Actions

Work Header

Fourteen Weddings and a Kerfuffle

Chapter Text

MARCH, 2015 

Waking up with a hangover?

Was the absolute worst.

No. Scratch that. 

Waking up with a hangover and not knowing where the fuck you were or what had happened last night was way worse than that. 

Waking up with a hangover, not knowing where the fuck you were or what had happened last night, and realizing you were comfortably (except for the hangover) snuggled up next to someone you didn't remember going to bed with? That was about as bad as Jeff could possibly imagine.

Unfortunately, Jeff's imagination was a pathological optimist.

He had dealt with hangovers. He had dealt with getting blackout drunk. He had dealt with ill-advised and half-remembered hookups. One time in Sweden, assuming his memory could be trusted (the jury was still out on this), he had dealt with all three at once.

None of this had prepared him in any way, shape, or form for waking up half-naked in a heart-shaped bed next to a teammate.

(He knew the bed was heart-shaped thanks to the giant backlit mirror on the ceiling.)

And, because his life had fallen into a super-massive black hole of suck over the past twenty-four hours, he hadn't woken up next to just any teammate.

No, the other person slumbering away next to him beneath hot pink satin sheets just had to be the captain of the team he had just been traded to. A captain who was one of the best players in the NHL. A captain who was–

"...ngh?"

–waking up.

"Wh' the hell? Where..." Parson scrubbed at his eyes only to stop mid-scrub. He lifted his left hand away from his face and stared at it. 

Presumably he—along with Jeff—had just noticed the fake-gold ring circling the exact finger where you should never, ever find a ring you were one hundred percent not expecting. 

"Huh," was all Parson had to say about it.

Jeff mustered enough courage to check and yup, he had a matching ring on his own left hand.

He waited for numb shock to give way to freaking the fuck out. Whether he was waiting for it to happen to him or to Parson, he couldn't say. At least the numbness made the hangover feel like a problem that belonged to somebody else.

God, had they done anything last night? Jeff reached under the sheets and oh-thank-you-sweet-baby-Jesus he was still wearing pants...

But that didn't mean he hadn't tried anything. There was a lot you could get up to while still wearing pants. Even pants that felt reasonably un-sticky at the moment.

And even if he hadn't tried, it didn't change the fact that he was lying under hot pink satin sheets in a heart-shaped bed with Kent Fucking Parson.

Or the fact that he had evidently put a ring on it at some point in the void of last night.

Parson scowled at his own ring, but he didn't seem anything more than annoyed—yet. It took him longer than expected to register Jeff's presence. 

Jeff figured it was the sound of imminent hyperventilation that finally gave him away. 

Parson, on the other hand, wasn't acting the slightest bit freaked out. There was no frantic no-homoing, no expressions of disgust, no threats, no compulsory displays of heterosexuality...

In fact, the man who up until some alcohol-fogged point last night was number six on 'Vegas's Most Eligible Bachelors' list only seemed mildly concerned at most.

"Hey.  Are you okay there, um..." Parson's wickedly angled eyebrows furrowed together. "What're you called again, man?"

"What am I–"

The universe imploded in white-hot rage.

"I'm on your team, asshole!" Rage was good. Rage was lightyears better than having a complete psychotic break, so he would stick with that for now. "Yeah, it's only been like a day, but seriously?! You don't fucking know my name?! And you married me?!" 

Parson squinted at him blearily (and shit, that sleep-rumpled cowlick was seven kinds of adorable) and sighed.

"I meant, what am I supposed to call you, Mr. Troy?" he said with the kind of patience usually reserved for small children and Eastern European enforcers. Then he blinked and narrowed his steely gray eyes at Jeff. "Or is it Mr. Parson? Troy-Parson? Parson-Troy? Did we decide anything about the whole last name thing? I can't remember shit about last night."

"What? You're worried about names? What about this?!" Jeff's voice shot up at least a full octave as he waved his left hand in front of Parson's face. "What are we gonna do about this?! Huh?!"

"Uh, we're going to deal with it?" 

"Deal with it?!"

Parson slid out of bed and retrieved his jeans from the hotel room floor. He turned around and bent over again to grab his shirt, this time giving Jeff an awesome view of his briefs-clad ass. It didn't show half as much as his notorious ESPN Body Issue did, but it was right here, right now, and Parson was standing up again and his crotch was right at eye level and those briefs left nothing to the imagination so stop staring already! 

"Remember—don't panic," Parson said with media-friendly calm. "And can you maybe stop with the shrieking? My head is fucking killing me. Now, let's go take care of item numero uno on the deal-with-it list: talk to Bert."

Bert? Who the hell was Bert? And excuse him for thinking panic was a perfectly sane and rational response to whatever had happened last night.

What had happened, anyway? 

Yeah, yeah... He still had his jeans on, but–

Parson smacked Jeff across the face with a pillow before he could check the bedside wastebasket.

"Hey! Item numero dos! Plausible deniability is your friend. Remember?" Parson snapped. He tossed Jeff's polo shirt at him, but not before making an unnecessarily rude face at the Oilers logo. "Now, come on. Let's get out of this place—wherever it is." 

While Jeff picked fragments of sparkly pink shag carpet off his shirt and wondered what the hell he was supposed to remember, Parson ordered a Lyft to take them back to the club where they had started out last night.

They rode—well, not in silence, because their driver was playing a techno remix of Elvis's Greatest Hits at a volume just below the pain threshold—but without talking.

At least Parson was decent enough to lend his sunglasses to Jeff. Otherwise, Jeff might have been forced to claw his own eyes out to keep the sunlight from drilling holes in his brain.

The driver took them down what Jeff assumed was the Strip. In any case, it was a distressingly wide boulevard with a strip of palm trees down the middle and what looked like a theme park that couldn't settle on a theme running along either side. Even after they turned down a side street, the place was packed with pedestrians, many of whom were wearing Hawaiian shirts and/or animal print velour. And that was just the kids.

Eventually, the driver dropped them off outside a parking lot that cost more per night than their honeymoon suite probably had.

"Welcome back to where we started your 'Welcome to Vegas' club crawl... um. What is it we're supposed to call you again? Troyster? T-Dawg? No, no, that wasn't it. Shit—this is gonna drive me crazy." 

Parson, who didn't seem to care that Jeff wasn't responding, led him through a lot full of overpriced douchemobiles to a curvy yellow sports car that resembled a dildo on wheels.

Parson, to Jeff's complete and total lack of surprise, had a vanity plate. 

KVP 90

Jeff's left eye twitched.

Parson unlocked the car. "If we hurry, we can hit the Starbucks drive-through, swing by your place to pick up your shit, and get to the rink with plenty of time left to meet with Bert."

"Starbucks?!" Okay, that came out as a screech, but Jeff was ten miles past caring about that. "We got drunk-married and you want to get Starbucks?!"

"Well, yeah. In case you didn't notice, we're both kinda hungover, and caffeine will make practice suck less."

"PRACTICE?!" 

Parson's hands flew to his ears. "Gah! What did I tell you about the shrieking?"

By then, a small crowd had gathered to watch the show. 

Parson smiled and waved at them. "Don't panic," he said through clenched teeth and a forced smile as more people arrived. "Remember, don't panic!"

"How the hell am I not supposed to pan—are you seriously signing autographs?"

Parson didn't answer. He was hugging two young women to his sides while one of them deployed a selfie stick. The other one had a fresh KVP 90 autograph on her sheer Aces crop top, right next to the giant rhinestone logo.

Jeff's eye twitched again.

"I thought you said we had to get to practice," he snapped.

Parson rolled his eyes, then switched back to the saucy grin Jeff knew all too well from his Body Issue while he posed for another selfie. 

One thing the Body Issue photo shoot hadn't captured was just how green Parson's eyes looked in the morning sun.

"You also said you wanted to stop at Starb—oh my god did you just sign someone's cleavage?!"

Parson popped the cap back on a Sharpie and waved goodbye to the crowd of fans, apologizing that as much fun as this was, he had to go and do his job, and maybe he'd be lucky enough to run into them while celebrating tomorrow's win, wink, wink.

Saucy became sheepish as he turned back to Jeff.  "Sorry. Signing someone else's boobs kinda goes against the marriage vows, doesn't it? On the bright side, none of them tried to grope my ass."

Jeff growled and got in the car, slamming the door much harder than he needed to.

Parson slid into the driver's seat, still not acting nearly concerned enough. "You're upset," he observed.

Jeff's jaw dropped so fast it almost dislocated. "You—are you... Are you kidding me!? Of course I'm upset! Why on god's green earth—which this place isn't because it's a fucking desert—why wouldn't I be upset?" 

Parson rolled his eyes again. "Look. I told you, we'll get the whole marriage thing taken care of. Like the brochure says, there's no need to panic. We'll go talk to Bert and—"

"This isn't like taking care of a... a parking ticket, okay?" Jeff held up his hand to display the cheap gold ring. "I don't know about you, but I was not expecting to wake up married this morning, and aw, jeez... My finger is turning green. Is your finger turning green?"

Parson checked his own wedding band. "Huh. Yeah. But look, either it'll wash off or the trainers will have something that can take care of it. But you gotta remember, dude, there's no need to freak out."

Jeff wasn't certain what the strangled noise he made was meant to be, but Parson's eyes widened (they were an intriguing smoky brown in the dim light of the car) and his lips parted ever so slightly.

Jeff's own lips parted in response, and he swallowed hard.

"Okay, this is starting to make a lot more sense," Parson said, which made no sense at all. "Now let's get some coffee. I'll even treat you to a muffin and I promise not to tell the trainers about it."

Jeff grunted instead of replying and stared resolutely out the window as Parson peeled out of the lot and sped off through downtown Vegas. There were no flashing neon lights like you saw on TV, which made sense given it was daytime. Still, giant electronic billboards cycled advertisements for magicians and circus acts and Celine Dion and all-night buffets. He wasn't sure what the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building were doing there, but they looked wrong and stupid next to all of those palm trees.

"I know you haven't seen much of it yet, but how are you liking Vegas so far?" Parson asked, completely failing to read the mood in the car.

"I don't." Jeff continued to stare out at his new city. By then, they had turned off the main drag. A leggy woman in platform heels and not much else handed out flyers to pedestrians. Half a block down, a hipster type was either performing street magic or giving a ukulele recital.

Parson gave a low whistle. "Wow. Harsh."

"You want harsh? Try getting out of the shower the morning after losing to the Blues—and getting yelled at with the rest of the team for an hour even though you scored the only goal—and you pick up your phone to call your mom only to see you have three missed calls and a text from your GM telling you to call him ASAP."

Parson winced. "Yikes. I see where this story is going."

"I don't think you do, because the next thing that happens in this whole fucking comedy of errors is that before you can call your GM, your mom calls you, and instead of asking you if you're planning to bring anyone to Sunday dinner—because god forbid you not be dating someone because she wants grandkids before she gets too old to enjoy them—she rips you seventeen new ones about having to find out from her news feed that you were being traded to Vegas for a third round draft pick and a prospect whose biggest accomplishment to date is getting arrested for a DUI! In a Zamboni!"

Parson looked a suitable degree of abashed. "Okay, okay, I'll admit that was poor judgment on his part. But don't tell me you never wanted to take one of those babies for a spin."

So much for abashed.

"When they caught him, he was in the drive-through lane of a Burger King!"

Parson shrugged. "Like I said: poor judgment. I mean, it's not like Reno doesn't have a perfectly good In-N-Out."

"That's the part you're hung up on?"

"You would be too if you'd ever had one of their double-doubles. We gotta get you one of those, next cheat day." 

Jeff had no idea how to describe the laugh that erupted just then.

"Hey, are you okay... um, Jeff? Should we just call you Jeff?"

Another one of those indescribable laughs burst out. 

"No! No, I am not okay! I am so far from okay I can't even see okay with a telescope! The night before last, I was home in Edmonton. Here's the thing, okay? Edmonton is home. It always has been! I grew up just an hour outside the city. I was an Oilers fan since before I could tie my own skates! I got drafted by Red Deer for Juniors, and that was an hour and a half from home! Getting drafted by the Oilers was my biggest childhood dream come true, you know? Like, the whole fairytale happy ending thing, eh? Okay, so this season kinda sucks—"

"Yeah. That eleven game losing streak you guys had in November was something else. The league record is what? Sixteen?"

"I hate you." 

Any minute now, a shadowy and sinister figure would appear in a puff of sulfurous smoke and reveal to him that he had been hit in the throat by a puck in that last game against the Blues and that he had died and gone to hell.

At least he would have died as an Oiler.

Parson gave him a side-eye. "Yeah, the bloom is definitely off the rose in this relationship. Good thing we're getting a divorce. Well, technically, it'll be an annulment. Plausible deniability, remember? Well, no," he muttered, his eyes back on the road, "I guess you don't."

Jeff didn't answer. He glowered out at a world of tackiness and barren soil as Parson drove them out of the city towards Jeff's temporary lodgings and the Aces' practice facilities.

"You know what I should have been doing last night, instead of getting married to my new captain?" Jeff said as they passed their third 'gentleman's club'. He didn't even wait for Parson's 'what?' before answering his own question. "I should have been having dinner at my mom's place, like I do every weekend we're not on the road. Yeah, trades are part of the business, but I was talking contract extensions with the GM just three days ago! McTavish knew I wanted to stay in Edmonton! And if I'd been given a choice, I'm sorry, but I would have said fuck no getting shipped out to the desert!" 

Parson seemed an order of magnitude more distressed by Jeff's dislike of Vegas than he had at waking up next to another man and finding a rapidly oxidizing wedding ring on his finger. 

Strip mall sleaze morphed into unnaturally green suburbia as Parson started and abandoned several responses.

"But now you're on a team that's actually going to the playoffs," Parson finally said. "That's gotta count for something, right?"

"We'll bust out of our drought eventually! I know we will! But I won't get to be a part of it because now I'm on a team in a place with no natural ice and whose ice girls make ours look like they're dressed up in hazmat suits!"

Parson raised an eyebrow, but kept his eyes on the road. "Never would have taken you for the 'wholesome farm girl' type. Most of the guys say they like seeing a little more skin."

It felt like a question. He'd heard these non-questions a few times before, usually right after he'd told a persistent puck bunny to take a hike.

If asked why he suddenly went pale, Jeff would have blamed the hangover, but he thought he did a decent job of recovering. "Not if it means they're shedding sequins and bits of feather all over the ice," he snapped. "When we played you in November, Hallsy wiped out on a tassel and lost a tooth."

"Oh, come on! The crew agreed to stop wearing all the fun wiggly bits after that, and you know it! They worked damned hard on designing those outfits to get that classic showgirl look with some modern oomph, and then the league had to go make a whole big stink about it and everything, like they were deliberately trying to sabotage other teams."

As far as Jeff was concerned, it was an entirely plausible theory. 

"Right, and this is why we live in a world where the league has three paragraphs of rules about nipple tassels but still can't agree on what goaltender interference is."

Parson let out a surprised bark of laughter. "You know, if they ever do come up with a clear definition, the next thing we'll see is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping down the Strip."

"This is true," Jeff had to admit, laughing. Then, because he didn't want to give Parson the satisfaction: "Of course, another thing that is true is that you guys have an octogenarian Elvis impersonator as your main anthem singer. With all the musical acts you've got to choose from in Vegas, you picked that guy?"

"Hey!" For the first time that morning, Parson sounded genuinely angry. "Anthem Elvis is awesome, okay? He sounds just like Elvis would now if Elvis hadn't, you know, died on the shitter forty years ago. Sort of... later Johnny Cash vibes, but better? The only thing that could possibly be any more awesome than Anthem Elvis—and it's only possibly, not definitely—would be having Britney herself sing for us."

"Britney?" That didn't fit Jeff's image of Parson. "I would've thought you'd be more of a Nickel–"

"If the next syllable out of your mouth is 'back,' I will make myself a widower right here, right now. Are we clear?"

Jeff nodded, because he didn't know what his voice would do if he spoke. For a moment there, Parson's eyes looked like they had gone solid black.

"Anyhow, speaking of the divine Ms. Spears, Anthem Elvis does a killer version of 'Oops, I Did It Again.' That pelvic thrust he does when he gets to the 'I'm not so innocent' line?" He gave a low whistle. "Wow. I hope I can move like that when I'm his age." 

Jeff tried and failed not to picture Parson thrusting his hips. The briefs from this morning had left a definite impression. 

By the time they got to Summerlin, they were running later than Parson had hoped, so he dropped Jeff off at the apartment building where the Aces had stashed him and headed off on the promised Starbucks run. 

Jeff changed into his workout gear and glared at the remains of the 'welcome' packet scattered on the floor and bed.

It seemed almost inevitable that when Parson finally picked him up, he gave Jeff a trenti caramel macchiato and nothing else. "Here you go."

Jeff frowned at the macchiato, which was supposed to have been a venti Americano with four shots and two pumps of raspberry syrup. "Where's my muffin?"

Parson had put on a spare pair of sunglasses, which made his face even harder to read. "We're about to get an annulment, and you're insisting on pet names?"

"You suck."

"Only if asked nicely, sugar-bun." Parson peeled out of the parking lot like a maniac before Jeff could figure out how on earth he was expected to respond to that remark. Parson's complete silence after that statement didn't help.

Fortunately, the Aces' practice facility was only a few minutes away. Like most NHL practice facilities Jeff had visited, it was a box with Interesting and Expensive Architectural Features slapped on so no one would mistake it for a car dealership or discount warehouse.

What made the Aces' facility truly unique was the giant, animated neon image of the Aces' mascot gesturing enticingly towards the main entrance. Lady Luck: a ladybug with the Aces' logo for spots. 

From the waist up, Lady Luck followed the general pattern of most other NHL mascots—a design that would translate nicely into mass-produced plushies that could be sold to the kiddies for twenty-five dollars a pop. 

Below the waist was another story, a slightly less kid-oriented one involving fishnet stockings, shapely legs, and–

"One thing I've always wondered is, how the hell do you attach skate blades to platform heels?" Jeff asked as he got out of the car.

"Dunno." Parson paused, giving him a long, considering look. "But Kevin—you know, the guy who usually wears the suit on the ice?—says they're not as bad to skate in as you'd think. He's only twisted his ankle once that I know of."

Jeff did a mental replay of some of Lady Luck's friskier antics, and found them much more intriguing than he had before. 

Kevin, Jeff decided, might be worth getting to know.

"That guy's got some killer legs," he said, because Parson was obviously waiting for him to say something. It wasn't the best thing he could have said, but at least he put the verbal brakes on before he asked what the rest of Kevin looked like or commented on his flexibility. 

If Parson noticed Jeff's slip, he didn't say anything. The only thing that happened as they entered the building was that a tension that Jeff hadn't picked up on before became noticeable in its sudden absence. Maybe it was because they were finally about to 'deal with it.'

It was good to know that on some level, Parson had been just as freaked out as Jeff. Also, as annoying as his weird, upbeat calm had been, Jeff supposed it was preferable to how many hockey players he knew would have reacted upon waking up in bed next to another man.

Now that he thought of it, things could have been a lot worse than they were. Maybe that hypothetical stray puck in the Blues game had only sent him to purgatory.

Speaking of purgatory, Parson led him through a public lobby that looked like all of Jeff's assumptions about Vegas crammed into one space. Jeff was pretty sure he spotted at least one slot machine in among all the mirrors, velvet, fish tanks, potted palms, gilded columns, and neon.

The Aces' corporate offices, in jarring contrast, were decorated with the sort of expensive blandness that could be found in any corporate headquarters from Winnipeg to Washington.

The receptionist was an impeccably dressed and styled older woman who had the long legs and killer bone structure of a retired supermodel. Yes, she had silver hair and wrinkles and ropy hands, but as she stood up from behind her desk in a sinuous uncurling of joints, the five inches of her Louboutin heels lifting her to an intimidating six foot four, the more primitive parts of Jeff's brain frantically signaled that hiding under a rock and gibbering in fear was a really good option right now. 

Instead of welcoming them, the receptionist gracefully stalked over to a large whiteboard on the far side of the room. The whiteboard had DAYS SINCE OUR LAST INCIDENT inscribed across the top. Below that was a large handwritten "10" and smudges hinting at a great deal of erasing and rewriting.

She turned, glared at Parson with hooded eyes and, with a gesture that would have suited a guillotine spokesmodel, swiped her hand over the '1' in the '10,' resetting it to zero.

"I'll tell Bert you're here." She had enough ice in her voice to get them through all eighty-two games and the playoffs, too.

"That's Joan," Parson said in a whisper even though Joan had left the room. "Do not get on her bad side."

"Not that I was planning to, but why?"

"Former showgirl with a lot of interesting boyfriends from back in the days of Old Vegas, if you know what I mean."

Jeff didn't.

"As in, just like the mysterious owners who no one has ever met, Joan has connections." Parson rolled his eyes when Jeff shrugged his confusion. "As in the way Frank Sinatra had connections. As in, if you're stupid enough to piss her off, you might find yourself in cement skate guards on a one-way trip to the bottom of Lake Mead."

Jeff waited for laughter or a just kidding! 

Nothing happened.

"I wanna go home..."

But no. He was not going home. Instead, he was being ushered into one of the back offices to meet Bert Wiggins, the Aces' chief legal counsel.

Bert was not the smiling, schmoozing, pricy suit kind of lawyer Jeff was used to seeing around the Oilers' offices. 

Bert did not smile. He did not schmooze. His suit didn't so much look custom-tailored as recently slept in. Possibly by ferrets. He sat hunched like a disgruntled, balding owl behind his gigantic desk, and he when he finally looked up from his papers to glare witheringly at them, it was through thick, round glasses. 

Parson gave a cheery wave and a cocky grin. "Hey, Bert. Didja miss me?"

Bert did not dignify that question with a response. He closed his eyes as if afflicted by a sudden migraine and took a deep breath. Clearly, if he had missed Parson, it was in the way you missed a fungal itch that flared up when the weather turned humid. His composure quickly regained, he turned his chair and pulled a slim binder from the shelf behind him. 

"I have to say I was not expecting to see you in my office quite so soon, Mr. Troy."

"We got married!" Jeff blurted out. "We somehow accidentally got married and I don't know what I'm supposed to do! My mom is going to kill me!"

Bert paused, a sheaf of paper halfway out of the binder.

"He didn't read the brochure?"

"He didn't read the brochure," Parson affirmed in a perfect call-and-response.

"What's this brochure everyone keeps talking about?"

The twin judgmental looks he got from Bert and Parson made the oppressive silence that followed his outburst twenty times more oppressive. 

"It was in your welcome packet," Parson said slowly, as if Jeff had trouble with words longer than one syllable.

"You mean the welcome packet that spewed red glitter when I opened it? That welcome packet? I thought that thing was a joke!"

"What the fuck is wrong with glitter?" Parson demanded. 

"What's wrong is that it went everywhere and now it looks like someone axe-murdered Tinkerbell in my apartment!"

Bert sighed (Jeff got the impression he did that a lot) and slid a glossy trifold brochure across the desk. Jeff picked it up.

The black-and-red color scheme was now depressingly familiar. Jeff had started to think of it as the evil mirror-universe version of the blue and orange he had worn proudly onto the ice just thirty-six hours ago. 

The brochure still looked just as much like a joke as it had the first time he saw it. 

I WOKE UP MARRIED. WHAT DO I DO NOW? swooshed across the front of the brochure in a jaunty retro font. A dapper cartoon guy who might have been one of the Rat Pack grinned and gestured cheerfully at the lettering. He had a conspicuous ring on the fourth finger of his left hand.

The words Second Edition: October 2014 were in smaller lettering across the bottom. A quick scan of the interior revealed many of the same phrases Parson had used that morning, word for word.

Bert shoved the sheaf of paper at Parson. "Sign or initial as indicated on the parts highlighted in yellow," he said as if by rote. "You know the drill. Mr. Troy, when Mr. Parson is finished, you will do the same on lines highlighted in blue. And please be careful to sign only on the lines in your assigned color."

This last bit was directed at Parson, who was flipping through the document at an alarming pace, signing and initialing as he went. It wasn't like Jeff had actually read most of the stuff that some guy in a suit had given him to sign after his trade, but at least he'd made a decent show of doing so.

"What the hell is it I'm supposed to be signing? Other than blue highlights, I mean."

Bert raised an eyebrow, surprised and possibly a little impressed. "I'm pleased to see you have at least some sense of self-preservation, Mr. Troy. What you will be signing—and of course you do have the option to read it and have your own attorney review it if you choose—are standard annulment forms and disclosures."

Parson scoffed. "You don't have to bother with that shit. It's all just standard nonsense, and we've got our plausible deniability, so it's all good. Sign it, let Bert here file it, and then poof! No more marriage." He clicked the pen shut with a flourish. "Like I told you, we'll take care of it."

Jeff's mind, now clearing of its massive hangover, was making some rapid calculations. "So... this sort of thing happens often enough that you actually made a brochure about it?"

"Yeah. A brochure you didn't read because your delicate sensibilities were so offended by being glitter-bombed. Now are you going to sign, or what? If we're late to practice, Coach Crane will give us his 'I'm not mad I'm just disappointed' look, and trust me, you don't want that."

Jeff picked up the papers and the pen. He clicked the pen back open and turned to the first blue highlight and the yellow spot with Parson's initials next to it. His eye twitched.

"So, if I did read through this, what would I find in here?" 

Aside from the fact that Parson had initialed everything KVP 90 like the diva he was.

"Like I said, standard stuff. Things about how we didn't 'consummate the relationship' or whatever, don't have any shared assets to worry about, yadda yadda and so forth. Now be careful to sign everywhere and only where you're supposed to sign. I'm serious. There's, like, a not-zero chance that Scraps miiight technically still be married to Seguin."

Jeff matched the nickname to the Aces player quickly enough. "Oh. So that's why Benn tried to check him through the glass the last time you guys played the Stars?"

Parson shrugged and Bert muttered something dire about filing fees and NDAs.

Jeff supposed it was a good thing that neither man looked disgusted (except maybe about the shoddy paperwork) or made a shitty, homophobic joke that Jeff would have to pretend to find funny. If that was the only bright spot in the past twenty-four hours, he would cling to it like a life preserver.

Although...

He looked at Parson's initials. He remembered what Parson had said about shared assets. He felt a few more synapses recover from acute alcohol poisoning.

It was just enough for him to have an idea. A wonderful, awful idea.

He might not be able to engineer a trade back to the Oilers, but at least he could have this.

Jeff gave a theatrical sigh and clicked the pen closed. "I'm sorry, but I can't sign this."

Parson rolled his eyes. "Fine, if you want to read through it after practice, go ahead, but you were the one who was all wound up about wanting to get this taken care of. Trust me, there is nothing in there that's gonna bite you in the ass."

He ignored Parson, instead directing his next remarks to Bert. "I can't sign because there's a problem with shared assets we need to work out first."

Funny, but when he was pissed, Parson's eyes were the color of dirty ice. "Don't even think about trying to get custody of my cat, asshole. Better people than you have tried, and they have failed."

"I'm not talking about your cat, although she is adorable." Jeff knew this because she had cameoed in one of his favorite pictures from that Body Issue shoot.

Parson beamed like a proud papa.

"What I'm talking about is our—sorry, my number. Ninety has been my number since I started playing, and I don't want to give it up."

There was something miraculous about the way Parson's expression shifted from pride to mild confusion to sheer horror.

"What? No! That's my number! I–I've got seniority! And I was born in 1990!" Parson nodded his head sharply as if that settled that.

"So was I," Jeff said cheerfully. "January fourth. And speaking of seniority, everyone knows when your birthday is, Mr. 'Born on the Fourth of July.'" He almost mentioned the sparklers and the strategically placed bunting with the suggestive pleat in that one Body Issue photo, but stopped himself just in time.

"Well, I've had this number since I signed with the league!"

Jeff pointed at Parson. "2009." Then he pointed at himself at himself. "2008."

Bert watched the whole exchange with undisguised glee.

"I've had it since Bantams!"

Jeff smirked. "Mini Mites."

Parson pulled at his hair and snarled in frustration. "Bert! Tell him he can't have my number! I've been on the team longer, and I'm captain!"

Bert sighed eloquently, but Jeff saw him fighting back a blissful grin. "There is precedent for more senior players retaining a number when they are traded to a different team, even if that number is already held by a current player."

Parson's face was now the color of oatmeal that had been sitting in a warm, humid place for a little too long. "Are you seriously taking his side on this?!" 

"No shrieking!" Jeff reminded him cheerfully.

Bert leaned back in his chair, fingers laced together beneath a smile he no longer bothered trying to hide. "Yes, I am taking Mr. Troy's side in this case. As to why, given all of the trouble and expense you have caused the organization over the past few years, Mr. Parson, I consider it due and reasonable recompense. Also known as retribution. Or, as one might say, sweet, sweet revenge."

"You asshole!" Parson hissed at Jeff. "You utter, utter asshole!"

"Of course, I could be persuaded to make a deal and take a different number," Jeff said quickly. It was tempting to draw this out and watch Parson squirm, but the momentary satisfaction wouldn't be worth the hell Parson could put him through for the rest of the season. "Fourteen's still available, right? One-four for January fourth?"

"Maybe," a wary Parson said over Bert's 'yes.' "It depends what you want for it. You're sneaky."

It sounded closer to admiring than annoyed. Maybe.

"It's nothing much," Jeff lied as he moved to close on the deal he really wanted to make. "I just want you, as captain, to make sure that the other guys use the nickname I want them to use. They don't get to make one up. They don't get to choose one for me."

Bert made a little ah of understanding, because he was a smart guy who could make the same connections that had made Jeff's time in Bantams an utter misery. 

Parson just looked puzzled. "Hold on... I think I remember what you said it was. It's Swoosh or something like that, right?"

"Swoops."

Parson made the same kind of unnecessarily rude face he'd made earlier. "Huh? Why–"

Jeff waggled a finger at Parson. "Nope. 'Why' doesn't matter. What matters is that you get to keep your number, and I get to keep my nickname. Deal?" 

He held out his hand. Parson hesitated, then shook on it. After that, Jeff signed and initialed in the blue spots with no further fuss, Bert drew up a quick little contract outlining the number-for-nickname deal, and the terrifying Joan notarized the paperwork (Parse handed over the five dollar notary fee without being asked) and took it away to be filed. Or something.

Apparently, thanks to Joan's connections, the annulment would be finalized before practice was over.

Of course, now that his two most immediate problems had been solved, Jeff was hit by a case of the guilts.

"Nah, it's all good," Parson said when Jeff tried to apologize for the number stunt as they headed to the locker room. They reached the door, and Parson gave him a smile that set off alarm bells. "It just means I don't feel even the slightest bit bad for not warning you about this."

Parson yanked open the door and jumped aside as the red glitter made a return appearance in the form of a cascade that covered Jeff from head to toe. Parson followed Jeff into the locker room from a safe distance, cackling, as everyone else applauded and hollered. 

A sign over Jeff's stall read Welcome to the Ex-Husbands' Club. 

The sign was creased and torn and had multiple corrections telling of a bitter, ongoing war over apostrophe placement.

"Thanks for not being an asshole about everything," Parson said quietly, clapping him on the shoulder and sending up a cloud of red glitter.

"Likewise," Jeff muttered. Unfortunately, there was no way he could say 'thanks for not being a homophobic bag of dicks' without raising a whole bunch of questions he was in no way ready to answer. So, he left things at that, got ready for practice, picked glitter out of his teeth, and tried to shake the feeling that he had forgotten something important in last night's alcoholic fog. 

Meanwhile, Parson held up his end of their bargain and made sure everyone was clear on the nickname thing, making it sound like it was just part of making the new guy feel welcome after a rough and unexpected trade. The rings went into an old mayonnaise jar that already held a sizable collection of cheap and tacky rings, and Nutsy (starting goalie and Master of the Fines) informed Jeff that, as a first-time offender, he only owed fifty bucks.

Parson owed two hundred and twenty-five dollars. And forty-nine cents.

Jeff figured it was safer not to ask. 

After that, practice went well enough (except for a visit to the medic to get glitter out of his eye), and given that they had an early flight to Toronto the next morning, Jeff didn't have to worry about coming up with excuses to go back to the apartment instead of for another night out on the town.

He had had more than enough Vegas for one night. Or a dozen nights, for that matter. All he wanted to do was fall into bed for the rest of the season.

Jeff stared dully at the red glitter covering his bed and decided that collapsing on the couch was the better option until he could get hold of a vacuum. He changed into a clean tee shirt and boxers and grabbed some of the reading material (okay, fine, it was the stack of porn and suchlike he'd grabbed off his nightstand instead of his half-finished copy of The Goldfinch) he had shoved in his suitcase as part of his last-minute packing. 

He paused, put down the Body Issue that featured Parson and picked up the one featuring Joffrey Lupul instead.

Yeah, he needed to take the edge off and relax after the clusterfuck of the past two days, but it felt kind of pathetic to jerk off to pictures of your ex-husband, even if you had only been married for less than twenty-four hours.

 

Chapter Text

SECOND EDITION, OCTOBER 2014

 

I WOKE UP MARRIED. WHAT DO I DO NOW?

 

Welcome to Las Vegas!

We're famous for lots of things! Gambling! Restaurants! Shows! Elvis! 

And, of course, our amazing Aces! 

There's one other thing we're known for, thanks to Nevada's unique marriage laws. 

Where else can you party the night away and wake up married to someone whose name you don't even know?

So, if you ever find yourself with a wedding ring on your finger, another person in your bed, and no memory of the night before, the first thing to remember is:

 

DON'T PANIC!!!

 

Your Aces Legal and PR teams are here to help!

You may think your life is ruined and your reputation is in shreds, but this doesn't have to be the case! Just remember these few simple steps:

 

1. Stop by our legal office at your earliest opportunity. We have all the forms you need to file for your divorce or annulment. We even have a convenient on-site notary* and we will be happy to file your paperwork on your behalf**.

* Fee of $5 due up front. Cash only, please.

** Filing costs will be deducted from your paycheck. In the event two members of the Aces organization are unfortunate enough to marry each other, costs will be evenly divided between both parties unless other arrangements are made in advance.

 

2. Plausible deniability is your friend! Annulments are simpler, and have fewer potential financial and legal consequences than divorces. If you think you or your new spouse may have collapsed in a drunken stupor before the marriage could be consummated, don't go looking for evidence to the contrary! Avoid checking wastebaskets, looking too closely at sheets, or inspecting your clothing. The less you know, the better off you are! Ignorance is half the battle!

 

3. If you have done the do with your new spouse, the paperwork becomes more complicated, but once again—don't panic! Our legal team can help with almost any eventuality* and our medical office can conduct discreet STD and pregnancy screenings** free of charge.

* If you were already married prior to your Vegas Adventure, please refer to our "CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE A BIGAMIST!" brochure for more information. Marriage counseling services can be booked via our Employee Assistance Program at 888-YOU-RSOL.

** If necessary, our legal team has a broad menu of child support arrangements to choose from, and payments can be made via our convenient payroll deduction program.

 

4. If you woke up married to a person of the same gender, then YES, your marriage is almost definitely legal! Same-sex marriage has been legal in Nevada since October, 2014. If you have not heretofore known yourself to be attracted to persons of the same gender, THINK BEFORE YOU ACT! Please take a moment to review the Diversity and Inclusion* paragraph in your employment contract and do NOT say or do anything rash**!

* Remember, Hockey is for Everyone(TM)!

**This means you, Carl.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE MEDIA?

 

First of all, remember the most important thing—DON'T PANIC!

Second of all, stay OFF of Twitter!*

Our highly qualified legal and media professionals have plans in place for eventualities ranging from the paparazzi snapping a blurry photo of you within a quarter-mile radius of the Little White Chapel to someone 'accidentally' uploading an uncut video of the wedding night to Pornhub. Keep quiet, trust our media relations team, and remember that the words 'no comment' are your friend!

* This means you, Kent.

 

Finally, and most important of all...

 

 

LET'S GO ACES!!!!

 

 

 

Chapter Text

APRIL, 2015–JULY, 2015

The rest of the season and post-season was a series of plusses and minuses for Jeff, with no telling from day to day which way the dice would land.

(The dice metaphor came to him a little too readily. Clearly, Vegas had gotten into his system. Sort of like MRSA.)

Plus: Jeff got to go to the playoffs for the first time ever. He hated to admit it, but this would not have happened if he was still with the Oilers. Other plusses in this category included sweeping the Jets in the first round and not quite sweeping the Flames in the second.

Division Champions had a very nice sound to it, even if it happened to be with the wrong team.

Minus: The fucking Blackhawks, who beat them to take the Western Conference championship. Jeff tried to tell himself it was still pretty awesome to get that far and that at least they took the Hawks to game seven, but losing was still losing.

Another plus: It didn't take long for him to establish a decent circle of friends on the team. 

Scrappy was pretty much made of puppies and sunshine, and not at all what you'd expect from a guy the Department of Player Safety had on speed dial. True, he wasn't the sharpest skate on the ice, but he was good people.

Nutsy was one of those quick-witted, noodle-jointed people who resembled a cartoon more than an actual person, and whose usual high decibel level masked a deep introversion and fundamental weirdness. In short, he was a fairly typical goalie. 

Trigger, who had been introduced to him in all seriousness as Nutsy's emotional support winger, was a stocky, burly guy who was almost as fast as Parse on the ice despite being built like a tank. Trigger was good company mostly because he generally (with notable exceptions) acted like a sane and responsible adult. This was, as Jeff quickly discovered, a rare commodity on the Aces.

Booger, Jeff's usual partner on defense, was friendly in an overwhelming, Russian sort of way, and was also the only one other than Parse who Jeff could talk into watching basketball with him.

Cheeto, the Aces' first-line center, had been politely reserved to the point of being standoffish at first. Then, during warmups before his third game with the Aces, Jeff had cheerfully and thoroughly instructed a couple of racist (and homophobic—the world's worst BOGO deal) Aeros fans on some creative ways they could go fornicate with themselves. After that, he and Cheeto gradually settled into the sort of easy friendship that was usually expressed via pranks, wildly competitive one-upmanship, and book recommendations.

Hell, aside from a few weirdly awkward moments (and a lot of yelling at each other), he was getting along pretty well with Parse despite their rough start. By the time they hit the playoffs, Parse was his usual bus and plane buddy more often than not.

They even ended up having to get another annulment in July.

Major minus: Carl Chadwick. The less said about that particular waste of carbon, the better.

Major unexpected plus: Kevin, aka 'Lady Luck,' turned out to be very much worth getting to know. 

Particularly in the Biblical sense.

It just so happened that not only was Kevin hot and flexible and in possession of an iron-clad NDA, he was eager to fulfill a long-held fantasy of getting to fuck a NHL player. 

As for Jeff, he was eager to fulfill a long-held fantasy of actually getting laid on a regular basis.

The inevitable minus was that in August, Kevin accepted a once-in-a-lifetime offer from Cirque du Soleil to be one of the primary skater-acrobats in a new ice-themed show they were workshopping. It was too good of an opportunity for him to pass up, even though Jeff thought combining aerial silks with skate blades had a number of potential drawbacks. And that maybe it was tempting fate to set Kevin's main number to a cover of 'It's Raining Men.' 

Oh, well. Jeff had known from the start that it wouldn't last. Kevin had been pleasantly direct about being up for some fun on the regular but not willing to get serious with someone he couldn't date publicly. As for Jeff, he was in no way eager to be the first out NHL player.

(Especially because in this instance, coming out would also mean being forever known as The Guy Who Fucked The Mascot.)

So, Kevin and his collection of intriguing toys and restraints left for Montreal and Jeff was left with a few online porn accounts, a collection of vintage Blueboy magazines, and some worn out ESPN Body Issues.

Speaking of which, another minus was that Parse's issue became doubly Off Limits in July.

A plus was that Tyler Seguin's Body Issue dropped just a few days later and was a most excellent replacement for Parse's issue.

Minus number one about Seguin's issue was that it was a little tamer than Jeff had been hoping for, even taking into account the fact that ESPN had vowed to 'tone things down' after all the uproar caused by Parse's issue. Still, it would do.

Or at least it did until (minus number two) it joined the Off Limits list after the Aces played the Stars in pre-season. 

A minor plus about minus number two was that it wasn't the first rodeo for either party, so he and Seguin filled out the annulment paperwork with no fuss other than squabbling over who should pay for the notary fee. (Jeff paid up after Joan gave him a scrotum-shriveling look that told him to play nice or else.)

And then there was the matter of his contract. 

That wasn't so much plus vs. minus as it was...

Well, he wasn't sure what it was. 

All he knew for sure was that when the plusses and minuses were all balanced out, it wasn't the answer he had been hoping for.

* * *

When Edmonton got first pick in the draft and claimed Connor McDavid, Jeff had a brief surge of hope that his team might take him back. Maybe dumping him in the middle of the desert was part of their strategy for tanking the season so they could get a top pick, and in the end he would be welcomed back like the Prodigal Son after his sojourn in Sin City and would then go on to help them end their Cup drought in a suitably dramatic fashion.

Unfortunately, his story turned out to be more like that of Moses, who got to lay his peepers on the Promised Land from a distance but never actually got to live there, too bad, so sad. 

Parse was less than sympathetic to his plight.

"So what? That means they have one star player. Whoop-de-do. Fine, two if you count Hall. My point stands—two star players isn't an entire team. It's not even an entire line," Parse scoffed from where he and his star-spangled swim trunks were enthroned in a deck chair. Instead of his usual snapback, he sported a sparkly red-white-and-blue party hat at a jaunty angle. He also had two cocktail umbrellas tucked into his cowlick. "Look, for all you know, one month in, Savior McJesus winds up on IR, and there goes their chance of a winning season."

Jeff had had enough of Bible stories for one day, thank you. And enough of Clambake McDingdong. One of the servers Parse had hired for his Annual Fourth of July Birthday Bonanza Pool Party happened to wander by, so Jeff took the opportunity to order another bourbon and Coke. It would be his last for the evening, because he really wasn't in the mood to deal with the annulment paperwork. 

"Yeah, I guess," he said once the server had moved on to take Cheeto's order. "It's just that... you know how you picture your life going one way, and then it goes another, and even if it's not all bad, it still kind of sucks that it didn't work out how you wanted?"

Parse went quiet for a moment, then shook it off and asked the server to bring him another Singapore Sling even though he still had half of his current one left.

Jeff didn't pry. He wasn't in the mood to deal with someone else's angst just then. 

"So does that mean you're gonna sign with us, Swoops?" Scrappy asked, all eager puppy that no one wanted to be the one to kick.

"Yup." 

There was no good reason for him not to sign. The Aces were offering a one-year contract with a better-than-decent pay increase and some nice production bonuses. It was a sweetheart deal, because at the end of the season he would be a free agent with enough years in the NHL to qualify for a no-trade clause wherever he signed. 

(He would have qualified now if the Oilers hadn't put him with their farm team for most of his first season. It had been a year he needed not only for his own development but to drive home the fact that he wanted to be home.)

The question was, what the hell would he do, if Edmonton still didn't want him?

Anyhow, his unenthusiastic answer was greeted with whoops of joy from Scrappy and Cheeto and a look of prime smugness from Parse. 

"So does this mean I'll finally get to meet the owners?"  In Jeff's opinion, it was straight-up rude that they had never even introduced themselves after uprooting his entire existence.

Parse shook his head and slammed down the rest of his Singapore Sling before answering. 

"Nope. Sorry, cupcake." One of these days, Parse would give up the stupid pet name joke that had started with a forgotten muffin, but today was not that day. 

Jeff assumed it was part of his ongoing punishment for trying to steal his number back from Parse. 

Parse handed the empty glass to the server and accepted its replacement. "It'll just be you, Bert, and your agent. Oh, and Joan will be there to notarize shit like usual." 

That didn't sound good. The last time Jeff's agent crossed paths with Joan, the poor guy ended up hiding in the men's room for two and a half hours, sobbing his way through an existential crisis.

"What about uh, Hank? Er, Hal? You know... what's-his-name?" He had vague memories of some guy in a suit who'd handled his trade paperwork.

Parse, Cheeto, and Scrappy all looked puzzled for a moment before Cheeto got a clue (as the only college grad on the team, he had a reputation to uphold). 

"Oh! The GM! Yeah, whatever. He'll be there. Anyhow, as for the owners, they—hey! Is that Elvis?"

Parse blinked, then sat up and waved enthusiastically at an elderly man with a silver pompadour, a pink Hawaiian shirt, a platter of meatballs, and a general air of mild confusion. "Awesome! You made it!"

And with that, the question of the Aces' mysterious owners no one had ever met was quickly forgotten in the rush to get some of the bacon-wrapped meatballs that Anthem Elvis was apparently famous for. Jeff would have been annoyed, but in truth the meatballs really were that good.

And besides, the owners were probably just some boring corporate syndicate or hedge fund or something.

One more year, Jeff told himself. He could do this for one more year. Better the devil you know...

"Poker chip for your thoughts, snickerdoodle," Parse said, startling Jeff out of his musings. He settled back down in the deck chair next to Jeff's, his fourth Singapore Sling of the afternoon in one hand and a plate of meatballs in the other.

"Just that if you keep that up," Jeff said with a nod to the drink, "you're gonna end up married to Carl."

Parse wrinkled his nose. "Ew. Just... ew. I'm happy to say that no one on this team has ever gotten plastered enough to get hitched to that douchenozzle. There's only one thing I could imagine that would be worse than that."

"Which is?"

"Nope. Uh-uh. Not even gonna say it. It's that gross." Parse plucked the umbrella from his drink and tucked it into his hair to join the other three.

Jeff ducked his head, laughing softly. "God, you are such a fucking dork." When he looked back up, Parse was watching him with a strange, pensive expression. He shook it off, though, before Jeff could ask what was wrong.

"Check that out," Parse said abruptly, pointing to the corner of the pool, where Booger was getting more than a little R-rated with his girlfriend. "What are the odds they'll be dealing with an annulment tomorrow, huh?"

"Mmm. More like a divorce, given the serious lack of plausible deniability currently going on over there," Jeff countered. Parse was going to have to shock the pool tomorrow. "But I dunno... He and Yelena have been together long enough I could see them trying to stick it out, maybe?"

"Yeah," Parse said, more than a little wistful. He was one of the few other players with no one in the WAGs, so Jeff got the whole feeling left out thing (even if his reasons for being dateless were fundamentally different than Parse's). "Anyhow, speaking of sticking it out, I'm glad you decided you didn't hate Vegas as much as you did when you first got here."

"Eh, it has its good points," Jeff admitted. What he wouldn't admit was that one of these good points was the view he currently had of the swimsuit-clad man who had recently been promoted to fifth on Vegas's Most Eligible Bachelors list. 

Just because Parse was straight didn't mean that Jeff couldn't (discreetly) enjoy the view.

"Anyhow, I think congrats are in order for your new contract, honey-bun," Parse said as he signaled one of the roving waiters. 

Jeff protested only a little when Parse ordered him a Singapore Sling of his own. Later on, he'd blame his moment of weakness on Parse's smile, and the way his always-changing eyes shone gold in the setting sun.

That was later, though. The next morning, however, when the ever-disgruntled Bert demanded to know how on earth Jeff and Parse managed to get married a second time in less than six months, Jeff only shrugged and mumbled an "I 'unno."

At least he wasn't having as bad a morning as some other people were. Poor Booger had followed him and Parse to the Little White Chapel, Yelena cheerfully and eagerly in tow, only to wind up married to Nutsy instead.

Nutsy's wife was pissed.

Chapter Text

OCTOBER, 2015

From time to time over the rest of the summer, Jeff did wonder about the Aces' mysterious owners who no one had ever met, but he was busy enough that the thought never stuck for long.

First, he went back up to Edmonton for the rest of July so he could work with his usual trainer and pack up his apartment. There was no way in hell was he taking Mom up on her offer to pack for him, because she would find his better-than-Body-Issue reading and/or viewing material, and he did not want to endure a repeat of the Great Porn Stash Incident of '05. 

Then in mid-August, after a quick trip with Mom to Ontario to visit his Aunt Margaret and Uncle Graeme (not really related, but still...), it was back to Vegas for a weekend of marathon good-bye sex with Kevin, and letting Parse and Cheeto take him apartment-hunting. 

Next was training camp and pre-season, and then it was time for The Show to begin.

If Jeff had thought that he'd gotten used to the craziness of a Vegas home game, the spectacle of the home opener against the Blackhawks blew all of those assumptions up high enough to wave hello to the International Space Station.

It was one big ball of delicious sensory overload and near-religious frenzy, and to his surprise, Jeff... 

Really liked it?

True, he was a wee bit disappointed with their new Lady Luck. Allison was a sweet gal and a super-talented skater, but she was no Kevin. Other than that, though, it was fucking ah-MAY-zing, with pyrotechnics, music, lasers, synchronized skating, an electric drum line, and these wacky things that looked like giant multi-colored hamster balls with acrobats inside.

Anthem Elvis absolutely killed it with his pre-game mini-concert, even busting out his silver sequined jumpsuit and red-lined cape for the occasion. And speaking of sequins...

The ice crew had blinged it up as much as they could within the restrictions of those three paragraphs of rules, and had—to Jeff's eternal delight and benefit of his spank bank—added a few men to their number. Now, in most teams' ice crews, the women generally wore cheerleader-type outfits while the men wore track pants and plain tee shirts, but this was Vegas, baby!

The last time Jeff had seen outfits like that was on a roadie in New York, when he had snuck out after curfew to catch a Boylesque show at the Slipper Room. That evening had given him an appreciation for men's corsetry which he was more than pleased to rekindle in Vegas.

One downside to the new ice crew additions was Carly's snide running commentary—which as usual rode right up against the edge of being something you could actually report to HR—as they were watching from inside the tunnel. The other was the stony look on Parse's face that Jeff was trying hard not to read too much into. 

At least the corners of Parse's mouth quirked up when Scrappy dope-slapped Carly on the back of the helmet to shut him up.

Finally, it was time to hit the ice. The crowd roared and howled and cheered when Jeff's name was announced, and for a moment the rush of drunken adoration made him forget that the Aces weren't his team.

He stood quietly with his head respectfully bowed while Anthem Elvis crooned out the Star Spangled Banner. Jeff resented that he mostly only heard the U.S. anthem anymore, but he liked the way Elvis performed it. The blues-and-gospel riffs and overall energy he threw in there actually made the tune sound good. Sometimes it was hard to believe that the guy had just turned eighty.

Anthem Elvis didn't even try to hit the more obnoxious high notes, opting instead for a growl that went right to the parts of Jeff's brain (and elsewhere) that had been appreciating corsetry a few minutes ago. Given the way the arena exploded with wolf whistles and hoots of delight when Elvis ducked his head and jammed the mike up in the air with a rumbled thankyew, thankyewverramuch, they'd felt it, too.

The arena pulsed with lights from all the displays and from thousands of camera flashes, so that being on the ice felt like being in the middle of a (non-lethal) supernova. Everything was lit up–

–except for one small bank of windows on the luxury suite level, right at center ice. No one was in the outside seats for that suite, and there wasn't even a speck of light coming from behind the glass. From the look of things, it was less than half the width of the other suites. 

Before Jeff had a chance to do anything more than notice the presence of a weirdly small and mysteriously empty suite in an otherwise sold-out arena, it was time to to get in position. 

He and Booger covered the points, ready to move to defend their goal or their forwards. 

Parse and Trigger flanked Cheeto as he hunkered down for the face-off against Toews. 

The puck dropped, and time stepped sideways into the slow-fast-crystalline-chaotic rush of fucking great hockey.

They won. 

Parse got a hatty. Tweety the rookie got his first ever NHL goal in his first ever NHL game. Nutsy got a shutout thanks to Shaw's goal being called off, and it was anyone's guess as to whether Nutsy was happier with the shutout or the schadenfreude.

As for Jeff, he got an assist on one of Parse's goals, a goal of his own, and a five minute major for decking Kane (worth it!) to land his first ever Gordie Howe hat trick.

It was one hell of a way to start the season. 

So it was no surprise that most of the guys who weren't (currently) married went out to hit the clubs afterwards. 

Most.

Jeff noticed Parse hanging back and taking his time in the locker room after press. That made sense, given that he got at least five probing 'questions' about the Falconers' home opener (they had clobbered the Senators, not that this was any major accomplishment), and the irony of how the Falcs had Zimmermann and the Aces had Parse after so many people expected it to be the other way around back in the '09 draft, and what would it be like to be on the ice with his old liney again but this time as opponents, blah, blah, bullshit, barf.

As much as what had happened to Zimmermann must have sucked for him and his family, Jeff didn't like thinking about how the 2009 draft could have gone if the guy hadn't OD'd. He couldn't imagine the Aces without Parse any more than he could imagine the Pens without Crosby or the Caps without Ovie or the Habs without Price. 

Actually, he could imagine it a lot less than he could imagine Crosby being traded to, say, the Flyers.

Parse kept adjusting and re-adjusting his cowlick while waiting for the others to leave, but the others seemed perfectly content to wait him out. Jeff sidled over in a manner he thought was suitably discreet. 

"I can tell the guys I'll drive you over after you, I dunno, talk to Harry or something," he said quietly.

"Who's Har—oh! Yeah. Right. The GM." Parse gave him a lopsided smile that both shook Jeff with its fragility and had him racking his brain to see if he remembered all the warning signs of a stroke. "I'll take you up on that offer. Thanks, Twinkie."

Jeff started to say no problem, but then his brain processed what he had just heard.

"Twinkie?!" he yelled. "What the hell kind of pet name is that?"

Parse flung his arms up and stammered in agitation. "I couldn't think of any other baked goods, okay? Or did you want me to call you, I dunno, oatmeal raisin?"

"Well, it's better than 'Twinkie!' Those things aren't baked! They're grown in a lab!"

And so on.

It was around the time that Parse shouted at Jeff to stop shouting that they both realized they had attracted the rapt attention of Booger, Scrappy, Cheeto, and Tweety. 

Before Jeff could think of anything to say that might possibly make the situation even a fraction less humiliating, Booger beamed at him and Parse, and gave both Scrappy and Cheeto a bone-bruising slap on the back. 

"See! It is what I tell you! Parse is chirping Swoops, so everything is good, да? Всё хорошо!"

Jeff and Parse exchanged befuddled looks. Scrappy and Cheeto nodded as if Booger was making perfect sense.

Tweety looked as puzzled as Jeff felt. "Hey, I keep meaning to ask," he said, pointing at Jeff, "but why do they call you Swoo–"

"That's not important, young padawan," Cheeto intoned, giving Tweety a shoulder-pat that nearly took him down. "What's important is that tonight, you popped your NHL cherry and we will celebrate by going out and doing things I won't mention here in case you-know-who overhears."

"He means Joan, right?" Jeff asked out the side of his mouth.

"Don't say her name, you idiot!" After a few panicked breaths and dramatic clutching at his sternum, Cheeto collected himself and cleared his throat. "I won't tell you where we're going, but you know where we're going so we can corrupt the rookie."

Jeff nodded. He knew the drill. Crazy Horse III if they could get in (even after winning a home opener, Aces who weren't Parse barely counted as VIPs in the Vegas hierarchy), Sapphire if they couldn't.

Great. With his luck, Booger would insist on buying him a lap dance to celebrate his Gordie Howe, and God forbid Jeff be anything less than enthusiastically grateful. 

"Sounds like a fan-fucking-tastic time," he muttered after they left.

Parse looked at him, head cocked to one side like a dog wondering if he'd just heard someone say 'walkies.' "So, I'm not the only one who thinks a crowded strip club sounds like the total opposite of awesome right now?"

Yeah. And not just right now, either. 

"I'd rather go somewhere where I can have a beer and greasy bar snacks while watching ESPN play clips of me trying to rearrange Kane's face, and where they don't charge me forty-five dollars for a goddamn shot of well bourbon."

Parse's shoulders un-tensed for the first time since he was asked about the Falcs during an intermission interview. "So, whaddya say? Should the hat-trick twins go out and celebrate in style rather than at some tourist-infested strip club?" 

He held out his fist. Jeff hesitated only a fraction of a second before bumping it with his own, distracted by the feeling he was forgetting something important, but he managed to complete the gesture of bro-ly affection without a noticeable pause.

"'Style' is one hundred percent the wrong word for the bar I have in mind, but yeah. The others are gonna end up too trashed to notice we never showed up. Speaking of trashed, two drink limit?"

Parse mulled this over with the air of a man who harbored a deep desire to get intimate with an entire bottle of tequila, then gave a resigned, full-body shrug. "Yeah. No offense, because you're easily my favorite ex-spouse—even with that shit you pulled about my number which I still haven't forgotten about by the way—but I'm really not in the mood to wake up married again. Especially tonight."

Jeff grunted his agreement and did his best to hide how touched he was at being called Parse's favorite.

The bar had horrible nachos, unmemorable beer, and—miracle of miracles—TVs showing highlights from the Clippers vs. Nuggets pre-season matchup and highlights from the Aces game, including multiple shots of Jeff's fist connecting with Kane's jaw.

When Jeff woke up the next morning, it was on Parse's sofa. He had Parse's cat loafing on his stomach, vague memories of getting maybe half an episode into a Project Runway marathon before conking out, no hangover, and no sign of a ring on his finger. He heard the shower running upstairs and the dulcet tones of a coffee maker going about its business somewhere nearby. When he tried to sit up, the cat—without otherwise moving a muscle—flexed her claws just enough to tell him that sitting up was not recommended.

When Parse came downstairs, a red towel slung low around his hips, the cat launched herself to go twine around his ankles. This was just as well, as Jeff could pass off the noise he made at the sight of Parse's damp treasure trail as a reaction to the wind being knocked out of him.

Parse scooped up the cat, who proceeded to head-butt him under the chin and purr like a lawnmower. 

"Aw, that wasn't a vewy nice thing to do to our guest, Pwincess," he cooed.

Yeah, that red towel was a dirty, dirty trick to play on a man who hadn't had his coffee yet.

"I'll live," Jeff grumped. "Please tell me the coffee is almost done."

The coffee maker chimed with impeccable timing, and Parse grinned as if he had planned it that way. 

He probably hadn't.

"I hope you slept okay on the couch... strudel?" Parse sounded a little uncertain about that last part.

"Strudel is acceptable. Twinkies are not."

Parse frowned. "Because...?" 

"What is this, the Pastry Inquisition? Because Twinkies are fucking vile, that's why! Hostess cakes are not food, just like Peeps are not food! Things that are not biodegradable are not food!"

That earned him another of those brittle, crooked smiles that he didn't quite know how to interpret. "Yeah, well, sorry about the couch. I thought about waking you so you could sleep in a real bed, but..." Parse ended the sentence with a shrug.

"No worries." Jeff stretched and stood up, then headed kitchen-wards in search of coffee. "That couch was more comfortable than the bed in the apartment you guys stuck me in at first. And that wasn't bad," he hurried to add at the offended look on Parse's face.

"One good thing about letting you sleep on the couch was this." Parse held out his phone while Jeff poured a cup of coffee and tried not to look at how Parse had to use his other hand to keep the towel from escaping, or how the drop of water glinting on his collarbone was begging to be licked off. 

Yeah, he'd enjoyed looking at scantily clad Parse in the past, but this was different. He wasn't sure what bailing on a strip club together in favor of a dive bar and shitty TV had done to change things, but there it was.

Or maybe it just was the fact that a towel in a kitchen was lightyears different from utilitarian nudity in the locker room or a star-spangled swimsuit by the side of a pool. Or even a creatively staged photo shoot that teetered on (and occasionally toppled over) the edge of soft-core porn.

He took the phone before he embarrassed himself.

The photo showed Jeff sacked out on the couch with the cat making herself at home on his stomach. Parse must have taken the picture right before he took his shower.

"The little traitor abandoned me in favor of you last night," Parse said fondly. "And don't make a joke about animal magnetism, I can see you thinking about making a joke about animal magnetism."

"I would never," Jeff lied. He looked at the picture again. It was about as flattering as most pictures of sleeping people were (translation: not at all) but he liked how cozy and peaceful the whole thing looked. It made him feel wistful for reasons he would rather not think about. "You gonna post that to Instagram?"

Parse reclaimed the phone and gazed at the picture with the dopiest expression. He was so far gone on that cat it wasn't even funny. "Sure. Why not? Just don't blame me if the others chirp–"

As if summoned by the word 'chirp,' Parse's phone exploded with so many text alerts it sounded like an aviary.

Parse's brow furrowed as he read the notifications and then his face went slack and ashen.

"What is it? What happened? Is everyone okay?" 

Shit, maybe they should have gone out with the others after all. For all that Parse had a rep as a party boy, Jeff had figured out pretty quickly that he was a master at keeping the others from getting too far out of control. And... fuck!

Tweety was only nineteen. 

Jeff should have said something last night, but half his brain still lived in Alberta, where eighteen was a perfectly reasonable age to get shit-faced drunk in a strip club. 

But Parse should have said something, right? Why hadn't Parse said something? God, those asshole reporters must have rattled him way more than Jeff had realized.

Shit... This could be bad.

"You know how I once told you that there was only one thing I could think of that was worse than accidentally marrying Carly?" Parse asked in a hollow, distant voice. He turned the phone so Jeff could see.

Jeff took one look at the text from Cheeto and had to take a swig of too-hot coffee to wash the taste of bile from the back of his mouth. 

"Guess we should pick up some glitter on the way in to practice," he told Parse.

* * *

This time, Jeff had the honor of showering the newlywed with red glitter. Someone must have tipped off Tweety as to the fate that awaited him, because he slumped into the locker room with a resigned expression that made the whole thing a million times more hilarious than it normally would have been.

The real fun began as Nutsy swaggered forward in his role as Master of the Fines. He cleared his throat.

"Normally, a wedding is a time for drunken celebration and merciless chirping, but not today." He looked down, shaking his head and clucking his tongue. "No, not today. Because today—a day which shall forever live in infamy!—we have learned that someone who, despite being a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, should have known better..."

Nutsy paused just long enough to be dramatic without tipping over into awkward.

"...that this someone has committed the heinous, nay, all but unforgivable crime of..."

Another pause.

"MARRYING A FUCKING BLACKHAWK!"

The locker room burst out in hoots and hollers and jeers, and Jeff dumped more glitter on the offender just to be an ass. Tweety mustered as much dignity as he could as he trudged over to his stall.

 The Welcome to the Ex-Husband's'' Club! sign was, of course, tacked over the 96: J. FINCH nameplate. 

With a twinge of something like nostalgia, Jeff remembered his first horrible days in Vegas. He walked over and patted Tweety on the shoulder as the kid counted out the fifty dollar fine.

"The bad news is, the fine goes up with each annulment."

Tweety shuddered, which only made the glitter coverage that much more comprehensive. Trigger held out the ring jar, and Tweety dropped his wedding ring in to join the collection. "Trust me, I've learned my lesson. This is not happening again."

This was greeted by a chorus of d'awww and aren't they cute when they're that innocent and I remember when I used to think that way.

"The good news is, you only get glittered once," Jeff assured him. "Protip: try not to rub your eyes until after you've showered."

(Less than an hour later, Jeff would recall these words with profound regret after forgetting that the same advice applied to him as Thrower of the Glitter.)

Nutsy clapped his hand to get everyone's attention again. "Now, in dishonor of this horribly memorable occasion, we have a special wedding gift for our dear Tweety-bird. Trigger, if you would?"

Trigger reached into the grocery bag parked in his stall, and pulled out a tub of Clorox wipes that had been doctored with stick tape and Sharpie to read Blackhawk Cootie Remover. 

"Thanks. I'll treasure it forever," Tweety deadpanned. Then: "I guess this means I've lost any chance of talking you guys into changing my nickname back to what I had in Juniors?"

"Sorry, kid," Nutsy told Jaeden 'Tweety' Finch without a trace of anything bearing even a passing resemblance to sorrow. "It's just too damned perfect, especially now—Bird Boy."

Parse raised his hand, and the cackling died down to an occasional snicker or two. "Just for the record, what was your Juniors nickname? Fincher? Finchy?"

"Uh, Scout?" Tweety said. He looked around at the others to see if anyone got it.

Jeff beat Cheeto to the 'Finch' connection by less than a second. "Oh! Like from To Kill a Mockingbird? I loved that book! I've read it at least five times!"

Tweety (f.k.a. 'Scout')  looked pleased, and even Parse was beaming as if he approved. 

Cheeto, on the other hand, had gone all scowly at being shown up. He was the one with the comparative literature degree and magna cum whocares from an Ivy League university, and Jeff was the one who skipped out on the last few months of high school after passing his GED.

But hey, the boy with the GED had a mom who taught literature and made damn sure Jeff did all his summer reading and then some as a kid, so there. And it wasn't like To Kill a Mockingbird was fucking Calvino or Murakami, anyway.

Based on previous friendly feuds, Jeff knew Cheeto would find some opportunity to prank him sooner or later in retaliation. What he didn't know was that 'sooner or later' would be much, much sooner than he was expecting.

"Awesome nickname, kid," Parse said. "Maybe we can maybe revisit it once somebody else does something more embarrassing than marrying a Blackhawk."

 "But 'Tweety'?" Tweety protested. "Couldn't I get a nickname that's less, y'know, awful?"

The lack of sympathy radiating from Antoni 'Nutsy' Nuutinen, Darius 'Cheeto' Cheever, and Vasily 'Booger' Bogrov was at Chernobyl levels.

"You do not choose nickname, team choose nickname," Booger proclaimed darkly.

That would have been that, but before anyone could get back to getting ready for practice, Cheeto smiled a slow, Grinch-like smile, and Jeff knew exactly what the petty little shitbiscuit was going to do next. 

"I dunno," Cheeto said with false innocence. "Swoops got to pick his nickname."

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck! Jeff was utterly and completely hosed. Cheeto was more than smart enough to figure out what Jeff had been trying so, so hard to avoid.

"Bite me, Harvard boy!" Jeff snarled. Yes, he was escalating, but he had nothing left to lose at this point. If it was just the two of them, he could tell Cheeto to back off and Cheeto would respect that, but if he did that now, everyone else would start wondering why and someone would eventually figure it out.

"That's Princeton boy, jackass!" Cheeto scowled at the others, who of course chirped him to hell and back the way they always did whenever he found an excuse to drag his alma mater into the conversation. "Well, I'm thinking that a better name for Mr. Troy would be–"

"If you say 'Helen,' you're a dead man, Cheeto," Parse said casually, not looking up from where he was adjusting his laces. "You know what will happen if a certain someone who shall remain nameless finds out you tried to chirp someone by comparing him to a woman. And she will find out. Or are you really that eager to get a close-up look at the bottom of Lake Mead?"

Jeff waited for someone to laugh or otherwise indicate that this might be a joke. 

No one laughed.

Once Cheeto emerged from his bout of fear-induced catatonia and collected himself, he shot a sly look at Jeff. "Actually, what I was going to suggest was–"

Jeff held his breath, but Cheeto didn't get any further than that before he was interrupted.

"Wait a minute. Why do you guys call Troy 'Swoops,' anyway? I've never been able to figure that out."

Thank Jesus, Mary, and all the saints for dear, sweet, precious Tweety.

"It's from a slang term for basketball," Jeff said, lightheaded with relief.

The others instantly made little ahs of understanding. Jeff had made a brief but ultimately doomed attempt to convert the others to the joys of farting around with a basketball before practice instead of the traditional soccer ball or hacky sack. Plus, they had all had endured days and days of sulking when the Raptors went out in the first round of the NBA playoffs and the Clippers went out in the second.

Carly spluttered in indignation before Cheeto could even think of saying anything else. "Aw, come on! You gotta be shitting me! You can't have a nickname from another sport! That ain't right! Hey! Slugger, Ten-pin, Touchdown! Back me up here, will ya?"

As Carly argued with the entire fourth line, Cheeto and Jeff exchanged judgmental sidelong glances, once again solidly united in friendship via their mutual disdain for one Carl Chadwick. 

"Don't bother. It's a moot point, guys," Parse called out wearily. He was the only one of them who was fully geared up for practice. "Right after Swoops was traded to us, Bert drafted an add-on to his contract saying that he got to pick his nickname."

He did not, of course, go into how Jeff got that addendum.

Nothing happened other than dubious muttering and questioning looks. A few people even asked some variation of are you sure about that, cap?

Parse blew out an exasperated breath. "Yes, I'm sure, guys. Joan even notarized it."

This was a followed by a sudden scramble to finish gearing up.

"Never mind!"

"Don't say her name! Are you TRYING to jinx us?!"

"It's not like she doesn't already know everything anyway!"

"Mне страшно..."

"My bad! Sorry I brought it up, Swoops!"

"Sometimes, it's like she even knows stuff before it happens!"

"Hey, awesome nickname, bro! Uh, go Clippers?" 

And so on.

Still pulling on their practice jerseys as they went, the guys rushed out to get to the ice, but Parse hung back, taking up the rear. Jeff fell into step alongside him.

"How long do you think before Booger figures out he put his pads on backwards?" Parse asked.

"Probably sometime–" Jeff winced at the sudden aieeeEEEE–THUD! from out on the ice. "–after Trigger realizes he forgot to take off his skate guards? Thanks for the save back there, by the way."

Parse shrugged it off, not bothering to look at him. "Hey, you kept me out of my own head last night after all those reporters..."

He didn't bother finishing the sentence. What he didn't say was clear, however, in the dull not-color of his eyes.

"No prob. It wasn't like I was in the mood to go out anyway." Truth be told, he was the one who owed Parse a big one for helping him weasel out of having to pretend to be exuberantly heterosexual for the entire evening. 

But he couldn't exactly say that. Or anything else that might help jolt Parse the rest of the way out of his weird mood.

Or that would make things a bajillion times worse, like Hey, at least we weren't playing the Falcs and you wound up accidentally married to Zimmermann because that would have been HI-larious!

Which, of course, he almost blurted out because his a) impulse control b) common sense and c) basic human decency had all decided to peace out at approximately the same time for no good reason.

Distraction came in the nick of time in the form of Booger, who had come close to strangling himself while trying to get his pads turned around without taking his jersey off all the way. Jeff and Parse rushed over to help him before the lack of oxygen hit critical levels or the desperate flailing caused (more) collateral damage, and Jeff's weird, out-of-nowhere compulsion to cause pointless drama and tank a growing friendship quickly vanished.

Parse was still a little off for the rest of practice, but only enough that Cheeto gave Jeff an 'is he okay?' raised eyebrow that Jeff answered with a 'why the fuck are you asking me?' shrug-and-head-tilt.

At least they'd play the Falcs in early November, and everyone could get all the stupid Zimmermann drama out of their systems and everything would be back to normal.

Later, as he saw the medic for his second glitter-related upper body injury in less than a year, it struck him that he had no idea what 'normal' was supposed to look like in this crazy-ass town. This sort of shit never happened back in Edmonton.

One more season, he told himself. He could do this for one more season.

Chapter Text

NOVEMBER 2015

Jeff both was and wasn't looking forward to the Aces' long Northeast roadie in November. The trip started in Buffalo, and then took them to Montreal, Boston, Providence, and finally to NYC to play the Isles before heading home.

(For some reason, the schedule had them playing the Rangers in the middle of a three-game January roadie—bracketed on one side by the Panthers and on the other side by the Lightning, because what the actual fuck, NHL scheduling team?) 

Montreal, he was looking forward to. He and Kevin had a nice little rendezvous planned, and it had been way too long since Jeff had had an actual other person involved in his sex life.

Providence, he wasn't looking forward to. Not that he had anything against the Falconers, even if he tended to keep forgetting Rhode Island had a team the way he kept forgetting Columbus had a team. (Or was it Cincinnatti? Eh, whatever.)

The problem was, the closer they got to the Providence game, the twitchier Parse got. 

Jeff was pretty sure he knew what was going on. After all the general hysteria that came with the start of the season, when the press was trying to pin down which 'narratives' they were most interested in making people sick of, they backed off needling Parse about the Zimmermann thing for a while. 

Unfortunately, that turned out to be nothing more than the calm at the eye of the storm. (Jeff was pretty sure that was the right analogy—he'd never actually experienced a hurricane that wasn't wearing a red and black jersey.) 

It all started up again when NBC announced they were bumping the St. Louis–Chicago game out of the Wednesday Night Rivalry lineup in favor of Vegas–Providence and a whole bunch of frenzied hype about the Parson-Zimmermann reunion.

In Jeff's humble opinion, that decision should have gotten someone fired, because no hockey fan he had ever met would say Yes, we would much rather have manufactured interpersonal drama instead of watching two teams with one of the bitterest rivalries in the league literally try to murder each other on the ice! Thank you, NBC!

But oh, he was wrong. He was so, so, so wrong.

The press ate it up with the proverbial spoon.

Even before the Aces left for Buffalo, reporters were back to pursuing the Zimmermann angle as if it would lead them to Jimmy Hoffa, the Zodiac Killer, and the truth behind who really shot JFK.

And when they weren't doing that, you kind of got the idea that they were waiting for Zimmermann to do a line of coke or something at center ice.

So yeah, Parse was kind of cranky.

And cranky Parse?

Was snakebite mean.

The end result of which was that the flight from Montreal to Boston was one of the more awkward and uncomfortable hour-and-a-quarters Jeff had ever endured, and that included the Great Porn Stash Incident of '05.

The morning of their game with Montreal, Jeff was in an awesome mood. His visit with Kevin the night before was everything he had hoped for and then some. He was so chipper as they got ready for their pre-game practice that the others figured out pretty fast that he'd hooked up quite successfully.

Okay, the marks on his chest, neck, and thighs might also have been a clue.

Hell, it didn't even bother him that he got chirped to hell and back, or that they all assumed he'd hooked up with a woman. (Okay, so maybe that last bit did bother him, but it was barely a blip in the post-coital bliss.)

The problem was, Parse's already sour mood had taken a nose-dive sometime between the bus and the locker room. It may have been because he got waylaid by a reporter on the way in, or it may have been something else.

Anyhow, he stormed in just as Nutsy was being an annoying jerk and poking at a hickey he swore was the exact same shape as Poland. 

Parse stopped short and glowered at the scene in front of him.

"Stop dicking around and gear up, Troy," he snapped, killing Jeff's good mood stone cold dead. 

Parse didn't even make eye contact as he jostled past Jeff on the way to his stall.

Jeff blinked. What the hell had he done to deserve being singled out? It wasn't like he'd asked the others to waste time chirping him about his sexcapades. Before he could even think of asking Parse what had crawled up his butt and died, Nutsy shook his head once, short and sharp, flicking his eyes to where Parse was angrily yanking his gear out of his bag. "Later," he mouthed.

'Later' meant the plane ride to Boston after a gong-show of a game. Yeah, they won, but it was in a shootout, and when it was over, everyone was that miserable combination of bone tired and wound up.

Given the way the Habs were playing, it should have been an easy win, but the Aces were miserably out of synch. They were up by two at the end of the first period but down by one at the end of the second. Jeff made stupid mistakes. Scrappy made stupid mistakes. Cheeto totally whiffed a face-off and the Habs got a breakaway goal off of it. The second line was a fucking disaster. Booger had to be helped off the ice after colliding with Subban. Nutsy missed what should have been an easy save. And Parse, of all people, took two completely unnecessary penalties that gave the Habs the two power-play goals that blew the Aces' lead.

That was more than enough for some really awkward post-game locker room interviews (it also didn't help that Jeff had to keep a strategically draped towel around his neck and shoulders when the cameras were around, because Poland), but their crappy play was persistently addressed in the context of what the Aces would do differently in their upcoming game against the Falcs—and against Zimmermann.

It was bad enough that Parse didn't do his usual jokey, flirty, 'ain't-I-cute?' routine with the press, not even the blonde lady who gave him an obvious and appreciative once-over before putting the screws to him. As the night wore on, Parse grew more and more closed off, giving the press sharp, one-word non-answers that would earn him a lecture from Tracie in Media Relations.

By the time they got on the bus to the airport, things had devolved to the point of Parse hissing like a cornered opossum at anyone who got near him.

So, of course, Jeff thought it was a brilliant idea to check on Parse to make sure he was okay and maybe cheer him up. He wasn't sure what triggered the impulse, or why he chose to ignore Nutsy's frantic signals to stay away, but there it was.

Jeff didn't know what he should have expected, but it wasn't the following mini-drama:

TROY: (Brief expression of concern, flimsy attempt at a joke, weak laughter.)

PARSON: (Snide comment about how the game would have gone better if some people had been well-rested and focused on the game, oblique reference to puck bunnies gnawing on things, rude and totally unnecessary comment about the Oilers dumping dead weight, pointed omission of the usual baked-good reference.)

TROY: (Blunt yet sincere invitation for the other party in the conversation to go copulate with himself.)

[Exit TROY, stage right.]

When they boarded the plane, Jeff claimed his usual seat halfway back, and he was both unsurprised and offended when Parse slunk past without making eye contact. Normally, Parse would have plopped down right next to Jeff or Scrappy unless there was another member of the team who needed their captain's attention.

This time, instead of going to sit with any of the others who'd had a rough time of it, Parse went all the way to the back and curled up against the window in a sulk. Smithy and Jonesy, as alternates, were left to shore up morale without him. 

Jeff didn't realize how close he was to getting up and giving Parse another piece of his mind (and maybe making sure he was okay) until he was blocked into his row by six and a half feet worth of goalie.

"Mind if I sit?" Nutsy asked cheerfully, even as he folded himself into the aisle seat like an origami crane. The way Nutsy was built, Jeff was going to be dodging knees and elbows the entire flight. Then the cheer faded, and Nutsy spoke at a quarter of his usual volume. "Hey, I know you guys are pals, but you haven't seen him like this before, have you?"

Nutsy didn't need to specify who he was talking about.

"Like what? Like a raging asshole?"

Neither did Jeff.

Nutsy lifted an eyebrow so high it looked like an animation error. "Oh, this is nothing, Swoops. This is sweetness and light compared to the shit-show when we blew through New England this time last year. That was bad. I'll spare you the gory details because they're not important, but the long and short of it is, Parse broke curfew to go visit Zimmermann at his school when we played Boston and he came back in such a pisser of a mood that he tore Scrappy a new one in the middle of warmups for no good reason."

"What?" Jeff half stood so he could turn and glare at Parse. It may have been a year ago, and Jeff had only been with the team for a little over six months, but being nasty to Scrappy was approaching Disney villain territory. It was also seriously out of character for the Parse that Jeff knew and–

Nutsy guided him gently back down into his seat. "Hey, hey... it's okay. He's okay, Scrappy is okay. Well, now they are. Back then, things were bad enough that the front office got involved, if you know what I mean."

Jeff nodded even though he wasn't sure if the lack of a name meant Nutsy was referring to Joan or... Henry? Hadley? Whatever. Whats-his-name. The GM. 

"Also... Let's just say that Parser has some bad blood with the Falcs, and there's more to it than just the whole Zimmermann mess, so maybe leave him alone until we're on our way to New York?"

Jeff grunted agreement even though he wasn't keen on just forgetting the whole thing. Too many good players got a pass on being shitty people, in his opinion.  Nutsy patted him on the shoulder and hurried to get back to his and Trigger's usual spot at the front of the plane before takeoff.

Approximately five minutes before they were due to be told to buckle in for landing, Jeff gave in to temptation and headed to the lavatory.

He walked right past Parse, who paid him no attention in the kind of way that meant he saw Jeff, and that he knew that Jeff knew he saw him. 

Jeff didn't actually need to piss, but he stayed in the lavatory long enough for plausible deniability (but not so long that Nutsy would try to fine him for taking a shit on the plane). 

 When he stepped out, Parse was doing a horrible job at being subtle about peeking over the seat back to keep an eye out for him. Even so, he didn't say anything until Jeff had nearly passed him by.

"I'm sorry." 

It was so quiet Jeff nearly missed it.

Jeff stopped and turned around, but he didn't say anything at first. From the look of things, Parse was beating himself up more than Jeff ever could, but that was on Parse, not him. 'Sorry' might have covered getting snapped at in the locker room after getting rattled by reporters. But it didn't cover the comments on the bus. That shit had been aimed to hurt.

And everyone knew Parse's aim was among the best in the league.

It took him long enough to respond that Parse's eyes widened and face slackened with resigned dread, and Jeff was tempted to say that everything was okay, just forget about it, etc. 

Or maybe say something that would tank things so badly, they'd be back to ground zero with little chance of recovery.

Fortunately, he figured out what to say that might be a step towards actually making things better instead of either of the horrible options his brain was pushing on him.

"Sorry? C'mon Parse, you can do better than that." He paused just long enough to be sure Parse was actually listening and not just bracing for impact. "You still owe me a muffin, asshole." 

He hoped Parse knew him well enough to understand that it was an offer of, well, not quite forgiveness but of being open to a decent apology once they'd both cooled off and decided to act like grownups.

Jeff went back to his seat before the flight attendant scolded him and before Parse had a chance to respond. They both needed time to think.

 As soon as they touched down at Logan, it was off the plane, onto the bus, back off the bus, and straight to their hotel rooms.

The last time Jeff had been that unaware of the act of getting into bed, unhealthy amounts of alcohol had been involved, and so had a wedding ring.

There was no apology the next morning over breakfast or while getting ready for practice, or even during practice, but Jeff did notice that Parse was actively Not Being a Dick. 

It wasn't that he was being super-extra nice to everyone (because that would be creepy as fuck). It was more that sometimes Jeff would see Parse tense up and start to do the whole cornered opossum thing and then... it was as if someone hit 'pause,' and Parse would square his shoulders and relax in a deliberate sort of way as he ran whatever mental debugging script he needed to run.

Jeff resisted the temptation to check on him, mainly because he wasn't sure if he trusted himself not to say something cutting if Parse was anything other than utterly contrite. Also, Scrappy kept hovering in Parse's shadow, eyes narrowing whenever Parse started his marsupial impression and then relaxing when Parse caught himself.

After practice, there was still no apology, but there was a passing shoulder clasp and a quiet 'good job out there, pfeffernuss' that had Jeff wondering if Parse had the balls to think that counted as an apology and also what the fuck a pfeffernuss was.

Shortly after Jeff got back to his room for his pre-game nap, his phone pinged with a series of text alerts.

The Ex: can i talk to u b4 diner

The Ex: need 2 explain

The Ex: and say sorry 4 realz

Jeff didn't even have to debate his answer.

Me: Yes

Me: Also, that could have been one complete sentence and one text

The truth was, the lack of the usual extraneous and indecipherable emojis was more than a little concerning.

The Ex: u txt liek cheeto

Me: Not all of us disable autocorrect just to be cute

Me: Also, it takes thought and planning to type that badly

The Ex: ur no fun

The Ex: ill stop by yr room @ six?

Me: Sure

Me: Also, it takes more effort to go to the punctuation keyboard and hit the @ than to type 'at' if you type out 'six' instead of '6.' 

The Ex: u even do quotes right loser

The Ex: so u can kiss my @s

The Ex: also u say also alot

The Ex:  c u l8r?

Me: Yes

Me: Also, what the fuck is a puffeffernepferferprprprrrss?

Parse left Jeff on read without explaining what a pfeffernuss was, but he did bring a tin of them when he showed up at Jeff's room @ six. 

"I also feel like I owe you one of your weapons-grade Americanos with raspberry, but I figured you'd want to sleep tonight, so... Rain check?" His voice sounded dull and heavy. Not like Parse at all.

Jeff stood aside, gesturing for Parse to come in the room. Parse did, cautiously and lacking his typical swagger. He sat on the bed without being invited, but it would have been more worrying if he hadn't. The fact that he didn't just fling himself down like usual was worrying enough on its own.

He turned the tin of cookies around and around in his hands as he spoke more to the corner of the room than to Jeff. 

"The first thing I'll say is that I had no excuse for talking to you the way I did, no matter how upset or pissed off I was or why I was pissed off. It..." He cleared his throat and worked his jaw, and Jeff waited for him to continue. "I'll spare you the whole spiel about therapy and past trauma and shit, but I've got this thing where when something's hurting me, where someone's..."

He stopped, eyes squeezed shut and lips pressed thin, and didn't seem inclined to continue, but Jeff could fill in the blanks in a story that sounded like Parse had been practicing it with varying degrees of success for hours.

"I get it. It's not right, but I get it. But why me, bud?" Jeff's voice cracked a little, but he couldn't manage to make himself care. "What the fuck did I do to deserve getting barked at in front of everyone else? I mean, Carly was right there."

Parse twitched a smile at the attempted humor, but still didn't meet Jeff's eyes. "This is going to sound so fucking stupid..."

"Try me. You've already been a complete asshole, so I don't think you can make things worse."

Parse took in a deep breath through his nose and let his head thunk back against the headboard as he let it out. "You blew me off for dinner the night before the Habs, and found a puck bunny instead. Which... I mean, you're my best friend–"

Say what, now?

"–but that doesn't mean you owe me all your time or... or can't go off and get laid if I decide I wanna spend time with you, but it just made me feel, I don't know... Left behind? Abandoned? Shut out? Take your fucking pick, bro." He laughed bitterly. "You saw for yourself I don't handle that shit well. I mean, I'm working on it—you caught the casual 'therapy' reference I dropped in there, right?—but still, y'know? I shouldn't have done that to you." 

Pause. A deep breath. Then, in a small, shamed voice:

"I really wish I hadn't done that to you."

Jeff finally sat down next to Parse. "Hold on a moment... I thought Scrappy was your best friend?"

Parse let his head loll to the side so he could give Jeff a shaky but unimpressed look. "I'm apologizing to you, and that's what you focus on? C'mon, Swoops. You know you can have more than one best friend, right? It's not some Highlander 'there can be only one' shit. And I know better now than to get totally hung up on just one other person on the team. I mean it works okay for Nutsy and Trigger with their whole 'brother from another mother' schtick, but..." He shrugged.

A few puzzle pieces clicked into place regarding Zimmermann and why Parse was so worked up, but Jeff didn't think it was a good time to tackle that particular subject.

"So, you're saying that for you 'best' is a classification and not a superlative, eh?"

Parse sat up and peered narrowly at Jeff. "What the fuck is up with you and your word of the day vocabulary, anyway? Even Cheeto doesn't come up with half this shit, and he–"

"–has a degree in comparative literature from Princeton," Jeff finished in unison with him. 

Parse laughed softly, and Jeff felt something settle and release. 

"Yeah, I know I'm the guy who technically didn't finish high school, but Mom teaches literature and has friends who are actual make-a-living-at-it writers, so I've always read a lot?"

"I noticed. You've got how many ebook apps on your iPad?"

Jeff elbowed him, and Parse laughed and had to scramble to keep the cookie tin from falling to the floor. 

"Hey, Mom keeps pointing me at shit she thinks I should read, and if I read it, we have something to talk about, but if I don't, then I start getting pestered about my total lack of a love life and how she wants grand-babies to spoil. It's not my fault she chose to do the single-mom-with-a-newborn thing while also trying to find a job, but apparently it's my job to come up with offspring so she can have a chance to experience all the fun parts of having a baby without all the other shit that comes with."

"Yeah, I noticed you don't date much," Parse said with a carefulness that set off distant alarms.

The safest bet was to acknowledge it and shrug it off. "Nah. I mean, I date some. The Montreal thing was actually meeting up with an old fling–" fling was a neutral enough term, right? "–when we figured out we would be in the same city at the same time, so why not hook up? It was never anything too serious, so I don't think it'll happen again even if the opportunity is there."

That, he was dismayed to realize, was true. Getting thoroughly fucked by Kevin the other night had scratched a major itch and introduced him to a new line of toys he needed to check out, but the further he got from the high of the afterglow, the less satisfying everything felt in retrospect.

A few months from now, when his balls had gone past blue and into the ultraviolet range, he might have a different opinion on the matter.

Parse kept fiddling with the cookie tin. "I–I'm glad you had a good time."

He didn't sound very glad.

"It was fun, but... You know how some people are better as a fond memory than as an actual relationship?"

Parse huffed out a not-laugh, and there was that half-smile that Jeff still couldn't read. "Yeah. You're right. But it kinda takes a while to figure that out for yourself, you know? Or to remember it once you have figured it out, I guess." He held up the tin and shook it. Clearly it was time for a change of subject. "Wanna try a pfeffernuss, pfeffernuss?"

Jeff eyed the tin. It was very much a Christmas tin, with red and snowflakes and creepy-jolly little Victorian Santas. 

Early November was right on the border of a little too early and way too late for Christmas, wasn't it? He thought it over, and remembered Mom complaining about how the holidays seemed to start earlier and earlier every year...

"Sure. Why not?" 

Parse opened the tin and held it out to Jeff. Jeff hesitated before taking a cookie, and it wasn't because of the potentially dubious vintage and the weird white coating that maybe you were supposed to peel off.

Starting sometime right before playoffs, he and Parse hung out in each others' rooms enough that this wasn't anything too unusual. Nor was the fact that they were sitting together on the same bed. It was only weird because it wasn't weird.

With Parse, he didn't feel like he needed to keep his guard up as much. Yeah, he still had to be careful about pronouns and deets and shit, but he didn't feel the pressure to excuse his enjoyment of certain shows or singers, or refrain from commenting on other guys' looks, and he didn't worry so much about whether or not he was making too much incidental contact or looking in the wrong places.

This, though... Coming off of an intense and awkward and unfinished discussion that had a lot of heavy shit hanging out between the lines? It felt different. 

He took a cookie. So did Parse. Their fingers brushed against each other for one electric second.

It felt more...

The thought cut off when he took a bite of his cookie.

"Jesus FUCKING Christ!"

Parse coughed convulsively, then smacked his mouth like a dog that had been given a lemon. "Wow..." 

It was not an expression of admiration.

Jeff spat his cookie directly into the wastebasket. "That is nasty!"

It took Parse a moment to respond because he was too busy scrubbing his tongue with the hem of his tee shirt. "Bleargh! Nasty doesn't even begin to describe it."

"That tasted like a pumpkin spice latte hate-fucked a mothball!"

Parse checked the tin, squinting at the ingredient list. Then his eyes widened. "Huh. They're expired. Maybe that explains it."

Jeff spat into the trashcan again, but the taste still lingered. "You don't say. How long ago?"

Parse took worryingly long to answer. "Uh, recently?"

"How recently?"

"Ish?"

Jeff figured he was happier not knowing. "Great. I wonder if food poisoning counts as a lower body or upper body injury."

Parse laughed and stood up, cookie tin beneath his arm. 

(Jeff kind of hoped he gave it to Scrappy just to see what happened. Once, Scrappy had absent-mindedly devoured half a package of habaneros that Jeff had planned to use in some salsa, and all he said about it was that 'those cherries tasted kinda weird.')

"I wanna go brush my teeth before dinner. Possibly with Pine Sol." Parse shuffled awkwardly in place and made eye contact with the floor. "Um, you never actually said but... are we good?"

"I accept thine apology," Jeff said loftily. "We're good."

The unspoken But don't EVER pull that kind of shit again rang clear in the silence that followed.

Team dinner started out in cautious quiet, but everything settled back into its usual chirpy groove once the others figured out that Parse and Jeff had talked and made up. 

(And wow, there was a nice little intrusive thought about how the usual expression was 'kissed and made up' that needed to be kicked to the curb real fast.)

Parse was tense again the next day, thanks to asshole reporters trying to whip up drama about the Parson-Zimmermann reunion even though there was a perfectly good Bruins game about to happen. 

This time, the only sign Parse was letting the pressure get to him was that he tried to check Chara. It was about as effective as you would expect given a height difference of nearly a foot. 

In fact, it was hilariously ineffective, with an adorably startled Parse ending up on his butt inside the goal, Chara skating off as if he hadn't even noticed anything, and Rask torn between laughing his ass off and maybe pulling a knife on someone. 

Of course, the arena crew ran the incident on replay on the Jumbotron (with "Short People" as accompaniment because Boston was classy like that) at every TV break to the great delight of the crowd. 

And the great delight of the Aces. During the second intermission Tweety somehow found time to create and post a clever 'Ace in the (Five) Hole' meme using a screenshot he found online.

(Yes, Jeff shared the meme with everyone he knew. Just because Parse had apologized didn't mean Jeff was going to pass up the opportunity for payback.)

After the game (they won), as the others talked about where they wanted to go to celebrate, Parse started his hang-back-and-futz-with-the-hair routine. 

"That's a pass-a-dena for me, guys," Jeff said loudly. "I can't do late nights between back-to-backs like I used to."

Parse practically sagged with relief. So did Trigger, Scrappy, Slugger, and most of the older guys.

Now that he didn't have to be the party pooper, Parse went into action.

"Swoops has a good point, guys." He patted the air to quiet the inevitable boos and chirps. "Let's not get so exhausted we hand tomorrow's game to the Falcs. I'm not saying don't have fun, but I am saying keep it to the hotel bar, okay?"

In the end, more Aces didn't go to the bar than did. Jeff, Parse, Scrappy, and Cheeto found themselves at loose ends, not wanting to party but also nowhere near ready to call it a night.

"How 'bout movie night?" Parse suggested, maybe a little desperately.

Jeff and Cheeto were very much in favor, but Scrappy was a little dubious, mostly because of what happened on the plane yesterday, but also because of what happened between Jeff and Cheeto after the home opener a few weeks back.

"Nah, we're good," Cheeto assured him, Jeff nodding in firm agreement. "I figured out afterwards that I'd poked a big time sore spot and said I was sorry. It's cool."

"Yup. It's in the past. We talked about it, we dealt with it like a couple of fucking adults, we moved on." He might or might not have been looking more at Parse than at Cheeto when he said this.

They ended up hanging out in Parse's room, because as Captain, he got a larger room with a nice big sitting area. In theory, this was so he could talk about game or team stuff with anyone who needed it, but in reality it meant ordering popcorn from room service and watching The Lego Movie after Jeff and Cheeto had loudly vetoed Mamma Mia.

It was good having other people around. Even though he and Parse had patched things up, the patch needed time to set if it was going to hold. 

With Parse, things still felt unsettled. Unfinished. As if there were dangling threads still being snipped off, like what would have happened if Jeff had given into the temptation to lash out at Parse back on the bus or on the plane. Or had rejected his apology along with those nasty-ass cookies.

Even more unsettling was what might have happened if those cookies hadn't been so gross. He could still feel an echo of Parse's hand brushing against his.

Speaking of the cookies, halfway through the movie, Parse placed the open tin next to Scrappy and winked at Jeff. Scrappy absentmindedly ate one cookie. And another. Then, without a word, he picked up the tin and left the room. The others followed him, not sure what was going on. Scrappy went right for a door marked STAIRS, opened it, and drop-kicked the entire tin down the stairwell. Then he headed back to the room, sat down, and calmly rewound the bit of the movie he'd missed.

It was a good, quiet evening. Scrappy enjoyed the movie, plain and simple. Cheeto and Jeff alternated actually paying attention to the movie with griping about who got totally robbed for the Man Booker prize (Jeff had been rooting for McCarthy, Cheeto for Obioma but with a big ol' soft spot for Anne Tyler because Baltimore). 

Throughout it all, Parse wandered in and out his own head, but with the others there as a tether, he never got stuck anywhere too bad for too long. 

 In retrospect, Jeff didn't like to think of what Parse would have been like if the four of them hadn't done the non-sexy version of Netflix and Chill after the Boston game. Parse wasn't snarly the next day, but he flipped between amped-up and shut-down with little warning, and it was only by some miracle (aka Tracie from Media Relations dragging him away by his necktie) that he didn't completely embarrass himself in front of the Providence press corps.

In contrast, Zimmermann's interview made it sound like he didn't give a single, solitary shit about who he was facing or what history was there. But then again, Zimmermann always sounded like he'd had a personality-ectomy, so it might not have meant anything.

On the ice, Zimmermann was all cold focus and mechanical precision.

Parse, on the other hand, reminded Jeff of a terrier that was losing its ever-loving mind because the mailman kept ignoring its challenges to mortal combat.

Jeff got that Parse felt like he had something to prove to the guy everyone said should have gone first in the draft, but someone was going to get hurt if he kept this up.

That someone was very nearly Parse. 

He ended up at the bottom of a pile of Aces and Falconers with a fight about to break out right on top of him. Booger and the Falcs' Anderson were screaming obscenities at each other and Booger had a good fistful of Anderson's jersey, and it was all Jeff could do to keep them from toppling onto the pileup and crushing Parse. He looked over his shoulder to see if Parse was okay, and the world stopped for a second when he saw Parse's helmet alone on the ice.

But then it started again when Mashkov reached down into the pile and grabbed Parse by the back of his jersey, hauling him up. 

And up.

Mashkov yelled at Parse in Russian, and there was a venom to it that reminded Jeff that Nutsy had said Parse's Falcs problem wasn't just with Zimmermann...

"So. I'm guessing they got married, eh?" he eventually asked Trigger from where they were leaning on their sticks over by the bench, watching the show.

"Uh-huh."

The refs were still on the phone with Toronto. God, Jeff hoped this didn't go into overtime...

"And, uh, it ended badly?"

"Oh, yeah. It was right after same-sex marriage became legal in Nevada. They hadn't even updated the brochure yet." 

Trigger gave him the lowdown, and it (mostly) calmed Jeff's worries about the why behind it ending badly. 

All the while, Mashkov continued to dangle and berate Parse, ignoring Robinson's attempts to calm him down. Part of Jeff hoped Parse didn't get whiplash from all the shaking, but the other part wished he had his phone so he could take a picture. 

The look on Parse's face...

"Well, that's gonna be the base of a thousand memes," Jeff said.

"Yup," Trigger agreed.

Over on the bench, Tweety cleared his throat. "Uh, I may have already thought of, like... five?"

Trigger and Jeff made Tweety promise to show them when he was done. 

The kid had a real gift.

Chapter Text

NOVEMBER 2015 / MARCH 2016

Being friends with Shitty had inured Jack to some of life's more improbable calamities, but as Tater stomped around the locker room in a rageful sulk, Jack's brain could only produce the equivalent of a 404: File Not Found error at Thirdy's explanation for Tater's behavior on the ice.

Jack understood why Tater was pissed at Kenny for crashing the net and at the refs for not calling goaltender interference (if the League ever did come up with a clear definition, the next thing they would see was the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping down the middle of Water Street). 

What he did not understand, however, was why it felt like there was more to it than that. Hence the need for an explanation.

"He married Parson?" Jack asked once his brain rebooted. He told himself that his voice did not squeak, but his therapist had always said he was very good at lying to himself. "Accidentally? How do you marry someone accidentally?"

Thirdy shrugged. "What can I say? It's Vegas. But, yeah. It happened early last season. Tater went out for drinks with Bogrov and wound up married to Parson."

Jack felt a curl of dread deep in his belly. He both wanted and didn't want to know what Thirdy would say next.

"Now, Tater was perfectly okay with the whole thing—hell, he thought it was a hoot—but apparently Parson was a complete dick about it."

Jack blinked. That... didn't make sense?

True, Kenny had fretted about being outed back in Rimouski, but never to the point of pretending to be homophobic to compensate.  

Well, a lot of things could change in six years...

"Little rat make me talk to scary, scary lady and grumpy lawyer! And he make me pay five dollar notary fee!"

...or not.

Thirdy rolled his eyes. "Aw, c'mon! Not this again, Tater Tot!"

"He say he pay me back! He never pay me back!"

Unsurprising. Theoretically, Kenny still owed Jack upwards of two hundred dollars for Timmie's runs.

"I thought Tater and Parson hated each other?" Poots said. At least he was hung up on that, and not the fact that it was two guys who got married. That was mildly reassuring.

"I guess they–" Jack's phone peeped out a text alert. He looked at it, figuring it was Bitty texting him with condolences for the loss. 

It wasn't.

"Huh..."

"Is that your mysterious girlfriend?" Poots asked with an eyebrow waggle that didn't look nearly as suave as he probably thought.

"N–no." At least Jack didn't have to fake an appropriate reaction this time. His natural confusion would suit just fine. "It's our old college goalie. Johnson. He texted me a link."

Jack opened the link, even as an imaginary Dex in the back of his mind howled about cybersecurity.

"Huh. Weird. It's a page from some 'TV Tropes' site. It's about something called a 'Cutaway Gag,'" Jack said, but Poots had gone back to staring at Tater. As for Jack, he was glad they wouldn't be facing the Aces again until they went to Vegas in March.

Poots shrugged. "Whatever. I still don't get how you can accidentally marry someone."

* * * 

"Mr. Fitzgerald, please sign or initial as indicated on the portions highlighted in yellow." When Poots was done, the Aces' lawyer checked everything and handed the stack of paper to Jack. "Mr. Zimmermann, please do the same on the portions highlighted in blue."

"I only had one drink!" Poots wailed.

Jack did not point out that said drink had arrived in a fishbowl large enough to comfortably house an entire school of lake trout.

"And you only had one beer!"

Jack wasn't sure if it was more or less embarrassing to have gotten accidentally married after one bottle of hop-infested craft beer than after something the color of Windex that had a plastic monkey hanging off the rim of the glass. Bowl. Whatever.

"The important thing is, this is getting fixed," Jack said as he handed the papers back to the Aces' lawyer, giving the rumpled little man a look that said it had better be.

The return look said that the lawyer had seen much, much worse. Possibly even as recently as yesterday. 

"Perhaps the next time you play in Las Vegas, Mr. Zimmermann, you will know better than to 'just take a look' at one of the city's wedding chapels out of morbid curiosity. Congratulations on your shutout, by the way. Our players can do with a good dose of humility from time to time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have three other incidents involving poor life decisions I must deal with this morning."

Once Poots paid off the notary (he had believed Jack's claim to only have Canadian money) they hurried to get back to the hotel before anyone noticed they had ever been gone. 

"You... you aren't gonna tell Bitty about this, are you? It's not like anything actually happened!"

Jack thought about honesty and trust. About the look on Bits's face if he heard about what happened. And about the full set of super-sharp Shun kitchen knives he had given Bits for Christmas.

"I mean, we didn't even kiss! Oh, god... what if Bitty finds out? Is he going to be super mad at you?"

Jack wasn't sure. He could imagine several possible responses, ranging from hurt to anger to helpless laughter, each of which involved some variation of 'bless your heart.' 

What he was sure about was that one, he and Bits would work things out, and two, the story of his infant encounters with the Stanley Cup would no longer be the most embarrassing story about him to get trotted out at holiday dinners. But as for Poots...

"I won't get any pie ever again, will I?"

Jack stopped short, grasping Poots by the shoulder and looking him square in the eye.

"Poots. If Bitty ever finds out you married me, he will kill you."

"Oh." Poots thought for a moment. "But I'll still get pie, right?"

"..."

"And jam?"

"Sure, Poots. Sure."

Chapter Text

JANUARY 2016

Jeff had never studied literature formally the way Cheeto had, so he knew he missed a lot of allusions and there were a lot of classics he'd never bothered reading or had ditched partway through, but he had picked up more than a few things via Mom over the years. Plus, he had read enough on his own to see how certain patterns kept turning up.

One thing he had noticed was that key events tended to happen in groups of specific numbers.  What number that was depended on where the story was from, but in stories originally written in English, French or German or shit like that, that specific number was almost always three.

In retrospect, it felt inevitable that three big things would happen in the lead-up to the All-Star Game.

The first thing that happened was no surprise to anyone with even a single braincell. The closer the All-Star fan voting got to kicking off, the more the press salivated over the possibility of a Parson-Zimmermann matchup. The skills competitions and the new 3-on-3 format for the games—not to mention all the general fraternization guaranteed to go on—promised plenty of opportunity for drama. True, rookies typically didn't go to the ASG, but Zimmermann wasn't just any rookie and many fans were just as eager for a matchup as the press.

But then, just one day before voting started, Zimmermann pulled a Crosby and weaseled his way off the ballot, citing some bullshit about 'prior obligations' or whatever.

(The general consensus was that this meant Bad Bob had gone to NHL headquarters and smiled at people in a 'friendly' way until his son was given a pass to opt out of the game.)

The end result was that Parse went from being twitchy and apprehensive about the game to bouncing off the walls like a kid counting down the days to Christmas.

"It's like all the excitement around the playoffs, only it's fun for us too," Parse explained while he and Jeff were at Jeff's place, watching the Stars humiliate the Blue Jackets. "You get to play against some of the best guys out there, and with some of the best guys out there, and who cares if you win or lose? I mean, I care, but it's not like anything's riding on it, y'know? It's like losing at Uno to Scraps. The only thing I'm not looking forward to this year is the wall-to-wall country music." He shuddered. "Nashville. Well, at least it's not something really gross like that Kid Rock asshole."

The second, more surprising thing had to do with a joke campaign that sprung up to rig the fan voting. The campaign in and of itself was no surprise. That sort of shit happened almost every year, in almost every sport that had fan voting for its All-Star Game. The punchline of this particular joke was a goon who had five career goals in a ten-year career and had been a healthy scratch for all but eleven games since signing with the Yotes. 

The surprising part? The joke campaign worked. Not only that, but John Scott got more votes than any other player across all four divisions. The fans were ecstatic.

The NHL brass? Not so much.

Almost as soon as the results were announced, the Yotes traded Scott to Montreal. Montreal then added insult to, well, insult and sent Scott down to their AHL team. 

In Newfoundland. 

The higher-ups were quick to say this therefore made Scott ineligible to represent the Arizona Coyotes in the All-Star Game, too bad, so sad. They expected this to put an end to the matter. 

It didn't.

The fans, plus a number of players across the league (including an incandescently pissed-off Parse and a wobbly-lipped Scrappy), rebelled. Loudly.

Scott was allowed to attend. Not only that, but the guy was declared captain of the Pacific Division team. Parse, who everyone else had expected to be named captain like he had the past two years running, couldn't have been more delighted.

Jeff had figured out pretty quickly that Parse had a soft spot for the underdog.

As for the third thing?

It came from so far out of left field that no one could ever have predicted it.

And it was started by—of all things—a fish.

* * * 

Eleven days before the All-Star break, Jeff showed up for morning skate only to find the hallway leading to the locker room blocked by a black-clad Joan. Her Louboutins brought her up to barely an inch shorter than Jeff, but she still managed to glare down at him in a way that made him feel like a kindergartener who had just been caught eating paste for the third time.

"All players are to report to the main conference room," she said in that Old Hollywood voice of hers. "Immediately."

Jeff scuttled off without asking why or where the heck he was supposed to put his gear bag.

He ended up piling his bag with the others' in the back of the conference room. He wasn't quite the last one in the room, but it was close. He snagged a seat between Booger and Nutsy and behind Cheeto.

"What's going on?"

Nutsy shrugged, a complex and expansive process that started down in the hips.

"Без понятия," Booger rumbled. "They not say."

Jeff only knew some very basic Russian, but it was clear that what Booger said probably translated to something along the lines of 'hell if I know.'

The room's screen was lowered as if they were going to watch tape, but a podium and a row of chairs had also been set up at the front of the room. One chair was empty, but the other three were occupied by Bert, Candy from Operations, and some guy in a pricey suit.

Tweety scrambled in at the last second, followed closely and at a more sedate pace by Joan. 

Joan closed the door behind her quietly, but in a definite manner that highlighted the fact it was the only way out of the room unless someone got desperate enough to use the air ducts.

(Jeff wasn't ruling that option out just yet.)

He did a quick scan of the room, mentally ticking off who was and wasn't there. Scrappy lurked in the back. Slugger huddled in a chair failing to look invisible. Carly was having loud opinions at Trigger, who—judging from the jaw-clenching and vein-pulsing—was maybe three seconds from snapping and going all Jersey City on the guy. Smithy and Jonesy were up in the front row acting like dutiful alternate captains, and Ten-pin was chewing his hangnails (gross).

The one person who wasn't there was Parse. 

From the way Nutsy shifted around fretfully and Scrappy looked both befuddled and distraught, they'd noticed it too.

The guy in the suit was at the podium now. He was talking or whatever, but no one paid much attention. Most of the guys were zoned out because they were bored and wanted to get on the ice already, damn it. Gradually, though, more and more of them craned their heads or turned in their seats, looking for the Aces' absent captain.

What's-his-nuts droned on about nothing important, oblivious to the lack of attention and the growing unease in the room. 

Jeff leaned forward. "They wouldn't have traded him, would they? Not now," he whispered at Cheeto. 

Not when they were this high in the standings. Besides, the trade deadline was over a month away.

But look what had happened to John Scott...

"I'm not seeing any news alerts." Cheeto checked his phone then tucked it away when Bert glowered at him. "But they can keep that shit locked down tight when they really want to."

Jeff settled back in his seat, shrugging an 'I dunno' in answer to Nutsy's silent question. Where the hell was Parse? Jeff thought back to his own trade nearly a year ago, and his stomach twisted. Parse loved Vegas, and Jeff knew all too well what it was like to be ripped away from your home without warning.

Or maybe there was some other reason Parse wasn't there. Something worse than a trade. Something that–

Everyone's attention shifted back to the podium. The guy in the expensive suit was heading to the door as Bert was getting up. At some point in the past few minutes, Joan had left her post by the door to claim the last chair by the podium.

"Thank you–" Bert paused, blinked, then coughed again with a name-like sound half-hidden in the cough. "Anyhow, thank you. For that inspirational speech."

'Inspirational' was said in the same tone of voice he used when complaining about shoddily completed paperwork. Once the door closed, Bert turned back to the team with a beleaguered sigh.

"How many of you cretins actually paid attention during our GM's little talk?"

There was a lot of embarrassed shuffling and only a few raised hands (liars). 

"Hmph. I expected as much. I would have prepared a recap for you, but as I suspected, there was little of substance to recap. So, let us move on to things you might actually care about." He pulled out a little stack of index cards and consulted the first one. "One, Mr. Parson has not been traded or involved in any kind of fortunate... excuse me, unfortunate accident. He is watching a live feed of this presentation while sequestered at the other end of the building for your safety."

Jeff didn't even get to enjoy the flood of relief before he was clobbered by the avalanche of 'what the fuck?' 

Sequestered? Safety?

Next card. "Two, if any of you reprobates breathe a word of what I am about to tell you to the press before the official announcement this evening..."

The ominous pause was all that needed to be said on the matter. All of the players had NDAs of one type or another built into their contracts, and any NDA drafted by Bert was the legal equivalent of a snowball with a big, sharp rock hidden inside.

Also, Joan had fixed her attention on them, mouth curved in an expression that was only vaguely analogous to a smile.

"To make a long story brutally short, there was an incident at Bridgestone Arena approximately one hour after the Predators' loss to the Blackhawks on Tuesday."

Without being cued, Joan used a remote to activate the projector. A picture of the plaza outside the Preds' home arena appeared on the screen. A massive banner hung just beneath the arena name, announcing the 2016 NHL All-Star Game.

At Bert's signal, she advanced to the next slide in the presentation.

The entire room recoiled and cried out in unison. Trigger crossed himself.

Whatever had happened to the ice in that arena was an insult to hockey everywhere. Jeff heard broken weeping from somewhere behind him. Fortunately, Joan advanced to the next slide before anyone could be too traumatized. 

This picture had been taken just inside the tunnel leading onto the ice, where a crew in hazmat suits (in Preds yellow, of course) stood next to what appeared to be the charred and twisted remains of a Zamboni. They were hosing away the remains of something that was better left undescribed. 

"Now, as to how this happened..." Bert signaled again.

The next picture was of one of the fugliest aquatic animals Jeff had ever seen. Gray. Slimy. Bewhiskered.

"Ictalurus punctatus, also known as the channel catfish."

Also known as one of the more annoying parts about playing in Nashville (aside from the music). Someone had once told Jeff why Preds fans liked to throw catfish onto the ice, but his brain had deleted the information as being too pointless to waste space on.

"I will spare you the details of the chain of events resulting from an encounter between a Zamboni and a large and... let us say vintage catfish, and the ill-advised attempts to remedy the initial catastrophe, but needless to say these events were highly improbable, highly destructive, and highly odiferous. Fortunately, the Predators are currently on a four game road trip. This was originally scheduled to allow arena staff adequate time to prepare for the All-Star Game, but it now will be barely enough time for the facility to be restored to a state fit for human occupancy before the Predators' next home game."

So, this year's All-Star Game was cancelled. Well, shit. That explained why Parse wasn't there. God, the poor guy. Once the whole Zimmermann thing had become a big 'never mind,' he had been so excited.

He was probably in a back office somewhere, hurling breakable objects against a wall.

"Therefore, the NHL has made arrangements for Nashville to host the game next year and for the game to be held elsewhere this year."

There was a shuffling and muttering amongst the guys. There was little more than a week before the All-Star festivities were due to start. How was moving it even possible?

"I am first and foremost delighted to announce that the complex and costly issues surrounding insurance claims and the recompense of ticket holders and other financial stakeholders are being managed by people who are not me. I am somewhat less delighted to announce that the game will be held here in Las Vegas."

More shuffling and muttering, this time of a more upbeat variety.

"Apparently, the two other venues capable of preparing for such an event on short notice, up to and including sufficient hotel space, were already booked for the weekend. We did have the option to refuse, but in the interest of general goodwill, narrative convenience, and financial gain, the owners have graciously agreed to put our staff through the monumental headache of hosting a major event with a little over a week to prepare. At least you overpaid delinquents will be on the road and out of our hair for most of that time."

Huh? There was a lot to unpack there, but–

"Now while some of you have travel plans for the All-Star break, I am all too aware that we will be burdened with the majority of you immature idiots."

"I liked our other lawyer better," Nutsy grumbled.

"I heard that, Mr. Nuutinen! While you might have fond memories of my former colleague despite his exceedingly brief tenure, might I remind you that the man proved to be a charlatan? I'm amazed he wasn't found out sooner."

Nutsy was not mollified. "He seemed legit enough to me..."

Cheeto turned in his chair. "Dude! The man said his name was 'Doctor Gonzo!'"

"Yeah? And?"

"Or perhaps not so amazed..." Bert muttered as he shuffled to his next index card. 

A clearing of the throat from Joan's general direction pulled everyone's attention back to the matter at hand. 

Bert used the rest of his time at the podium to outline all of the consequences of various actions such as marrying members of other teams, drunken cavorting with the mascots (Jeff really hoped his blush and his semi weren't too noticeable), attempting to take a Zamboni out for a joyride, or participating in any interviews that had not been coordinated in advance with Tracie from Media Relations.

Next up was Candy from Operations. Great. Candy was all perky, all the time, and always! so! excited! about everything! Hearing her speak for any length of time was like listening to fingernails on a Hello Kitty themed chalkboard. 

She walked up to the podium, already applauding whatever she was going to say. "Oh, my gosh, guys! Isn't this the most amazing thing EVER?"

There were a couple of whoops and cheers, because for once her enthusiasm didn't seem weirdly inappropriate. To Candy, everything was the most amazing thing EVER, including new motion sensors being installed in the arena toilets.

"I know some of you are going to be out of town for the All-Star break—sad face!" She forced a frown, pushing the edges of the Uncanny Valley in the process. "For those of you lucky enough to be staying here, Aces' management has provided one of the luxury suites —fully stocked!—for you and your families' use during the weekend's activities! Isn't that WONDERFUL??"

She applauded herself again, smiling broadly despite the fog of apathy emanating from the group in front of her. Everyone had interpreted the WONDERFUL offer for what it was: a way to corral any potential damage into one carefully monitored location.

Candy went on to prove that assumption correct with her very next statement.

"And our Aces TV crew will be in the suite with you to film ALL of it!!"

Hand to God, if Candy said anything about how FANTASTIC or AMAZING or AWESOME this was, there would be bloodshed.

"And that's not even the most INCREDIBLE part of what we've got in store for everyone!!!"

"The concession stands will put extra cheese on the nachos," Nutsy whispered. 

Biting back the snort of laughter was painful, and Jeff almost missed Candy saying that Anthem Elvis would perform in a couple of the pre-game and intermission concerts. Well, that was actually kinda cool...

"But that's not all!!!!" If Candy vibrated any more with excitement, she would pass right through the podium. "We've got another super-special musical guest lined up!!!!!"

She took a breath. Bert raised his hands to his ears.

"BRITNEY SPEARS!!!!!!"

The shriek of delight that reverberated through the entire facility was so loud and so piercing that half the guys had to struggle through practice with a moderate-to-severe case of tinnitus. 

In retrospect, they really should have sequestered Parse in a different building altogether.

* * *

The roadie leading up to the All-Star Game was brutal, with five games packed in tight: Arizona–Houston–Dallas–St. Louis–Colorado, with Houston and Dallas back-to-back, fuck you very much, NHL scheduling team. The closest thing they had to a break was the gap between the Dallas and St. Louis games, where they actually got to stay two nights in the same hotel with a full day off in between.

The first night in St. Louis was a blur. Jeff dozed on the flight from Dallas, even though his ribs were kind of sore (Benn—who apparently knew how to hold on to a grudge—had not only checked him hard enough to knock him off his feet, but sat on him as well), and only vaguely remembered getting to the Hyatt.

After a day's rest with a light practice thrown in, most of the younger guys were up for hitting the local bars or clubs. 

The more veteran players had different ideas.

Scrappy and Booger went off in search of pork steaks, which apparently were their 'thing' in St. Louis like ribs were their 'thing' in Nashville, or pulled pork in Carolina, or brisket in Dallas and Houston.

Nutsy and Trigger went to some museum, which seemed a little out of character for the duo until Jeff checked their shared Instagram account the next day and learned that this museum had a) a fully stocked bar b) multiple interactive attractions designed by someone for whom 'safety' and 'common sense' were nebulous concepts at best and c) helpful emergency staff for when Trigger got lost in an interactive attraction.

Cheeto's flip-out when he found out that Terry McMillan was doing a signing and a reading at a local indie bookstore would have been more impressive if Jeff hadn't just endured Parse's reaction to Britney. Cheeto had invited Jeff along, and Jeff was tempted, but he was far more tempted by the idea of hitting a bar in the Tower Grove neighborhood where he'd gotten lucky on past roadies with the Oilers. 

It wasn't so much that he was itching to hook up (although he kinda was), as it was that he wanted to be someplace where he didn't have to fucking hide. Where he could just relax and let loose and not have half his mind on alert all the damned time because he was around other people who got it, even if they never talked about it. 

(Also, this particular bar always had at least three or four games playing on the TVs, so maybe he could talk them into putting on the Clippers-Pacers match since his usual basketball buddy had ditched him in favor of barbecue.)

But when Parse asked Jeff if he wanted to hang out and watch stupid movies in his room, Jeff didn't even hesitate before saying 'yes.' Part of it was because playing chicken with curfew wasn't as appealing now as when he was a snot-nosed rookie, and he knew it would be wise to keep his nose clean so as not hurt his chances with other teams (Oilers) when his contract with the Aces was up.

Another part of it was because he couldn't imagine saying 'no.'

There was something utterly self-indulgent about this particular night off, Jeff mused, something self-indulgent in a way that went far beyond hanging out in a hotel room and watching Pacific Rim with zero apologies. Hell, it was as whoever was in charge of the universe was all wrapped up in self-indulgence right now.

He couldn't put a finger on it, but it was hanging over their heads, sort of like the whole John Scott thing was hanging out there, holding its breath and waiting for its Hollywood ending at the All-Star game.

And it maybe explained why movie night took the turn it did. 

It started off well enough, once Parse accepted the fact that yes, there was still no way in hell Jeff could be talked into watching Mamma Mia, and picked a different movie. The second choice was one Jeff was very much in favor of. He loved Pacific Rim, because what was there not to love about giant robots beating the shit out of giant monsters? Also, Idris Elba was a damn fine specimen of humanity.

Parse, while being very firmly in favor of the whole 'giant robots beating the shit out of giant monsters' thing, had other reasons for liking the film.

One was that one of the Russian pilots looked kinda-sorta like Booger, if Booger could actually grow some damn facial hair instead of looking like he had a bad case of mange.

Another was the whole 'drift compatible' thing.

"I miss that," Parse said out of nowhere, the first time Mako and Raleigh drifted. "The being in synch part of things, I mean. Feeling like you know someone so well inside and out it's like you're one person."

Things on screen went south in a hurry, with Mako's past trauma bubbling up to knock everything off kilter.

"But it's not always healthy, y'know? To be in that deep," he said wistfully, gesturing at the chaos and screaming and explosions onscreen.

"You're talking about you and Zimmermann, aren't you?" Jeff said before he could stop himself.

He braced for the return of the cornered opossum, but instead Parse's face spasmed with hurt before returning to a rehearsed but genuine calm.

"Yeah. Kinda." There was a long pause while he gathered his thoughts. "I keep telling myself we were just a couple of stupid kids. I look at how fucking young Tweety is and realize that's how young I was at the draft and..." He shook his head. "Jack OD'ing really fucked me up. A lot."

Another long pause.

"Not a lot of people know this, but I was the one who found him. Who called 911. I was almost too late."

Parse said it calmly enough, but it was the kind of revelation that left Jeff with a ringing in his ears.

"Jesus..." 

What the hell was he supposed to say now? That kind of shit would fuck anyone up, but someone who was barely even an adult? And with all of the hoopla around the draft that year?

Parse seemed okay without a response. "There's way more to the story than that, but I... Well, I wanted you to know."

"Huh? Why?"

Parse shrugged. They were sitting close enough together that the motion brushed his arm against Jeff's. 

"Dunno. I know we had a weird start what with getting married and you freaking out about it and being pissed about being traded and all, but for some reason it always felt like I could trust you the way I trust Scraps? I figured I could at least show you some of my baggage, yeah? Anyhow, sorry to dump on you out of nowhere like that, but this movie always stirs up some of this shit."

"Then why the hell did you insist on watching it?!" 

Parse raised an eyebrow at him. "Inside voice, bro... Just sayin'. I wanted to watch it because it's freaking awesome? And because not all the stuff it churns up is bad? And because Raleigh survives losing his brother like that? And because Mako pushes past all the stuff that fucked her up as a kid, and she didn't have to push past it on her own?" He was quiet again for several minutes after that, but it was the sort of quiet that Jeff knew better than to interrupt. "Anyhow, the Aces are the best damned thing that ever happened to me. They really are."

And if things had been different, the Aces would have happened to Zimmermann, not Parse.

For one wild moment, Jeff thought he was going turn to face Parse. They were sitting close enough together that Jeff would hardly need to lean in at all to kiss him and fuck everything up completely, and it was about to happen. He fought off the impulse only for the next impulse to scream at him to flee the room without explanation, which would also fuck everything up completely but in a different way.

And, because shit was apparently happening in threes these days, he was hit with a third impulse, one that would only potentially fuck everything up in a way similar to impulse number one. It had something to do with what Parse had said about trust, and something to do with how hanging out with Parse felt sort of like the not-hiding he'd hoped to find in Tower Grove. 

And, because it was the third impulse, it was going to be the one that actually translated into action. He could feel it. He knew it.

But, because plot twists and conveniently timed interruptions were also a thing, a shave-and-a-haircut knock at the door stopped Jeff just as the words I'm gay were about to leave his mouth.

Parse hollered at Scrappy to come in—the door's unlocked! and Jeff marveled at how something could be both a huge disappointment and a huge relief at the same time.

Scrappy came in, stopping short when he saw Jeff and Parse sitting together on the bed. Before Jeff could work out if he should discreetly scoot away to an appropriately heterosexual distance, Scrappy frowned, but not in a bad way. 

"Uh, you okay, Parser? You look kinda..." Scrappy circled his own face with one hand.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah. I was just telling Swoops here a little bit about the whole Zimms thing," Parse said as if he hadn't just dropped a big-ass emotion bomb.

This response got a deeper frown and an unspoken question that Parse answered with a sharp shake of his head.

"Oh. Okay," Scrappy said easily enough, and that was that. Parse patted the side of the bed opposite Jeff, and after a little bit of shuffling around to make room, Scrappy settled in to join them for the rest of the movie. "Did I miss the sad part? Where the other pilots–"

"Yup."

"Good. Um, about Zimmermann, that thing you were talking about in March...?"

"It's a go." Parse turned to Jeff. "Me and Coach Crane have a deal. He's got me penciled in for an 'upper body injury' for a game or two in mid-March, just in case."

Which was when the Falcs would be coming to Vegas. "Upper body injury?"

"Yeah. One of the trainers will 'accidentally' hit me upside the head with a kettleb—dude, dude!! It's a joke, okay? Chill!"

'Chill' wasn't happening. Neither was controlled breathing. "How? How the fuck am I supposed to know what's a joke around here anymore!? I'm on a team where there are standard operating procedures for when people get accidentally married or steal a zamboni, and where everyone is actively terrified of the receptionist, who may or may not put hits out on people!"

Parse just rubbed circles between Jeff's shoulder blades and made soft shushing noises until Jeff stopped hyperventilating and Scrappy stopped shaking with quiet laughter.

"No one is going to hit me in the head with a kettlebell, I promise, gingersnap. In this case, 'upper body injury' is code for 'mental health break,' not that anyone who's not in this room needs to know that. It was Crane's suggestion, after he saw how I reacted to Zimms bailing on the All-Star Game. If I need the break, I take it. If I don't, I don't. Just knowing it's there as an option is a huge help." He turned to face the TV, but Jeff didn't think he was actually watching anything on it. "I won't put off dealing with the Zimms thing forever, I promise, but that doesn't mean I have to deal with it now. Not if it makes things worse instead of better. Scraps knows what that's like."

Scrappy smiled at Jeff and gave an adorable little wave. 

The stab of jealousy that followed was both unexpected and unwelcome. 

Also, stupid. 

Like Parse said, it was possible to have more than one best friend. And it sounded like Scrappy had been there for Parse when Parse really needed him, even when Parse was being a complete asshole.

And Parse had also trusted Jeff with a big part of what sounded like a very ugly story. Being upset because he didn't get more than that was just... Well, it wasn't good.

"I just hope that one day, we'll figure out a way to put things right, whatever that ends up looking like." Parse slumped down, ending up looking like a kid sitting between the much larger Scrappy and Jeff. "Jack and I both owe each other a lot of apologies."

A snort from Scrappy indicated that he had opinions on that topic.

Jeff laughed under his breath. "And meanwhile, you've got an upper body injury 'penciled in.' Nice."

It was nice. Coach Crane pushed them hard—he was as scary as Joan in his own benign way—but it was plain that his concern for the guys went beyond their performance. It wasn't a surprise that he'd been the one to offer Parse a graceful out for the next time they played the Falcs. And it didn't sound like the offer was conditional on where the Aces were in terms of clinching a playoffs berth.

He'd never really thought about it before, but despite some of the less endearing, er... oddities of the staff, the Aces were good to their players in ways that a lot of other teams, well, weren't. 

It was a thought Jeff wasn't ready to poke at too hard just yet. 

If ever.

Chapter Text

JANUARY, 2016

Vegas might only have known it would be hosting the All-Star Game for a ridiculously short time, but if he didn't know better, Jeff would have assumed plans had been in the works for years.

Hotels ranging from the Bellagio to the No-Tell Motel off Rte. 151 (ask about our hourly rates!) magically had plenty of rooms available, and were quick to post special deals for ticket-holders. These deals were good enough that many people who had originally bought tickets for Nashville found that they could afford the change in travel plans. 

At least until they walked into whatever casino was attached to their hotel, Jeff thought uncharitably.

Then, after a few words in the right ears, a host of celebrity chefs agreed to set up pop-up restaurants in and around the Aces' arena. Management was even able to riff on the celebrity coach gimmick Nashville had planned, only instead of country music stars, they were able to get Penn (Atlantic Division), Teller (Pacific Division), Wayne Newton (Central Division), and the Blue Man Group (Metropolitan Division).

Things kicked off on Saturday with the Skills Competition, which had been set up as an East vs. West, Penn vs. Teller matchup. 

And throughout it all, Jeff kept thinking it was a damned good thing Zimmermann had bailed, because Parse was having an unqualified blast.

He didn't even seem to mind losing the fastest skater competition to Larkin by less than half-a-second, giving a cheerful what-can-you-do? shrug upon seeing the results. As for Jeff, he was pleased to see Hallsy do as well as he did, and he was looking forward to catching up with his former (and hopefully future) teammate after today's events.

The breakaway competition was less about skill and more about style and good, wacky fun. Subban dressed up as Jaromir Jagr (complete with a mullet wig) for his turn. Burns and Pavelski involved their kids in their turn, and Celebrity Coach Penn made Kuznetsov vanish beneath a swirling black cloak mid-skate while three pucks tumbled out of the back of Quick's jersey into the goal he was guarding, much to Quick's (no doubt feigned) surprise.

Subban won the competition because a) the cosplay was genuinely hilarious and b) Kuznetsov did not un-vanish on cue and was subsequently disqualified due to 'failure to appear.' 

In Jeff's opinion, Penn and the officials needed to tone down their 'concern' act over where Kuznetsov had been vanished to, because Kuzy's kid looked like he was about to start bawling.

At least, Jeff assumed it was an act. It had to be an act.

Right?

"Of course all of the usual suspects are complaining about how this 'ridiculous and pointless spectacle' is ruining the sacred sport of hockey," Nutsy griped, nose deep in Twitter while the ice was being set up for the accuracy competition. "God forbid anyone have fun playing a game, and—sh-crud! Not again!" he grumbled as a text came in.

"Huh? What's wrong?" Scrappy asked.

"Nothin' horrible. Just Rinne trying to get me to join him and Komarov for drinks later. Rask pulled the same bullshh–ugar last time I was in Boston. At least that's what I think it is because they all keep texting me in fu–udging Finnish! What is it with those ass–inine individuals? Why do they keep pulling this shh–oeshine?"

Trigger's youngest daughter, who looked like a raven-haired Cindy Lou Who, gazed up adoringly at her Uncle Nutsy with wide, innocent eyes as she sucked her thumb. In retrospect, telling the guys they could bring their families to the suite might not have been the brightest idea.

"Uh? Because you're a goalie? And because last I checked 'Nuutinen' is Finnish?" Trigger pointed out.

"I'm from Duluth!" 

Jeff laughed silently, shaking his head, and went back to the book he'd loaded to his iPad. Twice already this season, Nutsy had had to go on to Wikipedia and remove his name from the list of Finnish players in the NHL.  Assumptions were a funny thing (although Jeff strongly suspected Tweety of being the one responsible for re-updating the list just to fuck with Nutsy).

"Let it go, babe," Kirsten Nuutinen said with the kind of aggressive serenity required to stay happily married to the man. The toddler on Nutsy's lap held out her arms to her Auntie Kirsten entreatingly, and Kirsten scooped up the Triglet and parked her on her hip in one smooth motion. 

Meanwhile, Yoon-hee Sunwoo, Trigger's wife and—far more relevant to the hijinks about to ensue—former captain of the McGill University women's hockey team, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and assistant coach of the UNLV men's hockey team, was showing the older of Nutsy's two boys how to set up for a slap shot. She patiently adjusted hand position and torso angle and maybe, just maybe, had him stand so the follow-through would take out one of the Aces TV cameras. 

Nutsy and Trigger's families weren't related by blood, but you wouldn't know it from the way 'auntie,' 'uncle,' and 'cousin' were thrown around so casually.

Jeff caught Cheeto's eye and nodded towards where a cameraman barely managed to yank his camera out of harm's way at the last possible second at the expense of his ribs.

"Dang, that kid packs a lot of power for a five-year-old," Cheeto observed. "I'm thinking more center than goalie material, yeah?"

Anyhow, that was two intrusive cameramen down, one to go. That last one might be harder to dislodge, having taken up a solid defensive position near the wine fridge.

Still, Yoon-hee and Nutsy Jr. were going to give it the old college try. Watching the two co-conspirators reminded Jeff of something he'd been meaning to ask for a while.

"Is it true that one time after family skate, Nutsy and Trigger didn't realize until bedtime that they'd taken the wrong kids home?"

Cheeto scoffed. "Nah."

"Oh." Too bad. It was a cute story.

"It's happened three times. The last time, they didn't even notice until breakfast the next morning."

Jeff turned that over in his head. One would assume kids between the ages of one and five might balk at not being put to bed in their own rooms by their own parents. Plus, the Tringari-Sunwoo girls had inherited their mama's jet-black hair and their daddy's olive complexion, while the flaxen-haired Nuutinen boys looked like they might combust if exposed to direct sunlight.

But then again, this was Nutsy and Trigger they were talking about. Even Kirsten and Yoon-hee were super-best besties. Jeff couldn't help thinking about his own childhood, and all of the other houses back in Camrose that were second homes for him.

He missed that.

"Yeah," he said after a moment. "I guess I can see that." 

In fact, the only thing he didn't see was why—given Nutsy's tendency to use profanity as punctuation and the fact that Yoon-hee could swear like a trucker raised by sailors—the kids' vocabulary was as clean as it was.

"Whatcha reading?" Cheeto asked even as he leaned over Jeff's shoulder like the nosy bastard he was. 

Jeff elected not to give into the temptation to be a little shit and angled his iPad so Cheeto could see enough to read the header: Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood. 

"Uh, it's her newest? Kind of a modern re-telling of 'The Tempest?' It's pretty good so far, if you like meta stuff." 

To be honest, it wasn't his favorite of her books (Alias Grace) or his favorite Shakespeare (Much Ado, preferably the version with Denzel in tight pants), but Mom had sent it to him over a week ago. This meant he now had less than a week to finish it up before he started getting the third degree.

Cheeto 'hmph'ed in a puzzled manner and started to say something else, but Trigger butted in to ask about the Dads' Trip that was scheduled for mid-February, and if Cheeto's dad had found out yet if he could get away from work long enough to go. Apparently, on the last Dads' Trip, Emmanuel Cheever, Vinnie Tringari Sr., and Marko Nuutinen had quite the time, getting themselves blacklisted from not one, not two, but three Vancouver bars.

Jeff paid little attention to the conversation until it turned stiltedly cautious and oblique, and Scrappy started shooting him anxious looks.

"You can stop walking on eggshells, guys," Jeff snapped in exasperation. "It's not some fu–udging tragedy that I don't have a dad in the picture, okay?"

Enough of his mom's friends and colleagues had stepped into the honorary aunt or uncle role that he had never felt like he had missed out on anything big, family-wise, but he could see how the guys might assume that Jeff not having a dad (and not even knowing who the guy was) would be a sore spot.

Not that he ever would say this out loud, but Jeff had figured out a long, long time ago that he was more than content with his collection of random adults who had stepped into a quasi-parental role because they wanted to. He figured it was better than being saddled with the kind of Daddy Issues that plagued more than half the hockey players he knew. 

Some of the tidbits Scrappy had casually dropped about his childhood made the hair on the back of Jeff's neck stand up. It also hadn't escaped his notice that Parse never talked about his parents unless directly asked, or that the few family-ish sounding calls he'd overheard Parse making were with his Rimouski billet family. (At least that's who Jeff assumed it was, given that the calls were in rapid-fire French he could barely follow.)

Of course, asking the guys not to walk on eggshells only made the piles of metaphorical eggshells grow, not shrink. 

Fortunately for him and everyone else, the accuracy shooting competition was starting, and they rushed out to the seats to get a better look. Other than the fastest skater competition, this was the one Parse stood the greatest chance of winning.

He didn't win.

Parse went up in the first heat against Tavares, who beat him at hitting all the targets by just a little over a second. What really sucked was that in the end, Parse's time would have made him the solid winner of any one of the following heats. 

Oddly enough, Parse didn't look the slightest bit disappointed. He clapped Tavares on the back in genuine congratulations after their heat, and the two of them stood around, joking and chatting with each other like old pals during the other three heats. 

Out of freaking nowhere, it slid into Jeff's mind that they got to know each other at the '09 scouting combine. Back then, everyone and their cousin was predicting that Zimmerman-Parson-Tavares would go 1-2-3 in that order, so of course the three of them were shoved together for a lot of interviews and events at the combine.

Of course, nothing had played out the way anyone had assumed. Zimmermann crashed and burned, Parse went to the Aces as a consolation prize, and instead of taking Tavares like any other team would have happily done, the Falconers fucked themselves over by picking a speedy winger who'd been predicted to fall towards the bottom of the first round instead of adjusting their plans to fit an exponentially better player.

(Weirdly, it worked out for the Falconers in the long term. The following shit show of a season led to the GM leaving in disgrace and their new AGM from the U.S. Women's Hockey team making a name for herself by trading picks and prospects like a boss so that in 2010 they drafted Mashkov and picked up Snow as a prospect from Detroit.)

But looking at Parse and Tavares now, you would never know anything untoward had–

A sudden, desperate pounding knocked Jeff free of his random and pointless mental retrospective (and how did he even know half that stuff?). Cheeto opened the door to the suite, but there was no one in the hall. He jumped nearly a foot in the air when the pounding came again. 

From inside the suite.

"Isn't this how horror movies usually start?" Tweety asked, sounding like he'd de-aged ten years in ten seconds.

"Nah, someone probably got locked in the bathroom," Nutsy said, but he didn't sound all that certain.

Jeff narrowed his eyes and headed towards the source of the noise, Scrappy right beside him as backup. "No. It's coming from the pantry." 

Kirsten and Trigger did a quick inventory of the kids, but no one was missing. 

Scrappy cautiously sidled up to the pantry door, and yanked it open.

 He jumped back with a startled yelp as a dazed and disoriented Evgeny Kuznetsov tumbled out, babbling in a mix of Russian and English. 

Jeff silently helped the wobbly and wide-eyed Kuzy to his feet while Trigger called security to report that he'd been found and Cheeto and Booger gently reassured him in two languages that no, he hadn't missed the relay challenge but he should probably hurry if he wanted to make it down there in time.

Once Kuzy helped himself to a to-go plate of nachos and left, everyone stood quietly, asking themselves the same silent question before shrugging it off as one with the same silent answer:

Meh, it's Vegas. Whaddya expect?

* * * 

Jeff debated for another five minutes, then sent off the text.

Me: Are you up?

It was just after eleven, so it was even odds that Parse was up or had gone to sleep.

Less than a second after he sent it (and deeply regretted having sent it), the status of Jeff's text shifted to 'read.' An incoming text bubble appeared immediately after.

The Ex: u ok?

Jeff had to think about that one for a moment.

Me: I just got back from drinks with Hall

It wasn't an answer to Parse's question, but at least it provided some context while Jeff figured out how best to answer. In the end, he went with:

Me: I don't know if I'm okay

Parse's typing bubble appeared and disappeared several times over the next ten seconds. Then: 

The Ex: wanna come over?

Jeff didn't even have to think about it. Fifteen minutes later, he was parked on Parse's couch with Purrs curled up in a perfect circle on his lap and Parse puttering in the kitchen and singing along to Katy Perry. Parse was unapologetically kitted out in ratty red boxers patterned with the Aces' logo and a faded pink tee shirt from Britney's Femme Fatale tour. His cowlick looked like it had been combed with an eggbeater.

It was weirdly sexy even though there was no way it should have been.

"So, what's the story, crumpet?" Parse came back from the kitchen bearing two mugs of hot chocolate laced with peppermint schnapps, and sat down next to him. "I know you were looking forward to meeting up with Hall."

"Yeah," Jeff said dully. "I was, but..."

"He always struck me as a decent enough guy," Parse said, the statement verging on being a wary question. "He was okay during our team practice yesterday."

"Yeah. We got along pretty well, but we weren't buds like..." Like him and Parse. Or him and Cheeto. Or him and Scrappy. "And tonight, it was like... well, I guess it just really hit home that the Oilers aren't my team anymore like I thought they were."

Parse's face flickered cold and stony, and Jeff's stomach sank as he realized how what he said must have come across. Then, Parse closed his eyes and took a deep, deliberate breath. Then another one. His expression softened.

"I... Uh, I remember what you told me when you first came here," Parse said carefully, slowly. "That the Oilers had been your team since you were a little kid."

Jeff nodded, trying to ignore the burning in his eyes. He hunched over Purrs, scratching her between her shoulder blades the way she liked. "It's not like I don't like playing with you guys," he muttered. 

"'S okay," Parse mumbled, even though for a few seconds it hadn't been.

"Anyhow, even if we wanted to, and I'm not sure we did, Hallsy and I couldn't really talk talk, because they told the players not to leave the hotel, so we were stuck in one of the hotel bars with everyone and their brother." It was annoying, but he supposed it made sense to keep everyone corralled and away from the strip clubs and wedding chapels.

"Yeah. I had to pitch a major hissy fit to be allowed to go back to my own house to sleep in my own bed with my own cat." Parse still sounded pissed off about it even though he'd managed to get his way. "So, what happened?"

Jeff shook his head, and at some point in the silence that followed, Parse reached over and—after a few tentative touches— rubbed slow circles between his shoulders the way Jeff was between Purrs'. It was nice. Very nice.

"It just left me..." Jeff sipped at his cocoa while he fished around for the right word. 'Unsettled' wasn't it, and neither was 'abandoned.' 'Adrift' was closer. So was 'unmoored.' The soft circles on his back and the sweet, minty cocoa made all of these concepts too distant to pin down. 

"It reminded me of how things didn't turn out like I expected. I always had all these visions about how my future would go, and for a long time it seemed like everything was heading that way just like it was supposed to," he said at last.

What he didn't say, because it would make him sound either completely naive or like an arrogant douche, was that most of these visions of his story's Happily Ever After included him hoisting the Cup overhead after winning it for his team and for the city he called home. In his more extravagant and self-indulgent moods, the visions involved game-winning goals, the Conn Smythe, and a hot date with a Chris Evans look-alike. Or even the actual Chris Evans.

The circles slowed and then stopped. Parse shifted away from him a little, and somehow it wasn't until then that Jeff realized how they had been sitting thigh-to-thigh. He missed the contact but didn't dare pursue it.

"I get what you mean," Parse said quietly. Then, after a moment, "I could tell you that just gotta let go of the past and move on, but it's never as easy as people make it sound. And it's never just one-and-done." Another pause. "Is it?"

"No. It isn't." 

But that was only part of it.

Parse stretched and yawned wide, nearly clocking Jeff with his mug. "I'm glad you had an existential crisis or whatever—and jeez, that sounded all kind of wrong, didn't it? What I was trying to say is that I didn't know until you showed up just how bad I needed the company tonight. It's not always a good idea for me to be alone after getting all jazzed up like I was after today, but drinks out with the guys wasn't really an option, y'know?"

Another part of it was that he couldn't imagine texting Hall or any of the other guys back home the way he had texted Parse just because he felt a little 'off.' And it wasn't only Parse. If Parse hadn't been around, Jeff knew that Scrappy or Cheeto would have been just as happy to help him get out of his funk in their own different ways.

"Hey, any time you need me to have an 'upper body injury,' just let me know and I'll pencil it in," Jeff said.

Parse gave him another one of those crooked smiles that only appeared rarely, and never for any reason Jeff could figure out. 

"You're the best, croquembouche."

They sat comfortably for a while after that, with Parse sharing various bits of gossip from the day, talking about how Celebrity Coach Teller was a lot of fun even though the guy would not shut the fuck up, and laughing to the point of giggle-snorting when Jeff told him about what happened with Kuznetsov and the pantry. 

"There's part of me that wishes I was hanging out in the suite with you guys. Even if we end up in the final game tomorrow, I'm gonna try to get up there during the intermission to catch the concert." His eyes went a muddy hazel. "I won't name names, but some of the visiting players... well, let's just say they're not exactly happy with the headline entertainment. Yeah, Cheeto and Nutsy give me crap for being a total Britney fanboy, but they don't mean anything by it, y'know?" 

"Yeah." He knew.

A few days ago, Jeff had nearly blurted out I'm gay, and he might have if Scrappy hadn't interrupted. The impulse wasn't there now, but he could remember what it felt like and how scary it wasn't in retrospect.

Parse tipped his head way back so he could get the last dregs of cocoa out of his mug. He smacked his lips with a sigh of satisfaction. "Want some more cocoa, cocoa-puff?" 

At least it wasn't scary until he was shooting the shit with Hall, and it struck him like a puck to the ankle that he would never in a million years have felt that impulse with anyone on the Oilers. But he could imagine telling Parse. Or even Cheeto. Or Scrappy. Maybe even Nutsy-and-Trigger. Or Booger. Not that he would do it or even wanted to do it. But he could imagine it. That was another part of what had him so unsettled.

Jeff shook his head and handed over his empty mug. "Nah, I'm good. Also, Cocoa Puffs are a cereal, not a baked good, dumbass."

Parse flipped him off, and Jeff's laugh turned into a yawn.

"Wanna crash in the guest room tonight?" Parse asked as Jeff struggled and failed to fight off another yawn.

But those were only parts. Very small parts.

"Yeah. Sure."

Something else was out there, too. Something bigger, unnamed and unknown. Something fundamental. Something so close he couldn't see it properly.

"If Purrs abandons me for you again, I'm suing for alienation of affection."

Or maybe he was just in a weird-ass mood for whatever reason. The All-Star Game was kinda like that. Weird. Surreal. Off-balance. It felt a little bit like reading a story about someone else who just happened to be him.

"Alienation of—how the hell does that even work? What would you get if you won, which you wouldn't. Your cat wouldn't magically like you better than she likes me just because some lawyer said so."

Oh, well. Jeff knew he would figure out what was wrong with him sooner rather than later.

Parse scooped up Purrs as he got up to head bed-wards. "Trust me, profiterole, I would win and I would win something good. Something like the story behind why you were so flipping desperate to pick your own nickname."

What Jeff didn't know was that 'sooner or later' would be much, much sooner than he was expecting.

"Dream on, Parser," he laughed.

Parse—who now had Purrs draped over his shoulders like a boa—blew him an over the top kiss, complete with mwah! sound effect.

"Sweet dreams, creampuff."

Chapter Text

JANUARY, 2016

Jeff's day started with waking up in Parse's guest room with a cat draped over his head. 

There were far worse ways to wake up.

"Just for the record, I hate cats," he told Purrs as he reached up to skritch her behind the ears. She rewarded him by purring like a madwoman and giving him a raspy kiss on the temple. He shifted his hand so he could get that sweet spot under her chin. "Absolutely despise them." 

 She stalked off in a huff when he sat up. A note from Parse on the nightstand informed him that Parse had to report super-early for some unexpected and hush-hush PR thing before the game, there should be plenty of coffee left, Jeff should just let himself out, and his lawyers would be in touch about that alienation of feline affection thing.

Jeff smiled at the note (Parse wrote much like he texted), then folded it up and put it in his wallet. While this morning wasn't anywhere within spitting distance of the way he usually spent his mornings, something about it felt pleasantly ordinary. 

Yesterday's weird-ass mood, whatever its cause, had completely vanished.

Or course, the instant he checked his phone and saw the string of vague yet ominous texts, Vegas's twisted version of 'normal' brought it back in full force.

When he pulled into the players' lot under the stadium, Tracie from Media Relations was waiting by the elevators with her ever-present iPad and wearing her usual uniform of high-end designer suit, Hermes scarf holding her braids in an updo, and beat-up Birkenstocks.

"What happened this time?" he asked wearily. As soon as he saw that the first text referred to a 'Zamboni Incident,' he had stopped reading. The fishy carnage at Bridgestone Arena was still too fresh in his mind.

She swiped her security card to summon the elevator. "Nothing we're not used to dealing with on a regular basis, but with press from pretty much all the teams here at once in addition to the main sports outlets, this is like playoffs on steroids, so..." An expressive shrug as the elevator arrived. "You guys would be easy targets if one of the press got you alone, and until... uh, whats-his-name makes a statement with the other GMs, we wanted to spare you. Everyone else is already here or has checked in." 

"Uh, sorry? I slept later than I expected." 

She waved off the apology with genuine good humor. "No worries, I just wanted to fill you in and make sure you didn't get ambushed." 

True, Tracie was often the one responsible for setting them up with some of the more annoying PR stunts and Aces TV videos, and while there was speculation that the Freeze-Dried Insect Taste Test Challenge was her way of exacting revenge for a rash of weddings and other shenanigans she had to sweep under the rug back in November, she was more laid back and undemanding than most media professionals Jeff had ever met. 

She was the perfect person to provide him with crucial exposition.

(Huh? What the hell was that thought about?)

The elevator let them off at the suite level and he followed her out. She was maybe five foot two if you counted the braids, but a couple of times he had to break into a run to keep up with her as she filled him in.

"As to what happened," she continued, "let's just say that while we mostly did a good job at keeping tabs on the players, we didn't think of everything."

She held out her iPad.

Skimming the police report she showed him, he gathered that following the final Mascot Showdown event (a dance-off) yesterday, alcohol had flowed and hijinks had ensued. What really got his attention, however, was the photo that accompanied the report. 

The menu board at a drive-thru near the arena had been flattened by a Zamboni. The Zamboni was tipped over on its side, leaking transmission fluid. In the background, Fin the Whale, Victor E. Green, Iceburgh, and Youppi! were all being escorted to waiting police vans. 

"Yikes." He handed back the iPad.

"Yikes, indeed," she said.

"I mean, Arby's!? Ew. They couldn't have gone to In-N-Out!?" 

God, their double-doubles were amazing. He usually had two (plus fries and a shake) on cheat days.

"Oh, I could think of worse places they could have gotten caught than Arby's," she said darkly. They had reached the suite. "That wasn't the only mascot-related incident we had last night."

Jeff's later-than-planned arrival was greeted with desultory cheers and statements of gratitude that he wasn't dead in a ditch somewhere. Propped up against the glass of the suite was a mini whiteboard someone had brought in. On it was inscribed in truly shitty handwriting:

DAYS SINCE OUR LAST INCIDENT: 0

Of course. "Who was it this time?" 

"Oh, it wasn't one of our guys," Scrappy said cheerfully before Tracie could respond with the official answer. "It was the guy who's here from the Aeros? Petrov?"

"He slipped past security last night and married Moony T. Rabbit," Nutsy chimed in from where he sat folded up like a pretzel in one of the suite's overstuffed club chairs. He sounded more annoyed than amused, probably because he couldn't think of a way to fine someone on a different team.

The Aeros' leading scorer had married his team's mascot? 

An image of a bucktoothed white bunny in an astronaut outfit (the ears flopped out through big holes in the helmet, which didn't bode well for survival in the vacuum of space) came quickly to mind. Jeff had never quite figured out if the Aeros had someone on staff who knew that some Asian cultures had a Rabbit in the Moon instead of a Man in the Moon, or if someone had picked up an Easter Bunny costume on the cheap and shoehorned it into the Aeros' space theme. 

Knowing the general level of cultural sensitivity in the NHL, it was most likely the latter.

"So? We've had guys from visiting teams get drunk-married before. To some of us, even." One of the more notorious repeat offenders was even here at the All-Star Game, representing the Central Division. "Why is this one so different?"

"Let's just say there was a distinct lack of plausible deniability," Cheeto said with a leer and an eyebrow waggle.

"I'm letting the spin on that story and the hacked cell phone photos be the Aero's problem," Tracie said primly. She went on to say something else, but Jeff couldn't hear it over the shrill buzzing in his ears.

That could have been me and Kevin, was all he could think for the next, infinite, ten seconds. He waited for the snide, clichéd jokes. For things that were worse than jokes. 

He waited for people he now counted as friends to say things that meant he couldn't trust them after all.

Carly laughed nastily, but didn't have a chance to say anything (thank God) before Yoon-hee beat him to the punch.

"You've definitely got the easier job of it, Trace. I saw those pictures online, and wowza."

From the way Tweety's eyes bugged out as he looked at his phone, he had just found the pictures. He made an incoherent noise.

Yoon-hee grinned and ruffled his hair, deftly avoiding his attempts to swat her hand away. "See what I mean, kid? That rabbit is definitely more of a Jessica than a Moony T., if you know what I mean."

Tweety made another incoherent noise, but had enough presence of mind to hold his phone out of view of a curious Nuutling. 

"I know about both of your 'secret' Tumblr accounts, Finch, and if I see even one 'puck bunny' meme..." Tracie warned as Cheeto plucked the phone out of Tweety's hand.

Cheeto whistled long and low. "Wow... I wonder if she's just as hot without the mask on."

As for Jeff, he had collapsed into one of the uncomfortably soft armchairs, too overcome with relief for his knees to remember how they were supposed to work. Stupid, stupid, stupid for him to assume the mascot was a guy. After all, their own mascot was played by a woman these days.

(Maybe one of these days, his legs would stop shaking.)

Booger rumbled with laughter. "Fyedka tell me he is dating girl who works for Aeros. For two years he not say who! Now I know why!"

"Jesus. Yeah," Trigger said. "Now he's going to be forever known as the guy who f–orked the mascot."

"I AM SURE SHE IS A PERFECTLY LOVELY PERSON." 

Funny. Jeff didn't remember standing up. But there he was, bolt upright and every muscle in his body tight enough to go twang.

The awkward silence, complete with everyone staring at him, was finally broken by a tiny, piping voice from down around knee-height. 

"Mr. Jeff?" There was even a tug on his shirt to get his attention. 

He looked down to find the older of the two Triglets staring up at him very seriously.

"Daddy says that when you're indoors you gotta use your indoor voice or Uncle Nutsy is gonna make you put a quarter in the fine jar."

Nutsy grinned over steepled fingers like a supervillain. "But because Mr. Jeff is a grownup, Mr. Jeff is going to have to put twenty-five smackaroos in the fine jar!"

Jeff took a threatening step goalie-wards. "I'll 'smackaroo' you, you–"

Kirsten cleared her throat. "Now, it's not nice to yell, or to extort money–" this said with a dangerous smile at her husband before turning back to the kids "–but Mr. Jeff is just trying to remind us that even though they are strange and often scary, mascots are people too, don'tcha know."

(Two years later, when the Aces were playing in Philly, Kirsten would be proven horribly, horribly wrong, but that was another story for another time.)

Jeff shook the strange, sudden thought from his head. The Flyers didn't even have a mascot. Did they?

Whatever. Hopefully his brain would stop going strange on him.

Tracie's phone rang with a tone that put her on high alert, and she scurried off into a corner to deal with whatever fresh hell had come her way. While everyone else did their best to pretend they weren't eavesdropping, Cheeto came up to Jeff and cleared his throat. 

"I've got a bone to pick with you, man."

Jeff racked his brain. He hadn't done anything lately that might have bugged Cheeto. At least not deliberately.

"What?"

"That book you were reading?"

"Yeah?" 

"I went to buy it, and it doesn't come out for another three months! How the fucking hell did—Ow! Jesus, Kirsten!" Cheeto winced and rubbed the back of his head.

Jeff smirked. "You were saying?"

"What I was saying before I got slapped upside the head by a flipping Valkyrie was how the flaming heck did you get hold of a copy?"

"Uh, Mom forwarded me the download? It's actually an ARC?"

Cheeto took a step forward, ignoring things like personal space and boundaries. "So how did she get it?"

"Because she's going review it for The Antigonish Review?" He really, really wanted to know why Cheeto was looking at him like a face-off opponent. Or possibly like lunch. It wasn't like he hadn't scooped Cheeto on a new release before. Or vice versa. He hadn't even rubbed Cheeto's face in the scoop. This time, anyway.

Down on the ice, the players for the Atlantic Division skated out of the tunnel one by one as the announcers and swirling lights urged the crowd into a frenzy, but the attention of everyone in the suite was being split between Tracie's increasingly tense phone conversation and the budding literary drama unfolding in front of them.

"What's an Antagonist Review?" Scrappy asked.

"It's a Canadian literary journal," Cheeto explained, beating Jeff to it like the competitive prick that he was. "Super prestigious and sh–tuff. I thought your mom taught preschool or something?"

"What? No!" Jeff racked his brain for what on earth he could have said to create that impress... oh. "Well, she always says her TAs act like preschoolers a lot of the time, especially around finals. Maybe that's what you remember me saying?"

"You said your mom teaches college, right?" Scrappy chimed in, because he was the best. "I remember you telling me and Parse about it that one time."

Cheeto gaped like an ictalurus punctatus for a good moment before collecting himself. "How did I not know that, man? I thought we were bros!"

Jeff flung up his hands in frustration. "I assumed you knew! Maybe I didn't say specifically 'hey, my mom is a professor' within earshot, or maybe I thought I told you because I told Scrappy and Parse, but there's such a thing as context clues, dipstick!"

"But she raised you as a single..." Cheeto stopped himself before he made himself sound like an idiot. "And I was just about to make an ass of 'u' and 'me,' and that was just a pun, Kristin! Jeez!" Once he was no longer in danger, he cleared his throat and went on. "My bad."

"No worries. We're good."

Jeff knew the kinds of assumptions people tended to make about single mothers in rural Alberta who didn't know who their baby daddy was, and whose unplanned bundle of joy became a rink rat who went on to drop out of high-school. It was annoying, but only in an eye-rolling sort of way. But he got why Cheeto might think he wanted an apology.

If he was drunk enough or tired enough, Cheeto would sometimes vent to him about some (and Jeff had a sinking feeling it was merely a carefully curated some) of the shit that he'd dealt with from the press. 

Most of it was more subtle than outright slurs, but just as enraging. More, sometimes, because it was harder to push back against without making things worse. Cheeto was a Black kid from Baltimore, so of course a lot of assholes assumed his childhood was straight out of 'The Wire.' And then, his father was a no-show at his first NHL game even though it was just down the road in DC, so certain commentators had made all kinds of sad and condescending noises about deadbeat, absentee dads. 

The truth was that Cheeto had grown up in a very nice neighborhood. Nicer than some of the cushy suburbs where the married-with-kids Aces lived, to be honest. Also, from what Jeff had gathered, the first time Cheeto had ever set foot in a public school was when he was doing outreach with the Little Aces youth program. 

As for Emmanuel Cheever, his absence at that first NHL game wasn't so much due to being a deadbeat dad as it was to being a pediatric heart surgeon who was forty minutes into a five-hour emergency surgery on a premature infant when the puck dropped. 

But that didn't fit the 'narrative' certain people had stuck in their minds. Nor did the 'hey, this guy graduated with honors from Princeton' thing. (Which might explain why Cheeto brought it up all the damn time.)

On a good day, he got a correction appended to an article, but that was about it.

And... Jeff had paused for needless reflection on Cheeto's backstory long enough that Cheeto was giving him a worried look. 

(What the hell was going on with him today, anyway?)

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. I honestly thought I had," Jeff said, and they fist-bumped on it before grabbing some snacks and heading out to the seats to watch what was left of the Eastern Conference game. None of the Aces had a dog in this particular fight, but everyone whooped and cheered when Kuznetsov scored halfway through the first period.

When a guy appeared with no explanation in your suite pantry, it was hard not to feel some degree of proprietary affection.

And... that whole thing with the pantry was a thing that had happened? For real?

It had. And so had the mass shrugging-off of something that was completely, absolutely impossible.

As impossible as an errant catfish taking out an entire state-of-the-art arena. 

Or as impossible as parents mistaking their best friends' Finnish-Norwegian little boys for their own Sicilian-Korean little girls and vice-versa.

Jeff shoved those thoughts aside and tried to focus on the game... which was just counting down to the end of the first period.

The intermission was painfully brief, more of a break for commercials than anything else. Still everyone dispersed back into the suite to eat, drink, and use the facilities.

Jeff took a seat at the bar behind the glass rather than risk his lower back to those too-soft chairs. 

Cheeto plopped down next to him with a big plate of nachos. "How long has your mom been teaching?" His initial outrage had finally given way to the inevitable curiosity.

"Since right after I was born. Literally."

Cheeto winced. "Yikes. Rough."

"Nah. Not so much. Do you know how many students she had kissing up to her by offering to babysit? She says trying to finish her doctorate while preggers was way worse. I kept punching her in the kidneys during her thesis defense, which she reminds me about almost as much as she nags me about when she's going to have grandkids. And speaking of her thesis, apparently I'm a souvenir of when she took advantage of a grant to go do some research in Athens."

"UGA?"

It was a logical assumption. Logical, but wrong. "Nah. OG Athens in Greece. She was doing some research on some sort of ritual whatever and how it played into meta-whatsis. Theatrical traditions? That kind of thing. Anyhow, she teaches literature at University of Alberta. Well, mostly literature, but all mixed in with folklore and anthropology and stuff like that."

"Huh. That sounds pretty cool. It sounds kind of like–"

Jeff would have sworn he heard the sound of a record scratch as Cheeto put a-squared together with b-squared to come up with c-squared.

"Hold on a second... Your mother is Cassandra Troy?"

"Uh, yeah?"

Cheeto's smile shifted into 'unhinged' territory. He got up from his barstool and rested his hands on Jeff's shoulders.

"As in Sacred Aspects of Breaking the Fourth Wall: Dionysian Tradition in Modern Metafiction  Cassandra Troy?"

Cheeto was literally shaking, and Jeff wasn't sure if he should maybe try making a break for the exit. More attention was now on the two of them than on Tracie.

"Uh, yeah? That was her doctoral thesis." A fact that Jeff had never, ever been allowed to forget. 

Cheeto took a deep breath to calm himself. But when he tried to let it out in a controlled exhale, it came out as:

"I cited your mom in my thesis!"

The awkward silence that followed was broken not by crickets, but by a goalie clearing his throat. "'Your mom' jokes are an automatic hundred-dollar fine. Pay up, Cheeto."

"Shut up, Nutsy!" Jeff and Cheeto both yelled. 

"All of you shut up!" Tracie shouted. A tiny voice in the background solemnly reminded everyone that not using your indoor voice cost a quarter, and that saying 'shut up' cost two quarters. "Nuutinen, for once can you pretend to be a reasonable human being for just two consecutive minutes? Troy? Cheever? If I have to step in to defuse yet another one of your stupid Goodreads tiffs, you will wish I would bring back that Taste Test Challenge—you know the one I'm talking about! Now, all of you, listen up! I just got off the phone with... well, with management."

This triggered a round of speculative whispering, as no one was really sure who 'management' really was.

"Does she mean the owners? Or that other guy? The one in the suit? Whoever it was had her shaking in her Birkies during that call," he whispered at Cheeto.

"My money's on the owners. Rumor has it, they only ever talk to the front office by phone or email. Never in person."

"I wish I knew who the hell they were," Jeff whispered back. 

Tracie cleared her throat and got everyone's attention again.

"Okay. Here's the party line on the Arby's incident. As far as everyone is concerned, including the teams who were involved, the LVPD, Arby's corporate offices, and the NHL, what happened is that one of the NHL media teams was filming a 'Hangover' themed promotional spot based on the sort of ridiculous things people get up to in Vegas. During filming, the Zamboni malfunctioned and despite its slow speed and the number of turns involved to get there, could not be stopped or diverted until it hit the Arby's menu board. In exchange for use of the footage in future commercial spots, Arby's will not seek compensatory damages."

There was a general muttering that yeah, that sounded legit, but Trigger raised his hand.

"Okay, but drunk driving a Zamboni and crashing into a drive-through? Isn't that kind of... overdone?"

"That's rich, coming from you, Tringari. Also, this is the NHL media team we're talking about," Tracie pointed out. "As for Fyodor Petrov and the young lady who goes by 'Moony T. Rabbit,' the Aeros have decided that the simplest approach is to go with the truth, which is that the two have been dating for two years, and merely took the opportunity to do what many couples do in Vegas. Management has graciously consented to help the Aeros maintain control of the story."

"But what about the pic—hey! Where'd they go?" Tweety flicked through his phone in search of whatever he had called up online.

"Like I said, management is helping out."

"But even the ones I downloaded are..." Tweety cut himself short, then gingerly put his phone away.

It would be a dark, dark day in Tweetyland when Tracie found out about his third Tumblr account.

(Wait. Third Tumblr account? Until just now, Jeff had only known about the one. Wasn't it just one? How did he know this? What was wrong with him?)

Everyone listened politely to the rest of Tracie's reminder of what (not) to say or do for the remainder of the game. For one thing, she had gotten most of them out of one kind of pickle or another with minimal fuss (the insects were a notable outlier) and for another, no one wanted to miss seeing their captain play in the Western Conference match.

The Aces booed in good-spirited fashion when the Central Division was announced, but they also applauded as much as they booed. 

They lost their goddamn minds when the Pacific Division players came out, and even more so when Parse came out on the ice. He looked up towards their box and waved his stick at them, grinning like a happy lunatic.

When John Scott took the ice, the entire arena lost its goddamn mind and didn't find it again for the rest of the game. It was a madhouse, with the first two goals being scored in the first two minutes of play, one of them by Scott—the same guy who'd only had five goals in a ten year career.

Jeff got swept up in it, in the whole rush of the underdog story, yelling his lungs out and not caring that he was screaming himself hoarse. The three-on-three play was fast, perfect for zoomy, dekey little guys like Parse and Gaudreau, and no one was looking to land any hard hits or even any hits at all. 

The ten minute period flew by, and the score was tied 3-3 at intermission. Hardly anyone left their seats during intermission, not wanting to risk missing a minute of what was going to follow. Anthem Elvis came out on the house band stage and belted out an authentic-sounding version of 'Viva Las Vegas,' to the roaring delight of the crowd.

Jeff sent off a text to his mom, and got a reply pretty quickly after. It was good news.

"Hey, Cheeto. I asked Mom if it was okay if I forwarded a copy of the book to you, and she said it was okay as long as you don't pass it along to anyone else."

"You are a true friend, my man." Fist-bumps were exchanged, then Cheeto paused. "I'm assuming not passing it along means not telling anyone I'm reading it, either?"

Jeff nearly tossed out a thoughtless 'yeah,' but there was a wistful question hidden in Cheeto's casual assumption. "Lemme check."

Text sent, text received.

"Huh. She says you can tell people, just don't share the file. And she'd like to know your thoughts on it, too." He almost said and so would Aunt Margaret, but he didn't think Cheeto could tolerate any more startling revelations today. "I hope that's okay."

"So. You're telling me that not only I can read Margaret Atwood's new book months before it comes out, I can also tell all my former classmates and professors—you know, the ones who get all condescending about how sad it is that I am 'wasting my potential' playing 'sportsball,'—that I have an advance copy."

"Uh, yeah?"

"And that while I can tell them I have this advance copy courtesy of none other than Professor Cassandra Troy, I cannot share it with them." His smile was incandescent. "You are the literal best, man."

"God, you're such a petty bastard," Jeff said admiringly. "Don't ever change."

 He knew the kinds of 'wasted potential' comments Cheeto was talking about. Mom's colleagues used to bemoan how Jeff had 'thrown away' his educational opportunities, but they quickly got tired of her reminding them of how her mortgage was paid off. And her car. And her student loans. Or how she was so sorry she couldn't sit with them on the ten-hour international flight to the conference, but her darling boy had been kind enough to surprise her with an upgrade to first class. 

Also, she taught at a Canadian university, and none of her colleagues wanted to risk pissing off the woman who had unfettered access to hockey tickets and limited edition Oilers merch.

 Anthem Elvis signed off with his traditional thankyew, thankyewverramuch, and the second and final period of Team Pacific vs. Team Central began. 

Jeff couldn't say what impelled him to look across the rink instead of at the rink at puck drop, but he did. His attention was drawn across and over instead of down as if led by a thin yet strong silken cord.

The Aces' suite was almost but not quite at center ice. That suite was next door, and from what Jeff gathered, most of the people who rented it or were invited to use it had net worths equivalent to the GDP of your average Baltic nation.

You would think that an equally luxurious suite would be right across the way, but no. Precisely at center ice were two short rows of seats and a small bank of windows. It was less than half the size of the other suites, and the seats were completely empty and the windows behind them were completely dark. 

He had noticed this a dozen times before. Hadn't he? He kept meaning to ask someone about it, but it kept slipping his mind or he kept getting distracted.

He should probably ask Nutsy, because Nutsy knew about shit like this, but Daniel Sedin scored for Team Pacific and Jeff roared to his feet with the others, all thoughts of the Dark Suite slipping away as if they had never been. 

They didn't come back, either, because shortly after Sedin scored, the second period decided it was going to be just as ridiculous as the first. No, more ridiculous. Scott scored a second goal, and after that, the goals came thick and fast with barely any time for anyone to breathe, whether player or spectator.

The whole thing ended with a victory for the Pacific Division, with a nine to six score. 

Out of those nine goals on the Pacific side, Parse had a grand total of zero. You wouldn't know it, though, from the way he was jumping around and hugging his teammates.

The intermission before the Atlantic-Pacific showdown (if two ten-minute periods of 3-on-3 play could be called a showdown) was longer than the others, mostly to allow the guys on Team Pacific to catch their breath. 

Also, there was the little matter of a Britney Spears concert. The stage rolled out to the center of the rink like a battleship slowly leaving port. Just as it settled into place, the door to the suite slammed open.

"Hey, guys! Didja miss me?"

"PARSE!"

He was mobbed by everyone, including the Nuutlings and the Triglets, even though he was wearing smelly pads and no jersey. His cowlick was plastered to his forehead with sweat, and his face was blotched red with exertion, but Jeff thought he looked hotter than hell. 

Parse put up with (and returned) some hair ruffling from Scrappy, and then grinned at Jeff. "I told ya I'd try to get up here for the concert, macaron. So, guys, what didja think of Scott? Was that awesome, or what?"

Before anyone could answer, the arena lights dimmed and conversation came to an abrupt halt. Jeff followed Parse and Scrappy out to the seats and sat right next to Parse despite the post-game funk.

Parse's brow furrowed as a drumbeat and bass riff (familiar, but not quite right) cut through the darkness. "This isn't one of her songs. Is it?"

A little less conversation, a little more action, please

Parse's mouth widened into a perfect 'O'

All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me

"Oh my god, is she..."

A little more bite and a little less bark

A little less fight and a little more spark

Parse screamed like the stereotypical teen fan at a Beatles concert as Britney ripped through a cover of one of his favorite Elvis songs like it had been written just for her.

Baby close your eyes and listen to the music

Drifting through a summer breeze

It's a groovy night, and I can show you how to use it

Come along with me and put your mind at ease

It was impossible not to sing along, unthinkable not to dance.

Next, Britney went through a couple of her more usual hits, including 'Baby, One More Time,' which normally made Parse a little pensive, but now had him jumping up and down in his seat like a madman. 

And then, and then... 

Anthem Elvis came out to join her for the last two songs. 

The first was a cover of 'All Star,' and the shriek of recognition from the crowd when Britney belted out someBODY once told me, the world is gonna roll me had Parse laughing in delight, and Jeff laughing at Parse's delight.

The crowd was in a full-on frenzy, dancing in their seats, on the stairs, in the aisles. There was an energy thrumming through the entire arena like Jeff had never experienced before.

Britney announced the last song, and Tracie came over to tell Parse he had ten minutes to get back down to the locker room, but he waved her off. Jeff knew Parse wasn't going to miss a single minute of this if he could help it.

Jeff had been friends with Parse long enough to recognize the opening to 'Oops, I Did it Again' when he heard it. This time, though, Anthem Elvis hit the opening 'yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah' with his perfect Elvis voice, and Parse's hands flew to his cheeks as his eyes went wide and starry like every Christmas had come at once. 

Britney then jumped in with the main lyrics, and Parse's smile was so bright it hurt.

Something deep in Jeff's gut turned over, and something in his mind finally slotted into place.

The music was drowned out by his own pulse pounding in his throat, in his head, in his gut.

He had to get out of there. 

Now.

Right now. 

Before he did or said anything irrevocably stupid.

He clambered over the back of his seat, and out, out, out into the hallway. Everyone was too caught up in the ecstasy of the moment to even notice he was leaving or to ask what was wrong.

He had finally seen what had been hanging over his head for the past several days, and maybe even longer than that, something so obvious and so close he couldn't see it for what it was.

Not until he saw Parse looking so simply, so perfectly happy.

Jeff stopped and slumped against the corridor wall, fists clenched against the sides of his head, fighting to take a deep breath.

He didn't know for sure when it had started (those nasty-ass cookies and the apology they represented in Boston) or when it was too late for him to stop it (that near-confession in St. Louis), but he did know this:

He was in love with Kent Parson.

Chapter Text

JANUARY, 2016

He was in love with Kent Parson.

Lust, he could deal with. Had been dealing with. He could put lust in its tidy little compartment and take it out only where it couldn't hurt anyone or anything, including him.

What the hell was he supposed to do now? He couldn't just turn this off or pretend it wasn't there.

Did he even want to, if he could?

Jeff started walking again, heading down a hallway that was so generic as to barely exist, as if someone had just said oh, here's the hallway outside the luxury suites and not bothered to come up with a description.

The only thing that felt in any way real-and-right-now was the music pulsing through the arena, and the crowd singing along with the chorus.

Everything else was at a stark, word-by-word remove. It felt like he was reading about himself having a crisis while walking down an undescribed hallway 

 

                                    (reading about)

        (himself)

(having a         crisis)

 

                            (while)

 

           (walking    down an)

                                                 (undescribed)

    

  (hallway)

 

at the same time he was having a crisis while walking down an undescribed hallway. 

He felt but also felt like he was reading clinical transcript of his every feeling. And what he was feeling was this: 

He was in love with Kent Parson.

Hot, funny, kind, infuriating, straight Kent Parson.

He walked 

 

         (watched himself 

                                             walking) 

 

past door after door, and around the curve at the far end of the  arena. It slid into his mind that this was the end where the Aces shot twice. A detail: unimportant, but there.

Last night, Parse had blown him a kiss goodnight. Now, Jeff shuddered with the delayed impact.

This hurt. Why did it have to hurt?

No wonder he had been so desperate, so reluctant to reach out to Parse last night. No wonder he had been so quick to accept the offer to come over.

And would Parse have been as quick to offer, if he knew what was going on in Jeff's head? In his heart?

He got to where the blue line must have been right as the players started to take the ice for the final match. He was nearly at center ice when Parse's name was announced, and he stopped cold at center ice when Scott's name was announced and the crowd went nuts.

"They're going to win," Jeff said out loud for no reason at all. "They're going to win, and the league is going to try to stop Scott from getting MVP, because they think guys like him don't deserve it."

He knew this. He didn't know how he knew this.

"Don't be stupid. It's inevitable," he shot back at himself. "It's also inevitable that the fanbase will rebel and Lundqvist and others will whip people into a frenzy on Twitter, and he'll get voted in as MVP anyway. Aaand... It's finally happened. This fucking loonytoon town has finally broken my brain."

Real life didn't work like that. Mediocre-at-best goons didn't get voted in as MVPs at the All-Star Game in real life, just like closeted hockey players didn't have the man they had fallen in love with magically turn out to be into men all along. It was impossible.

"Like you didn't just see six impossible things happen before puck drop," he snapped, misquoting Alice in Wonderland at himself.

"You mean 'Through the Looking Glass,' dipshit," he corrected himself. "Also, it's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,' not 'Alice in Wonderland,' dumbass, and what the actual fuck is going on in my brain?"

He stood there in the empty hallway, hugging himself and talking to himself and wishing he could go home. Home to where things were normal. A normal city, normal teammates, a normal life.

No whiteboards tracking the days since the last accidental marriage. No baptisms by glitter. No mascots trying to ride a Zamboni off into the sunset or possibly just on a quest for inferior-grade fast food. No terrifying receptionists or ill-tempered lawyers. No media relations people who made you eat dried bugs.

No doofy, tender-hearted Scrappy, who always worried so much about everyone else and just wanted them to be okay. No whip-smart Cheeto, who mostly acted like an intellectual snob out of habit (and because he knew it got Jeff wound up) but genuinely loved getting into the kind of friendly arguments where you could dig into what things actually meant. No Nutsy-and-Trigger, with their matching no-trade clauses and the dubious distinction of being the Aces' first Zamboni thieves their rookie year.

And, of course, no Parse.

Jeff stood there thinking for way too long. He had missed the truth about Parse, when it should have been so obvious. What other obvious things had he missed? A loud noise caught his attention and pulled him back to the present and out of the narration of his own thoughts. 

At first, he assumed it was the goal horn, but no, it was the end of a short and scoreless first period.

He needed to figure out where to go before he got caught up in a crowd of fans he was in no state of mind to deal with in a way that wouldn't be a PR disaster. The Aces' suite was out of the question. The only saving grace was that with food, drink, and restrooms inside the suites, people weren't in as much of a hurry to leave as they were down in the seats.  

He didn't feel someone tap on his shoulder. 

No one was there to touch him. 

But that didn't mean he jumped, startled at the sense of hey! over here, dummy! 

There was a door right next to him in that generic hallway. It had always been there, he knew that, but it seemed a bit contrived that he conveniently didn't notice it until now. It looked just like all the other suite doors, plain dark wood with a panel of frosted glass next to the door. Like all of the other permanently rented suites, there was a brass plate on the door announcing whose it was. This plaque had a first initial (unhelpful) that matched a laughably generic surname (also unhelpful).

What made this door different was that it was set too close to the doors on either side, it had no suite number, and no light shone through the frosted glass.

Another thing that was strange was that while it felt like his thoughts and observations were spilling out for anyone and everyone to pick through at will, the initial and that name stayed firmly put in the safety of his own mind. He couldn't even say them to himself.

But that wasn't important. What was important was that Jeff knew exactly where he was, now.

Part of his mind yelled at him like he would yell at the people in horror movies who said things like let's split up or it's just the wind or let's go talk to that nice man in the bloody shirt who has a rusty hook instead of a hand, but he reached out and jiggled the door handle. It was locked. What else should he have expected? 

He must have expected something different, because he jiggled it again. Nope, still locked. 

That should have been that, but a door down the hall opened and in a burst of desperation, he tried the door again.

And, because these things always happen in threes, the door opened as if it had never been locked, and Jeff ducked into the Dark Suite, the door closing firmly behind him.

Six shadowy figures nearly as tall as he was lurked in the darkness, three on either side of him, but instead of jumping back and shrieking in fright like the narrative demanded, Jeff knew at once what they were. 

Mannequins, all decked out in sequined lingerie and elaborate dance costumes that glittered like the lights of Vegas itself. The headpieces ranged from huge fans of red feathers that caressed the ceiling to close fitting caps with strings of crystal beads spilling down in sparkling waterfalls.

"Huh..."

There wasn't much else in the way of furniture in the narrow little room. A liquor cabinet and a wet bar with a glass set upside down to dry in the sink. An Art Deco serving cart with cut glass tumblers that matched the one in the sink, a decanter, and an ice bucket. And, in the center of the room, just one low, sleek armchair upholstered in gold velvet, with a small glass table next to it. The (unused) ashtray on the table proclaimed it was from the Flamingo, and in the bottom of the ashtray was an image of the hotel—the original one that had been torn down in '93 and replaced with a garden, and how the fuck did he know that!? 

Sweat rings from a variety of drinks marked the little table, and the armchair was positioned so that whoever sat there would be looking straight out at center ice, and would only have to turn their head a little to catch the action at either end of the rink. Still, there was something a little odd about the view. Something a little more.

"This is the owner's suite, isn't it?" Jeff asked no one in particular, already knowing the answer. He resisted the compulsion to sit in the chair, instead electing to check out the mannequins. The outfits hanging on them reminded him a little bit of what the women and men on the ice crew wore, but far more modest.

Technically more modest. The outfits covered far more skin than the ice crew's outfits but were also far more titillating in ways he had trouble ignoring. Thank god the mannequins were woman-shaped, or he might have had trouble tearing himself away when the game started again.

Jeff lost to the compulsion drawing him to the chair. He sat down. The view was fantastic. Better than fantastic.

His gaze kept being drawn to Parse over and over again, and why shouldn't it? He was in love with the man, after all.

(And why, why did that have to happen to him? Why did he let it happen? Did he have any choice?)

And then there was Scott, who was the hero of today's story, clear as anything. It was so obvious that Jeff barely bothered paying attention anymore.

And that's what this was, wasn't it? A story. It was as if a wall had collapsed between him and some other reality, allowing him to see how things had fallen in place just so to let him realize he was in love with Parse at just the right (right for who, exactly?) moment, or how so many impossible things could be made possible. 

Out in the stands, the cheering never stopped, the spectators all whipped into a half-drunken frenzy. 

No, there were no halves about it. Jeff could smell the rivers of spilled beer, even through the glass of the suite.

Less than four minutes into the period, Parse scored what Jeff knew would be the only goal.

"God, I love you," he said, even though there was no one to hear and even though it felt like everyone could hear him.

And, with that admission, everything stepped sideways back into something resembling normal. The suite was just a cramped and ill-proportioned room decorated with worn out retro furniture, tacky costumes with missing sequins and moth-eaten feathers, and mementos of Old Vegas. The view was good, but not any better than the kind of good you could buy with the right kind of money.

Whatever freaky-deaky sort of experience he had out in the hall was thanks to the gut-punch of feeling all at once just how painfully, genuinely in love he was with one of the best friends he had ever had. 

Still, in the back of his mind, a number of other things began to click together. Things he had noticed. Things that had seemed a little off in ways that went beyond the usual Vegas outrageousness.

He should get back to the Aces' suite before the game ended and people started looking for him. Or before the suite's owner showed up at an opportune inopportune moment. One of those little things he had noticed was that the glass in the sink was still wet and so was one of the sweat rings on the table.

He stopped cold at the suite door. An envelope was taped up on it at the exact eye level of a 6' 5" defenseman. On it was written in faded ink:

 

#14: J. Troy 

 

He tentatively plucked the note from the door, having to tug a bit to get it free. The scrap of masking tape holding it there broke and crumbled instead of peeling away, and the door was darker where the note had shielded it from dust and light. How long had the note been there?

He opened the envelope.

There was a single slip of plain white paper inside. On one side, it read in tidy cursive:

 

Don't bother asking to get traded. 

It won't do you any good.

 

His stomach flipped with a cold nausea. 

How had this mysterious douchebag known that getting the hell out of town was one of Jeff's knee-jerk responses to realizing he was in love with a teammate? And not just any teammate... 

Before he could let that thought beat him up any further he flipped the paper over. The other side said:

 

~IOU~

One (1) Favor* 

*This offer not transferrable or redeemable for other narrative conventions. Terms and conditions apply.

 

Jeff folded the note into tidy thirds and put it in his wallet next to Parse's note from this morning. It felt like he should have put them into a bomb-proof container instead.

Before the All-Star Game began, Jeff had remembered from all of the reading that he had done over the years that things in stories tended to happen in threes.

Now, he also remembered a second thing about stories: that when mysterious and seemingly all-knowing beings offered you unspecified favors, you had to be very, very damned careful indeed. 

Especially when people you cared about (loved) were involved.

And of course there was a third thing to remember.

Earlier today he had wished he could learn more about the Aces' mysterious owners who no one had ever met. 

And now he knew, and that was what reminded him of the third thing:

Be careful what you wish for.

Chapter Text

JUNE 2016

The next few months went by so fast it felt like they had been summarized.

In February, NHL play returned to normal, Bridgestone Arena re-opened, and the bookies paid out on the wide variety of bets that had been placed on the All-Star game. The biggest winner (Ethel P. Robertson from Grand Rapids, Michigan) won over fifty thousand dollars thanks to the relative precision of her bet.

She would have won over seventy thousand dollars, if only she had specified Fin the Whale as one of the culprits on the Zamboni instead of S.J. Sharkie. 

And/or had picked Arby's instead of In-N-Out.

(At least Ethel had decent taste in fast food, Jeff thought.)

The trade deadline that year was February twenty-ninth, an impossible day in a year that seemed to be made up entirely of impossibilities. It came and went without even a whisper of a major trade by the Aces, which made sense as the core team was performing well and they had some capable prospects hanging out in Reno. 

Still, as the clock ticked towards a midnight deadline on a day that shouldn't exist, Jeff thought about the warning on one side of that note he found in the Dark Suite and the loaded promise contained on the other.

  Beyond that, he found didn't think much about or even remember what he had learned in the Dark Suite. It occasionally cropped up in nightmares and distracted moments and during certain commercials (the Progressive Insurance ads were a potent trigger for no reason he could determine). He would also sometimes pause when he saw the two folded-up notes in his wallet, but always allowed himself to be distracted by something else whenever he noticed them.

 In March, the Aces clinched a playoffs berth, and at some point after the celebration that followed, Jeff found himself standing outside the Graceland Chapel with a very tipsy Parse.

"Nope," he said, standing as firm as his own blood alcohol content would allow and resisting Parse's tugging at his elbow.

Parse, who could be a clingy drunk, wibbled at him.

Jeff stood his ground. "Nuh-uh. Bad idea. You're drunk as a skunk and I'm inebreb– inbreviate–  ineberaberate– fucking plastered."

"Do skunks drink?"

Jeff nodded sagely. "Yup, otherwise people wouldn't say you were skunk as a drunk."

Parse thought this over. "You're really smart, you know that? That's one of the things I luh–like about you." He smiled as bright as sunshine. "You know what? We should get married!"

"No." Hadn't they been over this? Jeff thought they had discussed this, but his short-term memory had floated blissfully away on seas of bourbon and some bright green drink Parse had made him try that tasted like limes crossed with unicorns. "Don't wanna get married."

Parse pouted. "Awww... why not, pumpkin pie?"

Because I wouldn't want to get unmarried. He knew he shouldn't say it. But he wanted to say it. He really wanted to say it, because he was pucking flastered and very much in love.

He started to say it, but his stomach chose that moment to decide it didn't like things that tasted like limes crossed with unicorns. Parse jumped clear of the splatter radius barely in the nick of time.

The next morning, Jeff woke up in Parse's guest room with a cat on his head, a glass of water and a bottle of Tylenol on the nightstand, and a note signed with a smiley face. The smiley face had a cowlick and cat ears. 

Jeff tucked the note into his wallet along with the other two notes that scared the bejeezus out of him if he let himself think about them.

But he couldn't make himself throw them away.

In April, the Aces went to the playoffs and won the first round. Jeff allowed himself to hope.

(But not about Parse. He couldn't afford to let himself hope about Parse.)

In May, the Aces' Stanley Cup bid ended with the second round.

They had fought tooth and nail to win the first round against the Ducks, while the Schooners had all but swept the Kings and had plenty of time to rest. So in a way it was a victory to force the Schooners to a full seven games.

No, scratch that. That was the sort of bullshit they were coached to feed the media.

Losing fucking sucked.

It was a bitter enough loss that hardly anyone wanted to watch any of the Western Conference finals games at first. Only Slugger, who had been the Aces' pick from the Blues in the expansion draft, gave even a fraction of a shit about it. But he only knew a couple of the guys on the team anymore, at best.

But of course, they all got sucked in, because hockey was hockey and the Cup was the Cup. Half of the guys were rooting for Seattle to go on to win it all, because if the guy who beat you got beat, then what did that say about you? 

The other half wanted St. Louis to win out of spite, and because the length of their Cup drought was starting to rival the Leafs' and that was just sad.

"Not gonna happen," Parse said, as they watched Game Three of the conference finals at their favorite sports bar. Up on the screen, Reaves was making a spirited attempt to twist O'Donnelly's head off in retaliation for the latter's dirty hit (totally ignored by the refs, of course) on Berglund. "Not this year anyway. Their D is good, but they need better goaltending. I give it, hmm... three years?"

The only fragment of a silver lining about going out early was that the press finally had to let go of their stupid dream of a Parson-Zimmermann Finals Showdown. The Falconers had done well for themselves, placing second in the Metro and going on to take out the Penguins and then the Caps. 

Parse's prediction about the Blues turned out to be correct, with the Schooners taking them out in six games.

The Tampa-Providence matchup was more of a nail-biter with the promise of a bitter rivalry for years to come. It went the full seven games, with two of those games going into overtime.

Throughout it all, Jeff honestly couldn't figure out which team Parse was rooting for or against, and he didn't want to risk asking. All he knew was that whenever the commentators talked about Zimmermann, Parse went all stony-faced like he did when Carly was being particularly Carlish, and that he always made sure to stick near Scrappy whenever they were watching the games in a larger group.

It was only when the Falconers finally won the last game against Tampa by a single goal that Jeff saw Parse let out a long breath and a shitload of tension. Still, he didn't want to risk asking.

(There were a lot of things he didn't want to risk.)

The Falconers lost the first two games of the finals to the Schooners on home ice. The press started speculating about the possibility of another Zimmermann meltdown.

Then the Falcs won twice in the Schooners home arena, but Mashkov was out with an injury that did not look good. Not that any injury was good, but knees were not supposed to bend in that direction.

In game five (a Falcs win), Zimmermann threw hands for the first time that anyone could remember that season. Jeff was getting a refill up at the bar, and none of the other guys were near him except for Carly. Up on screen, Zimmermann landed a hit on O'Donnelly that gave some veteran announcers serious Bad Bob flashbacks. 

(One of them, a former enforcer on the Flyers, dove under the broadcast desk and couldn't be coaxed back out until the second intermission. Unfortunately, his mike was still live, so the listening audience was treated to a solid thirty seconds of don't let him get me oh god please don't let him get me until someone had the presence of mind to kill the feed.)

Over at the Aces' table a cheer went up, especially from Trigger, who had been the target of a particularly nasty slash from O'Douchelly that broke two fingers. 

"Nice to see Zimmermann doing his old man proud," Jeff said, even though he should have known better than to engage Carly in conversation. 

"Probably avenging Mashkov," Carly observed. "Those two seemed really chummy in those pictures that went up Easter weekend, if you know what I mean."

"No, I don't know," Jeff said, daring Carly to explain further. The asshole had been yelled at by HR enough that he knew better than to say anything that would make Bert follow through on his threat to tattoo the standard Inclusion and Diversity clause onto Carly's forehead.

Plausible deniability wasn't always a good thing. Especially if you were the sort of asshole who constantly used it to make yourself look like the victim of other peoples' 'oversensitivity.'

(Jeff had already promised Cheeto to provide an alibi for the inevitable day when he snapped and strangled the man in his sleep while they were on a roadie. This was, of course, assuming Jeff didn't beat Cheeto to the punch.)

Fortunately for one or both of them, Scrappy showed up with a couple of empty pitchers needing a refill. The moment passed, and Jeff was soon caught up in watching the Falcs take the lead for the first time in the series.

It was no surprise that the Schooners tied things up in Game Six, forcing the Game Seven that Jeff saw hanging out there on the horizon.

"It sort of feels inevitable, doesn't it?" Jeff asked Cheeto while the two of them were working out together. Each of them had a combo platter of minor injuries they'd ignored during the post-season and they were doing rehab work with the same trainer for the next little while to get them on the road to setting things right. After that, Cheeto would be splitting the next few weeks between Baltimore (parents) and Chicago (girlfriend), with a trip back to Vegas in between for Parse's Annual Fourth of July Pool Party Birthday Bonanza. 

"Nah, it's just one of those things," Cheeto said after thinking it over, but Jeff couldn't make himself agree. 

Part of him had hoped that it wasn't just him that was picking up on something looming. It reminded him of the popping and ringing in his ears that would cue him to check the sky for a heavy wall of storm clouds bearing down on them.

Part of it was that he had a choice coming up. The Aces had offered him a generous contract extension with a no-trade clause. But two days ago, his agent called in a fluster and said to hold off on signing because the Oilers were very much interested in him again.

It should have felt like every dream he had coming true, but now the idea of leaving the Aces, of leaving Parse just about killed him. No, there was no chance in hell (outside of a particularly vivid fantasy that he was careful not to indulge in overmuch) that Parse would magically change sexual orientation and turn out to be madly in love with Jeff, but that didn't change the fact that Parse was still his friend. 

A best friend. The best of the best, even.

And because it felt like his life was playing out according to a script, of course Cheeto had to ask:

"How're the contract talks going, bro?"

"Decent, decent... Just working out a few minor details," Jeff said.

Like whether it would hurt more to go or hurt more to stay, but Cheeto didn't need to know about that. Fortunately, he wasn't interested in pursuing the topic any further.

"You coming to the bar with everyone tonight?" 

Everyone wasn't quite 'everyone.' A good third of the team, including all the Europeans, had already left town for the off-season.

"Of course I am, but a bar? Really? You'd think one of the guys who has a nice, big house–" cough-Parse-cough "–would've hosted."

"I keep forgetting you weren't here in '13," Cheeto said. "Parse hosted the watch party for the last game of the finals. Y'know, Kings and Rangers, double overtime?"

"Yeah?"

"Ask him about it sometime. But make sure you've got plenty of time. And maybe some earplugs."

* * *

"–had to reupholster three chairs and replace the entire sofa!" Parse nodded at the bartender to say yes, he would like a refill but then said to cut him off after that so he would be safe to drive home. "And do not get me started on the carpet!"

Jeff made sympathetic noises and bit back the urge to comment about how people who chose to serve pizza, buffalo wings, Doritos, and a massive cooler of sangria in a room with white carpeting and furniture were the cause of ninety percent of their own problems.

"You gonna have another drink, Swoops?"

"Sure." One thing Jeff had finally picked up on was that whenever they were out in bars or clubs, Parse always started with beer or vodka tonics instead of the Technicolor drinks or liquid desserts he preferred. The fancy cocktails didn't come out until after he was well into the tipsy range. 

"Also, can you another bourbon and Coke for my pal, here? Go ahead and put it on my tab."

Also, the stupid baked-good nicknames would take a hike.

Jeff missed them, but he didn't miss the wistful twinge that accompanied them these past several months.

"Shit, I think I must owe you for what, a dozen drinks this season?" 

Parse waved it off. "Meh, don't worry about it. We're good. Besides, I don't mind treating, y'know?"

Next to them, Trigger had some beer go down the wrong pipe badly enough that Nutsy had to smack him on the back repeatedly.

"Anyhow, there's no way I'm hosting these guys anywhere I can't just hose down afterwards if there's no reason for us to watch what we're drinking." He paused, and a dark expression flitted across his face. "Or eating. There's more than one reason Cheeto has his nickname. Speaking of which, I am going to get that nickname story out of you one of these days."

"Uh-huh. Sure you are. As soon as they host the Winter Classic in Hell, bud."

"Didn't they already have it in Philly?" Parse quipped.

Jeff rolled his eyes, but he did think it was pretty funny.

Up on the TV screens, the score was frozen at 2-2, the clock was running down, and no one had had a shot on goal in the past five minutes.

"Aaaand, we're going to overtime," Parse said as the buzzer sounded. "Of fucking course."

Of course. Just like going to Game Seven, it was inevitable.

All at once, it felt like Parse was very far away, even though he was sitting right next to Jeff.

"You okay, bud?"

Jolted from his thoughts, Parse went tense and wide-eyed, then relaxed. "Yeah. I just hope..."

He elected to take another sip of a drink he didn't actually like instead of completing that sentence.

Jeff reached over to clasp his shoulder, but retreated when Parse tensed again.

Up on the TVs, a variety of commentators were speculating about how Zimmermann was likely holding up under the immense pressure, and how Bad Bob had won the cup in his rookie season, etc.

"God, I wish they would just shut up," Parse muttered. Scrappy patted him on the shoulder.

Parse didn't flinch at that touch, Jeff noted with a twist of something nasty in his gut. In his darker moments, especially when Parse was acting particularly squirrelly, Jeff wondered if maybe Parse had noticed the change in Jeff's feelings.

If that was the case, then whether Parse had picked it up consciously or unconsciously, Jeff's feelings were clearly unwelcome.

Maybe he should tell his agent to go ahead and say yes to the Oilers deal. It was a generous deal, complete with no-trade clause, and if they acted now, he could have a contract ready and waiting for him to sign on July first.

Funny, how sometimes it turned out that the thing you thought you wanted most in this world, you didn't really want at all.

Aside from Parse, what he did want was not something he knew how to put into words.

The game started up again soon enough and mercifully pulled Jeff away from his thoughts.

Overtime was always stressful, because the second the puck went into the net, it was all over, good night, put up the chairs, and turn off the lights.

But overtime in Game Seven of the Cup Finals?

No one in that bar looked anywhere but the TVs for the next four minutes and fifty-two seconds. 

Twice, the Schooners got close-in shots on goal that Snow practically had to grow new joints in new places to save. One save in particular was so beautiful Nutsy declared he was about to come in his pants.

But then...

But then...

It was the moment when the storm would break, when his ears would pop, when the tension would release.

Zimmermann's stick went back, then came down hard.

It was a one-in-a-million shot, like threading a needle through a wall of Schooners players to hit the smallest of gaps between Myzska's glove and the pipes.

It went in. Because this was the kind of a story where a one-in-a-million chance might as well be a sure thing. 

For the next fifteen minutes, no one could hear anything over the yelling and the cheering and the cursing. 

The only one not making noise was Parse. He sat, head propped with his hands pressed against his eyes, breathing deeply. Jeff started to ask if he was okay, but Scrappy shook his head, warning him off silently. 

It shouldn't hurt that Scrappy clearly knew way more about the Zimmermann situation than him, but it did. Jeff got up and joined another cluster of teammates for a while.

Things slowly quieted down to semi-bearable levels. Some people yelled about their favorite plays of the evening as if they'd been the ones to make them. Other people were happy to just let the tension ebb away for a little bit. It had been the kind of game that left you feeling roughed up just from watching it.

No one was paying too much attention to the TVs, and wouldn't be until the Cup actually made an appearance. 

By the time Jeff wanted to rejoin Parse, Scrappy (who had been sticking to him like a burr) was still sitting next to him on one side, and Carly had taken Jeff's old place on the other. So, he shot the shit with Cheeto and Nutsy instead.

"Hey, did you hear about the guy who used to be our Lady Luck?" Cheeto asked.

Jeff had. He'd heard the story directly from Kevin himself a couple of days ago. "Yeah. Who the hell thought combining aerial silks with skate blades was a good idea?"

Jeff thought he deserved a medal for not telling Kevin 'I told you so.'

"He was mid-routine when snip. Silks go bye-bye," Cheeto explained to a curious Nutsy.

Nutsy's eyes went wide. "Shit! How far up was he?"

"About eight meters, give or take." Apparently, there was footage of the accident out there if you knew where to look. Jeff had zero intention of looking.

"Oh my gosh! Is Kevin okay?" Scrappy piped up from the bar. As usual, he was the one to get right to the heart of the matter.

"Yeah." Kevin had sounded a little shaken, but was going to get right back on the proverbial horse once a few safety measures had been taken. "He broke his fall on a clown."

"Oh, that's okay then," Scrappy said cheerfully enough.

Attentions turned back to the TVs, because the Cup finally made its appearance. As per tradition, each Falconer in turn (starting with Zimmermann, of course) took it for a spin around the rink.

Not every player's turn around the rink was televised from start to end, because it was more interesting hearing from guys like Zimmermann, Snow, St. Martin, and Robinson than watching Call-up McRookie skate in a circle. Still, the cameras would always cut to show the handoff to the next guy.

Then, as the families came onto the ice, everyone wanted a piece of Bad Bob, and they all had some variation on the same question.

"Christ, now they all sound like they never doubted Jack for a minute," Parse said bitterly. He took a sip of his vodka tonic, winced at the taste and put it back down. Scrappy patted him on the shoulder again and Jeff wished he knew what to say.

He didn't, so he went back to watching the coverage. One of the younger call-ups got the Cup, and his expression as he tried to get it overhead it was priceless.

"Shit, hoist it right up," Carly muttered. The call-up skated off, adjusting the Cup as he went and clearly favoring one shoulder.

Cheeto laughed sympathetically, and maybe a little wistfully as well. "Hah... Look, he just realized how heavy it is."

Now that it looked like they were in no danger of missing a dramatic Cup-droppage, the cameras switched back to an interview with Bad Bob.

"Man. Back when we won," Carly said, looking up to a screen that was showing a wider view of the celebration with fans going nuts up in the stands. "Oh, God, I do not remember the next six or seven hours."

The mayhem and screaming continued to play out, and Jeff wished he could be there. Wished he could be a part of it.

"You ever go blackout without falling asleep?" Carly went on, oblivious to the fact that people were only half-paying attention to him. "Suddenly the sun is up and you're just right there? It was like locker room and then it was morning like no time or anything. Shit." 

Jeff wished he could feel a bit more sympathy, but while he had gone blackout drunk before, it had never involved a Cup. Plus, Carly got on his nerves on general principle. 

"That's a shame, eh? You're supposed to remember it." Jeff remembered the 2011-2012 season all too well, thank you. The Oilers had finished just one spot up from rock bottom of the entire league.

It pleased him far more than it should that Carly didn't remember finishing at the top.

Carly sneered at him. "Fuck you, Troy. I remember everything." He reached up to scratch the side of his nose, turning his hand to show off the Cup ring he wore everywhere, even to dive bars.

"You just said– literally you just–" Jeff spluttered. Did Carly even listen to himself? Ever?

A warm, welcome presence came up beside Jeff as Cheeto stepped into the conversational bubble with all the confidence that came with being one of the faces of the franchise. 

"Hey, Carl, you even get a shift in the Cup game?"

With Jeff, Carly just chirped him with a nasty edge hiding behind it. Carly, who was a mid-level player at best, took Jeff's instant placement in the top D-pair as a personal insult. With Cheeto, Carly barely bothered hiding the nasty. 

The mocking sneer on Carly's face turned into a much uglier kind of smile, especially as some of the others laughed at Cheeto's take-down.

"Fuck you, boys," he said with a false cheer that dared them to escalate, to pick a fight so he could claim he was just joking, jeez, lighten up, will ya. 

Enough alcohol had gone down that things could easily have gotten out of hand, but Scrappy was asking Parse if he had seen something, and the panicky edge to his voice got more attention than perhaps he intended.

"It's on the screens, Scraps," Parse said gently, but Scrappy kept shoving his phone at him.

"Naw, look. It's all over social..."

Parse took the phone, and his eyes and face went gray.

Of course, everyone had to crowd around and see what was wrong.

Jeff clapped a hand over his mouth. Whether it was to keep himself from throwing up or from screaming, he didn't know. 

Right there, right in front of everyone, Zimmermann was kissing another man. And it wasn't the kind of kissing you could blow off as a joke or heat-of-the-moment. This was the full rom-com right-before-the-credits deal.

Carly cackled in malicious delight. "Oooh. So he's gay or whatever?"

Wildly, all Jeff could think was well, at least he acknowledges that bi people exist?

 A few of the others muttered in disbelief (or was it disgust?), but Carly was on a roll. "Jesus Christ. You know, why can't Zimmermann do anything fuckin' regular?"

Parse was still transfixed by the five second video as it looped over and over and over. Jeff was, too.

Nutsy tried to pull Carly away from hovering over Parse's shoulder. "Come on, Carl," and it was short and curt and not at all like Nutsy.

Carly brushed him off, and stayed where he was, grinning cruelly at the looping video. "Pft, relax. Did I say something wrong?"

Nothing anyone could point to, not specifically. Just like always. Jeff's hand tightened into a fist, fingernails pressing into the flesh of his palm. His heart rabbited high in his throat.

"I'm saying, there's always something with him. Prolly why it took him so long to figure out the league," Carly said condescendingly. Parse kept watching that damned video on Scrappy's phone but it was also up on the TV screens, now. Carly laughed as if pleased with his own cleverness. "Oh! Oh, bet he's real excited 'bout that parade, eh?"

He laughed and so did at least two other people Jeff could hear. Shit, shit, shit. Who was it? Who was laughing? Did he want to know who was laughing? Could they see his face and know what he was thinking? And what about Parse? Had he known about Zimmermann?

If he hadn't, then that's maybe why he–

Cheeto stepped between Carly and Parse. "Go back to your glory days talk, Carly." It had the weight of a warning. 

"Right. Glory days..." 

That would have defused the situation, but Parse let Scrappy's phone fall to the bar, and he shoved right past Scrappy to get the hell out of there. Everyone stared at the exit for a good five seconds after he left, but then Scrappy moved towards the exit and so did Jeff. And that's when Carly decided to open his big mouth again.

"Shit. Can't say I blame him. If I found out that one of my old buddies from Juniors was like—well, I ain't gonna say it, but I'd wanna run outside and puke too. Can you fuckin' imagine?"

Jeff stopped dead in his tracks, trying not to hyperventilate and waiting to hear who said what next. 

No, not waiting. Dreading. Carly was an asshole. But what about Cheeto? Would Cheeto agree with what Carly said? What about Trigger? Nutsy?

"That's not a very nice thing to say, Carl." Scrappy must have stopped chasing after Parse right when Jeff did. 

"C'mon Scrappy! You don't always have to be such a suck-up. I'm just saying what everyone else is thinking. You don't actually believe that shit HR makes us listen to, do ya? That's all a nice happy-hippy fantasy, but this is real life. There's no way in hell someone like Zimmermann–" again, he didn't actually say a slur because he was too clever for that, but you could hear it anyway "–would fit in here, y'know?"

Carly looked around for agreement.  A couple of the call-ups and two guys from the third line were snickering, but Nutsy had gone unusually still and serious while Trigger drummed a rapid, ragged beat on the table with his unbroken fingers and clenched and unclenched his jaw. Cheeto's face twisted as he fought to keep his temper in check. He fought not to lose it because Carly clearly wanted him to lose it. 

Each of them kept looking to the others, waiting to see who would be the first to say something.

And one of them would. Jeff knew this. He knew it like he knew what would happen at the All Star Game. Or like he knew that the finals would go to overtime in game seven. He knew that one of them would say something to shut Carly down. 

Cheeto would find some way to be condescending and belittling, while never once ceding the higher ground. Nutsy would fine Carly and mock him past all point of recovery. Trigger would be the one to actually yell at him, letting the Jersey accent (and associated vocabulary) fly free the way he only did when he was really pissed.

Carly would shut up, enough people would say something to Coach Crane and to HR, and Carly would be left high and dry when he became an unrestricted free agent at the end of the month. Meanwhile, Scrappy would go outside to check on Parse, and...

And nothing would change. Not really. 

What Jeff felt just then was like the occasional prod or nudge he felt to do something impulsive or stupid (something that would complicate or advance the plot a little voice whispered), but this was different. It wasn't wild and nonsensical. It was controlled. And it was a choice. And it was a line in the sand.

"So," he said, taking a casual but deliberate step towards Carly, "if I'm hearing you right, you don't think a gay man—or, for the sake of argument, a bisexual one—could possibly fit in on our team? In our locker room?"

Carly boggled at hearing what he wasn't saying laid bare like that. The others all stared at Jeff as if he had started juggling live hand grenades. Trigger even scooted his chair back a bit.

"I'm just speaking my mind. That's still allowed, right?" Carly spluttered, most of his usual tactics having been neatly taken away from him. "I know it's not the 'PC' thing to say," he mocked, complete with air quotes, "but fuck no! I don't want a guy who's into dick in the locker room with me! Do you?"

Bing! There it was. The perfect setup. 

Most of the other patrons had drifted to other parts of the bar or had left, so the Aces were in a relatively isolated spot with no one to overhear. This moment could have been custom built just for him.

His heart raced and his skin tingled with what he was about to do (and what was he thinking, doing this going into free agency?) but he also felt a deep and unshakable calm. 

If he paused before responding, it was to mentally offer thanks to Bert and all of those NDAs with all of those nasty sharp spiky bits in them. And for a bit of paper tucked carefully away in his wallet should he need more protection than that.

"Well, I can't really answer that question fairly," he said lightly, evenly. In the background, Tweety anxiously asked Nutsy why Swoops wasn't ranting, because Swoops really should be ranting, right? Right? "Do you want to know why?"

He didn't even give Carly a chance to respond before he went on with perfect calm.

"You see, Carly, every single time I go into a locker room, there's a gay man in there."

Carly's face scrunched up in puzzlement. Behind him, Jeff heard a couple of gasps of surprise, and an ah! of comprehension, as if something finally made sense to someone. 

"Do you understand what I am saying, Carly?" Jeff asked patiently. 

There were things he could have done or could have said that would not involved him coming out to a third of the team, but this was what he chose to do.

It felt right.

It felt right when Cheeto caught his eye and said, "I got your back, man."

It felt right when Nutsy draped his crazy-long goalie arms over the third line guys' shoulders and started explaining to them the various financial and other consequences of taking the wrong side in this conflict.

It felt right when Trigger didn't say anything, because it was obvious to anyone who looked that his disgust and contempt were not aimed at Jeff. 

It felt right even when Carly finally got a clue and loathing distorted his features. 

"You're joking, right, Troy? I mean, this has to be some kind of sick joke. There's no way you're a–"

"Don't." 

It was a low rumble that resonated deep in the parts of the brain that were still hard-wired to run away very fast from things with sharp claws and big teeth.

Scrappy stepped forward.

Doofy, tender-hearted Scrappy who cried at pet food commercials and worried about his friends and was one of the most genuinely kind human beings Jeff had ever met.

Sometimes, it was easy to forget he was also one of the most feared enforcers in the league.

Right now, he was making this very easy to remember.

He turned to Jeff. "Go. Find Parser," he snapped. "Tell him I said it's okay to tell you."

If Carly were a reasonable man, he would have backed down. But Carly was a bully, and like many bullies, lashed out when he felt threatened.

"Tell him what, huh? Are you tryin' to say that you're one of those?"

Carly smirked nervously when Scrappy growled and his fist rose. If Scrappy threw a punch, then Carly, the master of weaponized micro-aggressions and playing the victim, would have won. True, he would be on long-term IR, but he would have won.

Jeff saw the moment Scrappy knew he would have to back down even though he would hate himself for doing so.

So, Jeff stepped in as close in to the other two as he could. Then he leaned in even closer than that and softly said five little words that only they could hear. Just five. Just barely above a whisper. But the effect was remarkable.

Carly's face went greeny-ashen and he trembled and whimpered as he backed away from the two defensemen, knocking over two barstools as he went.

Scrappy's smile widened into something joyously feral, and he slammed his fist into his palm. It sounded like a side of beef had been hurled down onto bare cement. 

"Go," he growled.

Jeff didn't need to be told a third time. He went.

Behind him, Jeff heard Carly erupt in fear and rage with all the vile words and twisted thoughts he had been bottling up for years. By the time Jeff got outside, the shouted slurs had turned to shrieks of terror.

He didn't even have time to wonder if maybe he was too late, because Parse's bright yellow dildo-mobile was painfully visible in the lit parking lot. It was also a pretty safe assumption that even though his face wasn't visible, that the blonde man slumped against the side of the car was Parse.

Parse's shoulders tightened as Jeff's footsteps grew close enough to be in earshot.

"It's okay, Scraps. Go back inside." His voice was thick with weariness.

"I'm not Scraps. And it's not okay."

Parse looked back over his shoulder, eyes wide with... dread?

"Swoops?"

Jeff spread his arms wide and laughed nervously. "Uh, yeah? Last I checked? Scrappy said to go check on you. He, uh, had something to take care of inside."

A warbling cry of primal fear cut through the night, indicating that this something was being taken care of with gusto.

"He also told me to tell you it was okay to tell you about him?" 

Did Scrappy mean to hint that he was gay? Had there been someone on the team Jeff could have confided in all along?

"About him?" Parse's dread shifted to confusion. "Is that what he said?"

Jeff replayed what Scraps had said. "Actually, I think he said, 'tell him I said it's okay to tell you.' So I assumed... well, I assumed."

It looked like he was alone after all.

Parse turned all the way around, and he was hugging himself tightly. Jeff's clarification had not been as reassuring as Jeff had thought it might be. If anything, it only made things worse.

"How bad is it? In there, I mean." 

Jeff looked back at the bar. It was quiet. Very quiet. 

"No one's taking Carly's side, if that's what you're asking." 

Parse still kept his arms wrapped tightly around himself and he would not look Jeff in the eye. "That's good. I guess. Shit." He let go of himself, but it was only to cover his eyes with one hand as he started shaking.

"Hey! Hey, it's okay..." Jeff hurried to Parse's side and put an arm around his back. "It's okay."

Parse made a tight, strangled sound and did not stop shaking.

"Did you, uh, not know about Zimmermann?" God, he hoped Carl's initial assumption hadn't been correct. If it was, then did it matter if Cheeto and Scrappy and the others had his back?

It didn't, he realized with a tight pain in his chest. He'd resigned himself to the delicious pain of unrequited love, but for that love to be returned with disgust...

Parse erupted with wild, hysterical laughter. "Did I know? Did I know?"

Jeff stepped back, everything shattering deep inside him.

"Of course I fucking knew! We were fucking each other our entire last year in Juniors!"

"What...?" Jeff took another stumbling step back, so battered by all of the assumptions crashing down around him that what Parse was saying hadn't sunk in.

And then there was the sense that he was on a dangerous tipping point. Don't jump to conclusions, he heard himself say. This is not the kind of story for tragic misunderstandings.

That sort of thing had been happening to him a lot since the All-Star Game. It probably wasn't a good thing that he was sort of getting used to it.

Parse finally looked up at him, and Jeff saw his heart break as Jeff took another step back just so he could keep his balance.

"Yeah. That's right. I'm gay," Parse said in a small, broken voice.

"What? No! You can't be gay!" Jeff blurted out because he was still processing. "I'm gay!"

"Uh, no you're not! I'm the one who's gay, dumbass!" Parse retorted. "Weren't you–"

Parse stopped short, blinking at what he had just said and then they were both slumped together against a ridiculously phallic car, laughing helplessly until their stomachs hurt.

Comic misunderstandings, on the other hand...

"So," Jeff said once he could speak without cracking up. "You and Zimmermann, huh?"

Parse palmed a few tears—some of laughter, some not—from his eyes. "Yeah," he said bleakly. "We... um. I was in love with him. Still am, a little bit. Maybe. I don't know."

Of course. Of course as soon as he found out that the guy he was in love with was gay, it turned out that he was in love with someone else.

"You don't know?" It came out plaintive enough to catch Parse's attention.

"No! I don't! I keep turning it over and over in my head, and I don't know how much of it is being in love, or remembering being in love, or the part of me that's still a scared teenager who was in love, or just wanting so bad for it to be love! All I know is that it fucking hurts! It fucking hurts that we were best friends and now he has someone in his life who's so important he comes out live on national TV for everyone to see and I didn't even know! I didn't know because he won't fucking talk to me!" 

Parse was fighting back sobs and Jeff pulled him in close to his side and just held him and wished there was some way to fix this.

"I fucked things up and now he won't even talk to me! He almost died and then he shut me out. He just shut me out like I didn't matter to him anymore, like I never even mattered in the first place, and he was my best friend. He was the first best friend I ever had!"

God, why did this hurt so much? Why did this hurt so much more than just thinking he never had a chance?

Parse sniffled and gave a watery laugh. "We were boyfriends, too. At least I thought we were. But it wasn't just that. What we were went back further than when we started hooking up. Much further." His back lifted and sank beneath Jeff's arm as he took a deep breath. "From the start. From the very first time we ever met at practice, boom. Parse and Zimms. Insta-friends."

Jeff waited as Parse struggled to keep himself together.

 "He was the Trigger to my Nutsy, y'know?"

Jeff let the revelation wash over him in an icy wave.

Parse and his best friend. Always, always together, both in reality and in people's minds. So close that they sometimes forgot whose kids were whose. So close that it broke your brain to imagine them not together, lovers or not.

 "I miss him. I miss him so goddamn much."

He knew why it hurt. It hurt because the man he loved was hurting in a way that Jeff had no way of understanding, let alone fixing.

"I'm sorry," Jeff said. It was all he could think of to say.

Parse leaned into his side, but there was a tenseness to it. A tenseness that grew rather than released as Jeff rubbed gentle circles on his arm. 

Jeff had three notes tucked away in his wallet. One had a promise he had used as a weapon for Scrappy to use on Carl. The other two hinted at a different kind of promise. Maybe.

"It's okay. Sort of okay. I'm glad you know," Parse said. He sounded wrung out, but more or less settled. "Scraps knows about me, because I told him about the whole Zimms thing a couple of months before you got traded to us. Scraps... well, he's a better friend than I deserve. Does he know about you?"

"Well, he does now. So that's probably why he said it was okay for you to tell me you were gay. I, uh, I kind of came out to a bunch of the guys just now?"

(In the back of his mind, he penciled in a note to have a proper freak-out about that later.)

Parse pulled away. Not in any kind of rejection, but so he could give a flickering, up-and-down, considering look at Jeff. "So, that's what you think he meant I should tell you? That I was gay? That's it?"

This was another tipping point. The obvious assumption was that Scraps had meant to say it was safe for Parse to come out to Jeff. 

The less obvious assumption was that Parse had told Scraps some other things, too. Things that Parse might have damned good reason for not telling Jeff.

And then there was the way Parse had fixated on Jeff's assumption rather than his spontaneous coming out to a bunch of drunken hockey players which was—to be blunt—the real headline-grade news here.

(This is not the kind of story for tragic misunderstandings.)

Jeff's heart raced with a hope that would take him down with it if it was shattered.

"Parse, I need you to listen to me very carefully. There's something I need you to tell me." Jeff rested his hands on Parse's shoulders and looked into wide eyes that were now some warm, undefinable color. He knew Parse could feel him trembling but he didn't give a shit. "You know that the Aces are offering me a contract extension, but my agent also told me the Oilers are making an offer. A very generous one."

Parse started going all cold and stony, and reached up to swat Jeff's hands from his shoulders.

Jeff needed to correct course fast, but at the same time, that terrifying hope swelled to the bursting point.

"So I need you to tell me I have a reason to stay here," he begged before Parse brushed him off. "Please tell me I have a reason to stay in this crazy town!"

There was a half-second of silence that felt long enough for the entire universe to collapse and re-form around them, and then...

Well, if Parse glomping on to him with his legs around Jeff's waist and his tongue in Jeff's mouth wasn't an answer, Jeff didn't know what was.

"Should I assume that's a yes?" Jeff panted when they broke the kiss to change angles.

Parse laughed and answered with another kiss. Jeff sank into it, enjoying the warmth of Parse's breath in his own mouth, the fingers digging into his back and the heels digging into his ass, and the pleasant discomfort of getting hard in tight jeans.

The discomfort soon became distinctly less pleasant, jolting him enough out of his lustful haze to realize that maybe this wasn't the best time or place to be doing this.

"How long..." Jeff asked. They broke their embrace and Parse got his feet back on the ground, but they remained touching, always touching.

"Since the start of the season," Parse said sheepishly. "I kept telling myself I was okay just being friends."

"I know exactly what you mean. It took me a little longer to figure out my own head. And I thought you were straight!"

"And I thought you were straight!" Parse retorted, giving him a little shove. "Scraps kept telling me that maybe you weren't, because of the way you looked at me when you thought I wasn't looking."

Jeff smiled so wide his face hurt. "You were so into me you that had to go cry on Scrappy's shoulder about it? Aww... That is, like, the sappiest and most flattering thing I've ever heard!"

Parse was adorable when he got all flushed and grumpy. "I'm sorry you had no one to talk to," he said instead of chirping back, though.

"Yeah, it wasn't exactly the greatest. I vented to my mom about it, of course, but–"

"Your mom knows you're gay!?" 

It took Jeff a moment to parse (ha!) the panicky tone, but some of Parse's reluctance to talk about his own parents maybe made a bit more sense.

"Yeah. I came out to her when I was twelve." And if he hadn't, the Great Porn Stash Incident of '05 would have made it explicitly clear, as it were. 

(Few things were more deeply and excruciatingly embarrassing for a fifteen-year-old boy than receiving a seventy-five minute lecture—complete with citations—from his mother on the ethical consumption of pornography and the problematic and exploitative nature of most mainstream porn production, and the importance of performers being fairly compensated and being guaranteed a mentally and physically safe work environment, and how even gay porn could reinforce harmful heteronormative stereotypes and poor understanding of consent, etc... It was cold comfort that this lecture became the inspiration for one of her more popular graduate seminars and a TED talk.) 

"But you said she keeps pestering you about grandchildren!"

Well. Mom may have had a point about gay people unconsciously buying into heteronormative stereotypes, after all. 

"You wanna know what I got for Christmas? I got a flash drive loaded with meticulous research into Nevada's adoption and surrogacy laws, is what I got. Aside from grandbaby fever, she's been pretty great. You'll like her when you meet her. But yeah, aside from her I was just left alone with my feelings of guilt about looking at your Body Issue."

Parse did that charming head tilt of his. "Wait. You have a copy of my Body Issue?"

"Uh, yeah?" Two copies, actually, but Parse didn't need to know that. Yet.

"So..." Parse said slowly, "This means that you saw that one of my photos was a tribute to Dita Von Teese, complete with props and accessories, and you still assumed I had to be straight?"

"Well, when you put it like that..."

It was another 'I told you so' point to Mom, but Jeff couldn't bring himself to care as he and Parse collapsed against each other in laughter again. 

"Also, you said 'when' I meet your mom?" There was a fragile, but growing hope in there. And it might not be all that fragile when all was said and done.

Jeff's face went warm. "I've always thought you were hot, but this is more than just wanting to get you into bed." Or a convenient storage closet, if it came to that. "You know that, don't you?"

"I do." 

The sincerity of those words (not to mention their traditional associations) sent a delectable shiver down Jeff's spine. The last time he had felt anything even a fraction that strong, corsetry had been involved.

That gave him an idea, but that was something they could talk about later. Much later. (Well, not too much later, now that he was remembering that Dita Von Teese homage in an intriguing new light...) There were other things they needed to talk about, first.

"Just to be clear, this isn't just going to be hooking up, right?"

"I can't do that," Parse said, serious as a ten game suspension, and Jeff remembered the gray, empty look on his face as he watched that video on loop. "I can't do friends with benefits or fuckbuddies or whatever. I can't. Not again. Not with you."

"Well, that's good, because I want this to be more than that, too."

"Good. Uh, we should probably take our time with this." Parse's statement had just enough lift at the end that it could have been a question. Maybe. 

"Yeah. Probably." God, it sucked being responsible. But it would suck more if they got this wrong.

Parse nodded, more determined than pleased. "Got it. Good. We'll take some time. As much as we need. Now c'mon, muffin, let me give you a ride home."

Home sounded good.

Better than it had in a long, long time.

Chapter Text

JUNE 2016

"Fifteen minutes counts as 'some time,' right?"

"...ngh?" was the only reply Jeff got. 

It was a moot point anyway, given the current view. Jeff was flat on his back gazing blearily up at the ceiling, but the view was fantastic thanks to the giant backlit mirror up there.

It was a similar view to the one he'd had shortly after arriving in Vegas last year.

Heart-shaped bed? Check.

Hot pink satin sheets? Check. 

Teammate (and not just any teammate) in bed next to him? Check.

There were, however, some crucial differences.

For one thing, instead of being half-naked, Kent (it was definitely 'Kent' now) was completely naked. And, because the world was a good and kind place, sleeping on his back on top of the hot pink satin sheets. He was also at a bit of an angle with his head pillowed on Jeff's thigh because Round Two had been brought to you by the number 6 and the number 9.

The second difference was, there was no wedding ring made of some sort of 'metal.' This was almost a letdown, but given the hickeys, sticky patches, and other evidence on display in the mirror's handy mood lighting, it was probably a good thing they hadn't gotten married. Any chance of plausible deniability there might have been had gone right out the window and met a grisly end on the sidewalk below.

Third, and most importantly of all, he remembered every single detail of last night.

* * *

After the kiss and its immediate aftermath, neither one of them wanted to go back into to the bar. Jeff was in no way ready to deal with the fallout of what he had said, even if all the guys he counted as friends were clearly and solidly on his side. 

He also didn't want to make Kent go back in there to face the inevitable questions, either. But...

"Scrappy's still back in the bar," Jeff had said after they agreed to take some time and Kent offered to drive him home. "When Carly decided to double down on being an asshole, Scrappy dealt with it. I don't think he'll get into trouble, but we can't leave him twisting in the wind, eh?"

Kent nodded, his mouth pinched to a line as he pulled out his phone. He relaxed when he checked his texts. If his knees buckled a little, Jeff wasn't going to mention it.

"Cheeto texted, and so did Trigger. Cheeto wants to make sure you're okay and says to tell you no one's taking Carl's side, and Carl's not gonna raise a stink, either. Nutsy texted because he's wondering what the hell you said to make Carl, and I quote, 'cry like a pissy little baby.'"

"I just told him that someone owed me a favor. And I told him who that someone was." Of course, the 'who' was technically a guess, but it was a guess he was confident in. "If Carly decides he's going to make a formal complaint or press charges or whatever, I will gladly call in that favor. And he knows I will. It's safe to say he'll keep his mouth shut."

So, Jeff felt no guilt about getting into Kent's ridiculous car so Kent could take him back to his apartment.

But when Kent slid into the car, he turned on the impish grin Jeff knew all too well from the Body Issue and reached out to run his fingertips along Jeff's jaw, catching lightly and maddeningly on the stubble. 

"I know we said we needed to take some time, but this is a hot car and I always thought it would be awesome to make out in it with a hot guy." 

Jeff recalled how Kent always stopped or slowed to ogle fancy cars and thought there might be some fantasies that would be well worth exploring down the line.

Meanwhile, a little making out wouldn't hurt anything.

Right?

Less than a minute later, Kent was unbuttoning Jeff's jeans and it became (literally) painfully clear that Kent's stupid little two-seater was nowhere near big enough and home was just plain nowhere near enough.

"Hotel?" Kent panted into Jeff's mouth.

"Yes." 

Kent nearly flooded the engine in his haste to get the car started. He peeled out of the parking lot and pulled in at the very first place they encountered with a lit VACANCY sign.

And so on.

"Did we seriously end up in the same hotel as we did my first night here?" Jeff asked as he used a damp washcloth to remove the worst of the mess before getting dressed.

"Maybe? If so, it's a different room." Kent bent over to pick up his pants, and it was deja-vu all over again, except this time Kent wasn't wearing briefs and there were two clear marks flanking the bit where the back muscles tapered temptingly down towards the ass-crack.

Jeff wondered if he should apologize for leaving marks, but some localized and pleasant soreness suggested he was sporting a couple of bruises in a similar (if slightly lower) location.

"Are you sure? There can't be that many hotel rooms done up to look like Barbie's Dream Bordello."

Kent just gave him a look.

"Ah. Right. Vegas." 

"Still, this brings back memories," Kent said wistfully. "Well, sort of. It's not like I actually remember much about our first marriage."

"Same. If only we had known..." 

Jeff tried to remember something, anything from that night. It was mostly a bourbon-induced blank, but a dim fragment of memory bubbled close enough to the surface that he could almost see it:

It was his first night in Vegas, first night out with his new team. He'd woken up in Edmonton that morning, and by evening he was in an Aces jersey complete with a strange number sitting on his back like an itch he couldn't reach. He got two assists to help the Aces beat the Kings, so the boys dragged him out to a strip club to welcome him in true Vegas style. He was hanging back as far away from the stage as he could, drinking himself numb and hating life when Parson sat down next to him.

"Sorry I didn't have much of a chance to do the whole captain thing and talk to you earlier. Fucking reporters. So, how do you like the show?" Parson slurred. He didn't sound like he was enjoying it very much.

"I don't."

"Huh. Me neither." A pause. "So, um, what don't you like about it?"

"I'm gay." Jeff was obviously well past the point of making good decisions, so he went ahead and slammed back the rest of his bourbon and Coke.

"Huh." Parson nodded and took another swig of something very pink and very alcoholic. "Cool. Same here."

Jeff pondered this fact as best he could in his current state, and came to a tidy enough conclusion. 

"You're hot and this place blows. Wanna go somewhere else and make out?"

"Sure."

What happened next was past the point of any chance of recall, but there was plenty of room for both plausible deniability and the sort of fun you could have while still keeping your pants on.

"It's not important," Jeff said as the fragment of memory eluded his grasp and was lost forever before he could see what it was about. "The important thing is, we finally figured it out."

* * *

Exactly one week later, Vegas hosted the NHL awards as they had for the past several years and would for the next few years to come. 

While it was a smaller scale event than the All Star Game, the logistics were still hellishly complicated. More players would be in attendance, so keeping tabs on all of them would be impossible. Plus, no one had any games to worry about the next week, which meant that people might feel more free to cut loose and have a good time.

Therefore, the gift bags for each featured attendee would not only contain the usual sort of high-end goodies one would expect at this kind of event, but would have copies of the I WOKE UP MARRIED. WHAT DO I DO NOW? brochure in English, French, Russian, Swedish, Finnish, and Czech stapled to the outside.

Lessons had been learned the hard way the first year the awards were in Vegas.

In the days leading up to the awards, Kent was a bundle of nerves, and not because he was one of the finalists for the Hart trophy as 'player judged most valuable to his team.' The odds were enough in Patrick Kane's favor that Kent claimed he had mostly written off any hope of winning.

The issue was, Zimmermann was going to be there. Aside from winning the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe for playoffs MVP, Zimmermann was also up for the Calder for Rookie of the Year and the Lady Byng for 'player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.'

Translation: 'best player who didn't rack up a shit-ton of penalty minutes.' 

It was pretty much a given that Kopitar would walk away with the Lady Byng, but the fact that Bad Bob Zimmermann's kid was a nominee had sent a shockwave of severe cognitive dissonance throughout the entire league.

"You're sure he's going to show up?" Jeff asked Kent over breakfast two days before the awards. "Don't you think he'll give it a pass with all the press he's been getting? From what you say, the guy isn't exactly a fan of the cameras."

To be perfectly honest, Jeff was hoping the guy would be a no-show. 

"Bob told me he's planning to be here," Kent said. "Without the boyfriend, of course."

Kent sneered a little at that last bit, but that wasn't what got Jeff's attention.

"Bob? Wait... Bad Bob!?" 

"Uh, yeah? You must have heard me on the phone with him hundreds of times!"

Jeff suddenly had a lot more sympathy for Cheeto when he figured out who Mom was. He thought back to all of those family-like conversations in rapid-fire French, and the world tilted a bit more on its axis. "Did... um..."

Kent nodded, making eye contact with his oatmeal. "He knew."

Jeff had no idea what to say, so he said nothing. Kent spoke up again a moment later.

"He said he thought it would be okay if I texted Jack to congratulate him." 

Kent didn't sound like he was sure it would be okay, so they left it at that and headed to the living room for some snuggle time on the couch.

* * *

At the awards ceremony, Zimmermann was seated front and center along with the rest of the Falcs.

Jeff and Kent were a few rows back and off to the side. The way the rows curved meant they had a good view of Zimmermann's profile, but he would have to turn to see them. He did look over at them a couple of times, but always looked away again quickly.

Especially when Jeff smiled at him. Yeah, Kent said they both owed each other apologies, but sue him if he was taking sides.

"He doesn't look as nearly as anxious as I thought he would," Kent whispered.

"Really?" Jeff thought the guy looked like he was ready to crawl out of his own skin. "Have you decided if you're going to text him or not?" 

As of last night, Kent was leaning towards 'yes,' but it wasn't certain.

"I wanna see what happens with the Calder, first."

At least it was the second award of the evening, so the suspense wasn't going to drag on.

The Calder was getting a lot more attention than usual, being referred to more than once as the Battle of the Geezers because both Panarin and Zimmermann were a little long in the tooth to be considered true 'rookies.' 

In the end, Panarin's time in the KHL, where the level of play was way more intense that it was in the NCAA, was probably what gave him the edge over Zimmermann.

Kent shot a worried look at Zimmermann, but the guy didn't look upset. Wryly amused, definitely unsurprised, and maybe just a little disappointed—but only about as much as Jeff was disappointed about 'only' finishing in fifth place for the Norris trophy voting. 

If anything, Jeff thought the guy looked kind of relieved not to be the center of attention for a little while.

"You know people are going to wonder if he didn't get it because of the whole boyfriend thing," Jeff whispered. It didn't matter that the all the votes had been cast before the playoffs had even started. Someone was going to wonder if someone knew.

But still, a guy who was gay or bi or some other form of noticeably 'not straight' was a goddamn Calder finalist and was the MVP on a Cup-winning team.

"People are stupid," Kent whispered back. "I'm gonna text him."

While Kent figured out what to text, the Norris went to Doughty (Karlsson was totally robbed), and the names of the General Manager of the year nominees flashed across the screen as the announcer read them off. 

Brian MacLellan, Washington Capitals

Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh Penguins

<Insert Name Here>, Las Vegas Aces

Jeff applauded automatically as his team's name was called out for some random-ass reason or another. He was more interested in what Kent was texting.

"Whaddya think, linzer torte?" Kent held out his phone for Jeff to read.

congrats on the cup zimms

& the con smith!!! 

never douted u wld do it

about the cup guess what u & my cat have in common?

Jeff's brows furrowed, and not just because ending with a question looked like fishing for a response. "Are you looking for spelling and grammar feedback, because–"

"Pfft. You're no fun." Kent snatched his phone back and hit send. He barely paid attention through the next two award announcements, watching to see if Zimmermann checked his phone.

They had just announced Holtby as winner of the Vezina for best goalie (zero surprise, there) when Zimmermann finally looked at his phone. He stiffened with surprise then turned and gave Kent a puzzled look.

Puzzled, yes. Upset, no.

Kent grinned and sent another text he had cued up and ready.

Zimmermann's eyes went wide. 

Kent showed Jeff what he had sent: a smiling poop emoji.

Zimmermann's shoulders shook with silent laughter, and he showed the texts to Robinson, who instantly looked like he regretted every mouthful of champagne he drank from the Cup.

No, it wasn't a reply, but as Zimmermann showed the texts to another teammate and laughed at the reaction, Kent finally began to relax.

Unfortunately, they had several more awards to get through before the Hart was announced, so between that and not receiving a reply from Zimmermann, Kent started tensing up again.

The third time Kent checked for a reply, Jeff gently pressed his phone hand back down to his lap.

"I know you know you can't make him text you back," he said under the sound of the presenter. They had talked about this last night, and about Kent's fear that earlier attempts to force Zimmermann to talk to him had maybe fucked things up for good, and his new fear that worrying so much about Zimmerman was going to fuck things up with Jeff. "But this isn't helping. How about a distraction?"

Kent's eyes went wide and his face turned bright red.

"Not that kind of distraction, dumbass! What the hell!?"  Fortunately, the sound of applause and cheering drowned him out. "I meant I was going to tell you why I was so desperate to make sure I got to choose my own nickname and to keep Cheeto from blabbing about it that one time."

Kent's eyes went wide and Jeff would have sworn they sparkled. He turned off his phone and slid it into his pocket. "I'm all ears, mille-feuille."

The beginning of the story was innocent enough. 

"I first got the 'Swoops' nickname back in Mites, thanks to Coach Kowalski." 

'Troy' was hard to build a decent hockey nickname on, and for an eight-year-old, being the only kid on the team without a cool nickname was the Worst Thing Ever. 

So, Coach K had latched on to Jeff's love of the Toronto Raptors and all things basketball to come up with a decent nickname that was the right balance of cool and chirpy.

(In retrospect, Jeff's love of watching sweaty, muscular men running around in shorts and sleeveless tops should have clued him in about his sexuality much earlier, but he wouldn't figure that out until he was twelve.)

Kent listened raptly as Jeff explained how the nickname carried forward with him into Atoms and Peewees with no problem. 

"Enough of the same guys followed me along from year to year that the nickname came along as well. So far, so good. Then I got to Bantams."

Bantams, when things started getting more competitive. 

When people who were not friends or parents sometimes showed up at games, taking notes and never smiling as they watched like carrion crows. 

When talk of making it to The Show changed from childhood daydreams to actual speculation and planning and sacrifice. 

When, no matter how hard they tried to hide it, it was obvious that the coaches treated some boys differently than others. 

So, things were already pretty tense. Then, puberty got thrown into the mix, hitting different boys at wildly different ages and to wildly differing degrees because puberty was an asshole. 

It was therefore no surprise that the social order in the locker room started getting a bit more 'Lord of the Flies.' (Minus the pig heads on sticks, of course, but Jeff had always suspected that was more due to lack of opportunity than any lack of desire.)

"The pressure got to everyone, but the worst were the guys who knew they were right on the edge of making it or not making it, you know what I mean?" 

Kent nodded. As an American who was good enough to be snapped up by the Q, there was no way he didn't know.

A wave of applause drowned things out. Another award had been given, but Jeff didn't know or care which one.

From here, the story of his time in Bantams and Juniors could be told in two different ways, both equally true, but otherwise completely unalike.

The tragic version was about life in rural Alberta, about the inevitable tensions between town and gown in Camrose, about teen athletes who were treated like rock stars, and about desperate families pinning too many hopes on their kids' NHL dreams.

That wasn't the story he wanted to tell at the moment. Or possibly ever.

The comedic (in retrospect) version was about a kid whose professor mom had written dozens of books and articles on the influence of Greek myth on contemporary literature and could deliver spontaneous seventy-five minute lectures (with citations!) on toxic masculinity in the adult entertainment industry and who therefore should have fucking warned him.

That one was the story to tell to a man who needed to be distracted from wondering whether or not his first best friend would ever talk to him again.

"Anyway, my last year in Bantams was the same year we did a classics unit at high school." 

It was one more nail in the coffin of Jeff's desire to continue with any kind of formal education, given how the teacher reacted to Jeff constantly correcting him on matters of Greek and Roman myth and literature. It wasn't his fault that Mom thought Aristophanes' comedies were perfectly appropriate reading for a bored twelve-year-old. 

"So of course we were forced to read what is probably one of the shittiest translations of 'The Iliad' on record."

The amount of raging heterosexuality that had been editorially shoved in to the story of Achilles and Patroclus made your average Hooters franchise look like the Stonewall Inn by comparison.

"Now, I know you know at least some of the basics of 'The Iliad,' because you thought Cheeto was going to make a Helen of Troy joke that one time. But that is not the nickname he was going to suggest. Let me walk you through this. What war was 'The Iliad' about?"

It took Kent a moment to realize that Jeff was waiting for an answer. "Uh, Peloponnesian? And what does this have to do with your nickname?"

"I swear to God, I do not understand your brain sometimes. Anyhow, I'm getting to the nickname part. Let's try this again: What were the people from the city of Troy called?"

Kent shrugged and made the universal 'I dunno' sound.

"As in the 'Fill-in-the-Blank Horse'?" Jeff said through clenched teeth.

He could see by the look on Kent's face that he got the reference but didn't get the reference. Fine. He was going to have to spell it out.

"As in the brand name of the number one selling brand of condom in North America?"

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Kent started laughing. Deep, body-shaking belly laughter that would not stop, and that only got louder and wilder as Jeff told him about the impressive collection of 'balloon' animals and the wall of Trojan condom boxes he'd found in his stall shortly after his new nickname had been bestowed.

Kent was still laughing his ass off when they announced he was the winner of the Hart Trophy but the camera swung to Kane by mistake, putting the look of shock, disappointment, and confusion on the asshole's face right up on the big screen for everyone to see.

This of course, only made Kent laugh that much harder, especially when the camera swung back to him.

(Tweety, of course, commemorated the occasion by making a reaction gif contrasting the two reactions.)

Kent collected himself enough to make it to the podium and stumble through an acceptance speech he had only half-rehearsed. He kept looking at Jeff instead of the camera, and Jeff could hardly bear it.

The last time Jeff had seen him that purely and simply happy was because Britney and Anthem Elvis were singing a duet of one of his favorite songs.

Back then, that happiness had forced Jeff to admit to himself he was in love.

But now, when that happiness was directed at him? When it was because of him?

Jeff couldn't think of a time when he had been more purely and simply happy himself.

* * *

He and Kent made only a brief appearance at the official after-party. 

Kent had been reluctant to go at first.

"Zimmermann?" Jeff asked. He reminded himself that Kent was still processing the shock of what had happened after the Cup, and that he needed to be a supportive probably-boyfriend-but-wow-we-should-really-define-this, not an insecure and jealous prick.

Kent nodded tensely but not miserably. He started to say something then did a slight double-take as he remembered his phone. He turned it back on and waited for any notifications to come up. He frowned, then relaxed as he let out a huff of a laugh.

"He texted. He said congrats for the Hart, and that he was going straight to the airport from the awards. Perks of your dad owning his own jet, I guess." 

That last bit was probably meant to come across as a joke, but it sounded too melancholy for that. Kent's eyes flicked back and forth as he read a much longer text. Then he locked the screen and took a deep breath.

"It's fine," he told Jeff before Jeff could ask. It may have been fine, but he still sounded sad. "He said he does want to talk to me and clear the air, just... not yet. Not for a while. He wants to wait for shit to die down, first. See how the start of the season goes."

"That's probably not a bad idea," Jeff said slowly, thinking about some shitty editorial pieces that were already out there and the rumors they were hauling to the surface. It would take at least a month or two for things to settle down, and then who knew what would happen once all the pre-season hype began?

At some point, he and Kent were going to have to talk about when or even if they would come out publicly. At the moment, only Scrappy knew about them getting together (he cried with joy and gave them each a rib-crushing hug when they told him). Beyond that, Kent was still mulling over how and when to tell Cheeto about himself as his first tentative foray into coming out to someone under non-traumatic circumstances.

They would also have to talk about Zimmermann.

But all that was for later. Possibly much later.

"Is it wrong that I feel relieved I get to put this off a little while longer?" Kent asked him. 

"Not at all." In fact, it made Jeff feel more than a little relieved himself. "So, how about we go check out the party and let people fawn over your well-deserved Hart? If we play it right, we can get 'em to do it in earshot of Kane."

Kent thought it over for a moment, then smiled, angst from the text slowly fading. "Sure thing, cinnamon roll. But just for a little bit. After that, I think I could use some distraction, and yes, I mean that kind."

If Jeff's eyes went wide and his face turned red, well, who could blame him?

Chapter Text

JUNE 2016

Kent and Jeff got to the Aces' corporate offices extra early the next morning. They thought they would have to wait a while once they got there, but the DAYS SINCE OUR LAST INCIDENT board had already been reset, and the zero was now a frowny face with X's for eyes. Joan wasn't at her desk, but a tent card sat next to her nameplate with Back in fifteen minutes written on it in tidy cursive.

Jeff studied it a bit longer than its content actually warranted.. 

"That's good luck for us," Kent said, voice tight with dread. "Let's just go back and see if Bert's there, and then maybe we can, I dunno, sneak out the fire exit or something?"

Bert was in fact there, hunched behind his massive desk and dealing with what sounded like just one in a long line of crises.

He was on his cell phone, making blah-blah-blah motions with his free hand as whoever was on the other end went on and on and on....

Eventually Bert had to hold the phone a few inches away from his ear. Jeff winced at the furious and incomprehensible yammering. Bert's expression did not change in the slightest as whoever it was on the other end of the line got even louder and angrier. He just waited until whoever it was had to take a breath.

"While I understand your consternation, Mario, may I remind you that all players in attendance were duly warned about Nevada's marriage laws and how, unless they seek immediate intervention, their celebrity status increases the odds that what happens in Vegas will not, in fact, stay in Vegas."

More shouting. More screeching. Bert rolled his eyes and waited for the oxygen to run out.

"Yes, yes, I understand that two of your star forwards got married to each other and subsequently left Vegas without coming to our offices for assistance as was strongly suggested in multiple languages and via multiple means, and that neither is a United States citizen—and yes, one of them being Russian complicates things even more given the current political climate... and you say he's already engaged? To someone else? Hm. Yes." More shouting, this time shifting closer to something like sobbing. "Yes, Mario, it is all horribly, horribly complicated, but there is one bright and shining spot in all of this chaos."

A hopeful noise on the other end of the phone.

"You see, the truly wonderful thing is that all of this is now your problem, not mine."

Bert hung up and waggled the phone as he held it out to Kent. "Please block that last number for me. I never do it right. One time, I accidentally blocked my mother, and she didn't speak to me for weeks."

"How could she, if you blocked her?" Jeff asked, earning a glare that made his testicles try to retract into his spleen.

Kent raised an eyebrow at the name attached to the number he was blocking, but did as he was told and handed the phone back to Bert.

"Busy morning?"

"You have no idea. I assume you two need the usual paperwork," he said dolefully, even as he reached for the binder. "You'll be the eighth happy couple I have had to deal with this morning."

Kent laughed nervously and scratched at the hickey blooming under his jawline. "Um, no? We didn't get married this time. We kind of got ambushed by a reporter." He left out the fact this had happened when he and Jeff had been looking for a convenient storage closet to go make out in. Jeff had already told HR and Tracie about outing himself to some of the team, but Kent wasn't ready for that yet. "Aaaaand... I kinda sorta maybe cussed him out? A lot?"

'A lot' was an understatement. Kent's tirade had involved not just an impressive array of swear words, but a number of anatomically impossible suggestions and some creative yet plausible threats.

"He had a voice recorder," Jeff said grimly. "The asshole was asking a bunch of really inappropriate questions about Zimmermann. And about Kent's history with him back in Rimouski."

Bert gazed heavenwards and muttered something that was a blend of genteel profanity and mild blasphemy. "Wonderful. Lovely. I'll ask Joan to, er, manage the usual suspects in the press corps. Do you know if the recording has made it to the internet yet?"

"Nope! No internet!" Kent said with frantic giddiness. "Like Swoops here said, he had a voice recorder."

Bert's eyes went nearly as wide and round as his glasses.

"He dropped it when he was running away from us. Uh, me?" Jeff said. As slimy as he was, the reporter had realized that when you had six feet and five inches worth of angry defenseman looking down at you like that, it was a good indication that you had well and truly fucked up. 

Almost as good as having five feet and six inches of annoyed lawyer looking up at you like that. 

Jeff laughed in a futile attempt to lighten the mood. "Maybe we could have handled things a little more diplomatically?"

"We'll deal with it. Or rather, Joan will," Bert said tersely. He held out his hand to Jeff. "Oh, and give me that recorder. I'll get it to Tracie so she can get ahead of the story in case the reporter goes to press without recorded proof."

"Kent has it," Jeff said.

Kent held up a finger, signaling them both to wait as he downed the last of his trenti caramel latte. Then he pried the lid off the cup and pulled out a sleek, expensive, and now entirely useless Olympus voice recorder. He dropped it on Bert's desk with a flourish.

"Ta da!" A variety of expressions chased each other across Kent's face as he realized the consequences of what he had done. "Uh, sorry it's a bit wet?"

Everyone watched in utter silence as milky, over-sweetened coffee oozed stickily out of the recorder and across Bert's desk. And his paperwork.

Eventually, Bert exploded.

"GET OUT!" Bert roared, jabbing his finger at the door. "And just for that, you two get to tell Joan what happened! And you deserve whatever happens to you!"

Kent looked distinctly queasy as they dashed from the office, but Jeff was grinning. 

Just because an opportunity was unexpected, it didn't mean he couldn't recognize it when it appeared.

They had to pass back through the reception area to get to Tracie's office. Joan was not back at her desk yet, but Kent still shied away from it as if it were an unexploded bomb as they hurried past. 

"Listen, I don't mind talking to Joan, if you'd rather deal with Tracie," Jeff said.

Kent boggled at him as if he'd just started talking Ancient Greek or something. "You don't have to do that for me," he said weakly. "You shouldn't have to risk–"

"Look. If I go into Tracie's office with a crisis, she will make me eat dried bugs again. She even showed me and Cheeto a bag of chocolate-coated crickets that literally has our names on it." In her defense, that last dust-up he and Cheeto had on Goodreads over Robertson Davies would have looked ugly to anyone who didn't get their sense of humor. "She likes you better than she likes me."

Kent still looked dubious, or possibly like he thought chowing down on bugs was the better of the two fates facing them.

"I promise I won't do anything to get on Joan's bad side," Jeff said as reassuringly as he could. "It'll be okay. And it makes more sense for you to go talk to Tracie, 'cause she'll want to work with you on what to say if this does blow up in your face. Also, she won't make you eat bugs."

"Who's not going to make who eat bugs?" Tracie asked from behind them, nearly sending both him and Kent through the ceiling tiles. Those Birkenstocks of hers could be damned quiet when she wanted. "Also, neither one of you has seen Commissioner Bettman, have you? He's supposed to be at a press conference with the Leafs and Jets GMs and coaches before they head out to Buffalo for the draft, and everyone's in the press room waiting and worrying about their flights."

"I can't tell you about Bettman, but Kent had a run-in with a particularly gross and super inappropriate reporter last night," Jeff said in his smoothest 'I'm just here for moral support' voice, shoving a startled Kent in her direction. "Bert said for him to talk to you while I tell Joan what happened so she can... well, so she can do whatever it is she does."

"Oh! Hi, Jeff!! Hi, Kent!!" Down the hall, Candy from Operations leaned out from her office, holding on to the doorjamb with her body sticking out at a perilous angle, long blond hair swinging like a metronome. "Weren't the awards so much fun last night?? And Kent, that is SO AWESOME about the Hart!!! You two didn't get married, did you, because I had my money on seven couples getting married so right now I'm still winning the office pool! Isn't that great?? I really hope I win it this year!!!"

"You win the pool every year, Candy," Tracie snapped. "You haven't seen Commissioner Bettman, have you?" 

"The Commissioner? Oh! Yeah, I have!! He got here right after I did, and he was getting all rude and snippy with Joan because there wasn't any coffee brewed yet, and there was no way I was going to stick around to see what happened!!!" She gave an apologetic and vaguely terrified giggle. "I'm really sorry I can't tell you where they went, but I only just now stopped hiding under my desk!"

Jeff, Kent, and Tracie all poked their heads back into the reception area, lined up by height like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon. 

Joan's Back in fifteen minutes sign still sat on the desk, clear as daylight.

Tracie pressed her fingers to her temples and muttered a less-than-calm calming affirmation under her breath before collecting herself. "Great. Just great. Kent, come back to my office with me and we can talk about that reporter thing right after I call the Park Police about dragging the lake. Again."

Candy ducked back into her office with a cheery wave, and Tracie led Kent away. Kent looked back longingly over his shoulder as he left as if afraid he would never see Jeff again. Jeff just smiled as reassuringly as he could and went back to wait by Joan's desk.

He didn't have to wait long. He barely had time to pick up the Back in fifteen minutes tent card and give it a closer look before he heard the sound of Louboutins on laminate.

"Actually, they're Jimmy Choos," Joan said as she strode gracefully to her desk. "I loathe being predictable."

She set down a cardboard cup holder that had two venti Starbucks cups in it. Then she plucked the tent card from Jeff's fingers and tucked it away in a drawer, presumably for future use. 

"You may as well sit down," she said as she sat down herself. While Jeff pulled up a visitor's chair, she hit the intercom and informed Tracie that Mr. Bettman was most likely hiding in the men's room so he could contemplate the fragility of existence in peace and there was no need to bother the Park Police. Again.

"I will admit to having been somewhat tempted, however," she observed once she hung up. Then she pulled a small bottle of a bright and cheerful (as opposed to dark and sinister) red liquid out of her desk. It was a cute bottle, with a handwritten label proclaiming it to be Raspberry Syrup tied to the neck with a yellow gingham ribbon. She slid the syrup and one of the coffees across the table to Jeff. "This is far better than the artificially flavored nonsense you normally have. I do believe you usually take four shots of espresso, yes?"

Jeff nodded mutely. Any remaining bravado had left along with Kent. He picked up the bottle of syrup and examined it. Something about the label struck him as familiar. He opened it, and the smell was that of triple-distilled childhood summers. 

Figuring that Joan wouldn't waste something that delicious smelling by poisoning it, Jeff thanked her and poured two generous glugs into his coffee. 

When he took a sip of his raspberry caffeine-bomb, for a few wonderful seconds everything was beautiful and perfect.

"Wow..."

"The jam is even better. My nephew was kind enough to get some for me when a former teammate had a surplus this spring. I believe Mr. Bogrov also obtained some via a friend."

That was why the label was familiar. It was just like the label on some jam Booger had made them try a couple of months ago. Vanilla plum, Jeff recalled. It tasted like Christmas and happiness. Booger had been annoyingly cagy about where and how he'd gotten it, and had only let them have a little taste before hoarding the rest for himself. Even Yelena had complained for weeks that her no-good lout of a boyfriend had only given her enough to barely cover half a slice of toast.

"I recognized the handwriting," he said carefully. What he was about to do next might not be as smart as he had first thought when Bert kicked him out of his office. "That's not the only handwriting I recognized."

Joan took a long sip of her own coffee, gazing at him serenely over the top of the cup.

"That sign you had on your desk. I saw the same handwriting on a note that was addressed to me."

She held the gaze even as she lowered her cup. "Did you only figure it out just now?" Her tone was casual in a way that wasn't. 

It made part of him want to curl up in a ball under his chair. But only part.

"No. The sign just confirmed what I already pretty much knew." The other part of him felt a different impulse. These impulses had hit him before, at times when something (the plot) demanded it, but he usually resisted them in favor of doing something more sensible instead. This time, he was happy to go along with it. "Do you want me to tell you how I figured it out?"

Joan's mouth curved in a faint smile, but it was a pleased one. She settled back in her chair. "Please," she said. "When did you first suspect?"

Jeff grinned. "You mean, that you're the mysterious owners who no one has ever met?" 

This time, going along with the narrative impulse would be fun. This time, he got to be Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, laying out for the audience just how he figured out that the butler (or in this case, the receptionist) did it.

Still smiling, she inclined her head, signaling him to go on. So he did.

"I first noticed something was off last summer, right when I was about to sign my contract." He hadn't wondered too much, because he was more preoccupied with the hurt of the Oilers not wanting him back. Plus, Kevin had been one hell of a distraction on his own. "Kent told me that the owners wouldn't be there when I signed. I know that a lot of sports teams are owned by syndicates or whatever, but there's usually someone who shows up to represent them, especially when big money contracts are on the line. I mean there was..."

The name slipped his mind, as it always did.

"A team needs a General Manager," Joan said. "So we have one. Otherwise, he is merely incidental, with no relevance to the story. A name was unnecessary. But please, continue."

Jeff took another sip of coffee to hide his frown. Joan had reminded him that her being the Aces' owner was just one of the things he wanted to confront her about. 

"I didn't think much about it at the time–" how could he, when Joan's presence in the room was a quiet encouragement to get things done and get the fuck out of there "–but when I signed, there was no one there to sign on behalf of the owners, but you were there to notarize stuff anyway. Later, though, I realized that a couple of things seemed off. For one thing, I don't remember ever having my Oilers' contracts notarized. For another, isn't the whole point of a notary to have someone witness all signatures on a document? If I went back to look at my contract, I'm betting I wouldn't actually see a notary stamp. I would just see your signature. As owner."

She didn't deny it. "But that still wasn't enough for you to put things together."

"Not then. I might have questioned it more if I hadn't gotten used to just signing whatever shit, uh, stuff..."

Joan gave another one of those unsettlingly not-terrifying smiles. "I don't mind profanity. Carry on."

"With all the accidental marriages and NDAs for all the weird and impossible shit that happens here, I don't think anyone with the Aces really thinks that much about what they're signing anymore." 

He remembered Kent zipping through their first set of annulment papers in a careless rush. Bert could have put a lien on Kent's immortal soul for all Kent knew. 

"So yeah, I knew there was something kind of off about the way paperwork was handled here, but I just accepted it as part of the general weirdness. It was the All Star Game that gave me the big clues that let me start putting two and two together."

He told her about going snooping on the suite level and having noticed the Dark Suite, but left out the bits as to why he'd left the Aces' suite to go clear his head.

"So anyway, I go into the suite, which is clearly custom built, which means it was probably commissioned by someone very high up on the food chain, right? One thing I noticed right away is that it's full of stuff from the early days of Vegas."

Mementoes from the old Flamingo hotel. An antique drinks cart that was probably from the forties. A Mid-century Modern armchair and side table that would have been super-swanky back in the fifties or early sixties.

"Stuff including what were obviously some old showgirl costumes. Your old showgirl costumes."

The mannequins, whose feet were sculpted to be up on tippy-toe to accommodate ridiculously high heeled shoes, had been nearly as tall as Jeff. Women who were close to his height, even in heels, were a rarity. In her Louboutins (or Jimmy Choos, as the case may be), Joan barely had to lift her chin to look him straight in the eye.

"After that, it all started to click into place. I had wondered how the owners always seemed to be on top of things even though they were absent, but then when I started to suspect who you were, it made perfect sense. Mom always said that the department admins were the ones who had the real power at the university, so it made sense that being receptionist was a good way of being hands-on, eh? For the power behind the throne to actually be in front of the throne? Also, everyone always talked about the owners, plural, so most people never even considered that it could be just one owner, singular. And the door to your suite had a single name on it. Well, an initial and a name."

He reached forward tapped the brass and walnut nameplate on her desk: Joan Johnson.

Joan applauded softly, little more than tapping the flats of her fingers on the opposite palm. "Very clever, Mr. Troy. You're the first player who has ever figured out who the Aces mysterious owner truly is."

Jeff went very, very cold as he suddenly remembered the kind of movies where the villain would say some variation of "Very clever, Mr. Bond" just before opening the trapdoor over the pool of sharks with laser beams on their heads.

Joan rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. This isn't that kind of story and I'm hardly a villain. Now are you planning to get to what you really wanted to talk about, or did you simply wish to show off how clever you are?"

Jeff thought for a moment, dangling his coffee between his knees and studying the floor (it wasn't all that interesting). The problem was, where to start? He had a million questions that all seemed to be facets of one fundamental question that he couldn't define.

Somehow, what the actual fuck is going on here didn't seem like a good start to a productive conversation.

"You know things," he finally said. "Some of the guys say it's like you know things before they're going to happen. Like how you knew that at some point, I was going to end up in your suite and that I was going to to be thinking about trying to get traded. Also, that note was there long before I joined the Aces and changed my number to 14, wasn't it?"

"Perhaps," she said. "Or perhaps not. But please, go on."

"Also, you're the owner. You worked through what's-his-name and Coach Crane and Bert, but you're the one who brought me here. Weren't you?"

He didn't mean to get angry, because he wasn't angry about it, not anymore, but the memory of those first weird and awful days rushed back. The shock of being ripped from his home. The hurt of finding out a few months later that home didn't want him anymore. 

Also, the idea of it, the idea of being used, somehow, got under his skin.

So yeah, he got a little angry.

"Yes." There was a long silence. "I'm assuming you would like to know why?"

"Uh, yeah?"

"The main reason is because you're good for the team. We needed to strengthen our defensive core, and you were a criminally underrated and underused talent. Honestly, you should have been a Norris trophy finalist, but that would have been overkill, as would Zimmermann winning the Calder. It's enough that Parson deprived Kane of the Hart trophy."

"Yeah, that was hilarious. But that's not all, is it? There's something else funky going on."

Joan lifted an eyebrow. "Define 'funky.'"

He got the idea she knew what he meant, but wanted him to say it even so.

"Every now and then, I notice I get this weird compulsion to do something that would, well, complicate things for no good reason. Like someone was pulling on the puppet strings."

"And yet you resisted. Frequently. Didn't you?" The tone of her voice could have been amused. Or accusing. There was no way to tell which.

He shuddered. "Y'know, I have no idea how you know that, but it doesn't surprise me. But yeah, I didn't always go with it. Because I like not fucking up friendships and shit like that just for the 'drama.' And that's what all this is, right? A drama?"

She confirmed nothing, but simply waited for him to continue.

"Like at the All Star Game. There is no way a Zamboni running over an overripe catfish should take out an entire state-of-the-art arena! But it happened! And they were able to move the whole thing here on ridiculously short notice! And get Britney Spears, who just happens to be Kent's favorite singer, to do the intermission concert! And that's not even getting into whatever whackadoodle shit happened with Kuznetzov!"

Joan gently shushed him, patting the air in front of her. "There's no need to raise your voice, Mr. Troy. Now, why don't you get to the part of all this that's really bothering you?"

Jeff went back to staring at the floor. "Once I realized I was in l– well, you know what I realized." Even though Joan no doubt knew about him and Kent, he was reluctant to say it out loud. He was even more reluctant to think about why he didn't want to say it out loud, not even to Kent. "I went out to the hall outside the suite and had, I dunno, a psychotic break or something. At least, that's what I kept telling myself what it was. But it wasn't."

"So what was it? Tell me." She spoke gently, which was more upsetting than if she was being stern.

"I could see how the John Scott story–" and it was a story, for all that it was true "–was going to happen. It had been building for days and days, and it... I dunno, it did something to me. It was like I could see all the ropes and the pulleys and whatever you call the things that the backgrounds are painted on. Hell, it was like a fucking wall had come down in my head and everyone and their dog could just read whatever I was thinking," he said, flicking a hand in your direction. 

Joan nodded. "Yes. And what else?"

"And I could see that Kent was part of a bigger story. And that I was part of Kent's story." 

Was he part of Kent's story because he fell in love with him? Or did he fall in love with Kent as part of the story? Or did it even matter, because the love was real. He knew this. 

He was in love with Kent Parson.

"You can see this kind of thing, too," he said. "Can't you?"

"I can."

"Why?" He blurted out. "Why do we see this shit?"

She sat up a little straighter, hands folded in her lap, back to being stern. "As to why I can see these things and sometimes give a little... let's just call it a nudge if things get stuck or off course, that is my own business. Your occasional ability to see the underpinnings of the story is due to your own peculiar circumstances and upbringing. Circumstances I admit to having been rather curious about, which is the second reason I brought you here. Quite simply, I wanted to get a better look at you."

"Circumstances?"

"Do you wish to use your favor to know what those circumstances are?"

If asked, Jeff would admit to being more than a little curious himself about what Joan saw when she got that 'better look,' but he wanted to check something first. 

"So, I didn't use up my favor with Scraps and Carly?" The look on Carly's face when Jeff said Joan owes me a favor would remain a treasured memory for the rest of his days. "And what's going to happen with Carly anyway?"

Joan flicked her fingers as if shooing away a fly. "Carl Chadwick has served his purpose. He had three different chances at a redemption arc over the past several years, but unfortunately he chose to decline them."

Jeff perked up. "So, you're not gonna be re-signing him?" 

The only thing that would be better would be hearing that Carly had been traded to Ottawa for a box of stale protein bars.

Joan pondered this for a moment. "Not re-signing him... is one way of putting it, yes."

Jeff decided he would be happier not knowing any more than that.

"I'll pass on using the favor just now. But if I wanted to, could I–"

"No, you can't use it to win the Cup next season. I can meddle with some things, but I know better than to get involved with that."

"Damn." Oh, well. Anyhow, it would have felt like cheating. 

At least that's what he told himself, because he didn't want to think about what could cause Joan to look nervous, even if it was only for a microsecond.

Instead, he thought about Joan's suggestion, and about his 'circumstances' as a souvenir of Mom's thesis research. And what he knew about stories, and his affinity for them.

And then he decided he wasn't going to think about that any more.

"So there's two reasons you brought me here, and wow, I'm glad to hear that one of those reasons is because I'm a damned good player. But there's got to be a third reason, right?"

This was the part that really scared him.

"I'm part of Kent's story, aren't I?" 

Joan hesitated for a moment, studying him carefully. Then she nodded.

Jeff had read enough stories and seen enough movies to know how this kind of story could end. "You know about, um..."

"About him and Jack Laurent Zimmermann? Yes. You are correct in identifying Kent as being a crucial part of that particular story."

Which meant that he was probably correct about something else. "So you know that Zimmermann was Kent's first love. And that they had a big-ass dramatic falling out after the draft and all that shit."

And then, Kent had tried twice to reconnect with Zimmermann, only to be brutally rejected. And now, a third attempt was in the works. It would take a while to get there, but it was chugging inevitably down the tracks.

"And the third time's the charm, right? Right?" His bitter laughter was on the edge of shouting, but he didn't care. "Is that why I'm here? Am I supposed to be the fucking 'other guy' who gets kicked to the curb because everyone is rooting for the childhood sweethearts to get back together? Is that all this is? Is that why you say you 'owe' me a favor? Is it because I fell in love for real and now I'm just supposed to sit here and just get my heart broken because of some fucking bullshit rom-com ending?!"

He wasn't sure what kind of reaction he expected from her. Pity, maybe. Or malicious glee. Or worst of all, clinical apathy.

What he wasn't expecting was a dramatic eye-roll and an exasperated, "Oh, please... You're acting as if being able to see 'backstage' means that you've forfeited free will. You do have choices, you know. Or have you already forgotten what I've told you about Mr. Chadwick? Or all the times you made choices of your own rather than go with the narrative flow?"

Then, she tapped the side of her finger against her lips as she thought something over, eyes flickering to the side as she scanned and dismissed several different options.

"If you wanted," she said slowly, "you could figure out for yourself how to see how Mr. Parson fits into the Zimmermann story. Or rather, how his story fits into a story that is a part of someone else's story. Or you could use that favor to skip to the end, as it were. Or an end, because things can always change."

Jeff thought it over. And then he thought some more.

He thought about his favorite Shakespeare play, and about wacky hijinks and shenanigans. And about how a down on his luck goon was declared Most Valuable Player over people like Kent and Tavares and Benn and Bergeron.

And about all of those goddamn weddings. And the look on Kent's face when Britney and Anthem Elvis sang that duet. Or Cheeto's, when he got an exclusive advance copy of a book by one of his favorite authors.

Or about how Zimmermann and his boy both looked so goddamned happy at center ice. Or about how Carly got his comeuppance and then some.

He also thought about the story he chose to tell Kent at the awards ceremony, and how the same basic story could become two very different ones depending on how you chose to tell it.

A story about a closeted high-school dropout from rural Alberta could go one way. Or, it could go another.

He remembered Mom talking about how if you thought about it, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing were basically the same play, but one ended in death and destruction and the other ended in reconciliation and weddings and dancing long into the night.

Kent could have chosen to keep lashing out at people when he was hurt and to cling to a past love rather than doing the hard work of learning how to move on and how to overcome his own bouts of self-sabotage. 

As for Jeff, he could have chosen to stay safely silent when Carly was being an ass. 

Or not have been there at all.

If things had been different, if they had made different choices, Kent might now still be wallowing in fear and heartache and loneliness instead of trying to explain to Tracie why he chose to cuss out a reporter and why he did not deserve to be fed candy-coated insects or worse.

"You brought me here so Kent had a better chance of changing his story, didn't you? And he was always going to be your first choice in the draft, wasn't he? And he knows he was."

Joan smiled, broad and bright, and for a moment, it was hard to believe that anyone could ever be scared of her. 

"I really do prefer comedies to tragedies," she said, laughing kindly. "Bringing you here didn't guarantee a happy ending and the righting of wrongs, but it did significantly increase the odds. And here in Vegas, as you know, we are all about odds."

"So that's why you owe me one, eh?" 

Yes, he had been taken away from his home against his will and thrown into the craziness that was Kent Parson's story, but now that he had the opportunity to remove himself and go back to Edmonton, he didn't want to.

"Yes. And have you decided what to do with the favor?"

He grinned, genuinely if a bit shakily. "I think I'll save it for when I really need it." Something about a game in Philadelphia a few years down the line tickled the back of his mind. "Y'know, I actually like stories that have a few loose ends—the kind that that make it clear that things continue long beyond the end of the story. That make the world a bigger place. That keep the story going and going in your mind after the last page. Y'know?"

"I do know. So what are you going to do now?"

It wasn't surprising that right then he heard Kent's voice from down the hall as he alternated attempts to charm Tracie with outright desperate pleading.

"Right now? What I'm going to do now is go rescue my boyfriend. I hope Tracie didn't try to feed him bugs or something."

Joan seemed more amused by this than she should be, and said 'you'll see' before Jeff could even think of asking her what was funny.

He gave a short wave in farewell and thanks as he left.

Kent left Tracie's office at just the right time to crash into Jeff's arms. 

"My hero," he said desperately. "That... could have gone better."

"Please tell me she didn't volunteer you to demonstrate how insects can be a valuable alternate source of protein."

Kent shuddered. "No. I got off with a warning—this time—but she's found something really nasty for my Taste Test Challenge. You'll never believe what it is."

"Try me."

They headed back down the hallway. They didn't dare put arms over shoulders or around waists, but their shoulders bumped and their hands brushed together as they walked. It was almost, but not quite, like holding hands. 

One day... Jeff thought.

"Well, she had this Christmas tin of cookies. Old cookies. German cookies. And the tin was all beat up and shit." She said Coach Crane found it at the bottom of a stairwell. In a hotel. In Boston."

Jeff stopped. His memory played him a clip of the CLANG-clunk-clang-clang-clang of a tin of stale cookies bouncing its way down ten flights of stairs after being drop-kicked.

And then he started laughing. And laughing.

Kent tossed up his hands. "I know! Can you fucking believe it!"

Jeff was hunched over, hands on knees as he tried to make himself stop laughing (especially as his laughter had turned into wheezing giggles).

"Actually, I can believe it," he said once he could speak.

Only this city... Only this team...

He straightened up and reached out to brush his fingers against Kent's lips. It was a brief touch, feather-light, but Kent's cheeks reddened and his eyes darkened. "I remember when you brought those cookies to my room. And you know what?"

"What?" Kent asked breathlessly.

Only this man...

"I think that's when I started falling in love with you."

If Jeff thought Kent's happiness at the All-Star Game and at the awards ceremony was overwhelming, it was nothing compared to what he saw now.

Chapter Text

MAY, 2018

On May 28, the Aces hosted Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Falconers. The game kicked off with the usual Vegas-style fanfare, which was a tad bittersweet given that Elvis had announced he would be retiring at the end of the season and moving to Hawaii.

The Aces won Game One, but it was a nail-biter the whole way, with one team pulling ahead and then the other team catching up a few minutes later. They only avoided going into overtime because Tweety got a wild shot in over Snow's glove with two seconds left in the third period.

It was going to be one hell of a series.

* * *

Of course, a few die-hard reporters had been working to re-ignite the Parson-Zimmermann drama since the start of the conference finals, even though the odds had been split on the Providence-Tampa matchup and Winnipeg wasn't just going to roll over and hand a victory to the heavily favored Aces, either. 

When the Aces took the Jets out in five games and the Falcs forced Tampa to game seven, the press went into overdrive. They spoke about ultimate showdowns of ultimate destiny. They speculated about past romance now that everyone was aware of Zimmermann's 'proclivities,' and about the impact bitter feuds with homoerotic overtones would have in the locker room, etc. etc. 

Jeff had come to the conclusion that with all of the pearl-clutching about what went on in locker rooms, certain commentators had watched a lot of bad porn.

He and Kenny talked about it with Zimms when they Skyped to wish him luck in the final game against Tampa (and maybe trash talk the Falcs just a little).

Kenny rolled his eyes at the latest nonsense Zimms had faced from a Tampa reporter. "Do you think we should maybe tell them we kissed and made up–"

"There better not have been kissing," Jeff snarled. He gave Kenny's hand a squeeze to let him know it was just chirping. It was hard not to be a little wary of a friendly ex who looked like Zimmermann (not to mention a little resentful that his Body Issue was irrevocably Off Limits before it even hit the printing press). But after getting to know the guy, it was pretty obvious that as a couple, he and Kenny would have been a complete disaster no matter how much they cared about each other.

"Fine. There was no kissing. Maybe we should tell them that we reconciled like, well over a year ago? And that Jeff and I spent the holidays with you and your folks?" 

Zimms gave that weird little spoken laugh of his. "Nah. It's more fun this way." Somewhere in the background, Bittle shouted something Jeff couldn't quite make out. "Oh! Before I forget, Bittle made some raspberry jam and wanted to know if you two wanted us to send you a case."

Jeff barely restrained himself from crawling through the screen. He hoped his incoherent noises got properly translated as a 'yes, please.'

In truth, the only real rivalry going on between Kenny and Zimms these days was to see who could do a better job of pissing off reporters who thought they were being clever with their oblique questions about Kenny's sexuality and presumed past involvement with Zimms.

Most of the press knew better by now, but there were still a few dinosaurs out there in prime broadcast spots who thought there was something scandalous and strange about the existence of queer people in the NHL. 

These people, Kenny had declared, needed to be taught a lesson.

Zimms was a master at meeting sly innuendo with a blank stare and one-word answers that left even the most persistent interviewers seething in frustration. Kenny couldn't get away with pretending to be a hockey robot, but he could turn questions right back around on the asker in all kinds of creatively horrible ways.  

During the final game between Providence and Tampa, things got so bad with the sports media jonesing for a Parson-Zimmermann showdown you could tell some of the commentators were rooting for Tampa to lose.

"There's part of me that wishes they would just fucking stop, but..." Kenny gestured towards the TV, and an intermission interview with Zimms. Instead of asking about how the Falcs were coping with the Lightning's relentless offense or anything else related to what was now one of the most bitter rivalries in the Eastern Conference, Jeff's least favorite commentator who wasn't Don Cherry kept digging into Zimms' history with Kenny, and even tossed in some snide questions about Bittle's Netflix deal.

Unfortunately for Asshole McGee, Zimms' bland and innocently unhelpful responses had him turning red from his neckline to his receding hairline. Eventually, the red shifted to a shade of purple dark enough to prompt dozens of cardiologists to call the arena EMTs in alarm.

Jeff tightened the arm around Kenny's shoulders in a brief, reassuring hug. 

"I know, I know... It's fun to watch them squirm, eh?" 

The commentator turned back to the camera, signing off brusquely. Behind him, but still very much on camera, Jack smiled a subtle, evil smile that soon became the base of one of Tweety's more popular reaction GIFs.

Even the most obnoxious commentators finally gave up after that, or instead targeted the handful of active and retired players who had come out in the two years since the Big Damn Kiss.

Jeff wondered how long it would take the press to figure out that the publicly out players were a mere fraction of the queer players in the NHL and other leagues. He also wondered how many closeted players there were who hadn't chosen to reach out to Zimms or one of the other players who'd come out in the past two years. 

Anyhow, things were changing, and it was easy to tell where and how fast by what teams certain people were eager to be traded to or from, and by some of the otherwise bizarre moves and deals in 2017's free agent frenzy.

A decent number of teams actually practiced what their star players had preached in various You Can Play videos, to Jeff's pleasant surprise.

On the other hand, most of the teams you would expect to be total dumpster fires, sadly, were. So were a few (Seattle? Really???) you wouldn't have expected to be quite so ragingly toxic.

And then there was Houston—Houston!—who had openly and enthusiastically claimed the title of 'queerest team in the NHL,' with just over half of the out players in the NHL on their active roster. Three Aeros had come out as gay (one of whom also revealed he had married his childhood sweetheart in July of '15 with over half the team at the wedding), one as bi, and one as non-binary/pan. 

And those were just the Aeros who were publicly out.

The Aeros' Pride Night that season was a spectacle that was only rivaled by Vegas at its best. Or worst, depending on your taste.

Behind the scenes (mostly via group chats and a private message board), the network of NHL and AHL players, coaches, and support staff was slowly and inevitably building. Also, according to the Aeros' Jönsson, a similar network was now flourishing in the Swedish Hockey League. 

Some of the people posting on the message board planned to come out sooner rather than later, with off-season being a popular definition of 'sooner.' Others were waiting for retirement or unrestricted free agency or some other personal milestone. Of course, 'winning the Cup' was a popular milestone, thanks to Zimms.

Then there were those who were staying put in the closet. Too many had family or citizenship situations that made coming out a bad, bad, bad idea for the foreseeable future. Some were still stuck on teams where it just wasn't safe to appear anything other than completely straight. And then there were those who simply felt no need or desire to come out to the broader public, regardless of circumstance. 

Every situation was different, but everyone was glad of a place where they didn't have to hide and where they could talk to other people who just got it, even if that's not what they were talking about. 

And for the few who just popped in for a quick 'hello' on the message board and then faded into the background, it seemed that just knowing such a place existed was a comfort in and of itself.

As for Jeff and Kenny, they both planned on coming out that summer regardless of how the Aces' Cup run ended.  If they did win (knock on wood), Jeff had a suspicion that Kenny would do his best to one-up the way Zimms had come out two years ago.

Jeff was all for it.

True, kissing another man at center ice was no longer news. But for two players to kiss each other?

That would be news.

So far, no other players had come out as dating other players, even in the privacy of the group chat, but if Levesque and Jönsson on the Aeros would just finally get their fucking act together and stop being so freaking oblivious already oh my god you'd think half of hockey Tumblr posting 'evidence' about how you were secretly married would give you two pining IDIOTS a fucking clue-by-four upside your stupid empty heads...

Anyhow.

The point was, two players dating would raise more than a few eyebrows, especially if they were on the same team.

But Jeff and Kenny had something else in mind that would have ten times the WTF points with the media.

* * * 

The morning after their Game One win over the Falcs, Jeff and Kenny stopped by the Aces' offices half an hour before practice.

Joan greeted them with a raised eyebrow that had Kenny nervously scoping out the exits but that Jeff returned with a raised eyebrow of his own. She pointed with her fountain pen at the whiteboard, where the DAYS SINCE OUR LAST INCIDENT had already been reset to zero.

Well, it had been a hell of a game last night.

"I won't bother announcing you," she informed them coolly. "According to Bert it has been, and I quote, 'like Grand Central Station in here' this morning."

Jeff made a mental note to ask Bert who had gotten hitched, so they could dig out the Welcome to the Ex-Husband''s''' Club for the last time the apostrophe is after the S you assholes sign if need be.

Bert greeted them with the usual look of exasperation and pulled a packet of papers off of the sizable pile he had prepared.

"Actually, we don't need that," Kenny said in the voice of a man who would be cherishing the memory of the next few moments for years and years to come.

Bert paused, blinking at them in a way that made him look even more like an owl than usual. "If you two are here to report another act of petty theft or property destruction, then I suggest you turn around and leave this office before I do something you'll regret."

"Actually, this may be a kind of a novelty for you, but this time, you get to hear about a wedding before it happens," Kenny said.

"Ah. Well, congratulations. I can't say this is much of a surprise. But if you are planning to get married, then perhaps Human Resources would be the better–"

"And we wanted to invite you. Since you had to deal with the fallout of our other weddings," Jeff said.

"Third time's the charm!" Kenny said brightly.

Bert blinked again, his expression turning a complicated sort of surprised. "That... Well, to be honest, I'm rather... touched." He cleared his throat a few times before he could speak again. "I would... I would be honored to attend. Yes." Another throat-clearing. "Honored. When is the wedding?"

"Uh, tonight?"

Another blink. "Come again?" 

"Yeah. By my pool," Kenny said. "Elvis said he'd officiate and everything."

Bert still looked dubious.

"Eric Bittle is at the house right now, baking the wedding cake. Chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing and a whipped cream and raspberry filling. There'll also be mini-pies," Jeff said, bringing out the big guns. Bittle had a reputation in the NHL.

Bert made a show of checking his computer. "Hmm. Amazingly, my calendar for the evening seems to be clear. You can count on my attendance."

On the way out, they stopped to invite Joan as well. Jeff hadn't shared the full story of just who (or what) Joan was with Kenny, but it wasn't his story to tell. Still, Kenny had agreed that not inviting her would be a potentially lethal faux pas.

She accepted the invitation graciously, and promised to stay discreetly off to the side so she wouldn't frighten the other guests overly much. She also said she was looking forward to finally trying Bittle's baking for herself, even though neither of them had said anything to her about who was making their wedding cake.

"Are you sure you're okay with your mom not being able to make it down?" Kenny asked as they headed to the locker room. There was no need for them to stop for the sign after all. Nutsy had texted them to say he had already taken care of putting up the sign for the three people being welcomed to the club today. Four, if you counted the Falcs' Snow (Nutsy had already arranged for Robinson to take care of glitter duties in the visitors' locker room). 

"Yeah. As long as we go visit her for at least a week this summer, Mom's fine with not celebrating on the day itself. Just be prepared to be drilled about your thoughts on when we plan to have children," Jeff said dryly.

Kenny laughed like he was supposed to, but it didn't hide the thoughtful expression or sudden contemplative mood.

Weirdly enough, Jeff found he wasn't dreading the usual nagging as much as he thought he would.

* * * 

The wedding itself was super-casual, with guests from both the Falconers and the Aces. There were also a few random plus-ones who hadn't even blinked at being asked to sign NDAs before being let in because, hey, Vegas.

The grooms, both wearing their nicest jeans and matching button-down shirts, were dressed up compared to most of the other guests, some of whom were already wearing swimsuits in anticipation of the pool party to follow. The exceptions were, of course, Alicia Zimmermann (because she was Alicia Zimmermann), Eric Bittle (because he probably would have spontaneously combusted if forced to attend a wedding without wearing a bowtie), and Joan.

Anthem Elvis, as officiant, had opted for a vintage bowling shirt, black and red in honor of the Aces.

Above and around them, the sky swirled with the jewel-bright colors of a desert sunset, colors which paled in comparison to Kenny's eyes, which were all colors and every color and so, so full of love.

Later, Jeff wouldn't remember if he even waited before the vows were finished before he kissed his new husband. As the applause and wolf-whistles died down, a few whispered conversations rose above the noise.

Sweetpea, do you think maybe we... 

Елена, ты выйдешь за...

My dear, would you do me the great honor...

Bobby, it is our thirtieth anniversary next month, after all...

Fortunately, Anthem Elvis had come prepared with a stack of blank marriage certificates. Just in case.

After all, this was a comedy. And if comedies were traditionally supposed to end with a wedding, then why not end with a whole slew of weddings?

Zimms and Bittle got hitched, of course. So did Booger and Yelena. No surprises there.

Cheeto didn't get married, because his girlfriend couldn't make it into town until next week, but he did get engaged via FaceTime, so it sort of counted.

Tweety married a lovely young woman he had met while signing autographs after last night's win. He seemed a little unsure as to whether her name was Wanda or Wendy (it was Beth) but Jeff had a good feeling about those two crazy kids.

Bert and Joan got married, which was much less surprising than one might have assumed.

Scrappy didn't marry anyone, but was about ready to burst with happiness even so. 

Bob and Alicia took the opportunity to renew their wedding vows, and so did Nutsy and Kirsten. 

Snow and Mashkov also renewed their vows, although a shade less than twenty-four hours didn't seem like a long enough time to warrant a renewal, especially since no one on the Falcs had even suspected they were dating. (Zimms looked especially startled, but Bittle just patted his arm and gave him a gentle and knowing bless your heart, sweetpea.)

Everyone assumed Trigger and Yoon-hee renewed their vows as well, but it turned out they actually got married, having somehow never managed to get around to it even after eight years and two kids (and one on the way).

Once the weddings were out of the way, the party got started.

Of course, a lot of the chatter centered around the weddings that had just occurred. 

Jeff and Snow both spent more time than maybe they should have gloating over the fact that no matter which team won (it would be the Aces, dammit—Jeff wanted his name on the Cup already), there would be a married couple locking lips at center ice.

Snow also told him that Kenny and Mashkov mostly buried the hatchet regarding whatever had happened after their accidental marriage, but had made a bet over some sort of debt between them. If the Aces won the Cup, Mashkov would forgive the debt in full. If the Falconers won, Kent would owe Mashkov twice the original debt. 

Given how serious the whole thing sounded, Jeff was scared to ask just how much money was involved.

When Nutsy butted in so he and Snow could talk goalie shit (mainly trash talking the Lightning and the Jets), Jeff went in search of his husband and found him by the poolside with Zimms and Bittle.

Kenny scooted as far as he could to one side of the lounge chair so Jeff could squeeze in there with him. "How are you going to break the news to your mom that you eloped? Or are you?" he asked Bittle.

Bittle shrugged and took a sip of his piña colada. He had ditched the bowtie in favor of short shorts and a crop top, and was now sitting on the edge of the pool next to Zimms, lazily kicking his feet in the water. "Oh, I already texted Mama to let her know." 

Zimms turned an interesting shade of pale, but Bittle just reached over and patted his knee. 

"I wasn't even a tiny bit worried, sweetpea. Mama always said she thought the idea of running away and getting married in Vegas by Elvis sounded all kinds of romantic. She already texted back to tell us congratulations and that as long as we don't tell Moomaw and we let her throw a proper reception with all the frills for us later, she's fine." 

Then, he gave a smile that was worthy of Joan at her most terrifying, and said in an icicle-laden voice, "Plus maybe now we'll be able to stay in the same damn room when we visit on the Fourth."

"It's not like that stopped us before, bud."

"It's the dang principle of the thing," Bittle said with the kind of testy but affectionate patience that went with old, comfortable arguments. "I'm a grown man, and I shouldn't have to sneak around like some teenager and dear lord, what is Bogrov doing over there? He– Oh! Oh my..."

Kenny surged to his feet. "God damn it! Booger! Yelena! We just shocked the pool, you assholes!"

Jeff, Zimms, and Bittle laughed as Kenny rushed off to stop the newlyweds from desecrating the pool any further.

"Of course, given why we needed to shock the pool the other day, it's kind of hypocritical for him to give them shit," Jeff pointed out as he watched the histrionics.

Bittle hmm'd in agreement around his straw and discreetly pulled his feet back out of the pool.

Zimms smiled and pulled his new husband to him in a sideways hug. "Well, they are newlyweds. I have to say I wasn't expecting to end up getting married by an Elvis impersonator tonight, but I'm glad we did." He looked over to where Elvis and Mashkov were caught up in some kind of pie eating contest. "He's an interesting guy."

"Yeah," Jeff said wistfully. "It's not going to be the same without him next year. We're gonna miss him."

Bittle nodded. "Well, it sounds like he feels much the same about y'all. When he came over to compliment me on my peanut butter and banana pie—I still can't believe he said it was the best he's ever had!—well, anyhow, he also told me that doing the music for y'all's games has been the most fun he's had since he faked his own death back in the seventies."

Jeff blinked and Zimms gave that two-syllable laugh of his, and before they could do anything else besides exchange wide-eyed are you going to say it or am I looks, Kenny and Booger came back, faces grim, with Alicia right beside them and visibly worried.

"Oh, dear..." Bittle said.

"We may have a slight problem," Alicia said gently. "I was putting the marriage certificates where they wouldn't get anything spilled on them, and I noticed this."

She held out one of the certificates. Jeff said something family-unfriendly. Zimms groaned and slapped himself in the forehead. Bittle gasped and his hand flew to his mouth.

Unfortunately, in addition to being known for weddings, comedies were also known for wacky and unexpected hijinks. 

"I would say this has got to be a joke, but nothing around here is a joke!" Jeff ranted. "I shouldn't be surprised, I know I shouldn't, but are you fucking KIDDING ME?!"

Somehow, with all of the backing and forthing and signing this and witnessing that, Jeff had wound up getting married to Zimms, Kenny was now married to Yelena, and Bittle was married to Booger.

Bob and Alicia dithered about what they should do, Cheeto and Scrappy were laughing their asses off, Nutsy was calculating fines, and Trigger was talking to someone who could actually help.

Fortunately, Bert had come prepared with a stack of annulment forms, and Joan had her notary stamp in her purse. 

Just in case.

"You won't be able to re-marry tonight, of course," Bert said as he double checked to make sure that those who should have signed in yellow highlights didn't sign in the blue ones and vice-versa, and that the correct incorrect spouses had been correctly matched before handing the forms off to Joan. "You should, however, be able to re-conduct the weddings immediately before or immediately after tomorrow's game. Elvis, I assume you would be available and willing to officiate?"

Elvis held up a finger to let them know to wait until he finished swallowing the remains of his fifth peanut butter and banana mini-pie. "Uh-huh-huh," he crooned.

Joan gave Jeff a look that said he knew exactly what he was wondering, and that if he was a smart man, he would keep those wonderings to himself.

"Well, that's settled then!" Kenny clapped his hands together for emphasis. "Everyone get to the arena an hour early tomorrow, and we'll git 'er done! Meanwhile, we all said our vows, kissed our spouses or did even more than that, Booger you horny bastard, so let the partying resume!"

"But not too much," Jeff warned the others. "We've got a game to win tomorrow. Uh, so on second thought, all you Falcs? Feel free to drink yourselves blind!"

The proclamation was greeted with cheers, jeers, and a few wadded up napkins thrown in Jeff's general direction.

It would be an early night, and not just because of the game. People had new, renewed, or soon-to-be spouses to canoodle with.

Nutsy had brought his karaoke machine, and Elvis was more than happy to do a rendition of 'Can't Help Falling in Love With You' to help mellow the mood.

Jeff, Kenny, Booger, and Yelena took everything well enough in stride. They'd lived in Vegas long enough not to be fazed by a few errant marriage certificates. It was just paperwork, after all. On the other hand, Zimms and Bittle both seemed a little disheartened by the evening's events. They were doing their best to put a brave face on it, though.

"At least we've got a good story, eh, bud?" Zimms said, giving Bittle a sideways hug-shake. "And tomorrow, we'll get married for real. Third time's the charm, right?"

Bittle gave his not-quite-husband a sweet, loving smile that shifted into something a lot more dangerous as he did some basic math.

"Third time? What aren't you telling me, sweetpea?"

Jeff would swear he heard Zimms' circuitry frying. "Euh..."

"Jaaaack..."

Kenny had to bury his face in Jeff's shoulder to stifle his laughter. Jeff didn't even bother, and neither did Bob. Halfway through Zimms' stammered explanation, Bittle was laughing as well, although there was a sharpness to his laugh that suggested that some poor bastard named 'Poots' had better sleep with one eye open for a good long time.

"I still can't believe we married the wrong people!" Kenny said, voice shaky from laughing so much. "But it's just so typical, isn't it?"

It was typical. Typical and strange and weirdly wonderful.

"That's Vegas for you, eh?"

God, he loved this town.

Around them, as the sky grew dark and Jeff's beloved city lit the horizon like eternal dawn, couples swayed together in tight embraces, Elvis sang, and the Falcs' Fitzgerald tried to escape over the fence before anyone noticed him.

"You said it, muffin."

He wouldn't wake up with a hangover tomorrow, because waking up with a hangover was the worst, especially if you were about to play Game Two of the Stanley Cup Finals.

But he would wake up in his own home in his own bed next to the man he loved more than anything in the world, and that?

That was the best.