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Hope, Dreams & A Little Bit of Crazy

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It was far from the first time that Kent Parson had woken up in a bed that smelled of booze sweat and orgasms. Groaning slightly, Kent stretched and burrowed back down into the sheets, willing himself to ignore the still-damp splodge under his stomach as the previous night limped its way back into his consciousness.

Despite how hard the Aces had fought all year, they’d come to the end of their regular season just a few points shy of grabbing a wildcard slot in the playoffs. It had left everyone with a sour taste in their mouths, especially Kent. The team had been spoiling for an outlet for weeks, simmering with untapped rage over the bad plays, bad injuries and just plain bad luck that had dogged their skates all season.

And then, for their last game, they’d found themselves facing off against the Falcs.

It had been one of the few gongshows Kent had been part of over the years that was truly worthy of the term. The Falconers were similarly out of the running for a playoff slot, and somehow, seeing those angry ice-blue eyes across the rink had set Kent’s blood boiling. Somehow, in Kent’s mind, the fact that neither of them were getting near the Cup this year had become all Jack’s fault, and from the minute Thirdy had brutally checked him into the boards, the mitts were off. No one had come away from the game unscathed.

No one had wanted to go home afterwards, either. They were too keyed up. Too much adrenaline and thwarted ambition running through their veins.

Somewhere around the fourth or fifth row of shots, a bunch of the Falconers had found their way into the bar that the Aces had taken over, but by then no one cared about how much Hell they’d beaten out of one another on the ice. By then there was enough liquor-fueled good will for them to find camaraderie in how hard their respective seasons had sucked, and it hadn’t been long afterwards that Kent had lost track of how much he’d had to drink. His ethanol-fuzzed memory estimated that it had been sometime between switching from Jaegerbombs to tequila, and that his tab was probably enough to fund a small European country.

Try as he might, Kent couldn’t manage to dredge up the name of the person he’d obviously hooked up with at some point after the tequila had started flowing. But judging by the state of the bed and the way some very specific muscles were aching, he knew two things about them:

One: it had definitely been a man. With the kind of thick, heavy dick that Kent had always fantasized about but never seemed able to find before last night. So not Zimms (thank God for small favors).

And two: one of them had to have come at least twice before they’d both passed out from exhaustion. So even with alcohol in the mix, whoever that dick belonged to clearly knew what to do with it.

Clearly, it had been the kind of night that Kent would’ve liked to remember. Back in the Q, he and Zimms had each relieved the other of their v-cards, but they’d had to be careful since the age of consent exceptions in Canada didn’t apply to what they’d been getting up to. And once he’d been drafted, going to a gay club, finding somebody hot to dance with and then dragging them out into the alley for a quick blow was even riskier. He could probably count on one hand the number of times he’d actually gotten naked and sweaty with someone without being terrified that the details would show up on Page Six within the week.

Scowling at himself, Kent slowly pushed up onto his elbows and rolled around into a sitting position. If he didn’t even know who he’d hooked up with last night, he had no idea how many pictures were out there. No idea if whomever it had been was on the phone outing him to ESPN right now. He needed to get up and find the shower. Call the Aces’ PR manager and tell him what had gone down. See about someplace to get a hangover breakfast and about a gallon of coffee. Maybe even where he’d stashed his car, presuming he’d come here… in…

The room around him was dark, the drawn shades blocking out most of the daylight that would otherwise be painfully bright on his corneas. And he had had a lot to drink the night before: more than was his usual wont, even when his dreams conjured bright blue eyes and a Quebecois accent.

He could therefore be forgiven for it taking a minute to sink in that he was sitting in his own bedroom. That the mattress and sheets beneath his naked body were his own.

Holy mother of fuck. He’d brought his drunken hook-up home.

Scanning the shadowed room, it didn’t appear that anything was missing. No trail of clothes on the floor, which was odd considering what last night had entailed. Slowly, Kent stood up and grabbed for the hockey stick he kept mounted above the headboard: to the casual observer, a keepsake autographed by Bad Bob. Except the one with Bob’s real signature was locked away somewhere safe, and this one was a fake that he could grab fast as a weapon in an emergency. Not caring that he was naked, or sore, or hungover, Kent started easing towards his bedroom door, listening for any sign that he wasn’t alone in the house.

The very last thing he’d expected to hear as he stepped clear of the bedroom threshold and reached the top of the stairs was someone in his kitchen singing along to what had to be obscure 80s rock in a Russian accent.

Feeling some of his (entirely justified) paranoia slip, Kent lowered the stick and ducked back into his bedroom long enough to find last night’s boxers tossed into his hamper. Not giving a damn on the grounds that he needed a shower anyway, Kent pulled them on and quietly made his way back downstairs, the stick held loosely in one hand rather than tightly at the ready in both.

Walking into his kitchen, Kent was greeted by the sight of a tall, broad Russian enforcer wearing a Falconers tee shirt and dark gray boxer briefs half-dancing to a band Kent had never heard in his life while cooking what smelled like steak and eggs on Kent’s stove. Kit Purrson sat on the kitchen island, clearly waiting with impatient flicks of her tail for the human handling the food to turn around and proffer her due as the true mistress of the house.

The hockey butt to which those boxer briefs clung so enticingly made Kent’s mouth go dry. He wondered if he’d left fingerprint bruises on it last night while its owner had been pounding him into the mattress. He wondered if he could talk his unexpected guest into letting him peel off the layer of soft cotton that kept him from finding out. Into another round or three before they parted company.

After all, it wasn’t like Kent didn’t have a couple of guest rooms they could defile before they ran out of clean beds to screw on. And that wasn’t even counting the two-person steam shower.

Kit trilled out a greeting to him and his guest turned away from the stove, his mouth halfway through a remonstrance about patience before he saw Kent out of the corner of his eye. He trailed off mid-sentence as he turned to face Kent, one hand lifting to rub self-consciously at the back of his neck as he blushed crimson.

It was entirely unfair of Alexei Mashkov to look this goddamned adorable when he was embarrassed.

“Morning.” It felt like a hollow word, all things considered, but Kent figured it was a better place to start than: “if I bend over the kitchen island will you please fuck my brains out”.

“Utro,” Mashkov greeted back, looking like he was groping for something to say as well. “Food is ready almost, and coffee, too.”

For half a heartbeat, Kent considered chirping Mashkov about making himself at home in his kitchen, but decided against it. It never paid to chirp a hook-up that could also make hangover breakfast. “Glad I had something for you to work with,” he opted for instead. “There are days when all I have in there are beer and sriracha.”

Turning back to the stove to finish attending to the food, Mashkov chuffed out a laugh. “I’m thinking nutritionist would have much to say if knowing about that.”

“Which is why she doesn’t know,” Kent replied as he finally propped his stick against the wall and went to the refrigerator in search of the organic maple sugar that he preferred in his coffee. “So I guess the question is: how much do I need to bribe you to keep it to yourself?”

“Considering how much of B’s baking we do not discuss with Falconers’ nutritionist?” Mashkov laughed again as he snapped the burners off and flipped two beautiful omelets onto the plates he had waiting nearby. “Your secret is safe with me, Kent Parson.”

The passing mention of Zimms’ little Southern belle had Kent going stiff at the spine, though he was pretty sure Mashkov hadn’t noticed in the midst of carrying the plates out onto the enclosed sun porch just beyond the kitchen. Kent couldn’t help wondering if Zimms had spent last night alone with his frustration, or if there was a tiny college boy that was waking up today with a new appreciation of what a thwarted Jack Zimmerman could be like in bed. The way the cords on his neck stood out… the way he somehow knew just the right moment to pull his partner’s legs up over his shoulders and let go… the way filthy French just poured past his lips right before...

Shaking himself from his reverie, Kent poured two cups of steaming hot coffee and brought them, along with his maple sugar, out to the table where Mashkov had laid out breakfast. The sunlight wasn’t too glaring, since the porch was on the north side of the house and the windows were tinted for both UV and paparazzo protection, and Kent sat down opposite Mashkov with a soft sigh of real gratitude. “Don’t have any cream, but there’s maple sugar if you take your coffee sweet.”

“I take black,” Mashkov told him by way of demur. “I like honey cubes in tea sometimes, but not coffee.”

“Works for me, then.” Kent dug into the omelet, letting his eyes close as the flavor hit his tongue and his stomach didn’t immediately riot at the prospect of something solid. “Oh, man… either I’m really hungry or you’re a really good cook.”

“Fair cook,” Mashkov replied, clearly amused by Kent’s reaction. “But is nice to hear.”

Kent’s answer was a long hum of appreciation around a second mouthful, and the two proceeded to eat in relative silence after that. Kent’s house was in a quiet, wealthy neighborhood; in the stillness of the morning, it was hard to believe that he lived a scant few miles from the garish lights and hyper-oxygenated rooms of downtown Sin City. Being one of the best players in the NHL didn’t make him immune from being traded, so he hadn’t looked for a house to fall in love with, but he’d had the money and means to make it into the haven he needed it to be between games and seasons, and that was all that mattered.

He wondered where Mashkov lived back in Providence. Was it near Zimms’ house? Did Zimms even have a house? Or had he just leased something, given how tenuous his situation probably was in the NHL? Kent knew that Jack was likely to be under scrutiny by the GMs for a lot longer than most players, given the incident that had taken him out of the 2009 draft. It was why he’d offered to go to bat for Zimms with the Aces. They’d been an unstoppable team, once upon a time; with Kent backing him up, Jack could’ve stayed afloat long enough that-

“You are thinking hard this morning.” Mashkov’s voice cut into his train of thought, snapping him back to reality. “You are not regretting last night?”

A sly smile pulled across Kent’s face. “No… though I was pretty drunk for most of what I think were the good parts. Memory’s a bit fuzzy.”

Mashkov’s brown eyes flickered, something chasing across his face too fast for Kent to catch before it smoothed out into a seductive glint. “Maybe is just needing refreshed.”

“Maybe.” Standing up from the table, Kent stretched, his eyes tracking the way the big Russian drank in the flex of Kent’s muscles. “I need a shower, though. I usually don’t sit down to breakfast smelling like gongshow leftovers.”

Turning before the enforcer could reply, Kent walked with deliberate casualness towards the doorway into the kitchen. He could feel those brown eyes trained on him the entire way, a thrill tripping down his spine at the knowledge. He looked damn good and he knew it, even in last night’s boxers. When he reached the door, he stopped and cast a look over his left shoulder. “You coming?”

Hooded eyes slowly traveled from his face to his hips, lingering for a heartbeat on the front of his straining boxers before drifting back up again. “I should clean up kitchen.”

There was a strange stab of disappointment in Kent’s chest, but he hid it behind a casual shrug. “Suit yourself, man,” he said as he turned and went back upstairs.

* * *

There had been few improvements that Kent had needed to make to the house when he’d purchased it, given the size of his house-hunting budget at the time. But by far, installing his steam shower had been his favorite: large enough for two people, with a ceiling rain feature, dual massage wands, plenty of storage niches and even a proper kit for the sexually-adventurous and hygiene-conscious. After brushing his teeth while the water heated up, it was that very feature he made use of first, sighing softly as the warmth soaked into his muscles.

It shouldn’t have surprised him that Mashkov had turned him down. After all, it wasn’t like he and the Falconer had ever gotten along, and he knew that Mashkov was chummy with Zimms and the new boyfriend. The previous night had probably just been an itch getting scratched, and that was all it needed to be. Kent didn’t need the headache that would inevitably come with fucking around with someone from another team, anyway.

After his unexpected guest finally bailed, he’d check out who was playing in town tonight. It would be good to get out of the house. Out of his head.

He’d just switched the rain feature over to steam after cleaning up when the enclosure door opened and a very naked Mashkov stepped inside, a coy smile playing beneath sparking brown eyes. Kent was so surprised that he couldn’t even manage a sound before those big, warm hands clamped onto his hips and pulled him in, Kent’s compact body colliding against the other man’s broad chest as those lips came down across his own.

Kent’s melancholy dissolved in the heat of it, his arms lifting of their own volition to wrap around Mashkov’s neck, his mouth opening easily and his tongue darting up into Mashkov’s as the big Russian devoured him where they stood, the steam billowing around them and beading on their skin.

Holy fuck, but this was exactly what Kent needed. It was so easy to get lost in the sensation of another person wrapped around his body, of confident lips exerting just the right pressure against his own and moving with intention. He barely noticed the way Mashkov was pressing him a few steps backwards, and then the kissing tapered off as Kent was turned around, the curve of his spine fitted against Mashkov’s damp, furred chest and his hands being guided up to brace against the wall.

“Krasivyy,” murmured across his nape in the wake of soft kisses brushing the axis of his shoulders. It made Kent shiver despite the heat surrounding them, the tremor followed by hockey-callused hands gliding along his sides in an almost gentling motion. “Just be still for me, solnyshko.”

Kent wanted to chirp his lover for the Russian he didn’t know. For the tender way he was being touched, as if Kent was someone who needed gentle handling. He couldn’t seem to manage it, the subtle command underpinning the words sending shocks tripping down his spine. Vibrating, Kent could only nod as kisses started to drift lower… lower… those big hands slipping down to frame his hips as Mashkov sank down to the floor… “Oh, God…”

“Nyet,” came the rumbling chirp. The air behind the words puffed against his cleft and Kent’s whole body shook. “Is only me.”

And then there was no more room in Kent’s mouth for words. Only for a shocked shout as his cheeks were parted and Mashkov’s tongue teased at his rim.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t been rimmed before. Zimms had done it once, but they’d both been weirded out by how awkward it felt and they hadn’t tried it again. There was nothing awkward about this. Kent’s elbows gave and he wound up leaning his forehead against the cool acrylic walls with sounds coming out of his mouth that he’d never heard himself make before. And all the while, Alexei’s clever tongue kept exploring, certain like he’d done this a hundred times before. Like he enjoyed having Kent under his mouth. Like he’d been just waiting for a chance to eat Kent out and now that it was happening he was going to savor it.

That thought hit Kent’s hindbrain just as that tongue wriggled into him and Kent keened, whining and shoving back against Alexei’s face and earning him a sharp nip to his left cheek that stung so hot it brought tears to Kent’s eyes. Words started pouring past his lips: babbling begging words that made no sense even as Alexei put his mouth back where Kent couldn’t believe he needed it so badly, tongue thrusting and teasing and tracing as if Alexei could spend all day on just this. It had Kent so hard it almost hurt, dripping steadily until his thighs were slick with more saline than steam and his knees wanted to buckle and it was so good, so good so close “oh, fuck…”

The dam finally broke with Alexei’s lips sucking lightly on quivering muscle, big hands holding Kent up while his knees turned to rubber and he came hard enough to see spots behind his eyes. Alexei’s mouth didn’t back off until his orgasm had finally receded, leaving Kent sensitive and whimpering at the loss.

Strong arms came up under his own, bracing him upright. “Beautiful,” Alexei murmured, lips never touching his skin now. Kent didn’t care about where they’d just been; he wanted them on his own… wanted the reassurance… “So good for me…”

Alexei’s right arm moved, shifting Kent’s weight onto the left as he reached for something in the closest niche on the wall. Kent almost didn’t notice the soft snap of a cap before fingers slick from more than just water were brushing over the place Alexei’s mouth had just been, pressing in with maddening slowness.

Fuck,” Kent breathed again, the word shivering out as Alexei pushed two thick fingers in to the knuckle and started curling them in a gentle, undulating rhythm. “How the fuck long are your fucking fingers?”

“Long enough to not get complaining.”

Kent could hear the smirk in his voice; had a perfectly good retort all lined up. But then those fingers found his prostate, brushing back and forth over it with ruinous intent, and every word on Kent’s tongue curled up into a long moan of want.

“So pretty when you come on my tongue,” Alexei purred, the heat of a mouth that wouldn’t make contact driving Kent a little insane. “Going to work you right back up… watch you come on my cock…”

“Don’t have to be hard for you to fuck me.” The words earned a mild startle from his lover; Kent had somewhat surprised himself, truth be told. But he also knew he meant them.

With how toppy the enforcer was being, he half-expected an argument. For Alexei to insist on on playing with him until he was hard and aching again. But his lover must’ve been harder up than Kent had guessed, because a long shudder went through the body pressed against him as the invitation hung in the misty air, unqualified and unashamed. “Where are rubbers?” Alexei asked, his voice already almost wrecked.

“Too far away.” Kent’s legs braced a little further apart, his hips shoving back against the fingers still buried inside him. “I’m clean, and I’m pretty sure you fucked me bare at least once last night anyway.”

“Solnyshko…” The control in that voice was threadbare… thick with want as naked as they were…

Kent reached up and back, grabbed a handful of Alexei’s flow and craned his own head around. Alexei pulled away despite Kent’s grip, refusing him access to the Russian’s lips, but they were close enough that his shallow breath still panted against Kent’s mouth. “Get in here.

Deep brown eyes flared in response. Before Kent knew it, Alexei had broken Kent’s grip on his hair and pulled his fingers free, wrapping them around Kent’s hip in a hold sure to leave bruises as the broad head of him lined up and pushed in.

Just the first breach set Kent’s eyes rolling up into his head. He moaned, loud and unashamed, his fingers splaying against the wall and his hips canting back to give Alexei a better angle. Thick heat seemed to cleave him in two, burrowing inexorably deep until the Russian bottomed out with a heartfelt groan of his own.

Even winning the Stanley Cup couldn’t compare to how good this felt. Alexei wasn’t any longer than Kent himself, but the girth of him… the way it stretched Kent just that much more than he’d ever taken before and tunnelled into the empty space that Kent felt like he’d been aware of forever… it was like electricity in Kent’s veins, lighting him up and making his whole body feel like it was flying even as it sighed in relief. The lack of thorough re-prep burned, but it was the kind of burn Kent loved: like after a hard skate or a long run. Except this was better.

He wasn’t alone when he burned like this.

Alexei pulled out slow, dragging back until the ridge of his head was almost past Kent’s rim. One long shove and he was hilted again, and Kent could feel his shoulders loosen as it happened again, and again, his whole body opening up and relaxing into the rhythm he craved.

“Look at you taking me.” Something in Alexei’s voice made warmth blossom in Kent’s chest. He was long past the point of chirping in response; all he could do was moan and push back against every measured stroke. “So sweet… almost as lovely as your hockey, solnyshko…” Kent moaned again, his whole body shaking as one thrust finally hit the right angle, and he could almost hear Alexei’s smile. “Is that what you’re liking, malen’kiy?” Another hard thrust glanced off Kent’s prostate, making him cry out and shove back into Alexei’s grip. “Are you liking to be told that you are beautiful while you fuck?”

“Not a goddamn girl,” Kent spat out between gasps, the end of the sentence twisting into a moan as Alexei responded by picking up the tempo. It was a default deflection, a fast cover so automatic that he couldn’t have held it back if he’d tried. Not with how easily the truth could be read in his responses.

“Definitely not,” Alexei mused. He tugged on Kent’s hips just a little, until Kent’s body was bent over a fraction more and the angle he wanted was easier to hit. Every stroke glanced Kent’s sweet spot now, and the enclosure echoed with cries of approval from the blond’s throat. “But do not have to be woman to be beautiful… or to like being told so… and you are, solnyshko… such good boy for me…”

The endearments kept coming, flowing like honey over his senses as Alexei worked his way up to a hard, pounding cadence. Kent was diamond hard again, shaking from the desperate need to feel Alexei come inside him… he’d already gotten his and a stray caress would give him another but he needed to feel it… he needed…

“Come again for me, solnyshko,” urged the deep voice in his ear. “Want to see it again…”

One finger worked inside, a bright flash right on the edge of too much, and Kent was gone: screaming Alexei’s name as he spilled and shattered around thick heat still pounding into him as he came. Only as his own release was ebbing away did he realize that Alexei had come with him, a groan erupting as he emptied himself into Kent’s body.

For a long, suspended moment, they remained as they were: Kent trying to right his senses around the sensation of Alexei softening inside him, the other man all but draped across his back as his breath evened out. Slowly, before Kent really wanted him to, Alexei withdrew and stepped back.

“Is all right, solnyshko,” Alexei soothed, running one hand up the length of Kent’s spine at Kent’s mewl of protest. One hand stayed on Kent as they eased down to the floor of the shower, neither of them feeling particularly steady on their feet. “Am not going anywhere.”

Kent nodded from where he now crouched on his knees, absorbing the heat of Alexei’s hands and barely even feeling the sauna-like air around them. He gave another short sound of surprise when Alexei used the hygiene attachment to clean him again; the big Russian merely crooned reassurance at him, the words indecipherable to Kent but the tone read easily enough. And then Alexei was turning Kent over and letting him sit on the floor of the enclosure, giving Kent a clear view of him as he turned off the steam feature and stepped out of the enclosure to retrieve towels from the warming rack on the wall.

It wasn’t until Alexei was picking Kent up after wrapping him into the warm, soft terrycloth that he tried to protest. “I can walk,” he informed the larger man loftily. “I just needed a sec for the blood to go someplace other than my dick.”

The soft, indulgent smile that he got in response was maddening. “As you say, solnyshko. Is there spare toothbrush?”

“Yeah, I think.” His own responses were still rattling him, making Kent suddenly uncertain of being too far away from the man that had just taken him apart so effectively. “I usually keep a couple spares for my go bag in the vanity.”

One large hand reached up to stroke Kent’s face. The expression Alexei was wearing right now made Kent’s entire body want to yearn into him again. “I will be out soon then, solnyshko.”

Shaking himself, Kent tucked the towel a little more firmly around his own body. “Yeah… okay.” Determined to not let the bigger man see how off-center he was feeling, Kent turned and walked from the bathroom with deliberate steps.

* * *

By the time Alexei had emerged from the bathroom in search of his clothes, Kent was feeling a good deal more centered. He’d pulled on a pair of clean boxers and a tee shirt, and was in the process of finding pants when Mashkov’s big hands found his hips again from behind. He straightened into the bigger man’s embrace as Listerine-scented kisses drifted along the curve of his neck, a little startled but not opposed to the affection.

It was a weakness of his after sex, and one that hadn’t been easy to indulge after Zimms.

“Flight back to Providence does not leave for a few hours,” Mashkov whispered. How it was possible for such a deep voice to be so silky, Kent had no idea. “We have a bit of time.”

Kent laughed, turning around to half-push the amorous Russian away. “Yeah… except you gotta go back to your hotel, change clothes, get your shit, check out… not to mention how many of your teammates have to have noticed you weren’t cleaning out the continental breakfast buffet with them this morning.” Mashkov’s expression grew disconsolate and Kent laughed again. “Come on, man: you got time for me to make us one of my trademark walk-of-shame smoothies and call an Uber, but that’s about it.”

“Only shame is that we do not have more time for fun.” Mashkov turned away and found where he’d folded his clothing from last night neatly on the dresser, pulling it on with an almost resentful flair. “You might be brat on ice, but you are beautiful in bed, Kent Parson. I would be liking more time to spend there with you.”

Heat suffused Kent even as he bristled at being called a brat and he turned back to his search for pants, finally electing a pair of loose athletics that he could pull on. “Yeah, well… that’s not in the cards today unless you want the rest of your D-squad to come beating down my door because Zimms has decided I’ve got you chained up in the basement.”

One of Mashkov’s eyebrows quirked at that as they left the bedroom. “This house does not have basement.”

Kent snorted as they descended the stairs, heading back into the kitchen and retrieving what he needed for smoothies from his pantry and refrigerator, but let that pass without comment.

The smoothies went together quickly, and Kent was in the middle of searching out a travel cup he wouldn’t mind losing for a while when the doorbell started ringing. Insistently. Kent’s eyebrows furrowed even as Alexei picked up the stick that Kent had left in the kitchen earlier. “I’ll get it,” he told the Russian, heading for the front door.

It was only mildly surprising when he noticed that Alexei was right behind him; it was obvious that the D-man was as protective in life as he was on the ice. But the surprise on the other side of the door was totally unexpected. Zimms was there, blue eyes slanted and ever so faintly murderous. But his former lover was standing just behind Eddie Vontag (head of Aces’ PR), Michael Wolstead (Kent’s agent), and a third man that Kent had seen in the Falconers’ entourage in passing but had never met before.

“Um…” Trying to avoid the weight of Zimms glare, Kent focused on his agent. “Mike… what’s going on?”

“We need to come in, Kent.” His agent’s usual bon vivant tone was muted, and no one’s expression screamed good news. “Now.”

Kent stepped back, letting them come in past him. Alexei had set aside the stick in his own confusion and picked up the curious Kit before she could try for the open door. It made Kent’s heart melt just a little that the big man was so good with her, but he pushed that aside as he closed the front door and followed along as his agent led everyone into Kent’s living room. “Mike?” Kent asked again hating the suspense.

“This is Greg Alder,” Mike offered before explaining. “He’s the member of the Falconers’ PR team that traveled with them for this game. We felt it was important that he be here as well, since both teams are involved.”

“We tried to reach you both by phone,” Eddie added. “But neither of you responded, and this can’t afford to wait. It’ll be all over the major outlets by this afternoon, and we need to have a strategy in place before that happens.”

“What will be on major outlets?” Alexei asked, his own tone careful. “Zimmboni?”

“I can’t believe you did this,” Jack directed at Kent. His tone was quiet, seething. “Especially with a member of my team.”

“What?” Kent snapped, reacting instantly as hurt flashed through him. “You made your position clear, Zimms, and you’ve got your little peach now. If I decide to fuck my way through the NHL, that’s none of your business anymore.”

“Unfortunately, it does involve him tangentially,” Alder put in. “Given the rumors about the nature of your relationship back in the Q, something like this is going to bring his orientation back under heavy scrutiny.”

“And Eric’s not out yet,” Jack snarled. He fixed a baleful glare at Alexei. “I can understand why that wouldn’t mean anything to Kent, but I thought at least you liked Bitty, Tater. Do you have any idea what could happen to his life once this gets legs?”

“So somebody saw us drunk flirting, maybe even leaving a bar together, and is making wild claims to the stalkerazzi press?” Kent sneered, trying to pull attention away from Alexei. He didn’t like the hurt expression on the enforcer’s face. “Shit, man: Benn and Segs give them more to chew on every other fucking week, and that’s when they’re dead sober. Not to mention the way Nicki and Ovi are together. It’ll blow over.”

“This is a little more complicated than that,” Eddie cut in. Before Kent could ask, he opened the briefcase he’d brought with him and withdrew a set of documents, handing them to Kent.

His eyes narrowed, then widened as he realized what the documents were. At Alexei’s concerned look, he angled them so that the Falconer could see what they said, and met the Russian’s shocked expression with one of his own.

“Since they’re public records,” Eddie continued, watching as the situation sank in with both men, “it’s common for celebrity sites to have someone keeping tabs on the licenses that get filed in Vegas. TMZ has it. Radio stations, ESPN and the 24-hour news channels will be reporting it within the hour and it’ll probably be one of the top stories during the evening news broadcasts by the big four and their local affiliates. We need to manage this, which means we need to get a strategy and response together now.”

Until Alexei’s hand covered his own, Kent hadn’t realized that it was shaking. The Russian’s face was as pale as his own felt, but there was a steadiness in those eyes now that made Kent feel somehow calmer. As angry as Zimms was with him; as much as this was going to raise ten kinds of Hell, there was no help for it now. And much as they’d never gotten along on or off the ice before last night, Kent had an irrational urge to believe that the way Alexei was looking at him right now meant that he wasn’t on his own in dealing with this.

Nodding, Kent pulled his eyes away from his husband’s and looked at the suits. “Okay… somebody please tell me that there’s a secret emergency NHL contingency plan for what to do if two players get drunk married in Vegas.”

Chapter Text

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Kent tugged at his tie, wishing for the 95th time that hour that he could’ve just worn his jersey and a pair of jeans. The PR gang had dictated the wardrobe and Kent hadn’t felt like arguing, but he hated ties. He always felt like he was being strangled. Trying to take his mind off how much he wanted to rip the thing off his neck and throw it in the garbage, he peered through the curtain at the crowd of reporters gathering for the press conference.

His eyes easily picked out the ones that he liked and the ones that got on his nerves, the ones that asked the predictable questions and the ones that liked to try and throw curveballs. But the room was packed to capacity, the normal gaggle almost outnumbered by strangers. Dozens of call signs and logos could be seen around the room, at least half from outlets that didn’t normally cover the NHL, and what was normally a light burble of idle conversation was a steady hum which hovered right on the brink, ready to burst into cacophony as soon as he and Mashkov stepped out of the wings.

The curtain dropped back into place as Kent wheeled away from the opening, trying not to even acknowledge the way his stomach lurched for want of throwing up. He didn’t want to do this. He’d barely gotten through the conversation with his mother without losing his cool. There were too many of them out there… there were too many and one of them would say something and he’d lose his shit, and wouldn’t that just be food for the gossip rags for the rest of his life…

Big hands settled on his hips. Kent’s eyes closed as Mashkov’s aftershave hit his nostrils, the big Russian’s body framing his from behind. “We don’t have time,” he muttered, willing himself to not react. It was going to be hard enough walking out there with this stupid tie around his neck without feeling like he was on his way to be hung; trying to do so normally while sporting an erection was going to be even harder.

“I have faith in us,” Mashkov rumbled. Those hands prodded Kent until they were facing each other, and then Mashkov was backing Kent up against the wall. There was a soft, wry smile on his face, and the light in his eyes was dancing, almost mesmerizing. “But we save idea… maybe for when Falconers beat Aces for Cup, da?”

“You mean when we beat the Falcs for it,” Kent shot back archly.

“Is maybe what I mean.”

Those lips twitched in amusement and Kent’s eyes tracked the motion reflexively. He still didn’t know how they’d gotten here; when had clashing whenever they’d gotten near one another turned into being unable to keep their hands off each other? Let alone one of them getting the brilliant idea to get drunk married and the other going along with it?

A mild burst of noise from the conference room drew Kent’s attention, and he realized that the suits were starting to file in. “Go time,” he said, hoping that his husband couldn’t hear the faintly sick note in his voice. His fingers tugged at the knot of his tie again. A heartbeat later, Mashkov’s fingers replaced them, swiftly unfastening the knot and pulling the tie free of his collar. “What are you doing?”

“Is okay to not look like we think we are on a carpet,” Alexei explained quietly. His fingers flicked the top button of Kent’s shirt open, exposing a hint of collarbone.

Kent gaped for half a second before his mind translated from Tater to English, and then he was pulling Alexei’s mouth down to his for a kiss as brief as it was bruising. Dimly, he heard someone calling over to them and forced himself to let go, his eyes locking on Alexei’s hungry expression in the wake of it. “You gonna tear my clothes off later?” he challenged, reckless fire surging in his blood.

“If you are still in the mood,” Alexei promised, voice low and rough from want as he removed his own tie.

“I’m always in the mood,” Kent tossed back, slipping past his husband’s larger frame towards the opening that led to the dais.

He hoped against hope that it would still be true when this was over.

* * *

Hours later, Kent scooped up a trilling Kit as he dragged himself through his front door and kicked it closed. He’d taken the precaution of drawing his privacy curtains against the possibility of paparazzi with telescopic lenses before leaving for the pressie, and thanked a God he still wasn’t sure he believed in that he lived in a gated community. It felt like his entire body ached from the effort of not just telling what had begun to feel like half the reporters in the Western hemisphere that his personal life was none of their fucking business and anyone who felt otherwise could fuck right the fuck off.

Not wanting to bother going up to his bedroom, Kent carried his purring cat straight into his private den. His living room was for entertaining the team, complete with gaming systems, the biggest screen television he could talk himself into buying, surround sound and plenty of options for streaming services and cable. The furniture was leather and the bar was always stocked and the kitchen was just across the hall, with a formal dining room and his three-season room available for team get-togethers to spill into and for food to be available to the ravenous appetites of men that easily burned twice as many calories as the average person.

But his den was his sanctuary.

Keying in the code to open the room that only he and his emergency contacts had access to, Kent let Kit leap from where she’d wound herself around his shoulders onto her Project Cat-venture scaling wall, then stripped down to boxers and tossed his clothes into the laundry basket by the door. He could breathe easier already, the soft aroma of cinnamon oil from the diffusers going to work on his fraying nerves as he pulled on an oversized tee shirt, walked past the massage table and stepped off the edge of the bamboo floor, flopping down onto the king-sized mattress that was sunk into the other half of the room.

There was no television in this space; only a monitor that tied into his security system and his Pandora. In this space, he could breathe through the anger. Could let go of the glamour he kept up every other minute of the day. There were huge cat-friendly potted plants that breathed oxygen into the air and Kit could wear herself out on the climbing system he’d installed for her before finally hopping down to curl up with him on the pillows. He could read in here, or nap, and let everything else just fall away for a little while.

It wasn’t always enough, but it made days like this bearable. Especially since trying to slip unnoticed into a club anytime soon would be an exercise in stupidity.

About an hour later, Kent was half-drowsing over the book he’d started when the doorbell rang. Kit was up and bumping her forehead against his in an instant, and Kent couldn’t help smiling and nuzzling with her as he fumbled for the monitor’s remote and switched it to the live security video feed.

His husband was on the front porch, glancing around before looking up at the security camera and offering a smile that made Kent’s insides flip over.

Muscles protesting, he rolled and scrambled up out of the lounge space, his feet dodging Kit’s weaving form as he grabbed a pair of workout pants from the shelf and yanked them on before exiting the room and heading for the foyer. That smile turned its full focus on Kent as he opened the door, and it was everything Kent could do to remember that their spousal status wasn’t necessarily going to be permanent. Getting used to that smile greeting him whenever he turned around was a pleasanter daydream than he might’ve expected. “Hey… c’mon in.”

Alexei ducked inside and Kent shut the door, unable to help the warm glow that returned to his chest when the bigger man bent to scritch Kit’s ears in greeting. “You decide to push checking out for another day?” Kent asked, trying for normal conversation rather than giving in to the impulse to demand some affection of his own.

“My gear is in the rental,” Alexei told him as he stood and turned around. “We haven’t had chance to talk since this morning.”

Kent fought down a sigh. “Nope. We have not.” Shrugging, Kent gestured for Alexei to follow him into the kitchen; if they were going to have The Talk, he was at least going to get some food to cram in his mouth so that there wasn’t room for his foot. After a moment’s indecision, Kent finally grabbed bagels and peanut butter. Alexei moved around him, locating plates and knives so easily that it startled Kent before he remembered that his husband had made himself at home in his kitchen just this morning. On a whim, Kent grabbed his toaster and plugged it in on the kitchen island instead of the counter, then hoisted himself up onto one of the two pub stools that he kept beside it. “Make yourself comfy,” he offered.

Alexei nodded, then sat down on the other stool and opened the bagels, popping two into the toaster and adjusting one of the dials before dropping them down to cook. “Is strange,” he murmured, almost to himself. At Kent’s questioning eyebrow, the big Russian smiled a bit sheepishly. “This morning, we didn’t know we are married, and yet that was more like honeymoon than now.”

Kent laughed and slid off the stool to grab the milk from the refrigerator and fetch two tall glasses. “Not exactly how I pictured it, either. I always figured if somebody was crazy enough to marry me, the least I could do with my hard-earned hockey cash would be to spring for a trip to Italy or something.”

“For me, Odessa,” Alexei replied. He eyed Kent speculatively as the blonde passed him a glass of milk, then neatly fished the bagels from the toaster as they popped back up and slid one onto each of their plates. “At pressie, we joked-”

“Don’t even worry about it, okay?” Kent cut in, suddenly not wanting to hear what he was sure Alexei was going to say. “We did something crazy, and we’ll just have to ride it out for a while. When the attention dies down, we can quietly file for divorce and everything’ll go back to normal. Nobody’ll be too shocked that a Vegas wedding gets dissolved in a few months, and it’s the only sane thing to do, yeah?”

Silence greeted that statement. Kent was concentrating on coating his bagel’s surface with peanut butter in an effort to avoid looking at his husband’s face, but with the task done and the bagel cooling uneaten on his plate, Kent eventually couldn’t stop himself from sneaking a look at the man opposite him.

There was a muted unhappiness in the Russian’s face that Kent had never seen before. The expression was so unlike the normally-boisterous man, so unsettling, that an apology was halfway past Kent’s teeth before he swallowed it back with a gulp of milk. What do I have to apologize for, anyway? It’s not like he was expecting us to… like he might actually want to…

Does he?

“You are not wanting to give a chance to us, then?” The words sounded pushed out, as though Alexei didn’t like the shape of them in his mouth.

Kent’s eyes widened. “You saying you do?”

“I’m not remembering any more than you about last night, but I do not think I am wrong that we were flirting very much between drinks.” Alexei’s expression slipped from sad to sly. “I think if we had not gotten married, I would be asking you out on date.”

The grin that slid into place in response to that statement felt almost wolfish. “After the pressie we gave, it’d probably disappoint a lot of people if we didn’t at least act like newlyweds for a while, wouldn’t it?”

“Think of the fans,” Alexei agreed. His lips were quirking up at the corners, and his eyes were warm and lit with the same kind of promise they’d been bright with before everything had gone to Hell this morning.

Heat spiraled through Kent’s veins again, and he felt the awkwardness of their situation evaporate. This, he could handle.

This wasn’t a sudden confession of heretofore secret love, or some obscure scruple against divorce. Lust they had in abundance, as evidenced by their morning activities at least, and staying married for a while gave them an excuse to indulge. Gave them cover, even. Everyone knew about them thanks to the TMZ story: both of their teams and their families and probably half of the Western hemisphere. Unlike so many professional sports players, they didn’t have to worry about being seen in public, or about what rumors might be spreading through the locker rooms that would result in ugly incidents behind the scenes. Those would come or not regardless now, so what did it matter? There was no harm in having some naked fun before the clock ran out.

A lot of naked fun, if Kent had his way. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to hook up without worrying about PR consequences along with all the normal ones. And when it burned itself out and Mashkov got bored with him, they could get divorced and go back to their lives. No harm, no foul.

“Sounds like a plan I can get behind,” Kent found himself saying, his eyes drifting down the lines of his husband’s bicep and pecs where they stretched against the cotton of his Falconers tee-shirt.

He hadn’t even realized that he’d licked his lips until Alexei’s eyes tracked the movement, pupils blowing wide from lust only seconds before he was up and closing the distance between them. Kent’s fists anchored up into his husband’s hair as those big hands caught his face, and then he was bent back across the breakfast bar and his mouth was being absolutely devoured.

“Lexei…” It gasped out as Kent’s legs wound around Alexei’s waist, those huge hands roaming freely down his body, teasing his flanks and caressing along his thighs and lighting fires under his skin faster than anyone but Zimms ever had. “Fuck, Lex…”

“Is what I’m trying to do.”

Kent wasn’t sure if it was the chirp or the fact that it had been practically smirked into his ear right before the Russian’s tongue found the delicate shell of it that made him groan. “The bagels… we can’t leave ‘em out while we…”

“They’ll keep,” Alexei promised, his lips whispering up along Kent’s hairline and setting off shimmering waterfalls of need through Kent’s veins.

“You won’t want ‘em once Kit licks all the peanut butter off,” Kent countered, grinding up against the temptingly solid length trapped inside the Russian’s jeans.

A laugh chuffed out, and then Alexei was easing them both into an upright position. Kent’s vision wobbled briefly and his grip tightened a fraction before he let go, turning to find with some surprise that Alexei had pushed his plate aside rather than tip him backwards and plaster bagels to the back of his tee shirt. He hadn’t even noticed.

The fact that it lit a hungry flame at the base of his spine would have been a shock if Kent didn’t already know that he was hopelessly turned on by effortless competence.

Alexei barked out a laugh when he turned back from putting the milk in the refrigerator to see the two clean plastic shower caps that Kent had fished from a drawer and snapped around each of their plates. “Is there mist feature in your fridge?”

“Screw you, man; they’re cheap and they’re a fuck ton easier to use than plastic wrap.” He shoved the bagel plates into a free space almost without looking and shouldered the door closed before turning to face Alexei, fists on hips. “And mocking a man’s household management shortcuts is no way to start a marriage.”

There was a bemused smirk hovering at the corners of Alexei’s mouth as he hummed in response, his eyes bright as they searched Kent’s face. And then he was pulling Kent around, trapping the blond between the wall of his chest and the refrigerator door, his hands lightly resting on Kent’s waist. “Neither is not remembering wedding night.”

Kent’s chin went up a defensive inch, belying the way his breath shallowed with want and his hands itched to reach for Alexei again. “If I don’t and you do, we got a problem, Mashkov.”

“I wish I could,” Alexei murmured, fingers flexing lightly and rucking up the hem of Kent’s shirt. “Is just my luck I cannot remember the true first time you moan my name…” His mouth dipped low, until their lips were just barely apart and it was all Kent could do to keep his eyes from rolling up closed in want. “Let me take you to bed and make a memory to replace the one we should have…”

A moan slid out then, Kent’s lids gliding closed as his hands found Alexei’s solid chest, smoothing up to his broad shoulders so that his hands could latch on. “You’re a romantic sonuvabitch, aren’t you?”

Alexei’s response was to shift his hands until one of Kent’s lower cheeks rested comfortably in a wide palm. He lifted Kent so easily that Kent’s head tipped back from the heat that swept through him, his legs wrapping around Alexei’s waist and locking behind his hips. “Da, sokolnyshko. But does my husband deserve less?”

Kent shuddered as Alexei carried him out of the kitchen and up the stairs, tucking his head into the curve of Alexei’s neck and dragging his tongue along the hollow of his pulse in retaliation. It was a little shocking, how easily the word ‘husband’ was fitting into his mental vocabulary, how strangely natural to think of Alexei Mashkov in that role. It hadn’t been all that long ago that the role had felt all but permanently assigned to Zimms… that it would only be a matter of time before he brought the Canadien back around to knowing they belonged together…

But Jack had his little Georgia peach now, and Kent was being lowered into bed by a giant, admittedly-gorgeous Russian enforcer that was looking at him like Kent was the first plate of food he’d seen in a week…

It brought Kent up to his knees on the bed as Alexei stood beside it, hands reaching out to unfasten Alexei’s jeans as the larger man pulled his tee shirt up over his head. Kent’s lips gravitated to one flat mauve nipple, dragging a groan out of Alexei even as Kent leaned back to get rid of his own shirt and Alexei was shucking away his jeans and boxers.

What did it matter if this was going to dissolve in a few months? Jack had been the only person Kent had ever believed in ‘forever’ with, and that had blown up in his face so spectacularly that Kent no longer believed in anything at all. Nothing except now, and taking pleasure where he could find it without risking everything else he’d worked so hard for.

And he knew better this time. Alexei wasn’t in love with him. He knew Alexei was going to leave.

He almost didn’t realize how lost he’d gotten until he felt long fingers splay around the curve of his jaw, and he snapped back in to find Alexei looking at him in concern. “Kenny? If you are not-”

Surging up, Kent muffled the words before they could leave Alexei’s mouth, stealing them into his own. One hand looped around Alexei’s neck and the other wrapped around the thick, hot base of Alexei’s erection, saving it from flagging under the weight of Alexei’s worry that Kent wasn’t into this after all. “I’m fine,” he murmured, licking the remnants of Alexei’s startled groan from his lips. “Stop worrying and fuck me.”

The world tilted as Alexei tipped Kent back, big hands stripping away the last of Kent’s clothes and skimming lightly over the lines of Kent’s skin. Winding himself around Alexei’s long, solid body, Kent pushed away the maze of thought he’d been trapped in and gave himself up to the drift. He could think later.

Right now, there were lips whispering over the curve of his jaw, leaving shivery heat in their wake that made a high sound of want slip from his throat. Powerful thighs between his own, bracing his legs open so that their hips were pressed flush, the welcome weight resting in the cradle of Kent’s pelvis and their erections brushing against one another. Kent was leaking already, slicking the friction between them just enough that it was all pleasure and no chafing pulls, and Alexei was pinching tiny bites into the hollow where his pulse beat that wouldn’t bruise but would sting for days just like Kent fucking loved...

There was no earthly reason they should’ve been left alone. The GMs had been supportive because the PR boys had sounded all kinds of dire warnings about public backlash against the franchises if they hadn’t, and there’s nothing that GMs fear more than owners that start losing money from merch and ticket sales. But there were any number of the Aces that had to be set on their heels by the news that their captain was now gay-married to another team’s enforcer, and strategy boys that would want to meet with them to talk about public appearances and how to handle questions from reporters, and nosy neighbors that would assign someone to bake him a casserole or something so they could have an excuse to get into his house and see for themselves what was what. It shouldn’t have been this easy.

And yet, there were no ringing telephones as Alexei mapped Kent’s body with his fingertips, learning the curves and planes by touch alone. No insistent knocks at the door as his mouth followed the lines his fingers drew, worrying at the places where Kent was the most sensitive until he was arching up into the contact, formless pleas for more throbbing in the back of his throat. It was easier than it had any right to be: losing himself in the sensual spell Alexei was weaving, letting himself drift on the rushing endorphins that every soft pinch of teeth released into his blood.

The gentle kiss Alexei pressed to the very tip of Kent’s erection almost startled him, but those big hands had his hips… broad and warm and calloused in all the right places, exerting just enough pressure to keep Kent from bucking more than an inch… he whined a little as Alexei brushed another kiss across the slit, then ducked lower, his hair tickling at Kent’s thighs as tiny kisses fluttered along the base… lower still, until Kent was jerking in that powerful grip as Alexei was drawing his sac ever so carefully into his mouth with that sinful tongue.

Zimms hadn’t even sucked his balls before. No one had.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Lexei…” It was a groan dragged up from the soles of his feet even as they planted flat on the bed, his frame pushing up to give Alexei better access. The delicate pressure was more than enough to sent off hot lightning behind his eyelids; nevermind that one of Alexei’s thumbs had slipped into his cleft and was now circling the quivering pucker of muscle hidden there in a rhythm that was just light enough to be maddening.

By the time Alexei’s mouth left off in favor of dragging, wet and open, up the throbbing vein of Kent’s erection, Kent’s knuckles were white where they were fisted into the sheets, his breath ragged in his lungs as his eyes pried themselves open, trying to see what his unpredictable husband was doing. Objectively, Kent was sure that it was probably a terrible idea.

But then he wouldn’t have gotten to see what it looked like when Alexei Mashkov opened his mouth to take Kent halfway to the root in one go, his lust-hot eyes sliding closed in an expression that was almost enraptured.

It was the last thing Kent saw for what felt like an eternity. His consciousness narrowed down to the wet-hot suction that was his husband’s mouth, the almost-chafe of the calluses on his husband’s palm as it wrapped around the length that Alexei couldn’t take in, his grip almost as tight as a cock ring around Kent’s base. The way his tongue played around the sensitive ridge, flattening along the vein as he swallowed in time with Kent’s heartbeat. Kent wished he could slide his fingers up into the soft waves of Alexei’s hair, anchor himself in the way Alexei moved. But Jack had always hated that, and it would’ve been rude with anyone else. Maybe…? If he asked…?

And then it was gone, and Kent whined at the lost chance, eyes flying open to see Alexei’s lips, red and puffy, shining slick even as his tongue swiped across them reflexively. “Where is lube?”

Kent’s brain took a full ten seconds to reboot in the wake of that thick accent, turned hoarse and wrecked from having Kent half-buried in his throat. Another to wrench his body over away from the warmth of Alexei’s broad frame and scrabble at the drawer in his bedside table until his fingers found the familiar bottle. Alexei plucked it from his grip as Kent turned back over, but he barely had time for a soft chuckle at the label before Kent was looping a hand around his neck and dragging him in for a bruising kiss.

Tasting his own musk on Alexei’s lips left Kent more than a little drunk. Alexei’s answering kiss was just as fierce, his fingers fumbling with the bottle as Kent clambered up into the Russian’s lap. “We need to get tested,” he murmured into the space between their mouths, getting his fingers wet before Alexei could swat them away. “Make sure we can keep doing it like this.”

“Yes,” Alexei agreed easily. His lips found the underside of Kent’s jaw, teasing the hollow of his throat again and curving at the moans it drew out. “We have been risky enough.”

“Depends on the kinds of risks you like to take,” Kent taunted, his head tossing in challenge. He saw Alexei’s head come up, saw the almost dangerous flare in those umber eyes. The same one that had been there when Mashkov had picked him up by the scruff of the neck during that first game with the Falcs after Jack had signed on, when he’d scolded Kent for targeting the Falcs’ goalie.

Deliberately, Kent sank two slick fingers up into his own body at the moment their eyes locked, letting Alexei get a good, long look at his face as his head tipped back and mouth opened on a long moan. At how much Kent enjoyed opening himself up for Alexei’s use.

Those huge hands were cradling him, one bracing at the center of his spine as he bent into a perfect bow arch, the other wrapped around his thigh almost tight enough to bruise. Kent almost wanted to tell him to do it. To hurt him just that little bit. To mark him up, even if it would only be temporary. But he didn’t, because he couldn’t. They weren’t ready for that yet.

Kent wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready to ask for that. Not from a temporary husband.

Instead, he pulled his fingers free and got them even wetter, biting his lip on a gamine grin as three fingers slid in where two had been before. It burned so good, the stretch making him antsy for the thick heat that was tantalizingly close. He almost didn’t want to move; wanted to tease himself until he was right on the edge and it wouldn’t take more than a brush against his erection for him to go off like a rocket. He knew he could be beautiful when he came; everyone that had ever fucked him had said so…

One long, thick finger gliding up in along his own. Kent’s eyes flew open as a shocked sound came out of his mouth. His husband was watching him, eyes smoldering hot enough to scald Kent’s skin as he worked Kent wide right alongside Kent’s own fingers, and Kent could feel a blush crawl up the back of his neck for reasons he didn’t know how to name.

“Kak prekrasno.” It rumbled in Alexei’s throat like a caress, his free fingers wrapping around Kent’s wrist and drawing both of their hands out of Kent’s body. Kent whimpered, a tiny sound of want, before Alexei guided his hips into alignment, broad hands holding Kent in place as he rose up to sink into Kent in one long, deep push.

The moan that rolled out of Kent’s throat was all relief, his legs shifting to wrap around Alexei’s waist as he twisted to roll Kent down onto his back. Their mouths fused over and over as Alexei found a rhythm, surging into Kent like the tide and punching sounds out of Kent’s throat, a senseless litany of “yes” and “more” and “please” that Alexei both ignored and acceded to, building his cadence like an accelerating freight train until the bed was slamming against the wall with every thrust. He was so close… so close just from the friction of his arousal trapped between them and getting pounded deep and steady…

One of those huge hands snuck in between them, wrapping almost too tight around him and stroking once, and Kent was gone with a hoarse shout, hands digging into the corded muscles flexing as Alexei rode him through his orgasm and out the other side. Panting for breath, Kent slid both hands up into Alexei’s flow and dragged his head down for a deep, artless kiss, drinking in his husband’s groan as he finally gave in to his own climax, flooding into Kent as tremors raced under his skin.

They lay entwined like that for long, shaking moments: Alexei’s head hanging heavy on his shoulders, Kent’s legs sliding down off Alexei’s waist to tangle around his calves. Soft, reflexive kisses were brushed over each other’s sweat-dappled skin, and Kent couldn’t bear to open his eyes. He didn’t want to move. It had been too damned long since he’d had anything like this, and he’d been too damned young back then to savor it like he should’ve.

Finally, Alexei broke the quiet afterglow. “We will be glued together if we do not clean up, and that would make for awkward in locker rooms.”

Kent couldn’t help snickering at the image, especially when he imagined Jack’s reaction. “Yeah… better not push the GMs that much. You remember where the bathroom is?” At Alexei’s nod, Kent sighed and stretched, wishing he could linger just a while longer in the pleasant lassitude. The mess of bareback sex had never bothered him, but the cleanup required afterwards always killed his buzz just a little.

Pulling out carefully, Alexei kissed him once more, brief and sweet. “You change sheet; I find wet cloth.”

“Deal,” Kent agreed. It was an easy enough task, after all; he kept spare sheets in the storage totes under the bed. And mattress protectors were a gift from the gods to the sexually active.

And it gave him the leisure to watch Alexei’s bare ass flexing as he walked into the adjoining bath before he had to move. Which was a very nice view, indeed.

By the time Alexei had come back in, Kent was bent over the foot of the bed securing the last corner of the fitted sheet. A touch of damp warmth slid between his legs and Kent startled upright, only for Alexei to wrap an arm around him and tuck him back against that softly furred chest. “Is only me,” he reassured Kent, his voice low and soothing.

“I didn’t figure anyone else was going to just come along to clean the come off my ass,” Kent snarked, though there wasn’t as much heat in the comeback as he would’ve liked. “You just startled me, is all. Kit makes more noise than you do.”

“Should I wear collar with bell, then?” Alexei teased. His touch with the cloth was careful, gentle, as if Kent was something fragile that should be attended with care. Kent shivered at the image and Alexei grinned. “A leather collar, with tag that says: If lost, return to Kent Parson, Captain of Vegas Aces?”

“I didn’t think toppy bastards like you wore collars.” Kent was all but shivering in Alexei’s arms, despite the heat the larger man’s frame cloaked him in. “I thought you put the collars on other people.”

“Why should I not wear collar, if would make my husband happy?” Slowly, the hand bearing the cloth crept up and over Kent’s hip, wrapping around the erection that was gradually refilling. The soft friction of the cloth had Kent back at full mast in just a few lazy strokes, and he was gripping at the arm across his chest to keep himself upright as his knees threatened to give way beneath him. “If I am only to be married for short time, I must put in all the more effort. I’m not wanting my sokolnyshko to say later that I am not good at husbanding.”

Kent shuddered, the low rumble of Alexei’s silky voice washing heat down his spine and the hand stroking him spreading heat up from his gut, until it was all Kent could do to hold onto Alexei while he spilled in his husband’s hand, a long moan shaking out of his throat.

When the last blurts were cleaned away, Kent found himself being scooped right off his feet and settled into the bed. Alexei joined him seconds later, dragging the sheet up over them both and lying on his side beside Kent. One hand came to rest on Kent’s chest, just beneath his sternum, his eyes hovering on the edge of closed and a smile playing around his lips. “Does this feel more like honeymoon?”

Kent smiled, a rueful little laugh huffing out of him. Deciding to tell shame to fuck off, he inched closer until he was tucked into the curve of Alexei’s body, letting the bigger man’s arm drape completely across him in a half embrace. “Depends. Your fantasy honeymoon involve two days of naked Olympics or three?”

Alexei laughed and nuzzled the tender space below Kent’s ear. “That sounds like challenge, Kent Parson.”

That had Kent surging up, flattening Alexei onto his back so he could steal an artless kiss from those smiling lips. “Do you accept?”

Large hands took hold of his hips, bringing Kent atop his larger frame. The stirring of interest beneath his husband’s waist was answer enough, but one of those hands wove up into Kent’s hair and brought Kent’s mouth back down for another open kiss. The dominant gesture sent frissons of want threading through Kent that he hadn’t felt in years. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

_/~ooooOOOoooo~\_

Eric R. Bittle hated being afraid.

He hated the way it made him freeze up, the proverbial deer in the headlights. He hated the way it made people look at him: Jack and Coach, teachers and schoolmates, teammates and rink-mates and everyone in between.

Most of all, he hated how it reminded him that he was different, that he had reasons to be afraid. That violence and hatred and devaluation and dismissal weren’t just slim possibilities blown out of proportion by brain weasels, but probabilities that needed to be planned against. Being at Samwell, or at Jack’s house in Providence, made it all too easy to forget for a while that sooner or later he would need to face up to the realities of being a small-statured homosexual from the Deep South whose mother would not accept merely Skyping with her son for the rest of their lives. A mother that didn’t even know he was gay. Or dating a man. A man that was the son of one of her favorite hockey players ever. A man that had been his first everything, and that he hoped would also be his last and only.

Which was why he’d been clutching his phone in one hand since Jack had called him from the plane this morning, wishing he could pluck up the courage to turn it back on. He’d turned it off in something like panic, right before Chowder had come pounding up the stairs shouting for everyone to come down because “it” was all over the news. He knew Jack would be driving up from Providence as soon as he could, but Bitty wasn’t sure he wanted Jack to be around for the conversation he was going to have to have with his mother.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to have the conversation at all. He just knew that he needed to.

When Lardo finally got back from class and saw him sitting in practically the same position he’d been in since that morning, not even baking, the only warning he got was the short ‘hey’ she let out. Moments later, he was being hoisted into the air by Holster and Lardo was plucking his phone out of his nearly-numb fingers. “Hey!”

“You’re too upset about this to even care whether or not Jack’s trying to reach you,” Lardo informed him calmly as she turned the device on. “Love ya, Bitty, but I’m not letting you sit around paralyzed until you can hide under Jack’s abs.”

Bitty was blushing Samwell red as Holster set him down in a kitchen chair and Lardo handed him his now-active phone. There were quite a few voicemails and text messages racking up as the phone connected with the system and registered what had happened while it had been offline. “I just… I doubt she knows about the rumors about Jack an’ Kent from back in the day.”

“Those rumors are all over the gossip sites by now,” Ransom pointed out, coming to stand at Holster’s right elbow. “They might not be getting play on ‘news’ channels yet, but they will sooner or later.”

“And then she’s gonna start asking questions,” Holster chimed in. “About whether or not you know anything about it, and is Jack really gay, and you’re spending so much time with him now…”

“And you’re a shit liar,” Lardo piled on. “The longer you put this off, the harder it’ll be, too.”

Feeling almost eight years old again, Eric let his legs swing and bounce against the legs of the chair. “I don’t know what to say to her.”

“Same thing I said to my mom when I told her I’m going to live with Rans after graduation,” Holster told him gently. “That whether she accepts it or not, whether it changes how she sees me or not, I’m the same person she raised me to be. And that’s what’s supposed to be important in the end, instead of all the label bullshit people trump up so damned much.”

Eric looked up at them for another long moment. These friends, that he hadn’t expected. This team, that had folded him into their ranks and stood with him. This place, that had shown him that it was possible to have the kind of life he wanted to live.

They couldn’t replace his mother and father, or his childhood home, if it came to it. But they could help him survive the loss of those things, if it came to that.

Jack came through the door of the Haus, a heartbeat later, his head swiveling around and his mouth half-open to call Bitty’s name. Their eyes caught, and then Eric was up in his arms, legs wrapped around Jack’s waist and arms around Jack’s neck and Jack had him. Jack was shaking, breath barely controlled. His heart was hammering against Eric’s ribs and he kept making a soft sound that almost sounded like “merci Dieu”, except it was muffled into Eric’s shoulder and he couldn’t really be sure.

No one else said anything as Jack carried Eric up to his room and closed the door behind them. Stumbling to the bed, Jack finally got them down and horizontal and they just laid there, clinging to one another, Eric pushing his own fears aside as he carded his fingers through Jack’s hair and murmured reassurance to him while the afternoon shadows deepened across the room.

* * *

By the time Jack’s panic had finally subsided, it was dark outside the windows. Dex had been outside the door at some point, talking about getting them some kind of take-out because they needed to eat eventually, but Eric couldn’t really remember how long ago that had been and it hadn’t even registered on Jack.

“Honey?” Eric shifted from where he’d been lying across Jack’s chest, listening to the way his heartbeat has slowed to normal and his breathing was less frantic. “Did you drive straight from the airport?”

“Yeah.” One of Jack’s hands was on Eric’s back, the other dangling off the side of the bed across the pillows. He was staring up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, lost somewhere in his own mind.

It made Eric nervous when Jack was like this. Like he was too far away, and Eric too inexperienced to know how to find him or bring him back. “Are your meds in your bag, honey? I could go get them.”

Jack nodded even as his hand tightened against Eric’s back; a tacit sign that he didn’t want Eric to move. Eric’s muscles uncoiled and he relaxed against Jack’s chest again, his head turned so that he could see Jack’s face and his hand carefully smoothing against Jack’s ribs.

Another few minutes passed, and then Jack finally spoke again. “I can’t believe he did this.”

“Tater?”

“Kent.” The word was almost bitten out, the quietness of it making the anger in Jack’s voice that much more palpable. “It’s not like we didn’t know there were rumors, you know. People murmuring in my father’s ear, jealous teammates talking in stage-whispers. No one could prove anything; we worked hard to keep it that way.” He shook his head. “It’s all going to come back now. Someone from the Q is going to find their way to someone willing to pay for the story, and they don’t even have to know anything. A few embellishments and a dose of lies no one can prove are lies, and that’ll be the book on both of us. It’ll follow us everywhere we go for the rest of our lives.”

“I didn’t even know they were interested in each other,” Eric offered softly.

“Merde alors, what does that matter?” Jack snapped.

“Don’t you snap at me!” Bitty shot back. “My entire life could come down around my ears over this; I think I’m allowed to wonder how it happened!”

“And my career could come down around mine!” Jack sat up away from Bitty, glaring angrily in the dim light of the room. “Georgia’s only an assistant GM; just because she’s supportive of me being out to the team doesn’t mean we’re ready for this!”

Eric was poised on his knees, staring across the bed at Jack like he’d never seen him before. Slowly, his eyes narrowed and his face hardened. “I don’t imagine the Aces’ GM was exactly prepared for this, either.”

Jack’s eyes widened. “You’re taking his side?”

“I’m sayin’ at least y’all know you and Tater’ll have someone fightin’ your corner,” Eric replied, his drawl becoming more pronounced as his umbrage deepened. “But in case y’all need the reminder, some people involved in this mess don’ have a famous daddy who already knows y’all’r’n’t straight, or natural talent that impresses the Hell outta ev’ryone that sees him, or more money than Croesus to be startin’ over with. Some of us have more to lose than a chance to earn millions of dollars a year. Like relationships with our families.” He watched it bring Jack up short, though his outrage didn’t seem to be fading easily. “Do y’all even know if Kent was out to his family before now?”

“He never talked about that,” Jack told him. “He stayed with us after our first year in the Q, so his mother could go back to work in the States. It never came up; I assumed he told her.”

“Why?” Bitty challenged. “Not everyone can come out to their families, Jack. Not when they’re just teenagers; sometimes not ever. Did y’all even ask him about that after y’all found out? Or were y’all too busy chewing him out about messing up your big secret?”

“If you must know, I was angry with him about exposing you, too!” Jack pushed up off the bed, giving him an extra few inches even with Bitty on the bed. “I don’t understand why you’re suddenly defending him; he’s the one that got drunk and talked Tater into marrying him and-”

“And just how d’y’all know that?” Eric cut in. “Is that what they said happened?”

“I know Kenny.” Jack dismissed the argument with almost a sneer. “There’s no way this was Tater’s idea.”

“Apparently, y’all didn’t know him that well,” Eric shot back. “But then again, since the relationship always had an expiration date, maybe y’all didn’t think you needed to.”

Jack froze. His eyes widened, and Eric could see that it was a line too far, an accusation implicit in his tone that he hadn’t intended to make. But it was there, a fear unearthed that he couldn’t take back. That he was waiting for Jack to refute as they stared at one another.

Without a word, Jack turned and strode for the door. Eric was scrambling after him in a heartbeat. “Jack Laurent Zimmermann, don’t you walk away from me!”

“This was a mistake,” Jack muttered, opening the door. Eric stumbled to a halt behind him and he kept going, down the stairs and out of the Haus and into his car in long, ground-eating strides. He knew Eric was coming after him. Knew that there would be angry words and tears and apologies.

None of that mattered as he turned on the ignition and drove. He couldn’t drive all the way back to Providence; not with the way his vision was blurring and his fingers trembled. But he could check into the first motel off the highway, and take his meds, and try to block out the way it had sounded when Bitty of all people had made it sound like Jack had everything going for him, when he’d thought Eric was the one person who understood that it was the opposite.

All he had was hockey. It was the one thing he was good at. The thing he was made for. If he lost that, then he was nothing. Not even his own name.

Exhaustion and stress finally caught up with his medication, and Jack tumbled into a restive sleep, fraught with dreams of everything cracking apart like too-thin ice beneath his skates.

* * *

Sometime the next morning, Jack woke to the sound of his phone ringing insistently from where it was still lodged in the pocket of his jeans. Rolling out, feeling deeply sluggish, Jack managed to extricate his phone as Prince’s voice began to sing for possibly the third time in a row since he’d become conscious. “Shitty, what-”

“Not. Cool. Bro. Not cool at all. Do you have any idea how pissed Lardo is at you?”

“What are you talking about?” Jack asked blearily.

“You bailing on Bitty and making him cry last night. Lardo called me after she finally got Bitty to sleep, and bruh, if you thought you’ve seen her mad before, you’re in for a whole new world of fucked.”

Groaning, Jack dragged himself into the bathroom, set his phone down on the counter and set up the tiny coffee maker before splashing water on his face and gargling to rinse out his mouth. When he picked up the phone again, Shitty was still patiently waiting through all the background noise for Jack’s attention. “I’m assuming you saw the news.”

“Neanderthal hyper-chauvinist white privilege to do so if I chose aside, I do not, in fact, live under a rock. Where the fuck are you, man?”

“At a Marriott off the highway,” Jack replied. “I’ll be checking out and getting back on the road to Providence as soon as I get a shower.”

“Like fuck you will,” Shitty snapped. “You’re gonna keep that famous hockey ass put and call your therapist. Or so help me, Mother of God, I’m gonna come kidnap you so Lardo can kick your ass as hard as she wants.”

“Shits-”

“I mean it, Jack. You haven’t been that nasty to Bitty since his freshman year, from what they tell me. And that means your anxiety’s way outta whack. You take your meds yesterday?”

“Before I went to bed.”

“Good. Take ‘em today, get some goddamned breakfast at a Denny’s or something, and call your goddamned therapist. In that order. Call me when you’re done.”

The line disconnected. Jack stared at the phone as the screen went dark, momentarily rebelling against Shitty’s edicts. He was a grown man, and if he wanted to go home and get some rest and stay well clear of the paparazzi that had started following him since he’d signed with the Falconers and undoubtedly would start getting more aggressive in response to this stunt Kent had pulled, that was his right. And he needed the space. Needed time away from Bitty, who had somehow decided that he was going to side with Kent in all of this.

Except the press hadn’t followed him from the airport to Samwell. The only way they’d possibly even know he was here was if the hotel clerk posted something on social media about it. But no one was knocking on his door and the curtains were drawn, so he was relatively safe from prying eyes, at least for the moment.

So if he wanted space and time to himself, there wasn’t a much better alternative than right here in this room.

Barely conscious of having made the decision, Jack dug through his bag to find his tablet. There had to be someplace around here where he could grab breakfast, and if they had a delivery option through something like GrubHub or BeyondMenu, so much the better.

And he might call his therapist later. If he felt like he needed to. Shitty didn’t have any right to tell him what to do, no matter how close of a friend he was.

Even if he was the only true friend Jack felt like he’d made in his entire life.

* * *

It didn’t take long for him to be found, all things considered. After all, he’d used his real name and credit card to check in, and it was his car in the parking lot. Except it wasn’t social media exposing his whereabouts to the press. It wasn’t someone from the Falconers tracking him down; after all, his involvement with Kent in the Q had plausible deniability as far as the PR suits were concerned. The official line that had been decided on was: ‘Speculation on the possibility of persons who were not yet the age of majority engaging in sexual behavior is not only inappropriate, but it also has no relevance to Kent Parson’s current relationship with Alexei Mashkov. Beyond that, we have no comment.’

Ultimately, it wasn’t even Shitty that showed up at his motel room door. Despite having rung Jack several times since the morning after Jack had walked out on Bitty, Jack hadn’t taken his calls again. One day had turned into three, and Jack had made do with delivery and a few things that he could pick up at the local gas-station market. But when the knock finally came, it was the very last person he expected to see on the other side of the door, especially since he opened it without looking. “Papa?”

Bob walked into the room without further prompting, letting Jack close the door as he looked around the room before speaking. “Get your things together; your mother’s already on her way to your Providence house with the car. I want to have you checked out of here and be on the road behind her within the hour.”

“What are you doing here?” Jack asked, suspicion creeping into his tone. “Did Shits call you?”

If anything could possibly have made his father’s expression grow colder, that had done it. “No: Bedevere did not call me. And I won’t remind you again about using that sobriquet in polite company, Jacques. He might have no respect for his family, or himself, but c’est degoutant, comprends-tu? I raised you better.”

“Si tu le dis,” Jack muttered, moving towards the sofa where his travel bag lay, its contents half-spilled across the cushions from being rummaged through without care for the past few days.

Bob caught his arm, pulling him around to face the older version of himself. “Oui, je le dis,” he asserted, his eyes flashing at Jack’s insolence. “More than that, you have no idea what you’ve put your mother and I through these past few days: not answering your phone here or at the house. No one from les Fauconniers having any idea where you are; most of them not having seen you since you picked up your bags at the airport. And then, when we call Eric trying to find you, we discover that you walked out on him after a fight on the night you got in?”

“You had no right to call Eric.” Jack pulled his arm from his father’s grip, annoyed that it was just as tight as it had been controlling a stick for all those years. “And let me guess: after he couldn’t tell you where I was, you called the credit card company and found the hotel charge. Which you had no right to do either.”

“If you think for one moment that what you did before the draft means that your mother and I won’t move Heaven and Earth to find you if you disappear on us, mon fils, you had better think again.” Jack made a disgusted sound and turned his back on his father, shoving his belongings into his bag with careless, jerking movements. “Did you really think that what happened was something you could just put behind you and forget? That any of us could? When I told your mother that the desk clerk confirmed you’d just returned to your room an hour before we arrived, I thought she was going to burst into tears right then and there from relief.”

“Putain tout! I wasn’t trying to kill myself!” Jack spun on his father, rage fueling him now and not caring who might hear. “How many times will I need to tell you both is was un accident before you believe me?”

Bob’s expression never wavered. “And how long did you expect it would take us to believe that you’d never have another one? A month? A year? Even after two years away from everything, you still joined the university’s hockey team the moment you could get a tryout, determined to get scouted and have another shot at the NHL. Ton maman and I know what kind of life that is; hard enough to deal with when you don’t have a condition.”

Jack recoiled as if slapped, his eyes hardening to chips of ice. “I’m managing my condition. I have a good team behind me; they’ve just named me alternate captain. Next year, we’ll win the Cup; je le garantis.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Jacques,” Bob warned. “You are one member of an entire team, and being un captaine suppléant guarantees nothing when you are also one of the newest players in the club. You’re earning their trust; this is good. But other teams may play better next year, just as they did this season. It takes luck, skill and all things aligned juste comme ca to take the Cup; something I failed to teach you in all those years you watched me play.”

“Je suis aussi bon que toi!” Jack shot back. “Ce qui s'est passé au Q avant le brouillon ne se reproduira plus. Je suis trop vieux pour toi et Maman pour me dire comment vivre ma vie. Maintenant laissez-moi tranquille.”

“Non, mon fils,” Bob replied, his tone as cool as the ice they both called home. “Je ne te laisserai pas seul. Nous vous aimons trop pour vous laisser tomber à nouveau.”

Without meaning to, Jack’s fist, balled around the edge of a tee shirt, was flying at his father’s jaw. Bob deflected it, instinct from years on the ice kicking back in, and he wrapped his stunned son’s arm under his own and trapped it against his body, pulling jack in for a fierce hug as it sank in for Jack what he’d just done. “Je suis désolé,” Jack murmured, his voice trembling as his father kept him in a fierce embrace. “Je suis désolé, papa. Je ne voulais pas.”

“Je sais, Jacques,” Bob assured him quietly. “Je promets: tout ira bien.”

For a long moment, they stayed that way, as the full weight of everything that had happened sank in. Jack clung to his father for long moments, moisture squeezing from his eyes at the corners. “What am I going to do?” he asked finally.

“What we have always done,” Bob told him gently. “Whatever your mother and the publicist tell us to.” It earned him a laugh from Jack, and they were able to pull apart enough for Bob to pass his son a handkerchief. “Come; we’re going to get you checked out, and go to the Providence house, and decide what we’re going to do now that Kenny’s drawn so much attention to himself. And then you’re going to call ce beau garçon à toi and apologize properly for being such a beast to him.”

Jack nodded, hoping that Bitty would accept. He’d so easily forgiven Jack for the way Jack had treated him during Bitty’s first year on the team. Surely after that, this first real fight of their relationship could be easily mended. “Oui, Papa. Allons-y.”

Chapter Text

_/~ooooOOOoooo~\_

The longer Kent and Alexei lived together as husbands, the more Kent was astounded by how little he’d known about Zimms when they’d been together.

Actually, that wasn’t quite right. They’d been in each other’s pockets since their second year in the Q, when Kent had begged his mother to let him live with the Zimmermanns during the seasons and resisted going home in between. They’d worked out together, planned strategies on the ice together, watched competition tape together. Almost everything they’d done had been as one unit, and Kent had always seen Jack as the stronger half.

When the stress had become too much, and Kent had needed room to breathe away from Jack, he’d snuck out to whatever clubs would let him in and danced until his legs could barely hold him, or tucked into a corner to let the music wash away his thoughts and forget. It didn’t matter what kind of music they were playing, as long as it let everything that was Kent Parson, junior hockey star and Jack Zimmermann’s partner, fade into the background for a little while. When he’d come home, Zimms had never asked where he’d been, and Kent had never volunteered.

It hadn’t occurred to him until much, much later how… unformed they’d been then. How much of their senses of self had yet to develop, and wouldn’t until years after everything between them had fallen apart. Kent had no idea what Jack’s taste in music was now. What kind of car he drove, or what classes he’d taken while playing for Samwell. If Jack was still all-hockey-all-the-time, or if his horizons has broadened to other hobbies.

He’d wanted to spend forever with Zimms. It hadn’t occurred to him at the time that doing so would also mean spending forever with Jack. That there was a difference between the two. Or that it was even possible to be so madly in love with someone and not have any idea who they really were at all.

* * *

Plenty of clinics in the Vegas area offered both same day results and the kind of total discretion that celebrities needed over and above the standard privacies that came with federal law. A quiet trip to one on their third day of marriage had seen their results come back clean, which Kent had been privately relieved by. He hadn’t had any particular reason to believe that he’d contracted anything before or from Alexei, but there was something about the risk they’d taken in going bareback on what had apparently been their wedding night that had made Kent nervous anyway.

His husband’s parallel relief had been palpable. Especially the part where he’d expressed that relief by kissing Kent as soon as the front door was closed and not stopping until they were both so mindless from it that Kent had dragged his husband into the living room instead of trying to navigate up to the second floor.

After all, what good was earning millions of dollars a year playing professional sports if Kent didn’t occasionally give himself reason to spend it on having his leather upholstery professionally cleaned by fucking his husband on it until they were both cross-eyed?

* * *

Rather than watch the Playoffs, they’d decided to cross items off Alexei’s “Places To Visit In America” list, starting with the Grand Canyon. But when Kent had started looking into camping accommodations that he could buy their way into without a thirteen-month wait (especially given that he was sure this marriage wouldn’t still be a marriage in half that time), Alexei had surprised him by saying he’d be find with just joining a day tour. Camping apparently hadn’t been a thing during Alexei’s childhood, and the bigger man wasn’t keen to start in a place where poison-tailed arachnids could crawl into the tent or lodge while they slept.

Kent didn’t really have to be convinced on that score. One of the things he hated about living in the desert was all the lethal wildlife that you had to be on the look-out for. It also hadn’t taken much convincing for Alexei to let Kent drag him into a supply closet with a broken lock at the Visitor’s Center for a mutual hand-job. Not after he’d spent the entire trip taunting the bigger man about how they had to behave themselves in public and working himself up almost as badly in the process.

Neither of them knew a damned thing about boating, so the trip to cross the Hoover Dam off Alexei’s list was accompanied by a dinner cruise on the Desert Princess. Just like on the Grand Canyon tour, they’d both signed enough autographs that their hands threatened to cramp, but that didn’t stop Alexei from blowing Kent in the car when they finally made their exit and then driving them home.

Apparently, Alexei learned to drive in his grandfather’s ‘86 Moskvitch Aleko. Kent resolved afterwards that he was never letting Alexei behind the wheel of anything that had more horsepower than a station wagon ever again. At least not without putting him through three or four defensive driving courses.

They took a limo tour to Valley of Fire State Park, complete with top shelf liquor and a picnic lunch. The chauffeur wasn’t even phased by the fact that they kept the privacy window up during the drive to and from the park, especially since Alexei had challenged Kent that if he could stay completely quiet during any sexual hijinks they got up to during the tour, he’d rim Kent through at least two orgasms when they got home.

Kent didn’t like the way it had felt when his husband wore a condom so they could minimize any clean-up needed. He’d never had a problem with them before; hell, he would’ve been the NHL’s poster boy for safe sex if he’d had half a thought about coming out before his marriage to Alexei had done the job. He and Zimms had used them about half the time just for the sake of not having to worry about explaining the mess to Jack’s parents. But when his husband had slowly drawn Kent astride him, the feel of latex between them was at once so alien that it had almost wilted Kent’s own erection.

Almost. His husband had an absolutely filthy mouth, and between the dirty whispers in Kent’s ear and the way those huge hands had moved Kent’s hips, controlling the pace until Kent had nearly bitten his lips bloody to keep silent, his distaste for the condom was more than overridden.

Days turned into weeks. The front office boys on both teams dragged them in for meetings about how to handle the press, the public, social media. There were interviews for Sports Illustrated, Out, People, Us and half a dozen others. Their Twitter accounts, and Kent’s Instagram, were assigned temporarily to interns at their teams’ respective Public Relations firms and carefully monitored for hate messages that could signal threats to their safety, or to their teams for supporting them.

There were serious talks happening between the two teams as well; Kent wasn’t stupid enough to think there weren’t. Having a defenseman from one team married to a lineman from another; a lineman who was also that team’s captain; represented a potentially serious conflict of interest. Neither team wanted to let their player go to the other; neither team wanted to offer up a trade deal attractive enough to make the other consider letting their man go. It was only a matter of time before something gave: if Kent and Alexei didn’t finally decide they’d had enough fun and divorce before the contract deadline, somebody would need to ante up.

Except the longer they were together, the less Kent wanted their strange affair to end.

Alexei wasn’t a neat freak, but he took care of his share of household chores almost without needing to be asked. Laundry, groceries, dishes, trash… Kent had found his husband actually carefully cleaning Kit’s litter box on the morning of their third week as housemates, his handsome face serious as he bagged the waste, refilled the box, carried everything out to the cans on the curb for pickup and thoroughly washed before he touched anything else. When Kent had started to tell his husband that he didn’t expect Alexei to do things like that, given the temporary nature of their marriage, Alexei had simply kissed the words right out of his mouth and told Kent that he knew that already, but it had needed done and Kent had been sleeping too beautifully to disturb.

They hadn’t made it to the gym that morning as planned. They’d barely made it out of bed before lunch.

The sex was phenomenal. Kent couldn’t remember having this much sex ever in his life. Not even when he and Zimms had been insatiable teenagers and the rush that came with keeping their activities from being discovered by his parents, or anyone else, had only heightened the thrill of young lust. But as they got to the end of their first month together, Kent found that there were nights when it was just as easy to curl up against Alexei’s big, warm body after dinner and just relax with a movie. Necking sometimes turned into more, but just as often, Kent found himself growing mellow and heavy-eyed in his husband’s strong arms, and between one kiss and the next breath, he’d be asleep as soundly as he’d once slept beside Jack.

Alexei carried him to bed without fail when that happened. The first time, Kent had woken alone in the middle of the night to the sound of Kit’s trilling purr but nothing else. Confused, a little disoriented, Kent had slipped out of bed and padded out into the hall, finding Alexei in the guest room across from his.

It had felt wrong, somehow, that Alexei had decided to let Kent sleep alone just because they hadn’t fucked before bed. Before he could’ve examined that any further, Kent had pulled the light blankets Alexei’d been sleeping under aside and crawled in beside his husband, who’d woken instantly and rolled to face him. “Kenny?”

“You didn’t come to bed,” Kent had explained, sliding into Alexei’s arms and sighing almost in relief.

“I didn’t know if was okay,” Alexei had replied. His arms had closed around Kent all the same, tucking Kent into the safety of that embrace without hesitation. “We are knowing each other only a little while now.”

“Well, now you know,” Kent had informed him, not sure how snappish he’d sounded but also not really caring. “My husband can sleep in my bed any time he wants, even if we didn’t fuck first.”

Alexei had merely hummed, kissed the top of Kent’s head, and let them both drift back to sleep, barely aware of Kit’s weight landing on the pillow beside Kent’s head.

* * *

In retrospect, Kent should’ve realized that moment as a sign that he was in over his head. But denial was an easy river to swim up when daily life between them was so good.

Alexei was a foodie, and Kent found himself going out to eat far more often than usual just because there was some new or interesting place that Alexei wanted to try. Kent wasn’t an especially brilliant cook; he’d managed to keep from poisoning himself, but his skills weren’t anything special. Alexei, as it turned out, also loved cooking, and was a much fairer hand at it than Kent had ever been. His nutritionist had never complained, but Kent was pretty sure he hadn’t eaten this well since he’d lived with the Zimmermanns.

Kent had always loved music, from the 60s and 70s classics his mother had played for them growing up to the pop royalty of the 80s and 90s; heavy metal and alternative rock; power ballads and anthems to excite the crowd. He’d even gone through a Toni Braxton phase in the wake of losing Zimms, and loved Celine almost as much as he did Britney. Alexei had a distinct fondness for 80s rock, and owned every album of an obscure Russian rock band called Gorky Park that was available, even those not released in the U.S. He also had an absolute passion for Sisters of Mercy, Depeche Mode and, strangely enough, Concrete Blonde.

Alexei wasn’t exactly a club creature, but he didn’t object when Kent decided that they’d been careful enough about their public personas and dragged him out dancing. Kent was enough of a fixture on the scene, especially during the off-season, that half the bookies in the city were probably running odds on which club the happy couple would eventually grace with their presence, with the added bonus of plenty of paparazzi waiting to see how much of a stir they could cause when he and Alexei hit the velvet rope line.

Kent was better at this part than they were, though. And there were perks to having once agreed to a threesome with one of the most desireable power couples to ever grace the LGBT club circuit. Such as getting use of the VIP entrance with one phone call, and knowing that security at Babylon: Vegas was under strict orders to keep anything resembling a camera out of the club.

If Kent hadn’t known better, he might’ve thought Brian had been hanging around Vegas for the past four weeks on other business, or because he actually liked the city. But he did know better. Brian Kinney knew the value of bragging rights, pictures or no pictures, and Babylon: Vegas being the venue where the Parson-Mashkovs made their club debut wasn’t something he’d risk missing out on because of something as petty as time zones. Kent could hear the smug satisfaction in Brian’s voice when he’d assured Kent that all the usual arrangements would be in place.

“What I should be wearing?” Alexei called to Kent, who was putting the finishing touches to his hair in the bathroom.

“Babylon’s dress code isn’t a strict as some places’,” Kent called back, checking himself one last time before stepping into the bedroom. His husband was standing there in a pair of jeans that clung to his body in a way that made Kent’s mouth water, three shirts dangling from one hand as he pawed through the drawer Kent had emptied out for him with the other. “Mostly because Brian’s more interested in how hot the guys look in what they’re wearing than what they’re actually wearing.”

“You are knowing club owner personally?” The question was mild as milk even as Alexei kept sifting through his options, his shoulders just a bit tighter than they’d been a second ago.

It drew Kent over; he reached up and pressed on Alexei’s shoulder until his husband turned to look at him, those big brown eyes serious and curious. “I fucked him,” Kent answered, not sure how the blunt honesty would be taken and trying to not care. “Threesome with him and his lover after the 40th birthday party they threw for him at the club.”

Alexei didn’t respond. His expression never changed. It unnerved Kent that he was completely unable to read Alexei’s non-reaction to that information. Because on the one hand, why should it matter? They hadn’t been in a relationship before this impromptu marriage that they were pretending was real for a while happened, and for all he knew Mashkov had worked his way through entire Olympic teams. Nobody had any right to judge Kent on how he chose to repair what Jack had broken and he wasn’t going to stand there while his fake husband looked at him like-

Without warning, Kent was up in the air, his backside landing on the dresser top with just enough of a drop to be felt. The yelp of surprised discomfort he let out was cut off by Alexei’s mouth, the larger man stepping between Kent’s knees and bending him back until the back of his head was against the wall and both of Alexei’s hands were framing his face, the full weight of his husband keeping him right where Alexei wanted him and making it impossible to get up.

Except he didn’t want up. Kent opened under the kiss like it was oxygen after being trapped underwater, his legs wrapping around Alexei’s waist and one hand winding up into Alexei’s hair while the other slid around those impossible shoulders… shoulders that could hold up the entire world…

When Alexei let him out of the kiss, Kent’s eyes fluttered open to find his husband gazing down at him, something hot and mildly possessive flickering in those deep brown eyes. “I do not judge,” Alexei told him. Kent’s eyes widened as he realized that at least part of what he’d been thinking had been coming out of his mouth at the same time, but Alexei didn’t give him time to ask. “I only want to know. Maybe make this man jealous a little, that tonight you come home with me and not him. It is something any man would be proud of, that Kent Parson would ask him into his bed even for a night.”

Kent’s breath was shallow. Disbelief tugged in his chest as he stared up at his husband. This man who took him apart so skillfully that Kent felt cracked open and exposed by a single kiss. Who said things like that without any way to know how much they made Kent want this fake relationship to last forever.

“Wear the brown one,” Kent finally managed. “The one with dirty joke in Cyrillic.”

Alexei’s eyebrows went up. “How you are knowing is dirty joke?”

“You said your younger sister gave it to you,” Kent explained with a shrug. “I have one of those. I know their ways. Besides: even if it’s not dirty, it fits you like it was spray-painted on. Shows off all those hockey muscles.”

Chuckling, Alexei brushed another swift kiss to Kent’s lips and bent to retrieve it and shrug it on. Kent told himself that it was absolutely taking the moment to ogle his husband that kept him where Alexei had put him. He certainly wasn’t waiting for those strong, calluses hands to pick him off the dresser and set him on his feet. For his husband to make sure he was steady before they headed for the door.

He was absolutely not letting himself get that deep again. Not when this time he knew about the expiration date.

* * *

Music hit Kent like a wave.

From the moment they entered Babylon, the VIP concierge escorting them to their private alcove, Kent’s limbs were looser. The way the smell of alcohol and sweat and pheromones hit his lungs was what he’d heard other people describe when they talked about taking a drag off a pipe. The most potent drug he could imagine outside the rink. There was bottle service, of course, but that wasn’t what Kent wanted right now.

The shimmering beats washed over him, and Kent was only barely aware of Alexei following him as he let himself melt into the crowd. Let the rhythm soak into his bones and his blood. His body moving with no intention, no strategy. Only freedom.

He could feel the eyes on him. The way bodies gravitated into orbit around his, hands skirting his flesh but never quite landing. If they recognized him as Kent Parson, NHL franchise star, they never said. Here, he didn’t have to be anything else to be wanted. Here, he was merely beautiful.

Except that the press of euphoria and arousal around him was no longer surrounding only one body. There were hands on his hips, a broad, bare chest at his back. A body framing his as it learned his rhythm and began to match it. Kent turned, his eyes finding Alexei’s as those strong arms draped across his shoulders and followed his lead, the catcalls of appreciative onlookers dim as one of Kent’s hands found that bare waist and latched on, his husband’s skin already slick with sweat under his palm.

He didn’t remember the first time his lips made contact with Alexei’s skin, salt and desire exploding on his tongue as it dragged along the line of his bicep.

He couldn’t keep track of the way those broad hands roamed possessively over his body as they moved, warding against the touch of anyone else that the crush of dancers might press into their space.

He didn’t even know how long they stayed there on the dance floor, moving and grinding and nipping at each other’s skin like wolves at play.

One pinching bite, stinging just a little harder than normal as it sunk into the tender junction where his shoulder met his neck. Why it was the tipping point, Kent couldn’t be sure. And yet it had him spinning in Alexei’s arms, his movements still loose-limbed even as they became more purposeful, until they were off the floor and through the crowd and up on the catwalk that led to their VIP alcove, and Kent was shoving Alexei down and not caring about drawing the privacy curtain as he stripped off his shirt in one motion.

Even now, Alexei was right there with him, arms wrapped around Kent’s body and teeth sinking into one of Kent’s nipples just enough to hurt. Just enough to draw out a moan while Kent’s hands fumbled for the button of Alexei’s jeans. The alcoves were shadowed, light strobing and flickering from the main dance floor but not strong enough to do more than catch the edges of a shape.

It was still stupid. They could still be seen. Anyone in this club could send social media into a frenzy by tweeting about it later.

Kent didn’t care.

“Fuck me.” It felt desperate. Hungry. Gasped out against Alexei’s lips as Kent straddled him on the deep, plush cushions of their couch. Alexei responded by biting at Kent’s other nipple, drawing another choked cry from his throat that was lost in the sound of the pulsing electronica radiating from the speakers suspended all around them.

“Fuck me.” It was an invitation he didn’t need to repeat. Alexei wasn’t arguing with him. Was right on board, in fact, helping Kent get his jeans and boxer briefs down past the swell of his ass by arching his hips. The fact that he could do so with Kent’s weight grinding in his lap at the same time made Kent feel dizzy, muzzy, drunk on endorphins and needs he couldn’t explain.

“Fuck me.” He wanted to get that beautiful erection in his mouth, to feel it press against the opening of his throat and make him gag. He wanted to learn how to stop doing that, just for the pleasure of being able to deep throat someone for the first time in his life. But not here. Not now. Maybe not ever. Time was sifting through the hourglass and he needed to feel it… to remember…

“Turn around.” Alexei’s voice was rough, wrecked, barely more than a growl against the music below. Kent was barely able to scramble far enough back so that his legs wouldn’t get tangled with Alexei’s before those hands were on his hips, unfastening Kent’s pants. A rush of air met Kent’s skin and the sensation shot straight up his spine, driving a shudder through his limbs.

One of those huge hands stroked up his back, tracing the path of that shiver all the way up to his neck. Kent had a split second to wish before those long, talented fingers wrapped around the nape of Kent’s neck from behind while the other found the complimentary single-use lube tubes in a basket on the table.

“Still for me, sokolnyshko.” It was an order. Kent shuddered again, helpless and hungry as the strength of that grip left him long enough to get the lube open and slicked along his husband’s length. He could be still. He didn’t want to be still. He wanted…

There. Right there. Everything in Kent seemed to coil like a spring in anticipation as heavy hands framed his hips, only to roll over in welcome in the next instant. He wanted to push back and down, the ache inside him greedy, insistent. Those hands wouldn’t let him, held him when he tried, let him come down to rest flush against Alexei’s lap only at the pace they set.

Something inside Kent unfurled in the wake of that measured control. A piece of himself that he’d thought too atrophied from lack of care to ever be felt again.

“Fuck me.” It was a breath now. A plea and a demand and, somewhere at its heart, a question.

“I’m thinking you are needing to do the work in this position, moy zhestokiy sokolnyshko.” There was an order beneath the amusement. Steel beneath the velvet glove as the knees between his own settled a little wider apart, giving him a better position to brace his weight.

His palms curved over his husband’s denim-clad knees as Kent’s legs tucked up along Alexei’s flanks. It was slow, maddeningly slow; Kent couldn’t build up any momentum without nearly losing his precarious balance, his husband’s wide, strong palms at his hips the only reason he was sure he wouldn’t just topple off if he moved wrong. But it was deep, and a little experimentation found the right angle and then moving even a few inches was lighting the inside of his eyelids on fire, and those hands held him the entire time.

It was enough to make Kent whine high in his throat, pleading for more. For hard and deep and fast and everything he knew Alexei could give him. For him to start squeezing just a little harder as he bottomed out, dragging Russian oaths from his husband’s throat that Kent could barely make out for all the gravelled harshness in his voice. He could make Alexei need it as badly as he did. Kent was sure of it. It would only take just a little more…

A tight, rocking motion as he landed against Alexei’s hips, and then he was spinning, bent over the back of the couch and knees buried in the cushions as Alexei took over, grip biting into Kent’s hips as he gave Kent what he’d asked… what they both needed… higher and higher until all Kent could feel was the rhythm of Alexei inside him and the driving bass of the music and he could just close his eyes and let go…

Alexei came with a groan, his teeth sinking into the muscle just above Kent’s right shoulder blade. It startled Kent’s orgasm out of him, a soft cry choking in his throat as he shuddered under his husband’s weight.

Slow again. Slow and careful. There were sanitary wipes nearby, too, apparently; trust a man as unapologetically lustful as Brian Kinney to ensure that the VIP areas were stocked with everything one might need to have semi-public sex safely. Alexei kept one hand on Kent’s hip as he cleaned them both and rearranged their clothes, and then Kent was being drawn down into those arms as Alexei reclined on a clean area of the couch. Back to chest, solid and warm and safe, and Alexei was urging a bottle of water to Kent’s lips with a soft encouragement.

They stayed that way for so long that Kent almost fell asleep. Alexei could feel his body going slack and nudged Kent’s shoulder with his nose. “We should be going, sokolnyshko. Our bed is much more comfortable than this.”

Kent didn’t protest. Only stood and led Alexei back down the way they’d come in, smiling at those still dancing and knowing that they could tell what he and Alexei had done. The concierge had called an Uber for them by the time they’d reached the VIP entrance, having sighted them exiting the main dance floor.

It was nearly three in the morning by the time they arrived home. Kit greeted them at the door with loud scolding howls, lasting just long enough for Kent to pick her up and let her wind around his shoulders. He almost missed the fond smile Alexei gave at the sight as he locked up and set the alarm, following Kent upstairs to their bedroom.

Both of them were asleep almost as soon as they were tucked into the bed. But not before Kent had found his way back into Alexei’s arms.

* * *

By the time Kent woke the next morning, Alexei was already up. There was a note on the pillow beside him, admonishing Kent to stay in bed because Alexei would be back shortly with breakfast. Kent could smell the coffee, and what were possibly multi-grain pumpkin waffles, if he remembered the current contents of his kitchen correctly.

Sitting up slowly, Kent moved from the bed and was surprised to find that he was wobbly. A glass of water was on the bedside table, as was a clean pair of boxers.

Alexei was getting to know him… unexpectedly well. Kent wasn’t quite sure he knew what to do about that.

Or about the way his heart fluttered dangerously in his chest at the sight of fingerprint bruises wrapped around his hips revealed when he stripped away the previous night’s underwear. The way it raced when he touched one and felt the ache spread through his skin, and stumbled when Alexei came in with the breakfast tray and smiled warmly in greeting, like Kent was the best thing he’d see all day.

Kent didn’t know what to do about it, but he knew what it was. It was a sign that he needed to end this marriage, and fast, while he still had a prayer of being able to put himself back together in the aftermath.

After all, he’d never been particularly good at losing the men he loved.

Chapter Text

_/~ooooOOOoooo~\_

While his father was driving him back to Providence, Jack sent Bitty a text: [Please come to Providence. We should talk.]

Bitty’s response was a .gif of Beyoncé saying ‘Nope’.

That was fair, Jack supposed. Bitty had been angry, no doubt was moreso over Jack walking out of the Haus instead of resolving the fight then and there. He probably needed some extra time to cool off before they talked, which was fine. Bitty’s emotions were closer to the edge of his skin than Jack’s were. Jack could wait it out.

* * *

He tried again a few days later: [I shouldn’t have walked out. If you come down this weekend, I can apologize in person.]

Another .gif: Beyoncé shaking her head and wagging a finger in denial.

Jack’s heart rate picked up even as his teeth gritted in frustration. Bob sent him to the gym to work it off.

* * *

For two more weeks, it went on like that. Bitty was absent from the SMH group texts, and every private text Jack sent was replied to with either clipped demurs about final projects and studying or more .gifs of Bitty’s favorite singer. Even trying to call was met with canned ‘can I call you later’ text responses which were never followed up on, or Jack leaving voicemails that elicited no response. And Bitty’s Skype profile showed ‘offline’ perpetually.

The rest of the team wasn’t much help, either, especially since they had their own classes to deal with and Lardo, Holster and Ransom were all moving towards graduation on top of everything else. He couldn’t blame them for not wanting to get in the middle of his relationship with Bitty, but it wasn’t helping the mounting resentment that Bitty was refusing to give him a chance to make amends.

Or the fear that he didn’t want to acknowledge buried underneath it: that Bitty wasn’t going to give him that chance at all.

The worst part of it all was that he didn’t have Bitty to even talk to as he spent hours with the Falconers’ public relations firm and his family’s publicist, going over exactly how to handle questions if he was asked outright about his sexuality or his former relationship with Kent. Pictures of Kent and Tater’s outings as a married couple were splashed across social media and entertainment news on the daily, and Jack refused to consider whether it was morbid curiosity or jealousy that always had him clicking them open before he could talk himself out of it.

Kent had always been beautiful. Deadly grace on the ice, so easy to move with and around. Deceptive strength in sculpted muscles, so easy to underestimate. Stormcloud eyes that seemed gray, but whose true color shifted along with his mood: going from so pale as to be almost silver white in the glaring frost-light of a rink to a deep violet when he was aroused to almost black in his most dangerous furies.

Hunger for his absent boyfriend threw every similarity between Bitty and Kent into sharp relief: the compact build that made them seem fragile when they were anything but; the spun gold of their hair, Kent’s flaxen to Eric’s autumn wheat, shining in the sunlight. The way they lit up from inside when they smiled, and especially when they laughed. The way physical affection came so easily to them both when they were relaxed and in the presence of those who welcomed their almost absent-minded touches.

It was so plain in the pictures of Kent and Alexei together that they were enjoying each other, and the freedom to be open about their liaison that having been outed by TMZ afforded them. Jack remembered that curve of Kent’s mouth, soft and just gently turned up at one corner, all too well. That had once been an expression worn only for him.

Bitty’s smile was even softer, his lips curving equally instead of in a lopsided line, his chocolate brown eyes so much warmer than Kent’s had ever seemed. Kent had always been watching him, but there had always been such a quiet calculation in even the tenderest gazes. Always a keen assessment, searching for a vulnerability, a weakness. Jack had never felt the need to ask what Kent had been watching for. Everyone in the Q had hoped to see a chink in his armor, a way to knock him from his number-one status and become the must-have player of the draft. Even his lover had still also been his competition.

It had never been that way with Bitty. Even from the first days, when he’d seemed nothing but a liability for the team that would drag down any possibility that a scout would attend a Samwell game and give Jack a window to get back the chance he’d lost to pills and panic, Eric hadn’t been the same kind of threat that Kent had been. He hadn’t been someone that had made Jack feel like he had to watch his back and guard every word. He’d just been one more person compensate for so that Jack could keep the focus of their games on himself.

And yet somehow, somewhere along the way, Eric’s determination to be a valued member of the team had made his imperturbable good cheer less grating and more contagious. Somehow, when Jack hadn’t been looking, sometime between the four AM checking practices and the cookies in his gear bag, Eric had become someone he could depend on. Not like Shitty, who could steal focus away from him when he needed to vanish because everything had become too much. Who could divert the team from asking questions when Jack needed to be alone after the games they lost to get his anxiety under control, because there was a difference between motivating your team to do better and screaming at them because they could’ve just ruined his chances to get where they had never had any hope of going.

Without his even realizing it, Eric had become someone that Jack could always count on for a smile that actually made Jack smile back. For a chirp that was somehow sweet no matter how close the bite just when he needed to feel like he belonged, no matter how hard he’d worked to keep a certain amount of distance between himself and the rest of the Haus. Back in the Q, he and Kent had been like binary stars: inextricably bound, forever spinning around each other, only able to break from one another because of a cataclysmic event. Eric didn’t want to be another star alongside Jack. He was content to be the moon: shining just as brightly, but only when Jack’s sun wasn’t in the sky.

Had it been the way Eric had doggedly hung in there, through check after check in practices so early in the morning that it had made Jack’s bones ache to wake for them, that it had become more? The way he’d touched Jack during Hazepalooza, all concern and comfort as Jack had shivered everywhere but where Bitty’s hands had rested against his skin? Or had it been later, blossoming in the face of home-baked cookies and watered by the way his body had seemed to fit so naturally beside Jack’s without feeling intrusive?

No. If Jack had to pinpoint when his feelings had changed, it had to ultimately trace back to the night when he’d seen them side-by side.

Kent’s presence at the 2014 EpiKegster had hit Jack like a shockwave, doubly so because things had been rubbing along so nicely up to that point with Bitty there at the party beside him. There had been a stirring of something as they’d been talking, in the way Bitty’s body had been curving towards his… his face just close enough that, for just a moment, Jack could remember thinking that all he’d have had to do was turn his face after Bitty snapped the selfie and his mouth would’ve been right there…

Kent’s voice had shattered the fragile moment, and Jack had vanished while Kent was being mobbed by the other partygoers for selfies and autographs. Kent had found him; of course Kent had found him. His room in the Haus hadn’t changed after the first time Kent had visited him at Samwell, and it wasn’t like Kent to forget.

And Bitty worrying about how he’d been faring after his confrontation with Kent wasn’t so remarkable, perhaps. Bitty had cared about him, and everything large or small that affected not just Jack but the entire team, since he’d arrived at Samwell. No, what had been remarkable was that Bitty had not only seen Kent leaving Jack’s room, but he’d obviously heard at least part of the confrontation. Judging by the look on his face when Kent had opened Jack’s door to leave, Eric had most likely heard enough to have drawn quite a few conclusions without any help from the Hockey Historians living in the attic.

What had been so remarkable was that he’d kept Jack’s secrets, but he also hadn’t pried like Shitty had after Kent had come the first time. He’d alluded to it, primed the pump, but he hadn’t pressed for more than Jack had been willing to give. Hadn’t used the information he’d overheard as the thin edge of the wedge, or gone digging for information that he could use to leverage Jack somehow.

The implicit accusation in Bitty’s tone as he’d thrown Jack’s own words back at him during their fight kept resurfacing, and Jack, left to his own devices by Bitty’s silence, was coming to the uncomfortable realization that what Bitty had overheard wasn’t a wedge after all, but a double-edged sword. He’d carried around a fear that Jack hadn’t even noticed all this time: a fear that one day it would be over between them for the sake of Jack’s career, and that the truth of what had been between them would be a secret, just as the truth of what he and Kent once were had been for nearly a decade.

What Eric didn’t seem to understand was that Kent had never seen Jack cry over a loss. Jack had never let Kent see that much weakness in him, for fear that it would be used against him. Bitty had proven that he could be trusted, which was why Jack had let Bitty comfort him after they’d lost the Frozen Four. And Jack hadn’t loved Kent. The only lover that he’d ever actually loved, that he’d ever said those words to, was Bitty.

Well, there was only one way to fix Bitty’s fear. And if Bitty wasn’t going to come to Providence… well, he’d been intending to go to the Samwell graduation anyway.

* * *

Jack had absolutely no idea how he’d done it, but Eric had managed to completely avoid saying more than three words to him at a time since Jack had arrived for Ransom, Holster and Lardo’s final breakfast at Annie’s on graduation morning.

Granted, there were plenty of people that were running interference, intentional or otherwise. And Eric had taken it upon himself to coordinate dibs and host the farewell party at the Haus after the ceremony, generally keeping far too busy for Jack to effectively corner him.

But Jack could also see the quiet glances that the team kept passing: from him to Eric and back again. Silent exchanges that were almost shouting entire volumes in Jack’s peripheral vision, and Jack’s pulse kept rocketing in his veins.

He’s decided to break it off, Jack’s mind kept whispering. They all know it and they’re all trying to keep you from making a fool of yourself, chasing someone that doesn’t want you anymore. They can all see you for what you are: a hockey robot with no real human emotions, who broke the heart of someone who lives with it on his sleeve for all to see. Why else would someone who told you he loves you suddenly refuse to speak to you?

Finally, everyone started drifting their separate ways. Graduates kissed and hugged and cried and promised to stay in touch with those that would be returning in the fall. Parents and siblings and significant others gathered graduates and returning students alike, finally bundling them off towards dinners or to start journeys back home. The Haus had gone from bustling and boisterous to echoing and empty, with Bitty standing in the kitchen working on the mountain of dishes left by the party-goers and packaging up the few leftovers that remained to freeze for Dex, who would be returning in a week for the summer session.

Jack took a breath. He saw Eric’s shoulders tense as the slight sound reached his ears, but there was nothing left to interrupt them now… just as there hadn’t been a year ago, when he’d kissed Eric for the first time. “Need me to dry?”

“Sure.” The reply was forced lightness, careful cheer. Jack decided at once that he hated the sound. “The towels are in that cupboard now,” Bitty added, gesturing to the one he meant.

They worked in silence for several minutes, falling into a rhythm while the awkwardness of everything they weren’t saying to each other grew like kudzu vine. Eric had made that analogy to him once, and when Jack had been confused, he’d shown Jack a video of exactly how fast the plant could overtake anything and everything in its path. When the last plate had been dried and put away, Jack turned to find Bitty walking out of the kitchen and up the stairs. “Eric?”

“I’m not having this conversation in that kitchen, Jack,” Bitty told him from halfway up the stairs. He wasn’t looking Jack’s direction, and there was an implacable tone in his voice that Jack didn’t dare argue with. “Lock up the front and come upstairs.”

It didn’t even occur to Jack to do otherwise. It was obvious when he got upstairs that Bitty was packed and ready to go, leaving only what he wouldn’t need until senior year behind. Bitty was sitting at his desk chair, toying absently with the web camera he used to make his baking videos. “Bits, I’m sorry,” Jack opened. “I’ve been trying to tell you for weeks now-”

“I know you have,” Eric interrupted, still without looking at Jack. “And I’m sorry, too. You were already upset and I reacted to the way you were reacting. Ransom and Holster helped me understand; Holster especially, since he had to learn what it looked like when Ransom’s anxiety was driving instead of Ransom.”

Something in Jack went hot, then cold, at the idea of Bitty discussing his anxiety with anyone else… even people like Ransom and Holster, who weren’t pursuing careers in hockey or sportscasting. He clamped down on the reaction almost as soon as it happened, forcing himself to remember that they’d known about it long before Bitty had. “I’m glad they helped,” he made himself say, though the words felt sharp on his tongue. “This thing with Kent and Tater just had me all turned upside down, Bits. You understand that, right?”

Bitty nodded. “Yeah, I do.” He finally looked up, meeting Jack’s eyes just as relief had been starting to pour through him. The finality in that dark brown gaze turned his blood to ice. “But that doesn’t make what happened okay.”

Jack’s breath felt trapped in his lungs. “Bits-”

“I’ve been tryin’ for a month to figure out how to say this,” Bitty went on, his body turning the chair until he was fully facing Jack where he sat on the bed beside Bitty’s suitcase. For once, Bitty didn’t look young and vulnerable. He looked… resolved. “I love you, Jack Zimmermann; I have for a while now, and I don’t imagine that’s stopping anytime soon.”

“Alors, Bits, I love you, too-”

“But it’s too easy for me to get lost in you.” Pushing against the desk with one hand, the chair rolled closer, the distance between them closed at their knees. “I’m not like Kent, Jack. When things between y’all fell apart, he had his career all set up because he was just a half-step behind you in the Q. I’m in this school because I earned a hockey scholarship, but we both know that I won’t be playing after graduation unless it’s a local team playing pick-up games. And that’s fine; I never even pretended that it’d be any different… but that also means I need a plan for after graduation. And it can’t be one that depends on my bein’ your WAG.”

“Eric, stop.” Jack reached across the space between them, tangling Bitty’s hands in his own. “You don’t have to worry; what you said before… about the expiration date that things between Kent and I had… what we have is so different. I never loved Kent; I cared about him, but he was my competition as much as he was my partner, in bed and on the ice. It wasn’t a relationship that was built to last and we both knew that; I don’t know why Kent didn’t let go of it before now-”

“I know.” Bitty smiled up at him, a hint of wistfulness in it. A melancholy that had Jack’s pulse skittering even more erratically. “And that’s the problem, in the end. You couldn’t see it: not then, when it was right in front of you. Not two years ago, when he came here to put everything on the table. I didn’t really see it either at the time, especially not with how nasty he was to you when he left. But I understand now what you meant when you said you both owed each other apologies… somehow even more than you do.”

Jack shook his head, his face screwing up in confusion. “Bitty, Kent came here trying to offer me a pity spot on his team; a chance to play together again. That’s all it really was; everything else he said was just him trying to convince me to say yes.”

Bitty shook his head right back. “He loved you, silly.”

The words hit Jack like a slap. Bitty squeezed Jack’s hands where they gripped his own, nodding almost to himself. “He couldn’t have,” Jack croaked, knowing even as he denied it that Bitty hadn’t come to the wrong conclusion. That the clues had been in front of him all along, and he hadn’t put them together. “That isn’t how things were between us.”

“Maybe not for you, but that’s how they were for him.” Releasing Jack’s hands at the sound of an alarm, Bitty stood up from his desk chair and let it roll away from him as he dug his phone from his pocket and shut it off. “My shuttle should be here any minute.”

“Shuttle?” Jack tried to shake off the fog that Bitty’s revelation about Kent had left him in. “Bits, what-?”

“I’ve got a flight back to Georgia,” Bitty explained, lifting the suitcase off the bed beside Jack and extending the telescoping handle. “Everything in the news about Kent an’ Tater… Mama started asking questions. I managed to put her off most of ‘em because of finals and games and the like, but it’s time for the hens to come to roost, I think.”

“You don’t have to,” Jack told him, hoping the words didn’t sound as desperate as they felt. “You can come stay with me in Providence. It’ll be okay; you can work things out with your family, or we can come up with something to tell them if you don’t want to come out… and I’ll prove to you that we… we’re not like Kent and I… Bitty, please…”

Stepping between Jack’s knees, Bitty reached up and framed Jack’s face in both of his hands before leaning close and letting their mouths seal together. At once, Jack’s hands came up to brace the length of Bitty’s spine, pulling him in closer. Kissing Bitty was always so lovely… there was so much tenderness in him, in the way he touched Jack… like this thing between them was something Jack couldn’t botch…

But then the kiss was ending, and Jack’s eyes opened to see Bitty looking at him with a kindness that cut like a knife. “I can’t be just another boy whose heart you broke,” Eric told him softly. Jack opened his mouth to protest and Bitty’s fingers slid to cover his lips. “The only thing you’ve ever wanted that you saw clearly was hockey, Jack. Everything else, you can’t see until it’s too late… or almost, at any rate.”

“That’s not true,” Jack argued from behind those fingers, reaching up to draw them away.

“You tell me then: would you have come and kissed me that day if your father hadn’t told you to?”

Jack blinked. “How did you know about that?”

“Your mama told me,” Bitty replied. “When we were talking alone after you introduced us, she said ‘so you’re the one Bob told him to go after’.” Jack scowled and Bitty stroked his hair. “She didn’t mean it unkindly, Jack… but if he hadn’t done that, you would’ve left that day without looking back, and we wouldn’t have had this past year, and maybe would’ve missed our chance altogether.”

“That doesn’t change how I feel about you,” Jack told him. “I’m not going to break your heart, Eric; I want you with me. We can work this out.”

“I know we can,” Bitty agreed. “But I have to work on myself first, and I can’t do that in Providence; it’s too tempting to just be with you and be loving you and ignore everything else.” Before Jack could say anything else, there was a car horn from outside the Haus. Bitty’s smile turned apologetic. “My shuttle’s here.”

Panic started to flutter in Jack’s chest. As Bitty stepped back to shoulder the bag beside the desk, Jack took hold of his wrist and pulled Bitty back in for another kiss. Eric’s body melted in his hands as Jack poured everything he could into it: every promise he was trying to make that he’d never made to anyone else. All of the fire that had been between them since Jack’s own graduation day, banked to embers more often than either of them wanted, but flaring to life so easily between them…

“Stay,” Jack asked as the kiss broke in the face of their need for air. “Please, Eric. I’ll give you all the space you need, support whatever you decide you want to do in the future… all I ask is that you stay with me while you make those decisions. I don’t want to lose you.”

Eric’s eyes fluttered open, huge and dilated and almost hazy with want. He’d been almost addicted to that expression ever since he’d first seen it beneath a darkening Georgia sky.

But then the haze cleared, and it took Jack’s last ditch hope with it. “I’m not breaking up with you, Jack. But if you’re going to support my decisions about my life, I need you to start with this one.” He reached up and gently detached Jack’s hands from his face as the shuttle honked outside a second time. “I’m sorry. But I have a flight to catch.”

Nodding, deflating in defeat, Jack took hold of the suitcase and carried it down the stairs for Eric. Once they got outside, Eric was making placating words at the driver as Jack stowed the suitcase in the back for him, and then reached out and touched Jack’s wrist before he could step clear of the shuttle’s doors. Jack let himself be drawn down into one more tender kiss, this one brief and tasting of promises that Jack wasn’t sure he could believe in.

“I’ll text you when I get to Madison,” Bitty promised as they parted. And then Jack could only watch as he climbed into the shuttle and found a seat, taking Jack’s heart with him as the vehicle pulled away and left Jack alone in the parking lot in front of the empty Haus.

Chapter Text

_/~ooooOOOoooo~\_

Most of the players that only lived in the Vegas area during the season weren’t particularly close to Kent. Not that he blamed them: they were veterans that he outranked by sheer force of skill, whose lives and families were planted elsewhere, and so they spent every second of off-season time with the loved ones that they didn’t see for better than half the year.

Those that did live nearby knew their captain better, but even they had families and friends to catch up with or dream vacations to take or just needed to take a month away from the rest of the team and decompress. Scraps usually resurfaced in Vegas in time for Kent’s birthday with his graduate student girlfriend and her twin brother in tow, but the others’ schedules were less predictable.

Kent wasn’t really sure how to take it that the entire team, by some strange coincidence or highly-discomfiting behind-the-scenes consensus, had left he and Alexei alone since their impromptu marriage a month earlier. He didn’t know how many of them he’d lost in the process of being outed by TMZ. He didn’t know how many were furious with him not for being not-straight, but for having married someone from another team. He didn’t know how many of them weren’t going to care either way but had left him alone because they were waiting to see how the axe would fall.

But he was about to find out.

* * *

“Is going to be big shake-up for team, da?”

Sighing, Kent slumped back into the couch beside Alexei. Kit, who had been in Alexei’s lap soaking up affection while Kent had sorted through the incoming mail, immediately clambered over and nuzzled his stomach, purring all the while. He’d been avoiding the idea of tonight ever since waking up to a husband in mid-April, but he was expected in six hours. Continuing to ignore that it was happening was pretty much out the window. “Yeah. Patty was captain when I was drafted. He’s the one that talked Nichols into doing a ground-up re-org after we almost made the Final my first year, including giving up the C and telling them to give it to me… Hell, I think he might’ve gone ahead and retired if I hadn’t told him that I’d throw the C right back in their faces unless he became one of my As.”

After a moment, Alexei offered a tentative arm around Kent’s shoulders. Kent responded by shifting until he was lying on his back, head in his husband’s lap and Kit purring her head off as she nuzzled his jaw while they both stroked her fur. “You said two more besides Patty?”

“Yeah.” Kent sighed deeply, closing his eyes and letting the faintly spicy scent of his husband soak into his senses. “Grady got into a bad motocross accident last year right before camp; he’s been trying all season to get back onto the ice, but all the docs are saying that his knee’s permanently fucked. And Sully’s always had one foot out the door. To be honest, I always thought he’d leave because he met someone on one of those excavation trips he’s always disappearing to, not because his sister needs a full-time caretaker and he promised his mom that he wouldn’t just stick her in some facility.”

“Odd number is good luck,” Alexei rumbled with all the certainty of a belief fostered from the cradle. “Means new players coming up will be good for team.”

“I hope so.” Kent let himself take another long breath, letting it out slow and trying to let the tension he was carrying drain out with it. “Two of these guys have played with us before. But this new kid the scouts are eyeing to try and pick up in the draft is an x-factor.”

Alexei hummed softly, letting the fingers of his free hand sift gently through Kent’s hair. “You are sure he is two-way?”

“That’s what they’re all saying,” Kent affirmed, leaning into the soft caresses as much as Kit ever did into her own petting. “If we can get him, Art thinks he’d develop fast enough to start on the third line, but I won’t know until I see him for myself.” For a few quiet minutes, Alexei said nothing more. It was easy to just lie there on his lap and drift, especially once his husband picked up the remote and tuned the television to Guy’s Ranch Kitchen on demand. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who likes Food Network as much as you do.”

“Is good place to get ideas for new things.” The gentle rumble was almost bemused, with a soft undercurrent of something that made Kent’s chest ache every time he heard it. “And it is important to appreciate food, sokolnyshko. Losing things that were once plentiful happens faster than we think.”

Kent’s eyes opened at that. Above him, Alexei’s focus seemed to be on Guy Fieri’s ebullience, but Kent had seen that expression on his own face enough times to know better. Maybe Alexei was remembering something from his childhood. Or maybe he was thinking about stories from his parents and grandparents: cautionary tales of bread lines and scarcity and to never take abundance for granted.

Feeling his muscles tense, Kit jumped away to prowl for her food bowl as Kent shifted and sat up, drawing Alexei’s focus. It was nothing at all to slide across and straddle Alexei’s lap, to feel the thrill up his spine as those broad hands came up to brace him, splayed fingers spanning from hip to neck and cradling Kent against him.

“I don’t have to pick up the keys to the villa until around four,” Kent murmured, draping his arms around Alexei’s neck. His fingers tangled into Alexei’s soft chestnut hair as he watched Alexei’s reaction through his lashes, the spark in those eyes making the low heat building in his gut flare even brighter. “And if you help me pack…”

Another rumble in his husband’s chest, this time somewhere between an amused laugh and a growl, and then Kent was flying as Alexei stood up from the couch, the voices from the television forgotten in their wake.

* * *

The decision to make it team-only, with no WAGs in attendance, hadn’t been an easy one. Kent hadn’t entirely been comfortable telling people that their significant others couldn’t come, but had they been along, it would have changed the atmosphere of the event. He’d wanted it to feel like a roadie: one last roadie with the team all together with a couple days before they had to fly back home, when they could just enjoy the unit they had built together without worrying about how it looked to anyone on the outside. And sometimes, even the people they loved were outsiders.

He tried to not think about how that wasn’t how it felt with Alexei. Even with his husband being a member of another team, he was still a hockey player. He still understood better than anyone else what it was like in the NHL. Especially to be not-straight in the NHL.

But none of that was for this weekend. This weekend was for his guys, and Alexei was happily cat-sitting for him while he partied with his crew, including the pair that were moving up from the AHL team. They’d each spent most of the season as part of the team anyway between Grady’s injury and Sully’s mother losing her fight with cancer, and none of the three on their way out had objected to including them. Being around Sharpie might get a little tricky, considering how anything that reminded him of Alexei was putting Kent’s body on immediate ready alert these days, but he’d dealt with inconvenient erections before. It was the NHL, after all, and Kent wasn’t blind, thank you very much.

Kent arrived at the villa first, walking through every room and making sure that everything was exactly as he’d asked. Fortunately, nothing was amiss. He’d certainly spent enough money on making sure this would be a perfect weekend for his team; if anything hadn’t been right, he’d’ve blown a gasket.

“You here, Cap?”

Coming out onto the balcony overlooking the driveway, Kent let himself smile when he saw Ramen standing in the driveway, clearly watching for Kent’s appearance while Wallie helped Grady out of the car and Baller unloaded multiple go bags from the trunk of Ramen’s car. “Nobody picks bedrooms until everybody gets here,” Kent threatened. “Anybody that tries is skating suicides for a week.”

“You’ve already scoped out the one you want,” Baller shot back, the sound lost as Kent disappeared back into the house.

He gave them a cool, cocky grin as he opened the door for them. “You’re not wrong,” Kent confirmed as they filed in, their faces breaking into open, appreciative smiles as they took in the lavish surroundings that would be theirs for the weekend. “Perks of the C.”

“I remember what those were like.”

Kent spun around to see Patty climbing the step towards the front door, a wry smile on his face. It was a close thing to not throw his arms around this man and hug him hard; this second hockey mentor after Bad Bob. The first person that had recognized how adrift Kent was in the wake of Zimms’ overdose, and had thrown him the lifeline he’d needed to pull himself together and hang onto the only part of a shattered dream he’d had left.

“You’re the one that gave it up,” he reminded the older man instead, leaning past him as Patty entered at the sound of a car door closing. Lisher, Fenny and Ennis had picked up Sharpie. “To a damn rookie at that.”

“Left out the ‘talented’ in the middle of that description,” Patty returned easily. “We heard from Sully?”

“He’s gonna be another hour, probably,” Kent replied. “His connection out of O’Hare got delayed.”

Patty shrugged as large bodies bustled past him, abandoning their bags in the main hall and disappearing to explore the house like ants into a nest. “Happens.”

There was a moment, just long enough to be measured in uncomfortable heartbeats. Silence stretched between them, until Kent could no longer stand under the gaze of those knowing gray eyes and turned to close the door. “Better go see if those idiots are trying to claim beds ahead of schedule. Check the place out, man; it’s ours until noon Monday.”

He was not, Kent sternly told himself, running away from the possibility of Patty’s disapproving of his marriage to Alexei as he vanished into the huge house in search of his team.

He wasn’t.

* * *

The loose, carefree atmosphere that settled over the house was almost immediate. They’d all been together for what felt like ages, and there had been team skates and family days, holiday cook-outs and birthday bashes. The pattern was easy to fall into by now: chirping each other over who always managed to get out of doing the dishes (Corgi) and whose turn it was to man the grill (Fenny and Amen were too busy arguing over who won the coin toss to notice that Swoops was putting the steaks on)… bickering over who was showing too much poolside testicle (Tolstoy, but only because he never seemed to notice that his trunks were too big)…

Chessy and Sharpie speaking in expansive Russian and generally getting on like a house on fire, while Baller tried to explain to Carly about why whatever insensitive thing Carly’d just said should never be repeated in public because saying something similar had gotten Baller exiled to the couch by his girlfriend for a solid week… Hammer emphatically detailing to Keys why accepting an invitation to stay with either Fenny or Jazzy was a Bad Idea™ and offering to put the Fin up at his apartment instead.

Everything and everyone revolving around Patty and Sully and Grady. Keeping their drinks and plates full. Reminiscing about wild roadies past and unforgettable plays and the one time that, when Patty and Ennis had both been rookies, Hopper had gotten drunk, accidentally set a hotel room table on fire and, in his panic, thrown it off the balcony and into the unoccupied swimming pool five floors below.

And if it bothered Kent that his team seemed to be carefully avoiding discussions that involved his newlywed status, or that it seemed as though they’d all gotten together during Kent’s honeymoon distraction and decided on who was going to offer temporary living arrangements to the rookies, he made a concerted effort to not let it show. After all, Chessy and Sharpie had a lot in common, both of them having grown up in post-Cold War former Soviet states and also being Russian Orthodox. If his marriage managed to survive long enough, he was betting that they’d fold Alexei into their ethnic cohort within the space of an hour’s conversation.

They hadn’t really talked about religion since he and Alexei had gotten hitched. Alexei hadn’t seemed interested in going to church, but they’d been… busy. Was Alexei Orthodox? If so, would his church hierarchy consider his marriage to Kent remotely legitimate? Kent hadn’t been to church since his father’s funeral thirteen years earlier, but Alexei might be more devout in his normal life. Was he keeping away from church because of some intolerance on the clergy’s part against gay marriage?

He didn’t know. He’d never even thought about that kind of thing with Jack, for whom hockey was the only religion that had held any meaning.

Those kinds of thoughts were plaguing him as the party finally died down somewhere around two AM, refusing to allow Kent any rest no matter how comfortable the bed was. Finally giving up, Kent decided to pad down to the kitchen and make some of his mother’s relaxation tea, maybe grab a hot shower and let the tangled knot of negative energy wash down the drain. That might let him finally sleep.

“-king for trouble, if you ask me.”

Kent froze, not sure he wanted to intrude on whatever private, likely semi-drunken conversation was being had. Sully certainly sounded like he was at that point of tipsy-enough-to-be-candid; Kent knew that cadence only too well by now, especially after it had taken three sake bombs and a serious amount of take-out Japanese food before Sully could finally open up and tell Kent that his mother wasn’t expected to last another three months.

His impromptu marriage to Alexei had happened two weeks after her funeral.

“It’s not like we didn’t know about him.” Tank this time, sounding almost irritable. “What the fuck does it matter? I doubt he’s gonna start rigging our game to go easy on the Falcs just because he’s bagged two of their pretty boys.”

“Having gotten sweaty with Zimmermann once upon a time hasn’t made him go any easier on ‘em this year,” Mayer agreed. There was the telltale clatter of a bottle cap being popped off. “But then again, it’s really the only way to screw the guy Parser’s got left.”

“That’s exactly the goddamned point,” Sully snapped, even as ugly cold started to twist its way through Kent’s stomach.

“What? That Cap still wants to fuck Zimmermann?” Tank snorted. “Shit, man: I’d plow Bad Bob’s kid like he was the back forty, and I’m as straight as anybody gets these days.”

“Your repressed bisexuality is the second-worst kept secret in the NHL,” Sully retorted.

“Blow me,” Tank returned gamely. “Might be your last chance.”

“If you two are gonna defile a room,” Mayer complained, “can it be not this one?”

“You two are gonna regret being such dense fucking losers when Parser’s stupid plan blows up in that Teen Beat model face of his.”

“What stupid plan?” Mayer challenged, clearly starting to get testy.

“You think him marrying the guy that Zimmermann’s been using as his roadie-hall-pass was a goddamned coincidence?” Sully’s voice was bitter like gall. “Reddit’s been having a civil war about which one he’s more serious about: Mashkov or that little twink from his college team.”

“Unless he’s starting to develop his old man’s habits, I doubt it was ever serious with Mashkov,” Mayer snorted. “Anybody with eyes knows that Zimmermann’s got a type.”

“And everybody with a pulse knows that Parser’s ‘type’ is Zimmermann,” Sully piled on. “Married or not, sooner or later this is gonna crash and burn precisely because Mashkov ain’t him, and it’s gonna get ugly for both teams when that happens.”

“They seem pretty happy,” Tank disputed, though the confidence in his tone was waning. “I’ve never seen Cap like this; it’s like he’s suddenly lost 200 pounds.”

“Yeah, but we all know what he was like when he got here,” Mayer’s voice had turned grim. “Not that we knew why at the time, but still.”

“So what happens when the honeymoon wears off?” Sully pressed. “Especially if they manage to keep it up until Mashkov has to go back east for camp? Sooner or later, reality’s gonna set in. You seriously gonna stand there and tell me that this preposterous marriage won’t go nuclear once it does?” He grunted into the silence that was answer enough. “Exactly. Something’s gonna give, and when it does, Cap’s not gonna be reviving his rendition of Sandy from Grease this time.”

“Now just hang on a damn minute.” Scraps, who must’ve entered the kitchen from another direction. He sounded tired, and more than a little pissy. “I don’t know where you get off saying shit like that, Sully; not when Parser stepped up his game this season across the board.”

“Yeah, he stepped it up, all right,” Sully agreed sarcastically. “He could’ve been retiring right along with Grady and Patty and me if that stupid shit he pulled on the Falcs’ goalie had gone any worse.”

“That was an accident!” Scraps half-shouted. “He was just gonna snow the kid after he got the puck away.”

“Uh-huh; and he threw that move just a little too hard and ended up plowing through the kid.” Kent couldn’t see their faces, but he could almost hear Scrappy’s scowl over being unable to argue that. “Trying a little too hard to make sure that we won that game: the first game that’s seen them both on the same ice since Zimmermann dropped him like a bad habit. And do I need to remind any of you that the goalie that night was Jazzy’s little brother? You think he gave that little fact a second’s thought before he put so much speed into that move that he couldn’t control it? Or was he just thinking that he wasn’t gonna give the ex the satisfaction?”

“You’re drunk, Sull,” Scraps reminded the older man.

“Thanks for the headline.”

“And you just lost your mom and you’re retiring,” Scrappy added on. “Three very good explanations for why you’re talking out of your ass right now. Now I came in here for a peanut butter sandwich so I can take my meds, and I think it’s time for these two to pour your drunk ass into bed before you say something that’s gonna make me give you a shiner as a retirement gift.”

There was a tense moment: the kind that could end just as easily with a punch being thrown as it could with a concession. Fortunately, this one ended on the latter, with a sound coming out of Sully like a sigh mangled by a hand rubbing tiredly across his face while it came out. “Yeah… yeah, maybe.”

“Let’s go, old timer,” Tank encouraged, accompanied by the sounds of Mayer and Tank’s steps across the kitchen and a stool scraping along the floor; Sully must’ve been sitting on one. “We’ll sexile Mayer and you can get that last-chance blowjob you were angling for earlier.”

“I hate you both,” Mayer complained again.

Kent was barely able to duck out of the hall and out of their sight as they left the kitchen. He stood there, tucked behind the wall in a pitch-dark room, breathing silently through his mouth.

It took until his tongue flicked out to reflexively wet his lips for him to realize that he didn’t really need to. They were already damp from the tears sliding down his cheeks.

* * *

As was normal for team get-aways, the absence of required rink time the following morning meant the team rising in stages. Hammer, Ennis and Swoops managed to pull themselves together for Sunday services, as was their wont no matter where they were, but the rest of them had eschewed their alarms for the duration and allowed themselves to wake naturally, aimlessly wandering into the kitchen in various states of dress to peruse the catered breakfast offerings that had been laid out buffet style for their enjoyment.

Kent had risen early along with his “choir-boys” to let the caterers in, wishing that he could go back to sleep for a few more hours. But Sully’s words from the previous evening were eating at him, refusing him rest, and so Kent used the time to hit the pool before it got crowded.

At least while he was swimming, he could force himself to stop thinking about how much of Sully’s drunken analysis felt like a truth he’d been ignoring.

The day drifted into night unremarkably enough: with nothing planned but relaxation and enjoyment of each other’s company surrounded by creature comforts, it was easy to let the hours slip by unnoticed, with only the changing of the light and the corresponding drop in heat truly marking the time. Kent had ensured that there was plenty of food delivered at the appropriate times, from pizza and wings to grillable proteins and veggies, and more than enough alcohol to wash it all down right along with the vitamin-infused water, iced tea and smoothie ingredients. After all, large men with larger appetites required extensive epicurean options.

But by the time the sun no more than a strip of lavender on the edge of the sky, Kent was feeling worn thin, both the lack of sleep and his own demons like twin weights resting on his eyes. He sat by the fire pit in a long chair, watching the flames absently while Swoops, Jazzy, Scraps and Connie floated in the pool nearby, talking in low voices. Most of the others were in the house, playing pool and video games and generally making an indoor ruckus.

He wondered if Alexei liked the quiet serenity surrounding his house here in Vegas. What kind of place he’d made into a home back in Rhode Island; was he like the guys that believed it was bad luck to buy someplace permanent until they got close to retirement? Or was he like Kent, who had wanted a space that was completely his own despite the risk of needing to move? That he could control who had access to it, and make changes to without anyone’s by-your-leave?

The more Kent thought about it without Alexei’s tempting presence to distract him, the more Kent realized that, just like with Jack, there was far too much he didn’t know about the man that was sharing his bed. With Jack, he hadn’t cared about asking or knowing, because he’d imagined a forever future for them in which anything important would eventually come up in conversation. That future had vanished like sandcastles under the tide, and with it, Kent’s illusions that such permanence was possible for him.

With Alexei, Kent wanted to know. Wanted to ask, and hear Alexei tell him all the secrets that hid in the corners of that soft smile. But this marriage was a sham: a folly of too much liquor and not enough fucks given by anyone involved. He and Alexei had agreed that they’d eventually get divorced right from the very beginning. Regardless of Sully’s bitter, vague, drunken speculations, Kent wasn’t going to fall apart when that finally happened. He knew it was coming. He’d be fine.

Maybe if he told himself that enough times, it would actually happen.

“Beats the Hell out of a gold watch.”

The voice startled Kent enough that he jumped, his untouched vodka tonic sloshing over the rim of the glass and spilling in a cool rivulet over the back of his hand as Patty sat down in the chair next to his. “What does?”

“This,” Patty answered, gesturing widely with the hand holding his beer. “Time is more valuable than most people even consider, Parse: especially in the NHL. Getting to spend time with my team before everything changes? It’s priceless.”

Kent shrugged. “Never understood why people always give such a morbid gift for retirements, anyway. It’s like: hey, thanks for spending the best years of your life slaving away for us. Have a thing that you can use to watch the rest tick by.”

“I don’t plan on letting anything just ‘tick by’,” Patty declared archly. “But some peace and quiet for a few years? Not having to jump on a plane every time I turn around twice? It’ll be a refreshing change of pace. And besides, my wife has a list of marital bonding activities that’s longer than any ‘honey-do’ list that most office drones get served up when they finally call it.”

A dry chuckle left Kent at that, his mind dredging up a memory of his father. He’d enjoyed working outside when he didn’t have to be at the station, landscaping and gardening and growing the herbs his mother used in her work. He’d used that same phrase: “honey-do”; except it had been a joke between his parents because they were always asking things of each other. Kent hadn’t even conceived of it meaning anything remotely negative until long after his father had died.

Would he and Jack have ever had little inside jokes like that, he wondered, if their relationship had survived long enough for them to get past teenage lust and the adrenaline of trying to make it into the NHL? There were hints of things that could develop into them between he and Alexei, given time and intimacy that didn’t involve nakedness, but that wasn’t going to happen between them. Sully was wrong; he had it all wrong Kent hadn’t gone after Alexei to get back at Jack for replacing him it was just sex-

“Parser?” Patty’s voice was soft, pitched low so that not even the guys in the pool a few feet away could hear it. “Kent, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Kent replied, trying to wrench his thoughts away from the spiral they’d been locked in since the previous night. “I’m fine; why?”

Patty’s head tilted slightly as he looked Kent over with a deceptively mild curiosity. “I’ve seen you brighter-eyed after back-to-back roadies than you are right now.”

“Just too keyed up to sleep last night,” Kent hedged. He didn’t like the idea of Patty seeing through his facade, despite the fact that the man had always been able to. Maybe he’d never been able to guess what was going on in Kent’s head, but Patty had always known when his head was a bad neighborhood to be in. “A couple roadies in a row is nothing compared to stage-managing a getaway for a couple dozen hockey hooligans.”

An unconvinced hum was Patty’s only response for a long moment. Kent fought the urge to squirm. He wasn’t going to elaborate. He wasn’t. He was going to keep it together for the rest of this weekend and then go home to his cat and his husband and fall apart in private where Alexei would hold him and not ask questions because that’s just how they were together…

But even as that thought sank in, it brought Kent up short. This was exactly his problem. He’d known since Babylon that he was in too deep; Sully’d been wrong about why, but not about the fact that he was just the same. Despite having had every intention of merely using this marriage as the cover for he and Alexei screwing each others’ brains out, which had been his own damned idea from the start, he’d grown comfortable, and promptly managed to get lost in an illusion of his own making. And, in the process, his heart had forgotten that marriages that started in Vegas ended in Reno.

Not that his head had been any more sensible about the matter. After all, the signs had been there for longer than their tryst at Babylon and he’d been steadily ignoring them… mostly because he hadn’t been ready to face the fact that he’d been stupid enough to fall in love with another fellow hockey player. Stupider yet: with a player on Jack’s team. And even stupider: Jack’s best friend on that team.

Patty wasn’t saying anything more, although he was keeping an eye on the way Kent was mulling things over. He’d never really needed to say anything when he somehow managed to trip up Kent’s thought spirals. But it was all staring Kent in the face and he couldn’t look away from it anymore. He’d known Mashkov in passing for years before Jack had joined the Falconers, but the moment Jack had made the show, they’d become Jack’s team. Ever since they’d met, Kent had been caught in Jack’s gravity well; seven years and absolute silence between them hadn’t changed that even one iota.

Sully had been right about something else. Kent might not remember exactly how he and Alexei had ended up married, but it was a safe bet that the impetus behind whatever had happened had Jack at its core. Which, in the end, wasn’t fair to Alexei. The gorgeous, big-hearted Russian had, over the past few weeks, proven himself to be an excellent roommate, caring partner and, frankly, the best lover Kent had ever been with. Anyone would be lucky to actually have Alexei as their husband.

Kent had never had that kind of luck. He needed to come back to reality and end this before he wouldn’t come through the emotional aftermath in one piece.

The decision coalescing in his mind, he finally met Patty’s eyes. “I’m okay, Patty. Just got into a little quicksand for a minute. I’m good now.”

A smile and a nod, and Patty settled back in his chair to relax. “Glad to hear it. I’m not gonna be around anymore to pull you outta your own head, kid, and sure as fuck these yahoos can never tell when you’re locked in up there. You gotta start being able to do it on your own.”

Kent nodded, finishing his watery drink in a quick swallow and rising to get a beer from the nearby ice trough. “Yeah, I know: gotta grow up someday. Maybe if I live long enough, I’ll see you manage it.”

Patty flipped him off absently.

Scraps came up out of the pool in search of a drink as Baller and Lisher came outside to set up another round of protein on the grill. Mayer was on their heels, complaining loudly that a bum knee didn’t affect one’s throwing arm and that if Grady didn’t own up to intentionally missing with the cornhole beanbags, he was going to strongly consider making sure Grady’s one knee became a matched set. Chessy and Keys were laughing at something Ennis had said, and Sully was explaining something about one of his early excavation trips to Tolstoy and Fenner.

Joining their rhythm was easy. They were his team after all. Kent ate and drank, laughed and mingled. No matter how many of them came or went during his time, they were his guys. He had their backs, even if not all of them had his.

It was how he’d survived the first broken heart. Somehow, some way, it was how he’d get through the one he was about to give himself as well.

* * *

Something like relief was hovering behind Kent’s eyes when he got back and let himself into his quiet house. He loved his team; would drop gloves for them any time; but he could never be anything but on around them: captain, all-star forward, franchise darling, face of the Aces, Number One Draft Pick of 2009. His house was a sanctuary from it most of the time, and his private den even more so. It was good to be home.

Coming into the kitchen, Kent smiled as Kit woke from her nap in a patch of sun with a trill. She stood, stretched and then bounded up to the counter, clambering onto his shoulders as Kent picked up the note on kitchen island.

Picking up groceries. Hope you will be home when I return. Have missed moy krasivyy muzh.

Russian he didn’t understand aside, the quiet domesticity of it made something inside Kent glow and soften. Knowing it would hurt like Hell later, he still couldn’t bring himself to throw the note away, instead tucking it into the pocket of his jeans as he grabbed an apple and headed upstairs to get cleaned up before Alexei got home.

* * *

The first hint Kent had that he’d fallen asleep was waking up again. Kit was curled up near his head, purring contentedly, and an even larger, warmer weight was stretched out beside him. “Hey… sorry; I must’ve fallen asleep after my shower. How long was I out?”

“Have been home an hour.” Alexei smiled down at him, one large hand propped up under his temple and the other scritching Kit’s ears. “You needed sleep, I think; was big deal this weekend.”

“Yeah.” For a long moment, Kent just gazed up at his husband. At the tender expression in those brown eyes. At the secrets in the corners of that smile, daring Kent to lean up and tease them out with kisses.

They weren’t for him to hear. He’d come to grips with that now, though that didn’t make him want them any less. But then again, Kent knew he’d always been a selfish bastard, greedy for all of the people he cared about that he could get. It wasn’t their fault that it was always eventually more than anyone was willing to give.

Reaching up, Kent drew Alexei down for a kiss that was probably a little more desperate than he intended. There was a startled sound from his husband; a half-moment of surprise that delayed his response. It gave Kent a window to act, sliding a hand into Alexei’s shorts and wrapping around that heavy, perfect dick, stroking until it was full and straining in his grip and Alexei was moaning things Kent would bet half his contract would make a translator blush.

It only fueled the fire in his gut, in his throat, and then he was pushing fabric out of his way and swallowing his husband down down down until the head bumped the back of his throat and he pushed past it, the instinct to gag drowned by the clamor in his heart, the need for just one more day hour moment instant when he could pretend that things weren’t about to come crashing down…

Soon enough, it all fell away, and Kent was sunk into the sound of his mouth around Alexei’s thick heat, the weight perfect on his tongue, in his throat. The saline musk of him in his nose and the flex of strong thighs under his hands. The pulse beating ever faster, matching his own heart thundering in his ears as he sucked and worked and teased his husband right up to the edge. It drove a groan out of Alexei when Kent pulled back, flinging away the towel that he’d fallen asleep wrapped in before it could get any more tangled around his legs and dropping a kiss on the weeping tip, reveling in the way the muscles jerked towards him in response.

He’d almost gotten into place… almost gone down raw when those great hands flipped him as easily as a pancake. There was a growl that might have been his name, might have been ‘nyet’, but it was lost as two fingers pushed in, slick and sure, opening him up with a ruthless efficiency that had Kent whining in the back of his throat and pushing back against that hand, eager desperate heartsick…

One pass over his prostate and Kent uncoiled, shoving Alexei back and scrambling to follow. Before the big Russian could protest, Kent was straddled and seated and shoving his hips down, too fast and too tight, burning like the first time… like all the times when he and Jack hadn’t been careful hadn’t been patient had wanted so much it burned…

Those hands caught him again… gripped so hard that Kent’s eyes were wet as he felt the bruises take root, controlling his rhythm… controlling the ride until Kent was warmed up and stretched wide around his husband… his careful, considerate husband who still somehow managed to manhandle him… like he didn’t have to be fragile to be precious…

“Moy krasivyy bezrassudnyy.” Alexei didn’t let go, only relaxed his grip, shifting his hands to cup Kent’s cheeks and part them just that much wider, fingers testing the edges where they were joined to see if Kent had managed to hurt himself. “Just look at you…”

“You gonna look at me or fuck me?” Kent challenged, a snap without heat.

It got him what he wanted, though, as those hands came up to grab his wrists and move his hands to the wall above the headboard. It pulled Kent’s body into a high arc, unable to bring his hips fully down against Alexei’s without losing contact with the wall. “No reason to not do both,” Alexei pointed out. There was an edge behind that mild, reasonable tone that became even sharper with his next words. “Leave those.”

Kent swallowed, then nodded once when it became clear that Alexei was waiting for him to consent.

He wasn’t strong enough to give this up. He wasn’t who Alexei deserved.

Thought vanished with the first snap of those powerful hips, except Kent couldn’t look away, couldn’t close his eyes and let himself dissolve into the way Alexei moved inside him. Their eyes were locked, and Kent let himself fall into the intense, honey-brown glow of them. Into the way Alexei seemed to be peeling back his defenses with every powerful thrust, until tears were dripping freely from Kent’s eyes and Alexei’s were no longer aflame and fierce, but so full and sad that Kent wanted to take it all back even though neither of them had said a word.

The scene drifted away and Alexei rolled them, curling Kent close against his body as they rocked together. Kent wrapped around him with legs and arms and buried his face in the curve of Alexei’s neck, chasing the waning scent of vetiver that still clung to his skin from his morning shave and imprinting the feel of powerful muscles flexing under his hands.

By the time their bodies finally gave over to release, neither of them wanted to let the other go. It was possibly the least satisfying encounter they’d shared since their impromptu marriage had begun, but when Kent could finally bring himself to look back up at Alexei, that wasn’t the part that hurt the most. That was almost an afterthought, really: the idea that their ability to give each other mind-blowing orgasms wasn’t just the end result of co-mingling the right pheromones and an above-average understanding of male anatomical responses to stimuli.

This had never been meant to last. They’d both known it from the start. Somehow Alexei had read the ending in Kent’s eyes, and the sorrow reflected in his honey-brown ones made Kent feel like the worst human being on the face of the earth for inflicting it.

And yet he couldn’t have helped it, either. Even if Alexei hadn’t been ready to let this end, Kent needed to, before he wouldn’t be able to find his way back out. And Alexei had prided himself in the past several weeks on giving Kent whatever he needed… often before Kent could verbalize that he needed it.

“Not yet,” Kent finally managed. “Not… not today. We can keep the rest of today.”

Alexei nodded, his expression shifting from sorrow to something like resolve, and Kent felt his acquiescence like a physical blow. “Tomorrow, then. After breakfast.”

It took every ounce of strength in Kent’s entire body to not let his face crumple. “After breakfast,” he echoed. Before he could stop himself, or think better of it, he leaned up and kissed anything else Alexei might have said away.

With less than twelve hours left before his heart shattered again, he wasn’t going to waste a second.

Chapter Text

_/~ooooOOOoooo~\_

The good thing about flying in the dead of Saturday night was that, even when you had an aisle seat, you could put in your headphones and cry your eyes out for the entire flight and no one would bother you as long as you weren’t being loud enough to keep them from sleeping through it. Plus, the flight attendants were all sympathetic smiles and offers of warm, damp towels to clean your face with when you finally stopped.

At least, that’s how Bitty felt on the matter.

Leaving Jack standing in the Haus driveway, looking so lost and hurting, was probably the hardest thing Bitty had ever done in his young life. It seemed strange to think of it that way, when most people would consider the hardest thing he’d ever gone through to be spending a terrified night in a supply closet, barely able to sleep for fear of missing a sound that meant the bullies that had locked him in were coming back to do worse when no one would hear him scream. But somehow, working up the will to tell Jack that he needed time to put their relationship into perspective had left him feeling more hollowed out than he’d been in the three days following the lock-in, when his mother had let him stay out of school and spend time with Moomaw until he got his bearings back again.

The hug that his mother would give him when they met at the terminal would help, but if Bitty was being honest, it was the time he’d get to spend with Moomaw that he was looking forward to the most just now. She’d raised his mother and aunt and then half raised him in turn, dispensing salt-of-the-earth good sense right along with her secrets to golden flaky pie crust and perfectly risen bread. In a day or two, after he and his mother had caught up and it wouldn’t seem like he was trying to escape, Bitty could go over to Moomaw’s house and talk everything over with her. She’d make fried chicken, and biscuits so light it was a wonder they didn’t float right out of the basket she served them in, and she’d talk him through what he needed to do next.

Moomaw was the only one back home that knew he wasn’t straight. The only one that knew Jack was more than just his friend from college. If anyone could help him, it was her: the woman who sang along with Aretha and Beyonce with equal soul, and had taught Bitty that nothing ever tasted as good as when it was made with love in every stir.

Bitty could hardly wait to see her. But first, he’d get that sorely-needed hug from his mama. She never failed to pick him up, no matter how early or late his planes arrived, and with how much his heart still hurt in the wake of his conversation with Jack, he was looking forward to the comfortable certainty of her face being the first thing he saw getting off the plane.

It was therefore something of a shock when Bitty crossed the threshold of his gate at the airport in Atlanta to find his father standing there waiting to greet him.

He actually stopped in the middle of the terminal, barely hearing the disgruntled sounds of people behind him suddenly forced to go around, staring at the serious face of Coach Richard Bittle and feeling his heart beating inside his throat. Another passenger clearing their throat behind him jolted him into motion, and his father only raised a single eyebrow as Bitty closed on him. “Coach? I thought Mama was pickin’ me up like usual.”

“Your mama needs her rest,” Coach replied. With a single gesture of his head, he turned and walked towards the baggage carousel, expecting Bitty to fall into step beside him.

They found Bitty’s checked suitcase relatively quickly and left the terminal at a pace brisk enough to keep Bitty from questioning his father further. By the time they’d gotten into the Bittle family Outback and were on their way to Madison, Bitty was just tired enough that he was hesitant to break the silence between them, electing instead to catch up on the group texts, his e-mail and social media accounts while his father turned on the radio to keep himself awake for the drive.

More than two hours later, they arrived at the Bittle family house. Suzanne was fast asleep as the two crept upstairs, and Bitty didn’t want to chance his father’s somber attitude by disturbing her even to kiss her “hello” and “good-night”. Instead, he simply nodded “good-night” to his father and went into his own bedroom.

He was able to keep his eyes open just long enough to strip out of his clothes, pull on a clean shirt and shorts to sleep in and send a text to Jack to confirm that he was safely home. The chime of Jack’s almost immediate response was lost as the blackness of exhaustion finally claimed him.

* * *

When Bitty finally woke the next day, it was nearly noon. It surprised him that his mother hadn’t come into his room to wake him earlier, and as he became more aware of his surroundings, he realized that the house was suspiciously quiet for a Sunday.

Cleaning up and dressing almost without thought, Eric went downstairs to find his father in the kitchen fixing them chicken-BLT sandwiches. “Is Mama okay?” Eric asked hesitantly, noting that there were only two plates being prepared and fetching both of them a soda. “She didn’ say anythin’ when I told her when I was flyin’ home.”

“Minerva’s been poorly lately,” Coach replied, dispensing a liberal handful of potato chips onto their plates before handing one to Eric and walking into his den with his own. Eric followed and settled into the second recliner with his food as his father turned the television on and located a lacrosse game being aired on one of the local stations. “Your Mama an’ Aunt Judy’ve been lookin’ after her. She said we should let you sleep seein’s how your flight got in so late, an’ to take today to settle into home. They’ll appreciate the third pair of hands tomorrow, I’m sure.”

Bitty nodded, tucking into his sandwich without further comment. His mother would tell him exactly what was wrong when she got home, provided that she wasn’t too tired. But he could handle dinner for himself and his father tonight at least, once he got a look at what was in the larder.

Silence settled into the air between Bitty and his father again, underscored by the commentary and sounds of the lacrosse game. It had always been like this between them whenever Suzanne wasn’t on hand to keep the conversation flowing or corral Bitty into the kitchen for baking and chatter.

For most of his childhood, Bitty hadn’t given any thought to why his relationship with his father was one of silence and safe topics of discussion. His time at Samwell, and especially his friendship with Shitty, had allowed him to work out a reasonable hypothesis about it: that with a son whose build and demeanor weren’t suited to contact sports and a cultural bias towards classifying only specific traits as ‘manly’, Coach hadn’t known how to build a relationship with a child that didn’t fit into a specific archetype. A problem that was, in hindsight, only exacerbated by the way that Suzanne had doted on her only child, keeping him in her company when Coach didn’t and filling those hours with laughter and smiles, music and affection.

By the time Bitty was old enough to understand that his father might warm to him if he expressed an interest in his father’s pastimes, the idea of doing so felt alien, awkward, and ultimately self-defeating. Playing for Samwell over the past three years had seemed to help some, but as Bitty finished his sandwich and thanked his father for the food, he was acutely aware that the distance was back with a vengeance without his mother present to mitigate it.

The day passed in much the same way: conversation between he and his father was either perfunctory or non-existent, and while Bitty busied himself running errands for the family and settling into fixing a chicken pot pie for dinner, Coach spent time watching tape and talking to his staff. As Bitty had expected, his mother wasn’t home in time for dinner, and he and his father ate in front of the television again, this time watching Sports Center on ESPN.

Even though every ingredient he’d used had been fresh and there was no chance of food poisoning, Bitty still felt his stomach churn dangerously as the broadcast turned its attention to speculation about whether the Aces and Falconers would ultimately decide on a trade that would put the still-married Kent Parson and Alexei Mashkov on the same team. His voice felt like a croak as he excused himself, trying to not look like he was fleeing the room as he went into the kitchen to attend the dishes and leftovers.

Half an hour later, his father came in and silently placed his own dishes into the farm sink where the baking dishes were soaking while Bitty was desperately trying to think of something he could make for his Moomaw that his mother wouldn’t have already done. “You been dodging your mama’s questions ‘bout them.”

“What?” Bitty’s heart was hammering in his chest; he hoped it didn’t translate into his voice. “‘Bout who?”

“You know who I’m talkin’ ‘bout, Dicky.” As Bitty closed the refrigerator and turned towards his father, he found the older man standing with his back to the sink, arms folded across his chest and a sober expression on his serious face. “You practically ran outta the room when the story came on.”

Against his will, Bitty could feel himself blush. “Well, I don’ exactly know Parson. I only met him the once, before Jack graduated. And Tater’s a teammate of Jack’s, but we don’ know each other all that well.”

“But you’ve been spendin’ all kinds of time with Jack,” his father returned. The quiet tone only served to highlight that it was a statement of fact, rather than a question. “Way your mama tells it, you’ve been down in Providence with Jack near every weekend that he’s been in town this past year. So it stands to reason that you might’ve heard things about this Mashkov fella, from the other Falconers if not from Jack himself.” There was a pause in which Bitty tried to come up with an answer, but the words died when his father continued on. “Especially seein’ as how you were at the Falconers’ family skate.”

Bitty froze.

“Now your mama’s not said anything yet because she didn’t wanna spook you into not comin’ home,” Coach went on. “But ain’t either one of us stupid, Eric. They been talking about Jack’s days back in the Q and all the rumors about what he and that Parson kid were gettin’ up to off the ice, and it didn’ take ‘em long to start lookin’ for proof by way of Jack havin’ someone he was close to that ain’t female. You two‘ve been careful enough they haven’t put the pieces together yet, but they’re bound to.”

“Coach…” Bitty could feel himself starting to shake. He wondered how long it would be until his mother came home. Or was she not home yet on purpose?

“I’m gonna ask this once,” Coach told him. “And I expect you to give me a straight, honest answer, son.”

Eric steeled himself and nodded once. He hadn’t been ready for it, and certainly not for it to be his father first, but there was no way to get away from it now. “Yes, sir.”

“Are you still the man your mama and I raised you to be?”

The question floored Eric for what felt like a solid minute. His father kept looking at him, but wasn’t growing impatient, so it had to have been less, but Eric felt the moment stretch out like a rubber band before it snapped him back into place and the words came tumbling out. “Yes, Coach.”

His father grunted in response. “Long as that doesn’t change, then I don’t figure it rightly matters who you decide to fool around with.”

Eric stared at his father. The world spun strangely around him and then righted itself again, and he hoped inanely that he hadn’t just physically wobbled in the face of such dismissive acceptance. “I… Coach… Daddy, I…”

“You just keep your wits about you, you understand me?” The shift from sober to stern was so sudden that Bitty almost took a step back, his fight-or-flight response kicking in for a half-second before he recognized the tone as his father’s ‘I expect the best out of my players’ voice. “You havin’ the same taste in men as your mama ain’t precisely a surprise, seein’s how you take after her in almost everything else. But Jack’s daddy had a reputation for more’n just how he played on the ice. If that boy’s takin’ after his father in more ways than one, don’t you let him play you for a fool, you understand? Bein’ gay’s no excuse.”

Somewhere, Eric found the wherewithal to straighten his spine and close his expression. He’d expected… well, he had been ready for any number of reactions: from being thrown out of the house to getting sat down with their preacher to complete refusal to accept the truth. To say he’d been unprepared for this was a gross understatement.

Later, when he was alone, he would let himself feel how much it shocked him that his father’s acceptance of his sexuality could still feel so ugly.

“Jack’s problem doesn’t lend itself to chasing tails,” he heard himself saying. “But I’ve got more important things to be worryin’ after than whether or not he’ll decide one day to take some groupie up on an offer. Like my capstone and what I’m lookin’ to do after graduation.”

“I s’pose Jack’s got some opinions on that subject.”

It was clearly bait. Bitty had never liked fishing. “I’m sure he does, but since I haven’t asked for them, I couldn’t tell you what they are.”

One eyebrow quirked, and Coach gave something like a half-smile of approval. “That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said in years. You hold onto that attitude, you hear me? They don’t call the ones hanging off these professional players’ arms ‘wives and girl-friends for no reason. No matter what that Parson boy and the Russian are up to lately.”

Eric wasn’t sure he could take much more. The silence that had always reigned between he and his father was infinitely preferable to this… this casual denigration of everything he had come to hold dear, about his life and himself.

Fortunately, before he was required to find another reply, his mother chose that moment to walk through the door, smiling brightly through her haggard weariness. “Dicky.”

The way she said his name almost hurt in contrast to the way his father had spoken. He went unthinking into her arms as they opened tiredly in greeting, and stayed there until his father had left the room after a gentle kiss to his wife’s cheek over Eric’s head. “I missed you, Mama,” he told her honestly, still burrowed against her.

“I missed you, too, baby.” If she noticed the way he trembled against her, she didn’t question it, pressing a gentle kiss to the top of his head as he tightened his grip around her. “I’m so glad to have you home.”

Tears squeezed out before he could check them; swallowing hard, Eric made himself step away from her, talking brightly about dinner and asking about Moomaw to cover the way his heart was breaking in his chest.

Because his father had just proven that, no matter what he ultimately decided he wanted his life to be, he couldn’t live it out in Madison.

* * *

Time passed quickly after that. Minerva Crenshaw, or “Moomaw”, had gotten the walking pneumonia during the wet weather at the end of April, and she was mending slowly. Eric jumped on the chance to get out of the same house as his father and volunteered to stay with Moomaw while she finished recovering, letting his mother and Aunt Judy get back to some semblance of their normal routines instead of managing their households and that of the woman who’d raised them at the same time.

If the relief Eric felt at being allowed to stay with her had somehow escaped Minerva’s notice, the way he neatly dodged all questions about anything beyond his schedule for the upcoming fall semester certainly didn’t. Eric knew all too well how carefully she was watching him as he cooked and cleaned and laundered and completely avoided spending any time with his father at all. Knew she was biding her time to spring a question about Jack on him.

Unlike so many times before, Eric couldn’t lose himself in the familiar work and push his problems into a far corner of his mind. He thought about Jack every day: wondered what he was doing, whether he missed Eric as much as Eric missed him. And, more uncomfortably, whether it was really Jack that he missed, or the opportunity to escape Madison that his relationship with the Canadien offered.

Moomaw was sleeping on her couch after lunch; her soap had ended and daytime television was shifting to afternoon court shows. There was a quiet comfort in her house that Bitty was practically wallowing in, whisper-singing to himself as he sliced pears for jam when his phone began to vibrate in his pocket. He’d turned off the ringer so that calls wouldn’t disturb Moomaw’s nap, and he barely glanced at the screen long enough to swipe across and accept the call after wiping his hands. “Hello?”

“Bits?”

Bitty froze, then set the knife he’d been slicing with carefully aside and walked out onto the front porch, quietly closing the door behind himself. “Jack… it’s been a while.”

“You said that you needed privacy.” Jack’s voice was steady, but Bitty could hear the uncertainty underneath. “I wouldn’t have called now, except it’s important.”

“Is everyone okay?” Bitty asked. “Your parents?”

“Papa and Maman went home last week, actually. They’re both fine. Things have started settling down a little here… although probably not for long.” A swift pause for breath, though not long enough for Eric to get a question out. “Eric, I need you to come home.”

“Jack…” Eric deflated a little, sinking onto the swing. “Darlin’, we talked about this. I need time to-”

“No, I know. And if it was only for me, I wouldn’t ask, but-”

“You’re not exactly askin’,” Bitty countered, suddenly feeling peevish. “And I can’t just up an’ leave, Jack; Moomaw’s been sick-”

“Kent broke up with Tater.” The statement set Eric back on the swing, his mouth open in shock. “He just got back and he’s a mess. Half the team isn’t even in town, but he won’t talk to anyone that is except Snowy. He got so angry when I stopped by to see him that I honestly thought he’d take a swing.”

“That’s not like Tater at all,” Eric mused worriedly.

“Please, Bits… I know your grand-mere’s not well, but surely your mother and aunt can see to her. I wouldn’t ask, but I… you know how to do this. You learned how to do this part and I didn’t and I wouldn’t know how to help him right now even if he’d let me. I’ll leave you alone; I promise. I’ll pay for a hotel room, rental car, whatever you need to be comfortable. Just please come, Eric. I don’t know anyone else that he might open up to.”

For a moment, the only word Eric could think or breathe was ‘yes’: of course he would come. Of course he would stay with Jack because a hotel was a needless expense. Of course he would help his unlikely Russian friend get over whatever Parson had done to him and then stay until the fall semester started and let his life’s course take right back up alongside Jack’s. It felt easy. It felt right.

But Beyoncé didn’t depend on a man. Neither did Moomaw. “I have to go,” he hemmed. “Moomaw’s due up from her rest shortly, and she might need me.”

“Eric-”

“I love you.” He said it fast, knowing it would stop Jack from saying something that would test Eric’s resolve. “I’ll let you know if I can get away.”

“Je t’adore aussi.” Jack’s voice sounded hoarse. “Call me back as soon as you can.”

“I will, honey.”

For a long moment after they said good-bye, Eric stayed on the porch swing, gazing out at the street beyond the scrap of front yard and clutching his phone. He didn’t even hear Moomaw until she stepped on the loose board to the left of the doorway as she came out. “Oh, child,” Moomaw huffed as she sat down. “I ain’t never seen anyone get so twisted up over a man as you’ve been over that boy.”

Eric leaned into her as she wrapped an arm around him, sinking into the hug. “You’re supposed to be resting.”

“Ain’t any amount of rest can cure gettin’ old,” Moomaw countered. “What’s ailing you, darlin’?”

“I can’t stay here,” Eric confessed, his voice as small as he sometimes felt around everyone but Lardo. “Not bein’ how I am. I just don’t know what I wanna do with my life yet. I’ve tried and tried to think of something but nothin’ fits… least, nothin’ I can do without Jack’s money to help.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Moomaw asked. “Lotsa folks need a helpin’ hand to get where they wanna go in life. If he’s willing and you come to an understandin’, there’s nothing wrong with it. You just have to be sure, an’ then not let his favors go to waste, you hear? That’s just leads to trouble no amount of lovin’ in the bedroom can fix.”

“Moomaw!” Bitty blushed red, unwontedly remembering the careful way Jack had touched him in the bed of that truck, shrouded in darkness beneath a shimmering canopy of stars and fireworks. One hand almost hesitant as it had wrapped around them both, the other cradling Bitty against him as they climaxed together in a sticky mess between their stomachs.

“You think I don’t know how it is? Young men are the same the world over; they’ve only got one thing on they’s minds.” Eric made a soft sound of embarrassment and Moomaw chuckled. “Is he good to you, baby?”

“He is,” Eric confirmed fervently. “It’s just… what do I do if he ends it?”

“Then you find a way to stand on your own,” Moomaw told him simply. “And besides, why’s he the one with all the power? You’re havin’ a relationship. That’s s’posed to mean y’all’re both equal. So why’re you givin’ this boy all the control over whether you’re together or not? I raised you bettern’ that.”

Eric was quiet for a long time. Minerva let him absorb that for a few minutes, then added: “It’s okay that lovin’ him means you wanna care for him, too. He’s had a hard time an’ been harder on himself than anyone but the good Lord knows, from what you’ve told me. Just make it your choice, baby. Don’t fall into doing it like a habit only to wake up in ten years and realize he’s a habit you need to break. And be sure it’s him you’re choosing, not just an easy road out of a life you know you don’t want.”

“I love you, Moomaw,” Eric murmured, burrowing into her.

“I know, baby,” Minerva told him as she hugged him tighter. It was the last time she’d see him for a long while, and she wanted a store of his gentle heart to get her by in the meantime. “I love you, too.”