When Jack wakes up in the hospital bed, cotton-mouthed and sore, it takes him a moment to realize that the man slumped in the visitor’s chair is the wrong shade of blond.
He blinks through crusty eyes and croaks, “D’eau?”
The man perks up, his own eyes watery. “Oh, Jack! You’re awake, thank god—” and grabs for a water bottle.
Jack accepts it awkwardly, takes sips while the man continues to speak. The words wash over him, his head not quite cooperating. He’s confused— the last thing he remembers—
The last thing he remembers—
“Who are you?” he interrupts, piecing the words together. “Where, why am I in the hospital?”
The man subsides, eyes blowing wide. “I— Jack, you took a hit. You’re in the hospital. Honey—”
“I don’t,” Jack scrabbles at his arm, jolting on the IV drip. “I don’t remember that. The draft, what happened with the draft?”
It turns out that Jack's missed the draft. He’s also missing the past eight years of his life. The latter should probably be sending his anxiety into overdrive. Instead, it feels too fake to worry about.
He’s not sure what it says about his future that he didn’t expect to have a future. He’s not sure what it says about him that it’s laughable that this is supposed to be his life.
He’s playing for a team that didn’t exist when he got drafted. Or didn’t get drafted. He didn’t get drafted. He fucked around and went to college and played NCAA of all things, like that makes a single iota of sense. He took some of his best playing years and flushed them down the drain.
And he’s engaged. To a man.
It’s a twisted cosmic joke.
At the end of the day, it’s simple. Kent is in Las Vegas.
So Jack goes to Las Vegas.
He doesn’t have the address, and he doesn’t know who to ask for it. His phone is hard enough to figure out, and the contact list is an endless scroll of names he doesn’t recognize. The names he expects to see aren’t there. He doesn’t even have Kent’s number in his phone. Who’s he going to ask? His fiance? His parents?
His parents have always been wary of Kent. Of who Jack is when he’s around Kent. Seems like they were being honest about not minding the gay thing, it’s not that he’s a boy, but Jack have you considered— They were being honest, or they’ve come around, or they’ve settled down over it, so long as he’s conformed his choices, chosen someone close enough to a WAG, even if he’s failed on the most important point. Tiny, blond. Perfectly coiffed. Supportive to his partner. Charming to the press. Ring on the finger. A homemaker.
Bringing pie to the hospital. Who even does that. He’s— this guy, this guy is like.
Jack might be gay, but he’s not. He’s not fucking gay like that.
He’s loitering near the gate, ball cap pulled low over his eyes and waiting for the agent to call first class, when it becomes clear there’s only one real option. He’s a big name now, isn’t he? He’s got an agent who he pays himself. He’s got people. He’s got an iPhone that mostly works like the one he remembers. Someone who works for him has to know where to find Kent Parson. Someone’s got to be able to narrow it down.
There’s a party going on at the house. The black car drops him off, the forgettable driver either well-trained or forewarned not to try for small talk. Jack gets out with a nod and looks up at the place he’s been brought. The lights are on. He can hear voices through the door.
The door’s not even locked. He slips in. This, at least, is familiar: a crowd of people he doesn’t want to talk to, and somewhere in the middle of it he’ll find Parse. He wants a drink but that’s not what he’s here for. Parse first, then they’ll figure out the rest of it.
The house isn’t as big as his parents’ place, but it’s bigger than most of the places they’ve gotten shitfaced in together. It’s not packed but it’s crowded, overwhelming: the low pulse of a playlist filled with songs he doesn’t recognize and conversations pitched louder over the music.
Most of the guys are built like hockey players, and most of the girls are built like girlfriends. Some of them look at him like they recognize him, like they’re surprised, like they’re not sure why he’s here.
Fuck them. He’s got as much a right to be here as anyone. He gives out half-nods and pushes his way through. He doesn’t bother to smile. He’s not very good at it anyway.
Parse is posted up next to a pool table no one’s playing at. There’s a plethora of directional bulbs in the ceiling shining down on the tarp and throwing shallow shadows off the flotsam of tiny plates and plastic cups. Parse is crowned with light and holding court, his guests angled towards him like flowers stretching towards the sun.
He looks different than Jack remembers. It pulls Jack up short for a second.
Parse is probably telling one of his rambling stories. The ones where he spends half the runtime grinning, insisting as his audience howls with disbelief. Jack used to fall asleep in the bus seat next to him while Kent was quietly laughing through a story like that, talking to Charlie or Beamer across the aisle. The sound of his voice wasn’t anything in particular, neither melodious nor polished nor carefully filed down. It was simply familiar, and there were very few things in Jack’s life whose planes and edges he knew half so well, so familiar was powerful all the same.
One of the couples breaks away at a pause, and Jack sees his chance and takes it. He moves in like a skate blade cutting through clean ice. Enough force, enough speed, and nothing can stop you.
“Can I talk to you?” Jack says, ignoring the guy who’s standing next to Parse with eyebrows creeping towards his hairline.
Parse is staring. His mouth has snapped shut, lips pressed together in a neat pink line. The other guy puts a hand on Parse’s neck, squeezes lightly, then slides it back to his shoulder. The friction pulls at the fabric. It warps across his shoulders, showing a flash of his collarbone. Jack’s eyes catch on it, a quick dip before his focus goes back to Parse’s face. The hand falls.
Parse looks away from Jack, for a second, and he must be a little less opaque to this guy, this nobody, because they sort of nod at each other, and the other guy goes. Jack doesn’t turn to watch where he goes, but the conversations around them bank down. Good. Jack hopes they all leave.
He used to be subtler about this. No less demanding, but he’d always have an alibi ready, an excuse ready to trot out if anyone happened to ask. No one ever did, but Jack still wrote them in his head in the shower, running his lines under the hot spray.
What’s the point of keeping secrets anymore? Jack is out. Jack is out and it’s not even a big deal, apparently, which is, god it’s certainly something.
People know he’s gay, and if people know that then they’ve got to know about Kenny, because Jack isn’t subtle after all, and if anyone knows about him they’ve got to have been able to see it immediately. They’ve got to be able to tell just by looking at him. If one domino falls the whole tower goes.
It’s obvious, all obvious, his hand resting on Parse’s thigh, Parse half-in his lap or pressed against Jack knee to hip, the two of them turned toward each other like the line of the crease and the curve of the net. At least one photo has snuck online, given Jack a panic attack when he woke up the next morning and scrolled through on his phone. When he got too fucked up to remember to be cool, forgot where the line was or just let himself drift over it, because Kenny was right there, his hot skin too tempting for Jack not to touch.
He’d tried to be subtle but people had known. He’s sure people had known. That’s why he’d been so scared. That’s why it had been so important, to make sure they didn’t find out that it wasn’t just buddies. That the first fucking domino never fucking fell.
What’s the point of being out, if he can’t come here and stake his claim. If he can’t come here and shut down the party and send all these people away. What’s the point of pretending he likes this when he doesn’t. He wants to talk to Parse. The party is a distraction. The people are window-dressing. The people staring at them like they’re some sort of sideshow are icing on the cake of things Jack doesn’t want to deal with, and cake isn’t in his meal plan so he’s not going to deal with it. He doesn’t have to. He’s free.
He doesn’t want to come here and see Parse with other friends, laughing with another guy, like he’s got room on his line for someone who isn’t Jack.
It shouldn’t matter, but it does. That should be Jack. Jack woke up in a hospital bed and Kent was nowhere to be found. It feels like a betrayal.
“What,” Jack says, in lieu of hello, chucking a nod over his shoulder, “he my replacement?”
Kent looks back at him, steady and unreadable. “That’s my center, Jack.”
He’s holding himself back. Jack doesn’t like that. It pisses him off. He goes in for the check, drawls: “You’ve got a type, huh.”
“Jesus,” Kent says, strangled. “Are you—” he notices that they’re drawing looks and lowers his voice, “on something right now? Did something happen? What are you doing here?”
Is he on something right now? Sure. Acetaminophen and anti-nausea medication. There’s a fun combination, an absolute barrel of laughs. No one offered anything else and Jack wasn’t going to ask for it, not alone in a hospital from a doctor he didn’t recognize.
Parse knows better than to ask that question. Parse knows Jack doesn’t like to be asked about it, that it puts his back right up when people get condescending over his coping mechanisms. It’s just a few drinks, mostly, he doesn’t need to be fussed at. Parse doesn’t say anything even if Jack catches him looking sometimes. Parse’s cool like that.
He’s been— had been— getting on Jack’s back about it a little more than usual. More of those looks, like Jack was supposed to do something with them. He’d only progressed to actually saying something about it once, trying to jump down Jack’s throat when he was letting loose after a tough loss against the Remparts. Jack had shut it down pretty well though, he thought, saying, “What are you, my mother?” Because nobody wanted to be compared to anyone’s mother, and Parse— who was blond and sharp-jawed, even despite the patchwork playoffs’ fuzz on his chin— could risk it even less. Kent had picked up the script, even if it had come out a little half-hearted, some dumb chirp about showing Jack’s mother a good time, and Jack had put him in a headlock, and then they’d gone to get more beer.
Except that was eight years ago, so Parse probably doesn’t remember.
“No,” Jack says. If he gives the game away too early, he’s not sure what Parse will do. “I need to talk to you. Can you get rid of everyone?” He licks his lip and presses his luck. “It’s important.”
“Jesus,” Kent repeats. “Jack. You’re kidding, right? This is my house, these are my friends,” and then he shuts up real fast and makes a face like he’s swallowed something sour.
“It’s important,” Jack insists. There’s an opening here. Blood in the water.
“I don’t get you, man,” Kent says, with a strangled laugh. He looks away from Jack, half-turns to consider the pool table, and runs a hand through his hair. He’s crumbling. “This is crazy, you know that, right?”
“You gonna kick me out, Kenny?” Jack asks, making his voice go a little rueful, a little husky, just this side of cajoling.
Kent stiffens at the tone: Jack sees it in his back. There’s a moment where Jack thinks, shit, maybe.
It’s gone as fast as it comes. Kent slumps in on himself. His shoulders bow forward. “No, Jack,” he says, low, not looking back. “I’m not going to kick you out.”
Kent says something to a woman, and then says something to a man, and ten minutes later the house is clearing out. He wanders off to stand by the door and accept goodbyes.
Jack doesn’t want to let Parse out of his sight, but he wants to hang in the background while he trades platitudes with his new teammates and their associated arm-candy even less. He distracts himself looking at the pictures hung up on the wall just long enough to realize he isn’t in any of them, then counts the wine-glasses collecting condensation on the sideboard instead. No coasters. He can imagine his mother’s reaction.
Eventually Parse pads back to find him. He’s turned the music off. The house is quiet, and Jack feels, all of a sudden, very tired.
“So,” Parse says, from three feet away.
“I wanted to see you,” Jack says.
“You wanted to see me,” he repeats. He looks— disbelieving.
“Yes,” says Jack, “I did.” He hesitates. He needs time. He needs a plan. Part of him thought if he got the two of them alone together, things would just make sense. Like this whole yarn-ball of a world would unravel at his feet. Now he’s here, the only thing unraveling is him. He doesn’t know what to say.
He wonders how much Kent’s had to drink. This would be easier, if Jack had a drink, if they both did. Kent doesn’t get drunk, not the way Jack does— did. I don’t like losing control, he’d confessed, walking back from one of the many no-name parties. Jack had been pretty drunk, himself, at the time, but that one he’d remembered. The way Parse had hunched in to himself, as though it was soft. It was pretty soft, Jack had thought, a little scornful. But he hadn’t minded. Not that he’d ever admit it out loud, then nor now, but he’d liked Parse soft.
This Kent seems— harder. If he tells him the truth, will he kick him out? Will he send him back to the hospital and all the things Jack isn’t ready to face? Jack can’t imagine it, but he couldn’t have imagined any of this. He couldn’t have imagined how Parse is looking at him right now. He isn’t ready to handle what Parse will do if Jack tells him the truth.
“It’s a long story,” Jack hedges. He just needs a little more time. “I’m, um, pretty tired. Long flight.”
“Right,” Kent says, “right. But like,” and then he stops himself up again, teeth combing over his bottom lip. “I just. God, Jack, you have to give me something, here.”
“I will,” Jack says. “I promise. Just, tomorrow, okay?”
“I—” Kent does that laugh again. The fake one. The one that means, I’m fucking lost in this conversation please send help. Jack’s only heard it when Kent was sending him the S.O.S.; he’s never been its cause. First time for a lot of things tonight. Or the first time he remembers. “Fuck. Okay. Sure. Tomorrow.” He rubs a hand over his hair again, parks it on the back of his own neck and squeezes. “I just. God. This really isn’t fair.”
“It’s fair, Kent, come on,” says Jack.
“Right.” Kent shakes his head. Squeezes the back of his own neck again. “Fuck, fine. Yeah, you’re right. Turnabout. I— come on.”
He leads Jack through the house and up a set of gaudy stairs in silence, pointing out the bathroom with as few words as possible. It’s uncomfortable. Awkward. If Jack didn’t know better, he’d guess Kent was mic’d up for the way he’s acting, but Kent mic’d up was always cracking jokes, cheesing for the audience at home. Jack was the one who went silent and sullen, and it’s hard to imagine that’s changed.
Kent deposits Jack in the guest suite with a modicum of fanfare. He’s on the verge of disappearing again when Jack breaks.
“Parse. We’re— we’re friends, aren’t we?” he asks, a little desperately.
He sees Kent falter, bracing one hand against the bedroom door. Collect himself. “That’s the thing, Jack. We’re really, really not.”
Jack doesn’t sleep well that night, but he does sleep, and when he wakes up it’s not to an alarm. His phone has died overnight. He could have bought a charger at the airport, or borrowed one from Parse, but he didn’t. He’s not interested in dodging whoever’s on the other side of it.
He didn’t actually pack anything. He got a cab right to the airport. He has his wallet and a dead phone and the clothes that were on his back. They’re pretty grody now, between the dried sweat, recycled cabin air and stale salted pretzel wrapper crunching in the back pocket.
There are some clothes in the dresser, even though it’s a guest room. Not a lot: a few tees, nondescript. Jack squints at them, rifling through. They look like they’ll fit him. They look like they’d be a little big on Parse. Friend? Teammate? Hookup? Rookie?
No way to tell.
He’s used to taking his pills in the morning. Also at other times, if he needs them. He doesn’t have any pills with him. Apparently he doesn’t take them anymore, or so the doctor had said, anyway. He’s not sure if he wants them. He’s used to wanting them. He sort of wants the rattle of the bottle, the option in his pocket. He’s out of his depth, here.
Jack doesn't have a problem. People who have problems keep all their trash piled on the floor with their possessions. People with problems can’t keep money in their pocket. They live, as his mother would say, with the faintest wrinkle across her sculpted nose, in squalor. They lie about their prescriptions, or lie about their problems to get more prescriptions. A doctor gave Jack his prescription. He didn’t have to steal it, or get it from one of the guys one of the guys knows.
Jack has a Cup. Two of them, now, actually. The second one’s a little more important, but he doesn’t remember winning it, so. It feels less important than the one he remembers raising. If he had a problem, he wouldn’t have a Cup. So he doesn’t have a problem.
He doesn’t have pills either. He misses the rattle.
When he makes his way downstairs, the house looks like it hosted a party where all the guests left in a hurry. Cups are set everywhere, still partially filled. There’s bright sunlight filtering in, white-hot and unappealing, especially in the kitchen where there aren’t any blinds.
There is, however, an uncomfortably large cat sitting on the counter, complete with a half-length tail and tufted ears, right between Jack and the coffee machine.
Jack’s allergic to cats. Not deathly allergic, but their dander makes him sneeze, and he’d rather not touch any, because sometimes his skin gets red and irritated. He stares at the cat and the cat stares back, unaffected, and then blinks and looks away. It begins washing a paw right there, like it has any business being there. Being here. One more fucking sign that this isn’t a place Jack is welcome. That this isn’t a place he’s expected to be.
Kent stumbles into the kitchen. Either he’s got ears as sharp as any cat’s or he was waiting for Jack to wake up. He brushes a hand over the cat’s back, goes to press some buttons on the coffee machine. Once it’s settled to his satisfaction, he turns around, still in low-slung sweatpants and a UNLV Rebels! tee riding up over his belly, and looks like he’s gearing himself up to say something.
“You’ve got a cat?” Jack asks, incredulous, before he can open his mouth. “Someone trusted you to keep that alive?”
Parse doesn’t answer. His mouth opens and shuts. All the air in him snuffs out through his nose in short time. He closes one hand behind him on the counter. He’s trembling, so minor Jack could have missed it, if he hadn’t been zeroed onto the shallow snatches of bare wrist, neck, eyes, eyes, eyes. But he is, so he sees it, like a neon sign saying You Fucked Up.
It takes his brain a moment to catch up with the clenched fist in his gut.
Right. Jack overdosed. Jack almost died.
Kent’s eyes leave the floor and climb over to where the cat still sits. It’s moved on to washing its belly. Fucking nasty to do it on the countertop, Jack thinks, leaving cat-hair and cat-spit everywhere.
“I, uh. Yeah.” Kent says. He looks back at Jack. Hard eyes in a hard face. “I got a cat. And fuck you, by the way, for asking.”
It was a joke, Jack thinks, irritated. A harmless chirp. Is this who Kent is, now, the kind of guy who overreacts to the littlest things? No way. No goddamn way. Maybe he’s just become one of those old guys who can’t handle himself before coffee. That’s a thing, right, when people get old.
The cat hops off the counter and saunters out of the kitchen in that particular-cat way. As if it couldn’t give less of a damn about its audience. Right back at you, Jack thinks, sour.
“I didn’t come here to fight,” Jack says. “I want to talk.”
Kent pours himself a cup of coffee and downs it in under thirty seconds, sets the empty back on the countertop with a click. “Right. Sure. I’m uh, I have some things I want to say, too.”
Jack gestures vaguely, and Kent’s mouth tips. He stares determinedly at Jack in a way that feels unnatural, and says, “I should have taken a hint. I fucked up.”
Jack relaxes. This is familiar. That’s one of the differences between them: Jack’s stubborn, a stubbornness that doesn’t fade, no matter how far he gets from a fight. Parse’s anger is fast to light but it burns off every time, and then he scrapes out the embers and comes back around. If Parse is apologizing, that’s something Jack can work with.
“It’s good to see you,” he offers. He moves a little closer. It’s odd to be having this conversation when Parse is still putting three, five, seven feet between them. He’s used to bumping shoulders in the morning, both of them trying to work the deadly steam-wand on the Zimmermann’s espresso machine, bickering over the angle of the mug. Jack doesn’t like all this empty space. He didn’t come here to sleep alone last night.
“It’s good to see you too, Jack,” Parse says, derailed. His eyes are still tipped up toward Jack’s, even as Jack steps in, but there’s a distance there.
“That’s not what you call me,” Jack says, frustrated. He leans closer, says softer, “Call me Zimms, Kenny.”
“I can't do that,” Kent says. “I'm not going to do that.”
His hands are locked by his sides. They aren’t even in fists or in his pockets, just hanging loose. There’s still a foot and a half between them, but Kent turns around, grabs for a washcloth, and the moment’s broken.
“I’ve got to clean this up,” Kent says, staring determinedly at the kitchen counter, all the artifacts of the night before. “Why don’t you take a shower.”
It’s not hard to find Kent when he ventures back downstairs. He’s filled the sink with dishes, and is tying off a garbage bag. He looks up at Jack and gives this half-smile and opens his mouth, and Jack’s worried about what he’ll say— what he’ll ask— so he plucks at his chest, tries for nonchalance when he asks, “Whose shirt is this, anyway?”
Kent squints down at his chest, then back up. His eyes don’t linger. Jack regrets putting on a shirt at all. “Uh, I dunno?” he says, hefting the bag out of the way. “One of the guys, I guess.”
“One of the guys,” Jack echoes, a little— hard. Probing.
“Yeah, like.” Kent pauses. He stands up straighter. “You know. The team. The guys here last night.”
“So not,” Jack says. He frowns. “A guy.”
“Yeah, like a guy on the team, Jack. Last I checked they were all guys.”
“So you’re not,” presses Jack, “you’re not, like.”
“I’m not what,” Kent says.
“Well.” Jack raises a hand and waves it— awkwardly. Plucks at his own shirt again. “You know.”
“If you have something you want to say, Jack,” Kent says— warns? Like he’s on the verge of saying something else.
“I’m just curious,” Jack says, which is true, and also, well: a lie. “If you were. Since you could.”
“I could what,” Kent says.
“I mean. People know,” Jack says. “That you’re.”
“No,” Kent says, when Jack stalls out. “Actually. They don’t.”
“But the people here last night,” Jack says.
“But people know,” Jack pushes, even though Kent’s— stonewalling, “about me.”
Kent has his hands shoved in his back pockets where Jack can’t see them. He says, clipped off, “I’m not sure what that has to do with it.”
“Don’t be fucking dense,” Jack snaps, “of course it has to do with it.”
All Kent says is: “Not from where I’m standing.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Jack demands. “Not from— are you—”
Kent’s being a fucking asshole. It’s one thing if he doesn’t want this or want them anymore. Fine. Jack can— that’s fine. Acting like it wasn’t important, though, that’s. That’s something else entirely. That’s not.
It’s just not.
Charming Kent. Tired Kent. Combative Kent. Dissembling Kent. Jack is getting whiplash from this paper doll man and his wardrobe of faces. If he stays here he’s going to, he doesn’t even know, something he’ll regret. He regrets being here, despite that there’s nowhere else for him to go. He doesn’t even have anything to take the edge off. There’s no bottle in his back pocket. There’s no hockey game to play. There’s no one else here for Jack to try and focus on instead.
“I’m going for a walk.” He looks around for his shoes. They must be here somewhere.
“You don’t know your way around,” Kent says, dogging him towards the door.
“I can figure it out.” It’s a suburb. Jack’s not going to get lost in a cul de sac for christ's sake. Can Kent just get off his back for a minute. Can Jack get some space and some goddamn air.
He jams his feet into his shoes, fumbles at the lock.
“You’re just,” Kent says, but Jack doesn’t find out what he’s just, because he slams the door behind him before Kent can finish and jogs out past the yard.
It’s hot outside: hot enough that the air is shimmering over the surface of the drive. It’s the kind of air that hovers in his lungs but doesn’t stick there. I just need a little space, thinks Jack, pushing shallow mouthfuls of it in and out. I just need some space and that’s all.
He doesn’t feel calmer when he stumbles back up the steps a while later, tell-tale heat rising off his face and his forearms where the sun has left its mark. He lets himself in and walks into the sitting room to find Kent on the phone looking peaky.
“I don’t know, Eric,” Kent says, curt, and then he sees Jack and shuts up all at once. There’s a buzz of something through the receiver but Jack can’t make out the words. Kent says, “I, I have to go. I’ll. Later,” and clicks off the call even as the other person’s still talking.
He wets his lip and says, “Jack, look, I’m—”
“How could you,” Jack says, each word stinging like a paper cut, "you had no right. You what, you think you can just—”
“I’m trying to help,” Kent says, “okay? Don’t fly off the handle.”
“Who was that, fuck, my fucking— my,” he doesn’t want to say it; he grits it out: “fiance—”
Kent flushes. “Yeah, I was on the phone with your fucking fiance,” he says, “and before that it was your father, who hasn't said more than two sentences to me in years but he sure has plenty to say now, and I've got texts from Mashkov promising to leave me a bloody smear on the ice and a half dozen others of your nearest and dearest telling me exactly what they think of me so you can give it a goddamn rest.
The words ring in Jack’s ears like the peals of a fire alarm, more trauma than substance. He’s so. He feels so.
He came to the desert looking for an oasis. He wanted space and time to sort himself out. It’s bad enough to have Parse here, when Parse is clearly done with Jack. At least he’s still something Jack knew once, something with recognizable bones under the new coat of paint. At least when Jack looks at him he feels like he understands something, part of something, part of himself.
This isn’t like that. The intrusion of the future is unwelcome. It makes Jack feel like a cornered animal, leg stuck in a trap, snarling. The future isn’t something he can fight. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to fight.
“You?” Jack sneers, because Kent is the only target in range. “Why would they, it's not as though you matter.” He’s not even sure what he’s saying or whether it makes sense. It’s an approximation of what he’s angry about, and it’s easier to throw out the accusation instead of figuring out exactly what he feels and saying that instead. “You’re, you— I thought you would help me. I thought you would and now you’re talking behind my back, can’t wash your hands of me quick enough.”
“You came to me,” Kent says, sharp and bright as broken glass. Jack could slice himself open on that. He’s grasping at a story he doesn’t know and Kent’s just stating what is. He’s got that leg up on Jack. Jack could hate him for that, if he was capable of hating Kent, if he had ever managed anything close to it.
“Were you going to tell me that you don’t remember anything, I mean, jesus, Jack.”
“You’re— okay, fucking, that’s clearly a lie.”
“I’m fine,” Jack insists.
“I thought you were in crisis. What, was I supposed to ignore my phone the way you apparently are?”
“Yes,” Jack says. “Yes, that’s exactly what I needed you to do.”
“Well I just mean,” Kent says, and then, “if it was me—”
“Well it’s not you,” Jack seethes, “is it. It’s not you back there with me in,” he scrambles to remember, “Buffalo, I mean Providence, I mean wherever,” does it matter, none of it matters, “you’re here living your life, cup rings, parties with alcohol you actually pay for, got all your dreams eh? Makes sense you want to wash your hands of me. Plotting what you’re going to do—”
“It’s not— I’m not going to make you do anything!” Kent flings his arms wide. He’s still talking in his reasonable voice, clean and crisp and collected like Jack’s the media, close enough to calm like this barely matters to him. Jack hates it. He hates it. “They want to know that you’re alive, that I can at least keep you alive. That’s all it is.”
“Well you couldn’t last time,” Jack digs, and Kent curves back like a bow. His arm snaps into his chest. He opens his mouth and closes it.
That’s right, Jack thinks. That’s right. I got you. I win.
Part of you still cares about me. Even though you left. Even though you let me leave you.
It’s all he needs. He sees his opening and he takes it. He drives forward, shoves in. He crowds Kent back until he’s got him up against the wall, leans down close, gets right in his face. Their eyes aren’t more than two inches apart. Nowhere to hide. If, if there’s something there, Jack will find it. He won’t let Kent hide it anymore.
He’s basically breathing the same square inch of air Kent’s breathing out. He doesn’t go in for more, doesn’t try to bite a kiss out of him, even though— even though. He just boxes him in and looks at his ears going blotchy red. Kent’s got nowhere else to look but up at Jack, though he tries— god, he tries, eyes darting this way and that. He opens his mouth and Jack feels a spark run down his back. He can tell that Kent is getting angry. He can tell this is going to be good.
“What the fuck,” Kent hisses. His hands come up to shove at Jack’s chest. He puts his back in it too, all that whipcord muscle flexing under the surface, checking into Jack like he’s trying to start something.
Good, because Jack wants to fucking start something.
“I’m engaged,” Jack says, incandescent, furious: “I’m engaged.”
And you’re not, and you’re not even— there—
He can’t talk. He doesn’t have the words. What good are words? What good are—
He remembers Kent telling him he was good. With his words, with his eyes, with his hands. Jack saying it back. Not as much, not as well, but it was in his fingers every time he touched Kent. Kent had to have known. Kent has to remember how good they were together.
Jack has to make sure he remembers. Jack can remind him with this body, this better body. With this functional brain.
It was good last time but it will be better now. It can be real now, instead of— instead of whatever it was. All-consuming like a forest fire eating up all the air in Jack’s lungs. He tried so hard to smother it. It never worked. But it will be better now. Jack’s aired his— what he is. He’s out and he can’t change it. It’s done. It’s in the rearview.
There’s no reason he can’t have this. If he’s already paying the price, he should be able to have this.
He leans in a little further, close enough he can smell Kent’s hair. It doesn’t smell any way in particular. Not even familiar. Whatever soap Kent’s using now isn’t the same he used in Juniors. He leans in anyway because he can get his lips up close next to Parse’s temple, get a closer view at how his lashes jut out over his cheeks.
He can follow the edge of Kent’s jaw down to his neck, down to where it disappears under the collar of his shirt. He wants to put his mouth right there. Right where the cotton hides Kent away.
“Let me have this,” he whispers. “We can have this.”
“Zimms,” Parse chokes out. He’s clutching at Jack’s shirt. He doesn’t even seem to realize he’s doing it.
He’s not sure how long it is, a second, a century. Balanced there on a knife’s edge. But Jack looks down. Jack looks down and Kent is hard. Jack can see it. Jack can— Jack can press in, knock a leg between Kent’s, bring one hand down to scrape against his belly, wrap the other around his hip.
Fuck, Jack thinks, high as he’s ever been in his life: he’s got it all wrong. Kent does want him.
He remembers Parse at seventeen, laughing and cheesy, give me that friction baby. In his head, it was only last week.
It would be easy to slip his hand down, dip underneath the worn elastic waistband and grind the heel of his palm against the crease. To let his fingers curl around the familiar weight of Kent’s dick, hot and insistent under the piling cotton of his soft-washed grey sweats.
Jack’s caught up in the picture of it, running his lip between his teeth: pure anticipation, five seconds ahead. That’s what gives Kent the advantage. He makes a sound, half-growl half-howl, teeth bared, and knocks Jack back a foot. He slips through the gap he’s created. He sidesteps Jack and scatters.
He’s halfway across the room before Jack’s brain catches up, shocky and slow. Jack turns and Kent’s chest is heaving, his eyes wide and wild.
Jack’s bitten his own lip. He rubs at it with the back of his hand. The hand that should be leaving fingerprint-bruises on the meat of Kent’s thighs right now.
“Come on,” he scoffs, rejection curdling in his chest so sour he needs to lash out, let it out. “We both want it. The fuck are you so scared of?”
“We don’t both want it,” Kent grits out. His hands are curled into fists at his sides.
Jack’s fully hard now, feels like a bobcat on the prowl. He grinds his palm down where he’s tenting his jeans, and Parse’s eyes swoop down for a second, following it. They bounce back up fast, but it’s too late: Jack saw it. Jack saw it.
“You want it,” he presses, “and I want it.”
“You have brain damage!” Kent roars. It’s the first time he’s raised his voice since Jack got here. Finally, Jack thinks: finally. “You don’t want— you don't know what you want, you dumbass motherfucker. You can’t just, you don’t know, you don’t know anything, and you’re just, you just—” his fists come up in front of him like he’s just dropped the gloves, and there’s a moment: one moment Jack wonders if this is going to turn ugly and vicious and physical and good, if Kent’s going to come back in range so Jack can put his hands back on him, if he’s going to have a chance to take Kent to the floor.
But quick as it came, it evaporates, and Kent’s pressing the knuckles of his thumbs into his own eyes and drawing them down his face, talking into his own hands, going on quieter, “—you just don’t know, alright? You don’t fucking know what this is.”
“I used to think about what I’d do if you showed up here,” says Kent. “I used to dream about it. What I would do. How I’d convince you to stay.”
“Whose side do you think I’m even on,” Kent says. “It’s always your side. It’s always been your side.”
Jack says, a final try: “It doesn’t look like it from where I’m standing.”
Kent closes his eyes. “This is all I can fucking do.”
The arousal washes out of him like the tide going out. It leaves Jack clammy and bereft. He sags back against the wall, slides down it until he’s sitting on his heels.
“I knew this would happen,” he says, looking at his knees. “I knew it. That you would end up on the other side of the country.” He closes his eyes. “That we’d end up hating each other.”
For a moment it’s quiet. The buzz of the air conditioner is faintly audible.
“This didn’t just happen,” Kent says. His voice breaks in the middle. It doesn’t make Jack feel better. Kent presses on: “It wasn’t a natural phenomenon. It wasn’t fate. You chose this, Jack. This is what you wanted.”
It’s hard to believe it wasn’t a natural phenomenon. That what ripped them apart wasn’t as unfaceable as a tornado, as upheaving as an earthquake, as devastating as a wildfire. Even though he’d known there was an end-date rushing towards them, he hadn’t been able to imagine it: going on living and playing hockey without Parse by his side, without Parse going through it with him. It was a future Jack couldn’t conceptualize, much less face. Jack was going to go to Las Vegas and Parse was gonna stay on the East Coast, and Parse was going to play on someone else’s wing. Not like when Coach sent Parse out with a different line for a shift to switch things up, but permanently, probably right up until they stopped playing hockey, and that had seemed.
It had seemed—
He never paid much attention in his science classes, but he remembers one interminable lecture, physics teacher trying vainly to interest the group of them in something. Jack doesn’t remember the specifics, just this one concept, maybe, that stuck with him. There were laws that governed the world and how it worked, but they broke down at the edges: when things were very, very large or very, very small, they worked by different rules. The laws didn’t apply. If you tried to measure something, you could change it. If you looked at it, it would fix itself in a new position.
What were we, Jack thinks, very big or very small?
Did it matter, did it matter, did I matter to you in the long run—
Why didn’t I leave a mark on you.
Why aren’t your marks all over my life?
“You said we weren’t going to do this alone,” he says. “You promised.”
“You didn’t do it alone,” Kent says. For a moment Jack thinks he’s about to say something else. He opens his eyes to catch it. But whatever it is, Kent swallows it. He says instead, halting: “You have. People. In your corner.”
Jack has the names in his head. One name above the rest. Eric Bittle. He doesn’t want to say it. He doesn’t want to make it real.
“They’re worried about you,” Kent says. He shoves his hands under his armpits. A second later, he drops them down. No tells allowed, Jack thinks. Not in Vegas. “They’re allowed to be worried.”
“I don’t know them,” Jack says to his knees. “I don’t know what they want from me.”
“They’re worried you’re going to relapse, in one way or another.” He rubs at his jaw. Ten minutes ago Jack was going to bite him there, right in that spot. See if Kent still marked up the same way. The need has fled now. It’s not so hard to drag his eyes up. “They think I’m not good for you.”
Whoever those people are, Jack thinks. Whoever they are. You’re the one who said you didn’t care what people would think. You said I didn’t need to worry about them all.
“Maybe they’re right,” Kent says.
You gave up on us, Jack thinks.
You gave up on me.
They can’t avoid each other forever, not shut up in the same house, but they try. Oh, do they try.
Kent’s not going to kick him out, though. Jack was right about that. Kent’s going to let him stay here as long as he needs, even though the phone line’s been ringing off and on all afternoon as it creeps towards evening.
It’s their stomachs that betray them. Two pro-athletes who can skip lunch but not dinner. By silent agreement they don’t talk about any of it, just trade enough words to get two meals plated and onto the kitchen table.
Jack’s chewing his way through a spear of broccoli when he remembers it and grins.
“Still can’t believe you set off the fire alarm at the beach house,” he says, “and then tried to get out of cleanup with your dick. Dumbass.”
He can remember it perfectly, is the thing— the white-washed walls, the gentle smells of sea air and perfectly baked pastry sitting out on the counter covered with a towel absolutely overwhelmed by the stench of burnt brussels sprouts rising from the frying pan mixed with acrid smoke; Kent yelling without any real ire, flapping his hands at the stove like it was going to fix anything, and Jack laughing his ass off as he went to go open a window. And he can remember the aftermath, black goo melted onto the burner, Kent climbing right onto his lap on the couch to try and bribe Jack into handling the cleanup.
When he looks up at Parse, though, he’s staring down at his own plate, unsmiling.
“No, Jack,” he says. “I didn’t.”
The details of the memory catch at his mind. The hair’s got the wrong shape at the front, the jaw’s all wrong all over. It’s not Kent in the kitchen with him. It’s not Kent on the couch, after. It’s the guy from the hospital.
Bittle. Eric Bittle. Jack’s fiance.
He’s got two sets of histories to choose from. The set that feels older, even though he can remember most of it, each frame still present in his head. Kent on his lap: limbs akimbo, laughing sloppy, eyes slipping shut. Jack with his hands loose around him: afraid to hold on tightly, afraid to look too closely, afraid to be observed.
Then the other memory, bright and immediate even though he’s missing the context, the before and after, the where and when of how it fits in. The other guy, sitting over Jack’s lap, knee-walking up until their chests were pressed together, his arms around Jack’s neck, Jack’s hand gripping his ass. Neither of them in the mood to let go.
He looks a little like Kent did, when Kent was smaller, when he wasn’t built like a NHL player doing on an NHL meal plan and an NHL training regimen. Now Kent’s got thick thighs and a core like a tree trunk. He wouldn’t fit as easily on Jack’s lap. There’s something a little off putting about trying to picture it.
“He seems like a good guy,” Jack says, careful. He’s trying to piece together his feelings. They hover like a lure: little flashes of recollection like a high beam through the brain fog. A little part of him says, no, I want to stay here. It’s getting quieter the longer he waits. The future’s too tempting. He wants to know. His feelings are pulling him back.
“Jesus fuck,” Kent says, standing up. “I can’t do this.”
Jack stands up too, reflexive. “Kenny, wait.”
Kent crosses his arms in front of his chest. He isn’t putting on the poker face he’s had up. This is a different face. This is his face when they’re down two going into the dying minutes of the third.
“You don’t give a shit about me,” he bites out. “Alright? I get it now. It took me a long time, but I got there.” He stops for a second, his chest heaving. Jack figures he should say something. Trouble is he doesn’t know what to say.
While he’s thinking about it, Kent grabs his plate. He dumps it in the sink where it clatters, but he doesn’t turn the water on. Dinner’s over, Jack thinks.
“It's good that you made it,” Kent tells the faucet. “I'm glad you survived. But don’t expect me to sit here and listen to how much better your life is without me in it.”
The next morning when Jack wakes up, his memories have slotted back into place like a pallet of lent-out library books.
It’s underwhelming, having them back. What’s odd isn’t this. What’s odd is yesterday, the day before, pieces that don’t fit onto the shelves. He’s embarrassed as hell at the way he’s behaved the past two days. That guy isn’t who he is anymore.
Part of Jack is glad he brought himself out here to turn his edges on Kent. He wasn’t good to Bitty, hasn’t been fair to his parents, but at least they didn’t have to see him like this. At least Bitty only got a bit of it before Jack took himself out of the timezone.
It’s not fair to anyone but he’s glad all the same. Kent, at least, knew what he was getting into, more or less. Kent was there the first time around.
He doesn’t have anything to pack. He doesn’t have a plane ticket home but he can get one at the airport. He needs to get out of here. He needs to leave as soon as possible.
He leaves the borrowed clothes in a pile on the bed and puts back on his own shirt and jeans. Kent’s bedroom door is open but he isn’t in there, isn’t in the bathroom or downstairs either. Jack’s got his thumb on the app and a ride snaking its way here, but it feels odd, disappearing as abruptly as he came.
He’s not sure whether he should just— leave. Maybe that’s the right thing to do: leave no trace behind. Maybe that would be easier than trying to say goodbye.
While he’s waffling, the door opens, and thirty seconds later Kent appears in the kitchen, beelining for the water dispenser on the front of the fridge. He’s back from a run, Jack guesses, or the gym. The choice evaporates. Jack’s a little uneasy. A little relieved.
Kent gives Jack a half-nod, and Jack says, “My memories are back.”
Kent’s hand stutters on the glass, just enough to slosh on it’s way to his mouth. He takes a sip, then mouths the splash off his arm. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Jack says, “for not, um.”
Kent’s eyes are walled off but his voice is sharp: “Fuck off.”
Jack wants to say, I know you wouldn’t. It gets caught in his throat.
Does he know that? He knows it now. He’s not sure if it was something he knew before… all this. If he knew it, if he believed it.
He can admit it: he thought of Kent as someone who’d take what he could get. He was wrong.
“I’ve called a car,” Jack says.
“Back to Providence?” Kent confirms, as though they’re discussing the weather. Maybe he’s just making small talk. Jack doesn’t know. Jack doesn’t know anything. He’s got eight years of memories back and they haven’t made Kent any easier for him to read.
“Yeah,” Jack says, even though he’s not sure Kent was really looking for an answer. He rubs at his arm, and adds, distracted: "I have some things to set right. I don't know if he'll forgive me. If he'll still want me back. I said some awful things."
Jack realizes after he says it that it's a mistake. Kent doesn't answer but Jack hears it anyway: I did.
Kent’s got something of a reputation on the ice. He’s not the worst rat in the league, not by a large margin, but he can get under a guy’s skin. He draws his fair share of penalties against, and gets players cursing him, even though he’s charming as anything when the game is over. Kent gets in the way, gets up in faces, always with that shit-eating grin. And he’s small, so people go for him, sometimes.
He’s learned how to fight, somewhere along the way, a fact Jack learned reviewing tape his own rookie season. He’s not the guy to drop gloves first but shit happens. Put him in a corner and he’ll hit back.
He isn’t the martyr type.
Except for Jack.
Except to Jack.
Except that’s not quite right, either, is it?
Jack’s not the guy who can put words together. He can stick to a script. He can trot out platitudes. He’s not the guy to inspire a room. He’s not an off-the-cuff orator. He remembers getting an essay back at Samwell, flipping to the second page to see one word underlined: formulaic. It’s a fair cop. He likes a set play to follow. When he doesn’t have one, things get hard. He shuffles through the lines in his head. He’s not sure what to say. He doesn’t want to leave here without making some effort. He doesn’t need to keep looking like the bigger asshole.
"I made a mistake throwing away your friendship," he says, finally.
Kent sort of shrugs. He’s looking at Jack but Jack can’t tell what he’s thinking. Jack might as well be looking at a stranger.
He runs his tongue over dry lips and tries to find the right words. They don't come. Maybe there aren’t right words. Maybe this is all there is.
Maybe that would be alright.
Jack’s phone buzzes. Your ride is here. Kent’s eyes flick to the screen.
Kent says, slowly, “Maybe you didn’t.”
Jack wants to ask him to clarify. Maybe I didn’t what? he thinks.
But his ride is here. But he’s out of time.
But in the end, it’s safer not to.
He shoulders his bag, gives Kent a nod. Kent watches him. Kent doesn’t say anything. Neither does Jack. What’s there for him to say? Good luck? See you soon? Best wishes? It’s been fun? They’ve known each other long enough, Jack thinks, that there’s no need to scrape at pleasantries.
He catches a glimpse of Kent’s cat in the hallway, luminous eyes like her owner, tail twitching back and forth. Jack lets his eyes slide off her. Jack lets himself out.
The guy from the party is on the doorstep. Jack remembers his name now, his position, his number. He’s chewing gum like a cow chewing cud. He doesn’t pause to say anything to Jack, just gives him a look up and down. No smile. He catches the door before it swings closed, even though he doesn’t need to: he’s already got keys out.
Jack gives him a tight nod. Jack goes to his cab. Jack doesn’t look back to watch him go inside.
He’s got a life to get back to, and it isn’t this one.