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Two Slow Dancers

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2/08 vs Quebec

His bones hurt. His bones hurt, and he has a wicked bruise forming along his ribs from the hightstick he took in the second period, and his jaw aches from when he hit the ground right after, and he is so fucking tired that he falls asleep with his head in his goddamn locker.

He doesn’t think he’s asleep for very long, at least. Jack wakes him with a gentle shake.

“Kenny.” There’s laughter in Jack’s voice because they won, 3-1, and because Jack got two points. And because - maybe, maybe - Kent looks a little ridiculous with his head in his locker.

Kent groans.

“Come on, Kenny,” says Jack a little louder. “Wake up.”

Kent groans and falls back. Jack catches him with his too-big hands, and Kent leans against him for a second, enjoying the feeling of being propped up so easily.

“I’m tired,” Kent whines. “And hungry.”

“Yeah.” Jack laughs. Kent wishes he could lean all the way back, against Jack’s chest, and that Jack could wrap his arms around him. “Come on.”

Kent sighs for the drama of it, and then lets Jack drag him out of the stadium. The parking lot is mostly empty by this point, fans gone and scouts gone and journos gone, so that it’s just the two of them and a couple other players finding their way back to their cars in the icy dark. The sky is velvety black, the moon out and haloed by a thin circle of white-gold. Kent blinks up at it. He tries to remember if a ring around the moon means snow. He’d heard something along those lines once.

He gets jolted from his thoughts by the wind, snaking around his ankles. He’s put on a couple inches since the start of the season, and none of his pants really fit anymore because of it. He needs to call his mom so he can get new pants, but she’s still mad about how much his new skates cost. He could buy his own, he knows, but he’s trying to save his stipend money to buy a cell phone. So he’s just started cinching his belt tighter and hoping he can pull off high waters as a fashion statement.

The wind is fucking cold though. He scrambles into the car after Jack.

They hit up the 24-hour Tim Hortons, get chicken strips and fries and coffee and timbits, because Kent is starving. Jack lays out sugar packets on the table trying to recreate the play they got scored on.

“Didn’t have you to kill the power play,” says Kent. He kicks Jack’s leg lightly. “You gotta spend less time defending my honor.”

He grins, so Jack knows he’s joking. He likes that Jack dropped gloves for him after that motherfucker highsticked him. But Jack looks suddenly embarrassed, cheeks pinked and eyes averted. Kent reaches across the table and touches Jack’s knuckles where they’re starting to purple on his right hand. Jack pulls his hand away, even though they’re the only customers and the cashier is slumped by the register, a romance novel open in her hands.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” mutters Jack. “People are going to talk about it.”

“No,” says Kent. “They’re gonna like that you did that. It’ll remind ‘em of your dad.”

“Is that a good thing?” says Jack.

Kent’s only got himself to blame for walking into that one. His hand is still stretched out towards Jack.

“It’s not the worst,” he says. He pulls his hand back, sweeping the sugar packets with him as he goes. “Hey, can I stay with you tonight?”

**

He wakes up the next morning with Jack’s arm around his waist, half the window covered with snow, and with nothing on the day’s agenda except practicing hockey.

Not bad, he thinks. He smiles. Not bad at all.

2/11 at P.E.I.

They lose the next game. It’s the second game they’ve lost all season. Kent scores early, pouncing on a rebound after Jack hits the post. But they don’t kill the game, and they’re punished for it in the third period.

Kent’s annoyed with everyone, self included, after the game, but he makes himself calm down to talk to a scout afterwards. He’s pretty sure the scout’s really there to scope out some of the Prince Edward players - who the fuck doesn’t know about him and Jack by now? - but it never hurts to have that little bit of extra facetime.

Jack doesn’t feel the same, apparently. Kent’s mid-answer when he sees Jack throw his stick at the ground. The scout follows his eyes, quirks his eyebrows.

“Is he always like that after a loss?” the scout asks.

“How would I know?” says Kent. He makes himself re-focus on the scout and winks. “We basically never lose.”

“You did tonight,” says the scout. He’s still looking at Jack, concern etched between his eyebrows.

“Jack takes every game very seriously,” says Kent, careful to make his voice as flat and un-defensive as possible. “He’s an elite competitor. And he’s going to take what happened here tonight and learn from it.”

The scout finally looks back at Kent. He smiles in a small, amused way that makes Kent feel like he failed a test he didn’t even know he was taking.

“So that’s a yes,” says the scout, and he marks something down in his notebook.

“That’s - ” starts Kent.

“How tall are you?”

“Five-eight,” says Kent automatically. The scout glances down at his notebook, frowns.

“Central scouting has you at five-six.”

“I grew,” says Kent. Every half-inch feels like he’s jumped five places in the rankings.

The scout looks him over like he’s trying to do trigonometry in his head and figure out if Kent is lying.

“How tall is your dad?”

“Six-two,” says Kent. It’s the one good thing his dad’s ever given him: the potential to be a reasonable size. Mom’s 5’2” and her brother’s 5’6”, but the Parsons! The Parsons are tall. The scout looks, for a very brief second, pleased, and then he marks something else down.

He doesn’t really believe going "first" exists as a possibility outside of the feverish speculations of journalists looking for a narrative to smack him and Jack around with, but, from the way the scout is smiling, Kent can't help but start to to think, maybe.

**

“It’s just one game,” Kent tells Jack on the bus ride back. He says it more to convince himself than Jack. He knows he won’t convince Jack. Sure enough, Jack just hunches away from him and presses his face against the window. As if he can see anything beyond his own reflection.

“We just passed too much,” says Kent. He adopts his most ridiculous hockey bro voice. “We gotta put the puck on net more.”

Jack still doesn’t respond. He reaches into his pocket, and there’s the sound of a pill bottle being popped. Kent frowns. He could recognize that sound in his sleep, at this point.

“Or you could just pout about it,” says Kent. He grabs Jack’s iPod out of his jacket - his shuffle’s been broke for ages and stealing Jack’s shit sometimes provokes a response, at least. But. Nothing. And Jack doesn’t react to the proffered earbud, either.

Kent scowls. They’ll be driving all night. He doesn’t mind, normally, the long bus rides, the immense distances they travel, and how dark it gets so early, but he kind of hates it now. He feels trapped. Jack’s breathing gets deep and even. But he’s still awake. Kent knows, because every time he looks at the window, he can see Jack’s reflection, Jack’s still-open, faraway eyes.

**

It’s still dark by the time they’re deposited, pale and blinking, in the Coliseum parking lot. Jack gives Kent a lift home, and Kent eats half the leftover lasagna his billet parents left in the fridge and then passes out for a few hours. He’s grateful, not for the first time, that Quebec has one less year of formal education than the states. The rookies will all be sick with exhaustion by the time team practice starts that evening.

Jack rings his doorbell a couple hours before that though.

“You could have called me,” says Kent, when he opens the door.

Jack shrugs. “You were right,” he says, serious and intent. “We passed too much last night. We need to work on the one-timer.”

He looks at Kent expectantly, and Kent grins. He still laughs when he thinks about the first week or two of last season, when they kept running into each other on the rink before school in the morning, or both stayed late after practice. Jack always had an expression like a spoiled housecat being introduced to the new kitten. But Kent’s billet parents couldn’t drive him as often as Kent asked, and. eventually, Jack had said, sour and begrudging, “You’re going to catch pneumonia if you keep walking here. So I guess I can give you a ride.”

There aren’t a lot of better sights in the world than Jack Zimmermann, standing in his doorway, asking if Kent wants to play some hockey.

“Yeah,” says Kent. “Let me grab my boots.”

They practice in silence for the first hour, until Kent skates over to the boards to grab his water. He’s been trying to think of something that will make Jack laugh.

“I rewatched the game,” says Jack, skating over to join Kent. Kent doesn’t ask when, exactly, Jack found the time to rewatch an entire game. He knows Jack doesn’t sleep sometimes. Which, personally, Kent thinks, makes his blowjobs a goddamn service to the team, considering Jack can usually catch at least fifteen after Kent’s done.

“Okay, and?” says Kent.

“Grubs is too slow,” says Jack.

Kent squirts water into his mouth to keep from replying. He swishes it around. Spits it out.

“Helluva slapshot, though,” he says.

“We don’t need extra offense, Parse,” says Jack, pinched and irritated. “We need a defender who’s not going to get hung out to dry every time we play a decent front line.”

Kent nods, because it’s a fair point. He’s just not sure what Jack expects him to do about it.

2/13 vs Moncton

They win the next one, but Jack doesn’t score. He doesn’t assist either. Kent gets two - one for each member of his favorite d-man pairing. They’re both tousling his hair affectionately after the game when Kent sees Jack storm back towards the locker room.

By the time Kent makes it in, Jack’s on the phone with his agent, talking in rapid Quebecois, and then pausing as his agent spits something back at him just as quickly. Kent can’t totally follow, but he gets the gist and it isn’t good. He hears his name, which really isn’t good, and Jack’s eyes flicker to him then. Kent pretends to suddenly be busy with his laces.

“We’re going out,” Kent tells him firmly, when Jack hangs up.

“I don’t want to,” says Jack. “I have - ”

“You don’t have anything the rest of us don’t have,” says Kent, cutting him off. “C’mon, Blazer’s throwing a thing.”

“A thing?” says Jack, eyebrows going up.

“A thing,” says Kent. “And you need to relax.”

“Sure,” says Jack in a tone Kent doesn’t recognize and doesn’t like. “I’ll relax.”

**

“Relax” apparently means drink a quarter of a handle of vodka like a fucking Russian as soon as they step through the door and then drag Kent into his lap on the couch. Kent hums soothingly. He wraps his arms around Jack’s head and holds him awkwardly.

“You all right, Zimms?” he asks quietly. Jack mumbles something Kent can’t make out.

“Oh, Jesus, you two at it again?” says Spider, thunking down into the couch cushion next to them.

Kent kicks him.

“Shut up,” he says. “You don’t understand genius. It’s our process. Gimme your drink.”

Spider sighs and hands over his drink. “It’s something,” he says.

Kent rolls his eyes as he tips back Spider’s drink. It’s rum and grape juice. He nearly spits it out. Fucking goalies.

He doesn’t take offense to what Spider’s implying. Spider does it with a lot less heat than some of the other guys. Kent tries not to think about any of that. It shouldn’t matter, what he and Jack get up to behind closed doors. It doesn’t matter. Because they’re just gonna go up and up and up, take the Q and then the NHL by storm.

They call him Spider because of his long, thin arms and his long, thin legs and because of the way he squats low in and ball-like in the net, like a spider at the center of her web. But he’s always given Kent more praying mantis vibes, with his goggle eyes and the strange, angular way he sometimes cocks his head. He cocks his like that now, eyes on Jack.

“Hey,” he says, “Did he take one of his pills?”

“Just vodka,” says Kent, though he wouldn’t be surprised if Jack took something between the game and now. It’s not like Kent has eyes on him 100 percent of the time.

“You sure? Isn’t it, like, dangerous to mix that shit?

“He’s fine,” says Kent. “Zimms knows what he’s doing.”

Spider cocks his head again. Other direction this time.

“Okay,” he says, after a second. “If you say so.”

With that, Spider hauls himself over the back of the couch, nearly kicking Kent in the face in the process, and he skitters off to the beer pong table. Kent glares after him. Jack’s entirely oblivious to the entire exchange, his face still hidden in Kent’s neck. Kent feels Jack’s lips move, and he shudders, not sure if Jack is trying to say something or if he’s so totally gone he no longer recognizes the danger of giving Kent a hickey in plain view of most their team.

He decides not to find out. He pulls Jack up off the couch and upstairs, keeps trying doors until he finds an empty room. And then he closes the door and, in the dark, touches Jack’s mouth.

“You doing okay?” he asks.

“Yeah,” says Jack, slow and strung out. He leans down and kisses Kent. Kent holds Jack’s face, tastes the vodka on his mouth.

2/15 vs Rouyn-Noranda

Jack gets stonewalled in the next game, too. It’s all mental, Kent can tell, which is why he wants to rip their coach’s fucking throat out when he chews Jack out after the second period.

“You’re supposed to be my best player,” says Coach Gobeil in front of the entire fucking team. Everyone pretends to look away, except for Kent, who’s trying to bore two holes into Gobeil’s head with his eyes. “So lead, Zimmermann. Parson has almost twice as many points as you right now.”

Jack just hunches down and down like a turtle trying to escape. His hands are shaking. Kent wishes he weren’t on the other side of the room.

He takes a deep breath and says, “Four more points.”

Gobeil straightens up.

“What?” he says. He puts his piggy eyes on Kent, and there’s no oxygen in the room.

“I only have four more points than Zim - than Jack,” says Kent patiently. “Not ‘almost twice as much’ or whatever.”

Gobeil wets his mouth with a quick flick of his tongue. “What’s your point?” he says.

Kent shrugs. “I dunno. I just figure maybe you should know basic math. How are you going to know if we won a game if you can’t even count?”

**

Kent sends Jack three fucking peaches for passes in the final third, and Jack squanders each one: too slow to shoot, shoots too wide, fucking passes it to Grubs, so Kent ends up scoring himself. He gets the puck on the breakaway and sends a screamer, top shelf.

They win.

Five points, thinks Kent afterwards, as he’s talking to the press. He’s lightheaded. He can’t tell if he’s happy or scared.

“So what do you think the chances are of you going first?” someone asks.

He laughs, a little hysterically. “I think it’ll be an honor just to play in the NHL,” he says, and adds, honestly, “And that it’s way too early to tell.”

**

Jack ignores him in the locker room afterwards, then walks out without him. Kent has to jog to catch up.

“Hey!” he shouts.

Jack doesn’t turn. Kent grabs his shoulder. “Hey! Zimms!” he tries again.

Jack whirls on him. His face is white with rage, inferno enough to send Kent dancing back a couple steps.

“What is wrong with you?” says Jack.

“What?”

“I don’t need you to defend me!” Jack’s arms are ramrod straight at his sides, fists clenched, trembling in every line of his body like he’s gonna vibrate himself apart, like every molecule in him is straining to be someone, somewhere else. Kent takes this all in and recalculates.

“I wasn’t defending you,” he says calmly. “G was just being annoying.”

Jack gapes at him in a way Kent shouldn’t find as cute as he does.

“You’re going to get benched,” says Jack, strained. “Or - or, a bad reputation. Seriously.”

Kent shrugs and strolls past Jack, hands in his pockets. Makes Jack catch up to him.

“It’s G’s ass on the line if he benches me and we lose.”

2/18 vs Baie-Comeau

Goibel benches him for the next game, and it’s a cold satisfaction that fills him when they lose.

But, being able to watch the whole game like that, he’s gotta admit: Grubs is slow.

**

Jack’s already too out of it to drive by the time they’re clear of the rink. Kent helps him walk straight to the car, just in case anyone’s watching, then drives them carefully to Jack’s. Normally he loves driving Jack’s car - an SUV, but a Lexus SUV and the most expensive thing Kent has ever touched - but not like this, with Jack’s head slumped against the window. Jack’s at least able to walk fine on his own once Kent parks, but Kent has to remember where the spare key is kept when Jack has trouble finding his own. He’s grateful Jack’s billet parents aren’t in. Everyone seems to show a blind-eye to the partying - boys’ll be boys - but Kent feels like being this level of fucked up this early after a game would raise at least a yellow flag.

Jack sighs and flops over onto his stomach as soon as they get into Jack’s room. Kent considers pulling Jack’s shoes off, but he’s not the guy’s mom. He watches Jack for a moment, unsure if there’s anything else he should do.

Jack never used to be this bad.

He goes downstairs and sits alone at the dining table.

He considers calling his billet-parents and asking for a ride home, but he doesn’t want to explain why Jack can’t do it. He doesn’t want to leave Jack alone.

He has Jack’s phone on him, so he calls his mom, and, after four rings, it goes to voicemail.

“You’ve reached the Parsons,” says his mom’s voice, like it’s more than just her at home anymore. He wonders where she is. “Leave a message.”

“Hey, Mom,” he says quietly. “Uh… I was just - ” He swallows. He feels suddenly and awfully empty. And he’s starving again. He feels like he’s hungry all the time nowadays, like nothing is ever enough for him.

He thinks about mentioning the pants, but it’s not like he needs his own phone. The only person he ever really wants to talk to is the person he spends all his time with, is currently passed out in a bed upstairs.

“Just wanted to see how you are,” he says. “Talk to you later.”

He hangs up.

Jack’s snoring lightly when Kent goes back upstairs. He steals Jack’s comforter and one of the pillows and curls up on the floor. He doesn’t like sharing a bed with Jack when he’s like this, but he still doesn’t want to leave him alone.

**

Jack wakes him up a few hours later by stepping on him, the ungrateful bastard.

“Parse?” says Jack, startled, when Kent yelps. “What are you doing here?”

“I drove you home!” snaps Kent. “Where else was I gonna go?”

“Oh,” says Jack. Kent glares up at him. Jack’s a dark shape in a slightly less dark room. The only light is the red glare of the alarm clock which reads: 5:15. Jesus Christ. Kent groans and closes his eyes.

“What are you doing up?” he demands. Though he knows the answer.

“Practice,” grunts Jack. “We lost.”

You lost,” mutters Kent. “I didn’t even play. The only thing I need to practice is keeping my mouth shut.”

Jack, thank god, laughs. He nudges Kent with his foot.

“You want a ride home?” he asks. “Or, uh, you can sleep in my bed while I’m…”

“No,” says Kent with another groan. He wiggles out of his cocoon. “I’m coming with you. Who the hell do you think I am, Zimms?”

“Knew I could count on you, Kenny,” says Jack quietly. He helps Kent up, one hand on Kent’s ribcage, just above his waist, and the other wrapped around Kent’s upper arm. Jack’s face is so uncomplicatedly sweet, so earnest that Kent forgives him the whole sorry evening.

**

They practice for a couple hours, until Kent gets so hungry he feels like he’s going to pass out. Jack follows him back into the locker room and hands him a couple protein bars.

“I guess I’ve been kind of an asshole lately,” says Jack. Kent nearly chokes, and he definitely sprays protein bits all over the locker room floor.

Jack laughs, startled, and then immediately looks subdued.

“No shit,” says Kent. Jack kicks his heel against the floor.

“I’m just stressed,” he says slowly.

“Zimms, it’s fine,” says Kent. “We lost one game. You haven’t scored in a couple. It happens.”

“The combine’s next month.”

“Okay?” says Kent.

Jack just hunches over.

“You don’t have to play at the combine…” says Kent.

“Yeah,” mutters Jack. “But you have to… talk.”

“You’re worried about the interviews.”

Jack doesn’t say anything, but Kent can tell by the way Jack furrows his brows that he’s right.

“You don’t think your sparkling personality will win ‘em over?” he asks. Jack just scowls harder, so that was a failure. Kent sighs.

“Just act like your dad,” he says. “He’s a pretty charming guy, right?”

“I’m not my dad, Kent.”

“I know. But that’s what they’re expecting. And it’ll be, like, easier for you right? Just give the kinds of answers your dad would give.”

“They’ll know that’s not what I’m like if they talk to anybody who knows me.”

“Okay, well, I’ll tell them that’s what you’re like then. They’ll believe me.” He grins and nudges Jack in the side. “No one knows you better than me.”

“And then you’ll get in trouble for lying.”

“If I get caught. And even if I get caught, we’re both good enough it won’t fucking matter. None of this matters, Jack. We’re good.”

Jack’s quiet again. His hand goes to his pocket, and Kent hears the rattle of Jack’s pills. He frowns. He pictures, clearly and awfully, Jack from last night.

“I thought those were supposed to help,” he says sharply.

Jack looks startled. “They do help.”

“Then how come you keep taking more? We don’t even have a game tonight.”

Jack hunches down, eyes shifty. “It’s none of your business, Parse,” he says, high and pissy.

Kent laughs. “Of course it’s my business. You’re my liney.”

Jack opens his mouth to respond, but he’s cut off by the sound of his phone ringing.

“Oh,” says Jack, looking at it. “It’s my dad. Do you mind…?”

“Go ahead,” says Kent.

Jack nods, though it seems more to himself than to Kent. His phone keeps ringing. He fiddles with his pill bottle again. Even over the ring, Kent can hear the pills jostling against each other.

“It’s just your dad,” points out Kent, annoyed. Bad Bob’s great.

“He’s going to want to talk about the last couple games,” says Jack. The phone stops ringing, gone to voicemail.

“It’s not like he’s gonna yell at you.”

Jack doesn’t say anything. His eyes slide guiltily to his hand in his pocket.

“Or do what you want,” says Kent. He gets up. “It’s not like it’s my business or anything.”

He stalks off, but he hears, for sure, the sound of the bottle popping open behind him.

The light is on in the coaches’ suite, he notices. He hesitates. Behind him, he can hear Jack talking softly. Apologizing. He’ll be awhile. He always is, with his dad.

Kent knocks.

“Come in,” calls a voice from behind the door. Kent winces. It’s Gobeil. He was hoping it’d be one of the assistants, who seem more deferential to Kent than he is to them. Still. He pokes his head in.

“Parson,” says Gobeil, looking surprised. He narrows his eyes. “What do you want?”

He’s gonna have to work on that, Kent thinks to himself. He needs to get Gobeil to like him. He doesn’t want to get a reputation for being hard to work with.

He slides inside, tries to make his face look suitably respectful.

“I just wanted to ask you something,” he says slowly. His mouth feels dry.

Gobeil nods curtly. He’s hunched over a pile of papers - newspaper clippings and scouting reports, by the looks of it.

“Should Jack…” Kent pauses. He can’t help but feel guilty. He figures Gobeil knows about Jack’s pills. Jack gets them prescribed by the team physician. But it still feels somehow unforgivable, like Kent’s endangering Jack’s hockey prospects to bring it up.

“Should Zimmermann what?”

“Should he be taking so many pills?” says Kent, all at once.

Gobeil sets aside the paper he’s looking at and frowns. He’s quiet for a long minute, his small eyes glittering as he looks at Kent.

“Forget it - ”

“Why do you care about Zimmermann so much?”

It’s not what Kent expected to hear. “What?” he says. “He - Jack’s my - He’s my teammate.”

“He’s your competition,” says Gobeil, like Kent’s an idiot.

“It’s too early to think about the draft,” says Kent, like he’s talking to a journo. “I’m focused on Rimouski right now.”

Gobeil laughs, sharp and barking.

“You’re good,” he acknowledges with a nod. He gestures at the chair in front of his desk.

Reluctantly, Kent sits down. Gobeil studies him again. Kent makes himself square his shoulder and meet Gobeil’s eyes.

“Are you a doctor?” says Gobeil.

“No,” says Kent sullenly. “I just - ”

“Zimmermann’s prescription isn’t any of your business then, is it?”

“He’s my teammate,” repeats Kent stubbornly. “I’m just worried about him.”

“So you’d do this for any of your teammates?”

“Not all of my teammates are as good as Jack,” says Kent slowly. He’s not sure what Gobeil’s getting at, and he’s wary.

“So it’s just for the good of the team?”

Kent doesn’t squirm. “And Jack’s my friend,” he says. And, yeah, he’s friendly with all his teammates, but Jack’s his best friend. Jack’s the only person he’s ever met who gets hockey the way Kent does.

Gobeil leans across the desk.

“If someone finds out you’re a - ” Gobeil says a word in Quebecois, a word Kent has learned not to flinch at, and he doesn’t flinch now. “What do you think that will do to your career? To Jack’s?”

Kent keeps his face very still. “That’s disgusting,” he says.

Gobeil leans back in his chair and shrugs. “You’re not as clever as you think you are, Parson,” and then he waves his hand, a gesture to leave.

“Noted,” says Kent, inflectionless. He rises to leave.“Thank you, sir.”

“Just be careful, Parson,” says Gobeil, as Kent rises to leave. “Not everyone you meet is going to be as tolerant as me.”

Kent pauses at the door. He turns. Gobeil raises his eyebrows.

“Yes?” he says.

“Gruber’s too slow,” says Kent. “You gotta move him or something.”

Gobeil snorts. “Okay, Parson,” he says. He’s already looking at his papers again. “‘Noted.’”

**

His billet parents buy him new pants that evening, which is nice, but they keep getting stopped at the store by people who recognize Kent.

“He’s staying with us,” says his billet-dad proudly, hand on Kent’s shoulder.

Kent smiles politely and shakes everyone’s hand, signs a couple purse-napkins and crumpled receipts.

He messages Jack about it when he gets home, starts thinking about buying a cellphone again. It’d be a lot easier to talk to Jack all the time if he didn’t have to be chained to the LaRivieres' hulking desktop to message him.

pretty sure Hugh‘d of said he was my dad if he cld get away w it

Victory has a thousand fathers, messages Jack back, like he’s Yoda or some shit like that. Kent snorts fondly. Too bad his real father’s a deadbeat.

is that why you have so many uncles?

haha, messages Jack, then: can I come over tonight?

yeah, says Kent immediately. i gotta model my new pants

**

He lies awake that night, Jack peaceful and asleep beside him. But Kent’s legs are aching fiercely. It’s okay, though, he tells himself. It means he’s growing. The pain is gonna mean something.

2/21 at Lewiston

They lose, and Kent slinks back into the locker room to chaos. Grubs is standing in the middle of a flurry of activity, looking puck-whacked. Goibel is talking to him, close-faced, unnervingly calm.

“What’s going on?” says Kent, sliding into a seat next to Jack.

Jack’s white-faced, tense. “They just traded Grubs to Cape Breton.”

“What?” says Kent. “Now?’

Jack nods. He looks at Kent, but Kent can’t meet his eyes.

“They want him to play tomorrow,” says Jack. “So he has to… decide right now.”

“That’s brutal,” says Kent.

“That’s hockey,” says Jack, and then over both of them, Grubs yells, “This is bullshit.”

“It’s a good team,” says Goibel, unmoved. “Now come on, Gruber. Either you keep playing hockey or you don’t. That’s the decision.”

Grubs is silent for a long moment. Nobody in the locker room can look at anyone. Kent feels sick, but it’s not his fault, he tells himself. If Goibel wanted to trade Grubs, he would’ve been planning it way before Kent said anything. It’s not like Kent has any actual pull with Goibel.

“Fuck,” says Grubs finally. “Fuck. Okay. Fuck.”

Kent looks up then and they all watch in silence as Grubs gets led away, and they’re all still silent after.

**

“That could be us,” says Jack in their room later. “That could be any of us.”

Kent stares at him. “What are you talking about?”

Jack looks back at him with wild eyes. “What happened to Grubs?”

“Are you serious? Grubs sucked. You said so yourself.”

“I thought you liked Grubs?”

“Yeah, but he wasn’t very good,” says Kent. He lies down and faces away, hoping Jack’ll take it as a cue Kent doesn’t want to talk.

But Jack’s never met a social cue he couldn’t totally ignore.

“Are you serious?” demands Jack.

Kent glares at him. “Serious about what? Grubs not being very good? None of us are here to make friends, Jack. And you’re the one who said he was slow!”

Jack doesn’t say anything. He fumbles for his pills, and Kent sits up abruptly.

“Are you being serious right now?”

Jack’s breathing is rapid and shallow. He takes two pills in quick succession, and Kent’s furious. It’s idiotic. Even with his current slump, there’s no way Jack’s getting traded. It’s insulting, even. Jack always has to make everything about himself.

“You’re being ridiculous,” snaps Kent. “No one’s gonna trade you!”

Jack continues to ignore him. He’s focused on some spot on the carpet, and his breath is still coming in thin, frantic gasps. The first time Kent saw Jack do this, he was terrified. He thought Jack was dying. He knows better now.

He gets to his feet and slams out of the hotel room.

By the time he’s calmed down enough to come back, Jack is stretched out on his bed. He struggles onto his elbow as Kent comes in.

“Hey,” says Jack with big, sad eyes and a big, downturned mouth. “I’m sorry.”

Kent sits down on the bed with Jack. He knuckles Jack’s head gently.

“What are you sorry for, Zimms?” he asks.

Jack visibly struggles with the question. It’s pretty obvious he just said he was sorry because he thought that was what Kent wanted to hear.

“It’s okay,” says Kent quietly. He rubs Jack’s shoulder. Even on as much medication as he is, Jack’s muscles still feel locked up.

“I just feel like I’m disappointing everyone,” mumbles Jack. He puts his head on Kent’s thigh, and Kent rests his hand in Jack’s hair.

He looks down at Jack. He didn’t know it was possible to miss someone you’re around all the time.

“I wish you didn’t take so many pills,” he says, a little raw, a lot honest. “I think they fuck you up.”

Jack shakes his head mutely. His eyes are kind of glazed. Kent hates that expression on Jack. Jack should be focused, sharp - not this strange, lax thing.

“I mean it,” says Kent. His voice cracks. “I only - ”

He only feels real when he’s with Jack, he thinks, and Jack’s not even here half the time. But there’s no way to say that.

“It’s okay, Kenny,” says Jack groggily. He sits up pats Kent’s face in a way that should make Kent want to smile. But, mainly, he just kind of wants to cry. He’s getting fucking sick of this. It’s all gonna be worth it when they’re in the NHL, but he’s getting fucking sick of this.

“Maybe you should take one,” says Jack. “Then you’ll see.”

He shakes the pill bottle in Kent’s face.

Kent stares at him.

“I’m good, dude,” he says. He takes the bottle gently from Jack and pockets it. Jack gazes at him serenely.

“It’ll make you feel better,” says Jack.

“I don’t need to feel better,” says Kent. He makes himself smile. He knows it’s pretty convincing because he convinces people with it all the time.

“See?” He laughs. “I’m good, Zimms. You should get some sleep.”

Jack looks at him for awhile, his pupils pinpricked, and then nods. Kent waits patiently as Jack lies back down, and then he walks into the bathroom, a half-formed thought tickling at the back of his mind. The pills rattle in his pocket.

Kent makes lists, sometimes, of everything he’s going to pay for with his first NHL paycheck: the car, the phone, the watch, the fine Italian suit. Every missed child support check from his dad so he and his mom can shake hands and call themselves square. There are things he wants he doesn’t even have a name for yet; he just knows them by the shape of his longing.

But money won’t make Jack better, or he’d already be fine.

He hesitates; he glances back into the room. Jack is lying on the bed, eyes half-open, staring at the ceiling. Kent reads the label on the bottle: one a day.

He looks out at Jack again. Sometimes, like now, when he looks at Jack, sometimes, he gets a pain behind his ribs that he doesn’t know how to explain.

He closes the door and turns on the shower.

Then, he tips the bottle out over the toilet. And he flushes the pills down.

**

Jack shakes him awake in the morning. They have a game that night, against Drummond, and Kent’s immediate thought is he’s late for the team bus.

“A minute - ” he starts, and then he’s flailing, falling out of bed, smacking hard into the ground and getting all the wind knocked out of him.

“What did you do with my pills?” demands Jack.

Oh, shit, thinks Kent. He feels wide awake now. He hauls himself up onto his hands and knees and tries to get his breath back. Kent notices with an eerie distance that Jack’s feet are bare on the carpet, that the ridged veins on the top of them are almost green beneath the translucence of Jack’s skin.

He keeps looking at Jack’s feet because he doesn’t want to look at his face.

“Parson!”

“I flushed them,” Kent manages finally, wheezing.

“You flushed - ”

Jack’s hands are on him then, hauling him up. Jack slams him against the wall, hard enough to make the landscape hung between the beds shake. Kent gags for air again. He forgets how much bigger and stronger than him Jack is. Jack spends so much of his time slouching through life, and he’s only ever really scary on the ice, and never against Kent. But here’s Kent, pinned against the wall, held a few inches above the ground. Jack’s face is way too close to Kent’s, rage-pale, and his breath is sleep sour and ragged.

And he’s shaking.

“You sabotaged me,” says Jack.

Kent closes his eyes

“Why would I need to sabotage you, Zimmermann?” he says softly. He opens his eyes, smiles. “I’m already better than you.”

Jack drops him, jerking away like Kent’s a snake. Kent stays on his feet, but he slams his elbow against the wall in the process. It fucking hurts, a sharp jolt of pain lancing down his forearm and making his hand go numb.

“You’re - you’re evil,” says Jack.

Kent sinks down slowly into a squat and covers his face with his hands. He did it to help Jack, the asshole. He feels hysterical, and it’s all he can do to shove down the giddy, ugly laughter bubbling up in his throat.

“Shut up, Jack,” he says, throughs his hands. His elbows throbs. “We’re gonna miss the bus.”

2/22 at Drummondville

They win, but they barely look at each other the entire game. Doesn’t matter. Kent still knows exactly where Jack is, every second they’re together on the ice. Zimmermann to Parson to Zimmermann and goal.

“You’re welcome,” says Kent, when he skates up to Jack for the celly. Jack looks at him, just a blankness on his face, and turns away.

**

Kent stays up late in Spider and Churchy’s room, playing Egyptian Rat Screw because Churchy’s a sadist who wears rings and loves slapping the shit out of people. Spider keeps wanting to talk about Grubs’ trade - “Fucking unbelievable, is what it is. Fucking shameful.” - and between the two of them it’s almost enough to make Kent leave. Except he really doesn’t want to run into Jack.

There’s a knock on the door.

“Fuck,” says Churchy. He shoves the beer he’s drinking under the bed.

“Come in!” yells Spider, not bothered enough to do the same with his.

The door opens. Kent guesses he shouldn’t be surprised that it’s Jack.

“Parse,” says Jack stiffly. “Can we talk?”

Kent hears Churchy suck his breath in sharply, little bit of a whistle as it slides through the gap where his front incisor got knocked out last month. Kent’d knock the other one out if he had any realistic belief in the possibility.

“Sure,” says Kent, after too long. Jack’s face has gone beet red.

They go walking down the hallway. Jack doesn’t say anything. Kent keeps glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, but Jack has his head down, like he’s studying the carpet. Kent shoves his hands in his pockets and assumes a neutral expression. He feels like he should apologize, but he feels like Jack should apologize, too. Which means, he’s pretty sure, that neither of them will.

“They got me new pills,” says Jack finally.

Kent doesn’t say anything.

“They make me better,” says Jack. “Don’t you want me to be better?”

Kent looks at him slantwise. Jack’s expression is earnest and confused, like a dog that doesn’t understand why you’re mad it pissed on your bed.

“They make you better at hockey,” he says, though he kinda doubts that.

“Yeah,” insists Jack. “They make me better.”

“You could do it without the pills. You just don’t want to.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” snaps Jack. “Just because everything’s so easy for you - ”

“Sure,” says Kent. “I have no fucking clue what an amazing player you are. Because you actually suck and you wouldn’t be anyone if it weren’t for me making you look good.”

A muscle jumps in Jack’s jaw. He doesn’t say anything. A bad move. He should know better than to give Kent any space to maneuver.

“G is right. I’m the one carrying the team right now.”

Jack turns sharply to face him. Kent thinks, for a tilting second, that Jack’s about to hit him. He squares his shoulders and braces for it. Kent’s used to getting hit by guys who want to hurt him more than Jack does. He’s been getting hit by guys like that for a long fucking time now.

“I’m better than you,” he says, meeting Jack’s eyes. “And everyone would already know that if you didn’t have your dad to hide behind.”

This time, when Jack shoves him against the wall, he kisses him, too.

Kent pushes him away, hard. Jack stares back, bewildered.

“Someone’ll see us,” hisses Kent.

He straightens his shirt, and he doesn’t look at Jack as he walks away.

**

On the bus, he drops into the seat next to Spider. Spider raises his eyebrows slowly.

“Trouble in paradise?” he asks.

“Shut up or I’ll bite you,” says Kent, and then he closes his eyes and pretends to sleep the whole ride back.

**

Jack doesn’t show up next morning to pick Kent up. Kent knows he can get a ride from someone for the team practice, but he’s pissed. Jack’s being a fucking coward.

At least it’s not too far to the rink. And it’s not that cold.

The sky spits snow as he walks. It’s too early for that many cars to be on the road, too late for any of them to be leaving bars. So Kent just keeps his head down and puts one foot in front of the other. His boots start to get soggy from the half-churned, slushy ice on the side of the road, and he shivers. But he’s over halfway there by that point. He keeps walking, as the sky never truly lightens and the snow falls harder.

He’s cold. It gets into him, through his shoes and through the gap between his sleeves and his gloves and down the back of his neck, until it all seems to settle deep inside him. He wraps his arms around himself and bows his head against the snow. He starts to shiver.

Jack’s car is in the Coliseum parking lot.

Kent marches inside. He doesn’t bother to shake off the snow or de-layer, just stomps straight to the rink, leaving pieces of snow behind him. Jack’s standing in the middle of the ice, a bucket of pucks next to him as he takes shots on the open net. He must hear Kent, but he doesn’t turn. He just keeps taking shot after shot, the puck going into the upper righthand corner every time.

“You’re an asshole!” yells Kent. In the empty rink, his voice echoes.

Jack finally looks at him. His eyes are just as blank, just as unreadable as if Kent couldn’t see them at all.

“What do you want, Parson?” he says flatly.

“I want you to get over yourself,” says Kent. He hops the barrier and stomps over.

“Fuck off,” says Jack. “You have no idea what it’s like for me.”

Kent tries to shove him, but Jack’s too solid. He just thumps his hands, ineffectually, against Jack’s shoulders. Jack grabs his wrists, won’t let go when Kent tries to jerk away. Jack’s pupils are tiny and his irises are a pale, windswept blue, like the sky on a very cold day, scraped clean of clouds, right before dawn. Kent’s already shivering, but he shudders harder now. There is something about Jack’s eyes, sometimes, that scares him.

“Fuck you,” he says. “It’s not any harder for you than it is for the rest of us.”

Jack’s hands tighten around his wrists.

“Like you’re so fucking good,” says Kent, his teeth chattering. He keeps getting colder despite being inside. “But god forbid anyone be better than you! It’s still not like you’re in any danger of getting sent to fucking —. You’re always crying about your dad. Like oh my god, what if I disappoint my dad? At least your dad cares, Jack! At least he can fucking afford this shit! What the hell are you so freaked out about?”

Jack’s hands keep tightening around his wrists. A warning, Kent knows. He should shut up, Kent knows. He’s gonna get hit for real this time. He’s practically daring Jack to do it. But he’s so angry and it keeps coming out of him, like there’s an endless well of bile in him that he’s just discovered, that he has to get out immediately. He takes a breath to keep going and one of Jack’s hands flashes forward, seals over Kent’s mouth.

“Shut. Up,” says Jack.

Kent glares and then breathes out slowly through his nose. He feels his anger start to leak out of him, leaving him shakier than before. There’s a shift in Jack’s eyes then. A flicker. He comes back from wherever it is he goes.

“Crisse, Kenny. You’re freezing.”

He releases Kent and then grabs him by the shoulders, starts hauling him bodily in the direction of the locker room.

“Yes!” yells Kent. “Because I had to fucking walk here!”

Jack flinches, but he doesn’t otherwise react. He just keeps pulling and shoving Kent towards the locker room. Kent considers resisting. But it’s not worth it. He lets himself be dragged, limp and shaking as his grandmother’s least favorite yorkie, to the showers.

He starts to undress and then turns and scowls at Jack.

“You, too.”

“What?”

“I’m not going in unless you’re going in,” says Kent. He says it through wildly chattering teeth, so it’s probably not as persuasive as it could be.

Or maybe it is, because Jack makes a deep, disgruntled noise in his chest and throat and then pulls his jersey off.

“Someone might see us,” he says, with a tight, sour expression, but he’s started on his pants, so Kent knows Jack is just being cranky. Kent laughs. Jack’s hair is sticking up slightly, in the back, from pulling his jersey up.

“Not this early,” he manages through his teeth. He fumbles with the zipper on his jacket, and Jack makes another disgruntled, animal noise. He steps forward and strips Kent efficiently - “You’re so romantic,” says Kent; Jack snorts - and then shoves him into the stall and flips the water on.

Kent yelps when it hits him. Jack stands a foot away, shivering now, too, naked in the unheated room.

“God, you’re impossible,” says Kent. He pulls Jack towards him, so that they’re both under the water’s flow.

Tentatively, he puts his arms around Jack, and, just as tentatively, Jack puts his around Kent. They’ve seen each other naked in the locker room and they’ve gotten each other off and they’ve held each other, in the dark and after parties. But this feels different, somehow. It’s not about hockey, and it’s not about sex. It’s just about them. And it’s just them, sober and awake beneath the fluorescent light.

They sway together, a bit. Jack rubs Kent’s back in slow circles, almost absently. Kent presses his nose into Jack’s shoulder.

“You don’t need to be better, Zimms,” he says softly. He closes his eyes. He can feel Jack’s heart - thunderous, but slowing. He wishes there were a way he could make Jack see himself the way Kent sees him: dedicated and brilliant and blessed. But he doesn’t have the words. He rests his chin on Jack’s shoulder. “You just need to chill out.”

Jack doesn’t say anything. He just sighs, his chest expanding against Kent’s. They continue just to sway, as steam rises around them and water falls against the tile, which at that hour, and in that space, provides the only sound.