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Everyone likes Parser.

That’s what they all say, when asked, and they are asked, constantly, all of the time, because the NHL sure does like its social media sound bites.

And it’s true. They do all like Parser. He’s kind of a weirdo, sure, but he’s funny as hell, good-natured and always down for a game of slap cup or two, and he plays hockey like the game itself is the only thing keeping him breathing.

No one’s kidding themselves here; a team is a team is a team but they wouldn’t have lifted thirty-five pounds worth of the only trophy that really matters without him.

Every last one of them earned their place on this team, earned their right to be here through blood, sweat and sheer fucking determination but Kent Parson has always had Hall of Famer written all over him: he’s a legend walking amongst the living.

But when push comes to shove, well – there’s always been something a little distant about Parser. Like for all these years, playing and partying and hitting the road together, there’s still a wall there, like a quiet little KEEP OUT sign that everyone knows is there but no one ever asks about.

Corner any Ace when he’s good and drunk enough to speak a little more honestly and he’d probably say something like this:

Yeah, sure, I love Parser, he’s the best, he’s our captain, you know – but yeah, I don’t know, sometimes I feel like I don’t know him all that well, eh?

But it’s probably just in my head or something.

.

The Aces beat the Bruins in OT 3-2 to seal their third Stanley Cup win in a matter of years, and the entire fucking hockey world lets out a simultaneous whoop of either pure unadulterated joy or some mixture of happiness and schadenfreude that works just as well.

Parser scores the winner because of fucking course he does, that beaut, and for a precarious few minutes, he’s nothing more than a few strands of blonde hair barely visible beneath an on-ice mob of black and red.

It all kind of falls apart, after that, a steady stream of jumping and dancing and singing and lifting the Cup with a Tarzan-like yell, and finally, as it starts to wind down and it really starts to sink in on them, just as Banks finds himself in the middle of a conga line with some rookies belting out Queen, there’s an absolute clusterfuck of an explosion of noise coming from the media box.

“What’s all that about, you think?” Dickers says, nearly losing his balance mid-conga. The funny thing about Dickers is, he’s such a kid, so young and wide-eyed for all that he’s a giant lumberjack of a d-man, complete with that funny Wisconsin accent of his. Banks digs on that; he’s a goalie, he guesses he’s always liked the oddballs best. Birds of a feather and all that.

“Maybe Parser’s finally gone and insulted Don Cherry’s suit?” Banks cracks, slinging an arm around Dickers’s broad shoulders and shaking him from side-to-side.

“It’s about time somebody did,” someone shouts out from the front of the conga line. Jeff, probably.

Banks tracks his gaze back to the media box, watching the swell of people grow and the buzz get even louder, but his hearing’s never been the same since that one bad check against the Redwings a couple years back, when his left ear got slammed straight into the boards at breakneck speed, and he can only really make out snatches of the conversations filtering through. The one thing that cycles back over and over again is just, Kent Parson, Kent Parson, Kent Parson.

“Hey!” Jeff shouts out. “Parser just flew the fucking coop.”

“What?” rings out across the ice.

“He just fucking took off,” Jeff says, turning to the rest of them with a baffled frown, the Stanley Cup still lodged on top of his broad shoulders. “What the fuck, man?”

“But,” Dickers says, turning to Banks, “but we won?”

.

It’s a total fucking nightmare for an hour after that, with Banks and Dickers having to fight their way through a crowd of heaving people, following the trail of what can only be described as some kind of media carnage to find out what the hell happened.

They hear shit, of course they do, but they’re not going to fucking believe shit until they hear it straight from their captain’s mouth.

Except Parser really is nowhere to be found, so they get the news when their assistant GM, looking thin-lipped and harried, hands over an iPad in the locker room, with a 20-minute old YouTube video that already has hundreds of thousands of hits opened up and ready to load.

The questions start out alright – in the video, Parser is bright-eyed and flushed with victory, with a smile that stretches wide across his face and dumb, messy playoffs hair falling all over his face. Banks lets out a snort, remembering how he’d leaned over and ruffled Parser’s hair before the game, making the usual crack about how it made him look like a kid, and Parser had scowled, and muttered a half-hearted "fuck you" under his breath. Standard Parson.

The beginning of the video is standard Parson, too. He delivers his answers with the usual low-level humor that’s half appreciative and half chirping, saying shit like “we couldn’t have done it without Banks, of course, who I’ve always said is less like a human man and more like a brick wall with a scraggly beard” and “the rookies really turned out for us today, you know, you have to give credit where credit is due,” which then gets a huge whoop out of Dickers in the back.

They can tell when it starts going downhill, though, when a journalist from Boston, who’s maybe a little bit too sore from his hometown loss, opens his mouth and starts in on the personal questions, and it’s the kind of shit that everyone can agree has no place in a fucking hockey rink.

“You’ve got a reputation for being a bit of a party boy, Parson – do you have a special lady out there that you’ll be celebrating with?”

Parser shakes his head, but exhaustion is creeping in on the edges of that well-honed media smile. It’s not the first time Parser’s gotten questions like this – it annoys the media, always has, how he lives and breathes Las Vegas and still manages to fly under the radar, always scandal-free. Everyone wants to know if there’s dirt hiding under there somewhere, or if he really is that fucking clean. Banks rolls his eyes; even they’re as sick of it as Parser is by this point.

“Well, my baby sister’s in the stands, I’m going to go find her after this and give her a hug, does that count?”

The journalist laughs, and even through the tinny speakers of the iPad, they can hear how it comes out mean. “You’re not a teenager anymore, Parson, sooner or later that kind of answer stops being cute.”

Banks can see the exact moment when Parser’s shoulders straighten and the smile drops from his face, and there’s no ease there anymore, all of the humor’s been washed out of his face. It’s funny because in all the years he’s known Kent Parson, Banks has never known him to so completely drop his cool, not in front of the cameras.

“Actually, there’s never going to be a special lady because – “ Parser pauses, giving a small, barely perceptible headshake, a pained expression that Banks doesn’t know how to put a name to crossing his face. “Because I’m gay.”

Here, the YouTube video reaches its end, going grey and then pulling up a selection of further viewing, which is mostly just Kent Parson best of highlight reels.

The locker room is dead silent until Jeff lets out a quiet, fierce, “what the fuck,” and even then, it echoes in the stillness.

.

It was always kind of a joke, right.

Kent Parson, you know, he’s kind of a picky jerk, eh? He’ll dance with girls in clubs and maybe he’ll kiss them once or twice, but then he always walks away, pays his bar tab and asks for the valet to get his car, and goes home alone. Waves off questions and ducks hordes of women that are all but throwing themselves at him because why the fuck wouldn’t they, and it was an easy thing to assume, that maybe he was just kind of an asshole about it, that his standards were too high. Kent Parson, yeah, I guess maybe he thinks a little too highly of himself.

Kent Parson in a club packed full of girls? Man, fuck that guy.

Banks can’t say that kind of shit, though, not in an interview, and there are so, so many interviews, and all of them ask about Kent Parson, every single time.

“Did you know? Was it obvious? Did you at least suspect, even a little bit?”

But the truth is this: they didn’t know. It wasn’t obvious. They didn’t suspect, not even a little.

And that, that right there, that’s the thing that nags at Banks all the way through the off-season.

Banks was twenty-one, a couple of seasons settled in and just starting to get used to the dry, too-hot winters of Las Vegas, when Kent Parson went first in the draft to the Aces. He’ll always remember that day, how he’d whistled real low, leaning over and clinking his beer against a friend’s, and said, “that kid’s a hotshot in the making, mark my words, bro.”

He took that kid under his wing; he was the one who bought Parser a beer or five the night he got his first goal as a rookie. Maybe they don’t hang out all the time, not the way some guys do, but yeah, they’ve got a handful of good inside jokes that never fail to make Banks shake with laughter.

If Banks was to make a list of the people on the team he liked best, Kent Parson always would’ve been right near the top.

And he had no fucking clue.

.

Deadspin starts up a running series: “Where in the World is Kent Parson?”

He’s spotted a couple of times around his vacation home in the Catskills with his sister. He does a Reddit AMA a couple of weeks after the Aces win the Stanley Cup, and answers every single damn question except for the ones on his coming out. On his day with the Cup, he uploads a photo to Instagram of him with the Cup in what looks like a bar, and everyone runs circles around themselves trying to figure out if it’s a gay bar or not, before eventually admitting defeat and accepting that with the lighting as dim as it was, it was just too hard to tell.

And that’s it.

No one can figure out where the hell this kid is, although running guesses within the hockey community currently include screwing closeted soccer players in Ibiza and going on some fuck-off spiritual backpacking journey through the Himalayas.

Which is why it’s such a surprise when, on the tail end of the summer, crawling their way into September, Banks spots Kent Parson walking out one of the back hallways of the Aces Arena.

“Hey! Parser!”

Parser stops and turns around; he’s got Ray Bans on and an Aces snapback pulled on the right way forwards, and even then, the guarded expression on his face can be seen from miles away.

“Hey, Banks. What’s up?”

Banks shrugs. The truth is, it’s sort of a weird superstition thing. He’s been doing it ever since the season after his rookie year, giving the whole arena a thorough walkthrough before anyone else gets back, for luck.

As far as rituals go, it’s done alright by him so far.

“Just bumming around. You know, thought I’d see if anyone was hanging around yet. What are you up to?” Banks says, all too aware of how forced casual he’s being right now, but also not really knowing how to make himself stop.

“I, uh – I had a meeting with the brass,” Parser says. “But it’s over now, I was thinking I’d go and grab something to eat.”

Banks goes cold, all the way through, and for once, he can’t even blame it on the Aces Arena’s hyper vigilant air conditioning because it hadn’t occurred to him until right this second that this could be an actual problem, that Parson could’ve really gotten himself into trouble with the brass. “Everything okay, man?”

Parser sweeps off his cap, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah, no – yeah, it’s cool. It’s fine. The PR team wants to murder me but it’s not like I’ve ever given them trouble before, you know?”

“Instead, you gave them five years’ worth of it all at once, like a fuckin’ Stanley Cup Miracle. You know, most people believe in a little thing called moderation, Parser,” Banks says, relieved when he’s rewarded with the smallest uptick in Parser’s smile, and a huff of amusement.

Most people don’t have three Stanley Cup Championship rings, Banks.”

“And four consecutive Art Ross wins,” Banks says, agreeably, but he lets his voice slip into a posh, fake English accent as he says it, just enough so that Parser knows how completely full of shit he is. “You absolute fucker. You want to get some tacos?”

“Yeah,” Parser says, slipping his hat back on. “Yeah, alright. Let’s go get some tacos.”

Twenty minutes later, they’re seated in a little hole in the wall taqueria a couple of blocks north of the Arena, settled in with a line of pork tacos and a couple of Coronas. Parser has shed the snapback and pushed his sunglasses on top of his head and without them, he almost looks back to normal, if not for the line of tension clearly visible in his shoulders.

“So, where’ve you been, kid?”

“The Himalayas,” Parser says, with a completely straight face as he takes a sip of his beer.

“Fuck off,” Banks says. “Ibiza not really your style, huh?”

Parser laughs, rolling the beer bottle between his palms. “Why go all the way to Ibiza when I live in Las Vegas?”

Banks leans over and clinks the neck of his beer bottle against Parser’s because, well, point. “Okay, but really. Where’ve you been?”

“Montreal,” Parser says, before taking a pointed bite of his taco so he doesn’t have to talk anymore.

Banks lets him sit it out for a few minutes as they eat in silence but like a dog with a bone, he picks it up again as soon as their baskets are empty, and he’s not sure why, really, except that all of a sudden, he can’t stand how little he knows about this guy he’s always considered a friend.

“So, what’s in Montreal?”

“Poutine, mostly,” Parser says, like an asshole. He drains his beer and asks the waitress for another one with a quick flash of that charming media smile of his.

Banks just grunts.

“Also, my best friend and his father’s private rink in the suburbs,” Parser relents.

Huh. The Zimmermanns. That should’ve been a little more obvious, maybe – everyone and their mother knows that Parson has history with the Zimmermann kid, and Banks shifts in his seat, suddenly all too aware that there might be a little more to that history than any of them had ever realized. Jesus, what a mess.

“How is Bad Bob?”

Parser shrugs. “He’s good. He’s the same, you know.”

“No, I don’t know, asshole – not everyone is on casual speaking terms with Bad Bob Zimmermann.”

Parser just raises an eyebrow. “He’s got the same bad taste in action movies as me and routinely sneaks ice cream in the middle of the night, how’s that?”

“Horrifying,” Banks says. “No one should have the same shitty taste in movies as you.”

Parser makes a quiet little humph sound, running one finger through the condensation on his second beer. “It was good. Zimms and I haven’t spent that kind of time together in years. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t driving each other a little nuts by the end of it, though – if you catch me saying ‘eh’ or quoting World War II documentaries, feel free to put me out of my misery.”

“World War II documentaries?” Banks asks, a little incredulous. Sure, the kid went to some fancy Ivy League college, but somehow, that still doesn’t quite add up with the mental image of Jack Zimmermann created by the media’s Lindsay Lohan-esque meltdown coverage.

“Yep,” Parser confirms. “World War II documentaries. What a fucking nerd,” and there’s such a naked fondness in his voice that it takes Banks by surprise. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard Kent Parson talk about anyone that way; it’s unnerving as fuck.

Banks clears his throat. “Good thing we didn’t go to college, huh?”

This time, Parser is the one to lean over and clink his beer bottle against Banks’s.

“Amen to that, man.”

.

The start to pre-season training is – awkward, probably, is the only way to really put it. No one wants to ask any questions but everyone has questions they want to ask, which mostly just leaves the air in the locker room tense with an unspoken annoyance.

Parser is the first one there and the last to leave, every time, and he approaches every practice like it’s a fucking playoffs game, like he has something to prove, which is just fucking stupid no matter which way you look at it – he can play hockey, they all know how well he can play hockey. They’d have to be fucking blind to think otherwise.

And then there’s the thing with Dickers.

Dickers, who’s been trying to play a game of “Get the Captain to Open Up More” ever since his first day with the Aces, and who’s only managed to doggedly pick up the pace with this one-man game of his ever since pre-season training started.

Dickers, who is sweet and well intentioned and very slowly, very visibly getting on Kent Parson’s last nerve.

”Hey Parser – so, I was watching Glee last night – “

”Hey Parser – did you know that How I Met Your Mother is on Netflix? Jesus, Neil Patrick Harris is funny as hell – “

”Hey Parser – so, I was watching Ellen the other day…”

Today, it’s: “hey, Parser – I was thinking of checking out that show, Looking, have you watched that?”

Today, Parser finally cracks.

He slams his gear down with a thud and turns to Dickers, pissiness written into every inch of his face. “Okay, Dickers. I get it, alright? I get it. You’re down with the rainbow.”

The whole locker room goes dead silent, like some sort of bizarre mirror image of three months ago, until Jeff lets out a loud, high pitched cackle and then the rest of them fall like dominoes, and within minutes, the whole locker room is echoing their hysteria.

Parser just shakes his head, reaching up a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “You guys are assholes.”

Banks slings an arm around Parser’s shoulders. “Lighten up, eh? You’re our captain, not an exasperated babysitter.”

“Exasperated babysitter with no chill, maybe,” Jeff mutters, and it just sets everyone off again, only getting worse when Parser picks up his elbow pads and throws them at Jeff’s face.

Five minutes later, their assistant GM walks right in, takes one look at them, falling all over each other like total fucking lunatics, and walks right out.

.

Pre-season turns into the start of the season, finally, and the Aces settle into their usual groove. They play good hockey; they’ve always played fucking good hockey and they’ve got the silverware to prove it, but it’s a good feeling, still, that they can come right back again after so much has happened and get back into it.

Parser pretty much just goes out of his way to be as uncooperative as possible when asked about his personal life, and after a while, it’s kind of become a thing. They all know to expect it – the fun part is trying to figure out what he’s going to say next.

Last week, he told an ESPN journalist that “Megan Rapinoe and Robbie Rogers asked me to join the Gay Blonde Sports Mafia – I’d tell you more but then I’d have to kill you,” and then smirked right into the journalist’s blank face before walking away.

Dickers lost his shit at that one, and then proceeded to pull out his phone and follow both Megan Rapinoe and Robbie Rogers on Twitter, because some things just do not change, and well-meaning gestures from nineteen-year-old D-men from Wisconsin are one of those things.

Mostly, though – mostly, they just play fucking good hockey.

They’re the motherfucking Las Vegas Aces: it’s what they do best.

.

The club is dark, crowded – the thumping bass cuts right through the whole lot of them, and the VIP lounge is full to the brim with a whole lot of people that aren’t quite VIP but are definitely doing their best to pretend that they belong there. Banks can taste whisky on the back of his tongue, and it has him feeling a little loose, a little bit like he could keep on drinking more just to see where it takes him.

Why the fuck not, right? They won.

“Is it just me or are there a lot of dudes here tonight,” Jeff says, all but shouting it into Banks’s ear for all that they’re seated next to each other in this slippery, black leather back booth, a bottle of champagne left open on the table in front of them.

Banks looks around, giving the club a once over. “It’s not just you. There are a lot of dudes here tonight. Where the fuck is Parser?”

Jeff laughs, lifting up his hand so Banks can see it and making the universal gesture for jacking off. “In a dark corner, hopefully.”

Except, when Banks lifts his head to see over the line of the crowd, he sees a familiar blonde head making its way towards the exit.

“Bro, he’s taking off.”

Jeff just turns and gives Banks an incredulous stare, but mostly he just looks fucking cross-eyed, with a tie wrapped around his head that got put there somewhere around whisky shot number four. “What the fuck, man. That’s bullshit, go get him.”

Banks heaves himself up from the booth, winding his way through the crowd, past the bar and into the vestibule, pushing open the heavy, black door into the dry November night. Parser’s standing at the curb, both hands shoved inside his jean pockets, waiting for the valet to bring his car around.

“Dude, I know you’re not taking off early right now,” Banks says, walking up beside Parser and knocking shoulders with him.

Parser huffs and knocks right back. “Not feeling it tonight, man. Next time, maybe.”

“Parser. Dude. There are like – there are a lot of guys in that club, and I’m telling you one thing, they’re sure as fuck not in there for fucking Timmers or Jeff. What gives?”

Parser opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, before giving that small, annoyed headshake that Banks has come to associate with “Kent Parson Doesn’t Like To Talk About His Big Gay Feelings.” He’s also annoyingly sober, to boot, which is just fucking tragic.

“I’ve had my fair share of anonymous hookups, Banks,” Parser says, after a minute. “How the fuck do you think I got laid over the years? I guess I’m just – I’m kinda done with it. It’s not as fun as you think it is.”

“Does this have anything to do with – “ Bank starts but he doesn’t get to finish his sentence, doesn’t even get out the Z for Zimmermann, before Parser’s got his hand clapped over Banks’s mouth.

“Banks, what the fuck. We’re in public, shit for brains.”

“Sorry,” Banks mumbles into Parser’s palm, smirking when Parser pulls his hand away with a disgusted face. “But does it?”

Parser wipes his hand off on his jeans, rolling his eyes. “No, it doesn’t. That’s not a thing anymore.”

“But you do want a boyfriend,” Banks says, dropping his voice into a put-upon coo. It’s not quite as good as his fake English accent but it’ll annoy Parser just as much. “Captain, are you a romaaaaaaaantic?”

Parser sighs. “How haven’t I killed all of you yet?”

“Maybe because you looooove us,” Banks says, dragging out the vowels.

The valet pulls up with Parser’s car and Parser tips him with a smile, before turning back to Banks and promptly flipping him off. Across the parking lot, there’s the distinctive flash of a camera. Banks guesses that that one’ll make the papers at some point. He also guesses that he doesn’t give a fuck, and neither does Parser.

“Whatever, Banks,” Parser says, sliding into the front seat of his Cabriolet. “Have a good night. Don’t let Dickers get into the tequila, you’ll have to peel his crying ass from the sticky club floor.”

Banks fake swoons and presses his hand over his heart. “My, my, the captain really does care. And a hopeless romantic too! What a pal. What a catch.”

Parser just flips him off again and drives away.

.

“Dude. Dude,” Jeff hisses, sticking his elbow into Banks’s gut. “Dude, are you fucking seeing this?”

“Yes, Jeff, I’m fucking seeing this,” Banks says. “We are standing in the same place and looking in the same fucking direction.”

This, this is – well.

Let’s backtrack.

The Aces PR department has, over the past few months, demonstrated a pretty hilariously vicious streak with all of the shit they’ve been making Parser do in his spare time as payback for leaving them so publicly in the lurch. Charity galas? Check. Movie premieres? Check.

Tonight’s art gallery exhibition? Fucking hilarious. Check.

What the fuck does Kent Parson know about art? Fucking nothing, that’s what. When pressed, he’ll admit that the last time he took time out of his day to go see art was when he went to Paris a couple of years ago during the off-season and his sister made him go with her to the Louvre.

So, of course they were going to go with him. Of course they were going to get all dressed up and follow him around, putting on bad accents and ooh-ing and ahh-ing at each other like they knew what the fuck they were talking about.

For the better part of the first hour, it was every bit as hilarious as they dreamed it to be. Parser had to swat Jeff’s hand away from touching the sculptures no less than ten times and at one point, Dickers tried to blend in by hiding behind a decorative plant, as if Kent Parson wouldn’t recognize his six-foot-one broad as a barn d-man in a tux from behind a plastic plant.

It was hilarious right up until Jeff, in the middle of a very exaggerated chirp, swung his arm around and knocked down a photography display that was suspended from the ceiling by thin wires. Then it got even funnier, as Parser turned bright red and had to start explaining to the gallery curator that not only would he pay for the damages but also he’s pretty sure that Jeff is an alien child who shouldn’t be allowed outside amongst the human adults, and it absolutely won’t happen again.

And then the artist showed up.

The artist, a guy in his mid-twenties with a couple of inches on Parser and hipster glasses and a wide, embarrassed smile, and Jesus fucking Christ on a cracker, who knew the captain had game?

“I feel like I’m watching an Animal Planet special here or something,” Jeff mutters. “What’s happening? Am I hallucinating?”

Across the room, Parser laughs and leans forward, handing over his phone and from this angle, they can see how his fingers press lightly into the inside of the artist’s wrists, earning him a flush and a dimpled-smile.

“This fucker,” Banks breathes out. “What a beaut.”

“Should we be watching this,” Dickers asks nervously. “I feel like we shouldn’t be watching this. It’s like – bro code, right?”

“Bo code, uhuh,” Jeff says, lifting up his phone to snap a quick photo. “Whatever, Timmers has got to see this shit. He’s not going to believe it.”

The photo gets immediately shared to a group WhatsApp titled FIND PARSER LOVE, and Jeff’s phone proceeds to blow up for the rest of the night with chirps, jokes and more emojis than any group of people should really go about using.

Banks is pretty sure that Jeff will go to his grave insisting that: a) it was totally fucking worth it and b) he should get all the credit.

.

The Aces rec room is packed all the way through and littered with beer cans on just about every surface because training today was more about fucking around and taking a break, and now that it’s over, they accidentally found themselves falling into a spontaneous ping-pong tournament.

It’s a fun thing that they do sometimes – not all of them, usually, and not always, but sometimes when training is over, a couple of guys will drift to the rec room and spend the next few hours tooling around and playing ping-pong.

“I’ve got ten bucks on Timmers,” Parser says, handing Banks a beer and then lifting himself up onto the counter next to him.

“No way, man, have you seen Ginger’s backhand?”

Parser shrugs. “Not really. I guess I never really hung around the rec room that much.”

Banks nods before taking a deep swig of his beer, wincing at the thin, watery taste. Coors Light, man. Someone has to talk to the brass about finding a better beer sponsor.

“Nah, I guess you haven’t.”

Banks sneaks a sideways look at Parser. His hair is still wet from his post-practice shower but Banks already knows from experience that by the time it dries, it’ll be a hilarious mess just begging for a noogie or five. There’s also a very large, very visible hickey just above the neckline of Parser’s thin cotton t-shirt that he’s been fielding chirps over all day but he’s laughed about it every time, like he really doesn’t give a shit, but also a little like maybe he’s enjoying the chirps more than his pride will let on.

“What the fuck are you looking at, Banks?” Parser says, turning and poking Banks in the gut, like the asshole that he is, but there’s a slow, easy smile spread across his face that Banks isn’t used to seeing off the ice.

“Nothing,” Banks says, holding out his beer and clinking his can against Parser’s, even if it doesn’t make quite the same satisfying clang as a bottle would. “It’s just good to have you here, kid.”