Jack crashes practice. As he tells it, he’d been meaning to sneak in and watch the team but, “the holes in the defence weren’t getting fixed, guys, you’re going to get swept by Yale if you don’t sort - oh my god Dex you are actually hitting me with your stick now - Bitty stop giggling!”
Eric calls it coming to the gate and yelling wildly at everyone, accompanied with furious gesturing with a stick that Jack has got from, well, Eric doesn’t actually know. Possibly he can just manifest them with the sheer force of his hockey belief.
Jack graduating and heading off for some hellscape training camp seems to have reset poor Chowder into his frog mode, completely unable to complete a sentence or really stand near Jack Zimmerman while standing near Jack Zimmerman. Eric spends so long convincing him that Jack hasn’t driven down especially to throw him off the team that he doesn’t really notice that most of the team are already off the ice. He pushes Chowder towards the gate and it’s only really ice and momentum that get him there.
Jack pats Chowder on the shoulder three times, very slow and deliberate. “Good work, kid. You’ve really been working on your stance.”
Chowder mumbles something, possibly with actual words but it’s anyone’s guess, and flees as quickly as a goalie in full gear can.
“Well, hi there, Bittle,” Jack says, all fake, delighted solemnity.
Eric skates up to the gate and stops just in front of it with almost no skid, which has always impressed Jack to a weird degree.
“Still pulling out the old figure skating moves I see, Bits.” His grin is almost indecent.
Eric does a quick spin. “Not as good as I used to be,” he says, mournful with it. “I could have done that five times with my eyes closed.”
“Now that I’d like to see,” Jack says, leaning forward and holding out his hand to help Eric up the step.
Graduation looks good on Jack, but then again most things do. Eric hasn’t seen him in a couple months - well, not face to face, and skype washes out his pale Canadian skin to an extent that had been worrying Eric to multiple pie levels.
“When you’re a fancy billionaire you can be one of those players who has a rink in their back yard and I can come along and skate rings round y’all.”
Jack smiles and Eric is just so happy to see him that all he can say is, “Hi, Jack,” just as Jack says, “Good hands on that last pass.”
“I try,” Eric says, knowing that his smile is totally outshining any good polite Southern modesty he’s talking. He folds down onto the bench, even though it’s fun to be on skates when Jack’s not. It’s like being a non munchkin. Jack dallies for a second and then sits down next to him. “Hey,” he says, bending down to undo Eric’s left boot laces which Eric will allow because it isn’t a game day. “Thanks for the last email, with the recipe. I think me being able to make pot roast has impressed my mom enough that she’s finally stopped acting like she’s always one step away from getting on the next plane from Canada to take care of me.”
Eric highly doubts it, but it’s nice to hear Jack treat parental concern like a regular twenty something, rather than assigning it as reproach and letting it fester in his heart.
“Did you like the music?” Eric asks. The amount of care packages he was sending Jack was starting to eat into his grocery budget, so he’s been trying to change it up with youtube links and music files and articles from select media sources.
Jack straightens up, face guilty. “Not yet. I’ve got to update my phone software and it’s such a pain, and anyway, I still have that whole playlist you did for me for graduation.”
It had been called Learn Something About What Young People Like and Eric had spent a lot of time on it, actually.
“I cannot believe that you're still listening to the playlists that I made you in school," Eric says, although he totally can believe it. "Honestly, Jack Zimmerman, pop culture stands still for no man."
Jack makes a defensive noise but Eric is having absolutely none of it. "I'm not going to let you turn into one of those weird hockey man children who act like they're forty when they're twenty three, you deserve better than that. You can't get complacent, it's like conditioning."
"Oh, like you've been keeping up with conditioning," Jack shoots back, giving Eric a suspicious once over. He's still smiling though, small but obvious to those who've had practice. Eric has probably spent actual years of his life looking at Jack. He's good. Eric laughs, says, "Oh I could still outstretch you, Captain."
Jack's laugh comes out a little strangled, the way it does sometimes when he's with Eric, as if it got caught on some other emotion on the way up. " Bitty," he says. He shakes his head like he's taken a knock, seems to find the rest of his words. "You never listened to me about conditioning even when I was your captain. And now you're making name for yourself telling people about crust or whatever-"
" Oh my god."
"I've got no chance now you're some kinda celebrity." Jack grins, and it's a proud one, always a Samwell smile to Eric, a perfectly formed capture of games, keggers, haus breakfasts. So Eric says, "Aw, Jack, you'll always be my captain."
Jack shrugs out something that isn’t as noncommittal as you’d probably expect if you didn’t know what team has always meant to him. If you weren’t team. He catches Eric’s eyes on the upward sweep of it, and the moment between them holds, and it’s definitely longer than either of them were expecting.
Eric doesn’t know why he says, “That doesn’t mean I can’t chirp you about your music taste, though. Are you still working your way through the playlist? Is that what this is actually about. One song a week.”
Although, really, he does know, breaking tension is a survival instinct, as ingrained as gender neutral pronouns and never, ever letting his eyes linger. He could probably identify various mens locker rooms by their floor tiles at this point, he’s spent so long staring at them.
Jack doesn’t comment on it. He knocks his shoulder into Eric and says, “No! I listened to all of it. Even the... anyway. I did listen. I can identify almost all of the singers now.”
Eric imagines Jack in his billet room, studying his ipod with his playbook face on and feels his mouth curl into a fond appalled shape, one that he hadn’t known it made before Jack Zimmerman. “Oh, honey.”
Jack toes at the ground. “I like that one about foxes and boxes.”
“I don’t remember giving you any Doctor Suess. Oh my god, wait, are you... Are you talking about Taylor Swift?”
Of course it is, of course Jack Zimmerman, Canada’s Prodigal Son, likes the song about feeling hunted, scrutinized, about escaping the huntsmen. Eric feels like he may have used up his oh honey too soon.
“There were at least two albums of her on there, I had to be more specific.” Jack’s expression is still a little too closed up. The media training people must have loved him, Jack could out-neutral Sidney Crosby on his best day.
Eric puts his arm around Jack’s shoulders, well, in the general area because it’s not like the height difference has gotten any less. Knocking shoulders is for fratties and the emotionally stunted. “I’m glad you liked one song.” He really is. Jack’s dream has always been the NHL, but it means throwing himself back to the wolves, and they’ve had years to get hungry. Maybe it’s just one song, but anything that can help. They all want to help so much, The Care and Feeding of Jack whatsapp thread is epic and constant, but there’s not really so much they can do, despite Shitty’s constant threat to head to Toronto and “really show some journalists what bringing the tone of the game down means.” Then Eric remembers something and has a full body moment of joy. “You know what this means.”
“No,” Jack lies.
“It means I’ve won.” The sheer glee in his voice is slightly alarming even to Eric but whatever. “You said that you wouldn’t like any of it and you do, you really do.” He might do a tiny dance.
“No, I.. Oh, fine. Fine.”
Eric does a dance. It’s not all that tiny.
Eric thinks that the knocking on his door at some godawful must be a horrible nightmare, or possibly some kind of trauma flashback to the years of 5am checking practice. But even when he’s fully awake, or what passes for that when it’s not even light, the knocking continues.
He stumbles to the door and glares out at the corridor. The tall shape resolves itself into Jack goddamn Zimmerman, and Eric really wants to pinch himself. Then he remembers that Jack is still in town, and that he did not give back his key, and also that if this was a dream he wouldn’t cold, and if it was a flashback Jack wouldn’t be looking so nervous. Jack, very annoyingly, had been extremely certain that what he was doing was the right thing, and even more annoyingly at 5am, he had been right.
“Okay, Bitty, clothes on, we’re going to the rink.”
Eric doesn’t really have the brain power to argue, just pulls on whatever he can lay a hand on and follows Jack across the silent campus. He’s lost count of the number of mornings they spent like this, the only two people tracking through the dawn mist. He didn’t think he’d get another one.
They arrive at the rink and Jack pulls something out from underneath a bleacher. It’s a pair of figure skating boots, a little worse for wear, definitely off white, but sharp enough. The PA struggles into life and Welcome To New York fills the stadium.
“You shouldn’t have to wait until I’m a billionaire to get to skate your way,” Jack tells Eric, holding out the skates to him.
“Jack,” Eric tries. “Jack I...” He pulls Jack into a hug, smushing his face into the wool of Jack’s scarf.
They get out onto the ice, and it’s just wonderful, letting his body fly with the music, all the old moves still there in his muscles. Jack skates lazily backwards and Eric loops him easily, spinning as he turns. He takes Jack’s hands and stops them dead. Jack starts, and Eric laughs. “Toepick!,” he says, and Jack has the audacity to look confused. “How do you not get a Cutting Edge reference, Zimmerman. I’m starting to think you’re not even Canadian at all.”
Jack snorts. “No one has ever said that to me before. Ever.”
“Are you sure? Have they done that thing where they stop you at the border and make sure you’re using ‘eh’ correctly?”
Jack has starting them moving again, curving them around the ice, slow and steady. “I think that’s an urban legend, Bits.”
They have gotten in a lot of arguments about the verifiability of things you read on the internet. Really, a lot. God knows, Eric has let Jack get away with playing the “people write lies about me all the time” card a lot, because it’s healthy for Jack to acknowledge it, according to Shitty’s mom. But the internet has meanings to him that he isn’t sure that Jack will ever be able to understand, the place where his voice really belonged to him, and not the boy he put on every morning of high school.
Eric turns under Jack’s arm, goes into an arabesque and lets himself be pulled. Jack’s hands are some of the best in the business, that Blackhawk be damned, and Eric is happy to put himself in them. “This was really nice of you,” he says. It’s been kind of strange to get back into their groove in person rather than in email, where both of them can be a little less careful than the world has made them. They’ve been, well... Eric wouldn’t call it flirting, per se, but then... He wouldn’t not. Especially when it’s Jack, who still has about five percent game at most, and he’s Eric Bittle, who it turns out will always be a little sweet. Even when he was seeing someone and getting incredibly good sex on the regular he would still blush to his ears at a dirty joke. Apparently some people were just made to be southern belles, and Eric is so done with being ashamed of that.
But here on the ice, it’s easier again. Eric remembers Shitty espousing on many an occasion that Jack’s first language is skating, which made English his third language and they shouldn’t blame him too much for his failures to communicate. They’ve always spoken in time here, picking up passes like finishing each other’s sentences.
Jack catches his eye and this time Eric just lets the moment play out, brave like he can be here on the ice with the certainty of team.
“I just wanted to do something for you because, you just, you’ve been so, and we’re Samwell, I've-”
“Don’t say you’ve got my back, or I might cry,” Eric warns him.
Jack sighs like that’s very inconvenient to him. He breathes in, like he’s about to step out onto the ice, step up to the puck. “What I really want to do is ask you out,” he says. Eric doesn’t trip but that’s all on muscle memory. His whole brain has fallen over, for sure.
Jack swallows, but carries on. Jack is Eric’s hero right now, because Eric could not say anything if he tried, if you paid him. Jack says, “And it’s not that I don’t, I’ve been trying to, I’ve been talking about saying I’m, whatever, queer.” His mouth pulls up, like he’s still hearing it slammed at him from the other side of the glass. “But, I just. Bitty. I don’t want you to feel like I did, I don’t want to see your channel comments fill up with hatred and I...” He finally runs out whatever crazy adrenaline was clearly fuelling that speech and Eric pulls them to a stop, and pulls him closer.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, well, I don’t want that either but... I do want you to ask me out. So, maybe we can work something out.”
Everyone refuses to believe that Eric has gotten a press pass for Jack's first game. Not a single one of their friends, even though Eric takes a screenshot of the email that the Blue Jackets sent him and shows it to the entire car. All that accomplishes is Rans stealing his cell and changing the names of his contacts to alcoholic drinks.
“Wait no,” Shitty says. “Lardo says that she bets that Bits does have one because he’s always flirting with their social media people on twitter.”
Rans whoops, “Yeah, Bitty. Way to work your contacts.”
Basically it’s a good thing Eric loves his friends very much, or being trapped in a tiny car with them all the way to, ugh Jack why, Ohio, would probably have ended in murder. He could put cyanide in an almond pastry, no one would ever know.
They get to see Jack for one whirlwind moment where he introduces his new teammates who mainly seem to also be called Jack, and Eric is horribly grateful that he doesn’t actually call them his teammates, because apparently Eric is going to be one of those people who never lets a thing go. He’ll probably still be wearing his Samwell hoodie in his eighties and saying s’awesome and telling the grandkids about how Aunt Lardo is still wheeling Uncle Crappy.
“Score one for me,” he challenges Jack. Jack grins in a way that makes Eric’s ears go so, so red. “You’re the worst,” he tells Jack.
Jack says, “Aw, but you love me,” and gets the whole sentence out without stumbling. There had been an awkward few weeks where they hadn’t actually said said it, and that line of teasing had become stilted and odd. But they’re past that now, and Eric thinks that they day is coming where they’ll admit what maybe they’ve always known, that they are worth it, together, that they could do this. Since the first time you blew that stupid whistle, he’d told Jack, and kissed him for getting the reference.
They almost scream themselves hoarse during the game, and Eric only just has enough voice left to shout Jack’s name in the locker room scrum.
“Mr Zimmerman,” he calls, and Jack’s attention snaps to him.
“Great last minute goal there,” he says, willing his voice steady. “You looked like a man on a mission.”
Jack’s whole face just lights up, and Eric thinks, yes, today, and Jack says, “I promised my boyfriend I’d get a goal for him.”
The whole room explodes with noise, but Eric feels like he’s in a movie, his very own dumb Notting Hill moment, because all he can see is Jack, and all he can hear is his own voice say, “I’m sure he’s very proud.”