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You're Under My Skin

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Part One

The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.
-Victor Hugo

 

Kent had never really properly understood what the word surreal meant until he stepped into the hotel room right off the Vegas strip, and the door closed behind him. All the casinos were built with heavy, sound-proof insulation to keep the noise out, to let their patrons rest.

On any normal day, Kent might have appreciated that.

He never would have assumed that total silence would feel like being locked in a coffin.

When he blinked, he saw flashes of images, like those old horror movies with the strobe lights, flashing blood and gore. Only instead of viscera and severed limbs it was an unconscious body on the bathroom floor. It was Jack’s eyes rolled up in his head, and his body quaking with a seizure. It was trying desperately to form words to a 911 operator.

“My...f-friend he’s...he took pills and he’s...something’s wrong...I d-don’t…”

It was the way Bob’s knees hit the floor and Alicia’s face went so pale she was grey when the doctors told them his heart had stopped twice. They were pretty sure they had Jack stable now. But only time would tell whether or not he would ever wake up again.

It was being told he couldn’t go back there and see him.

Kent blinked, and it was Jack.

It was always Jack.

He pulled his phone from his pocket, desperate for any communication. Five days since the overdose. Jack was in a rehab hospital somewhere while Kent’s face made the papers. A flash of light like those horrific memories, but these were all cameras in his face, asking how he felt going first in the draft. What were his plans for the future? Anything he wanted to say?

“I’m just excited to be here in Las Vegas.”

He swallowed down bile before smiling and finishing up with, “This is the greatest moment of my life.”

It should have been.

Kent walked to the window, pulling back the thick blackout curtains, and peered over the cityscape of his new home he was too young to exist in. Eighteen years old—alone, rich now, so fucking rich he could cry.

If he let himself, he could still hear the plink of coins on the Formica counters as his mom counted out what she hoped was enough change to buy a pack of hot dogs and a cheap can of chili for the night’s dinner.

Now he had enough money in his bank account to buy an entire super market worth of food. He’d never go hungry again. That thought made it feel like a tiny gremlin inside his stomach was trying to claw its way out. He didn’t realise his hands were shaking until he saw the curtain moving, and he stepped back, taking a breath.

For a moment, it felt like someone was sitting on his chest. He closed his eyes and for just a flash, he saw Jack straddling his ribs and smiling down at him right before he lowered his head and…

His phone buzzed. He glanced down and saw Sammy’s number on there. Licking his lips, he forced a smile and picked up. “Hey kid.”

“Shut up, I’m fourteen months younger than you.”

“You’re still in high school and I’m a professional athlete,” Kent chirped. He didn’t feel better, but he felt distracted, and that was something. “I’m basically like an entire generation older than you now.”

“You’re an idiot. When are you coming to visit?”

Kent sighed, flopping on the hotel bed, surprised at how much more comfortable it was than the shitty hotels they’d stayed at during Q roadies. He grabbed one of the pillows and dropped it over his face before answering her. “We have some time before pre-season shit. So pretty soon, I think.”

There was a pause. “Have you,” she started, then stopped.

She didn’t need to finish the sentence. He didn’t want her to. He had a feeling if someone said the name Jack Zimmermann in his presence he’d just start screaming and he didn’t think he’d be able to stop. “No. No word. Whatever. It’s fine.”

“Kay,” she said. Another pause. “I love you, asshole.”

He grinned into the fabric of the pillow to keep from crying. “I love you too, fuckface. Tell mom I’ll call her soon.”

“Okay. She wants to come help you pick an apartment anyway.”

Kent sighed. “Yeah. That’ll be…” He stopped, blinked again, saw Jack’s smiling face. Blinked again, saw Jack dying on the bathroom floor. “That’ll be great. See you soon.”

“Laterz.”

The line went dead, and Kent pushed the corner of his phone into his temple hard enough for the pain to startle him out of those thoughts. Rolling onto his side, he stared at his case near the door and knew he should probably change out of his suit. He’d been in it all day. For the draft, for press, for the long, never-ending dinner where he was too fucking young to drink in spite of desperately needing to vodka himself into oblivion.

His clothes seemed so far away, though. His limbs were heavy and useless.

He managed to shrug out of the jacket and tie, to unbutton half the shirt, to kick his trousers to the end of the bed. He wriggled under the covers, blindly slapping his hand against the lamp until it found the button to switch the light off. He fumbled for the remote, because he had exactly zero things to help him sleep, and if he tried to lay here in this silence any longer, he’d probably choke to death on the memories of it all.

The TV flared to life, some weird Fairy-Vampire hybrid show on HBO. He stared at the blonde with too-big eyes, and wondered if she really looked like that, or if he was losing it. He tucked his knees into his chest and whispered a prayer to whatever ancient, gnarled old god that might be listening. “Let that asshole be alive. Let him be alive. It was my fucking fault and you can take whatever the fuck you want from me, okay? Let me never love again, I don’t care. Just…don’t let him go. Not yet.”

He had no idea if there was any god out there, though, who might give a fuck. He’d grown up both Jewish and secular with his mom giving him a half-assed bar mitzvah, and they only ever went to Shul for Purim because Kent and Sammy liked dressing up and eating the shitty pizza they always served.

If there was a god, he probably wanted nothing to do with the hot fucking mess on the well worn mattress, on the top floor of the Venetian Hotel. But he was going to ask anyway, because the only way he was gonna do this—move on, play hockey, keep breathing—is if Jack did the same.

So he was gonna take his shot.

He closed his eyes as the girl on TV started to scream, and he found it a pretty fucking fit lullaby for his first night as an official NHL player.

***

“Get your shit together, Parse. Do not make me regret this decision.”

Kent clenched his jaw, nodding stoically. He was all-but guaranteed a spot in second line, if not the first. He was the winner of the Memorial Cup, for fuck’s sake. He went first in the draft. He should not be missing easy shots, he should not be fucking falling apart during training camp. He was embarrassing himself in front of the Aces captain and he could see himself getting booted down to the farm team if he couldn’t get his head out of his ass.

He gripped his stick so tightly through his gloves, his knuckles ached. He went for a one-handed backhand and sank it in, glove side. He could hear the cry of the rookie goalie as it barely grazed the top of his glove, and smacked the back of the net.

“That’s what the fuck I’m talking about. That is what I paid for,” his coach said.

Kent felt bile rising into his throat, but he managed a nod, and even a small grin at a couple of chirps shot his way. It was inevitable, he’d be singled out not only for his skill, but for the fact that Jack’s name had been blasted across ESPN for the last two weeks. Kent had no escape.

Everyone wanted to know why, how, what did he do to end up in rehab? Why wasn’t Bob saying anything? Why wasn’t Kent? Weren’t they together every step of the way in Juniors?

Kent couldn’t tell them every time he closed his eyes he saw a pale face, a seizing body, vomit and foam dribbling out of Jack’s mouth. He couldn’t tell them he was fairly sure Jack had died more than once on the trip into the hospital, and how he’d definitely died twice after being admitted. He didn’t want to talk about how Bob wasn’t saying anything because every time Bob opened his mouth, he could hear the doctor telling them all Jack’s heart had stopped, and they weren’t sure he’d wake up again.

Part of Kent thought maybe he could use a few pills to calm his ass down—because it was getting hard to focus. Then he blinked and saw Jack eating them like fucking tic-tacs and he wasn’t about to wash his NHL dream down the drain all because he couldn’t stop shaking.

He considered a therapist for half a second, until he heard the guys chirping in the locker room about the crazies and he couldn’t be one of them.

He had no room in his life for that.

He had to make it on his own.

“…listening to me, son?”

Kent blinked out of his thoughts, and saw James Karlsson—his captain, staring at him. James had been here for just about forever. He’d been caught up in the Expansion Draft, yanked to the Aces from the Leafs, but he didn’t seem too pissed about it. Here, he wore the C instead of the A, and even though he was probably getting close to retirement age, Karly was still scoring like he was getting paid millions to do it.

He was also pretty cool. He’d been asking after Kent since everything happened, and had been the only one whose lips hadn’t curved out, “So like…you know the Zimmermanns, right? What happened with that?”

The lies pouring out of his mouth stung like he was vomiting up acid every time he had to say, “No idea, man. Jack and I haven’t talked in a while.” What he wanted to do was grab them by the front of their jerseys and scream, “I called that fucker every day for two weeks and nothing. Now his number is changed, no one will respond to my calls, and the only reason I know he’s alive is the same as you—from ES-fucking-PN. I loved him. I loved him and only him, and this is all I’ve got.”

He said none of that. Ever. Except quietly into his pillow at night in that shitty hotel on the strip. The shitty hotel slowly eating a hole in his new salary, and part of him hoped he could just go back to being fucking broke and eating gas station ham sandwiches instead of sixty dollar a night lobster buffets.

Fuck.

“Sorry,” Kent finally said. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”

“You look like you’ve been getting dick for sleep since you got here, kid,” Karly said. “Insomnia or what? You miss your mom?”

For a second, Kent thought it was a chirp, but Karly’s tone seemed sincere. And maybe it was the hint of his accent throwing Kent off still but he wanted to take him at face-value because fuck, he just wanted someone to give a shit about him and not about Parse-and-Zimms.

“Uh. Yeah man, like…I never spent a lot of time with her anyway. But this is all really different. And you know…far.”

Karly snorted. “Yeah. You find a place yet?”

Kent shrugged. “I uh. Well. My mom and sis were actually gonna fly out and help me get an apartment. I’m still at the Venetian.”

“Jesus Christ, you’re not supposed to bankrupt yourself in the first two weeks, Parse.” Karly scrubbed a hand down his face. “Usually we get the rookies to room together, but the other one we got is on a delay.”

“Russian dude, right?” Kent asked, vaguely remembering a name. The guy had great stats in the KHL, was third in the draft but there’s been some shit with immigration, Kent thought.

“Mashkov,” Karly said. “They’re working on it. No idea when he’s going to be around though.” He hummed, then said, “Go pack your shit. I’ll call Elise, but she’s not gonna care.”

“Uh?” Kent said, frowning. “Care?”

“How do you feel about kids? Because my twins are four, and my oldest is nine and she’s okay most of the time, but it can be exhausting. They never let up, and they only stop talking when they’re asleep which is like...never.”

“I uh…” Kent was half sure what the guy was implying. “Wait, hang on. You want me to uh…”

“Finish a sentence, kid,” Karly said with a laugh, clapping Kent on the shoulder.

Kent blushed, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Are you like...inviting me to stay with you?” he managed to choke out.

“What kind of piece of shit captain would I be if I didn’t at least try to help. Seriously, living with kids okay? Think you can handle that?”

Kent, who really didn’t mind kids at all, tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. He nodded. “Yeah. Kids are cool.”

“You won’t think that for long,” Karly said and laughed, “but hold on to that while you still can. I’ll give you a ride today. And after that, we can figure your shit out. You’re what, eighteen?”

Kent shrugged. “Guess, yeah. I mean…yeah. I turn nineteen in July.”

“Jesus, fuck the NHL. Fucking leaving these kids out here, ass out in the wind. Fucking Christ,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out,” he repeated, and for the first time, Kent felt like maybe it was going to be alright.

***

It was a strange feeling—domestic in a way he hadn’t felt since Bob and Alicia let him stay on over summers in the Q. And it wasn’t that Kent felt uncomfortable with affectionate couples, but as he hadn’t understood it entirely with Bob and Alicia, he felt the same way about Karly and Elise.

He remembered sharply, trudging down the stairs at two in the morning—eyes bleary, hair fucked to hell—finding Bob and Alicia cooking up omelettes or whatever. Bob was always finding some way to touch her, to whisper in her ear. He’d crowd her against the sink, careful not to dislodge the glass of wine in her hand. He’d cup her face and whisper something that would make her blush. Then he’d kiss her, a soft push-pull of lips, fingers carding through her hair.

He looked at her with hearts in his eyes.

And it made him ache. Zimms never looked at him like that. Zimms looked at him like a ticking time bomb that he wanted to go off. Like he was terrified, but ready for everything to explode. When they kissed, it was desperate, just shy of hysterical. It was clacking teeth and biting lips, and hands shoved into the front of boxers trying to get there, and get there fast before someone found them out.

Kent had wondered then, at the soft age of seventeen, whether or not he’d ever have what Bob and Alicia did.

Now at eighteen, in the kitchen of two all-but strangers who were playfully chirping each other as they chopped veg for the dinner that night, he thought no. No, it wasn’t for him. He would never be worth that. He’d never be worth anything soft or sweet. Kent was rough-edged and sharp and damaged, and no one who could kiss with their heart in their mouth deserved to be ripped apart by the tsunami that was Kent Parson.

He smiled at them, though. At Elise who flitted round Kent like he was someone who needed to be taken care of—like he deserved it. She kept his drinks full, and his laundry washed, and his hockey gear neatly stacked. She shepherded the girls away from him until Kent said, “It’s fine, I really don’t mind,” the fifth time little Signe attempted to sit behind him on the chair and put bobbles in his hair.

Elise hesitated, but when she saw he was being genuine, she waved her hand and let them have at it. There was hardly a night that passed over the summer Kent wasn’t covered in some sort of glitter, with butterfly clips and brightly coloured ribbons holding his cowlicks in even more unnatural angles.

He took selfies, his face shoved between Signe and Greta, with Juni behind them giving Kent bunny ears, a look of pure pride on her face at her great work.

By late July, after his birthday which he let pass quietly—begging to just celebrate the holiday and conceding only to a chocolate cake Elise whipped up—he was their live-in baby sitter. Elise and Karly were able to sneak away for long date nights, and the occasional weekend to their houseboat in Lake Havasu.

Kent had been terrified at first, terrified that their trust in him was misplaced. He was convinced they’d come home to a house turned upside down, half burnt down, with three girls who needed hospital treatment. Instead they came home to three exhausted girls, and a run-down hockey player who hadn’t realised what a terrible idea it was to give four year olds cans of coke at nine pm. Luckily, he only made that mistake once.

“I’m going to miss you around here soon,” Elise said, handing Kent four freshly washed carrots to chop. He was at his own, bright blue laminated cutting board with a massive knife.

His eyebrows raised and panic flared to life in his stomach because her comment had come out of nowhere. He knew he had been dangerously close to overstaying his welcome, but he thought he’d been doing well. Had Karly said something to her? Had he meant to tell Kent it was time to get out?

“I can uh...god, okay, uh. I mean, you know, I can be out whenever. Just say the word and I…”

“Sweetheart,” she said, very softly, and his words died on his lips. “That isn’t what I meant. But pre-season is starting up and Jamie says you’re definitely starting. Second line, if not first by October. It just means we won’t be seeing you as much. I’m going to miss my cooking buddy.”

Kent’s cheeks pinked, because he wasn’t really sure anyone in his entire life had ever missed him. Even his mom and sister had their lives so busy, so full—especially now he could ensure they never had to scrape by ever again. He knew they loved him, but missed him? What had he ever brought around besides drama and disaster?

He couldn’t help a smile. Instinct told him to push her away, to shield himself because if he lost this, fuck…he wasn’t sure he’d survive it. He knew, of course, there would be a moment—and probably soon—he’d be getting his own place. There would be packing, and an apartment very quiet and devoid of all stray lego that had him howling in pain.

And he knew he’d walk across a sea of lego to keep it, to call this his. But it didn’t belong to him. Not really.

It was okay. For now, it was okay, and whatever happened, he would be okay. He didn’t claw his way from below the earth, emerging broken and bloody, but in one piece, to fall apart now. He swallowed. “I’ll make it up to you. When we have a long weekend, I’ll take the girls somewhere—like Disney or some shit—and you and Karly can go to like…Paris.”

She laughed. “Sweetheart, I went to University in Paris. I have no desire to go back there any time soon. But I appreciate the offer, and you know I won’t turn it down.”

He stared down at his poorly chopped carrots, sighed, then tipped them into the roasting pan and had the sudden and strange desire to say a blessing over them, like maybe it would save them all. “I’m going to miss you too,” is what he said eventually.

“Don’t worry, the girls will worm their way into your pregame ritual, and we’ll be there cheering on early games. I promise. I’ll be getting Parson jerseys for everyone.”

“Betrayal,” Karly chirped from the doorway. He grabbed Elise by the waist, spinning her into the fridge, and kissing her.

“Gross! Grossssss,” shouted Greta before launching herself at Kent. He had the foresight to shove the knife far from her chubby grasp before lifting her onto his hip. “Don’t kiss me,” she warned.

“I would never. Kissing is for icky grown-ups,” Kent said seriously, and at the moment he sort of meant it. The idea of doing that ever again made his stomach feel like it was filled with angry snakes. He breathed out, then grinned at her. “Where’s your sister?”

“Doc Stuffins,” she said, then shoved her thumb into her mouth.

Karly said something in Swedish to her—Kent had still only picked up a few phrases here and there and he thought this one meant, ‘stop it’, but he wasn’t sure. She scowled at him, nose wrinkled above her small fist, and Karly’s face fell because he could never tell the girls no. Not when it was something so inconsequential.

“I’ll get everyone settled, then washed for dinner,” Kent said.

He was barely out of the room when he heard Karly say to Elise, “I just got word Mashkov’s going to be here soon. Ten days.”

“Did you talk to him, yet?” Elise asked.

“No. It’s probably for the best. I hate to lose him, and I know the girls will miss him but…”

Kent gripped Greta a little tighter. He knew what it meant. He knew he and that Mashkov guy were supposed to be together anyway, like rookies were. And it would mean losing all this. But it was never supposed to be his.

“Why you are crying?” Greta asked from round her thumb.

Kent touched his cheeks, then shook his head. “I’m not. Just watering eyes.”

She looked at him sceptically, and he knew if he couldn’t fool the child, he’d fool no one. And he didn’t want to see a look of disappointment on Karly’s face. Karly hadn’t done this to let Kent get attached. It was time to get distant. And to move on.

After dinner, he packed his first box.

***

Mashkov arrived in a flurry of press. There had been some issue with his arrival, with the KHL attempting to stop him from coming. He had to sneak into the country, and the Aces spent two weeks tidying up the hellish mess it left behind.

But finally during a team meeting, there he was. He was younger than Kent by a few months. Tall, gangly, a head full of loose brown curls, large nose set square in the middle of his face, and wide, brown eyes. Kent tried not to stare. Mashkov wasn’t his type, but there was something about him Kent was drawn to, like a magnet, almost.

He was stoic, and it was clear after the first meeting Mashkov’s English was next to nothing. Kent had met kids in the Q with a barely-there grip on the language, but it was obvious the guy was completely lost after the first few words.

Most of the guys were cool about it. Troy, who was just after his rookie year, clapped Mashkov on the back and said, “We should totally call you Tater.”

Mashkov did little more than smile, even when Fishy swooped in to explain, being the only other Russian-speaker on the team at that moment. And Fishy wasn’t even Russian, he was Serbian, but had spent enough time playing for the KHL before his ultimate draft to the Schooners, then to the Aces, he was conversational. Mashkov looked relieved enough to have someone he vaguely understood, though Troy’s joke didn’t seem to translate.

And Kent wondered if anyone could see how miserable and terrified the dude looked. Kent had seen the look before. The look that now struck terror into his heart because Jesus, he’d seen it exactly one time before, and that man had popped a handful of anti-anxiety pills down his throat and nearly died.

Kent’s fingers shook as he took out his phone and sent a text off to Bob, hoping he’d get a reply if it wasn’t about Jack.

Just got a new Russian rookie. Mashkov? You heard of him? Karly wants me and him to room together. Where can I get a good Russian-English dictionary?

Bob had answered a handful of Kent’s texts before, and sent a handful of his own—mostly asking if Kent was settling in okay, and to congratulate him for making the starting line. This was maybe a bit more personal, and Kent wouldn’t have been surprised if Bob said nothing at all.

God only knows what Jack told him. It had been his fucking fault, after all. He should have been paying closer attention, he should have been watching, monitoring, asking Jack if it was getting out of hand and…

Check the local bookstores. They helped me a tonne when we got new rookies. I saw the news, and I think you’ll be alright. Guy has a good history, great defence, seems pretty easy off the ice. You doing okay, son?

Kent pretended like seeing the word son on his phone didn’t feel like a white-hot knife being stabbed into his chest. He pretended like his fingers weren’t shaking when he tapped out, Thanks. And things are great. Looking for an apt soon.

The conversation didn’t continue. Karly found out where Mashkov was staying, then wrote it down and handed the slip of paper to Kent. “We don’t want you to go, Parser. But…”

“I get it,” Kent said, and used his well-practised media smile that seemed to fool his cap. “Seriously, it’s cool, and the dude probably needs a quiet roommate. Whatever he just went through…”

“Yeah,” Karly said with a tiny sigh. “We’ll help you get settled. You and me, kid? Next weekend? We’ll find you a sweet pad.”

“You are almost forty, you don’t get to say sweet pad,” Kent chirped.

Karly put him into a headlock and held him there until Kent screamed that Karly was young, virile, and beautiful. Kent laughed until he had tears streaming down his face, and he could easily pass it off for joy instead of the gut-wrenching pain of rejection again.

***

In the locker room, Kent stared out of his periphery at Alexei, who was smiling at a few chirps some of the guys were giving him. He had that look—Kent had seen it before. The look that said, I know it’s good natured, but I can’t understand a single word you’re saying. He was lacing up his trainers, and when he stood, he gave the two guys a thump on the back so hard, they toppled forward.

Kent couldn’t help his own grin, because whatever Mashkov was feeling then, he was trying. Kent liked that about the guy. He was nearly dressed himself, and had two apartments to look at. Karly had tasked him with getting Mashkov to come along, and Kent was armed now with a shitty English-to-Russian dictionary and a handful of phonetic phrases written on the inside cover.

He managed to catch up with him in the corridor, grabbing his shirt by the sleeve. Mashkov turned, his face a little defensive for a second, but when he saw it was the other rookie on the team, he softened. One massive hand reached up, rubbing at the back of his neck, and his cheeks darkened.

“Hello,” he said, then his brow furrowed like he was trying to remember a name. “Is…Parse?” He said the name slow, like he was afraid to mess up.

Kent nodded. “Uh. Or Kent. Is fine,” he said, and bit his lip. He took a breath, then opened the cover of his book and blurted out, “Zdrastvooyte. Prosmotr kvartiry. Ty mozhesh' poyti so mnoy?”

Mashkov blinked. Then blinked again. His lips curved over the really poorly accented words Kent was attempting—ones he’d stayed up half the night practising in front of the mirror. “You…you ask,” Mashkov said. “For house?”

Kent growled. “Uh yeah? Like…you and me are both rookies? So we can…live together. And fuck, you don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?”

“Understand little bit,” Mashkov said. His hand reached out, plucking the book from Kent’s hands, and he stared at the cover. His eyes widened, and a slow grin spread across his face. “For…me? You have?” He patted the book.

Kent flushed violently and shuffled his feet, nodding. “Uh. Yeah. I know I said that all wrong.”

Mashkov shrugged, and it was obvious he wasn’t getting most of what Kent was saying. But he handed the book back, then after a moment of hesitation, he gave Kent a pat on the shoulder.

“Okay,” Kent said with a breath. “You know the word roommate?”

Mashkov’s brow furrowed. “Yes. Is live with…guy?”

Kent nodded, then pointed to himself. “Rookie.” He pointed to Mashkov. “Rookie. So…roommate.”

“You. Me. Live,” Mashkov repeated. “In house.”

“If you want,” Kent said. “I mean uh…” He began desperately paging through the book, but it had taken him a fucking hour and a half just to piece together his shitty sentences in the first place.

Mashkov stopped him though, a gentle press of fingers against his wrist. Kent tried not to flinch, because unexpected touches had started to become…a lot. He swallowed when he looked up, but Mashkov’s face was soft. “Da. Yes. Okay.”

“Okay,” Kent repeated. He beckoned Mashkov along after that, to the exit, to player parking. Karly was waiting, and he looked inordinately pleased to see the both of them there. Kent ignored the chirping smile and climbed into the front after Mashkov crammed himself into the back seat.

They were quiet for a while, until tinny music began to blare from somewhere, and Kent spun in his seat to see Mashkov flushing and holding up a glowing, singing plastic princess wand. He dropped it, like it had caught fire, and when Kent and Karly shared a look, the three of them burst into laughter.

***

It took exactly two hours to find a suitable place. Kent could afford it on his own, but it had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and access to a weight room in the basement, and a rooftop pool. It was close enough to see strip lights, and only fifteen minutes from the practise facility which meant if neither of them figured out the whole driving thing, they could still grab a taxi or call for a car service to get there on time.

Mashkov seemed a bit more awed than Kent—but that was likely due to Kent’s exposure to NHL greats like Gretzky and Crosby when he’d been hanging out with…

The thought made bile rise in his throat and he swallowed it back. Either way, it was nice. Hardwood floors and marble counters, and a tub with jets so they could relax after games.

“A lot of players have lived in this building,” Karly said. “I think Fishy did a couple years back, before he and Mila got married. It’s a pretty nice place.”

Kent shoved his hands into his pockets, nodding. The place felt a little lonely. It was furnished and full, but felt the weirdest sort of empty. Maybe it was the lack of kids, or history, or chirping couples who loved the fuck out of each other, making out over a cutting board.

He glanced at Mashkov who was staring out the window with a drawn look over his face, and he thought, ‘Maybe this is what we both need.’

“Tater,” Karly said, and Mashkov blinked, then turned. “You like?”

Mashkov affected a smile, huge and bright, but Kent could see something darker beneath it. All the same, he smiled. “Is good. Yes. I like.”

Karly wandered off to get the broker for papers, and Kent stepped in close to the tall Russian. “It’s okay?” he asked, and tried to convey with tone instead of words, that if Mashkov wanted something different, he could ask for it. That it was fine.

The other man seemed to sense it, and he dropped a hand on Kent’s shoulder. “Is good. Far.” He pointed across the horizon and Kent realised he wasn’t just coming from across the country, or a nearby border. This was an entirely new place. An alien planet, in a way, where others kind of looked like him, and moved like him, but no one spoke the language, or understood his customs, or felt his pain.

Kent closed his hand over Mashkov’s, just for a brief second, and they stood in the quiet of what would be their new home.

Then the broker arrived, and they signed, and the place belonged to them.

***

They had a team dinner as soon as they were unpacked two weeks later. Kent was grateful for the reprieve. Unpacking felt like being cast out again, like being abandoned by Karly’s family which he knew wasn’t the case but…it didn’t erase the sting.

His new place was too large, and too quiet. It was filled with none of his things, and Alexei kept to himself so often that in those first few days, Kent almost forgot he even had a roommate.

When the guys were over, it was different. Alexei’s English was still terrible, but he laughed along with everyone, shared beers, attempted to repeat chirps. He’d started responding to being called Tater with a huge grin, and everyone warmed to him. Kent had to wonder if they just couldn’t see the way Alexei would droop whenever he thought no one was looking—or maybe it was the fact that no one actually was looking. For the most part, though, Alexei seemed fine. Whenever Kent tried to talk to him about it, Alexei assured him it was nothing.

But he worried. He worried that it was all too much, that even living with Kent was making Alexei feel even more alone than he’d felt in that hotel room. Kent remembered all-too well what it was like. If it hadn’t been for Karly, Elise, and the girls, he wasn’t sure he’d have made it this far.

It was what prompted Kent to knock on Alexei’s door one late Friday night. They were home from practise, the team gearing up for their first preseason game the following week. None of the veterans felt the pressure, but Kent knew this was make or break for the rookies. It was rare two would be on the starting line, and if it wasn’t for the sheer number of awards, and their stats, Kent knew it wouldn’t be happening for either one of them.

So a lot was riding on this. He wasn’t sure he could show his face if he was sent down to the farm team.

It was anxiety, mostly, that had him up—that, and worry for Alexei. When he heard the faint murmur of TV, and saw the soft glow of light under Alexei’s door, he thought, ‘fuck it,’ and knocked. There was a long pause, then the shuffled of feet before it opened.

Alexei looked adorably rumpled in frayed joggers and a t-shirt. His hair was a mess, sticking up in the back from his pillow. Kent peered round him and saw his room was still only half unpacked, and his bed was unmade, the duvet bunched up at the very edge.

“Can’t sleep,” Kent said.

Alexei stared at him, then gestured inside. “You want…watch TV?” he asked.

Normally Kent would have gone running away from the invite, but he wanted to do something, show Alexei someone here gave a fuck about him beyond what he could do on the rink, and beyond his ability to laugh at his own expense for his lack of English. So he nodded, and stepped inside, and kind of just forced himself into Alexei’s space.

He hopped up on the bed, the way he used to do with Zimms when they were younger—when Jack was convinced no one gave a shit about him for anything other than him being Bob’s son. He wasn’t sure Jack ever really appreciated it, but he didn’t miss the way Alexei’s face softened, the way the corner of his mouth turned up just a little.

Kent might not have noticed, either, if he hadn’t been studying Alexei so fucking hard these past few weeks.

He sighed, and shuffled up against the headboard as Alexei resumed his spot. Their knees knocked together a little, and after a second, Alexei pulled a brightly coloured bag of something from the floor and offered it out to Kent.

Whatever it was, Kent hadn’t had anything like it, but he ate a few of the crunchy bits to be polite—and the way Alexei was shovelling them in his face spoke volumes of homesickness. Kent sighed and nudged him. “What are we watching?” When Alexei looked confused, Kent pointed to the TV.

“Is…American movie,” Alexei said. “My sister.” He stopped and frowned. “She say help…English. Say, Alyosha you want talk same as American, watch American TV. So…” He shrugged.

Kent grinned. “That’s a really fucking smart idea.”

It turned out, it was Pretty in Pink. Kent was vaguely startled that Alexei was starting his English education with some eighties flick, but the plot was probably simple enough to follow, and at least it was witty, if not like, decades behind the times.

They didn’t say much after that. Kent started getting drowsy halfway through, and he found himself gently prodded sometime later. His eyes blinked open, and he realised he was lying half on Alexei’s shoulder. He sat up abruptly, swiping his cheek to wipe away any evidence of possible drool, and hoped Alexei didn’t notice the flush on his face. “Uh. Sorry.”

Alexei waved the apology off. “Is okay. Sleep now.”

Kent nodded, scrubbing a hand down his face. He had no idea what time it was, or how much longer he had before their morning skate, but he felt better. Like he’d done something, even if it was fall asleep halfway through Molly Ringwald’s teenage angst. Alexei looked a little better, too. And although this wasn’t family, not like Karly’s, it was still something, and that made him feel a little less alone.

***

Their first free day was a Sunday. They’d been doing alright in pre-season, not winning everything, but Alexei and Kent were good together. His English was non-existent on the ice, as hard as he was trying off-ice, but that didn’t seem to matter. Frankly they all spoke hockey, and no one was surprised when Kent and Alexei were put on each other’s line.

Karly invited everyone over for a barbeque and a swim since it was still plenty hot enough, and Kent was looking forward to seeing Karly’s family again. He felt strangely apart from them, even though Elise still sent him emails checking in and reminding him to take care of himself. She sent a couple photos of the girls, which left him with an ache that even binging cheesecake and Better Off Dead couldn’t take away.

But things weren’t too bad at home. He and Alexei had a routine now. They’d watch TV, cook or order dinner together. They’d do their evening work out at the gym, trade off the tub for after, and occasionally they’d sit for a Russian-English lesson.

Kent felt like he was picking up maybe half of what Alexei was, which he supposed wasn’t so bad considering they only ever really used Russian at home. But when he would occasionally use Russian phrases with Alexei instead of English, there was a light in the other man’s eyes Kent wanted to see all the time.

It took the edge off the quelling darkness in his gut. He still hadn’t heard from Jack, and Bob had all but ghosted on him. It was like everything he’d known, everything he’d cared about in the Q had died the moment Jack’s heart stopped. When Jack was alive again, he left Kent in limbo, to wander aimlessly for the rest of his life.

Or so it felt like.

But this, whatever it was he was building slow but sure with Alexei and the rest of the Aces, it was something. It was a warmth he didn’t think he could feel again.

The nightmares came less. The shaking subsided. Moments when he blinked and saw Jack lying on the floor no longer made him lose his breath. Or well, not all the time, and that was progress, he decided.

They got to Karly’s in a taxi since neither of them knew how to drive yet—a problem they were going to have to remedy soon enough since Kent really wanted a nice car, and he was kind of tired being in the back of hot taxis that smelt like too much axe body spray and Bath and Bodyworks lotion. But that was a problem for another day.

That afternoon he wanted to enjoy himself. He wanted to kick back, have a beer or two, take a dip in the pool, and visit with the girls. He wanted to be himself around his teammates—or at least as much of himself as he ever dared to be. He wanted something personal, something beyond blades on ice.

Alexei looked nervous though, near to puking. His normally olive skin was washed out, and Kent noticed he had his hands pressed tight together between his knees. With a sigh, he reached over and touched Alexei’s shoulder.

“Hey,” he said quietly, then switched to Russian. “You okay?”

Alexei nodded, but when it was obvious Kent didn’t believe him, he dragged a hand down his face and shrugged. “Am…nervous. English still…bad. Play not best. Think they want…trade. If not happy guy.”

Kent wasn’t sure Alexei was getting all the words right, but he understood the nerves and he squeezed Alexei’s shoulder tighter. “Look man, we’re doing our best, and they like us. We’re rookies, but we’re scoring, and we’re racking up points. Neither of us is at risk for a trade right now. It’s still pre-season. And they like you. Everyone likes you.”

Alexei’s cheeks pinked and he gave Kent an actual, genuine smile. “Thank you, solnyshko.”

Little sun. It was the first thing Alexei had started calling him in Russian, and he pretended like it didn’t make his heart try to beat out of his chest. He swallowed and glanced away. He knew how fucked LGBT was in Russia—and he knew that even the people there who supported it were quiet about it. Kent knew if Alexei wanted to return home safe and unopposed, he couldn’t be living with some gay dude in a Vegas apartment.

And really, that part of Kent’s life was so…pointless. He’d been in love exactly one time, and that had turned out to be the biggest disaster of his entire life. He wasn’t looking for a repeat. What he and Alexei had was nice, and it was good.

He wasn’t about to ruin it. For anything in the world. So he just smiled and elbowed Alexei. “It’ll be fine, man. I promise. Now let’s go get a beer. I’m parched.”

When they headed inside, Karly’s house was total chaos. Kids everywhere, screaming and running, wives and girlfriends chatting by the snack table. All the guys were dressed casual in shorts and sandals, holding bottles of beer or highball glasses filled with ice and liquor. They were smiling and laughing, like old friends, in ways Kent hadn’t seen on the ice.

Kent hadn’t really been round much with the whole team outside of practise. He forgot how many of the old guys had wives and girlfriends, had kids, and some of them with teenagers almost as old as Kent. It was strange to see them function like this—like real people in real lives off the ice.

Karly’s family wasn’t an anomaly, and it reminded Kent of what he didn’t have. Of what he probably never would have. He wasn’t sure he’d actually make a good parent—god knows his own had fucked him up badly enough. Not that it was his mother’s fault, she’d done the best she could with a dead-beat ex who didn’t so much as send ten bucks a month of his sixty dollar a month child support payments. But Kent had sacrificed a lot, and he’d watched her sacrifice a lot.

He’d seen how the other side lived—watching Jack with his parents. Jack, who resented every single thing his father said and did. And it made Kent ache inside, because what he wouldn’t fucking give to have just a fraction of that. But the grass was always greener, or whatever the fuck that stupid saying was.

He just didn’t ever want to risk it. He never wanted to be the guy that his kid looked at and thought, “I wish you hadn’t brought me into this world.”

He didn’t think he could handle it.

And yet, the loneliness he felt, aching and gnawing in his gut as he watched the kids running, parents scooping them up and kissing them. The guys chirping the teens about what they wanted to do with their lives.

All of it, and none of it was his.

He stole a glance at Alexei who’d been immediately roped into a conversation with Fishy and his three year old who didn’t speak Russian, but was learning English. Alexei was smiling at the toddler, laughing at something she was saying. He looked happy, at home, but then he looked up and Kent saw that darkness again. The echo of feeling outside of it all. He understood in a painful, visceral way.

It was the look he had sometimes. Hell, it was the look Jack had just before he…

Kent reached for a beer, and no one stopped him. He cracked the top and the carbonation burned his throat, but he needed it. It shocked him out of his thoughts, and he turned, only to be tackled by the three small blondes. He reached down, swinging Greta onto his hip, and she hugged him.

“What have they been feeding you?”

Greta pulled back, frowning. “Um. I eated some… um. Carrots. And some peas.”

“Oh my god, well, it’s working. It’s only been a few months but I think you might be a grown up already. Are you a grown up?”

“Nooooo,” she cried, kicking her feet and giggling. “I’m a kid.”

Kent was dragged into the other room. Doc McStuffins was playing—he was surprised they hadn’t moved on to something else, and he pretended he didn’t feel the pang of homesickness as the theme song began to play. He was pushed onto the floor, and he saw a familiar box full of hair clips and bobbles.

He said nothing, grinning at a few of the guys chirping him, but he let the girls go at it, and let himself pretend his room was just down the hall, and this was his again. Just for a little while.

He had no family in his future, so he didn’t mind stealing a few moments here and there when he could.

***

“You are…want family?”

Kent looked up from where he was putting a liberal amount of both butter and peanut butter on his toast. Alexei was at the counter chopping up some weird yellow fruit he’d been excited to find at the farmer’s market, and his face was marred by a huge frown.

“Uh. What?” was all Kent could manage.

Alexei glanced up. “Other day,” Alexei said, still forming his words carefully. “Karly have little kid. You are…you and kids…” He sighed, then muttered something in Russian too fast for Kent to follow. “You want?”

“Oh,” Kent said, and flushed as he looked back down. “Uh. No. I mean…um.” He swallowed, then took a bite of the toast in order to give himself an excuse to take a second. “So like…kids are great and I’ve always been pretty good with them, but I don’t think I’d be a good father. I think I’d fuck them up.”

Alexei was still frowning, though Kent wasn’t sure if it was because he disagreed, or just didn’t understand. He felt shitty, like he should be working on his Russian more or whatever but…they had so much going on and his head was still all over the place. He was calmer, yes, but the pressure was on for him to show up every record he’d ever made in the Q. He had to distance himself from Parse-and-Zimms as quickly as he could, otherwise he’d never be able to crawl out of the Zimmermann shadow.

He’d gone first in the draft, and Jack had nearly died, and he didn’t want that shit carved on his tombstone.

When he looked up again, Alexei was taking his bowl of slimy fruit to the living room, so Kent grabbed his toast and headed down into his bedroom. He shut the door with a quiet click, and felt the oppressive silence of being alone. He needed it though. He didn’t want to think about kids or the future. He didn’t want to consider things he could want, but shouldn’t have.

He just wanted to play fucking hockey and forget the ice-blue eyes that haunted him half his nights.

Flopping on the bed, Kent pushed the plate near the edge, then buried his face in the pillow. He took a breath and for a minute let himself remember what his bed felt like when Zimms was in it. He let himself remember the faint, tea tree smell of Jack’s shampoo and the impression he left in the morning when he got up hours before Kent to go on a run.

The pain was still fierce, but far less raw, and he rolled onto his back.

What if he did have kids one day? What if Zimms got his head out of his ass and fixed whatever the fuck was happening with him, and then they…made it work. They’d play hockey. Jack would win as many cups as Bad Bob—hopefully on Kent’s line, but he’d settle for the same team if he could. One day they’d come out and it wouldn’t fucking matter who agreed with them because they’d be rich, and their fingers would be covered in championship rings, and they’d love each other enough that whatever anyone else thought—it couldn’t take away what they had.

Maybe they would have kids then. Maybe they’d have kids, and a little house up in Montreal, and…

He stopped himself. He couldn’t do this right now.

Fumbling for his phone, Kent pulled up Bob’s number and sent off a text. You don’t need to tell me any details. I just want to know if he’s alright.

He dropped it to the bed and threw his arm over his eyes. He wasn’t sure if he did or didn’t expect a response, so when his phone buzzed only a minute later, his heart began to beat harsh and furious against his ribs.

Kent picked the phone up and stared at the screen. He’s been better. He wants to coach and we’ll see from there.

Will he ever talk to me again?

That’s not up to me, mon fils. Just focus on your hockey, on your future. That’s all that matters.

Kent knew a kiss-off when he heard one, and he pretended like it didn’t sting. He tried to forget all those moments where he allowed himself to think of Bob like a real father, because ultimately when push came to shove, Bob was going to side with his actual kid.

And why not. It wasn’t like Kent had much going for him besides this.

So focus. On hockey, on his future in hockey. He’d been given a gift, and he’d be damned if he squandered it.

***

Kent’s entire body was aching, and he should have been sleeping. They were deep into the regular season and doing really well. Being as small as he was, Kent had spent most of his life perfecting the skill of avoiding checks and fights, but the NHL was just as rough as Juniors, and they were unavoidable.

He wasn’t sure if it was the bruised ribs that had roused him, but as he sat up, putting a ginger hand to his side, he heard it. The muffled sounds of…something. He frowned, tilting his head to the side.

His door was half open, and across the hall, he could see the light under Alexei’s bathroom door on. The noise continued a moment, and Kent thought, is he fucking crying? before it all went silent again. A chill ran up Kent’s spine, and his head began to grow foggy with panic.

Alexei had been off that night. He’d been shaky on the ice, and even though they’d won, he’d made a lot of mistakes. He was extra quiet in the locker room, declining both press, and drinks with Fishy whom he never turned down. He’d hitched a ride home with Kent and went straight to bed, which was unlike him. Their usual routine consisted of trading foot massages, eating pho, and watching America’s Next Top Model on tivo.

Kent didn’t begrudge Alexei’s alone time, though.

Only now he was wondering if it was a mistake. He’d seen the quiet, sad look in the eyes of someone he cared about and had ignored it once, and it went as badly as it could go.

Instinct took over, and Kent’s hands were shaking as he clambered from the bed, and rushed across the hall in his t-shirt and boxers. It was quiet now, and he knocked, pushing his ear to the door. “Hey. Alexei? You in there?”

Nothing.

Kent tried the knob, but it was locked, and when he blinked he saw flashes of Alexei collapsed next to the bathtub, surrounded by pill bottles and vomit.

His breathing began to hitch. “Alexei!” He raised his voice, and knocked harder. “Yo man, let me the fuck in. If you don’t let me in I swear to god I’m going to kick this fucking door down…” He was pounding like a madman, torn between kicking the door and running back for his phone to dial 9-11.

It felt like an eternity, but it was only seconds when the door swung open and Alexei stood there, arms crossed over his chest. He had tear-tracks over his face, and his eyes were narrowed, glowering.

And he was alive.

Kent scrambled back, desperate to control his breathing, but it wasn’t working. Alexei was standing there in front of him, just fine, but Kent couldn’t stop seeing it, couldn’t stop feeling the pain of his hypothetical death. His head began to spin as he hyperventilated, and it wasn’t until warm hands took him by the cheeks that he blinked out of it.

“Kent. What wrong? You need doctor? I’m call…”

“No,” Kent gasped. He groped for Alexei, his fingers curling round his wrists, and he forced his eyes shut, forced himself to stop gasping. His heart was still beating so hard he could feel it in his pores, but Alexei’s skin beneath the pads of his finger kept him grounded, present, and the panic began to fade. “Jesus fuck. Jesus. I am so sorry. I’m…oh my god. I thought you were…”

“Come,” Alexei said. He eased Kent up, an arm round his waist, and helped him into the bedroom. The breeze from the cracked window was cold, almost shockingly so, and Kent shivered as Alexei lifted the duvet back, shoving Kent onto the mattress. “Warm. You are need warm.”

Kent squeezed his knees to his chest and willed himself not to be such a fucking disaster. “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

“You are sick?” Alexei asked. He pressed the inside of his wrist to Kent’s forehead.

Kent shook his head back and forth a few times. “No it’s…I thought you were uh. Dead.”

Alexei blinked, startled. “Kent…why you think this? Is bad dream?”

Kent bit his lip, unable to look Alexei in the eye. “Right before the draft um.” He swallowed. “Something bad happened to someone I knew. He almost died and I…” His throat went tight and he couldn’t finish. He swallowed, then clenched his fingers in the sheets so hard his knuckles ached. “He was really fucking sad, and he locked himself in the bathroom and took pills. And his heart stopped before they brought him back and I thought…”

Alexei’s face went soft, pliant, and he pushed further onto the bed. “Am sad,” he admitted. His eyes cut toward the door and he heaved a sigh. “Am…miss home. Miss speak Russian. Miss mama, and Natalia. Here is…far away. Different.”

“Fuck,” Kent whispered.

Alexei shook his head. “I’m not…do that,” he insisted, and reached for Kent’s hand, rubbing his thumb over Kent’s taut knuckles. “Promise. Never scare, okay? Never…take pills.”

Kent nodded, and logically he knew he’d over-reacted, but it had been too familiar. And what if…what if his presence drove people to…

“Kent. I’m stay.”

Kent startled out of his thoughts, looking up at the taller man. “What?”

“Here. Tonight. You are scared, I’m stay. Okay?”

Kent knew he should tell him no. This was inviting a whole host of issues Kent was wholly unprepared to deal with like…ever. But the offer was too inviting. Kent hadn’t allowed himself real comfort after any of this, and it was offering a starving man access to an endless buffet. He couldn’t say no, even if it would destroy him later.

“Yeah,” he breathed. “Yeah. Okay.”

Alexei slid in under the blankets, tucking his knees up, then tugging Kent closer. Kent turned his back to Alexei, not willing to show his face, to show how vulnerable this made him. He couldn’t let anyone see how much he wanted it.

Alexei could tell though. Because he tucked his arm round Kent’s waist, then pushed his face into the crook of Kent’s neck and just held him. Held him in a way Jack never did, no matter how close they’d been. Held him in a way that wasn’t asking for anything in return. He was just offering comfort, offering the idea of someone being there just…because.

Kent’s eyes went hot, and the emotions were threatening to spill over, so he squeezed his eyes shut and begged his body to just stop feeling. Just for a minute. “Thanks,” he eventually said, because at the very least he owed Alexei that much.

Alexei let out a tiny sigh. “If you are feel…scared. Come tell. I help.”

Kent could do little more than nod, and he let himself focus on the steady thrum of Alexei’s heartbeat pressed against his back. He wouldn’t have this for long, no matter what happened in the future. He couldn’t let himself ever want again. If he did, if there was a chance, that chance had to be for Jack.

But he could let himself borrow this, for a little while.

Time passed, and eventually, Kent started to drift.

***

Kent ignored the bead of sweat dripping down his nose. He was that mixture of hot and cold as his skates dug into the ice and he chased the puck. It was a thrill, a feeling of belonging and rightness he only ever felt with his stick clutched in his gloved hands. His eyes trained on the little black disc. He was aware of the others near him, angry faces, narrowed eyes, large shoulders just waiting to check him into the boards.

But he was faster. He was cleverer. He was adept and he was good. He heard the slap near him, and instinctively he knew Alexei had just shot the puck toward him. He had a shot on goal, glove-side but the Sharks’ goalie was distracted. Kent lined up the shot.

And took it.

Thirty nine seconds, and they were up by three. Kent had an assist, and a goal. He could go for the Gordie Howe, but he was feeling too good to fight. He was tackled into the boards by Troy and Mashkov, his bucket falling to the side in the celly but he didn’t care.

He wasn’t going to have those last thirty seconds on the ice, but he didn’t need them. He’d done enough. He was the Aces’ leading scorer so far this season. They were heading for playoffs. A baby expansion team, and the cup was in their sights. Kent was beside himself with joy.

This moment, these moments, proving he’d done the right thing after all. He couldn’t have saved Jack, but it felt like minute after minute, he was slowly saving himself. Even if the rest of who he was, was locked in a tiny box in the dark recesses of his mind.

This was enough.

It had to be.

His eyes watched carefully, narrowed, as they ran out the clock. Alexei was grinning, but he looked tired. He wasn’t doing as well as he should have been. He was lagging in points, he was losing ice time because they couldn’t risk whatever it was he had going on with him. It was making Kent ache inside, like he was failing somehow.

The trade deadline was looming. It was almost March, and Kent didn’t have to be in private meetings to know whose names were being whispered. Alexei knew it too. But Kent didn’t want to think about that right now.

Right now he just wanted to celebrate his win.

***

“To our new Alternate Captain.”

The cheers rang round the table, and Kent was blushing, and grinning. This wasn’t his first A. He and Zimms had shot up in Rimouski like it was their job and Kent knew how to wear the badge with both pride and responsibility. This was no different, even if it felt heavier.

Part of him wondered if Jack ever watched. If he ever kept up with what Kent was doing. He didn’t want to hope, didn’t want to think about it.

He sipped his water, wishing it was beer, and glanced at Alexei who was smiling softer and a little more genuine than he had been in a while. It was March second and he hadn’t been traded. Not yet. Didn’t mean he wasn’t at risk, didn’t mean that his time with the Aces didn’t hinge solely on his performance in the playoffs but…

But Kent wasn’t losing him yet. And that was something.

They ate their shitty pizza and chirped the old guys who were getting drunker than they should have, and eventually they all grabbed cars home.

Kent collapsed on the sofa instead of heading straight for bed—which was what he should have been doing. But a little mindless TV was calling his name, and the last thing he wanted to think about right then was hockey, or responsibility.

He flicked on MTV—some random show about Hugh Hefner or something—and he let his head fall back against the cushions, eyes fluttering shut. He wasn’t sleepy-tired, but he was exhausted down to his bones. Every day was a battle with his brain to just keep it together, to focus on hockey, to not curl into a little ball and let all the trauma of his past start eating away at him. He’d made it to the A, and soon enough he might wear the C if he kept his shit together and he couldn’t deny how much he wanted that.

To Captain a team. To hold the cup over his head and kiss it. To feel the weight of a ring on his finger. Everything he and Jack had once whispered about to each other, in dark hotel rooms and on quiet bus rides. With long fingers in his hair, praising his goals which Kent knew secretly meant, “I love you, I’m proud of you.”

Even if Jack never admitted it.

Kent refused to believe it was nothing.

His throat was going tight, but before he could sit up, warm, heavy, soft weight fell on his thighs. He cracked open one eye as Alexei situated himself on the sofa under the down-filled duvet. It was white, with a couple of red pizza stains, and it smelt faintly of vinegar chips. Alexei’s thigh pressed up against Kent’s, and all thoughts of getting up, or Jack, or Stanley Cups were gone.

Now there was just a warm, heavy hand landing on his knee, squeezing.

“Am proud,” Alexei said gruffly.

Kent blinked, and felt his eyes go warm. Pride was implied in the giving of the A, by the other guys, and by the string of exclamation marks Kent got in a text from his sister but…but no one had said it. He couldn’t really recall anyone using those words directly to him.

“Ah. Uh. Thanks. I mean, it’s no big deal. It’s just an A. I mean, a lot of the guys have worn it and…”

“Kent,” Alexei said, and his brow was furrowed, like he was trying really hard to say the words right, “is good. Is…you are…deserve. Work hard, take care of team. You are score points.” He nodded, and shifted even closer, his hand still on Kent’s knee, fingers squeezing like a vice. “Am proud. You do…so good.”

Kent let his eyes close, and the breath he took was shaking, but he nodded all the same and managed a gruff, “Thanks, Alyosha,” just like he’d heard Alexei’s mom call him over the phone.

Alexei made a noise in the back of his throat, and when Kent looked at him, his cheeks were a faint, mottled pink. He didn’t say anything else though, but they leant against each other and sank into the comfort of the blanket. The TV was dull noise in the background, drowned out by the soft breathing of Alexei next to him.

Kent wanted to close himself off, to shut it all down, but he couldn’t. It had been so long, and he was so starved. His hand crept out, and he put his palm over the back of Alexei’s hand. After a moment, Alexei shifted and their fingers slotted together. Then his hand turned and they were palm-to-palm, warm and soft. Kent couldn’t help it when his breath left his lungs in a rush, and he couldn’t help suck it all back in when Alexei turned his head to meet Kent’s eyes with his own, wide, brown ones.

“Solnyshko,” Alexei said, his fingers reaching up, toying with a few of Kent’s unruly cowlicks.

Kent swallowed. “My boyfriend,” he stopped himself, shaking his head. “Well...he wasn’t really my boyfriend. I don’t know what he was. But I um...I liked him. He was the one…right before the draft, who almost died.”

Alexei blinked at him, and Kent wasn’t sure if he was understanding everything or not, but he didn’t ask Kent to clarify, or to stop.

“He didn’t die, in the end. But he stopped talking to me. You can’t tell anyone, though. Okay? No one can know.”

Alexei nodded, his fingers still in Kent’s hair, still drawing lines along his scalp. “I’m not say. Is not safe. For you. For me. Is…more safe here but…” He trailed off and muttered something in Russian Kent didn’t understand, but he understood the gist of it.

“Yeah,” Kent breathed, and he moved into Alexei’s touch. He hadn’t let anyone in, let anyone close in so long. He was terrified, because he could lose it at any moment. Alexei could be traded, he could decide Kent wasn’t worth it.

He could die.

Kent wasn’t sure he was strong enough to live through being abandoned more than once.

But he also couldn’t bring himself to stop. Not with Alexei touching him like that—like Kent was worth something. Not when Alexei was looking at him that way, either—like he wanted to devour every inch of Kent.

Destroy me, Kent thought, and he leant in. He didn’t close the distance completely. He needed Alexei to take that step because it was all just…a lot. He wasn’t brave enough to risk it all.

But Alexei needed no prompting. His large, warm hand gripped Kent by the cheek, fingertips digging into his skin, and their lips met. It was different. The kiss was nothing like Kent had ever shared—with any girl, with any guy. It was soft, and careful, like Kent was made of blown glass and could shatter with just the right amount of pressure.

When Alexei opened his mouth, Kent sighed into it, and gently pushed his tongue out. Alexei groaned, and held on a little tighter, and kissed back.

With Jack it had been all desperation. Their kisses had been few, and fueled with passion which left their teeth gnashing and biting. Kent walked away each time with an ache that wasn’t love, and part of him always hated himself for it.

But this…

He wanted to open his eyes, to see the look on Alexei’s face, but he couldn’t. It was too soft, too tender for that. Alexei’s hands were too warm as they brushed up under his shirt. His thumbs were slightly rough, callused as they rubbed along Kent’s nipples, and Kent could feel Alexei’s smile against his lips as Alexei pushed further against him.

“What…what are you want?” Alexei muttered, drawing his face back just far enough to speak. “I give. Anything you want, I give.”

“Just touch me. Fuck just…please just touch me.”

Kent just needed to feel present, and wanted. He didn’t need love. He didn’t need forever or marriage proposals or all that other shit. He just needed to be wanted for fucking once. Wanted more than hockey, more than escaping a famous father’s shadow.

It was unfair of him to hate Jack for all that, but he couldn’t help it. He had never been put first ever. Not by anyone, even himself. He didn’t expect that from Alexei, not all the time. But maybe just this once…

“Yes. I touch, make mine,” Alexei said. His hands gripped Kent by the hips, and pulled him over. The blanket draped over, them shielding their body from the rest of the room. Though there was no one there to see, not even by accident, the privacy of that small thing sent Kent’s head spinning. Like they had created their own mini-world where no one existed but them.

Alexei’s words cut right to the quick. It took Kent a moment to recognise them, to feel the impact, but when he did, tears spilt. It was stupid. He felt so stupid. But then Alexei was brushing them away with his thumbs, and kissing him harder, and grinding their hips together.

It was a moment Kent remembered that in spite of all this, they were still young. They were still in their teens, with hormones raging. Kent was rock hard and desperate for friction and it was only going to take a little bit of it to send him careening over the edge.

And the way Alexei was breathing, Kent was certain it was the same for the other man.

Their lips were a little more desperate after that, a little more aggressive. There was a little more pain, which kept Kent grounded. Alexei’s softness was almost too much, and Kent needed that edge. He felt the blunt fingernails of Alexei’s left hand digging into the space of skin that showed between the waistline of his sweats and the t-shirt that was rucked halfway up his back. He pushed into it, then pushed forward.

He could feel Alexei beneath him, hard, throbbing, a little wet spot on his sweats. Kent’s fingers roamed, down over Alexei’s abs, pushing his shirt up, brushing through the coarse hair at his belly. He felt his cock twitch, and his hips shift, seeking purchase.

Kent palmed Alexei, firm, rubbing in the same rhythm Alexei was making with his hips, and he groaned into the hot, wet mouth.

“Fuck. Yes, come on fucking…do it,” Kent groaned, grinding himself against Alexei’s thigh.

Alexei growled, then grabbed Kent more firmly until they were pushed together, rutting. They were kissing, and moaning, and after a moment—coming.

It hit him like a freight train, a rush going to his head, whiting out his vision for a moment. It wasn’t the first time he’d come since Jack, but it was the first time with another person holding him and whispering filthy, foreign words into his ear.

Kent collapsed against the wide expanse of Alexei’s chest, and he waited. He waited for the guilt, or the rejection. The words, “We shouldn’t have done that,” he heard a thousand times echoed in utility cupboards or abandoned locker rooms long before Kent understood himself.

Instead, Alexei brushed his fingers up and down Kent’s back, and pressed soft kisses along his hairline.

“You are okay?” Alexei asked.

Kent hummed, words too difficult a thing to manage right then. He wasn’t sure what he’d say, anyway. Because what was that? What the fuck did it mean? He didn’t want to be that guy, but how was he going to look Alexei in the eye in the morning knowing what they’d just done.

He felt soft fingers gripping his chin, and his face was turned up toward Alexei’s. No words were spoken, but they became utterly unnecessary as Alexei kissed him in a slow, careful rhythm. Once on the forehead, once under each eye, the tip of his nose, the left corner of his mouth, his chin, just under his right ear.

Kent shivered. It was too soft, too kind. He was terrified suddenly, of himself, of what he might do to a man who could give love and affection so openly, without asking for anything in return. But he wouldn’t let himself wallow just yet. Instead, he shoved his face into the crook of Alexei’s neck and closed his eyes.

“We can’t sleep here,” he muttered.

Alexei laughed, still rubbing Kent’s back. “Your bed…more soft. Comfy.”

Kent snorted. “Fine. But only if you carry me. And get my sticky boxers off because damn dude, that’s gross.”

Alexei muttered something probably unkind, definitely annoyed. But then he did, and in spite of Kent’s laughter, in spite of his smile, he had to wonder when it was all going to be ripped away.

***

They slept. Kent couldn’t pretend like he didn’t feel a pang of disappointment, but it was quickly washed away when he tried to move, and Alexei slung an arm round his waist, hitching him close. His bladder was complaining, but when Alexei muttered something in soft Russian, he couldn’t bring himself to move.

It was a little too nice, really. It was more than he deserved.

He felt sticky from the night before, and sated but a little terrified. When Alexei woke, there could be regret in his eyes and Kent wasn’t sure he was strong enough to stomach that. Yes, they had playoffs to focus on. Yes, Kent wanted to make this a memorable season but…

“You thinking loud,” Alexei said, his voice thick and rumbling.

Kent swallowed. “Sorry,” he whispered.

Warm, gentle lips pressed against his shoulder, then kissed a line to the back of his neck. “You are…wish different? Last night not happen?”

“Jesus,” Kent gasped. “No. No, I…” He stopped, fumbling for Alexei’s hand, linking their fingers together. “I wasn’t sure um. How you were going to feel.” He felt very young then, stupid, wishing desperately he’d let himself experience something outside of the supernova that had been Parse-Zimms because he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. He didn’t know how to make Alexei happy, make the cloud of gloom hovering over him go away, or at least lessen a little.

He’d been nothing but a disaster for Jack. He understood that now. He was poison for Jack, and he was terrified of being that for Alexei now.

But this felt different.

“I need a shower,” Kent murmured, bringing Alexei’s hand up to his mouth to kiss his knuckles. “And we have a morning skate.”

“Da,” Alexei murmured. Then said something in Russian which Kent was pretty sure meant, ‘five more minutes.’

Kent laughed. “Okay.” He kissed Alexei’s hand one more time, then pulled himself away to prepare for the rest of the day.

***

Kent wanted to say it was his fairy-tale ending. He wanted to say after that night, and after that morning, everything was perfect. But they were careening head-first into playoffs. They were doing well—Kent was doing well. He was living up to his A, he was still the lead scorer. He was going to be up for more than just the Stanley Cup at the end of the season—whether or not they actually got there. He was setting records, he was breaking them.

And Alexei was…not.

Alexei was being moved to third line. There was talk of putting him down to the farm team because he wasn’t able to hold his own. His passes were sloppy, his puck-handling terrible. He wasn’t gaining in points, and he wasn’t a liability to the team, but he wasn’t bringing them anything.

He was sweet, and everyone loved him, but that wasn’t enough. Not in hockey, not in a fresh, expansion team that needed to make a name for itself. Kent understood this. He understood the business side of hockey more than he wanted to.

He only let himself feel the ache late at night in bed when the both of them were pretending to sleep. He clung to Alexei with the feeling of borrowed time, and he said prayers to a god he wasn’t sure existed because he wasn’t sure what might happen of Alexei was let go.

But he was far too terrified to voice that aloud. Kent wasn’t strong enough to face those potential answers just yet.

Alexei was…something. He wasn’t anxious, the way Jack used to be, but he was something. He wasn’t sad, but he wasn’t himself, and Kent wasn’t sure what to do about it.

They were distracted, though. Because they were winning, and the final game of the year, which looked like it would be against the Pens, was looming. Kent was both terrified and motivated. He wanted to hold the trophy over his head. He wanted to feel something other than the crushing fear that everything he’d ever done would lead to someone getting hurt. He wanted to accomplish each and every one of his goals and maybe show Jack—wherever the fuck he was then—that it was possible to do this. To bounce back.

Some self-hating part of him wanted to believe Jack would eventually come back. The NHL would be useless and empty without Jack Zimmermann. Kent knew that. Everyone should fucking know that. So Kent just had to try harder, love harder, work harder, and it would all end up okay.

Alexei would bounce back and start scoring again. They’d hold the cup together, and late at night when no one was looking, Kent would kiss him and it would be…

Fine.

It would be fine.

If only life didn’t desperately want to prove him wrong all the time.

***

They won the cup. It was a tough game, dragged out to six, and it went into overtime, but they won with a carefully calculated play. It was him, Troy, Fishy, and Karly, and they had a minute left. Kent was goddamn sure it was not going to end this way but…

Troy had him in his sights. Kent had a shot on goal and it was iffy but he took it all the same the moment Troy smacked the puck onto his stick. He watched it sail, narrowly miss the post, narrowly miss the glove, and sink into the net.

The rest was…sheer madness. The rest was horns blaring and confetti falling, and a celly to end all cellys. Arms and faces and buckets falling everywhere. Kent ended up on the ice more than once, and he kissed more than one player. They were drunk on it, the win, the triumph. There was press, and then there was the fucking Cup and that was the first time Kent cried happy tears since the Memorial Cup, with Jack at his side.

He wasn’t thinking of that now, though. Now he felt the cold metal biting into his skin as he did his lap round the rink, and felt warm brown eyes on him when he looked over at Alexei who was grinning like a fool because Kent’s first season with the NHL and he’s won the fucking cup.

Things were chaos after that. Press, interviews, photographs. Kent’s mom and sister were both there, hugging and kissing him. Alexei’s parents had flown in from Russia, and he was staying in their hotel. Kent saw him only twice, until the award ceremony where he was awarded the Calder.

His mom and sister both had flown home by then, and Kent felt a sort of hole in his gut until he turned and saw Bob Zimmermann holding a glass of champagne, and beckoning Kent over. Kent felt like he was walking through quicksand, his feet not wanting to co-operate. But he managed the journey over the thin carpet, to Bob’s side, and accepted a glass of his own.

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Bob said, and winked. His voice, achingly familiar, dragging Kent back—for just a moment—to when everything didn’t hurt so much.

He managed a smile, a wink, and sipped a little bit of the bubbly. “What are you doing here?”

“I told your people I’d be coming to support you,” Bob said, and put his hand on Kent’s shoulder. “It’s know it’s been…there’s been…” He cleared his throat.

“He’s okay?” Kent blurted out, and winced because he knew if it felt this bad for him, it had to be a thousand times worse for Bob.

But Bob smiled, and looked years younger suddenly. “He’s okay. He’s doing better. He’s coaching right now, and he’s going to be starting at Samwell University this fall.”

Kent blinked, shock hitting him. “Are you…wait, are teams refusing to sign him? I mean I’m only going into my second year but I can talk to management if…”

“No,” Bob said. “Kenny, he’s…he doesn’t want to play in the NHL. Not right now,” Bob added when Kent opened his mouth to argue. “It’s too hard. Everything was too much. He needs this. He’ll be playing for Samwell.”

Kent took in a shaking breath, nodding. He could understand that, respect it. He would bet his right arm that after playing even a single semester with NCAA hockey, and Jack would be drawing on every single contact he had to get signed. Let him have this, this reprieve from the madness that was being Bob’s son.

It wasn’t over. Jack was still playing, he wasn’t giving up. Parse-Zimms would skate again, and Kent just had to hang on a little bit longer.

It was just then movement caught his eye, and Kent turned his head, seeing Alexei looking a little hesitant, but trying to get his attention. In spite of himself, Kent grinned. “Bob,” he said, and motioned Alexei over. “Have you met Mashkov?”

Something flickered over Bob’s face, but he smiled all the same as Alexei ambled over, and they shook hands. “Good season,” Bob said. “I was following you in the KHL. You have a long career ahead of you.”

Alexei shrugged. “I’m…have little bit rough season,” he said, sounding just like he did when shoved in front of a camera. Kent noticed his cheeks go mottled pink, and that panicked animal look in his eye, so he pressed his palm to the small of Alexei’s back.

Bob noticed the gesture—there was no way he missed it. He leant in, then let off a long string of Russian Kent couldn’t hope to follow. Alexei’s eyes widened, and he replied, and the two of them chatted until Alexei’s parents appeared—both looking a little out of place.

“I’m…my parents,” Alexei said a little helplessly.

“We’ll catch up later,” Bob said.

Kent just nodded, and when Alexei was gone, he turned wide eyes to the other man. “You speak Russian?”

Bob laughed. “Son, when you’re in the NHL for as long as I am, you’ll be able to add more than just French and English to your lexicon. Trust me.”

Kent pretended his throat didn’t go tight at the sound of Bob calling him son again. Fuck. “Yeah well, he and I are rooming together so I’m working on it.”

Bob’s face did the thing again, and Kent was just about to demand that the older man spill his secrets when he sighed and said, “Can you afford your place on your own?”

Kent blinked. “Uh. What?”

“Do you have a contingency plan if the two of you are…separated. I’m not sure what you two have going on but…”

“Nothing,” Kent snapped.

Bob let out a breath through his nose. “I always have my ear to the ground. Old habit. I’m fairly sure Mashkov is being traded to the Schooners.”

Kent felt like he was doused in ice water. “He had a shitty season but…fuck. I mean…already?”

“His playing style might be better off there. Hell, I’d see him on the Bruins before the Schooners but…” He trailed off, clearly seeing the pain in Kent’s eyes. Bob put his arm around him and drew him close. “Kenny, it happens. You lose a lot, you gain a lot. This is the business.”

“Trust me,” Kent said, his voice heavy and tired. “Trust me, I know what losing feels like.”

Bob’s eyes flickered to the ground. “He won’t talk about you. Or any of it. Not to me or his mother. I’m not…I don’t know what happened and I’d rather wait until he trusts me enough to tell me. I’m not going to let it happen again, though.”

Kent swallowed. “Is that code for stay the hell away from my son? Because Bob, I…”

“I love you, Kent,” Bob said, and squeezed him tight as Kent’s voice deserted him entirely. “I failed the both of you and for that, I’ll never forgive myself. I don’t think…I don’t think either of you were good for each other. And I don’t think you walked away from this unscathed. It didn’t hit you the same way it hit Jack, I know. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t scars on the inside.” He turned Kent in his arms, holding him by the shoulders. “Tonight you’re going to be awarded a trophy that a lot of rookies would kill for. That a lot of the greats never won. You’ve earnt it. You’ve proved you belong here, and I am so proud. But I want you to promise me you won’t ever let it get that bad again, Kenny. I need to know…” His voice cracked. “I need to know you won’t.”

Kent’s eyes burned, but he nodded and stepped out of Bob’s grasp. “I promise.” He hesitated, then asked, “Is this the last time I’m gonna see you?”

Bob laughed, and gave Kent’s cheek a pat. “You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried, mon fils.”

Kent wanted to ask if Jack knew that, but he didn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to say Jack’s name yet, and hearing the answer would probably destroy him. Instead, he just squared his shoulders, and let Bob lead him into the reception all, and smiled as one of his life goals was achieved, in exactly the way he never anticipated.

***

Alexei was traded that July.

Two weeks after Kent’s birthday.

Two weeks after Kent was bent over the arm of the sofa and fucked until he couldn’t speak.

Alexei got the call when Kent was out on a bagel run. They’d found a place not far from the apartment, one that didn’t give them shit for being in the NHL. He grabbed a packet of smoked salmon along with the bagels, too, and came inside whistling to himself.

It was the look on Alexei’s face that gave it away, and it was all Kent could do not to drop everything on the floor and scream until his voice gave out. But he was stronger than that now. He saw the dead look in Alexei’s eyes, and he knew what was going to happen.

If Alexei was lucky, he’d have a week to pack up and clear out. It was pre-season so at least he wouldn’t be expected on the ice in the next twenty-four hours.

“Who?”

“Sharks,” Alexei said.

So Bob had been half right. Or he’d been right, and then the Schooners had been outbid. Kent was still holding the A, but he hadn’t done enough to make friends in high places. It was no wonder he was not in the loop.

“That’s not…so far,” was all Kent could manage right then. He cleared his throat, then put the bags on the counter. “We can go together. I can help you find a place.”

Alexei clenched his jaw, but nodded, then spun on his heel and left the room. Kent jumped slightly when he heard Alexei’s bedroom door slam, and he squeezed his hands into fists to keep from falling apart. Alexei hadn’t spent time in his own room in…months. For most of the season. It had been a place for Alexei to throw his clothes and occasionally shoes that smelt too terrible to be left out near the front door.

And now he was in it. Probably with the door locked. And there was nothing Kent could do. He had to trust Alexei to handle this, to not do anything stupid.

Kent wouldn’t lose his cool again.

He squared his shoulders, then grabbed the bags and made himself a bagel.

Alexei didn’t come out until well past lunch. His face was puffy, eyes red-rimmed, and he didn’t say much. He went into the kitchen, fixed himself a sandwich, then fit himself in the space between the arm of the sofa and Kent’s thigh.

Kent didn’t relax until Alexei shuffled downward, laid his head on Kent’s shoulder, and closed his eyes.

It was a sign, he decided. That it wasn’t over yet. That there was still hope. Maybe it wasn’t going to be perfect, but Alexei deserved to have his chance in the NHL. He deserved to show his skills as the player he was drafted to be, and it was possible the Sharks could give him that. Kent couldn’t begrudge him that opportunity. He trusted the higher-ups knew what they were doing.

Turning, he cupped Alexei’s cheek, and drew his face upward. He cleared his throat and said as best he could, “I’m miss you,” in his terrible Russian.

Alexei laughed, and leant forward, nuzzling his large nose against Kent’s.

“I say wrong?” Kent asked, still refusing to go back into English.

“Very wrong,” Alexei admitted, and pressed a kiss to the corner of Kent’s mouth. “But beautiful, just like you.”

Kent opened his mouth to a kiss, groaned when large hands drifted under his shirt, then grabbed him by the hips and pulled him onto Alexei’s lap. Kent’s knees fit snugly on either side of Alexei’s thighs, and he arched into the touch of the bigger man. It was perfect, it was everything and Kent kissed Alexei hard so he didn’t do something really fucking stupid—like start crying.

Alexei’s hands made their way into Kent’s hair, knocking his snapback onto the floor, curling the light strands round his fingers. Their tongues danced, hot and wet and a little desperate, as Kent ground himself against Alexei’s crotch.

“Want you to fuck me,” Kent groaned.

“Yes,” Alexei said. His hand slipped down the back of Kent’s joggers, squeezing an ass cheek. His thumb slipped into the crack, brushing over his hole just a little, pressing light but not in. “Yes. You want…”

“I want. Fuck I want so bad. Carry me to bed?”

Alexei needed no further prompting. He ensured Kent’s legs were firmly hooked round the small of his back, and he lifted him, kissing him as he carried him through the small hallway, and into the bedroom they’d been sharing all this time.

The bed was a mess, and smelt like sex and leftover Chinese. Kent ignored the empty paper take away boxes falling to the floor as he fumbled for lube and condoms. He’d cleaned himself out the night before, and hoped that was still good enough now, hoped Alexei didn’t care too much.

The desperation in Alexei’s eyes said he didn’t, as his fingers dug into Kent’s hips. He lowered himself, kissing down Kent’s chest, then taking Kent all the way into the back of his throat. Kent felt Alexei gag round him, sending pleasure shooting up his spine. Kent sucked in his breath, and arched his back, and curled his toes.

“Oh fucking fuck me,” he gasped.

“Yes,” Alexei groaned as he pulled off. “Yes. Want to. Will…”

It was a mess after that. They were too emotional, desperate to get each other off, but desperate to draw it out. Alexei’s fingers were inside him, a push-pull of intense pleasure, hitting his prostate with unerring accuracy until Kent was weeping and begging.

Then Alexei was inside of him. He had Kent pulled up onto his lap as he knelt, holding Kent by the ass as he thrust upward. Kent was gasping, crying out with his face buried in Alexei’s neck. He was ravaged and taken apart, and fucking wanted and it was the best he’d felt in so damn long.

He didn’t want to come. He didn’t want to let it end. If he could just keep letting Alexei hold him and fuck him, maybe time would stop and Alexei wouldn’t leave, and Kent wouldn’t be alone again.

But then Alexei’s hand snaked between them. His warm fingers curled round Kent’s length and stroked him in a way Alexei had spent the entire season learning, and Kent couldn’t hold off. He came just seconds before Alexei did, crying out his completion into the side of Alexei’s sloppy curls.

When it was over, and they could breathe again, Alexei lowered Kent down to the pillows, then slid out. He threw the condom into the bin, and fetched a wet cloth to clean them up. Kent was used to this, he realised. Used to Alexei hovering over him and wiping him down, peppering kisses along the path of the washcloth.

His eyes went hot and wet, but Alexei was pragmatic enough not to mention it as he threw the cloth over the side of the bed. He lowered himself down, leaning up on his elbow, and let his fingers play with the cowlicks in Kent’s hair which had gone curly with sweat.

“What I’m do without my solnyshko?”

Kent tried to laugh, but his throat was burning with repressed rage and sadness, so he just shook his head and let his fingers drift round the dips and curves of Alexei’s face. “I’ll see you all the time,” Kent finally managed, his voice hoarse and barely there. “We play each other like…a lot, the Sharks and Aces. Roadies, you can crash here. I’ll keep your room for you. Off season we can…it can be…like it was.”

“Enemies now,” Alexei said. “Maybe you hate me soon.”

“Whatever happens I swear to all that is holy, I will never hate you,” Kent vowed. Then he kissed Alexei before the other man could promise the same thing—because Kent knew who he was, he knew what he was capable of drawing out in other people. He couldn’t allow Alexei to make a promise he couldn’t keep. “California isn’t that far.”

“Is have nice beach,” Alexei mused. He dragged his fingers through the pale, soft hair just below Kent’s naval. “We go there.”

“Yeah,” Kent said, and managed a smile. That did sound nice. It sounded fucking normal and domestic, and as much as that made him want to panic, he didn’t.

Maybe he would later, when he walked back into his apartment and Alexei no longer occupied space there, but for now…he was okay.

“Promise me,” Kent said, then stopped to choose his words carefully because he wanted this to mean something. He swallowed, then cupped Alexei’s cheek. “Promise me whenever you think about me, this is what you’ll remember. Even if you remember other things—like me being an asshole on the ice. Promise me you’ll remember this too.”

“I’m promise, solnyshko. Always be my little sun. No matter what.” Alexei nuzzled along Kent’s nose, then kissed him slow and soft.

Kent sighed, and let his eyes close, and let himself—for just this moment—pretend it was all going to be okay.

Chapter Text

“It’s nice. I can’t believe you picked it without me, asshole.” Kent leant back into the warm, heavy arms which were wrapped round his waist. He smiled when a soft nose nuzzled against the side of his neck. Familiar breath brushed across his exposed shoulder, and he kept his eyes trained out toward the bay which was far enough away Kent couldn’t see much, but the air had the sharp bite of sea to it.

“I do good job,” Alexei murmured against Kent’s skin. “Woman who take me, she say good place, impress women I bring home.”

Kent snorted a laugh, elbowing him lightly in the gut. “Whatever dude, you know you only have eyes for me.”

“Is that what we saying? Just you, just me?”

Kent felt something unpleasant crawling up his spine. A sort of possessive desire to keep Alexei to himself without making the same commitment because Jack was still…well, he was still alive and if he was still alive there was still a chance that he could…

“No,” he replied, throwing as much snark into his voice as he could muster, “I’m just saying that I know what the fuck I look like. I’m gorgeous. There’s no way you could do better.”

Kent let out a tiny yelp when Alexei spun him, pinning him to the railing with two massive hands. A smirk played at the corners of his lips, and he dipped his head in low, talking quiet and slow. “Guy at gym downstairs, very nice abs. Give me look. You know look?”

Kent wrinkled his nose and tried to play off his jealousy as something funny. “Whatever. He can’t fuck you like I can.”

“Is being so long,” Alexei said, his fingertips doing a slow drag up Kent’s shirt, splaying flat against the soft hair around his naval, “I’m forget.”

“So let me remind you,” Kent said, then surged forward and kissed him.

It was a filthy kiss, a lot of teeth, a lot of tongue. Kent had his fingers in Alexei’s hair as Alexei lifted him by the hips and hoisted him inside. Alexei wasn’t famous—hell, Kent wasn’t famous, in spite of his win, and his awards, and his name being thrown round for captain which would make him one of the youngest in hockey history. But they couldn’t take the risk, and Alexei was careful when he used one hand to brace Kent by the ass, and the other to draw the curtains firmly against the outside world.

And then that was it. Then Kent was Alexei’s—at least for that moment. Alexei threw him unceremoniously to the sofa, putting one knee between Kent’s thighs, grinding down with his hips. Kent gasped, arched, his mouth opening under kisses as Alexei’s fingers wandered. A near bruising grip at Kent’s hip, then fingers ghosting up his ribs, then under the waistband of Kent’s sweats.

He pushed the flat of his palm against the aching hardness in Kent’s boxers, rubbing with the heel of his hand until Kent was mewling, arching against the unforgiving touch. Alexei bit down on Kent’s neck, sucking a little—not nearly enough to leave a mark, but just the idea of one sent Kent’s head into a spin.

“Fuck yeah, babe. Fuck.”

“Am trying,” Alexei all-but growled.

The sofa was good for this—for this rapid-fire, handsy make-out, but not for what Kent wanted to do. Luckily Alexei seemed to get the memo, because he used his giant hands to manhandle Kent up, down the hall, into the bedroom that was half full of unpacked boxes.

“Fuck, shit,” Kent said, nearly tripping as he tried to give Alexei a strip-tease. “You’ve been here like two months already, why haven’t you unpacked your shit.”

“No reason,” Alexei said from his place on the bed, legs spread in a wide V, one hand up and brushing along Kent’s freshly exposed chest. “So beautiful.”

Kent felt himself flush white-hot, almost dizzy with it. He tried to keep his mind present, there in the moment with Alexei but it was hard when he kept comparing every second of every day with every other human to Jack Zimmermann.

He wasn’t dead, but he was still the fucking ghost that haunted Kent and Jesus he just wanted some peace. He didn’t want to think about all the words Kent tried to understand the meaning of—“Nice shot,” meant, “I love you.” “Good pass today,” meant, “I can’t wait to get my hands on you.”

Not that Jack had ever admitted it.

But Kent could write the translation book on Jack to English speech because he’d spent half his teenage years trying to Rosetta Stone the quiet French-Canadian.

And it was a sharp contrast to Alexei, who was open and free with his affection and his words. He never hesitated to tell Kent what he thought, how much he wanted him. There was never guessing, there always just…was.

And it was great. But sometimes it was just so fucking much and it made Kent want to run.

He wasn’t running now, though. No, now he was letting Alexei pin him to the bed, and he was letting Alexei pour lube on his fingers so he could work him open and fuck him slow and easy until they were bone-tired and half asleep.

It was what Kent needed, he thought. A sort of desperation for some sense of normalcy and belonging because being drafted to the Aces had given him that, but the trade had ripped it all away.

He closed his eyes and let his fingers do the work, and let Alexei’s mouth coax his open.

When Alexei sat on his dick and bounced until he found the right angle, it sent Kent into a place of euphoria. He had the taller man by the hips, his fingers digging into soft flesh, and his eyes rolled back in his head, and he groaned as Alexei stroked himself.

They came within a minute of each other, and Kent flopped back as Alexei cleaned them both up, then curled round him in the too-big, too-unfamiliar bed.

“Alyosha,” Kent muttered quietly after Alexei had flicked off the light and pulled the sheets up to their chests.

“Mm?”

“Uh. This is…uh.” He took a breath and rubbed his hand over his face. “I really like you. Like…fuck I like you so much but I don’t know if um…if we should…”

“Is okay,” Alexei said very softly, letting his fingers tangle with Kent’s. He pressed a soft kiss to Kent’s shoulder. “I’m not ask for more. Just what you want to give.”

Kent shifted backward. “Your English is getting better.”

“Sharks are hiring me tutor to learn,” Alexei said. “Am still very bad English with press, not want to tell.”

Kent snorted a laugh. “God, you’re just like Fishy.”

“Am better than Fishy. Am best guy. Good looking, bigger dick…”

“How the fuck…” Kent laughed. “Never mind, don’t even tell me, Jesus. Just kiss me then shut the fuck up and go to sleep.”

“Okay, solynshko.” Then he did.

Kent took a while to drift off, but eventually, with Alexei wrapped round him, he managed to drift off.

***

Nice game, solynshko. Have good night with boys )))

Kent stared down at his phone, then up at the door leading into the bar. It had been a while since he’d been carded. It was Vegas and sometimes places cared, but when Kent walked in with a bunch of professional athletes, and when his face was emblazoned across ESPN screens, mostly people didn’t give a shit.

Just inside the bar, there would be half his team—guys who didn’t have wives and kids demanding their presence at home. There were some of the other staff—PR guys and his GM would probably stop by. He’d had a decent start of the pre-season. A couple wins, a hatty in his second game which was enough for his coach to clap him on the back and say, “Damn son, I knew you were worth the couple mil.”

Kent pretended like his worth being assigned to dollar amounts didn’t crawl up his spine, sending searing pain through him. He pretended like he couldn’t feel the knee-wobbling, bone-chilling fear if he fucked up and lost it all and had to go back to…

Well.

Back to a life where he didn’t have Bob fucking Zimmermann to buy him hockey pads and skates when his were fucked up. Because Bob wasn’t his anymore. Neither was Jack. They were a ghost of a past he had for moments, no more.

Shit, he didn’t even have Tater which, in a way he expected because when had he been allowed to keep anything he wanted.

He swallowed thickly and walked inside, pasting on his smarmy grin. He adjusted his snapback and winked at one of the servers as he slid into the booth where Fishy sat with a couple of the new rookies.

“Well well well,” Burgy, who’d just been moved to Kent’s line, said with a grin. “We weren’t sure you were gonna show.”

“We had bets on one of those blondes who had the we wanna suck your dick poster up against the glass,” Marser said.

Kent rolled his eyes. “Shut the fuck up, oh my god. And someone get me a beer.”

The dark-haired rookie—not really a rookie, he’d been in Kent’s draft year and he’d come from the Stars—jumped up. Troy, Kent thought. Jeff Troy? Though he’d heard someone call him something else.

“Who uh…”

“Swoops,” Marser replied.

Kent lifted a brow. “Why the fuck?”

“Dude got a basketball scholarship to fucking Yale. He’s like some kind of genius or something.”

Kent snorted a laugh as Swoops came back, setting down the round of beers and grinning at Kent. “Dude you fucking passed up a chance to go to Yale to play with the Stars?”

Swoops’ smile didn’t falter. “Yale was offering to put my ass in debt. Stars were offering me 1.2 mil. Like…it wasn’t a hard choice. Plus now I’m with you fuckers.” He clinked his glass against Kent’s and said, “Bóodeem zdaróvye,” and Kent’s stomach bottomed out as Alexei’s face flashed in front of his eyes and fuck, he missed him.

He drank though. And drank. He had another, and then a third before half the guys had begged off and the only ones left were Marser, Swoops, and Kent.

Marser took off shortly after, and Swoops shifted so he and Kent were shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the bar which was half full, a handful of them Aces employees.

“So, Cap,” Swoops began.

“Not fuckin’ cap,” Kent reminded him.

Swoops snorted. “Naw but like…you will be. I heard the guys talking. I’m giving it a few weeks.”

“Fuck,” Kent breathed out, and took another long drink.

“Really though can I ask you something?”

Kent shrugged. “Go for it.” He held his breath because these were hockey dudes and he was just waiting for one of them to break and ask him about Zimms or Bad Bob or the fucking draft. I mean, Jack’s overdose was public knowledge now. There were shady as fuck photos of him checking into rehab, and checking out. There were grainy cell phone shots of Zimms working with kids, and then fucking…

Then walking onto Samwell campus, and that alone made Kent’s stomach fill with hot, angry acid, tearing at his insides.

“If I told you that dude over there—the cute one in the blue snapback?”

Kent’s eyes followed Swoop’s gaze over to a guy with light brown skin and dark curls jammed under a blue snapback. He was wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, and some of the tightest jeans Kent had seen in a long time. He was unbelievably hot, and his mouth went dry.

“What about him? He’s a PR guy, right?” Kent was guessing based on the amount of time the dude picked up his phone.

“I think he’s an intern,” Swoops said. “Uh, like one of those dudes they bring on to manage the Aces twitter or whatever. Anyway, uh. So he’s been…looking at you.”

Kent’s eyes went wide, and his head snapped over toward Swoops. “What the fuck.”

“I just wanted to know how pissed you’d be if I told you that dude was scammin’ on you and would probably blow you in a supply closet if you were you know…into that.”

“What the fuck makes you think I’d be into that?”

Swoops glanced down at his beer and shrugged. “It’s none of my fucking business.”

“You’re goddamn right it’s…” Kent began, his voice hot and terrified.

“But uh. You seem like a decent dude so I figured it would be okay to tell you that I would be cool with it. If he’d been looking at me instead of you.”

Kent felt like he’d swallowed his own tongue, and it took several gulps of beer and enough breathing he was starting to get a little dizzy before he could form words. “You’re…you uh…”

Swoops shrugged one shoulder. “Please don’t tell anyone. I’m not out. Not to like…not to my folks or team or anything. One or two guys on the Stars who…” He trailed off. “Never mind, it’s whatever. But there were uh…rumours about you. Mostly online bullshit but I thought maybe it would be okay if I…” Swoops licked his lips and said, “If you out me I’d get it because I know sports guys are dicks but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.”

“I’m…I’d never,” Kent stammered. He dragged a hand down his face. “That was a fucking hell of a risk, Troy. What the hell were you thinking?”

“That you’re going to make a fucking awesome captain, and I trust you,” Swoops said. “Anyway I’m going to get a drink, then a cab. You wanna share?”

Still processing, Kent looked up and saw what Swoops was talking about. The guy’s eyes were boring straight into Kent, like he could see straight through Kent’s jeans. “I think I’ll hang for a bit.” It was a risk. A big fucking risk.

Kent thought of Alexei’s text sat on his phone, and then he thought of how he was never really going to see him. They had four days a month during season for free time and that wasn’t shit. And Alexei deserved better. So fucking much better.

And maybe he was lying to himself. Maybe he just wanted to do this. He and Alexei had agreed what they had wasn’t exclusive, and it didn’t erase the guilt, but it also didn’t erase the want. He managed to find his grin, and he managed to push it all down into a tiny box as he leant on the counter of the bar and said, “Can I get your next drink?”

Kent wanted to say he was drunk by the time they stumbled into the back of the guy’s car. He wanted to, because it meant he could have that excuse when he finally fessed up to Alexei that he’d laid out flat in the back seat and thrust his dick into Marcus’ throat. He wanted to say he was so far gone on a dozen pints that he barely remembered Marcus pulling off, and letting Kent jerk off and come on his face.

But he wasn’t.

He was stone-sober and nearly desperate. He’d let Marcus put his hands all over Kent. Whispered promises of keeping it secret, then Marcus had shoved his hand down the front of Kent’s jeans and gripped him hard, palming him through his boxers as he kissed Kent until the soon-to-be captain couldn’t breathe or see straight.

Maybe it was the way it felt forbidden that made it so much hotter, but Kent came until he was nearly blind, his fingers clawing at the soft leather. It was by some miracle they were left alone, that no one walked by and saw fogged windows and the car bouncing on wheels. But they had gotten off. Kent had crawled onto all fours, awkward because the car wasn’t that big, but he’d licked his own spunk from Marcus’ cheeks before freeing the guy’s dick and stroking it until he was nearly sobbing and pulsing his release on Kent’s hand.

They exchanged numbers after that, and Kent got a cab.

He stepped into his apartment which held no traces of Alexei anymore. He showered and ordered a box of condoms and some lube online which would be sent to his door. He put on an old Habs t-shirt, crawled into bed, thought of Jack for his ten minute ritual.

Then he went to sleep.

It wasn’t until morning that he cried, when he woke up to, Morning, solynishko. Think of you today ))

Because by then he knew it was too late. He loved Alexei, he’d never deny that—at least not to himself. But it was over.

He wasn’t strong enough for all of this. And he’d have to tell him.

***

“Smile.”

Kent turned to see Marcus there with his phone out. He was wearing a soft blue snapback, and a white t-shirt which looked painted on. He was leant against the side of the rink with a grin which lit up like the fucking sun and it went straight to Kent’s dick.

Guilt washed over him, fierce and unforgiving, and yet he found himself smiling a chirpy smile and took a slap shot at the goal. It hit the post and pinged off the side and Marcus laughed as he snapped photos. “Mon Capitane.”

“Fuck you,” Kent said, and skated off. He didn’t miss the look Swoops shot him, but he ignored it until a lot later when they were sat at their stalls changing for the afternoon.

“So…fucking?”

Kent’s gaze snapped up, then darted round. He only relaxed when he realised they were alone. “It’s entirely not your business.” He balled up his jersey, then let it fall to the floor. It was crumpled, but the C was facing outward and his stomach was twisting.

They had a roadie coming up, and their last game would be in Boston. It would put him close to Samwell. And it was ripping his heart in two because he was fucking Marcus, and he was texting Alexei, and everything in him told him going to visit Jack was a terrible fucking idea but Jesus he just had to…

It wasn’t fair to Jack but he needed to at least see him. Pap photos of Jack skating round a peewee rink, or unloading his bags into some dorm building wasn’t enough. It wasn’t real. It didn’t stop the never-ending nightmares about finding Jack passed out, barely clinging to life, in a puddle of his own vomit.

Kent felt anger in his gut, twisting violently. He missed Jack, and he loved him, and he fucking hated him for leaving him out to fucking dry after trying to kill himself.

“Isn’t Marcus coming with us on the roadie?” Swoops asked as he tugged his Henley over his head.

Kent gave him a dry, tired look. “Maybe. Also you should totally go out and get your dick sucked so you can stop obsessing about mine.”

Swoops rolled his eyes. “You give your dick way more credit than it deserves, man.” Then he stopped and said, “I uh…I’m happy for you though. You looked really miserable for a while there, and now you… Well. Don’t.”

I’m just really fucking good at faking it, Kent wanted to say. But he didn’t. He just flipped Swoops off, then grinned at him, and led the way out of the locker room.

***

Their first game against the Blues went really fucking badly. Kent was off his game, and frustrated. Alexei had texted him before he arrived, saying he had some news to share, and that he missed him, and would he fly out his first free weekend.

Kent missed easy shots and took too many checks, and he didn’t even flinch when his coach reamed him for it later that night in the locker room.

They took the bus to play the Pens. They tied it up, and managed to win in a shootout. Kent grinned at the dark look Crosby shot him right before he exited the ice. He and the guys finished their celly and slipped back into the locker room. Jeff and Fishy were taking press, so Kent was able to strip down on his own, and check his messages.

Good game, solynshko. No dirty hits, am proud ))) Call me tonight?

He glanced at another message in his inbox.

Nice game. Want me to come over?

Kent stared at both messages and wanted to cry. He thumbed over Alexei’s. I’m pretty fucking beat and sore. Can we talk tomorrow?

Of course. Rest well.

The return message was devoid of Alexei’s eyeless smiles, and Kent could read from the tone it was not okay. That Alexei probably knew. That Kent wasn’t clever, and no amount of claiming that they weren’t exclusive made any of this okay.

Kent was a fucking disaster and he left a world of hurt and collapsed bodies behind, anywhere he went. He had half a mind to text Marcus and tell him to run while he still had a chance.

Instead he wrote back, You know where to find me.

And he did. He found Kent in his single. He found him on the bed, then in the shower, then up against the vanity where Kent stared at himself with a dead look in his eyes as he took Marcus deep inside his body. When Marcus left, Kent had two love bites, and fingertip shaped bruises on his hips.

He deserved worse. He figured soon enough, he’d get it.

***

“I’m going to charter a flight home. Gonna rent a car and drive up to see my mom tomorrow.”

“Do not fucking miss practise on Monday,” coach warned, his brows furrowed. Sometimes Kent swore he could see dollar signs when his coach blinked, like he was quietly calculating how much Kent was worth, how much he was paid and how much he’d earnt. Like he was on a constant scale of how much he deserved, and he pretended like it didn’t make him feel like he was swallowing razor blades.

“I won’t.”

“I will scratch you for the next game,” he went on. “I will make an example out of you. You wanna keep the C, fucking earn it, Parse.”

Kent bit back his retort that he hadn’t done anything to prove he wasn’t worth it. But the coach was going based of rumours of him in the Q, and yeah okay Kent hadn’t been a great kid back then. He drank too much and fucked too much and nearly killed the his best friend so…

“No worries, coach. You can count on me.”

“Make me believe it, Parse.”

Kent had no idea how to do that. Because apparently winning a Stanley Cup and the Calder wasn’t enough yet.

He rented a Jag and felt like a fucking douche, but he kept the top down in spite of the cold, and followed his GPS to Samwell campus where Jack Zimmermann lived. It had taken some research and some facebook stalking, but it turned out Jack had been invited to live in the hockey frat house which had a public address on the Samwell facebook page. Jack had the A on his team, and was their leading scorer.

Big fucking surprise, Kent thought. Not even nearly fucking dying and taking a year off would keep Zimms from being exactly who he was meant to be. And Kent got it, kind of. He got why Jack needed this—something besides just hockey to survive. Once upon a time Kent thought maybe he could be Jack’s reason, but that was a fucking stupid, teenaged bullshit fantasy that was never going to come true.

And Jack would get bored. Kent knew this. Kent fucking knew Jack couldn’t live like this for four years. He wasn’t going to wait four goddamn years to get scouted. He was goddamn hockey royalty. He could start with the Pens tomorrow if he wanted to. If he threw a few names round. If he just called his fucking uncle and asked…

But no. Kent wasn’t going down this road. He was going to let Jack heal and breathe and just be okay so the desire to eat a month’s worth of anti-anxiety pills with half a bottle of cheap whiskey wasn’t overwhelming. He was just going to peek in the windows and set his eyes on Jack for the first time in two years and then it would…then it would be okay.

It would.

That’s all.

That’s all he was going to do.

***
“Holy fucking fuck me. Kent fucking Parson. You’re fucking with me, right?”

Kent hadn’t expected the party, though it was a frat house so he should have had some idea. But somehow he was roped into a crowd, and a cup of something green and terrifying and weirdly sweet in his hand. And someone was taking photos, and someone was asking to see his Stanley Cup Ring…

“Haha no I don’t actually wear it,” he had said.

People were taking selfies, and two guys were muttering something about spread-sheets and coffee shop AUs.

“Uh,” Kent said, grabbing the guy with the stache, “is Jack around?”

The guy shrugged. “Yeah, man. Upstairs, probably. Hang on, don’t fuck off. I’ll get him.”

So Kent took a few more selfies and gave his opinion on fighting in the NHL, “I don’t really agree with it or do it but you know…it’s hockey…”

He showed pictures of his ring and pictures of his cup day, and fuck he forgot Bob was in them because the tall blonde dude with glasses started going on about Bad Bob.

And then Jack was there.

Jack was there with his sleepy eyes and it had only been a few years but he looked so…

Different.

More broad, arms larger, chest wider. His mouth was turned into a frown, and he looked exhausted. “What are you doing here, Kenny?”

“I…” Kent had no idea. He’d thought of a hundred thousand things he might say in a hundred thousand scenarios if he ever saw Jack again. Most of them involved Kent running into Jack in Montreal when the Aces were playing the Habs, or on some unnamed Boston street.

He never thought he’d have the balls to show up here like this.

“Jack I…”

“I thought my parents told you I didn’t want to see you.” His voice was dry, flat, without a lot of inflection like it usually was but something about it now was…different. Proof he hadn’t wanted to see Kent. Proof it was all Kent’s fault and…

“Can we talk alone?”

Jack looked like he wanted to say no, but he beckoned Kent outside. Out front. To the porch. Like a dismissal. “That’s yours?”

Kent’s gaze darted to the street and he sighed. “Rental.”

“Don’t leave it there too long. This is a college campus.”

Kent didn’t really know what the fuck that meant. Because college had never been in the plan. It wasn’t supposed to be in the plan. They were supposed to have matching Stanley Cup rings, and that Calder was supposed to have Jack’s name on it. Just like the number one draft spot and yet…

“You just stopped talking to me,” Kent blurted. “You were…you just…I didn’t know it was going to be me. You didn’t know it was going to be me.”

“I knew,” Jack said in that same, dead tone. “I knew. I got…information. Before. I knew.”

Kent’s knees felt weak and he took a step back. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I was hoping they were wrong,” Jack bit. “Because I worked for it, I deserved it. You rode my coattails and then you took my place and…”

“And what? Dying is better than being second place.”

“I don’t want you here, Parse,” Jack said.

Parse, like it was a curse, like it was the final nail in the coffin belonging to Parse and Zimms and Kent felt it like a literal hand reaching into his chest and ripping his heart out. “I was just as good as you,” Kent replied, his voice quiet, and full of disbelief because he wasn’t sure he’d ever believe that. But he had to say something. It wasn’t going to end like this. “I was better. Which is why I went first. And won the Stanley Cup. And the Calder. And everything you ever wanted but were too weak to get.”

“It’s better if we don’t talk again.”

“Because you make the rules,” Kent spat, and that anger which was mostly dormant was alive now, molten-lava hot, searing him from the inside. He took several steps back, his fists clenched. “It’s always what you want, Zimms. It’s always your team, and your career, and your life, and no one matters but you. Selfish piece of shit.”

“Please go,” Jack said. His voice was trembling but his eyes were dry, and Kent came to the sudden realisation Jack probably never shed a tear over him. Because whatever they had, Jack had never loved him. It had always been hockey, and Kent had just been the convenient queer who understood it.

Nothing else.

“I…” He couldn’t say anything else. There was nothing to say. He could fall on his knees and recount every moment of sheer agony and pain that Jack’s overdose had put him through. He could tell Jack exactly how it felt every time he was reminded of what they had—what they should have had—but he wouldn’t.

Because ultimately, Jack didn’t care.

“Enjoy your new life, Zimms. You’re finally somewhere you belong.” It was cruel. To Jack, it was cruel, and he meant it that way. Because Jack would never feel love for Kent, so maybe he could at least hate him a little. Because then it was something. Then it wasn’t silence and indifference. He winked. “Text me sometime. I’ll score a goal for you.”

Jack went inside, and Kent got in the car and left.

It took some hassle and a lot of money, but he got his ticket changed. And when he arrived in San Jose, he sat on a bench, pulled out his phone, and sent a text.

I fucked up. I’m at the airport. Can you come and get me?

I’ll be there ten minutes. Don’t leave.

Kent stared around, his heart aching, his lungs full of sighs, knowing he had nowhere else to go, and no one else who would ever give a shit.

***

Kent clutched the tea mug between his hands. He had no idea what was even in it—something kind of spicy and dark. It burned going down, but he relished it. His conversation with Jack played in his head on repeat, a small voice like a video commentary telling him what a fuck up he was, that of course Zimms wanted him to go, because who would want him when he was like that? Maybe it was him, eh? Maybe he’d been the one to drive Jack to the edge and…

“Kent.”

Kent blinked up, and realised Alexei had been staring at him, trying to get his attention for a while now. Kent hadn’t really said two words to Alexei since he’d shown up at the airport and gathered Kent into his car. They arrived at his place not long after, and the only thing Kent registered was that it didn’t smell like Alexei anymore. Not the way it used to, in that tiny room with the small bed, just across the hall from Kent.

Everything was changing, shifting. Nothing felt the same, and even with some of the most prestigious hockey trophies held between his two hands, he felt lost. He had no idea what the hell he was even doing here.

He stared at Alexei’s deep brown eyes and felt guilt washing through him. “I fucked up.”

Alexei clasped his hands on the counter. “You have…sleep with someone else on your trip?”

“Fuck. What? No!” Kent started, then froze. His throat went tight and hot, and the tremble in his fingers turned into full-on shaking. “Alexei you and I…we didn’t…we’re not.” He stopped, breathed, cleared his throat. “We’re not exclusive.”

“Exclusive. Is word meaning…boyfriend?” Alexei asked, his brow creased.

Kent shrugged helplessly, panic ripping through him. They had agreed. They agreed they weren’t going to do this because it was too damn complicated. They’d agreed that it would just be…what it was, and nothing more, and Kent hadn’t done anything wrong, and Kent was…

The next thing Kent knew, he was being sat on the sofa, two warm hands touching his face, Alexei’s voice a slow murmur in Russian at the back of his head. It sounded like he was speaking into a tin, the words hollow, echoing. But it was bringing him back.

His mouth tasted strange—like copper. He had been breathing too fast and the acrid smell of too much oxygen lingered at the back of his nose. Kent blew a breath out of his mouth, slow and easy, and forced himself to look up.

“Tell me what happen, solynshko. You are…having bad time. Scared, maybe? You hurt someone? You hurt yourself?”

Kent swallowed, and it felt like razorblades going down. “I…saw Zimms. Jack. You know?”

“Yes,” Alexei said. His hands dropped to the top of Kent’s thighs, still crouched there on the floor in front of him. His gaze was open, devoid of judgement and Kent thought, there’s no fucking way I deserve this.

“I went to his college to like…say hi. I don’t…I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. I thought maybe he’d…we could…talk,” he finished lamely. He reached a hand up, dragging it through his hair. “He was really pissed that I showed up.”

“You do something bad?”

“Called him selfish,” Kent murmured. “I was so angry. I wanted him to…hurt, I guess? Because I was hurting so badly and it was so stupid. I don’t even really want that, I just…”

Alexei nodded, rubbing gently over Kent’s jeans. “Is okay. We all human, yes? Saying mean things, having feelings we are not control, not understand.”

Kent raised a brow. “Where the fuck did you get that?”

Alexei chuckled softly. “My therapist. She tell me is okay not be happy all the time, have thoughts that are being…not good. Is okay.”

Kent pulled a face at the word therapist, but he sighed and shrugged. “Yeah well. Anyway. So. I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking going there. He probably got his dad on the phone and I can guarantee Bob’s never going to talk to me again. Can’t blame him, you know?”

Alexei sighed, then pushed himself up, easing down onto the sofa cushions, and manhandled Kent until they were laying down, Kent’s front pressed to Alexei’s back. “You needing rest, solynshko. We sleep now, talk rest in the morning.”

Kent opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out. This felt so nice—nice enough he wanted to push Alexei away because he hadn’t earnt any of this. This wasn’t for him. And yet Alexei’s arms wouldn’t let him go. They kept him in place, warm and safe and, at least for the moment, grounded.

Fatigue set in, and Kent’s eyes began to drift closed. If he hadn’t been so keyed up, he might have noticed that before they fell asleep, Alexei didn’t kiss him.

***

When Kent woke, it was late into the morning, and he was alone. Sometime during the night, Alexei had managed to get Kent out of his shoes and jeans. He had a vague memory of Alexei murmuring to him softly, pushing him from side to side to help him get comfortable.

Kent couldn’t remember if Alexei had stayed.

Pushing himself up, he rubbed a hand down his face, blinking against the sleep in his eyes, against the harsh bit of sun coming from a gap in the curtains. The place was tidy, and there was no sign of Alexei anywhere, so Kent stood up and began to wander. The condo wasn’t familiar, but there was something off about it.

It wasn’t until Kent poked his head into Alexei’s bedroom that he realised what it was.

There were boxes everywhere. Half packed, hanging open, Alexei’s things thrown inside. He’d never really been neat about his packing, but it didn’t look like he was attempting to take his time with it all. That was…worrisome. He figured Alexei would tell him if he was looking for a new place. Then again, they hadn’t talked much so far, and maybe he was buying. Maybe he was settling in and decided to take up permanent residence closer to the arena. Maybe…

“Kent?”

Kent spun on his heel, turning to find Alexei in the doorway holding a brown paper pastry bag in one hand, and two cups of coffee precariously balanced in the other.

“Hey. I wasn’t sure where you were.”

“My kitchen not have much food, no breakfast,” Alexei said, sounding a little sheepish. “I’m get bagels. Kind you like, and some coffee.”

Kent followed him into the living room, his chest itching with questions. “So uh. You’re getting a new place?”

When Alexei turned, he didn’t quite meet Kent’s gaze. His cheeks were flushed, his bottom lip worried between his teeth. “I’m…meaning to tell you but…” Alexei looked off to the right, staring out of the terrace window. “I’m being trade. Again.”

Kent’s eyes went wide. “What the fuck? Alyosha, your stats are good this year. You’re…”

“I’m ask,” Alexei admitted. “Team is…okay. Nice guys, some Russians,” he said, fiddling with the plastic lid on his coffee. “But is not all good place. I’m talk to one guy, he is coming from Islanders. Is saying new expansion team, maybe is good place for me.”

Kent blinked. “The…Falconers.” He knew about the Falcs. He didn’t want to. They were brand new, setting the entire hockey world into a spin, fans terrified for their favourite players, and the horror that came with the expansion draft. He knew about them because they were east coast. Not far from where he grew up. And not far from Jack. But Providence had stayed tucked inside a small box, in the dark recesses of his mind. “You’re…”

“Coach is suggest…thinking maybe I’m do better there. So I think is good idea.”

Kent swallowed thickly, his eyes going hot. “Why uh. I mean…were you going to tell me before you left? I don’t understand.”

Alexei bit his lip. “I’m want to, Kent. Not want to keep secret.”

“So why…”

“Because is a lot, and you are having so much, Kent.”

Kent started to feel anger and hurt rising in him, and he took several breaths, trying to keep control of his temper. He understood why Alexei hadn’t said anything. He did. And it wasn’t like Alexei owed him anything. But that didn’t erase the sting. “Okay,” he said. “I…get it.”

Alexei’s gaze dropped to his lap. “My flight in two days. Am having someone pack everything, send to Providence. They are sign me with three years.”

Kent’s eyes widened. That fucking long. That long was like…it was nearly like saying that was the place he’d call home from now on. Fuck. “Well…I’ll come visit.”

“Maybe,” Alexei said softly.

Kent reeled back, like he’d been slapped in the face. “Maybe?”

Alexei squeezed the sides of his cup hard enough to make the paper bow. “Kent,” he said, his voice heavy, “you are…have a lot of pain. Not over pain from Jack.” When Kent opened his mouth to defend himself, Alexei raised a hand. “Not ready for something serious. I’m know this, am okay with it. My therapist, she tell me maybe some distance, it helps. To know what we are really need from each other?”

Kent was trying desperately to hear Alexei over the ringing in his ears, but it was hard. “I don’t,” he managed.

“Providence is being close to Jack. Close to…maybe some choice you make, you are not like. I love you, solynshko. Want more, but we are far apart, and you not giving your heart so easy.”

Kent licked his lips. Everything he was saying was true. Everything. And it felt like a white-hot knife being plunged into his gut. “Alexei.”

Alexei shook his head. “We staying friends, yes? Maybe more, maybe someday.”

Kent snapped. He didn’t mean to. It was the very last thing in the entire world he wanted, but it was like he was outside of his body when he stood up, letting the coffee tumble to the floor. He didn’t feel the splash of hot liquid on his feet, or the sharp blow to his shin from clipping the side of the coffee table.

He heard the words spilling from his lips, without any way to control them.

“You know what, fuck you, Alexei. Fuck you. You think you can hurt me by leaving? I’ve been fucking guys on the side all year, okay? And I’m not going to stop. Ever.”

Alexei bowed his head, but said nothing as Kent scooped up his shoes, then his bag, and slammed the door.

He didn’t quite remember how he got to the airport. He didn’t remember whipping out his credit card to pay for a ticket. He didn’t even know he drank on the short flight until later when he looked at the charges on his card.

The only thing he knew, as he finally stepped inside his apartment, was that Alexei wouldn’t be there again. That in two days he was going to board a plane and fly across the country, and he wasn’t coming back.

For the first time since the day of the draft, Kent was viciously reminded that he was absolutely, and completely, alone.

***

It was wrong. He knew it. The moment he pushed the buzzer, he knew this was the last place he should be. But he was terrified. It was this, or get drunk and make rash decisions he didn’t want to make. He was tired of not trusting himself, tired of feeling like he was doing this on his own without anyone to help catch him when he fell.

He knew he was a disaster, he knew he was going to hit rock bottom, but he just wanted to soften the blow.

So when the door opened, and Jeff’s head poked round, he pushed his guilt aside.

“Can I come in?”

He knew he looked awful. He hadn’t slept in days, hadn’t done much in the way of eating. It had come across in practise, in the game the night before when the Sharks—now sans Mashkov—had flattened them. It hadn’t been a shutout, but at seven to one, it might as well have been.

Jeff took one look at him, shoved his hands into his mussed dark hair, and stepped aside.

“You don’t have anyone over, do you?” Kent asked as he brushed past his liney.

Jeff shook his head. “Uh no, dude. I don’t bring people back here. Fishy has the worst habit of just like…showing up? I’m so not ready to be out.”

Kent nodded, his jaw tight as he swept into Jeff’s kitchen and grabbed a beer out of the fridge. He cracked the top, and took down half in one go.

“Bad night?”

“Bad everything,” Kent said with a high, tight laugh. “I think I’m having a fucking moment.”

Jeff blinked. “Like an epiphany?”

“Is that what you call it when you look in the mirror and realise that every fucking thing you touch crumbles?”

Jeff bit his bottom lip, then grabbed Kent by the wrist and hauled him to the sofa. Kent allowed himself to be pushed down, his head lolling to the side as he gulped more of the liquor down. “You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” Kent said, then laughed again. “I kind of think that’s like…the problem? I mean, shit. Everyone else who fucking fell apart went and did the right thing. Like…the adult thing. And what did I do? I went and fucked an intern, then showed up at my ex’s, and fucked up the one good thing I had going for me.”

Jeff’s expression didn’t change much as he looked at Kent. “You’re not gonna tell me who, are you?”

“I mean…no?” Kent said, scrubbing a hand down his face. He leant forward and dropped his empty bottle on the edge of the table. “I’m not gonna out anyone.”

“Yeah. I get it,” Jeff said, his voice a little softer now.

“I didn’t just fuck up. I like…crossed a bridge, and burnt it behind me as I walked away. And there wasn’t even a fucking reason why!” Kent said, covering his face. “He was real fucking good to me and put up with so much shit. Jesus.”

“You can fix it,” Jeff said, reaching out to pat Kent on the knee. “Seriously, dude. Like…you’re a good guy. Maybe a mess, but you’re a good guy.”

Kent let out another, more bitter laugh. “You don’t know me that well.”

“Yeah I do,” Jeff countered. “I fucking know you, whether you want to admit it or not.”

Kent clenched his jaw. “Fuck you, Swoops. Fuck—”

His words were cut off when Jeff pressed a firm, but gentle hand to his mouth. Kent’s eyes went wide, and Jeff’s face came in really close. “Seriously. You can insult me all you like, but I don’t think that’s what you want. So maybe try shutting up for once.”

Kent swallowed, letting a breath out through his nose when Jeff didn’t pull his hand away.

“I want to help.”

His fingers pulled away, a slow drag, sending a shiver up Kent’s spine.

“Kent. What do you need?”

There was something in Jeff’s eyes, a glimmer, a spark of mischief and daring that Kent realised he had seen before, but had ignored. There was a line. He was staring at it, and if he crossed it, it meant there was no going back. In the back of his mind, Alexei was there. Alexei, who had been there for him. Alexei who had held him during nights when Kent was so damn sure he was about to fall apart.

But Alexei wasn’t here anymore. Kent had seen to that. Kent had driven him to the other side of the country. Kent had ensured that it was over. He’d buried what they had, and salted the earth. Nothing would grow again.

His hand reached up, and curled itself into the front of Jeff’s shirt. “Make me forget,” he said. He winced at the note of begging in his voice, but he didn’t take it back.

Jeff shifted, suddenly over him, hovering with one hand planted against the back of the sofa next to Kent’s head. Their noses were nearly touching. “You sure?”

Kent nodded. “I’m sure. I’m so fucking sure. Please.”

“You can’t tell anyone,” Jeff murmured as he leant in even closer, their lips nearly brushing together.

Kent let out a disbelieving laugh. “What the fuck do you take me for? You think I want…”

Jeff kissed him to shut him up. A hard, unforgiving kiss. Where Alexei was soft, where Alexei held his face and made him feel wanted and beautiful, Jeff hissed him fierce, like he was going to fulfil that promise. Kent would be torn apart and when he cobbled himself together, he wouldn’t remember any of it.

His mouth opened, and Jeff sucked Kent’s tongue into his mouth. He pulled back with biting kisses, making Kent’s lips swollen and pink. His hands were firm, seeking, experienced as they tugged on Kent’s shirt, pulling it up and over his head. Kent groaned, his hips arching off the cushions as Jeff straddled him, grinding down hard.

“Tell me what you want?” Jeff demanded.

“I don’t know,” Kent bit, his voice seconds from sobbing. “I don’t fucking know.”

“You want me to fuck you? Suck you off? Dirty handjob? Come on, Captain.”

Kent hissed through gritted teeth and grabbed Jeff by the hips, tugging him down. “Make it hurt,” he ground out.

Jeff grinned, toothy—not quite mean, but not gentle in the least. “You got it, Cap,” he said.

Kent lolled his head back, and let Jeff take control.

***

Morning came with a host of new bruises, mostly in places no one would see. Love bites on the insides of his thighs, finger marks on his hips. Jeff knew what he was doing. When Kent had begged Jeff to take him apart, to make it hurt, he’d half worried that Jeff would lose himself in the acts, but it wasn’t anything like that.

Jeff had meticulously fucked Kent into the mattress over and over, leaving him with sore muscles, but intact, and a little confused about what it all meant. Kent attempted to leave when it was over, but Jeff had pinned him to the bed with a firm arm.

“Fuck you, Parson. Just go to sleep.”

“I don’t know if this is a good idea. I don’t want…”

“I don’t want to be your fucking boyfriend, Kent,” Jeff grumbled into the side of his pillow. “But I like you. We’re friends. And friends make their other, really fucking sad friends breakfast in the morning. Especially after they fuck them.”

Jeff had been true to his word. Kent woke up to Swedish pancakes with berry sauce, and coffee so strong it made him choke. “What the fuck is this?”

Jeff just grinned over the rim of his mug. He looked far too chipper for only getting a handful of sleeping hours in, but Kent realised he felt more rested than he had in days. Though he was aching, it was the good kind, the kind that said yeah, maybe he could get his head about him. Maybe—however much it hurt leaving Alexei behind—he’d get through it.

He tucked both Alexei and Jack into small boxes, then breathed out and smiled at his friend.

“Uh. So that was…”

“Yeah. Not bad.”

Kent snorted, rolling his eyes. “Anyway…”

“Whenever you’re hard up, you know where I live,” Jeff said. He grabbed his phone and scrolled through his messages. “By the way, my birthday is coming up.”

Kent raised a brow. “Oh yeah? You want a pony this year?”

“I want courtside clippers tickets,” Jeff said, grinning at him. “And a blowjob on the hotel balcony.”

Kent laughed, but somewhere in the back of his head he realised this was progress.

Chapter Text

Kent’s head thumped back against the door. In the back of his mind he knew that was a terrible idea. Last night, listening to the vanilla hetero couple above them fucking all night told both Kent and Jeff what thin walls this hotel had. But with Jeff swallowing him down, his nose brushing against the coarse blonde hair at the base of Kent’s cock, it was hard to remember.

It was hard to remember anything. Except the one thing he was trying to forget.

Jack’s face still hovered in his mind. The way his hands had reached for Kent’s hips, drawing him closer. The way Jack’s breath had hitched when Kent’s fingers pushed up his shirt, drawing firm across his taut abs. The way Jack had tilted his head just so, the way he always had, when Kent was about to kiss him.

Strangely, the only thing Kent could focus on was how Jack kissed differently now. He didn’t move the same, taste the same. And maybe, in a way, that was why the words had tumbled from his lips. The way he’d said The Aces, and pushed and pushed, because if Jack came back to him, the hurt might stop. Jack might be his Jack again.

Kent didn’t really stop to consider if he even really wanted that because he’d been so fucking fixated on that one idea for so fucking long he didn’t think maybe this empty, hollow ache wasn’t about Zimms anymore.

He didn’t consider it until he left Jack in what was sure to be a shaking panic, and crawled into his car. He tried to erase the fury and disgust of the blonde kid—the one Jack had been flirting with, the one Jack clearly wanted whether he knew it yet or not. He stared at the wheel, then at the skyline. It was late, but it was less than an hour to Providence, and ten minutes after crossing the city line to Alexei’s house.

But the last text they’d exchanged was a series of eyeless smiley faces when Kent had texted a picture of his new cat.

Their conversations were pointed and wrong and nothing like they had been, and nothing like Kent wanted them to be, and it hurt.

So yeah.

He wanted to fucking forget.

He came down Jeff’s throat, but everything still remained.

Crawling to the bed, Kent collapsed on Jeff’s pillow and buried his face in the familiar, comforting smell. They weren’t in love, and Kent had been a little terrified that if they kept this up for long enough one of them might catch feelings, but he supposed they lucked out.

He loved Jeff more than life itself and he was pretty sure Jeff liked him alright, but it never crossed a line. Regardless of how many times Jeff swallowed his dick.

Jeff didn’t take long to follow, letting his cheek rest against Kent’s naked hip. He mouthed at it, the warm skin against dick-swollen lips, then he asked, “Did that help?”

Kent snorted a laugh. “Do you think it did?”

“I think I’ve been telling you for almost two goddamn years now that you can’t fuck your pain away, Parse.” Jeff turned more fully onto his side, his cheek squishing up against Kent’s hip. He toyed with the soft hair on Kent’s sternum, his eyes soft, full of whatever affection he held toward Kent. “You need therapy.”

Normally Kent’s reaction would be to tell Swoops to fuck off, or do something more useful with his mouth—or maybe even try to suck Jeff’s brain out through his dick so he’d stop saying dumbass things. But tonight he just sighed, and scrubbed a hand down his face because well…yeah. Maybe he kind of did.

“I just…”

Jeff propped himself up in his elbow, reaching out to curl his fingers round Kent’s wrist. They dug in, not painful, but firm enough to remind Kent he was there. His eyes were dark, and a little sad, thick brows furrowed down into a slight frown. “I love you, Kent. Like, you’re my best fucking friend in the whole world, and you will never lose me. But I…” He stopped, and Kent blinked at the sound of such raw, intense emotion in his voice. “I can’t lose you.”

“Dude, what the fuck?” Kent asked. “I’m not…”

“Look, I know I only know like…a fraction of what went down between you and Zimmermann, okay? I know he’s not a fucking coke-head and I know that you two…” He stopped. “And whatever happened with Mashkov, I won’t ask.” Jeff paused, his grip on Kent going tighter. “What I do know is you got some traumatic shit you never deal with, and I know that the fucking shit-stain management hasn’t done anything other than treat you like a walking paycheque. I know for a fucking fact they make sure you only feel worthy if you’re scoring goals…”

Kent felt a raw sob, like choking on razor blades, clawing its way up his throat. He swallowed it down and begged, “Jeff, please don’t…”

“You and I have both fucking seen what this organisation does to people. Because it doesn’t fucking care. It doesn’t give a shit if you throw yourself from your hotel balcony as long as you toss a couple cups their way first, and I will not…” His voice shook and he breathed. “I will not fucking lose you like that. Do you hear me?”

Kent blinked back tears, and he bit his lip, not quite capable of answering.

“Do you?”

He nodded. “I just…”

“They’re never going to help you, and it’s not going to get better here,” Jeff said. His grip went soft again, and his hand dropped from Kent’s wrist, landing gentle on his cheek. His palm was warm, callused from spending too many years of his life shooting pucks and gripping weights. “So you gotta do it yourself. See a therapist, work on getting better. If you gotta get out of here, Kent? Go. Fucking go.”

Kent closed his eyes and breathed, and didn’t try to say a word. He let Jeff get the lights, and curl up at his side. His arms held him close like a goddamn security blanket and he hated that he needed it, but his gratitude that he had it was more profound than he had words for. He could still see Zimms behind his closed eyes. He could see Alexei there too.

Come morning, he felt like he’d run a hundred miles. Everything ached, and all he wanted was to stay under the covers and never come out.

He fished round for his phone, and send the one text he didn’t ever think he would.

How did you find a therapist?

Is easy, Solnyshko. I give you phone number. You can call, they find someone for you.

I’m scared, Alyosha.

I know. But will be good for you. Promise.

I believe you.

***

“I don’t want to talk about my childhood.” The words were as contrary as he felt, and he stared up defiantly, his chin stiff, nose in the air, waiting to be challenged.

The woman, who’d introduced herself and then said, “You can call me Marcy if you like. Everyone does,” looked back at Kent evenly. Kent felt irritated by her presence. He’d expected…well he wasn’t sure what the hell he expected. Maybe an old-ass man with grey hair and round glasses who hummed and puffed on a pipe? He didn’t expect a woman who looked maybe five years his senior, wearing shit he’d seen in the display window at Old Navy. She had dark red hair worn in a long plait down her back, and she was wearing honest to god blue converse. Kent was fairly sure he actually had a pair in the back of his closet somewhere.

She was a kid. Barely out of college. How the fuck could she know how to fix him.

“That’s fine,” she said eventually. “Today I’d actually like to get a sense of why you’re here, and the goals you’d like to accomplish.”

Kent sniffed. “Lady, I don’t know why the fuck I’m here.” He paused, and he hated how shaky his breath sounded. “Maybe because like…my best friend cried when he thought I was going to kill myself.”

“Did you give him a reason to think you might?”

Kent stared at her, the answer dying in his throat because…maybe not directly, but Jeff knew him well enough to see the spiral. To see where Kent was reaching the end of his good fortune and…well.

“Uhh, no?” It was meant to be a statement, but it came out more like a question.

She nodded, and scribbled something on her notepad. Maybe she just wanted to look busy. Maybe she didn’t actually give a shit about his problems and she was just writing down her grocery list. “I think we should start there, then.”

Kent took in a breath, prepared to argue, or tell her never mind. Instead he found himself saying, “Yeah. Okay.”

***

He didn’t speak to Alexei for six months.

He went to therapy once a week, and had emergency skype sessions when things got bad. He should have considered what drudging up his past might do, but he was wholly unprepared for it. A part of him was grateful they didn’t make playoffs that year.

He’d been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He spent four days reading every shitty google article on it, and spent the next two days in an out of panic attacks. His new meds left him in a medication fog. It fucked with his sleep, and with his dreams. He was keeping a diary in case they made him more suicidal.

He was learning terms like suicidal ideation and flashbacks and triggers.

He felt like a fucking mess, and a fucking failure.

He was angry at Jack because Jack had done this to him. And he was fucking angry at himself because it hadn’t been Jack’s fault.

He was angry at Jack for signing with the Falcs, for having Alexei at arm’s length whenever he might want it, and for Kent being so far from anyone he ever cared about except Jeff, and sometimes Jeff just wasn’t enough.

But he was dealing. He was…getting better.

Just before his first skate of the season, Kent left his session after talking about Alexei, and he stopped at a café, grabbed a table at the back of the room, and hunkered down over his tea.

I owe you an apology.

He didn’t get a response while he was there. He ordered a sandwich and had a peach iced tea, then got two orange scones to go. As he was riding the lift up to his floor, his phone buzzed in his pocket and his fingers itched to check it.

It was probably Jeff, but he hoped it wasn’t.

He forced himself to put his things away before he dared to look.

Everything okay?

Kent stared down at Alexei’s message. It would make sense Alexei thinking something was wrong if Kent was apologising. And that, he supposed, was completely his fault. Every ounce of love Alexei felt for Kent had been undeserving.

I guess? I mean, I had a long session today and I realised…I fucked up with you and you didn’t deserve it. I had no business dating you or fucking you, whatever it was we were doing. I was too messed up and I know I made your shit worse. So I’m sorry. And if you don’t want to talk to me ever again, I would totally understand.

I have never stop caring about you, Kent. I’m understand you have bad time, lot to work through. Maybe things not best when I’m there, but not all bad. We have movies, and Russian food you hating, and laughing a lot. And hold hands. Was not all bad. I’m know you care.

And holy fuck he does not deserve that at all. He takes it, mostly because it hurts and he feels like he deserves the pain, but he most certainly brings it up to Marcy in their next session.

***

“Do you think it was selfish of me to apologise?”

Marcy gave him a slow look. “Not necessarily, Kent. Do you feel like it was selfish?”

Kent shrugged. “I mean…it made me feel good. And it fucking hurt what he said because I don’t deserve that kind of kindness or forgiveness, but it still…it helped make some of the guilt easier to handle?”

She tapped her pen on the side of her chair. “Were you actually sorry?”

Kent blinked. “What the fuck kind of question is that? Why would I apologise if I wasn’t sorry.”

Her mouth quirked into a small smile. “I think you’ve answered your question then.” When he continued to stare, confused, she let out a small breath. “Would you have apologised if you knew he was going to reject it?”

Kent licked his lips. “Um. Yeah, I think so? I mean…I kind of thought that’s what was coming anyway.”

“And yet you still did.”

“Well…yeah. I mean Jesus fuck after everything, it’s the least I could do.”

“Apologising isn’t about you or your feelings, and I know you understand that. But it doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to feel something good if our apology is accepted, and we’re told that the person we hurt still cares about us. The apology isn’t self-flagellation. You didn’t give it to try and make sure it hurt. You don’t need to feel pain in order to be forgiven.”

Kent’s throat burned, ached with the knowledge that it was okay. “Oh.”

She watched him for another moment. “I think I’d like to start talking a little bit about why you feel like you don’t deserve forgiveness.”

Kent let out a tense laugh. “Yeah uh…then I hope you have a lot of time on your hands. Because that’s a big fucking can of worms.”

***

Kent stared down the ice at Jack. Even under a helmet and a visor, even with a sea of five long years between them, Kent would recognise him anywhere. And behind him stood Alexei, larger than before, smiling like he always did.

Kent forced himself to look away.

Jeff was on his right, both of them stretching on the ice, and Jeff leant over, his voice low. “You gonna be alright when we do this?”

Kent dragged a hand down his face. “I don’t fucking know, man. I’m feeling all over the place.”

Jeff sighed, glancing back up at Alexei. “I got your back.”

Kent smiled at him. “I know.”

***

In hindsight, it went much better than Kent thought it was going to go. Snowing the goalie was fucked, and he knew it. And really it hadn’t been completely on purpose but he couldn’t claim a total accident. He deserved being at the bottom of that scrum.

He definitely deserved Alexei’s furious anger with him, hissing the Russian word, “Asshole,” in his ear, spitting, “Little rat,” because it was a dick move.

He knew Alexei was protective of his family, of his team. He knew that whatever he still felt for Kent, he wouldn’t let Kent threaten them.

So yeah.

They won on a dirty play, and Kent trudged back to handle press and try to smile through it like it wasn’t tearing him up inside to be opposite Zimms again. Like it wasn’t shattering him like glass because he’d had a chance once and he and Zimms worked hand in hand to fuck it up like it was their job.

And he’d once been able to call Alexei his, too. Alexei had been his far more than Zimms had ever been, but he’d fucked that up and now there was just a vast space between them.

He managed to get a text out as he and the guys made their way back to the hotel.

I’m really sorry. I let the game get to me.

Aces still play dirty game. I’m not expect different.

I’m trying. I promise.

An hour passed before Kent got a response.

Want to see you.

Kent stared at his phone like it had just caught fire, and he fought the urge to throw it across the room. He didn’t have a single. He was rooming with Swoops like they always did, and it probably wouldn’t be safe to have Alexei here. Even if some of the guys would love to see him again.

He didn’t have curfew, either. They were heading into bye week and he’d been planning to rent a car and drive up to see his mom and sister for a few days.

He swallowed thickly, then thumbed out his response. I’m heading to NY to see mom and Sam but uh…tonight?

In response, he received an address.

“I’ll see you next week in Vegas,” Kent told Jeff.

Jeff in turn grabbed him by the face. “Please be careful. Promise me.”

“I still love him. I have to…” Kent wasn’t sure what he had to do, but this was definitely part of it. Jeff kissed his forehead and Kent said, “No real kiss goodbye?”

Jeff laughed. “Listen, asshole. You go fix whatever you need to fix and if you still need a fuck when you get back, you call me. But I have a feeling you won’t.”

Kent didn’t want to pin hope on anyone or anything. That way lay madness and he wasn’t strong enough for that. But he let himself lean in and kiss the corner of Jeff’s mouth. “I’m gonna miss your blow jobs.”

Jeff laughed and punched him, then shoved him out the door.

The Lyft was only ten minutes, and he found himself outside of Alexei’s place with his case, and his phone, and just a flicker of hope he wasn’t going to be turned out into the street. Half of him descended into a paranoid fantasy where Alexei opened the door and Jack was there, and they sat him down and told him they were in love and neither of them wanted to hear from him again.

It was powerful and real and it had Kent shaking by the time Alexei opened the door and let Kent inside.

It was several moments before Kent accepted that they were alone.

“Are you dating a teammate?” Kent blurted.

Alexei, who was just showing Kent to the lounge, froze. “Is not your business, Kent.”

That hit, like a punch to the gut. He sucked in air, but took the blow and nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry I just… Fuck. I’m sorry.”

Alexei shook his head. “No. Am not date anyone. Have boyfriend little bit of time, but we break up last summer when I’m leave for Russia.”

The idea that Alexei has dated someone else hurts, and it’s unfair since he’s spent the last two years fucking and blowing Jeff. He wasn’t going to dwell on it. Although he can’t forget what Marcy told him about deserving forgiveness, and letting himself be just as worthy a person as anyone else on the planet, he decided he’d take any blow Alexei dealt him from now until the mother fucking end of the world.

He followed Alexei to the couch and put his case aside. He hated how unfamiliar it looked there, sticking out like a sore thumb. The place was even less familiar than the apartment in San Jose, and after a second Kent realised something. “You own this place.”

Alexei nodded. “Is nice here. Feel…more like home. Good city, good team. I’m not sure I ever have you here.”

Kent let his eyes shut just a little, and he licked his lips. “Uh. Yeah, me too.” He laughed a little, trying to ignore the bitter tone of it.

There was a pointed, awkward silence, then Alexei pushed himself up and said, “I’m make some tea.”

It was a reprieve, giving both himself and Kent space, and Kent was profoundly grateful for it. He had no idea how he could reconcile facing off with Alexei—and with Jack—the adrenaline fuelled game, Alexei lifting him by his jersey as he had one lifted him by his hips to fuck him into the wall.

The memory of that—of their shitty little Vegas apartment that was too quiet and too small and too full of the demons of their pasts and fears of their futures—it sent a heat rushing through his body. He took in a breath, and dropped his face into his hands, and he didn’t look up until Alexei cleared his throat.

Kent blinked up through the curtain of his fingers, and saw Alexei looking as awkward has he had once looked fresh from Russia with only a handful of English in his lexicon. He held out one of the mugs, and Kent got a whiff of sweet mint, and he smiled. He shouldn’t have been surprised Alexei remembered after all this time, and yet…he was.

“Myshka,” Alexei said. “You tell me what’s wrong?”

Kent looked at him, his eyes a fraction wider. “Myshka? When I was a little rat just a few hours ago.”

“Little mouse, little rat, same thing. Sneaky,” Alexei said, his mouth twitching. “Very clever. Very loyal.”

“Dunno bout that last one,” Kent said, but his shoulders were slumped as they relaxed, and he sipped the tea. It was exactly the way he’d always liked it. “So uh. Really, you’re okay?”

Alexei chuckled. “Am very good, Kent. Family here, is nice. Find good home. Maybe am get a cat too. Or dog.”

Kent snorted. “Yeah. One of those giant ones who looks like a bear. I could see that.”

“Maybe you just sending me pictures of your cat. Maybe I’m come visit your princess when we playing in Vegas.”

Kent wanted to drop to his knees and beg Alexei to be sincere, to mean that. But he pulled himself together before any of that tumbled from his lips. “How um. How’s Jack settling in?”

Alexei’s face shuttered off, going harder than Kent wanted to see him. “Settling in good. Will make Alternate Captain soon.”

Kent laughed, the sound a little choked with relief and pride and a little jealousy that it wasn’t next to him that Jack found his peace. “I’m not surprised. He’s…I mean, that’s Zimms.” He hesitated. “Take care of him, yeah?”

Alexei’s face softened. “Am take very good care of Zimmboni. You can trust me.”

“I know,” Kent said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“You tell me sorry, Myshka,” Alexei said after another pause. “I’m believe you. Believe you care, believe you sorry, and love me.”

Kent blinked against hot tears. “Yeah.”

“You ever telling Zimmboni this? He is…reason you so scared, why you cry, hide in my bed and watch bad TV. You ever saying sorry?”

Kent was fairly sure he couldn’t ever hide a thing from Alexei, even if he’d wanted to. “I…last year I went to Samwell. I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. I just…” He licked his lips. “I fucked it up and I don’t think a sorry is going to make a difference.”

“You have therapy now,” Alexei pointed out. “Is different.”

Kent bit the inside of his cheek, letting the pain bring him back down from the threat of a panic spiral. “Um. It is. But like…I’m afraid every time he hears from me he’s…it takes him back to a bad place. I don’t know how.”

“Maybe you try. Maybe you starting with just I’m sorry. Then if he forgive you, start there.” Alexei paused, then said, “He’s happy. Have nice girl. We not meet her yet, he’s being selfish, not share nice girl who bake so good. But he is saying I love you on phone, is always smile. Maybe is okay time to tell him.”

Kent blinked, because yeah he knew Jack was bi, but Jack was a hundred and ten percent and he wore his heart on his sleeve. How many times in juniors had they been less than careful because Jack only barely restrained himself from tackling Kent onto the ice and kissing him stupid because of a clever play on Kent’s part? If it had been a girl…

But it wasn’t his place to out Jack. For all that he’d been the world’s worst person to use Jack’s fear of being outed to anyone, he doubted there was a force on the planet that would actually make him capable of doing that.

So he just smiled and said, “I’m glad he’s happy. I think…that’s all I ever really wanted.”

Alexei sat back, sipped his tea which had to be unpleasantly tepid by now, and looked at Kent. “I miss you.”

It hit Kent like a sack of bricks, knocking the wind out of him. He gasped out, “I’m sorry I never deserved you. I wanted to.”

Alexei shook his head and his arm tensed, like maybe he wanted to reach out, but he stopped himself. “I’m never give up, myshka.”

Kent’s laugh was watery. “From little sun to little mouse?”

“You being both. But right now you cloudy, rainy, sad,” Alexei said. He gave in then, it seemed. His long arm stretched, thin fingers twisting through Kent’s cowlick. “Little mouse.”

Kent tried to hold back the sob, but he only had so much strength. And though he knew he should push Alexei away, he shouldn’t torture himself with this, he didn’t stop Alexei from pulling him over and tucking him into an embrace that Kent hadn’t felt in so many years it felt like eternity.

He allowed himself to burrow into this, to push his face against the warm neck, and surround himself in a smell which, in all these years, hadn’t really changed. Alexei still smelt like home.

“I missed you too,” Kent finally confessed, though Alexei knew that already.

I miss you.

You always say that.

“I’m not go anywhere. Wait here for you, Paroshka.”

Fuck, he’d been such an idiot. Waiting for someone who was never right for him. Someone who never really needed him. All this time, he’d had this at the tips of his fingers, but he’d been too fucking stupid to reach out and take it.

“Can we start over?” Kent whispered. Alexei’s fingers drew up and down his spine, and he hummed, but didn’t answer. “Go slow. Can we…can we be friends and…”

“Yes,” Alexei said. His lips pressed against Kent’s temple, soft and sweet, familiar and perfect. “And then…maybe more. When we’re ready.”

“When we’re ready,” Kent echoed. He swiped a hand across his face. His cheeks felt stretched, sticky with half-dried tears. He felt wrung out and wrinkled, a vague shape of the man he’d been before. Broken, but slowly gluing himself back together instead of waiting for someone to come along and do it for him.

It was what he needed all this time.

“Aloysha?”

“Mm?” Fingers brushed through Kent’s hair again.

“Can I stay tonight? I have to drive to New York tomorrow but I want…I need,” he said and stopped.

Alexei dragged his blunt nails across Kent’s scalp and said without hesitation, without any sound of regret, “Please, myshka. Please stay.”

***

Kent’s apartment felt strangely empty, even after letting Kit out of the carrier to reacquaint herself with the place. But his phone was full—texts from Alexei, texts from Jeff who’d met a woman and was currently on his way back from Cabo and Kent had a bet they’d be engaged within the month.

He was happy for Jeff, and for himself.

He’d spent the night with Alexei, in his arms, trading soft, chaste kisses to cheeks, to necks, to the corner of lips. They didn’t get further than that, and as much as Kent wanted it, and still dreamed of their past, he knew this was the best choice for them.

He wanted to do it right this time. Desperately.

Alexei felt like end-game, and it was the first time in his life Kent understood what that meant. Alexei could be good for him, and maybe—just maybe—he could be good for Alexei too. If he tried to keep getting better, keep understanding himself, his disorder.

He would never be cured, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be happy.

I’m home.

Have easy flight?

Not bad. Just long. My house has that weird-ass stale smell, you know? Like someone else has been living here for the last week.

Maybe you hire someone to clean, myshka. You never best at it.

Fuck you, Tater. I’m amazing at everything I do.

Is being so long, I forget. Maybe when I’m visit Vegas.

Snowy and I visit little fair today. Have petting zoo.

Then there was a photo of Alexei holding a small, black and yellow baby duck next to his cheek, smiling like the literal sun and it hit Kent like a freight train that he fucking loved him. He loved him and he was in love with him and whatever trauma had been keeping that dormant and buried in the past, it was starting to make itself known.

And it wasn’t too late.

Kit hopped into his lap and he pulled her close nuzzling into her fur. “He might still want to be with me, baby girl. There’s still a chance.”

She let out a tiny murr, and he sob-laughed into her neck.

***

Kent only stopped chewing on his thumbnail when Marcy gave him a flat look. He dropped his hands into his lap squeezing them between his knees.

“Your anxiety seems high today.”

Kent swallowed, then nodded. “Um. Things are really good? Uh. With Alexei. But the Falcs are coming to Vegas next week and uh…” He laughed. “Fuck. So I think we’re going to like go on an official date? But I don’t…I haven’t really done that before and I’m scared to fuck it up.”

Marcy tapped the end of her pen against her lip, leaving a blue dot. “Is that why you’re anxious?”

Kent fucking hated so much how well she knew him now. “I was uh. Thinking I should apologise to Jack. I want to, I’ve…wanted to. I don’t know that it’s going to make a difference, you know? Like he has every right not to forgive me. But I feel like if I’m going to take this step and actually move on, I um. Need to. For me. Is that fucking selfish?”

“No.”

Kent blinked at her. “Even if like…he doesn’t want it?”

“Has he said that to you? That he doesn’t want an apology?”

Kent shrugged. “He uh. After our last…you know. Uh, I told you about when I went to Samwell. And um, that was the last time we spoke so.”

“He asked you to stay away from him.”

Kent nodded.

“I don’t like to interpret the meaning of other people’s words, especially if I was not present for that conversation. I don’t know Jack. But I can say that there’s a possibility that after this time, after how long you’ve respected his request to stay out contact with him, he may be somewhat receptive to the apology.”

“And if he’s not?”

Marcy shrugged. “Then you consider that the final word. But you’re allowed to seek your own closure, Kent. Don’t ask for anything from Jack. Not forgiveness, not friendship. Offer your apology, leave it at that.”

“Okay. I…okay.”

Marcy nodded. “Do you want to talk a little now, about your expectations with Alexei?”

Kent groaned, tipping his head back. “Uh no? But I guess I probably should.”

***

Jack, it’s Kent. Um. There’s something I want to say. Uh. I want to apologise for what I did, things I said, for not respecting your space. I should have. My therapist helped me with what to say and now I can’t seem to remember a damn word right. Anyway, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have threatened you, or used any of our past against you. I’m sorry for the part I played in your addiction and your overdose. I’m sorry I ever made you feel like you didn’t have a way out. I’m moving on with my life, and I’m happy, and I think you are too, and really that’s all I ever wanted for both of us. So um. Thanks for reading this.

It was probably the worst apology he’d ever made. And yet he sent it, because he really couldn’t remember a goddamn word of what Marcy had suggested, and it was…well, it was very him so at least Jack would see that. And maybe understand it was sincere.

Kent didn’t have hope for anything more, and hitting send sent a shock of relief through him. He missed Jack’s friendship, he missed Jack. He missed what they might have had if things had been different—if they’d been different people. And he was sorry. Fuck he was truly sorry and if anything, all he really wanted was for Jack to know that, whether he accepted it or not.

Kent, at the very best, hoped for a one-word text back. Or even just Jack telling him to fuck off.

He did not expect to hear his phone ring, to see Jack’s number on the screen.

He almost, almost, didn’t answer.

“H-hello?”

“Kenny.”

Kent felt his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth, and he pried it away. “Uh, hey Jack. Look, I’m kind of in a not super great place right now so if you’re calling to yell at me, can we…”

“I’m sorry too.”

Kent froze, mid-step in his pacing. Kit wove her way round his feet and he focused on the warm feel of her against his calf. “Uh.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you how bad it was getting in the Q. And I’m sorry I cut you off. It was…what I needed at the time, but I should have…I didn’t realise the impact it might have on you.”

Kent blinked, his eyes hot with unshed tears. “Oh. Well um…”

“I’m sorry my jealousy made me the person I was with you. You didn’t deserve that.”

Yes I did, his mind told him, and he promptly told his brain to fuck off because maybe he deserved a little bit of this too. “Thanks,” he said softly. “I mean, we were both a fucking mess back then. Juniors is…it’s the same here. Except they’re all goddamn kids and…”

“So are eighteen year olds fresh off the draft who just saw their best friend carted off to rehab.” Jack’s voice was hard, but he didn’t sound angry at Kent which was…a change. A very profound change. “Kent I…” He took a breath. “I’ve only been doing this a season now, the NHL. And I have a great team—better I think than if I’d signed anywhere else. But…shit Kenny, I can’t imagine going through all this at eighteen, fresh off…what you were going through. And I never stopped to consider that. My dad tried to get me to see but…”

“Your dad?” Kent choked out. One tear escaped, and he swiped at it angrily. He did not want to fall apart.

“I knew he was talking to you. But I was angry. I didn’t…I didn’t want him to love you more. It was stupid. I’m getting better.”

Kent let out a watery laugh and swiped the back of his hand under his nose. “Yeah. Uh. Alexei said you’re doing well and you’re happy and…shit, Zimms. I’m really happy about that.”

“Alexei?” Jack asked, bemused.

“Uh. We um…we were on the same line. Rookies together,” Kent said, not quite willing to give up any secrets just yet. “We lived together. For a while.”

“He never said,” Jack replied softly.

“It was a tough time. For both of us,” Kent said. “He helped. We didn’t part ways like…on the best of terms, but we’re trying again.” Kent slammed his jaw shut before he went too far.

Jack, however, seemed caught up and didn’t catch on quite yet. “Thank you for texting.”

“Thanks for…uh.” Kent stopped when he realised Jack never actually accepted the apology. “Thanks for um, your apology. My therapist and I are working together to try and get me to like…accept that I deserve them sometimes.”

Jack laughed gently, not mocking. Not unkind. “Yeah. I know how that feels. Trust me. It’s hard to feel like you’ve earnt happiness when you haven’t spent a lot of your life deserving it.”

“We do though,” Kent said.

“Yeah.”

Kent wasn’t entirely sure how to process this. It was like a dream. It was better, actually, than any dream he’d ever had when he fantasised about what his first real conversation with Jack might have been like. Not the angry, vitriol-spilling pain of confrontation, but actual words, with actual feelings.

“Uh. So I guess I’ll see you next week?”

Jack laughed again. “Yeah.”

“I promised Alexei I’ll chill on the dirty plays.”

Jack snorted. “I’ll believe it when I see it. I gotta go but uh…take care, Kenny. Okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, you too, Zimms.”

The call ended, and Kent walked backward until his knees hit the couch, and he sat. He barely registered Kit curling herself up against him, purring like she wanted to heal all those open wounds. But they were smaller now, scarring over, more of an itch than the stabbing agony they’d been in the past.

He didn’t look at his phone again until it buzzed in a notification.

@ZimmboniNHL is now following you.

Kent’s fingers trembled as he hit the follow back.

***

The Aces lost. It was always worse, losing on home ice, but as he was patting his guys on the back and shaking their buckets and telling them it was alright, he caught a glimpse of Jack bumping his head up against Snowy’s mask with a grin, and he felt a surge of pride.

Kent’s issue with Jack had never been jealousy. He’d wanted Jack to succeed. The very fact he’d been able to keep up with Jack in Juniors had been a surprise. He had never expected to go first in the draft—had never wanted to. He didn’t need that spotlight.

He just wanted out. He wanted to play the game he loved, and he wanted to stop being poor and hungry, and he wanted to make his mom’s life easier. He wanted his sister to stop crying over the cost of University. He wanted to be happy and kiss cute boys, and maybe one day marry one and settle down in a house somewhere and wake up with a kiss pressed to the back of his neck every morning.

It hadn’t felt like too much.

But stepping into that hotel room in Vegas that first night with Jack half dead and a jersey he felt like he didn’t deserve hanging off his shoulders…he thought maybe it had been. Maybe god was mocking him for his lofty dreams of happiness and security.

He’d achieved most of his goals now. Hockey was exhausting. It was like living in a vice, crushing you as the world looked on and mocked you and told you that you were worthless for every tiny mistake. It expected you to be more than human, with the humility of someone less than human, and it expected you to thank the NHL for it.

But he had more money than he knew what to do with. And his mom hadn’t had to work in years. His sister got into Columbia and was going to study for her Master’s at King’s College in London.

He had Kit, and he had Jeff.

And now, as he glanced out the window of his condo and saw Alexei heading for the door, he thought maybe being able to kiss cute boys could make that list again. There was a fear, pressing and constant, that maybe he’d pay for it. That there was another shoe getting ready to drop and it would all fall apart again.

But Marcy was also helping him realise when it was his PTSD trying to tell him to be afraid.

“Your fears are valid, because you’ve experienced some of the worst things a person can experience,” she said, and he couldn’t help but see the echo of Jack’s body on the bathroom floor again when he blinked. “But they’re nothing more than that. Fears. They won’t go away, but you can manage them. I believe in you, Kent.”

Bob had said that once to him, when he was seventeen and a little afraid he had made a mistake trying to give up everything to be in Juniors.

He hadn’t heard it since.

Until now.

His buzzer rang, and Kent slowly walked to the door, a grin widening as Alexei stepped inside. There was a tension between them, pulled taut and ready to snap as their eyes locked. Alexei’s arms were weighed down with take-away bags, fragrant South Asian spices wafting through the plastic containers.

Kent was humming with anticipation, his fingers tingling like his limbs were slowly falling asleep.

He licked his lips.

“Hey,” he managed.

The string snapped.

The bags hit the floor and Alexei’s hands were on him like they hadn’t been in so fucking long. He managed to get Kent turned round and pressed against the door, Alexei’s hand behind him like a buffer against the hard wood. His large nose pressed up alongside Kent’s, and his breath was sharp and cool with mint as he whispered, “I’m kiss you, okay?”

Kent’s nod was as frantic as the beat of his heart as Alexei wasted no time. He didn’t draw it out, didn’t make Kent wait, or beg, or suffer even a moment of hesitation. The kiss was sloppy, borne out of years of being out of sync with each other until they found it again.

Suddenly their tongues were in a familiar dance, wet and a little too thick, but Kent didn’t care. He groaned and shifted, tugging Alexei’s knee between his thighs so he could grind down, show Alexei how hard he was, how much he wanted. How much he’d always wanted.

Alexei’s fingers went tight in Kent’s hair, pulling just so, tight enough to be possessive without causing too much pain. Kent moaned, and Alexei caught the sound on his tongue, drawing it out before pulling back to pepper Kent’s lips and cheeks with tiny kisses.

“Want,” Alexei gasped. “Kenny please, want you.”

“Yours, I’m yours, fuck Alexei I’ve…for so long, it feels like forever. I never…I was never really gone, I swear, I was just a fucking idiot I…” He was crying a little, but Alexei was kissing away the tears as he hoisted Kent up by the hips and walked him back to the bedroom.

The bed was unmade, the sheets cool from the AC, and Kent had left out a pharmacy bag which spilt out condoms and lube. Alexei took note, and laughed, then bit down on Kent’s shoulder as his hand dove straight down the front of Kent’s boxers.

“Want,” Alexei said again.

“Babe, anything you want I swear to god.”

It was messy. It had been a while for both of them, and neither of them had really prepared—both of them too afraid it would fall apart before it even got started.

The night found Alexei behind Kent, lubed cock pushing between Kent’s thighs, his strong hand stroking fast, fast, just the way Kent liked with a clever twist at the head, thumb pressed down into the slit.

Kent buried his face against the side of the pillow and let out a shuddering groan as he came, spurting over Alexei’s knuckles.

Alexei wasn’t long after, as Kent squeezed his thighs and felt the push, the pleasure of Alexei’s cock dragging under his balls. Alexei held on tight, murmuring into Kent’s shoulder, endearments tumbling from his lips like a waterfall as he shook and spilt between them.

The shower after was languid, a little too hot for Kent’s tastes, but the tendrils of steam playing at the sides of Alexei’s face made Kent feel like he was in a dream. He had to touch, press fingertips into Alexei’s flush-warmed skin to remind himself he was there, it was real. It wasn’t going away.

Alexei would not be found on the bathroom floor.

Kent wouldn’t call, to find the number disconnected.

There would be no messages passed through distraught parents saying, “He just doesn’t want to see you again.”

They were okay.

And Kent…was getting there.

***

Morning light woke Kent, along with the press of a hand against his hip. He could hear the sleepy, waking murmurs from Alexei as he turned, winding his arms round Alexei’s neck.

“What time does your plane leave?”

“Mmpfh,” Alexei grunted. “Breath is smell bad.”

“Yeah well, kiss me anyway,” Kent demanded.

Alexei did, long, drawn out, slow brush of tongue. “Am leave at four. Have little bit of time in the morning.”

Kent sighed, feeling like this was over too soon, feeling like he didn’t know how he was going to live without Alexei in his arms every single morning in spite of living without them for years now. He let the bigger man tuck him into his chest, making him feel small and safe, and protected.

He drew his lips in a slow drag over Alexei’s collarbone, against the beating pulse in his neck where he kissed gentle, then a little harder, a dull suck which wouldn’t leave a mark, but would leave an echo of sensation that Alexei could take with him back to Providence.

“I wanna see you again,” Kent said. “This distance fucking sucks.”

Alexei pushed his fingers into Kent’s fucked hair and kissed the tip of his nose. “We find time. Patience, we find it, yeah?”

Kent rolled his eyes. “I’ve never been any good at it.”

“Then you having time for practise,” Alexei said.

Kent growled, then burst into laughter as Alexei rolled him over and pushed him into the mattress. The laughter quickly turned into soft groans, and shudders, as Alexei pushed them together, and began a slow grind.

***

I’m really fucking proud of you, babe. So fucking proud. You’re gonna take the cup this year.

Am hope. Zimmboni very scared. Myshka…what you think maybe we tell Jack about us? He is see me smile, laugh, see you and me on twitter. Think maybe he’s knowing already.

Um. Can I be there?

I’m not tell if you don’t want. Just am thinking is good idea it come from one of us.

Babe no. Really. It’s fine. Just…I kind of want to be there, you know.

Then you come see one playoff game. Since you not being busy this year.

Harsh, babe. Fucking harsh. But yeah. Let me see when I can book time off.

***

There was still a lot to do, even though they didn’t make playoffs, but Kent managed to secure a long weekend when the Falcs had a home game. He knew it wasn’t ideal. Alexei would be stressed as hell, and at the rink more than he was anywhere else. And he had the no-sex rule during playoffs, but really Kent just wanted to be there. He wanted to exist in Alexei’s space and carve himself a small nook to remind himself he was part of this too.

Alexei had no problems with it.

He met Kent at his cottage with a tender, sleepy kiss, and showed him the bit of the closet and the three drawers he’d cleared out. He pressed a key into Kent’s hand and whispered, “For when you come. Any time. Is yours too, myshka.”

Kent fought back tears, and curled himself behind Alexei and held him til morning.

The Falcs won, which left them exhausted but more willing to celebrate, which is what brought Jack’s to Alexei. By his lack of surprise at seeing Kent so at home, Kent figured Alexei had been right about the assumption. But Jack wasn’t a stupid guy, and he looked genuinely pleased when they all sat on the floor round the coffee table to eat.

“Was it terrible like this?” Jack asked. “When you two won on the Aces?”

Kent snorted. “Maybe worse because like…we were young and really fucking stupid.”

“Kent being modest. He was being strong, focused,” Alexei said, shooting him heart-eyes across the table. When Jack cleared his throat, Alexei looked over. “You telling Kent about little B?”

Kent blinked, and Jack’s cheeks went pink. “Uh. Well.”

Kent raised a brow. “Little B?”

“I’m…seeing someone. For um. About a year now,” Jack said. He rubbed the back of his neck and the end of his nose went pink just like it always did when he was really, really happy. Kent let his leg fall against Alexei’s under the table. “He was my liney back at Samwell.”

“The kid from the uh. Party,” Kent said, wincing and afraid of what that memory might bring up.

But Jack only laughed and shrugged. “Yeah.”

“You have a fucking type,” Kent said. “Gross.”

“Fuck you,” Jack said, but he was unable to get rid of his grin. He glanced between the two of them and said, “How long for you two.”

It was Alexei’s turn to blush, and he stammered so Kent said, “That’s a little more complicated because like…we’ve been off and on for a while. But I was too fucked up back then, you know? To be any good to anyone.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack said quietly.

“Please don’t,” Kent begged. “Seriously Zimms, I’m…I’m really fucking good, okay? Like I’m in love and so are you and maybe none of it was ideal, but we’re here. And I’m good.”

Alexei took his hand in the open, brought it to his lips and kissed it, and Jack looked away to give them a moment of privacy.

“I’m happy too,” Jack said.

Kent settled back and went on to chirp Jack about his playoff beard and his superstitions, and decided it could way til after playoffs to unpack just how he was feeling now.

Moving on was a bitch, but damn it felt good.

Chapter Text

So before we end and then begin
We'll drink a toast to how it's been
A few more hours to be complete
A few more nights on satin sheets
A few more times that I can say
I've loved these days
Billy Joel

“Parser.”

Kent’s brows were furrowed as he tugged at his laces. He’d been feeling weird and off all day, and his head felt stuffy and uncomfortable. His ears were ringing, and felt heavy, like they were filled with cotton.

He didn’t realise Jeff was trying to get his attention until Jeff punched him in the shoulder. Kent’s gaze snapped up. “What the fuck?”

“I’ve been saying your name for like twenty minutes,” Jeff said, and Kent huffed. “You seem off.”

Kent shook his head, but that only caused a wave of dizzy, and he cleared his throat, his knuckles going white as he gripped the edge of the bench. “I think I’ve got like…a cold or some shit. Maybe allergies? I just feel funky.”

That didn’t sound entirely right. He didn’t feel like he had a cold. But he felt…wrong.

Still, this was no time to fuck around. Playoffs were here and they had secured their spot, but they couldn’t get lazy. Not now. Depending on how the Schooners did that night, they’d either take the second round spot, or they’d go to their sixth game, and at this point Kent just wanted it to be over.

He reached for his stick, freshly taped, and smacked it on Jeff’s elbow. “Get the fuck on the ice, or I’m ordering suicides until everyone pukes.”

It was an empty threat, but Jeff seemed to like the energy. Kent stood up, pausing to make sure the dizziness was over, then he glanced at his phone. There was a message on there from Alexei—unread because Kent wasn’t brave enough. They hadn’t seen each other in so fucking long. They had plans. Big fucking plans for summer.

They were going to start over, start fresh, but they were also going to pick up where they left off because neither one of them wanted to waste any more time.

Things had been…better. He was talking to Jack a little bit, and Bittle had followed him on twitter—even if Kent recognised a vague-tweet when he saw one. But things were starting to feel like they were supposed to feel, without the endless pit of despair and hopelessness which seemed to stare at him from every shadow.

Now he felt like he had some purpose.

It was that thought which carried him onto the ice, which had him unafraid to look at the text after practise because it was going to be something good. It was going to be something nice, and wonderful, and maybe it was just a photo of a dog or some of Alexei’s eyeless smiley faces.

But whatever it was, he wasn’t afraid.

He glanced over at the bench where his helmet was, but he wasn’t going to need it for warmups. Most of the guys were either stretching, skating, or shooting pucks at the currently unmanned goal. Kent loved his team. He felt good about this, great—actually, about this season, and about the way it was ending.

And then it fell apart.

He reached down to adjusted his laces, and when he stood back up, nothing was in the right place. Up was down, left was right. He couldn’t focus, and there was a roaring in his ears, like wind rushing past him. Then there was pain, and cold, and the ceiling was spinning and Jeff’s face was looping back and forth, hovering over him.

It took him a second to realise he was on the ice, and the pain was from smacking his head, and everything was spinning because he was dizzy. He tried to push himself to a sit, in spite of several arms holding him in place. His ears were ringing now, even louder, and he could see Jeff’s mouth moving, but he couldn’t hear anything beyond vague, rising and falling tones.

Panic settled in, and the spinning was worse. Before he could push himself up to stand, he bent over at the waist, and promptly vomited.

***

Kent groaned, his head flopping back on the pillow. The ringing in his ears had died down, and by the time he finished at the hospital his hearing was normal and the vertigo—as the doctor had called it—had subsided. He left with a script for pain—he didn’t have a concussion, but he had a pretty sweet bruise along the back of his head, and an appointment with an ENT to figure out why everything had happened the way it happened.

He knew he should at least text Alexei, or give him a call before the news spread and he freaked. They didn’t have games for the next few days, so his status was presently TBA, but anyone who hadn’t been there would start to speculate. If Alexei heard about it from ESP-fucking-N, he knew the man wouldn’t be happy.

He groped for his phone in the dark room, then flicked the screen on. Grimacing at the light, brightness turned up way too high, he fumbled through his contacts, and hit Alexei’s name. It was late in Providence, and the Falcs had their potential last game the next day, but after only two rings, a sleepy voice answered.

“Kenny. I’m hear from news. Fall during practise. Was concussion?”

“Uh, no. I hit my head but I’m fine,” Kent said, then stopped. “Actually um. I don’t know if I’m fine. I got hit with this fucking dizzy spell and couldn’t get up and puked all over my fucking skates.” Kent hadn’t had the time to be properly embarrassed by losing his protein shake on the ice in front of the guys. And hell, if he didn’t turn out to be literally dying, they’d chirp him to the goddamn grave for it.

“Is…” Alexei stopped, then cleared his throat. “What is doctor say? You see doctor?”

“Yeah. Got my head scanned—it’s all good. Uh…he said the dizzy spell might have been from stress or something. But the um…” He didn’t want to talk about the way his ears had just sort of stopped working so he said, “well he’s sending me to a specialist just to make sure it’s not something else.”

“You want I’m come with you? Come visit? Team be alright without me. Is okay. I can…”

“Fuck,” Kent said, and he wasn’t going to cry or tell Alexei he didn’t deserve Alexei putting the fucking playoffs on hold just for him. “Seriously babe, I’m alright. I’ll keep you posted. And if it’s something serious…” Brain tumour, aneurysm, impending death, anything… “I’ll let you know and we’ll work it out. Okay?”

There was a long pause before Alexei said, “Okay.”

“Anyway, I should let you sleep. You gotta game tomorrow and you seriously need to knock the Bruins out, okay?”

Alexei laughed quietly. “Okay, myshka. You sleep now too. Get rest, get better.”

“I will. I um.” I love you, he wanted to say, but not yet. Not until he could say it to Alexei’s face, right up against his lips as Alexei held him and caught Kent’s moans on his tongue. “Talk later.”

Alexei murmured something in Russian too fast for Kent to catch, then the line went dead. He flopped back against his pillow and considered getting up, but his limbs were sore and he was strung out from his anxiety and fear. He turned on his side, setting his phone on the table, and waited.

Waited for the dizzy to return—but it didn’t.

Waited for his coach to call and tell him it was too much trouble, that his health issues weren’t what they were paying for, that no one wanted a disaster like him on the ice if he wasn’t even going to get them to the cup. But he didn’t.

Kent rubbed his temple, then pushed a finger against his ear and wondered what the fuck was wrong with him. Wondered why this was happening now, of all moments, when things were finally looking up.

Maybe, a traitorous voice in his head whispered, this is karma. Maybe this is just what you deserve, built up from being a piece of shit asshole your entire life.

He took a breath and said, “Shut the fuck up,” aloud.

The voice quieted. For now.

He pulled his blanket high up to his shoulders, closed his eyes, and waited for sleep.

***

The call came early letting him know they didn’t find anything on the scans. It was good news, he supposed, but it still didn’t give him any answers. His ears had a faint ring to them still, and he felt off-kilter, like he was hungover. The dizziness didn’t return, but he was benched until he could get into the specialist, which was several days away.

He occupied himself with Kit, with texting Alexei, and watching games, and praying to a god he’d lost faith in years ago.

When he set foot into the lobby of the ENT, he felt alone, and a little terrified. He’d turned down Jeff’s offer to get scratched from their morning skate and accompany him, and he was regretting it now as he filled out his paperwork and waited, leg shaking, to be called back.

“So, Mr Parson,” the doctor said, looking over Kent’s chart, “you had a dizzy spell on an ice skating rink?”

Kent sighed. “Uh, yeah.”

“And that’s never happened before?”

Kent shook his head. “Um. No. I mean, not like…well like drinking but…”

The doctor hummed, typing a few things into the computer perched on the edge of the table. “What were you doing just before the episode? Anything unusual?”

Kent shrugged. “No like…not really. I was kind of late to the skate, and I was stressed because playoffs and shit…”

The doctor’s head lifted. “Playoffs?”

“I play hockey? I’m the captain of the Aces?” Kent said. “Is that seriously not on there.”

“It’s listed as an ice skating incident,” the doctor said, and his cheeks were a little pinker, like suddenly he knew who Kent was which…great. “Okay so ice hockey.”

“Ice hockey,” Kent repeated, starting to get a little annoyed with how slow this was all going.

The doctor asked Kent to describe the incident, then checked his ears, his throat, and his sinuses. “Sometimes it can be an infection of the inner ear, or something in the sinuses, but I’m not seeing any evidence of that. There’s one condition, it’s a possibility with the vertigo but typically we don’t diagnose until we have a few more incidents. It could very well be stress related, so for now I think we’ll keep an eye on things, and if you experience any more incidents, make an appointment and we can do a CT scan.”

“What um…what’s the other possibility?” Kent asked, his voice sounding small.

The doctor clicked his pen, then looked up through his thick lenses. “It’s called Meniere’s Disease. It affects the inner ear, and causes vertigo, balance issues, and hearing loss.”

“Hearing loss,” Kent echoed, his voice sounding far off. “Like… Like I won’t…like I’ll be…”

“It’s generally progressive, and it tends to differ from patient to patient, so I can’t give you definitive answers right now. For now, we’re just keeping watch. But if you have any more vertigo, especially combined with the noises in your ear, any vomiting, things like that, you give us a call right away.”

Kent nodded, and shook his head, and sort of floated out of the office.

For now it was nothing.

But there was a chance…even if it was small…that it wasn’t.

***

Kent felt fine, and was released back to skate a few days later. Things were heating up, and the games were more intense, but he didn’t any another incident of vertigo. His ears still felt off, full sort of, and ringing, but it didn’t impede his ability to play the game.

They swept the Sharks out of the second round in the fifth game, and set themselves up to play the Stars for the conference finals. He was keyed up and ready to go, because the Falcs were doing just as well, and were now facing the Preds to see who would battle it out for the cup.

Kent hadn’t talked to Alexei in days—and the most meaningful conversation he’d had with him was letting him know what the doctor said. The rest had been quick hellos and good byes, and yes I’m doing alright, and no, I haven’t been dizzy again.

He hadn’t spoken to Jack, and he’d exchanged a handful of chirps with Bittle on twitter, but mostly he was focused on getting through to the cup. Mostly he was focused on winning.

***

They lost. They went three-three, and in OT in the seventh game, they lost.

Kent broke a stick on his way back to the locker room, but was composed enough to do press before attempting to drown himself in the shower. The Falcs had already taken the spot, and Kent noticed he had a call from both Jack and Alexei on his phone, which he ignored as he stayed in bed for three days.

Finally, he was up. He ate a full meal, he took a thirty minute shower, then booked a ticket to Providence for game one and called his boyfriend.

“I’m sorry I was such an ass.”

“Being so close, then big loss, never easy. Is okay. Just worry about you.”

Kent sighed into the phone, pushing his head against his forehead. He felt funny again, but he couldn’t be sure if it was vertigo, or the fear of having it which would mean it wasn’t just nothing, it wasn’t just stress. His ears were annoyingly full, and still humming, and he just wanted it to stop. He just wanted it to go back to the way he was.

“I’m coming for the games, okay? I might not do the first couple games in Dallas, but I’ll be there in Providence. Is…is that okay? Do you want me there?”

“I’m always want you here. For everything,” Alexei said. He sounded tired, but he sounded like maybe he was smiling, and he sounded like he meant it.

Kent was warm all over, and he kept Alexei on the phone as he sent a message to his cat-sitter, and packed his case.

A day later, he was on a flight, drowsy from Benadryl and full of a humming sort of anticipation and anxiety because there was nothing standing in the way anymore. There was this set of games—just this one set of games, and then months stretching out ahead of them where they could just exist. Together.

And the rest well…they’d deal with whatever came after that.

***

They didn’t hug or kiss at the airport. In fact, Alexei texted to say he’d ordered Kent an Uber, and would meet him at the house. He pretended like it didn’t sting, but the allergy meds and plane ride took the edge off, and he felt mellow and sleepy as the little Honda pulled up in front of Alexei’s house.

Kent tried not to feel the apprehension of memories he’d experienced the last time he was there. Not all bad, but not all good, and god he just wanted this. He just wanted to be happy for the first fucking time since was a shithead little teenager who felt like the world was at his and Jack’s fingertips.

He got out and tipped the driver in spite of the no tipping policy, then grabbed his case and strolled to the door. It was open, cracked, some crooning country playing in the background. It smelt nice inside, like flowers and baked things, and it was tidy apart from a pair of trainers haphazardly left by the door, and a jacket slung over the back of the sofa.

Kent closed the door with a purposeful click, and let his case rest against the wall. Alexei was in the bedroom putting away folded socks when Kent walked in, and he froze. Their eyes locked, and for a moment, neither one of them were brave enough to move, to cross the distance.

Kent broke first. He took two steps, then Alexei dropped his socks and his long legs closed the rest of the distance between them. His hands fumbled with the front of Kent’s shirt, tugging at him, curling into the fabric as he pulled him close.

They didn’t kiss. Alexei gathered Kent to his chest and pushed his nose into his mussed hair, and breathed him in like Kent was the oxygen Alexei needed to survive. It was perfect. It was everything.

Kent broke the spell when he croaked, “Alexei,” his voice breaking a little at the end. “Alyoshenka.”

Alexei’s massive palm cupped his cheek, thumb brushing along Kent’s freckles. His eyes were dark—so dark, rich and pupils blown wide with a little want and a little apprehension. Everything Kent was feeling. It was surreal, to be here like this, with actual purpose.

“I miss you,” Alexei said.

Kent laughed, and then surged up onto his toes, arms wrapping round Alexei’s neck.

And finally, after all that time, he kissed him.

***

Kent woke from their nap as Alexei was crawling out of the bed, and he made quick work of grabby hands, yanking Alexei back down into the nest of blankets. It was too hot for a cuddle like this, summer just round the corner, and the warmth on the breeze trickled in through the open window.

But Alexei was laughing and Kent was smiling through kisses, his hands reluctant to let go. “Five more minutes,” he begged.

Alexei hummed, pressing his lips to Kent’s neck, his voice muffled as he spoke. “You saying this two times already. Will be late for game, you keeping me here any longer.”

“Yeah well, I don’t remember that at all, I must have been asleep so it doesn’t count,” Kent said with a pout.

Alexei grabbed him by the chin, his thumb brushing tender and sweet along Kent’s freshly shaved jawline. “Come cheer for me, myshka. Have only few more games, then am all yours.”

“You’re not already?” Kent asked, his voice quiet in the fading afternoon of Alexei’s bedroom.

Alexei watched him for a long moment, then kissed him softly. “Maybe not yet. But we getting there, myshka. Yes?”

Kent closed his eyes and felt Alexei’s body pressed against his own, and their hearts beating close together. He nodded, and breathed in deep. “Yeah. Yeah, Alyosha. We are.”

***

The Falcs win it. The Falcs win it, and Kent gets to see Alexei hoist the cup over his head again, and he thinks nothing is better than this. Not even winning the cup for himself again.

***

Kent missed the party, when his vertigo has him bent over the toilet, heaving his guts out, unable to hear much beyond a high ringing, and the occasional, rushing sound in his ears which seems to accompany each fresh wave of dizzy and nausea.

When Alexei finds him, he’s not so drunk that he can’t sober up lightning fast to get Kent to the hospital.

The doctors there, yet again, find nothing. They give him something for the nausea, and the vertigo, and tell him to follow up with his doctor. He agrees, thinking it’s a lie because maybe he doesn’t want to know. Maybe he’s not ready to face another fucking thing. Not when he’s about to be so goddamn happy.

***

When it happens again after landing in Vegas, and then again that weekend, Kent realises he has no choice. So he holds Alexei’s hand as he makes the call, and agrees to a series of tests, and thinks if he has to do all of this, at least he’s not alone.

The tests are fairly mild, the worst being the one where they put water into his ear to induce vertigo. But all in all, it’s a week of annoying little machines and whipping his head back and forth, and things being shoved into his ears.

The only bonus is after each, Alexei takes him home and sucks his cock until he sees stars. They order out and pet Kit and watch trashy reality tv. Kent thinks if he’s going to have something wrong with him, this is the way to do it.

***

“Meniere’s Disease,” the doctor says, almost like Kent hadn’t heard it the first time. He goes on to explain that Kent can probably manage it just fine, with changes to his diet, and if the vertigo gets too bad, there are medications for that.

“What about the hearing loss?” Kent asks, because he wants to be prepared for it.

The doctor shrugs. “Right now it’s not much beyond when you’re having an attack. Some of your lower frequency hearing is lost, but not enough it should make an impact. Be warned, though, some noise may trigger an attack, so be careful when you’re listening to music.”

Kent sighs. “So no hearing aids?”

“Not yet, but we need to monitor. It’s a progressive disease, and there will be some as the years go on. But it’s manageable.”

“What about hockey?” he asks, the one question he’s afraid of because there’s a tiny part of him that is looking for an excuse to retire, but the bigger part of him isn’t ready to give up. Not yet.

“If you can manage the vertigo, if it doesn’t get worse, I don’t see why you can’t have a full career, Mr Parson.”

Kent isn’t really sure how to process everything the doctor said, so he just thanks him and takes his paperwork and leaves. He doesn’t really have the energy to tell Alexei everything that’s going on, so he hands all the informational pamphlets and everything else the nurse printed out, and lets him go over it as they stuff low-sodium udon noodles into their faces.

“I’m not sure I’m ready for all that change,” Kent says, his voice soft.

Alexei sets everything down, takes Kent’s white paper box away, and pulls him onto his lap. His giant hands cup Kent’s face and their gazes hold each other for a long moment. “Is going to be okay. Whatever happen, I’m here, you here. Kenny…is okay.”

Kent sniffs, but he doesn’t cry. He just lets his forehead fall onto Alexei’s. Lets Alexei kiss him, and he thinks, yeah, apart from all that shit, it really is okay.

***

Staring down at his phone, Kent feels a vague sense of disbelief. It wasn’t like he didn’t think this would happen some day. I mean, people got married and had babies and bought houses all the time. But Jack and Bitty were treating it like a goddamn race.

The Falcs won the cup again, and Jack decided it was as good a time as any, with the C blazing on his chest and headed the same way as his dad when it came to trophies hanging in his trophy room, to come out to the world.

Bittle deserves it

Kent stared at the text and it wasn’t like he could argue. Bittle had grown on him like a fucking stubborn mould he couldn’t scrub away. The pies and cookies and the chirps, and the southern charm that settled in your bones and made you crave sunshine and Georgia peaches. Bittle deserved the world. Bittle had given way for a Jack to emerge that Kent always knew was in there, but he’d never been capable of nurturing on his own.

Bittle was Jack’s Alyosha. It was a stupid metaphor, one Kent would never repeat out loud to another soul apart from Kit, but it was also true. Where Alexei was everything Kent had needed in order to let himself feel loved, and be loved, Bitty was that for Jack.

And it hurt.

And it felt so good.

But this seemed like so much, and Kent couldn’t help telling Jack that.

I just think maybe you should take it one step at a time, Zimms. I mean…shit, a baby? A wedding?

We got married in May, Kenny. We just want to make it…public. After the baby, of course. She’ll be here in June.

Kent wanted to cry and laugh and scream and maybe curl up under a blanket because thinking about Jack doing all that stuff makes him think maybe he’s…getting there. Close to all that. It’s getting harder and harder to laugh off the comments about who he is and isn’t dating. It’s getting harder and harder to look over his shoulder, or explain why he’s heading into Falcs territory during bye week and renting out an entire floor of a hotel.

Spoiler alert: it’s so he and Alexei can fuck in every room. It was a bet. And he won.

But he wants more and he gets why Jack does. More than he wants to admit, and it’s difficult to hold his tongue when Alexei calls and asks how he’s doing, and what he’s thinking about.

Retirement’s on the horizon, too. Kent’s last dizzy spell had him careening sideways into the goal and his hip cracked. He had two pins put in and it left him off the ice for nearly all of pre-season. He has other options—more meds, more diet changes, surgery. But so many times the cure is worse than the disease, and he’s pushing thirty-five and goddamn but would spending his days looking after a kid and picking up a few hobbies really be that bad?

The idea is a little terrifying, which was why he hadn’t brought it up to Alexei just yet. He’s not looking to follow Jack, not really. He doesn’t want a big coming out, or a big to-do. He’s well aware the danger he’d be in, and it’s not just him that would be affected. Alexei going public would be more than just taking more hits on the ice, and shitty chirps on twitter.

It meant he’d have trouble going home. It meant his parents could become targets, if it got too much attention. Kent knows way too much about the news right now, and it’s vaguely terrifying. He has no idea how bad it could be, but the last thing he wants is to test his theory.

No.

No, he doesn’t need all of that. He could easily shoulder rumours about him and Jack in the Q while fielding questions. He’s done it for years.

He just wants…a solid idea of a future. He wants to come home every night to those big, brown eyes. He wants to see those brown eyes in a tiny bundle of soft noises and funny smells. When he’s gotta worry about shit like his vertigo, or how his ears are pretty well fucked now and the doctors really want him fitted for hearing aids, he wants to know he can just crash at the end of those hard days on a couch that belongs to more than just him, and maybe get a foot-rub, or a good dicking when the lights are all out, and they don’t have to be up at the crack of dawn.

It doesn’t feel like it’s too much to ask, but in a way it does. Because Alexei hadn’t brought it up before, and Kent hates nothing more than being the first one to open his fat mouth. Things always, always come out wrong.

His weekend in Providence was coming up, though, which meant he and Alexei could talk about it then. If he was brave enough. There was no doubt Jack had already told the Falcs about his plans—there were trade rumours going round about the Habs shopping for a big-named player and Kent knows whatever no-trade clause existed in Zimms’ contract, Montreal was always on the table. For the right price, and his boyfriend—no, his husband—being agreeable to a move.

What that really meant was they’d have to at least talk about that part of it, and it was a decent enough segue into Kent saying some shit like, “You know, just the idea of you holding our baby gets me all hot and bothered. Let’s fuck, then talk about our future.”

Maybe he wouldn’t bring it up like that, but it was time to stop hiding from it. Time to be a goddamn, mother fucking grown up.

The kind of grown up who deserved the simple wedding band, and the white picket fence, and the toothless grin gumming round a teething biscuit.

Kent was half sure he was capable of it. Of at least being part-way there.

***

“Kenny?”

The name sounded far-off and hollow, muted enough that he didn’t immediately recognise it until a warm hand landed on his shoulder with a touch that was not Alexei’s. Kent wanted to turn his head, but even the thought sent his world swimming even more than it was, and he felt his stomach hitch, and another round of bile falling into the bottom of the toilet.

He groaned, pressing his forehead to the cool porcelain, trying desperately not to wonder when the last time the practise facility had them cleaned.

If only hockey players were less disgusting.

Thinking only of a bath in a tub of hand sanitiser, Kent breathed through his nose, squeezed his eyes shut, and turned slightly. “Hey, Zimms.”

“Do you need me to call someone?”

Kent laughed, the sound bitter and humourless. “Nope. This is my life now.”

“Parse,” Jack breathed.

His voice was still too quiet, and Kent was regretting not letting his damn doctors just fit him with the fucking aids so he could be done with all this bullshit of straining and trying to make things out when his head was fucked to hell.

He swallowed and felt a slight click, the release of some pressure, which only ended up causing another wave of spinning, and another sharp ring in his left ear. He pressed two fingers to his temple. “It’s this fun new fucking thing called Meniere’s and if you give me like ten minutes, it’ll pass.”

“Does Tater know?”

Kent breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. The world was starting to calm, which meant it was a fast one. It was probably all the MSG in the damn airplane food. “Yeah. Yeah uh…” He cracked an eye open and blinked several times. His head threatened to spin again, but he pushed himself up slowly, and he felt the pressure in his ears start to abate. “Yeah, he knows.”

Jack was a few feet away, his entire body tense like he was poised to dive if Kent keeled over—and really, he guessed it wasn’t like a bad thing Jack was prepared because it could happen. “Is this why…when you broke your hip…?”

“Yeah.” Kent scrubbed a hand down his face before remembering he’d been touching the damn toilet, and he groaned, pushing past Jack toward the sink. He felt off, but a little better, and he flicked on the water. The sound drowned out any chance of understanding what Jack was saying, but Kent could see his lips moving in the mirror, and he held up a finger before finishing scrubbing off any potential germs.

He went for the paper towels instead of the hand dryers since those always fucked with his head, and he dried himself off. “Sorry it’s like…this shit fucks with my hearing and I’m going deaf so I can’t really hear you when there’s a lot of ambient noise.”

Jack’s eyes widened, and his jaw tensed, working like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t. “You’re…not joking.”

Kent barked a laugh. “I fucking wish I was. I really…god I know I sound like such a dick, but I really don’t want to talk about it. There’s…I gotta decide if I’m even going to finish out this season, and it’s…” He swallowed, and then said, “It’s a lot.”

Jack nodded, and Kent wanted to cry when Jack didn’t say anything stupid like, ‘I’m sorry,’ or any sort of placating bullshit. Because Jack knew what it was like to have the one thing he was good at—the one thing he was built for—ripped away from him. He got it back, but at a price, and at a cost Kent wasn’t sure he’d ever be willing to pay.

Jack was happy now, yeah. Kent couldn’t deny that. But there were scars that were visible, even though they were all on the inside.

“You think Alexei’s finished?”

Jack glanced toward the bathroom door, then shrugged. “Probably. I came in here to tell you Bittle wanted to maybe have dinner? If you euh…if you’re up for it.”

“Like…easy on the salt, but yeah. You think he’ll make me a pie?”

Jack blinked, then laughed. “Yeah, Kenny. I think he’ll make you a pie.”

***

“Zimmboni tell me you being sick in the bathroom,” Alexei said, looking at Kent sideways as they drove back to his. “Is getting worse?”

Kent blew out a puff of air, then turned down the AC because it was hard to hear Alexei, even though his tones were heavy enough he was the easiest to make out in nearly any situation. “Uh…yeah. I guess. It’s…like the treatments they have me on aren’t working that well and it’s not so bad, but it was pretty fucking obvious how bad it can get if I’m on the ice and shit goes down.”

Alexei licked his lips, then nodded and said nothing else until they pulled up in front of his little cottage.

Coming back there—whenever Kent got the chance—it was like coming home. More than his Vegas apartment had ever felt like home, and sometimes more than his mom’s place, or even maybe Montreal, though Kent hadn’t been back since Juniors.

This place, though, this place held nearly everything he loved. And this place held a promise of a future beyond hockey, and beyond the cold, unforgiving world that kept him closeted, and terrified, and full of a belief that no matter what, he was only worth what he could give his team. And that he was, no matter how many trophies or awards he won, always, always, expendable.

Kent was profoundly aware of how Alexei’s hand felt against his. The warm palm, fingers slotted with his own. He didn’t think, no matter how many years they were together, that he would ever get used to it, and that it would ever stop being grounding.

He let Alexei lead the way, through the front door, bags abandoned near the wall, warm hands tugging and pushing until Kent was lying on his back amidst cool sheets and a bunched up comforter of a perpetually unmade bed.

Alexei was a warm weight over him, not pressing all the way down—just enough to remind Kent he was here, he was present, he hadn’t disappeared.

Sex with them now, after reconciling, was something new. It was like they had burnt down everything they’d known, and let this grow from the ash. Kent’s eyes fluttered closed, and he let himself feel vulnerable and open in a way he had never been. Not with Jack, not with any of his hook-ups, not with Alexei just after the draft.

Now, as Alexei pushed inside him with careful, easy thrusts, he gave himself up. He arched his back, pushing his lips against Alexei’s, keening, edging into the touch of Alexei’s giant hand as it ghosted down his ribs, to his hips, hitching Kent closer so he could push deeper.

Kent was incapable of speech as Alexei slowly took him apart. Tiny whimpers and gasps, “Unf, ung, ah ah ah,” drifted from his throat as he mindlessly fucked himself on Alexei’s dick.

He lost himself in the feel of warm lips sucking at his pulse point, and even with his hearing muted now, he delighted in the sounds he could pull from Alexei, and the vibrations under his fingers of the ones he couldn’t hear anymore.

He was sticky, covered in sweat, lube, and come when Alexei rolled away and tied the condom off. He aimed for the bin, missing, and gave a shrug before swiping Kent’s shirt from the floor to clean up Kent’s stomach.

“I’m gonna need a shower,” Kent groaned, glowering at the sheen through his stomach hair from where lingering come sat.

Alexei shrugged again, rolling toward Kent, and kissed his shoulder. “Okay. I’m get dinner, you get clean. But is pointless. I’m just make a mess of you later.”

Kent flushed. After all this time, he still flushed. He couldn’t help a dumbass smile from spreading across his face, and he tried to hide it, but Alexei caught him with firm fingers on his chin, turning his head.

“Why you embarrass, myshka?”

“Because you make me feel like a fucking idiot,” Kent growled, but he twisted his body fully into Alexei’s, smiling a little because he knew he was getting whatever sticky mess was left all over Alexei’s side. “But I love you. You know that, right?”

Alexei hummed, deep in his chest in a way Kent could feel more than he could hear. “What you want, myshka?”

Kent sighed. “To get married. To quit hockey and not feel shitty about it. Maybe have a kid.” When he glanced up, he saw confusion blooming across Alexei’s face because…well shit, that wasn’t what Alexei was asking. He scrambled to cover it up with a casual, “But like…spaghetti is cool for now.”

Alexei licked his lips, his mouth opening, then closing, then opening and closing. Before Kent could panic that he’d royally fucked up yet again and would find himself on his ass outside Alexei’s cottage, Alexei pushed up on his elbow, and cupped Kent’s face. “Can do all those thing, myshka. If you wanting them.”

Kent felt his throat go hot and tight. And it wasn’t like they hadn’t discussed this before. Drunk, sober, tired, awake, Kent wasn’t afraid of a future. He was still afraid of mistakes, afraid of himself, afraid of what he was capable of becoming if he wasn’t careful. But he wasn’t afraid of hoping and wanting.

But it felt real now, raw, carved out of them and laying bleeding and open like if they were careful enough, if they stitched up tight enough, it would be okay.

“I do,” he managed after a long moment. “I fucking want all of that. Except like…maybe not spaghetti because I actually hate that.”

Alexei laughed, a little thick, a little startled, and he dipped his head in low to kiss at Kent’s neck. “I’m know this, myshka. Never make you eat.”

Kent sighed, winding his arms round Alexei and dragging him half on top. The weight was comforting and grounding, and everything Kent needed right then. “Can we talk about the rest later? After dinner with Zimms and Bits?”

“Yes,” Alexei murmured against Kent’s warm skin. “Any time.”

***

Dinner turned out alright. Kent’s treatment meant he couldn’t have any alcohol, and virtually no salt or sugar or caffeine. So…anything he considered worth eating.

But Alexei had prepared fish with a lot of citrus, rice with garlic, some roasted veg. Bitty showed up with a look on his face that was akin to pity—but maybe not exactly because it was easier to swallow—and a pie he said which used fresh berries and was sweetened with honey.

“I read up,” was all he said as he slid it onto the counter and hugged Kent. “This’ll taste just as good, I promise.”

Bitty was true to his word. The conversation was easy, and Kent was feeling good, and it wasn’t so hard to explain how fucked everything was feeling and how lost the future looked until he pulled his head out of his ass and just decided what he wanted to do.

“I don’t want to go down to like fourth line, you know,” Kent said, gritting his teeth as he glowered at his glass of flat water. “But even then it isn’t a guarantee. My doctor said most of the time it’s not this hard to treat the vertigo, but stress is a huge fucking deal and it’s not like I can just go to fucking hot yoga after practise and it’s all better.”

Jack licked his lips, then bowed his head toward the table. “I know.”

Kent let out a small, slightly sharp laugh. “Oh I fucking know you know, Zimms. You skated through, though, and I’m not sure that’s an option for me. My coach is freaked out about my hip and I’m going to lose the C any day.”

“They not demoting you because…” Alexei started, but quieted when Kent gave him a look.

“It’s not the same there, babe. You know this.”

Alexei sighed. “Yes.”

“And I…fuck. Like I’m not even sure I care, you know? I mean, Jesus, what more do I need.” Kent scrubbed a hand down his face. “I just…don’t know if retiring is going to feel like giving up.”

“You should talk to my dad,” Jack said, and everyone fell even quieter. Bitty gave Jack a slightly startled look, and yeah, Kent understood that. Because after all this time and all this growth, Jack still hadn’t totally dealt with his inferiority issues when it came to Bob. “He knows. He…he could help.”

Kent didn’t like to mention to Jack—even though they were friends again—that he and Bob still kept in touch. But Kent hadn’t even really thought about that. Not entirely.

“We were planning on having Bittle’s birthday out there. If you’re going to last the season, if you want to wait, you can…we were going to invite you,” Jack said, sounding a bit like he was floundering. “Talk to him then.”

“Yeah,” Kent breathed, and felt something lift off his shoulders. He managed a slight smile, and then laughed when Bitty kicked him under the table. “Yeah, I think…yeah.”

“You better get me something nice,” Bitty chirped.

Kent smiled at him. “Gucci more your style?”

Bitty smiled—all teeth and bright eyes. “Try Prada.”

***

Kent wasn’t going to last.

It was obvious as the season wore on, and his stress ramped up, and his coaches getting more and more pissed off at his lack of performance on the ice.

“Look, Parser…something needs to be done. You’re scratched every other week and it’s not helping morale or standings and…”

“Yeah,” Kent said, his voice tight. He fought the urge to reach up and fiddle with the hearing aids he was wearing, maybe to remind himself they were there. Maybe to remind his fucking coaches that it wasn’t that easy anymore, that he couldn’t just make this go away.

Maybe though, he just wanted out. Maybe he was just fucking tired.

He didn’t give a definitive answer, but he knew trades were on the table. The deadline was looming as playoffs were just over the hill. If he didn’t quit, he knew he was out, but no one was going to be falling over themselves to grab a captain whose standings were careening into an abyss.

And Kent wasn’t sure he wanted any of that.

Every night he went to sleep wishing he was in Alexei’s arms. Every night he dreamt of a life near the sea with lego on the floor and stained shorts, and car seats in an SUV.

He sat in the driver’s seat of his car and stared at his phone screen. Bob’s number glared up at him with a reminder he was allowed to call any time he wanted. A reminder he hadn’t been cut off, and Jack told him it was alright, and Bob would have wanted this.

Kent knew other guys. He knew Mario well enough, he had Gretzky’s number saved too after a charity event and he didn’t think the guy would hate a quick call to give Kent a shove in the right direction.

But Bob was Bob. He was Kent’s everything, in a way, that a parent should have been. And as much as Kent had fucked up, Bob had never given up on him, had never stopped believing. And maybe that’s what he was terrified of—disappointing a man who believed he could skate through any check.

Even this one.

He swallowed past a lump in his throat and he pushed the call button.

He said nine prayers that Bob wouldn’t pick up, but the Universe wasn’t that kind.

“Kent?”

“Hi, hey. Yeah. Hey, Bob,” Kent fumbled.

There was a small silence, then Bob said, “Is everything okay?”

Kent sighed. “Yeah. No. I mean…uh. I mean yeah like…no immediate danger or anything. I’m just kinda…fuck. I’m…I need help.”

“Do you need me to come out there?” Bob asked, only a slight urgency in his voice. But it was calm in that way Bob always was—like he’d hustle, but he’d make sure you stayed calm, like he could hold any problem in his hand and make it just go away.

And of fucking course that was the first question he’d ask. Not, what’s the problem. Not, what did you do now. Just a simple offer to be there, without question, for whatever Kent needed.

The lump in his throat got bigger, and he cleared his throat. “So like…the coaches have been kind of up my ass about my lack of playability this season and uh… shit.” Kent rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sure Jack told you about the uh. Meniere’s?”

“He did,” Bob said, almost apologetic.

Kent sighed. “It’s not getting better. Even with meds and diet, the stress is just making it unmanageable. There’s this surgery but they said it has a good chance of fucking up my balance and well…what’s the fucking point in that, right? But they’re gonna trade me if I don’t…” Kent choked on the next word, but forced himself to say it anyway. “Retire.”

Bob let out a slow breath. “And…what do you want? You know I have contacts. If you have a team in mind, we can work on…”

“No I,” Kent said, and breathed. “I don’t think I want…want that. I want…” He leant his head back and closed his eyes and sat a moment. “How fucking bad did it feel when they raised your jersey?”

Bob hummed. “It was…a mixed feeling, mon fils. Relief, because it meant I could go home to my family and stay there. Relief knowing I’d wake up to them every morning and nothing was going to take me away. No more roadies, no more threats of trades or injuries. There was never a guarantee, but it was…something stronger.”

“And?” Kent pressed.

“Fear.” Bob laughed. “I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do with myself after. I…I found out I didn’t need to do anything. In the end. But…” He breathed a sigh. “Later I was angry, because it felt like I was too late to make a difference. With Jack.” He paused. “With you.”

“Bob, I…” But Kent didn’t really know what to say, so he let the sentence hang until Bob laughed.

“Je sais, mon fils. I know. It’s okay now.”

Kent licked his lips, then stared at himself in the small mirror in his car. He looked older, and thinner, and different. Afraid, yeah. But determined in a way that startled him. “I want to be done. I want a family. I don’t want to hide anymore. And like…okay I know that’s not possible because Alexei’s still playing and even after Jack comes out he might not…” Kent’s voice died and he breathed slowly. “But we can be together and maybe get married and have some kids and it won’t have to feel so…”

“Okay,” Bob said. “I think you have your answer.”

Kent laughed at himself. “I think I have for a while. I just needed to know that when I watch that ninety-one hit the roof of the arena it’s not going to break me.”

“Oh Kent, oh mon petit coeur, I’ve known since the moment I met you, nothing could ever break you.”

Kent wasn’t so sure he believed that. Losing Jack nearly did. Losing Alexei. If anything happened to anyone he loved, he wasn’t sure he was strong enough. Someday, hopefully so many years in the future Kent was already losing his mind from old age, Bob would die and he wasn’t sure that wouldn’t just kill him dead instantly.

But he felt a strength in Bob’s belief in him, and he cupped his hands round it, protected it. Because he was going to need it soon.

***

He expected it to hurt more, and he expected it to hurt less. The conflict ripping through his body was almost enough to bring him to his knees. But his mom and sister were there, and Jeff had his arm round his waist. He could see Jack and Bits in the crowd, along with Alexei who was watching him with wide, wet eyes.

As his jersey ascended to the rafters, and his name was retired from hockey, Kent felt like he could breathe properly for the first time since finding Jack on that bathroom floor.

Kent felt like his life, the one he’d always dreamt of full of promise and love and affection, was waiting just on the other side of the door. His eyes flickered to Alexei once more, who mouthed, ‘I love you,’ and Kent let out the smallest sob as he nodded, then turned back to the ice one last time.

***

Epilogue

“Daddy! Daddeeeeeeeyyyyyyy. Dad. Dad. Daddy….”

“He’s not have ears in,” Alexei reminded the small boy who was hopping on his toes behind Kent.

Alexei knocked on the counter with a heavy fist, and Kent turned, lifting a brow at Alexei before turning fully to see Vanya wiggling his small, chubby fingers at him. ‘Up!’ Vanya signed.

Kent rolled his eyes, then turned back to Alexei. “Babe, I’m like two seconds away from being done. Just pick him up.”

“He’s wanting you,” Alexei muttered, but he hitched Vanya on his hip as Kent finished shoving everything into the ridiculously bright red, wicker picnic basket—a gift from Jack and Bitty from some ktichy little market Bitty had found when he was perusing the street fair in Montreal.

Kent turned to the fridge, grabbing his hearing aids off the counter and slid them into his ears. He winced as the world roared into sound—never as clear as he’d once had, but he could hear Vanya’s quiet giggles as Alexei tickled his sides to keep him occupied until Kent could find the sun cream, and pack the last water bottle into their travel bag.

“You not think is too cold still?” Alexei asked as Vanya wriggled out of his grasp to steal the sun cream spray from Kent’s hands.

Kent peered round the corner and sighed when Vanya aimed a well-timed spray at Kit who hurtled off into the other room. “I don’t think he’s going to care. And anyway, it’s not windy.”

Alexei hummed, but nodded and reached out, tugging Kent close. His hand cupped Kent’s face, large thumb swiping across a patch of freckles, thicker and darker from how much time he’d been spending in the sun that June. “Better protect,” Alexei murmured, leaning in close. “Not want lobster for husband.”

Kent rolled his eyes, but allowed Alexei to nuzzle him into a kiss, just small pecks to the corners of his lips, then at his pulse point which got Kent’s heart racing, no matter how long they’d been together. Alexei’s hands fit down at Kent’s hips, a perfect grip, making Kent’s breathing hitch just a little as he turned his head and opened his mouth just so, to capture Alexei in the kiss he really wanted.

“Maybe we cancel beach. Maybe call Krissy to babysit,” Alexei said, his voice thick and heavy.

Kent snorted. “Yes, then your son will murder you in your sleep because he’s been asking for the beach all week. And anyway Bob and Alicia are coming with Jack, Bits, and Mimi next weekend which means free babysitter. I’ll let you get us a fancy hotel and you can fuck me over every surface.”

Alexei groaned again, digging his fingers into Kent a little harder before finally letting go. “Drive me crazy, myshka. After all these years.”

Kent couldn’t help his blush, the way his cheeks lit up every time Alexei looked at him like that. With love, affection, and want. Sometimes the idea he’d almost lost it, the idea that he’d almost let this slip through his fingers overwhelmed him. On his bad days, when he still saw Jack on that bathroom floor—on days when he was still terrified he was going to mess it up somehow and wake up with the house empty, and his husband and son gone—he reminded himself he was okay. He had this.

No one was going to take it away.

Zimms and Bitty got married, they had a little girl, they were happy. The ghost of the teenage boy who nearly died on the tiles that afternoon might still be there, but they’d all moved on. Kent didn’t need to be afraid anymore.

Kent didn’t need to…

“Papaaaa, make daddy hurry up!”

Kent laughed. No one could command attention the way a four year old could. He slung the picnic basket into the crook of his elbow, and used his other hand to swing Vanya up through the air, an eruption of giggles as the boy landed on his hip as they started for the car.

“Um…but my spade,” Vanya said.

“In the beach basket,” Kent reminded him as he buckled the boy into his seat.

Vanya looked up with eyes as wide and dark as his papa’s. “Okay pea-cos I love it.”

Kent rolled his eyes. “I know.”

“But um…but I love you, kay?”

Kent kissed the tip of his nose before backing up and shutting the door. He curled his middle and ring finger into his palm, splaying the rest of his fingers out, pressed against the window to sign, ‘I love you.’

Vanya giggled and kicked his feet. “Come onnnnnn!” he shouted.

Kent snorted a laugh, and climbed into the car. The door shut with a firm click, like a promise—or a reminder—that this was his life. His ring glinted in the sun, a matching set on Alexei’s finger, a host of photos in an album he could look at whenever the past felt too close.

Hockey was a distant memory, and it still stung. He missed it, he missed his team and the wins, and the fire running through his veins with purpose. But this was so much more. It was a subtle heat, a gentle burn keeping him warm, reminding him he was alive.

And whole.

And loved.