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Like Real People Do

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There are admittedly worse things in the world than having to walk two blocks on a Wednesday morning in July.

Eli knows, from experience, that there are worse things in the world.

Like being diagnosed with epilepsy at sixteen.

Like having heat-induced seizures and living in Nevada.

Yes, objectively, he knows there are worse things. But right at this moment he can’t think of many because it's 8 am and he isn’t allowed to have caffeine because they’ve just changed his medication again and he’s had to park in the visitor’s garage because the only two handicapped spaces at the north entrance of the Las Vegas Aces Official Practice Facility had been occupied by one parallel-parked Land Rover decidedly lacking in handicap tags.

Motherfucking hockey players, Eli says to the empty sidewalk.

So now he’s running late, because it’d taken him an extra ten minutes to find the visitor’s lot, and he’d still needed to stop and let his dog pee before they entered the complex because being the disabled kid was bad enough but being the disabled kid whose service dog peed in the rink on the first day of practice would probably guarantee he never had a collegiate social life to speak of. Not that he was holding out particularly high hopes for that anyway.

The security guard at the door barely glances at his newly-printed student ID before waving him to the left with a tired, “Rink Three, end of the hallway on your right.”

She looks like she could use some coffee too.

“Right. Thanks.” Eli shifts his backpack, sparing a last hateful glance at the Land Rover outside.

“Hey, you happen know whose car that is out front? License plate KP90?”

She lifts one eyebrow. “You mean Kent Parson?”

Because of course. Of course it was Kent fucking Parson. Eli tries to avoid too much familiarity with the hockey world but there are some things you just know if you spent enough time around ice and one of those things is the name of the youngest current captain in the NHL, who is apparently just as much of a douche off the ice as tabloids would suggest.

Eli takes a steadying breath. “You know where I could find him?”

The security guard considers Eli’s expression, then the dog at his feet, then the ill-parked vehicle outside.

“I take it you don’t want an autograph?”

“No.”

She gives him an apologetic smile. “I don’t think I can actually have his car towed, but I can file a complaint, if you’d like.

“That would be great, thanks.”

He starts to move forward again before pausing.

“Actually, do you know if Jeff Troy is back from IR yet?”

Which, okay, he didn’t make a habit of following hockey, but when he’s potentially in the same building as a gold-medal-winning world-junior figure-skater-turned-NHL-player, he’d like to know.

“Yep. As of this week he’s cleared to skate no-contact in practices.” She grins. “He also parks in the players’ lot like he’s supposed to.”

Eli would expect nothing less. 

“They’re in practice for the next two hours. But sometimes Troy does the meet and greet afterward.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, rink 2.” She nods to the right hallway. “Parson will be there too, but he almost never comes out afterward.”

“Shocking.”

The doors open behind him and a tall, entirely-too-awake girl wearing a hijab that matches her leggings grins at them both, handing over her student ID.

“Morning,” she says, careful not to run over Hawke’s tail with her rolling skate bag. “Your dog is beautiful.”

“Thanks,” he says. “Are you a freshman too?” 

Which is a stupid question because he knows the rest of the figure skating team isn’t supposed to start practice for another week. Obviously she’s there for freshman orientation just like he is.

“Yeah!” she says, apparently immune to his idiocy. “Just moved in last night. Thank goodness for coffee, right? I’m so nervous I didn’t sleep at all.”

“Right,” he agrees, wryly.

She gets her ID back from the security guard and they start down the left hallway together.

“It’s so cool that the Aces share their facilities with the university. Did you know that their practices are open to the public? I think I might go try to get an autograph or two later if we have time.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I might join you.”

***

Practice is good. It’s not a real practice because it’s the first day, but he meets the coach and trainers, learns all the other freshmen’s names and then promptly forgets them, signs a bunch of paperwork and then spends a few extra minutes going over his medical information with the team doctor. Hawke keeps an unobtrusive down/stay on the first row of bleachers and watches, bored, as they warm up, do some drills, and then call it a day. No one asks about the dog or the scars, and he doesn’t volunteer any information. It’s strange to have that option. He’s used to everyone knowing everything about him. The accident. The diagnosis. The dog. Hell, half of his hometown donated money to the Gofundme for his initial treatment and got weekly updates on his recovery. He can’t decide if it’s a relief or a new form of stress to be surrounded by people who don’t already know his story. Everyone knowing your business is annoying, but it also means no one asks questions.

He didn’t work up enough of a sweat to need a shower afterward, and he decides he should definitely stay in the igloo for a few more minutes before making the walk back to his car, so he accompanies Morgan (too-awake-but-friendly-girl from earlier) and another girl (tiny, Asian, enviable quads) who he’s pretty sure is also named Morgan, which isn’t confusing at all, to catch the last few minutes of the Aces’ practice.

There are surprisingly few people in the stands: a haggard looking mother with a pair of toddler boys, a small group of college-aged girls who are probably also students, and a pair of old (retired?) men.

He sits with the Morgans on the bleachers closest to the ice behind the far goal and crosses his arms. Hawke is a solid press of warmth against his leg, the Morgans are talking quietly about some Russian player who was traded to the team that year, and, sitting still, surrounded by a soft buzz of conversation and the noise of skates and sticks on ice, he suddenly remembers how tired he is.

He jerks when the buzzer goes off and players start to leave the rink. The rookies stay and one of the goalies comes back out to help while they practice slapshots. Troy hangs around a bit later than the other veterans, and, surprisingly, Parson does too, leaning on his stick and occasionally calling out advice to the baby aces. Once the ice is cleared and the Zamboni comes out, Eli follows the Morgans into the hallway outside where, according to the other spectators, the players will emerge to…he doesn’t know. Bask in the adoration of their fans? Sign hats? Take awkward selfies?

The players start to trickle out fifteen minutes later and it appears to be a combination of all three. The Morgans try and fail to contain their excitement over the appearance of a man who doesn’t look much older than them but is probably a solid foot taller. They take several pictures apiece with him, and he handles it with more grace than some of the other players, laughing softly at their enthusiasm, his accent lilting and indistinct. Russian, Eli thinks, and then startles because Jeff Troy has just exited the locker room. 

There aren’t many people who seem concerned about Troy, which makes sense as he’s a recent trade and just back from IR—the pair of toddlers who’ve clearly met him before get high fives and one of the older men shakes his hand and gestures broadly toward the ice. Troy grins, gesturing himself, and then shakes his head pleased, maybe embarrassed, before the man steps back, waving goodbye. 

Eli does what any other self-respecting teenage fan would do in this situation and promptly loses his cool entirely.

“Hey!” He says, too loud. “Jeff Troy!”

Troy jerks, half-turned to head back into the locker room, then adjusts his course, walking over.

“Hi,” he says, and damn, the man is even prettier in person. 

“Hi,” Eli parrots.

Troy’s smile widens at the probably idiotic expression on Eli’s face.

“Your dog is beautiful,” he says.

“You’re beautiful,” Eli answers because, hey, go big or go home, right?

One of the Morgans chokes on a laugh behind him.

Surprisingly, this causes Troy to flush.

“Ah, thank you. Not a compliment I get from most people.”

“Well most people are dumb. And you are. Beautiful.”

Troy badly suppresses a laugh. “You know I’m married, right?”

“And to all appearances tragically heterosexual, yes.”

“Tragically,” he agrees solemnly.

“Don’t worry, I’m not actually hitting on you. Though it is on my bucket list to go on a date with a hockey player, if you’re interested.” 

He wiggles his eyebrows.

Troy doesn't try to suppress his laugh this time.

“Are you trying to play the pity card right now?”

“That depends. Is it working? I mean, you do Make-A-Wish shit, right?”

He gestures to Hawke, trying to look as feeble as possible. “Think of it as philanthropy.”

Troy outright laughs at that and Eli is about to ask for a picture and let the guy go before the joke gets old but before he has a chance to say anything else, the Morgans let out an aborted in-tandem shriek and behind Troy a voice yells,

“HEY SWOOPS what are you—oh my god, a dog.”

Eli glances up to find none other than Kent Parson leaning around the locker room door. He trips over himself to join them, graceless in a way that’s strange after seeing him on the ice.

“What’s a dog doing here?” Parson asks, beaming at Hawke and completely ignoring the minor tumult his appearance has caused.

“Swoops, why aren’t you petting him, look at this beautiful—“

Troy throws out an arm, blocking Parson from going down to his knees.

“Jesus, Parse, can you not read?”

It takes him a minute.

“Oh. Service dog. My bad, bro,” he says to Hawke, “didn’t mean to distract you. Er.” He glances up at Eli. “Him? Fuck. I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to talk to him, am I? I read something about this but I can’t remember.”

“No, you’re not supposed to talk to her. But you’re self-correcting, at least. That’s better than most folks,” Eli allows.

“I really am sorry,” Parson says, and the earnestness is disconcerting. “That must get super annoying.”

“Very,” Eli agrees.

Parson is biting his lip now, looking genuinely upset in a way that almost makes Eli forget that he’s a massive illegally-parked douchebag.

Troy drops one arm around Parson’s shoulders, pulling him in as if he has a secret to share.

“This one is trying to guilt me into going out with him,” Troy says conspiratorially, nodding toward Eli. “Apparently it's on his bucket list to go on a date with a hockey player.”

“I think guilt is a strong word,” Eli says.

A tentative grin returns to Parson’s face. “Playing the pity card? Really?”

Eli shrugs. “Hey, chronic medical conditions come with a lot of suck, might as well embrace the occasional perks.”

“You realize Swoops is married, right?” Parson says, “And like. All about monogamy.”

“Yes.”

“And apparently tragically heterosexual,” Troy adds.

“That too,” Eli agrees.

Kent laughs, startled and real in a way that’s enough to make Eli take another look at him. Parson considers him as well, mouth still tipped up at the sides, eyebrows furrowed.

“I’m not married,” he says.

Eli squints at the nonsequitur.

“Okay?

“So does it have to be Swoops or will any hockey player do? Because I’m a hockey player. And I like food.”

Eli is probably gaping unattractively at him.

The Morgans are completely silent.

“I don’t--You want to take me on a date?”

“Sure, why not? I mean. I’d hate for you to drop dead tomorrow without fulfilling your bucket-list wish.”

“Oh my god, Kenny,” Troy mutters.

“You,” Eli says. “Kent Parson. Want to take me on a pity date.”

“I—yes?”

Troy makes a long-suffering noise. “Alright, I’m going to let you kids figure this out. I’ll see you later, Kenny.”

“Yeah,” Parson says distractedly. “See you tonight.”

They stare at each other for a moment and Eli realizes that the magazines and billboards must airbrush Parson’s freckles out which is a shame because they’re pretty damn cute. Especially when he wrinkles his nose at the awkward silence between them.

“You’re serious,” Eli says finally.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because you’re Kent fucking Parson?”

Parson runs a hand through his damp hair which does nothing to dissuade the cowlick right above his left eyebrow. 

“Why does everyone say my name like that?”

“Sorry, I just. It was a joke. I wasn’t actually expecting to—you’re really serious?”

“Yes.”

“You know I’m gay, right?”

Parson glances from the rainbow patch on Hawke’s vest to the skin-tight leggings and off-the-shoulder shirt Eli’s wearing.

“Yeah, I kinda figured.”

“And that…doesn’t bother you?”

“What the fuck, don’t look at me like I’m going to steal your lunch money, I’m not a homophobe.”

Which, Eli vaguely remembers hearing about some tweets that would contradict that, but he decides not to bring it up.

“Do you trust Swoops?” Kent says, bouncing from the balls of his feet to his heels. There’s a little line between his eyebrows and he looks upset again.

“Troy? Uh, I guess?”

“SWOOPS,” Parson yells, “TELL HIM I’M NOT A HOMOPHOBE!”

Eli covers his face with his hands.

Troy appears in the doorway of the locker-room again, looking fond, but exasperated.

“Kenny isn’t a homophobe,” he says, voice raised so that everyone who is now watching the situation can hear. “Just an idiot. I promise. Can I go home now?”

Eli waves him away with one hand, the other still covering his face.

Parson laughs, more self-deprecating than anything else.

“Ok, I admittedly didn’t think that through. I hope you’re ok with getting turned into a GIF because that’s definitely ending up online.”

“Oh god,” Eli mutters.

“So. Lunch? I’m kinda starving.”

“You want to go now?”

“Yes? Unless. I mean we could go some other time if you don’t—does it need to be a fancy dinner? We’ve got a stretch of away games starting tomorrow but—“

“No! No, lunch now is fine. That’s—it’s fine.”

“Great. Do you have everything you need?”

“Uh, no,” he jabs his thumb in the general direction of the other rink. “I left my stuff in the locker room.”

“Right. Well I’ll grab my bag and meet you there then. Rink three, right?”

“Right,” Eli says faintly.

Parson flashes him a grin and disappears around the corner at which point the Morgans converge upon him.

“That was Kent Parson,” tall Morgan says. “Kent Parson is taking you to lunch.”

“What the actual fuck,” tiny Morgan says. “How is this your life?”

“I don’t even know,” Eli says.

***

Parson meets him outside the locker room fifteen minutes later wearing mirrored sunglasses, a snapback, and a backpack that combined probably cost more than Eli’s skates.

Eli wonders if Parson’s frat-douche aesthetic is intentional.

“Ready?” Parson asks. “Oh, here, let me carry that.”

Eli wants to protest on principal as Parson slings his backpack over one shoulder, but it admittedly makes it much less difficult to wrangle Hawke’s leash and his skating gear without the bag to worry about. 

“Gotta say I’m a little insulted that you thought I’d be a dick about the gay thing, but Swoops got immediate trust,” Parson says, walking back toward the facility entrance. “I mean. Swoops and I are in the same You Can Play video.”

Eli resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Well yeah, but you’re the Captain. I figured you had to. Everybody knows Troy has a transgender sister and he’s super supportive. And he has a charity fund just for LGBTQ youth and was like, completely extra taping his stick for pride night last year.”

“Okay, yeah, that’s valid. But still. I’m a little hurt.”

Eli can tell that it’s meant to be joking, but the words come out a little too honest.

“I’m not a dick,” Parson continues. “And if you—the thing on Twitter was a misunderstanding if that’s—“ He makes an annoyed noise in the back of his throat. “The point is, I’m not a dick,” he repeats, like it’s important Eli believe him. “I promise.”

“Right.” Eli says, and then, because he’s petty, “So that Land Rover parked across both handicapped spaces outside…”

Parson stops in the middle of the hallway.

“Oh shit. Fuck. I’m so sorry. I was running late and no one ever parks there this early—which, that’s not an excuse, I still shouldn’t have done it, I—alright, I’m definitely a dick.” He starts walking again, shoulders hunched. “Fuck. I really am. I’m such a dick.”

“Just not a homophobic dick?” Eli says gently.

“Right.”

They fall quiet as they pass the front desk and the security guard watches them with unrestrained curiosity.

“I won’t do it again,” Parson says, fishing his keys out of his pocket. “Swear to god. And I’ll make a donation to—I dunno. Something for disabled kids as an apology. And—and buy you dessert after lunch.”

“Jesus, Parson,” Eli says, “You weren’t going to include dessert with lunch before? You have a 1.5 million dollar annual salary, what kind of cheap date bullshit is that?”

Parson gives him a soft, thankful, smile.

“I would have. But now I’m taking you to the best frozen yogurt place in Vegas. It’s a secret. I haven’t even taken Swoops there.”

“Well,” Eli says, trying to ignore the facial expression of the listening security guard. “That sounds like a reasonable apology. Where are we going for lunch? I’ll go get my car and meet you there.”

“Oh—I thought we’d just take mine. Do you—is there something you need in yours?”

Eli looks pointedly at Hawke. “No, but I come with an 80 pound fur factory with sharp nails and you drive a car worth more than 100k.”

“Pretty sure she can’t do any more damage than Kit. Granted, Kits only like, six pounds. But she’s full of fury and has a religious opposition to leather seats, apparently.”

“I—Kit?” Eli asks, feeling a little lost.

Parson frowns at him.

“My cat.”

“You have a cat?”

“Uh. Yes? Kit Purson? She has her own Instagram. With over a million followers.”

He seems genuinely insulted that Eli doesn’t know this.

“Oh. That’s cool. What kind of cat?”

Parson brightens. “She’s kind of a mix? I got her from the shelter, but I have pictures,” he says, because of course he does. “You can look at them in the car, come on, your dog—what’s her name?”

“Hawke.”

“Hawke can chill in the back seat, let’s go, I’m starving.”

Eli allows Parson to hold the door for him, laughing a little at the still-baffled security guard as he unclips Hawke’s leash and tells her to get into the back seat. She settles happily, watching as they load the rest of their bags into the floorboards, and Eli finds himself, moments later, sitting in the passenger seat of Kent Parson’s car, scrolling through an album of cat pictures on Kent Parson’s phone while Kent Parson drives them to lunch.

What even.

He thinks absently that Eric isn’t going to believe him when they Facetime tonight.

Chapter Text

Eli didn’t really have a chance to cultivate an expectation of what lunch with a professional NHL player would be like. 

He’s pretty sure this isn’t it, though.

Parson drives them to a storefront with a frankly obscene amount of tie dye and a sign font that is a little too close to Comic Sans for comfort. It’s called The Pretty Bird Cafe and Eli honestly isn’t sure if this is supposed to be a joke or not. 

“Okay,” Parson says, seeing Eli’s expression. “I know it looks a little wild but this place makes the best salads in Vegas and I’m assuming your nutritionist is just as uppity about protein-fiber ratios as mine is, so.”

This is admittedly true.

“The best salads,” Eli repeats, squinting at cafe, because, seriously, there’s so much tie dye.

“I promise.”

Parson takes his silence as acquiescence and hops out of the car, jogging over to open the passenger door before Eli can reach for it.

He takes off his snapback, running a hand through his hair before replacing it, as Eli gets Hawke out of the back seat.

“You know,” Eli says, “for someone who didn’t go to college you have the frat boy aesthetic down a little too well.”

He’s expecting a cutting retort but Parson actually looks a little put-out, hand moving back toward the hat he’s just released.

“What do you mean?”

Eli gestures toward Kent’s body as a whole.

“Floral snapback, Ray-bans, V-neck, Vans. You’re like a walking greek life advertisement.”

“Oh. Well. I have a stylist? She like, gives me options and I choose the ones I like.”

He fingers the ear piece of his glasses, shrugging.

“I’m not really familiar with fashion, so.”

Fantastic. Now Eli feels like the word’s biggest dick.

Parson holds open the cafe door, prompting all two dozen of the bells mounted above it to ring, and he smiles, maybe a bit forced, at the woman who waves to him from the back counter.

“We seat ourselves,” he says. “Booth?”

“Booth,” Eli agrees.

They choose a spot by the window and once Hawke is tucked neatly under the table, Parson hands him a menu.

“Just a heads up, some of the other guys come here for lunch pretty often too. So if Coots or Rushy or whoever shows up, feel free to ignore them.”

“Coots or Rushy?”

Eli knew hockey players were all about the nicknames, but honestly.

“Oh, uh. Alex Coothorpe and Evan Rushmore. Tater too, sometimes—Alexei Mashkov? And Nicky—Elias Nikisson.”

Eli purses his lips. “I have no idea who any of these people are.”

Parson pauses in the middle of unwrapping his silverware from a paper napkin. “But you were at practice. You” he gestures with his newly liberated fork “have your whole hockey player bucket list thing.”

“I have a confession to make,” Eli says.

Parson brightens. “Oh, my favorite. Hit me.”

“Its not actually on my bucket list to go on a date with a hockey player. For the most part, I actively avoid hockey players.”

“What? Why?”

“Uh…self preservation?”

Parson looks lost. 

“I’m lost,” he says.

Eli  sighs. “Dude. I’m a gay mixed-race figure skater. I grew up in small-town Georgia. And I was stupid enough to come out when I was fourteen. I figured out pretty quick it was safest to avoid all sports teams. Granted, football was a more pressing every day concern but running into the hockey players at the rink was never a particularly fun experience either.”

“Oh.” Parson looks a little blindsided. A little hurt. Genuine in a way that surprises him. “Right,” Parson says. “That’s—that really sucks.”

He takes a breath like he’s going to say something else but a waitress skates over—on actual roller skates, what even is this place?—to deliver glasses of water and take their order.

“Usual?” she asks Parson.

“Yes, please,” he says.

She tries to hand Eli a menu but he waves her away. “I’ll have whatever he’s having.”

She nods and glides off.

“So,” Parson says, taking a sip of his water. “If you try to avoid hockey players, why were you at practice? And flirting with Swoops.”

“Oh my god, I wasn’t actually flirting with him. It was a joke. And he’s not a hockey player—“

Parson raises a disbelieving eyebrow. “Okay, yes, asshole, he is now, but I grew up watching him figure skate. He was only a few years older than me and when I was ten I memorized his entire gold-medal-winning world-junior routine. I could never do it clean, obviously, but still. I was so disappointed when he quit to focus on hockey in high school.”

“He’s a great hockey player,” Parson says, almost defensive. “The Aces are lucky to have him.”

“Oh. No, I know. The fact that he was able to get drafted in the second round after only four years of serious play was ridiculous. I have so much respect for him as an athlete. I just.” Eli runs a finger through the condensation on his glass. “His routines were really, really, beautiful.”

Parson chews on his bottom lip for a moment, thoughtful.

“He still has figure skates. Sometimes he gets ice time on off-days and plays around a little. I caught him a few months back right before he was injured and he let me watch for a while.”

“I would literally kill a man to see that.”

“Kill a man?” Parson asks. “Really?”

“I mean. Probably not a nice man. Like. A shitty man?”

Parson laughs like Eli is joking.

“I could ask him.” Parson says, sounding unsure.  “Maybe. He probably wouldn’t mind you watching as long as you didn’t like… Snapchat it or something.”

Eli doesn’t actually get a chance to respond, which is probably good because, in the moment, he likely would have embarrassed himself.

“Incoming,” Parson says, sitting up a little straighter, resigned. “Sorry. Hazard of hanging out with me.”

Eli doesn’t understand at first until he notices two teenage girls making their way purposely toward their table. He realizes that Parson thinks they’re coming to ask for his autograph, but Eli doesn’t actually think that’s the case because he’s intimately familiar with the look on the first girl’s face.

“Hi,” she says, glancing back and forth between them. “Can we pet your dog?”

Eli takes a moment to enjoy Parson’s perplexed expression.

“Sorry,” Eli says to the girls, trying not to laugh. “She’s a service dog and she’s working so you can’t pet her. Thanks for asking, though.”

“Oh,” the second girl says, ducking a little to look at Hawke under the table. “My bad, we couldn’t see her vest from over there. Tell her she’s doing a good job!”

“Will do.”

The girls link arms and return to their table.

Parson still looks baffled.

“You’re kind of used to being the center of attention,” Eli says, “huh?”

“I don’t—does that happen to you all the time?”

“Sorry,” Eli parrots. “Hazard of hanging out with me.”

“Oh my god. Shut up. I can’t help it that my face is on billboards all over this stupid city. I’m used to people recognizing me.”

Eli grins. “I’ll bet you five dollars that by the end of lunch more people will come to talk to me about Hawke then to get your autograph.”

Parson extends a hand. “I’ll take that bet.

They shake. Slowly. 

Parson’s hand is surprisingly large, considering that he’s actually on the small-side for a hockey player.

Eli tries not to dwell on it.

“So, I’m assuming you’re a student at LVU?” Parson asks.

“Freshman. Just moved in yesterday.”

“Nice. Have you met your roommate yet? Rushy went to Boston for two years and all he has is horror stories.”

“No roommate. They gave me a single because of Hawke.”

“Oh. That’s…cool?”

“I guess. I’m definitely glad I’ll have my own space. But the whole forced socialization thing might have been handy.”

Parson tips his head to one side, bottom lip still tucked beneath his teeth.

“Why? You don’t seem shy.”

This is suddenly not a conversation he wants to be having.

“No. But I don’t really—I’m from a small town. My closest current relationships are the result of forced long-term cohabitation.” He circles his index finger around the rim of his glass. “I don’t really know how to make friends.”

“Oh. Yeah, I get that.”

Eli finds that hard to believe.

Parson can probably tell.

Parson bunches the paper wrapper for his straw between his thumb and forefinger, inhaling slowly, purposefully, the way Eli’s therapist makes him breathe when they’re talking about Serious Things that require Mindfulness. Eli wonders if Parson has a therapist.

“I didn’t really have time to make friends as a kid,” Parson says, “since everything from eight years old on was all about hockey. So I really only ever hung out with the kids on my teams, and I was so much better than most of them that they didn’t—and even if they did it wasn’t because they actually liked me, I don’t think. And now… I think my teammates are my friends? I mean, I know some of them are. But I’m also their captain, so that’s. And almost all of them are older than me, and some are married and have kids and stuff, so.”

Despite the confluence of sentence fragments, Eli does, actually, understand.

“That sucks.”

The words seem woefully trite.

“Sometimes, yeah.”

They’re both looking very intently at their water glasses and Eli is considering escaping to the bathroom for a minute because there are very clearly some Emotions™ happening here, but then a little kid—thank god—waves wildly through the window at them and, a moment later, comes crashing in the door of the store. His father, a bit more sedate, catches the jangling door behind him, looking resigned.

“Are you Kent Parson?” the kid asks, eyes wide.

Kent laughs. “Yeah, buddy.”

“See, dad. I told you!”

“Sorry,” the dad says, “There wasn’t any catching him after he recognized you.”

“No problem. You want an autograph?”

Kent smirks at Eli.

Eli rolls his eyes.

“Yes, please. Can you—dad do you still have my—?”

The dad pulls a small, relatively battered, Aces hat from the backpack on his shoulder.

The kid grabs it and shoves it across the table toward Parson. “I already got Mashkov to sign it. See? So you can sign next to him.”

He points to a spiky, faded, signature and Parson obligingly signs his name beside it with a sharpie he apparently produced from thin air.

Is that a thing? Eli wonders. Do celebrities just carry around Sharpies in their pockets? He feels like that would definitely be a laundry hazard. Then again, Kent Parson can probably afford to buy a new pair of jeans every few weeks.

The father thanks them, the boy immediately puts the hat on his head, and the waitress returns with two massive salads, loaded with chicken and avocado, as the pair return to the sidewalk outside.

Kent shoves a forkful into his mouth immediately, making noises that are frankly a little risqué.

“So,” he says, mouth full and not at all endearing, “back to the whole making friends thing. I’ve heard there’s a really great way to do that.”

“Oh? Please. Share your wisdom.”

“Hockey,” he says solemnly.

“I’m not joining a hockey team, you weirdo.”

“No! I mean—hockey games. I could get you some tickets. And you could like, invite some people on your floor in the dorm. Or, maybe those girls you were with this morning? They seemed cool.”

“Oh.” That’s actually really nice, but. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

Kent’s face falls. “Too loud for Hawke?”

“No, she has ear muffs, but—“

“Ear muffs?”

“Like, hearing protection? For fireworks. And shooting and stuff.”

“Shooting. Like gun shooting? You have a gun?”

“I’m from Georgia. Everyone in my family owns a gun. My grandmother owns a gun.”

“Oh my god.”

Parson doesn’t look like he knows what to do with this information but he seems very, very, happy about it.

“I feel like we’ve gotten a little off track here,” he says finally, smile threatening to overtake his face.

One of his incisors is a little crooked, overlapping the tooth next to it, and for some reason Eli finds this distractingly cute.

“Right,” Eli says, trying to refocus. “I was just saying, I think Hawke would probably be okay, but I don’t—I’m not really a fan of crowds. Or places where I don’t have an easy exit.”

“Oh. Well, I could put you in a private box. You’d be further from the ice but no crowds and a door right to the hallway. Would that work?”

Eli watches as Parson shoves another too-big bite of food in his mouth.

“You’re offering me and a bunch of hypothetical friends seats in a private box to—try and help me build a social life?”

“Yes?”

“I think you’re taking the philanthropy aspect of this outing a little too far.”

“I’m not—“

“Hi!” a woman interrupts, waving long, manicured fingers at them. “Can I take a picture of your dog? He looks just like our old dog Charlie. He passed away a few months ago—bone cancer—and my husband still isn’t over it. Five thousand dollars in vet bills but it gave us an extra year with him—worth it, you know? He was such a good dog and we have a soft spot for German Shepherds, now. They’re just the best. We’re on a waiting list for another puppy now.”

Parson gives Eli a bewildered look.

Eli resists the urge to laugh.

“Yeah, German Shepherds are the best. You can take a picture, sure. But don’t distract her, please, she’s working.”

The woman makes an “ok” sign, winking, and drops down onto her knees to get a better angle with her phone. Eli focuses on his salad and not the fact that he now has a perfect view down the front of the woman’s very low-cut shirt. When he glances at Parson, he’s surprised to find that Kent is doing the same. When Parson meets his eyes Eli nods meaningfully toward the woman, and holds up two fingers. He points to Parson, mimes an autograph, and folds down one finger. 2-1. Eli is winning.

Kent subtly flips him off.

When conversation resumes, they focus mostly on lighter topics: Vegas, the new Aces facilities, cats—particularly Kit—and their surprising mutual affection for Halsey.

Have you met her?! Eli asks. No, Parson says, bereft. I’ve @-ed her so many times but she’s never tweeted me back.

The salad is, Eli has to admit, pretty damn good. And the frozen yogurt place they go to next is even better. It’s tiny, tucked between neon-signed shops a few miles from the strip. Self-serve. A buffet-bar of toppings. Colorful. Clean. Two booths and four small, circular tables. It’s entirely empty when they arrive.

“After school rush won't hit for another hour,” Parson says as they sit down with their selections—Cake Batter with banana slices and hazelnuts for Kent, Vanilla topped with strawberries for Eli.

“We’ll have to make sure to leave by two if we don’t want to get mobbed,” Parson continues. “It already turns into a madhouse around then, but add in a professional NHL player and a dog—“

He doesn’t have to finish. Eli nods.

“That’s cool. I need to be back on campus for a meeting with my RA by three anyway. I’ve got to give him the downlow on me and Hawke for emergencies and stuff.”

Parson gestures with his spoon toward Hawke. “So am I allowed to ask about what you use her for or is that not PC?”

Eli purses his lips and tries to be flippant.“My medical history is more of a third date conversation.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Because. No one sticks around after that conversation and I like to live in glorious denial for a short period beforehand.”

It comes out more self deprecating than he intended. 

Parson looks…thoughtful. “Does this count as one or two?

“Pardon?”

“This. Frozen yogurt. I mean, technically it’s a second location, but still the same day. So is this one date or two.”

“One,” Eli says firmly. “If it’s happening within the same three-hour period.”

“You’re the expert,” Kent says, which, he’s really, really, not, but ok. 

“So still two dates to go then?” Parson continues.

“I—what?”

“We’ve got a roadie coming up but then we’re home for almost two weeks, and it's preseason, so. When does your semester start?”

“You want to do this again?” Eli asks.

Kent stops idly twirling his spoon.

“You don’t?”

He does, Eli realizes. He really does. Because apparently he actually likes Kent fucking Parson.

“I do,” he says. “I just figured—pity dates are usually pretty singular.”

“Oh—well, that’s not—It wasn’t really a pity date. I just thought you were interesting. Still do.”

He says it so completely without artifice that Eli is briefly winded.

“Oh,” he says. “Cool. I mean. Yeah. My semester doesn’t start for another week and a half, so whenever you’ve got time.”

“When are your practices?”

“Every morning from eight to ten this week. After that, seven to nine Monday, Wednesday, Friday.”

“Ours change depending, but that should be easy enough to work with. Here—“

Parson unlocks his phone and slides it across the table. 

“Give me your number and we’ll figure it out once I get back.”

Eli stares dumbly at the phone for a moment.

He puts his name and number in on autopilot.

A few seconds after handing it back to Parson, his own phone vibrates with a text message. It’s a thumbs up emoji followed by two cats, fireworks and an eggplant. Because Kent Parson is a ridiculous human being. And he now has Kent Parson’s phone number. Apparently.

Chapter Text

Eli met Eric Richard Bittle Junior the week after he turned nine. Eli had been accepted into a figure skating team based out of Atlanta and he really, really, wanted to join, but the twice-a-week forty-minute drive from Greensboro to his current rink in Athens was already difficult for his parents to manage. Atlanta was over an hour away and practices were three times a week. 

Eric Bittle was the solution to this problem.

Well, not Eric in particular, but the fact that Eric was already on the team and lived in Madison and once the coach contacted Eric’s mother, she was more than willing to drive Eli too.

Eric was also nine, but he was, Eli thought, the tiniest nine-year-old he had ever seen. Eli was small for his age, but the top of Eric’s head barely cleared Eli’s shoulder. Eric was adorable, too. The kind of blonde-haired big-eyed kid that modeled for Gap and grinned toothily while holding a fish in Visit Georgia infomercials. He was about as stereotypically southern as apple pie and the big Ford truck his mama drove and Eli kind of wanted to hate him on principle except he couldn’t because Eric was smart and funny and stupidly, ridiculously, kind. They became best friends immediately, due primarily to the fact that they spent a large percentage of their time outside of school together by necessity, but secondarily because neither of them, frankly, had any other close friends. 

Eric was the first person he came out to, twelve years old and curled up in the attic bedroom at Eric’s house; night two of a weekend sleepover, wide awake from too much sugar and a scary movie they weren’t supposed to watch.

“I think I have a crush on Colin Murphy,” he’d whispered, apropos of nothing. “I can’t stop thinking about kissing him but I’m pretty sure if I tried he’d punch me in the face.”

“If he did I’d punch him right back,” Eric said, like Colin didn’t weigh two of him and would have to duck if Eric wanted to get anywhere near his face.

“He has a weird looking nose, though,” Eric continues. “You could do better.”

“I like his nose.”

“Well. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.”

Things had devolved into a hushed, and then not so hushed, pillow fight and it wasn’t until several minutes later, after Eric’s mother had yelled at them to quiet down, that Eli asked, low and a little breathless, “Eric. We’re—you’re not mad, right?”

“What? No.”

It was hard to read his facial expression in the darkness, but Eli’s skin flushed with nervous energy at how quiet Eric was being.

“You can’t tell anyone though, ok? Not yet.”

“Ok.”

A sour knot of anxiety settled in his stomach as the silence stretched between them. Because he’d been so sure that Eric would be kind. He would be kind and he would bury him in a barrage of comforting, encouraging words and while Eric hadn’t responded badly he was also acting very strange and—

“Are you going to tell your parents?” Eric asked, twenty minutes later when Eli had nearly worked himself up to the point of tears.

“Eventually? Maybe in a couple years. I don’t know.”

“You think they’ll be mad?”

Eli took a breath, tried to steady his voice. “Not real bad, I don’t think. My cousin brought her girlfriend to Christmas and everyone was nice. Awkward. But nice. Dad liked her, actually. She plays soccer for her University and they like, bonded over how much American football sucks or whatever.”

“That is nice,” Eric said quietly, still so out of character that Eli didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t think my family would be ok with it,” Eric said, a full minute later, barely loud enough for Eli to hear and Eli closed his eyes, swallowing hard.

“I’m not—I won’t tell them, ok? Just keep it a secret and everything will be fine. Unless. If you don’t want to be friends anymore—“

He couldn’t finish the sentence and Eric suddenly had his arms wrapped around Eli’s neck. He didn’t realize he was crying until Eric used the cuff of his pajama shirt to wipe at Eli’s face, hushing him with the same warm, gentle words Eli had heard Eric’s mother use a dozen times after bad dreams and cruel kids and hard falls on the ice. 

“No, no, no,” Eric whispered, a little frantically. “No, I didn’t mean you, I meant me. I meant my family—I don’t think. Well Mama might but—I don’t think I can ever tell them about me.”

You?”

“Me.”

“Oh.”

And then they were both crying and it was all very dramatic and embarrassing in a way that only twelve-year-olds could be. 

When Eli came out publicly two years later his mother had a long talk with Eric’s mom and while she was a little quiet with him for a few weeks, she never refused to drive him to the rink or let him spend the night and things returned to normal within a few months. No one told Eric’s dad—the coach of the high school football team, the very team that made Eric’s life hell—and Eric stayed in the closet. Or the kitchen, more literally. If he wasn’t skating, he was baking. And since neither of them understood the concept of hobbies for enjoyment rather than competition, Eli started cooking; first his Mama’s and Abuela’s recipes, then recipes from books and internet searches. The paltry amount of free time he and Eric spent playing video games quickly transformed into arguments over the cooking channel. This didn’t help their already lacking social standing at their respective schools, but they were happy enough and Eric’s mother was all too willing to encourage them.

Freshman year of high school, Eric quit figure skating. 

He never admitted if it was because of his dad or the bullying at school but Eli was pretty sure it was a combination of both. He loved the ice, though, and within a week he joined a hockey team at the same Atlanta rink. Their practices were, conveniently, within a half hour of each other, so Eli still rode with the Bittles to Atlanta three times a week and, despite his general hatred of hockey players, Eli grudgingly watched the end of Eric’s practices and attended his games and yes, cheered VERY loudly when he made opposing players look like lumbering idiots. Because Eric was small, and stayed small, but he was fast, faster than anyone else on the ice, and he had soft hands and even better reflexes and people, important people, quickly took notice. By senior year of high school, Eric was captain and NCAA  teams were scouting him. None of the teams offering Eric scholarships had offered Eli one, though, so Eli committed to the Las Vegas University figure team while Eric packed his bags (and his smelly hockey pads—honestly Eli would not miss riding in the car with those) for Samwell in Massachusetts. 

Their last night together in the attic was nearly as emotionally fraught as the night when Eli came out. It culminated in a badly thought-out and equally badly executed kiss that ended, at least, in laughter rather than tears.

“Never again,” Eric said somberly.

“God no,” Eli agreed. “Don’t get me wrong, I love you and I definitely have a thing for blondes. But you’re like— I prefer guys who are taller than me. No offense."

“Yeah,” Eric agreed, somewhat wistfully. “You’re way too skinny. I like big guys.”

Big, huh?” Eli said, lecherous.

Eric went abruptly pink, muttered something about muscles, you ingrate, and well, that was that.

It’s been a full 48 hours since he’s last seen Eric and Eli is secure enough to admit that he is going through withdrawals. He can’t remember a time that they had gone more than a day without seeing each other and now there are two thousand miles between them and they’re starting college on opposite sides of the United States. 

He’s unpacking, having taken his dinner from the dining hall to-go (he wasn’t ready to broach the particular social minefield that was sitting down to eat) when Eric finally Facetimes him. 

The time difference is three hours, so it must be nearly 10pm at Samwell.

“Hey sweetheart,” Eric says, clearly tired but beaming at him like the veritable ray of sunshine that he is. “Are you in your dorm? How was your first day of practice?!”

Hawke’s ears perk up at the sound of his voice.

“Yeah, I’m still unpacking. My day was completely ridiculous. You have no idea. But tell me about yours first, did you meet your—” he grimaces, intentionally dramatic, “teammates.

Eric laughs.

“Yes. They seem like nice boys. Disgusting. But nice.”

Eli carries his laptop from his desk to the still-unmade bed, laying out on his stomach. He nearly falls off the bed reaching for his takeout box of food.

“Any of them hot?” he asks, opening his plastic packet of cutlery.

Eric groans. “Only all of them. It’s terrible.”

“You poor thing. What a trial.”

“Listen. Hockey asses are a thing and they are glorious. Except when you have to share a testosterone-saturated locker room with them.”

Eli snorts at Eric’s expression.

“Are there any out guys on the team?”

Eric purses his lips. “I don’t think so? I can’t figure out if Ransom and Holster are together or just…really close bros. And Shitty—well. He dresses like my cousin Archie—“

“Way too much denim and American flag paraphernalia?”

“That’s the one—but he also gave the frogs a lecture on intersectional feminism at dinner, and I’m pretty sure he kissed our captain on the mouth after practice, but I’m definitely sure the captain isn't gay—“ He shrugs. “Time will tell, I guess.”

“Well. Are you still planning to come out? That’s why you chose Samwell, right? The whole, ‘one in four, maybe more’?”

“Right. I just. I think I may wait a few weeks. To make sure.”

Eli has to admit this is probably wise.

“More important question,” he says seriously. “Ransom, Holster, and Shitty? What the hell is with hockey players and their nicknames? Please tell me they haven’t given you one. Or at least tell me it’s better than your old one, Dicky.”

Eric presses his palms to his eyes, but it looks like he’s smiling.

“They’re calling me ‘Bitty.’ Because ‘Bittle’ but also—“

“Oh my god, that’s actually perfect. This makes me so happy, you have no idea.”

“Enough, Elijah. Why was your day ridiculous?”

“Well. After practice this morning I went to watch the end of the Aces practice.”

Eric presses a shocked hand to his chest. “You? Voluntarily spending time in the same rink as NHL players?” He shakes his head.  “Twenty-four hours away from home and college has already changed you.”

Eli rolls his eyes. “Anyway. I met Jeff Troy which was—“

“OH MY GOD. Shut up. Is he as beautiful close up as we always thought?”

“Better. But listen. I went out for lunch with Kent Parson.”

Eric just stares at him, so motionless that Eli thinks, for a moment, the video connection has frozen.

“What the actual fuck, Eli.”

“Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction too.”

“I don’t—I’m going to need you to start from the beginning.”

Eli does.

“So,” Eric says, twenty minutes and a not insignificant amount of yelling later, “you’re telling me that Kent Parson bought you lunch, then dessert, offered you an entire private box worth of NHL tickets to help you make friends, and you now have his phone number and plans to meet again once he’s back in town?”

Eric’s voice goes progressively thinner and higher the further he gets into the sentence.

“Uh. Yeah, that about covers it.”

“Only you, Eli. Do you think he’s gay?”

Eli coughs on a bite of chicken.

No. He’s the straightest straight dude to ever straight. And, you know, a professional hockey player. There’s no way he’s actually interested in me.”

“I’m sorry, do you need me to list all of things that happened again today, or—“

Eli groans, flopping sideways and out of frame. “I think he’s just lonely? He seemed—he actually seemed kind of unhappy and like maybe he didn’t have many friends. Everyone on his team is older than him and—I don’t know. I think he liked just being able to hang out with someone who didn’t have any expectations, you know? And who wasn’t like, infatuated with him.”

Eric sighs, sobering. “I guess that would be tough. Being a captain so young. He’s only—what—two years older than us?

“Yeah. He just turned twenty. His birthday is the fourth of July.”

Eric quirks one eyebrow.

“You googled him when you got home, didn’t you?”

“Maybe.”

“Definitely.”

“Enough. Tell me about your team. And all their sordid nick-names.”

“Well,” Eric yawns, leaning back against his pillows. “They seem like nice boys. They’re just all so…big.”

“They can’t be much bigger than the guys on your old team. And you’re not tiny like you used to be. I mean, you’re practically normal-sized now.”

“You hush your mouth, Mr. Five-Foot-Seven-And-A-Half-Inches. Lord what I wouldn’t do to be your height.

“I’m only an inch taller than you,” Eli laughs.

Eric rests his chin in the cup of one palm.“And do you know what I would give for that inch?” He says.

“Your left nut?”

“No. Maybe my right one, though. It's not as pretty.”

Eli shakes his head, still laughing, and Eric launches into a detailed breakdown of all the people he’d met that day, lingering for a while on the cheekbones of Justin “Ransom” Oluransi and the blue eyes of one Jack Zimmerman, who apparently is the only one without a nickname. 

“I’m pretty sure he hates me,” Eric says. “Or maybe he just hates everyone. But all that glaring of his is offset a bit by how gorgeous he looks while angry.”

Eric goes all pensive for a moment and Eli rests his cheek on his pillow, tipping the laptop screen so he stays in frame.

“Are you going to swoon? Should I leave you alone for a minute?”

“Says the boy who counted Kent Parson’s freckles today.”

“Oh my god, I didn’t count his freckles. I just said I noticed them.”

“Uh huh.”

Eric yawns again and Eli glances at the clock, keeping in mind the time difference.

“It’s getting late. You free tomorrow night? Maybe a little earlier?”

“Yeah. I made a new vlog today, and the only thing I have planned for tomorrow is practice and to buy a damn muffin tin for the kitchen downstairs—what kind of kitchen doesn’t have muffin tin? Honestly—but maybe we could talk around six?”

“Sounds good. New vlog already?”

They had a joint channel, where Eric made videos about baking and Eli made videos about cooking—it had a not-insignificant twelve-thousand followers and they were perhaps a little overly proud of their minor online fame.

“Oh hush,” Eric says, “like you aren’t planning to make one as soon as you hang up with me.”

“True.”

They grin at each other and Eli suddenly feels every mile between them.

“Say hello to Señor Bun for me,” he says, because he wants to say something embarrassing like “I miss you” or “I’m a little bit terrified” and emotions have always been Eric’s forte, not his. 

Eric rolls his eyes,  shifting to one side to reach behind his pillow. He returns to the screen with a frankly bedraggled but well-loved stuffed rabbit in his hands. He makes Señor Bun wave at Eli, fond, but sly.

“Have you unpacked Señor Fox yet?”

Eli is glad his skin isn’t pale enough to flush because he can feel his face go hot.

The stuffed fox, purchased at the same place as Eric’s rabbit, was one of the first things he had unpacked and is currently sitting on top of the refrigerator next to his phone charger and a jar of peanut butter. 

Señor Bun and Señor Fox had been procured when Eli and Eric were ten years old and wandering around the farmer’s market a few miles from Eric’s house. Eric’s mom sold homemade jams, jellies, and preserves (Eli made the mistake once of asking if there was a difference) on Saturdays and she’d pay them each five dollars to help set up and take down the stand. This left them with around four hours to kill, less if she had a good selling day, to wander the stalls and decide how they would spend their five dollars. Eric was in the habit of spending his immediately. Eli preferred to save his. 

On that particular day, Eric had noticed a stall full of beautiful hand-stitched stuffed animals and promptly fell madly in love with a rabbit.

Eli admitted it was nice, and spent several minutes admiring a fox himself, but his cousin, a year older than him and popular in a way he would never be, had scornfully declared that stuffed animals were for babies earlier that week.

He told Eric this, putting the fox back on the shelf.

Eric didn’t care.

Eric asked the owner of the stall to hold the rabbit for him until he could save the $25 required to bring it home and she agreed, largely because Eric knew exactly how adorable he was and used it ruthlessly to his advantage.

Eric wouldn’t shut up about the rabbit for the following week and Eli, more out of frustration than affection had bought the stupid thing for him the next Saturday. Eric had cried, which wasn’t all that unusual, Eli had awkwardly hugged him, and then, when Eric demanded Eli name the rabbit, he’d dubbed him “Señor Bun.” 

He never claimed he was good at naming things.

Eli noticed in the following weeks that Eric still wasn’t spending his money but he wasn’t expecting Eric to present him, a month later, with the fox from the same vendor. The fox’s name, of course, was obvious, and Eli has unrepentantly slept with Señor Fox ever since. When his cousin made fun of him for it, he punched his cousin in the nose and his mom didn’t even ground him for it.

There had been no question that the fox was coming with him to college but he is embarrassingly relived that Eric brought Señor Bun with him as well.

Eric yawns for a third time as Eli leans over to collect the fox from the refrigerator. He doesn’t make him wave because he’s not quite that ridiculous, but Eric beams at him when he sees the stuffed animal in his arms.

“I miss you,” Eric sighs. “It’s weird, being this far from home and mama and you. Christmas seems ages from now.”

“Yeah,” he agrees softly.

Hawke, perhaps sensing his distress, climbs onto the bed and bullies her way between him and the wall, shoving her nose into his neck.

Eric coos at her and Eli works one hand into the fur of her ruff, glad for the distraction.

“You should go to bed,” he says. “I’ll call you tomorrow though, okay?”

“Okay. Give Hawke a kiss for me.”

“Will do.”

“Goodnight, Elijah.”

“Goodnight, Eric.”

He closes his laptop, gently redirecting Hawke’s nose which is poking hopefully at his takeout box. 

He hugs her for a moment, which she submits to with grace, and then reaches for his phone.

There’s several message notifications—one from his mom, just checking in, and then nearly a dozen…from Kent Parson.

Hey I’m at dinner with Swoops, the first one says and then, in quick succession:

hes got private ice time at the igloo after free skate tonite 9-10. 

mite bring his fig skates if u wanna join.

I’ll b there too

this is Kent by the way

Parson

I can pick u up?

unless ur busy

just let me know

sorry for all the messages

“What the fuck,” he whispers to Hawke.

He doesn’t know how to respond.

YES seems a little too exuberant.

Backspace.

Dude, yes

Backspace

I might have time, let me check

Backspace

He settles on, Bro, seriously? That would be awesome! 

Kent responds with a thumbs-up emoji less than a minute later.

The typing ellipsis pops up, disappears, pops up again and then:

Text me your address, I’ll pick you up at 8:30.

Swoops says bring your skates.

Eli rolls onto his back and stares at the splotchy particle-board ceiling, phone against his chest.

“What the fuck,” he whispers again, a little more fervent.

Then he screencaps the entire conversation and sends it to Eric before lunging to his feet because he still hasn’t unpacked the majority of his clothes and he has less than two hours to figure out what the hell he’s going to wear.

Chapter Text

Jeff Troy doesn’t usually feel particularly old. Twenty-four is still young for a hockey player, and he’s only had one significant injury so far in his career. He knows guys in their thirties who take muscle relaxers like candy and have to do a series of convoluted stretches in order to hobble out of bed in the mornings; who visit the PT floor every day after practice and complain about their joints when it rains. Jeff can still stay up until 3 am, drink too much vodka with the Russians, and recover in time for 11am practice.

He’s not old, okay?

But he’s also been with the Las Vegas Aces for less than a year and already a good portion of the Aces, even those older than him, have started calling him “Mom.” Because apparently monitoring his budget, caring about personal hygiene, and checking the goddamn weather before he leaves the house makes him geriatric.

There’s also Kent Parson.

Jeff doesn’t have any kids. He only just got married and that was terrifying enough, he doesn’t plan to procreate any time in the near future. But since the day nineteen-year-old NHL Captain Kent Parson called him on the phone to welcome him to the Aces, more soft-spoken and awkward than he ever expected, Jeff has had a deep and abiding affection for the kid. The kind that makes him want to fight people twice his size who so much as look at Kenny funny. The kind that has resulted in Kent falling asleep on him everywhere from the team bus to airline seats to his own couch where his wife stifles laughter over his internal struggle over whether or not it would be weird to pet Kenny’s hair. Which, it’s nice hair, ok? And the poor kid has a half-dozen cowlicks that make him look like a startled sunflower most of the time. It’s adorable.

Jeff had a very brief sexuality crisis shortly after these feelings started to manifest before he realized he didn’t want to have sex with Kenny, he just wanted to protect him. Which does not, in fact, make any sense. Regardless, Jeff loves Kent in a way that he anticipates he’ll love his own children someday and the fact that Kent is only four years younger than him and his Captain doesn’t really negate that. 

So no, Jeff doesn’t usually feel old, but when he’s sitting at the monstrosity of an island in Kent’s ridiculous ultra-modern penthouse apartment, drinking beer he brought with him and refuses to share—there are laws for a reason, Kenny, no—while Kent quietly freaks out about whether or not he’s texted a cute boy too many times, Jeff feels suddenly ancient. 

“Should I apologize for all the messages or does that make it worse because it’s another message?” Kent murmurs, thumbing distractedly at his phone.

“I don’t think—“

“Oh god. What if he’s an English major and he hates chat-speak? Why didn’t I ask what his major was? That’s like. Such an obvious question. He’s probably an English major. I should have typed everything out and used like, commas and shit.”

“Kenny—“

“He’s probably just getting dinner, right? And maybe left his phone in his dorm?”

“It’s been less than ten minutes,” Jeff says slowly, debating a brief abeyance of the no-alcohol rules because honestly the kid could probably use a drink. “Don’t start worrying until it’s been like…an hour.”

“Right. You’re right. I’m being stupid.”

Kent paces over to the couch where Kit is watching him with slitted eyes. 

Kit and Jeff have an uneasy truce, which is better than most of the Aces can say. She doesn’t appear to like people other than Kent but with Jeff, at least, she doesn’t actively try to claw the shit out of his shins. Coots is not so lucky.

“You said lunch went well,” Jeff reminds him. “And he gave you his phone number. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t like you.”

“I guess. But. Maybe he felt pressured? It sounds like he hasn’t had the best experience with hockey players in the past and he already thinks I’m a giant ableist douche bag, which, to be fair, I kind of am? I just. Didn’t realize it until now.”

“Ableist?”

Kent gestures vaguely toward his laptop. “I watched some youtube videos when I got home.”

Jeff doesn’t miss this at all. Thank god for his wife.

“There are plenty of guys out there,” Jeff says awkwardly. “Even if you never see him again it’s not like it’s the end of the world.”

“That’s not—“

Kent sighs, finishing his circuit of the couch and returning to the kitchen island.

“I don’t want to date him. I mean. I would, if he wasn’t so young. And I wasn’t a fucking closeted neurotic NHL player. But I don’t—I’ve never had any gay friends. Well, except—but that wasn’t really—”

He lets his head thunk down onto the granite counter and Jeff gives up and shoves a beer over toward him because, honestly, he is so out of his depth here.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Kent says, “You’re great. And it’s a huge relief to have someone on the team who knows. But I can’t talk to you about, you know,” he raises his eyebrows, “stuff. That I could with someone else who was into dudes. Or, at least, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want me to.”

“Oh god. No. You’re right. I understand. Please don’t talk to me about ‘stuff.’”

Kent smirks a little. “Besides that, I just—I really like him. He’s funny and sarcastic as hell. And he isn’t a fan but it doesn’t seem like hates me either which—“

Ken nearly drops his phone when it vibrates.

“Well?” Jeff asks because, dammit, he’s invested now.

“He said yes! I should offer to pick him up, right?” Kent types something, then mutters about punctuation and backspaces, starting again.

“Yeah, there we go,” he says a moment later, finally palming the beer Jeff had proffered to him, taking a long drink.

“Jesus. No wonder I don’t have any friends. This is stressful.”

Jeff considers being affronted by that.

“Tell him to bring his skates,” he says instead.

Kent frowns at him. “Why wouldn’t he? We’re going to the rink.”

“We’re professional hockey players and it’s my private rink time. From what you’ve told me, he probably thinks the invitation is just to watch.”

“Oh. Right.”

Kent sends another message and returns to the beer. “I’m kind of bad at this,” he says, “Huh?”

“Little bit,” Jeff agrees.

***

Jeff Troy met Kent Parson for the first time on the ice as an opponent. The Aces won 3-2 in overtime despite a dozen penalties and Kent nearly took out Jeff’s goalie making the game-winning shot. The second, third, fourth, and fifth time Jeff shared ice with Kent weren’t much better. 

And then Jeff was traded.

Jeff knew about as much as any other player in the league about Kent Parson: painfully young, cocky, first in the draft, soft hands, fast as hell, and the embodiment of dirty hockey. He’d also seen enough of Kent’s off-ice behavior splashed across tabloids to know that the kid desperately needed his tweeting privileges revoked and a babysitter when he hit the clubs. But he was a super star; his talent only upstaged by his ridiculous all-american-boy face and six pack abs. He was given the A as a rookie, the C the following year, and Jeff noted these things with passing interest until it was February and Jeff’s GM was on the phone, reeling off the canned trade script about how thankful the organization was for his years with the team and that they wished him all the best in Las Vegas. Vegas. A less than ten-year-old franchise with no cups, a reputation for dirty play, and a teenage captain.

So it was with no little amount of resentment that he answered a Vegas area code number on his phone only a few hours after he’d spoken to his own GM, knowing it was probably someone from his new home team.

“Uh. Hi,” the other voice said, “Is this Jeff? Troy.”

“Yeah, this is Jeff.”

“Right. Cool. This is Kent Parson with the Las Vegas Aces?” the way he phrased it made it sound like he wasn’t sure.

“I just wanted to call and welcome you to the team. We’re really excited to have you and think you’re going to be a great fit for our organization.”

That bit wasn’t as unsure, but it sounded like he was reading from a script.

“Oh. Yeah, thanks, man.” He tried to remember his media training. “I’m excited for the opportunity.”

Things went awkwardly silent then and Jeff was reminded, somewhat fondly, of phone conversations with his five-year-old niece.

He decided to throw the kid a bone, because he was nice like that.

“God knows you need a winger who can tell his right from left, what even was that in the game against Tampa last week?”

Kent groaned. “Leave Bolly alone. It was his first game after being called up from the AHL and he was so nervous it’s a miracle he didn’t pass out on the ice. The kid is doing his best.”

Jeff resisted pointing out that Kent was, in fact, two years younger than ‘the kid’ in question.

“Yeah, I feel you. It’s too bad about Tervais’ knee. And Rush’s ankle. And Mashkov’s shoulder. You’ve had a lot of injuries to contend with this year.”

“Yeah.”

Kent went quiet for a moment and Jeff realized maybe he shouldn’t have brought that up.

“Mark isn’t coming back,” Kent said, kind of in a rush, and Jeff leaned his head back on the couch, closing his eyes against the emotion in Kent’s voice. “They don’t even know if—I mean. It sounds like he’ll walk again, but.”

“That sucks, man.”

And it did. No one liked to see a veteran go out with an injury like that.

“He’s great.” Kent continued. “I’m sorry you won't get to play with him.”

“I did, actually. Team USA three years back?”

Kent would have been sixteen then, Jeff realized. Jesus.

“I wasn’t expecting to get picked,” Jeff continued. “I’d just turned twenty and I was more terrified than excited. They put us in the same room and I just kinda latched onto him. He let me follow him around like a baby duckling the whole time and never gave me shit for it. I’ll have to give him a call later. Good guy.”

“Oh. Yeah. He’s—I guess he’s kinda done the same thing for me. Helping me with  Captain stuff. I didn’t—“

There was a pause. Long enough that Jeff thought the connection might have been lost.

“I didn’t want to be Captain when they offered,” Kent said finally. “He convinced me to accept.”

Jeff had no idea how to respond to that.

“Sorry,” Kent muttered. “You don’t need to hear this. See? This is why I need help. I’m so bad at this stuff.”

“Easy,” Jeff said. “You’re doing fine. And it’s not like he’s going to abandon you. Knowing Mark he’ll probably be calling you every night to go over plays and scold you about line changes.”

“True,” Kent said, sounding a little brighter. “I just really hoped—I thought he might have another year or two. I wanted to win a cup for him. With him. He put so much into the organization, turning the team into a real contender over the past few years, you know? He deserved a cup.”

“You really think the Aces can get the cup in another year or two?” Jeff asked, admittedly a little disbelieving. “Honestly?”

“Yeah,” Kent said, still quiet but confident for the first time in the entire phone conversation. “Yeah, I think we can.”

And damn it if Jeff wasn’t suddenly, intensely, invested in making that happen.

Kent picked Jeff up at the Las Vegas airport a week later. He’d offered Jeff the use of his guest room until he could find a place and ship his stuff from Dallas and Jeff had accepted because he spent enough of his life in hotel rooms already and this way he could get a better feel for his new captain. The phone call had been enough to disrupt the preconceived notion he’d held of who, exactly, Kent Parson was, but there were still enough news stories and screen-capped, now-deleted, tweets floating around the internet to leave him wary.

Kent picked him up at the airport looking like a college student that got separated from his fraternity on spring break. He was wearing Bermuda shorts, Sperries, and a backwards snap-back, holding an iced Starbucks drink.

“Hey!” he said brightly upon recognizing Jeff, not realizing until a moment too late that the hand he extended to shake was already occupied by his drink. He awkwardly fumbled the cup into his left hand, wiping his right palm on his shorts to get rid of condensation, before offering it again, somewhat sheepishly, to Jeff. “Welcome to Vegas.”

Jeff tried really hard not to laugh at him and accepted the handshake.

“Thanks. I slept through the landing so I’ll need to go check which baggage claim is mine.”

“It’s 14C. One floor down. I looked it up online before I came.”

Kent nodded vaguely toward the escalators and Jeff followed him, somewhat bemused. His puzzlement continued as Kent helped him load his four checked bags into the back of Kent’s shiny new Land Rover, then drove them back to Kent’s place with random and highly unorthodox tour-guide commentary that seemed to focus mostly on places to eat. Which, Kent was still a teenager, so he supposed that was allowed.

Kent’s guest bedroom was spare but clean and comfortable: shades of grey with it’s own bathroom. Kent left him to his own devices until late afternoon and then, fresh from a nap, Jeff argued amiably with him about dinner before they settled on Chinese, then walked the three blocks together to pick it up.

They were nearly back to Kent’s place, laughing over nothing, when two guys—probably college students on spring break—stopped on the sidewalk in front of them to take a selfie backgrounded by the ornate gold doors of Kent’s building. They waited, patient, as the boys took a few pictures from different angles, and then the taller one ducked a bit, pressing a slow kiss to the other man’s grinning mouth.

“Do you mind?” Kent snarled, completely out-of-character. 

One of the men flinched.

The other jammed his phone into his pocket and squared up to Kent.

Jeff regretted all of his life choices.

“You got a problem?” the guy said.

“Yeah,” Kent said, voice ugly, “Maybe suck face in front of someone else’s building, you fucking faggot. I live here.”

And Jeff was done.

Conveniently, one of the residents was exiting the building and Jeff grabbed the back of Kent’s shirt, dragging him inside before the door closed again, yelling an apology behind him.

“What the fuck?” he hissed, shoving Kent away from him in front of the elevator.

“Dammit,” Kent muttered, rubbing the hand not holding their takeout bag over his face. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

They both noticed the girl in the lobby with her cellphone out, watching them closely, at the same time. Their eyes met and they went quiet, Kent biting his lip, Jeff digging his fingernails into his palms, as they boarded the elevator.

Once the door closed to Kent’s apartment, two eternally long minutes later, Kent threw his keys and the takeout onto the island, leaning against it with both hands, head bowed between hunched shoulders.

“I didn’t mean it,” he repeated, subdued. “I don’t say shit like that anymore.”

Jeff took a breath. “Look man. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but if you’re going to talk like that in the locker room, or on the ice, we’re going to have a problem.

“I don’t. I swear. I fucked up, okay?”

“It’s just—my little sister is trans, ok? And I work with a queer hockey camp during the summers back home. I know a lot of guys in the NHL don’t realize how detrimental—“

“I’m not homophobic,” Kent interrupted.

Jeff tried to remember some of the phrases from the most recent ally book his mom had sent him.

“You’re a figurehead, Kent. A lot of kids—a lot of players—look up to you. And ignorance is different from malice, but it’s still really problematic if—“

I’m not homophobic,” Kent said, louder, voice cracking. “I’m not. I’m not.”

And the look on his face was—

Oh. 

Oh. 

Oh, kid.” Jeff said.

“I’m not a kid,” Kent whispered, probably automatically because it didn’t seem like he was fully computing what had just happened.

“You really, really are. Do you need to sit down? Come on, let’s go sit down on the couch.”

Kent sat down.

“So,” Jeff said. “Not homophobic. Just really shitty coping mechanisms?”

“You can’t tell anyone,” Kent said, barely audible. “Jeff, you can’t. Okay? Please.”

“Of course not. Hey, breathe. I wouldn’t. It’s ok. Look at me. I’ve read like a thousand books about this shit. I am 100% here for you ok?”

“Okay.” Kent didn’t sound like he believed him.

“Who knows?” Jeff asked gently.

“No one.”

“You mean no one on the team?

“No,” Kent said, and at least his voice was a little closer to normal. “I mean no one, no one. Well my ex, I guess. And I think maybe his parents knew, at the end. But no one else.”

Jeff sat down too.

“Not even your parents?”

“I don’t—there’s only my mom. And no. She’s—no.”

“Jesus, Kenny.”

“You can’t tell anyone,” he repeated.

“I won’t. Hey, come here. Can I hug you?”

Kent looked at him like he was certifiably insane.

“I guess?”

“It’ll help. Probably. The books say it helps.”

“Well. If the books say it helps.”

Jeff snorted and pulled Kent into an admittedly awkward side hug.

“How long do the books say we need to do this?” Kent asked, rigid under his arm.

“Shut up. At least ten minutes,” he lied.

Ten minutes?”

“Yeah, so get comfortable.”

Kent did. Eventually. Slowly relaxing into Jeff’s side.

“Can we at least watch some television or something?” Kent asked. He was trying to sound put out and failing miserably.

“No. We’re going sit here for another,” Jeff glanced at his watch, “four minutes, and then we’re going to eat food and talk about our feelings. And how you should probably get a therapist because I’m shit at talking about feelings.”

“Fuck you.”

“I know, I’m looking forward to it too.”

Chapter Text

Kent texts Eli at 8:25pm that he’s outside the dorm.

By 8:28pm, when Eli exits the lobby doors, there are three people getting autographs from a benevolent Kent who is wearing a slightly less bro-tastic outfit of black skinny jeans, a grey t-shirt, and an Aces snapback. Since Eli is wearing basically the same thing, but with leggings instead of jeans, he can’t really criticize him.

“Eli! Hey!” Kent says, nodding since his hands are full. He takes a final selfie with someone, then waves them off so he can open the back door for Hawke.

There’s a fleece blanket spread across the back seat, and a green water bottle with a collapsible bowl attached to it in the floorboard. They both look brand new.

Eli decides he’ll deal with the feelings that gives him later.

The small group of undergrads watch from a few feet away as Kent proceeds to open the passenger door for Eli before returning to the driver’s side.

“Sorry,” he says, sheepish as he puts the car in gear. “I should have known better than to get out, but I wanted to unfold the blanket in the back for Hawke.”

“No problem,” Eli answers. “Is that—did you get that for her?”

“Yeah,” he says, like it’s not a thing. “I dropped by the boutique where I buy Kit’s stuff on my way. The rink gets pretty cold at night when there’s nobody there, especially in the bleachers. And I know she’s probably fine since she’s got pretty thick fur but I figured we can bring it just in case, so she doesn’t have lay on the cold metal.” He shrugs, glancing in the rearview mirror as they pull out onto the boulevard.

“I think she likes it.”

He appears delighted by this.

Eli takes a moment to appreciate the sunset outside and not stare at Kent Parson’s stupid freckled face and slightly crooked smile.

“Hey,” Kent says urgently, “What’s your major?”

“Uh, I’m not 100% sure. I really like history but I think I want to do something with like, advertising or marketing? I don't know. I'm undeclared right now.”

“That's cool.”

They merge onto the highway and Eli realizes there’s a distinct lack of music in the car. He can’t decide if the silence is uncomfortable or not.

“So,” Kent says eventually. “How was your day? Or, your afternoon, I guess.”

“Good. Unpacked, Facetimed with my best friend from back home.” And then, because he can’t help but brag on Eric a little: “He plays NCAA hockey, actually. Or he will once the semester starts. He just moved into his dorm and met his team today.”

Kent gives him a sideways glance. “I thought you said you avoided hockey players.”

“Eric doesn’t count. He did figure skating with me our whole lives. Switched to hockey in high school. He’s not—he doesn’t really act like your typical hockey player. He’s smaller than I am. Bakes pies. Cries at Humane Society commercials. Very non-threatening. He just also happens to have the best scoring percentage in the Atlanta junior hockey league.”

Kent whistles. “I like this kid already. Where does he go to school?”

“Oh, it’s a smaller university. Samwell? It’s in—“

“Massachusetts,” Kent says. “I know.”

Kent’s voice has lost its brightness, his flat expression matching the suddenly impassive tone.

“Oh,” Eli says, uncertain. “Most people have never heard of it.”

Kent is looking at him like…Eli doesn’t even know. Like Kent isn’t sure if Eli is messing with him or not.

He turns back to focus on the road, rubbing his chin with the hand not on the steering wheel.

“You really don’t follow hockey, do you?” Kent says finally.

“No. No, I do not. What am I missing here?”

“My—Jack. Zimmerman.” Kent says the name like there’s a continent of feeling behind it. “He’s the captain of the team there.”

Eli tries to recall what Eric had said about Jack Zimmerman. Angry, he remembers, blue eyes.

“Um. Okay?”

“Jesus,” Parson says.

Eli is actually starting to get a little annoyed. “I’m sorry but I really don’t—Wait. Hold on.”

He tries to think back to the articles he’d skimmed while googling Kent earlier that day. The name Zimmerman had been familiar when Eric said it but he hadn’t remembered until now—

“You played with him in juniors, right? Reporters liked to pair y'all up for interviews.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s he doing playing for a college team, then? Shouldn’t he be sitting on a stupidly huge NHL contract like you?“

Kent makes a noise in the back of his throat.

“How do you know we used to play together and not about—why he’s at Samwell?”

Eli doesn’t really have a way to answer that that isn’t embarrassing. He decides to go with honesty anyway.

“I googled you when I got home today. There were articles about you in midget and juniors. Zimmerman was in a couple of them.”

“You—“ Kent coughs, maybe it’s supposed to be a laugh, Eli isn’t sure. “You googled me?”

“Well, yeah. I mean. If you were a normal person I would have Facebook stalked you, if that makes you feel any better. I just. Wanted to know who you were.”

“Well. You won’t find that out from Google.”

“Right. Sorry. I didn’t—you’re right. That was a stupid thing to say.”

Kent sighs, shifting his hands on the wheel. “No, it’s ok. I probably would have done the same thing. It’s just—Jack was my best friend. For years. He was supposed to go first in the draft. I figured I’d be second or third. There was a lot of pressure on us but especially on Jack. Because of his dad.”

Eli knows he looks blank.

“Bad Bob Zimmerman?” Kent prompts. “Three-Time-Stanley Cup winner and two time olympic gold medalist? Hockey Legend?”

“Okay, yeah. I have actually heard of him. Guess I should have made that name connection.”

“Anyway. We were both really stressed before the draft. Jack—“

Kent swallows, starts again.

“He overdosed. Accidentally. Anxiety meds. The day before the draft. I went first because he wasn’t there.”

There’s so much going on there that Eli doesn’t even know how to begin to unpack it.

“It was a big deal,” Kent continues, voice still flat. “Lots of news coverage when the crown prince of Canadian hockey abdicates to a no-name American kid. He could have come back. Played overseas for a year and then—but he didn’t. Said he wasn’t ready. Decided to do the college thing once he got out of rehab.”

“Is he—“ Eli looks out the window because he doesn’t think he can handle Kent’s face right now. “Is he ok? The way Eric talked about him made it seem like he was—“ well, happy would be a lie but—“healthy?”

Kent’s mouth goes thin and pinched.

“I don’t know. We don’t really talk anymore.”

“Oh. That sucks.”

“Yeah. I get it, though. I wasn’t—he probably has a lot of bad associations with me. Because of the circumstances. Not my fault.”

“Sounds like you’re still trying to convince yourself of that."

“Yeah, well. My therapist thinks if I say it out loud enough maybe I’ll believe it or some shit."

“You have a therapist?”

Kent exhales sharply. Maybe a laugh.

“I’m a twenty year old NHL captain for an expansion team in a league that collectively hates us. Of course I have a therapist.”

“Makes sense. They can be useful, though. Therapists.”

“You have one?”

Eli opens his mouth. Then closes it again.

“Medical history. Third date.” he says somberly.

Kent laughs, which is what Eli was hoping for. “Right. Well, if you need a good one in town I can give you a referral. She’s Swoops’ too. He’s the one that dragged me to her. Literally.”

“I would have paid good money to see that.”

“Eh. I wouldn’t go by myself and I wasn’t handling things super well on my own. Things were. Hard. My first year.”

Eli remembers a picture of Kent’s eighteen-year-old face on draft day, serious below a headline declaring him the savior of Ace’s hockey. Bolded quotes about the franchise putting their faith in his skills and leadership capabilities. Quotes from anonymous sources about whether or not he was mature enough to meet the expectations the franchise had of him. He imagines, in addition to that, the feeling of being chosen first only because the best was taken out of the running. He imagines knowing that his best friend had nearly died due to the same stress and expectations now afforded to him.

‘Hard’ is probably the understatement of the century.

“Are you—uh, okay? Now,” Eli asks.

“Oh. Yeah? For sure.”

“Good.”

“Yeah.”

Kent blows out a breath, looking a little embarrassed.

“So this is way more heavy than I anticipated. How did we even get on this topic?”

“Uh…” Eli realizes it was definitely his fault. “You asked how my day was? And I couldn’t help bragging about my best friend. And then my complete lack of hockey knowledge sort of—took things from there.”

“Right.”

They glance at each other, with the same expression: eyebrows raised, lips tucked between their teeth, and simultaneously start laughing.

“So,” Kent says, a little flushed. “This afternoon you Facetimed with your NCAA hockey-playing best friend who happens to be captained by my ex-best friend. Anything else?”

“Um. I checked out the cafeteria? Food wasn’t actually that bad. And as an athlete my meal plan is awesome. What did you do this afternoon?”

“Nothing really. Just a nap and then Swoops came over for dinner.”

“Where you told him I had a massive crush on his figure skating?”

“Nah, just told him you were willing to kill someone for the privilege of seeing him skate again. He’s very anti-murder, so.”

“Ah. How decent of him.”

They arrive at the complex after several more minutes of easy conversation and Eli pulls his handicapped hangtag from the front pocket of his backpack as they near the front of the building.

“You can park in the same spot you did this morning,” Eli says, because he’s a petty asshole. “You know, legally, this time.”

Kent’s ears goes red.

Eli hangs the tag from the review mirror with a grin.

“I really am sorry,” Kent says.

“I know. But don’t expect me to stop ragging you for it.”

“Fair.”

Kent takes off his hat, running his fingers through his stupidly endearing hair before replacing it.

“So. Are you ready for date number two?”

“Date number two?” Eli repeats. “This isn’t a date.”

Kent gives him a judgmental look.

“Bro. I’m taking you to an ice skating rink after-hours. I picked you up. I opened the car door for you. This is like. Shitty-Hallmark-movie levels of romantic. Of course it’s a date.”

“Okay, valid. It’s still within the same day as the first date, though. I don’t know if that counts as a separate date.”

“You said four hours was the cut-off. It’s been four hours since I dropped you back at your car. In fact, it’s been,” he consults his ridiculously gaudy watch, “seven and a half hours.”

“I did say that.” Eli admits.

“So. Date number two.”

“Date number two,” he agrees. “But I expect you to buy me a snack from the vending machine.”

Kent nods solemnly, extending his hand.

“You drive a hard bargain.”

Eli shakes it, equally serious.

“Great. Now come open my door for me again.”

***

Eli puts his skates on sitting in a stall next to Kent Parson in the official locker room of the Las Vegas Aces practice facility about to skate on the official Las Vegas Aces practice ice with Kent Parson and Jeff Troy of the Las Vegas Aces.

He struggles his way through this line of thought several times without it really computing.

Kent nudges Eli’s elbow with his knee and Eli fumbles his laces. He spares a quick annoyed sideways glance before starting over. Kent looks sheepish.

“You look like your head’s going to explode,” Kent says. “You ok?”

“I’m about to voluntarily get on the ice with two professional hockey players, you’re going to have to give me a minute,” Eli murmurs.

“I thought Swoops didn’t count,” Kent says.

“I always count,” Troy says as he enters the locker room, dropping his bag into the stall three down from Kent’s. 

“You don’t even know what we’re talking about,” Kent points out.

“No I do not,” he agrees amicably. “Hey, Eli, right?”

“Yes,” Eli says.

Jeff Troy is talking to me, he thinks. Jeff Troy knows my name. I am about to skate with Jeff Troy. Holy shit.

You look like you’re going to spontaneously combust,” Troy says, “are you alright, kid?”

“Oh my god,” Eli mutters, “can you let me live?”

“He’s having a moment,” Kent advises Troy.

Troy laughs and sits to put on his skates. There are two pairs in his bag but he withdraws the figure skates—beautiful barely-worn Riedell boots—and Eli sighs a little.

“John Wilson Gold Seal blades?” he asks.

“Of course,” Troy says. “What else?”

“Only the best for Swoops,” Kent agrees wisely, as if he has any idea what they’re talking about.

Eli considers his well-worn, potentially over-worn if he’s being honest, Jackson boots and sighs again, resigned this time. 

An NHL salary would be nice.

They make it onto the ice, dim-lit, freezing, and eerily quiet, a few minutes later where Troy and Kent immediately break into a game of tag that involves a lot of superfluous jumps on Troy’s part and a lot of swearing on Kent’s as he tries to maneuver around him in hockey skates.

Eli does a few slower laps at the periphery, watching, and then stops at the glass to check on Hawke. She’s content, comfortable on the blanket Kent bought for her, eyes following Eli’s movements. 

Kent pulls to an abrupt stop beside him in a shower of ice, cheeks pink, and only gets out the beginning of a “hey” before Jeff runs him into the boards a moment later.

“There’s no checking in figure skating!” Kent yells, trying to shove him off and the two devolve into a wrestling match the ends with Kent clutching Eli’s leg and Swoops sitting on Kent's back, attempting to give Kent a mohawk. 

Eli reminds himself that these men are professional athletes with more money than he can fathom and has to laugh. Maybe a little hysterically.

“So,” Jeff says, still sitting on Kent.“I hear you memorized my World Juniors routine.”

Eli throws Kent a betrayed look which Kent does not see because he’s face-down on the ice.

“I might have done that,” Eli admits.

“You still remember it?”

“Uh.”

“Because if you’ll do it, I’ll do it.”

How is this his life.

“I don’t—I can’t do it clean,” Eli says.

Jeff snorts, flopping sideways as Kent rolls to dislodge him.

“Neither can I, anymore. Just do whatever you can—skip the jumps if you want. I just want to see you skate.”

“We don’t have any music,” Eli says, maybe a little desperately.

“I have the key to the sound box and the song on my phone.”

“I haven’t warmed up?”

Jeff laughs. “Guess you’d better get started then.”

He stands, brushing ice off the Under Armour leggings that make his ass look magnificent, and skates off the ice, yelling something about leaving his phone in the locker room.

“I think I may pass out,” Eli informs Kent, who is still laying spread-eagle on the ice.

Kent flaps his arms and legs a few times like he’s making a snow angel.

“You’re fine. It’s just us. We’re not going to judge you.”

“I’m judging you a little right now. What are you even doing?”

Kent sits up, absolutely covered in little flecks of ice, and sighs dramatically.

“You know I’ve never made a snow angel, before? Like. An actual one. In snow.”

Eli raises an eyebrow at the non-sequitur.

“Ok?”

“I bet it’s fun.”

“It’s mostly just cold,” Eli says. “And half the time you get snow down your pants that melts and then everything is terrible.”

“Stop talking,” Kent says. “You’re ruining it.”

“Stop flirting and warm up,” Jeff yells from the sound box.

Eli feels his face go hot but Kent just continues grinning at him like everything is fine, like this is normal, and Eli shakes out his legs, deciding to take Jeff’s advice before he does something stupid like run his fingers through Kent’s ridiculous mussed hair. It’s damp around the edges where the ice is starting to melt which makes him look like just got out of the shower or something and that—is not a train of thought Eli is going to follow. The boy is a menace and he doesn’t even seem to be doing it intentionally.

Eli takes a couples laps: fast, then slow, then transitions to a few easier jumps, enjoying the untouched ice—finding his edges, warming up his muscles in the colder-than-usual air. He’s glad Hawke has a blanket between her and the bleachers.

Just as he’s starting to feel limber enough to attempt some harder tricks, Jeff yells, “are you ready?” and the sound system cuts on with a crackle.

Now?”

“Well we don’t have all night. You need to do your makeup or something first?”

“I hate you,” Eli calls, moving to center ice.

“Don’t play. You memorized my routine. You love me.”

“Loved. Past tense. Crush is officially terminated.”

“This is devastating news.”

“I thought flirting wasn’t allowed,” Kent interrupts, leaning against the boards by the bench. He looks weirdly grumpy—though that could just be the dark shadows on his face.

“Alright, alright,” Eli says, wiggling a little in place before going still. “I’m ready.”

The music starts—loud in the silence, shocking like a plunge into cold water—and the moment the first beginning cello cords start, muscle memory takes over.

The song is Secrets by One Republic and he knows it as intimately as he does his own body. He’s simultaneously nine years old—full of the kind of indomitable confidence that only youth affords, and sixteen years old—in a hospital bed, eyes closed against the song playing in his headphones, uncertain if he’ll ever skate again. He’s seventeen and applying for colleges and bribing the zamboni driver to give him another twenty minutes after practice because he’s behind, dammit, so stressed he feels like he’s going to explode. And he’s eighteen and skating Jeff Troy’s routine in front of Jeff Troy hoping desperately he doesn’t embarrass himself in a dark rink with echoing ceilings and low lights and—it’s surreal, is what it is.

He changes the first triple axel to a double and lands it, but he doesn’t make the full rotation on the second and falls to a knee, adjusting the choreography a little to keep going. He finishes clean otherwise, a little sloppy, not enough momentum on the flying spin, but he finishes, better than he anticipated, breathing hard, heartbeat loud in his ears as the final clash of music is followed by silence.

And then Kent starts clapping.

“The kid can skate!” Jeff yells from the booth with a whoop.

Eli bends at the waist to rest his hand on his knees, probably looking a little insane with how big he’s smiling, but he can’t help it—and then Kent skates into him, gentle but exuberant, one hand on the back of his still-bowed neck, shaking him a little.

“That was awesome.”

“Way better than I could do it now,” Jeff agrees, joining them at a more sedate pace. “Seriously, you’re a little rough around the edges but you’re good. Really good.”

“I used to be,” he agrees, straightening. “I think it’s your turn, now.”

Jeff balks. “After that? Are you kidding?”

“Hey,” Kent says, “you promised.”

Jeff sighs. “Alright, but if I break an ankle I’m telling management that you’re a destructive influence.”

“Is that something we should actually be concerned about?” Eli asks as he and Kent make their way to the sound booth.

“Nah, he knows his limits. He won’t actually do anything that might jeopardize his play. He’s just overly dramatic.” Kent glances sideways at him, badly containing a smile. “I think it’s a figure skater thing,” he says seriously. “Very emotional, those types.”

“Right, because hockey players aren’t known for their theatrics at all,” Eli agrees.

Kent’s eyes go all crinkly with amusement as he ducks into the sound booth to start the music over and Eli moves to sit on the bench next to him, shoulder-to-shoulder, still breathing a little hard.

The music swells to life again, Jeff begins the opening choreography at center ice, and Kent leans into his space, head turned to speak directly into Eli’s ear.

“Seriously, though. I know next to nothing about that shit, but your skating is beautiful, man.”

The words are earnest, Kent’s breath warm against the sweat beginning to dry cold on Eli’s neck.

He shivers.

“Thanks. I didn’t—I haven’t practiced it in a while, it was honestly a fluke I didn’t fall more.”

“Beautiful,” Kent repeats, firm, and then throws one arm over Eli’s shoulder, chaffing his palm against the goosebumps on the curve of his bicep.

Eli leans into him, just a little, eyes on Jeff as he settles into the first spin, still elegant despite his hockey-bulk, and tries desperately to remember every second of the next four minutes.

Chapter Text

Eli goes home with the personal number of a second NHL player in his phone and the kind of memories that you can’t pay for.

Memories like Jeff Troy skating the routine that changed his life mere feet in front of him.

Memories like skating with Jeff Troy.

Memories like being kicked off the ice at 11pm by a fond but harried zamboni driver.

Memories like sharing a vending machine Snickers bar with Kent Parson at midnight, giggling like they’re getting away with something, sitting on the floor in a dark back hallway of the skating complex.

Memories like leaning out the open window of Kent’s Land Rover, exhausted, eyes watering from the wind, grinning at the blur of nighttime Vegas lights as Kent drove Eli home.

Kent texts him to make sure he gets into his dorm room safe despite the fact that Kent had just watched him walk inside the security door two minutes before. 

What do you think is going to happen between the lobby and the third floor? Eli texts back. He waves from his window but isn’t sure if Kent can see him where his car is still idling at the curb.

It’s 1 am. Kent answers. I dunno. Shit happens.

Eli tells Kent to check in once he’s home safe as well since apparently they’re being ridiculous.

Kent does.

With a picture of Kit for good measure.

Jeff—and he is Jeff, now, in Eli’s head, just like Kent is no longer “Parson”—texts him a picture of Kent asleep on the plane the following morning. It’s not flattering at all but Eli finds it hopelessly endearing anyway.

You’re a bad influence, Jeff captions it. He always plays cards with Nasher on morning flights and now his routine will be off. If we lose tomorrow it’s your fault.

It’s a preseason game,Eli answers. You’ll survive. And whose idea was it to go skating last night anyway??

He doesn’t get an answer until several hours later:

Kent’s

Which…hm.

He texts Kent the following night after the Aces’ win against the Blues 1-0. Not that Eli checked or anything.

Go team. Do the thing. Win the points.

Did you watch?? Kent responds less than a minute later, despite the fact that the game has only just finished.

Nope

Kent sends a range of distressed emojis.

I got an assist, Kent says a while later when Eli still hasn’t responded.

You want a gold star? 

Yes plz.

The next morning Eli wakes up to a FaceTime call from Jeff. Well. Kent and Jeff, who are apparently sitting next to each other on a plane that was supposed to have taken off thirty minutes ago.

“He’s being a nuisance,” Jeff says when Eli answers, sleep-bleary and honestly a little grumpy. “Please distract him.”

“Hi,” Eli manages, squinting.

Kent fumbles Jeff’s phone as it’s passed to him and Eli gets to look at the ceiling of the airplane for a minute until Kent retrieves the phone from the floor.

“Sorry,” he says. “I told him not to call you, but—“

“And I told you to quit complaining—“ Jeff says in the background. “As if it’d be better that they didn’t fix the bathroom before we’re airborne for four hours.”

“I wasn’t complaining that much,” Kent says to Eli.

“He really was,” Jeff disagrees. “And now that he has a friend outside of the team you better believe I’m going to take advantage of it. Keep him occupied for a bit, will you?”

Eli assumes Jeff is talking to him.

“Uh. Okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Kent says. “Honestly, I swear, I’ll shut up. You can go back to sleep.”

“No, it’s ok. My alarm goes off in”—he checks—“sixteen minutes. So I can talk until then.”

“Practice?” Kent asks.

“Mmmhm. Need to take Hawke to the lawn and throw the ball for her first. And get some breakfast.”

Hawke perks up, hearing her name, and wiggles her way to the head of the bed from where she’d been sprawled across Eli’s feet.

“Oh, good morning, Hawke,” Kent says.

Hawke shoves her nose in Eli’s armpit and then sneezes.

“She says good morning back,” Eli says dryly.

“Plans for the day?” Kent asks.

“Ugh. I don’t know. Practice. Probably going to get some stuff for my dorm from Target since it’s embarrassingly empty. And I need to find another kitchen to use because half the shit in this one is broken. I mean, one oven won’t get above two hundred degrees and the other is being used for storage right now.”

He presses his face into his pillow for a moment. “I may ask the Morgans at practice what theirs is like. Every dorm kitchen on campus can’t be this terrible.”

Jeff says something muffled off-screen and Kent turns away to tell him that Eli and his best friend have a youtube channel where they post cooking and baking videos. Jeff hadn’t been there when they’d talked about that the night before the Aces left for their road trip—when they’d shared the two-dollar Snickers from the vending machine.

“Oh, cool. A vlog? What’s it called?” Jeff asks, leaning into Kent’s shoulder.

Eli can only see the edge Jeff’s eyebrow because Kent is holding the phone so close to his own face. The freckles are in full effect.
“I already asked,” Kent says. “He wouldn’t tell me.”

“Well you can use my kitchen,” Jeff says. “Alex can let you in. She works from home but has her own office upstairs so she wouldn’t be in your way.”

“Oh, I couldn’t—“

“My place is closer to your dorm,” Kent interrupts. “Only four miles away. And the kitchen is really nice.”

“How would you know?” Jeff asks. “Have you ever even turned on a stove burner?”

Kent flushes. “Well I don’t use my oven for storage, at least. And all the appliances are brand new. And there’s…a lot of counter space?”

He looks like he’s trying to remember what the realtor said when they sold him the place.

“Kent does have a shit ton of counter-space,” Jeff allows.

“My doorman can let you in. His name is Dorian—I can text him and let him know you’re coming.” He pauses. “Kit will be there, though. Will Hawke try to eat her?”

Eli blinks.

“Uh. No? Hawke is great with cats. If I leave her vest on she’ll ignore her. If I take it off she’ll probably try to cuddle her.”

Kent looks only a little relieved.

“Okay. Well. Kit can be kind of…”

“A bitch,” Jeff supplies.

Kent wrinkles his nose.

“I’m not wrong,” Jeff says.

“Not—entirely,” Kent admits. “So, uh. Watch your ankles. If you go.”

“I’m—are you serious? You’d let me just go cook in your kitchen? When you’re not there?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Because you only just met me three days ago! And I could be some sort of deep-cover crazy journalist who will snoop through you stuff and—and write a damning expose or something.”

It’s silent for a moment.

He’s pretty sure Kent and Jeff—or Jeff’s eyebrow at least—are judging him.

“Are you a deep-cover crazy journalist planning to snoop through my stuff and write a damning expose?” Kent asks.

“Do deep-cover hockey journalists even exist?” Jeff asks.

“No, I’m not,” Eli says, exasperated, “but I wouldn’t admit to it if I was!”

“How much sleep did you get last night?” Kent asks, and he has the audacity to actually look concerned.

“Oh my god,” Eli mutters. “Fine. I’ll go use your stupid kitchen tonight.”

“Great! I’ll let Dorian know. There’s handicapped parking for visitors in the lot on the right hand side. Use the intercom at the door to tell Concierge you’re there to visit my place and then Dorian will meet you at the main desk in the lobby. He’ll give you a fob to access the elevator and a key for the door.”

Eli is feeling a little overwhelmed. “Uh. Okay? Can you give me like, an address? And tell me which apartment is yours? And maybe repeat all of that again?”

Jeff murmurs something indistinct, and Kent looks sheepish.

“Sorry, I forgot you’d just woken up. I’ll text you all the details, ok?”

“Mmkay.”

“You look really tired.”

Eli spares a moment to glare at Kent.

“Do you want to go back to sleep for ten minutes before your alarm goes off?”

“Thought I was supposed to be sparing your team your theatrics,” Eli reminds him, yawning.

Jeff sighs, overly loud. “I suppose I can shoulder the burden for a while longer.”

“Okay,”  Eli agrees, flapping one hand. “Nice talking to y’all,” he says, because even half asleep his mama raised him to be polite. “Goodnight.”

“Night,” Kent agrees, grinning at him.

Kent has a very nice smile.

And face in general.

And everything, really.

Eli hangs up because he’s staring, curls an arm around Hawke, and goes right back to sleep.

***

Kit Purson is quite possibly the strangest cat Eli has ever seen. She looks more like a ferret than a cat—like a long, fluffy white tube sock with ears. Really big ears. She has a narrow face and wide-set grey-green eyes and a very insistent meow.

He stands just inside the door, apprehensive, as she approaches him, then sits a few feet away, studying first him, then Hawke.

Hawke’s nose twitches excitedly, but she otherwise keeps her heel.

After several more seconds of consideration, Kit jumps onto the kitchen island, tucks herself into a little loaf, and blinks slowly at him.

Eli takes that as tacit approval of their presence and moves further inside, kicking off his shoes and removing Hawke’s vest. He tells her to lay down out of the way and then takes a moment to just stare out the window. 

Kent’s place is ridiculous, which he expected considering he’s a single NHL superstar living in Vegas, but Eli was wholly unprepared for the view out Kent’s penthouse floor-to-ceiling windows.

The whole strip is laid out before him, lit up in neon that fades to shades of dark blue against the backdrop of the nearly-set sun on the distant mountains. 

It’s quite possibly one of the most beautiful things Eli has ever seen.

And Kent gets to look at this every day.

He whistles to himself, then moves to lean against the island—a granite monstrosity that doesn’t look very comfortable at all.

Kit doesn’t seem to mind.

“This is a little unhygienic, you know,” he tells her.

“I’ll need to use this area for prep in a minute. Do you think you could relocate?”

She blinks at him.

“Or not. That’s fine. Maybe I’ll just use this side over here, it’s big enough for both of us, huh?”

He takes his laptop and portable light out of his backpack, setting them up on the opposite counter, and then stands in the middle of the kitchen, hands on hips, and takes in his surroundings. 

The place is shockingly neat. Simply but elegantly decorated in shades of grey and white, an Aces sweatshirt on the couch, running shoes by the front door. There are two closed doors on either side of the living area which he assumes are bedrooms.

“Well,” he says to Kit, who is still watching him sleepily but has yet to show any of the malice he expected. “Shall we get started?”

She appears to approve.

He unloads his canvas bag of ingredients and starts searching through cabinets. He figured Kent would have the basics and he’s right, though nearly all of them still have their William’s Sonoma sticky tags on the bottom. He sighs a little at the injustice of it all and gets to work.

Two hours later he sits at the bar facing the Vegas skyline eating probably the best Chicken Ragout he’s ever created, editing footage and listening to the Vinyl version of Badlands because of course Kent is the kind of pretentious bastard that has record player.

Eli refuses to think it sounds better on vinyl (But it does. It totally does).

He texts Kent a picture of his bowl and asks if he wants some boxed up and put in the freezer for when he gets back.

Kent sends back several heart-eyes emojis—which Eli takes as a yes—and then Kent asks if Kit is behaving herself.

She seems pretty apprehensive about Hawke but I topped off her water and shared a bit of chicken with her so I think we’re friends now. Eli answers. She monitored my entire cooking process from the island.

It takes Kent several minutes to answer.

Yeah, that’s one of her favorite spots. She didn’t get rude with you, though?

Nope. Perfect lady.

Huh. Cool. Got to head out for warmups. I’ll ttyl.

Eli moves to find some tupperware but backtracks when his phone buzzes with another text from Kent.

u know since ur at my place and I have NHL netwrk u should watch the game.

I’ll consider it Eli answers.

He gets a praying hands emoji and a winky face back.

Eli rolls his eyes and take a detour into the living room to stop the record player and turn on the TV instead.

It’s not like he’ll watch the whole thing, but playing it in the background while he finishes editing wouldn’t hurt.

Three hours later, Eli leaves Kent’s condo with a sore throat from yelling at the refs.

Good game he texts Kent. That was some bullshit calling, though. Is your ankle ok?

He doesn’t get a response until after he’s home and in bed.

Tell me about it. Just bruised. Scratched next game though. Maybe two.

That sucks.

Yeah.

Eli takes a picture of Hawke, sleeping upside-down, her little bottom teeth and edge of a pink tongue showing, and sends it to Kent because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Kent sends back a laughing emoji. Thanks.

Hawke says goodnight Eli says.

Goodnight Hawke.

I say goodnight too.

Goodnight Eli.

Goodnight Kent.

***

Eli’s phone rings in the middle of what he is certain is a very important REM cycle. He fumbles for it in the sheets for a moment, squints at the caller ID, and answers.

“Oh my god, Eric, it’s five in the morning here. Three hour time difference, remember?”

“Elijah.”

There is a continent of feeling in the way Eric says his name.

Eli is instantly awake.

“What? What’s happened? Are you ok?”

“No I’m fine, it’s just—you’re on TMZ.”

“I’m what?”

“It’s—someone recognized Kent’s cat in the video you posted last night. And then I  guess Kent has done Skype interviews with SportsCenter in his kitchen before and someone made a post with screenshots on Tumblr? And it just kind of blew up. Not like, big big, but hockey big. Our channel has over forty thousand subscribers now and the comments—“

“Fuck. Fuck, I need to call Kent. Do—are they saying he’s gay?”

“No? I mean, some of the posts on Tumblr are, sure. But not the hockey blogs and stuff so far. Mostly those are just speculation about who you are and how you have access to his place while he’s on a roadie.”

“Oh. Well that’s not—so what are people saying?”

“It’s…sweetheart it’s not very nice.”

“Eric.”

Eric exhales. “Well that asshole Ron Barrowman who runs the blog Thin Ice? He said you were probably the petsitter or housekeeper or something and took advantage of the fact that Kent was out of town.”

“That’s not so bad. I mean. A little racist, maybe, but—“

Eric sighs again.

“Barrowman also wrote that Kent probably didn’t know you were gay and if he had he wouldn’t have let you into his home. He made some jokes too. About what else you might have done in Kent’s house while he was away.”

“Oh.”

Eli takes a breath.

“Well. That’s still better than—I mean. That’s okay.”

“Elijah.”

“It is! People thinking I’m some sort of pervy fan is better than—“

His phone buzzes with an incoming call and his stomach goes sour.

“Hey, Eric? Kent is calling. I’ve gotta—“

“No, yeah, go.”

He hangs up on Eric and closes his eyes as the call transfers to Kent.

“I’m so sorry,” he says.

“Hey, I—“ Kent cuts off. “What?”

“Eric just called me about TMZ and Thin Ice, I didn’t—“

“Shit. You read Barrowman’s latest post?”

“Oh, no? Eric was just telling me about it. Kent I—“

“Don’t read it,” Kent says darkly. “My publicist is threatening him right now trying to get it taken down.”

“I’m sorry,” Eli repeats and he knows that his voice is going funny but he can’t help it. “I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t even think—“

“Why are you apologizing?” Kent asks. “I’m calling to apologize to you. The stuff they’re saying about you is bullshit and I never would have suggested you use my kitchen if I’d know this is the shit you’d have to deal with.”

Kent sounds so honestly, genuinely angry on his behalf that Eli is briefly uncertain how to respond.

“Oh.”

“So. Yeah. I’m really sorry. I’m about to make some tweets. I just wanted to warn you—sounds like Eric beat me to it, though.”

“Yeah. Apparently our channel has a ton more followers now, though,” Eli says.

Kent makes a considering noise. “Are people talking shit in the comments?”

“I haven’t looked.”

They both go quiet.

“So,” Eli says, just to make sure. “You’re not mad at me?”

“What the fuck? No. Why would I be mad at you?”

“I’m—it’s pretty clear on our channel that both Eric and I are gay. Me filming in your kitchen—people could make assumptions. Are making assumptions, in some cases.”

Kent makes a dismissive noise.

“Go check my twitter. Tell me if you want me to say anything else.”

Eli squints against the brightness of his phone, thumbing open the twitter app and searching for Kent’s handle.

KParson90 retweeted a link to Barrowman’s article with the added comment: His name is Eli not “teenage twink.” He had permission to use my kitchen because he’s my friend. If you had those you’d understand.

KParson90 tweeted: My friend Eli is an awesome cook and if you’re going to be a dick about his sexuality you aren’t allowed to sit with us (or enjoy his delicious Chicken Ragout). 

This tweet is accompanied by the picture Eli had sent Kent the night before.

KParson90 tweeted: Also if you see a brown guy in my kitchen and your first thought is that the help must be overstepping their bounds you’re racist as hell and can kindly fuck right off.

The last one might be a little heavy-handed,” Eli says.

“Hey, I said ‘kindly.’”

“Well. Your publicist probably isn’t going to like it,” he murmurs.

“Probably not,” Kent agrees. “But do you?”

“Yeah,” he says, grinning a little into the fabric of his pillow. “I do. Thanks.”

“Good. Hey, I know it’s super early for you. Go back to sleep, okay? We can deal with this more when its actually light outside.”

“Okay.”

“Cool. I’ll call you back once we’re in Detroit. Probably around 11:30am your time, that work?”

“Mmhm.”

“Hey Eli?”

“Yeah?”

“You realize I have access to your youtube channel now.”

“Oh no.”

“Jeff and I are going to watch all your videos on the plane. Would you rather I send running commentary or save all my thoughts for date number three because—”

Eli hangs up on him.

Kent sends him an emoji blowing a kiss.

Eli groans and goes back to sleep.

Chapter Text

It doesn’t occur to Eli until half-past eight, fifteen minutes into his blessed cup of coffee—the first he’s been allowed in a week, how did he even live?—that he and Kent are not the only ones effected by the whole kitchen debacle. Eric has also been outed.

He nearly spills his coffee in his haste to get to his phone.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Eric answers. “How you doing?”

“I’m so sorry,” Eli says. “It didn’t even occur to me until just now that you were effectively outed by extension with this whole Kent’s kitchen thing. Are you ok? Is your team—uh—are they being cool?”

“Oh yeah,” Eric pauses for a moment, murmuring something in the background. “No, they’ve been great. I’m at the Haus with them as we speak.”

“The house?”

“No, the Haus—didn’t I tell you about it? It’s—“ he cuts off again, saying lowly, “Adam, don’t touch that, it’s not ready” before addressing Eli again.

“Anyway, it’s like a frat house I guess, where some of the hockey team lives and they throw their parties.”

“You’re using a kitchen in a frat house? To make food? That you plan to eat?”

“You hush your mouth, it’s better than the dorm kitchens—something I’d think you would understand considering your predicament.”

“Valid.”

“Anyway, I actually spent the night here because they had a little party yesterday. Shitty is the one who saw the news first. He likes to take his iPad to the roof and check all the gossip blogs while doing yoga in the morning. It’s a thing."

“A beautiful thing!” someone yells distantly in the background.

“Yoga?” Eli says, a little baffled. He can’t picture a hockey player, particularly a hockey player named ‘Shitty,’ doing yoga.

“Well. He does it naked. I’m not sure how much of it is about the yoga and how much of it is about doing a lot of downward dog poses facing the LAX house.”

“Oh god.”

“The rivalry is real. And their kitchen window faces us.”

“I see.”

“Yeah.”

“So Shitty woke you up?” Eli prompts.

“Right, and said a lot of supportive things and asked me what I wanted to do and I—well I panicked a little but he brought me downstairs and got me some water and a couple of the other boys were up and they were all so nice. And then I called you.”

“So none of them have—“

“Oh no. And—well I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone, honestly. They’re more excited about the baking aspect than anything else. I’ve mostly only made pies so far but now that they know I can do cookies and cobblers and a mean cheesecake as well—”

“You’re making cheesecake right now, aren’t you?” Eli asks.

“Yes, but Holster isn’t going to get any if he doesn’t SIT DOWN AND STOP PLAYING WITH THE MIXER. These boys, honestly.”

Eli snorts.

“Mixer? You decide to not buy books this semester?”

“Lord no, it just sort of—appeared? In the kitchen an hour ago. Light blue Kitchen Aid. The one that I’ve mentioned oh, a thousand times on the channel. I have my suspicions it was Shitty since only two of the boys have that kind of disposable income and it definitely wasn’t Jack,” his voice goes dark for a minute. “But! I came back to the Haus for lunch and it was just there! And I’m not about to look a gift horse in the—ADAM BIRKHOLTZ if you touch that mixer one more time I swear to god—“

Eli grins, leaning back against the wall and Hawke nudges his thigh with her nose: a gentle request for pets.

He obliges because he knows if he ignores her the requests will get less gentle.

“So you’re good,” he says to Eric. Just to be sure.

“I am. Thanks for checking, though.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t occur to me sooner.”

“Don’t even worry about it, you had bigger things on your mind. I saw Kent Parson’s tweets. I like that boy. Doesn’t seem like he’s mad at all.”

“He’s not. He was actually calling because he was worried about me. I think his publicist is trying to get the Barrowman blog post taken down, I don’t know, he said he’d call back later once they land in Detroit.”

“Good,” Eric says approvingly. “Don’t read the post.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“So what are you going to do with your Saturday?”

“There’s an optional practice—basically just open ice time from twelve to two, other than that I’m not sure. I may go back to Kent’s place again tonight. Might as well get a buffer of videos done while I have the time and the space.”

“You’re still going to use his kitchen?”

Eli shrugs, realizes Eric can’t see that, and makes a “why not” noise.

“Damage is already done. Might as well. Besides,” he sighs. “It’s a really, really, nice kitchen.”

“I know,” Eric says dryly. “I’ve seen the video. Along with a couple hundred thousand other people. And counting.”

“Yeah yeah. What about you?” Eli asks. “Plans for the day? Besides cheesecake?”

“Killing Holster,” he says, intentionally loud. “I’m pretty sure there’s a kiln in the art building big enough to incinerate a body.”

“Damn,” someone says in the background, sounding impressed. “Bitty doesn’t mess around. Better watch out, Holtzy.”

“Don’t think you’re exempt, Mr. Oluransi,” Eric says, “I saw you sneak a finger into that bowl a minute ago.”

Eric sighs into the phone. “I swear, it’s worse than cooking at Moomaw’s with all the baby cousins around.”

There’s a racket in the background—several shouting voices and a slammed door—and it takes a minute before Eric speaks again.

“Sorry, the rest of the team just got here, I should probably go before—Shitty B. Knight don’t you dare—“

The call ends and Eli smiles into his coffee mug.

Eric sounds…happy. Not just happy, though. Confident. Something Eli had honestly been very afraid Eric wouldn’t ever be playing hockey at a collegiate level. He’s so grateful to Eric’s team, so relieved that they have been kind where many teams—with players who thought and acted like Barrowman— would have become vicious.

He finishes his coffee and collects Hawke’s leash, shoving on his shoes.

He needs something to distract himself or he’s going to go find that stupid blog post.

“You want to go for a walk?” he asks.

Completely unsurprisingly, she does.

***

Over the next four days, Kent’s publicist reigns victorious, the worst blog posts and articles are taken down or retracted, and the internet more or less appears to forget about Eli.

Eli makes three more videos, stuffs Kent’s freezer full of more-or-less diet-friendly tupperware meals, and works his way through a quarter of Kent’s record collection. Kit now greets him with a chirp and a disdainful look at Hawke. She still has yet to let him pet her, but he figures that’s fine. They’ll get there eventually.

Kent calls him the night the team returns to Vegas and at first Eli can’t understand him because he’s clearly talking with a mouthful of food.

“What?” he says for the third time.

Kent makes an exasperated noise and hangs up on him. Less than thirty seconds later it rings again.

“Hello?”

Eli,” Kent says. “This is the best damn thing I have ever tasted. I can’t even—how did you make turkey chili taste this good?”

“I don’t—oh, are you eating the chili I left in the freezer?”

Yes.”

“Well. Thank you?”

“I will pay you to make this for me every week. I’m not even kidding. Holy shit.”

There’s a clink of cutlery and a low moan on the other side of the phone and Eli tries not to dwell on exactly how indecent Kent sounds while eating food he’s made.

“Well. If you keep letting me use your kitchen I can definitely do that.”

Kent mumbles something around his mouthful.

“What?”

“Groceries,” he says. “You make me food and I’ll buy all your groceries—whatever you need for you and for me. I’ll give you a card. Or Venmo you or whatever.”

“Oh, you don’t—“ he does, actually, because Eli only has so much disposable income and routinely feeding a hockey player would be no small addition to the budget—

“Don’t even,” Kent interrupts. “I’m paying for it. Holy shit this is good. Hey, what’s in the blue containers?”

“Oh, that’s chicken stuffed eggplant with quinoa and tahini.”

“I haven’t seen that video,” Kent says, sounding vaguely affronted.

“I haven’t posted it yet, I made a buffer since I had the time and knew I wouldn’t be bothering you if I went over.”

“Oh. Okay. Well, you won’t be bothering me even if I’m here, so you can come over whenever. Hey, are you free tomorrow night?”

“To come cook?”

“No, for date number three.”

“Oh.” Which, Eli had forgotten about the catalyst for this whole thing. “Sure. What do you want to do?”

“It’s a surprise. I’ll pick you up at five-thirty, cool?”

“Five-thirty? That’s early.”

“I have an early bedtime.”

“No you don’t.”

“Eli, can I pick you up at five-thirty?”

“I guess?”

“Good. See you then.”

Kent hangs up and Eli remains baffled.

***

Kent arrives at 5:23 the following day, blanket on the back seats for Hawke, an extra gatorade in the cupholder.

He looks tanner than Eli remembered—freckles even more stark over the bridge of his nose.

“Hi!”

His enthusiasm is contagious.

“Hi,” Eli parrots. “How was your trip?”

“You talked to me every day, you know exactly how my trip was. Three wins, one loss. A bruised ankle and a very pissed off Mashkov.”

Eli realizes Kent’s rose-gold aviators match his massive white-marble-faced watch today and smiles despite himself.

Eli tries to determine when he started finding Kent’s horrible bro fashion endearing. That’s probably not a good sign.

“So where are we going?”

“Surprise,” Kent reminds him, pulling out of the parking lot. “Buckle your seatbelt.”

Fifteen minutes later, Kent puts the car in park, gesturing expansively at the building in front of them, and Eli is lost.

“Goodwill?” Eli asks incredulously. “You’re taking me to Goodwill? That’s the illustrious third date?

“Oh no,” Kent says seriously, “don’t be ridiculous. This is the pre-date. The tailgate of the date, if you will. The Official Date Pregame.”

“Right. So. We’re pre-gaming our date at Goodwill?”

“Exactly.”

“I’m lost.”

“Before we go to dinner we have to pick out outfits for our date. Here.”

Eli just looks at Kent.

“We’ll set a cost maximum of…fifteen dollars? Yeah. Fifteen dollars.”

“So I just have to pick some clothes, change, and then we go? Is this some sort of weird thing rich people do?”

“Oh no,” Kent’s serious expression finally breaks,  “No no. I will pick your outfit. You will pick mine. The more ridiculous the better. And then we will go out to eat at a very nice restaurant and have to pretend that everything is completely normal and we are wearing normal outfits that we intentionally chose to leave the house in.”

“Oh my god,” Eli says, suddenly understanding. “There are going to be so many pictures.”

“So many,” Kent agrees somberly.

“What will TMZ say?”

“I’m frankly looking forward to finding out.”

***

It takes them forty-five minutes and a not insignificant amount of laughter to pick out their clothes for the evening. Kent ends up wearing high-waisted metallic parachute pants straight out of the 80’s with a pale pink shirt and wide-lapeled floral blazer. Eli is wearing a three-piece suit—each individual piece a different color of plaid, and a turquoise trilby. They clash horribly and it is magnificent.

They leave wearing their purchases, much to the bemusement of the cashier, and they’re not able to keep straight faces while the hostess at the five-star steakhouse—the actual date—tries and utterly fails to not stare while seating them.

They giggle through ordering appetizers and drinks, their waitress impressively impassive as she repeats back their requests, and then grin at each other while other patrons try to surreptitiously take pictures of them.

“This is kind of nice, actually,” Kent says, taking a sip of his wine. “I don’t think any of them are taking pictures of me because I’m Kent Parson.”

“The blazer is so terrible no one’s even noticed your face,”

“Or Hawke,” Kent points out.

“We should do this all the time,” Eli agrees.

They’ve only just ordered their main course when Hawke sits up under the table and paws at Eli’s knee.

Eli closes his eyes—too slow to be a blink—and exhales.

Hawke nudges him again, insistent, and Eli sets aside his napkin and moves to slide out of the booth, picking up his backpack from the floor. Because apparently this is happening.

“I’m—“

Hawke swats at his knee again, whining.

“What’s wrong?” Kent says.

Apparently his face is doing a thing.

“I’m about to have a seizure. I can’t—I’ll explain after, okay? But I have to go. It’ll be probably fifteen minutes, maybe more.”

“What the fuck? Go where? Are you—“ Kent looks from Hawke, clearly agitated, back up to Eli’s face. Kent takes a breath.

“What do you need me to do?”

And that—Eli is pretty sure that’s Kent’s Captain Voice. Which is something he’ll need to revisit later.

“Nothing. Just wait here. Hawke knows how to take care of me. I’ll be back, okay? Just don’t—don’t leave. Please.”

“Okay.”

He finds their waitress in the hall by the kitchen. 

“Hi,” he says, making sure he has her full attention, “I have a seizure disorder and my service dog just alerted me that I’m about to have one. Is there a back room where I can lay down for a few minutes? It’s no big deal and I’ll be fine, I’d just rather not go hang out in the bathroom if I can help it.”

“Oh,” she says, a little wide-eyed. “Yeah, we have—there’s a break room, will that work?”

“Perfect.”

Hawke head-butts his knee and Eli winces, gesturing for her to lead the way.

The break room is pretty standard. A table with mismatched chairs, a microwave, sink and refrigerator. There’s couch along the back wall.

The waitress tucks her hair behind one ear. “Is this okay, or—“

He shifts his backpack on his shoulder. “This is perfect, thanks.”

“Do you need me to—“

“No. If anything bad happens the dog will bark to get someone’s attention. But that’s never happened before. This is pretty normal for us. We’ll be out in ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Alright. I’ll put a note on the door not to disturb you. Is there—are you sure you don’t need anything?”

“Nope. We’re good.”

She leaves the room with a last concerned glance from him to Hawke and then closes the door.

Eli lets out his breath, setting his backpack, jacket, and the stupid turquoise trilby on the couch. There’s a compact travel blanket in the front pocket of his bag that he lays out on the floor, then pulls up the emergency contact screen with his medical information on his phone and puts that on the floor as well. 

Hawke whines.

“I know, baby girl. Give me a second.”

He lays down, holds up one arm so Hawke can press herself along his ribcage, and takes a deep breath, focusing on the weight of Hawke’s head on his chest.

It hasn’t gotten any less uncomfortable: asking for accommodations, but doing it dressed head to toe in plaid definitely upped the embarrassing factor.

He exhales, closes his eyes, and waits.

He doesn’t know how long it’s been when he opens his eyes again, which remains disconcerting no matter how many times he does this. Hawke is mostly on top of him, licking his ear, and as the fuzziness fades and he starts to feel like a person again he takes stock of himself and—

He sits up, pushing Hawke off of him roughly enough that he’ll feel bad about it later.

Fuck.

Fuck.

He takes a moment to breathe and not like, punch the couch or something, because it isn’t the couch's fault that he’s just pissed the stupid plaid pants he’s wearing. That’s why the travel blanket is waterproof. That’s why he carries an extra pair of leggings and gallon zipper bags in his backpack all the time. 

But preparation doesn’t negate the fact that he’s going to walk back out into the restaurant where Kent Parson is waiting and it’s going to be immediately obvious what has just happened.

He briefly considers just…not leaving the room.

Briefly.

“Sorry,” he tells Hawke, who is watching him a little sadly.

He gives her ears an apology skritch and then goes about changing, shoving his boxers, the blanket, and the plaid pants into ziplock bags and then shoving those bags with more violence than is strictly necessary into the bottom of his backpack. After a moment of thought, he crumples the trilby and pushes it into the backpack as well.

He considers how he feels—slight headache, a little tired and off-balance, but no worse for wear—then examines his reflection in the mirror next to the sink. With just the plaid vest and leggings he almost looks normal, at least. 

The scar that cups his ear, trailing down the line of his throat, seems particularly stark in the fluorescent lighting. He rubs it with his thumb for moment, stalling, and then turns around, takes a fortifying breath, opens the door, and walks purposefully back to the table.

Kent is hunched over, spinning his phone anxiously, and immediately jerks upright when Eli rounds the corner.

“Are you ok? What did—Dude, are you wearing different pants?—“

Comprehension dawns and Kent goes quiet.

“Can we go?” Eli asks.

Kent snaps his fingers at the waitress which is super rude and they’ll need to talk about that later but—

“Hey,” Kent says to the girl. “Can you get me the check? We have to leave.”

She nods and Kent half-stands, digging in his pocket. He leans forward and hands his keys to Eli.

“You want to go hang out in the car? I’ll finish up here and meet you there in a minute.”

“Okay.”

“You alright to go by yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

There’s a little worried pinch between Kent’s eyebrows and Eli hates it.

He goes to wait in the car. 

When Kent joins him a few minutes later, it’s with three takeout boxes in his hands. 

“Our food was just coming out so I had them box it for us, and I didn’t know if you’d want bread or not so I had them throw a couple rolls in as well.”

“Okay.”

Kent passes the boxes over, running a hand through his poor, wild, hair.

He takes a breath, opens his mouth, closes it again with a scowl, and starts the car.

It’s quiet until they’re on the highway.

“So,” Kent says, “do you want me to just take you home or—?  Maybe we could go back to my place?”

“What? Why?”

“To…eat?”

Kent looks genuinely confused.

“I’m—“ Eli feels a little lost. “I need a shower.”

“I have one of those. And clothes you could borrow. Or we could go to your place, I just figured you wouldn’t want the circus it could cause if I went up to your room with you. Or I could just drop you off if you want to call it a day, you don’t have to—“

“Kent. It’s—your place is fine. But. Maybe we can stop by my dorm first? So I can, uh, put my clothes in the washing machine?”

“I have a washer too,” Kent points out. “Top of the line. It even has wifi connectivity.”

“It does not.”

“It does too! The app lets me know when it’s done. And I can check and see how much time is left whenever I want. It has Flex Wash too.”

“What the hell is Flex Wash?”

“No idea. But it sounds impressive, right? I should probably read the manual.”

Eli laughs, but it’s a strained little thing.

“You sure you want my clothes in your fancy-ass washer?”

Kent makes a judgmental noise. “Dude. I hang out with hockey players. We are disgusting human beings. Bodily fluids do not bother me.”

“Alright.”

“Hey,” Kent says, “seriously.”

Okay.”

When they get to Kent’s place, Kent lets valet park his car and everyone stares as they walk into the lobby.

Kent’s ears are beet red by the time they get to the elevator.

“This was just your super sneaky way to get out of wearing that awful outfit, wasn’t it?” He whisper-shouts at Eli. “Did you see their faces? I’m over here still looking like a moron but you look relatively normal. And where the hell is your hat?”

Eli can’t help but laugh, which was probably Kent’s intention.

“Backpack,” he says. “Might be a little crushed.”

“I’ll just have to get you another one.”

“Please don’t.”

Kent grins at him. 

Eli smiles, more than a little helplessly, back at him.

“Have you used any of the groceries I left?” he asks. “The butter or—“

“No. I’ve just been eating what’s in the freezer. Well. And protein shakes but that’s not—no. Why?”

“Because. Third date. It’s easier to talk about medical histories if you have cookies to eat afterward.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yup. Speaking from experience.”

“You know that’s not why—“ Kent licks his lips, eyebrows pinched as he holds the elevator door so Eli and Hawke can enter first.

“You don’t actually have to tell me. If you don’t want to.”

Eli shrugs. “You should know the basics anyway, in case—if we’re going to keep hanging out.”

“Well we are, so.”

“Okay then,” Eli says.

“Okay then,” Kent agrees.

Chapter Text

Kent is a professional hockey player. More than that, he’s a comparatively small professional hockey player. He’s 5’ 10” and 180 pounds and he’s widely hated by like…a good percentage of the NHL. He gets hit a lot. Mostly by people who are bigger than him, some of them a lot bigger—honestly, what are they feeding the Russians these days?— which is a pretty constant source of stress. 

But nothing in his twenty years of life has ever been quite as nerve-wracking as sitting uselessly at a five-star restaurant in parachute pants and a floral blazer while his—while Eli—is off in some back room apparently having a goddamn seizure.

A seizure.

Which. Eli had seemed so calm about it but. Seizures are a big deal. Seizures are scary. Seizures kill people.

He calls Jeff because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“Hey kid, why are you calling me in the middle of your date? That’s rude as hell.”

“Eli is having a seizure,” Kent says, because tact has never been his strong suit. “And I’m freaking out.”

“What the fuck? Why are you calling me? Call an ambulance.”

“No—that’s not. Apparently its normal? For him? Hawke started whining and shit and then he was like, ‘oh hey, I’m gunna go have a seizure now, no big deal, see you later’ and then he just left to some back room and I—Fuck. Should I be telling you this? Am I like, violating his privacy? Jeff. I’m freaking out.”

“You are, a little bit. Deep breath, okay?”

“Okay.”

Jeff pauses for a minute.

“That wasn’t a deep breath. That wasn’t even like, a breath. Work with me, Kenny.”

“Oh. Right.”

Kent breathes.

“Okay, good. So. Eli probably has epilepsy or something. If Hawke is trained to detect seizures this is pretty normal for them and you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Seizures are a big deal,” Kent says, probably louder than is necessary. 

He hunches over the table a little and takes another breath.

“What do I do?”

“What did he tell you to do?”

“To wait here. For him to get back.”

“Then that’s what you do.”

“What about after? Do I take him home? Or like, the hospital? Or—“

“I don’t know,” Jeff says patiently. “You should probably ask him that when he gets back.”

“Right.”

Jeff sighs. “He might not want to stay at the restaurant, but don’t assume that. Let him call the shots.”

“Okay.”

“But make it clear that you’re cool with this—because you are, right?”

The question sounds a little like a threat.

“So cool,” Kent says faintly.

“Good. Make it clear that if he wants to go home he can but you still want to spend more time with him tonight. Maybe offer to take him to your place. But don’t be insulted if he just wants to call it a night either.”

“Okay. Yeah.”

“Listen, I’m at the movie theater with Alex, do you want me to stay on the phone with you until he’s back or are you good?”

“I’m—good. Yeah. Sorry for freaking out. Get back to your wife.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Let me know how it goes. And if you need anything else, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks. Bye.”

Kent hangs up and spins his phone mindlessly on the table.

He presses the home button and sighs.

It’s only been five minutes.

***

When they get to Kent’s apartment, Kent shows Eli how to work the washing machine and then ushers him directly into the master bathroom where Kent shoves a towel into Eli’s hands and then tries to explain his admittedly ridiculous shower. There’s six different wall-mounted nozzles as well as a rain-emulating thing in the ceiling, and the hot and cold adjustment handles, as aesthetically pleasing as they are, don’t make much logical sense.

It’s a bit much. 

He’ll admit that.

He leaves Eli, who is definitely judging him, but at least doing it quietly, in the already steam-filled bathroom and goes to pick out a pair of shorts and the softest T-shirt he can find because. Well. He wants Eli to be comfortable. He might intentionally pick a shirt that’s a little big on him because he knows it will look even bigger on Eli and the idea of that is…compelling. He agonizes a little over whether or not he should give him underwear too and throws in a pair of black boxer briefs that he got from a Diesel photoshoot a few months back. They shrunk in the wash so they’ll actually probably fit Eli perfectly which he will not continue to think about.

Kent knocks on the bathroom door, opens it a few inches to put the clothes on the floor inside, and then returns to the kitchen to transfer their boxed food to plates.

Kit joins him on the countertop and unashamedly begs for attention.

“You need to be extra nice to Eli today, okay?” Kent says seriously, running his knuckles down the curve of her arched spine. “He’s had a seizure. Which is bad. And we like him, so we need him to feel like, welcome and safe and shit, alright?”

Kit appears to agree but he gives her a little bit of fat from the edge of his steak just to make sure she’s in a good mood.

He brings their plates and utensils into the living room because sitting on the couch will be more comfortable than the bar stools and it had seemed like Eli’s balance was a little off so bar stools probably aren’t a good idea anyway.

Then, out of things to do, he sits down on the couch, adjusts the silverware a little on the coffee table, and waits. 

He’s not very good at waiting.

He turns on the TV to SportsCenter, then immediately turns it off because he doesn’t want it to seem like he’s avoiding talking to Eli or something. But Eli isn’t even in the room, so he turns it back on, absorbs absolutely nothing for several minutes, and then turns it off again the minute he hears the bathroom door open.

Eli is preceded by Hawke, who makes herself at home on the rug under the window, and then Eli moves into the living room and Kent—Kent did not adequately prepare himself for this. For Eli with damp ringlet hair and a pink flush to his dark skin from the heat of Kent’s ridiculous shower.

He looks so soft and unassuming that it feels like a personal attack.

“Your shower is ridiculous,” Eli says.

He sits down next to Kent and he smells like Kent’s shampoo.

It somehow smells a whole hell of a lot better on Eli.

“It is,” Kent agrees.

“I kind of want to marry it, though. Can that be part of our deal? I cook you food in exchange for shower privileges?”

Kent swallows.

“Yes.”

Eli purses his lips, studying Kent and Kent suddenly wonders if he looks awkward, clutching the TV remote in one hand, sitting a careful distance between the middle of the sofa and the edge, trying to leave enough space for Eli to sit without it looking like he’s trying to avoid like, touching him or something. He doesn’t even know.

He tries to be less awkward without actually changing anything about his position and from the look on Eli’s face fails miserably.

“Are you okay?” Eli asks.

“Am I—“ Kent lets out a breath through his nose. “I’m fine. I’m just—are you okay? Because maybe this is normal for you and I don’t want to make a big deal out of it if—but I was kind of scared out of my mind waiting for you to come back at the restaurant and now… I’m trying to be cool because I don’t want you to feel weird but I don’t know—“

“Hey,” Eli says, “whoa.”

And that’s—that’s Eli’s hand on his knee.

“Sorry,” Kent says, slumping a little.

He scoops Kit up from the back of the couch and repositions her in his lap so he’ll stop squeezing the remote and won’t try to do something stupid like hold Eli’s hand instead.

Eli looks like he’s trying not to smile too widely at him.

“Thank you,” he says, squeezing his knee a little.

“For what?”

“You were worried about me.”

“Um, yeah?”

“That’s—nice.”

“Okay?”

“It is! And you handled things pretty well. Except for being rude to the waitress. I mean. Snapping your fingers at her? Really?”

“I didn’t—okay, yeah, I did do that. I uh, tipped her really well?”

“That helps.”

Kit repositions herself in such a way that she can butt her head against Eli’s wrist. He lets go of Kent’s knee to pet her.

“Hey, sweet thing,” he murmurs, soft and a little reverent, “finally decided we’re friends?” and Kent cannot handle this.

“So.” Kent says, maybe a little desperately. “Food?”

“Food,” Eli agrees.

They eat in companionable silence, watching with amusement as Hawke slowly ooches her way across the floor, a little army-crawl at a time, until she’s curled between their feet with a hopeful expression. She doesn’t beg, but makes it very clear she’s available and amenable to sharing if they are. Kent is sorely tempted but doesn’t know if feeding her people food is allowed or not.

“So,” Eli says eventually, leaning forward to put his plate on the coffee table. “Two years ago I was in a really bad car accident. I was hospitalized for several months. Had a couple surgeries. Broken ribs, ruptured spleen, TBI. Uh, that’s—traumatic brain injury.”

“Fuck,” Kent says.

“Yeah. It sucked. I’m good now mostly, but the TBI has some pretty shitty lasting effects. Like balance issues and memory problems, or like minor aphasia when I get really stressed.”

“Like seizures?” Kent asks.

“And like seizures,” Eli agrees.

“Are they—will they ever stop or—?”

“Maybe. Probably not. Doctors aren’t really sure. Brains are pretty weird and kind of unpredictable, I’ve learned. And mine is still healing.”

“What causes your seizures?”

“Also unsure. I usually have one or two a month, completely unprovoked, but if I’m really emotional or stressed or overheated that can prompt one too. That’s why I have the handicap parking tag—because something as minor as walking two blocks in Vegas heat could induce one.”

“Fuck,” Kent says again. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry—“

“Hey, no, that’s not—I wasn’t trying to make you feel bad again, I know you weren’t being malicious or anything—“

“Still. I shouldn’t have—“

“Yes, I know. But we’ve moved on, okay?”

“Okay.”

Kent considers going and drowning himself in his stupid shower because he is the literal worst and Eli is being way too nice to him.

“Anyway,” Eli says, “I got Hawke once I was out of the hospital. I actually wasn’t supposed to get a dog until this year because of the waiting list, but—well that’s a different story—but I got her only a few months after applying. Between her and my medication it’s not so bad.”

Kent reaches down to pet Hawke without thinking, then jerks back his hand. “Sorry, is it ok to—“

“Oh, yeah, totally. When the vest is off she’s just a dog. She’ll still alert for me as long as she’s not distracted, but she’s free game for petting, absolutely.”

Kent doesn’t have to be told twice.

Kit isn’t particularly pleased by this development and retreats to her former position on the back of the couch, closer to Eli than Kent.

Kent rolls his eyes at her and smoothes the fur over Hawke’s eyebrows with his thumbs.

He tries to tell her telepathically that she’s a very good dog and he’s happy Eli has her. She blinks knowingly at him.

“So,” he say. “How does that work, with the skating? If heat is a problem. Doesn’t any kind of physical activity put you at risk?”

“Sort of? There’s a threshold, and I’m getting better at telling where it is. And, well, figure skating is one of the best possible sports I could be part of, honestly. It’s a lot easier to cool down in an ice rink, and stave off getting over heated to begin with, than it is on like…a football field or something.” 

His lopsided grin fades a bit. 

“I wasn’t able to skate for almost a year initially. Between the balance issues and the surgery recovery and stuff,” he pushes one palm, gentle, against his belly, and Kent has to resist the urge to cover it with his own hand, to pull up Eli’s shirt and get to the skin underneath it so he can—what, he doesn’t know—make sure Eli is alright now? How would Kent even tell?

“That’s why I’m behind,” Eli says. “Why I’m here. I had a spot to compete at Worlds when I was fifteen but the accident happened two months before and now—I still haven’t managed to get back to the competitive level I was at then. Might not ever.”

Kent can’t imagine that: losing skating. Losing hockey. Losing…his identity. It’s one of his worst fears, one of the few things that gives him nightmares. What if he gets hurt? What if he’s not good enough? What if he can’t live the only future he’s spent the entirety of his past preparing for?

“I’m sorry,” Kent says, and it seems woefully inadequate.

Eli shrugs. “I’m still recovering. Still improving. I’m not giving up yet.”

“Good.”

It’s quiet for a moment and Kent gives Hawke one final pet before leaning back into the couch.

“Can I ask, like, what happens? When you have a seizure.”

“Oh. Well there’s a lot of different kinds, obviously.”

Kent raises a self-deprecating eyebrow.

“Or,” Eli corrects himself. “I guess not obviously for most people. The kind I get are called tonic-clonic seizures which is basically where I lose consciousness for a minute or two and have muscle contractions. It’s—it’s pretty scary to watch but it doesn’t hurt or anything as long as I’m ready for it.”

“Tonic-clonic,” Kent repeats. 

“Hawke usually lets me know about ten minutes before I have one. Then I get somewhere safe, lay down, and she makes sure I don’t hurt myself while I’m out of it. A minute or so after I wake up again I’m usually good to go, sometimes with a headache. I don’t usually—“ he grimaces and starts again. “They’re usually not as bad as today.”

Kent bites his lip. “Is that. Something to be concerned about?”

“No. Not unless I have several bad ones in a row.”

“Okay.”

The washing machine beeps and Eli goes to switch his clothes into the dyer. Hawke stays with Kent, but she lifts her head to keep Eli in her sight, craning her neck a little when he turns the corner.

“He’ll be right back,” Kent says.

She is not reassured.

When Eli returns a minute later, he settles on the couch closer to Kent than he had been before.

“Any other questions?” he asks.

“What do I do?” Kent says. “Like. If this happens again.”

Eli shrugs. “Mostly what you did today. Wait for me. Take me home if I want. Maybe skip the slight panicking. But that was admittedly my fault. It wasn’t fair to spring that on you.”

“Okay. What are they called again? The kind of seizures you have?”

“Tonic-clonic.”

He repeats that several times to himself. He’ll need to google it after Eli leaves.

“So we’re cool?” Eli asks.

Kent blinks at him.

“Yes? I mean. Yeah. Of course.”

“Cool. So.”

Eli claps his hands together, looking pleased, if a little embarrassed.

“Medical history portion of date three is over. You ready for cookies? Or do you have something to contribute to tonight’s heart-to-heart? Any personal revelations? Deep dark secrets to share?”

And Kent—

He doesn’t mean to. Not really. Because Eli is clearly joking and not actually expecting him to answer but he can’t help it. 

He just. 

Says it.

“I’m gay.”

Chapter Text

Eli has never actually been punched in the face before. It’s something he’s pretty proud of considering he grew up gay in rural Georgia but this—

Eli imagines this is a little like what it would feel like.

Maybe not punched in the face, though. Maybe more like his chest. Right down the center. Where there’s a knotted line of scar tissue that he rubs with shea butter every night.

Eli swallows, standing.

“If that’s supposed to be a joke it’s not very funny.”

And Kent. Kent looks devastated.

“It’s not,” he says. “I’m—I am. I swear.”

Eli sits back down.

“Fuck,” Kent says.  “I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you until later but you just like, bared your soul to me or whatever and I felt like I needed to, uh, reciprocate?And then you said— and I know you were joking, but I knew you’d be cool with it and I’d imagined like, a thousand different ways I could tell you but not once was I afraid you would take it badly, you know? Which is new. For me. So I guess I just kinda jumped the gun a little. And you can't tell anyone--well, unless you wanted to tell Eric, I guess--but he definitely couldn't tell anyone. I don’t even know what I’m—”

Eli realizes he’s not the only one in something of a panic spiral.

“Kent,” he interrupts. “Kent. Hey.”

“Yes. Hi.”

“Hi. Take a deep breath, maybe?”

Kent takes a deep breath.

Eli does too for good measure.

“Sorry, I’m just going to need a minute.”

“That’s fine,” Kent says, subdued, and Eli closes his eyes because he is doing this all wrong but he really does need a minute because Kent Fucking Parson, number one draft pick, youngest captain in the NHL, and last years league point leader—yes, okay, Eli has been paying closer attention to that kind of shit lately—has just come out to him.

“You do realize,” Eli says, a few moments later, eyes still closed, “how ridiculous it is that we’ve been on three dates and the fact that you’re gay is a revelation.”

“Uh. Yeah,” Kent agrees tentatively. “That did cross my mind.”

“So,” Eli straightens. “Were you—were those actual dates? Because I thought,” he takes a breath. “I thought you were just being nice to me. Friendly. Like. Oh, big sports star, charmed by the sarcastic kid with the service dog. And then you realized you actually liked hanging out with me because of my stunning personality or whatever. Which, that’s fine, but—“

“I don’t know,” Kent interrupts, voice a little too loud, a little thready.

“You—how can you not know?”

Kent gestures wordlessly, making an uncertain noise in the back of his throat. “I knew you didn’t think they were real, but I just—I liked you and I wanted to be your friend and the whole ‘three dates’ thing was an opportunity to spend more time with you.”

He runs a hand through his hair.

“And I’d never actually been on a date before. And I liked—I liked the idea. Of that. With you. Even though I knew it wasn’t real.”

Eli leans back against the couch and closes his eyes again because that makes things easier, before opening them and sitting right back up.

“What do you mean, you’ve never been on a date before?”

Kent lifts one shoulder. “I haven’t. I’ve known since I was twelve I was gay and by then I also knew I was probably going to end up playing professional hockey and I couldn’t—there aren’t any out NHL players.”

“So you just—you’ve never been in a relationship?” 

The idea of twelve-year-old Kent quietly accepting that he would never get a normal romantic adolescence makes something in Eli’s chest clench. Possibly because it’s a little too familiar.

Kent worries his bottom lip between his teeth.

“Once. In juniors. We were both players, though, both headed for the draft. So we had to keep it a secret. And I don’t—I don’t know if we actually were.”

“If you actually were what?”

“In a relationship. Together. I thought we were, but he—“

Kent pauses.

The pause turns into silence.

He shrugs, clearly not sure how to finish, and Eli has never felt so compelled to hug someone.

“That sucks,” he says. “I mean. That’s really terrible.”

Kent shrugs again.

“After I was drafted by the Aces I went out to clubs a couple times. Uh. Gay clubs. Just for hookups. But then one time someone recognized me and it almost—I decided it wasn’t worth it,  after that. Especially when the Aces gave me the captaincy. It was just too risky to go out anymore. It would jeopardize the whole team if someone went to the media.”

Eli doesn’t even know how to respond to that.

“So—what—you’re just going to stay in the closet until you retire?”

Kent laughs without humor. “That’s the plan.”

“That’s a terrible plan. You won’t retire for—“

“Hopefully at least another decade. Maybe two if I’m lucky.”

“And you’ll just be alone. Until you’re nearly forty or—or an injury forces you out sooner?  Hockey can’t be worth that.”

“Look, I don’t expect you to understand—“

“Shit. I’m sorry. I mean. I really, really don’t understand but that’s your choice. I shouldn’t like. Judge you. For that. Sorry.”

They both fall silent.

“Have you?” Kent asks after a moment.

“Have I what?”

“Ever been in a relationship?”

Eli snorts, more than a little inelegantly. “No.”

Kent appears genuinely surprised by this information.

“But you’re out.”

“Yeah, and up until two weeks ago I was living in a tiny town in Georgia. Eric is literally the only other gay person I’ve ever met in real life.”

Eli startles. “Well. Until you, I guess,” he amends.

“Oh. Right. And you never—with Eric?”

“God no. We kissed each other the night before we both left for college but—“

Whatever face he makes must indicate exactly how uninterested Eli is in recreating the experience because Kent laughs.

“Not good?”

“I dunno.The kiss itself was okay, I guess? Not that I have any comparative data. But Eric is definitely not my type and more like a brother than anything else. Besides, he’s not out to his family and I couldn’t—I don’t think I could do that. Be someone’s secret.”

“Oh.”

“I, uh. I’m going to join the GSA, though, I think. The first meeting of the semester is next week. So. Maybe I’ll meet someone there.”

“GSA?” Kent asks.

“Gay Straight Alliance.”

Kent nods, mouth a little pinched. 

“Well. Let me know if you need any date ideas. I’ve done research.”

Eli thinks Kent is trying to be funny but the delivery isn’t quite right.

He wants to ask the initial question again—or maybe amend it: did you want them to be real dates? But even if the answer is yes, he can’t—he won’t go back in the closet. And Kent can’t come out.

“So,” Eli says, and then stalls.

“So,” Kent agrees.

“Just. To make sure I’m clear. You still want to hang out?”

It feels embarrassingly trite, phrasing it like that.

Yes,” Kent says. “Please.” 

“Okay. Well. Good.”

Eli curls his bare toes into the shag of Kent’s rug, uncertain how to proceed. “Do you want to make some cookies now?”

“Also yes.”

“Alright, then,” Eli says, standing to collect their empty plates. “Go wash your hands and we’ll get started.”

“I just washed my hands before we ate.”

“And then you pet both Kit and Hawke.”

Kent stretches, standing to follow him. “If I’m just watching I don’t need clean hands anyway.”

“If you want to eat any of the cookies, you’re not just watching.”

Kent grins a little crookedly at the ice in Eli’s tone. “Why don’t I go wash my hands?”

“Good plan.”

***

Eli expects that things will be weird, after that night. They make cookies and eat too many and stay up later than they should, and things are fine. But after Kent has dropped him off at his dorm, Eli doesn’t know what to expect. Because there’s definitely something there, he thinks. Something between them. And the knowledge that nothing will happen doesn’t particularly dampen his interest in spending time with Kent, but he doesn’t know if it’s mutual or not and—well. He thinks things will be weird.

They aren’t.

He thinks maybe they’ll stop talking as much once the semester begins and regular season games start.

They don’t.

Kent sends him sporadic texts throughout the day, Jeff sends pictures of Kent sleeping in increasingly contorted and unattractive positions, and Eli gets used to facetiming Kent whenever the Aces are on the road—layovers, bus-loadings, etc. because apparently he really is a significant annoyance when forced to sit still in one place for an extended amount of time.

Eli uses Kent’s kitchen at least once a week, filming for the youtube channel but also making sure Kent has diet-approved meals for dinner every night in the freezer. Sometimes Kent is there, sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes Jeff is there too.

He also has the email of the Aces’ nutritionist, Sonja, now.

By October, he and Kent have cultivated a solid friendship through insults, social media, private ice time, food, and violently discordant opinions on Game of Thrones. They have something of a routine. A solid friendship that rivals all other interpersonal relationships he has apart from Eric's. It’s comfortable.

And then, in October, Kent goes down in overtime in a dumpster-fire of a game against the Stars.

It’s a blatantly vicious cross-check by Pavel that ends with Kent helmet-less and face-down on the ice, trying to get to his knees under his own power and failing. He has to be carried off by Mashkov and Rushkin, a swarm of trainers blocking the camera’s view of his bowed head.

Pavel gets five minutes in the box and Eli gets in his car.

He knows he can’t go to the arena, but he also knows that Kent will fight tooth and nail to go home unless a hospital stay is absolutely required.

So he goes to the grocery store, and then he goes to Kent’s apartment.

Jeff calls him as he’s chopping tomatoes. 

“Hey, kid,” he says tiredly. “Were you watching the game?”

“Yeah, is he—“

“He’ll be fine. His neck is a little jacked up and he’s got a minor concussion. Couple weeks off, maybe more. But he’ll be fine. We’re going to be here for another hour or so but they’re letting him go home tonight if you—“

“I’m already at his place.”

Jeff laughs, soft, maybe a little fond. “Alright. I’ll text you when we’re on our way.”

Eli finishes the casserole, sets the timer on the oven, puts on a Hozier record, and opens his history textbook.

Two hours later, when he’s dozing on the couch, there’s a commotion in the hallway and, after a longer-than-usual pause, the door opens.

Hawke sits up.

Kit streaks across the kitchen to perch on the refrigerator and yowl at the intruders.

Alexei Mashkov enters first with Kent’s bag and what looks like several prescription bottles and paperwork. 

“Oh,” he says, seeing Eli and breaking into a smile. “Hi.”

Mashkov shouldn’t really be handsome. His nose is too big for his face, his mouth too wide, but between his pretty brown eyes,  straight—probably fake—teeth, and generally ridiculous height, Eli finds himself grinning a little helplessly back at the man.

“Hi,” Eli says.

Mashkov points at him with one gigantic finger. “You! You little Youtube cook. You talk to Kenny on the plane so he's not annoy everyone. You skate like Jeff—but best now.”

“Okay,” Jeff intercedes from the doorway, hovering behind a slow-moving Kent. “Eli figure skates better than me now, not like, skates better than me in general.”

“Is what I mean,” Mashkov says consolingly. “English is hard.”

“Bullshit,” Jeff mutters.

“Eli?” Kent says, clearly a little drugged, as Jeff herds him toward the couch. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m—I thought you might like some company tonight after that hit. I even got the recipe for Eric’s Moomaw’s ‘get well soon’ casserole and tweaked it a little so Sonja doesn’t kill me. It’s in the oven.”

“I’m injured,” Kent says grumpily, “Not sick.”

“You better be appreciative of my efforts or I’ll be making a funeral casserole, Mr. Parson.”

Mashkov laughs, delighted.

“I’m not let you kill Kenny,” he says somberly. “I’m need good center and Kenny is best.”

“Well you better tell him to mind his manners then.”

“You mind,” Mashkov repeats to Kent. “Be good. Let Eli take care.”

“Ugh,” Kent says. “You guys are the worst.”

“Best,” Mashkov argues amiably, setting Kent’s various accouterments on the kitchen counter. “I should go, now. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, man.”

“Bye little cook,” he says, “nice to meet.”

“It’s Eli,” Eli says.

“Tater,” Mashkov answers.

“Tater?”

“Like tater-tot,” he explains, as if that’s an explanation at all. “You know. Little potatoes?”

“Oh god, is that supposed to be a play on your last name?”

“Yes. Rushy make it for me first day, now everybody on team call me Tater.”

“Hockey players are idiots.”

“Yes,” Mashkov—Tater—agrees.

Eli laughs a little.

“Okay, nice to meet you, Tater.”

The Russian leaves and Eli returns his attention to Kent. He’s wearing a mostly-unzipped hoody over melting ice packs saran-wrapped around his shoulders and neck and he looks so exhausted that Eli thinks he might fall asleep at any moment.

“Can you eat? Are you hungry?”

“Yeah,” Jeff answers for him. “He probably should try, at least. He hasn’t had anything since before the game.”

Eli moves to the kitchen to get the plate of casserole from the still-warm oven that he’d saved for exactly that purpose.

He brings it to Kent on a bed tray he’d found in the cabinet by the cat food and sets it gingerly over his lap.

“Is that—“

“It’s fine,” Kent sighs. “Thanks.”

Eli watches as he takes a bite, arm moving gingerly, not moving his neck at all, and jumps when Jeff nudges him with an elbow.

“I was going to stay the night with him but if you’ve got that,” he nods to Eli’s backpack and duffel bag leaning against the entryway wall, “I’ll just come back first thing tomorrow. Is that your plan?”

“Yeah. I mean. I can. If that’s okay. I brought my stuff, just in case.

“When’s your first class tomorrow?”

“Not until eleven.”

“No practice?”

“Not on Thursdays. I have an optional ballet class at nine but I’ve yet to miss one this semester so it’s fine if I don’t go.”

“You do ballet?” Kent interrupts. He’s holding his fork half-way to his mouth and looks like maybe his brain has just short-circuited.

“Yeah? Not at a super high level or anything, but it’s good for figure skaters. I go to a class through the dance school two times a week on the mornings we don’t have skate.”

Kent makes a pained noise.

“That’s cool,” he says weakly.

“Kenny loves ballet,” Jeff says conspiratorially. “He went to The Nutcracker four times in three different cities last year.”

“I hate you,” Kent says.

Eli is charmed.

“Anyway,” Jeff continues, “I’ll come back around ten tomorrow so you have time to go back and get ready for class, cool?”

“Works for me.”

“Alright,”

Jeff bends to give Kent a gentle, smacking, kiss on the top if his head and then retreats to the kitchen.

“There’s a list of his meds and when he can take them here,” he tells Eli, smoothing out a piece of paper. “He can’t go sleep for another three hours but after that he can stay asleep as long as he wants so you don’t need to wake him up through the night or anything. Any blurred vision, nausea, forgetfulness—well, you know the drill probably—call his neurologist. Her number is also here.”

Eli takes the paper from Jeff.

“Okay. Anything else?”

“Uh. No screen time for 48 hours and he has to sleep on his back.”

Kent makes a despairing noise.

“Which he’s going to be a giant baby about.”

“No kidding.”

“Anyway, let me know if you need anything.”

“Will do.”

Jeff leaves and Eli returns the paperwork to the counter, turns off the kitchen lights, dims the living room lights, and then joins Kent on the couch.

“Hey,” he says, settling slowly, careful not to jostle him.

“Hey.”

“So that was a pretty terrible hit.”

“Yeah.”

“Probably a dumb question, but are you okay?”

“I’m—I don’t know.”

Eli wishes he hadn’t dimmed the lights quite so much. He can’t really tell what Kent’s face is doing under the soft water-color bleed of neon from the window.

“It was scary,” Kent says. “I’d never—I couldn't get up. I was trying but I just. Couldn’t. That’s never happened before.”

“Yeah. It’s pretty terrifying when your body won’t listen to your brain. Feels kinda like you're trapped.”

Kent meets his eyes. “Exactly.”

“Better now? Or are you still processing.”

“Still processing, I think.”

“That’s allowed.”

Kent pushes a little at the tray and Eli moves it off his lap and onto the coffee table.

He hasn’t even eaten half of the casserole slice but Eli figures that’s better than nothing.

“Do you want some water? Maybe some gatorade?”

“No. I already drank two at the hospital.”

“Alright. Can I get you anything else?”

“No. Just. Can you—”

He reaches toward Eli without turning his head, finds Eli’s forearm and trails his fingers down to circle his wrist, calluses light but rough against the thin skin beneath Eli’s palms.

He pulls, just a little, and Eli goes.

He settles in the cup of space between Kent’s arm and his ribcage, leaning against Kent carefully, in increments, unsure of how much of his weight Kent can take without it becoming uncomfortable. Kent’s outside forearm moves to circle his waist, pulling him closer, hand spread against his abdomen, and then they go still, pressed together in the semi-darkness, the damp of melting ice and silence between them.

Kent exhales.

“Thank you.”

“Whatever you need,” Eli says, and then pauses, realizing he means it.

“Don’t fall asleep,” he reminds Kent. “Not yet.”

“Talk to me then.”

“About what?”

“Anything.”

“Well.” Eli considers for a moment. “I’ve got some serious beef with my history professor’s lecture from Monday.”

Kent laughs and Eli can feel it under his ear.

“Is this the ancient civilizations class? With the old white dude?”

“Yup.”

“Tell me about it,” Kent says.

Chapter Text

Eli manages to complain about his history professor for nearly an hour, which is impressive considering that he really doesn’t have that much beef with him. But it’s easy to exaggerate and he keeps Kent giggling and awake which was the goal. Well. Awake was the goal. The giggling is a definite bonus, though. Because Kent wrinkles his nose when he laughs and apparently Eli has a thing for adorably scrunched up freckled noses.

“I mean,” Eli says, voice a little rough. “I am learning from his lectures, I just feel like he takes every opportunity to ignore or blatantly excise mentioning any kind of non-heterosexual relationships that any prominent historical figures had—even like, the pretty widely accepted ones.”

Kent makes an encouraging noise.

“Like,” Eli continues, “why can’t we talk about the fact that Alexander the Great had a boyfriend and his love language was apparently promoting him? Why is this professor so afraid of the historical gays, you know?”

“Who wouldn’t be afraid of Alexander the Great?” Kent says sleepily. “He’s one of the most merciless conquerers in history.”

“Okay that’s a fair point but definitely not what I meant, as I’m sure you’re aware.” Eli pauses. “Wait. You know who Alexander the Great is?”

Kent opens his eyes, shifting a little so he can frown at Eli. “I read.”

“I know that.”

“We spend a lot of time on buses and planes and history is interesting, okay?” 

And Kent…Kent seems genuinely upset. It’s hard to take him seriously since his hair is a mess and his eyes are all pupil and kind of bleary from the meds, but Eli manages a placating, “Okay, sorry, jeez. I know you’re not some dumb hockey robot.”

“Good.”

It goes quiet for several long seconds.

“My ex was really into history,” Kent says a minute later—a little hesitant, awkward after the extended silence. “I got in the habit of picking up historical novels and biographies and stuff in airports so we’d have something to talk about on roadies and never really quit. So. It’s a habit now.”

Which. That’s actually incredibly sweet. And more than a little sad.

Eli doesn’t know how to respond to that but he doesn’t have to because Kit gets up from where she’s been sitting on the coffee table and stalks purposefully over to where Hawke is laying at their feet, jumps lightly onto her back, and settles in a little cat-loaf between her shoulder and bent elbow.

Hawke looks relatively baffled.

As do Kent and Eli.

Hawke picks up her head, sniffing gently in Kit’s direction which gets her a bat on the nose and a quiet hiss.

Hawke drops her chin back onto her feet, bemused, watching Kit out of the corner of her eye.

After a few minutes, when Kit’s sleepy blinks have turned into actual napping, Hawke slowly relocates her nose so that it’s laid lengthwise against, and just barely touching, Kit’s side.

She glances up at Kent and Eli, looking pleased with herself.

“I don’t think it counts if Kit is asleep,” Eli says.

Hawke doesn’t seem overly bothered by this.

Kent sighs, a strange expression on his face, and then winces.

“New ice packs?” Eli asks.

“Yeah, probably.”

Eli unwraps him as gently as possible, noticing the goosebumps and chill of his skin beneath the hoodie. 

“Cold?” he asks inanely. 

Kent huffs out a laugh. “Yeah.”

“Would—do you think a warm bath would help instead? With Epsom salts? And then you can ice again after?”

That’s one of the things Eli most misses from home, aside from Eric. Epsom salt baths were a near-daily part of his required recovery and, until he’d moved into the dorms—with only shower stalls— he’d still had at least one bath a week. He wonders if he and Kent are at a point in their friendship where he can ask to come borrow his bathtub. If they’re not already he thinks they probably will be after tonight.

Kent makes a grumpy noise that is weirdly adorable. “That would be nice, but I don’t think I can lean back in a bath right now. I’m not supposed to be anything but upright or flat on my back.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

Eli stands in the kitchen, hands full of mostly-melted ice packs and doesn’t know what to do. At least that eliminates the emotional trial of helping Kent get in the bath—something that would likely be fraught with badly suppressed arousal and a fair amount of guilt.

“A hot shower would be nice, though,” Kent says slowly. “I didn’t get a chance after the game so I feel pretty disgusting. I’ll need help, though. 

“Oh.”

“Not that—Swoops can help me tomorrow, it’s not a big deal if you’re not comfortable—“

“No, it’s—“ completely, horribly, unfair. “I don’t mind. That’s fine. I’m just afraid I’ll hurt you.”

Which, hey, maybe that will maybe help with the arousal if he’s terrified the whole time of breaking the top-scoring center in the NHL.

“I trust you,” Kent says quietly, and Eli has to turn and drop the ice packs in the sink before he says something stupid in response.

***

There isn’t actually anything sexually fraught about helping Kent shower. Because Kent is in pain and Eli isn’t a sadist.The only thing Eli feels while slowly getting Kent settled on the bench in the stupidly complicated shower is an aching second-hand discomfort and a relatively desperate, fruitless, desire to take Kent’s pain himself somehow. Because Eli is used to being in pain, he has a lot of practice, and, granted, Kent probably does too because he’s a hockey player but—well. He doesn’t know where he’s going with that. He wishes, nonetheless. 

And then Kent makes him adjust the water temperature sixteen times, and complains about the method Eli uses to shampoo his hair and then when he does it the way Kent wants instead, Kent complains about soap in his eyes which is why Eli had done it the first way to begin with and by the time the whole showering ordeal is over, the only thing Eli is feeling is frustration.

I’m sorry,” Kent says, naked and bedraggled, sitting stiffly on the teak bench next to the tub while Eli finds him some clothes.

“I know I’m terrible when I’m injured and you’re being—you’re being really nice and I’m treating you like shit even though you should be home studying or—fuck, I don’t even know what time it is—sleeping, probably. Instead of here dealing with me. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not going to say it’s okay, because it’s not. But I understand you’re in a lot of pain right now,” Eli says diplomatically.

“Yeah,” Kent murmurs and he’s so damn pitiful that Eli forgives him entirely.

“Here,” Eli says, kneeling with a pair of Kent’s boxers and judiciously ignoring the fact that it puts his face at dick-level. “One foot at a time, okay? Don’t look down if it hurts to, I’ll—just—right foot first—good—and now—nice.” 

He slides them up over Kent’s knees, then helps him stand and pulls them the rest of the way, smoothing his thumbs over the elastic band to flatten it.

Kent’s skin is warm from the shower. Warm and tan and surprisingly hairless and—nope. Refocus.

“You want to bother with anything else or is this good? I’ve got some sweats and another zip-up hoody but if you just want to get in bed—“

“No, this is fine.”

He sways a little and Eli wraps a steadying arm around him.

“Okay, bed then.”

Kent is miserable—or, even more miserable—by the time they get him lying flat on his back in bed.

His hair is in the awkward phase between wet and dry and has gone fluffy and wild. Eli is pretty sure he would hate it if he knew. Kent seems to constantly be at war with his hair.

“Ice packs?” Eli asks.

Kent makes a noise that could mean anything.

“Right. Well I need to go put the others back in the freezer anyway, so I’ll grab a few new ones while I’m there. Anything else you need?”

Kent makes a noise that is probably negative.

Eli resists the urge to roll his eyes.

He tucks new ice packs around Kent’s shoulders, tidies up the kitchen, packs his books back up in his bag and then makes a trip to his car to retrieve Hawke’s travel bag of food. 

By the time he’s back upstairs and changed into his pajamas, the alarm on his phone says that Kent only has to stay awake for a few more minutes. 

He informs Kent of this quietly, setting a glass of water on the bedside table.

“Umph,” Kent responds.

“You can also take another painkiller now, if you want.”

“Please,” Kent says.

Eli helps him sit up enough to swallow the pill, then deals with Kent’s various forlorn exclamations over the fact that he’s entirely incapable of sleeping on his back so it doesn’t even matter that he doesn’t have to stay awake much longer and he hurts so much that he definitely won’t be able to sleep.

“Eli,” Kent says with mock solemnity. “I think I may be dying.”

“You’re not cute,” Eli says, even though he is. Very cute. Possibly the cutest.

“No,” Kent agrees a little mournfully. “Not right now. Kit is the cute one. And she’s too busy cuddling with your dog to care that I’m dying.”

He has to laugh. And then, because he can’t help himself, he smooths a hand over Kent’s ridiculous hair.

“Seriously, do you need anything else?”

Kent’s exaggerated grimace fades.

“No. I’m ok. Thank you.”

“Okay, well.”

He doesn’t really want to leave, but there’s no reason to stay, either, not unless—

“Can you stay with me? Until—I mean you said I still have a few minutes, right?”

“Oh. Of course. Should I—“ Eli nods toward the bed.

“Yeah. Plenty of room.”

That’s not, actually, entirely true. Kent’s bed is a queen which means that, with Kent arranged in the center, it’s impossible for them not to touch when Eli stretches out carefully beside him. He reaches to turn off the lamp and then the only light is that from the windows—the vegas skyline, lit up in neon.

“What’s your real bucket list?” Kent says, apropos of nothing.

“What?”

“Well you said that going on a date with a hockey player wasn’t really on your bucket list,” Kent says. “What is?”

“Oh.” Eli hasn’t actually thought all that much about it. “I mean. All sorts of things, I guess. I’d like to medal at worlds. Go to the olympics. And I’d like to travel. There’s um, only a couple bioluminescent bays left in the world and it would be cool to see them.”

“Thats big stuff,” Kent says. “What about like. Little things.”

“Little things.”

Eli thinks.

“I’d want a pair of—well. Basically the pair of skates Jeff has. And a whole wardrobe of Ivy Park warmup outfits. And—“ he laughs softly.

“What?” Kent asks.

“Eric and I had this joke, when we started our youtube channel. That if we ever got famous and started generating income through adds, the first thing we would do is buy a pair of Louboutins. So a pair of those, I guess.”

“Louboutins?” Kent repeats. “What’s that?”

“What's—Jesus, Kent. They’re shoes. Really beautiful shoes. Eric and I wear the same size so we agreed that sharing a pair of obscenely expensive ones would make it—I dunno, acceptable, or something.”

“What’s so great about these shoes?”

“They’re Louboutins,” he repeats a little helplessly, “It’s—it’s stupid. It’s not like we’re ever going to make that kind of money anyway.” He grins sideways at Kent. “Maybe if I keep cooking in your kitchen.”

Kent is frowning seriously at him. 

“How much are they?”

“Like a thousand dollars. It’s ridiculous.”

Eli is suddenly uncomfortably aware that this is not, actually a large sum of money for Kent.

“Huh. I don’t think any of the shoes my stylist found even cost that much. What do they look like? Show me a picture.”

“You’re not supposed to have any screen time for forty-eight hours,” Eli reminds him.

“Oh my god,” Kent groans. “ You’re worse than Swoops. Two seconds. That’s all I’m asking.”

Eli decides it’s not a battle worth fighting and pulls his phone out of his pocket. It’s easy enough to find a picture of The Shoes: black platform pumps. Red soles. Gold interior stitching.

He sighs a little as he hands the phone over and Kent—Kent laughs, a little incredulously.

“You want a pair of women’s shoes?” he says. “Why?” And the tone—the inflection—mimics so closely the derision he’s come to expect from the kinds of people that like to hurt him that Eli’s stomach immediately goes sour. Because he hadn’t though—it hadn’t even occurred to him that Kent might—but he’s a hockey player. A closeted hockey player. And he probably—

“Fuck,” Kent says, and Eli doesn’t know what his face is doing but apparently it’s not anything good judging by Kent’s expression. “That was really shitty of me. I didn’t—there’s nothing wrong with that, I was just expecting like, fancy high-tops or something.”

“It’s fine,” Eli says, taking back the phone. “I told you it was stupid.”

And it is, but the hollow feeling in his chest hasn’t gone away. Because he doesn’t actually know Kent that well, and this is just a gentle reminder that he needs to stay cautious.

“Hey. Eli.”

Eli licks his lips and glances back up at Kent.

“What?”

“My, um. My therapist says that your first response to something isn’t really your response, it’s society’s response—or like, the way you’ve been trained to respond from your environment? But your second response, after you’ve had a minute to think about, you know, how you actually feel, that’s the one that matters.”

Eli isn’t sure where he’s going with this.

“Okay?”

“So. Can I give you my second response?”

“Yes?”

Kent laboriously holds his hand out and it takes a moment for Eli to understand that he wants to see the picture again. He sighs but gives the phone back to Kent.

“You’re still not supposed to have screen time,” he says, tacit, knowing it will have absolutely zero effect.

Kent studies the phone with furrowed brows, the same way he looks at hockey plays or a pair of near-identical pictures of Kit when he has to pick just one to post to Instagram. 

“I like the red bottoms,” Kent says, seriously. “They’re, um. Really nice. Could you actually walk in these, though? Like. What if you twisted your ankle and couldn’t skate?”

Eli is overcome with fondness for a moment.

He clears his throat.

“I’ve practiced. Eric and I can do the entire Single Ladies dance in heels so—“

“Jesus,” Kent says, eyes wide. “Really?”

He seems genuinely impressed.

“Yeah.”

Kent looks back at the phone again, a new, sharper, edge to his admittedly still drug-addled expression.

“Where would you wear them?”

“At home. Cleaning. Cooking. Whatever. It’s not like—I wouldn’t actually wear them out to class or something.”

“Cooking,” Kent repeats. And Kent’s face is—Eli isn’t sure what Kent’s face is doing.

“Cooking here? In my kitchen?”

“I—no? Kent, I’m not actually getting a pair of Louboutins.”

Kent looks like he’s about to argue, but the alarm on Eli’s phone goes off, startling them both, and Eli retrieves it to turn it off.

“You should probably try to sleep now,” Eli says, trying to head off whatever weird direction the previous conversation had been going. 

Kent agrees, a little grudgingly, and Eli realizes that his fingers have returned to Kent’s hair and are…well. Petting him. A little.

The realization is embarrassing but clearly Kent doesn’t mind as his eyes are closed and he’s leaning into Eli’s hand. Eli is suddenly, intensely, reminded of Kit and has to take a moment to compose himself.

Within fifteen minutes Kent is dead to the world, breathing slow, the pained wrinkle between his eyebrows smoothed away, and Eli is sleepy enough to consider staying. Kent is warm and solid beside him and Kent wouldn’t mind, he doesn’t think, might even like it, if he stayed. 

He could stay. If he wanted.

And that’s the problem.

Eli carefully rolls off the bed and retreats to the guest room.

He doesn’t stay because he wants to just a little too badly.

Chapter Text

It starts with an Instagram post.

Jeff’s Instagram post, surprisingly.

It’s not his fault. Jeff wouldn’t even have an Instagram if it wasn’t for the fact that the Ace’s PR department was very insistent that “responsible” players—which really did not help with the mom comments, could you please lower your voice, Jessica—have a strong social media presence. He’d created one because it seemed simple enough to post behind-the scenes shots from practices, selfies with fans, and pictures of his wife with adoring commentary. 

He’s boring. He knows that. It’s fine.

As a result, he doesn’t have all that many followers, comparatively, and it is therefore something of a shock when he gets done with practice and finds his phone struggling to accommodate the thousands of notifications he’s received. It takes him an embarrassing amount of time to figure out what’s going on.

He’d posted a set of three pictures shortly after arriving at the igloo—all taken early that morning when he’d arrived to relieve Eli of Kent-duty. The first picture was a selfie with Eli in the kitchen in which Eli looked harried but fond as he tried unsuccessfully to scowl at the camera. He was brandishing a spatula and being generally adorable. The second was a close-up of a breakfast plate—Migas accompanied by cut fruit. The third was Eli and Kent on the couch, backlit by the sunrise out the floor-to-ceiling windows behind them. Kent had a smear of sauce across his cheek and was sticking out his tongue at Eli who held a plate in his lap and a fork suspended in mid-air between them. Eli’s head was thrown back, laughing, the profile of his face, the curve of the narrow column of his throat, a sharp contrast against the watery pastel light of the city behind them. It was an awesome picture, Jeff thought. He’d used a filter and everything. 

Apparently the internet agreed.

He’d captioned the photoset “Things we already knew: 1. I am not a good sous chef, 2. @parser90 is a terrible patient, 3. I would kill a man for @elijahrr as long as he keeps cooking for me” and then tagged it #breakfastofchampions #migas #yeschef.

A good portion of the the Aces on Instagram had liked it, if not commented something about feeling left out (Tater). Eli’s friend Eric had commented with a link to a video how-to on migas from nearly two years before suggesting the complainers make their own. Most of the comments, however, were about Eli.

who is @elijahrr and what do I have to do to get him to cook for me?

Where can I get an @elijahrr???

Or, overwhelming, the third picture in the set.

Okay but that last pic is disgustingly sweet. I need to go punch a wall now or something to reclaim my masculinity.

I’m having an emotion about that third picture.

Oh my god, is @elijahrr feeding @parser90 in that last picture?? I cannot handle the cute.

Jeff turns off his phone feeling a little overwhelmed, then immediately turns it back on to call the team’s PR lady. He doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong, but he’s learned over the years that it’s always best to check.

She gives him the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head and tells him to keep up the good work. He sighs and leaves the facility, trying to figure out how to disable Instagram notifications.

He still hasn’t figured it out by the time he gets back to Kent’s place because there are too many screens and buttons to contend with and technology is the devil and apparently he is just as old and crotchety as his teammates think he is.

Kent is exactly where Jeff left him, sitting awkwardly upright on the couch, scowling fiercely at the black TV.

“I’ve never been this bored in my life,” he complains before Jeff is even fully in the door.

“Hey Kent,” Jeff says amicably. “Practice was good, thanks. My slapshot is really improving and PT said my ankle probably won’t need a second surgery next summer.”

Kent sighs.

“Sorry. I’m grumpy.”

“Yes, you are. Frankly I’m amazed Eli was still willing to cook you breakfast this morning. Either he’s a saint or you’re less of a dick to him than the rest of us, in which case: rude.”

“No,” Kent says. “I was definitely a dick to him too. I apologized, though.”

“Apologized with words?”

“Yes,” Kent says, aggrieved. “Actually used the phrase ‘I’m sorry’ and everything.”

Jeff pretends to wipe a tear from his eye.

“I’m proud of you,” he says seriously. “This is a big step.”

“What do you know about Louboutins?” Kent asks, and it takes Jeff a moment to adjust to the conversational whiplash.

“Uh. You mean the brand?”

“No—well, yes? I mean the shoes. The, uh, high heels.”

“Oh. Well they’re expensive as hell and apparently the shit if you’re into that sort of thing? Alex has a pair. You actually have to send them to a special place to get the red bottoms re-painted every now and then. It’s ridiculous. Worth it, though.”

“Why?”

“Why’s it worth it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well she adores them, for one thing. Also her legs look amazing in them. And her ass. And I can’t think of a single time that she’s worn them where I haven’t gotten laid at the end of the night, so—“

“Positive association?” Kent says dryly.

“Definitely. Why the sudden interest in couture footwear?”

“Where do you buy them? Like. Can I just order them online?”

Jeff leaves his bag on the counter and moves into the living room to make sure Kent knows Jeff is frowning at him.

“You realize not answering the question just makes me more suspicious, right? Is this your way of telling me you have a thing for cross-dressing? Because I love and support you and all that but your ankles are worth several million dollars and, no offense, but you really don’t have the coordination to walk in heels. We could find you some nice flats, though. Strappy sandals? At least until the off-season.”

“Oh my god, they’re not for me,” Kent says. “Not,” he hastily adds, “that there would be anything wrong with that. If they were.”

“Okay,” Jeff says slowly.

They stare at each other for several seconds.

Kent sighs.

“Eli wants some.”

“And there we go.”

“Apparently he’s always wanted a pair.”

“I should have guessed.”

“Him and Eric both.”

“Why didn’t I guess? It seems obvious now.”

“Jeff.”

“Hmm?”

“Is that weird? If I buy them for him?”

“Yeah, probably. I mean. Those are definitely Sex Shoes and you two aren’t having sex, so.” 

“What—they are not sex shoes.

Jeff makes a derisive noise.“You know what they look like, right? Picture Eli wearing them with one of those little pairs of shorts he likes and tell me those are Very Platonic Gift for Your Bro shoes.”

“He said he’d cook in them,” Kent blurts out, ears pink, and Jeff has no idea what that has to do with anything, but clearly Kent is embarrassed about whatever it is in his head that’s prompted the admission.

“Okay?”

“So. I have been. Uh. Picturing that.”

“Oh,” Jeff says. “Oh, kid. I thought you said you weren’t—“

“I’m not. I can’t. I just.” Kent exhales like it hurts. “I want to.”

“This is bigger than shoes,” Jeff points out.

“Yeah,” Kent admits.

“You really like him,”

“Yeah,” Kent repeats, quieter.

“I mean. I don’t know if it helps, but I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual.”

“It doesn’t.”

Jeff sits on the couch next to Kent, careful not to jostle him.

“It’s not fair,” Kent says quietly. 

“No, it’s not.”

“He won’t date someone in the closet.”

Jeff leans against him, just a little, to make his presence tangible. “You can’t resent him for that.”

“I know. And I don’t. I just—I can’t—“ Kent closes his eyes. “I can’t.”

“That’s okay too,” Jeff says. “But if you ever wanted to. If you ever decide to just say ‘fuck it’ and come out and screw the consequences. You know I’d be behind you 100%. Most of the team would.”

Kent laughs without humor.

“Can you imagine the shit show? The media would be terrible, yeah. But the other teams—it’d be a miracle if I survived a month after coming out.” Kent’s voice dips, wavers a bit before leveling off again. “So many of them already hate me. This would just—I can’t imagine it being worse than it is already but it would be.”

Jeff want so badly to hug him but can’t.

“It’s not fair,” he repeats, and Jeff’s chest aches.

***

It starts with an Instagram post.

But the tweet escalates things.

Well. The snapchat, really.

The tweet of the snapchat.

Damn kids and their social media, Jeff thinks.

The tweet is Tater’s fault. It’s two screen caps of snapchat messages from Eli. The first is a photo of various food ingredients spread out across Kent’s island countertop, some with Russian packaging, captioned “guess what I’m making??” The second photo is of Kit sitting on top of, and mostly obscuring, a hand-written recipe for Pelmeni. The caption for that one is a simple winking emoji.

Tater tweets the screen caps with his own smiling emoji, three Russian flags and Eli best. 

Three hours later he tweets a picture that Jeff himself had taken of Tater holding a laughingly-protesting Eli bridal-style. Tater is in the middle of pressing an exaggerated kiss to Eli’s temple. He captions it: Eli’s Pelmeni 2nd place only to mama’s.

The internet decides this is even cuter than the picture of Kent and Eli.

Apparently the size difference between them is particularly adorable. Or something. Jeff doesn’t know. The point is: people care. And, as a result, Aces PR cares.

They’re not even done with dessert—the picture has barely been posted for thirty minutes—when Jeff’s phone rings.

“It’s Jessica,” he says, and Tater and Kent both wince. 

It’s engrained at this point, really. A trained response. Because usually the only time Jessica calls you is when you’ve done something wrong.

“Get it over with,” Tater says bracingly.

Jeff sighs and answers.

“Hello?”

“Jeff,” Jessica says, “Are you at Kent’s place with Alexei right now?”

“Um. Yes?”

“I’d assumed you were the one to take the picture. Is your new friend Elijah still there?”

“Yes.”

“Good. May I speak to him?”

“Sure?”

Jeff hands the phone to a very confused Eli.

“It’s Jessica. Aces' PR,” he says.

Eli’s eyebrows arch.

“Hello, Jessica from Aces' PR,” he says, a little sharper than usual, his accent a little more pronounced. “How can I help you?”

His tone immediately mellows.

“Oh. Well, thank you. It’s really not—”

He leans one elbow on the table, listening, then cups a hand over his mouth, hiding an embarrassed smile. “It’s no imposition. They’re good boys.”

Jeff isn’t sure how he feels about being referred to as a “good boy” by an 18-year-old.

“Well, I can’t speak for them,” Eli says after a moment, “but I’d certainly be interested. I’d have to check with Eric of course—yes, that’s him—but I’m pretty sure he’d be delighted. Whether the boys are willing to or not—”

Kent meets Jeff’s eyes across the table, brow furrowed, and Jeff shrugs at him.

“That’s too kind of you. Yes. I’ll do that. I can give you my cell phone number, if that—well, great.”

Eli lists off his number, says ‘thank you’ another half dozen times, and then hangs up, handing the phone back to Jeff.

He looks a little dazed.

“Well?” Tater asks.

“She—apparently they’d like to come film a behind-the-scenes bit for Ace’s social media. Of me cooking here and, well they’d like it if y'all helped me. She said they would post a short segment to their various sites but I could have all the original footage and edit my own full-length how-to for our channel.”

“Yes!” Tater says.

“Sure,” Kent says, a little more subdued. “They’ll need to wait a week or so if they want me to be able to actually do anything, though.”

Eli beams at them both. Kent and Tater turn to Jeff expectantly.

“This is going to be embarrassing,” he says. “But yeah, I’m down.”

Eli takes turns hugging them all—Kent, very, very, gently—and then retreats to the guest bedroom to call Eric.

Tater happily returns to his desert—some creamy custard thing (also Russian)—but Kent is looking at the closed bedroom door with a serious little pinch between his eyebrows.

“How you doing?” Jeff asks. “You haven’t iced in a few hours.”

“I’m okay,” Kent says. “Maybe in a little bit. How did Jessica know he was here?”

“Oh. Tater tweeted.” And isn’t that a horrible alliteration.

Kent wrinkles his nose. “Can I see? And what the hell did you do with my phone?”

“It’s in hiding,” Jeff says seriously. “For your own good. You’re still not supposed to have screen time, remember?”

“Yes,” Kent says through gritted teeth, “I fucking remember.”

Jeff decides a quick look at twitter won’t hurt him, and then, in the interest of full discretion, shows him the Instagram post from that morning as well.

Kent, much like the internet, lingers on the third photo.

“This is a good picture,” he says quietly. “I didn’t even realize you took it.”

“Sorry,” Jeff says, because Kent is making a face that looks—hurt, maybe.

“No, that’s not—you don’t need to apologize. It’s just. A good picture.”

“Yeah. I, uh, took some others too. That I didn’t post. If you want to see them.” He opens his photo reel and hands the phone back, not sure if it makes things better or worse as Kent scrolls through the pictures. He pauses on the second-to-last one, like Jeff knew he would. Like Jeff had himself.

In it, Eli is holding Kent’s chin still in one hand. The other hand had just wiped the smear of sauce off Kent’s cheek and Eli is in the process of licking his thumb clean, still smiling slightly, attention wholly on Kent.

And Kent.

Kent is looking at Eli like he is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. The expression of naked admiration on his face is—well it certainly isn’t something Jeff would post on Instagram. 

Kent hands the phone back.

“I didn’t know I looked at him like that.”

“You do,” Jeff says inanely.

“Thanks.” Kent’s tone is dry.

“It’s—not that bad?” Jeff tries.

Kent doesn’t even dignify that with a response.

Eli emerges from the guest bedroom, giddy after talking with Eric, and immediately gets to work cleaning the kitchen and sorting the dishes into the dishwasher, moving with excited energy that appears to rub off on Tater, who stands to help him.

Jeff gets Kent settled on the couch with more ice packs and agrees to turn on the sound for the Redwings/Pens game provided they don’t turn on the actual television screen.

Tater leaves shortly afterward with a stack of tupperware containers and a prolonged hug from Eli and Jeff pretends not to notice that Kent’s expression goes a bit murderous for the duration of the hug.

“Eli,” Kent says seriously, once the door has closed behind Tater, “I’m kind of cold, can you come sit with me?”

And Eli, because he’s either oblivious or very good at faking artifice, immediately settles himself against Kent’s side.

Jeff suppresses the urge to roll his eyes at the superior look Kent gives him. As if he’s somehow won a competition for Eli’s affections against a straight man who is no longer even present.

By the end of the first period of the game, Eli is nodding off against Kent’s shoulder, entire body curled toward Kent, knees resting on his thigh, face tucked neatly into the curve of his neck. Kent’s left arm is wrapped around Eli’s back and his fingers are absently playing with the hem of his shirt, knuckles occasionally brushing skin.

By the end of the second period, Kent is asleep too, head tipped back against the couch, his hand curled, proprietary, around Eli’s hip.

Jeff knows he probably shouldn’t.

But he takes another picture anyway.

Chapter Text

They film the segment four days later when Kent is no longer moving so gingerly. Tater has acquired a black eye from a fight the night before, which he bears with unapologetic levity as Eli despairs over him. It’s just a single camera guy and Jessica who consults briefly with Eli before setting up and then largely letting them to whatever they want. Eli decides to treat it like any other video blog, tells the camera their recipe for the day—a new iteration of Kent’s favorite chili, with bison rather than turkey—and then takes great pleasure in bossing the others around.

Tater takes it upon himself to “introduce” them all once they’re set to their individual tasks.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not necessary,” Eli says, turning on the stove eye.

“Is important,” Tater argues. “Guest stars need introduce. And cooking people not know hockey people, maybe. Hockey people not know you.”

“He has a point,” Jeff agrees. 

Eli makes no more protests and starts sautéing some diced onion. He’s learned to pick his battles.

“Okay,” Tater begins again, gesturing toward Eli with the chives he’s supposed to be cutting. “This Eli. Tiny youtube chef. Best figure skater. Better than Jeff.”

“Oh my god,” Jeff says, aggrieved. “Is that really a necessary part of his introduction? I’m a hockey player now. A professional hockey player. I’m not supposed to be good at figure skating anymore.”

Tater widens his eyes, feigning contrition.

“You figure skate?” Jessica says.

Eli has a feeling she definitely already knows this, but he plays along.

“Yeah. I’m on the LVU team.”

“And he can do Jeff’s old gold medal routine almost perfect,” Kent says proudly. “Jumps and all.”

Which isn’t strictly accurate, but—Jessica looks genuinely surprised at that.

“Really?” She says, “you memorized Jeff’s World Juniors routine?”

“Oh,” Eli says, “Yes? But I’m really not—“

“He did. And he skates it really well,” Jeff interrupts him. “Give him a month or so of concentrated practice and he could probably do it flawless.”

“You’ve seen him do it?” Jessica asks Jeff.

“Yeah. He comes with Kenny and I to skate when I have private rink time.”

Jessica looks delighted by this information.

Eli has a feeling Jeff is going to get a request to film his private rink time in the near future.

“Anyway,” Eli says, a little desperately, adjusting the heat on the stove. “Tater? Introductions?”

“Yes,” Tater agrees, gesturing to Kent with his knife this time. “This Kent Parson, but team call Parse or Kenny. Aces hockey Captain. Best center. Hurt little bit now but good soon. Team miss.”

Kent’s ears go pink.

“And this,” Tater continues, pointing to Jeff, “this Jeff Troy. Team call Swoops, because hair so pretty. Goes ‘swoop,’ yes? Is left wing player. Very fast but needs work on slapshot. More power.”

Hey” Jeff says. 

“And me!” Tater continues quickly. “I’m Alexei Mashkov. Team call Tater. Like tiny potatoes. But Eli call “Sweet Potato” because I’m most favorite.”

“I do not,” Eli says.

“Do!”

“I called you that once and I was kidding.”

“Kidding?” Tater says, hurt.

“It’s not nice of you to play with Tater’s feelings like that,” Kent says somberly. “It’s hard for him to understand sarcasm in English.”

“Is true,” Tater agrees.

Eli rolls his eyes. “You, Mr. Parson, are a joke.”

Kent grins. “Well if I’m a joke, you’re a whole standup routine.”

“It might behoove you to remember that I have a scalding pan in my hand,” Eli says.

“Ohh ‘behoove’ huh? Breaking out the big college words.”

“Yes. Because unlike some people I went to college instead of making a career in losing braincells.”

“Children,” Jeff says. “I only coach one week of mite camp every summer for a reason. Can we not?”

“Is good practice, Swoops,” Tater says wisely. “For when Alex want make baby with you. Maybe take long time, though, for want. Because of face.”

“I mean,” Kent says, “to be fair, she married that face. So she knew what she was getting into.”

“Oh my god,” Jeff says, “I am the only hockey player in this kitchen with all his original teeth. Do not try and start a ‘who’s the ugliest’ contest because it will not end well for either of you.”

Eli blinks, whipping his head around to study Kent.

“Really? You have fake teeth?”

Kent taps his upper lip. “Two middle ones are both implants.”

“No kidding,” Eli hitches his hip against the counter. “What happened?”

“I have video!” Tater says, dropping the chives and wiping his hands off on his apron before retrieving his phone. “Very pretty play. Lots of blood.”

Eli gives Tater a bit of side-eye for the description and Jeff sighs. “It was admittedly a nice play. Stupid. But nice.”

“I made the goal,” Kent says defensively, like that’s what matters. Which, Eli supposes, for Kent, it probably is what matters.

Tater hands over his phone with youtube open and the clip already playing.

Eli abandons his pan and leans in close to watch.

Kent has the puck and is streaking down the ice. There’s an A on his jersey rather than a C, so it must be during his first year with the Aces. He passes to a teammate to evade a defenseman, then is fed the puck right back, going down on one knee to shoot. It’s deflected by the goalie and Kent nearly dives to recover it, a desperate one-handed shot, made while he’s in the process of falling, that miraculously connects, popping the puck right over the left shoulder of the goalie. At the same instance of Kent’s lunge, however, several players all converge in front of the goal, and in the chaos, as Kent tumbles onto the ice, he gets a hard-swung stick to the mouth.

Tater is right.

There’s a lot of blood.

Eli winces through the slow-motion replay, then hides his face in Tater’s bicep when the camera zooms in first on the red patch of ice beneath Kent’s bowed head, then on the stained towel clutched to his mouth as he’s helped off the ice.

Eli pushes around Tater’s bulk to gain access to the present-day Kent, looking a little sheepish where he’s leaned against the island.

Eli doesn’t say anything but his hands reach automatically for Kent’s face.

Kent goes pink under his scrutiny.

“I’m fine. It was over a year ago.”

“And it was just your teeth?” Eli asks, turning his head first one way, then the next.

“Just my teeth. And a busted lip. I was good as new a week later. And,” he says, like he can’t resist. “That was the game-winning shot. So.”

“Hockey players are stupid,” Eli says.

“Yes,” Tater agrees.

“Hey,” Jeff says, aggrieved, “what am I supposed to do with this cabbage?”

***

The video is an unmitigated success. It becomes the most-shared piece of media from the Aces Facebook page within 24 hours and the collection of stills they post on Instagram are equally popular. Between the constant sarcastic banter, Jeff’s long-suffering expressions a-la-The Office in response to the sarcastic banter, the general ineptness of the hockey players in the kitchen, and the fact that the chili they make looks really good (the combined delighted moans during taste-testing at the end were also a hit in some circles)—the Aces get the positive attention they wanted and Eli and Eric’s channel nears 70,000 followers.

The reaction on Tumblr is a little different.

Despite the Aces not having an official Tumblr page, the video, along with several photosets and GIFs, all immediately go viral where the chief discussion in comments and tags are who, exactly, is banging who. General consensus is that Jeff is the Beleaguered Straight One, but otherwise Tumblr is pretty divided on whether Eli and Kent are together or Tater and Eli. A few enterprising individuals make a solid case that they’re very happily polyamorous. 

There is also a frankly impressive influx of fan fiction in the Aces RPF tag.

Eli doesn’t read any of it. Yet. Though he’s sorely tempted to at least skim a few of the Eli/Kent ones purely because of their teaser-blurbs. That would just make things worse, though, he thinks.

Eli gets a call from Eric as he’s leaving practice the week after the video is published. Which is strange, because they already had a FaceTime date planned for that night.

“Hey,” Eli says, a little distractedly. Since the regular season started, the Aces have moved their practices to 11 am and every other week or so Eli will stay in the icehouse and do homework in the hour interim between his own practice so he can watch. Or heckle, as the case may be. He checks his backpack to see if he has his stats book.

“Hey there,” Eric says, and he sounds—off.

“Hey,” Eli repeats. And then he waits.

“So,” Eric says. “Jack—well.”

Eli stops digging through his bag.

“Are you okay? He didn’t—“

“What? No, oh no, he didn’t do anything bad, he actually—“

Eric makes a noise that, despite years of knowing him, Eli has no idea how to interpret.

“It’s just. Recently, since your videos have been getting so much attention I’ve been—not jealous!—okay, a little bit jealous. Because yours have so many more views than mine, now. And I know that’s petty and stupid but it—it still bothered me. Uh. Bothers me. I guess.”

“Oh,” Eli says, feeling sucker-punched. That hadn’t even occurred to him. Why hadn’t that occurred to him? He’s a terrible friend.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “Eric, I had no idea. That’s not—you were the one who started the channel to begin with, too. I’m—what do you want me to do?”

“No, sweetheart,” Eric says, and it sounds like he’s smiling, at least. “Honestly, I’m so happy for you, and the traffic is good for the channel, it’s not—but listen. I was in a bit of a funk yesterday night and Jack found me on the roof feeling sorry for myself.”

“Were you drunk?”

“I may have been the slightest bit drunk.”

“And you were on the roof?”

“Do not start with me, Elijah. The point is that in a moment of extreme weakness I may have cried a bit on Jack Zimmerman about my—well—feelings about the situation.”

“Oh my god. I can’t even imagine. And?”

“Jack. Um. Sort of volunteered to be in my next video? He said we could do the same thing you did with the Aces except with a couple of the Samwell boys. He figured his name would be enough to generate some interest. But I didn’t know—I figured I’d better ask you first. And maybe get the number of the Aces’ PR person to ask them. I don’t want to cause any problems.”

Eli is honestly a little shocked.

“That’s—Eric that’s really cool of Jack. I thought—Jack hasn’t done any kind of media since the day before the draft. Like. ANY kind of media. He doesn’t even have a twitter.”

“I know.”

Eric’s voice has gone quiet and thoughtful.

“He’s been different, though, recently. Nicer, I mean. You know he’s been helping me with checking drills before practice.”

“Oh, you mean waking you up at 4am and terrifying you for an hour straight? You haven’t been all that complimentary about his ‘help.’”

“Well no. But it—it is working? Even if I don’t particularly like his methods. I don’t know. There’s moments now when—“

“What?”

“When I think we might be friends. He wouldn’t—he would only be willing to suggest the video thing if he thought we were friends, right?”

Eric sounds…more than a little pleased about this. Worryingly so.

Eli decides not to mention it.

“Yeah, for sure. That’s great, Eric.”

“Anyway.”

And now Eric sounds embarrassed.

“Well, let me get Jessica’s number from one of the guys and call her. I’m pretty sure the more publicity the better, though. I can’t imagine she’d have a problem with it. Besides, it’s your channel.”

“True,” Eric agrees, laughing. “Thanks for understanding.”

“Of course. You still want to FaceTime tonight?”

“Sure do. Oh jeez, it just occurred to me what time it is for you. I didn’t interrupt your practice, did I?”

“No, you’re good. I was just packing up to head over to the Ace’s rink.”

“Watching the boys practice again today?”

“It’s Kent’s first day back. No contact, but still. We made dinner together last night to celebrate. Which, for being so terrible at chopping vegetables, I’ve found he’s very dependable with measuring and mixing ingredients. He successfully made your brownie recipe almost entirely by himself.”

“Eli,” Eric says, still laughing a little, “You realize falling for a closeted professional hockey player is just as bad as falling for a straight boy.”

Eli doesn’t laugh.

“Yeah, I know.”

Chapter Text

Kent misses Eli.

It’s stupid, because Eli hasn’t gone anywhere. He still comes over at least once a week, and shows up intermittently to practices and sends daily texts and snapchats to Kent, as well as what feels like half the team at this point, but it’s still—it’s not the same as having Eli in his home. Playing his records. Dancing in his kitchen. Sleeping across the hall.

He’d only stayed for three nights but it was enough that now, two weeks later, Kent still knows exactly what he’s missing.

And his chest hurts with—with overwhelming affection and resignation and other emotions he doesn’t even have names for.

He doesn’t know what to do about it.

He buries his face in Kit’s soft belly fur, risking her wrath, and dedicates the first fifteen minutes of his Saturday morning to feeling sorry for himself. Half because he’s hungover from the team’s game-winning celebration the night before, half because he’s pretty sure he’s in love and it’s terrible.

“It would be nice if Hawke lived here too, huh?” he asks Kit.

She bats his ear with one paw but keeps her claws sheathed, so he takes that as an affirmative.

“Maybe next year?” He says, getting fur in his mouth. “I know Eli doesn’t want to stay in a dorm but his scholarship only covers on-campus housing. Do you think he’d want to move in with us? I mean. I know he really likes the kitchen. And there’s a dog park right around the corner for Hawke. I could reserve him a parking garage spot by the elevator. Should probably get on the waiting list for one now, though.”

Kit apparently has had enough.

Kent watches her escape to the opposite end of the bed with a sigh.

“It would be weird to ask him now, huh?”

It’s hard to believe they only met three months ago.

Kit is judging him.

He decides to go make breakfast, and by “make breakfast” he means defrost a stack of Eli’s blueberry protein pancakes in the microwave and continue to feel sorry for himself because the pancakes are amazing but they would be so much better if they’d been made fresh. By Eli. In his kitchen right now.

Twenty minutes later Kent has ordered a pair of Louboutins to be delivered to Eli’s dorm by express mail later that day and booked Eli a flight to Samwell to visit Eric over Thanksgiving break because he knows Eli can’t afford to go home and Eric can’t go back either because he has a game the day before Thanksgiving and Eli really misses Eric, so seeing him would make Eli happy and apparently Kent doesn’t know how to handle emotions and he’s a dumpster fire of a human being. He starts shopping for new skates in Eli’s size too and has to stop himself because he’s probably already progressed into unacceptably creepy territory.

Come take my laptop away from me he texts Jeff and then decides to go back to sleep and deal with the world later.

When he wakes up again it’s to his phone ringing (maybe it’s been ringing for a while? The world is still kind of fuzzy) and his bedroom door opening, which is a very weird confluence of events. 

He doesn’t answer the phone in favor of squinting at the intruder.

It’s Jeff, looking amused.

Which makes sense, because only Jeff and Eli have a key to his place.

“Hey kid,” Jeff says. “You might want to answer your phone.”

When it starts ringing again a second later, Kent does.

“Muh?” he manages.

Mr. Parson,” Eli says, well, shouts, really. “Do you mind explaining to me why I have two airplane tickets for a trip to Massachusetts in my inbox?”

“Um. So you can go visit Eric? You said he had to stay at Samwell over the break because he has a game. And that you couldn’t go home. And that you wished you could see him play.”

“Yes. Yes I did say all of those things, but that doesn’t tell me why I have airline tickets that I did not buy.”

“I bought them?”

“I gathered that, thank you.”

He doesn’t sound very thankful.

Kent’s head hurts.

“I’m sorry?”

Eli mutters something in Spanish and—Kent is still very confused but is now also a little turned on. Which, he knew angry Russian did it for him but apparently he needs to add judgmental Spanish to his list of kinks as well.

He groans a little and decides maybe he should pay attention to what Eli is hissing at him through the phone.

“—not like I don’t appreciate it, because, holy shit, it will be so good to see Eric but you can’t just do things like that without asking!”

“I’m sorry,” he repeats. “I just wanted—you were so great while I was hurt even though I was a dick and you’re one of my best friends now and like, if Swoops wanted to go visit a friend he would just buy a ticket himself because he’s loaded which makes it hard to do things for Swoops. But you’re not uh, loaded, which means I can do things for you. And I want to. Because you do things for me.”

Eli is quiet for moment.

“That… is weirdly sweet.”

Kent exhales in relief. Then winces.

“Also, uh. Your last class gets out at three today, right?”

“Yes.”

“Will you be back at your dorm between four and five? Because you should be getting a package then. You’ll have to sign for it.”

“Kent.”

“It’s not a big deal!”

Except that it is. Especially if Eli thinks the plane tickets are too much.

Jesus. What was he thinking? He should have at least spread them out a little. Plane tickets for Thanksgiving. Shoes for Christmas. But he wants to give Eli skates for Christmas, so—“

“Kent,” Eli says, voice sharp. “I don’t know what’s going on with you right now, but I don’t need some sort of charity if that’s what—”

“It’s not charity! It’s nothing! I didn’t even get you a first-class ticket!”

He seriously considered it. And he did make sure it was a bulkhead seat so Hawke would have plenty of room. Eli doesn’t need to know that, though

“These tickets are four hundred dollars!” Eli shouts. “That’s not ‘nothing’! It’s—it’s something!”

I was just having a lot of feelings this morning!” Kent yells back. “And I have way too much money. Can you please just let me do nice things for you?!”

Eli is silent for several seconds.

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“I’m coming over to make you dinner tonight,” Eli snaps.

“Great,” Kent mutters back, “just make sure it’s after 5 so you can sign for the package.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

They hang up on each other at the same time and Kent childishly throws his phone to the foot of the bed.

“That went well,” Jeff says.

***

It doesn't occur to Kent to warn Jessica because he doesn’t anticipate it will be a big deal. 

So when he gets a call from her at 4:28pm, while he’s cleaning the kitchen counters in anticipation of Eli’s arrival, his guard is actually down. 

“Hey Jessica, what’s up?”

There’s a distinctive, judgmental, pause.

“Are you and Elijah dating?

“Are—what?” He sets down the counter spray. “No.”

“Then do you want to explain to me why you bought someone who is not your boyfriend nine hundred dollar sex shoes?”

“Oh my god, they are not sex shoes—and how do you even know about that? He probably doesn’t even have them yet.”

“They really are. And he does. Because he’s just posted a picture of them on Instagram and the internet is already collectively losing it’s mind.”

“I—hold on.”

Kent puts her on speaker so he can open the Instagram app.

Sure enough, the top photograph on his feed is a picture of the shoes, newly unpackaged and arranged artfully on top of the gilded box they came in.

Eli has captioned the picture:

When you’re friends with @parser90 you must submit yourself to ridiculous gifts as thanks for common decency. #excessive #louboutins #heisadmittedlyaterriblepatient

Kent doesn’t see what the big deal is.

“I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Kent,” Jessica says patiently. “This is not the kind of gift a heterosexual guy gives to his male friend. Would you ever buy Jeff shoes like this?”

“Yes? If he asked for a pair. Look. I just wanted to do something nice for Eli because he took care of me the first couple days when I was injured. And he cooks for me all the time. And just. I knew they’d make him happy.”

“Oh my god,” Jessica says faintly, “I can’t even be mad at you when you’re so stupidly earnest.”

“Thank you?”

She sighs.

“Listen, up until now this thing with Eli has been great publicity for you. It humanizes you, makes people forget about your past…exploits. And since Alexei and Jeff seem just as close to him, no one was talking or making assumptions. The narrative was progressive without being polarizing: Straight Hockey Players Cool with Gay Friend. But we’re going to have to do some damage control now.”

They’re just a pair of shoes,” he says, still baffled.

“And that’s the line you’ll stick to. Unless you want to come out.”

No. I’m not—“

He chokes a little on the denial because he hasn’t had to say the words in so long, because he’s gotten a little too comfortable with truth.

“I’m not gay,” he says, voice rough. “Eli is just a friend.”

“Also the line you’ll stick to, then. You have a video interview with V magazine the day after tomorrow. Considering the timing, they’ll likely ask you about this. If you don’t think you can handle it we can postpone, but that will look more suspicious than anything else.”

“No,” Kent says, breathless. “It’s fine. Do people really think—?”

Jessica sighs again.

“This isn’t a disaster, Kent. It’s just speculation. But little things like this can quickly add up. You need to be careful.”

He swallows and it hurts his throat.

“If—“ she pauses and then starts again. “Just so you know, if there were a gay or bisexual player on the team, the organization would back them 100%. PR already has an assortment of mock-up press releases and game plans in the event that a player is forcefully outed or intentionally decides to come out. It wouldn’t be easy by any means. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world either.”

Kent knows he should probably say something but can’t seem to make words work.

“Kent?” Jessica says, sounding concerned.

He hangs up because he can’t breathe.

He tries to call for Kit but the room tips sideways and he has to lean against the island for support, slowly sliding down to the floor, back pressed against the paneled wood. His breath is harsh and discordant in his own ears.

Eli finds him that way some indeterminable amount of time later.

He comes in yelling but stops almost immediately when he sees Kent on the floor.

What the fuck—Kent, are you—? Hey. Hey.

Kent tries to tell him he’s fine even though that’s demonstrably untrue.

“Shit. So. I think you’re having a panic attack. Is it cool if Hawke and I help? Can I touch you?”

Kent manages a nod and Eli unclips Hawke’s lead, murmuring something to her. A moment later there’s a heavy weight across his lap, a sharp elbow pressed to his upper thigh, and a large warm mass of a dog leaned back against his chest. He tucks his face into her neck because it seems like the thing to do.

Eli slides onto the ground next to him.

“Hey,” he says, “can you try and breathe with me?”

Kent nods.

It takes several minutes, but eventually his breathing slows to something like normal and the top of his head feels solid again. He’s pretty loathe to move, though.

Eli, still pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with him, gives him a little nudge.

“How you doing?”

“Better,” he admits, straightening.

Hawke tips her face up to lick his chin.

He smiles despite himself.

“So,” Eli says conversationally. “I didn't know you have panic attacks.”

“It’s been a while,” Kent says, exhausted. “I had a bad stretch where I used to get them all the time, but it’s been months—nearly a year—since I’ve had one.”

“You want to go lay down in the bedroom for a little bit?” Eli asks.

“You coming with me?” He answers, because apparently he’s shameless.

“Sure,” Eli says quietly. “We can even give Hawke special permission to join us on the bed, if you want.”

“Yeah, okay.”

They move to the bedroom—where Kit has apparently been asleep the entire time—rude— and Kent sheds his jeans without thinking.

Eli doesn’t seem bothered, though, and follows him onto the bed, still fully clothed.

Well. “Fully” might be arguable because the tiny shorts he’s wearing don’t leave much to the imagination.

Kent fumbles for a moment, one hand blind in the drawer of his nightstand, until he manages to find the remote for the window blinds. He presses the button to close them and the room goes slowly dark, leaving him feeling vulnerable and unsettled.

He watches as Eli curls into a half-moon facing him, then pulls the duvet up to cover them both. Hawke settles, warm and solid, at the foot of the bed. Kit moves from the chair by the window, stretching, and repositions herself in a spherical lump beside Kent’s head.

Eli watches him, quiet, maybe a little worried.

“Sorry,” Kent whispers, because the dark makes him feel like he should. “I know you were probably looking forward to yelling at me when you got here and I ruined it.”

“Ah yes,” Eli says, “I’m sure that was your conniving plan all along. You want to tell me what happened? I can save the yelling for later. Or—do you want to call your therapist?”

“No. I see her the day after tomorrow anyway. Could you call Jessica back for me, though?”

It’s embarrassing to ask but he’s so tired.

“Sure. What were you talking about?”

“The picture you posted on Instagram. Of the shoes. She called to tell me I have to be careful. Because giving you a gift like that causes speculation.”

Eli narrows his eyes. “Speculation about your sexuality? You didn’t buy the shoes for yourself.” He sits up for a moment to extract his phone from his pocket. “I have notes turned off, I haven’t even looked at it since I posted it. Hold on.”

He scrolls through the comments for a moment and then bites his lip.

“I mean. There’s not many mean ones, but most of the comments are about what a ‘gay’ gift it is. That could just be in reference to me, but—I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about how it would look. I can take it down? Except that probably wouldn’t help at this point. Shit,” he exhales, turning off his phone and then flipping it over, as if that will give him additional distance from its content.

“I’m sorry. I just keep making things worse for you.”

Eli goes quiet for a moment, bottom lip tucked tightly between his teeth. 

“Maybe—“ he says haltingly, “I shouldn’t spend so much time—“

And Kent can’t even let him finish that sentence because no. Because once again Eli is upset and feels responsible for something that isn’t even his fault—feels bad when he hasn’t done anything wrong and it’s completely unfair and the fact that Eli is talking about spending even less time with Kent to protect him and his fucking ‘image’ or whatever is—

“No,” Kent interrupts. “No, you know what? This is bullshit.”

“Uh—what?”

“I shouldn’t have to—to not give you certain gifts or whatever because of some fucked up unwritten heteronormative rules about what men are and aren’t allowed to do for their male friends. I should be trying to change the way people think not just blindly following the shitty system that exists.”

Eli blinks at him. “Kent. That’s admirable. But it’s not your responsibility to try and challenge the system. Just like it’s not your responsibility to come out just because you’re gay and have a platform. You have to do what’s best for you and—“

“What’s best for me is not having to overthink every single thing I or my friends post on Instagram. Or remembering to police the way I act, or—the whole point of the You Can Play videos Jeff and I do is that even if you don’t fit into the stereotypical profile of a hockey player, you can still play and you can still play well. I may not be ready to come out, but the least I can do is not be a massive hypocrite by intentionally fitting myself into a mold while telling kids they shouldn’t have to.”

He feels a little breathless again but this time in a good way.

Eli is…smiling at him.

“Okay,” he says.

“Okay?”

“Yeah. Okay. I agree with you. Also, points for using ‘heteronormative’.”

“That would be Jeff’s influence,” Kent admits. “Here, can you hand me my phone?”

Eli does and a few moments later, Kent tells him to check twitter.

Kent has posted two screen caps from Eli’s Instagram—one of the post itself, another of some of the comments. He’s captioned it:

Can’t a bro buy his bro a pair of Louboutins? #fuckyourheteronormativebullshit #treatyobro  

Jeff has already liked it. As he’s looking at it, Tater, then two more Aces like it, then Eric, and then it’s too hard to keep up.

Kent’s phone rings a moment later.

He answers without looking and is entirely unsurprised to hear Jessica on the other line.

“I really wish you would consult with me before you do things like this,” she says, more fond than aggrieved. “Though I will admit it’s an approach I hadn’t considered.”

“Uh. Okay.”

“I guess if anyone can pull off cavalier acceptance and hyper-masculine security, it’s you.”

“Thank you?”

Jessica doesn’t say anything for short stretch and he can hear her typing in the background.

“Kent,” she says finally. “Are you okay? I was a little worried after our conversation earlier.”

He swallows.

“I’m fine.” And then, because he’s feeling reckless. “Eli is here with me now, so.”

“I see.”

“Yeah.”

“Well I’ll let you get back to…Eli. But Kent, please do keep in mind what I said earlier.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

“Okay, thanks. Bye.”

He drops the phone onto the mattress between him and Eli, closing his eyes.

“You alright?” Eli asks, bumping his knuckles against Kent’s

He catches Eli’s wrist before he can retreat, turning Eli’s hand so Kent can press his thumb, gentle, to the center of his palm. He traces the lines there—the indentations he can feel but not see. He slides their fingers together and they mesh like a habit.

He’s being selfish, he knows that, but he’s also so tired and he just wants—

“I’m good,” he says, belated, opening his eyes.

Eli looks…confused, maybe. Or sad. But he doesn’t pull his hand away.

“Okay,” he says. “Good.”

Chapter Text

V magazine does ask Kent about the shoes. 

It's supposed to be a puff piece in an online series about the average every-day life of Vegas superstars, and at least the reporter spends the first fifteen minutes on questions about his actual every-day life first, which was frankly longer than Kent anticipated. 

“So,” the guy says, his smile both too wide and too white. “As I’m sure you’re aware, you were responsible for the hashtag #treatyobro trending on twitter yesterday. You want to talk about what prompted your tweet?” 

A copy of said tweet is projected on the screen behind them.

Kent glances at it briefly before responding.

“Well, I bought my friend Eli some shoes as a thank you for taking care of me when I was injured a few weeks back. The tweet was in response to an Instagram post Eli made with a picture of the shoes—you can see it there. I thought a lot of the comments on his post were kind of messed up and I just wanted to call people out, I guess.”

“Well,” the interviewer says, still grinning broadly. “I think buying Louboutins for  your ‘bro’”—and you can totally hear him using verbal quotes the way he says it, gross,— “is a little different than buying, say, Converse or Jordans or something.”

“Yeah,” Kent says, intentionally missing the point. “They’re a lot more expensive, for sure. But like, I don’t think you understand how terrible I am to be around when I’m hurt. Converse would not have been enough for the shit he put up with. Not to mention that he cleaned Kit’s litter box for four days.

The interviewer laughs like they’re sharing a joke. Which they’re not. 

Kent doesn’t laugh.

“So” the guy says, a little awkwardly. “Buying them for him didn’t make you uncomfortable?”

“No? Why would it?”

“Because they’re…women’s shoes?”

“They’re Eli’s shoes,” Kent says with studied blankness. “I bought them for Eli. And he’s a man. So I think they’re men’s shoes, in this case.”

The reporter doesn’t seem to know what to do with this.

“Look,” Kent says. “I don’t get what the big deal is. I’m really grateful for Eli’s friendship and his help and I knew they’d make him happy. Which. I bought Swoops a watch for his birthday over the summer that was worth four times as much. With like. Diamonds and shit. He put it all over his Instagram then and nobody cared.”

“You don’t think that’s different?” the reporter asks, his smile getting a little pinched.

“No,” Kent lies, thinking about Eli dancing in his kitchen the night before: the arch of his feet in the shoes, the distinct cut of his calf muscles, the twist of his narrow hips grinding to a low base beat, the glow of the Vegas skyline behind him.

“Not at all.”

***

It doesn’t end with the interview. 

If anything, it gets bigger.

Tumblr collectively decides that maybe Kent is no longer a “problematic fav.” Tumblr also collectively appears to think this is due to Jeff’s influence.

They’re not wrong.

Eli has nearly as many followers on Instagram as Kent.

The Youtube channel actually has started making money on ads.

The day after Kent’s interview,  when they’ve just won a hard-fought home game against the Blues and the postgame interviews are winding down, Jeff is asked about his addition to the #treatyobro phenomenon: a picture of him and Rushy getting pedicures at the Bellagio spa together earlier that day.

“Well playing hockey is really rough on your feet,” Jeff says. “And goalies are on their feet the whole game. Some of the guys have started taking turns treating Rushy to a foot massage and a pedicure every two weeks or so. Just to show our appreciation, you know? His girlfriend sent us a thank-you box of cookies after the first time, too. The kid is brilliant at hockey but not so much at hygiene. His feet were pretty fu—uh—jacked up before we intervened.”

“HEY,” Rushy yells from his locker a few feet away.

“Don’t even,” Rushy’s former roommate, Coots, says. “You like, straight up shanked me with your jagged-ass toenails the first time we ever played video games together.”

“That was an accident!” Rushy whines. “The couch was too small. I didn’t mean to kick you.”

“That makes it worse! And I didn’t even say anything about the smell—”

“Anyway,” Jeff says.

“So you agree with Parson, then?” The reporter asks, clearly trying to contain his amusement, “that we should reexamine assumptions about what behaviors are and are not socially acceptable between male friends?”

“For sure I agree,” Jeff says. “Where do you think Kent learned the word ‘heteronormative’?”

The man laughs.

“And your thoughts about some of the unkind comments left on your friend Elijah’s Instagram post?”

“Dude,” Jeff says. “Eli can do the entire Single Ladies dance in five inch heels. I’ve seen it. That’s not laughable or embarrassing or like, an affront to his masculinity. That’s amazing. And potentially the work of dark magic.”

He sobers a little.

“Seriously, though. I think it’s stupid to say that men can’t give certain gifts to other men because they’re too ‘feminine’ or too ‘gay’—not to mention how problematic it is to imply that ‘feminine’ or ‘gay’ are somehow bad things.”

“I think this is the most progressive conversation I’ve ever had in a locker room,” the reporter says.

“Good,” Jeff answers, and winks.

Tumblr really loves Jeff. 

As does most of the internet at large.  

He becomes a reaction GIF. He becomes a meme. People who don’t even like sports know who Jeff Troy—woke hockey player extraordinaire— is.

The #treatyobro hashtag starts trending again shortly afterward, this time with an influx of all sorts of different athletes posting pictures on Twitter and Instagram. A lot of them are in the same vein as Jeff’s: pedicures and spa days. But there’s a range. An NFL player wearing plastic gloves while dying the bleached tips of his teammates dreadlocks bright pink. Another NFL player looking delighted as he opens a monthly tea subscription box. Two NBA players surprising a rookie with a new suit. An MLB player and his Newfoundland puppy gifting his relieved-looking roommate a Pet Hair Edition Roomba. A rugby player, a bit shiny in the eyes, holding a tiny kitten with a bow around it’s neck.

One that goes largely without much attention, however, is posted by @shittyBknight. Kent would have missed it if not for the fact that Eli retweeted it. It’s a picture of Eric standing in the kitchen at the Haus, pink-faced and beaming. Spread across the counter is an assortment of pie plates, mixing bowls, and measuring cups—all in the same pale turquoise of Eric’s mixer. There are several Samwell hockey players clustered around him looking pleased with themselves but what catches Kent’s eye is Jack. 

Jack is in the background—practically out-of-frame. He’s not acting like the others are: flexing, or hugging or hamming it up for the camera. He’s just sort of awkwardly standing there, hands in his pockets, present but not entirely participating. He’s wearing sweats and an old T-shirt from juniors; the same shirt he used to sleep in on roadies when he and Kent shared a room. Kent remembers exactly how soft the fabric is. The way it smells.

In the picture, Jack is looking at Eric.

And he’s smiling.

***

Eli has to leave town for his first big competition the week before Thanksgiving break. It’s in Las Angeles—the fall regional something-or-other—which really isn’t that far away. It even coincides with a long weekend that the Aces will be on the road as well, so it’s not like Kent could have seen him during that time anyway, but for some reason Kent has a minor crisis about it.

“Kent,” Jeff says, as Kent paces in the weight room the day before they’re supposed to leave. “I think you’re being a little dramatic.”

“I just—what if something happens? I know Hawke will be with him but what if he has a seizure and—“

“The coach who is familiar with his condition will take care of things,” Jeff interrupts. “He’s going to be fine.”

But Kent doesn’t know that. And he realizes that it’s not like he would actually be able to ensure it, even if he somehow managed to go, but the fact that Eli won’t be in the normal places that Kent associates as safe: Eli’s dorm. The rink. Campus. Kent’s home. With Kent….it’s a problem. For his brain.

Kent knows he has issues with anxiety.

He knows he has issues with protective instincts.

He knows he has issues with control.

But even knowing these things doesn’t negate the fact that he’s more nervous about Eli’s impending trip than he is about his own away games. Because even aside from medical concerns, what if someone is mean to Eli? What if people make fun of his scars or say something rude about Hawke? 

Kent won’t be there to punch anyone who has the bad sense not to love Eli immediately.

“Are you friendly with any of the Kings?” Kent asks casually.

Jeff sighs. “Kenny. You are not allowed to ask random professional hockey players to go attend Eli’s competition as some sort of weird protective proxy for you. He’ll be gone for three days and back in Vegas before we are. You need to chill.”

Jeff is right. 

He needs to chill.

“I should probably call Anika for an extra session, huh?” Kent says.

“Probably,” Jeff agrees, racking his weights. “Props for suggesting it yourself, though. Can you imagine having this conversation a year ago? If I so much as said the word ‘therapy’ you probably would have thrown a kettle bell at me.”

Kent snorts, swapping places with Jeff on the bench.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation a year ago because I would still be freaking the fuck out about the fact that I like dick, and I definitely wouldn’t be friends with a gay guy.”

“Valid,” Jeff says, glancing at the door automatically.“Can you imagine saying that sentence out loud in the Ace’s weight room a year ago?”

Kent winces, also glancing at the door.

“I should be more careful. Hanging out with you and Eli makes me forget, sometimes.”

“Only if you want to,” Jeff says with studied disinterest. “If you wanted to come out you know I’d fight anyone who came after you on the ice. Might spend all my time in the box and end up traded, but I’d do it. If you wanted to.”

For the first time, Kent doesn’t immediately dismiss the suggestion.

“So,” Jeff says a few minutes later, when they’ve moved to the stationary bikes.

“Did you see that Eric’s video posted last night?”

He did not. Because he’d spent the evening interfering with the filming of Eli’s own new video by “accidentally” walking into the frame in his boxers, making faces at Eli from behind the camera, and helping Kit “moon walk” across the counter top while Eli’s back was turned at the stove.

And then Eli had tried to teach him how to play chess because apparently it was inexcusable that he’d never learned up until that point.

There was a lot of laughter.

It was a nice night.

Especially because Kent convinced Eli to stay in the guest room since it was late and he could just head to campus from there the next morning.

Kent got to eat pancakes with a rumpled, sleep-bleary pre-coffee Eli before meeting Jeff at the gym.

It was a nice morning, too.

Kent refocuses on Jeff who looks a little too knowing about where his head just went.

“Well,” Kent says. “How was it?”

“Honestly? Pretty hilarious. Similar dynamic as our video in terms of banter. That Shitty guy Eli has told us about is a riot, and the two D-men are just as co-dependent as Coots and Nicky. But, uh. It was definitely the Jack and Eric show. They play off each other really well—you can see how they’d probably have good chemistry on the ice.

Kent waits for that to hurt.

It doesn’t.

Jeff is looking at him with a degree of caution, which is probably fair since he’s the only person, aside from Anika, who knows about Kent’s history with Jack.

“I’m okay,” Kent says. “Maybe I won’t be after I watch it, but—“ he shrugs.

“Good,” Jeff says. “One more set?”

Kent agrees.

They go to the Pretty Bird Cafe for lunch and then Kent drives home and stares at the front page of Youtube for a solid ten minutes, absently petting Kit in his lap, before finally going to Eli and Eric’s channel.

He clicks on the new video link before he can talk himself out of it.

Jeff is right—the towering D-man pair is endearing in the way big, earnest people are: finishing each others sentences and trying to do delicate lattice work with hands that seem simply too-large. Shitty is a comedic star in his own right with snappy one-liners and occasional rants about consumerism and The Patriarchy. If the internet loves Jeff, they’ll really like Shitty.

Jack and Eric steal the show, though. And the chemistry between them is undeniable.

They’re opposites in the most complimentary way—Jack, overly serious, brows pinched as he tries to measure the exact amount of vanilla the recipe calls for, while Eric teases him gently and nudges his elbow so the teaspoon runs a little over into the bowl. Jack, soft-spoken and measured movements, while Eric darts around, loud and laughing. Even their accents are oddly suited, the drawl of Eric’s long, southern, consonants and the Jack’s French-Canadian vowels meshing seamlessly as they chirp each other—familiar, and fond.

It does hurt, after all.

Just not in the way Kent expected.

He’s not in love with Jack anymore, and the realization is its own sort of relief. But he still misses him. Misses the only childhood friend he’d had. The only person he’d trusted until he met Jeff. The past is a powerful force though, because Kent did love Jack once—loved him in the way that young, lonely people love—too fast and with too much of themselves, and Kent remembers. And remembering hurts.

He considers Jack’s face on the computer screen, paused mid-laugh, head ducked, eyes on Eric, and then closes his laptop, feeling exhausted.

He doesn’t feel the same way about Eli as he did about Jack.

Loving Jack was terrifying. It was danger and shame and the constant anxiety of discovery or abandonment. What he feels for Eli is—still scary. But a different kind. A kind that might be worth it.

He and Jack were bad for each other. Something it took him nearly four months of therapy to realize, and another two to say out loud. The problem is that he thinks he and Eli could be good for each other. Really good. Under different circumstances. In a different life. 

Or if maybe he was just a little more brave in this one.

Chapter Text

Eli wins second. A silver medal. 

He has near-flawless performances all weekend and the final round is the best he’s ever completed his routine before and he honestly feels a little bit like an imposter because he’s not usually this good.

He’s also kind of euphoric, though.

He nearly trips leaving the ice with his medal, folds himself around Hawke, waiting with his coach, and then calls Kent before it occurs to him that there are other people he should probably call first. Like Eric.

Like his mother.

“Eli,” Kent answers on the second ring, sounding more out of breath than Eli is. “Are you okay?”

“I got second,” Eli says, well, gasps, really. “Silver. I’m—I got second.”

“Oh my god,” Kent says, “That’s—GUYS” Kent yells—and it occurs to Eli that Kent has probably just finished playing their game against the Wild, “GUYS, ELI GOT SECOND PLACE.”

“FUCK YEAH,” someone yells, and oh, apparently he’s now on speaker phone.

“Eli!” Tater says, followed by something incomprehensible in Russian. “Knew you could do. Best figure skater.”

“Well, I mean. Not best. Best would be first place, but—“

“No,” Tater says. “Best.”

“Good job, kid,” Jeff interrupts. “And thanks to you, we won our game, so—“

There’s a couple indistinct shouts in the background.

“What?”

“Nothing!” Kent yells—followed by the sound of, well, hockey players being children, probably.

“Kent told us we had to win in regulation because if it went into overtime he might miss your call,” Jeff says. “He was on fire tonight. Very motivated.”

“Oh, really?”

“Mmmhm. Two goals and an assist. And Rushy got a shutout.”

“Congratulations!” Eli says, grinning. His calf starts to cramp and he stands, realizing that he should be taking off his skates.

“Listen, I just got off the ice and still need to change and do my cool-down. I just wanted to let K—you guys know.”

There’s a brief scuffle and then Kent’s voice, louder than the background noise, saying, “Hey, wait!”

“What’s up?”

“Hold on—I’m—”

The noise of the locker room fades and Kent’s line goes kind of echo-y. Like maybe he’s in a hallway somewhere.

“Sorry. Anyway. I’m really happy for you.”

Kent’s voice is rough. Warm and proud and—Eli closes his eyes.

“Thanks. I honestly shouldn’t have scored so well my last run. It was a fluke.”

No,” Kent argues, like Eli has just suggested something terrible. “It was you. You’ve been working your ass off. You spend hours at the rink every day, even when you don’t have practice. You deserve this.”

“Thanks,” Eli repeats, a little overwhelmed at the vehemence in Kent’s voice.

“So,” Kent continues, a little softer, “I know you need to cool off but can you call me later? When you’re back at the hotel?”

“Sure.”

“Okay. Be thinking about what you want to do to celebrate when we get back to Vegas.”

Eli looks heavenward, moving to sit on the closest bench and start taking off his skates.

“We aren’t doing anything to celebrate because you already got me Loubuitons and tickets to go see Eric next week and you will not be getting me anything else for a very long time.”

The line goes suspiciously silent.

“Kent,” Eli says warningly.

“It’s not really even for you,” Kent argues. “It’s for me. For my kitchen.”

Eli is pretty sure he knows what it is, because he’d mentioned in passing how happy he was that one of the Samwell boys had bought Eric a mixer, and Kent had gotten a considering look on his face that Eli is starting to recognize as dangerous.

Kent is worse than Eli’s grandmother on a shopping trip to Walmart. You can’t so much as look at a package of socks or it’ll end up in the cart.

Kenneth,” Eli says.

“That’s not even my name,” Kent whines.

Eli’s coach taps him on the shoulder and Eli sighs.

“I have to go, but we’re talking about this later.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

***

There is a small unruly group of professional hockey players waiting at the airport baggage claim with ridiculous, and in some cases hardly-legible, hand-made signs when Eli arrives back in Las Vegas. When he comes into view at the top of the stairs, they start screaming so loudly that Hawke is momentarily a little scared, and a security guard drifts closer to investigate the situation.

Eli’s team finds this charming.

Eli considers killing Kent.

Tater gets to Eli first because he’s the biggest and Eli finds himself being picked up and swung around like some sort of Hallmark movie heroine.

Tater plants a smacking kiss on his forehead before setting him down and letting Kent wrap him in a hug.

Eli folds into him gladly, despite the fact that Kent is covered in glitter and his sign is probably the most gaudy thing Eli has ever seen. It says, in wobbly gold lettering, “Eli: #2 on the ice, #1 in our hearts.”

It’s so awful he kind of loves it.

Kent smells good and the flannel shirt he’s wearing is soft and well-worn over the firmness of his chest and—

Eli squeezes him a little harder than is necessary and then tells himself firmly to let go because bros don’t tuck their faces into their bros necks and then just hang on for extended periods of time.

Kent doesn’t seem to want to let go of him either, though.

So there’s that.

Jeff manages to get a hug in too before Kent slings a proprietary arm around Eli’s shoulders and introduces him to Rushy, Coots, and Nicky who despite all being over six foot tall and frankly a little terrifying, treat him with a strange sort of reverence.

Eli doesn’t know what Kent has told them, but they seem to think he’s very important and are endearingly invested in trying to impress him.

The implications of that are a little winding.

Apparently Kent has already gotten permission from Eli’s coach to take Eli home from the airport so he waves goodbye to the Morgans and then joins the boys for a celebratory dinner that Tater and Kent physically fight over paying the bill for. Tater wins by sitting on Kent. Kent is a sore loser.

Two hours later he’s on Kent’s couch trying to finish his psychology homework, wedged between Kent and Jeff while Tater and Rushy are locked in an epic video-game battle. Coots and Nicky went home already and, once Kent notices Eli is nodding off on his shoulder, he sends everyone else packing as well.

“What, Eli doesn’t have to leave?” Jeff asks, feigning offense.

“Only silver medal winners get to stay,” Kent answers.

“I have silver medal,” Tater says. “Olympics.”

“I have two gold ones,” Jeff adds.

“Oh my god, go away,” Kent says, and more or less pushes them out the door.

Eli yawns. “I should probably go too,” he says. “We have practice tomorrow morning and I still have to finish reading this article.”

“Or you could stay and I’ll drive you tomorrow.”

“And then I’ll—what—walk to campus after?” Eli asks.

“No. You’ll stay for my practice and then we’ll go get lunch and I’ll drop you off right in front of the math building for your stats class at one.”

“Pretty Bird for lunch?”

“Of course.”

“Alright, sold.” 

He watches Kent load the dishwasher for a moment, thinking vaguely about helping him clean up the minor mess the boys made, and then returns his attention to his laptop. He really does need to get through this and he’s really, really, tired.

An indeterminable amount of time later, when he’s on the last page of the article, Eli glances up at the sound of Hawke’s ID tag clinking against ceramic. She has her own set of bowls now, on the opposite side of the island from Kit’s, and Kent is rolling up the top of the bag of dog food he keeps at the bottom of the pantry.

He says something quietly to Hawke as he puts it away, then reaches for the bag of Kit’s food next, and Eli has to close his eyes against the domesticity of it.

This isn’t normal, he thinks tiredly. 

Because in addition to Hawke’s food and favorite brand of treats in the pantry, there’s also Eli’s favorite brand of Horchata in the refrigerator. And in the pantry there’s pumpkin granola that Kent thinks is too sweet, and wasabi flavored peanuts that he thinks are too spicy, and kale chips that he won’t even try. And the cabinets are slowly filling up with roasting pans and Corningware bowls and pretty sets of measuring cups that Eli never sees Kent buy, but they just—sort of appear. And in the guest bathroom he has a toothbrush and toothpaste and shampoo and conditioner that stay there. Permanently. On the counter and in the shower and they aren’t even travel-sized shampoos and conditioners. Which is important, for some reason. And—

And—

Kent turns out the kitchen light, vaulting over the back of the couch to settle, horizontal, with his feet against the far arm rest and his head on Eli’s thigh. He squirms, making discontented noises, until Eli moves his free hand to Kent’s hair.

And then there’s this.

They’ve been straight up cuddling for weeks now and at some point they’re going to have to talk about this—this thing that is between them. But he sure as hell isn’t going to be the one to broach the conversation because then it might stop.

Kent squints at the the laptop screen, apparently oblivious to Eli’s existential crisis.

“What’s this?”

“Psychology article. Homework.”

“Mm.” Kent says, closing his eyes.

“What’s it about?”

Eli drags his fingers through Kent’s hair because it’s hard not to. He’s not wearing any gel for once, which means his cowlicks are in full force and Kent is rumpled and kind of sleepy and. Well. 

“It’s, uh, by this guy named Arthur Aron. It’s called ‘The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness’ and it’s actually pretty interesting. Basically he paired strangers up and they asked each other a series of questions that got more and more personal and then they had a period of sustained eye contact afterward.”

Kent makes an encouraging noise.

“And there was a second group of strangers who were paired up and just left to have small talk. The pairs that did the questions and the eye contact all reported feelings of like, significantly more closeness with their partner afterward, compared to the small talk ones. Apparently a couple of the questions pairs even fell in love and got married.”

Kent opens his eyes.

“Huh. That is interesting. What are some of the questions?”

“Oh. Um.”

Eli scrolls back up in the article. Then laughs softy. “Like: Would you want to be famous? In what way?”

Kent smothers a laugh of his own in Eli’s thigh.

“Yeah. Guess my answer to that one is obvious.”

Eli considers letting it go but—“Do you, though?”

“Do I what?”

“I mean. Did you want to be famous? Like. If you could change things, would you?”

Kent doesn’t answer immediately, which is a bit of a surprise.

“I don’t think so,” he says, rolling a little so he can see Eli’s face fully. “I mean. I don’t really like it—it puts limitations on me that—“ his forehead creases and Eli presses his finger to the line there before he can stop himself.

“Hockey is worth it, though,” Kent finishes after the silence has begun to stretch uncomfortably. His voice is quiet and little rough and he clears his throat before repeating, louder, “Hockey is worth it.”

It sounds like maybe he isn’t sure.

“What about you?” Kent asks, avoiding Eli’s eyes. “Would you want to be famous?”

Eli lifts one shoulder. “Well yeah. Olympic gold medalist. Which. I know that’s not going to happen. I’m too far behind. But if you gave me the choice? Hell yeah.”

“Hm. What’s another question?”

“Um, If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?”

“Body,” Kent says promptly. “I would never have to retire.”

“Not if you have dementia or CTE.”

“I’ll read and do Sudoku to keep my mind sharp. And I’ve only had one concussion in my career so far, I’d be fine. What about you? You’d take a thirty year-old mind?”

“Definitely. And I’d eat well and exercise to stay physically fit.”

“That’s fair,” Kent muses. “This is kind of fun. Another one?”

“Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?”

“Oh, damn. Yeah. Every time.”

“Really?”

Yes,” Kent says, a little despairingly. “It’s the worst thing about being captain. They make me call all the new recruits and trades to welcome them to the team. I don’t even like ordering takeout. Calling guys that just lost their team and are about to uproot their lives? It’s awful.”

“But why?” Eli asks, genuinely baffled. “I mean. I get the trade phone calls but, normal phone calls? To like. Friends. Or your internet company about your bill or something?”

“Because. It’s not—if I have a chance to think about things and write them down I it’s less likely I’ll say something stupid or embarrassing. Real-time I can’t guarantee that because I’m not prepared. Same reason I hate video interviews.”

“Huh.”

Eli knows that Kent isn’t the unflappable, cavalier, asshole the media purports him to be, and, admittedly, the persona he seems to market. But this is admittedly surprising.

He scratches his nails lightly across Kent’s scalp.

“Good to know.”

“So you don’t?” Kent asks. “Practice phone calls before you make them?”

“Nope.”

“You’re ordering Spinelly’s next time we want pizza, then” Kent says, sounding put out.

“Spinelly’s?”

“Little Italian place a few blocks away. They don’t do orders online so I just never get delivery from them.”

“Yeah,” Eli agrees, and this is—he did not need to know more things about Kent that made him endearing. “Sure, Spinelly’s. Whenever you want.”

“Cool. Another one?”

Eli yawns and Kent sits up.

“Never mind, you’re tired. You want to go to bed?”

He does, but he also desperately wants to know Kent’s answers to some of the more personal questions.

“Yeah, but I need to shower and that’ll wake me back up for a while.”

“So,” Kent says, “meet in my bedroom in ten? We’ll hit a few more until you’re tired again?”

“Done.”

Kent stands, his hair an absolute riot, and stretches before he heads in the direction of his bedroom, absently scratching his stomach.

Lord give me strength. Eli thinks.

Chapter Text

Fifteen minutes later, in boxers and an oversized raglan Vegas shirt with Kent’s name and number on it—it mysteriously appeared in his skate bag one day—Eli heads to the kitchen for a glass of water, sock feet soundless on the concrete floor.

When he moves toward Kent’s bedroom, water in hand, he pauses.

Because Kent is talking to Hawke.

She had left the bathroom when Eli did, but rather than following him to the kitchen, apparently sought out Kent for attention.

Eli leans against the doorframe, watching as Kent, kneeling, back to the hallway, smoothes his thumbs over Hawke’s brow bone,  fingers curled in the thick fur beneath her jaw.

“—and I’m working on it. It’s just—you do a really good job, you know that?” Kent is murmuring. “You take such good care of Eli and I probably would have been freaking out a lot more if you hadn’t been with him. So. Thank you. For that.” He presses a kiss between her little furry eyebrows, sitting back on his heels. “You’re such a good girl.”

The fondness Eli feels for Kent in that moment—rumpled, bare-footed Kent, knelt on the floor and thanking his dog—it’s almost stifling.

Eli knocks his glass against the doorframe and moves to sit on the bed, pretending that he doesn’t notice the red flush on Kent’s neck when he joins him a moment later.

“So,” Eli says, because he doesn’t do emotions well and there are of lot of them happening right now. “Um. Questions?”

“Yeah.”

Kent closes the shade and pats the foot of bed, letting Hawke up to cuddle with Kit. They’re apparently best friends, now. Eli also has emotions he’s ignoring about that.

“Okay, questions.” Eli sets his water on the nightstand and pulls his laptop over between them. “Uh—when was the last time you sang to yourself? To other people?”

“The locker room after practice this morning was the last time I sang to other people. By myself? Probably yesterday night in the shower. You?”

“Oh. I don’t sing.”

“Ever?”

“Ever. And you should be thankful.”

Kent grins.

“I’m going to get you to sing one day. It’s on my bucket list now.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Kent looks like he’s ready to settle into an argument so Eli says quickly, “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? That’s easy for me: the ability to pull off a quadruple salchow.”

Kent rolls onto his side to face Eli, tucking a pillow under his head.

“Is that a spinny thing?”

“Yes,” Eli says dryly. “It’s a ‘spinny’ thing.”

Kent thinks for several more seconds. 

“I guess I’d like to be fluent in Russian, probably? Tater doesn’t have anyone on the team to talk with and I think that’d made him really happy. He gets homesick a lot.”

Eli wants to punch Kent a little.

Because Kent is just so—he’s—

Moving to the bedroom was a bad idea because now they’re tucked close in a pocket of dark, warm, intimate space, and Kent’s hair is a mess and he’s being selfless and kind and Eli can’t help but want to touch him: the curl of hair falling on his forehead, the mostly-healed abrasion at the curve of his jaw from a collision on the ice three days before.

Eli clears his throat and asks the next question.

They work from the more general questions to the personal, answers coming slower.

If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

“I have a shit ton of medical issues. I’m a perfectionist, I’m introverted so I don’t like to go out a lot and I need my space sometimes.”

“I have anxiety and OCD. I’m also a perfectionist. And I’m impulsive and quick-tempered. I have bad habits and I’m kind of an asshole but I’m trying to be better.”

Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest.

“I think—the effortless confidence you have on the ice is really beautiful. I’m really impressed with how dedicated you are to your own hockey but also, like, the team as a whole, helping the rookies after practice and stuff. And I love how you are with Kit. And Hawke. And the way you care about other people. The fact that you’d want to know Russian for Tater. And, um. Your freckles. I guess.” (My freckles? Really?) “Yeah.”

“You’re so small, but also really strong, and fast and—well your skating is beautiful, obviously, but like, in general you’re just so much more of a person than your uh, body. That sounds stupid—shut up, don’t laugh at me—but you’re also really smart. And funny. And I love that you have like, really serious opinions about history and literature and you’ll get all worked up talking about them. And. I like how confident you are. And your cooking! And the way you talk about cooking. Like it’s art, or something. And. I like your hands, I guess.” (My hands?) “They’re nice.”

He doesn’t know how much time as passed, but Eli knows it’s late—his eyes heavy, breath slow, when he asks, squinting at the laptop propped on the pillows above them, “What is your most terrible memory?”

Eli sighs.

“Mine is probably the first time I woke up after the accident. Well. The first time I stayed awake for more than a few minutes. When they told me all the damage. And that I’d be lucky to walk again. My whole life—the plan I had, just—“

He exhales. “It was—I can’t even explain to you the feeling.”

Kent bumps his knuckles against Eli’s shoulder.

“You?”

Kent doesn’t say anything and Eli shifts from his back to his side to face him.

“Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah,” Kent says, but it looks like he’s lying. His face is pale in the shadowed bleed of city lights through the curtains. His jaw is tight.

“I’m just—trying to figure out how to say it.”

“You don’t have to,” Eli says. “This isn’t—“

“No. I should. It would probably be good for me. Only Swoops and Anika know and I’ve never told anyone sober before.”

Eli blinks.

“You went to see your therapist drunk?”

“Look, I’m not in counseling because I handle personal issues well.”

“Point.”

Kent takes a studied breath.

“You know—about Jack?”

It takes Eli a moment to readjust. “Zimmerman? Eric’s captain?”

“Yeah. You know about his overdose?”

“Night before the draft. It was anxiety medication, right? He accidentally took too many?”

“Yeah. I mean, it was more involved than that, but yeah.”

Kent takes a second purposeful breath.

“He was my best friend. Well. My only friend, at that point. We’d been rooming together for the combine and then the draft. And it was—”

Kent breathes again. Five seconds in. Seven seconds out.

“I was the one that found him. That called 911. I came back from dinner and he was on the bathroom floor. I thought—“

Another breath.

“I thought he was dead.”

“Fuck.”

“I knew he was struggling and I left him alone. I knew he’d been taking more of his meds than he was supposed to and I knew he was having a bad night. I knew. And I went out anyway. Because we’d had a fight and I was mad at him and I didn’t—“

Kent drags in another breath, but doesn’t quite make it to five seconds before he’s exhaling again, too fast, and Eli pushes himself forward, into Kent’s space, tucking his head under Kent’s chin, looping an arm around his waist.

Kent’s free hand settles like a habit between Eli’s shoulder blades, fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt, probably right where Parson is written across his back.

“It’s not your fault,” Eli says, the words smudged against Kent’s collarbone. “It’s not your fault and Jack is okay now. He’s happy and healthy and you’re happy and healthy. And that’s—I can’t even imagine how horrible that was but think about how much you’ve both changed since then. You know that, right? That neither of you are the people you were then? You’ve been working so hard with Anika. And Jack—Jack lives with a houseful of people who love him and he’s the captain of a team that respects and appreciates him and he eats homemade pie at least once a week even though it’s not on his diet plan. You’re both doing so well now.”

Kent pulls Eli closer with a hurt noise, barely audible from the back of his throat, and Eli doesn’t know if he’s helping or not at this point but he holds still, consciously measuring his breathing—hoping that Kent will mimic it.

They stay like that for several minutes, until Kent’s heartbeat under Eli’s ear has slowed to something like normal and Kent starts to trace his fingers over the 90 on Eli’s back.

It’s late and they’re both exhausted, physically and emotionally and— Eli is so warm and comfortable pressed against Kent that he just—can’t make himself move. Even though he should.

The silence stretches between them and Eli  is nearly asleep when Kent whispers, “What’s the next question?”

He shifts, putting some space between them—not much, not enough to throw off Kent’s arm. Just enough to leave them face-to-face. He doesn’t look at the laptop because he already knows which question he wants answered the most. And it’s not fair, for either of them, for him to ask it, but he does anyway: says it softly into the pocket of recycled air between their mouths.

“If you were to die tonight, what would you regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?”

Kent stays silent, just looking at Eli in a way that makes his chest feel like it’s cracked open.

“Eli,” he says.

And that’s—he doesn’t know what that means.

Kent moves his hand, slow, up the pebbled line of Eli’s vertebra, callouses catching on the soft knit of his T-shirt. He cups the back of Eli’s neck and presses his thumb, gentle, to the the rift of scar tissue that hugs the curve of his skull. Kent’s eyes are dark and serious and his mouth is so close, but he looks so sad and Eli can’t—

“I’m sorry,” Eli says. “That wasn’t fair.“

Kent exhales, pulling Eli against him, tucking his face back into his neck where it belongs. Except it doesn’t, it just feels like it does. Which is its own kind of unfairness.

“We should go to sleep,” Kent says.

They should. And Eli should go to the guest bedroom but he doesn’t. Worse,  he sneaks one hand up the back of Kent’s shirt. Just a little. Just a few inches. To rest his palm in the warm dip of Kent’s spine.

He knows he can’t have this, but pretending for a while isn’t going to make things any worse than they already are.

***

On Wednesday morning, Tater takes Elijah to the airport because Kent has a photoshoot with Under Armour that he can’t reschedule. Kent is pretty pissed about this, but Eli isn’t too bothered because Tater picks him up early and takes him to a tiny Russian cafe first that Eli finds entirely charming. He’d been a little nervous, initially, for it to be just the two of them, because while Tater has always seemed incredibly kind he is also very big and very Russian and very straight and Eli is…none of those things.

He really shouldn’t have worried.

“Think you can make?” Tater asks, gesturing with a fork to their plates.

Eli hopes he can figure it out, because the food is definitely delicious: a cross between a crepe and a pancake, topped with strawberries and pale pink sauce that is lightly sweet, but not overwhelming.

“I can definitely try,” Eli says.

“I’m miss mama’s cooking. Maybe I get her, um—“ he gestures for a moment, “cooking plays?” he says, a little helplessly.

“Cooking plays,” Eli repeats. “Oh, you mean recipes?”

“Yes. Recipes.” Could he be more adorable? ’Cooking plays,’ honestly. “Maybe I get her recipes? For you?”

Tater looks so shyly hopeful that Eli wants to hug him.

“Of course. I’d love that. If she’s willing to share them, of course.”

“Okay, I’m ask. Oh, question. Internet question.”

Eli takes a sip of coffee and waits as Tater gets out his phone.

“Tumblr very confusing for me. All this—hashtagging?”

“Yeah, right there with you,” Eli says. “A lot of people on Tumblr use the tagging system as like, extra commentary rather than a platform for organization. It’s not like twitter or Instagram.”

Tater makes a noise of agreement.

“Okay yes. On picture of me—on video of me—lots people tag this. You know what is mean?”

He hands his phone across the table and Eli takes it.

There’s a picture of Tater in a celly, one knee bent, mouth wide open in a jubilant yell. It’s tagged #Mashkov #a good giant #body by Maytag.

Eli coughs on a laugh and sets his coffee down.

“You mean the ‘body by Maytag’ one?”

“Yes. I’m not understand. Is making fun?”

“Oh, no. It’s—so Maytag is an appliance company. They’re known for making refrigerators and stuff. So they’re basically calling you a refrigerator.”

Tater continues to frown at him.

“Which, okay, that admittedly sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not—it’s just saying they think you’re like, really big and strong. Sort of like why they called you a ‘good giant.’”

Tater’s expression clears. “Oh. Okay. And—go down little bit—“

Eli scrolls down.

“There. What is ‘sofbro’ mean?” Tater asks.

For a minute, Eli doesn’t get it it.

Someone has posted a collection of gifs all featuring Tater. There are a few on-ice: one where he’s stooped over, one glove held between his teeth, fixing Kent’s helmet strap, one where he’s hugging Jeff in a celly, one looking innocent while the ref points at him. There are others off the ice: when he’s got post-game fluffy hair and a big grin, talking to reporters,  when he’s holding Kent on his shoulders in the locker room while Kent tries to dislodge a soccer ball stuck in the rafters with a hockey stick, when he’s wearing Ray Bans and drinking a frappachino as he exits the team bus.  The last several are all from the recent charity calendar shoot, where Tater is holding an armful of puppies and looking delighted.

The post is tagged #a soft bro.

“Oh,” Eli says. “It’s a good thing, too. So. You know how ‘bro’ is used to describe the kind of person who is buff and plays sports and wears a certain type of clothing and is like, kind of a jerk but in an endearing way, I guess?”

“Yes.” Tater says. “Kenny.”

Eli grins.

“Right. Well, a ‘soft bro’ is a bro who looks like a bro, but is also really sweet and gentle and like, extra loveable.

“Oh. And they say is me?” Tater asks, delighted. 

“Yep.”

“I am soft bro.”

“Yeah, you are.”

They spend most of breakfast talking about social media and the most prevalent Tumblr tags for various Aces players. Rushy is pretty universally “sweet goalie prince,” while Kent is anything from “captain pretty eyes” to “dumpster fire child” depending on the poster. Swoops is “wokebro” or “husband goals.”  The rookies all get “this boy” and “my son” interchangeably with the occasional “Beautiful Cinnamon Roll Too Good For This World, Too Pure” that it takes nearly five minutes for Eli to try and explain to Tater. They giggle to themselves over a Tumblr dedicated to pictures of Aces in the sin bin and then argue amicably over who should pay for breakfast. Eli doesn’t put up much of a fight. He knows how much money Tater makes.

“We do breakfast again?” Tater asks when they’re back in the car and headed to the airport.

“Yeah?” Eli says. “For sure.”

“Good. You, uh, nervous, maybe? Sometimes. About touch me. Better now, but—” he gestures a little, “when we first meet, no.”

“Oh.”

He hadn’t thought it was obvious—that he’d been more careful around Tater, initially, than he was with Kent and Jeff. He sort of fell back on his Guy Interaction Protocol from home—as long as the other boys initiated physical contact they couldn’t get mad at him for being “creepy” or whatever the fuck they—

“You okay?” Tater asks.

Eli sighs. “Yeah. Sorry. Just—at home people weren’t super great about the gay thing. So I kind of got in the habit of never touching guys unless they touched me first. Just to make sure I didn’t make anyone uncomfortable or mad.”

Tater brakes a little too hard at a stoplight.

“You think I’m get mad? If you touch me? I’m hug you all the time. Is friends. Uh. Friendly?”

“Yeah, friendly,” Eli agrees, “and no, not really. I just. It’s stupid. Like I said. Bad habit.”

“But—“ Tater thinks for a moment, “But you—not nervous. With Swoops. With Kenny.”

“Oh. Well, I knew Jeff would be cool because of his sister. And he does the fundraisers and camps and stuff with You Can Play. And Kent—“

Eli stalls there. Because he can’t very well say that Kent is gay too, but—

“Kenny loves you,” Tater says easily. “So touch okay.”

“What—no. What are you talking about? Kent doesn’t

“I’m not stupid,” Tater says. “because English bad. Very smart in Russian. Not need smart, though, to see Kenny loves you. And,” he says, almost as an afterthought, “You love Kenny.”

Eli feels like he might be having a heart attack.

Hawke, in the back seat, whines.

Tater glances at her, then Eli, and frowns.

“Hey. It's okay, I’m not tell.”

Eli doesn’t say anything. Can’t think of what to say.

Tater continues to frown at him, then shifts his hands on the steering wheel, clearing his throat.

“At home, in Russia, when I’m little kid—no father, Mama work always, home late, always. So, after school, I’m go, uh, house beside house?”

“Next door?” Eli supplies faintly.

“Yes. After school, I’m go next door. Two men live next door. Old men. Funny. They listen to radio and yell lots. Not angry yell, just—loud. Happy. They take good care. Always have food for me. Always have little things for play—toys…” He says a word in Russian, shrugs, and moves on. “They help with school work. Help buy hockey gear. They good men. People say they…family, but not brothers?”

“Cousins?”

“Yes, cousins. But they not cousins. I’m see, sometimes, they hold hand in house, on couch—where no window. Touch hip. Touch neck. Soft. Like normal thing. Sleep in same room. I’m not see kiss, ever, but—I know what love looks like. When it have to be secret.”

Eli feels like he might cry.

“I think it's bad,” he continues, gentle, “For have to be secret. But I’m not tell. Don’t worry.”

“That’s not—“

Eli swallows around the hotness in his throat. “There isn’t anything to tell,” he says. “I wish there was,” he admits, because why not? “but there isn’t.”

Tater makes a disbelieving noise.

“You think you have feels—“

“Feelings,” Eli corrects, “Tumblr is ruining you.”

“You think you have feelings,” Tater repeats, rolling his eyes, “but not Kenny?”

“I don’t know how Kent feels. But he wouldn’t—there’s no way he’d risk his career even if he was interested in me. So. I just have to get over this crush.”

Tater makes a considering noise.

“Hard to ‘get over’ when Kenny text you always, touch you always, buy you pretty shoes and airplane to visit friend.”

“Yeah,” Eli sighs. “Tell me about it.”

Tater glances at him, eyebrows pinched and unhappy.

“Sorry.” He says, reaching to pat Eli awkwardly on the back. “Not fair.”

“Not your fault. But thanks. I, uh, really appreciate you telling me that story.”

Tater squeezes his shoulder.

When they get to the airport, he comes around to the passenger side to help Eli with his bags. Once everything is unloaded on the curb, Eli stands on his tiptoes and, without a moment of hesitation, hugs him very, very, tightly.

Chapter Text

Eric meets Eli at the baggage claim and Eli tackles him.

Legitimately tackles him.

They end up sprawled on what is undoubtedly a disgusting floor with Hawke jumping excitedly around them, trying to lick Eric’s face. Which he probably shouldn’t allow since her vest is still on but Eli has lost all sense of decorum and it seems only fair that Hawke gets a temporary pass as well.

It’s cold, colder than Eli was prepared for, but Eric is clearly dressed for the weather in a pair of skinny jeans, brown boots, and matching brown cardigan over a white collared shirt. There’s a pea coat he picks up from the floor and folds back over his arm once they’re standing again and he just looks so good. Happy. Comfortable with himself in a way that he never looked at home. It makes Eli want to hug him. So he does.

Eric talks at him non-stop while they wait for his checked bag and then he leads Eli to the parking garage where he unlocks a very large, very new, very shiny, black pickup truck.

Eli whistles.

“Nice truck. You get a sugar daddy and not tell me?”

“Oh, it’s Jack’s. I was going to borrow Holster’s car but it’s a coupe and Jack thought there’d be more room for Hawke if I took his truck instead.”

Did he.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to infer with that Tone, Elijah, but if you want pie…”

“You’ll make me whatever kind I want regardless. Don’t play. You missed me.”

“I did. So much.”

Eric looks like he might get a little teary which Eli definitely cannot handle after the morning he’s had, so he punches him lightly in the shoulder and moves to get Hawke settled in the back seat. 

“Now,” Eric says, once they’ve started driving. “The boys are really excited to meet you and I’ve told them to take it easy but they’ll probably still overwhelm you a bit. Don’t worry, though. They’re big and loud but they’re all sweethearts.”

“You realize I spend time with professional hockey players on a near-daily basis, now,” Eli says. “I think I can handle an NCAA team.”

“Sure you can, honey,” Eric says placatingly. “Just wanted to warn you.”

Eric’s concern is sweet, Eli thinks, but at this point completely unnecessary.

It’s only a twenty minute drive and Eli had planned to let Eric talk for most of it (Lord knew the boy could talk) but Eric asks him a couple innocent questions about Kent and the next thing he knows he’s ranting about his unfair eyes and the fact that his weird fixation on internet quizzes should not be cute. 

“Internet quizes?” Eric prompts.

“YES. And not even the normal ones like Harry Potter houses—weird ones. Like ‘Could you live through the Oregon trail?’ and ‘What Victorian minstrel are you?’ And his teammates send him links to more and more obscure ones all the time because they all know at this point that he’ll take them because for some reason he will just have to find out what sort of breakfast cereal he would be. It’s so stupid.”

He says ‘stupid’ with a degree of fondness that is frankly a little embarrassing.

Eric is judging him quietly, bottom lip tucked between his teeth.

“Yes, thank you,” Eli says, “I’m gone on him, I’m aware. But you don’t have any place to talk. The last three recipes you’ve made involved maple syrup sourced specifically from Quebec.”

Unlike Kent, who’s blushes tend to manifest in his ears and the back of his neck, Eric’s flush dapples the sides of his cheeks.

“You hush your mouth. There are three Canadians on my team.”

“And you have a giant crush on one of them. What was it you were telling me the other day? About falling in love with hockey players? Hi Mr. Pot, I’m Kettle.”

Eric sighs.

“Fine. I have a problem.”

Eli reaches over the center console and laces their fingers together. It’s a little strange, because the only person he’s held hands with recently is Kent and his hands are significantly bigger and rougher than Eli’s. Eric has callouses in a lot of the same places Kent does,  but his hands are so small, strangely unfamiliar after nearly four months apart.

“We make terrible life choices,” Eli points out.

“So terrible,” Eric agrees.

“It would be a lot easier if we could just be in love with each other.”

“Yeah, no. I’m not kissing you again,” Eric says.

***

It turns out that Eli is not, in fact, prepared for Eric’s team.

Unlike Kent’s teammates, Eric’s make no attempt at either suppressing their exuberance, nor impressing him.

Five minutes after meeting the residents of the “Haus” he’s seen Shitty entirely naked, discussed the fact that Johnson is probably going to be on academic suspension after he took a midterm hungover that morning (but at least it won’t be graded until after the next game, bro!) and he knows that Holster, blessedly not naked, apparently has a suspicious rash.

Eric ushers him into the kitchen and away from madness of the living room, laughing a little at his facial expression.

“I did warn you,” he says.

“You did,” Eli agrees. 

Hawke leans against his leg, but doesn’t make it a secret that she’d rather return to the couch where Ransom had been petting her a few minutes before.

“We already ate,” Eric says, hand on his hip in front of the open refrigerator, but I can probably manage a sandwich for you, if you want.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

He pulls out his phone, sitting on one of the miss-matched chairs at the wobbly, heavily-scarred kitchen table.

“Any plans for tonight?” he asks.

“Nah, Jack said no parties until after the game Friday. Which—we talked about how to handle that for you and we think we have a plan.”

Eli narrows his eyes. “Okay?’

“It won’t be like, super crazy, since a lot of people went home for the break today, but even a chill kegster is probably going to be too much for Hawke. Jack said that maybe you could keep her in his bedroom upstairs where it’s quiet, and you could run up and check in with her every so often? Or escape if you get overwhelmed.”

Which. Huh. That might work.

“It was Jack’s idea,” Eric says.

“Of course it was.”

Eric shakes a packet of lunch meat at him. “Hush, Mister. I just wanted your visit to be perfect and I thought—“

“No, Eric, hey, I really appreciate it.”

Eli pulls him into a hug because he can. Because he’s missed him so much.
“It sounds weird now,” Eric says, voice a little muffled in Eli’s shoulder, “my name. No one calls me Eric here.”

“Hey, Bits!” Shitty yells from the living room, and they both laugh, “Aces game is starting!”

Eli leans back against the counter, letting Eric finish putting together the sandwich for him. 

“We’re watching the Aces game?”

“I figured you’d want to.”

“They don’t mind?”

Eric gives him an unimpressed look.

“We’re hockey players. If there’s a game on, we’re usually watching it. And the only other teams playing tonight are the—“

“Sabres and the Canucks,” Eli supplies absently, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He realizes he never turned off airplane mode and does now, watching as his phone lights up with notifications.

Eric has gone quiet and Eli glances back up at him.

“What?”

“It’s just so weird. You knowing things about hockey.”

“Proximity.”

“Fair.”

Eric hands him a chipped plate with a thick sandwich on it and they move into the living room where Hawke happily returns to Ransom’s lap to be smothered in affection. 

They’re singing the national anthem on the television, so Eli returns his attention to the notifications on his phone. He’s missed several texts from Jeff and a series of snaps from Tater. He reads Jeff’s texts first:

Just a heads up, you were papped at the airport. Tater thinks it’s a riot but you probably want to call Kenny tonight if you’re still awake after the game.

Also, Jessica says it’s no big deal, so don’t worry.
But yeah. Call Kent.

Please.

Frowning, Eli opens his snaps from Tater.

The first one is a screenshot of a headline on gossip website surrounded by emoji hearts:

Gay Romance Between Russian Hockey Star and Teenaged Youtube Personality?

The second is another screenshot—this time of several thumbnail pictures of Tater dropping Eli off at the airport.

To be fair, Eli thinks with a sigh, the hug does look…incriminating.

He also kind of gets why Tumblr likes to ship them, because the pictures really emphasize their size difference, and the way Tater has his shoulders all hunched, and his head ducked, like he’s trying to envelope Eli entirely is…well. It’s pretty damn cute, honestly.

The third snap is of Tater’s grinning face, aviators on and baseball cap turned sideways.

I'm soft boyfriend now the caption says, accompanied by a winking emojii.

Eli coughs on the bite of sandwich in his mouth, then waves a concerned Eric away, trying to swallow and laugh at the same time.

He checks his Instagram and Twitter, both of which have an influx of people inquiring if he’s dating Alexei Mashkov, then taps back over to his texts.

Where he pauses.

Because Kent hadn’t sent him anything since right before he’d boarded the plane that morning. Which would be odd, but not like, really strange, if not for the fact that Kent always texts him before a game. An hour and forty-five minutes before. Always.

Hey, Eli types,  I hope everything is ok. I made it to Samwell and we’ve got the game turned on at the Haus. Kick some Blackhawk ass for me. FaceTime tonight?

The game starts and Eli tucks his phone back in his pocket, still frowning.

If hockey players are anything, they’re predictable—especially Kent when it comes to his pregame rituals. 

“Hey,” Eric says, leaning against him. “Everything okay?”

“I dunno. Probably. Kent stuff.”

Jack, sitting on the floor in front of Shitty, glances sharply at him, then just as quickly redirects his attention to the TV.

Where the Blackhawks have just scored less than a minute into regulation.

Shit. Eli thinks.

***

The Blackhawks slaughter the Aces.

The game ends 6-1 with Kent in box for the third time that night—the highest number of penalty minutes he’s taken in a game all season.

He’s been playing overly-aggressive and for a brief, terrifying, moment, Eli thinks he may actually fight someone after words are exchanged at a faceoff. Kent has never fought anyone in his NHL career. Something is clearly wrong.

Johnson offers Eric and Eli his room for the night since he’s staying with his girlfriend and, cold as it is, neither of them want to trudge across campus in the dark with Eli’s luggage. 

They get ready for bed, subdued, not talking through the brushing of teeth and washing of faces, then fit themselves together in Johnson’s twin bed, piling an extra two blankets—loaned from Jack with a gentle chirp about Georgia blood—on top of them. 

“Is something wrong with Kent?” Eric whispers.

“Yeah. I don’t know what, though. He was fine yesterday night. I asked him to FaceTime me after the game, so—“

“Oh, for sure. Don’t worry about waking me up.”

“Okay.”

Eli stares at his phone, plugged in and resting, innocuous, on the nightstand, and waits for it to ring.

It doesn’t.

When he wakes up the following morning—the grey light coming in the window telling him it’s still far too early—there aren’t any missed calls. And no new text messages.

He carefully extract’s himself from Eric’s clinging limbs and tucks his phone into his hoodie pocket before shivering his way down the stairs.

He’s pleased to find that, while meager, the refrigerator’s contents are enough to work with, and, after ten minutes and half a cup of coffee, he has several pieces of French toast slowly cooking in a well-buttered pan.

Which is when Jack comes in the front door.

He’s wearing leggings, a thermal turtleneck with reflective stripes, and bright yellow running shoes.

His face is flushed with cold or exertion or both.

“Oh,” Jack says. “Uh. Good morning.”

“Morning,” Eli says, and then hands him a glass from the cabinet because the man is clearly thirsty.

Jack fills it up in the sink, drains it, and sets it on counter, hands on his hips, still breathing hard.

“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks.

Eli shrugs. “Time difference. I take it you’re awake at 5am on purpose?”

“Oh. Not really, actually. I was just. Thinking. And decided to go for a run. Do you want some help?”

“Uh—it’s almost done, actually. But thanks. Want to share?”

Jack moves to fill up his glass with water again.

“No thank you. I’ll make a protein shake here in a minute.”

He takes his time drinking the second glass and Eli has to fight not to stare at him because the man is, admittedly, very attractive. Particularly in Lycra.

“So,” Jack says carefully. “I know it’s not any of my business, but I’ve been watching your videos, and Bitty has shown me some of your tweets and Instagram posts and it seems like—“ he licks his lips, ducking his head a little, and yeah, Eli can see exactly why Eric is so infatuated with this giant, handsome, awkward turtle of a man.

“Kent seems happy,” Jack says finally, like it takes significant effort. “Well. Not last night. He was definitely angry about something last night. But I mean, in the videos, when he’s with you. He usually seems happy. And I was wondering, um. If he is. Happy.”

Eli doesn’t know how to respond. He moves to the refrigerator to put away the eggs, stalling for time. Because he doesn’t know what Kent would want him to do, here. Doesn’t know what he can share without—

“I know what I did to him wasn’t fair,” Jack says lowly, words sort of bumping into each other. “And I know you probably don’t like me very much because of it. But I had to cut him off when I went to rehab. For me. So I could figure out—but it still wasn’t right. He was nearly as messed up as I was at that point and without him, I, at least, still had a support system. Kent didn’t. He lost his boyfriend and his best friend over night and I really. I regret doing that to him.”

Eli doesn’t drop the eggs but it’s a near thing.

He closes the refrigerator door slowly.

Jack considers his expression and then leans back against the counter, looking a little struck.

“He didn’t tell you.”

“He told me about his ex. And about you. But not. No. Which, maybe I should have guessed with the things he has told me but—“

Jack exhales, “Merde. I’m sorry. I thought—“

“It’s okay. I mean. He probably wanted to tell me but didn’t want to like, violate your privacy or whatever. I just. Wow. Is that why—no. Sorry. That’s a completely invasive question. I’m going to need a minute.”

Jack laughs a little. “I don’t mind if Kent tells you,” he gestures a little awkwardly between them, “uh, everything. I thought he already had. But, I probably shouldn’t say anything else. It’s not just my story.”

“No, that’s totally fair. Does—do you mind if I ask if anyone else on the team here knows?”

“Knows what, about me and Kent?”

“Knows that you’re gay.”

“Oh. I’m bi? Actually. And just Shitty. No one else. I’m still planning to join the NHL when I graduate and I can’t—I don’t know if I could handle that. Being the first. And the team is great, I trust them all, but the more people who know…”

“Yeah. I understand. There’s only one—well, I guess two—people on Kent’s team who know about him.”

“He has you, though,” Jack says, soft, maybe a little pensive. 

“Yeah,” Eli says. “But we’re not, like, together, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Oh.”

Jack looks even more surprised by this.

“But—“ he bites his lip, looking a little lost.

“I think,” Eli says, picking up the whisk so he has something to do with his hands, “that maybe we could be. In different circumstances. But Kent has said pretty clearly that he isn’t willing to risk his career by dating. Or even hooking up. So.”

Jack crosses his arms, his face doing something complicated.

“So. He’s just going to be alone.”

“Until he retires, yeah.”

Jack closes his eyes.

“He’s good, though,” Eli says, moving to flip the bread in the pan. “I mean. Better, definitely. He’s been in therapy. And he is happy, most of the time.”

“Good,” Jack says, and it sounds like he means it. “Do you think he’d want to talk to me? I meant to get back in touch when I was better. But then so much time had passed and I didn’t know how. Or even if he’d want me to.”

Eli has to think about that for a minute. “I think he misses you,” he says, honest. “But I also think talking to you would be really hard for him. At least at first.”

He glances at his phone.

“I also think contacting him like…now, would be a bad idea.”

Jack huffs out a laugh.

“Yeah. I was watching the game last night, too.”

Eli plates the four pieces of completed French toast, twists closed the bread and puts the bowl of leftover egg mixture in the refrigerator for later.

“You sure you don’t want one of these?” Eli asks, moving past Jack to the kitchen table.

Jack eyes the plate with a familiar, longing expression and Eli grins.

“Maybe just one piece,” Jack says, and then, a moment later. “Bitty keeps powdered sugar next to the microwave if you want to put some on top.”

“I think we’d better,” Eli agrees seriously.

Chapter Text

Eli gets a text from Jeff while he and Eric are getting post-lunch PSLs at a little on-campus coffee shop called Annie’s. They’re closing early for Thanksgiving and he and Eric just barely make it in time—then bundle up in their coats and take the long way past Faber back to the Haus.

Jeff’s text reads: Kent is home alone right now and having a lot of Feelings. Can you do us all a favor and call him?

Eli is actually kind of pissed at Kent by this point, but once they shed their various winter layers, Eli takes his phone up to Johnson’s room and calls anyway.

Kent answers on the third ring.

“Hi,” he says, sounding suitably cowed.

“Hi,” Eli agrees. 

“I’m sorry,” Kent says.

“Can you tell me what happened? Because I’m lost.”

“I don’t know. Its just. Those pictures—“

“Oh my god,” Eli says. “Are you kidding me? Tater isn’t gay.”

“I know.”

“And even if he was and we were like, romantically involved, you wouldn’t get to be angry about that—”

“I know.”

“—because you’re not my boyfriend!

“I know,” Kent says, and his voice goes high and tight. “I’m sorry. I’m just. I’m not in the best place right now. Brain wise. And the pictures didn’t help. I realize I’m being stupid, okay? I’m sorry.”

Kent sounds so miserable that Eli can’t sustain his frustration.

“Okay,” he says, absently petting Hawke’s head. “You want to talk about it?”

Kent makes a derisive noise.

“Mm. Rephrase. Should we talk about it?”

“Probably.”

“Ready when you are.”

Kent sighs.

“I was already anxious and like…not uncomfortable, but. You’re with Jack. Right now. And thinking about you spending time with Jack has made me think about—before. And it’s not bad or anything. It’s just weird.  So I’m working through that. And then with the pictures of you and Tater… I was, uh. Jealous. I guess.”

“Of Tater?” Eli says, still baffled. 

“Because it didn’t matter to him,” Kent says, voice raw. “When he saw the article he thought it was funny. He wasn’t scared or immediately on the phone talking damage control with Jessica. Because he’s straight and he doesn’t have anything to hide. It’s—it was funny to him.”

“Oh.” Oh, Kent. 

“And I know that’s not your fault, and I shouldn’t have ignored you. I just needed time to sort out my head and I knew if I talked to you I’d probably say something stupid, so.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah. I mean. Next time I’d like a text letting me know what’s going on. So I know you’re not hurt or something. Or mad at me.”

“I can do that.”

“Good.”

They both just breathe for a minute.

“Is your shoulder okay?” Eli asks.

Kent makes a confused noise.

“Second period. Eklund ran you into the boards pretty hard. Looked like you were favoring your right arm most of the third period.”

Kent doesn’t answer and Eli, still feeling off-center, wonders if he’s said something wrong.

“Kent?”

“Sorry. No. I mean, yes, my shoulder is okay. It was just a pinched nerve. A little massage and an epsom salts bath and I was fine for practice this morning. I’m just surprised you noticed. I thought I was hiding it pretty well.”

“Oh. Well. I know you.”

It comes out a little more honest than he means it to.

“Yeah,” Kent agrees, soft.

They both clear their throats, then laugh at their simultaneous awkwardness, and Eli suddenly misses Kent so much he’s not sure what to do with himself. He can’t just say it, because he doesn’t do things like that, but—

“I miss you,” Kent says, and Eli has to take a moment.

Maybe a couple of moments.

“Hey,” Kent says, “you still there?”

“Yeah, sorry. I, uh, miss you too.”

It’s stilted, but Kent sounds pleased anyway when he says, “I’m picking you up at the airport on Saturday afternoon.”

“Does that mean I should prepare myself for a small cheering section and too much glitter again?”

“No,” Kent says. “Just me.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“How’s Eric?” Kent asks.

“Good. Really good. He’s happy here and the boys are all—well. They’re hockey players—“ Kent laughs—“but they’re great. We’re doing Thanksgiving dinner with them at the Haus tonight and I’m looking forward to watching them all play tomorrow. What are you doing tonight?”

“Just takeout with Tater and Nicky. Everybody else has plans with family.”

He doesn’t sound upset about it, but Eli suddenly wishes he’s brought Kent with him. So he could wrap him in a scarf and feed him turkey and not have to miss him even though it’s barely been 48 hours since he last saw Kent’s stupid crooked smile.

“I wish you were here,” Eli says. Because if Kent can make an effort he can too.

“That would probably be a disaster,” Kent answers. And oh. Right.

“I actually had an interesting conversation with Jack this morning,” Eli says. “He thought that I knew. About you. Y’all. Um. Being together.”

Kent doesn’t answer immediately but Eli is pretty sure he just needs time, so he waits.

“What did he say?” Kent asks, quiet and a little thready.

“Nothing much, just, he was apologizing to me I think? He said he knew what he did to you was messed up, because you weren’t in a very good place then either and Jack still had a support system without you, but you lost both your best friend and your boyfriend when he cut you off.”

Kent makes a noise that makes Eli’s chest ache.

“He said that?”

“I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but yeah. He feels pretty bad, I think.”

“No,” Kent says, insistent. “I mean. He called me that? His boyfriend?”

“Yes?”

“Fuck. Okay.”

Eli gives him another minute.

“Okay,” he says again. “That’s—good to know. What, uh. What else did you talk about?”

“Not much. Once he realized I didn’t know about your history he didn’t want to say anything else. Though he did say you could tell me.”

“I wanted to,” Kent says, and he sounds exhausted. “But I felt guilty enough that I’d told Jeff when I got really drunk one time last year but—“ he takes a breath. “I do. Want to. Whenever you’re back.”

“Okay,” Eli agrees. “Jack also wants to get back in touch with you but wasn’t sure if you’d be okay with it. I said you might need time but would probably like that, which, if that’s not true I can—“

“No. You’re right. If you want to give him my number before you leave that would be okay.“

“Alright.”

Kent is quiet and Eli isn't sure if it’s a good kind or a bad kind of silence. 

“Hey,” he says. “Are you alright?”

Kent breathes.

“I think so? I mean. I’m going to go call Anika the minute I hang up with you but. Yeah. I think I’m good.”

“Good. Well. You go call Anika. I have a turkey to cook.”

“Okay. Can we FaceTime tomorrow night after the game? Or will you be—“

“Yeah. Absolutely. Just let me know when.”

“Thanks. Say hi to Eric for me.”

“Will do. Bye, Kent.”

“Bye, Eli.”

***

It’s possibly the best Thanksgiving dinner Eli has ever had.

Between him and Eric and Shitty’s MasterCard they manage a turkey, dressing, salad, cornbread, fried okra, and a vegetable casserole that is comprised more of cheese than vegetables in the hopes that the boys will actually eat it. There’s also brownies and three different pies.

After dinner they take turns getting third and fourth servings of pie, drink terrible cheap beer and complain about how full they are. Hawke, exhausted from all the excitement, is asleep on Jack’s bed upstairs. 


Eli is two beers in, considering going upstairs to join her, when Shitty slings an arm around his shoulders and ducks to nuzzle into his neck a little.

“I like you,” he says in a very indiscreet whisper. “You kept Bitty sane through the tribulations of southern youth so, I appreciate you for that.” He takes a drag on his joint, leaning his head against Eli’s shoulder. “You’re also like, very, very, pretty, my dude. I hope you’re aware.”

“Um,” Eli says, laughing a little. “Aren’t you straight?”

“For sure, bruh. Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the glorious aesthetics of your visage, though.”

“Ah. Okay.”

“Which, I gotta say. You are quite possibly the most beautiful specimen of a man I have ever seen."

There’s a chorus of offended “hey!”s from the other assembled men in the room.

“Don’t get me wrong, bros,” Shitty says, stepping away from Eli’s side. You’re all killing it. I mean, Rans’s got the cheekbones, and Holster—that jawline. Bitty has the whole all-American-boy thing going on and Jack—well—“ Jack neatly sidesteps the slap that Shitty aims for his ass. “But Eli. Bro. Brother. Brethren. Your whole look is just so—“

“If you say ‘exotic’ I will punch you.”

“I would NEVER,” Shitty says, aghast. “Lardo would murder me from a continent away. Oh, man. Lardo would love to paint you. With your—neck and collarbones and shit. You should come back next semester. Actually, no. Don’t. You’re too pretty. ”

“Who’s Lardo? Eli asks, bemused.

“Team manager,” Eric says.

“Is he gay?”

“She,” Shitty interrupts, “does not believe in the bullshit heteronormative social constrains of gender or sexuality. And I salute her.” He does, with his joint. Then sighs. “I’m gunna go send her an email.”

“You do that,” Eric agrees.

Their conversation devolves into a discussion of the kegster they plan to throw the following night and who will probably attend: general consensus is most of the swim team since they had a meet, and both men and women’s soccer teams since a good portion of them are from out of country.

“Wait,” Eli says. “I thought you hated the soccer team?”

“Oh, no,” Eric corrects. “We’re good with the soccer team. It’s the lacrosse team we have a problem with.”

“FUUUUCK THE LAX BROS,” everyone choruses—Shitty, upstairs, a few seconds behind everyone else.

Eli drinks to that because he feels like he aught to.

“Hey,” Johnson says. “This narrative could use some music. Why don’t you put your Beyonce playlist on, Bitty?”

“Ugh. No, sir,” Eric says from where he’s sprawled on the couch, a red solo cup balanced on his sternum. “I am way too full to dance.”

“You sure?” Eli says.

“So sure.”

Eli gestures for Johnson to hand him his backpack, then squishes onto the couch between the arm rest and Eric’s head.

Eli withdraws the Loubitton box from his bag and swaps it for the cup resting on Eric’s chest.

“You really sure?”

“Oh my God,” Eric says.

“Oh my God,” Holster repeats, half-sitting up from where he’s laying on the floor. “RANS!” He yells toward to the kitchen, where Ransom is getting more pie. “Rans! He brought the shoes! You owe me twenty dollars!”

You brought the shoes,” Eric says, eyes wide. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“Surprise?”

Eric sits up and removes them from the box slowly, touching the stiletto heels with reverent fingers.

“Yes,” he says, a little breathless. “I think you’re right, Johnson. It’s time for Beyonce.”

Eli and Eric do the single ladies dance together because, well, obviously, but then Eli lets Eric have his fun as the center of attention, taking turns dancing with the other boys and generally enjoying the hell out of himself. 

Eli gets himself a third slice of pumpkin pie and leans against the door jamb of the kitchen to eat it, watching as Eric, now wearing a pair of tiny shorts with his oversized knit sweater, grinds to “Partition” with Shitty on top of the coffee table.

His calf muscles look fantastic, Eli thinks absently. All of him does. Clearly an NCAA training regiment has added some muscle to his frame, which is both evident and compelling as he moves—his body spangled with red and green from newly erected Christmas lights around the windows. Eli wonders, briefly, if this is what Kent would look like dancing: a golden-haired icon of confidence—a fierce brightness in a dark room.

He notices Jack watching Eric similarly from the other side of the couch, eyes hooded, leaning against the wall next to the stairwell.

Eli pushes off the kitchen door frame, makes his way across the room and stops, right next to him, leaning a little further into Jack’s space than he probably would have without the two beers in his system.

He takes his time licking the tines of his fork clean. 

“You have a type, Mr. Zimmerman,” Eli murmurs.

Jack ducks his head, sheepish, but doesn’t take his eyes off Eric.

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “I guess I do.”

Chapter Text

The day after Thanksgiving, the Aces tally another loss, this time against the Sharks. It’s a frustrating battle against injuries—a slash to Nicky’s hand that broke two fingers, a sprained ankle for Jeff, a collision that resulted in a concussion for Dirks—and a confluence of bad calls. It comes down to a shootout and Coots blames himself for the loss due to a badly missed pass in the third that resulted in the game-tying goal. Kent spends the first five minutes after the game trying to convince the kid that drowning himself in the San Jose locker room shower is not the best course of action.

Tater takes Kent’s place after a while, a wide hand on Coot’s hunched back, and Kent returns to his own stall to pull off his jersey. It’s half over his head, snagged on his chest protector, when he hears the new trade, Justin Matthews—dubbed Matts by the team—swearing about the ref’s shitty calls.

Fucking cocksucker.

Kent doesn’t even flinch. 

He’s used to it. Hell, he’s said the same thing, and worse, countless times up until the previous year, but Jeff goes still beside him, mid-conversation with Rushy.

“Its okay,” Kent mutters, still tangled in his jersey.

Either Jeff doesn’t hear him or elects to ignore him. Probably the latter.

“Hey, Matts,” Jeff says, casual. “You like getting your dick sucked?”

Matts pauses in his diatribe. “Uh. Yeah?” he says, laughing a little uncomfortably.

“I’m assuming you don’t mind when your girlfriend does it, right?”

Matts half-stands. “The fuck are you—“

“I just mean—you wouldn’t call her a cocksucker. Not like it’s an insult. You still respect her and shit?

‘The fuck? Of course I wouldn’t. I don’t know what your problem is, but—“

“So it isn’t the actual cock-sucking you have a problem with, then. It’s the idea of a man doing it.”

“What—no. That’s not—you know I didn’t mean it like that.”

“How did you mean it, then?”

Matts glances around the locker room, obviously looking for support, but doesn’t get any. At best, people are just watching, at worst—Tater, Rushy, Coots—they’re glaring.

“It was just a joke,” he says.

“Nah,” Jeff says, and goes back to stripping out of his pads. “It was an insult. One that doesn’t have any place coming out of your mouth. I tell kids every summer that being gay doesn’t have to prevent them from playing professional hockey. That it’s a much more accepting sport, now. That locker rooms aren’t the shitty, homophobic places they used to be. Don’t make me a liar, man.”

Matts swallows but doesn’t say anything.

“It’s not a big deal,” Jeff continues, gentler. “You probably didn’t realize how problematic it was before. But now you do. Cool?”

“Yeah, man.”

“Good.”

“So,” Jeff turns his attention back to Rushy. “You were saying?”

The noise level ratchets right back up again and Kent lets out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding as he finishes stripping down. He leans into Jeff’s space for a moment before heading for the showers.

“Thanks,” he murmurs.

Jeff punches him in the shoulder.

They don’t get back to the hotel until nearly ten pm. Coots is still with Tater, probably drinking too much at the bar downstairs, but they don’t have another game for four days, so Kent is pretending he has no idea what they’re up to.

He sharing a room with Jeff and decides to take another shower while Jeff calls Alex because it was the kind of game he wants to scrub off his skin.

Then, because Jeff is still on the phone, Kent pulls a hoodie on over his boxers and T-shirt and wanders his way to the pool on the roof outside. There’s no one there and his legs are a little chilly in the breeze. He sits on one of the chaise lounges and stares up at the stars for a few minutes, trying not to be too melodramatic and ultimately failing.

He gets out his phone and pulls up the last conversation he’d had with Eli. There’s been two subsequent messages from Eli since Kent sent his usual pre-game text, one railing against a call at the end of the third period, which makes Kent smile, and a sad-faced emoji at the end of game.

Hey he types. u awake? I’m still down to FT if u are. 

His phone rings with an incoming video call less than a minute later and he leans back, the night already feeling slightly less dire, as he swipes to accept.

Eli is grinning at him, hair a mess and what looks to be the remains of glittery  face paint smeared around his temples but Kent—

Kent’s stomach goes sour.

“Are you in Jack’s bed?” he asks. And he can barely get the words out. Because he knows those sheets. He knows the comforter around Eli’s shoulders. He knows them intimately. They’re the same bedclothes Jack has had since he started billeting at fifteen—when his host mother dragged him to the store and bought four different packages of the same bed-in-a-bag because she knew his terrible teenage laundry quirks but she also knew Jack was a creature of habit. Kent wonders if Jack still switches sheets every Thursday like he used to, if any of the sets have worn out at the corners yet, if Jack still lets a month go by before he actually washes his massive pile of laundry. 

“Yeah,” Eli says, oblivious to the fact that Kent’s hands have gone clammy and his heart is beating like he’s just finished a double shift on the power play. 

“Jack let Eric and I have his room for the night. He’s staying with Shitty. Look, Hawke says hi.”

He shifts the phone so Kent can see Hawke at the foot of the bed. He can also clearly see that Eli is alone in the room.

“Hi,” Kent says weakly.

“I’m the only one upstairs,” Eli continues, words blurred at the edges from alcohol or fatigue or both. “I got a little overwhelmed and decided to call it a night an hour or so ago. I listened to the end of the game. Sucks.”

“Yeah,” Kent agrees, still trying to get his breath back.

“How was the Samwell game?” Kent asks. “Google said they won.”

“They did! Eric didn’t get to play much—just a couple minutes. But he got an assist, and he didn’t look like he was afraid of getting checked, so.”

Eli sighs, repositioning his phone so it’s propped against the pillow, and then pulls Jack’s comforter more closely around his body.

“All the boys did really well. Ransom and Holster are something else, and Jack is—well. He could be in the NHL right now.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a distant crash followed by excited yelling in the background and Eli glances toward the closed door behind him, grinning. Kent’s chest gets tight. In a better way than before.

“I’ve never been to a party like this before,” Eli says, “because I didn’t want to gamble with leaving Hawke. Its fun. Being—“ he gestures vaguely. “Young. Stupid. I mean, I wouldn’t want to all the time. But.”

Kent curls on his side, wishing he’d though to put on pants. Who knew that California could get so cold at night?

“So you’re having fun?” he asks.

“Yeah. So much. Thanks for the tickets. Oh, and Eric says thanks for the shoes. He’s wearing them right now, said he was going to—“ Eli cuts himself off with a yawn and it’s cute as hell—“get as much time with them as he could before I get full custody again.”

Kent frowns a little at that. “Should we get him his own pair?”

Eli’s face screws up for a moment and then—then Eli is laughing at him.

What?”

It’s not really laughing, actually, it’s giggling, and Kent wonders how much, exactly, Eli has had to drink.

“Seriously, what?”

“Nothing,” Eli says, “You’re just so good.” His smile dims a little. “It’s not fair.”

“I’m…sorry?”

“No, that’s not—“ Eli makes an irritated noise, pressing his palms to his eyes, then dragging both hands through his hair. “Never mind.” 

The giggles come back while Kent is trying to figure out how to respond to that.

“Oh my god,” he says, a little exasperated but smiling despite himself. “What now?”

“I think Eric will have his own Louboutins by Christmas anyway,” Eli says, tone conspiratorial. “Jack very awkwardly asked me where to buy a pair about an hour ago when Eric was dancing with some soccer player to Nelly. Jack was practically salivating but also like, ready to go defend Eric’s honor if the guy got too handsy. You should have seen his face.” Eli dissolves into laughter again and Kent isn’t sure what his feelings are doing.

“Oh shit,” Eli says abruptly. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Is that—are you okay?” 

He leans closer to the phone, eyes bleary but concerned and Kent wants to touch him so badly he sits up so he has something to do with his hands.

“I’m fine,” he says, and it’s true. “I haven’t been in love with Jack for a long time.”

“Okay,” it doesn’t look like Eli believes him. “I’m sorry,” he repeats, subdued.

Kent shifts position with a shiver, tucking one arm ineffectively around his body. 

“Eli,” he says.

“Hm?”

“When you first called me a minute ago I almost had a heart attack.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I recognized Jack’s sheets. And you were drunk and in his bed and I know it was stupid but my first thought—“

“What? No.”

“But I didn’t—“ Kent takes a studied breath. “If it was true. If you had slept with him. I wouldn’t have been jealous of you,” Kent says slowly, trying to make sure Eli understands. “I would have been jealous of Jack.”

Eli doesn’t say anything and Kent closes his eyes because he doesn’t want to see Eli’s expression. Because this isn’t a conversation they should be having when Eli is drunk and Kent is three thousand miles alway. It isn’t a conversation they should be having at all

“Kent.”

“Hm?”

“I’m not sober enough to do this right now.”

He sounds sad, which makes Kent feel even worse.

“I know. I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.”

“Well,” Eli muses. “I guess we’re even now, then.”

Kent has a sudden visceral memory of Eli in his bed, asking him what he’d most regret not telling someone and—

“Yeah,” Kent says wryly. “Guess so.”

“Wait,” Eli says, “How long has Jack had these sheets?”

Kent laughs a little helplessly.

“Juniors.”

What?”

And then they’re both laughing, and it’s not exactly a relief but Kent is able to breathe a little easier.

Eli squints at him.

“Are you shivering?”

Kent makes a studied effort to stop.

“No.”

“Kenneth.”

“Not my name.”

“Kent Virgil Parson.” Which. Yes. That is his name. “Go inside right now. The last thing we need is you getting sick.”

“Fine. You should go to sleep.”

“Okay.”

“Drink some water first, though.”

Okay.”

“I’ll see you at the airport tomorrow.”

“Okay. Goodnight, Kent.”

“Goodnight, Eli.”

***

Kent sits next to Jeff on the plane for the flight home early the next morning. 

“You look terrible,” Jeff tells him pleasantly. “You want to call Eli and flirt for a few minutes to cheer yourself up?”

“It’s five AM,” Kent grouses. “Even with the time difference he would kill me.”

He thinks, a little anxiously, about the degree of slur in Eli’s speech the night before.

“I hope he’s not hungover today,” Kent says, more to himself than Jeff.

Jeff makes a disgusted noise.

“Also,” Kent says, lowering his voice, “I don’t flirt with him. There’s no flirting.”

Jeff wordlessly opens his photo reel and hands over his phone.

Kent gets three pictures in and flushes.

“How do you keep taking these without me noticing?”

“Flirting,” Jeff repeats.

“Yeah,” Kent admits, continuing to scroll. “Maybe a little.”

“You’re picking him up at the airport tonight, right?”

“Mhm.”

“You want company?”

Kent tries to figure out a nice way to say no and Jeff laughs.

“Never mind. I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

“That’s not—“

“It’s fine. I understand.”

Kent hands back Jeff’s phone and pulls out his own. Eli will probably wake up before they touch down in Vegas so he composes a basic “good morning” text and follows it with a see you tonight!!

“Do you think two exclamation marks are excessive?” he asks.

“Oh yeah,” Jeff says sagely, “He’ll for sure know you’re in love with him, now.”

Kent shoves an elbow into Jeff’s side.

“I don’t know why I’m friends with you.”

“Because no one else will put up with your shit.”

“True,” Kent admits, and that feels a little to honest for comfort.

Jeff slings an arm around him. “I have a gift for you,” he says.

“Okay?”

“Permission to sleep on my shoulder for the duration of this flight.”

“How is that different from any other flight?”

“I have another gift for you.”

“Okay?”

“An invitation to shut the hell up.”

“Thanks,” Kent says seriously. “I hate it.”

He leans his temple against Jeff anyway.

Jeff grumbles something about ungrateful children, but doesn’t push him away.

Chapter Text

Sometimes Kent wants Eli so badly it's like resisting a physical confrontation. Like a fight on the ice in the third period of a playoff game. Like someone has a hand in his jersey and is dragging him forward and he knows it’s going to end in a fist to the face, gloves off and bloody, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it, just maybe delay it a little. Because it’s going to fucking hurt when it’s over.

It’s all Kent can do not to kiss him when Eli comes down the arrivals staircase. Instead, he hugs him. Well. It’s a little excessive for a hug. ‘Picks him up and shoves his face in his sternum’ might be a little more accurate but —

“Kent Parson, you put me down right now.”

“What,” Kent says, grinning up at him, arms tight around Eli’s hips. “Tater can do it but I can’t?”

“I’m not afraid that Tater is going to drop me.”

“EXCUSE YOU?”

Eli laughs, stealing Kent’s hat and settling it, backwards, on his own head.

Kent puts him down so he can take it back because he’d left the house in a hurry and his hair is a mess.

That’s when he notices the man with a camera.

He’s standing just to the side of the first rental car kiosk, all the way on the other side of the baggage claim atrium. The telephoto lens on his camera tells Kent that his presence there isn’t an accident.

“What?” Eli asks, but notices where Kent is looking before he can respond.

Eli takes a deliberate step away from him, expression shuttering, and Kent is abruptly furious.

He slings an arm around Eli’s shoulders because he’s pissed and feeling reckless. “Ignore him,” he says, pulling Eli tight to his side. “Let’s go get your bags.”

Eli glances up at him, uncertain, but doesn’t pull away. “Okay.”

The pictures are on the internet before they even get back to Kent’s place. 

Kent knows this because his phone starts ringing as they’re waiting to pull into the parking garage.

“It was like fifteen minutes ago,” Kent answers in lieu of a greeting.

Jessica’s silence is judgmental. How, he isn’t sure. But it definitely is.

“Tater did the same exact thing and he didn’t get in trouble,” Kent says before she has a chance to say anything. “I should be allowed to hug my—uh. Eli. Without people freaking out about my goddamn sexuality.”

He realizes he’s whining. It’s fine.

“First,” she says, “You’re not ‘in trouble.’ If you want to pick up your friend at the airport—literally—“ she adds, sotto voce, “that’s your prerogative. I’m just here to talk to you about public reception and potentially mitigating speculation.”

“So?” Kent says. Well, sighs, really.

He wedges the phone between his ear and shoulder so he can roll down the car window and scan his fob for the garage gate.

“So Eli’s pictures with Alexei last week were actually helpful. Obviously it’s early, but the journalist who published the pictures, and most comments so far, seem to think that you’re intentionally messing with the press at this point. It also helped that you looked right at the camera before you put your arm around his shoulder.”

“Oh…kay?”

“Of course there are those who speculate that you’ve employed Alexei’s help in covering up the fact that you're in a relationship with Eli, but we can deal with that.”

Kent rolls his window back up.

“Why do they think it’s me hiding a relationship and not Tater?”

Eli, quiet until then in the passenger seat, sucks in a breath.

Jessica doesn’t respond for a moment.

What?” Kent says.

“You’ve never had a girlfriend,” Jessica says. “You’ve never even been seen spending one-on-one time with a woman. Never been caught on a walk of shame or accused of being a playboy. And, for all your ill-advised exploits your rookie year, you’ve never been photographed in a compromising position with a woman. Ever. Do you know how unusual it is, that I’ve not once had photographs of you groping some girl in a club come across my desk? Which—don’t get me wrong—I’m very happy about that, but people who have been paying attention to your past are all too happy to point out that you have zero history with dating, or even hooking up with, the opposite gender. Alexei, on the other hand…”

Kent sighs. 

Tater is a serial monogamist. Who loves quickly, and wholly, and documents the minutia of his affection across various social media platforms until the relationships end. There’s no question that Tater loves women.

“There’s also—“ she pauses, and Kent doesn’t like the sound of that at all.

“There’s also Jack Zimmerman.”

Kent wrenches the steering wheel a little too sharply as he’s turning the corner and flails for a moment, dropping the phone, as he tries not to sideswipe a Mercedes.

He curses while Eli leans over the center console to retrieve it.

“Hey. Sorry. Dropped my phone. What about Jack?”

Eli stills beside him.

“No one has published anything yet, but I did a little digging myself. Just to cover our bases. You two weren’t exactly subtle, in juniors. It’s like I said before—little things add up. And if someone ever decides to compile all the little pictures and interviews and Instagram posts…it might be compelling enough for people to take notice, is all I’m saying. Which is why you need to be careful. Provided—“

“Provided I don’t want to come out,” Kent says.

“Yes,” Jessica agrees. “Though if that ever changes—“

“Right.”

“Okay.”

Kent pulls into his parking space and just leans on the steering wheel for a minute.

“Okay. Thanks. Keep me posted, I guess? I just got home and—“

“I’m assuming Eli is with you?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Go enjoy your evening. We can talk more later.”

Kent hangs up but doesn’t move.

“Should I ask?” Eli says.

“It’s not a big deal,” Kent says, turning off the car. “Just. Jessica was warning me that there’s speculation. That we’re—you and me—are together and Tater is like, trying to help throw people off or something.”

“Oh.”

“Apparently my history doesn’t really help things.”

“History?”

“I’ve never had a girlfriend. And all the old media from juniors with me and Jack is a little damning, I guess.”

He takes off his hat, scrubbing a hand through his hair before replacing it. “I’ve never been good at hiding how I feel.”

“That’s…not a bad thing,” Eli says. “Normally.”

“Yeah,” Kent agrees. “Normally. Come on, I don’t want to think about this anymore. Lets go.” 

Kent pauses as he’s pulling Eli’s suitcase out of the back hatch. “Oh. Are you staying tonight or should I—I’m sorry. I didn’t even ask if you wanted to come here, I just assumed. Do you want to go back to your dorm? I can take you now. Or maybe after we’ve eaten?”

Eli reaches for the side handle on the bag and helps Kent pull it all the way out.

“I was planning to stay here tonight, if that’s okay.”

“Oh. Good. Cool. Yes.”

They’re quiet on the way up to Kent’s apartment, elbows bumping in the elevator.

Once inside, Eli takes off Hawke’s vest and Kent immediately drops into a crouch to say hi. She locates her braided rope toy under the couch and they roll around the kitchen floor while Eli goes to shower the airplane off his skin.

Eventually Kent’s arms get tired of playing tug-o-war and he lays on the rug, face-up, letting Hawke use him as a pillow while she chews triumphantly on her rope—the knotted end occasionally whacking Kent in the face. He loves it.

Eli, barefooted, damp, and smiling, finds them there a few minutes later.

He’s wearing Kent’s clothes. The t-shirt is one he’s had for years, over-washed and soft, the collar separated in places—and Kent has to close his eyes for a minute.

“Hawke missed you,” Eli says, sitting next to Kent’s head.

“I missed her too.” He shifts Hawke off his chest and onto the floor so he can sit up. “Are you hungry?”

“Not really. Just tired. It was a good visit but it was also...a lot.“

“I understand.”

Eli’s phone buzzes on the counter and he stands to retrieve it, huffing out a laugh as he returns again. He sits closer this time, cross-legged, one bare knee touching Kent’s hip. His skin is still flushed from the hot water. He smells like Kent’s soap and Kent can’t decide if he loves it or hates it.

“I’m sorry,” Eli says, looking at his phone.

Kent takes a moment to refocus.

“Hmm?”

“Tater just sent me some screen caps of gossip articles, pretending to be jealous.”

“Jealous about what?”

“About how you and I have some sort of epic hidden romance. Which, I know this is what you were trying to avoid but it’s also—“ He shrugs a little helplessly.

“It’s also what?”

“It’s nice. That people think, you know. That.”

“What?”

“That someone would want me. That someone like you would want me.”

The look on Eli’s face—a little embarrassed, a little pleased—makes Kent feel like he’s just been punched in the stomach.

And suddenly he’s angry.

“I need you to do me a favor and never say anything like that ever again,” he says.

Eli laughs, but it’s self-deprecating. And Kent just. Can’t handle it anymore.

It’s not graceful. 

There’s a dog in between them and Eli’s mouth is half-open because he’s about to say something else but Kent just.

Kisses him.

In an awkward half-lunge with one hand braced on the floor and the other moving to turn Eli’s face into his and it’s—

Well. It’s not graceful. But it is good.

At least until Eli shoves him away.

“What are you doing?” he says, standing with none of his usual grace.

Kent stands too because it seems like the thing to do.

“I don’t know,” he admits. And it occurs to him now how horribly, horribly, stupid that was.

“I’m sorry. Fuck. I’m sorry. But your face—“

“My face?! What does that even—”

Eli paces into the kitchen, leaning both hands on the island, and Kent follows because of course he does. 

“You drive me crazy,” Kent says. “All the time. And then you say things like you think you’re somehow less than me or—or anyone else. And it’s stupid. Because you’re—“ he gestures wordlessly, unable to describe everything that makes Eli so—“you’re you. And that’s. The best thing. Anyone would be lucky to have you. I would be lucky to have you. Not, like, the other way around.”

What?” Eli says. Well. Yells.

“What what?” Kent answers. 

Hawke, baffled and a little concerned, sits up to watch them.

“You can’t say you’d be ‘lucky to have me’ when you don’t want me, that’s bullshit, Kent.”

“I don’t—what are you talking about? Of course I do.”

“No,” Eli says, “No you don’t. Because you said. You said that you weren’t willing to risk your career and that you wouldn’t date anyone until you were retired.”

“Well yeah but I’d only known you for like a week at that point. How was I supposed to know that you’d—that you’re—”

“That I’m what?”

“That you’d be worth it! Maybe. I don’t know. And what about you? You said you wouldn’t be okay with dating someone who wasn’t out.”

“Well,” Eli says, sounding a little winded. “That’s. I could say the same thing.”

“Say the same thing as what?”

That maybe you’d be worth it,” Eli shouts.

“Well fuck,” Kent says.

“Yeah.”

“So.”

Eli exhales, sliding down the side of the island to sit with his back braced against it. After a moment of consideration, Kent joins him, pressed shoulder to shoulder, breathing unsteady.

Hawke happily moves to drape herself across their laps and they both reach out to pet her automatically.

Neither of them say anything for several seconds.

“So what if we—tried,” Eli says, attention on his fingers sifting through Hawke’s thick winter coat.

Kent opens his mouth and closes it again. “I’m going to need more than that.”

“We could try. Like. Being together. I guess.”

“But you don’t—“

“Well you don’t either, but.”

“Yeah.”

This isn’t actually a conversation, Kent thinks a little hysterically.

“We’d just. Keep it a secret? And…see?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure you’re okay with that?” Kent asks.

“Yes.”

“You shouldn’t have to be anyone’s secret.”

“Well. You shouldn’t have to keep me a secret but the world sucks. So.”

There’s this feeling of rising—euphoria, maybe? That’s hot in the back of Kent’s throat, like maybe this can actually happen, maybe he does get to have this after all, but he tries to push it down, at least momentarily, in favor of rational thought.

“What if we’re a disaster?” he says. “Apart from Jeff you’re my best friend and I don’t want to fuck that up.”

Eli leans into him a little, thinking.

“We’ll just agree not to let things get weird. If it doesn’t work we’ll be awkward for a couple weeks and then everything will go back to normal.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Kent breathes for a moment. Because things not working isn’t actually his biggest concern. And he could leave it. He doesn’t have to talk about it now. But he should. Because he learned the hard way that letting someone in doesn’t mean they’ll stay.

“And what if it’s great?” he asks.

“Then that’s…good?”

“No, I mean. What if we’re perfect together. And shit's like, real. And nobody knows.”

Eli bites his lip.

He doesn’t say anything for several seconds which is a comfort. Because it means he’s actually thinking about it. 

“I’m not sure I could do that indefinitely,” he says finally. “Waiting until you retired, or whatever. I think I would get mad. Resent you. If I tried. So. I’d have to know there was an end point. Even if the timeline was years and not months.”

“How many years?”

“Kent. We haven’t even—“

“No,” he says, insistent. “I’m not starting something if it’s just going to fall apart because of—“

“Three,” Eli interrupts. “Three years, max. By the time I graduate.”

“Okay.” Kent says.

“Okay?”

“Yeah. If things work.” He rubs his palms down Hawke’s spine, trying to get his hands to stop shaking. “I think I could be ready by then. I’m not now. But I could be, eventually. For a good reason.”

“I’m a good reason?”

“Best one I’ve found.”

“Holy shit. That was smooth.”

Kent laughs, which was probably Eli’s goal. “Thanks.”

Eli loops his arm through Kent’s, resting his head against Kent’s shoulder, and drags the knuckles of his opposite hand up and down the soft skin of Kent’s inner bicep.

“I’m assuming you need a minute?” he says.

And Kent does. Because this is big. This is huge. And the happiness in his gut is tempered by warranted fear. 

“Do you need to call Anika?” Eli asks.

Kent’s first reaction is anger. Because that shouldn’t even be a question. It’s not fair that he lives in a world where getting something he wants—something he wants so badly—also necessitates a talk with a goddamn therapist. His second reaction, though, is overwhelming affection. Because Eli is probably freaking out just as much as he is right now but Eli is still trying to take care of him and that’s—good. 

“No. I’ll call her tomorrow. Thanks, though.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Eli clears his throat. “So. We’ve been very mature and rational about this whole thing, I think.”

“Yeah?”

“Which is great. But could we maybe not? For a minute?”

Kent doesn’t understand. 

“I don’t understand.”

“Well all this talking about the future and stuff is uh, healthy. But—“ Eli licks his lips, then bites them, then makes an embarrassed noise.

Oh.

Kent grins.

“You want to make out like a couple of teenagers for a while?”

Eli grins back at him. “Yes, please.”

“I’d be okay with that,” Kent says magnanimously.

Eli leans over to snag Hawke’s rope toy and tosses it into the living room. The moment she scrambles after it, skidding a little on the concrete floor, Eli climbs into Kent’s newly vacated lap.

Kent’s hands settle automatically at Eli’s waist, palms cupping the lean swell of his hips, thumbs pressed to the sharp jut of his hipbones, nails dragging, light, against the warm skin just beneath the hem of his shirt. His hands move without him really telling them to—up the taut muscle of Eli’s sides, fingers settling briefly in the trenches of his ribs as Eli inhales sharply. 

There’s so much of him that Kent wants to touch and he can because it’s allowed now and—

Eli reaches for Kent’s face, laughing, and Kent remembers, a little belatedly, that he’s supposed to be kissing him.

“Hi,” Kent says.

“Hi,” Eli agrees.

Chapter Text

Eli wakes up to Hawke’s insistent nose in his face.

This isn’t particularly unusual.

What is unusual is the fact that he’s being pretty aggressively spooned by one Kent Parson. Kent’s left arm is tucked tightly around Eli’s ribcage and Eli gets caught up for a moment staring down at the little white scar on Kent’s first knuckle, the subtle map of veins embossed on the back of his hand, the fine blonde hair on his forearm, pale and bright in the water-color light of early morning desert sun. There’s something revelatory about Kent’s sleep-slack fingers—still curled in an approximation of a fist in the fabric of Eli’s shirt, and—

Hawke makes a disgruntled noise and Eli sighs, extricating himself from Kent’s various clinging limbs. He steals Kent’s hoodie and keys from counter, and squints his way down the elevator and out to the dog relief area.

He’s still mostly asleep when they get back to the apartment a few minutes later, and he makes it as far as opening the guest bedroom door, resisting the urge to climb back into bed with Kent, before realizing he doesn’t have to resist anymore.

And holy shit. 

That is the best feeling.

“Hey,” Kent murmurs as Eli squirms his way under the sheets again. “Hawke?”

“Yeah.”

“Time isit?”

“Six.”

Kent makes grabby hands toward him and Eli tucks himself back against Kent’s chest, face-to-face this time.

“Hey,” Kent says again, blinking slowly at him. “You’re here.”

“Uh. Yeah?”

“Good. You should always be here.”

And then he’s tugging Eli into a sleepy, off-center kiss which is cute right up until Kent pulls away a moment later and whispers in his ear, “your breath is rank.”

Eli shoves Kent’s face away. “Yours ain’t so great either.”

“Oh it ain’t?”

“Shut up. At least I brushed my teeth last night unlike someone.”

“Don’t be like that,” Kent grouses. “The southern-y thing you do when you’re mad is adorable though, just so you know.”

“‘Southern-y’ isn’t a word.”

“Oh and ‘ain't’ is?”

Eli hits Kent with a pillow.

The ensuing pillow fight is short-lived because Hawke gets involved and then they’re sneezing and picking feathers out of each other’s hair and Kent bemoans the passive-aggressive note he knows the maid will leave him while Eli drags him for having a maid at all.

They brush their teeth and Eli puts a record on and they make pancakes together—or more accurately Eli makes pancakes and Kent drapes himself over Eli’s back, making commentary on his flipping technique and pressing occasional minty kisses to the nape of his neck.

Kent’s eyes are kind of puffy and there are pillow creases on his cheek and his hair is an absolute mess and it shouldn’t be a big deal because Eli has spent plenty of mornings with Kent before. But never this close. Never this real. So it is kind of a big deal, after all.

He takes a deep breath and tries to focus.

“So,” Eli says, pouring batter out of the bowl and into the skillet. “Can you take me by my dorm first to drop off my suitcase before we go to the rink? I don’t want to deal with hauling it around all day.”

“Or you can just leave it here,” Kent says into his shoulder.

Eli shifts his weight from one foot to the other and Kent sways with him.

“I can leave some things, but—“

He isn’t sure how to say it. But he needs to. He can’t just—

“I wasn’t planning on coming back here after class today.”

Kent straightens, pulling away from him.

“Right. Of course.”

“Hey. Wait.”

He catches Kent’s wrist in the hand not occupied with a spatula, and tugs him back. He rubs his thumb against the knob of Kent’s wrist bone because it seems appropriately conciliatory.

“Remember when we were doing the questions thing? From my psychology homework?”

“Yeah?”

“I told you then—one of the things you’d need to know if we were going to have a close relationship is that I need space sometimes, especially after I’ve been around a lot of people for an extended period of time and after the last week—“

“You’re all peopled out?”

“I am so peopled out. I’m also behind on my homework. And after last night…I just need some processing time.”

“Right. Okay. So. You haven’t changed your mind?”

No. God no.”

“How much, uh, time do you think you’ll need? Should I—will it bother you if I text you, or?”

“No, please, text me. And probably just a day or so.”

“Okay.” Kent reels Eli in closer again, tentative at first, then a little more confidently when Eli goes willingly. He links his fingers behind Eli’s lower back, still swaying a little to the music.

“So. Obviously you can say no and I won’t be like, mad or anything. But do you maybe want to go to the game on Wednesday? Swoops is out with his ankle so you could sit with him and Alex in a private box.”

Eli rests his hands on Kent’s chest, trying not to smear batter from the spatula on his shirt.

“Yeah. That would be great. I’ve been wanting to go to a game in person for a while now.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool.” He takes a steadying breath. A Mindful Breath, Eli thinks.

“It would be important to me,” Kent says slowly. “If you went.”

“Then I’ll be there.”

He grins: the big, honest, crinkly-eyed smile that the media never gets and leans down to press a chaste kiss to Eli’s mouth.

It doesn’t stay chaste long.

Eli isn’t really sure what happens. One second he’s chasing Kent’s mouth for a quick second kiss and then he’s sitting on the counter with Kent’s hips between his splayed thighs, ankles hooked behind Kent’s waist, fingers knotted in his hair. The spatula is…somewhere, and one of Kent’s hands is pushed up the leg of Eli’s boxers, palming the curve of his ass and—

And Eli gathers enough presence of mind to push Kent away, breathing hard.

Kent looks a weird combination of sheepish and turned on and Eli just. Can’t. He slides off the counter, and then nearly to the floor because apparently his balance is a little off and Kent steadies him, going from flushed arousal to concern in .03 seconds.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Eli glances at the stove and winces. “Pancakes aren’t, though.”

He bins the pan’s blackened contents, finds the spatula on the floor—licked clean by an unrepentant Hawke—and sets about starting the process over while Kent hovers anxiously behind him, no longer touching, but a warm, distracting, presence that makes him want to abandon breakfast all together and just drag him back into the bedroom and—

Eli takes a breath and pours a new round of batter into the pan.

He turns to face Kent and licks his bottom lip, which feels a little tender and puffy and probably looks that way too judging by the way Kent is staring at his mouth.

“So,” Eli says. “Uh. That talking thing? We should probably do that. About,” he gestures between them because apparently saying “sex” in the early morning light of Kent Parson’s kitchen is beyond him, despite the fact that they were just grinding against each other a few minutes before. Its fine. He’s a teenager and hasn’t reached full maturity yet or whatever.

“We should talk about sex?” Kent asks, because clearly that extra 2 years makes a difference. 

“Yes?”

“Okay.”

Kent moves a little closer, pulling Eli flush against him again and then looks down at him expectantly and Eli regrets all of his life choices.

“Maybe you could start?” Eli says.

“Uh,” Kent says, a little bemused. “I’m in favor? Of the sex.”

Eli coughs on a laugh, exhaling, and lets his forehead fall forward to rest against Kent’s collarbone. He smells good.

“Noted.”

“Are you also in favor of the sex?” Kent asks.

“I’m. Not opposed?”

Kent smirks, hitching one thigh a little where it's pressed against Eli’s dick and yes, okay, it’s pretty obvious he’s not opposed, but—

“Hey,” Kent takes a step back, not letting go of him but putting an inch or so of space between them, a little pinch between his eyebrows. “Are you okay?”

“I’m—yes. I’m so happy right now, you don’t even know.”

“I might,” Kent mutters and Eli has to kiss him for that.

“But?” Kent says.

“But I’ve never done this before. The relationship stuff or the—“

He waves a hand.

“Sex stuff,” Kent supplies helpfully.

“Right. Just. Any of it. Everything in the last twenty-four hours has been a first for me and the fact that it’s with you—“

“You’re thinking ‘Kent fucking Parson’ in your head right now, aren’t you?” Kent says. He sounds a little resigned.

“I might be.”

“But it’s just me.

“I know. You’re not the problem. Well, you are, a little bit. Because I really—I don’t want to fuck this up. But the circumstances…”

Kent winces and Eli cups his hands around the back of Kent’s neck.

“It’s not your fault. But this is all kind of overwhelming. And like, back home when you like someone you go on a couple of dates and hold hands and sneak kisses and then one day you leave a movie early so you can make out in the back of a pickup before your parents expect you home and then—it’s a process. Is my point. And usually you go through that process with multiple people before you find—a person. That’s really important. But I didn’t get to do any of that, before. And now I’m here and I’m sleeping in your bed with you and I don’t have a curfew and it’s just—“

“Overwhelming,” Kent repeats.

“Yeah. And the whole professional NHL player, keeping things a secret, aspect doesn’t really help.”

“That’s fair. So. We’ll take things slow, then?”

“Please. I mean. This—what we’ve been doing is fine, just. Nothing more until I’ve like, acclimated. If you don’t mind.”

“Okay.”

They just stand there for a moment, holding on to each other, and Kent purses his lips.

“While we’re on the topic of serious shit…”

“Oh my god. More talking?” It comes out a little whinier than Eli it means it to, but Kent seems endeared rather than annoyed, so its okay.

“Yes,” Kent says, “More talking. Anika will be so happy she’ll let me choose something from the treasure box.”

“Your therapist has a treasure box?”

“Yours doesn’t?”

“Well, if he does he probably only offers it as a reward for children.”

Kent sticks out his tongue which really doesn’t do him any favors in terms of proving maturity.

“Anyway,” Kent says, hiking up Eli’s shirt a little so he can sneak his thumb under the fabric. He pets the skin over Eli’s hip bone, absent, like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. “I think we should talk about what we mean when we say we’re going to keep this a secret. Like. Are we telling people close to us, or—?”

“Oh. Well. The only person I’d want to tell is Eric. I’m already keeping the Jack thing a secret from him so.”

“Of course. Yeah. I’d like to tell Jeff. I also want to tell Tater about, you know, me in general. I think I’m ready and seeing how cool he’s been with you is—“

Eli bites his lip and Kent narrows his eyes.

“What?

“Uh. I’m pretty sure Tater already knows? About you. He told me at breakfast last week that you—that he could tell we were interested in each other. Which. I told him I was definitely into you but I wasn’t sure if you, like, reciprocated. He was actually really cool about it. That was the reason for the airport hug.”

“Oh.” Kent takes a steading breath. “Okay. Well. I’d want to tell Tater and Jeff then. Which, Jeff would probably figure it out pretty quickly anyway, but—“ he pauses, thumb stilling against Eli’s hip.

“What?”

“Do you want to see?” Kent asks, and he’s got a look on his face that can only mean trouble.

“See what?”

“How long it takes Jeff to figure it out.”

Eli grins. “Definitely.”

Kent ducks to kiss him again. 

…And then again. 

And then—

Eli is pretty sure he’s the instigator of the third kiss, maybe the fourth one too, and it’s not until Kent is lifting him back up onto the counter that he remembers—

“Oh, shit, the pancakes.”

****

Eli takes a two hour nap after class, plays fetch with Hawke, eats at the dining hall with the Morgans, and then, feeling suitably well-rested and somewhat human again, he FaceTimes Eric.

It’s nearly 10pm  Eric’s time and he’s clearly fresh from the shower when he answers the call—all damp and rumpled and pink from the steam. He’s wearing an unfamiliar sweater that looks far too big for him. And he’s…in Jack’s room.

“Why are you in Jack’s room?” Eli asks.

“Hey sweetheart,” Eric says blithely. “It was so good to see you this weekend. How was your first day back?”

“Yes, yes. Hello, hi, why are you in Jack’s room?”

Eric sighs like he’s a lost cause. “My dorm lost power from the ice storm today. Jack is letting me stay here for the night.”

“Where is Jack sleeping?”

“With Shitty.”

The screen is admittedly pixelated, but Eric looks a little disappointed by that.

“Ah.”

“Hopefully class will be cancelled tomorrow, though. There’s supposed to be over a foot of snow tonight.”

“I miss you,” Eli says, because apparently all this talking about feelings has made him a little less emotionally stunted.

Eric’s face goes all crumply and Eli wishes he could take it back.

“I do too. Lord, but I’d actually sort of forgotten how much I missed having you around in person and now I’ve remembered and it’s like…a fresh wound, you know?”

“Yeah.”

They both just stare at each other, getting progressively shinier around the eyes, until Hawke climbs up onto the bed and sidles her way forward until her head is in Eli’s lap. He moves the laptop a little further away so she doesn’t knock it off the edge of the bed on accident.

“So,” Eli says. “I actually wanted to tell you something.”

“Oh?”

“But you can’t tell anyone else. And I do mean anyone.”

“Okay.”

Eric gets up, leaving the screen for a moment, and Eli can hear him shouldering the door to Jack’s room closed. It doesn’t really fit in the sagging frame anymore and there’s a pretty distinctive screech against the wood floor when he finally gets it in place.

“Okay,” Eric repeats, jumping back onto the bed. “Hit me.”

“Well,” Eli says, and he can’t help it, he’s already grinning like a maniac. Because here’s a sentence he never in his wildest dreams thought he would get to say:

“I’m dating Kent Parson.”

Eric doesn’t say anything for several seconds.

“Are you serious?”

“I am so serious.”

Eric screams. Just. Straight up. Screams.

“Shut up. Shut up! No. That’s—seriously?!”

“Seriously.”

“Oh my god. Eli. I’m so happy for you. But how—“

Eric glances away from the screen when someone knocks on the door. 

“Bits?” It sounds like Shitty. “You okay, bro?”

“Fine!” Eric yells back. “I’m just talking to Eli and he had some good news. But everything’s fine!”

“Okay,” Shitty answers. “Hi Eli! Hi Hawke! Congratulations on the good news!”

Eli kisses Hawke’s head, laughing, as Eric returns his attention to the screen.

“Tell me,” he demands.

“Well. Yesterday Kent picked me up at the airport—“

Yeah he did,” Eric interrupts.

Eli rolls his eyes.

“And we sort of ended up yelling at each other but then talking about things? And we decided we would try. Being together.”

“Is he—he’s not going to come out though, right?”

“No, not right now. But he said he would. If things go well.”

Eric sucks in a breath. “You believe him?”

And that’s the question isn’t it?

“Yeah,” Eli says, soft. “I do.”

“Alright then,” Eric agrees, positively beaming at him. “Only you, Eli. An NHL star. I mean, honestly.” His smile dims a little. “So. Not to be downer. But you know I’ve got your back, right? However all of this turns out?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Good.” Eric considers him for a minute. “You look exhausted. Did you sleep last night? Or were you…busy.”

For someone so adorable, Eric does lecherous a little too well.

Excuse you, we are taking things slow,” Eli says primly.

Eric makes a judgmental noise. “Why? That boy is furthest thing from my type but I do have eyes. I’ve seen the photosets on Tumblr. His ass is a national treasure.”

Eli’s not about to argue with that.

“Everything is just really new. And it's a lot. To deal with.” Eli says, and Eric sobers.

“No, I know. I wasn’t—“

“I did, uh, touch it, though?”

“The Parson Booty?”

“We’re not calling it that, but yes.”

“Verdict?”

“Very firm. A+ work.”

“And on the eighth day,” Eric intones, eerily similar to the pastor at Eric’s church back home. "The Lord made hockey asses. And Eli felt one. And it was good.”

“Hallelujah,” Eli agrees.

Chapter Text

On Wednesday, Eli goes straight from class to Kent’s apartment.

Kent isn’t there—it’s an early game so he’s already deep in his pre-game rituals at the arena—but it allows Eli to take his time sorting through Kent’s closet for something to wear. He’d realized that morning that every single piece of Aces related clothing Kent has given him, or snuck into his skate bag, or left in the guest closet, or—well, the point is that all of the shirts and jerseys and sweaters have Kent’s name and number on them (Eli files that information away for analysis later), and while he may want to explicitly flaunt his loyalties, it’s probably not a good idea considering recent media speculation.

Eli eventually just borrows one of Kent’s generic Aces hoodies and waits in the lobby for Jeff and Alex to pick them up. He sits in the back seat of Alex’s car with Hawke, apologizing about the dog hair because that’s his life, while Jeff complains about never being able to walk again despite the fact that he’s in a boot and walking just fine.

Alex does that thing where she meets Eli’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and they commiserate for a moment about what a giant baby the professional hockey player in the passenger seat is.

Eli likes Alex. He already knew from Jeff that she was a twenty-seven year old doctoral student in Biology, currently working on her dissertation, and Jeff has repeatedly said that she’s far too smart for him and he’s lucky he conned her into marrying him with his good looks and charm.

By the time they get to their seats he’s also learned that Alex grew up in California, nearly decided to become a professional skateboarder before going with academia instead, and usually drives a motorcycle when not chauffeuring her injured husband, a disabled kid, and a service dog, around.

“She’s a lot cooler than you,” Eli tells Jeff when they get to the stadium.

“She is,” Jeff agrees.

“I married him for his dimples and money,” Alex says.

“Fair,” Eli says, “his ass isn’t half bad either,” because he’s been thinking a lot about butts recently and apparently lacks a filter.

“True. Dimples, money, and ass,” Alex amends.

Jeff looks smug.

The box is comparatively quiet, there’s a bathroom less than a hundred feet from the door, and Eli is feeling pretty good as he settles in, getting Hawke tucked next to his seat, leaning a little toward Alex as she continues to tell him about the new bike she has her eye on.

Judging by the look on Jeff’s face, it’s going to be her Christmas present.

By the time warmups are over, he’s gotten the rundown on her dissertation, knows more about Mexican Freetailed Bats than a good portion of the US population, and has also heard the story of Jeff and Alex’s bizarre courtship.

“I’d never seen a hockey game in my life, but Jeff was playing for the Stars when I was doing research in Texas. I ran into this guy in a bar one night in Dallas and—“

“She was so drunk,” Jeff notes.

“I was a little drunk,” she admits. “And I mentioned the connection between bats and tequila—“

“She talked for twenty minutes about how vital Long Nosed Bat migration patterns were for the distribution and diversification of agave plants—which tequila is derived from— and how the decline in their species was effecting the alcohol industry. And despite the fact that she was wasted she was super eloquent and used a shit tonne of words I didn’t understand. It was adorable.”

“He immediately fell in love with my wit and bat-savvy,” she continues.

“I did.”

“And we went out on our first date the next night.”

“By summer I was so in love with her that I voluntarily spent two straight weeks in Mexico with her, knee-deep in guano, with no electricity half the time and no idea what the hell was happening all of the time because everyone was speaking Spanish.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Well yeah. You get excited about guano and you speak Spanish. You had a blast.”

“I do not get excited about—“

“And what about the drug cartel!”

“The drug cartel?” Eli asks.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Alex says.

“We nearly died.”

“We did not.”

“I’m sorry,” Eli repeats. “The drug cartel?”

“One of the caves housing a colony she was researching was being used by smugglers to hide their cocaine stash or whatever,” Jeff says.

“We don’t know that,” Alex mutters, aggrieved.

“So, what, the angry men with guns were protecting a stash of jellybeans in their top secret boarder cave?”

“Once they understood we were scientists they let us go and no one got hurt,” Alex says to Eli. Her tone implies that her husband is being ridiculous. “They understood the importance of bats in the propagation cycle of agave plants. They appreciated the work we were doing.”

“Yes. Thank God for environmentally conscious drug dealers,” Jeff says.

Alex rolls her eyes.

“Anyway,” she continues, “luckily I was finished with the bulk of my research in Texas and Mexico by the time he was traded. So when he asked me to marry him and head for the desert, I said yes. I mean. I still have to travel quite a bit for ongoing research and to meet with my committee members, but his ridiculous paycheck facilitates that so living here isn’t a huge imposition.”

“Don’t let her lie to you,” Jeff says, “She complains all the time about the quality of the caves in the vicinity of Vegas. She has strong opinions about caves. Almost as strong as her opinions about guano. She’s a cave person.”

“That joke never gets old, dear,” Alex says flatly.

“I know.”

Jeff smooshes a kiss against her temple and she swats him away.

Eli is charmed.

The game starts and they fall mostly quiet. The Aces are playing the Falconers, and while they’ve been doing really well this season, Eli is pretty confident the Aces will win.

Kent takes the face-off against a man who towers over him, wins it, and then Eli is, quite literally, on the edge of his seat. It’s nothing like watching at home, on his laptop or Kent’s couch, where there’s this sort of sense of separation—like it’s not really happening or something because it’s on the television screen. Here, he holds his breath through each of Kent’s shifts, winces every time someone tries to run him into the boards, screams encouragement when Tater retaliates for a dirty hit, and jumps out of his seat at a particularly pretty save by Rushy.

Alex spends most of the game laughing at him.

Jeff spends most of the game muttering under his breath and leaning back and forth in his seat like he can telekinetically influence the puck.

The Aces win 3-2 in overtime: Tater with an assist by Kent; Rads with an assist by Matts; and Kent unassisted. 

There’s this brief moment immediately following the puck’s slick slide beneath the goalie’s descending left leg, when Kent’s arms go up before the goal horn has even sounded. He turns, momentum carrying him back around the boards—and he points directly to the box where Eli is sitting. 

It’s too far away. Eli can’t see Kent’s face, wouldn’t even be able to tell that the small figure on the ice so far below is Kent without the name and number emblazoned on his jersey. But for a three-second stretch of interminable time, it feels like Kent is looking right at him.

Everyone piles on Kent a moment later before they take turns knocking helmets with Rushy who blocked 36 shots and generally kicked ass, and then they’re leaving the ice and Eli’s face, a little open-mouthed and dumb-looking, is on the jumbotron. Alex throws an arm around his shoulder and waves, and then Jeff lounges across both of their laps so he’s in view of the camera as well before the screen changes to show a group of blonde women who all look eerily similar cheering in the stands.

“Those are some of the WAGs,” Jeff says, his head still mostly in Eli’s lap. “Alex hates that she looks so much like them.”

“I’d dye my hair brown on principal except it’d be all wrong with my skin tone.”

“Your hair is beautiful,” Eli says loyally, because it is. Alex’s hair is this really nice honey-gold color, thick and sort of wavy, with a blunt edge just below her shoulders.

“And it’s a damn shame, too,” she agrees. “Because I fit right in with the fembots.”

Alex,” Jeff says.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with them!” She amends. “They’re all wonderful women and I do enjoy spending time with them. It’s just.”

“All WAGs kinda look the same?”

“Yeah. And here I am proliferating the issue.”

“Once Kicks graduates you’ll get a little diversity,” Jeff says.

“Kicks?” Eli asks.

“Rushy’s girlfriend. She’s playing NCAA hockey at Stanford right now. She’s Japanese-American.”

Eli whistles. “Stanford?”

“I know,” Jeff says. “How he managed that, no one knows. He doesn’t even have dimples.”

“Still a nice ass,” Eli and Alex say simultaneously, and Jeff rolls his eyes.

Jeff shifts to his feet awkwardly, then offers his hand to Alex, intentionally dimple-ing at her. “Want to drop by the locker room?” he asks Eli. “Kent would probably like that.”

“Are you sure it’s okay?”

“Yeah, definitely. Come on.”

“I’ll go get the car and wait for you outside the player’s exit,” Alex says, kissing Jeff absently. 

They take a special elevator with a bored-looking attendant down to the locker room level of the stadium, and after a few minutes of walking the wide cinderblock hallway, where the various people they pass, both press and staff, look like they have Very Important Things to do, Eli can hear music.

“Star of the game picks music,” Jeff says fondly. 

Eli listens to Halsey declare that she’s heading straight for the castle, and laughs.

“Kent?”

“Definitely Kent.”

Jeff shoulders open the door and Eli has to take a moment because A. the locker room is ridiculously large and expensive looking—though he really shouldn’t be surprised, it is Vegas—B. the smell is pretty terrible but C. there are a lot of attractive, naked, or nearly-naked, men ambling around and one of them is probably Kent.

His awkward pause just inside the door isn’t noticed because most of the guys immediately converge upon Jeff, patting his back with a degree of roughness that seems counterintuitive to recovery from an injury.

When Jeff turns to introduce Eli, he’s more or less prepared with a—admittedly nervous— smile, carefully keeping his eyes at shoulders-or-above height.

“Guys, this is Eli,” Jeff says, simultaneously taking a step back and pushing Eli forward. 

“And Hawke!” Rushy yells from his stall. He’s stripped to the waist but still has his goalie pads on his legs. The dichotomy is kind of hilarious.

“And Hawke,” Eli agrees. “Hi, Rushy.”

Rushy blows him a kiss, then glances back toward the door like he’s afraid he’ll get in trouble.

Eli doesn’t know what that’s about, but if there’s one thing he’s learned about hockey in the last few months, it’s that goalies are weird.

He gets several hand shakes and jarring shoulder-slaps as he meets various people he’s interacted with on Twitter or Instagram but yet to meet in real life.

“Eli!” A very tall, very blonde, man—kid?—says. “I’m Asher. I private messaged you about the pie? It totally worked, man. My girlfriend thought it was the sweetest thing and totally forgot she was mad at me.”

“I’m tell you Eli best,” Tater yells, coming out of the shower area.

Tater is in the process of tucking a towel around his waist and he’s still all wet and—listen. Eli has no designs on Tater. But the man is jacked.

“Nice to meet you, Asher,” Eli says, “I’m glad she liked it.”

“For sure. I’m already planning our anniversary dinner—I’m going to make the mango salsa fish thing you did last year and then the key lime bars that Eric did a couple weeks back.”

Asher seems genuinely excited about the prospect. 

“Do you know what kind of wine would pair best with that? Becca likes wine but I’m—“

“Stupid rookie baby?” Tater says helpfully.

“Eli’s underage,” Jeff points out.

“So am I?” Asher says, confused.

“Baby,” Tater says again.

“Get a nice Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio,” an older man says. He’s got grey at his temples, with laugh lines and the kind of warm brown eyes that make Eli want to trust him.

“I can help you pick it out if you want.”

Asher looks delighted and potentially a little frightened. “That would be really great, Rads, thanks.” 

He sidles away, and the older man takes his place, extending a hand.

“I’m Derek. Radulouff. Nice to meet you, kid. It’s about time, Kent won’t shut up about you.”

Eli isn’t sure how to respond to that.

“It’s nice to meet you, too.”

The handshake is firm, but not unkind, and Derek crosses his arms afterward to look down at Hawke, who’s a little uncertain in the new, loud, environment, but holding her heel at his ankle.

“Good looking German Shepherd. Working line?”

“Yessir,” Eli says, because Derek seems like the kind of person you’re supposed to “sir.”

“She’s from a Czech line—bred in the US, though.”

“She’s beautiful. Good nerves too, with all this—“ he waves a hand to encompass the general madness of the locker room—“My wife has a German import boy, does SAR with him. Way too high strung for service work, but he’s a fantastic dog.”

“That’s awesome.” Eli is about to ask if he has a picture because 99% of people who bring up their dogs in conversation will happily provide one, but before he’s able to, Kent pushes his way into the locker room, still in all his gear, and a backwards snapback, and the minute he sees Eli he breaks into a giant grin.

Derek makes an amused noise and, with a soft pat to Eli’s shoulder, heads off to the showers.

“Eli!” Kent says.

“And Jeff,” Jeff says beside him, long-suffering.

“And Jeff,” Kent allows.

Jeff and Kent fist bump, then tap each other’s chests with their fists, and then Kent is in front of Eli and he’s flushed pink with exertion, grinning crookedly, and for a moment all Eli can think about is the way Kent lifted him up onto the counter two days before, the way Kent’s hips felt between his thighs.

“Hi,” Kent says.

“Hi,” Eli agrees.

He steals Kent’s hat because he needs to do something and thats suitably flirtatious without being damning.

“You played pretty good,” Eli says, settling the hat on his own head.

Pretty good? I was the star of the game. If I’d had the forethought to punch someone I would have gotten a Gordie Howe.”

“Rushy still got the first interview,” Jeff points out.

“No comment,” Rushy says.

“Star of the game,” Kent repeats. “And I’m pretty sure my interview was longer.”

He walks over to his stall, pulling off his jersey and sits down with a sigh—bulky padded legs stretched out in front of him. He takes off his chest protector next and by the time he’s stripped down to his under armor Eli is biting his bottom lip because Kent’s hair after a game but before a shower is—well, it’s delightful, really. Eli understands why the minute Kent’s helmet comes off he’s usually jamming on a hat because there’s no way any reporter would take him seriously if he did post-game interviews like this.

There’s little damp ringlets of half-formed curls stuck to his forehead, but a good portion of it is in that awkward stage between wet and dry—fluffy and completely at the will of his cowlicks.

“Your hair is ridiculous,” Eli says.

“Your face is ridiculous,” Kent retorts.

Eli ignores him, reaching to run his fingers through the hair in question. It’s sweaty and a little gross, but the action is worth the soft expression he gets in response.

“I kind of love it,” Eli says.

Kent open his mouth and then closes it again. 

His ears go a little pink.

Eli realizes Rushy is watching them and he musses Kent’s hair roughly, before shoving at Kent’s forehead with his knuckles.

“What was that slashing nonsense in the second period, though?” Eli asks, raising his voice and taking a careful step back. “Pretty sure you’re useless to your team in the box.”

Derek, emerging from the showers, yells an “amen.”

Eli’s expecting an argument from Kent—that is wasn’t intentional (even though it definitely was)—but instead, Kent’s expression shutters.

“He deserved it.”

And that’s—that’s Kent being entirely serious.

“Well,” Eli says. “I guess it’s good you slashed him, then.”

Kent’s smile returns.

Derek makes a resigned noise and mutters something about children.

It is at this point that the draw of Sweaty Hockey Player apparently becomes too difficult for Hawke to resist and she, while still technically maintaining her heel, stretches her neck out to shove her nose in Kent’s crotch.

It effectively derails the conversation.

“So,” Kent says, still laughing a minute later after Eli has chastised Hawke and she’s sitting at his feet looking repentant. “Dinner?”

“Dinner,” Eli agrees.

“Dinner?” Jeff repeats hopefully.

“I’m come?” Tater asks.

“Sure,” Eli says.

“Oh, is Eli cooking?” Rushy calls.

Several faces turn to look at him, expectant. 

Eli glances back at Kent who shrugs, a little resigned, but pleased.

“Dinner at Kent’s place!” Eli announces to the room at large. “I’m making lasagna.”

Chapter Text

All told, Kent hosts eleven people for the impromptu dinner. Well. More like Eli hosts eleven people. Kent isn’t even there for half of the preparation process because Eli doesn’t have enough ingredients—or ovens—to cook for that many people all at once, so while Eli makes the first batch of lasagna, he sends Kent to the grocery store with a very specific (insultingly specific, really) list of things to purchase. By the time Kent gets back, one lasagna is in the oven and Asher and his girlfriend, Nicky, Coots, Rushy, Rads and his wife, Tater, Jeff and Alex have all arrived and are either playing video games in the living room, or watching Eli work his magic in the kitchen. Hawke is cuddling with Coots on the couch and Kit is grumbling angrily from the top of the refrigerator.

When Kent comes in, laden with Eli’s reusable grocery bags, Eli is grinning, gesturing with a knife mid-way through cutting onions, recounting an apparently hilarious story to a small group of on-lookers

He’s wearing the forest-green apron that Kent bought and left conspicuously folded over the oven handle two weeks before and—well. Kent might not be good at fashion but the contrast between Eli’s skin, the faded blue of his jeans, the white t-shirt he’s wearing, and the deep green of the apron is nice. Very nice.

Eli looks like he belongs there. And Kent wants him to. He wants this to be normal—excessive grocery lists and reusable canvas produce bags and dinner parties with his—their—friends. He wants to settle a steadying hand on Eli’s hip as he delivers more vegetables to the cutting board, kiss Eli’s temple before putting the eggs in the refrigerator, and maybe palm his ass when he gets snarky about how long it took Kent to find the twenty-eight “quick” things on Eli’s list.

He can’t, though. Not now, at least.

So he delivers vegetables with a fleeting touch to Eli’s shoulder because it will have to do instead, puts away the eggs as instructed, and pours Eli a glass of wine because Eli likes wine and they just won a game against the Falconers and the checkout girl was hardly going to card him.

“Well thank you, Mr. Parson,” Eli says, accepting the glass. “Amanda and Derek were just asking how I met you. You want to help me tell that story?”

I do,” Jeff says from the living room, vaulting over the couch.

Kent groans.

There aren’t any bar stools left so Jeff drapes himself over Tater’s back, trying to steal a piece of carrot from the cutting board.

“Can we not?” Kent asks. He knows his face is flushing but there’s nothing he can do about it.

“Sorry, kid,” Rads says solemnly. “Seniority.”

“I’m your captain.

“You’re also underage,” he says, eyeing the wine glass in Kent’s hand.

Kent sighs.

“Alright, so,” Eli says, scraping the mound of vegetables off the cutting board and into the pot. “I’d just moved into my dorm at the start of the semester, and I was pretty nervous because it was the very first day of  practice with the figure team. I get to the facility and—“

By the end of the story the video game is paused, Jeff and Eli have reenacted several pieces of dialogue, there’s been a significant amount of laughter at Kent’s expense, and Kent has finished his glass of wine and is considering hiding in the bedroom.

“He has admittedly redeemed himself since,” Eli says, grinning up at Kent, and Kent is helpless to do anything but smile back at him.

He feels like it has to be obvious—that there’s no way he’s not just broadcasting his giant, unwieldy feelings everywhere. But no one calls him on the fact that he clearly has a massive crush on the little green-apron-wearing figure skater in his kitchen, the conversation topic changes, and the living-room occupants resume their gameplay with friendly threats of violence.

Kent needs to sit down.

It’s a nice night, is the thing.

Everyone gets along and no one says anything cringeworthy, and the food is, obviously, delicious. The only problem is that Eli can’t stay because he has homework to finish and ballet class the next morning and even after most other people have left, Coots and Nicky are still on Kent’s couch with no apparent interest in vacating it at a reasonable hour and Kent can hardly ask them to leave because he wants to make out with his boyfriend. He doesn’t even get to kiss Eli goodnight because Alex offers to drop Eli off at his dorm when she and Jeff leave and it would be weird if he didn’t accept. So Kent sleeps alone and eats breakfast alone and is already a little miffed when he drives to practice the following morning.

Things don’t improve in the locker room.

Because, once again, Matts is running his mouth to the call-ups who are either just as ignorant as he is or too young and green to talk back to a more senior player.

Kent has a headache and newly-sharpened skates in his hand and he considers ignoring it, because he just wants to practice and go home— until he hears Eli’s name.

“The fuck did you just say?” Kent snaps.

“Everyone was thinking it, I’m just saying it,” Matts says blithely.

I wasn’t thinking it,” Asher says quietly from his stall.

“Everyone was thinking what?”

“It was just weird having the kid in the locker room,” Matts says and Kent’s stomach goes sour.

“Weird?” He repeats, because he’s pretty sure if he tries for a full sentence he’ll throw up.

“Look,” Matts says. “I know he’s your friend or whatever, but just because you’re okay with a gay dude staring at your dick doesn’t mean the rest of us are.”

And Kent.

Has no answer for that.

Well, he does have answer, but it involves outing himself and a decade of pent-up self-hatred and vitriol and possibly a fist to Matts’ stupid fucking face and he can’t—he isn’t ready to—

“Stupid,” Tater says. “Why Eli look at you when I’m in room? I’m have best dick. You?” he makes an unimpressed noise.

That gets a round of laughter and Matts rolls his eyes.

“Whatever, man,” he says, and goes back to lacing up his skates like he hasn’t just fucking decimated Kent. Like he doesn’t care, or maybe doesn’t even know, the effect his idiotic off-hand comment has had. Because he’s right. There probably are several guys on the team thinking the same thing. Who love Kent now, but who would never respect him again if he came out. When he comes out? Fuck. 

He should say something, but his eyes are feeling dangerously hot and he can’t seem to open his mouth.

“Statistically speaking, Matts,” Jeff says, which, thank God for Jeff, honestly. “It’s likely that every locker room you’ve ever been in has had at least one guy in it interested in dick. It’s unlikely they were ever interested in yours though, considering the person it’s attached to.”

That gets a second, louder, round of laughter.

“Jeff,” Tater says despairingly. “No fair. I’m funny one.”

Kent takes a breath, because he needs to get out of his head and be the goddamn Captain and say something. But before he can, Rushy says, casual as hell:

“Jeff’s right. I’m bi and I’ve never once looked at your dick, Matts. Or, you know, anyone else’s on the team.”

The whole locker room goes silent.

Tater is the first to recover. “Not even mine?” he asks, feigning offense.

Rushy grins. “No, but if this is you giving me permission…”

“But you have a girlfriend,” Nicky says.

“Believe me,” Rushy answers, “ If she knew I had his permission, Kicks would fully support me ogling Tater.”

“Ogling?” Tater asks.

“To ‘ogle’ is to like, stare at someone in a sexually appreciative way,” Coots explains.

“Oh,” Tater says. “Yes. Have permission for ogle.”

“No,” Nicky says, “I mean. How are you bi? You have a girlfriend.”

Rushy blinks. “The whole ‘bi’ thing literally means I like both. Sure, I’m totally in love with Kicks and hopefully she’ll be willing to marry me at some point, but,” he shrugs, “doesn’t mean I stopped finding guys attractive.”

“Guys like me,” Tater says, in case they needed reminding.

“Yeah, buddy,” Rushy agrees. He keeps taping his stick like he hasn’t just tipped Kent’s world on its axis.

“So,” Coots says. “Have you like—“

He stalls out, gesturing a little, a Rushy laughs.

“Sure. I mean, I’ve been with more women than men just because it’s easier. But I dated a guy in juniors. Hooked up with a few more after I was drafted.”

Coots looks scandalized by this. “When? You were rooming with me.”

“Whenever I wanted to. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know how you’d take it. And then I met Kicks and it didn’t matter so much anymore.”

“So why say anything?” Nicky asks.

“Because, I have the second-highest save percentage in the NHL right now and Matts is being ignorant.”

“What does your save percentage have to do with it?” Asher asks, because he really is a sweet, naive, child.

“Because no one is going to say I can’t play hockey, now. I’ve proven myself. So if someone in this locker room decides to go to the press, sure, it’ll be hell to deal with, but I won’t have to worry about being traded.”

“You were worried about being traded before?” Nicky asks, horrified, like it’s something he never even considered. Like it’s not something Kent has been agonizing over for nearly a decade.

“Of course. No GM is going to hang onto an unproven, controversial player. Especially if there are other, valuable players on the team talking about being uncomfortable with them in the locker room,” he looks up from his tape roll to glance purposefully at Matts. “Team cohesion is more important than giving some no-name queer rookie a chance to prove himself. I’ve known that since juniors.”

“But that’s bullshit,” Nicky says. 

Rushy shrugs. “That’s hockey.”

Matts is looking at the floor between his skates.

“Doesn’t have to be,” Jeff says quietly. 

“No, it doesn’t,” Rads agrees, “but change has to start somewhere.”

Rads looks pointedly at Kent, and Kent, finally, manages to find his tongue.

“Thanks for trusting us,” he tells Rushy, even though it’s abundantly clear he doesn’t trust everyone in the room. For good reason. “I’m sorry you didn’t feel comfortable telling us before, and,” he clears his throat, “as Captain, that’s my fault.” 

He holds up a hand to stop Rushy’s protests. “I know everyone likes to make fun of Jeff’s monologues about inclusivity and stuff—“

“Thanks, bro,” Jeff mutters.

“But this is exactly his point. We shouldn’t—I shouldn’t—let this shit slide anymore. Because we’re a team. And like, fuck management or whatever politics they’ve got going on, you—not only you, Rushy, anyone—should never doubt that your team has your back. Not for something like this.”

It’s not eloquent, but it’s the best he can do.

Rushy nods.

“Thanks, Cap.”

Kent turns to address the rest of the room, arms crossed. “I feel like this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Unless Rushy decides to come out publicly at some point, no one talks to the press about this. If the media does somehow get ahold of the information, I’ll personally make sure that the person responsible is traded. Understood?”

He gets a lot of nods, but also several people who just—look away.

Kent is already exhausted and practice hasn’t even started yet.

“Let’s get out on the ice,” he says, more resigned than anything, “before coach decides to bag skate us.”

Practice isn’t as bad as he expects it to be, but it’s not great either. The chemistry on Matts’ line is all off because Asher is more concerned with glaring at Matts than passing to him, and Kent’s distracted because he’s keeping an eye on Rushy, and Tater gets yelled at a couple times for being out of position because he’s both glaring at Matts and keeping on eye on Rushy. Rushy, however, performs brilliantly, even gets a helmet-pat from coach after a drill where he makes four particularly graceful consecutive saves. The locker room is strangely quiet afterward and empties quickly.

Kent is gratified to see that multiple people—over half the team—stop at Rushy’s stall before they leave, and he’s smiling, accepting shoulder-slaps and fist bumps.

Kent approaches him last. When it’s just them left in the locker room.

“Hey,” he says, and then he just…doesn’t know how to continue.

“Hey,” Rushy agrees.

“Thank you,” Kent says and—fuck, that’s not what he meant to say.

“For?”

Kent just stands there. And who the hell thought making him captain was a good idea? He’s a walking disaster. No wonder one of the most-used Tumblr tags to describe him is “dumpster fire child.” Which maybe isn’t even fair. A burning trash heap would probably handle this better.

“Kent?” Rushy says, sounding a little concerned.

“I’m gay,” he says, because he might as well and he’s just so damn tired. “And I’m starting to think about coming out. But I’m not ready yet. And you were so chill about it. And the guys were—we’ll they’re kind of ignorant but—“ Rushy laughs “—for the most part, they were cool. And that’s good. So. Thanks.”

Rushy looks contemplative, but not at all surprised.

“You mean you’ve been thinking about coming out to the team or coming out publicly?”

It’s a little hard to get the word out. “Publicly.”

Rushy sucks in a breath.

“Not, like. Soon. But within the next couple of years, maybe? Hopefully after a cup win.”

“Fair.”

Rushy leans back on his hands.

“You think it’d help if I came out first? A bisexual guy with a girlfriend might be a good, uh, first step for the hockey community.”

Kent doesn’t understand. “What?”

“I’m just saying. I’d want to talk to my agent and Kicks first but. You’re Kent Parson. You coming out will be a much, much bigger deal than me coming out. If I can do anything to take some of the pressure off you, I will.”

Kent refuses to cry in the practice facility locker room.

He clears his throat.

“I don’t—“

Rushy rubs the back of his neck, flushing a little. “Just say ‘thanks, man’ and go cuddle with Eli or something. You look kinda rough.”

Kent opens his mouth to—he doesn’t even know what, deny it maybe?—but Rushy is already shutting him down.

“Don’t play, dude. You’re ass over elbows for the kid. If you aren’t already together, you should be.”

“We are,” he admits and that admission, at least, is shockingly easy.

“Good.”

Rushy zips his bag and shoulders it, punching Kent gently in the solar-plexus.

“Seriously. Go home. Chill with your boyfriend. Feel free to tell him about me—I trust Eli.” He taps the brim of Kent’s hat, which should be condescending, but somehow doesn’t feel that way. “You’ll be okay, kid.”

Kent shoves his hand away to keep up appearances. “You’re like, three years older than me.”

“Five,” Rushy says. “Respect your elders. I’ve gotta go call my agent, just in case. Probably need to schedule a sit-down with coach. Does management know about you?”

“No,” Kent says faintly. “Not yet.”

“Okay,  I won’t say anything then. You should probably tell them, though. As soon as you’re comfortable.”

“Yeah,” he agrees. “I’ve been—yeah.”

“Alright, good talk. See you tomorrow.”

Kent walks on autopilot to the parking lot.

He cranks his car. Puts in gear. Puts it back in park. Calls Eli.

Eli answers on the third ring.

“Hey! You out of practice?”

“Yeah. Are you free this afternoon?

“I’m actually about to head over to your place now. My afternoon class was cancelled and I thought I’d film a video before getting to work on a paper. 

“Oh. Good. That’s—that’s awesome.” Kent buckles his seatbelt and puts the car in gear again. “I’m on my way to Pretty Bird but I can get it to-go. Want me to pick up a salad for you too?

“Please.”

“Okay.”

He takes a breath and reminds himself that it’s okay to ask for things that he wants. That it’s not needy or annoying if it’s important to him. It comes out stilted anyway.

“Can you stay the night?”

“Was planning to. Is everything okay? You sound—off.”

“Uh. Something happened at practice and I just—I’m about to call Anika but…”

“Hey,” Eli says. “Whatever you need, okay?”

“Okay.”

“So. What do you need?”

“You. On my couch. Or in my kitchen. Just. With me? I guess. We could—it might be nice if you napped with me. And Hawke. We could all nap together?”

“I dunno, that sounds like a pretty huge imposition, but I guess I can manage it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m in the car now so I’ll see you in a little bit, okay?”

“Okay,” Kent says, feeling significantly better. 

“Oh, but on the salad can you—“

“No croutons, extra avocado, dressing on the side.”

“Well of course you already knew that. Why did I even ask?”

“No idea,” Kent says seriously.

“Hey,” Eli says, “whatever’s going on, I’ve got your back, okay? Unless it’s like, moving a body. Then you should probably call Tater.”

“What, because he’s Russian?”

“No, because he’s comically huge. Does he have mafia ties I should be aware of?”

That startles a laugh out of Kent.

“Probably. Anyone that nice has to be hiding something.”

“True. I’ll see you in twenty.”

“I bet I can beat you home.”

“You’re on, Mr. Parson. But don’t you jostle my salad in your haste.”

Kent grins at the windshield. “‘Jostle your salad’? who even says that.”

“Me.”

“Clearly.”

Goodbye, Kenneth.”

“Not my name. Bye, Eli.”

Chapter Text

Being with Eli is easy.

They eat in companionable silence and then Kent closes the bedroom shades and strips to his boxers and crawls under the duvet cover and Eli follows him without being asked. Kent is bigger than Eli. Usually he likes that but right now he kind of just wants to be held—not that he would admit it—doesn’t think he could even begin to ask for it—but Eli seems to know anyway and just sort of arranges them so Kent’s head is on his chest and Eli’s arms are around his shoulders and then Kit curls up in the small of his back and Hawke stretches out on top of their feet and Kent closes his eyes because yes.

This is what he needed.

The static hum of anxiety dissipates a little under Eli’s careful hands, under the soft drag of his fingers across Kent’s skin, the little patterns he draws between the freckles on Kent’s shoulders. And surrounded by warm cotton and steady breathing and the hush of gentle afternoon kindness, Kent falls asleep.

When he wakes up, Eli’s arms are still loosely around him but his head has shifted off Eli’s chest and onto the bed beside it so Kent’s face is sort of mashed into the side of Eli’s ribcage. He’s drooling a little. It’s great. 

He presses his mouth against Eli’s skin because it’s right there, and he can, and then he bites, gently, because—well. He wants to.

Eli’s formerly slack fingers curl into his hair, but don’t pull him away. He makes a soft noise that Kent feels a little proud to be responsible for.

“Hey,” Kent says, “it okay if I leave a mark?”

The fingers in his hair tighten.

“Knock yourself out.”

He takes his time leaving a hickey, stark against the paler skin on Eli’s ribs, then rolls onto his back and and shuffles up the bed, grinning.

“Feeling better?” Eli asks, turning on his side to face Kent.

He props his head up on one hand, looking a little flustered, opposite palm pressed to the mark that Kent just left.

It’s a good look.

“Much better,” Kent agrees.

“You want to talk about practice?”

And the really, really, cool thing is, Kent is pretty sure he could say ‘no’ and Eli would drop it.

“Matts was being ignorant and said some stupid shit and then Rushy came out.”

“Rushy is gay?” Eli says, scrambling into a seated position like the situation is urgent or something. “I thought he was crazy in love with his girlfriend.”

“Bi.”

“Oh. Right. There I go with binary thinking. Jeff would be appalled.”

Eli glances toward the door like he’s expecting Jeff to barge in right that moment to chastise him.

“Wait, you said he came out. On the ice or in the locker room?”

“Locker room. Matts actually looked pretty embarrassed afterward, so maybe it’ll be okay. Most of the guys were cool. I mean. Everyone loves Rushy. He’s like. Sunshine in human form.”

“Is this—he’s not coming out publicly, though, right?”

“Not now. He, uh. Offered, though.”

Eli just looks at him.

Kent licks his lips.

“I told him about me. After practice. He said if I decide to go public he’ll come out first. As like, a stepping stone? I guess.”

“Bisexual goalie with a steady girlfriend is a lot easier to digest than gay prodigy captain—“

“With a boyfriend,” Kent agrees. “Yeah. That’s what Rushy said. I still can’t believe he would do that for me, but. It would make things easier, probably.”

Eli doesn’t respond to that and Kent glances up at him, then does a little crunch to sit up as well, slinging his elbows around his knees.

“What?” Kent says.

“Is that—are we boyfriends?”

“Oh. Uh. Yes? Do you not—“

“No, I do, we just hadn’t had that conversation yet, so.”

“What conversation?”

“The one where we used that word?”

“I said I’d maybe come out for you. We had that whole, like, super mature discussion.”

“Well I didn’t know! I’ve never done this before and we only kissed for the first time like…48 hours ago. I’m trying not to be, you know, clingy or whatever.”

“Pretty sure I’m the clingy one and I think it’s closer to 72 hours, now,” he reaches for Eli, bottom lip jutted out, “come here.”

“Oh my god, Kent.”

Eli leans forward, though, and Kent gently tackles Eli back into a position that might be called “laying.” He takes a moment to arrange their untidy pile of limbs, throwing a leg over Eli’s hip, cinching their bodies together. “See?” He says smugly. “I’m the clingy one.”

“Literally,” Eli says into this neck.

“I refuse to apologize.”

“So. Boyfriends.”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m serious about this. I want you to be mine. Not—not in a creepy possessive way—“

Eli coughs.

“—okay, maybe a little bit possessive, but like, I would be yours too. We’d be. Uh. Each others'?”

Kent really is a walking disaster but Eli’s grinning up at him so clearly he didn't fuck that up too badly.

“Yeah. I understand. I’d like that too.”

“Good,” Kent says, relieved. “So Jeff has some private rink time tonight. Want to join him and be grossly romantic?”

“I’d love to. I have to finish my government paper first, though.” Eli makes a face. “Finals are only two weeks away and I need to start studying for exams this weekend.”

Kent winces a little because that sounds terrible.

“Okay. Do you think we have time to make out for a couple minutes first?

“I dunno,” Eli pretends to look at the nonexistent watch on his wrist. “I’m pretty strapped. No more than five minutes.”

Kent nods seriously, reaching for his phone.

“I’ll set a timer.”

***

  Skating at the rink after official close makes it feel like winter. Which is a rare feeling, in Vegas. He’s not sure what it is but he likes it; the nighttime cold, the dim echoey hallways, the Christmas music over the PA system—left on from family free skate earlier that evening— that Eli and Jeff insist they don’t change.

Kent gives Eli “checking lessons” that mostly involve him gently running Eli into the boards and then hugging him until one or both of them dissolves into giggles. And then Eli tries to teach him how to do a basic spin that involves even more falling than the “checking lessons” and about the same amount of muffled laughter.

Jeff despairs of them and then coaxes Eli into showing him pieces of the new routine he’s working on for the regional competition in January. Kent’s schedule might actually permit him to attend it too, if he can get permission to skip a morning practice. He hasn’t talked to Coach yet, though, because he needs an excuse other than “I want to go watch my boyfriend at a figure skating competition.”

They pack up before the zamboni driver can kick them out at 10:30 and then Jeff, bemoaning a distinct lack of Alex at his home—apparently she had to take a trip back to Dallas—invites himself over to spend the night with Kent.

It’s not unusual. In fact, more often than not, Jeff spends the night in Kent’s guest room when Alex is out of town because he’s the most extroverted person to ever extrovert and hates being alone. But Jeff still hasn’t caught on to the fact that Eli and Kent are like, officially together, despite the fact that they’ve been, Kent thinks, painfully obvious, and the last thing he wants to do is keep up this are-we-aren’t-we thing for the rest of the night when it’s one of the last nights he’ll have with Eli before they’re on the road again. That and he just really wants to talk to his best friend about his boyfriend and he can’t do that if his best friend doesn’t know about his boyfriend and Kent is about ready to just tell him because patience has never been his strong suit.

“I don’t think he’s getting it,” Kent says when he and Eli are back in the car again.

“Which is ridiculous because I’m not sure how much more obvious I can be.”

Eli bites his lip.

“What?”

“Nothing, I just think this says something about our behavior around him in general for the past few weeks.”

“Maybe. Did you know he has a whole album on his phone of cute pictures he’s taken of us?”

“Cute pictures?

“Yeah. Like us…cuddling and sleeping on each other and you feeding me when I was hurt and shit.”

Eli looks delighted. “Well. I guess we need to up our game?” Eli asks.

“I’m not sure how to do that aside from like, straight up making out in front of him.”

“That works.”

He’d been joking, but…”Yeah,” he agrees. “Okay.”

They disobey a few speed limits to make sure they get back to Kent’s place before Jeff does, and then have a very unsexy conversation about where they plan to get “caught.”

They’re still arguing about it when they hear the uneven stride of Jeff’s aircast in the hallway.

They freeze, Eli still gesturing toward the couch, and Kent just…picks Eli up and puts him on the island.

“Good plan,” Eli mutters, cinching his legs around Kent’s waist, and by the time Jeff has fumbled the door open Kent has one hand up the back of Eli’s shirt and his tongue shoved into Eli’s mouth.

The door clicks shut.

“Oh my god,” Jeff says faintly.

And then, with unholy glee: “Oh my god!” 

And then, moments later, with concern: “Oh my god.”

Kent and Eli dissolve into laughter.

“Do you need a minute?” Kent asks.

He tries to turn and face Jeff, but Eli’s legs are still tight around him and when he looks back at Eli, hands sliding down to cup the thighs bracketing his waist, he gets distracted.

Because Eli is still laughing and looking up at him like—like Kent is something important. Eli licks his bottom lip, tongue followed by his upper teeth and then he just sits there, biting his lip and looking at Kent and Kent feels so much. And it’s stupid. To feel this much this soon. It’s stupid and reckless and amazing and Kent has to swallow down whatever words want to accompany this unexpected emotional upheaval because he didn’t think it was possible to feel so vulnerable and indestructible simultaneously. 

“No,” Jeff says, “I don’t need a minute, but I think you might.”

Eli just sort of collapses into Kent’s chest, laughing again, and Kent wraps his arms around him and puts his face in Eli’s hair and it’s all very histrionic.

Jeff sighs and moves to sit at the bar.

“Whenever you’re ready,” he says magnanimously. 

Hawke happily leans against his leg, and nudges his hand with her nose for pets.

Kit uncurls from her place on the counter to show Jeff her butt, then settles in exactly the same place, this time facing away from him.

This doesn’t help Kent who’s trying to stop his slightly hysterical laughter.

“So,” he says, still wrapped around Eli. “I have a boyfriend.”

“No kidding,” Jeff says. “Who?”

Eli lets go of Kent to flip him off.

They separate, a little regretfully, at least on Kent’s part, but Kent keeps one arm around Eli as he slides off the counter.

“How long?” Jeff asks.

“Only a couple of days,” Eli says.

“Since the night Eli got back from Samwell,” Kent clarifies.

“Not to be that person,” Jeff says. “But have you two talked about this? I mean. I’m happy for you, don’t get me wrong, but—“

Yes,” Kent says, maybe a little too sharply. “And I’ve talked to Anika about it. Twice.”

Eli drags his palm from the small of Kent’s back to the tight space between his shoulder blades, then back again.

“Sorry,” Kent says, before Jeff has a chance to respond. “Just. Yes.”

“Okay.” Jeff spins his phone on the table. “Who knows?”

“You. And Rushy. I told him after practice today, sort of on accident. I want to tell Tater too.”

“Okay. You planning to come out to the team or?”

“Not yet. Eventually, though. If things—if I have a reason. I’m talking to my agent tomorrow.”

Eli’s hand, still moving restlessly up and down his spine, stills.

“Management?” Jeff asks.

“Probably next week once we’re back from the roadie.”

“That’s fast.” Eli says quietly. “You don’t—“

“I want to. They need to be prepared. Just in case. And they should know about me, regardless of us.”

“Well,” Jeff says. “I’m here for you. Both of you. Whatever you need.”

“Thanks, man.”

“When are you planning to tell Tater?”

Kent glances down at Eli. “Uh. You want to invite him over now?”

Tater arrives twenty minutes later with pastries from his Russian cafe.

When he sees Eli and Kent on the couch holding hands, however, his face goes dark.

“Kenny,” he says, putting the delicious-smelling bag on the counter. “I need to talk with you. Alone.”

Kent and Jeff exchange concerned looks but Eli just…starts laughing.

Tater’s expression goes from something like anger to complete bafflement.

He’s not the only one.

“Uh. Eli?” Kent says.

“Sorry,” he says, “Oh god, I’m sorry. It’s just—he thinks you’re breaking my heart leading me on or something. Tater, we’re together. Kent and I. We’re together.”

“Together,” he repeats, arms crossed.

“Like. Dating?” Eli says.

“Boyfriends,” Kent adds. Because he likes the word.

“They got their heads out of their asses,” Jeff supplies, ever helpful.

“You talk?” Tater asks Kent, still looking suspicious. “Eli tell you—“ He pauses, face squinching up in annoyance. “English worst. You know feelings now? Both?”

“Yeah,” Eli says. “We’ve had a couple talks. We know how each other feel.”

“Okay,” he says. He's still frowning at Kent little, but at least he uncrosses his arms. “Eli's sad, when I take him to airport. Because you touch him, sweet for him, always, but not together. I’m see you hold hands and I’m think I have to—“ he gestures between Kent and himself, frowning. “Sit. Make serious face. Talk, uh—sense?

“To talk some sense into him?” Eli supplies.

“Yes. Think I’m have to talk some sense into him.”

“Well,” Eli says. “I appreciate the thought, but it’s not necessary.”

“Good,” Tater agrees. He retrieves the pastry bag from the counter and moves to join the three of them, except there’s not really room for four adult men on Kent’s couch, especially not when three of them are NHL players and two of them are over six foot tall. 

It very quickly devolves into a wrestling match because yes, Kent is fully capable of admitting they are all overgrown children, and after several minutes of Tater chirping them gleefully in Russian and Jeff’s occasional “Hey! Watch the leg!”s—Kent finds himself winded on the floor, looking up at Eli who wisely removed himself from the fray and is now sitting on the loveseat. He’s holding the pastry bag on his lap, licking his fingers, and looking somewhat judgmental. He pulls a tiny glazed scone thing out and takes a bite that is definitely judgmental, one eyebrow raised.

Jeff and Tater have more or less given up, each sprawled with their heads against opposite couch arms, occasionally kicking weakly at each other and Jeff actually has the upper hand there because Tater is trying to be gentle with Jeff’s injured leg while Jeff is using his aircast like a very expensive weapon.

Kent crawls onto the love seat with Eli and eats the scone thing out of his hand, purposely messy, while clambering over his lap and into the space next to him.

“Oh my god,” Eli says, wiping his spitty hand on Kent’s shirt, “Are you twelve?”

“Twelve inches,” Kent says.

“I admittedly haven’t actually seen your dick yet but I’m pretty sure that’s not true.”

“It’s not,” Tater and Jeff say simultaneously.

Kent glowers. “I’m telling Coach to trade y’all.”

“Y’ALL?” Jeff repeats, gleefull.

Kent hides his face in Eli’s neck.

Eli pats his cheek consolingly.

He presses a discreet little kiss to the soft skin at the base of Eli’s throat, and then keeps his mouth there, smiling, because this--this is exactly what he thought he'd never have.

“Hey,” Jeff says. “Kenny. Stop slobbering on Eli and share the goods. Can we turn on the Rangers game?”

Eli tosses the bag to Tater who then instigates another minor war with Jeff, pretending he’s not going to share. Eli laughs softly, leaning into Kent, and Kent wraps an arm around his chest, anchoring them more fully together, dropping another kiss to the short, wispy hair—desperately trying to curl but not quiet long enough— behind Eli’s ear. 

“Hey,” Kent whispers and Eli shifts to look back at him, still smiling from Tater and Jeff’s antics.

“Hey,” he agrees.

And it’s—

Good.

Perfect.

Chapter Text

The week before finals, Kent is gone on a roady which is actually probably a good thing because that means he’s not around to distract Eli from studying. It’s deadweek, so at least Eli doesn’t have classes to deal with, but the stress is—well. He’s had two seizures in the last ten days. Which isn’t a big deal. His doctor said it was probably fine because being a college freshman at finals is a lot, and he’s practicing for a regional competition in January and he was also stupid enough to try and get both of his math requirements out of the way first semester. Which, Statistics isn’t so bad, but Calculus is trying to kill him.

“I’m going to fail Calculus,” he tells Kent morosely over FaceTime on night four of the roady—three nights before the exam. “I’m going to fail and have to take it again next semester and then I’ll fail it again.”

He lets his cheek rest on cool granite and ignores the soft laughter coming from his laptop.

He’s at Kent’s place because his desk in his dorm is too small and the island in Kent’s kitchen is perfect for spreading out his various textbooks and problem set reviews.

Not that it will matter.

Because he’s going to fail.

“You’re not going to fail. You have a B+ in the class and the final is only worth 15%. Even if you fail the exam, you’ll pass the class. Remember? We did the math yesterday.”

That’s true. They had.

“Calculus is homophobic,” Eli mutters.

“What?” Kent says. “How?”

“Because I’m gay and it inconveniences me.”

“You’re ridiculous, is what you are. Get up.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re going for a walk.”

“We?”

“Yes. I’m going to hang up. We’re both going to put our shoes on. And then I’m going to call you back on your phone and we’re going to go for a walk.”

“But then I can’t see your face,” Eli whines.

“When was the last time Hawke went out?”

“Ok. Point. I’ll go get my shoes.”

Five minutes later, Eli is bundled up against a surprisingly chill wind with Hawke beside him, nose to the ground and happy, as they make their way to the main strip.

It still baffles Eli how wildly alive the city is—even at 10pm on a Thursday night.

“You should head for the Bellagio,” Kent says, “You can make the 10:10 fountain show if you walk fast. Moving water is good for relaxation. ”

“Oh really?”

“Yep. The internet said.”

“Well. If the internet said.”

He waits to cross the street with several dozen other people, some already drunk and nearly all of them dressed completely inappropriately for the weather. He smiles into his scarf. Well, it’s Kent’s scarf. It smells like him. It’s nice.

“So,” Kent says. “The weekend after we get back. I know that’ll be right after finals for you so it’s totally ok if you just want to like, sleep, or whatever. But I was wondering if you want to come to the Breaking the Ice event? Jessica texted me and they’re looking for volunteers who can skate to help out.

“Breaking the Ice,” Eli repeats. “What’s that?”

“Oh. It’s like this charity thing the Aces do a couple times a year? We have kids from the group home and foster system come and skate with a couple guys from the team and staff. Most of them have never been on the ice before but some of the older ones come to the free camps we host during the summer. It’s kind of a mess, but it’s fun. And I thought you might—“

“I’d love to. When is it? Which guys from the team will be there?”

“It’s Saturday from ten to one. Little kids for the first hour and half, then the older ones. And I think right now it’s me, Tater, Coots, Rushy, Nicky, Matts, Asher, Devs, and Rads. A couple of the vets are going to be there too, and some of the WAGs. Alex won’t be in town but—Oh! You’ll get to meet Kicks. She’s going to be here for most of Christmas break. She gets in next Wednesday, I think.”

“Matts?” Eli says.

Kent sighs, like maybe he’d been hoping Eli would miss the name squished into the middle of his list.

“He’s been cool the last few days. I think Rushy talked to him. They’re pretty close, or I thought they were, so maybe—I dunno. It should be fine, though. If he gives you any trouble I’ll take care of it. Or Tater will, let’s be real.”

Eli laughs softly.

“Tater is not allowed to punch Matts in a rink full of children.”

“I’ll pass that along. Also,” Kent clears his throat. “Did you maybe want to go out? Like on a date. Once you’re done with finals, obviously.”

“A date,” Eli says. “Sure?”

“I just. I did all this research. And I kind of have this list of places I’d like to take you and things I want to do and—“

“Kent. Yes. I want to go on a date.”

“Okay. Good. I just want to do it right, this time.”

Eli skirts a pair of bedazzled drag queens taking pictures with tourists.

“What do you mean, ‘this time’?”

“Well it wasn’t—I couldn’t go all-in before. Because it wasn’t real. I can now.”

“What do you mean, ‘all in’?” Eli says, suspicious. “Do I need to set an expense minimum because—“

“No, I mean.” Kent huffs out a breath. “You know how you said that back home there was like—a set of steps you would take when dating? Dinner. Movies. Truck makeouts.”

“Yeah.”

“I want—I have a version of that. In my head. And I want to do it right now that it’s real.”

“Oh. So like. There’s going to be intent, now? You’re going to woo me?”

“Yes,” Kent says, sounding a little relieved and completely unaware he’s being teased. “Exactly.”

“Yeah? You gunna hold my hand in the car and kiss me at my door at the end of the night?”

“Yes?” Kent seems honestly bewildered, like he hadn’t even considered  another course of action.  “I mean. Probably not at your door because, dorm. And there could be people in the hall. But maybe inside your room? If you invited me inside. Or in the car, if you just wanted me to drop you off. Though kissing over a center console might be a little awkward. Or we could go back to my place and I could kiss you in front of my door because the hallway is private. That’s kind of weird though since it’s my door and not yours. But I’d rather you come home with me anyway so you could spend the night, which it’s fine if you don’t want to but if you do—“

Eli can’t handle this.

“I do,” he says, and his voice is kind of rough—from the cold air, not, like, emotions or anything— so he clears his throat. “Um. I will. Want to spend the night. Probably. So we can plan for that.”

“Right,” Kent says seriously. “Okay, good.”

Eli swallows, finding an empty place along the boardwalk, and pulls himself up onto the concrete balustrade. “Hey, the fountains are about to start, you want me to turn on video so you can watch with me?”

“Yeah,” Kent says. “I’d like that.”

****

On Sunday night, Eli books his flights home for Christmas. He’ll only be there for four days because of competition prep, but it’s something. Eric’s Christmas plans are similarly condensed because of Samwell’s game schedule and they’ve managed to coordinate their arrivals and departures within an hour of each other. Eric’s mom will pick them both up at the Atlanta airport on the 23rd, and Eli’s dad will drop them both off on the 27th. Which is good, because neither of them have had time to talk for more than a few minutes for the past several days, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change any time soon. He’s not sure who’s handling finals worse: him or Eric.

“It is so damn cold here,” Eric complains, voice muffled by his scarf. He’s called Eli while walking back from the corner store on a butter run because apparently baking an apple pie in the middle of the night is more important than continuing to write a final paper due in less than 24 hours. “I mean, honestly, it’s no wonder I can’t get any work done. I think my brain is frozen.”

“Well. Running around outside after dark probably isn’t helping.”

“You hush. What’s the temperature there?”

Eli makes an uncertain noise, checking the weather app. He’s been cocooned in a fluffy microfiber blanket on Kent’s couch with a dog on one side of him and a cat on the other for the better part of the evening. He is very warm and very cozy and hasn’t been outside since Hawke’s afternoon walk and that was before the sun set. 

“Uh. Looks like it’s forty-six degrees.”

“Ugh. Why did I decide to go to school in freaking Massachusetts? It hasn’t been above freezing here in days.”

“You know, you could have asked one of the boys to drive you to the store so you didn’t have to walk.”

“I tried. Jack pulled rank and said no one was allowed to—“ Eric drops his voice into a terrible impression of a French-Canadian accent—“facilitate my procrastination tactics.”

“Good man.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side,” Eric says. “And I doubt any of them will have an issue eating procrastination pie when it’s finished.”

“True.”

“So,” Eric says. “You going to tell your parent’s about Kent over Christmas?”

And Eli.

Hadn’t even thought of that.

“No?”

“Why not?”

“Because we’ve been together for like a week? And he’s been on a roady for most of that week, so—“

“Please. You’ve been together for longer than that, you just weren’t admitting it. And it’ll be closer to three weeks by then even with your flawed counting.”

“Still. For my parents the whole me being gay thing has just been, like. A concept. Having a boyfriend would make it real. And on top of that he’s not just some guy, he’s…”

“Kent Parson.”

“Kent Parson,” Eli agrees. 

“So,” Eric says. “Did you finish your history paper?”

“Sort of. I’ve had some aphasia the past few days so it’s done but it needs significant editing. Like. I said René Descartes was a ‘special think-y boi’ because I couldn’t remember the word ‘philosopher.’

Instead of laughing like he expected, Eric goes quiet.

“Hey,” Eli says, “that was funny. I’m funny. Even when my brain is sucking it provides amusement.”

“Have you been getting migraines again, too?” Eric asks, and Eli sighs because yes, he has, and he never should have brought up the aphasia.

“Yeah. Only two, though. And they were short.”

“How many seizures have you had this month?

“Three,” he says grudgingly, because there’s no turning back, now.

“Have you told Dr. Boss Lady?”

Yes, I’ve talked to her and you know that is not her name. She says it’s probably not a big deal and I should be good as soon as finals are over.”

“Have you been driving?

“No, Mom, I’ve been taking Ubers when I have to go to the library. Any other questions?”

“Why do you need an Uber to go to the library? You live on campus.”

Shit.

Eli freezes, one hand on Kit’s back, and glances a little desperately around Kent’s apartment—like there’s something within reach that will save him from—

Oh my god,” Eric yells. “Are you staying at Kent’s place?!”

“It’s quiet here!” He yells back. “I don’t have to deal with all the bad music and sex noises and horrible shared bathroom like I do at the dorm. And Kent’s kitchen island has space for all of my books and his blankets are really soft and I have to come by every day to take care of Kit anyway and she’d be lonely if I didn’t spend the night.”

“Oh my god,” Eric repeats, breathless with laughter this time.

“I’m hanging up on you.”

“That’s fine. I’m back to the Haus anyway. Should I send a housewarming gift since apparently y'all have moved in together? ”

“Goodbye, Eric.”

“Also I know you're new to the whole dating thing but I think cohabitation merits a conversation with your parents. Just FYI.”

Eli hangs up on on him.

And then promptly answers the phone again because Kent is calling.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Kent says, and it sounds like he’s smiling—which, how is that a thing that Eli even knows?—so they must have won the game.

“You win?” he asks, just to make sure.

“Of course,” Kent says loftily, which is kind of fair. The Aces are first in their division and second in their conference and they were playing the Sabres. 

The fact that Eli can think this with such superiority is a little bewildering. Apparently he is officially a Hockey Person™ now. 

How embarrassing.

“Didn’t have time to watch?” Kent says.

“Nope. Finishing a practice problem set and then editing my history paper.”

“You finished the paper? Nice!”

“Yeah,” Eli agrees, and doesn’t mention the extensive editing that will be needed. Mama didn’t raise no fool and Kent would be even worse than Eric. “I also just got finished booking my flights for Christmas, I’ll be gone the 23rd through 27th.”

Kent sighs, overly loud and intentionally dramatic.

“Ugh,” he says, “Christmas. At least I can eat one of your frozen meals instead of Chinese this year.”

“What?”

“It’s tradition,” Kent says. “On Christmas I eat Chinese takeout and watch zombie movies and feel sorry for myself. But this time I’ll have your food to eat. So that’s cool.”

That. Does not sound cool.

“Kent.”

What. I’m joking. It’s not that bad. Seriously, Christmas isn’t a big deal for me.”

“But—“ It occurs to Eli that this is something they’ve yet to talk about. “You don’t want to see your family? Doesn’t the team have almost a full week off?”

It takes a moment for Kent to answer, but Eli is used to that at this point, so he waits.

“I was an accident. College pregnancy during my mom's wild phase or whatever. I don’t think she even knows who my dad is and my mom and I haven’t ever been very close. She wasn't like, shitty or anything. She took care of me. But she got remarried when I was twelve and I think it was a relief for her when I started billeting at 15. She started over with Chad and now they have two perfect honor roll kids and a little yappy dog. Chad is a hotshot banker and mom has dinner on the table when he gets home every night and volunteers at the church when she’s not doing PTA stuff. I don’t really fit into whatever it is that they have going on now.”

“Kent,” Eli says again. Because that is—incredibly sad.

“I mean,” Kent says. “It could be worse. I know some guys whose families were awful, and then they made it to the show and their parents came crawling back trying to make amends. But like. They can never know if their dad is calling them every week because he wants to make up for being an abusive asshole or if he needs more money for his gambling habit. Are they inviting you to Christmas because they want to see you or because they know you’ll replace the leaky roof? Like. At least that’s not the case, here. Mom doesn’t need my money. She doesn’t need me at all.”

And suddenly Eli’s eyes are hot and his free hand is white-knuckled in the blanket wrapped around him and he has never felt such malice toward a person he’s never met. Because no wonder Kent was so fucked up—no wonder he got his first taste of fame and acted out with drunk rancor and sneering interview soundbites. No wonder. Because he had no one. No family. No friends. And the one person he did have—whatever Jack was for him—nearly died and then abandoned him—which, granted, that wasn’t really Jack’s fault, but—add in Kent’s sexuality and the general hyper-masculine, competitive, nature of hockey to the mix and…No fucking wonder. The fact that Kent is still so kind underneath the ever-cocky media exterior is frankly a miracle. 

Eli swallows and tries to console himself with the thought that, now, at least, Kent has Jeff. Kent has Tater. Kent has Rushy. Kent has him.

Kent has him. 

Or. Eli has Kent?

They have each other.

Maybe it’s the realization of that responsibility—maybe it’s the fact that Eli doesn’t do emotions well and there are a lot of them happening right now—regardless, whatever it is, he finds himself saying: 

“Come with me. For Christmas, I mean. To Georgia. Come home with me.”

Chapter Text

“You did what?”

Eric’s voice is just as incredulous as the one in Eli’s head—the one that’s been second-guessing his impulsive invitation to Kent ever since he offered it fifteen hours before.

He pinches his phone between his ear and his shoulder so he can tuck his frozen fingers into his pockets.

“I don’t even know. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Obviously you weren’t thinking, what were you doing?”

“Navigating feelings of impotent rage?”

“Eli.”

“You didn’t hear him, alright? He’s—I don’t think Kent has had a good Christmas in years. Maybe ever. And he thinks that’s like. Normal. Which is not okay.”

“Sure, that’s sad, but—“

“He usually gets takeout and watches zombie movies by himself but he said that at least this year he could defrost one of my meals from the freezer and eat that instead.”

“Oh dear lord,” Eric says. “That is sad.”

“He doesn’t have anyone else. Like, his mom just up and got family 2.0 and—I don’t know. I just. Want him to be happy.”

“So you’re bringing him home with you.”

“Yes. Maybe. He said we should talk about it in person but that he’d like to come. I just need to, uh. Call my parents.”

And isn’t that a horrifying prospect.

“Right,” Eric agrees. “So just to clarify, in the space of ten minutes last night you went from ‘no I’m not going to tell my parents about Kent that’s silly’ to ‘hey mom and dad, I’m bringing my boyfriend Kent home for christmas, please feed him and love him forever.’”

“Uh. Yeah. That about covers it, yeah.”

Eric laughs. “Only you, Eli. I do hope he comes, though.”

“Yeah?”

“Of course. I want to meet him.”

And that. Huh. That is something Eli neglected to consider.

Eric giggles a little menacingly.

“I need to go rethink my life choices,” Eli says.

“You do that. Good luck. I need to sleep, talk to you tomorrow night?”

“Kent gets back to tomorrow night. Tuesday morning?”

“After your Calc exam before my Psych exam?”

“Works for me.”

***

Eli waits to call home until 2:10 pm the following day because that means it will be 5:10 pm in Georgia which means his mom will be home but his dad won’t be yet. It’s the coward’s way out and he is unashamed.

He paces the length of Kent’s kitchen while the phone rings.

“Rodríguez residence, how can I help you?”

He exhales because he should have known his sister would answer.

“Hey Bells, it’s me.”

“Oh, hey Eli. ¿Qué lo wa?”

“Nothing. I need to talk to Mamá.”

“Are you in trouble?” she asks suspiciously.

No.”

“MAMA, ELI IS ON THE PHONE AND HE’S IN TROUBLE!”

“What the fuck—shut up.”

“Elijah?” 

“Oh. Hi, Mamá.”

“Mijo,” she says, and she’s got her serious voice on. “What have you done?”

Nothing, Bella is lying.”

“Why are you calling then? You never call.”

The serious voice has no shifted to one of chastisement.

Jesus.

“Are you hurt?” she asks, “Have your seizures been getting worse?”

“No. No, I’m fine. I’m sorry. I’ve just been really busy with finals. I’m pretty sure I got an A on my exam this morning, though.”

“Okay,” she says.

It’s not okay—he really should call more often, but—

“I wanted to talk about Christmas,” he says.

“What about Christmas? I got your flight itinerary from the email and I spoke with Eric’s mother. Four days is not very long but I guess it will do. Abuela arrives next week and is staying until January sixteenth.”

Her tone heavily implies that Eli should be able to similarly accommodate a month-long visit like his retired seventy-five-year-old grandmother.

“That’s nice. Listen. I—uh.”

He takes a fortifying breath.

“I wanted to know if it would be okay if I brought someone home with me.”

“Brought someone,” she repeats flatly. “Home with you. ¿Qué quieres decir?”

“Mi novio.”

And for some reason saying it like that makes it even more real.

“Tu novio, she repeats loudly, and he can hear Bella yell in the background: “Shut up, Eli has a boyfriend?” with more disbelief that he thinks is really necessary.

“Elijah,” his mother says, and, oh no, that’s the serious voice again. "¿Tienes novio y no me dijiste nada hasta ahora? ¿Por qué nunca me dices nada? ¿Cómo se llama? ¿Cuánto tiempo llevan juntos?"

“Mamá,” he sighs.

“Elijah.”

“His name is Kent. We’ve been friends since the start of the semester. We’ve sort of been dating for months but just made it official last week.”

Her silence is judgmental.

“I wanted to wait until we’d been together longer to tell y’all. But he doesn’t have any family. He usually spends Christmas eating takeout alone and he was excited because this year he could eat something from the freezer that I’d made instead.”

“Oh,” she says, “Oh that poor child.”

Eli does a little fist-pump. “I can’t leave him alone, Mamá.”

She makes a considering noise. “Habla Español?”

“Ah. I don’t think so.”

“Well. Does he skate with you or—“ she sounds hopeful, “does he play fútbol?

Eli coughs on a laugh. “No. He, um. He plays hockey.”

“Eh. Hockey. Debí saberlo. You and your ice. Is he a good boy? Is he sweet to you?”

“Yes. Very.”

“Well, okay.”

“So. I can bring him?”

“Of course. The boy is not going to eat a frozen meal alone on Christmas.”

“Thank you. Will you tell Papá? Do you think—“

“Your father will be fine. Though he may not like you sharing a room with your Kent.”

“We’re not—We’re uh. Not. We’re taking things slow. And if Abuela is in the guest room there won’t be anywhere else to put him, anyway.”

Oh God. He can see the headline now: Lead scorer in the NHL injured from sleeping on a 25 year old floral couch.

“Slow,” she repeats skeptically. “Claro.”

Bella yells something in the background and she sighs.

“Can he pay for his airplane ticket or—“

“Oh, no,” Eli says, resisting the urge to laugh hysterically. “That’s—money isn’t a problem, for him.”

“Well good. Bring your Kent. I will talk to Papá. We can put the air mattress in your room.”

And they’ll feel free not to use it.

Thank you.”

Bells yells again and his mamá mutters something under her breath about children shortening her life span.

“I need to go deal with your sister and her drama—we should talk again this weekend so we can make food plans with Abuela. Ask your Kent if he wants anything special.”

“Okay, sounds good. Thank you. I love you.”

“If you really loved me, you would call more often,” she says.

***

Kent’s plane gets delayed twice and with the dreaded calculous exam looming the following morning at 10 am, Eli gives up and goes to sleep just past midnight.

He’s awoken a few hours later to Hawke leaping off the bed and running out of the room, toenails skittering across the floor as she loses traction moving from rug to concrete. There’s a jingle of keys, the sound of bags being dropped on the floor, and then Kent talking softly to Hawke. Shortly afterward, Eli hears the hum of the ice dispenser, the refrigerator opening, and then the distinct and, at this point distressingly familiar, noise of gatorade being poured over ice.

Because Kent is a weirdo.

Things go quiet again and Eli considers getting up because Kent is home but he’s also so tired. Eli is still in the warm blurry space just adjacent to sleep, debating the pros and cons of moving, when the mattress dips next to him and Kent crawls under the duvet. He’s still fully clothed and honestly kind of smelly but he sort of gathers Eli to him, inelegant and a little desperate, and then he just—

Exhales.

Long and slow.

“Hey,” Kent says into the back of Eli’s neck.

His breath smells like Blue Frost gatorade.

“Hey,” Eli agrees.

“I missed you.”

It’s easier to say out loud since Kent said it first: “I missed you too.”

“I should probably shower,” Kent murmurs.

“You should definitely shower. And brush your teeth.”

“Alright, asshole.”

Kent doesn’t move for several more seconds, though.

Eli doesn’t mind.

Eventually he does let go of Eli, straightening, and leans over to run his knuckles down Kit’s back. Kit responds with a sleepy cat noise—half purr half chirp— that makes Eli’s heart do things.

“Sorry I woke you up,” Kent murmurs. “I know you’ve got your big test tomorrow. Go back to sleep and I’ll try to be quiet, okay?”

“Mmk.”

Kent presses a kiss to Eli’s temple, then another one to the slope of his cheekbone. Then another next to his mouth. Eli pushes gracelessly at his face, grumbling a little, and he laughs.

“Okay. Okay, sorry. Showering now.”

“Mmk,” Eli agrees again, and goes back to sleep.

When Eli’s  alarm goes off at 8am, Kent is dead to the world beside him, head half-under one pillow and hugging another one.

Eli stifles a laugh and moves to the living room. His yoga mat is still rolled out on the floor in front of the windows from the day before, and he settles into his routine with only a couple soft groans. He’s going to need to visit the chiropractor when finals are over because his neck is seriously pissed off.

Twenty minutes later he’s sitting in Cobbler Pose—the bottoms of his feet pressed together, thumbs against his ankle bones—Breathing With a Purpose, when Kent stumbles out of the bedroom, arms crossed over his bare chest against the chill. Both cat and dog trail after him, similarly discontent.

Kent squints at Eli for a moment, then moves to sit next to him.

“Hey,” he says, voice scratchy and unfairly sexy. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah?”

“What are you doing?”

“Uh. Breathing exercises?”

“No, I mean,” Kent blushes a little and Eli doesn’t think it will ever get old—how visible it is when Kent is flustered. “That just looks kinda like the shit my therapist makes me do if—uh. Did you have a panic attack? If you did you should have woken me up. Or. You could have—can, in the future— I mean. If that would help. Unless it wouldn’t. Uh. Help.”

And oh, that’s why Kent’s face has been all concerned.

“No, no this is just, like, preventative—I’ve been extra stressed because of finals so I’m supposed to start my day with breathing and being mindful and relaxing and stuff.”

“Oh, okay. Should I leave you alone, or—?”

“Nah. I’m pretty much done anyway. Hungry, though. Omelettes?”

“Yes, please.”

They make breakfast in companionable, sleepy, silence, with lots of lingering touches and stupid smiles and then Kent deals with clean-up while Eli does one last set of practice problems, trying to keep his Mindful Breathing thing going.

“So,” he says, once his problems are done and his plate is empty. “I talked to my mom last night.”

Kent pauses, fork halfway to his mouth.

“Okay?”

“You are officially invited to Rodriguez Christmas.”

“Oh.” He puts his fork down. “Really?”

“Yes? Were you thinking they’d say no?”

“I don’t know. Did you tell them about me or just that you were bringing someone. Or—wait did you say you wanted to bring a friend or a boyfriend?”

“I told her I wanted to bring my boyfriend, Kent. Nothing about—“

He gestures to encompass Kent as a whole.

“The NHL thing?”

“The NHL thing,” Eli agrees. “By the way, your face was on the bus I took yesterday. It’s the one with the red filter where you look all sweaty and intense. I have a picture, remind me to show it to you later.”

“Why were you on the bus?”

“Because I’m not allowed to drive right now and Ubers were getting expensive—which judging by the look on your face I should not have said because now you’re going to try and give me money.”

Kent closes his partially opened mouth, scowling. “I was not.”

Eli rolls his eyes, moving to deposit his plate in the sink.

“Sure. Anyway, no one in my family will recognize you, but my aunt is the definition of a Facebook Mom and the last thing we need is her posting a picture of the kids on Christmas morning with you and I cuddling on the couch in the background or something. So. We should probably tell them? Or at least make sure there aren’t any social media posts happening with your face in them.”

Kent doesn’t say anything, and Eli returns to the bar with pursed lips.

“So?” he asks.

Kent is grinning at him.

“So what?”

“So what do you think we should tell them?”

“Oh, I have no idea. Sorry. Can I think about it?”

“Yes?”

“Okay.”

Kent is still smiling. 

Eli is…a little unnerved.

“Why are you smiling like that,” he asks. “It’s weird.”

“Are we going to cuddle on the couch on Christmas morning?” Kent asks.

And anyone else might be joking, but Eli is 99 percent sure Kent is not.

“Uh. Probably? I mean. I’d like to. On Christmas eve too. And Boxing day.”

“Cool,” Kent says, and takes another bite of his omelette.

Eli can’t decide is he should roll his eyes or be touched.

He doesn’t get a chance to decide, however, because Hawke gets up from where she’s been awkwardly lounging over Kent’s feet, and moves purposefully over to Eli. She just as purposefully sits down beside him, and then headbutts his knee.

So much for the stress-relieving powers of yoga.

Kent’s fork scrapes loudly across his plate.

“Wait,” he says. “Was that—?”

Hawke paws at Eli’s shin, whining, and then headbutts him again.

Eli sighs.

“Yeah. Can you pack up all my stuff so we can leave as soon as it’s over? And drive me to my exam? I was kind of assuming you were going to anyway, but—“

“No. I mean, yes, of course. Are you—bedroom?”

Kent is half-standing, his butt hovering uncertainly above the stool.

“Hey,” Eli catches Kent’s face between his hands. “I’m fine, remember? Hawke and I are just going to go lay down and if anything bad happens she’ll let you know. Okay?”

“Okay. Is it—can I come with you?”

And that. Is unexpected.

Eli’s hands slide down to rest on Kent’s shoulders.

“You want to watch me have a seizure?”

The thought of Kent seeing him like that is…not good. Which is stupid, because it’s not like there’s anything to be embarrassed about but—

“It’s not that I want to watch,” Kent says, wincing a little. “I just. Want to be with you?” He shrugs a little helplessly. “Sorry. It that weird? That’s probably weird.”

“No. It’s really sweet, actually. But I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that yet. Can we talk about it later? I need to—”

“Yeah. Of course. I’ll just—” Kent jabs a finger in the direction of Eli’s books “—get everything ready so you won’t be late.”

“Yeah. Cool.”

“Cool,” Kent agrees.

“Hey,” Eli says.

“Yeah?”

“Breathe,” Eli reminds him.

“Right.”

He kisses him, though Kent doesn’t really reciprocate, and then retreats to the bedroom to find his bag, Hawke at his heels.

“I’m packing you a lunch,” Kent yells a few seconds later from the kitchen. “Do you want blue, red or yellow gatorade?”

“Orange,” he yells back, just because he knows Kent hates it.

“Heathen,” Kent says. “You’re getting red.”

Chapter Text

On Thursday afternoon, Kent stops by CVS for ice cream on the way home.
Eli’s last final—the history paper—was due at 1pm, and Kent can’t decide if Eli will be sleeping when he gets home or wanting to celebrate. Maybe wanting to celebrate sleepily? Regardless, he’s pretty sure Eli won’t want to go anywhere, so. Ice cream. 

It occurs to him as he’s standing in the cold section however, that, despite taking Eli for froyo at least a dozen times, he doesn’t actually know what his favorite flavor is. And just because Eli occasionally sneaks a spoonful of the Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia that Kent’s grocery delivery service stocks in his freezer, doesn’t mean that’s what Eli would choose for himself. Honestly, this is something they should have talked about already at this point in their relationship and Kent is a little disappointed in himself.

He considers calling Eli to ask, but if Eli is sleeping he doesn’t want to wake him up. And he can’t call Eric because Samwell is in the middle of playing a game and even if he managed to catch Eric between periods he probably shouldn’t be interrupting an NCAA hockey game for ice cream related inquiries.

In the end, Kent gets four different kinds of frozen yogurt and three kinds of ice cream and carries his armful of plastic bags to the car without shame. He’ll invite some of the boys over later and they’ll take care of whatever Eli doesn’t want.

When Kent struggles to unlock the door to his condo twenty minutes later, trying to be quiet and failing because his hands are full of plastic bags—Eli would probably point out that had Kent remembered the reusable canvas bags in his car the crinkling would not be an issue—he’s a little surprised to hear music.

And then he finally opens the door and gets a good look inside and.

Well.

Eli sleeping, he was prepared for. 

He is not prepared for Eli in his kitchen wearing the Louboutins.

He is, however, prepared to admit it now: They’re sex shoes.

Because holy shit.

And god. How stupid had he been to laugh when Eli first showed him the picture of those shoes on his phone. Because there is nothing weird or embarrassing or whatever preconceived notions he’d had about Eli in those shoes.

And it looks like the only thing Eli is wearing apart from the shoes is Kent’s All Star jersey from the year before. It falls to mid-thigh on him, black and white and red and Kent is going to need a moment.

Maybe a couple of moments.

Eli grins, crossing his arms, and hitches one hip against the countertop.

“Take a picture,” he says, “it’ll last longer.”

“I don’t want to take a picture,” Kent answers. “I want to stand here and look at you.”

“Oh. Well.” Eli bites his lip and that really doesn’t help matters. “That’s fine too.”

And Kent hadn’t noticed at first, because he was a little preoccupied with all the muscular calf and thigh on display, but Eli’s hair is different. It’s been growing out of a subtle undercut for a while, but now the sides are clipped close to his skull in a sharp tapered fade and the curls on top are a little looser than normal, sort of pulled up and wild and Kent is having flashbacks to being fourteen and fantasizing about making out with guy with a mohawk.

It’s a good look, is what he’s saying.

Kent would just stand there and keep ogling him but the ice cream is actually kind of heavy and cutting off the circulation to his fingers.

He moves to set the bags on the counter.

“Hi,” he says, because he’s a moron.

Eli laughs.

“Hi,” he agrees. “Why did you bring half the CVS cold section home with you?”

Kent had been intending to play it cool but that goes right out the window.

“I didn’t know what your favorite kind of ice cream was. And I didn’t want to call to ask in case you were asleep. And Eric is in the middle of a game. So I tried to remember the flavors you’ve gotten before when we—“

And thank god Eli kisses him because he probably would have continued talking through his entire thought process.

“It’s mint chocolate chip,” Eli says against his mouth, laughing when Kent does a little fist pump because that was one of his guesses.

“I knew that.”

“You didn’t.”

“I didn’t,” Kent concedes.

He brings one hand up to cup the back of Eli’s head—rubbing his fingers against the grain of newly close-cropped hair at the back of his skull.

“You like it?” Eli asks.

“So much.”

“I was way overdue. I decided to try a new place just around the corner as a reward for getting through finals. Kinda pricy, but worth it, I think.”

Kent kisses him again because otherwise he might offer to pay for all of Eli’s haircuts from here on out at any place Eli chooses, regardless of price, except Eli doesn’t like when he does things like that. So Kent lets his hands slide over the wings of Eli’s shoulders, fingers tracing the Parson on his back, trying not to feel quite so viciously possessive and utterly failing.

In the shoes, Eli is as tall as him and Kent likes it—them being eye-to-eye.

“Are you cooking anything, uh, time-sensitive?” he asks, glancing at the vegetables on the island.

“Nope. Tater and Jeff invited themselves over, though. They should be here around seven and—“ he smirks a little “—I should probably change before then.”

Kent glances at the clock on the oven, toying with one edge of the jersey Eli’s wearing, knuckles against bare skin.

“You want to make out on the couch for the next twenty minutes then?” he asks.

“I believe I do. We should put the ice cream away first, though.”

“Yeah,” Kent agrees, not moving, leaning in to kiss Eli again.

Eli turns his head at the last minute and Kent whines at him.

“Ice cream. Freezer.”

“Right,” he says into Eli’s neck. “In just a second.”

Kenneth.”

“Not my name,” he objects, but he does take a step back.

They have to use their Tetris skills to get everything to fit in the freezer properly because it’s already pretty full of Eli’s cooking, and then, when they’re finally successful, Kent sucks a mark onto the curve of Eli’s throat in celebration of their achievement.

Or something.

Kent tugs on the hem of the jersey.

“Are you wearing anything under this?” he asks, resisting the urge to check for himself.

“Kent Parson,” Eli says, grinning. “What kind of boy do you think I am? Of course. I’ve got underwear on.”

Kent cant decide if he’s disappointed or relieved by this information.

“It’s your underwear, though,” Eli says, “If that matters.”

Kent makes an aggrieved noise, knocking their foreheads together, and Eli laughs at him.

“Couch?” Eli asks.

“Yes, please.”

***

The Aces have a home game the following night. Eli doesn’t go because he’s still recovering from finals and already committed to helping with the Breaking the Ice event the following day and, of the two, Kent would rather Eli be on the ice with him, than sitting in the stands watching him play.

Not that both wouldn’t be nice.

Regardless, it’s a good game—solid play on both sides—but the Aces win due primarily to Rushy’s fantastic goal-tending, and the second line’s offensive play.

Vegas and Carolina had made a trade the week before: One of the Ace’s veterans and a third-round draft pick for Alexander Oshepkoff. The Aces have needed another solid center after losing Mark the year before, and Kent was pretty pleased with the quick chemistry Alex—or Oshie as he was quickly dubbed—found in his first practice with the Aces. Clearly it wasn’t a fluke if tonight’s game is any indicator, and the team, high on its win, retires to their favorite bar to “properly” welcome Oshie to their ranks. 

Kent spends the first half-hour talking to him about an assortment things—apartments, travel, stick curvature, food, cats—before Tater muscles his way between them and engages Oshie in what sounds like a very angry conversation in Russian, but judging by their facial expressions is perfectly friendly. Tater had been ecstatic to hear about the trade, because apparently he and Alex played together for a year in the RSL before they were both drafted to NHL teams. Oshie has been staying in one of Tater’s guest rooms for the past five days and Kent will be completely unsurprised if it becomes a permanent arrangement. 

Kent is planning to only have a beer or two before heading home to eat a late dinner— Eli was finishing a cooking video when he left for the arena and whatever he’d made smelled amazing—but one round of shots led to another and the next thing he knows it’s nearly midnight and he’s leaning pretty heavily against Jeff’s shoulder, smiling contentedly at the various pockets of his teammates surrounding them. Matts and Rushy are playing a friendly round of pool, while Nicky, Asher, and Coots are playing a less-friendly and increasingly dangerous game of darts. A few of the call-ups are trying desperately to look cool while talking to a group of girls at the bar, and the veterans are holding court in the booth next to them, beers in hand, watching with amusement as Tater and Oshie get progressively more exuberant.

“Hey,” Asher calls to Tater, “another round of shots?”

“As you wish!” he yells back.

Apparently Oshie introduced him to the Princess Bride a few nights before and now he won’t stop quoting the movie. His new favorite word is “inconceivable.”

“Or,” Rushy says, laughing, “Maybe we should slow down on the shots, eh?”

“Inconceivable!” Tater shouts.

And there it is.

“We have a good team,” Kent says to Jeff.

“We do,” Jeff agrees.

“But actually—“ Kent turns to look at him, to make sure Jeff know’s he’s serious. “I have a good…everything, right now. I’m like. Really happy. And shit.”

“And shit,” Jeff agrees.

“You made it happen, though,” Kent says, because he doesn’t think Jeff is getting it.

“I was so fucked up before. And then you yelled at me and made me get a therapist.  And—“

Kent comes to a sudden, stunning, realization. “You introduced me to Eli.”

“Well. Not exactly,” Jeff says, “but sure, I’ll take credit for that.”

“He never would have come to the Aces practice if you weren’t there. And he’d still just be thinking I was a giant douchebag who parks in handicap spaces. And I’d probably still be a giant douchebag who parks in handicap spaces. Oh my god.”

“I take it things with Eli are going well?” Jeff asks dryly, and it’s clearly a diversion but it works because of course things with Eli are going well.

Eli is his favorite person.

“His ass,” Kent says somberly, “is a paradox.”

“Excuse me?”

“Eli’s ass,” Kent says, raising his voice a little. “It shouldn’t be allowed.”

“Eli’s ass shouldn’t be allowed,” Jeff repeats. “Because it’s a paradox?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry, are we really talking about Eli’s butt right now? Is that what’s happening?”

“Yes.”

Jeff glances around and Kent remembers that his affection for Eli and his butt is supposed to be a secret. They’re alone in the booth, though, so it’s okay.

“It’s okay,” Kent says. “No one is listening. I can talk about Eli’s butt if I want.”

“Fine,” Jeff sighs. “Tell me why Eli’s ass is a paradox.”

“Well,” Kent says. “It’s just—so big? For someone so small? But not too big. It’s like the perfect handful. Two handfuls. Which is good. Because I’ve got two hands.”

He looks at his hands, considering.

Yes. Good.

“Uh huh,” Jeff says. “Let’s get you some water, bud.”

He pulls on Kent’s arm.

Kent pulls back.

“I love him,” Kent says, still staring at his open palms. “And I know it’s too soon for that or whatever, but I do. So much. And it’s—I don’t know how.”

“You don’t know how to what?”

“Love him,” Kent says, a little desperately. “Right. The way he deserves.”

“I think you’ll be able to figure it out.”

“He’s just. He’s so important, Jeff.”

“I know, kiddo,” he says, and Kent feels like he might actually understand. “I know. Let’s get you some water, okay? And then I’ll take you home to him.”

And that.

That sounds like a great idea.

“Yeah, okay.”

***

Kent wakes up to an empty bed, a mild hangover, and embarrassingly vivid memories of the night before. 

He stumbles into the kitchen where Eli is cooking and plants himself, face down, at the breakfast bar.

“Kill me,” he says.

“Nah,” Eli says, sliding a gatorade in front of him. “I’ve gotten kind of attached to you. Here. You want some sausage? Grease is supposed to be good for hangovers, right?”

He eats his sausage and tries to think of ways that he can show Eli he appreciates him without spending money.

He’s not very successful.

“I need to book my airfare for Christmas,” Kent says later, as they’re driving to the rink. "Will you get mad if I upgrade you to first class?”

“Yes.”

“But I’m asking you beforehand instead of just doing it.”

Eli gives him an unimpressed look.

“But I don’t want to sit in economy.”

“Then don’t sit with me and the rest of the peasants. Sit in first class alone.”

“But you and your family are going to be hosting Christmas, so I won’t have to pay for a hotel, or get a rental car, or pay for food. Getting you home in comfort is like, the least I can do to repay you.”

“Do you really expect me to believe that you haven’t already bought me an obscenely expensive gift?”

And. Yeah. Eli has him there.

“Please?” he tries.

“No.”

“Fine,” Kent sighs. “I guess it’s only three hours.”

“Good. I’ll wave as we pass you to sit with the unwashed masses.”

“No, I mean, I’ll get a seat with you in economy. It’s only three hours. I’ll deal.”

“You’re ridiculous. You realize I’ll have the window so Hawke can be in the corner. That means you’d have to sit in a middle seat.”

Kent winces. He may not be the biggest hockey player but he’s definitely broader than the average adult.

“No big deal. I’ll cuddle with you.”

“No you won’t. The last thing we need is someone taking a picture of you plastered all over me on a flight to Georgia.”

“I’ll pretend to very platonically fall asleep on your shoulder.”

“Like that’s better?”

He has a point.

Eli sighs before Kent can come up with a response. 

“We’d have a lot more privacy in first class, huh?”

“Yes?” Kent glances at Eli and immediately corrects himself because that’s Eli’s ‘I might cave if you present a compelling argument’ face.

Yes,” Kent says. “So much more privacy. We’ll have more space, and once the flight starts they close the curtain thing so no one from the rest of the plane can come through. Which means that our bathroom stays a lot cleaner because fewer people are using it but it also means that we could probably get away with some cuddling. Definitely some discrete hand-holding under our blankets. Did you know we’ll get free blankets in first class?”

Eli laughs and Kent knows he’s won.

“Fine. If there are two seats next to each other in first class that are still available you can upgrade me to sit with you.”

Kent leans over the center console, lips puckered, eyes still on the road.

Eli makes a disgusted noise, but kisses him anyway.

“Thank you,” Kent says, reaching for Eli’s hand.

Eli accepts it, lacing their fingers together, and rubs his thumb absently against the  cold-chapped skin of Kent’s first knuckle. Kent should probably moisturize more. Or get a pair of gloves. Maybe both. Eli’s hands are embarrassingly soft in comparison.

Eli doesn’t seem to mind the roughness of his skin, though. He isn’t even looking at Kent, judgmental about the state of his hands or otherwise. He’s half-smiling at a woman in the car next to them who’s still wearing her coat and scarf so her dog can hang his head out the open window—tongue lolling and deliriously happy.

Kent wonders if maybe that’s how he feels:

Deliriously happy. 

Hawke notices the other dog and Eli laughs, his hand tightening around Kent’s, tugging a little as he turns in his seat to talk to her about the ‘handsome boy’ next to them and Kent has to look away before he gets into an accident or says something stupid he can’t take back.

It might be easier if Eli didn’t have a mouth or collarbones or fingers—if his new haircut didn’t accentuate the bones in his skull and the slope of soft paler skin at the nape of his neck.

It seems impossible that everything Eli is can exist in just one person.

And yet.

There he is.

Kent brings their joined hands to his mouth, kissing Eli’s knuckles, because his chest hurts and he has to do something and that’s the least damning action he can think of.

He wonders how soon is too soon to say ‘I love you.’

Chapter Text

Justin Matthews has never been good with kids.

Hell, he wasn’t good with kids even when he was one.

He was an only child, the youngest by a considerable margin of all his cousins, and the whole hockey thing didn’t leave much time or capacity for socializing. He never went to camp unless it was a hockey camp, was homeschooled past the third grade so he could dedicate more time to practicing, and even once he left for Shattuck at fourteen and had freedom away from his parent’s stringently enforced schedule, his father’s continuing refrain—engrained since mite games—remained: those boys are not your friends, they’re your competition.

Which, sure, Matts had friends now. Sort of. But those relationships were built on grown-up things, or at least grown-up hockey-player things, like on-ice chemistry, video games, mutual hatred, alcohol, or some combination therein. He wasn’t good at talking to adults about most things outside of those categories, so talking to children definitely wasn’t in his wheelhouse. He’d managed okay so far at fan events, taking pictures with gap-toothed pre-teens, signing jerseys and tossing pucks over the glass during warm-ups. But he doesn’t think he’s actually had a conversation with anyone under the age of ten in over a decade, nor does he particularly want to.

So why, exactly, management was so insistent that he be part of the Aces’ Breaking the Ice event, he doesn’t know.

Well. He does. He know’s they’re hoping he’ll become one of the franchise faces, and god knows he wants that to happen too, but while his on-ice production has been good, his off-ice chemistry with the team is admittedly lacking. Because apparently Kent Parson isn’t the chill party-boy Matts thought he was and instead wants the locker room to be a Safe Space or some shit. 

But whatever. If holding some orphan kids’ hands and hauling them around the ice for a while is going to get him the contract extension he wants, well. Here he is. Judging by the parking garage, he’s pretty sure he’s one of the last ones to arrive, which is confirmed when he pushes his way into a full locker room.

“Hey,” Asher says as Matts sits in his stall, trying to down the last of his coffee and pull his skates out of his bag at the same time. “You’re late.”

And Asher had actually been pretty cool right up until the whole thing with Eli and Rushy. Now the kid is a passive-aggressive asshole.

“He’s here, which is the important thing,” Rads says, and then raises his voice to address the room at large. “Okay. Overview if this is your first time: The under-tens are getting kitted up right now and they’ll be on the ice in a few minutes. Most of them haven’t skated before and the little ones might end up wanting to be carried. Just go with whatever they’re comfortable with. In an hour we’ll clear the ice, take a break, and then the over-tens get their turn. Several of those kids have been coming to our camps so that will be more hockey-focused rather than skating-focused and they know what they’re doing—Rushy—“

“Yeah,” Rushy laughs, “I learned my lesson last time. I’ll wear my pads for the big kids.”

“What happened last time?” Asher asks Coots.

“Got hit in the neck with a slapshot,” Coots murmurs. “He flopped around gasping like a fish for a couple seconds and ended up with a massive bruise. The poor kid thought she’d killed him. I’m surprised you haven’t heard this story. We don’t like to let him forget the time his career was almost ended by a kid at a philanthropy event.”

“Hey,” Rushy says. “She was seventeen and she’d been in the Little Aces program on scholarship since she was eight. She’s playing in college this year.”

“Which is why he’s wearing his pads for the older kids this time,” Rads finishes. “Anyway, these kids are in foster care or group homes. A lot of them have been separated from their siblings, relatives, etc., so be aware of that. Don’t bring up family or Christmas. Cool?”

And that just solidifies Matts’ decision to just talk to them as little as possible. 

There are nods all around and Matts realizes he should be putting on his skates.

“Any questions?”

“Uh,” Asher says, looking nervous. “What should we talk to them about?”

Some of the guys laugh, but Matts is right there with him.

“Most of them will direct the conversation, but if you get a shy one, just focus on the skating. If they don’t want to talk, it’s fine. This isn’t a therapy session it's a philanthropy event.”

“Could be both,” Nicky leans over to whisper to Rushy, “I know shooting pucks at your face always brightens my spirits.”

“And watching you get all pissy when I block them brightens mine,” Rushy agrees.

“See?” Rads says. “You shouldn’t have any issue interacting with them. Apparently you’re all still children yourselves. Let’s get out there.”

There’s a mass exodus for the ice, but Matts still has to lace his skates and then Rads is sitting down in Asher’s vacated stall next to him, which can’t be good.

“I know I’m late, sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he glances at the door, making sure that everyone else has left, then leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees.

Sometimes it’s painfully clear that Rads is a dad.

“Eli is here,” Rads says, nodding toward Kent’s stall where there’s a relatively conspicuous figure-skating bag tucked next to the usual pile of stick tape and half-empty gatorade bottles. “Is that going to be a problem for you?”

“No,” Matts says, eyes on his feet.

“When we’re done today, he’s going to be in the locker room. If that makes you uncomfortable, you can stay on the ice until he’s gone, but—“

“It’s fine,” Matts says, tightening his laces with a little more force than is strictly necessary. “I get it. It’s not a problem.”

I’m not a problem, he means. Because apparently he is. Enough of one that the alternate captain stayed behind to give him a lecture. Jesus.

“You’re a good kid,” Rads says. “But Eli is too. I know you and Rushy seem fine, but —”

But Rushy is a six-foot-two hockey player with girlfriend and it’s easy to pretend that he’s straight. They’re also friends. Maybe. Which, yeah, is definitely different than Eli who is small and kind of breakable-looking and a figure skater for god’s sake. He’s like a living stereotype. And Matts hasn’t actually had a conversation with him. Ever. But it’s not like he has a real problem with the kid.

Seriously,” Matts interrupts. “I get it. I shouldn’t have said that shit before and I won’t bring it up again. Okay?” He ties his second pair of laces even though the skate still isn’t quite fitting right because this conversation needs to be over. “I promise.”

“Okay,” Rads says. “Good.”

He makes a break for the ice because the prospect of two dozen kids under the age of ten is actually less dire than remaining in the locker room with Rads in dad-mode.

He’s got the “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” vibe down a little too well.

The thing is, skating with a bunch of uncoordinated children actually isn’t that bad. They’re like, bizarrely non-competitive and super pleased about going in a straight line, or completing a circuit of the rink without falling. And they mostly just talk at him rather than expecting him to talk back, which is it’s own relief. It’s kind of nice, actually. 

And then Nicky points to a kid who’s clinging to the boards looking distressingly close to tears and says, “hey, you got that?” like Matts is supposed to have any idea how to handle an emotional kindergartener in a puffy camouflage coat.

“Uh, sure,” he says, and skates over.

“Hi,” he says, crouching a little. “My name is Justin. But most of the guys here call me Matts. So I guess either works? What’s your name?”

The kid just looks at him, eyes wide and blue and wet looking. He’s wearing a tiny Aces snapback with Kent’s number on it which is actually pretty adorable.

Matt’s taps the brim of the hat.

“Do you, uh, like hockey?”

And the kid bursts into tears.

Shit, shit, shit.

He glances over at the camera guy who—yes—is definitely filming this.

“Oh. Oh, dude, no. Don’t cry. What’s wrong?”

He goes down to his knees, panicked, one hand rubbing awkwardly at the kid’s back. “Hey, come on. Just—tell me what’s wrong and I’ll fix it, okay? Are you hungry? Do you…need to go to the bathroom?”

Wait, no. That’s what you check when infants are crying, not kids.

“Do you not want to skate?” he tries. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

And then, quite suddenly, Matts has an armful of sobbing child and a cold, kind of snotty, nose smushed up against his neck.

“I do,” the kid gasps out wetly. “I do want to skate. Just not hockey skate. I want to Olympics skate.”

“I don’t—hockey players go to the Olympics. Oh. Oh, you mean figure skate?”

A nod.

“With music. And spins.”

Which, Matts has no idea how any of that works, but it’s an easy enough fix.

“Alright. Okay. Hey, what’s your name?”

“Jesse.”

“Okay, Jesse. They’ve got figure skates at the rental counter, let’s go swap yours and then we’ll find someone who can teach you some spins. Sound good?”

The kid isn’t actively crying anymore, just sniffing a little, but he doesn’t seem entirely appeased either.

Matts leans back, trying to get a better look at his face.

“Hey. What’s up?”

“There aren’t any other boys wearing figure skates, here,” Jesse whispers, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his jacket. “And Charlie said only girls can figure skate, even though that’s a lie.”

Matts has to actively suppress a laugh at the sheer malice behind the world ‘lie.’

“Okay, well, Charlie is a dic—uh, dumb dumb—“ Jesse’s face brightens considerably—“so you should just ignore him. Boys can figure skate just like girls can play hockey. I mean. There’s a guy on my team named Jeff who used to be a figure skater when he was a kid—he even won, uh, I think it’s called World Juniors? He won a gold medal there before he started playing hockey. And Kicks is a girl but she plays hockey for Stanford right now,” he points to Kicks who is demonstrating, for a yelling group of onlookers, what a cross-check looks like. Rushy, her victim, is possibly cheering the loudest.

Jesse looks a little scared of her, which is fair because people should be.

“Anyway, point is, skate however you want. Gender doesn’t matter.”

Oh my god. He sounds like Jeff.

“Now, lets go get you the right skates, okay?”

“Okay,” Jesse agrees.

He holds Jesse’s hand, keeping him upright, out of the rink and back to the rental desk. Then he helps lace the new skates and holds his hand back.

The only problem is that, as they step onto the ice again, Jeff is nowhere to be seen.

“Uh,” he says, stymied.

Because it’s not like there’s multiple players on the team who also have figure skating backgrounds that he can just—

Oh.

Well.

Not on the team, no.

But there is Eli.

Eli, who’s currently skating circles around a group of kids that are shrieking with laughter as they try and fail to tag him. He’s wearing patterned black leggings that transition seamlessly into black skates and a long-sleeved knit grey tunic-shirt thing that flutters around behind him, just out of reach of the kids’ flailing hands.

Matts takes a fortifying breath.

“Hey,” he says, crouching next to Jesse. “Look over there. That’s Eli. He’s a figure skater, see?”

Jesse’s eyes widen.

“He’s really fast,” Jesse says, which, he’s not wrong. “And he has cool hair.” And Matts can’t really argue with that either.

“You want me to introduce you to him?”

“Yes! Please.”

“Okay. Sweet. You wait here, I’ll be right back.”

Matts doesn’t really have a chance to think about what he’s going to say to Eli, but the fear that Jesse might start crying again if he takes too long is enough to send him off across the ice with intent.

And then, as luck would have it, the pack of kids chasing Eli more or less herd him, skating backward to avoid them, directly into Matts’ path.

It’s a minor collision, and Matts is able to get an arm around Eli’s waist to steady him so no one falls down except for a few of the kids, but they’re already more or less covered in ice and apparently made of rubber, so that’s fine.

“Sorry, sorry,” Eli says, laughing as Matts gets him upright again. Except then he turns fully and gets a look at Matts’ face and—

Eli flinches a way from him; a visceral, full-body movement that actually makes him feel sort of nauseous even though he hasn’t done anything wrong.

“Sorry,” Eli repeats again, putting some space between them. His voice is entirely devoid of the laughter that formed it moment before. “My bad.”

“No, it was my fault. I, uh, I was actually coming over to ask if you’d—there’s a kid over there” he gestures to where said kid is waiting—Jesse waves helpfully— “his name is Jesse and he wants to be a figure skater. I helped him get the right skates but I was wondering if you could help? Because I have no idea about, uh—that stuff.”

A few of the kids who had been chasing Eli run into his legs, clinging, and he automatically reaches down to steady them, hands drifting over shoulders and heads.

“Sure, yeah. Let me just—“

And then Tater snowplows to a stop beside them, showering the kids clinging to Eli with ice.

They scream appreciatively.

“Eli,” Tater says. “Everything okay?”

And Matts is a little pissed that apparently Tater decided Eli needed rescuing from him or whatever, but—

“Yeah,” Eli says, “Justin was just—“

“Matts,” Matts says.

Matts was just telling me about a future figure skater. I’m going to go teach him a few things, can you take over here?”

It seems like they have a brief non-verbal conversation, Eli’s hand resting, almost warningly, on Tater’s comparatively massive forearm, and then Tater is grinning broadly and goading the kids into chasing him instead and Matts is leading Eli over to meet Jesse, trying to ignore the fact that several of his teammates are watching him a little too closely for comfort.

The minute they’re within reach, Jesse attaches himself to Matts’ leg, weirdly shy as Eli introduces himself, and then, when he tries to pry Jesse’s fingers off the hem of his jacket to hand him off to Eli, the waterworks threaten a return.

“Hey no,” Matts says, “I thought you wanted to learn figure skating. Eli is like. The best figure skater I know”—and that isn’t even a lie—“so what’s wrong?”

“I wanna stay with you,” Jesse says, tears clinging to his eyelashes.

“Okay, alright. I’ll stay too then. Eli can teach us both how to figure skate, okay?” and oh my god how do parents ever discipline their children, Matts is most massive pushover.

Jesse grins, abruptly tear-free.

“Okay.”

When Matts looks back up at Eli, relieved, Eli has his bottom lip tucked between his teeth, frowning at him. And not—not in a bad way, or at least Matts doesn’t think it’s bad, it’s more like Eli is confused. 

Eli blinks, expression clearing, and leans forward, hands on knees, to address Jesse.

“I dunno,” Eli says, mock serious. “Some hockey players are pretty bad students. I tried to teach Kent how to do a really easy jump the other day and it took him almost an hour to get it right. I bet you’ll be a faster learner than Matts, what do you think?”

Jesse looks up at him, considering.

“Probably,” he agrees, and reaches his free hand toward Eli.

Eli accepts it and they both move slowly forward, tugging Jesse along, a little wobbly, but surprisingly stable, all things considered, between them.

“Are you friends with Kent Parson?” Jesse asks Eli. “He’s the captain of the Aces. We made thank you cards for him because he paid for all of us at Hyer House to come here special even though we live so far away. And he gave us all hats. And we get to stay in a hotel tonight and go to the game tomorrow.”

That’s news to Matts.

He meets Eli’s eyes over Jesse’s head but Eli looks equally surprised by this information.

“Yes, I’m friends with Kent,” Eli says. “He’s a good guy, even if he’s not very good at figure skating. Luckily,” he adds conspiratorially, “he’s really good at hockey, though.”

“I saw a bus with his face on it this morning,” Jesse says. 

“No kidding. Is it the picture that’s all red-tinted where he looks super serious?”

“Yeah!”

“Cool. The bus I take to the library sometimes has that same picture on it.”

Jesse squints up at Eli, stumbling a little because he’s not paying attention to the ice anymore. Matts tightens his grip on Jesse’s hand.

“Why do you take the bus?” Jesse asks. “I thought rich people had cars.”

“Oh,” Eli says. “Well. I can’t drive right now. And I’m not a rich person, so.”

“You dress fancy like a rich person,” Jesse says.

Eli splutters a little. “Thank you? I think. And I didn’t—this outfit was a gift, actually.” His eyes cut across the ice to Kent—who’s ostensibly teaching a little stick-handling drill but spending more time watching Matts than the puck. “Anyway, you’re doing really well. Do you want to try a spin?”

Completely unsurprisingly, he does.

As do several other kids, it turns out.

They accumulate four girls and one more boy and twenty minutes later, Matts finds himself carrying a toddler with purple mittens and a pom pom on her matching hat, having a very serious conversation with her about bananas while Eli takes turns guiding the other kids, one of which is the toddler’s older sister, through slow, simple, figure skating exercises.  Jesse only lets go of Matts’ hand when it’s his turn to try something, sometimes insisting that Matts’ accompany him and it’s—

Fun.

Eli is soft-spoken but encouraging, knowing just when to do something stupid or funny to get a frustrated kid to laugh, and he seamlessly includes Matts in his jokes like they’re a team or something even though Matts is mostly just a piece of furniture that the kids cling to while watching Eli demonstrate things.

All the kids hug him at the end of their ice time—footage the camera man is very obviously pleased about, and then Kent is ushering Eli off the ice with a gatorade and a power bar, his hand, proprietary, on Eli’s lower back, his eyes still on Matts.

He thinks that will be the end of it, except then Jessica pulls him aside and tells him she loves the dynamic between him and Eli and can they continue their little impromptu figure-skating camp with some of the older kids as well in the following hour? Which is how Matts finds himself actually learning a few simple figure skating moves—awkward in his hockey skates. He’s one part muscle: helping hold waists and arms for balance while Eli directs movements, one part comedic entertainment: falling, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, while he attempts the same tricks. They’re a good team, is the thing, and more often than not one of the camera men is gliding around their little group of ragtag teens and pre-teens taking low shots of moving feet before panning up to grinning faces.

At the end of the second hour, Matts realizes this is probably the longest he’s been on the ice without so much as touching a hockey stick in over a decade.

It’s also probably the most he’s laughed in the same amount of time.

After another round of hugs, the kids are bundled out of the rink by their various guardians and the team heads for the locker room. Matts realizes, as he’s stepping off the ice, however, that Eli is still over by one of the goals, tossing pucks into a bucket. He’s not doing it with much enthusiasm though, and, in fact, it looks like he’s purposefully taking as much time as possible, stopping to retie his laces despite the fact that he's about to take his skates off.

He could be waiting for Kent, who’s being interviewed on the opposite end of the rink, the only Ace left on the ice, but Matts knows that’s probably not the case. He thinks about what Rads had said that morning, and then the way Eli had flinched away from him and that. That sucks. Because Eli is actually pretty cool. And Matts may not be the dick that everyone seems to thinks he is, but he also, admittedly, isn’t very good at being nice either.

Fuck.

He doesn’t know how to do this shit.

“Hey, Eli!” he yells, arms braced on the glass at either side of the exit. “Come on, you’ll want to shower before Tater gets in there. He sings.”

Eli straightens, lobbing another puck toward the bucket by the goal, looking uncertain, and Matts’ jerks his head toward the locker room.

“Come on,” he repeats.

Eli skates off the ice to join him.

“I don’t need a shower. It’s fine. I was just—“ he gestures a little vaguely behind him, “going to help out here while I wait for Kent to wrap up and change.”

“Dude, you are literally covered in ice. Probably also germs because you’ve been covered in kids, too. And it’s like, flu season. You should definitely shower. Unless—”

He realizes maybe he’s coming on too strong with the nice-ness.

This shit is hard.

“—unless you don’t want to,” he finishes awkwardly.

“Okay,” Eli says slowly, making the word two syllables. “Well. A shower might be nice. I still need to grab Hawke, though,” he nods to where his dog has been patiently watching the morning’s proceedings in the stands.

“So grab her, let’s go.”

Eli considers him for a moment, the same weird pinch from earlier between his eyebrows.

He glances at Kent, still talking to the camera, and then inhales purposefully.

“Okay,” he says. “Yeah, alright. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

“So,” Eli says cheerfully when they get in the car. “What the fuck was that?”

“Shared hallucination?” Kent suggests.

“Seems plausible.”

Kent starts the engine and heads for the garage entrance, not sure what else to say.

“I mean,” Eli continues, “That was the same guy who didn’t want me looking at his dick in the locker room a week ago, right?”

“Right.”

“And now he’s insistent that I shower with him so I avoid contracting the flu? Did Tater threaten to kill him or something?”

“I don’t think so, but you know he has those mafia connections.”

Eli grins. “True.”

Kent drums his fingers on the steering wheel.“Did Matts—it seemed like you were getting along really well.”

“We did, is the weird thing. He was good at following instructions and actually learned some things, I think. And he was ridiculously sweet with the kids. Kind of a pushover, but like, genuinely concerned about them? I heard him asking Rushy if there were any Aces-funded figure skating programs for kids like there are hockey camps.”

“I don’t think there are.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he donates to start one.”

Kent exhales, shaking his head. “I’m still leaning toward hallucination.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Well. I guess I’d rather an aggressively friendly Matts than an ignorant homophobe Matts.”

“Same.”

Eli orders pizza on the way home—they have an agreement now, Eli orders the food so Kent doesn’t have to talk on the phone, and Kent pays for it—and due to the ever-present Vegas traffic, the pizza arrives to Kent’s condo only shortly after they do. Kent is on the yoga mat stretching out his shoulder with a roller bar when concierge calls to get permission to send up the delivery guy. Eli answers the phone for him, says yes, and then Kent gets to watch as Eli moves comfortably around the kitchen, getting utensils from the cabinet and then emptying the dishwasher when it turns out there’s only one clean plate left. Watching Eli cook in his kitchen is one thing, but this—this is good too. Because Eli unerringly distributes measuring spoons and cutlery to their respective drawers and the fact that he knows where Kent’s potato-peeler goes feels like it means something.

Well. Kent didn’t actually own a potato-peeler before Eli and Eli is the one who designated its home as second-drawer-from-the-right between the oven and refrigerator—but the point is that Kent likes it.

When the doorbell rings, Eli fishes Kent’s wallet out of his coat pocket to locate some cash and once the pizza is paid for and distributed, Eli brings both their plates to the living room and turns on the Avs/Panthers game. Kent moves to sit with him and they settle, inside elbows knocking companionably, Eli muttering about the high-sticking bastard on the Panthers that bloodied Kent’s lip and nearly took his helmet off six games previously and Kent just—has to take a moment.

Because this—them—feels natural. Habitual. Like they’ve been coexisting for years and will for years to come and it’s. God, that would be so good. And it’s not even a scary thought, really, that Eli might be it for him. It’s only scary that Eli might not feel the same way. 

Eli catches him staring and tips his head a little, bemused.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Kent clears his throat and scoots a little closer. They can’t hold hands because they’re eating which is a damn shame. Maybe it’s because the novelty hasn’t worn off yet, but Kent really likes holding hands.

“So,” he says, “I like your hair today.”

Eli raises an eyebrow. “It’s the same as yesterday. Or, I tried to do it the same, anyway. I used the same product the barber did.”

Kent had noticed it on the bathroom counter that morning: a little blue bottle that smelled like heaven.

“Why’d you change it? Your hair, I mean.”

Eli shrugs. “Well, it was getting long, and if people are going to keep taking pictures of me that end up on the internet, I need to make sure I look good in them.”

“You always look good,” Kent says, and it’s not even a line.

“You’re sweet.”

“Also true.”

“Humble.”

Very true.”

Kent’s phone rings before Eli has the chance to drag him more thoroughly and it’s his agent so—

“Hey Jamal,” he says, setting aside his plate.

“Kent,” Jamal says gravely. But then, Jamal says everything gravely. “I’ve reviewed all your contracts and spoken at length with Jessica Andrews, the head of Aces PR. I’m sorry it’s taken longer than expected, but some of the endorsement deals took a while to go over.”

“Oh…kay? Is there a problem with the endorsements, or?”

“Not explicitly, but Under Armour, Tag Heuer, and Diesel all have clauses about your eligibility as a representative. If they deem your independent behavior—for any reason—a contradiction to their values, or if they believe your behavior reflects badly upon their brand, your contract can be terminated.”

“And you think if I come out—“

Eli shifts, setting aside his own plate, to look at Kent.

“I don’t think any of them would pull their endorsements,” Jamal says. “If anything, you coming out will increase the visibility and effectivity of the advertisements that feature you.  I just want you to know that there is a possibility of repercussions if you become too polarizing a figure.”

Kent laughs a little bitterly. “Diesel signed me a month after my second DWI, but it’s being gay I have to worry about. Fantastic.”

Eli goes very, very still beside him.

“Kent,” Jamal says, “I honestly don’t think it will be a problem, but if it becomes one, know that there will be dozens of other companies clamoring to sign you—ostensibly as a show of support, but more realistically to capitalize on what will be a significant jump in star status for you. You’re the king of the hockey world right now, but it’s still a relatively insular world. That won’t be the case when you come out.”

“Right. Okay. Well, it’s not like I need underwear-modeling gigs anyway. I have more money than I know what to do with as it is.”

Jamal sighs.

Jamal often sighs when talking to Kent.

“Alright,” Kent says. “So, you said you talked to Jessica? When is my meeting with management?”

“Tomorrow. 11 am. You don’t play the Flyers until 7:30 pm so that should leave plenty of time for your nap.”

“Okay, it is alright if I talk to coach first?”

“Yes, but Jessica has requested that you don’t tell anyone else on the team or staff until you’ve met with management and discussed a trajectory.”

“A trajectory,” Kent repeats.

“A timeline. We’re assuming you’ll want to come out in stages—first to the core of the team, then the whole team, then staff that works closely with you, then staff collectively, then other players in the league, and so on. And we’ll want to plan each step with contingency plans in place in case someone goes to the media prematurely.”

“Oh. Right. Okay.”

“Do you have any other questions?”

Kent has so many questions, but most of them will probably be answered in 48 hours.

“No. I guess I’m good. Thanks.”

“Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow at 11.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

Kent exhales as he hangs up, flopping back against the cushions. “Well. I’m finally telling management. Now I need to tell coach first so he’s not blindsided.”

Eli doesn’t say anything and Kent pauses, mid-reach in retrieving his plate, to glance at him.

Eli looks…not good.

“What?” he says.

“You have DWIs?” he says.

“Oh. Uh. Yeah.” Kent scratches the back of his head. “One from the night of the draft. One from the night of my first hat trick as a rookie.”

“Did you hurt anyone?” Eli asks, barely audible.

“What? No. I wasn’t in accidents or anything. The first was just bad luck—I got pulled over for expired registration. The second was a speed trap because the game was against the Rangers on new years eve and cops were stopping everyone in the city in a car.”

“Okay.” Eli licks his lips, still so serious, so wide-eyed, that Kent feels unsettled. 

“You don’t do that anymore, though, right?”

“I mean. I still get drunk sometimes—not nearly as often as I used to or like, to the same extent. Before I drank because I was unhappy and just kept drinking until I didn’t feel anything anymore. No I only drink when I’m celebrating.”

Eli’s eyebrows go a little pinched, but it’s still better than whatever his previous expression was. “You weren’t celebrating the night of the draft or your first hat trick?”

“Yeah, no. After the draft, Jack was in the hospital after nearly dying, refusing to take my calls, and I was the first-round pick wearing a jersey that should have been his. And the hat trick—I was in the locker room afterward, full of guys I’d only known for a month, holding my phone in my hand and realizing I didn’t have anyone to call to share it with. I didn’t—I wasn’t in a good place, then.”

Eli scoots a little closer, reaching for his hand, and Kent breathes a little easier because whatever is going on, if Eli is touching him he’s probably not mad.

“I’m sorry. That sounds really terrible.”

Kent shrugs. “Things are better, now. A lot better, now.”

Eli takes a breath.

The kind of breath that means something.

“You don’t drive when you’ve been drinking anymore, though, right? I’ve only ever seen you take Ubers or had someone else, like Jeff, take you home but—“

“No. No, I haven’t. I won’t. I know it was irresponsible and stupid.”

“Okay.”

“Hey.” Kent squeezes Eli’s hand. “You’re kind of freaking me out, here. Are you alright?”

Eli considers him for a moment, eyes moving between Kent’s, and then lifts their joined hands, molding Kent’s palm to Eli’s jaw, forcing his fingers down to press against the line of scar tissue that cups the curve of Eli’s left ear. 

“A drunk driver did this to me. Almost killed me. You can’t ever do that shit again. Not even if you’ve only had a few drinks and you’re pretty sure you’re ok to drive. You have to promise you won’t. Please.”

And fuck.

Fuck.

“I promise. I swear to God, I’m sorry, I didn’t—“

He reaches for Eli but pauses, unsure of his welcome, and when Eli folds easily into his arms, it feels a little like mercy.

“I’m so sorry. It was stupid. I know it was stupid. But I haven’t since the second DWI. It’s been almost two years and I won’t—I won’t—“

“Hey,” Eli says, more into his neck than to him. “I believe you, it’s okay. I just—I need to know that you to know how serious it is. Because I would probably be an olympic prospect right now if a drunk teenager hadn’t hit me head-on the night of the homecoming dance.”

And Kent thinks he gets what Eli is trying to say—that it was only luck he didn’t similarly destroy someone else’s life.

“Okay,” Kent says. “I understand. Never again.”

“Okay.”

They just sort of sit there holding each other until Hawke comes over with her leash in her mouth looking forlorn.

Eli laughs wetly into Kent’s collarbone. “I should take her for a walk. You want to come or do you need to call your coach?”

And Kent had completely forgotten about that in the past few minutes.

“Coach,” he says.

Eli straightens, framing Kent’s face with his hands, and presses a decisive kiss to his mouth.

“Good luck. Don’t let Kit eat my pizza.”

Kit, sitting on the coffee table and eyeing Eli’s abandoned plate on the arm of the couch, looks insulted by the insinuation.

“Will do.”

He watches Eli collect his boots and coat, Kent’s scarf, the keys, and then Kent waves at him like a moron when he slips out the door.

He pulls Kit into his arms and cuddles her to his chest, mostly against her will.

“I was such a disaster,” he tells her. “Still am, a little bit.”

She blinks solemnly at him in agreement.

“Don’t let me fuck this up,” he whispers. “Okay? ”

She butts her head against his chin.

“Okay, good talk. Should we call Coach, now?”

He decides they probably should. 

He shifts Kit into his lap so he has a hand free and pulls up the contact information for one Coach Robert Sullivan—Sully to several of the guys, but a nick-name Kent has never been able to use, to his face or otherwise.

“Kent,” Coach says after the third ring. “Is everything alright?”

And he abruptly forgets the speech he’s spent the last few weeks practicing in his head.

God, he hates making phone calls.

“Uh. Yes? I mean. I’m great. I’m afraid I might be creating some problems for the organization soon, though. Which—that sounded more dire than I meant it to.”

“Okay,” Coach says guardedly.

“Um. I need to miss practice on January 13th.”

“Okay?”

“But that isn’t actually—“

“Hold on,” Coach says, “Jessica is calling.”

And then Kent is on call-waiting and debating banging his head against the coffee table except not having a string of concussions is one of the things he actually has going for him right now, so.

“Why am I like this?” he asks Kit.

She has no idea.

The line crackles.

“Kent,” Coach says. “Why has Jessica just invited me to a mandatory meeting with management, you, and your agent, on Monday morning?”

“Yeah, that’s kind of why I was calling. I didn’t want you to be like, blindsided, or whatever.”

“What does this have to do with you missing practice on the 13th? Are you…unhappy, here?”

And oh god, coach thinks he’s meeting with other teams or something.

No. No, that’s not it at all. I just. I need to miss practice so I can go to the Intercollegiate Figure Skating Championships. Which are January 11-13th.”

Coach doesn’t say anything for a moment.

“I don’t understand. Why do you need to go to the college—figure skating whatever?”

Kent takes a deep breath.

“Because,” he says, “My boyfriend is competing.”

“Your boyfriend,” Coach repeats. And then, after several seconds of silence, “So many things are making sense, now.”

“Yeah.” Kent stalls out, wishing he could see Coach’s face.

“It’s Elijah, right? The youtube, skating, kid?”

“Well. He’s 18, so, not really a kid. He’s only two years younger than me.”

“You’re a kid too, kid. Jesus. Alright, give me a second.”

Kent pets Kit with a purpose, that purpose being not having a panic attack.

“Okay,” Coach says. “Okay. So. I appreciate you telling me ahead of time, and I hope you didn’t wait this long because you thought I wouldn’t be supportive. I am. And had I known sooner I—well, that’s no excuse, but I could have supported you better, regardless, when you were a rookie. So I apologize for that.”

Kent swallows.

“That’s—thank you. And I wasn’t ready to tell anyone then. Not many people know, currently, either.”

“Alright. Are you wanting to come out?”

“Not now. But eventually. And I won’t—I’m not going obsess over the time I spend with Eli until then. So if someone figures it out and decides to go public with it—I figured we should be ready.”

“That’s smart. I’m assuming we’ll talk more at length about this on Monday, but do you need anything from me until then? You have any questions for me?”

“Uh. No? Knowing you’re supportive is really all I need. Oh, and um,” he bites his lip. “Is it okay if I miss practice so I can go to Eli’s competition in January?”

Coach sighs at him again. “Yes, Kent. I think that’s doable.”

“Okay.”

“You’re a good kid,” Coach says, which is about as effusive as he gets with overt statements of affection. “It seems like Eli is too. You let me know if you ever need anything, okay? If there’s ever anyone who gives you trouble. On or off the team.” And no, that is probably the most effusive he gets.

“Thanks, Coach.”

They hang up and then, before Kent can even set the phone down, it’s ringing again.

He answers without looking.

“Hey, Coach. You forget something?”

“Oh. Um. I’m not—Hello?”

And that. 

That is not Coach.

He’s pretty sure it’s—

Kent takes a breath.

“Jack?”

“Yeah,” Jack says, quiet and a little uncertain. “Yeah, it’s me. Hey, Kenny.”

Chapter Text

Kent is more asleep than awake when Eli pours him into his first class window seat, tucks a blanket around him, and tells him to take a nap.

Kent doesn’t argue.

The last 24 hours have been exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Talking to Jack, short and awkward as the conversation was, had been good but…sort of harrowing? And then the next morning, talking to management—suddenly tripling the number of people who knew his biggest secret—having to listen to them map out the minutia of his personal life like he was some sort of problem that they had to plan to fix, or maybe not fix but like, brace for.

Like a natural disaster. 

Which, he feels like a natural disaster sometimes, so maybe that’s apt. And then they’d lost the last game of the year to shitty calling and, maybe, admittedly, some unwise choices on Kent’s part. Yes, he was sent to the box twice, but it wasn’t his fault that the refs weren’t doing their jobs. Like. If Roussel wasn’t going to get called for slashing him, what else was he supposed to do but retaliate by tripping him.

Hockey is stupid.

And then he’d gotten boarded—read destroyed—at the beginning of the third and was out for the rest of the period while they did concussion protocol and made anxious noises about his ribs even though Kent told them he was fine. And maybe he wasn’t fine, exactly, but he could have played. Honestly. At least he’d gotten one of the trainers to go retrieve Eli from the box so he didn’t have to watch his team lose on the shitty TV in the medical room alone. But they got home late, nearly midnight, and then Kent couldn’t sleep because, yes, his ribs were hurting, and by the time his painkillers kicked in it was nearly two. And then Eli was waking him up at five because they needed to be at the airport by six for their seven-thirty flight and while he was feeling arguably better than he had been the night before it was in the same way that getting hit by a Prius would be arguably better than being hit by a minivan.

He’s tired.

He’s hurting.

He’s grumpy.

He listens to his boyfriend and takes a nap.

When he wakes up, some indeterminable amount of time later, it’s to Eli sitting sideways, back against the armrest, feet in the seat, socked toes tucked under Kent’s thigh, a book propped on his bent knees. Because he’s small and bendy like that. He even looks comfortable.

“Hey,” Kent says, and his voice rasps.

He swallows and tries not to squint because he knows it’s not a good look on him.

“Hey,” Eli says, grinning. “How are you feeling?”

“Like a 239 pound defenseman tried to end my life last night.”

“239 is oddly specific.”

“I googled his stats while I was waiting on my x-rays.”

“Of course you did.”

Kent reaches for the gatorade conveniently waiting for him in the cupholder.

“What time is it?”

“I’m not really sure how to answer that because of the time difference, but we’re about twenty minutes away from Atlanta.”

So he has twenty minutes before he meets Eli’s best friend for the first time and, subsequently, Eli’s entire family, while sleep-deprived and on narcotics.

“Fantastic.”

“Hey. It’s okay. We’ll just tell everyone you’re hurt and you need to rest for most of the afternoon and you can go upstairs and lay down until dinner. It’s going to be fine.”

Kent makes a pathetic sound because he feels a little pathetic and he knows it will garner him sympathy.

Eli makes a face at him, shifting so his legs are tucked underneath him and he’s leaning into Kent’s space. He retrieves a second blanket, draping it over his own lap, and then Kent feels Eli’s fingers nudging his, hidden underneath free airline flannel.

And, well. That’s nice.

They hold hands for the rest of the flight.

Kent is able to get off the plane under his own power, and honestly he’s not sure how Eli managed to wrangle both him and Hawke down the airplane isle to board the plane to begin with, but obviously his boyfriend is talented. They take the elevator down to the baggage claim and then Kent finds himself abruptly abandoned when Eli drops his backpack and Hawke’s leash to run full-tilt toward a tiny, similarly exuberant, blonde, that Kent can only assume is Eric Bittle.

They embrace like they haven’t seen each other in years, and then Eli pulls Eric over to meet Kent and the kid really is just…incredibly small.

“You play hockey?” Kent says, in lieu of like, hello or some other standard greeting, because it’s what he’s thinking and apparently Vicodin takes away his filter.

Eric considers him with one eyebrow raised and a smirk that can only mean bad things.

“Yep. And probably better than you at the moment.”

Which, yeah. He can’t really argue that.

“That was some hit by Patchelli,” Eric continues. “I’m honestly a little surprised you’re standing upright on your own right now.”

“He wasn’t, this morning,” Eli says, the traitor. “And he’s on painkillers.”

“I can see that.”

“This was a terrible idea,” Kent says and they both laugh at him.

Hawke sidles up to Eric, vibrating with excitement, and he bites his lip, looking down at her.

“Hey, baby girl. Your vest is on right now, but I’ll give you so much love in the car, okay?”

Eli gets a reluctant Hawke to heel again and then Eric’s baggage carousel starts moving and they head off, arm in arm, to go retrieve his luggage. 

Kent elects to sit down.

Twenty minutes and three suitcases later, they exit the terminal to humid air, sunshine, and a blonde woman standing beside a very old, very blue, pickup truck. She’s shading her eyes with one hand, practically on her tip-toes, scanning the swarm of people coming out of the door and then—

“Dicky! Eli! Oh, my boys—“

She hugs them with a fierceness that makes Kent’s throat uncomfortably tight, taking each of their faces between her palms to pull their foreheads down into kissing range—touching hair and pulling at clothing and despairing over how thin they are.

And then she’s moving toward Kent, smiling, giving him perhaps the gentlest hug he’s ever received while tutting about the violence of professional sports, so apparently she knows who he is.

“You’ll sit in the cab with me, of course, sweetheart, and let the boys have the bed. I’m afraid the suspension won’t be kind to you either way but at least you’ll have a seatbelt and a little padding up front. Come along.”

And…does she mean Eli and Eric are going to ride in the back of the truck?

Apparently she does.

Eventually they’re headed off down a bizarrely traffic-less road with the windows open and country music on the radio and Eric’s mom telling the story of the truck—a 1952 Chevy that she bought with all her savings as a grocery store clerk at nineteen—and how she picked up Eric’s father for their first date in it because his vehicle was a motorcycle and she didn’t have a death wish, now did she? And Kent finds himself smiling, watching in the rearview mirror as Eli and Eric shout indistinctly at each other, grinning like idiots. Hawke is sitting mostly on top of Eric, head in the wind, tongue out, ecstatic.

“And well,” Eric’s mother is saying, “It’s always been my baby ever since. Even when my real baby,” she nods to Eric in truck bed, “came along. Not that keeping it running hasn’t been a job and a half. But that’s another story.”

Kent focuses his attention back on her, one elbow leaned against the sill of the open window, fingers light against the old, cracked leather of the steering wheel. 

“Sounds like an interesting story,” he says, “if you want to share it?”

She does.

***

Eli’s house isn’t what he’s expecting.

In his head, he’d been picturing something out of a western movie. A long driveway with big trees. White siding. Wood beams. A wraparound porch. 

The trees are definitely big, but the driveway is a combination of red dirt and gravel and the house looks far more victorian than southern with scalloped woodwork around the peaked attic windows and thin spiraling columns holding up the latticed arch of the roof over the porch. It’s big, but clearly aging, and the exact sort of place that some HGTV couple would salivate over buying and renovating while gushing over it’s “charm.”

It’s beautiful.

He’s about to say so, as Eric’s mom turns off the engine but then—

“Are those goats?” he asks. Because there’s a fence line just behind the house and several little bodies are hurtling toward it and they’re making noises like—

Okay. They’re definitely goats.

“Yes,” Eric’s mom says, and she might be laughing at him. “The Rodriguez family usually has two to four dozen at a time. They’re a nice little source of added income—I think a good portion of Eli’s skating lessons over the years were paid for with money from goat or sheep sales.”

The first few goats reach the fence line, screaming—Kent honestly can’t describe it as anything but screaming—and Hawke launches herself out of the back of the truck to greet them, shoving her nose through the openings in the fence, low to the ground and wagging so hard Kent is slightly afraid she might do herself an injury.

“Johnny!” Eli yells, jumping down to follow Hawke. “Hey baby boy! Michelle! Yuna! Dorthy! Ashley! Oh, my girls.”

Eli follows Hawke to the fence and some of the goats stand on their back legs, begging for pets and Eli, in his floral vans and skinny jeans bends to kiss their noses and coo over them.

Kent may need to adjust his world view a little bit.

“Why do they have people names?” Kent asks, more to himself than anyone else. “Goats shouldn’t have people names.”

Eric opens the passenger door and offers Kent a hand.

“They’re all named after former or current figure skaters. Like Johnny Weir, Michelle Kwan, Yuna Kim, etc.”

“Oh. Oh my god. Please tell me there’s a goat named Jeff Troy.”

“There used to be,” Eric says, “but he was kind of a dick once he hit puberty so they sold him.”

“That,” Kent says fervently, “is the best christmas present you could have given me.”

“Uh huh. You gunna get out of the cab or are you planning to come home with Mama and me?” Eric asks.

Kent takes Eric’s hand, cursing under his breath on the way to the ground, and then stands there uselessly as Eric gets his suitcase out of the truck bed and carries it toward the house.

“Elijah!” Eric yells. “Stop kissing crusty farm animal noses and come see to your guest.”

Eli glances back at them guiltily, then jogs over to retrieve his own bags, calling Hawke to follow him.

He’s extending his arm, ostensibly to help Kent up the porch steps, when the front door opens and a tall woman in a bright, floral-patterned dress steps around the screen door and into the light.

“Elijah!”

“Abuela!”

There’s a round of hugs between Eli’s grandmother, Eli, Eric, and Eric’s mom, and then Eli’s grandmother in front of Kent, holding his face between her hands and staring at him like she can see directly into his soul. The fact that she might actually be a little taller than him only emphasizes his anxiety.

“Uh. Hi,” he says. “I’m Kent.”

She’s really pretty, not despite the wrinkles on her face but maybe because of them—she clearly does a lot of smiling.

“Oh, Eli,” she says, turning Kent’s face to the side, then back to meet her eyes again, “¿Por qué todos mis nietos deben enamorarse de gringos? Ay, al menos él es lindo.”

Eli makes an embarrassed noise, with a strangled, “Okay, why don’t we go inside, now?” that leaves Kent really, really, wishing he knew Spanish.

“It is good to meet you, Kent,” she says, patting his cheek. “You call me Abuela, or Aba, like the little ones, okay? Come inside. You look hungry.”

She releases him, moving to hold open the door, and Eli wraps himself around Kent’s right arm, pressing a laugh briefly into his shoulder, before pulling him up the steps.

The Bittles leave their bags in the entryway, then call their goodbyes with promises to see them soon, and head back for the truck.

“Abuela,” Eli says, as they progress down a narrow, but high-ceilinged hall, “Kent was hurt in his hockey game last night and we didn’t get much sleep. So after we eat something we’re going to go up and rest for a while. Do you know if Mama has anything big planned tonight?”

“Family dinner,” she says, leading them into a kitchen positively exploding with floral wallpaper. 

“How much of the family?” he asks guardedly.

She waves a dismissive hand. “Little family, no aunts or cousins.”

“Okay, good. You know if Papa will be late tonight?”

She makes a noise that universally means, “who knows” and starts pulling corning ware bowls out of the refrigerator, frowning at Kent as he sits, slowly, at the well-worn table tucked in the half-moon recess off the kitchen. The windows look into a side yard that is bursting with bird feeders and, by consequence, birds. Kent can’t remember a time he’s seen that many birds in one place before—or such a variety. 

“Where are you hurt?” Abuela asks, and it takes Kent a moment to realize she’s talking to him.

“Oh, uh. It’s nothing, really. I just have some bruised ribs.”

“The whole left side of your back is purple,” Eli mutters, spooning things onto two plates, “That’s not nothing. Do you want butter on your sweet potato?”

“Yes, please.”

Abuela wipes her hands on a dish rag and moves across the room to a bulky leather purse. She returns a moment later to press a small canister of something into Kent’s hand.

“Here. Vapor Rub. It will help.

“Oh jeez,” Eli says, moving to sit beside Kent with their plates. “Not with the vapor rub again. I think science has proven that Vicks cannot, in fact, cure everything.”

“Actually,” Kent says, “that probably would help. The trainers have like, a fancier version, but it helps with inflammation, increased blood flow, and helps bruises fade faster. Especially if you add—“

“Salt,” Abuela agrees, setting down a canister of Morton on the table. She taps her temple. “I know this.”

“Thank you.”

Eli groans something about encouraging her madness, offering Kent a fork, and Kent accepts it with a grin. 

Lunch is leisurely, comprised mostly of Abuela sneaking Hawke food, Eli answering questions about how his first semester is going, and Kent being embarrassingly entranced by the birds outside. He wonders if it’s the medication or the fact that he doesn’t think he’s seen a wild bird—much less dozens of them—this close before.

When they’re finished, Eli takes him up a very old, wide, staircase, with an ornate banister, and into, Kent is delighted to find, Eli’s childhood bedroom. The wallpaper here is a deep jewel-toned green that makes him even sleepier than he was before, and Eli helps him undress down to boxers and a t-shirt while Kent gets distracted trying to read the titles of books on the shelves above the desk, and looking at the little lego creations on the top of the long chest of drawers opposite the bed.

“I told Jack I’d call him back today,” Kent says absently, eyes caught again by the birds outside. There’s several blue ones that remind him of Jack’s eyes.

“You’re in no shape to have that conversation right now,” Eli says, hiking up Kent’s shirt to smear some Vapor Rub on his ribs. “I’m sure Jack saw the game last night and knows you’re high as a kite right now. But if you want I can text him and let him know you’ll need another day or two?”

“Yeah,” Kent agrees. He pats his ass, forgetting for a moment that he’s not wearing pants. “Oh. My phone is in my—“

“Right butt jeans pocket,” Eli says. “I know. I’ll get it in a minute. Hold still, apparently I need to rub salt on you now.”

Eventually, Eli gets him tucked under the satisfyingly crinkly grey duvet, and Kent is pretty sure he says something about wanting Eli to stay but he can’t be certain because he falls asleep almost immediately.

He wakes up once, briefly, to the sound of a car coming down the gravel driveway, but he’s warm and everything smells pleasantly of menthol and Eli is snug up behind him, breathing slow and sweet against the back of his neck, and he drifts right back off again.

The second time he wakes it’s to Eli leaving the bed, followed quickly by Hawke, who shakes, rattling her collar tags. Kent grumbles something about betrayal as he watches Eli get dressed—silhouetted against the window.

“My dad will be home in half an hour or so. I need to go down and say hi to Mama and Bells and help them start the food. You stay here, I’ll come get you a little before dinner, okay?”

“No,” he says, starting to sit up, “I can get up now, I don’t want to be rude.”

“What will be rude is if you stare out the window at the birds all of dinner because you have to take another pain pill. And, I mean, if you really need to, that’s fine, but the doctor said if you didn’t push yourself today you could switch to Advil tonight. Which is much kinder to your poor addled brain.”

Eli finishes tucking his shirt into his jeans and then ducks to kiss Kent’s forehead.

Kent likes it when he does that.

“So. You rest. And I’ll come get you in another two hours, okay?”

“Okay,” he agrees. “The doctor also said I have to walk around, though, to make sure I don’t get fluid in my lungs. So I can’t just stay in bed all day.”

“I’ll take you out around the back forty after dinner, if you’re feeling up to it. But let’s keep the exertion for after you’ve gotten grilled by my family, okay? You’re my first boyfriend. They’re probably going to be ridiculous. You need to be on your game.”

And that’s more than a little intimidating.

“What’s a back forty?” he asks blearily and Eli grins like he’s being cute. He makes a note to google it before dinner.

“Kiss my forehead again,” he demands, closing his eyes.

Eli laughs at him, but acquiesces.

Two hours and several Advil later, Eli helps Kent put on jeans and a white button down, Kent’s favorite “I’m an adult” brown leather belt and matching shoes, and then holds his hand as they descend the stairs. He continues holding it while he introduces Kent to his Mama (Alicia)—a small lady, even smaller than Eli, with the same wide smile as Abuela and long dreadlocks twisted up into a bun that gives her several more inches in height—his Papa (Joseph)—a lean man, not quite as tall as Kent with horn-rimmed glasses, greying light brown hair, and a thin tidy mustache—and his sister Isabella—who looks shockingly similar to Eli, only younger and with longer, braided hair. She’s wearing a basketball jersey and the kind of superior expression only middle-schoolers can truly achieve. 

He gets a hug from Alicia, a handshake from Joseph, and a disdainful look from Isabella before they all sit down at the table and then, naturally, the first question Eli’s mother asks is: “So, how did you two meet?”

Kent glances sideways at Eli, uncertain how to respond, because they’d planned to talk on the plane about how they were going to handle the whole Kent’s career situation and then, for some reason, neither of them had remembered that conversation still needed to happen after Kent slept through the majority of the trip.

“Uh,” he says eloquently. 

Eli raises a questioning eyebrow and Kent nods, not exactly sure what he’s agreeing to, but he trusts Eli.

“So,” Eli says, pressing his palms together. “That’s actually something that we need to talk to y'all about. And. We’ll probably need to tell Tia Rose and the others at Christmas too.”

Everyone stops eating except for Isabella.

“Okay,” Alicia says slowly. “Mijo, is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine, Mama. It’s—Kent isn’t just a hockey player. He’s, uh. He’s the captain of the Aces.”

“Oh. Captain,” Alicia says, still looking confused. “That is…very impressive.”

“No, I mean. He’s the captain of the Las Vegas Aces. Like. The NHL team.”

“Shut up,” Isabella says.

“Bella,” Alicia chides.

“NHL,” Joseph repeats. “NHL like National Hockey League? How old are you?”

“Oh. Uh. Twenty?” Kent says.

“No way you’re dating a professional athlete, that’s not fair,” Isabella whines.

“What?” Eli says.“What do you mean it’s not fair, that doesn’t even—“

“Use the Google,” Abuela says to Isabella, handing over her phone—“type ‘Kent Las Vegas Aces.’”

“That might not be a good idea,” Kent whispers to Eli, harried.

“Twenty,” Eli’s dad says thoughtfully. “Well. That’s not so bad. A captain at twenty, though. That’s a lot of responsibility. You must—“

“Oh my god,” Isabella shrieks. “He is, look,” and then she’s passing around Abuela’s phone and yes, that’s Kent’s NHL headshot, which isn’t exactly flattering but it could be worse—like his draft photo.

Alicia, now holding the phone, looks up at Kent.

“You are a professional hockey player?”

“Yes. Ma’am.”

“Wait,” Isabella says, “How are you gay? Professional hockey players can’t be gay.”

“Bella,” everyone at the table except for Kent shouts.

Sorry. I’m just saying, that’s like. A big deal. Do we have to keep this a secret? Is that what this is about?”

“Yeah,” Eli says. “Sort of. Kent isn’t out yet. Nobody can know he’s here or that we’re together. So everyone needs to be careful about what they post on Facebook and Instagram and stuff.”

Alicia sighs, passing the phone back to Isabella. “I will definitely need to speak with Charlotte and Rose before Christmas, then.”

“Oh my god,” Isabella says faintly.

What?” Eli snaps.

“Kent Parson’s estimated net worth,” she reads, phone still in hand, “is 3.5 million dollars,” she turns her attention to Kent. “You’re a millionaire?”

“Uh. I guess? I mean. Yeah. I am.”

“And you’re dating Eli?” she says, disbelief coloring her tone.

Yes,” Kent says, much more assertively, putting down his fork so he can reach for Eli’s free hand. “And I’m lucky that he’s willing to put up with me. I can’t—I’m not an easy person to date. And we didn’t start dating for a long time, even though we both really liked each other because I wasn’t willing to ask him to be a secret. Because that’s not right, and I wish I could tell everyone that we’re together but—“

Okay, he’s getting a little off-track, here.

“But the fact that he’s willing to be with me anyway is um. The best thing. And I’m really happy. And I don’t deserve him. So. Yes. I’m dating Eli.”

Eli is grinning down at his plate, a little embarrassed, but mostly pleased, Kent thinks.

Abuela pats Kent approvingly on the shoulder.

“Good boy,” she says, sotto voce.

Alicia clears her throat. “Well,” she says. “An NHL player. That is…certainly something. I still want to hear how you met, though.”

And Kent winces a little.

“It’s not the best story,” he says.

“Oh, it really is,” Eli corrects, squeezing Kent’s hand. “So. It was back in August, the day after move in, and I get to the rink for the first-ever morning practice….”

Chapter Text

The following morning, Eli wakes up to the familiar, muted, sound of bird song and the shadowy figure of Kent, barefooted and rumpled, sitting on the floor in front of the window.

Hawke is sprawled across his lap and he’s petting her absently, a mug of coffee in his other hand.

Eli stretches, sitting up, and leans over to check his phone.

“Kent,” he groans. “We’re on vacation. Why are you awake at 7:30 am? Especially since it’s 4:30 am in Vegas right now.”

“Sorry,” he says. “I think I threw off my internal clock sleeping so much yesterday. You can stay in bed, I’m good watching the birds.”

“You and the stupid birds,” Eli says, “I’d rather you come cuddle me.”

Kent doesn’t need to be told twice.

“How are you feeling?” Eli asks after Kent has slipped back under the duvet and given him a coffee-flavored kiss.

“Good. Surprisingly good, actually. I think the Vapor Rub healed me.”

“It did not.”

“It did.”

They don’t go back to sleep, but they do linger in bed for another half hour before putting on jeans and making their way downstairs.

The rest of the day is similarly leisurely.

They spend the morning wandering around the property, throwing occasional sticks for Hawke and introducing Kent to all of the goats, sheep, chickens, and two very grumpy, but very cute, curly-haired miniature donkeys. Eric comes over with a tin of cookies from his mother a little after eleven and stays for lunch, and then he and Eli make a joint video for their youtube channel while Kent takes a nap upstairs. Well. He doesn’t actually nap, Eli thinks, or at least he isn’t napping when Eli goes to collect him a little over an hour later. He’s shirtless, doing stretches, head tipped to watch the birds outside. Initially, Eli had thought the bird thing was due to the narcotics, but now he’s starting to think that Kent just…likes birds. Which is sort of overwhelmingly endearing in a way that he isn’t sure how to process.

“There’s a sweaty half-naked man on my bedroom floor,” Eli muses, leaning in the doorway. “My sixteen year old self would be screaming if he could see me now. Or, I guess, if he could see you, now.”

“You should come kiss me for his sake,” Kent says seriously and, well, who is Eli to argue.

“I thought you were supposed to be taking it easy,” Eli says, breathless, several minutes and a little bit of light grinding later. He runs a finger down Kent’s sweaty neck. “This doesn’t look like you’re taking it easy.”

“I am,” Kent says innocently, shifting his hips in a decidedly not innocent way. “It’s not my fault that Georgia doesn’t believe in seasons. Seriously, how is it so hot here? It’s December.”

“Honey, it's 75 degrees. Thats not hot. You should know what hot is, you live in Las Vegas.”

“Where it is currently a reasonable 45 degrees,” Kent argues. “Because it’s December. Also. Honey?”

“Yes?”

“No, I mean. Since when do you call me honey?”

And oh. That’s embarrassing.

“Sorry. I guess I sort of fall back into the habit when I’m around Eric since he's all about the endearments. I’ll bet you five dollars he ‘sweet-pea’s you at some point while you’re here. I’ll try to stop, though.”

“No,” Kent says, ears pink. “It’s fine. I just. I’ve never, uh.” He pauses, looking thoughtful. “Can I call you things too?”

Eli doesn’t laugh because it’s clear Kent is self-conscious but powering through anyway.

“Things like what?” Eli says, resisting the urge to tack on a “sweetheart.” 

Kent opens his mouth.

Then he closes it.

His ears go a little bit more red.

“Can I think about it?”

“Of course, sweetheart.”

And well, Eli has never been good at denying himself.

From the way Kent is looking up at him, it’s not a problem.

Eli clears his throat.

“So. Abuela wants to go last-minute grocery shopping and I said you wouldn’t mind driving since Papa is out fixing the fence and Mama is at the church.”

“Sure thing, do I have time to shower?”

“Yeah, no hurry.”

Neither one of them move for a moment and then they can hear Hawke’s toe nails clicking up the staircase and Eli reluctantly stands, helping Kent to his feet. 

And in the bright afternoon light, damp, and golden, and tousled, and looking at him, Kent is really just.

Something.

Kent shifts, glancing toward the open bathroom door, then back at Eli. He tucks one thumb under the elastic of his shorts and tugs, just enough to really emphasize the cut V of his hips.

“Do you. Uh. Want to join me?” he asks, nodding toward the tub.

And jesus.

Eli’s sixteen year old self would really be having a heart attack right now.

Yes,” he says, and then immediately has to backtrack because, “but I can’t. We can’t. Not when—not now. Bells is right next door and her room shares a door with the bathroom and I know she’s probably listening to music on her headphones but. If she isn’t—“

“Hey, no,” Kent kisses him to make him stop talking, which usually he would take exception to but doesn’t actually mind in this situation. “I understand. No pressure. I was just asking. Maybe when we’re back in Vegas? And we’re the only ones at my place?”

“You do have a very serviceable bench in that shower,” Eli agrees.

“And I think you said something about wanting to try out my bathtub, too.”

“I did. I did say that.”

Kent makes a little bereft noise, and ducks to bite at Eli’s neck for a minute before taking a very intentional step back, tongue pressed, barely visible, to the swollen curve of his bottom lip.

Okay.” Kent says, like he’s trying to convince himself. “Okay. I’m going to shower now. Plan to leave in twenty?”

“Yeah,” Eli agrees. “I’ll uh. I’ll go let Abuela know.”

***

Someone could probably make a very popular reality TV show about grandmothers and altruistic, overly eager, NHL players shopping at Walmart together. 

Eli can’t decide if he’s charmed or annoyed.

Shopping with either of them alone is bad enough, because if he so much as stops to read the label of a new kind of yogurt, it ends up in the cart. With both of them, however, this turns into a friendly, and then not-so-friendly, competition that results in Kent getting his own personal basket when Abuela refuses to let him pay for anything in the cart she’s pushing, and Kent filling said basket with things he knows Eli likes, and then Abuela sneaking looks into his basket and adding the same products to her cart and honestly, they’re only going to be in town for another forty-eight hours there’s no way Eli is going to drink two liters of sparkling Italian grapefruit soda in that time span.

“Aba,” he says finally, exasperated, when he catches her trying to subtly fish out the bag of kale chips from Kent’s basket while Kent is distracted by a sample-pusher.

There had only been one bag left on the shelf, so she couldn’t get a second bag of her own.

“What?” she says innocently.

“Para, porfa. Sé que es ridículo, pero no estás ayudando.”

“Es mi trabajo mimarte. Soy tu abuela. Él puede mimarte el resto del año.”

Kent looks between them, eyebrows raised.

“Everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine. Did you want to get toothpaste?”

Somehow they’d both managed to forget theirs and Eli’s parents only stock the house with the blue generic kind. He’s become spoiled using the fancy Toms shit that Kent has and it seems silly to buy a whole new tube but—

“Oh, yeah. One sec.”

“Seriously,” Eli says, once Kent is out of ear shot. “Sé que no parece, pero en realidad está bastante ansioso por este viaje. Si lo dejo enfocarse en cuidarme, le ayudará a no obsesionarse con otras cosas"

“Ah. Me preguntaba por qué no estabas haciendo un escándalo,” she says. “Bien. Voy a devolver las cosas.”

“Gracias.”

By the time Kent returns with the toothpaste, Abuela’s cart is short a dozen items and they’re talking about the number of people they’ll need to feed for christmas brunch  (a lot) and whether they should pick up some eggs just in case the chickens have a production rut (probably).

He expects Abuela to switch from Spanish to English once Kent returns—the woman is nothing but considerate—except she doesn’t.

"¿Por qué sigues hablándome en español?” he asks  several minutes later after she’s just enquired about his opinion on mushrooms in Spanish. "Kent no te puede entender.”

“Ya sé. Estoy tratando de ayudarte.”

“¿Qué quieres decir?”

“Le gusta cuando hablas español. Mira su cara ahora mismo.”

And. 

Okay.Yes. that is definitely Kent’s badly-concealed turned on face.

That is…interesting.

“¿No lo sabías?”

“No.”

"De nada,” she says with a wink.

***

Dinner is a subdued affair, mostly because they’re doing prep work for the next day, but they follow dinner with eggnog and Dominoes which Kent is surprisingly very good at, despite having never played before.

Bella only asks a couple of invasive questions and his mother only shares a couple of embarrassing baby photos and his father only makes a couple of vaguely threatening comments.

It’s a good night.

Kent does receive a few suspiciously large Amazon packages that he secrets away with Abuela to wrap in the laundry room and deliver under the tree that neither one of them will so much as acknowledge when Eli asks, even though he was right there when they were delivered, but he figures his boyfriend being overly generous isn’t really something that warrants a fight on Christmas eve, so he lets it go.

And then it’s past 9 pm and Hawke is yawning where she’s half sprawled over his lap and Eli is tucked under Kent’s arm, casually leaning into him while Kent tells a story about meeting Cristiano Ronaldo at an Under Armour shoot—Eli’s father listening, enraptured, while Bella pretends she’s not equally impressed—and it’s just. 

It’s perfect.

There’s Christmas carols on and Abuela is crocheting something and.

He used to dream about this.

About a “someday” in the vague and distant future. Where someone would love him as much as he loved them and—

And that’s.

Well.

That’s definitely what’s happening here.

He looks up at Kent and Kent is looking down at him with a half-smile, eyes wide and grey and fond and he’s looking at Eli the same way he’s been looking at Eli for months, since maybe even before the awkward lurch of a kiss on the living room floor.

And what’s worse, Eli knows he’s looking at Kent—has been looking at Kent— in the same way.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. 

He recognizes that, distantly, as he stands.

“You okay?” Kent asks.

“Yeah, I just. I need to—I’m really tired. I’m gunna go take a shower.”

He knows he’s being rude but he somehow neglected to realize until just now that he’s in love with Kent Parson.

“I’m in love with Kent Parson,” he says to himself in the mirror upstairs a minute later.

And then he says it again, a little breathless, because it’s true.

I’m in love with Kent Parson.”

“Uh. Should I come back later?” Kent asks from the bathroom doorway and Eli turns to look at Hawke, betrayed, because clearly it was her responsibility to let him know if anyone else entered the bedroom.

She is unrepentant.

“So,” Eli says, because its not like he has any other options. “I love you. Apparently.”

“Okay?”

“I’m—okay? What do you mean okay. This is not okay. This is the opposite of okay.”

And that’s Kent’s hurt face, which—

“No,” Eli says, reaching for him. “I mean. That came out wrong. Sorry. I just. How are you being so calm about this? This is a big deal.”

“Because it’s not new for me.” Kent says, “I’ve been in love with you for—a while.”

“A while.”

“Yeah.”

“Alright,” Eli says. Taking an intentional breath. “So. We’re doing this, then.”

We’re doing what?”

“This—we’re in love. With each other. That’s a thing that’s happening.”

“Yes,” Kent agrees.

“Sorry. This just makes things a lot more real, I guess.”

“Do you…not want it to be?”

“No. No, I do. Oh my god, I do. But I thought you’d get tired of me. Or change your mind. And I’d be broken hearted and it would be shitty but. But you’ve gone and talked to your agent and management and. Are you really going to come out?”

Kent shrugs. “Yeah. I’m still not ready right now. But we’re planning for me to tell a few of the core guys after break and then the rest of the team at the end of the season—preferably after winning the Stanley Cup—that way they have the summer to come to terms with it. And then I can start telling other people in the organization next season.”

“That’s. Soon.”

“I know. But it’s—I don’t know how to explain it right but. I was afraid, before. Of what would happen if it got out that I was gay. And I was so preoccupied with that fear that it didn’t even leave room for me to think about the good things that might come with being out. And then I met you and—“

He takes a breath. 

The kind of breath that means he’s trying to formulate a sentence he’s never said out loud before.

“I was so lonely before you. Except I didn’t even realize I was lonely. I just thought that was the way I was supposed to be. “

Eli’s throat is abruptly tight.

“Kent.”

“So. My point is. There’s no going back for me, now.”

“Okay,” Eli says, and then sort of throws himself at Kent and Kent catches him because of course he does.

“Hey,” Eli says a minute later, palms pressed to the sides of Kent’s neck

“Hey,” Kent agrees, lacing his fingers at the small of Eli’s back.

“Te amo,” Eli says.

And Kent’s face lights up like the fucking sun.

It’s not fair.

It’s so easy—too easy— for Eli to make Kent smile like that and Eli can’t decide if he loves or hates having that ability. He doesn’t know if it’s one he should be trusted with.

“Yeah?” Kent asks, soft and so happy.

“Yeah,” Eli says, and he means it. 

He means it.

Means it in a big, terrifying, unwieldy way.

Kent grins, ducking to kiss him and Eli closes his eyes and tries not to be scared.

“Good,” Kent says. “I love you too.”

Chapter Text

Kent wakes Eli up at 7am on Christmas morning.

“Hey,” Kent whispers urgently into Eli’s temple. “I want to call Jack.”

“You what?” Eli growls somewhere in the vicinity of his sternum.

And, okay. Admittedly that might not have been the best way to go about waking him up.

“Sorry. Sorry, I know it’s early but I was laying here thinking. And I realized that I’m ready. I’m not afraid to talk to him anymore and I know he’ll be awake but probably not downstairs with his parents yet because his mom likes to sleep in so—I’m sorry. I don’t have to right now. I can wait until tonight.”

“No, no this is good,” Eli says, shifting so he can blink up at him, bleary and shadowed in the early-morning light and his hair an absolute disaster.

There are pillow creases on his cheek and his lips are chapped and his morning breath is rank.

Kent loves him.

“I’m good,” Eli says, pressing his palms to his eyes. “I’m glad you’re—yeah. Do I need to really be awake for this or—“

Kent loves him so much.

“No. This is fine. Just. Be here? While I talk to him?”

“Done,” Eli says, yawning, throwing an arm around Kent’s waist.“Go for it.”

“Okay.”

And Kent calls Jack.

“Kenny,” Jack says after the third ring, and Kent has to close his eyes for a moment at the familiarity of it.

“Hey,” he says. “Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah, merry Christmas. What are you doing up this early? Isn’t it like, 4am in Vegas?”

“I’m not in Vegas,” he says.

“You’re not.”

“I’m not.”

Jack huffs out a laugh.“You’re in Georgia, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

“And you’re calling me on Christmas morning instead of cuddling with your—uh. Eli?”

Eli, who can obviously hear Jack, snickers into Kent’s neck.

Kent winces.

“Boyfriend. Eli’s my boyfriend. We’re together.”

“I mean. I kind of figured. He said you weren’t, though, when he was here.”

“It’s new. Sort of. We finally got together after Thanksgiving.”

“Good,” Jack says after a moment’s pause, and it sounds like he means it. “I’m glad.”

“Me too,” Kent says.

It earns him a little squeeze from Eli.

“Okay,” Jack says. “Well. I’ll ask again, why are you on the phone with me instead of cuddling your boyfriend?”

Kent bites his lip.

Jacks sighs at his silence. “Kenny.”

“I’m. Uh. Those two things aren’t exactly mutually exclusive?”

“So. You’re calling your ex boyfriend while cuddling your current boyfriend? On Christmas morning.”

Eli turns his face into Kent’s collar bone and Kent can feel him smiling.

“Yes.”

“I feel like I should be apologizing to Eli right now but I also feel like he probably knew what he was getting into. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. I’m good. Really good. And I’m—there are some things we should talk about.”

“Okay?” Jack sounds guarded. Which is fair.

“Um. One thing is personal and one is professional so, which would you—“

“Oh. Uh. Personal first,” Jack says. “I guess.”

Kent takes a breath and Eli’s head shifts on his chest.

He smoothes one hand down Eli’s side, pressing his fingers to the divots between his ribs.

“I’m sorry. For everything. And I miss you,” Kent says slowly. “I miss being friends with you. And I understand if you don’t want to, or if you can’t be friends with me again. After everything. But if you do—“

“I do,” Jack says. “I’ve wanted—I’m sorry too. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have cut you out of my life like that.”

“I understand why you had to. I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did, there at the end. I was. Uh. Scared. And insecure. And I sort of pushed all of my bad feelings onto you and—“

“We both fucked up,” Jack says, quiet, and more than a little resigned.

“Yeah.”

“But it also sounds like we’re both trying to handle our problems like adults now, so that’s good, eh?”

“Eh?” Kent mimics, like he has a thousand times before.

“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that ‘being friends again’ thing after all,” Jack says.

Kent laughs and his chest feels a little looser.

“So I was thinking we could start talking again?” he suggests.

“We could text, maybe. To start with.” Jack says.

Kent makes a face.

“Since when do you text?”

“Well. The team has a group chat. And Bittle is always texting me. He even taught me how to use emoticons.”

He sounds very proud of this fact.

Kent glances down at Eli and they share a knowing look.

“Bittle, huh?”

“Yeah,” Jack says, completely missing the leading inflection in Kent’s tone. “Eric Bittle? He’s Eli’s friend? The one Eli visited here at Thanksgiving. He’s from Georgia too. He’s small but fast, soft hands, and he’s really improving with his checking issues. He’s going to be a real asset to the team next year.”

“Yes. I know who Eric is,” Kent says dryly and from the strangled sounds Eli is making he’s either trying not to sob or badly stifling hysterical laughter.

“So,” Jack continues, “You said there was something personal and something professional. Is everything okay with the Aces? I mean, you’re playing really well—your whole line is. You really have a shot at the cup this year.”

“Yeah, no. Everything is great with the Aces. That’s um, actually part of—“ 

He takes another breath. Lets it out. Breathes again.

“I’m thinking about coming out. I’ve already talked to management and PR and we have a tentative timeline and stuff.”

“Kent,” Jack says, sounding winded. “That’s—are you sure?”

Kent curls his fingers into the fabric of Eli’s shirt.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure. And it won’t be super soon. I’m going to start telling the team at the end of the season—the rest of the organization over the next year. Probably won’t go public for another year after that.”

He takes another breath.

“When I do, though, it might implicate you.“

Jack doesn’t say anything.

“Aces PR has been through all our old interview footage and game tapes. Apparently I, um, wasn’t super discreet about my feelings. They think they can play it off as a one-sided crush but I just wanted to warn you. Especially since two years from now you’ll probably be—“

“A rookie in the NHL,” Jack finishes. “Yeah.”

And as many years as Kent has spent with him, he has no idea what Jack is thinking right now. 

He wishes he could see Jack’s face.

“I’m sorry,” he says, whispers, really. “I know that’s going to make things harder for you, but I swear, if anyone asks I’ll say—“

“Kenny.”

“I don’t want to be the reason for any more stress in your life. I’ve fucked things up for you enough.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“It feels like it,” Kent says, rough and quiet and so honest it makes his teeth hurt.

Eli’s arm around him tightens.

“It wasn’t,” Jack repeats. “And I think its—um. Good.That you’re going to come out. After all, if you do then I won’t be the first.”

It’s Kent’s turn to find breathing a little difficult.

“You’re thinking about coming out?”

Jack doesn't say anything for several seconds.

“Not—not seriously. Not yet. I want to play at least a couple seasons professionally first. Prove myself, you know?”

Kent does know.

“But I will some day. And I don’t want to wait until I retire anymore.”

“Does Eric have anything to do with that?” Kent asks.

Jack’s silence is telling.

“Sorry. That’s none of my business, forget I asked.”

“No. I mean, yes? It’s—maybe.”

“What’s maybe?”

“Bittle. Eric.” Jack makes an annoyed noise. “Bitty. He’s…important. And we’re not. Uh. We’re not. But.”

“But he’s making you think about it.”

“Yeah.”

“But you’re also still Jack Zimmerman.”

“Yeah.”

“I understand.”

“Yeah,” he says, laughing a little. “I bet you do. At least you’ve already proven yourself, though. Youngest captain in the NHL for the number one team in your division. Conn Smythe and Calder your rookie year. Currently first in points and second in goals in the league. You could come out tomorrow if you wanted.”

And all laid out like that…Jack kind of has a point.

Kent swallows, trying to keep his voice steady.

“Aw. You still keep track of my stats?”

“Of course I do. But hey, listen. I don’t want you to have to lie for me. So just. Keep me posted about your plans, and whatever PR is telling you, okay? We have time. Who knows how I’ll feel a year from now.”

“Okay,” Kent agrees.

They both go silent and Eli shifts a little, rubbing his cold nose agains the bare skin of Kent’s chest. Eli’s nose is always cold. Even in ridiculously warm Georgia winter. Kent has no idea why but it’s hopelessly endearing.

“Thank you, Jack.” He says.

Jack doesn’t ask him for what which he appreciates. Nor does he dismiss the gratitude. 

“Yeah,” he agrees. And then: “I can hear you smiling.”

“That’s because I am.”

“Good.”

“Hey, I think Maman is downstairs making coffee, so—“

“Go. I’ll talk to you later. Or, uh, text you later?”

“Yeah.”

“Merry Christmas, Jack.”

“Merry Christmas, Kenny.”

He ends the call and lets his phone slide down the pillow, disappearing into the cloud of Eli’s duvet. He just breathes for a minute, eyes caught on the dark wood of the peaked ceiling. 

He thinks maybe it should hurt, that Jack is considering coming out. That he doesn’t want to wait until retirement—something he’d been so, painfully, adamant about for so many years. He thinks maybe it should hurt that Jack might be willing to do it for Eric—a kid he’s known for less than six months—when he wasn’t willing to do it for Kent. But it doesn’t hurt. Or maybe it doesn't hurt as much as it could. Because Eli is stretched out in a solid line of warmth next to him, tracing absent patterns on his stomach with gentle fingers, letting him process. 

What does hurt is how broken, in retrospect, his relationship with Jack had been. How disjointed and non-communicative, and unintentionally cruel they'd been to each other—both terrified, with no idea how to love someone and no one they could go to for help figuring out how. He can’t say he wishes that first, desperate, kiss at sixteen had never happened, but he hurts for his past self. For past Jack. For both of them. It wasn’t fair.

He doesn’t realize he’s crying until Eli makes a distressed noise and sits up, leaning over to thumb away his tears, eyes wide and concerned, and Kent cannot with Eli’s stupid beautiful self right now.

He hides his face in Eli’s lap, embarrassed, wraps his arms around Eli’s waist, and tries to get a goddamn hold on himself. Because, honestly.

“Hey,” Eli says, fingers hesitant in his hair. “Is this good crying or bad crying because I am really bad at this shit and I don’t know what to do, here.”

“I’m not crying,” Kent lies.

“Okay. Well. Are you, um, not crying in a good way or not crying in a bad way?”

He laughs wetly.

“Good. I think. Just.” He breathes for a moment, thinks about being honest and making things simple and saying what he means and all the other super frustrating shit that therapy has introduced to him that is actually kind of helpful and—

“I think I’m sad, because Jack and I had a pretty fucked up relationship, but we didn't know any better and we ended up just making things worse for each other. And that sucks. But I’m also relieved? Because we’re both so much happier and healthier now. But then that makes me mad like, on behalf of my past self. Our past selves. Because we were just kids. And it’s not right that we had so much pressure on us and that we so afraid of being caught and—it’s not fair.

His voice might break on the last word.

Eli’s fingers move more purposely through his hair.

“You’re right. It’s not. I can’t even imagine what you went through and you are completely allowed to be upset about it. Sad and relieved and angry and happy and whatever else you need to feel.”

Sometimes it is abundantly clear that Eli is also in therapy.

“But, hey,” his voice goes kind of rounded and soft. “Think about the impact you’ll have when you come out. You can prove to kids all over the world in situations just like the one you were in that living with secrecy and shame isn’t the only option. Think about what it would have meant for you, if there had been an out player in the league. And not just an out player, but a captain, with awards and accolades, and like…sponsorship deals with Gatorade.”

“I don’t have a sponsorship with Gatorade.”

“Oh my god, Kent. You know what I’m saying.”

He does. And it’s…admittedly not something Kent had thought of previously. But Eli is right. It would have made a difference to have that as a kid. Maybe even a huge difference.

“You’re right,” he says, face still tucked somewhere in the vicinity of Eli’s upper thigh. “Thank you.”

Neither of them move, apart from Eli’s restless fingers, for several seconds.

“So,” Eli says, eventually. “I know we’re having like, an emotionally fraught moment and everything, but your mouth is really close to my dick right now and I have to pee, so—“

Kent cracks up, which judging by the restrained noise Eli makes probably doesn’t help things. Kent is tempted to explore that a little further but they haven’t talked about the sex thing again, despite the fact that, after yesterday, he’s pretty sure Eli is ready to move forward on that front. Kent is also kind of a mess right now and he doesn’t want to have puffy eyes from not-crying the first time he gets his mouth on Eli because that is probably the least sexy thing ever.

“I should shower,” he says, resigned, and sits up.

“After I use the bathroom,” Eli says.

“I guess I’ll allow it.”

Hawke, who had slept through the proceedings, wiggles her way up from the foot of the bed to say good morning.

“You want me to let her out?” Kent asks.

“Yes, please.” 

He gets a close-mouthed kiss as he’s pulling on a shirt and Kent catches Eli’s hand as he starts to retreat, ducking to press his mouth to Eli’s knuckles because he’s feeling particularly overcome at the moment and it seems like the thing to do.

“Thank you,” he says, and he’s pretty sure that if Eli’s skin wasn’t so dark he’d be tomato red.

“For what?” Eli asks.

“Being with me.”

He feels like maybe that isn’t specific enough, that maybe Eli won’t understand that he doesn’t just mean this morning, but Eli’s eyes go kind of wide and serious and he says,“of course,” in a way that feels distressingly close to always. 

“But seriously,” Eli says, tugging a little at Kent’s grip. “I really do need to pee.”

Chapter Text

Eli came out to his family on his fourteenth birthday.

Abuela was in town because his birthday and Bells’ birthday is only eight days apart and that’s a good enough excuse for her to visit for two weeks each year.

It was a Saturday and he’d spent the morning at the rink with Eric in Atlanta, and then he’d come home, done his chores because even on his birthday the goats were needy, adorable bastards, and then he collapsed, exhausted, on the couch.

He got to pick what they ate for dinner and he chose Tres Golpes because breakfast-for-dinner was the best and also because Bella had decided she hated plantains that week and, at eight years old, she was quite possibly the most annoying person ever. Watching her suffer through clearing her plate was its own gift. 

He was kind of a dick at fourteen.

But then he’d opened his actual presents and of course his mother had bought him clothes and then made him try on the clothes and then nearly got teary when he came out in a button down that felt too tight around his throat. She hugged him and sighed about her baby growing up and asked if he had plans to ask someone special to the upcoming 8th-grade spring dance. When he said no, she took it upon herself to open his seventh-grade yearbook and go through the various girls she thought might be good candidates with Abuela occasionally giving her input.

And he knew they didn’t mean anything by it. 

They weren’t trying to upset him.

But he was fourteen and full of like, hormones, or whatever, and he’d had a very long, very tiring day, and suddenly he was unbuttoning the shirt like it was the problem, throwing it onto the floor and yelling that he didn’t like any of the girls in his grade and why couldn’t they just leave him alone?

Which, of course, had the exact opposite effect and five minutes later he was sitting on the couch half-naked, surrounded by his family and crying that he was maybe, possibly, definitely gay, and please don’t send him to a place like he’d seen on the news where the kids did bootcamp exercises and prayed a lot until they were “fixed” or whatever because he didn’t actually think there was anything wrong with him.

And, surprisingly, it was his father, not his mother, who pulled him into a crushing hug and said that of course there was nothing wrong with him, and they would never send him to a place like that, please don’t cry, and they loved him and would always love him no matter what and maybe go pick up your new shirt before Mama gets over her shock and remembers that you threw it, tags and all, onto the floor.

So he’d picked up his shirt, laughing a little, and was hugged by first Mama and then Abuela, who was honestly the one he was most worried about.

“You’re not mad I’m gay?” he had to ask.

“There are worse things you could be,” she said.

“Like a fútbol player,” Bella said. She was at a stage where anything the other family members liked she vehemently opposed. Exhibit A: plantains.
“There is nothing wrong with fútbol players,” Abuela chided, and then, aside to Eli, she murmured, “feel free to bring one home.”

It was, quite honestly, a little anticlimactic. He’d been imagining for years worst-case scenarios, wondering if he should come out at all or just wait until after college, like Eric planned to do. But he just. Couldn’t. College was too far away and, unlike Eric, he didn’t think the worst-case scenario really applied to him.

Thank God he’d been right.

He spent the rest of his fourteenth birthday getting, and submitting to, perhaps, a little more affection than usual—he even got to pick the movie they watched that night, much to Bella’s dismay—and by bedtime, Mama and Abuela were cuddled up on the couch with him, going through the seventh-grade yearbook again, this time looking at the boys.

It was…good.

Really good.

And the following Christmas, when he’d come out to the rest of his family, they’d handled things with more or less equal grace, though his one cousin Toby had been a bit of a dick (incidentally, this was the same cousin who’d made fun of him for Señor Fox). Eli didn’t even have to decide whether it was worth punching him over, though, because two of his other cousins piled on Toby a moment later and then, once Toby’s mom found out what he’d said, he didn’t get dessert. So that was fine too.

It’d taken him ages to fall asleep that Christmas night, watching the shadows shift across the ceiling and imagining that maybe, someday, he might have someone else in the bed with him, visiting for the holidays. That maybe, someday, he might actually get the chance to wake up with his boyfriend or his husband in his childhood room, to go downstairs to the madness of his wonderful, ridiculous, family, to perhaps, far off in the future, put to use one of the half-dozen fold-away baby cots that his mom has stashed in various closets around the house.

Because that—marriage and kids and family— was suddenly possible—not just a best-case scenario. Everyone he cared about knew and still accepted him.

It was probably one of the happiest realizations of his life.

Now, laying curled in Kent’s recently abandoned warmth, staring at the same ceiling only five years later, Eli grins a little hysterically up at the rafters. Because it’s happening. And it’s even better than he imagined.

Eli decides to go back to sleep once Kent gets in the shower because it’s unlikely it will take him less than fifteen minutes and while he can hear his mama and abuela are awake, Bells definitely won’t be up yet and breakfast won’t start until the rest of the family drives in from Atlanta. So he lays there and enjoys the smell of menthol and Kent on his sheets and the soft, indistinct noise of conversation, punctuated by occasional laughter, coming from downstairs. He drifts, not quite asleep, but not really fully awake, either, until Kent emerges from the bathroom, pink-faced and damp-skinned, jumping onto the bed in a gust of vanilla-scented air. He’s only wearing boxer briefs—the black Under Armour ones with neon green stitching that he knows Eli likes— and he wiggles his way back under the comforter and then drapes himself on top of Eli, grinning.

“Merry Christmas,” Kent says, pressing a humid kiss to the little section of skin under Eli’s left ear.

“Merry Christmas,” he agrees. 

And then there’s the distinct sound of cars coming down the gravel driveway, followed, inevitably, by a sudden upheaval of noise downstairs.

Kent sits up, considering.

“Did a child army just besiege the house?”

“Besiege, huh?”

“You used ‘besieged’ in your paper about the Mesopotamian war,” Kent says absently, rubbing his knuckles against the short grain of the shaved portion of Eli’s hair  “It’s a good word. I like it.”

“You read my paper about the Mesopotamian war?”

Kent looks at him like he’s a moron.

“Yes? You left it on the counter. You said I could.”

“I know I said you could, but I didn’t think you’d actually—“

“Why wouldn’t I? I like history and I like you. You writing about history is like, the best. And even if I didn’t like history I would still be supportive.  I looked through your Calculus bluebook too even though I didn’t understand any of it.”

And Eli has to kiss him for that.

Kent still looks disgruntled, but more or less appeased, when they separate a minute or so later.

Another car arrives and the noise level downstairs multiplies exponentially.

Kent’s eyebrows go up again.

“We should get dressed,” Eli says. “Are you ready for this?” 

“I don’t know, am I?”

“Probably not.”

Kent pouts at him.

“I’m the youngest of six cousins and all but one of them are married and have at least one kid. None of which are over the age of five. So.”

Kent’s eyes go a little wide.

“Okay,” he says seriously and then—

Well. That’s literally Kent’s game face.

He kisses Kent again because he figures Kent wouldn’t appreciate him laughing, and then goes to get dressed so they can join the chaos downstairs.

Christmas with his family and Kent is exactly as outrageous as Eli expected. Once everyone is seated at the tables—one main, two over-flow—Abuela explains over crying babies and toddler chatter that Eli’s boyfriend Kent is a closeted professional athlete and that no one is to take or post any pictures of him online under pain of her wrath, which is followed by nearly every adult getting out their phone and googling Kent, much to Kent’s dismay.

Eli’s oldest cousin Markus doesn’t have to, however, because he lives in NY and apparently gets Rangers tickets from his company pretty regularly. This provides a relieved Kent with a solid 20 minutes of conversation since Kent played in juniors with one of the Rangers new rookies—Jesse Nash—and they fall easily into a friendly argument about the last Aces/Ranger game (the Rangers won—but only, Kent maintains, because Tater and Matts had both been out with minor injuries).

When they move into the living room to open gifts, Eli and Kent share a chair that is technically too small for two people, but neither of them complain, and they drink eggnog-doctored coffee and laugh over the sheer, overwhelming, exuberance of the children present.

Later, when the floor is a sea of wrapping paper and empty bags, and the kids are scattered playing with their new toys, the adults get their turn. It’s mostly clothes and home-goods—“needs” rather than “wants” as Abuela terms it—until, of course, they get to Kent’s presents. 

He’s already looking a little sheepish, wearing the hand-made crocheted scarf Abuela gave him and Eli braces himself. He’d given Kent what was, for his budget, a pretty expensive selection of gifts: a matching custom collar set—one for Kit and one for Hawke, a very soft, very clingy, t-shirt that was admittedly more for Eli than Kent, and a new Kindle since he knew Kent’s old one was having issues charging. He knows that whatever Kent has gotten for Eli, though,—and apparently the rest of his family—probably blows that out of the water. 

Kent grins a little self-consciously as Abuela passes out his gifts. He has one arm around Eli, the other awkwardly extended over the arm of the chair so Estaci, Markus’ four-year-old daughter, can paint his nails with one of her new nail polishes. She isn’t doing a very good job, but Kent doesn’t seem to care. 

The long, skinny package for Eli’s dad is a new pair of DeWalt barbed wire cutters—god knows the others were rusted to hell— and a pair of Duluth kevlar work gloves which Papa genuinely seems happy about. Mama is perhaps even more excited and she moves to hug Kent—gently, so as not to disturb Estaci’s work—muttering that maybe now her stubborn fool of a husband won't come home bleeding every time he has to fix the fence. Abuela gets an envelope with a notification that her new yellow stand mixer will arrive at her house in the Dominican Republic the day after her own return in two weeks and she promptly blesses him, his future children, and all his hockey endeavors—in Spanish, of course, but judging by his pleased grin, Kent gets the gist of it. Mama, similarly gets an envelope informing her that Kent has prepaid for a year’s worth of monthly birdseed delivery from amazon, at which point she tells Kent he’s looking a little hungry and goes to fix him another plate because Eli’s mom is just as bad with emotions as Eli is. Bella gets a pair of Jordans which she promptly screams about, thanks Kent effusively, and then begs to borrow Mama’s phone so she can FaceTime her best friend to brag.

Eli is the only one that cries, of course, but then he’s the only one to receive a new pair of custom-made Riedell ice skating boots with John Wilson Gold Seal blades. And he knows they’re custom because the black boots have shiny red-lacquered soles—like Louboutins—and he doesn’t even want to think about how much trouble Kent must have went through to make that happen or how much he must have spent

“Oh,” Kent says, when Eli starts tearing up, one of the new boots cradled reverently in his open palms. “No, hey, is—sorry, Estaci can I have my hand back?—are you okay? Are, uh, the skates okay? Because I talked to Jeff and your coach, but—”

“They’re perfect,” Eli manages, more than a little strangled.

Kent is perfect.

Oh God.

And maybe Eli has to hide his face in his boyfriend’s chest for a minute.

It’s fine.

It’s not embarrassing at all.

By the time he’s managed to get a hold of himself, most of the cousins have migrated to the kitchen and are putting together a fútbol game. Markus is still arguing with Anna about last summer’s game and Bella is declaring that they’ll have to replace her because now that she’s put the Jordans on she refuses to take them off and she’s certainly not about to get dirt on them oh my god how could you even suggest that. Eli is glad his parents have held firm on the whole “no phone until freshman year of high school” thing because if she had access to Instagram the whole feed would probably be the damn shoes for the next month. She really is happy, though, and Kent looks endlessly pleased with himself.

“Hey,” Markus calls to Eli, “is your boy playing? He can take Bella’s spot.”

“Oh, no,” Eli starts, but he’s interrupted by Kent’s, even louder, “sure!”

“You don’t have to play,” Eli says, lowly.

“What? Of course I’m going to play,” Kent answers, and the look on his face is—

Oh.

Oh no.

“Do you even know how?”

It is immediately clear this is the wrong thing to ask.

“Oh my god. I know how to play soccer, Eli—futbol, whatever—I was on a team in elementary school. And the Aces kick a ball around the hallway before every game.”

“That’s….really not the same.”

Kent makes a dismissive noise.

“So I’ll figure it out. I may not know Spanish, but chirping is universal. If I don’t play, none of your cousins are going to respect me.”

“I mean. To be fair, if you do play they probably won’t either,” Eli says, just to make sure his position is clear. His family doesn’t mess around with their fútbol. Kent is going to get wrecked and it will not be Eli’s responsibility.

“I’m a professional athlete,” Kent says, exasperated. “I’ll be fine.”

“Sure you will, sweetheart.”

When they huddle up in their respective teams a few minutes later, Eli interrupts Markus’ game-plan speech with a firm warning.

“Do not break my boyfriend,” Eli says, looking pointedly at Toby. “I know he’s an overly competitive moron but his ankles are also worth several million dollars so if any of you so much as thinks about tripping him to prove a point I will have you excommunicated from this family. Everyone knows I’m Abuela’s favorite. I can make it happen.”

No one argues because they know it’s true.

It turns out that Kent isn’t, actually, that bad. He can't handle the ball to save his life but he’s fast and arguably the most fit person out there—his endurance is definitely better than Eli’s—so he manages to hold his own better than anticipated. Eli’s team wins, mostly because they have Anna’s wife who played NCAA soccer, which is probably cheating but Eli doesn’t care because it’s to his advantage. The other team does care, though, and they all troop back into the house for water, arguing, but too hot to play a second game with new teams. By the time they’ve all reintegrated in the living room and kitchen with the rest of the family—lunch preparations in full swing—Kent has been handed a baby.

And honestly.

That’s just not fair.

He comes to stand next to Eli, still breathing a little hard, sweaty and smudged with red Georgia dirt, holding a content, ringlet-haired eight-month-old and looking a little concerned about it, overly cautious and wide-eyed, one hand—the hand spanning the infant’s back— still badly painted with glittery pink nail polish.

Eli loves him so much it’s a little scary.

“I need to go check on the goats,” he lies. 

Because. Well. Emotions.

The goats are fine, which isn’t exactly a surprise, but as he’s walking back to the house, watching Hawke chase grasshoppers, he receives a cryptic message from Eric instructing him to call back when he had a minute alone.

Curiosity piqued, Eli does so.

“So,” Eric says in lei of ‘hello’ after the second ring, “Kent is planning a surprise thing for you but I’m pretty sure it’s the type of surprise that you’d rather know about in advance.”

“Uh. Okay?”

“So do you want to know?”

“I don’t—do I? I mean. I trust your judgement.”

Eric lets out a sigh of relief.

“Right. So. He’s asked Mama to borrow her truck tomorrow night and then asked me about typical date places around town as well as typical—uh. Date places. I recommended the mill, obviously, but if you’d rather Eddy Spring I can text Kent directions there instead. I mean, I think the mill will be safe since the day after christmas isn’t exactly going to be busy in terms of parking real estate, but it’s up to you, obviously.”

It takes Eli a moment to compute that.

“Oh my god,” he says faintly. “Are you serious?”

“Yup,” Eric says, popping the ‘p.’

“That’s—the mill is—“

Perfect.

Ridiculous.

The location of nearly every embarrassing erotic high school fantasy he’s ever had.

“Fine.” 

He clears his throat.

“Your mom is really letting him borrow the truck?”

“Mhhm. And it sounds like your grandma is going to supply him with a bed full of quilts and a picnic to share. Mama and Aba have been texting back and forth all day and are frankly a little disturbingly invested in getting you laid. Not that they've actually said that. Mama is talking about it like y'all are going to hold hands and watch the sunset or something. I guess that bodes well for me, regardless, though. If I ever decide to come out to them, I mean. This is about you, though.”

“Oh my god,” Eli repeats.

“Anyway,” Eric continues, “from what I’ve gathered, Kent is going to take you to an early movie in town and then drive y'all up to park above the spillway and despoil you in the truck bed under the stars which—“ Eli makes a noise but Eric talks right over him, “is a little cliche for my taste but I’m pretty sure is exactly how you’d love to lose your virginity, weirdo that you are.”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“Uh yeah?” Eric mimics, maybe mocking him a little.

“That would be nice,” Eli says delicately.

And if that isn’t the most massive understatement—

“I may have mentioned the fact that I didn’t get to do stuff like that in high school,” Eli continues. “So Kent is probably, uh. He might have remembered. That.”

“Ugh. Y'all are disgustingly cute. So, you’re okay with this? I didn’t want you to be blindsided if you weren’t—“

“No. No, I am. Holy shit, I am. But—tomorrow? This is happening tomorrow?”

Oh fuck.

This is happening tomorrow.

“Yessir,” Eric says blithely, completely missing the fact that Eli is having something of a crisis. “So make sure your manscaping is in order and don’t like, stuff yourself with popcorn at the movie. And maybe bring bug spray. I told Kent the mosquitos are no joke out there and he opted for citronella candles, romantic fool that he is, but it might be good to have a plan B.”

Eli isn’t really listening because he’s going to have sex with Kent Parson tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

“Eric,” Eli interrupts, and he stops walking because the back porch is getting a little too close for comfort. Hawke runs into his knees and then sneezes at him to show her displeasure.

“Okay," Eli says. "Okay. So. This is happening. Tomorrow. Shit. What do I do?"

“I mean. Suck his dick, probably.”

Eric.”

“Well. He’s definitely planning to suck yours.”

Eric.”

But—

“Wait,” Eli says. “He told you that?”

“Sweetheart, he didn’t need to. Have you seen the way he fellates his mouthguard between plays? That boy has an oral fixation a mile wide.”

And.

Yes.

Eli may have noticed that.

Somebody yells his name and he jumps, squinting up toward the house.

It’s Anna, letting him know that lunch is ready.

“I have to go,” he says. “But, uh. Thanks for the heads up.”

“You’d do the same for me. Or at least you’d better. Anything you want me to pass on to Kent? Any special requests?”

His voice is dripping with implication.

“Goodbye, Eric.”

“Alright, alright. I expect deets, for my trouble, though. Preferably the minute you get home tomorrow night. I’ll stay up.”

Goodbye, Eric.”

“DEETS, Elijah!”

Eli hangs up on him.

Chapter Text

“So,” Kent says the following afternoon. “Do you want to go take a shower and get dressed to go out?”

Eli blinks up at him from where they’re lazily cuddling on the porch swing.

“I don’t know, do I?”

“I think you do.”

“Hmm,” he says, trying not to smile. “What do you mean by ‘out’? What would I need to wear?”

Kent clears his throat. “An outfit might have been left for you on the bed.”

“Oh, it might have been? That’s a masterful use of the passive voice there.”

“Eli.”

“Kent.”

He ducks a little, shoving his face against Eli’s temple.

“Please go get ready? I’m trying to do a thing.”

“Oh, well, a thing, why didn’t you say so sooner—“

Kent dumps him off the swing.

There is, indeed, an outfit laid on the bed, and Eli has a sneaking suspicion that Eric was involved in the selection process. The shorts are—short. A pair of pale blue Chubbies that shrunk in the wash and were relegated to the back of Eli’s closet sometime last year. They still fit around his waist but they cling to his thighs in a way that is downright risqué for small-town Georgia sensibilities. Luckily they’re tempered by a plain t-shirt, a thin white button-down and striped nautical canvas Vans which are brand new and definitely not something that was previously in his closet. 

Eli sighs at Hawke because Kent isn’t there to sigh at and then he goes to take a thorough shower, and put the damn clothes on because he may need to have another conversation with Kent about his gift-giving proclivities but he’s not going to do it now when a fight would ruin what is hopefully going to be an otherwise excellent night.

When he returns downstairs, dressed and ready, Kent has clearly used a different bathroom and is dressed similarly in jeans and a white button-down—sleeves rolled to his elbows, showing off one of his stupid gaudy watches and wearing a snapback that matches Eli’s shoes. 

This isn’t lost on Bella who dissolves into laughter and says they’re disgusting before returning her attention to what appears to be a very intense scrabble game with the cousins.

“So,” Kent says, already pink. “Are you ready?”

“I guess. You going to tell me where we’re going?”

“Nope.”

“Then yeah, absolutely, let's go.”

Abuela laughs indiscreetly in the kitchen.

“Okay,” Kent says. “Can you wait here for a second so I can—“ he points vaguely toward the front porch and Eli is actually a little lost.

“Uh. Sure?”

Kent wipes his palms on his thighs, like he’s actually nervous or something, and then just…walks out the front door, shutting it firmly behind him. Eli goes from a little lost to entirely lost when the doorbell rings a few seconds later, but before he can open it and ask Kent if he’s lost his mind, his father comes out of the kitchen and pushes him gently aside.

Upon opening the door, his father crosses his arms.

“Good afternoon. How can I help you?”

Eli looks back and forth between them, baffled, because apparently they’ve both lost their minds.

“Afternoon, sir,” Kent says, extending one hand. “I’m Kent Parson, I’m here to pick up Eli for our date?”

“Oh my God,” Eli says as they shake somberly. “You guys. Stop it.”

“Hush,” his dad says, “I’m talking to your suitor, here,” and then, turning back to Kent, “Tell me a little about yourself, Mr. Parson. Do you make good grades? Do you have a job? A plan for the future?”

Abuela snickers from somewhere behind Eli and he glances over his shoulder to find that everyone in the living room has abandoned their various pursuits and are now watching raptly like Eli’s ridiculous boyfriend being ridiculous is some sort of spectator sport.

“Well,” Kent says, actually looking a little bashful. “My grades weren’t the best. But I do have a pretty good job.”

“Pretty good?” Eli’s dad says skeptically.

“Around two and a half million dollars annually if you count my sponsorships. And I have a financial planner guy who’s helping me manage things wisely.”

“Well. I guess that’s acceptable.”

Several people in the living room stifle giggles.

“Mr. Parson, what are your intentions with my son?”

“Oh, you know,” Kent says, grin finally breaking through his serious demeanor, “love him, cherish him, take him to a movie and have him back by eleven.”

Eli’s dad glances at the clock—barely 6 pm—and raises an eyebrow.

“It’s a very long movie,” Kent says, utterly straight-faced.

“Make it 10:30.”

“Yessir,” Kent agrees, and then turns to grin at Eli, extending one hand.

“Hey, baby,” he says, going even pinker. “You ready?”

And yes.

Eli is so, so ready.

Kent holds open the passenger door to Eric’s mom’s freshly-washed baby-blue truck and offers Eli a hand up into the cab even though it’s not that high, then makes sure Hawke is settled in the floorboard before tucking her tail out of harm's way and shutting the door. He leans over the gear shift to kiss Eli once he’s climbed into the driver’s seat. 

“How’m I doing so far?” Kent asks, flushed and looking exceptionally pleased with himself.

“Nine out of ten,” Eli says.

Kent’s face falls. “What did I miss?”

“No flowers?” Eli says, pitching his voice high, with a hand to his chest. “Kenneth, I expect to be wooed.”

Kent wrinkles his nose. “You hate flowers. And you’re allergic to most of them.”

“Mm. True. Then you should have brought something for Hawke instead. We’re a package deal, after all. You need to woo her too.”

“Next time,” he says seriously, and Eli has to kiss him again. 

“For real, though, ten out of ten. This is awesome. I can’t believe you went through all this trouble. When we get back to Vegas I’m returning the favor.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Hell yeah. I’m going to take you on the best date of your life.”

“You going to bring something for Kit? Ask her permission to take me out?”

“Obviously.”

“I look forward to it.”

The little cinema in town is almost entirely empty and they get tickets for an standard-fare action movie who’s theater is entirely empty.

“Why Mr. Rodriguez,” Kent murmurs once they’re settled, sliding his arm along the back of Eli’s seat. “It would seem we’re all alone.”

“That we are, Mr. Parson. Except for Hawke, of course.”

“Mmm,” Kent agrees, glancing down at her. “Not the most attentive chaperone, though.What are your thoughts about PDA?” He ducks to press his mouth to the hinge of Eli’s jaw.

“Generally positive, but not when a movie is about to start.”

Kent pauses, glancing up to meet Eli’s eyes.

“Seriously?” There’s a little bit of a whine to his tone.

Eli refuses to find it cute.

“We paid $20 for tickets to see this movie, Kent. We are going to watch it.”

I paid $20,” Kent mutters, peevish. 

The lights dim and Eli pushes at Kent’s face.

“You’re dangerously close to losing a point on your date ranking. Shut up and hold my hand.”

Kent shuts up and holds his hand.

Except he doesn’t just…hold…his hand.

By the time previews are over, Kent’s thumb is making a gentle circular pattern against the back of Eli’s hand. It seems like an absent movement, at first, something Kent is doing unconsciously, until a few minutes into the movie when he shifts his grip a little so he can drag his fingers in maddening little hitches up and down the divots of Eli’s knuckles. And then he shifts again so he’s holding Eli’s wrist, thumb pressed to the swell of his palm, index finger circling his wrist bone, several seconds between each. Slow. Orbit. Touch so light Eli can barely feel it. And then—then Kent very intentionally trails his thumb down to press against the tendon in Eli’s wrist, turning over his hand to lay flat on the armrest between them so Kent can slide his cupped hand—light, so light—down the length of his arm and back again. His callouses catch in the fine hair on Eli’s arm in a way that the gentle pads of his fingers don’t, and the dichotomy is strangely, utterly, captivating. And then, when Eli is finally starting to get used to that, Kent turns Eli’s hand palm-up again, trailing his fingers from Eli’s palm to inner-elbow, nails dragging in light, erratic, goosebumps-inciting patterns that start slow, and then build in speed and then change direction.

It’s utterly distracting.

Possibly even more distracting than making out with him would be.

Somewhere near the end of the movie—there’s a lot of explosions and screaming but Eli has absolutely no idea what’s happening because Kent has somehow turned hand-holding into foreplay—Eli gives up and shifts so he’s mostly in Kent’s lap.

Kent laughs for a solid minute before Eli manages to shove his tongue in Kent’s still-grinning mouth and maybe the $20 wasn’t exactly put to good use, but it wasn’t wasted, either.

When the theater lights come back on, Eli’s mouth feels tender and Kent’s hands are halfway up the back of his shirt and they’re both breathing a little harder than is really appropriate for a public venue.

Eli pushes his face into the humid pocket between Kent’s neck and shoulder and just breathes the warm scent of him for several seconds, because Eli is wearing really tight shorts and he’s going to need a minute before he can stand up. It’s a nice portion of neck, Eli thinks absently, kissing what might be a cluster of freckles or might be a shadow. Good real-estate. He could live here happily.

Kent thumbs his spine, sighing, and glances toward the exit where an usher has just pulled open the door, talking to someone in the hallway

“Care to relocate?” Kent asks.

And that’s probably best.

Back in the truck, they hold hands—normal hand-holding—with the windows down, Kent grinning and refusing to tell Eli where they’re heading as he takes surreptitious looks at his phone in his lap.

The great thing about bench seats is that Eli can slide over and lean into Kent’s side, rest his temple on the swell of Kent’s shoulder and revel in the fact that he’s in a car with a beautiful boy watching the sunset over a one-lane road that's more pothole than asphalt, with wind in his face and Hawke’s chin on his knee and country music on the radio.

It’s perfect.

Almost too perfect.

And it sort of makes him anxious—like surely something will go wrong, has to go wrong, because he doesn’t just get moments like this.

Except maybe he does, now.

He slides his fingers up Kent’s forearm, repaying the favor from earlier, tracing one of the veins that stands out, subtle and maddening in the golden-skinned space between wrist and elbow.

Maybe this is just his life, now.

Maybe after everything—maybe he just gets to be happy.

He realizes he’s getting a little maudlin but it doesn’t matter because they’ve hit the river and Kent is cautiously taking the right-hand fork from asphalt to red dirt that meanders up the bluff to the completely unauthorized parking area in the trees that overlooks the mill. 

The mill is a monument, one of the few in their tiny town—and every elementary school student visits it on a class trip at some point. It was built in 1901 and restored in the sixties—a shingled building atop a stone damn, dwarfed by the slow-moving wooden-slatted wheel attached to it. It has all sorts of historical relevance, of course, but it’s mostly known for its romantic aesthetic, settled in the gentle bend of the green-blue river, shaded by massive oak trees that turn a host of fiery colors in the fall.

Unsurprisingly, the well-worn grass plane at the top of the bluff is empty, and Kent’s eyes are wide and exceptionally blue as he turns off the engine.

“This is…ridiculously pretty,” he says, leaning out the window a little. 

“I mean. Holy shit. This is like. Fake pretty.”

The sun is mostly set, but the pink-orange on the horizon behind the damn is reflecting below in the water, warped a little by the current. The whippoorwills are out en mass as well, blanketing the trees in a soft susurrus of sleepy birdsong that complements the quiet rush of water over moving paddles below.

Eli allows himself a moment of pride because this—this is his home. Even if it was only an accident of birth that gave him claim to it.

“Yeah,” he agrees, hooking his chin over Kent’s shoulder. “It’s pretty great, huh?”

Kent turns, his nose wrinkled a little in genuine happiness, and within a few seconds Eli finds himself knocked over, head awkwardly propped on the passenger door with 185 pounds of professional hockey player stretched out on top of him, mouthing lazily at his neck. He pushes back, redirecting Kent’s lips to his own and revels a little in the soft sound of encouragement Kent makes in the back of his throat. A few minutes later, Eli’s got his hands fisted in the fabric of Kent’s shirt, trying to drag it over his head even though his stupid snapback is still in the way, when Kent puts some space between them, laughing.

“Hold on, let me—sorry. Sorry. You distracted me. We need to—I had a plan.”

Eli glances at their surroundings. “Is the plan not sex? Because—“

Kent chokes a little. “It doesn’t have to be. I just wanted to give you your high school—“ he waves a hand around, “whatever.”

“My high school whatever.” Eli repeats.

“Yes,” Kent says with dignity, pulling his shirt straight again.

“And if my ‘high school whatever’ involves sex?”

Kent’s already pink ears go progressively more red. He hooks his thumb toward the back of the truck.

“I, uh. Also prepared for that scenario.”

“Did you.”

“And I definitely promised Mrs. Bittle that we wouldn’t—that we would keep any, um—“

“Amorous activities?” Eli supplies.

“—amorous activities outside the cabin of the truck.”

“Well,” Eli says. “I guess we better get out then.”

There’s a duffle in the truck bed with no less than six quilts—all of which Eli recognizes from various closets around his house—, an assortment of throw pillows, and an honest to god picnic basket. Kent goes into narrowed-eyed play-making mode, laying out his stash and then consulting his phone before setting up the back of the truck like he’s trying to recreate some sort of romantic Pinterest post.

Which, actually, knowing Eric, is pretty likely.

Eli lets Hawke out to explore, knowing she’ll stay close, steals a coke from the picnic basket, sits on the roof, and submits himself to being wooed.

The stars are coming out—bright and startling after so many months spent in a light-polluted city—when Kent jumps off the tailgate to survey his work.

Eli is admittedly impressed.

“So?” Kent says, hands on his hips.

“I’m feeling thoroughly romanced," Eli says. "10/10 for both effort and execution.”

Eli points to one blanket, still folded over the side.

“I think you forgot one, though.”

“Oh,” Kent takes off his hat to scratch at the back of his head before replacing it. “Abuela heavily implied that you were conceived under that quilt. Wasn’t sure how I felt about that.”

Eli grimaces.

“Yeah. Maybe we leave that one in the cab.”

“Good plan.”

As Kent is leaned in the window to deposit the blanket on the floor board he makes a revelatory noise and pulls out a plastic Walmart bag.

“I can’t believe I almost forgot,” he says, more to himself than Eli, and then dumps its contents at Eli’s feet.

Apparently Kent has bought out Walmart’s citronella candle section because he balances four on either side of the truck bed, and then beckons Eli down so he can place three more on the roof, struggling to get them lit in the light wind.

“You know this is ridiculous, right?” Eli says, cross-legged and almost euphorically happy. “Like. You didn’t need to do any of this. I’m a sure thing.”

Kent looks at him like he’s a moron.

He crawls over to sit next to Eli, shoulder to shoulder, eyebrows pinched.

“I know. I’m not…trying to coerce you or something. I just wanted to—“ he stops. Takes a breath. Starts again. “You deserve good things. To be treated like—like you’re the best thing. Because you are. And I know I’m going to fuck things up because I’ve never been in a relationship before, and I’m, you know, human. But this is something I can do right. Do better.”

“Better than what?” Eli says, maybe a little hoarse. He cups his palm over Kent’s knuckles, a sharp jut of bone where he’s clenching his hand on his thigh. “Literally no one but you has ever touched me. Well. Other than me. I’ve definitely, uh…touched. Me.”

He clears his throat, wincing, but at least his awkwardness gets a laugh out of Kent who turns his hand, linking their fingers together.

“Well. I know—“

Kent licks his lips, eyes on their joined hands.

“You’re giving up a lot,” Kent says. “To be with me. And I know that between my issues and my career and my past—it’s going to suck sometimes. Being my boyfriend. Especially when I can’t even publicly admit that you are, so. I just want to do as many things that I have control over right. So that maybe the shitty things won't hurt as bad when they happen.”

Eli has no idea how to respond to that, except to maybe cry, because Kent is so—Kent. And the fact that he thinks he needs to like, build up some sort of positive-experience buffer so that Eli is willing to stick around is more than a little heartbreaking.

He lets go of Kent’s hand so he can climb into his lap, plants a decisive kiss on his mouth, and then starts unbuttoning Kent’s shirt.

“Um.” Kent says.

“I love you,” Eli says, maybe a little more aggressively than intended. “And I appreciate all this romantic shit and the fact that you want me to have good memories or whatever but I’m pretty sure anything we do tonight is going to be good because it’s us and I love you. So can we please get naked before these citronella candles all go out and we get eaten alive by mosquitos?”

Kent stifles his laughter in Eli’s shoulder, squeezing him so tightly that he has to give up on the shirt buttons for a minute.

“Yeah,” he says, “Okay.”

And then there’s quite a bit more laughter on both of their parts because Kent tries to keep his hat on throughout the process of removing his clothes and actually succeeds despite Eli’s valiant attempts to pull the stupid thing off his head. It should be ridiculous, honestly, Kent should look ridiculous, but hockey players bodies are no joke and even with one sock on and a half-askew snapback, Kent is—he’s—

Everything about him is unfair.

Eventually Eli wrestles the hat off his head and throws it over the side of the truck—much to Kent’s consternation— and then things are abruptly a lot less funny and lot more sexy because. Well. There’s a whole hell of a lot of naked professional athlete stretched out underneath Eli and they’re kind of sweaty, chest to chest, breathing each other's air which—

Kent sits up a little, one hand spanning Eli’s lower back, the other cupped around the nape of his neck.

“Hey,” he says, “tell me if you don’t want—“

Eli does want.

He wants a lot.

Eli touches the pair of freckles just below Kent’s right eye, then drags his thumb down to rest on Kent’s bottom lip, grinning as Kent exhales, long and slow and a little shuddery.

“Hey,” Eli says.

“Hey,” Kent agrees.

Chapter Text

Eli is half asleep when the alarm on Kent’s phone goes off.

Kent shifts, rolling away from him, to dig his phone out of his discarded jean’s pocket to silence it, and then tucks himself right back into Eli’s space, pressing slow, dry, kisses to his forehead, closed eyelids, the tip of his nose.

And Kent’s mouth is actually a little rough—lips chapped and kind of tugging at the sensitive skin on his cheekbone, but whatever. Eli is too fucked (heh) to really care.

“It’s 10:15,” Kent says. “We should go. Wouldn’t want to make a bad impression on your dad, bringing you home late.”

Go? No. Eli thinks that’s a terrible idea.

He ducks his face into Kent’s neck and groans.

“That’s a terrible idea,” he says, somewhere near the vicinity of Kent’s collarbone.

“Come on,” Kent laughs, sitting up. “Just think of the drive home as like…an extended relocation. To your bed. We can pick up where we left off there. Maybe after a shower.”

Which. Yeah. A shower might be good.

“Also we only have one candle still lit and I’m pretty sure a mosquito just bit me on the ass.”

That’s also fair.

“So,” Kent says, perhaps sensing that’s he’s won. “Up. Into the cab. Home.”

“Sure,” Eli says, “maybe let me put some clothes on first, though, or we definitely won’t be currying favor with my dad.”

“Alright, smartass.”

“You know, when we talked about terms of endearment, that really wasn’t what I had in mind.”

“Dick,” Kent says lovingly, ducking to kiss him.


As long as it took for Kent to set up the truck, it only takes a few minutes for them to pack everything back up, call Hawke out from under the bed where she’d been napping, and maneuver their way back to the main road.

They’re back to hand-holding again, this time with cooler evening air coming in the windows and a dark sea of corn fields on either side of the truck’s high-beams.

“So,” Eli says. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Oh, me too, actually,” Kent says, sounding hopeful. “You go first, though.”

Eli glances over at him, but it’s hard to tell in the dark what Kent’s face is doing.

“Okay. Well, there’s a New Years Eve party that Pike House is throwing. One of their juniors is also VP of the Gay/Straight Alliance so a couple people I know have invited me. Oh, and the Morgans will be there too.”

“Okay?” Kent says.

“Which, I wouldn’t be able to bring Hawke, but. The theme is masquerade, so everyone will be wearing masks and I thought—maybe you could come with me?”

“What if something happened?” Kent asks, and clearly he’s too focused on the whole ‘Hawke won’t be there’ that’s he’s missed the fact that this is a perfect opportunity for them to do a normal college-aged couple-y thing with minimal risk for outing.

“Then you’ll take care of me.”

“Well, yeah. Obviously. But you’d have to tell me how. Like beforehand, so I’d be ready.”

“I can do that.”

“Okay.” Kent bites his lip, “Are you sure, though? You didn’t— you said you needed some time before you wanted me to, uh—”

“Kent. I’m sure. I trust you.”

“Okay.”

He pauses, hand going tighter around Eli’s, and then sits up a little straighter.

“Wait. Masquerade. So no one would know I’m me?”

And there it is.

“Yeah.”

“So I could go as your mysterious masked boyfriend, not bff Kent Parson?”

“I can’t believe you just said ‘bff’ un-ironically, but yes.”

Oh. Yeah! Holy shit. This is going to be awesome. We only have a couple days to come up with costumes, though.”

And of course that’s his first concern.

“We live in Las Vegas. I’m pretty sure we’ll work something out.”

And the dichotomy—the thought of city lights superimposed over the massive expanse of star-spangled night sky out the windshield is…a little funny.

“Point. Actually, I think Asher’s girlfriend works at a cabaret, I could see if she has any recommendations for us.”

“Perfect.”

Kent slows at a stop sign, withdrawing his hand from Eli’s so he can shift, and comes to a full stop, despite the fact that they’re very clearly the only ones on the road.

“So,” Eli says. “You said there was something you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Oh. Right.”

Eli gives him a minute because he’s Kent and Eli has spent enough time with him to know that silence isn’t bad, it just means he’s trying to get his words right.

“I know it’s way too soon. And I probably shouldn’t even bring it up. But I don’t know how far in advance you have to do things and I don’t want you to commit to something else without—uh.”

He clears his throat.

“Obviously you don’t have to give me an answer now. But I was wondering if maybe you would think about, possibly, moving in with me next year?”

His voice goes kind of thready and high at the end of the last sentence and Eli has to punch him in the shoulder because he’s already had a very emotionally fraught 24 hours and how dare Kent spring something like that on him at a time like this?

“Ow,” Kent says. “I’m really, uh, not sure how to take that?”

“I can’t—are you serious?”

“Of course I’m serious. You hate the dorms but you have to stay in them because your scholarship doesn’t cover off-campus housing. And you already have a bunch of stuff at my place anyway. And you could use the kitchen all the time, and do your homework on the island, and I could help you exercise Hawke, especially during stressful times like finals. And you’d be there after hard games for me and we could ride to the rink together in the mornings whenever our practice schedules link up and. We could sleep in the same bed at night. Every night. Except for when I’m on roadies, obviously, but. It would be nice. I think.”

And that is…a lot.

“Okay. Clearly you’ve been thinking about this,  but—“

“And I know you need time to yourself, sometimes!” Kent says, well, yells, almost. “And that’s— I respect that. And,” he swallows, eyebrows going kind of pinched.

“And I, uh. Want to facilitate your comfort.”

Eli almost laughs because clearly Kent is parroting someone else, but that just means he’s done research or asked for advice, which is even more hopelessly endearing.

“I wasn’t really sure how, though,” Kent continues, “so I asked my therapist for advice.”

There it is.

“And she said that maybe we could make the guest bedroom like, your space, and whenever you need me to leave you alone you can go in there and I’ll just pretend like you’re not even there until you’re ready to deal with people again.”

Which.

That had, admittedly, been Eli’s biggest concern.

“That would probably work,” Eli says, almost without meaning to.

And Kent lights up like the fucking sun.

“Really?”

“Yeah. We’d have to try it out and see, I guess, but that’s—it’s really cool you thought about that.”

“Well,” Kent says, still grinning. “I had help. Do you want to give it a trial run when we get back? I’m assuming you’ll be tired  and done with people from the trip, so it’d be a good—“

“Testing environment?” Eli supplies, laughing.