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I'm on my way

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“It’s nothing personal,” Barbara said, smiling. “I’d have loved to keep you on. It’s just the economy, you know. Someone has to go and your timekeeping is poor. Of course, we appreciate the skill and dedication you’ve brought to the bakery.”

“Of course,” Eric said, the words somehow making their way out past the shock. “Yes. Of course.”

“I’m so glad we can end this amicably,” Barbara said. She took his hand. “We’ll give you a reference, of course, but you will need to be off property by closing and you don’t need to come back. We understand each other, right?”

“Yes,” Eric said. He didn’t understand anything.

“Good,” Barbara beamed. Eric stood uncertainly. She gave him one last smile and then turned her attention back to the piles of papers in front of her. As though they’d just had a nice chat about pastry consistency or how their kids were doing in school or something. As though she hadn’t just completely destroyed Eric’s life.

He opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. Went to his locker. His mind was racing. She couldn’t do this… only she could. He’d been working fifty hour weeks in her stupid bakery for years, churning out pies and cookies and cakes that were so far below what he knew he could produce because she wouldn’t spring for the good ingredients and he did it with a smile because he had to and now…

The only things in his locker were his jacket and his bag. He took them and headed to the kitchen. Anne was working the second shift. She looked tired. Pale. He knew he should ask, he’d normally ask, but he couldn’t right now.

The pastry crimper was his from home; the stupid bitch wouldn’t pay for one. He shoved it in his bag. His rolling pin too. And his set of nozzles for piping icing. There was probably more but he couldn’t think.

“Eric,” Anne finally said, giving him a strange look. “You okay, sugar?”

He laughed. What was he meant to say to that? Something cheerful, probably. Yes, Anne. I’ll be just fine. I’ll be awesome. New opportunities. God closes a door and opens a window.

Fuck all of that bullshit.

He didn’t say anything. He headed out to the front where Tom, sixteen and bubbly and everything Eric had been half a lifetime ago, was beaming at a sweet boy with brown curls.

Fuck all of them.

Fuck everything.

He walked past. Out into the street. He walked to the bus stop and pulled out his wallet before remembering it was empty. He’d left the last of his change on the kitchen counter for Michael that morning, of course. Walked in. The walk would do him good. And it was pay day tomorrow.

Shit, he’d never asked for his last wage. He should go back but…

Tears were threatening. He turned to the wall, pulling his coat up around his ears to hide his face. Nobody found it attractive when a man in his thirties started to cry in the street. He was better than that.

He’d walk home. That was all. It’d be better, anyway. He’d walk home and feed Michael and have a good cry and then tomorrow he’d come back and he’d give Barbara a piece of his mind and everything would look better, that was all. He’d make it look better.

***

He’d been right; the walk had been good for his head. By the time he reached his own front door, he managed to force a smile. He wasn’t feeling the smile yet, not really, but he managed to get it onto his face at least and that was half the battle.

Everything was going to be fine.

He opened the door to chaos. Michael was obviously home because there were discarded hockey pads all over the floor. Those things were expensive! Eric had told him a million times to put them back where they belonged. He made his way over to the kitchenette where there was a bottle of milk left out and the empty pasta dish from last night. Eric picked it up with a sigh. He had been hoping there’d be enough left for both of them but, well, Michael was a growing boy and hockey used up a lot of energy.

He tidied up the kitchen and picked up the pads before daring to try and track down his son. If he wasn’t in the sitting room there was really only one other place he could be, so Eric let himself through to his son’s bedroom.

Michael’s room reminded Eric of the barely controlled chaos that had been Shitty’s room. There were piles of takeaway cartons (and where did he even get the money for that?), peeling posters of hockey players all over the walls (Eric tried not to think about the Zimmerman one at the foot of the bed) and thick black curtains pulled over the window. Michael was slumped on the bed, earphones in, playing a game.

Business as usual then.

“Hey,” Eric said, loudly, stepping into the room. “How was practice?”

Michael glared but when Eric just carried on standing there with what he hoped was a pleasant smile on his face, Michael huffed and pulled the earphones out of his ear.

“What do you want?”

“I just asked how practice went.”

“Like you even care,” Michael spat. He seemed to hunch further down in the bed, though Eric would have said that wasn’t possible. Eric’s heart sank. It was going to be one of those conversations.

“Of course I care, sweetie. Did you find the money I left for you this morning?”

“It wasn’t enough,” Michael said.

“Honey, I left you ten dollars. You only had to get the bus. I packed you a lunch.”

“What’s your problem? I ate it and I was still hungry. Get off my case.”

Eric took a calming breath. Michael was a teenager; he didn’t mean to be this rude. The divorce had come at a bad time in his emotional development and it was only natural that he’d act out in this way. At least, that was what their therapist had said when they’d still had enough money to afford a therapist.

“Well, you’re going to have to walk in tomorrow,” he said, stepping a little further into the room. “I don’t have any money for you until then.”

“Whatever,” Michael said, glaring. “You know, all my friends parents give them, like, ten dollars every day.”

“Well, you go to a very good school. Look, honey, I know you don’t like me being in here but will you let me clear a few of these boxes? I swear to you that I won’t touch anything but takeaway containers.”

“No,” Michael growled. “Leave my things alone, get out.”

“Well, okay,” Eric said, retreating a step. His stomach clenched and he had to look away from Michael. It was easier to focus on the mess anyway. He’d never even let the Haus get into this state and that was a frat house. “I guess it’s important for you to have your space. I just think…”

“No you don’t,” Michael interrupted, suddenly standing up and sending the laptop clattering to the floor. Eric winced; he really couldn’t afford to have that fixed if it broke. “You never fucking think and I hate you.”

“Michael…”

“No,” Michael yelled, grabbing some of the boxes and throwing them. Eric stepped quickly back into the hallway to avoid them. “I hate you. I wish you’d fucking die. I want to go live with dad.”

“Well…he doesn’t want that right now,” Eric said, biting back something more cutting. He didn’t want that at all. Didn’t want anything to do with either of them and, as Eric now understood it, was currently living in Las Vegas with an underwear model.

“My god why are you so fucking shit,” Michael said as he appeared in the doorway to his room. His hands were balled into fists.

“Michael.”

“You just come barging in here shouting at me and I’ve not even done anything.”

“I didn’t shout.”

“No, you never shout. But you say it in this stupid fucking voice and normal people fucking shout, Eric.”

There were tears threatening now. He hated being yelled at. Some part of him was still waiting for the check. Waiting for the punch or the shove. But Michael wouldn’t. He had to believe that. “Can you please…?”

“I don’t know why I even stay here.” Michael was vibrating with anger. This was normally the point where he slammed his door and started blasting his music at full volume but he took a step forward instead, into the doorway. He was still shorter than Eric, but he was built and pretty intimidating for a 14 year old. “You’re not even my real dad.”

“Michael, I’m the only dad you’ve got. I’m sorry, I…”

“I hate you,” Michael yelled, and then he was running out of the door and down the corridor. He stopped to shove the hockey pads out across the floor again. “I fucking hate you and I’m going to go and live with dad and never see you again.”

“Michael…”

Michael pulled the front door open, threw himself through it, and crashed straight into the chest of Jack Zimmerman.

***

For a moment, they all froze. Jack, in the doorway, hand raised to knock. Michael, a step back from him, gaping like a fish. Eric, half way down the hall, staggering back against the wall.

Before Eric could even really start to process it, Shitty was shoving past and coming down the hallway, scooping Eric up in his arms. Eric let out what was probably a pretty undignified squeal and clung on for dear life as Shitty tried to swing him around in his tiny hallway, realized that wasn’t going to happen, and lowered him back to the ground.

“Oh my gosh,” Eric said, “What on Earth are y’all doing here?”

“Bits,” Shitty said, and then he went in for a hair ruffle, apparently settling for that when the spinning wasn’t a thing that was going to happen. “Bittle, my man! We came to visit.”

Eric managed a glance to the door. Jack was still lurking outside, looking a little lost. Michael was still stood there on the step, staring up in awe. And it was utterly ridiculous. Completely and utterly ridiculous and he’d just had the worst day of his life and he couldn’t cope with this, not right now.

He started to cry.

There was an awkward moment where Shitty froze. It was enough for Eric to pull himself away. To drop down to the floor. To curl in on himself and hide his head on his knees.

He couldn’t do this. He’d lost his piece of crap job. He had literally no money. His son hated him and probably had cause too and now Shitty and Jack were here and he hadn’t seen either of them in so long and he didn’t want them to see him today. Didn’t want them to see him like this.

“Dad…”

“Maybe we should go…”

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I just… can I get a minute?”

“Sure, Brah,” Shitty said. There was a pause then Shitty moving. Quiet voices but Eric ignored them. He put his head down and let himself sob. Just for a minute. Just for one minute, he wouldn’t be okay. Then he’d go out there and talk to them and everything would be alright.

He could do this.

Only he couldn’t, and now he’d started to cry he couldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop imagining Shitty and Jack in his little crappy sitting room. Top lawyer B. Knight and Zimmerman, until recently of the NHL, in his crap hole of a living room with its peeling wallpaper.

They were going to judge him. He knew they would, and they’d be right to. It wasn’t meant to be like this. His life wasn’t meant to be this. He’d wanted…

There were footsteps. Heavy. Cautious. Jack, then. And then the sound of something being set down. He glanced to the side. One of his old, chipped, Falconer’s mugs. When Steve had left them, Eric had dug out all the things from before so that he and Michael would have at least something. Even if the mugs hurt to look at, they never hurt enough to spend the money to replace them.

“If you want us to go, we’ll go. Or I’ll go. I can remove Shitty.”

Eric sincerely doubted that and couldn’t help an undignified snort. But, at the same time, he was sure Jack would try.

“Still thinking all my problems are about you, then?”

“I didn’t…”

“I’ve just…I’ve had a day, Jack. I’ll be okay in a minute or two. I just…just give me a minute, okay?”

Jack didn’t say anything but after a few awkward seconds he did head away again. Eric risked reaching out and grabbing the mug. Coffee. Made just as he liked it - which meant Jack had probably used up the last of his sugar. Ah well, you won some and you lost some.

He sipped it slowly, trying to make it last as he unwound himself.

He was going to have to make them leave, that was all. He was going to have to somehow convince Jack and Shitty that there was nothing wrong with him, though thank you very much for stopping in, and then he was going to have to make them leave.

He didn’t have the faintest idea how he was going to do that. Not now Shitty had been here. Unless he’d changed significantly, he wasn’t going to walk away from this.

But Eric would cope. He always coped.

He slowly pushed himself back up the wall. He took a moment to head into the bedroom to change out of his work shirt, then headed round to the sitting room.

It was very bizarre to walk into his sitting room and see Jack Zimmerman squeezed onto his two man couch with his fourteen year old son. Shitty was sprawled out on the floor drinking a coffee. So they’d probably cleaned him out of coffee too.

“Hey,” he said, doing his best to smile. “Sorry about that, y’all. Rough day.”

“Its fine, we’re sorry,” Jack said, but almost before the words were fully out of his mouth, Shitty had stood up again and pulled Eric into a tight hug. Eric managed to bite down on the tears welling up and close his arms around Shitty instead, returning the hug.

“Brah,” Shitty said against his hair. “Come on, we’re taking you out to eat.”

“Oh, y’all don’t have to.”

“It’s not even a thing,” Shitty said, squeezing him and stepping back. “Mini Bittle, go wear something that’s not sports clothes.”

“I’m not even a Bittle,” Michael said, pulling himself out of the couch. But he did slouch off towards his room. He didn’t even yell and when he got there he shut the door peacefully.

“Not a Bittle?” Jack asked, frowning.

“He kept Steve’s last name. I’m a Bittle again, though.”

Jack nodded, but there was a tightness to his jaw. Like he was acknowledging the message but not fully agreeing with it. He could do what he wanted, he’d forfeited his right to any say on Eric’s life many years ago.

Luckily, before he could say anything else, Michael’s door opened again and he emerged in his least ratty jeans and a button down. Apparently that was acceptable as Shitty began herding them all towards the door. Eric let himself be herded. He didn’t want charity but he did want to eat tonight and tomorrow he’d tell Shitty to back off, that Eric could deal with his own problems.

***

There was a time when Eric thought that the most surreal thing that was ever going to happen to him was Jack Zimmerman running into his room in his graduation robes and kissing him.

He’d very much like to go back to those simpler times.

Now, he was sat in the booth of the diner down the street. It wasn’t exactly a classy place and at least two people were already side-eyeing Jack like they’d come over any minute and ask for autographs though he was clearly busy. Michael was wedged into the booth beside Jack, uncharacteristically silent and looking up at Jack with stars in his eyes. Shitty was pursuing the menu with determination.

They were all silent. It was strange and wrong and he wanted to go home.

In the end it was Michael who broke the silence. He shifted, coughed, blushed and then said “Ah…uh…Mr Zimmerman?”

“You can call me Jack,” Jack said, flashing him a tight little smile. One that Eric immediately categorized as ‘not really comfortable but trying’. But what did he know? It’d been a long time since he claimed any kind of special knowledge of Jack Zimmerman. Maybe he’d changed his entire facial expression repertoire since then.

“Jack,” Michael said, a little reverently. A little too reverently. It’d be adorable to see Michael so taken if it wasn’t with Eric’s ex-boyfriend. “What was it like winning the Stanley cup?”

“It was great,” Jack said with his PR smile. Eric bit the inside of his cheek. Jack had won the year he’d transferred. The year he’d left Eric. Or Eric had left him. They’d said it was mutual but somehow Eric had never felt like it was what he actually wanted. He hadn’t watched the game live, too heartbroken, but he’d bought the DVD when it came out and watched every moment of it obsessively. He probably knew more about Jack’s first Stanley cup win at one point than Jack did.

He’d thrown the DVD out before they adopted Michael.

“I just…” Michael said, but trailed off, apparently unable to finish the conversation. Jack shifted awkwardly.

“So,” Eric said, quickly. “What brings y’all here after all this time anyway?”

“Oh, yeah,” Shitty said, dropping his menu. “Shit, we didn’t say?”

“No, you didn’t. Also, can you maybe watch your mouth around my kid?”

“Dad, I’m 14,” Michael hissed, blushing. Honestly, Eric just took it as a good thing that Michael had called him dad. He tried to avoid it these days.

“Sure,” Shitty said, leaning back in his chair. “Anyway, I had, like, an epiphany you know, brah? Like, I woke up one morning and I just got out of bed and I’d slept with this girl and, fuck, Bitts…”

“Language.”

“She could have been my kid. And it was skeevy as all hell and I was already feeling like…not good, you know, brah? And I stumbled into my bathroom and looked around and I thought, what even is this? I mean, like, if Samwell me could see now me, he’d punch me in the jaw. Like, for real, Bitts. Last month I defended a cereal company because some kid choked to death on some shit they let get into a box. This is not what I’m here for.”

“So…you’re here because?”

“Right. Anyway, I thought to myself, you’ve gotta reconnect, man. Gotta get back to the bro you were and work out what’s really important to you, right? So I figured, road trip. Travel around the US and see all my bros from Samwell. We rolled a dice and you came up first.”

“You let him decide where you were going by rolling a dice?” Eric asked, directing a raised eyebrow at Jack.

“Die. And he made me.”

“Well…it sounds like you need a break,” Eric said, hoping he sounded appropriately commiserating. He got what Shitty was saying, he did, it just sounded like, well, it sounded like another world. Where someone had the money to just take off for a road trip because they were feeling out of touch. Hell, where you got to choose your job based on what you liked instead of what you had to do to get by.

“Totes,” Shitty said. “You know if the bacon’s any good here.”

“It’s bacon,” Eric said with a shrug. He’d stopped being so picky about food about the time the child support payments stopped coming through. Raising a teenage hockey player was really more about quantity than quality.

“Right,” Shitty said, but he looked at Eric suspiciously out of the corner of his eye. Eric looked away. Maybe he could have faked an opinion?. Made himself sound more like the himself they expected him to be? When had he even last spoken to Shitty? Not since his wedding, maybe? “Anyway, Jack, why’d you agree to this?”

“Seemed like something to do,” Jack said, shrugging awkwardly again. “And someone’s gotta make sure this guy doesn’t kill himself.”

“Hey, I resent that,” Shitty said, reaching across the table to swat at Jack. Eric reached up without thinking to stop them then pulled his hand back. “Truth is, I dragged him out here, Bitts. Gotta leave your cave sometimes, Mr. Hockey Robot.”

“I’m not a hockey robot,” Jack said, frowning. “And Robots don’t even live in caves. Fu…get lost, Shitty.”

Eric smiled at the narrowly avoided swear even as he saw Michael bristle at it. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought it up. Michael always hated being talked down to, and lord knew the kid probably heard worse on the ice, but to Eric he was always going to be at least a little bit the eight year old with scraped knees they’d brought home forever.

Though maybe he’d have been better going home forever with someone else.

“Well, I think it’s great that y’all are getting out. Thanks for stopping in.”

“Hey, no problem brah,” Shitty said, throwing an arm around his shoulder. “But come on, what’s the deal with you?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Dude, don’t tell me that,” Shitty said, squeezing him, and Shitty might have been off the ice for longer than Eric but he still clearly kept in shape because where Eric had softened, Shitty was still a wall of muscle.

“Shitts, drop it if he doesn’t want to talk.”

“Dude!” Shitty said. Eric felt his legs swing under the table so he was probably kicking Jack. “Come on. Bitts, you know we’ve got your back, right?”

“Just been a bad day is all,” Eric said with a smile. Bad month. Bad year. Bad decade. All the same, really.

“But…”

“Shits,” Jack said, voice sharp. “If he doesn’t want to talk, drop it.”

There was a moment of awkward silence. Shitty’s arm stayed around his shoulder Eric’s then, slowly, he drew back. It was such a defeated movement that Eric almost pulled him back. Almost apologized. But he really didn’t want to talk about it, after all.

“So,” Michael said, softly. “I kind of like the bacon here.”

***

Eric opened his door the next day to Jack and Shitty, laden down with bags of shopping. He should probably have expected it. He should have known that them letting him change the subject the night before was too good to be true.

"Brah," Shitty said, barging straight past him. "We brought you coffee and shit."

"You really don’t have to," Eric said, but he knew better than to resist. If they thought they could fix his life with a few groceries that, well, it wasn't exactly like Eric was in any position to refuse. He'd been to his former employer already that morning, walking all the way there and back and he didn't have a thing to show for it. Barbara had made sympathetic noises and talked about the economy and basically anything he might be able to do to get that last week's wage back was more than he could afford.

Jack shuffled in behind Shitty. He, at least, had the good grace to look a little shame-faced. But he was still holding several bags.

"It's only fair," Shitty was saying, letting himself into Eric's kitchen. "We drank the last of your coffee last night and you might have already got more, yeah, but we figured it was worth the risk."

"Well, thank you," Eric said. Easier not to resist since Shitty was already unloading the bags. He'd brought fresh veg, bless his soul. Eric wouldn't be able to make it last like he would canned goods but at least they'd eat well for a few days. Maybe he could make some meals and freeze them.

"Is Michael here?" Jack asked, looking around as he deposited his bags. He looked a little nervous at the prospect.

"Nope, last day of school before the break. And then hockey after school." And lord, then Michael home all day. While Eric was home all day. He hadn't exactly told Michael that he'd lost his job yet; in the wake of Shitty and Jack crashing into their lives, they'd almost gotten on and he hadn't wanted to ruin it. It'd been so long.

He loved his son, he really did. Some days he just wished he didn't live with him.

"He any good?" Jack asked. And bless his little hockey loving heart for asking.

"He's okay. I haven't been able to get away to see him play for a little while. Might be good enough for a hockey scholarship for college, if we're lucky."

"But not for the NHL?"

Eric blushed. "Well, I can't exactly afford the training and such that he'd need to have a look in. But he sure loves it. He's got a poster of you in his room."

Jack's turn to blush. "It must be strange, eh."

"Very," Eric said.

"So," Shitty interrupted, apparently done re-supplying Eric's larder. "Real talk, brah. You gonna tell us what's up?"

"It's nothing..."

"Bullshit," Shitty interrupted. "It's fucking something, Brah. Give us some credit."

"I'm fine."

"Shitty..." Jack said, coming to stand a little behind Eric. It was weird how, after so long and after everything, they still seemed to fall into these patterns.

"Jack, brah, you're seriously going to tell me you'll be okay getting in a car in a couple of hours and driving away like this?"

There was a second's hesitation then Jack backed away. Traitor.

"Fine," Eric said, jaw tightening. "Fine. If you need to know, I lost my job."

"Shit, Brah."

"It was a crap job, but I lost it. I don't have any money. Or food, though I guess you've solved that. I don't know...I just...I don't know."

He stepped forward, dodging past Shitty to get to the coffee maker. It was a decrepit old thing, he was honestly surprised that Jack and Shitty had managed to coax a cup out of it the night before but he was a good host and he was going to make them a cup of coffee.

He didn't realise he was crying until Shitty was hugging him, then he couldn't stop, bringing his hands up to press against his eyes while Shitty hugged him from behind.

“Brah,” Shitty said, manhandling him and then Eric really didn’t have a choice but to turn around and bury his face in Shitty’s chest. “Fucking sucks.”

“Yeah,” Eric agreed through his tears.

A second later there was a tentative hand on his back and then Jack was hugging them both. He was stood in his tiny run down kitchen with his ex boyfriend and his ex boyfriend’s best friend hugging him and he couldn’t even summon the will to move. It was the most comforted he’d felt in years.

Which probably said more than he wanted it to about the general state of his life.

“Thanks, guys,” he said, finally, trying to draw away. Jack moved to let him. “I’ll be fine. It’s all just a bit much.”

“Brah, don’t even worry.” Shitty ruffled his hair. “We’ve got you covered.”

“Shitts.”

“You should come on the road trip with us.”

Eric froze. Behind him, he was pretty sure Jack was doing the same thing.

Hell no.

Their pity, their charity, he could understand, but there was no way he was going to spend a week or, hell, however long they were thinking of travelling, in close proximity with Jack. It just wasn’t going to happen. It would be strange and awkward. He hadn’t even seen Jack in so long. Their last memories together were still full of last kisses and regretful goodbyes and why-did-it-have-to-end-this-ways.

Nothing in the world was getting him into that car.

“It’ll be epic, Brah,” Shitty was saying in front of him. “And a complete change, just what you need. And you don’t have to worry about money or any shit because me and Jack’ve got that covered. And then we can set you up with some money until you get a job and you’ll be feeling all relaxed and positive and shit and…”

“Shitty, stop. I’m not coming with you.”

“Bitts…”

“No, Shitty. I’m not. This isn’t college any more. I have responsibilities here. I have a son. I can’t just pull him out of hockey to take off on a road trip. I can’t ask him to leave his friends just because I’ve decided I want to reconnect.”

“But Bitts…”

“I’m not doing it.”

There was a second where Eric thought Shitty was going to argue more, but then he slumped in defeat. It was a sad thing to see but not sad enough to make Eric change his mind.

“Hey,” Jack said, awkwardly. “Can I use your bathroom?” Probably wanted to escape the tension.

“Go ahead,” Eric said, waving him off. “Second door on the right.”

Jack went. Eric went back to brewing the coffee. Shitty slumped against the kitchen counter like his entire world was over and he wanted everyone to know just how terrible it was. Like Eric’s teenage son did. Only when Michael did it, it was more effective.

“Is this a Jack thing?” Shitty asked, eventually. “I mean, he’s out of the room now so you can tell me. Because if you want me to just help without Jack knowing I can?”

“No,” Eric said, because it wasn’t. Though Jack made it worse, of course. It was bad enough to have anyone show up when you were in the mess he was in, but your ex? Who was apparently everything you remember him being and more?

But while Jack made it worse, he wasn’t the only reasons Eric was saying no, he was sure of that. As much as Jack’s opinion mattered, so did Shitty.

“You sure?”

“Positive.” Even as a little part of his head said maybe not. Maybe it was true that he didn’t want Jack’s image of him to be entirely destroyed. Maybe he wanted to cling to the ragged corner of the dream that Jack would one day just swoop in and fix everything for him somehow.

Though maybe it was time to give up that dream anyway. He hadn’t really believed in it in a long time.

By the time Jack came back, Eric had the coffee served up into mugs and they took one each. Eric moved to go sit down, neither of them followed him.

“Come on,” he said, taking a spot on the floor next to the TV so as to leave the seats open for guests. “Make yourselves comfortable.”

Jack followed him, also choosing a spot on the floor. He lowered himself slowly and stuck his legs out in front of himself. Probably in deference to the ankle injury that had ended his career. It made Eric’s heart ache a little to see the proof that time had moved on. In so many ways, Jack didn’t look so different from the man he’d known. Shitty was slower to leave the kitchen.

“It’s just…what about money, Bitts? I’ll give you enough for a few months.”

“No, you won’t,” Eric said. “I’ll call my mom later and we’ll have another argument about how I’m wasting my life but she’ll lend me enough to get by. I’ll be fine.”

“But, Brah, I’ll just give you it. You don’t need to borrow. I can literally just give you the money.”

“And that’s very sweet of you,” Eric said, slowly, “But you can’t ride in here and solve all my problems. That’s not how this works.”

“Then how does it work?” Shitty said. “’Cause as far as I can see, we can help and you just won’t let us because you’re stubborn.”

“It’s nothing to do with that,” Eric said with a sigh. “Shitty, we’re not friends any more. I can’t take your money because I hardly know you.”

“Sure you do.”

“No,” Eric said, setting his mug aside and standing. “I really don’t. I mean, Jack’s my ex. I haven’t spoken to him in…”

“Nine years,” Jack supplied when Eric didn’t finish his sentence.

“But Brah…”

“And I’ve not seen you since my wedding. I mean, Shitts, I’ve adopted a kid since then. I got divorced. I’m not the person you knew and you’re not the person I knew. You’re going to have to come to terms with that. You can’t fix me.”

“But, Bitts, we’re teammates.”

“No, Shitty. We were. In college. Not now. I just… can you just go, please? I can’t do this now. It’s very sweet of y’all to come and see me and I’m glad you did but it’s not a good time. Maybe in a few months but…”

“It’s okay,” Jack said, standing.

“What, no it’s not!”

“Shitty,” Jack said, voice soft. “We talked about this last night. We can’t force help on people who don’t want it.”

“But…”

“Thank you, Jack,” Eric said. He even meant it. It’d be easy to take Shitty’s money. To take Jacks’ money. But it wouldn’t fix a damn thing about his life.

“Brah…”

“Just, Bitts, here.” Jack fumbled for a minute then pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. Eric took it and unfolded it. A number was scrawled across it. “For if you change your mind, okay?”

“I won’t,” Eric said. “But okay.”

***

Eric slammed the door and dropped his bag just inside.

It was okay. It was still okay. It was day two. Day two of being unemployed was too soon to freak out. He’d written up his CV. He’d handed some out. That was a start. He was going to be okay.

It was just that everyone he’d handed one to had met his smile with cold indifference, slipping the paper under a desk without even looking at it. Those things cost money to print. He’d been looking online but applying for jobs on his phone screen wasn’t the easiest thing.

He’d get something, though. He had to get something.

He took a breath, held it for a few seconds, then pushed off the wall. His back was aching from carrying the bag all day. He hated that, those little signs that he wasn’t as young as he used to be. Like the teenage son wasn’t a giveaway.

Thinking of.

The living room was empty but there was music blearing from the back bedroom. Eric made his way over to the kitchenette. There was food, at least. Vegetables still there, though Michael seemed to be making an effort to put a dint into everything else. He was a teenager, it was fine.

He made himself a salad and headed to the couch. Sank back into the cushions.

He was going to be okay. He’d make this okay.

His phone rang.

He pulled it out quickly then dropped it back onto the couch when he saw who it was. Steve. Damnit, he didn’t want to talk to Steve. It was bad enough usually but right now, when he didn’t have a single good thing to say about his life? Oh yeah, hi Steve, my other ex turned up and wanted to pity me so that was a thing. Hey Steve, I don’t know how I’m going to feed our kid this month so would you mind actually paying some of the money you owe me?

That wasn’t a bad idea, actually.

The call had dropped but the phone started ringing again almost straight away and Eric answered it.

“Hey.”

“Eric.” Steve sounded stressed, distracted. Eric bit his lip. A little bit of him heard that and still wanted to rush over there and make it all better. Even though he knew he couldn’t. Even though he knew that was what caused half their problems to start with.

“I wasn’t expecting you to call.”

“You need to talk to the school. They called me instead of you again.”

For a second Eric’s heart jumped, but there was still the pounding of music from down the hall. He was here, probably. Eric should have maybe gone and checked on him when he came in but he just wanted five minutes. He just wanted to eat.

“What did the school want?”

“I don’t care.”

“I know, Steve. And I’m sorry you had to take a call that you didn’t want to.”

“I was in a meeting, Eric.”

“I’m sorry,” Eric said, biting his lip. He hated this. Hated Steve’s tone and his own tone and how he seemed to just roll over and show his belly whenever Steve was upset, but he didn’t know how to stop.

He just wanted it all to stop.

“Talk to the school.”

“I will, I swear, I just need to know what they said.”

“Fine,” Steve said, as though Eric had hugely inconvenienced him. “Something about Michael’s off the hockey team? He punched someone or swore or something? Like I know.”

Eric couldn’t help but think that it was unlikely that Michael’d be thrown out of hockey for punching and swearing. He’d been in enough changing rooms to know the norm. But clearly he wasn’t going to get anything out of Steve so he was going to have to talk to Michael about it.

Why couldn’t it all just stop?

“Thank you. Actually, though, I need to talk to you. I’ve…come into some temporary difficulties. I’m going to need some money.”

“So? I’m not your ATM.”

“Steve, you haven’t paid me a penny for Michael in years. Not a penny.”

“I pay his school fees.”

“And that’s nice and all but going to a good school won’t be much use to him if I can’t feed him. I just need a little. You know you’re supposed to pay me every month.”

“Oh, like that’s fair,” Steve groused, and Eric hated him. Hated his stupid, childish, selfishness. How had he mistaken it for neediness for so long? How had he thought he’d ever be enough to fill the gaping hole of me, me, me inside Steve? “Why should I have to pay for your kid?”

“You signed the adoption papers too. You can see him if you want. He’d love to see you.”

“He’s nothing to do with me. When we got divorced, you should have sent him back.”

“He’s not a stray, Steve. I can’t just send him back. He’s our son.”

“Your son. Anyway, I’m going. I don’t need this, Eric. I’ve got a new life now with someone who isn’t as fucking demanding, I don’t need to hear about you or your kid.”

“Please, Steve. You owe me this. Please.”

There was a pause. This was where, in the old days, Eric would beg. He’d offer anything he had, like Steve hadn’t already taken everything and found it lacking. He’d been so pitiful. Was so pitiful.

Then Steve hung up.

Charming.

He’d just have to beg to his mom instead, then. Right after he found out why Michael was apparently kicked out of hockey.

***

Michael was buried under a pile of blankets. The lights were all out. Music was screaming through the speakers of his laptop which was at an odd angle on the floor. There was also crumpled paper all over the floor. The hockey posters, the ones that’d been all over the walls, torn down. There was a broken hockey stick in the middle of the floor.

He was never giving his son privacy again.

“Baby,” Eric said softly, flipping the light on. The pile under the blankets shifted a little. Slowly, he stepped into the room. He got to the laptop first and killed the sound. Once it was gone, he could hear the crying.

His heart broke a little. Fuck whoever’d hurt his baby like this. He was going to make them pay.

“Baby, what’s wrong,” he said, moving over to the bed. Michael didn’t shout so he dared to take a seat on the edge. As he did he looked down and realized he was standing on Jack Zimmermann’s face. Must have been bad for Michael to have torn even this poster down. Eric picked it up and slowly smoothed it out.

It’d be nice to have Jack here right now. Someone to pull him close and kiss the top of his head and tell him he wasn’t alone.

It was a nice dream. He set the poster aside.

“Come on, sugar,” he said, patting the bump in the blanket that he hoped was Michael’s shoulder. “Talk to me.”

“Get lost.”

It was a start. “I just got a phone call. Something about hockey?”

“Get lost.”

“Okay,” Eric said, softly. “We don’t have to talk about it. Would you like a hug, though?”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Michael hadn’t hugged him in goodness only knew how long, but Michael hadn’t been this upset in goodness only knew how long either. Eric waited. Then Michael pulled the covers back. He looked a mess. Eyes puffy, skin blotchy. He didn’t move closer and Eric didn’t push him.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Michael said.

“Okay,” Eric said, softly. “So…what happened?”

“I punched Dan hard enough to knock out his tooth.”

Well, damn it all. Eric clenched his jaw a little. They weren’t a strictly no contact league but that was definitely going to cause trouble. Especially since Steve clearly wasn’t going to go to bat for them.

“Well…that’s not great,” he said. “But honey, we can take care of this. I’ll phone the school after the break. Talk to the coach. He’ll understand, I’m sure, if you just explain to him why you did it.”

“No.”

“Michael.”

“No. It doesn’t matter why I did it. I did it and I’m not sorry and I don’t even want to play on their stupid team any more. I don’t even want to play hockey.”

It took a real force of will not to snap at that. Not to point out that playing hockey was all Michael had right now. He sure as hell wasn’t going to college on the money Eric had and he doubted Steve would pay. Without a hockey scholarship he wasn’t going to get in anywhere and everything Eric had put into it these last few years would be wasted. Everything he’d given up to buy Michael sticks and pads and oh lord, he didn’t have the money to do this again. The stick in the middle of the room was more than he could replace, smashed into bits and Michael was only a child so he shouldn’t be mad but…

What was he going to do?

He couldn’t make this right.

“Are you excluded, too?”

“First week back.”

Two weeks, then. Eric laughed. He shut it down as soon as it started, before it could get hysterical, but it was still enough to get Michael looking at him with a raised eyebrow.

He’d be home for two weeks, under Eric’s feet. Eating the food they didn’t have. With no hockey. Hockey was gone.

Oh maybe he’d calm down, but Eric’d still have to beg to maybe get him back into the team. Still have to replace that stick, somehow. Maybe he could sell… but he’d sold everything he had that was worth anything. He didn’t have anything. He wasn’t going to be able to make rent this month and he didn’t know what he was going to do.

“Eric?”

He stood up. Left Michael. He couldn’t deal with this now. He didn’t know how to cope with this.

He headed to the bathroom. The only room with a lockable door. Shut himself in and crouched down on the floor. He pressed his forehead to the worn tiles and bit back on a scream.

He couldn’t do this. Not right now. He wasn’t going to be able to fix this and Michael was going to suffer. Michael was going to end up not having a decent education - going to end up stuck in the same hell Eric was in himself right now, qualified only for the dregs of jobs that nobody wanted and unable to provide for himself.

He was the worst dad ever.

Steve was right, he should have let go of Michael when they divorced. He hadn’t wanted Michael to think he wasn’t loved. To have to go through the system again. But maybe that’d be better than having a failure for a dad.

Then something caught Eric’s eye. He stood, slowly. Under the spare toilet roll and god, he’d been such a fool.

He counted the notes. Then stopped because there were too many and he had to breath for a minute.

Jack had left it. It had to be. He’d used the bathroom - he must have hidden the money. Eric hadn’t wanted this. Hadn’t wanted charity.

But wasn’t it like Jack to give him what he needed anyway?

He stood, unlocked the door and went through to his room.

There was a piece of paper on the bedside table. A set of numbers. The same ones he’d memorized in college against the incredibly unlikely scenario that his phone went missing, and wasn’t that just Jack all over? To have the same number after all this time?

Jack picked up on the third ring.

“Hello?”

“I think I want to change my mind.”