Actions

Work Header

It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken

Chapter Text

Chad: Welcome back to 690 AM, Montreal's 24-hour sports information station, you’re listening to Chad and Dylan in the morning, and Dylan was just explaining to us why he wants Jack Zimmermann to lose.

Dylan: I did not say that! Going second in the NHL overall draft is not losing, look, going anywhere in the first round is an incredible honour. And I'm as excited about Jack Zimmermann as any other red-blooded Canadian! He is undeniably the most talented player of this class, if not his generation

Chad: Whoa, whoa, whoa, I was with you and then you lost me.

Dylan: He’s leading in goals, he was MVP at the Memorial Cup, when he’s on the ice you just can’t take your eyes off him. He’s got that star quality.

Chad: He's great, he's great, but I think it’s hard to pick a “best”. He is just not the same player without Parson on his team. You can’t just analyze him as a player without taking into consideration that incredible dynamic the two of them have, and I think that’s success he would not reach alone. And whichever way you slice it, those two guys are not going to be playing together next year.

Dylan: I disagree, I think he has been proven as a player on his own. At the World Junior Championship, again, he was one of the standout players of the tournament, and he—

Chad: —Yeah, with a little gamesaving peptalk from his friend in the red, white, and blue, I don’t think that’s—

Dylan: —Players are allowed to have friends, you keep talking like that’s a weakness. Look. When you talk about draft order you need to ask yourself, what does each team need? It’s a question of player strengths and personalities. The Aces have first pick, and what they really need is someone smart, versatile, and fast. A real team player. For Las Vegas, Kent Parson is absolutely what the doctor ordered.

Chad: And what the Montreal Canadiens need is the second coming of Jesus.

Dylan: Look, some decisions are just so obvious here, and Jack Zimmermann in a Habs jersey is what this sport needs right now. You’ve got a team on a rebuild, looking for some strong players to form the lines around. And then let's talk legacy...

Chad: You're going there. You're really going there. You're putting an entire century of weight on one kid's shoulders?

Dylan: I'm right! You won't admit that I'm right. Montreal! Talk to me, back me up, prove me wrong. The NHL draft is in a week. Kent Parson and Jack Zimmermann. One of them goes first, and one of them goes to Montreal. Which should it be? Our phone lines are open.

_/ \_

Jack didn't want to sit with him. He was four seats away from Kent—Jack, Alicia, Bob, Kent's mom, Isabelle. He'd refused to take Kent's hand in the car. Kent felt sick.  Some sadistic fuck designed this ceremony to be as tedious and suspenseful as possible. Couldn't they all sort it out among themselves beforehand and post a list on the door like everybody else?

"Kent," his mom said, and reached across Belle to pull his hand out of his mouth. "Don't bite your nails."

This was gonna be okay, right? Jack wasn't as close to snapping now. There'd been a bad week where he was getting used to some new med and biting everybody's heads off and Bob and Alicia said he "needed space" and Kent wanted to disappear into the walls of their house in Montreal, but he'd been less explosive lately. Except for the times when his explosiveness meant throwing himself into Kent's arms, burrowing against his chest, and letting Kent do everything he could to take that fear away... but that had only been the once. And now every time Kent looked over at him, he seemed calm, composed, hands folded in his lap.

Kent tried to fold his hands in his lap, but half a minute later, his thumbnail was in his mouth again. He tucked his hands under his arms and started drumming his foot up and down on the ground.

"Nervous, much?" Belle asked, and he started bugging her with his elbow until he saw himself on the big screen, and tried to sit properly.

Okay. Okay okay okay. Dudes. Suits. Stage. Black-and-white jersey. Kent looked down, gripped his knees. He was supposed to shake everybody's hands onstage and not throw up.

"The Las Vegas Aces," somebody said, "are pleased to select Rimouski centre Jack Zimmermann."

A few seconds later, Belle poked him and hissed, "Move."

Kent had to shift his body, get his knees out of the way, so Jack could sidle by. He tried to raise his hand, maybe for a high five or something as Jack went by, but Jack didn't catch it. He was already out of their row, trotting down the aisle and up to the stage.

He shook everybody's hands. He didn't throw up. He didn't smile either.

No, Kent thought, his foot drumming the floor again. No, oh no, no no no. I let him down. I didn't do it. I didn't, they didn't, it wasn't supposed to...

"Kenny," Belle hissed, jamming her elbow into him. "That's you."

His mom smiled at him when he stood up. Bob and Alicia smiled too. Down on that stage, impossibly far away, there was a Canadiens jersey with his name on it. They were waiting for him.

He forgot to shake the third guy's hand, but he did remember to smile.

_/ \_

Benjamin McAullister, Captain of the Las Vegas Aces, had three beautiful grey-and-white Husky dogs. The oldest two liked to go with his girlfriend Sam wherever she went, so they were out grocery shopping right now. The third had taken a liking to Jack, and was friendly to the rest of the guests. Millie kept Kent company while he packed, and twice had to be told “Drop it!” over an item of clothing she stole from out of his suitcase. When he finished and zipped his luggage shut she laid down, momentarily subdued, and then jumped back up again when he shoved himself off the bed and left the room. When she was certain enough that he was going to Jack’s, she bounded down the hallway and eeled through Jack’s door, and Kent found her prancing a circle in Jack’s coverlet when he came in.

“Hey, Kenny,” Jack said, from where he was sitting sideways on the bed, knees tucked up to his chest, laying a book aside. He automatically reached out to put a hand on Millie’s head as she settled into a ball next to him. “You packed?”

“Yeah,” Kent replied, and then let his tiredness and sadness go as Jack reached out, beckoning him onto the bed.

They curled into each other, lying side by side with the dog at their feet. Both of them had tension that simmered in their bones; sometimes it was hard not to shake apart with it. Kent buried his head in Jack’s shoulder and felt Jack’s hand cupping his head. This was it. This was the absolute last moment until December.

“Jack,” he said tentatively, into his chest. “I’m… sorry for the way the draft went. I took your spot.”

Jack kept holding him, even as Millie uncurled from her ball and crept up Jack’s back, popping her head over to wash Kent’s face. “It’s not your fault I went first,” he said. “And, Kenny? I don’t really mind.”

Kent waved Millie off, pulling back to look at Jack. “You what?”

Jack looked a bit embarrassed as he propped himself up on an elbow to look back at Millie. He had to point and give her the command a few times before she crept back down the bed, and then he had to praise and reward her. “Going to Montreal,” he said finally. “It would’ve been. A lot of pressure, you know?” He shrugged. “I’m kind of glad.”

Kent took a minute to gape at him. I’m kind of glad. That turned everything he thought he knew about this summer upside-down, but after the first moment when he thought, Jack is just trying to make me feel better, it made everything make sense. Jack wasn’t tight and closed off and nervy about the draft because he was in competition with Kent; he was like that because he had been scared.

“I thought you were mad at me,” Kent blurted out.

Jack shook his head, and Kent shivered under the intensity of Jack’s seriousness. Jack kissed him, squeezing his wrist. “I know you’re gonna be great,” he said. “You’re where you should be.”

Kent let out a little choked noise that he thought actually wanted to be a laugh. “Then if you’re happy here,” he said, “I’m happy.”

They were kissing again when Bob called from the kitchen, “Kent? You ready to go?”

So then Kent had to get up, straighten his shirt, smooth down his hair, get his suitcase and walk to the kitchen like everything was all right. He hugged Jack goodbye and said, "See you at Christmas." Bob and Alicia hugged Jack goodbye and said, "See you at Thanksgiving." Millie licked their hands for the last time. And then they left and Jack locked the apartment door after them.

Kent's hands were shaking as they waited for the elevator. He shoved them in his pockets.

If you travelled first class, you didn't have to sit in the huge airport boarding lounge with a million other people. There was a discreet little door to a nice lounge where they checked your boarding pass and offered you a water bottle and gestured you to a table of snacks and a wet bar. It was the kind of thing the Zimmermanns were used to, and Kent supposed this was going to be his new reality too now. The lounge was almost empty, hushed, the lighting nice and dim, the surfaces plush carpet and polished wood. Kent trailed Bob and Alicia, wondering as he sat down whether he ought to give them some time alone. There had to be a point, in the year ahead, where he stopped clinging to their apron strings, didn't there? They'd want him to move out eventually. But they were still some of the only things standing between him and screaming terror, so whether or not he was a burden to them, he was going to coast in their wake a little longer.

"I liked his new therapist," Alicia said, paging through a copy of Maclean's. Kent looked up, wondering again if he was supposed to be listening to this, but they seemed relaxed about it.

"I know Jack's still nervous about her," Bob said, eating out of Alicia's little bag of pretzels. "But I think we've learned our lesson about leaving him to rely on team psychologists. It's worth giving him a resource who isn't on Aces payroll."

"What'd you think, Kenny?" Alicia asked mildly, moving her pretzel bag out of reach.

Kent hesitated. Jack's new therapist had invited him to one of the sessions as "someone significant to Jack", but he didn't know if she thought it was anything more than that. He'd spent a lot of the session nervous himself, wondering what she saw when she looked at him. He swallowed. "Jack's, uh. Worried that the new medication is going to affect his performance."

"Well," Bob said, "he doesn't act like he has eyes in the back of his head anymore, and I can see how that'd feel like a downside in hockey, but... for one, he's a lot less likely to get addicted to it."

They reminded Kent of dealing with other players as Jack's A, saying It's a bad day today, don't bother him. Jack actively hated having people talk about his moods, but the fact was, if you lived with them you kind of had to, because the alternative was never knowing if you were walking into a hurricane or sunny skies, depending on the day.

"He seems calmer all around now, don't you think?" Alicia offered Kent the pretzel bag, angling her arm to keep it away from Bob, who opened his own.

Kent took a pretzel, frowning. Yeah, Jack seemed better now that he was in Las Vegas, but how was he supposed to know what that meant? It wasn't playoffs, wasn't waiting for the draft, so maybe he just wasn't as stressed. Kent shouldn't have gone back to New York at the end of July. Who knew what else was hiding under there? He didn't like the idea of a medication that you had to take every day, not just when you needed it. He didn't know what he'd turn Jack into. And yet...

Kent offered, "He said today that he was a little bit glad that he didn't go to Montreal."

"No wonder," Bob sighed. "June was not a month I want to live through again."

"Amen, brother," Alicia muttered. She sighed. "It's gonna be a hell of a lot easier to keep tabs on him now I'm not filming 26 episodes a year."

Kent opened his water bottle, since he didn't want to comment on how he remembered June. For him it was kind of as bad as it'd always been, but also amazingly wonderful; if the lows had been necessary, he'd go through them all again for the highs.

_/ \_

"Okay," Ben said. "So you give her the cue and the hand signal once, and then you wait. If she responds, then you click and reward."

Ben's dogs were incredibly well-trained. Three times a week, his girlfriend took them to an air-conditioned indoor dog park and did agility courses with them. Rosie, the oldest, obeyed commands to fetch beer from the fridge. Ben said it was because huskies were so intelligent, and if Jack wanted to learn, he could be part of Millie's training.

"Got it," Jack said, and went to kneel in front of her, the clicker in his hand and kibble in his pocket. "Shake," he said, holding his hand out. Millie pawed at the air.

"Good girl," Ben said, and clicked with his tongue. "Reward her, Jack."

"But she didn't do it," Jack objected.

"Here." Ben fished a treat out of his own pocket and threw it for Millie to pluck out of the air, then leaned down to scratch Millie's ruff when she came up to him. "She made a gesture at it. You can't just expect her to perfectly remember what we did a week ago. You reward for partial effort, and slowly she learns what it is you want out of her."

Jack sat back on his heels. "What keeps her from slacking off and only doing the bare minimum?"

"Zimmermann." Ben reached over and shook Jack's shoulder slightly; Jack flinched back. "You're one hard fucking taskmaster, buddy. Look, these dogs like to work. They wanna learn cool interesting new stuff, and they will go above and beyond for you. Don't worry about that. The most important thing here is that we're building her trust. She's gotta trust that as a handler, you're gonna be consistent and predictable. If she's doing good, you'll tell her that she does good. You won't ask her to do something and then be totally impossible to please. The worst thing that could happen today is that she gets frustrated and decides that it's impossible, and she doesn't want to work with you anymore."

Jack swallowed, and held his hands out to Millie so she'd come back to him. She did; he buried his hands in her fur, and she licked his face, then came to lean against him. He wanted to be like Sam, to have a dog going over obstacles and around courses. He wanted Millie to keep sleeping on his bed at night. He didn't want her to stop trusting him.

"Okay," he said. "I'll try again. I'll reward her this time."

_/ \_

pmurchison88@gmail.com
Hey Zimms 

jlzmontreal@gmail.com
Hey Pete

pmurchison88@gmail.com
Congrats on the Mem win
I wanted to say so that night but i couldn't find you in the crowd ;)
Hope LV is treating you good

jlzmontreal@gmail.com
thanks
how are you?

pmurchison88@gmail.com
not bad, not bad
this year I declared my major in Business
I'm one of the managers for our Div I team, figure I'll take after my dad XD

jlzmontreal@gmail.com
cool

pmurchison88@gmail.com
been wondering something lately
do you, or your dad, know anyone who's worked in professional hockey who's gay? 

jlzmontreal@gmail.com
why

pmurchison88@gmail.com
cause I talked to my dad and he said he couldn't say if he knew anyone. not sure if "couldn't say" means he doesn't know anyone or doesn't want to tell. but it's like... I don't think there's been NOBODY, right? except idk, if you've won the Stanley Cup don't you think you'd say "fuck it"?
this year at college I met a guy who was a pretty good player but he decided to stop playing in high school bc he knew he was gay and didn't think he could hide it
I keep thinking about it

jlzmontreal@gmail.com
idk anyone
sorry 

pmurchison88@gmail.com
oh, too bad :( 

jlzmontreal@gmail.com
let me know if you find anyone 

pmurchison88@gmail.com
sure thing buddy :)

Chapter Text

On a good day, the Zimmermann house in Westmount was less than 20 minutes from the Canadiens' practice facility across the river. Despite this, Kent had to move into a hotel for training camp just like the guys who didn't have billets yet because they'd probably be sent home. He lost touch with Bob and Alicia pretty quickly as training camp swallowed him whole.By Wednesday someone dumped a bucket of water over Kent, and he blessed them. He was flat on his back under a tree at the time, trying not to die of heatstroke.

He'd run the math. Last year one of his teachers had taught him how to calculate his marks. If each assignment is worth this much, and this is what you've earned this far, then if you only get half the questions on the final right, you get 64%. That was what he'd used to convince Jack that he could focus on winning the Memorial Cup, not studying for exams. He was trying to use the math, now, to convince himself he would be all right. The only problem was, probability wasn't a guarantee. He didn't know everything he was being graded on; he didn't know how the coaches were weighting things. There were a lot of unknown variables.

To get to training camp, he'd had to make it through Rookie Camp first, trying not to be one of the 13 sent home yesterday. 30% chance of being kicked out. Easy odds; 70% chance of success. Harder now. The remaining 29 rookies were now up against 35 seasoned players, all of them competing for 23 spots. Any of them had roughly a 35% chance of success, but there was a definite preference for experience that counted against him. There was more competition for right wing right now, but his performance wasn't as good as a center. Intangibles. The roster had room for five rookies, maybe six. 20%. He had to be in the top ten. He was in the top ten. He was freaking out over nothing; they weren't about to send him home, he wasn't about to fail, and yet...

Their new head coach, Eric de Rien, looked like that kind of agitated, angular forty-year-old white man who would ignore his eventual heart attack because it got in the way of his schedule. He was intimidatingly stern and unimpressed with the entire training camp so far. When Kent had been on the ice during yesterday's 3-on-3 tournament, breathing hard with his hands and stick braced across his thighs, de Rien had waved at the other players and shouted, "I expect more out of you than out of them! I don't care how much better you are in practice. You're no good to me if you can't perform under pressure!"

Now, as he opened his mouth for a directed jet of Gatorade, de Rien shouted, "Neeps! What are you doing?"

"Watering the rookies," Jourdain Neepin said placidly. That was how he liked to deliver his jokes, so deadpan the words started to make their own bizarre sense. He'd moved on to squeezing the bottle into Malcolm Chester's mouth instead. Neepin and the other goaltenders had been excused the cross-country run everyone else had taken after lunch. He didn't look like he was worried about making the starting roster, even though he was only just past his rookie year himself. Word was, he really was that good. "If we don't water them they won't grow."

"It's their own responsibility to get hydrated," Coach de Rien said irritably, stalking over the field. Chester was already scrambling upright; Kent levered himself up on one arm. "Get back to the bus, all of you. Is that clear?"

"Crystal," they said in ragged unison, after a second figuring out what he wanted. There were a lot of responses like that. Standing when he said "On your feet" and completing "We are a—" with "Team!" and Kent couldn't remember what else. It had gotten worse today since Rookie Camp. He and Chess were hauling themselves upright in front of de Rien, because there was no option not to, even though they leaned on each other a little bit to do it. Chess's skin was so dark Kent couldn't tell if he was as overheated as Kent himself felt; he had drops of moisture on his face, but Kent couldn't tell if that was a good sign because he was still sweating, or just the water Neeps had dumped on them.

"Thanks," Kent said to Neeps, when de Rien had gone off to yell at somebody else.

"He's hardest on you two," the goalie said, swinging his empty water gear as he walked. "Probably means you're the best, not that he wants you to think it."

Kent and Chess looked at each other. They weren't in direct competition, since Kent played forward and Chess played defense, which made it a little easier to be friends. But now that Kent thought about it, during rookie camp, it had kind of felt like they were leading the pack. "Have you played with this coach before?" Chess asked Neeps.

"My uncle was an equipment manager on his old team," Neeps said, as they went to stand near the crowd boardin gthe bus.. "He said he likes to keep people on their toes, make them compete for it. He doesn't like handing out stickers. The worst thing he can do is ignore you. If he's not criticizing you, he doesn't think you're worth the time."

"Great," Chess muttered sarcastically. At the front of the crowd, people started to climb onboard.

Okay, so. Re-run the math. Rate of criticism corresponds to...

Kent was still standing there when Neeps said, "You coming?"

Kent shook himself awake, then jogged across the empty space to the door. "Yeah," he said. "Sorry. Just thinking."

"Dangerous habit," Neeps said as he climbed onto the bus, and punched Kent's arm in a friendly way. "Don't let it show."

 

_/ \_

"Nice of you to drop by!" Bob greeted him as Kent came in from the garage. He gestured with his knife to the onion he was chopping. "You home for dinner?"

"Sorry," Kent said, dropping his equipment bag in the hallway, his water bottle on the telephone table, and hitting the kitchen counter before he dropped all the paper completely. "Sorry, I think I'm home for good. This time."

"Kent!" Alicia said warmly, coming in from the pantry with a glass jar of rice. "Howdy, stranger."

He'd seen them Wednesday when he  at the beginning of Friday's party, when the final roster was announced, but they'd kind of faded away into the crowd and left early. "There was a teambuilding thing," he explained, trying to smooth his hair down. "We had to a scavenger hunt, and then we split into small groups, and by the time we were finished Charley's place was closer and he had a spare bed, and today..."

"Easy there," Alicia said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "We're just glad to see you."

Kent tried to nod, then accepted a spare glass while she pulled one down for herself. He poured a glass of water from the tap, drained it, and poured another, then hesitantly slid into a chair at the breakfast bar. It felt impolite to disappear just as soon as they'd commented on his absence. Alicia poured herself pomegranate juice from the fridge, then drifted back over to Kent's pile of papers. She slid one of the binders off the top, flicking through brochures and handbooks, before seizing something with delight. "A schedule!" she said happily. "Bobby, could you—Kent, do you mind? It'd be nice to have this on the fridge."

"Sure," Kent said, feeling warmed as he watched Bob stick it up with a Zimmermann family magnet. "I've got a copy in my email."

"They don't keep you half busy," Bob said as he slid the chicken into the oven. "When's your first free day? Thanksgiving?"

"That's only a month away," Kent defended.

"Meal plan," Alicia said, shoving a folder at her husband. When he took it she picked up another piece of paper. "You are going to eat, sleep, and breathe Canadien," she read, with a raised eyebrow. "Your total commitment to the team will be rewarded with victory."

"That sounds familiar," Bob sighed.

Kent propped his head on his hand. "Didn't it work? You won the cup in your rookie year."

Bob hesitated. "Hockey was different then."

Alicia, meanwhile, was squinting at Kent's calendar, and then the erasable version on the other fridge. She picked up Kent's marker, the violet one. "It looks like it might make more sense for me to mark down the nights you are home for dinner," she said. "Well, it's not like we haven't done this before."

 

_/ \_

Before his first-ever NHL game, Kent was having a hard time concentrating. He was worried he'd tied his skates too tight, but was that really possible? Also: If he chewed his mouthguard to fucking pieces during the game, would they have a spare one ready for him at the bench, or would he have to wait while someone went running for a spare?

"Mental toughness!" de Rien exhorted. "I don't want you getting bothered by anything that happens out there on the ice. If someone tries to mess up your game, throw you off, I want you to ignore him. Just pretend it isn't happening and shake it off. Stay calm and focused. Okay! Let's go!"

"Yeah," Neeps said softly beside him, as they all stood up for the team cheer. "That sounds doable." He grinned when Kent didn't join in until the second line, he was nervously giggling so hard.

"Parson!" the coach barked. "Quit goofing around. Let's split you two up. Come up here by Charley."

Kent did, but he had to bite back another giggle when Neeps slapped his ass as he went.

_/ \_

After their first practice of regular season, Kent went with a bunch of the guys who were trying to make starting line and sank into Charley's hot tub. He'd definitely made first line, but he was trying not to show that he felt like he'd been pounded with a mallet. Charley served out a round of Paralyzers with knowing smirks for everyone, and they toasted before sinking into their own patches of hot tub bench.

Jack was trying to avoid Jack's mistakes of seeming stuck-up and aloof, so he was trying to be friendly with all the guys, but he'd be kidding himself if he thought they actually liked him. He was just trying... oh, he didn't know. There'd always been Jack around before to draw the real envy. Kent had been team PR, the diplomat, the one who smoothed over ruffled feathers in the wake of USS Zimmermann. Right now he was actually ahead of Jack by three points, at least until the puck dropped later this afternoon in Las Vegas.

They were... kind of leading the league. And which of them led pretty much depended on who'd played most recently.

It's time to get over the romantic hopes disappointed at the Draft, the Gazette had said that morning. Zimmermann shows promise, but Parson in no way disappoints.

"The press has Gretzky syndrome," Eli was saying as he gestured with a beer. "Their whole model for a winning team is to get one great rookie fucking and have him lift everyone else to greatness. It doesn't fucking work like that."

"Thought that was Neepie's job," Steve muttered. "They've wised up about him, then?"

"They'll learn better." Eli slurped his beer. "No disrespect, Parser, but you're not fucking Jesus. They'll figure it out eventually."

"Eli," Charley said, sliding into the hot tub, "weren't you a hotly anticipated first draft pick?"

"Shut up, fag," Eli shot back. "It means I know what I'm fucking talking about. And I was a rookie in Edmonton. God, talk about a shithole that's never got out from under the shadow of—"

Gerry reached out to kick Kent's shin. "You're not gonna respond to what Eli said about you?"

Kent shrugged, but then saw Eli had paused, and everyone else was looking at him. He licked his lips, then shrugged again. I'm so glad I decided not to trust any of you, he thought. "I mean, I'm either gonna prove him wrong, or I'm not, right? He can talk all the shit he wants." Charley chortled, and Steve made an Oooh sound.

Then Kent licked his lips again, since they were all still listening, and felt himself say, "Though, Eli. If you ever call me a fag?" It was good that threats sounded more impressive when you delivered them deadpan, his voice only came out low and grating. "I will fuck you up."

"I didn't mean it in a prejudiced way!" Eli defended himself, hands raised. "You gotta know, Parser, my sister's gay. It was a friendly thing between Charley and me, he knows that, right?"

Kent made himself shrug again, then took a drink from his cup.

He doesn't want us to say it because it's true. He could almost hear the snickers already. But at least he'd warned them.

_/ \_

"Invite some friends home," Bob said, though he did decline to host the entire Habs roster. "Try to keep attendance in the single digits. Limit it to people you actually like. If you want, you can tell them your billet host is a monster who hates team bonding."

Kent wasn't sure of a lot of the guys on the team, because there was still a lot of chest-thumping going on as everyone vied for position and points. The people he liked best were the ones who didn't seem to be competing. Neeps, as a goalie who didn't give a shit about how many points he got (but already had an assist to Kent). Chess, who was up there in points as a D-man, but also proud to stay back with Neeps most of the time. Brayden Velasquez, the team captain, who seemed to be the only person the competition didn't bother. He was the center of Kent's line, that kind of built guy in his late 20s who looked solemn and serious as a statue 90% of the time, except then he grinned like sunrise and rapped you on the helmet and you felt like a million bucks. To be honest, during games, Kent listened to Lasky a lot more than he listened to de Rien. And there was Chess, who only wasn't leading the D-men in points because he didn't get enough ice time. He scored more per minute than any of them; the fans had counted. And Chess knew that Kent wasn't the one who thought he "needed to develop more"

Lasky was already nodding acquaintances with Bob and Alicia, and was happy to carry plates of food downstairs. Chess and Neeps arrived together, Neeps explaining that his girlfriend would come when she got off work. Chess was eager, quivering. Chess didn't seem to mind being seen as overeager. When a reporter asked him about scoring a point in preseason, he'd lit up like a Christmas tree and said, "That was fucking awesome!" before de Rien wandered over, with his arms crossed, to remind him to keep it toned down and businesslike.

Neeps was calm and a little amused. They were a study in contrasts, Chess in a Habs t-shirt, Neeps in a jean jacket, Chess jumping like an electrified cat when Bob came out of the kitchen, Neeps turning like he'd expected the arrival. Then Bob said a word Kent didn't understand, that Bob had to spell for him later: "Waachiyaa."

Neeps' lips parted slightly. That was what him cracking looked like. He went still, and then he jerked his chin, and said something Kent didn't understand and Bob only guessed at.

"I, ah, don't speak the language too well," Bob said, ducking his head a little as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. "My sister, she goes there, up across the bay from your people. She and her kids speak it better." And then he nodded to Chess, and said to both of them, "I'm glad to meet you."

Neeps wouldn't tell the rest of them what that was about, as they dived into a pile of potato skins. They talked and debated movies and video games. When Neeps' girlfriend showed up half an hour later, he'd disappeared behind his phone while Chess and Lasky were setting up Guitar Hero. She was still in dark magenta scrubs, her hair pulled sensibly back into a ponytail. Kent was startled out of his seat, because he hadn't even heard her at the door. She'd come downstairs on her own. At the team barbecue she'd been well-dressed, glittering; it was like this that she made more sense as a nursing student, Neeps' high school sweetheart.

While Kent was greeting her and indicating to the ravaged food platters, Neeps gestured her over without looking up from his phone. "Jourdain," she said, bumping at his hand with the back of hers. "Hi to you too," she said, reeled in as soon as he could grab her hem.

"Did you know Bad Bob is Native?" he demanded.

"No," she said, frowning. "You'd think that's the kind of thing people would know. Why, is he?"

"Bad Bob's what?" Lasky asked, sitting up from the mess of cables behind the TV.

"He's part Cree," Jourdain said, eyes still riveted to his phone, which Shannon was peering at also. "There's a CBC article from '97 where his sister goes up in the summer. His grandmother was from the Great Whale River up north. In the 30s her parents died when she was four, and she was brought to Montreal and adopted by a white couple." He scrolled with his thumb, and continued, "The family didn't know until the 1990s, when his sister started to do research into family history after their grandmother died. She found records of the adoption."

"That's so sad," Shannon said, cuddling into Neeps' side. "I guess that's why they don't talk about it a lot."

The other three looked at each other, not quite sure what to say. Neeps basically never talked about being Native, although Kent had a vague sense that as a kid he'd lived on a reservation so far north in Manitoba it was almost on the Arctic Ocean. That sometimes he talked on the phone, or to fans, in a language that wasn't English or French. And even now it didn't feel like the kind of thing they could ask about, because Neeps and Shannon seemed to understand it instantly, while Kent was left trailing behind. He wanted to ask, Why did they take her to Montreal? Didn't they notice she looked different? Did Jack know? Why doesn't Jack talk about it?

But, well... not even Chess was asking, and if Chess feared to tread here, Kent wasn't about to rush in.  Though finally, feeling the weight of the moment, Chess said, "Cool," and Neeps smiled at him.

It drove Kent a little crazy sometimes, the things he was afraid of asking. It was just so part of the world that you didn't ask. If you needed to know, somebody would tell you. And if nobody told you and you didn't know, you just... blundered on in ignorance.

"Is that Guitar Hero?" Shannon asked. "I can kick your guys' asses at Guitar Hero."

Some time later, Lasky threw himself down on the couch next to Kent and said, "Hey, is it true you're Guatemalan? I am too, you know."

Kent hunched his shoulders. "Not... really," he said. "I mean like, I don't count."

Lasky laughed softly. "Hey, what? How can you not count?"

"I don't speak Spanish, and I've never been there. I've never been anywhere, except to Canada and Czechia. I mean, my dad has Guatemalan cousins," Kent explained. It was uncomfortable. When he'd done a family history project in school his mom had pulled down boxes and photo albums. When I married your dad, she said, I tried to learn everything about him. I knew more about his family tree than he did. She'd sighed for a second, then squared her shoulders and said, Well, I guess it's come in useful. "And my—my dad's grandfather, or whatever? He was from England and came to Guatemala to run a coffee farm, and then he moved to Cuba. My grandmother... doesn't like our Guatemalan cousins much."

"Oh?" Lasky asked, curious and encouraging. "How long was he in Cuba for?"

"The rest of his life, I think," Kent said. "My grandmother was already married when she came to New York." He ran his hand over his hair and said, "My mom's Cuban though, like, half Cuban-Cuban, and the her dad's parents were refugees from Germany. She was born in New York though."

"Is Parse saying he's Caribbean?" Chess shouted, from where he was playing the guitar. "Fuck! I knew I fucking liked you for a reason!"

Kent tried to protest, but since it was being taken as false modesty, he shrugged his shoulders and accepted it as the praise it seemed to be meant as.

That gave him the courage to ask, when Lasky went home to tuck his kids into bed and Shannon was getting a scalp massage from Chess and a foot rub from her boyfriend, "So, Neeps, what language were you speaking earlier? With Bob?"

"Bob," Chess repeated, soft and incredulous. "Oh, morning Bob, is there coffee?"

"Oh, that's Cree," Neeps said. "I'll explain. Got something to draw with?"

Kent scrabbled around for a pen and paper, before pulling up an app on his phone and experimenting with his finger. "This work?"

"Draw a turtle with no legs," Neeps said. Puzzled, Kent complied. "Okay so. No, turn it upside-down. Yeah. So like, Cree people, we're all over Canada. Like, we go from Labrador and northern Quebec, all the frickin' way to the Rocky Mountains. There's Cree people all between those places." He jostled Shannon's foot, and she stretched her hands to indicate the broadness east of the Continental Divide. "And so like, we know that we're people, that we're related, but we're just getting around on canoes and horses an' stuff. So yeah, we travelled, but different groups had different areas. And our languages changed depending on who we were close to and who we could talk to. So y'know, one group can understand their neigbours, and those neighbours understand their neighbours way over there, but if you take out the group in the middle, the ones really far apart might think each other talks funny."

"Like, my mom's Oji-Cree," Shannon said. "So they're a little bit Ojibwe, and that's what their language sounds like."

"Okay," Kent said. "So, the turtle...?"

"That's Hudson Bay," Shannon said. "Isn't it?"

"That's the turtle body, and the turtle head is James Bay."

"The turtle's head should be crooked," Shannon said. Kent handed the phone over so she could redraw the turtle's head.

"So my family's from the right side. The right side on the point of view of the turtle. Yeah. So they're from northern Manitoba. And Great Whale River is up on the turtle's left. So like, we're pretty close if you've got a plane or something. But without that, the safest way to travel is staying close to the coastline. So if you go around it's kind of a long way. So the language she speaks—it's like, a lot of words are the same? You can go there and say hi, how are you, have a basic conversation, that kind of thing. But it's not totally the same."

Kent glanced a look at Chess, who didn't seem to notice that this was unusual openness for Neeps. Maybe the two of them were just a lot more comfortable, so Neeps was more relaxed around him all the time. But Kent kind of wanted to jump up and dance because Neeps was actually talking to him, and he wasn't sure how he'd made that work.

"So," he said, greatly daring, "could you like... help Bob practice? Is it close enough for that?"

Shannon giggled and kicked Neeps' stomach. "You could teach Bad Bob, Jourdain."

Neeps took that thought with a shrug and folded himself back into his natural reserve, but Kent was left dazzled by the bright afterimage of him opening up.

After that, he noticed, Neeps always relaxed more when he was at the Zimmermann house, unless there were too many people there; if he and Kent just drove over for lunch and naps, he'd sit lazily at the breakfast bar, letting rambling and jokes spill out between bites. And after that, every time he looked at a map of Canada, he saw a turtle in the middle of it.

_/ \_

"Kenny," Jack said when the Skype call connected, "why do people play hockey?"

"Uh." Kent blinked at him in confusion. "Fame and fortune?"

Jack sighed, and when he leaned back, Kent could see a notebook open on the laptop keyboard in front of him. "It's a homework assignment. I have to do it before they'll let me keep working with the Li'l Aces."

"What," Kent asked in fascination, "did you do wrong?"

Jack waved a pen frustratedly. "They keep goofing off instead of doing drills. They like falling down on purpose. They have no discipline or commitment. If I'd behaved like that in practice my dad and my coaches would've kicked my ass."

"So you yelled at them," Kent ventured.

"They weren't listening!" Jack said. "And now I have to do all the training modules in my coaching certification all over again, even though it doesn't expire for two years, and I have to write an essay on why children should play hockey even if they'll never be any good at it."

"Oh. So like... having fun?"

Jack shrugged. "I guess. Because it's... Jesse said that there were more minor hockey players in Rimouski than the whole state of Nevada. He said that if five more kids dropped out, there wouldn't be enough teams to do a year-end tournament. So he says I can't coach them the way I was coached, because the leagues here aren't split up for elite development until they're twelve. So we're not trying to get them into the NHL, we're just... playing hockey for the sake of playing hockey." His lip curled. "What if one of them was really good, but never got very far because none of their coaches ever pushed them?"

Kent asked, "Do you... even want to coach, then? If it's like that?"

"I like coaching," Jack protested. "But this is just... playing lots of games with little kids, like tag, and Mr. Wolf."

"You played tag and Mr. Wolf with the kids in Rimouski too."

"Yeah," Jack said. "I just..."

"Wait," Kent interrupted, sitting up straight. "So that question, why should kids play hockey. There's this Youtube video I watched, by this guy who's like, a computer professor. But he talked about playing football, this thing called a head fake, where you think you're learning one thing, but you're actually learning another. So he did football as a kid, and he thought he was gonna be some famous football player, except he didn't. But it was a head fake. Because what he really learned was how to be part of a team and work with other people, and then he used it to like... work at Disney or something."

Jack looked like he was following. He repeated, a little dubiously, "Kids should play sports because it teaches them teamwork."

"Yeah," Kent said. "And it like... keeps them strong and healthy. And makes them love fitness."

Jack frowned, and Kent nervously chewed on his thumb while Jack thought. "Teaches them to work hard," he said finally.

"Maybe they even have fun," Kent suggested.

"Kenny," Jack said. "Stop biting your nails. One of your hands is bleeding."

Kent looked down long enough to notice he'd torn one of his hangnails. "Sorry," he said, and put the finger in his mouth to suck on it. Around it, he asked, "How long's this essay gotta be?"

 

_/ \_

Canadian Thanksgiving was in October, when the weather was still fall and mild and Christmas was a million years off. It was short too, only a Monday tacked onto a regular weekend. Still, it was Kent's first full day off, so after practice Sunday, Kent rented a car in Montreal, keyed up a playlist starting with Britney Spears' new single, and drove three hundred miles to Ithaca. He would've sworn that he knew the road between Montreal and his hometown by heart, but this was the first time he'd driven it on his own. Now that he had to pay attention to the road, to every twist and turn, it seemed three times longer. Now that it took more time, or was more tedious, but that the countryside was denser; richer, more interesting, More houses, more barns, more horses and cows. After the Draft he'd gone back to New York, and gone camping with his mom and sister. Belle was way too old now, but the two of them still childishly called out "Moo cows!" when they passed a field of dairy cattle, and "Chocolate milk cows!" when the cows were brown, and "Mushrooms!" when there were bales of hay in the field.

The next morning the three of them walked into the car dealership where his mom answered phones, and Kent signed the checks for a pair of Ford Mustangs. His mom's was a dark and beautiful red; his was silver, and had slashes on the side that looked like gills. When she hugged him he pressed his cheek against his hair and felt a little less guilty about everything she'd spent over all the years on his hockey.

"When are you gonna buy me a car?" Belle asked, hanging out the side of his mom's Mustang.

Kent reached over and tweaked her nose. "How 'bout you get your Learner's first, Squirt."

"Do not call me—!" she shrilled, and almost fell out of the car in her efforts to swat him.

"Kids, kids!" his mom said, raising her hands. "You're getting in the way of the most important thing here. We have to christen these cars."

"We're gonna break a bottle of champagne over them?" Kent asked.

His mom looked scandalized and put a possessive hand on her car. "No! I meant break them in. We're racing to Mack's diner."

As Kent turned and ran for his car, he heard his sister saying in a very teenaged tone, "You mean you want to inaugurate them, Mom. Christening means giving it a name."

"Don't flaunt your private school education at me, Isabelle," his mother said, and Kent slid into his car. He started the engine, and he and his mom locked eyes across the parking lot.

I'm gonna win, she mouthed at him.

You wish, he mouthed back, and put his car in gear.

_/ \_

"Oh, honey," Alicia said a month into regular season. "Don't do that to yourself. Here, let me see."

Confused, Kent looked up. She had her hands out, like she wanted something. After a second Kent guessed that "that" might be the way he was fiddling with one of his hangnails, and held out his hands to let her take them.

"Oh, no," she clucked, looking them over. Kent felt like he'd just failed a pop quiz. He chewed his fingernails even though he knew you weren't supposed to, and he'd pretty much always had hangnails, but she was acting like this was brand new information. "This looks painful. Is it?"

Kent shrugged, and after a minute of thought, said, "If I'm in a pool with salt water, or I'm using Epsom salts in the bath, it stings when I put my hands underwater."

"It doesn't have to be like this." She looked up at him, earnest as an after-school special. "Will you let me take care of them?"

"Uh," Kent said, wishing he'd kept his hands in his pockets all the time. "Sure?"

She had an entire nailcare kit, which kind of made sense, and she went over it all with an alcohol wipe before using it on him. He put his hands on a towel on the kitchen table, feeling super self-conscious, and watched as she carefully trimmed the hangnails and pushed the cuticles and filed his chewed-up nails down, which he supposed was good because then they'd stop catching on fabric. Then she carefully daubed ointment onto all of the fingers where hangnails had torn the skin—six in total, which he did have to admit was kind of a lot for him—and then, once she had all those covered, slathered his hands with a thick and greasy moisturizer and told him not to touch anything for fifteen minutes, so he could let it soak into his skin.

"If I'd known this would be a part of it," he complained, "I would've said no. My nose itches."

Solemnly, Alicia reached over and scritched her long, manicured nails over the tip of his nose. "Better?"

Kent crossed his eyes trying to figure out of it was, and jutted his lip out to blow upward. He swiped his nose with his forearm. "I think so."

"Good," she said. "If we do this every couple days, we can give your hands a chance to heal up. Then it'll just be preventive care."

"Every couple—" Kent protested.

She had picked up the file and begun to fix small imperfections in her own nails, and now she waved it at him. "That body is meant for more than carrying your head around and playing hockey, you know. It needs taking care of too, and not just the bare minimum to get you on the ice. I'm not a hockey player. I don't buy your benign neglect nonsense."

Kent looked down at his hands and was quiet for a minute.

It was embarrassing, but he... kind of didn't mind. He bit his nails so often because they drove him a little bit crazy when they got too long, and he had a better sense with his teeth of when he was getting too close to the quick than he did with a nail clipper. He wouldn't mind if they weren't gross and wrecked-looking so often. He'd had a goth phase when he was 14 and painted his nails, which freaked out everyone else on his hockey team, but he hadn't fucking cared because they were all a load of jerks and he'd been invited to the Q a year early, but he didn't think he could do it now, because accidentally getting nail polish remover in his hangnails would be super painful. And he kind of didn't hate having Alicia look after him, too.

"'Kay," he said.

Half a day later it occurred to him that he should have said Thanks, but when he did it retroactively, Alicia brushed him off. "My pleasure," she said.

Chapter Text

"Kenny," Jack said breathlessly when Kent picked up. "One of the trainers for my team is gay."

Kent sat up in alarm. "Did people find out?"

"No, no," Jack soothed. "I think the only person who knows is me. He came out to me."

Kent's mouth went dry. "How?"

"He's our dietician," Jack said, words falling over themselves. "He lived in Las Vegas before they hired him. He plays tennis. He's got this picture in his office of a dog, this golden retriever. And I was telling him about the dog park Ben uses, and he thought it was really cool, so I gave him their number. Today I took Millie there to work on some of the obstacles, and he was there too. His dog is really nice, but isn't very attentive to cues. So he was there today, and this other guy was there today, and he's the guy the dog really listens to. So then I was with Millie and he came up to me and was like... yeah, that's my boyfriend."

"Holy shit," Kent said reverently. "That's so cool." And he wasn't hitting on you. Thank God.

"He said he didn't usually tell people at work, but his dog likes me," Jack said with humble pride.

Kent knew when he was being led, and smiled. "Okay," he said. "Tell me about his dog."

_/ \_

"You're watching Sportsnet?" Bob asked as he came into the den. "You're a glutton for punishment."

Kent was too busy hiding the nailfile in the pocket of his hoodie to grab the remote and pretend he was just flipping channels. "Might as well know what they're saying."

"The best part about getting old," Bob said, "was when I stopped giving a shit about my own press. I need to use the computer, you mind?"

"Go ahead," Kent said, and lowered the volume a little. For the rest of the segment on Anaheim's offensive line, he debated with himself. It was stupid to be afraid. Bob wouldn't give a shit about what he did with his nails; and anyway, he wasn't doing anything too extreme. This wasn't buffing the surface of the nail; it was just smoothing down the ragged edges from where he'd bitten them. He wouldn't have felt so nervous about using the kind of nail file that flipped out from a pair of nail clippers, except this file was even better and easier to use. Anyway, Bob probably wouldn't care if he gave himself a whole fucking manicure. Right?

He took out his nail file and began mutinously to work away. Bob kept computering.

"Now in our studio," the commentator said, "we have Toronto Maple Leafs GM Edward Murchison. Ed, thanks for being with us. Tonight we're gonna give you a break from talking about your team, because we're also joined by your son Pete remotely from Florida. Pete, hi, good to hear from you."

"Thanks for having me, Mike," a muffled voice said.

"Father and son are joining us tonight," Mike said archly, "to discuss the issue of homophobia in hockey. Pete's speaking to us as one of the student managers on an NCAA Division I hockey team, but also as a gay man who chose not to pursue a career in hockey because of anti-gay sentiment in the sport, isn't that right?"

"Holy shit," Kent said.

"Yeah, Mike," Pete said. "I made it onto the varsity hockey team at my highschool when I was 15, but when I realized I was gay, I just had a sense that this would not be possible. I did not think I'd be able to hide it, and I knew that if any of my teammates found out, it had the potential to make my life really miserable. It felt like, I didn't have a choice about being gay, so the only choice available to me was to stop playing hockey."

"Son of a bitch," Bob said softly. He'd turned his entire chair, Kent saw, away from the computer, so he could look at the TV.

"So, Ed," Mike said. "When you found out from your son about this, what was your reaction?"

Ed sighed. "It was hard," he said. "You know, I told him, from the very first moment, I still loved him, and I was still 100% behind him. But that was... you know, I automatically had to reflect. Because he didn't even have to say it, but I knew that my actions were part of why he felt like he couldn't play. You know, homophobia's so entrenched in the culture of the sport, it's something I did all the time without even thinking. I used homophobic language around my players and around my family all the time. So I was one of the ones telling my son, it's really not acceptable to be gay, and it's especially not acceptable to be gay in hockey. And I regret that."

Kent curled into himself on the couch, fitting his knees under the shelter of his hoodie, hands shoved into the pocket. It was kind of hard for him to pay attention to what they were saying on TV. Despite all of the last few months—despite all the work everyone, from de Rien on down to the janitorial staff and stadium ushers, had done to indoctrinate him into the cult of Montreal—he knew nothing more than a deep, treasonous yearning to play for Toronto.

And Toronto didn't just not have Jack on it, Toronto sucked.

(Oh, he thought. That's homophobic language, isn't it?)

_/ \_

Then, the world didn't crumble.

Nobody at practice the next day mentioned the Murchison interview, so Kent didn't dare bring it up. He scoured newspapers and the Internet for commentary, but it was achingly slow to arrive. A few places reported on the interview the next day, and the day after, it got a paragraph under the miscellaneous column on the second page of the Gazette's sports section. Peter Murchison did another interview with ESPN the day after that, and it got features on NBC and CBC.

"If you ask me," Alicia said over dinner one night, "it's because he's calling them to account. Makes the sport look bad. What everybody's really waiting for is some excuse to sell jerseys with rainbows on them. It's like gay marriage. Pretend all the problems have been solved and they'll jump all over it."

"I see the bitterness is still fresh," Bob said, smiling wryly before he shoved a forkful of pasta in his mouth.

"I keep it vacuum-sealed," she replied.

Kent frowned, twirling his spaghetti around his fork. He didn't understand what she was talking about, really, but he was too afraid to ask.

It didn't actually come up until Toronto came to play them in early December, and all the Head Coach said was, "You guys know that there's a lot of reporters waiting for somebody to say something politically incorrect. So keep your mouths clean out there. Pipe down on the smack talk and work at keeping your game physical. Got it?"

What he did see, though, were a couple rainbow flags in the stands. Those made him feel a little better.

There was a really good article on ESPN about what it had been like, for Peter Murchison, over all those years. Kent memorized the name in the byline and wondered if maybe, some day, that guy would write an article like that about him. Everybody in the Habs ignored it, except when no one else could hear Chess said to him, in passing, "That thing about Murchison was good, eh?" and then changed the subject.

The Aces tweeted a link to it, and Kent suffered a deep remission of yearning to play for Las Vegas, even though you had to wonder what cursed amulet one of them had stolen, the way they were racking up injuries.

_/ \_

And then: Christmas, and he finally got to see Jack. The night before the break, the team chartered them a bus to the airport the instant their game in LA ended. Then, suddenly, the pack they normally travelled in was gone, some of them running for international flights, others splitting up to individual airlines. De Rien, jarringly, smiled broadly at Kent and wished him a merry Christmas with a smile on his face before striding away. Kent decided to appreciate the thought; it wasn't like he'd really mentioned not celebrating Christmas.

Kent's flight to Las Vegas spent longer boarding and disembarking than it did actually in the air. Bob and Alicia had already arrived and checked into their hotel before coming back to pick him up; Jack stood between them, and greeted him with a hug that was oddly tentative. Kent pasted on a smile and let them take him out for dinner.

Really, they were taking Jack out for dinner. Three of them had been living together for months now, knew all the same stories and gossip and news. Jack was the one struggling to find words to answer questions like, Any friends on your new team, and How do you like the city. It took a while before his parents found a question that made him loosen up and communicate, and that was Bob digging a fork into his pasta and saying, "How many tricks does Millie know now?"

Jack was quiet and twitchy, acting like he was afraid to touch Kent, or stand too near to him. He did smile at one of Kent's jokes, but in a nervous, tired way, and Kent's heart sank. He was glad when nobody else decided on dessert, and Bob handed Kent a keycard, kissed Jack's cheek, and said, "Your mother and I are going to gamble your inheritance away—call us in the morning and let us know if you want breakfast at our hotel, or something else?" Not because he necessarily wanted to be left alone with Jack right now, but he did appreciate a minimum of witnesses to his life's disasters.

"So," he ventured. "Wanna go see the sights?"

Jack shoved his hands in his pockets. "Let's go back to your room," he said abruptly.

"O—okay," Kent said, heart beating wildly. Oh god, he thought. He's going to break up with me.

Jack didn't give off any obvious signals. They were silent on the walk through the mezzanine filled with stores, to where the hotel elevators were. Kent watched the lobby disappear behind the elevator doors with a sense of dread, and by the time he unlocked his door, he felt like throwing up. Jack went past him into the room, while Kent felt himself turning into wood, his arms folded over his chest, while Jack sat on the bed with his hands clasped.

"Kenny," Jack said with a little imploring look, when he looked up and saw Kent halfway across the room. He held out his hand. "C'mere."

Kent, unwilling, walked closer to the bed, and permitted Jack to pull his arm loose and hold his hand, but he still felt like a brindled cat ready to run. "Yes," he said, noncommittally.

Jack looked frustrated, up and him and then down at his own knees. "I've been thinking," he said. "I—Murchie made me think."

Kent took a deep breath. "Yes," he said again.

Jack tugged on Kent's hand, frowning at his lack of success. He stood up, awash with frustration, opened his mouth without result, and then blurted, "Do you wanna date me?"

"Do—" Kent felt kind of staggered, kind of like he wasn't hearing right. "Do I wanna date you?"

"Be my boyfriend." Jack was bright red, eyes averted, frowning furiously. "That was what I wanted to ask."

It took him a minute. Kent gaped, and almost laughed, and almost cried. He shook his head like a dog coming out from underwater. Still gripping Jack's hand, he said, "I thought we were boyfriends."

Jack looked away again, still scowling. "It's not like I would know," he muttered. "I never—I never had a boyfriend before."

"You think regular friends do the things we—?" Words failed Kent, and he waved his free hand. "You do that with everyone?"

"No!" Jack shot back. He tugged Kent to sit on the bed, and then let go of his hand so he could sit, himself; not on the side like Kent was doing but crosslegged, bent over, frowning down at his curled fists on the coverlet in front of him. "No, I never—I don't know how to do this, Kenny. I don't know. Ben and Scrappy and Niles are my first friends that I don't do that with. You're the first friend I do. Nobody ever liked me before you."

Turning to give Jack his full attention, Kent blinked, and then said delicately, "But you had friends before me, right?"

"There were girls that had crushes on me," Jack muttered. "I didn't talk with them. My teammates.... a lot of them didn't like me. That was in Bantam. When I was littler they used to pretend to be friends with me because of my dad, but I... One of them told me that we weren't really friends, and I understood after that." He looked up at Kent, a direct gaze that made Kent's heart stutter. "I was kind of waiting for you to get tired of me."

Kent wanted to cry again. "Jack. I wouldn't."

Jack shrugged. "I thought when we were on different teams, you..." His shoulders rose and fell again. "You'd find someone better."

For a second, a weird second, Kent felt like he might see Jack the way other kids saw him. Weird, awkward, face still kind of round and fat, obsessed with hockey. You had to tell him things, sometimes, because he was oblivious to a lot of them. Anal-retentive to a fault, and over weird things. His stick being taped wrong. Someone mispronouncing a player's name. Dressing on his salad.

It was like understanding Jack had been scared of the Draft. That moment of a sudden wrench in his understanding. Jack letting one little thing fall that made entire years make sense. He'd thought Jack acted the way he did, aloof and self-determined and unfriendly, because he wanted to; not because he didn't know how. That unresponsiveness suddenly wasn't disinterest; it was helplessness.

"Oh, you dumbass," Kent said lovingly, and lunged to wrap him up in a hug. Because he got up on the mattress on his knees, first he took Jack's head around his collarbone, and tipped him straight backwards, speaking into the hair clutched against his breast. He noogied it a little. "You jerk! I was fucking shitting myself! I thought you were gonna break up with me!"

"No," Jack said, sounding dazed, and laughed a little. "Then... that's a yes?"

"Yes!" Kent kissed the top of his head, and then let go so that Jack could turn a little, shimmy up while Kent slid down. "Of course I want to be your boyfriend." And then he kissed Jack for real, heart breaking a little because this was the first time that definitely meant something, and he wanted to murder a lot of people for Jack, and it felt a little awful that maybe it hadn't meant something before, but then—then it all got swamped in the wonderfulness of now, of it meaning something now.

After a while Jack gasped, "This—this probably means we should talk."

"Oh god." Kent dropped his head into the pillow. "What is it now? Yes, you are definitely my best friend. If you hadn't noticed, we also played hockey together. I think the people we had dinner with tonight are your parents."

"Stop it!" Jack said, shoving at him, but not seriously. He flipped onto his stomach, arms folded, and looked pensively sideways at Kent. "I mean, like... I was reading, and there were some things, and we should..." Kent stared at him, fascinated and uncomprehending, until he suddenly heard the words, "and whether we should use condoms," emerge from Jack's half-audible mumble.

"You think we should use condoms?" Kent asked blankly, without thinking. He didn't know everything about sex, but he'd never heard of someone getting pregnant from a handjob. "What do we need condoms for?"

"Well," Jack almost whispered, absolutely scarlet. "We might do things that needed..."

Kent's brain tried to change gears, stalled out, and dropped its transmission on the highway. "You wanna... do things?"

Jesus Christ and holy shit. Did he have a boyfriend who wanted to do... things?

"For..." His boyfriend was red-faced, whispering, like an embarrassed textbook. "Oral sex, it reduces the risk of STDs if there's a risk of transmission, but for... anal sex, it helps avoid... abrasion. So it sounds like a good idea all the time for anal, but if you haven't been with somebody else..."

Kent kept gaping until twice the time it would have taken somebody else to realize that was their cue, and he said, "I, uh. With other guys. It was just, um... hands, um, a couple years ago. And I got blown once. We didn't use a condom. Uh. I was fourteen? She was just, I didn't know you were... supposed to... But uh, a couple years later I had a blood test for my doctor, and he just said, 'By the way, you don't have any STDs.' So I don't know if that..."

"That sounds," Jack said, and at least he was struggling as much as Kent, "That sounds good."

Then they reached the end of all possible human endurance, and Kent found himself kissing Jack with enormous fistfuls of Jack's hair, Jack groping for the hem of his shirt, and Kent scrabbled with the linens that covered the pillows, wrenching the too-familiar hotel bed makeup open. They were eager, but awkward, so they spent a furious minute stripping off shirts and socks and silencing phones, turning the bed down. Kent was kind of inclined to leave his underwear on just because that was what they always seemed to do at first in porn, but Jack took his off with a sideways look at Kent like he had decided to pretend he knew what he was doing, so Kent took his off too, feeling weird-looking and exposed as he stepped out of them and got into bed.

Jack had always somehow known him. Not just the predictable stuff of reasonable conclusion, "I see you eating salt and vinegar chips a lot." He was the missing half, the hidden inspiration. And Kent had thought he was better with people than he was for so long because there was a moment when Jack stopped using words and spoke with his body and it just worked, whether it was a clap on the back of encouragement or a kiss that felt like it was taking Kent's world by storm. Kent wanted to wrap himself around Jack, sink into his chest and disappear in him, wanted to do—a lot of things—but he hadn't really known what he wanted until Jack said, "Can I blow you?"

Okay, here was the truth: Kent worked really hard to make people like him. He knew how, and he did it as his job. He'd even made Jack learn how to tolerate him, in the early days when all he'd done was step on Jack's toes. And Kent already had half a dozen plans for how to impress Jack, how to please Jack, how to make sex with Jack the best. But—

But he had never known what alchemy went beyond that basic manipulation of people and made Jack turn around and decide that Kent was one-half of him. Just, one day, Jack had skated away from his usual spot at practice to stand next to Kent, to sit next to Kent on the bench, and somehow, suddenly, Kent had been in the magic circle of Jack's friendship. One day, for some reason, Jack put down his bottle of beer he was holding at somebody's preseason bonfire, when they were the only two people left around the embers, and kissed him. And Kent had always...

He pushed the covers down, because when Jack slid down the bed, he would have been covered in a cocoon. Jack kissed his leg, carefully, his face all downswept lashes from this angle, and wrapped a hand around Kent's dick.

Kent had always been dying to say: I want you to love me as much as I love you. I want to be able to just lay there and let you shower affection on me.

Jack's lips touched the head of his dick and Kent fell back on the pillows with a sob.

Afterwards, Jack went into the bathroom and washed his mouth out with a cup of water. Kent pressed his hands over his face and grinned so hard it felt he was going to fly to pieces. When Jack asked, "Hey, are you okay?" Kent let his hands slide down and just beamed at him, and Jack's eyes relaxed and he smiled, and—

A little while later, Kent was trying to dribble lube out of a sachet onto the condom on one of his fingers, without trying to drop or lose anything, wondering just what was so wonderful about it—but Jack seemed confident—so he stuck his finger against Jack's ass, feeling kind of dubious.

"God," Jack said. Kent could feel the pressure slowly giving way, but he wasn't sure whether he was really supposed to push—and then he could feel it slip inside, with a ring of muscle around it, and Jack dropped his head onto the pillow and moaned.

God, it was just...

There was this musical instrument he'd seen on a science field trip once, where you waved your hands and it made music, and you had to figure out what hand gesture, where, would make what sound, before you could actually play a tune. That was what it felt like, because although he was the one driving the bus, he only found out where the pedals were through trial and error. Some probing just made Jack pant quietly, and then somehow, mysteriously, he started panting, little sharp involuntary sounds of pleasure. Kent tried to lean into what he thought was the right area, but seemed to get the best results right at the outermost edge of his reach. Without thinking, he drew back far enough to add his middle fingers to the condom and put it back in, and then realized he hadn't asked and said, "Wait, is this—?"

"Yeah," Jack said, husky like Kent had never heard him, and he seemed to collapse forward onto the bed, legs spread wide, his head pillowed on his arms. "More lube. But that. Keep doing that."

The more he did, the more Jack came unglued. When he did it right, Jack gasped with his head arched back like he'd been struck by lightning, and when it was almost right, Jack writhed, saying, "Please, Kenny, plea—I—Yes, that, please," and when he finally found it, when he finally had it right, Jack fought his way back onto hands and knees so he could commit himself to it, although it looked like at the extremity of a stroke, he hit a point where he lost control of his body and couldn't keep pushing; but he seemed to like that to be the instant Kent pushed in extra hard, making Jack's hands ball up into fists and his head drop like it was all he could do to hold on.

Then Jack made a shocked little noise, so quiet compared to what he'd been before, and his muscles pulsed around Kent's fingers, and he said, "Stop, stop, I can't—" and Kent did pause, and then ducked his head to look under Jack, because he couldn't tell what was going on, but looking down told him Jack had come. And he seemed to want Kent, very carefully, to pull his fingers out. That was it.

Kent did, meditatively figuring out how to dispose of the condom and washing his hands in the bathroom sink; he stole the box of tissues from on top of the toilet and brought it back to where Jack had rolled over was sprawled in the light of the bedside lamp, looking relaxed but a little bit embarrassed. Kent gave him the box, after stealing a couple tissues to go after the wet spot.

"Wow," Kent said, risking a smile sideways at Jack. "I didn't know what I was doing there, but it sure seemed to work."

Jack flushed. "I, that was—I never before, I—"

Kent leaned over and kissed him, wanting to show him the gentleness of the smile spreading all over him. "I. Did that to you." He put his hand on Jack's chest, steadying and owning. He felt tired, but he also felt like a cat that had eaten the cream. "You liked it?"

"Yeah," Jack said hoarsely.

Kent kissed him again, because he could, because he had a boyfriend, because owning Jack's mouth was a somewhat reasonable substitute for licking every inch of him right now. Then he almost started anyway, nuzzling below Jack's ear. There were supposed to be sensitive spots here, he heard. "Then I'll do it again sometime." Jack moaned approval, but his eyes were also drooping shut; after a few more kisses Kent released him, and lay on his own side of the bed so Jack could sleep.

Jack turned off the light, and slept. Kent stared at the narrow strip of lights twinkling in desert blackness through the window, and smiled until his face hurt.

_/ \_

Kent woke at 5am on Christmas Eve morning next to his boyfriend. He really wanted to lie there and watch Jack sleep until he woke up, but after watching him for about ten minutes it occurred to Kent that Jack was two timezones behind him and might sleep for ages, while Kent himself was full of so much nervous energy and joy that it felt like he might explode. He tiptoed around the room, changing clothes and making coffee, and poured a cup and left it by Jack's head; but Jack still hadn't woken up by the time Kent was finished and changed. After extensive internal debate, Kent finally wrote Gone to the gym on hotel stationery and propped it up next to the coffee, very gently kissed Jack's sleeping cheek, and tiptoed out.

Six kilometres and a workout later, he stopped at the juice bar on the mezzanine level just as they lifted the gate for the morning. He grinned for a selfie with the girl at the till, whose parents had sent her tickets to the Habs-Aces game as a Christmas present, and turned back just short of the elevators because Jack texted to say he was awake and wanted a smoothie too. He offered to pay for it with another selfie, but she just winked and gave it to him for free.

"I woulda waited for you downstairs," Kent said when he came back to the room. Jack made a face as he accepted his smoothie.

"The trainers are always on my case about over-exercising," he said with a grimace. "They say it's not improving my muscle tone, so I'm supposed to rest between games." The disgust in his voice was deep, and Kent squeezed his shoulder supportively. Jack looked up at him and asked, "Does working out help your anxiety?"

Kent was taken aback, and twiddled with his straw to stall for time. "I mean," he said slowly, "I don't really have anxiety the way you have anxiety. But I, uh... I suppose I get... anxious. Like sometimes after a game, and I'm feeling really shitty, I'll go work out before bed, because it makes my brain shut up. I'm not so hard on myself about what I would've done. That way I can sleep."

"Yeah," Jack said, and dug through his smoothie with his straw and a mulish expression. "That's like me before a game. But it tires me out and I don't perform as well. I'm supposed to do breathing exercises instead."

"That sucks," Kent sympathized. He paused, and said, "Do you wanna... shower, with me?"

Jack considered, then nodded, then got to his feet and smiled at Kent; Kent took his hand and led him to the bathroom.

_/ \_

"So," Kent said a little nervously as he pulled on a shirt, "Who's Murchie? Peter Murchison?"

Jack looked up from Kent's suitcase, holding a shirt he intended to steal. "Yeah. I mean, really he's called Little Murchie, because his older brother's Big Murchie. And their dad's Murchie too, but only like, to my dad. He came out last month."

Kent rolled his eyes. "Jack, the entire world knows that. You said he made you think?"

"Oh, yeah," Jack said, and started getting dressed. "We were talking the other week, and he said if I found someone who'd put up with me being obsessed with hockey, I shouldn't let anything else stop me."

Kent blinked for a minute, a little stunned by the idea that more than being a newspaper story, Peter Murchison was a human being who had private conversations. He sat on the bed, pulling his socks on. "You... know him?"

Jack sat on the chest at the foot of the bed and shrugged. "We knew each other as kids. We went to the same hockey camp some summers. He's in my MSN contacts."

"He's not... one of those kids that was mean to you, was he?"

"Not really. He'd always play hockey with me in the garage during grownup parties, though, and at camp he let me sit with him and his friends at lunch. But he lived in Toronto." Jack shrugged. "We didn't really start talking until he messaged me this year."

"What'd he say?" Jack shrugged again, looking like words were hard to find. Kent hesitated, then asked, "Is he doing okay?"

Jack pursed his lips. "The guys on his team all knew he was gay, but one of them messed up in front of a reporter and talked about it. So they asked him for a comment, and he... he had to get out in front of the story, so he talked to a writer his dad knew and published that article. He says the Leafs have been handling the mail and everything he's seen has been really supportive."

"Yeah, well," Kent said slowly, "everything his dad let him see would be supportive, wouldn't it."

Jack looked over at him and they shared a mirthless smile. Jack got it.

"I wouldn't want to be in his shoes," Kent confessed.

Jack's face twisted up, like it scared him just to think about it, and he turned more towards Kent. "No, me too. It's not just—do you hear what they're saying about him?"

Kent smiled sourly. "Like everyone in my locker room who's saying he's a—a fag doing it as a publicity stunt, because he's got no guts and no talent, and he couldn't get into the papers any other way?"

Jack nodded, looking fearful. "He's making a big deal out of himself, and he hasn't won anything or got a job yet—and Ben says nobody in the NHL will hire him anymore, no matter who his dad is, because nobody'll want them in their dressing room. Or he'll get a job and everyone will think it's just because he's gay, and they'll all be afraid to talk to him, because he'll sue for harrassment..."

"It's like they're saying he hasn't got the right to speak up because he's not a player, but they, they want a player to speak up because..."

"If a player speaks up," Jack said, words falling over themselves, "he's gotta be perfect. He's gotta be top of his game. He's gotta have won everything already."

"They wanna tear him down," Kent agreed. "Some of the guys are like—yeah, a gay guy can play, if he's tough enough. But if we," he swallowed, "if you or me came out, that's painting a fucking target on our backs. From other players and the journos. That's like, that's worst than the draft. That's like, every single disappointment people have with you, that's on the gays. On everybody."

"If we broke up," Jack said, voice barely audible, "and people knew about it. They'd blame us. They'd say it was the gays. They'd say that was... our fault. That we can't..." Kent stared at him, stomach icy, while Jack wrapped his arms around his chest. "When I was a kid, my mom ate dinner with a coworker, and the newspapers said my parents were gonna divorce," he said, looking sick. "Dad said that's what happens sometimes when you're both famous, people make up stories about your relationship that aren't true. And you can't fight back about it or else they keep writing about you longer, so you just have to know what you know and let the world be wrong."

Kent's hands were pressed over his mouth with horror, and all he could say was, "Jack, don't break up with me."

Jack smiled, and it was as alien and confusing as anything could be. "Hey," he said, and moved over to wrap his arms around Kent, burying his head in Kent's neck. "I'm not gonna. That's not... that'd be the press, being wrong. I don't want them to be wrong about us."

"God," Kent said, holding onto Jack's arms and trying to breathe. "God, that's just... a nightmare."

"I... talked about it with my therapist," Jack said. "And she said, it's not like you have to hold a press conference. You get to decide who and when to tell. It's not..." He kissed Kent's neck. "And Murchie said, he wants to make it easier for people in the future. How maybe if he's in the spotlight a little bit now, one day it'll be a little bit more okay." He moved his knees, to square up more behind Kent. "I didn't tell him about me, but I... kinda wanted to, once there was something to tell."

"I'd like to meet him," Kent said, leaning back more against Jack.

"My... dad," Jack said nervously. "He took the phone when I was talking with my mom? And we talked about the whole Murchie thing. Or he... he said he was so glad Mr. Murchie was behind Little Murchie, because it was so stupid when parents wouldn't support their kids over something so dumb. And he reminded me that if I ever got in jail for anything, I shouldn't say anything to the cops, just ask for a lawyer and call him, and he'd bail me out. So I think he, like... And my mom has gay coworkers, so..."

"Think it'd be safe to tell them?" Kent asked.

"Maybe," Jack said, the way you talked kind of fast when you wanted to keep from throwing up.

"I told my mom about Murchie," Kent said. "She knows I like guys, and she asked if I was gonna come out too. I said no, not right now." He made a guess about Jack's shocked silence, and said, "I told her when I was 14 and trying to be a rebel. She just asked where my boyfriend was." He paused again, and asked, "Do you mind? If I tell her about us?"

"You trust her," Jack said unsteadily. "Go ahead."

_/ \_

Bob and Alicia didn't wake up until nearly 9am, when Kent and Jack were ready to gnaw their own arms off with hunger. It therefore required little explanation how Jack was already in the hotel, and before too long, they were all sitting down to a palatial private breakfast. ("Yes," Bob had said, over the phone. "Three pounds of bacon.")

In a way, Kent kind of missed things like going down to the hotel buffet to eat, but he understood the necessity. In Montreal, just going shoe-shopping with Chess ended up with a crowd of people standing across the mall concourse, like lions observing a herd of wildebeest but afraid to get too close. Every once in a while, one of them would get bold enough to dart in for an autograph or a selfie, but it wasn't like they didn't know the crowd wasn't there the rest of the time. It just made the ordinary act of living kind of difficult.

Anyway, in this case the benefit was that when Jack sat down and took Kent's hand, there was no one around to overhear, "Kent and I are dating."

"That's great!" Bob said, pouring himself some coffee.

"Wonderful," Alicia said, with a bright smile for them. Then her eyebrows pulled together and she said, "So, what were you doing be—"

"Al," Bob said soothingly, cutting her off before she could scare Jack entirely out of his chair. "Let's not... demand a full history."

Kent, thoroughly red, finished serving himself eggs. "Ask me no questions," he said with carefully maintained dignity, "and I'll tell you no lies. Can you pass me the syrup?"

_/ \_

They tried to pack an entire holiday's worth of recreating into three days.

All of the Aces seemed to love Jack. Not just in the fact that all the little kids at the team party raced towards him and demanded piggyback rides; in the sense that they all bought him books about hockey for Christmas, and the way Jeff Troy greeted Kent with, "So good to finally meet you, feels like I've fuckin heard everything about you but your shoe size—" and a hug. The way that around them he was still awkward and took a minute to get the joke, but... he really seemed to like all of them.

Jack was even more proud of Ben's dogs, and his ability to handle them. He and Rosie could work in concert now, and Millie knew a plethora of new tricks. He spoke confidently of helping to organize the Li'l Aces tournament in the spring. And Ben didn't ask when Jack didn't come home at night.

It was enough because it had to be enough, and because for three nights running, Kent had a lover in his bed who was willing to give him the things he was brave enough to ask for, and that was more than anything he'd had before.

_/ \_

The day of their game against each other, Kent and Jack agreed not to spend time around each other once Jack left the hotel in the morning. Kent was a little paranoid that if somebody so much as saw them together, they'd know. Jack would be walking to the dressing room and Jack would be standing there, and their eyes would lock, and a bolt of lightning would hit Kent out of nowhere. So before warmups, he followed Neeps out to one of the arena loading zones where he could smudge without setting the fire alarms off. He liked watching Neeps smudge, and Neeps liked doing it at the Zimmermann house before they went to the arena.

Kent just used the time to prop himself the loading dock and soak up the sun like a cat. It was the middle of a chain of associations; cats in the middle, sunshine on one end, and on the other, Neeps bent over the smouldering braid of sweetgrass, carefully 'washing' his face with the smoke. Neeps knew what Kent was thinking; when he was done, he slitted an eye open at Kent, and mock-solemly pretended to lick the back of his hand and smooth it over his cheek. With elaborate hauteur, Kent copied the motion.

The back door slammed open. "You two are late for warmups," de Rien said. "Jesus Christ, is that weed? Your drug testing for the Olympics is in a fucking week, Neepin. Now get a move on."

The door was a safety door, and took a long time to ease shut after he turned his back on it. Kent and Neeps sat there in stunned silence until it shut.

Then Kent yelled at the door, "It's called sweetgrass! Hello!"

Chapter Text

There was a TV on in the hotel restaurant, so Kent already knew how bad the game had been when Jack called him. He jogged for the service stairway, and found a place to perch between the second and third floors.

"I feel like shit," Jack said, sounding quiet and distant. "Kenny, I want to go home."

His voice almost gave out on that, almost turned into crying. It took a minute of Kent's shocked silence before Jack spoke again.

"I want my own room back. I want a kitchen where the forks are shaped right. I want there to be snow. I want not to be stuck in another stupid fucking billet. I want to see my parents. I want to be with you." His voice sounded heavy again when he said, "I want hockey to be fun again."

"Jack," Kent said helplessly.

"I know I can't. I know I can't. But sometimes I just fucking want to, you know? I just want—I want no more hotels." He sniffed. "I want my own dog."

"I get that, buddy," Kent said, heart aching. "One hundred percent. I get that."

"What if I played for Montreal with you?" Jack asked. "We're still a month from the trade deadline. If Henrik's out for more than three games we might not get into the playoffs. What if..."

Kent leaned forward onto his knees, trying to hold his face together. He wanted to scream at the idea, at how right it should have been. At how right it wasn't. Unsteadily, he said, "Your coach... sounds a whole lot cooler than mine."

"Then I don't know what to do,"

Kent ran a hand through his hair to try to ease the throbbing in his head, and then he said, "Olympic break."

"We're going to Cancun," Jack said feebly. "We always go away."

"Yeah," Kent said, "but do you have to? It's more, it's more hotels. It doesn't have snow there. You could come to Montreal instead! Your parents can go to Mexico anytime. I could tell Mom I'm staying for the break. We were just gonna go to the city, Belle can't go far because she's got gymnastics camp for spring break."

"You should see your family."

"What, for the whole two weeks? We're already going to Europe for a month in the summer. C'mon, it'll be great."

After a moment, Jack said, "I don't know if my parents will let me. We always go away if we get a midseason break."

"We're grownups now," Kent says, quoting something he saw on the internet. "It's our turn to decide what that means."

_/ \_

When he got there, Kent understood why Chess's invitation to this concert had been a quiet, in-person thing after practice. Kent had looked up Danny Chester's punk band on Soundcloud, and they sounded pretty good, but this... was not the kind of place the Habs usually partied. It was an old stone church in a neighbourhood of houses, with a "Kinder Kastle/Chateau des Enfants" daycare in the side yard. Bubble letters hand-drawn on neon green posterboard said, "CONCERT DOWNSTAIRS EN BAS".

As he looked across the parking lot, breath steaming out in the overcast evening light, a sleek and glittery car pulled in and he was surprised to recognizeit as Lasky's. Kent lingered, watching him park, feeling a little nervous about going into the church alone. Finally Lasky got out and grinned at him over the tops of the cars. "Good to see you," he said, voice rolling effortlessly over the space without any visible effort to make it loud. Maybe that was the kind of thing they taught you when they gave you the C. "You comin' in?"

So Kent went, and the inside wasn't nearly as religious as he was hoping; the mat they stamped the snow off their boots onto was worn rubber, the stairs to the church basement were narrow, the walls concrete painted white, and the floor was a homely brown-and-tan linoleum tile. There were strings of patio lights, and a few walls were draped with bright fabric, but it otherwise looked... normal. Kind of like part of a school or a community hall. Kent felt a kind of whiplash, because his first reaction on seeing a church had been to tense up and expect a kind of religious ambush. And then his first instant thought when he got downstairs, like a douche, had been that this looked like a real dump; and a second after that he realized that it looked normal, like the kind of thing normal people did, like the kind of church basement sports equipment swap-sale his mom had taken him to the first couple years after his dad left. And for a minute he'd seen it through the eyes he was always trying to put on around Jack, where everything was done by rich people standards and it just made sense to hire professionals to make your signs and decorate your space and run your bar. Here, he and Lasky went up to a folding table where a pair of pudgy girls around twelve sat with a cash box, giving them $10 of change for their twenties and ripping tickets off a roll "for the raffle". Kent could imagine Steve and Charley sneering at it, and hoped they hadn't been invited.

"Sorry," an old white guy said, coming forward with the nervous way of rolling back on his heels and gawking a little that meant they'd been made as Habs. "We're running just a little behind schedule, but there's a bar and a silent auction..." Which there was; a middle-aged woman was laying out the last few sheets for the silent auction on another folding table. The bar was a serving hatch in one of the walls, showing through to a large commercial kitchen; they were offering different kinds of pop and bottled water, and homemade Nanaimo bars in plastic wrap.

"Oh hey," Lasky said. "There they are." Kent tore his gaze from a sign that looked like somebody's Grade 10 Social Studies assignment, LA LUTTE CONTRE LE SIDA EN HAÏTI on a neon-orange posterboard with pictures and pages of text that looked printed off a computer, then glued onto the page. The next thing on the wall was a thick scientific paper that seemed to be in English, because there were words like "and" and "of" sprinkled in there, but Kent had no idea what it said. Prophylactic something something population something else.

On the other side of the room, Chess was on his knees with a role of tape, securing power cords to the linoleum floor. Closer by, Neeps came out wheeling out a stack of plastic chairs to go with the round tables people were rolling out of a storage room. The band was clearly visible on a small set of risers at the end of the room, fussing with their instruments. Lasky was already asking Neeps, "Should we help?" so Kent stepped forward, helping to pull the stack of chairs apart and handing them over tables to other volunteers who could set them in place.

"This is my cousin's first show," Chess apologized, when he joined them a little later. Neeps had already bought him a root beer at the bar, so he sat down, opened it, and shoved half of it in his face in pretty much the same instant. "With this band, I mean. He used to do orchestra and jazz band in high school. But this is something pretty different for him." Chess and Danny could have been brothers, not cousins, except they acted like night and day. Danny kept messing with his trombone up on stage with a nervous little frown, not talking to anybody. Without that influence, Chess just kept talking and talking. "He's doing Chemistry at McGill. These guys' last band broke up during their summer tour, so now they're living together near the University and putting something together, practicing all fall, and my auntie roped 'em into playing for this. They were gonna have a steel drum ensemble but there was a fight at the church AGM and Thomas had to take over running this, and the steel drum people were with the old organizer's nephew or something, so they pulled out, so Auntie told Thomas she'd help him find a replacement." He cracked his knuckles nervously.

"They sounded good online," Kent said encouragingly.

"Is your Auntie going to be here tonight?" Lasky asked.

"Oh, nah. She lives in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. She's just on an a listserv with Thomas."

"I played a tournament in Yorkton once," Neeps contributed.

"Yeah?" Chess turned on him enthusiastically. "Was that at the old Kinsmen arena, or the nice new one by the river?

"Ladies and gentlemen," Thomas the old white dude broke in. Lasky caught Kent's eye and made an oh-shucks gesture that they'd never learn which arena in Yorkton it was. Kent grinned back.

Danny was pretty good on the trombone, but whoever was writing their original songs needed a little work. They were better when they did covers of jazz classics and ska songs, and at one point Lasky's polite tolerance broke through into actual enthusiasm. "What song is this?" he bellowed hoarsely.

Kent had to shout in a soft kind of way, making every word very enunciated without rising above the level of the music. "Lying Is The Most Fun You Can Have Without Taking Your Clothes Off. By Panic At the Disco."

Lasky listened attentively, then turned to point his mouth at Kent's ear. "BY WHO?"

Kent put a knee up on his chair so he could get closer to Lasky's ear. Chess had to sit back so they could lean together. "PANIC. AT THE DISCO."

"SORRY. PARROT?"

"PANIC. PA-NI—oh, you fucker." Kent pushed Lasky away, watching him laugh, and dropped into his chair again. To Chess, in apology, he blamed: "He totally knows what song this is."

Smugly, Lasky slid his phone across the table. He had a selfie with the entire band. Kent calmly pretended to pocket Lasky's phone, and then handed it off to Chess. It was, he hated to say, a little more entertaining than the music.

Lasky left partway through the concert to go tuck his kids in, so when he won the raffle, Neeps gave away his ham prize to somebody who looked like they'd appreciate it. When there was a break and general milling around, the band guzzling water and organizers running around comparing pieces of paper, Chess beckoned Kent and Neeps in and gave them strict instructions: "They're gonna announce the silent auction totals soon. Do not stay to settle up the silent auction. If we stay, we will get roped into breaking down and be here for another two hours. It's a trap. I am gonna get Thomas to email us which auctions we've won, and we will send them a check. As soon as the band play their encore, make a break for the door."

"Making a break", as a Canadien in Montreal at a charity event full of fans, meant twenty minute of slowly shuffling through a rotating receiving line of people, many of whom wanted to share anecdotes, show off small children's hockey photos, introduce them to small children, get autographs, or take a selfie. Chess seemed kind of pleased that there were rather more people in the hall by the end of the evening than the start of it, even if that had more to do with text messages going out about the hockey players there than the quality of Danny's band. Kent tried to push down his cynicism and smile at the doctor at the other side of the hall, who was smiling and shaking hands with the other end of the crowd. Worthy cause, right? And—okay, the yawning six-year-old in hockey pyjamas who seemed to have been yanked out of bed at the news that Kent was in the neighbourhood was fun to meet. Kent got a picture with him on his own phone.

But when they got out into the frozen night, Neeps said, "Dude. You owe us McDonald's."

"Pick the restaurant," Chess said grandly. "You will feast like kings on my dime. Thank you guys a million. This would've been a disaster without you."

_/ \_

"Too bad you won't be there," Neeps said three days before the Olympic break, as he packed his gear into his Team Canada bag. Kent was just cleaning out his locker a little, getting it ready for his absence, taking a few vital things with him for two weeks away from the arena.

Chess made a Tchah noise. "Good news for us," he said, folding a pair of socks. "I don't wanna see that dude in a Team USA jersey again."

"But I thought we played so well together last time," Kent simpered, and Chess threw the socks at him. They hadn't really met at World Juniors last year—played against each other, not made friends—but Kent had stolen the puck from Chess and scored a goal during the round robin. People still brought it up as the beginning of their friendship, called it 'Chester's assist'.

"I can stop him," Neeps said with quiet authority.

Kent kind of believed him. Neeps was such an unstoppable, reliable part of his life, it twisted his brain a little bit to remember that he was one of the best goaltenders in the world, and Kent would always be playing against him in international tournaments. Most of the guys he played with over the last three seasons were Canadian. Pavel was going to Vancouver too, but he was playing for Slovakia. Kent knew that technically he was in Canada, but Canada also felt like some kind of silent invisible state that crept into rooms sometimes and stole people away from him. They were going along so well, and then suddenly—Canada. They weren't on his side anymore. Soon he and Chess and Jack would be invited to these kinds of things too (Jack without question, but he had a feeling about Chess) but none of them would be on his team; they were all Canadian.

Kent shrugged, wadding up used hockey tape. He pretended it didn't bother him. "We'll see," he said offhandedly.

"Hey," Chess said, "Gimme my socks back, Parser. Y'know, there's still time to change your mind and come to Antigua. My mom's family would love you."

"Pass," Kent said, but he smiled a little bit as he threw the socks over.

"Where are you going for break?" Neeps asked. It was the kind of detail it made sense to miss when you were preparing for your Olympic debut.

"Stayin' in Montreal," Kent said, trying to look very relaxed and dude-like. "Gonna sit around and eat potato chips." It made Neeps laugh.

Staying calm was important. Jack was coming home for two weeks. Jack had almost glowed when he said it in a postgame interview, and then felt bad later when he'd found Internet comments calling him unpatriotic and ungrateful not to care about missing the Olympics. "Of course I care," he'd complained to Kent. "But nobody gets invited as a rookie, and I was trying to see the bright side, and—"

"They're idiots," Kent had said, and clammed up around the Habs about his plans. Nobody needed to know. The house calendar had their workout schedules, a friend's birthday party Jack would drop by on the second Thursday, a charity appearance Kent had early on, but that was it. Jack's therapist had suggested not scheduling anything else, so the rest of the calendar was shockingly blank, just a few notes in Bob and Alicia's colours.

It was so blank it felt bare, which was like being nude, which kind of suggested the things Kent really had planned for two weeks alone with his boyfriend.

_/ \_

There were a lot of things that really hadn't occurred to Kent about sex before.

He'd had the vague sense that sex was a distinct binary state. There was Sex, and there was Not Sex. If you were having sex than anything went, and if you weren't having sex, you studiously avoided any appearance of intimacy. Yeah, he'd had some small sense that the two could carry over—little glancing contact with Jack's hand in the team van, or little thinking of you texts. But spending the break in the house in Montreal—where if an adult found them making out in the kitchen, the worst result was they might be asked to move so they could open the fridge and threatened with retaliatory middle-aged PDA—blurred the boundaries a great deal.

And he'd always thought of flirting as what you did to signal your interest in someone who wasn't interested in you yet, like a door-to-door salesman trying his pitch on the unwary. Only belatedly did he realize that it was how, in a world where you couldn't physically have sex all the time, you signalled the transition from one extreme to the other. Before, Jack had been awkward, abrupt; he'd just suddenly let the equipment room door swing shut and kiss Kent, or take Kent's hand and lead him away from the party. Kent had never known where or when that change would happen, and attempts of his own to initiate were often met with flat, anxious hostility. He'd existed in a state of terrified horniness, waiting for lightning to strike but never knowing if or when it would.

Now, he began to detect patterns. Jack had a way of dropping his eyes, his hands slowing on some task, right before he tried a kiss. If he was watching or reading something and didn't respond when Kent brushed against him, he was absorbed and would probably rebuff an advance; meanwhile, if he tapped back at a foot that knocked his, turned around and glared when Kent threw balled-up paper at him instead of just batting it away, or made room for Kent to sit down, he was more likely to reciprocate other kinds of closeness.

And once the sex was started, it didn't end as abruptly anymore, and that was a bonus in all kinds of unexpected ways. It didn't just mean Kent got more time skin-to-skin, and to kiss in all the sweet silly ways he'd been reluctant to before. The first time he bottomed for Jack, it was unexpectedly unpleasant; he felt stiff, unyielding, and once more wondering what people got out of it. It was first thing in the morning, on a day when they had the house to themselves. When Kent didn't seem to be into anal they gave up, moved on to something else, had breakfast, and started their morning; and then when they ended up in bed together again an hour later, Kent felt the return of the sense that made him think that maybe he wanted to be penetrated, wanted to feel something there, wanted to know what the fuss was about. And the second time it wasn't awkward or painful, and he wasn't stiff; Jack's dick was still a lot to handle, more overwhelming than pleasurable, but it felt worth trying again sometime.

That was the day that he discovered that Jack would let him absentmindedly reach up and put his hand on Jack's neck or shoulder, sometimes rub his thumb in little circles. The kind of thoughtless, effortless touch he had with his family, that he missed so much. And every once in a while, Jack's receptiveness would change; he wouldn't say anything, but Kent would slowly come into awareness that the rate of breathing beside him had a lot to do with the movements of his thumb, and when that happened, all he had to do was reach up and trace the back of the shell of Jack's ear, and—bam.

And that third time, he drew his legs up, realizing that he liked being on his back a lot more than the all-fours position Jack seemed to prefer, and asked Jack to try to the collaboration again—and that felt like discovering a new addiction to Jack's body all over again.

He was learning to speak Jack in a way he never had before. More deeply than ever, he could read Jack's restless moods, his anxious ones, in the set of shoulder and jaw; times when he wanted the reassurance of touch, times when he was about to initiate roughhousing and play. After a week it was a knowledge so thorough, and enough of his hungers well-sated, that when Jack had to visit old friends and came home rattled and preoccupied, he could think, "I bet he won't want to sleep together, then," and send Jack off to his own bedroom with well-wishes but no true sense of being abandoned. He was just delighted in a very deep way by Jack's incoherent arrival in his bed a few hours later, carrying his pillow and sleepily mumbling apologies.

"Yeah," was all Kent said. "Me too. Go 'sleep."

_/ \_

"I don't know," Jack said, looking up and down the row of kennels. "None of them seem really right, you know?"

Kent shrugged, hands in his pockets. "It was just an idea. Look at us! We got out of the house for a recreational activity."

"They all deserve homes," Jack said, putting his hand through the gate of one kennel so the dog there could lick his hand. "But I wouldn't feel right bringing one home right now. You need lots of one-on-one time starting a new dog. Maybe in the off-season."

"Fair," Kent conceded.

Jack got hand sanitizer from a dispenser on the wall and said, "What about you? Do you want to look at the cats?"

"Dude," Kent said, trailing after him. "I'm living in your parents' house. I can't just bring a pet into it."

"Why not?" Jack asked. He was already at the front desk. "Hello," he said politely. "Is it okay if we go into the cat area?"

"This is unfair," Kent said while a staff member asked if they wanted to go into one of the nursery rooms with the kittens, or the adult cat play area. "Not the kittens."

"Okay," she said cheerfully, and unlocked a door. "Here you go. You can see, there are toys all around here. Please don't pick them up or feed them any treats. Their diets are all being monitored by a veterinarian, so sometimes treats aren't good for them. Any questions?"

"No," Kent said weakly. Jack smiled and thanked her.

"Well?" Jack asked, as Kent slowly turned around. In the closest cage to him, a calico slept curled up in a ball. Below it, a black cat was wedged into the furthest back corner possible.

"What if I pick the wrong one?" Kent asked softly.

"Turn into a crazy cat guy with 20 cats," Jack suggested.

"Jack," Kent said. "Not when I'm living with your parents I can't."

"Buy a house, then." Jack was turning away, going past the cages to the open part where there were cat condos all around, and cats sleeping in chairs and on wicker couches. He picked up one of the wand toys and shook it at a nearby tuxedo. "You should come see the cats on the Strip. There's a group of strays that come around the dumpsters in the back of the arena. They're mostly scared of people, but when one of them's pregnant or has kittens, some volunteers come and catch them in a trap. They always need homes."

"Jack," Kent whined, again. "You're not making this easier."

Jack shrugged. "You always told me, the right cat picks you."

Kent pouted, but since Jack was ignoring him, he went into the middle of the cat room and squatted down on his heels. It was a pose of distance, the squat of a man who could rise at any second. He held his hands out and made kissy noises, and was immediately greeted by an offputtingly needy tabby.

"How come you always wanted me to get a cat?" Jack asked. "You're the one who wanted one."

Kent shrugged. "I guess I thought you'd take better care of one."

Jack made an incredulous noise. And then Kent saw her.

She was sleeping with her paw over her nose, and the noise Kent and Jack were making woke her up. Then she rolled over and stretched.

He thought she was a him at first. He misgendered his own fucking cat. Because the thing was, at first he thought he was seeing a ghost, a cat he hadn't seen for six years now. An ache, an absence. So he tipped forward on his knees and scuffled forward, breathing, "Holy shit. Zimms—this is like—I swear we had a cat just like this when I was a kid."

She reached out and buttered her head against his hat brim.

"Oh my god," he said reverently.

"What was its name?" Jack asked.

"Smokey." Which, okay, was not the world's most original name for a long-haired gray cat, but whatever. He put his hand out and discovered, to his shock, that her hair felt soft and silky, not rough the way Smokey's had been. She leaned into his hand as he petted her, until she staggered sideways slightly when he didn't take her full weight. And then, with absolute confidence, she stepped onto his arm and walked up to stand on his shoulder. "Fuck yeah," he breathed, and got up carefully, trying not to make her wobble, to go around the open cages to see which of them had a picture that matched her. Which is how he learned that she was a she, she was three years old, and someone had been stupid enough to name her "Twizzler" but smart enough to surrender her to the shelter when they had to move, so she could take a nap and then get adopted by Kent Parson.

Jack, smiling, went out into the hallway to ask a staff member how they could take her home, so she was duly packed into a cardboard case with air holes and had to sit at Kent's feet while he did a ton of paperwork.

"Do you own your own home?" the girl at the counter asked.

"No," he said, and jerked his thumb at Jack. "I'm living with his parents."

"Okay," she said pleasantly. "Do you have a letter from them saying they're aware you want to bring an animal into the house?"

Jack and Kent looked appalled at each other for a minute. "Uh, no," Kent said.

"Then is it possible you could get them on the phone so we can verify that you have permission to bring Twizzler home with you?"

So Jack got his parents on the phone, and asked, "Is it okay if Kent gets a cat?" and, thank God, they said yes. Then he handed his phone over to the clerk and she got information out of Bob. He spelled out his last name for her and she said, "Oh, like the hockey player?" and Kent hid his grin behind Jack's shoulder.

Jack was kind enough to drive so he didn't have to let go of the box, and had enough presence of mind to realize they needed to get things like a litterbox and cat food. His cat seemed intimidated by the inside of the pet store, and hissed at the dog they walked by, but when Kent offered her treats through the air holes, she carefully considered them, then took them from his hand and crunched them up.

Extensive videoconference with Ithaca, and consultation with archival sources, determined that Smokey had been ever so slightly much darker than the new cat, so "Smokey II" was scrapped as a name.

"Misty," he finally said, in tone of love and rapture, to the cat standing on his chest. "Miss Misty. Twizzles. Hey, beautiful girl. I love you."

Jack was smiling at him, holding his head up with one hand. "I can't believe it took you so long."

Kent quirked a smile at Jack. "I guess the good things in my life just took a while to get here."

Jack leaned over and kissed him, mindful of the cat.

_/ \_

"Know what we should do?" Jack asked, while Kent fucked him.

Kent dropped his forehead against Jack's shoulder. It wasn't fair. Why would Jack Zimmermann, of all people in the entire world, be talkative during sex? Kent kept his mind on the job at hand; opening Jack up for bottoming was a slow, involved, messy process, and now that he'd done it, he wasn't going to give up on the sweet slick satisfaction of being inside that magnificent ass.

"We should rent a rink," Jack said, and gasped. He rolled his head back and to the side, like shaking off a hit, and grabbed the edge of the mattress harder. "You'n me. During the offseason. Just..." He was having trouble breathing, twisting under Kent like a trapped animal, tendons standing out on his wrists to hold himself still. "Kenny," he whined, until Kent picked up the pace. "Just play. You'n me. Just—!"

"Oh, boy," Kent purred at the crumpled pile of boyfriend that had collapsed beneath him. "You really liked that idea."

"I didn't mean it like a sex thing," Jack said limply.

"Yeah," Kent replied, "but what if we made it a sex thing?"

Jack whimpered.

Chapter Text

David Parson wants to be friends on Facebook.

It shouldn't bug him.

He'd texted Belle when he got the email. Dad add you on Facebook lately?

lol no, she'd replied. maybe when i'm rich&famous?

But then she'd added, Mom says maybe it's bc ur 18?

Their mom didn't want them to think badly of Dad. Because hey, after all, he seemed to be a great father to his new family. They took great pictures. Once the divorce was final he'd paid enough child support to let them do sports. Maybe Kent and Belle just needed to give him more of a chance! You only ever have one father, you know.

Kent did not comment on the ways that increasingly failed to describe the reality of modern families. He bummed himself the fuck out looking through his dad's Facebook photos.

On a deeper level, part of him wanted to freak the fuck out, the way it always did about his father. He had loved his father, and some part of him knew that Dad leaving had fucked him up in ways he literally didn't have words to express. But he had work to do, a life to live, appearances to keep up.

So he did small damage to the last one by writing "fuck u" on his father's wall, and then blocking him.

Belle was the only person he mentioned it to. It just never seemed relevant.

 

 

_/ \_

When Jack came to Montreal to play hockey, he came in force. Montreal loved him for it. It didn't matter that he was wearing the wrong uniform; he burned the Bell Centre down, and the entire crowd roared.

That night was Jack at his best, the kind of playing Kent ached to be on side with. He was unstoppable, untouchable; he and the puck seemed connected by some sort of magnetic force. Even while his team scrambled to mount a decent defense and struggled to put anyone else of Jack's calibre out on the ice while he was resting, he played his game of the season. Sometimes it felt like he passed off a certain goal to make an assist kindly, the way you'd set a kid up for a good shot, because it was good for his teammates' morale. Neeps made two saves that way, goals Jack handed off when he probably could have done it on his own. All Kent's efforts to even up the score only seemed to egg Jack on; he had hats on the ice by the end of the second period anyway. They went into the intermission down 2-4.

De Rien was apopleptic. He kicked the cameras out of the dressing room and tore into the defense, into Neeps; he railed against God and this entire team of fucking faggots.

"And you," he said, pointing at Kent. "Is it too much to fucking ask, that you save letting your little boyfriend score on you for off the ice? You're disgusting. I don't even want to see you again for the rest of the night."

The entire team sort of froze up at that. Kent's gaze darted around frantically and he could see that none of them knew how to take it. Eli had started to laugh at the word boyfriend, but then he stopped, mouth open, forming an O of disbelief, first kind of amazed and entertained at how bad the insult was, and then, by the end, kind of terrified. Gerry had his arms crossed over his chest and had his eyebrows raised, like, well, this is some fucking bullshit. Charley wasn't meeting anybody's eyes, but he looked like he wanted to throw up.

Lasky was on his feet, while everyone else was rooted to the spot; he went to the door, intercepted de Rien there. He was talking soft and fast, and sometimes you could hear things like two goals and kid, and finally de Rien cut him off, said something that sounded like surrender, and walked into the hallway.

Neeps laid a hand on Kent's shoulder. Kent shivered and shook it off. He felt like he was going to puke.

"Okay, you guys," Lasky said bracingly. "The truth is, we're only down two points. We can get back up there. We just need to tighten up our defence. Jourdain, you good? Yeah. C'mon, get settled. Michel, you start us off." He gestured to Kent when he would have stayed seated for the chant, so Kent got up and joined the circle, though Kent couldn't find his voice. Then he gestured again, encouragingly, when they went back out onto the ice, clapping Kent on the back as he went by.

When he had the time and space to think about it, a long time later, Kent thought that the actual worst thing de Rien could have done that night was put him back on the ice like nothing had happened. He would have fallen to pieces out there—played like shit, probably broken down, maybe done something as stupid as want to talk to his boyfriend. If his goal had been to destroy Kent completely, that might have done it. But he wasn't smart enough or stupid enough, to do that. Instead he just glanced at Kent, at Lasky parked next to Kent like a guard dog, scowled, and bumped Charley up to Kent's spot. Then he ordered them over the boards.

Kent sat on the bench for the entire period, watching them lose to his boyfriend, feeling sick with dread every time a suit walked behind him. People kept sitting next to him when they came back from their shifts; not just the people he trusted like Lasky and Chess, not just Neeps when he skated back to the bench during a commercial break for a refill of water, but Gerry and Charley and Eli. They pretended to be offhand about it, but the way their eyes followed de Rien said they knew they were defying him.

They didn't know, Kent realized, as Charley complimented him on his goals earlier. They thought it was the ultimate slander, that Coach was so mad about the game that he'd gone so far as to imply Kent liked it up the ass. Obviously they knew he was angry, out of control, not making a whole lot of sense; that showed when he blew up at the one player who did manage to get goals in when Jack was on fire. It wasn't Kent's fault he was friends with Jack, which was anyway inevitable when Jack's parents were billeting him. That Zimms guy was a helluva player. Coach was over the line to say that, you know?

Jack started shooting worried looks across the ice, every time the Habs line changed and Kent wasn't on it. Even people in the stands were bccoming aware that Kent was in some sort of disgrace; after another Aces goal, there was a smattering of a chant by the crowd—"Par-son! Par-son!"—for de Rien to put him in. By the end of the game, all the Aces were shooting him concerned and sympathetic glances to the visitors' bench. Kent began to live in fear that one of them would do something about it—God forbid, skate over and shake his hand or some bullshit like that—so he left for the dressing room the moment time ran out.

His sweat had dried cool on his skin, and he'd already started to shake, and he really didn't feel like being naked for very long, so he just stripped out of his gear and changed into clothes, and was ready to go before most of them were out of the shower. He'd been actively afraid that the press would swarm around him, but a lot of them looked shocked and scared too, stepping out of his way as he left.

He wasn't sure where he wanted to go, but he felt like doing—something.

Alicia Zimmermann was talking on her cell phone in the parking lot, leaning against his Mustang. She looked right at him and said something on her phone, and then hung up before he got close. He eyed her as she slipped her phone into her purse, wary of whatever well-meaning thing she was about to say.

"Give me a ride home," was all she said. Not a question, but light, pleasant. Like a firm suggestion.

So even as he questioned the wisdom of being locked in an enclosed space with her, he unlocked the car. She slung herself in without further fuss.

All she asked, when he got onto Guy Street for the drive home, was, "Wanna talk about it?"

"Nope," he said, plosively.

She reached out and squeezed his unsuspecting hand, and then let go before he could pull it away. "Your call."

Fortunately, it was a short ride home.

Misty came trotting out when they got home, greeting him at the top of the staircase that led to his and Jack's and the guest rooms with chirps and little inquiring noises. He stretched his hands out to her gratefully, encouraging her to follow him back to his room with twiddling fingers and kissy noises.

God. He'd forgotten her when he thought about leaving, when he thought about coming home. He'd thought the storm inside him would break in private, when he was totally alone; he hadn't remembered, at all, that she'd be home. But she ran ahead him to the bedroom door, tail high, and looked back to see if he was coming, and he pulled off his jacket and tie gratefully.

When it really hit him he keeled over on the side of the bed, and pulled his puzzled cat closer to him so he could cry into her fur. She didn't understand, and kept butting her head against his arm. He was prepared for the noises he was making to scare her off, but they didn't; she tried to purr. It was so loving and so ineffective his heart ached, and even though he knew he was behaving like a child, he just cried harder.

He heard Jack coming, and tried to clean up for it. Stopped crying, got up, took off his shoes, scrubbed his face on his shirtsleeve, picked his jacket and tie off the floor and hung them in his closet. When Jack came in he kept his back turned, even as fresh tears threatened.

"Kenny," Jack said. "What was that about?"

"Nothing," Kent said unsteadily. "I wasn't feeling good. Shouldn't you be out celebrating?" Kent took a minute to steady himself. "You were amazing tonight."

"Why would he be mad at you?" Jack asked. "You were great too."

Kent shrugged. "Longstanding issue," he said, and his voice wobbled a bit.

Jack softly touched his shoulder. His face was alight with strain. "What happened?" he asked again.

"N—nothing," Kent said with some difficulty. "It's just that I'm—" His eyes swam again. "I'm dangerous, Jack. I'm dangerous for you. I'm gonna ruin things for you, and you don't deserve—" His mouth gummed up, and he couldn't stop the tears, and he tried to control his breathing as Jack pressed him into a hug. He finally let his elbows crook so he could hold Jack back, a little. "He... thought I was, um. Deliberately making it easier for you. I guess like when, I got the puck off Carlson, and then you s-stole it back, or um, that breakaway I didn't get you on..."

"He accused you of rigging a game?" Jack asked, sounding horrified.

"I don't know." Kent closed his eyes, but couldn't stop crying again. "Maybe I just didn't try hard enough, you know? I'm not, I'm not as good as everybody says I am. I'm not as good as you. And I can't hide it forever, so maybe it's finally—"

"Kenny." Jack shook him lightly. "You don't play defense. Stopping me isn't your job. You were a pain in my ass tonight. My goals were not your fault."

"I'm sorry," Kent spilled out. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I was in your way, and I'm sorry I—you shouldn't be here looking after me being pathetic, you should be out there getting toasted. You're the King of Montreal tonight. I always bring you down, and I don't wanna do that, you've got so much of your own stuff to worry about, I'm sorry I'm always making it shitty, it shouldn't be about me, I—"

Jack kissed him, holding his face, and said firmly, "No. It's not your fault."

"You don't get it!" Over top of the pain, fear was turning into a kind of panic. "I make things worse for you, Jack. I make it dangerous. People see you differently because you've got me. I'm gonna keep hurting your reputation. You're better off without me, Jack. It would be safer for you if I just weren't here. That's the truth."

Jack stared back, uncomprehending. "Kenny, that's a risk I'm willing to take."

Kent hugged his chest, body aching. "I'm not. I wish I weren't. It'd be better for you if I was dead, seriously. You don't—it isn't—" He closed his eyes and choked out, "You're so amazing, you know that?"

In a weird, detached voice, Jack said, "Do you mean that?"

"Yeah." Kent felt suddenly calm, full of love for him. "You're the best person I know."

"What about—" Jack stumbled. "What about... wishing you weren't... wanting to... did you mean it, about being better off dead?"

Kent smiled sadly. "I'm not a good enough person to actually do it," he said. There were tears running down his face again, but he didn't actually feel himself crying. "If I was less selfish, I probably would."

Jack squeezed his hands. "Kenny, are these cold?"

"Huh?" Kent looked down at them, then up at Jack. "I don't really feel them."

Jack looked at him, eyes intense and indecipherable, and then said, "Can you stay right here? Can you..." He steered Kent back to the bed, so Kent's knees automatically folded up and he sat. Jack knelt in front of him. "Stay here. Don't do anything. Just..." He looked at the cat, who leapt up onto the bed beside Kent. "Keep Misty company, okay? Just wait for me. I'll be right back."

"Okay," Kent said numbly, petting Misty.

Jack got up and pelted off on soft sock feet. Kent was away for a minute, and then Misty pelted off too, to see what Jack was doing. Kent teetered, trying to stay upright without her, and then fell back. Tears clogged his eyes and nose again, and he put his hands over his face; sniffing didn't help anything, and as well as spiritually unclean, his face was a mess.

He was just on the verge of thinking this was impossible, intolerable, that he couldn't do this anymore, when Jack came back, sitting on the bed and urgently holding something else to him. Kent took it, a little curiously. It was tiny; when his fingers unfurled, he saw that the thing Jack had put in his hand was one of Jack's old little blue pills, the ones he took last year to calm his anxiety. Kent was kind of puzzled. He wasn't feeling anxious.

"Can you swallow that?" Jack asked.

Kent frowned. "I'd need water. I can't dry-swallow them."

Jack got up and went away, rifling through Kent's bedside table, the gear bag inside his door, and then disappeared down the hallway. There was the shwooshing of tapwater into a glass, and he was back. "Sit up," he said. "Drink this."

Kent drank, and then Jack had to remind him to put the pill on his tongue, and then finish the glass. Kent did it, but only to make Jack happy; he didn't think it would actually work. Though now that he thought of it, he would like to get well and truly plastered. Harder to do, now that they were safe at the house in Montreal, but by no means impossible; there was most of a fifth of vodka in his closet, and that wouldn't do the whole job, but it was a good start.

Misty was back. Kent put his hand out to her.

Jack took a deep breath and loosened his tie, then started unbuttoning his jacket and vest. Kent watched him, and then dropped his eyes down to his cat. He was beginning to feel a creeping sense of horror about some of the shit he'd said, but it was like creeping cello music, far off right now. Jack had him inspired to take off his pants so he didn't have to worry about Misty's hair getting on them, and Jack took them from him when he did.

Jack climbed onto the bed next to him, and opened his arms. Hating himself for being weak, Kent crept into them.

_/ \_

Kent fell asleep there, with Misty curled protectively around his head. Jack eased out from under him, and went to find his parents.

They were in the kitchen, his mom angrily drinking wine, his dad on the phone. "Thanks, Chess," he was saying. "Yeah, me too. Okay, have a good night."

When Bob hung up, Alicia asked Jack, "So? How is he?"

Jack hesitated, then said cautiously, "I gave him one of my old Xanaxes. He's asleep."

"Jack," Alicia said tiredly. "You said you'd gotten rid of them all."

"I only had a couple left," Jack said defensively. "I'm really worried about him. He said de Rien accused him of fixing the game somehow."

Bob's eyebrows flew up. "Is that what he said?" Both Jack and Alicia leaned forward for more information. "I just got off the phone with one of his teammates. I didn't hear an accusation of rigging, but according to that story, de Rien said, 'Your boyfriend is supposed to score on you at home, not on the ice.'"

This was the kind of situation Jack had saved a couple Xanax for, but he couldn't exactly go for them now. He dropped his head in his hands. "So he knows," he said, feeling sick.

"Jack," his dad said, warm and supportive, and rubbed his hand up and down Jack's back. He seemed to think this would help anything.

"I... actually don't think de Rien believes it," Alicia said slowly.

"How's that one go, Al?" Bob asked.

"Well, I mean, maybe he does and he's really stupid. But... that sounds to me like typical macho shit-talk. It's an accusation. And it's not based on reality, the same way, sweetie, that Kent was not a part of you being great tonight. He just found the most convenient target and the easiest angle of attack. Because... if he really knew you two were together, and he had two brain cells to rub together, throwing around that kind of insult is the last thing he'd be doing."

"Especially in a town like Montreal," Bob rumbled.

"We don't want to come out right now," Jack rasped. Even though his dad's back rubs weren't helping, he'd reached back to still Bob's hand, and pull his arm closer, so he was just holding him. It helped to have his dad to lean against.

"You don't have to," Alicia said. "I'm just saying, he doesn't seem to realize that times are changing. It used to be that if you accused someone of being gay, they were terrified because they could lose everything. But now... you don't have to, but if you wanted to... you've got legal rights now. Being bigoted, and to one of his top players, is one of the things that could ruin de Rien's public reputation. Cost him his job. Maybe even damage his career. He should be afraid of offending you two. Because even if you don't come out for five or ten years, this is the kind of incident you'll be able to sit on and use against him the entire time."

"Your mother is a beautiful pit viper," Bob said adoringly. "It's a good thing she's on our side."

"It wouldn't be that bad for him," Jack protested.

"Most years, I'd agree," Bob said. "But with Little Murchie on the warpath? I... don't know."

"I mean, at the very least," Alicia said wryly, "if you do come out, there are teams that would love to sign you just to prove how un-bigoted they are."

"I need to use the bathroom," Jack said, pushing away. He couldn't do what his parents did; they talked like you could take on what people thought of you, wrestle it around, and make what you wanted of it. That wasn't how it worked for him. The only control he'd ever had over what people said about him was how well he played hockey.

Alicia followed him to his room, so she saw him dig the Xanax out and swallow it. He held the bottle out and tilted it for her to see; there were three pills left in it. She nodded, then backed up, standing to the side and holding her elbows. "We got off track in there," she said. "How's Kent?"

Jack sighed and dropped onto his bed. He ought to go check on Kent soon; he didn't feel good about leaving him alone. "He was freaked out, Mom. Really freaked out. And he said stuff about... I was better off without him, it'd be better for me if he was dead, he'd kill himself if he was a better person."

"Oh, shit," Alicia said, sighing explosively.

"I never heard him talk that way before," Jack said. He paused, then asked, "Do you think he... lied to me? About what de Rien said?"

"Lied to you how?"

"Made it seem... less bad. Or differently bad. When I came in I asked what was wrong and he said no, it's nothing, don't worry, go celebrate. I... what if he did that before? What if he's been saying he's fine when he's really not? I thought he was so cool, he had it together, but tonight he just..." Jack buried his hands in his hair again.

"He..." Alicia sat next to Jack. "I mean, yeah. I'm worried about that too. I think you guys... are really used to not paying attention to your own pain. You scared the crap out of me when I realized how much you weren't saying. I guess now it wouldn't surprise me if Kent turned out to be the same."

"I want to go watch him," Jack said. "I'm afraid of him waking up and... being upset."

"Okay," Alicia said, touching his arm reassuringly. "When he wakes up he's probably gonna be ravenous. What about you? You hungry?"

"Yeah," Jack admitted.

"Then you go look after him. I'll go make up some PB&Js and bring them to you. Kent can eat his share when he wakes up. All right?"

"Okay," he said. "Thanks, Mom."

_/ \_

The next morning Kent woke up two hours late, and basically catapulted out of bed. He didn't have time to shower, work out, or eat breakfast. He basically just blundered around, shucking last night's dress shirt and throwing on sweats and a tee, then grabbed the water bottle and bag of sandwiches off the bedside table and bolted for his car.

"Kenny!" Bob called, but Kent called, "Gotta go!" and slammed out of the house.

When he'd gotten on the road and halfway into a sandwich, he was awake enough to realize that he'd missed seeing Jack off. The Aces were probably at the airport, waiting for their plane to board, but if he drove there right now they'd have taken off by the time he arrived. Fuck oversleeping; this was the worst day for it. And noise of the radio made him realize his phone wasn't connected to the car's Bluetooth; he'd fucking forgotten it, and would have to text later, for Jack to see when he landed. No, short flight; he'd probably have landed by the time Kent got out of practice.

"Fuck everything," he said under his breath, waiting for his turn to merge onto the bridge, but he didn't actually mean it.

This kind of thing was how he earned his spurious reputation of being a badass motherfucker. It was rolling up to practice exactly on time (or, by de Rien time, five minutes late), carrying Tim Horton's and appearing inattentive to the whispers that followed him, yawning slightly as he settled into his stall. He did, distantly, remember that last night he'd been insulted, benched, and grief-and-panic-stricken; but to be honest, processing any of that knowledge into actionable data would have taken work and effort, and it never occurred to him that anyone else would do any differently. It just didn't seem relevant.

So when de Rien came into the room, what the team saw was: Parse finished lacing up his skates, then paused to rub the back of his hand across his eyes and take a drink of his coffee. It looked stoic as hell.

Kent didn't actually realize at the time that it was a game of chicken, and he was winning. On one level, it was between him and de Rien; on another, it was between the entire team, every man for himself. The first person to allude to the events of the night before, and especially to reveal that his professional demeanour ruffled by it, lost. And Kent had more experience than de Rien could ever imagine, in not reacting to this shit.

At the end of the practice de Rien had to say, grudgingly: "Good work, Parson." It was that or create an even deeper rift than last night had left.

Kent said, "Thanks, Coach," and hit the showers.

Yes, but the time he got home, his hands were shaking; but nobody on the team saw that, so it didn't count.

_/ \_

"Bob called," one of the staff had said, as he took his gear off. "You left your phone at home and need to go get it." And Kent had smiled and thanked him and acted very normal, but now he parked at the house and felt his stomach roil.

The house felt watchful, tense, as he came in the door. He heard Misty's little inquisitive noise, and very quickly she came out of the kitchen, chirping and brushing against his legs. He picked her up and put her against his shoulder, then walked into the house.

Jack was still there, sitting on the couch in the living room with ill-concealed unease. He rose as soon as Kent came in. Alicia was better at pretending to watch TV, and Bob was mixing something in a bowl in the kitchen, but they were all focused on him.

"What's wrong?" Kent asked, feeling sick. "What happened? Why are you still here?"

"I took a maintenance day," Jack said. "I told them I had a family emergency."

Misty jumped out of his arms, and Kent hugged his stomach. "Why?"

Jack just stared at him. "Because of you."

"We wanted to let you sleep this morning," Bob said washing his hands. "But I guess your internal alarm went off, and you were off to practice just like usual."

"Uh, yeah," Kent said, feeling a little pissed. "I could've done without the heart attack, thanks."

"I would've said not to go," Bob said. "Give us time to talk options."

"You can't," Kent said, with rising panic, "just not go to practice."

"Last night, before he benched you," Bob said. "We heard de Rien called Jack your boyfriend. Do you think that was just an accusation, or does he know something?"

"What the fuck is the difference?" Kent asked, nearly levitating with freaked-out frustration. "Look. I don't know what you're thinking, but I don't have options. Okay? What I have, is a three-year entry contact, and a reputation to build. I can't just decide that I can't work under these conditions and I'll be in my trailer. No offence, Alicia. But my only option is to tough this shit out and get good enough that nobody would dream of benching me. That's what I intend to do."

"You could ask for a trade," Bob began.

"The trade deadline! Was three fucking weeks ago!"

"Kenny," Jack said, and Kent swung to look at him, heart pounding. He looked upset too, holding his hands out. "You scared me so much last night. Okay? I don't know what you were going to do. I can't be scared like that for you all the time."

"Wow, you obviously don't know how terrifying dating you is sometimes." He regretted it the moment it was out of his mouth, before it even hit Jack, turned him white, made him physically flinch. "Shit. Jack. I just. I didn't mean—I just mean—I worry about you, and I know you're not telling me stuff, and last year, I—some of the shit you were saying was wild, and I didn't know how to keep you safe."

Even Jack's lips were white. He was still holding Kent's hands, but his own were clammy. Kent was entirely ambushed when he explained to his parents, "Last year, there was a time I—Kenny found me out drinking by a hydro dam, I'd climbed over the fence, and I... he had to talk me back over. He saved my life."

Alicia covered her face with her hands. "Jesus Christ," Bob said, voice raw.

"Look, you guys," Alicia said. "You can't—it's wonderful that you're there for each other, but—you can't keep being responsible for each other like this. Look, Kent—when you're saying things about being better off dead—that's the kind of thing you need actual help for."

"What is this?" Kent asked, swinging around and looking at the three of them. "An intervention? You're gonna check me into some psych ward? Because what I remember saying is that I wasn't gonna kill myself. I'm not the one who stands on top of tall objects."

"We are not gonna lock you up," Bob said firmly. "Believe it or not, we have actually spoken to some experts on the topic, who say that unless you're about to kill yourself, it does more harm than good to force you into treatment you're not willing for."

"Oh, thank you. That's very generous of you. I appreciate it a lot." Kent's heart was pounding, and he'd started to sweat through his shirt. "But you know what? If I don't have to stand here and listen to this? I'm gonna go."

_/ \_

He considered leaving the house, but Misty hated to travel; and once he was back on his bed, Misty was there, purring and kneading and wanting love. And Misty was innocent. She'd probably been trying to warn him.

Someone slid his phone under his door, but didn't try to come in, which he appreciated. It was a mess of messages and notifications, all of which he cleared and ignored so he could play Angry Birds with Misty cuddled up to his chest and laying over his arm. He could lean down and kiss her fluff and nuzzle the top of her head with his nose any time he wanted.

"Can I come in?" Jack asked.

Kent sighed. "Okay," he said, because he didn't know when Jack would have to leave.

Jack set a bowl of chili down on the bedside table, then moved around to sit at Jack's feet. He was quiet. Kent put down his phone and started petting Misty more, so she wouldn't want to get up and smell the bowl, even though he knew it was a losing battle.

"I'm sorry," Jack said.

Kent didn't know what to say. He let Misty get up and rolled over a little so it was easier to look at Jack. After an uncertain moment, Jack pulled himself forward so he could lie down parallel, the two of them talking with their heads close together.

"I'm sorry I scared you," he said. "You were so amazing for me, Kenny." He took a deep breath. "Please, just try to talk to someone? It's not awful, and if it's not a team psychologist, they can't bench you. I'm too far away to be here for you all the time. I wish I could."

Kent closed his eyes, and wrapped his fingers around Jack's hand. This was unfair pressure, except for the part of him that had been dying to ask Jack to ask him to open up for a long time now.

"Okay," he said.

Then Jack moved closer, close enough that Kent could rest his forehead against Jack's chest, smelling his shirt, and they lay like that for a long time.

_/ \_

"So," Kent said, sinking into his armchair opposite Marissa Lysiak BSW MSW RSW and gripping it like handholds on a throne. "Now am I supposed to tell you all about my tragic past?"

She was a petite woman, pale, with dark hair, she wore jeans and a sweater and a black leather jacket like she didn't talk about feelings for a living. She put the completed paperwork aside and cocked her head to one side. "Do you wanna?"

"Noooot really," he said, making it sound like something approaching a hard decision. "I'm here because they made me be here."

"Okay," she said. "If you don't wanna tell me, I don't wanna hear it. To be honest, if you're bursting to tell me, go ahead; but except for that, I'd really kind of rather you didn't right now. We don't know each other right now. You don't know who I am or how I'm gonna react to anything. You shouldn't trust me with shit yet. Save that for when we've actually built up a bit of rapport."

Kent was immediately suspicious. "So then what's the point of therapy?"

She knotted her hands together thoughtfully, and then said, "So. That whole thing you described, where like, you're fine, you're fine, everything's fine, and then, kaboom! Everything's awful and you're a piece of shit and you wish you were dead. And then after a day or two, it's just totally fine again. That thing."

"Yes," he said, suspicious that the word she'd put on it wasn't "normalcy".

"There's two models of... dealing with that," she said. "One is, you know, when there's an emergency, you call in emergency support. Talk to a hotline, get a cop to talk you off a bridge, get shipped off to a rehab, et cet. You get? And the other is... to establish relationships with people who can possibly help in the case of an emergency, before there's an emergency. So at the moment of crisis I'm not like, holy shit! It's Kent Parson of the Montréal Canadiens! My kid loves you, will you sign his hockey card? What's the problem?"

Kent drew in a sharp breath, suddenly considering an entirely new problem with calling emergency services.

"So we can talk about anything you want. This is your time. If you don't think you need fixing, and you're not trying to kill yourself, that's great. As you can see, my office comes equipped with art supplies and many fine games and toys for all ages. I just got a new set of Jenga. But then, if it comes along again that you do feel like killing yourself? Then you've got someone to talk to. And by then, you know me."

Kent found himself nodding, then made himself stop and asked, "Is this your way of tricking me into telling you about my tragic past?"

She hesitated for entirely too long, in his opinion. And then she said, "If you don't ever want to, that's okay with me. I don't find it does any good if you feel in any way tricked or coerced. But I... see a lot of kids who find it new and exciting to have someone willing to listen to them that they can't freak out or gross out. So yes, sometimes, I see people who thought they'd never spill their tragic pasts to anyone, who get to know me and then go, okay, you know what, I'll tell you."

Kent took a minute to consider this carefully, and then said. "Fair." He looked at the bookshelf and asked, "Do you play poker?"

"I have to warn you," she said. "My playing cards have feeling words on them, and we won't be playing for actual money."

"Mm," Kent said. "Still better than Jenga."

_/ \_

Jack cleaned out his locker with tears stinging at his eyes, and got ready to say goodbye to Las Vegas for the season.

"Your playing's been amazing, kid," Ben said, as he threw gear into his bag. "It's not your fault we've had a bad season. You can't un-break legs for us."

Jack leaned into the back of his locker, like he was looking for something stuck in the corner. "Yeah," he said, because agreement might make him stop.

"Look, I know you don't want to talk," Ben said. "Just one thing, okay, Zimmermann? One thing. That's it, I promise."

Jack turned around until he could lean against the stall partition, then grabbed onto his elbows and let Ben talk.

"The person under your jersey." Ben stabbed Jack's chest with his finger. "You've got great skills. But there's a real person under that exterior. You don't let him shrivel up under there. They tell you he's not important—but he is. You work on that? I think you're gonna be great."

Jack slowly sucked a breath in. Hugging his arms against his chest, he said, "You don't know why I—"

Ben raised his hands. "Nope," he said. "I don't know. But look. I know—this sport. It doesn't want you to grow in some ways. You're not supposed to challenge the system. But that's... it's not for your best interest."

Slowly, Jack nodded.

"Okay, that's it." Ben stepped back and raised his hands. "Cap talk over. You're free."

_/ \_

Ben had one thing left to say, and he almost waited until the very last minute to say it. Jack's shit was all packed for his plane trip, or boxed up to be shipped to Montreal. One of the team staff was there to drive him to the airport and bring his bags to check-in. Millie was lying protectively on Jack's leg, looking up into his face for kisses as he said goodbye.

"Fuckin' hell," Ben said from the kitchen, and put down his knife. "Zimmermann, take the fuckin' dog with you."

"Huh?" Jack asked, though Millie had already pried her front legs up, eyes shining with excitement. Her tail began to wave.

"She likes you more'n me," Ben said. "Sam says she pines the whole time you're gone. She's gonna be miserable if you leave her. I don't need a third fuckin' Husky on my hands, eating sex toys and getting into trouble. Take. The dog. With you."

Slowly, incredulously, Jack looked to Millie as though to ask if it was okay with her. She licked him. "T-thank you," he stuttered.

Ben waved it away, and stamped over to the hallway to yell. "Sam!" When she popped her head out, he said, "You were fuckin' right. Go get the travel crate, Jack's taking Millie." Then he spun around and snapped, "What're you sitting around for? Get on the fuckin' phone. You've gotta go talk to the airline."

Chapter Text

"What's this?" Kent asked in the middle of April, as Jack sat in the kitchen with paper spread out in front of him.

"Trying to decide," Jack said, "if I want to do my Cégep, or just try getting the prerequisites waived for what I want to take."

Kent blinked. "Wait, you wanna go to college?"

Jack shrugged. "Take courses. McGill does these things that are like a learning vacation—you spend two weeks in a country and there's lectures every day about the history. And I kinda think I want to know more about science."

"Jack, buddy. Wasn't the best part of this gig not having to go to school again?"

"I like school," Jack said. "And lots of players take summer courses. They never know when they might end up injured or have to get a job."

"Yeah, I don't think you'll have to get a job."

Jack shrugged again. "But I can afford to study whatever I want. I'll go two days a week while you're in Europe with your family."

"I... oh." Kent felt kind of at a loss, seeing Jack doing something so firmly his, something Kent didn't really want to share in. But on the other hand: Playoffs, Kent's presence in them, Jack's absence. It was like Millie; it might keep his mind off it, keep him from fretting too much. "Okay. You have fun, then."

_/ \_

Millie was a fortuitous gift, because she kept Jack busy, and everyone worried far more about her relationship with Misty than the descent into Playoffs. Kent was still wary of being trapped in a heart-to-heart, especially when Belle and his mom came up for a weekend during the first game of round one, so the pets made a good distraction. Millie could be trusted to respond to a down-stay command while Misty walked across the room, but she was a frenzy of energy the moment she was allowed up; and if Misty was anywhere she could be physically approached, she'd invariably hiss and swat at the dog nose investigating her. Millie's desire for friendship was undiminished, but she began to court Misty with more yearning glances and fewer kisses.

When Jack took the dog out the afternoon before the game, Misty sauntered into the middle of the living-room floor with her tail banner-high. Kent held his hand out and chirruped to her, but she was too fascinated with Belle's yoga routine, which currently had her sticking her butt in the air. Kent pulled up the camera in his phone and came over, hoping for a good picture.

"Jealous?" Belle taunted goodnaturedly. "She likes me best for once."

"Nah, she just thinks you're weird." Kent sat on the carpet with his back to the wall, twitching his feet to try to get Misty's attention. "Cats are supposed to bend that way, not humans."

Belle lowered her leg, then dropped her knees down to the mat, so she was tucked up like a peanut. "It's really relaxing. You should try it."

"Yeah, no. I'm not made out of rubber."

"Oh," she said, "you're chicken?"

I missed you, he thought five minutes later, trying to wrap his arms into a pretzel. She was grinning at him like she knew he was messing it up on purpose, until she got out of her own pose and came to rearrange his hands. When he'd moved to Quebec for Juniors, Belle had been twelve, in an incredibly bratty phase where she thought everything Kent did was "gross" and "stupid". It had been a depressing change from the days when he'd been the awesome big brother who could do anything. But apparently over the last couple years she'd raided his room for CDs, and now knew more about the bands he'd liked at 14 than he did himself, especially their members' love lives. She had more crushes on hockey players than there were actually hockey players worth having crushes on, in Kent's opinion. And now that they were old enough to actually talk again, she was considering moving to the Midwest or California for gymnastics training, looking for a coach who'd get her to Nationals.

"We need to go to concerts," he said, upside-down in a bridge as his cat tickled his nose with her tail. "Wherever you end up, I'll find you and steal you for a day. Pick the concert."

"Lollapalooza," she said instantly.

He laughed, then fell on his butt, scaring the cat. "Were you waiting for that?"

"No," she pouted, flipping herself up a lot more elegantly. "But there are people in my class who are going and totally stuck up about it, so I'd want to go even if I hate the music, just so I could ignore them and then not brag about it."

"That's it, I'm sold," he said. "You say spite and I'm there."

_/ \_

Their first round of playoffs was against Toronto, and therefore the kind of crowd-pleasing barnstormer that sold out arenas. During that round, Kent earned an indelible reputation for being daring past the point of common sense, and, one might have said, courageous. It felt like normal time had been suspended, and on the ice, anything was possible.

This was one such play:

Leaving the visitors' dressing room after Game Three, Kent thought he saw a face he recognized coming out of one of the side hallways. He just kept walking before making his mind up, which kind of worked out, because when he muttered to Charley, "Be right back," Charley couldn't see what he was running back for, or that he'd turned off before the locker room. The person he'd seen was almost down the low hallway to the home dressing room, but Kent called, "Hey!"

The other guy turned, wary and obviously aware of the space, the lack of witnesses, his avenues of escape, the lone figure approaching him.

"You're Pete, right?" Kent said, as he slowed out of his jog. "Jack's friend."

"Yeah," the other guy said warily as Kent came closer.

"Kent Parson," Kent said, and held out his hand as a peace offering. Ben took it with more politeness than trust. Then Kent pushed his hands through his hair. "Look, I just wanted to say..."

there weren't really words for this. Not one it was possible to speak. There were words for somebody else's story, for a Lifetime movie, for people who spoke the way Kent never seemed able to. Pete was smart, a college boy. In Kent's shoes, he could probably say something really meaningful. "Thank you." He pulled in a deep breath. "Just... thank you."

Pete nodded, eyeing him closely, the kind of thoughtful glance Kent wanted to hide from, at the same time part of him was begging, see me, see me, see me. "You're a friend of Jack's too, right? How... about I tell him to give you my number."

"Sure," Kent said faintly. Aware of the space, the points of access, the possibility of witnesses, the weirdness of this meeting. He crooked his thumb over his shoulder. "I gotta get back. Uh. Nice meeting you?"

Pete smiled. "Yeah. And, uh. You're... welcome, I guess."

Forgot my phone, Kent rehearsed mentally as he jogged back to the team. Thought I forgot my phone. Thought I did, but when I got back there, it was in my pocket. Thought I forgot my phone.

Though nobody asked.

_/ \_

The day after his bad fall in practice, Jack watched Kent rub painkiller onto his knee with concern, but chose not to comment on it. Kent limped around to the dresser, then dug out an ankle brace and strapped it on, the stiff posture of his back daring Jack to say anything.

"You didn't eat part of your dinner," Jack said.

"Wasn't hungry," Kent grunted.

"You should have a smoothie before bed," Jack pressed. "Otherwise you're five hundred calories short today."

Kent took a very deep breath, and repeated, in an ominously level tone, "I said I wasn't hungry."

"I think you should have one," Jack said. "Since you're still playing hockey, and I'm not."

Kent froze, miserably pinned. They hadn't referred to the fact since Jack came home. He couldn't imagine how Jack must be feeling. Slowly, he turned. "Jack, I'm sorry."

Jack looked impassive as he got up. "I'll go make it."

Something felt off about that, Kent thought, as he stretched out on the bed and layered ice packs over the relevant joints. Misty made for her favourite spot curled up against his hip. She knew Millie wanted to sit there too, and would hiss the dog off her territory when she tried.

The first time Jack ever came up with a joke, he thought it out for two weeks beforehand. He wasn't exceptionally good with humour. Even now, he'd say the most astounding puns and double entendres aloud, and then have to ask why everyone was laughing. And also, Kent knew from hindsight, when they'd met, Jack had had very little faith that he could tell jokes. Everyone else his own age seemed to have treated him with greater or lesser degrees of tolerance or irritation. So when Jack did decide to make a joke, especially in the beginning, it was with incredible deliberation. He didn't half-ass it, either. When Kent got laughed at by their teammates for using the American word for "toque", Jack had fucking ordered a joke hat online, and presented it to Kent in the early days of November. "It's getting a bit cold out," he'd said earnestly. "I hear this is what Americans wear in the winter.

"Oh, sure," Kent had said, putting his "beanie" on and spinning the propeller on top. Yes, it looked stupid, but it made Jack laugh so hard it looked like it hurt, and Kent still had immunity from stares left over from his goth days.

He thought about that now, and when Jack came back (Millie predictably making a play for the bed, Misty predictably fending her off) he asked, "Were you just guilt-tripping me?"

Jack looked immediately caught out. Kent took the smoothie anyway.

"Guilt-tripping me into fucking eating," he muttered, sucking at the straw for calories he didn't thirst for but probably needed. "See if I don't rub it in your face that I'm still playing hockey."

"I do feel bad about it," Jack said defensively. "I can't not. Every time I watch you I wish I was playing too."

"Yeah, but I thought you were like—" Kent waved a hand, not able to put it into words.

"Crazy about it? Nah. I mean, at least one of us is still in it. That makes it easier."

Kent drank his smoothie for a little, then said softly, "Don't wanna win the Cup without you."

"You might just have to," Jack said. He actually smiled. "And if you do, I just might have to kiss you."

_/ \_

Kent saw it coming this time, which was a sign of just how tired a trope it had become. Big game; score down; de Rien blew up and walked out of the dressing room. It was what he did.

He has anger management problems, Kent thought. What they really needed when the chips were down was somebody who'd stick with them, who'd help them work their problems out. Remind them of their essentials and help them recover, because even if they wouldn't win this game, they'd be better prepared for the next one. That was what his coach in the Q had been like. Fuck, Kent missed that guy.

"Well," Neeps said into the silence, mirroring his thoughts beautifully. "Now that that's over with. Do you know what I feel like doing tonight?

Chess lifted his chin and said, "What do you feel like doing tonight?"

"Winning a hockey game," Neeps said. "I just wanna go out there... and win a fuckin' hockey game." He slowly looked around the room. "We know what we're supposed to do. We're not stupid. And we're not fuckin' lazy. We just need to go out there and do it."

They also all knew that they were down in the series 3-2 and down in the game 3-1. They were exhausted. And if they didn't turn it around in the next period, they were out of the tournament.

"Sounds great," Kent said. "I'm fuckin' in. What else am I gonna do out there, figure skate?"

Heads started to nod, all across the locker room. People were getting into it. That was when Lasky came in from getting his hand looked at. He was kind of startled to see something underway. "Uh, hey guys," he said. "What's... going on?"

"We're gonna win a hockey game," Neeps said. "Wanna play?"

"Parser, buddy," Eli was saying. "I need you to keep an eye on me, I think I got a way around Kardakov's deke."

"I know I need to hustle more," Steve was saying to Chess. "I just can't get the acceleration with this knee. I think I'm gonna have to get more physical."

"I don't ah..." Lasky said. "I'm not, I don't think I'm any good." He waggled his bum hand.

"Okay," Kent said, "Who should replace you? Give us our lines."

Lasky looked apprehensive as hell, and then he turned around. There were just a couple of locker room attendants there, but he stepped over and gave them low-voiced instructions, and they looked nervous, but they went to stand outside the entrance. Then he turned around, took a deep breath, and clapped his hands so they all stopped to look at him.

"All right, you guys," he said, neglecting to use any of de Rien's formalities. "This is what you're gonna do."

_/ \_

This time, before blowing up, de Rien had neglected to throw the journos out. There was the usual camera, and two journalists trying to look invisible, who'd seen the whole thing. They tried to get interviews out of the team later about it, but the only person who talked was a call-up who'd barely been with them for a month. "I don't know why anyone would complain about being in that locker room," he said earnestly. "This has been the most amazing experience."

Kent answered those questions mechanically. What has the locker room atmosphere been like? "Well, you know, we're a real team, we just try our best to support each other." Do you think you got the management support you needed to succeed? "Yeah, management has been totally behind us, 100%." What do you attribute your success so far to? "Well, I think it's really been our teamwork." What do you think of de Rien as a coach? "I think, you know, he's really talented, he knows a lot about hockey, and his record speaks for itself."

He honestly just lied his ass off and hoped no one would listen to what he said. He hoped that someone paying attention to the hockey would read that instead. Jack did it; Jack knew what was happening instantly. Jack came down after the game, eyes blazing, and wrapped his arms around Kent so hard it hurt, pounding him on the back.

Those last twenty minutes were how the entire season should have felt.

Fuck, they were a good team. They were a well-oiled machine, even if the nuts were coming a little loose. So yeah, they wobbled, but—they were good. They loved this sport. And none of them was going to put some other issue, some feud or slander, above good hockey. They didn't leave an ounce of effort unspent that evening. (And when de Rien did come out to the bench, he just clapped Lasky on the shoulder and let him continue to give orders.)

They didn't score. Not once. And they played so hard that when the final buzzer sounded Kent turned, confused, and tried to understand why the other team had given up. But no, it wasn't a break. It was a celebration; they'd won the Prince of Wales trophy. That sense of numbness carried him through the handshake line and into the dressing room.

When de Rien came in it started to simmer into anger. Kent met his eyes squarely and tried to send the message: I only need you to say one fucking word, motherfucker. Try me.

De Rien nodded, looking around the room, and had the good sense to simply say: "You played well. Go home, boys."

That was the moment Kent realized he hated that man, and wished to God he had the excuse to pound him into gravel.

It wasn't fair. They were such a good team.

But they changed and showered, and Jack found him. Kent clung back, longer than was usually acceptable but surely an okay enough amount for this, and when he let go, Bob and Alicia were there. Bob cupped Kent's face in his hands, surveying all the emotion bottled up there.

"Do you want some advice?" he asked.

Kent swallowed back tears. "Sure," he said.

Bob let go of Kent's face, and beckoned to his son. "Let Jack," he said, "drive you out of the city. Go far enough that you find a nice, empty field, big enough to scream into. And then? Scream."

Kent wouldn't have. It felt way too childish, way too melodramatic. But Jack just reached into Kent's pants pocket and took his keys, and said, "Okay, Papa."

"Call me when you're done," Bob said. "I'll explain things to your family, Kenny."

So Kent didn't say goodbye to Neeps, or Chess, or anyone. He left his gear in a mess on his bench. He let Jack tow him out of the crowd. Maybe he should be less trusting, but it was just so much... easier. With Jack driving, he got to shut his eyes to the enormous crowds of disappointed fans streaming out of the area. He turned his face away from the glass. Britney serenaded his way out of the city.

Jack didn't mind when he cried.

His tears had stopped by the time Jack found what he seemed to feel was an appropriate field. Kent couldn't really judge, since it was dark out, but there didn't seem to be many lights around. He felt selfconscious and stifled, though. Screaming didn't come easily.

"The last period," Jack said suddenly, when he'd been quiet the entire drive. "Kenny. The last period. That was—"

"I just said... fuck it." Kent's voice was raw, uneven, kind of squeaky. "I wanted to have fun, you know? I missed..."

The tears came, then, and closed up his throat. He pulled out his pocket square, unfolded it exactly one, and pressed the thick silk pad to his eyes. Jack stepped forward, putting his arms around Kent, pulling Kent's forehead to his collarbone.

"I missed loving hockey," Kent said, when the tears let him. There was nothing suave about it; he sounded like a girl. "I hate that he made me afraid to go to practice. I hate that he made me so miserable."

He cried, fully and openly and honestly, so hard that he doubled over, that he was almost crouched on the ground trying to hold his internal organs inside, wracked with sobs; and after a little while, he started to scream, as many expletives as he could string together and make sense. The tears felt endless, but the screaming tore at his throat until he was raw and hoarse, and finally reached a point where he didn't want to scream anymore.

In the silence, he suddenly heard sounds that said Jack was crying, too.

"Jack, buddy," he said. "What's wrong?"

"It was always w-worth it before," Jack said brokenly. "Because we always wuh—won." He let Kent hug him, pull him in, and accepted Kent in the circle of his arms. Kent could feel tears dripping off Jack's face onto his temple. "I thought you would win, Kenny. I thought it would be worth it."

"Oh, Jack," Kent said, and then: "The last period was worth it."

They cried a fair bit longer, then. Kent's tears ran out again, leaving him feeling hollow and empty. Jack finally took another Xanax. Kent declined to scold him, but didn't take one himself. Finally Jack asked, "What now?"

"We call your dad," Kent said.

"Oh, right." Jack dug out his phone.

Bob was giving out instructions one at a time. Keeping them simple, he said. Find the newest drive-thru; eat enough to stave off exhaustion drop; come home to the bosoms of their families. So without an ounce of shame or pride, Jack told the nearest McDonald's that he wanted sixty chicken nuggets and four large fries, and they sat in the car eating until they felt capable of driving home.

When they got back to the house and came inside, Kent did something he hadn't done since he was ten years old. His mother was sitting on a couch in the living room, and because Misty was walking across her lap, she didn't get up when Kent came in, the way Bob and Alicia did for Jack. Kent went straight up to her and dropped to his knees, making his cat leap out of the way, and then put his arms around her and laid his head in her lap.

"Oh, sweetheart," she said, resting her hand on his head. "Oh, honey. You did so well."

"You were awesome!" Belle said.

He just closed his eyes and let himself soak it up, so tired that his brain, for once, didn't seem to be trying to outrun him.

_/ \_

"So," Bob said a little later, when Kent and Jack had the chance to change into more comfortable clothes and come back to the living room, and Belle had been chased off to bed. "I just want to get a sense of where this ranks on the bad-o-meter."

Kent, slumped back in the couch, almost giggled. Bob said it very plainly in English, distinct and different words, but he heard it as though it was run together and pronounced like 'spedometer'. Or in French. Badomètre.

"Compared to June a year ago? Bob asked.

"Better," Jack muttered.

"Worse," Kent said. Last June was a pleasant boyhood dream.

"Compared to that game in March?"

Jack hesitated.

"Better," Kent said. "This isn't my fault."

"Then, better," Jack agreed.

His mom reached out and took his hand. "Kenny?"

He squeezed it. "I'm mostly all right," he said. "I'm just... angry."

Chapter Text

In a very nice boardroom the next week, Kent joined a conspiracy.

There were six of them: Him, his agent Charles, Neeps, Neeps' agent Drew, Bob, and a man named Terry whom Bob referred to as "our consultant," who had the same former-hockey-player vibe that emanated from the rest of the older men in the room. Bob passed out copies of a surprisingly thick document. It looked impressively official, with a table of contents and an index; it included printed-out emails, newspaper clippings, "personal memorandum"s that Bob had written, and long pages with the header NORTH STAR DOCUMENT TRANSCRIPTION SERVICES, that...

"You recorded his phonecalls to you," Neeps said, his voice flat with surprise, "and got someone to type them out?"

"There's also video evidence," Bob said modestly. "There were a few times arena staff pulled out a phone and started recording."

Neeps lifted his eyebrows and sat back with a whistle. He shared an incredulous glance at Kent, who went back to flipping through the pages.

"At the start of the year," Bob said, "I was prepared to let de Rien do his thing. He has a bit of a reputation, but hey, sometimes hard coaches get good results. But when I started to go around and ask people, hey, what's been going on, how is he treating these kids, I found... things that concerned me."

"He said fucking what to Chess?" Kent blurted out, looking up from one of the transcripts in indignation.

Bob nodded and shrugged. "The reason these things are so hard to do anything about is that a coach will go after people when nobody else is around. Nobody knows what's happening to anybody else. And then the team is squeezed into a very—an environment where there's not much privacy, not so many chances to compare stories before everyone else shouts you down. You have to get people alone and give them a chance to talk."

"That motherf—" Kent said, before strangling on his own rage.

"I don't want to let you play for him," Drew said to Neeps. "I want us to find a way around that."

Neeps shrugged, looking sick. "Shannon's still in school in Montreal for another year."

"And we're still locked into rookie contracts," Kent added.

"Terry," Bob said, and waved a hand. "Work your magic."

Terry got up and went to the boardroom's easel, where there was a pad of paper standing ready. "First," he said, "I just want to give a sense of perspective. If this were any other employment situation, we'd have a lot of different options that just aren't open to us right now. If you were working in an office, with a boss who pulled this kind of shit." He wrote down the word QUIT, and crossed it out. "You can't break your contracts without pants-shitting financial penalties. Two players of your calibre, if you proved you had enough cause due to work environment, it's possible that you'd find other contracts in the league, but... if we weren't talking Kent Parson and Jourdain Neepin, I'd literally say, kiss your career goodbye."

"Well," Kent said with false brightness, "at least you're being realistic here."

Terry saluted him with the marker. "So what else don't we really have?" he asked, turning back to the board. He wrote down UNION and COMPLAINTS PROCESS, and crossed out UNION. "You technically have both of these. When I've worked in team management, I've sometimes seen them work for disagreements among front office staff, but I have never seen a complaint successfully brought against a coach. There are a couple cases that are still ongoing, but the players involved have been traded, released from their contracts, or retired. Which." Next, he wrote TRADE, an arrow from it up to COMPLAINTS PROCESS, and then another down to VOLUNTARY. "So you can absolutely ask the team to trade you. And if they're hesitant, then using the complaints process might be a way to make yourself enough of a nuisance that they want to."

"Sounds pleasant," Kent muttered. Terry acknowledged him with a dip of the pen.

"There are a couple of teams that have already approached the Canadiens about acquiring Parse through a trade," Charles said. "Which is an option, though we've been... working on our own strategies to make sure it's under the circumstances we want."

To make sure they get Jack too, he meant, but Kent appreciated his circumspection.

"That works for us," Neeps said. "If we want to. But Chessy—he's got brothers and cousins coming up through the system. He's worried that if he gets a reputation for being difficult, it won't just hurt his career. It'll hurt theirs."

"Can we just get this guy fired?" Kent asked plaintively.

"Right now, if we do nothing, this job prospects are pretty stable. You guys had a good season. But there's a little bit of question about his suitability. Some chatter about the article in the National Post about him storming out of the dressing room at your last game. Management likes results, so we're gonna have to argue against results. Hold your horses, that's something we can do." He started a new section, FIRED, and two subheadings: POISONED WORK ENVIRONMENT and STATISTICS. "There's the fact that what he's doing is illegal. This is harrassment and discrimination. Not the kind of illegal you get a cop to arrest him for; you're supposed to use the internal complaints process, and then you can sue. We'll... let's get back to this." He pointed to the next point. "I went with your description of the last twenty minutes of the Eastern Conference Final, and I got a statistician friend of mine to go back and examine games where de Rien was not on the bench for at least an entire period. It's a really small sample, but already they've found there's a slight increase in possession and shots on goal when he's not there, which might be an indicator of team morale. That's... if that's a narrative you want to push, I mean, I wouldn't make it the only one? But you could pay to have a more thorough statistical analysis done on the work of his assistant coaches, and either bring it to Management on your own, or disseminate it through the fan community and the media. But yes, I do see those raised eyebrows, so I wanna explain something to you two young fellas."

"We're... not stopping you," Kent said into the significant pause.

"If you two were doing this on your own, or somehow, you found my number and hired me, you'd have basically two options. You could go directly to Management yourself, or your agents could. Or, you could go to the media. And both of those are pretty blunt instruments. I mean, yes." He pointed back up at POISONED WORK ENVIRONMENT. "You could get someone to approach a journalist with one of Bob's videos of de Rien losing his shit, and hand it over anonymously. But you don't get much control over how that story spins, and you can't comment on it without risking your reputations, and potentially making the entire organization circle its wagons with the feeling that there's a traitor in their midst. And you could try going to your GM and acting like he's your friend. But I know the man, and he ain't your friend." Terry pointed at Bob with a flourish. "He's his friend."

"We have a date to go golfing next week," Bob said, looking demure. "We've known each other for years." He flashed a smile. "This is when it helps to have someone in the old white boys' club on your side."

"You aren't white," Neeps protested faintly.

"Ah, well. They didn't know that when they invited me."

"So..." Kent blinked. "You're just gonna be out there on the putting green, and say, 'Hey, buddy, I think you should fire your coach'?"

Bob shrugged. "That's how it works sometimes. But I..." He pursed his lips, and said, "I think what would work to him is to say—he knows I've got a unique perspective. A lot of people in the organization remember me, and some of them have been there since my time. But instead of being part of Management, I'm billeting a rookie, and sometimes the staff some to me and just say, there's something you should know about how this guy is treating your kid. Because your trainers, your equipment managers, they'll see something and feel not great about it, and they don't want to make waves, but they know that I've got a kid at home—" he winked at Kent—"who won't dare complain about what's happening. So they think I should know."

"Is that true?" Kent asked, suddenly feeling a little exposed. "Have they been—reporting on me to you?"

"Mostly only since I started asking," Bob said reassuringly, which did not reassure Kent at all.

God, he thought, biting his lip. No wonder they forced me into therapy.

"So." Terry flipped over the paper to reveal a blank sheet, and began to write. "Our proposed plan of action starts with a subtle word in the GM's ear. Conveniently, there's a management board meeting the week after. This is just a gut feel, but I feel like if we don't see any traction a week after that, we should consider an anonymous leak to the media. There's an item on page 26 of your documents that seemed especially good to me..."

_/ \_

"Oh, today was great," Kent said, then moved the phone as Misty walked between its camera and his face. "We planned how to leave Eric de Rien's career in fucking ashes."

She burst out laughing. "Kenny, you what?"

"Mom." He leaned forward, scooping Misty up with one arm. "You should've seen it. Rich people are in-credible. Bob hired a consultant, and there was literally an entire strategy meeting on who was meeting when and how we could leak things to the media to build up a public relations nightmare for the Habs. It was like... even I'm a little terrified right now. I got goosebumps."

"Sounds like they're really taking care of you," she said, with a wistful note in her voice. "That's... the kinda thing I want to do when I go all mother-bear on you."

Kent's breath caught in his throat. "Oh," he said. "You think... he's doing it for me?"

"Honey, why else would he be doing it?"

"Because... justice!" Kent protested. "Because... he hates the guy, and it's the right thing to do, and he and Neeps are kind of cousins. And I'm dating Jack."

"He's doing it for you," she said. "Maybe a little for Jourdain and Jack, but... he and Alicia, they care about you."

Blinking away tears, Kent said, "I guess I'm gonna have to thank them."

"Yeah," she said, putting her head on one hand. "And when you move out, you still oughta come by for dinner. Keep them company. Bring your friends around and wreck their living room with loud parties." That made him laugh.

"Will you... come up to Montreal to look at apartments with me?" he asked.

She balked. "I thought the Zimmermanns offered to help you."

"They did. But... Belle said she's got a sleepover with a girl from gymnastics, and I thought maybe I could fly you up on your weekend, and we could just look around... I just kinda miss you."

"Oh," she said. She was smiling, but also wiping her eyes. "Yeah. I miss you all the time, you know."

Kent took a moment to firm up his resolve, and then said, "When we should spend more time together."

_/ \_

The inner corridors of the hockey rink were cool and quiet. This week, they didn't echo and re-echo with the sounds of kids at hockey camp, working on the surface of one of the empty rinks when the ice was busy. There was the distant roar of a lawnmower outside, the hum of air conditioning. That was it.

A pair of friends from hockey camp, boys who looked about twelve, had made a special trip back this week to see this.They sat up in the stands, and though they were trying to stay quiet and not be noticed, they couldn't help occasionally forgetting, and then the sounds of their conversation and laughter would float down over the rink. Jack and Kent didn't chase them off, as they skated warmup circles, stretched their bodies into shape, started passing a puck around. It was true that there was a danger that, by the end of the summer, they'd have their entire private fanclub packed in with them every week; it would look bad if they had rink staff chase them out. But at the same time... there was a lot of tradition that said, if a kid cared enough to spend a beautiful summer's day in an arena when he didn't have to, you let him.

When a third person joined the spectators, though, Kent hit him with a sharp glance and gestured. You, down here, right now.

Eugene Menlo didn't get kicked out immediately because he was a good journalist, one of the ones who'd done right by the story of the Eastern Conference Final. But Kent said curtly, "No photography in here. This is a private practice."

Menlo stuck his hands in his pockets. "What're you two doing here? Trying to bill yourselves as a double feature?"

Kent shrugged. "We might be on the same team next year. We might not. So frankly, we thought we'd play together when the playing's good. This isn't about showing off. This is, I love being on the ice with my friend, so now I've got the opportunity, I'm gonna do it." He looked at Menlo directly. "If you want a story about this that's gonna bring all of Montreal down on our heads, buzz off."

Menlo shrugged. "I'm a patient man. I can sit on this. I get the feeling you guys'll be around for a while."

"Then go back and tell your buddies at the newsroom that this was real boring, nothing to see, 'kay?"

Menlo sketched a Boy Scout salute, and went back up to the stands.

Today it was just press, and true, they didn't want a crowd; but if they played this right, it was the perfect place for a scout or two to slip in. Kent had daydreams about seeing someone come down from those stands and introduce himself as Montreal's new Head Coach, and say Jack had just been traded from the Aces. It wasn't entirely realistic, but he savoured the mental image.

Jack was using a hockey stick to stretch his arms. "How'd that go?" he asked.

"Whispernet is activated," Kent said, pulling his arm across his chest to stretch his shoulder.

Jack grinned at him. "You dork."

Kent sputtered. "Excuse me, look who's talking." He backed up a little, looking offended.

"You're the one who likes it," Jack said mildly, in the kind of voice that wouldn't carry. He let go of the blade of his stick, releasing his arms down, and dribbled with one of the pucks nearby.

"You're the worst," Kent said fondly. He went to get his water bottle from the side of the rink, and let out an exasperated noise when a puck knocked it over. It landed on its side, then rolled off the edge of the lip, landing outside the rink. He spun around on Jack. "What was that for?"

"I'm goofing off," Jack said proudly. "It's fun."

_/ \_

From: pmurchison88@gmail.com
To: kvp90@gmail.com
Subject: Aug 13 weekend?

Hey Kenny,

I'm having some friends out for a house party at a cabin on Georgian Bay Aug 13-15. Wanna come? Do you think it's the kind of thing Jack would be into?

Pete

From: kvp90@gmail.com
To: pmurchison88@gmail.com
Cc: jlzmontreal@gmail.com
Subject: Aug 13 weekend?

We're in.