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the dice were loaded from the start

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Kent watches the flight attendant’s mouth move as she makes an announcement. He doesn’t hear a thing with his headphones on. It’s like watching the TV on mute, or watching someone when you’re on heavy pain meds. He’s pleasantly distant from it. The whole flying experience is subdued. But the other passengers around him are starting to shift and talk, disgruntled. Something’s happening. So the announcement probably wasn’t just about dinner. He pulls his headphones off.

Everything hits him at once then, like fully surfacing from water: the sterile lights and smell of airplane food, the uneasy chatter, mostly French, that washes over his fellow travelers.

Kent blinks away his daze and turns to his seatmate. “What’s happening?”

“We’re being diverted,” the guy says. Middle-aged guy, been working on his laptop this whole time, probably eats numbers for a living. “To Logan.”

“What?”

“We’re getting diverted to Logan,” the guys says, slow. He probably thought flying first class meant he wouldn’t get subjected to the third degree. At Kent’s stupefied glance, he adds, “To Boston?”

“I know what city Logan’s in,” snaps Kent. “Why?”

“Because there’s a storm…”

Kent digests that. He hopes his seatmate isn’t a hockey fan, but considering that they were supposed to be flying into Montreal and that he has a pretty thick Quebecois accent, it’s unlikely. Kent’s not too torn up about it, all things considered. This’ll just be one of those stories that gets bandied between fans like currency: I met Kent Parson on a plane and he didn’t understand basic English. Also, he was a jerk.

This feels like a sign: don’t do it, Kent. Turn back, Kent. Save yourself while you still have a chance, goddammit.

He’d better hustle, he thinks as the plane starts to descend, if he’s gonna get a rental car before they’re all gone. It’s not like he gets invited to the book launch for Bad Bob’s autobiography every day.

**

Even with the advantage of being first off the plane, there are over a dozen people in line by the time Kent finds a rental place. His wasn’t the only flight diverted. Or canceled. And it probably didn’t help that he stopped a couple times for photos with fans.

He calls his PA as he waits, just to give her the heads up and discreetly figure out if there are any other practical steps he should take, re: being unexpectedly stranded at an airport on what was supposed to be a lightning quick trip to Montreal for your ‘ex-best friend’s’ dad’s middle-aged vanity project.

“Yes,” says Jessie. “You should have gone to a lounge and called me first, and I would have gotten you a car. Though, honestly, Kent, you shouldn’t be driving at all. This storm’s all over the news, even here.”

“Huh,” says Kent. There are only about eight people in front of him, and he thinks a few of them are together. “Guess it’s too late now.”

He hangs up before she finishes her protest.

He should have brought her, he thinks wistfully. He wouldn’t be standing in line for a rental car because Jessie actually understands how to function in society and wasn’t raised by hockey wolves from the time she was sixteen. But he doesn’t pay her nearly enough to ask her to be his Jack Zimmermann emotional support buffer. And he pays her pretty damn well.

Though he supposes it’s possible Jack’s not gonna be at the launch, and that’s why Bob felt it was safe to invite Kent in the first place. He doesn’t really look at that thought too closely.

He emails his agent next, because he remembers suddenly it’s her kid’s birthday, texts with Swoops (for the last time, it’s not called the good, the bad, and the bob), heart-reacts to all twelve photos Scraps sent him of Kit while he was on the plane, skims the headlines, checks some sports scores, replies to some comments on Instagram, discreetly checks out a square-jawed Red Sox fan with biceps the size of cantaloupes. It’s a good time.

“Hey, evening,” he says, when he finally makes it to a clerk. He leans against the counter, smiles, “Can I get - ?”

“Kent?”

Kent whips his head up, and there, Adidas bag slung over his shoulder and headphones around his neck, is Jack.

“Uh,” he says, brain flatlining. “Hey.”

Normally he’s got some kind of catchy one-liner prepared for moments like this, because normally he knows exactly when he’s going to see Jack. He’s been workshopping a few things for the party, but they’ve all gone scattered.

“You’re going to my dad’s party,” says Jack slowly, looking between Kent and the rental clerk. So that’s good. That he knows. That Bob warned him. He looks - well, he’s wearing gray sweatpants and bright yellow sneakers, so he looks like an ass. But he also looks good. He looks healthy.

“Trying,” says Kent. “My flight was diverted.

“Yeah. Mine was canceled.” Jack frowns at him. “What are you doing?”

“I was invited,” says Kent defensively. He gets it. Bad Bob is Jack’s dad. But it’s not like Kent didn’t have a warm relationship with the guy at one point. He’s still allowed to see him as a mentor.

Jack just looks at him, in his way that says, ‘I have received this information,’ and nothing else. Kent’s seen that face from Jack more often than he hasn’t the last eight years.

“I know,” says Jack. “I meant, what are you doing right now?”

Kent looks at him incredulously.

“I’m renting a car,” he says. He points at the clerk and then to himself and then makes a little driving motion with his hands. Jack scowls. It’s worth it. It’s a reaction.

“When was the last time you drove in the snow?” Jack asks.

“Last January. It was fine.” It had not been fine. He’d pulled over after twenty minutes and made his sister take over.

Jack’s scowl changes minutely, just a flicker of the brow that means he’s gone from irritation to skepticism. And Kent fucking hates how he can still read Jack’s micro-expressions like that. He used to pride himself on his ability to read Jack: “He’s not a robot,” he’d say. “You just have to know what you’re looking for.”

Fat lot of good that’s done him.

“That was a year ago,” says Jack.

“I know how time works, Zimms, thanks.”

“You should just drive up with me,” says Jack. “My car’s outside.”

It’s clearly taking a lot of effort for Jack to keep the irritation out of his voice. Neither of them really need it getting around to the press that they bitched each other out in the airport over a rental car. Kent glares at him, tries to figure out a way to say, “Go fuck yourself. I’d literally rather die,” that aren’t those exact words.

“Sir?” interrupts the clerk, probably more sharply than strictly encouraged by employee guidelines. But Kent gets it. The poor woman’s eyes are lined with strain, and Kent becomes abruptly aware of the line behind him, of the dozens and dozens of restless people, all looking for a way to get home.

He meets Jack’s eyes and hands the clerk his credit card.

“Whatever they want,” he says, jerking his thumb at the family behind him. “Put it on my card.”

The clerk gives him a flat look and then just nods.

He moves to stand next to Jack, but he doesn’t say anything, just crosses his arms over his chest and watches the clerk. He pays for the next six families after. He’s not sure what’s motivating him. He likes playing the hero, yeah, and this is the kind of shit he’d always wished someone would do for his mom growing up. But mainly he’s just trying to irritate Jack.

Okay, so he knows exactly what’s motivating him.

When he’s done, Jack scowls at him for a second.

And then he hands over his credit card.

It’s another forty-five minutes before they call a truce and finally leave. This’ll definitely land them in the news, but hopefully in an “inspiring sports story of the day” kind of way, and not in an “innovations in dick-measuring contests” kind of way. It’s pretty funny, honestly. Kent wishes they could laugh about it. But every time he tries to catch Jack’s eye, Jack looks away.

They walk to Jack’s car in silence. Kent keeps thinking of and discarding possible openers. They haven’t seen each other since mid-October, when the Falcs played in Vegas. That had been a month after Jack and his boyfriend announced their break up, and Kent had texted Jack, after the game, to ask if he wanted to hang out. It hadn’t been a come on. But it’s not exactly like Kent could text the guy to ask if he wanted to get a drink.

Jack had texted back, no, which, somehow, had felt worse than all the times Jack never responded at all.

Kent finally settles on: “My flight was good. Thanks for asking.”

Jack looks at him, startled, almost as if he’s forgotten Kent is there. He’s been walking with his head down, glaring at the ground, which is pretty annoying, if you ask Kent. It’s not like it was his idea to cram the two of them into a car for a last minute, five-hour road trip.

“That’s good,” says Jack, like he’s too dense to catch on that Kent is chirping him.

Neither of them say anything else until they get into the car and free themselves from airport traffic. It’s an awkward fifteen minutes. Kent keeps glancing around the car for signs of - he’s not exactly sure what he’s looking for. Some insight into who Jack is nowadays. But there’s not much. It’s clean, there’s only a little bit of hockey funk, the second row of seats in the back have been taken out, probably so Jack has more room for hockey equipment. There’s a Samwell decal on one of the side windows.

“So is Uncle Wayne gonna be there?” Kent asks a little nastily, when he runs out of things to look at. He doesn’t think Jack would appreciate him rifling through the glove compartment.

Jack gives him a look like, ‘why the fuck are you asking that?’ and, honestly, Kent can’t even answer that for himself. He’s just still pissed, deep down, that his dad’s dead, and here’s Jack with more father-figures than a goddamn leather convention, begrudging Kent any bit of attention he ever got from Bad Bob.

“Just asking,” he says sullenly. He sinks lower into his seat.

He figures out how to bluetooth his phone to Jack’s stereo pretty quickly. He has a stupid roadtrip playlist he made for the summer before, when he drove up the coast of California alone. He likes the west, its openness. It doesn’t have any history for him.

So of course he made a playlist that matched, almost song for song, the one he’d burned to a CD for him and Jack, almost ten years ago, for the summer they spent a week driving down the coast of Maine. This one just has a few more pop songs.

He kind of expects Jack to call him out on it. But Jack doesn’t say anything. Maybe he doesn’t realize it’s basically the same playlist. The songs are pretty generic dad rock.

“Gretzky’ll be there,” says Jack suddenly.

“What?”

Jack sighs. Kent used to think his old-woman sighs were cute, but they just fucking irritate him now.

“You asked if he was was going to be there.” Jack flushes a little, and adds, mumbling, “He blurbed the book.”

Kent lets that sink in, and then he laughs, once, sharply. Of course Wayne fucking Gretzky blurbed Bob’s book. He crosses his arms over his chest, looks out the window so he doesn’t have to look at Jack. It’s winter. So everything’s dead and there’s nothing to look at.

“Think he’ll blurb mine?” he asks, because he ends up hating the silence more than he hates Jack’s bullshit. Fortunate Son is rattling out from the speakers. It’s a little too on the nose for Kent’s taste. Had he meant it ironically when he put it on the playlist, way back when? Had he even understood what irony was?

“Dunno,” says Jack. “Why? Are you writing one?”

“No,” says Kent. “I’d have to leave out all the juicy bits anyway.”

Jack snorts at that, and Kent risks looking at him. Jack’s eyes are on the road, hands at 10 and 2, posture perfect, a profile you could break a ship against. He doesn’t look back at Kent at all.

“Though maybe I should,” says Kent, talking now mainly just to fill the air. “Be good to control the narrative or whatever.”

Jack’s mouth twitches at that, almost a smile, and then his expression goes flat.

“You were always better at thinking through that kind of thing than me,” he says.

Because I had less of a safety net than you, Kent wants to say. But that’s an old argument, and one he’s tired of. What people don’t get about them is that Kent’s cocky. He’s reckless. He’ll take a calculated risk. But he’s not impulsive. He needs to know where he’s going to land before he jumps into something.

But Jack isn’t like that at all. No one knows why Jack does what he does. In Kent’s experience, Jack doesn’t even know why he does anything. He just feels it, and then he does it.

“Are you in it?” he asks.

Jack cocks an eyebrow - a question.

“In your dad’s book,” Kent clarifies.

“Just as a kid,” says Jack. “I think he ends it at retirement.”

“Yeah. Not like anything interesting’s happened to him since.”

Jack snorts. He doesn’t say anything else. Kent watches him for a bit longer; again, it’s winter - there’s nothing else alive to look at. But Jack continues to keep his eyes very wisely on the road. Kent shifts in his seat, suddenly bored. He thinks about texting Swoops what’s going on: you’ll never guess who i ran into at the airport! But he’s pretty sure Swoops’ll just be, like, concerned, and not chirp the living hell out of him, which is what Kent needs, and, frankly, what he deserves for letting himself get into this ridiculous-ass situation.

He drums his knuckles, agitated, against the door. Single Ladies starts to play, and, because Kent is pretty sure Jack hates this song, he starts to sing along. He even does the hand part of the dance. Sure enough, Jack scowls.

“Can you skip this?”

“What?” says Kent, smirking. He makes the hand gesture more emphatically, not at all at a point in the song where he should. He ‘dated’ a girl for a couple months once who’d been a backup singer for Beyoncé. Nice girl. Kent still sends her flowers on her birthday. “Not a fan?”

“Skip it, Parse.”

Kent skips it. There’s a strain to Jack’s voice that even he doesn’t want to investigate.

Robert Plant wails from the car stereo, and Jack says over it, “Sorry. Bittle - my ex - really liked her.”

“Oh,” says Kent. He feels more than a prickle of irritation that he and Jack’s tiny, perfect boyfriend have something else in common besides being Jack Zimmermann’s exes. He doesn’t apologize, though. He just meant to annoy Jack. How was he supposed to know Beyoncé was a trigger?

“Yeah,” says Jack. They sit there in silence, except for Robert Plant going ah ah ah.

“I still have this CD,” says Jack.

“What?”

“From that roadtrip?” says Jack. A muscle works in his jaw. Kent watches it, fascinated. “I found it in my desk at home right before I moved to Providence.”

“I’ve added a few songs since then.”

“I noticed,” says Jack, with a tiny smile. He adds, a little abruptly, “Can you send this to me? I don’t have a disc drive on my laptop any more. I couldn’t figure out how to upload it.”

“Yeah,” says Kent, dumb warmth in his chest pooling in his chest. “I can send it to you.”

The silence gets a little easier.

“Sorry about, uh, your break up,” says Kent awkwardly, after a few minutes. He’s not really sorry it happened, if he’s being honest. But he is sorry if it means Jack’s hurting. Kent’s said a lot of shit over the years, but the goal was never to hurt Jack. The goal was only ever to know if Jack still fucking cared.

Not that that really excuses thing. But. Everyone has to live with themselves somehow, and Kent lives with himself in that space between his intention and the result.

“Thanks,” says Jack quietly. He’s got his eyebrows down, in his somber way, not his angry way. “I think, uh. It was for the best. We were.”

He pauses. Kent gives him the space to finish his thought, even though questions are crawling on him like ants: why’d you break up? Who broke up with who? Are you fucked up about it? How fucked up? Did you love him? It’s not like the bloodless press release they put out answered any of those questions, or offered any goddamn insight at all.

“We were in over our heads,” says Jack finally.

“Yeah, you kinda… plunged right into the deep end.”

He doesn’t like to think about his reaction to The Kiss. It’s not like Jack doesn’t have a right to date whoever he wants. It’s not like Jack didn’t have a right to kiss his boyfriend on national TV, after achieving his lifelong dream. It’s not like there wasn’t a part of Kent that was childishly, secretly thrilled at Jack’s guts.

It’s just that it should have been the two of them out there on the ice. It’s fine, though. Kent slept on his sister’s couch for awhile, went on that road trip up the California coast, saw the redwoods. Avoided the press.

Jack snorts.

“Sorry, uh, sorry if that put any pressure on you,” he says haltingly.

And, honestly, Kent’s pretty touched by that. He never expected Jack to give any thought to how his coming out would affect Kent. The fact that he has - however belated, however small - is… Well. It’s unexpected. It’s nice.

“It kinda sucked for awhile,” he says truthfully. “But.” He shrugs. “I don’t know, Zimms. People are so desperate for me to be straight that I could kiss you on the ice, and they’d still believe me if I turned around and said I wasn’t gay.”

There are all these guys who are so desperate to be him, who would no longer be able to imagine themselves as him if they knew he liked dick, as if Kent liking dick was what separated him from everyone, not his hunger, his talent, his discipline.

“You could be bi.”

“Jesus, Jack. It doesn’t make a difference to them. Don’t be fucking pe - fucking ped- ”

“Pedantic,” says Jack with a grin. Kent punches him in the thigh.

“Oooh, look who went to college.”

“Lots of guys in the league went to college.”

“Yeah, and most of them are idiots.”

Jack laughs.

“Still,” he says. “Sorry.”

Livin’ on a Prayer comes on then. Kent turns it up just to see if Jack will still sing along to it with him.

He does.

**

It starts to snow after they cross the border into Vermont. Kent’s not too concerned about it at first. Jack knows what he’s doing.

But it starts to come down thicker. It starts to stick to the road. Slowly, and then more and more quickly, the sparse other traffic on the road with them starts to disappear. Until it’s just them, moving doggedly forward, into the night. It’s creepy dark out here, the darkness a physical substance the headlights seem to push against. Kent’s not used to this kind of darkness any more. The snow only makes it worse, makes it more claustrophobic. They’re not gonna be able to see at all soon, thinks Kent in alarm.

“I didn’t think we were in the storm’s path,” says Jack, frowning.

Kent pulls up his weather app and clicks around. The blob of the storm has shifted north. The green edge of it covers them now, but, and Kent’s no meteorologist but he’s pretty sure he’s reading this right, they’ll be in its dark pink heart soon.

“Think it shifted,” says Kent. He waves his phone at Jack, not that that’s helpful. “I can try to navigate around…”

“You’re terrible at navigation,” says Jack. Kent makes a face at him.

“I was seventeen, dude. Smartphones weren’t a thing.”

Jack hums, and Kent narrows his eyes at him. Is Jack chirping him?

“Sure,” says Jack. He pulls over carefully, and then reaches out his hand for Kent’s phone.

“Whatever,” says Kent. He hands his phone over, so Jack can look at the weather blob. “I liked getting lost with you.”

Jack just hums again, and clicks around on Kent’s phone. Kent feels weirdly tense about it. It’s not like there’s anything incriminating on there. It’s not like Jack doesn’t already know the most incriminating thing about him. But he feels weirdly defensive of his phone background - Kit, wrapped in a dark blue blanket, little pink tongue sticking out - and of the last few pictures he took, all dumb selfies of him and Scraps on the bus. Those aren’t for you, he thinks at Jack. You don’t get to know these things any more.

But Jack doesn’t do anything besides click around on Google maps for a couple minutes. He shakes his head as he hands the phone back to Kent.

“I think we should just keep going,” he says. “We’re only a couple hours away.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“It’s just snow,” says Jack, with a shrug.

Famous last words, and all that. Ten minutes later, they’ve lost all visibility. But Jack keeps nosing the car forward.

“Zimms,” says Kent. “Your parents would rather you show up late than dead.”

“Be quiet, Kent,” says Jack sharply in response. He’s hunched over the steering wheel, glaring ferociously into the oncoming storm, like some kind of hilariously arrogant sitcom dad. Kent could kill the bastard.

The car starts to slide.

“Jack!” he screeches, for all the good it’s gonna do. The car jerks wildly to the left, starts to spin. Kent closes his eyes and grabs onto the edge of his seat. He sure hopes the airbags work. Jack’s cursing a river of filth in Quebecois. It’s all happening very quickly, and very slowly, like when you see a bad check coming but can’t get out of the way - and there you go, from standing to sailing, straight into the boards.

And then the pain

They whump, more gently than they have any right to, into a snowbank.

They sit there for a minute, both breathing hard. The headlights show nothing but the snow, falling thick as curtains. Then Jack turns off the ignition, and they sit in total darkness instead.

“Told you this was a bad idea,” says Kent sullenly.

“What do you want me to say to that?” says Jack. His voice is strained. “That you were right?”

Kent glares. His eyes are starting to adjust and he can make out Jack’s profile, a darker black against the blackness. It’s kind of eerie, being this close to someone and barely being able to see them.

“Maybe. Be nice of you to admit it for once.”

“Thanks, Parse. That’s really helpful,” snaps Jack.

Kent can’t help it. He starts to laugh. This whole situation is fucked. He should have stayed in Boston. He should never have left Vegas in the first place. He’d figured it would be awkward to see Jack at the party, but he didn’t think he’d end up freezing to death with the guy in Vermont. He guesses there’s a certain sick poetry to that. Every time he’s made a calculated risk involving Jack, he’s gotten burned. He’s not accounting for all the variables correctly, like the fact that the universe fucking hates him.

“Kent.” Jack’s hand lands heavily on his back. He shakes him. “Come on. Kenny. Get it together.”

“I’m going to kill you,” says Kent, into his hands. “I am literally going to murder you, Zimmermann.”

“No, you’re not,” mutters Jack. “You need me for body warmth.”

Kent sobs with laughter at that. He has to put his head in his lap, and it takes a solid minute for his laughter to subside, into gentle, hiccuping noises, until finally he stops completely. He feels lightheaded after, a little shaky.

“Are you feeling better?” says Jack, once there’s been a good ten seconds of Kent just remaining flopped over in silence.

Kent straightens up. He wipes away tears at the corner of his eyes. His stomach hurts.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

Kent slumps forward again, but slowly this time, until his forehead presses against the dashboard. He’s glad Jack can’t really see him, because even he recognizes he’s being dramatic. With the car turned off, the heat is dissipating quickly. RIP heated seats, he thinks.

“Do you have one of those survival blankets?” he asks.

“Yeah,” says Jack. “But, uh, only one.”

It takes Kent a second to process that. So that’s what Jack meant about needing his body warmth. That wasn’t just a dry-as-salt-in-your-still-vivid-wound patented Jack Zimmermannism.

“Oh,” he says. “Uh. I can probably sleep under my coat then.”

Jack makes an impatient noise.

“It can fit two people,” he says. He says this very neutrally, like there’s nothing at all awkward about the two of them sharing one blanket that’s probably, at best, meant for 1-2 medium-sized adults and not two fucking grown-ass hockey players, who also happen to be exes. Kent’s gonna write in and complain.

“It’s not like it’s that cold,” says Kent. “Right? Like it doesn’t snow this much when it’s really cold.”

Jack makes another impatient noise, half in his throat, half in his teeth.

“Parse.”

Kent gently thumps his head against the dashboard.

“Okay,” he says. His hands are already starting to get cold, so he shoves them under his thighs. He knows Jack’s right. Damn him.

**

They use their phone flashlights to dig out the blanket and shove down the back seats so the two of them will have enough space to lie down beside each other. Kent guesses he should count himself lucky that Jack drives a hockey mom SUV and not the sporty little things Kent favors. But he sure doesn’t feel very lucky.

It’s awkward work. It would be easier if they could be outside the car to do this, but they both know that’s a one-way ticket to losing all the remaining heat. They keep bumping into each other until Jack orders Kent to, “Just sit down, Kenny.”

Kent scrambles back into the passenger seat, scowling.

“Fuck you,” he says.

“Oh, real mature,” snaps Jack. “Thanks, Parson.”

“Fuck you,” repeats Kent, with more emphasis this time.

“Why are you even here?” demands Jack. “Seriously? Why did you even bother to come?”

“What?” splutters Kent. He feels ridiculous. He’s wearing his coat and hat (and Jack’s hat) and gloves and scarf, and Jack Zimmermann is blundering around on his hands and knees in the back of his fucking SUV and they’re in the middle of goddamn Vermont and they’re going to die and Jack’s mad at him when all Kent had done was try to be reasonable.

“You’ve been miserable this whole drive, Kent!”

“I wasn’t expecting to go on a fucking roadtrip with you!” Kent shouts back. “I thought I’d have to make, like, two minutes of small talk with you at most!”

“You were going to fly across the continent for two minutes of small talk?” says Jack with a disbelieving laugh. “Yeah, okay.”

I’d fly across the continent just for the chance to look at you, thinks Kent, in his miserable, desperate, pathetic heart.

“I wanted to see your parents,” he says icily. Which, at least, is also true. “I haven’t seen them in awhile.”

He adds, for good measure, “Asshole.”

Jack swings his iPhone towards him, and Kent flinches as the light strikes his eyes.

“Hey!” he says. Jack makes an apologetic noise and lowers his phone so Kent’s no longer blinded. But the light is still on him some, which means Jack is just sitting there, looking at him. What the hell is he thinking? Against the light, Kent can’t really see him at all.

“I’m sorry they stopped talking to you,” says Jack, after too long spent like that. His voice is oddly stiff, oddly formal. “I never asked them to do that.”

“Cool,” says Kent, and he kind of chokes around the word. “So they just also spontaneously decided to hate me.”

It’s not like he hasn’t wondered, over the years, if the Zimmermanns had decided en masse to cut him out of their lives, or if Alicia and Bob’s distance had just been a natural outgrowth of Kent moving on, moving away. To have it confirmed hurts more than he’d expect it to. He thought at least that bruise had healed.

“No,” says Jack quickly. “I think they just… I think they thought it would be easier on me. They were… really scared. After my overdose.”

“They weren’t the only ones,” mutters Kent, but he says it against the outpour of Jack’s words, so he’s not sure if Jack hears him.

“They never blamed you, though. And they’ve, uh, they’ve missed you, I think. You should have seen my dad’s face when I suggested he invite you.”

“You told him to invite me?” says Kent.

“Yes,” says Jack, belated.

“Why?”

Jack lowers his phone. The light bowls upward, so that Kent can make him out, grayscale and thoughtful. Jack’s forehead is drawn down, his mouth a line. His hand that isn’t holding his phone is resting on his thigh, and he keeps sweeping his thumb, up and down, up and down. Kent’s familiar with that gesture. It means Jack is barely holding it together.

“I wanted to see you,” says Jack finally. “Outside of hockey stuff, I mean.”

Kent doesn’t point out that Bad Bob’s book launch isn’t exactly “outside of hockey stuff,” but he gets what Jack means. He doesn’t say anything else, either. He just waits.

“And I… I feel bad about how I handled a lot of things with you. I guess the last couple years put a lot of things in perspective for me. I think I made you bigger in my head than you are.”

Kent’s not really sure what that means, if it’s compliment or insult, a sign of hope or one more door being shut in his face. He’s pretty sure Jack himself doesn’t know. But he thinks it is, at least, well-intentioned.

“I don’t know if you realize this,” says Kent finally, “but I am kind of a big deal.”

Jack laughs, a real, deep, hearty Jack Zimmermann laugh, the kind Kent hasn’t heard in ages, and so he has to smile, in spite of everything.

“You are,” says Jack, and there’s definitely some fondness in his voice. “I’m only winning in my fantasy league because of you.”

“I’m on your fantasy team?” says Kent.

“Well, yeah. I want to win,” says Jack, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

It’s maybe the smallest of the several realizations Jack’s just lobbed, grenade-like, right at Kent’s face, but it’s somehow the one that stuns him the most. He boggles.

“I can’t believe you’re even in a fantasy league.”

Jack shrugs. “Just with some college friends.” His mouth twists, and he adds, like he hasn’t just been trying to mend one very broken bridge, “My old team, I mean. You know. The ‘shitty’ one.”

Kent winces. He can’t say he didn’t mean it, because he had kind of meant it. Jack should have been playing with the pros. Though Kent more-or-less gets it now that Jack needed his time in the wilderness, and he’s glad Jack got it. But he also really fucking hated those guys, way more than some totally pleasant, incredibly mediocre hockey bros deserved.

He doesn’t know why he’s so terrible when it comes to Jack. Maybe it’s that he’s always gotten everything he’s worked for, except for Jack. Maybe it’s that Jack’s the only person he’s ever felt he could be his whole self with. Maybe it’s genetics; it’s not like Mom’s ever dated again. Maybe it’s just love. He looks at Jack and he sees him: awkward, anxious, moody, an emotional idiot, a terrible dresser, often selfish, sometimes cruel, and, still, he loves him. Still now, after years, after miles, still now, two hats on his head, and the snow so thick to cover sky and earth.

Kent doesn’t consider himself a particularly smart guy, but he’s sure no one’s ever been able to explain the why of love, and anyone who says they have is lying. This is the path love put him on, and it’s the path he’s been on ever since, though he’s traveled most of it alone.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” he says.

Jack looks a bit embarrassed in response, like he hadn’t actually meant to throw all that gasoline on the ground and light that match.

“We’ve both said a lot of things over the years that we shouldn’t have,” says Jack diplomatically.

“Right,” says Kent. He looks at the survival blanket, crumpled in a ball like the world’s shittiest Harry Potter invisibility cloak. “So are we gonna, uh, get some sleep or what?”

“Oh,” says Jack. He looks at the blanket and then at Kent. “I should probably call my parents first,” he says.

They trade places, more or less, Jack climbing back into the driver seat and Kent into the back to get settled in. He lies on his side, so that he’ll be facing away from Jack when Jack lies down, and drapes his coat so that he should still have some coverage if the blanket rides up. It’s not exactly comfortable. But he’s not freezing.

He shoots a text to Jessie, asking her to let his hotel know he won’t be checking in til the next night. He doesn’t respond to her answering, everything ok, boss?, just closes his eyes, and pillows his head on his arm. He’s not really tired, unfortunately. It’s just past eleven, which means, to his body, it’s only eight. He half-listens as Jack talks to his parents on the phone.

There have been a few players from Quebec on the Aces with him over the years, so he’s been able to keep up his language use a bit. He can understand enough to get the gist of what Jack’s saying. Jack’s telling them a slightly less terrifying version of the truth. He perks up a bit when he hears his name, but Jack doesn’t add anything beyond the very neutral-toned fact that Kent is there with him. If Bob and Alicia ask any follow ups, Jack doesn’t answer. Jack says good night, goes quiet. Kent has to bite back a, “Come to bed, baby.”

Eventually, Jack lumbers over and climbs awkwardly under the blanket. There’s even less space than Kent thought there would be. He moves forward a little, so that his curled knees poke out from under his coat. They shift around in muttering silence until they’re both at least mostly covered.

Kent listens to Jack breathe, and feels the way Jack’s shoulders move against his. He imagines, for a moment, that the snow will keep falling and falling and falling, until it covers Jack’s car entirely, that they’ll wake up in the morning, trapped in some blue-crystal cave. They’ll have to eat whatever they have in the car, which is probably just old protein bars and a Costco-sized container of cashews, knowing Jack, until they’re able to dig themselves out. He imagines finding that the snow has covered everything, that it’s just the two of them in all the world. He’s got faith that Jack would make an incredibly handsome and successful wilderness survivor-slash-lumberjack. Kent’s less sure what he has to offer. But he’s resourceful. He’d figure something out.

It’s not a very good fantasy, given that it involves everyone they love dying in a cataclysm of ice. But Kent’s had a long fucking day, and Jack and his big, dumb, beautiful body are lying next to him in the smothering dark. Besides, Kent’s pretty sure he’s not the only person in the world who’s ever looked at Jack and fantasized about him carefully and methodically building a cabin in the woods, just for the two of them.

So he allows himself to indulge, for a bit, in the Jack-log-cabin-snowpocalypse-survivalist scenario. Usually, when he’s trying to sleep, he thinks about hockey, because hockey’s his job and he fucking loves it and he never really stops thinking about it. But, frankly, there’s no way in hell he’d be able to keep his mind on scoring strategies for Tuesday’s game against the Flames when he’s in actual, literal, physical contact with Jack Zimmermann’s ass for the first time in years. He mentally decorates their log cabin with a bearskin rug. Jack fighting a bear and winning? Very sexy. Jack on a bearskin rug in front of a blazing fire? Even sexier.

Damn, but he wishes he had a bearskin rug and a fire right now. The blanket is warm where it covers him, but he’s quickly realizing that there are more gaps in coverage than he thought. The cold is prying its fingers into him, anyplace it can find the room.

He shivers. He can’t help it. He’s cold.

“Parse?” says Jack, with the muddled, weighted voice of the half-asleep. Oh, shit.

“Sorry,” says Kent, through gritted teeth. “Just cold.”

Jack makes a small, concerned sound next to him, and, suddenly, awfully, Jack rolls over. Jack’s chest is pressed against his back. One of Jack’s arms comes down around his side.

What the fuck?

“Hey,” says Jack, voice low and drowsy. “Stay warm.”

Kent’s fallen asleep in a lot of places, in airports, on buses, on floors, watching play-off tape, in locker rooms, on teammates’ couches. And he’s fallen asleep tucked up against Jack Zimmermann’s chest before. But not in years. Not like this. He was awake before. He’s wide awake now.

Maybe if he gets really lucky, he thinks, the car roof will collapse beneath the weight of the snow and they’ll both die.

“Kenny,” says Jack quietly, against the back of Kent’s neck. All the hair there and on Kent’s arms prickles.

Kent finds himself being rolled onto his back.

Jack hovers above him; his breath is on Kent’s face. Kent knows what this is, and it’s a bad idea.

“I’m not gonna be your rebound,” he babbles, even though he will. He will absolutely be Jack Zimmermann’s rebound. He will take Jack however he can get. He just needs the pretense. He’s gotta have a little fucking pride.

But Jack doesn’t assure him. Jack’s never known how to lie. He knows how to hide things, especially from himself. But he doesn’t know how to lie. That was always Kent’s forté. Jack just remains above Kent, his breathing seems very loud. Kent can’t even make out his face, not really, not in this darkness. Kent wishes he could, so he could see where Jack’s mouth is. So he could just kiss him, get this farce over with.

Then Jack says, “Right. Sorry,” and he rolls over onto his side.

Kent’s eyes are open. He stares at nothing for awhile. It’s not like having sex in a cramped space is that fun, anyway, he consoles himself.

He makes himself think about the Flames. Eventually, he falls asleep.

**

He wakes up, because Jack is muttering something.

“...but most of all, my father.”

He sits up slowly. His muscles feel sore and heavy, but he’s warm. Jack sits in the driver seat, in his coat and hat, looking at his phone. He left Kent covered completely by the survival blanket. Jack shuts up as soon as he hears Kent move. The upward glow from his screen washes out all the color in his face, makes his expression look haunted and gaunt.

“You all right?” asks Kent carefully.

“Yeah,” says Jack. He locks his phone, and the light goes, stranding them in the dark once more. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you up. I’m, uh. I’m supposed to give a speech at this thing.”

“You’re nervous?”

“Yeah.”

Kent’s immediate impulse is to say, why? It’s not like Jack’s got anything to worry about. Everybody in the audience is already going to be half in the sauce and happy to see him. It’s not like Bob’s book sales are going to depend on some perfunctory speech Jack delivers at the launch. It’s not like Bob even needs the book to sell that well. But Kent knows that’s not how Jack’s brain works. Jesus, does he know that’s not how Jack’s brain works.

“Do you… wanna talk about it?”

Jack lets out a long, low breath, like he’s a deflating bouncy castle. “I’m just scared I’ll disappoint him.”

That’s ridiculous, thinks Kent. But he doesn’t say it. He knows it’s not helpful to say it. He doesn’t know what to say that would be helpful. So he just scoots forward so he’s closer to the driver’s seat and then gropes around until he finds Jack’s hand. He holds it. He’s not a therapist. He doesn’t know how to fix Jack; all he knows is telling Jack he was being an idiot never worked. He’s sad, suddenly, a heavy, aching sadness. Jack’s come so far, but he still has to deal with his traitor’s brain. All Kent can do is sit with him.

“I know that’s dumb,” says Jack.

“It’s not dumb. It’s just how you feel.”

“Yeah,” says Jack. Kent squeezes his hand, because he’s not really sure what else there is to do.

He remembers that old fear: how was he gonna talk Jack down from two-thousand miles away? And then, eventually, that resentment: why did it have to be his job to talk Jack down? Well, Jack solved that one for him.

“I guess I’m just not used to giving speeches,” says Jack eventually.

“Come on,” says Kent. “You’re captain. I’m sure you’ve given enough locker room speeches at this point. Down by three and going into the third? Playoff hopes on the line?”

He presses his nose against Jack’s arm, so Jack knows he’s joking. He hopes Jack knows he’s joking.

Jack, thank god, laughs. He turns his hand so that he’s holding Kent’s back, and he squeezes gently. Kent’s gonna vibrate right out of his body.

“I remember that speech you gave,” Jack says. “In the playoffs. ‘Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?’”

Kent laughs loudly. “You mean when I stood on the locker room bench and quoted Animal House?”

Jack laughs again. Kent wishes he could record the sound of Jack’s laugh. He could play it every time he got sad. Granted, he’s normally only ever sad about Jack, so it would probably just make him sadder most of the time. But, still. It’s a nice thought.

“You know, I always had a feeling it wasn’t really FDR who said that.”

“Yeah, well,” says Kent. He’s glad there’s no possible way for Jack to see his blush. “You always were a history buff.”

Jack laughs, though more softly this time, and it seems to Kent to linger in the silence that follows.

“I broke a hockey stick once,” says Kent, because he doesn’t want them to stop talking. “In the locker room, against the Pens. Maybe you could just go up and do that. Pretty classic Bad Bob maneuver.”

“You broke a stick?”

“Yeah… We were down. Guys were panicking. I needed them to shut up and calm down. That helped with the shutting up part.”

“And the calming down part?”

“I told them I hadn’t dragged their asses to game six of the Stanley Cup Final as a rookie so they could pussy out on me now,” says Kent.

He’s kinda embarrassed by the memory. But it had worked. Half the guys had looked at him and laughed, and the other half had shut themselves up with shame. Either way, it got everyone to calm down. They went out and scored three goals, won the game, won the series two days later in Vegas. Kent doesn’t remember a lot about that whole year; it had passed by in a kind of fever dream of fury. But he remembers lifting the Cup in front of the crowd, eighteen-years-old and all his dreams come true.

It hadn’t occurred to him until much later to wonder if Jack had watched. That’s the nice thing about winning. When he’s winning, he doesn’t really think about Jack at all.

“Holy shit, Kenny.”

“You know me,” says Kent softly. “I always know the right thing to say when I’m in a tight spot.”

Jack’s quiet in response, then he says, “I shouldn’t have brought up that shitty team comment.”

Kent’s surprised. Has Jack been chewing on that this whole time?

“Zimms, it’s fine. You’re allowed to call me out on my bullshit.”

It’s not like anyone else really does any more, not since Nana Parse passed away last fall. Swoops, god love him, always backs off before he can really piss Kent off.

Jack’s silent. Then he says, very quickly and very quietly, as if the only reason he’s able to say it at all is because they’re sitting in a cramped, dark space and they almost-kinda-sorta died and even with all that, they’re still not really looking at each other, “I was an asshole, too. I shouldn’t have cut you out the way I did.”

Kent doesn’t know what to say in response. It is, on the one hand, a vindication, a victory. He’s been waiting for Jack to say something like this for eight years. But, on the other hand, it’s meaningless. It’s not like it didn’t happen. It’s not like Jack didn’t need some amount of space. It’s not like Kent would have been any good at giving him space, no matter how mature and reasonable they were about communicating. He’s sad. He’s just sad. He’s glad Jack apologized, he guesses. But it doesn’t make any of this any less fucking sad.

He knows he needs to apologize, too, if only because he knows Jack’s expecting it. He just wishes he knew which parts Jack wants an apology for.

But that’s not how this should go, he tells himself. They’re not gonna get anywhere if he tells Jack what he thinks Jack wants to hear. He can only apologize for the shit he actually feels bad about.

“Thanks,” he says awkwardly. “And I’m... Sorry I didn’t know how to help. I’m sorry I made things worse.”

Jack sighs. “Parse… Most of the ways you made things worse weren’t your fault.”

Kent snorts. “And sometimes I was an absolute shithead, Jack. Come on.”

He crosses his arms over his chest and tucks his hands into his armpits, as much to create a defensive barrier between him and Jack as to keep himself warm.

“I was jealous,” he adds, grudgingly.

“Jealous? Of me? For what?”

“Not of you,” says Kent, though there have been times when, yeah, he was jealous of Jack: of his family, of his talent, of the way people seem to take a shine to Jack without Jack ever actually having to do that much. But those are also all things that made Kent like him more. “Of the people around you. The people who got to care about you.”

That’s the bitch of it. You don’t get a prize for loving someone best or loving them most or loving them first. You’re not even guaranteed to get their love in return, and the first and hardest lesson of love is letting go. That’s what Kent tells himself, at least. Love isn’t hockey. It’s not even close.

“Kenny,” says Jack, in an awful, pitying voice, as if Kent just told him he had cancer or something equally terrible, something actually sad.

“Whatever,” says Kent defensively. His throat feels thick, and he’s definitely got some tears at the corners of his eyes. He wipes at them, grateful again that Jack can’t see his face.

“Did I ever tell you about that peewee team I coached?” says Jack abruptly.

“No,” says Kent. He has to fight to keep the petulance out of his voice. He knew, vaguely, that Jack coached some kids for a bit. But when exactly would Jack have told him about it, huh?

“It was nice,” says Jack.

Kent waits for more. It doesn’t come.

“Cool,” he says. “Good talk, Zimms.”

There’s a creaking noise, and Kent realizes Jack is moving, is rejoining him in the back. Kent scoots backward. Jack turns his phone light back on and looks at him. It makes Kent feel, a little bit, like a raccoon that’s just had the porch lights turned on and been found in the trash. He must look like a vagrant, huddled up as he is in the blanket. Kent kind of wants to bare his teeth at Jack and hiss, if he’s being honest.

So he hisses.

Jack pauses, and then he laughs.

“God,” he says, head cocked, clearly charmed. “You’re weird.”

Kent beams kind of smugly. It’s one of the things he misses about Jack, that Kent could be weird around him, that he didn’t have to be a Hockey Robot 2.0, now with new and improved interface.

Jack sits next to Kent.

“Aren’t you cold?” asks Kent.

“Yes,” says Jack, and Kent finds himself being manhandled by Jack once more, pulled against his side.

Jack goes to Facebook - through the browser app on his phone; he doesn’t even use the Facebook app, goddammit Jack - and finds a photo album there. He pulls it up.

“The peewee team I coached,” he explains, as he starts flicking through the photos. There are some portraits, some action shots. It’s kind of sweet; it’s like stills from an inspiring sports movie aimed at eight-year-olds.

“They’re cute,” says Kent, because they are. He likes kids, likes that he’s in a job where he can be a hero to a lot of them.

Jack pauses on one photo. It’s of a gap-toothed little girl, her hair in two big poufs on the side of her head.

“This is Trisha. She kind of reminded me of you,” says Jack. “You could tell the whole team thought she was cool.”

“I am cool,” mutters Kent.

“She made me use Baby Shark as her goal song. There was a whole dance I had to do with her.”

“Oh my god,” says Kent, cracking up at the mental image. “What a legend.”

Jack laughs softly. Kent feels it more than he hears it. He stays like that, tucked against Jack’s side, and listens to Jack talk about his peewee team, until he falls asleep.

**

When they wake up, the road’s been cleared and salted. The sun is shining, and the way it reflects off the snow is blinding. Kent has to give Jack his sunglasses so the idiot can see well enough to drive.

“You’re gonna get cataracts,” he mutters, as he flips his snapback around and pulls it low over his eyes.

The Mounty at border security clearly recognizes them. He takes a long moment to examine both their passports, and Kent can see him winding up to make some kinda crack. He braces for it. How the fuck has Jack lived like this for over a year? Always waiting for the little reminder: you don't belong here. You don't deserve this. Smile, smirk, snarl, sneer: you shouldn't exist.

But the guy just raises an eyebrow and says evenly, "Shame about the Olympics, eh?"

Jack chuckles and takes their passports back.

“Sure is. I’m hoping to get called up for the World Cup, though,” he says.

“You will,” says the guard confidently. Kent sinks back into his seat. “You boys have a good one.”

“You, too,” says Jack, and then they’re free, soaring forward into the great white north.

Maybe Jack just doesn’t think about that kind of shit. Maybe he’s spent all his life telling himself people are already thinking and saying the worst about him that there’s no more room to be worried. Maybe he just lacks the social awareness to realize that someone might try to take a shot at him for being gay.

Maybe he really is better than he used to be.

It’s not far to Montreal from the border. They pass through all the little towns, named after saints, and Kent keeps his hands in his lap and resists the urge to put one on Jack’s knee. The world is white and silent, mainly farmland. Smoke drifts up from the houses they pass, and, occasionally, he sees a couple dark-suited cross-country skiers, pushing their way against the forbidding cold of the landscape.

“Bet you don’t see a lot of those out west,” says Jack.

“Not really,” says Kent. “But there’s great downhill skiing in Utah. It’s a pretty short flight from Vegas.”

He’d never gone skiing until the Zimmermanns took him. Mainly he remembers being too proud to learn on the bunny slope - especially in front of Jack, who skii’d the same way he skated, like he was born for it. He remembers tumbling downhill, the sickening whirl of sky and snow, sky and snow as he fell, his face battered with cold and pain. And then just lying there, winded, skiis broken, and Jack’s face crashing across his vision, terrified.

“Hey. You remember that time - ”

“Yes,” says Jack. “I was sure you’d broken something.” He shakes his head. “And the season would be over.”

Kent bites back the impulse to say, ‘You would have been fine. You didn’t need me.’ It’s pathetic, for one, and, for two, it’s not true. The team needed him, and Jack needed him. They wouldn’t have made it half as far alone.

“That’s the Zimms I know. Always worried about hockey first.”

Agitation flickers across Jack’s face.

“I was worried about you,” he says.

Kent doesn’t say anything. He knows Jack is right. Jack had dragged him inside and shoved him into a seat by the fire and brought him cocoa like the world’s most hostile waiter, until Kent, laughing, managed to convince Jack he was fine and that they should go back outside.

He didn’t touch the skis for the rest of that day, but he did lure Jack into a snowball fight. Jack ended up tackling him to the ground. Kent remembers laughing, the solid weight of Jack’s body, Jack laughing, too, the snow in his hair and in his eyes, down the back of his jacket, laughing, both of them, until they shook themselves apart.

The thought had popped into his head then: he could die happy, right in that moment. He really could have died happy.

There have been a few times, not all of them with Jack even, where Kent’s had that thought. That if he died right then, he’d die the happiest person alive. He thinks that’s pretty lucky. He doesn’t think a lot of people ever get to feel that way. Not even once, not even at all.