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It starts because he needs to think of an escape. Leaving is always an option, fly to Europe and maybe give his parents a call after the plane has touched down on the ground and they can’t talk him into buying a return ticket. There’s also the simpler option: quit.

Simpler in how it sounds, at least, because Jack knows that quitting isn’t simple at all. Might be the most complicated thing he’s ever done, and it doesn’t even sound like something he’d ever want. At least in Europe he could still play, it just wouldn’t be as high profile.

When he thinks about Europe, he thinks about the Netherlands or somewhere in the north, somewhere with frozen over ponds that have fresh tracks from his skates. He’d still have hockey, and while he doesn’t think that his parents would understand, exactly, they’d do whatever he needs. They’d at least be able to see his reasoning, and maybe Finland or Norway wouldn’t seem like such a bad idea to them. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea to Jack.

Quitting, on the other hand.

When Jack was younger and played in a kid’s league, people weren’t so serious. They’d get off the rink from practice, the boys wipe the ice from their skates. It accumulates from the turns and things, and everyone pools their ice together to throw at the last one off the ice. Jack had been the recipient of it more than once, and though it was years ago since it’s happened, the stinging memory is easy to recall.

Thinking about quitting feels a lot like getting a ball of ice to the face.

And draft day’s not even that close, a little less than a year away, but everyone’s obsessed. Kent can’t stop talking about it, every moment that they’re not practicing he’s talking team locations and draft picks, and everyone knows that they’re number one and two the only question is who’s in which slot. Jack’s so sick of it that he gets into the habit of flipping Kent’s snapback around whenever he brings it up, and they end up roughhousing instead of talking about it because anything is easier than talking about it.

The thing is, Jack can’t stop thinking about it either. He takes his anxiety medications and studies strategy, makes hockey plays and empties bucket after bucket of pucks long after everyone else has left the rink. His parents are worried, because even they can’t ignore the weight that Zimmermann carries on the back of Jack’s jerseys. It’s not his last name, not really, because that last name belongs to four Staley Cups and Jack feels like he’s choking sometimes, just doesn’t mention it and takes more meds instead because it’s easier.

The draft is coming up, it’ll be here in a year whether Jack is prepared for it or not, and exit strategies start blooming before he can tap the ideas down. That’s when he first thinks of Norway or Sweden, some abandoned lake in the wintertime where the wind chills his bones but he feels light for the first time. It’s a fantasy, just something dumb that helps play down the inevitable. Something that says he has a way out.

The Netherlands stays hidden in his mind, and it’s nice to think about, but he’ll never act on it and he knows that. Can’t just up and leave like that without having to explain, and that prospect is just as terrifying as playing professionally. As terrifying as being responsible for his father’s mantle.

He wants to play professionally. Wants it so bad that he can taste, but not like this. Not like this, with reporters asking about his father and his game-winning streak in the same breath, with Kent talking about places that blur together to make a jumble of images and team names, rosters and ranking ingrained in his memory even as he tries to ignore them. Doesn’t want it with the way his father tries to play down his own accomplishments in fear of jinxing Jack from being able to keep up with him, not with how his agent tosses around locations that Jack can’t think about in any way that’s considered concrete. Not with the way that he wakes up and can’t breathe.

Wakes up and takes his meds, drives to the rink and does drills until his lungs burn and the rest of the team is showing up. He’s the best shot on the team, but Kent’s faster, and if he’s going to be first draft pick he wants it to be because he’s the best. Wants first pick overall because of his records and aim, not because of the way that coaches would want Bad Bob’s son’s name on the roster. He’s going to get first draft pick, and no one is going to be able to say it isn’t because he’s the best. No one is going to say that it’s because of his last name.

The thing is, though, that being the best is a lot easier to say than do. Because Kent is still faster, and their no-look passes end up in goals for him only marginally more than they do for Kent, and Jack would be an idiot to think that he’d be this good if he didn’t have Kent to compete with in the first place. And Kent’s his best friend, but Jack’s selfish, and he wants it so bad but thinking that he wants his best friend to come in second leaves a sour taste in his mouth. Something metallic, coppery.

-x-

Jack’s never been religious, occasionally goes with grandparents to Christmas Eve or Easter mass, recites the prayers with the rest of the congregation, and zones out during the sermon. But when he’s on the ice, when he scores a game winning goal, when he’s crushed under the weight of his teammates as they shout his name, he thinks he understands.

When his teammates shout his name, it’s his name. That Zimmermann doesn’t belong to anyone else, not even his father, and Jack pushes free and gasps in cold air, relieved at least. That’s the closest to religion he gets, and it’s not even because of winning. It’s because of hockey, because it’s the only place that he can really be himself because morning practices are like church service to him. Nothing feels like watching the sun rise from the rink, not while he’s got a stick in his hands and a puck sliding in front of him.

It’s what makes his friendship with Kent so easy, because they don’t have to talk about problems. For that, they have hockey. The first time that Kent was there while Jack had a panic attack, they’d been sixteen and the reality of hockey as a lifestyle was just starting to sink in. Jack almost went into another attack when he was trying to figure out how to explain it. How to say that sometimes his world shrinks to a single point and there’s no oxygen in the room and he’s nowhere near in control.

He hadn’t needed to explain it. Kent pulled him into the car, they’d gone to the rink, and by the time they’d finished doing drills Jack had almost forgot why they were there.

On the way back, he’d remembered, and Kent had just looked at him as he stumbled through a barrage of words in hopes of finding the right ones. Kent had reached up, taken his hat off and set it on Jack’s head. Said, “It’s okay, Zimms. I got you.” And then he’d let Jack choose the radio station.

He’ll never forget that ride back, searching through static to find something worth listening to while Kent drove. Settling on the pop station that Kent would have listened to anyway, just because he liked knowing all the words. Reaching up and touching the hat carefully, despite how gross it was. Kent had worn the hat while they’d done drills, so it was sweaty and smelled, but Jack couldn’t bring himself to take it off. Couldn’t deny it for the peace offering that it was.

It becomes something of a tradition for them. Jack goes into overdrive, they end up at a rink, and by the time they leave it’s over. Nothing to talk about, Kent tells him when he mentions it. And he can’t keep himself from mentioning it sometimes, because it’s not like he has anyone else to talk about it with. Not like he wants to tell his parents that they’re the problem, not when they’re doing everything they can not to be.

There’s a countdown to the draft, and the panic attacks don’t slow down. He does more drills, takes more shots on goal, and his hockey is better than ever. Everyone tells him, his agent can’t shut up about it. First overall draft pick, his agent reminds him, and it sticks in his mind like a chant he can’t ignore. First or second, nothing to be ashamed about there. His parents couldn’t be prouder, they tell him all the time, and each game looms before him like a giant hurdle to the one thing in life that he really wants.

They stay longer at the rink, now, he and Kent do. It takes Jack longer to get control of himself, so they do more drills, skate longer, skate harder. Kent’s getting better because of it; they both are. And every time a reporter asks how they’ve been getting even better, Jack clams up, and Kent’s the one to save the day. Throws an arm around Jack, laughs into the microphone, and explains, “Draft’s coming up. Gotta be on top of our game.”

Kent’s the personality between them, everyone knows it. Even Jack knows it, because God knows he never feels like opening up to reporters. God knows he never feels like opening up to anyone.

It’s hard to give interviews now, when reporters only care about his performance. His and his father’s, but it’s not going to easier after the draft. For a while, they’ll still only care about how he plays, but then that will wear off. Then they’ll start asking about his personal life.

No one is out in the NHL, and he’s certainly not going to be first one.

Driving back from the game that night, Jack tightens his knuckles on the steering wheel, keeping his eyes resolutely on the road because there’s no way he’ll be able to say it otherwise. “Thanks, back there. For not… Not telling anyone,” he says, forcing the words out, because he doesn’t think he’ll ever really know how much he owes Kent.

Kent stops tapping along to the beat on the dashboard, turns to Jack with a question and then shakes his head. Places a hand on Jack’s arm, grounding him with the weight of someone who really does understand. “Yeah, yeah. I got you, Zimms,” he says finally, instead of chirping him. Jack is infinitely grateful, and to show it he switches the radio to pop music. Kent stares at the road, barely masking his grin before singing along to the latest hit.

It’s easy, sometimes, like this. When the adrenaline from the game is tapering down to the point where everything is just a little bit sharper than normal but his heart doesn’t feel like it’s trying to break free. With Kent beside him, their gear in the trunk, Jack sometimes thinks about turning to the airport, going to Europe and telling everyone that they can go fuck themselves. It’s tempting, even, to think about for longer than a few moments.

A cabin, somewhere cold, with a fireplace. Next to a forest, and God this sounds dumb, but he feels like chopping lumber has to be good for stress. It would probably help loosen the wire that’s always tightening between his shoulder blades.

Jack tries very hard to not acknowledge that he’s living what most people would consider a fantasy. Tries hard not to consider that his fantasy is living where he isn’t around so many people, where he can play hockey with his best friend without having to feel jealous every time Kent scores. So he doesn’t think about it, just keeps driving, grabs his water bottle from the cup holder to wash down his meds with. Doesn’t look over to where Kent’s staring him down, expression unreadable. Just keeps driving.

-x-

The draft keeps coming closer, and Jack wakes up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. Works out, does cardio until his lungs burn just to remind himself that life doesn’t always feel like nothing. Sometimes it feels like pain.

Mornings like this bleed together, and he doesn’t know how long it’s been since he woke up to an alarm. He gets used to watching the sunrise, from the rink or on the trail he runs behind the house. And his parents are worried, his mother maybe more so, but they don’t say anything and it’s a blessing and a curse in its own way. He likes the feeling of ice beneath his skates, cold air in his lungs, and fall fades into winter as time passes.

The draft is closer, so close that he can almost taste it, and he has meetings scheduled through his agent about teams and managers and Kent does, too, and the spring is going to be busy with trips and games. It’s all he can do to keep from a steady chant of first pick, first pick as he runs his drills, and as it gets louder he takes to keeping meds on him everywhere, not just in his hockey bag. And maybe it doesn’t do anything but make himself feel better, because it’s not like they’ll stop an attack right before it comes on. He still keeps the extra bottle with his gear, something to take before games or before parties if the team makes him come.

The only one on the team who knows about his anxiety and the medication is Kent. Not even the coach knows, and Jack and his father went round after round about that, but the fact remains that if his coach knows, Jack isn’t sure that it wouldn’t get out, wouldn’t get mentioned to spotters just as a full disclosure kind of thing that Jack can’t risk. And then the image that burns behind his eyes is Zimmermann Picked Second as a newspaper headline because no team wants a player who might have a panic attack on the ice.

Not that he would have a panic attack on the ice. If anything, the ice helps. Hockey is the only way that Jack knows how to pray, and he can’t just leave it behind.

Six months to the draft. Half a year, and every time that Jack thinks about first overall draft picks it gets harder to breathe. He can’t stop thinking about it. Breathing doesn’t come as easily as it used to. There must be less oxygen in the world, less plants to produce it because of deforestation, or something, because there’s no way that this is the same air that’s always been here. And it’s stupid to think about, but that doesn’t stop him.

It only makes his visions of Europe more attractive. A way to get away. It’s Europe or quitting, or actually going pro. The only option that doesn’t make his teeth chatter is Europe. Or sleeping for a year. He’d take either, at this point.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to play professionally. He wants it, it’s all he’s wanted since before he can remember. And he’s good, he’s going to be able to do well, he’s played with his dad’s old teammates and managed to hold his own. He’s good, but is he Bad Bob levels of good? Is he good enough for everyone else?

He already hates reporters, can’t speak with a microphone near him. And he’s not even signed, yet. It’s only going to get worse, he knows. Tries to think of how lucky he is, how much other people want this. How much he wants this, because it’s undeniable, he wouldn’t do so many drills or morning practices if he didn’t.

The season is their best, and it’s not even halfway over but Jack knows a good team when he plays on one. He and Kent are basically going to have to patent their no-look passes with the regularity that they’re using them, and the puck goes between them as smoothly as a magnet when the poles have switched. And while the whole team isn’t like that, they play well together, and it’s a good time.

Maybe ‘good time’ isn’t the best way to describe it, because games are slightly more business than pleasure, but practices are the same as ever, and he and Kent take extra hours in the rink whenever the opportunity presents itself. And sometimes that opportunity comes when Jack’s breathing turns shallow and his body freezes up and his heart races, but that’s neither here nor there. He takes more meds, does more drills, and it’s all going to be okay. In six months, it has to be. He has six months to get it under control. It will all be fine.

That’s what he tells himself, at least, getting another mile in on the trail. He paces himself, lets his breathing come at a regular tempo even as he’s tempted to make a break for it. He knows he can’t, the house is a mile away there’s no way he can sprint that far, but still. It’s tempting.

He keeps his form, ducks his head a little lower, and finishes with a steady pace.

-x-

Dragging his feet, Jack lets Kent pull him into a party that’s getting into full swing because it’s not like he’d win even if he did put up a fight. When Kent wants to party, they go out and party. Not a whole lot to be done about it. Jack grabs the first beer that’s passed to him, looks around to see teammates spread out around the place. Nods at the ones who see him looking, and not for the first time, he wishes that he felt more at ease and less out of place in situations like these.

There’s a group in the living room sitting around and talking about highlights from the game. And Jack can’t deny that it was a good game, he scored two points and Kent got a hatty. He settles in one end of the couch, squeezed between Kent and their goalie, listening to one of the guys’ girlfriends go on about the final period.

“You totally could have gotten a hatty, too,” Kent says, voice low, nudging Jack with his elbow. Playful, doesn’t mean anything by it, but it almost stings. Almost reminds Jack of the fact that people expect him to be better. It probably would if he hadn’t taken his pills when they’d gotten off the ice.

“Maybe if you’d taken care of the defense for my last shot,” Jack responds, drinking from his beer so that he doesn’t have to say anything else. Because he did have another shot on goal, but the defense had been faster than Parse in getting to him, and he’d lost the puck. It happens, he reminds himself, because of course it does. It happens to everyone, but he’s Jack Zimmermann, Bad Bob’s legacy reborn, and it shouldn’t happen to him.

Kent snorts, covers it by burying his face in Jack’s shoulder. “Their entire line was enormous, I didn’t want to get checked into next Sunday. Come on,” he laughs, standing up and pulling Jack with him. They only just sat down, but Jack goes willingly, because the other option is sitting there without Kent.

They wander through the house, leaving the living room behind and making their way through the kitchen and towards the back deck. Below the deck, people are gathered around a fire pit and laughing. Jack doesn’t have to be listening to know that the boys are chirping each other, but he and Kent go down there anyway and tug their jackets a little tighter around themselves as they lean into the fire’s warmth.

For the first time in his life, Jack thinks that maybe he wouldn’t mind if there were more people at the party. Just gathered around the fire, because he wouldn’t have to wonder if anyone would notice or care if he stood too close to Kent. He pushes the thought away, shoves his hands in his pockets and listens as introductions are made. He doesn’t introduce himself, because he and Kent never do. It’s a hockey party. Everyone already knows him.

Making his way through the kitchen later, in search of more beer, he grabs the first bottle he sees and reaches into his pockets for the plastic case that he always keeps on him now. Twists the caps off of that and the beer, knocks back two pills and finishes half of his beer before filling a cup with the house drink for Kent.

Season’s almost over, but not quite, so they can’t go as hard as they usually would. No practice tomorrow morning, but Jack will be up doing drills by noon, he can almost guarantee it. Maybe drag Kent along with him, and if Kent’s with him they’ll probably go do cardio instead of drills. Probably do a few more miles than Jack would do normally, even when they’re both hungover, because Kent takes his cardio seriously and they’ll both take any opportunity to show the other up. Change anything into a competition.

Jack’s almost to the back door when a girl notices him, and maybe they’ve met before but he really doesn’t know. It’s one of the complications that comes with everyone knowing him before he knows them. She smiles, sidles over to him, and says something that he doesn’t quite catch.

“Sorry?” he says, leaning to her, hoping that he’ll be able to hear her above the music this time.

“Jack Zimmermann, right?” she asks, but it’s pretty clear she already knows the answer. She pops her gum, and he nods, and she smiles and nods back at him. “My friend said you were coming, but everyone says you don’t like parties, so I didn’t believe her.”

He wanders if by ‘everyone’ she means his team or the press. And he knows that he can’t tell her he only came because Kent wanted to, so he just shrugs. “Sometimes I drop by. Just depends,” he explains, faltering when he doesn’t know what to say it depends on. Depends on the day, on how he’s feeling, on how imminent his next panic attack is. Mostly it just depends on how insistent Kent is.

Eyes wide, she nods, sipping from her drink as she chews on her gum. Jack runs his tongue over his teeth, remembering the last time he’d drank with gum. Mint flavoring doesn’t mix well with beer, but she’s not drinking beer. It looks like the house drink, and when he’d tried Kent’s earlier it had been fruity. Probably wouldn’t be terrible with fruity gum.

“So this is probably a ridiculous question, you’re probably so tired of hearing this, but are you excited for the draft?” she inquires, and she’s right. He is tired of hearing it.
He tries to give her a smile, but knows it comes out looking forced, and manages to say, “So excited. I can hardly sleep.” At least that’s not a lie.

Noticing the two drinks that he’s holding, she takes a step back with a bashful smile. “I didn’t realize someone was waiting for you. Sorry to keep you,” she says, turning back to the kitchen before pausing and glancing back to him from underneath her bangs. “I’m Holly, by the way. I’ll see you later.”

Jack would respond, but she’s gone before he thinks to, and he juggles the drinks carefully while opening the door and making his way down the stairs. At the fire pit, more people have drifted out as time has passed, and Kent shoves over to make just enough room for Jack, accepting his drink with ease. More introductions that Jack doesn’t pay attention to, and then, when everyone else has gone back to their own business, Jack asks, “Talking to girls didn’t always feel like giving interviews, did it?”

Laughing, Kent lifts an eyebrow and glances back to the house. “Ran into another puck bunny? I’m not surprised, the house is crawling with them. Let’s get out of here, come on,” he says easily, slipping his hand into the crook of Jack’s elbow to pull him out of the group.

To everyone else, it just looks like Kent’s leading him to their next destination, but Jack’s heard that expression enough to know differently. They get back into the house, and Kent mentions something about starting a beer pong game happening upstairs, which is how Jack finds himself trailing after Kent as they disappear into an open upstairs bedroom and Kent locks the door behind them and takes off his shirt in one motion.

“I was lying about starting beer pong,” he points out needlessly, flipping on the light. “I was being subtle.”

Jack undoes his belt and shrugs. “I kind of figured, after you mentioned ‘puck bunny.’ And you’re never subtle. Not to me, at least,” he says, shrugging his shirt off. Reaches over and drags Kent to him, presses their lips together, and while Jack has never been great at social interaction, interaction with Kent is something else entirely.

It comes to him easily now, well, easy with the thrill and a few beers and coming off a win or desperate and drunk and coming off a loss. The taste of Kent’s mouth is becoming familiar, and even though he doesn’t think he’s been in this house before, even the scene is familiar. They’ve been like this before, in back rooms of parties and Jack knows exactly what’s coming when Kent downs the rest of his drink and pushes him into the wall.

Jack holds him off for a moment, finishes his beer and drops it on the floor before looping his fingers through Kent’s belt loops and pulling him back in. Smirking, he reaches up and knocks off the stupid snapback that Kent always wears, and Kent doesn’t even complain. Just tackles him into the bed with a laugh.

They’re not new to this, not exactly. Comfortable enough with each other’s bodies to not have to pause and readjust too often, and even when they do it’s not awkward. Juniors comes with a fair share of secrets, and this is one that Jack and Kent have learned to keep close to their chest. It’s not hard, not really, because co-captains are always close, and Jack and Kent are JackandKent more often than not, so no one ever suspects. At parties is the most risky of places, but when they get out they can always count on people being too drunk to remember much.

That’s what they usually rely on, but this time they don’t have to, because no one’s outside. Instead, people are gathered in another room where they’ve actually started up beer pong, and Kent’s competitive streak almost stops them from getting out the door.

“One game, come on,” Kent says, tugging on Jack’s arm as he stands resolute outside the doorway.

“I won’t be able to drive back after a game,” Jack protests, because he wants to leave and go back home, and if he stays for a game of beer pong it will be several hours before that can happen. Plus, Kent is terrible at beer pong, no matter what he says.

There are a few groans of disappointment from the room, and Kent pouts and points to where people are moving aside to make room on the table for them. “Come on, Zimms, I’ll drink yours for you, it’ll be fine,” he claims, but Jack’s heard that before and has woken up hungover the morning after. So he sticks to his ground and juts his chin out once in the direction of the door.

Kent arches an eyebrow but gives in, shrugging as he motions for people in the room to go back to playing. “Nah, he’s right. See you fuckers tomorrow!” he shouts.

“We don’t have practice tomorrow, Parse,” Jack reminds him helpfully, because they don’t. The day after, yeah, but not tomorrow.

Clapping Jack on the shoulder, Kent nods. “No practice tomorrow! Day after tomorrow, on the ice at eight!” he shouts, met with cheers. Snorts into Jack’s shoulder, “Those fuckers think I canceled it. As if.” And instead of moving his arm from Jack’s shoulder, he keeps it there, a comforting weight as Jack leads them through the house. Kent shouts out goodbyes and Jack nods to the people who look at them, but he has an arm around Kent’s waist so that he can’t go far, and by the time they get to the car he’s only barely avoided Kent dragging them into a round of shots and steered them entirely clear of the room that had a sign on the closed door advertising strip poker.

Heavy at Jack’s side, Kent turns and breathes into his ear, thick with liquor because he’d had another drink even if he hadn’t been pulled into shots. “Come on, we could have done shots.”

“I hate shots,” Jack reminds him, because the last time they did shots Jack distinctly remembers Kent making out with a girl and then coming home with him. It makes his skin crawl, like a dirty little secret.

Kent smirks, slow and full of promise. “You hate regular shots. Bet you wouldn’t mind body shots as much,” he teases, and Jack’s sure that he’s right, but while it’s easy to explain that the co-captains get along and hang out a lot, it’s a lot harder to explain that the co-captains take body shots off each other and make out while drunk.

Even harder to explain that they make out while sober.

Finally at the car, Jack unlocks it and pulls open the passenger door, man-handling Kent a little until Kent gets the message and gets in properly. By the time he’s in the driver’s seat and putting keys in the ignition, Kent is already fucking with the radio, no doubt moving his pre-sets to pop and hip-hop stations as he hums something undiscernible. Jack can’t seem to make himself mind.

-x-

In the morning, Jack rolls over into something warm and cracks an eye open to see Kent at his side. Drooling, pale even in the morning sun, and hogging the covers, he’s probably the only thing that helps Jack relax at this point. He still rolls to the other side and takes his pills, a little less than usual because it’s not as bad on mornings like these.

When Kent finally starts to stir, he keeps his eyes closed and lets his lips spread into a slow grin. “I like that your sheets smell like you, you creeper,” he says, one corner of his mouth pulled high.

Jack doesn’t answer, just holds his breath until Kent opens his eyes suspiciously and spies him only a few inches away. Smirking, Jack curls toward him. “What if I was still asleep?” he asks, although they both know it’s pointless. In all the times they’ve slept together, and even before that when sharing a bed was just sharing a bed and nothing more, Kent has never woken up before Jack.

Not bothering to point that out, Kent stretches a little bit and curves his body to Jack’s so that they’re spooning. “Guess I would have just been saying sappy shit that you wouldn’t have heard, then,” he announces, and it’s so rare for them to get a morning like this, where they don’t have practice to be at or an away game to drive to.

It’s probably one of the last mornings they have like this. The draft is coming up, there’s no way they’ll be playing for the same team in under five years and that would be a miracle in and of itself. Jack presses his lips together, tries to not memorize how Kent feels pressed against him. Tries to think of the next off day they have, whether he can convince someone to throw a party so they have an excuse. Hates himself for wanting the excuse.

“Glad I was awake for it,” Jack says, because Kent will chirp him bad for thinking about all of the time that they don’t have. And he could chirp Kent for saying sappy shit to him this early in the morning, but he doesn’t want to right now.

“You’re always awake. I’m still not convinced you sleep,” Kent confesses, throwing an arm over Jack’s middle and pulling him just the tiniest bit closer.

Jack laughs quietly. “I sleep when you’re here,” he says, tries to act like it doesn’t mean anything more than that. Tries to act like he didn’t confess he sleeps better with Kent beside him.

Humming, Kent nods into Jack’s back. “Me too,” he mentions, twisting the slightest bit. Jack hears his back pop and wonders if he slept uncomfortably. And then Kent stretches for real, pulls his arm back over to his side of the bed and stands up. “I’m going to grab food,” he says, picking his hat up off the floor.

With a nod, Jack looks over at his nightstand instead of where Kent’s rummaging around for last night’s clothes. They’ll go for a run, and then do drills on the rink in his backyard. It’s what they always do. “Grab me a protein bar,” he calls out as Kent slips through the door, giving him a thumbs up before closing it behind him.

Once the door clicks shut, Jack reaches over and grabs his pills. Remembering how little time they have left, he washes another down with the remains of a half-empty water bottle from the floor.

-x-

Europe is a dream, and not even a good one. Not even something he could ever actually do, but it sticks with Jack. And some days he wonders how Kent manages it, if Kent manages it. Maybe Kent’s doing as bad as Jack is, maybe Kent just hides it better. Wonders if Kent would want to come to Europe, too.

He’s fine shooting pucks and running some drills on his own, but hockey is a team sport. He needs someone to be on the other end of the ice to meet his passes. He’d never be able to convince Kent.

Hell, he’s never even going to be able to convince himself.

It doesn’t stop him from thinking about what it would be like, disappearing to where no one knows him or his dad or cares about his win streak. Everything would be so much easier, and with Kent beside him they’d be unstoppable. And sometimes the fantasy looks pretty good, up until he realizes he’ll never get a Stanley Cup that way.

It makes him feel dizzy and trapped whenever he thinks about it, because he wants to win. No two ways about it, he wants to play hockey and he wants to score and he wants a Stanley Cup before he’s twenty-five. When he was twelve, back when his parents were considering other careers for him beside hockey, careers like lawyer and doctor and whatever, his dad had asked what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

On home video, a Jack Zimmermann who just finished a growth spurt but hadn’t yet put on the weight that goes with it, says around a mouth full of braces, “Stanley Cup or bust.” And then his dad grabs him and smiles, and they stand in front of the camera as his mother’s laugh rings out from behind it.

Jack doesn’t hate the video, but it’s a reminder of all the things he still has to accomplish. And he’s not exactly honor bound to something he said before puberty, but he’s spent his entire life waiting to be drafted, and now that it’s actually coming up he just wants to go to his rink out back and play a pickup game with his dad instead. It seems like if he only had another year, just one more year, it wouldn’t take so much out of him. Not that it’s draining, exactly, but it’s not as freeing as he thinks it used to be.

Maybe he’s lying to himself. Maybe it was never freeing, maybe he was just better at ignoring this weight on his chest. Either way, his hands didn’t used to shake so much, even if he is steadier on the ice now.

-x-

They’re the champions that season, as if anyone’s surprised. Jack isn’t, because the team worked hard and they deserve it. First and second draft picks, all the reporters say to him as if he hasn’t been hearing it all year, and it makes Jack’s stomach tie up in knots because even if he doesn’t know the outcome yet he knows why.

Kent got the final goal. Final period, a minute left on the clock, and Jack had the puck. After so many years of playing together, he doesn’t have to see Kent to know where he is on the ice. It’s one of their famous no-look passes, because there’s a defender in front of Jack and Kent’s fast enough to get by them, so Jack doesn’t even think about it, just sends the pass and Kent takes a shot that looks impossible but Jack’s seen Kent in enough games to know it’s going in.

Doesn’t even have to watch the puck to know that Kent’s going to score, and something inside of him twists to the point of pain. Kent won the game, and Jack joins in with his team by tackling Kent to the ground, because they’re winning, they’re winning, and a championship his final year feels right even if it wasn’t all his doing. It’s still his team, he’s a co-captain, and they finish the game up by one, and that goals means so much more than the championship. That goal is Kent’s final proof that he’s worthy, that he should be number one.

If Kent’s the number one pick, it’s because of this goal. It’s because he worked hard for it, morning practices and drills until his muscles ached, and it doesn’t matter that Jack went to all those same practices and trained the same way. It doesn’t matter, because Kent scored the goal, and if Jack gets the first pick, it’s because he’s a Zimmermann and his name carries the right kind of weight.

Kent’s goal matters more because it won the game, and no one is going to give a shit about the two Jack scored to tie them up, and no one cares about the one that Jack scored in the first minute. Who cares about that, because Kent Parson just won them the championship.

It makes him sick, because Jack deserves it just as much as Kent. He’s worked hard, he’s trained for it since he first learned how to skate. If the goal had been his, he’d be first pick without a doubt. And it would be because of the goal, not because of his name, but Kent’s worked just as hard, trained just as often, and he should know. They’re Jack and Kent, JackandKent, and they’ve lived in each other’s pockets for years. Without Kent, Jack knows he wouldn’t be as good as he is. And the same goes for Kent, because they push each other to their best.

The captains have to give a speech after the game, because it’s their last year and the next real games they’ll be playing in will be in the NHL. It makes Jack’s hands feel numb, and he tosses back his medication before anyone can notice, and he shakes a little more than normal while standing before the team.

They’re not the only ones who will be going pro, because a few of the others are getting ready for the draft, too, but no one else is going to be the number one or two pick. First or second, nothing wrong with that, Jack thinks to himself, his mother’s words that rattle in his head and make him nauseous. Nothing wrong with that, and he plants a hand on Kent’s shoulder to keep from shaking as they stand before everyone.

Kent starts up the talk, because he’s better at these kinds of things than Jack is. Jack is better at strategies and making plays, but Kent is better at motivating a team. All Jack can think of between periods is standing in front of the team and telling them to play better. Apparently that’s not the best thing for most of the players, though.

No doubt, he’s better at speeches now than he used to be, and a good portion of that is because of Kent. Listening to how enthusiastic Kent is with everyone, trying to incorporate it into his own brand, and he’s done alright with it this year. Nobody’s told him his speeches have been depressing this year, at least. And before Jack knows it, Kent’s done and is staring at him expectantly. They all are, and all Jack can think about is the fact that this is the last game that he and Kent are going to be play on the same team for probably ten years. Maybe more.

His vision blurs for a moment, and it’s stupid, it’s so stupid, but Jack feels himself choke up and can’t do anything to stop it. He blinks, swallows, and tries to come up with something to show the team how grateful he is to all of them, for all their work. Because it really is a team effort, and this is his team, and he can’t believe it’s over.

“Thanks, guys,” Jack manages, ducking his head, ashamed of his tears, but then Kent nearly tackles him into a hug. And Kent’s making the same dumb sniffling sounds that he is, which makes it a little easier, but then Jack looks up and sees that the team is standing on benches slowly, getting their balance, and he really doesn’t know what this is about but it’s almost enough to distract him.

Wobbling on the benches, the entire team grins down at him and Kent, some of them with shiny eyes and all of them looking somber and hopeful at the same time.
It isn’t until one of them says, “O Captain, my Captain” that Jack understands.

They watched the movie as a team at the beginning of the season, because someone found out that Jack had never seen it. So they’d all piled onto couches and made room for themselves, twenty boys becoming men gathered round to watch Dead Poet’s Society. It’s the only time they’ve cried together off the ice.

Jack looks around and can’t keep himself from smiling, and he edits his tally. One of two times they’ve cried together, he thinks, huffing a laugh into Kent’s neck where they’re holding each other tightly, and each team member climbs off the benches and joins them in the middle of the locker room, a mass of sweaty hockey players clinging to each other. Jack squeezes Kent tighter, almost overwhelmed in the best way possible.

Two months to the draft. Surrounded by his team, with the thrill of victory that’s making him giddy even in the solemn embrace, it’s almost enough to make him forget. Almost.

-x-

In the weeks before their last match, Jack isn’t sure that he slept in a bed without Kent twice in a row. It’s always been this way between them, when he bothers to think about it, even before it became more. They’ve been intertwined since their first summer camp together, inseparable since their first full season together. To the point where they don’t even bother to call their parents before sleeping over at the other’s house, because they’ll just switch houses the next night.

Jack keeps two house keys on his key ring, one to Kent’s and the other to his own. Kent’s the same way, ever since they started picking each other up for morning practice and had to make sure the other was awake.

They’re not co-dependent, that’s the wrong word for it, they’re both independent people. That happens for most people who train for things like this, Jack guesses. Because you become used to being on a team, but mostly you’re just used to being on your own. That’s how it’s always worked for him, at least.

Jack doesn’t want to say that he’s used to being alone, but he is. He trains alone often, he spends most of his time alone, and he doesn’t find that to be odd. He just isn’t used to being lonely, because there’s always been practices with other people to break up his time before, and now those are over and he’s own his own. Not really, because he’s got his parents of course, but he can’t talk with them. Not when there’s little more than a week until the draft, not when he sees his own anxiety reflected in their faces.

He and Kent still see each other, of course, because they’re best friends and something more. They still do some training together, just not as much as before. It’s still a relief when Kent calls, and if they have to go to a party it might be better for Jack in all honesty. He needs to get out of the house, go somewhere that isn’t a hockey rink, and spending time with the team is going to be good for him.

That’s what he tells himself, getting ready, tossing back his pills and noticing the nearly empty bottle. He exchanges it for a full one in the medicine cabinet, making a mental note to get a refill soon. There’s the one in his hockey bag that’s probably somewhere around half-full, but he’d like to keep it there for emergencies.

Jack’s not dependent on Kent, but he doesn’t know if he can say the same for his prescription. It’s prescribed medication, though, and he needs it. He wouldn’t have it if he didn’t need it, he tells himself, slipping it into his pocket and grabbing a hat on the way out when he spies Kent’s headlights coming up the driveway.

Hesitating only a moment, he grabs his backpack and shoves a change of clothes in it, along with something to wear for a morning workout. What he’s wearing to the party won’t exactly keep him warm on the ice if they decide to wake up and go to a rink and run drills.

He grabs the backpack and calls a goodbye to his parents, gets in the car with Kent and says “Drive” because he can’t be here one moment longer, he has to get away and Kent’s the one person who should be able to understand that, but even he doesn’t because Kent doesn’t have to worry about his father’s last name on a roster and the shot that he didn’t make. He’s not making any sense, but Kent gets the message anyway.

They’re only ten minutes out when Jack realizes he hasn’t actually said anything since they left, and that’s probably why Kent’s looking at him weird. He flips down the mirror in front of the seat, checks to make sure he doesn’t have anything stuck in his teeth, just in case. “Did you suddenly decide that speed limits existed for a reason?” he asks, just to be contrary. Between the two of them, Jack’s the one who drives according to the letter of the law. Kent takes it more liberally, mentioning something about Federalists and a “living Constitution.”

No doubt something American that Jack hasn’t ever paid attention to.

“Thought I’d enjoy the ride,” Kent says, but it sounds off and Jack knows Kent’s lying just by the way he reaches up to touch his hat self-consciously. It’s a shitty give away, and most people who know Kent probably don’t even notice because it looks like such a natural gesture. Jack’s been noticing it since they were fourteen.

It isn’t even until they’re pulling into the parking lot of the rink that Jack realizes where they’re going. And he jolts up, hands jerking at his sides as he turns to Kent with a scowl and asks what the fuck they’re doing. “I thought you said there was a party, what gives?” he demands, twisting around to get a look at the back seat. There aren’t sticks in the back seat, so Kent wasn’t planning on coming here or he would have moved them from the trunk to the back. They’re too annoying to get out of the trunk, having to take the time to angle them in the right way, and usually when they get to the rink they’re impatient enough as it is.

“You need this,” Kent says, taking the key from the ignition and getting his seatbelt off. When he notices that Jack isn’t doing the same, he tries again, “Come on, I know you’re stressed.”

Well of course Jack is stressed. It’s a week until the NHL draft. A week until he stops competing with Kent and starts competing against him. A week until he finds out if his dad’s name carries more weight than Kent’s skill does, because that goal is what’s going to make the difference and Jack sometimes has a hard time breathing when he starts thinking about it. It’s why he tries not to think about it.

Except now, for instance, because Kent brought it up and there’s very little that Jack wants more than to go home even though it was last place he wanted to be less than an hour ago. Pushing a breath out slowly, he looks up and meets Kent’s eyes. They’re worried, which pisses him off more than it should. “I’m fine.”

For a moment, he thinks that Kent will give it to him, shrug, and they’ll be off to the party and hopefully Jack will forget about it after a few drinks. But then Kent looks over to the complex and nods before turning back to Jack and shrugging. “We don’t have to stay long, let’s just take a few laps. You’ve got a jacket, come on.” He pauses, waits until Jack narrows his eyes at him, and then tries something different. “Zimms, I’ve got you.”

Because Kent’s seen Jack go into panic attacks, and while he may not be having one right now, he’s never seen him like this before. It’s always better when they get off the ice, and if Kent can just get him to the ice it’ll be a step towards making this better, whatever it is.

“Fuck off, let’s just go,” Jack insists, motioning back to the road. “I thought you said there was a party.” He searches under the seat for a bottle of Gatorade that doesn’t have much more in it, but he opens it up anyway and swallows a pill before draining the contents and looking back to Kent expectantly.

Jack’s always stubborn, but he can get to a point where nothing will make him change his mind, so Kent tears his gaze away from the complex and gets back in the car. Flexes his hands for a moment before getting them on the wheel, and he’s not going to say anything, he’s really not, because Jack can handle himself. Just settles back into his seat, slams the door shut, and is about to turn the key in the ignition when Jack grabs his shoulders.

“What the fuck?” he yelps, startled and angry, turning to see what was so important.

Jack doesn’t waste a moment, just pulls Kent forward and their lips together with a force that’s almost violent. And Kent doesn’t exactly know where this is coming from, considering the fact that he’s pretty sure they’re still arguing, but he gives just as good as he gets, latching a hand behind Jack’s shoulder and digging his nails in.

It’s harsh in a way that they usually aren’t, because even when they’re drunk and rushed and daring, mostly they’re just having fun. Right now, Kent feels like he’s trying to hurt Jack, and even though Jack is being aggressive he doesn’t feel like Jack’s trying to hurt him.

Breathing heavily, Kent pulls away, and Jack doesn’t even stop, just moves his lips from his face down his neck. Even goes so far as to bite underneath Kent’s jaw, and Kent doesn’t do anything to stop it, even though it’s a mark that other people will be able to see. The rumor mill is never short on supply for Parse and Zimms, so he has to be the sensible one and pull Jack back.

They sit, still leaning towards each other, and Kent can’t make out Jack’s expression. Jack’s always been hard to read, but he has signs. It’s like decoding, and Kent’s gotten better as the years have gone on, but he still doesn’t know all of them.

-x-

They go to the party, after. After Kent has nail marks on his hips and he tastes like Jack and Jack tastes like him, after Kent just wants to go back, it doesn’t matter where, they’ll just play video games and fall asleep. After, Jack insists on going to the party and pretends that they’ve never seen each other in their lives. Pretends that they’re not everything to each other, just looks pointedly at the road and tells Kent to drive.

When it comes to Jack, Kent’s never been very good at saying no.

And it’s a house party, because it always is with them, filled with hockey players and girls who like hockey players, and a jumble of people that Kent will never see again. He grabs drinks first thing, because if Jack’s in a mood like this it’s better that he go ahead and get his alcohol level up while Jack’s still sober. And then, by the time that he’s coming down, Jack will be drunk and will therefore not as annoying to deal with.

It’s a byproduct of their always being around each other, that they can get annoyed with each other so easily. And Kent probably owes him a few apologies, but he can make them later, they’ve got the time. So he downs the first thing passed to him, Coke with too much Fireball, and even though it stings he just doesn’t bother with pacing himself. Meets Jack’s eyes over the top of the drink, slams the cup on the counter and then pours himself another one, because it’s about to be a long night.

And it is a long night, but it gets better. And while Jack’s not always his best at parties, he does all right. They know most of the people there, if only from having run into them at parties before this, so Kent doesn’t feel bad for leaving Jack to the masses for the first hour or two in favor of going outside and spending time talking with too many people who want to know about the draft, asking about insider info that he honestly doesn’t know anything about. Not that they believe him, but it keeps him in the conversation for a while, and by the time he’s bored he realizes that Jack’s probably drunk enough to be enjoyable again.

Making his way through the party, Kent doesn’t have to look far from where he originally left Jack in the kitchen to find him again. He’s standing awkwardly in a corner of the living room, a few girls surrounding him. Kent tries not to laugh, but it’s hard, because Jack is so predictable that it’s downright comical.

“Zimms,” he cheers, because startling Jack is always a good way to gauge how he’s doing rather than having to dance around for a while before getting a good feel for it.

Sure enough, Jack is either drunk enough to have forgotten the earlier incident or has realized that he needs to repent for his transgressions, because he looks up from his drink and nods with a grin, shifting over to make room.

Kent doesn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer, shuffling through the group and greeting the people he knows. And then he ducks in next to Jack, bumping him gently with his hip, trying to convey that they’re good. Jack looks better than he did in the car, he doesn’t seem like he’s carrying some barely concealed emotion around him anymore. And Kent doesn’t even know what that’s about, but Jack’s going through some stuff.

They don’t talk about it, they never have. That’s what the rink is for, but Jack got pissed when he tried to push it today, so whatever. Kent’s got his own shit to deal with, but he tries to push it out of his mind. Jack’s feeling better, if how he chirps Kent on his taste in snapbacks is any indication. Kent reaches up and nudges the one of Jack’s head, arching an eyebrow.

“Et tu, Brute?” Kenta asks, because he knows that snapback and the last time he saw it was in the corner of Jack’s room. “Pretty sure that’s mine, so if I’ve got bad taste, and you like my taste, that means you’ve got bad taste. Just the way it goes.”

The group around them titters, and this is the way it happens sometimes, when they’re Parse and Zimms or JackandKent. People know more of the stuff surrounding them than the actual them, and it’s like they think they’re in on the jokes. Kent hates it, Jack hates it, because they’re the only ones who know the jokes.

Jack glances up to him, and it’s the disgruntled expression that must be a mirror of Kent’s own face. Kent wants to get out of here, but they haven’t been here all that long, and it’s still going to be a while until he’s good enough to drive. Finally cracking a smile, Jack digs an elbow into his side and says, “Well, maybe I’ve just got bad taste then. In everything.” Adds a wink to the statement, because he’s teasing.

Teasing. When Kent first met Jack Zimmermann, he thought the boy only had two modes: on the ice and off the ice. And now here they are, years later, about to go into the NHL together, and Jack Zimmermann teases him. Kent wants to do something ridiculous, like kiss him, but there are people everywhere and no good excuses.

He settles for yanking Jack in for a noogie instead, knocking the hat off as Jack struggles but finally gives in. And then Jack finally pulls away, but he’s so close for a moment that Kent deeply regrets pulling him closer because this isn’t exactly making it any easier to not kiss him. “Yeah, bad taste,” he coughs, voice coming off rough with what hopefully no one but Jack can tell is want.

Bad taste, as if. He and Jack have been… Whatever they are, they’ve been that way for well over a year. And Kent doesn’t take kindly to being called someone’s bad taste.

“You guys are so funny,” a girl pipes up from the group near them, and she looks a little familiar. Maybe. They all kind of fade together after so many. “Is it weird that you won’t be on the same team next year?”

Kent rolls his eyes. There are only so many questions people can come up with for him and Jack, and this is the second most popular. The only thing better for her to ask is who they think is going to go first. He’s about to make some stupid fucking remark to her for the simple fact that she’s not a reporter and is therefore someone he can say shit like that to, but then he notices Jack.

Jack, only a moment before, had been laughing and chirping and actually managing to enjoy himself at a party. Now he looks like he did in the car, panicked, like something’s locked inside of him and he doesn’t even know how to let it out. Kent wishes that face on him didn’t look so familiar, and he grabs Jack’s elbow and leans toward the girl. Forces out, “Would you fuck off?”

He’s maybe a little nastier than he would normally be. Maybe.

Still holding Jack by the elbow, Kent hauls them out because he’s not spending another second with people who want a press conference instead of a conversation. “I hate when people do that, they have to know how it feels. Like who just asks somebody that, just because we’re good at hockey means they think they know shit,” he spits, almost walking them in a circle before jerking them into the kitchen and looking around for something useful.

He told himself he was done after two, he’s driving back tonight, but the only thing that’s keeping him from grabbing the nearest bottle and drinking straight from it is how Jack looks like a caged bird. He stands at the sink, knuckles white as he grasps at the counter’s edge, and Kent suddenly regrets leaving him alone when they got there. He doesn’t know how much Jack’s had, but it has to have been a lot for him to look like this, and Jack doesn’t drink like this. Jack never drinks like this.

Fuck. This is bad. “Come on, you’re good, man. I’ve got you.” Looks around for something to help, because he doesn’t know how to help. “Zimms, I’ve got you.”

Hands shaking, Jack digs in his pockets, pulls out a bottle of meds, and Kent nods, because Jack’s going to be a little calmer after that. The press fucks Jack up, he knows it must, Bad Bob as Dad Bob must be a trip to grow up with, and Kent’s honestly impressed that Jack has panic attacks as rarely as he does. But they’re getting more frequent, even if they don’t bring it up, and Kent grabs a glass and splashes water in it, shoving it at Jack.

Jack grabs the water and chases the pill with it, or maybe pills, Kent doesn’t know the fucking dosage, but there’s not a hockey rink here so now he’s pretty much out of methods that help Jack calm down. And Jack’s still shaking, still looks like he might throw up, looks up into the glass in front of the sink.

Kent catches the reflection, sees the terror in Jack’s eyes, and doesn’t even think before he’s dragging Jack through the house and up the staircase that he noticed when they first came in. The first door on the second floor is locked, and so is the second one, but the third opens to a small bathroom that’s unoccupied. Wedging them both inside, he pushes Jack towards the toilet and stays a little closer to the sink until he notices Jack’s hands clenching uselessly by his sides.

Flipping the lock, Kent twines his hands through Jack’s and sits on the edge of the tub. Jack comes with him easily, breathing irregular as Kent tries to think about what he usually does when Jack has panic attacks. The first answer is take him to the rink, but that’s not an option right now, and he’s barely keeping himself together.

“What do you need?” he asks, voice low, and whatever Jack says he’ll do. Doesn’t matter what it is, and he’s always like this for Jack, but it’s rare that he displays it like this. “I’ve got you, Zimms. What can I do?”

With something that might be an attempt at a smile, Jack breathes out and says, “I want to go to Europe.”

Kent is pretty sure he heard him wrong. “What?” he asks, because Europe doesn’t make any sense. He licks his lips, looks around and tightens his grip on Jack’s hands, still shaking.

“I want to go to Europe,” Jack says, laughing a little, and there’s no way that Kent misheard him this time. “It snows there,” he explains, because that’s clearly supposed to make sense to Kent, only it doesn’t clear anything up at all. “I could play hockey,” he finishes, and the only thing that’s helping Kent not freak the fuck out right now is that Jack actually sounds calmer.

All Kent can think about is that Jack can play hockey here. “It snows here,” he says, stupidly, because he feels like Jack is lightyears ahead of him in this conversation, but of course it snows here. He supposes that it wouldn’t be too wild of an idea that it snows in Europe, too.

Nodding, Jack’s hands stop shaking as much. Still more than normal, but way out of danger zone. Kent still doesn’t let go.

They stay sitting by the tub until Jack’s hands stop shaking enough to where Kent doesn’t think of a bird when he looks at him, and then they can’t stay. Kent can’t just go back into a party where people won’t respect their privacy, where this might happen again, and he checks his hat in the mirror before looking to where Jack is standing, clearly drunk and unsteady, and Kent resolves that he’s not leaving him alone at a party again.

Adjusting Jack’s hat for him, Kent nods at his friend, wishing that his own hands would stop shaking. To cover it, he pulls Jack to him to where he can help support him. Jack needs it, anyway. “Your place or mine?” he asks.

Jack grins, slow and long, and says, “How about Europe?”

Walking through the house, making sure that no one feels comfortable approaching them, Kent gets them out the front door and briefly entertains the idea of them going to Europe. Hanging around Italy and growing fresh herbs and learning how to cook. “Yeah, Zimms. Let’s go to Europe,” he says, because it’s a nice idea.

Jack falls asleep on the ride back, and Kent pulls into the Zimmermann’s driveway and lugs Jack up the stairs. Jack’s unsteady on his feet, slurring drunkenly into Kent’s neck as Kent digs out his keyring and finds the one that matches up to the Zimmermann’s lock. They get through the house fine, and thank God Jack’s parents are heavy sleepers, because getting Jack up the full flight of stairs to his room is truly a testament to how hard he’s been working in the weight room. They manage, though, and Kent’s lifted Jack before, but never as what’s essentially dead weight for all the help that Jack is.

Huffing, he dumps Jack onto his bed and grabs a clean T-shirt from his dresser. Makes it two, changes out of his own since he got beer split on it at some point last night. Tosses the other clean one to Jack, who sluggishly changes into it, rolling over and toing his shoes off as he reaches for the nightstand.

Kent ducks into the bathroom, gargles a bit of mouthwash and shucks off his jeans. Considers getting Jack to gargle, too, but he’s so far gone it would probably just result in mouthwash split on the comforter. He spits into the sink, and then turns to see Jack putting the cap on his meds and tossing a water bottle onto the floor.

“You good, man?” Kent asks, grabbing his socks and leaving them next to his jeans. It’s nearly four in the morning, and he’s so glad they don’t have anything to be up for in the morning, so he doesn’t have bother with alarms. Jack will wake up before the crack of dawn anyway, he thinks, finally crawling into bed beside Jack, lining them up until they’re a perfect copy of each other.

Jack grins, cracking an eye open and shuddering a laugh out. “You’re a hard person to love, Kenny,” he says, slow and easy as anything.

For a moment, the world stops turning. They haven’t said that before, and Kent thought they weren’t going to. They have a week before the draft, and then everything is final and they’ll end up miles and miles apart. Won’t get to see each other on the weekends, probably will be months in between visits based on when their schedules match up.

Not saying it was helping him make it through, but now Jack’s said it, and Kent doesn’t know how he’s ever going to be able to leave this person behind. Swallowing hard, Kent blinks through tears that weren’t there a moment ago, and they’ve got a week. “You’re a hard person to love, too, Jack,” he confesses, and he doesn’t know when he fell in love with Jack Zimmermann, sometime between playoff games years ago while Jack was shouting new plays, or maybe it was the first time he drove him to the ice after that panic attack and Jack put on the pop station he would have picked anyway. Probably sometime in between then, all things considered.

“Love you,” Jack slurs, closing his eyes, grin still etched on his face. He looks relaxed for the first time in what seems like years. He looks younger, like the past year hasn’t happened. He looks happy.

Kent tangles their limbs together and sinks his chin into the junction between Jack’s neck and shoulder. “Love you, too,” he answers, and it’s taken him too long to say it. They have a week left, and then there’s the draft and different teams, and Kent doesn’t know how he’s going to do it all without Jack by his side. He tugs the comforter closer and reassures himself as he falls asleep. They have a week left.

-x-

When he wakes up, Jack still a warm pressure by his side, Kent doesn’t even bother to open his eyes, just stretches a little bit until he feels the sun touch his face. Jack doesn’t say anything, probably doing his usual creepy thing where he watches Kent sleep, but Kent can’t say that he minds. Curling his lips into a smile, Kent whispers, “How long have you been staring at me?”

Jack doesn’t respond, and Kent groans a little bit, but he’s stubborn and stays quiet. He and Jack have done this before, on countless mornings, trying to stay in bed for as long as possible. He gets bored quickly though, because he’s ignoring Jack instead of chirping him, and the other would be infinitely more fun.

Finally giving in, Kent opens his eyes and really does stretch, and then he pauses. Because Jack is still asleep beside him, which hasn’t happened before. Ever, even when they first knew each other and would share hotel rooms on away games, Jack would be awake and showered before Kent’s alarm even went off. First time for everything, though, he guesses, reaching forward and shaking Jack’s shoulder gently. “Come on, Zimms, time to get up,” he says, because if he’s awake then Jack should be, too. It’s basically one of the rules of their friendship.

Jack doesn’t stir, and then Kent smells it. He leans over, just to be sure, and he’s right. There’s vomit on Jack’s side of the bed, some of it having made it onto the floor. Some of is crusted on Jack’s face.

Kent pauses before everything adds up in one horrifying moment. He’s never woken up before Jack, never. It doesn’t happen. And Jack’s a light sleeper, that’s why he’s always awake first, and Alicia’s mentioned that it never took much to wake him up in the morning. Jack’s always made it to the toilet after a round of drinking, too, doesn’t just lean off the bed and throw up.

Kent doesn’t want to, but he can’t help himself. He looks at the nightstand, where a half full bottle of the medication Jack takes for his anxiety is laying on its side. His breathing gets shallower, because he remembers Jack taking some of the medication in the parking lot at the rink. It was nearly full then. Wasn’t it? Does he remember it from last night, or from some other night? It’s happened before, hasn’t it?

How much did Jack have to drink last night? Kent shakes as he realizes he doesn’t know, and then he shakes Jack by his shoulder, shakes him hard enough to where it should pull him out of a deep sleep.

There’s no response, and Kent’s mouth is dry, and he’s about to start shouting when there’s a knock at the door and Alicia Zimmermann calls in, “I know you boys are in there, I saw Kent’s car. Do you want breakfast?”

Kent honestly isn’t sure what he says to that, but there’s a noise or a shout or something because the door swings open almost immediately, and then it’s a blur of French that he doesn’t understand and Alicia’s crying or is that him and the call to emergency means that there’s an ambulance on the way and his throat feels tight and Jack’s pulse is sluggish but there even though it doesn’t want to be. It doesn’t make it any easier to breathe. Alicia stands by Jack and her hands flutter at her sides, too skittish to be of use.

It reminds Kent of birds. Reminds Kent of Jack. He still can’t breathe.

-x-

Jack opens his eyes slowly, and he hears a short gasp and then his mother’s face comes into view. Goes to speak, but his mouth is dry and he ends up coughing instead, and she reaches forward and brushes the hair from his face as she reaches for something.

He goes to say something, doesn’t know what, just wants to hear his mother’s voice, but he chokes up again and she’s instantly by his side, whispering slowly. “It’s going to be all right; you’re going to be all right,” she tells him, eyes shining, and he can’t bring himself to ask what she’s talking about, just lets his eyes slip closed again.

-x-

Both of his parents are in front of him the next time he wakes up, and his throat doesn’t feel like a tube that someone’s stuffed cotton balls down. His eyes feel heavier, though, and he goes to stretch when he feels the tubes that are connected to his body. IVs along his arms, and black straps keeping him down, preventing him from going anywhere, and Jack can’t stop himself. He starts screaming, can’t make himself stop.

-x-

The first thing that they’re sure of is that they’re no brain damage, and Jack tries not to freak out from hearing those words, tries to act like he doesn’t see the way that his mother closes her eyes in thanks, tries to keep himself from panicking. He keeps his breathing under control, somehow, and despite the crazed look in his eyes, no one asks if he’s all right.

Doctors explain addiction and withdrawal to him, and Jack wants to say they’re wrong, wants to say that it couldn’t have happened, because the pills help. And he knows, somewhere in him, he knows that they’re doctors. They’re telling him this because they’re going to help him, but he can’t deny that the pills help.

He keeps insisting it to them, because they clearly don’t understand, and he may have gone overboard this time, but he just has to learn how to manage it better. He won’t drink, he says, because surely that’s a compromise that will help him, but they’re not letting up. People keep repeating the word overdose, but he wasn’t trying to, it wasn’t intentional. “The pills help,” he continues, looking around the room, his parents standing in a corner like they don’t know how to make themselves small enough. “Ask Parse, the pills help,” he tries, because Kent has seen him have panic attacks and Kent will be able to assure these people that Jack isn’t taking them for no reason.

Suddenly, his mother gasps and breaks away from his father, shoving her way out of the room as Jack sits, still strapped to the hospital bed. “Ask Parse!” he yells after her, and that’s when they tell him.

Kent woke up and Jack was almost dead. Kent woke up next to Jack’s barely breathing body. Kent rode with them to the hospital, and Kent doesn’t know what the hell Jack’s been doing as far as self-medication.

His dad explains it to him, sitting on the hospital bed after they’ve gotten the doctors out of the room. Explains that it’s a serious problem, and he’s going to need help. And it’s kind of sinking in now, because Jack is physically restrained in a hospital bed because they were worried about him waking up and trying again.

They were worried about him waking up and trying to kill himself.

“I…” Jack starts, because he hadn’t been trying to, it wasn’t intentional, he never wanted to kill himself. “It wasn’t like that,” he manages, knows it’s not enough, can’t think of what would be. His parents went through hours where they thought their son tried to kill himself, where they weren’t sure if he’d make it out alive, where they didn’t know if he’d have brain damage even if he did make it. His best friend woke up next to his unconscious and unwaking form, and there aren’t enough words. He feels stupid, feels like he’s standing in front of his team and is supposed to be giving a speech and all he can get out is “thanks.”

Bob covers his son’s hand with his own, and Jack stops stuttering, falls silent, can’t stop shaking. Feels the need to reach into his pocket and grab the pills, but it’s useless and makes him feel even worse.

They sit like that until his mother creeps into the hospital room again, joins them by sitting on the edge of the bed. Questions weigh heavy on Jack’s tongue, but he can’t get them out. She ran out when he talked about Kent. Because Kent found him.

Jack shivers, doesn’t say anything. For the first time, he’s tired of feeling cold. It doesn’t feel natural unless he has ice under his blades.

-x-

The doctors keep talking about treatment, which Jack is starting to get behind. Kind of, as in he understands that people have problems with addiction need treatment. He still doesn’t see himself as addicted, though, because it wasn’t like he was taking the meds to get high or anything like that. Just to where he felt normal, where he felt like he could handle things. Where things weren’t quite so loud all the time.

He asks about changing the dosage, but the lead doctor shakes her head at him and tells him that he doesn’t understand. He has a problem, she explains in no uncertain terms. He needs help.

Help is something he’s going to have to get used to. The next time that he and his dad are alone in the room, Jack allows himself to think about it. Timing is going to be bad, kind of, but it also couldn’t really come at a better time. It’s not like he’d be able to consider it during the season.

“I can be out for July, even August if that’s what it takes, I guess,” Jack says tentatively, getting used to the idea since it’s pretty clear that he’s not going to be getting other options. His dad looks over at him, bags under his eyes making him look older than his years. “I won’t have to be out for any of the season, and I might miss some training, but now is the best time for it,” he says, convincing himself. If he has to do this, might as well try to see it as best he can.

Clearing his throat, his dad tells him as gently as he can. Jack cries anyway.

-x-

The draft is in four days when the news breaks.

Jack Zimmermann is not going to be the number one or number two pick in this year’s NHL draft, because he’s not being drafted. He overdosed. He’s not going to play professionally. Not this year, at least. There’s still time, they assure him, because he’s eighteen years old. He has his whole career in front of him, everyone says so, and even the worst articles that accuse him of problems with coke say that he’ll be sure to beat this drug problem and be back on the ice in a few years.

Jack Zimmermann is just one more spoiled, rich kid with a drug problem, wasted potential at the worst and a comeback story at the best. No one can tell just yet.

The press can’t get ahold of Kent, who are having the opposite of Jack’s problem. His phone has too many missed calls to count, not to mention several increasingly desperate voicemails that Kent’s left him. He starts to listen to the first one before he realizes Kent left it while Jack’s condition was unstable. Kent left it while he didn’t know if Jack was going to make it out alive, and everything that he says is in the conditional tense.

Jack listens to the phrase ‘if you wake up’ before he deletes all of them without hesitation.

Kent knows he’s awake now, his mom told him that she made the call after he woke up the first time. Which means Jack doesn’t exactly know what to say to his best friend.

Sorry I almost died and you had to find me.

Somehow, he doesn’t think those words will sound right.

-x-

His mother is gentle with him, and she’s always been this way, but it’s different now. She’s more careful, watches herself to make sure that she doesn’t do anything. “I don’t want to make it worse,” she confesses to him once, at his bedside, her hand resting on his arm but not daring to put any pressure.

“You don’t make it worse,” Jack says, because she doesn’t. He knows that she’s only ever wanted what’s best for him, her and his father both, and maybe that’s what’s so tough. They want what’s best for him, and he wants to be the best for them. And it’s not that he doesn’t believe his parents, but they’ve never quite understand each other. He knows they love him.

She nods, but he doesn’t know if she believes him. He doesn’t want to ask. Quietly, she tells him, “I know the pressure was too much. We should have done something about reporters. Your father…”

“It wasn’t dad,” Jack tries, doesn’t know how to finish.

They sit, quiet except for the machines. It’s clear that she wants to ask what bothered him the most, but Jack guesses that’s a pretty hard question to voice when your son just seemingly tried to off himself.

Jack answers, even though she never asked. “It was just too much.” He hesitates, unsure. He’s never told his parents, mostly because he didn’t want to admit it to himself, not because he thinks they’ll love him any less. Staring at the white wall of the hospital room in front of him, Jack exhales. Closes his eyes. “I’m gay, Mom.”

Her hand finds his, and when Jack looks at her again she’s clutching the sheets tightly with her other hand. Her mouth wobbles, and she leans over to kiss his cheek. “My brave, brave boy,” she whispers.

He doesn’t feel brave. He feels like someone on suicide watch, to be kept under observation for at least a week, maybe longer. Up to three. After Kent told the nurse everything about the party and the girl with the question and Jack’s panic attack, they still think it’s suicide. Jack can’t tell if his parents believe it or not. Sometimes he doesn’t know if he believes it or not.

Pulling her hand away from the sheets, she pets his hair gently. “You’re going to be all right. My brave, brave boy,” she repeats, and he turns towards her touch, closes his eyes, tries not to cry.

Something inside of him shifts into place. They’ll work through it.

-x-

Memories from that night come back to him sporadically, which his doctor tells him is normal. The alcohol and the medication addled his memories, so she says not to worry too much. He only lost a day, half of one, really. Nothing to worry about, she explains, but Jack still does. It’s in his nature.

He remembers sitting on a bathtub with Kent, telling him about Europe. Wonders if he actually explained it, if Kent would have wanted to come with him. Wonders if Kent thought the idea was crazy. Remembers pulling into the parking lot of the rink and Kent repeating that they should go do drills. Wonders if Kent will look back at the moment and blame himself for not dragging Jack out of the car and onto the ice. Remembers lying in bed, heavy and weightless all at once, telling Kent he loves him. Wonders if it was just a dream.

Wonders if Kent said it back.

-x-

He lets the missed calls pile up until the day of the draft, and he calls as soon as it’s announced. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Kent Parson is going to the Las Vegas Aces. He’ll be miles and miles away, and Jack dials the number before he can convince himself not to.

Staying on the line is another matter entirely, and he’s about to hang up when Kent answers, sounding winded and surprised all at once. “Zimms?” he asks, and it only takes one word before Jack feels like he’s been punched.

New record, if anyone’s keeping score.

“Congratulations, Parse,” Jack starts. “Number one draft pick.” It’s everything Kent’s ever wanted, but Jack doesn’t think either of them ever imagined that it would happen like this.
Kent laughs, but it sounds forced and pained. “No dark horse candidates beat me out for it, in case you were still hoping for that.” Another chuckle, but it’s dry. And then silence, but Jack was expecting that anyway.

Jack didn’t want Kent to get beaten out by someone random that no one saw coming, and he tells him as much. Jack didn’t want to Kent to get second pick, he just wanted to be first.

“It should be you, Zimms,” Kent says, and it’s a touch too honest, but mostly Jack can’t stand it because they don’t know. Jack’s in the hospital and Kent got drafted, and now they’ll never know.

“You worked just as hard as I did,” Jack says, wondering how it ended up that he’s the one comforting Parse when he’s the one on suicide watch.

“Only because you pushed me for it,” Kent says, and it sounds less like an apology this time. “Looks like I’m going to Las Vegas,” he chuckles, and it’s only then that Jack sees the irony. He wonders how he could have missed it, with Kent heading to what must be the world’s capital for addiction.

They stay on the phone longer than Jack had planned, and he can’t deny that he misses Kent. Wishes that Kent would stop by the hospital, but he understands why he doesn’t and can’t bring himself to ask. It’s only when Kent brings up him coming to visit in Vegas that reality sinks in, really settles down in his bones. It feels uncomfortably heavy, like a weight he forgot he had to carry with him. He’s unaccustomed to the load.

“You’re going to Las Vegas. I’m going to rehab,” Jack says, because the truth is always easier when it’s quick. Like ripping off a band aid. It still hurts.

-x-

It’s November when he comes home. The skies are perpetually gray, and the snow falls like it’s welcoming him back. For the first time since getting out of the hospital, he isn’t cold.

His room is impeccably neat, and he’s going to thank his mom for cleaning it when he realizes that she had to do that after the last time he’d been in it he’d been unconscious and close to dying. Doesn’t mention it, just hugs her tighter than usual, hopes that she understands because he doesn’t think he has the words or the strength to explain it to her.

He and his dad set up the rink in the backyard when the weather sets, and it’s pretty clear that Jack is the only one who thinks it’s a good idea. His mother confesses that she doesn’t understand how hockey isn’t a trigger for him.

Jack licks his lips, thinks about all the times he came out of a panic attack Kent shoving skates on his feet and a stick in his hand. Thinks about how he gets jittery before the games but feels natural on the ice. All those early morning practices, all those drills. “It’s not hockey that’s the problem,” he says, tying his skates. He hopes she understands what he didn’t say, because if hockey’s not the problem then it’s him.

It made more sense when his therapist explained it to him, but Alicia just nods, looks a little sad. He did that, and he feels guilty for it, because it’s not her fault.

On the ice, he stands and exhales. It feels more like home than his bedroom, sterile and clean, showing no natural signs of life, almost unrecognizable without his and Kent’s stuff thrown around in a haphazard dash to find something.

Even if his bedroom was the same, he suspects he’d still feel more comfortable on the ice. He starts off slow, because it’s been a while, but all of his worries about having lost it are useless. He had nightmares the last week, when the idea of coming home became too real too suddenly. There were ones where he got on the ice and didn’t remember how to skate. Couldn’t figure out how to hold the stick naturally.

The memory of waking up in cold sweats from those dreams fades away as he takes a couple of laps, trying to warm up. He slides the puck in front of him, skating leisurely behind it, aware that his parents are watching him from the window. They’re concerned, he’s sure, and he wishes they weren’t but doesn’t know how to make them not be. Isn’t sure that he’ll ever be able to make them not worry about him again.

Everyone was worried in rehab, and they were always looking at him. It reminded Jack of an all-day press conference, how careful he had to be with his words. He doesn’t like feeling people watching him, but his parents’ eyes are concerned and not probing, not questioning. Not willing to disrupt the fragile peace they’ve found.

He doesn’t push himself, even though he wants to. There’s time. Quite frankly, he’s got nothing but time. No plans, no real future, just time stretching out as far as he can imagine. Can’t picture doing anything, so he goes slow, tries to savor it while he can.

The first time he talked to his therapist, she asked what he was going to do when he left rehab. He knew without having to think, NHL draft and he’ll be a year late but it’ll be fine. Plenty of people wait a year.

It took them a while to get past it, for him to understand that maybe jumping right back into the life that put him in rehab might not be the best step for his mental health. Jack’s come to terms with it now, after a period of reflection and pain and withdrawal. She’s right, but it doesn’t mean he wishes she wasn’t. His parents are happy about the decision at least. Gives him more time to readjust.

-x-

He trains every day. Not like he used to, not grueling hours that make his muscles ache in protest. His runs are slower, and he doesn’t do drills as often. Still does them, because he can’t get out of the habit and he already took four months off, but not as often. And it’s something that, a year ago, he wouldn’t have been able to imagine.
A year ago, he was training for the draft and playing in the regular season. A year ago, he thought he’d be signed and training with a new team come August, not locked up in rehab. Jack tries not to let it bother him so much, but sometimes it can’t be helped. When it does bother him, he calls his therapist, tries to explain that he had expectations, he had goals, and now they’re not being met.

The problem (one of the problems) is that Jack is the one with these expectations. He always has been. They’re not brought on by his parents, who made it perfectly clear to him from a very early age that he could be anything he wanted to be. Including a hockey player, but Jack thinks that his mom’s always secretly hoped for him to be a lawyer. Maybe a doctor.

After four months surrounded by doctors monitoring what they call progress, after feeling like they’ve taken his brain out and processed every bit of it, after they finally shoved him out the door and called it a day when he didn’t feel any different… After all of that, Jack doesn’t think he could ever be a doctor. Even if he didn’t want to play hockey, if the Stanley Cup wasn’t still the dream, Jack thinks about white lab coats and remembers all of the rounds he went with psychologists, discussing what mental health really means. His blood runs cold.

It’s Jack creating these expectations for himself, not his parents.

He gets on the ice in the morning, does drills to the point where he’s done enough, and then he fucks around, just getting the puck up and down the rink. Takes shots that would never be possible in a real game with teammates and rivals standing around, imagines getting it past a goalie who looks shocked beneath his facemask.

He and Kent used to do this after practice all the time. They’d stay in gear, tired and sweating, and they’d keep going. Talk while they passed the puck back and forth, and that’s probably where the muscle memory for all those no look passes comes from. They would do it for hours, and Jack’s doing that same thing now by himself. Goes around and around, the puck sliding in front of him, and he can’t help but imagine how Kent’s doing.

The Aces are having a good season, and Kent’s an asset who’s proving to be well worth the money they spent on him. Jack doesn’t watch the games with his dad, in high definition. Instead, he watches them late at night, off a laptop and sometimes the puck is just a pixel that he can barely make out. Every time Kent scores, he tries very hard to not think about how it could have been him, how it should have been him.

Jack texts Kent sometimes, maybe once a week, and Kent’s responses never take too long. They don’t tell each other everything, and maybe they never did, but it feels wrong and stilted but he doesn’t know in which direction.

Kent’s training every day, too, but he’s on a team. He’s training harder, doing more drills, and he’s even faster than he used to be, if that’s possible. Jack sends him the puck and it takes him a moment to realize, but he looks up and the puck is still sailing across the ice, waiting to be redirected into the goal posts by a stick that wasn’t waiting. By a stick that was never there in the first place.

-x-

Las Vegas is 2,578 miles from Montreal. Sometimes Jack wishes it were further. Most of the time, it feels just far enough.

On the phone, Kent is talking about teammates, people that could have been Jack’s teammates. It’s a strange concept to think about, how Jack is never going to know who would have gone first in the draft. He can’t say that he’s disappointed.

There’s a lull in the conversation, because this would be where Kent asks Jack how he’s doing. It would be, only then Jack would have to say nothing because it’s the truth, and they’re trying to avoid that or something. Instead, Kent hesitates, and it’s the kind of pause that puts Jack on edge even from 2,578 miles and three time zones away.

“You’ll come back,” Kent says, sounding like he’s not as sure as he wants to be. Jack told him about putting the draft off for at least another year, and Kent gets that. He’s even thankful for it, because the last thing in the world that Kent Parsons wants is a call from Alicia Zimmermann saying that Jack actually did it this time, that the pressure was just too much, that no one found him in time. “I’ll have more swing then, I can talk to management about it; you know I can. We play better together.”

It’s true. Without Kent next to him to challenge him, Jack doesn’t know where he’d be in terms of skill. He’d still be good, but he owes so many extra practices to Kent. So many hours on the rink, whether they intended to get them or not. They’re unstoppable when they’re on the ice together.

“That’d be good,” Jack tells him, wants to say more, doesn’t know how.

A pause. Shorter, this time, and then Kent, in a characteristic show of brashness, asks, “You’re not going to try again, are you?”

After all these months, Kent doesn’t believe him. Doesn’t know what to believe, more accurately, and Jack understands that, in some ways, it’s a good thing that he doesn’t remember that night. It’s a good thing that he probably never will. He still sucks in a breath and snaps, voice harsh, “I wasn’t trying to the first time.”

It’s a sore point between them, and Jack knows how this argument goes. He prepares to hang up.

Kent breathes in, wetly, and then nothing. Jack checks to make sure that the line didn’t go dead, but the call is still connected. Kent just isn’t saying anything.

“It’s just… Looking back, Zimms, it felt like goodbye,” Kent confesses, and Jack doesn’t know what to say to that.

If Jack had his therapist here and had the time for a three hour session to go through that, he still doesn’t think he’d have a response. It’s the kind of thing that he didn’t expect to hear, because he doesn’t remember. He doesn’t think he wants to, either, because the one time Kent had talked about it, there’d been mention of some girl asking the kinds of questions they got all the time and then Kent had stopped talking about it.

Jack knows that Kent woke up next to him, that Kent’s the one that had to find him. Kent’s the one who probably watched him take the pills that night, and for a moment Jack is so sorry about what he did that he doesn’t know what to say.

His silence doesn’t seem to perturb Kent, who’s used to it after this many years of being friends with Jack.

Kent sighs. “I miss you. The ice is lonely without you.”

Jack turns to face the backyard, looks out onto the rink. Remembers the puck he’d passed to Kent before realizing that he was on the ice alone. Thinks about how he’d passed it so confidently, and then looked up to find it hurtling across the ice for something that was never going to be there. It had bounced off the backboard, and he’d caught it, shot it to the goal without a problem. His hands kept shaking but they don’t anymore.

“I know what you mean,” Jack says, and hopes it doesn’t sound like the confession it is.