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draft lottery

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i.

zimms do you have my glove i can't find it
jack
can you check your bag pls
it was inside my shoe nevermind
what time we meeting tomorrow
zimms where are you
[19:17 (1) Missed Call - Kent]
pick up your phone ugh
[19:43 (1) Missed Call - Kent]
you okay?
jack?
[20:03 (3) Missed Calls - Kent]

It's Alicia who picks up and that's bad, and then the first thing she says is "He's sleeping," which is so much worse. No small talk, no "thanks for calling," no "I'll just pass you over."

Kent says, "How's he doing?" which is an objectively stupid question, because Jack's in hospital, he overdosed, he's gonna miss the draft for God's sake. He's probably doing pretty fucking terribly. But Kent doesn't know what to say, when he can't say "I thought he was dead."

Down the line, Alicia's breathing sounds ragged, and that's bad too because she's Alicia Zimmerman, she's warm and calm and unfuckwithable like the summer or some shit.

"Physically he'll make a full recovery," she says and that's fucking horrible because those are doctor words, and they're words that should never even be said about Jack Zimmerman's knee ligaments, let alone his organs and his brain. Kent makes what he hopes is a positive sound and then doesn't have anything to say again. Alicia doesn't help him and the line is almost dead between them.

"I'm sorry." He says it to fill the silence and then suddenly it's the truest thing he's ever said. "I should have-- I'm sorry." There's a whole torrent of feeling backed up behind the words but he dams it quick, because he doesn't know what will come out. He doesn't know what he's sorry for and doesn't know what he should have done, but he's sorry for something and he should have done more.

"Did you know he was this bad?" Maybe that's what he's sorry for. Knowing. Not knowing. Alicia sounds hollowed out. Kent tells her the truth.

"I. Maybe, I don't know, maybe." No, not until this morning but now looking at it, yes, he knew and that maybe makes this his fault.

Except, he thinks, nobody else noticed and that makes it their fault because it's not like Jack was hiding it, not like he hasn't been swinging from grey and agitated to loose and silent off the ice for months now. If they didn't see it it's because they didn't want to. He sure didn’t want to, but he saw it anyway.

"Knew he was taking his meds too much. When I mentioned it he freaked out, worst I've ever seen, so I backed off. Think maybe it made him worse, feeling like I was keeping an eye on him or judging or whatever."

Alicia sighs, but she doesn't tell him it wasn't his fault. Somewhere in the background there's the sound of a door opening, and the phone moving away from Alicia's mouth as she says, "It's Kent." His stomach flips a second before he remembers that Jack's asleep, so it wasn't him that opened the door.

"Good of you to call," says Bob, and starts to say something else when Kent cuts in.

"Can I come see him?"

There's another pause on the line. "It's family only right now, son."

Bob sounds sincere, regretful, and it does nothing to stop the savage hysteria that bubbles up in Kent's chest. He bites down on the inside of his cheek until he tastes metal.

"We'll keep you updated. And -- good luck next week."

Next week. Without Jack. He has to take a deep breath before he replies.

"Thanks. Tell Jack I called, yeah?"

"Of course, absolutely--" Bob sounds distracted.

Kent can hear Alicia murmuring to someone, a nurse probably, and then, faint as anything, he hears "Kenny?"

He hangs up.

It takes him a couple of minutes to realise there's no follow-up text he can send. He wants to talk to Jack, like he used to when he came home and his mom was down again and he didn’t know what else to do. He can't, though, and there's nobody else who'd listen, so he plugs his phone in to charge. Then he picks up his bag and heads to the rink, alone.

 

ii.

[Draft] hope you're doing oka
[Draft] you should be here it's not
[Draft] seeing as i'm in montreal can i come visit
[Draft] hi alicia just wondering how jack's doing i haven't heard from him
[Draft] i miss you

[Draft] you should be here

The best day of his life was always going to have a bitter note to it, but he hadn't expected it to taste like actual bile. Kent stares at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. This was supposed to be a triumph, the payoff for a short lifetime of effort. Being first pick was meant to feel like vindication. Jack was meant to have this moment, is the thing, because of destiny or something. First pick should have made Kent the villain of the piece, the guy who sabotaged Bad Bob's legacy, who got in the way of a dynastic fairytale with his own, lesser fairytale of hard work and exceptional talent. The American Dream tends to break down in the face of inheritance, and anyway, Jack's Canadian. Instead it's a horror show and he can see Jack in everyone’s eyes. At least all but one of the reporters has had the decency not to ask him outright.

He does deserve to go first, is the thing, a sick certainty in the back of his mind all week. Jack's good - Jack was good - but Kent's exceptional. Jack plays hockey like he learned it from a manual. He's a technically perfect player, he reads the game well, he's a remarkable athlete, and, on the ice at least, he's a leader. It's what he was born to do. But if Jack's the tape you show juniors to get them to understand the game, Kent's the highlight compilation. Kent's the homemade end-of-season montage with the heavy backing track and the title on YouTube that reads something like ***INSANE SKILLS*** NHL TOP 20 MOMENTS 2008.

Jack would make an amazing addition to any decent team. Kent's the kind of player teams get built around from scratch.

His reflection looks so normal. He feels like something should show on his face. Everything's changed in the past week. Or maybe it hasn't. He went first, which might have happened anyway, would have been a fair outcome even if it never seemed likely. He's off to Vegas, which he’d barely let himself hope for.

He’s spent more time thinking about it than he'd been able to admit to, though. It’s not like he could have told Jack. Now it’s a reality, and the guilt is the wrong flavor. Suddenly he's not first pick in the draft over Jack Zimmermann, and where being selected ahead of Jack would have been a quiet satisfaction, going first without him has Kent hiding out in a bathroom, throwing up.

The mirror doesn't show any of that. It's just his face, a little tired and a little flushed. He splashes it with water and goes back out into the limelight.

 

iii.

[Drafts (1)]
Hey Jack,
Don't know if you changed your number or maybe you just don't want to talk to me anymore but I thought I'd say hi. You remember how your dad always said rookie year was hell and all you did was play and train and try not to fall asleep on your skates? He was right except I think probably it's gotten worse since he started playing because now the coaches are all about sport science and nutritionists and there's all the media stuff to do and all I really want to do is play so its a lot. Lot more bullshit than the Q. Anyway how are you doing?

Jack haunts him on the ice, in the locker rooms, in the strange too-quiet apartment he rents. He doesn't decorate because it isn't home. There's one photo jammed in the frame of a mirror, his mom and sister smiling out as he passes without looking at it, and a whole box of them shoved in the bottom of a massive closet. Jack's in there, smiling face and round cheeks and arm thrown over Kent's shoulders. There are other photos, more recent, Jack’s eyes overbright and face turned thin, twisting in its corners. Kent doesn't have to look at pictures to see him.

His team invites him out, but they don’t much seem to like him. They know him, know Kent Parson the star, the prodigy, the thief who found an unlocked door and made himself at home in an empty house. He doesn’t know them. He feels too young, like his name has grown too big for him. These are players used to the muted colors of midtable results, the shared gloom of heavy losses. The spotlight on him casts deep shadows, and they might be used to living in the shade but this is different. They’d been expecting Jack, he’s sure of it, and they’d prepared for the steady warming blaze of a passed torch. Instead they have Kent and his flash-grenade play. But he works hard in training, and he gets time on the ice, and the Aces start to win. Regular starts means more travel; more travel means more time spent with his teammates. The wariness turns into grudging respect, then outright appreciation when matches become tests of skill, not resilience. They play the Oilers at home and it’s the best match of Kent’s professional career, flying across the ice. He can feel the crowd’s wild excitement at his back as he carves up the opposition for one, two, no three impossible goals. The team rushes him when the final whistle blows, and it’s the first time their appreciation feels more than rote.

Off the ice, he trains, he eats, he goes back to the apartment. He trains more, eats more, goes back to the apartment again. Somewhere along the line he starts thinking of it as home. He obsesses over his stats in the evenings, and he can hear whispers from the ghosts in the box, running the numbers quicker than he can, reaching his conclusions with ease while Kent has to work for them. He works hard, and he's proud of that, proud of the muscle he's packing on and of the way he's proving to everyone that he earned his place at the top of the draft. He's not the frontrunner for the Calder - some Czech kid with a surname Kent can’t spell started the season like his skates were on fire - but he isn't out of it either. There’s time left in the season, and his focus is absolute now. His world has become so very small.

 

iv.

[Drafts (7)]
Your mom said you're thinking about college. That'd be cool. Actually no it sounds like hell to me but you're the one who likes reading and old shit and I guess maybe you'll really fuck I'm not gonna send this like I didn't send the last one and the last one and I'm never gonna find the fucking words why didn't you reply to my messages FUCK

He orders a Kindle, and starts to read. Sports biographies at first, all of them the same story of hard work and love of the game and occasional flicker of raw truth that sparks and burns out under the hands of the ghostwriter, until some tennis player his mom liked opens up about how much he hated the game and sends Kent's head spinning. He shoves the Kindle under his bed, one more specter to share his apartment.

 

v.

[Drafts (13)]
hey jack i'm playing in montreal next week are you still around

He loses his helmet in Canada, takes a stick to the mouth, spits a tooth bloody on the ice in a moment all gone wrong. It's a spectacle, a circus, an instant where the entire rink gasps in pain alongside him. It's not their blood, they can't taste it. He's headline news again that evening.

He isn't concussed, so by the next weekend the story's gone cold, though he's put up for press with a purple-green shadow along his jaw. A couple of questions are fired his way, and when he says he's fine the reporters look disappointed. He only plays one period, but he gets an assist anyway. The Aces win, just barely, and he gets his shoulders slapped by half the team. They go for dinner, after, and Kent barely eats. There's a pulpy mess at the back of his mouth, and he can't keep his tongue away from it.

 

vi.

[Drafts (19)]
do you know how fucking pathetic it is that i'm writing you emails i don't ever send you what the fuck is wrong with me. anyway. hope you're happy these days. i'm not.

The Jack who lives in his head, in a box, in his drafts gets all his honesty, all the truth and bitterness they never shared. The world sees Kent thrive. He cleans up at the club awards for the season, snags the Calder with much less ease than he would have liked, but in the end he's relieved to have gotten it at all. History won't record the names of the other contenders. His first season in the league gets glowing writeups, or so he's told. He tries to read one, and it mentions Jack in the first paragraph, because of course it does. The Kent Parson story will always star Jack Zimmerman.

Then it's the off-season, and Kent has time. For two weeks the team won't train at all. At first it makes his skin itch - he hasn't arranged to go back to his family yet, because he doesn't know what to say to them when they ask how he is. He's afraid, too, that if he goes, he won't be able to make himself come back. The training complex is shut, so he does pull-ups in his apartment and digs his Kindle out from its exile, buys the first three books at the top of the fiction chart, and tears through one of them. It sucks.

The third day there's a text from Sam, who's been at the Aces his whole career, has a house and a family and everything. The message is light, reads like a responsible captain checking in on his guys, but it ends with an invitation to a barbecue that feels pointed somehow. Kent almost deletes it, doesn't, goes to make a smoothie, and then in between repellent mouthfuls of nutritious slop texts back a yes without meaning to, bribed by the fantasy of grilled meat (and maybe company). The next evening he finds himself taking a taxi that abandons him outside some generic suburban house. It's big, sure, but not what he'd expected. He didn't think Vegas had normal houses like this, and he tells Sam so. He doesn't think he's misreading the shadow of concern in his captain's eyes, and he's proved right when he goes to leave, and Sam corners him for a chat that's two-thirds unsaid things.

The next morning he books a flight home. His sister tackles him when she sees him, plants her face in his shoulder and cries. Over her head, his mom’s smile is warm.

 

vii.

All through preseason he can feel something building under his skin. His sister comes out for a long weekend, watches a warm-up game they win easily. He takes her to see the sites, touristy shit he didn’t bother with when he arrived. Sam invites them for dinner with a handful of the other guys. At some point in the evening the topic of Thanksgiving comes up - the Aces are playing in Vegas on the Friday, so for the second year running Kent won’t be heading home. He mentions this, and by the end of the meal finds himself with invitations from three senior players to spend it with their families.

By the time they start to play competitive games the team has reshaped itself around him. There's a rhythm to their play that feels like freedom, feels like light in his veins. He starts scoring, and doesn't stop. He doesn't have a Jack to set him up, but he has every man in the squad doing all they can to get the puck to him, let him find space on the ice, cover his back. Hockey is easy to him again.

Pressure builds with the Aces’ momentum, but Kent barely notices it at all, except as another force propelling him forward. Opposing teams start to target him in earnest, and still he keeps on scoring. Reporters ask pointed questions meant to probe at weaknesses he no longer has and he grins at them, doesn’t answer in words. The headlines follow the wins, the goals, the miracle passes, and then the talk of awards starts coming. He doesn't let himself dream, still knows too well how little use there is in dreams, but other people whisper about it and he doesn't shut them out.

Kent knows as well as anyone that success is unstable, and he could go down hard, lose form, end the season in a boot on the sidelines. Some other team could hit their stride and go on a streak. But playing like this, the whole squad behind him, he could end the season - his second fucking season - with the Hart, the Art Ross, and the Lindsay, and the motherfucking Stanley Cup. He's barely twenty years old, and he's looking at history.

When it comes, it just feels right.

 

[Outbox]
Hey Jack,
I'll be in Boston next weekend. You around? I can come down to your college if that's better for you. Don't think I have your number anymore, mine's still the same.