“And she have best hair, Jack. Just...best, you know?”
“I know, Tater,” Jack said, focusing on taping his stick. “You’ve told me.”
“Sorry.” Tater shrugged apologetically. “I’m just so happy, you know. Is not everyday you meet a girl like this. I’m think this is forever kind of thing, Jack.”
“And I’m glad for you.” He really was, was the thing. Tater had been having a hard season. There had been injuries and a fight with management and Jack had spent more than one long night sitting with Tater while he got paralytically drunk and cried about how lonely he was. Tater was a good guy, he deserved good things. Jack was glad that things were looking up for him.
He was just sick to death of hearing about Tater’s new girl.
“You ignore him, Tates,” Snowy shouted from across the locker room. “He’s just grumpy because he’s single.”
A few of the guys who were still around chuckled. Most of them were out on the ice already, warming up for morning skate.
“Is true?” Tater asked, looking Jack up and down.
“No, Tater. I’m fine. Snowy’s just being an asshole.”
“Whatever,” Snowy said, wandering over. “I’m just saying, Jack, it’d be okay if, like, you were a bit jealous.”
“I’m not,” Jack insisted, trying not to think about how hard it had been to get out of bed. To walk around his cold, dark apartment alone. To make coffee and eggs for one. To be alone.
It wasn’t like there was anything anyone could do about that.
“Actually,” Tater said, and he looked thoughtful now. “I don’t think I remember when you last have date, Jack.”
“I don’t really date,” Jack said with a shrug. “I mean, I’ve got to focus on my hockey for now, eh? We came so close to the cup last year and this year hasn’t been great but we need to keep our forward momentum and start thinking about next year and...”
“He never hooks up either,” Snowy interrupted. “Sorry kid, you were sounding like a soundbite. I’ve been meaning to talk to you actually.”
“About hooking up?” Jack asked incredulously.
“Well, yeah,” Snowy said, shrugging. “I mean, Jack, there’s nobody here who doubts your commitment. You know that, right? You know we all believe in you.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with hooking up.”
“It shouldn’t have anything to do with it,” Snowy agreed. “But, see, I was talking with some of the older guys and we’re worried about you. You’re so serious all the time. Sometimes, Jack, we’re kind of worried that you think ice hockey is all you get to have in your life.”
“I don’t think that,” Jack blushed.
“Good. Because you’re young, kid. You should be drinking and making out with girls in club bathrooms and stuff.”
That sounded like the least appealing thing in the world, but Jack didn’t know how to tell Snowy that. Didn’t know how to tell him about his teenage years of illicit room parties with the music too loud and anonymous bodies against his. Losing himself in the alcohol and whatever else was handed to him and the feeling of always clinging to his control by only the tiniest of margins.
The feeling of losing control. Of waking up in a hospital room. Of fighting to get back as quickly as he could so he only had to be drafted one year late.
He was not going to be taking up drinking and fucking as hobbies.
But the other bits. The bits Tater was so excited about. Meeting someone and really caring about them. Learning another person. Being let into their lives. Building something together.
Maybe he’d like that.
“I’m fine as I am,” he said, carefully. “I know you mean well, Snowy, but I really don’t want those things.”
“You don’t want sex?”
Not the kind of sex they were thinking. But they both looked scandalised by the very idea that Jack wouldn’t want it that he didn’t dare say that.
“Look, shouldn’t we be on the ice?”
They both gave him knowing looks which made him blush. This conversation was obviously not over yet. But they did let him get up from the bench and head out to the ice so at least he got a reprieve. He’d just have to use it to think of something good enough to distract them both.
The bar was crowded with thumping music and a dance floor packed with undulating bodies. Jack crammed himself as far back into their booth in the VIP section as he could, pasted a smile on his face and took care of people’s coats. It was team building, he had to be here, even if he’d rather be back at the hotel catching up on his Netflix queue.
He was just contemplating going and trying to save one of the rookies from the clutches of a group of women in what looked like slightly toned down bondage gear when Tater slid into the booth.
“Zimboni,” he cried, throwing his arm around Jack’s neck. “You have fun?”
“Yeah,” Jack shouted above the music, forcing a smile. “It’s great.”
“You should come dance.”
“I don’t dance.”
Tater looked at him, confused. “Jack, everyone dance. Just have to hold pretty girl, move hips. Everyone do.”
“I don’t,” Jack said, firmly. The last thing he needed was video of him attempting to dance on youtube.
“Just need find right dance partner. How about that one? Blonde in red dress.”
Jack couldn’t help looking where Tater was pointing. The blonde in question was smiling and undulating to the music, her head thrown back in laughter. She was undoubtedly beautiful and Jack couldn’t have been less interested.
“No?” Tater asked. How about brunette in gold? I’m talk to her earlier, she is history major.”
Jack’s love of history was no secret. He always had his nose buried in one book or another. In a way, it was touching that Tater was trying to set him up with someone who he’d get on with. Was obviously thinking of something beyond a quick fuck for Jack. It’d be sweet if Jack had any intention of going home with anyone.
“Tater, I’m fine.”
“So picky,” Tater sighed. “Just give idea, okay? I’m find better girls but give idea. Which girl in bar is prettiest?”
There was a guy by the bar, small and blond and slim, with jeans that clung to his thighs and Jack would take him home in an instant. He couldn’t say that, of course. Not now, maybe not ever.
“I’m fine, Tater. You don’t have to set me up. Go dance, I’ll watch the bags.”
“So difficult, Jack,” Tater said with a sigh, letting his head roll onto Jack’s shoulder. “Okay, I’m give in. I’m go back to hotel, phone girlfriend. Want to share cab?”
Now that was a suggestion worth following up.
“You like tall girl or short?”
“Tater, I’m driving.”
“Girl at counter looking at you. She seem smart, has glasses. Want me to wave, bring her over?”
“What? Tater, no. Finish your coffee, we need to get to skate.”
“Red head with tattoos wearing your shirt, Jack. You like tattoos?”
“You like blue eyes or brown?”
Jack nearly answered. He hadn’t been expecting the question. Sure, Tater had been asking a lot over the last few weeks, but every time he’d asked a question, there’d been girls in front of them. Options for Jack to look at and select. Right now they were alone in Jack’s apartment, Jack watching tape and Tater messing with his phone...
Only that wasn’t Tater’s phone. That was Jack’s phone. Jack leant across and grabbed it out of Tater’s hands. Turned it around and, shit.
“You are not signing me up for a dating app.”
“Yes, am,” Tater said, diving across the couch. Jack leant back, holding his phone away, but Tater was taller than him and could manoeuvre more, climb up Jack to snatch the phone which was kind of unfair and a little hot and this entire situation was ridiculous and maybe people had a point about him needing to get laid if he was thinking this way about Tater. Not that Tater wasn’t his best friend but he was also the opposite of Jack’s type.
He let Tater get the phone just so he would sit up and retreat back to his side of the couch. Let Jack get it to together.
“So,” Tater said. “You going to help me fill out dating app or you make me guess? I’m fill in anyway but...”
“Please, Tater. I don’t want to date.”
“I’m just want help you!” Tater said, waving the phone around. “When things are bad for me, you help me. You’re good friend, Jack. Best friend. Now you’re lonely and I’m want help you. Please.”
“I’m not lonely.”
“Jack, I’m know lonely. You’re lonely.”
Jack didn’t say anything because, yes, he was. Tater was his friend, it wasn’t right for Jack to carry on lying to him, as much as he might want to. And he was lonely.
“So, I’m set up app. You like blonde or brunette?”
“I’m think blonde but maybe redheads? Is hard to know, Jack. But I’m think...”
“I like men.”
For a second, everything was silent.
“You can’t set me up a dating profile, because I don’t want to date women. I want to date men.”
“Jack, you do know is not middle ages. There are dating apps for gay men. I’m find you one now.”
Jack looked up. He’d gone through this scenario a million times in his head. Thought about everything Tater might say to him. How Tater might react. He’d never in a million years imagined Tater just blowing past it as though Jack had just expressed a desire for a partner with a big nose, not a penis.
“No. Look, you’re not getting this. I can’t date a guy, Tater.”
“Why not?” Tater asked, eyebrow raised. “This America, Jack. You can date who you like. Is no law says you can’t.”
“I know, but it’s not about laws. It’s about my career.”
“What, you think Falconer’s not want you if you gay?”
“Maybe? The fans wouldn’t. And I’d be the first, Tater. The press would eat me alive. I couldn’t deal with that.”
Tater frowned, but he slowly lowered the phone. Let Jack take it out of his hands. He got rid of the half completed dating profile and deleted the app while Tater was processing then sat on his phone for good measure so it’d be safe.
When he turned his attention back to Tater, the other man was watching him with a sad, serious expression. So maybe he did understand, at last.
“Jack, is too sad!”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed, offering Tater a small smile. “But I’m okay, right? I mean, I get a little sad but hockey won’t be forever. When I’m done, I’ll find someone. It’s just for now.”
“Too sad,” Tater said, shaking his head. “You need hug, Zimmboni.”
Jack nodded because, yeah, he kind of did. The next thing he knew he was being grabbed up into strong arms and squeezed to within an inch of his life. He laughed a little then let himself relax into it. After all, this might be the only contact he had for a while. Best to savour it.
Honestly, Jack had thought that, with coming out, the entire thing would be over and Tater would leave him alone. He’d been looking forward to getting back to a life where he wasn’t called on to answer questions about his dating preferences every few minutes. After all, he couldn’t date. It was too risky. It wouldn’t be fair to ask someone to hide.
He did not expect to open his door a week later to Tater shoving a phone in his face.
“I’m find it,” Tater exclaimed. “Fix your problem.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asked, then it hit him. “No, Tater, we talked about this. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
“You’re say, but I don’t believe,” Tater said, letting the door slam closed behind him. “Just look at website, Jack. Think you agree with me.”
Jack looked down at the phone then keyed in Tater’s passcode. He spent a second looking at the website, then he started laughing.
“What?” Tater said, clearly annoyed. “I’m solve problem. What so funny, Zimmermann?”
“Tater, this is a sugar daddy website.”
“Yes?” Tater said. “So?”
Jack shook his head. Obviously, Tater had no idea what this was, exactly. He’d been in America for a long time now but some things still slipped by him. “It’s prostitution. It’s for rich old men to give young women money to fuck them but they pretend it’s not that by saying they’re supporting them.”
“I’m know that,” Tater said, rolling his eyes. “But not just girls, have boys too. Is why it’s perfect.”
“Think about it, Jack. Boy you find, he not want people to find out he’s using website, yes? Big problem for him if everyone find out he’s selling himself on internet. So he wants secret, you want secret. You get boyfriend, get laid. He gets someone help him through college. It good for everyone.”
“But...I don’t want a fake boyfriend,” Jack protested. He wanted a real boyfriend. He wanted someone to love him. Someone who could love him back.
“I’m know,” Tater said, his entire face softening. “I’m know what you want, Jack. But this is best you can have, yes?”
“No. No, this...I just can’t, Tater. Take it back.”
“Well, sorry,” Tater said with a shrug and, shit, what had he done.
“I’m set up already. Talk to some boys. Some just rude, some pushy. But I’m find a few I think you might like.”
“Delete it. Seriously, delete it now.”
“Only if you look first,” Tater said, holding his hand out for the phone. “Let me show you, maybe you like?”
“I can’t believe this,” Jack grumbled, but he handed the phone back. “But if you’re going to make me do this, let me get my laptop.”
Ten minute later, they were sat at the dining table with three profiles open. The site was classy, minimalist. You had to pay a fee to contact a guy, though they obviously got to use the service for free. It showed only your first name and Tater had used a photo of Jack from a barbecue last year, cut to show only his abs.
He’d been talking to a lot of boys, but he pulled up three profiles for Jack.
The first one was easily dismissed. Cameron lived too far away to easily commute and he was more built than Jack. The second, Brandon, lived in Boston. He had red hair, a spattering of freckles and a come-hither glance. He was closer, but Jack still had no problem clicking away from his profile.
Then Tater opened Eric’s profile.
Jack knew right away that he was in trouble.
Eric had big, brown eyes. He looked almost nervous in his picture. Shy, and not in a put-on, come-hither type way. He was obviously strong but also small enough that Jack would be able to pull him in close and put his chin on Eric’s head. And he was at Samwell, only 20 minutes away and Jack’s mom’s school.
He wanted to close the page. To tell Tater he’d missed the mark by a mile, but instead he found himself scrolling down.
Eric enjoyed baking, Beyonce and ice sports. Eric was southern. He grew up figure skating and had played ice hockey in his first year of college but didn’t any more.
Jack glanced across to Tater.
“Want watch his game on youtube?”
Tater had obviously looked it up in preparation because it wasn’t long before they were watching last year’s Samwell hockey team. Eric was obvious, at the shortest. The name on his back said Bittle. Eric Bittle.
He was good:, fast, and with a good sense of the puck. It was also immediately obvious why he was no longer playing when a d-man came at him and Eric dropped right down on the ice in panic.
“What the hell was that?” Jack found himself saying. “Why isn’t anyone helping him with that? His Captain shouldn’t let him play like that.”
“Captain doesn’t let him play like that,” Tater pointed out. “Is why he’s off the team.”
“But...his Captain should have helped him. If any of you had a block like that, I’d put in the time to work through it with you and I’m only an A. He was good. Did you see, he had such soft hands. Why didn’t they help him.”
“Don’t know,” Tater shrugged, clicking back through to the tab with Eric’s profile, then into some kind of messenger. Clearly, Tater had been doing his homework. “I’m talk to him a little, make sure he’s good guy. Says he was going to live in hockey frat but, since not in team, he can’t. Says he needed scholarship money and now is gone. He needs someone, Jack.”
“Want him go to school back in Georgia. He not even tell them he’s not on the team, too scared they make him go home. It’s not easy to be gay in Georgia, he says.”
Jack could bet it wasn’t. Maybe even as bad as being gay in the NHL.
But he couldn’t. This was madness. He couldn’t buy a guy’s affection. Not even a little of it. He didn’t want that kind of love.
“No, Tater. I mean, I know it sucks for him and I’m sorry, but no. I can’t help him.”
“I mean it.”
Tater sighed, then reached out and shut the laptop. He looked defeated, which Jack didn’t like. “I know you were only trying to help, but this isn’t the way, Tater. I’m fine. Eric’ll be fine. He’ll find someone to help him.”
“Maybe not someone nice, though,” Tater said. And he seemed genuinely upset. Obviously, because Tater always loved immediately and with all his heart. He’d decided within five minutes of meeting Jack that they were going to be best friends forever. Of course he’d want to save the college student on the sugar daddy website.
“Maybe you can send him some money then, eh? Help him out. But I can’t Tates, I’m sorry.”
Tater sighed. “Well, I’m try. Come on, Zimmermann, let’s make dinner. I’m tell you what best girlfriend in world do today.”
“Sure,” Jack said, slinging his arm around Tater’s shoulder. “I could eat.”
Jack couldn’t sleep.
He was lying alone in his bed and his head was spinning. It had been all evening. Just kept going back over and over again to that stupid website. To Eric Bittle with his shy smile and fast skates. To Tater’s distress that Eric might get hurt. That he needed someone to care for him.
Jack couldn’t. There was no way.
Tater would take care of him. Tater took care of everyone. He’d send Eric money and pay his tuition and his rent or whatever and then Jack would be able to forget him. Or maybe, if Tater and Eric were friends, Jack would meet him one day. Meet him when there wasn’t a stupid website between them. Maybe he’d tell Eric about this and Eric’d laugh and then, later, he would look up at him with those big brown eyes and touch him with those soft hands.
If it happened like that, it’d be okay. Jack would be able to give in to it without any guilt. Would be able to introduce Eric to his parents. Let Eric really be his boyfriend.
Only he couldn’t have that either.
Jack rolled over, then he sighed and got up. There was only one thing for it, he was going to have to delete the account. If it was gone, he wouldn’t have to think about it.
He opened the laptop, left abandoned. It was still logged in. Still open on the chat with Eric and, without meaning to, Jack started scanning it.
Eric talked a lot. That was good, since Jack didn’t. Tater hadn’t said much – mostly asked questions. It was probably to make this handover easier, not that Jack intended to reply. But Tater hadn’t said anything that he wouldn’t have, if he were interested.
Which he wasn’t.
Only it was open, so he read it. Read all about Eric. They’d only been talking for three days but Eric just handed so much of himself away. He talked about his family, his fears. He was upfront about what he wanted and needed in terms of money.
Jack could see why Tater liked him. But he was Tater’s friend. This was Tater’s job to solve. Jack’s only job was to close the account.
And he was going to do it, he really was, but just as he reached the bottom of the chat, a new notification popped up.
Eric: Hey, sweetpea. You’re not usually on this late.
Jack looked at it. He should delete the account. He should go back to bed. But that would be rude. Eric hadn’t done anything wrong and Jack shouldn’t punish him. He should just tell him what Tater did then extract himself. Promise Tater’s help and go away.
Instead, he replied.
Jack: Couldn’t sleep. What about you?
Eric: Oh, I’ve been over at the hockey Haus with my friends. They’re having a kegster and, let me tell you, there are a lot of people making bad life choices in that house tonight.
Jack: I hope you’re not making bad choices though.
Eric: Why, Jack, I would never!
Eric: I’m glad you’re online anyway.
Eric: I missed you today when we didn’t talk.
Eric: That’s probably strange, that I miss you and I don’t even really know you.
Eric: I’m sorry.
Jack: No, don’t be. It’s sweet.
Eric: I’m glad you think so <3
Eric: You’re sweet.
Eric: Like maple syrup.
Eric: Can I tell you a secret?
Jack:> Sure. Anything.
Eric:> I’m a little tipsy.
Jack:> That’s hardly a secret.
Eric:> Shush you.
Eric:> That wasn’t it.
Eric:> Let me talk.
Eric: When I set this up I was pretty sure it was a bad idea.
Eric: My friend got me to do it.
Eric: Well, she’s not really my friend.
Eric: A girl from my class.
Eric: And she makes money like this.
Eric: And I was so scared.
Eric: The first few people who contacted me were complete perverts.
Eric: And, like, older than my dad.
Eric: And I knew what this website was like but I didn’t want to be with someone I hated just for money.
Eric: Even if I had to drop out and move back to Georgia.
Eric: And I was feeling so low and suddenly you were there.
Eric: And you ask me about me and you’re so sweet.
Eric: I’m really glad you found me, Jack.
Jack: I’m glad too, Eric.
Jack: It’s late, you should go to sleep.
Eric: Sure, sweetpea. If you say so. Can I talk to you again tomorrow?
Jack: Yeah. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.
Jack: Goodnight, Eric.
Eric: Sweet dreams, Jack. <3
The next morning, Jack walked up to Tater in the locker room and held out his phone.
“Here, put the app on.”
Tater blinked, then grinned, then got right to installing a sugar daddy dating website on Jack’s phone.
Eric let the door slam shut behind him am he leant against it, taking a moment to just sink back and let himself relax into the wood. Goodness but he was tired.
He heaved a sigh and pushed himself back to his feet. No rest for the wicked, after all. He still had an essay to write and his roommate would probably be back in an hour or so and blaring loud music. Not for the first time, Eric wished he’d kept his hockey scholarship just so he could be living in the Haus.
He dumped his bag on the desk then pulled of his work shirt and tossed it into the hamper. He had another one clean over the back of the chair for tomorrow’s shift Someone had splashed coffee on him today anyway so he’d need to do a wash.
Maybe he could write his essay while he waited for the washing. The noise of the machines could be soothing.
Or maybe he should just get his ass in gear and write it now.
Instead, he pulled a shirt over his head and fell backwards onto the bed. He’d kill for a few hours sleep but, failing that, he picked up his phone and opened up the app. He’d only take a few minutes. Just check in. It wasn’t really skiving from responsibilities.
Jack was on and Eric bit the inside of his cheek to try and press down on how that made him feel. Jack was another job. He wasn’t something that should make Eric’s heart light up like this.
Only Jack got in the first word before he could and Eric couldn’t help but grin at that.
Jack: Hey. How are you today?
Eric: Oh, I’m just fine.
Eric: And yourself.
Eric: Only okay???
Eric: Oh my goodness.
Eric: Tell me about it.
Eric: I’ve had class all morning.
Eric: Work all afternoon.
Eric: And I’ve still got to do an essay.
Eric: And study, of course.
Eric: There just are not enough hours in the day.
Jack: Where did you say you work?
Eric: Just in a little coffee shop in campus.
Eric: They fit me in for a few hours. It’s okay.
Jack: I’ve been thinking.
Eric: Yes, sweetie?
The dots appeared, like Jack was typing, but when nothing appeared for a few minutes Eric put the phone down and went to fetch his laptop. He’d gotten used to pauses like this from Jack. It generally meant he was trying to think how to word something difficult.
Jack was sensible. He liked to get things right. He was sweet and the way he always had something insightful to say to Eric made Eric feel like he really listened.
Basically, he was the exact opposite of the kind of guy Eric had expected to pick up on a sugar daddy dating website. Including the money bit. Not that he was upset that Jack didn’t pay him for their chats. Honestly, even when he’d signed up he’d felt a little dirty about it. Like, he knew just what his mother would say if she found out. But lots of people did it these days and Eric needed the money, after all.
It just didn’t feel right. Not for him.
He climbed onto the bed with his laptop and picked up the phone, opening it. Someone else had messaged him and taken him out of his conversation with Jack. He sent the new guy a sorry, not interested, then clicked back into Jack’s thread.
Jack: Would you like to meet up?
Eric’s heart fluttered.
Oh, they were there. He’d wondered when this was going to happen. Because they’d met on a sugar daddy website so of course Jack was going to want to meet him. Was going to want to...do things.
Eric really had not been thinking things through when he’d signed up for this service. He’d been panicking. Thinking about money and having to go home and how terrible everything was.
Jack: Maybe I could take you to dinner?
Jack: I know a nice place. I think we need to talk.
Eric grabbed his pillow and buried his face under it.
He wanted to meet Jack. He wanted, more than he knew what to do with, to meet this sweet, awkward guy who he’d been chatting to for nearly two weeks now. Who made him feel special and heard. Who seemed to actually care about him. He wanted this. He wanted Jack to be as hot as the headless photo on his bio suggested. He wanted Jack to want him. He wanted to be boyfriends and hold hands and he wanted to bake pie for Jack and have sweet kisses.
He wanted to delete the sugar daddy dating app and throw his phone away. Because whatever he wanted, Jack had come looking for something. However sweet he seemed, he had expectations. He thought Eric was selling and he was in line to buy.
And, the worst thing was, Eric might have to sell. He didn’t have a lot of other options here. And if he had to sell, better to Jack than one of the 40 year old men who kept sending him dick pics.
He fished for his phone.
Jack: I’m sorry, is it too soon?
Eric: No honey. I’m sorry. I got distracted.
Eric: I’d love to meet you. <3
Eric: When’s good for you?
Jack: I can do Friday evening?
Eric: Sounds perfect.
Jack: I’ll book you an uber, if that’s okay. The restaurant is here in Providence. Could I get it to pick you up at 6?
Eric: Sure, honey, thank you <3
Eric: Tell them to pick me up outside Annie’s.
Eric: That’s where I work.
Jack: Okay. I will.
Jack: Done. See you on Friday.
Eric: Friday, sweetie. I’m looking forward to it!
Eric clicked out of the app. For a second he lay there, sprawled on his back. He’d done it. He was going to go and meet Jack. He was going to actually follow through on this stupid idea.
Part of him wanted to run right on over to the Haus and tell them what he’d done. Beg them to help him get out of this. To find another way. But they all knew his financial problems. If there was another way, they’d have found it by now.
And Jack, sweet Jack.
And maybe they could still do the other things too. Maybe it wouldn’t be terrible. Maybe they’d hold hands and trade sweet kisses and maybe Jack would be gentle with him. Would be kind.
Eric pushed himself up and off the bed. No chance of writing the essay now. He’d go put his washing in the machine then take a jog. Clear his mind.
Hope he hadn’t just made a terrible mistake.
Eric stopped on the sidewalk outside the restaurant to adjust his suit one last time. He’d gotten changed and re-changed about four times before deciding on it. He’d have liked something less formal, really, but every time he thought about that he’d gone back to the restaurant’s website and then ended up in the suit again.
He just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that, whatever he did, this was going to go badly. That Jack would look at him and laugh. That this would turn out to all be a cosmic joke, made at Eric’s expense.
He checked his phone again. He was at the right restaurant, at the right time. He just had to go in. Jack had booked them a table under the name Zimmermann, which was oddly familiar but Eric couldn’t quite place it. He just had to go into this impossibly expensive restaurant and ask for Zimmermann.
He could do this.
He also wished Jack had just come up to Samwell and they’d gotten brunch at Jerry’s. He knew it’s be impossible to do that and keep what he was doing hidden but.
Someone came out of the door. An older man with a laughing, younger woman draped over his arm. Diamonds sparkled in her ears and her dress probably cost more than Eric’s entire wardrobe.
What was he doing here? This was going to be a mess.
Only he wanted to meet Jack. He really wanted to meet Jack. And he didn’t want to think of Jack’s face if he ran. Didn’t want to let him down.
Eric darted forward, grabbing the door before it could swing shut, and let himself in. There was a waitress waiting and she smiled at him in a way that didn’t quite seem to meet her eyes. He wished the ground would open up and swallow him.
“Hey,” he said, trying to smile. “I’m meeting a friend here. He booked a table under the name Zimmermann.”
“One moment, please,” the waitress said. She clicked around at something on the tablet on her hand then smiled and lead him into the restaurant. He shuffled after her, trying not to stare too much.
This place was definitely out of his league. Somehow, it didn’t seem like the kind of place Jack would pick. Maybe he didn’t know Jack so well after all.
Their table was hidden in the back, which was nice at least. A little less intimidating. And then Eric saw him.
The second he locked eyes on Jack, the name clicked. Of course, Jack Zimmermann. Hockey player Jack Zimmermann. That explained so much about some of their early conversations. Frankly, he was shocked at himself for not having realised it earlier.
Oh goodness, but if the boys ever found out about this, they’d never stop chirping him. Ransom and Holster had a picture of Jack Zimmermann on their wall and now, here, Eric was on a date with him.
Jack looked up, met his eye. He smiled nervously and Eric smiled back, gave him a little wave. It was enough to have Jack out of his chair. Stepping forward to shake Eric’s hand as they drew level and oh, he had nice hands. Big and strong. Eric liked those hands.
“Hey,” Jack said, stepping back a little too quickly. “I mean, hello. Eric, right?” He had a soft French accent that did funny things to Eric.
“Yes, that’s me,” Eric said, sliding into the chair across from Jack. “It’s good to finally meet you.”
“You too,” Jack said, smiling. His eyes crinkled when he really smiled and that did funny things to Eric too. A lot of things about this man seemed to do strange things to Eric and he was okay with that.
“If this is everyone you’re waiting for, Mr Zimmermann, I’ll leave you the menus. Would you like to hear the chef’s special?”
“Maybe later,” Jack said, eyes darting around the room. Eric watched him accept a menu and twist it between his fingers. Nervous. Jack was nervous. That made Eric’s own nerves about a million times better. At least he wasn’t the only one.
“Okay. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything,” the waitress said, then she was gone and they were alone.
Well, them and an entire restaurant full of diners. So, for some values of alone.
“I’m glad you made it,” Jack said. He spoke slowly, like he was afraid to tripping over his words. Eric had heard that voice before in interviews. Jack was well known for his careful, put together answers. He was the kind of guy who could talk to you for half an hour and say nothing.
Eric didn’t really want to talk to media Jack Zimmermann. He wanted to talk to Jack Zimmermann who asked him how his day was every evening and didn’t get pop culture references.
“Of course I made it, sweetpea. I mean, I’m not saying there wasn’t a moment outside the door where I nearly got myself intimidated out of it but I’d go through a lot worse to see you.”
“Yeah,” Jack said, hunching in on himself a little. “This place is a little much, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Eric agreed. But goodness, Jack looked so glum. He dared to reach out over the table and grab Jack’s hand. Jack just looked for a minute before turning his hand palm up then closing his fingers around Eric’s, squeezing them.
A very attractive boy was holding his hand. Eric was all aflutter.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why did you pick it?”
“Oh,” Jack said, and bless his heart, he even flushed a little. “I kind of asked a friend for recommendations. For somewhere special.”
“I wanted to take you somewhere nice. I normally just go to diners and things. Places with booths where you can sit at the back and not be noticed but I wanted to give you something special.”
“Oh honey,” Eric said, squeezing Jack’s hand. “I’m getting to meet you, finally. We could be eating from a food truck and it’d still be special.”
Jack smiled at that. Uncurled a little. Eric resisted the urge to reach over and run his fingers through Jack’s hair, but only just.
Then Jack sat up a little and opened the menu so Eric did too. He’d hoped, vaguely, that this might look better from the other side of the menu but it looked worse. To start with, Eric could eat for a week on the price of an entree here. Everything seemed to have a million ingredients, half of them that Eric had never tried, and some of the menu was in French. Not that the French should be a problem with Jack sat there but...
Eric glanced up. Jack looked as mystified by the menu as Eric did. He looked up to meet Eric’s eye and shrugged as if to say, ‘what can I do? I don’t get it either.’
And Eric giggled. He didn’t mean to, but this entire thing was ridiculous.
“Jack, honey,” Eric said, setting his menu down. “I really appreciate that you tried to do something special for me, but I don’t want to eat here.”
Something uncoiled in Jack. Some tension he’d obviously been carrying. “Oh, good, because I kind of don’t either.”
Eric shook his head. He reached over to take Jack’s menu and put it on top of his own, then took Jack’s hand again. He didn’t think he was ever going to get tired of holding this man’s hand.
“So, I hear you know some good dinners around here somewhere. I could kill for a burger right about now.”
“Can we do that?” Jack asked, glancing around. “Just go?”
“Well, if we do, I’m not saying you’re ever going to be able to get a reservation here ever again. But does that really matter to you?”
That obviously did not matter to Jack. He stood and Eric followed him quickly. They moved around the room, trying not to make eye contact. At the door, the waitress said something to them, but Jack clearly had escape on his mind and didn’t stop so Eric followed him, spilling out into the Providence street.
Somehow, the air seemed clearer now the restaurant was behind them.
“Come on,” Jack said, reaching around to put a hand on the small of Eric’s back. “Let’s go quickly before anyone gets cross. I’m parked down here.”
“Okay,” Eric said, letting himself be guided. Some distant voice was telling him that getting into a stranger’s car on a first date was a bad plan, but this was Jack. He couldn’t help but feel safe with him.
Jack drove a dad car. The kind of car that was selected for boot space and miles per gallon rather than speed. Eric wasn’t as all surprised.
He also wasn’t at all surprised that some of the tension stayed in Jack’s shoulders after they were in the car. After all, he knew a little about Jack Zimmermann. He also knew a little about putting people at ease.
The Aunt Judy Jam debacle got them to the dinner and Shitty’s latest shenanigans got them seated. By the time Eric was half way through the last Epikegster and a third of the way into his fries, Jack started joining in with stories of his own. Stories about them being on the road. About jokes they’d played on each other. He didn’t use any names or any specific, but it was very obvious who he was talking about.
By the time they were into dessert, slabs of apple pie and cream that weren’t as good as Eric’s but, well, who was, they were also into childhood anecdotes. Most of Jack’s seemed to involve him falling on his face in front of famous hockey stars.
Eric was just finishing up on the joys of soviet calisthenics as they related to ice skating when Jack asked him if he missed it.
“Yeah. It seems like it was a big part of your life.”
“Oh, it was,” Eric said, smiling. “I mean, it’s not something you do casually in Georgia. My daddy would have loved me to take to football instead but ice skating was always special to me. I guess I do miss it. The boys get me ice time now and then but it’s not the same.”
“Have you thought about joining a no-contact league. Just for fun, I mean?”
“There aren’t any close by,” Eric said. He’d looked, back when it first became obvious that he wasn’t going to make the team again. “And, besides, it’s not like I have time. Between school and work and such, well, I barely have time to breath, let alone ice skate.”
Jack started to say something then stopped himself. Bit his own lip. Then, slowly, he reached for his jacket. Searched in it. Took something out.
Oh. They were at this point in the evening, then. Eric forced himself to sit up a little straighter.
“I’m sorry,” Jack said, and, no, that was not what Eric wanted to hear. He was sorry for what? Did he not want to see Eric again? Had he decided this was all too much trouble?
“Sorry for what, sweetpea.”
“I’m sorry if I’m making this awkward,” Jack said, frowning down at his hands. “But I think we need to be honest with each other.”
“Honesty is important,” Eric agreed. Gut twisting. Then Jack was putting the cheque down on the table and, oh, that was a big number. “Honey.”
“I checked, and this should cover your school fees for the rest of your degree. And your housing. I know your parents give you some money so with their help, you shouldn’t have to worry any more.”
Eric bit his lip. A traitorous tear was welling up in the corner of his eye. Oh, he wanted that money. He wanted to not worry. Things might still be tight, his parents didn’t send him that much, but he could not work. He could focus on his studies and he’d have the time and energy to bake again and...
“What do you want in exchange?”
“I want...” Jack stopped himself. He lifted a hand to run through his hair. “I mean, I don’t need anything. I’m giving this to you.”
“Honey, you can’t do that.”
“I really can. And I’m going to. But, I like you. If you like me, I thought maybe we could go on dates? I’ve had a great time tonight. We could maybe do this again? And other things. There are museums and I’d like to take you skating. If you want to.”
“I want to,” Eric said, quietly. It sounded lovely, actually. A lump sum as a downpayment on his time and all he had to do was be Jack’s boyfriend. Honestly, he’d probably be Jack’s boyfriend for free.
“Okay,” Jack said. “There are a few things, though. You can’t tell anyone about me.”
“Well of course, honey,” Eric said, he looked up to meet Jack’s eyes. “I would never out you.”
“I mean, Eric, you really can’t tell anyone. Not your friends, not your family.”
“I know, Jack. I mean, I understand why you can’t come out. It’d be such a big deal, first gay hockey player, and all that; I would never put you under that kind of pressure. I wouldn’t do it to anyone but not to you.”
Jack was silent, and when Eric looked up he realised Jack was staring at him with wide eyes. “Jack?”
“You...you know who I am?”
Eric laughed. “Yes, honey. I know who you are. There’s a poster of you up in the hockey house.” He wouldn’t say where just in case Jack ever had cause to visit.
“Okay,” Jack said, softly, clearly recalibrating. “But it’s okay. You won’t tell.”
“I won’t tell,” Eric agreed. “And I’d like to carry on seeing you. I had a great time tonight.”
“Me too,” Jack said, smiling again. He lay the cheque on the table and Eric picked it up. Slid it into his own jacket pocket.
Deed done. He was bought and paid for, Jack Zimmermann’s boyfriend.
He almost liked the sound of that.
Eric: Good morning, sweetpea.
Eric: How are you feeling this morning.
Jack: Pretty good.
Eric: Oh, I’m just dandy.
Jack: No work to be doing?
Eric: I’ll have you know, my Zimmermann, that I am up to date with all my assignments.
Eric: It’s much easier when I don’t also have to work retail.
Jack: So, you’re free today?
Eric: Sure, honey.
Eric: You want me?
Jack: It’s optional skate.
Jack: I was thinking I could miss it?
Jack: We could take a walk by the river?
Jack: If you’d like to.
Eric: That sounds perfect <3
Eric: I’ll get the train over.
Jack: It’s okay.
Jack: I’ll call you an uber.
Eric: It’s fine, sweetie.
Eric: Public transport doesn’t take that much longer.
Eric: And it’s just cheaper.
Eric: And I can do this reading on the way.
Jack: Booked it.
Jack: You can read in the back of the car.
Eric: Can’t wait to see you again.
Jack: Me too.
Eric did not, of course, read his textbook in the back of the car. Instead, he spent the journey pinning new recipes to he and his mom’s shared board. There was a cookie recipe based on a peach cobbler that he really wanted to try and something new from that one woman who always spent too long in her blog posts talking about how nauseatingly perfect all her children were but she was a true innovator when it came to muffins.
He also, more often than he might like, gazed out of the window and daydreamed about Jack Zimmermann.
Jack Zimmermann with his shy smile. Jack Zimmerman with his big, strong hands. Jack Zimmermann and his big something else entirely. This was going to be their 5th date. They’d been to a museum. They’d gotten frozen yogurt. They’d brushed shoulders and kissed in hidden corners and Eric wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting from their arrangement but not this.
Not that this wasn’t good. This was very good. But not what he’d been expecting.
By the time the uber pulled up, Eric’s head was just about full of thoughts of Jack. Which wasn’t so different from how he normally was these days, if he was being honest, but had the bonus that when he stepped out onto the street, Jack was there waiting for him.
Jack gave him a small, self-conscious wave, glancing around at the people milling around.
Eric took his own glance and none of them were really looking so he stepped in quickly and wrapped his arms around Jack, squeezing as tight as he dared, and for a second, Jack’s arms came around him. Jack was so big. Eric wasn’t exactly tiny, he was an athlete after all, but Jack made him feel small. Small and safe and protected.
Then they were stepping back, smiling at each other sheepishly. Maybe in some other place, if they knew Jack wasn’t going to be recognised, they’d be able to lean in for a kiss now. They’d be able to take each other’s hands as they walked.
Not today, but it was a nice dream to have. Instead, Eric stepped in close and let his shoulder bump against Jack. Just enough contact to let Jack know he was there. Just enough contact to make Jack smile.
“Hey,” he said, “Lord am I happy to see you.”
“You too, Bittle,” Jack said, smiling at the floor. “Come on, let’s walk.”
Eric fell into step easily, staying as close to Jack’s side as he dared. It wasn’t hard to find an excuse, with the wind cutting through his jacket. It wasn’t like it was a bad jacket, either, just one suitable for Georgia.
Either way, an excuse to be close was good. Jack seemed to enjoy it too, leaning into Eric’s space where he could. They fell into easy conversation, a little about Eric’s school work, a little about Jack’s season. He’d won the last two games and got a goal in one and two assists in the other so he was feeling pretty good about life. Eric had taken to watching Jack’s games when he could. Normally alone, in his room. It was easier than trying to explain to his hockey friends why he was suddenly interested in the Falconers.
Also, Jack had taken a hit to the face the other week and Eric was pretty glad nobody had been there to see how worried he was after that.
On one particularly cold stretch, hidden behind some warehouses, Jack must have been feeling particularly brave as he snaked an arm around Eric’s middle. Eric lent into it, relaxing into Jack’s side.
“Eric,” Jack said, cutting into a story about Lardo’s latest art piece and an all night bedazzling session, “Are you cold?”
“Oh, yes.” Eric shrugged. “Honey, I’m used to Georgia. It’s always cold up here. I’m used to it.”
“No but, right now, you’re shaking.”
Eric paused a second. Yeah, he was. He’d hardly noticed it with all the Jack that was going on. Which was kind of embarrassing in its own way.
“It’s okay. I’m just not used to the cold.”
“Time to break out your winter coat, eh?”
Eric snorted. This was his winter coat. Or as close as he had to one, anyway. He glanced up to see Jack watching him, worried. That wouldn’t do.
“I’m just fine, honey. Don’t you worry about me. Normally I only have to walk across campus and I’m inside almost all of the time. This jacket’s fine.”
“You don’t have anything warmer?”
“I’m okay like this.”
“Eric, it’s going to snow soon. You’re already too cold and we’re not even really into winter.”
“Jack,” Eric said. He stopped walking and Jack stopped with him, turning to look at him. It was quiet here. Industrial building all around them and it was late enough in the day that nobody else was around. “I’m fine, sweetie. Let me take care of myself.”
“I just don’t want you to be cold,” Jack said, reaching a hand to cup Eric’s cheek, and Eric’s heart fluttered. This boy. This beautiful, loving boy. “Here.” Then Jack stepped back. He pulled his own coat off his back and swung it around, draping it over Eric’s shoulders and, goodness, it was warm. The combination of thick wool and Jack’s lingering body heat were amazing, Eric felt himself snuggling into it without thinking.
“But, Jack,” he said, even as he slid his arms into the sleeves. “Aren’t you going to get cold?”
“Unlike you, I’m used to it,” Jack said with a smirk. “Canadian, remember. And I spend most of my life on the ice.”
“I’ve spent my fair share of time on the ice too,” Eric grumbled, but he did pull the coat closer.
“You have,” Jack agreed. Fondly. “And I suppose I am a little cold. You know, if you were worried, you could come over here and help warm me up.”
Eric knew that smile on Jack’s face. He couldn’t help smiling back in kind. He glanced up and down but they were alone for now. Alone together. He grinned and stepped in close, wrapping an arm around Jack.
“Now, Mr Zimmermann, how do you think I’m going to do that?”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll find a way.”
Jack: So, what are your feelings on sushi?
Eric: I don’t know.
Eric: I’ve never had it.
Eric: I guess I’d try?
Jack: This Friday?
Eric: It’s a date <3
“Now, I’ve gotta admit,” Eric said, walking along the sidewalk. “I was a little sceptical. But that was amazing.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed, trailing behind him. “That place is really good. Tater’s a massive sushi fan and he says it’s the best place in Providence.”
“Asking for date ideas again?” Eric asked, grinning over his shoulder.
“Yes.” Jack was flushing a little, though smiling. Like he was pleased. Happy to have this moment. Eric was pretty darn pleased too. Good food and good company and a great excuse to not be studying right now. “But I checked this one out on my own first. Didn’t want a repeat of the first date.”
“No, that was not good,” Eric laughed. “But, honey, you know, you don’t have to keep planning fancy things. When are you going to invite me over to your place?”
Eric hadn’t meant to say it and, when the words were out of his month, found himself biting his lip. Too little too late by the way Jack was frowning.
The thing was, everything was great. Eric had a great time with Jack. He felt like Jack cared. He felt like they were being slow and careful with each other and it was perfect. It was everything Eric had wanted from a relationship. Everything he thought he’d given up on when he decided to sign up to date for a living.
But they were maybe moving a little too slowly. Eric could have used maybe just a little more privacy.
“You don’t like our dates?”
“Honey, I love our dates. You know I do. I just wish, sometimes, that we could be alone together.”
A pause. “Yeah, I wish that too. I just want to make it special, you know. I don’t get to see you as much as I like so when I can, we should do something special.”
“Oh sweetie, you don’t need to impress me. Besides, I’d love to cook for you. I can’t believe we’ve got so far into this without you tasting my cooking.”
“I do love home cooking,” Jack said, coming to a stop by his car. “I’ll think about it, okay. I’ll have to tidy if you’re coming around.”
“Sweetpea, I spend my free time in a frat house. Anything you’ve got to show me will be nothing compared to that.”
“There is that,” Jack agreed with a laugh.
“There is,” Eric agreed. “So don’t worry. I like you already, Jack. You don’t need to impress me. Now come kiss me until the uber gets here.”
“Happily,” Jack said, and when he stepped in Eric leant to meet him. He had to stand on his tiptoes to wrap his arms around Jack’s impossibly broad shoulders but it was worth it to bring Jack down to him. To press his lips to Jack’s. To feel Jack against him.
He was very ready for them to have a little privacy.
“Hey,” Jack said, pulling back.
“What?” Eric said, surprised when his voice came out to high. So needy. “Did your phone vibrate? I don’t see a car.”
“No.” Another soft kiss, pressed to the side of Eric’s lips. “I just got something for you. Wanted to remember to give you it before the uber gets here.”
“Oh Jack, you don’t need to buy me gifts.”
“I know,” Jack said, flushing very attractively. “But I like it. Come on.”
Eric unwound himself. He’d expected to go to the front of Jack’s car but, instead, Jack lead him around to the trunk. Which made sense, as a place to keep something. Only Jack wouldn’t have gotten him anything too big? Flowers, maybe.
Only then Jack opened the trunk and something in Eric stuttered to a halt.
A coat. A thick, warm, expensive looking winter coat. New, too, because Eric could still see the tags and he recognised that brand name and oh.
There was no way he could accept this.
“Honey,” Eric said, watching Jack pick the thing up out of his trunk. “You can’t give me that.”
Jack looked puzzled. “Why not? I bought it for you. I was out with Tater the other day and I saw it and thought of you not having a proper coat.”
Eric had thought about his not having a proper coat too. He’d gone out and looked after their last date. He hadn’t seen the one Jack was holding out to him, hadn’t even approached that price bracket, but he had seen plenty of others. Plenty of ones not as nice as this that were way out of his price range.
“But, Jack, this must have cost so much money.”
“It’s not as though I can’t afford it,” Jack said, shrugging, as though that was the point. “It’s a good coat.”
“It’s too much,” Eric said, slowly. “Honey, it’s just too much.”
“I don’t understand,” Jack said slowly, frowning.
“You don’t need to buy me things. Especially not things that are this expensive. Jack, you already paid my tuition for the rest of my degree. That was a lot of money. I can’t take anything else from you.”
“But... I thought you’d like this. I thought you needed a coat.”
“I told you I was fine.”
“But you were cold.”
“I don’t mind being cold.” He did mind, he just minded this more. He minded the coat. He minded being bought. The school fees and the housing money, they’d hurt enough. If he could have said no, he would, but he’d needed them. He didn’t need this coat. Wanted it, maybe, but he didn’t need it.
He didn’t deserve it.
“Eric,” Jack said, voice low and there was something dangerous about it. Something in the tone that made Eric think he wasn’t going to like what Jack said.
Then Jack’s phone vibrated.
They both looked at it, blinking at the intrusion. Jack took it out and Eric was close enough to see his uber was here.
“I’m gonna go,” he said, quickly, taking a step backwards.
“I’ll talk to you later, sweetpea. Can’t keep the uber driver waiting.”
“Please, Eric. Just...”
“I’ll see you soon,” Eric said. He didn’t run to where he could see the car parked at the end of the street, but he did walk pretty quickly.
Eric was busy. That was all. He wasn’t avoiding Jack’s texts, he was just very busy.
He had essays that needed to be written. Research to be done. There was always more reading. And more baking. The boys at the Haus were really capitalising on Jack not taking up any more of Eric’s time.
So Eric baked. And studied. And didn’t pick up his phone.
The first day, it had even made sense. The coat was like a red flag in his head, reminding him of how they met. Reminding him of sugar daddies and obligations and prostitution and the idea that Jack was going to want something in return for that coat – something Eric wouldn’t get to say no too.
Only, if Jack was like that, it wasn’t like he had to give Eric anything else. It wasn’t like he hadn’t already literally handed Eric a check for thousands of dollars, which Eric had taken and cashed and used to pay his fees.
It took him to the end of the second day to see past the money. Past the casual wealth that Jack had displayed.
Because it was a coat.
It was something useful. It had looked warm. Eric could imagine himself wrapping up in it to go to class. Could imagine wearing it on cold days and feeling like Jack was with him.
And that sounded good. That sounded like everything he’d wanted. That made him want to phone Jack up and say he’d been wrong. Made him want to tell Jack just how he was feeling.
Only now it had been three days. Now there were 23 unread messages say on his phone. Now he was starting to think that maybe he had slightly overreacted.
It wasn’t a great feeling. He’d gone to dial Jack’s number a few times and ended up just sat there staring at his phone, feeling like a fool. Wondering if Jack even cared. Wondering if Jack was going to realise now that he hadn’t worth all this effort. If Jack would take the money back and leave Eric with nothing again or just cut his losses.
He was aware, on one level, that he wasn’t being very fair. The panic didn’t want to listen, though.
So where he walked home from the Haus and turned the corner to see Jack Zimmermann standing outside his dorm, flowers in hand, he nearly turned himself right back around and walked back where he’d come from.
Only Jack had seen him. Jack was smiling and waving and looking so hopeful that all Eric could do was tuck the empty pie tin he was carrying under his arm and carry on down the street.
“Hey,” Jack said as Eric got closer. He held out the flowers in front of him and Eric couldn’t help but lift his hand and take them. Roses. Jack had brought him roses.
“I’m sorry,” Jack said, and Eric’s heart just about broke.
“I know I upset you. I think I kind of get why, but I’d like us to talk about it. And I’m sorry. I should have spoken to you before I spent money on you, I guess. I’ll know next time.”
“No, sweetie. I’m sorry. I think I maybe overreacted a little.”
“Eric,” Jack said, stepping in a little. “If you felt hurt and you told me, that’s not overreacting. That’s just...”
Someone came around the corner. Eric almost jumped out of his skin but it wasn’t anyone he knew. Didn’t look like they recognised Jack either. Still, they both ducked their heads like guilty children, standing in uncomfortable silence until the strangers had passed.
“Jack,” Eric said, softly. “I’m not upset any more, and I think you’re right, we do need to talk about this. But not here.”
“No,” Jack agreed. “Would you like to come back to Providence with me? I got some things in, I thought that if you came with me, I could make you dinner.”
Eric smiled. Alone with Jack, at last.
“Okay. Let me go put these flowers in water and I’ll be right with you.”
“Wait, so this one isn’t Beyonce?”
“My goodness, Jack. I know you’re just chirping me now.”
“No, seriously, Eric, you’ve gotta help me out. I don’t know how I’m meant to tell all these voices apart.”
“You know, I’m starting to think you’re just a lost cause,” Eric said, grinning down at his phone. “I thought every gay man just knew these things.”
“I must have missed that section in the handbook.” Eric glanced over to look at Jack who was relaxed and easy behind the wheel. Putting on his music had been a good plan. It’d taken some of the stiffness out of Jack’s shoulders and given Eric something to talk about. And now they were pulling into the parking area under Jack’s building.
Not that Eric had ever been to Jack’s building before, but he presumed that’s where they were. Jack certainly seemed relaxed enough as he got out of the car, waiting for Eric to follow him before leading him inside.
They walked through the garage to a lift then up. As the lift moved, Eric reached over and took Jack’s hand for a second and was gratified when Jack squeezed his hands back.
They were going to be okay. He could feel it.
Jack’s apartment was large. It was also tastefully, if sparsely, decorated and obviously put together by someone with money. Not that Eric had lived in a poor house, his daddy was a coach, but their house had always been filled with mismatched furniture passed through various family members and knick knacks and piles of cushions. Nothing like this.
“Let me get your coat,” Jack said, toeing off his shoes. Eric complied, handing his jacket over readily then wandering out into the apartment.
It was nice. Really nice. But it looked a little like Jack had picked it from a brochure. Eric couldn’t imagine it staying like this if he lived in a place.
That thought, of course, lead to what he’d do if this was his place. The colours he’d use and the kinds of fabrics and what he’d hang on the walls and he really shouldn’t be thinking that in Jack’s apartment. Not when they were here to have a conversation. But he couldn’t help but ache a little for want of it.
Eric turned. Jack was stood by the door, watching him with a smile. “You want to see the kitchen?”
Of course Eric wanted to see the kitchen.
“Of course I do,” he said, turning to trail after Jack. “This place is lovely, sweetpea. Did you pick it out yourself?”
“Ah, no,” Jack flushed. “I got my mom to help with most of it. She’s better at stuff than I am.”
“I don’t know. You can’t be that bad.”
“Remind me never to show you my workout clothes.”
And then they were in the kitchen and, well, what a kitchen. There was so much counter space that Eric could lie on it. Storage all over. An island. The oven looked beautiful and he headed over quickly to run a hand over it.
He needed to make a pie in this kitchen.
“Next time I’m here,” he said, smoothing his hand down the worktop. “I’m making the best dang pie you’ve ever tasted. A kitchen like this deserves to be baked in.”
“Actually,” Jack said, and when Eric looked over he was shuffling from foot to foot. “If you wanted, you could cook now. I mean, I googled a ton of recipes and I think I got everything you might need.”
“Jack, that’s so sweet,” Eric grinned. For a second, he wondered how much Jack must have spent, but he pushed the thought down. This was for pie. Eric was going to pay him for baking supplies with pie. “Aren’t you going to make dinner, though.”
“I can work around you,” Jack said, moving over to the fridge. “I mean, you don’t need to bake if you don’t want to but...”
“Jack, I would genuinely love to.”
Jack smiled again and pulled out some butter. Eric moved across the room to take it, stopping to kiss Jack on the cheek as he did. As he pulled away, Jack smiled like Eric had given him the world.
After a brief dig through the cupboard, Eric came up with the ingredients for a maple crusted apple pie. After all, you could always trust a Canadian to have good maple syrup. They put the music on again and quickly fell into an easy pattern. Jack used one of the counters to prepare what looked like some kind of pasta dish and Eric set up at the other, making pastry and filling.
By the time his pie was in the oven, Jack’s meal was done and they moved to the dining room. Eric managed to keep talk light through dinner, focusing on the things that had happened in the few days they hadn’t spoken. Jack seemed content to let things run that way.
The meal was good, then the pie was ready and Jack had ice cream and by the time they were done and migrating to the living room, Eric felt like he was going to burst. Both physically from the food he’d eaten and mentally from the conversation they weren’t having.
It couldn’t just go back to being normal. It couldn’t be that easy. Not after they’d argued.
He sat down on the couch and turned to his side, facing Jack who’d sat down next time him. Jack took a deep breath, as though gearing up for this, then turned too. For a second, then just sat facing each other, then Eric reached across the gap to take Jack’s hand.
“Okay,” Jack said, looking down at their joined hands. “I’m going to try to be honest. I don’t really understand why I upset you. I’m sorry that I did, but I want to understand why so I don’t do it again.”
“Oh honey,” Eric said, squeezing Jack’s hand. “It’s, kind of complicated.”
“I know,” Jack said. “But, look, maybe I should explain first. I have anxiety. I guess you know about what happened to me at the draft?”
“You took a year out?”
“I nearly overdosed on anxiety meds. A friend walked in just at the right time. If he’d been even a few minutes later... but he wasn’t. He talked me down and phoned my dad and I took a year. I saw a psychiatrist, got some coping mechanisms that didn’t involve taking a handful of anxiety pills. I got better.
“But the anxiety, it’s always in me. I manage it better and I can identify better when I’m going into a spiral, but it’s still in there. When you walked away from me, I didn’t know what I’d done. I just knew I’d upset you and I couldn’t fix it and that made me really anxious.”
“Oh Jack,” Eric said, leaning forward in his seat. “I didn’t mean to do that to you.”
“I know,” Jack said. He reached his free hand up to cup Eric’s cheek. “I know, Eric. You weren’t trying to hurt me. But, it’d really help me if I could understand why you were upset. I know it’s tough to talk about. I can’t make you. But I’d really appreciate it if you would. And, maybe, we can talk about how we can handle it when we do argue. That first night, I was really upset. It would have helped me a lot if you’d have been able to check in, even if you’d only said that you were sad and we’d talk later.”
“I can do that,” Eric promised. “If we fight again, I’ll do that.”
“Thank you,” Jack said. He darted in and pressed a quick kiss to Eric’s cheek. “So, that’s how you can help me, how can I help you?”
“I think...” Eric started, then paused. Jack had been honest with him. It’d probably cost him something to say all that. It was a lot to put out there and, honestly, Eric was kind of still digesting it. But he’d done it and if he’d been honest, Eric could be too. “The truth is, it reminded me how we met.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it reminded me that you paid me to be your boyfriend.”
“And I get that it shouldn’t freak me out. I was the one who put me on that website. But it does. I think I told you once I nearly deleted my profile? I was so close, Jack, but I needed the money so badly. I need the money so badly. But I hate it. I hate the thought that you paid for me. I don’t want to be your prostitute.”
“Eric, you’re not.”
Eric shook his head, looked down. There were tears forming in the corner of his eyes and he didn’t want Jack to see that.
“I know what people look for on those sites. There’s a girl I know who gave me the idea. She told me that people go there because they want relationship free intimacy. But that’s not what I want.”
“Do you think that’s what we have?”
“No. And it’s so confusing. I’m so confused, Jack. I want to believe you really care about me.”
“Eric, I do.”
“Then why are you trying to buy me?”
“I wasn’t trying to buy you. Please look at me, Eric.” Eric looked up. Jack had shifted closer and he raised both hands now to cup Eric’s face. He leant his forehead against Eric’s so his words were breathed into Eric’s mouth.
“I was never trying to buy you. I would never. I bought the coat because I care about you. Because I want you to be happy. I would never buy someone.”
“I didn’t sign up for the website.”
“Tater did. And I’ll drag him here to tell you about it if you need me to. He was worried that I was going to be single forever and he thought it’s be a good idea. He thought that the website would let me meet someone who had as much invested in keeping the nature of our relationship secret as I did.”
“But you still used it.”
“Only for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The first time we spoke? That was actually Tater. He found me some people. I was going to delete it too but then you spoke to me and it seemed rude not to reply. And then, well, you’re you.”
“I’m me?” Eric asked, a little incredulously. This couldn’t all be true.
“You’re you,” Jack agreed. “And I couldn’t stop talking to you. I’m sorry I ever made you feel like that. You don’t... I mean, I thought it went without saying but I guess I was an idiot. You don’t have to be with me. If you don’t want to see me again, that’s okay. The money’s yours.”
“Jack, I want to see you everyday.”
“That’s good. I want to see you everyday too.”
From there, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world for Eric to climb up into Jack’s lap. For Jack to pull him in close. To pick him up and carry him up to the bedroom and for them to finally show each other how much they cared.
In the morning, after breakfast and long kisses and a shared shower, Eric went to retrieve his jacket.
The coat was there, hanging in the closet. He lifted his hand and ran it down the rich fabric. He bet it was warm. He bet it’d feel like Jack was hugging him every time he wore it.
He look up to find Jack in the kitchen doorway, watching him wearily.
“You promise you bought it because you care?”
“I promise,” Jack said.
Slowly, Eric took it down. He slid it on and it fit as thought Jack had measured him for it. It was just as warm and comfortable as he’d thought it would be. It was, in fact, perfect.
He walked across quickly and pulled Jack down into another kiss. Jack’s hands came to rest on his hips, warm through the thick coat, and Eric sighed into the space between them.
“Thank you, Jack.”
“You’re welcome,” Jack said, pressing a kiss to Eric’s forehead.
“Yes, Mom,” Jack said. He paused at the kitchen door, closed. Why did he even close doors? He glanced around, then down to the mug in his free hand. Then he shrugged and wedged the phone between his shoulder and ear, freeing his hand up to open the door. There was something to say for all the time he’d been spending on the phone with Eric – it’d made him more adaptable.
She was talking about something to do with his dad’s latest cooking class so Jack just hummed along in what he hoped were the right places and went to put his mug in the dishwasher.
He stopped on the way over to glance at the fridge, decorated now with post it notes. Little love notes Eric liked to write for him and wrap up in his lunches. Just looking at them was enough to make Jack smile. He had a boyfriend. A boyfriend who loved him enough to make him lunches whenever he could. A boyfriend who left him little notes. A boyfriend he talked to everyday. A boyfriend who made Jack’s heart ache just by existing.
“Jack, are you even listening?”
“Of course I am, mom. He’s maple glazing everything.”
“Everything,” his mom said, and then she was off again and Jack could only smile. Eric had made the maple glazed apple pie a couple more times. Jack had to admit it was his favourite, not just for the taste but for the memories.
The first pie Eric had baked for him here. The time Eric had agreed to be his boyfriend. His for real boyfriend. Not paid for. Not just because he was convenient. Because he cared.
“Jack, he even maple glazed some fries the other day. It’s gone too far.”
“Tell him to maple glaze an apple pie.”
There was a silence for a few seconds.
“Why an apple pie, Jack?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said, casting his eyes around for a distraction. “It just sounds like it’d be good. Do you think I should re-paint my living room?”
“Didn’t you just do it over the summer?”
“Yeah,” Jack sighed. “But I’ve been thinking of changing it. I mean, the grey’s okay but...”
“Jack Zimmermann, do not change that living room colour without consulting someone first. I still remember when you painted your childhood bedroom lime green.”
“Well, I won’t do that again,” Jack huffed. There was no way Eric would go for lime green, but he didn’t seem too sold on the grey either. He hadn’t said anything but Jack somehow cast him against warmer colours. A green, maybe. Or a peach.
“Jack, is there’s a reason you want to change your living room?”
Eric Richard Bittle kissing Jack on the eyelids before they went to sleep. Eric Richard Bittle waking up in his arms. Eric Richard Bittle lying on the couch with him, watching TV. Eric Richard Bittle cooking in his kitchen.
“No. No reason.”
His mom snorted but he ignored her, turning to head back to the sitting room. Maybe he could get some throws in here. Something Eric could wrap around his shoulders when it was cold. Not that Jack would let him get cold.
“Oh, I forgot to ask,” his mom said. “Your dad’s doing something next weekend in Pittsburgh. You have a few home games after that, right? We thought, since we were coming down to America, we’d fly over to see you.”
“Oh, that’d be great,” Jack said, grinning. “I think you’re right about the home games. Let me check my calendar.”
“I know I’m right,” his mom grumbled, but Jack just hummed and made his way back to the kitchen. He had a legends of hockey calendar with all his games carefully marked in with pencil, colour coded for home and away. Eric had laughed when he’d seen it, but then kissed Jack on the cheek and called him a dork so it was okay.
Yeah, they had a roadie leaving tomorrow and he’d get back on the Sunday night, then they’d be home until the next Monday when they had to head over to play the Islanders. “Okay, that looks good. I’ll mark you in.”
“Great,” his mom said. “Make sure you air out the guest room, okay.”
“Okay,” Jack agreed, then froze.
He hadn’t thought this through.
A week away. Then a week at home. Then away again for half a week. But when he was home, his parents would be here. In his house. Which meant that Eric couldn’t be.
He was going to have to go for two and a half weeks without Eric in his house.
“Jack, are you okay?”
“Yes, mom. I’m fine,” he said, forcing himself to breath. It would be okay. They’d have a lot of phone sex and it’d be okay. Very quiet phone sex as his parents would be on the other side of the wall.
“Are you sure? We can some another time or we don’t have to stay the entire week.”
“No, mom. I’m okay, I promise. I’ve missed you guys. I want to see you.” He had and he did.
He just wished that seeing his parents and seeing Eric weren’t mutually exclusive.
Jack dragged himself through the door, exhausted. He hated road trips. He hated hotel beds. He hated never being alone. Tater wasn’t a bad roommate but he was just there all the time and sometimes Jack just wanted to close the door for a few hours and read or relax or talk to Eric.
At least Tater knew about Eric. It would have been hell if he didn’t.
Jack glanced at his watch. He had about an hour, then his parents would be here. He should have time.
Of course, all he actually wanted to do was call Eric. All he actually wanted to do was order an uber and get Eric here. Wrap himself around Eric. Pull Eric into bed and not let go of him until the morning.
Instead, he went to the kitchen. He tackled the cupboards first, taking out anything to do with baking and carrying it up into the bedroom. It wasn’t a perfect hiding place but he had a big wardrobe and he dumped it all in the bottom of there. It wasn’t like his mom was going to go through his wardrobe – but she would go through his kitchen and if she found all this stuff, she’d want to know when he took up baking and this wasn’t going to turn into some situation comedy where he had to pretend he could bake to keep his secret boyfriend secret.
It took two trips to move the baking supplies. He maybe bought too many, but Eric loved them. And he wanted Eric to have everything he loved.
Second armful deposited, he looked around the bedroom. He tidied away the lube and condoms anyway but Eric had left clothes. A few pairs of shorts, a sweater, a pair of pink socks. Jack gathered them all up and hid them in the wardrobe too, but not before he stopped and buried his face in the sweater.
Soon. They’d get to see each other soon. They’d talk that night. Eric understood why Jack had to do this.
The bathroom was next. That was easier, his parents shouldn’t even be in his en-suite, but he still hid Eric’s toothbrush and things under the sink.
The sitting room was fine. A few more things than he’d normally have, throw pillows and things, but nothing he wouldn’t mind explaining. He’d already talked to his mom about maybe painting the walls, it wouldn’t seem to odd that he’d bought some cushions.
He was going to have to let Eric drag him shopping soon. Eric kept bringing things he’d bought and Jack loved how they made the place feel like home but it’d be better if he paid for them.
Then there was only one thing left, the post it notes on the fridge. He peeled them away one at a time, reading them as he did. He stacked them carefully then carried them through to the bedroom. He didn’t want to risk losing them so he detoured to the desk he never seemed to sit at to get an envelope to slid them into before adding them to the pile in the wardrobe.
As soon as his parents were gone, he’d put them up again. Until then, he’d just have to make do without them.
“Hey,” Jack said. He settled down onto the bed, cradling the phone on his hand. “How’s your day been?”
“Oh, you know,” Eric said. “Good. I did some work on that essay for the food history class. I’ve been really careful about keeping my notes neat and in order if you still want to look over them when I’m done.”
“You should always keep your notes neat.”
“Yes, mom,” Eric said, and Jack grinned. He loved this. Loved how easy it was between the two of them. He wished he could just stay here forever.
“That’s the class you have to make a pie for, right?”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be a pie, just a historically accurate recipe.”
“But you’re making a pie.”
“I’m definitely making a pie,” Eric agreed. “Though it’s going to be tough going. Poor Betsy’s one her last legs.”
“Betsy?” Jack asked, casting back in his head to try and remember the name. Eric had so many family members that sometimes Jack for confused and mixed them up.
“The oven in the Haus, silly.”
“Oh, of course. How silly of me to not know you named your oven.”
“Oh hush, you. She’s been a reliable old thing for a long time but she’s certainly not used to getting as much use as she does with me. I got one of the frogs to have a look at her for me but I’m afraid her days are numbered.”
“You know, you could always make the pie here. I’ll drive you back so it doesn’t get ruined.”
“I’d love to honey, but the assignment’s due at the start of next week.” And Jack wouldn’t be seeing him before then. Jack frowned. He hated this. Hated it so much it made him ache. Almost enough to do something. Almost enough for him to walk into the living room and tell his parents that his boyfriend was coming here to make pie and they needed to accept that.
Not enough to actually do it, but enough to wish he could do it.
One day. One day he was going to be brave enough.
“Sweetie, you still there?”
“I’m still here,” Jack said. “Just miss you.”
“Oh Jack, I miss you too.”
“I wish I could see you. I want to see you.”
“Well, you know I always want to see you, love. But you’re the one who can’t get away.”
He was and he hated it.
“Do you think, maybe, if I can get away from my parents for an afternoon, we could go on a date. Like we used to. I mean, I’d rather you came here so I could hold you but...”
“But a few hidden kisses in an alley is better than not seeing each other. Oh honey, I know. Yes. If you can get away, let me know. You have my calendar anyway so you know when I’m free.”
“I’ll try Eric. I’ll really try. I miss you.” There were other words there, so close to the tip of his tongue, but not quite there yet. But soon.
He knew this was too much. He knew this was too fast. He was setting himself up to have his heart torn out and he didn’t even care.
He was all in.
“Okay, that’s enough of that. You’re going to make me cry. Tell me about what you’ve been doing with your parents.”
Eric stepped out of the car into Jack’s arms and Jack held on as tight as he could for as long as he dared. It wasn’t very long because he was pretty sure the girls in the coffee shop across the street knew who he was. Not that it’d ever be long enough but...
Jack pulled back. For a moment Eric looked disappointed and Jack had to fight the urge to step forward again, to pull Eric back into the safety of his arms, but then Eric was stepping away too and turning to say goodbye to the uber driver and the moment was gone.
Jack had been planning on the coffee shop but when he glanced over, one of the girls was trying to take a surreptitious picture of him on her phone. Maybe not.
“Come on,” he said, bumping his shoulder against Eric’s. “Let’s walk.”
“Sure thing,” Eric said, falling into step with him. He was wearing the coat, and a scarf Jack had bought for him too. A Falconer’s scarf. Jack had, so far, resisted the urge to buy Eric a jersey with Zimmermann across the back. He wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to be able to hold out.
“I’m sorry for dragging you out. You probably have studying to be doing.”
“Oh hush.” Eric swayed close enough that his arm pressed against Jack’s. Jack glanced around but nobody was looking. If they were, he’d just say they were trying to stay warm. It was quite chilly. “Like you don’t know I’d drop almost everything to come see you.”
“You should probably do at least some school work too,” Jack said, grinning. Eric rolled his eyes.
“I do plenty.”
“I believe you,” Jack said, though he wasn’t sure he did. Either way, he wasn’t going to do anything that gave him less Eric time. “Do you want to find a coffee shop? Or we can just walk.”
“Let’s walk,” Eric said. “When I’m done here I’m going to be stuck behind a desk finishing my essay.”
“Aren’t you already nearly done with it? Eric, if you needed the time you should have just said no...”
“Jack,” Eric interrupted. “My essay will wait. What I need is to see my boyfriend.”
Jack ducked down to hide his smile. “Yeah, I needed to see my boyfriend too.”
“Good,” Eric pressed in even closer. “What I wouldn’t give to have you to myself right now, Jack. I’ve been missing you so much.”
“I wish we could be alone,” Jack said, sighing. “Soon, Eric.”
“Soon,” Eric agreed. “Come on, I think there’s a dark corner down this way where we’ve made out before. I’ll tell you all about my pie making adventures on the way.”
As much as Jack wanted to be alone with Eric, he had to admit that it was nice having his parents there. Apart from the fact that he loved his parents and enjoyed spending time with them, it just made life easier. When his parents were visiting, they did the cooking so he didn’t have to. They cleaned around for him. They kept the house running and did all the little jobs Jack normally had to find time for himself.
He didn’t know why he hadn’t realised that meant his mom was going to do his washing.
Jack stood, frozen, in the kitchen doorway. All the baking things, the things he’d hidden in the room, were sat out on the counters. The pie tins and the mixer and there, in front of them, his post it notes. Spread out. All those little love notes.
Shit, he should have hidden them better. He should have put a lock on his bedroom door. He should have done something.
“So, is there something you want to tell us?”
Jack turned. His mom was in the door to the living room, smiling. She was smiling?
“I don’t... I didn’t mean to...”
“Oh Jack, honey, you do know that it’s alright that you have a girlfriend.”
A girlfriend. They thought he had a girlfriend. Of course, Eric hadn’t signed any of the notes. He hadn’t left underwear or anything. Booty shorts and a sweater – girls could wear them. His parents thought he had a girlfriend.
“Hey,” his mom said, laying a hand on his arm, and maybe he’d been zoned out a little too long. He glanced over and his dad was in the doorway now, smiling gently. “It’s okay.”
“We know we can be a little much,” his dad said. “We know you’re a private kind of guy, Jack. Just because you’re dating, we don’t need to meet her. Not until you’re ready, at least.”
“Yes,” his mom agreed, and they thought he was scared to introduce her. He wasn’t. He wanted them to meet Eric. Sometimes, not talking to them about Eric was the hardest thing in the world. Not letting them know how he hadn’t even really been looking but there was this guy who seemed to make everything happier just by existing.
“Honestly,” his dad carried on. “We’re happy, Jack.”
“We’ve been worried about you, baby,” his mom said, leaning into his side. “Being down here all alone. But this... she must spend quite a bit of time here, right?”
He did. Every second they could carve out.
“It’s okay,” his dad said, moving to pull him into a guy hug. “We just wanted you to know you don’t have to hide.”
It’s have been so easy to lean into that. To go with the story they’d come up with together. A secret girlfriend. They didn’t even want to meet her so he wouldn’t have to come up with an excuse why they couldn’t. He could lie and it’d be fine.
He’d only been with Eric two and a half months, after all. Two months, really, if you didn’t count the time it took him to work up the courage to ask Eric to meet. It was too soon. Too new. It would be okay to lie. He could pretend there was a girlfriend and then pretend there was a breakup and then, later, when things were more solid, he could tell them about Eric. Could pretend it was new.
Only he didn’t want to do that. It was two months, it was nothing, but the thing with Eric didn’t feel like a two month thing. It felt like a forever thing.
He was probably crazy. He felt crazy. But he wanted it to be a forever thing.
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Jack, you don’t...”
“I have a boyfriend.”
His parents made eye contact. Jack stood there for a moment, between them, feeling like he was seventeen again. Feeling like he had when he’d had to tell them he wasn’t going to the draft this year, he was going to rehab. But that time he’d been able to say he was going to get better. Do better.
This time, he was going to be this way for life.
His dad’s arm tightened around him again.
“Jack,” his mom said, squeezing his hand. “Oh baby, that doesn’t change anything.”
Jack blinked. “It doesn’t?”
“Not to us,” his dad said. “Nothing that matters. We’re still glad you have someone.”
“We’re still going to support you, baby. Whatever you do.”
Jack nodded, then wrapped his arms around his parents and pulled them into a hug. He couldn’t say anything, not yet, but his heart felt fit to burst in his chest.
They still loved him.
He hadn’t doubted that, not really. Only in the way he doubted everything. Only with the little voice he could never quite get rid of out of the back of his head that whispered over and over that everything was going to go wrong and that any second everyone on his life would realise how worthless he was and what a waste of space.
He was getting better at avoiding that voice. At giving the things it said no more weight than he gave all the other shit that ran through his head in any given day. It was only thoughts. But, it was always there.
He had expected, though, a lecture about the NHL. He’d expected questions. He found, now he was here, that he’d wanted questions. That he’d wanted to be able to lay everything out in front of his parents and have them say that it was okay. That he was right to hide this from the public. That it was okay how they’d met, that Jack had handed Eric a check and how, even though they’d spoke about it, Jack still thought about that some days and if Eric would even be in his bed if he hadn’t.
Not that he really thought that of Eric. But some days he thought about it. Some nights, when he couldn’t sleep, he thought about it.
But, if he couldn’t have that, he could at least have something.
“He’s called Eric,” he said, gently pulling himself out of their embrace. He made his way into the kitchen, started putting things back where they went. “He’s a sophomore at Samwell. He’s studying American culture. He bakes a lot and he used to play hockey but he’s got a thing about checking so he’s not on the team any more. He’s really kind and sweet and he’s from Georgia so sometimes he calls me the most ridiculous pet names and doesn’t seem to realise he’s doing it.”
“He sounds nice,” his mom said. Jack glanced over to see they’d followed him into the kitchen. Sat down at the dinner table.
“He is. He’s really nice. He always makes time for me though I know my schedule’s a nightmare and we call each other every night. It’s kind of hard, sometimes. Nobody knows so there’s a lot of sneaking around.”
“But it’s worth it?” his dad asked.
“Really worth it.”
“Jack,” his mom said, softly. “It sounds like you’re really serious about this boy.”
Jack had to think about that for a second. He knew he should say he wasn’t. That it was still new and fragile, because it was.
“I am,” he said instead. “It’s still new but...”
“When you know, you know,” his dad said, grinning. “Like when I met your mom.”
“Oh, not this story again,” his mom said, laughing, and Jack laughed too. Carried on putting his post it notes back on the fridge as he let the familiar story wash over him.
“Hey,” Jack said. He shuffled back a little to let Eric into his apartment then shut the door before leaning down for a kiss. He kept it light and sweet, pulling back quickly.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, waiting as Eric took off his thick winter coat. He took the coat while Eric took off his shoes, hanging it next to his and his parent’s. “I mean, it’s not too late to run.”
“I’m sure,” Eric said, swaying so their shoulders bumped together. “I mean, I’m not going to lie to you sweetie, I’m all kinds of nervous, but I’m really glad you’ve invited me here. I want to meet your parents.”
“So long as you’re sure,” Jack said. He couldn’t resist leaning in to press another kiss against Eric’s cheek.
“I’m sure. Honey, everything’s going to be fine.”
Eric didn’t exactly sound sure so Jack didn’t know who he was trying to convince, but he was also glad to let him do the convincing. Was glad Eric was here. Was glad his parents knew. He’d never brought anyone home before and he was glad Eric got to be the first.
“Come on,” Eric said, reaching over to take Jack’s hand. “Let’s go meet your parents. Then I’ll bake them a pie.”
“Hey, honey, are you busy?”
“No. I’ve always got time for you.”
“That’s so sweet,” Eric grinned. “But I know it isn’t true. If you ever need to be doing something else when I call then you let me know, you hear me Jack Zimmermann?”
“Nothing is ever more important than talking to you.”
Eric could have just melted right there. He almost did, letting himself slide back into his chair with a satisfied grin. He didn’t know what on earth he’d done to find himself such a loving, considerate man.
“Okay. If you’re sure.”
“Eric, I’m sure. I’m sat in my room alone, if you need to know. But Tater’s just in the shower so we can’t...”
“Well, I didn’t phone for that,” Eric said, blushing, though it would have been nice. Jack had been away a lot recently and Eric was extra busy coming up to the end of the term. They hadn’t had a lot of time together recently.
“I was wondering what you’re going to do for Christmas?”
“Oh, well, I’ve got a game the day after in Colorado so we’re not really doing anything big this year. We’re going to have a team meal, I guess, but it’s not a big deal. What about you?”
Eric frowned down at the ground. “Oh, you know me, I’ll find something.”
“Eric,” Jack’s voice turned soft. “Did you want to spend Christmas together?”
“I thought it’d be nice.”
“Yeah,” Jack said, very softly. “That would have been really nice. Next year?”
The thought of that, of them being together next year, made Eric’s heart flutter. He shouldn’t feel like this when they’d only been dating for such a short time but it was like he couldn’t help himself.
“Yeah, sweetpea. Next year.”
“Good. But, Eric, what are you going to do instead? Are any of the hockey team staying around?”
“No,” Eric sighed. “They’re all going home.” His first plan had been to spend Christmas with them like he had thanksgiving. They’d had a massive meal and a full Haus and it had degraded into the kind of party where Eric ended up sleeping in a pile of blankets on Ransom and Holster’s floor so he didn’t have to go home. He’d felt like a part of something again. A part of them. With everything he had on his plate, he didn’t get to spend as much time with his boys as he’d like to.
“I wish I could be with you.”
“Honey, I wish that too,” Eric sighed. “But I’m going to hold you to that next year thing.”
“I promise. We’ll find a way to make it work. But, can’t you go home for Christmas? Is there not enough time to go?”
“More like not enough money,” Eric said with a sigh. “I mean, plane tickets around Christmas are atrocious. I could go up and down three or four times for the price of a ticket around Christmas and I just don’t...”
“Eric, book the ticket.”
“Honey, I really can’t afford it and it’s so expensive I don’t...”
“Eric. I’ll buy it for you.”
“Eric. Do you think I’ll be happy sitting here thinking about you all alone at Christmas?”
“It can be your present, if you’d like.”
Oh goodness, he’d like. Just the thought of seeing his mama again. He’d missed her so much. They talked plenty but it wasn’t the same. He hadn’t made it home last year either. He’d love to taste Moomaw’s cooking again. To see Coach. To just be somewhere nice and comfortable where people knew and loved him.
“I’m going to take that silence as a yes.”
“Yes, please, sweetie. But you can’t get me anything else. Just the tickets.”
“Sure. Let’s go look them up.”
Eric had the taxi let him out down the street. He paid with Jack’s money they watched as the car disappeared into the distance, then took a deep breath. He’d been thinking about this for weeks, since Jack had bought the tickets. Not telling his mom had been the hardest thing, he’d just wanted to blurt it all out to her and instead he’d ended up trying to convince her that a skype call and Christmas dinner for one were just what he wanted.
He was here. He was home. The air was warm enough that he hadn’t brought Jack’s beautiful coat. He’d be able to go out without freezing. He’d be able to see all his family.
He pulled his bag onto his back then started down the street. He passed familiar houses, resplendent in Christmas lights. He turned the corner and he was on his street. He quickened his steps as he headed down the road. From here, he could see Coach’s truck in the drive, Mom’s car nestles in beside it.
He hit the edge of their property and paused. It was evening, nearly. Someone had strung lights along their porch and hung up a wreath and it looked so good. Eric pulled out his phone and took a quick picture, sending it to Jack with a quick thank you.
Then he walked up the drive and opened the door.
The radio in the kitchen was playing Christmas music and the lights in the den were off so he’d probably walked in at dinner time.
“Hello,” his mom called. “Just wait one minute and I’ll be right there.”
“It’s okay,” Eric called back. “Don’t rush on my behalf.”
There was a clattering and the kitchen door was pulled open, spilling its light into the hall. Eric grinned at his mom for a full few seconds before she got to him and swept him up into her arms. He raised his own arms to hug her, pulling her tight against his chest.
“Dicky,” she said, squeezing him again. “What on god’s green earth are you doing here?”
Eric pulled his head out of his mom’s hair to beam up at his dad. “Hey, Coach.”
Coach looked baffled but he stepped forward and put his arms around them both and Eric laughed, leaning into it. It was so good to be home.
They stood that way for a second until his mom pulled back. “Goodness, you must be starving! Let me rustle something up for you.”
“I’m fine, Mom. I ate on the plane.”
“Yes, but plane food’s terrible,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Come on, Dicky, sit down at the table and I’ll get you something.”
“You don’t have to go to any trouble,” Eric said, but he put his backpack down and followed her into the kitchen. The table was set for two and their meals nearly finished so Eric took one of the free seats, relaxing into it.
It was good to be back. To know that he knew this place. There were no roommates who’d move his things around. No teammates who he wasn’t actually on a team with any more. This place was his and the people in it were his.
Actually, now he thought about it, it was strange how much Jack’s apartment was starting to feel the same way. A place he could be himself in every way without worrying. At first, he’d been cautious but whenever he did something, made some change, Jack seemed to love it. He’d even mentioned a few times that he wanted to take Eric out and let him buy things for the apartment. Make it into a home that both of them could share.
It was brilliant and terrifying and so soon but Eric was so in love.
“So, Junior,” Coach said, taking his seat back. “How’s school going.”
“Oh, you know, the usual,” Eric said, then launched into a long story about something that had happened in one of his lectures. Coach listened and nodded and made the right sounds in the right places until his mom appeared with a plate of food and, well, Eric hadn’t been hungry until he smelt it.
When he’d cleaned his plate and looked up, he was met with twin concerned expressions.
He froze. He hadn’t been expecting this. Didn’t they want him home.
“Is...is everything okay?” he asked, lowering his fork.
“Honey,” his mom said, softly. “That’s what we want to ask you.”
Eric glanced over to Coach who nodded. He frowned. Why on earth would there be anything wrong with him.
“Everything’s fine, Mom.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, reaching across the table to take his hand.”
“Yes?” Why wouldn’t it be?”
“It’s just,” she started, glancing to Coach again for backup. “You didn’t come home last year.”
“Last year some of the boys were staying. This year, I’d be alone.”
“Okay,” Coach said slowly. “But... kid, you said you couldn’t afford the ticket.”
“No,” Eric agreed. “I didn’t want you to know I was coming. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“But sweetie, you lost your scholarship.” He’d tried to hide that one from them, had succeeded for the longest time, but in the days when he was juggling school and work and the beginning of this thing with Jack and he’d been tired all the time he’d let it slip. They’d been concerned, but trusted him.
“And I took care of it, Momma. I told you I would. I’ve been working real hard and making money and things are okay.”
They still looked sceptical but Coach nodded. “Well, we’re proud of you for that, son. Taking on extra jobs to make your way. It’s a great thing to do.”
“Thanks, Coach,” Eric said, stomach clenching. He had taken on jobs. He had. He’d just left them when his millionaire NHL boyfriend decided to pay for him instead. His dad didn’t have to know that. Couldn’t know that.
There was no way Eric was using Christmas to come out to his family.
“But you’re sure you can afford this, baby,” his mom said, squeezing his hand again. “We can try and find a little to help...”
“Goodness, please don’t do that,” Eric said, quickly. “I’m just fine. I’m just really glad to see y’all. I can’t wait to see the rest of the family too. We’re going over to Aunt Judy’s tomorrow, right?”
His mom looked at him and, for a second, Eric thought she wasn’t going to take the subject change. Then she relaxed a little, smiled, and graciously let them move on. Eric found himself relaxing too.
He was going to be okay.
Being back in his childhood bedroom was strange.
The thing was that, intellectually, Eric knew it had only been a few months since he was last here. He’d been here in the summer, after all. But, at the same time, it felt like a million years ago. Like he was someone fundamentally different from that boy.
He unpacked his bag, though he hadn’t brought much. Senor Bun was tucked back into the bed. His clothes went back into his drawers.
He sat back on the bed and pulled out his phone.
Jack was still in Providence. The Falconer’s were flying out on Christmas day. As late as they could, to give the guys with families some time with their kids. Then he’d be playing. Eric wondered if he’d be able to talk coach into putting the game on. Coach was generally pro-sport and he’d watched hockey with Eric before.
Eric wondered if it’d feel different, watching sport with coach while knowing one of those players was his secret boyfriend. Would coach know, somehow, from the look on Eric’s face? What if Jack took a hard check and Eric got upset?
He’d never had to think about this before. Being gay had always been more of a theoretical. He’d always told himself that it was okay. That he’d come out when he was ready. When his family were ready. When he had a boyfriend and a life and there was a reason to tell them.
He knew it was an excuse, but he didn’t even have that any more. He had Jack. Jack’s family knew about them. There was no reason he couldn’t tell his family.
Except that his mom might not love him any more. Coach might not love him any more.
Of course, he had no real reason to think that. No real reason to believe they’d look at him any different. But the roiling panic in his gut wasn’t logical.
He lay back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. 13 year old Eric Bittle had covered it in glow in the dark star stickers. He’d used a star chart to do it and everything, putting in the major constellations. He’d spent days getting it just right.
Eric picked up his phone and called Jack.
“Hey,” Jack said, picking up on the third ring. “How’s Georgia?”
“Weird,” Eric said, honestly.
“I don’t know,” Eric sighed. “Oh honey, it’s just like going back in time. I mean, I’m so glad you paid for my plane ticket and everything and it’s been just wonderful to see Mom and Coach and tomorrow we’re going to see everyone else but... it’s like I’ve stepped into a time portal. I’m lying here on these same sheets I had when I was fifteen and somehow it’s like a little part of me is sad, closeted fifteen year old Eric again.”
“Oh,” Jack said, softly. “Yeah, I get that.”
“It just made me really want to hear your voice, sweetie. Just to, I don’t know, check that you’re real.”
“I’m real,” Jack promised. “I wish I could fly down there to you and prove it.”
“Gosh, I’d like that too,” Eric said. “Though it might be a little tough to explain to my parents why an NHL star was dropping by to give me a hug.”
“There is that.”
“I mean, do you know my mom used to have a poster of your dad on her wall? I didn’t, but we were talking about hockey earlier and I mentioned I’d gotten to a few games in Providence, you know. And she started talking about you and about how dishy you were and, lord, I nearly melted with embarrassment. Then she told me all about the huge crush she’d had on your dad. Apparently her and her girlfriends used to watch ice hockey just to see him.”
“You’re saying you don’t watch just to see me?”
“I’ll have you know, Mr Zimmermann, that I have many interests in ice sports outside of your own fine self. And don’t pretend I don’t know why you picked a jersey for me with your name across the back of it.”
“Got to make sure you have your favourite player’s shirt.”
“Well, for your information, Tater’s my favourite player.”
“He is not.”
“Is not. Just admit it, Bittle, you like me best.”
“Okay,” Eric grinned. “Okay, maybe I like you a little. Is that good enough?”
“It’ll do for now. So, tell me how the flight went,”
There was one thing you could guarantee at a Bittle family reunion of any kind and that was baking. Whenever you got two Bittle women in a room, there would be cake or pie. Eric’s mom loved to tell the story about the first time she’d gone over to the Bittle household after she’d started dating Coach. Coach’s mom had dragged her into the kitchen, put an apron on her, and asked her questions while she baked a pie. It was only when the pie was deemed satisfactory that she gained family approval.
So, of course, when they got to Auntie Judy’s, the women folk headed straight to the kitchen and the men fold headed straight to the lounge and the TV and Eric, like he always did, followed along on his mother’s coat tails.
“Oh, Eric,” Aunt Judy said, swooping in to pull him into her arms, which might have been more effective if he couldn’t rest his chin on her head. “Oh, goodness. Nobody told me you were coming!”
“It was a shock to us all,” his mom said. “He just turned up on the doorstep last night.”
“Oh, goodness,” Aunt Judy said, squeezing him a bit tighter. Eric raised his hand slowly to pat her on the back.
“But don’t worry,” his mom carries on. “I didn’t want to put y’all out so we brought over extra food...”
“Oh, Suzanne, you don’t have to worry about that. You’re family.”
“I know, but I insist.”
“Well, I’m just gonna insist that you take it right back home with you.”
Aunt Judy released her death grip and Eric stepped back quickly, out of her range. His cousin Linda was already rolling out dough so he scooted on over.
“Hey,” she said, bumping his shoulder.
“Hey. Want me to get started on the filling?”
Eric smiled. He’s always liked Linda. She was twenty-five and getting married herself in not too long if the gossip his mom had been feeding him was accurate. More importantly, she’d always been the level headed one. When all the cousins got together in a room, there were a lot of them. Coach was the youngest of four brothers and all the rest of them had multiple children. It had been like a scrum sometimes but Linda had always been patient and kind.
“So, Eric,” she said. “Tell me about college.”
He smiled and launched into a frat house story. He almost wished he could tell her a Jack story but, needs must.
They made two pies together by the time their moms stopped arguing and started helping, though it wasn’t like much more was needed. Carol kept wandering through, Judy’s youngest. She was much closer to Eric in age but had never given him the time of day. Not that Eric minded. He didn’t care much for her either. After all, she was the only Bittle woman who didn’t bake and Eric knew he shouldn’t judge as he was the only Bittle man who DID bake but he couldn’t help judging.
In the end, they didn’t eat the food they’d brought over though Aunt Judy agreed to keep it. Instead, they ate a giant spread that would likely rival what was on offer on Christmas day, all whipped up in addition to the pies they’d put together for the big celebration.
By the time they’d eaten, Eric would have been more than happy to collapse back into a chair and not move. But, without knowing quite how, he found himself washing the pots. Aunt Judy was even tipsy enough to leave him to do it alone.
He was finishing up and wondering if it’d be feasible to ship Jack a pie in Colorado when Carol came sliding into the kitchen.
He didn’t look up at her at first. After all, she was pretty low on his radar and he was quite sure he was low on hers. He carried on drying until she was right up behind him, then he looked up and saw her holding his phone.
His heart stopped.
All his photos were on there. All his text messages. A million pieces of evidence about him and his NHL boyfriend and he’d been such an idiot. He should have never taken any of those pictures, he’d just wanted a little piece of Jack to keep with him when he was away.
“So,” Carol said, grinning. “I think you and I share an interest.”
Carol smirked and unlocked Eric’s phone like it wasn’t an issue that she apparently knew his code, she must have watched him open it, then turned to point it at him and oh.
Sugar daddy dating. The damn app was still on his desktop and Carol was grinning at him like the cat who got the cream.
“Give that here,” Eric said, snatching it. “I didn’t put that on there. Someone must have done it as a prank.”
“Oh, I thought that,” Carol said. “So I went ahead and opened it up. Mommy was saying it was strange you got to come down here since everyone had been so worried about your money situation. Did Daddy Jack buy you a plane ticket?”
Eric almost choked at Daddy Jack. He sincerely hoped he never heard those words coming out of a grown woman’s mouth again.
“We aren’t like that,” he said, defensively, then flushed again when he realised he’d given it again. There was a them and it was Jack. He had a boyfriend. Goodness, she’d tell his mom and Coach and everyone. “Anyway, you said we share an interest. You can’t judge me if you do it too.”
“Oh, shamelessly,” Carol drawled. “Though I’m not stupid enough to let on to mom that something’s going on with my. And baby, if you’re using the app, they’re all like that.”
“All like what?”
“You know. Hey baby, I’ll buy you that dress, now get on your knees.”
“Well, no,” Carol agreed. “He probably wanted to fuck you in the ass for this. I mean, the plane ticket can’t have been cheap.”
“I mean, we’re not like that. We only met on the app but we’re not like that. He cares about me.”
“Awwww,” Carol cooed. “Does he tell you he loves you? God, I bet you even give it up below the market rate. ‘I love you, Eric, get on your knees’. You don’t even get the dress.”
“Carol, I know this might be hard for you to believe but he does care about me.”
“Really, because I’ve been with a lot of men, Eric. As your cousin, it’s my job to look after you, right? These men, they say whatever they think you want to hear and then they break your heart because their wives find out or they find a woman who’ll look better on their arms at PR functions.”
“Maybe that’s how it works for you,” Eric hissed. “It’s not like that for me. I know my own business.”
“Whatever,” Carol said. “I’m just saying, if you ain’t in his bed tonight, someone else will be.”
Eric couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at that. The sheer amount of time it’s taken him and Jack to work up to that. Maybe most guys out there were like Carol was saying, maybe she’d just got burned, but he knew in his bones that Jack wasn’t like that. Jack was sweet and careful and the best man Eric could have asked for.
“Whatever,” Carol said, slumping on the counter. “But if it’s not some big thing you’re ashamed of, why don’t you tell your parents?”
“You know full well why,” Eric snapped.
“The boyfriend part, Carol. I’ll come out to them in my own good time so don’t think that Jack’s the one at fault here.”
Eric froze. This was his mom. If he turned around right now, his mom was going to be standing in the doorway.
“Oh, Aunt Suzanne,” Carol said, suddenly looking nervous. As well she should, goodness only knew how long his mom had been stood there. She could know anything about them. “I...how long have you been there.”
“Long enough to know I need to talk to my son alone, if you please,” she said. Carol nodded and, like the traitor she was, scarpered.
Eric turned. His mom was watching him with a raised eyebrow.
“So, what did you hear?”
“That apparently my son is in a relationship and didn’t tell me,” she said, frowning. “Goodness, Eric, I thought we could talk about anything.”
“Well, if you were listening, you know why I didn’t tell you.”
“Momma, I’m gay. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m not sorry I’m gay, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It was all just so big and scary and I didn’t want to make it into a thing but the more time passed, the harder it was to say something and please say something I can’t...”
“Eric,” his mom said, stepping closer. Then she sighed and wrapped her arms around him. Even a few years ago, he’d been able to hide in her arms. Now he engulfed her as he leant in to return the hug, but he didn’t mind. “I love you, sweetheart. I’m not... I won’t lie and say this is what I’ve always wanted but I hope I’ve always taught you to be true to yourself and if this is who you really are?”
“It is, momma.”
“Good,” she said, squeezing him a little tighter. “Then I’m happy for you, sweetie. Though we’re going to have to tell Coach.”
“Okay,” Eric said, sagging. “Can we get home first, at least? I think this kitchen’s seen enough drama for one evening.”
“Okay,” Coach said, blinking slowly. “I can’t exactly say I didn’t suspect. As long as you’re happy, kid.”
“I am,” Eric agreed, gripping his phone. He’d texted Jack on the way back. All he really wanted to do was call him. To hear his voice. All he really wanted to do was run away from all this, get on a plane and head back up to Providence and throw himself into Jack’s arms.
“Well, good,” Coach said, slowly. “We’re all good, right?”
“Nearly,” his mom said, leaning forward. “Now we’ve got that out of the way, I need to know about this young man of yours.”
“He has a young man?” Coach asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes,” his mom said, waving her hand. “I overheard him and Carol talking in the kitchen. Someone called Jack. And can I say, Eric, I think you’d be able to confide in me before you talked to Carol. You know she’s a gossip.”
“I know,” Eric said. “I didn’t mean to talk to her first. She took my phone and... found my text messages.”
“Oh, goodness,” the mom said.
“I’ll talk to her pa about privacy,” Coach grumbled.
“Look, no need for that,” he said. He knew how Coach could get with his brothers. If they started something, it could drag out for months.
“So, tell me all about him,” his mom said, leaning forward. “Have you got pictures? Honey, tell me you have pictures.”
“I...” yes, he had pictures. He had a million pictures of himself and star centre Jack Zimmermann being adorable and his mom would know exactly who he was. But Eric could already see the way her lips were starting to turn down. Some of the spark going out of her eye. She wanted to share this with him and he wanted to share this with her but...
“Bathroom. I just need to use the bathroom. I’ll only be a minute.”
He stood before anyone could protest and ran, locking himself in the upstairs bathroom. Jack picked up on the third ring.
“I just came out to my parents.”
“Okay, Bud. How did they take it?”
“Good. Okay. I mean, my mom’s upset that I didn’t tell her earlier and I don’t think either of them are thrilled but, they want to know about my boyfriend.”
“And I won’t tell them anything Jack, I promise. I know that privacy is really important to you and that you can’t come out. But I’m panicking a little and when I won’t show them a photo, my mom’ll start worrying. Maybe I can show them a photo of one of the hockey boys? But she’s already met them and she knows they’re not called Jack and I...”
“You should tell them the truth.”
“You should tell them the truth. They’re your family and you love them. And I don’t mind. It’s okay, for you to tell them.”
“Oh honey, are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I just wish I could be there to do it with you. There’s no time...”
“I know, honey. But...there is one way.”
Eric came back downstairs with his laptop in his arms. His parents were still sat around the table. Coach had a beer and his mom had a wine and they looked worried. They only looked more worried when he came back in.
“Okay,” he said, sitting down. “I’ll tell you about my boyfriend.”
“Sweetie, you don’t have to,” his mom said, too quickly. “I’m sorry if I pushed. I just...”
“No,” Eric said, quickly. “I just needed to talk to him first. I... if it’s okay with you, I’ll tell you about him and then we’ll skype with him, so you can say hello. If that’s okay.”
“That’s fine, kid.”
Eric nodded and put the laptop down. He opened it up and queued up skype, then he took out his phone.
“Okay, first, y’all have to swear you won’t tell anyone else about this.”
“Honey, you’re worrying me,” his mom said. “Is this someone you shouldn’t date? Are they married? I can’t promise I won’t tell someone if I think you need help.”
“No, mom,” Eric assured her. “It’s nothing like that. It’s... I guess I should just show you.”
He opened his phone and flipped through to his favourite photo. The one he’d have as his background if he could. Jack leaning in, grinning like a loon and pressing Eric close against him. Eric was looking at the camera, Jack was looking at Eric as though he was the most important thing in the world. As though he loved him.
Eric loved that boy so much.
He turned the phone around and put it down in front of his parents.
There was a moment of silence and then, “Honey, that’s Jack Zimmermann.”
“I know,” Eric said. “See now why y’all can’t tell anyone. He’s not ready to be out to the entire world yet.”
“I, yes?” his mom said, glancing over at Coach.
“That okay with you, kid? Hiding things?”
“Yes,” Eric said, quickly. “I’m very okay with it. We talked it through and we’ve only been dating for a few months anyway. I wouldn’t expect him to come out after only a few months.”
“But...this is a serious relationship?”
“It is. Very serious.”
Coach nodded. “Okay. You’d better get him on sykpe then.”
Later that night, Eric called up skype again. This time, Jack was wearing one of the worn t-shirts he often wore to bed and Eric could see that he was in his bedroom already. Suddenly he ached to be there.
“Hey, bud,” Jack said, softly. “How was that.”
“It was great, sweetie. Thank you so much for that. You didn’t have to but I just...just thank you.”
“It was no problem, Bitts. Your parents are nice. And it’s good that they know. For you, I mean. I know that hiding this is tough on you.”
“Not too tough,” Eric said, quickly. “I mean, of course there are day when all I want in the world is to walk down the street telling every person I see just how much I love you but...”
“Hey,” Jack said, softly. “You’ve not said that before.”
“Not said what?”
“That you love me.”
Eric flushed. “Oh. I guess I think it so much that I didn’t realise. I’m sorry, that’s probably just about the least romantic confession ever, isn’t it. Goodness. It’s really the first time? It wasn’t like I was holding back or anything, honey, it just feel like it’s too new to be this big, sweetie. But I really do. Love you, I mean.”
“Eric. I love you too.”
Eric grinned. Ducked down to hide his blush then glanced back up at Jack. Jack looked flushed. Pleased.
He looked like home.
“Jack!” Jack winced a little and braced for impact. He wasn’t surprised when Tater thudded against his back, leaning all his weight onto Jack. A few of the other guys in the locker room gave them sympathetic looks but didn’t actually do anything to help.
“Hey, Tater,” Jack said, lifting a hand to pat Tater’s head. “You okay there?”
“No!” Tater exclaimed, waving his arm in a way that was likely to topple them both. “How can I be okay when best girlfriend in world dump me?”
Ah, this still. Jack knew he shouldn’t be so callous, he’d be a complete wreck if Eric left him, but cracks had been showing between Tater and his girl for months and Jack wasn’t at all surprised that it’d come to this.
“It’ll be okay, eh?” Jack said, trying to dislodge Tater. “Why don’t you take Snowy out drinking?”
“Have done,” Tater said, giving in and removing himself from Jack’s person only to collapse into Jack’s stall. “Is no good. I’m meet other girls but not as beautiful as her.” The her was said with a long drawn out sigh that made Jack want to roll his eyes.
“Can you move over, eh? Let me get my clothes?”
“Fine,” Tater said, then dramatically slumped to the floor, sprawling out. It was a good thing he’d already got changed into his street clothes, lying like that in pads might have been painful. Jack stepped over him and started to get dressed.
“Okay,” Jack said, finally. “Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?”
Tater lit up immediately. “Yes. I’m know you are best friend. We have best friend night, okay? You, me, beer? Can watch a movie with lots of explosions and I’m only cry a little.”
“I guess,” Jack agreed with a sigh. He couldn’t think of a lot he’d like to do less but Tater was his best friend.
“Good. I’m come over tonight.”
“No,” Jack said, quickly, then froze. Marty, the last one out of the room, caught Jack’s eye for a second them ran before he could get pulled into it. They were alone.
“Why no?” Tater whined. “I’m hurt, Jack. You’re best friend, right?”
“Right?” Jack agreed, sitting down in his stall to pull his shoes on. “Only Eric’s coming over tonight. We’ve got the roadie next week so I probably won’t see him for days and...”
“Is okay,” Tater said, patting Jack’s leg. “I’m come too.”
“I’m be polite. Not drink too much. Go home early. Just not want to be alone tonight, Jack.”
Jack sighed. Tater had met Eric twice before, though only briefly both times. And it wasn’t like Tater could be shocked by them when he was the one who’d set them up in the first place.
But he had wanted this time alone with Eric.
But Tater was his best friend. And if the unthinkable happened and Eric left him, he’d want Tater to step in and pick him up off the floor. Tater’s girlfriend had always been a little too much for Jack, but Tater had really cared about her. He was really hurting, dramatics aside.
“Fine. But you’ve got to behave.”
“I’m on best behaviour,” Tater promised, bouncing up from the floor. “Let Eric know he can make me pie. That will help with heartbreak.”
“Now I see what you’re really after,” Jack said with a laugh. “Well, whatever. Come on, you can beat me at Mario Cart until he gets here.”
Tater was a damn liar and, most of a bottle of vodka and two rom-coms later, Jack knew it. He’d been relegated to the armchair in his own living room while Tater lay all over the couch, his head in Jack’s boyfriend’s lap. He’d eaten an entire pie, drunk most of the vodka, and proceeded to ugly sob through the movies. The rest of the vodka had mostly gone into Eric who was currently running a hand through Tater’s hair and listing to the side in a way that would have been dangerous if there wasn’t a chair arm there.
“I’m just miss her,” Tater said, wiping angrily at his eyes. His voice got deeper and his accent stronger when he drank. “Was perfect, you know? Perfect for me. I’m think, this forever.”
“I know,” Eric agreed, though he’d never met Tater’s now-ex girlfriend. “Goodness, I’m so upset for you.”
“Should have asked her to marry. Maybe she stay?”
“Oh,” Eric said, lighting up. “Maybe you should do that now? Like, a big romantic gesture and get back together?”
“Oh,” Tater sat up quickly. “Yes. Is best idea. I will do!”
“Hey,” Jack said, moving across the room. He’d already taken both Tater and Eric’s phones hours ago and hid them so he wasn’t too worried about immediate drunken stupidity. “I mean, you could do that, but if she’s only going to stay with you because you asked her to marry you, she’s probably not a good person to be with.”
“But was perfect, Jack,” Tater said, his eyes misting up again. “I’m want to marry and have three babies. Maybe four.”
“I thought she didn’t want babies.”
“Maybe,” Tater grumbled, flopping back into Eric’s lap. “I’m think she change mind when see how much I’m love her.”
“Having kids is definitely something you should be 100% in before you do,” Jack said, slowly. “You wouldn’t want her to have kids then resent you for it, would you?”
Tater just blinked at him, like he hadn’t quite got that. Jack wasn’t sure if the problem there was the language or the alcohol.
“Hey, Jack,” Eric said, leaning over. Jack turned to look at him drunk, flushed boyfriend. He was meant to be heading back to Samwell this evening, that clearly wasn’t going to happen. Not that Jack would complain about a night of Eric in his arms, even if it caused problems in the morning. “Do you want kids?”
“Yeah,” Jack said, smiling.
“Good,” Eric grinned. “I want a whole load of them. Like, ten. Jack, we should have ten kids.”
“I think ten might be a few too many, bud. But talk to me again in a few years and we’ll negotiate.”
“Yeah,” Eric sighed. “I guess I should finish college before we adopt any kids.”
“I guess,” Jack said, smiling. He liked the certainty of it. The way that Eric, drunk as he was, just took it for granted that Jack was still going to be with him in two years. That they were going to adopt kids. Get married, probably. That this was a forever thing.
“Stop,” Tater said, sticking a hand between their faces. “Too cute, might barf.”
“You might do that anyway,” Jack grumbled. “You ready to sleep? I can make up the spare room.”
“No,” Tater said, rolling to bury his face in Eric’s tummy. Jack rolled him back. He tried not to be jealous, normally, but he was the only one who got to do that. Well, unless some day there were little children to do it.
Just think of that. A future with a house, with kids, with Eric as his husband. Just thinking about it made him feel calm in a way he hadn’t in years.
Willing to do anything to get it.
“Oh, I know,” Eric exclaimed. “Y’all should come to the epikegster!”
“What on earth is that?” Jack asked, grinning.
“Well,” Eric said. “It’s just a big ass-party, really. At the hockey Haus. Shitty makes up this drink called tub juice and, well, Jack probably won’t want any but Tater could have some and you can dance all night and forget about all your problems. Maybe even meet someone.”
“Yes!” Tater said, shooting up again. “I’m dance all night! Best, Eric!”
“Eric, bud,” Jack interrupted. “You can’t.”
“Why?” Eric asked, frowning. “Nobody’ll mind. The hockey bros are awesome.”
“But, Eric, how are you going to explain why there are guys from the NHL at your party?”
Eric’s face fell and Jack felt like just the worst person, but better to cut this off now than to leave then to roll along to the realisation alone.
“Oh, I guess that would be a problem,” Eric said, sinking back into the cushions. “I just thought...but never mind.”
“None of your friends know, Eric?” Tater asked, turning to look at Eric.
“No,” Eric said. He smiled and shrugged but the smile didn’t reach his eyes and Jack was officially the worst person in the world. “It’s fine.”
“Is not fine,” Tater grumbled. “Is worst.”
Jack snorted then nodded in agreement. It was the worst. Eric should be able to tell his friends. Eric should be able to tell everyone he wanted. Jack wanted that for him.
“Well, it is what it is,” Eric said. “Come on, this is all getting so gloomy. Let’s put another movie on.”
“Fine,” Jack said. He took advantage of Tater being sat up to nudge Eric down the sofa, claiming an end for himself and tucking Eric under his arm. “But no more rom-coms, please.”
Jack came back from morning skate to the smell of baking and to Eric Bittle in his kitchen, neither of which he’d expected. He’d dragged Tater up for skate and woken Eric up, left him with the uber app open on his phone and expected him to actually make an effort to get to his morning class. Apparently that hadn’t happened.
“Hey,” he said, stepping up behind him boyfriend and leaning in to kiss his cheek. “I thought you’d be gone.”
“Fell back asleep,” Eric said, blushing. “I texted a guy in the class and he’s gonna lend my his notes. I’ve got another class at three but I thought I’d stay and see you after your skate.”
“Well, I’m never going to be mad about being able to see you more often.”
“I thought so,” Eric said. “Maybe we can get lunch before I head back? I whipped up a quiche this morning and a few pies. One of them’s for Tater, though, so don’t just eat them all yourself.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate it,” Jack said, moving over to look in the oven. He thought he could smell raspberry but he couldn’t be sure.
“I just feel so bad for him. If you broke up with me...” he trailed of, looking down at the floor and Jack stepped in and pulled him into his arms. Held him tight.
“I’m not going to break up with you, Eric.”
“If I ever feel like things aren’t working, I’ll talk to you about them. I hope you’d do the same for me.”
“Of course,” Eric said, leaning into him. “I try, anyway. Sometimes things just are how they are, though. Sometimes the world can’t just be how you want it and you have to accept that and get on with it.”
“You really want to tell your friends, don’t you?”
Eric spun and gaped at that, like what he was saying wasn’t perfectly obvious in the light of what they were talking about last night. Jack got it. There were days he really wished he could tell the team. Days he hated that they didn’t know. It was easier for him, he wasn’t as outgoing as Eric. He didn’t share so easily.
“I’m not breaking up with you over it.”
“No,” Jack agreed. “I didn’t think you would. But it’s something you want, right? To tell them?”
“Yes,” Eric admitted. “Yeah, I’d like to be able to talk to them. It’s just, sometimes it’s so hard, sweetpea. I’m so happy and they can’t understand why. They don’t get why I don’t want them to set me up on dates and things. They know there’s someone, I think, and I think they’re hurt that I won’t tell them. Shitty keeps dropping hints that I can tell him anything and Ransom and Holster... and it’s not just that. I want to be able to share how happy I am. How much I love you.”
“I get that,” Jack said. He stepped in and leant forward, pressing his forehead against Eric’s. Eric sighed and looped his arms around Jack’s neck. Tilted them together until they were kissing.
Jack could happily kiss Eric forever. He loved everything else too, of course, but even if they just kissed for the rest of this lives...
“Tell them,” Jack said, pulling back a little.
“You trust them, and I trust you. I mean, don’t take out an advert in the school paper, but tell a few of them. The ones you really trust. I’d love to meet them. And maybe you can meet some of the guys from the team, too?”
“You’re serious. You’d do that for me?”
“I’m serious about us,” Jack said, leaning in for another quick kiss. “And yes, I think it’s time. It’s not like we’re telling the world, just our most important friends.”
“Yeah,” Eric agreed. “I’d love that, Jack. Thank you so much. Now, let go of me before these pies burn.”
“Hey, Zimms,” Snowy said, dropping the six pack of beer on Jack’s dining table. “Thanks for the invite.”
“It’s no problem,” Jack said, glancing at it. He hadn’t expected everyone to bring beer, though he supposed it was normal if you invited people over to grill. But his fridge was kind of full and he really hoped they weren’t going to drink all of this. “Figured it was time I had people over.”
“I’ll admit,” Mitch said, grinning in the doorway. He had one eye on the patio door where Tater was outside, firing up the grill. “Was kind of starting to wonder if you actually liked in, like, a ditch or something.”
“Tater’s been over before.”
“Oh, Tater’s the favoured one,” Snowy laughed. He must have noticed Jack frowning because he stepped in and slapped him on the shoulder. “It’s okay, kid. It’s your house, you invite who you want.”
“I will,” Jack said, rolling his eyes.
“Hey, is meat ready?” Tater called out from the balcony. “Grill ready, Zimmboni!”
“Sure,” Jack said, taking the beer and ducking into his kitchen. It was weirdly bare. He hadn’t gone to the lengths he went to before Christmas with his parents, all the baking stuff was still out, but he’d taken down the post it notes and the pictures and things.
But, soon, they could all go back up. And stay back up, because everyone he actually cared about would know.
He paused a second and took out his phone. He could call Eric now. Eric would tell him he proud he was that Jack was taking this step. How good it was going to be for both of them. And Jack would smile and nod and agree.
It was surreal that when Tater had set him up with Eric, he’d been looking for some way to have intimacy without having to come out.
He grabbed the meat and headed back to the balcony. He had a big space out here and all the guys were crowded in, commenting on if they thought the grill was ready or not and chirping Tater about his appropriation of it. Tater just laughed at them, threatening to throw them over the balcony if they tried to get him to give up control.
He hadn’t invited the entire team, he didn’t know all of them that well. Some were call ups and there were a couple of guys who were fine with him on the ice but he didn’t want them in his personal business. But most everyone else was here.
This was the time.
He stepped up next to the grill and raised his hand.
Marty laughed. “Hey, kid. You don’t need to do speeches at a cookout.”
Jack rolled his eyes at the chirp but a few of the guys laughed so it wasn’t so bad. “I know. But I kind of invited you here to tell you all something. It’s kind of...I mean, it’s not that big of a deal. But it’s important to me.
“Hey, it’s fine,” Marty said, stepping in and bumping his shoulder against Jack’s. “You finally going to admit you have a girlfriend?”
“Yeah,” Snowy said. Jack didn’t dare turn around to look at Tater. He’d be smirking. “You keep bringing baked goods to practice, kid, and grinning at your phone. You’re not subtle.”
“Whatever,” Jack said, rolling his eyes. “It’s kind of... kind of like that. I guess.” He wished he’d done this differently. Wished he’d pulled them aside one at a time and talked to them. But the thought of doing that...
This was better. Rip it off, like a plaster. It’d all be over after this.
“I’m gay. I have a boyfriend.”
“Oh,” Marty said, and for half a second there was an awkward silence. Then “So, are we going to get to meet him?”
“Yeah,” Snowy added. “I want to finally thank the person who’s been single-handedly sustaining my sweet tooth.”
“I’m tell you Eric should be here,” Tater interrupted from the grill. “Tell you team want meet.”
“Wait, Eric? You told Tater and not us?”
“The shame, Zimboni. See if I make you godfather of my kids now.”
“Hey, you said I was going to be godfather of your kids.”
Jack smiled and stepped back, heading back inside to grab a beer and text Eric to let him know that it was done.
“Hey,” Jack said, grinning into the phone. A few of the guys who’d been working hardest to reclaim Jack’s fridge from the mass of beer bottles wolf whistled at him in the way that said they knew exactly what the grin on Jack’s face meant. Jack flipped them off and headed to his bedroom.
“Took it well, them?” Eric asked dryly.
“Something like that,” Jack agreed. “They want to meet you. Marty invited us for dinner.”
“Oh sweetie, that’s wonderful. I hope you said yes for us?”
“I did. He says you can bring one pie.”
“But... what if they don’t all like that pie? Jack.”
“Apple. Make one apple pie.”
“Are you sure?”
“And... did you tell the guys?”
“I did,” Eric said, and he sounded so please with himself. “I mean, sweetie, they all already knew I was gay so it’s not like it was a big deal like it was for you...”
“But you hid something from them. Were they mad?”
“Not really,” Eric said, though he didn’t sound entirely sure of that. “I mean, maybe a little at first. I’ve been insisting pretty hard that there’s no one. But when I told them it was you, they got it. And they’ve all sworn down that they won’t tell anyone. Not even their own mothers.”
“That’s good, Eric,” Jack said, smiling.
“And, you know, they asked me a lot of questions. They’re all hockey players, after all. They mostly wanted to know if you could get them game tickets.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Jack, you don’t have to do that. I told them no. I think they were just chirping me.”
“Then all the more reason to do it. I’ll take care of it tomorrow. How many tickets will you need?”
“Jack, I don’t...”
“Try again, bud.”
“Okay, I guess eight if you want me to bring the frogs. I mean, I told them too. I mean, I’m not as close with them because I never played with them but...”
“Eight tickets. Does that include you?”
“Of course,” Eric said, sounding offended. “Like I’d pass up any opportunity to see you play.”
“Good,” Jack grinned. “I’ll make sure I score a goal for you.”
“I’ll hold you to that. Do you think, after the game, you’d meet the boys? I know you’re very busy but...”
“Eric, I’m not too busy to meet your friends. You should all come over after the game. I’ll get some of the guys too. It might not be as good as a Kegster but...”
“Jack, you don’t need to do that for me. I know you value your privacy.”
“I know,” Jack said. “But I value you more. And I want to really meet them. I don’t want to have an awkward encounter in a hallway, I want to meet them like your boyfriend meeting your friends. I want to have awkward conversations like we haven’t all heard a load about each other already from you. I want to hold your hand. I want them to try and awkwardly threaten me to defend your honour.”
“Well, if you feel that strongly,” Eric said. He sounded so pleased that Jack was sure it was the right thing, even if he didn’t really like the thought of all those people in his place.
There were a lot of things he wanted to give Eric and some of them weren’t possible just yet, but he could give him this.
“I do. I love you.”
“Love you too, Jack. I’m going to let you get back to your party now, but call me if you need me, okay.”
“Okay, Eric. Have a good night.”
Jack did score the goal.
It wasn’t easy and they lost the game but that was easier to deal with when he knew they’d played their best and that when he got home, Eric would be there.
Of course, he’d prefer Eric to be there alone. When he pulled into his building’s car park, Tater close behind, there were two strange cars parked up. An old thing that looked like they’d all be lucky if it actually got back to Samwell again and a truck.
He took a moment to just sit behind the wheel and breath. It was going to be okay. Eric trusted these people, he trusted Eric. It was going to be okay.
Tater got out of his car beside Jack then stood there, hands in his pocket, waiting. Jack took one more measured breath then opened the door.
“Of course,” Jack said, though he didn’t feel as confident as he sounded. “Come on, I bet Eric’s making pie.”
“Are best pies,” Tater sighed. “Think I’m steal Eric, take home with me. Can be my boyfriend.”
Jack laughed, though his heart wasn’t in it. Then they were in the lift, on his floor, opening his door.
Eric’s head popped around the door. He beamed at them. He was still wearing his Zimmermann jersey, and Jack couldn’t help but smile at that. He loved Eric in his name.
“Hey,” Eric said, stepping into the foyer. He pulled Tater into a quick hug then turned and wrapped his arms around Jack, pulling him close and burying his face in Jack’s chest and Jack could only bend over, breathing into Eric’s hair.
This was worth everything.
“Okay,” Tater said behind them. “I’m go in now.”
Jack grunted some kind of agreement but didn’t let go of Eric. Eric didn’t seem inclined to let go of him either, holding on tight. Jack loved it. He loved Eric.
Eventually, though, they drew back. He leant in and pressed a soft kiss to Eric’s cheek.
“Sorry about the game,” Eric said, reaching up to cup Jack’s cheeks. “You did great, honey.”
“Not great enough,” Jack sighed. “But I don’t want to talk about that now. Is everyone here?”
“Yeah. But that was a nasty loss, honey. If you want, I’ll send them home. We don’t HAVE to do this now. You can come up to Samwell some time or we can’t come down next week or...”
“Eric. I’m ready.”
Eric smiled, soft and pleased. Jack wasn’t sure that he was ready. He’d have really preferred to have Eric to himself. To brood and let Eric fuss over him until he felt better. But he’d also do just about anything to put that pleased smile on Eric’s face.
“Come on, bud. Let’s meet your friends.”
Eric smiled then reached out and took Jack’s hand. “Yeah. Let’s.”
ERIC AND JACK
“Eric, why is this still on your phone?”
Eric looked up from the book he was reading and blinked, trying to focus. Finals were a week away and at this point he was 90% caffeine and stress. Jack was lounging on the couch, Eric’s phone in his hand.
“This,” Jack said, standing and bringing the phone over. Eric looked at what he was being shown and laughed.
“Oh, sweetie. I don’t even know. I keep trying to delete it but then I just get all nostalgic, you know, and I can’t do it. I’m getting a new phone after graduation, I’ll get rid of it then.”
“Okay,” Jack said, slowly. “But why nostalgic?”
“Because that’s how I met you,” Eric said, taking the phone. He hadn’t opened the sugar daddy dating app in a long time and he wasn’t about to start again now. “It’s got our first conversations. Or me and Tater’s first conversations.”
“I talked to you on there too.”
“I know you did, honey,” Eric smiled. For old times sake, he hit the app. It had updated more than a few times in the two and a half years since Eric had last used it but he still managed to navigate to he and Jack’s chat thread.
“Just look at this,” he said, grinning. “You were so sweet and shy.”
“Like you weren’t,” Jack said, snatching the phone back to read for himself. “God, we were both so scared. You needing money and me just scared to let anyone know me.”
“Oh honey,” Eric said, reaching over to squeeze Jack’s hand. “You never had to be frightened of that. You’re amazing.”
“Thanks,” Jack said, leaning in to kiss Eric’s cheek. “You’re amazing too. I know you’d have made it anyway but I’m glad I found you.”
“I’m glad you found me too. Now, are you going to let me get on with this studying.”
“In a few minutes,” Jack grinned. “I mean, be honest with my sweetheart, have you actually remembered a word of what you were reading?”
Eric went to reply and realised that, no, he hadn’t. Not really. He sighed and flopped back into his chair. “No, not really. Reading’s so hard.”
“Want me to read it out for you?”
“Oh sweetpea, you don’t need to do that.”
“I know,” Jack said. “But I’d like to anyway. There’s just something I want to talk to you about first.”
“Sure,” Eric said. “Go on.”
Jack didn’t say anything. Eric looked over to see what he thought of as Jack’s thinking face. A little frown on the lips, a few wrinkles on the forehead. Eric smiled and leant in close to kiss those lines. Soon, school would be over and he’d be here all the time. He’d get to kiss those lines whenever he wanted.
Not that he was willing his time at Samwell to end, but it was nice knowing what was going to come after. It was nice to have some direction. It was nice knowing it was him and Jack, forever.
“Okay,” Jack said, softly. “Bitts, I’m thinking about coming out.”
“Or I have been thinking about it. A lot.”
“When I met you, all I wanted was something easy that I could hide. Eric, you’re like the opposite of that. You’re not what I thought I wanted, instead you’re just what I needed. I want to give you everything. I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”
“I want that too, honey. I want that so much.”
“I’m glad,” Jack said, running a hand over Eric’s cheek softly. “I mean, I know we’ve talked about it before, but I’m glad you feel that way. But, Eric, we can’t do any of that if I’m in the closet.”
“No,” Eric agreed. He’d thought about this before. A lot, actually. “But honey, we’re young. We can wait. I don’t need the rest of the world to be able to love you. I do that already. When we’re together, it doesn’t matter what anyone else in the world thinks. As long as we’re together...”
“I know,” Jack reassured him. He leant in to press his forehead against Eric’s and Eric breathed deeply, sharing their air. “But I still want to do it.”
“I’m sure. It’s going to suck, especially at first, but it’ll be worth it. I want the entire world to know how lucky I am to have the most wonderful boyfriend.”
“Well,” Eric said. “If you’re going to do that, I think you should tell them that you’ve got the most wonderful fiancé instead.”
“What, I can’t be the one to ask? Jack Zimmermann, love of my life, will you marry me?”
Jack laughed, so impossibly close to Eric. “I had a speech. I was going to wait until you graduated.”
“But I beat you to it. So, what do you say, Jack.”
“I say yes. Yes, I do.”