In Vegas, in October, they lose to the Aces 8-1.
Kent scores four times.
Jack doesn’t even get the assist.
“What the hell are you doing?” Jack snarls at his reflection after the game. “Who the hell are you?”
His reflection glares back at him. Once, after a bad loss in the Q, Jack took his stick to a hotel mirror and smashed it to pieces. Bad Bob paid for the damages and picked Jack up, took him home for a few days to see another psychologist. Bob had known better by that point then to ask why Jack had done it. Jack had never had a reason beyond the wrecking rage inside him, had never been able to explain the why of his actions to anyone. Even after he’d almost killed himself, he’d never been able to explain why.
Jack takes a deep breath and closes his eyes against his reflection. He walks himself through some breathing exercises, and then leaves the bathroom and its bad memories. The hotel room is empty. Tater’s gone off to drink their defeat down elsewhere, after only a half-hearted attempt to make Jack come with him. Even Tater’s cheer has its limits, and Jack’s not close enough to anyone else on the team for them to have invited themselves over. There’s no Shitty on the Falcs, to kick down the door of Jack’s defenses and crash naked on his bed.
Jack’s phone lights up from where he threw it on the couch as soon as he came in. A text. He ignores it. He’s already ducked one phone call from Shitty and three from Bittle. He knows by heart what both of them will say.
Vegas raps its knuckles on the window. Jack didn’t quite draw the curtains shut, and through the crack there’s a garish glow. It would be easy to go outside and find something that turns his brain off. But he hates going out into the world after a loss, especially after losing that badly. Everyone can see you, and everyone will know.
That’s not true, he reminds himself. He takes another deep breath, tries to look at the thought objectively. Only some people can even recognize him, and only some of them will notice him, and only some of those will care. It’s a slice of a slice of the population he has to worry about.
But that kills him, too, sometimes. He’s worked this hard for so little, to prove himself to so few.
“It’s not about the glory,” he says in his interview voice, which most days also passes as his normal voice. “It’s about having the opportunity to compete at the highest level. It’s about proving myself to me.”
The hotel room is too high-end to let the words echo back to him. The walls are thick and they absorb any sound as soon as it’s made.
He stands there. He hears laughter float from the hallway, sirens and the grumble of traffic rise from the street far below. He drums his hand against his thigh.
He picks up his phone.
“Well, this is a surprise,” says Kent on the second ring. “I didn’t know you still had my number.”
“Hey,” says Jack in response.
“Hey,” says Kent back, and it shouldn’t sound like a taunt, but it does, something about the inflection. Kent can make anything sound like a chirp.
Jack lets it slide. He’s not sure what he’s doing exactly. He half-sits on the arm of the couch, trying to act casual, even though Kent can’t see him. People always laugh about how tightly wound and disciplined Jack is; something Jack, in his healthier moments, finds darkly amusing. He doesn’t have any self-control. He’s an addict. It’s just that he rarely wants, and the things he does want are so big, so consuming, everything else is subsumed, suffocated. He wants to make his father proud. He wants to be a great hockey player. He wants to not make a fool of himself. He wants to not feel anything at all.
So when some urge pops up, he has no defenses against it: take too many pills, kiss Bittle, call Kent. He just has to ride the compulsion out, figure out afterwards if it were good for him or bad. He’s already got a sense this is going to be a bad one. But Kent is nearby. Kent will answer. Kent doesn’t require any delicacy.
“Do you want to hang out?” he asks.
“In your hotel room?”
“We’re not friends, Jack.”
“We’re not,” agrees Jack, and he lets it sit there. They’re not friends. Their last real conversation was at the Epikegster. Twice on the ice that night, Kent tried to talk him. The second time that Jack ignored had him had been thirty seconds before Kent’s first goal.
Kent sighs. “Christ, you’re such a fucking weirdo, Zimmermann. Text me your room number.”
Jack half-expects Kent to be drunk when he shows up. He doesn’t know why. Kent has a reputation for partying, but he didn’t sound drunk on the phone. And he’s never actually been much of a drinker. That was always Jack. Kent never had a reason to get away from himself, and he was always focused on the next game.
Maybe Jack thought time would take off some of Kent’s edges.
But Kent shows up hard-mouthed and sober. He slouches in the doorway like a disdainful teenager, and his eyes take in the hotel room in a slow crawl. There’s nothing for him to judge, Jack tells himself. It’s a hotel room. Kent stays in ones that look exactly the same all the time.
“You know Vegas is a pretty cool place,” says Kent eventually. “You don’t have to hole up like a fucking hermit, Jack.”
With that, he saunters through the door, and Jack closes it behind him, relieved that Kent’s no longer standing in the hallway, where someone could see him.
“I don’t want to go out,” says Jack.
Kent glances at him, and maybe Jack imagines the unhappy twist to his mouth. It’s been awhile since he’s had to read Kent, and, even when he was in the practice of it, he was never that good once they got off the ice.
Kent looks the same as the last time Jack saw him, when Jack was kicking him out of the Haus, down to the flannel and the flashy watch, the ballcap hiding his cowlicks. Jack tries to figure out what it is about Kent that made Jack shatter so spectacularly today, if it had anything to do with Kent at all, or if it were just one of those games where everything goes wrong.
Kent looks back at him. He smiles faintly, cool and sharp. Jack was on a four-game point streak before the game, Kent on a five. The fact hangs heavy between them. Or maybe it just hangs there for Jack.
“Figured,” says Kent. “Some things don’t change, I guess.”
He rolls his shoulders easily, smiles a little wider, the ironic, supercilious smile Jack is familiar with from pressers, when a reporter has just asked a spectacularly idiotic question. The smile’s usually gone as soon as it comes, but Kent lets it linger this time, taunting.
“I guess,” echoes Jack.
“So what do you want to do instead?”
Kent sighs, but he doesn’t leave. He throws himself onto the couch dramatically, and then grimaces when he lands on Jack’s phone. He digs it out and looks at the screen, then shakes it at Jack.
“Your phone’s blowing up.”
Jack continues to study Kent. There was a time, back in the Q, when instead of Jack wrecking the room, Kent had let Jack wreck him. Some of what he’s thinking must show in Jack’s face – or maybe Kent’s thinking the same thing, too – because Kent flushes and looks away. Broken eye contact, thinks Jack, that’s a point for him.
Kent puts Jack’s phone on the coffee table, and then he looks up again, directly at Jack, a challenge in his eyes.
“We’re just hanging out though, right?” he asks. Every word is barbed. “As friends?”
“Yes,” say Jack, and then, even though it’s none of Kent’s business, adds, “I’m seeing someone.”
Kent raises an eyebrow. “I heard a rumor like that,” he says. He takes out his own phone and thumbs at it, sounds uninterested when he asks, “Who ya seeing, Jack?”
“Bittle,” says Jack. “Uh. Eric Bittle. You met him when you came to Samwell.” He adds meaningfully, “Outside my room.”
He’s itching to know who Kent heard the rumor from, but he won’t give him the satisfaction of asking. And, who knows, maybe Kent had just said it to say it. It took Jack a long time to figure out that Kent wasn’t always a step ahead, and it had taken him even longer to realize that Kent went to a lot of trouble to always seem like he was.
He must have said it just to say it, Jack realizes. Besides Jack’s parents, no one knows he’s seeing Bittle. There are only five people in the whole world who even know for a fact he’s interested in men, and Kent is one of them. But it’s too late to take any of that back now.
He can see Kent review his memories of that night. His eyes narrow.
“The small blond kid? Shit, Zimmermann, you do have a type.”
“Just physically,” says Jack.
Kent doesn’t respond to that for a long moment. He just keeps scrolling through his phone. Which, if Jack is being honest, does remind him of Bittle. But he knows Kent does it for show; Bittle does it because he’s actually fascinated by the flow of chatter and information. Then, Kent looks up, smirks.
“Well, you wouldn’t want a watered down version of me anyway,” he says, and, in a fluid motion, he sits up, raises his eyebrows. “So what are we going to do? Catch up? Tell me about Eric. What’s he into?”
“We’re not going to talk about Eric,” says Jack flatly. He’s already starting to regret inviting Kent over. What is there for them to talk about?
Kent watches him, expression calculating. Then he shrugs and leans back against the couch cushions.
“Let’s just watch something,” he suggests. “A movie or whatever.”
Jack nods, relieved to have an easy out.
He sits on the edge of the bed, and Kent gets off the couch and flops down beside him on his stomach, knees bent, chin propped up on his crossed arms, facing the TV. It’s the exact same way they used to sit on the bed when they were in the Q. Kent’s eyes are half-lidded and he looks bored as Jack flips through the channels, trying to find something interesting – he skips hurriedly past anything to do with sports or news – but that’s the same, too. Jack always thought Kent was bored, even when he wasn’t.
“Wait – I love that movie,” says Kent suddenly.
Jack skips back two channels. Bruce Willis is on the screen, looking angry and competent.
“Die Hard?” says Jack.
“Die Hard 2,” says Kent. “Get it together, Zimms. I only made you watch this like six dozen times.”
“Yeah,” mutters Jack, “but I was usually drunk.”
Kent freezes very, very slightly. That’s the one thing about Kent Jack is still able to read: his automatic, instinctive, bodily reactions. Jack’s surprised by this one.
Then Kent relaxes, and he says casually, “And now you don’t have an excuse for not paying attention.”
“Right,” says Jack, still not sure why what he said made Kent freeze up so badly. He clasps his hand loosely in his lap. His phone is still on the coffee table. They fall into silence. The point of Kent’s elbow presses against the top of Jack’s knee. Not enough to be uncomfortable, not enough to be worth shifting away from, but enough that Jack can’t help but be aware of it.
They’re both quiet. It’s an uneasy truce, but it is, Jack realizes with surprise, a truce. It’s the longest stretch of time they’ve gone without trying to hurt each other in six years.
“I’d still blow Bruce Willis,” says Kent, after about an hour. “He’s still got it.”
Jack flicks him hard on the ear. It’s automatic – the kind of thing he’d have done in the Q in response to Kent saying similar bullshit.
Jack smiles innocently – because this is familiar, too, Kent’s cat-like, disgruntled look. Kent rolls onto his back and glares.
“What was that for?” he says, and he punches Jack in the side, not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to make a point.
Jack grabs his wrist.
“For interrupting the movie,” he replies, monotone.
Kent stares up at him for a second, bites his lower lip, and then he glances to where Jack’s hand is still wrapped tight around his wrist.
“Whatchya doing, Jack?” he asks softly.
Jack lets go hurriedly.
“Nothing,” he says. He looks away. His cheeks feel hot. On the screen, someone gets sucked into a jet engine. A terrorist, Jack guesses. Kent full body stretches. Jack keeps his eyes on the TV. He really should call Bittle back, he thinks, a little frantic.
“How are things, Jack?” asks Kent, low and crafty.
Jack shushes him. “I’m watching the movie.”
“Spoiler alert,” says Kent. He yawns exaggeratedly. “John McClane wins. Holly’s plane lands safely. Now you have to talk to me.”
“Holly?” says Jack.
“His wife, Jack – don’t smirk at me!” Kent punches Jack in the leg this time, and Jack throws his head back and laughs. It really is like being in the Q again. Then Kent’s eyes go soft and dark, and he sits up, facing the wall. Jack’s still on the edge of the bed, facing the other way. Their shoulders touch. Jack goes very still.
“But, come on,” says Kent. Maybe he thinks a serious conversation will be easier to have if they’re not looking at each other. Maybe he’s right. Maybe Jack should have known this was coming, should have known better than to ever invite Kent over in the first place. Kent pushes, even when he shouldn’t. “How are things? You settling in all right?”
“I don’t know if you noticed,” says Jack, after a pause, “but I had kind of a crappy game tonight.”
Kent laughs. “Yeah, Zimms. That happens sometimes. You dealing with it okay?”
Jack leans back a bit, so that most of his arm presses against Kent’s. He looks up at the ceiling.
“I called you, didn’t I?”
There’s a beat of silence before Kent replies.
“Does that mean you’re dealing with it well, or not?”
“I don’t know,” admits Jack. “It’s just… a lot, sometimes.”
“Being a pro?”
“Yeah, well. If you ever want to talk about it, you’ve got my number.”
Kent leans into Jack for a second, physical and affectionate, a warm line against Jack’s shoulder, and Jack’s heart does a familiar, dangerous one-two skip. He’s about to say “don’t,” but Kent is already pulling away. He slides off the bed and stands. Jack looks at him in surprise.
“You’re going?” he says.
Kent nods. “Places to be tomorrow. Can’t be out too late.”
Jack gestures at the screen. “Movie’s not over.”
Kent glances at the TV, and then he looks at Jack, smiles. It’s easy, neutral. Dishonest.
“It’s all right,” he says. “Like I said. I know how it ends.”
The flight back to Providence is subdued. Jack spends it with his eyes closed, head leaned back, listening to a history podcast Lardo recommended. He keeps losing the thread of it, the words slipping by him like water on glass. Finally, he turns it off and just pretends to be asleep.
In his head, he replays the game. In that first face-off, he’d been hyper-aware of Kent, off to Jack’s left, his eyes blue-gray and looking right at Jack. Jack had kept his eyes ahead, on the puck. He wasn’t going to let Kent chirp him by just fucking existing.
That had been the plan at least.
He texts Bittle back once they land. Jack has a whole string of texts from him, starting from the first Aces’ goal – don’t worry! I know you’ll bounce back!
Jack winces as he scrolls through the rest of them. None of them are angry. They’re just increasingly worried. The final one is a semi-frantic, Jack???, sent an hour ago.
Sorry, he types. He tries to think of something to put after, some excuse that’s acceptable, palatable. That isn’t just: Sometimes I can’t; sometimes I have to disappear, and then a grasping silence after.
He hits send. Bittle responds immediately.
It’s okay! Are you okay? Do you need anything?
I’m okay. Just tired. See you this weekend?
Bittle responds with a string of heart emojis. Jack looks at them blankly. The cross-country games have been the worst part of going pro, he decides. He always feels numb afterward, and reality has an odd, taffy-like quality. It’s already evening, dusk starting to gather in the brown-leafed trees. Between the three-hour time difference and the five-hour flight, he’s practically lost a whole day.
He doesn’t even want to sleep. He just wants to lie down in a dark room for twelve hours. He keeps staring at Bittle’s string of hearts. Finally, he texts back a smiley-face and shoves his phone into his pocket.
“Ah, Parser always had your number,” rumbles Bob on the phone, two hours later, when he and Jack sit down to review the Aces’ game. He says it with approval in his voice. Bad Bob’s always liked Kent, sees himself in the spunky kid with the second-hand skates and the charisma of a small sun.
He’s asked Jack why Kent doesn’t come around anymore, but Jack’s never been able to do more than mouth some excuses about drifting apart. It’s not a lie if it was bound to happen sooner or later, right? Even if Jack hadn’t OD’d, and Kent hadn’t suddenly been thrust into Jack’s part, they still would have wound up on opposite coasts, been caught in the riptide of expectations and real-life, two strangers drowning, instead of two kids, keeping their heads up, together.
“Aces play the Rangers on October 23rd,” Kent had said seriously, two weeks before the draft, hair in his face, the sun behind his shoulder turning him into a shadow above Jack, hiding the color of his eyes. “Islanders don’t play that day. So that’s another day we can see each other.” A grin. “I’ll get to see your place in New York.”
And Jack had said, with his hand on the back of Kent’s neck, warm from the sun, “What makes you think I’ll be playing for the Islanders?”
“Because I’ll be going first.” Kent, laughing, and then Jack pulling him down to kiss him, to keep from having this conversation again, because Kent never seemed to realized Jack only found it funny half the time.
“Yeah, he did. Does,” says Jack in the present. He presses the heel of his hand into his eye. He doesn’t know why they’re bothering to dissect this game. There’s nothing to say about it other than it was a disaster. The press is having a field day: Zimmermann Implodes in Face of Old Rival.
It’s a team game, he repeats to himself. It’s a team game. And you shouldn’t be reading what the press says, anyway.
On his computer screen, Kent grabs the puck from a ricochet off the end boards, feints left, and then bolts forward, slicing straight through Kevlar and Tater and making them both look like toddlers who’d just wandered onto the ice. Kent was impossibly fast and impossibly reckless even in the Q. He’s still a rocket, still fearless. And, even with everything, Jack’s heart still thrills at the play. He can’t help but love good hockey, and Kent plays amazing hockey.
“You doing okay, Jacky?” his father asks gently. Jack winces, hates how attuned to his moods Bob is now, how worried Bob is about messing up. Bad ice, thinks Jack, but he’s not able to complete the metaphor for himself. He just thinks it again: bad ice.
“You don’t understand what it was like growing up in your shadow,” Jack had told Bob once, under duress, in one of the endless family therapy sessions they’d all gone to together, one of the endless investigations into an increasingly fractal why?. Bob had looked crestfallen, as he’d grasped for both a way to understand and to apologize: “I never meant to…”
No one had ever meant anything. That had been the problem. You couldn’t argue with the air, with the assumptions that came out of everyone as easily as breathing. Here was Jack: bad at everything. Here was Jack: good at hockey. Here was Bad Bob: smiling and proud, for maybe the first time Jack could remember. Here was everyone else: “Taking after the old man, eh? You’ll have your work cut out for you.”
There’s a number always hanging in the back of Jack’s head: 87, the number of points Bad Bob earned in his rookie season. It’s meaningless. That was more than thirty years ago, on a totally different team.
Kent had 94, his brain supplies helpfully. On the laptop screen, Kent makes his hatty, and every Ace on the ice converges on him for the celly. When Kent pops back up from the mass of bodies, his helmet’s off, and he’s glowing. It’s hard not to look at him. There’s a reason the first Aces’ game Jack has watched in years was the tape the Falcs looked at in the lead up to the game.
“I’m fine, Papa,” says Jack. “Just tired.”
His father sighs. “You know, we don’t have to do this.”
Jack doesn’t think he’s being paranoid when he hears the hint of reproach in Bob’s voice. Post-game breakdowns had been a ritual for them back in the Q, and they had been one more thing Bob had done joyfully, lovingly, with no idea how badly it twisted Jack up.
It had been Jack’s idea to start it back up again. He’s better now. He can handle the pressure now.
“Maybe just not this game,” says Jack.
There’s a weighted pause. Jack tries to picture where his father is - in the living room, probably, the game thrown up in debilitating high-definition on their big TV. Is Alicia there, too? Casting a concerned look at the phone?
“Get some sleep,” Bob says finally. “Try not to think about hockey for a bit. Every team gets hammered at least once a season. It’s how you bounce back that’s important.”
“Right,” says Jack. “Thanks. Good night, Papa.”
He hangs up and finds himself staring at his laptop for another long, washed-out couple of minutes that distend out, timeless, until he blinks, and, suddenly, he’s already watched half the second period. He sees himself get a wobbly pass from Thirdy, the puck bouncing over his stick. There’s suddenly two Aces d-men on him. Jack fights for the puck, puts his shoulder into it. He has it - and then, he crumples under the pressure.
Jack remembers that moment on the ice: the crowd screaming, the two big d-men - not so easy when you’re not playing little kids, huh?, Tater hollering something Jack couldn’t make out, and then Jack had spotted Kent, and smacked the puck to him, instinctively.
It’s not obvious on the tape that that’s what he was doing. It was a pass to Kent, but it was a really fucking bad pass to Kent. It just looks like Jack’s trying to jam the puck back out to Thirdy and failing. It’s the only time Jack can think of when a bad pass was less embarrassing than a good one would have been. Still, shame crawls hotly through his body as he watches it happen.
He slams his laptop shut, and without the light from it, he’s suddenly sitting in total darkness.
He thinks about calling Bittle or Shitty, but there are some things that are too hard to explain - hockey, and his dad, and Kent, and the devouring emptiness of his new home. It was easier when he could just go sit in the Haus living room and just be near someone. Bittle will be here Saturday morning, he reminds himself. That’s just a night and a day and a night again, and then Bittle will be here, humming in the kitchen, all the lights on, and the whole place smelling like a bakery at dawn.
Jack knew intellectually he was going to miss the Haus, but he'd figured the privacy and the silence would make up for it. He was wrong. The silence and privacy make it worse. Jack doesn't just miss his friends; he misses all the noise they made. He misses Bittle singing across the hall, and he misses Ransom and Holster scuffling in the attic, and he misses Shitty always, constantly, whatever the subject, whatever the time, yelling. And he misses the Haus itself, its settling and its moods, its intermittent creaks and groans, the wind beating on its poorly paned windows, even the drip from the second-floor bathroom faucet that they never figured out how to fix.
His own apartment is recently renovated and noiseless. When he strains, he can hear the refrigerator hum, but that’s it. He bought the place for its kitchen and its easy access to a jogging trail through a wooded park. But he’s starting to wish he’d picked somewhere downtown - one of the glassy, box-like monstrosities Tater lives in, where, even in sleepy Providence, there are at least usually students drunkenly wandering the nearby streets. There’s always someone. But it would have been harder, too, to keep Bittle a secret in a place like that.
Jack cracks his neck and stands up. He could go to sleep. It’s late enough. But his body is jittery, and his mind is, too, the game on loop in his head.
He stretches for a moment, and then decides to go for a run. When he steps outside, the night sky is clear, and there’s the faint scent of autumn on the breeze - woodsmoke and damp leaves and coming frost.
He runs, down the clean sidewalk, past the dark, neat houses with their glowing eyes, with just his even breathing and his even heartbeat in his ears. He runs automatically, past the point of thought. He keeps running. He lets the streetlamps lead his way.