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live through this, and you won't look back

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When the pictures of star rookies Justin Hayes and Boris Fedorov making out at a New Year's party leak, Jack, of course, is one of the first to hear about it. It's been just shy of ten years since Jack and Bitty kissed on centre-ice. Things aren't as bleak now as they were back then—there are more players out these days, though it tends to be more of an open secret after retirement then the giant, public affair Jack's coming out had been. 

Hayes and Fedorov are different though. Hayes and Fedorov are in the spotlight, because they are on the same team, playing on the same line, rarely scoring without each other. The NHL are antsy about how connected they seem to be in every possible way.

Everyone mentions Bittle when they text Jack about it. Every article Jack reads brings up the kiss on the ice. He understands why—technically, the public coming out thing hasn't been done so ostentatiously since them. Everyone seems to expect him to come to the same conclusion, but when Jack watches the press conference, it's not him and Bitty he thinks of first.

Jack notes the nervous glint in the boys' eyes as they assure the press that none of this will affect their playing or the team dynamics, and as Boris Fedorov quietly reaches out to squeezes Justin Hayes' shaking hand, as Hayes insists that they will play together no matter what, all Jack can think about is being eighteen, lying shoulder to shoulder in his childhood bed with a boy who loves him, and trying not to panic as the boy confidently lays out his dreams of their future.

 

-

 

The boys play for the Bruins so You Can Play hosts an event in Boston with them as the guests of honour. Jack goes, partly to show support, but mostly because he has to. He's expecting the press will want a few soundbites from him, but he's not in the mood to talk about his past relationships, and he still hasn't fully gotten over the biphobic tripe some of them said when he got married, so he lurks by the bar while people mingle around him, until he spots a free opening with the people he actually came here to talk to—Hayes and Fedorov. It's the captain in him, primarily, that wants to be sure they're doing okay.

Hayes seems tetchy. He's tense, eyes fluttering around the room like a caged bird—desperate to leave, probably. Jack can relate. Fedorov seems to have a better handle on the whole thing, or maybe he's just better at hiding it.

"Everything's been alright for you guys, from the press?" Jack asks. He was lucky enough to be shielded from the worst of it when he was doing this, but he doesn't know what kind of support system these boys have, and he wants to be sure.

Fedorov says, "It is the doubts that are bad. They think we only won Stanley because we are dating. Didn't date him in Russia, and I was still the best. We will stay good. Obviously."

He rolls his eyes, as he finishes, mildly irritated at the stupidity of the press. Hayes isn't looking at him, but Jack sees him smirking fondly at the floor.

"Well, I've seen you play so, I'm sure whatever happens, you two have got long careers ahead," Jack says. It sounds like a press answer because it's what PR told him to say. Jack only went with it because doesn't really know what else to tell them. The future is unpredictable, regardless of their talent, but Jack can't tell them that while they're dealing with all of this mess.

Fedorov just laughs.

"Why are you all saying that?" He lowers his voice, in a half-hearted imitation of Jack. "Whatever happens. Other guy just said that." Fedorov turns to gesture vaguely behind himself and Hayes. He turns back to Jack. His expression is amused but there's a challenging edge to it.

"Americans so cynical. You have no faith in love?"

It comes out like a question, but Jack's not entirely sure it is one. He's not entirely sure how he's supposed to respond, either. Quietly, Jack says, "I'm Canadian."

There's a look on Hayes' face now. Exasperated, like it isn't the first time Fedorov has said something like this, and Jack gets the uncomfortable sense that this is a point of contention between them.

"He's being realistic," Hayes mutters.

Fedorov waves a hand in the air, dismissively. "We will be fine. More to love than hockey."

"More to life," Hayes corrects, instantly, like it's second nature to him to do it.

Fedorov shakes his head, and turns away from Jack so Hayes has his full attention. His eyes soften, and he says, firmly, "No. There is more to love, than hockey."

Hayes just looks at him. Jack catches that nervous look in his eyes again—the same one from the press conference. Jack feels bad for the kid. He gets it. Sure, technically hockey isn't the only thing in this world, but that's easier to believe in theory than it is in practice.

He feels like he's intruding suddenly, acutely aware that he's no longer part of this conversation. This isn't his moment to witness.

He takes half a step away from them, and mumbles, "I should go check if my father's arrived yet. Nice meeting you both."

Hayes and Fedorov don't respond, Jack already forgotten. Jack wanders back to the bar, ignoring the itch under his skin.

 

-

 

The line was mostly an excuse to get out of the conversation, but his dad is here somewhere. Jack's not concerned with finding him, though. They're in the same hotel. He expects his father will call him if they don't see each other. Jack perches himself in the corner of the room, and pointlessly flicks through the apps on his phone.

It's not that he doesn't want to be here to show his support, but wishes it was acceptable for him to be supportive over email and quick statements crafted by the Falconers' PR team. These days, Jack is more used to the attention than not, but it feels like every time he's in the news for one thing, it suddenly becomes fair game to bring up everything else. The press eventually got over the fact that Jack married a woman after he dared openly date a man, but the retirement rumours from last year are still a semi-regular occurrence, and it makes Jack's nerves stand on end every time they come up again.

Jack reads a few articles that have nothing to do with Hayes and Fedorov, or him, or hockey, and texts his mom to let her know everything's going fine, and when he finally looks up he is face to face with Boris Fedorov again, this time with an bemused Kent Parson in tow.

Jack's sees Kent often enough because that's what happens when you play professional hockey—Kent was always going to be in his orbit. Jack's seen him less since Kent retired, not that they talked all that much before that. Usually, they don't talk at all, unless they're put in a position where they should for the sake of politeness. Like this exact moment.

Fedorov bats his hand lightly into Kent's chest, like they're friends—though Jack can tell from the way Kent quirks his eyebrow, that they aren't—and says, "This is the other guy. Cynical Americans, yeah? You would make good friends."

Jack meets Kent's eyes, and Kent's glance flicks quickly to the floor, but not uncomfortably. Kent looks like he's trying to stifle a laugh. Jack realises why, because from the way Fedorov is watching them expectantly, it's clear that he has no idea who they are or their relationship to each other, which is certainly a first.

Kent looks like he's about to correct him, but Jack is hit with a wave of awkwardness. What would Kent even say? We used to be friends. We've met before. We planned for the exact situation you're in, once upon a time. We're cynical about love because we hurt each other so many times, and sometimes it was over that.

Before Kent can say any of it, and they go back to being people who avoid each other at parties, Jack blurts out, "Jack Zimmermann, nice to meet you," and holds out his hand.

Kent raises his eyebrows at the hand in surprise, and then looks at Jack. Jack feels a hint of embarrassment, like it means something that he's doing this, when he just didn't want to get into it with Kent tonight. He tries to swallow down the anxious energy bubbling up in him.

Kent levels him with a casual expression. It's meeting-the-fans Kent. "Kent Parson."

And then Kent shakes Jack's outstretched hand.

Fedorov grins at them. "See, now you have someone to talk about doom of love—" he lowers his voice, like he's doing an impression again "—only hockey."

Kent makes a face at Jack, like is he chirping us? Jack can't stop his mouth from curling into a smile. This is the most ridiculous situation he's gotten himself into in a while.

"I could use a friend who loves hockey," Jack, the professional hockey player, says.

Kent's eyes scan Jack's face, like he's expecting there to be a catch to Jack joking around with him. Jack feels agitated that Kent seems so hesitant. It's not like he's going to yell at Kent for playing along.

Kent seems to come to the same conclusion, because his eyes get a familiar spark to them, and he says, "Hey, aren't you related to Bab Bob Zimmermann?"

Jack smirks.

"Who is Bad Bob—" Fedorov starts, but Hayes appears suddenly at his shoulder, whispering something to him, urgently. Fedorov frowns concerned, and waves a hand to them as he turns. "Sorry," he mutters, distracted, following Hayes away.

Jack watches them walk to a half-secluded corner, to whisper soberly at each other. Fedorov instantly placating, Hayes panicked and skittish.

"Brave kids," Kent says. When Jack turns to look, he finds that Kent has moved to stand next to him, to watch them too. Shoulder to shoulder, but not touching.

"Stupid in love, according to us," Jack says, and feels immediately embarrassed, because he doesn't know why he said that.

Kent half shrugs, still watching them. "Well, who isn't when they're young?"

Jack takes a deep breath at that, because he has no idea what to say. There's a parallel here that Jack could acknowledge, but it feels too intimate, now that they're alone together, watching an abandoned thread of their life play out. The silence hits Jack uncomfortably, and he finds himself needing to fill it with anything he can think of.

"Nice meeting you, Parson," Jack says, throwing Kent a nod. It's clunky, and the joke clearly died the second Fedorov walked away, but Kent gives him a tiny, charmed smile, reminiscent of the ones he used to give when he was still getting to know Jack, unused to his dry, weird humour.

"Yeah, you too," Kent says, like he means it. He looks back at Hayes and Fedorov, and then raises an eyebrow at Jack—a well, see ya gesture—before, walking away. Jack watches his back for a minute, feeling unsettled.

 

-

 

Hayes and Fedorov pretty much said all that was expected of them at the press conference but they're still forced to silently stand at the head of the room, while the director of You Can Play gives a speech about inclusivity, and how far the NHL has come in the last few years.

It's nothing Jack hasn't heard a hundred times at these events. His gaze wander a little, and like a magnet, he finds it pulled towards a familiar blonde across the room.

Mostly, Jack sees Kent on TV. Kent hosts a hockey segment on ESPN. He's a natural at it—all that charm and hockey knowledge funnelled into the perfect job for him. Jack thinks Kent's co-host—an opinionated sports reporter named Chris Lowe—is a dick. People who know this about Jack like to send him clips of the show whenever Kent uses his biting mean-streak to make Lowe look stupid for some ignorant comment. Jack likes watching them when he's in a bad mood. It gives him a childish, petty thrill that he's only ever gotten around Kent—though he tries not to analyse that too much.

His dad watches the segment a lot, Jack knows. When he was up in Montreal, last year, he'd sit with him, and they'd watch it together. It was weird seeing his dad cracking up so much at something Kent said. He couldn't remember if it had always been this way, or if it was a result of them being retirement buddies, now.

Jack only ever watches the full show himself when he wants background hockey commentary while he works out, or cooks, or is waiting for a game to start on TV. He never pays enough attention to register anything about Kent, though, so it's strange seeing him now. He looks like he's kept healthy, despite being out of hockey for a few years. He looks different and the same, somehow. Jack feels like he's playing spot the difference but he has no reference image. He can't pinpoint the changes, but he knows they're there.

Kent turns his head slightly, and ends up catching Jack's eye. Jack feels a wave of shyness but if he looks away, it'll make the fact that he was staring starker, so he lets Kent look back. Kent makes a neutral expression—not quite a smile, not quite anything else—and turns back to the speech, so Jack does too.

The Bruins GM is speaking now, using much of the same talking points as he did in the press conference. Jack ignores him and watches Hayes and Fedorov instead. Hayes has a look on his face like he's a student being chastised by the teacher for not doing his homework. Fedorov just looks bored. Jack can see both the expression for what they are—nerves manifesting at two extremes.

Fedorov seems to notice Hayes' expression, too, because Jack sees him slide his fingers against the back of Hayes' hand, before whispering something right in Hayes' ear. Hayes smiles a little, and looks up at Fedorov with an expression of pure unfiltered love. Jack's breath catches. For a moment, it looks like they're so caught up in each other they might kiss, right there, but when Fedorov eventually leans down, all he does is gently hold their foreheads together for a second, before straightening up again. It does the trick though—the tension eased out of Hayes just that little bit.

Jack feels some emotion he can't place, and forces himself to look away.

 

-

 

Jack runs into his dad as he's about to leave.

Bob invites him to come to drinks with him and some acquaintances, but even at thirty-five Jack feels like a kid whenever he spends time with his dad and the older hockey guys, so he politely declines.

Before his dad walks away, though, Jack says, "Parse is around if you wanted to talk to him."

Bob blinks at him. He does that when something Jack says throws him. Jack feels defensive. It's not exactly wild to assume his dad would want to know.

When Kent first retired, Bob had roped him into all the retirement get-togethers. It could have been that he was just being polite or that he felt sorry for Kent, but sometimes Bob would share snippets of information about Kent's life, like when Kent decided to quit coaching, or that Kent was moving to New York, or when Kent broke up with his boyfriend—Donald the physiotherapist. Jack figured that made Kent and his dad the kind of friends who were close enough to gossip about each other. Or close enough to want to know if they were at the same event.

Bob recovers, shaking his head a little. "No, I already made breakfast plans with him. Thanks though, son."

He says it strangely, like he's not sure that's the reply Jack was looking for. It gives Jack another quick spike of irritation, because it wasn't like he was trying to achieve anything by saying it. Just because he and Kent don't talk, doesn't mean he's not allowed to talk about him. Jack takes a breath, pushing away the weirdness of the interaction, and says goodbye to his dad.

 

-

 

Jack walks outside feeling unnerved, and like kismet, he finds Kent already standing there. Kent hasn't noticed him yet, focused on a spot on the ground by his feet. He has a cigarette in his hand, held up halfway to his mouth. He's already started it, judging from the smoke dancing away from the end. Jack has an old, deep-rooted impulse to pull the cigarette out of his hand and chastise him, like he used to when Kent had the occasional smoke at high school parties, but Kent's not a hockey player anymore, so he has no reason to.

Kent's retirement was an unlucky surprise after a string of unlucky injuries. Seven years ago, Kent got checked so bad he ended up with a grade 3 concussion. The year after that he suffered two more. The third and final concussion, came with a skull fracture so bad he was immediately rushed into surgery. Jack didn't really keep up with the story of Kent's shittiest year, until it reached its conclusion, because it concluded with Kent Parson retiring at the age of 29.

For the first time in a long time, Jack had felt an immense sadness for Kent. No matter what kind of resentment they still felt for each other, or how much time had passed since they spoke, Jack was sure that if there was one thing that had never changed it was their mutual love for playing hockey. Hockey was it, because Jack knew that even when Kent was alone and lost, he still had hockey. And now he didn't. And every time Jack tried to imagine what that was like it made him so nauseous he'd have to stop for a minute until his heart stopped racing.

For a while, Jack had a quiet, persistent impulse to visit Kent—just to check how he was doing. Just to see if he could still breathe, after all of it. But the Falcs had made the playoffs, and he was still in his honeymoon phase with Anna, back then—too early to bring up juniors—and anyway, his mother said she'd sent Kent flowers from the family, so Jack never bothered.

Kent—present Kent—catches Jack staring again. Jack feels the same wave of shyness as before, and to cover up for the fact that his face is getting hot, he falls back on their silly moment from earlier.

"You used to play, right?" He asks, and steps forward to stand next to Kent.

It takes Kent a second to catch up. Jack sees the quick curve of his brow for a split second, before Kent takes a casual drag and says, "Aces. Retired now."

Jack nods. "I'm with the Falcs."

"Knew I'd met you before," Kent mutters playfully into his cigarette.

The first time Jack played the Aces after Kent retired, he'd spent an hour on the flight to Vegas trying to rack his brain for the last time he'd faced Kent across the ice. He wanted to remember how it went, how Kent played, how he played against Kent, if it was just a normal game of hockey or if there was a moment where the high of it hit Jack, like it sometimes does when the game is good. He couldn't remember though. He had to look it up. The Aces won, 3-2. Kent was already two concussions deep by that point in the season, but he'd still managed to get two goals, to Jack's single assist. It was the last time Jack would ever be on the ice with Kent Parson, and he didn't even register it.

"Wish I could remember you on the ice," Jack tells him, honestly.

Flatly, like it annoyed him, Kent says, "Can't say I remember you either."

They fall into silence. Jack watches Kent take a couple more languid drags of his smoke. He should probably leave. He's probably bothering Kent. If he stays, something bad will probably happen.

"So retirement means smoking, huh?" Jack asks. He tries to keep it neutral, but his captain voice slips in a little. Kent must notice, because he gives Jack a look out of the corner of his eye.

He shrugs, nonchalant. "Not always. Needed a break."

And then, because Jack's mouth and his brain aren't friends, and because this thing is the easiest a conversation with Kent has been in, like, fifteen years, Jack asks, "You…uh…you know?"

He nods towards the door, signalling the event they just came from. He means it as a joke, but only realises a second too late how stupid it is.

This time Kent fully turns his face towards Jack, and Jack catches the amusement right before Kent huffs a surprised laugh. Jack breathes a little easier.

Kent says, "Yeah," with laughter still dancing in his voice. "You?" He looks at Jack, a little livelier now.

It hits Jack in the weirdest way, and Jack has a flash of being sixteen and having a crush on his best friend. He smiles at Kent's shoes.

"Yeah. Not as big a deal as them though," He says, nodding to the door again.

Kent snickers at that one. "Yeah, I'm sure I'd have heard about it."

Kent had texted him, after the centre-ice kiss with Bitty. Jack had gotten a lot of texts, and it took him, three weeks to get through them all, and finally read Kent's. Jack can't remember what he'd expected from Kent at the time, but he remembers what he got—a simple congrats. He hadn't bothered replying.

Kent seems to interpret Jack's train of thought, because he clarifies a second later, to take Jack off the hook. "I work in media, you see."

"Think I've seen clips," Jack says, and adds, because he can't help himself. "Your co-host sucks."

Kent smiles at him knowingly, like he agrees.

Jack wants to say more—wants to see if he can goad Kent into shit-talking Lowe a bit, maybe spill some embarrassing story about him that Jack can save for a rainy day, but Kent finishes his cigarette.

He flicks it to the ground and stomps it out gingerly. For a split second, Jack feels annoyed that their easy little game might end so soon, but then Kent glances back up at him, and gives him a considering look, like he's assessing Jack. Jack tries not to shift under the attention.

Kent breaks his gaze away to stare at the passing cars. "Know any good food places around here? I'm kind of hungry."

Jack realises Kent looked away to mask some sort of honest emotion. Self-consciousness, or hope maybe. Jack feels like smiling, but doesn't.

"There's a nice pizza place a few blocks from here."

Kent glances at him again, like he's double checking that Jack means it, and the game's not going to end with them saying it and then going their separate ways. He must find what he's looking for, because he nods, certain.

"Well, I'm from New York, so you've got high standards to meet."

Jack smiles, and leads the way.

 

-

 

The conversation doesn't really pick up again as they walk, so Jack starts telling Kent historical facts about Boston. He and Lardo did some of the historical walking trails around the city, before she and Shitty moved to New York. Jack still remembers some of the details—the history buff in him taking in the information like a computer.

He notices Kent watching him as he spouts another anecdote about the Revolutionary War. Kent's lips curl up at the corners, like he's delighted by Jack nerding out so openly. Jack can feel a flush rising in his cheeks, but he finishes the story anyway, hoping the light from the street-lamps distort the colours around them enough that Kent won't notice.

When he pauses, Kent asks, "You go to college or something?"

"How'd you think I got into the League."

And without missing a beat, Kent says, "I don't know. The draft?"

Jack glances at him. He's playing it nonchalant—nothing malicious about how he said it. Jack would almost believe it was curiosity, if they weren't who they are. Jack recognises this play—remembers it from playing poker with Kent, the few times Kent promised not to cheat. It's a challenge. Kent's poking around for his tells. He's probably wondering how far Jack's willing to take this farce they've fallen into.

Jack's gotten better at handling his feelings, though, and maybe he's a little curious about Kent too, so he says, "More than one way to get into hockey."

Kent nods, pretending to be considering Jack's answer. He feigns it well. Jack doesn't wait for him to try a new tactic.

"How about you?"

"First pick, actually," Kent says, with a modest shrug.

Jack has no idea if he truthfully means it that way. Kent had always seemed so sure the Jack would go first, but Jack never bought into it. Even at his most jealous—when all he had was his seething anger at Kent taking his place—he never really thought it was his for Kent to take. Kent had earned it just as much as Jack had. Jack wouldn't have spent so much time worrying about it if he didn't honestly believe that.

Even now, he wonders about it sometimes—whose name would have been called if Jack had been there. The thought doesn't prickle at him like it used to.

"That's impressive," He tells Kent. "You must have been a really good player."

The surprise visibly hits Kent. Jack watches as several mixed emotions flit across Kent's face. "Uh," he says, both smiling and frowning somehow. Jack wonders if he's going to break character.

"Thanks," Kent says, and shakes his head at the ground. The mouth curling into a reluctant, pleased smile. Jack counts it as a win.

 

-

 

"So what's retirement like?" Jack asks, because he's genuinely curious.

They're at the pizza place, halfway through a Margherita, because they've never could agree on any single topping. The mood is good. Kent's slouched casually in the seat across from him, and Jack feels comfortably easy sitting here sharing a meal—like they do this kind of thing all the time.

Kent thinks about it as he chews his way through a particularly large bite, and says, "Not as fun as playing, that's for sure."

About a year and a half ago, when Jack broke his arm, and had a shitty point streak—which is to say, he had nothing at all—the question of his retirement came up. It was mostly gossipy tabloids, wanting to start drama, because Jack refused to give them any. Jack got himself together quick enough, but because of his age, the theory never fully dropped. The thought of retirement still irks Jack about as much as it did when Kent did it.

"You try coaching?" Jack asks, because he knows Kent did, and he wants to hear about it.

"Yeah, for a bit," Kent says. "Won a cup, actually, but it wasn't the same as winning on the ice." He raises his eyebrows at Jack, as if to say obviously. "It started to feel a bit masochistic after a while, watching them do it without me."

"You ever try going back on the ice?" Jack asks. It's what he would do.

Jack had watched the clip of Kent's final hit during the retirement coverage. The Aces were thirty seconds into overtime against the Aeros, and Kent got hit with a nasty check in a game full of nasty checks. Even through the camera audio, Jack could hear the impact echo through the stadium. Kent had dropped instantly, right as players on both teams decided to make it into a fight, and in the confusion Kent got a hefty kick to the head.

It took him a minute to start moving again. He'd managed to lift himself up on his forearms, but there was blood dripping out of his helmet, and he could only hold himself up for a couple of seconds before collapsing weakly to the ice again. With the forgone conclusion of Kent's retirement, it was even more terrifying to watch, so Jack started changing the channel whenever it came up.

Kent still hasn't answered Jack's question. He stares at their near empty plate of pizza, discomfort so palpable he can't meet Jacks eyes. Jack realises he touched on something Kent keeps close to his chest.

Kent swallows, like it takes him some effort. "Yeah, sometimes." And then, quickly, so Jack can't say anything else. "Hey, were you married, or am I remembering that wrong?"

It's Jack's turn to swallow, nervously. "Divorced, actually."

Kent, of course, knows Jack is divorced because it was all anyone talked about back when Jack was playing like shit. The media had a lot of fun with that one, before they realised neither Jack nor Anna were going to say anything, and so the retirement rumours started instead. Jack went on a media blackout while it was all happening, but from what he saw, after, he got the impression that Kent had defended him when it came up on his show. Or at the very least, he had refused to feed into it.

"Sorry to hear," Kent says.

Kent had met Anna once. They'd gone to Montreal for one of his mother's charity functions, and Jack had found the two of them by the bar—Kent leaning into her space and sharing innocuous hockey stories as she laughed, like they were old friends. Jack remembers it had made him feel off-kilter. He hadn't told Anna about Kent yet, so when he'd gone up to them, he'd been dismissive to Kent, and pulled Anna away as quickly as he could. He'd thought that was the end of it, but later, when they were back at Jack's parents' house, while Anna was in the en-suite bathroom getting ready for bed, she'd casually called out, "Kent Parson's funny, huh? Who does he play for, again?"

Jack explained that Kent was retired, but it had put him in a bad mood to talk about Kent while he was in the same bed he'd shared with Kent, a million years ago.

Instead of mentioning any of this now, Jack says, "Sometimes people just don't match up the way they thought they would."

Kent nods in agreement. "Don't I know it," he mutters, tone resigned.

Jack doesn't know if Kent's talking about him, or someone else, so he doesn't reply.

 

-

 

They finish the pizzas, then they finish the coffees they order after the pizzas, and when they step outside, there's an sense of finality to it. It's March, but it's not too cold out. Bearable with just a jacket on. But it's late. Time to go home.

Kent looks at Jack, a question in his eyes, like he's not sure if he should drop the pretense, and he's waiting for Jack to lead him. Jack, bizarrely, doesn't want to let him—doesn't want the night to end at all. He's enjoying it, Kent Parson: friendly stranger. He doesn't want to go back to Kent Parson: ex-something. Not quite yet.

Jack looks away, because it feels like he's crossing a line here, and asks, "You ever seen Boston Harbour at night?"

He can feel Kent watching him, trying to read Jack, to figure out where he's going with this. Jack's not entirely sure where he wants this to go, if he's being honest with himself, but he looks at Kent anyway, because Kent won't say yes if he doesn't.

Kent seems to settle on something.

"Can't say I have."

"It's something," Jack says, because he doesn't want to say it's pretty, even if that is the honest truth.

"Well. I've got a late flight," Kent says, with practiced indifference. He raises an expectant eyebrow at Jack.

So, they go.

 

-

 

They decide to take the T instead of a cab. They're quiet as they go, but Kent keeps shooting him looks, and Jack guesses he does too, seeing as their eyes keep meeting, before glancing away, self-consciously. Jack feels like a teenager, not because of Kent per se, just the atmosphere—like he's breaking curfew to do stupid shit only kids would do.

The train is empty since it's late, so they sit next to each other, knees bumping in the most conspicuous attempt at closeness Jack's ever been a part of. It's downright silly, but Jack feels a quiet excitement about it.

"So how often do you bring people to Boston Harbour?" Kent asks. It's a harmless question, apart from the thinly-veiled implication of Jack's relationship to the people he brings to Boston Harbour.

Jack says, "Sometimes. My best friends lived in Boston for a while."

Jack turns to look at Kent. There's a spark in Kent's eyes, as thrilling as it is inviting. Jack wants to grin, but he manages to tamp it down.

"They live in New York now, actually. Brooklyn."

Kent rolls his eyes, as if to say, of course your hipster college friends live in Brooklyn.

"So, ex-wife? Ex-boyfriend?" Kent lists.

"They'd moved by the time I started seeing her," Jack tells him.

Kent nods in acknowledgement. "Ex-boyfriend, huh?"

Jack wonders how much Kent knows about Bitty. Jack was already with Anna by the time Kent and his dad started hanging out, so he can't imagine it ever came up. "He was my college boyfriend."

Kent nods, neutrally. He's attentive—just listening—so Jack continues.

"We dated for a couple of years, but he got accepted to a culinary school in Chicago, and the distance just wasn't working out in the long run, so..." Jack trails off.

"That's too bad," Kent says, sounding honest.

Bitty's married now. He still sends pies every time the Falconers make the playoffs, and on occasion: pictures of his twin girls. In return, Jack sends him front seat tickets every time the Falconers play the Blackhawks in Chicago, and on occasion: pictures of his dog, Matilda. It's a nice exchange.

Jack shrugs. "We're still friends."

Jack had been awkward around Graham for the first year or so that he and Bitty were dating, which gave everyone the impression that he wasn't over Bitty, even though it had already been a couple of years since the breakup. It was kind of true, in the sense that Jack never properly learned how to move forward when it came to his relationships. Lardo took pity on him and set him up with one of her artist friends to get him back into the dating game. Which is how Jack met his now ex-wife, Anna García.

"How about you?" Jack asks.

"What? Exes?"

After retiring, Kent had quietly come out, which mostly meant he started bringing Donald the physiotherapist to hockey events. Jack's never spoken to him, but he's seen the man from a distance. He's tall and his hair is brown, but it looks kind of red in the right light, and sometimes Kent would say something and Donald would give him a fully-dimpled smile that made Kent light up.

Everything Jack knows about Kent and Donald the physiotherapist came directly from his parents, which means, Jack happened to be standing there when Bob said, "Oh, Kent and Donald broke up," and Alicia replied with, "Poor Kenny. They seemed like a good match."

Kent takes a while. Jack can't tell if it's because he's thinking or because the relationship's still raw for him.

"I was with a guy for a few years," Kent eventually says.

Jack's mildly irritated by how little that clears up for him. He doesn't know why he wants to know so badly.

"What happened?"

"We wanted different things," Kent says. After a beat, he adds, "Or, I wanted things he didn't want to give. Par for the course, really."

He flashes a self-deprecating smile in Jack's direction. There's a deliberate look in his eyes, like Jack might find Donald's refusal to make Kent happy relatable, and it sits uncomfortably under Jack's skin. Jack makes himself shift away from where their shoulders are pressed together, just for the sake of moving.

 

-

 

"How's your mom doing?" Kent asks as they walk the harbour. They're still tight in each other's spaces, following a lazy, endless pace, like they have all the time in the world.

Alicia was diagnosed about two years ago. They'd caught it early enough to get the cancer out with minimal pain to her, but the stress of it was still hard on all of them.

"Recovering. She's strong," Jack says. He almost adds you know how she is but he's unsure if that fits as neatly into their charade as everything else they've said tonight.

"Bob doesn't like talking about it," Kent tells him.

Jack knows because he doesn't like talking about it either, so he and his father try not to unless it's absolutely necessary. It annoys Jack sometimes, but he can't hold it against him. It had annoyed Anna too, but by that point it was one of the last nails in the coffin more than it was an actual problem to solve—a constant reminder of all the things Jack kept to himself over the years, instead of sharing with her.

"It's been tough," Jack says, in defence of his dad, though he doesn't believe Kent would think any less of Bob for it.

"I always loved you mom," Kent says, kindly. It's neutral enough that it doesn't really toe the line of their façade, but then Kent adds, "She has a way of making me feel seventeen again—like she could help me with anything."

Jack doesn't know how often Kent and his mother talk. Kent sent flowers, when she was in the hospital, but Jack only knows because he was with her when she told Bob to thank Kent for the lovely card. He'd never actually seen the flowers or the card.

Jack has the urge to ask about Kent's mom, because he'd met her enough times, and she'd always been kind to him. She'd known about him and Kent, and whenever Jack visited she would give him a reassuring smile to put him at ease, even though she wouldn't let him hang out in Kent's room with the door closed. But stranger-Jack has no reason to ask about her.

There's a frustrated feeling building inside Jack, because Kent has all this inside information about his parents, and his ex-wife, while Jack still barely knows anything about Kent's life beyond what he overhears from Bob and what he reads in the news. He wants to make Kent fill in the gaps, but he can't find a way to get them there. It seems too personal to fit into their masquerade, and Jack doesn't want to break the spell, because he has the foreboding sense that once he does he won't get anything out of Kent again, unless he does it right. Whatever that means.

They stop walking. Kent leans his elbows against the railings, and stares out at the boats bobbing in the water, bells ringing from the movement. Jack follows suit, pressing himself to Kent for the warmth of it, but also because part of him sincerely wants to.

Jack has an itch to babble about history again, but most of it is about the Boston Tea Party, and it's all high school stuff Kent probably knows already, so he doesn't say anything, and waits in silence to see if Kent will lead the conversation.

Eventually, Kent asks, voice soft, " You think Hayes and Fedorov have a shot?"

Jack turns to look at him. Their faces are close. Jack can see Kent's freckles. His eyes are shadowed, green almost mixing into a dark blue in this light. Jack gets caught in them for a moment.

"They're good hockey players," He says.

Kent laughs at that, a gentle huff, and Jack watches with rapt attention as Kent's mouth curves into an amused smile, but Kent still won't meet his eyes.

"I meant at a relationship—at happiness. I know they're good."

Jack truly doesn't have an answer. He'd like to think so, for their sake, but he's had enough life experience to know life doesn't work like that. Jack's been in love three times in his life, and right now he's alone, talking to his ex under the guise of being total strangers, because apparently, that's the only way they can stop the weight of their history from crushing them.

Then again, his parents seem to be doing alright.

Jack thinks of the moment he caught between Hayes and Fedorov when the Bruins GM was talking—the whisper, the smile, the look, the forehead touch.

"Maybe," Jack says, reverently.

"You don't think it's a bit messy, being in love with your teammate?" Kent asks, still facing the water.

When Hayes and Fedorov were first put on the same line, they seemed to click instantly. They played like they shared a brain, orbiting each other like magnets, like they knew exactly what the other was going to do before he did it. Enough time had passed that Jack and Kent's time in juniors was largely irrelevant, but the comparison still came up.

Lowe had asked Kent, on-air, "You don't think it's a bit like that one-timer you and Zimmermann used to do?"

Kent had smiled, diplomatically, and denied the comparison. "I think they're their own thing."

Jack disagreed, though, because watching them play made him think of Kent, all the time—it made him think of knowing exactly where Kent's pass was going to land, and the thunderous rush of scoring off Kent's set up, and catching Kent's eyes across the ice, and grinning stupidly at him, and knowing nobody can do it like us, because—

Well.

So, quietly, Jack says, "I was in love with my teammate once and we won the Memorial Cup."

Beside him, Jack hears Kent gasp. Something flashes in his eyes, too brief for Jack to parse. Kent slides his elbows back, gripping the cold iron of the railing tight, knuckles going white

"Zimms," He whispers. Jack hates the way it sounds, defeated and forlorn. And then Kent schools it, letting a familiar mask fall into place instead.

For a moment, Jack thinks maybe Kent's going to end it all, and they're going to go back to normal. There's a self-destructive drive within Jack that wants Kent to yell at him, because it's better than being strangers, and it's better than ignoring each other at hockey events. But Kent doesn't do that. Instead, Kent levels him with a cold, hostile look.

"I was in love with my teammate, too," He says, matter-of fact. "He cut me off and broke my heart without ever telling me why. And now we don't talk anymore."

There's a heavy feeling in Jack's chest, weighing him down, and all he can say is a mumbled, "I'm sorry to hear that."

Kent snorts, bitter and resentful. "Yeah," He says, like he doesn't believe Jack at all.

And then before Jack can say anything else, "We should probably head back."

He doesn't wait for Jack to respond. Doesn't even look at him, as he turns in the direction they came and starts walking away.

 

-

 

So maybe Jack crossed a line.

They don't speak on the way back to the T. Fate—through the form of Bob Zimmermann's recommendations—made it so they're staying at the same hotel. Jack figures this at least means he has some shot at salvaging this whole thing. He can fix this. He can set them on the right path instead of—well instead of the one he'd set them on before, back when he'd decided they shouldn't be friends anymore.

The game's not over yet. Apart from Kent's nickname slip up, they didn't acknowledge much else that couldn't be played off with plausible deniability. Jack can recapture this. He can get Kent back around somehow.

"Maybe you could talk again," He says. He means for it to be more confident than it comes out.

There's two seats between them this time, so he has to really look to keep track of Kent. Kent takes a moment, like he doesn't want to acknowledge Jack, but he also can't help himself. He raises an eyebrow at Jack—go on.

"You and your teammate. Maybe it can be like this," Jack tries.

Slowly, Kent says, "This isn't a real conversation."

"Why not?"

"What, you think because we talked about our exes we're being honest? We haven't said anything we didn't already know about each other."

"That's not true," Jack says, trying not to sound petulant. "I don't know anything about you."

Kent rolls his eyes, huffing out a humourless laugh. "And you want to?"

"Maybe."

"And you want me to know about you?"

"Maybe," Jack's voice rises, insistent.

Kent scans Jack's face, his own expression completely unreadable. Jack watches him and waits. Kent frowns, like whatever he's hoping to see in Jack's eyes isn't there.

"Tell me about last year then," Kent says, voice low and dangerous—a dirty check, intended to hurt.

Jack's pulse stutters. "What?"

"You were scratched. Your arm was healed by then, so obviously not an injury—not one anyone could see, anyways," He raises his eyebrows pointedly at that. "So what happened? Since we're being so honest."

There's an answer Jack's supposed to give to this question, but when he stutters out, "M-My mom—" Kent interrupts.

"I already know about your mom. This came after."

Jack's throat feels dry.

After his mom's surgery, and his broken arm, and the divorce, Jack spent some time in Montreal. A lot of time in Montreal, actually.

The honest answer is Jack just wasn't doing so good, and it turns out getting better doesn't always mean staying better forever—despite how much Jack wished it did—and Jack just needed a way to breathe again. So instead of taking pills, he took time.

Jack can't tell if Bob ever mentioned any of it, or if Kent just inferred, but it doesn't matter. The point is Kent knows, because Kent saw it before. Because they'll never really be strangers to each other, regardless of how much easier that would be.

Jack knows what Kent's doing. He can't give up the fantasy first, because that would mean admitting something. Kent got tired of letting Jack be the unaffected one a long time ago, so he's pouring salt into old wounds hoping to get Jack angry enough to blink first, and lose this ten-year standoff they have going.

But Jack's always been good at going toe to toe with Kent, so he says, "I'll tell you what happened if you tell me about your skull fracture."

Kent visibly tenses. "Why, so you can throw it around next time we fight?"

"We've just met, why would we fight," Jack says, stubbornly.

"You'd tell a stranger about your break?" Kent asks, unconvinced. "About the draft?"

"I could do that," Jack insists, but even he can hear how weak his conviction sounds.

Kent presses the butt of his hand to the bridge of his nose, a tired, resigned motion. "Maybe I can't," He says quietly. He sighs, tension leaking out into a familiar sadness. "Maybe I don't want you to know anything about me, anymore."

Jack feels the weight of Kent's words, pressing on him. It's the familiar annoyance of fighting with Kent, always that little bit sharper than fighting with anyone else.

He's surprised a little, that Kent would say it. Maybe not so surprised that Kent feels that way. He wishes he'd never found Kent smoking that stupid cigarette, never let Fedorov's cluelessness reset them, never fucking met Kent Parson in the first place.

He doesn't really, though. Not anymore. He hasn't for a very long time. Quite the opposite, actually. That's the problem.

 

-

 

The rest of their journey is spent in dejected silence. When Jack enters the hotel elevator, Kent presses himself to the opposite side of it, eyes downcast towards Jack's shoes. Kent's on a lower floor, and Jack watches the numbers rise, feeling something miserable pressing deeper and deeper into his chest, the closer they get to saying goodbye.

The doors slide open. Kent doesn't even acknowledge Jack as he pushes himself off the wall. Jack feels stuck—sinking in quicksand like the cartoons he used to watch as a kid.

"Nice meeting you," He says, barely above a whisper.

Kent still doesn't look at him but Jack can see the defeated expression on his face. "Sure."

"Kent," Jack says, as Kent crosses the threshold of the elevator doors. "I'm sorry we couldn't be honest with each other."

Kent fully turns to look at him them, eyes crestfallen, the way Jack has seen them so many times before.

"Guess you just remind me too much of someone I used to know," Kent says. The corner of his mouth twitches into half a smile. A disappointed little joke.

Jack feels a slow, impatient energy buzzing under his skin, now that he can see every emotion sitting clearly in Kent's green eyes. He takes half a step forward. "You remind me of someone, too."

"Then why bother hanging out with me all night?" Kent asks, like he genuinely doesn't understand why Jack did any of this.

"It's not a bad thing," Jack tells him, earnestly.

Kent stares at him with a guarded look on his face. "Since when?"

Jack shrugs lightly, because there's no real answer to that that would sound convincing to Kent, and Jack's not going to lie to him.

Kent just nods, unsatisfied. "Nice meeting you too, Jack," He says, voice flippant.

Except that feels too final. Jack knows this will never happen again, if it ends here. They'll never talk like this again. This night won't have ever happened, and they'll truly be strangers, learning about each other's lives through second-hand information. They need to break the façade first, but breaking it feels like admitting something. And Jack knows, Kent won't let himself do it first.

"Kenny," Jack says, softly. And when Kent looks up, with too many emotions flashing in his eyes, Jack presses their lips together.

For a second, Kent goes along with it, kissing Jack back like he wants it too. But only for a second. Kent's brain seems to catch up, and he pushes Jack back into the elevator, forceful.

"God." Kent laughs, a resentful, ugly sound. "Fuck you, Jack."

Jack reaches to touch his lips, where Kent's had just been—as surprised with himself as Kent is—but he stops himself before Kent can see it. His heart is pounding wildly, feels like it's going to rips his ribs apart. He needs to say something to diffuse Kent's anger, before Kent gets to the wrong conclusion, but the words get caught uneasily in his throat.

Loudly, Kent says, "I got over you, you arrogant asshole!"

And then he storms away, elevator doors shutting behind him with a mean clang.

 

-

 

A few years ago, Jack had an epiphany.

So maybe he expected that Kent would always pop up in the periphery of his life—like a distant planet, orbiting the same sun, crossing paths every few centuries. Understandable given how the NHL worked. But for the most part, Jack didn't really notice him there. Jack never tried to talk to him. Kent did for a while—a text here and there, a hey, how you been at the All Stars, or something. But Jack had never bothered paying attention to Kent, and somewhere along the way, the feeling must have become mutual, because Jack looked up one day, and Kent wasn't there anymore.

It vexed Jack because he had spent so much mental energy wishing Kent away, that he couldn't process why it bothered him so much when it finally worked. Bizarrely, it made Jack want to talk about Kent all the damn time. Nothing specific, really. Just stuff that happened, that he'd never told anyone before. Just to prove Kent had been there once.

He'd never gotten around to being completely honest about Kent with Bits, and Jack was so set on being past it with Bitty that it felt disingenuous to try start now. He just left the feeling there, to build and build into some inexplicable annoyance towards Kent that Jack couldn't place.

He called Shitty—eventually—except he hadn't planned on what to even say to Shitty, so he let Shitty babble on about whatever for a while and when Shitty finally got around to asking why Jack had called, Jack said, "Did I ever tell you about my first kiss?"

So he told Shitty the story.

They'd come back from a party, and they were on the fun edge of tipsy, but Jack was still new enough to drinking to be a little sloppy about it, so Kent had to guide him back to his billet house, with an arm around his waist, and the other on his arm, which made Jack a little hysterical. And when they'd finally made it to Jack's room, Kent had looked at him with something bright in his eyes that had exhilarated Jack—the same rush of being on the ice, about to score, in the final minute. But Kent had started to move away, mumbling something about his own house, and that hadn't felt right to Jack at all. And because the alcohol made him brave enough to finally do it, Jack leaned into Kent's space, and kissed him.

When Jack fell silent, Shitty said, "Huh. Always figured Parse made the first move."

Jack said, "Parse, would never have believed in it if he'd done it first," because he'd come to understand this about Kent, since then. What Jack remembered most about that moment was the feeling of Kent smiling into his mouth, like it was a fucking dream come true for him.

Shitty said, "That's a nice story," like he was waiting for Jack to explain the point.

And Jack realised that, yeah, it was. That was the point.

 

-

 

It takes two hours, but Kent eventually shows up at Jack's door to yell at him. Jack wasn't counting on it, but part of him hoped anyway. Kent's still in the same clothes from earlier, a little rumpled now. Jack feels bad, because he clearly threw Kent for a loop with this one, and he hadn't meant to do that. He just wanted to talk to him.

"Why the hell did you do that?" Kent demands, the second Jack opens the door.

Jack takes a step back to give Kent room to come in, but Kent stays rooted where he is.

"I'm sorry," Jack says, sincerely.

"That's a first for you."

"It's not," Jack says, because time has shown him there are some things he probably should have been sorry for a lot sooner.

"Fuck you!" Kent snaps. "I left you alone! I did what you wanted!"

"I know."

"You didn't want me around!"

"I know," Jack says again, since it's mostly true.

Kent blinks at him, like he was expecting Jack to at least argue back. He stays angry, but he's losing steam now. "So don't fucking kiss me then."

It comes out sounding like a stern request more than anything, like Kent is a teacher scolding Jack for talking in class. Jack can't help but smirk a little.

"Thought you were over me."

That gets Kent riled up again. "I fucking was—am! I am over you! Fuck!" And then Kent runs a hand down his face in exhaustion. Jack gives him a moment.

Kent breathes out a long, weary sigh. Calmer now, he says, "Do you know, how hard it is for me to let anything go? 'Cause it's your god damn fault."

"Can't blame me for all your issues," Jack tells him honestly, because he really doesn't think that one came entirely from him.

Kent says, "Why not? You do it to me all the time."

Jack's almost twenty years older than he was when he first met Kent. He understands now that two teenage boys who don't know what the fuck they're doing can't be blamed for not knowing how to give each other what they want. He's long past the point of being angry with Kent for wanting more than Jack could handle.

"Why'd you come up here?" Jack asks, because he needs to make sure they're on the same page, now. Finally. For once in their lives.

Kent laughs suddenly, not a happy one. He sounds like he might cry.

"This stupid night," Kent mutters to himself, glancing to the top of Jack's doorframe, while he tries to compose himself. After a moment, he shrugs, smiling glumly at Jack. "Guess I missed you, Jack."

With that, he half turns to leave, expecting Jack to follow the usual heart-breaking script, but Jack's made peace with some things about himself that he couldn't face before, since the last time they went through this.

"I'm sorry for cutting you out," Jack tells him, seriously.

Kent pauses. He looks Jack in the eyes, searching.

Jack continues. "You knew me when I hated myself the most, and I didn't know how to handle that yet, and it was easier to pretend I was past that without you there."

Jack can see Kent's eyes growing red, watering a little, but Kent swallows it down, running a hand through his hair anxiously. "Okay," He whispers, like he doesn't trust himself to say anything else.

"It took me a long time to understand what it was like on your end. I get it—it felt like none of it meant anything, and you didn't matter. But you did. You were a huge part of my life, Kenny."

Kent clears his throat, awkwardly, and nods in understanding. "Yeah. Thanks, Zimms."

"And I'm sorry for earlier," Jack adds. "Guess I missed you too."

Kent's eyebrows shoot up in surprise at that, and Jack feels a spike of irritation at his past self for being so hard-headed and angry.

Kent swallows, trying to tamp down some of the emotion in his voice. "I understood you too, eventually," He admits to Jack's feet. "After I couldn't play anymore, I kept thinking if that's how you felt…after. So. Yeah. I'm sorry too. For all of it."

"Thanks," Jack says.

Kent finally gets enough nerve to look Jack in the eye again. He gives Jack a firm look. "I really did get over you, by the way."

"I know," Jack says, because they wouldn't be here, in this moment, if Jack hadn't noticed.

"No, I need you to understand, Jack, I moved on. I had a whole life without you, and it was a good life. I didn't even think about you for some long chunks of it."

"I know, Kent."

Kent nods in acknowledgement. He looks at Jack like he's waiting for something.

Jack's spent some time learning to let himself miss Kent, and learning to think about that time without it hurting, and learning to accept that life is going to check him out of nowhere every once in a while, and instead of being angry about that he has to just find a way to adapt and take the in the good parts, not just the bad. He's better at knowing what he needs now than he was when he was a kid.

He doesn't know what Kent's been learning the last few years, but he's wants to.

"So what now?" Jack asks, meeting Kent's eyes.

Kent takes a breath, steeling himself, then he steps through Jack's doorway, and kisses him. It's slow and tentative, like they're moving through water. Jack kisses back, gently, wanting to handle this moment as carefully as possible.

For a second, Kent seems like he's losing his nerve, because he starts to pull away a little. Jack puts a hand against his jaw—soft so he can still leave if he wants to—and kisses him back direct and certain, so Kent knows he means it. He feels Kent's exhaling breath bouncing off his cheek. Jack rubs his thumb faintly against Kent's jaw, and pulls back, just so, leaving barely a centimetre between them.

"You good?" He murmurs.

Kent smiles a timid, lovely smile, and presses his face into Jack's neck.

 

-

 

The sex is different in many ways.

They used to be so rushed, so fearful of someone coming home and finding them. It had always felt like cannonballing into icy water—exciting, but like they'd need to come up for air any minute and suddenly the freezing cold would hit them.

They move calmly now. Certain of what they're doing and what they want. Jack's a lot more comfortable in his own skin than he was at seventeen, and he's pleased to find the same is true of Kent. Kent had seemed so sure as a teenager, like nothing could faze him, not even sex, but seeing him now throws a whole new perspective on teenage Kent Parson. Jack didn't even know what he was missing. This Kent isn't afraid to ask for what he likes, directing Jack's hands and mouth to the exact place he wants them to be. Jack's giddy with it, with knowing he's going to make it feel good.

Parts of it feel familiar too, and that thrills Jack just as much. Kent gasps when Jack sucks on that one spot on his neck, and it makes Jack's heart-rate speed up—he feels wild with it. Jack keeps trying old tricks just to see Kent react. He runs his hand on the ticklish part of the inside of Kent's thigh, just to feel Kent's choked giggle into his mouth. He makes that groaning sound Kent likes just to see that one shade of Kent's eyes.

A perk of being older is they know how to go slow, how to make this last. How to communicate. Jack likes it not just because it's good sex, but because it's sex with Kent. This Kent. Kent who's had a lifetime without him, who's so obviously used to someone else's body, but still looks at Jack like Jack hung the moon when Jack threads their fingers together. It's all the good parts of the old mixing with the amazing parts of the new.

Kent whispers encouragements in Jack's ear, because he learned early on that Jack responded well to that, and it works because Jack doesn't think he'll hold out for much longer. When Kent's words start to stutter in Jack's ear—close—Jack whispers, "I'm so glad I met you."

Kent's fingers dig into Jack's back, and he comes with Jack's name on his lips.

 

-

 

 

After, they lie side by side on Jack's hotel bed. Jack plays with Kent's hair, because it's something he's wanted to do for almost twenty years, but never had the nerve to before—too self-conscious about the intimacy of it to try. Stupid on his part, because Kent leans into the touch instantly, closing his eyes, and the peaceful look on his face makes Jack feel warm.

There's a bump on Kent's scalp—the surgery scar—and when Jack runs his finger lightly against it, Kent shifts, uncomfortably.

"Does it hurt?" Jack asks.

Kent grunts, a sound that doesn't really answer Jack's question. He opens his eyes, and stares into space, not entirely there. "Just feels weird."

Jack moves his hand away, letting his fingers drift gently over the ends of Kent's hair. "Can I ask about it?"

Kent takes a deep breath. He looks at Jack, assessing him. "Your deal from earlier still stand?"

Jack still feels immense discomfort when he thinks of Montreal. It makes him feel stupid, and shameful, that he got to that place again. But there's a vulnerable expression on Kent's face, and Jack's very aware of how rare it is to see it, because he hasn't since the night before the draft, so he swallows his discomfort and nods.

Kent looks away again. He runs a finger faintly down Jack's arm, focusing his attention on that instead of Jack's face. Jack waits.

"I don't really remember it—the check and the fight. Just that it hurt like hell, and I couldn't see or hear anything really. It was fucking terrifying. Thought I was gonna die on the ice."

Jack tries not to think of the footage of blood dripping out of Kent's helmet.

Kent laughs, flat and sombre. "The worst part was everyone was so god damn worried about my brain and all I could think about was that I'd rather have died there than never play again. Not that it mattered, because I nearly shit myself next time I tried getting on the ice anyway, and—well, you know the rest."

"You still get concussion symptoms?"

"Yeah, sometimes. Less these days."

Jack shifts himself closer to Kent, so their sides are entirely pressed together, wanting to be as near to him as possible. Kent's still not looking at him, but his body responds, easing into Jack's warmth.

"I can't imagine retiring," Jack says.

"I don't know if I could have done it without Donald talking me down from the worst of it," He finally looks at Jack, at that. "Which is ironic because we probably would never have broken up if I hadn't retired."

Jack mulls that one over. He's not jealous. He's never been the jealous type, too aware of his own baggage to be suspicious of someone else's. But he wants to know about Donald sometimes. Who he is, how he met Kent, how he made Kent feel.

"Why's that?"

"He didn't want to get married. I never planned to come out while I was playing—and I figured I'd be playing for a long time—so it didn't really come up before."

"And then it came up," Jack finishes for him.

"Retirement has a way of throwing your future into perspective," Kent says.

The conversation falls into a lull, and Kent turns to look at him expectantly. Jack meant it about their deal, but he finds himself wanting to stave off his own turn for a little while longer.

Jack looks away and asks, "You ever manage to get on the ice again?"

Kent takes a long time to answer.

"Eventually. Some of my old teammates play with me sometimes, when I start getting frustrated about it, but it has to be no contact 'cause I freak out if it gets rough."

"I'm sorry," Jack tells him, honestly.

"Shit happens," Kent says with a shrug, though Jack can hear the grief in it.

Jack still can't meet his eyes, staring at Kent's hand instead, still trailing patterns against his skin.

"You don't have to tell me, Zimms. It's fine," Kent says, neutrally.

Eighteen-year-old Jack would have taken him up on his offer. But then, eighteen-year-old Kent would have pushed until Jack got frustrated enough to hurt his feelings. And Jack's trying to build something functional here.

He forces himself to look Kent in the eye. Kent's face is blank—no expectations. Jack thinks, okay.

"What do you know?" Jack asks.

"Only that you were in Montreal instead of at playoffs," Kent says. "Bob pulled out of a few events, and Alicia seemed to be doing okay, so I figured it was about you."

Jack nods. "I didn't want stronger meds," He says.

Kent's fingers still on his skin.

"My therapist knew someone up there, and she suggested I stay with my parents while I figured it out."

"How bad was it?" Kent asks, voice barely above a whisper.

Jack's throat feels dry. He swallows. "About the same as last time."

Kent looks at him with familiar concern—not as intense as it used to be, but even now it rattles Jack on some level.

"What happened?" Kent asks.

"It wasn't any one thing," Jack says. "First it was my mom, then my arm wasn't healing as fast as I wanted it too, and Anna and I were already having problems for a while. It all just kind of…"

"Yeah," Kent says. Jack wonders if he's remembering every panic attack he had to talk Jack through, the way Jack is.

After a beat, Kent asks, voice tentative, "How are you doing now?"

"Better," Jack tells him. It's the truth. He's not back to where he was exactly, but he can get himself out of it most of the time. He doesn't feel like the only thing preventing him from drowning is his sheer force of will anymore, which he knows is what improvement feels like.

He smiles at Kent, to reassure him, and then—because he's tired of heavy conversation—he says, "I got an emotional support dog."

A slow, pleased grin spreads across Kent's face. "You got a dog?" He repeats.

Jack reaches for his phone to find pictures because he knows Kent will ask. "Matilda. She's a border collie."

"You named your dog Matilda?" Kent asks, like that's the most charming and funny thing he's ever heard.

"I didn't name her. That was her name."

Kent practically giggles. "And you made her keep it?"

"Bit rich, coming from you," Jack chirps.

Kent bursts out laughing.

 

-

 

Jack wakes up first—an early riser by nature. He's face to face with Kent, arm thrown lazily over Kent's waist, keeping him close. Jack catalogues the differences in Kent's face. He can see the beginnings of crow's feet on the corner of Kent's eyes, the faint line of a frown between Kent's eyebrows. On TV they make Kent wear make-up, so even on Jack's ultra HD TV he can't see Kent's freckles—it delights him a little to see them now.

Kent always looked older in his sleep—more solemn. It's clearer now that Jack's comparing him to how he used to look as a teenager. Jack wonders what differences Kent sees when he looks at him, and if Kent likes them.

One of Kent's eyes creeps open, and he raises an eyebrow at Jack. "Still do that, huh?" He mumbles sleepily.

Kent used to catch him doing this when they were younger, and Jack always flinched away from him in embarrassment, getting up and muttering some excuse about how he was about to wake Kent up for a run. Kent would complain, but he would get up too and follow Jack's lead, never mentioning it even though—from the sweet glances he threw Jack—it was obvious that he knew what Jack had been doing.

Jack's not embarrassed now, though. "I like your face," He says.

Kent's cheeks flush pink, and it makes Jack's heart stutter gleefully.

"Oh yeah?" He asks. It's meant to be flirty, but Jack hears the hint of disbelief in it, and—well—that just doesn't sit right with him.

Jack leans in to kiss him, slow and purposeful. Kent melts into it, easily. His hand slides to Jack's back, pulling him closer, so that Jack's half on top of him now. Jack deepens the kiss, not intending it to go anywhere with it, just enjoying being here and doing this with Kent.

He moves away to sprinkle light kisses along Kent's jaw. Kent twists away a little to give Jack room, and hums dreamily. When Jack reaches Kent's neck, Kent pushes him back so they're looking at each other, but doesn't resume the making out.

"You good?" Jack asks.

Kent smiles, softly. "Yeah. It's just that if I let you keep doing that, I won't be able to leave."

"Thought you had a late flight," Jack says, smoothing down Kent's cowlick, though he knows from experience that it won't do anything.

"I do. Unfortunately, I told your dad I'd meet him for breakfast."

Jack's shoulders drop in disappointment, and Kent snorts.

"You know, you used to make that face when we were kids, too."

Jack smirks, and starts nipping at Kent's jaw again. "I remember it working," Jack says between kisses.

Kent laughs, cheerfully. "Memory's rusty, Zimmermann," He says, patting Jack twice on the shoulder, before pushing him off. Jack watches him get up, still naked. Kent's lost a little muscle definition, no longer working on a NHL fitness schedule, but he still looks good, and Jack likes that he gets to re-learn the contours of his body.

Kent notices Jack unabashedly staring, and rolls his eyes, but Jack can see him trying to hold back a smirk.

 

-

 

Kent says, "Look who I ran into," by way of explanation when they get to Bob's table.

Bob's eyebrows shoot up, before he catches himself, and schools his expression into a more neutral one. It's a two-person table so they have to ask for another seat for Jack, and Jack quietly waits as Kent babbles on about how hungry he is.

Kent's nervous. Jack's not fully sure why, seeing as they're no longer scared teenage boys trying to hide the fact that they had sex in Jack's room when the grown-ups went to bed, but he can't calm Kent down with his dad right there, so he just stays quiet while Kent gets it out of his system.

Jack lets the two of them dominate the conversation, sharing retirement gossip with each other, while he listens. Occasionally, Kent will pause the story to fill Jack in on the background information he needs to get the joke, and every time he does, Jack catches his father looking between them, curiously.

Jack wonders what they must look like to him. He had to loan Kent a sweater so he wouldn't be in last night's clothes, but it's a bit big on him, and Bob's probably observant enough to notice. It's hardly the first time they've tried to pull this one on him, after all. Kent either hasn't notices Bob's suspicious looks, or is very good at ignoring them, carrying on the conversation like the three of them have breakfast together all the time.

Near the end, when Kent's trying to flag down a waiter, Jack catches his father's glance. There's a question in Bob's eyes, a hint of concern there. Jack gets it but he'd like to think his dad has a little more faith in him and Kent now that they're fully grown adults. They know what they're doing. And even if they don't, it's not going to be like last time. He gives his dad a small, determined smile, and hopes that will reassure him for now.

 

-

 

They say goodbye to Bob in the lobby. He doesn't mention that they're clearly going to spend time together once he's gone, but there's a look in his eye like he knows. He hugs them both separately before heading to the elevator, throwing a final, warm smile to them over his shoulder.

When the elevator doors close, Kent says, "God, he's never gonna shut up about this."

Jack chuckles, because it amuses him to think of Kent and his dad as the kind of friends who chirp each other about their relationships, even if it's probably a little more personal than just that.

Jack turns to Kent expectantly. He booked an evening flight because Ransom and Holster still live in Boston, and Jack had made plans to see them for lunch. Kent's flight back to New York is around the same time, so they both have a few hours to kill.

"So," Jack says.

"So," Kent replies.

He seems unsure. Nervous now that they're faced with each other in the light of day, without the guise of being strangers. Jack's a little nervous too. He can't pretend to know what they're doing, or where they're going from here, or what he's expecting from any of this, but he's trying not to overthink it yet. He's enjoying it so far. And he missed wasting time with Kent.

Jack asks, "You ever been to Boston Common?"

Kent smiles, as if to say that of course he has, but he bumps Jack's shoulder and heads to the exit anyway.

 

-

 

 

They walk through the park in companionable silence, taking in the trees and the people around them.

The summer before the draft, Jack spent a week in New York at Kent's house, and Kent took him into the city for a day, to do all the usual tourist traps. Jack remembers wandering aimlessly through Central Park as Kent chirped him for calling New York City the Big Apple. Because they were reckless teenagers, and because the chances of someone following junior hockey felt smaller in Central Park than it did in Rimouski, Kent had laced their fingers together as they walked. And because Jack liked it so much, he had let them stay that way for an entire forty minutes, before the panic started to rise in his throat, and convinced him to let go and pop a couple more pills.

It's an imperfect memory, tainted by Jack's insecurities and Kent's ignorance, but it still makes Jack warm to think of Kent reaching for his hand—self-conscious, no doubt, but not enough to stop himself—so Jack decides to make up for it, by taking Kent's hand now. Kent keeps his eyes on the lake they'd been walking towards, but out of the corner of his eye, Jack can see his ears turning red, and a smile curving his lips.

There's a bridge over the lake, and Kent comes to a stop at the peak of it, off to the side so they're not in anyone's way. They stand in silence for a minute, looking out over the water, so Jack spouts some anecdote about when he came ice skating here once. Kent nods along like he's not really listening, and when Jack follows his line of sight, he finds that Kent is staring at their joined hands, instead—eyebrows downturned in the beginnings of a frown.

It makes Jack nervous, reminding him of how awkward Kent had been when they'd said goodbye to Bob. He wonders if Kent's regretting it all now. He almost wants to pull his hand away, feeling uneasy standing like this with Kent staring like that, but Kent's grip is still firm, so Jack doesn't move, and waits for Kent to say it.

Kent's voice is subdued when he finally does speak. "You think Hayes and Fedorov have a future?"

Kent's gotten better at hiding his insecurity from his face, over the years, but his eyes had always given him away then, and they still do now. He's not talking about Hayes and Fedorov, obviously.

Jack looks at their hands too, feeling relieved that Kent's not giving up on him quite yet. He thinks of what the future could be like, good or bad, and finds that he's not at all opposed to the idea of it—whatever way it goes.

"Feels kind of like they earned one, after all this," Jack tells him, earnestly.

"Yeah," Kent whispers.

He nods in agreement, but he doesn't look at Jack, and Jack can tell that there's still a part of him that's wary of this. Jack doesn't blame him. There's a part of him too, that still feels agitated and split-open at the thought of Kent Parson. But he realised some time ago that that doesn't always have to be a bad thing.

Jack leans in and presses a gentle kiss to Kent's temple, and pulls him away from the bridge, to the other side of whatever this is going to be. They fall into silence again, and Jack waits. Once Kent's guarded energy melts away a bit, Jack playfully asks, "Hey so do you hate Chris Lowe?"

Kent smiles at him, finally. "Oh my god, Zimms, don't get me started," He says, and Jack gives him a contended, carefree smirk as Kent begins shit-talking his co-host.