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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.

Chapter Text

“Kent,” says Alicia warmly, when they finally, finally arrive. “It’s so good to see you.”

She embraces him. She smells the same. She must still wear the same perfume, clean and herbal, but not antiseptic, not cold, but graceful and refined, mint leaves and good china and gentle laughter from the garden. Kent bought his mom perfume - price tag that made him vaguely nauseated - with one of his first paychecks, and she’d laughed herself silly, said, “When the hell am I gonna wear this, baby?”

He feels crazy suddenly, like he’s on the verge of weeping, when he smells Alicia’s perfume. The thing is, Kent is fine. He plays great hockey and he has good friends and a perfect cat and a penthouse apartment that he can see the mountains from. He eats well. He sleeps enough. He’s paid for his mom’s house, his sister’s college. He goes hiking. He collects snapbacks and fast cars. Carly Rae Jepsen and David Beckham follow him on Instagram. He’s met Obama. Twice! There are whole months, sometimes even strung together, where he doesn’t think about Jack Zimmermann at all.

But he’s sixteen again, suddenly, in this entryway for the first time, in love with Jack, in love with his family, in love with hockey, in love with the entire goddamn country of Canada, and Jack is holding his arm shyly and Jack is saying, “This is my teammate, Kenny. The one I told you about?”

Well, hockey still loves him back, at least.

Alicia lets go, and Bob steps in, one hand on Kent’s forearm, one wrapped firmly just above Kent’s elbow. He shakes Kent’s whole arm, once, twice.

“You looked great against the Kings last week,” he says. He beams his approval.

“I’ve got a great team behind me,” says Kent automatically. He really could cry right now.

“We’ve had a long night,” says Jack apologetically. His hand is on Kent’s back. “I’m gonna get Parse set up in a room.”

Kent actually has a hotel room. A hotel room that he was supposed to check in to last night, where he should probably go instead. Where he should definitely go instead.

But he lets Jack lead him up, to the second floor guest room, as if he really were a family friend, come from very far away. Alicia’s redecorated. It used to be green; it’s done up in blues and grays now. Falcs colors, Kent realizes, but tasteful.

“Do you need anything?” asks Jack, almost shyly. He’s standing in the doorway, his forearms braced against the frame. It’s a stance that makes it very clear how broad across Jack is. Kent stares at his chest. At least he’ll always have the mental image of Jack’s pecs straining his shirt.

“I’m good,” says Kent.

“All right. You know where I am if you need anything,” says Jack.

Kent nods. He’s made the walk from this room to Jack’s a dozen times and more. He could do it in the dark. He has. Jack nods back, leaves.

Kent falls face-forward onto the bed. It’s fine, because there’s no one around to see him being dramatic. And, after a totally respectable amount of time spent feeling sorry for himself, he takes a nap.

**

Jack wakes him up with a hard knock on the door and a cup of coffee.

“Up, Parse,” he says.

“Your wake ups are getting nicer,” says Kent, accepting the mug graciously. His eyes feel sleep-sticky, and his hair is definitely doing something humiliating. But Jack just kind of smiles at him, until Kent has to look away.

“I only pushed you out of bed once,” says Jack.

“Yeah, but you never once brought me coffee.”

“You never needed it,” says Jack. He sits on the edge of Kent’s bed, and Kent feels his body dip towards him, like some kind of fucking metaphor. He sits up straighter, so his back is more firmly pressed against the headboard.

Kent yawns. He has no idea what time it is. It seems like it’s dark outside; though it’s hard to tell, given the quality of the Zimmermanns’ curtains. And even if he could tell if it were dark, it’s January in Canada. It could be 5pm or midnight.

It could be 2008, thinks Kent. He wraps his hand around the mug and tries to figure out if he remembers it.

“There’s pizza in the kitchen, if you’re hungry,” says Jack uncertainly. Kent realizes he never responded, which is typically a Zimms move, not responding. “And there’s an ironing board downstairs, if you need it.”

That’s thoughtful, thinks Kent. So it was probably Alicia who thought it. He sneers at Jack.

“Pizza? Dude, it’s mid-season.”

“My dad’s gotten really into his new pizza oven,” Jack says, little bit of apology to his eyes.

“Of course he has,” says Kent, with a laugh. “Does he still have that, uh, sous vide thing?”

“The precision cooker? Yeah,” says Jack, also with a laugh. “He does. But I don’t think he’s used it in ages. Bittle…” Jack pauses, and his smile goes shaky but stays. “Bittle was really excited about it, though.”

Kent nods. He takes a long sip of his coffee. Jack’s made it with milk and at least a couple sugars, which is how Kent took it, the few times he drank coffee back in the Q. So that’s nice, he guesses. It’s a little sweet for him now.

“Do you still talk to him?” he asks.

“To Bittle? Yeah, we’re on a groupchat together. We’re still friends.”

So Jack’s not that fucked up about the kid, thinks Kent. He can’t decide how he feels about that.

“Cool,” he says. He tilts his head back and finishes the coffee quickly, sets the mug firmly down. “Shower still in the same place?”

Jack blinks at him. “Yeah, uh, down - ”

“Cool,” says Kent, and he’s out of the room before Jack’s able to finish the sentence. He knows where the fucking bathroom is, Jack.

He’s successfully able to avoid Jack as he gets ready. When he’s done, he wanders into the Zimmermanns’ dining room. Kent always called it the fancy dining room in his head, because, as far as he can tell, the Zimmermanns only ever used it for holiday dinners and special guests, preferring instead to eat most of the time in the breakfast nook in their kitchen. But Kent loves this room; he always has. Floor to ceiling windows run all along one wall - an incredible expense, Kent always thought, in a climate as cold as this one. The windows look out onto the broad expanse of the back lawn, which is gleaming green in the summer and gleaming white now. At the edge of the lawn is a pond, that he and Jack would play one-on-one against each other on sometimes, and beyond that, there’s a dense, dark fringe of pine trees. They stand brooding in the blue twilight, as night seems to sweep forward from them.

On some mornings when Kent was visiting, especially in the summer, he and Jack would get up early to practice or work out. Once or twice, they spotted deer shy-faced and thin-legged, stepping delicately onto the lawn from the dawn-long shadows of the trees. Jack said they were pests, but Kent always thought they were kind of beautiful.

“Kent?” calls Jack quietly from behind him. “Are you ready to go?”

Kent turns. Jack’s a shadow-shape standing in the doorway to the kitchen, backlit by a golden light.

Kent feels like he’s slipped into some kind of strange, alternate universe, where the future turned out like he’d hoped it would. Here they are - together, successful - in this house that Kent loves, headed out for the evening.

“Yeah,” he says. He puts on a smile. “I’ve just been waiting for you.”

**

Kent’s pretty sure most book launches happen in bookstores and not in the grand ballroom of a five-star hotel, but he’s also pretty sure Bob’s less interested in moving product and more interested in throwing a big party that he can invite all his hockey buddies to.

They’re the first people there, besides Bob and Alicia, and Bob’s publicist, and his editor, and the party planner, and the caterers. So they’re the first guests there, though Kent’s not entirely sure if Jack counts as a guest. But Kent sure as hell doesn’t count as family.

Bob and Alicia both have their hands full, so Jack and Kent grab a flute of champagne each. Kent bites back the question he wants to throw at Jack, ‘You drinking?’, but he does look at the champagne a little too long because Jack lets out a low, disgruntled breath.

“It’s just one drink, Parse,” he says. “I’m okay with a drink.”

“Yeah? That what you tell your teammates?”

Jack grimaces.

“Kent,” he says, voice low, a warning.

“I didn’t say anything!” says Kent.

“Okay,” says Jack.

Kent scowls at the floor. Party’s off to a great start. The thing is - the thing that Jack doesn’t seem to get - is that Kent gets it. He gets it. Jack almost died. Jack lost six years of his hockey career. It was all much worse for Jack.

But Kent’s the one who found him.

He tells himself, if you put a bunch of kids in the middle of fucking nowhere without their parents and make them kind of famous, they’re going to drink. A lot. And they’re going to do more than drink; Jack wasn’t the only one getting pills shoved at him. So can Kent blame himself because he didn’t realize it was different for Jack?

He tells himself, Jack’s not the only one who ended up with problems. He’s just the only one famous enough for people to care about. Hell, Vitz ended up in the hospital for a week last year when he ran his truck off the road after a bender. Does Jack even know that? Has Jack kept up with any of the guys?

He tells himself, they were all always a team but it was also always each man for himself. Kent knew he was going to make it big, but he’s self-aware enough to realize a lot of the other guys thought that way, too. And they’re still nowhere, and they’re still no one. Kent got himself out. He didn’t realize he was responsible for Jack, too.

He tells himself all of this, and he knows it’s all true. But he doesn’t believe it.

He doesn’t say any of this, and Jack doesn’t say anything at all. So the past just sits between them. Kent took his whole family - grandma, mom, sister, cousins, aunt - to Hawaii a few summers back. It was their last big trip before Nana passed. They’d gone to an active lava field, where the land has never really healed, where it’s constantly splitting itself open anew. They’re a little like that, him and Zimms.

Jack looks at him, long-faced and plaintive. Like a sad horse.

“Can we just drop it?” he asks. “For tonight?”

He says “for tonight” as if there’s going to be another time when the two of them can sit down and hash out how angry Kent gets to be at Jack for his addiction, and how angry Jack gets to be at Kent for caring. Or “making it all about himself,” as Jack would probably call it.

He says “for tonight” as if the past 24 hours haven’t been some kind of bizarre aberration where they actually speak to each other.

“Sure, Zimms,” says Kent, mocking edge to his voice that he’s not able to keep out. “For tonight.”

Jack gives him the sad-horse look again, and Kent ignores him. He’s itching to take his phone out, so he can talk to his friends and remind himself his life isn’t entirely tied up in Jack’s any more. But that’s more rude than he’s willing to be at the moment, so they just stand there.

He used to really be able to crack Jack up at this kind of party, he thinks sadly.

Guests start to show, and Bob finally starts making the round. He hits up Jack and Kent first. Kent’s hideously grateful for the social lifeline.

“Take my picture with your dad,” says Kent, after Bob’s thanked him again for coming. He hands Jack his phone.

“Oh no,” says Bob, smiling. “Now you’ve done it.”

“What have I done?” asks Kent, smiling, too, all charm. Everything’s fine. He’s just happy to be here.

Bob shakes his head. “Jack takes his photography very seriously.”

“Jack takes everything seriously,” says Kent.

“Says the man who coordinates his ball caps with his shoes,” mutters Jack.

Kent laughs, surprised and sharp and secretly pleased.

“Didn’t know you were paying that much attention, Zimms.”

Bob coughs discreetly. “The photo?” he says. He smiles at them both, brows quizzical, bemused.

True to Bob’s prediction, Jack is deeply anal about the picture taking. Kent’s had professional photoshoots where he felt less prodded.

“Jesus, Jack,” says Kent, when he finally gets his phone back. He flicks through the photos. There’s like twenty of them. But they do look good.

“Now let me take one of you two,” says Bob, all dadlike.

“That’s okay,” says Kent quickly. “This is your party, Mr. Z.”

“And I insist,” says Bob patiently. “And since it’s my party, it’s my rules. Sorry, Parser.”

“Well,” says Kent. He makes himself smile, so Jack won’t think Kent doesn’t want their picture taken and freak out. “If you insist.”

He and Jack shuffle together awkwardly. Jack’s arm goes up, briefly, to Kent’s waist, and then drops, and then up again, as his hand brushes Kent’s thigh, to settle around Kent’s shoulders.

Get it together, Zimmermann, thinks Kent, through the gritted teeth of his smile. He puts his arm around Jack’s waist.

Bob snaps two photos, and then hands the phone over. Kent disentangles from Jack quickly.

Bob pats Kent on the shoulder.

“I’m glad you could make it, Kent,” he says. He glances at Jack then, and his gaze lingers, thoughtful, before he directs it back to Kent. He smiles fondly. “Keep in touch, eh?”

Kent nods, and Bob walks away. He’s a classy dude, Bad Bob Zimmermann, especially for a guy whose second most popular Youtube video is a compilation of every time he knocked a tooth out of some poor fucker’s head. It’s kinda sweet how the whole damn family seems to think they can just ignore the last eight years, thinks they can just wrap Kent up again in their wealth, their warmth, their looks, their charm. Honestly, they probably can. Kent’s probably still stupid enough to fall for it.

Kent looks at the photo Bob took of him and Jack. It doesn’t look that bad, actually. He looks at photos of the two of them sometimes, from the Q. They’re both skinny and hungry and young, really fucking young, and they’d neither of them realized that at the time. Jack, especially, looks young in those photos, his body turned inward on itself, hunched and defensive. But Jack’s posture here is easy and open. He’s straight-shouldered and handsome and tall, and he’s looking at the camera. He’s looking at the camera, not at Kent.

“Let me see,” says Jack, his hand suddenly on Kent’s elbow, head bowed to get a better view of Kent’s phone.

“That’s not so bad,” says Jack. Kent glances at him; Jack really does look pleased.

“Even though he didn’t take a million fucking years to take it?” Kent asks.

Jack grins sheepishly.

“I wanted to make sure you looked good,” he says. “I know how vain you are.”

“It’d offend God if I weren’t vain, Zimms. I’ve gotta admire his handiwork.”

Jack laughs, and Kent’s pretty sure if he were wearing a snapback, he’d be getting it shoved down over his eyes. But Jack has to settle for knocking him with his shoulder.

“You’re ridiculous,” says Jack, fond. Kent beams back at him, mind gone silly. He’s glad Swoops and Scraps are far, far away from this, so neither can spam him with a million heart-eye emojis at the sight of his face.

“Jack!” booms a voice from behind them. “Is that you, kiddo?”

Kent jerks away from Jack, and Jack turns. The man who greeted Jack is well past six-foot and portly, has a graying head of auburn curls. Kent doesn’t place him until Jack says his name.

“Oggy!” says Jack, smiling. “Hey, it’s good to see you.”

And, oh, right, this is Jim Oglesby, one of Bad Bob’s many multiple Stanley Cup winning teammates, and most famous for literally having a game three winning goal scored for the Red Wings by getting the puck bounced off his head.

Oggy does a double-take when he looks at Kent.

“And Kent Parson!” he says. He’s got a jolly, round voice, full of bass. He’d make a helluva mall Santa.

“The one and only,” says Kent. He offers his hand and shakes Oggy’s firmly. He used to make Jack practice handshakes with him on the bus, and he considers it time well-spent. “It’s good to meet you. My dad was a big Red Wings fan.”

He doesn’t know, strictly speaking, if that’s true. Mom can never remember which teams Dad liked. But it’s not like he knows it’s false, and it always works on old-timers. Sure enough, Oggy booms a laugh.

“A man of excellent taste,” he says. “You know...” He chuckles. “I really thought you were Jack’s date.”

“Oh,” starts Kent, with an easy laugh, meant to smooth over any embarrassment, but Oggy talks right over him.

“Unless you are,” he says, eyebrows going together. “Not like there’s anything wrong with that. You two would - ”

“We played together,” blurts out Kent, loud enough that Oggy’s able to process that he’s spoken.

Oggy frowns at him.

“In the Q,” clarifies Kent. “That’s why I’m here. Family friend? I used to stay with the Zimmermanns sometimes.”

“That’s right,” says Oggy. “Huh. I forgot about that. Was it the two of you who won the Memorial Cup together?”

“Yes,” says Kent faintly. “Yeah. That was us.”

It makes sense that Oggy doesn’t remember they won the Memorial Cup together. That was almost ten years ago, and the players and the years must blur together. There may even come a time in Kent’s life when he’s not sure what year he won what, who was on his team with him when. But it feels obscene, somehow, for someone - especially a hockey someone! - to have so casual an acquaintance with one of the most important periods of Kent’s life.

If nothing else ever comes out of this thing between him and Jack, people should at least remember they played amazing hockey together. Kent still has dreams where they’re on the ice. Playing with Jack was like playing with an extension of his soul.

If he ever does write a memoir, he’s going to have to figure out a way to say that without sounding completely insane.

Jack’s face is bright pink. “Yeah. Parse - My dad invited him. We’re not - Kenny’s not -”

“I only date guys with at least two Stanley Cup rings,” says Kent dryly, smoothly, smiling.

Oggy laughs heartily at that. Kent takes a sip of his champagne.

“You’re a funny guy, Parson,” says Oggy. He nods at Kent. “Good for you supporting your friend,” he says. “Back in my day, if a player had come out…” He shakes his head. “Well, I don’t know if we would’ve been as supportive. But that just goes to show you, eh? The world moves on. Probably for the better.”

“I’ll drink to that,” says Kent amiably. He can’t look at Jack because he’s pretty sure if they make eye contact, he’ll laugh, or cry, or both.

Oggy lifts his beer in acknowledgment, and then thumps Kent heartily on the shoulder. There’s a pause, and then he claps Jack on the shoulder, too. Jack looks woeful, stricken and pinch-faced, but he manages a quick, tight smile.

“Thank you for coming,” he says. “I know it means a lot to my father that you’re here.”

“You know me, just happy to be invited,” says Oggy. He clasps Kent on the shoulder one more time. “Good luck this season, both of you.”

With that, he trundles off towards a caterer serving tiny steak sandwiches. Kent presses his lips firmly together to keep from laughing hysterically.

“Sorry about that,” says Jack quietly.

“It’s okay,” says Kent. He’s had a lot of practice, over the last year and a half, of deflecting questions about his sexuality. He likes to think he’s gotten pretty good at it.

“Have you thought about…” Jack trails off. He doesn’t need to finish for Kent to understand what he means.

“Yeah,” says Kent wearily. “I’ve thought about it.”

He knows it would help Jack, to not be so alone. And he knows it would help kids like he and Jack were, once. And he knows he’s a big enough name to get away with it without it really hurting his career. Aces’ management would swallow broken glass before they got rid of him.

But, at the same time, he doesn’t want to. It’s not like he’s ashamed, exactly. He just doesn’t see the point of doing something that’ll only open himself up to pain.

He doesn’t want to be the world’s best openly gay hockey player. He wants to be the world’s best hockey player, period.

He’s grateful Jack doesn’t press him on it.

Kent can maybe fault Jack for how he came out, but he can’t fault him for doing it. He’s kind of glad Jack did it. It was always going to take someone like Jack - a legacy, a phenomenal player - to move the conversation forward. Who knows, maybe that weight was what almost drowned Jack in the first place. But he’s here now. He made it onto dry land.

“Do you regret it?” Kent asks.

Jack’s quiet, then he says, “I don’t think so. I don’t know. Maybe if I’d thought about it I would have done it differently, and I’m… I’m sad about how things turned out with Bittle, even if it was for the best. But.” He shrugs. “I feel like everything I was scared of happened, but I’m still here. Somehow.”

“People haven’t been total assholes about it?”

Jack shrugs. He smiles in a tired way that makes Kent - ridiculously, painfully - want to hold his hand.

“Some people have. But… I don’t know. I’ve had guys telling me for years to finish the job and slit my wrists, so it doesn’t really matter if they also call me a…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but Kent flinches anyway. It’s weird how words, even in silence, can carry that much power.

“That’s pretty dark,” says Kent.

“You know me,” says Jack.

Kent has to laugh a little at that. He gestures around the room.

“What do you think you’re like?” he asks. “In the world where Bob stayed in Roberval and became, like, a fucking ice fisherman?”

The obvious answer is Jack just wouldn’t exist. It’s not like famous American supermodel-slash-actress Alicia Dering wouldn’t have fallen in love with a gruff and handsome Canadian ice fisherman on principle. It’s just incredibly unlikely they ever would have met. But Jack takes the question in the spirit it’s offered.

“I don’t think I’d be happier, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t think that’s how this works.” He looks thoughtfully at the large posters of Bob’s book, mounted on the stage. “I’d probably just have anxiety about not catching as many fish as him.”

Kent laughs loudly, and Jack smiles a little, just the corners, something small and pleased, the way he always did when he surprised Kent into laughing.

“So no regrets?” Kent asks. He keeps his voice light.

Jack gives him a serious look, way more serious than Kent wants the moment to be, even though the question trying to claw its way out of his throat is: do you regret me?

“One or two. You?”

Does he regret Jack? He doesn’t know. He might have just made himself sick with love over some other boy. He might just be walking around with a hole inside him and no way to fill it. He might be happier, but, he’s already happy now. At least, he is enough of the time that he doesn’t feel like he’s been cheated of anything. He could be happier. Who couldn’t? He could have gone to the Islanders; he still would have won a Stanley Cup. He makes his own luck, and it’s been good more times than it hasn’t. Jack doesn’t have anything to do with that, at least.

Kent shrugs. He’s practiced this, too, so he knows how casual it looks, how dismissive.

“One or two. Maybe.”

Jack smiles faintly, a little cynically.

“Yeah? Like what?”

Kent shoots him a dirty look.

“Oh, come on.”

“It’s a perfectly innocent question!”

“It’s not and you know it,” snaps Kent. He crosses his arms haughtily. He hates how easy it is, still, for Jack to make him look and feel completely uncool.

You want to know what he regrets, Jack? That he didn’t do more. That he was cruel after. That people were even crueler than Kent was. That Kent has no way to stop Jack from getting hurt again. That it’s still hard for him to not be angry at Jack, even now.

Jack shakes his head. “I was just curious.”

“You’re just gonna have to wait for my memoir,” says Kent.

“I thought you weren’t writing one,” says Jack. His eyes are bright, amused, and Kent’s anger is gone as sudden as it came, replaced only with the desire to make Jack laugh.

“Changed my mind. I didn’t realize just how swanky a party I’d get out of it. Who’s your dad’s ghostwriter?”

“What makes you think he didn’t write it himself?”

“Zimms, please.”

“You haven’t even read it yet, Parse,” says Jack. His mouth can’t keep his smile down. “How can you tell he didn’t write it?”

Kent sighs. “Come on, Zimms. You know I can’t read.”

Jack laughs.

They go on in that vein. Kent keeps expecting Jack to wander off. It’s not like they came to the party together, even if they literally did come to the party together. They’ve had more interaction in the last 24 hours than they have in the past eight years, so Kent’s not really sure how he ended up as Jack’s date to this damn thing. It would make sense for Jack to wander off. He’s known most of these guys since he was a baby, all bug-eyed and pooping in trophies.

But Jack doesn’t leave. He sticks to Kent’s side.

He guesses he could wander off himself; there are plenty of old fogies in this room Kent’d be happy to talk to and who are probably salivating at the chance to talk shop with Kent, give him a few pointers, so they can feel like they’re still in it. Of course, Kent doesn’t move either.

Eventually, Jack checks the time, then nods towards the stage.

“I’m up,” he says.

Kent lifts his glass. “Knock ‘em dead.”

**

Jack’s delivery is a little halting, a little unsure. He reads most of the speech straight from his cards. But he doesn’t fuck it up, and his voice is strong enough to hear from the back of the crowd, where Kent has drifted back to watch him. As expected, the crowd cheers heartily. They’re all, like Oggy, just happy to be invited.

Kent half-wishes he could slip away, out the door, hail a cab, go to the airport, go home. They’ve reached a rapport, an understanding. He doesn’t think Jack hates him any more. It could be the end of the movie - and they parted on good terms and they never spoke again. Roll credits, no epilogue. He doesn’t have to keep subjecting himself to this. Maybe if Jack were still seeing someone, Kent could do that, he could leave. He could give his blessing and say farewell.

But hope has carved out a home inside him. So he stays. His champagne’s gotten warm.

Jack finds his way to him afterward. Kent watches his progress. It takes Jack almost twenty minutes; Bob’s friends keep stopping him to chat. Every time, Jack glances up, towards Kent, as if to reassure himself Kent’s still there. Every time, Kent meets his eyes and smiles. He’s waited this long, hasn’t he?

Jack doesn’t move gracefully. He never has, off the ice. But he moves with purpose and with his head up, and he didn’t used to do that. And when someone new stops him to talk, he meets their eyes and smiles, and he didn’t used to do that, either.

“I need some air,” says Jack, when he finally reaches Kent. Jack’s loosened his tie, and his hair is sticking up a little from where he ran his hand through it. He’s charming when he’s disheveled.

“Sounds good,” says Kent.

He turns and leads the way to a side balcony he spotted when they first got to the party. It’s still an instinct, even now, to look for private spaces where Jack can calm down. Jack’s in him the way ivy gets into a wall.

It’s a good clean, cold that hits them, like when you first step onto the ice in an empty rink. Kent turns and smiles at Jack. He’s been smiling for awhile now. He reaches over and tugs Jack’s tie free entirely. It’s silky on his palm, and his knuckles brush against the bare skin of Jack’s throat. It sends a little jolt through Kent, like a hiccup. He snatches his hand away and shoves it in his pocket, taking the tie with him. Oh well. After all this, he deserves a fucking souvenir. He’ll think of it as a medal.

Jack laughs a little, just a gust of breath.

“I like that tie,” he protests, but his voice is mild.

Kent leans back against the balcony and smiles full blast. Jack looks temporarily stunned, so Kent knows the smile worked. He’s glad his smile still works on Jack same as it works on everyone else.

“I’ll buy you a new one, babe.”

Jack snorts. He glances at Kent, from the corner of his eye, as if he’s trying to figure out if it’s safe to look at him again. It is. Kent’s dimmed the voltage, though the smile lingers. Kent doesn’t think he could get rid of it if he tried, not right now.

Kent studies him so he’ll remember Jack like this: collar open, eyes on Kent, blue light of night making even the hard, sharp planes of Jack’s face soft with shadow. He wants to remember this: the lines of Jack’s throat and his shoulders, the curve of his mouth, smiling, the curve of his hand, cupped comfortably around his glass, music behind Jack, stars and snow and city ahead. If Kent turns, he’ll see the skyline. He’s not going to turn.

“Why are you looking at me like that?’ says Jack. He scrunches his nose, like a little kid.

Kent shrugs. “I’m proud of you.”

“It was a two-minute speech, Parse,” says Jack, but his ears have gone pink.

Kent’s heart twists with fondness. “Yeah, but it was a damn good two-minute speech.”

Jack shakes his head, but the pink has spread to his cheeks. They both look at their drinks. Jack’s switched to water.

“It’s not just the speech,” says Kent tentatively.

“Yeah,” says Jack. “I know. Thanks.”

Kent nods. He lapses back into silence. He knows better than to press it. The moment’s passed, but Kent folds the memory and puts it carefully away, where he keeps all the others. Jack comes to stand beside him.

Just their elbows touch, as they rest on the railing. But even that’s enough to send a skittering wave of electricity up Kent’s arm, down his spine. He keeps thinking about Jack’s breath on his face, last night, in the car, about Jack’s body above his.

Jack clears his throat.

“I’m proud of you, too,” he says.

Kent laughs. “Yeah. Okay, Zimms.”

“I mean it,” says Jack, serious and low. He turns to face Kent, and Kent’s too much of a sucker not to turn, too. Jack frowns down at him. “Really.”

The frown breaks, and Jack smiles, soft and fond and sincere. Jesus, Kent always loved his sincerity. Jack never had a feeling that didn’t worm its way to light - whether Jack wanted it to or not.

“You’re amazing, Kenny. You always have been.”

Kent’s face burns. It’s not like he hasn’t heard variations on that sentiment for his entire life. He’s a great hockey player. He knows that about himself. He doesn’t need Jack to validate that for him. He doesn’t need anyone to validate that for him.

But this feels like the first time Jack’s been able to express that sentiment that without resentment. Kent’s wished, off and on over the years, that he noticed in time how jealousy squatted in Jack’s chest and ate his heart whole. But he doesn’t know what he could have done about it. He wouldn’t have stopped loving Jack. He wouldn’t have played worse.

“Well.” Kent breathes in deeply, smiles honestly. “Thanks.”

Jack keeps smiling at him, and it’s fucking painful. Longing splits him open, curling up from under his ribs, as if he keeps a toxic store of need there that’s punctured as soon as Jack looks at him for more than half a second. He’ll choke on it; he really will.

“Something on my face?” says Kent. It’s that or, ‘take a picture; it lasts longer.’ It’s not like he can keep his eyes off Jack, either, but at least they both know why.

“No,” says Jack somberly, like it was a serious question and not just some bullshit Kent said to make Jack stop looking at him like that.

“Then take a pic - ”

Kent goes quiet as Jack reaches forward and takes his champagne flute away from him.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

Jack ignores him. He sets Kent’s glass gently on the ground, to the side, along with his own. Then he straightens up and looks at Kent, smiles a little apologetically.

“Just didn’t want to knock them over.”

“Why were you gonna knock them over?” says Kent blankly. He knows what this means - or, historically, he has known what this kind of behavior means, that Jack is about to do something disgustingly swoon-worthy. But that’s not -

“You’re not a rebound,” says Jack.

“What?” says Kent.

Jack steps forward. Kent steps back. His back hits the railing. He’d always kind of hoped he’d catch Jack in height, but that never happened, and the fact of it is suddenly obnoxiously obvious as Jack looks down at him. His arms bracket Kent’s waist.

“I mean it, Kenny,” he says. “You’re not a rebound. I don’t want you to think you’re just a rebound.”

Jack’s words hit him in the chest like 200 pounds of Russian enforcer.

“What?” he says, when he gets his breath back.

“You’re not a rebound,” says Jack again, slow and patient, as if that actually fucking illuminates anything.

“So what am I?” says Kent. His voice goes high. Really high. Embarrassingly high. It cracks a bit on I. “What the hell is happening?”

Jack just looks at him. He has that look on his face - that soft, mournful, thoughtful look - that always made Kent want to take his hand and sit beside him in silence for awhile. Made him want to press his face against Jack’s knuckles and breathe. That’s how Kent realized he was gay, all those years ago. Not because he wanted to suck Jack’s dick, but because he just wanted to be with him.

He still does. That’s the goddamn bitch of it. He shivers, and it’s not because of the cold this time.

“Hey,” says Jack. His hands come up, cup Kent’s face. Kent feels about two seconds from bolting. He doesn’t know where he’d go. Off the balcony, he guesses. At least the snow is probably soft.

“I want to try again, Kenny,” says Jack. “Is that stupid?”

He smiles, a little guiltily. It makes him look sort of dopey, and Kent wants to kiss the corners of his mouth. He wants to throw up all over his shoes, his very nice shoes that cost more than a month of his mom’s rent when he was a kid.

“No,” says Kent, amazed he’s even able to get the word out. “A little late, man. But no. Not, uh, stupid. Unless I’m stupid. Don’t respond to that.”

Jack laughs. Jack kisses him then, slowly, carefully. Someone’s turned the gravity off. Kent has to cling to Jack’s jacket. Inside, the light is golden. People are laughing. There’s music.There’s food. There’s warmth. Outside, Kent’s breath blows a cloud, and the railing and Jack’s hands are all that keep him from floating away with it.

“I probably, um.”

Jack doesn’t finish that thought. Jack kisses him again. Jack’s mouth is softer than it has any right to be. He must have finally realized what chapstick was for. Kent giggles a little at the thought; he’s gone totally bubble-brained. Jack takes the opportunity to kiss him deeper. His hands are on Kent’s back now, and he’s pulled Kent flush against him. Cold touches the back of Kent’s neck, but Jack’s warm, the way big men, especially, are. Kent clings to Jack’s shoulders and sighs. All that vaporous longing inside him seems to start to sing.

It’s Jack, finally, who makes them breakaway. Kent was fine. Kent doesn’t think he needs to breathe any more, ever again. Just keep him attached to Jack Zimmermann and he’ll be fine, like some kind of newfound, miraculous parasitic being.

“We should probably.” Jack’s eyes are wild. He can’t stop looking at Kent’s mouth. “We should talk about this.”

“Yeah,” says Kent. He’s still gripping Jack’s shoulders. “We should.”

They just stare at each other.

“Someone might see us,” says Jack slowly, as if he’s been racking his brain for reasons why he shouldn’t just start kissing Kent again and this is the first one that actually seems halfway legitimate.

“Yeah,” agrees Kent again. He takes a deep breath and hides his face against Jack’s shoulder. “So... do you want to go or what?”

“I want to go,” says Jack.

**

They go. They keep their hands off each other in the cab but not their eyes. Kent sees Jack’s face, and then his own, reflected in the window’s dark mirror: awestruck, wondering, pale. They’re the only two people left on the planet. Everything outside the car is winter-dead. So what? It’ll bloom again.

Out of the cab and into the house, and they don’t even bother to turn the lights on. Jack gets him against the door as soon as they close it.

“So are we going to talk?” Kent asks, even as his hands work open the buttons of Jack’s shirt.

He expects Jack to tell him to shut up, but Jack just laughs. He kisses Kent’s throat. He presses Kent harder against the door. His thigh is between Kent’s legs. It takes every ounce of discipline Kent has to not grind down on it.

“We will,” says Jack, his teeth against Kent’s pulsepoint. “I promise,” and then he goes to his knees. There’s not a lot Kent can say to that.

Jack holds his hips flush against the door as he takes Kent into his mouth. Kent gasps, tries to buck. Jack hums, amused, and that sends a jolt straight through Kent.

"Fuck," he says. He digs his hands into Jack's hair and pulls. He's satisfied by the sharp, turned on noise Jack makes in response. Jack always got off on a little pain.

"That's so good, baby," says Kent, a little savagely.

Jack's hands clench around his hips, bruising hard. Kent shudders, whimpers. Okay, so Jack's not the only one who's a bit of a masochist. Kent’ll be pressing down on those bruises for days after this, so that they’ll stay, so that he’ll remember. He tries to thrust forward again, but Jack keeps him pinned. He's taking his goddamn time, sliding his mouth up and down, slow and leisurely, pulling off to tongue teasingly at the head of Kent’s dick. Kent can't even look at him, so he looks, instead, at the grandfather clock in the Zimmermanns' foyer. It's not the first time Jack's gotten him off here, and that fact makes him giddy, makes him hysterical. He yanks Jack's hair harder.

"Come on, Zimms," he says. "I know you can do better than that."

Jack pulls off completely. "Hey - " starts Kent, and then Jack fucking bites him, right on the thigh. Kent yelps.

"What the fuck," he says, but he's starting to laugh, too.

"Asshole," mutters Jack, but he goes back to work, only uses one hand to keep Kent against the door now, uses the other to help with his mouth. Kent groans. His knees start to sag a little. Light is sparking behind his eyes. He's going to last a hilariously short amount of time, at this rate. He bites his lower lip, and tries to focus on the sharp bloom of pain in his mouth and not on the sounds Jack is making below him, not on the way Jack's mouth and hand feel on him, warm and all-encompassing.

Jack jabs his thumb into the spot where he bit Kent.

And Kent’s gone.

They stumble up to Jack's bedroom next. Kent shouldn't be doing this, not in the middle of the season. But he lets Jack undress him and he lets Jack flip him onto his stomach. He shoves his ass into the air. Jack gets lube and a condom from his side table, and suddenly Jack's fingers are inside him, twisting him open. His other hand is spread wide against Kent’s lower back, holding him there. Kent pushes back on Jack's fingers, desperate.

"Good boy," says Jack, low-voiced, laughing. His hand slides up Kent’s spine to his neck, light enough to make Kent shiver. And now there are fingers tracing Kent's lips, inside his mouth. Kent bites down.

“Motherfucker,” swears Jack, or something like that, or something worse. Kent’s not great at translation at moments like this.

Jack pulls his fingers out of Kent completely - Kent whines a protest - and then Jack yanks Kent’s head back by the hair. He slaps him once, hard. Kent makes a noise he’s never heard from himself, some kind of groan-moan-whimper-gasp, some kind of pure animal noise that feels like it’s torn straight from his chest. Jack freezes at the noise. He’s still got one hand screwed tight in Kent’s hair, pulling Kent’s head back, so Kent has to look at him. Jack’s pupils are huge. He stares at Kent, transfixed.

Kent licks his lip, swallows.

“Again,” he says. His throat already feels raw, and all he’s really done so far is come down Jack’s throat.

Jack laughs all shuddery. His hand clenches, convulsive, in Kent’s hair. He looks kind of scared. There’s a part of Jack that’s always scared. Kent wants to find that part and tear it out, or live in it, whichever is kinder, whichever makes Jack need him more.

“I said again, Jack.”

“Kenny,” protests Jack, but even as he says it, he starts levering Kent up the hair. His bicep bulges with the effort. Kent hisses in pain and scrabbles at Jack’s wrist, but he doesn’t really want Jack to stop. He gets pulled to his knees, and he sways there, held up only by Jack’s hand.

Jack slaps him. Once, twice; palm, backhand. Red across Kent’s vision and then red again. He gasps; his head is ringing. His cheeks burn. His vision’s blurry, tears or dizziness or both. Jack slaps him again. Kent blacks out, for a second, maybe less, and he comes to when he hears himself sob, high-pitched and keening with need. Jack lets go of his hair, and Kent pitches forward. But Jack catches him.

“You okay?” Jack asks. He’s panting.

Kent tries to nod, but his head feels too wobbly to work right now. He just slumps against Jack’s chest for a bit, breath skittering across Jack’s collarbone. Dark circles chase each other across his vision. He’s never been so turned on his life.

“Kenny?” says Jack uncertainly.

“Jesus, Zimms,” Kent finally manages. “That was good.” He laughs shakily. “You did good, babe.”

He tilts his face up and kisses Jack then, sweetly, deeply. Jack’s tongue is in his mouth. One of Jack’s big hands cups Kent’s face, and his thumb swipes slowly along Kent’s still-stinging cheek. It sends a wave of tingling, shivering pleasure down Kent’s back, into his stomach. He doesn’t whimper, but it’s a near thing. His breath comes out shaky and high-pitched. He feels Jack smile softly against his mouth.

“You were so good,” says Jack, hushed. He ghosts his mouth over Kent’s cheeks, sending another wave of crashing pleasure through him. Kent lets himself pool in Jack’s arms for a second, lets Jack gently kiss his face, his mouth, his throat. Kent runs his knuckles along Jack’s jaw and curls his hand against the back of Jack’s neck, possessive.

And then he grabs Jack by his hair and yanks him back, follows it up with a hard shove, so that Jack ends up flat on his back and stunned on the bed. Kent straddles him.

“Crisse,” says Jack with a bewildered laugh. He looks up at Kent. His hands run up Kent’s arms, soft enough to make Kent shiver, and he thumbs at Kent’s lower lip. Kent lets him this time. He sucks Jack’s fingers into his mouth and moans, is gratified by the way Jack’s throat works, the way his eyelids shiver, in response.

He pulls his mouth off Jack’s fingers.

“You’re beautiful,” Kent tells him. Jack is; he really is. He always has been. Kent watches, astonished, as pink flushes Jack’s chest, his cheeks, as Jack turns his head away.

“No, come on,” snaps Kent. He grabs Jack’s jaw and makes Jack look at him. He holds Jack’s gaze.

“You’re beautiful,” he repeats.

Jack makes a high, disgruntled noise, and Kent feels him shiver underneath him. Jack’s eyes are black.

“Thanks, Parse,” says Jack quietly, shyly.

That’ll have to be good enough for now. Kent releases his jaw and grabs the lube from where Jack left it on the bed. He works it generously over Jack. Jack is very good. He doesn’t thrust up into Kent’s hand as Kent gets him ready, though Kent can tell from the way Jack’s muscles tremble that it’s a strain. He should probably focus on himself more; it’s not like Jack got more than two fingers in him before things went sideways. But he thinks he can take Jack. He wants to try.

When he’s ready, he braces himself on Jack’s shoulders and sinks down onto Jack’s dick slowly, letting himself adjust. Jack lets him, still manages to hold himself shaking-still. Jack’s gripping the bedsheets with his free hand. His other hand is back in Kent’s mouth. Kent bites down on his fingers; not to hurt this time, but to distract himself from how big Jack feels inside him, from the overwhelming pleasure-pain-pleasure-pain burn.

It’s a bad move, because Jack cries out and full body jerks. Kent gags on the fingers, tears in eyes now, and he shoves down hard on Jack’s shoulders, trying to pin him still. Jack trembles. The look he gives Kent is sweet, apologetic.

Kent pulls his mouth off Jack’s fingers.

“Don’t move,” he orders.

Jack obeys. He curls his hand around Kent’s arm, just above his elbow, and watches him intently with those crazy, daggering eyes.

“You look good,” says Jack, low, serious, like he’s been watching Kent practice his slapshot on the ice and doesn’t literally have his dick inside Kent’s ass. Christ, Kent thinks hysterically, he loves him. He really does.

He digs his nails into Jack’s shoulders. They’re short - Kent has to keep them short to play - but Jack still jerks like he’s been electrocuted. Kent’s ready for it this time though, and he rolls his hips with Jack. Jack swears again, and his hands come to rest on Kent’s hips.

“You look so good like this, Kenny,” Jack says. "You're gorgeous. You’re amazing. You - " Jack lapses into a babble of French, something about the mother of God and the chalice and Kent’s mouth.

Kent hates himself. He whimpers. And Jack, damn him, laughs. Kent swears at him. He puts one hand around Jack's throat and presses down. Not enough to hurt him, just enough so Jack knows. Jack's eyes show white all the way around. He takes a breath like he's been stabbed.

Kent presses down a little bit harder and feels Jack’s throat work beneath his hand. If this is the last time they ever do this, the only time they ever do this again, then he wants Jack to remember it, too. At least as long as it takes for the bruises to fade.

He pulls his hand away. Jack gasps and tilts his head back. He’s shuddering. Kent really starts to ride Jack then, rocking himself up and down, faster than harder as Jack swears and jerks beneath him.

Jack's hands tighten on Kent's waist suddenly. He flips Kent over. All the air goes out of Kent as he lands hard on his back. Jack's above him now, pushing Kent's legs higher.

"Jack. Zimms," says Kent. “Jesus.”

They're the last comprehensible words he's able to get out that night, because Jack's inside him again. Jack shoves Kent's arms above his head and hold hims down. He pounds Kent into the mattress. Kent gasps with each thrust. His vision goes streaky. Jack's methodical, brutal. Jack’s as good at this, as thorough at this as he is at everything else he tries. Kent feels himself shaking apart. Jack's the only thing he can see, the only thing he wants to see. And this is the only way he ever wants to feel, for the rest of his life, just on the edge of too much. He wants to stay there forever, on the precipice, before the fall, the sole focus, the center fact, of Jack's being.

Jack kisses his neck and his jaw, and then he kisses Kent's mouth, softly.

"I've got you," he says quietly, as if that means anything. But it's enough. Kent comes, shuddering, for the second time that night, with his face pressed against Jack’s neck, wave of white light after wave of white light overtaking him, pulling him down.

**

After, Jack lies besides him on the bed, just looking at him. Jack’s hand strokes Kent’s cheek gently. Neither of them say anything. They just breathe. They both smile, a little.

Right now, thinks Kent, with an ache in his chest that feels deeper than an ocean, twice as vast. He could die right now. And that would be just fine. He’d be happy to.

**

He wakes up next to Jack, for the second time in two days, for the second time in eight years. Jack’s propped up on his elbow, looking down at him. Kent wrinkles his nose.

“Were you watching me sleep?” he asks.

Jack laughs softly. “Yeah,” he says.

Then, he leans down and kisses Kent gently. Kent closes his eyes and relaxes into it. They kiss slowly and messily, like the two teenagers they once were, figuring out each other’s bodies again. Jack runs his hand along Kent’s side, and Kent cups his hands around Jack’s shoulder blades, revels in the way Jack’s muscles shift and flex. Kent’s mouth feels swollen, and he’s sore all over, sore in places he hasn’t been awhile. But it’s a pleasurable soreness, like after a long, head-clearing run. Jack kisses along his jaw. Jack’s mouth ghosts along his throat, and his hand trails to Kent’s waistband.

“Hey,” says Kent. He squirms away a bit. “Can we, uh, not?”

Jack pauses above him. Kent watches thought chime in his eyes. It’s not like Kent doesn’t want to. Jack can feel exactly how much Kent wants to, just like Kent can feel exactly how much Jack wants to.

But Kent needs to know he can do this, that he can set a boundary with Jack and hold it. He’ll chalk last night up to too much champagne and not enough sleep.

“Yeah,” says Jack. He blushes and ducks his head, and, oh, that alone is almost enough to shatter Kent’s resolve. “But can I, uh. Can I still kiss you?”

“Yeah,” says Kent. “Kissing - kissing is good.”

They kiss for awhile; light travels up the walls of the room. Kent doesn’t think about anything at all, just enjoys the way their bodies still know how to move together. But then Kent’s stomach rumbles loudly, and Jack laughs. Jack moves away.

“We should shower,” Jack says. “And then eat.”

Kent’s not sure if he’s being invited to join Jack in the shower or not. His resolution will definitely fall apart if they shower together, though, so he doesn’t say anything. He just sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed. He sits there.

He didn’t notice last night, but Jack’s room is exactly the way Kent remembers it, when he’s closed his eyes and let himself picture it. It’s perfectly preserved for future hockey pilgrims: and here’s the childhood bedroom of Jack Zimmermann, first out player in the NHL. That’s one of the benefits of having money, Kent guesses: your room gets to stay your room and doesn’t get turned over to a younger sibling or a down-on-their-luck cousin or turned into your mom’s Etsy home office.

There are even the same posters on the wall, all Habs players, though they’ve faded now, with time.

Fear, clammy and awful, settles over Kent, holds him fast. He doesn’t want to leave this room. He doesn’t think he can leave this room. He’s scared that if he leaves this room, the spell will break. They’ll snap back into the timeline they’re supposed to be in, the one where he’s alone. He doesn’t want to be alone.

“Kenny?” says Jack uncertainly. He’s standing now, paused. Kent looks at him.

Jack, at least, is different. He’s filled out. He has scars that Kent doesn’t know the stories behind. He doesn’t flinch so much from the world, any more. Maybe that’s enough.

“Sorry,” says Kent. He clears his throat. “Shower and food sound good. But first, uh, talking?”

Jack’s face goes soft, then serious, not like he’s angry, but like he’s making a promise.

’“I meant what I said. Last night,” he says. “I want to try again.”

Kent bows his head. He knows he’ll say whatever Jack wants as long as Jack keeps looking at him like that. Better not make eye contact, then.

“So what does that even mean? Are you gonna wanna be public? Because I’m not there, Jack.”

“No,” says Jack earnestly. “I’d like to figure things out in private first, um. Someday, it might be nice. But that’s not what I’m looking for.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Just to see you.”

“I’m gonna need more than that,” snarls Kent. He’s surprised by how raw his voice sounds, how harsh. He’s not looking at Jack’s face, but he is looking at the ground, so he sees how Jack steps away from him.

“I wasn’t, uh, going to do anything,” says Jack slowly. “At the party. I didn’t invite you because I was planning something. I just, I wanted to start talking to you again and I thought... I didn’t really think about anything after that.”

Classic Jack, thinks Kent distantly. He finally makes himself look up. Jack’s face is as open, as earnest as a child’s. It’s clear he has no idea what he’s doing. But Kent’s never seen him look so sweet, and that must mean he really means it. He doesn’t wonder what made Jack decide to invite him in the first place. Maybe Bob or Alicia mentioned the possibility. Maybe Kent had a great week on Jack’s fantasy team. Maybe the thought just popped into his head, put there by some trickster spirit. And Jack had the impulse, and so Jack acted on it.

“So what changed?” asks Kent. “Is being a bitchy road trip partner something that works for you?”

“I saw you.” Jack laughs helplessly. “You make me crazy, Kenny. You always have.”

Kent absorbs that. He grips the edge of the mattress. It’s a piss-poor answer, but he gets it. As strongly as Jack affects him, he’s always known on some level that he shakes Jack up, too, like a wind that blows through, that opens every door.

“Is that a bad thing?” he asks quietly.

“Sometimes,” says Jack. “But I don’t think it has to be.”

Kent swallows hard, tries to laugh.

“You know you make me crazy, too, right?”

“Yeah,” says Jack, apologetic.

Kent does manage a laugh at that. He covers his face with one hand. He has a bit of a headache, pressing in at the temples. He’s probably just dehydrated.

“Hey,” says Jack gently, and then footsteps, and then Jack’s cool hands on his, on his cheek, tilting his face up so Kent has to look at him.

Jack kneels down slowly. Kent feels like he’s being treated like an easily spooked animal, but that’s probably fair. He feels like an easily spooked animal. Whatever’s forming between them feels too fragile to hold. If it were ice, he wouldn’t skate on it. He wouldn’t take that risk.

Jack holds his face in his hands, long fingers along Kent’s jaw, thumbs framing Kent’s mouth. Carefully, Kent brings his hands up, too, cups Jack’s face, too. Jack’s face is rough with morning shadow. His eyes are dark-ringed, the color of very clear ice, that cold and faultless blue. Jack is breathing very steadily, very calmly. Slowly, he turns his head, and he presses his mouth against the base of Kent’s palm. He keeps it there.

And, this, maybe, is why, or part of why: why Kent’s dog-loyal heart has lain outside Jack’s door for so long. Because past the fear, past the fights, past the agony, even past those moments of pure and streaming joy, has just been this, just a tenderness. They were tender towards each other in a way they were never able to be towards themselves. When you love someone, you’re vulnerable. When you’re vulnerable, you fall in love. Kent’s missed Jack the way an exile misses home.

Kent moves his hand up, trailing it over Jack’s face and then through Jack’s soft, dark hair. Jack closes his eyes against Kent’s touch. He leans forward so that his cheek presses against the outside of Kent’s thigh. Jack’s head, bowed forward, offers Kent a clear view of the back of his neck.

The sky through the window is cloudless and hard, and the light that fills the room is white and ferocious. The Zimmermanns’ pond will be frozen solid. If they move soon, there could be time for them to play a game of one-on-one. There could be a time for a lot of things.

I love you, thinks Kent. The words are in his stomach, his chest, his throat, his mouth. He holds them back with his teeth. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“I’ve missed you,” says Jack. His voice is muffled.

Kent moves his hand down, covers the back of Jack’s neck with his palm, and presses down gently, just enough for Jack to feel it. There are a dozen things he could say in response. All of them would be honest, and all of them would hurt. It will be very easy to hurt each other for a very long time. He moves his hand again, back to Jack’s cheek. He curls his fingers there, against Jack’s cheekbone. Jack shifts his head slightly and rubs his face against the knuckles of Kent’s hand.

“Jack,” says Kent. “Look at me.”

Jack straightens up and looks at him. His hair is falling across his face and his eyes are soft and worried. Kent leans forward and presses his forehead against his. He feels Jack’s breath on his face, and he feels Jack’s hands on his waist, and he feels love and fear and sadness and hope, all at once.

“I’m here,” he says, and he kisses Jack, and he says against his mouth, “I’m here. I missed you. Welcome back.”