The Las Vegas Aces are coming back to the rustic resort they’re staying at after a winning game. Press went well, the usual after-game questions, the team is joyous and they are making plans to celebrate their victory. Nothing too extravagant, as they have an 11:30 pm curfew and have to hit the road again a little before eleven the next day. The guys are loud, nonetheless, and they jostle each other. Carl bumps into Kent, but he isn’t in the mood.
“Fuck off, Carly.”
“Chill dude. You got a stick up your ass, or what?”
“Fuck you! I’m not that desperate, not like you.” He winks and grimaces, showing his disgust at the thought.
“You know what? You're just a piece of shit, have fun all alone. I'm out!"
And on that, Carl leaves, clearly pissed. Kent barely notices, words are ringing in his ears. You’re just a piece of shit. He feels his heart sinking in his chest. What if… no. Carl couldn’t be. He is by far the most homophobic dude on the team. He hadn’t been affected by Kent’s comment, not in that way at least. It’s just his basic ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with those fags’ reaction. Kent knows it, but he can’t help wondering because he also knows he would have taken it personally. By now, he is used to the rampant homophobia, and – he isn’t proud of it, he realises – but he is used to say things like this as well, as a way to insult people. All of a sudden, he feels sick. Without looking back, he runs to his room, the one he shares with Troy.
He reaches the doorway and fumbles with his key. Once he manages to open it, he enters and immediately closes the door behind him. He feels like he is about to puke. He believes it. He fucking believes it. When did it happen? He doesn’t know. He didn’t notice. It was so subtle he didn’t even become aware of it. Until now. He knows this is all messed up. He knows this isn’t the truth. He knows bigots are jerks and even more than that. He knows he isn’t one of them. Or maybe he is. You’re just a piece of shit. He is shaking. He needs to calm down, but it’s too late. He can feel his shell breaking apart. He takes a few trembling steps and grips the desk until his knuckles are white with the effort. He needs to ground himself. You’re just a piece of shit. Carl’s words keep coming at him, hitting him hard. His nails dig into the hard surface underneath them. He barely hears the sound of someone unlocking the door and coming in. A few seconds later, there is a click and two turns of the key, shutting the outside world off. Kent still can’t breathe properly, Carl’s voice haunting him, Carl’s words insidiously creeping under his skin.
“Kent...” Troy pleads.
For a brief instant, everything freezes around them and then, Kent explodes.
“I’m SHIT! I’m just shit and I know it!!! And YOU know it!”
Jeff is quiet, no words escape his mouth. He is just here, looking at Kent with patient eyes. Parse wants him to scream back at him, to agree with him. But nothing comes. Jeff stays silent. Parse tries to read him, tries to see disgust on his face but he can’t because there is none. He almost gets angry again, he wants to snap at his teammate again.
Instead, his legs fail him and he drops on the floor, his knees making a loud bang against the hardwood. A single tear rolls on his cheek, a second one follows and then it’s flooding all over his face. He can’t even think about how much of a fool of himself he must be making. He tries to voice a snarky comment about how weak he is and about how this is just more proof of his obsolescence but he can only manage to let out a sob. Something has broken in him and he can’t back-pedal. Jeff lets him cry his eyes out. He has to clench his fists tight – it hurts him seeing his loved-one like this – but he doesn’t want to scare him away. He knows if he invades his space right now, he will shut down again and he won’t let Jeff help him, even though they are both aware that he has reached his breaking point.
Eventually, the tears cease. He is sitting on his heels, his arms lose at his sides and he can’t bring himself to get back on his feet and to walk away pretending that nothing ever happened. Abruptly, before he can regret it, he asks:
“Why are you not telling me I’m crap?”
He almost adds ‘Why are you not laughing at me for being such a sissy?’ But he thinks better of it because even though it’s something the guys would say, it’s not something Jeff would say, he realises. However, it seems like Jeff still heard him in his silence.
“Should I? And maybe I should call you a sissy while we’re at it?”
“Yes. Yes...” But his voice is dying.
He doesn’t believe it. It sounds… wrong and it’s a new feeling to him. Jeff kneels in front of him and gently picks Kent’s hands in his own. They stay like this for a moment. Silent sobs spill out from time to time.
After a while, Jeff let go one of his hands and reaches to remove Kent’s cap and slowly leans in to press a soft kiss on his forehead. Kent stares down at his laps. He can’t look at Troy in the eyes. He can’t face the truth. He can’t face the fact that someone genuinely, wholeheartedly cares about him. So he ducks his head but this doesn’t stop Jeff who presses another gentle kiss, on his temple this time. Finally, Kent gives in and buries his head in the other man’s neck, breathing deeply, soothing himself with his scent, allowing himself to be taken care of. Jeff holds him tightly. ‘I am not going to reject you’ his body says. When he feels his boyfriend relaxing, he helps him to the bed but Kent doesn’t want to let him go. He starts to panic and feels shameful about it but he hears himself beg anyway.
“Don’t-don’t leave me!”
“I am not. I wasn’t intending to.”
“I know I don’t deserve it-”
Jeff cuts him off. “You do.”
“But you don’t understand… I’ve treated him so badly… I’ve said so many messed up things… I’ve-I’ve nearly, maybe even really, believed those things... I can’t expect people to treat me well after that...”
‘Him’. He knows who he is talking about, and where he is concerned, he is pretty sure it went both ways, but he doesn’t press.
“Kenny, listen, it’s not because you were a bad person once or that you fell into this whole homophobic mess that you can’t progress and be good again. You deserve to be loved. You deserve to love yourself.”
“So what? I should see a shrink?” He snorts.
Kent stares. Jeff’s tone is serious. There is no underlying teasing. It sounds right in his mouth. It doesn’t sound like something he should be ashamed of. He considers it. Then, carefully choosing his words, he says:
“If-if I start to see a sh-therapist… Would you still stay with me? I-I...”
He is afraid he will be alone again. He is afraid Jeff is only sending him to a therapist so he can get rid of him, the useless asshole. He…
“I didn’t suggest it so I could abandon you. You’re not doing this alone, I’ll be with you.”
He knows he should trust him, he knows he shouldn’t question it, but he needs to hear it. He needs to be sure.
“Promise?” he asks, shyly.
There is a silence. Jeff is still sitting on the edge of the mattress. He seems to hesitate.
“Now, would you rather have me sleeping in the other bed or...”
He doesn’t end his sentence, unsure of what to say. Kent shakes his head.
“No. I mean, only if you want to...”
“Yes, I want to.”
He turns the lights off and slides under the quilt. Kent is facing him. He wants to get closer, he wants to be held but he doesn’t know if he should. He looks at Jeff whose eyes are gleaming in the dimness. The man places an arm over him, his hand resting on his back. Kent takes the invitation and snuggles against him like a cat. It feels safe. He feels welcomed. He feels loved, and it might be the best thing he ever felt, but he is not quite ready to admit it. So, he just stays silent and enjoys it as much as he can. He is still scared it might get taken away from him, but it is there right now, and god knows he will fight to keep this, although it might make him lose other things.
He is starting to get that his happiness is worth it, but even knowing this, he can’t help but wonder if the other things might be more important. He briefly thinks about losing Jeff and his heart aches more than he can stand it. He makes a distressed noise, and the other man holds him even closer and kisses him through his hair. No. This is the right thing, he thinks. With him, he can do it. Together. Not alone.
Sleep takes him and for once, he doesn’t fight.
Dawn finds them still tangled together. They look sleepily at each other without a word. Everything is quiet, not even a bird is chirruping. They’re both exhausted, drained from the game the previous day, the episodes of last night... They both remember last night’s events. But there is no embarrassment, no second-thoughts, only acceptance. Kent speaks first.
“I’m scared, Jeff.” He admits, sheepishly. “I don’t feel or think that there is any going back. I don’t think I can just pretend that I hate gays and find them gross… I am gay. And… I… I’m… I am not disgusting!” He explodes.
Jeff soothingly brushes Kent’s hair, leans in and kisses the tip of his nose with the tip of his lips.
“No, you’re not. You’re beautiful.”
Kent can’t help the flush on his face, but he finds himself not minding it at all. He feels warm. He grasps Swoops’ hand and boldly kisses it. They are both fiercely pink now which makes Parse smirk, proud of himself. They goof around some more, enjoying this harmless, easy interaction, glad to forget about the ugliness waiting for them outside of their room.
At one point, Jeff takes Kent’s shirt off.
“I want to try something, okay? Tell me if you’re not comfortable with it.” He explains.
“Okay.” He tenses inadvertently.
“Hey, just try to relax. You can tell me to stop at any time. No pressure.”
Kent nods and shifts, trying to loosen up. Jeff barely strokes his shoulders and Kent shivers under the touch. The other man goes down to his chest, then to his ribs which makes him jolt – he is ticklish – but he finds it nice. It’s so gentle and genuine.
Swoops’ hands rest on his hips as he slowly bends down and presses a very soft kiss right below his belly button. Kent takes a big breath and forces himself to let it out. Relax. It’s okay. He trusts him.
Another kiss finds its place on the left, and again another one on the right, then he leaves a line of kisses all the way up to his jaw.
There is no rush and everything is soft. Jeff makes sure to be as diligent with each new kiss as he was with the previous one.
A beauty spot on his collarbone is gifted a kiss as well, and soon enough every single beauty spot on his torso gets the same delicate attention.
Parse groans when he realises it’s the last one. He doesn’t want it to stop just yet.
Jeff rests on Kent’s belly, looking at him, his hands folded under his chin.
“How do you feel?” He asks.
“Good. A bit sad you stopped.” He answers, the pad of one of his finger lingering along the scar on Swoops’ face.
Jeff chuckles which makes Kenny pout.
“Hey! Don’t make your pouting kitten face, it’s not fair!” He exclaims, while poking lightly at his boyfriend’s ribs. “Maybe if you ask me politely, I’ll start again,” he adds, merrily.
A new light sparkles in Kenny’s eyes. He grins.
“Kiss me some more… please?” And Jeff obliges, too happy to show his love, too happy that Kenny wants him to be affectionate in soft and leading ways, too happy that he actually seems to enjoy it and to allow himself to enjoy it.
This time, he ends it with a kiss on the lips and then rolls into Kent’s left side, his head resting on top of his shoulder. Kenny is absently brushing his left arm.
“So, how was it?” Swoops inquires.
“No. More like I’m not… used to it.” He sighs, less sure of himself. “Maybe I should let you… do this more often.”
He almost said let you love me, but he didn’t. It feels too overwhelming, and his heart is beating fast in his chest. He keeps it for another time. He still has work to do to get there, but he is confident it will happen.
They remain still, touching one another, for a little while after that, in thoughtful silence, knowing that they’ll have to move soon enough. They have to work out, get breakfast, then pack and finally hit the road. But for now, they’re still in this intermediary state, caught in between peace and chaos, in the nothingness, determined to make the most out of the calm before the storm. They breathe in unison.
An alarm clock makes itself known, and everything returns to motion. They sit up straight, force themselves out of bed and change into work-out clothes.
“What about a run? I’m not really looking forward to getting stuck into a gym with the others.”
Jeff is ruffling the other bed, to make it look like they didn’t sleep in the same one, just in case.
“Yeah. Not ready to make small talk with them, uh?” He chirps.
“No. Indeed.” Kent answers, seriously.
“Kenny, it’s gonna be okay. I promise you only have to be your sassy self and they won’t even notice.”
“And how do I avoid getting angry? I’m not the calmest person on Earth, you know that.”
“I’ll help you with that. And therapists can give you useful tips.”
“Still not ready for this today.”
“Okay. Then, let’s go for a run!”
He claps Kent’s shoulder on his way to the door, but gets stop by Kent who steals a kiss from him in the process.
“Good luck charm,” he explains with a wink.
Jeff shakes his head in an amused disbelief. They head out and run in a comfortable mix of silence, chirps and Kent’s well known entertaining way to converse. It’s easy, it’s nice. They have been running buddies for a while now and it’s, at least, one of the only things they can do in public without anyone batting an eye.
They head back to the rustic resort. Kent wins at rock, paper, scissors and gets to shower first. He leaves the room shortly after that to get breakfast. They rarely eat breakfast together on roadies, unwilling to take risks. This resulted in Parson being grumpy pretty much every morning, which built him a solid to-do-not-disturb reputation. That is, he won’t have to speak to anyone, which buys him some time to reflect on what happened and how it’ll affect his future. For sure, things will change, he just doesn’t know exactly what yet; besides that he is actually going to listen to Jeff and work with a therapist. He will at least give it a shot. He could use a hand to help him sort out his feelings and help him with this mess, he thinks. Jeff made it sound like something good – and he doesn’t lie to Kent – so maybe it will be, indeed. He will see.
Time passes by quickly. The guys are excited to go home and pack their stuff at full speed. As such, everyone is exceptionally ready in advance, and they can leave early.
The ride back home is quiet on their part. They are way too tired to bother to stay awake. And when they’re sleeping, it’s easier to forget that they’re not allowed to hold hands. So, instead, they share a pair of earphones and nap. It’s Jeff’s turn to pick the music, and he thankfully chooses something they can sleep to. And that is how they let Life by Ludovico Einaudi clear their mind and escort them to whatever is next in their own lives.