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Angles of Disadvantage

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When the news breaks about Jack Zimmermann signing onto the Providence Falconers, Jeff wakes up from an afternoon nap to the Google alert.

He’s had an alert on Zimmermann going for years, but this is the first time anything useful has come up from it. The article is short and sweet, mentions that Zimmermann will be graduating in May from Samwell University with a degree in history. It has a link to the Falconer’s season schedule for the 2015-2016 season.

As he’s scanning through the dates, a text comes in from Ranger.

We’re gonna have to bulk up. Make sure the boards leave enough bruises for him to remember.

Jeff grins, sharp and sudden, all teeth.

-x-

At practice in the morning, Parson doesn’t look any different than he did the night before. Pale, slightly freckled, and with a cowlick that hasn’t found a hair gel it will obey yet. He doesn’t look stressed, or concerned, which is a little worrying in and of itself. If Jeff didn’t know better, he’d say that Parse might not even know.

“Think he knows?” Ranger asks, cocking an eyebrow towards their captain as he sits next to Jeff and laces his skates up.

“He’s got the same Google alert we do,” Jeff answers. For a while, they hadn’t known for sure, but Jeff had stolen Parson’s phone during a night out and discovered that he kept Google alerts for Jack Zimmermann, Jackson Galaxy, and the Georgetown University women’s soccer team that his sister plays on. The Galaxy thing confused them for a little bit until, upon further research, he was revealed to be some sort of cat-whisperer.

Ranger shrugs, tossing his stick from hand to hand as they watch Parson talk with one of the rookies. “He probably doesn’t even know we know,” he shrugs, pulling his laces tight and then standing to stretch his legs. “Now, come on, we’ve got to go kick the King’s ass on Monday. Let’s get in shape.”

Nodding, Jeff stands, too. It’s been, what? Almost six years? Maybe Parson isn’t acting like he’s affected because he’s not affected. It’s been almost two years since Jeff actually checked for the Google alert anyway, it could be lone gone by now. That’s enough time to get over someone, Jeff thinks. This could be the kind of thing that doesn’t even matter now.

Kent turns around, motioning with his stick for everyone to come out onto the ice. When they’ve all circled up, he pushes a corner of his mouth up in a semblance of a smile that’s more grimace than grin. “We’re going to run through the Kings. I want to leave them on the ice, begging for mercy. They’re the first stop on the way to the Cup, but we’ve got a lot of road to cover before then. I don’t want to stop for long,” he announces, every word ringing with the same determination that they always see in him come playoffs.

Jeff skates over to Ranger, who’s eying up the goal like he’s trying to become one with it in thought. “He sounds fine,” he says, nabbing a puck and nodding in thanks to Mars before slamming it forward, making the goal jolt and causing Ranger to actually look away.

Grunting, Ranger fetches the puck and rights the goal. “He always sounds fine until he’s five drinks in and crying cause I kicked his ass at Brawl.”

Which, true.

Shrugging, Jeff glances back when Parson is doing face-offs with the forward from the second line. He’s all sharp angles and clenched jaw, same as ever, no different from before. “For once in your life, you might be right,” he acknowledges, to which Ranger rolls his eyes before passing the puck.

-x-

They don’t sweep the Kings, but the series goes 4-1, which gives them just enough time to rest up for a bit while the Sharks and the Ducks duke it out and finish with Sharks winning in San Jose on the seventh game. Jeff watches the buzzer sound as the Sharks gather around to congratulate each other.

“We’ve got this,” Parson says, curled up on one corner of the couch, sneering at the screen. His cat is on his lap, sitting in what looks like an uncomfortable position that prevents Parson from moving, well, anywhere.

Jeff reaches over and knocks Parse’s hat a little askew. “Course we do. Let’s be two-time champions, eh?” he asks, smile growing as Kent nods with confidence and reaches carefully over the cat to grab his drink.

“Fucking right,” Jules bellows, resting a hand on Jeff and Parse’s shoulders each. “Those fuckers sure as shit aren’t going to be ready for when we come for their asses.” He grins victoriously, and Jeff wonders, not for the first time, if he’ll ever hear Jules say a sentence without a curse word. At this rate, it isn’t likely.

Tilting his head back to smile, Parse shrugs, completely at ease. “Right you are my man, right you are. Now you guys need to beat it if I’m going to get enough beauty sleep before practice,” he says, slipping into Captain mode and winking at them like it’s a conspiracy.

“Didn’t know practice was going to be in ten years,” Sarge comments, but he’s picking up beer bottles from the coffee table nevertheless.

Jeff picks up his cell phone from the end table, ignoring the blinking light that lets him know about missed texts as he slips it into his pocket. “Sarge, we all know Parser’s beautiful face is the only thing that gives you happiness,” he declares, watching as Kent’s grin widens and Sarge rolls his eyes.

Coming out of the kitchen, Ranger leans on the wall. “Come on, guys. Gotta let Cap here rest up – he’s gotta dream up new plays for us,” he says, referencing the one play that Parse had dreamt up during their last playoff season, resulting in an immediate goal.

Kent laughs, and he high fives them all on the way out, after making sure that everyone who needs one has either a cab or a designated driver. Jeff waits until almost everyone is out before nodding seriously to his captain. “We’re going to get them, you know.”

Fierce and thrilled, Kent nods. “Let’s go get ‘em.”

-x-

The Shark hang on longer than the Kings, and the Aces finish things off at the seventh game, sending the Sharks back to San Jose after a 4-2 defeat. Playoffs are a thrill, and Jeff knows the entire Aces roster is hungry to keep the Cup in their name for another year.

Jeff can actually grow a playoff beard, unlike some people on the team. Parse’s is pitiful, actually, blonde scruff that looks scraggly and more like five o’clock shadow than something that’s been left alone for weeks. Plus, Parse is a baby about the whole thing, won’t stop complaining that he’s never been able to grow facial hear and the sport he plays punishes him for it by making him do it after he’s done well.

“Would you rather not be growing a playoff beard?” Jeff asks pointedly, turning his stick over in his hands to see whether he’s done a good enough job of it.

Parson jolts, frown deepening. “I didn’t say that,” he snaps, watching the ice in front of them carefully. It’s the sixth game against the Blackhawks, hopefully the last if their 3-2 lead can hold for the rest of the period.

If they take the Blackhawks, they’ll be conference champions and they’ll go against the Boston Bruins. As much as he hates to admit it, Jeff is not looking forward to games in Boston.

Parson always gets weird about Boston, is the thing, and it messes everyone else up to see their captain act like a snake bit him on the ass every time they’re in the city. So far, they haven’t been able to find a solution, and the one time that Jeff tried it ended in the worst loss they’d had all season because Parse had been so far off his game.

-x-

Sure enough, by the time that they touch down in Boston for the first game, Parse is acting agitated. He’s jumpy, uncomfortable in his own skin, and his usual air of confidence is off, like he doesn’t actually believe in himself this time around.

Listen. Jeff has sympathy for the guy. He knows that it can’t be easy, especially after what happened the last time that they were in Boston, but the Cup depends on this. If Kent’s going to risk that, Jeff won’t hesitate to pull Parson’s head out of his ass for the benefit of the team.

“Let’s win this one and head back to Vegas,” Jeff says, nodding seriously at Parson.

Shaking his head and then stopping suddenly, Kent gives a serious nod. “We’re going to kick their ass,” he states, jaw set as he reaches over and looks behind Jeff, where most of the Aces are standing. “Now everybody dump your stuff in the rooms and let’s head over to the rink. Let’s show them we mean it,” he instructs, looking every bit like the captain that he is in Vegas.

With relief, Jeff watches Parse count out room keys as he settles back into himself.

-x-

Jeff doesn’t know Zimmermann. He’s never met the guy, and he’s not really interested in meeting him. He’s interested in checking the kid into the boards so hard that the glass breaks.

When Parson first came to Vegas, everyone knew that the kid was going to be messed up. It’d been pretty clear before the draft that he and Zimmermann had been best friends, so of course the Zimmermann kid going into rehab would mess with Parson. It was unsettling to everyone, but of course it would affect Parson the most.

Jeff tried to keep an eye out, the first year. With Parson that close to a guy who’d gone to rehab, it was possible that he could have had the same kind of problem. So Jeff had been watchful, made sure that Parson wasn’t spending his nights on the strip or drinking himself into a stupor every night or gambling his signing bonus away. You know, just Vegas things like that.

More importantly, he tried to figure out if Parson was doing any of the hard stuff, the stuff that would have gotten PR to hold meetings about being “concerned” for his “playing ability.”

As best he could tell, Parson hadn’t ever used, or he’d been scared straight by his best friend getting locked up in a top of the line rehab facility. All for the best, really, because the last thing that the Aces needed was a top draft pick who was going to self-destruct on his way to rock bottom.

-x-

The second game of the series is in Vegas, a home game with the crowd buzzing, knowing that they’ve got a shot at keeping the Cup theirs for another year. They won the last game at Boston in overtime, and Jeff is a bundle of nerves. This morning he woke up and went to shave out of habit, and the only reason he still has a playoff beard is because he had the foresight to hide his razor when they made it into the playoffs.

Still. He felt like he needed to shave, and the whole day he’s been afraid that it was some kind of premonition? Like he’s going to need to shave soon, but he tries to talk himself down. Just routine, just routine, but still.

Pacing the halls of the T-Mobile arena, Jeff is resisting both the urge to text his ex-girlfriend and bite his nails. Amy would be less than sympathetic, probably wouldn’t even be willing to stay on the phone long enough for him to make an apology.

“You hanging in there?” a woman’s voice asks, sounding faintly humored by the display of a 6’3” hockey player pacing nervously.

Jeff straightens immediately and turns, ready to offer directions to where seating is before he actually catches sight of who it is. Katherine Parson stands in the light that picks up the blonder highlights in her hair, grinning at him like she knows she’s caught him. “Kathy!” Jeff bellows, rushing up and hugging her tightly. “Parser said your finals weren’t done yet.”

She shrugs, laughing as she pulls away. “I may have lied to him. I’ve actually been wandering around for the last thirty minutes, trying to find your locker room so I can surprise him. Come on, walk me over.”

Throwing an arm around her shoulders, he obliges her. Like her brother, Katherine is short, but she wears always high heels, so Jeff has no actual idea how tall she actually is. “You didn’t even tell him you were coming?” he asks, laughing, thinking of the ticket confirmation his parents had emailed him when they’d gotten their flight.

“Hell no, he’s a pain in the ass in the finals. I didn’t want him bringing that on me. How’s he been?” she asks, keeping her voice purposefully light as they turn down a separate hallway.

Listen, it’s not Jeff’s place to rat on his teammates to their family, much less his captain, but Parse’s behavior in Boston is well-known even if he holds it together on the ice well enough. Carefully, Jeff admits, “He was tough to deal with during the away game.”

Though he can’t see her face, he can feel the change in Katherine’s shoulder as she tenses up. “That’s just Boston. Get him a few hundred miles away from Samwell if you want him to get his act together,” she says, a sneer evident in her voice.

“Zimmermann’s about to graduate, isn’t he?” Jeff checks, even though he already knows the answer.

Abruptly, Katherine comes to a stop and inadvertently jerks his arm back with her. She takes a deep breath and clenches her hands briefly. “He signed to the Falconers, and if he so much as looks at my brother wrong…” she drifts off, chin held defiantly and eyes flashing.

“Ranger and I have a pact. We’re just trying to figure out the best way to check him through the boards without getting too much of a penalty,” Jeff confides, grinning at her.

Katherine gives him a smile that’s only slightly watery as she starts walking again. “This is why you guys are my favorite D-men,” she says, breathing deeply as the previous worry seems to melt off of her.

“Well, that, and because we’re the best?”

“Keep dreaming,” she informs him, face brightening as she laughs.

-x-

Finding out about the real past that Parson and Zimmermann shared was accidental. Jeff didn’t wake up one morning and wonder what Kent’s deepest secrets were and get him drunk with the intention to gain blackmail, that wasn’t what happened at all.

Kent just happened to be drunk and maudlin after their first game of a season, his opening game and first loss as captain. It was the first time that Jeff had seen the guy have anything more than two drinks.

After getting the rookies into cabs, Jeff went back into Kent’s apartment to see the captain laying down on the couch, arms crossed under his head to prop himself up some. “Fucking hell,” he mumbled, cracking open an eye to see Jeff staring down at him.

They’d played like shit, but Jeff didn’t know how saying that would be any comfort, so he put on the expression that his younger brother said made him look like the Responsible One and nodded sternly. “You’re going to get us there,” he said, not letting himself sound as doubtful as he was of the statement.

Wiggling his fingers, Parson rolled his eyes. “Zimms was right; I am a fuck up,” he commented simply.

It was the first time that Parson had ever brought up Zimmermann by himself. Jeff froze for a moment, finally recovering. “Every team has bad games. Doesn’t make you a bad captain.”

Parson raised an eyebrow, able to still look judgmental even when smashed out of his mind. “Nah, just a fuck up, like Zimms said. Man, what a shit boyfriend,” he said, rolling into the couch cushions and pulling one over his head.

“Holy fuck,” Jeff choked out in horror. Zimmermann and Parson hadn’t just been best friends, they had been boyfriends, which put all of the complications of the 2009 NHL draft in startling, painful clarity. Not to mention explained why Parse was unable to deal with any mention of Zimmermann.

Carefully, Jeff made sure Parse got back to his room okay before getting out of the apartment as quickly as possible, still reeling from the revelation.

-x-

“I’m in fucking love with you!” Parse bellows, slamming into Jeff from the side, only kept steady on the ice by guys coming from the other side. Ranger is right behind them, throwing his arms around his fellow D-man and letting loose a scream.

Panting, Jeff tilts his head back and laughs, loud and long and unrestrained. “You set it up perfect, did you see that shot? Slid right in like it belonged there!” he yells back in confirmation, turning to find Quincy in the goal at the other end of the rink, waving his gloved hands in celebration.

They end the game that way, 1-0 from the third period goal that Jeff somehow managed to get in, and they’ve only got two wins to go. Two wins, two wins, and Jeff can’t even bring himself to care about doing press after.

Parse’s standard game winning lines are: “We’ve got a good group of guys.” “The whole team was really clicking on the ice today.” “It worked out that we got a few shots in.” “The guys worked hard on this one.” All of his responses are focused on the team, on the effort that everyone put in, and while Jeff knows that most captains don’t push themselves out in front of everyone, he never gets over listening to Kent give these kinds of interviews.

Kent means it, is the thing. Parser means every single supportive thing that he says with a microphone in front of him, and Jeff is so fucking grateful for a captain who has never forgotten how important every member of the team is on the ice.

Standing next to Kent, listening to him rattle off the usual suspects, Jeff can’t help but throw an arm over him protectively after a reporter asks if Kent’s concerned with his seeming inability to score in this year’s playoff run.

Kent doesn’t shake him off, simply accepts it as he answers, “You want to score, obviously, but it hasn’t been a disappointment – the team is doing great, and our line has been working hard.”

It’s one of the same questions that they’ve been asking him since after the first round went by and Parse hadn’t landed a goal, and Jeff hates how Parse’s jaw clenches when they mention it. “Cap does a great job of creating plays with scoring opportunities for the rest of the team. He sets up his line,” he says, glancing over to where James, their PR guy, is edging in front of them and waving the cameras away.

“That’s all for now, guys,” James says, pushing the crowd back, and Jeff turns to Parse, who’s still sporting his media face just in case someone were to get a shot in. Jeff can’t imagine that kind of necessary paranoia.

“Two down, two to go,” Jeff says, grinning widely as he turns Parse around to where the rest of the guys are toweling their hair off in their game day suits. It was a good game, a great game, but they’ve got more in front of them. The plane back to Boston takes off tomorrow afternoon, but for now that just means they get a night off.

Kent finally shrugs Jeff’s arm off and allows himself to grin. “We’re doing okay,” he says, quiet enough that it might just be meant for himself. Jeff feels like an unwelcome intruder as he repeats it again, only slightly louder. “We’re doing okay.”

-x-

Playoffs mean that every day has team activities. Jeff thrives on it, on knowing that he’s surrounded by a group of guys who understand him, who know that nothing matters more than the next game. These are his guys, this is his team, and he’s never prouder to wear the A then when they’re all dragging themselves to the finish like this.

Amy hated playoffs. She never said so, but Jeff wasn’t an idiot, he could tell she hated the long hours and the team dinners without her. Even when he was home, he was exhausted, needed to rest up for the next game, couldn’t spend actual time with her. She hated how moody he was when playoffs ended for the team before the big show, hated how quiet and sullen he got when the team didn’t even make it in the first place.

Playoffs are when Jeff misses her the most, though, because even though he was basically worthless when he did get home, it was nice to fall asleep with her next to him, it was nice to wake up to her tucked into his arms, even if he did sometimes wake up with her hair in his mouth.

They lost in Boston, a brutal game with a 3-1 score. Parse managed Vegas’s only point of the night, a shot at the end of the third period that was absolutely dirty, and Boston already knew by then how the game was going to end. When the team split off to their rooms, Parse has been as quiet and tightly wound as he’d been on the ice. Quincy was the same way, face thunderous beneath his mask, and he made no effort to conceal his emotions as he and Parse had talked in the lobby.

Reaching to knock on Kent’s door, it swings forward, having been kept open by Kent’s game day tie getting wedged by the doorframe. Jeff goes to clear his throat to announce himself, and then he hears Kent’s muffled voice come down the short hall.

“You should be here, anyway you can. I never wanted to do this without you,” Kent says lowly, and Jeff freezes, moves to take the tie out to where it wouldn’t block the door and let it close behind himself. “And then you get the chance to come back and you sign to that fucking shit team, Zimms.”

So it looks like Jeff isn’t the only one on the team missing an ex right now.

If Jeff could time travel, he wouldn’t go back and stop the Titanic from sinking or Hitler from being born. He’d probably just stop Parse from ever befriending Jack Zimmermann, because the ghost of Jack Zimmermann is a hell of a thing to work around when the man himself is still up and walking.

The polite thing to do would be to move the tie, close the door, and let Parser work through this at his own pace with whatever shitty coping mechanisms he’s accumulated throughout the years.

To his parents' disappointment, Jeff has never been very polite.

Holding the door carefully, Jeff glances down the hall to make sure there’s no one to see him while he’s spying on his captain, and he leans closer so that he can listen better.

“I meant what I said,” Kent says, softer than before, “at Samwell. I miss you, Zimms. I always fucking miss you.”

There’s another pause, surprisingly, and it doesn’t sound like Parse is just trying to think of what to say next. He’s waiting for a response, and Jeff’s stomach clenches instinctively when he realizes that Zimmermann must actually be on the phone. Jesus Christ, that’s just what they need right now, for Parse to get fucked up over his ex-boyfriend again when they’ve got games to be worried about.

“How can you – At least I’ve fucking said it,” Parse snarls suddenly, his tone having no hint of the vulnerable tenderness that was there only a few moments before. “You’ve never, and I mean never said that to me.”

A lull comes in the conversation, and maybe if Jeff were actually in the room he’d hear the muffled sound of Zimmermann trying for some sick sort of defense, but this can’t go on any longer. They’ve got a game in two days that matters more than Jack Zimmermann, so Jeff doesn’t feel bad about knocking hard on the door and letting himself in.

Parse is sitting on the bed, feet kicked out in front of him as he ends the call, muttering something into the receiver and pulling away to hang up. “What’s up?” he asks, eyes flicking from Jeff’s face to the door. “Was my door open?”

“Tie got caught, never mind that,” Jeff says, pulling out a deck of cards and saying what he originally came for. “Want to gather the youngsters up and force them to play spoons against us old folks?”

Immediately, Kent throws his phone across the room and onto a chair. He stands and stretches, no doubt feeling the physicality of the game taking its toll. “You grab Pansy and Brookes, I’ll get Alfie and Bates, Gregs, too, if I can find him. Tell Ranger and Jules, and we’ll meet back here in five to assert total dominance,” Kent declares, sprinting out of the room without a second thought.

Jeff only feels a little bad for grabbing his phone and typing in the unlock code, searching quickly for what he needs.

There’s still a Google alert for ‘Jack Zimmermann’. Motherfuck.

-x-

On the plane back to Vegas, Jeff squishes in next to Ranger and waits until he’s sure that the guys around them are sleeping before elbowing Ranger hard enough to dislodge his earbuds.

Ranger jumps, shifting his phone out of the way defensively as he goes to close out of Netflix, but not before Jeff catches sight of that Disney show he uses as a guilty pleasure. “What the fuck?” he snaps, keeping his voice appropriately low in the darkened cabin.

“Were you watching that dumb Disney show?” Jeff asks, momentarily distracted.

Girl Meets World isn’t a dumb show, and I promised Carly I’d catch up so we can watch the finale when I’m back,” Ranger defends himself, and Jeff doesn’t have the heart to chirp him for watching a show with his eight year old daughter so he settles for rolling his eyes instead.

It’s totally a dumb show, but Jeff ignores that for now, announcing quietly, “Parser called Zimmermann last night.”

Ranger straights up immediately, craning upwards to make sure their teammates around them are asleep or preoccupied with headphones. “He didn’t; I know he didn’t. You’ve got to be lying,” he says, leaning over Jeff and trying to look down the aisle where Parse is currently sleeping with his head on Quincy’s shoulder. Captain-goalie solidarity and all that. “He called Jack Zimmermann before the game? No wonder we played like shit.”

Not the point. “He called after the game; we played like shit all on our own there, buddy.” As much as Jeff would like to be able to shove the blame off on someone else, Parse was the only one who was really on last night.

Letting out a long sigh, Ranger sits back properly in his seat. “What, didn’t he think that loss was punishment enough?” He pauses, momentarily distracted, “And how do you know he called?”

“The door was cracked open because his tie got caught; I listened in. Get this, though: Apparently Parser told Zimmermann he missed him. When he was at Samwell, back in December.” Jeff stops, waits for this information to sink in to achieve the perfect reaction.

Ranger doesn’t look impressed. “I mean, I figured he’d said it,” he says after a moment, clearly waiting for something more.

There’s a beat, and then Jeff remembers the most important part. Batting away Ranger’s hands as he goes to put earbuds back in, Jeff whisper-hisses, “Not the point, not the point. Zimmermann apparently never said it back.”

Freezing, Ranger sets his earbuds down on the seat and blinks carefully, slowly. The last time that Jeff saw this kind of controlled anger from him, he’d just gotten a call that Carly was being suspended for punching a boy in the face after he’d touched her when she’d asked him to stop.

Jaw clenched, Ranger leans back against the seat and closes his eyes. “I really don’t want to have to kill the son of my childhood idol, but I will if I have to.”

-x-

Two more wins, two more wins.

The process for the Stanley Cup Final is grueling. Jeff is tired of airplanes, is tired of the stress, is tired in general. His body is already tired after a full season and the first three rounds of playoffs, he’s pretty sure that he’s going to need to see doctors about his knee and wrist when this is all said and done. Being so close to the finish is agonizing, because he’s almost ready to give up.

He wants it, of course he does, wants it just as much as every guy on his team, but he drives to the rink and thinks that he’s going to sleep for an eternity when the playoffs come to an end.

Two more wins, that’s all they need.

Everyone is on edge, especially Parser with the way that he bares his teeth as he shifts his mouth guard around at skate in the morning. He and Quincy are still on the ice when everyone else leaves, both of them silent as Parser comes at him in a shootout and Quincy shuts him down with an amazing save.

“Fuckin’ right,” Jules says, banging his stick against the boards. “Team dinner at six, you losers coming?”

Quincy doesn’t even turn his head from the ice, simply getting back into position again. Parse twists and announces, “We’ll get there when we’re done here. Don’t wait for us to order.”

With that, he grabs another puck and skates to the other end of the ice.

-x-

Home ice is such a great thing. People say Vegas isn’t a hockey town, but those people have never gone onto the ice in the Stanley Cup Finals with Vegas’s screaming support behind them.

Boston is ready, they’re fresh off their win and hungry for more, but Jeff watches Parser win the faceoff and knows that the Aces are in fine form tonight. Quincy’s face is blank behind his mask when Jeff takes a moment to look, set the way it always is before he practically becomes a solid wall in the crease, absolutely impenetrable.

The stands are flooded with black jerseys, and there’s nothing that Jeff wants more than for them to own the ice, send goal after goal in, and send Boston packing and have one win left. Halfway through the period, it’s looking that way when Quincy hasn’t let anything past him and Swoops got in a beautiful goal over Rask’s shoulder off a rebound from Parse’s shot in the power play.

That’s the score coming into and coming out of the second period, and Jeff is unbearably tense as they take the ice for the third period. The Bruins are set and determined, and Jeff taps Ranger’s stick against his own before spreading apart as they watch Parse skate up for the faceoff.

It’s brutal. They’re fighting for every inch on the ice, and Boston is looking to push into overtime for sure as the period ticks down. Every play is a battle, and Jeff is so thankful for all of the ice time they’ve been getting in, even the fucking bag skates that Parser is so found of.

On the bench, the team is a mess. It’s torture to sit and see all of the ways that Boston almost breaks through the neutral zone. The Aces hold, though, and it’s nerve-wracking as the clock winds down with the score still 1-0.

They pile onto the ice all at once, Jeff winding up getting swept into a hug from Jules. “One more fucking game!” he shouts, and the players around them echo the sentiment.

They might get to keep the Cup in Vegas’s name for another year. God, they’re so fucking close, and Jeff practically roars in response, slinging his arms out and catching Pansy and Bates in the process. Fuck, they’re rookies, and they could end the season with a Stanley Cup ring. “Let’s fucking go!” he shouts, and when he turns to see Parse smiling like a madman back at him it’s all he can do not to sling their captain into a hug.

Quincy skates up to them, face finally showing some goddamn expression when compared to the blank slate he was underneath his mask for the whole game. He’s immediately swallowed up by teammates, tapping his helmet affectionately and bringing him into the group.

One more game, that’s all. One more game, and they could finish the season entirely.

-x-

Katherine makes the next game in Boston, finals behind her as she races up to Kent in the locker room as they’re getting ready.

“Kenny!” she shouts, appearing suddenly behind the door, sprinting through the crowd of hockey players that part for her instinctively as she jumps over a bench and literally leaps into Parser’s arms.

Kent barely turns around in time, and manages to catch her by some miracle, stepping back with the impact as his face splits into a grin. “Kathy,” he says, and it reminds Jeff of the home games that they have every year for a week in March, whenever Katherine’s spring break ends up and she descends on Vegas determined to wreck as much havoc as possible.

“How’d finals go for my favorite Parson?” Swoops asks, ducking over and leaning down to kiss the top of Katherine’s head as Parse glares daggers at him.

Swatting him away, Katherine stands on her tip toes and kisses his cheek, ignoring her brother momentarily. “Finals are done, internship secured for the summer, and I’ll start my last year in the fall!” she cheers, clapping excitedly before swatting him lightly. “Now get lost, we have important sibling business to attend to.”

She waves him off, and Swoops goes easily after cheekily kissing Parser’s cheek and assuring him, “You’re my third favorite Parson, Kenny, don’t worry.” He’s the only person outside of Parse’s family who Jeff has seen be able to get away with that nickname.

“Third?” Parse snaps, shoving Swoops off to his own stall. “Get lost, asshole.”

Swoops goes easily, winking at Katherine conspiratorially as he calls out, “You know your mom is better than you!”

Katherine’s appearance is usually a great thing, means that Kent will be on fire on the ice tonight, but tonight in Boston his face pinches instead of relaxing when they’re deep in conversation by his stall. The team tries to give them a slightly wide berth, but there’s not a lot of room to move around in, so Jeff ends up overhearing some of it anyway.

“…it’s not like last year…”

“…you can’t have expected…”

“…I thought he’d be here…”

When Jeff looks over at Katherine, her face is the same as it was the last time he saw her in the lower levels of the TD Garden stadium when they’d been discussing Jack Zimmermann. Her lips are a thin line, expression as flat as the one that Quincy wears on the ice.

Before they head out into the tunnel, Kent has only just gotten in line when Katherine runs up and throws her arms around him. “Get it together and kick their ass,” she says, hugging him tight. Jeff looks away from them and tells himself that they’re going to end it all tonight, no two ways about it.

-x-

Throughout the game, the Aces can’t quite get it together. They answer every one of Boston’s goals, but can’t get it through on their own time, and every one of Parser’s shots goes wide like he can’t even see the fucking goal.

They limp into overtime, and the Boston crowd is going wild, screaming about pushing to game seven and winning it at home. Jeff is on the bench, watching Swoops’ line race down the ice. Parse’s line is always the one who starts overtime, but he’s been off enough that Coach Fitz keeps him seated after a short conversation.

No one scores in overtime, and Jeff can barely hear over the roar of the Boston fans. Somewhere in a box, his parents are watching this game, hoping to end the night in celebration with the team, and Jeff can hardly believe the game that they’re watching.

His parents came out for the last game, too, and he’d gotten breakfast the morning after with them. It’d been awkward to say the least, barely able to get through any part of the meal without his mom comparing this season’s stats to last years and where he was competing with himself and other defensemen in the league while his dad smiled tightly and drank more coffee to avoid saying anything.

If this game isn’t a win, God forbid, they’ll meet again after the game and probably go to an all-night diner or something. It wouldn’t be so bad if Cameron was able to make it, at least he could serve as some kind of buffer.

“Jesus fuck,” Ranger hisses as the clock ticks off while they’re still held at a tie.

From all the way across the ice, Jeff watches Quincy’s face shutter briefly behind his mask. Jeff resists wincing in sympathy. Shootouts aren’t fun for any of them, but especially not for goalies.

-x-

They’re pushing to a sixth game, and the only bright side that Jeff can find about the whole thing is that the Vegas home crowd will be happy to get a win. They haven’t lost in Vegas once this series, and Jeff feels bad but he remembers what Katherine told him about Parson’s game play in Boston last time.

Get him a few hundred miles away from Samwell if you want him to get his act together.

Jesus fuck, but this series should have ended that last game in Boston. Jeff tries to remind himself that it’s a team effort, because of course it is, when there are five other guys out there on the ice there’s no way it’s not a team effort. Still, the team wasn’t on because their captain wasn’t on for some fucking reason.

Jeff isn’t typically a betting man, but he’s spent enough time in Vegas to know the odds of Parser’s shit showing on the ice during the last game had to be because of Zimmermann.

“Would you stop it?” Ranger snaps, reaching back and smacking Jeff hard in the back of the neck. “I’m not saying he’s doing great, but wait until the season’s over before you start fucking with Parser’s head.”

“Who’s fucking with Parser?” Jules asks, glancing over from where he’s getting dressed.

“Jack Zimmermann,” Jeff answers automatically, because it’s after practice and they’re the last ones left in the locker room and tomorrow is the sixth game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Besides, Jules and Parse get along like a house on fire; Jules isn’t about to take this kind of news lying down.

Ranger smacks Jeff again even harder, not even bothering to give an apologetic glance over for it. “Yeah, Jeff, go on and spill the Captain’s business, I’m real sure he’ll appreciate that,” he swears, elbowing Jeff in the ribs once Jeff stops rubbing at where he’d hit earlier.

Frozen, Jules glances between them before lowering his eyes to the floor and letting loose a long string of what must be curses, because Jeff can pick out a few words even though it’s not the French accent that he’s used to deciphering after spending so many years around Quincy and the other French Canadians on the team. Finally, when he’s got himself under control, Jules straightens his shoulders and gives a shrug. “Zimmermann’s piece of shit team is a problem for next season,” he declares, inclining his head as Ranger nods in agreement.

Zimmermann is a problem that’s never going to go away, no matter the season, but it’s the second part of that statement that strikes something in Jeff. “How’d you know Zimmermann is going to the Faloncers?” he asks.

“Everyone goddamn knows,” Jules responds instantly, almost too quickly. After a second or so of silence, he caves and reaches for his phone. “I have his sorry ass on Google alert,” he admits, glaring suddenly at Jeff like Jeff is going to say something about it.

In solidarity, Jeff and Ranger reach for their own phones as well and show Jules their own evidence.

Jules nods at them and pockets his phone again, hanging his towel up in his stall as he gathers his gear bag on one shoulder. “Zimmermann is still a problem for next season. Right now, we have to focus on the fucking Cup,” he states simply, patting them each on the back as he heads out.

It’s not that Jeff doesn’t agree. He just wishes he knew his captain felt the same way.

-x-

“You’re being an ass,” Cam tells him, not bothering to beat his way around the bush.

Jeff shovels sweet potato fries into his mouth and tries to ignore that he knows Cam’s right. “I’m worried,” he mumbles through the food, rolling his eyes when Cam stares at him in blatant disbelief. “I fucking am, don’t give me that look.”

Taking a drink, Cam glances around the restaurant before saying lowly, “You care more about winning the Cup than the fact that Parson is obviously going through some shit right now. You’re just worried that he’s going to be off enough for it to affect your games.” Even though Cam doesn’t really care about hockey, he is aware that other people do after twenty six years with Jeff and their mom.

“Of course I’m worried he’ll affect our game,” Jeff snaps, twitchy at the idea that Parse could fuck everything up that they’ve worked the whole season for.

They’re getting lunch before Game Six, after Jeff begged out of a team lunch on the basis that he hasn’t seen his brother since the two-day Christmas break they had this year. He feels bad now, wishes that he’d told Cam he’d see him tomorrow and stuck it out with his team today.

“That’s not the point. The point is that your teammate and captain is struggling with something, and you care more about you than about him.” Pausing to grab a sugar packet from the center of the table, Cam shrugs.

Okay, so that might be the point. Jeff gets that he’s an asshole at the end of the season, doesn’t really know when he’s ever not been. Amy bitched about it often enough when they were together, but he doesn’t really know how not to be when his focus has narrowed so completely to what the whole year has been spent working towards.

Wringing his hands, Jeff tries to focus on the fact that Parson is not only dealing with the Cup run, same as everyone else on the team. Parser is also having to cope with the fact that his ex-boyfriend is entering the league and they clearly can’t find it in themselves to be civil with one another. God, Jeff is such a shithead – Parse is his friend, goddammit.

Glaring almost disdainfully, Jeff looks down at his plate. “I really fucking hate that you’re a therapist in training sometimes, you know.”

Cam huffs a laugh and flicks a piece of his napkin across the table, and Jeff honestly can’t believe that his kid brother is someone that people are going to come to with their problems and whatever.

At the end of their lunch, when it’s getting close enough to when he needs to be at the T-Mobile arena anyway that he can consider showing up early, Jeff looks over as he sets his card in the bill and leaves it at the edge of the table. “I’m glad we got to do this,” he says. He never gets to see Cam as often as he wants since Cam took his job in D.C.

“Me too,” Cam says, pulling out his phone and scrolling through the notifications briefly. “It’s a shame that Mom and Dad couldn’t come, too,” he tries.

They pause and catch each other’s eyes at the same time. God, this is why Jeff has missed him. “No, it’s not,” Jeff says, giggling.

It only takes a second for Cam to join in.

-x-

Jules nudges him in the locker room as they’re suiting up. “Zimmermann waits until next season,” he reminds Jeff, arching an eyebrow. Across the locker room, Parse is talking to Swoops and Sarge, taping his stick carefully. They’re probably talking about how different plays worked with their power play unit over the last few games, from what Jeff can overhear.

“Next season,” Jeff agrees easily, remembering his earlier conversation with Cam. The best thing that he can do now is just to make sure that his captain knows he supports him.

To his left, Ranger nods approvingly from where he’s sitting and lacing up his skates. The overall mood of the locker room is good, but it’s clear that they’re all ready to get onto the ice, Jeff included. Everyone seems to know that this is the game, they’re going to win it at home since they had to win it in New York last time.

When Parse steps away from Swoops and Sarge, Jeff sees his chance and makes his move, crossing over quickly.

“We’re gonna tear it up tonight, Jeffy,” Parse says, walking into Jeff’s chest and leaning towards him for a few moments in an approximation of a hug,

“Fuck yeah,” Jeff says, bringing his arms around Kent briefly. “You’ve done a good job, Cap. If you go two for two, we’ll go out to dinner and have the rookies pay.” Outside of Boston, Kent seems at ease and relaxed, probably the best he’s looked since after the phone call after their first loss, and there’s no one that Jeff believes in more.

Smirking, Parse throws his arm around Jeff’s shoulders and looks out into the locker room where the guys are in various states of uniform. “Let’s go,” Parse says, clapping his hand against Jeff’s jersey as he turns and goes to find a place to lace his skates up in.

-x-

It feels like it’s been weeks since the last game, like Jeff’s mantra of one more game, one more game has been going in time with his heartbeat for what must have been months at the least. Every part of his body aches as he takes the ice, but Jeff knows that it’s like that for all of his teammates, like that for all of the Bruins, too, probably.

The first period is rough, and there’s going to be a new collection of bruises to go on top of the yellowing ones from the last game as they fight across the ice.

He’s still worried about Parse. Even though they had a moment in the locker room, it wasn’t a talk, and after this type of reality check, Jeff can’t stop thinking about the past week.

Parse is still fucked up about Zimmermann, that much is obvious. The call after their first loss in Boston, Katherine in the locker room before their second loss. The pieces add up easily now that Jeff isn’t just thinking about his own games and what’s the come, easily enough that Jeff honestly can’t believe what a bad friend he is.

Zimmermann was supposed to come to the second game in Boston. Maybe the first one, definitely the second. Parse probably extended the invitation after the first game, because what else is “you should be here any way you can” supposed to mean? Katherine must have known, obviously, that’s what they were talking about before Game Five in Boston, which means Kent was still hoping for Zimmermann to show up.

Like Ranger said, Jeff really doesn’t want to kill the son of his childhood idol, but Zimmermann isn’t exactly discouraging him from the idea.

-x-

Game Six is, as Game Sixes are, brutal. Boston is behind by one, of course they want to push it out to a seven game series, they want to win it at home, but Vegas wants back to back Cup wins while the maniacal dream pushes so close to reality that they can almost taste it. The crowd is absolutely deafening when they step onto the ice, the energy pulsing and hot, and Jeff looks around to his teammates and understand that they all feel the same way.

The last game in Boston was a mistake. Jeff has played with guys who have won the Cup, and this team is going to be a team that wins it again. He knows they will, can feel it in his veins practically. If they can focus in and push a win out, it’s going to be everything.

Jeff knows that his family is watching from the box, Cameron probably sitting next to their dad and sending Jeff a series of texts that he won’t be able to open until the game is decided and they’re off the ice. Parser’s family is here, too, Jeff knows, saw Kent hug Katherine and his mother outside the locker room earlier. Maybe Katherine can save Cam from their parents if he remembers her from the last Cup run.

That’s all the thoughts he can spare during the anthem, and then they’re getting into position before the puck drop.

Parser is a tense line of determination, holding his stick like a lifeline as he wins the faceoff and sends it to where Jules has go ahead and is wedging his way around Boston’s right winger. And just like that, they’re off.

-x-

Jeff is crying when he skates into Ranger’s arms at the final buzzer, legitimate tears flowing down his face as he reaches under the shield to wipe them away. They’re near the neutral zone but close enough to the goal that Quincy reaches them quickly when he skates up to them and buries his face in their shoulder pads.

It’s impossible to hear anything over the crowd, black jerseys surrounding them in the stadium, howling with delight. Still, Jeff doesn’t need to hear to look down the other end of the ice and see that Parse is letting loose a victory shout that surely sounds identical to his own. Their team is pouring over the boards, and Jeff tugs Ranger and Quincy with him as he takes off for the other end of the ice so that they can all gather.

Swoops meets them at the center and pulls them all in as they race, laughing joyously as Parse looks over to them and holds his arms open, Jules coming around him to intercept them, Sarge watching them all as he takes the long way over to them.

It’s a pile of Aces within moments, because they won, they won, they fucking won, and Jeff chokes on something that might be a sob as he watches Parser practically tackle Quincy to the ground, shouting things victoriously that he can’t quite make out but are intermixed with enough curse words for the general celebratory message to be understood.

The rookies are ecstatic, too much energy to be contained, and Jeff thinks back to his first season, thinks about winning a Cup, wants to ask if they know how fucking lucky they are before remembering that luck didn’t get them anywhere. This was all work, those fucking bag skates that Parse is so fond of, on-ice chemistry that leads to point after point racking up, the whole season building towards this.

“I told Lynn we could use my Cup day to baptize Shane in it since we didn’t even known we were even pregnant yet when I had it last year,” Ranger says, voice only barely raising over the crowd’s exuberance, giggling as he thinks about the prospect.

The thought of Ranger’s son, barely a month old, doused in water in the Cup, is enough to make Jeff realize this is his reality instead of some fantastic fever dream.

Their teammates surround them, in groupings that expand as they reach out and drag others into their midst. Jeff goes easily when Mars pulls him forward, tugging him and Ranger over to where Swoops and Parse are clinging to Quincy like their lives depend on it, the only reason why he’s still upright being Sarge standing behind him like a wall.

“Fucking amazing, you did so good,” Parse praises him, Quincy echoing the same back to him, and Jeff has never tried to understand the vaguely co-dependent relationship that his captain and goalie have.

Jeff shakes his head, looking away from them and over at his team, until his gaze is drawn to where the Bruins are experiencing the inverse of their situation. Elbowing Mars, Jeff waits a second to make sure that he’s got his attention and jerking his chin over to the sight. Mars pauses, seems to come back to himself, and then he hooks his chin over Parse’s shoulder and says something.

Jerking back, Parse turns to look over too, and by then most of the Aces have noticed their captain taking notice of something, and they get into a line automatically. They’re still joyous, but sobered now that they’re considering another team’s pain. Everyone works for it, but some teams work harder.

Parser elbows his way to the front, making it over to center ice and reaching across to shake Zdeno Chara’s hand. They are silent, but Jeff likes to imagine that there’s a weight on both of them, a tradition that’s lead to their steely stares and teams that follow them however they may lead. The captaincy suits Parse better than any of them thought it would, no one could deny it when he became the youngest captain to lead his team to a Cup before he was even twenty-one.

In the handshake line, Jeff can barely make himself meet the eyes of Boston’s players, who look devastated, the type of devastation that makes Jeff remember the year before last, when they left the finals empty-handed. It’s the kind of devastation that he remembers from the months after Amy flew back to Maine with a one-way ticket.

When that’s done, they’re moving the Cup out to the ice, and Jeff slings his arms around the guys closest to him – Babs and Bates, as it turns out, the beautiful rookies that they are.

Parse takes it first, hoisting it up and skating around the rink so easily that no one would guess he’s as exhausted as everyone else on the team is. He passes it off to Swoops, who flushes when he takes it, and Jeff takes it up from Swoops, so grateful that he’s gotten to do this again. Thirty four pounds of silver, as it turns out, weigh absolutely nothing when it comes down to it.

-x-

Jeff finds Cam arguing with Jules about the proper way to take a tequila shot at the back of the party, Cam holding the salt shaker like a weapon as he points to Jules’s hand. “You lay the salt down on the lime juice, that’s how it sticks to the skin.”

Jules swats the salt shaker away and waves the tequila, turning to find Jeff coming through the crowd of people to them. He reaches out and pulls Jeff in, handing him a lime wedge once he’s situated nicely beneath Jules’s arm. “What kind of piece of shit older brother are you, that he doesn’t know how to take a proper shot of tequila?” Jules demands, slurring his words as he motions towards Cameron’s general vicinity.

“I know how to do a tequila shot!” Cam insists, petulant, and Jeff feels so bad for the little nerd that he reaches over and pulls him in, too.

Cam probably spent his college career actually studying, and even though he was president of his fraternity, it was a service fraternity. God, Jeff realizes, no wonder he’s still teaching Cam to have actual taste in liquor when his younger brother is twenty six years old. “No, no,” he says, taking the tequila from Jules.

There are a few shot glasses in front of them in varying states of cleanliness, and Jeff grabs the one that doesn’t have anything in it, filling it to the brim. With that, he intercepts the salt before Cam dumps it all out, and he snaps his fingers quickly to make sure that he has Cam’s attention. Jules it right, he needs to be a better big brother and pass these kinds of lessons along instead of assuming that Cam will learn them on his own.

“Step one, salt,” Jeff announces, trying to speak the words very clearly. It takes more effort than it should.

Cam is staring at him seriously, nodding, and then someone says, “Oh, tequila,” and plucks the bottle out of Jeff’s hands. When Jeff goes to grab it back, he freezes at the sight of Katherine Parson nonchalantly taking a swig of tequila before she hands it back to him. When she notices them, her eyes fix on the lime in Jules’s hand first.

“I love tequila shots,” Katherine proclaims, grinning at all of them.

The whole team loves Katherine. It’s almost impossible not to, with how she flies out to Vegas during her breaks in the school year and forces Parser to become an actual human for a while. She’s basically perfect, long blonde hair and freckles that are just starting to show at the beginning of summer. Jeff knows for a fact that practically every guy on the team without a girlfriend would be gone for her if it wasn’t for the fact that Parse definitely has enough money to hire someone to kill them and make it look like an accident.

Jules recovers first, even though he’s probably the most drunk of all of them, and he absolutely beams. “We’re teaching Cam how to take a fucking shot! Jeff was just about to demonstrate,” he proclaims.

Jeff nods, mute. He wiggles the salt shaker as proof.

“Oh, great! I’m the only college student here, I know how to do them best. I’ll help,” she offers, taking the salt and replacing it with the tequila. Jeff is confused for a moment before she tilts her head and pushes her hair out of the way so that nothing is obscuring her neck.

Next to him, Jules stiffens before placing a hand firmly on Jeff’s shoulders. “You have to,” he whispers, but really it’s just a normal volume in an attempt at being quiet. They’re so lucky that everyone around them is drunk too.

Holy fuck. “I’ll die,” Jeff responds, actually feeling light-headed. Parser would kill him, and then he’d probably give Jeff’s A to Benny, and Benny would make a shit A.

“You’ll die a legend,” Jules answers, automatically. His eyes are as wide as saucers when Jeff finally looks away from Katherine’s neck. Jeff is torn between wanting Jules to video it so that they have proof and simultaneously never wanting any evidence for this to ever pop up anywhere.

Jeff’s voice only shakes a little bit when he repeats himself from earlier. “Step one, salt.”

He bends over, audibly swallowing as he runs his hand over Katherine’s collarbone. It’s a useless effort, considering that she already moved her hair, and out of the corner of his eyes he sees Jules lifting up his phone when he lowers his mouth to the juncture of where her neck meets collarbone and licks over the skin carefully.

Katherine passes him the salt, clearly unbothered by everything. She doesn’t giggle when he pours the salt over where it will now stick to her skin, and after he’s licked over the skin again, she cheerfully passes him a shot that must have been poured when he wasn’t paying attention.

The tequila goes down smooth and sharp, stuff that’s better quality than anyone needs right now in all honesty, but it clears his focus enough that he hears Jules’s gasp and glances over to where Katherine is currently fitting a lime wedge into her mouth and arching her eyebrows at him like a challenge.

This is, very clearly, a bad idea. Jeff understands this.

Jeff has also had enough alcohol tonight to not care nearly as much as he usually would, however, so he just blinks carefully at her before lowering his mouth and biting down hard on the lime, his lips catching on hers.

Citrus floods his mouth, layering over the taste of the tequila, the flavor bright and tangy as Katherine wiggles the lime wedge so that they’re almost kissing around it. Ridiculously, Jeff’s first thought is Stanley Cup champions. His second thought is that he should find a place to sober up right the fuck now if he thinks making out with his captain’s sister is in any way a solid life choice.

By the time that he realizes that, there’s a hand on his shoulder. Jeff was already pulling back, and he turns to tell Jules that they should probably stick to vodka shots from here on out when he meets Parser’s steely grey eyes staring back at him.

Well. Fuck.

-x-

Jules actually salutes him as he and Parse move through the party, leaving behind Cam and Katherine, who are both wide-eyed and stunned into silence.

“You are literally six years older than Kat, what the fuck?” Parse hisses, and under normal circumstances the fact that he literally has to reach up and drag Jeff down to snarl that into his face would be funny, but these aren’t quite normal circumstances.

Distantly, Jeff looks over the crowd of people. Ranger makes eye contact with him from where he’s standing with his wife Lynn, and both of them have their eyebrows firmly nestled in their hairline. “It wasn’t,” he starts, wondering how to imply that she kissed him without shoving the blame entirely on Parson’s sister, because it’s likely he won’t go for that even though it’s true.

They’re both drunk. It was four in the morning when Jeff last checked his texts from friends and family wishing him a belated congratulations, and who knows how long ago that was now.

“It wasn’t what?” Parse demands, the ends of his hair still damp from the last bottle of champagne that Quincy upended on him.

Jeff squints, tries to get his train of thought back. “Did you know that Cam didn’t know how to take a tequila shot?”

There a beat, and then Parse turns around and glances back towards where Cam with Jules and someone who looks like one of the rookie’s girlfriends. “I thought he went to college. He’s a goddamn therapist, he’d have to,” he says, like this is something that legitimately bothers him.

“Therapist in training,” Jeff says, waving it aside. He doesn’t keep up with the semantics, but he knows Cam isn’t there yet. “But yeah, he doesn’t know how to do a shot of tequila. Not a fucking clue.” It’s truly a shame.

“Yeah? What’d they teach him there, then?” Parse asks, scrunching his nose up like he’s trying to remember the days before he knew the steps to taking a tequila shot, like he can’t imagine why college would be worth going to if it doesn’t teach the proper order of the salt, shot, lime.

“He thought that you squirted the lime on the skin to make the salt stick, so you got both at once,” Jeff acknowledges mournfully.

Eyebrows pinched together, Parse shakes his head and lets Jeff’s collar go, patting slightly at the area in an apology. “I know you were trying to help teach him and all,” he begins, drifting off for a second before remembering where he wanted to go with that, “but you didn’t need to use my sister as a demonstration.” He groans a little, his voice almost coming out in a whine.

Jeff rolls his eyes, throws an arm around the shorter man’s neck, and says, “Sure thing.”

He decides that now might not be the best time to mention that the teammate Parse should really be worried about when it comes to his sister is Swoops.

-x-

The team usually clears out fairly quickly after the season’s ends, with most everyone gone within the next week. The guys put down roots in Vegas with the team, and the team is together for most of the year, and the offseason is time for family.

Jeff used to split his time between Amy’s family and his own, going between Maine and Vermont as the weeks went past, and last year he split it between going to see Cameron in DC interspersed with visits brief enough to their parents that no one was unhappy with the results.

It still feels strange to think that he won’t be going to Maine to see Amy’s parents, even though he didn’t go last year either. After spending the ages seventeen to twenty-five steadily becoming more sure that they’d become his family, too, it still feels like a gaping hole that’s been left open in his chest.

He gets dinner with Ranger’s family the next night, after dropping Cam off at the airport. It is a slightly hectic affair, with Lynn trying to start packing things up to go back to Ontario for the summer.

After the kids have gone to bed, Lynn kisses the top of Ranger’s head and pats Jeff’s hand gently before she heads up as well, leaving the D-partners alone. Jeff pauses, wondering how to bring it up before deciding that it’d be best just to go for it.

“I’m worried about Parse over the summer,” he starts, pealing the label of his beer back slightly.

Ranger doesn’t look surprised, just nods as he considers it. “He’s not going to do anything stupid,” he declares, but that’s not really what Jeff was going for in the first place.

“The only time he’s done something royally stupid that we know of is December when we were in Boston,” Jeff says, pointedly not thinking of their captain coming back to the hotel in the early hours of morning, jaw clenched and ignoring everyone until he caved a few days later.

“That we know of. Why are you worried about him?”

Well, the most obvious reason first. “Zimmermann’s about to come into the NHL. Don’t you think that could fuck him up?” Jeff asks, carefully not saying what he clearly means.

For all Jeff knows, Ranger is the only other person on the team who knew that Parse and Zimmermann were boyfriends before the Boston incident. When Jeff found out, he’d gone to Ranger with in, which in hindsight hadn’t been cool but had worked out alright.

After the thing at Boston last year, Parse came clean to Jeff, Ranger, and Jules. He probably hadn’t remembered telling Jeff about it when he did, so it makes things a little easier. Swoops is the only other person that Jeff is pretty sure knows, but he’s not going to ask the guy and make sure in case he doesn’t.

“He’s known that this was going to happen. Zimmermann’s signing came out months ago. Besides, Parser’s a big boy. He can handle himself.” It’s not that Ranger’s being dismissive, because Jeff knows that he’s right. He’s just not as sure as he used to be.

Jeff shrugs. “I know Parse can take care of himself. Does that mean we’re not going to target Zimmermann anymore?” he asks, posing it as something option even though he surely knows the answer.

Ranger stares blankly at him over his beer bottle before answering, “Fuck no.”

-x-

They have a team dinner before people start leaving, everyone and their families piled around huge tables as they laugh and drink. The mood is decidedly celebrator, because it’s been a good season, the best possible season, and the Cup is staying Vegas for another year. It is everything that they could have hoped for and almost more.

One of the few couples who don’t really leave Vegas for the offseason is Sarge and Natalia, who instead choose to fly their families out to spend the months in America rather than go back to Russia. Because they stay behind, they’re the ones who everyone else passes off spare keys to with instructions to water house plants. It makes Natalia roll her eye and hold up an enormous key chain with everyone’s keys on it, cackling about going into everyone’s home and stealing the best things.

“Our house cannot take any more ugly sculptures, please leave them,” Sarge begs, laughing as she shakes the key chain in his face. He waves it away, stopping to lean in and kiss her quickly before going back to listening to Parse.

“The African violets need to be watered often, but not a lot. The soil can’t be soggy, but it has to be moist – and you have to lift up the leaves or else you’ll cause spotting damage,” Parse instructs, leaning over to make sure that Sarge knows how to properly care for his houseplants.

Kathy rolls her eyes, elbowing her brother briefly. “If you kill one of them, you can just buy a new one,” she declares, grinning innocently as she reaches over to steal a few fries from Swoops' plate.

Barely resisting the urge to sigh, Jeff watches Swoops let a protest die on his lips as he smiles a little helplessly at Kathy. Yeah, Jeff is definitely not the one that Parser needs to be worried about when it comes to his sister.

“Fuck off, Kathy,” Kent says easily, “These are like the most important things in the condo besides me and Kit.”

Flicking him on the arm, she asks, “And what about when I’m there too?”

Kent blinks at her, expression flat. “Like I said, the most important things besides me and Kit.”

It reminds Jeff of when he and Cam used to roughhouse for the remote when Kathy reaches over and smacks Kent on the shoulder, hard, and Kent just steals the rest of her burger in retaliation. When she goes to snatch it back, he bats her hands away and defends himself, “I have to get my weight up for the season, fuck off.”

It’s true. They’re all thin, worn down after a long season, everyone looking like they’ve endured enough for the time being. It won’t last too long, and they’ll be back to normal when the season starts, but bruises tend to look a hell of a lot worse when no one has the weight to cushion themselves with when they’re checked into the boards.

It’s a good group out, and while a few teammates have begged off, there’s probably about forty of them split between three tables, including families. Ranger’s family has commandeered an entire end of the table they’re at with Jeff and Parser, and Jeff can hear Carly and Shane plotting dessert even though they haven’t even finished their meals.

It’s good to be around everyone, after the tension of the playoffs has melted off, now that they all have good moods that should last through the offseason. It’ll break up soon, people going back to relieve babysitters of the youngest kids, but for now Jeff is content to sit back and listen to his team.

A few minutes later, Kent leans over and prods at Jeff’s elbow suspiciously, like he suspects Jeff’s been sleeping or something. Blinking, Jeff grins fondly at his captain as he reaches across to tug on Parser’s snapback.

“How ya holding up, Jeff?” Parse asks, and Jeff looks around to see that a few people from their table have split off to visit the other two. Kathy is leaning into Swoops, flipping through pictures on her phone, and Jeff decides to ignore that for the better of everyone.

“I’m doing pretty good. I had a steak, we won the Cup. What more can a guy ask for?” Jeff responds, stretching a bit.

Good food, good friends, the highest possible title in the NHL. Those are reasonable requests.

Smiling cracking over his face, Parse’s eyes crinkle. “Sounds good to me,” he agrees easily, and Jeff takes a moment to really look at him.

Parse is almost always fine, or at least he always seems like it. He covers easily, doesn’t let personal problems affect the team, hardly even lets them know about problems at all unless it’s unavoidable. Unavoidable incidents have included the time he was so drunk he told Jeff about Zimmermann and didn’t remember and the time that he was coming back from Samwell the morning of their Boston game in December.

Today he looks no different than he usually does, maybe a little looser now that the playoffs are over with. Katherine being back has probably helped too, and the Kent sitting in front of him now is not the Kent he ran into that December morning, wild-eyed and barely about to contain himself.

He’s shaved, like most of them have, the scruff that he attempted to call a playoff beard gone since the day after the Finals. He doesn’t look like someone who’s worried about playing against his ex-boyfriend next season, at any rate.

“What’s your summer shaping up to be?” Jeff asks, praying that Parse doesn’t answer that he’s going to Montreal for a time or mention Jack Zimmermann in any way. Jeff really isn’t prepared to deal with that kind of thing, is really more of the kind of guy who’d rather give the shovel talk and follow through on it.

Waving vaguely, Parse lets a lazy grin overtake his features. “Well, Kathy wanted to go hiking for a while with her friends, so Swoops and I are tagging along. One week, the Rocky Mountains, and a handful of Kat’s sorority sisters. Talk about a way to kick it off, huh?” he giggles, and Jeff just knows that the reporters are going to have a field day if they get ahold of that story.

He seems good. Really and truly, he seems good.

Jeff knows that this is still the same guy who got plastered and told him about Jack Zimmermann while he was close to blackout drunk, the same guy who nearly royally fucked them all over by blatantly ignoring curfew and visiting Samwell, the same guy who called Zimmermann after their loss in Boston. The same guy, just a different side. A happier side. He’s glad for it, at any rate.

Hooking an arm over the back of Parse’s chair, Jeff leans back as they watch their team talk amongst themselves. “You did good, Cap,” he says, because Kent needs to know this much.

He probably knows already, but it’s important that Jeff lets him know, helps him see it for himself.

Kent pauses, nodding at him reasonably. “We all did good,” he says, because at the end of the day, he’s the captain who patiently explains to all the reporters in the media scrum that it was a team effort and it doesn’t matter how good individual guys are if the team doesn’t work together collectively.

Kent gives him a smile, open and honest, and he’s every inch the Aces’ Kent Parson, star player and beloved captain, and from the looks of it there’s not a trace of the person who’s haunted by Jack Zimmermann.

That’s life, though, Jeff guesses. Just a bunch of different things that pile up to make a person who might be unrecognizable when looked at from another angle.

With a nod, Jeff relaxes. They did do good.

-x-

The locker room gets cleaned out as they stand around and crack towels and jokes. The rookies are flying high on a successful wind down to their first season in the big league, unable to stop retelling their favorite moments throughout the last eight months.

“The best goal,” Parse interrupts them, pointing across the room, “was against the Canes this February, when Swoops' most valuable asset was proved, once and for all, to be his ass. Bounced that puck off it like it was a quarter.”

Swoops throws a pair of socks at him, grinning despite himself. “The second goal of my ass’s career, thank you very much.” He bows low, jumping up with a scowl when Jules swats him on the ass for his antics.

As much as Jeff isn’t looking forward to heading home for the summer, it’s been a good season, and they’re ending it on a high note. The clean out can be somber or filled with high tensions, depending on whether they made playoffs or just got sent out early, but times like these everyone is still filled with leftover adrenaline.

They’re blasting someone’s music (Parse’s probably, if the soothing sounds of Nicki Minaj are anything to judge by), packing things away, getting ready to say their goodbyes.

Ranger and his family are flying out tomorrow, and Jeff doesn’t envy their nearly seven hour flight with a baby who isn’t even two months old yet. Some of the guys, mostly the rookies, have flights that leave today, excited to go spend the offseason with family without as strict of a diet plan as usual.

Jeff’s own flight is next week, because at this point it’s good to put some distance between himself and his parents, and he’s going to spend at least a week in DC when Cam gets back to him on when should be best. It’s something to look forward to.

-x-

They get lunch, before Jeff heads back and before Parse goes on his camping trip.

“This place is good. It reminds me of a place in Montreal that I went to with Bob and Alicia last year,” Kent says as they’re carving into their steaks, and there’s only one couple named Bob and Alicia that Jeff can think of Montreal, but Parse isn’t wincing like it’s a painful memory.

There’s nothing wrong with Parse being friendly with the Zimmermann’s, Jeff knows. It’s just… When he’d first heard about it, Jeff didn’t think much of it other than the fact that this rookie literally had one of his hockey idol’s cell phone numbers.

It made sense, too, since everyone knew how close Parse and the Zimmermann kid were.

Jeff just hadn’t thought about it since learning about just how close Parse the Zimmermann kid had been. Or since learning that Zimmermann doesn’t even fucking talk to Parse anymore, except to apparently fuck him up in the middle of the Stanley Cup finals. Who even does that kind of thing, seriously?

This summer, Jeff talked with his trainer and they’re putting together something that’s going to make him hurt. It’s a stricter regimen than he’s ever done before, and he’d winced when he’d first agreed to it.

It’s going to be worth it, though, to send Zimmermann off the ice hurting down to his very bones.

When Parser is winding down, finishing off his steak and starting on the pile of steamed vegetables he’d ordered with it, Jeff figures that this is kind of his last chance, so he waits until Parse is occupied with cutting an asparagus – lengthwise, what kind of heathen is he? – before asking, “Are you good?”

“I’m great,” Parse responds, easy as anything, and it’s probably true.

The kid (and he’s nearly 25, only two years younger than Jeff, so Jeff should probably stop thinking of him as a kid) is the captain of a Stanley Cup winning NHL team that he turned around single-handedly. In times like these, where they don’t have the pressure of the season on them, it’s so easy to relax and bask in the glow of a job well done.

That’s not quite what Jeff’s getting at, is the thing.

“You’re always good, Parser,” he shrugs, because in the past six years that Parse has been playing with him, there’s only been two incidences where Parse has been blatantly not good. “I just want you to know that it’s okay not to be.”

Raising an eyebrow, Parse freezes and then nods in a motion that’s almost unnoticeable it’s so small. “Good to know,” he acknowledges carefully.

“No one expects you to always be good. The rookies even find it unnerving sometimes,” Jeff says, trying to make it sound more like a joke than it is. Parse is on top of the ball, always ready with a media smile and a quote that doesn’t give anything away, and Jeff knows that the rookies had been terrified to meet the guy they’d felt so pressured to be good.

Parse’s face is a compilation of subtle reactions that build to show nothing. It’s almost the carefully sculpted media mask that he defaults to in front of too many cameras, only relaxing at the very last second.

-x-

Here’s the thing.

Jeff probably isn’t the best guy on the team suited for this kind of task. He’s not really a touch-feely kind of guy, and even though he has a protective streak a mile wide, he prefers to showcase it through physical actions, like putting the guys who called Cam a nerd into trashcans. He’s not exactly great at talking about feelings.

Even when he needed to, he was never good at it. He remembers sitting across from Amy as she tried to wipe her tears and demanded that he say something after she’d showed him her one way ticket back to Maine.

Cold and clammy, reality setting in even though he had to have known it had been coming, Jeff had looked up and offered in a shaking voice to help her pack. Amy had been too angry to speak, instead dissolving into sobs as she’d walked away.

And before that there’d been high school, where he would listen to his mother go over his stats for every season and where he should be compared to where he was at, and he’d watch Cam skirt quietly around the edges of the living room clutching his books as he avoiding the conversation. Jeff had never been able to say much then, either.

Swoops is probably the teammate who’s best fit to have this kind of conversation with Kent. He’s certainly the closest to Parse, at any rate. The whole team is close in the way that teams are, because you can’t trust someone on the ice the way that they do without trusting them off the ice, too, but Parse and Swoops are best friends in their own right.

So maybe Jeff shouldn’t be the first choice for this kind of thing, but he’s probably not the worst because the rookies would shit themselves before admitting that the words that come out of Parse’s mouth aren’t from Gretzky himself or whatever model they look up to him as. Others on the team want to protect him too badly to say something for his own good.

Here’s the thing.

Jeff probably isn’t the best guy on the team suited for this kind of task, but he’s the one who’s handling it. So there’s that.

-x-

Running his thumb along the condensation that’s formed on the outside of his beer glass, Jeff shrugs. “You don’t always have to be good,” he repeats, simply because some things bear repeating, and he’s not willing to believe that it’s a sentence Parser would take to heart the first time.

Even if Parse’s expression does devolve into the one he wears for the media, it won’t be the worst thing. He’s honest with the media, he’s just guarded. Jeff understands it, even if it is hard to think about why.

“Thanks,” Parse responds carefully, not quite looking Jeff in the eyes but not looking away from him either.

There are many forms of progress, and in the long term this is one of them. Parson now compared to the kid who first got off the plane in Vegas, it’s honestly enough to make Jeff question whether it’s the same guy. If he hadn’t been there to watch Parse grow into his own skin, he doesn’t know if he’d honestly believe it.

Parson got the C after his rookie season, because the Aces GMs had been looking for a way to shake things up. No one had expected it, least of all Parson, and the kid had more responsibility thrown on him before he’d even learned how to be the face of a franchise yet. Jeff was there for his rookie season, was there for his first season as captain, was there for the first loss as captain when Parse had slurred out the truth about Juniors before passing out that night.

He’s got a soft spot for the kid, because of course he does. At this point, Jeff doesn’t know how he couldn’t not have a soft spot for him.

There’s not a whole lot of time to beat around the bush, Jeff realizes. He’s finished his dinner and Parser’s nearly done with his. At this point, the thing keeping them here is the half full glass of beer sitting in front of Jeff’s own plate.

“Zimmermann’s in the big leagues next season,” Jeff says, and he doesn’t bother to look at Parson’s face when he says it. There are only so many offerings he can make in terms of privacy.

When he does look up, Parse isn’t looking at him. Isn’t looking at anything, really, just staring vacantly as he shrugs absentmindedly. His lips twitch, something akin to a smile that makes it halfway across his face before he aborts the effort entirely. “I am good, you know. It’s not all an act,” he says, finally meeting Jeff’s eyes.

Jeff knows that. It’s not all an act, of course. Parse is happy with the team, when they’re winning. Everything is easier to take when they’re winning.

-x-

Jeff knew that he and Amy were going to break up when he’d woken up one of the mornings after they’d won their first Cup, and she’d been brushing her teeth in the bathroom when she caught his eye in the mirror and smiled at him. She had to be up early that morning, had only taken a few days before going back to classes.

It didn’t matter how many times that Jeff told her she didn’t have to work, Amy had rolled her eyes again and again until she’d graduated school and then she’d rolled her eyes some more until she’d gotten her first real job as a middle school science teacher.

The only concession that she’d given him was finding the job in Vegas.

“Do you have to go?” he’d whined, twisted in the sheets as he watched her get ready for the day.

Pinning a section of her hair back, she’d smoothed it down before grabbing her purse and turning towards him with a gentle smile on her face. “Real people don’t get to waste their days away like you,” she’d said, and her voice had been teasing but her eyes were somber and that was the first time he realized it wasn’t going to work.

That was the first clue, and the rest had fallen into place quickly: she’d never gotten along well with the other wives or girlfriends, too proud of her middle class upbringing to be willing to give up her job to spend time to put into those kinds of relationships.

It wasn’t until a full year after they’d broken up that Jeff was able to admit that he was asking for too much, that they wanted different things from each other. He just always thought that Amy would stop wanting her things and be okay with what he wanted instead. It took him a while to understand that that, too, was a kind of selfishness.

-x-

Parse is sitting straight when Jeff finally looks at him. He’s worn a little thin, but they all are after that kind of Cup run. Much of him is the same as ever, the freckles and the cowlick the finishing touches on his everyday look.

It would be easy to push this discussion out, make it more of an argument than it needs to be. Jeff has never understood arguing, has never the kind of control over words that lets him use them artfully. Hockey players learn to use their fists and not their words.

The best thing for him to do is for Jeff simply to nod and state, “It’s okay for you to not be good, too.”

He’s not going to sit here and make Parson have a discussion about his feelings from the Q and how fucked up that left him. If Parse wants to see a therapist, Jeff will happily hand over Cam’s card in a year or two.

Eyes frozen in a shade of forest green that looks unnatural in the desert that they call home, Parse gives a nod in return. There isn’t such a harsh shape to his mouth, and his jaw isn’t clenched like it was when Jeff first brought it up. Carefully, Parse admits, “Thanks for saying that.”

It feels bigger than it should, maybe. Or maybe Jeff’s just never done something this big before.

“You know we care about you,” he offers up, because it’s true. The whole team would fight for Parser, for his stupid love of cosmos and shots that are too brightly colored for anyone else to brave them, for his dumb pop playlists he plays before games, not to mention all of the pictures he shares about his cat. They love him for his trademark media smile and how he answers their questions honestly because he can’t bear to lie, and there’s not a single member of the Aces who would let Kent Parson face his demons alone.

Next season, Kent is going out onto the ice with a team who’s willing to fight for him. It’s only right that he knows it.

Cracking a smile, Parse lowers his eyes to the table and collects the bill that’s been dropped off while they weren’t paying attention. He waves off the card that Jeff offers, placing his own in the flap instead.

They sit in silence while it’s picked up and then replaced, and Jeff sits quietly while Parse fills out the tip. From there, it’s a short but silent walk to the parking lot. Everything feels so fragile that Jeff doesn’t know how to speak up without shattering it all.

“I appreciate you guys,” Parse says finally, digging his keys out of his pocket and flashing the lights on the Honda Civic that’s sitting unobtrusively in the back. He doesn’t look at Jeff when he says it.

Reaching for his own keys, Jeff nods. “We’re always there when you need us,” he says. He pauses for a moment before moving to catch Parser on the shoulder carefully.

The offseason is going to be good for them. It’ll give Parse a chance to tan so that he doesn’t look so pale all the time, not to mention they’ll both have time to bulk up again for the actual season. Mostly, it’ll just be a chance to catch up on some rest.

Jeff grins, relieved to have finally done what needed doing. It’s been a good season, but they’ve got another one ahead of them. “Have a good summer, Cap. Don’t forget to call.”