moved onto the next challenger. Kent’s face is close to his. Jack shakes his head. He’s dizzy.

“As long as you win tomorrow,” he says.

**

The puck drops. Jack feints right, sends his opponent sideways, and then slides the puck neat and quick to his left. Kent’s on it. He blazes forward. Jack goes right, trailing their right winger like a shadow and leaving the other team to scramble: go towards the puck or towards the two players? They go towards Kent, and Jack lets himself drift back. There’s suddenly a vacuum of space between him and the goal. The goalie realizes this and starts to yell, but Kent’s faster. He dodges Tater and Macer easily and then, without looking, sends the puck ricocheting backwards. Straight to Jack. He doesn’t even bother to bring it under control, just slaps it hard and straight into the upper righthand corner of the net.

It’s probably not 98 mph, but it’s still pretty damn fast. The buzzer goes, and Jack looks at the clock. It’s been twenty-seven seconds. He’s still looking at the clock when Kent slams into him.

“No look one-timer!” howls Kent. “We still got it, baby!”

“How’d you know I was gonna be there?” demands Jack.

“How’d you know I was gonna pass there?” shoots back Kent. Jack’s aware, vaguely, that the rest of their team has skated up for the celly. But he’s focused entirely on Kent.

“Let’s do it again,” he says.

Kent’s answering grin is feral.

"You owe me an assist,” he says, and he skates off to the face-off circle.

Kent wins the face-off. He gets it back to Jack immediately, and Jack’s off, into the neutral zone, a one-man battering ram. He hears Kent laughing behind him, and he has no idea how. But he can hear him, over the crowd, over the wind rushing over him as he surges forward, over his own pounding blood.

He’s past the blueline, still has the puck. Macer closes in on him. But Jack’s in a place beyond calm. It’s nothing like the stillness of the world, the stillness of nature; nothing like the middle of a forest or the morning after a heavy snow. It’s a fullness and an emptiness, a sense of being worked through, as if he’s no longer an active participant at all, merely a happy passenger as they take the final curve towards home. It’s peace. It’s why he plays. It’s what the benzos were only ever able to offer a mockery of, an All-Star Draft as to the Entry Draft. He almost killed himself trying to live in this space permanently. Who wouldn’t do the same? Who wouldn’t choose to spend forever on the cresting wave of joy?

He breaks right. Then he curls back, with a bit of speed he hopes Kent sees. Momentum swings him in a tight circle around Macer that leaves the big d-man scrambling. Kent’s in front of the net. Jack flicks it to him backhand, and Kent taps it forward, pure silk, straight under the keeper’s outstretched arm.

Jack punches the air, and when Kent turns to look at him, his eyes are glowing. He’s all Jack can see.

“One more,” says Kent, laughing, breathless, as Jack tugs him forward by his jersey. “One more before they bench us for being too damn good.”

**

They win 5-2. Kent gets Jack another assist, though this takes a little longer, a polite two minutes, before they’re both subbed off for good. It’s not exactly sporting, Jack guesses, to have two players dominate the entire All-Star Game. It’s almost as fun, anyway, to be on a bench again with Kent, who’s on his feet the whole time, yelling like it’s a play-off game and then turning around to look at Jack and laugh. Jack laughs, too. His sides start to hurt, he laughs so much.

At the end of the game, after the congratulations, the ridiculous pomp and ceremony, the crowd emptying out, LeBlanc skates over. He scored both his team’s goals, but his expression is sullen. Jack decides to be generous; he can afford to.

"Good game," he says in French. LeBlanc scowls at him. "That second goal was a beauty."

“Maybe if you played with Parson all the time," LeBlanc snaps, "I wouldn’t be beating you on points.”

“Knock it off, Blanco,” says Kent, in careful French. “You’re top scorer for the Coyotes.”

LeBlanc makes a face like all the breath’s been knocked out of him. Jack almost feels sorry for him. He almost laughs. If he catches Kent’s eye, he will laugh. Kent shakes his head, then pushes his helmet off. His hair is a mess, but he still manages to look at LeBlanc like the kid just smacked himself in the face with his own hockey stick.

“You don’t have to defend my honor, Kenny,” says Jack, amused. Instinctively, he reaches over and brushes his hand through Kent’s hair, neatening it. And then Kent freezes, too, eyes widening, disdainful look dropping off his face.

Jack freezes in response. All three of them stand there for a second, no one looking at each other. Then –

“Zimmboni!” shouts Tater, barreling across the ice. He knocks Jack into the boards and hugs him. “Great game!”

By the time Jack gets disentangled from Tater, Kent’s deep in conversation with Troy and the Schooners’ captain, Macer. But then Kent looks Jack’s way and smiles.

“We’re gonna have some drinks in my room,” he says. “The post-game pre-game. You wanna come?”

“Yeah,” says Jack.

Tater makes a face. Kent gives him a casually dismissive look. “You can come, too, big guy. Bring all the Russians. You, too, Blanco. Unless you’ve got somewhere better to be.” He smiles a bit as he says the last part, and Jack can’t tell if he’s being kind to the kid or cruel. Maybe both. Jack hides his own smile behind his hand.

“I’ll probably swing by,” says Blanco, trying to sound indifferent. Jack meets Kent’s eyes then, and they both laugh, a little louder than is probably polite. God, thinks Jack, he’s missed this.

“Uh huh,” says Kent when he’s done laughing. He taps his stick lightly against Jack’s arm. “I’m gonna shower. Room 312. See you there.”

Tater sighs as Kent skates off. “Bad news,” he says glumly.

“He’s not so bad,” says Jack. He’s still smiling, still watching Kent go, still riding that high. “Helluva player, eh?”

Chapter Text

They go up to Kent’s later than Jack would have liked. Tater wanted to track down a couple friends - “all the Russians,” as Kent had called them, and Jack didn’t want to go up alone. So by the time they make it there, there’s already a bit of a crowd, mostly players. No girls, so at least it’s not going to be that kind of party.

And there’s Kent’s on the couch, Swoops sprawled out to his left and another Ace sitting on the arm of the couch to his right. He doesn’t look up as Jack comes in. Jack’s good mood ebbed some as he waited for Tater. He feels it deteriorate entirely now as he watches Kent laugh at some video Zucker-from-the-Aeros is showing him on his phone. Jack doesn’t get it. Every time he feels like he and Kent have been in sync this weekend, Kent’s gone moody or squirrelly or just straight up disappeared behind his media persona. Kent glances up once, meets Jack’s eyes, looks away as Troy says something to him.

You’re being obvious, thinks Jack at himself, disgusted. He forces himself to look away and engage with Tater and his friends. They’re talking loudly and quickly in Russian.

“Zimmboni!” says Tater, when he realizes Jack’s decided to be social. “You will love this story. It is, uh, gymnast - ”

Popover makes a sound of protest and says something in Russian. Tater waves his hand. “Da, da! I’m getting to that part!” He rolls his eyes at Jack. “He thinks I should start with the priest, but I think the gymnast.”

“Right,” says Jack grimly. “Let’s go with the gymnast.”

They don’t get much further than the gymnast, or at least, Jack’s not able to follow much more than that. A priest does show up, and a donkey, and a cat with what Tater and Orly spend five minutes arguing is either a violin or a cello. (“How would a cat carry a cello?” Tater shouts, at that point, gesticulating wildly and getting vodka on everyone within five feet of him.) There’s also a pun which only makes sense in Russian and which provokes an argument between all three of them, as well as half the other Russians in the room. They all switch over to Russian at one point, and then Tater backtracks, apologetically, to translate the arguments.

Popover starts to look annoyed, legitimately annoyed as the translations get longer and more convoluted. Jack gets it. Sometimes you just want to talk to your own people in your language. It strikes him then that there aren’t any other Russians on the Falcs, a fact Jack has known but has never internalized. His face burns a little. He should stop relying on Tater so much. He shouldn’t need a social crutch at this point.

He meets Blanco’s eyes then. The kid is holding a very full cup of clear liquid and looks like he’s in way over his head. He’s dangling on the outskirts of Kent’s conversation. Shouldn’t you be with the other rookies? Jack thinks in exasperation.

He turns away and manages to snag a seat next to Aavik, the Aeros’ goalie. It puts him at a diagonal from Kent, who has sunk a little lower into his seat and seems lost in his phone, like it’s not his room and his party that he invited everyone to. Troy catches Jack looking and raises an eyebrow. Jack looks away.

“Man,” says Donno, one of the ex-Aces. He’s been running the conversation for awhile, but Jack’s just now tuning in. “Is it just me, or did Andrea get some work done?” He gestures at his chest, leers.

Man,” says Zucker. “Leave her alone. I heard she was seeing Bergman.”

“On the Schooners?” says Donno. Macer just shrugs, but Donno’s not deterred. He smirks. “That just means she’s easy for hockey players.”

“Maybe just goalies,” says Aavik thoughtfully. “She has good taste.”

Donno laughs. He’s one of those guys whose faces get redder and redder and eyes get narrower and narrower the more they drink. He’s scarlet and squinting now, and when he laughs, Jack can see where he’s missing one of his canines. He must catch Jack looking because his attention lands on Jack suddenly. He grins hugely. He’s missing a tooth towards the back, too.

“What about you, Zimmermann?” he says. “You were probably getting hella pussy at that college you were at, right? Girls love a sob story. Bet they’re even more all over you now.”

“Uh,” says Jack. He laughs a little. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s just like when Ransom and Holster used to talk about their hook ups, or pester Jack about who he was taking to Winter Screw.

“I don’t really talk about my personal life,” he says, or tries to say. It was easier to say that at Samwell, where everyone half-worshipped him. It’s a lot harder here, staring down a two-time defender of the year, where he’s just a rookie, where he’s just: Jack Zimmermann, Fuck Up.

Practically everyone laughs.

“I don’t really talk about my personal life,” repeats Blanco, in a stilted, mincing kind of voice, finally managing to shove his way into the conversation. He gets a delighted punch in the arm from Donno for his efforts. You’re going to win the Calder, Jack thinks at him, disgusted. Stop sucking up.

“Zimmboni has girlfriend,” says Tater loudly, almost defensively. His face is flushed from alcohol, and he’s scowling. Jack hadn’t realized Tater had followed him from the Russian argument. “Very close. Talk all the time.”

Kent makes a small noise, like a cough covering a laugh. No one else seems to notice. They’re all looking at Jack.

“So is she college pussy?” asks Donno.

“Don’t be fucking gross, Donno,” snaps Troy. “You’ve got daughters.”

“Yeah, and they’re not in college,” says Donno. “I wanna hear about who Zimmermann’s boning.”

“Dude, gay,” says Zucker. He laughs loudly. Half the other guys do, too. Including Kent.

“Suck on this, Zook,” says Donno, throwing the bird. He looks between Tater and Jack. “But seriously, no deets?”

“She is secret girlfriend,” says Tater, still with that loyal, dogged scowl.

“A secret girlfriend?” says Macer. He looks faintly interested in the conversation for the first time. Jack doesn’t think he was one of the guys who laughed. But he’s not sure. “What, is she married?”

Jack doesn’t know how to respond. His mind goes blank, and he feels panic start to lock him inside his chest.

“Uh,” he starts. Everyone’s is looking at him.

“Separated,” says Kent coolly.

“What?” Macer looks at him.

“She’s separated,” says Kent. He’s still looking at his phone. His hair has come down over his eyes. He’s had the same beer in his hand for an hour, but Jack’s pretty sure he’s the only one who’s tracking Kent that closely.

“Parson knows her?” says Tater, frowning.

Kent rolls his eyes. “We’ve been best friends forever, Mashkov. I get a little more access than you do.”

Jack notices that Troy frowns at that, but he doesn’t say anything.

“Well, damn, Zimmerbot,” says Macer, leaning back in his seat. He looks impressed. “A married woman.”

“Separated,” says Jack quietly. He glances at Kent, tries not to let too much gratitude show in his face. “She was already separated when we started seeing each other. But… It’s a complicated divorce.”

Donno laughs. “Damn, don’t I know it. My fucking first wife tried to take me for everything.”

“Yeah, but that’s on you for all the hookers,” shoots back Zucker.

Everyone laughs, including Jack, but he’s careful not to make eye-contact with Kent.

He misses his friends, he thinks suddenly. But he doesn’t leave

**

It gets later. More guys trickle in and then more start to trickle out, first in ones or twos and then in clumps, off to better parties, other bars. Jack keeps expecting Kent to kick them all out every time someone turns his way and asks if he’s coming. But Kent just stays on the couch, eyes on his phone, same beer in hand. Eventually, Tater claps Jack on the shoulder and heads out with his friends, none of them wobbly despite the concerning amount of hard liquor they’ve put away. And then it’s just Jack and Kent. Jack and Kent and fucking Troy, who’s lingering at the door. Kent glances at him and raises his eyebrows, once, very quickly. Jack wouldn’t notice if he weren’t watching. But it’s not like there’s anyone else to look at. He doesn’t see how Troy responds, but he does hear the door open and close. They’re alone.

“What’s that about?” he asks.

“What’s what about?” asks Kent. He pockets his phone finally and gets up, starts gathering the empty bottles together.

“Troy. ‘Swoops.’ He’s been on my ass all weekend.”

“Has he?” asks Kent, guileless. He starts stacking the bottles neatly by the trash can. “Can’t really blame him, man. It’s a good ass.”

Jack flushes stupid at that, but he’s still kind of annoyed.

“Parse - ” he starts. Kent cuts him off like he doesn’t even hear him.

“‘Been on your ass’? Man. You don’t talk like that. What’s with you?”

“What?” says Jack, and he’s momentarily jolted out of his annoyance, because what is Kent even talking about? And then he gets it. He scowls, irritated in a different way now. “It’s just being around… everyone.”

“Yeah,” says Kent. He stays squatting by where he’s stacked the bottles, balanced on his heels. Jack almost doesn’t catch what he says next, Kent says it so quietly. “I always liked that you talked different from the other guys.”

Jack doesn’t know how to respond to that.

“Does he know?” he says instead.

Kent stands up, bouncing on the balls of his feet for a second. His back is still to Jack. “Know what?

“That we - that I.” Heat, blotchy and nettled, crawls up his face. He lapses into sullen silence. Kent turns finally, mouth tight and eyes bright, and he looks Jack dead in the face.

“No, he doesn’t fucking know, Jack. I don’t talk about that shit.”

“Oh,” says Jack. He frowns. “But he doesn’t like me.”

“Lots of people don’t like you,” snaps Kent. “You’re kind of unlikable.”

Jack makes himself shrug off the insult. He knows Kent’s trying to distract him.

“Not the way he doesn’t like me. He doesn’t trust me.”

Kent bounces again. Once, twice. His mouth gets tighter.

“And you know this how, exactly? Because you’ve interacted with him once?

Jack sets his jaw stubbornly, glares. Kent glares back, and then all the fight goes out of his body. He sags. He won’t meet Jack’s eyes any more.

“I ran into him after - when I crashed that party at your frat house. And we had that fight?” His voice pitches up, something Kent only ever does when he’s past the exhaustion event horizon. Jack nods jerkily. He remembers the fight. Of course he remembers that fight. “Anyway. I ran into him at the hotel in Boston. His kid was sick. So.”

Kent trails off. He’s looking past Jack now. Jack can almost see the scene. It would have been very late - very early, really - by the time Kent made it back to Boston after the Epikegster. Jack’s been in enough hotels to picture this one, and he’s seen enough hockey players - up half the night and half out of their mind with worry over their family - to see Troy, bag-eyed and pale and pacing the hall.

But he can’t really picture Kent. He can’t really picture Kent the way Kent must have been for Troy to be so pissed at Jack. Kent doesn’t fall apart. Kent gets harder. He gets meaner. The more upset he gets, the more he disappears. Jack’s the one who shatters.

The closest Jack’s ever seen to Kent falling apart was in Providence, less than a month ago. He can’t decide if he’s jealous that Troy got to see that. It’s not like he has any right to be jealous. It’s not like he doesn’t know why Kent never let himself fall apart in front of Jack. One of them had to be strong.

He doesn’t let himself linger on that thought.

“Okay,” he says quietly.

He gets up. Kent’s shoulders go straight, some of his wariness returning. But Jack ignores him. He kneels down behind the couch and grabs a couple bottles Kent missed, then he wipes up the spill from where Tater kicked over a drink. Jack only had two beers. He feels very sober now. He watches his hands as he cleans, but he’s sharply aware of where Kent is, still standing by the trash, breathing kind of hard. Jack has to walk past him to set the bottles with the rest. Kent steps aside.

“You want to go for a walk?” asks Kent abruptly.

Jack straightens up and looks at him. He wants to say yes. He’s not ready to go to sleep yet. He probably won’t even see Kent in the morning. They’ll both have flights to catch.

But they shouldn’t. This is dangerous. Jack is always aware of the rest of the world, of how people see him, of how they react to him, of what he has done, and what he has left to do. But with Kent, the moment is all there is, sometimes. It’s crystallized, disconnected. Their time playing together had been a whole string of moments like that: the crowd gone, the opposing team gone, their own team gone. Nothing but the two of them, like two kids playing one-on-one on a frozen pond, and the puck between them, Kent bombing down the boards, laughing, and Jack streaking down the center after him, grinning, knowing Kent was about to slice him a perfectly-weighted, perfectly-angled pass. There’s never any time to think. Mad at each other, happy with each other: there’s never any fucking time.

He can feel that now, has just enough self-awareness to recognize it. He can’t keep being alone with Kent or he’s going to fuck up. He doesn’t let himself think about what fucking up would mean. But it’s late, and it’s hard to keep his eyes off Kent’s shoulders, his mouth, his throat, his hands.

The Epikegster had been like that. Jack thinks maybe Kent had been relying on that: the music faded and Kent’s hand on his shoulder, and his mouth hot against Jack’s, and even Jack hadn’t been able to ignore the way Kent had trembled when he’d put his hands on Kent’s waist.

But that moment had collapsed, pulled inside out by the gravity of their history.

The game today had been like that, too. He keeps thinking about the first goal, about Kent hitting the puck towards him without even seeing for sure where Jack was, about how they’d both known exactly where they’d needed to be.

There isn’t any other feeling like it.

He’s been so stupid this weekend, always trying to get Kent alone.

“Sure,” he says, finally. “Where to?”

Kent shrugs, then smiles. Jack smiles back tentatively. Kent spreads his hand wide, tilts his head back. It’s a showman’s move, but Jack falls for it anyway.

“Wherever the night takes us, man,” he says, and he leaves. Jack follows him out.

They don’t get very far. Kent starts giggling about two doors down, and Jack elbows him.

“What are you laughing about?” he demands. It’s ridiculous that Kent is laughing now.

“I don’t know,” says Kent, giggling more. He covers his face and laughs through his fingers. “Just late I guess.”

“You’re embarrassing,” says Jack. But he’s finding it hard not to laugh, too. There are bright bubbles of happiness floating up from somewhere deep inside, exploding in his head. The whole evening tilts backward, distends into ridiculousness. Did he really stand there for an hour, listening to an argument in a language he doesn’t even understand?

He starts to laugh, too. Everything feels ridiculous, suddenly: the Russians, LeBlanc, Donno, Kent and Jack themselves, right this moment. They aren’t even going anywhere, thinks Jack. They aren’t even drunk. They’re just stumbling around. Kent’s swinging his arms, no longer giggling, but humming, half-singing. It takes Jack a second to place it - Kent’s always been a little tone deaf - and then he recognizes it as the goal song Rimouski played their last season.

He starts to hum it, too. He doesn’t actually know more than the thirty-seconds or so they’d play after the goal. But it’s still there in his head, as insuperable as a reflex.

“Fuck, you’re tone deaf,” says Kent, cutting off.

I’m tone deaf?”

“Yeah,” says Kent. He grins wickedly, and Jack feels - his mouth is dry. His heart is racing. He wants to box Kent in against the wall.

“Oh, hey!” says Kent brightly, looking past Jack. Jack turns sharply, worried someone’s spotted them. Not that they’ve actually done anything. Not that he’s going to do anything. He makes himself take a couple steps back from Kent. This is dumb, this is dumb, this is dumb! blares a warning voice in his brain. It sounds a lot like Shitty. It probably says a lot about him that his voice-of-common-sense sounds like Shitty.

There’s no one else in the hallway, though Jack can feel the bass beat of a song in his feet, coming from one of the rooms.

He looks at Kent, confused.

“Dude,” says Kent, exasperated, and then he points at an empty housekeeping cart.

“It’s a cart,” says Jack blankly.

“Yeah,” says Kent. He scrambles up onto it, ends up sitting crosslegged on the top. He grins at Jack. “Push me, Zimms.”

Jack’s torn between laughing and looking stern. He broke up enough hotel hallway cart races at Samwell; it’d be hypocritical to do the opposite now. He grabs the handles and gives the cart a strong shove. Kent yelps with laughter and hunches forward, grabbing on to the sides of the cart to remain steady.

“Hey!” he says.

Jack laughs. He catches up to the cart and grabs it. Kent jerks forward and shoots him a dirty look at the sudden stop. Jack grins wider.

“Where are we going?” he asks.

“Uh…” Kent looks around and then gestures towards the elevator bank. “You’re on the fifth floor, right?”

Jack nods.Dude!, says the voice that sounds like Shitty. Jack ignores it. He pushes Kent to the elevators. He’s mostly not an ass about it.

Kent climbs off the cart in the elevator, steadying himself against Jack’s shoulder as he goes. Jack’s hands come up, and, briefly, he holds Kent by the waist. They look at each other. Kent’s lips are slightly parted, his eyes wide. Jack could kiss him. He feels the wanting bubble up inside him. He puts a name to it. He could kiss Kent, here, in the couple of seconds they’re hidden and alone. It wouldn’t count here, if he kissed him; they’re nowhere. They’re in-between. And then the elevator glides to a halt and gently dings. The doors open. Kent pulls away and stumbles out, into the hallway, where the light is bright, impersonal. It’s late, but you wouldn’t know it here. Jack hears raucous laughter down the hall. He follows Kent, even though Kent doesn’t know what room Jack’s in. Kent’s going in the right direction, at least.

“Here,” says Jack, when they pass it.

Kent turns and jostles against Jack as Jack fishes for his keycard. Jack swats at him. He can’t stop smiling.

“You’re in my way,” he says.

“Get used to it,” says Kent.

Jack snorts and shoulders him aside long enough to get the door open.

They keep bumping into each other all the way to the couch. Mostly purposefully. Jack crashes onto the couch first, and Kent crashes down, half beside him, half on top of him.

“Hey,” says Jack, elbowing him. “Move. You’re gonna cut off circulation to my arm.”

“Fuck you,” says Kent, laughing. But he sits up and adjusts, then leans back against Jack’s side. Jack looks down at him. It’s an odd viewpoint, turns Kent’s face into a series of flat, angled planes. Jack can’t even tell if Kent’s eyes are closed. He takes a deep, settling breath, and Kent answers with a sigh. The curtains are closed. There’s a whole city behind them. A pretty good city. They’re in Nashville this year. But Jack’s only been shuttled between the convention center and the rink all weekend. He’s experienced a lot of cities like that. All his life, he’s experienced a lot of cities like that.

“How come you didn’t want to go out?” he asks.

“Went out last night,” says Kent, his voice has gone monotone, drowsy. “And you hate going out.”

“Yeah,” says Jack.

“Sides,” adds Kent. “Been to Nashville before. It’s fine. But sometimes you just don’t want people looking at you, right?”

“Right,” says Jack. He thumbs at the curve of Kent’s ear. “Never thought I’d hear you say that though.”

Kent snorts. “Shut up, Zimms.”

Jack grins to himself. He keeps his thumb posed gently on the top of Kent’s ear. He wants to trace down the back of his neck, to where his hair curls a bit. But he shouldn’t, and so, for once, he doesn’t. He just stays there on the precipice. Somehow, naming what he wants makes it easier. He can hold it away from himself, actually make a decision about it.

“How are things?” asks Kent after a long moment.

“What?” says Jack. “In general? Or with my head?”

Kent huffs, a pissy sound. “Whichever.”

“Fine,” says Jack, gently. He moves from Kent’s ear and pushes one of Kent’s cowlicks back and then lets go, watches as it immediately springs back into its original position. He rests his knuckles on his hair. “George set me up with someone.”

“George?”

“Assistant GM. It’s been good having someone to talk to.”

He feels Kent nod. “Cool. Good. You tell your boyfriend about it?”

Jack grimaces. He doesn’t say anything, and he feels Kent shift, agitated, against him. Kent shakes his head, a bit like a horse knocking off a fly. Jack moves his hand.

“Why do you care so much about my relationship with Bittle?” he asks finally, a little waspish.

“I don’t,” snaps Kent. “I just.” He breathes in, then out, a little ragged. His voice takes on a plaintive note. “What the fuck are we doing, Zimms?”

Jack’s glad, suddenly, that Kent can’t see him from this angle. His whole face heats up. It’s a question he’s been avoiding answering for himself. There is - there’s just the wanting, still. He can name the wanting, but he can’t name this.

“How come we always argue?” he ends up asking, a little small, a little tender. “I like being around you, but we always fight.”

Kent gives a very small shrug.

“You tell me.” His weight is warm and heavy against Jack. It’s comforting, a sign of affection for all Kent’s current emotional opacity.

“You think it’s my fault?”

“Geez, Jack, is there anyway for me to answer that that’s not gonna turn into a fight?”

An ache settles into Jack’s chest. For the first time, he feels the lateness of the hour as a heaviness. He’s had the high, he thinks, here comes the low.

“Guess not,” he says. “Sorry.”

Kent doesn’t say anything. Jack waits for a minute, and then when it’s clear Kent’s pouting or maybe just decided to back off from this conversation, better not to touch the third rail and all that, he turns the TV on. That’s easy, that’s neutral. It’s already on ESPN. He mutes it. He needs a distraction, but he doesn’t need an extra voice in his head. They watch in silence, or, at least, Jack watches, because, he realizes, Kent’s fallen asleep. His breathing is deep and even, a little bit of a whine to it on the inhale, like he’s a little congested. Or maybe he’s just taken one too many hits to the nose. Jack thinks about shaking him off, waking him up, sending him down to his room. This has all gone on long enough.

But he doesn’t wake him up. He looks at his phone instead, for the first time all evening. He has two missed phone calls and a voicemail from Bittle. He should have been expecting that. He has, he admits to himself, in the privacy of his own head, maybe avoided looking at his phone because he has been expecting that.

Jack doesn’t bother listening to the voicemail. He just calls.

“Bittle?” he says when the call gets picked up.

"Hey,” says Bittle. His voice is muffled, sleep-streaked. “Jack. It’s late, honey. Is everything okay?”

Jack cringes. “Yeah,” he says. “Sorry. Just saw that I missed your call.”

“S’all right,” mumbles Bittle. He yawns, high and long, and at the end says, “‘M glad you called. Miss you.”

“Miss you, too, bud,” says Jack.

He looks down at Kent. He’s shifted slightly in his sleep, and Jack can see more of his face now: one closed-eye, the long fringe of his lashes against his cheek. His face has smoothed out in sleep. He doesn’t look younger, exactly, but he looks peaceful. Jack used to watch him sleep all the time. It’s the kind of thing that loses its intimacy quickly in hockey. You see guys sleep all the time: in transit, watching tape, in hotel rooms. He and Kent played with a goalie in the Q who would lie out full sprawl in the bus aisle and pillow his head on his pads. It’s like the war memoirs Jack used to read: guys sleeping in muddy foxholes and under tanks and all that, sleeping wherever and whenever they could get it. Their lives are regimented, but they’re not always reasonable.

He’s missed watching Kent sleep.

A great wave of guilt overtakes him then. He hasn’t done anything. He hasn’t broken any promises. He hasn’t been unkind.

But he also hasn’t been fair. If only, he thinks, if only what? There had been that moment of clarity after he’d dropped Kent off at the airport, then again after he’d called Alicia: maybe they could try! As if enough has changed about either of them to keep them from hurting each other half the time. Every time they’ve been around each other the last few months has been proof enough of that.

“Did you have a good weekend?” asks Bittle, calling him back to the present. If only he could break Bittle’s heart, he thinks dully. If only he were enough of an idiot to do exactly that.

“Yes,” he says, mostly honestly. “Did you watch the game?’

"Yes,” says Bittle. “Those were quite some goals, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack tries to smile, but he’s too tired and BIttle can’t see him anyway, so it’s not like he needs to act the part.

“Thanks, bud. How are you?”

“I’m just peachy, sweetie.” He hears Bittle shift around - the creak of his bed, a settling sigh - and then when Bittle speaks next, his voice is brighter, clearer. “Where are you right now?”

“Uh,” says Jack. “My room?”

“What a coincidence. I’m in my room.”

It takes a second for Jack to realize what’s happening - which is stupid; they’ve done this before - but he’s so far from being in the mood it feels a little like Bittle just suggested they take up ballet together.

“Jack? Honey?”

“Sorry,” says Jack, far too belatedly. “Uh. Just. Someone’s here.”

“Oh!” says Bittle. “Oh no – I didn't… They didn't think...?”

“No,” says Jack quickly. “It’s just Kent. And he, you know, knows. Um. He’s sleeping anyway, I think.”

He's not sure how, but he feels physically colder when Bittle speaks next, even though Bittle's voice is chipper.

“Kent Parson knows we're dating? Kent Parson is sleeping in your room? You did say you were in your room, right?” Each question is higher-pitched than the last.

“Uh...yes,” says Jack. He suddenly realizes he’s never actually told Bittle that Kent knows they’re dating. “And, uh. He just fell asleep on the couch.”

It feels like the right call to not say that he’s also on the couch.

There's a very long, very frosty pause. Kent’s breathing shifts.

“Even Shitty doesn't know we're dating.”

He feels Kent tense.

“Right,” says Jack, stalling. Kent sits up and half-turns. His eyes are bleary and narrowed with sleep.

“Get out,” Jack mouths at him, pointing at his phone. Kent continues to look blankly at him, like he’s not quite sure what’s going on. Jack grimaces, then says into the phone, “Look, bud. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Bud?” mouths Kent. And then the sleep drops from his face as he realizes who Jack is talking to.

“I just don’t understand why you told him,” says Bittle.

He can tell the volume on his phone is on too loud, because Kent cringes.

“Jesus,” he mutters, and he scrambles off the couch, smacking Jack as he goes. Jack, instinctively, grabs his arm. Kent tries to jerk away, though not hard enough to break Jack’s grip. Jack ignores him.

“It just came up,” says Jack. He tries not to dwell on the fact he had told Kent with the intent of hurting him. That had been months ago. He glances up. Kent is staring at him. Jack can’t interpret the emotion at all, but he can feel the intensity. It’s almost enough to make him look away.

“And I know he’s not going to say anything.” He hesitates, because the next part, it’s true, but it’s also kind of manipulative. He holds Kent’s gaze. “It’s been kinda nice, actually, to talk to someone who gets it.”

“It?”

“Being, you know, in the NHL.”

“Oh, fuck you,” says Kent, furious but quiet, and somehow even more ferocious for its volume.

“Oh, honey,” says Bittle, voice melting. “I wish you’d said something earlier. I want you to have someone to talk to about it. Just… I remember how he spoke to at Epikegster. He said all those terrible things. I hope he’s being nicer to you, or I will fly to Vegas myself and – ”

Bittle.

Bittle laughs, embarrassed. Kent’s face is twisted up and pale. Jack can feel him shaking. It’s very slight. He can only tell because he’s holding on so tightly.

“Sorry. I got a little carried away.”

“It’s fine,” says Jack. He tries to force some fondness into his words, because he is fond. It’s very easy to be fond of Bittle. He should let go of Kent, he thinks, but the thought comes from very far away. “It’s nice to know you have my back.”

“And don’t forget I always will, Mr. Zimmermann,” says Bittle primly. He sighs. “Though this does put a damper on my plans, sweetie.”

Jack winces. “I’m sorry, Bittle.”

“It’s okay, sweetie. I mean no. I mean.” Bittle takes a deep, shuddering breath. He’s going to cry, thinks Jack with wild alarm. He’s made his very kind and understanding boyfriend cry. Kent must hear it, too, because he jerks his arm away even harder this time, fury chased off his face by horror. Jack lets him go. He feels, suddenly, paralyzed.

“Sweetheart,” continues Bittle, voice thick with liquid and emotion. “I know now’s not the time, but, it’s just been so hard to keep it all in, and now I know Kent Parson knows, and…. hiding this has been so hard lately. I feel like I’m not - I just feel so distracted, like I’m not able to give my all to the team. And I know I should! I know you don’t want me to let the team down over some silly personal feelings - ”

“Bittle,” says Jack, trying to interject. Is that how Bittle thinks of him? he wonders with hideous shame. That Jack’ll be mad at him for letting his emotions get in way of his play? He’s not surprised if that’s what Bittle thinks, but it would make Jack the worst kind of hypocrite.

Bittle doesn’t stop. He’s speaking quickly, voice and breath coming out in short, rapid bursts. Jack’s done this to him.

“But it’s so hard. And then, when I talk to you about other people, I feel like I’m hiding you. I feel like I’m hiding me. And then there’s all the media - and I know I shouldn’t be listening to it! Or reading it! But they’re never fair to you and they always talk about - they always talk about. Oh my gosh. What am I doing? I meant to - it’s just late and I’m getting sooo emotional.”

Bittle starts to laugh, and it’s even worse than the panicked breathing, because it’s so obviously fake. It’s high, jarring, hysterical.

“Bittle,” says Jack, and his own voice isn’t much better. He counts his breath in - seven seconds; he counts his breath out, another seven. And when he speaks, he’s able to summon his captain voice. “Bittle, calm down. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here, Bittle.”

In his mind’s eye, he can see Bittle, two years ago, curled in fetal position on the ice as the Faber started to light up with the dawn. He’d never bothered to figure out why Bittle was so scared. He still doesn’t really know. He’d just trained Bittle to get used to getting hurt.

He doesn’t know why he’s thinking about that now.

Bittle takes a deep, sucking breath. Jack hears more shifting around and then the sound of Bittle blowing his nose. When Bittle speaks again, he sounds shaky, but calmer.

“I’m sorry,” he says timidly. “That was a lot to dump on you. What a terrible conversation to have over the phone.”

“It’s okay,” says Jack gently. “Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?”

Bittle’s breath catches and then says, quiet and uncertain, “Can we come out? To our friends?”

“Of course,” Jack says immediately, almost desperately. That’s an easy fix. Jack can do that. He’s happy to do that. “When I’m – we’ll set something up when I’m back in Providence.”

“Thanks, honey,” says Bittle. “I just don’t want to jeopardize your career.”

“It’s not jeopardizing my career to be out to my – to our – friends.”

Bittle sniffles. “You really are the sweetest, most wonderful, most supportive boyfriend, Jack Laurent Zimmermann.”

Jack opens his eyes. He remembers with a start that the TV is still on. It’s late enough that it’s cycled back to showing highlights from the All-Star Game.

He finally manages to smile. “You’re too good to me,” he says.

The TV is showing Kent’s goal. He watches himself shake Macer, notices how Kent tracks him on the ice. Then, Kent blurs forward, moving at dangerous velocity towards the goal.

“See you soon,” says Bittle, and then, all in a rush: “Love you, honey.”

He hangs up before Jack has a chance to respond.

On the screen, Jack slaps the puck to Kent, low and fast and hard. Kent claims it, shoots it. Scores. Jack-on-the-screen whoops, fist slicing in the air in victory. Kent turns and starts skating towards Jack for the celly. His eyes had been glowing. People say that all the time, and they don’t really mean it. But Jack had really thought that: Kent’s eyes had been glowing. Maybe it was the lights, maybe the ice, maybe his own heightened emotions. Maybe they had really glowed.

Kent’s left the door open, Jack realizes dimly. He gets up and walks toward it.

On the screen, Jack tugs Kent closer by the front of his jersey and knocks his helmet against Kent’s. He remembers Kent’s laugh when he’d done it.

He’d wanted to kiss Kent then. Then, and there, and everywhere else. He wants to follow Kent out, find him in his room, take Kent’s face in his hands. Jack can play the scene out in his head. He knows, at least, how that would go. The two of them and hockey and the rest of the world something that happens far beyond the borders of their own.

At least, that’s how it would go for a little while.

Sometimes, Jack thinks the month between the Memorial Cup and the draft had been the happiest time of his life. It’s wild explaining that to people, so Jack’s stopped trying: if you were so happy, why did you try to kill yourself?

But it’s not that he tried to kill himself. All he’d done was try to stay.

He shuts the door. He walks back to the couch, and on his phone he Googles: order roses online

Chapter Text

“Nice of you to slow down, Jack,” says George.

Jack straightens up. He’s breathing hard from their run, gone a little faster than usual. George has kept her regular, steady pace, and so when she arrives beside him, her cheeks are flushed but her voice is even.

“Sorry,” says Jack. “I, uh, was thinking about something.”

George gives him a polite, curious look, but Jack doesn’t offer anything else. He’s been thinking about Kent, truth be told. He’s been thinking about Bittle. He’s been thinking about coming out to all his friends. He thinks his friends will be fine. He trusts his friends.

George smiles, small and amused.

“Well, if I could give you one more thing to think about…”

“Yes?” he says warily, because something about George’s tone of voice sounds more like business than friendship.

Sure enough, she says, no-nonsense, “I’d like you to be the Falcs’ You Can Play ambassador.”

Jack doesn’t say anything for a long moment. There are times, like now, when Jack wonders if George knows, if she’s just taunting him with the knowledge. She still hasn’t said anything about getting papped with Kent in Providence, about their history of rumors. Has she been holding onto that for this moment? But, no – he recognizes that’s not a fair thought, and he tries to let it go past him. George is a good person.

“Why me?” he asks finally.

George gives him a look like it should be obvious.

“Jack, you’re one of our top point-scorers this season. Everyone knows your name, and, quite honestly, we’re hoping you’ll be the face of our franchise for a long time. And it’s important to us as an organization – it’s important to me, personally – that we show people we take this kind of stuff seriously, that we’re committed to being a diverse and inclusive organization.”

She pauses. Jack must still look unconvinced because she sighs and adds, “And, frankly, you have a very inspiring story. Your willingness to take care of your mental health and the dedication you’ve shown reaching your dreams will resonate with a lot of people.”

“Great,” says Jack. Now that they’ve stopped running, the sweat on his skin has begun to chill. “I’ve always wanted to be an inspirational story.”

George laughs apologetically. “Tough luck, Jack. You are.”

Jack laughs, because he’s pretty sure he’s expected to. He’s never thought of himself that way, as an inspirational story. He’s just been himself, and often done a poor job of that. He certainly hasn’t done anything worth putting up his poster on a bedroom wall.

“Can I think about it?” he asks. “Give you an answer in a couple days?”

“Of course,” says Georgia, though she looks concerned. “Can I ask – is there a reason why you’re hesitating to do this?”

Jack’s brain stalls out for a second, and then he says the first thing that comes to mind:

“It’s just kind of a distraction, right?”

“A distraction?” George’s body language shifts, going from the languid to stiff. He’s hit a nerve.

“Not that it’s not important,” says Jack hastily. “Just - you know. Of course everyone can play hockey. It shouldn’t matter, uh, what - who they are. That should be obvious, right? So it’s just, uh, a distraction from the season.”

“It’s not that simple,” says George slowly. Jack has to resist the wild impulse to laugh. He doesn’t think it would be expected now.

“Yeah,” he says. “Uh. Well, I’ll let you know.”

**

He drives up to Samwell that afternoon; he doesn’t have to be anywhere for the Falcs until late tomorrow morning. So he figures - he and Bittle figure - that tonight is their best chance to get everyone together.

He calls Kent on the way up; he’s learned how to run phone calls through his car. They haven’t texted since the ASG, and Kent’s face as he fled Jack’s room has floated uneasily through Jack’s mind the last few days. But he wants to talk to Kent about the You Can Play stuff. Kent will get it.

Kent picks up on the second ring.

“So ‘bud’ knows I’m gay,” he says, without preamble, without waiting for Jack to say anything. He says it conversationally, and Jack knows, immediately, Kent has been waiting for him to call so he can snap this trap shut.

“Uh,” says Jack.

“Anyone else you’ve mentioned that little fact to?” Kent’s voice is cheerful. Bittle does that, Jack thinks suddenly. Acts happy when he’s actually mad. Jack hadn’t realized Kent and Bittle have that in common.

“Shitty knows,” he says. He doesn’t feel completely in control of his mouth at the moment.

“Shitty knows,” repeats Kent. The acid-cheer is gone. Kent’s voice is totally flat now. “That’s your friend with the mustache, right? The lawyer?”

“Yeah,” says Jack.

There’s a long pause.

“I haven’t told anyone about you,” says Kent. Jack wishes he could see Kent’s face, because he can’t read Kent’s tone at all. He’s not quite angry, not quite sad, but… defeated, thinks Jack finally. He’s heard that ache in his own voice before, that point where you’re more empty than you are bitter, every time Samwell crashed out of the Frozen Four. He doesn’t get why he’s hearing it from Kent now.

“It’s just Bittle and Shitty,” he offers.

“I don’t fucking know ‘Bittle and Shitty,’ Jack!”

Jack winces.

“They’re not going to say anything,” he says. “If that’s what you’re worried about. Shitty’s known for ever. And Bittle - ” Bittle has as much to lose as they do. “I’m not going to lie to my boyfriend for you.”

“So I don’t get to have a say in who I’m out to? You were about to have a fucking temper tantrum when you thought Swoops might know about you.”

“That’s different,” says Jack immediately.

“How?”

Jack splutters for a moment and then goes silent. He can’t explain how it’s different. It just is. The sound of Kent’s breathing fills the car. Outside, the landscape is brown and damp and bare; all the snow melted after a brief warm snap.

“Shitty - he’s known for awhile, okay?” Jack says eventually. “Since the first time you showed up at Samwell. It wasn’t - I told him. But I think he also figured it out.”

“Jesus,” says Kent. “Okay.”

He’s quiet again. Jack frowns at his car dashboard as if it were actually Kent.

“Okay. But that’s it? Just the two of them?”

“Yes,” snaps Jack.

“Keep it that way.”

Kent hangs up. Jack realizes he never got to say what he wanted to say.

**

Coming out goes well. It’s underwhelming, even. They do it at Jerry’s, which is quiet at 5:30, way too late for lunch, way too early for the post-party crowd. Still, Jack finds himself glancing around to make sure no one’s recognized him - no one’s watching him - when he takes Bittle’s hand, and Bittle takes a deep breath and says:

“Me and Jack are together.”

They both smile. Jack’s arm is around Bittle, and he can feel how tense Bittle’s shoulders are. Which is off. Bittle’s been out to the team for awhile.

There are about three seconds of silence, then Ransom says, in an explosive breath, “Dude! Bits! I knew you didn’t have a cousin in Providence!”

“You did, too,” says Holster. “You asked me if I thought she was hot.”

“I meant hypothetically hot. Like, if Bitty hypothetically did have a cousin in Providence, did you think she would be hot? Cuz you saw those pictures of him and his cousins on Instagram from Christmas.”

“Whatever,” scoffs Holster. His eyes go round, and he turns to Jack, “But, Jack, does this mean you and - ”

Ransom elbows him.

“Dude! Not the time.”

Holster rubs his arm, scowling, but he doesn’t finish whatever he was going to say.

“Wow,” says Shitty. Jack looks at him in relief. Bittle’s shoulders haven’t loosened at all. “Thanks for telling us, brahs.”

That seems to get through to Ransom and Holster. Both suddenly look penitent.

“We’re really happy for you guys,” says Ransom. He grins at Bittle. “Damn, Bitty, if we knew Jack was your type, we definitely would have recalibrated our Winter Screw spreadsheet.”

Bittle laughs, and finally some of the tension in him goes slack.

“Oh,” he says, blushing. “Well. I think it even took me awhile to realize Jack was my type.”

He smiles sidelong at Jack, teasing.

Lardo doesn’t say anything. She just looks at them thoughtfully. Jack catches her eye and raises an eyebrow. She smiles at him and lifts her coffee mug in a silent salute. Jack figures that’s all they’re gonna get out of her. But he’s okay with that. It wasn’t Lardo he was worried about.

He’s not sure who it is who he was worried about, honestly. He feels a little stupid. Like he never should have been afraid in the first place. No one’s been hurting him but him.

Jack knows his fears aren’t always rational. He knows that that’s exactly what his issue is, half the time. But. This fear doesn’t feel like it should be irrational. You are always waiting to be made strange to someone; you are always waiting for the sharp word, the turned shoulder, the lost opportunity, to be the butt of the joke. At a certain point, you get tired of flinching. Pain is fear’s reward, because it means you were right to be afraid.

He wonders if Bittle feels that way about checking. Jack still remembers the heart drop of watching Bittle fall, his helmet go flying. Bittle shouldn’t have needed to make that play in the first place; Jack had spent all season preparing Bittle for the possibility of getting hit. But he hadn’t prepared himself for that possibility.

He wonders now, if for Bittle, that hit had been a kind of vindication.

**

“Dude,” says Shitty, on the walk back to the Haus, his initial shock worn off. “Dude. I had no idea! Damn. You’re fucking good at keeping secrets, Zimmermann!”

Shitty punches him twice in the shoulder, gleeful. “Bitty! This whole time! Right under our nose! You were fuckin’ - Bits! I mean, not like that. But, damn, I guess I do mean like that!” Another punch. “What took you so long to say anything?”

“Uh,” says Jack. He looks ahead, where Bittle is walking next to Lardo, the two of them chatting quietly.

As if he knows he’s being watched, Bittle half-turns and smiles at Jack. He lifts his hand at his waist and waves, almost shyly. Jack feels fondness and affection open in his chest like a sail. Like this, it makes sense, walking back to the Haus, with all their friends around.

“I just didn’t want to mess it up,” he says, when Bittle turns back to laugh at something Lardo says.

Shitty nods somberly. His mustache does a complicated little wiggle that Jack knows well enough to mean Shitty’s trying not to blurt something out. He raises his eyebrows, and Shitty sighs.

“I just get it, dude. I mean, not like I’m in the same position at all. But.” His eyes cut towards Lardo, and he seems to slow down. Jack slows down with him.

“Lardo and I, man.” Shitty shakes his head. “Like I said, not the same thing at all, but we keep…”

He trails off, and for a horrifying moment, Jack is convinced Shitty’s gonna say “making love.” But Shitty just scrunches up his face and says instead, “Hooking up. But, like, is hooking up with your friend ever a good idea? Or dating them? What if we fuck it up? Her friendship’s more important to me than anything - sorry, man.”

“It’s fine,” says Jack, though he feels a small, uneasy jolt of guilt. He glances at Bittle again. Shitty keeps talking over him.

“So we hook up, And then we’ll have a three hour processing session. And then we make out again.”

“I have a hard time seeing Lardo talk for three hours,” says Jack, frowning.

“Yeah,” says Shitty, hangdog “It’s mainly me talking. That’s one of the things we’ve needed to process.”

Jack laughs. He pats Shitty on the shoulder.

“Thanks for telling me,” he says.

“Yeah!” says Shitty. He looks suddenly serious. It’s odd and out of place on Shitty’s face, and all the more endearing for it. “And thank you for telling us. That’s, like, huge. It means a lot that you and Bitty trust us like this.”

“Yeah,” says Jack.

Shitty shakes his head. He’s smiling again. “I’m just happy you let someone in, Zimmermann. I just can’t believe I might end up needing to get romantic advice from you.”

“What?” says Jack, alarmed. “Why?”

Shitty laughs. “Seriously, Jack? You and Bitty have been together since June! And you’ve been doing long-distance! You’ve got this dating your friend thing figured out.”

“Oh,” says Jack. There’s that jolt of guilt again, more of a lurch this time. “It’s mostly Bittle’s doing, honestly.”

**

There are roses all over the Haus, bouquets on every flat surface in the kitchen and living room. Every cup the Haus owns has been enlisted, as well as at least a dozen empty liquor bottles. Bittle laughs as Jack takes it all in.

“You maybe went a teensy bit overboard,” Bittle says teasingly.

“Oh, dude, these were from you?” says Ransom. His face crinkles thoughtfully. “That makes so much sense now.”

“Uh,” says Jack, lanced, again, with a brief and piercing guilt. “Yeah.”

“Isn’t it romantic?” says Bittle breathlessly. He presses himself against Jack’s chest and gazes up at him. “Isn’t he romantic?”

“It’s a goddamn miracle,” says Shitty. He shakes his head solemnly, smiles.

Jack feels like he should say something, but he doesn’t know what. So he just shrugs.

“My dad did it for my mom once,” he says.

“Dude,” says Holster, but Jack ignores him. He takes Bittle’s hand and they walk up the stairs to a barrage of wolf-whistles.

**

Later, he and Bittle lie together in silence. Jack rubs Bittle’s back absently.

“How would your dad react if a football player were gay?” Jack asks.

Bittle laughs nervously. “You mean like that one a couple years ago?”

“There was one a couple years ago?” says Jack, startled.

“Oh, well, he didn’t play very long. And he was picked up by the Rams, you know? And coach isn’t a Rams fan. So. We never talked about it. I mean...” Bittle trails off into another laugh. “It just never came up. It wasn’t relevant. Why? Are you...?”

“Oh. Uh. I was just thinking… George asked me to be the Falcs’ You Can Play guy.”

“Jack! That’s great,” says Bittle. He lifts himself up on his elbow to beam down at Jack. “You’d be amazing at it!”

“I would?” says Jack.

Bittle tweaks his nose. “Of course you would, honey. You already inspire me.”

“Yeah, but you know I’m…”

Bittle shakes his head. “Even before I knew that, you inspired me.”

“Ha,” says Jack. “Thanks...” He doesn’t feel as comforted as he expects he should.

Bittle tweaks his nose again and then lies back down, resting his head on Jack’s chest. Jack brings his arm around Bittle. They lie like that for a long moment, their breathing slowly syncing together. The wind tugs at the Haus, whistling where it finds chinks. Jack’s very glad to be warm and inside. He wishes, sometimes, he’d figured this out sooner, that he and Bittle could have had time to practice a way of being together. Or, at least, that they could have had more evenings like this together in the Haus.

“I’ve been thinking,” says Bittle, after awhile.

Jack hums that he’s listening and Bittle lifts himself up on his elbow again to peer down at Jack. It’s shadow-dark in the room and difficult to read Bittle’s expression.

“The Aces play you in March, right?”

Jack nods. “On the twelfth.”

“Well!” says Bittle, and Jack can tell by the shine of his teeth that he’s smiling. “I was thinking, you should invite Kent for dinner!”

“I should?’ says Jack, confused. He had already figured that he and Kent would probably hang out either before or after the game. Though, he thinks, with more than a flicker of irritation, that’s assuming Kent’s speaking to him by that point.

“Yes! And I can come down from Samwell. Since you two are so close, I want to get to know him better, too.”

“Uh... I can ask him.”

“Great!” says Bittle. He lies back down. “Do you know what kind of pie he likes?”

Jack has to think for a second, and then he says, “I guess I have to ask him that, too.”

**

He creeps out of Bittle’s room to get some air after Bittle falls asleep and then has to pause in the hallway. Lardo is sitting at the top of the stairs, looking down at her phone.

“Hey,” says Jack. She looks up. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” says Lardo, with a friendly smile. “Was just talking to my mom.” She points her thumb back in the direction of her room. “Shits is asleep. So.”

“Yeah,” says Jack. “Bittle is, too.”

Lardo looks at him for a bit, and then she scoots over on the step, to give him room to pass. Jack hesitates, and then he sits down next to her. Lardo smiles.

“Shitty told me that you and he…”

“Yeah,” says Lardo. She brings her knees up and rests her chin on them. “He told me.”

“And that’s okay?”

Lardo nods, and Jack smiles and nudges her gently with his shoulder.

She nudges back, and they just sit together. He likes this about Lardo, her ability to be still, that when he’s with her, silence feels okay, feels expected.

“I didn’t know,” she says eventually.

“Yeah,” says Jack.

She tilts her head and looks at him.

“Is it weird that I wished I’d known?” she asks.

“That Bittle and I…?”

She shakes her head. “Just you, dude. I didn’t know about you.

“Oh,” says Jack. He’s quiet for a moment. Lardo gives him the space to think.

“Why do you wish you knew?” he asks finally.

“It’s just cool to know when you’re not alone,” she says with a shrug. “I mean, there’s Bitty…”

Oh,” says Jack. He frowns. “But you and Shitty - ”

She laughs. “Yeah. But. Like. You and Camilla”

“Camilla? Ha. Uh. That was only a couple… I don’t know if they even counted as dates,” Jack admits, with a hollow kind of laugh. “I kind of just took her to the dining hall.”

Lardo snorts. “Dude.”

“I guess I just thought I was supposed to do it,” he says slowly.

He’d been able to recognize that Camilla was attractive, and he hadn’t really known what it meant to want someone. He’d only had Kent to compare it to, and his feelings for Kent had arrived with the force and warning of a fire. Even with Bittle, his feelings had been more of a tidelike creep. So he’d looked at her and thought, maybe this is what it’s supposed to feel like?

It had been worth a shot, anyway.

“But it wasn’t your thing.”

“No.” Jack looks at her thoughtfully. “So Shitty, and girls. And other guys?”

“Whoever, really,” says Lardo, with a tiny smile. Jack laughs.

“Have you ever talked to Shitty about it?”

“Yeah. And he’s good. He listens. But he doesn’t like, get it. Like, he gets it. But he doesn’t know. You know?”

“Yeah. Do you think if you were with another - ”

Lardo cuts him off by shaking her head. “No. Like, it doesn’t matter who you’re with, right? No one’s ever gonna completely understand you.” She hugs her knees again, looks thoughtfully down the stairs. “That’s why we make art, right?”

“Sure,” says Jack, though honestly he has no idea what she means.

He thinks about Kent suddenly, about being on the ice together. They’d understood each other completely. They hadn’t at first, but they’d worked on it. They’d gotten it right, so that even now, Jack knows where he’ll be. At least when they’re playing together.

“And I like spending time with Shitty more than, like, anyone else.”

Jack smiles. “I think he feels the same way about you.”

Lardo blushes, clearly pleased. They lapse back into silence.

“He’s been sad lately, dude.”

“Shitty?”

Lardo shakes her head.

“Bittle has?”

Lardo nods.

“I didn’t know.”

Bittle hadn’t said anything, but then, Bittle never wants to make a fuss. He’d never even told Jack he was gay; Jack had found out second or thirdhand from Ransom. Just like he’s finding out secondhand now that Bittle’s been sad.

“How long is lately?”

Lardo shrugs. “Before Christmas?”

Jack looks down the stairway. He can see two side tables from this vantage point, each covered with a vase full of roses. He tried, he thinks at himself. But it doesn’t really feel like enough. The roses aren’t a substitute for… for whatever it is Bittle wants. That Jack’s not giving him.

“That’s a while,” he says.

“Yeah,” says Lardo. She leans against him, and they sit there in silence until Shitty pokes his head out of his - no, out of Lardo’s - room.

“You all right, bros?” he calls, quietly for Shitty.

Lardo glances back at him.

“Yeah,” she says, smiling. She gets up and pats Jack on the shoulder. “Good talk, brah,” she says.

“Good talk,” repeats Jack. Lardo walks back to her room, and Jack hears her door shut, muffled laughter. He should go back to bed, too, he thinks. He doesn’t get many nights with Bittle.

But, instead, he gets up and walks outside, some familiar uneasy vastness pooling within him.

The thing is, he realizes, he’s never actually come out to anyone, not in any kind of intentional way. Kent and Bittle he’d both just kissed; the first in anger, the second in fear. Shitty he’d told recklessly, on impulse. And his parents…

His parents had walked in on them.

They’d been at Jack’s parents’ for a couple days. He and Kent were still new at it, still fumbling, every time Kent touched him had felt like a net of electricity sparking to life beneath his skin, like flipping the switch on an infrastructure of desire Jack hadn’t even known existed. Alicia and Bob had gone out. Kent and Jack had assumed for awhile, falsely, or maybe Bob had forgotten something. Whatever it was, they’d caught Jack and Kent full make out on the couch.

And five minutes or so later, after everyone had calmed down, a five minutes or so that’s lost to Jack’s memory entirely, obliterated by the panic he must have felt in the moment, they’d all sat down.

“It might be...” Bob had said, and then a very long pause. Bob had looked at Alicia and she had shrugged at him. There had been an icy tightness to her face that melted as soon as she looked at Jack and Kent. She reached over and took Jack’s hand.

“I love you,” she told Jack quietly, and then she smiled at Kent and reached over and squeezed his knee.

Bob sighed.

“It might be better for your careers,” he said, without really being able to look at either of them in particular, “if you boys kept quiet about this.”

“Right,” said Kent, always quicker to react than Jack. He laughed, jangly and all wrong, and his knee, when Alicia moved her hand away, bounced wildly. “Teams don’t want - ”

He cut himself off, laughed again. Jack put his hand on Kent’s knee, and Kent sucked in a breath. His eyes cut to Jack, and suddenly Jack was just looking at Kent, not at Bob, not at Alicia.

“It’s not like,” Bob started, and then he laughed uncomfortably. “Well. I can’t defend the NHL in that regard, I guess. But there are a lot of good guys in it. You boys won’t be alone. That’s for sure. But...”

“We have to get drafted first,” said Kent. He looked at Bob and smiled. That was all wrong, too. “Even when we’re this good?”

Bob sighed. “Unfortunately, Kenny, yes.”

“Bob, this is bullshit,” said Alicia suddenly, angrily. “Why are we talking about hockey??”

They all three stared at her.

Then Kent said, abruptly, “Are you gonna tell my mom?”

“No!” said Bob immediately, and then he glanced at Alicia, who was frowning.

A complicated set of facial expressions passed between them. Moments like those always made Jack think of his relationship with Kent on the ice.

“Bob, why don’t you and Jack get started on dinner?” said Alicia finally.

Bob sighed but stood up. He squeezed Jack’s shoulder.

“Come on, Jacky.”

Jack looked at him, bewildered, then Alicia, then, finally, Kent, who stared stonily at the ground.

“It’s okay, Zimms,” he said, without looking up.

It didn’t feel okay, but Jack followed Bob out anyway, into the kitchen.

“So, what should we have for dinner?” said Bob, too loud. He began opening and closing cabinets, basically at random.

“I think pasta might be good. Though we had that last night. But I guess you boys could use - ”

“Are you mad at me?” said Jack.

Bob froze. His back was to Jack, his hands on two open cabinet doors. Slowly, Bob closed the doors and turned.

“Jack,” he said. “No. No.” He stepped toward Jack and then pulled Jack into a tight hug. “No, Jack. I’m just. I’m worried about you.”

“Why?”

Bob pulled away, just enough so Jack could get a look at the furrow of fear across his face.

“Because,” said Bob, hesitantly, “people aren’t. They aren’t always going to be kind to you.”

“Why?” said Jack again. A weight began to press on his chest. He started to breathe in quickly, shallowly, unable to get enough air. He couldn’t breathe.

“Why does it matter?” he gasped. He wasn’t going to be able to play hockey anymore if people found out about him and Kent. And then what was - what was the point? If he couldn’t play?

“Literally, how does me being - how does it affect anyone?”

“It doesn’t!” said Bob quickly. “Or, I mean, it shouldn’t. It makes people uncomfortable - it shouldn’t! But - ”

“I just want to play hockey!” said Jack. He slid slowly into a crouch, one hand against the cupboard to support himself. His head swam, and his face was hot. He still couldn’t breathe. He pressed his face against the cupboard, against the cool, smooth wood. His hands started to shake.

“I want to play in the NHL,” he choked out. That was the whole point of all of this.

“Jack!” said Bob. He dropped to his knees, wincing.

“You will,” promised Bob, his hands on Jack’s shoulders and his face split open with worry. “Jack, you will. This isn’t going to stop you.”

He pulled Jack against his chest and held him there, awkwardly, Jack still crouched, still panicking, and his face wet with tears. There wasn’t much else Bob could do.

**

Jack considers this memory as he stands on the porch and breathes in the cold, wet air. There’s more snow in the forecast again. There’s a worming thought in the back of his mind that he’s starting to feel about Kent the way he used to feel about his pills. There’s that same itch of need. There’s the same way he drums his fingers against his thigh.

He calls Kent anyway.

“Hey, Zimmermann,” Kent snarls, halfway through the first ring. “Have you noticed that I never actually call you? You - ”

“I’m sorry,” says Jack.

“What?” says Kent.

“About.” Jack pauses. “What I said the other weekend, um. When I was on the phone with Bittle.”

“About me getting it,” says Kent.

“Yeah.”

Kent takes a deep breath and exhales it in a shaky laugh.

“Yeah, that pissed me off… Because, I know you said, what, months ago?” He pitches his voice high. “‘Oh, maybe we can figure it out together, just two homos in the NHL,’ and I told you that was bullshit. But.” He laughs again. “It has been kinda nice, to have someone else who gets it. And you - you fucking used that as a way to get out of like, an argument with your boyfriend.”

“Yeah,” says Jack.

“Are you serious about him?” says Kent, sudden and sharp.

“He’s my boyfriend.”

“Right,” says Kent. “You know that’s not an answer?”

“And he’s my friend,” says Jack stubbornly. Kent makes a small, disdainful noise, that Jack knows from experience is mostly reflexive.

“Okay. Whatever,” says Kent sullenly. He can picture Kent’s expression perfectly: eyes narrowed and jaw clenched, a dozen questions held just behind his teeth. A younger Kent would have asked: And what the fuck does that mean, Jack?

Jack doesn’t really have an answer. He thinks about his conversation with Lardo: Bittle's been sad lately. Bittle's been sad, and he never told Jack, and Jack doesn't know how to fix either of those things. But he feels, at least, the obligation to try. He wants to try. He doesn't like giving up. And now everyone knows. He realizes, for the first time, that it's not just him and Bittle who have a stake in their relationship now. He's not sure how he feels about that.

There’s a long silence. The wind lifts, and the few Solo cups already scattered across the porch go clattering with it. Down the street, Jack sees a figure turn the corner and start walking in the direction of the Haus.

Kent says quietly, “You know, I was seeing someone. And now I’m not.”

“Oh.” Jack thinks back to when he called him in the fall, when someone had been in bed with Kent, and he thinks back to last weekend, how prickly Kent had been and how Jack had assumed it was entirely to do with him. His chest tightens. “I didn’t know. You said…”

“It’s not exactly the kind of thing I go around telling people. Even you.”

And what the fuck does that mean, Kent? he thinks. But he doesn’t say it.

“When, uh…?”

“Did we break up? Last - right before All-Star Weekend.”

“I’m sorry,” he says awkwardly, though really all he wants to do is interrogate Kent.

“Yeah. Whatever. It wasn’t, like, it wasn’t actually serious, you know? There wasn’t any way it could be. Maybe if things were different.”

“Maybe if things were different,” echoes Jack, which could be the motto of their entire lives.

“Did you like him?” Jack asks, when Kent doesn’t say anything else.

Kent laughs sadly. “Yeah. I liked him.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack says again. Sorry is simplest. Sorry is safest. Even if he’s been saying sorry to Kent a lot lately.

“Thanks,” says Kent. “Uh. You’re the first person I’ve told about the break up. So congrats, I guess.”

Jack snorts, though he feels a terrible ache of loneliness for Kent, too.

There’s another long pause. The figure down the street gets closer, the shadowy outline of a young man, hands in his pockets, head bowed against the wind.

It's weird to just get these pieces of Kent, like light coming through the cracks of a door. Once, Jack had everything. Then, nothing. Either was bearable, but the in-between is hard. He wants more even as he wants to want nothing at all.

But even that’s not true, he thinks. They always kept some things from each other. There were always things they didn’t talk about, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. But it had been hard, to feel like what should have been seamless, perfect, whole, had been riven all along. Hard to realize there’s always a separation between you and another person.

He wonders if there will ever be a time when he stops revising their past, when he’ll feel like he understands it. Time gives you perspective, but perspective just means you’re seeing something from a different angle, not that what you’re seeing now is truer than what you saw before.

One of them, eventually, is going to have say good night, he thinks, but then Kent says:

“Uh, sorry I lost my temper about Bittle knowing about me. I guess you told me about Bittle. So. Fair’s fair.”

Jack winces. “I shouldn’t have put you in that position,” he says neutrally.

“Look at us,” says Kent, laughing softly, “talking like actual adults.”

“Wow,” say Jack, laughing, too.

They’re quiet once more, but it’s an easier silence. Jack still doesn’t want to hang up. He wishes he could just be sitting with Kent somewhere, without the phone creating some need to justify speaking.

“We, uh, Bittle and I, we came out to our friends.”

Oh,” says Kent, like it explains something. “How’d it go?”

“Fine,” says Jack, after a pause. “I don’t know what else I expected.”

He doesn’t know why, suddenly, he feels so sad, a kind of hollowing out sadness.

“That’s good, Zimms,” says Kent, gently for Kent.

“Thanks,” says Jack. He presses the heel of his hand into his eye. “It just, uh. I don’t know. It’s weird that I had to do it.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah… I just feel…” Like shit. But that’s not true. He’s happy, right? He has to be happy. Nothing’s happened that should be making him sad.

“It’s probably normal to feel complicated about it, Zimms. Right? Like, remember when I completely lost it after we made it to the Memorial Cup?”

“Yeah,” says Jack. He remembers coming into the locker room lightheaded and giddy after a tidy, professional 2-0 win against the Generals. Kent had taken off his helmet, took one look around the locker room, and promptly burst into tears. Afterwards, he hadn’t been able to explain why. But Jack gets it. It happens sometimes after big games; it’s all chemical, the sudden adrenaline drop, the dehydration. He guesses this could be similar.

“Or maybe I’m just talking out of my ass,” says Kent. “It’s not like I have any fucking clue what it’s like to come out to your friends.”

Jack doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s not like he has advice. Sometimes Kent’s vulnerability, in its fury, feels like being handed a large, awkwardly-shaped box. How do you hold onto it?

“Remember when my parents found out?” he says finally.

Kent laughs, caught off guard. “Holy shit. Yeah, of course. I’m, like, scarred from that. Alicia gave me a safe sex talk!”

“It wasn’t so bad,” says Jack.

“You had a fucking panic attack, Zimms.”

“I had panic attacks about what color hockey tape we used,” says Jack, though he gets where Kent’s coming from. He can still taste the copper fear in his mouth sometimes. That kid is inside of him, still, crouched on the floor and still unable to understand why? Why does it fucking matter? Why can’t they just focus on hockey?

He remembers how, later that night, the door to Jack’s room opened, and Kent crept in. Jack didn’t say anything until Kent settled in beside him.

“Why didn’t you want your mom to know?” he asked He’d only met Kent’s mom a couple times, but she’d seemed nice, loving, like a totally normal mom.

Kent twisted around in the sheets, making himself comfortable to buy time.

“I don’t know. I just don’t want her… She already worries about me enough, right?”

He didn’t say anything else. Jack thought about Bob in the kitchen and the fear on his face. Jack would give a lot to not have seen that, to not know he’d made his father feel that way, to not feel the fear inside himself now. What, exactly, did he have to be so afraid of?

“Okay,” said Jack. “Yeah. I get that.”

“Yeah… And I just, I don’t know. I don’t want her to think I’m different.”

But you are different, thought Jack. You’re special.

He rolled onto his side then and propped himself up on his elbow. There was enough ambient light in the room that he could make out Kent’s face. Kent looked up at him, his face unnaturally serious. Jack palmed his cheek and watched, transfixed, as some slow sea change washed over Kent. His mouth softened, his eyes lidded, and, just like that, he was smiling. Jack felt something shift in him then, some erosion, a tumbling, and he’d known then, with a still vivid and painful clarity that he was going to have to choose someday: hockey or Kent?

He guesses he went with neither. Though it never felt like much of a choice.

And that kid is still inside Jack, too. That kid with his hand on Kent’s cheek, and Kent's steady gaze on his face, and his heart falling out of his chest.

“Hockey tape is serious business, man,” says Kent in the present.

Jack laughs, then says, “The team wants me to be their You Can Play ambassador.”

That’s what he wanted to tell Kent earlier in the afternoon, for all that feels like ages ago now.

Kent laughs. “Fuck. Yeah. I’ve had to do that before, too.”

“Do you think it does any good?”

“I don’t know,” Kent says. “I wouldn’t want to be the kid who finds out.”

“Yeah,” says Jack. He thinks, suddenly, of something Bittle told him once, about getting locked in the utility closet overnight. He can’t imagine how lonely Bittle must have been, growing up. Lonelier than even Kent and Jack were. It’s kind of scary to think that way: that everyone must be lonely, but no one knows how to fix it.

Kent laughs again.

“Get this. I used to think we’d come out together. Like, we were going to be the biggest names, and we were going to come out together, and no one was going to be able to say shit to us. Because we were going to be the best.”

Jack doesn’t say anything. Coming out would have killed him. But that sounds exactly like Kent at seventeen: completely assured of the future and his own place in it. It had been a confidence equally parts inspiring and alienating.

Jack doesn’t give himself the luxury of wondering when it was Kent stopped feeling so confident about the future.

“I know it’s stupid,” says Kent.

“It’s okay,” says Jack quickly. “It’s not stupid.”

Kent doesn’t say anything, so Jack adds, “And you still could. You are, uh, pretty good.”

“Pretty good?” says Kent, amused.

“Pretty good,” repeats Jack. “Maybe not the best. But pretty good.”

“Fuck you,” says Kent, laughing. “I am the best.” But then he sighs. “But I’m not, uh. I’m not going to - I don’t want to be the one who comes out first. Why the hell should it be my responsibility?”

“It’s not,” says Jack. Not anymore than it’s Jack’s, at least.

“I know it’s selfish,” says Kent.

Jack laughs sharply. “You don’t have to defend yourself to me, Parse.”

“Yeah… You’re just the only person I can say that to.”

“I know,” Jack says again. Kent’s the only person he can say a lot of things to, too.

“Just feels hypocritical,” mutters Kent.

“I know,” says Jack for a third time.

Then he thinks, for a world tilting second, that he sees Kent. The walking man has gotten close enough that when he passes under the lamplight, his hair glints gold. He’s about Kent’s build, too, and with his face tucked into the collar of his coat, there’s not much else to go on - the hair, the build, something about the way he holds his shoulders. Jack breathes in sharply.

“Zimms?”

“Sorry. Just thought I saw you.”

Not-Kent turns towards the lax house now, and the illusion shatters. He’s so obviously not actually Kent. The walk’s not right. And Kent would be wearing a hat though, Jack thinks fondly, even if a snapback wouldn’t do anything to keep him warm.

Kent’s laugh sounds caught halfway between amused and concerned. “I’m in Vegas, dude. So unless you’re also here…”

“No, I know. Just someone who looked like you.”

“No way there’s another person as good-looking as me,” says Kent.

Jack smiles fondly. “Haha,” he says. Then, “Thanks.”

“Thanks?”

“For, uh. Talking. Listening.”

“Yeah,” says Kent. “Any time.”

“Yeah,” echoes Jack. “Thanks. Really. Uh. I should get going though. Night."

Kent echoes the farewell, and Jack hangs up. Not-Kent disappears into the lax house after a few unsuccessful attempts with his key. Jack keeps looking at the door though. He’d kept seeing Kent after the OD. Not hallucinations, exactly. But in a certain tilt of a blond nurse’s head, the line of someone’s cheek, or the way they walked from behind. Jack had wanted so badly to see Kent at times, that he projected him onto the barest scrap of likeness. Worse had been the conversations he had with Kent in his head, to make up for the echoing silence that now filled his mind.

“I bet you’re happy,” he’d tell Kent-in-his-head.

And when he wanted to hurt himself in one way, Kent-in-his-head would smile, spread his hands, say, “I sure am, Zimms.”

And when he wanted to hurt himself in a different way, Kent-in-his-head would just look tired, rub his face, and say, “You know I’m not.”

There wasn’t a way to think of Kent that didn’t hurt. It was better to not think of him at all.

He keeps watching the lax house, half hoping not-Kent will appear in a window and, by a certain slant of light, be transformed into Kent again. Jack just wants to see him. That's all.

But there’s just the lifting wind, finally cold enough to chase even Jack inside. He’ll wear the rainbow jersey, he thinks, as he climbs the steps, and he’ll talk about how anyone can play. It’ll even be true, for a given value of true, and maybe that will make it easier for someone to come along and make it all the way true. He hopes so. He can’t see himself being that brave. It’s cost him enough just to get here.

Chapter Text

“…PC bullshit.”

It’s said quietly, as an aside, but even sitting in the front, Jack hears it, and he hears the laughter that follows. He turns sharply, scowling. He knows it was Kleiner who spoke. The problem is, he can’t tell who laughed.

“Knock it off, everyone,” says Marty. Jack doesn’t look at him, doesn’t let himself feel grateful. “Let George finish.”

“Thanks, Marty,” says George dryly. “As I was saying, everyone - ” she raises her eyebrows pointedly - “will be wearing a You Can Play jersey tonight.”

She walks through the rest of the night’s activities: the videos, the fundraiser, the welcome to the kids from the drop-in center. The guys are restless. Jack thinks - he hopes - it has more to do with general pre-game antsiness. This doesn’t have anything to do with hockey, really. Everyone’s eager to get to their pre-game rituals, watch that last bit of tape. He’s restless himself, wants this whole thing to be finished.

He hasn’t actually been asked to do that much beyond a visit to the drop-in center. He passed some gear. Invited everyone to tonight’s game. Told his story to a small, stuffed room of blank-faced teenagers: “When I was eighteen, I overdosed on my anxiety medication. I almost died...”

He’d tried to picture him and Kent at sixteen, in that room, with its posters with affirming phrases stapled to the walls and jumbled piles of board games stacked on the back counter. It had reminded him of the counseling center at Samwell, where he went twice before the Swallow snapped a photo of him leaving.

There had been two girls in the back, one with her arm around the other’s waist, her chin resting on the other’s shoulder. She kept whispering into her girlfriend’s - Jack assumed they were girlfriends - ear, and her girlfriend kept trying not to laugh, kept trying to look serious and pay attention. That would be them, Jack thought. That had been them

Beyond that, he’s just been asked to make one extra video of himself alone, taken by one of the PR interns, where he “tells his story.” He’s seen the edit, as much as he hates watching videos of himself where he’s not playing hockey, and he’s pretty sure it’s not too different from any other You Can Play video produced by any other team: stilted, monotone, flat, like he’s never seen a camera before. He’d given a similar spiel to the teenagers:

“I was under a lot of pressure, and I wasn’t well. Uh. But, I got help. I got better. And. If I can overcome what I went through… You can get through whatever you’re going through.”

He’s still new at it, but he’s been glad to learn that, just like any other topic, there’s a script for talking about your trauma in a way that uplifts people.

“And no matter who you are,” he’d said, in the video, in that room “or what you’re going through, if you can play, then you can play.”

There’s an irony there, that he can’t quite put his finger on. He thinks Shitty could. Something about how Jack never questioned whether or not he could play, but sometimes it feels like playing made him question everything about himself.

Of course you can play, but it’s going to hurt you.

It’s not exactly an inspiring sentiment.

“See you tonight, gentlemen,” finishes George. She smiles. “Make me proud.”

**

He texts Kent about Kleiner’s comment, and gets, what an asshole, quickly followed by, want me to slash his knees next month?

Jack snorts. not as long as he’s playing well

brutal, texts Kent, with a smirk emoji.

Jack smiles at his phone, and he remembers, suddenly, what Bittle asked him the last time he was at Samwell.

that reminds me… Bittle wants you to come dinner when you’re in town

Three dots appear immediately and disappear almost as quickly. Then:

you want me to have dinner with you and your boyfriend?

He wants to get to know you better.

he knows i’m ur ex or whatever?

That’s why he wants to get to know you better, thinks Jack, exasperated.

Yes. It’s just dinner, Kent.

you don’t think this is some weird jealousy thing?

Jack types out, then deletes, “What would he have to be jealous of?” He’s suddenly grateful this conversation isn’t over the phone. He doesn’t want to know how Kent would respond to that.

No, he texts instead. What are you trying to say?

just think it’s probably a bad idea

Jack frowns, because he knows Kent is probably right. It would also be pretty simple to tell Bittle it didn’t work out: Kent had team obligations, their flight got in too late, or even just that Kent didn’t want to come.

But he doesn’t think lying to Bittle is a good idea either. Jack knows he’s not going to get over whatever his… thing is with Kent if he keeps hiding Kent from Bittle.

Noted. But I’d like you to come.

Okay, texts back Kent. then i’ll be there

**

The conversation leaves him in a sour mood for the game. They win, but it’s unpleasant, a scrappy and unglamorous 1-0. It’s not the kind of game that’s going to turn any of the center’s kids into lifelong hockey fans.

But at least it’s a win. They drop the next three, one at home and two away. Jack gets an assist in the second game, but he’s frustratingly useless otherwise.

They win the next game, 3-1. Jack scores all three goals.

It’s his first hat trick. It’s at home. His friends are in the crowd.

Bob calls him while they’re all out celebrating: his friends, his team, his new city. He’s already given out more autographs than he can count.

“What a game!” booms Bob. “What a game, Jacky! That second goal? Right through the five-hole!”

“Thanks,” says Jack, grinning. He has to cover his other ear with his hand to hear Bob. Tater’s just learned that Bittle’s responsible for all the pies, and the resultant explosion of noise is deafening.

“Hey!” shouts Ransom crossly. “I know how to make pies, too!”

“You did - you did good,” says Bob. There’s a pause, and Jack thinks he hears Alicia’s voice, but he can’t make out what she says.

“Ah,” says Bob, when Alicia is done talking. “And your mother and I saw your You Can Play video. We thought that was very brave of you.”

“You can say you’re proud of me,” says Jack, amused. “For the hat-trick.”

“I am proud of you!” says Bob quickly. “Didn’t mean to imply otherwise.”

“I know, I mean. I don’t think that. I just. You can say you’re proud of me when you’re proud of me. It’s not going to mess me up.”

There’s a silence, and then, gruffly: “I’m always proud of you.”

Jack smiles indulgently. “Then you can say it when you’re especially proud of me.”

“Okay,” says Bob. “Okay. But you know I’m not just proud of you because you’re good at hockey, right?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“I’m proud of you for a lot of reasons.”

“I know,” says Jack, laughing. “Papa, I know.”

**

Then, at the end of February, they lose to Chicago. It’s their worst game since the beating they got from the Aces. But, what’s worse, it knocks them into the wild card slot.

The city is still frozen over. Jack leaves his phone in the hotel room and goes out early the next morning after the loss. In his winter coat and hat, with a scarf pulled over his face, he’s just another faceless, black-wrapped body, struggling towards spring. It’s a wonderful, anonymous feeling.

Jack makes it to the river and stands on the bridge for a long moment. The river is a jigsaw puzzle, the ice on it thin, and starting to break up. The city glows around it, the skyscrapers the same cold, steely blue of the river. The only warmth in sight is the pale gold islands of the streetlamps, but the light they cast doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It just gets eaten up by the early morning gloom. There’s no one around but him.

He leans against the railing and looks down at the river and thinks about how cold the water must be. Colder even than the air, which is already starting to hurt the uncovered skin around his eyes. It’s probably a twenty-foot drop down.

“I don’t get it,” his coach from Rimouski had told him, the one time he came to visit Jack after the overdose. “You had so much to live for. Even if you didn’t go first, you were going to play in the NHL.”

Well, he thinks. Here he is.

He tries to conjure the joy he felt the week before, after the hat trick, how it seemed to stream out of every part of him, how it buoyed him and held him, how it seemed to blast away every shadow and cast a glimmer on everything around him.

It never lasts, that joy.

He'd gone to group therapy for awhile, in addition to his one-on-one sessions, after he got released from rehab. One of the women in the group had tried to kill herself three times, had long white scars up and down her wrists.

“It gets better,” she’d told him. “I only want to destroy myself sometimes now. It’s a lot worse when you’re a teenager.”

But that had never sounded right to Jack. His emotions could be violent. He could be violent. And he hated himself, but he never wanted to kill himself. He had only wanted for everything to go away. When he took the pills, it had been like watching a movie he wasn’t particularly interested in – the kind someone only watches because they’re stuck on a long flight, and there’s nothing better to do.

He wonders about where that woman is now, if she really is still better. He thinks he’s better than he was. But he doesn’t know if he’s good.

He’s starting to wonder if there’s ever a point where he’ll get to “good.” He pulls his scarf down and takes a deep breath of the frigid air. It burns his nose and throat. But it’s something. It’s grounding.

The joy never lasts, he reminds himself, but neither does this. Neither does this.

He makes himself step away from the bridge. He should go back to the hotel. They have a flight soon.

**

He has a text from Bob when he gets back.

you’d do better with some more speed on your wing, it says. Maybe Klein?

Jack makes a face and texts back a neutral yeah, maybe.

Then, he painstakingly copies and pastes the text into a message to Kent. He knows there’s a way to screenshot it, but he’s been too proud to ask.

come on bob, texts back Kent, a few minutes later. he knows he’s still not your coach, right?

Jack snorts. He used to say that about you. “You’re lucky to have someone as fast as Parser on your line. Makes you look good.”

i know, Kent responds. i was there too man

Before Jack can text back, Kent adds, i don’t think he said it to make you jealous tho

Jack knows Kent’s right. He also knows Bob wasn’t wrong. Jack does play better with more speed on the wing. He did play better with Kent. He played the best hockey of his life with Kent. There’s a better version of Jack, in some universe, who can think that without feeling like he’s taken a fist to the solar plexus. That’s not this universe. He’s never going to play that well again, and he can’t even blame Kent for that fact.

The Aces won their game last night. Jack didn’t watch. But he knows it put the Aces ten points up on their nearest competitor in the western conference.

Playing with Kent would have meant a whole life of “you’re lucky” comments, and he can’t even blame Kent for never being able to understand why that would be so bad.

Yeah. Are we still on for the 12th?

Kent texts back a thumbs up and a plane emoji. Jack wishes suddenly that he’d called him instead. He misses the sound of Kent’s voice.

**

Kent’s facing the street when Jack opens the door, but he turns at the sound. He’s wearing a too large sweatshirt. His hands are hidden in his pockets, and his posture is slouched in a way that feels defensive. He doesn’t smile at Jack, just raises his eyebrows, one side of his mouth quirked up in a question.

“Hey,” says Jack. His heart is immediately in his throat. This was a bad idea. But maybe not for the reason Kent thought it would be.

“Hey,” says Kent. He doesn’t make a move to come inside. Jack puts his hand on the door jamb and keeps it there. He’s framed by the doorway, the light from the hallway spilling out onto the front path, washing over Kent’s face. Kent’s pupils are edged with a thin line of gold, like twin eclipses.

And then Bittle pops up behind Jack and ducks under his arm.

“Kent!” says Bittle brightly. “It’s so good to see you!”

Kent’s body language transforms immediately. His shoulders straighten a bit, so that, while still slouching, he looks less hunched. More relaxed. He smiles at Bittle, broad and sincere, and takes his hands out of his pockets.

“Hey, it’s - you go by Bitty, right?”

Bitty laughs. “Yes, Bitty’s fine.”

He glances at Jack over his shoulder, fond and amused, then reaches and pulls Jack’s hand forward. He twines their fingers together and squeezes slightly, before letting go.

“Only Jack calls me Bittle.”

Kent smiles. His eyes are very focused on the side of Bittle’s face. “Yeah, Zimms has got a nickname like that for me, too.”

“Oh?” says Bittle, turning back to look at Kent. “How nice! Well, you should come inside. Dinner’s just about ready.”

“Awesome,” says Kent. There’s an awkward moment when Kent tries to go for a half-hug, and Bittle for the full. Kent’s chin knocks into Bittle’s head, and they both flinch, jerk away, smile like nothing happened.

Bittle laughs again. “Did you come here straight from the airport?”

“Hotel,” says Kent. He glances at Jack briefly as Bittle ushers Kent past Jack, into the hall. “Thanks for cooking. It smells great in here.”

“Thank you for coming!” chatters Bittle. “I know from Jack how hard it is to get away before a game.”

Jack follows them silently into the dining room. Kent’s eyes rove around the apartment, as if he’s looking for changes from the last time he was here. There aren’t any, really, except that Winston has deflated significantly and droops over the mantle like the melting watch painting Lardo has a print of in her room.

“I had to pull some strings to get the night off,” Kent acknowledges, though he smiles charmingly as he says it, a little roguish. “It smells great,” he continues. He briefly looks at Jack. “Zimms said I didn’t need to bring anything, so… I didn’t bring anything.”

“Of course not,” says Bittle. He gestures at them to sit, and they both obey. Kent glances at Jack again, and Bittle drops a kiss on the top of Jack’s head before fluttering towards the oven.

“I’m not sure what you would have brought all the way from Las Vegas. I mean, wine maybe?”

Kent raises his eyebrows at Jack this time. Jack shrugs apologetically.

“Not the night before a game,” says Kent eventually. “But maybe next time.”

“That would be lovely!” calls Bittle from the kitchen. “Would you like some pie while we’re waiting for the chicken to finish? I wasn’t sure what you liked, so I made apple and strawberry rhubarb and lemon meringue.”

“Oh, man. That’s nice of you. But I don’t eat refined sugar during the season.”

“Is that so?” says Bittle. He suddenly appears by the table again and looks at Kent with a small frown between his eyebrows, one hand propped on his hip, his head at an angle.

“Yeah, my nutritionist is really serious about my diet.”

Jack laughs ruefully. “So’s the Falcs’ nutritionist,” he says. “I’m, uh, not his favorite player right now.”

Kent grins. “No shit, Zimms. That’s what you get for bringing all those pies in.”

“You never mentioned that,” says Bittle. His voice goes high. ”I haven’t gotten you in trouble, have I?”

“Oh,” says Jack quickly. “No, uh.” He looks at Kent helplessly, who just grimaces at him. He looks back at Bittle. “It’s fine, Bittle, really.”

Kent clears his throat.

“So, Bitty, how’d you get into baking?” he says.

Bittle’s eyes slide over to him, and his mouth does something complicated, like he’s trying to frown and smile graciously at the same time.

“My Moomaw,” he says.

“Moomaw?” repeats Kent. He glances at Jack, a little incredulously. “Is that - ?”

“My grandmother,” says Bittle. His mouth secures itself into a smile.

“Your mom bakes a lot, too,” says Jack. He looks at Kent. “His mom bakes, too.”

“Thanks, Jack,” says Kent dryly. He drums his fingers against the table, then smiles at Bittle. “But I’m sure the pie’s awesome. Zimms never stops talking about it. Maybe I can have some next time. When I bring the wine.”

“It’s a date,” says Bittle, with a high, trilling laugh. Jack looks at his table setting, grateful for Kent’s cover. He’s relieved, too. It’s a little awkward, but, for the most part, the dinner seems to be going well.

“Cool. So do you bake anything besides pie?” Kent asks.

“Oh, goodness,” says Bittle. “Of course I do. What kind of baker would I be if I didn’t?”

“Like…?” prompts Kent.

“All sorts of things,” says Bittle, and then he looks over his shoulder. “Oh. That’s the oven! Chicken’s done. Jack, honey, could you help me move everything to the table?”

“He makes really good peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” says Jack, a little defensively, as he gets out of his chair.

Kent snorts. “You still eat those before games?”

“You don’t?”

“Not after I ate one every day for two years.”

“You haven’t had Bittle’s.”

Kent shakes his head. “I’m sure. But I didn’t realize PB and J’s counted as baking.”

“Well, of course they don’t,” says Bittle, coming back into the dining room. Jack didn’t realize he’d gone back into the kitchen. He’s carrying a steaming dish.

“Okay,” says Kent. His expression pinches for a second, and then the smile comes back. “Did you bake the potatoes?”

“They’re scalloped,” says Bittle. He thunks the dish down onto the center of the table. The glasses rattle. Jack grabs his to still it.

“He has a baking ‘vlog,’” says Jack helpfully, into the silence that follows.

Kent’s whole face lights up, and he laughs, delighted. “Dude,” he says. “Did you say vlog?”

“Yeah,” says Jack sheepishly.

“Well, that’s what it is…” says Bittle.

“I wasn’t - ” Kent has both his hands wrapped around his own glass. He breathes out, slowly moves his hands way. “I just thought it was a funny word for Jack to say. What’s it called? My sister wants to get into baking.”

Bittle leans against the back of Jack’s chair, and wraps one arm loosely around Jack’s shoulders. Jack reaches up and touches Bittle’s wrist lightly, on instinct.

“That’s very gracious,” says Bittle. “But I like to keep it private.”

“So you just… Send videos of yourself baking to your friends?”

“No, it’s public,” say Jack. “Bittle’s just private about it.”

“O… kay,” says Kent.

“Don’t take it personally. I’ve never seen it either.”

“You’ve never seen it?” says Kent.

Jack has to pause before answering, because he has never seen it. Bittle’s just been secretive about it for long enough that Jack’s come to accept it. It’s just one of Bittle’s hobbies.

“No… I think, uh. Bittle talks about more than just baking on it.”

Kent frowns at Bittle. “What are you talking about on your baking vlog that your boyfriend can’t see?”

“Kent,” says Jack warningly. He doesn’t like what Kent is implying. Kent’s face twists.

“Sorry,” he says to Bittle. “Didn’t mean to pry.”

Bittle hums. “It’s fine,” he says. He squeezes Jack’s shoulders, a little harder than when he squeezed Jack’s hand at the door. “Sweetpea? The chicken?”

“Right,” says Jack. He leaves the dining room reluctantly, Bittle at his elbow, Bittle’s hand on the back of his arm.

“You normally love talking about your baking,” Jack says to him.

“I have been talking about it, Mr. Zimmermann,” says Bittle primly. He lets go of Jack and goes to the fridge to grab a bowl of salad. His back to Jack, and Jack watches him, waiting for Bittle to turn around so he can try to read his expression. But Bittle keeps his face down as he moves back to the dining room. Jack sighs and follows with the chicken.

“Oh,” says Bittle, when the table is finally set. He frowns at Kent slightly. “You eat with your hat on?”

Kent puts his fork flat on the table with a caught, wide-eyed expression.

“Oh, uh. Sorry,” he says. He pulls his hat off hastily and stashes it under the chair. The front of his hair sticks up. “Didn’t realize there was a dress code.”

He glances, dryly, at Jack’s plain gray t-shirt.

“It’s fine!” says Bittle quickly. “Goodness knows I eat with enough hockey boys to not expect decent table manners.”

Kent’s eyes shutter for a second, and then he says, sweetly, “I’m sure your team appreciates how understanding you are.”

Bittle just hums again. They eat in silence. Jack tries to figure out something to say, and he can tell by Kent’s expression he’s trying to do the same. Bittle looks placidly down at his plate.

“So, Jack said you wanted to get to know me better?” Kent attempts. “What do you wanna know? I’m an open book.”

Jack snorts. Kent kicks him under the table. Bittle looks up, expression clear and innocent.

“Oh, I don’t know… Just, you and Jack were so close as teenagers, but I never really saw you around Samwell.” He smiles. “Other than at the Epikegster, of course.”

“Not our finest moment,” says Kent lightly.

Jack frowns. He really does not to talk about the Epikgester, about his and Kent’s past relationship.

“Bittle…” he says. “We don’t need to talk about that.”

Kent waves his hand at Jack. “Zimms, it’s fine. You know how it goes, Bits. Sometimes exes just have a lot of shit they need to sort through.”

“Exes?” says Bittle. He purses his mouth. “Oh… I hadn’t realized.”

Kent’s eyebrows go up. “I thought Jack told you? Jesus, Jack – ”

“He did! He just… He said it was only physical? I didn’t realize you considered him your ex.”

“Bittle,” says Jack again, louder this time. They both ignore him.

Kent’s smile unfurls slowly. It’s an ironic, half-smile, the kind that always unnerved opposing players because he would smile like that even after he’d been punched in the jaw. It’s the kind of smile that always unnerved Jack when it was turned on him. It’s the way a cat smiles at a mouse, and it’s the way Kent smiles when he knows he’s been backed into a corner.

“Is that so?” he says.

Bittle nods, his eyes, somehow, get wider. “Well, he said it was just hockey, too.” He puts his hand over Jack’s. “Isn’t that what you said, honey? That it was ‘physical, just hockey?’”

“Well,” says Kent, still smiling. “That definitely explains some things.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” says Jack quickly, a little desperately.

“How did you mean it?” That from both of them, their voices overlapping discordantly. Jack looks between them. He wants to flee.

“Just…” He looks at Kent helplessly. “We never talked about it, and we both knew there was an expiration date. It wasn’t - We wouldn’t have worked. We knew that.”

“Maybe that’s how you felt,” says Kent quietly. “But I never thought that.”

They stare at each other from across the table. The gold rings around Kent’s pupils have expanded, like they’re slowly absorbing all the light in the room. His expression is wide open, bruised. Jack’s mouth is dry. He wants to smooth down Kent’s cowlicks and apologize.

“Well, bless your heart,” says Bittle. “You poor thing.”

Kent’s eyes flash to Bittle. The vulnerability drops from his face like it was never there. He smirks. It’s all the warning Jack gets.

“Just physical, huh? I mean, it was pretty physical. Some mornings Jack could barely walk…”

Bittle manages a faint, horrified laugh. Jack makes a strangled noise.

“Kent!” he says.

“Gosh,” says Bittle. His hand is still over Jack’s. “You know, I just think it’s so mature of you that you’re able to be friends with him now.”

“Oh yeah,” says Kent. He knocks his foot against Jack’s shin. It’s a little vicious. Then, he leans across the table, his eyes hooked on Bittle. “Actually, I wouldn’t say we were ‘friends’ now, you know? It’s still pretty ‘physical.’” He sits back, smiling smugly as the color starts to drain from Bittle’s face. “At least it was at All-Star Weekend.”

Kent!” says Jack, standing up. The table shakes. Jack’s cold all over.

Kent crosses his arms over his chest, leans the chair back, and smiles wider.

“What?” he says.

“Outside,” says Jack. He doesn’t look at Bittle.

Kent takes his time getting up, and then he practically saunters out. It takes every ounce of Jack’s self-control to not haul him out by his collar.

“What the hell was that about?” Jack demands. He’s furious, even if he shouldn’t be surprised. Kent has two modes: charm or cutthroat, and Kent has said all kinds of things before, in an effort to get Jack back, to get Jack’s attention, to score a point.

Kent gives him a cool, flat look and shrugs. “I thought you said this wasn’t a jealousy thing.”

“What?”

“Seems like ‘Bittle’s’ pretty jealous, man.”

Jack clenches his jaw, breathes out through his nose. “Right. And you’re not.”

He says it, a little bit, like a dare. Kent’s mouth twitches, almost reflexively, into a smile.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I just don’t see what you see in him.”

“He’s kind,” says Jack.

“He’s nice,” corrects Kent.

“Like you know him.”

“I know enough people like him. He didn’t make me three fucking pies out of the goodness of his heart. He did it to show off how nice and accommodating and talented he is. He’s a fake.”

“Don’t talk about him like that,” snarls Jack. “You don’t get to - You always do this. You show up just to tell me how much worse my life is without you.”

“Well, am I - ” And then Kent stops. He closes his mouth. He holds back whatever he was going to say. Jack can tell how much effort it takes him, watches Kent’s jaw and throat move in swallowed fury.

“You’re right,” he says. “Okay. You’re right.”

He covers his face with hands and whistles through his teeth. Then he laughs. “But I’m right, too. I fucking told you this was a bad idea.”

Jack flushes. He knows that Kent is right. It doesn’t make it any easier to admit it. He crosses his arms over his chest, and turns, so he’s facing the street more than he is Kent.

“And whose fault is that?” he says.

“Yeah,” says Kent. “I’m the asshole here, Jack.”

Jack raises his eyebrows.

“Okay,” says Kent, with another laugh. He holds his hands up in a conciliatory gesture. “I am an asshole. But… I’m not the only one.”

Jack doesn’t say anything.

Kent sighs. He looks down the darkened street. Jack looks at him. It’s hard, to not touch him. It always has been.

“I meant what I said in there,” says Kent eventually. “I never thought we had an expiration date.”

“I know,” says Jack. He closes his eyes. He’s tired. He’s sick with guilt. He doesn’t know how to explain that that makes it worse, that Kent’s expectations for Jack’s future were as hard to fit into as everyone else’s.

This is why he shut Kent out, he remembers. Because Kent always wants more of Jack than Jack is willing to give. Kent always wants more of Jack than Jack has. Jack’s not much more than an awkward child locked inside a dark room, but Kent always wants to be in the room within him, always seems offended that his very presence doesn’t light the whole damn place up.

Bittle barely even knows that room exists. That’s how Jack would like it to stay.

He opens his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Kent nods. His mouth is twisted up. Jack keeps looking at his mouth.

“One of these days, I’m gonna call your bluff,” he says.

“It’s not that simple,” says Jack.

He touches one of the strings of Kent’s hoodie and holds it. That’s all he trusts himself to do. Kent used to chew on the ends of his hoodie strings when he was studying. During away games, Jack used to lie on the bed and watch Kent do his homework, just the desk lamp for illumination, Kent’s free hand twisting his hair until every piece of it seemed to stand up, his hoodie string caught in his mouth. He looked ridiculous. Jack had been so fond. But even then, he’d felt the future hurtling towards them, knew this wouldn’t last.

“And whose fault is that?” Kent asks. He smiles, thin and sad. Then he exhales, and it seems like all the air goes out of his body. He shrinks down into himself. Blank waters rise in his eyes. He looks bored.

“I should get going,” he says.

“Okay,” says Jack.

He lets go, and Kent steps back. Kent’s hand goes to his head, and at the same moment, they both realize he’s left his hat inside. Kent’s eyes cut to the door, and he grimaces.

“I can give it to you tomorrow, after the game,” says Jack. He is strangely relieved to have an excuse to talk to Kent after the game, for them both to have a night apart to re-settle themselves.

Or maybe it’s not that strange at all. He covers his face with his hands and rubs at his eyes.

“Thanks,” says Kent. His voice is strange and thick. Jack doesn’t look at him. “See you on the ice, Zimms.”

**

The table has already been cleared when Jack comes back inside, and Bittle stands at the sink. Steam rises from it. Jack lingers for a second, watching.

“Do you need any help cleaning up?” he finally asks. Bittle doesn’t look up.

“Oh, honey. That would be lovely. Could you dry?”

Jack nods and grabs a dish towel. He’s quiet, figuring out what to say. For once, Bittle doesn’t seem compelled to fill the silence. He’s not even playing music. Three pies sit on the counter, untouched.

“Kent and I - ” Jack pauses. He’s still shaken from the moment outside, the thrumming wire between him and Kent. “We’re not sleeping together. I haven’t - we haven’t done that. Not since the Q. I wouldn’t - I wouldn’t cheat on you.”

“I know, sweetheart,” says Bittle quickly. He hands Jack the salad bowl to dry and then adds, quietly, “You did tell me it was just physical.”

Jack looks at the bowl, and sees his own reflection, half-obscured and haggard, at the bottom of it.

“It was complicated.”

“I’m sure it was, sweetpea.”

Jack frowns. “I just don’t like talking about that time. In my life.”

“I know,” says Bittle.

Bittle doesn’t say anything else. Jack dries and puts away the salad bowl, and Bittle hands him another dish.

“Do you talk about me on your vlog?” Jack asks.

Bittle turns the faucet on. He’s quiet as the water runs.

“Not by name,” he says. “Well, sometimes by name.”

Jack takes a deep breath. “And what do you say?” he says. A leaden dread presses down on him, on his lungs.

Just…” Bittle’s voice falters. His eyes float up, like he’s trying to remember everything he’s said. “I just talked about you as my teammate. And my friend. Some of the early stuff - well, Jack, honey. You weren’t always very nice.”

Nice? Do you not - ” Jack has to take another deep breath. It’s getting harder to get enough air. He has to sit down. He puts his weight against the counter. “You realize how intense hockey fans are, don’t you, Bittle? You don’t think - you don’t think that could have been bad for me? Having one of my teammates publicly complain about me?”

“It’s a baking vlog!” says Bittle. “No one who watches it even cares about hockey!”

“How do you know that?” shouts Jack. “And how do you know other people won’t find it?”

They find everything else, after all. The fanfiction - and Jack remembers, sophomore year, walking into the house to find Ransom and Holster having a dramatic reading, half the team there, laughing themselves to tears. The baby pictures, the pictures of him half-naked in the locker room, pictures of the peewee team he coached, pictures of him leaving therapy, even, somehow, a picture of him the day after the overdose, corpse-white and clammy and disoriented, strung up on an IV. He’d never seen Bob get so angry.

And with it all, the measuring: what does this mean for Zimmermann’s return to the NHL? Like every part of him is that something that has to be offered up, chewed up, spit out for hockey.

How can Bittle not understand, then, what this means?

Bittle’s eyes fill with tears. “Sweetheart. I barely have any followers. It’s more like a diary…”

“You said you had four hundred, and that was two years ago.”

Bittle’s expression startles into stillness. “I didn’t think you remembered that.”

Jack stares at him. He’s starting to feel lightheaded. “Why wouldn’t I remember it?”

“It’s not like you’ve ever expressed much interest in my vlog before!”

“I’m interested now!”

Bittle slaps the dish sponge onto the counter and wheels on Jack, enough anger in his face that Jack - surprised - takes a step back.

“Only because Parson chirped you about it!” he cries. “I heard him at the Epikegster, Jack! This is exactly how he works! He just likes making you feel insecure!”

“That’s not what’s happening here,” says Jack. His panic starts to curdle, into anger. He’s breathing more evenly now, but he doesn’t feel any calmer. “Parse is an asshole, but this isn’t about him.”

Bittle laughs hysterically. “Of course it’s about him! This whole year, you - you. You don’t talk to me! You only talk to him! I’m your boyfriend, Jack!”

“Is that what tonight was about?” says Jack slowly. “To make - to make a point?”

Bittle flushes crimson.

“No,” he says. He worries at his lower lip with his teeth. “I just wish you talked to me,” he says, in a very small voice.

“So you can put it on your vlog?”

Bittle flinches. “Honey, that’s not fair.”

Jack’s silent. He looks at Bittle, and Bittle stares earnestly back. His eyes are two dark pools, his hands wet to their wrists.

“In Chicago, two weeks ago,” says Jack, and his voice is hard, precise. “I wanted to jump into the river after the game. I almost did.”

It’s not true, for the most part, but it’s true enough to hurt.

Bittle makes a noise like a bird being shot out of the sky. His hands fly up to cover his mouth, sending droplets of water scattering across the kitchen, across Jack’s shirt.

“That’s okay, hun,” Bittle says shakily, through his hands. To his credit, though, he takes a wobbly step towards Jack. He lowers his hands. “Everyone gets overwhelmed. Have you… Do you think maybe you should talk to someone?”

“I have been. Since January.”

“I didn’t know that,” says Bittle. He looks like he’s lost something. He looks like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands.

“Now you know,” says Jack. “Good talk, Bittle.”

He walks out of the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Bittle is already up by the time Jack gets out of bed the next morning. He’s at the table, his head in his arms like a kid who’s fallen asleep at dinner, and he looks up as Jack comes in. His face is pale and his eyes are red, and Jack realizes he doesn’t know where Bittle slept last night. He never came into Jack’s room.

Kent’s hat is under the chair he sat at, and Jack kneels down to pick it up.

“Hey, honey,” says Bittle quietly when Jack straightens up. “I made you a sandwich for the game.”

Jack glances at the counter. There’s a baggied sandwich sitting next to the untouched pies, a post-it note stuck to the top of it. Jack feels hungover, tired despite his sleep and queasy with guilt.

“Oh,” says Jack. “Thanks.”

Bittle nods. “Of course,” and he glances at the hat in Jack’s hand. “Is that…?”

“Kent’s hat, yeah. I’m going to give it to him after the game.”

Bittle’s face very carefully doesn’t change. Jack’s an idiot for never realizing that was a tell before.

“Just, you know, so he can have it back.”

Bittle smiles. He sits up straighter and clasps his hands together. “Well, that’s very kind of you.”

“Yeah... “ Jack looks at the hat. He thumbs the embossed spade at the center of it. It’s a hard, cool knot of fabric. “Uh, do you want a ride to the station?”

**

It’s a silent ride to the station. Bittle looks out the window the entire time. He doesn’t even turn the radio on. Jack’s not sure if he’s glad or annoyed that they’re apparently not going to talk about their argument. It’s probably easier this way.

Then, as Jack pulls in to park, Bittle takes a deep breath.

“I just want to say,” Bittle begins; Jack tenses, “that I understand why you never said anything about, about your struggles, honey, and I don’t hold anything against you. I know how much stress you’re under, and it makes sense you’re... tense.”

Jack feels a headache starting to form at the base of his neck. It’s stress, he knows. He remembers staring at a headache chart he was given once, to help him better interpret when he was feeling pain and why.

“But I want you to know, I’m here for you no matter what. Um. And I hope, oh, sweetheart…” Bittle’s eyes begin to swim with tears. He sniffles. “I hope you know you can always talk to me. If you need to. You’re so - ”

“Bittle,” says Jack. “Stop.”

Bittle shuts up. Jack’s hands itch to play with something, but he doesn’t have anything on him, so he just runs his hands down his thighs, scratches his nails lightly against his knees. He takes a deep breath, holds it, breathes out slowly.

“That’s not why I…” He unclenches his jaw; he hadn’t realized he was grinding his teeth. “Bittle, I shouldn’t have said what I said. You don’t - you didn’t deserve that. I said it because I was angry.”

Bittle’s quiet. He watches Jack’s hands, still sliding up and down his thigh. Jack makes himself still. He stretches his neck to the side instead, trying to cut the headache off.

“That’s not,” begins Bittle timidly. “That’s a really terrible thing to say just because you’re angry. Honey.”

“Yeah,” says Jack.

Tentatively, Bittle reaches over and covers one of Jack’s hands with his own.

“You’re sure you’re… okay?”

“Yeah,” says Jack. “Yes.”

He says it with more force than he should, because Bittle flinches. Jack’s just sick of this - of being treated like he’s fragile. But it’s his fault, he reminds himself. He’s the one who put Bittle in this position in the first place, and his anger, like always, twists around again so that he’s mad at himself.

“Are you still angry?”

“I -” Jack sighs. “At you? I don’t know. But I would like to see your vlog. And then we can… talk about it?”

Bittle bites his lower lip.

“Could I…” His voice pitches high. “Think about it? Letting you see the vlog?”

Jack looks out the window. There are daffodils starting to poke up in front of the station, bright yellow heads obscenely chipper against the grayness of everything else. He misses winter already.

“Sure,” he says.

Bittle’s quiet again. Jack waits for him to get out of the car.

“If I asked you… to stop talking to Parson, would you?”

Jack presses his nails into the side of thigh.

“No,” he says. It feels like the first time he’s been honest with Bittle in a long time.

“Okay,” says Bittle. Jack glances back at him. Bittle seems to fold into himself, make himself smaller. His eyes are still watery, the tip of his nose turning red. “Okay. That’s fine. You know. We can, uh, maybe we could talk about it later? When we talk about my vlog?” He pauses, and Jack doesn’t say anything. “Well, honey, it was really lovely to see you. I hope - Let me know when you think you’ll be able to visit. I think we’re playing at home the next couple games.” Bittle laughs, a little too sharply. “And then, goodness, we’ll both have playoffs. Won’t that be strange? I - ”

“Falcs haven’t qualified yet,” says Jack, cutting over the flow of Bittle’s words.

“But you will!” says Bittle, forcefully and brightly. Jack has to admire the recovery speed. He squeezes Jack’s hand. “Good luck with the game tonight, honey.”

“Thank you,” says Jack.

Bittle hesitates, and then, with a final, forlorn look, starts to open the door. Jack pictures, then, with uncomfortable vividness, Bittle crying on the train all the way back to Boston. He doesn’t want to be responsible for that, he realizes. He doesn’t want to hurt someone just because it’s possible to do so.

“Hey,” he says. He squeezes Bittle’s shoulder and makes himself smile. “We’ll talk later. Really. I promise. Okay, bud?”

Bittle looks back at him. The smile only half on his face like he’s not sure what Jack wants from him. It’s not like Jack can blame him.

“I’m looking forward to it,” says Bittle, and he lets Jack hug him and gets out of the car.

**

Jack drives to the Dunk next. He feels at odds with himself, ragged and at loose ends. There’s a shaky, insomniac energy in him, the kind that always precedes a big breakdown. He doesn’t know how to head it off at the pass. He never has. He’s just gotten better at riding them out. Or he had at Samwell, when he could go into Shitty’s room, fall face-first onto Shitty’s bed, and allow Shitty to eventually pull out whatever was troubling Jack.

He leaves Kent’s hat in his car. He doesn’t think he’s particularly superstitious, at least by hockey player standards, but he doesn’t want to risk the bad luck of bringing an Aces’ snapback into the Falcs’ locker room right before they play each other. Especially not Kent’s snapback.

The locker room is on edge. Everyone remembers the drubbing from October, and everyone is acutely aware of how close they are to playoffs. This isn’t a make or break game, but the next one could be.

“You guys aren’t gonna shit the bed again, right?” says Snowy.

“Just focus on the game plan,” says Marty patiently. “Keep Parson contained.”

“Right,” says Guy. “Because that’s easy.”

“Parson, all swagger,” scoffs Tater.

“I tell you what,” says Kleiner, “I’d like to wipe the smirk off his face.”

“You’d have to catch him first,” says Thirdy.

The team laughs, some of the tension easing out of the room, but Jack laughs maybe a little too loud, because Kleiner’s head swivels towards.

“Zimmboni,” he says, teeth bared. “Parson looked pretty spooked when he got asked about you Sunday.”

“Did he?” says Jack evenly.

Kleiner nods and then hops past Tater, phone out.

“Sure did,” he says.

“I don’t - ” starts Jack, but Kleiner ignores him, pulling up a clip from a media scrum in the Aces’ locker room. Kent looks bored, slouched forward slightly and his eyes lidded.

"...Doing anything differently to prepare for your upcoming game against the Providence Falconers,” a reporter says, then, “- and Jack Zimmermann?"

Kent’s expression flickers - eyes wider, mouth slightly open. Kleiner’s right; he does look a little spooked. Jack has no idea what Kent’s thinking. The last time he saw Kent respond to a question like that was at the All-Star Game. When he was asked about staying friends with Jack.

"Jack -" Kent starts, and Jack feels a little jolt at his name. Then Kent catches himself. He pauses, and in the silent beat that follow, regroups. His expression shuts down, back to neutral.

"Zimmermann obviously has made an impact,” says Kent, bored-sounding, “but, you know, we prepare for teams...But we're just gonna watch our tape and play our game... Treat it like any other one in the eighty-two."

Jack can feel Kleiner watching him closely for a reaction. He keeps his face blank and looks up at Kleiner when the next reporter goes on to ask a question about an injury to one of Kent’s teammates.

“Okay?” says Jack. He’d said something similar, he’s pretty sure, last week when he was asked about preparing for the Aces, if he still thought about the last time they met: "Ah, not really. We’re just, you know - sticking to our game. We've been on a good run at home."

“Just saying.” Kleiner taps his phone dark. “You’re our secret weapon, man.” He grins. “Not like it helped last time, but, hey, maybe shit’s different this time.”

Jack just shrugs. Any time he and Kent are on the ice together, this is going to be the story, he knows. Parson vs Zimmermann has been the story since they were seventeen. He’d been asked, in that most recent interview, if he wanted to redeem himself for the game in October.

“October was five months ago,” he’d said. “I’m focused on next week.”

“But you and Kent Parson - there’s a lot more history there, isn’t there?” the reporter had insisted. “The Memorial Cup?”

“He’s a great player,” Jack had replied. He never knows what they want him to say when he gets asked about Kent. “But all that stuff in the Q - that’s all in the past.”

He wonders why Kent looked so startled in the interview. He has to be just as used to fielding questions about Jack as Jack is about him, and this would have been before last night’s dinner. He doesn’t think things were particularly weird between him and Kent last week.

He remembers the slight weight of Kent’s hoodie string in his hand from the night before, the way anger gave way, inevitably, into exhaustion. It’s no wonder he doesn’t know how to talk about his relationship with Kent to the world; he doesn’t even know how to talk about his relationship with Kent to Kent.

“Anything else you need, Kleiner?” Jack asks, because Kleiner is still hovering, and Jack hasn’t let any of this show on his face.

“Nah,” says Kleiner, shrugging. “Just thought it was interesting. And, hey, you guys are tight now, right now? Promise I won’t fuck him up too bad.”

“Parson can take care of himself,” says Jack. “And like Marty said.” He smiles in a way that he knows is unnerving. “You’d have to catch him.”

He turns away, not bothering to check for Kleiner’s reaction, and busies himself with getting ready for the game. It’s only then that he realizes he left his sandwich on the counter at home.

**

Jack takes his position at the face-off circle. He figures Troy will take the face-off. Jack’s watched a lot of Troy’s tape the last few days, and he knows when Troy’s facing a center he can’t physically overpower, he goes for the lock and has Kent take it. It wouldn’t be so consistently effective if Kent weren’t so quick, but Kent is. Jack keeps going through the motions in his head, like he used to tell his pee wee centers. It’s basic, but it helps keep him calm: go back to the fundamentals, keep a clear head, let instinct take over.

Jack waits for Troy to skate up.

But Kent skates up instead. His eyes are a shocking, electric green. Jack’s not totally thrown. Kent took their face-offs in the Q sometimes. He’d swipe it clean, knock it back to Jack, and be down the ice by the time the opposing player realized he’d lost. Then all Jack had to do was thread Kent a perfectly weighted pass. Easy.

“Hey, Zimms,” says Kent, grinning as he puts his stick down.

Jack settles then. He usually feels calm on the ice, but this goes beyond that. All the day’s nervous energy floats away from him, leaving a clean, still sense of peace behind. Even if this isn’t playing with Kent, he thinks, it’s the next best thing.

Jack smiles back as he puts his stick down. “Hey, Kenny.”

And then both their eyes are on the puck - in the ref’s hands, watching it fall.

Kent wins it. He’s quicker than Jack, and he scoops it with a neat, nasty flick of his wrist. But Jack has a pretty good idea who Kent intends to pass it to, and he bolts after Kent’s right winger as soon as Kent’s blade touches the puck.

He hits Tandy with a grunt. It’s a clean hit and it leaves the puck free. Jack chops it out to Thirdy, who takes it down the boards. Jack gets free of Tandy and angles down the ice, away from Thirdy, trying to draw Kent after him. But Kent’s not stupid - he beelines to Thirdy and pickpockets him, slices the puck back to one of his d-men - Carlton. Jack didn’t even realize Carlton was free, but Kent’s like that. He makes plays that, even if Jack were in the stands, he’s not sure he’d be able to see. And then the Aces do what they do best: a series of short, quick passes, protecting the puck, until Kent’s free and far afield and then Troy does what Jack knew he’d do from the start: makes a surgical cross-seam pass all the way to Kent.

Or, he would have, but Jack intercepts. He still knows Kent well enough to know that Troy’s gonna pass to where Kent will be, not where he is, and Jack plans accordingly. He blasts forward with the puck, manages to curl around Carlton, and finds, somehow, Poots, just slightly adrift of the Ace marking him.

Poots takes a shot on goal.

And Nilsson catches the puck with disarming ease, cutting off the crowd’s full-throated yell like someone switched a flip.

It’s a bit anticlimactic, but Jack’s buzzing. He can’t stop smiling, and, when he skates to the face off circle this time, Kent’s got a matching lunatic grin.

The ref drops the puck. Jack just smacks Kent’s stick away. It catches Kent off-guard because he knows Kent’s expecting him to be honorable. Jack can’t help but laugh, and he hooks the puck back to Tater, who goes wide, trying to get around Carlton. Carlton skates back with Tater, but Tater puts on a burst of speed, narrowly avoids Jameson closing in on him, and neatly slides the puck back to Jack. Out of the corner of his, Jack sees Carlton turn sharply, but he’s more concerned about Kent - who he knows is somewhere to his right. Sure enough, Kent glides up and tries to snag the puck away. Cocky, thinks Jack, grinning.

He feints left, with a bit of footwork he’s seen Kent work time and again in the tape he’s watched to prepare for this game. He goes smoothly by Kent and hears Kent laugh - short and incredulous - behind him.

But Kent catches up quickly.

“Who taught you to skate like that?” he chirps. He tries to check Jack into the boards and Jack laughs at him.

“Who taught you how to check?” says Jack, shrugging Kent off easily.

Kent grins, all shark-teeth. “Your mom,” he says, and before Jack can react, he’s got his stick between Jack’s and the puck and he’s flicked it away, goes sprinting off after it.

Jack chases him down the ice. Kent body fakes twice, but Jack ignores both. They get all the way to the net and then behind it. But Kent wheels and doubles back. Jack stays on him, dogged, trying to push Kent into the boards.

“Fuck off,” laughs Kent. He throws an arm up, trying to fend Jack off, and keeps the puck controlled with his other hand on the stick, like a kid walking a yo-yo. Behind him, Jack sees Tater barrelling up, about to knock Kent into the boards. But some sixth sense protects Kent, and he just twists eeling away with the puck and leaving Tater scrambling to regain his footing. Jack tries to knock the puck away, but Kent gets the better of the match up. He doubles back again, looping around Jack and zipping to the right face-off circle. Jack pursues. Kent, with his back to the goal, feeds the puck back at a sharp, acute angle, in the instant before Jack slams into him.

“Motherfucker!” yelps Kent, laughing again, as he goes to the ground. Jack barely hears it over the disappointed groan of the crowd. He looks up at the jumbotron and catches the replay: the pass, the hit, the puck finding Troy’s stick, and Troy, with the lightest of touches, deflecting it under Snowy’s outstretched glove and into the goal.

**

The next shift they’re both on the ice together, Jack ignores Kent. Instead, he focuses on cutting off Kent’s service. The media narrative that the Aces’ primary strategy is to get Kent the puck and hope for something magical isn’t fair. It wasn’t even entirely fair in 2010, when they won the Stanley Cup with a team of journeymen in a highly disciplined system that allowed Kent to drift across the ice like a ghost. (Something Jack can admit, to himself, he wouldn’t have been able to do, even if he had gone first, because Jack’s never been able to emulate that quality of always being where you don’t expect him to be.)

But it’s also not entirely inaccurate, especially with the Aces’ usual first line right winger sitting out with an injury. So Jack dogs Troy especially and gets Tater to do the same. It leaves Kent stranded without service or his favorite passing option. Kent drops back, trying to give Troy a better angle, and Troy splays the puck sideways. It’s a bouncy, ugly pass, and it takes Kent a second to get it under control.

Which gives Tater plenty of time to rush him. Kent hits the glass hard, lifted off the ice, and Tater, without pause, knocks the puck deep into the Aces’ defensive zone. Jack and Thirdy bolt for it, and Poots goes wide. The Aces d-men ignore him, focusing on Jack and Thirdy. Jack slows, pulling Carlton towards him and Thirdy beats Kellog to the puck, keeps his head up, and finds Poots wide-open.

Poots is at too tight an angle to take a shot, and Jack’s worried the kid’ll freeze. Jack dekes left and races towards Poots, shouting for the puck. In his periphery, Jack’s aware of Carlton recovering and Troy moving towards him. He’s aware of Nilsson tracking Jack with his body, making himself big in the net. Poots shoots the puck to Jack - and Jack’s sure, somehow, that Bad Bob is watching the game, that at this precise moment his father is shouting Shoot it! - and Jack doesn’t even wait to control the puck. He knows how it’ll bounce, and he catches it on the top of the parabola with the middle of his blade, snaps his wrist back, and finds, precisely and with devastating speed, the upper left corner of the net. He ties the game.

**

The game settles into a deadlock for the rest of the first period, unable to match the freneticism of the first eight minutes. Jack feels like he and Kent keep anticipating each other’s every move, so if this game is going to be won, it’s not going to be with both of them on the ice.

They pair up on a scrum in the second period as Tater drops gloves on Troy. Kent elbows Jack in the side, looks away when Jack glances at him.

“Behave,” hisses Jack, trying not to laugh.

“Dunno what you’re talking about,” mutters Kent, head still turned away, but Jack can see where the corner of his mouth is turned up in a smile. To their right, Troy goes to the ground, and the crowd yells for blood.

Jack gets pulled off after the fight, as the grinders go on to kill the Aces’ powerplay.

Kent is, simply, a joy to watch: fluid, fast, graceful, fun. Jack watches as Kent spins in a tight circle, keeping his body between Giggsy and the puck, then dekes Guy with a toe drag, leaving only Marty between him and Snowy. Kent’s successfully drawn three of the defenders out of position, Jack realizes, leaving Kent with at least two stellar passing options. Kent backhands the puck to Tandy, in a bit of stickhandling Jack’s sure skills coaches will be showing their players as a platonic example of form. But Tandy takes too much time setting up the shot; Snowy gets a read and goes low, smothering the puck.

Jack would have one-timed it, he thinks, irritated at the way Kent’s work gets fizzled out by his teammate’s failure.

But, after the reset, Troy wins the puck and sends it wide to Kent. Kent beats Giggsy to it easily, then chips it off the boards, passing to himself to get around Marty. Across the ice, Tater bangs against the penalty box, obviously cursing. Kent shifts right, left, right again, but can’t quite get clear of Guy, who’s got him backed against the boards, keeps trying to poke the puck away. But Kent’s patient. He fakes, pushes the stick out, fakes again, and this time Guy goes the wrong way. Kent dashes into center ice, and Snowy tracks him but -

Jack curses, because he sees the play Kent’s been setting up: Troy’s screening Tandy from Snowy, and Kent goes low, leaving a deep gouge in the ice as he swings abruptly and finds Tandy again with a perfect pass. This time, Tandy buries it.

**

The Aces hold their lead late into the third period, successfully killing a Falcs’ power play after Carlton gets sent off for a high stick on Poots. Jack finds himself playing more defensively, the only player on the Falcs able to anticipate where Kent’s going to be, but it means he’s not generating much offensively. The game gets chippier, and Jack has to knock into Tater twice to keep him from being sent off again.

They’ve got just over a minute of regular time left when Jack wins a face-off, against Troy this time. He drops the puck back to Poots, and then Poots gets it back to him with a sweet pass that gets it out of the Falcs’ zone. Thirdy’s at his back, giving him a passing option, but Kent comes shooting forward, meeting Jack on the ice. Jack knows the smart move is to pass it back to Thirdy, keep the puck moving.

Jack holds the puck. Everything seems to slow. Kent’s eyes are gray and serious, brows drawn low. Neither of them wants to make the first move, but time’s on Kent’s side. Somewhere, someone yells Jack’s name. He has passing options, he knows, but it’ll mean forcing the puck wide, trying to generate a scoring opportunity from off the boards in the dying minute of the game.

And Kent knows Jack well enough to know he’s not going to pass.

Jack passes left, hard and crisp to Tater, and then goes right as Kent’s expression shifts, startled. He goes past Kent; he keeps going. He has to trust Tater to find him, and - there it is, the puck in front of him. He doesn’t have much time, as agile as Kent is. He fakes Carlton - and the crowd is on its feet - holds the puck - “Shoot it!” screams someone - and he smashes it, top shelf. The crowd is roaring, ecstatic. Jack’s going to send the game to overtime, he drops to one knee, sliding towards the corner seats, and punches the air. The fans nearest him pound the glass. They’re wearing his number; they’re shouting his name.

It feels like one of those goals you build a narrative around. The goal that sent the game into overtime, the overtime that gave them the win, the win that got them into the playoffs. The playoffs - well. Anything can happen in the playoffs. The crowd is still on its feet, chanting: Zim-mer-mann, Zim-mer-mann.

With less than a minute left, Jack skates to the face-off. Troy takes it again. He does what Jack expected him to do from the beginning and goes for the lock. But Kent doesn't make the play for the puck. Tandy does, and he wins it, then passes it swiftly to Carlton, who finds Kent.

Kent dashes down the ice. Marty and Tater converge on him, but Kent doesn’t even pause. He nutmegs Tater, goes left, and picks the puck up again, on the breakaway. Jack blasts past Marty and Tater. The muscles in his upper legs burn. Kent’s fast, faster than Jack and he has a headstart, but Jack goes deep. He pushes harder. He eats up the ice between them, until he’s right behind Kent, preventing Kent from pulling his stick back to shoot.

Kent keeps going, recklessly, down the ice, right towards the goal, Jack on his heels.

Right before he hits Snowy, Kent leans forward - away from Jack - and releases. Snowy scrambles right for the puck.

He misses it. The puck skips in, and Kent - off balance from his strike - skids, stumbles, falls. He hurtles through the net, nearly kneeing Snowy in the face.

Jack flies in after him - and falls on top of him. They’re a tangle of limbs - “Jesus Christ, Zimms,” gasps Kent. Jack shoves his head down, trying to get up, but then Thirdy lands on top of him, and Jack’s elbow careens into Kent’s face. He hadn’t even realized Thirdy was that close behind them.

“Fuck,” says Jack. “Parse - ”

He’s cut off as several more players jump on them. He gets a few glimpses of the Aces’ kit as the breath gets knocked out of him. Kent’s team celebrating, he realizes. The Aces won. If the goal stands, the Aces have won. There’s another heavy thump - another player. Jack can’t breathe, and Kent, still trapped beneath him, groans.

Somewhere above them, someone snarls, “I’ll knock your last tooth out, you piece of shit.”

“Try touching me again, fucking cockstain.” That’s Poots, Jack realizes, and he almost has to laugh at how fierce he sounds. “He coulda injured our goalie!”

Jack shoves his way out, kicking someone as he does so, hopefully an Ace, hopefully not Kent. He staggers to his feet and doubles over, holding his knees, trying to catch his breath.

Tater skids up, expression murderous.

“Is it good?” manages Jack. “The goal?” He can’t hear what the announcer is saying. The crowd’s in an uproar. The Aces are hooting. Carlton has Poots in a headlock.

Tater ignores him. He shoves his hand into the pile up and finds Kent, hauls him out and up by the back of his jersey. Kent’s helmet is off, somewhere to Jack’s right. He’s bleeding from the mouth.

Tater says something furious in Russian, then, “Rat. You liking hit like that so much? Huh? I can hit, too!”

Kent’s eyes are wide; he pants shallowly.

“Tater,” says Jack.

Tater shoves Kent against the glass, hard enough to make it shake. The crowd screams, giddy for a fight. Kent swings wildly, connects with Tater’s ear. Troy scrambles up and grabs at Tater’s arm. Tater shoves him away easily, but it’s enough that Jack’s able to get his shoulder between Tater and Kent. He manages to push Tater away. Behind him, he hears Kent drop, and the screeching sound of Kent’s blades hitting the ice at an awkward angle.

“Cool it,” says Jack to Tater. It’s a struggle to keep his voice even. “It’s not worth it.”

Then he turns and offers Kent his hand. Kent looks up at him. His eyes are bright, feverish. He smiles, licks the blood off his lower lip, and Jack feels something liquid and hot go through him.

Kent grabs his hand.

Jack pulls him up.

“Nice goal,” says Jack, and then he drops Kent’s hand like it’s burned him. He skates away, after his teammates.

The goal stands.

**

The locker room, afterwards, is angry and depressed. Jack sits in silence as everyone buzzes furiously around him. He keeps replaying Kent’s last goal in his head, what he could have done to stop him. It’s not 8-1, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still a loss.

“Classic Aces hockey,” spits Guy.

“Parson - rat,” says Tater again. He grinds his fist into his open hand, glaring. “Always do this.”

“Fucking knocked us out of the playoffs, too,” whines Giggsy.

“Come on,” says Marty, though without much strength to it. He’s looked pretty shaken ever since the nutmeg, and Jack has to feel bad. No one wants to be the opposing player in some other guy’s highlight reel.

“Bruins lost, too, at least,” says Poots miserably, staring at his phone. “So we’re still…” He looks up, scanning the room hopefully for an encouraging face. “In it?”

Jack steadies himself. Because Poots is right. He meets the kid’s eyes.

“Yeah,” he says. “We’re still in it. That was the best we’ve played all year.”

He means it to say it quietly, but he says it in a lull, and suddenly everybody is looking at him.

Kleiner snorts. “Wow. Inspiring. But we still weren’t fucking good enough.”

“I mean it,” says Jack. He makes himself sound calm, sound stern, like this is Samwell and the frogs are getting antsy. “We take this performance to Phoenix? To Vancouver? To Boston? We’re in the playoffs.”

There’s an uneasy murmur.

“We fought hard,” says Jack. He looks at Poots, because Poots, at least, has perked up. He watches Jack avidly. “Poots - that apple on the first goal, eh? A beaut.”

“Zimmboni’s right,” says Thirdy, in the same kind of voice Jack imagines Thirdy calms his children down with. “We played damn good. But sometimes you play damn good, and you still don’t get the win. That’s hockey. But we keep our heads up. We learn from this. We move on from this. We win on Wednesday.”

Thirdy spreads his hands, meets everyone’s eyes in turn, and then, when he seems assured he has them, smiles kindly, and shrugs slightly, modestly. “We good.”

Jack looks at him gratefully. Jack’s never been one for speeches. Kent used to chirp him for it - “‘Uh, let’s just go out and score, boys, eh?’ One for the ages, Zimms.” And his Samwell efforts were never much better.

But then he glances over and sees Marty, watching Jack thoughtfully.

**

Kent’s milling outside the visitors’ locker room with several of his teammates when Jack finds him. They’re the polar opposite of the Falcs - smiling and at ease, even Kent, with his swollen mouth. But Kent’s expression shutters close when he spots Jack. His teammates notice the change, and all turn to see Jack at the same time. Troy, predictably, scowls. Jack ignores him.

“Hey,” says Jack to Kent. He feels a lot more uncertain than he did thirty seconds ago. “I have your hat...”

“Okay,” says Kent. He raises his eyebrows at Jack’s empty hands. “Where?”

“My car,” says Jack. The back of his neck is burning, but he makes himself focus on Kent. It could be funny, he thinks, that there’s more hostility between them off the ice than on it. It could be funny, but somehow it never is.

Kent’s hesitant, but then he nods. “Okay,” he says. He glances back at his teammates. “I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

Troy makes a disgruntled noise. “Seriously?”

Kent laughs. “Sorry, Mom.”

Troy snorts. “Right. Because I’m the mom in this relationship.”

Kent sticks out his tongue, and Jack feels a strange, annoyed tug.

“I’ll be home before curfew,” says Kent sweetly. He turns back to Jack and his expression sobers. “All right. Let’s go.”

Jack leads the way, moving slowly. He doesn’t especially want to run into any of his teammates at the moment. Kent, thankfully, doesn’t give him shit for stalling. He has his phone out, and would seem utterly oblivious except for how he always remains the exact same distance from Jack. Jack keeps trying to think of something to say.

“What was that?” he asks finally.

Kent doesn’t look up. “What was what?”

“The whole… mom joke thing.”

“Oh.” Kent rolls his eyes. “Swoops just thinks I smother the rookies.” He pauses, and adds grudgingly, “And the rest of the team. But, in my defense, they’re all morons.”

Jack frowns at him. Kent wasn’t like that in the Q. He was always friendlier than Jack, better with the team, but he’d never exactly looked out for them in any special way.

“What?” snaps Kent, the color rising in his cheeks; he can clearly tell Jack is looking at him despite staring at his phone.

“Nothing,” says Jack, after a pause. “That’s just… different, for you.”

Kent looks up. Jack watches Kent start and end several possible responses. His eyes are the giveaway. But Kent settles on a terse, “Sure,” and goes back to his phone.

“If you want to say something,” says Jack, irritated, “then you should say it.”

“I don’t want to say anything,” says Kent. “Or I would have said it.”

“Fine,” says Jack.

“Do you want to say something?”

“Yeah, actually,” says Jack. He turns abruptly, forcing Kent to back up quickly and knock into the wall. Kent winces and Jack remembers - belatedly, guiltily - that Kent took a beating during the game.

“Oh - sorry. Uh.” Kent glares up at him. His lower lip has already started to scab, Jack notices distantly. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” snaps Kent. He shoves his phone into his pocket and elbows past Jack. “Let’s just do this.”

Jack scowls but follows. They walk the rest of the way in silence. The parking garage is mostly cleared out by the time they reach Jack’s car. The hat’s on the passenger seat, but Jack doesn’t really want to give it back. He won’t have an excuse to keep talking to Kent if he gives it back.

“Do you want to get a drink?” he asks lamely, as he hands the hat over. Even strange and prickly as things are between them, he doesn’t think he can risk taking Kent back to his house. He’s not sure where else there is to go.

Kent just looks at him. “No… No, I don’t want to get a drink.”

“Okay.”

Kent sighs, the fight going out of him. “But we can just hang out. Go for a drive or whatever.”

Jack nods jerkily, and they both get in. They’re alone, then, in Jack’s car, in the dark and empty parking structure. Kent holds his hat in his hands and looks down at it. Jack looks at him. Kent’s face is tired and pensive, his lids drawn down, mouth in a slight frown. He’s traveled somewhere inside himself. Jack doesn’t recognize this expression. He’s not sure if it’s new or if he’s just never noticed it.

“You don’t drink,” says Jack, after a moment. “I mean, not as much, not like - ”

Kent’s eyes get wider, his expression a little bit like when Tater had hauled him off the ice. “Not like when we were seventeen, you mean?”

“Yeah…”

“Gee, Jack, I wonder why that could be.”

Jack flinches. “Sorry,” he mumbles, resentful. Kent gives him a sharp look at his tone, and Jack grimaces. “I just - is it just me?”

“It makes you worse,” says Kent carefully. “It makes you slow. Why would I do something that makes me worse at hockey?”

This Jack knows. Kent’s the first person he ever met with the discipline and hunger to match his own. The first person to exceed that. Jack couldn’t even want something as much as Kent could. He nods.

Kent slumps down into the seat and crosses his arms over his chest. He stares stonily out the front window as he keeps talking.

“And… Everyone expected me to drink a lot, my first season. They kept expecting me to fuck up or fall apart, uh, like…” He pauses.

“Like me,” says Jack.

Kent nods, looking embarrassed. Or angry. Jack can’t really tell. Maybe Kent doesn’t know how he’s feeling. Jack has to resist the impulse to touch his hand. He crosses his own arms, keeps them close against himself.

“I never heard about any of that,” he admits. “I just always heard about how well you were doing.”

Kent smirks, ugly and defensive. “It’s not like you were paying attention, right?”

Jack’s jaw clenches. “Sure.”

“Sorry,” mutters Kent. “Just…” He trails off and then says, very quietly, “I called you so many times.”

Jack winces. “I know.”

Kent rubs his hands against his upper arms. Then he shakes his head.

“Last night was bullshit, Jack. I know it wasn’t just physical. I remember…” He gestures at the air like he’s trying to hold onto something, and then he laughs, pained and self-conscious. “God, I’d wake up next to you in bed and I’d just look at you. Do you have any idea how amazing that was? Just waking up and seeing you?”

There’s a pain in Jack’s chest - in his throat - that makes it difficult to speak. He remembers. He remembers the way Kent would wake him up by touching his face.

“Look at you,” Kent would say, light in his eyes, light on his face, always smiling. “Look at you.”

There were mornings when Jack had never wanted to leave the bed, as if nothing could touch them as long as they stayed hidden away. But, inevitably, there was practice, work outs, games, the sun getting high in the sky and Kent pulling him out of bed, totally unafraid.

Kent looks at him now with a miserable expression. “So I don’t know if you’re lying to yourself or your boyfriend or what, but what Bittle said last night - that’s not how you felt. That’s not how I felt. You know that’s not how I felt.”

Jack has to grip the steering wheel, now, to keep himself from touching Kent.

“I didn’t know how to explain it to him.”

“You didn’t want to explain it to him.”

Jack laughs.

“What?”

“Nothing, just. Bittle and I… got into a fight last night. After you left. About that. About a lot of things.”

Kent doesn’t look very surprised.

“I asked him about the vlog.”

“Okay…”

“And it sort of. Escalated.”

Kent grimaces. “You shouldn’t be telling me this.”

“I just don’t have anyone else to say it to.”

Everyone important in his life knows Bittle, and everyone important in his life loves Bittle. Jack doesn’t blame them. Bittle’s lovable. But it makes it hard in some ways, too. All their friends are in common, except, possibly, Georgia, who puts up with too much shit from Jack professionally for Jack to dump on her emotionally as well. And he doesn’t want to see the wild look behind his parents’ eyes, if he ever tried to untangle the complicated and bewildering knot of misgivings about his relationship with Bittle. He doesn’t want them to see it like it’s the first pebble in the rockslide that would be Jack destroying the best thing to ever happen to him and ruining his life in the process.

Those are his options. If you’re not Jack’s friend or family, then you don’t know about Bittle at all.

“You have a lot of people, Zimms,” says Kent softly. “You always did.”

Jack doesn’t say anything. He knows, intellectually, that Kent’s right. But he knew Kent was right about Jack not needing to worry about the draft, too. Knowing isn’t enough, sometimes.

Kent looks up at the roof. He crunches the snapback between his hands. “What am I to you? I’m not your boyfriend. I’m not your therapist.”

“You’re my friend.”

Kent scoffs.

Jack doesn't have a good response. He runs his hand through his hair and sighs, changes the subject.

“You know, that was the best game I’ve played all year. And I still lost.”

“It’s a team sport, Zimms. How many times do I gotta tell you that?”

“At least once more,” says Jack ruefully. He glances up at Kent.

Kent smiles for the first time in awhile. It’s short and it’s small, but it reaches his eyes.

But Kent’s smile fades quickly. He looks pensive again.

“You know what I wanted to say back there?” He rolls his shoulder back in the direction of the locker rooms.

“What?”

Kent laughs sharply. “That I took care of you, you asshole, for all the fucking good it did.”

“Parse - ” Jack breathes out hard through his nose. “That wasn’t your job.”

Kent plucks at his shirt where the C would be on his jersey. “Well, now it is.” Kent follows with a laugh, a short, breathy, ugly, “Ha,” that seems mostly aimed at himself.

“I just wish - ” he adds. But then he gets quiet, turns his face away. His voice comes out strangely muffled. “I wish it hadn’t fucked me up so much.”

“It?”

“What happened - ” Kent’s face is reflected in the passenger window; his mouth flattens - “to you.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Kenny,” says Jack, tired. He’s not sure how many more ways there are to say that.

He thinks about Kent’s visit in January, about finding Kent snooping for pills in Jack’s bathroom. “I already fucked up once,” Kent had said then, and Jack, in his anger, had been unwilling to say otherwise.

Kent doesn’t say anything. He breathes in, deep and rattling. Jack leans across the center console and fists his hands in Kent’s shirt, turns Kent so he’s forced to face Jack.

“I mean it,” says Jack. “What happened to me wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m not trying to make it about me,” says Kent. Jack starts to protest; for once, that’s not what he means. But Kent talks over him, the words rushing out. “Just, Jesus, Jack.” His voice cracks. “I fucking found you.”

Kent wraps his hands around Jack’s wrists, and Jack thinks for a second Kent’s going to shove him off. But then Kent slumps slightly, and his grip slackens. He hangs on to Jack’s wrists loosely.

Jack lifts his hands and holds Kent’s face. He looks at Kent searchingly.

Alicia had told him, the morning after, “Thank god Kenny found you. I don’t know...” And she had sobbed and covered her face. “I don’t know what we would have done if he hadn’t.”

He would have died, Jack remembers thinking. That’s what would have happened. He didn’t know how to think about that fact, though, about Kent finding him, and every time he’s tried to think about it since, he’s shied away. And of everything Kent has thrown in Jack’s face over the years, he’s never thrown that.

Jack still doesn’t know how to think about it. It feels too big to contemplate, too heavy to be responsible for. But he glimpses, for a second, the terror Kent must have felt.

“Do you ever think,” Jack says slowly, piecing the thought together, “that maybe it’s also something that happened to you?”

Kent’s face wrinkles in confusion. Jack finds himself sweeping his thumbs across Kent’s cheekbones. Tentatively, Kent touches the back of Jack’s hands.

Jack’s not sure what he’s trying to give Kent - forgiveness, or permission, or understanding. But he’s realized, now, that everything that happened, Kent’s had to deal with through the prism of Jack.

“I almost died,” says Jack. He curls his fingers slightly, against Kent’s hair at the back of his neck. “But you had to deal with me. Uh. Doing that.”

Kent laughs weakly, face opening in surprise.

“Was that a speech?” he asks.

“Uh.” Jack feels the back of his ears burn, but not in a bad way. “Maybe. Was it good?”

“It was good,” says Kent. He smiles, softly, a little teasingly. Jack watches the shape of his mouth change. He touches Kent’s lower lip, where Jack split it. He feels Kent’s breath stutter over his hand.

“I’m sorry about this,” he says.

Then, gently, because he doesn’t want to hurt Kent, Jack kisses him.

Or he tries to, but Kent jerks away with a pained noise and covers his mouth with his hand. He curves away from Jack and hides his face by the door. His shoulders shake.

“Jesus,” says Kent, with a pained laugh.

Jack doesn’t say anything. He’s frozen.

Kent straightens up. His hand is still over his mouth. He doesn't look at Jack. Jack can't stop looking at him, but he feels like his brain's stalled out.

“Do you, uh. Do you want a ride back to the hotel?”

Kent laughs incredulously. “No. No. I think I’m good.”

He gets out of the car. But then he doesn’t move. He just stands there. Jack can hear him breathing, harsh and ragged.

“Kent?” says Jack.

Kent makes an upset noise. “Actually, yeah. I’ll take the ride.”

Kent slides back into the seat and covers his face with his hands. Jack gives him a second to buckle his seatbelt, and when it becomes clear he’s not, starts to drive. It’s hard to keep his eyes on the road and not on Kent, and when Jack glances at Kent in the rearview mirror, Kent remains hunched over, his face hidden in his hands.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“Not really,” says Kent.

“Sorry,” says Jack.

“Sorry?” repeats Kent. He laughs again. “You're sorry? I’ve been - ” Kent exhales shakily. “Fuck. I miss you. I fucking miss you. I’ve missed you for like seven goddamn years, Zimms. I thought getting to be your friend again would help. But it doesn’t. It just. It sucks. I miss you. And you can’t - you can’t do this this shit to me. It isn’t fair.”

He looks up, meeting Jack’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and asks, plaintive, “What are we doing? Can you just tell me - what the fuck are we doing?”

Jack looks away.

“I don’t know,” he says hoarsely. “I have to - I have to figure some things out.”

Kent doesn't reply, but Jack keeps glancing back up at the mirror. He meets Kent’s eyes every time. Jack keeps expecting Kent to look away. But he doesn’t, and every time Jack looks up, he has to meet Kent’s eyes. He keeps expecting Kent’s expression to change, to calm, to smooth out, but it doesn’t. It just stays like: raw and open with confusion and hurt.

When they arrive at the hotel, Kent pauses as he gets out and turns around, leans down, one hand resting on the top of the car. He stays like that for a moment, framed in the open doorway. He just looks at Jack. His eyes trace over Jack’s face, like he’s trying to record the moment, like he’s trying to memorize what Jack looks like. Jack wants to look away, but he can’t. He can’t do that to Kent.

Finally, Kent touches his mouth, and then nods to himself.

“Okay. Okay,” he says. He drags his hand over his face and breathes out hard, and when he pulls his hand away, he’s smiling. His eyes are hard and glittering. It’s like a magician’s trick, the way his face finally changes. He raps once on the top of the car.

“Give me a call after playoffs, Zimmermann," he says, "if you figure things out.”

“What - ” starts Jack, but Kent’s already shut the door.

**

When Jack gets home, he remembers the sandwich and goes to toss it, pausing only to read the post it note. It reads: I love you! Remember: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” I admire your strength! Love, B

Nice, not kind, says Kent’s voice in his head.

Or just scared, thinks Jack. He could just be scared.

He puts the post it note facedown. He texts Shitty:

hey, can we talk?

Chapter Text

“What’s up, bro?” says Shitty the next night.

There are dark bags under his eyes, and his hair’s starting to get long again. He’s also shirtless, which isn’t unexpected. Jack knows better than to ask whether he’s wearing pants. He misses Shitty. He never thought he’d get to the point where he missed Shitty hanging around naked all the time, but he does. He’s been so lucky to remain so near his friends, but it’s not the same as seeing them every day.

“Hey,” says Jack. “Thanks for, uh, being available.”

“Absolutely no problem,” says Shitty. He yawns loudly, covering his face with his hand. “Gives me an excuse to not have to do my con law reading, bro. We’re doing all the affirmative action cases Monday, and, shit, man, obviously I, like, knew this country is a white patriarchal garbage fire but it’s fucking sickening to see how the Rehnquist court just, like, takes a huge, steaming dump all over the 14th Amendment.”

Jack nods sympathetically. Shitty keeps talking.

“Oh, shit, but we’re calling to talk about you. How are things with you?” Shitty shakes his head. “Caught the highlights of the Aces game, man. Brutal shit. Looked like things got pretty tense there towards the end. Bits is pretty up in arms over that last Parson goal, too.” Shitty makes his eyes bigger. Jack assumes this is his Bittle impression. “All, I can’t believe Parson did that! He’s a dirty player!”

“Bittle said that?”

“Yeah. I didn’t get a chance to catch up for very long. But he and Lards are here tonight, hitting the town. Seems like he’s pretty busted up about something.”

“Oh,” says Jack. “Uh, maybe we should talk another time…”

Shitty’s expression turns suddenly and sharply perceptive.

“So this is about Bitty. What’s going on, man? You two all right?”

“So Bittle’s not there?”

“He’s here. But…” Shitty looks at his bare wrist. “It’s still pretty early. He and Lardo are gonna be out another hour. At least.”

Jack doesn’t respond. He’s trying to figure out another time when he might be free to talk to Shitty. But the problem is, Shitty’s stupidly busy, too.

“Okay... So, we got into a fight…”

Shitty hums and nods.

“Parse - Kent - Kent Parson came over for dinner before the game,” says Jack. “And Bittle and I got into a fight. His, uh, vlog came up. Have you ever seen it? Because I realized I’ve never seen it. And I know he talks about me. On it.”

“Nah, dude. That’s just, like, Bitty’s thing? But. Huh. I guess I can see why that would be more of a sore point for you. You guys never talked about it?”

Jack doesn’t say anything. Shitty tilts his head back and makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and groan.

“Course you haven’t. Look, you guys gotta talk to each other. You gotta process shit.” He tilts his head down and gives Jack a meaningful look. “Together.

“Okay,” says Jack. He almost says, “Thanks for the advice,” not in a sarcastic way, but because he can see the easiest way out of this conversation, and that’s it. Thank Shitty for the advice, let him think he’s done his job and Jack and Bittle will patch things up, that Jack just needed a nudge in the right direction of being a functioning human being.

But that’s not why he called, he reminds himself.

“We also argued about Kent,” he admits.

Shitty doesn’t look surprised.

“And I’m guessing you guys haven’t talked about that either?”

Jack shakes his head. “Bittle was… is jealous.”

“Did Bits… Does he have a reason to be jealous, dude? I mean, beyond the understandable, dude. Like, don’t get me wrong, but if Kent Parson were Lardo’s ex, I’d probably be feeling a little jealous, too. That’s a big shadow to be in.”

Jack smiles thinly. “You’re telling me.”

“Shit, I mean, I didn’t mean it like that. You know how I meant it.”

“Yeah…” says Jack. He watches his face in the tiny inset for a moment, as if he can tell more from his expression how he’s feeling than he can by being inside his own head. He looks tired. He feels tired.

“So,” prods Shitty. “Are you calling because you need advice on how to apologize? Because you want to talk through how you’re feeling? Because you need practice having a grown up conversation? I can pretend to be Bits, dude.” He makes his eyes big again, and this time, pitches his voice up slightly and adopts the worst southern accent Jack has ever heard. “Lawd, Jack, I sure do feel mighty insignificant compared to famous NHL player Kent Parson. Please assure me I have nothin’ to worry about.”

Jack laughs in response, though not as much, he can tell, as Shitty was hoping he would. He fiddles with his hoodie strings. “Uh. So the vlog thing does bother me. But. I think it’s my fault. That we’re fighting.”

Shitty gives him an encouraging look.

“Lardo told me, uh, last time I was at Samwell… When we came out to everyone…” Had that really been the last time he was at Samwell? It somehow feels like ages ago and like no time at all. “She said Bittle’s been sad a lot. And I didn’t know that. I feel like I should have known that.”

“We’ve established communication is neither of your strong suits,” says Shitty. “Did you ask Bitty about it?”

“No.”

“Dude, Jack. You gotta work with me.”

“I don’t know… if it would have changed anything. If Bittle had told me how he was feeling.”

Shitty’s eyes narrow. His whole posture and expression changes, suddenly on high alert. Jack shrinks down, looks away from the webcam.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…” says Jack haltingly. “That it was easier when I didn’t know how he felt, or when I could pretend that at least.” Because there were times, he admits to himself, when he knew, or knew, at least, that it was more than his anxiety telling him he wasn’t the boyfriend Bittle expected him to be. Or deserved.

“Right…”

“But now that I know, I have to decide what to do about it.”

“Right. Talk. Apologize. Make up.” Shitty waggles his eyebrows. “Make out.”

Jack doesn’t smile, even though he knows it would set Shitty at ease. He hunches down more.

“He just deserves better,” he mumbles.

Shitty strokes his mustache thoughtfully.

“The thing about ‘better,’ dude, is that you don’t get to use that as an excuse for hurting someone. Like, realizing someone deserves better than what you’re currently giving them doesn’t mean you no longer have to treat them well, you know?” He gives Jack another uncomfortably perceptive look. “And, shit, Jack, it sounds like neither of you have talked about… anything. Are you sure you’re not,” and here Shitty’s voice gets softer, “panicking? Cuz it’s your guys’ first big fight as a couple?”

Jack nods. Shitty winces.

“Jack... You can’t break up with someone because you think you’re bad for them. You don’t get to decide that. They get to decide that. You get to break up with someone because the relationship isn’t working for you.”

Jack nods again, and Shitty’s wince settles fully onto his face as a grimace.

“Are you sure none of this has anything to do with Parson? Besides Bits’ jealousy? And I don’t think you ever answered, Jack. Does Bitty have, like, cause? Besides the Kent Parson-ness of it all?”

The Kent Parson-ness of it all, thinks Jack. It could be the title of his autobiography.

“He. I. Maybe?” says Jack. He rubs his hand across his face. “I don’t want Bittle to feel jealous.”

“Bro, that, uh, doesn’t answer the question, you know?”

Jack doesn’t say anything.

Shitty looks skeptical. “You know, I think Parson is a pretty decent dude. But you gotta admit, he makes you a little…”

Jack smiles dryly. “Crazy?”

“Hey, man, it’s 2016. We don’t use that kind of language any more.”

But he is crazy, thinks Jack.

“We just have a lot of history,” says Jack. “It’s harder to get away from that than I thought it would be.”

“Okay, sure, but putting aside whether or not… that’s a good idea, yeah. Dude. If your emotional energy is elsewhere, then, yeah. It’s not fair to Bitty. Hell, sometimes I think it’s not fair to Lardo to date while I’m a 1L.”

“So I should…”

Shitty raises his eyebrows. “I’m not gonna advise you to break up, dude. You have to make your own decisions.” He looks sad, suddenly. “And I can’t do that to Bits. But, I’m gonna still be your friend, Jack. Whatever you decide.”

“Thanks,” says Jack meekly. He hadn’t realized how much that fear had weighed on him, until just now that Shitty articulated it.

Shitty doesn’t say anything else. He slumps a bit, exhaling a long, low gust of air, and rubs at his mustache again. If they were actually talking in person, this would be when Shitty hugged him, thinks Jack. And Jack kind of wishes that Shitty were there to hug him. The thought hangs uneasily in Jack’s mind. It makes him feel weak, somehow. Or gay, supplies a tiny, unhelpful voice at the back of his mind. Even though there really isn’t anything that’s actually gay about it.

“How did you break up with Parson?” asks Shitty eventually.

Jack takes a long pause before answering.

There had been, after Kent had come into Jack’s hospital room and demanded, “Were you really that scared I was going to go first?”, a ringing silence. Or, at least, Jack’s ears had started to ring, and his vision had started to swim. He didn’t understand where his parents were, why they had let Kent come in alone, why they had let Kent come wearing that jersey.

“Get out,” Jack had said finally, without looking at Kent.

Kent laughed. “Seriously? What the hell is wrong with you? You - ”

“Get out,” Jack said again, and this time he looked at Kent. "You won, didn't you? Isn't that enough? So get out."

He remembers watching the way color swept up Kent’s face from his neck, blotchy and red and furious.

“Yeah,” said Kent, voice choked. “I gotta get going anyway.” He retreated to the doorway and then paused. Jack watched him warily. He knew Kent was going to say something else.

Sure enough, Kent smiled.

“I gotta go get ready for development camp, right? Starts next week.” His smile got colder. “In Vegas.”

And then he left.

“Jack?” said Bob, a few seconds later, coming back into the room. He held a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Is everything okay? I just saw Kenny, and - ”

“I don’t want to see him again,” Jack said. “If he comes back – I don’t want to see him.”

He stared at his hands. They were pale, shaking. He fisted them in the thin hospital blanket, tried to will his body to calm down.

“Okay,” said Bob, dully, in the background, over the static of Jack’s brain. "Whatever you need, Jack."

What he needed, Jack thought, was a goddamn pill.

He didn’t get access to his phone or computer for a while afterwards. And when he did, there were dozens and dozens of messages, not just from Kent, but from almost all his teammates, even from old ones, even from people Jack hadn’t heard from in years, asking him if he was okay, asking what had happened. He still wonders, sometimes, if Bob and Alicia had gone through them, debating whether or not they should let Jack see the messages when he was finally “better.” If it would be worse for Jack to feel abandoned or overwhelmed.

It didn't matter. He deleted all of them.

Most people didn’t try again, and even the more dogged ones dropped off after three or four unanswered texts. Jack wasn’t that close, not really, to most of his teammates. But Kent had kept texting and calling.

It wasn’t, Jack thinks, that he was still mad at Kent for what he said at the hospital - though there had been a part of him that was still mad. But it had felt impossible to read, let alone respond, to any of the texts, let alone listen to the voicemails. Impossible the same way it had felt, at times, to go onto the ice without first taking a pill and smoothing out the jagged edges of his mind, a kind of slippery blankness, like walking on ice in shoes so old the tread was gone. It hadn’t mattered whether or not Jack wanted to text Kent back, wanting had nothing to do with it.

It had been impossible, too, to watch any hockey that whole first year apart without Kent coming up. Even in the games Kent didn’t play in, somehow, always, the commentators would get around to talking about him. Jack took too watching games on mute, alone in his room because Alicia would look askance at him every time he put a game on in the den and Bob would get halfway through a comment - “See the way he’s - ” and then would lapse into silence, a troubled expression on his face.

So Jack would sit in his room alone, with the blinds drawn, and watch his phone light up again and again, and he had felt some terrible mixture of resentment and exhaustion curdle inside him. Jack didn’t want to hear about Kent’s new life, and he didn’t want to explain himself, and he didn’t want to hear pity or concern in Kent’s voice, and he didn’t want to apologize. He wanted to be left alone, and he wanted to not have to feel anything any more. But they still wouldn't let him have any pills.

“I blocked his number,” Jack tells Shitty.

“Fuck, man!” says Shitty.. “Well, don’t do that!”

Before Jack can respond, there’s a noise on Shitty’s end – a door opening, people laughing – and the room Shitty’s in lights up. Someone’s flipped a lightswitch. Shitty turns, and Jack reads surprise – almost panic – in Shitty’s expression.

“Hey! You guys are home early.”

“Bitty drank too much.” Lardo’s voice.

And then: “No, I did not, Miss Larissa!” Bittle laughs, bright and high. Jack sinks low into his seat.

“Oh my gosh,” continues Bittle, still off-screen. “That was so much fun! Thank you so much!”

Shitty turns back to face the screen. He mouths, “I’m gonna hang up,” and Jack nods.

But then Bittle flounders into view. He turns, sees the computer. Shitty stands, trying to block Bittle’s view - Jack experiences a split second of gratitude that Shitty is, in fact, wearing boxers - but then Jack sees the instant Bittle spots him. His eyes widen.

Jack?” he says.

“Bittle,” says Jack. “Hey.”

He remembers that Shitty was wearing earphones. That Bittle can’t hear him, but then Bittle rushes past Shitty, shouldering him aside.

“Jack!” says Bittle again, sitting down in Shitty’s chair. He yanks the headphones out, so now, whatever Jack says, Lardo and Shitty will be able to hear, too. Over Bittle’s shoulder, Shitty stares at the screen in distress and turns to Lardo, gestures frantically, and Lardo looks, Lardo looks pissed, Jack realizes.

“Oh, honey,” says Bittle. He’s very flushed and his eyes are wet, bright. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” says Jack, baffled. “For what?”

Bittle flaps his hands. “For everything! For not talking to you about the vlog. I’ve been a terrible boyfriend, sweetheart. I’ve just been so stressed - with all the hiding, and you being gone, and my parents, but I know it’s worse for you, and, oh, I just know I’ve asked too much - ”

“Bittle,” says Jack. But Bittle keeps talking. His eyes keep getting wetter, which makes them look bigger, and Jack can’t help but think about Shitty’s fond, bug-eyed impression.

He can’t help but think about Bittle as a freshman, when Bittle almost seemed to dislike Jack at times, or had at least been able to push back without self-flagellation. Where did that Bittle go?

“I just don’t want to fight any more,” says Bittle, voice rising. He’s even more flushed now, pink on his cheeks and down his neck to the V of his chest visible from his shirt. “Especially with playoffs coming up, I know you’re already under so much pressure, but - ”

“Bittle,” says Jack again, louder and sterner, like when he’d have to snap at Ransom and Holster for goofing off too much at practice.

Bittle shuts up. His eyes flicker beneath their film of tears. Jack knows he should just end the conversation now, call Bittle in the morning and hash this out like adults, or, at least, give Bittle the benefit of going to Samwell to talk through it in person.

“Just - like you said, with playoffs coming up, maybe we should - ”

“Playoffs!” says Bittle. “Oh, Jack, honey. You’ll do amazingly. I just know it. You’re the best, most wonderful – ”

“I think we should break up,” says Jack.

He didn't realize he was going to say it until he said it. They both sit there, staring at each other. Bittle's hand is over his mouth. He looks shocked. And then he starts to cry, hard and in earnest, gulping like a kid. He covers his face and hunches down. Jack can't see his face, just his blond head, his shaking shoulders.

“Bud,” says Jack helplessly. “Bits, come on. It’s not - ”

Lardo slams Shitty’s laptop shut.

But the connection isn’t immediately cut. So, for a couple seconds, Jack just sits there and listens to Bittle sob.

**

He calls Bittle the next day, a little before noon, when he has a break in his schedule, and he figures Bittle’s had enough time to sleep it off.

The call goes straight to voicemail. Jack frowns.

“Hey, uh, it’s Jack. We should… talk. I’m sorry about.” He laughs, pained. “I’m sorry about a lot of things, Bittle. Um. So I wanted to apologize. I shouldn’t have - ” He pauses, because he doesn’t want Bittle to think the next words he says are going to be, “I shouldn’t have broken up with you.” He needs to be clear, because not being clear is part of why this has turned out so badly.

“I think we made the right call, um, about not being together. I don’t want to get back together.”

And that was cruel, he thinks. He shouldn’t have said that either.

“Not that you weren’t a great, uh, boyfriend. You were great. Uh. I just wish I could have handled - uh. I should have handled… everything better. But we should talk. Um. I’d like to talk to you. So give me a call back? When you get the chance. And good luck against Union, if we don't talk before then. They're weak - um. Actually. Never mind. Talk to you soon. Okay. Bye.”

He sends a text, too, because he figures Bittle is looking at his phone at least.

Hey. Sorry about last night. Talk soon?

Bittle doesn’t reply, and he doesn’t call Jack back.

**

He texts Bittle a couple more times and again gets no response. He’s not surprised. He knows he deserves it. Bittle’s quiet on the group chat, too. So are Lardo and Shitty.

He checks Bittle’s twitter: it’s the usual anodyne chatter about celebrities and baking and the Frogs. No mention of Jack - which is, actually, unusual - but nothing otherwise to indicate how Bittle is doing.

He suppresses the urge to text Kent. He wants to talk to Kent, but even he’s able to recognize this is not an issue Kent will want anything to do with. But he still wants to talk to him.

**

They leave for Phoenix the next day. It’s a long flight, about as long, Jack admits, to himself, as the flight to Vegas. When they land, his phone lights up with every text he’s missed while in the air.

We’re not picking sides or anything but, reads the first one, from Holster.

dude, says the next one, from Ransom.

DUDE, agrees Holster.

D U D E, from Ransom again.

Jack pauses in the airport. He rubs at his eyes and texts back, so Bittle told you?

He guesses he shouldn’t be surprised. They all live together. Bittle was probably really upset. Ransom and Holster would have asked him what was wrong. But still. He wishes he and Bittle could have talked about what they were going to tell everyone beforehand.

LARDO told us!, texts Holster. Jack frowns. Bitty won’t even talk to us!

so what does this mean for the group chat?, asks Ransom.

Jack knows Ransom isn’t really asking about the group chat, that it’s a way to ask, sidelong, about the group’s friendship as a whole. But he can’t help but feel irritated about it. There are more important things than the fucking group chat.

I don’t know. Bittle and I haven’t had a chance to discuss everything yet. But as long as it doesn’t affect his performance on the team, I don't see how it's any of your business.

“Are you okay?” says Marty, low-voiced and suddenly next to him. Jack looks up, startled, and squints in the white, hot light suddenly pouring down on them. Phoenix is an oven.

“Yes,” he says. “Sorry.”

His phone lights up again.

bro, says Holster, thats fucking cold even for you

Jack’s stomach knots at “even for you.” But he doesn’t reply. He just shoves his phone into his pocket.

“I’m fine,” he says to Marty, who’s still hovering skeptically at his elbow. “Come on. We’re gonna hold the team up.”

He keeps his phone off for the rest of the day.

**

He’s going to have to tell his parents, he realizes with dismay, halfway through the pre-game presser.

“Sorry,” he says, to the reporter who just asked a question. “I didn’t catch that.”

The reporter clears his throat. He must be local. Jack doesn’t recognize him.

“I said, your name and LeBlanc’s both keeping up as possible Calder winners. How do you think your seasons have compared?”

Jack feels a flash of irritation. This kind of thing was annoying enough when it was with Kent. It’s worse when he’s being compared against some annoying kid he’s only met once. It feels both incorrect and totally irrelevant.

“Well,” he says slowly, “my team still has a chance to make the playoffs.”

The press pool laughs, and Jack squints at them. He didn’t realize he was being funny.

**

At warm ups, Poots skates up behind LeBlanc and punches him in the arm. It’s uncharacteristically forward of Poots, and Jack frowns at it, frowns even more when LeBlanc turns and laughs.

Marty must catch his expression. He laughs too.

“They were teammates,” he says. “Last year.”

“Oh,” says Jack. Somehow, he’d known they’d both played for Halifax, but had never cared enough to put together what that meant. He watches thoughtfully as Poots skates back to the Falcs’ side of the ice.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” asks Marty. “You’ve been - ”

“Kinda robotic?”

Marty grimaces.

“I’m fine,” says Jack. “I was just thinking, it’s nice they’re still friends. I haven’t really kept up with anyone from the Q.”

Marty gives him an odd look. Jack can’t figure out how to interpret and is sick, besides, of Marty watching him. He shrugs and skates off, finds Tater for a passing drill.

**

They win, but Jack gets into a fight with LeBlanc.

It starts at the first face off. LeBlanc skates up with a smirk, and says, as he sets his stick down, “No Parson this time.”

Oh, right, thinks Jack. This.

And that’s enough of a distraction for Blanco to win the face off. But it doesn’t matter. Tater snuffs the play quickly. Still, Jack feels a needled.

“Not like we needed Parse in September,” he says monotone, at the next face-off. They’d won, 4-1, in September. Everything had felt very clear, very simple, in September.

“We were a long way from the playoffs in September,” says LeBlanc, smirking, and he zips away with the puck again.

It’s a rough start to the game, made even rougher when, ten minutes in, the Yotes score. Jack groans from the players’ bench as their third line experience what seems to be a momentary but complete lapse in attention.

They don’t deserve to be in the locker room, thinks Jack, at the break, if they can’t even win against the Coyotes.

Then, in the second period, they never hit the flow they did against the Aces. But they don’t need to. After a series of chippy plays, Jack finally sets up Poots for a goal.

“It’s gonna be hard watching your old teammate in the playoffs, eh?” says Jack at the next face-off.

“You tell me,” says LeBlanc, scowling. “Seems like you’ve got a lot of experience with that.”

Jack wins that one.

“Don’t worry,” he says, at the end of the period. “You’ll have plenty of experience losing before you know it.”

And that’s when LeBlanc trips him. It’s quick enough to have a whiff of plausible deniability, and Jack catches himself before he faceplants onto the ice. He turns sharply and grabs LeBlanc by the back of his jersey and hauls him back to face him.

“Coward,” Jack spits in French.

LeBlanc shoves him, and Jack lets go, drops his gloves. His ears ring. LeBlanc’s about as tall as he is, but rangier. So Jack’s better able to keep his balance, but it’s also been a long time since he’s fought anyone. They exchange a flurry of blows, close and ugly the way hockey fights often are.

It’s also over quickly. Poots shoves his way between them, closely followed by the ref, and Tater yanks Jack back as a Yotes player does the same to LeBlanc.

“All season,” says Tater, shaking his head and grinning as he herds Jack off the ice, “I think, Zimmboni goody-two-shoes. Zimmboni never fights.” He grins wider and shakes Jack in a friendly way. “About time!”

“Yeah,” says Jack. He feels dazed, a little ill. His left eye starts to throb, and the knuckles on his right hand. He doesn’t remember if he landed a hit, but he must have.

He and LeBlanc both start third period in the box. LeBlanc is sullen, arms crossed over his chest, and his nose is swollen, cotton-stuffed. He’ll sound especially nasal for awhile. But Jack’s just grateful both teams, at least, are shorthanded, that he doesn’t have to beat himself up for giving the Yotes an advantage on the power play.

And at least, from the box, he gets a great view as Tater beaks up an attack, lifts his head and finds, with devastating power and speed, the back of the net.

**
He bows out of the celebration early. He’s glad they won, glad they’re back in playoff position, but he’s still full of a creeping, tingling irritation. He doesn’t want to risk getting into a fight with one of his teammates, too.

He takes a shower. Ices his eye where it’s starting to bruise. Watches a black and white movie on mute.

Finally, he runs out of things to do, and he turns his phone on. There’s a cavalcade of texts from Chowder and Nursey and Dex in the groupchat, mainly about the fight, and a noted lack of response from everyone else, though Ransom chimes in with a single comment about Tater’s slapshot. Jack’s stomach sinks as he looks at the texts. He’s tempted to delete the conversation, or at least mute it. He leaves it alone.

There’s nothing from Bittle.

There’s nothing from Kent.

He’s not sure why he expected to hear from Kent. There was maybe, in the back of his mind, the hope that Kent had seen the game, had thought the fight worrying enough to text Jack. Kent wouldn’t phrase it like he was concerned though. He’d say something like, “shouldn’t you be better at fighting teenagers by now?”

But it’s not like it was that bad of a fight. Jack only has a bit of a black eye. And Kent may not be watching Falcs’ games at all. Not if he’s trying to keep Jack out of his head.

He’s only four hours away, thinks Jack. Aces played at home.

But what would he even text Kent? I broke up with Bittle and I don’t fly out to Vancouver til tomorrow afternoon…? Kent would probably murder him. He thinks about Kent’s face in the rearview mirror, about the way Kent seemed to shatter after Jack tried to kiss him. He touches his mouth. He lets himself think about what it would be like to kiss Kent again, to really kiss him.

In the Q, after practice and games, they would sometimes drive out somewhere dark and private and make out in the back of Jack’s Escalade. It was so stupid, in retrospect. If anyone had ever caught them, they would have been recognized immediately.

But somehow Jack never thought about that, and in the back of his car, Kent would climb onto Jack’s lap and their breath would fog and mingle in the cold because they cutthe power to keep a low profile. There would be Kent’s hands in Jack’s hair or gripping jack’s shoulder, Jack’s hand on Kent’s hip, the swell of his ass. And then Jack would slide his hand under the soft fabric of Kent’s sweatshirt and thumb the hot skin of his side, and Kent would finally close the distance and kiss him. Until, eventually, Kent would start to shiver violently, breaking out in goosebumps everywhere, even beneath Jack’s hand, and Jack would push him off his lap and down onto the seat and cover him with his body.

“Come on. You’re cold already?” he’d say, pressing his nose into Kent’s cheek, and Kent’s hair would tickle at his forehead.

“Fuck off!” Kent would say, teeth chattering as he laughed, and Jack would press him down harder into the seat. They would cling to each other until Kent stopped shaking, and then Jack would kiss him again.

Jack’s phone buzzes. He grabs for it, half in agitation and half in hope.

It’s a text from Bittle. He stares at it.

you never fought in college…

The NCAA isn’t really a checking league, Bittle

So you fought in the Q?

Sometimes? He’d been a lot angrier in the Q. He’s not sure what Bittle is getting at, though.

i guess there are alot of things i didn’t know about you…

Such as?

There’s no response. Jack waits ten minutes and then calls him, grateful that Tater is still out. But, just in case, he bolts the door. This time, Bittle picks up.

“What do you want, Jack?” he says, with a weariness Jack’s not sure he’s ever heard from Bittle before. It brings him up short.

“I wanted to talk,” he says. “You haven’t been responding to my texts.”

“You broke up with me,” says Bittle.

“I know. But we should talk about, uh. What that means for us, and for… everyone.”

“It means that we’re broken up!”

Jack winces. “Okay.”

It’s not hard to imagine the version of this conversation where they’re still dating. Bittle would be gleeful about the win, cooing about the fight and Jack’s black eye. It’s not hard to want that version of the conversation. There may not even have been a fight if they weren’t broken up, but, as usual, it feels impossible to relate the outcome back to a specific catalyst.

“Well?” says Bittle. “What do you think being broken up means? You’re the one with all the experience.”

“I don’t want this to go the way it went with Kent,” says Jack. Bittle laughs shrilly, and Jack makes himself talk over it, loudly but at least his tone is even. “I’d like to still be friends.”

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann! Did you just ‘we can still be friends’ me?”

“Uh.” Jack can’t interpret Bittle’s tone; he hedges his bets. “Maybe?”

“Oh my god,” says Bittle. “Jack, honey.” There’s a short pause, and Jack wonders if Bittle will apologize, will pull it back, but Bittle ignores the endearment. “It’s late here. I have an exam tomorrow. I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

“Why are you up,” asks Jack, frowning, “if you have an exam tomorrow?”

“Because you broke up with me!”

“Right. Sorry.”

Bittle laughs, soft and high and incredulous. He doesn’t say anything, and Jack listens to him breathe raggedly. He kind of wants to hang up, and he feels immediately guilty for the thought.

“Why did you ever even kiss me?” says Bittle, so quietly Jack almost thinks he could get away with pretending not to have heard him.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“At graduation,” says Bittle, still in his tiny, doll-like voice. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t understand why you would do it. I thought - I didn’t think you wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t mean something.”

“Bittle…”

He thinks back to that day, almost a year ago now, when the sun had been shining with a mellow, honeyed warmth. And already everything at Samwell seemed to be turning golden-hued with nostalgia.

There are almost always regrets, is the thing. In hockey, sometimes, there aren’t. Sometimes everything goes perfectly. You win the game. You win the league. You get to lift the trophy and drink champagne. But usually, even when you don’t, you can at least learn from what went wrong, take it into the next game, the next season. But there weren’t going to be any more chances at Samwell. What if he’d gotten something wrong?

That was the thought that sent him back to the Haus, and then, in the kitchen, with the sunlight streaming in, Jack had looked at Bittle and he hadn’t wanted to leave. He liked Bittle. He likes Bittle. It had felt very simple and very right to kiss Bittle in that moment.

But the world doesn’t stop in those moments, for all they feel like the culmination of everything that came before.

“I just wanted to,” says Jack. “I wasn’t thinking about what it meant.”

“It’s not fair,” says Bittle. “How you treated me. It wasn’t fair.”

“I know. I am sorry.”

It doesn’t really feel like there’s anything else he can say, and he feels stupid, suddenly, for pushing so hard for this phone call.

The door thumps partway open then, catching on the latch, and Tater lets out a muffled, Russian curse.

“Sorry!’ Jack calls to him. He lowers his voice and says to Bittle, “Look. I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.”

“Of course you do,” says Bittle serenely.

Jack hangs up.

“Sorry,” he says to Tater again, going to the door and unlatching it. “I was, um, talking to someone.”

“With girlfriend?” says Tater. He smiles wickedly, eyes lighting up. He leans against the doorframe, looking off-balance and tipsy. They must have really been celebrating.

Jack laughs, a little wildly. “Yeah,” he says.

He realizes belatedly how suspicious that must sound, but honestly, he’s glad that’s how Tater interprets it. But then Tater’s smile disappears as he takes Jack in. Jack must not look like a man who just had phone sex.

“Mm.” Tater stays in the doorway. “How is girlfriend doing? You are not smiling at phone so much recently.”

Jack hunches down. “Actually. We broke up. So. No more pies, Tater. Sorry.”

Tater straightens up and frowns at Jack.

“Your friend, little B,” he says slowly. He holds his hand out at Bittle’s approximate height. “I thought he made the pies?”