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The Las Vegas Aces finished at the top of the Western Conference standings, just being pipped to the post by the Washington Capitals for the President’s Trophy. As a result, as the top team in their Division and as the top team in the West, they secured home ice advantage for every single round of the Western Conference playoff games. Kent never underestimates the effect that home ice has on him, his team, and their ability to play the best hockey they can.

 

So to lose on home ice, battered and broken, as the San Jose Sharks celebrate… it hurts. It hurts so much more than his broken finger, his bruised ribs and his tired muscles can even begin to pain him.

 

They were only able to pull one game from the Sharks, Game 2, and had happily headed to San Jose with the split. But, as the team had strapped up various injuries and headed onto the ice to fight for the next round, Kent could feel the pain of the blood pounding behind each of his bruises, and could feel the fatigue of the previous rounds catching up to him.

 

It was more than the visible loss of weight from his frame, it was more than the friction rash caused by now too-loose pads, it was a bone-deep tiredness that would take time to recover from.

 

So now, as Kent heads out to salute the fans, screaming their support for the Aces circling at centre ice, Kent appreciates what he has. A supposedly non-hockey town, a non-traditional market, and a group of fans that have fought for their team through thick and thin. This is his home, he knows the faces, despite the blur of the safety glass. He’s their captain, he’s brought them the cup before, and he will bring it to them again.

 

He catches Murf stumbling as they head across the ice, and Kent feels the ache of his muscles as he supports him towards the tunnel. Kent may be sore, but Murf is really hurt, so Kent doesn’t begrudge the helping hand that he gives his Alternate and friend. They’ve played long and hard, fought to get here, and were found to be lacking. It’ll take some time to recover from, but Kent is willing to try.

 

Kent gets ready to start healing before the next season. Before hockey returns.

 

---

 

Kent knows he’s supposed to be sympathetic to Murf, with his bruised face and strapped and booted ankle, but it’s difficult to do so when he’s sprawled across Kent’s sofa, laughing fit to burst at Kent trying to catch Kit.

 

Kit’s just managed to snatch a piece of salmon sashimi from one of the sushi platters they’d ordered that evening, and the images of the vomiting that had followed the last time that she’d swiped a piece flash before Kent’s eyes. He dives across the coffee table in an instant, knocking half the (thankfully all sealed) food containers and beer bottles to the floor, yelping as he bumps his broken finger in the process, in an attempt to get a hand on Kit before she makes off with her prize.

 

He finally catches Kit by the scruff of her neck and triumphantly retrieves the piece of fish, holding it aloft, only to realise that Murf isn’t paying attention and is back to watching the second period of the Eastern Conference Finals, beer open in hand.

 

He sets Kit gently to the ground, and puts the salmon in his cat-proofed pedal bin. Incensed at losing her morsel, Kit whaps him in the leg with her tail before she stalks off to his bedroom, undoubtedly to shed all over his wardrobe again.

 

“Got it,” Kent says as he sits down, reaching with his left hand for one of the undisturbed bottles of beer.

 

Murf grunts absentmindedly, watching as Hagelin is called for hooking on Ostrovsky and the Falcs go on the power play. He takes a swig of beer and comments, “No one at the awards would thank you if you let her have it, you’d smell like cat sick for weeks. I mean… more so than normal.”

 

Kent makes an offended face, which Murf catches a glimpse of before choking on his beer, coughing more as he tries to clear his lungs whilst laughing. “It wasn’t that bad!” Kent insists.

 

Murf picks at the beer label as he giggles and says, “Yes it was! Mitch begged me to swap rooms with him because of it, he said he couldn’t get it out of his nostrils for the rest of the roadie.”

 

Kent’s mouth drops open, “You pair of polite Canadian bastards, why didn’t you say?”

 

Murf shrugs, “I didn’t mind, I’ve had cats at home, and Mitch didn’t want to explain to you that he’d actually checked to make sure you’d been showering.” Murf pauses. “He didn’t answer when I asked whether he’d sniff tested your bag though.”

 

Kent swigs his beer, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, “You pair of fuckers, I swear.” He clicks his tongue before continuing, “And I bought that excuse about the rookies having a problem, thinking you were both living up to the A, jesus.”

 

Murf winks at him, reaching over to open a tub of chicken teriyaki and picking up some chopsticks, “You were always the gullible one, Parser, ever since you got here. S’why you’re not allowed into the casinos.”

 

---

 

Kent wakes up to Kit on his chest, kneading into his t-shirt and purring. He wipes at his eyes and rolls his tongue around his mouth, feeling the fuzziness of his couple of beers, despite having his brushed his teeth before bed the previous night.

 

Kit chirrups at him, pausing in her kneading. If he doesn’t get up, he might end up with her butt in his face again. “Fine, fine!” He mutters, nudging her down off his chest as he begins to sit up, reaching over to turn off his alarm with his fumbling left hand.

 

He heads into the kitchen, feeding Kit first before she attempts to kill him by tripping again, and sets coffee brewing, all to the soft, familiar sound of Murf snoring from the pull-out sofa bed.

 

While the coffee brews, Kent rakes through the fridge to pull something from the remains of last night’s Japanese to eat.  He pops a tub of miso soup into the microwave and waits to catch it before the alarm goes off, making sure he doesn’t disturb Murf.

 

He stirs the soup and then steps out with it onto his apartment balcony, watching in the dawn light as Las Vegas wakes, shocked and surprised by the new day. He feels heavy, sore, and still too tired. The Falcs forced Game 7 yesterday, and Kent has a long day ahead of him: breakdown, interviews and locker clean outs.

 

He can already feel the weight of his kit bag on his shoulder, the weight signifying the summer ahead.

 

The miso tastes funny when it’s reheated, and the spring onions have gone soggy, but it’s enough to take the edge off of his hunger. He tips the polystyrene tub back and taps it to get the last of the tofu from the bottom, before turning from the balcony and stepping back into his living room. He can smell the brewed coffee, and he can’t wait for a cup.

 

Murf is passed out, face down on the bed. He hasn’t got a pillow, thrown away during the night, so Kent presumes he’s gonna wake with a sore neck to go with his sore everything else. Kit gives Kent a soft meow from her sitting position on Murf’s butt.

 

Kent points at her and says, “Alts aren’t perches for you, Kit.”

 

Murf softly murmurs, “S’fine.” Before raising himself onto his elbows, rotating his neck and yawning. “Coffee?” He asks, hopefully, untangling himself from the sheets and petting Kit absently as he gets up from the bed.

 

“Yep, gonna make eggs too. You in? With toast?” Kent asks.

 

Murf roots around in his bag, pulling out a change of clothes, before realising he’s been asked a question and responding, “Wha? Oh, yes, please. Gonna shower first though.”

 

Murf is back just as Kent is plating up the eggs, and Kent nods at the coffee already poured at the breakfast bar. Kent brings the plates over as Murf groans appreciatively at the first sip, and proceeds to cut a sad, still fuzzy, Canadian figure, perched precariously on a spindly chair.

 

Kent takes a mouthful of eggs, chewing carefully, before asking, “Not that I want you gone, the couch is yours, but what are your timescales like?”

 

Murf’s mouth thins, and he looks sadly into his coffee before saying, “Kay’s going today, she should all be packed and moved by the time I’m finished at the rink.”

 

“Fuck,” Kent mutters, then says louder, “I didn’t realise it was that close.”

 

“Yeah,” Murf says sadly, “I was hoping that we’d go to six so there would be a chance for the dust to settle before I ended up back at the house.”

 

Kent shakes his head, “My apartment is yours for as long as you need it, you know that? I’ll be here for a few weeks at least.” He pauses, then states, “You never need to ask.”

 

Murf gives him a soft, tired smile, “Ever the captain, eh?” he asks, before taking a mouthful of toast, chewing and saying, “I’m gonna go back to the house late this afternoon. I’ll pack a bag, then head back to Vancouver ASAP. Mom’s expecting me.”

 

Parse sips his coffee, and then asks, “D’you want a hand, d’you want me to come with?”

 

Murf licks his lips, then shakes his head, rubbing hard at his eyes, “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer Parser… but you’ve seen me cry often enough over the last few months. I want to just take stock right now, on my own.”

 

Kent just shrugs, “Offer will always be there, whenever you need it.”

 

Murf just gives him a soft grin, then goes back to eating, hunched over, body and mind sore.

 

---

 

Kent doesn’t try to give the media much in-season, playing the typical captain’s role, a media trained, cookie-cutter display represented across the league, no matter the team. And it’s usually easy. The media take the placid answers, dutifully upload videos to twitter of a sweating post-game or post-practice Parson, blinking in the glare of the harsh lights.

 

But in the post-season, after breakdown?

 

The sharks start circling.

 

One of the AHL call-ups laughed at the metaphor this year, wryly amused by the fact that they got eliminated by the Sharks.

 

Kent wasn’t laughing.

 

The in-house media knows most of the injury data and wouldn’t press too hard, would let the players dictate the storyline they wanted to tell. But the external media isn’t like that, they smell blood. And, with Parse’s obviously strapped hand, and Murf’s heavily booted foot, it was easy to see that the Aces offense had been crippled. It was easy to see where the finger was going to be pointed.

 

And Kent will take it. He’ll take the brunt of the blame, he’ll shoulder the questions, and he’ll compliment the Sharks and defend his teammates. He’s their captain, and he’ll do anything in his power to help them move forward, move past this. Move towards next season, and hopefully a better run next year.

 

So he sits beside his tied-up sticks and gear bag, cap on backwards and eyes low to hide from the glare. He knows he cuts a wan figure, tired and broken, but if that’s what they need… that’s what they’ll get. He confirms recovery periods, how he’s going to be training that summer, and doesn’t give into speculation over how the team feel about the loss, given their in-season record against the Sharks.

 

As if Parse or the press haven’t heard of hot teams in the playoffs, as if the Aces haven’t been that hot team several years in a row. As if in-season results from October are going to be indicative of the result at the end.

 

The as-ifs and what-ifs are dragged out, out of him and tied up into long-winded answers, media formulated with platitudes, condolences and apologies. Kent just wants it to be over, answers a re-phrased question again, appearing to mull over the answer to buy himself more time, eke out the time before media is over. He can feel himself relax a little as Tash calls for the last two questions, anticipating the freedom he really needs.

 

He shakes the hands of three of the reporters afterwards, wishes them a good summer. They’ve always given him a good chance, haven’t tried to shiv him in the lung much over the last six weeks, and genuinely seem to enjoy the experience of having hockey in Vegas to write about. So Kent tries to show his appreciation back.

 

The locker room is mostly empty now, Kent’s interviews having taken the longest, and there are only a few guys milling about. Murf waved goodbye a few moments ago, and Kent completely missed Mitch after breakdown, so Kent begins to gather his stuff before he hears a shout of “Cap!”

 

Mikko is trotting over to Kent, the facial bruises he sustained from the semi-finals have turned a nice brown and yellow, spread across his pale face. Kent notes that his eyes look a little wet, his nose a little too red, and idly wonders if Tash got the name of journalist who almost made the rookie goalie cry. “Mick, what’s up kiddo?” He asks, “You okay?”

 

Mikko sniffs a little, but nods. “I’m okay, it’s just hard. I tried hard, so I think I shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it. Some people don’t like that.” He says, shrugging ruefully. “They also don’t like that I pretend to have bad English and don’t understand if I don’t like a question.”

 

Kent smiles and reaches up to clap the tall, young goalie on the shoulder, and says, “Quite the baptism of fire, eh?”

 

Mikko nods, and starts talking excitedly. “I’ve got a lot to work on this summer, it’s given me something to work on, and a goal for next year. My coach in Espoo has tape for me already, and I can’t wait to get started.”

 

Kent shakes his head, snorting a laugh, and murmurs, “Jesus, Mick. Slow down. You’ve got time, you’re only 20.”

 

Flushing, Mikko stammers over an answer, “… sorry Cap, I… just. Really want to try.”

 

Kent nods, understanding the need to push, to try and prove yourself. “Don’t burn yourself out, you’ve got time.” He says firmly. “You’ve proven you can play, you just need to build on that. And you don’t do that by pushing yourself to your limits, by going too fast.”

 

Nodding eagerly at Kent’s words, Mikko then jumps, obviously remembering why he came over, and says, “Smitty wanted a word?”

 

Kent nods, leaving his bags to walk over with Mikko to the goalie alcove where Smitty is still sitting, head in his hands. Mikko quietly grabs his bags, and waves at Kent before he leaves, Kent waves back before sitting down beside the starting goalie. “Hey, Mitts?” Kent says softly. “You okay?”

 

He lifts his head slowly, running a hand through his hair, and Kent can see the pain in his eyes. Smitty got injured in the first round, pulling something in his groin, which put 20-year-old Mikko out in his first ever NHL playoffs. When Mikko got injured in the WCF, Smitty pushed himself hard to get back on the ice, to play again, and was obviously now suffering. “Yeah,” he says softly, smiling at Kent, “little goalies, Parse. Can’t keep up sometimes, he’ll be taking my place soon.”

 

Kent makes a face at him, before bumping their shoulders together, “I know I’m biased, but I hope you’ve got a little longer in you yet. I’d miss you, you’re like part of the furniture.” He says brightly.

 

Smitty snorts, commenting, “Yeah, the weirdo, battered old armchair in the corner.” They laughs gleefully at Kent’s offended expression, before saying, “You’d be the pissy house cat, convinced he rules all.”

 

“And don’t you forget it.” Kent says imperiously, drawing himself up.

 

He lets Smitty chuckle for a moment, before asking, “Mitts, what’s up? What do you need?”

 

Smitty looks at him seriously, holding his gaze, and Kent feels a little tendril of worry work its way up his throat and Smitty softly says, “Kenny?”

 

“Mitts, what wrong?” Kent asks, worry morphing to real fear now. Smitty is one of the few people who uses that nickname, one of the few who know how much it affects him, knows the history behind it. Trades and retirements flash before his eyes, and he’s now afraid of what Smitty might say to him. Afraid for the Aces losing their starting goalie, sure. But fear for losing one of the players Kent started his career in Vegas with, fear for Kent losing one of his closest friends. He feels a lump begin to form in his throat.

 

“Kenny...” Smitty says again, before pausing, then bashfully saying, “I need a ride, I came by cab, I can’t walk.”

 

Kent, predictably, explodes. “You absolute FUCKER.” He roars, relief and offence coursing through him.

 

---

 

Smitty and Kent sit in Kent’s parked truck, gear loaded in the back and air conditioning turned up high. Kent’s still pretending that he’s angry with Smitty, muttering and glowering as best he can as they were leaving the arena, and Smitty acts suitably repentant.

 

Smitty, as a peace offering, pays for a box of doughnuts and iced coffee for the both of them, and doesn’t even blink when Kent takes the Boston cream that Kent knows is his favourite.

 

Once they’ve polished off two doughnuts apiece, Smitty slurps his coffee and pops it down in his cup holder and stretches out his lanky frame as much as the car will allow him. He yawns massively, and then turns his head towards Kent.

 

“Still not forgiven.” Kent mutters, chewing on his straw.

 

Smitty smiles widely, gleefully. “I wanted to ask for something, but I may have sabotaged the mood.”

 

“What could you possibly need, since you’ve already ripped my heart out today?” Kent attempts to mutter darkly. He ruins it by getting the straw stuck in his teeth, and has to tug it free. “Ow.” He says, pouting at Smitty.

 

Smitty is still smiling, looking more relaxed than he’d been in weeks, and his licks his lips and says, “I’m going to ask Maddy to marry me.”

 

Kent throws an arm in the air, and exclaims, “Fucking... finally! It’s only been five years!” Kent pops his coffee down, and leans over to hug Smitty, “Congratulations, I’m so happy for you. I really love weddings.”

 

Smitty grips a hand in the back of Kent’s t-shirt, and sighs happily. “I know.” He then asks, “I wanted to ask you, it seemed appropriate, will you be my best man?”

 

Kent sits back in his seat, breathlessly happy, “Of course, I’d love to.”

 

“Good,” Smitty says, settling down and picking at a thread on his shorts, before continuing, “It’s in August.”

 

“TWO months time?” Kent exclaims.

 

Smitty smirks, “It’ll be near Duluth.”

 

Kent glares at Smitty, “MINNESOTA?”

 

Smitty smiles, “You could pretend it’s not Minnesota?”

 

Kent shakes his head and starts tapping the steering wheel, before picking up his coffee again and muttering, “I hate Minnesota.”

 

Smitty reaches for another doughnut, and says, “I’ve told you before Parser, it’s all in your head.”

 

“I’m pretty sure I haven’t just imagined Minnesota, Smitty.”

 

---

 

If you’d asked Kent several years ago which of his two Alternates he’d see married-with-kids first, he wouldn’t have answered with Mitch. He would’ve put money on Murf and Kay, which is another example of why he should never be allowed to gamble.

 

He’s a good Alternate, a dab hand with rookies, likes socialising and talking to others, and so fosters communications within the team well. Especially if they involve beer. But beyond that?

 

Kent remembers teaching him how to do washing as a rookie far too well. He had to do it several times, before he just wrote the instructions down and taped them to the cupboard. The hulking great defence prospect, defeated by laundry.

 

But here he is, married three years, and holding his twins of almost-two carefully, one on each hip, as he answers the door to Kent. The two girls squeal at the sight of him, a small, peeping chorus of “Ken! Ken!”, accompanied by several sticky hands reaching for him.

 

“Alright, alright!” Kent says as he hustles through the door. “I’ve got bags, so I can’t hug yet, you’ll have to get me later.” But he steps closer, and kisses Angie and Andie, before touching foreheads with Mitch in lieu of a hug.

 

Mitch steps back, and turns away from Kent, leading his way down the hall towards the back of the house. “Bro greeting aside, I’ll properly hug you if you remembered to bring that ice, we’re all out already. The party is drinking us dry.”

 

---

 

The party isn’t a usual Aces summer beer-and-a-BBQ affair, the ice is for children’s fruit juice, and the smell of sunscreen and sound of screams and splashes from the pool fill the air. This is the last party for the children before the off-season, the joint birthday party for all the summer babies born to hockey dads, the last chance for the kids to see their schoolmates before everyone slips off to the four corners of the world for four months.

 

And Kent is here as the honorary Uncle, master of the barbeque, and so-dubbed “gatekeeper of the sausages”.

 

(Mitch and Terri find this one particularly funny, and refuse to explain to the older children why Kent is waggling his eyebrows at Mitch over it.)

 

And Mitch hovers close all afternoon, keeps his water glass topped up, periodically hands him sunscreen to apply again, and fetches the pretentious craft beers Kent had brought with him whenever he asks. The day isn’t calm at all, it’s definitely joyfully, happily loud.

 

Kent gets crowded to a chair to eat something in the late afternoon. It’s mainly the older children left now, the younger kids having been herded home, and the twins are having a short nap upstairs. So Mitch sits beside him, makes small talk, allows Kent to fill in the gaps as he pleases, and they enjoy each other’s company.

 

There’s a lull in the conversation, Mitch is tapping at his beer, and is obviously working himself up to saying something. Kent just helps himself to some more apple salad, and waits.

 

“So…” Mitch begins awkwardly, before clearing his throat and saying, more conversation casual now, “I hear Zimmermann is making it to the awards this year.”

 

Kent chews slowly, before saying, “I’d hope so, he’s up for the Calder.”

 

Mitch picks at the label of his beer, and Kent can see where this is going, just as Mitch asks, “Murf said that the two of you are having dinner the night before?”

 

Kent says, “Yep.” Before taking another forkful of salad, chewing slowly.

 

“I… I was just wondering if you wanted to talk about it?” Mitch asks softly.

 

Kent shakes his head in disbelief. “I mean, we can talk about it if you want, but there’s nothing to tell.”

 

Mitch raises an eyebrow, sounding sarcastic as he replies, “Yeah, because there’s nothing to tell about your relationship with Zimms.”

 

Kent points his fork at Mitch, saying, “He’ll get freaked out if you ever call him Zimms to his face, just a warning.”

 

“Kent,” says Mitch, chidingly.

 

Kent puts his cutlery down, and sighs, “There really isn’t anything to say. Really.” Kent shrugs. “We are just going for dinner, as friends.”

 

“Friends?” Mitch asks, looking less uncomfortable now that Kent is talking. “Are you really trying to convince yourself that this is all this is, with your history together?”

 

Kent swigs back the last of his beer, and then licks his lips. “Yeah, we have history. Yeah, we were teenagers together, teenagers with very little understanding of the way we were tying ourselves in knots. The way we were hurting each other.

 

“But behind all that? Before all that?” Kent asks, “We were friends, close friends, and…” Kent takes a shaky breath, blinking back emotion and trying to stabilise himself. “And while we can’t fix what’s gone before, we can try for friends again. It’ll be worth trying for.”

 

“For that, and nothing else?”

 

Kent shakes his head, tapping his fingers against his beer bottle again. He thinks back to summers past, to being together through the haze of stress and alcohol, the pain and joy of being in love with Jack, of loving Jack, and feeling loved back, and he says honestly, “It’s in the past. I don’t want him like that anymore, and neither of us would want each other like that again.” He puts his beer bottle down on the table, and raises a hand to wipe at his eyes. “We’ve grown up enough to at least recognise that.”